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Грэхем Линн

Brides For Billionaires

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Chapter Seven

FIVE DAYS LATER, Mikhail stood on the terrace outside his office on The Hawk sharing a drink with Lorne Arnold.

His other guests were swimming and sunbathing down below on the main deck. He was so accustomed to half-naked women that he spared the exposed bodies barely a glance, awarding his attention only to a slender redhead moving in the shadows. As willowy and graceful in her leggy delicacy as a gazelle, Kat burned in the sun, but her smooth light skin made her stand out all the more from his fake-tanned and sun-bronzed guests.

‘Kat’s a real find,’ Lorne remarked carefully, watching Kat sit down with a book to read.

Mikhail gritted his even white teeth. If only you knew, he thought in frustration. He had backed off from Kat and that hadn’t worked either. She was like a jigsaw puzzle with several missing pieces: incomprehensible and infuriating.

‘Very natural, warm, unspoiled …’ Lorne could not hide his appreciation

‘Very unspoiled,’ Mikhail fielded tongue-in-cheek.

‘You don’t seem to pay her much attention …’

‘Kat thrives on neglect,’ Mikhail told him grittily, wondering why he had had the misfortune to land the only woman in the world who didn’t react to such an approach. Mikhail, more used to women who crowded him and clung, eager to please and entertain him, was at a rare loss with one who chose to keep her distance.

Lara settled down beside Kat in the shade. ‘I’m too hot,’ the svelte blonde complained.

Kat knew better than to suggest that the topless blonde in her minuscule bikini briefs take a dip in the inviting pool. Most of the female guests, including Lara, avoided the water to conserve their hair styling and make-up while Kat continued to swim several times a day, frustrated by the laziness of sitting around doing very little. It had made her hair a little frizzy but with a fully staffed beauty salon on board that was hardly a problem.

‘Tonight is the guests’ last night,’ Lara reminded her. ‘What are you wearing to the club in Ayia Napa?’

‘I’ll find something,’ Kat responded lightly, watching Mikhail stand with a drink on his office terrace with Lorne. Very tall, very dark and very handsome and infuriatingly inscrutable and unpredictable. He had virtually ignored her since that fatal encounter in his office. While he was polite and gracious in company just as though they were a couple, he had not tried to touch her again and she didn’t blame him for that, having looked back repeatedly to what she had done and cringed. She had said one thing to him but had done another. If he had had enough of that, so had she. It was as if she were a split personality, one half recalling her turbulent childhood with her man-hungry mother and the other half recalling the strict moral limits she had tried to instil in her sisters while always setting her siblings a good example. Sex to scratch an uncomfortable itch of lust didn’t figure anywhere between those parameters and she was not ashamed of resisting the urge and standing by her principles.

‘I hope you don’t mind but I thought you might want to borrow something and I left a dress on your bed,’ Lara told her with a bright smile.

In recent days, Kat had learned to relax more with the other Englishwoman, who had made a real effort to offer her useful advice. Gradually it had dawned on Kat that Lara usually hosted Mikhail’s guests and could have bitterly resented being supplanted by Kat. For that reason the other woman’s sociability had proved a pleasant surprise, particularly when compared to Mikhail’s cool detachment.

‘But I’m sure I’ve got—’ Kat began in disconcertion.

‘You haven’t got anything suitable to wear to a nightclub,’ Lara assured her confidently. ‘You’ll want to fit in … for a change.’

‘My clubbing days are behind me,’ Kat commented quietly, ignoring that less than tactful comment on her style. ‘I’m thirty-five, Lara.’

Lara’s eyes widened in apparent disbelief. ‘But that means you’re older than him! I’m only twenty-six.’

And probably much more suitable, Kat reflected wearily, wondering why that should bother her. Lara was beautiful and bright and posing there topless and uninhibited, infinitely more likely to please Mikhail than Kat ever could. Behind her sunglasses Kat focused on Mikhail, sunlight gleaming off his carved cheekbones and stubborn jaw line, and her heart seemed to twist at the very idea of him with Lara … with any woman. It was because she was dreaming about him every night, embarrassingly erotic dreams that made her wake up perspiring in a tangle of bedding.

A few hours later, garbed in Lara’s short red dress and buffed and polished within an inch of her life by the beauty salon, Kat scanned her reflection and grimaced. In her own opinion she was showing too much flesh because the dress bared her back and a good deal of her legs, but what was her opinion worth? She was a fish out of water in Mikhail’s exclusive world and she didn’t want to go clubbing with the younger, livelier members of the party and stick out like a sore thumb … like an older woman got up in absurdly teenaged clothing? Mutton dressed as lamb? Kat cringed at the fear that she might look foolish in the dress. A tide of homesickness suddenly engulfed her, accompanied by distaste for the superficial existence she was leading where appearance and amusement appeared to be all that truly mattered. Right at this very minute, her youngest sister, Topsy, was home from boarding school and staying at the farmhouse with Emmie, and although Kat phoned her sisters most days it wasn’t the same as seeing them in the flesh and catching up on the gossip. Three more weeks marooned on Mikhail’s giant floating palace threatened like a prison sentence.

Kat sat beside Lara in the VIP chill-out room where several yards away at another table Mikhail appeared to be holding court like a reigning king. Surrounded by bottles of champagne and beautiful girls vying for his attention, he was in his element.

‘Is it always like this for Mikhail?’ Kat heard herself ask her blonde companion.

Lara made no pretence of not grasping the question. ‘You must understand that even when he was a boy he was very much in demand.

He excites women because very rich, handsome and still young men are rare. They all want to be the one he marries but he doesn’t want to get married.’

‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ Kat responded, sliding upright to go to the cloakroom, glancing back over her shoulder at Mikhail to note that two young women in very revealing outfits were performing some ridiculous form of suggestive belly dance for him and his companions. Their giggling display of their nubile bodies set her teeth on edge and made her feel about a hundred years too old for such nonsense. Mikhail’s arrogant dark head lifted and turned as though he could sense her watching him. Dark eyes gleaming, he summoned her with a lean brown hand to join him … as if she were a waitress or a pet dog or something! Stiffening at that suspicion, Kat reddened and ignored the signal. Her earlier attack of homesickness and alienation returned with even greater force. She didn’t want to be in Cyprus at an exclusive club for the rich and bored. She didn’t want to go back to Mikhail’s yacht either. She didn’t belong in either place and she missed her sisters.

She had persuaded herself that regaining the ownership of her home was worth any sacrifice and only now was she finally questioning that conviction. Mikhail was upsetting her. She could never remember feeling more unhappy than she currently felt and her self-esteem had sunk to an all-time low. Earlier he had scanned her in the crimson dress, had frowned but said nothing. The absence of his admiration, however, had been blatant and from that moment on the red dress had felt like a colossal unflattering mistake. But why was she allowing Mikhail’s opinion to matter so much to her? The means to stop the process of what felt like humiliation dead had always been within her own hands and perhaps it was past time that she acted. Her fingers tightened on her envelope purse, which contained her passport. Stas was poised by the exit doors and she walked over to him, her head high, eyes alight with sudden energy again.

‘Could you arrange a taxi to take me to the airport?’ she asked, knowing she couldn’t just walk out and disappear without causing an inexcusable furore.

Momentarily, Stas seemed to freeze. ‘Of course,’ he told her nonetheless. ‘Give me five minutes to organise it.’

Her decision made to fly home as soon as she could get a flight, Kat felt loads happier, as if a giant weight had fallen from her shoulders. She would go home, find a job and somewhere else to live, she reflected as she freshened up in the cloakroom. She didn’t need to look to Mikhail to do anything for her, certainly not to give her a house she had lost through her own mistakes and done nothing to earn!

When Kat reappeared Stas was waiting to show her through the double exit doors and then he surprised her by throwing open another door off the corridor and she hesitated with a frown. ‘Where are you taking me?’

Mikhail filled the doorway like a big dark storm cloud. ‘You’re not walking out on me.’

Kat settled outraged green eyes on him. ‘Watch me!’ she advised.

‘We’ll discuss it first, milaya moya,’ Mikhail declared, blocking her path with his tall lean body and pressing the door wider.

Kat supposed she owed him some sort of an explanation. Possibly it had been unrealistic to believe that she could just leave without a confrontation because Mikhail Kusnirovich would never accept anything less blunt. But he didn’t own her and she hadn’t signed away her life or anything stupid when she signed that wretched agreement with him.

‘I’m not your prisoner,’ Kat told him, lifting her chin. ‘I can leave any time I like—’

‘And where are you planning to go at this time of night in a foreign country?’ Mikhail demanded harshly.

‘I can wait at the airport until there’s a flight. I believe the London flights are quite frequent,’ Kat pointed out, swallowing so hard in the smouldering silence that her throat muscles ached. In truth she didn’t have enough cash in her bank account to pay for a flight home, but she had planned to phone Saffy and ask her sibling to buy a ticket for her.

Mikhail counted slowly and internally to ten but it didn’t work any magic on his aggressive mood. The realisation that she was prepared to simply walk out on him had struck him like a punch in the gut and he was genuinely stunned by the concept. A woman had never walked out on him before but he thought it was typical that she would be the first to try and do it. There she stood, her slim figure rigid with resolution, beautiful green eyes defiant and angry, pointed little chin at a combative angle, just daring him to argue. She was as unstable as gelignite, he told himself grimly. Maybe he should have paid her more attention in recent days instead of shelving her like a difficult project, he thought furiously, maybe he should have talked to her sooner … but talked to her about what exactly? The number of serious chats Mikhail had enjoyed with women outside business hours couldn’t have covered a postage stamp. He didn’t do the talking thing; he wasn’t in touch with anyone’s feelings, least of all his own, and he didn’t do serious … which meant there really wasn’t much left to talk about.

‘I don’t want you to leave,’ Mikhail spelt out in a harsh undertone, spectacular dark eyes pinned to her with driving tenacity.

‘Let’s face it … without Stas’s warning you, you would barely have noticed my absence,’ Kat countered drily. ‘You are surrounded by loads of other women tonight—’

‘But I don’t want any of them,’ Mikhail grated without hesitation. ‘I want you.’

Kat was grimly amused by that frank admission.

‘Then you were going the wrong way about attaining me.’

‘There is no right way with you. If even you don’t know what you want, how am I supposed to deliver it?’ he shot at her with stormy impatience.

‘I know exactly what I want—I want to go home,’ Kat declared, throwing her head back, spiralling russet curls falling back from her heart-shaped face.

‘Isn’t that just typical of a woman?’ Mikhail growled. ‘You light a fire and then you run away!’

Outrage rolled through Kat’s slender body in an energising wave and she took an angry step forward. ‘I am not running away!’

‘Of course you are,’ Mikhail fielded with biting assurance. ‘You want me and I want you but evidently you can’t cope with something that simple.’

‘It’s not that simple!’ Kat launched back at him furiously, inflamed that he was confidently arguing with her when she was being plunged into ever deeper turmoil.

‘It is. You can’t handle your own sexual inhibitions. Call yourself a cougar?’ Mikhail hitched an ebony brow, his derisive amusement unconcealed at the term as applied to her. ‘You’re more like a toddler in the sex stakes. One step forward, two steps back. If I didn’t know there was no malice intended by your behaviour, I’d call you a tease—’

‘How dare you?’ Kat raked at him, enraged by his censure. ‘I warned you that I wouldn’t sleep with you!’

‘While you continue to respond to my every look and touch,’ Mikhail reminded her doggedly. ‘You’re terrified of having a normal sexual relationship with a man—that’s the only reason you’re still a virgin!’

‘No, it’s not!’ Kat argued vehemently, high spots of colour burning in her pale cheeks, green eyes raw with rage that he could dare to say such a thing to her when he still didn’t know anything about the person she was. ‘I refuse to let any man use me for sex the way men used my mother!’

‘Your … mother?’ Mikhail’s brows drew together in a frown of incomprehension because, while he might have paid to have an investigative report carried out on Kat, he had paid very little heed to her past. ‘What the hell has she got to do with anything?’

Kat blinked rapidly, almost as surprised as he was that she had voiced that comment out loud. It was based on a fear that ran all the way back to her unsettled childhood when Odette had frequently complained that as soon as a man got her into bed, he lost interest in her again. ‘I don’t want to be used just for my body. Sex is all you’re interested in,’ Kat protested stiltedly.

Mikhail vaguely appreciated that he had stumbled into one of those ‘relationship’ talks he always avoided like the plague. Obviously sex was what he was interested in, but what was wrong with that? He had always regarded sex as a normal healthy appetite until he met her and desire became an endurance test.

‘I’ve been used by many women,’ he traded with cool cynicism. ‘For sex, for money, for my connections. It happens to all of us. You can’t protect yourself from such experiences and it’s spineless to run away from them—’

‘I’m not spineless!’ Yet Kat was starkly disconcerted by his admission that he had also been used by the opposite sex for what he could offer. But she was equally disconcerted by the admission she had made to him and feared that he might be about to make the same deduction that she had for herself. Could she have made it more obvious that she wanted more than sex from him? Suddenly she was praying that he didn’t think too deeply about what she had said, for the emotions that had urged her to run far and fast in self-defence were too private and new to share with anyone, least of all him.

Scanning her pale taut face, Mikhail expelled his breath in a hiss and strode forward. In a disturbingly sudden movement, he lifted her off her startled feet and ignored her dismayed gasp to settle her down firmly on the leather sofa behind her. ‘Sit down and talk to me, then … Tell me what possible influence your mother could still have over you …’

Mikhail felt benevolent as he offered that unparalleled invitation. If it stopped Kat walking out, he would listen to anything, while on another level he was surprisingly keen to know why she gave him so many conflicting messages.

While Kat watched Mikhail open the door to speak to Stas before he sank lithely down opposite her, her mind was already filling with uneasy images. Drinks arrived while she struggled to suppress her unfortunate memories of her childhood. Her mother, Odette, the woman Kat had loved without return until she too became an adult, was someone Kat rarely let herself think about because, even after all this time, Odette’s essential indifference to her daughter could still hurt. Odette had always liked to play the victim and, as Odette’s biggest audience, Kat had often witnessed more than she should of her mother’s tangled love life. Long ago she had buried those distressing memories deep and moved on with her life and it was only now, as she was forced to dig those memories out again, that she appreciated that everything now looked rather different. Reality no longer matched up with the facts, she conceded ruefully. Suddenly she felt exceedingly foolish for not having seen the obvious much sooner.

‘Kat.?’ Mikhail prompted, surveying her highly expressive face and deeply troubled eyes with frowning force, exasperation clawing at him when they were interrupted by the arrival of the drinks he had ordered.

Kat moistened her lips with the bubbling champagne, grateful for something to hold in her trembling hand. ‘My mum, Odette, was a successful model but probably not a very nice person. Our lives were unsettled because her relationships were always breaking down,’ she admitted stiffly, reluctant as she was to reveal any vulnerability to him. ‘She married my dad for security and then divorced him when her career took off. She deserted the twins’ father when he went bankrupt, but still all she ever talked about while I was growing up was how men let her down and used her. It’s only now that I can see that in most cases she was much more of a user than they were.’

Mikhail lowered lush black lashes over his bemused gaze. ‘And how does that comparison apply to us?’

‘It doesn’t,’ Kat conceded, ashamed that she had let her mother’s self-pitying conditioning influence her outlook without her awareness for so many years. Odette had believed that simply engaging in sex with a man constituted a relationship and that having his baby would make him commit, she reflected wryly, and it was that shallow short-sighted outlook that had ensured that none of her mother’s relationships had prospered. ‘Do you still want to go back to the UK?’

Her tummy gave an apprehensive lurch as she looked into brilliant dark golden eyes, still the most beautiful she had ever seen in a man’s face. He was a very dangerous man, she conceded dizzily, for he had chosen the perfect moment in which to ask that leading question and she could not believe that the timing was accidental. She didn’t want to leave Mikhail now, she acknowledged guiltily, wasn’t yet ready to close the door on what she might still discover about him. Without even realising it, she had been running away, forced into a corner by her mother’s brainwashing during her impressionable adolescence and her own terror of being hurt. But logic told her that life was to be lived, mistakes included, and that in any case she was not following her mother’s example.

Kat lifted her bright head. ‘Not just yet …’ she confessed and drained her glass.

‘Let’s get back on board Hawk,’ Mikhail urged huskily, as mystified as ever by the strange way in which her mind worked but satisfied by the result. He closed a hand over hers and tugged her up from the sofa.

‘What about your guests?’

‘They’re too busy partying on their own account to notice my absence,’ he replied dismissively, long brown fingers tightening resolutely round hers, his breath fanning her cheek as he bent over her. The warm scent of his body tinged with the exclusive cologne he wore infiltrated her. A little quiver of almost painful sexual awareness engulfed her slim length and tensed her muscles.

Kat reddened when she saw Stas study their linked hands but she knew that there wasn’t a romantic edge to that connection for Mikhail. No indeed, for once she could read her Russian billionaire’s mind. As long as he kept a physical hold of her she couldn’t go anywhere he didn’t want her to go: he really was that basic. If only she could be as cool-headed and practical as he was, she ruminated worriedly as he tucked her on board the tender that would whisk them out of the harbour and back to the yacht. He had fallen in lust but she was falling in love …

As he pushed open the door of her suite Kat was scarcely breathing from nervous tension and anticipation, but once again he surprised her by stepping back to head for his own accommodation next door.

‘Decision time, milaya moya,’ he quipped, glancing back at her from heavily lidded dark sensual eyes. ‘If you want me, you know where to find me.’


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