The Bargain

Title: The Bargain

Series: Standalones

Release Date: 15/11/2020

Description:

Genre: Dark Romance
Tropes: Age Gap/Billionaire/Mistaken Identity/Enemies-to-Lovers/Steamy

Blurb

A mistaken identity romance.

When a hard knock raps on her door, Amber Collins doesn’t want to answer it.

She knows it’ll be a battle she won’t be able to win.

At twenty-one years old, she’s struggling to make ends meet, but she would endure anything for her six month old nephew whose big green eyes bring a smile to her face on the worst of days.

And today is the worst of them all.

As the knock turns into a deafening bang, she steels herself to confront the rich, powerful, and chillingly handsome Dean Beaumont. The baby’s uncle who most certainly has come to take him away from her. Deceiving him was the only way.

Now, she’s being taken to his country estate for six months to prove she’s a fit mother. As time goes by, Amber finds herself with another fight on her hands, the need to safeguard her heart from the ruthless but charismatic Beaumont.

The closer she gets to him, the more she wants him to know the real her. Not the drug addict hooker her sister was. But if she tells him the truth, she will lose the baby and him forever…

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Chapter  1 – Amber

I jolted awake due to the wailing of the infant in the Pack ‘N Play beside me.  Rolling over in my single bed, I looked at the clock. It was already 5:00 am. I had to be up in an hour anyway.

I yawned, stretching my sore back, trying my best to fight my urge to fall back asleep. I turned and stood up, looking at Timmy for a couple of seconds before picking him up. “Someone’s hungry.” I smiled at him.

His cries never bothered me. I cherished them – every single one of them because I knew I could lose them at any moment. Timmy’s sick heart could give in and take him away from me, so every minute with him was precious.

I rocked him gently as I went to prepare his bottle. My smile vanished when I realized how little formula was left. I would only have enough for today… But that had to be a problem for later. Right now only Timmy’s feeding mattered.

I prepared his bottle, mixed his heart medication in, and, as usual, got lost in his beautiful, emerald eyes as he drank. Eyes so similar to his father’s. A father he had never met and never would as Eddie had died seven weeks before Timmy’s birth. .

“It’s going to be fine, my boy,” I whispered, trying to convince him as much as myself.

Once I’d finished his feeding, I changed his diaper and prepared his diaper bag.

I only had enough formula for his next three feedings. I checked my wallet. I had five dollars. And my online banking was not looking good either – only twelve dollars remained. That wasn’t even enough to buy the small can of his special sensitive formula.

Trying not to despair, I looked around my tiny studio flat which despite being smaller than a shoe box was painfully bare. I’d sold everything I could recently which wasn’t much. Now, I realized that I’d actually reached the bottom of the barrel.

The little boy was asleep again. With his chin being slightly dimpled and his hair a soft dark brown, he was a painful reminder of Opal – and consequently myself.

Yawning, I made myself a cup of tea.  I then looked around the cupboard for food, but they were as empty as I’d expected them to be.

Sighing, I made a second cup, hoping that it would lessen the pain of hunger.

Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, I tightened my long, dark hair into a ponytail. The light was not flattering for sure, but even it couldn’t account for the haggard image staring back at me. The deep, dark circles. The bloodshot eyes. The pale skin and gaunt frame. Looking at myself, I blinked back tears. How had this all happened? When had I become that girl terrified for the next bill to come in the mail or the next shut-off notice to appear on her front door?

Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath, I didn’t have the luxury to break down. I had a job to go to and a sickly, six months old baby to take care of.

I changed into my itchy, polyester uniform – a green, ill-fitted shirt, black skirt, and green apron. Then I  slid on my overused, black sneakers .

I walked back into the room and sat on the bed, looking at Timmy playing silently in his bed, chewing on his Sophie La Girafe, a generous present from Dee – one of so many.

I smiled when his eyes connected with me. Once again I felt that overwhelming wave of love that made every sacrifice worthwhile.

“Everything is going to be fine, baby boy, you’ll see.” I checked his day bag once more, which basically consisted of his bottle, the leftover formula, a few diapers, and the most critical item – his heart medication.

Picking Timmy up from his Pack ‘N Play, I kissed his head. Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply. I knew it would not last, but it was the best smell in the world.

“Okay my boy, be good to Aunty Dee, won’t you? I’ll be back as soon as can.”

Timmy cooed and grabbed at my cheek. I interpreted that to mean, ‘Cool, Ma. We’re good’

I took the stairs to the next floor up and knocked softly on Dee’s door just in case her husband was still asleep. He’d just finished a nightshift at the hospital, working as a nursing assistant, so I felt quite guilty standing there. But Dee had assured me he slept like a log.

Dee opened the door with a wide smile as if life had always been kind to her.

“How is it that you always look like a supermodel and I look like a hobo reject?”

She laughed. Her red lips were striking against her Espresso brown skin.  “It comes with the job, honey. Ain’t nobody want their beautician to look like a mess.”

She said that, but Dee had always looked like a Nubian Queen – even when she’d been working as a prostitute.

Dee had quit the streets  seven years ago, just a couple of years after Opal had started.

Dee had met Raoul and married him before obtaining her beautician license.

She has  been a mother hen to all the street girls since then and very much a mother figure to me since I’d moved with Opal at the tender age of eleven.

“You look tired, my girl,” she said with concern as she took Timmy from me. “I really don’t like this look on you.”

“Way to tell me I look like shit. Thanks, Dee.” I tried to diffuse her concern with a joke; it was better than bursting into tears. My state of worry and tiredness was bringing me closer and closer to the edge of a mental breakdown.

She narrowed her eyes, her lips pursed. “We need to talk, sweet girl.”

I’d known this was coming. It was a discussion we’d had a few times already. How Opal wouldn’t have wanted this life for me.

Well, I’m sure Opal hadn’t planned on getting knocked-up by Eddie, her heroin-addicted boyfriend, who even if he’d had a kind heart, had been a train wreck. I was also sure she had not planned on dying from sepsis a week after giving birth, leaving me as the sole guardian of a baby boy born both with a heart defect and a drug addiction and yet, here we were.

I sighed. “Yes, but not now I need to get to work.”

She nodded. Looking at Timmy, she ran her long red nails across his tummy, making him giggle.

“I love this little one, you know,” she added, still looking at him.

“Yes, I know. Thanks again. I know helping can’t be easy; I really appreciate it.”

She smiled up at me, but her whiskey-colored, kohl surrounded eyes suddenly turned sad. “We’re family. I’d lost one of mine when we lost Opal. You’re family, sweet girl. I saw you grow up. There’s no shame in asking for help.”

I looked down, rubbing my arms self-consciously. “I know that. Anyway, I really have to go. I can’t miss the bus. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Take your time. My clients never mind this little one’s interruptions. They are mothers too, so they understand.”

I had to run to the bus stop.  I caught it just as the driver was closing the doors. It took almost four stops for me to catch my breath; I really was taking being unfit to a whole new level.

“Ah, here you are, sunshine.” Rodrigo, the old Puerto Rican chef, smiled and pointed to a plate full of eggs, bacon, and waffles. “I made a mistake on an order. Why don’t you eat it?”

I blinked back tears. We both knew it hadn’t been a mistake. This would probably be the only real meal I’d have all day. I couldn’t be more grateful for this man. He looked stern and unapproachable, but he had the biggest heart a man could probably have.

“You’re fading away, Mami. You need to eat more,” he whispered as I shoved half of a waffle into my mouth.

I nodded. I would if I could, I thought, but Timmy’s needs came first – always and forever.

Rodrigo looked at me as he flipped some bacon. His chef hat perched crookedly on his head. I didn’t like being a source of worry for him. He had a wife and a son in college; he didn’t need to worry about poor little Amber Collins.

Putting the last piece of crispy bacon into my mouth, I savored the sensation of a full belly – something that was rarer than I cared to admit or think about. Jumping up from my spot on the counter, I gave him a kiss on the cheek and straightened his hat. “Thanks again for everything, but things are getting better.” How could I even say that with a straight face?

I put my bag in my locker and clocked in on my punch time card. I was about to walk onto the floor when Denny exited his office.

“Amber, could I see you in my office for a minute, please?”

I looked at the clock. The morning rush hour was about to start. It was the best time for tips; I couldn’t afford to miss any of it.

He seemed to understand my conflict because he gestured me in. “It will only take a minute. Just come in, please.”

I nodded as if I had a choice. Denny was fair, but firm and didn’t tolerate any disrespect; it was all I could really ask for from a boss.

“Amber, I noticed the schedule has been changed and you’re covering for Maria tomorrow.”

I frowned, sitting in the seat he’d just gestured me to. He’d never minded that before. He has always said that as long as he has coverage, he doesn’t care who does what. “Yes. She has to help her sister with some wedding arrangement. I don’t have a problem covering for her.”

“You don’t, but I do. Amber, you’ve been working for me for how long? Two years?”

I nodded.

“But recently, I’m worried about you, kid. The other staff is too.”

“I’m doing a good job!” I exclaimed. “I’m a good waitress.”

“You are, probably the best I have, but you are walking a fine line. You are so thin and tired. No amount of makeup can hide that.” He shook his head. “You’ve worked twenty-three days in a row. If you keep on going like this, you’ll get sick, and then you won’t have a job and I won’t have my best waitress.”

“Yes, but -” How could I even ask him for a pay advance now?

He raised his hand. “I understand that life has not been kind to you recently with your sister passing away and her sick kid becoming your charge, but think about him for a minute, if you don’t want to think about yourself. What will happen to him if you get too sick to take care for him? Who would care for him then? He’ll end up in the system and that’s not a place for a kid, let alone a sick one.”

I looked down at my hands. Denny was an orphan that ended up in the social system, somewhere I would have ended myself if it hadn’t been for Opal.

“But – ”

He shook his head. “No, Amber. This isn’t healthy, so you’re going to take this -” he slipped an envelope toward me – “and then take tomorrow off.”

I took the envelop and looked into it to find $200. I had to blink back tears. “I don’t want charity.” Why was I saying that? I didn’t have the luxury to refuse, especially since I knew I would have to apply for food stamps in the very near future.

“It’s not charity, trust me. Someone left it as a tip on your table last night.”

I rested the envelope against my chest. “Thank you.”

He shook his head. “Now go and do your shift, and I better not see you until Thursday, okay?”

“Okay, thank you. Really.”

He grunted, looking down at his desk, clearly dismissing me.

I walked into the kitchen a little lighter. I tucked the envelop into my apron pocket before looking at Rodrigo, who was giving me a knowing smile.

“Was that you?” I whispered as I stopped beside him and pointed toward the office.

He shrugged. “He just needed a reality check.”

“You’re good to me.”

“You deserve it. Now go; the room is filling up.”

For once, my shift was enjoyable. The tips were generous and combined with the “tip from last night,” I was ready to leave with a total of almost $240! I could pay the electricity bill, buy a couple boxes of formula, a big bag of diapers, and enough ramen noodles to last me a week. I could probably even indulge in a couple of Mars bars too.

“I’ve heard Denny’s put you on house arrest for two days.”

I cringed at the voice of Zack, Denny’s nephew. He was a self-entitled asshole who was supposed to be working here in order to learn about values, but who would never do.

I turned around with a fake smile. Zack was only a few months younger than me, but he acted like an immature teenager. He’d never had any issues in his life, and though that was good, it meant that he had no idea about what life was really like.

“Ah, well you know, it’s okay. Thanks for the concern.”

He leaned against the wall beside me, his red hair falling in front of his eyes. A grin that didn’t predict anything good, appeared on his lips.

“Maybe I can help you with that. I have a job for you.”

“Okay…” I trailed off. I was not against making a little more money, but working for Zack was not that appealing.

“Yeah. So I have this party this weekend, but have nobody to take. I’ll pay you $300.”

I frowned, grabbing my bag and holding it against my chest like a barrier. “You’re a decent looking guy. I’m sure you don’t need to pay anyone.”

He shrugged. “I just don’t want to work too hard for the after soirée. With you, I’m sure to get what I want.”

I froze, ice settling in my stomach. “Excuse me?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Ah, come on. I know what your sister’s job was. It has to run in the family and I’m sure you can use the money.” He sighed. “Okay, I’m ready to go up to $400 if you let me shove it up your ass.”

Bile rose in my throat at the thought of having sex with him or anyone for that matter, especially for money. How did he find out about Opal? And was it like this for her? Was she propositioned even when she didn’t want to be?

“No.”  How had he ever thought I’d agree to this?

He arched his eyebrows in surprise. “Why?”

I snorted. “Why?” I shook my head. “I’m not even sure what to say. My sister’s career choice was made out of desperation, not pleasure. Besides, what she did, does not define me.”

“Of course, it does. Your sister was a whore and I’m sure it won’t take much more for you to be as well. It’s in your blood.”

I was a breath away from kicking him in the nuts, my job be damned, but then he moved from his spot.

“Just think about it.”

He walked away nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just insulted me, and in his head, he probably hadn’t.

I took a deep breath. Water off the duck’s back. Water off the duck’s back. I repeated the mantra as I forced my anger away.

After taking the bus back to North Philadelphia, I walked to Walmart.  I bought all I needed and breathed a little lighter when I managed to pay my electricity bill, knowing that the lights would stay on for at least another month.

I was looking forward to getting some sleep the next day; I could even take a nap. I smiled at the thought – sleeping and eating – two wonderful things so many people took for granted.

I carried the bags back to my flat, then took a quick shower to get rid of the greasy smell of work before going to pick up my little boy.

I texted Dee to let her know I was on my way up. I didn’t want to interrupt her if she was with a client.

“Timmy is sleeping,” she said, inviting me in. Her apartment was probably three times the size of mine. She had two bedrooms, one of which she’d transformed into a treatment room.

She is the reason I got the studio apartment I lived in.

I used to live in the Badlands, North Philly’s roughest area, with Opal. We had a place in a building full of prostitutes and drug dealers. It was not uncommon for us to come home to blood stains in the corridors.

When I turned eighteen, Opal had decided to leave. I’d come back from school to find a note saying that she had decided I was old enough to take care of myself and that she needed to go take care of herself. I couldn’t blame her, really; she had sacrificed a lot for me. But then a few of her dealers had come knocking at my door, requesting me to pay for her debts either with money or an alternative payment.

When I’d missed a payment/refused, one of them had tried to force himself on me. That day, Lady Luck had been on my side, all things considered. I had managed to escape, running the seven blocks to Dee’s place with a bloody nose, a swollen lip, and a ripped tee shirt. She had never let me leave.

After convincing the landlord to rent the minuscule studio flat to me at a discount, which she’d accomplished by offering to provide his wife with free treatments for the year/life, Raoul had left to pack up my stuff.

I’d managed to go to community college, taking night classes as I worked at Denny’s. Things had started looking up until Opal and her boyfriend had shown up at my door. She was four months pregnant then and trying to get clean. Eddie was high, but kind.

“Have you heard a word I’ve said?”

I shook my head. “Sorry, I was thinking about Opal.”

She sighed. “That’s the problem, sweet girl. You have a hard time asking for help.”

“The tips at Denny’s was good today, and I’m off for two days.”

She nodded. “Okay, then you know what you’ll do? You’ll drop the kid off here in the morning and then go enjoy a you day.”

“A me day?” I eyed her curiously. “How -“

She chuckled. “Just be the kid you still are. Go to the cinema, the museum, grab some junk food.”

“But – “

She shook her head. “No, just one day. You’ve been a full-time mother for six months. Just take one day. Selfcare is not a luxury, sweet girl; it’s mandatory.”

“I need to go to the hospital tomorrow. I need to get Timmy’s meds renewed. It’s always -”

She shook her head. “Nice try, but Raoul will get them for you. He said he can get Timmy enrolled in the permanent program of renewal. Why didn’t you ask him to do that earlier?”

“I didn’t want you to think I was using you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Please. You’re probably the most selfless person there is. Raoul has been working there for over twenty years. Now let me make you a hot chocolate with whipped cream and extra marshmallows”

“Thank you.” I beamed. When I was with Dee, I felt like a kid again. It felt nice; her maternal vibe was like a balm on my weary heart and I loved her like my own blood.

“Oh, the white bag on the console is for you,” She called from the kitchen

“Dee…”

“It’s not from me. Tasha dropped off my cosmetic order earlier and brought that bag for you. She said your marketing plan was working well.”

Looking in the bag, I found a bottle of Victoria’s Secret body lotion, numerous tubes of lipsticks, nail polish, and a few other frivolity items. I  would not be able to afford any of it if it wasn’t for Tasha and her store.  I usually traded my two years college experience in Marketing for free goods.

“You deserve it, you know,” she said, coming back with the hot chocolate and two pieces of pie. “You’re good at it. Since you started helping me, my clientele has increased by fifty percent.”

I shrugged. “It’s nothing special.”

“Yes, it is, and you should finish your degree or get a better job.”

I sighed. “Denny understands Timmy’s situation. He knows that sometimes I might not be able to come in and on zero notice, but maybe after Timmy is better, I’ll go back to school.”

“You know, Raoul and I’ve talked about it and you only have a year left. We could -”

I raised my hand. “No, absolutely not! Never.” I shook my head. “You keep your hard-earned money. Please, don’t. It would break my heart.”

She sighed. “At least stay for dinner? I made jambalaya.”

I lit up. Dee was originally from Louisiana; her Cajun food was out of this world.

“You don’t have to ask twice!”

Once Timmy fell asleep after dinner, she painted my nails a vibrant red. I sighed with contentment on my way back to my studio. My belly was full and a sleepy Timmy laid in my arms.

I laid Timmy down for the night and smiled at his peaceful face. Today had started out quite darkly, but it had brightened in ways I hadn’t expected it to.

Maybe things have finally started to turn around, after all.