“All that was barely a drop in the bucket for them,” I remind her.

“That’s not the way I was raised to think about it. Money has value, even when you have a lot of it. I did appreciate it. I still do. I’m grateful I was able to simultaneously get an education and prioritize my time with Cami.” She grips the counter, her knuckles turning white. “When we were in Vegas, I told you that I wouldn’t work for Knox Bourbon, but I didn’t exactly get there right away. When I moved home after graduation, Dad gave me a position with the company. It was a joke. He had one of his guys following me around all the time, reporting every move I made to him. If I took a long lunch break, Dad knew. If I stayed late at work, Dad knew. And God forbid I tried something different in the company, like tweak our branding or bring in a new product line. I couldn’t stand it, so one day I said enough and quit.”

I see the angst from that decision on her face, the weight of it. I know her father well enough to know there were consequences before I ask, “What did he do?”

“The same thing he would’ve done when I was a child,” she says with a bitter smile. “He took away my privileges. The car I’d been driving since high school? It was in his name, and he took it back. The house I lived in and all the furniture in it? In his name. The savings account I pulled from when money was tight? All of it was in his name. As much as I’d told myself that I didn’t take any of it for granted, I’d always thought of it as mine. But it wasn’t.”

“And the asshole just took it all away.” Of course he did. That’s Abraham Knox’s MO. Own everything, and you can control everything. In her darker moments, Brinley used to joke that he was pissed his money couldn’t make cancer answer to him.

She shakes her head. “I thought I’d be fine on my own. Everyone else buys their own cars and pays their own rent. Then Dad started sending me monthly bills for the education and accommodations he’d paid for. He said that since he’d paid for it with the understanding that I’d be working at his company, I had to pay him back.”

I feel my hands ball into fists. “He really hasn’t changed.”

She scoffs. “Not at all. But he didn’t think I’d pay it. He thought I’d bend to his will and go back to how things were—me right under his thumb where he wanted me. But I was too proud and wanted to prove I didn’t need him. I made that payment every month, with interest, even while it meant my other debts piled up. By the time I got my first paycheck at The Orchid, I was already buried by credit card debt. I needed a car to get Cami to school and myself to work, and I needed groceries and a roof over my head, some basic furniture for the one-bedroom apartment I was renting . . .” She shakes her head, eyes out of focus as she looks at the floor. “He took away everything, and I thought I could start over, but it was so much harder than I’d ever imagined.”

“But you did it,” I say, and I’m so fucking proud of her. She always wanted to get out from under his thumb, dreamed of it the way other people dream of the kind of fancy possessions she had when he ruled her life.

“I didn’t do a very good job with it. The first car I bought in my own name was repossessed, because once I realized I didn’t stand a chance of making the payments, I had no idea what to do. Then I missed enough credit card payments and incurred enough late fees that I wanted to go back and shake twenty-two-year-old me. I’m better with money now. I know where to scrimp and save, but the consequences of those early days still follow me.”

I stare at her for a long time, thinking through everything I know about her relationship with Julian and how quickly things changed between them after Vegas. “Brinley . . .” Sighing, I step forward, then tuck my hands in my pockets. Having her this close makes touching her far too tempting. “You know how things have changed for me. I could take care of you, and any of these lingering financial worries. With a combination of hard work and great luck, I’ve managed—”

“I don’t want your money.” She steps around me and walks to the oven, checking on the pastries inside while putting distance between us.

“Is that part of the reason why you agreed to marry him? For the stability?” I need her to say yes. I need this to be about what Julian can provide for her and Cami, but she stiffens, and when she spins on me, her eyes are blazing.

Tags: Lexi Ryan Orchid Valley Romance
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