It has been said that if you put a certain kind of man in a certain kind of situation, he will reveal himself in ways both shocking and true to form. Ainsley Vaughn was learning this firsthand, and in the most embarrassing fashion, while lying prone and immobile over the broad, sturdy lap of a man by the name of Rhys Merrick. Now, Mr. Merrick was, and is, an insufferable beast of high intelligence and a short fuse. At first glance his handsome features and deep honeyed voice lulls a lady of certain charm and taste into believing she can get away with just about anything. But further study will reveal that this particular man does not suffer fools, or high-tempered southern women—charm and taste notwithstanding.
This travesty against such innocence was taking place on a humid Savannah evening on the front porch of the lady’s childhood home. Now, this porch was a favorite spot of respite for her—had been since she was a child. Her great-great-grandfather, General Horatio Vaughn, built the house on eighty-eight acres once he finished with the British in New Orleans during the war of 1812, prior to becoming a congressman. The house held up through Sherman’s foraging invasion during the Civil War, survived the Great Depression, and when an economic downshift swept through the area after a nasty tornado hit, the house was moved to its present location, a twenty-acre plantation in Isle of Hope, a suburb of Savannah. The family housed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and friends for a night in 1968, right before his assassination, much to the consternation of their racist neighbors. That the house and the plantation it once sat on kept slaves just two hundred years prior was not lost on Dr. King and, according to Braydon Vaughn, Ainsley’s daddy, Dr. King had wept upon leaving, so appreciative was he of this family’s southern hospitality. To Ainsley, that was simply too ironic to be believed.
Back to the crude and ill-mannered Mr. Merrick, who is not southern in the least. His view of the south, and of Ainsley’s family in particular, is less than flattering. His lineage dates back to the Old West, to a great-great who was nothing if not a deserter and a scallywag of the tallest order—a cowboy, if you will. One of those all-American males who conquered injuns and women with equal aplomb without wasting a drop from that jug of whiskey he always held in, to be sure, a well-worn hand—if Mr. Merrick’s was any indication. The apple does not fall far from the tree. Mr. Merrick believes that America prospered, not due to the riches and charm of the south, but in spite of it. Ainsley reminded him more than once of the fierce determination of a land and a people who steadfastly held on to pride and beliefs to the very death, despite the fact that those beliefs went against God and nature itself. That had to account for something. The marsh snake disagreed, informing her that she was far too young to appreciate the intricacies of something as complicated as the south. Imagine?
As for the unenviable position this epitome of charm and grace currently found herself in—across the boorish man’s spread knees with her darling sundress lying bunched around her waist and her hind-end bared to the moon, his wide paddle hand swinging with a determined celerity she found quite disagreeable—it was not the first time. Ainsley had learned over the years that being acquainted with Mr. Merrick had its ups as well as its downs. She had learned that a man provoked is a dangerous man. And, she had learned, she was not as charming as she thought she was. That lesson was the most difficult of all. Given her current position, it appeared she had a lot more to learn. All this to say that when a man of Rhys Merrick’s distasteful caliber has it in his mind to spank, he does it. He is good at it. He has had practice. He knows how to make a point. Once in position there is no talking him out of it. There are no do-overs, no second chances, no reprieves. The fact that this beast of burden is Ainsley’s husband, and she loves him with a fierceness that could topple empires, is entirely beside the point.
Ainsley Vaughn had the good or, depending on one’s perspective, misfortune of meeting Mr. Merrick for the first time five years ago, after an unfortunate incident while out on the town one night with the formidable Constance French. Now, Constance French, for those who were just born, or just crawled from under a log, was an actress of some renown, and at the time she and Ainsley were friendly, Ms. French played the long-suffering matriarch of a wealthy southern family on the soap opera The Charmings. The first of its kind, the storylines did not take place in modern times, but rather during the period after the Civil War, at a time when folks had to start getting used to each other again. The loss of a major war will yield that outcome. Ainsley was the costume designer for the series, and she had the good fortune of clothing the fabulous Ms. French.
Ainsley was just twenty-four years old as our story begins, and a few years out of the prestigious Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, and just a year out of the MFA Costume Design program at Cal Arts. The move to Los Angeles a week after graduating Savannah Country Day School was disconcerting to Ainsley’s parents, given that the very prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design was close to home, and it made no sense for Ainsley to drift so far from the bosom of her loving family; yet, to the City of Angels she went. The only thing that brought Ainsley back home to Savannah was her much heralded coming out, which took place at the Savannah Club that same year. Braydon and Julia Vaughn believed with all their hearts that their only daughter would quit Los Angeles and fashion, return home and marry properly after such a highly touted event. Instead, Ainsley collected her debut gifts of money and fripperies, and flew back to sunny California that same weekend.
Julia has yet to fully forgive her.
Suffice it to say, Ainsley Vaughn was, at the time of the unfortunate incident of which we speak, a successful young woman, and having the time of her life. That she remains so to this very day is a testament to the skill of Mr. Merrick and the charm and fortitude of Ms. Vaughn, but let us digress no further. There is a story to tell, and it is worth getting comfortable for.
The indomitable and formidable Constance French was English by heritage, and British by accent, yet she pulled off a most impressive West Virginia drawl. Ainsley adored her, and the feelings were mutual. Their days on the set were filled with mischief, laughter, and gaiety, and their evenings were positively scandalous. It was due to one of those scandalous evenings that Ainsley came to meet the formidable Mr. Merrick.
The daytime Emmys that year yielded eight nominations and four awards for the show. One of them went to Ms. Vaughn for costume design. The cast was elated, high on life, riding on cloud nine, and all the other clichés that come to mind. Champagne had been consumed in abundance, and the group was nowhere near finished. After dinner at Mr. Chow, they set out for the Viper Room to meet other cast members, including Ross Hunter, the actor who played Constance’s husband on the show. He was very much married, but he and Constance had been carrying on a love affair for more than a decade.
It was on the way to the Viper Room, barreling down Sunset Boulevard with Constance French behind the wheel of her Jag, that tragedy struck. The women were laughing over something of little consequence when Constance made a sharp right onto a side street to avoid some construction in the road. To Ainsley, riding in the passenger seat, the next moment was a blur: a black shadow, the b-lum-bum sound under the tires, and then a deathly silence was all Ainsley could take in, until a sharp application of the brakes sent her slamming into her seat belt amid Constance’s most unladylike curses, after a summoning of the lord brought forth nary an apparition. The two women took a moment to catch their bearings. When they got out of the car, a man lay beneath, unmoving. A quick assessment of his clothes, the shopping cart that was now up against the car and toppled over, and a single shoe laying on its side in front of the car, a hole the size of a fist in the sole, brought the women to the realization that the man was homeless—not that this diminished in any way the tragedy of the event, at least in Ainsley’s mind.
Constance was beside herself. She was drunk; that was the first thing. The two women performed more quick assessments, calculations, considerations of ramifications, and as a Los Angeles Police Department patrol car pulled up, Ainsley made a decision.
The next morning, in producer Joe Sampson’s office, the police report sat on a round table between Ainsley and the handsomest man she’d ever had the good fortune to lay eyes upon. The production company’s business affairs department had had the good sense to head off any future trouble at the pass, and they had procured Rhys R. Merrick, Esq. to do just that.
The police report stated that the driver of the Jaguar had taken the corner quickly, and there was no time to stop for the man who had been jaywalking with his shopping cart. It also stated that, after being given a Breathalyzer test, it showed the driver—Miss Ainsley Brooke Vaughn—was under the legal limit for alcohol consumption. That Ms. Vaughn was driving a car not her own wasn’t the issue; it was the implication that, despite the favorable score on the breathing apparatus, the driver still may have been impaired. Between what the police believed and what the press reported, Spanish Moss Productions had a problem, and that problem was now sitting in the producer’s spacious office next to the sound stage where The Charmings was filmed.
“We have a public relations problem now, Ainsley. You understand that, don’t you?” Joe Sampson said, running his hand through tufts of mud-colored hair that now stood straight on end.
“Well, y-yes, Joe… of course.”
Ainsley was an intelligent woman, and she understood a great deal. For instance, she understood that Spanish Moss would get rid of her in a baby’s blink to save the company even an ounce of negative press. She was a costume designer—among the best, and the youngest ever to win an Emmy—but she was not Constance French. She, Ainsley, was expendable. The show was a hit with southern Christians, and a drunken ride through Hollywood with their stars whooping it up after an awards show did not bode well. Ainsley understood the wrath that was barreling down on the company, and the hassle and overall Pepto-Bismol days Joe Sampson saw lying ahead.
Yes. She understood more than the men sitting before her could ever imagine.
“I mean, the press is already aware it was Constance’s car you were driving, and thank God it hasn’t come out yet that she was pissed out of her tree. This cannot get out… I mean…” Joe raised his arms to the heavens and pinned Mr. Merrick with a rueful stare. “Thank God it was you behind the wheel, Ainsley,” Joe finished.
“Indeed.” Ainsley’s temples commenced to pound in time with her heart.
“The man had no familial ties, and there were no witnesses that we know of,” Mr. Merrick said. He had said few words beyond polite introductions when he entered the room, and Ainsley’s heart was only beginning to slow when he spoke, his voice deep and confident, his look authoritarian and stern, thanks to three deep vertical lines that seemed to be permanently carved between a pair of full, dark brows. Ainsley bit her lip. She was wearing a hole in it, actually.
“Rhys.” He wore his dark hair short, and it was clear he was an advocate of the wash-it-every-other-day style, which gave it a tousled look. He sported half a day’s growth on a strong, chiseled face and his cognac eyes were clear and unreadable. He was tall and powerful, and filled every inch of the upholstered chair in which he sat. He wore a medium gray suit, the jacket draped over an adjacent chair. His burgundy shirt was perfectly cut and paired with a diagonally striped tie in burgundy, dark gray, and silver. Belt and shoes were matching oxblood. Ainsley missed nothing when it came to fashion, and there was nothing more appealing to her eye than a well-dressed man. There was not a flaw on him to be critiqued. And he smelled divine. The important thing, of course, was not how Mr. Merrick was dressed or how he smelled, but how she would live once she was fired—or arrested.
“Mr. Merrick, what is my exposure here, I mean… personally?” Ainsley asked.
“The man was homeless. No ID, no address, no family members who stand to lose an income with his unfortunate demise,” he answered, his countenance inscrutable.
“How sad… how…” The fact that a life was lost was hitting her in the gut, now that adrenaline and the champagne had worn off. “Good lord,” she managed.
Ainsley wore a sleeveless raw silk V-neck soft pink shirtdress, which she left loose and unbelted at the waist. It was simple but tasteful, the color calming—which Joe Sampson needed at the moment. As a costume designer of some renown, she understood color, knew how to use it to her advantage. At that moment, however, it was not Joe she was impressing. Mr. Merrick was staring at her décolletage.
“Mr. Merrick!” Twenty-four years old, or sixty-four, Ainsley was well schooled on what stood as appropriate conduct from the likes of a true gentleman, and she was not above expressing her indignation at such inappropriate behavior—she didn’t care who this man was. She ducked her head so his eyes would meet hers, and she longed to tell him that he was a pervert and a cad, but he spoke before she could replace her shock with a well-rehearsed and frequently delivered dressing-down.
“I’m sorry,” said he. “I couldn’t help but notice the bruise on the right side of your chest. From the accident?”
“Yes,” she said, touching the tender area self-consciously.
“Have you been to see a doctor?”
“Because I’m perfectly fine, as you can see.” She batted her eyes in confusion, as she’d been taught to do by her momma to create a distraction. Rhys R. Merrick was having none of it.
“And you know this how? Are you a doctor?”
“No, I’m a costume designer.” She wasn’t trying to be flippant, but her answer caused his stern mouth to twitch ever so slightly.
Mr. Merrick turned to Joe Sampson. “I want her to see a doctor. The record needs to show she was injured.”
Her, like she wasn’t in the room. Imagine? “I assure you, Mr. Merrick…” Ainsley began.
“I am fine. Really.” She touched her hand to her chest in an attempt to hide what he’d already committed to memory.
Rhys Merrick stared at her for a long time. “Fine is not the issue, Miss Vaughn.” He turned to Joe. “I think…”
“Is my job in jeopardy?” Ainsley interrupted. She sounded small and wounded, which was not lost on Mr. Merrick, it seemed, because a large hand snaked behind her and came to rest, feather light, at her back—a kind but unnecessary gesture that produced pinprick tears in the young woman’s eyes.
Joe looked at Rhys Merrick and then at Ainsley. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “I just don’t know.” Ainsley knew that couldn’t be further from the truth, one liar to another.
“My advice, for now, is don’t do anything rash—including letting anyone go,” Merrick said. “So far things are calm. You have a publicity department?”
“Yes,” Joe answered.
“I don’t know the first thing about what they do or how they do it, but for the next however long, they will earn their salaries. Set up a meeting between the department head and the two of us and let’s get our ducks in a row.” Then Mr. Merrick pinned Ainsley with a glare that made her scalp tingle. “You keep your head down and do your job. Don’t discuss what happened with anyone—especially the press—and make an appointment with a doctor as soon as you leave here.”
“And Joe, I suggest you advise Ms. French not to speak to the press or anyone else.”
“Good.” Rhys Merrick, Esq. stood, bid them good day, and left.
Ainsley sat alone in Joe’s office after the producer stood, patted her shoulder paternally, and said, “Take all the time you need, dear,” like he hadn’t just spent the last half hour plotting next steps, which included her skulking out the door with her proverbial tail between her legs and the promise of the highest possible recommendation. But it was not Joe Sampson who currently occupied her thoughts; it was that Rhys Merrick. In all her life she had never been sideswiped by a man the way she had with him. As a southern-bred woman, she came out of the womb knowing how to handle a man, and how to get a man to handle her exactly how she wanted. Ainsley had a sinking feeling she’d met her match. The way he made her feel while in his presence was indescribable, yet she couldn’t seem to get her legs to move. He had a certain je ne sais quoi she’d never encountered, and the way she felt to her core was entirely new. She would take the next day or two and ponder this odd new sensation, and this odd type of man one just never saw anymore.
When it was clear that the building was deserted, Ainsley took her leave. The sun was low over the sound stages and office buildings, recent fires turning the sky into deep shades of pink and orange, the cloudless blue of the day interspersed like mistakes. Monet could not have painted a prettier picture. Sadly, the artist’s sky did nothing to boost her blue mood. As she passed office bungalows and crossed the parking lot, she saw Mr. Merrick leaning against a sleek black Mercedes in the E-class. The side-by-side pairing with her diminutive red sports car was all a bit too feng shui, but it spoke volumes about who they were as people: she was fun, he was the death of fun.
“Rhys. Have dinner with me.”
“Have dinner with me. You eat, don’t you?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“Tonight, then.” As if she’d uttered not a word.
“I need to eat.” He scanned her up, and then he scanned her down. “Probably do you some good, too.”
“Well, of all the…!”
“Nerve, yes. Seven okay?”
Ainsley had no retort. Mr. Merrick allowed her to wallow in the silence, a pompous smirk dominating the area above a set jaw and below a prominent and slightly crooked nose. A deep inset above his lip gave his mouth a shape that was altogether desirable. An empty hole in his left ear told one and all that he had experienced pain and bought jewelry—two things to be admired in a man.
“Dear lord. Rhys, you are my attorney and I don’t think…”
“No, I’m not.”
“I’m not your attorney, I am the attorney for Spanish Moss Productions.”
“I see. And why would you want to have dinner with me?”
He squinted at her as if there was not a thing to be worked through. “Is there a problem?”
“I have plans.”
The man stood firm, arms crossed over his chest, his burgundy shirt accentuating the hard body underneath. He was a bit intimidating. Ainsley opened her car door and got in.
“No, you don’t.”
Her bottom made contact with the too-warm leather seat. He looked herculean standing outside her car. They were no longer on equal footing, although Ainsley doubted they ever were. He filled out the suit nicely. His shoulders were broad, his front was flat, and his hands were huge. Her mind played, and she allowed it.
“Huh?” she managed, once her mini fantasy ended.
“You don’t have plans.”
“How do you know?”
“Of all the…!”
“Pompous, yes. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“I don’t think…”
“Of all the…!”
“Arrogant—yes, I know,” said he.
Ainsley started the car and lowered the convertible top, opening the warm interior to the cooling late afternoon air. “I will meet you at the restaurant,” said she.
“No,” he returned.
“I said no. I’m old-fashioned. I’ll pick you up. Seven.”
“I’m old-fashioned, too.” She put the car in reverse. “I’ll meet you at the restaurant.”
As she pulled away, he shouted the name of the eatery. Ainsley knew it well.
As a woman of some pride and a great deal of talent, Ainsley took time with dressing. She donned a black maxi-length slip dress of her own design. The scalloped lace trim at the shoulders and scoop neck flattered a long neck she’d grown fond of after many gawky years of being referred to as a giraffe. Slits up the side—not too long—showed off legs that were muscled, thanks to that dreadful machine at the gym. She finished it off with a pair of red peekaboo pumps and silver hoop earrings.
Mr. Merrick certainly had good taste in restaurants, she thought, as she pulled up to the valet seventeen minutes late. The hostess, Gretchen, an occasional extra on The Charmings and other shows, greeted her.
“He’s in the bar. Oh-my-God.”
“Phooey. He’s just a man.”
“And what a man. May I have him when you’re done?”
“He’s not mine to give you.” Ainsley blinked rapidly at the silly woman, believing this was a given, but perhaps not. After all, this was Hollywood.
“Oh, you!” Gretchen gushed, swatting the air in front of her. She escorted Ainsley into the bar. Mr. Merrick’s back was to her when she walked in, but he seemed to know she had arrived, for he turned around and stood.
If it was possible—and indeed it was—the man looked even better than he had a few hours ago. He wore a plain black sweater with a slight V-neck, and off-white chinos. A simple onyx stud was set in his left ear. His mouth kicked up on one side, much like a fox’s would once inside the henhouse, full of hens. Sleeping.
“You’re late,” he said.
“I am no such thing,” Ainsley returned, as if saying the words made them true.
His mouth froze in a feral quirk and his eyes narrowed. “You’re a handful.”
“On the contrary, Mr. Merrick. This is me on my very best behavior.”
Gretchen sat them at a corner table at the back of the restaurant. The table was private, and Rhys Merrick took the seat facing the restaurant, giving him an unobstructed view of arrivals and departures.
“You look very nice,” he said. “More relaxed than this afternoon.”
“Yes, I… I am… a bit,” she chuckled. “Thank you.”
“You have an accent. Where are you from?”
“Savannah, Georgia, and it is you who has the accent.”
“A well-bred southern deb, or a hick from the hills?”
“Depending on need, I can be either one. You?”
“San Diego, born and raised.”
“And what brought you to Los Angeles?”
“Are you with a firm?”
“I prefer to ride solo.”
“Pays the bills.”
Ainsley sighed. “Look, Mr. Merrick, I don’t know what…”
“Why are you lying?”
She choked on her saliva, a ghastly social faux pas surpassed only by the dreaded water-down-the-wrong-pipe trick. “I’m sorry?”
Rhys pushed a glass of water toward her and sat back in his seat. Ainsley took a grateful sip, only to begin choking again. He waited her out, and when she could find nary a bubble to choke upon to lure him away from this subject, he spoke again.
“Miss Vaughn, why are you lying?”
“I… I… I’m not… about what… am I lying… about?” Heavens.
He held back all but a hint of a smile. “The accident.” His deep voice took on a soft edge, and Ainsley wanted to cry, social propriety be damned.
“I… I’m not lying,” she finally said, finding that indignant tone she kept in reserve for moments just like this.
“Yes, you are, so stop it. I want to know why.”
A white napkin was whisked away by an observant waiter and replaced by a black one, and Ainsley twisted it into a fine knot while she worried that hole in her lip some more.
“Why are you taking the blame for this?”
“What in the world makes you think—?”
“The bruises on your chest, from the seat belt.” He brushed a finger absently in the vicinity of his chest. “They’re on the wrong side—the right side, actually.” He leaned forward and folded his enormous hands on the table in front of him. He wore no ring. “You were in the passenger seat, weren’t you?”
She rubbed the bruise on the right side of her chest and looked away.
“Answer me.” His tone was a bit harsher that time. Ainsley moved between horror that she couldn’t pull off the simplest lie, and relief that she indeed wasn’t responsible for taking a life, however mediocre society saw that life. She’d almost convinced herself she was guilty.
She leaned back in her seat, defeated. “Yes,” she said. “I was.”
“I think we need some wine.”
“You brought me here under false pretenses with flattery and charm. You are the lowest form of reptile.” This was Ainsley’s attempt to fill the silence, and recalibrate the stormy look on Rhys Merrick’s face, after reciting the whole sordid tale of the prior evening. The man was having none of it. One could hardly blame him.
“Do you know how much trouble you’re in?”
Ainsley took a fortifying swig of the beautiful Bordeaux he ordered, not sure at all of its beauty, so churned was she. “I probably don’t.” She took another, more demure, sip.
“You lied to the police; you gave false statements. You could be criminally charged.”
“Criminally charged? I did nothing wrong.”
“Oh,” she whispered.
“How much alcohol did you consume last night?”
“I don’t… I don’t know. But the breath thing…”
“The breath thing means nothing. It’s arbitrary—somewhat.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You can drive like a granny and walk the straightest line, but if that machine shows you over the legal limit, you could be arrested. Conversely, the machine could show you under the legal limit and the police officer can still place you under arrest if he feels you were impaired while behind the wheel. No matter what the Breathalyzer shows, if the officer thinks you are impaired, then you are impaired and he can take you to jail.”
“Well, that doesn’t seem f—” Ainsley jumped and brought a hand to her bosom when he interrupted her and carried on in a most annoyed tone.
“And, what if you were found to be over the legal limit? You’d be in jail now for being drunk in the damn passenger seat. What were you thinking?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do, and unless I can prevent it, you will be asked the same question by people less friendly than I. Now, answer me, Miss Vaughn. What in hell were you thinking?”
He waited. She cleared her throat and drank more. After she set her wineglass down, he moved it next to his.
“Constance French had more to lose than I,” she finally said.
“Oh, really?” His jaw worked like a piston, his eyes narrowed to slits, and his brows crashed together causing giant vertical furrows above his nose. “Let me tell you about Constance French. She’s a sixty-three-year-old pain in the ass with three DUIs on her record in the last five years. Those were the times she drove drunk and got caught. She’s reckless and self-centered and does not give a damn if a twenty-four-year-old costume designer with a full life ahead of her loses everything she’s worked hard for, as long as Constance gets what she wants. The person you believe has more to lose than you ran over another human being and let you take the blame. Did you ever ask yourself why your friend Constance never came forward to correct this ‘misunderstanding’”?
Rhys Merrick sat back and studied her with simmering eyes. “Do you know what you need?”
Those words, spoken softly, belied the look in his eyes, and they stung like a whip. The restaurant was filled with the background noises of chattering voices, clanging dishes, and jazz fusion made for sex playing over the speakers in the ceiling, which did nothing to distract her from the persistent ache in her head. The muted light from the hanging pendulum lamps cast a warm amber-blue glow against the white tablecloths. A waft of garlic passed under her nose as a waiter passed by carrying a tray of food for another table. A flickering candle wedged into the square saffron votive between them reflected in his eyes. Those eyes honed in on her like a determined beacon. A knot formed in the pit of her stomach.
“What?” She really didn’t want to know.
“A good spanking,” he answered, “from someone who’ll do it the right way.”
Ainsley lost her breath and what little pride remained. Her face aflame, she looked around to assess the possibility that the ogre was overheard. Rhys Merrick clearly didn’t give a damn if he was or wasn’t, and that’s when tears sprang to her eyes like a geyser. She tried to will them away with the obvious absurdity of it all, and failing that, the resourceful young woman called on her deep reluctance to embarrass herself further in front of this now larger-than-life man.
“How dare you,” she choked. Ainsley found that haughty indignation helped as well. “You know nothing about me.”
“I know when a woman needs her ass tanned. Here,” he said, thrusting her wineglass across the table. “Drink.”
The couple at the next table turned like synchronized swimmers—not just a sideways glance, but a full ninety-degree turn—and gaped.
“You are arrogant and uncouth,” Ainsley spat as she sipped the wine he offered. Tossing caution to the wind, she drank the rest down in one gulp.
“Maybe I am, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what you are with this stunt you’ve pulled.”
She stared at her empty wineglass for a long time. “Truthfully, Mr. Merrick,” said she, “I don’t know either.” And then a tear did fall.
“Rhys. I’m going to get you out of this, Ainsley, but your friend Constance is going down.”
“She’s not… she’s not my friend.”
“Damn right she’s not.”
The waiter appeared. Rhys snapped open the menu, then closed it with a bang. “What are you eating?”
“Not an option.” He leaned forward. “Are you a vegetarian?”
“No, I’m a southerner,” she said in all innocence. The waiter chuckled.
“The lady will have the roasted pheasant with the Bibb lettuce salad, and I’ll have the bone-in rib-eye, rare plus. I’ll have the Caesar salad, extra anchovies. And we’ll have another bottle of this.” Rhys held up the empty bottle of wine. He studied her another moment. “Bring us out an order of the mussels first.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And some more water for the lady.”
“And some more bread.”
The waiter disappeared, but Rhys Merrick’s anger did not.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Ainsley said.
“It was a lousy idea from the start. You’re smarter than this—at least I hope you are.” He drained his wine. “Maybe you’re not.”
“Are you quite finished?” she said through tears.
“Not by a long shot.”
Ainsley stood and tossed her black napkin on the table with dramatic southern flair. “Well, I am.”
“Take your seat, Miss Vaughn.” His tone brooked no argument. Still, she remained on her feet. He placed his hands flat on the table and spoke slowly. “I hate scenes, and I won’t tolerate one from you now. I advise you to sit down.”
“You don’t know me at all.”
“I know enough. Sit down.”
“I’d like a break from the scolding, if it’s all the same to you,” she hissed.
The nosy neighbors took another peek at the goings-on at table twelve. Ainsley was about to announce she would be sending them a bill for the show, but thought better when Rhys said, “I won’t ask you again.”
For a man who did not enjoy scenes, he made no move to whisper or hide his mouth when he spoke. Ainsley raised her chin proudly and took her seat. She lifted her wineglass and brought it shakily to her lips, setting it down with a defeated bang when she realized it was empty.
“It’s clear you haven’t had a decent tongue lashing in quite some time. Settle down.”
“I thought I liked you, but I really don’t care for you in the least.”
“I’m sorry about that, but you’re a big girl, who lied to the police. And got into a car with an impaired person behind the wheel. Jesus, were you taught nothing as a child?”
“How dare you disparage my child—!”
“Please.” He held up his hand and stilled her with a scrutinizing glare. “You can handle a scolding without getting the vapors, can’t you?”
A blush crept up her chest and across her face. Her lips twitched to hide a smirk that threatened to form. “Yes, I think so.”
“Good.” Rhys bit back a smile of his own, and to Ainsley’s mind, it was quite sexy. “What you and Miss French did was bad for Spanish Moss, but let me tell you, sweetheart, it was worse for you.”
“I know that.” The term of endearment touched her and Ainsley felt the rise of emotion again.
“Good.” Rhys reached across the table. “Give me your hand.” When she did, he held her fingers gently between his and said, “It’ll be all right, Ainsley. I promise you it will.”
“I don’t want to go to jail.”
“You won’t. I promise.”
Her lip quivered and her hand shook like an old truck out of alignment. “When did you suspect?”
“In Joe’s office, when you thought I was looking at your southern pride.”
“I should have known,” she said, snatching her hand back. “If you weren’t so handsome, I’d find you quite repugnant.”
“Don’t try to butter me up. I’m very upset with you.”
“You have known me six hours.”
“What’s your point?”
“You don’t know me well enough to be upset with me, considering I have done nothing to you personally.”
“Did you make that doctor’s appointment yet?”
He stopped her with a steely glare. “I don’t care whether you think you need to or not; I need you to. You were injured in an accident you were not responsible for and I need the record to reflect that. I want you to call and make that appointment first thing tomorrow morning. Do you understand me, Miss Vaughn?”
The man sat back and waited for her to acknowledge his request.
“Yes, I understand.”
Rhys continued to stare at her with less anger than a moment ago, and for that, Ainsley was thrilled.
“I don’t need to know you longer than six hours to see what I see,” he said.
“And what do you see?”
“I see a beautiful and, if the folks at Spanish Moss have it right, talented young woman who put herself in a position of losing everything over a friendship with someone who is not worthy of her. It angers me that you would risk everything you’ve accomplished in your young life for someone like her over something like this.”
“And why do you care?”
“I don’t know. I’m working on that. Suffice it to say your stunt was stupid and ill-conceived.” He shrugged and sipped his wine. “You think I’m out of line, sorry. It changes nothing.”
“It was quite possibly the stupidest thing I have ever done, Rhys,” she capitulated. The waiter poured Ainsley another glass of wine from the new bottle, and she sipped it gratefully.
“And, I am guessing, that isn’t you, the real you—having known you only six hours.”
Ainsley managed a smile. “How can you help me? You represent Spanish Moss.”
Rhys Merrick paused for a long time before he spoke again. “Not anymore. You need me more than they do. And it will cost you.”
After studying him further and pronouncing him completely serious, she nodded.
“Another thing—you lied to me twice today.”
“I… I did not.”
“The first was this fiasco, and the second was when you told me you had plans tonight.”
“How do you know I didn’t?”
“Because you didn’t, did you?”
“I can’t help you if you lie to me, and I won’t. Don’t lie to me, Ainsley. I don’t like it.” Then he handed her a business card on plain, heavy stock.
Rhys R. Merrick, Attorney at Law
“What is the ‘R’ for?”
“It’s not. I’m a good lawyer, Ainsley. You’re lucky to have me.”
“Thank you, you arrogant bastard.”
“Watch your language, young lady.” He sat back with a smirk. “And you’re welcome.”