“I hope it’s not too strong.” He poured her a cup of tea from a small electric samovar. “I’m out of practice at this. I used to have servants, but I’ve had to let them go. Along with all my other employees.”
“That must have been hard.”
His expression sagged. “My company just couldn’t compete with all the cheaper supplies flooding the market. Other than my security guard who keeps thieves and reporters away, I have only my housekeeper left, but she’s too old and frail to work. She just has nowhere else to go. Kind of like me.” He looked wistfully around the elegant, half-empty salon. “I have just this villa left, but soon this, too, will go.”
He paused, sitting in the chair across from her. Then he leaned forward, his dark eyes burning through her, reminding her so much of Kassius’s. She thought he would ask her about Kassius’s loans. But he didn’t.
“Now. You said you have news of my son?” he said anxiously. “My Cash? He’s alive?”
Laney took a deep breath.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Very alive. And close.”
Emotions crossed the man’s face painfully. “How do you know this?”
Laney looked at him, her heart pounding in her throat. She prayed she was doing the right thing that would save their family, not destroy it.
Setting down her tea, she said quietly, “Because I’m married to him.”
* * *
“Mrs. Black is on the house phone for you, sir.”
Kassius looked up from his laptop with a frown to see Mrs. Beresford in his doorway. Sitting at his dark lacquered desk in his home office, with its view of the sea, he was simultaneously going through the numbers for the potential development of a ten-story residential building in London and holding his cell phone with his shoulder as he spoke with his head contractor on the new stadium being built in Singapore. He covered his phone with one hand. “She’s calling me from the bedroom?”
“No, sir. From your father’s house. She said you weren’t answering your mobile.”
It took two seconds for that to sink in. He said tersely into the phone, “I’ll call you back.” Pressing his hands against the desk, he rose furiously and took the cordless receiver from his housekeeper’s hand. Electricity was making his nerve endings vibrate and hum with something he hadn’t felt in a long time—fear. “Laney?”
“Kassius, don’t hate me,” her sweet voice pleaded. “I had to do this. For you. I’m with Boris Kuznetsov and I’ve told him everything. Who you are, the loans, how you got your scar in Moscow. Everything. We’re drinking tea in his parlor.”
It was like being punched in the gut. Harder than he’d ever been punched in his life. His knees went weak as he felt the work of a lifetime undone by a woman’s betrayal.
Not just any woman. His wife.
Not just any wife. The mother of his soon-to-be-born son.
If you even think of telling Kuznetsov, you are dead to me, do you understand? I will never see you again. Neither you nor the baby.
He’d told her what would happen. He’d told her.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Kassius said tightly and hung up. But for a moment, he continued to grip the phone, so tight that the plastic receiver started to crack beneath his fingers. His eyes stung as he realized what Laney’s naive, reckless action had just cost them all.
He closed his eyes, leaning his head against the receiver. He hadn’t cried in years, but when he opened his eyes again, they were watery.
He’d just lost everything.
The dream of his past—of getting his revenge.
The dream of his future with her—of their family.
Laney had thought she knew better. Thought she could cure him with her ridiculous beliefs about love. Her foolish idealism had just cost him everything he cared about.
He’d trusted her.
And this was the result.
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.
Kassius felt the phone crack beneath his grip. Tossing it down across his lacquered desk, he looked for his car keys. He went down to the garage and saw the sports car was gone. Laney, with her laughable driving skills, had taken his favorite car on her way to betray him. Of course she had.
“Benito,” he called tightly to his bodyguard. “Have Lamont pull the limo around.”
Perhaps it was better this way. Better for him to bring his bodyguard and driver so his wife could immediately face the price of her betrayal.
Kassius looked out bleakly at the sunlit Mediterranean as the driver, with his bodyguard in the front seat beside him, twisted the tight curves of the slender cliff road. The driver pounded on the brakes when a car wove briefly into their lane, and loud French curses came from the front seat. Kassius barely noticed as he took a phone call from his business manager.
Hanging up a few moments later, Kassius looked out the window. He felt weary. He felt dead. His hand tightened. The damage was done.
The car drove up to the guardhouse at Kuznetsov’s gate and was almost instantly waved through.
“Stay here,” he ordered his men after the limo was parked. “You know what to do.”
The driver nodded and reached for something in his jacket that looked like a flask. “Just juice,” he said in response to Kassius’s frown.
“Benito?” he demanded.
“Got it.” His bodyguard looked mutinous, but then, he’d come to respect and admire his boss’s wife. Everyone had.
Kassius’s soul felt hollow as he looked up at the ostentatious pink villa, the villa that he’d intended to take for his own and throw the former owner into the gutter to starve, as he’d left Kassius and his mother so long ago. A lump rose in his throat.
He’d already heard from his business manager that his father had canceled the last pending loan. Kassius could take possession of all the other homes Boris Kuznetsov had signed over as collateral. But who cared about those? This—he looked up with a sharp pain in his throat—this pink mansion, made of spun sugar and fairy-tale dreams, was the only one that mattered. And he’d failed, through no fault of his own.
That was a lie. It was entirely his fault, for trusting Laney. For letting himself be vulnerable to her. If he hadn’t taken her to his mother’s childhood home the night of their wedding, it was unlikely any private investigator could have made the connection. He’d covered his tracks too well. He’d been careful.
Until Laney had gotten under his skin and left him open for attack.
He walked up to the front door, which opened before he could knock. A tiny elderly woman, nearly bent over with osteoporosis, motioned to the right hall. “They’re in the salon, monsieur,” she said grandly in French. “I’ll show you the way...”
But seeing how she hobbled painfully in front of him, he said hastily, “No, merci, I can easily find my own way, madame.”
Tossing him a grateful look, she gave a nod. Kassius walked down the empty hallway to a high-ceilinged, elegant room in cream and pale blue, with sparse antique furniture and walls devoid of decoration. And at the center of it all, his traitorous dark-haired wife sat at a small table with the man who’d destroyed Kassius’s childhood and driven his mother into an early grave, the two of them cozily drinking tea from an electric samovar.
“Kassius!” his wife exclaimed, rising to her feet and coming forward, holding out her hands to him as if she expected an embrace, as if she expected him to thank her for destroying his life. It was cruel, he thought, that she’d never looked more beautiful than now, even dressed in a plain sundress and sandals. With her lush breasts and belly, and the sparkle in her brown eyes and bounce in her dark hair, she was loving and warm. Laney Henry Black was everything he’d ever wanted in a wife.
Everything he should have known would ultimately destroy him.
“Laney,” he responded coldly, not touching her. He turned his attention to the older man who’d risen from the chair beside her. His face was haggard and pale, and he was staring at Kassius with stricken dark eyes exactly like his own.
“Is it true?” Boris Kuznetsov whispered, looking at him searchingly. “You’re my son?” He choked out, “My little Cash? Can it really be?”
Cash. A blast of memory went through Kassius like the heat of a fiery explosion. No one had called him that in a long, long time.
All his years as a child, he’d yearned for his father’s acknowledgment, his acceptance. Just his presence. And now, at last, they were in the same room, but now Kassius no longer wanted anything from him—but justice.
“It’s true, old man.” Turning to Laney, Kassius said blandly, “Why don’t you wait outside?”
“Really?” Her forehead crinkled uncertainly.
“My father and I have much to discuss.”
Laney bit her lip. “If you’re sure—”
She looked up at him anxiously. “Please don’t be mad at me for this,” she said. “I know you didn’t want me to tell him, but it was the only way to save you from making a horrible mistake.”