Ordinarily, she might have enjoyed shopping in the City famed for being the playground of the rich and famous. Ordinarily. Not today though. Not in the mood Leila found hard to shake off.
So she married the type of person she’d loathed – the type of person she’d sworn she’d expose for their misuse of the ordinary man. And yet she craved him, his taste still on her lips, his touch still a tingle on her wanton body. It bothered her, this loss of control. This blatant usurpation of her morals and standards.
It did not help at all that Mira was in her element. She bounced through walkways and gleamed at shop displays, audibly marveling cuts, colour combinations, designs and fabrics – an obvious contrast to Leila’s dark mood.
Practically tugging at a soft butter-like cashmere scarf, one that Mira had oohed and aahed over for the last two minutes, Leila placed it aside while an eager shop assistant rounded off all their possible purchases in a heap and carried them over to be discreetly packaged. It was then that Mira slapped at her arm.
“There’s a man hanging about the tie section,” she said between teeth as she almost pulled Leila’s arm off the socket when Leila attempted to look in the direction indicated.
“No! Don’t look now!” she whispered. “He’s been staring at you. I think I saw him in the other two boutiques. I’ll alert the bodyguard.”
Leila was about to tell her she was overreacting, but Mira was already getting the attention of their driver.
“Bodyguard? He’s the driver, Mira. Here to help carry the load of unnecessary nonsense we seem to be accumulating.”
“He’s the bodyguard.” Mira stated this in an odd matter-of-fact tone. “Much good he’s doing, just standing there all muscular… and strong and toned…” Her eyes narrowed in on the large man.
Leila was suddenly unsure if Mira was admiring or admonishing the man at the doorway, his hands placed one over the other, legs slightly planted apart. Mira jerked her head at the possible threat in a code language only her two companions seemed capable of speaking.
Although, when Leila finally set eyes on the man who was claimed to be a threat, he looked anything but menacing. Much like one of the spoilt rich playboys that seemed to be a dime a dozen in Monte Carlo, he appeared harmless. In brown loafers, tan pants that tapered with the ends fashionably turned up, a light shirt and a stylish ascot at his neck, he lifted a hand when she made eye contact.
Both the ‘bodyguard’ and the man stepped up to Mira and her at the same time.
While the bodyguard remained silent, the man introduced himself. “I didn’t mean to alarm you, Princess.” So he knew who she was and also had overheard Mira’s concerns.
“I thought it was you,” he said when Leila returned his smile a little uncertainly. “I read about you… and of course I knew your father.” His voice had that mixture of charming European with a hint of Oxford.
“Yes, for a short while at least, but he was somewhat of a hero of mine. We worked briefly together for the Daily Mail, that is before his … demise.” He cleared his throat, his eyes apologetic.
“A hero? Grayson Brown?” Leila asked the man as Mira scowled at the bodyguard/driver and dismissed him with a wave of her child-like hand.
“Why yes. Your father was a bit of a renegade journalist in his heyday. Wrote a few pieces that could be some of the most interesting investigative journalism ever written.”
Leila was a little stunned by this titbit of information. Her father had steered clear of the big stories – at least that was the impression she had. The image of her father fumbling through the morning papers criticizing the angle taken in headline story came to mind. He’d always had something to say, but he’d never really written any of the front-page exclusives. Leila had always wondered why.
“Rude of me,” he extended a hand, “Charlie Marshanns.” His smile was broad and genuine.
“Will you have coffee with me, there’s a café just around the corner.”
Leila had no reason to decline. Perhaps the glower on Mira’s face should have deterred her. But Leila had not even acknowledged it.
They sat at a table at one of the many cafés strewn along cobbled pavements. A slight breeze blew up from the sea fluttering the heavy material of the awning as they waited for their lattes and spoke of Grayson Brown. Her old father suddenly an enigma to Leila.
“Gray would always point me in the right direction. I learnt a lot from him. Of course his death was such a tragedy.”
“Do you still work for the Daily Mail?” Leila really could not equate the man seated across her with that of a newspaper man.
“No, not anymore I’m afraid. The state of journalism has truly evolved. Print is on a downward spiral. I’m actually freelancing now – writing content for the larger European publications, focusing on the social media side of things.”
“I see.” It was a sad fact but he was right, print media was a dying news form.
“What about you, Leila?” He stirred his latte that was placed in front of him and stopped suddenly. “Can I call you Leila?”
She smiled assent.
“You were to be a journalist yourself, I remember Gray bragging about it.”
“Well, I seem to have other duties now.”
He took a sip of the scalding hot liquid without flinching.
“I dare say the more important duty after all. Oudh needs guidance right now.’
“You know of our little kingdom?” Leila was surprised.
“Yes. I do. Quite interested when I found out you were next in line to rule.”
“Oh!– I — haven’t quite wrapped my head around that one yet.” Leila had tried desperately not to think of that niggling fact. She was not ready to. She doubted if she would ever be ready to. She blew on her coffee before she sipped it hoping to be distracted.
“You were married, recently?” His cup paused in midair when he spotted her ring. She’d insisted on a simple band after the hefty and ostentatious ring Marco had presented her with on their wedding day looked ridiculous on her thin fingers. “To Marco Vincenzi, no less,” he added.
Taken aback by his knowledge of her marriage, especially when it had been less than a week, she was quiet.
“It was in the papers,” he offered. Of course, they were married in London so it would have had to be published in the announcement section of the papers.
“Yes. Just days ago.”
“Well then where’s the lucky fish?” he said as he scanned the street, now brimming with tourists and natives. “I would expect him to be at his new bride’s side.”
“Taking care of business.” She regretted blurting it out just as she said the words. Mira had expressed concerns just as she’d briefly parted ways with her. “He’s a newspaper man. You’re a princess. Make sure you don’t say too much.” She had warned. At the time Leila had brushed off the warning. It made no sense. Mira was cynical to the world in a way that astounded Leila most of the time.
“Well, Monte Carlo is where the top brass of the world converge, if not for pleasure, then certainly for business. Vincenzi must have a hot deal to miss out on spending time with his new bride.” Long legs folded at the knee, as he leaned back in his chair.
Leila instinctively became guarded.
“Is that why you’ve made this your base. To be close to the action.” She tried to sway the conversation to him.
He smiled easily. “Very good deduction. You know what?” His eyes narrowed. “I’m going to say this, just put it out there… I never would have imagined you’d marry someone like Marco Vincenzi. I mean he has quite a reputation, doesn’t he?” He shook his head from side to side. “From all that Gray told me about you, well, he would seem like the last man on earth!”
“A lot seems unlikely, doesn’t it, Mr Marshanns.” Adopting a formal tone, she hoped it would stop what felt like an attack, subtle though he tried to make it sound. “It was highly unlikely that I would be crowned princess, but here I am. And just to be clear, Marco Vincenzi is an honourable man.”
It came as a shock to her as well, her defence of the man she had earlier questioned. Honourable? She had to admit that Marco had married her so that Oudh would have the ruby returned and faith restored. Wouldn’t that be considered an honourable deed? Oh! She knew she was grasping at straws, but she would not let the pompous man across her vitiate Marco. No! Not ever.
She left the café soon after in search Of Mira, whose dark eyes glinted when Leila found her browsing in an elegant shop in a side allée.
“He’s oily that one, I can see – dipped, fried and soaked in clarified butter. I hope you minded what you said to him,” she warned as she lifted a souvenir from a display.
Leila ignored Mira’s ranting. Just overstretching again, she told herself and promptly forgot about Charles Marshanns.
Marco contained a wave of exhilaration. Finally securing a deal with one of his toughest opponents yet, and about to lock horns with his toughest challenger to date, he watched as his wife strolled into Cipriani’s. Weary and a little flustered, he noticed the tell-tale signs: her chin propped up slightly as a hand waved away a strand of hair from her face, and a dimple on one cheek deepened as she tried to keep her expression neutral. He was not surprised that he had come to know her well. She was an interesting study. He found himself thinking about all her other quirks he would still have to learn about. Plenty of time for that, he thought.
There was no ready smile as her eyes met his, but he recognised the flame, and he hoped it was a flame of passion, not anger. Then she detected the large manila envelope placed on the table in front of her. She looked up at him. Those questioning large brown eyes always managed to take his breath away.
“What’s this?” She made no move to touch it.
“Proof to allay your fears, cara.” He did not know when he’d decided to call her the Italian endearment, maybe when she walked into the restaurant and he realised he was a lucky man. But he wondered if she even noticed.
“I know you’ve already made up your mind that I’m public enemy number one, and I know that you are more than aware of the world and its tragedies and the monsters who create those tragedies… well I hope,” he pointed to the envelope, “this information will assure you that I have no intention of fleecing people for a profit.”
“I see.” Still Leila made no attempt to pick the envelope up. “I don’t think you’re a monster.” She leveled her gaze. “I’m starved. Shall we order?”
Marco couldn’t pretend that he was not stunned. It took him a moment or two to regain a semblance of understanding. Whisking the envelope to the side of the table, she reached for the leather-bound menu.
“I assume the deal went according to your expectations?” she asked as her eyes roamed the contents of the menu.
Marco regarded her silently, then threw back his head and laughed. “Princess, you know how to take my breath away.” Marco decided he would only ever concede defeat to the woman seated across him. But he would be damned if he ever let her know.
Later that evening, with a decadent night at the famous Royal Casino planned, Leila left him confused for the second time that day.
She presented herself in a deep aubergine gown that was perfect on her, he wondered if she had any idea how exquisite she looked. As had become ritual, he removed another velvet box from his pocket. This time a diamond bracelet. With her arm on offer, her expression unreadable, he began fastening the bracelet around her delicate wrists. The soft satin of her skin beneath the pads of his fingers aroused him to no end. He felt her pulse race as his fingers skimmed the tantalising flesh. He was about to curse his torturous decision to wait for her, to not rush another encounter between them, when she closed her other hand over his.
“Do we have to go out, tonight?” she murmured, her sweet sigh alluring.
He brought his eyes to hers. Brown eyes glowed then darkened.
“I thought you might enjoy the brilliant nightlife of Monaco.” He tried to keep his voice even.
Her eyelids flittered. And her light touch trembled. “I would much rather spend it here, –with you.”
If that was not an invitation then he did not know what was. But he was rooted to the spot. Afraid he’d frighten her off. “What are you saying, cara?” Her eyes closed heavily just a fraction of a moment. Her breathing deepened. She leaned slightly toward him, her eyes on his lips. He could smell jasmine in her hair and warmed vanilla on her skin.
“Kiss me, Marco.” Her sweet breath a caress, she let her fingers travel up his arm and sighed when they flattened over his heart. “Kiss me.”
He pulled her toward him, not as gently as he’d intended. And he kissed her like he knew she wanted to be kissed.
He lifted her off the floor in an easy conquest and took her to what should have been their honeymoon bed and lay her there as she watched him shed his clothes. His beautiful Leila.