Leila Verughese was just wondering morosely to herself what would happen when her dwindling supplies of perfume ran out completely, when out of the corner of her eye she spotted something and turned to look, glad of the distraction to her maudlin thoughts.
It was a sleek black car, pulled up outside her small House of Leila perfume shop. The shop she’d inherited from her mother, on the Place Vendome in Paris. When she took a closer look, she saw a veritable fleet of sleek black cars. The lead one had flags flying on the bonnet but Leila couldn’t make out what country they were from, even though she’d spent most of her life identifying the glamorous comings and goings from the exclusive Ritz hotel across the square.
A man hopped out of the front of the car, clearly a bodyguard of some sort, with an ear – piece in his ear. He looked around before opening the back door and Leila’s eyes widened when she saw who emerged. As if they had to widen purely to be able to take him in better.
It was a man, unmistakably and unashamedly a man. Which was a ridiculous thing to think…one was either a man or a woman after all, but it was as if his very masculinity reached out before him like a crackling energy. He uncoiled to a height well over six feet, towering over the smaller blockier man beside him. Powerfully built with broad shoulders in a long black overcoat.
He looked as if he was about to come towards Leila’s shop when he stopped suddenly and Leila saw a moment of irritation cross his face before he turned back to talk to someone who had to be in the back of the car. A wife? A girlfriend? He went back and put a big hand on the roof of the car as he consulted the person inside. Leila caught a glimpse of a long length of bare toned thigh and a flash of blonde hair and then he straightened again and was striding towards the shop, flanked by minders.
It was only now that Leila even registered his face. She’d never seen anything so boldly beautiful in all her life. Dark olive skin, dark enough to be Arabic? High cheekbones and a sensual mouth. It could have been pretty if it wasn’t for the deep – set eyes, strong brows and even stronger jaw, which had clenched along with that look of irritation.
He had short hair, and dark, cut close to his skull which had that same beautiful masculine shape as his face.
Shock held Leila still for a long moment as he got closer and closer. For a second, just before the door opened, his eyes caught hers and she had the strangest notion of a huge sleek bird of prey swooping down to pick her up in his talons to carry her away.
The dark – haired shop assistant behind the glass of the shop barely impinged on Alix Saint Croix’s consciousness as he strode to the door. Surprise me. His mouth tightened. If he could say that the previous night had been more…pleasurable, he might be more inclined to surprise his lover. For a man who was not used to obeying the demands of anyone else, the only reason he was indulging Carmen’s sudden whim for perfume was because he was all too eager to get away from her.
She’d arrived in his suite the previous evening, and their subsequent love – making had been…adequate. Alix had found himself wondering when was the last time he’d been so consumed with lust or a woman that he’d lost his mind in pleasure? Never, had whispered a little voice, as his lover had sauntered from the bed to the bathroom, making sure all of her best assets were displayed to best advantage.
Alix had been bored. And because women seemed to have a seventh sense designed purely for that purpose, his lover had become very uncharacteristically compliant and sweet. So much so that it had set Alix’s teeth on edge, and after a day watching waif thin models prancing up and down a catwalk he was even more on edge. But, as his advisor had pointed out when he’d grumbled to him on the phone earlier, this is good Alix, it’s helping us lull them into a false sense of security: they believe you have nothing on your agenda but the usual round of socialising and modelising.
Alix did not like the moniker modeliser and so as he pushed open the door to the shop with more force than was necessary, he finally registered the shop assistant looking at him with a mixture of shock and awe on her face.And he also registered within the same nano – second that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life. The door shut behind him, a small bell tinkling melodically but he didn’t notice.
She had pale olive skin, a straight nose and full soft lips. Sexy. A firm yet delicate jaw. High cheekbones. Her hair was a sleek fall of black satin behind her shoulders and Alix had the bizarre compulsion to reach out and see if it would slip through his fingers like silk.
But it was her eyes that floored him…they were huge light emerald gems with the longest black lashes, framed by gracefully arched black brows. She looked like a far eastern Princess. ‘Who are you?’ Was that his voice? It sounded like a croak. Stunned. There was an instant fire kindling in his belly and blood. A fire he’d lamented the lack of last night. It was as if his body was ahead of his brain in terms of absorbing her beauty.
She blinked and those long lashes veiled her stunning eyes for a moment. ‘I’m the owner of the shop, Leila Verughese.’ The name suited her. Exotic. Alix somehow found the necessary motor skills to put out his hand. ‘Alix Saint Croix.’ Recognition flashed in her eyes, unmistakable. She flushed, her cheeks going a pretty shade of pink and Alix surmised cynically that of course she’d heard of him. Who hadn’t?
Her hand slipped into his then, small and delicate, cool, and the effect was like a rocket launching deep inside Alix. His blood boiled and his hand tightened reflexively around hers. He struggled to make sense of this immediate and extreme physical and mental reaction. He was used to seeing a woman and assessing her from a distance, his desires firmly under control. This woman, Leila, was undeniably beautiful, yes. But she was dressed like a pharmacist with a white coat over a very plain blue shirt and black slacks. Even in ugly flat shoes though, she was relatively tall, reaching his shoulder. He found himself imagining her in spindly high – heels, how close her mouth would be if he wanted to just bend down slightly and – she took her hand back and Alix blinked.
‘You are looking for a perfume?’
Alix’s brain felt sluggish. Perfume. Why was he looking for perfume again? Carmen. Waiting for him in the car. Immediately he scowled again and the woman in front of him took a step back.
He put out a hand. ‘Sorry, no..’ he cursed silently, what was wrong with him? ‘That is, yes, I’m looking for a perfume. For someone.’ The woman looked at him. ‘Do you have any particular scent in mind?’
Alix dragged his gaze off her with an effort and looked around the small shop for the first time. Each wall was mirrored glass with glass shelves and counters. Glass and gold perfume bottles covered the surfaces, giving the space a golden hue.
The décor was opulent without being stifling. And there was no stench of overpowering perfume that Alix would normally associate with a shop like this. The ambience was cool, calm. Serene. Like her. He realised that she exuded a sense of calm and that he was reacting to that as well.
Almost absently now he said, ‘I’m looking for a scent for my mistress.’ When there was no immediate reaction, as Alix was used to – he said what he wanted and people jumped – he looked at the woman. Her mouth was pursed and an unmistakable air of disapproval was being directed at him.
Intriguing. No one ever showed Alix their true reactions. He arched a brow. ‘You have a problem with that?’ To his further fascination her cheeks coloured and she looked away and said stiffly, ‘It’s not for me to say what’s an appropriate term for your…partner.’
Leila cursed herself for showing her reaction and moved away to one of the walls of shelves as if to seek out some perfume samples. Her father had once offered the role of mistress to Leila’s mother, after she’d given birth to their illegitimate daughter. He’d seduced Deepika Verughese when he’d been doing business in India with Leila’s grandfather, but had then turned his back on her when she’d arrived in Paris, disgraced and pregnant, all the way from Jaipur.
Her mother had declined his offer to become his kept woman, too proud and bitter after his initial rejection, and had told Leila that story, while pointing out the kept women of various famous people and dignatories who’d come into the shop over the years as a salutary lesson of what women were prepared to do to feather their nests.
Leila’s mind cleared of the painful memory. She hated that she’d reacted so unprofessionally just now, but before she could say anything she heard the man move and looked up into the glass to see him come closer. He looked even larger reflected in the mirror, his dark image being sent back a hundred times. She realised that his eyes were a very dark grey.
‘You know who I am?’
She nodded. She’d known who he was as soon as he’d said his name. He was the infamous exiled king of a small island principality off the coast of North Africa, near Southern Spain. He was a renowned financial genius with fingers in almost every business one could think of, including most recently an astronomical investment in the new oil fields of Burquat in the middle east.
There were rumours that he was going to make a claim on his throne but if this visit was anything to go by, he was concerned with nothing more than buying trinkets for this lover. And she had no idea why that made her feel so irritable.
Alix Saint Croix continued. ‘So then you’ll know that a man like me doesn’t have girlfriends, or partners. We take mistresses. Women who know what to expect and who don’t expect anything more.’
Something hardened inside her. She knew all about men like him. Unfortunately. And the evidence of this man’s single – minded cynical nature made her see red. It made her sick because it reminded her of her own naivety in the face of overwhelming evidence that what she sought, didn’t exist.
Nevertheless she was determined not to let this man draw her back down another painful memory lane. She crossed her arms over her chest. ‘Not all women are as cynical as you make out.’
Something hard crossed his face. ‘The women who move in my circles are.’ ‘Well maybe your circles are too narrow?’ She couldn’t believe the words tripping out of her mouth, but he’d pushed a button, a very sensitive button. She almost expected him to storm out of her shop, but to her surprise,
Alix Saint Croix’s mouth quirked on one side, making him look even sexier. Dangerous. ‘Perhaps they are, indeed.’ Leila suddenly felt hot and claustrophobic. He was looking at her too intensely and then his gaze dropped to where the swells of her breasts were pushed up by her crossed arms. She took them down hurriedly again and reached for the nearest bottle of perfume, half registering the label. She thrust it towards him, ‘This is one of our most popular scents, it’s floral based with a hint of citrus. It’s light and zesty, perfect for casual wear.’
Alix Saint Croix shook his head. ‘No, I don’t think that’ll do. I want something much earthier. Sensuous.’ Leila put down the bottle with a clatter and reached for another bottle. ‘This might be more appropriate then. It’s got fruity top notes, but a woody musky base.’ He cocked his head and said consideringly, ‘It’s so hard to know unless you can smell it.’
Leila’s shirt felt too tight. She wanted to undo a top button. What was wrong with her? She turned back to the counter and took a testing paper out of a jar, ready to spray it so that he could smell. And go. She wanted him gone, he was too disturbing to her usually very placid equilibrium. But before she could spray it, a large hand wrapped around her arm, stopping her.
Heat zinged straight to her belly. She looked up at him. ‘Not on a piece of paper. I think you’d agree that a scent has to be on skin to be best presented?’ Feeling slightly drugged and stupid, Leila said, ‘It’s a woman’s scent.’ He cocked a brow again. ‘So spray some on your wrist and I’ll smell it.’ The shock that reverberated through Leila, was as if he’d just said take off all your clothes, please.
She had to struggle to compose herself, get a grip. She’d often sprayed perfume on her own skin so that someone could get a fuller sense of the perfume. But this man had made the request sound almost indecent. Praying that her hand wouldn’t shake, Leila took the top off the bottle and pulled up her sleeve to spray some of the scent. When the liquid hit the underside of her wrist, she shivered slightly. It felt absurdly sensual all of a sudden.
Alix Saint Croix still had a hand wrapped around her arm and now moved it down to take the back of her hand in his, wrapping long fingers around her. He moved his head down to smell the perfume, his dark head coming close to her breast.
But he kept his eyes on her, and from this close she could see lighter flecks of grey, like silver mercury. Leila’s breath stopped when she felt his breath feather along her skin, those lips far too close to the center of her palm which was clammy.
He seemed to consider the scent, until Leila’s nerves were twanging painfully. Her belly was a contracted ball of nerves. Some movement over his head caught her eye and she saw a sleek tall blonde emerge from the back of the car with a phone clamped to her ear. She was wearing an indecently tight slinky dress and ridiculously ineffectual jacket for the cool autumn weather.
He must have picked up on her distraction and straightened to look out the window too. Leila noticed a tension come into his body as his girlfriend, mistress, saw him and gesticulated with clear irritation, all while still talking on the phone.
‘Your, er…mistress is waiting for you.’ Leila’s voice felt scratchy. He still had his hand wrapped around hers and now let her go. Leila tucked it well out of reach. He morphed before her eyes into someone much cooler, indecipherable. Perversely, it didn’t comfort her.
‘I’ll take it.’
Leila blinked at him. ‘The perfume?’ He expanded, for a moment a glint of what they’d just shared making his eyes flash. Leila jerked into action. ‘Of course. It’ll only take me a moment to package it up.’ She moved to get a bag and paper and quickly and inexpertly packaged up the perfume, losing all of her customary cool.
When she had it ready she handed it over and avoided his eye. A wad of cash landed on the counter but Leila wasn’t about to check it. And then without another word, he turned around and strode out again, catching his…whatever she was…by the arm and hustling her back into the car.
His scent lingered on the air behind him, and in a very delayed reaction, Leila assimilated the various components with an expertise that was like a sixth sense along with the realisation that his scent had impacted her as soon as he’d walked in, and on a level that wasn’t rational. Some place else.
Somewhere she wasn’t used to scents impacting. It was a visceral reaction. Primal. His scent was clean, with a hint of something very male that most certainly hadn’t come out of a bottle. The kind of evocative scent that would make someone a fortune if they could bottle it: the pure essence of a virile male in his prime. Earthy. Musky. A pulse between Leila’s legs throbbed and she pressed her thighs together, horrified.
What was wrong with her? The man was a King for god’s sake, and he had a mistress that he was unashamed about. She should be thinking good riddance, but what she was thinking was much more confused. It made alarm bells ring. It reminded her of another man who had come into the shop and who had set about very skilfully wooing her, only to turn into a nasty stranger when he realised that Leila had no intention of giving him what he wanted, which had been very far removed from what Leila had wanted.
She looked stupidly at the money on the counter for a moment before realising that he’d vastly overpaid her for the perfume but all she could think
about was the last enigmatic look he’d shot her, just before he’d ducked into the car, a look that had seemed to say he’d be back. And soon. And in light of their conversation and how he’d made her feel, Leila knew she shouldn’t be remotely intrigued. But she was. And not even the ghost of memories past could stop it.