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Xavier Lauran, chief executive, chairman and majority shareholder of the XeL luxury goods company, whose ornate logo graced so many of the expensive possessions of the rich and famous, scanned down the e-mails on his desktop PC. The words of Armand's e-mail from London leapt from the screen in front of him.
she's the woman of my dreams, Xavshe doesn't know it yet, but I'm going to marry her!
Xavier's jaw tightened. For a moment he brooded darkly, staring out over the darkening Paris skyline, the Arc de Triomphe visible from the windows of the XeL headquarters, overlooking the Place d'Etoiles. He should, right now, be leaving his office and going back to his apartment to change, ready to escort Madeline to the operaand thereafter back to her apartment for their usual mutually enjoyable end to the evening. The arrangement suited him. Madeline de Cerasse, like all the women he selected for his leisure hours, knew what he wanted from a relationship and provided him with itsophisticated companionship at the many social events his position required him to attend, and then, in private, equally sophisticated pleasures of an intimate nature. Physically intimate. Emotional intimacy was something Xavier neither sought nor desired. He was not, he knew with candid self-awareness, someone who let his heart rule his head.
Unlike his brother.
Xavier's expression darkened. Armand always let his heart rule his headand the last time it had happened it had been a disaster. With complete lack of judgement, he had fallen into the clutches of a woman who had taken unscrupulous advantage of his good heart, deviously trotting out some rubbish about having to keep her frail grandmother in an expensive nursing home, as well as wringing his heart with tales about the charity for African orphans she'd claimed to work for. Armand had responded generouslyuntil Xavier, with his habitual protectiveness of his younger brother, had had the woman checked out. Only to discover she had been lying through her teeth in order to win Armand's sympathy and money for herself.
Armand had been duly disillusioned. But his faith in the general goodness of peopleand especially womenwas undiminished. And now he was talking about marriage.
To whom? Who was this 'woman of his dreams'? Armand had said nothing about who his intended bride was. Swiftly Xavier scanned the remaining lines of the e-mail.
This time I'm being cautious, Xav, the way you like me to be. She doesn't even know that I've anything to do with you or XeLI deliberately haven't told her. I want it to be a wonderful surprise!
But any initial relief that Armand was showing signs of thinking with his head dissolved into deepest foreboding as he finished the e-mail.
I know there will be problems, but I don't care if she isn't the ideal bride you think I should haveI love her and that has to be enough
Grimly, Xavier stared at the screen. This was not goodnot good at all. Armand was admitting upfront there would be problems and that his bride was not ideal.
Yet he was still talking about marriage.
Alarm speared through Xavier. If this woman turned out as disastrously as the last one had, extricating his brother would be far more difficult if he married her.
And expensive, tooArmand was not the type to consider a pre-nup. OK, so Armand was only his half brother, and had therefore not inherited the company founded by Xavier's grandfather, another Xavier Lauran. A company which was riding highand very lucrativelyas one of the world's most recognisable global brands of luxury goods. The exclusive XeL logo giving cachet and social status to anyone possessing any of the myriad extortionately expensive items, from watches to suitcases, which the company produced. But not only was Armand a very highly paid director of XeL, but his father, Lucian Becaud, whom Xavier's mother had married after her early widowing when Xavier was a small child, was comfortably wealthy in his own right.Armand would be a rich catch for any woman in search of a moneyed husband.
Was that what Armand's intended bride was? Armand clearly did not think so. The final lines of his e-mail were adamant.
Xavthis time around, trust me. I know what I'm doing, and you can't change my mind. Please don't interfere this timeit's too important to me.
Xavier sighed harshly. He wanted to trust Armandbut what if his brother were wrong? What if another unscrupulous woman had succeeded in blinding him to her true nature? There would be heartbreak for his brother down the linenot to mention the expense of an acrimonious divorce and the distress to Armand's parents.
No, he could not take the risk. Not with his own brother's happiness. He needed to find out who this woman was, and whether his brother was safe with her. Reluctantly, but with grim determination, he reached for the phone on his desk. He would make some discreet enquiries. The company's security team answered to him aloneand if he required them to keep his brother under surveil-lance for a short while they would simply assume it was for Armand's protection. Not that his movements might reveal the identity of this woman so worryingly far from being 'the ideal bride', whom he'd already conceded would come with 'problems'.
As he waited for his head of security to answer, Xavier could feel the thoughts forming in his mind. Maybe he was overreacting. Worrying unnecessarily.
He hoped sohe really hoped so.
But within twenty-four hours he knew that his hopes had been in vain. As he gazed grimly down at the dossier in front of him, freshly delivered by his security team, he knew that without a doubt there was definitelyvery definitelya problem.
Armand had been rightthis girl was not 'the ideal bride'. Xavier's mouth thinned. But then who in their right mind would think that of a girl who worked as a hostess in a Soho casino?
That she was just that was indisputable. Armand had been followed leaving the London HQ of XeL at the end of the working day, and taking a taxi to a part of South London no one would live in by choice. There, he had been granted entry to a ground-floor flat in a rundown tenement block by a young woman who had welcomed him warmly. He had stayed until mid-evening, when the woman had seen him out. Whereupon Armand had embraced her on the doorstep and spoken earnestly to her. The young woman had then been kept under surveillance herself, and within half an hour had left the flat. She had been followed to Soho, to the casino named in the dossier, where enquiries had confirmed she was employed as a hostess.
Xavier dropped the baldly written report down on his desk. His stomach clenched. This was the woman Armand intended to marry? To bring home to his family, be the mother of his children?
Was he completely mad?
With a harsh intake of breath, he ripped open the envelope marked with a single name: Lissa Stephens.
Then he slid out a photo, and stared at it. Just what was it that Lissa Stephens possessed by way of charms to entrap his brother?
As he stared, Xavier's disbelief mounted. As did his bleak dismay. The girl had been photographed at the casino, presumably covertly, by one of his security team's agents. She could hardly have looked worse.
Blonde, backcombed hair, make-up a centimetre thick, a scarlet slash of a mouth and a skimpy satin low-cut dress. Crudely
What the hell did Armand see in her?
Revulsion shot through him. How could Armand possibly want a woman like that?
Xavier's eyes narrowed. Did his brother even know she was a casino hostess in London's infamous red light district, Soho? He felt the blood run cold in his veins. And was that revelation merely the tip of the iceberg?
He could feel his own revulsion mount in him, and with deliberate effort he contained it. It was essentialto his brother's happiness, and his parents'that the right call be made on this Lissa Stephens. Reason demanded that there was a chancehowever slimthat appearances were deceptive. Reason, not emotion.
Could it possibly be that the girl was not as bad as she looked? His eyes went to the photo again. Disbelief shot through himcould this really be the woman his brother wanted to marry? The very thought of Armand marrying such a female, presenting her to their mother, his father, seeing her making herself at home in the beautiful Riviera villa in Menton, watching his brother be first besotted and then bitterly disillusioned, was anathema.
He looked down at the two-dimensional image of Lissa Stephens, trying to see beyond it. He could read nothing from her expression, her make-up was like a mask, but one aspect of her appearance she could not mask.
They were hard. The eyes of a woman who would see his brother's good heart as a weakness to be taken advantage of. Armand's words sounded in his mind.
I know what I'm doing
Did he? Or did he just think he didas he had before, until he'd had the truth presented to him? A harsh, heavy sigh escaped Xavier. He couldn't take that risk. If the woman that Armand wanted to marry was what she looked to be, then he had to protect him from her.
But how to know that?
Slowly, he got to his feet and walked across the large office, with its beautiful mouldings and high ceilings, and gazed out of the wide windows. The never-ending swirl of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe blurred before his eyes.
He had not steered XeL to the pinnacle it now stood upon without being able to make good judgements, shrewd decisions. His cool, analytical mind was capable of assessing anything from the optimum time to launch a new range of goods in any particular line to which overseas markets would prove the most profitable in the near to mid-term, and which of the many women of his acquaintance eager to become his next ch re amie he would choose.
Now, faced with what could well be the debacle of a m salliance that would devastate his brother and appal his mother and stepfather, Xavier knew he must apply the same detached, rational assessment to Armand's situation. And in the end, for something this important, this crucial to his brother's happiness and his family's peace of mind, a bare investigative report and a photo were not enough. Nowhere near enough.
He would have to check her out. See for himself. Judge her for himself.
It was a task that had to be done. He might not want to do it, but he must. Whatever was required he would do.
His brother deserved no less.
As for Lissa Stephens
His eyes darkened to slate. Well, he would find out, personally, just exactly what it was she deserved. His brother as her husbandor something quite different.
LISSA surreptitiously smothered a yawn, then, by force of will, turned it into a smile and murmured some facile pleasantry to the two men sitting at the table with her. Tiredness washed over her in a debilitating wave. Dear God, when would she get enough sleep ever again? She knew she had to be grateful for this jobeven though what she was doing was demeaning, soul-destroying, morally dubious and grated on every last shred of sensibility in her.
Her face hardened momentarily. Well, tough. She needed the money. She needed it badly. Badly enough to put in a day's secretarial work temping in the City, and then work here until the early hours. The only other night job would have been cleaning and it simply didn't pay as well.
Money, she thought grimly. It just came right back down to thatno escape. She needed money. She needed to earn as much as she could, in as short a time as she could, and that was all there was to it. No escape, no let up. And none likely, either.
Or was there? Through her weariness of body and spirit, a familiar, dangerously alluring thought flickered.
Armand and his money could make it all happen so, so quickly. For just a few tantalising moments she allowed herself the luxury of daydreaminghow easy everything would be.
Noshe must not allow herself to think about that. To allow herself hope. He had been out of touch for several days now, and she simply had to allow for the very real possibility that she had only been imagining his interest. That whatever hopes he had left behind, he was just not coming back.
Her throat tighteneddisappointment was cruel, but she had always had to face the possibility that his interest was only temporary, a novelty. She could not, must not, rely on it. Rely on him. She stiffened her spineit was pointless to expect anyone to wave a magic wand and make everything miraculously better.
She made herself focus on the two businessmen. At least they were engaged in talking to each other nowsomething about sales figuresrather than paying attention to her. Her gaze wandered off again.
And halted in mid-sweep.
Someone had just entered the casino's bar area. Someone who, she could instantly see, stood out from the rest of the punters here the same way a racehorse stood out from a field of hacks. Lissa's eyes widened.
He should be somewhere seriously flashMonte Carlo, Marbella, one of the top West End hotels like the Ritz or the Savoy.
It was his whole appearancefrom the superbly cut tuxedo that must have been handmade to sit so perfectly on his body, to the glint of gold at his pristine white cuffs and the razored perfection of his haircut.
And the tan. Nothing artificial or overdone about his skin tone his was the real thing. Part nature, part thanks to a Riviera lifestyle.
He lookedrich. Seriously rich. Her stomach gave a little skip. The way Armand did sometimes. With a casual, inbred elegance that could never be put on. That you had to be raised with to show it the way Armand and this guy did.
He had something else in common with Armandhe wasn't English. That was obvious. No Englishman had the kind of svelte elegance that fitted like a smooth, flawless glove over bone-deep masculinity. But although Armand, too, possessed those rich continental looks, there was a very clear distinction between him and this man.