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Monte Carlo, Casino de la Mediterranee
It wasn't every day that a woman bet her five-carat, yellow-diamond engagement ring at a roulette table. But it was the only way Jayne Hughes could think of to get her pigheaded husband to take the rock back.
She'd left Conrad messages, telling him to contact her attorney. Conrad ignored them. Her lawyer had called his, to no avail. Divorce papers had been couriered, hand delivered to Conrad's personal secretary, who'd been told not to sign for them under any circumstances.
As Jayne angled through the crush of gamblers toward the roulette table, her fist closed around the engagement ring Conrad had given her seven years ago. Since he owned the Casino de la Mediterranee, if she lost the long-shot bet, the ring would be back in his possession. All or nothing, she had to lose to win. She just wanted a clean break and no more heartache.
Jayne plunked down the ring on the velvet square for 12 red. The anniversary of their breakup fell on January 12, next week. They'd spent three years of their seven years married apart. By now Conrad should have been able to accept that so they could move on with their lives.
Familiar sounds echoed up the domed ceiling, chimes and laughter, squeals of excitement mixed with the "ahhhh" of defeat. She'd called these walls full of frescoes home for the four years they'd lived together as man and wife. Even though she moved with ease here now, she'd grown up in a more down-to-earth home in Miami. Her father's dental practice had kept them very comfortable. Of course, they would have been a lot more comfortable had her father not been hiding away a second family.
Regardless, her parents' finances were nowhere close to touching the affluence of this social realm.
Her ring had been a Van Cleef & Arpels, one-of-a-kind design that had dazzled her back when she believed in fairy tales.
Cinderella had left the building. Jayne's glass slipper had been shattered right along with her heart. Prince Charming didn't exist. She made her own destiny and would take charge of her own life.
Nodding to the croupier in charge of spinning the wheel, she nudged her ring forward, centering it on the number 12 red. The casino employee tugged his tie and frowned, looking just past her shoulders and giving her only a second's warning before
She could feel his presence behind her without looking. And how damn unfair was that? Even after three years apart, never once laying eyes on him the entire time, her body still knew him. Wanted him. Her skin tingled under the silky beige gown and her mind filled with memories of spending an entire weekend making love with the Mediterranean breeze blowing in through the balcony doors.
Conrad's breath caressed her ear an instant ahead of his voice. "Gaming plaques can be obtained to your left. Mon amour!''
Hardly. More like his possession. "And divorce papers can be picked up from my lawyer."
She was a hospice nurse. Not a freaking princess.
"Now why would I want to split up when you look hot enough to melt a man's soul?" A subtle shift of his feet brought him closer until his fire seared her back as tangibly as the desireand angerpumping through her veins.
She pivoted to face him, bracing for the impact of his good looks.
Simply seeing him sent her stomach into a predictable tumble. She resented the way her body reacted to him. Why, why, why couldn't her mind and her hormones synch up?
His jet-black hair gleamed under the massive crystal chandeliers and she remembered the thick texture well, surprisingly soft and totally luxurious. She'd spent many nights watching him sleep and stroking her fingers along his hair. With his eyes closed, the power of his espresso-brown gaze couldn't persuade her to go against her better judgment. He didn't sleep much, an insomniac, as if he couldn't surrender control to the world even for sleep. So she'd cherished those rare, unguarded moments to look at him.
Women stared and whispered whenever Conrad Hughes walked past. Even now they didn't try to hide open stares of appreciation. He was beyond handsome in his tuxedoor just wearing jeans and a T-shirtin a bold and brooding way. While one hundred percent an American from New York, he had the exotic look of some Italian or Russian aristocrat from another century.
He was also chockfull of arrogance.
Conrad scooped the five-carat diamond off the velvet, and she only had a second to celebrate her victory before he placed it in her palm, closing her fingers back over the ring. The cool stone warmed with his hand curling hers into a fist.
"Conrad." she snapped, tugging.
"Jayne," he rumbled right back, still clasping until the ring cut into her skin. Shifting, he tucked alongside her. "This is hardly the place for our reunion."
He started walking and since he still held her hand, she had no choice but to go along, past the murmuring patrons and thick carved pillars. Familiar faces broke up the mass of vacationers, but she couldn't pause to make idle chitchat, pretending to be happy around old friends and employees.
Her husband's casino provided a gathering place for the elite, even royalty. At last count, he owned a half dozen around the world, but the Casino de la Mediterranee had always been his favorite, as well as his primary residence. The old-world flair included antique machines and tables, even though their internal mechanisms were upgraded to state of the art.
People vacationed here to cling to tradition, dressed to the nines in Savile Row tuxedos and Christian Dior evening gowns. Diamonds and other jewels glittered, no doubt original settings from Cartier to Bvlgari. Her five-carat ring was impressive, no question, but nothing out of the ordinary at the Casino de la Mediterranee.
Her high heels clicked faster and faster against the marble tiles, her black metallic bag slipping down to her elbow in her haste. "Stop. It. Now."
"No. Thanks." He stopped in front of the gilded elevator, his private elevator, and thumbed the button.
"God, you're still such a sarcastic ass." She sighed under her breath.
"Well, damn." He hooked an arm around her shoulders. "I've never heard that before. Thanks for enlightening me. I'll take it under advisement."
Jayne shrugged off his arm and planted her heels. "I am not going up to your suite."
"Our penthouse apartment." He plucked the ring from her hand and dropped it into her black bag hanging from her shoulder. "Our home."
A home? Hardly. But she refused to argue with him here in the lobby where anyone could listen. "Fine. I need to talk to you. Alone."
The doors slid open. He waived the elevator attendant away and led her inside, sealing them in the mirrored cubicle. "Serving the papers won't make me sign them."
So she'd noticed, to her intense frustration. "You can't really intend to stay married and live apart forever."
"Maybe I just wanted you to have the guts to talk to me in person rather than through another emissary" his deep brown eyes crinkled at the corners "to tell me to my face that you're prepared to spend the rest of your life never again sharing the same bed."
Sharing a bed again?
Not a chance.
She couldn't trust him, and after what happened with her father? She refused to let any man fool her the way her mother had been dupedor to break her heart the way her mother had been heartbroken. "You mean sharing the same bed whenever you happen to be in town after disappearing for weeks on end. We've been over this a million times. I can't sleep with a man who keeps secrets."
He stopped the elevator with a quick jab and faced her, the first signs of frustration stealing the smile from him. "I've never lied to you."
"No. You just walk away when you don't want to answer the question."
He was a smart man. Too smart. He played with words as adeptly as he played with money. At only fifteen years old, he'd used his vast trust fund to manipulate the stock market. He'd put more than one crook out of business with short sales, and nearly landed himself in a juvenile detention center. His family's influence worked the system. He'd been sentenced by a judge to attend a military reform school instead, where he hadn't reformed in the least, only fine-tuned his ability to get his way.
God help her, she still wasn't immune to him, a large part of why she'd kept her distance and tried to instigate the divorce from overseas. The last straw in their relationship had come when she'd had a scare with a questionable mammogram. She'd desperately needed his support, but couldn't locate him for nearly a week, the longest seven days of her life.
Her health concerns turned out to be benign, but her fears for her marriage? One hundred percent malignant. Out of respect for what they'd shared, she'd waited for Conrad to come home. She'd given him one last chance to be honest with her. He'd fed her the same old tired line about conducting business and how she should trust him.
She'd walked out that night with only a carry-on piece of luggage. If only she'd thought to leave her rings behind then.
Standing here in the intimate confines of the elevator, with classical music piping through the sound system, she could only think of the time he'd pressed her to the mirrored wall and made love to her until she could barely think, much less remember to ask him where he'd been for the past two weeks.
And still he wasn't talking, damn him. "Well, Conrad? You don't have anything to say?"
"The real problem here is not me. It's that you don't know how to trust." He skimmed his finger along the chain strap of her black metallic shoulder bag and hitched it back in place. "I am not your father."
His words turned residual passion into angerand pain. "That's a low blow."
"Am I wrong?"
He stood an inch away, so close they could lose themselves in a kiss instead of the ache of all this self-awareness. But she couldn't travel that path again. She stepped closer, drawn by the scent of him, the deep ache in her belly to have his lips on hers. The draw was so intense it took everything inside her to step back.
"If you're so committed to the truth, then how about proving you're not your father."
When Conrad had been arrested as a teen, the papers ran headlines. Like Father. Like Son. His embezzling dad had escaped conviction as well for his white-collar crimes thanks to that same high-priced lawyer.
In her heart she knew her husband wasn't like his old man. Conrad had hacked into all those Wall Street companies to expose his father and others like him. She knew intellectually but the evasiveness, the walls between them She just couldn't live that way.
She reached into her large, dangling evening bag and pulled out the folded stack of papers. "Here. I'm saving you a trip to the lawyer's office."
She pushed them against Conrad's chest and hit the elevator button for her floor, a guest suite, because she couldn't stomach the notion of staying in their old quarters, which she'd once decorated with hope and love.
"Conrad, consider yourself officially served. Don't worry about the ring. I'll sell it and donate the money to charity. All I need from you is your signature."
The elevator doors slid open at her floor, not his, not their old penthouse, but a room she'd prearranged under a different name. Her head held high, she charged out and into the carpeted corridor.
She walked away from Conrad, almost managing to ignore the fact that he still had the power to break her heart all over again.
Conrad had made ten fortunes by thirty-two years old and had given away nine. But tonight, he'd finally hit the jackpot with his biggest win in three years. He had a chance for closure with Jayne so she wouldn't haunt his dreams every damn night for the rest of his life.
He stalked back into the lobby toward the casino to turn over control for the evening. Once he'd been alerted to Jayne's presence on the floor, he'd walked out on a Fortune 500 guest and a deposed royal heir, drawn by the gleam of his wife's light blond hair piled on top of her head, the familiar curve of her pale neck. Talking to Jayne had been his number-one priority.
Finding her thunking down her ring on 12 red hadn't been the highlight of his life, but the way she'd leaned into him, the flare of awareness in her sky-blue eyes? No, it wasn't over, in spite of the divorce papers she'd slapped against his chest.
She was back under his roof for tonight. He folded the papers again and slid them inside his tuxedo jacket. As he walked past the bar, the bartender nodded toward the last brass stooland a familiar patron.
Damn it. He did not need this now. But there was no dodging Colonel John Salvatore, his former headmaster and current contact for his freelance work with Interpol, work that had pulled him away from Jayne, work that he preferred she not know about for her own safety. Conrad's wealthy lifestyle and influence gave him easy entree into powerful circles. When Interpol needed an "in" they called on a select group of contract operatives, headed by John Salvatore, saving months creating an undercover persona for a regular agent. Salvatore usually only tapped into his services once or twice a year. If he used Conrad too often, he risked exposure of the whole setup.
The reason for the missing weeks that always had Jayne in such an uproar.
Part of him understood he should just tell her about his second "career." He'd been cleared to share the basics with his spouse, just not details. But another part of him wanted her to trust him, to believe in him rather than assume he was like his criminal father or a cheating bastard like her dad.
The colonel lifted his Scotch in toast. "Someone's in over his head."