Laney tried to stand up.
“Wait,” he barked. “Take a breath. This is serious.”
“Why?” She glanced back at the glossy fender of the car. “Did I hurt your Lamborghini?”
“Funny.” His voice was dry. He was looking at her narrowly. “What were you thinking, jumping in front of me?”
“You should have been more careful.”
“Thanks.” Rubbing her elbow, she winced. On the two occasions she’d seen the man before, while he was having lunch meetings with the comtesse, Laney had vaguely thought Kassius Black must be an American raised in Europe, or possibly a European raised in America. But there was a strange inflection in his voice that didn’t suit either theory. In fact, it was an accent she recognized well. But it obviously wasn’t possible. She rubbed her forehead. She must have hit it harder than she thought. “I’ll try to take your advice in the future.”
Rising to his feet, he looked around at the crowd that had formed a semicircle around them in the street. “Is there a doctor?” No one moved, even when he repeated the request in rapid succession in three other languages. He pulled his phone from his pocket. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
“Um...” She bit her lip. “That’s nice and all, but I’m afraid I don’t have time for that.”
He looked incredulous. “You don’t have time for an ambulance?”
She gave herself a quick look for gushing blood or maybe a broken leg she hadn’t noticed. But the worst that seemed to have happened was that she’d had the wind knocked out of her and had gotten a little lump on her forehead. She touched it. “I’m on an urgent errand for my boss.”
Wincing a little, she pushed herself off the street and rose to her feet. He reached out his hand to help her. When their hands touched, she felt electricity course through her body, making her shake all over. She looked up at him. He was nearly an entire foot taller than she was, handsome and powerful and sleek in his dark suit. She could only imagine what a pathetic mess she looked like right now. Talk about noblesse oblige.
She dropped his hand.
“Well, thanks for stopping your car,” she muttered. “I’d better get going...”
“Who’s your boss?”
“Mimi du Plessis, the Comtesse de Fourcil.”
“Mimi?” Abruptly, the man stepped closer, searching her face. Recognition dawned. “Wait. I know you now. The little mouse who scampers around Mimi’s flat, fetching her slippers and finding her phone.”
Laney blushed. “I’m her assistant.”
“What was her errand, so important that you nearly died for it?”
“But I didn’t die.”
“Lucky for you.”
“Lucky,” she breathed as she tilted her head back. Her mind felt oddly blank as she looked up at him. Up close, he was even more handsome. And his face had character, with an interesting scar across one of his high cheekbones. His aquiline nose was slightly uneven at the top, as if it had been broken when he was young and not properly realigned. This man hadn’t been born rich—that much was for sure. He was nothing like the wealthy playboys Mimi had gone through like tissue paper since her divorce. This man was a fighter. A thug, even. And for some reason, as he looked down at her, he made Laney feel dizzy—as if the world had just moved beneath her sensible shoes.
His gaze sharpened. “So what was the errand, little mouse,” he repeated, “so important you were willing to die for it?”
“Her coat—” That reminded her. Looking around for it, she gave an anguished cry.
The expensive white fur was now soaked in a muddy puddle on the street, ripped to shreds where one of his tires had gone through it.
Laney took a deep breath.
“I’m so fired,” she whispered. Her head was starting to clang with headache as she knelt and picked it up. “She told me to get it cleaned before the ball tonight. Now it’s ruined.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“But it is,” she said miserably. “First I spilled coffee on it. Then I wasn’t paying attention where I was walking. I was too busy looking at my phone to get directions to a cleaner... My phone!”
Looking around wildly, she saw it had been crushed beneath the back wheel of his car. Going to it, she lifted its crumpled form into her hands. Tears rose in her eyes as she looked at its shattered face, now crushed into unrecognizable metal.
She wouldn’t let herself cry. She couldn’t.
Then just when she thought things couldn’t get worse, the gray clouds burst above them, and it started to rain.
It was too much. She felt cold raindrops pummeling her messed-up hair and chilled, bruised body. It was the final straw. Against her will, she started to laugh.
Kassius Black looked at her like she was crazy. “What’s so funny?”
“I’ll definitely lose my job for this,” she gasped, hardly able to breathe for laughing.
“And you’re happy about it?”
“No,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Without my job, my family won’t be able to pay rent next month or my dad pay for his medications. It’s not funny at all.”
Kassius’s eyes turned cool. “I’m sorry.”
“Me, too,” she replied, thinking what a strange conversation this was to have with the ninth-richest man in the world. Or was it the tenth?
A car honked, and she jumped. They both turned to look. The crowds of people around them had already started to disperse now it was clear she wasn’t going to bleed out and die on the street. But his car was still holding up traffic. The drivers of the similarly expensive cars lined up behind it were starting to get annoyed.
Kassius’s jaw clenched as he made a rude gesture to them then turned back to her. “If you’re not hurt and don’t want to see a doctor—” he watched her carefully “—then I guess I will be on my way.”
“’Bye,” Laney said, still mourning her broken phone. “Thanks for not killing me.”
Turning away from him, she dropped the fragments of metal in a corner trash can. Slinging the ruined fur over her shoulder, Laney started to walk desolately down the sidewalk in the pouring rain. She’d go back to the Hôtel de Carillon and ask Jacques if he knew a fur cleaner that could perform magic. Oh, who was she kidding? Magic? He’d need to turn back time.
She felt someone grab her arm. Looking up in surprise, she saw Kassius, his handsome face grim. He said through gritted teeth, “All right, how much do you want?”
“How much of what?”
“Just get in my car.”
“I don’t need a ride—I’m just going back to the Hôtel de Carillon.”
“To do what?”
“Give my boss her fur back and let her yell at me and then fire me.”
“Sounds like fun.” Lifting a dark eyebrow, he ground out, “Look. It’s obvious you threw yourself in front of my car for a reason. I don’t know why you’re not doing the obvious thing and immediately asking for money, but whatever your game is—”
“There’s no game!”
“I can solve your problem. About the coat.”
Laney sucked in her breath. “You know how to get it fixed? In time for the ball tonight?”
“I would be so grateful!”
His voice was curt. “Get in.”
By this time, the cars behind them weren’t just honking, but the drivers were yelling impolite suggestions.
Kassius held open the passenger door, and she climbed in, still clinging to the ruined, muddy, ripped fur coat. He climbed into the driver’s seat beside her, and without bothering to respond to the furious drivers behind them, he drove off with a low roar of his sleek car’s powerful engine.
She glanced at him as they drove. “Where are we going?”
“It’s not far.”
“My grandma would yell at me if she knew I’d gotten in a car with a stranger,” she said lightly. But part of her was already wondering if she should have refused his offer. The fact that he drove an expensive car didn’t mean he could be trusted—in fact, in her admittedly limited experience, it generally meant the opposite.
“We’re not strangers. You know my name.”
“Call me Kassius.” He gave her a dark sideways glance. “Though I don’t think Mimi ever introduced us.”
“All right. Kassius.” The name moved deliciously on her tongue. She licked her lips. “I’m Laney. Laney May Henry.”
“From New Orleans.”
His sudden look was so sharp and searching that it bewildered her. She wasn’t accustomed to being noticed by men, and especially not a man like him. She felt Kassius Black’s attention all the way to her toes.
Her boss had said the man was inscrutable, that he had ice water in his veins. Why was he bothering to help her?
But she needed his help too badly to ask questions right now. “Thank you for helping me. You’re being very kind.”
“I’m not kind,” he said in a low voice. He looked at her. “But don’t worry. You won’t lose your job.”
Her heart lifted to her throat. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had helped her. Generally she was the one who was responsible for everyone and everything.