“I ran into her with my car,” he said bluntly.
She whirled on Laney.
“Stupid girl, why did you run out in front of Mr. Black’s car?”
Kassius choked out a cough. “It was my fault entirely.” He placed the black zipper bag from the expensive furrier into her arms. “Here. To replace your coat that was ruined in the accident.”
Zipping it open, Mimi gasped. “A new fur! I take it back, Laney,” she said sweetly. “You can let Mr. Black hit you with his car any time he wants.”
And Laney didn’t think her boss was joking, either.
Mimi’s red lips lifted in a flirtatious smile as she stepped closer to Kassius. “Buying me a new fur coat before we’ve even gone on our first date? You really know how to please a woman.”
“Do you think so?” Kassius glanced sideways at Laney. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been inspired to pursue anyone.”
Laney’s heart pounded strangely. He couldn’t be talking about her—could he? No, of course not. It was her boss he wanted, with all her blonde, slender, wickedly fashionable glory. Not Laney, dumpy, plain, ordinary. And clumsy—so clumsy!
“Just wait until you see me at the ball tonight.” Mimi preened. “You’ll be inspired to try a few other things to get my attention, maybe like...” Leaning up on her tiptoes, she whispered something in his ear. His expression was unreadable as he drew back from her.
“What an...intriguing thought.” He looked around at the three women. “So I will see you tonight?” His gaze paused on Laney. “All of you?”
“Of course Laney’s going,” the comtesse said. “I need her there holding my handbag with my lipstick and safety pins in case my dress breaks...it’s tight and mini and held together by tiny straps.” She giggled. “You’ll die.”
Kassius turned to Laney gravely. “Are you, also, planning to wear such a dress?”
Laney blushed in confusion. “I...that is...”
“Laney?” Her boss laughed. “She’ll be wearing a uniform, like the other servants. That’s right and proper. Isn’t it, Araminta?”
“Right and proper,” her friend agreed, lighting a fresh cigarette.
“You should go, Kassius.” Mimi waved her hand airily. “Let us get ready for the ball. Laney has a lot to do...”
Kassius turned the full force of his dark gaze on her. “I wondered if you would do me a small favor.”
“Anything,” she breathed.
Kassius glanced back at Laney. “Laney wouldn’t go to a hospital, but she should at least rest. She hit her head. I’m concerned about her. She’s seemed a little...out of it.”
“Laney’s always out of it,” Mimi replied irritably, and in this case, Laney privately agreed, though it hadn’t been the car accident that had made her brain freeze and her body extra clumsy with sensual awareness. It was Kassius. She’d never had any man affect her like this. Or look at her the way he’d looked at her.
“Do me a favor. Give her the next hour or two off to recuperate.”
“But I need her to—” But beneath the force of his gaze, her boss sighed grumpily. “All right. Fine.”
“Thank you.” His gaze went over all of them but seemed to linger on Laney. Then he tipped his head. “Ladies.”
The comtesse and Araminta beamed at him as he turned and left through the door. Then her boss’s smile dropped.
“All right, Laney. I don’t know what you did to get his attention—his pity—but you truly embarrassed yourself, pushing yourself forward! So tacky!”
“So tacky,” Araminta agreed.
“Now go steam my dress.”
Without the electric distraction of Kassius beside her, with his powerful body towering over her and his dark sensual gaze, Laney suddenly realized she did have a seriously pounding headache. “But you said I could rest a bit—”
“You can rest while you steam my dress.”
“Consider it a gift.” The comtesse gave her a hard smile. “Pretend you’re at the sauna. The day spa. Enjoy yourself.”
And oddly, as Laney stood in front of the tiny, fancy gowns—which seemed to be made solely of hooked ribbons—and steamed the wrinkles out, she did enjoy herself. She kept picturing Kassius’s dark eyes searching hers, the resonant timbre of his voice, the touch of his hand as he’d helped her out of the car.
Laney stopped, then shook her head. “You’re being ridiculous,” she told herself out loud. “At midnight, he’ll be kissing her—not me!”
She heard the doorbell of the suite ring. Setting down the garment steamer, Laney hurried to answer the door.
A young man was holding a large box. “Delivery.”
“Merci.” Giving him a tip from her own wallet—her employer was notoriously cheap where tips were concerned—Laney took the big white box, accompanied by an envelope. “Madame la Comtesse, you have—”
Then Laney looked at the name written on the envelope and nearly staggered in shock.
Mademoiselle Laney Henry.
“What is it?” Her boss was suddenly standing beside her. “A delivery for me?”
“Actually...” Laney breathed. “It’s for me.”
“What?” Her boss snatched up the envelope. “Who would send you a gift?” She ripped it open and read the message, then staggered back. She glared at Laney with shock in her thin, lovely face. “What did you do?”
“What do you mean?”
She thrust the note at Laney. She looked down at it.
I’m sure you’d look good in any uniform, but consider this instead. Be there before midnight.
A hot glow like fire suddenly filled her heart, somewhere between triumph and joy. “He sent me a gift?”
“Open it,” Mimi ordered.
Laney wished Mimi and Araminta weren’t there so that she could just open his present alone and savor it without their glares. But setting the large white box on the table, she lifted the lid.
All three women gasped.
Inside the white box was a sparkling golden gown. It glistened in the light of the suite, strapless, with a sweetheart neckline and wide, voluminous skirts of glittery tulle. Laney lifted a long white glove from the box and suddenly felt like crying. It was a gift fit for a princess. No one had ever given her anything like this in her whole life.
She lifted the gown completely out of the box, holding it up against her body. She barely recognized her own reflection in the gilded mirror, the laughing brown eyes, the way the golden gown set off her creamy skin and dark hair.
“What did you do, throw yourself in front of his car on purpose?” Her boss glared at her. “You sneaky little gold digger, dazzling him with some poor-helpless-little-woman routine? I invented that routine! You think I’ll just let you steal him away from right under my nose?”
She stared at Mimi in shock. “No—”
Her boss looked her over sneeringly, from her plain white shirt to baggy khakis to her sensible clogs. Her lip curled. “What could any man possibly see in you?”
“I’m sure he was just trying to be nice,” she stammered.
“Trying to make you jealous, Mimi,” Araminta said.
“Maybe.” She turned back to Laney. “Fine. Wear that dress. Go to the New Year’s Eve gala tonight. And if he asks you to dance—” her eyes narrowed “—I want you to accept.”
Her? Dance with Kassius Black? In this dress? In spite of herself, Laney swayed deliriously at the thought, nearly hugging herself with happiness.
“Then—” Mimi looked down at her with her red lips curving “—you will tell him you are sick of his attentions and want him to leave you alone. You will insult him until he believes you.”
Laney’s sweet candy-pink dreams all fled. “No!”
“If you don’t, you’ll be out of a job.” The comtesse tossed her long blond hair, putting her hand on a tight white-jeans-clad hip. “Not only that, but I’ll personally make sure no one ever, ever hires you again. So what’s your choice?” Looking at Laney’s miserable face, her smile widened as she added sweetly, “I thought so.”
KASSIUS GRABBED A crystal flute of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter, sipped it and wrinkled his nose. Too bubbly. Too sweet. He would have preferred a martini, but then, he would have also preferred to spend the evening driving fast on a curvy road, or getting naked in bed with a beautiful woman, rather than being stuck here at some gala, wearing a tuxedo and surrounded by society revelers, many of whom were already tipsy in spite of the fact it was barely ten o’clock.
The party was hosted by royalty, and guests allowed only by exclusive invitation, so it was well attended. The ballroom was in a grand Belle Époque building off the Avenue Princesse Grace, on a peninsula overlooking the bay. Inside, enormous crystal chandeliers hung from high, painted ceilings, sparkling against gilded walls. An orchestra played music that was ponderous and classical and entirely appropriate, and he didn’t much like that, either. He would have preferred rock and roll, or pop, or rap, or even the music that had once been his mother’s favorite, the blues. But then, his mother had been originally from New Orleans, where the blues were born.