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Грэхем Линн

Brides For Billionaires

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Chapter Two

KAT SCANNED THE messy room she had entered in frank dismay, having totally forgotten that Emmie had slept there the night before and had left the bed unmade and every surface cluttered with her belongings. Unfortunately she had no other room available.

‘I forgot that my sister slept here last night. I’ll tidy up and change the bed,’ she assured Mikhail as she began to snatch up Emmie’s possessions in haste, gathering up an armful to carry it across the corridor and deposit it in her own bedroom.

Mikhail wondered why she was so nervous around him. He could feel the nerves leaping off her in invisible sparks, had noticed how she carefully kept a distance between them. No, this was not a woman who was going to butt into his space like so many of her sex tried to do, drawn like magnets to his power and wealth with little understanding of the man who went with those attributes. Yes, he was used to rousing many female reactions—lust, jealousy, greed, anger, possessiveness—but nervousness had never once played a part and was novel enough to attract his attention. It amused him that she had not the slightest idea who he was: he had noticed her total lack of recognition of his name when he introduced himself. But then why should a woman who lived in the backend of nowhere know who he was? That sense of anonymity was strangely welcome to the son of a billionaire who had never known a way of life that did not classify as A-list and exclusive.

Kat returned for a second bundle of her sister’s belongings. Mikhail tossed her a bra that was dangling from the lampshade by the bed. Kat flushed to the roots of her hair, feeling embarrassingly like a shocked maiden aunt, and sped back across the corridor, pausing on her return trip to grab fresh bedding from the laundry press. She was so self-conscious when she walked back into the room that she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. ‘Are you and your friends on holiday here?’ she enquired stiltedly to try and fill the dragging silence.

‘A weekend break from London,’ he advanced wryly.

‘Is that where you live?’ she prompted, allowing herself a quick upward glance in his direction as she began stripping the double bed, already reckoning that it would be a few inches too short for him and then forgetting the fact entirely as her gaze locked onto him like a guided missile that was out of her control. Her regard clung to the stunning symmetry of his features, collided with eyes that glittered like black diamonds and it was as if her mind blew a fuse. Next thing she was remembering that symmetry was supposed to be the most powerful component in the definition of true beauty … and he had it in spades with his exotic cheekbones, perfect nose and wide, wondrously sensual mouth. She was staring and she couldn’t stop staring and the knowledge sent a shard of pure panic through her because she didn’t know what was the matter with her.

Da … yes,’ he qualified in husky English. ‘Luka and I are Russian.’

Suddenly released from her paralysis while he blinked, her face hot and red with chagrin, she fought with the bottom sheet, spreading it, tucking it in, wishing he were the kind of guy who would offer to help so that she could do the job more quickly. But judging by his arrogant stance as he watched from by the window, he had probably never made a bed in his life.

Mikhail dug his hands into the pockets of his trousers to conceal his erection. He was hugely aroused. She was bending over right in front of him, showing off a perfect heart-shaped bottom and the shapely length of her slender thighs as she stretched energetically across the mattress. He was picturing those legs wrapped round his waist, urging him on as he rode her, and perspiration dampened his upper lip, sent his temperature rocketing. He felt like a man who had been deprived of sex for years, and as that was far from true, he could only marvel at the wildly exciting effect she had on him. Thankfully she had stared back at him with a look he knew all too well on a female face: an openly acquisitive look of longing and hunger. Satisfaction gripped him. She wore no rings and she was clearly available …

Having dealt with the pillows in a silence that threatened to suffocate her, Kat glanced at him again, feeling as awkward as a schoolgirl, knowing she ought to be chatting the way she usually did with guests. Except normal behaviour was impossible around him and she cringed that even at her age she could still be so vulnerable. His expressive mouth quirked with sudden humour and she blushed again and tore her attention from him, thoroughly ashamed of herself. She might not be a naive teenager any more but she was acting like one. That near smile, though, had lightened his darkly handsome features, which in repose had a grim, brooding quality, and her heart had leapt inside her like a startled deer; she was seeing another layer of him and greedy to see more.

‘Can you provide food for us this evening?’ Mikhail asked levelly, watching her slot the duvet into the cover with frantic hands. She was nervous, clumsy, and agitated and it was astonishing how much he enjoyed seeing that rare vulnerability in this particular woman. She had no sophisticated front to hide behind. He believed he could read her like a book and he relished the idea. She wouldn’t be that experienced, he guessed, wondering why that thought didn’t put him off because he was accustomed to women who were more likely to introduce him to new techniques in the bedroom, women as practised as whores but a good deal less honest in the impression they liked to make.

Kat turned her head, glossy russet curls flowing back over a slim shoulder, and refused to look directly at him, focusing on his flat midriff instead. ‘Yes, but it won’t be fancy food, it will be plain.’

‘We’re so hungry it won’t matter.’

She shook out the duvet, hurried into the bathroom to check it, gathering up her sister’s toiletries to tip them into a bag and snatch up the used towels. ‘I’ll come back up and clean it,’ she said, crossing the bedroom.

But Mikhail wanted to keep her with him. He spread out an Ordnance Survey map on the top of the dressing table. The dusty dressing table, Kat noticed in consternation, shocked by how much she had neglected her once thorough cleaning routine since guest numbers dwindled and daily financial stress took its place.

‘Could you show me where this house is?’ he asked although he knew perfectly well. ‘I want to work out how far we are from our four-wheel-drive …’

‘Give me a minute,’ Kat urged, leaving the room to dump the remains of her sister’s belongings and extract clean towels from the laundry press.

Drawing in a deep steadying breath, she settled the fresh towels on the bed and returned to his side. He was uncomfortably close: she could feel the heat emanating from his lean, powerful body, hear the even rasp of his breathing and smell a hint of cologne overlying an outdoorsy male scent. It was a wickedly intimate experience for a woman who had long since closed the door on such physical awareness around men and it made her every treacherous sense sing. Her body quickened as though he had touched her, a chain reaction running from the sudden heaviness of her breasts to the clenching sensation low in her belly.

With fierce force of will she stabbed a finger down on the map, for she had often studied maps with walking guests to offer them advice on the best routes and view points. ‘We’re right here …

His hand covered hers where it rested on the map, warm, strong, ensnaring, a thumb lightly enclosing and massaging her wrist as though to soothe the wild pulse beating there. ‘You’re trembling,’ Mikhail murmured in a roughened undertone, using his other hand to turn her round to face him, long fingers firm on her slight shoulder.

‘Must be c-cold …’ Kat said jerkily, terrified that she was guilty of encouraging a complete stranger to touch her and shocked that she was allowing it to happen. He could hardly have failed to notice her staring, but she was convinced that a male with his stunning looks had to be used to that kind of attention. In a minute he would surely be laughing at her shaking and stuttering like an old maid afraid of her own shadow in his presence.

And it was that last thought, that terror that he had to be seeing her as a figure of fun, that made her compose herself and lift her head high in a determined display of control. It was a mistake for he was gazing down at her, black eyes blazing like fireworks flaring against the night sky, utterly riveting, utterly inescapable. Her throat tightened, her breath entrapped there and a shot of pure driving heat raced through her tall slender body like a living flame. Cold was the very last thing she was feeling, but then she had never before felt anything quite that painfully intense. It was as if time stopped and in the interim he lifted his hand from her shoulder to trace the plump pink line of her lower lip with the tip of a long forefinger and her entire skin surface tightened over her bones in response.

‘I want to kiss you, milaya moya,’ he breathed thickly.

And his words freed her as nothing else could have done, so lost was she in what she was experiencing while she also tried to withstand the hurricane force of his strong personality. She reeled back in sudden shock from him, seriously alarmed by her loss of control and common sense, no matter how brief that moment had been. ‘No … absolutely not,’ she framed jaggedly, her heart still accelerating like a racing car while his face hardened and his black-diamond eyes turned to crystalline black ice instead. ‘For goodness’ sake, I don’t even know you—’

‘I don’t usually ask for permission to kiss a woman,’ Mikhail retorted with chilling cool. ‘But you should be more careful—’

Suddenly the tables were being turned with a vengeance on Kat and she was hopelessly unprepared for the tactic. ‘I beg your pardon? I should be more careful?’ she gasped blankly.

‘It’s obvious that you’re attracted to me,’ Mikhail countered with a rock-solid assurance that glued Kat’s tongue to the roof of her mouth in sheer horror. ‘I saw that and reacted to it … You’re a very beautiful woman.’

The humiliation he inflicted with that first sentence was enough to burn Kat up from inside out with shame. So, it was her fault he had made a pass at her? That was certainly putting a new spin on an unwelcome approach from a man. He was quick of tongue and even faster to take advantage, she registered with seething resentment. As for that old flannel he had tossed in about her being a ‘very beautiful’ woman … Who did he think he was kidding? Did she look as if she had been born yesterday? Was that piece of outrageous flattery supposed to mollify her and remove her embarrassment? Furious as she was, Kat clenched her teeth together tight because in some remote corner of her brain she was very much afraid that in some mysterious way she had encouraged his advances and that he might have a right to reproach her for the mistaken impression she had evidently given him.

Kat hurriedly shut down her troubled thoughts in the brooding silence; her most pressing desire was to escape the scene of her apparent crime. ‘I need to cook,’ she said succinctly like an automaton and, spinning round, she walked straight out of the room.

I need to cook? Mikhail was as astounded by that unfathomable declaration as he had been moments earlier when she had backed away from him as though a desire to kiss her were the equivalent of an assault. He knew women—he knew women well enough not to make a move on an uninterested one, he reflected angrily. What the hell was she playing at? Was this stop-start nonsense her idea of flirtation? Was he supposed to want her more because she held him at arm’s length? He swore long and low in Russian, still taken aback by what had happened: the absurd and unthinkable, the impossible. For the first time in Mikhail’s adult life a woman had rejected him.

Kat dug meat out of the freezer and set about defrosting it. A basic beef stew was the best she could offer her guests. She still hadn’t cleaned his bathroom but no way was she going back up there to face him again! It was not that she was scared—she was simply dying a thousand deaths of embarrassment with that accusation still ringing in her ears. It’s obvious that you’re attracted to me. The wretched man had turned her knowledge of herself upside down and inside out within the space of an hour. For the first time in more years than she cared to count she had been attracted to a man. He was right on that score; she certainly couldn’t deny it to herself. But the last time she had reacted to a man that way she was working as a conservation trainee in a London museum, light years back in her past when she had still been young and full of dreams, hopes and ambitions. And even then, even when she had got all silly and tingly about Steve, her one-time boyfriend, it had not hit her anything like as hard as the explosive effect of Mikhail Kusnirovich had! No, back in those days in a similar situation she had still found it possible to act normally and not like a brainless idiot!

But my goodness, how had he known how she felt? How had she shown herself up? Her ignorance of what might have betrayed her infuriated her, making her feel suddenly like a child in an intimidatingly adult world. It must have been the way she looked at him, so she would make sure not to look at him again, not to speak to him, not to do anything that might be misinterpreted. The sheer shock value of having such responses roused in her again would have been quite sufficient for her to handle. She had not needed to find herself trapped below the same roof as the man as well! So, she was not too old to react like that, not past those hormonal urges in the way she had blithely assumed. Well, that didn’t make her feel one bit better. And where did he get off calling her beautiful? Did he think she was stupid as well as a slut? After all, only a slut would be kissing a complete stranger within an hour of meeting him for the first time!

A knock sounded and she glanced up from her task of angrily slicing vegetables and blinked at the sight of Luka standing there in the doorway, leaning heavily on the stick she had given him. She had totally forgotten the poor man was in the house!

‘Sorry to interrupt but—’

‘No, I’m sorry … I forgot to show you to your room,’ Kat said for him while she washed and dried her hands.

‘I fell asleep in the chair,’ Luka told her wryly as he shuffled along beside her.

‘Never been so tired in my life yet Mikhail didn’t even break a sweat when he was virtually carrying me the last mile. I can’t believe this weekend was my idea …’

‘Accidents happen, no matter how careful you are,’ Kat told him soothingly while she gathered up the only remaining rucksack in the hall for him on her way past and opened the door to the room he was to occupy.

There was an atmosphere at the dining table no matter how hard Kat strove to ignore it. There might as well have been a giant black hole cocooning the chair in which Mikhail sat, for Kat refused to acknowledge his presence. The men ate hungrily and with pleasure and when she served up apple tart and ice cream for the dessert, the compliments came thick and fast.

She could cook like a dream. Mikhail, who had never thought about such a talent before, was reluctantly impressed, although he was anything but impressed to find himself eating in a kitchen. Nor was he enamoured of the childish manner in which she was treating him, although it gave him every opportunity to examine her and admire the way her bright hair glimmered below the lights with her every mercurial movement, note the elegance of her pale slender hands as she shifted them and the dainty silence of her table manners. More and more the depth of his interest in her irritated him for it was not his style. Indeed a volcanic growl of frustration began to swell in his chest when she dared to enjoy a light-hearted conversation with Luka.

‘What are you doing living all the way out here alone?’ Peter Gregory interrupted to ask Kat abruptly. ‘Are you a widow?’

‘I’ve never been married,’ Kat replied evenly, all too accustomed to being asked that kind of question by her guests. ‘My father left me this house and turning it into a guest house made sense at the time.’

‘So, is there a man in your life?’ Peter prompted with an assessing, too familiar look that she didn’t appreciate, particularly not now that Mikhail had put her on her guard.

‘I think that’s my business,’ Kat countered, feeling that politeness only went so far.

Another man? Why hadn’t that possibility occurred to him? She might be attracted to him but she had backed off because she had someone else in her life, Mikhail reflected in an increasingly aggressive mood that was steadily beginning to knock him off balance. He felt angry, edgy, quite unlike himself, his vibrant energy too confined by the walls threatening to close up around him. Being cooped up was giving him cabin fever, he decided broodingly. He had always taken his space, his privacy and his complete freedom for granted. In a sudden movement he plunged upright.

‘I’ll walk back to the car and collect our phones. Leaving them behind wasn’t such a good idea, Luka,’ he told his friend shortly.

Kat blinked in astonishment at that declaration.

‘You can’t go back out there,’ Luka objected in dismay. ‘There’s a blizzard blowing and the car’s miles away.’

‘I would have returned to it earlier if you hadn’t been hurt,’ Mikhail replied drily.

‘I’d really like my phone back,’ Peter Gregory said cheerfully.

Kat turned her attention to Mikhail for the first time since he had entered the kitchen. It had taken considerable control to stave off her insatiable need to look at him again but genuine concern now gripped her. After an instant of hesitation, which gave him time to don his waterproof jacket in the hall and open the front door, she jumped up and chased after him.

The snow was falling thick and fast, the road beyond her gates so deeply engulfed with furrowed drifts of snow that she could no longer see it. A split second before Mikhail stepped off the doorstep with the casual confidence of a male about to go for a stroll in a sunlit park, she shot out her hand and closed it around his arm to stop him. ‘Don’t be an idiot!’ she exclaimed, shivering violently in the freezing air. ‘Nobody risks their life to go and collect phones—’

‘Don’t call me an idiot,’ Mikhail growled in rampant disbelief at her interference, his handsome features clenched with derisive incredulity. ‘And don’t be a drama queen … I am not risking my life if I choose to take a walk in little more than a foot of snow—’

‘Well, if I didn’t have a conscience I’d be happy to leave you to die of frostbite and exposure in a drift somewhere down the road!’ Kat let fly back at him, her temper breaking through. Of all the stupid male macho idiots she had ever met, he surely took the biscuit.

‘I am not about to die,’ Mikhail fielded with sardonic bite, black eyes full of arrogant scorn. ‘I am wearing protective clothing. I am very fit and I know exactly what I’m doing in such terrain and weather—’

‘I’m afraid that’s not a very convincing claim coming from a guy who had to have me show him where this house was on the map!’ Kat whipped back at him without an ounce of hesitation. ‘Use the landline here and be sensible.’

Mikhail gritted his perfect white teeth, caught out by the reminder of the little game he had played with her. He gazed down at her in furious frustration, her bossiness an unwelcome surprise. She was virtually shouting at him as well and that was a novelty he had never met with before and liked even less in a woman. But her green eyes still gleamed like the richest emeralds in her heart-shaped face while the breeze whipped her torrent of curls round her narrow shoulders and made of skim her pale cheeks. She provided an alluring vision, even for a male who had long since decided that, like children, he pretty much preferred women to be seen and not heard. And that fast Mikhail switched from wanting her silence into an infinitely more intoxicating mood, all conscious thought suspended while his body thrummed taut with powerful sexual need and tension.

Later, Kat would tell herself that he behaved like a caveman and that the way she found herself staring up at him had nothing to do with the manner in which, black predatory eyes glittering, he hauled her up against him with alarmingly strong arms and kissed her. And then the memory of what happened next went completely hazy because she fell into that kiss and almost drowned in the overpowering onslaught of the hungry passion he unleashed. Full of virile masculine power and devouring demand, his hard lips captured hers and thrust them fiercely apart so that he could penetrate the tender interior with his tongue and with a shockingly erotic thoroughness that racked her slender body against his with a helpless shudder of response. All control vanquished, she let the excitement rage over her and through her, tightening her nipples into bullet points, while flashing a jolting sensual wake-up call to her core. She shook in reaction, icy snowflakes melting on her cheeks in contrast to the smoulderingly hot burn of his carnal mouth on hers. It was a connection she had never made before and it was inexplicably and all at once wonderful, magical and terrifying.

‘I’ll be a couple of hours, milaya moya,’ Mikhail imparted thickly, staring down into her dazed face with the strongest sense of satisfaction he had experienced in a long time because she was finally behaving the way he wanted her to. ‘May I hope that you’ll wait up for my return?’

And just as quickly, in receipt of that manipulative invitation that naive sense of wonder and magic that had briefly transformed Kat into a woman she didn’t recognise shrivelled up and died right there and then on the doorstep.

‘Not unless you’ve got a death wish,’ Kat countered tartly, rubbing at her swollen lips with the back of her hand as though he had soiled her in some way, making his stunning dark eyes blaze like fireworks all over again above her head. ‘When I say no, Mr Whoever-you-are, I mean it and the answer hasn’t changed—’

‘You’re a very strange woman,’ Mikhail gritted, outraged by her and yet curiously drawn by the challenge of her defiance.

‘Because I’m not saying what you want to hear? Well, do I have news for you?’ Kat told him angrily. ‘I’m not the Sleeping Beauty and you’re not my prince, so the kiss was a waste of effort!’

Kat watched him stride off in the snow and she stalked back into the house and shut the door with the suggestion of a slam. Wretched, stubborn, stupid man! She turned and saw Luka staring at her wide-eyed from the lounge doorway as if she were an even stranger creature than his friend. His mouth curved with sudden unmistakable amusement. ‘Mikhail has done trekking in the Arctic and in Siberia,’ he delivered in a I-know-this-is-going-to-embarrass-you tone of apology.

Freakin’ typical, Kat thought tempestuously, her face colouring at the information: macho man had genuine grounds to believe that he was a superior being in the fitness field. The Arctic? Wincing, she went back into the kitchen to tidy up. That kiss? Her first in over ten years? No way was she going to think about that for even ten seconds! That would be awarding the Russian the kind of importance that he already so clearly believed to be his due and she had more backbone than that!

While Kat cleared the dishes from the kitchen table, Peter Gregory talked continuously about his big city apartment and the size of his last whopping banking bonus while dropping the names of several well-known clients, which she vaguely recognised from magazines. Grudgingly she conceded that he was so conceited that he made Mikhail look and sound positively humble.


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