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The incessant knocking on the door of the hotel suite gave her an excuse to abandon her daunting task. Finally emerging from her room, she was met by a flustered Bismah rolling his eyes and wringing his hands.
‘These have been arriving all afternoon!’ He swung about, his outstretched arms floated around; the entire front room was teemed in assorted bouquets of flowers.
‘Your Mr Vincenzi, can’t seem to take no for an answer.’
Leila looked around in wonder. She could not hold back the buoyant joy that suddenly lifted her spirits at being surrounded by the all that beauty and fragrance. Just as she picked an orchid from an arrangement nearest to her, there was another knock at the door. Bismah threw his hands up to the heavens leaving Leila to answer the summons herself.
Another huge bouquet of star-lilies hid the bearer from view. ‘Oh! These are gorgeous!’ Leila exclaimed as she took the vase and swept into the suite marvelling at the unusual arrangement of her favourite flowers without acknowledging the bearer.
‘I’m glad you like it,’ said a familiar drawl. Stopping in midstride, the smile faded from her face. The last thing she expected was to see him again.
‘I believe that I have asked you to dinner a hundred and one times, Princess, will you say yes now?’ She had hardly time to process his presence there and found herself at a loss for words. An eyebrow lifted as he awaited her response.
‘You’re very persistent, Mr. Vincenzi.’
‘Marco, please.’ He smiled, offered to take the vase, which she was reluctant to part with as it at least provided a barrier between them, which she certainly needed. With her resolve eventually melting away in the heat his close proximity seemed to bring, she let go of the vase. He merely passed the vase on to a clearly annoyed Bismah who had stood open mouthed ever since Marco’s arrival.
‘Why do you insist on us having dinner together?’ She asked when Bismah left the room. Leila had already guessed that it was because Marco was used to having his way and that he did not like being rejected, but his response astounded her.
‘I have a proposition for you… regarding the ruby. You are still keen on obtaining it, I assume?’ Leila felt her heart quicken but she forced herself to remain composed.
‘Do you wish to sell the ruby? I mean you went to quite some trouble to get it, why the sudden change?’
He looked around for a moment before he answered. ‘I think it’s best if we discuss this at dinner. I will see you at seven, downstairs in the cocktail lounge. Till then, Princess.’
And just as bizarrely as he had arrived, he was gone, leaving Leila standing in the middle of a field of beautiful exotic flowers, too dumbstruck to move.
‘How dare he drop a suggestion and then just leave without an explanation,’ Leila said to herself when she had realised how foolish she felt. ‘What makes him think that I will just be willing to meet him tonight, oh! That man is so arrogant!’
‘I advise you to meet with Mr Vincenzi,’ Bismah popped out of the shadows. She shrieked in surprise as she had forgotten that her nosy aide was still around. Why couldn’t her grandmother have chosen a more courteous assistant to accompany her?
‘Bismah you shouldn’t sneak up on me like that!’
‘I apologise, Princess Leila. I do think that we should see what Mr Vincenzi has to offer.’ He curled his lip as he said Marco’s name. ‘We should not refute any opportunity in acquiring the ruby, after all everyone is depending on its return to Oudh.’
‘I realise that but I don’t think that Marco will part with the ruby. In fact I can’t imagine what his intentions are. But you are right I will meet with him… without your interference, tonight.’ She hoped he understood that she was going to be making the decisions. Leila watched Bismah’s horrified face.
‘Princess, I object. Your grandmother entrusted you in my care.’
‘She did. As a companion. But there are certain things that I am quite capable of doing on my own. And this meeting, or whatever it is, will be between Mr Vincenzi and me. That is my final word on the matter.’
Leila took care to dress that evening. A simple but elegant gown that flowed from the neck to below the knees would have looked matronly on another woman, but on Leila it looked sensuous. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror, hoping that she had achieved the effect she was going for – elegant, sophisticated and business-like. After all she didn’t want Marco to get the wrong idea; there was something about the way he looked at her that made her feel weak and flustered. It irritated her that he seemed to have that effect on her. Men had never been a concern for her in the past. Being extremely shy growing up, she had had no experience with boys as it was easier to hide behind her glasses and long hair than to involve heself in bumbling adolescent affairs. At college when she had no more use for her spectacles and her friends insisted on her showing her beautiful face instead of hiding behind it, she gained some confidence and dated a few young men but there weren’t any serious affections exchanged partly because she made sure that it never got to a serious point.
Happy with the results of her efforts, she grabbed her purse and left her room. Bismah was waiting for her. He scowled at her as he took in her appearance.
‘You look like you are going to a funeral, Princess.’
Leila was in no mood for his cutting comments and caustically replied, ‘Yes, you would feel that way too if you were selling your soul to the devil.’
‘As princess, your responsibility comes with certain sacrifices. When you accept that you will feel a bit better about it all.’ There was a different quality in his voice as he said that last bit, and she wondered if there was indeed a smidgen of pity she heard. It was the last thing she wanted, his pity, or anyone else’s for that matter. She had already psyched herself to attend this dinner with Marco, even though there was that niggling feeling there was certainly something quite offish about it. There was so much more than the ruby that was at stake, her intuition warned; for some reason Leila felt that it was also going to be her heart that would need to be sacrificed in the end.
She sat patiently at the bar of the cocktail lounge sipping on mineral water to pass the time. It was only a few minutes since she arrived and yet it seemed an eternity. Bismah watched vigilantly from a few tables away. Even though Leila had insisted, in fact demanded, that he not accompany her, he refused to go against the Queen’s orders and so to appease her he agreed to keep an eye on her, albeit from a short distance.
Marco sat in a secluded spot studying the woman at the bar. She seemed stiff and wary and he knew he was the reason for her tense demeanour. For brief seconds, he felt an overwhelming urge to gather her in his arms and wipe away the look of concern on her face. The thought led to other thoughts. What would she feel like in his arms?
As soon as he realised the direction his thoughts veered off to, he put a stop to it. Cool and in control! Marco seemed to need to keep reminding himself of this ever since he laid eyes on Leila. He wondered what on earth he was doing, not for the first time that day. This was so off character, so impulsive and opportune, he considered leaving, letting her sit there at the bar without a clue as to what he was about to propose. But the moment the thought entered his head, he dismissed it.
He wanted to prove her wrong. Why, when her opinion of him was probably what many whom he’d encountered in business shared? He had no answer to that. And honestly he did not want to analyse that just yet.
He wasn’t all about power and materialism, he wanted her to know. There was more to him. He was a self-made man and not in any way selfish, as she’d suggested. Well, with the proposition he was about to make her, he was sure that he would set the record straight. Princess Leila would eventually see how very wrong her assumptions of him were. He had kept her waiting long enough, he decided. She would never know that he was waiting for her for more than an hour – one of the tricks of being in control.
‘You are certainly a pleasure to look at, princess. Sorry to keep you waiting.’ Leila shifted in her chair and faced Marco.
With a tilt of her head she waited for him to explain. When no explanation was forthcoming, she said, ‘I don’t suppose you were ever told not to keep a lady waiting.’ Her eyes bored into his.
‘You seem upset.’ Marco tried to keep the smile at bay. Leila was no push-over. She was so close to taking away his control but instead of feeling threatened, he could not help but admire her conviction.
‘There is an edge to you Mr.Vincenzi; that can only be explained by your attitude toward women.’
Marco was surprised by her observation. For a second a cold and suspicious look crossed his features.
‘You think woman are just possessions and only important when they are needed for whatever reason, ’ she continued.
‘I do admit I am a connoisseur of beauty and a beautiful woman can be the ultimate accessory.’ That should rile her up a bit. Give her what she wants, the wrong impression, thought Marco. Remembering his intentions for that evening and also observing the clipped expression on her face, he realised that he was not improving her opinion of him. ‘I keep putting my foot in it, don’t I? The truth is that I do value women as much as the next man.’
Leila kept a straight face. Marco knew that he was not making the impression he hoped to make. He was fumbling with words and he had yet to make sense. Leila had him in knots and a sane man would get away while he had a chance. But she had him rooted to the spot. Wild dogs would not drag him away from her. He was completely lost. The only way he could regain his control was to salvage the upper hand from her. He doubted that she knew how she affected him; that was just the way he wanted it to remain.
They were led to a private dining room with a view of the Thames. Leila stood at the window engrossed in the scene before her; grateful she had something to do as the tension in the room seemed to elevate when they were left alone by the maitre ‘d. Marco came up to stand behind her. He didn’t need to touch her but his close proximity sent Leila’s pulses rocketing again. Unable to think coherently or to function on a normal level, Leila moved away. The inexplicable electricity between them hardly seemed to ease as they pondered their menus. Once they had ordered appetisers, Leila sat back and waited for Marco to take the lead.
‘It must have been a challenge to leave your old life behind. I believe you were quite a promising student of journalism.’
Leila was surprised by Marco’s statement. ‘I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you know so much about me. I suppose it is always advisable to know as much as possible about the person you’re having dinner with.’
‘It is a good idea, especially when you run the risk of being mesmerised by the beauty of your dinner companion,’ Marco said smoothly.
‘I bet you say that to all your dinner companions.’
Marco laughed. The creases around his eyes softened his features and Leila thought him even more handsome. He should laugh more, Leila thought.
‘I read some of your work. You’re very talented. It almost seems a waste that you won’t continue.’ Marco stated matter-of-factly.
Leila dropped her gaze. Marco was the only person who thought to ask her about how her dreams were affected by her new life. Everyone seemed to assume that being a princess was what every young girl dreamt about; for Leila it was writing her own stories and being a journalist like her father set out to be. He would have understood. He was over the moon with pride when she had told him she wanted to study journalism, like he did. Grayson Brown had not been able to be the world renowned writer he had hoped to be, but he had high hopes for Leila to succeed where he did not. Leila searched Marco’s face for signs of ridicule but found none. He seemed genuinely interested in her response.
‘It doesn’t matter whether I can write an article or not. Right now I seem to have much more important concerns.’ Leila replied, managing to keep the flicker of emotion at bay.
‘Such as salvaging the hopes of the people of your adopted country?’ Marco asked.
‘It is not a bad thing to put others before your own needs. You make it seem as if it is a huge sacrifice. But I feel otherwise. These people, my people deserve to have hope after the devastating few years they have suffered. And yes, I believe I can bring about some comfort even if it is just to my grandmother. I will have to find a way now that I was unable to get the ruby.’
‘Ah. The ‘Heart of Oudh’, Marco leaned back in his chair and inhaled deeply. ‘A symbol of hope and fortune when in the hands of the royal family of Oudh. Do you really believe that Princess?’
‘Centuries of such a belief cannot be thrown aside just because of western impudence,’ Leila replied. Leila realised she was beginning to sound more and more like Bismah.
‘You did not answer my question, do you believe it?’ Marco insisted.
‘Yes!’ Leila said emphatically; suddenly becoming aware of her own struggles with the traditions and beliefs of the people of Oudh. She wanted to fit in with her new life. After all it was all she had.
She stood up and walked across to the window. Arms folded, she was quietly aware of Marco coming up behind her.
‘They are my family now. I may have been brought up in a western world, but they are still a part of me.’ Leila turned around and faced Marco. She struggled to keep a control on her over-flowing emotions but knew that it was hopeless. When she thought of her kindly grandmother whom she has known for only a short period of time, she felt suddenly protective. Her lips trembled ever so slightly and her eyes filled with tears. ‘They are all I have. She is all I have.’
Marco had never felt such an enormous flow of sympathy before. This was new, he told himself as the rush of feelings confused him again. He wanted to comfort her and make all her fears disappear. The urge overwhelmed him and he gently pulled her toward him. But Leila resisted and started to pull away. Marco held her firmly and he felt her resistance fade and she crumbled against him. His senses seemed to run on over-drive. The silky mass of her hair smelt like jasmine and honey and he inhaled it deeply, imprinting her scent to memory. Her warm soft body against his sent his heart-beat into race mode. He tried to remember that he was merely comforting her although he wished that he could tilt her head up and kiss her full lips with all the passion that he felt. In an instant, Leila pulled away from him and started toward the door. She was careful not to let him see her face.
‘It has been a long day; I …think I need to go,’ Leila’s voice was shaky.
‘Wait! You haven’t heard my proposition yet.’ Marco hoped he could keep the urgency out of his voice.
‘Marco I don’t want to waste your time. If you are planning to sell me the ruby, you should know the extent of my funds. My last bid at the auction was all I had. I have nothing more to offer you.’
‘You’re wrong; you have a lot more to offer.’ At Leila’s cautious expression, Marco paused and indicated that they should sit. ‘I believe I have a way for both of us to possess the ruby,’ Marco took a deep breath and then in a voice that completely masked his nervousness, he casually stated, ‘Marry me!’