Bare Skin: A Billionaire Romance (23 page)

Because I didn't.

I was chosen by the hand itself.

Shaking my head, I let the feelings drift off into the breeze. It didn't matter what the hell those people thought. They could place me in the hands of the man who deserved their respect.

It only mattered to me that my art didn't mimic his touch.

And after Kash's display at the festival, I knew he wasn't going to let my paintings be warped by his image. He wanted people to see my art for what it was, and he didn't want it to be influenced by anything or anyone.

Reaching the corner of Fifth street, I kept my head static. Looking straight ahead, not ready to peer down the road and see my tarnished dream. Taking a few long, deep breaths, I gripped the flower and lifted it to my chest.

The people around me must have thought I looked like I was walking the aisle. Holding the rose against my breasts, I let my eyes close briefly. Slowly opening them, I stared at the sky behind the burned building, taking sweeping strides forward with each foot.

One, two, three...

Dropping my gaze, the world around me started to filter in. I had been so lost in my own thoughts that the loud bangs, hefty crashes, and beeping of machinery didn't even hit my ears till it was slapping me in the face.

There were construction vehicles all parked along the curb of the charred building, a giant excavator was reaching its long claw out and dragging away the debris.

It's being torn down, removed for good.

That sight was bitter sweet, a piece of my heart breaking off again. To see it being brought to bare foundation, even after it was burned beyond repair, was still painful.

But my feet kept pressing forward, determined to finish what I was there for. I had to say goodbye, get the closure I needed. I didn't want to turn around and walk away, not until I said my peace.

I had to let it go, and move on.

“Miss, you can't be here. I need you to back up, it's too dangerous.” A guy with brown scruff tinting his jaw, and a raspy voice barked at me from the sidewalk.

“I'm sorry, I just need to do one thing, then I'll leave.” Glancing down at the flower, my eyes flicked to the blackened wood and busted bricks. “It'll only take me a second.”

“I can't do that. If something happens, it's my ass.” His arms flew up, waving a solid X across his chest.

“No, if something happens it's my ass. I'll take the risk.” Brushing past his shoulder, I stopped inches from the crumbled mess.

The smell of burning wood still hung in the air, a dusty thickness coated the oxygen rolling into my lungs. I could taste the fire in the back of my throat, turning it dry and chalky.

Snapping my mouth shut, I closed my eyes and whispered the words I needed to say.
“This is my new beginning, the loss of one dream has opened another.”
Kissing the rose, I tossed it into the black hole.

Watching it disappear behind a pile of rubble, I spun on my heels and walked away. My body felt lighter, my shoulders tugged back and firm. It was the last piece of the world I needed to leave behind, and now it was gone forever.

Approaching the worker, I said, “Thanks, and don't worry, my ass is fine.” Winking, I felt my hips flare out with a strength and sway that had never existed.

Having said goodbye, sending the broken and lost wish off into my past, the world around me seemed to shine in a different light.

The sky was bluer, the sun was brighter, the buildings looked more polished. And I knew right then, my inner self had finally shed its last bit of reserve.

I was finally the true me.

I was Willow James the artist.

And the steps I had taken in that moment propelled me into my future.

I was finally ready to start fresh.

Completely free from everything that had held me back.

Chapter Twenty-Three


was never nervous.


But when I woke up with Willow's warm body beside me, every nerve, vein, and muscle in my body was tingling. I had taken her just how I wanted, slow and greedily. And when I woke up, only one thing pulsed through all the caverns of my brain...

I almost came in her.


I shouldn't have been so stupid and careless. She didn't ask me to pull out, and the thought didn't even cross my mind till the very last second.

What if she still gets pregnant?

How could I father a child?

I don't deserve to have a baby.

Good, honest people had kids. Not people like me.

Not a man who takes from others, not a man who left their loved one on the floor to die alone. Not a man who tried to steal his own breath because he didn't want to live with himself anymore.

What kind of father would I be?

I was trying to brush the nerves aside to get through my meeting. But the entire time they were sparking and bursting inside my brain, feeding my stomach boiling acid. I felt like I had been selfish again, brought to the very edge of my own control.

She won't get knocked up.

But the idea scared the shit out of me.

My cock had taken control again, only this time he didn't want to release any of his grip on my brain. I had been completely oblivious, rational thinking had shut down and was non-existent while I drove my dick deep inside her.

The pleasure had blinded me, crushing my skull with pulse-stopping strength.

I knew deep down that if she did end up carrying my child, I would do anything and everything I had to.

Because I'm a man, and that monster in the dark had lifted. The same blackness that had coated my soul was thinning, and washing away.

But it was still there, sitting in the shadows. I couldn't forget what I had done, I couldn't just erase the evil that once consumed my world.

It just felt lighter, the heaviness I had been carrying was growing weaker by the day.

“Alright, so, Kash, you're sure you want to do this?” Felix, my accountant, asked.

He was a younger kid, but had a fresh take on all the shit I knew nothing about. As much as I could see a good investment, Felix was my second hand. He was great with numbers, and made sure I built my bank— not depleted it.

His slicked back hair barely moved as he snapped his face from the computer screen to mine. Watching him pen some numbers on a small pad, his lips moved, counting imaginary digits in the air.

That was a weird habit he had. Every time we met, even for just plain lunch, no business involved; I would be talking to the guy and he would look off counting in his head. I finally asked him one day what the hell he was counting, and his response shed no light onto what or why he did that.

Felix left me with an empty answer. He had said,
'Oh, nothing. Don't worry about it.'

Maybe it was just an accountant thing... But I can't lie, it was weird.

Sipping my water, I kicked back the icy cool liquid with a soft slurp. “Yes, I'm sure. I've never been more sure.”

“And you do realize that this will cost you money, not make you money?”

“Yes, I'm well aware of that. But it's not going to drain me by any means.”

“No, it's not. But it's just not like you, you always want a return. Why's this one different?” Arching a thin brow, his lip crunched up against his nose.

“Because she's worth it.”

I had never been more sure of something in my life.

Willow was worth everything I had.

And if that's what she needed, I'd give it to her.

Money wasn't everything.

But her happiness was.

Chapter Twenty-Four


icking my feet against the grass, I found a nice shaded spot in the park to wait for Kash. My mind kept warping back to the night before, revisiting every dip and curve of his body as he pressed against mine.

The scent of his cologne was still mixed in my hair, and every so often the breeze would blow through the fluffy loops, making me think he was standing behind me. My chest would tighten, fingers gripping my thigh in arousal. And I would fall for it, the sudden allure that he was so close to me.

I must have turned my head a handful of times expecting to see him, only to find it was my imagination and his leftover remnants playing a cruel trick on me.

Damn my body for needing him so badly.

He was a drug for me, a hot, pantie melting, rock hard drug. And he touched me in ways that no man ever had.

Kash had come so close to doing something the night before that I thought would scare me to death. When I felt him throbbing, his thick muscle turning rigid, my body braced for him to send his seed deep into my core.

Thankfully he pulled out, the thread he held on his control had almost broke. I was sure of that, the flash of realization and fear had hardened his eyes for a brief moment.

But it didn't rattle me as much as I thought it would. I wasn't sure why, and couldn't understand the relaxed feelings of worry about it.

I knew that if the old Willow was still breathing boldly inside me, I would've never gone for that. The person I was would have shoved him off, yelled for him to stop.

And even at the moment where I was certain he was going to freely pump me full of his come, I pulled him in. My arms raked his back, my body urged him to stay inside.

The one request I had forced out the first time we slept together, was the furthest fear from my mind.

Yes, the idea of getting pregnant wasn't ideal. My career was still in a standstill, paintings hadn't started to fly off the virtual shelves. But after the auction, it was like a small piece of me had been validated.

I could sell my work. On my own, with only my name attached; people would buy it.

And to be honest, if I got pregnant... What would that change?


It would just be another step in my life, and I would conquer it.

Worse things could happen.

Right? There are plenty of things that are worse.


Why my entire body hadn't exploded in death-filled bursts, I couldn't understand. Maybe it was how Kash made me feel, maybe it was knowing that I could stand on my own two feet...

Maybe it's because there's more to what I feel than just a lusted attraction.

Kash had talked about being a monster, about something in his past that he couldn't change. But he was more selfless than I think he realized. Everything he did for others, it was more than most do in an entire lifetime.

He can't be as bad as he thinks.

What happened in the past doesn't define him now.

And I was going to help him realize that. A horrible person doesn't give the way he did. An evil man doesn't coexist with normal people and go unnoticed.

Whatever it was that he'd held onto, I was going to help him see he could let it go. The past was right there, right where it needed to be, a distant memory.

He wasn't living in that anymore, he wasn't the man he pictured himself as. I could see that now. Kash gave more to me than I could ever thank him for, and I wasn't going to let him keep himself living in what was.

He had paid his dues, even if he the world suddenly went up in flames. His sins had been erased, his heart had been cleansed.

He wanted me to see my self worth, and I was going to make sure he saw his.

A massive pair of hands fell onto my shoulders, squeezing possessively. “Hey, Beautiful, fancy meeting you here.” His baritone voice punctured my brain, riding my spine to my thighs. “Hope you weren't waiting too long.”

Placing my fingers over his, I caressed his strong hand. “Nope, just got here.”

“Great, are you hungry?” His head fell over my shoulder, an upside down smile frowned at me.

“I could eat.”

“Good, because I brought food and wanted to talk to you about something. Another step for you art.”

“Oh really? What are you now, my personal art dealer?” A playful smile hung on the corner of my lip.

“Um... Yes. Isn't that what you hired me for?”

“Hired you? I thought you didn't want me to pay you?”

“I'm still not asking you for money, but you can't just bank on auctions. You need to branch out, I was thinking online.”


“It's a great way to get visibility, reach more people, and give you space from all those eyes.”

He really pays attention.

Or Beth had cued him in on my hate for being the main event.

Again, he was right. The thought of selling in a virtual market had never crossed my mind, and even if it had, I wouldn't know how the hell to take advantage of that type of platform.

He really does know business.

But where to start?

“I don't know how to do that.”

“That's why you have me.” His forehead was flushing red as he hung upside down, lips pulling tight to set a gentle kiss on my nose. “So let me take care of it. All I need from you is pictures of your paintings, I'll do the rest.”

This was all too much. He was offering more than I ever expected or could ask of him. How the hell could he ever think he was such a bad person?

Kash was so far away from being anything but gracious and helpful.

“Kash, really, you already set up the auction, I can't ask you to do more.”

“You're not asking, I'm doing this.
I need to do this.”

What is he trying to make up for? What wrongs had he done to feel like he needed to repay for his sins?

It's never really the right time or place to ask someone about things in their life they regretted. But if I didn't ask, his self redemption to make up for the past might consume his world completely.

“Why? Kash, what was so bad in your life that you need this?”

He paused, pulling his face away and plopping down beside me. “I don't like talking about it, it was a long time ago. I'm just trying to make up for all the wrong I've done. Not just by helping you, but everyone else I helped too. But helping you is different, you gave me something the others didn't.” Fiddling with his fingers in his lap, his shoulders slumped forward.

“You wanted me to leave my shop in the past and move forward, you need to do the same. I'm sure you've made up for whatever it is you want to forget.”

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