“Most women I know complain if they have to walk more than a hundred meters in shoes like that. And they’re more accustomed to wearing them.”
Laney tossed her head, looking offended as she retorted, “Most of your other women were probably not accustomed to working sixteen to twenty hours a day on their feet.”
What was she trying to prove? He looked at her, amused. “True.”
“So.” Her chin lifted, and her eyes glittered. “We’re walking.”
Kassius shrugged. “As you wish.” He gave his bodyguard and driver a nod, and they got into the sedan and drove on. Tossing her head, she started walking with a determined stride. Ten steps later, she wobbled in her stiletto heels and had to grab his arm.
“You sure you’re up for this?” he inquired.
“It’s your fault if I have trouble.”
“Because I bought you the shoes?”
“Because you bought me such an obscenely huge engagement ring.” She looked down at it. “It weighs five pounds. No wonder my balance is off.”
Kassius gave a low laugh. Laney fascinated him. She seemed to be so many women, all at once. At the ball, she’d looked like an enchanted princess from a fairy tale. That morning when he’d proposed to her, she’d looked like a bohemian college student in her vintage rock T-shirt and red jeans—vibrant, chaotic, alive.
Now...in the sleek belted black coat and stilettos...with the red dress beneath...
He shuddered with desire, already wanting her again. He took her hand, looking down at her. “We could skip dinner,” he said huskily. “And go back to the penthouse.”
She stared up at him. “Seriously?”
“Are you trying to starve me?”
“Can’t have that.” He looked appreciatively at her curves and sighed with regret. “All right. Dinner first.”
Her triumphant expression lasted only about ten minutes, which was when the road started to go sharply uphill. Soon, she was wincing with every step.
“I’ll call my driver.”
“Why?” she said through gritted teeth. “Are you tired?”
She was determined, he had to give her that. But he didn’t understand why she was being so stubborn about this. “Just kick your shoes off and walk barefoot.”
“I’m fine,” she panted, forcing her lips into a bright, fake smile. “Six-inch stiletto heels are comfortable to me. Just like fuzzy bunny slippers!”
When they were two blocks away from the restaurant on the Boulevard du Jardin Exotique, she really started to stumble. The edges of her skin, where they were crammed into the shoes, looked red and swollen. The back of her ankle had started to bleed. It was too much. With a low growl, Kassius swept her up into his arms.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I’m not letting you kill yourself for the sake of your pride, you little fool.” Ignoring her weak struggles, he carried her the rest of the way down the block to the expensive, exclusive restaurant with vast windows overlooking the Monte Carlo district of Monaco and all of the bay.
“Bonsoir,” he said pleasantly to the valets and doorman, who were goggling at them. The staff at Le Coq d’Or had no doubt seen a great deal of peculiar behavior they were paid to overlook from their wealthy, spoiled clientele, but apparently this was a new one, even for them.
“Put me down!” Laney hollered, then proceeded to curse Kassius roundly and colorfully until the other men’s eyes widened farther still. She cursed him until he set her down and her feet actually touched the ground, when she visibly winced and her cheeks turned pale with pain.
Now Kassius was the one to curse. Getting down on one knee before her, he yanked off her stiletto heels, one after the other. “Laney, what are you trying to prove?”
“These aren’t hiking boots, you little fool.”
“I know, but—”
Her cheeks burned, and she looked away.
And he suddenly knew.
“You’re tougher than any of them, Laney. Better than any woman I’ve ever been with. Is that what you’re trying to prove? Well, you are.” He handed the shoes to her. “And for the record, a million times sexier, too.”
“I wasn’t trying to prove anything.” But her pale cheeks turned red, and he knew he’d guessed correctly. She mumbled, “And I am not sexier.”
Looking down, he said softly, “Want me to prove how much I want you? Right here and now?”
“You wouldn’t,” she breathed, her eyes big and incredibly appealing. But by the nervous look in her face, she was remembering their earlier encounter at the designer boutique. And probably wondering if he intended to take savage possession of her body right in front of the restaurant, with the doorman and valets looking on.
“But I can’t have you faint from hunger.” He gave her a wicked grin. Leaning forward, he whispered, “Not with what I’ve got planned for later.”
Her eyes went big, and she licked her lips, which just made him want to kiss her more.
It was amazing to Kassius how even though he’d just made love to her an hour ago, he already wanted her again. He wondered if his desire for her would ever be sated, and doubted it. But that would just have to wait until they got back to the penthouse. Tucking her stilettos into her expensive new handbag, he led Laney into the expensive restaurant.
The maître d’ spotted him, and his expression became obsequious. “Monsieur Black, welcome. We have your table ready.” The man’s glance fell to Laney’s bare feet, and for a moment his mien faltered, but then his smile reasserted itself. “May I take your coats? This way, if you please, monsieur, mademoiselle.”
Laney held Kassius’s hand tightly as they walked through the crowded restaurant, past the elegant diners and buzz of polyglot conversation in French, German, Russian, Italian, English, Japanese and others. Le Coq d’Or was internationally famous, and well-heeled patrons often flew here on their private jets for a hard-to-get dinner reservation. But conversation seemed to stop as they passed by.
She clung to his hand, and whispered, “They’re looking at me.”
He glanced back at her indulgently. “Because you’re beautiful.”
“Because I’m barefoot. They think I’m a hick.”
“You are with me. You can be whatever you want to be.”
You can be whatever you want to be.
His own words brought him up short. For a moment, Kassius was distracted by a flash of light through the wide windows, of the lowering twilight sun sparkling across the silver sea. A memory floated back to him of his mother’s raspy words as she lay dying.
“You can be whatever you want to be, darlin’.” He could still hear her low laugh. She’d never lost her lilt, the drawl of the American South. “Believe it or not, my own parents wanted me to stay home and be a political wife in a big mansion.”
“So why didn’t you?” he’d asked her then in a low voice, heartsick over her illness and nearly overwhelmed by grief and rage at what he’d just discovered about his long-absent father.
“I wanted adventure,” Emmaline Cash had whispered. “And I got it.” Smiling through her tears, his mother squeezed his arm weakly. “It’s the secret of life. You can be whatever you want to be, darlin’. As long as you’re willing to pay the price...” Her words ended in fierce coughing. From her bed, she’d motioned around the tiny, sagging apartment on the edges of Istanbul. “You don’t have to settle for what others want for you or for the life you’re born in. You can decide.”
He’d looked down at his mother’s tiny, fragile form beneath the blankets, feeling like he’d been kicked between the ribs. She was too young to die. She’d barely lived.
“Do you have any regrets, Mama?” he’d choked out.
She gave him a trembling smile. “I wish I could live long enough to see the man you’ll be, the family you’ll have someday.” Her smile abruptly faded. When she spoke again, her voice was a low rasp he’d never heard before. “And I wish the first time your father came up with excuses why he couldn’t marry me I’d let myself see him for the liar he was, rather than make excuses. If I’d only been brave enough to leave him right then and there, our lives could have been so different! Maybe I could have found another man who would have loved us. Cherished us. But I was so sure—” Her dark eyes shone with sudden anguish as she put her hand over his. “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!” Her voice broke on a sob. “Don’t destroy your life, or your child’s, wishing and hoping and pretending they’ll change—”
“Kassius?” Laney said.
He abruptly focused on her, coming back to the present as they were seated at a prime table by the windows. Numbly, he helped her with her chair then took his own seat as the waiter handed them menus and poured their water.
She looked at him thoughtfully. “So I can be anything I want to be, huh? How about prima ballerina, or a circus lion tamer?”