For years, she’d felt invisible, unworthy of love. Now she’d never think of herself as a frigid little virgin again.
But would she soon be a single mother?
Laney could still hear the husky echo of his voice: I am tired of the bachelor life. I want a family. I want a wife.
But whatever fantasy he’d been indulging in last night, he’d obviously come to his senses this morning. It’s better to end this quickly. When Kassius actually took a bride, she would be a beautiful, elegant, sophisticated woman of his own class. A woman like Mimi du Plessis.
Opening the door of the suite, Laney took a deep breath, bracing herself, and walked inside.
Her boss rose from the dining table with a tranquil smile. She murmured, “Have a good time last night?”
Was that a trick question? Was there a chance she wasn’t about to be sacked? “Um, yes?”
Then Laney looked across the elegant suite, with all its feminine decor of Louis XVI furniture and wall-to-wall white shag carpeting, and saw her suitcases and a big box of her things sitting on the floor. And she knew she wasn’t going to get lucky here.
Desperately, she said, “Madame, please forgive me. I owe you an apology—”
“Too late for that.” Coming forward, the comtesse shoved a fifty-euro bill into Laney’s hands. “Here.”
“What’s this?” she said, confused.
“Your last paycheck.”
“But my next paycheck is due tomorrow, for two full weeks. And then there’s also eight weeks of paid vacation time you always postponed—”
“Too bad. That’s all you get.”
“Who’s going to fight me? You?” Mimi’s expression was hard. “You think you’re my equal now, just because Kassius Black took you to bed? You’re nothing, Laney. No one. Common street trash.” She tossed her blond hair. “Now he’s used you, he’ll toss you out like garbage—”
“Ah. Mimi. So nice to see you this morning.”
Kassius’s husky voice made Mimi whirl around with a gasp. “Oh! I didn’t expect—”
“Happy New Year.” Tucking his phone back into his pocket, he gave her a smile. “I came to help Laney get her things. But also to talk to you.”
“To me?” Mimi said.
His dark eyes were warm. “We have a few things to discuss.”
Laney felt a stab of wild jealousy that made her sick inside, and no amount of reason could argue her out of it.
A large man had suddenly appeared in the doorway behind Kassius.
“Ah. Benito.” Kassius looked at Laney. “Are those your suitcases?” She nodded. “Is that everything?”
“Of course it’s everything,” Mimi snapped. “Do you think I want her trash left behind?”
He gave her a hard smile, then turned back to the man. “Please take Miss Henry’s suitcases up to the penthouse.”
“Tout de suite, monsieur.”
“Thank you.” He looked pointedly at Laney. “Can you manage the box?”
“Of course I can, but I don’t see why—”
“I’ll see you upstairs later,” he interrupted.
She scowled. She didn’t understand why he’d apparently asked his bodyguard to take her suitcases up to his penthouse. But she’d clearly been dismissed. And so coldly. Kassius couldn’t wait to be alone with Mimi—probably to whisper sweet nothings in her ear and make a date for tonight. While Laney felt exactly like the harlot her ex-boss had implied—standing here like a fool in his oversize robe!
“Sure,” Laney said coldly. “Later.”
As Benito got her suitcases, she tightened the belt of the robe and lifted up the box that held old books, a plant and her grandmother’s quilt. Turning, she left Mimi’s suite with as much dignity as she could muster, without looking back.
Once in the hall, she turned to the bodyguard, or whoever he was. “I’ll take those suitcases. There’s no reason for you to take them upstairs. I’m just going to the airport.”
The man shook his head. “Sorry, mademoiselle. Monsieur Black said to take you and the baggage upstairs, so upstairs you will go.”
He insisted on taking her up in the elevator to the penthouse—her and the rest of the baggage. Once there, Laney stomped to the bedroom, fuming.
“I’m not going to wait for him!” she yelled back grumpily, but the man had already left. Fine. She’d just change her clothes and leave.
She dug through her suitcases for comfy cotton panties and a bra and started to reach for a white shirt and khaki pants. She stopped, remembering she wasn’t anyone’s employee. Not anymore.
Instead, she grabbed a brightly colored vintage T-shirt she’d bought at a flea market, advertising a rock concert in Paris in 1976. She put on red jeans that fit her like a glove, skimming tightly over her small waist, curvy hips and butt. Finally, she zipped up a fuzzy purple hoodie and pulled her hair back in a tight, French ponytail, tumbling straight down her back. Then she reached far into her suitcase for a tube of shocking red lipstick. There. Looking at herself in the bedroom’s mirror, she smacked her lips with satisfaction.
She was done being anyone’s servant.
She was now a woman with prospects.
On second thought, maybe her prospects weren’t so great. But she was at least a woman of ambition.
Let’s face it—she’d always known that working for the spoiled Mimi du Plessis was not exactly a lifetime occupation. It was time she figured out what she really wanted to do with her life, rather than squandering it by fits and starts.
There were other ways to make money. She could go to community college and train for something useful, like nursing or teaching. At twenty-five years old, she was no longer a kid. She could, and should, start acting like it. She would find a way to have a decent career that didn’t leave her depressed and ashamed, one that would let her be close to her family and home. It wouldn’t be easy. She’d likely have to work full-time while she attended night classes. But the sacrifice would be worth it.
She missed her family. Her home. Right now she would have killed for her grandmother’s famous jambalaya with dirty rice, or her fried chicken and collard greens. Cheesy fried grits. A little crawfish étouffée or a muffuletta sandwich. She licked her lips at the thought of the tangy olive salad. Or the perfect breakfast—chicory coffee and hot buttery beignets, laced with powdered sugar, from the Café du Monde.
It was time to face the real world, of work and bills, but also, she thought hopefully, of chicory coffee and fried chicken. The real world, with both its hardships and joys.
But she’d always remember the New Year’s Eve ball and the night she’d been Cinderella.
Her eyes fell on the exquisite golden ball gown on the floor. Slowly, she picked it up and folded it neatly across the back of a chair. Her fingers traced the sparkles of gold over the netting and tulle.
She would never forget the night. Or the man. Ever.
For the next ten years, when she was working two jobs to pay her way through school and studying all night and eating ramen noodles and beans, she’d remember the one night she’d gone to a ball in Monte Carlo, like Grace Kelly.
Laney stuffed her grandmother’s quilt into one of the suitcases and the empty box in the trash. She looked regretfully at the potted geranium. She’d have to leave that behind. She started digging in her small tattered handbag for her phone to order a ride to the airport, then stopped. She had no phone. It had been crushed by Kassius’s car.
But it could have been so much worse. After giving him her virginity, after feeling such unbelievable pleasure and sleeping in the protective comfort of his arms all night, she felt how easily she could have fallen for him. A few more such nights, and he could have really broken her heart.
A phone? That could be replaced.
Snapping the suitcase shut, she stood, and looked around one last time at his lavish penthouse suite, with its expensive modern furniture and floor-to-ceiling views. The sun was shining across the bright blue sea.
With a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and turned away. Dragging the two suitcases, she started for the door. Then stopped when it opened and Kassius came in. He looked at the suitcases, and his expression turned dark.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he growled.
“What does it look like?” She returned his gaze steadily. “Leaving.”
“Leaving?” He gave a low laugh, then closed the door behind him. “Laney, we’re just getting started.”
She swallowed and hated how her heart fluttered. The expansive suite suddenly felt small with him stretching the walls inside it. All she could see was him. “I assumed when you wanted to be alone with Mimi...”
“That meeting was not personal.” His dark eyes glittered. “Just business.”
She blinked. “You’re offering another loan to her boss? I’ve met Boris Kuznetsov, by the way. He’s nice. Takes good care of his employees. Is that why you keep offering him loans?” she said curiously. “Just to help him out?”
“Something like that.” His eyes were hard and veiled as he came closer, holding out a wad of bills. “Here.”