“You,” he said, taking the phone from her and dropping it into Mimi’s hands. “Dance with me.”

“Dance?” With a troubled glance at her employer, Laney licked her full, pink, delectable lips. Just at that, his body tightened with instantaneous reaction. He nearly groaned aloud. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea...”

“It’s a very good idea,” Mimi said smugly. He was almost surprised she was being so reasonable.

“Come now,” he said firmly. Taking Laney’s gloved hand, he pulled her out onto the marble dance floor, and with a twirl of her skirts, tugged her back hard against his body.

He felt her petite form cradled against him, all soft, lush curves beneath the sparkling gold bodice and wide sweep of skirts. Her skin was bare above her gloves. He had to fight the desire to caress her shoulders, to see if her skin was smooth and satiny as it looked.

“I don’t know how to waltz,” she confessed, trembling as she lifted her gloved hands to his shoulders.

“It’s easy.” He gave her a sensual smile. “I will show you what to do.”

He adjusted one of her hands on his shoulder, and took the other in his own.

“See?” he murmured. “You’re a natural.”

Her lips parted as she looked up at him, so pretty, so gentle, so everything he hadn’t realized he desperately desired until this exact moment.

Yes, his body said. Yes. Yes.

Holding her at the prescribed distance as he led her in a waltz, dancing in time with all the other couples on the ballroom floor, his body hungered. He wanted to get her alone, rip off her clothes and feel her naked body against his. He wanted to be above her. Beneath her. Inside her.

He wanted her in his bed. Tonight. Within the hour. If not sooner.

“Mr. Black...” Laney said falteringly.

“I told you. Kassius.”

“Kassius.” Her lips trembled as she whispered his name. Looking up at him, she tried to smile politely, but as her fingers tightened, he knew that she felt the same overwhelming current between them.

“You’ve done so much for me already,” she said shyly. “Replacing the fur coat. Defending me to the comtesse.” She looked down at her gold ball gown. “But this takes the cake. I’ve never owned anything half so beautiful as this.”

“It made me think of you.” He slowly looked her over. “But seeing you in it now, the gown barely does you justice. You are the star.”

As they continued to swirl around the dance floor, he saw Mimi glowering at them. She’d already grown suspicious about his loans. One word to her employer and she could make it much harder for Kassius to achieve his goal. If he were smart, he knew he wouldn’t pursue Laney like this, flaunting his desire before the other woman’s eyes, injuring her pride.

But he couldn’t stop himself. After twenty years of obsessive focus on one goal, he found he could no more pull away from this intoxicatingly beautiful, warmhearted woman than he could voluntarily stop breathing.

A blush burned Laney’s cheeks as her dark eyelashes swept against her skin. “No one has ever said such...” Then she followed his gaze to Mimi, and her expression shuttered. “Oh,” she said, and the sound was like a wistful sigh. “You really are just trying to make her jealous, aren’t you?” She shook her head and tried to smile, but her eyes seemed to glimmer. “The games rich people play. You should just try being honest.” She abruptly stopped dancing. “Go ask her to dance. And leave me out of it—”


But as she tried to pull away, he held her fast.

“I do not play those kinds of games. I do not need to play them.”

“Then why—”

His eyes flicked toward Mimi du Plessis, in her ridiculously tight bandage minidress, whispering to her friend Araminta. “If I wanted her in my bed, she’d already be flat on her back.”

“That’s a crude thing to say.”

“You said you wanted honesty.”

“It’s not nice.”

“I could have her.” He slowly looked around the dance floor. “I could have most of these women. I know, because I have already had some of them, and the rest have made the invitation clear.”

“Is this your idea of bragging? Telling me you’ve slept around? I’m not impressed that you’ve had so many lovers.”

“No?” His hands tightened on her. “But I am impressed you’ve had so few.”

He heard her intake of breath as her eyes widened. “How can you—”

She cut herself off.

“How can I tell?” He ran one hand down her back. “I can tell in the way you shiver when I touch you.” He cupped her cheek with the other. “I can tell in the way you hold your breath when I look at you.” He twirled her on the dance floor, then pulled her tight against his body. “I can feel it,” he said roughly, “in the way your body trembles against mine.”

Kassius looked down at her. She was so tiny in his arms, he thought, so feminine and vulnerable. And yet it was her vulnerability that most impressed him. He marveled that anyone could be so fearless.

“It’s part of what makes you different,” he said in a low voice. “Your warmth. Your kindness. You’re not just beautiful. You give so much of yourself and ask for so little.”

“I’m...just...ordinary,” she said softly, her dark eyes pleading.

“No.” He shook his head with a slow-rising smile. “You’re far from that.”

“You’re wrong—”

“You refused to take my money, even when I offered it. Refused to speak badly of Mimi, even though she cannot be a considerate employer. You give up your whole life to work, to take care of your family.” He ran his hands gently over the nape of her neck. He yearned to pull her hair out of the prim fastenings of her chignon and let it tumble down her shoulders. Abruptly the fantasy came into his mind of her sitting naked on him, her thighs wide, leaning over to kiss him, long dark hair brushing against his skin as her full breasts pressed against his chest.

Soon. Soon.

With a deep breath, he took hold of himself and continued frankly, “Tonight you look like a princess. But I’m starting to believe it only reflects the way you are inside. There’s something about you I can’t resist...” Leaning forward, allowing his lips to brush against the sensitive flesh of her ear, he whispered, “I want you.”

But as he drew back and looked down at her, a shadow crossed her lovely face. With a small glance back toward her boss, she pulled away from him, her expression sorrowful.

“I’m sorry, but I’m just not interested.”

Kassius hadn’t expected that at all, not with the way he’d felt her trembling in his arms. Had he misjudged her desire?

Then he looked more closely at her beautiful face, at how she’d turned pale beneath the blush on her cheeks, her eyes haunted and black. She was lying. But why?

“Really,” he said evenly.

She nodded furiously, but as the couples around them continued to waltz around where they stood stock-still on the dance floor, she refused to meet his gaze.

“Tell me why.”

“Because...” She licked her lips uncertainly then lifted her chin. “Because you’re a playboy who sleeps around in such a disgusting way.”

“Try harder.”

“You’re not even slightly attractive to me.”

“Explain.”

She looked him over desperately. “You’re too—um—tall.”

He snorted. “Too tall?”

“Fine. I’ll give you a reason,” she snapped. “It’s not you, it’s me. I’m just a frigid virgin, all right?”

“The virgin I might believe. But frigid?” Shaking his head, Kassius gave a low laugh. Pulling her closer, he ran his hands over her soft, bare shoulders. He felt her tremble as she looked up at him breathlessly. He could see the shape of her taut nipples through her silky bodice. Running his hands slowly, sensuously, down her arms, he said, “You are far from that.”

She looked at him with big eyes. “Please...please don’t.”

“Why?”

“Because—” She swallowed, then said in a voice so low he had to strain to hear, “If I don’t make you stop pursuing me, my boss says I’m fired. And she’ll make sure I never get another job.”

He was so shocked he almost laughed. “She said what?”

But it was obvious Laney didn’t see it as a joke but a real threat. Her face was anguished. “If I can’t work, how will I support my family? So you have to go away and leave me alone.” Her pleading brown gaze fell to his lips as she whispered, “Just go...”

Her words might be saying one thing, but her body was saying another. She didn’t even know what she was really asking him for. But he did.

Laney was a virgin? He could hardly believe it. He’d never made love to a virgin before. It was almost cruel. It made him desire her even more, when he was already nearly exploding with need, and would also force him to seduce her more slowly. He didn’t know how much more self-restraint he could endure. Where women were concerned, he wasn’t accustomed to it.

The orchestra’s music stopped, and as the other couples left the dance floor, he felt their curious glances as they passed, felt Mimi’s glower from the crowd.

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