Monte Carlo, Monaco was every bit as glamorous as she envisioned it. Beautiful people strutted through avenues lined with a fusion of charming old buildings alongside modern structures in a whirl of fashion, trendiness and money.
It was hard to feel anything but insecure amid all that Monaco was famed for, but Leila did not have the proclivity to dwell on it, not when other more pressing issues took up her thoughts.
Foremost was Marco Vincenzi, her husband. That the sudden aversion he seemed to demonstrate toward her was perplexing to say the least, was an understatement. It hurt. It sawed through her like the blunt edge of a serrated knife. Maybe aversion was too strong a word. He was doing everything right when they were together. He was attentive and even foresaw her every need, hence her being submerged in scented bubbles and silky bath oils at that very moment. Their conversation during their flight to Monaco, albeit stilted on her part, was a constant attempt on his. Granted, he kept it on everything else but the burning issue of their marriage. They’d spoken of nothing else but frivolous plans for the rest of the trip, including the Statesmen Ball they were to attend that evening.
“I realise it might be short notice, but I’ve only just got word that a business opportunity might present itself,” he told her blithely.
Leila couldn’t help but feel put out again. Business as usual, and she was just there as part of the package, she tried to remind herself.
“You don’t seem too happy about it,” he observed. Leila chose her words. “It doesn’t matter how I feel about it, does it? I will have to perform my duties as part and parcel of my obligations as your wife.” She had seen his face darken and she knew she hit a nerve.
“Perhaps it’s for the best,” he finally said. He veered the conversation in a different direction. And then ensured she was comfortable before he was called to the cockpit. Like with his yacht. Marco got to play with his other toy, his jet. With the city famed on the French Riviera up ahead, he was to land the jet in one of the private landing strips afforded to the elite who piloted their own.
Safely landed, they stopped for a rich lunch at one of the many French restaurants before installing themselves at the elegant Hermitage hotel.
“An afternoon of pampering, my princess,” he had said as they entered their suite while the assistant from the spa, a stunning petite young woman, waited to escort her over to it. Leila might not have thought it necessary at the time but she realised it was perhaps exactly what she needed, a break from the stifling tension between them, even if it was just for a few hours.
She had to admit though, he was playing the part of a considerate and caring husband to the tee. But that may fool everyone else. Not Leila. Their separate rooms at their suite was testament to their anything but a picture-perfect marriage.
Leila pounded the water in frustration as it became clear to her that she would have to deal with the consequences of marrying someone like Marco. Watching the splashes of foamy liquid run along the marble tiles in the bathing suite of one of the finest spas in Monaco, did nothing to alleviate the situation but it did make her feel a little better. For a brief moment. The tight knots that the masseuse had so skilfully kneaded and coerced out of her lower neck earlier, returned.
The rather startled assistant who’d drawn the luxurious bath arrived with a bunch of towels. “Is everything okay, mademoiselle?” she asked. Leila apologised profusely and pleaded exhaustion.
She was dressed in a Dior, especially made for her by the man himself. She had thought it frivolous when it had been commissioned, but now standing in front of the mirror in the jewel-red chiffon silk creation, she felt every bit as glamorous as the movie stars and celebrities she had followed in the tabloids. The cowl neck swept modestly just above her cleavage but plunged to the small of her back. It shimmered along her generous curves, highlighting not accentuating them. Mira helped pin her long brown tresses in a trendy upstyle that pulled her features a little making her cheek bones even more prominent. She felt beautiful, a smile curved along her lips as her reflection swayed in the mirror.
Marco was simply handsome in his perfectly tailored tuxedo standing in the middle of the living room, waiting for her. Perhaps she’d been expecting more of a reaction from him, but his cool appraisal of her, was deflating. And Leila wondered why it caught in her throat like a lump of coal. But she did not pause to analyse it. Sweeping through the room, determined to get the evening over with, she beat him to the door of the suite.
“Leila.” His voice was soft and tender and she looked at him expectantly. “You can’t go out like that!”
She stilled and quickly checked herself but found nothing out of place.
He slowly produced a long velvet case from his tuxedo pocket. Opening it as he came toward her, he presented her with an astounding ruby and diamond necklace. It was simple but magnificent. A tear shaped ruby dropped from a string of diamonds.
“I thought of you when I saw it. It will go perfectly with that dress.”
His eyes roamed over her, a little more appreciatively this time. But Leila couldn’t help but wonder if he was admiring the dress or her in it. Why was this man so hard to read? Speechless, she allowed him to place it on her neck.
His fingers were like light butterflies as he fiddled with the clasp. It sent slivers of sensation to the pit of her stomach. But she held her breath until he was done, and slowly twirled toward him, her fingers caressing the sparkling stones.
Her loss of words added to the tension that suddenly filled the small space between them. She brought her eyes up to meet his steely grey gaze. There was a heat there and she drew a deep breath in anticipation of what they promised. But the slight tap on the door broke the spell and once again, he was cordial and pleasant Marco.
The who’s who of the privileged world, resplendent in their pricey evening attire and stiff upper lips, congregated at an event that dripped with class and over indulgence. Leila’s critical eye took in her surroundings and became immediately conscious of the fact that she might never belong to this world. Marco’s world. He led her through the maze of acquaintances, who politely expressed interest in the fact that she was titled and then lost some of that interest when they found out that it was of a little known kingdom in the foot of the Himalayas. It annoyed her that one’s worth was calculated by fame and fortune. Reminding herself that she had a purpose to fulfil and that purpose was to help her grandmother and the people of Oudh, she plastered on a smile, politely returned baseless chatter and left no doubt in anyone’s mind that she and Marco were the perfect couple. With the palm of his hand splayed on the small of her back, skin to skin, hot and electrifying, she found that she could almost believe it. Again assailed by the memories of how he’d touched her, gently and urgently just nights ago, distracted her from curious stares and pretentious remarks.
Later when Marco’s conversation with a few of the guests veered toward business, Leila listened idly and then excused herself. She caught the gist of it and found her distaste for the evening increasing. So Marco was discussing the new oil fields reported in Nigeria as a possible venture, she thought as she made her way to the ladies room. Well, more like he was being convinced to take the leap with Remy Rouse, business tycoon of the year, as the large bald man had introduced himself smugly earlier on. Another third world country for them to plunder, she tried to swallow the thought. She hoped Marco was not lumped in with the likes of Rouse, but then he could be. Isn’t that how Bismah described him the first time she was alerted of Marco Vincenzi, a ruthless businessman? He had told her himself that he would do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Their marriage was testament to that. But somehow she didn’t want to believe it. Somehow she hoped that he would prove her wrong.
She wasn’t paying much attention to where she was going and so when she collided with a flounce of dazzling gold silk, she made her apologies instantly to the wearer. Then her eyes lifted to the face of the beautiful woman before her. She recognised her immediately. But it was the woman who spoke first.
“Well, well, well… It’s Princess Leila of Oudh.” The tone was convincingly condescending. It put Leila on the defensive. “Enjoying the ball, princess.”
Politely as she could muster, Leila said, “Yes, I am. You’ll have to forgive me. I recognise you from the auction but I don’t think we were formally introduced.”
“Oh! We were, but then you only had eyes for Marco, didn’t you? Bianca Scott.” She narrowed her eyes as she stuck out her hand. “I’m Marco’s business associate.” She shook Leila’s hand with a sure vigour.
Leila smiled, again with effort. “Pleased to meet you.”
Bianca scanned the room and then let her eyes peruse Leila, taking in the dress and the necklace. “I see you’re playing your part perfectly. The happy titled wife, according to the contract.” She flashed a row of straight white teeth, then nudged her gently with her elbow. “It’s good for business.”
Leila was dumbfounded. But she pulled up her head and looked the woman straight in the eye. “I don’t know what you mean.” She side-stepped Bianca, kept her head up and moved toward the hall where she hoped she’d find the ladies room.
She was shaking. Anger and embarrassment were at the top of her list of emotions in that moment, but there were more. Her heart kicked violently in her chest and all she wanted to do was leave. Forget that blasted contract and leave. At least she would be leaving with a modicum of pride. But sensibility overtook all else. After splashing cold water on her wrists and taking a few deep breaths, she realised that the greater good would have to steer her forward. She’d known from the beginning that her marriage to Marco was a mere arrangement. She was getting what she wanted and he was obviously getting what he wanted too. A trophy wife, to parade about in order to further his business interests. Of course, how dense could she have been?
Marco spotted her across the room. She still had the power to take his breath away, every single time. He watched as she made her way to him. The fiery silk clung to her shapely body with each step she made toward him. Her eyes glinted and he knew the moment she levelled them on his, that she was upset.
“Let’s dance.” Before she could protest he twirled her onto the floor and pulled her gently toward him. She was fuming, he could sense from her rigid movements. But he ignored it. He let his fingers slide up and down her bare back. He wasn’t sure if it was a means to calm her down or whether he just wanted to torment himself. It would be so easy to give in. To kiss her and then watch her unravel under his touch. To see in her eyes the reflection of his lust, his desperate hunger for her. So easy to forget that he was playing for the big time, and just make love to her like he so badly wanted to. But he had to put her first, he told himself. Her move would be the next move. She would decide when and where. She would fall in love with him. It was all he wanted now. And if he had to make sacrifices, then he would.
“So, are you going to tell me?” He whispered in her ear. But she kept her face averted as they glided across the floor to a slow tune the band played.
“Most times you’re frustratingly difficult to read, but tonight, I can see your fury, well that’s probably the only emotion I think I’m ever able to read clearly.”
She stubbornly remained silent. But he felt her soften a little in his arms. So he concentrated on the dance, knowing full well that thinking too much of how close their bodies were, how the heat of hers permeated the flimsy material of her dress, how her shiny hair smelled of jasmine and vanilla and how her skin under his touch was sweet and responsive, would be both dangerous ad detrimental to his control.
When the dance ended, he led her to one of the many outdoor alcoves, where guests enjoyed further spoils. Under a spool of light, with the cooling fresh air on their faces he turned her toward him, grasping her arms to keep her attention. “What is it, Leila?”
“Really. That’s new. You always speak your mind. You give me a good chunk of it when you’re upset, whether I want it or not.”
Then she said what he’d been waiting to hear.
“Just kiss me Marco.”