He knew he was making a mistake. He’d always been private to the point of mania, but here, in the literal spotlight, he suddenly didn’t care who might be watching.
Pulling Laney roughly against his body, he tangled his hands in her hair, tilting her chin upward. “Get one thing straight,” he said, searching her gaze ruthlessly. “I don’t give a damn about Mimi or anyone else. I only care about one thing.”
She looked at him defiantly. “And what might that be?”
“Taking what I want,” he said ruthlessly. “And I want you.”
And cupping her face with his hands, he lowered his head and kissed her, right there on the dance floor of the New Year’s Eve ball.
* * *
His lips were soft against hers at first. Laney felt the roughness of his chin, the sweet taste of his mouth.
She had no idea what to do. The one time she’d been kissed before, it had been a total disaster.
But this was different. He was different. As Kassius’s mouth began to move more forcefully against hers, taking rather than asking, she realized she didn’t have to do anything but surrender. Her eyes squeezed shut.
As she relaxed against him, his kiss deepened, and he pushed her lips apart, plundering her mouth. She nearly gasped at the pleasure that went through her, a whoosh of sensation that electrified her from her lips to her earlobes to her breasts and lower still. Her nipples tightened. Low in her belly, she felt a new sensation coil deep inside her.
Pleasure seemed to be exploding from her body like light. She’d never experienced anything like this—never—
“You’re mine,” he whispered roughly against her lips. “Mine.”
She realized she’d tightened her hands against his shoulders, bringing him down hard against her in the kiss. Then he abruptly pulled away, leaving her bereft.
Her eyes flew open, and she saw the orchestra had taken a break—they were alone on the dance floor and the entire ballroom had fallen silent, staring at them. Mimi’s eyes were beaming such lasers of fury Laney feared she might burst into flame. Then she remembered.
“Oh, no,” Laney choked out. Her hands went to her face in dismay. What had she done, letting him kiss her? How could she have been so selfish as to give in to the moment when her family was counting on her? “What have I done?”
“Nothing. Yet.” He sounded almost amused as his larger hand took hers. His dark eyes seared her. “But you will. You’re coming home with me. Now.”
Laney looked up at him, feeling like her whole future was hanging in the balance.
She looked at Kassius in his sleek bespoke tuxedo, so tall and broad shouldered. Power and wealth clung to him as ineffably as his faint scent of cypress and musk.
There was no way a handsome billionaire could actually want Laney. She was just a regular girl. She liked fried chicken and po’ boy sandwiches, not foie gras and caviar. She drank sweet tea, not Dom Pérignon. She bought her clothes from discount warehouses, not based on prestige or even appearance, but comfort and practicality.
She had nothing in common with the typical girlfriends of billionaires—nothing!
“You can’t want me. You can’t possibly want me.”
“Why?” he demanded.
“Why? Because you’re—you. And I’m me.” She could still hardly believe that she was even here, in this illustrious gilded ballroom in Monaco, with its soaring crystal chandeliers, full orchestra and a thousand members of the international jet set. Her only other dance experience had been at senior prom, in a school gymnasium with paper decorations and balloons, a punch bowl and a DJ. She’d been hopeful and excited, wondering if the high school quarterback would kiss her. And look how that night had turned out. “Please just let me go.”
Kassius’s dark eyes glittered. “Is that really what you want?”
No. No. Of course it wasn’t. She felt intoxicated and alive for the first time in her life. She wanted to be beautiful and desired by the most handsome, powerful man on earth, one of the richest men in the world. The thought was like a dream to her. A deliriously impossible dream.
She felt everyone staring at them, the only ones left on the dance floor. The center of attention.
She whispered, “Everyone is staring at us.”
“Staring at you. They’re wondering who you are.”
She gave a low laugh. “I’ve lived here almost two years!”
“As a servant. Invisible.” He stroked her bare shoulder, looking down at her in the shimmering gold gown. “You’re not invisible anymore.”
Because of you, she thought. Her heart was pounding in her throat.
“Come with me. Now. Tonight.” His handsome face was hungry and hard as he took her hand.
She did not—could not—resist. He led her through the ballroom, and a path magically cleared for him—all six foot four, two hundred pounds of muscle—through the crowd.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mimi and Araminta’s thin, shocked faces as they passed by. But she couldn’t think about that now, or her future. All she could do was follow where Kassius led, out of the ballroom and the vast building to the street outside, where a sleek dark car swiftly pulled up to the curb and a uniformed driver hastened to open her door.
Outside, the moon was pearlescent in the dark sky. A ghostlike glow frosted the palm trees swaying in the abrupt hard wind. Winter in Monaco was generally sunny and mild, but sometimes after a rain, the strange rare wind of the mistral would rise, a legendarily violent wind capable of driving men and women mad.
The mistral. It was her only excuse...
Without a word, Kassius pushed her into the backseat of his limo. The door was barely closed behind them, the vehicle just starting to pull out into the street, before Kassius’s mouth was on hers. He pushed her back against the smooth leather, and she closed her eyes, feeling his hands everywhere, over the sparkling layers of her golden gown. His hands ran over her naked shoulders, cupping her face as he kissed her roughly, his mouth searing hers, taking possession without permission or apology. She felt the strength and weight of his body pressing against her.
As he kissed her, he peeled off her long gloves one by one, and as she felt the soft whisper of fabric move slowly down her skin, she shivered from sensation. Her breasts felt heavy beneath the fabric of her strapless bodice, her nipples agonizingly tight and so sensitive as he brushed against her, pushing her beneath him, caressing her, mastering her. She felt bewildered, dizzy.
The passenger door of the limousine suddenly fell open.
She opened her eyes in shock to see that the car was now parked in front of the Hôtel de Carillon. In the heat of their embrace, she hadn’t noticed the drive, the route, even Kassius’s driver and bodyguard sitting at the front. Both of those men were now standing on the sidewalk beside the open door, carefully not looking in their direction.
The doorman, Jacques, had no such discretion. When he came forward, his mouth fell open.
Her cheeks went hot with shame as she sat up hurriedly, making sure her breasts weren’t falling out of the bodice of her dress. She could only imagine what she looked like...
“Thank you,” Kassius said coolly, “but I’ll help her out.” Getting out of the limo, he turned and held out his hand. With a deep breath, feeling overwhelmed with embarrassment and humiliation, she tried to keep her face expressionless as he led her past the doorman into the lobby of the residential hotel.
“You’re bringing me home,” she whispered over the lump in her throat. She wasn’t even surprised. She could still hear that harsh voice from long ago. Frigid little virgin...
“Yes,” Kassius said.
“You brought me home before midnight.” She gave him a weak smile. “Like Cinderella.”
They reached the elevator, and the doors opened. He drew her inside and pushed the button.
“That’s the wrong floor. Mimi doesn’t live in the penthouse.”
“But I do.”
Her heart twisted in her chest.
“You do?” she whispered.
He came closer to her in the elevator, looking down at her. He cupped her cheek. “I just bought it.”
“You did?” She looked up at him, feeling dizzy and strange. “Why?”
“I needed a place in Monaco.” His voice was husky. Sexy. “Until I am able to buy a special villa I want on Cap Ferrat.”
“You—you want me to come upstairs with you?” she breathed, hardly knowing what she was saying.
“I do,” he whispered, running his hand down the side of her neck. The edges of his lips curved upward. “And you will...”
Roughly, he pushed her back against the mirrored elevator wall. Her head fell back as she closed her eyes, lost in sensation as he kissed down her neck, her cheek, sucking her earlobe as his hands ran over her bare arms, her shoulders, cupping her breasts through the fabric.
The elevator door opened to the top floor, and for a minute she didn’t, couldn’t, move, just leaned back against the mirror, her knees feeling weak.
So he picked her up as if she weighed nothing. Her sparkly tulle skirts fluttered behind them as he carried her swiftly down the hall.
Held against his powerful chest, Laney looked up at him in a daze as he brought her into the luxurious penthouse suite of the Hôtel de Carillon.