Abbey could not believe his sheer nerve. ‘You are planning to ask me to house-hunt for you?’

‘A little more than that. I would prefer it if the press were kept in the dark with regard to this move for a few weeks longer.’ His brilliant dark eyes gleamed in the morning sunshine filtering through the blinds. ‘When the paparazzi descended on us last night and I saw the headlines this morning, it occurred to me that I could make double use of your presence in my life.’ As he spoke he extended a tabloid newspaper to her.

Abbey stole a reluctant look at the headline that screamed that the Russian billionaire had found a British lover. She was relieved to note that a photo of them together on the pavement outside his apartment building the night before was so out of focus that her best friend wouldn’t have recognised her. Her name was misspelt, her marital status incorrect and her career demoted to the level of a clerical assistant to her brother. She cringed at the prospect of her face and her private life being paraded across publications that only made money from the shock value of gossip and salacious revelations.

‘Double use? I don’t understand what you’re suggesting,’ Abbey said icily, parading her lack of interest like a banner and wishing he would take the hint.

‘I want to hoodwink the press. Let them believe that you are house-hunting because we are engaged in a serious relationship.’

‘But you don’t do serious relationships,’ Abbey pointed out witheringly. ‘When it comes to women you have the attention span of a toddler.’

‘You’re not very effective in business meetings, are you?’ Nikolai breathed with sardonic bite. ‘Insulting me is scarcely good practice. Will your brother be equally happy when he learns that you have rejected my offer?’

Abbey froze, her delicate facial bones tightening in reaction to that blunt retaliation. She knew Drew would be most unhappy and, bearing in mind their current financial position, she knew that he would believe he had good cause to be angry with her.

‘The press love a romance,’ Nikolai pointed out. ‘That would provide a useful cover story for my purchase of new homes here and conceal the fact that I’m planning on a permanent move.’

‘That’s possible,’ Abbey conceded curtly. ‘But while I’m prepared to house-hunt for you, I’m not prepared to pretend to be flavour of the month in your bed. I would also have to tell you that I think you are the most despicable man I have ever met—’

‘Do you make a habit of taking despicable men to your bed?’ Nikolai quipped.

Abbey turned white as a sheet at that retaliatory crack. ‘I annoyed you last night because I asked you to leave and that must have dented your macho ego. Now you want me in your pay and your power to get your own back, and the answer is no.’

‘You’re being very foolish. I know you can’t afford to turn me down. Your family firm is dangerously overextended.’

Abbey was furious. ‘That’s confidential banking information. Where did you get it from?’

‘My sources in financial fields are always exceptional and accurate.’

With difficulty, Abbey swallowed the ire that was threatening to choke her. She was so angry with him that containing her fury made her feel nauseous. It was impossible that she could work for him in any way, but she played for time by asking, ‘What would the pretence require from me?’

‘Occasional public appearances in my company, hosting a couple of parties for me, allowing me to buy you a new wardrobe and provide you with the trappings that would make the role seem more convincing.’

‘As well as being at your beck and call while I look for property?’

‘That, too, obviously,’ Nikolai conceded.

Her violet eyes lighting up like tiny purple flames, she viewed him in furious frustration. ‘I hate you. I can’t act for peanuts. I’d be a PR disaster in such a role.’

‘Would you be?’ Elevating an ebony brow in disagreement, Nikolai closed a hand round her narrow-boned wrist and tugged her closer to him. ‘Even though you light up like a Christmas tree around me?’

‘If you don’t let go of me I’ll thump you!’ Abbey snapped at him angrily, struggling to escape his hold.

‘Don’t be silly,’ Nikolai told her with masculine impatience.

‘Get your hands off me and keep them off!’ Abbey threw her free arm back to gain momentum and slapped him so hard across the cheek she was vaguely surprised that the force of it did not knock her off her feet.

Stunned, Nikolai blinked beneath the force of the blow. Across the room, Sveta stood frozen in the doorway by the little tableau before her arrested gaze. ‘Nikolai?’ she questioned in visible disbelief.