“A reasonable amount…” he started, then his gaze sharpened. “Why do you ask? Is your family in some kind of trouble?”
She really didn’t want to discuss this. Backtracking furiously, she said, “I appreciate your offer of support, Nikos, I really do, but I don’t want to be beholden to you for the rest of my life.”
He drummed his fingers impatiently on the table. “So let me get this straight. You want our son to be raised by a nanny just so you can work as a secretary?”
“Are you implying my job is less important than yours?” she countered.
“No, I’m flat-out saying it. Stavrakis Resorts has thousands of employees around the world, all depending on the company for their salary. It’s not even close to the same. In your case, I think the world can survive with one less typist.”
“You know perfectly well there’s more to what I do!” she said, outraged.
“Nothing in your job description could possibly be as important as—” He visibly restrained himself. He sat back in his leather chair and gave her a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Anna, there’s no reason we have to discuss this now. Until you help me find your replacement, it’s all a moot point.”
“I want to discuss it now,” she said mutinously.
He sat in stillness, then gave a sigh. “Fine. Find me a new secretary—a good one—and I’ll give you your job reference, if that’s really what you want. God knows you deserve it.”
“Even though I was just a typist?”
“You know I didn’t mean that.” He scowled. “Let me explain.”
That surprised her. Nikos never explained, he just gave orders. “I’m listening.”
Raking back his hair, he looked through the window. Outside, a gardener was riding a lawnmower across the expansive heavily watered lawn, a slash of green against barren brown mountains and harsh blue sky. “I barely saw my mother growing up. She was always working three jobs to keep a roof over our heads. By the time I was old enough to help support us she’d died. I never knew her except as a pale ghost with a broken heart.”
He looked at Anna. “I never want my son, or you, to endure that kind of wretched life. I know I’ve given you no reason to accept anything from me, but please let me do this one thing. Let me give Michael the happy child hood I never had.”
Anna swallowed. It was hard to ignore a plea like that. And harder still to ignore the pleas of her own heart. She didn’t want to leave her baby all day long so she could go to work, but what choice did she have? It was either work or beg money from Nikos for the rest of her life.
But maybe it wouldn’t be like that.
Stupid to even consider it. She’d trusted Nikos once before and she’d just been abandoned, fired, cheated on…
He never cheated on me, a voice whispered. And, no matter how misguided and neanderthal his attempts were, he was only trying to keep us both comfortable and safe.
She stomped on the thought. She wouldn’t let herself weaken now and start going soft again. She wouldn’t let Nikos get under her skin, no matter how vulnerable he looked asking for her help, or how warm his eyes had glowed when he’d laughed with their son. She wouldn’t let herself fall back in love, no matter how wonderful he seemed to be at this moment.
She snatched the résumé back out of his hands, eager for distraction from her thoughts. “This is the job candidate you plan to interview first?”
“Yes, I thought—”
Skimming the page, she nearly jumped out of her chair. “Have you totally lost your mind? She has no secretarial experience. Her references are a strip club and—” she squinted her eyes “—a place called the Hot Mustang Ranch.”
“I was trying to keep an open mind,” he said defensively. “Your reference was Victor Sinistyn, but you were still the best damn secretary I’ve ever had.”
“But there are three typos on her résumé. Even Lindsey wasn’t this bad.” She crumpled up the paper in her hands. “There’s no point even doing an interview—not unless you need an erotic dancer with bordello experience.”
“Fine,” he said gruffly. “I’ll have her sent away. Maybe your friend Victor will hire her at one of his clubs.”
He held out his hand for the paper. As their fingers touched their eyes met, and an electric shock went through her. He looked at her so hungrily. She waited for him to take her in his arms, to kiss her senseless. To reach across the mahogany desk and take what she’d been aching for him to take.
She heard him take a long, slow breath. His fingers slowly moved up her bare arm as they both leaned forward over the table.
There was a hard knock at the door, the sound of it swinging open. “Excuse me, sir, miss?”
Anna whirled around in her chair, blushing when she saw a maid standing in the doorway.
“I have standing orders not to be interrupted in my office,” Nikos said in a controlled voice.
“Yes, sir. But, begging your pardon, it’s Miss Rostoff who’s wanted. Your sister’s here, miss. She’s quite agitated and said if we didn’t get you she’d be calling the police and telling them you were being kept here against your will.”
“Let me go!” Anna heard her sister’s voice, shrill and frantic down the hall. “Get out of my way. Anna? Anna!”
Natalie pushed past the maid, nearly knocking the girl aside. Her linen shift dress was rumpled and dirty, as if it had been slept in.
She stopped abruptly when she saw Anna in her T-shirt and shorts, sitting casually on the desk near Nikos. Natalie’s jaw dropped, then her eyes blazed through her thick glasses.
“You’ve got some nerve,” she said to Anna. “Do you have any idea what’s going on? I’ve been calling and calling, but you never called back. I thought you were in trouble. I thought he was keeping you prisoner again. And instead I find you lazing in luxury with the man you called your deadliest enemy!”
“Excuse us,” Anna said hastily, and grabbed her sister’s wrist, pulling her out of the office before she could repeat any of the insulting things Anna had once said about Nikos. She couldn’t risk alienating him now—not when they’d finally made a fragile peace and he was actually considering joint custody.
She dragged Natalie into her bedroom and closed the door behind her.
“You’ve gone back to him, haven’t you?” her sister said bitterly, rubbing her wrist. “Even after all the stuff he did. Ruining Father’s company! Abandoning you! Cheating on you! Firing you because you were pregnant—with his baby! That’s blatant sex discrimination. You should sue.”
“Natalie, I’m not going to sue the father of my child.”
“Why, when he’s such a monster?”
Anna took a deep breath. “I blew things out of proportion. And I just found out that what I told you about Father’s company…wasn’t true.”
Anna looked at her young, idealistic sister and just couldn’t bear to disillusion her by telling her about their father’s embezzlement. “There were complications and problems that I didn’t know about. Nikos didn’t ruin the company. He was trying to save it when Father made some…bad choices.”
Natalie looked at her keenly. “So if Nikos suddenly isn’t so bad, why are you marrying Victor and moving to Russia?”
“You don’t know?” Staring at her in amazement, her younger sister, usually so trusting and sweet, gave a harsh laugh. “No, of course you don’t. I’ve only left ten messages on your cellphone since yesterday. Victor Sinistyn just bought great-grandmother’s palace this morning from Mother. She sold it to him for a fraction of its value—two million off our debt, plus another twenty thousand to her in cash. Which she’s already spent on clothes, of course. Victor is going to raze the old palace and build something new in its place. For you.”
“For me? What are you talking about?”
“Vitya always seemed so strong, so handsome. Even after he quit his partnership with Father so suddenly I thought he was kind. I flew here last night to ask him to leave the palace alone. I thought he’d listen to me.” She shook her head angrily. “But he just laughed. He said that the air in Las Vegas was getting unhealthy, and that he needed to raze the palace immediately because the two of you would be moving to St. Petersburg as soon as you were married.”
“That’s not true!” Anna gasped. “We’re not getting married. He hasn’t even proposed.” At least not lately, she added silently.
“Well, he obviously thinks proposing is just a formality. Any reason why he’d think that?”
Anna paced across the thick blue carpet. “I’ve only seen him once since I got here! And even then it was only because…” Glancing right and left, as if she feared Nikos might be listening from the large walk-in closet or beneath the elegant canopied bed, Anna whispered, “Being Victor’s friend is my only bargaining chip against Nikos to get joint custody. So I can leave here. So I can be free.”