The Billionaire Wager by Sylvia Hart

Chapter 1

Bri

I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life, but only wearing lingerie on a first date with a billionaire is a new one.

Smiling into the mirror, I run a brush through my hair.  The blue lace bodysuit looks good on me, matching my short blue hair and eyes and revealing nearly everything.  I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but even I am a little nervous about walking into a strip club wearing this.

It’s all because of a stupid bet with Richard Barrow, my date for the evening.  He’s a handsome billionaire with the world at his fingertips, and I thought I could outplay him the first night I met him.  I was wrong, and he’s finally taking me up on my wager.

The bet didn’t work out the way I planned, but everything since has been perfect, and it’s all because he and his best friend, Elijah Harris, stepped into my life.  A few text messages after Eli saw my paintings, I went from being a simple barista working at my best friend’s coffee shop to an in-demand artist for New York City’s most elite, selling my paintings for the price of cars.

My life is a dream come true because of those two men.

So instead of trying to weasel out of tonight, I’m embracing it.  It’s another experience, albeit a more risque one than I’m used to, but I doubt I’ll ever have another first date like this.  Wrapping a silk coverup around me and stepping into deep blue stripper heels, I take one more look at myself in the full-length mirror.

Let the insanity begin.

It’s a beautiful night, quiet in a way that New York rarely is.  A thin layer of snow covers the grass, but and it’s like the whole world is holding its breath.  My nervousness fades as I stop worrying about what happens.  I made my peace with this night weeks ago.

The cover-up blows in the wind, the bottom barely covering the blue lace that hides underneath, as I step outside.  Richard Barrow stands against a limo, a wide smile on his face.

He’s hot, there’s no doubt about that.  With short black hair and a thin black beard, he looks like he could be a model.  The only blemish on his face is a thin scar across his eyebrow.  Richard’s poise and strength are impossible to miss, but it’s more than that.  He’s got this rough edge on him, like he should be wearing a “handle with care” sign.

I don’t know what happened to him in his younger years, but it’s obvious that he wasn’t raised with a silver spoon.  The scar across his eyebrow and that arrogant smile drive me crazy.

It’s too bad he’s a dick.

“Want to let me see what you’re hiding under that cover-up?”

Richard isn’t marriage material.  Hell, he’s probably not even boyfriend material, but then again, I’m not the dating type.  That’s half the reason I’m not worried about him seeing me like this. What’s the worst that can happen?  I end up having a wild night out with a sexy guy?

He may not be Mr. Right, but he looks mighty tasty for a Mr. Right Now.

I untie the cover-up on the pathway from Eli’s mansion to the circle drive, and as seductively as possible, I open it up, revealing my lace covered body.  The deep blue contrasts against my pale skin, weaving an intoxicating pattern that barely covers any of the important bits.  Goosebumps rise all over as the cool wind touches my scantily covered body.

“Like the view?” I respond as his eyes run over me like a wolf staring at a rabbit.  That hunger in a man’s eyes has always been the biggest turn-on, and my body starts throbbing.

After he spends a few seconds taking in my body, he chuckles and opens the door.  He pulls a silver dress from inside the limo.  “I much prefer your current outfit, but I don’t think it’s acceptable attire for where we’re going.”

This isn’t what I expect from Richard.  He’s supposed to be embarrassing me by taking me to a strip club looking like a stripper.  From everything Eli said about him, Richard never lets people back out of bets.  When he beats you, he always makes you pay.

“What’s the catch?” I ask.

“No catch.”

He hands me the dress and opens the limo door for me.  “You can change in the limo if you’d prefer a little more privacy.”  He’s worried about my privacy now?  Well, I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  I may have been ready to be embarrassed, but if there’s an alternative, I’ll happily take it.

I glance around me.  The only people that can see us would be Eli and Sam inside the house, and I doubt either of them are staring out the window hoping they can see me without my coverup on.

That part of me that’s turned on by seeing a man like Richard Barrow lusting after me takes over.  I had expected to go through the entire night wearing nothing but a bit of lace, so privacy isn’t exactly something I’m all that worried about.

I shrug off the coverup and toss it to Richard before taking the dress.  “I appreciate the thought but getting dressed in a car is annoying.”  Richard’s eyes run over my body one more time.  In fact, I do a slow spin, so he gets a look at all of me.

“It wouldn’t be fair to keep you from at least getting a look at the cute lingerie you bought.”

“It looks much better on you than the mannequin.”  He’s still smiling as I pull the silver dress over my head and get it adjusted.  Surprisingly, it’s not risque at all.  In fact, it’s a relatively simple and elegant knee-length dress.  Something I’d be happy to wear nearly anywhere.

“After you, Miss Corbin,” he says as he stands by the door.

He sounds ridiculous.  “Alright, Richard.  Where are we going?”

His eyebrows raise as I climb into the limo.  He follows me in, and asks, “Richard?  Not Dick?  You were very adamant about that being my name the last time we talked.”

I shrug.  “I mean, I could call you Dick if you want, but you’re being nice, so I’m trying to return the favor.”

“I appreciate it.  That nickname is in my top three least favorite words.”  He reaches across to the mini-bar and pulls a bottle of champagne out of a bucket of ice.

I’m tempted to ask him what his other least favorite words are.  Instead, I change the subject. “What are we celebrating?”

“The fact that I’ll get to see you in that lingerie again later tonight,” he says as he pops the cork.

“Careful now.  If you keep that arrogance up, I might have to go back to calling you Dick.”

The corner of his lip turns up as he pours the glasses.  When he gives me one, he says, “Fine.  To my beautiful date.  May you always have more money than you need, more time than you expect, and more orgasms than you can handle.”

A bit of laughter erupts as we clink our glasses together.  “That’s an unusual toast.”

“If a toast doesn’t include something about sex, it’s not a very good toast.”

I can’t help but give him a little jab.  “I bet your Christmas parties are a blast.”

He takes another sip of the champagne, but his eyes dance with laughter.  “If someone can’t handle a little mention of sex, they probably aren’t meant to be a part of my business.  Why else does someone chase money and power?”

I squint at him, not completely sure how to interpret that little piece of information.  “Is that why you did?”

For just a moment, his eyes darken, and I notice the scar across his eyebrow crinkles as he gives me a half-second of a frown before the mask slides back on, and he’s smiling again.  “It was definitely a part of it.”

He doesn’t seem to want to say anything else about it, and the tension in the limo because thicker.  Changing the subject again, I say, “Anyway, you never told me where we’re going instead of a strip club.”

Richard pours us both some more champagne before answering, obviously doing his best to postpone telling me what he’s planning.

“We’re going to see a Broadway performance of Swan Lake.”

Typical billionaire date idea.  I love Swan Lake, but I saw it for the first time when I was a kid, and it’s kind of impossible to be a part of the art community without seeing it regularly.  My excitement level drops significantly.  For a man who could do anything, why would he want to see a ballet that everyone’s seen?

Richard cocks his head when I don’t squeal in glee or whatever reaction he’d hoped for.  “Is there something wrong with Swan Lake?”

I shrug.  “No, it’s fine.  I’ve always liked it.  Are we doing dinner first?”

“No, we’re having food served in my box seats.”

“Sounds fancy.”  I almost manage to just go with it, but I can’t help myself.  “Here’s the real question, though.  How many girls have you brought to those box seats?”

I get an eyebrow raise from that question.  “Do you really want to know?”

I’m not against a typical date, but when you can do literally anything, why would you want to do something that anyone can do?  “That’s what I thought.  Do you super-eligible bachelors have a dart board with your pre-made date plans, or is it more of a pull an idea out of the date hat thing?”

He chuckles.  “It’s almost like you’d prefer the strip club.”

“That’s probably not on the dartboard, at least.  Well, depending on your taste in women.”

“First, you poked at my date.  Now, you’re poking at my taste in women?  It’s almost like you don’t want to be here.”  He gives me a grin, knowing that the only reason I’m on a date with him is to pay off a debt.

“I’m actually glad to be here.  It’s interesting to find out what it’s like to be on a date with you.  Since we both know that we’re about as opposite as they come, I don’t have any expectations of a second date, but I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to go on a date with someone like you.”

Richard grins.  “What kind of date would you have preferred, then?” There’s a little bit of annoyance in his voice, but there’s something else, too.  Curiosity?

“I like new experiences.”

He nods.  “For a lot of women, a Broadway ballet is a new experience.”

There’s no reason to answer him because I know that he doesn’t want to hear my actual thoughts.  Instead, I look out the window and see that we’re almost there.  I wasn’t expecting anything out of tonight except to pay off a debt.  At least this is easy.

I’m just surprised that someone like Richard Barrow isn’t as good at wooing a woman as I had expected.

∞∞∞

I’ve been to this theater several times on dates before, but it’s always been in the cheap seats down below.  Crammed in like sardines, it always felt similar to going to a movie, but this is different.

There’s a separation between “us” and “them”. The balcony seating we’re in juts out of the wall, and it’s like we’re floating.  The soft chatter amongst the crowd before the show starts is different, almost like an ambiance.

Maybe it is a new experience, after all.

“What do you think?” Richard asks as I look out at the stage from the incredible view.

“It’s different,” I say.  “Do you enjoy it more than the orchestra seats?  Seems like they’d have a better view of the stage.”

“The acoustics are better here, and nobody is whispering behind you.  Plus, if you get bored, there are other things you can do in the dark,” he says with a grin.

I sigh and lean back.  “Most people come to a Broadway show to watch it.  If you’re just trying to get laid, you’d probably have had a better chance if you’d taken me to the strip club.”

“Doubtful.  Knowing you, you’d probably give every other guy in the club a lap dance before me, and some other asshole would take you home just to spite me.  Here, there’s no one else.”

As I’m about to agree with him, the usher brings our dinner.  The show is going to start soon, and Richard turns his attention to the food.  Roast lamb and a garden salad. The scent of it is heavenly, a wonderful spicy blend that has my mouth watering.  But, I haven’t had roast lamb since I was a kid, and it brings back all the memories I’ve tried to keep in my past.  Dinners with my family on fine china and silver utensils.  Cloth napkins and expensive dresses.

Painful memories.

I do my best to ignore them, focusing on the food.  Richard pours a glass of wine for each of us, but I leave it untouched.  It’s all too similar.  The separation between me and the rest of the world.  The food.  The dress.  The only difference is that I’m not seventeen anymore.

The lights dim as we’re finishing the meal, and our usher takes the plates from our side tables.

“How many times have you seen Swan Lake?” I whisper to him as the first act begins.  I need to get my mind off my memories, and the darkness only makes it worse.

“Too many to count.  But I’ve seen most of the famous ballets just as many times,” he says with a bit of boredom in his voice.

My mind can’t seem to escape the memories of my past, and now, as the familiar music begins to play, it’s even worse.  I’ve never been reminded of my childhood so much, but I need to get out of here before the tears begin. “What do you say we skip the ballet and do something different?  Something new.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“There are a few performances you’ve never seen before.  Ones that you’ve probably never even heard of.”

“Doubtful.  I looked into every venue for tonight for something that would be interesting.”

I give him a knowing grin.  “This is one of those secret venues that people like you never hear about.”

He cocks his head, and even in the dim light, I can see the spark of life in his eyes.  He’s just as bored as I thought I’d be.  He also knows me.  “You’d better not get us arrested.”

“I’m like ninety percent sure we won’t get arrested,” I say as I take his hand and drag him out of his chair.

Richard Barrow may be well acquainted with every professional entertainment venue, but where I’m taking him is going to be a shock.  Just because someone isn’t on a stage doesn’t mean that they’re not good.

∞∞∞

“Take off your jacket.  And your watch.  And…” I glance over Richard’s thousand-dollar suit.  “Don’t you have something you could wear that didn’t scream ‘I’m richer than God’?”

“Absolutely not.  I worked too hard to become richer than God to wear clothes that didn’t scream it.”

I sigh before an idea pops into my head.  “How attached to these slacks and shirt are you?”

We’re sitting in Richard’s limo outside of Coney Island, but the show we’re about to see isn’t one of the normal attractions there.

“I have a dozen others that are similar.  What are you planning to do with my pants?”

I just grin.  “Take off everything except your shirt, pants, and shoes.  Leave your wallet, watch, and phone here.  I promise you won’t need any of it.”

Richard is slow about taking off his tie and coat, confusion filling him as I pull twenty one-dollar bills from my purse to tip the performers.  I palm them as I open the door to the limo.

“You know, it’s usually a lot sexier when a woman has me take off my clothes.”

I just shake my head and give him a grin as I step out of the car into the cold New York air.  The wind bites now that it’s dark, and I can feel myself already start shivering.  The outside world at this time of year is uncomfortable, but it’s so much better than being in that theater and thinking about the people I left behind.

The smell of the salt air is everywhere this close to the beach, but under it, there’s the smell of fried foods lingering in trashcans and sticky candy wrappers everywhere.  Coney Island has a smell that nothing comes close to.

Richard follows me across the street, and I hop the fence to get onto the beach.  “Alright.  Here’s the part you’re not going to like.  Untuck your shirt and roll around in the sand.  You’re too clean for where we’re going.”

He looks like I asked him to strip naked and run down the street.  “Where are we going that I have to be dirty to fit in?  This is crazy.  And what about you?  There’s no way to make that dress look anything other than beautiful.  Even with some sand on it, it won’t look dirty.”

I grin at him.  “Don’t worry about me.  I’m a chameleon.  You, on the other hand, stick out like a neon top hat at the ballet.  Now, enough talking.  We’re already going to miss some of it, so start getting dirty.”

Richard shakes his head, but he does what I tell him.  Kneeling on the sand, he slowly lays down, complaining the entire time.  “Why won’t you tell me where we’re going?  Do you know the last time that did something this absurd?”

The whole time, I do my best to keep from giggling.  Watching a grown man, much less a man in a thousand-dollar suit, roll around in the sand like a dog with an itchy back is hilarious.

What’s going to be even better is when he realizes that my date is better than his.

But I need to fix my dress issue as well, and I wasn’t joking that we’re already late.  This kind of entertainment starts as soon as the park clears out.  I follow the wooden railing until I find a nail sticking out and slowly use it to rip my dress in a few spots.  Now it’s time to cover up the shine.  I find a muddy puddle from the rain a few days ago and begin rubbing it over my dress.

When Richard finds me, he’s covered in sand, and wearing the most miserable expression on his face.  “This had better be one hell of a show.  These clothes are ruined.”

I give him a grin and cover my hands with mud one more time before walking toward him.  As I move to run my hands through his black hair, he catches my wrists.  “What are you doing?” he growls.  That’s when I realize that I’m very close to that fine line between “unsure but willing” and “hell no”.

“I’m trying to make you look a little less rich, so no one tries to rob you.  We’re going to see street performers.”

He blinks.  I’m sure he’s expecting something different.  “They’re really really good, Richard.  Trust me.  If you hate it, we’ll spend ten minutes there, and you can say that I have terrible taste in music.”

He takes a moment to think about what I said before finally sighing and releasing my wrists.  “Fine.  I won’t let you live this down if it’s terrible.”

“That’s the great thing about doing this with someone you barely know.”  I run my hands through his hair and across his cheeks, smearing them enough to cover up his perfect skin.  I look into those dark eyes as I touch his cheek, and I’m reminded of the way it felt when I touched him the first time.  A spark of life sears through me.

I try to ignore it, try to focus on having fun rather than whatever calls to me about him.  “If you don’t have fun with this, you probably won’t enjoy anything else I like, and we don’t have to spend any more time together.  You can tell Eli that I’m super weird, and he’ll probably agree.”

I pull my hands away from his face and wipe them on my now filthy dress with a smile.  “On the other hand, if you enjoy it, maybe I’ll ask you on another date.  It’s not every day I meet a billionaire who gets along well with the homeless.”

Richard’s jaw tenses, but he’s quiet for a while.  “You’re a strange woman, Bri Corbin.”

“That’s an accurate statement.  Now let’s get you a brand-new experience.  One you can’t buy.”

Without waiting for him to agree, I take off towards stairs that lead under the boardwalk.  As we get closer, I can hear the music and the singing.  The stairs are chained off and I glance at Richard as I slip under them.  “Be quiet, Mr. Fancy Pants.  And don’t be all chivalrous if anyone acts a little inappropriate.  I’m a lot more capable in this world than you are.”

He raises an eyebrow at me, but he doesn’t let the chain stop him as he follows me down the steps to the rocky ground under the boardwalk.  It’s a haven for the homeless and people up to no good, but it’s also a place that people ignore at night.  It’s a place where the normal world doesn’t quite touch or apply.

Metal trash barrels burn low, providing the only light, and they illuminate the crowd of thirty people in filthy rags in a semi-circle around seven performers.  The scent of the thick smoke fills the air, barely blocking out the scent of the listeners.

It’s dark here, and until we step into the light of the burning trash barrels, it’s like we’re not even part of this world.  Sparks spray into the air from one of the trash barrels as something collapses inside, and they’re carried away by the chill wind, a biting reminder of the world doing its best to never give the people here any peace.

Each of the performers plays a different instrument, but they harmonize in a way that seems like it couldn’t be done any other way.

The crowd hums along to the beat as the singer, an elderly man in a worn-down suit sitting on an upturned barrel, plays the spoons as he sings a folk song I’ve never heard.

This is a place where everyone is living through a depression, and the music is reminiscent of folk songs from the thirties and forties.  There’s a melancholy air, but the dancing fire illuminates smiles all around.

The man playing a steel drum starts a rhythm that sounds like rain on a tin roof as the song closes, and the crowd applauds.  “What is this?” Richard whispers as we step into the light.

The homeless men and women around us glance at us and nothing more.  “It’s a world you’ve never seen before,” I whisper back.  It’s a world where people aren’t worried about bills and car problems or whether their children will go to a good college.  They’re worried about food and the cold and whether they’re going to survive until summer.  Even though the rest of the world has advanced into the technological age, these people are still just trying to survive.

The performers start another song, and this time, the guy playing the harmonica takes the lead.  A deep and soulful song that rips at the heart like only a harmonica can do.  The violinist adds musical tears to the harmony, and as the singer begins, Richard sits down on a pile of pallets, entranced.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he whispers.  “It’s like they’re from a different time.”

“They’re living through the same thing that our great grandparents did.  Have you ever felt like life was completely hopeless, like you’ll never move beyond the hell you’re living?”

Surprisingly, Richard nods, and I sit down next to him.  Our legs touch, and I don’t pull away.  He wraps his arm around me, but his attention is fully on the performers.  “How often do they play?”

“Most weekends during the winter.  During the summer, they’re too tired to play.”

Richard closes his eyes, and I can’t help but believe that maybe there’s something under that expensive suit and tie.  Maybe this is a man who knows what it’s like to struggle, what it’s like to wonder if you’ll survive another day.  The music under the boardwalk doesn’t call to anyone unless they’ve seen the worst of the world.  It’s for the hopeless ones, the forgotten ones.

A woman with a guitar begins to play into the melody, her strings thrumming like a heartbeat, racing and then slowing as the singer’s lyrics tell a story of fleeting hope and constant despair.  The same story I lived with for so many years.

“Thank you,” Richard whispers.  “This is nothing like what I expected from tonight.  But it’s so much better.  I’ve never heard music like this before.  I’m not just hearing it.  I’m… feeling it?”

It’s the magic of music that speaks to the soul.  The performance wasn’t written and rehearsed.  It’s the song that needs to be played.

I don’t say anything, but I scoot closer to him.  His hand curls around my waist, and I lean my head against his shoulder.  This is the world of the people who fell through the cracks in the system, and in this world, you need people.  Even if Richard and I made it out of our own hellscape, we remember what it was like, and when you see the world from that vantage, there’s nothing that helps quite as much as someone to lean on.

“Where did you hear about this?” he asks.

I give him a grin.  “That’s not something I talk about with a man I barely know, Mr. Barrow.  Try to enjoy the night and don’t worry about the past.”

He nods.  That’s something else that people who have been through hell and back share.  There’s no way to talk about the past without feeling the emotions that you lived with while you were there.  And they aren’t the emotions that anyone wants to relive.

But sometimes, it’s nice to remember that you’re not alone in the world.  Even if no one knows your story or your pain, it’s nice to have someone to cling to even for a moment.  The world can be a cold place, but when you can wrap your arms around someone and feel their warmth, it’s easier to believe that the sun will shine again one day.