Just like Laney.
Kassius pictured her sweet, pretty face. Her big brown eyes, so straightforward and honest and kind. Strange that he’d barely noticed her before today, or maybe not so strange, the little helpful servant fading invisibly into the wallpaper behind her employer.
But now, that had all changed.
Now she had his full attention.
Since he’d left Mimi’s apartment, he’d already had an investigator run a background check on Laney. Born Elaine May Henry, age twenty-five, from a little town outside New Orleans, graduated high school with top honors but skipped college to go straight to work. Her ailing grandmother and disabled father had needed her income, especially since Laney’s mother had abandoned them years before.
The thought of that abandonment made prickles tighten down Kassius’s neck. He’d been abandoned by a parent, too. His father. And his own sweetly fragile mother, once the sheltered darling of a wealthy family from a far different New Orleans neighborhood than Laney’s, had never recovered.
He pushed the memory away, focusing back on the far more pleasant thought of Laney.
After high school, she’d gone to work as a nanny for a professional football player’s family. Two years later, she’d become personal assistant to a famous chef who specialized in Cajun cooking, with a chain of restaurants, including one in Paris. It was there that, two years ago, Mimi had offered her a job at a large increase in pay, then brought her to Monaco. Through it all, one thing remained constant: Laney worked constantly and sent everything home to her family.
She was kind. Loyal. She hadn’t complained about her boss, even when Kassius had deliberately given her the opportunity. Nor had she lied and given Mimi nonexistent good qualities. When pressed for her opinion, Laney had simply expressed honest gratitude for the generous salary.
And yet, even needing money so badly, she hadn’t asked him for a cent after he’d nearly run her over with his car. She’d barely allowed him to replace the fur coat he’d destroyed, and...he suddenly realized he still owed her a phone. She hadn’t brought it up, even when she needed money so desperately, while he had so much now he never even thought about it anymore.
Oh, yes. Laney Henry interested him. After just a single afternoon in her company, he’d seen old-fashioned values he’d heard about, values that were truly rare: self-sacrifice. Kindness. Honesty. Generosity. Loyalty.
And more than that.
Her warm nature attracted him, like bright sunshine after a dark frozen winter. Was it something in the gentle lilt of her voice? Her accent, which reminded him of the all too brief happiness of his early childhood?
Or was it something far more earthy than that? Was he roused by the novelty of Laney’s petite body and outrageous curves, so different from the tall, stick-thin, cool-to-the-touch mistresses he’d taken over the years, who had left him sexually sated but never quite satisfied?
Whatever it was, he found himself unable to think of anything but her. He found himself hungering for her sunlight and heat and fire. Craving an old-fashioned woman that he could trust—and even control—because of her own good, kindhearted nature. But also desire. Oh, yes.
For so long, he’d planned his revenge. He was so close now, but there was one part of his plan that hadn’t yet fallen into place. When he finally destroyed the old man, revealed his true identity and took everything the man cared about—his failing company, his gaudy pink mansion on Cap Ferrat—Kassius had thought he would already have his own snug home, wife, children. How else could he give the widowed, childless old man one last taunt, by showing him the family he would never see again and the grandchildren who would never have the chance to love him?
Kassius allowed himself a cold smile. Across the ballroom, he could see the old Russian’s gray hair as he spoke with friends. Kassius kept his distance, like a shark observing his prey before he went in for the kill.
He suddenly remembered Laney’s quiet voice. You look sad.
And his own grim reply. Billionaires don’t get sad. We get even.
Strange that Laney knew what it was like to be abandoned by a parent, too. Kassius had been astonished to read that in the report. But it had affected her very differently. Rather than creating impenetrable armor to protect herself, rather than growing hard and defensive, she’d somehow stayed soft, like a flower. Laney gave the world everything she had and held nothing in reserve.
He wondered what it would be like to kiss her. To do more than kiss her.
He wondered what it would be like to have her petite, curvaceous body in his arms. To have her look up at him with shining brown eyes and tell him, with a sweet tremble in her husky voice, that she wanted him to take her. That she never wanted to leave him. That she was pregnant with his baby.
The image shouldn’t have turned him on, but it did. A lot.
In the past, he’d never let himself be vulnerable. Becoming too intimate with any woman might allow her to discover the truth of his past, and his real identity, potentially jeopardizing his plans.
Plus, all the women of his acquaintance were like Mimi du Plessis—beautiful, venal, hard as nails. Mimi would betray anyone for the slightest advantage. Or even, he thought, for her own amusement on a cloudy day.
But then, that was exactly why he’d sought her out.
For nearly twenty years, Kassius had plotted his revenge, rising from poverty on the streets of Istanbul, working night and day with one ruthless goal: to destroy Boris Kuznetsov.
But even Mimi, dim-witted and self-centered as she was, had started to grow suspicious about Kassius gathering up the man’s loans and anonymously offering more. They were loans the Russian couldn’t hope to repay. The man was desperate to save his flailing energy company and keep providing for his employees. Even useless ones like Mimi, who was supposedly Kuznetsov Oil’s director of public relations and corporate outreach, but rarely roused herself to do more than attend cocktail parties.
So Kassius had deliberately let her believe he might be pursuing her. He didn’t feel guilty. Mimi du Plessis was well versed in this game, and usually the victor, leaving a trail of broken hearts. She risked only her vanity, not her heart.
But sooner or later, the deception would end. That afternoon, when Mimi had whispered in his ear that she wanted him to handcuff her to a bed and cover her in whipped cream, he’d barely managed to control his revulsion. He wasn’t attracted to Mimi at all. If he handcuffed her to a bed, it would be only so he could leave her more swiftly.
But where was she? Why hadn’t she arrived yet with Laney?
He wanted to see Laney in the gold dress. Coming out of the elevator, he’d seen the gown in the window of the designer boutique on the first floor of the hotel and impulsively bought it for her. Would it fit? Would she wear it? Would it show off those curves barely hinted at in her shapeless white shirt and oversize khaki pants?
Finishing his champagne, Kassius dropped the flute on a passing silver tray and, giving a wide berth to Boris Kuznetsov, he went in search of a martini—and Laney Henry.
He pushed through the well-heeled crowds on the edge of the enormous dance floor, ignoring the inviting smiles of the women and annoyed glares of lesser men. Walking toward the bar, he looked right and left for the glitter of a gold dress.
Then he saw her.
He stopped. Her big brown eyes widened when she saw him. She stopped, too, and as her delectable lips formed his name, all thought of a martini fled his mind.
He’d known Laney would be beautiful.
He’d never imagined this.
The exquisite golden ball gown showed off her hourglass shape, her full breasts and tiny waist. Her skin looked like creamy caramel, with her long dark hair pulled back in a classic chignon. Her long white gloves reached up past her elbows, so the only bare skin revealed was her upper arms, her shoulders and clavicle, with just an enticing hint of cleavage. She was beautiful to him, as fantastical as a princess from a fairy tale.
And so much more alluring than the skinny, hard-eyed blonde now stepping between them, in a tight, short dress made of strategically placed straps that left almost nothing to the imagination.
“Kassius! Darling! I’m so happy to see you.” Mimi du Plessis fluttered her fake eyelashes, then, glancing behind her dismissively, gave a fake, tinkly laugh. “You were so kind to send a dress to my assistant. She might have worn overalls otherwise—no fashion sense whatsoever. Laney.” Wrapping her arm around Kassius’s shoulder, Mimi squashed her cheek to his as she turned around to face Laney. “Take a picture of us,” she demanded, “so we can show everyone what a good time we’re having.”
But as Laney obligingly lifted her boss’s crystal-encrusted phone, Kassius detangled himself before she could take a photo. “Thank you, Mimi, but I prefer my privacy.”
She narrowed her eyes. “It’s strange, Kassius. You have no online presence. Searching for you on the internet, one comes up with almost nothing.”
“Tragic, but then, I’m in real estate development, not the entertainment business,” he drawled. His expression changed as he turned to face Laney. “You look beautiful.”
“Thank you,” she breathed, tilting back her head to meet his gaze. Her dark eyes were wide, her cheeks rosy. “You were so nice to send this dress—what possessed you?”