“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 and 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 a 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 car 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 cleaner, 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 wildly sleek and expensive sports car 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, this mysterious and dangerous man. If the comtesse found out Laney had caused him problems, on top of everything else...