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Грэхем Линн

Brides For Billionaires

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Chapter Five

MIKHAIL SAW KAT step out of the lift. She looked stunning but oddly different in a way he didn’t like. His keen gaze narrowed as she moved towards him and he absorbed the theatrical make-up that spoiled the natural quality she had had and which he had not even realised until that moment had made her so appealing to him. His dark brows drew together in a frown of displeasure.

Kat couldn’t even breathe when she saw Mikhail staring across the foyer at her, almost six and a half feet of lean powerful male with his arrogant dark head held at an imperious angle. He was shockingly good-looking, spectacularly sexy and the dark masculine intensity of his appraisal sent a shard of high-voltage heat shooting down through her tummy. She swallowed hard, mouth running dry, perspiration dampening her short upper lip, the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck standing erect as a frisson of fierce physical awareness tightened the skin over her bones.

‘The car’s waiting outside for us,’ Mikhail told her as the four men she recognised from their visit to her house closed around them, opening the exit door, checking the street in advance before striding across the pavement to open the passenger door of the waiting limo.

‘Are those men security guards?’ Kat enquired, sliding along the sumptuously upholstered leather back seat, striving not to gape at the opulent fittings surrounding her.

Da … yes,’ Mikhail confirmed. ‘Why are you wearing so much make-up?’

That directness of the question startled Kat. She blinked. ‘I didn’t put it on,’ she responded. ‘The make-up girl at the beauty place did it—’

‘Why did you allow it?’

Her smooth brow creased. ‘I didn’t know I had a choice. I assumed this was the one-size-fits-all look you like your companions to have.’

His mouth set into a harsh line. ‘You are not expected to conform to some ludicrous identikit female appearance for my benefit. I have no such preference. I respect individuality and I expect you to make your own choices about such things. I also liked you the way you were.’

‘Understood.’ Her generous mouth tilted in amusement at his honesty. He was very blunt but she found that remarkably refreshing in comparison to the polite and often meaningless fictions that people spouted. ‘So, I’ll take off the false eyelashes the first chance I get. It feels like I’m wearing fly swats on my eyelids.’

Unexpectedly, Mikhail laughed, black eyes gleaming with appreciation as he lounged back in the corner of the limo, long powerful thighs spread in relaxation, and scrutinised her slender figure in the fitted black dress: the small high breasts, the tiny waist and slim shapely knees. Arousal hummed through him. ‘Talk to me,’ he urged lazily. ‘Tell me why you took on responsibility for your half-sisters.’

Naturally Kat had accepted that Mikhail had to know a good deal about her life when he had discovered how much she was in debt, but that question made her green eyes flash with annoyance, for she did not like the idea that she had surrendered the right to all privacy. ‘I’m sure you’re not really interested.’

‘Would I have asked if I wasn’t?’

‘How would I know?’ Kat replied flippantly, shooting him a look of barely concealed resentment. ‘It’s quite simple. My mother couldn’t cope with my sisters and she put them into foster care. They were very unhappy when I visited them and I wanted to help—I was the only person who could help.’

‘It was a generous act for so young a woman—you sacrificed your freedom—’

‘Freedom’s not always the gift people like to think it is. Family’s important to me and I never really had that security when I was a child. I also wanted my sisters to know that I cared about them,’ she admitted grudgingly.

Dense black lashes framed the shrewd gaze still welded to her, his dark eyes lightening with male appreciation. ‘Why do you always want to argue with me?’

‘Do you want an honest answer?’ Kat enquired.

Da,’ he confirmed huskily, but in that moment he was mental miles away, engaged in imagining her graceful length adorned with pearls and nothing else. No, not pearls, he decided, rubies or emeralds to enhance that porcelain-pale complexion.

‘You’re so sure of yourself and so arrogant that you irritate me,’ Kat confessed, lush red-tinted lips pouting as she framed the words.

Mikhail’s body tensed because he very much wanted to nibble at that full lower lip, but for the first time in his life with a woman he hesitated to do exactly what he wanted. He didn’t need to dive at her like a starving man being offered a last meal. He could practise restraint, couldn’t he?

‘I can’t understand why a man acting like a man should irritate you,’ Mikhail told her with amusement, his healthy and exuberant ego gloriously impervious to her criticism, for he had never known what it was to doubt that he knew best in every situation. ‘Unless you prefer weaklings … in which case I could never hope to please you.’

Involuntarily studying him, taking in the amusement illuminating his dark as night eyes and the tug of a smile pulling at the corner of his stubborn mouth, Kat stiffened, resisting his potent masculine charisma with all her might. Companion, she reminded herself staunchly, not his lover or one of his admirers. ‘You do realise that you’re going to get bored with me?’ she warned him.

‘How could you bore me when you’re quite unlike any other woman I’ve met before?’ Mikhail countered with lazy assurance. ‘I never know what strange thing you will say next, milaya moya.’

As Kat was not aware that she had ever said anything that might be considered strange to him she was, not unnaturally, silenced by that statement. The limo drew up in a quiet street and they alighted, Mikhail clamping his big hand to her slim hip to draw her below the shelter of his arm when she would have put greater distance between them. Disturbingly conscious of his proximity and the familiar scent of his cologne, not to mention the weight and position of his hand near her derriere, Kat had to fight the desire to pull away from him, knowing it would be as welcome to him as a slap in the face. She had to be more tolerant and relaxed, she instructed herself sternly. She was a grown woman and there was no need for her to behave like a jumpy teenager around him.

His security team ushered them into a low-lit restaurant. They were greeted at the door by the proprietor, who bowed as low as if royalty had arrived. A sudden hush fell among the other diners and heads swivelled in their direction. Mikhail addressed the proprietor in his own language. They were shown to a table and menus were presented with much bowing and scraping. Yes, it was very like being out in public with royalty, Kat decided ruefully, glancing down at her menu only to discover that it was incomprehensible to her.

‘Is this a Russian restaurant?’ Kat enquired.

Mikhail nodded calmly. ‘I often eat here.’

‘The menu’s in Russian—I can’t read it,’ Kat pointed out stiffly a couple of minutes later because he still hadn’t noticed that she was having a problem.

‘I’ll choose for you,’ Mikhail announced rather than offering to play translator for her benefit.

Kat gritted her teeth again, wondering how she would get through the month without trying to kill him at least once. He existed in his own little bubble of supreme confidence, King of all he surveyed, blithely, unashamedly selfish and stubborn. Her needs, her wants did not exist as far as he was concerned. Suddenly she wondered if that meant that he would be rubbish in bed and hot-pink chagrin flooded her complexion at that uncharacteristic thought on her part. As she had no intention of going to bed with him, she would never know the answer to that question, she reminded herself irritably.

‘What’s wrong?’ Mikhail asked, recognising the tension in her fine-boned features while at the same time wishing she would go and wipe off all the metallic grey make-up obscuring her beautiful eyes.

‘Nothing …’ Kat forced a valiant smile while he ordered their meals in Russian without consulting her preferences or even telling her what he had chosen for her to eat. She was doing this to regain her family home and she could put up with being treated like a piece of inanimate furniture for the sake of the house, she told herself staunchly.

Mikhail signalled Stas and gave him an instruction that startled the older man into glancing in surprise at Kat.

The first course arrived and it was caviar served with strips of hot buttered toast. Kat had never liked fish—in fact even the smell of anything fishy made her tummy roll. Mikhail failed to notice how little she ate and was equally impervious to the fact that she only took a few mouthfuls of the equally fishy soup that followed. Stas then approached her with a package, which he handed to her.

‘The make-up … you can remove it now,’ Mikhail informed her with satisfaction as she glanced into the bag in disbelief and discovered a pack of wipes.

Taken aback by the request that she remove her make-up while she was out in public, Kat vanished to the cloakroom and carefully peeled off the false eyelashes before wiping off the dramatic eye shadow. The effort left her eyelids slightly swollen, not that she supposed that that little consequence would matter to Mikhail, whose main goal in life always seemed to be getting exactly what he wanted from those around him. He didn’t seem to respect or even notice the normal boundaries that other people observed. After only a couple of hours Kat was reeling in shock from the challenge of dealing with such a force of nature. She dug into her bag for her own small stock of cosmetics and applied some foundation and lip gloss to banish the bare look from her face.

‘Much better,’ Mikhail told her approvingly when she reappeared, looking more as he remembered her. He was as comfortable with her transformation and his determined control of it as she was not. ‘I can see you again.’

Mercifully, a giant succulent steak arrived for Kat’s main course and she was finally able to satisfy her appetite with something she could eat. The dessert was something cheesy covered with honey. After that no-holds-barred introduction to Mikhail’s national cuisine, dutifully drinking down the special vodka he praised to the skies and ending on coffee seemed almost tame in comparison.

He then asked her if she wanted to visit a club and Kat felt like a party pooper when she admitted that it had been a long and very busy day and that she was tired.

As they stepped out of the restaurant onto the shadowy street, a dark shape lunged at her without warning and a shocked cry of fear erupted from Kat. Just as abruptly, Mikhail thrust her behind him and stepped between her and her apparent assailant with what sounded very much like an oath. In the scuffle that followed, men seemed to jump from all directions and she fell back into the doorway breathless and full of alarm, her heart thundering in her eardrums as she appreciated that Mikhail already had the man pinned down in a pretty threatening manner. Stas, the head of his security team, was intervening and he and Mikhail momentarily seemed to be engaged in some sort of a dispute. Mikhail’s anger was audible in his dark deep voice. Shaking the terrified-looking man he still held as a terrier might shake a rat, Mikhail released him with a sound of disgust and swung round to retrieve Kat.

‘Are you all right?’ Mikhail demanded thunderously.

‘I got a fright … that’s all,’ Kat framed shakily.

‘I saw the street light gleam on something in his hand—I thought he had a knife,’ Mikhail grated, shepherding her with determination towards the limo where the passenger door already stood open. ‘But it was just a camera—he’s only an idiot paparazzo trying to steal a photo!’

Still trembling from the shock of the incident, Kat settled into the passenger seat and marvelled at the way in which her attitude to Mikhail Kusnirovich had been turned on its head within the space of a minute. He might have neglected to ask what she liked to eat at dinner but he had, without the smallest hesitation, put himself in the path of what he thought might be a knife to protect her. Kat was stunned but hopelessly impressed that he could even have considered putting himself at risk for her benefit.

‘Wouldn’t your security have taken care of him?’ she prompted in bewilderment.

‘Their primary task is always to protect me, not those I am with. It was my duty to protect you, milaya moya,’ Mikhail growled between compressed lips, a lean brown hand clenching into a fist on his thigh, his adrenalin charge still clearly running on a high.

‘For what it’s worth, thanks.’ Kat concentrated on breathing in deep and slow to still her racing heartbeat.

‘You were in no danger—it was only a camera,’ Mikhail reminded her dismissively.

But he hadn’t known that when he had instinctively acted to ensure that she was not hurt, Kat conceded, suddenly plunged deep into her own thoughts and ashamed of the speed with which she had been willing to label Mikhail as selfish and arrogant. What had just happened revealed that there was far more depth and many more shades to the Russian billionaire’s tough character than she had been prepared to believe.

When Mikhail stepped into the lift with her back at the hotel, however, Kat’s nervous tension mushroomed afresh. She wondered why he was coming up to the suite with her. He lounged back in one corner of the lift, brilliant black eyes pinned to her with glittering intensity, and her legs went all woolly and her head swam, nerves fluttering in her tummy as she fumbled for something casual to say to dispel the dangerous drag in the atmosphere.

‘What birth sign are you?’ Kat heard herself ask inanely.

Mikhail gazed back at her blankly. No, she wasn’t going to get any horoscope chit-chat out of him, she registered in fierce embarrassment.

‘I’m a Leo … I was asking when were you born?’ Kat explained in the hope that he would appreciate that she wasn’t a crackpot.

Mikhail, taken aback by the random nature of the conversation and still not grasping what she wanted from him, breathed tentatively, ‘Thirty years ago?’

In receipt of that unexpected information, Kat froze in horror. ‘Are you telling me that you’re only thirty years old?’ She gasped.

Exasperated, Mikhail, who had been thinking that kissing her would hardly be breaking the rules because it was essential that she became accustomed to being touched by him, raised level black brows in enquiry. ‘Ya ne poni’ mayu … I don’t understand. What’s the problem? What are we talking about?’

Kat’s back was so stiff she might have had a poker welded to her slender spine and her colour remained high. She stepped out of the lift, dipped the key card into the lock on the suite door and stalked into the big reception room, switching on the lights.

Mikhail followed her, a frown hardening his features as he studied her. ‘Kat?’ he pressed impatiently.

Kat spun back to him and settled furious green eyes on him. ‘You’re younger than me … years younger!’ she launched at him in angry consternation. ‘I can’t believe that I didn’t see that, that I didn’t even consider the possibility!’

Unmoved by the same conflict of emotion that powered Kat, Mikhail gazed steadily back at her. ‘Da … you’re a few years older. And the problem is?’

Outrage shimmering through her slender taut figure, Kat stared back at him accusingly. ‘That’s a big problem as far as I’m concerned.’

Women were strange, Mikhail reflected, but he was utterly convinced in that instant that she was more strange than most. She had been born five years in advance of him. It was an age difference so minor in his opinion that it was barely worth commenting on, but the look of aversion stamped in her beautiful green eyes warned him that she was not so accepting of the fact. Anger stirred in him because he immediately recognised that she was grabbing at yet another reason to hold him at bay and no woman had ever put up such sustained resistance to him before.

‘It’s not a problem for me,’ Mikhail countered curtly, black eyes brooding as he struggled to work out why he still wanted her in spite of all the discouragement she offered. In fact the more she tried to move away, the faster he wanted to haul her back in a kneejerk reaction that felt natural enough to disturb him.

An older woman with a younger man, Kat was thinking in painful mortification. People always found that combination both funny and objectionable. Remarkably older men seemed to get away with relationships with very young women without attracting similar derision. But the knowledge that Mikhail was a full five years younger than she was simply underscored Kat’s conviction that she should not be with him at all.

‘It’s wrong, distasteful … inappropriate that you’re younger than I am,’ Kat spelt out jerkily. ‘I’ve read in the newspapers about women christened “cougars” for getting involved with younger men and I’m afraid I’ve never wanted a toy boy …’

A smouldering silence spread between them.

‘A toy boy? You are calling me a toy boy?’ Mikhail echoed in rampant disbelief that she could have dared to apply that offensive term to him. Dark blood marked the arch of his high cheekbones. It was one of the very few occasions in his life when he was rendered almost mute by a shock backed by a surge of the volatile rage that he virtually never let anyone see. ‘Take that back … that term,’ he instructed rawly. ‘It is an insult that no man would tolerate!’

The scorching heat of his dark eyes blazing with indignation clashed with Kat’s defiant gaze. She was very still because although he had not raised his voice she had never seen that much anger in anyone: it burned off him like a shower of sparks in darkness, acting on her like a menacing wave of warning that shortened the breath in her lungs and convulsed her throat.

‘You’re years younger than me,’ Kat responded in shaken self-defence, pained by that discovery, not even understanding why it should matter so much to her. ‘It’s not right—’

‘Take it back,’ Mikhail breathed wrathfully. ‘It is unacceptable that you should say such a thing to me.’

Kat swallowed hard. Her knees felt wobbly: he really could be the most downright intimidating male. ‘All right, I’ll take it back,’ she muttered ruefully. ‘I didn’t intend to insult you but I was shocked.’

‘I would be no woman’s toy boy,’ Mikhail delivered harshly.

It was a ludicrous label for a six-foot-five-inch male exuding aggression, Kat conceded numbly as she sank down boneless with stress on a sofa and nodded weakly, still shaken by the inexplicable emotions that had erupted inside her. ‘Well, that’s OK because I wouldn’t make a very good cougar,’ she confided in a pained undertone.

‘Why not?’ Mikhail enquired, his tension dispersing as he studied her. She looked exhausted, her russet head drooping on her slender neck like a broken flower, as if it was too much effort to hold it upright, and a sense of blame assailed him because he had almost lost his temper with her and he knew he had frightened her. He recalled his father’s infamous violent rages too well to allow himself any comparable outlet. Indeed the main bastion of his character was self-control in every mood and in every situation.

Kat was all shaken up. She could not recall ever having been in such turmoil before or understanding herself less. He was only thirty-years old and she was thirty five, way too old for him, in fact even being attracted to him was practically cradle-snatching, she decided desolately.

‘Why not?’ Mikhail asked again, curious about what made her tick in a way he had never been curious about a woman before.

‘Cougars are experienced women … I’m not,’ Kat admitted dully, convinced that she was an oddity in such a day and age and wondering in despair how she could possibly have done things differently. Her mother had put her sisters through so much with her ever-changing parade of men and Kat knew that for the sake of her siblings’ welfare she needed to lead a very different life from Odette. Unfortunately ten years earlier she had not appreciated that that would mean celibacy because in those days she had still dimly assumed that eventually she would meet a suitable man and enjoy a serious relationship. Only it hadn’t happened; the opportunity had just never arisen.

His level black brows drew together. ‘I don’t understand.’

Kat released a bitter laugh that was discordant in the quiet room and lifted scornful green eyes to say, ‘I’m still a virgin. How’s that for seriously weird?’

In the immediate aftermath of that admission, it would have been hard to say which of them was the more shocked: Kat that she had told him something she had never told any other living person, or Mikhail, who could not have been more stunned had she confessed that she was a serial killer. Physical innocence was way beyond his experience and even further removed from his comfort level.


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