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Грэхем Линн

The Drakos Affair: The Pregnancy Shock

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THREE weeks later, the news of the tragic accident came in a devastating phone call. Helios, the head of Alexei’s security team, phoned Billie. It was the middle of the night and she was half stupid with sleep when she answered. He repeated the details slowly and with great sorrow. After a stunned pause, she asked him why he had not rung Alexei direct.

‘You know him well. You are a woman—you will break the news better,’ Helios opined heavily. ‘It is a terrible thing.’

‘I’ll go and speak to him.’ Finger-combing her hair off her brow with a shaking hand, Billie got out of bed and pulled on the wrap lying on the chair. She did not dare wait to wash and brush up because time was of the essence. She literally ran down the passageway to his bedroom and knocked loudly on the door before opening it.

The light went on by the bed,Alexei lurching up against the pillows, black hair spiky and tousled, a heavy shadow of stubble obscuring his jaw line, while a tangle of black chest hair rioted across his superb masculine torso. She suspected that he wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing.

‘What’s up?’ he asked thickly.

‘Helios phoned. Your parents…’

‘My parents…what?’Alexei rasped at her as if some sixth sense had already kicked in to forewarn him that she had bad news to break.

‘They were involved in a motorway pile-up. They’re in hospital inAthens. It’s very serious,’she told him carefully.

She watched his bright eyes darken and the sudden spread of pallor below his bronzed skin now pulling taut with tension across his high cheekbones. He thrust back the bedding in a violent movement. ‘Are they alive?’

Hastily she spun away and turned her back to him before he could cross the room naked in front of her. ‘Just. There are no details yet. I’ll contact your pilot—’

‘Make the arrangements,’ Alexei bit out.

‘Do you want me to come with you?’ she prompted.

‘Of course, I bloody well want you to come!’Alexei launched back at her rawly.

Tears of shock and compassion ready to overflow from her eyes, Billie sped back to her room, tore off her night gear and yanked out a business suit to wear. It was only forty-eight hours since they had arrived at the chateau Alexei owned in the South of France. While Alexei toured the vines and the state-of-the-art winery he had created and enjoyed long technical discussions with the vintner he had hired, she had relaxed from formality and worn cropped linen trousers and a casual T-shirt to wander around the lavender-edged borders in the idyllic garden that thrummed with visiting bees and humming birds. Just hours earlier that combination of sunshine and scented flowers had struck her as the purest taste of heaven but now those feelings were being utterly swept away…

Alexei was unusually quiet during the flight, his dark mood weighting the atmosphere. There was a mention of the accident on the news but no names were released. Somehow word of the high-profile victims had escaped, however, for the hospital was already under siege by the press when they arrived. For the first time ever, though, a path through the crush of paparazzi that led all the way to the entrance cleared in front of Alexei. In the foyer they were greeted by the chief administrator and a doctor who answered Alexei’s questions about Constantine and Natasha’s conditions. Alexei’s mother had sustained a serious head injury and was on life support. Constantine had already had emergency surgery and remained very weak. The prognosis was not good for either of them.

Reluctant to intrude, Billie hung back as it slowly sank in that Alexei’s mother was in a coma from which she was unlikely to recover. She was shocked by the sight of the vivacious older woman lying so still in her hospital bed. After sitting by Natasha and talking to her for a while in an effort to revive her, Alexei hurried on to his father’s bedside. Constantine roused and gripped his son’s hand and words were exchanged but within the hour the old man suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. Mid-morning, Alexei was present when his mother’s life support was switched off. Billie’s heart bled for him but he remained fully in control. They left the hospital by a back entrance and drove out to a private airfield to board a helicopter. His mobile phone was ringing incessantly by then. He answered the first few calls from relatives, explained what had happened and then he gave the phone to Billie to look after. By the time they landed back on Speros, he was grey with grief and exhaustion.

The household staff, some of whom were openly crying, awaited Alexei’s arrival in the hall of the villa. Alexei talked to all of them.

By then, Billie was fielding calls from chief executives and lawyers, wanting to know what was going to happen in a hundred different areas. She told them all that they had to wait. Alexei needed peace in which to grieve and while he wandered round the huge rambling villa like a lost soul Billie made the funeral arrangements.

The following few days were very stressful. Greataunts, great-uncles, aunts, uncles and cousins travelled from all over the world to the island, packing out the villa just when Alexei would have preferred time alone. Television channels were running documentaries based on old grainy newsreel coverage of Constantine’s life and various marriages. The media was responding with a similar slew of articles. Although the funeral was to be strictly private and for family and close friends only, several of Alexei’s former lovers arrived uninvited. It was Billie’s job to send them packing again and after being treated to a fit of hysterics by Brigitte, a French singer, that left her ears ringing, she was desperate to escape the hothouse feel of the villa and went off to visit her mother for a couple of hours.

After the Dean episode the previous year, Lauren had spent quite a few weeks in London staying with her sister, Hilary. Once off the island, Lauren’s relationship with the toy boy had disintegrated fast. She had phoned her daughter several times to say sorry and although Billie fully believed that she had forgiven Lauren she now saw less of her mother and avoided her altogether when she had a man in tow.

‘I had a walk up to see how that fancy new house of yours was coming on,’ Lauren told her. ‘It’s going to be quite something—no wonder the locals are talking!’

Billie tried and failed to resist her curiosity. ‘What about?’

‘What do you think? We all see the fancy women in Alexei’s life in the newspapers and the magazines, but you’re the only one to get a building site within walking distance of the Drakos villa. Everyone knows you work very closely with Alexei and enjoy a lot of privileges—naturally some people think that you’re earning the extras on your back!’ Lauren supplied with a crudity that made her daughter grit her teeth together.

‘It’s not like that between us.’

‘But not for want of you wishing,’ Lauren needled, casting a shrewd eye at Billie’s pink cheeks. ‘I’m not so stupid that I haven’t noticed how you feel about him.’

It was not a conversation Billie wanted to have with Lauren, who had never been very good at keeping secrets. Her mobile phone rang and she answered it as a welcome distraction, wandering to the other side of the room and switching to English when she recognised the upper-class English vowel sounds of Alexei’s great-aunt, Lady Marina Chalfont, his father’s half-sister. Lady Marina was stranded in Athens. Billie was happy to sort out transport for her, not only because the older woman was in her eighties but because she was Alexei’s favourite relative.

‘You’re on duty twenty-four-seven,’ Lauren complained.

‘It’s not quite as bad as that,’ Billie declared, pressing a kiss to her mother’s cheek before leaving an hour later.

But nonetheless that was how it felt when Billie returned to the villa and discovered that chaos had developed in her absence. Alexei strode into the entrance hall, lean darkly handsome face hard with anger and frustration. ‘Where the hell have you been?’ he demanded rawly. ‘I’m trying to work and the phone is ringing off the hook. Your assistant is an idiot and my cousins are doing a conga through the house!’

‘I went to see my mother.’

Like a storm cloud, Alexei shrugged his dismissal of that as an acceptable excuse and strode back to the office suite in high dudgeon. A moment later, the conga crew passed Billie by and she intervened. Alexei’s cousins, many of them just teenagers, were keen to treat the funerals as an excuse to enjoy some sun, sea and sand and were striking a very wrong note in the grieving household. It took all of Billie’s tact to soothe everyone down before a major row broke out. Chastened, the young people went down to the beach in pursuit of more acceptable entertainment.

Her assistant, Kasia, was swallowing back tears when Billie joined her and she confessed that in certain moods Alexei scared her. Everyone on the business team kept their head down when Billie arrived and she knew that Alexei had been letting everyone feel the rough edge of his often sarcastic tongue. Alexei’s great-aunt arrived soon after in the helicopter Billie had despatched to pick her up.

‘Go and see Marina settled,’Alexei commanded her.

‘It’s you she will want to see.’

‘I’m not in the mood right now.’

Billie breathed in deep to restrain herself but still couldn’t hold back the words bubbling into her mouth. ‘Maybe it’s time you got in the mood. Lots of people badly want to speak to you. Tomorrow will only be more difficult if you don’t make time for some of them now.’

An unearthly silence spread like a cloaking cloud of poison gas through the large office. There was a palpable air of shock. Alexei lifted incredulous dark eyes of hauteur to Billie’s unrepentant face. Ducking his searing gaze, she spun on her heel to leave the office.

An instant later he was walking by her side.

‘Don’t you ever speak to me like that again,’he warned her icily.

‘You know perfectly well what you should be doing.’

‘You have no idea what I’m going through,’ Alexei condemned.

‘Oh, yes, I have,’ Billie fielded ruefully, for nobody who had witnessed the camaraderie between Alexei and his parents could have failed to notice how very close the trio were. Like many only children, Alexei had spent a great deal of time with adults and his childhood as such had been short-lived. His father had been taking him on guided tours of super tankers and oil refineries by the age of five. Independent though Alexei was, his parents’ deaths had left him like a ship without a rudder.

Billie showed Lady Marina, the tall and imposing daughter of a countess, into the most spacious guest suite. ‘How is my nephew?’ the old lady asked fondly.

‘He’s coping very well—’

‘Which for a Drakos male means he’s not coping at all,’ Marina interposed with a shake of her elegant white head. ‘Constantine always froze too when an emotional response was demanded. Is Alexei using work as an escape?’

Billie folded her lips and nodded.

‘Alexei’s in shock. Drakos men aren’t used to problems that they can’t solve, situations they can’t fix. He needs to go wild for a while, get it all out of his system. Holding it all in is unhealthy.’

Billie almost smiled at that unlikely idea because, while the tabloids might once have depicted the fabulously wealthy Drakos heir as a wild, undisciplined playboy, Billie had learned that even though Alexei might break the rules and flout the conventions he always acted with forethought and he never, ever relinquished control. He also rejoiced in nerves of steel and the sensitivity of a granite block.

But what she saw later that evening when Alexei had abandoned his social mask shook that conviction. Unable to find him to pass on news of an unexpected movement on the NewYork Stock Exchange, she finally ran him to ground in the special conservatory that housed his mother’s prized collection of tropical orchids. She hovered outside, watching him through the glass as he stood there and trailed a long lean finger down the stem of a white waxen bloom. He had never had any interest in the flowers that had fascinated his Russian mother, and neither had his late father. Indeed both men had regularly teased Natasha about her obsession. But, for all that, a year ago Alexei had financed an Amazonian plant collectors’ trip, which had resulted in his mother having a newly discovered orchid named after her. Natasha had been thrilled beyond belief at having such an honour conferred on her.

Billie’s gaze flicked up to Alexei’s bold brown profile and froze at the sight of the glisten of moisture highlighting his hard cheekbones. Silent tears were rolling down his face. She could taste his sadness, his regret for times past never to be regained. Her throat thickened, her own eyes wet, and she looked hurriedly away, feeling that she could not possibly intrude on so intensely private a moment in which he believed himself alone and unobserved. But, oh, how she longed for the right to push open that door and hurry to his side to offer him comfort! But freedom of expression was not part of her role and she reluctantly walked away while scolding herself for having underestimated the depth of Alexei’s loss and his feelings. His tough self-discipline had fooled even her, persuading her that he was totally in control and that business would pretty much go on as usual. Why else had she chased him down to talk about his US Stocks? She left a note on his desk but it was a long time before she got to sleep that night because she was far too busy wondering when Alexei had last slept.

The following day was an extremely busy one for Billie. The security precautions to ensure the interments remained private were rigorous. Constantine and Natasha were laid to rest in the walled cemetery behind the village church. Alexei, who always rose highest to a challenge, shook off the moodiness and silences of the day before to act as gracious host at the villa. Special travelling arrangements had been put in place to enable the guests to leave in good time for their flights home.

Once everyone was gone, an unearthly silence spread through the house because most of the staff was now off duty as well. Billie went off in search of Alexei because after working so many hours at a stretch she was keen to have some time that was her own. After all, tomorrow would bring an early start, the reading of the will and a return to business, which promised to be even more challenging than anything that had gone before. But who could tell what mood Alexei would be in? Only since the motorway pile-up had she truly appreciated just how volatile he could be

Alexei was on the terrace with a drink in his hand. He had gone through most of the day that way and the sight of that ever-present glass struck a wrong note for her because overindulging in alcohol was not the norm for him. She recalled her painful glimpse of him with his mother’s orchids the night before and compressed her mouth. He had discarded his tie and unbuttoned his shirt but he still wore his black designer suit with striking panache. As she looked at him, taking in the grim gold of his stunning eyes and the rough shadow of stubble darkening his jaw line, her heart skipped a beat and she felt horribly guilty for reacting to his sexual allure on such an unhappy day.

‘You need a drink,’ Alexei drawled.

‘No, thanks…er—’

Alexei strode past her into the house. ‘What would you like?’

‘I don’t drink when I’m working—’

‘If I’m not working, you’re not working either,’Alexei traded and slowly the stiffness in her bearing eased.


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