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Грэхем Линн

Brides For Billionaires

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Chapter Nine

‘WHAT DO you want to do today?’ Mikhail prompted Kat the following morning as he wrapped a fleecy towel round her dripping figure.

‘I thought you had work to do—’

‘On your last day?’ A black brow slashed up.

Her heart thudded as though he had pulled a knife on her, dismay reverberating through her slender body. She had actually thought he might not be aware that the month and the agreed amount of time was up. What a fool she had been! Clearly he had an internal calendar every bit as accurate as her own and it was a timely reminder that she had something she really did need to discuss with him before they parted.

‘Could we be ordinary people for a change?’ she heard herself ask, thinking that it would be easier to talk to him away from the yacht as he was highly unlikely to stage a row with her in a public place.

‘Ordinary?’ he queried blankly.

‘Walk down a street without an escort that attracts attention, window-shop, go for coffee some place that isn’t fancy …’ she extended uncertainly. ‘Simple things.’

Dark as night eyes widening in surprise at the request, Mikhail shrugged a broad shoulder. ‘I’m sure I can manage that.’

The tender dropped them at the boarded promenade walk that skirted the coastline of the resort. Stas and his companions followed them but kept their distance. Casually clad in shorts and an open-necked shirt, Mikhail urged her into the town and, closing a hand over hers, he walked her down the main street. She checked out shop windows and went into a gift shop where she insisted on paying for a small glass owl that she knew Topsy would happily add to her collection.

‘I’ve decided I don’t like independent women,’ Mikhail imparted, watching her study a display of sparkling dress rings in a jeweller’s window. ‘There’s nothing here worthy of your interest … At those prices it’s all fake.’

‘I’m not a snob—’

‘I am,’ Mikhail interposed without hesitation. ‘Which one do you like?’

‘The green one,’ she confided, surprised he had asked.

‘I couldn’t bear to look at that on your finger,’ Mikhail derided and he tugged her on down the busy street at a smart pace. ‘Where are we going for coffee?’

Kat picked a quiet outdoor café set above the beach with comfortable seats and a beautiful view of the sea. A resigned look on his strong face, Mikhail folded his big powerful frame down into a chair that creaked alarmingly. ‘So what’s so exciting about coming here?’ he enquired, keen for her to spell out the source of the attraction.

‘That’s the point. It’s not exciting or fancy, it’s just plain and peaceful,’ she told him lightly, knowing she had a thorny subject to broach before she departed and wanting to get that little discussion over and done with somewhere where Mikhail was unlikely to lose his cool.

Kat was so far removed from his usual style of lover that his fascination with her was understandable, Mikhail conceded impatiently, striving tolerantly not to frown with disapproval as she sipped at yet another sickeningly sweet chocolate drink, which could only be bad for her health. Didn’t she care about her well-being? Or the fact that she was currently as poor as a church mouse? Any other woman he had slept with would, at the very least, have thought nothing of marching him out to some designer retail outlet so that he could reward her generously for her time with the goodbye gift of a new wardrobe …

So, it had finally come: the moment to say goodbye. He would miss Kat, he acknowledged reluctantly, and not only in bed. He would miss her ability to challenge him, her refusal to be impressed by what his money could buy, even her easy friendliness with his staff and his guests, although he would not miss her ridiculous obsession with reality shows that portrayed a lifestyle that ironically she appeared to have no interest in acquiring for herself. And missing a woman, even rating a woman as being capable of giving him more than a few weeks of amusement, was not a familiar experience for Mikhail. He had always believed that for every woman he left behind another even more appealing would soon appear and experience had borne out that trusty conviction. He would move on as he always did, of course he would.

And no doubt she would move on quickly as well, he reflected darkly, for he was convinced that Lorne would track her down once he knew that Mikhail had ditched her. Lorne Arnold had been very taken with Kat … Lorne was waiting in the wings ready to pounce. Mikhail gritted his teeth, trying not to imagine Kat in bed with Lorne, parting those wonderfully long legs for him and making those throaty little cries when she climaxed. He felt sick to the stomach. But why should that imagery bother him so much? He wasn’t possessive about women, never had been, wasn’t sensitive either. When it was over, it was over. He wasn’t unstable and irrational like his father, the sort of man who obsessed over one special irreplaceable woman and drank himself to death when she was gone. He didn’t do emotion, he didn’t get attached … or hurt or disappointed either. That was the bottom line: he never ever made himself vulnerable. That was a risk that only the foolish ran and he had never been a fool.

‘What are you thinking about?’ Kat prompted, having noted the grim set of his strong jawline and the flinty hardness of his eyes as he gazed out to sea. ‘You look angry.’

‘Why would I be angry?’ Mikhail enquired, irritated that she watched him so closely and read him so accurately. She got under his skin in some way and wrecked his self-control. Only a few hours had passed since he had forgotten to use a condom for the first time in his life but that single little instant of shocking forgetfulness had shattered his equilibrium. How could any woman excite him that much? He needed a little distance from her; he needed to send her home for his own peace of mind.

‘I don’t know but you certainly don’t look happy,’ Kat remarked gingerly, picking up on his irritation as well. She would never work out what made Mikhail tick. She did recognise that he had a dark side, a core he never exposed, but he was not, as a rule, moody or bad-tempered.

Quick-tempered, yes, bad-tempered, no.

‘I’m fine,’ Mikhail insisted while mentally engaged in drawing up a list of what he didn’t like about Kat. She asked awkward questions and refused to back off even when he made his dissatisfaction clear. She snuggled up to him in bed, which was actually rather endearing, he conceded grudgingly. He might not be a touchy-feely kind of guy, but he did not find the natural warmth and affection she showed him objectionable in any way. On the other hand, she liked the shower a lot hotter than he did and also liked to eat disgustingly sweet things—were those flaws too petty to consider? Since when had he been petty? Since when had he had to think of reasons why he should ditch a woman? He would buy her a fabulous jewel to show his appreciation. He dug out his mobile phone to make the arrangements.

Kat sighed the minute she saw the phone in his lean hand. ‘Is that call really necessary?’ she asked gently.

Recognising the reproof for what it was, Mikhail ground his teeth together and added another score to her tally of flaws. ‘Da … it is.’

Kat nodded, wishing his mind weren’t always one hundred per cent focused on business. Was it naive of her to have hoped that he would let his guard down a little on her last day and engage in meaningful conversation? Mentally she winced at that pathetic hope. Had she really thought Mikhail might come over all romantic and tell her that he wanted her to extend her stay? What a silly dream that would be for her to cherish when she badly needed to go home and pack up her belongings in the farmhouse! After all, Emmie had already established that a little terraced house in the village would soon be available for rent. It wasn’t like Kat to be so impractical and it was past time that she told Mikhail what she had decided about Birkside. She studied his bold bronzed profile while he talked on his phone and her eyes warmed, any prospect of practicality draining away. She adored those eyelashes, thick as fly swats, the only softening element in his lean dark face. But there was more to her feelings than the fact that he was an incredibly handsome man and a breathtakingly passionate and exciting lover. She loved his strong work ethic, his open-handed generosity for the right charitable cause, his bluntness, his essentially liberal outlook.

‘We have something to talk about,’ Kat said stiffly.

‘We can talk when we get back on board,’ Mikhail murmured abstractedly as he dug his phone back in his pocket.

‘You want to leave already? You haven’t even touched your coffee yet,’ Kat pointed out.

‘There’s a chip in the cup,’ Mikhail informed her drily. ‘I don’t do ordinary very well … I’m sorry.’

In a forgiving mood, Kat shrugged a narrow shoulder. ‘That’s OK. You’re not on trial. I do need to talk about that legal agreement we made though—’

Mikhail frowned. ‘That’s water under the bridge—’

‘No, it’s not. I can’t accept the house from you now,’ she said with a tight little grimace of discomfiture. ‘In the circumstances it would feel too much like payment for services rendered in the bedroom.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Mikhail told her bluntly. ‘I offered the house and you accepted it—it’s a done deal.’

‘I haven’t accepted it and I’m not going to,’ Kat protested stubbornly. ‘The house is worth thousands and thousands of pounds and far too big a payment for the amount of hostessing I’ve done for you.’

‘That’s my decision, not yours,’ Mikhail traded curtly, dark eyes now cool as rain on her sun-warmed skin; indeed she actually felt physically chilled by that look.

Kat’s spine was rigid with tension but she was determined not to surrender because for once she knew that she was right and he was wrong. ‘I won’t accept you signing the house back to me. I’ve thought about this and I mean what I’m saying, Mikhail. Everything’s changed between us since we made that agreement and it would be wrong to stick to it.’

Mikhail thrust back his chair and sprang upright to stare down at her with intimidatingly cold, dark and angry eyes. ‘You’re getting your house back … end of!’ he framed with a growling edge of ferocity.

Out of the corner of her eye she watched Stas rush to pay the bill while simultaneously keeping a wary eye trained on his employer. She reddened when she saw the diners at the next table staring at them.

Kat hurried over to Mikhail’s side before he could stride off without her. ‘I had to tell you how I felt,’ she told him ruefully.

‘And now you know how I feel,’ he countered grimly. ‘Stop messing me around, Kat! It annoys the hell out of me!’

‘I’m not doing that,’ Kat protested in sharp disconcertion.

But that they had differing opinions on that score was clear when the tender whisked them back to The Hawk and Mikhail strode away from her the minute they boarded. She had said what she had to say and she was not taking it back, she told herself squarely, and she went downstairs to her suite to pack her case so that she would be ready to leave in the morning.

She walked next door into Mikhail’s suite to retrieve her wrap, two nightdresses and the toiletries that had taken up residence in his bathroom. When she returned to her own room, she was taken aback to find Mikhail lodged in the doorway like a big black-haired thunder cloud.

‘You’re packing,’ he noted flatly.

Kat nodded uneasily, her mouth running dry as he stared in level challenge back at her.

‘This is for you …’ Mikhail tossed a jewellery box carelessly on the bed where it landed beside her suitcase. ‘A small token of my … my appreciation,’ he selected with cool precision.

Her heart beating very fast, Kat lifted the box and flipped it open to display a breathtaking emerald and diamond pendant. ‘It’s hardly small,’ she told him, taken aback by the sheer size of the emerald and its deep glowing colour. ‘What on earth do you expect me to do with this?’

‘Wear it for me tonight. What you choose to do with it afterwards is entirely your business.’

‘I suppose I ought to have said thank you straight away but I was rather overwhelmed by you giving me something so expensive,’ she said apologetically.

An ebony brow rose. ‘You expected something cheap and tacky to go with this ordinary kick you’re suddenly on?’

‘Of course not, but it’s not a kick—I’m ordinary, Mikhail. And tomorrow I’m going back to my own life and it’s ordinary as well,’ Kat countered with quiet dignity as she set the jewellery box down on the dressing table and studied it with a sinking heart and a growing sense of desolation.

That spectacular emerald was his way of saying goodbye and thanks. She knew that so why was the fact that he was treating her exactly as she had expected him to treat her hurting her so much? Had she somehow thought that she might be different from her predecessors in his bed, that she might mean a little more to him? Pallor now spread below her fair complexion, her tummy succumbing to a nauseous lurch. Well, if she had thought that she was more special, she was being thoroughly punished for her vanity. He had just proved that she meant little more to him than a willing body on which he could ease his high-voltage sex drive. She had fulfilled his expectations and pleased him and now it was time for her to leave: it was that simple. She was no longer flavour of the month. She spun back to look at him, lounging in her doorway in an open-necked shirt and jeans, six feet five inches of unadulterated alpha male, absolutely gorgeous with his black hair ruffled by the breeze and a dark covering of stubble accentuating his handsome jaw line and wide expressive mouth. Tension screamed from him and she dropped her gaze, belatedly appreciating that he was not enjoying the process of putting her back out of his life any more than she was.

‘I’ll see you at dinner,’ he told her and he walked away.

Hearts didn’t break, Kat told herself as she clasped the pendant round her throat a couple of hours later. Hearts dented and bruised. She would head home tomorrow, sell the emerald to buy some security for her and her sisters and find a job. In truth, a new life awaited her, for the loss of the guest house was forcing her to strike out in an alternative direction. Where was her eagerness to greet that fresh start? She smoothed down the folds of the maxi dress, a colourful print that accentuated her bright hair and light skin. The emerald glowed at her throat, the surrounding diamonds twinkling to catch the light.

A knock sounded on the door. It was Lara, studying her with languid cool to say, ‘Dinner is ready … I see you’re packed and ready to go.’

Kat nodded. Lara had abandoned her friendly approaches once it became obvious that Kat and her boss had become lovers. ‘Yes …’

‘Are you upset?’ Lara asked, disconcerting Kat once again.

Kat shrugged a bare shoulder as she concentrated on climbing the colourful glass staircase without tripping over her long skirt. ‘Not really. Staying on The Hawk has been an experience but it’s hardly been what I’m accustomed to. I’m looking forward to getting home, pulling on my jeans and gossiping with my sisters,’ she fielded, pride lifting her head high, for she would have sooner thrown herself down the stairs than reveal just how cut up she truly was at the prospect of leaving Mikhail.

‘The boss will be a hard act to follow. I hope you don’t find that he’s spoiled you for other men,’ Lara commented.

‘Who knows?’ Kat quipped. Not for the first time it occurred to her that Mikhail’s PA was a little too impressed by her boss and the unattainability factor he was famed for. The girl was gorgeous, Kat acknowledged, and perhaps it annoyed the beautiful blonde that Mikhail could remain impervious to her appeal while choosing to spend time with a woman who had neither Lara’s glossy perfection nor her youth.

‘The chef has really pushed the boat out tonight with the meal. Everyone knows you’re leaving tomorrow,’ Lara remarked laconically before she left her.

Lara had not been joking, Kat registered as her attention fell on the impressive dining table festooned in crisp pastel linen, sparkling candles and a light scattering of artistic pearls and rosebuds. Her brows rose as Mikhail strode out of the salon chatting on his cell phone in Russian. He put away the phone while studying her with shrewd assessing eyes. Was he looking for evidence of tears or sadness? Her chin tilted and a resolute smile softened Kat’s tense lips as she took a seat.

‘You look stunning this evening,’ Mikhail said, startling her, for he rarely handed out compliments. ‘The emerald brings out the remarkable green of your eyes, milaya moya.’

Bellini cocktails were brought to the table and then the meal was served and Kat’s mortification began to climb, for the starter arrived cooked in a heart shape and every edible aphrodisiac known to man featured on the menu, accompanied by a good deal of chocolate. It was like an over-the-top Valentine’s Day meal, wholly inappropriate for a couple on the brink of parting for ever. Mikhail, furthermore, preferred plain Russian food and a good deal of it, not the dainty elaborate portions he was being served.

‘I suppose all this is in your honour,’ he said drily, watching Kat bite into a chocolate truffle. ‘Clearly my chef is your devoted slave.’

‘Hardly that. François understands that I appreciate his efforts,’ Kat countered lightly, for while Mikhail paid his staff well and rewarded them for excellence, he generally only spoke to them about their work when they did something to displease him, an attitude that Kat had combatted with praise and encouragement.

Sadly, on this particular occasion François’ wonderful food was wasted on her because she was sitting there thinking that she would never dine with Mikhail again. He had treated her as he always did, with engrained good manners and light entertaining conversation. If he was ill at ease with the situation, it didn’t show.

Kat, on the other hand, felt increasingly gutted by his steady self-control. She watched him, hungry for every last imprint of him, her troubled gaze winging constantly back to the remarkably beautiful eyes that illuminated his handsome face, the strength that dominated his features, and there was not a sign that he was experiencing an ounce of the regret that was torturing her. The remnants of the glorious truffle turned to ashes in her mouth. For a dangerous moment she wanted to cry and rail at the heavens for what Mikhail did not feel for her.

‘I’m pretty tired tonight,’ she admitted, although she already knew she would not enjoy a single wink of sleep.

‘Go to bed. I’ll join you later,’ Mikhail breathed, his husky dark drawl smooth as a caress.

Halfway out of her chair, Kat froze, for it had not occurred to her that he might expect her to share his bed as usual. Had he no sensitivity, no comprehension of how she felt? Stifling her anger, she lifted her russet head. ‘I hope you don’t mind but I’d prefer to be on my own tonight.’

Mikhail frowned, for he had cherished a fantasy of seeing her reclining on his bed, those pale soft curves embellished only by the emerald he had bought her.

‘It wouldn’t feel right to be with you tonight,’ Kat muttered in harried explanation, her pale face flushing with self-conscious colour. ‘We’re over and done now and I couldn’t pretend otherwise.’

Mikhail was taken aback by that candid assessment and the insulting suggestion that she might have to pretend anything in his arms, and his stubborn mouth clenched hard. Let it go, logic dictated. A celibate night might not be what he wanted or even what he felt he deserved when he had handled her with kid gloves and all the respect he could muster, but even less was he in the mood for feminine drama. Not that Kat looked likely to offer him tears: her heart-shaped face was as still as a pond surface. With an odd little smile and a nod she walked away fast.

Dinner had felt like the condemned woman’s last meal, Kat conceded wretchedly as she got ready for bed, but she wasn’t going to cry about him. It was over and she would pick herself back up and go on. From the first moment they had met this hour of hurt and rejection had awaited her as surely as disillusionment. He said all the right things, he did all the right things, but he didn’t feel them. There was only a superficial bond between them and it meant a lot less to him than it did to her. And so Kat tormented herself with wounding thoughts that kept her tossing and turning until she put the bedside light on at about two in the morning and dug out a magazine in the hope of quieting her over-active brain.

When a light knock sounded on the door that communicated with Mikhail’s suite she froze as if a thunderclap had sounded and then slid out of bed in a rush. She had locked the door earlier, not because she feared he might ignore her desire to spend the night alone, but because she wanted to underline for her own benefit that their intimacy was now at an end. Now, with her heart beating very fast, she unlocked the door and opened it.

‘I saw the light. You can’t sleep either?’ Mikhail had stepped back a couple of feet from the door, his lean, powerfully muscular body clad only in light boxer shorts.

‘No, I can’t.’ Her palm sweated against the door, her heart thumping in her ear drums at an accelerated rate as she noted, really could not have avoided noticing, that he was sporting a hard-on that tented his boxers. Her mouth ran dry and she tore her gaze from him, heated colour burnishing her cheekbones.

Pridi ka mne … come to me,’ Mikhail murmured slightly raggedly, black eyes smouldering like firebrands over her, lingering on the generous curve of her soft mouth.

And it was as if that one look lit a fire inside her treacherous body because her breasts stirred, the nipples tightening, and moist heat made her uncomfortably aware of the ache at the heart of her. She froze in denial of those lowering sensations. ‘I can’t,’ she muttered tightly. ‘It’s over now. We’re finished.’

Kat closed the door fast, shot the lock closed again and rested back against the cold unyielding wood to support her weak lower limbs. She had resisted him and she was proud of her self-discipline. Another bout of wildly exciting sex was not going to cure what ailed her heart and it would only make her feel ashamed of herself. It was one thing to love a man, another thing entirely to drop one’s self-esteem in pursuit of him. Her teeth clenched, she moved back to the bed, doused the light and clambered below the sheet with hot tears stinging her eyes. She ignored the tears, determined not to let go of her control, determined not to greet him in the morning with swollen reddened eyes that would destroy her pride.

Cursing below his breath, Mikhail went for another cold shower. It was sex, that was all, he told himself. It was nothing to do with the fact that the bed felt empty without her and he missed her chatter. It was logical to end it, logical to guard against getting involved. When it came to a woman, he was far too clever and disciplined to give weight to illogical feelings and irrational and undoubtedly sexual promptings.

After a sleepless night, Kat asked for breakfast in her room, seeing no reason why she should put herself through another nerve-racking meeting with Mikhail. Indeed the less she saw of him before she left, the better, she told herself urgently. She dressed with great care in a smart blue shift dress and cardigan and used more make-up than usual to conceal the shadows below her eyes.

Lara phoned down to tell her that the helicopter that would take her to the airport for her flight was powering up. There was a note of satisfaction in the glamorous blonde’s voice that even Kat could not have missed. Lara, without a doubt, was glad to see Kat leaving, Kat acknowledged ruefully, marvelling that she had for a while felt quite warm towards the young woman, for it was obvious to her now that Lara could never have honestly returned that friendliness. Had Lara been jealous of Kat’s relationship with her boss? Was Lara in love with Mikhail?

Her cases having already been collected, Kat climbed the glass staircase for the very last time. She wouldn’t miss the fancy stairs, she thought glumly. They were a colourfully confusing nightmare to use safely at night. From above her she could hear the calls of the crew as they made preparations for the helicopter to take off. As she emerged into the bright sunlight of a beautiful day Mikhail appeared, shocking her, for she had honestly believed that she would not see him again before she left. Sheathed in a lightweight designer beige suit teamed with a silk tie the colour of bronze, he looked incredibly handsome and incredibly assured. Certainly he bore no resemblance to a man who had endured a disturbed night, she conceded unhappily.

Mikhail stared at her, black diamond eyes narrowed and intense, a tiny muscle pulling taut at the corner of his unsmiling mouth. ‘Kat …’

‘Goodbye,’ Kat told him briskly, baring her teeth in a resolute smile

‘I don’t want to say goodbye …’ The words might have been physically wrenched from Mikhail because he clamped his handsome mouth shut again as if an involuntary admission had been dragged from him.

‘But we must,’ Kat countered with quiet dignity, nodding an acknowledgement at Stas, who was stationed tensely by the rail about ten feet away.

‘You’re wrong … there is no must.’

Kat blinked and frowned and focused her attention on the helicopter and all the fuss taking place around it that suggested that the craft was ready for an imminent departure.

Stay …’ Mikhail ground out with staggering abruptness.

Her head swivelled back to him, green eyes wide with disbelief. ‘What on earth are you saying?’

His face was taut with self-discipline. ‘I want you to stay with me.’

‘But it’s all organised that I’m leaving … You organised it, for goodness’ sake!’ she reminded him in angry bewilderment.

The pilot came to a halt six feet away and informed Mikhail that the helicopter was good to go.

Mikhail ignored him, but as Kat took a step in the pilot’s direction a hand like an iron vice closed round her forearm to prevent her. ‘Stay!’ he ground out again between visibly clenched even white teeth.

‘I can’t!’ Kat gasped strickenly, baffled by his behaviour and appalled to feel a giant wash of tears welling up at the backs of her eyes as if all the stress, all the unhappiness she had undergone over the previous twenty-four hours was finally set to overflow.

Mikhail closed his free hand over her other forearm, holding her captive in front of him. Thickly lashed black eyes clashed with hers and there was an urgency there that she had never seen before. ‘I need you to stay,’ he muttered hoarsely. ‘I need you to stay because I can’t let you go.’

And that plea moved her and made her listen and look as nothing else could have done. For the space of an impossibly stressful minute she had thought she was dealing with a male whim voiced on impulse and most probably motivated by sexual desire. But, ‘I need you,’ from a male as incredibly self-sufficient and reserved as Mikhail carried serious weight with her. ‘You’re hurting my arms,’ she framed shakily, because his grip was too tight.

He gave a muffled curse as his long brown fingers sprang open to free her, and he shot something in Russian at Stas before bending to scoop Kat up into his strong arms and stride back indoors with her again.

‘This can’t be happening—this isn’t right!’ Kat protested vehemently.

‘It is the first right thing I have done this week,’ Mikhail informed her with immoveable conviction as he carted her into the salon and out to the private deck, where he sank down on a sofa with her still clasped firmly in his arms. ‘You are staying with me, moyo zolotse—’

Kat was thoroughly bemused by his forceful behaviour. ‘But you can’t simply change your mind like that at the last minute.’

Shrewd black eyes gazed down in challenge at her. ‘If I recognise a wrong decision, should I not put it right? Kat—have you any idea how rarely I admit to being in the wrong?’

Kat had an excellent idea, but he had plunged her into turmoil. She had hyped herself up to leave him and it had taken every ounce of her strength to retain her composure in the face of that challenge. His sudden change of heart, however, had steamrollered over her defensive barriers as nothing else could have done. ‘I can’t just stay with you,’ she said again, her voice shaky and lacking its usual energy. ‘I’ve got a life and a family to get back to, Mikhail.’

Her lips parted again. ‘You were finished with me. It was over … that’s what you wanted—’

‘If it was genuinely over, I’d have let you leave. Keeping you was a gut instinct,’ Mikhail confessed harshly.

A gut instinct? Where did that leave her? One minute he was getting rid of her, the next he was snatching her back from the brink. ‘But what happens now?’ she whispered unsteadily, suddenly cold and shivering even in the protective circle of his arms.

His powerful chest expanded as he breathed in deep. ‘I take you home with me.’

Her brows climbed. ‘You take me home with you? Am I a pet all of a sudden?’

‘I’m asking you to move in with me. I’ve never asked a woman to do that before,’ Mikhail revealed quietly.

Kat examined the idea, taken aback by it and then alarmed by how much she liked the images springing to mind. But it was a commitment, far more of a commitment than acting as a man’s companion and lover on board a yacht for a month. Yes, it was definitely a commitment, she registered dizzily, and suddenly her eyes were overflowing with the tears she had held back with such tenacity.

‘What’s wrong?’ Mikhail demanded, a long forefinger skimming the glistening trail of moisture marking her cheek.

‘Nothing! I’m just leaking!’ Kat gasped defensively, dashing the tears away with an impatient hand. ‘But I can’t just move in with you. I have commitments too—’

‘Your sisters? I will look after them as if they were my own flesh and blood,’ Mikhail told her with a sudden expansive smile.

‘But I’ve to sort out the farmhouse, make arrangements—’

‘You will leave all such responsibilities to me. You will move in with me, take care of me and my home and that is all you need to worry about in the future. Is that understood?’

Kat closed her eyes tight because the tears were still welling up and she was biting back a sob and loving and hating him simultaneously: loving him for recognising that they had found something special, hating him for springing it on her in such a last minute way that she couldn’t be fully convinced by it. ‘What if you change your mind again?’ she asked in a wobbly undertone. ‘What if this isn’t what you want in a few weeks’ time?’

‘That’s a risk I’m prepared to take. I will always be honest with you and I don’t want to lose you.’

Kat swallowed back the thickness in her throat and struggled to breathe at a regular rate again. She supposed she couldn’t expect him to say much more, for they would both be on the same learning curve together. He didn’t want to lose her yet he had very nearly let her go. How very close he had come to doing that would probably always haunt her. If she had left on that helicopter, would he have come after her?

‘I own a country house that I believe you will like,’ Mikhail volunteered. ‘You can invite your sisters there, treat it as though it was your own home and next week you can attend Luka’s wedding with me as my partner.’

Her restive fingers clenched on the edge of his silk-and-linen-mix jacket, wet clogged eye lashes lifting on drenched green eyes as she stared up into his handsome face, her heart pounding like a piston engine.

His forefinger gently traced the generous curve of her lower lip. ‘It will work beautifully … you’ll see,’ Mikhail forecast with his usual invincible confidence, and then he kissed her with passionate urgency and thought took a hike from her head.

At the end of that day she lay in his bed, her body weak and sated from the hungry demands of his, and she wondered if she had been foolish to agree to stay with him. Was she merely putting off the heartbreak that awaited her? Extending her suffering? She loved him like crazy, but was very much afraid that he was simply in lust with her and not yet ready to give that pleasure up.


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