‘I can’t believe you’re so annoyed with me. I didn’t want to ask you for money, particularly as I can’t see how a loan that size could ever be repaid the way things are at present,’ Abbey admitted uncomfortably.

‘I’ve arranged for the debt to be settled. I was impressed that your brother had confessed his addiction and was already attending Gamblers Anonymous. I believe he’s learned his lesson,’ Nikolai confided. ‘The money isn’t a loan and I don’t require repayment. Consider it a gift.’

‘I can hardly turn it down when you’ve offered it to Drew and Caroline on those terms. It’s their business now. You’ve taken the whole matter out of my hands.’ A gift? Abbey felt that she had already accepted far too many gifts. ‘You’re being incredibly kind and generous—’

‘Forget it,’ Nikolai cut in starkly.

‘I presume I’m still working for you—’

‘And everything else, lubimaya,’ Nikolai drawled, closing a lean hand over hers and tugging her up against him before she could guess his intention. She swayed against him, her knees as weak as the rest of her with simple shock.

It seemed she had got totally the wrong end of the stick. She could not credit that a male who saw her only in terms of a casual affair would consider it his right to share her worries and solve her problems. Nikolai was offended because she had not turned to him for help. Nikolai, it seemed, would be happy for her to be needy and clingy if it meant he could step in like a knight in shining armour and save the day for her. A dazed smile on her lips, she rested her buzzing head on his shoulder and thought about how much she loved him and of how worthy he seemed of her affection at that moment. Her suspicions about the level of his interest in Ophelia Metaxis were completely allayed by the concern and support he was demonstrating. She recalled the nonchalance of Ophelia’s husband, Lysander, and castigated herself for getting jealous without good reason. The tide of relief washing over her made her feel weak and incredibly tired.

‘You’re falling asleep.’ Nikolai sighed, bending down to lift her up into his arms and carry her back to her bed.

‘It’s been a long night,’ Abbey mumbled, settling into the mattress like a rock embedding in soft sand. And that was her very last memory until she wakened the next morning.

Nikolai watched her sleep. It was a small bed and he didn’t want to disturb her when she was so tired. He knew he should have told her what had happened at the party. He knew he should have explained, but his news would keep until tomorrow when she had recovered the energy to listen and stay awake.

Having dimly assumed that Nikolai was staying the night, Abbey was surprised to open her eyes and discover that she was alone. She had slept like a log but something had woken her up. The doorbell? The phone? She flinched when both went off almost simultaneously. She scrambled out of bed, picked up the cordless phone and threw on her dressing gown to answer the door. She was too flustered and sleepy to check the spy hole first and it was an unpleasant shock to find a paparazzo brandishing a newspaper outside and asking her for a comment.

‘A comment on what?’ she queried as she pressed the answer button on the phone just to stop it ringing.

The man held up the newspaper page right in front of her eyes. Abbey put out a hand and snatched it out of mid-air to peer down at the photo with incredulous force.

‘Don’t answer the door until you’ve talked to me,’ Nikolai told her over the phone. ‘There’s a crazy story in the papers this morning.’

It was a photo of Nikolai on a balcony with a woman and the woman had her arms wrapped round him. Abbey recognised Ophelia Metaxis’s golden curls and her white-and-silver evening gown. The picture must have been taken with a telephoto lens from the garden the night before. ‘You bastard,’ Abbey whispered strickenly and she pressed the phone’s disconnect phone button with violent force.

‘Would you like to talk?’ the paparazzo asked hopefully.

Abbey slammed the door in his face. The phone was ringing again. She banged the disconnect button again. What an idiot she had been to trust Nikolai, to assume he was innocent rather than guilty, to refuse to accept that the most obvious explanation was usually the right one! Maybe Lysander and Ophelia Metaxis had one of those trendy open relationships she had read about, for she could not see any other explanation for Lysander’s complacent attitude to the sight of his wife blatantly seeking out another man’s company. Particularly a man with a reputation as notorious as Nikolai Arlov’s. She showered and dressed quickly, selecting a tailored black pinstripe suit from her wardrobe and teaming it with a purple fitted top. She had to knot a scarf round her neck to hide the bruise there.

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