“How did you expect it to end?”
He didn’t answer the question. His dark eyes looked haunted as he gazed down at her. “You’re right. If you truly want to work, I can’t stop you. I have no right to stop you,” he said in a low voice. “All I can do is ask that you make the decision carefully. And I know you will. I see now that you’ll always look out for Misha. I just have one favor to ask. When you marry again, choose well. Choose carefully for our son.”
“I thought I had,” she said softly. Her feelings were rushing through her, almost uncontrollable. He’d finally agreed that she could work, but even that didn’t matter anymore. She wanted to wrap her arms around him, to weep, to beg him not to leave her.
But she was the great-granddaughter of a princess. She was Misha’s mother and she had to be strong. Anna clung to her dignity and pride. They were all she had left.
Reaching into her purse, she quietly handed him two pieces of paper. “Here.”
“What are these?” he said, sounding shaken.
“The two best résumés for an executive secretary. I lied when I said they weren’t any good because I hoped you’d hire me instead. But now that I’m leaving I don’t want the company to suffer. I care too much about the company. I care too much about you. I love you.”
She stepped away from him, looking into his eyes. “Goodbye, Nikos. Good luck.”
She turned to go, still praying he’d stop her.
Going into the next room, she found the overnight bag Mrs. Burbridge had packed for her the previous night and put on a T-shirt and jeans. She carefully placed the custody agreement into her old diaper bag. She fed and changed Misha and cuddled him close.
Taking a deep breath, she glanced down the hall, hoping against hope that Nikos would appear, put his strong arms around her, and tell her this had all been a horrible mistake.
But Nikos’s office door remained closed.
He didn’t even care enough to say goodbye. He was probably already phoning the employment agency about the résumés. Or maybe he was calling some sexy showgirl to ask for a date.
Apparently she was easy to replace. In every way.
Straightening, she held on to the frayed edges of her dignity and walked out of the penthouse where, just an hour ago, she’d thought she found love and security at last. She wouldn’t let herself cry. Not in his casino, where his men and his security cameras were everywhere.
She managed to hold back her sobs until she reached the sidewalk on Las Vegas Boulevard. Where to now? There was a taxi stand at the hotel across the street. She could barely see through her tears as she stepped off the curb. Just in time she saw the van barreling toward her in the sparse early-morning traffic. She jumped back on the sidewalk in a cold sweat, frightened at how close she’d come to walking into traffic with her son.
“Just who I was looking for,” a cold voice said. She looked up with a gasp to see Victor sitting inside the van’s open door with several of his men. “What? No snappy comeback? Not so brave when you’re alone, are you? Grab the kid,” he ordered.
Anna started to fight and scream, trying to run away, but it was hopeless. When Misha was ripped from her arms she immediately surrendered. Ten seconds later she was tied up in the back of the van, on her way to hell. Victor faced her with cold eyes and an oily smile.
“You have a choice to make, loobemaya. What happens next is up to you.”
Nikos had a sick feeling in his gut.
Pacing around his L’Hermitage penthouse, he poured himself a bourbon, then put it down untasted. He went to his home office, started to check his email, then closed the laptop without reading a single message. He finally went to the window overlooking Las Vegas. Twenty floors above the city, he had a clear view. He could see the wide desert beyond the city to the far mountains. It seemed to stretch forever. The emptiness was everywhere.
I did the right thing letting her go, he told himself. But the sick feeling only got worse. His knees felt weak, as if he’d just run twenty miles without stopping, or gone twenty rounds with a heavyweight champ; he sank into the sleek red-upholstered chair by the edge of the window. He put his head in his hands.
It was the silence that was killing him.
The absolute silence of his beautifully decorated apartment. No baby laughter. No lullabies from Anna. No voices at all. Just dead silence.
He could call one of his trusted employees, like Cooper. He could call acquaintances from the club. He could call any of a dozen women he’d dated. They would be here in less than ten minutes to fill his home with noise.
But he didn’t want them.
He wanted his family.
He wanted her. His secretary. His lover. His friend.
“I had to give her up,” he repeated to himself, raking his hand through his hair. I didn’t love her.
“Are you sure about that, sir?” a Scottish voice said from behind him.
Nikos jumped when he realized he’d spoken his last words aloud. Mrs. Burbridge was standing in the doorway, her hands folded in front of her. A sharp reply rose to his lips, but her plump face looked so gentle and understanding he bit back the words. Instead, he muttered, “Of course I’m sure.”
“You told me to pick up the baby early this morning, as you’d be going to a wedding, but I’ve arrived to find an open door, no wee babe, and no bride. Am I to understand the wedding’s off?”
“They’re both gone,” he said wearily. He went to his desk, sat down and opened his checkbook. “Your job here is done, Mrs. Burbridge. I’m sorry to bring you so far for just a few weeks. I’ll compensate you—”
She reached over and shut the checkbook with a bang. “Where are they, sir? Anna and your child?”
“I let them go,” he said, resting his head in his hands. “My son deserved a mother.”
“But the bairn was happy enough. So was his mother, I thought. Why send them away?”
“Because Anna deserves better,” he exploded. “She deserves a man who can love her. She’s been through enough. From her family. From me. I just want her to be happy.”
“And you? You don’t look terribly happy.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “I’ll get by. But Anna…” He rubbed the back of his head wearily. “I couldn’t let her down. She loved me. Marrying me would have ruined her life.”
“Her happiness means more to you than your own?”
“She’s the mother of my son. The best damn partner I ever had at work. My friend. My lover. Of course I want her to be happy. It’s all I want.”
The Scotswoman raised her head and looked at him. Her eyes were kind, but sad. “Sir, what do you think love is?”
For a second he just stared at her. Then his heart started to pound in his chest.
“Oh, my God,” he whispered.
Was it possible that she was right? That he loved Anna?
He didn’t just want her in his bed, that was true. He didn’t just enjoy her company, appreciate her skills as a mother or respect her perfect secretarial work.
He wanted her face to be the first he woke up to and the last he saw before he slept.
He wanted to see her face light up when she had a business idea, or when she was splashing around in the pool with their son.
He wanted her to be happy. To work as his secretary if that was what it took to make her glow from the inside out. Her happiness was everything.
That was love?
Oh, my God. He loved her. He didn’t deserve her, but what if he could spend the rest of his life striving to make her happy?
Because without Anna he now realized that his life was empty. His fortune, his business empire—meant nothing. Without her this penthouse was no better than his childhood tenement, and his life was just as lonely and hungry.
Money didn’t matter.
Oh, my God. Anna.
“Bless you,” he said to Mrs. Burbridge. He raced down the hall to the door. He had to find Anna—now, at once.
He stopped short when he saw Cooper standing outside his door. The burly bodyguard’s face was white and drawn.
But at that moment Nikos saw the bundle in Cooper’s arms. His baby son, wrapped in a blanket. Michael’s little face was red and miserable as he cried.
“We found him at the front entrance to the casino,” Cooper said. “Alone.”
Nikos’s heart stopped in his throat as he took his son in his arms. “Alone?”
The burly man nodded grimly. “A valet said a van stopped beneath the marquee, left the baby on the ground, and drove away.”
Nikos held his son close, crooning to him softly, rocking him back and forth against his chest, just like Anna had taught him. The baby’s tears subsided. Michael was comforted, but Nikos was not. “Anna wouldn’t let herself be separated from Misha.”