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Грэхем Линн

Brides For Billionaires

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Chapter Four

MIKHAIL TOOK FULL advantage of the sunlight that blinded her, striding forward to seize the initiative and, in a gesture that disconcerted her, he reached for both her hands. ‘Kat … it’s good to see you here, milaya moya …

He was so tall, so dark and so arrestingly handsome in the sleek formality of a tailored black business suit that he had instant overwhelming impact. Her heart thumping inside her ribcage, Kat gazed up into ravishing dark eyes enhanced by thick black lashes and blinked rapidly, thoroughly disorientated by his unexpected smile of welcome and sudden proximity. A feeling of warmth spread through her, a disturbing sense of security holding her still. In a conscious rejection of that treacherous response, Kat snatched her hands angrily free of his. ‘Of course I’m here—what choice did you give me? You’re buying my house!’

‘It’s already done. Technically, I now own a house with a sitting tenant,’ Mikhail fielded smoothly. ‘A landlord is surely a far less alarming prospect than homelessness and the threat of bailiffs removing your belongings and selling them?’

His reminder of how dire her circumstances had been before he stepped in clamped down like steel girders of restraint on Kat’s unruly temper. She was furious with him and deeply resented his interference in her private affairs, but she could not have put her hand on her heart and honestly sworn that she wanted the threat of repossession and the prospect of bailiffs back in her life. In truth it was an enormous relief for her not to be dogged day and night with those fears, afraid to answer the phone in case it was the debt collection agency ringing with demands for repayment, afraid to answer the door bell as well. She breathed in deep and slow to calm herself and reorganise her thoughts.

‘Why don’t you sit down?’ Mikhail indicated a couch in one corner of the vast room. ‘I’ll order coffee.’

‘That’s not necessary,’ Kat told him, dragging her attention from his bold bronzed profile and energy-zapping presence to examine his office. Large in both size and personality, he had an unnerving ability to utterly dominate his surroundings.

‘I decide what’s necessary,’ Mikhail contradicted and he lifted the phone to order coffee.

Kat had not required that reminder of how domineering he could be and her generous mouth tightened as she sat down on the couch, determined to behave normally and betray no hint of her nervous tension. A wonderfully vibrant abstract painting adorned the far wall, the only splash of colour in a room furnished with cold contemporary steel, leather and glass and everything cutting edge technology had to offer. Mikhail Kusnirovich as her landlord? That was a ridiculous euphemism for him to employ when he had repaid substantial cash sums on her behalf. No longer in debt to the loan company or the building society, Kat now considered herself to be in debt to him instead. Of course, he owed her an explanation for his astonishing intervention.

‘Why did you do it?’ Kat prompted tautly.

Mikhail compressed his wide sensual mouth and shrugged a broad shoulder. It was not an answer but it was the only one he was prepared to give her. He had no socially acceptable altruistic reason to offer in his own defence. What had driven him had been a great deal more basic and selfish: having seen her vulnerability, he had immediately wanted to ensure that he was the only person with access to it. He was a territorial male and he wanted her more than he had wanted any woman in a long time. And only free of debt could she be free to be with him.

His arrogant dark head turned, his striking deep-set dark eyes winging to her lovely face. He watched her colour beneath his stare, soft pink surging below that pale skin to highlight her bright eyes and taut cheekbones. He liked the fact that she blushed, could not recall ever being with a woman who still had that capability. His keen gaze lingered on her lush pink lips and the shadowy vee of white skin revealed by the neckline of the shirt she wore beneath her jacket. That fast, that easily the pulse at his groin reacted and he wanted to touch her and discover if her skin felt as soft and smooth as it looked. Soon he would know one way or another, he told himself soothingly.

The tension in the atmosphere thrummed through Kat as well. His scrutiny of her lips felt like a physical touch. Recalling the hunger of his mouth on hers, she quivered, her breasts full and heavy inside her bra, the tender tips pinching tight while unwelcome heat surged at the heart of her. With ferocious determination, she reined back that tide of debilitating physical awareness, refusing to be either sidetracked or silenced. ‘I asked you why you did it. I mean, you hardly know me,’ she continued doggedly. ‘It’s not normal to go out and dig up a person’s debts and offer to settle them. You’ve put me under a huge sense of obligation to you—’

‘That was not my wish,’ Mikhail lied, for he liked the fact that he had created a link between them that she could not reject. That he had not given her a choice in the matter didn’t bother him because he had protected her home for her when she stood to lose it.

In receipt of that guarded reply, Kat felt her growing sense of frustration surge up another notch and she scrambled upright, her russet-red hair streaming in trailing spirals across her narrow shoulders as she threw them back and straightened her slender spine. Getting an explanation out of him was like trying to pull teeth, she thought in exasperation. ‘There’s absolutely no point in you telling me that that was not your wish when I’m now in debt to you to the tune of thousands and thousands of pounds!’

‘But you’re not in debt if I refuse to acknowledge that there is a debt requiring repayment,’ Mikhail imparted with quiet emphasis. ‘I saved your skin. All you need to do now is say thank you.’

‘I’m not going to thank you for your interference in my life!’ Kat snapped back at him without hesitation, galled by his stinging reminder that he had dug her out from between a rock and a hard place. ‘I’m not so stupid that I don’t appreciate that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I’m here to ask you what you want from me in return.

‘Nothing that you’re not inclined to give,’ Mikhail retorted drily.

Kat was very tense, interpreting that statement in only one way. ‘Are you hoping that I will become your lover?’ she asked him baldly, lifting her chin as she voiced that embarrassing question.

Without warning, Mikhail laughed, startling her, his lean dark features creasing with genuine amusement. ‘Should I not? Like most men, I enjoy female company, nothing more complex.’

That might be so, Kat reasoned, unimpressed, but he had not denied that he had a sexual interest in her. If only he knew, she thought ruefully, if only he knew how inexperienced she was he would probably be a great deal less interested in an era when most men expected women to be equal and adventurous partners between the sheets.

‘And I’m prepared to make you an even better offer,’ Mikhail imparted huskily, dark eyes narrowing to gleaming jet chips of challenge.

‘An offer I can’t refuse?’ Kat quipped, reckoning that he was finally going to get down and dirty with her and admit what she had suspected all along. He wanted her to sleep with him while pretending that she wasn’t just doing it because he had paid off her debts. He was a blackmailer with touchy principles, she thought angrily—in other words a total hypocrite. What bad taste she had in men! How could she possibly be attracted to someone as ruthless as him?

‘Agree to spend a month on my yacht with me and at the end of that month I will sign the house back to your sole ownership,’ Mikhail proposed in a harsh undertone, for even going that close to his unbreakable rule riled him, reminding him that he had not been himself since he met her. He was too hot for her, he decided grimly. It was risky to want a woman as much as he wanted her but it was also exciting to meet with a woman who challenged him, and, while his sane mind told him that no woman could really be worth the amount of time and effort she demanded, it was still the excitement that took precedence every time.

‘A month … on your yacht?’ Kat repeated dizzily, shaken by the sheer shock value of that suggestion. ‘But there’s no way I would sleep with you!’

‘I find you very attractive and I would be happy to take you to my bed, but I’ve never forced a woman into anything she doesn’t want and I never will. Sex would only feature in the arrangement with your agreement,’ Mikhail informed her huskily, his deep dark eyes locked to her startled face with satisfaction. ‘I want your companionship for a month, a woman on my arm to act as an escort when I go out and a hostess when I entertain on board.’

Kat could not believe her ears, could not credit that he could offer her the equivalent of a luxury holiday with a big bonus at the end and not demand the assurance of sex in return. She had always assumed that all men wanted sex any way they could get it, but he appeared to be telling her that, if she didn’t want to sleep with him, it wouldn’t be a deal breaker. ‘Why would you make me such an offer?’ she pressed.

‘If I insisted on including sex in our agreement, it would be sleazy,’ he pointed out levelly, loving the way she was still challenging him with her suspicions rather than avidly snatching at his very generous proposition. ‘I don’t treat women like that.’

‘I could do the companionship thing but I would never agree to sleep with you as part of the arrangement,’ Kat warned him shakily, her colour high, her level of discomfiture intense. ‘I mean that. I wouldn’t want any misunderstandings on that score.’

Mikhail said nothing because he could see no advantage to arguing with her. But when all was said and done, the same desire that burned in him burned in her as well. She would sleep with him, of course she would, she wouldn’t be able to help herself when they were together for hours on end. He was absolutely convinced that no matter what she said she would end up with her glorious long legs pinned round his waist, welcoming him into her lithe body. When, after all, had a woman ever said no to him? Kat had taken fright when he had first approached her in her home, that was all, he reflected wryly, reckoning that he had been too spontaneous and aggressive with her. She would want him to make a fuss of her first and if that was what it would take to win her surrender he was, for once, willing to go that extra mile. The background check he had had done on her had made it clear that it was a long time since she had had a man in her life. Naturally she would have reservations and insecurities. He could even understand that she might be a little shy, but ultimately he believed that she would satisfy his driving need to possess her. Women were invariably flattered rather than repelled by the strength of a man’s desire.

The gorgeous blonde who had escorted Kat into Mikhail’s office also delivered the coffee, her bright blue eyes skimming left and right with keen curiosity as she picked up on the tension in the room. Stiff with self-consciousness and with her own gaze carefully veiled, Kat lifted the cup and saucer and struggled to sip hot coffee with her throat muscles so tense that she could barely swallow. Intelligence and growing caution warned her not to betray weakness in Mikhail’s radius. He would use it against her: he was a ruthless man. In her ignorance weeks earlier, she had had no idea of the extent of Mikhail’s power and influence and even less grasp of his inflexible drive. Her rejection had clearly challenged him and dented his pride. What else was she to think? Why else would he have come after her? And he had, without a doubt, come after her all guns blazing, Kat conceded in a daze, still stunned that he had gone to such lengths to exert his dominance over her. Yet he had done so. Having identified her financial vulnerability, he had employed it as a means of bringing her to heel. He owned everything that mattered to her lock, stock and barrel and there was nothing she could do about that.

Well, option one was to walk away, acknowledging that losing her home had been on the cards anyway, Kat reasoned feverishly. That would create a stalemate that would certainly surprise and disappoint Mikhail, but ultimately it would gain Kat nothing. Yet what was the alternative? She had not the slightest desire to play the victim and whinge about his callous blackmailing tactics. On the other hand, Kat thought on a sudden strong surge of adrenalin, if she had the gumption to fight Mikhail on his own playing field and win she would have her home as a prize at the end of it all.

And wasn’t a secure base what she really needed, especially now with Emmie pregnant and both of them currently unemployed? Birkside meant so much more to Kat than mere bricks and mortar. It was in every sense the only home she had ever had and very much at the heart of the family she had created with her sisters. How could they still be a family if she no longer had a home her sisters could visit in times of need?

Mikhail was engaged in a dangerous game of one-upmanship, Kat mused thoughtfully, studying his stunning dark features with innate suspicion from below her lashes, for she recognised that he was a clever, sharp-as-tacks operator. He said he didn’t expect sex as part of his arrangement but while Kat might be sexually untried she was no fool. She had read all about Mikhail and his ever-changing harem of readily available women on the Internet. This was a guy who didn’t do relationships, he only did sex. Mikhail was accustomed to easy conquests seduced by his spectacular dark good looks, incredible wealth and dominant personality. Without a doubt, he was assuming that Kat would be just the same as her predecessors and that secluded with him on his yacht she would ultimately succumb to his undeniable sexual charisma. But in that assessment he was wrong, very wrong. Kat, dragged up by a mother who was a pushover for every wealthy man who looked her way, had formed her own very effective defences. She had learnt at too young an age that the average man would promise a woman the moon if he wanted her in his bed badly enough. Time and time again Odette had fallen for such promises only to be betrayed once the man involved gained the intimacy that he craved. For that reason, trusting men had never come naturally to Kat, which was why she was still a virgin at thirty-five. She had always wanted commitment before she put her body on the line. Steven had talked the talk but hadn’t stuck around long enough to prove that he could walk the walk as well.

‘Share your thoughts with me,’ Mikhail urged in the charged silence.

He was a class act, Kat conceded with bitter amusement, stealing a glance at his riveting, darkly beautiful face, lingering on the glittering eyes that added threat and vitality to those lean tough features. Her biggest mistake would be to forget that they were essentially enemies, set as they both were on opposing goals. For one of them to win, the other had to lose and she doubted that Mikhail had much experience of being in the loser’s corner or that he would be gracious in defeat. She tilted her chin with determination and said quietly, ‘If I was to seriously consider your proposition, I would first need legal guarantees.’

Surprise momentarily assailed Mikhail, who had not anticipated such a cool, rational response from her. ‘Guarantees with regard to what?’ he queried with complete calm, once again relishing the fact that she could still have the power to disconcert him.

‘Primarily a guarantee that regardless of what does or doesn’t happen on that yacht of yours, if I put in the required time with you, I still get the house back,’ Kat proposed dry-mouthed, knowing that that was the most crucial safeguard she required.

‘Of course,’ Mikhail conceded, affronted by her terminology, his sculpted jaw line clenching with all-male disdain. He had offered her a month of unimaginable luxury on his yacht, The Hawk, an invitation that countless women would kill to receive, and she talked about ‘putting in her time’ with him as though she were referring to a prison stretch? Even worse, she was questioning his word of honour. ‘But I too would expect guarantees …’

Kat dragged in a sustaining breath, almost mesmerised by the intensity of his scrutiny and the slow heavy thud of her heartbeat. Her mouth ran dry, a flock of nervous butterflies unleashing in her tummy and clenching the muscles in her pelvis tight. ‘Of what kind?’

‘That you would fulfil the role of hostess and companion as directed by me,’ Mikhail extended coolly, the beginnings of a smile of satisfaction starting to curl the corners of his expressive mouth. ‘I didn’t think you would agree to this so easily—’

‘Only a fool would look a gift horse in the mouth!’ Kat quipped in protest, colour firing her cheeks at the calculating mercenary role she was forcing herself to play, not only to protect herself, but also to grab at the chance to get her much-loved home back. ‘You’re offering me a month of work to regain ownership of my home. From any angle, that’s a golden opportunity for me.’

It was the truth and yet making such a declaration, so clearly motivated by greed, made Kat want to cringe with shame. What on earth was she doing? Hadn’t she raised her sisters to put principles and conscience ahead of financial success? Yet had Mikhail not deliberately yoked her to that financial obligation, she would never have thought or acted in such a way. Playing him at his own game was self-defence, nothing more, she told herself uncomfortably. He was only going to get the disappointment he deserved for putting her in such an impossible position in the first place.

Mikhail crushed the disturbing pang of dissatisfaction that her candour awakened in him. After all, he motivated employees with bonuses and thought nothing of the practice. Why should Kat Marshall be any different from all the other women attracted by his great wealth? He was not buying her; he was not paying for her time … hell, he hadn’t even slept with her yet! Suppressing the uneasiness stirring inside him, Mikhail chose to think instead of having her all to himself on The Hawk, his ocean-going yacht, and the hunger took over again, wiping away every other thought and impression with startling efficiency.

That evening, Emmie was thunderstruck when her older sister told her why she had gone to London. While intellectually Emmie knew her sister was a beautiful woman, neither Emmie nor her siblings had ever considered Kat in that light, having always been content to accept their sister’s claim that she had moved past the age where she still wanted a man in her life. For that reason she simply could not begin to imagine how Kat’s supposed charms could have ignited as much interest in a Russian billionaire as some celebrity sex kitten might have done.

Wide-eyed with shock, she stared at her older sister. ‘Are you sure this guy hasn’t somehow got you mixed up with Saffy?’

‘No, he never mentioned Saffy except to ask why she hadn’t helped me with my financial problems.’

Emmie grimaced. ‘Because Saffy, our drop-dead perfect supermodel sister, may earn a fortune but she is too selfish to think that her own family might need help more than that African orphan school she supports.’

Kat gave the younger woman a pained appraisal. ‘Saffy would have helped if I’d asked but I didn’t feel it was her responsibility,’ she said awkwardly.

Kat didn’t want to admit that since most of the debt had been caused by the cost of Emmie’s surgery she had been reluctant to approach Saffy for assistance. Emmie would have felt horribly guilty and Saffy could have reacted with angry resentment and the bad feeling between the twins might well have increased.

Emmie continued to stare at Kat. ‘So, this guy will do just about anything to get you onto his yacht?’ she prompted, still unflatteringly incredulous at the idea that any man could be attracted to her older sister to that extent. ‘Doesn’t that scare you?’

Kat resisted a sudden urge to confide that Mikhail’s fierce desire for her company had to be the biggest ego boost she had ever experienced, but that was a truth that had only recently occurred to her. Even so it was a fact: no man had ever wanted her that much, certainly not Steve, who had taken fright and bolted the minute she agreed to give a home to her younger sisters.

‘It surprises me,’ Kat admitted. ‘I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that Mikhail’s not used to meeting women who say no.’

‘But will he continue to take no for an answer?’ Emmie prompted anxiously. ‘If you’re marooned on some yacht with him, can you trust him to keep his hands to himself?’

Kat’s tummy somersaulted as she recalled the flash-fire heat of Mikhail’s mouth on hers and the silken tangle of his thick hair between her fingers. Yes, Mikhail would keep his hands to himself as long as she kept her hands off him, which she would, of course she would. His kiss on the doorstep had taken her by surprise. If he touched her again she would be better prepared and ready to deal with that weakening surge of temptation that emptied her mind of all sensible thought. After all, it would be very unfair if she encouraged him without having any intention of ultimately going to bed with him.

‘Yes, in that line I do think I can trust him. He’s too proud to put pressure on a woman who doesn’t want him.’

‘But he’s still willing to pay richly just for the pleasure of your company?’ the younger woman queried distrustfully.

‘It’s only a job … a stupid macho whim on his part,’ Kat argued.

‘But you know if you were sleeping with him this particular job would bear a close resemblance to prostitution.’

Kat paled. ‘I’m not going to sleep with him and I’ve already warned him about that upfront …’

Emmie grinned at that blunt admission. ‘Some men would see that as a challenge.’

‘If he does, that’s his problem, not mine,’ Kat pointed out. ‘But what’s a month out of my life if it secures this house for us again?’

‘I take your point,’ Emmie conceded thoughtfully.

‘You’ll stay on here to look after Topsy when she comes home from school for the Easter holidays?’ Kat checked.

‘Of course. I’ve nowhere else to go.’ Emmie hesitated. ‘Just promise me that you won’t go falling for this bloke, Kat.’

‘I’m not that much of a fool—’

‘You’re as soft as butter, you know you are,’ Emmie responded ruefully.

But during the following week when Kat learned exactly what was entailed in the role of acting as an escort for a Russian oligarch, she felt anything but as soft as butter. First of all, she sustained a nerve-racking visit from a smooth London lawyer bearing a ten-page document, which he described as ‘an employment contract’ and which delineated in mind-numbing detail what Mikhail would expect from her: perfect grooming, courtesy and an unstinting readiness to please Mikhail and his guests in her role either as companion or hostess, good timekeeping, minimal use of alcohol and no use whatsoever of drugs. In return for successfully fulfilling those expectations for one calendar month, Birkside would be signed over to her.

The reference to grooming mortified Kat, but on reflection she could not even remember when she had last done her nails, and when Mikhail’s PA phoned her to tell her that she had an appointment to keep at a London beauty salon on the same day that she was to present herself for her new role, she saw no good reason to argue. It was all part and parcel of the position she had accepted, she told herself comfortingly, and it was not unreasonable that he should want her to look her best. As her slender wardrobe was in no way up to the challenge of a stay on a luxury yacht, she could only assume that he was planning to take care of that problem as well. Sixth sense warned her that Mikhail Kusnirovich left very little to chance and she wondered what would happen when he finally appreciated that she was not supermodel material and was actually very ordinary. After all, he somehow seemed to have formed an image of her very far removed from reality and clearly imagined that she was more fascinating and desirable than she truly was. When that false impression melted away and he was disappointed would he send her home early? She could not believe that he would seek to retain her presence on his wretched yacht for an entire month. In her own opinion he would quickly get bored with her.

On the same day that Kat was collected off the London train by a car that ferried her to an exclusive beauty salon, Mikhail registered that he was in an unusually good mood. He could not concentrate on business: his mind kept on wandering down undisciplined paths as he wondered which of the many outfits he had personally selected for Kat she would wear that evening to dine with him. Only the nagging reminder that he had virtually paid for her presence by dangling that shabby little house on the hillside like a carrot to tempt her took the edge off his anticipation and satisfaction. He looked forward to the day when she would try to cling to him as all women did and he would send her on her way, bored with what she had to offer. His face hardened at that desirable prospect: the day of his indifference would come, it always did. In the end he would discover that she was no different from and no more special than any other woman he had taken to his bed and the kick of lust that even the thought of her roused would die a natural death.

Kat was surprised to discover that she enjoyed the grooming session at the beauty salon, although she was just a little shocked by some of the waxing options she was casually offered. That obstacle overcome, she took pleasure in the new arch in her brows and the pretty pale pink of her perfectly manicured nails, not to mention the silky, glossy shine of her curls once the stylist had finished fussing with her hair. She wasn’t terribly keen on the professional make-up session that transformed her face but she tolerated it, noting that it gave her cheekbones she had not known she possessed, rather Gothic dramatic eyes and ruby red lips. She thought she looked a bit like a vampire but assumed it was fashionable and resisted the urge to rub a good half of the cosmetics off again. Presumably this was the look he wanted and expected.

The limo delivered her to an opulent city hotel where she was wafted straight up to a spacious suite and shown into a bedroom with closets and drawers already packed with what appeared to be her new wardrobe. She blinked in shock, catching her unfamiliar reflection in a mirror and batting her false eyelashes for effect. A vampire or maybe even that wicked Cruella de Ville character from the Dalmatians book? Keen to embrace a new persona that seemed infinitely more exciting than her more average self, she chose a black lace dress from the packed closet. She was sliding her feet into perilously high red-soled designer shoes, the hem of the dress frothing silkily above her knees, when the phone by the bed buzzed.

‘I’m waiting in the lobby for you,’ Mikhail told her with audible male impatience roughening his deep dark drawl. ‘Didn’t you get my message?’

‘No, I didn’t … I’m sorry!’ Kat muttered in a bit of a panic, tossing some essentials into a tiny bag and already hurrying towards the door as she recalled that clause about good timekeeping. He didn’t like to be kept waiting. The show, she recognised giddily, was finally going live….


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