“I should fire you right now, Laney.” Her boss glared at her. “Anyone would love to have your job. All of them less stupid than you!”
“I’m sorry!” Laney May Henry had tears in her eyes as she saw the hot coffee she’d just spilled on her boss’s prized white fur coat, which had been hanging on the back of a chair. Leaning forward, she desperately tried to clean the stain with the hem of her faded cotton shirt. “It wasn’t…”
“Wasn’t what?” Her boss, a coldly beautiful American-born countess who had been married and divorced four times, narrowed her carefully made-up eyes. “What are you trying to imply?”
It wasn’t my fault. But Laney took a deep breath. She knew there was no point in telling her boss that her friend had deliberately tripped her as she’d brought them coffee. No point because her boss had seen the whole thing, and had laughed along with her friend as Laney tripped with a noisy “oof,” sprawling helter-skelter across the carpet of the lavish Monaco flat. For her boss, it had all been a good joke – until she saw the coffee hit her full-length fur coat.
“Well?” Mimi du Plessis, the comtesse de Fourcil, demanded. “I’m waiting.”
Laney dropped her gaze. “I’m sorry, madame la comtesse.”
Her boss turned to her friend, dressed in head-to-toe Dolce & Gabbana on the other side of the white leather sofa, smoking. “She’s stupid, isn’t she?”
“Very stupid,” the friend agreed, daintily puffing out a smoke ring.
“So hard to get good help these days.”
Biting her lip hard, Laney stared down at the white rug. Two years ago, she’d been hired to organize Mimi du Plessis’s wardrobe, keep track of her social engagements and run errands. But Laney had quickly discovered why the salary was so good. She was on call day and night, often needing to work twenty-hour days and endure her boss’s continual taunts. Every day of the last two years, Laney had fantasized about quitting and going back to New Orleans. But she couldn’t. Her family desperately needed the money, and she loved her family.
“Take the fur and get out of here. I can’t stand to look at your pathetic little face another moment. Get the coat to the cleaners and heaven help you if it’s not back before the New Year’s Eve gala tonight.” Dismissing her, the comtesse turned back to her friend, resuming their earlier conversation. “I think tonight Kassius Black will finally make his move.”
“You think so?” her friend said eagerly.
The comtesse smiled, like a smug Persian cat with a golden bowl of overpriced cream. “He’s already wasted millions of euros, giving anonymous loans to my boss. But the way things are going, my boss’s company will be bankrupt within the year. I finally told Kassius that if he wants my attention, he should stop throwing money down the drain, and just ask me out.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t deny it.”
“So he’s taking you to the ball tonight?”
“Not exactly…” She shrugged. “But I was tired of waiting for him to make his move. It’s obvious he must be wildly in love with me. And I’m ready to get married again.”
Her friend pursed her lips. “Darling, yes, Kassius Black is rich as sin and dangerously handsome, but who is he? Where does he come from? Who are his people? No one knows.”
“Who cares?” Mimi du Plessis, who liked to brag about how she could trace her family history back not only to the Mayflower, but to Charlemagne, now shrugged it off. “I’m fed up with aristocrats without a single dollar to their name. My last husband, the comte, bled me dry. Sure, I got his title – but after the divorce I had to get a job. Me! A job!” She shuddered at the indignity, then brightened. “But once I’m Kassius Black’s wife, I’ll never have to worry about working again. He’s the tenth richest man in the world!”
Her friend elegantly blew out another smoke ring. “Ninth. His real estate investments have exploded.”
“Even better. I know he’ll try to kiss me at midnight. I can’t wait. You can just tell any wife of his would be well satisfied in bed…” Her sharp face narrowed when she saw Laney still hesitating unhappily by the sofa, heavy coat in her arms. “Well? What are you still doing here?”
“I’m sorry, madame, but I need your credit card.”
“Give you my card? That’s a joke. Pay for it yourself. And get us more coffee. Hurry up, you idiot!”
Beneath the weight of the white fur coat, Laney took the elevator downstairs and trudged through the lobby of the elegant Hôtel de Carillon onto the most expensive street in Monaco, filled with designer shops, overlooking the famous Casino de Monte-Carlo and the Mediterranean Sea. As she walked out of the exclusive residential hotel, the doorman gave her an encouraging smile. “Ça va, Laney?”
“Ça va, Jacques,” she replied, mustering up a smile. But the heavy gray clouds seemed as leaden as her heart.
It had just stopped raining. The street was wet and so were the expensive sports cars revving by, along with the sodden-looking tourists crowded together in packs on the sidewalk. In late December, the winter afternoons were short, and the nights were long. But that only added to the delight of New Year’s Eve. It was a popular time for people, especially wealthy yacht owners, to visit Monaco and enjoy exclusive parties, designer shops and world-class restaurants.
Laney comforted herself with the thought that at least the rain had stopped. Aside from her worries about the coat getting wet, she’d run out of the building too fast to grab her coat, and just wore her plain white shirt, loose khakis, and sensible clogs with her dark hair pulled up in a ponytail – the uniform of the servant class. But even without rain, the air was damp and chilly, and the sun was weak. Shivering, she held the fur coat tightly in her arms, both to protect it from being splashed by a passing Ferrari, and to keep herself warm.
She didn’t like her boss’s fur coats much. They reminded her too much of the pets she’d loved growing up at her grandmother’s house outside New Orleans, the sweet dopey old hound dogs and proudly independent cats. They’d comforted her through some heartbreaking days as a teenager. Thinking of them reminded Laney of everything else she missed about home. A lump rose in her throat. It had been two years since she’d last seen her family.
Don’t think about it. She took a deep breath. The fur in her arms was bulky and big, and Laney was on the petite side, so she shifted the coat over her shoulder, to look down at her smartphone.
But as she scouted out the nearest fur cleaners, she was suddenly jostled by a large group of tourists stampeding by, blindly following their guide’s flag up ahead. Stumbling forward, Laney tripped off the curb and fell forward into the street. Turning with a gasp, as if in slow motion, she saw a red sports car barreling down on her!
There was a loud squeal of tires, and Laney felt a surge of regret that she was going to die, at twenty-five, far from home and everyone she loved, holding her boss’s dirty fur coat, run over by a car. She just wished she could tell her grandmother and her father one last time that she loved them…
She closed her eyes and held her breath as she felt the impact. The car knocked her over the hood, and she flew, then fell hard, on something soft.
The air was knocked out of her lungs, and she wheezed for breath as everything went dark.
“Damn you, what were you thinking!”
It was a man’s voice. It didn’t sound like the voice of God, either, so she couldn’t be dead. Laney’s eyes fluttered open.
A man was standing over her, looking down. His face and body were hidden in shadow, but he was tall, broad-shouldered. And, it seemed, angry.
A crowd gathered around them as the man knelt beside her.
“Why did you run out in the street like that?” The man was dark-haired, dark-eyed, handsome. “I could have killed you!”
Laney suddenly recognized him. Coughing, she sat up abruptly. A wave of dizziness went through her, and she put her hand on her head, feeling sick.
“Be careful, damn you!”
“Kassius – Black,” she croaked.
“Do I know you?” he said tersely.
Why would he? She was nobody. “No…”
“Are you injured?”
“No,” she whispered, then realized to her shock that it was true. Looking down, she saw the fur had blocked her impact against the street like a soft pillow. Incredulously, she touched the nose of the Lamborghini pressing into her shoulder. He must have stopped on a dime.
“You’re in shock.” Without asking permission, he ran his hands over her. He was no doubt searching for broken bones, but having him touch her – stroking her arms, her legs, her shoulders – caused heat to flood through Laney. Her cheeks burned, and she pushed him away.
He looked at her skeptically.
She look a shuddering breath and tried to smile. “Really.”
Of all the billionaires in Monaco – and there were tons – she’d just inconvenienced the one her boss wanted, the man who was mysterious and dangerous. If the comtesse found out Laney had caused him problems, on top of everything else…
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 semi-circle 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 all 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 that 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 murmured, “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 rain 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 cleaners… 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 Lamborghini was still holding up traffic. The drivers of the Bentleys and Rolls-Royces behind it were starting to get annoyed.
Kassius’s jaw clenched as he 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 cleaners 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?”
His eyes were dark. “Yes.”
Laney’s heart pounded. “I would be s-so grateful.”
He was very tall, at least a foot taller than her, and probably a hundred pounds heavier – a hundred pounds of pure lean muscle. But in spite of his muscle, he moved with almost feline grace beneath his sleek dark suit as he opened the car door.
End of online excerpt. Like it? ORDER IT
Where would you like to go next?
Meet Jennie. Read her bio.
See what's coming soon.
Text Copyright © 2016 by Jennie Lucas • Cover Art Copyright © 2016 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.