“You know, this doesn’t have anything to do with my lifestyle or my career. You obviously didn’t hear the whole conversation with Ross or you wouldn’t accuse me of such a thing. I would’ve happily walked the Gretchen I knew down any red carpet. I thought you were beautiful. Special. I meant every word I said to you, Gretchen. But that entire discussion I had with Ross is moot now, because I can’t stand by and let you hurt my family.”
Angry tears threatened to spill from Gretchen’s eyes. She didn’t want to cry. Not in front of Julian, but the harder she fought it, the harder it became to hold the tears back. “I would never do that to you. Or to James. Or your mother. And if you think that I would, then you don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
“I guess not, but it’s only been a few days, right? It’s not like we were in love.”
Gretchen flinched at how ridiculous he made the idea of love sound. She was grateful she had kept her budding feelings to herself. The last thing she needed was for him to throw that in her face.
“What did they offer you, Gretchen?” he taunted. His face was so twisted with anger and betrayal he didn’t look anything like the Julian she knew. “Money? Was the ten grand I’m paying you not enough?”
“No, it isn’t about the money. I don’t care how much they would’ve offered me, I wouldn’t have sold that story to the press. I don’t even want the money from this week.”
Julian rolled his eyes and picked up an envelope from the table. He thrust it into her hands and stepped away before she could reject the parcel. “Why don’t you want the money? Don’t need it after your big story payout?”
Gretchen was so upset, she didn’t even look down at what he handed her. “There is no payout. There is no money. I don’t know how to convince you of that. And I don’t want your money because it feels wrong to take it when it felt like we were...more than just some fake Hollywood relationship.”
His blue gaze tore away from hers, focusing on the beige carpet of the hotel room. “It was just acting, Gretchen. By making you think it was real, you were far more relaxed for the cameras. We never would’ve pulled this fake relationship off if you didn’t think I really liked you.”
That struck Gretchen dumb. Could he really mean that? Had he just played her because she was so stiff and awkward? She knew she wasn’t good with men, but could she really be fooled that easily? He was an actor, after all, but she couldn’t believe he’d misled her like that. He couldn’t make eye contact when he said it. She was certain that there was more between them, but for some reason, he wouldn’t let himself admit to the truth.
Her chin dropped to her chest, her gaze finally falling on the package in her hand. “What is this?” she asked.
“Ten thousand dollars, as agreed. You fulfilled your end of the bargain, and quite pleasurably at that.” There was a gloating expression on his face that she didn’t like. She’d been desperate to rid herself of her virginity, but she couldn’t stand to have him gloat over taking it so easily.
“Obviously,” he added bitterly, “the five-thousand-dollar bonus for keeping quiet about my brother was forfeited when you spilled your guts to that reporter.”
Gretchen closed her eyes. She could feel her heart crumbling in her chest. There was no other explanation for the sharp sensation that stole her breath from her lungs. She had no words, but it didn’t matter because she knew her words wouldn’t make any difference. He’d decided she was guilty, and nothing would convince him otherwise.
And even if it did...what would it change? If he’d been pretending to like her just to get through the week, there was nothing between them to salvage. All she could do was hold it together long enough to get out of this hotel room with some of her dignity intact.
“Obviously,” she said, steeling her nerves and matching his bitter tone.
When she opened her eyes, Julian was emerging from the bedroom with his rolling suitcase. Once again, he avoided her gaze, making a wide berth around her as he made his way to the door. “Enjoy Italy,” he said. “I hope you can put that blood money to good use.” Julian grabbed the handle of the door and flung it open, walking out of the hotel suite without so much as a backward glance.
Gretchen wanted to chase after him, to convince him that she was telling the truth, but her legs just wouldn’t cooperate. She might not think much of herself, but she had too much pride to beg. Instead, her knees trembled and gave out, her body collapsing into the cushions of the couch. Her face dropped into her lap, this morning’s second round of tears flowing freely and wetting the envelope in her hands.