“I understand.” And he did. Laney being who she was, she’d actually believed she could change him. That she could save him. That he could become like her—someone who believed in love. “You couldn’t have done any differently.”
“Exactly.” Laney looked at him with a tearful smile. “I love you,” she whispered, reaching up a hand to caress his cheek. “So much.”
Kassius shuddered beneath her touch. He felt choked by competing emotions of fury, regret, agonizing desire and loss—such deep loss!
Looking down at her, he savored the beauty of her lovely face, the curve of her cheek, her full lips. Her warm, loving brown eyes, deep enough for a man to drown in. He took a picture of memory. He knew this would be the very last time he’d ever look upon Laney’s face.
“Benito is outside. You can wait in the car.” He forced himself to give her an encouraging smile. “There’s air-conditioning.”
“Ooh,” she said happily, as he’d known she would. “All right, I’ll wait outside.” She squeezed his hand. “Just let him explain. Give him a chance!”
He gave a single nod. It was hard to speak over the lump in his throat. “Goodbye, Laney.”
Patting him on the shoulder, she left. Going to the far window, Kassius drew back the curtain and watched her go out into the courtyard. He saw Benito come up and talk to her.
Dropping the curtain, Kassius turned away. He couldn’t watch what would happen next.
He turned sharply to his father.
“What happened to you?” the man whispered. He was staring at Kassius as if looking at a ghost he was afraid to touch. “When I finally got your letters, I rushed to Istanbul, but no one knew where you were...”
“Oh, did you finally come looking?” he replied coldly. “I sent letters for five years.”
“My wife hid them from me. She only gave them to me at our divorce—”
“Yes,” Kassius ground out. “Your wife.” His lip curled. “Mama always defended you, did you know that? In spite of the way you seduced her with promises of love and marriage, when you knew you were capable of neither.”
The older man took a single staggering step back.
“You’re—right,” he said finally, running his hand over his forehead. “When I fell in love with Emmaline, I was already trapped in a loveless marriage. I hid it from Emmaline, because I knew she never would have looked at me...”
“You’re right about that,” he said scornfully. “She would have told you to go to hell. But unlike you, my mother had a soul.”
“I wanted to marry her,” Boris whispered. “I wanted it desperately. But my wife refused to divorce me.”
“It’s true.” The older man’s voice trembled. “I begged her. But even though Tania already had taken many lovers of her own, she wouldn’t let me go. She knew that with my position I had the opportunity to make a lot of money in the breakup of the Soviet union . She told me I’d have to pay her millions of rubles to agree to divorce me.” He took a shuddering breath. “I tried to make money as fast as I could. But it wasn’t fast enough.”
Kassius looked contemptuously around the front room, with its faded wallpaper, its missing furniture, its dust. “All the while talking to my mother of the fantastical villa you would someday buy her.”
The man swallowed. “I wanted to buy Emmaline her villa. I wanted to live with you, be your father. Your hero.” He gave a weak smile. “Do you remember, when you were young, how we used to pretend to be Roman gladiators, fighting with wooden swords? We sometimes knocked over the furniture. You loved it when I told you stories about the Roman Empire, far past your bedtime, until your mother was furious at both of us...”
A memory floated back to Kassius. It had been his father who’d told him stories of the Romans? Pain went through him. The pain of a boy who’d loved his father, only to be rejected by him, abandoned. It was pain he’d thought he was past feeling, and fury filled him that he was not.
“And you left us,” he said hoarsely. “You left my mother to die without help. For five years, you could have come back to help us—could have phoned, sent a letter—”
“She wouldn’t let me,” his father cried. “When you were eleven, your mother found out I’d been married to another woman since before we’d even met. It didn’t matter to her that we’d been estranged for fifteen years, or that my wife had a lover but wouldn’t divorce me until I had made a fortune to pay her off. After Emmaline found out, nothing I could say or do would persuade her to let me visit again—or even send her money! She told me to get out and never come back, never try to contact either of you again until I was free to love you both. So I went back to Moscow, determined to finally get the divorce Tania had denied me.” His voice broke. “I never imagined it would take me five years to earn enough, because each time my business grew, she only became greedier for more. The only reason she finally agreed to the divorce was that she fell pregnant by her longtime lover. And by then, it was too late.” His voice was hollow. “Your mother had already died.”
Kassius wouldn’t show mercy. “Because of you.”
He clawed his hand through his gray hair. “I never knew Emmaline was ill,” he whispered. “Not until it was too late.”
Kassius reminded himself of the pain he’d felt when he’d seen Boris with his wife in Moscow, living in a mansion, apparently without a care in the world—while his own mother lay dying in poverty in Istanbul. He said tightly, “You still deserve to be punished.”
His father looked at him.
“I have been,” he said in a low voice. “I spent all those lonely years desperately missing you. When I finally rushed to Istanbul, you both were gone. All I found was your mother’s grave. I’ve spent all these years looking for you. I thought you were dead.”
“You destroyed her life.”
Tears filled the old man’s eyes. Blinking fast, he looked away, staring blindly out the windows. “I thought we’d grow old together. She was the only woman I ever loved. I always meant to go back to her. I just thought we’d have more time—”
His voice choked off.
Kassius stared at him, refusing to feel sympathy.
“Forgive me, Cash,” he whispered. His knees collapsed beneath him, and he fell back on the chair. “I never loved anyone again after I lost her—and you. I never wanted another wife, another child. You were both everything I ever wanted, but it was based on a lie, so I lost it all. I tried to keep the business going for the sake of my employees, but to tell you the truth, I never had the heart for business. All I have left—” he looked around the half-empty room “—is this villa. It’s all I had left of her. Keeping that promise I’d made to her...”
His voice broke, and he covered his face with his hands. Kassius stared down at the weeping old man.
It was his moment of vengeance, just as he’d dreamed about. He should have felt a sense of triumph.
Instead, all he felt was empty. Boris Kuznetsov was old now. He’d committed the crime of falling in love with a young, idealistic stewardess and pretending he was free to marry her, when he was not. For that, he’d lost everything.
So much had been lost, by everyone.
Kassius had the faint memory he hadn’t let himself think of in a long time. His father teaching him in the Istanbul street, when he was a young boy, how to play fight with a sword. How to be a gladiator. How all the other kids who lived on the street had been jealous and fought to be included. How happy he’d been. How proud of his father. His hero.
I was so unhappy. So awfully unhappy. I didn’t want to feel that way. So I decided to forgive her. To remember the good times. I chose love...
No. His stomach clenched. He couldn’t think about Laney now, on top of everything else.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. He saw Laney’s number. Repressing his churning emotions, he lifted it to his ear. “Yes?”
“What’s going on?” Laney sounded frightened. “Benito pushed me into the car. He says they’re taking me to the airport then sending me back to New Orleans. I don’t understand.”
Kassius set his jaw. He made his heart very small.
“It’s over,” he said coldly. “As I told you. I will pay money for your support and nothing more. My lawyer is drawing up the paperwork for our divorce.”
In the room, he heard his father’s intake of breath at the same time as Laney’s.
“Divorce?” she whispered.
“I told you what would happen if you betrayed me. I will never see you again, or the baby.”
She gave a long, brittle, anguished gasp. It rattled and echoed across the line. “I don’t believe it,” she choked out. “You wouldn’t be so...so heartless.”
“You did this, Laney. You did this.”
Then her voice cut off with a scream. He heard a squeal of tires, a scream, a crack. And then nothing. A moment of silence, and then a busy signal. Frowning, he stared down at the phone in his hand. Was it a trick? He had to suppress the intense desire to call her back. It had to be a trick. But he couldn’t be manipulated so easily.