The paparazzi took so many flash photos as they emerged onto the street that she was bedazzled and blinking frantically when she climbed into the limousine.
‘I meant to give you this earlier.’ Nikolai handed her a gift bag as they drove across the city to the party.
Abbey extracted several small items carefully wrapped in tissue paper. The first package produced a miniature horse that was dressed in medieval war tack. A frown line pleated her brows. The second item she unwrapped was a doll’s house doll, a distinctly handsome black-haired male dressed like a Crusader knight about to go into battle and armed to the teeth with little metal weapons.
‘Nikolai…this is incredible,’ she whispered in fascination.
‘There’s no man in your doll’s house. Someone must have fathered the tribe of kids in the attic.’
‘Where on earth did you get him from?’
‘The Kensington Doll’s House Festival.’
‘I had planned to go but I couldn’t find the time,’ Abbey confided, stunned by the gifts and setting her warrior onto his horse where he looked most at home and very impressive. She would not have dreamt of telling Nikolai that, while her fatherless doll’s house family might inhabit a medieval castle, he had got the time frame wrong for the interior and the inhabitants were more staidly set in the Victorian age. And she was dumbfounded that he had chosen to attend such an event purely to buy her presents. A third package yielded a minuscule silver dressing table set that was exquisite and a skilful miniature landscape painting. ‘Wow…I’m astonished. Thank you very, very much.’
‘I was amazed by the quality of the craftsmanship.’
‘You’re much too generous,’ Abbey told him uncomfortably.
‘I enjoy giving you stuff. I don’t have a family to spoil like other men,’ Nikolai pointed out.
That observation warmed and touched her, but it was to be the last pleasant moment in a challenging evening. When they arrived at Lysander and Ophelia Metaxis’s spectacular town house, they were personally greeted by their hosts. Abbey was immediately aware of her hostess’s keen interest in Nikolai. The tiny exquisite blonde, who was unquestionably a beauty, bubbled over with warmth and chatter from the instant she laid eyes on Nikolai and greeted him with breathless enthusiasm. A cold presentiment of trouble slid through Abbey like ice trickling into her tummy. Lysander Metaxis was equally gracious in his welcome. Indeed, amidst the exchanged glances, companionable chuckles and general air of bonhomie shared between their hosts and Nikolai, Abbey felt very much like an outsider, marooned on the edge of a charmed circle.
Abbey told herself off for being silly and over-sensitive. When had she become so jealous and possessive that she couldn’t handle Nikolai enjoying the company of an attractive woman? But on more than one occasion during the evening that followed, it seemed to Abbey that Nikolai’s gaze regularly strayed in an effort to pick Ophelia Metaxis out of the crush. He was quiet as well, his manner preoccupied. An hour later, Abbey turned round and discovered that Nikolai appeared to have vanished and that there was no sign of their hostess either.
As she walked out of the beautiful ballroom towards the hall Lysander Metaxis strode forward to intercept her. ‘Ophelia is showing Nikolai our art collection. Didn’t he mention it?’
‘Maybe I didn’t hear him…’ Abbey stared up at her tall, classically handsome host, who seemed to find nothing odd or worthy of comment in his wife’s behaviour with Nikolai.
‘I’m sure they’ll be back soon. Let me get you a drink,’ he murmured smoothly, cupping her elbow to guide her back into the ballroom.
Some time later when Abbey was striving to work up an appetite for the delicious spread of food being served at a buffet, she received a call on her mobile phone. When she answered it, her face froze in dismay at the onslaught of Caroline’s sobbing hysterical voice.
It took Abbey several minutes to calm her sister-in-law down enough to understand what the other woman was trying to tell her. When she did work it out, she was very much shocked: earlier that evening, Drew had been attacked in the staff car park by a couple of men and beaten up. Her brother was in hospital.
‘I’ll be with you as soon as I can get there,’ Abbey promised, her heart hammering out her tension. ‘Did you call the police?’
The police had gone to the hospital but Drew was refusing to make a statement. That information confirmed Abbey’s worst fears. Evidently Drew believed the attack was linked to his gambling debts and he was afraid to make a formal complaint. She called to order a taxi to pick her up. Its arrival alerted Lysander Metaxis to Abbey’s planned departure and brought him to her side, just as she sent Nikolai a text telling him that she was leaving the party because her brother had been hurt. She explained the situation to her Greek host, apologised for leaving early and politely ignored his suggestion that she wait to consult Nikolai on her next move. Just at that moment, Abbey didn’t care if she never laid eyes on Nikolai Arlov again.