The Billionaire’s Christmas Bargain Excerpt

Chapter One

Harvey Caine stared into the flickering flames. They were old friends now. He had the scars to prove it. It was easy to believe that fire still hungered for him, longing for the day when he would be consumed. As it’d consumed his parents, though they’d already been dead when fire took them.

Why didn’t you take me too?

The fire had no answer that he could understand.

“Harvey.” The firm voice finally broke through his trance, as if Maxwell had been calling out to him for quite some time.

“Yes?”

Maxwell didn’t answer, making Harvey drag his gaze away from the hypnotic fireplace to look at his old friend. Actually, his father’s friend and longtime employee, although Maxwell worked for him now. His hair was entirely white and his face was lined as if he bore a tremendous burden. At seventy, Maxwell should be sunning himself on a beach or puttering around in his cottage garden rather than working through the miserable Minnesota winters for the ruined, spoiled son of his former friend.

“Dinner’s ready. Would you—”

“Bring it in here,” Harvey broke in, turning his gaze back to the fireplace so he wouldn’t have to see the man’s disappointment. “I don’t feel like a formal affair.”

“How could dinner with just the two of us at the table be a formal affair?” Maxwell stepped away briefly but returned with a cart laden with his creations. No one cooked like Gordon Maxwell, as long as you didn’t mind a Scottish twist. Why he hadn’t left the Caines’ service and opened his own European restaurant decades ago had always been a mystery to Harvey. “How about we turn on some lights?”

Harvey tried to smile but he feared it was more a twisted grimace. The muscles and skin on the right side of his face pulled uncomfortably. “No, thank you. I like the atmosphere.”

Maxwell placed a tray across Harvey’s lap and despite Harvey’s request, flipped on a small lamp on the side table. “Ms. Gyles called this evening and asked me to give you a message.”

Dropping his head to the cushioned back of his chair, Harvey closed his eyes a moment. He’d told his attorney not to call until she had the final contract in place. That’s why she hadn’t dared call him directly until everything was inked and finalized. It’d taken her a week longer than he’d allowed in his schedule to convince Barstill’s Group to sell the last of their Caine Enterprises stock to him. Well, not to him directly, or the gig would be up and his evil aunt would shut him down before he could wrestle control of the company away from her.

“Don’t you want to know what this deal will cost you?”

“I don’t care,” he muttered, opening his eyes. He hadn’t had much of an appetite for bangers, but now that his victory was near, he was ravenous. He speared two of Maxwell’s handmade sausages. “Those shares are priceless to me.”

“I’ve been looking at the preliminary numbers she provided, and to free up enough cash for the deal, you’re going to have to cancel your parents’ favorite charities, especially the more expensive research grants.”

“So?”

Maxwell’s bushy eyebrows rose along with his voice. “So? It’s almost Christmas. The food banks and homeless shelters depend on those grants to stay open. And without your funding at the Rehabilitation Research Institute, soldiers who risked their lives for their country will go home without a cutting-edge prosthetic.”

Christmas. Harvey didn’t even try to hide his sneer this time. “Look around, Maxwell. Does it look like I give a damn about Christmas? No tree, no lights, no presents, and the first carolers who come to my house will run in terror if I open the door. I won’t even have time to tell them to get the hell off my lawn.”

“Your parents always believed it was their responsibility to help those with so little because they had so much. They took joy in that. They wouldn’t—”

“My parents are dead.” Harvey said it cold and even, and the older man flinched as if he’d stabbed him. “They’re dead and I’m here and I’m doing the best I can to avenge them.”

“There’s nothing to avenge. It was a car accident. You were there, Harvey. You’re lucky to be alive.”

Lucky? Rage pulsed through him so viciously that he tossed the tray aside, ignoring the crash of cutlery. He pushed to his feet and strode out into the hallway up to the front door. He put his hand on the knob. He would do it this time. A simple walk outside in the freezing air would calm his anger.

He stretched out his hand toward the door and cold sweat beaded on his forehead. His fingers shook. His chest seized tight, as if his ribs were determined to crush his heart forever.

Clenching his hand into a fist, he whirled away. Maxwell stood in the doorway, so he ducked his head, avoiding the other man’s compassionate gaze.

“You don’t have to leave the house to get help. With a few phone calls, I can have an entire team here dedicated to helping you get better. I hate to see you turn your family’s beloved house into a prison.”

“I’ll leave this fucking house when I can go to Aunt Lauren’s party on Christmas Eve and inform her that control of Caine Enterprises has rightfully returned to me.”

He started up the grand old staircase, but Maxwell laid a hand on his arm, stalling his retreat. “You’re destroying yourself. If you go through with this takeover, you’ll rip the company apart. Is that what you want? The board voted Mrs. St. John as CEO after the accident, so for you to force her out will alienate many of them. It’s been nearly three years and she’s done a good job managing such a large company. There’s no need for you to make this a war.”

“She made this a war when she took control of my family’s company. My father…” His voice broke so he disguised it with a growl of rage. “She’s always hated me. When I came back to St. Paul to join Dad, she said he’d made a terrible mistake by giving me any responsibility. And because I was an idiot, I screwed up and proved her right. There’s no way in hell she wants me anywhere near the company and you know it.”

“When the board made the decision to give her control, you were in the hospital on life support and we had no idea if you’d live through the night. What choice did they have?”

“Where were they when I finally left the hospital? When I was going through physical therapy? Huh? As you said, it’s almost been three years. I’ve given them plenty of time to make things right.”

“You refused Mrs. St. John access to the house every single time she tried to visit. And I’ll be completely honest, your irrational behavior regarding her supposedly evil takeover only reinforces their fear that you’re not ready to take the helm.”

“Irrational?” Harvey roared. “She went behind my back and stole my family’s company from me while I lay in a hospital bed!”

Maxwell gentled his voice even more. “You’re her only living relative left. She sends an invitation for her holiday dinner party every year, begging you to come. It’s Christmas, Harvey. Miracles happen. Old wounds heal. It’s time to put this rage aside and talk to her. If you—”

“I don’t believe in miracles.” Harvey jerked his arm away and stomped up the stairs. “Fuck Christmas. Fuck it all.”

 

* * * * *

 

Once upon a time, Dmitri’s had been St. Paul’s best-kept secret as one of the area’s most fantastic restaurants. Lilly Harrison looked around the packed dining room and sighed. Her old stomping grounds were going to be too busy today for a private meeting that required delicate handling.

“Right this way, Miss Harrison.” Gillian, one of the younger servers, smiled back over her shoulder as she wove through the crowded room. Yes, Lilly came here often enough that she knew all of the waitstaff by name, and no, she didn’t give a damn if they gossiped about how often she ate here. Admittedly, she’d been here much less often with her obscenely wealthy fiancé’s staff at her beck and call. She’d starve if left to her own devices. “Dmitri has a surprise for you.”

Rather than her usual table Dmitri had permanently reserved in her name, they continued through the swinging door to the kitchen. She’d only been back here once while making a quick getaway from a reporter, and she hadn’t taken the time to look around. Kitchens made her rather uneasy since she was so inept inside one. The staff bustled back and forth like busy ants and barely looked up as they entered.

“Dmitri’s been doing some renovations back here,” Gillian said. “His office was huge and a waste of space, according to him, and we weren’t using the storage rooms effectively. Moving a few walls let us set up a new private dining room.”

The first door was marked “Office” and the next, “Lilly’s Room”. Her name in simple gold letters made her heart swell with affection.

Gillian tapped lightly on the door and her old friend, Dmitri, answered. “Yes?”

“Miss Harrison is here, sir.”

Dmitri swept the door open and bowed. “What do you think, my lady?”

He knew her well enough to grandstand so she wouldn’t get too emotional. With a rich businessman in her life, she certainly had plenty of opportunities to watch snooty people, so she tried to play along. She took a slow, measured walk about the room, trailing her fingers over the furniture and decor.

Playing to the small size of the room, he’d kept the atmosphere intimate, with vibrant art and rich, warm colors. During the day, the room provided a lush, gorgeous retreat; at night, with a few candles, it would become a romantic escape. The square table was the same size as her favorite table out in the main dining room, complete with white linens and what looked to be an intercom.

“You can come and go through the back at will. Most of the kitchen staff have met you at some point, but I’ve hired half a dozen new people in the past two months, so you might get a few wide-eyed looks at first,” Dmitri said. “You can use the intercom to call for service with a press of a button. That way we’re not constantly hovering, but you’re not waiting either. We also put up a little extra soundproofing so the kitchen noises wouldn’t be too disruptive.”

Lilly threw her arms around his neck and hugged him hard enough that he grunted. “I can’t believe you did all of this. You shouldn’t have gone to such trouble for me.”

“Are you kidding? You’re my best and oldest customer. Even before you started dating the billionaire, you brought me business all the time. Now all your rich friends, and their rich friends, are coming to see us. Plus you’ve opened up catering opportunities I hadn’t even dreamed of yet. We’re booked for weeks in advance now and I’ve had to turn people away.”

Stepping back, she wiped her eyes and laughed. “Ah, so the real reason is that you need my table.”

“But of course. Besides, the matchmaker of billionaires should have her own private dining room.”

She snorted. “Matchmaker? Don’t be ridiculous.”

Dmitri pulled out a chair for her and she sat at her new table. She patted the table beside her so that he would sit too, though he probably wouldn’t be able to visit long with a full restaurant. “Think about it. Why else are you here today?”

Before Donovan had come into her life, she’d been a professional Mistress for hire. That was how he’d tracked her down in the first place, but she didn’t take clients any longer. This was a fluke, a trusted old client referring his friend, Maxwell, who knew someone who needed help. Desperately. “It’s complicated.”

“Of course it is. When you deal with high-profile clients who need privacy, it’s always complicated.”

“I’m not in the business any longer. For one thing, Donovan would kill me.”

Dmitri laughed. “That man loves you too much to even think about it, though I’m sure that would make him extremely jealous and he’d probably sue the pants off me and anyone else who even thought about sending a client your way. So you’re a matchmaker now, rather than a Mistress for hire. But aren’t you still helping submissives find a Mistress, even if you’re not the one laying down the law?”

A bit stunned at how quickly he’d leaped to that conclusion, she stared at him, trying to find a way to deflect any possible attention. These people were more personal than clients. They were friends, or friends of friends. They didn’t deserve any gossip. One thing she’d always feared had been bringing any embarrassment to Donovan. He was an extremely proud man, and protecting his privacy was more important to her than helping anyone else. If other people leaped to the same conclusions, and realized that just last month she’d met with Donovan’s personal lawyer to set him up with a Mistress…

“Relax, sweetheart. No one else knows, and no one else will.”

“But—”

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to give you a private room. That way you can come and go, meet your friends in privacy, and set them up with a hot date without anyone being the wiser.” Laughing at the disgruntled look on her face, Dmitri stood and squeezed her shoulder. “You keep bringing in the filthy-rich friends, and I’ll keep serving the impeccable food. Even if your matchmaking doesn’t pan out, at least I’ll have hooked a new patron of my own. Gillian’ll take care of you today and bring your guest as soon as he arrives.”

“She, not he.” Lilly winked. “I already met with the he. I’ve got to see if she will suit the situation.”

“So today’s a job interview, then.” Dmitri headed for the door. “Does she know what she’s getting into?”

“Of course not. Or she probably wouldn’t have agreed to meet me for lunch, even for your divine creations.”

 

* * * * *

 

Thankfully the bus stop was only a block away from the restaurant. Kelsey Marley jogged carefully up the icy sidewalk, grateful for Doc Marten traction. It was too damned cold to walk. Her breath plumed in great white clouds, her nose so cold it felt like the inside tissues had frozen solid. Too bad she’d forgotten a scarf.

She pushed the restaurant’s door open and quickly ducked to the side at the first glance of its interior. Oh hell no.

The maître d’ wore a suit and every table gleamed with a candle and white linens. The dining room was packed with people so perfectly dressed they looked like they’d stepped out of a fashion magazine. Even the waitresses weaving in and out of the tables were better dressed than her.

Horribly aware of her faded jeans and threadbare ancient wool coat, Kelsey squared her shoulders and marched up to the gleaming mahogany counter. “Kelsey Marley for Lilly Harrison.”

“Of course, Miss Marley, right this way.”

Hesitating a moment, she had to hurry after him. She was surprised the man hadn’t refused her entry to such a high-end restaurant. A few people glanced at her with disdain, but she kept her head high and ignored them. She’d dealt with plenty worse.

When he led her into the kitchen, she swore under her breath.

The maître d’ glanced back at her, “Ma’am?”

“Maybe there’s a servants’ entrance you’d rather I use next time?” She sounded like a street punk and she didn’t care. “Keep me from the nice folks, right? If you wanted me to leave, you could have told me so.”

The man paled and rushed to explain. “Oh, no, not at all, Miss Marley. We just renovated a new private dining room back here. Truly, I meant no disrespect. I’m horrified you would think so.” Looking like he might actually cry, he rapped on the door. “Miss Harrison, your guest is here.”

Still suspicious, Kelsey fought not to slouch into her tough-girl persona. The one that said stay back or I’ll cut you as soon as look at you.

The door opened to a smiling woman in her thirties in a snug dress that made her look like a pinup girl from the fifties. Lilly Harrison had the curves of a woman with a healthy appetite and natural confidence that screamed Domme with a capital D. Even if Kelsey had never seen her in action, she recognized that core of steel. The immediate sense of kinship was strong. Another woman who wasn’t ashamed of her curvaceous body or her sexuality.

The woman smiled and held out her hand. “Kelsey?”

“Nice to meet you.” Kelsey took her hand, a little surprised that she wanted to shake hands. Lilly didn’t shake, but drew her into the room before letting her hand go.

“Thank you, Ryan. Could you let Gillian know to stop by in twenty minutes? Thanks.” Lilly sat down and then indicated the chair beside her. “Please, have a seat. Thank you so much for agreeing to see me.”

Kelsey sat where indicated and tried to look around without gawking like a peasant. She’d never eaten at a restaurant with real linen tablecloths. Or candles. Hell, most of the time she ate out of a takeout box or fast-food bag. “I’m sorry I didn’t dress up more. I had no idea—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lilly broke in. “I should have warned you, but honestly, Dmitri’s has gone a little more upscale than it used to be. I’ve worn jeans here plenty of times myself. I’m only dressed up today because I’m meeting my fiancé at five to go over some wedding details and I didn’t know how long we’d need to chat.”

“Congratulations,” Kelsey said. “When’s the date?”

“I haven’t let him set the date yet, but I’m trying to put him off until the first of the year. I have some work to finish first. We’re putting the final touches on the project now, so I guess I’m running out of reasons to delay.”

Kelsey tried not to frown, but that didn’t sound good. At all.

“It’s become a joke between us,” Lilly went on to explain. “Neither of us want a huge affair and I’d rather let the holidays be over before we make it official. I’m just happy to be with him, you know?”

She envied such easy happiness. It didn’t come cheap. “So how did you get my name and why do you want to see me?”

Lilly smiled. “You’re direct. I like that.” She poured herself a glass of wine and offered Kelsey some. Ugh. Every wine she’d ever tried had been sweet, fruity crap. She shook her head. “As I said on the phone, I got your name from Diana Temple, who used to be pretty active in the local scene. I haven’t been to a club in years, and my circle of dominants are too old for what I need.”

“Circle of dominants.” Kelsey cracked a smile. “Sounds like a killer circus act.”

Lilly laughed. “Sometimes it is a circus act! This time, I’m specifically looking for a younger but still mature and strong Domme for a particular client. You fit the bill.”

“Client? So this is someone who wants to hire me.”

“Indirectly, yes. Before I found Donovan, I was a professional Mistress. One of my old clients reached out to me for one of his friends, and once I heard the name, I knew immediately who he was talking about.” Lilly paused, her gaze locked on Kelsey’s face. “Before I tell you, I need to have your promise of discretion.”

“Of course. I’ve been camming for over a year now. I know how touchy most clients are about keeping their secrets, even when I’m just the girl on the opposite end of their laptop camera.”

“Another reason your name was given to me as someone who might be open to this situation.” Lilly still hesitated, as if she didn’t trust her.

Kelsey’s hackles started to rise. This woman didn’t know her. She couldn’t possibly know what Kelsey had been through. If she gave her word…

Lilly let out a sigh. “I’m sorry, you think I doubt you, but that’s not it at all. I’m just nostalgic.” She gave herself a little shake and looked Kelsey directly in the eyes. “The client is Gordon Maxwell. You probably don’t know that name, but he works for the Caine family.”

The name sounded familiar, but Kelsey couldn’t pinpoint from where. She shook her head a little and Lilly gave her a sad, wistful smile.

“When I first joined the scene seven years ago, the biggest BDSM party of the year was the New Year’s Eve Masquerade at the Depot.”

“Oh, yeah, I’ve heard about those parties, though I never went to one. I only moved to St. Paul two years ago.”

“They ended three years ago because their sponsors passed away in a car accident the day before the masquerade. Nathan and Melissa Caine. Their son, Harvey, was also in the accident and almost died too. Evidently it’s taken him several years to recover physically, but Mr. Maxwell’s afraid he still needs to recover emotionally from what happened.”

“And what does that have to do with a Mistress?”

“Honestly, we’re not sure. Mr. Maxwell says that Harvey never attended any of those parties and probably didn’t even know his parents were in the lifestyle, but he’s seen some behaviors that make him think Harvey could potentially be submissive. When I discreetly asked around about him, people described him as a spoiled, rich playboy.”

“Ugh.” Kelsey grimaced. “So he’s used to getting his own way, partying with a new girl every night, no sense of commitment…”

“Probably. He’s definitely wealthy since he inherited the Caine fortune, but since the accident, he’s locked himself in the family mansion. He hasn’t left the house in over a year. He won’t see anyone but the occasional doctor, but he refuses to get the final surgeries needed to minimize some of the scarring from the accident.”

“So if he never leaves and never sees anyone, you think he’ll talk to me online?”

“No.” Lilly smiled and that look made Kelsey sit up a little straighter, her muscles automatically tensing for excitement. That smile was secretive and wickedly amused. “We’re thinking the situation calls for something a little more devious.”