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Текст книги "The Highest Price to Pay"


  • Текст добавлен: 21 марта 2019, 21:18


Автор книги: Maisey Yates


Жанр: Современные любовные романы, Любовные романы


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“I’m willing to work with you in whatever way I can to ensure our success.”

A wry smile curved his wicked mouth. He wasn’t fooled by her display of calm, and that made her angry. That he could see through her. That he was amused by her.

Ella extended her hand and he grasped it. Lightning shot through her, unexpected, instant, as if she’d touched a naked wire. It mingled with the anger, the adrenaline that was already pounding through her, and made her feel shaky, as if her knees might give out at any moment.

She looked up and met his eyes, and saw heat. Attraction. He looked down at where their hands were joined, his large and dark, hers small and pale. And marred. He ran his thumb over one of the scars that blazed a jagged path over the back of her hand.

The heat fled, leaving in its place an icy shiver that made her feel cold inside. She pulled her hand from his grasp.

His gaze lingered on her. “It will be a pleasure doing business with you.”

About the Author

MAISEY YATES was an avid Mills & Boon® Modern Romance reader before she began to write them. She still can’t quite believe she’s lucky enough to get to create her very own sexy alpha heroes and feisty heroines. Seeing her name on one of those lovely covers is a dream come true.

Maisey lives with her handsome, wonderful, diaper-changing husband and three small children across the street from her extremely supportive parents and the home she grew up in, in the wilds of Southern Oregon, USA. She enjoys the contrast of living in a place where you might wake up to find a bear on your back porch and then heading into the home office to write stories that take place in exotic urban locales.

The

Highest Price

to Pay

Maisey Yates


www.millsandboon.co.uk

For Jenny, my editor.

Your confidence in me is always inspiring. You’ve pushed me to become a better writer, and you can’t know how much that means to me. And for my husband, Haven. There’s a little bit of you in all my heroes.

CHAPTER ONE

“THIS is it?” The man, tall dark and handsome as sin, who had just walked into Ella’s small boutique gave his surroundings a dismissive glance.

She forced a smile. “Yes. All of the clothing here in the boutique is a part of the Ella Stanton line, and at the moment everything is quite scaled back as we’re working on a…” budget. “Local level.”

The fashion industry wasn’t a cheap one to operate in, and Ella was most definitely still working her way up. But she was able to have her line produced, and sell it in her own boutique, and that certainly wasn’t a small feat.

“I was merely curious,” he said, taking a step toward her, “about my most recently acquired assets.”

Ella blinked. “And by that you mean?”

“The Ella Stanton label, and the boutique, such as it is.” His voice was smooth, husky as though he were issuing some kind of practiced pickup line, even though what he was really saying was far too ridiculous to be true. And yet, there was something else there, a hardness that lingered just beneath that suave accent. It was a hardness, an authority, that made all of the words that were swirling in her head get caught in her throat.

He took a step toward her and recognition punched her in the stomach with brutal force. Blaise Chevalier. Rogue investor, ruthless corporate raider and tabloid superstar. He was famous in Paris or, rather, infamous. Wealthier than Midas, beyond handsome with his deep mocha skin, and striking toffee-colored eyes, perfect bone structure, good enough to be a model, except he didn’t possess the androgynous quality many male models did. No, Blaise was utterly masculine, tall and broad shouldered with a physique that was meant to be wrapped in an expensive, custom-made suit.

She should have recognized him immediately. Her only excuse was that mere photographs simply didn’t do him justice. Three dimensional, in the flesh, he was something entirely different than he was in the paper. None of the carefree, playboy demeanor was present now. Just a dark intensity that made her insides tremble, a sensual energy that no photograph would ever be able to capture.

He reached into his jacket pocket and took out a thin stack of folded papers. It wasn’t cheap, bright white printer paper like she used in her office. This was cream colored, thick and textured. Official looking. A tremor skated down her spine and she shook it off, straightening her shoulders and holding out her hand.

He gave her the documents and stood there looking at her, his expression impossible to read. Ella looked down at the papers in her hand, skimming them frantically. Her stomach sank to her toes and the words blurred slightly.

“Would you mind translating? I’m not fluent in legalese,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t sound as echoey and distant to him as it did to her.

“Bottom line? I am now the lien holder on your business loan. A sizable amount.”

She felt her face get hot, the way it always did when she thought of the screaming amount of debt she’d gotten in to get her business off of the ground.

“I’m aware of that. How did this…happen?” If it had been anyone else, she simply wouldn’t have believed them. But she knew this man, even if it was only by reputation. And it wasn’t a good thing that he was here with bank documents that possessed both the name of her business and the stark truth of just how little actually belonged to her.

“The bank that originally held your loan has been bought out by a larger financial institution. They auctioned off most of the small business loans, including yours. I bought your loan in a bundle with several others that are of much greater interest to me.”

“So you own my business…and I’m uninteresting?” Ella pushed her blond hair off her face and sat down in one of the chairs reserved for her boutique customers.

“That’s the summation.”

It didn’t get worse. It couldn’t. And at that moment she just wanted to fall to her knees and scream at the sky. Because hadn’t she been through enough? How much was she expected to overcome in her lifetime?

Blaise Chevalier had a reputation as a man who was self-indulgent, reckless and ruthless enough to betray his own brother in the coldest way imaginable. He crushed companies, large or small, if they passed into his sphere of power and he deemed them to be unprofitable.

And he was now the owner of her boutique, her workshop, her apartment…everything down to her sewing machines. Everything in her life that meant anything.

“And what’s your conclusion?” she asked, standing again. She wasn’t going to crumble. Not now. Not when the stakes were so high. Her career, her line, it was her life. It was everything she’d worked so hard to achieve, a dream she wasn’t about to let go of now, not while she still had some hope.

“I’m in the business of making money, Ms. Stanton. And your boutique and clothing line are not making enough to cover the expense of running them and earn you a decent living.”

“They will. I need a couple of years. By then, with some extra advertising I’ll have built a larger client base and I can start doing the bigger runway shows, getting broader exposure.”

He raised one dark brow. “And then?”

“And then…” She took a deep breath. She knew this. She had everything planned down to what color her dress would be at Fashion Week. “Then Paris Fashion Week, New York, Milan. More boutiques picking up my collection. I hope to have a retail line. I have it all in a portfolio if you’d like to see it. It’s my five-year plan.”

He had the gall to look bored, disinterested. “I don’t have five years to wait for a venture to pay out. And as a result you don’t have five years, either.”

A hot shot of anger infused her with much-needed adrenaline. “What do you want me to do, march up and down the boulevard with a sandwich board strapped to my chest to drum up enough business to satisfy you? These things take time. Fashion is a very competitive industry.”

“I was thinking something a bit more high-end, something with more…class.” The slight curl of his lips suggested he didn’t think she possessed any class at all.

She scrunched her curls, curls she knew were a little bit disheveled. That was the idea. She didn’t do anything by accident, not even things that looked accidental. Everything, down to her spiky heeled, open-toed boots, was about her image and her business. Was about cultivating interest in her brand.

“Well, you weren’t talking class, you were talking urgency.”

“I thought you might be after a slightly more upscale clientele as opposed to tourists and backpackers,” he said, his rich, slightly accented voice sending a shiver through her. Stupid. She talked to a lot of French men who were looking for clothing for their wives or girl-friends…or themselves, she should be used to the smooth charm of the accent by now.

For some reason it sounded different coming from him, a harder edge to complement the rounded vowels. His English was tinged with French, but also with another flavor she couldn’t place, something that made his speech all the more exotic and fascinating.

It didn’t change the fact that he had walked into her boutique like he owned the place and then proceeded to tell her that, in effect, he did.

“What’s the point of advertising at all if you’re just going to demand that I pay you back with money I haven’t got?” she asked.

“I didn’t say I was going to do that. I said that I expect you to start turning major profits in much less than five years’ time.”

“Have a magic wand in that briefcase?” She knew how to handle people like him, people who exercised control over others. Never show fear. Never show weakness. A hard-learned lesson, one she carried with her, always.

“I don’t need magic,” he said, his full lips curving slightly.

No, she imagined he didn’t. He wasn’t only famous for being the bad boy of the business world, he was famous for making millions just a few years after leaving his father’s investing firm and stepping out on his own.

More than once, when she was struggling to make a loan payment, she’d seen an article about him in the business section of the paper and wondered how in the world he’d done it. Gone off on his own like that and made an almost instant success out of himself.

“Fairy dust?” she asked, crossing her arms beneath her breasts.

“Only the weak need luck and magic,” he said. “Success comes to those who act, to those who make things happen.”

Things like shutting down businesses and wrecking what Style magazine had called the wedding of the century. No secret that Blaise Chevalier made things happen, things that served him well. And that he did it with absolutely no conscience.

“And what exactly do you want to make happen with my company?” she asked, feeling her stomach tighten.

She was at a loss. She was going to lose control of her business, at best. At worst she would lose it entirely and if that happened, what was left?

No workshop. No boutiques. No industry parties. None of the friends she’d made thanks to the meager status that she’d achieved. It was like standing on the edge of an endless chasm staring down into nothing. The void was so dark, so empty. She’d crawled her way out of there once, and she couldn’t go back. She wouldn’t sink back down into oblivion, into nothing. She wouldn’t let them be right about her.

“I’ll admit, the fashion industry is of very little interest to me. But when I purchased the loan bundle from your financial institution, yours came wrapped up with what I actually wanted. A little research has shown me that it is time for me to pay more attention to the fashion industry, perhaps. It’s much more lucrative than I had thought.”

“If you play your cards right, yes, there’s a lot of money to be made,” she said. Although, massive amounts of money had never been what it was about for her. It was the success.

“Yes, if you play your cards right. But you’re not exactly a master of the game. I, however, am.” He moved closer to her, ran his hand along the carved wooden back of the chair she’d been sitting in earlier. She took a step back, strangely aware of the movements of his fingers over the intricate carving, almost like he was touching her, not the chair. Her heart pounded a little bit faster.

“I’m hardly a novice. I went to school for business and design. I have a business plan and a couple of investors.”

“Low-level investors that lack the proper connections or sufficient funding. You need more than that.”

“What do I need?”

“Publicity and cash and your five-year plan becomes a six-month plan.”

“That’s not even…”

“It is, Ella. I can have you at Paris Fashion Week next year, and in that time frame your work will have graced magazine covers, billboards. Selling your own work in your own boutique is one thing, but having worldwide distribution and recognition is another. I can give you that.”

She could feel the reins slipping out of her fingers, feel herself losing control. She gritted her teeth. “In return for what? My eternal soul?”

A short chuckle escaped his lips. “While it has been reported that I may be missing my own soul, I have no interest in yours. This is about money.”

It was about more than that for her. Money was money. She could make money doing a lot of different things. But this, this was about being something. Being someone. She didn’t want to have this man, anyone, so involved in her business, so involved in her achievements.

She didn’t want it, but she wasn’t stupid.

The amount of money she owed, money that was now owed to him, was staggering. More than she could hope to pay back with the way things stood. She was in debt to him up to her Petrova diamond earrings and if she ever hoped to get out of that debt, her business had to succeed. More than succeed, it had to reach the kinds of heights that, at the moment, were firmly in the realm of fantasy.

“You think you can just dictate to me?”

“I know I can. As the lien holder I have to be satisfied that you’re doing everything in your power to ensure the success of your business. I’m not overly convinced at the moment,” he said, his eyes sweeping the small boutique in a dismissive manner.

As if it were nothing. As if she were nothing. Her stomach burned with emotion, anger, helplessness. Fear. She hated the fear most of all. In theory she’d gotten over being afraid of bullies a long time ago.

“What if I don’t want you running my business for me?” she asked, despising the slight quiver in her voice. She wasn’t some scared little mouse and she wouldn’t behave like one. She’d endured worse than this, and she’d triumphed. She would do it now, too.

“Then I pull the plug. I don’t have the time to waste on a venture that isn’t going anywhere, and it’s not in my nature to simply sit back.”

“But you’ll be collecting interest on your investment won’t you?”

“Twenty-five percent,” he said.

“Highway robbery,” she responded, her voice finding some of its strength.

“Not in the least. I will be working for that money, and I will expect you to do the same.”

“And you expect me to do as you say?”

He gripped the back of the chair, his large hands drawing her attention again. His appearance was so together, so perfectly polished that it would be easy to assume he was a civilized man. But beneath all of that, beneath the well-fitted suit and hand-crafted Italian shoes that were so gorgeous they gave her heart palpitations, was a hardness that betrayed him. A hardness that spoke of the ruthlessness that he was so famous for. That let her know he wouldn’t hesitate to pull everything out from under her if it was in his best interest.

“Consider yourself lucky, Ella. Normally I would charge a hefty hourly fee to give out business advice. In this scenario, unless you make money, you don’t give me any money. This is fair, more than fair.”

She blinked rapidly. “Are you expecting me to thank you for this hostile takeover?”

“It’s not hostile at all. It’s business. I invest where it is advantageous to do so, I do not waste time when it’s not. There is a place for charity, and this is not it.”

Ella looked around her carefully organized boutique, at the racks of clothing, each one her own design. She’d painted the crisp black and white walls herself, had installed the glossy marble floor with the help of a couple of male models who’d done runway shows for her. It was personal to her, there was no way she could reduce all of her hard work to numbers and projections. But he’d done it.

And he would do more than that. Even without his reputation she wouldn’t doubt him. The glint of fire in his golden eyes and the firm set of his angular jaw told her that he was not a man to be taken lightly.

“You’re quite into the party scene, aren’t you?”

Blaise watched as Ella stiffened, her bubblegum-pink lips tightening into a firm line. She didn’t like his assessment of her. She didn’t like his presence full stop, that much was clear.

But she could hardly deny that when her picture made it into the paper, it was because she was at some high profile soiree. It seemed she went to any and every event in Paris, at least those she could gain admittance to. And, from what he’d discovered, there were spare few she couldn’t. A gorgeous American heiress with a sensational, tragic backstory was always in demand. And she took advantage of that.

“It’s called promo, weren’t we discussing that earlier?” she asked, arching one finely groomed brow.

Yes, she was beautiful, fine bone structure, bright blue eyes overly enhanced now by a thick line of blue pencil drawn all the way around them, making them look wider, more cat-shaped. It was obvious that she had no problem drawing attention to herself. She was wearing a short black dress that displayed her long, shapely legs to perfection, and ornate ankle boots with buckles and a cutout at the toe that showed off shockingly pink toenails.

A sharp shot of lust stabbed at his stomach. He dismissed it. This wasn’t about lust; this was about business.

He’d learned long ago to separate the two. Learned never to let desire lead him around like a dog on a leash.

“It’s ineffective,” he said sharply. “Yes, it gets your name in the paper to go to every night club opening in Paris, but it’s not elevating you to the level this boutique suggests you want to be at.”

“At this point, I just need to get my name in the paper. I do what I can to drum up interest in the Ella Stanton label.”

“You don’t do enough.”

“Thank you,” she said, her tone flat.

“It cheapens you.”

Her blue eyes widened. “It isn’t as though I’m out engaging in questionable activities, you make it sound like I’m dancing on tables while shouting the name of my label. I always behave in a professional manner.”

“You have to surround yourself with potential clients. Tell me, are any of those hard-partying patrons of the events you frequent going to come and spend money on your clothes?”

“Some of them…”

“Not enough of them. You need to build connections in the industry. You need to build real connections with the sort of clientele you want.”

“I’m working up to that point but it isn’t as though invitations to exclusive events land in my mailbox every day.” She shifted her weight and put her hand on one shapely hip.

He noticed them then. Patches of pink, shiny skin marring the creamy perfection of her fingers. This was what had made her instantly newsworthy when she’d come to Paris. The scarred, American heiress who wore her pain like a trophy and used her personal tragedy to her best advantage. Her sob story, the house fire that had left her burned, was half of her appeal to the media, and she made the most of it.

A quality he admired. Although, his first thought upon seeing that Ella Stanton’s business loan was rolled in with the others he’d wanted to purchase had been to unload it as quickly as possible. He didn’t have time to waste on a spoiled little rich girl playing at a career that suited her idea of over-the-top glamour.

After looking at her sales figures, he’d been forced to put that idea away, and talking to a couple of industry professionals and gaining insight on their opinion of Ella’s talent had further altered his first impression. She wasn’t playing; she was good at what she did.

She was working hard to advance her line, harder than he’d imagined she might be. But he knew he could take it further. Take her further.

The bottom line was profit; it was all that mattered. And he would wring every ounce of profit possible out of the Ella Stanton label.

“They do land in mine. And I know what to do when such opportunities for networking present themselves. I already have connections you can only dream of. I know you’ve read about my ability to crush companies if the need arises, but I can build them, too. In fact, I excel at it. The only question is which of my famed skills would you like to see employed here?”

There was a determined glint in her eyes, one that only served to add weight to the desire already settled in his gut.

“What exactly do you require of me?” she asked, speaking through her tightly gritted teeth.

“It’s simple. When it comes to matters of business, you do as I say. To the letter.”

“So all you want is total control then? Not too much to ask.” Her tone was even, her expression placid, but he could sense the barely controlled emotion that was all but radiating from her.

“What I want is to take your brand and make it a household name. To have every fashionista wanting the next big thing out of the Ella Stanton line. To have your clothing everywhere, from high-end boutiques to department stores. If I have to take control to see that happen, I will.”

“What if I can buy out the loan?”

“You would rather try to keep going on your own than take this opportunity?”

“This is my business, not your moneymaking venture,” she said, breathing hard, full breasts rising. He couldn’t help but let his eyes linger there, to go further and admire the small indent of her waist, the round curve of her hip. A shame he didn’t mix business with the pleasures of the flesh. It was too complicated, and when it came to women, he didn’t do complicated.

“Do you think anyone would loan you money at this point, Ella? Your debt to income ratio is not the sort of thing a bank would want to see.”

Color flooded her pale cheeks. “I know it’s not what it could be but my plan is good and…”

“There are a lot of variables in your plan, from what I hear. And while it may be good in a general sense, it is not going to be guarantee enough for most banks as things stand. You’ve accumulated a lot more debt in the time since you took out this loan.”

“Fashion shows are expensive. The last one I did cost me five figures, and I only earned a percentage back.” Her voice cracked.

Ella felt like she was watching everything slide through her fingers. All the years of working toward something no one had believed she could achieve. She’d pushed herself so hard to make it this far. She’d done it on her own, without support from her family. The boutiques, the fashion line, they were hers. They were everything.

But now they were his. And unless she wanted to lose them altogether, she had to play his game. She’d known it would come down to that, from the second he’d shown her the paperwork, she’d known. She just hadn’t wanted to accept it. But she had to now. There wasn’t another choice.

Giving up her control, inviting someone else into her life, her business, was as close to a living nightmare as she could imagine. But losing everything went so far beyond a nightmare that she couldn’t even think about it.

She sucked in a sharp breath and schooled her face into what she hoped was an expression of calm serenity. “I’m willing to work with you in whatever way I can to ensure our success.”

A wry smile curved his wicked mouth. He wasn’t fooled by her display of calm, and that made her angry. He could see through her, was amused by her. She curled her hands into fists and dug her fingernails into her palms.

“This isn’t personal, Ella. This is about the bottom line, and I intend to see a substantial profit. If at any point it becomes clear that isn’t going to happen, I will abandon the project.”

Ella extended her hand and he grasped it. Lightning shot through her, unexpected, instant, as if she’d touched a naked wire. It mingled with the anger, the adrenaline that was already pounding through her and made her feel shaky, like her knees might give out at any moment.

She looked up and met his eyes, and saw heat. Attraction. He looked down at where their hands were joined, his large and dark, hers small and pale and marred. He ran his thumb over one of the scars that blazed a jagged path over the back of her hand.

The heat fled her, leaving in its place an icy shiver that made her feel cold inside. She pulled her hand from his grasp.

His gaze lingered on her. “It will be a pleasure doing business with you.”

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