Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17
Rarely had he given her glimpses of the real Marco, now she saw both the man and boy. Her heart staggered with the thought of his sad childhood. Somehow she would never have guessed the lost boy who lurked behind the tough, hard veneer that he was careful to show to the world.
With his arms clasped about her, Leila realised she needed the comfort of the embrace just as much as he needed hers. The truth was that it felt good to be needed by him. To be the one to have something to offer in this equation that was the uneven sum total of their marriage. Ever since Marco had forced the damned proposal, she had slowly become undone. The pressure of her decision to marry him because an entire country’s hope depended on it, mounted with each hour, each moment, each touch. Because as much as she’d tried to prevent it, she’d fallen in love with Marco Vincenzi.
He had dangled a ruby, the heart and hope of a nation and she had willingly taken on the responsibility, willingly entered the beast’s lair. And she had almost convinced herself that it was her duty to do so. Now she was not sure. Marco had intrigued her from the moment he’d filled her relatively sheltered world. His claim on her, his triumphant claim of her virginity had both riled and pleasured her. But she’d pushed him away, made him doubt his claim of her body, and her heart. It was insurance, she told herself then. To protect herself. She had lost too much, and too much was expected of her. She couldn’t bear to lose anymore.
Their bodies were perfectly melded in the embrace and it settled an ache, at least for now. His heartbeat seemed to be in sync with hers, strong and a little too fast. And it felt perfect to be held in arms, her head on his warm hard chest. But just because it felt perfect, did not mean that it was.
When he lifted her and carried her to the bedroom and lay her on the bed, she did not object. She knew exactly what he needed from her and she was willing to oblige. It was not sex or making love, as Marco called it, it was comfort. He needed her, her body, to drive into her his fears and rid himself of his demons. To find the release with each thrust from his heavy burden. And she knew without him having to tell her that she was his salve. In that moment, at least. And she was fine with it. Because Leila already knew she loved him, and that it was too late to shield her heart. She knew, too that he would inevitably break it.
It was later, when she turned her face into her pillow that she realised she was crying. Hot tears rolled down her nose onto the damp pillow. Hastily she wiped them away, but the movement roused Marco and he lifted himself up on his elbow and saw the glistening tears. “Leila!” He whispered. His delicious breath cooling of her hot skin. “What’s the matter? Did I… did I hurt you?”
“No, no, you didn’t!” She faked a smile. She couldn’t quite tell him yes, that he could very well reach into her chest, pull out her heart and crush it between those fingers that now feathered through her hair.
“I was just thinking about the poor little boy that had to find his father like that…”
She saw the shutters immediately darken his eyes. “I don’t want your pity, Leila!”
It’s not pity, she wanted to say, my love is not pity. But instead she said, “More like admiration, you’ve turned tragedy into triumph, you own this whole valley now.”
“You wouldn’t be admiring me if you knew exactly how it all came to be mine.” His expression was grim and Leila almost regretted bringing up the subject. Curiosity got the better of her though. And he obliged. Churning up a story, as if he’d hoped it would push her away.
“Chimenti took me in when the authorities could not find my mother after my father died. I think Chimenti felt some guilt, he’d upped the price of the irrigation system that relied on water from his land, making my father’s efforts useless. He took me under his wing, I suppose I should be grateful because it was Chimenti who taught me everything about the vineyards, producing the perfect crop and making the best wines.” His eyes took on that faraway look like he was transported back to the past. “I thought he saw me as a son. I found out the hard way that he didn’t. His only daughter, Maria and I were friends and it developed, as the years went by, into a love affair. When Chimenti found out he was furious. Seems I was good enough to take pity on, the poor orphan boy, but I was not good enough for his daughter.”
He rolled over onto his back and placed both hands under his head. His jaw tightened. And she felt a sudden jab of cold pain spread through her.
“I was practically banished from here. I’d hoped Maria would come. But to sacrifice a good life for an uncertain one with me was asking too much.” She saw him shrug off his pain, and for a moment wondered if Marco still loved Maria.
“I was 17 years old, but ready for the world. When I made my first fortune I vowed I’d make this land mine and watch Chimenti squirm in the process.”
“I told you not to pity me, Leila, I do not deserve it.” He pulled himself off the bed. “I bought this place for a song,” he said as he shoved long muscular legs into pants he retrieved from the floor. “And I enjoyed every moment of seeing Chimenti forced into signing it over to me.” He looked at her then. His eyes gleamed with a hardness that she’d never before seen. “You see, Leila, I’m no good for you. No good at all.” It sounded like a warning. Leila inhaled sharply afraid to give credence to what those words meant. But she asked anyway, “What are you saying, Marco.”
“Come with me. I wish to show you something.”
Her eyes narrowed briefly, quickly contemplating if she should refuse, but knowing it was a command she couldn’t. “Come, Leila!” His tone was brusque. Barely giving her enough time to slip on a robe, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her toward the door. She quickened her steps to keep up with his long strides. They hurried along the long passage, then down the wide staircase and through the hall until they reached a door Leila had not noticed before. Without letting go of the tight grip on her wrist, he yanked the door open to reveal another staircase. This one was narrow and he was a little careful as he guided her down the steep steps. It led to a door, steel and from the high tech devices that surrounded it, heavily secured. He punched a code on a key pad then pressed a finger on a small screen. A metallic buzzer swung open the door only to reveal another door. Again, seriously secured it took another code and an eye scan before double doors slid open to admit them into a room. Florescent lighting bounced off stark white walls. The temperature within the room was uncomfortably low and Leila felt her skin prickle. But nothing could have prepared her for the sight in front of her. Glass containers of every size stood on elevated pillars. Each deceptively fragile box contained an item of great beauty and Leila guessed, value. Jewels and jewelled crowns, fragile parchments and long intricately crafted swords, silver engraved boxes and Faberge eggs the colours of the rainbow. It was as if every wondrous creation of the world was contained in that white cold room. Leila stood transfixed by the sight, unable to prevent the loud gasp that escaped her lips.
“What is this?” she whispered, almost in reverence to what was confined in the room.
“My collection” His voice held no emotion. No indication that any of the priceless items was precious to him, even though he’d went to great lengths to secure it. He gripped her hand tightly. Leila’s instinct was to cry out, but she kept silent as he pulled her to the box in the middle of the room. The ruby. She recognised the stone immediately even though now it was propped up in a silver clawlike contraption.
It was then that he let go of her. She watched as a look of adoration flickered across his features before the guard came down again in a blink of an eye. A small screen inserted into the stone pillar on which the glass box sat, flashed and Marco placed his right thumb on it. The top pane of glass slid open and he reached in and carefully extracted the gem. Cradling it as if it were a babe, he stared at it, his fingers closing briefly around the glowing stone. It was what had him and every gem enthusiast lusting after the unique stone. Not only was it a sizable perfectly formed ruby, its fiery glow throbbed as if the stone was enclosed about an eternal flame.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” He held it in his palm. But his eyes were on her. “I’ve coveted it for years.” Leila thought she saw regret in his eyes. “But it means more to you doesn’t it? It’s why you’re even here.” She started to protest but the words caught in her throat. “It never was mine to begin with,” he said and held out the stone to her. And somehow, Leila sensed that he was not talking about the ruby. But she pushed the feeling aside, aware that she was never able to read Marco. “It’s your Leila. It always has been.” He reached for her hand and placed the ruby in her palm. “Yours.”
It was as big as her palm, the flame within it seemed to snare her with a hypnotic flicker.
“Marco, I don’t understand,” she said at last.
He smiled, his eyes bright, “No conditions, Leila. I’m freeing you of the contract.” He turned away from her as he busied himself with closing the glass box. “I’ll see to it that our marriage is annulled.” He pursed his lips, his gaze still averted. “You can go on to Oudh in the morning. Take the heart back to its people.”