Abbey was devastated to learn that her big brother, whom she trusted and loved, had stolen from both her and his family by secretly bleeding vast sums of money from Support Systems and putting even their business at risk of collapse. Indeed she was stunned. But the news that he had fought his addiction and was still dealing with his compulsion by attending GA meetings made her think better of him. Even so, she blamed herself for not keeping a closer eye on the firm’s finances, because, had she discovered what Drew was up to sooner, she might have been able to stop him gambling before matters had got quite so out of control. ‘Does Caroline know about any of this?’

‘I’ve been too ashamed to tell her. Hasn’t she borne enough without learning that I’ve now wrecked her life and the kids’ by gaming away everything that matters to them?’ Drew muttered heavily. ‘I’m behind with the mortgage payments, too.’

Abbey was frantically trying to work out where she could get money from to pay off his outstanding debts, but she was paying a mortgage on her apartment as well. Furthermore, at a time when the financial markets were weak, interest rates were high and house prices were falling, it was not a good plan to seek to remortgage in the hope of clearing some surplus cash. ‘I don’t know what to say or do…’

‘There’s nothing you can do. I’ve ruined our lives.’

‘You have to tell Caroline. She’s going to find out and it would be kinder if she heard it from you first,’ Abbey told her brother and watched his eyes slide away from hers in instant dismay at that daunting prospect. ‘Surely she already knows about the mortgage on the house?’

Drew hung his head and released his breath in a hiss. ‘I forged her signature on the application.’

Abbey said nothing. She was way beyond exhibiting shock and voicing angry disapproval and was much too busy worrying about the ultimate result of Drew’s financial depredations on the firm. She went back into her own office with the account books and, in between studying them and eventually tracing the evidence of Drew’s unauthorised cash withdrawals, she sat staring into space. Caroline would be distraught. What if the business went down as well? Belatedly recalling that Nikolai was expecting her to join him to view the house he was planning to buy, she headed out to meet him.

Nikolai registered that something was wrong with Abbey within minutes of her appearance. There was a hollow look in her eyes and her usual pizzazz was noticeably absent. He was still annoyed with her. Women were usually eager to please him and he had learned to take that treatment for granted. But Abbey wouldn’t make the required effort and he could only take that as an insult when he compared her attitude to what he had gathered about her former behaviour with her late husband. He knew that he could call on any number of beautiful attentive women, who would not hesitate to fulfil his smallest request. Had he not been engaged in a pretence with Abbey designed to dupe the press, he would have dumped her by now, he assured himself grimly.

Mr bin Hashim greeted them and left them alone to explore the big house. Abbey wandered around in Nikolai’s wake with all the energy and sparkle of someone attending a funeral. Undeniably the property was vastly superior to anything she had shown him earlier that week and the entertainment suite and pool area in the basement were nothing short of spectacular.

‘Perfect for parties,’ Nikolai remarked.

Abbey’s delicate profile froze, as she was picturing naked beauties frolicking in the clear water and displaying their perfect bodies for his benefit. She had seen the way other women looked at him at the premiere and it had shocked her. He might as well have a bullseye painted on his back, for he was a target for predatory women. He was gorgeous, young and fabulously wealthy and generous. She had no real hold on him and she had never been so aware of the fact. She was, after all, just one of the herd and lower than most in her ranking, for their apparent relationship was ninety-per-cent bogus to fool the media, she reminded herself dully.

‘I’m very impressed that you pulled this off for me, milaya,’ Nikolai confided huskily, closing an arm to her spine and folding her close with the easy intimacy that could still catch her unawares. He was a very physical guy. She was tempted to rest back into his arms and lean on him like the sort of weak, needy female she would never allow herself to be.

‘Have you any advice to offer me with regard to the country property?’ she pressed instead.

‘Do you ever stop thinking of work? You look very tired,’ he censured.

The lawyers would negotiate and tie up the purchase of his new London home. In the back of his limo, Nikolai turned to her and handed her a jewel case. ‘A tribute to mark your efficiency,’ he murmured smoothly.