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Michelle Willingham

Christmas in His Arms

Christmas in His Arms

A hotel billionaire gives her sanctuary from her abusive ex...but he never expected to find the love of his life this Christmas.

Click here to read Chapter 1

The snow struck her in the face while blinding flakes bit into her skin. It was nearly midnight, and Sarah Walsh trudged through the New York City streets in search of a hotel room. She gripped the edges of her jacket, wishing she’d brought a hat or gloves. But there had been no time.

The throbbing pain of her bruised cheek kept her going. I’m not going back to him. I can’t.

After two years of marriage, she couldn’t live in the shadow of fear any longer. Her husband had struck her cheek with his fist, sneering, “If you want to leave, then go. You’re an idiot if you think you can get anywhere without me.”

Ben didn’t believe she would do it. He probably thought she’d come crawling back, broken and subservient. Not this time. She couldn’t.

Her hands were trembling, though it was from more than the cold. It was the bone-deep fear within her that he was right. She had no job, no family in the city, no friends at all—Ben had made sure she stayed isolated. All she had left were the clothes on her back, one credit card, and forty dollars cash in her pocket.

She touched her hand to her aching cheek and tried to push back the fear. Keep walking. Keep moving forward. Find a hotel. You can figure the rest out later.

The warm glow of the Harrow Suites illuminated the snow only a block away. She wasn’t sure she could afford the hotel, but maybe the rate would be cheaper this late at night. Then again, every room in the city cost hundreds of dollars per night. But she had a credit card, and that was all she needed right now.

Sarah trudged past piles of snow and black trash bags lined along the curb. She heard the familiar sounds of sirens and taxis blaring their horns while men and women crossed the busy streets. Scaffolding set up against a building offered a temporary shelter as she walked past the delicious aroma of a 24-hour coffee shop. What she wouldn’t give for a hot, steaming mug right now. Her torment continued when she passed a bakery with glass cases displaying freshly baked muffins and pastries. She’d skipped both lunch and dinner today, and her stomach reminded her that missing the meals had been a very bad idea.

When she reached the revolving glass doors of Harrow Suites, Sarah stepped into the lobby and took a moment to warm herself. She didn’t know how bad the swollen mark on her face was, but she might be able to pass it off as rosy cheeks from the cold.

Her hands were still shaking, but she felt better with each step forward. It’s going to be all right, she told herself as she approached the front desk. You’ll be safe now.

A woman in a navy blazer with blond hair in a French twist smiled at her with a silent invitation to approach the front desk. 

Sarah hesitated, rubbing her hands together to ease the numbness. Another man was leaning against the doorway to the office. He was reading a piece of paper, his expression frowning. His dark brown hair was the color of polished wood, and he wore a charcoal gray suit tailored to his broad shoulders and lean waist. She guessed he was in his mid-thirties, and his face held the look of a man who carried a great deal of responsibility. A manager, she was certain.

When he spared her a fleeting glance, her nerves tightened. He was easily one of the most attractive men she’d ever seen—but then, two years of marriage had taught her that appearances were deceiving. Handsome men held a power of their own, an ability to get whatever they wanted—and that was the last thing she needed in her life right now. Instinctively, she shielded her thoughts, shoving back the raw emotions into an invisible box.

“Can I help you?” the front desk clerk asked. “Do you have a reservation?” Her gaze lingered a moment on Sarah’s face, but her smile remained.

“No, but I was hoping you’d have a room available.” As cheap as possible, she thought to herself. She didn’t know how long it would take to find a job or if anyone would hire her.

The clerk’s expression turned sympathetic. “I’m so sorry, but we’re completely sold out. There’s a convention in town, and we don’t have any rooms left.” She added, “If I knew of another hotel that had a room, I would call them for you. But as far as I know, everything is full.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.” Sarah managed a nod, as if it were nothing. But inwardly, she felt the rise of tears threatening. She couldn’t imagine returning to the streets at this hour in search of a hotel room.

She walked away from the desk but couldn’t quite bring herself to go outside. At least, not yet. The blizzard was raging, and she didn’t want to leave the warmth of the building. 

Sarah walked over to one of the lobby chairs and sank into it. Her gut clenched, and she closed her eyes, trying to think of what to do now. 

She’d been so stupid to leave her cell phone behind, but at the time, she was afraid Ben would find a way to track her with it. Now, she wished she had it so she could call other hotels. Instead, she’d have to use the phone at the front desk if they would let her.

Tears burned at her eyes, but she bit her lip hard. You can’t fall apart right now. Keep going.

“Excuse me,” a male voice interrupted. Sarah looked up and saw the manager from the front desk. His gaze fixed upon hers, and he frowned at the sight of her swollen cheek. His eyes were icy blue, and he had a faint dark bristle of beard on his cheeks, as if he’d been too busy to shave. 

Her heart pounded at the sight of him, and she tensed. “Yes?” For a moment, she half-expected him to ask her to leave. The lobby was for guests, not for people who had no place to stay. And heaven knew, she looked homeless right about now. Her hair was soaked from the snow and so was her jacket.

Instead, the manager spoke quietly. “If you still need a room, there is one available.” His tone held a hint of compassion, and tears blurred her eyes.  “Cora didn’t know we had a last-minute cancellation.”

Relief flooded through her, and Sarah tried to gather her thoughts. She closed her eyes, pushing back the fear. It was going to be all right—at least for tonight. “I’m so glad,” she murmured. With a pained smile, she added, “I really didn’t want to go back into that storm.”

“I would have called a cab for you,” he said. 

She was glad he hadn’t. Right now, she needed to save every penny she had left, and a cab was a luxury she couldn’t afford.

“Just check in with Cora, and she’ll set you up.” Though his demeanor was only professional, she sensed his sympathy. Her throat closed up, and she warned herself, Don’t cry. Instead, she stood and murmured her thanks again, trying to brave a smile she didn’t feel as she approached the front desk.

Sarah gave her credit card to the front desk agent, while she filled out a registration card. After she handed it back, there was a moment’s pause.

“I’m sorry, but your credit card was declined,” Cora said. “Do you have another method of payment you could use?”

Oh God. She didn’t have to ask why the card was rejected. Ben must have called and cancelled it. 

For a moment, it felt as if her entire world had spun out of control and back into his circle of command. Panic gripped her stomach, and she felt the shame rising up. “I’m sorry. I don’t have another card,” she mumbled. And there wasn’t enough cash to cover the room. 

Numbly, she stepped back, wondering what to do now. She returned to the lobby chair, and every step reminded her that she’d failed.

Outside, the storm pounded flakes against the glass windows. She needed a few moments to gather her courage. She could try to go to a shelter, but in this weather, it would be hard to find a place. Not to mention, Ben might find her there. She was convinced that he would hire people to look for her.

Hot tears gathered again, but she squeezed her wrists hard to hold back the emotions. She refused to cry. Tears wouldn’t do anything to solve her problems.

In her peripheral vision, she saw the manager watching over her. She couldn’t stay here much longer. She wasn’t a guest and had no right to stay in the lobby. Slowly, she took a deep breath and collected her courage. She didn’t have any money for another hotel, but she might be able to slip into the stairwell and hide for the night. It was so late, no one would look for her there. If not here, then in another hotel. And first thing in the morning, she would start looking for a job. 

With the decision made, she stood from her chair and turned around…only to find that the manager was standing in front of her.

“I was just leaving,” she started to say, but he cut her off.

“No. You’re staying here tonight.”

 

 

Alec Harrow hadn’t missed the swollen bruise on the woman’s face or the shame in her eyes. He knew all the signs of abuse. When her credit card had been declined, she’d looked beaten down, as if another fist had plowed into her jaw. Someone had hurt her, and she needed sanctuary. He wasn’t going to let her go out into the blizzard tonight. If that meant giving up his own suite for the night, so be it. He could always return to his apartment if he decided to set aside the night’s work.

As the owner of Harrow Suites, he had forty hotels to manage along the east coast and another hundred hotels in Europe. One room was reserved for him in every hotel, and he made a habit of dropping in without notifying the staff. It was the best way to ensure that the hotels were running smoothly, and he prided himself on the chain he had built.

Alec studied the young woman discreetly for a moment. She was slender with shoulder length honey blond hair and a heart-shaped face. Her green eyes held such pain, he wondered how any man could try to hurt a woman. A large diamond rested on her left hand, and he suspected her husband had caused the blow. She wore jeans and an oversized sweatshirt that hid her figure. Her jacket was unzipped, but it was only a windbreaker—not nearly enough to push back the cold wintry air. 

But more than that, he saw the stubborn pride in her face as she stood up to face him. “I’ll be all right.”

The woman was going to walk out of the hotel and into a blizzard, wearing that pitiful excuse for a coat. He could tell that she’d left with the clothes on her back and hardly anything to call her own. She wouldn’t accept his help, and if he didn’t stop her, she would leave. He couldn’t tell her that he was giving up his own room for her use, so instead, he thought up a lie.

“It was a mistake. The credit card went through the second time when I told Cora to try it again. It must have been a system malfunction.”

The look of relief on her face was stunning. “Really?” She closed her eyes a moment, and then smiled. “I’m so glad.”

He didn’t return the smile. Seeing her circumstances only brought back all the memories he’d tried to bury over the years. He had a thousand unanswered questions about this woman, but he knew better than to ask.

Don’t get involved, he warned himself. It’s not your battle to fight. He knew that, and yet, he couldn’t stand by and let this woman go out in a blizzard on a night like this.

He escorted her back to the front desk and said, “Cora will get you the key cards, but you’ll need to wait until the room is made up. I’ll call Housekeeping.” Jasmine lived down the street, and he could offer her overtime pay to come in and clean the room.

Alec excused himself to make the call while the woman signed the registration card. He stood at the doorway with the phone in his hand, though he hadn’t even dialed the number. Eavesdropping was much easier that way.

Cora put two plastic keycards in an envelope and said, “I’ll hold on to these for now until your room is ready. If you have a cell phone number, I’ll text you when the room is ready.”

“I don’t…have my phone with me,” the woman said. “I’ll just wait in the lobby if that’s all right.”

“Of course,” Cora said brightly. “There’s coffee at the station over there. Help yourself.”

Alec watched as the young woman walked back to the lobby chair. The pieces were starting to come together. She had no cell phone. One credit card that had been cancelled. Likely very little cash, and he didn’t know if she’d eaten a meal tonight. After she left the desk, he made the call to Jasmine and then a second call to room service for a tray of food.

“Mr. Harrow?” Cora asked in a low voice. “Are you sure about this?”

“That bruise didn’t come from a fall,” he muttered. “And yes. It’s only for one night.” He hadn’t planned on sleeping much anyway. This property wasn’t making enough of a profit, and he needed to spend time with the accounts and unravel where the problems were. He could work in the office for a few hours and return home once it was finished.

Cora had a worried look on her face, but she nodded. “You’re a good man, Mr. Harrow.”

“Don’t tell anyone.” The business world wasn’t kind to the softhearted. He’d built Harrow Suites from a small boutique hotel in the city, taking endless risks until he’d created a worldwide hotel chain. It was a fragile empire, but when it came to expansion, most of his rivals knew better than to underestimate him.

With that, Alec closed the office door, trying not to think of the woman in the lobby. He brought up a few of the spreadsheets he’d been working on, but he couldn’t concentrate. The numbers blurred together, and after half an hour, he gave up. A knock sounded at the door, and when he called out, “Come in,” he saw that the room service tray had arrived. He’d been careful to choose an assortment of appetizers, cookies, and soft drinks instead of a full meal.

“Thank you.” He signed for the charge and added a generous tip before he picked up the tray and walked into the lobby.

The woman was sitting in a large chair with her knees tucked beneath her while she stared out at the falling snow. It took her a moment before she noticed him standing there with the tray.

“You missed our complimentary appetizer hour,” he said. “We usually offer our guests drinks and snacks in the evening. I thought you might be hungry.”

She glanced at the tray as if she wanted to refuse, but her eyes lingered on a brownie. Her mouth pursed as if she were trying to keep from reacting to the food.  When she hesitated, he asked, “Would you rather have a soft drink or coffee?”

The mention of a hot drink brought a warmth to her eyes. “Coffee would be great.” She drew her knees down and stared at the tray.

“Cream and sugar?”

She nodded but didn’t speak. Alec walked toward the coffee station but caught a glimpse of her reaching for the brownie. She ate the entire thing in two bites, and the hard knot in his gut drew tighter. Then she reached for a cookie, making him wonder how long it had been since she’d eaten.

He poured the coffee and brought over a second cup filled with flavored creamer cups and sweetener packets. She stopped eating the cookie and her face turned sheepish. “My grandma always said to start with dessert first. That way you always have room.”

Alec passed her the coffee and she held it a moment, warming her hands. Then she added four creamer pods and three packets of sugar. For a moment, she reminded him of a little girl, doctoring up her coffee.

“Do you want a cookie before I eat them all?” she offered. With a wry smile, she said, “I probably will.”

Alec shook his head. “I’ve already eaten.” He hadn’t, really, but he wasn’t about to take her cookies. Not when she was clearly so hungry. “I’ll leave you to them.”

“Thank you, Mr…?” She let the question trail away, but he wasn’t about to give his last name. Not when she could connect his identity to the hotel chain.

“You can call me Alec. And it was my pleasure.”

“I’m Sarah.” She didn’t offer her last name, and he didn’t ask. It was better for them to remain strangers.

He intended to leave but couldn’t quite bring himself to go. At least, not yet. “Is there anything else you need?”

“Not unless a job is something else you have on that tray,” she remarked before she shook her head. “I’m just kidding. Thank you for your help. I really do appreciate it.” This time, her mouth curved in a genuine smile. It lit up her face with a softness and beauty that caught him off guard. Though her blond hair was still wet from the snow and a tangled mess, he found her fascinating.

He turned away and saw Cora raising her hand to catch his attention. Then she pointed toward Sarah and held up the key card packet.

“Your room is ready,” he told her. “You can finish eating first if you like. Or take the tray with you.” Though he already knew the answer, he asked, “Do you have any luggage you need brought up to the room?”

She shook her head. “No, I don’t have anything.” His gaze fixed on the bruise on her face, and she blushed at his stare.

He understood her need to keep that boundary intact. “I’ll send up some of our complimentary toiletries. Enjoy your stay.”

 

 

Her room was at the end of a long hallway. When Sarah put the keycard inside the slot and opened the door, she was startled to realize that Alec had given her the largest suite in the hotel. The lights were already on, and the carpet had just been vacuumed. The room smelled clean, and it had a large living room and a desk that faced a floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the city. A king-sized bed stood at the opposite end of the room, and there was a small bar with a silver tray and an ice bucket upon it. 

There was a familiar scent within the room, like a man’s aftershave. It took her a moment to realize what it was. Or, in this case, who it was.

Alec had given her his own room. She couldn’t say just how she knew, but she was sure of it. Though it was foolish, she returned to the door and deadbolted it before flipping the latch over. He didn’t seem like the sort of man to lure an unsuspecting woman into his room, but she was taking no chances.

Outside, the snow raged against the windows, piling up on the street. Lines of cars were stopped in traffic, despite the late hour. Sarah picked up a blanket from the edge of the bed and wrapped herself inside it. She felt the familiar rise of anxiety as she wondered what she would do tomorrow. Somehow, she had to find work. But a fast-food job wouldn’t pay enough for a hotel room.

She had a degree in interior design that she’d never used. But what good was that? It would take time to earn the money she needed. No, the higher priority was finding a place to stay that was within her budget. A hotel wasn’t a good solution, since Ben could cancel the credit card at any time—not to mention, he might not pay the bill.

A twist of nausea caught her stomach, and she gripped the edges of the blanket, feeling lost. But instead of pitying herself, she tried to look at the positive moments of the day. She had a warm bed to sleep in, and Alec had brought her food.

Just thinking of him brought a flush of embarrassment. It had been so long since a man had been kind to her instead of ordering her around. Ben had controlled every moment of her day, from the time she woke up, to what she wore, to the way she lived her life. Everything had revolved around him.

She’d been so stupid to fall for her husband’s romantic gestures. At the time, she had been flattered by the two dozen roses or the gold watch he’d given her after only one month of dating. What woman didn’t want to fall in love with a rich man who seemed to adore her?

She had married him only six months after she’d met him, star-struck by the man who had showered her with affection. But Ben didn’t know the meaning of love. Once she’d moved in with him, the imprisonment had begun.

 

“You won’t need to get a job, Sarah,” he’d said. “I’ve already cancelled your interviews.”

She’d been shocked that he would do such a thing, but his eyes had softened. “I’m going to take care of you. I make enough money, so you don’t have to work. I’ve arranged for everything you need.”

He’d opened the closet to reveal dozens of designer labels, matching shoes, and handbags. All were arranged by color, the garment hangers facing the same direction. At the time, she’d been thrilled by the gift, believing that he was the most generous husband. But it was only the beginning.

“Your stylist has made a list of what you are to wear each day. You will be expected to look your best at all times, especially when we entertain guests at home. You will never leave without your make-up on or your hair done.” He stepped back, his face somber. “I know you aren’t accustomed to attending formal events, and that isn’t something I expect or want from you. In fact, I want to keep our marriage a low profile. I value my privacy, and I want to protect you. The media isn’t kind.”

It was as if he’d wanted to hide her from the world. Sarah had argued that she was perfectly happy to attend parties with him, only to realize that he had no intention of taking her out in public. He had been grooming her for the role of a subservient wife who stayed at home to meet his every need.

Ben had donated all her old clothing, but she’d managed to save one sweatshirt and one pair of jeans. When she’d worn the sweatshirt on her escape to this hotel, it had felt like she was holding on to a precious memory, as if her mother were watching over her. The sweatshirt was one that Rosalie had owned, years ago. It was the last memory Sarah had of her before her mother had died of cancer. 

She didn’t even realize she was crying until the phone rang, interrupting her thoughts. It was late, nearly one-thirty, and she wondered if it was the front desk or Alec. When she picked up the phone, she answered, “Hello?”

“I’m glad you found a place to stay, Sarah.”

Bile rose up in her throat, and the blood seemed to freeze in her veins. She nearly hung up on her husband, but managed to ask, “H-how did you find me, Ben?”

“The credit card charge. It wasn’t difficult.” His voice had that smug quality that she loathed. “I asked them to notify me of the first charge after I froze the account. I’m surprised you had enough cash to cover the room.”

She said nothing, trying to gather command of her emotions. So, her suspicions had been right. This was Alec’s room, and he’d allowed her to stay, free of charge.

“I will send a car to pick you up in the morning,” he said. “And you will not attempt to run away again.”

This time, she did hang up. And when the phone rang a moment later, she let it go to voice mail. The last thing she wanted was to hear her husband’s commands. Instead, Sarah went into the bathroom to run the shower. She turned on the hot water and rested her hands against the sink as the mirror fogged up.

Anger and frustration raged within her. Ben expected her to return to the prison she’d endured within their marriage—after he punished her, that is. She could only imagine what he would do to her for running away.

When she wiped the humidity from the mirror, she studied her swollen cheek, which was already starting to bruise. He would only hurt her again if she went back. Next time, he might break her ribs or worse. She couldn’t do it. Not again.

You’re going to be strong now. You have to be.

 

 

Alec rubbed at his eyes and took a sip of coffee, exhaustion weighing on him. He’d spent most of the night going over a contract proposal. If this deal went through, Harrow Suites would be the exclusive hotel chain for all business travel with Venture Enterprises. He had a meeting with the CEO later this week to work out the details.

A soft knock interrupted his thoughts, and he looked up to see Cora standing at the threshold. “I’ve finished with my shift, Mr. Harrow. But before I go, I thought you should know that Ms. Walsh is in line to check out from the hotel.”

He blinked a moment at the mention of the name. Was she talking about Sarah? He hadn’t actually heard her last name before now. “Thank you, Cora.”

A voice inside warned him not to get involved. He had given up his own room last night to a woman he didn’t know, and if he stayed inside the office, she would walk away, and he’d never see her again. It was better that way.

And yet, when he saw Sarah hesitate at the desk, staring at the blanket of snowfall upon the ground, he was torn between wanting to help her and knowing he shouldn’t. The last time he had tried to help a battered woman, he’d been too late. At the very least, he wanted to ensure that Sarah was safe.

Before he could stop himself, he started to walk towards her. She paused a moment and looked back at him. Her eyes held an emotion so intense, he hardly knew whether it was fear or uncertainty.

“Do you have a place to go?” he asked quietly.

She froze and glanced outside before shaking her head. “Not yet. But I’ll find something.”

“Do you want me to call a cab for you?”

Her expression turned wary. “No. I can walk.” 

He could already guess her thoughts—she didn’t have the money for a cab. “I’ll pay the driver to take you anywhere in the city.”

She stiffened and shook her head. “That’s all right. I’ll be fine.”

But pride wasn’t going to feed her or give her a roof over her head. If he let this woman walk out the door, he didn’t like to think of the consequences.

“I wanted to thank you for giving up your room to me last night,” she said softly. “It was kind of you.”

He kept all emotion from his face as he nodded acknowledgement of her thanks. Let her go, his conscience advised. This isn’t your fight.

But he’d walked away once before, and he’d regretted it every day of his life. Now, he had a chance to change that.

Before he could stop himself, Alec tossed common sense away and told her, “If you still need a job, I need someone to do temporary housekeeping during the holidays. You could stay here until you find full time employment.”

Logically, it wasn’t a good idea to hire a stranger. He knew nothing about this woman, aside from her name. But then, it was only for a few days. Wasn’t it better to provide her with a job and shelter? And they sometimes took on extra temporary help during busy seasons. One of the housekeepers could train Sarah.

She still hadn’t answered, and he added, “Dawson Green is one of my managers. Tell him I sent you, and he’ll arrange for you to get a uniform and training for the job.”

He turned away, as if it meant nothing at all. But he saw her falter, twisting the diamond ring on her left hand. His uneasy gut feeling heightened.

“I would like that,” she said. “But I’m afraid my husband will find me here. He said he was sending a car for me today.”

 “Who is your husband?”

“Ben Carnell,” she answered. There was a flash of fear on her face, but she squared her shoulders. “He knows I was here last night.”

Alec kept his face neutral, but inwardly, he knew what a mistake it was to get involved. This situation was delicate because Ben Carnell was the CEO he had a meeting with later this week. If they reached an agreement, it would mean millions of dollars in profit over the next few years. But if the deal didn’t go through, he might have to close at least three hotels, including this one. He would do everything in his power to avoid laying people off after the holidays.

Alec could only imagine what Carnell would say if he knew what had happened last night. It grated over his conscience that he had to make a deal with the devil. He’d gone over the numbers, and without the contract, there was no way to save the hotels.

  He debated what to do, turning the problem over in his mind. At this time of year, all the shelters were full. And someone like Sarah Walsh would never survive. She was a billionaire’s wife who knew nothing about how to live on the streets or how to survive on minimum wage. She wouldn’t last an hour.

She wasn’t his responsibility—not like the employees were. But if he gave Carnell’s wife a job and a place to stay, he was risking a multimillion dollar contract. He was risking their lives and the lives of their children. Was one woman’s safety worth the livelihood of so many others?

He already knew the answer. Just as he knew it was easiest to let her make her own decisions.

“Stay or go,” he said at last. “It’s your choice.”

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Full Description

A hotel billionaire gives her sanctuary from her abusive ex...but he never expected to find the love of his life this Christmas.

When Sarah Walsh flees an abusive marriage, billionaire Alec Harrow gives her shelter for the night. She’ll do anything to escape the man hunting her…but the last thing she wants is to trust a wealthy, powerful man—especially one as good-looking as Alec.

Alec knows he’s playing a dangerous game when he learns that Sarah’s husband never married her at all, and her ex holds the key to ruining Alec’s hotel empire. The logical choice is to let her go.

But as her kindness heals the loneliness of his past during the Christmas holidays, he questions whether the feelings are real…or is she hiding more secrets?

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