Around one in the morning, the doorbell buzzed. Lying sleepless in bed, Abbey switched on the lamp and got up. She peered through the spy hole in the door at the tall black-haired male waiting outside. It was Nikolai. Raking restive fingers through her tangled copper curls, she unlocked the door.

‘I’ve got nothing to say to you,’ she told him flatly.

‘I’ve got plenty to say,’ Nikolai growled, settling cold dark eyes on her and pressing the door wider with a determined hand. ‘You just walked out of the party and went to bed like nothing had happened?’

‘What did you want me to do? Make a big scene? Chase after you? Stage a search of the Metaxis house for you?’ Abbey slammed back as she stepped back to let him in, reluctant to risk disturbing her neighbours with an argument on the doorstep.

‘Anything would have been preferable to just walking out on me!’ Nikolai thundered back at her in an icy rage. ‘That was rude and unpardonable!’

‘So was abandoning me for the Botticelli angel woman halfway through the evening!’

His lean, handsome features tensed. ‘Don’t call her that,’ he censured. ‘And I did not abandon you. How did you think I felt when I found out your brother was in hospital?’

Abbey shrugged an uncaring shoulder, affronted by his defence of Ophelia Metaxis from even a flattering label. She studied him and gritted her teeth, determined not to surrender to her emotions. In Nikolai’s radius such a loss of control would be a terrible weakness. He had discarded his bow tie and undone his shirt. An angry flush accentuated his high cheekbones. She had never seen him so furious, for it was very rare for Nikolai to gave way to his emotions or to allow them to show on the surface. ‘Who told you?’

‘Lysander, and he also told me which hospital Drew was in. When I got there, your sister-in-law, Caroline, had the good sense to explain the situation to me. I couldn’t believe that I had to hear it from her rather than you!’ he shot at her in a raw undertone, condemnation stamped in every hard angled line of his lean, strong face.

Embarrassment and confusion attacked Abbey in a debilitating surge. ‘I didn’t think my family’s problems had anything to do with you,’ she told him defensively.

‘Of course they have. You’re part of my life. Have you any idea how I feel knowing that, even though your brother has been beaten up, you were still refusing to ask me for help?’ Nikolai launched at her wrathfully.

Abbey wound her restive hands together in an anxious movement. She didn’t really understand why he was so angry. ‘It wasn’t your problem,’ she responded.

‘But it was yours and your problems should be mine!’ Nikolai slung back at her with unquestioning conviction. ‘That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it? When you’re in trouble, you should share it with me and come to me for help!’

Abbey was stunned by the sound of that very traditional masculine assumption emerging from Nikolai. He made it sound so simple, so straightforward. He was outraged that she had not confided in him and she was taken aback by the realisation that her silence about her brother’s predicament could have struck Nikolai as both an insult and a form of rejection. ‘I didn’t know that you would feel like this about it. I just didn’t want to be one more woman in a long line who tried to take advantage of your wealth…’

‘Would it have hurt your precious pride too much?’ Nikolai demanded with derision.

‘I thought you liked my independence,’ she muttered.

‘Your independence, but not your folly. Something might have happened to you. You were threatened and you didn’t even tell me that. If you had been hurt in any way, I’d have killed them,’ Nikolai growled with chilling bite. ‘But I have only one more question to ask you…’

Lashed by his fury, Abbey was trembling, wondering how she could have miscalculated so badly. ‘And what is that?’

‘Would you have excluded Jeffrey from all knowledge of your brother’s dilemma?’ Nikolai asked bluntly.

Abbey felt her face freeze, for she knew she would never have kept Jeffrey in the dark. But six years ago she had been a good deal younger and less self-sufficient and theirs had been a different relationship, one in which her trust was based on the fact that she believed Jeffrey had made a commitment to her because he loved her. ‘That was different.’

Nikolai paled beneath his bronzed skin, his strong facial bones taut and clenched. He was still light-headed with anger and disbelief. She didn’t trust him and her refusal to even ask for his assistance had hit him like a sudden punch in the stomach. He was done with striving to measure up to the late husband she had once idolised, he told himself hotly. He would live in no man’s shadow and he would be no woman’s second-rate substitute.