What if he allowed her to work as his secretary again? Just for a few days? Of course it would be temporary. And, hell, he’d actually be grateful for Anna’s help in selecting a new secretary. Maybe she could even help polish the negotiations for the Singapore deal.
But it wouldn’t take long. A week, maybe just a few days of working together. He’d put on the charm. He’d spout nonsense about his feelings, if that was what it took. He’d wine her and dine her until she surrendered her body and soul.
And what a body. Her skin was pale as a Russian winter, but she looked sexy as hell, barely decent beneath a tiny string bikini that matched the alluring turquoise of the water. She’d certainly never worn anything like that when she was his mistress. She’d never flaunted her curves, never tried once to tease him. She hadn’t had to; she’d driven him wild even as a buttoned-up secretary who wore her hair in a bun and covered up her body with elegant loose-fitting suits.
But who was this siren in her place? String bikini today. Tight jeans and clinging halter top yesterday. Had Anna really changed so much?
He saw her give a worried glance at the sun and, cuddling the baby to her chest, she climbed up the wide pool steps. She pulled sunscreen out of the old, frayed diaper bag sitting on the stone table near the fountain. Sitting back on a nearby lounge chair, she sat the chubby baby down on her flat belly and playfully tickled him while slathering him with sunscreen.
She reached for a wide-brimmed hat on the edge of the stone table. Her nearly nude body stretched beneath the bikini, revealing the side swell of her breasts.
Mrs. Burbridge nearly ran into him as she hurried around the courtyard doorway.
“Oh! Excuse me, sir.”
He’d been so intent on watching Anna that he hadn’t heard the plump woman come up behind him. He straightened. “My fault, Mrs. Burbridge.”
“I was just going to ask Mrs. Stav—er, Miss Rostoff—” she flushed with embarrassment as she tripped over the name “—if she wanted me to take the baby inside. She didn’t sleep well last night, so I thought perhaps she’d like a bit of a rest.”
“She didn’t sleep well?”
“She has the room next to mine. I heard her pacing. Jet lag, I suppose, poor dear.”
So Anna had slept as badly as he had. Nikos would be willing to bet money it hadn’t been jet lag that had troubled her all night.
His lips curved up in a smile. Perfect. It was all coming together. By the end of the week—by the end of the day, if he was lucky—Mrs. Burbridge would never have to trip over Anna’s name again. She would be Mrs. Stavrakis.
Anna was barely back in the pool with Misha when she saw Mrs. Burbridge standing by the water’s edge. But it wasn’t the appearance of the Scotswoman that set her hackles on edge. It was the man behind her, who was staring at her like an ant under a microscope, as if he’d never seen a woman in a swimsuit before.
“Would you like me to take the bairn, Miss Rostoff?” Mrs. Burbridge asked. “I thought you might like a wee rest.”
Since it was only ten o’clock in the morning, she was sure the “wee rest” was Nikos’s idea. He wanted to get her alone, so he could finish his seduction and convince her to be his bride.
Not in this lifetime.
Anna turned to wade in the other direction, holding the baby close as if she feared the older woman might fling herself in the pool, orthopedic shoes and all, and wrestle Misha away. “No, thank you, Mrs. Burbridge. We’re happy as we are.”
She waited for Nikos to demand that she give up the baby, but to her surprise he didn’t. “Obviously she’s not tired,” she heard him tell the nanny. “I think we’ll just spend some time together as a family.”
Anna heard Mrs. Burbridge leave and looked back, hoping that Nikos had left too. No such luck. He was standing by the pool, watching her with an inscrutable expression. His presence was like a dark cloud over the sun. It made her tense, remembering how easily she’d almost given herself to him last night, how much she still wanted to feel him inside her. The argument between longing and fury had kept her up all night. Twice she’d nearly weakened and gone to his room. It was only by the sheerest self-preservation that she hadn’t woken up this morning in his bed, with a big engagement ring on her finger.
At least then she’d also have woken up with a big smile on her face. She shook the thought away.
“Well?” she said, giving him her haughtiest stare—the one her mother had used to give to other people’s servants when they sneered at their family as “charity cases” and purposefully ruined their meals or their laundry behind their employers’ backs. Until Anna was eighteen, when her father had returned the family to New York and gone into business with Victor, their life had been full of insult and insecurity.
And after that Victor had had power over them. That was why she would never allow herself to be dependent upon someone else for her livelihood again. Better to starve in a garret and have her pride.
At least that was what she’d thought before she became a mother. Now she wasn’t so sure. What was her own pride compared to the safety and well-being of her child?
“What do you want?” she demanded irritably.
Instead of answering, Nikos sat down on the tiled edge of the pool. He folded his legs Indian-style, looking strangely at ease, almost boyish. Her eyebrows rose at the sight of Nikos, in his elegant Italian wool trousers and crisp white shirt, sitting on the dusty tile floor of the courtyard. “I want you to teach me how to be a parent.”
Her jaw dropped ever so slightly. “What do you mean?”
He glanced at Misha. “You know I never had a father. Not a real one, at any rate. I have no idea how to be one. I’m afraid to hold my own son.”
Anna waited for him to point out that it was all her fault for stealing Misha for the first four months of his life, but again Nikos surprised her. He said instead, in a tone that was almost humble, “I need you to teach me how to be a father.”
It’s a trick, she warned herself, but for the life of her she couldn’t see how. She licked her lips nervously. She glanced at the precious babe in her arms. He needed a good father, and, although she was far from a parenting expert, she was at least an expert on her own baby. How could she refuse?
“I suppose I could try,” she said reluctantly.
“So you agree?”
“When do you want to start?”
“Get a swimsuit, then.”
“That would take too long.” In a fluid motion, he pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it aside. Kicking off his shoes, he looked at her, and she suddenly realized what he was going to do.
“You can’t be serious!”
“Anna, you know I’m always serious,” he said, and jumped into the pool, trousers and all.
She turned away, protecting the baby from the enormous splash as he landed in the deep end of the pool. When he rose from the water his hair was plastered to his head. He spouted water like a fish, and his expensive Italian trousers were almost certainly ruined, but he was laughing.
Oh, my God. The sound of his laugh. She hadn’t heard that for a long, long time. Nikos’s laugh, so hearty and bold and rare, like a fine Greek wine, had first made her love him.
He swam over towards the shallow end, until his feet touched the bottom, and then he walked towards her, parting the water like a Greek god. He was six feet two inches, and the water only lapped his waistband when he reached her. His muscular torso glistened in the hot sun, and rivulets of water ran down his body. She nervously licked her lips as he put one hand on her bare shoulder and with the other gently caressed their baby’s head.
“Will you show me how to hold him?”
She carefully set Misha in his arms, showing him how to hold the baby close to his chest.
“Hi,” he said, looking down at the baby in his arms. “I know you’ve never had a father. This is my first time being one. We’ll learn how to do this together.”
Carefully, he moved deeper into the pool, until the baby laughed at the pleasurable feeling of the water against his skin. Nikos joined in his laughter as Misha joyfully splashed the water with his pudgy hands.
He kissed the baby’s downy head and whispered, so low that Anna almost didn’t hear, “I will always be here to help you swim, Michael.”
Anna watched with her heart in her throat. She’d thought she was in danger before. But now, watching him with their son, holding him tenderly, she saw in Nikos everything she’d ever wanted. A strong man who wasn’t afraid to be playful.
This was the father she wanted for her child.
The husband she’d always dreamed of for herself.
She tried to push those troublesome thoughts away. It wasn’t the real Nikos, she told himself. He was trying to trick her, to lure her in for the sake of his revenge. He wouldn’t stop until he’d crushed her, heart and soul.