But gifts, even expensive ones, wouldn’t hold Mimi for long. Sooner or later, the woman would realize that there was more money to be made from blackmailing him and threatening to go to her boss. Mimi didn’t know his true identity—no one did—but she could put Kuznetsov on his guard.
Kassius just needed a little more time. Boris Kuznetsov was overextended, overmortgaged and nearly out of assets. In a few months, he estimated, he’d be a broken man. All he had left was a shell of a company, now nearly stripped of assets, and the pink mansion on the Cap Ferrat. The one he’d promised to buy for Kassius’s mother someday.
When he was a child, on all the nights he’d cried for his father when he was away, Emmaline had soothed Kassius to sleep with stories about the pink palace on the sea where someday they’d all live together. “We’ll get that puppy you keep asking for, Cash, and eat your favorite meals. Every day will be like Christmas!” she’d said, and he’d believed her. He’d been comforted and had fallen asleep in the warmth of his mother’s dreams.
But later, as a teenager, he stopped believing. By then, he hadn’t seen or heard a word from his father for years, and he was getting into fights almost daily: with loudmouthed kids who sneered at him as a bastard or—far worse—called his sweet, softhearted, helpless mother a whore; and also with drunken neighbors who pounded their door at midnight, believing because they were poor and Emmaline “obviously slept around” that she was fair game, available either by payment or by force.
After his fights, his mother’s face would be sad as she quietly washed his bloody knuckles, his ravaged cheekbones and, once, his broken nose. She tried to hug him and tell him the same stories about the future, when his daddy came back, how they’d all live together in that pink palace in the South of France. But he no longer believed in fairy tales, even if she did. His mother never quite gave up hope.
Not until the end.
Kassius’s hands clenched, just thinking about it. Kuznetsov had indeed bought that pink palace by the sea, but only for himself, after Emmaline was long dead. And the man had held onto it, treasuring it over his other possessions. So that fanciful pink mansion would be the last thing Kassius would take. An ironic smile lifted his lips.
Funny to think that his child would be born around September, too. All his plans were working out with eerie precision.
Laney. Pregnant with his baby. He still couldn’t quite believe it.
And tomorrow, they’d be wed. The thought made him feel strange and jittery inside. Why? Because he’d nearly succeeded? Because he’d gotten everything he wanted? The fortune. The power. The wife. The child.
An empire. A family.
Everything that had once been denied him. Everything...
Kassius looked at Laney. Everything but a bride who was willing to even look him in the face. Gritting his teeth, he walked over to her. “We’re landing soon.”
She peeked over the quilt, her expression cold. “I heard.”
“You should buckle your seat belt.”
And she went back under the quilt.
So much for olive branches. Irritated, Kassius returned to his white leather swivel chair and buckled his seat belt.
Should he have lied to her last night? When she’d all but accused him of cheating on her with Mimi du Plessis, should he have looked into her stricken face and said those three little words that would have magically fixed everything? If he had, she’d have smiled at him in joy, and kissed him, and taken him with her to bed.
As it was, she’d slept in the guest room last night.
He folded his arms, feeling disgruntled and unfairly judged. He’d told her the truth. You’d think she would have sense enough to be grateful for that rather than being angry he hadn’t tried to deceive her with pretty lies! But no.
She’d slept in the guest room, then given him the silent treatment. He didn’t like it. But it fueled him with the one emotion he did feel comfortable with.
When the plane landed at the small private airport outside New Orleans, Laney slipped into one of the designer outfits he’d bought her, still not meeting his gaze.
They came down the steps onto the tarmac, and he instantly felt hit by humidity and heat. “Where are we? The jungle?” he gasped, taking off his jacket, rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirt.
“It’s nearly March. Warmer than usual for Mardi Gras,” Laney agreed, then looked at him coolly. “You’re the one who needs to buckle in now.”
She walked right past him, proud as a queen, to where their driver held open the door of the waiting Bentley.
Kassius stared after her. She looked magnificent in her sleek black day dress. She had no problem walking in stiletto heels now, and the expensive designer purse hung carelessly from her arm, as if she’d had expensive bags all her life, as if they were expendable. He suddenly missed the old Laney. This new one seemed hardened on the edges. He watched her climb into the back of the sedan without even a backward glance at him, much less a smile.
Once the driver and bodyguard transferred their luggage from the jet into the back of the sedan, they drove from the airport toward the outskirts of New Orleans, where her grandmother lived.
Kassius looked out the window. Laney was right. Even the air here smelled different. He rolled down his window, taking a deep breath. Even in late February, the air was swampy, humid and warm. But it was more than that. He took another breath, closing his eyes.
Exotic flowers overlaid the distant salt of the Gulf of Mexico and the muddy Mississippi. Beneath that, the faint scent of the bayou, of Spanish moss, of cypress and oak and a sweet, musky rot.
He’d never been to the American South. His visits to the United States had been limited to California and the Acela corridor between New York City and Washington, DC.
But his mother had been born here. He wondered what his life would have been like if she’d left Istanbul when Boris had first refused to marry her. What would have happened if she’d come back here, pregnant, to plead her case to her parents? If she’d given birth in New Orleans, if his grandparents had actually held him as a baby—would even they have truly been cold enough to refuse to let them stay?
He doubted it.
What would Kassius’s life have been like if he’d grown up in a comfortable home, surrounded by family, always knowing he belonged?
If Emmaline had given up her romantic dreams of Boris and freed herself to find a man worthy of her love?
She might be alive now. Happy.
He could still hear the anguished echo of her voice. If someone ever shows you the truth of who they are, if they lie or cheat or betray you, promise me you’ll believe them the first time! Don’t destroy your life, or your child’s, wishing and hoping and pretending they’ll change—
Who would Kassius have become here?
Someone else. Someone different. Someone who knew how to love, maybe, he thought cynically. Everyone seemed to think giving one’s heart away was a good thing. He didn’t understand why—they only ended up broken.
Better to remain tough. The poverty and misery of his childhood hadn’t destroyed him. To the contrary. The struggle had made him stronger. Able to risk anything. Endure anything.
He glanced at Laney sitting beside him.
He’d told her he knew everything about her from the private investigator, but that wasn’t precisely true. He knew the basic facts of her life: birth, schooling, father’s injury, mother’s abandonment and later death. Those had been collated for him like bullet points on a résumé. But he was suddenly curious to know more than just plain facts.
“What was it like, growing up here?” he asked.
“It was fine.” Laney’s voice was cold, giving nothing away as she continued to stare out the opposite window.
She was blocking him out. He recognized the strategy. He did it all the time, and turnabout was fair play. He should shrug it off, let it go. But the fact that she’d been treating him so coldly for so many hours, in spite of her warm, generous nature, made him feel uneasy. Made him worry that makeup sex might not be enough to melt the ice.
Plus, he had something else to do first. Something he dreaded.
Meet her family.
The driver pulled up to a tiny, narrow house on a sagging street on the outskirts of the city. Not even the carefully tended flower beds could distract from the falling-down roof, the peeling screen door. There was pride here. But no money.
He saw Laney brace herself, take a deep breath, and put a big smile on her face before she climbed out of the car.
“Gran!” she cried, and a wizened, stout, gray-haired woman on the porch beamed and held open her arms.
She was much shorter than Laney and had to reach up to hug her granddaughter tight, patting her shoulders fiercely. She drew back, mystified. “What are you wearing, child?”
“Do you like it?” Laney twirled, showing the sleekly expensive black dress.
“Like it?” The older woman’s mouth lifted humorously. “It’s pretty enough, but honey, seeing all that black, all I can ask is, who died?”
Her grandmother turned her sharp gaze on Kassius, who’d followed Laney up the five steps to the porch. Craning back her neck, she looked him over critically, from his freshly shaven jawline—he’d shaved on the plane—to the rolled-up sleeves of his white shirt, his tailored vest and Italian shoes. Her gaze shifted to the luxury sedan at the curb, with the driver waiting inside it. Her black eyes clearly weighed his good sense and found it lacking. She sniffed. “You must be Kassius Black.”