Morning came very slowly. Each time she closed her eyes, she was assailed by images of Marco, his touch, his taste, the languid kisses that promised passion. She was intoxicated. Addicted. And he was her drug of choice. Just like a drug addict she found that she hated him for the hold he had on her. Especially when she learned more and more about him. While she could not deny that there were moments he seemed almost ‘human’, there were times when she was afraid that he was nothing but what his reputation suggested. Ruthless.
She had heard him return to the suite close to dawn. Was it business that kept him away all night long? Business between sloshing glasses of champagne and whirls on the dance floor seemed unlikely to continue to the early hours of the morning. Although she had merely overheard the proposals for the Nigerian oil deal, she knew enough to know that it would just be another plunder of a third world country. The journalist in her knew enough to know that people like Remy Rouse were like vultures, waiting for their opportunity to make a profit at the expense of the downtrodden or desperate. Such a find in Nigeria, one of the more sought after resources in the modern world – oil, would ensure a better life for the people of the third world country if they were to benefit from it. But she feared that it would not be so. And even more distressing was that Marco was part of it. Her husband was part of something she had sworn to expose as a journalist – exploitation and corruption. But still she wanted him. She craved not just his touch but his company. You foolish, foolish woman, she scolded herself.
Then there was Bianca Scott. The snide remarks, the loaded looks effectively conveyed the message loud and clear: Bianca did not care for her. Leila may have always tried to see the good in others in the past, but this was one person she found difficult to find any good. Perhaps she was not trying hard enough. Did Bianca keep him company last night?
The sun peeked in through a tiny gap in the heavy brocade curtains. It was finally morning. And she did not get a wink of sleep. Relieved when she heard Mira’s light tap on her door, she gave up and called her in.
Mira’s tiny frame entered through the slit in the door. Leila was already sitting up in bed. Mira took one look at the bed, still neat on one side and clucked her tongue. “Another night without your husband? This is meant to be your honeymoon, Princess.”
“I really don’t need a lecture right now, Mira.” Leila pulled the duvet off and rose from the bed.
“Tssk! No lecture. But it is up to you to make this work, you should know that your highness.”
Mira ought not to have bothered with the title since she certainly had no respect for it. How dare she meddle, and lay blame for Marco’s absence from the honeymoon bed at her feet?
Leila glared at Mira. “Look Mira it has been a long night. I’m not going to go into this with you now.”
“Marriage is hard work, constant work.” Mira’s large eyes regarded her.
Leila sighed. It was obvious that Mira was like a dog with a bone and she was not going to let it go. The woman was a mini version of Bismah! Leila fell back on the bed.
“Tell me Mira, how do you know so much about marriage, anyhow? You haven’t been married before have you?” Mira seemed very young, perhaps only a year or two older than her and there were no rings on any of her fingers.
“Well, no. But close.” Mira walked over to the cleverly disguised closet and slid the baroque doors open. Her back to Leila, she continued, “When I was eighteen, I fell in love. He was a student of medicine. So he had to leave for Calcutta to complete his studies. The long distance thing was very difficult. We had many problems. Fighting all the time. There wasn’t much I could do.” Mira sighed as she ran her fingers along the row of padded hangers. Pulling out one she held it up for Leila to approve. It was a cerise dress, a little too flouncy with a bunch of frills along the hem. Leila closed her eyes briefly. No, that would never do.
Mira shrugged and put the dress back in the closet and moved hangers as she searched for another outfit. “Anyway a year later, he arrived with his wife-to-be. They met in Calcutta. The minx was a doctor too.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry.”
“Yes it was sad, such a handsome man and a doctor too.” Mira’s tone dipped as she pulled out another expensive dress that Leila could not remember purchasing. It was a solid green long sleeved peplin dress. Leila hated the style and immediately shook her head.
“A few months later I fell in love again.”
Leila was confused but managed to hold her tongue as Mira turned to the closet once again.
“He was a government man. Worked for the agricultural department as an inspector. And…” Mira suddenly dropped her head shyly. “What a lover! Mmhmm. Nice hands. Big, long … kisses.” Her hands dropped to her sides as a smile filled her face.
Leila blinked not knowing exactly what to say to that titbit of information.
“Then he was killed.”
Leila jerked back in shock.
On impulse, Mira quickly slid hangers across and drew out a jade floral silk shift dress. Simple with cut out sleeves and a square neck, it was chic and sophisticated. Leila nodded approval.
“Bull trampled him to death.” Mira sighed heavily as she placed the dress on the clothes horse. “It was what they call a freak accident. He was on a smallholding inspecting a request for funding – with the drought many farms have gone out of business.”
Mira did not have to remind Leila of the devastation she witnessed in Oudh. Many were virtually starving due to the drought and all because the Heart of Oudh was removed from the kingdom, as the legend foretold.
“The bull attacked, probably starved, and that was that. He was gone.” Mira sank on the bed beside Leila.
“That’s awful.” Leila reached out and placed a hand on Mira’s shoulder.
“It was.” She stared ahead, lost in thought. Leila respected the silence as she stroked Mira’s shoulder.
“But just a few months ago I met Jovan.”
Leila was again speechless.
“He’s not a fantastic lover, too quick on the draw, as they say.” Mira’s mouth pulled to one side in a smile. “And he doesn’t have good prospects,” she continued with a shrug.
Leila tried her best to suppress a laugh.
“But I suppose we might get married when I return to Oudh.”
“That’s… that’s good? Isn’t it?”
“He’s a good man. There’s something to be said for that I suppose.”
“Oh Mira! There’s everything to be said about that.”
“Mmhmm, but your Marco, now he looks like a ‘delicious dish’ as the Americans say. Those dark eyes and… “
Leila immediately arose from the bed. “No, Mira. Marco is not up for discussion.” She crossed over to the door of the stately bathroom. “Besides you know nothing of my marriage. It isn’t at all what you think.”
With that she closed the door.
“Half an hour to breakfast, Princess.” Mira called after her a moment later.
Marco was not at the elaborately decked out breakfast table. Leila found him out on the gallery that overlooked the stunning French Riviera. Large sloops and sleek yachts, bobbed to the lazy rhythm of the calm waters of the Monte Carlo marina. The ocean stretched out and met the sky discreetly in the distance. The scene might have held the magic of wealth and opulence. But it held nothing for either Leila or Marco.
Marco’s phone was tucked on the side of his head, with his tone lowered in anger as he spoke to the person on the other end.
“I need that info now, Bart. I sign in a couple of hours and without it I’m going into this completely blank.” A pause while birds circled overhead and a woman’s shrill laughter rang off somewhere in the distance. “Are you or are you not in Lagos?” he hissed. “Have you or have you not met with Molinga?” He threw a hand up in the air. “Then what’s the hold up, Bart?”
He ran the same hand through his thick hair. “One hour, Bart! One hour!”
The phone slid on the low gallery wall. Then he turned to her. A small smile played on his lips.
“Leila.” He said her name as if it was his first breath.
She regarded him, casual in his linen slacks and pale blue shirt folded at the sleeves. He was as Mira had described him – a delicious dish.
“You’re going ahead then, with the oil deal.” An eyebrow arched and a smile came easily.
“It’s a great opportunity.”
“To make money, at the expense of the people who should most benefit.”
Marco did not immediately respond. Instead he regarded her then stared out at the view.
“Please don’t think me incapable of seeing through it. Before all this, the title, this marriage, I was a journalist. Well aware of the world and its monsters. Well aware of people like Rouse who pounce on opportunities to make money off desperate people.”
Marcos head jerked back. Turning toward her, his eyes narrowed as he watched her then said, ” Is that how you see me. As a monster?”
No, she wanted to say, I really don’t know what I see you as. He was her husband, for a short while her lover. The man could with a kiss send her heart into a crazy frenzy. Right now, just in his presence, with his dark eyes on her, an eyebrow arched, her knees were weak. But he was also a man who got what he wanted. A collector of possessions. A business man with only the bottom line in mind.
“Whatever I think does not matter. I just hope you consider those poor people.”
His phone rang again. But he ignored it for a moment. “Your assumptions of the deal are just assumptions. Nothing more.”
With that he turned away and responded to the persistent ringing.
She sat at the breakfast table, a little unsure if she’d gone too far but still determined to make her point. Waiting for the opportune moment to have her say proved tricky. Her food lay untouched in front of her and Mira was prompting her to eat with a tilt of her head. The plate certainly looked good, a grilled mushroom topped with a poached egg and bechamel sauce. Tempting, but not as tempting as the man seated opposite her. His look was black and the tension palpable. It was enough to warrant the silence in the room.
Marco tried to swallow the forkful of eggs. At a complete loss, and it was not the first time since he’d set eyes on Leila Jodhi Brown, he knew he was anything but in control of his shifting emotions that vacillated between anger and fury to frustration. Bart had received the worst of it. Marco had unleashed a torrent of abuse when his private investigator called to tell him there was a delay in the meeting with the chief of the villages where oil had been discovered, citing the inconceivable excuse of unrest and protests in the area near Lagos, Nigeria’s capital.
But it was Leila’s accusation that galled him more than anything. Her perception of him had not improved from the first time. And though he had to admit that his association with the disreputable Rouse had not helped rectify it, he knew he couldn’t back out now. What she wouldn’t know, and what he couldn’t reveal was that he was well aware of Rouse’s plan. And it was exactly as she feared. Only his part in the mess was to ensure that Rouse would not waggle every bit of profit from the deal. That the people to whom the land belonged would benefit not just in profit but in employment and share opportunities as well.
He looked at her now. Mistake! For a moment it felt like he was punched in the gut. She was staring at the food in front of her. But he knew her mind was miles away. Bent head, just the perfect arch of the brow and the curve of her lush eyelashes that swept the top of those incredible cheek bones could be seen. But he knew those lips were in a pout. A kissable pout. He sensed the set of her chin might be rigid. Temper or concentration. Most likely temper. The most desirable woman in the world. He wondered why he was torturing himself.
She looked up then and met his gaze.
“My morning is busy.” It was probably wise not to mention exactly what he’d be doing, besides she already overheard his conversation with Bart. “You might like to enjoy it shopping. Take Mira along.”
Her response was a glare.
“Leila, this is happening with or without your approval. So that lovely pout is only making me want to kiss it.” He smiled, hoping it would break the dark mood. But she glowered still.
“As you wish master of the universe, I’ll go shopping.”
His blood boiled with a combination of passion and anger. He should ignore it. A better man might, but Marco knew his faults and weaknesses. And it excluded him from the better man’s club. It took him three long strides and he was at her side. She’d already risen from her chair, her movements slower than his. Swooping her into his arms, his fingers stroked away stray strands of her hair while his lips descended on hers. Her body moulded into him as their lips melded. Hot and hungry, there wasn’t the gentleness of their kiss last night. And it wasn’t just her lips he wanted to consume, but all of her. Trailing his mouth along her jaw, down her earlobe, he found the sweetest spot on her arched neck. He felt her body open up and soften, and he became bolder.
Slow to acknowledge the buzzing in his breast pocket, it was she who pulled away.
“You should answer that,” she said breathlessly. It took a moment to drag his eyes away from her flushed face. It took longer for his pulse to settle.