he conference over
, they were once again ensconced in the private jet and on their way home. And once again they were both engrossed in their own thoughts, acting as if they were strangers and not the lovers they’d turned into overnight. Kirsty had wondered briefly when she woke up that morning how the empty space beside her could feel like a stab to the heart when the man who’d occupied both her bed and her body had never even featured in her thoughts before. But then the pain was unmistakable, and she felt herself plummeting into a dark morass of anguish at the idea of never being intimate with Stuart again.
After the way he’d rejected her last night she had no hope left of him ever taking her into his arms, much less his bed.
But why should that hurt her so? Why should that twist her stomach into knots, her heart experiencing the kind of piercing pain she’d always associated with unrequited love? It made no sense. Her heart was creating a need her mind tried to negate. Her heart? When had her heart become involved? When had the simple act of making love to a man involved, well, love? It couldn’t be. She couldn’t be in love with Stuart. For one thing, he would never love her back. He despised her, after all, and had only succumbed to the natural male lust for a female body—any female body—that was so typical of the kind of male he was. The virile, highly dominant male. He’d probably been without a woman for too long while stationed in Iraq and now any woman who happened to cross his path and made herself available to him would have sufficed to fulfill his need.
Stuart glanced at Kirsty as she sat gazing out the window of the small plane. She was probably thinking about Geoffrey again, he knew, and probably couldn’t wait to be back in London to seek him out. His jaw hardened and his hands tightened into fists. He would make sure that that didn’t happen. He could remember the conversation he’d had with the guy, the night before he’d left on his first tour of duty. He’d already told his brothers to keep an eye on Kirsty, but they’d laughed away his concerns, telling him there was no way Geoffrey, the consummate playboy with more notches on his belt than Casanova, would ever be interested in bedding a sad little virgin like Kirsty.
Rage had bloomed so quickly and unexpectedly he’d almost pounded on his brothers in retaliation for their disparaging remarks. No one spoke about Kirsty like that, not even his own flesh and blood. So he’d taken it upon himself to extend a fair warning to Geoffrey, that if he ever so much as laid a finger on Kirsty he would personally redecorate his face and make sure he’d be eating through a straw. The man had gotten the message loud and clear. Geoffrey might be a friend of the family, but that didn’t mean Stuart was blind to his defects, and hadn’t followed his long string of conquests with a shake of the head. A man like that had no business hanging around Kirsty, even though she held a definite appeal to him. She would be easy to seduce, with her wide-eyed innocence and the crush everybody knew she had on him. He’d see her as a personal challenge: bedding an actual virgin, quite a rarity in this day and age.
Just the thought of Geoffrey with Kirsty had provoked a red mist to blur his senses to the point he’d almost laid into Geoffrey right then and there, at the back entrance to Geoffrey’s favorite club, where he picked up his conquests.
Stuart had never questioned his own motives for rushing to Kirsty’s protection like that, figuring he did so simply to protect the reputation of a family that already had been dragged through the mud enough as it was.
Briefly he wondered if he shouldn’t allow his cousin to make her own mistakes—to learn from the hard knocks of life, but then he viciously eradicated that thought from his mind. No, he would never allow her anywhere near Geoffrey. She was his, after all, and his alone! Startled at this admission, he wondered when he’d become so possessive of her? When he’d started to think of her as his woman and his alone? He shook his head against the intoxicating notion of Kirsty being his forever, but before he could stop himself he was picturing her in his bed, night after night, their bodies entangled as he slid deeply inside her sheathing flesh. His name would be on her lips, as it had last night, and desire would burn in her eyes that would mirror his own.
Images of her belly proudly swelling with life—the life that they’d created, the child that they would raise together as husband and wife—as a family. They’d be standing at the altar, exchanging vows and rings before he would sweep her up into his arms—his wife, his bride, for all eternity.
No! Making her his bride would be the sensible thing—the thing his grandfather would have wished him to do. But he couldn’t do it. He could never marry Kirsty when she was so obviously in love with another man. His pride wouldn’t allow it. He’d protect her, yes, and keep her from harm, but she’d be free to choose as her life’s partner whom she wanted. As long as it wasn’t Geoffrey. Never Geoffrey, he vowed with gritted teeth. Not now, not ever.
hen Kirsty rang
the bell of Stuart’s stepmother, she momentarily forgot the feeling of weariness with which she’d ventured out on this visit with Stuart. Ever since their return from Nice he’d kept her busy with the projects that were under his personal auspices, and kept a close eye on her from morning till night, but never so much as spoke a word about what had happened between them on that fateful night. It was almost as if as far as he was concerned it never took place, and perhaps to him the event was as insignificant as it appeared. He probably took women to bed on a regular basis, and never bothered to remind himself afterward that they were more than mere bodies to be taken in sexual hunger. That they were human beings with souls that could be crushed and hearts that could be broken.
She’d slept fitfully each night since their return, and when finally she did find sleep she awakened to feverish dreams of such eroticism that her body had shaken tempestuously, her limbs grinding and her hands touching her own core in a bid to replace the hard male body she yearned for. Stuart’s presence in her bed and in her life was sorely missed, she had to admit, even though she’d never given him a moment’s thought before. But now she did. Oh, how she did!
She stood back and joined Stuart at the bottom of the stone steps leading up to the ornate door of the townhouse where Stuart’s stepmother lived. While Stuart’s father had died in the horrible car crash she’d been thrown free of the car he’d been driving, drunk and high on cocaine, and through some miracle had been saved, only sustaining minor injuries while her husband had been declared dead on the spot. Stuart and his brothers had never forgiven her, and this was his first visit since the funeral, she knew. Nonetheless, as Caroline Popping now held all the cards controlling Knight’s fate, the visit was something that couldn’t be avoided. Maybe—just maybe—the former reality star might be convinced to put loyalty to the name she now carried before financial gain.
The door was opened by the lady of the house herself. In spite of her age—she was closer to sixty than fifty—her skin looked impeccable, albeit slightly stretched over the high cheekbones that were her hallmark. Botox, Kirsty suspected. Likewise, her hair was an unnatural blond and she’d opted for a risqué dress displaying a pair of surgically enhanced breasts. It was obvious that Stuart’s father had paid for the privilege of endowing La Popping with the silicone she was so proud to put on full display.
As she found herself staring at the woman she thought she could feel Stuart’s animosity bodily radiating from him, his face a mask of enmity.
Caroline appeared unruffled as she squealed, “Stuart! So nice to see you!”
They followed her into the house. The place was perfectly decorated, though not in the modern style Kirsty had expected. This had been Stuart’s family home, where he’d grown up with his two brothers and their real mother, before she’d been taken from them by the debilitating disease that had ravaged her. This was long before Caroline Popping had first entered their lives. And long before the three Knight men had become fatherless as well as motherless.
Since then Caroline had completely remodeled the house to her own taste which ran into the more extravagant and ornate. They’d entered the rather stuffy-looking drawing room, where gilded embossed wallpaper lined the walls, and Victorian style furniture stood laden with costly knickknacks.
As Stuart looked around he barely recognized the house except for the original floor plan. The cozy sitting room where his mother had entertained her guests had been turned into a showroom loaded with all kinds of expensive trinkets. What did Caroline have in mind when she had this place redecorated? Versailles? The first thing that occurred to him as he surveyed the place with distaste was that it must have cost a fortune—his father’s fortune, of course.
He stood stiffly by the door as Kirsty took a seat on a sofa upholstered with floral silk and Caroline sat across from her. The woman had more work done than most movie stars, he thought, and his disdain and contempt grew until it churned in his gut like bile. He had to suppress a natural inclination to dip his words in acid, however, for they were here to ask a favor from her. No, not a favor—simply to remind her of her duty as a member of this family.
“It has come to my attention an offer was made by a certain third party to acquire the shares you hold in Knight Enterprises,” he began without preamble.
Caroline’s purple lips shaped into a smile. “Oh, you heard about that, did you? Yes, some very nice man came to see me the other day, literally offering me millions! Can you imagine?” she tittered gaily, then rang a small bell at her side.
To Stuart’s surprise, instantly a manservant popped his head in.
“Would you be a dear and fetch us some tea, Norbert?” she asked. She then beamed at Kirsty, pointedly ignoring Stuart. “You do like tea, don’t you, dear?”
“I would love some,” said Kirsty with a smile that was obviously genuine.
Stuart watched it with disapproval. How could Kirsty treat this woman with so much respect? Didn’t she know what kind of a viper she was?
Before long, tea was served, along with butterfly cake, and Stuart was reluctantly obliged to take a seat next to Kirsty. He’d much rather have remained standing, keeping as much distance between himself and this evil stepmother of his as humanly possible.
“I want you to renounce the offer,” he announced brusquely, after the servant had left and they were alone once again.
Caroline’s penciled eyebrows shot up. “But Stuart! How could I possibly refuse? Do you know how much they’re offering?”
“I don’t care,” he cut in, “and neither should you. You have a duty to this company and this family that precludes selling your shares to a foreign party. Once they acquire a chunk as big as the one you’re holding they’ll be able to control the future of Knight Enterprises and might even, if they acquire floating shares, move in and take over, effectively removing the family from control.”
“Well, that’s all right, isn’t it?” she asked sweetly. “After all, it’s not as if you or your brothers will have to stint yourselves if they buy you out as well.”
He rose so abruptly he almost upended the side table with the tea tray. “We will
sell,” he announced darkly. “This company meant the world to Father. Can’t you show a little more respect to his wishes and hold onto his shares?”
She shrugged and gazed up at him, a hint of steel now appearing in her gray eyes. “But Stuart, how could I possibly do that?” She waved an airy hand. “I have expenses—quite a lot of expenses, actually. The cost of living these days…” She smiled and leaned in, giving Kirsty’s knee a friendly tap. “Well, I don’t have to tell you, dear. You know how hard it is to balance a budget, let alone run an entire household. Those millions would be most welcome, I can assure you!” She cackled loudly, then forked a piece of cake into her mouth.
So she’d spent it all, had she? All the money his dad had left her? Christ!
“The family will provide for you,” he pointed out gruffly. “As we have since you…” He wanted to use the word ‘ensnared’ but instead opted for the less corrosive, “…married my father.”
“What Stuart means, Caroline,” interjected Kirsty softly, “is that once the company is no longer owned and controlled by the family, there’s no telling what might happen. Fortunes dwindle but a well-run business is like a gift that keeps on giving. It provides us with its prosperity in perpetuity.”
Neatly put, Stuart thought, though he saw from the frown on Caroline’s face that she had trouble grasping the concept. Her next words attested to that.
“I don’t understand. When I sell I get millions. Positively millions!”
“Yes, but when you hold on to your share in the company you’ll get an even better deal,” Kirsty pointed out patiently. “Let me see if I can explain it to you.”
Standing back, his hands folded behind his back, Stuart listened to how she explained the difference between a coin in the hand now and a business that kept on minting fresh coins year after year. The coin in the hand now might sound great, but money had a habit of running out after a while, whereas a prosperous business always kept producing fresh money, forever and ever.
“Do you mean that Knight Enterprises is like a machine that prints money?” Caroline asked hesitantly, her grasp on economic concepts not very astute.
“That’s exactly right,” confirmed Kirsty with a smile. “Just think of Knight Enterprises as the Royal Mint. As long as those printing presses keep on churning you will always be provided for. Isn’t that right, Stuart?”
She’d turned to Stuart and he nodded solemnly. “Kirsty is right.”
“And you will always provide for me?” Caroline asked uncertainly.
“Yes, we will,” Kirsty said decidedly. “Won’t we, Stuart?”
Without hesitation this time Stuart confirmed, “That’s right. We will always provide for you, Caroline. For the rest of your life you will never have to worry about money.” He crooked an eyebrow. “
you refuse to give in to these Saudis.”
Caroline nodded slowly, understanding dawning. “Oh, I see.”
It was hard for Stuart to make a promise to the woman he held responsible for his father’s downfall, but there was no other way. Kirsty was right. It was either accept the burden of Caroline’s livelihood, or watch the business his family had built up over the years be sold off to the highest bidder.
“Well, that’s all right then,” Caroline finally said cheerfully. “I won’t sell!”
Kirsty reached out a hand and placed it on Caroline’s arm. “You’re doing the right thing, Caroline,” she said warmly. “And you won’t be sorry.”
“But I will want all of this in writing, won’t I?” Caroline added shrewdly.
Both she and Kirsty looked up at Stuart, who grimaced, and announced gruffly, “I will have the papers drawn up. You will have them tomorrow.”
The moment he’d uttered the words, Caroline rang that infernal bell again, and cried, “That calls for a celebration!” And when her manservant showed up, she instructed, “Champagne, Norbert. And not the cheap stuff, either. Only the very best will do!”
Great, Stuart thought. Already he was starting to regret his decision. Unfortunately, there was no other way. It was either this or the end of Knight.