‘The auction is less than a week away and the information I requested should have been on my desk yesterday! What is the hold up?’ Marco Alessandro Vincenzi was not in the mood for incompetence and the fact that one of his employees had not adhered to his expectations was unacceptable.
‘You have one hour!’ Marco slammed the phone and sat back in his leather chair and tried to recollect his thoughts. He had a lot riding on this next acquisition. The ‘Heart of Oudh’ was something he had been trying to obtain for the past four years and he was not about to let it slip through his fingers, yet again.
The “heart’, as he dubbed it, was an exquisite flawless ruby that was once the sole ownership of the royal family of Oudh for hundreds of years. In a surprising twist of fate it was sold to a dealer by the Crown Prince of Oudh to pay off gambling debts. Before Marco could add it to his extraordinary collection of priceless artefacts, it was stolen and the dealer murdered. But it had been recently recovered and was put on auction and Marco vowed to do anything to attain the beautiful gemstone.
An hour later his private investigator brought in the information he sought.
‘I’m sorry it took time but we had a last minute bidder and you may find this extremely interesting.’ Bart Simms said as he handed over a file.
‘Princess Leila Jodhi?’ Marco stared at the picture of an attractive woman, but somehow she seemed less sophisticated than her title would suggest. Beautiful, yes. Maybe he’d go as far as stunning, but royalty, no.
‘I don’t understand, the last heir to the Oudh kingdom died in a car crash, who is this?’
If anything, his line of business taught him to never underestimate anyone, especially those he intended to crush.
‘She is the daughter of Princess Aranya, who was disowned by her parents for marrying an Englishman, a journalist for the Daily News. The Princess Aranya died as a commoner a year ago and her daughter has been reclaimed by the old queen as the heir to the Kingdom.’
Bart informed Marco that Princess Leila was only appointed heir in the last 3 months. Marco could barely tear his eyes away from the photo to glance over the notes that contained her history.
‘A few months ago, she was just an average journalism student and now she is the future queen of Oudh, talk about twists of fate!’ Marco said incredulously, as he read through the short sum-up Bart had prepared. His eyes reverted to the photo.
‘She has been given the mammoth task of retrieving the ruby for her grandmother and newly-acquired country. I don’t think she has a chance at all owing to the fact that her funds are limited. Oudh has experienced another year of drought and they have had to sell off land to feed the starving people of that country.’
‘So why even bother if they don’t have the money for it?’ Marco asked haughtily.
‘Apparently, the reason that Oudh has fallen on bad times is because the ruby has been removed from the possession of the royal family. The ruby, as its name suggests, the “Heart of Oudh”…is, well, it is according to myth, supposed to have some fortunate powers for the royal family and their people.’
‘Mmm…an interesting turn of events. She doesn’t stand chance of getting the gem, but you never know how these things work out.’
The elaborate halls of Sotheby’s, attested to the success of the leading auctioneers. Marco was immediately treated with the utmost respect and geniality of a wealthy and important buyer. Guided toward the viewing room by one of the curators, Marco felt confident that he would soon own the one gem that eluded him these last four years. Security personnel in plain clothes flanked each side of large ornate mahogany doors, that led to a private viewing room, their dark glasses and ear-pieces were the only indication that they stood there for a reason. Marco studied them while the guide, who managed to keep up with Marco’s brisk pace, assured him that the state-of-the-art security system was more than sufficient to secure the gem.
He entered the viewing room expecting privacy when he examined the ruby that would be his in a matter of a few hours.But what he found would haunt his thoughts and dreams for days.
She was breath-taking in a demure cream pantsuit that could not hide her enticing figure. She’d been bent over the illuminated glass box that housed the ruby on a small golden pedestal, but shifted her attention to him the moment he walked into the room.
Her eyes rose to meet his briefly and they seemed to shimmer with apprehension and something else… naivete, quickly replaced by curiosity.
Vexed by the realisation that it was not the ruby that took his breath away, he hesitated as he took in the woman’s appearance. Marco prided himself on being well-versed in handling women as there had been many who had caught his fancy. With a self-taught understanding of the female psyche, something that he’d naturally found he was attuned to, he was always in control, both of his emotions and the woman in question. But he found his confidence floundering a little in that department the moment he set eyes on the unassuming Princess Leila Jodhi.
Her photo had failed to do her complete justice and she seemed totally unaware of her effect on him, which made her even more appealing.
‘Princess Leila, an honour to meet you. I am Marco Vincenzi.’ He extended both hands and she tentatively offered her hand in greeting. With all the charm he could muster, he placed his lips on her slightly trembling fingers. The immediate surge of something akin to an electric shock almost crackled through his body with such power that he let her hand go abruptly. He tried to be polite as he turned his attention away from her and focused rather on the ruby. He needed to collect his thoughts and allow himself to recover from her touch. Losing his edge now all because of a beautiful woman could cost him the only prize he was interested in, the ruby.
Embarrassed by the man’s obvious aversion to her, Leila wished she could disappear into thin air. She was a princess yet she felt like an insecure little schoolgirl. When the man had walked into the viewing room, she was surprised by the way her heart raced in response to him. Marco Vincenzi! She knew who he was and exactly what he wanted. The flurry of nervousness had nothing to do with the fact that he was tall and impressive in his expensive suit tailored to his impeccably built body. It was no wonder that he effortlessly dominated the large room and sent her pulse into orbit. The countless hours of lessons in poise and sophistication that she had to endure in order to fit the profile of a princess, had not prepared her for the moment her eyes met with his steely greys or for the touch of his warm sure hands. In that moment she felt a fraud, unable to fulfill the role that was recently bestowed on her.
“Will I ever be a true princess?” she wondered for the umpteenth time.
True princesses do not turn to liquid in the presence of a handsome man. Granted, he was the enemy, well, according to Bismah.
‘Quite extraordinary,’ Marco commented evenly as he studied the ruby through the deceptively fragile glass casing. ‘I can see why it is called the ‘Heart of Oudh’ and why so many covet it.’
Leila glanced away from the displayed gem to Marco. His magnitude seemed to proliferate the small space. He exuded confidence and power and something else that she could not quite pinpoint. Leila was intrigued.
‘Are you interested in bidding for the ruby, Mr. Vincenzi?’ Her voice was a little shaky; her words sounded false. Of course, he would be bidding for the ruby. He’d been coveting it for years! Hadn’t Bismah drilled that bit of information into her, every chance he got?
‘Well, let’s put it this way, princess, you have got to outbid me.’ The man did not mince his words. Leila realised what the other thing that she could not quite pinpoint earlier was – he was ruthless, beyond the description afforded her by Bismah.
Marco Vincenzi had a killer instinct and Leila was very sure that what Marco wanted, Marco inevitably got!
The pounding of the hammer concluded the sale and sent a shattering echo through Leila’s heart. She had failed to secure the hopes of her grandmother and Oudh. Trying very hard to bite back tears, she remained seated as the rest of the bidders made their way out of the room. Bismah stood at her side in stony silence. He was as disappointed as she was. But did they ever have a chance? Leila had known they wouldn’t, not against a contender like Marco Vincenzi. They were naïve to think he would back down. So naïve!
He did not care for the special meaning the stone had for the people of Oudh, her people now. Oh, she wished she could wipe that smug satisfied look off Marco Vincenzi’s face, she thought as she watched him exit the room. Men like him were only interested in material gain, pride and possessions, not in the needs of others.
“It is time we left, your Highness,” Bismah said coldly. His reproachful eyes bored into her as she slowly gathered herself from her seat and made the effort to walk toward the door.
“We will need to inform the Queen of this… this news,” Bismah did not try to be polite. He blamed her for not acquiring the vital talisman of their land. Leila could hardly blame him.
Burdened with the responsibility to inform her grandmother that she had not been able to retrieve the hope of an entire kingdom, Leila postponed phoning her grandmother for later. Making her way to the foyer of Sotheby’s she was told that her car would be delayed for a short time and that alternate arrangements would be made. Bismah was in busy consultation with the concierge when Marco entered the foyer from a side office. A briefcase was handcuffed to his right wrist and a beautiful woman dangled on his left arm. Two armed men stood on either side of the couple as they walked toward the entrance. The entourage stopped when Marco spotted Leila.
‘Princess, is there a problem?’ Marco asked. Leila could hear the condescension in his voice but before she could respond, Bismah intercepted.
‘The car has merely been delayed and we await the arrival of a courtesy vehicle from the hotel,” Bismah informed.
“I believe I know the hotel, it would be my pleasure to take you there. You need not wait. No princess should be kept waiting.’ Marco seemed angry as his gaze swept over Bismah.
‘You need not concern yourself, Mr Vincenzi. I am sure the wait will not be long,’ Leila said quickly.
‘You heard the Princess, darling,’ the woman drawled, ‘we should leave.’
‘I insist.’ Marco was not going to take no for an answer. His beautiful companion shifted uncomfortably and once again Bismah interjected, ‘I think the Mr Vincenzi is right. We should accompany him to the hotel.’ Bismah eyed the briefcase handcuffed to Marco’s wrist. Leila wondered what Bismah was up to, did he plan on stealing the gem that was obviously in the briefcase? What an absurd thought! Just imagining short, bald Bismah with all his pomp and propriety wrestling with Marco, tall muscular Marco, for the briefcase caused Leila to smile at the impossible image.
The smile on Leila’s face was mesmerising. Large hazel eyes, rimmed by long eyelashes fell softly over golden flawless skin. Her full lips curved in a smile to reveal dimples on each cheek. Marco could not help but stare.
Leila became conscious of Marco’s intent gaze and her smile quickly faded as her pulse pounded. It was Bismah that yet again broke the spell.
‘It is late your Highness; we should get back to the hotel.’
Unsure of Bismah’s intentions, Leila had no choice but to be escorted to Marco’s awaiting limousine. The woman, who was yet to be introduced, still clung possessively to Marco’s arm and looked irritated. Leila was ushered into the rather ostentatious limousine and Bismah followed. “I’ll speak to you later, Bianca.” They heard Marco say before he leaned toward the annoyed woman, kissed her cheek and left her standing at the kerb before he got in.
The stilted silence in the limousine was intensified by the slow course of the journey. For a while, each occupant stared out of tinted windows not really seeing the passing traffic but were caught up in their thoughts. For Leila it was the powerful presence of the man seated opposite her. His close proximity, the woody leather scent of his cologne and his long legs just inches away was affecting her senses so acutely that she felt like she was drowning in a sea of him. She was at a loss at why thoughts of him would supersede the fact that she had failed her first duty as princess.
Leila tried focusing on the ruby contained in the briefcase that was casually placed on the seat next to Marco.
Marco watched Leila struggle with her thoughts. Her face so easily betrayed her emotions; she would make a terrible poker player or a liar for that matter. Noticing that her eyes reverted once more to the briefcase, he was sure that the basis of her deep thoughts lay with the ruby. For some reason he was disappointed.
‘Do you really believe that the ruby has special powers?’ Marco asked derisively.
Leila stared at him for a moment and then said, ‘It doesn’t matter what I believe but what the people of my country believe. But of course I don’t expect you to understand.’ Leila felt like an emotional wreck and she confidently placed the blame on Marco.
‘Well that is a curious thing to say.’ Marco was taken aback, but he persevered. ‘Humour me Princess, why would I not understand?’
Leila couldn’t help being hostile and did not bother to censure her response, ‘You seem ruthless, only concerned with your own gains.’
‘You don’t know me well enough to make that assumption.’
‘Why did you want the ruby, Mr Vincenzi?’
‘I like collecting beautiful things,’ Marco said with a satisfied grin.
Leila knew that there was a message in that statement that did not only refer to the ruby. She gazed out through the tinted windows of the limousine not really paying any attention to the hub of central London.
‘You were prepared to pay any price for that ruby, weren’t you?’
‘I suppose I am walking into your little honey trap when I say yes, but I think you already knew that I was prepared to pay any price to get what I want. But to me that is just the way of my business.’ He wondered why he felt he needed to justify his actions, he’d never felt the need to do that before.
‘Well you may be an astute business man, Mr Vincenzi however the ends do not justify the means.’ Leila watched as Marco’s face dealt with her rebuttal. For some reason she refused to be bested by this man. He made her feel completely uncomfortable in his presence and she wanted to return the feeling. Her heart had yet to settle from the first moment she laid eyes on him. Every time he looked at her she felt an inexplicable jolt in the pit of her stomach. Fear, she pinned it down to fear. He was what stood in her way of helping Oudh and her grandmother. And she was afraid of letting them down.
‘Do you believe the folklore involving the ruby, Mr Vincenzi?’ She saw that her question made Marco uncomfortable because he shifted in his seat. Before he could answer she said, ‘You know the ruby can only bring fortune to the royal bloodline of Oudh. It is a pity what happened to the dealer whom my uncle, Prince Arman had sold it to and the ill-fated thief who’d stolen it a few years ago. Aren’t you afraid that the same misfortune might befall you?’
A sneer from Bismah indicated that he was listening in on their conversation. She’d almost forgotten he was riding along with them. He was instantly stilled by a warning glance from Leila.
Marco laughed. ‘I thought you were much worldlier than that Princess, I do not indulge in old-wives’ tales. They are for the simple-minded.’ Although he was smiling she saw that there was a sliver of doubt in his grey eyes.
Marco was bemused by the woman sitting in front of him. There was more to Leila Brown than just a beautiful princess. She was dangerous, dangerous to his well-being. He was fortunate to keep a cool rational head in all facets of his life, be it business or pleasure, but this woman seemed to turn his world upside down. He should be happy right now, celebrating the acquisition of the ‘heart’. But for some reason all he could think about was her and how he wanted her, more than he had ever wanted anything else. The mere thought of just reaching out and touching her, his hands caressing her softness was driving him crazy. This journey better come to an end soon.
The car drew to a halt just outside the prestigious Carlton Hotel and a relieved Leila prepared to disembark. She hoped that she would not have to encounter Marco again. Her anxiety was heightened by the fact that he had with him the ruby and she did not know how she would break the awful news to her grandmother. She was barely aware of the tight-lipped conversation between Marco and Bismah. She assumed that Bismah was thanking Marco for his kindness, Bismah-fashion of course. She smiled her thanks and very quickly regretted looking into Marco’s eyes. Once again she felt like she was swept away by the tide of perplexing emotions. Willing her eyes away she prepared to escape into the hotel escorted by the ever-present Bismah.
“Princess, I would be honoured to accompany you to dinner this evening.” Marco casually placed a hand in his pocket and pulled out his phone.
Did he think that she was awaiting his invitation to dinner?
“No thank you, Mr Vincenzi.” She could not hide the hostility in her curt response. Leila continued into the hotel and mumbled under her breath, ‘Not even if you asked a hundred times’.
“What was that Princess?’ Marco had heard her say something and he knew that whatever it was, could not be flattering. He found himself enjoying this little game he seemed to be playing with her.
‘The Princess said, ‘not even if you asked a hundred times’,’ Bismah haughtily repeated. Leila was mortified. Embarrassment turned her bright red but she was just inches away from the elevators which were both mercifully open and empty. Without breaking her stride she entered and as the doors closed, she heard Marco’s amused chuckle. An irritated stare was lost on Bismah. Honestly, at times Leila was sure that Bismah hated her.
Later that afternoon, Leila paced the luxurious confines of her hotel-room. Guilt-ridden and spineless, Leila had yet to make the call to her grandmother. Her first task as Princess was a complete failure. She had let her grandmother and an entire country down. She picked up the phone for the umpteenth time and placed it back in its cradle once again. What would this do to her grandmother? Surely it will add to her frailty.
The last few months had been both fairytale-like and terrifying. Leila was thrust into a world that was so different yet she was determined to do her best as the heir to the kingdom of Oudh. With it in such a state of financial ruin, she doubted whether her best would be enough. She wondered how the older woman had managed to keep her sanity amid all the loss and hopelessness. Well, they did have renewed hope when it seemed that she would succeed in reacquiring the ‘heart’, but now those hopes will have to be dashed and Leila could not help but feel responsible.