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Ruthless Magnate, Convenient Wife

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«Ruthless Magnate, Convenient Wife» - Линн Грэхем

Billionaire in need… Sergei Antonovich, a Russian billionaire, was famous for being knee-deep in stunning supermodels and aspiring actresses. But not one was suitable bride material. Would he ever grant his ageing babushka her dearest wish and present her with a grandchild? Of a bride and a baby… So, why not handle this challenge as business? Without emotion, but with a contract of convenience that granted him the perfect deal: a wife he’d bed, wed, get pregnant…and then discard…Pregnant Brides Inexperienced and expecting, they’re forced to marry!
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Chapter One

‘I expected to see you again before the wedding.’

‘I’m sorry—I’d like to spend some time at home before I go to Russia.’ Pale and taut, Alissa collided head-on with smouldering dark golden eyes heavily fringed with lush black lashes.

‘You make it sound so reasonable, milaya.’ Sergei reached out and closed a hand round hers as she brushed a skein of gold silky hair back from her brow. He eased her inexorably closer. ‘But you know that’s not what I want.’

‘Surely there’s some part of the day when I can have my own free time?’ Alissa queried, throwing her blonde head high, a gleam of challenge in her bright eyes.

‘Your own free time?’ Sergei countered, his lean dark features tensing.

‘Isn’t this a job? I can’t be on duty twenty-four-seven.’

Sergei froze, all warmth ebbing from his gaze, leaving it winter-dark and cold. ‘I don’t think you can have read the small print on your contract,’ he breathed, in an icy, cutting tone of distaste. ‘From the moment you wear my wedding ring, you will be on duty twenty-four-seven.’

Ruthless Magnate, Convenient Wife


Lynne Graham


Chapter One

OIL billionaire, Sergei Antonovich, travelled behind tinted windows in a big black glossy four-wheel drive. Two car-loads of bodyguards flanked him, in front and behind. Such a sight was worthy of note en route to a remote Russian village like Tsokhrai. But everyone who saw the cavalcade pass knew exactly who it was, for Sergei’s grandmother was well known locally, and her grandson always visited her on Easter Day.

Sergei was looking at the road that he had turned from a dirt track into a broad highway to facilitate the transportation needs of the coach-building factory he had set up to provide employment in this rural area. In the winters, when once he had lived here, the road had been thick with mud and often impassable by anything more sophisticated than a farm cart. When it had snowed, the village had been cut off for weeks on end. Sometimes even Sergei still found it hard to believe that he had spent several years of his adolescence in Tsokhrai, where he had suffered the pure culture shock of an urban tearaway plunged into a rustic nightmare of clean country living. At the age of thirteen, he had been six feet tall, a gang member and embryo thug, accustomed to breaking the law just to survive. His grandmother, Yelena, had been barely five feet tall, functionally illiterate and desperately poor. Yet Sergei knew that everything he had become and everything he had achieved in the years since then was down to the indefatigable efforts of that little woman to civilise him.

The convoy came to a halt outside a humble building clad in faded clapboards and sheltering behind an overgrown hedge. The bodyguards, big tough men who wore sunglasses even on dull days and never smiled, leapt out first to check out the area. Sergei finally emerged, a sartorial vision of elegant grooming in a silk and mohair blend suit that was superbly tailored to his broad-shouldered powerful physique. His ex-wife, Rozalina, had called this his ‘annual guilt pilgrimage’ and had refused to accompany him. But his visit was enough reward for the elderly woman who would not even let him build her a new house. Yelena, Sergei reflected grimly, was the only female he had ever met who wasn’t eager to take him for every ruble she could get. He had long since decided that extreme greed and an overriding need to lionise over others were essentially feminine failings.

As Sergei strode down the front path towards the dwelling, villagers fell back from where they were gathered in its doorway and an awe-inspired silence fell. Yelena was a small plump woman in her seventies with bright eyes and a no-nonsense manner. She greeted him without fuss, only the huskiness of her voice and her use of the diminutive name ‘Seryozh’ for him hinting at how much her only grandchild meant to her.

‘As always you are alone,’ Yelena lamented, guiding him over to the table, which was spread with a feast of food to satisfy those who had just finished practising a forty-day fast in honour of the season. ‘Eat up.’

Sergei frowned. ‘I haven’t been—’

His grandmother began to fill a large plate for him. ‘Do you think I don’t know that?’

The bearded Orthodox priest sitting at the table, which was decorated with flowers and painted eggs, gave the younger man who had rebuilt the crumbling church tower an encouraging smile. ‘Eat up,’ he urged.

Sergei had skipped breakfast in anticipation of the usual gastronomic challenge that awaited him. He ate with appetite, sampling the special bread and the Easter cake. Throughout, he was approached by his grandmother’s visitors and he listened patiently to requests for advice, support and money, because he was also the recognised source of philanthropy in the community.

Yelena stood by watching and concealing her pride.

She was wryly aware that her grandson was the cynosure of attention for every young woman in the room. That was understandable: his hard-boned dark features were strikingly handsome and he stood six feet three inches tall with the lean powerful build of an athlete. As always, however, Sergei was too accustomed to female interest to be anything other than indifferent to it. His grandmother had a fleeting recollection of the lovelorn girls who had dogged his every step while he was still a boy. Nothing had changed; Sergei still enjoyed an extraordinary level of charisma.

Sergei was mildly irritated by his female audience and wondered how much Yelena had had to do with the surprising number of attractive well-groomed young women milling about. His concentration, however, had only to alight on his grandmother, though, for it to occur to him that she looked a little older and wearier every time he saw her. He knew she was disappointed that he had failed to bring a girl home with him. But the women who satisfied his white-hot libido in his various homes round the world were not the type he would have chosen to introduce to a devout old lady. He recognised that she was desperate to see him marry and produce a family. It would have surprised many, who saw Sergei solely as an arrogant, notoriously cold-blooded businessman, to learn that he actually believed that he owed it to Yelena to give her what she wanted.

After all these years, what thanks had Yelena yet reaped from taking a risk on her once foul-mouthed and defiant grandson? While her guardianship had turned Sergei’s life and prospects around, life for her had remained very tough. His immense wealth and success meant virtually nothing to her, yet he was her only living relative. Her husband had been a drunk and a wifebeater, her son had been a car thief and her daughter-in-law an alcoholic.

‘You worry about Yelena,’ the priest noted sagely. ‘Bring her a wife and a grandchild and she will be happy.’

‘If only it were so easy as you make it sound,’ Sergei quipped, averting his gaze from the excess of cleavage on display as a nubile beauty hurried forward to pour him another coffee.

‘With the right woman it is that easy!’ The priest laughed with the pride and good humour of a family man who had six healthy children.

But Sergei harboured a deep abiding aversion to the matrimonial state. Rozalina had proved to be a very expensive mistake. And, more significantly, even a decade after the divorce he could not forget the child she had aborted to protect her perfect body. He had never told Yelena about that, as he had known it would have broken her heart and troubled her dreams. He also knew, noting the depth of the lines on her creased and weathered face, that she was on the slippery slope of life and that time was of the essence. Some day there would be no one left to tell him that the noise of his helicopter landing nearby had traumatised her pig and stopped her hens laying. It was a bleak thought that made his conscience stab him. Who had done more for him and who had he rewarded least? If any woman deserved a bouncing baby on her lap, it was Yelena Antonova.

Sergei was still mulling over the problem that afternoon when his grandmother asked him if he ever ran into Rozalina. He managed not to wince. He was a loner, he always had been, and he found personal relationships a challenge. He loved the cut and thrust of business, the exhilaration of a new deal or takeover, the challenge of cutting out the dead wood and increasing profit in the under-performers, the sheer satisfaction of making a huge financial killing. If only marriage could be more like business with clear-cut rules and contracts that left no room for misunderstandings or errors!

An instant later, his high-powered brain kicked up a gear and he thought, Why not? Why the hell shouldn’t he choose a wife and get a child by the same means in which he did business? After all, trying to do it the old-fashioned way had been catastrophic.

‘Is there anyone?’ Yelena asked with a guilty edge that told him she had been holding back on that question about his private life all day.

‘Perhaps,’ he heard himself say, holding out a thread of hope or possibly a foundation for a future development.

And, that fast, the plan began forming. This time around, Sergei decided, he would take the professional practical approach to the institution of marriage. He would draw up a list of requirements, put his lawyers in charge and urge them to use a doctor and a psychologist to weed out unsuitable applicants for the role he envisaged. Of course the marriage would be short-term and he would retain custody of the child. He immediately grasped the dichotomy of his preferences. He didn’t want a wife who would do anything for money, but he did want one prepared to give him a child and then walk away when he had had enough of playing happy families for Yelena’s benefit. But somewhere in the world his perfect matrimonial match had to exist, Sergei reasoned. If he was specific enough with his requirements he would not even have to meet her before the wedding. Energised by that prospect, and once back behind the privacy of the tinted windows of his four-by-four, he began to make bullet points on his notebook computer.

When Alissa saw her sister, Alexa, climbing out of a totally unfamiliar fire-engine-red sports car, she was filled with a lively mix of exasperation, bewilderment and impatience. Even so, a strong thread of relief bound all those disparate emotions together and she hurtled downstairs, a tiny slender blonde with a mass of silvery pale hair and clear aquamarine eyes.

She flung open the front door of the cottage and the questions just erupted from her in a breathless stream. ‘Where have you been all these weeks? You promised you’d phone and you didn’t! I’ve been worried sick about you! Where on earth did that fancy car come from?’

Amusement gleaming in her eyes, Alexa strolled forward. ‘Hi, twin, nice to see you too.’

Alissa hugged her sister. ‘I was going out of my mind with worry,’ she admitted ruefully. ‘Why didn’t you phone? And what happened to your mobile phone?’

‘It broke and I got a new number.

’ Alexa wrinkled her nose. ‘Look, things got very complicated and I kept on deciding to wait until I had something more concrete to offer you-and then when I finally did have it, I thought it would be easier to just come home and tell you face to face.’

Alissa stared at her sister, not understanding and not expecting to, either. It had always been that way because, although the girls had been born identical, it had been clear from an early age that below the skin they were two very different personalities. Alexa had always been the single-minded, ambitious one, quick to fight and scrap for what she wanted, and she made enemies more easily than she made friends. Alissa was quieter, steadier, occasionally tormented by an overdeveloped conscience and altogether more thoughtful. At twenty-three years of age, the sisters were less obviously twins than they had been as children. Alexa wore her long silvery blonde hair sleek, layered and shoulder length while Alissa’s was longer and more usually confined in a ponytail. Alexa wore fashionable, often provocative clothing and revelled in the attention men awarded her, while Alissa dressed conservatively and froze like a rabbit in headlights when men homed in on her more understated charms.

‘Where’s Mum?’ Alexa asked, flinging her coat down in a heap and walking into the kitchen.

‘She’s at the shop. I came home this afternoon to do the accounts,’ Alissa confided, putting the kettle on to boil. ‘I gather you got a job in London.’

Alexa gave her a rather self-satisfied smile and leant back against the kitchen counter. ‘Of course I did. I’m a whizz at selling luxury cars and I’ve earned a lot of commission. How’s Mum?’

Alissa pursed her lips. ‘As good as she’s ever going to be. At least I don’t hear her crying at night any more—’

‘She’s getting over it? About time,’ Alexa pronounced with approval.

Alissa sighed. ‘I don’t think Mum’s ever really going to get over it—particularly not while Dad’s parading his fancy piece round the village. Or with all this debt still hanging over her, not to mention having to sell her home into the bargain…’

Alexa gave her a wide smile. ‘Well, I was going to ask you whether you wanted the good or the bad news first. On the way here I stopped off at the solicitor’s and told him to go ahead and agree a financial settlement for the house. I also gave him enough money to settle the bills. Prepare yourself for a surprise: I’ve got the cash to pay off our bastard of a father!’

‘Don’t talk about Dad like that,’ Alissa said uneasily while she struggled to accept the dramatic assurance that the other woman had just voiced. ‘Although I agree with the sentiment.’

‘Oh, don’t be so mealy-mouthed!’ Alexa urged tartly. ‘Mum loses her son and my boyfriend in a ghastly accident, nurses Dad through his cancer scare and what’s her reward? Dad takes off with a hairdresser young enough to be his daughter!’

‘You just said you’ve got enough money to pay off Dad and more for the bills—how is that possible? You’ve only been away three months.’ Alissa was frowning. She wanted so badly to believe it was possible, but her native wit was telling her that even though Alissa was a terrific saleswoman she still didn’t have that kind of earning power.

‘You could say that I went for a new job with a big cash payment up front. As I said, there’s enough to settle all Mum’s bills and pay off Dad,’ Alexa repeated, keen to make that salient point again.

Alissa was wide-eyed with disbelief. ‘As well as enough to buy that car outside and renew your designer wardrobe?’

Alexa’s smile evaporated as she gave her twin a cool accusing scrutiny. ‘You’ve already noticed the label on my new coat?’

‘No, it just has that look. That sophisticated look that expensive clothes always seem to have,’ Alissa advanced ruefully. ‘What kind of a job pays that much money?’

‘Didn’t you hear what I told you?’ Alexa demanded thinly. ‘I’ve saved our bacon—I have enough money to sort out all Mum’s problems and give her back her selfrespect and security.’

‘That would take a miracle.’ Alissa was convinced that her sister was wildly exaggerating the case.

‘In today’s world, you have to compete and work very hard and make sacrifices to bring about a miracle.’

At that reference to making sacrifices from a young woman who had never demonstrated the smallest leaning in that direction, Alissa stole a troubled glance at her sister. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘As I said, it’s complex. For a start I’m afraid I had to sort of borrow your identity.’

Alissa froze at that announcement. ‘Borrow my identity? How?

‘You’re the one with the university degree and I needed to use it on my application to meet the criteria,’ Alexa revealed, lifting her chin in defiance of her twin’s shaken stare. ‘And because I had used it to make myself look educated I had to use your name as well. When they checked out my claims they’d soon have discovered that I was lying if I’d applied under my own name.’

Alissa was very shocked at her sister’s casual attitude to what she had done. ‘But that’s…that’s fraud, cheating…’

Alexa’s indifference to what she clearly saw as a minor detail was striking. ‘Whatever. I thought it was worth a try and so it proved, but then I started seeing someone.’

‘You’re dating again?’ Alissa gasped in surprise and excitement. After her sister’s boyfriend, Peter, had died in the same car crash that had taken their brother’s life—a tragedy that had soon been followed by their father’s shocking defection—Alexa had become so angry and bitter that she had sworn off all men. Alissa had understood the level of her sister’s heartbreak for, as their next-door-neighbours’ son, Peter had been as much a part of their lives as any member of the family. ‘Were you too busy looking at the coat to notice this?’ Alexa extended a hand on which an opulent ruby and diamond ring glowed on her engagement finger.

Alissa gaped. ‘You’re engaged…already?

‘And preggers,’ Alexa confided.

‘Pregnant as well?’ Alissa stared as her sister turned sideways but it was evidently early days for her stomach still looked perfectly flat. ‘My word, and you never said a thing about all this until now?’

Alexa grimaced. ‘I told you that things had got complicated. I was in the running for that job and I didn’t want to tell Harry about it…yes, that’s his name. He’s quite well off—a gentleman farmer who runs his family estate. They’re thrilled about me and the baby, not a bit bothered that I’m not one of the county set. But neither he nor his family would understand what I signed up for before we met…or that I could have accepted all that money for the right reasons.’

Her smooth brow furrowing, Alissa stared. ‘Alexa, what are you talking about? This job? What money did you accept?’

Alexa sat down at the kitchen table and sipped her tea before she replied. ‘I never thought I’d get it. I went through the whole application process out of curiosity. Strictly speaking, it’s not really a job,’ she admitted in an undertone.

Alissa sank down into the chair opposite. ‘Then what is it? It isn’t anything, well…immoral, is it?’

‘Before I tell you, you think very carefully about what that money will do for Mum,’ her sister urged sharply. ‘It’s her only hope of rescue and I’ve already paid out most of it on her behalf. All I had to do to get it was agree to marry a very rich Russian and act like his wife.’

‘But why would any man want to pay you for doing that? These days I thought most rich Russians were beating off gold-digging women with sticks,’ Alissa remarked drily.

‘This guy wants it all done on a business basis, with money paid up front, signed contracts and a settlement agreed for the divorce at the end. He wanted an educated attractive Englishwoman and I stepped forward. I almost told his lawyers that he could have two of us for the price of one!’

Alissa wasn’t amused by that rather tasteless joke. ‘So, let me get this straight—you decided you were willing to marry this man just for the cash?’

‘For Mum!’ Alexa contradicted loudly. ‘I was only ever willing to do it for her sake.’

Alissa sat there tautly and thought about this explanation. Everything she herself had done of late, from resigning from her comfortable librarian’s job in London to coming home to help out as best she could, had also been done for her mother’s sake. Both young women adored their parent, who was currently stressed out of her mind and desperately depressed, a mere shadow of the cheerful and energetic woman she had once been.

A kinder and more loving and supportive parent or wife than Jenny Bartlett would be hard to find. Unfortunately, over the past two years, the twins’ once close and contented family circle had been cruelly smashed by a series of disasters. The death of their brother, Stephen, and of Alexa’s boyfriend, Peter, in a car crash one wintry evening had only been the first calamity to strike them. That storm had barely been weathered before their father’s cancer was diagnosed. Long months of anxiety and debilitating medical treatment had followed. Throughout all those events their mother had been the strongest of them all, refusing to allow her family to sink into despair. She could never have guessed then that, within months of his recovery from cancer, her husband of thirty years would desert her for a much younger woman and then claim half of their home and business to finance his new lifestyle. Watching those awful proceedings unfold from the sidelines, Alissa had felt her heart break alongside her mother’s.

Alissa had learned a new insecurity when she had finally realised that she could not even trust her father to be the honest and decent man she had always believed he was. Although he was an accountant on a good salary, he was pursuing his wife for a share of the home that had originally belonged to her parents and of the small business that she had set up and ran entirely on her own. Money and the lust for more of it, Alissa thought fearfully, could turn people into strangers and make them do inexcusable things. Now it seemed to her that Alexa had got caught up in the same dangerous toils.

‘Pay the money back,’ Alissa urged tightly. ‘You can’t marry some foreigner you don’t even know for money.’

‘Well, I can’t marry him now, can I? I mean, I’m carrying Harry’s baby!’ Alexa pointed out flatly. ‘And Harry wants us to get married in the next couple of weeks.’

Alissa nodded, unsurprised by that sudden announcement. Alissa always did everything at supersonic speed. That she had fallen in love and fallen pregnant within months and was racing equally fast into marriage was the norm for her. She had never learnt patience and if common sense threatened to come between her and her goals she would ignore it.

You must go ahead and marry the Russian in my place,’ Alexa continued, ‘or I’ll be forced to consider an abortion…’

Shattered by that announcement, Alissa pushed her chair noisily back and leapt upright. ‘What on earth are you talking about? Me marry this weird guy? An abortion? Is that what you want?’

A petulant expression traversed Alexa’s face. ‘No, of course it’s not what I want, Allie, but what choice do I have? I signed a legal binding contract and I accepted a huge amount of money on the strength of it. Most of the money has been spent so I can’t give it back. So where does that leave me?’

Alissa was once again aghast at that admission. ‘Spent?’

‘Mostly on Mum. Okay, so I bought the car and a few other little things. At the time I thought that with the sacrifice I was making in agreeing to marry the guy, I had the right to spoil myself a bit. After all, it was me, not you, riding to Mum’s rescue!’ her twin vented, treating her sister to a scornful appraisal. ‘I mean, here you are, acting all shocked at what I’ve done. But what have you done, but sit here wringing your hands and checking bank statements? It took me to take action, so don’t you dare look down on me for being willing to marry a stranger for money. Money and lots of it is the only real cure for the problems here!’

The louder Alexa’s angry voice got, the paler Alissa became and she sat down heavily again. ‘I’m not looking down on you in any way. You’re right. You have pulled off something that I couldn’t have and, yes, we are desperate for money—’

Her sister clasped her hand in a fierce plea for understanding. ‘Don’t I deserve to be happy?’

‘I’ve never doubted it.’

‘But I never thought I’d be happy again after Peter died. I thought my life was over, that I might as well have died in that car with him and Stephen,’ Alexa confided in a pained tone. ‘But now I’ve met Harry and everything’s different. I love him and I want to marry him and have my baby. I’ve got my life back again and I want to enjoy it.’

Touched to the bone by that emotive speech, Alissa clasped both her hands round her sister’s in a warm gesture of understanding. ‘Of course you do…of course you do…’

‘But Harry won’t want anything more to do with me if he finds out what I signed up for-it will destroy us!’ Alexa sobbed, swerving from furious defensiveness and drama to a noisy bout of self-pitying tears. ‘He would never understand what I’ve done or forgive me for being so mercenary. He’s a very straightforward, honest man.’

All of a sudden, Alissa was feeling as though she was on old familiar ground. When they were children, Alexa had often got into tight corners and Alissa had usually got her out of them. More than once Alissa had shouldered the blame for Alexa’s wrongdoing, as even then she had dimly grasped that she might be the less adventurous twin but she was the stronger and the least likely of the two to break down when life became difficult. Alexa might be more daring, but she was also surprisingly fragile and could never cope once she made a mess of things.

‘Surely Harry doesn’t have to know about all this?’ Alissa said, even though she felt guilty for suggesting that Alexa keep secrets from her future husband.

‘Listen, Allie,’ Alexa breathed. ‘If I don’t show up and marry the Russian, I’ll have to repay the money and I can’t. Do you honestly think a guy like Sergei Antonovich is going to let me get away with defrauding him of that amount of cash?’

‘Sergei Antonovich? The Russian billionaire?’ Alissa queried in consternation. ‘He’s the guy who wants to hire a wife? For goodness’ sake, he’s always knee-deep in supermodels and actresses. Why would he have to pay a woman he doesn’t know to marry him?’

‘Because a long time ago he was married and it didn’t work out. This time around he wants a marriage of convenience on a strict business basis. I don’t know any more than that,’ Alexa replied, her eyes swerving abruptly from her sister’s questioning gaze to rest fixedly on the table instead, her whole face taut and shuttered. ‘That was what the lawyer told me and he said I didn’t need to know any more and that it was just a job; maybe a little different from other jobs, but a job nonetheless.’

‘A job,’ Alissa repeated, widening her expressive eyes in emphatic disagreement.

‘If you marry Antonovich instead, I’ll be able to go ahead and marry Harry, we’ll keep the money and Mum’s life will go back to normal. You know, the Russian hasn’t met me yet, so he won’t know we’ve switched and he’s never going to guess that you’re not the woman who was selected—’

‘It doesn’t matter…it’s crazy and I couldn’t do it,’ Alissa framed unevenly, feeling the weight of the pressure her twin was heaping on her shoulders and firmly resisting it.

‘I applied in your name,’ her sister reminded her. ‘It’s you the lawyers will come after if you don’t follow through on that contract.’

Alissa, usually slow to lose her temper, was finally getting angry. ‘I don’t care what you did—I didn’t sign any contract!’

‘Well, you might as well have done because I forged your signature,’ Alexa informed her wryly. ‘I’m sorry, but we’re both involved in this up to our throats. Short of a lottery win, we can’t return the money and why would you want to anyway? We’ve no other way of saving this house for Mum. At the moment, it’s impossible to get a loan—’

‘But Mum couldn’t have afforded to pay it back anyway. And now there’s not even anything left to sell,’ Alissa acknowledged.

The few valuable pieces of furniture and jewellery that had been in the family had already been sold to shore up her mother’s finances. The cottage had long been mortgaged up to the hilt when Jenny had borrowed against the property to buy premises in the village and open up a coffee and craft shop there. Although the cottage was currently for sale, there had been few viewers and little interest shown; times were hard and the property was definitely in need of modernisation.

In the uncomfortable silence that stretched, Alissa stood up. ‘It’s raining—I promised I’d pick Mum up if it was wet.’

Alissa climbed into the elderly hatchback car that belonged to her mother and drove off. As she pulled into a parking space outside the shop, she saw a curvaceous brunette emerging and unfurling a bright yellow plastic umbrella. She wore a skirt short enough to shock a burlesque dancer. At the sight of her, loud alarm bells rang with Alissa because the woman was her father’s girlfriend, Maggie Lines. As Maggie sped on down the street Alissa scrambled out of the car in haste and knocked on the shop door when she found it locked.

‘What was that woman doing in here?’ she demanded of the small blonde woman who let her in.

Her mother’s eyes were reddened and overbright, her level of stress palpable in her fearful expression and trembling hands. ‘She came to talk to me. She said she didn’t like to come to the house and at least she waited for closing time—’

Alissa was rigid with outrage on her gentle mother’s behalf. She felt that it was bad enough that her father had had an affair but it was unspeakably cruel that he should allow his partner in crime to harass the wife he had deserted. ‘You don’t need to talk to Maggie. She’s Dad’s business, not yours, and she should keep her nose out of what doesn’t concern her!’

‘She says that fighting it out between the lawyers is only increasing our legal bills,’ Jenny muttered tautly.

‘What did she want?’ Alissa prompted, carefully removing the dishcloth that her mother was twisting between her nervous hands.

‘Money. What she said is your father’s due,’ the older woman explained in a mortified undertone. ‘And although I didn’t like hearing it, what she said was right. It is the law that he has to get his share of everything, but there’s not a lot I can do when we haven’t even had an offer for the house, is there?’

‘She shouldn’t have come here. You shouldn’t have to speak to her.’

‘She’s a very determined young woman but I’m not scared of her, Alissa. And you shouldn’t be getting involved in all this. Your father may well marry Maggie and start a second family with her. It happens all the time, so it would be wiser if you didn’t take sides right now.’

Her troubled eyes glistening with tears, Alissa gripped the older woman’s hands tightly in hers. ‘I love you so much, Mum. I hate to see you being hurt like this.’

Jenny Bartlett attempted a reassuring smile. ‘In time I’ll get over it, “move on” as Maggie likes to say. But right now it’s all too fresh. I still love him, Alissa,’ she muttered guiltily. ‘That’s the worst thing about all this. I can’t seem to switch off my feelings.’

Alissa wrapped her arms protectively round her slight mother. Her own heart felt as if it were breaking inside her as a swell of memories from happier times engulfed her. It was not right that the mother who had loved and supported her all her life should lose her home and business as well, for it would leave the older woman with absolutely nothing to survive on. ‘Alexa’s home, Mum, and she’s got good news: she’s met a man and it’s serious—’

The older woman turned startled eyes on her daughter. ‘Has she…really?’

‘Yes, and Alexa and I have sorted out something on the money front too,’ Alissa heard herself say with deliberate vagueness. ‘You may not have to sell the house after all.’

‘That’s not possible,’ Jenny exclaimed.

‘Miracles do happen,’ Alissa commented, thinking up fantastic stories of special financial arrangements that could be made and secured on her and her twin’s earning power.

And she was stunned by her own audacity. She was the sensible twin, the one who was never impulsive and didn’t take risks. But family came first and she was desperate to help and bring the ghastly divorce settlement to a dignified conclusion for her mother’s sake. She watched the older woman lock up. So, did that mean she was willing to marry Sergei Antonovich? Or had she just been guilty of offering her mother false hope? During the short drive home Alissa tussled mentally with herself.

A few minutes after she walked through the front door, however, Alexa helped her to make a final decision. ‘I got a call from the Russian’s lawyer while you were out,’ her twin whispered in Alissa’s ear while Alissa was busy preparing supper. ‘Sergei Antonovich has decided to meet me before the wedding. You have to decide whether you’re going to help Mum or not!’

Put on the spot, Alissa thought first about the baby that her twin was carrying and doubted Alexa’s readiness to continue that pregnancy if her relationship with the father ran into trouble. In comparison Alissa had no relationship that such a marriage could interfere with.

A long time ago, she had suffered considerable heartache when she’d secretly fallen for Alexa’s boyfriend, Peter. Since then she had made occasional forays onto the dating scene, only to retreat when she met up with the impatient sexual expectations of the modern male. Those who had failed to press her panic buttons on that score had signally failed to impress her on any other level. Unlike Alexa, who scalp-hunted with almost masculine enthusiasm, Alissa preferred quality over quantity and was more often alone than involved in a relationship.

Indeed her family meant much more to Alissa than anything else in her life. Having had to stand by powerless while that same family had all but disintegrated had tortured her. But now Alexa had put the power to alter that situation into Alissa’s hands. Did she have the strength to go against her every principle and make a mockery of marriage by using it as a means of making money? Did the fact that she had no plans to profit personally make it any less of a sin? And now that she had that option, could she honestly turn her back on the only chance she was ever likely to get to settle most of her mother’s problems?

On the other hand, Alissa reasoned, money would not bring her father home or cure her mother’s pain, but it would certainly help the older woman to adjust to her altered future if it allowed her to remain in her childhood home and retain her business. On that optimistic thought, Alissa squashed the doubts bubbling up frantically to the surface of her mind. Pretending to be some man’s wife would be a challenge, but the return of some semblance of normality to her mother’s life would be worth it. On reaching that conclusion, Alissa came to a swift decision and gave Alexa the answer she most wanted to hear…


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