Imperfect Affections

Beauty in Imperfection Duology, Book 2

Chapter One

Violet

A commotion sounds downstairs. It’s only eight in the morning, but I’m already dressed in my standard jeans and T-shirt. After Elliot presented Leon’s program and claimed it as his own work at the office party, I haven’t slept all night. The guilt wouldn’t let me.

I’m the one who stole the software for Elliot.

I’m the one who betrayed Leon.

I did it to protect my mother, not that it justifies what I’ve done. I simply didn’t have a choice, not when my stepdad would’ve killed my mom in the most painful way imaginable if Elliot showed him the evidence of her adultery.

The flowers Leon brought last night when he picked me up for the party sit like a colorful accusation in the vase where my mom placed it on my desk. Like the coward I am, I’ve been hiding in my room until Elliot left for the office. I can’t face him. Or Gus. I can’t face my mom and her well-intended questions. I can’t even face myself.

Voices come from downstairs. My mom says something in a high-pitched tone. A female replies in a voice I don’t recognize. Going to the window, I pull the curtain aside. A moving truck is parked in the driveway. A woman in overalls wheels boxes piled on a trolley down a ramp from the back of the truck.

“Violet,” my mom calls, following it up with a knock on my door.

I smooth down my hair and open the door.

“There you are,” she says with a smile. “Did you have a sleep-in after your late night?” Hesitantly, she adds, “You didn’t tell me about the move.”

My pulse jumps. “What move?”

“There are two women downstairs.” My mom studies me with a frown. “They say Leon sent them to move your clothes.”

Blood pumps through my veins and gushes in my ears. Why would he still want me to move in with him after last night?

Not wanting to alarm my mom, I try not to sound as shocked as I am. “He mentioned something along those lines, but he said not before the end of the month.”

She relaxes somewhat. “Well, someone is in a hurry.”

“I’ll go talk to them.”

“Don’t bother,” my mom says, laying a hand on my arm. “I’ll send them up.”

Meaning she wants to spare me the trip downstairs. I wish she wouldn’t be so overprotective. Just for once, I want her to treat me like I’m normal.

“Wait,” I say when she heads for the stairs.

She pauses, her expression expectant as she faces me again.

“Did you talk to Gus or Elliot this morning?”

Her cheeks turn pink. “I was tired. I didn’t wake up until after they’d gone.”

It’s not her blushing that gives away the lie. It’s the uneasiness with which she tells it, trying to shelter me from the truth. She can’t stomach her husband. If she can avoid it, she’ll rather not face him. Why can’t she just admit it? Pretending is so exhausting.

“Why?” she asks, concern creeping into her features.

“Gus introduced the new partner last night.”

“He did?” She blinks. “I thought he was planning on doing it in March.”

“It’s Elliot.”

She gives a start. “What?”

“He made Elliot a partner.”

Her eyebrows pinch together. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Oh, but it does. Perfectly. I just can’t tell her. The lies are piling up, spinning tighter around us. We’ve long since crossed the line of coming clean. There’s no backdoor, no other way out of the reality we created for ourselves. The only way is forward, continuing with the charade until I’ll never be able to dig myself out from under the mountain of untruths that define our lives.

“I guess Gus had a change of heart,” I say.

Her voice holds a note of panic. “What about your wedding?”

“I guess that’s down the drain too.”

She glances toward the stairs. “Then why did Leon send a moving company to collect your things?”

“I have no idea.” Stepping from my room, I push past her. “I’ll go find out.”

The tightness of my stomach hasn’t eased since last night. My tension only grows as I walk down the stairs with my mom following on my heels.

Two women wait stoically at the entrance.

“Good morning, ma’am,” the blond one says, checking the clipboard in her hand. “Miss Starley?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Susan from Peters International. We’re here to pack up your clothes and personal belongings.”

“There’s been a mistake,” I say.

The women glance at each other.

Susan takes a phone from her pocket. “I’m sure we’ll sort it out.” She swipes a finger across the screen and lifts the phone to her ear. “Let me dial Mr. Hart.”

“That’s okay,” I say quickly. “I’ll call him myself.”

The woman is undeterred. Turning her back on me, she says, “Yes, Mr. Hart? It’s Susan from Peters International on the line. There seems to be confusion with regards to the move you booked for this morning.”

She falls quiet, shooting me a look from over her shoulder as she listens to his reply.

“Let me talk to him,” I say, holding out my hand for the phone.

Ignoring me, she faces forward again. “Yes, Mr. Hart. No problem. I’ll tell her.” She hangs up, pockets the phone, and faces me again. “Mr. Hart says he’s on his way.”

Just as I open my mouth to tell her that won’t be necessary, the intercom by the front door buzzes.

My mom goes over and answers with, “Yes?”

Leon’s deep voice booms through the system. “Hi, Gia. It’s Leon.”

My throat closes up. He’s here? Already? He must’ve been planning on meeting the moving company.

Looking at me, my mom raises her palm in a helpless gesture. I shake my head, but she’s already pressing on the button to open the gates.

“Come on in, Leon.” When she’s hung up, she says, “We can’t not let him in. Even if he’s no longer your betrothed, he’s still a colleague of Gus.”

“Wait here,” I say, shaking a little as I open the door. “Leon and I need a few minutes.”

My mom brushes her palms over her skirt before motioning to the lounge. “Ladies, why don’t you wait in here? Can I get you something to drink? It’s already so hot outside, isn’t it?”

The women’s reply is lost on me as I step outside and close the door. All I can focus on is the blue Aston Martin that comes to a stop behind the truck. I stand rooted to the spot, watching Leon with growing dread as he gets out of the car and makes his way over with long but unhurried strides.

He’s wearing dark jeans, a faded T-shirt, and a leather jacket—his signature work attire. Only, he’s not at the office where Elliot must be moving his precious Johannesburg Country Club mug and coaster to his new desk. He’s here, pinning me with a stare cold enough to freeze the sun. It’s a violent kind of cold, the kind that only dangerous men possess. They don’t make threats or raise their voices. They pull the trigger calmly and quietly. They’re efficiently deadly.

He stops two steps away from me, measuring me with that cool gaze. “Violet.”

I swallow around the lump in my throat. “Leon.”

“The moving company employee said there’s a confusion.”

Lifting my chin, I try to look confident instead of scared. “Yes.” I wave a hand at the truck. “What’s the meaning of this?”

He looks over his shoulder at the vehicle, studying it for a second before turning back to me. “You’re moving in with me.” His words are flat, toneless. “We’re getting married.”

The word pops out of its own accord. “No.”

He raises a brow, an unfriendly smile playing on his sensual lips. “No?”

My mouth is so dry it feels as if my lips are glued together. I have to wet them before I can speak. “That’s what I said.”

He advances on me, closing the small distance between us and putting our bodies flush together. “Once again, you’re mistakenly assuming I’m asking.”

I back up, my heel hitting the step behind me. “Gus won’t force me.”

His smile turns mocking. “Because I’m not his new partner after all?”

Not sure how to answer that without provoking his anger, I remain quiet.

He cups my head, his fingers gentle on my scalp while his gaze bores into mine. What I see in his eyes makes me shudder. In contrast to his light touch, he looks at me like he wants to crack me open and break me apart.

“Here’s the thing you don’t understand, Violet. It doesn’t really matter what Gus says. Tonight, you’ll be sleeping in my bed. Tomorrow, you’ll wake up in my bed. And the next day, and the next.”

A shiver runs through me.

He searches my eyes, but he’s not looking for emotions. He’s not interested in my feelings. He’s evaluating them like an artist studying a subject to assess the color. “Tomorrow, my darling, you will say I do.”

I pull away and step to the side. “Why will I do that?”

He doesn’t break our eye contact as he takes his phone from his pocket, activates it with his thumbprint, and holds it up to my face.

My heart stops beating. A flush heats my body. A video of me that’s been taken from a webcam plays on the screen. The poster on the wall behind me is a dead giveaway. I’m sitting at Leon’s desk, the recording damning evidence of my crime.

My gaze snaps back to his. My throat is raw, my voice hoarse. “What do you want?”

He pockets the phone. “I told you what I want.”

“Why?” I exclaim. “You have nothing to gain. If you think Gus will give you preferential treatment because you’ll be part of his family, I have news for you. Gus has never seen me as his family.”

“Only a pawn?”

I don’t reply.

“What do you think will happen if you don’t marry me?” He utters a humorless laugh. “Do you believe your stepfather will let you do what you want? He’ll sell you to someone else, making sure he gets some value for the money he’s invested in you.”

The statement is like a slap in my face. He’s referring to the expensive operations Gus paid for. Although, it’s not as if I don’t know that or if it isn’t true.

“You can have any woman you want. Why me?”

His grin is cruel and arrogant. “I don’t need a reason.”

No, I suppose not. But I’m not stupid. If blackmail is the motivation, the only reason can be revenge, and the only revenge he can get if he won’t tell the truth about what I’ve done is to hurt me like I’ve hurt him.

The revelation turns my knees weak. He’s forcing me into a relationship to punish me. What a sick objective for tying someone to you—for life. Unless he plans on killing me, which I doubt. If he wanted to kill me, he could’ve done so already. No, he wants to make me pay for my crime. He wants to make sure I suffer. This is infinitely worse than marrying me for a partnership.

He delivers his next words like the lash of a whip. “If you want your family there to witness the exchange of our vows, you have twenty-four hours to inform them. Department of Home Affairs. Randburg. Tomorrow at three. If there’s anything personal you don’t want the moving company to pack, you have ten minutes to get it.”

Speechless, I can only stare at him. This can’t be happening.

“I’ll take your silence as meaning you have nothing you’d like to pack.” He turns toward his car. “In that case, we can leave straight away.”

“Wait.”

He stops, looking at me, waiting like I asked.

If he shows Gus the footage and tells him what I did, Gus will confront Elliot. If Elliot is busted, he’ll give Gus the photos of my mom. Which leaves me with no choice. My knees wobble under the weight of the knowledge.

In the end, Leon wins, just like he said he would.

I feel like breaking down and crying, but I can’t show weakness. I can’t let him know how rattled I am. I’m vulnerable enough as it is.

“I have some things to pack.” My stomach bottoms out as I say the words, because uttering them is as good as verbally agreeing to his terms. “I can’t just leave like this. I have to tell my mom.”

“Then you better get started.”

Unable to look him in the eyes any longer, I climb the steps to the porch. I’ve never felt smaller or more ashamed. Humiliated.

He reaches the door before I do, opening it and standing aside for me to enter.

Just as we walk inside, my mom exits the lounge with a tray in her hands.

“Leon,” she says, looking between us with concern. “If you don’t mind me saying so, this is a surprise. What’s going on?”

He wraps an arm around my shoulders, pulling me against him. “Violet and I have happy news.” Hooking a finger under my chin, he turns my face to him. His lips tilt up, mimicking the happiness he mentioned, but the smile doesn’t melt the ice in his eyes. If anything, those dark pools turn colder, the deep brown color looking like black frost on a winter’s day as he says, “Isn’t that so, my darling?” before pressing his lips on mine.

I freeze, turning into a stickman in his embrace.

My mom’s gasp reaches me as if from afar. I’m disconnected from reality, unable to process what’s happening.

“Violet?” my mom says, putting the tray on the nearest table.

Leon’s bitter gaze holds a challenge. A warning.

“Yes,” I croak, tearing my gaze from Leon’s face and forcing brightness into my tone. “We decided to get married.” The words choke me. “Tomorrow.”

“Oh my goodness.” She places a hand over her heart. “Really?”

I can almost see the gears turning in her head as she tries to figure out why I’d say yes now when I’ve been opposed to the idea from the start.

“That’s crazy,” she says after a beat.

“We don’t want to wait,” Leon says. “What’s the point?”

My mom looks at me. “What about a wedding? A reception? It takes time—months—to arrange a proper ceremony.”

My answer is meant to be persuasive, but it sounds weak. “You know how I feel about ceremonies.”

Her eyebrows snap together, disappointment drawing lines around her eyes. When she married Gus, they had a huge wedding. She went for the whole shebang—white frills, lace, a three-tier cake, and a princess wedding dress. She wants nothing less for me.

Shaking her head, she asks, “Is this truly what you want, Violet?”

“Yes,” I say, another one of many lies.

I didn’t dream about a big, white wedding. I never wanted to get married.

My mom blinks a few times as she digests my answer.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Flora, says, approaching us with short, fast steps. “Would your guest like something to drink?”

My mom turns to Leon, assessing him while asking in a polished, friendly manner, “Would you like tea or coffee?”

“Coffee, please,” he says, meeting her gaze head-on like he has nothing to hide. “Violet has some things to pack.” He checks his watch. “I have business to take care of in town. We’ll have to leave in ten minutes. In the meantime, I’ll tell the moving company employees the misunderstanding has been cleared.”

“They’re in the lounge,” my mom says. “Please, go through.” Directing a pointed look at Flora, who’s observing our exchange with ardent attention, she continues, “Our housekeeper will serve your coffee there. I’ll go help Violet pack.”

“Good idea.” He inclines his head before walking to the lounge.

The minute he’s gone, my mom’s chest deflates. Taking my hand, she leads me up the stairs as fast as I can follow.

Once we’re in my room, she closes the door and whispers in an urgent tone, “Violet, what’s going on? He’s not Gus’s partner. The deal is off. If he’s forcing you into this, Gus will take care of it.”

It meaning Leon. What will Gus do? Fire him? More likely, he’ll shoot him. Does my mom ever think the consequences through, or does she consciously choose to ignore them?

“We can call Gus straight away,” she says.

“No.” I think quickly. “If I don’t marry Leon, Gus will only make me marry someone else, someone old or repulsive or someone who doesn’t really care about me. As you said yourself, Leon is kind to me.” It’s only half a lie because sometimes, he used to be. “Better the devil you know.” And devil is an accurate description. Leon is the devil reincarnated when you get on his wrong side.

She stares at me, her lips parting in surprise. “You’re serious about this.”

“I am.” I walk to the closet. “This is the best option for me.” Taking a bag from the bottom, I dump it on the bed. “The ceremony is tomorrow at the Department of Home Affairs in Randburg at three.”

Crossing her arms behind her back, she leans on the wall. She looks not only worried, but also defeated. She’s not even fifty and already beaten, her freedom and personality stifled. This is what the life she chose to save me did to her. This is my fate, what I’m destined to become, but if it means protecting her, I’ll do it any day.

“Will you come?” I ask, busying myself with packing my underwear.

She chews her lip. “Of course.”

“But?”

“But what if Gus says no? What if he doesn’t want you to marry Leon any longer?”

If that happens, I’m screwed. “We’ll have to convince him.”

“If you marry in secret…”

She doesn’t have to finish the sentence. I of all people know what Gus does to people who betray and disobey him.

“We’re not going to do it in secret. Gus values Leon, no matter that he didn’t make him a partner. He said Leon was his best programmer, didn’t he?”

“But if he says no—”

“Elliot can put in a good word for me.”

“Elliot? Why would he do that? He hates Leon.”

“He only hated him because he was jealous. He no longer has a reason to be resentful of Leon.”

She pushes off the wall. “Why would Elliot do you any favors?”

“He’ll be happy to finally get rid of me.” I straighten from shoving bras into the bag, voicing my biggest concern about leaving my mom here on her own. “But you have to be careful. You know—”

“He’s watching me.” She looks away. “How can I forget?”

Walking over, I hug her. “Promise me you won’t take risks.”

“I won’t.” She sniffs, pulling away. “You’re the one I’m worried about.”

“I’ll be fine.” I smile. “Can you give me a minute? I want to say goodbye to my old room.”

“Sure.” She wipes tears from under her eyes with her fingertips. “I’ll wait downstairs.”

She goes to the door and pauses on the threshold. “Violet.”

The quiet way in which she says my name is almost my undoing.

“What?” I ask, miraculously keeping my voice from breaking.

“Are you sure about this? Because if you have the minutest doubt—”

“I’m certain. This is the best option for me, Mom.” The only option.

“If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back.”

There’s no coming back from this, but I let her believe the lie. “Sure.”

“Okay,” she says in a small voice, squaring her back. “Your room will always be here for you.”

“That’s good to know.”

With a last look over her shoulder, she leaves the room. When she closes the door behind her, I let my composure slip. My shoulders slump under the enormity of what’s about to happen. My breaths come too fast and too hard. I want to climb through the window and fly away like in a scene from one of my favorite comic books, but I’m shackled to reality, chained to a future with a man who hates me.

There’s no point in delaying the inevitable. Dragging it out only makes the torture worse.

Kneeling on the floor in front of my closet, I move the loose panel aside and feel for the key that’s stuck to the wall with reusable adhesive. Then I take the metal box from under the floorboard. Lucky sold the second-hand fireproof box to me for next to nothing. I unlock the box and steal a glance at the door before removing the stash of money I’ve saved and the folder with my unsold sketches. I look around for something to hide the money in and settle on the bag with the pull-string that holds my socks. I stuff the rolls of bills inside before packing it with the folder into my bag. The metal box is too big to fit into the bag. I put it back under the floorboard and return the key to its hiding place. It’s the best I can do for now.

After zipping up the bag, I go to the window. The old oak stands sturdily in the morning sun, a beautiful but unobtainable dream. I never did manage to climb those branches.

Letting the curtains fall closed, I pick up the bag.

My old life has ended.

My new hell begins.

“Oh my possessive, domineering alpha loving heart! Imperfect Attractions amplifies the Hart darkness in our tech genius Leon. What a deliciously addictive, captivating, seductively intense finale to the Beauty in Imperfections Duet. I was mesmerized by the explosive energy between these two, consumed from start to finish. Charmaine Pauls delivers another pyshocolicaly complicated, suspense filled, SUPER sexy dark romance from the Diamond Magnate world. I can’t get enough of them!” – The Romantic Rush Blog

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