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Happy goddamn New Year, Hudson thought as the slick, black Mercedes S65 took the corner at slingshot speed. With Max piloting the luxury rental, he was free to flip through page after page of the dossier his head of security had put together in less than an hour. The only thing he didn’t have was Madame Bernadette Beauchene’s medical records. Those would’ve probably taken Max the two hours he’d originally been given, and knowing her cholesterol level wasn’t going to alter the current set of circumstances. Hudson wasn’t even certain Beauchene was going to lead him anywhere besides a dead end, but it was the only thread he had, and damn straight he was going to yank on the son of a bitch.
Back at the train station he’d paced nearly the full length of the platform, checked his watch, turned on his heel and strode back, then checked his watch again. The more time that passed, the faster his heart had pounded, and when he’d realized Allie was going to be a no-show, he’d felt like his skin was being ripped off. He’d taken his cell phone out and dialed the George V to question the hotel staff on the whereabouts of their driver, then Max to hit the information highway. Based on the current intel, the only logical conclusion was that Allie had left him. What he didn’t know was why. Now he was on full-blown autopilot with a single mission, and with every tick of the second hand he was losing ground.
Hudson swallowed his impatience, then tossed yet another press photo onto the leather seat. By all accounts the woman Allie had referred to as one of her mother’s closest friends was nothing more than a wealthy European with a gift for graceful social maneuvering. And the copious events she was photographed at were giving him nothing but a crash course on the difference between Valentino and Chanel. The entire dossier was full of useless information, from the details of her marital marathon to her extended family tree, yet he continued to pore over it, trying to find something, anything, that might explain what the fuck was going on.
Was visiting Beauchene just an excuse? Had the past few days been an act, waiting for the perfect out? Or had it been a final good-bye, fucking each other senseless just to purge it out of her system? Had she realized that no matter what his zip code, he still wasn’t good enough? Hudson gripped the document in his hand to avoid punching his fist through the tinted glass. He hadn’t even had a fighting fucking chance to talk her out of it.
“Mr. Chase.” Max’s voice cut through the rhetoricals and Hudson’s laser-sharp eyes darted to the rearview mirror. “The plane is on standby and the crew is ready to depart as soon as we arrive. ETA, eight minutes.”
Hudson checked his watch. “Thank you.” He took a deep breath in an attempt to downshift his nervous energy into focused calm, but his need to find Allie overrode all logic. If she thought she was walking without hearing him out. . . . Well, news flash, she was wrong. So fucking wrong.
After going through the airport’s private security entrance, the Mercedes shot down the tarmac and around the fat turn that lead to the hanger housing the Chase Industries plane. The car came to an abrupt stop inside, its tires squeaking against the highly polished concrete floor. Hudson exploded out of the vehicle. He didn’t give a shit if he had to fly halfway around the world to do it; he was going after her. Winning Allie back was a necessity, and if this was the way she wanted to play it, he was all fucking in.
* * *
Allie paced the Aubusson rug in front of the hearth in Julian’s study. Her eyes were glued to the clock resting atop the intricately carved mantel. The ticking of the hands seemed to grow louder the longer she watched it, and her heart raced to keep time. Ten more strokes and it would chime, just as it had the past four hours, in yet another shrill reminder that she’d stood up the man she loved.
Her chest tightened at the thought of him waiting for her at the Paris train station. At first he might have assumed she was merely running late. It wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. But Hudson knew she would have called or texted if that had been the case. Eventually he would have realized something was wrong.
When she closed her eyes she could picture him standing on the platform, running a hand through his hair when he wasn’t checking his watch, his brow furrowed and his jaw tight. How long had he waited? Had he called the police? They probably wouldn’t consider her officially missing after only a few hours. Either way she was sure he’d interrogated the hotel about the limo they’d provided. Knowing firsthand what it was like to face a determined Hudson Chase, Allie had no doubt they’d given him whatever information they had. Which meant he knew the driver didn’t take her to tea with an old family friend but rather to de Gaulle airport. Oh God. Did he assume she’d left him? Was he already on his way back to Chicago?
The clock chimed, and Allie’s eyes flew open. She had to get out of there. She needed to find Hudson, to tell him she loved him and that she would never leave him. Ever.
Where the hell was Julian? He’d had her on a race against time since the moment he’d called, demanding she personally deliver his ring before an unreasonably short deadline. But she’d no sooner walked through the door when a rather imposing gentleman approached him with a message. Allie had seen enough over the past few weeks to recognize a bodyguard when she saw one. Ex-military, if she had to guess. After reading the note, Julian had excused himself, asking the man to escort Allie to his study. She didn’t think much of it until he confiscated her cell phone and locked the door behind him.
She’d been pacing the rug ever since.
Her impatience was its own cruel irony since she’d hoped to never lay eyes on Julian Laurent again. She would have hung up on him when he called—scratch that, she would have told him to go to hell, then hung up on him—but he’d played the one card that guaranteed her cooperation. Hudson. Allie had no idea what had happened to the man whose lifeless body lay at Nick’s feet in the surveillance video Julian sent her, or what Hudson’s involvement had been. But it didn’t matter. She trusted Hudson completely and would do anything to protect him. Which is why she’d had no choice but to follow Julian’s instructions to the letter. She’d done everything he’d asked, and in return he’d trapped her in his study for hours. Enough was enough. Julian couldn’t hold her hostage.
Allie crossed the cavernous room and tried the handles of the double doors, only to find them still locked. And when she pounded on the wood she once again heard nothing but an echoing silence in return. Why the hell was he doing this? A shiver of awareness trickled down Allie’s spine. He was playing mind games with her, breaking down her defenses. But why? She had no intention of sticking around long enough to find out. She needed to get out of there, to find Hudson and tell him everything. Together they could figure out a way to deal with Julian.
Her eyes darted around the room, coming to rest on the arched casement window on the opposite wall. She hurried around Julian’s desk and frantically cranked the handle on the stone sill. The drop wasn’t too bad, if she lowered herself carefully . . .
A hinge squeaked behind her and then a door slammed shut. “Have a seat, Alessandra,” Julian said, his accent thick and his voice low. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Hudson hit the stairs two at a time, eating up the distance in a matter of seconds. As he stepped inside his private jet he heard the captain radio the tower. The flight attendant greeted him almost immediately.
“Good evening, Mr. Chase.” The woman looked over Hudson’s shoulder. “Will Miss Sinclair be joining us?”
“There’s been a change to the manifest.” Hudson unbuttoned his wool coat and dropped it onto the cream couch opposite twin leather seats. “Only one passenger.” He didn’t need to elaborate and he wasn’t going to.
Without missing a beat the flight attendant simply responded, “Yes, sir.”
Hudson parked his ass in the chair that faced the door and ran a hand through his hair. Call it wishful thinking, but with his eyes focused on the door, he hoped—hell, he fucking prayed—that Allie would suddenly appear in the archway. But instead, a guy on the ground crew bounded up the stairs to close the hatch.
Hudson dipped his head and pinched the bridge of his nose as if that would stave off the pounder threatening to take over his frontal lobe.
“Sir.” A soft voice pushed through the sound of the jet’s engines warming up. “Might I offer you ibuprofen or aspirin, perhaps?”
“I’m fine, thank you. Just a glass of wat—”
His phone rang in his hand.
“Mr. Chase, we’re preparing for takeoff, you will need to turn your phone off or set it to airplane mode.”
Hudson held up a single finger as he glanced at the screen. His stomach took a nosedive when he realized it wasn’t Allie, but rather an unknown number. “Chase,” he clipped into the phone.
“Bonsoir, Monsieur Chase. C’est Claudette de la George V.”
Hudson took the chilled glass of water from his flight attendant. “Procéder,” he responded in near-perfect French. Outside the window, landscape began to pass by.
“Bien sûr, monsieur. Mlle Sinclair a rencontré un passager de Chicago, une jeune femme rousse selon le pilote. Il l’a emmenée à l’hôtel Ritz Carlton.”
Sweet hell, she was rapid-firing at him. “Ralentissez, Anglais, s’il vous plaît.”
“Désolé . . . uh, my apologies, Mr. Chase. You are a valued client of the George V, and as a courtesy we wanted to follow up on your inquiry regarding Miss Sinclair.” The casual tone of her voice grated against his nerve endings. And for fuck’s sake, the pause just about pitched him into thermonuclear status. “Miss Sinclair was taken to the arrivals terminal.”
“Arrivals? You’re certain?”
“Oui. She met a flight arriving from the United States.”
“The US has fifty states, narrow it down.” The aircraft eased over a bump on its way to the runway, and the water in the glass in front of him rippled.
“Chicago, sir. The driver said he picked up a redhead with . . . uh . . . colorful luggage, then proceeded to take her to the Ritz Carlton.”
“Did Miss Sinclair go with her to the hotel?” And why the hell wasn’t she taking her to a different one?
Christ, this was like pulling teeth. “Did the driver take Miss Sinclair to another location?”
“No, Mr. Chase, he returned alone.”
“Merci.” Hudson ended the call. Why would Allie fly back to the states while her self-proclaimed B-fucking-F was in Paris? The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to shake out of different boxes with none of them matching. He shifted back into his seat, and at the same time the pilot throttled the engine. The engines roared and the plane began to pick up speed.
Hudson yanked back on his seat belt, the metal clanking against the armrests, and ordered the plane to stop.
* * *
Allie startled at the sound of the slamming door. She turned to find Julian standing in the doorway. His green eyes were glassy as they cast a leering glance over her body, causing alarm bells to ring loud and strong in her head. The last time she’d been in the same room with Julian, he’d tried to rape her. The cuts and bruises she’d suffered at his hands that night had healed, but the mere sight of him awakened a panic that lingered just below the surface.
“I believe I told you to sit.” He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.
“You can’t keep me here,” she said, her mouth suddenly dry. “This is kidnapping.”
His lips twitched into a mocking smile. “You came here of your own free will, Alessandra.”
It took every ounce of strength to hold her ground. “You blackmailed me into coming here.”
“I simply provided an incentive for you to pay me a visit.” He smirked. “As my guest.” He sauntered toward the fireplace, stopping in front of a small table that held an arrangement of crystal decanters. “Drink?”
Allie shook her head. “Do you lock all your guests in the study?”
“You would have preferred the tower?”
To her horror Allie realized he might not have been joking. Either way he didn’t wait for an answer to the absurd question. Instead he continued on as if the past few hours had been nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
“I had matters to attend to.” Julian filled a squat glass with ice, then lifted the top from one of the decanters and poured himself a hefty glass of vodka. “But I’m here now, so let’s, as you Americans are so fond of saying, get down to it, shall we?” His expression darkened when she didn’t comply. “Sit, Alessandra. Don’t make me say it again.”
Allie sank into one of the chairs in front of Julian’s desk. He passed by her in a cloud of sweet cologne mixed with the lingering stench of cigarette smoke. The combination made her stomach roll. When he reached his desk he fixed her with a hard stare. “I believe you have something of mine?”
She dug the leather ring box out of her purse and set it on the desk between them. He regarded her a moment, watching her over the rim of his glass as he sipped the vodka. Refusing to give him the satisfaction of knowing how he affected her, Allie fought the urge to look away.
After what seemed like an eternity, Julian finally reached for the box, holding it in one hand and pressing the lid open with his thumb. The late afternoon sun streaming in from the window behind him caught the facets of the stone, reflecting a brilliant white and blue. Despite what that ring had come to represent, Allie had to admit it was stunning. Twelve flawless carats, the diamond was truly one of a kind. A gift from Louis XIV to the first Marquis Laurent, the ring had been in Julian’s family for centuries and was one of his most prized possessions. Yet as he stared at his precious heirloom nestled in black satin, he remained impassive and quiet. Too quiet.
For several excruciating moments, the ticking from the clock on the mantel was the only sound in the room. Allie stole a glance at it, but Julian either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He sat motionless, his gaze trained on the box in his hand, focused but somehow unseeing at the same time. It was like he was a million miles away.
When he finally spoke, Allie let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “America’s royal wedding,” he mumbled before taking another sip from his glass. His voice was so low she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly.
“That’s what the press was calling it.” Julian snapped the box closed and set it back on the desk. The distant look in his eyes was gone, and in its place was a venom so tangible Allie could almost feel it crawl across her skin. “You were too busy spreading your legs all over Chicago to notice, but our impending merger made headlines.”
Allie couldn’t help but cringe at his word choice. Merger, not marriage. And certainly not love. To him their entire relationship had been nothing more than a business transaction, one her parents had shrewdly and callously negotiated to save Ingram Media from bankruptcy. Julian was chosen because he was the most desirable bidder in her father’s eyes, not because he loved her. All of it had been a fraud. From the day they first met until the night he proposed, everything about their courtship had been a carefully orchestrated charade.
“I should be at the helm of Ingram right now. Not you and that stray who followed you home from the beach ten years later.” He took another sip of vodka and slowly licked his lower lip. “You must have been quite the fuck back then, because I certainly never experienced anything quite so . . . inspiring.”
Allie had heard enough. “You’ve got what you wanted, Julian. I brought the ring back. Just give me the memory card and we never have to see each other again.”
“Promises were made, Alessandra. Contracts signed. Money exchanged.”
“I had my lawyer return everything you paid my father.” Her voice was small. The fact that her father had taken money from Julian made her feel like the whore he’d once called her, bought and paid for.
Allie flinched at the sound of Julian’s fist pounding the desk.
“You think that makes this right?” he shouted. His face was red and a muscle ticked in his jaw.
A beat of tense silence passed between them.
“Look around you,” he ground out between clenched teeth. “I don’t need your money. What I need is a high-level entry into the American market. A conglomerate to add to the Laurent holdings. What I need,” he snarled, “is Ingram Media.”
Allie took deep breaths through her nose in an effort to slow her racing heart. Julian’s hair-trigger temper was amplified by the alcohol he was slugging back like water. She needed to remain calm, sympathize with him if that’s what it took. Anything to get the hell out of there. “I understand your frustration, Julian. But I don’t know what you expect me to do about any of this.”
Julian composed himself almost as quickly as he’d lost it. With a final gulp he finished off the vodka. Slowly and methodically, he set the glass on the desk and leaned back in the chair, resting his elbows on the arms and steepling his fingers in front of his mouth. “It’s quite simple, Alessandra. You’re going to become my wife.”
Hudson’s fist landed against the door like a sledgehammer. He was way past giving some dainty wake-up call, providing the jet lag had wiped out the redhead. And based on the number of times he’d knocked on the door, it had. As he stood there waiting . . . and waiting, he glanced up and down the hallway of the pricey establishment. A couple of silver trays were parked outside the room next to Harper’s, and a housekeeper was making her way toward him carrying a fresh load of towels. He waited for her to pass before pounding the wood again.
The door finally swung open and the light from the hall sliced into the room. Harper’s lids squeezed shut against the blinding intrusion. Her hair was sticking up in every direction possible, and the second her eyes got with the waking up program, they widened. Goddamn, he thought they were going to pop out of her skull and roll across the carpet.
“What are you doing here?” She tightened the belt on her white terry cloth robe as he pushed past her into the room.
“I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“By all means,” she mumbled. “Come in.”
“I thought she was with you.” She shut the door and finger-combed her hair. “I mean, aren’t you two in the middle of some over-the-top getaway?”
“We should be having cocktails in London by now.”
“Have you tried her cell?” Harper was doing her damnedest to avoid his direct line of questioning. He wasn’t surprised she was covering for Allie, but it was getting him good and pissed off.
“Repeatedly. When did you last hear from her?”
“She called me . . .” She rubbed her eyes, then paused and let her hand flop to her side, the cuff of her robe swallowing her hand. “Wait, what day is it?”
“It’s the first of January,” he bit out.
“She called me yesterday morning.”
Harper frowned. “Early. Well, here it was early. Like six, I think.”
Hudson ran a hand through his hair while his mind recalibrated. He thought back to the previous morning on the train. Breakfast had been the first order of business after a night of unadulterated fucking on every surface of their cabin—against the cool window, his body pressed in behind her as they sped through the French countryside; on the floor, out of breath, but the thought of stopping a foreign concept wiped clean from their vocabulary; even those godforsaken bunk beds hadn’t been off-limits. On that train there’d been nothing but the two of them, even in a packed dining car. Or so he’d thought.
“What did she say?” Hudson waited impatiently for Harper to fill in the blanks. Her eyes darted around the room as if the desk or chair, or maybe even the curtains, could help her out. Jesus Christ, she needed to cut the avoidance crap and start giving him information. “I know you think you’re protecting your friend, but she was supposed to meet me three hours ago and she never showed.”
“Oh fuck,” Harper muttered as she sank down onto the navy-blue couch.
“My sentiments. Talk.”
“She wanted my help.”
“She needed me to go to the brownstone and get something for her, said she’d have a ticket waiting for me at O’Hare and that she’d meet me at de Gaulle when I landed.”
“That was about it. The call was pretty short.”
“And at the airport?”
“Same thing. We only spoke for a few minutes.”
Hudson knew she was telling the truth about the call at least; he hadn’t been out of the cabin for very long. But he also knew that once the two of them got going, it was as if they were setting a new record for most words crammed into a solitary sentence. She had to know more. But the redhead had gone from clammed-up to shell-shocked. “What did she say?” he prompted. “Walk me through the conversation.”
“She was mostly thanking me and telling me about the reservations she’d made. Then she put me in a car and had the driver take me here. I should have called to check on her but I was so whacked, I passed out the minute I got to the room. Oh! Maybe she tried to call . . .” She shot up, snatched her cell off the table, and slid her thumb across the screen.
“Back up. What did she want you to get?”
Harper looked up and locked eyes with him. “Her engagement ring.”
“Why the hell would she want that?”
“She didn’t. Julian did.”
“Come again?” How typical, Hudson thought, for Harper to leave out the biggest fucking detail.
“He called her that morning, said he wanted it back and gave her some sort of ultimatum.” With a quick surge, Hudson strode to the window in an attempt to throw off his aggression. Every cell in his body screamed for him to pick up the chair, the lamp—hell, even the couch—and go all rock star on the room.
“I told her this wasn’t a good idea and that you needed to know what was going on, but she said she could handle it and—”
Hudson spun around. “Handle it?”
“—that it would all be over in a few hours and then she could get on with her life and she’d never have to see that bastard again.” Harper’s words came out rapid-fire. “I’m so sorry. I should have never agreed to help her. I knew better than to trust that asshole.”
He had his phone out before she’d even motored through her last sentence.
Max answered the call on the first ring.
“Bring the car around,” Hudson barked into the phone. “And I’ll need an address for Julian Laurent.” He started for the door at the same time Harper began flinging clothes out of her suitcase.
“Just give me a minute to get dressed.”
“I got this.”
“You’re crazy if you think I’m letting you walk out that door without me.” Harper’s brows were raised in a hard stare, her hands white-knuckling some colorful montage of clothing.
He blew out a resigned breath. “Then get the lead out.”
Allie was sure she’d heard him wrong. Julian couldn’t have possibly been serious. After everything that had transpired between them, there was no way he could have deluded himself into thinking she would actually marry him.
“I want what was promised me,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “What I’m owed. It would have all been mine, everything: the cable network, the newspapers, the magazines. Merged with my Asian and European holdings, Ingram would have been a global leader.”
“There are other media conglomerates, Julian.”
He shook his head. “Not like Ingram. Their assets are unique.” His bloodshot eyes roamed over her. Even in the dim afternoon light she could see his pupils dilate. “And while it’s hardly a pedigree, the Ingram name is as close to royalty as Americans get.”
“I don’t love you, Julian. And you’ve made it clear you don’t love me either.”
“Love is for fairy tales, Alessandra. It has no place in the real world. I would have thought your mother taught you that by example if nothing else.”
Allie stiffened. “I’m nothing like my mother.”
Julian’s head fell back on a harsh laugh. “Are you really so blind as to not see it? You’re exactly like your mother. And I’m not referring to your looks, although I guess I should be grateful the trophy glitters.” He ran a hand through his light brown hair, which fell perfectly back into place. “If it helps you sleep at night, consider our marriage a chance for you to carry on her legacy.”
“This isn’t the Dark Ages. You can’t force me to marry you.”
“That is correct.” He stroked his lip with his index finger. “The decision is ultimately yours. Although if you defy me, that video will find its way to the proper authorities.”
So this had been his plan all along. The race to return his ring was just the excuse to get her there so he could reveal his true end game.
Twisted amusement lit his eyes. “Don’t look so shocked, Alessandra. You didn’t really think I’d give up so easily, did you?”
“You don’t have to do this,” she said as if there were some way to reason with him.
“That is where you’re wrong, ma cherie. You left me with no other option.”
“Me?” The high pitch of her voice betrayed the raw emotions she struggled to control.
“Oui.” His gaze turned impassive. “After all, you are to blame for the deal falling apart in the first place. All of this—” he waved his hand through the air “—is your fault. You brought it on yourself when you broke our engagement.”
Allie looked down at her hands, balled into fists in her lap. “You attacked me.”
Julian snorted. “How did you think I would react when I discovered my fiancée had been whoring her way through the city in my absence? You should have been grateful I was willing to look past your indiscretions, but instead you chose a man who quite literally had been your servant. Another lesson your dear mother should have imparted: the staff is for fucking in the shadows, Alessandra, not parading through the lobby of the symphony.” He rattled the cubes inside the empty crystal tumbler. “Shame, really. If you had just left well enough alone, none of this unpleasantness would have been necessary. You’d be living here as the new Marquise Laurent, quite literally the queen of the castle; your precious Mr. Chase and his deadbeat brother wouldn’t be on the proverbial chopping block; and your parents would still be alive.”
Allie’s head snapped up. “What does my parents’ death have to do with any of this?”
“Your parents wanted Ingram to remain in the family. Your father would have withdrawn his support once you called off the wedding, and without the blessing of the almighty Richard Sinclair, I didn’t stand a chance at convincing the rest of the board.” He leaned back in the leather chair and crossed his ankle over the opposite knee. “I needed someone in power who was a bit easier to control.”
A cold sweat misted Allie’s skin. “What did you do?” she whispered.
Julian leveled his beady stare. “Whatever it took.”
No, no, no . . .
“Once I ensured the Ingram-Sinclair holdings would be transferred to their sole heir, I simply turned to the seemingly illustrious Mr. Chase for a bit of leverage. I didn’t even need to dig too far. Covering up a murder?” The corner of Julian’s mouth twisted in a hideous grin. “It’s as if he handed you over on a silver platter.”
Allie struggled to catch her breath while Julian gloated about orchestrating her parents’ murder as if it was a victory in a polo match. “Everything fell into place so easily it was almost boring, really. Other than the imbecile taking your mother’s ring as a souvenir.” He tsked. “As a professional, he should have known I couldn’t leave that type of loose end. Then again, having the ring in his possession when his body was discovered did a nice job of setting him up to take the fall. From what I hear, the police have all but closed the case.”
The taste of bile rose in Allie’s throat, and for a moment she thought she might be sick.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like that drink now, Alessandra? You look a little pale.”
Her mind spun as she struggled to process everything she’d learned, but one thing was certain: Julian had killed her parents in cold blood. Threatening to incriminate Hudson in a murder was only the tip of the iceberg. There was no telling the lengths he would go to force her to do his bidding. She was willing to do whatever it took to keep Hudson safe, but it wasn’t in her power to give Julian what he wanted. “The shares from the estate aren’t enough to give you control of the company,” she told him. “Hudson owns a considerable amount.”
“I’m well aware of his holdings. And I’m also aware of his weakness for you. You’re his Achilles heel, Alessandra. It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to get him to sign over his interest in the company.”
“How exactly do you expect me to do that?’
“By ending your relationship.”
“He won’t believe me.” There was no way Hudson would believe she was leaving him, that she didn’t love him. Or would he? She’d been so horrible to him when she’d discovered he was the one secretly buying up shares of Ingram Media in a hostile takeover attempt. And now if he thought she had left the country without him . . .
“Convince him. Tell him you’ve had a change of heart, that you can’t forgive him after all, or that you’ve simply grown tired of him. I don’t care. But end it.”
“He’ll fight for me.”
Julian sneered. “I’m counting on that. Let him grovel like he did before, then you can give him the ultimatum. Make him prove his love by signing the stock over to you. It’s the decent thing to do seeing as how you’re Jonathan Ingram’s only surviving heir. Then, of course, you’ll deliver the final blow to his ego by joining my side in wedded bliss.” His words were a direct contrast to the bitter contempt in his tone. “And since you’ve already proven you can’t control yourself around the dog, let me make one thing perfectly clear. Manipulate him, Alessandra, but don’t fuck him. That’s a service reserved for your future husband.”
“If you think I’ll sleep with you, you’re crazy.”
“Contrary to what that mongrel may have told you, you’re not the lay of the century. Far from it, in fact. I have plenty of resources at my disposal to better meet those needs. You’ll sleep in my bed by invitation. The frequency will depend on how fertile you are.” He smirked. “And my mood, of course.”
Allie gaped at him. “You expect me to have your child?”
He rose from his chair. “Two. An heir and a spare, as the Brits love to say.”
Allie shrank back as he rounded the desk. “Relax,” he said, his laugh mocking her fear. “No one shall call a Laurent a bastard. I won’t be taking you again until after the wedding.” He strolled past her to the row of crystal decanters and refilled his glass with a hefty pour. “Which brings me to the time frame. The annual shareholder’s meeting is in April, and my sources tell me the board is set to vote on a permanent CEO when they convene in March.”
His sources? Allie barely had time to consider who at Ingram was funneling high-level information to Julian when he dropped another bomb on her.
“We’ll need the ceremony to take place well before that meeting. Mid-February at the latest.” He cocked an eyebrow. “St. Valentine’s Day? Perhaps more fitting for the massacre than a diaper-wearing cherub, but apropos nonetheless.”
“You want to get married next month?” she asked. Her voice was hoarse.
“Oui. The arrangements won’t be a problem given that the plans were already in place. Most of them can be adjusted to the February date. At least enough to capitalize on the PR . . . I’m thinking something along the lines of ‘Dashing Prince Rescues Orphaned Heiress.’ Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
Clearly he had lost his mind. But she had to play along. It was the only hope she had of buying the time she needed to figure a way out of this mess. “Why so fast . . . I mean, we have our whole lives, what’s the rush?”
“We need to allow adequate time for the blushing bride to realize how much the company has suffered at the hands of a corporate raider and replace him with her new husband.”
“The co-CEO idea was just for the interim, Julian. I don’t think anyone expects it to continue permanently, regardless of whom is sitting in that chair.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I have no intention of working alongside you.” He took a sip from the crystal glass. “Once we return from our honeymoon, you will have a change of heart, decide you have no place in the boardroom after all, and use your considerable stock percentage to vote your new husband into the position.”
“And what am I supposed to do?”
He shrugged. “Fill your days with charity work and tennis matches like your mother did.”
“So after everything I’ve done, I’m just supposed to suddenly change my mind about running my grandfather’s company and hand it all over to you?” Allie straightened in her chair. She was proud of the work she’d been doing at Ingram. Her victories in the boardroom might have been small, but she was slowly earning their respect. Walking away at this point wouldn’t make any sense. “No one will believe that.”
“How you sell the story isn’t my concern, Alessandra. But I suggest you work on your poker face.” He closed the distance between them until he was standing beside her chair. “I’ll expect you to play the loving wife when we’re in public.”
His fingers traced the wildly pulsing vein in her neck. Allie squeezed her eyes closed, fighting the urge to jerk away from his touch. “I’m not that good of an actor.”
“I felt the same way, but if I can pull it off, so can you. With enough practice you’ll get it right, and if not, I will be happy to introduce certain methods of motivation.” His hand tightened around her neck. “A training of sorts could be quite interesting.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she murmured, trying to control her fear.
“Convince me.” He pulled her cell phone out of his hip pocket and tossed it on the desk in front of her. “I believe there is a heart in need of crushing.”
“You want me to do it now?”
“No time like the present. Consider it a good faith gesture on your part. Although now that I think about it, extra incentive never hurts.” Julian drained the rest of the vodka from his glass as he moved to the other side of his desk. “My sources at Chicago PD are very thorough.” He reached into the top drawer and pulled out a manila envelope. Allie knew what it contained even before he opened it. She tried to steel herself against the onslaught of emotion that welled inside her, but nothing could prepare her for what she was about to see. “Visual aides are always so helpful. Wouldn’t you agree, Alessandra?”
With a flourish Julian fanned the eight by ten glossies out across his desk. Picture after picture, each one more gruesome than the next. Her father slumped over his desk, blood pooling around him on the leather top. Her mother on the dining room floor, her vacant stare reflected in the shattered mirrors that dangled from the wall. In that moment Allie realized this was no longer just a matter of protecting Hudson and Nick from possible prosecution. It was a matter of life and death. She hadn’t been able to protect her parents, but she could keep the man she loved safe from the fate displayed in graphic detail in front of her.
“Enough.” She reached for the phone and powered it on. Almost immediately it began to ping and vibrate with incoming texts, missed calls, and voice mails. As she watched them light up the screen, her vision began to blur. Damn it. She hated that she was crying in front of Julian, hated knowing the satisfaction it brought him. But the realization of what had happened to her parents combined with the reality of what she was about to do was too much, and tears streamed unbidden down her cheeks.
“Second thoughts already? Perhaps I need to come up with a more effective motivation.”
“No,” she snapped. “I’ve got this.” It would kill her to end her relationship with Hudson, but she had no choice. She had to go along with Julian’s charade, at least for the time being. It was the only way to ensure Hudson’s safety.
She wiped her face with the back of her hand and pressed the speed dial for Hudson’s cell phone. He answered on the first ring.
“Allie.” The desperation in his voice broke her heart. “Where are you?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him rather than answer his question.
“Why the hell did you agree to meet that asshole?”
He knew about Julian. But how?
“Tell me where you are and I’ll come get you.”
“Absolutely not,” she blurted out. She hadn’t meant the words to come out so harshly, but she needed to keep Hudson safe, and to do that she had to keep him as far away from Julian as possible. “I mean, that’s not necessary. I’m flying back to Chicago tonight. Alone.”
“What the fuck is going on?”
She took a deep breath in an attempt to steady her nerves. “I thought I could look past everything that happened, but I can’t. It guess it took getting away to realize that.” Pain lanced her heart as she prepared to deliver the final blow. “It’s over.”
“The hell it is.” His frustration was palpable, but she knew beneath the anger he was hurting.
“Please don’t make this harder than it has to be, Hudson.”
“You expect me to accept this bullshit without a fight? You know me better than that. I’ll trace your phone if I have to,” he threatened. “Now tell me where you are.”
Fuck. She needed to end the call and power off her cell.
“Let me talk to her,” a woman said.
“Is Harper there?”
“Yes, she’s with me. Were you just going to leave her here too?”
How the hell had he found Harper? “Put her on the phone, please.”
Hudson blew out an exasperated breath, but a moment later Harper was on the line, asking one question after another.
“What’s going on? Where have you been all day? Why haven’t you been answering your cell? Did that French sleazebag threaten you?” If Harper only knew how on-target she was.
“No, I just needed some time to think this afternoon, that’s all.”
“And this is what you came up with?”
“I don’t want to get into it right now.”
“Look, I don’t know what the hell is going through that head of yours, but you two need to work this out.” Harper wasn’t just Allie’s best friend, she was practically a sister. Convincing her that she’d had a change of heart was going to be almost as difficult as convincing Hudson.
“There’s nothing to discuss. I’m flying home.”
There was a long pause. Allie could picture the two of them, Harper chewing on her bottom lip, Hudson running a frustrated hand through his hair. “Fine,” she finally said. “I’ll meet you at the airport.”
“No, stay. Enjoy Paris; you just got here.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m flying home with you. Text me the flight info when we hang up.”
The look of smug satisfaction on Julian’s face when Allie ended the call was almost more than she could bear. Somehow Allie had to find a way out of this mess. And she only had a few weeks to do it.
Allie settled into the leather seat and pulled the shade closed on the small window. She couldn’t wait to get out of France. The sooner she put some distance between her and Julian, the better. If she was honest, the same applied to Hudson Chase as well. Clearly he wasn’t buying what she’d told him on the phone. And if history was any indication, it was only a matter of time before he cornered her, demanding answers. After everything she’d been through already that day, she was nowhere near ready for a face-to-face confrontation with the man who knew her like no other.
“Would you like something to drink before takeoff?” the flight attendant asked. “A glass of champagne, perhaps?” A preflight cocktail was no doubt one of the many perks of traveling first class, but Allie didn’t feel much like celebrating. At the moment she should have been dancing with Hudson aboard a yacht on the River Thames, not flying home without him after being forced to break his heart.
“No, thank you. But a blanket and pillow would be nice.” With any luck she could manage to sleep the whole flight home, postponing the inevitable Harper Hayes inquisition until she’d had some time to get her story straight.
And speaking of her best friend, where the hell was she? The cabin was filling quickly and yet the seat next to her remained unoccupied. She glanced at her watch. Only a few more minutes until the flight was due to depart. Was Harper stuck in traffic? Or maybe customs?