Oh, dear heaven, he surely wasn’t trying to pay her for what they did in bed last night? She said coldly, “What’s that?”
“The money Mimi owes you. Two weeks’ salary. Plus all the vacation she owed you for the past two years.”
“How did you get it from her?”
The edges of his cruel, sensual lips lifted. “I asked nicely.”
Hmm. Truly he had magical powers. She started to reach for the pile of euros, then stopped suspiciously. “What do you want from me in exchange?”
“You think I am trying to buy you?” He sounded amused. “I cannot buy what I already own.”
“What are you talking about? You don’t own me.”
“We made a deal last night.” He ran his hand lightly along her shoulder, over her thin vintage T-shirt. “Or did you forget?”
She had sudden memory of his words, huskily spoken in the dark. If I make you explode with joy, you will surrender everything. You will allow me to take possession of your body and fill you with my child. You will be mine—forever. She blushed.
“But that was ridiculous. A joke,” she stammered. “Verbal foreplay. You don’t actually expect me to—”
“I never joke about deals. Or go back on my word.” He looked at her in the slanted light of morning. “Are you saying you do?”
The morning light of the Mediterranean caressed the hard edge of his cheekbones, with that lightly etched scar, the dark bristle of his sharp jawline, the boyishly mussed-up dark hair that looked so soft that even now, she longed to run her hands through it again. She forced her hands to remain still and lifted her chin. “In my experience, the wealthy have many whims that quickly change.”
“It’s not a whim. My proposal was straightforward. I want a family. I want a wife I can trust. You seemed to indicate you might be such a woman, but your only fear was that you would be inadequate in bed. That fear was proven false.” He leaned forward. “You surrendered yourself to me, Laney,” he whispered, his lips inches from hers. “Everything.”
Her mouth went dry. “What kind of choice did you give me? I had no experience. No chance to resist your expert seduction.”
Towering over her, he narrowed his eyes. “Are you saying I took you against your will?”
“Of course not,” she said helplessly. She spread her hands. “It’s just...women are interchangeable for you. An amusement. You switch them out like dirty socks, never committing to any of them.”
“I’m willing to commit to you.”
She swallowed, shivering with desire. “But it was just fantasy,” she said helplessly. “Don’t men always say things they don’t mean to get women into bed?”
“You feel like home to me.” Reaching down, he cupped her cheek. “I intend to marry you, Laney. Soon. Even now, you might be carrying my child.”
The idea of marrying Kassius...of having his baby...it was a dream, a silly romantic dream. It couldn’t be real! Girls like her didn’t marry billionaires!
“You’re just toying with me,” she whispered.
For an answer, he pulled her into his arms, and kissed her.
His lips were rough and sweet, and as he kissed her, slowly and tantalizingly, her fears and doubts disappeared. She felt lost in the hungry demand of his embrace, the warmth and power of his body against hers. She clung to him, reaching on tiptoe to wrap her arms around his neck, kissing him back with all the long-dormant passion inside her.
He drew away. “You are mine now,” he whispered against her lips. “Accept what your body already knows.”
She was shaking all over. “Why choose me? We barely know each other!”
“For the same reason I sometimes buy land the moment I see it. Sometimes it’s not about the data or growth numbers or years of study.” Looking down at her, he stroked her long dark hair. “Sometimes you see something, and you just know.”
Was it truly possible? Laney thought of her own parents, who’d known each other their whole childhoods, growing up on the same street, dating all through high school. And look how that turned out.
Was marrying someone you’d known your whole life any less risky than taking a chance on love at first sight?
Could she love him?
Was she half in love with him already?
She shivered. Infatuation, she told herself. But how would she even know the difference? Maybe love was nothing more than infatuation that lasted.
“But I am going back home to New Orleans,” she said numbly. “To get a job.”
“No.” Kassius ran his hand slowly down her back. “You’re going to stay here and marry me, Laney. You know it. I know it.”
She stared up at him, her whole body shaking, feeling wildly alive, her heart in her throat. Oh, this was insane.
“But strangers don’t just decide to marry,” she breathed.
“Don’t they?” Lifting her hand to his lips, he kissed it. She felt the warmth of his breath, the gentle seduction of his lips. She thought how wonderful it was to have someone beside her. Someone watching over her.
“Would it help if I got down on one knee?” His lips curved humorously as he did just that. Pressing his hand to his heart, he said a little mockingly, “Elaine May Henry, will you do me the honor, the incredible glory, of becoming my—”
“Stop, stop!” she cried, her cheeks burning as she pulled him to his feet. “Don’t tease!”
He looked down at her, his dark eyes serious.
“You are the one doing the teasing, Laney,” he said. “For once and all, what is your answer?”
No, of course.
Except it was yes.
After a lifetime of being sensible and good, of working all hours and being invisible, she felt the pull of being reckless. Of feeling alive. She yearned to be brave enough to do it—to love him—to jump headlong into the unknown. Right or wrong. She wanted to live.
She exhaled. “All right.”
“There will be no going back,” he warned.
“I won’t go back.” She offered him a trembling smile. “As you said. The deal was made. I honor my promises.”
“And I honor mine.” Pulling her tight into his arms, he tilted up her chin gently. “From now on, I’ll always take care of you, Laney, and everyone you love. You’ll never have to worry about anything, now you have my ring on your finger...”
She looked down at her bare left hand.
“Which ring is that?” she teased. She looked around the lavish penthouse suite. “Maybe we can find a ribbon or string or something that we can tie around my finger. A plastic ring from a Cracker Jack box?”
Smiling, he started to pull her toward the door. “I can do better than that.”
“Where are we going?”
“I was joking,” she protested, then shook her head. “Besides, it’s New Year’s Day. Won’t all the shops be closed?”
His smile widened. “They’ll open for me.”
MONEY, KASSIUS OFTEN reflected, was magic.
He’d built his business empire from nothing, fueled not by any desire for luxury, but his need for power. From the age of sixteen, he’d been grimly determined to make sure he’d never be desperate and helpless again. Never be ignored or left behind. He’d known he’d someday be so powerful and rich that he could get his revenge on the man who’d left him and his beloved mother behind, like garbage.
At eleven, Kassius’s relatively happy childhood had ended when his father had abruptly stopped visiting or even sending money. No father. No money. No power. No name. News rushed through their neighborhood that Kassius’s parents had never even been married, and just like that, the comfort of their little apartment in a quiet Istanbul street had ended.
He and his mother had suddenly found themselves outcasts. The wives of their neighborhood, distrustful of Emmaline’s beauty, immediately froze her out, while their menfolk suddenly believed she would welcome their advances. Kids who’d once been Kassius’s friends turned on him at school, repeating cruel taunts they’d heard from their parents. “Your own father doesn’t want you—why don’t you just curl up and die?”
But in the end it had been Kassius’s fragile mother who had died—first her dreams, then her soul, finally her body. She’d been poisoned by waiting.
“Why don’t we just sell the apartment and leave, Mama?” Kassius had asked her, stricken and bewildered. She’d shaken her head.
“We can’t leave. Your daddy will be back soon...”
But he’d never come back. His Russian father had loved his company and his fortune and his dreams of a Cap Ferrat villa more than he’d loved them.
So that was what Kassius would take from him.
After his mother’s death, when he was still a teenager, he’d sold everything he owned and left Istanbul. He’d borrowed as much money as he could get—some from banks, some from less legal, more dangerous loan sharks—to buy a single run-down tenement in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Athens. He’d rebuilt it himself, brick by brick, risking everything, holding back nothing, sleeping on the floor just four hours a night.