Copyright © 2013 by Beth Kery
SIX MONTHS LATER
Nothing is certain, is it? Nothing,” Francesca said bleakly as she set down the investment and finance section of the morning paper, the headlines exclaiming over the falteringJapanese economy. Her gaze lingered on one headline: Japanese Conglomerate Hires Investment Banking Firm to Sell. She bit her lip nervously, jumping slightly when her housemate, Davie Feinstein,touched her shoulder.
“Some things are certain,” Davie said with a significant look she endeavored to ignore. She accepted the steaming cup of tea he offered her and gave him a smile as he sat. He started doling steaming pancakes onto their plates.
“Like taxes and your weekend breakfasts. Like your friendship?”Francesca asked, forcing her voice into an airy tone because they were skimming a sensitive topic, and she refused to go there on this bright December morning. The sensitive topic: Ian’s abandonment of her a half a year ago following his mother’s death. But not just his mother’s unexpected death, also the discovery of the poison truth about his biological father . . . a truth that had been revealed by Lucien Lenault after Francesca and Ian had made love so intimately that summer evening. One moment, their future had been secure and bright. All of that changed in a matter of seconds by the slashing knives of truth.
She knew Ian had been fearful his entire life that his unknown father had at the very least taken advantage of his mentally ill mother, at worst, raped her. The identity of his biological father had remained a mystery to him, however, until that evening six months ago. That fateful night when Lucien and Elise had come to dinner, Lucien had known he’d been providing a shock by telling Ian they were half brothers, but that wasn’t the worst of it. He’d also revealed that their common parent, Trevor Gaines, had been a rapist and serial reproductionist—a man who got a sick fascination from impregnating as many women as he could. The impact of that revelation, along with his mother’s sudden worsening condition and death, had had a decimating effect on Ian.
Francesca didn’t like to think of that other issue that she’d suspected had been yet another crack in Ian’s well-being, the bizarre coincidence that Ian had asked to videotape her during sex the very night he found out his criminal father got his kicks out of taping his conquests and victims. She suspected Ian had made some self-condemning judgments after that, but he’d never given her the opportunity to assure him he was a far, far cry from being remotely similar to Trevor Gaines.
She’d wanted nothing more than to comfort and ease his suffering, but he’d left . . . disappeared without a word to her or a personal message. Gone. The man she had meant to marry, whom she loved more than life itself.
As had become the custom, she and Davie were avoiding the fact that the man she’d been the most certain about in the world had disappeared off the face of the earth, and was determinedly refusing to be found.
“Taxes and my friendship are definitely certain. As for my weekend breakfasts, I’ll make them as long as somebody comes to eat them,” Davie was telling her, passing the syrup.
“I miss Caden and Justin the most during weekend breakfasts,” Francesca said.
“Actually, Justin said he’d try to stop by after going to the gym this morning.”
“Really?” Francesca asked hopefully. Davie nodded.
Why did everything have to change? Davie, Justin, Caden, and she had been tight friends and roommates for years. But then she’d met Ian, and her life had taken a course she’d never imagined. She’d spent more and more time in Ian’s luxurious downtown penthouse and planned to move there permanently when they married. As one of the wealthiest, most influential men in the world, Ian had taken her to places she’d only dreamed about before and exposed her to movers and shakers not only in the art world—her world— but from all walks of life, from business leaders to politicians and celebrities. He’d introduced her to challenging lovemaking, taught her the power of submission . . . turned her body into a honed instrument for experiencing distilled pleasure. He’d transformed her into a more confident woman who was sublimely comfortable in her own body, a woman who fully owned and took pride in her accomplishments and sexuality.
But then tragedy had struck. Ian had willfully vanished. Justin and Caden had both prospered at their jobs and moved into their own homes. When she’d returned to live with Davie full-time in his Wicker Park townhome, so much had changed. She herself had altered; the free-spirited, gauche young woman she’d once been had disappeared, and a more sober, contained, sad and bitter woman had taken her place. Davie had always been there, though, a solid, reassuring pillar in her life. He’d been there to help her stanch her wounds, encouraged her to focus all her energy on finishing her master’s program and her painting. Thanks to Ian’s prestige and patronage, her reputation had grown in the art community. She was at no shortage of commissions for her work, and had even turned down a few lucrative ones.
Still, sometimes it felt like her life had come to a shrieking halt. She was still disoriented, her brain quivering from the jarring impact of abrupt loss.
She poured the syrup on her pancakes, her attention once again drawn to the newspaper and the news about Tyake Inc. selling because of the Japanese financial crisis. Davie noticed her preoccupation when she began to drown her pancakes. He touched her hand. She blinked and lifted the syrup bottle.
“Is there something in the paper about Noble Enterprises?” Davie asked cautiously, referring to Ian’s multibillion-dollar company.
“No, not that I see,” Francesca said evenly before she set down the bottle and picked up her fork. She was once again highly aware they’d come very close to the topic of Ian. Ian was synonymous with his hugely successful company, after all. Or at least he had been, before he’d forsaken his position at its head.
She heard a knock at the front door and set down her fork, glad for the distraction.
“Why is Justin knocking?” she asked as she stood, perplexed. Justin, Caden, Davie, and she were practically family, after all.
“I don’t think I unlocked it yet this morning,” she heard Davie say as she left the kitchen and walked down the hallway. Francesca twisted the lock and whipped open the front door.
“You’re just in time—” She halted midsentence when she realized it wasn’t her friend Justin standing on the front steps.
“Lucien,” she said, shock ringing in her voice at the unexpected sight of Ian’s half brother. Just looking at his classically handsome face and dark, tousled hair made her flash back to that horrible night. She vividly saw Lucien’s rigid, concerned expression and heard Ian’s hollow tone as he’d stared at the photo of his biological father.
My mother. That’s why she sometimes acted afraid of me—all my life, she’d wince and cower at times at the very sight of me . . . because I looked so much like him. Because I had the face of the man who took advantage of her. I had the face of her rapist.
She forced the excruciatingly painful memory of Ian’s words from her brain and tried to focus on Lucien. She’d been avoiding him, just like she’d been avoiding everything associated with reminders of Ian. It was nothing against Lucien, or his new wife, Elise. In fact, she cared deeply about the couple. It was just a survival instinct. Reminders of Ian cut too deep.
Lucien’s nostrils flared slightly as he studied her somberly, his sharp, assessing gray-eyed stare reminding her uncomfortably of a blue-eyed one.
“I’m sorry to invade your privacy,” he said quietly in his rich, French-accented voice. “But it’s very important that we speak.”
Her heart sunk sickeningly. “Is it Ian? Is he all right?” she asked, shivers of dread crawling across her skin.
“I still haven’t heard from him. From what I understand from his infrequent communications with Lin, he’s fine. Alive and functioning anyway,” Lucien added under his breath, referring to Ian’s talented executive assistant, Lin Soong. His mouth pulled tight in what Francesca thought was concern . . . or was it anger? She knew Lucien didn’t agree with his brother’s self-imposed exile. According to Lucien, he didn’t have any more of an idea where Ian was than did Ian’s grandparents or Francesca. Lin insisted she didn’t know where Ian was, either, but Francesca wouldn’t be surprised if Lin was lying at Ian’s request. Lin was unfailingly loyal to him.
She became aware that Davie had approached and stood near her elbow.
“David,” Lucien said, nodding his head in a sober greeting.
“Lucien, come in. It’s cold out,” Davie said, urging the other man into the entryway. Francesca backed up, vague embarrassment striking her when she realized she’d left Lucien standing outside in the cold. “What’s going on?” Davie asked, shutting the door.
Lucien spoke directly to Francesca. “It’s Noble Enterprises. We need you Francesca. You know the arrangement Ian made. A unique set of circumstances has arisen. We need to make some crucial decisions.”
It felt like the blood rushed out of her head. Dizziness assailed her. She became uncomfortably aware of Davie’s perplexed glance of query in her direction.
“What’s he talking about?” Davie wondered.
Francesca swallowed uneasily, avoiding both men’s stare.
“You and the others can make the decision,” she said shortly under her breath to Lucien, as if she thought she could still hide the truth from Davie. From herself.
“We need you to make a decision this large. That’s the arrangement Ian made before he left. And you, out of all the members of his ad hoc board, have the majority powers for liquidating assets and making major acquisitions. Noble Enterprises needs you. Ian needs you.”
“Is this about Tyake?” Francesca asked, glancing into Lucien’s face hesitantly.
“You know that Ian has wanted to purchase that company for a long time?” he asked.
Francesca nodded. Davie and she were usually careful to avoid using Ian’s name. Hearing it not once, but several times this morning, felt like tiny missiles piercing her flesh.
“What’s this about? Francesca?” Davie demanded.
Francesca’s desperation mounted when she saw Davie’s bewilderment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t tell you because . . . because it seemed ridiculous. Ian walked out on me. He left me—”
“He left you access to a vast fortune, use of all of his properties, and a senior position on the temporary board of directors that he named to manage his company in his absence. I understand why you’ve refused to acknowledge those things, Francesca. I do,” Lucien added more softly, his compassionate gaze paining her more than an impatient or disdainful one would have. “But that doesn’t negate the reality. Thousands of people’s livelihoods depend upon the health and prosperity of Noble Enterprises. The same could be said of Tyake. You and Ian may not be together, but you, perhaps more than anyone, understood his personal feelings and goals for his company. I believe that’s why he left you with unique powers of attorney the rest of us don’t have. Ian’s grandparents are here in Chicago, as is Gerard Sinoit, Ian’s cousin. The only person we don’t have available on the board is you, and we’re hamstrung without you. I understand your saying you feel ill equipped for this, but Gerard, James, Anne, and myself can provide you a large resource of business knowledge. We’ll guide you. Ian’s vice presidents and executives have been managing day-to-day operations, with our casual guidance and instruction. But among the five board members, your vote carries the most weight in matters of major acquisitions and liquidations. The time has come when we can’t proceed without your involvement.”
“If I don’t have a place in Ian’s life, how can I take a place in his damn company?” Francesca hissed, her anger breaking through her brittle emotional armor. Lucien’s face remained impassive, his enigmatic stare trained on her. He didn’t say out loud she was being selfish by clutching her resentment, but Francesca imagined that’s what he was thinking. Lucien had his own marriage and business concerns to look out for, after all, but he’d made time in his busy schedule to do his part in helping to oversee Ian’s company.
She gave Davie a wild glance, all the while knowing her good friend couldn’t help her in this. Damn, Ian. How could he have walked away from her at the same time he stitched her into the very fabric of his life, into the company he’d poured his blood and sweat into, where he’d given the very essence of himself?
She’d never felt so cornered.
Screw him. He’d forsaken both of them—his company and her, the two things he professed to care most about in the world. She was a wreck he’d left behind. Let his company be another travesty, it was nothing to her. It had once felt like she was burning alive to know he was in pain, and that he’d denied her the opportunity to offer solace. Her grief and hurt at his absence had been so great, her anxiety for his well-being so immense, it’d made a husk of her. Surely she had nothing left to give.
Despite her thoughts, a poignant memory of the last time she and Ian made love sliced into her consciousness.
Tell me you love me.
I love you so much.
“As I said, I understand why you’ve been determined to stay uninvolved,” Lucien said, bringing her back to the tense present moment. “People tend to hunker down when they’re in pain in order to nurse their wounds. It’s only natural . . . a healing instinct. But I’m still asking you to do this, Francesca, and not for myself.”
She barely controlled a shudder of grief. She winced and looked away from Lucien’s steady stare. He was speaking of her pain and reaction to it, of course, but he was referring to Ian’s as well. Isn’t that what he was doing? Holing up and licking his wounds?
“I’ll meet with all of you and see what you have to say, but I’m not promising anything,” she told him stiffly.
He nodded once. “That’s all I ask.”
The first heavy blow was seeing Ian’s large office, the very picture of masculine, austere luxury, and the familiar corner view of the river and skyline. Her thrumming heart leapt extra hard upon seeing the eager, concerned faces of Ian’s grandparents, Anne and James Noble.
She loved Anne and James. Confronting the harsh reality head on that she was no longer destined to be part of their family made breathing, let alone talking, a challenge for several seconds. She just nodded her head politely when Lucien introduced her to Ian’s cousin, Gerard Sinoit.
The only spot left at the gleaming cherrywood conference table was at the head. Francesca was forced to take the seat. “Thank you,” she said quietly once she’d sat, briefly meeting Lin Soong’s gaze as Ian’s executive assistant set a club soda with lime in front of her. Lin abruptly reached and squeezed her hand, as always, her genuine compassion and warmth a striking contrast to her cool beauty and polished professional elegance. Francesca turned her hand and squeezed back, thankful for the subtle show of support in these difficult circumstances.
“Lin, you’re welcome to stay for the meeting if you like. No one knows more about Noble Enterprises on the face of the earth, save Ian himself,” Gerard said kindly.
“This is a matter for the board to decide,” Lin said with a smile. “I’m right outside the door if I can be of any help.”
Gerard looked at Francesca in the silence following Lin’s departure. “We recognize this must be very difficult for you—”
Francesca shook her head once, and he halted. She gave him a weak apologetic smile at her abrupt gesture. “Can we please just get to the issue at hand? What’s happening with Tyake?”
Gerard cleared his throat, glancing from James to Lucien. Lucien just lifted his eyebrows expectantly, and Gerard launched into a description of Noble Enterprises’ bid for the gaming and technology conglomerate. Francesca listened carefully, studying him as he spoke. His presentation was eloquent, confident. and knowledgeable. She’d never met Ian’s cousin before, but knew Ian had called him “uncle” as a child, despite the fact that Gerard was only eight years older than Ian. Ian had only been ten when his grandparents had found him and his missing mother in northern France. When he’d returned with them to Britain, withdrawn and distrustful, Gerard had helped Anne and James to bring him out of himself and know security for the first time in his life.
Gerard looked younger than his thirty-nine years, the white dress shirt he wore along with a herringbone blazer highlighting his fit, muscular build. His hair was a chestnut brown that matched the color of his eyes, but she definitely could make out the slight nuances of a family resemblance. A flicker of annoyance went through her at the automatic thought as she searched Gerard’s face.
Would there ever come a time when she didn’t compare a man to Ian?
She knew that Gerard was an attorney, although he’d primarily used his legal education to help him manage his investments and properties, which were considerable. He was the owner of a hugely successful electronics firm that boasted lucrative private and government customers. She knew that Sinoit Electronics was one of Noble Enterprises’ suppliers, just as Ian provided Sinoit with certain patented computer technology. Ian had told her in the past Gerard possessed a brilliant business mind and had easily quadrupled his parents’ inheritance when they had died, passing it on to him at the tender age of eighteen. Gerard was also the heir to James Noble’s title of Earl of Stratham, although Ian would inherit his grandfather’s properties and fortune. As an illegitimate child, Ian could not inherit the title by law. As a result, the title would fall to James’s considerably younger sister Simone’s son, Gerard, who was the next male, legitimate descendent of James. Francesca recalled that Gerard was divorced and childless. He was also rich and quite handsome. All of those things had combined to make him one of the most eligible bachelors in Britain. Ian used to occasionally allude, with wry amusement, to that fact that Gerard was an expert at eluding the greedy grasp of a majority of women, while effortlessly seducing the select minority that pleased him. Now, Francesca understood firsthand what he’d meant.
“So as you can see,” Gerard was saying in summation, “we are poised to make the necessary move to purchase Tyake. Fast action is required, though. Given the Japanese financial crisis, the owner is desperate to sell. He values quick cash even more than a good deal at this point. I understand from Lucien that you’re aware of how much Ian wanted Tyake?” he asked, brown eyes focusing on Francesca.
She nodded. “He made several offers, but they refused him every time. He was always envious of their programming talent. He said Tyake had contracted the most exceptional men and women on the planet before the business community in the West even understood the market. I assume the employment contracts will transfer to Noble Enterprises in the deal?”
“Absolutely,” Lucien said, leaning forward, his elbows on the table. “That was a crucial element of the proposed deal.”
She transferred her attention to him. Lucien had the benefit of knowledge of his adoptive father’s hotel and entertainment conglomerate, and had made his own mark in the hospitality and restaurant industry.
“What do you think, Lucien?” she asked.
“I think we should do whatever we can to acquire Tyake. I think it’s what Ian would want. But I’d advise against getting the capital for the purchase through this acquisition loan fund. Their contracts can be trickier than banks, and if Noble should default on the smallest item, there could be a risk of—”
“Noble Enterprises is enjoying robust financial health,” Gerard said. “There’s no reason it should default on anything.” He turned his attention to Francesca. “Time is of the essence here. It could be weeks, even months, before we get enough money by liquidating assets. This acquisition loan fund is willing and ready to give us the capital to buy Tyake now. As soon as we have your word, that is, Francesca.” Gerard added with a polite nod and a warm smile. She attempted to smile back, but her lips felt stiff and frozen.
“And I suppose no one sitting here will admit to being in contact with Ian?” she asked, her voice sounding stronger than she’d expected saying Ian’s name. She examined each face at the table in turn. “Because that would be the simplest solution: to merely ascertain from Ian what he’d like us to do.”
“Francesca—” Anne Noble began, a wretched expression on her lined, but still lovely face.
“We’re telling the truth when we say we have no idea where Ian is,” James finished for her. He covered his wife’s hand with his own in a comforting gesture. “We haven’t heard a word from him. Gerard and Lucien are as much in the dark as us. We’re all—each and every once of us—both ignorant of his location and well-being, and sick about it.”
She sensed the truth of what they’d said, intuiting the couple’s misery. With a sharp pain, she realized this was the second time in the couple’s lives that a loved one had vanished. Helen, Ian’s mother, had gone missing for over a decade before they finally discovered her, weak and psychotic, being cared for by a boy with the manner of an adult, a child forced to grow up far before his time.
“I’m sorry,” Francesca said, recognizing she’d lashed out on the undeserving in her anguish. Perhaps she’d even been hopeful someone would confess to speaking with Ian. She looked away from Anne’s eyes because the pain she saw there was too much of a reflection of her own. “What do you two think of the purchase proposal?” she asked, valuing not only James’s long lifetime of experience managing his own extensive holdings, but also Anne’s acute business understanding that came from wisely managing some of the richest charity funds in the world.
“I know how much Ian coveted Tyake, and I agree time is of the essence,” James said.
“As do I,” Anne seconded.
“Even you would have to agree that quick action is necessary, isn’t that right, Lucien?” James asked.
“Yes, but prudence is always just as crucial,” Lucien replied quietly.
“We’ve used this acquisition loan fund before when we needed to make a quick purchase in our own ventures,” Anne told Francesca. “They have always been dependable. Gerard has been working nonstop for the past four days to hammer out this deal.”
“Thank you for all the hard work,” Francesca told Gerard.
“It was nothing. I was more than glad to do it for Ian.”
James gave a half smile and glanced at his nephew. “Gerard has always been willing to sacrifice his valuable time for Ian. Remember that motorcycle the three of us put together when Ian first came to us as a boy? You were right about that. It really did help us to bond with Ian . . . make him a little more comfortable in a strange land with strange people,” James mused, his expression faraway and a little sad.
Gerard smiled. “If only we could do something as simple now to connect with him. He needs his family now more than ever,” he said, nodding in Lucien’s direction as if to include him. It confirmed Francesca’s suspicion that Gerard knew Lucien and Ian were half brothers. How much else he knew about their father, Trevor Gaines, and Gaines’s unsavory history, she didn’t know. Anne and James knew the entire truth, but she wasn’t sure where they would stand as far as telling Gerard.
Lucien shifted in his chair at Gerard’s words. Was he as uncomfortable with all this talk of Ian’s family as Francesca was? She was the biggest outsider here, but perhaps Lucien was a close second. True, the Nobles had accepted the painful fate that linked Lucien and Ian as blood relatives, but neither Lucien nor she could claim the intimate bonds of family history that only years of experience and love provided.
“So you’re uncomfortable with all this, Lucien?” Francesca prodded gently.
“I’d like to examine our options. As I said, these contracts with acquisition loan companies can be extremely delicate and convoluted. Ian didn’t tend to use acquisition loan companies, unless it was in the most extreme circumstances.”
“Ian has used them in the past when he wanted to jump on a deal,” Gerard said. “I asked Lin earlier, and she assured me it was true on two other occasions when Ian recognized timing was crucial.”
“He chose not to use them on dozens of other occasions, and always did what he could to avoid it,” Lucien said.
“And there are other options, aren’t there?” Francesca asked. “We could liquidate some assets for the purchase?”
“No,” Lucien corrected, moving his stare from Gerard to Francesca. “You could, Francesca. Ian left the power of attorney for such large liquidations and acquisitions only with you.”
Francesca nodded, hoping she adequately disguised how overwhelmed she felt as she studied the four other faces at the table. She tried to imagine what Ian would want. A voice in her head urged caution.
She didn’t like that the voice was Ian’s in the slightest.
“I agree with Lucien,” she said at last. “At the very least, I’d like the opportunity to read over the deal in detail before I decide. Of course, I’ll need all of your advice. As you all know, I’m an artist, not a businesswoman.”
“We’d be happy to give whatever clarification we can,” Gerard assured. He gave James a knowing sideways glance. “Besides, Ian once told James and I that he’d been regularly coaching you on business matters and that you had more innate understanding of financial intricacies than some of his top executives.”
Perhaps Gerard had thought she’d be flattered by Ian’s compliment, because his smile faltered when he saw her expression. She stood abruptly.
“May I take a copy of the proposal with me?”
“Of course, Lin has one prepared for you,” Gerard said, standing as well. He was nearly as tall as Ian. “But we—that is, James, Anne and I—were going to suggest that you stay with us for the next few days. It’ll be easier than having you try to get us by phone every time you have a question. We can put in some late nights and plow through the deal together.”
“Can you take off a few days from your painting?” Anne asked. Francesca hesitated as she looked into the elderly woman’s cobalt blue eyes. Ian had inherited his grandmother’s eyes. “We’d so like to spend some time with you. James and I miss you.”
“I miss you, too,” Francesca said honestly before she could stop herself. She examined the polished grain of the wood table, waiting for her composure to return.
“I can manage a few days, I think,” she said after a moment. “I just finished a piece that was meant as a Christmas gift for the buyer’s wife. I was planning on taking some time off until the New Year.”
“You’ll have to tell me all about your work, and how your final project went for school. I look forward to hearing about everything in your life. We have so much to catch up on, aside from this business deal,” Anne said warmly, coming toward her and taking her hand. Impulsively, Francesca gave her a hug, smiling at the familiar scent of Anne’s perfume.
“I’d like that,” Francesca said.
“Good. Well, that’s all settled then. Why don’t we get everything we need from Lin and head over to the penthouse? We can have dinner together,” Gerard said.
“The penthouse?” Francesca asked numbly.
“That’s where we’re all staying while here in Chicago. I hope it’s all right,” James said in a conciliatory manner. “I know that Ian bequeathed the use of his properties to you, but we realized you weren’t in residence. And Anne said . . . that is . . . well, that she hadn’t been able to get ahold of you to tell you our plans,” James said awkwardly. Francesca felt her cheeks warm at his delicate handling of the fact that she’d been ignoring phone calls and deleting e-mails from Ian’s grandparents. “Eleanor begged us to stay there instead of a hotel,” James continued, referring to Ian’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hanson, a longtime Noble family retainer and loyal friend. “Poor lady. She’s been quite lonely rambling around that big old place by herself. She misses family. She misses you.”
Francesca’s throat swelled uncomfortably. How horrible she was, not to have visited Mrs. Hanson or even called. She knew how much the housekeeper doted on Ian. She must be so lonely.
“I look forward to seeing her then,” Francesca said, her heart beating very fast. When she noticed Lucien’s gaze on her, she knew her anxiety hadn’t escaped him.
“Will you be there, too, Lucien?” she asked hopefully.
“I’m afraid not. Elise is returning from Paris this evening after a visit to her parents.”
“Please give her my love,” Francesca said regretfully, thinking of all the concerned e-mails and texts she’d trashed from Lucien’s vibrant, beautiful wife. Francesca’s friend. Pain rushed through her as if a floodgate had been opened. She’d even missed Elise and Lucien’s wedding.
“I will do that,” Lucien said, his brow furrowing. He clearly saw her sudden distress. He quickly strode toward her and took her hand.
“Lucien, I’m sorry—” she began, her voice cracking when he pulled her to the far side of the sprawling office.
“Don’t be. I understand. We all do,” he interrupted quietly. He glanced at the others, who were chatting in subdued tones several feet away. She swallowed down her sudden swell of emotion with effort.
“It just struck me all of the sudden that I’ve never asked you about your mother,” she said in a thick voice, searching his face. When Lucien had broken his life-altering news that he and Ian were half brothers, one result had been Ian’s plunge into darkness. The other, much happier one, was that Helen Noble, who had been Lucien’s mother’s employer for a period of time, had been able to tell Lucien his biological mother’s name and the location of the city where her family resided in Morocco. “Have you found her, Lucien?”
His sudden smile was a familiar flash of brilliance that made her chest ache, but heartened her as well. “Yes. Elise and I located her together last summer. Not only her. My grandmother, my grandfather, an aunt and uncle who both have huge families. My mother never married, so I don’t have any brothers and sisters in Morocco, but I have more cousins than I can count. My mother is well. It was a very . . . special moment, meeting her for the first time. She’s been to visit Elise and me twice already, and we’ve made several trips back.”
She drank in his exultant expression like a much-needed medicine. Yes, she’d been avoiding the pain by shutting herself off from those she cared about, but she’d missed out on some wonderful things in the process as well.
“I’m so happy for you,” she said feelingly. “An entire family—all in one fell swoop.”
“It is pretty amazing,” he agreed.
“You deserve it, Lucien.”
His focus narrowed on her. “Francesca, listen,” he continued in a pressured tone. “I’m at your disposal in regard to this deal. In regard to anything,” he said pointedly, eyebrows arched. “All you have to do is call, and I’ll come by or do whatever you need to make sure you’re comfortable making this decision.”
“Thank you,” she said gratefully. “I definitely will call you after I’ve read over the proposal and contract. I want to hear about these potential risks you spoke of.” She went up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. Lucien cupped her shoulder with his hand.
“Are you sure you want to go to Ian’s penthouse?” he murmured, for her ears only.
“No,” she said. “But if I keep running from my past, I’ll never have a future.”
Lucien said nothing, his gray eyes looking concerned in his otherwise somber face.
Francesca accepted a cup of tea from Mrs. Hanson with a smile and shoved back a mound of papers.
“It’s chamomile. It’ll help you sleep. You look like you could use it. I’ve never seen you so thin, and you look tired,” Mrs. Hanson said, her gaze moving concernedly over her face.
“Thank you. You take such good care of me,” Francesca said, taking a sip of the soothing, hot liquid, hoping to make light of Mrs. Hanson’s maternal worry.
The four of them—Gerard, James, Anne, and she had convened in Ian’s large library-office following dinner in order to get down to work. Anne sat near the fireplace, reading portions of the proposal through a pair of stylish glasses, a knitted afghan spread across her knees. James and Gerard sat at the oval table with Francesca, perusing different portions of the contract and pausing frequently to answer Francesca’s queries. They never once grew impatient with what she suspected were very novicelike questions. Their kind support humbled her.
“We’ve been at it for hours,” Gerard said, leaning his long body back in the chair and accepting the tea from Mrs. Hanson with a gracious thank-you. He checked his watch. “It’s two in the morning. You do look dead on your feet, Francesca. You should rest. We can resume picking this apart in the morning.”
“I am a little sleepy,” Francesca said, rubbing her eyes and feeling the burn. Mrs. Hanson glanced at her hesitantly.
“I had originally thought to put you in the blue room,” the housekeeper said, referring to a guest room with which Francesca was familiar. “But Gerard thought—”
“You’re the rightful mistress of this home, so the master suite is yours,” Gerard interrupted. “I had been staying in it, but I moved everything out earlier, and Mrs. Hanson has readied it for you.”
Anne’s head came around sharply. “I hadn’t realized that,” she called across the room, sounding mildly alarmed. “Gerard, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“No?” Gerard asked, bewildered. He looked at Francesca, realization dawning. “It will only take us a moment to switch. I was only thinking of your comfort. Many of your things are still in there . . .” he faded off.
“Of course you were. Thank you,” Francesca said, giving both Gerard and Anne a reassuring smile. “I’m not that fragile. But I am tired. I’ll say good night.” She stood and went to Anne, kissing her cheek.
She was proud of herself for walking so calmly out of the room.
She paused in front of the elaborately carved wood door of Ian’s suite, memories assailing her. She could see Ian’s arresting face as he looked down at her, desire gleaming in his eyes, speaking in a hushed tone.
“You’ve never done anything like this before, have you?” he’d asked.
“No,” she replied, equally as anxious as she was excited. “Is that all right with you?”
His mouth had twisted slightly in an expression she’d since identified as irritation at something he considered a personal weakness. “It wasn’t at first. I want you so much, I’ve had to come to terms with your innocence, however.”
She’d taken that step across the threshold that night into a world of untold emotional challenges and sensual delights . . . into a realm of indescribable love. Her life had changed forever.
And here she stood again, now as empty and bereft as the rooms where Ian had once lived and breathed and loved.
He had loved, hadn’t he?
Finding the question unbearable, she inhaled for courage and twisted the knob. The door swung open.
It looked much as it ever had: the luxurious seating area before the fireplace, the rare paintings, the decadently rich four-poster bed, the lush fresh flower arrangement behind the couch, this one of white hydrangeas and purple lilies. She couldn’t imagine how it all could look so familiar and unchanged, when she felt so different.
Five minutes later, she walked out of the bathroom, hesitating by a gleaming, antique writing desk. Moving quickly, as if she knew she must endure the pain but wanted to get it over with, she opened a narrow drawer. She flipped back a folded square of black silk and stared, her breath lodged in her lungs, at the exquisite platinum and diamond ring. She recalled perfectly how cool the metal felt as Ian had slipped it on her finger, the sound of his low, rough voice uttering those precious words forever burned into her memory.
Yes, she’d replied simply, the vision of Ian blurring through a veil of tears.
I’m afraid I’m being selfish, he’d said starkly.
She blinked and his image came into focus. Loving is never selfish. You’re taking a risk. Don’t think I don’t know it. Personally, I think it’s the least selfish thing you’ve ever done, she’d whispered, touching his hard jaw, wishing she could soften him . . . make it so that he was just a little gentler on himself.
The drawer slammed shut.
She sat on the edge of the bed wearing nothing but the tank top she’d had on under her blouse and a pair of panties. She had nightgowns in the dressing room, but she was too weary to go in there tonight, too fragile to inhale Ian’s scent. The smell that lingered there was one she always associated most with him—his spicy, unique cologne, the fresh-laundered fragrance of his dress shirts, the leather from the rows upon rows of shoes, the cedar scent from the hangers and shoe trees.
She’d dare the closet tomorrow. Tonight, she used all her resources just to perch on the bed where they’d slept in each other’s arms, whispered endearments, and made love countless times.
It hurt so much, but for some reason, she craved that pain tonight.
She shut out the bedside lamp and hurried beneath the covers before she could second-guess herself. This was good for her, she told herself. Therapeutic to confront her memories head on. Maybe after she’d stayed here for another night or two while they hashed out the details of the Tyake acquisition, she’d gain some perspective . . . some freedom for herself. It wasn’t unlike visiting a grave, was it? She needed to accept the emptiness of this suite, of this bed.
She needed to let Ian go, once and for all.
Instead of plunging the room into complete darkness, as it usually did when she shut off the light, a luminescence remained. She realized a lamp was on in the distant seating area, turned to a dim setting. She considered getting up to turn it off, but something seemed to weigh her to the mattress. It’d been hard enough getting into this bed once tonight. She’d rather not do it again.
She clamped her eyelids shut, trying to avoid the sweeping memories of sharing the bed with Ian, of his touch, his quiet, commanding voice . . . his mastery over her body. Her skin prickled with remembered sensual memories. Even though she knew the sheets were freshly laundered, she imagined she smelled his scent when she pressed her nose to the pillowcase. She inhaled deeply and made a choking sound, not because she despised the fragrance.
Because she couldn’t bear living without it.
He heard the distant moan of misery, saw the movement beneath the bedclothes. He watched, rigid with attention, willing her with all his might to throw back the bedding. She did so with a muffled, frustrated cry.
His gaze traveled hungrily over long, smooth, gleaming limbs, breasts straining against clinging white cotton, pale, frantically moving hands. Dark gold hair tinted with red spilled across the white pillow in a lush, wanton display. Shapely thighs parted. His body quickened in an instant, arousal stabbing at him when her fingers slipped beneath her panties and rubbed. He didn’t hear it, but imagined the sigh through dark pink, beckoning lips: a silent siren call. She seemed eerily focused, wild in her mission, straining for release like she might a denied breath. She had tried this before, he sensed—again and again—never to be fulfilled.
Wretched, stunning woman.
The hand that wasn’t busy between her thighs moved feverishly over her body, cupping hip, rib and breast. She almost angrily shoved aside the fabric. He silently cursed the dim light, wishing to see the pale, firm flesh and large, mouthwatering pink crests more clearly, wanting to feel the soft skin slipping into his mouth, craving to draw on her until her cries filled his ears.
His hand now moved just as avidly as hers between his thighs. Was it his imagination, or had the hue of her cheeks deepened, the color of them a pale echo of her lush mouth and plump nipples? And was that the dampness of tears he saw glistening on the smooth surface? It was so hard to discern with the inadequate eye of technology.
So wild. So desperate. So beautiful.
She jerked down her panties in an inpatient gesture. He paused with his hand wrapped around his swollen cock at midstaff.
Jesus. What a pussy. The color of the hair between her thighs was a shade darker than that on her head. She spread her legs, and he hissed as he inhaled. He focused the camera in closer on the delicate, flushed folds of flesh, his anticipation sharpening. Her fingers burrowed between the sex lips. She parted her thighs wider, revealing pink, wet, succulent flesh. He moaned roughly when she pinched strenuously at a nipple, her clenched white teeth flashing in the dim light as she twisted her head on the pillow. She cried out, and this time, he heard the name.
He jerked in his chair, muttering a blistering curse.
She hated herself for what she was doing, but she couldn’t seem to stop it. She needed it—the sharp edge of arousal—even knowing how empty she would feel following the rush of pleasure, even knowing she would have to endure the inevitable emptiness.
“Ian,” she called, seeing clearly with her mind’s eye his handsome face rigid with lust as he looked down at her writhing beneath his hand. He stilled her for the pleasure, forcing her to take the stimulation in full, undiluted form, never allowing her to squirm in avoidance. He was always so ruthless in extracting bliss from her, always watching so hungrily as she relented to his hand and mouth and cock, seeming to drink in her bliss, as if her pleasure sustained his very existence.
Francesca muffled her cry of surprise, starting in shock when the brisk knock penetrated her thick arousal. Without thinking, she tossed the covers over the wanton display she made upon the bed. Had she locked the door?
“Francesca?” someone called.
Dazed by the interruption—by the fact that she’d so easily succumbed to desperate desire in Ian’s bed—she scurried out from under the covers, rushing across the suite like a guilty fugitive.
“Just a moment!” she called.
She had a confused image of herself in the mirror as she quickly washed her hands and donned a robe—rose-gold hair strewn everywhere, her cheeks pink, whether from embarrassment or arousal, she didn’t know. She tried to smooth the long, mussed tendrils before she hastened from the bathroom.
Gerard looked very tall standing in the shadowed hallway when she flung back the door. He was wearing nightwear—cotton pants, leather slippers, and a luxurious dark blue robe. She could see the wiry, dark brown hair at the open V at his chest.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you,” he said earnestly, his brows slanted in concern.
“It’s all right,” she said breathlessly. “Is something wrong?”
“No . . . I mean, I hope not.” He noticed her bewilderment. “I was getting ready for bed and my guilt over telling Mrs. Hanson to prepare this room for you overwhelmed me. I don’t mean to be insensitive,” he said, his mouth curving in wry apology, “but I often am, nevertheless. Or at least that’s what Joanna, my ex, used to say. I’m overly practical. This is the most luxurious suite, containing many of your personal belongings, and I felt like an intruder in it knowing you were going to stay here as well. I obviously missed the subtler issues at hand. Anne was quite irritated with me. I’m sorry.”
“Please don’t worry about it. I’m fine,” she assured, her hushed voice automatically matching his.
“You’re sure?” She was touched by his obvious concern. “I haven’t yet gotten into bed. We could still switch rooms easily enough.”
She shook her head and attempted a smile. She felt cracked open by these unique circumstances, the very meat of her exposed to his concerned gaze. “No, really. I’m fine.”
He nodded once. “If you’re sure. I’ll let you get some rest then.” Her eyebrows went up when he hesitated. “You’d let me know? If there was anything I could do to help? Anything at all?”
Heat flooded her cheeks. She’d thought her performance had been quite good, but Gerard had obviously seen right through it.
“Of course. But like I said, I’m fine.”
“Ian always said you were very strong,” he said, his gaze drifting across her features.
“He always said that you were there for him,” she returned. “I can see what he meant now.”
He had a nice smile—easy and unaffected . . . appealing. “I’d hoped to make your acquaintance under more ideal circumstances. But I can’t say that I’m sorry to have finally met you. You’re everything Ian praised. Good night.”
“Good night,” she said quietly, shutting the door on his retreating back.
He studied every detail of her face as she succumbed to pleasure, enraptured by her expression of agonized ecstasy, aroused to the brink by her whimpers and sharp cries. He hastened to focus the view tighter on her eyes, and then replaced his hand on his aching, swollen cock. His fist pounded ruthlessly on the shaft, the rigid squeeze as he thrust upward over the swollen head making him shudder and groan harshly. He struggled not to blink as he ejaculated, semen shooting heedlessly onto his hand, wrist, and belly.
He didn’t want to miss even a fraction of a second of Francesca’s surrender.
She fell limp on the mattress, her knees curling up in a fetal position, panting, her damp fingers clutching at the sheet. It came upon her in a rush, as she knew it would. It always did following climax by her own hand, now that Ian was gone. Tonight her disgust at her weakness was sharper than usual, lying in his bed, replaying memories she knew she should let go. Her misery choked at her throat, seeming to rattle her heart in her chest, pierce the very core of her bones.
How could he do this to me? She hated him for it.
He’d awakened nerve, flesh, and soul, made her feel more alive than she’d ever been in her life, only to leave her alone, a human conflagration cursed to burn incessantly, without purpose . . . without any hope of peace.