"How did you word the ad?"
After two months sailing with Suresh, Harry had grown accustomed to the young genius's tangential conversation and topic shifts.
"Geoff insisted on doing the wording--the lawyer in him, I guess. Proof of virginity required, younger than thirty but over eighteen, in good health, free of diseases, yada yada. Significant financial reward. He handled the screening once the letters started arriving."
"And how long did the ad run for?"
"Two weeks," Harry said and sat straighter in the seat as another thought occurred to him. "You ever had a virgin, Suresh?"
"No. Avoided them like the plague. In my circles taking a virgin means marriage." Suresh geared down as they crested a hilltop. "I gather from the question you're in the same boat."
"Yeah. I don't draw many lines in the sand, but that's been one."
"I can't say I envy you. It's bad enough you have to sleep with a stranger, but a virgin?" His shoulder blades squeezed together. "Not my idea of a good time."
"Mine either," Harry muttered.
"Does it matter that she's black?"
Catching the billionaire's tentative cut to him, Harry shook his head. "The virgin thing matters more. I like my women experienced. Very experienced and then some."
Suresh hit the left turn indicator. Ticktock, ticktock. They waited for the light. On the right, the famous Cannes beachfront curved in a graceful arc. Striped tents of every shape, color, and size dotted white sand. One long wooden pier interrupted a seascape of aquamarine Mediterranean.
"I presume that your father chose to locate his holding company here in Monaco because of the tax benefits?" Suresh asked.
"Yep," Harry replied. "And those benefits have been significant. I reckon we avoided paying millions. Isn't your principal company based here too?"
"Yes. Though some of the newer ventures are based in the British Virgin islands." Suresh tapped a finger on the steering wheel. "My advisors wanted me to switch to Bermuda a while back, but I held off. The island's too heavily regulated for my liking."
Harry punched the window button. Fruity suntan lotion and coconut oil teased his nostrils. Belligerent pigeons fought each other and pedestrians for sidewalk space, squawking their territory. The hum of cars idling, broken by the occasional revving by an impatient foot on the accelerator, provided a background murmur.
"Shall I valet park?"
"Yeah. Hopefully bitch stepmother hasn't arrived as yet."
Murphy's Law ruled the rest of the day.
Suresh and Harry found an anxious Austen pacing the penthouse honeymoon suite's entertainment area. The room reeked of luxury and aristocratic heritage. Club-sized chocolate leather chairs and ottomans as soft as down were enclosed by walls of hardcover books stained with centuries of cigar smoke. Crystal decanters filled with liquids of varying hues and levels decorated a dark cherry sideboard, and the dim lighting reflected a space that oozed generations of secrets and conspiracies. The French version of an exclusive gentleman's club, London's White's to the extreme.
A man who bore a striking resemblance to a caricature of a Louisiana pot-bellied politician sat on a bar stool nursing a tumbler of amber liquid. His round face contorted into a grimace when they stepped out of the elevator. Watery blue eyes flickered brief disinterest, and he focused instead on the liquor swirling in the glass he held in one hand.
"Where is she?" Harry addressed his question to Austen, who stood in the center of the room idly tossing an orange from one hand to the other.
Jerking his head to the left, Austen answered, "In the bedroom unpacking."
"My stepmother?" Harry's eyebrows lifted.
"Due any minute with a new doctor."
"That bitch never told me I'd have to put my finger up a darkie's twat." Dr. Halliday took a swig of his liquor.
The revolting words raked memories Harry had worked hard to erase--Silas's broken body, the skin on his face sloughed off by miles of gravel. His temper blazed.
"Shut your fucking mouth," Harry barked, a red haze distorting his vision, rage flooding his thoughts. "Get the fuck out of here!"
His voice escalated to a roar, the pulsing veins in his forehead emphasizing the loss of any semblance of logic. When the doctor curled one corner of his mouth in a sneer, Harry lost it.
Harry grasped the fat bastard's jacket lapels and pulled him off the stool. Bourbon splattered over the bar counter and dripped onto the carpet. The tumbler tottered at the edge of the bar, and then thudded and bounded three feet to the left, coming to rest at the foot of a coffee table.
Suresh pedaled backward and hit the down button on the elevator.
As soon as the doors opened, Harry shoved the man into the empty lift and punched Lobby. Bitterness pulled down the corners of Harry's mouth. He stared at the elevator's gold-mirrored finish, not seeing anything but the ugly past.
A slight movement in the blurred reflection alerted him to the present. He turned around, each movement lethargic, deliberate. The silhouette of a slender female, one hand braced on her right hip, came into his line of vision. She walked with the lithe grace of a gazelle, and his lungs faltered with each slow step she took.
Shadows dipped and danced, hiding her features from his sight. When she turned her head to greet Austen with a husky murmur, he absorbed her profile. High cheekbones, an arrogant nose so perfect it belonged in a plastic surgeon's after catalog, and a sloped Cleopatra brow. She kept her head averted for five more strides, and his gaze slid over bare feet encased in four-inch stilettos.
Her legs went on and on, long, toned, and shaped so fine no Vegas showgirl he'd ever dated could match such perfection. Lost in appreciation of her nymphlike curves, he hadn't yet made it to her eyes when she halted. Not in any particular hurry, he lingered on a three-inch-wide leather belt hugging her narrow waist. A twinge of disappointment caused his forehead to pucker--B-cup breasts he guessed, but barely so.
All in all, he decided, raising his eyes, not bad.
She lifted her chin, and their eyes met.
Oxygen left the room. A water-in-the-ears sensation hushed all sound. Her lips moved, but he didn't hear a word, just had an impression of a musical throaty voice. Images bounced back and forth in his brain as the woman from Grasse blazed across his brain, her long legs encased in smoky nylons, the sexy black garter belt she struggled with, the glimpse of pouty pussy lips, and the curls of dark pubic hair.
For a second, for a hairbreadth instant, he thought he'd found the woman from Grasse, the one with odd-colored eyes. She'd worn a mask like the other catering staff, but there was no mistaking the deep blue of her left iris or the rich brown of the right. Passion and fierce determination blazed in the way she tilted her chin, and her lips curled in a sneer, as if he hadn't caught her half-naked in an empty room, and as if she wasn't in the wrong.
A rose hue darkened twin spots at the apex of this woman's cheekbones, and her eyes--Harry did a double take--her unremarkable coal eyes flickered down his form. Her blush deepened into a delectable cherry shade.
Mouth watering, Harry followed the direction of her gaze to his groin and knew his complexion matched this beauty's. He wore faded jeans, a brown belt with a silver buckle, and tented couldn't begin to describe how his erection strained against the tight denim.
Austen cleared his throat.
Harry jerked, and his stare collided with hers again for a hint of a second. In a rush to avoid another strained, uncomfortable ogling, he strode in the direction of the bar but halted as soon as his boot hit the floor, and swallowed an expletive.
Two zipper teeth pinched the underside of his cock's crown.
Mortification and pain stamped his skin with a fiery heat, but even though his freaking organ throbbed, he couldn't will it into flaccidity.
Harry twisted the cork out of a bottle of scotch, poured a stiff shot into a crystal tumbler, and downed the liquor using his right hand. The left he utilized to surreptitiously separate flesh from brass zipper teeth, and he closed his eyes for a brief moment as the sting subsided. Harry did a two-step spin.
"Miss Martine Bellamy, Harrison Indiana Ford."
"Miss Bellamy." Harry ambled her way, hand outstretched.
Chin cocked, eyes half-hooded, she returned the gesture, and her slender fingers gripped his hand in a firm shake.
"Mr. Ford," she murmured, and she had that sexy French accent down to a purr.
"Under the circumstances I believe it best if we forgo the formalities, Martine. My name is Harry." He didn't release her palm or her gaze.
She tried to tug away from him, but his hold tightened, and he exerted enough pressure to show who commanded this scene. Martine's bottom lip jutted out, and rebellion flared ever so briefly in her half-hidden eyes before a rigid self-control battened down her emotions.
The elevator pinged.
Every follicle covering his flesh stood at attention as the ventilation system swirled Chanel No. 5 through the room. Harry fought his automatic gag reflex.
"Miss Bellamy, would you wait in the bedroom until we're ready?" Harry shuffled about as quickly as he could within the confines of the tight pants and bruised skin.
The last time he'd seen the onyx-eyed beauty standing at the entrance to the penthouse, she'd flashed a ten-carat engagement ring with matching eternity band under his nose.
"Why, Indy in the flesh."
The years had been kind to Delora Consuela Perez Ford. Her creamy olive complexion still glowed, and those saucer-sized black eyes blazed her Gemini nature, one minute oozing passion and love, the next flashing contemptuous, taunting hatred.
"Como estas, mi madre?" Harry drawled, imitating an illiterate peasant's pronunciation, knowing she hated when he reminded her of her origins.
Austen cleared his throat.
Suresh choked back the beginnings of a guffaw.
Harry glared at both of them.
Twisting his lips to one side, Suresh shrugged, and Harry turned his attention to Delora.
At least his damned prick had calmed down. Harry exhaled, stalked to the bar, and poured a stiff shot of bourbon.
"I see you haven't changed."
She'd perfected her English. Not a hint of her Mexican accent remained. He downed the liquor, measured another ounce, swallowed that too, and slapped the glass on the wood.
"Let's get this show on the road," he said, exaggerating his native old-boy drawl. Harry shifted and braced both elbows on the bar. Out of the corner of his right eye, he caught a slight motion and realized the beauty, Martine, hadn't moved an inch.
He squinted his displeasure at Austen.
Suresh's mouth twitched a couple of times, his onyx eyes twinkling their amusement. Harry zinged him with narrowed eyes.
A quick sweep of the room and he'd memorized each person's position, assessed potential reactions, and formulated a change in direction.
"What's Halliday doing back here?" He pointed his chin at the stout medicine man standing next to Delora.
"He'll do what he's supposed to." Delora hadn't taken her eyes off him. "He says you managed to find a woman, a black woman."
Her voice radiated contempt. Delora liked finding those on a ladder rung lower than her to torture. And her prejudices ran deep; she'd been the one to sic her brothers on Silas, his father's sole black employee. The grizzled foreman of the ranch had been more of a father to Harry than his actual daddy. Forgive and forget didn't get close to working as far as Delora's role in Silas's ultimately fatal injuries went.
His stepmother's nostrils flared, and Harry realized she'd thinned them--eye wrinkles smoothed too, he surmised--and wondered how many original body parts remained.
"You're going to screw her," she jeered and pointed a red-painted fake nail at him. "Your daddy'll roll over in his grave. He'd have disowned you in a second." She snapped her fingers.
"Ground rules, Delora. If I hear one more prejudicial remark from you, I'll have Austen gag you and tie you to a chair. According to Daddy's will you have to be present, not vocal. I'm marrying Miss Bellamy as soon as the exam's complete and witnessed. You leave immediately, and I get to never see you again after today."
"Where's the executor's lawyer?" Suresh asked. He held a cell phone to his ear. "Geoff says three lawyers present, three doctors present, according to the will."
A choked gasp caught his attention, and Harry's fisted his hands when he saw Martine's face. She schooled her features quickly, but that delicious complexion had paled, and though she stared unblinking at some spot on the far wall, he read the bleak acceptance in her rigid posture.
"Suresh, handle things out here. I need to speak with my fiancee."
Harry stomped past Austen, who shook his head and said, his voice low, "I didn't have time to go through everything with her."
His compulsive procrastination had just bit him in the ass. If he'd placed the ad sooner, had started the search earlier, hadn't waited till he'd almost turned thirty-two... Harry dragged both hands through his hair and halted in front of Martine. He'd been so certain he could prove the will a fake.
"We have a few things to discuss, Miss Bellamy." He waved a hand at the bedroom door. "If you'll step inside..."
The muscles in her slender neck worked, but she showed no other sign of nervousness, poignant features impassive, fathomless eyes unreadable. She swallowed again, and he had the urge to stroke her throat, soothe away the events that had to follow their conversation.
Until that moment he hadn't realized how humiliating the procedure would be for this woman who seemed poised for flight. He tried to imagine having three people penetrate him with fingers in front of six witnesses, including one hostile woman and one redneck twit. A wave of nausea curled through his gut.
Martine's sweetheart chin tilted, her bottom lip plumped, and she gave him an almost imperceptible nod before preceding him out of the room. Gaze glued to her hips swaying against the thin cotton of her long white dress, he traced the outline of her waist-cut thong and bit his tongue as his prick found zipper teeth with unerring accuracy.
Halting just inside the bedroom, Harry kept his focus fixed on her back, adjusted his cock, and then slammed the door shut.
"Exactly what did Austen go over with you?"
She stood about three feet in front of him, hands in tight little fists, and looked at something above his right shoulder. Spiky onyx lashes, so long he could almost count them, fluttered like a wounded dove's wings, their shaky motion blaring a painful vulnerability.
"You need to marry a virgin and consummate the marriage. It is to be a business transaction. I give you my innocence, and you pay me a hundred thousand euros when we divorce."
Captivated by her lyrical, soft voice, Harry didn't register the number t first. He frowned and blurted, "A hundred thousand? The deal's for a million euros."
"I do not need a million. Monsieur Stanford has agreed to the change."
Those remarkable eyes held hints of amber, and her mouth took on a mutinous slant. Harry said the first thing that came to mind. "Why would you refuse more money?"
"If I am to whore myself out, I would set the price, Monsieur. I take what I need, no more." Her nostrils flared, and she lifted her chin as if daring him to take issue with her statement. He frowned.
English wasn't her first language, he guessed from her careful enunciation of each word. Again the image of the woman by the couch in Grasse flashed into his brain. For three weeks, every woman he'd screwed--and there'd been several different females--had had her odd-colored eyes. Every gaze he'd met, he searched for what he'd read in those astounding eyes that night--a desperation bordering on suicidal, a determination worthy of a special-ops warrior.
"What do you need the money for?"