Abbey made no comment. She had no idea what had got into her brother and did not feel qualified to hazard a guess. Drew had always been quiet and sensible, and dangerous, thrill-seeking behaviour like compulsive gambling seemed out of character for him. But Abbey had only to look at her own conduct in recent weeks to accept that people often acted in unpredictable ways and not always for any clearly defined or rational reason. How, after all, could she explain her own total obsession with Nikolai? Was it a physical infatuation that would fade?

‘You could ask Nikolai Arlov for a loan.’

Abbey’s bright auburn head jerked up in dismay at that unwelcome suggestion. Caroline’s oval face was pale and strained and her shadowed eyes were pleading.

‘I couldn’t,’ Abbey replied curtly. ‘That’s out of the question.’

‘Why not? I mean, the bank wouldn’t even consider us in the state we’re in, but Nikolai might as a favour to you.’

Abbey was furious with Caroline for even broaching the subject. ‘Fixed as we are for finance right now, it would take us a lifetime to pay Nikolai back. And if I asked him to give us money it would be like selling myself to him!’ Abbey proclaimed, compressing bloodless lips and almost shuddering at the idea. Of course she had thought about asking Nikolai for help, of course she had, but she didn’t see why he should be expected to settle her brother’s debts for him. And she cherished the truth that she had never looked on Nikolai or treated him like an open wallet. She was not greedy like his previous lovers and she knew he valued that difference.

‘Don’t be so fanciful,’ her sister-in-law argued. ‘Nikolai seems to delight in spending money on you. He never stops buying you expensive gifts and you’re already practically living with him! Everyone reckons that what he has with you is much more than a casual affair.’

Everyone? Not Abbey, however. She stared out into the back garden where Alice and Benjamin were playing on the swing set. Every so often one of the twins cast an anxious look back towards the house, revealing that both children were aware of the tension in their home. Abbey hurt for her nephew and niece, who’d had to contend with a lot of parental rows and grief over the past fortnight. She wished she had a magic wand to wave that would make all the trouble and strife go away, but she didn’t.

‘Nikolai and I…well, it’s not like you think,’ Abbey argued uncomfortably, wishing she could tell the other woman about Nikolai’s desire to fool the press into believing that he was involved in a serious relationship with her. Only then would Caroline understand how hollow Nikolai’s apparent attentiveness really was at heart.

Caroline gave the younger woman an unimpressed glance. ‘Isn’t it? You’ve been here thirty minutes and he hasn’t phoned yet to maintain contact and I’m surprised. Over the last two weeks I doubt if you and Nikolai have been apart for longer than a couple of hours.’

Abbey dropped her head, knowing that that was the truth. The even more disturbing truth was that she had revelled in every minute of that intense togetherness and had discovered a happiness she had not known she was capable of experiencing. Happiness for her was falling asleep in Nikolai’s arms at night and waking up still in them.

‘And that’s not the way he usually behaves with women according to the articles I’ve read,’ Drew’s wife contended. ‘He’s a cold customer as a rule and yet he’s bought you a fortune in diamonds, is having you driven around in your own personal limousine and he marches you out everywhere he goes.’

‘I returned the diamonds to him,’ Abbey reminded Caroline and, catching sight of the time, she frowned. ‘Look, I’ll have to go or I’ll get caught up in the traffic—’

‘And be late, which Nikolai detests. He’s got you dancing to his tune all right. It’s hard to credit that only a week or so ago you were heartbroken about Jeffrey and Jane Dalkeith.’

Abbey’s face shadowed, as she recognised the slight hint of scorn in that unnecessary reminder of her lowest hour. After the shock of Jeffrey’s betrayal had sunk in, she had adapted fairly quickly and she had no quarrel with that assessment. ‘Well, I had to get over that, didn’t I? I wasted too many years grieving for Jeffrey to waste any more time agonising over a past that I couldn’t change and a man who never loved me the way I loved him.’

‘Very sensible. I only wish you would practise some of that sense around Nikolai.’

‘Common sense died the day I met him,’ Abbey quipped on the way out and she wasn’t joking when she said it. Something stronger than she was had drawn her to Nikolai and forged links she couldn’t break or walk away from.