Kassius gave a small smile. “Why not?”
He wondered what she would say if he told her about his past, told her what had driven him to become the man he was today. She was dying to know. She, like every woman. Like every business competitor or shareholder. They all claimed they needed to know the particulars of his past, as if that could be beneficial, as if that would inspire trust and cooperation.
The truth was, if they knew what had driven him since he was sixteen years old, if they knew his real name, they would only find a way to use that information against him. They would use his old grief as a wedge in his soul to devour him, to destroy him.
Reveal weakness to no one. It had been a hard lesson to learn, when his first business partner, someone he’d trusted, had run off with his money, setting Kassius back an entire year of backbreaking work. Showing your throat even to the meekest sheep would only reveal weakness and give the sheep the sharp greedy teeth of a wolf. He wouldn’t give anyone the opportunity to go for his jugular.
But the most important lesson in success was from the example of his own father. He’d learned to be selfish and pursue his own desires. No matter how it might hurt others. He’d learned to only care about himself.
He’d chosen Laney not just because of her deep sexual appeal, but also her sweetness, her innocence. Her kind heart. He’d thought perhaps he could let himself be vulnerable with her, after they were wed.
But now he suddenly realized he couldn’t take that risk. If even Laney knew his weaknesses, she could use it against him. She could leave him, or betray him.
He would never give her that power. She would get no ammunition from him—no bullets from his past she could use against him.
“I think you’d make an excellent lion tamer,” he said mildly and opened the menu. “What looks good?”
She looked at her own menu, filled with very elegant and precious delicacies such as foamy quail eggs, and sighed. “What I wouldn’t give for some good Southern cooking right now.” She brightened. “Maybe we could stop at the supermarket on the way back to your penthouse.”
“Southern?” He looked up sharply. “You know how to cook Southern cuisine?”
“Sure,” she said with a shrug. “Fried chicken, grits, collard greens. Gumbo, dirty rice, muffuletta sandwiches. All that stuff. My grandma taught me.”
The waiter came to take their order. By this time Kassius’s mind was so full of Louisiana cooking that he barely cared about some impossibly exclusive three-star French restaurant. He impatiently ordered them both the tasting menu and a fine red Bordeaux, a 2005 Château Lafite Rothschild. As the waiter departed with a bow, Kassius leaned forward. “I’ve been trying to hire a Louisiana chef for my ski chalet in Gstaad, but it’s hopeless.”
“You must not be looking in the right places.” Laney smiled at a different waiter, who brought a bread bowl to their table. She immediately helped herself to a piece of the plump, fresh bread and slathered it with butter. “Where I’m from, everyone knows how to cook.”
“Didn’t you once work as assistant to that world-famous Louisiana chef?”
She frowned. “How did you know that?”
Oh. Right. She didn’t know about the investigator. Shrugging, he gave her a charming smile. “I heard it somewhere.”
“Huh.” She looked a little confused, then continued, “Sure, I learned some stuff from him. But if you ask me, my grandmother is the best cook in New Orleans.”
“That’s quite a statement.”
“It’s true, and she taught me everything she knows.”
A shiver went through Kassius. Sitting at this exclusive restaurant on the Côte d’Azur for a meal that might easily cost fifteen hundred euros a plate, his mouth was suddenly watering for something more simple. The home cooking of long ago. When he’d had a home. And when someone had cooked for him, not for money, but for love.
The waiter brought the wine and poured a bit in a large wineglass. Kassius swirled it, sipped, then nodded. The waiter poured for them both.
“I haven’t been home for over two years. I miss it.”
“What do you miss?” he asked curiously.
“My family. The city. The food. The smell of cypress and magnolias. Everything.” She sighed as she sipped her wine and settled back in her chair. “Even Mardi Gras. What a party. The whole city goes crazy.” Crossing her leg, she bounced her bare leg. Her toenails were a wicked, glossy red. He had a hard time not staring at her crossed leg, bouncing. She continued dreamily, “Nothing but parades and music and food, and the whole city out of their mind with joy.”
“Sounds...nice.” His mother used to speak wistfully about Mardi Gras, too. But he’d never been to New Orleans, not once, or seen the house where she’d been born on St. Charles Avenue. Her wealthy, disapproving parents had disinherited her at nineteen, when Emmaline had run off to be a stewardess rather than accepting the decorous marriage they’d arranged for her. Sixteen years later, after Emmaline had been abandoned by the father of her son, when she was desperate and grievously sick, she’d humbled her pride and written her parents to ask for their help. She’d asked them to promise to take her teenage son, whom they’d never met, if she died from her illness.
Their answer had been scathing.
You made your bed, Emmaline, they’d told her. Now lie in it.
His mother had never told Kassius about this, of course. But after her death, he’d found the letter from her parents, Eugene and Thelma Cash, tucked next to his own birth certificate.
Kassius’s grandparents wrote him after her death, to try to take back their cruel words, to make him part of their lives. “We thought she just wanted money. We didn’t realize she was actually dying.” He threw their letter in the trash and left for Athens.
Later, after he’d made his fortune, after his grandparents had both died, he’d bought their old house in New Orleans. He’d had it destroyed. He’d never wanted to see it.
But suddenly, Kassius wanted to see New Orleans through Laney’s eyes.
“Sounds like a good place for a honeymoon.”
At this, she abruptly stopped bouncing her leg. “What are you saying?”
“We could even get married there. Isn’t Mardi Gras next month?”
She stared at him, her eyes joyful. “You mean it? My family could be there?”
She seemed far more thrilled by the prospect of having a party with her family than she’d been by the over half a million euros he’d spent on her today. He found he liked being the object of her gratitude, the person who gave her joy. He liked it very much. He wanted more of it.
“Sure, if that’s what you want. By the way—” he took a sip of the red wine “—since you were so concerned about your family’s financial situation, I have instructed my business manager to call them and make sure they have any money they need, without limit or question.”
Her brown eyes were huge. “Seriously?”
“Oh, Kassius—” Then she bit her lip as her expression faded. “But they can be proud, especially my father. I’m not sure they will accept money from you.”
“Of course they will,” he said firmly. “It is my responsibility now to provide for all of you. And money doesn’t matter. It’s not what I care about.”
“What do you care about?”
He looked at her.
“Finishing this damn dinner,” he said frankly, “so I can take you to bed.”
“Oh, just you wait.” Ignoring all the high-powered tycoons and socialites at surrounding tables, Laney rose from her chair. Her beautiful face was suffused with joy as she went to him and climbed in his lap. He could feel the entire restaurant goggling at the sight of Laney in the red dress as, wrapping her arms around him, she bent her head and whispered in his ear, “I intend to thank you tonight. Very thoroughly.”
Kassius felt fire whip through his blood, from his brain to his groin. And though they hadn’t even been served their dinner yet, it was all he could do not to immediately raise his hand and call for the check.
* * *
“Oh, no,” Laney whispered aloud. She stared down at the bathroom scale, which was giving her news she didn’t like at all. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was green.
But was it any wonder she felt so ill and run-down? For the last eight weeks, since they’d left Monaco, she’d had too much of everything.
Too much travel, for a start. Too many days with Kassius on his private jet, accompanying him on business trips around the world, from London to Berlin to Tokyo to Johannesburg to Sydney to Nairobi to Santiago and back to their home base in London. She felt exhausted just thinking about it.
Too much shopping. In each new city, Kassius had insisted on showering her with expensive gifts of clothes, handbags, shoes and jewelry, when she already had so much, her big walk-in closet at the town house in London was threatening to explode. She hadn’t yet had time to wear half of what he’d bought her.
Too much time spent planning their upcoming wedding in New Orleans. Laney would have been fine with a simple ceremony she planned herself, with a few friends and maybe some rum punch and her grandmother’s homemade Cajun dinner, but Kassius had insisted she hire a wedding planner in New Orleans to manage everything. Which meant Laney was constantly on the phone with her, and spending far too many hours over ridiculous decisions, like what candy color the iPads in the guest gift bags should be.