‘What do you think of the house, milaya moya?’ Nikolai enquired as they walked round the walled garden where box-edged borders of roses rioted with glorious romantic abandon.
‘Well, it’s not exactly tailor-made for you, is it?’ Abbey quipped. ‘The bathrooms can be counted on one hand. The last modernisation programme ended before the First World War and, because it’s a listed building, alterations will be a complex issue for there are a lot of restrictions.’
‘Are you always so practical?’
‘You’re paying me to look out for your interests and warn you of the pitfalls,’ Abbey reminded him.
Lean, strong face taut, Nikolai expelled his breath with an audible hiss and turned her round. He looked down at her, his shapely hands enclosing her wrists. ‘Did you like the house?’
‘Yes, I did, but I can’t see you falling into ecstasies over the quality of the wainscoting and the holes left in the walls by the Cromwellian attack.’
‘There’s no accounting for taste,’ Nikolai murmured huskily, lowering his handsome dark head to taste her generous mouth in an explorative kiss that made her shiver, heat flowering low in her stomach. ‘We’re staying in a local hotel tonight. It’s time to leave.’
‘Why aren’t we going back to London?’
‘I have my reasons.’
Thirty minutes later they were walking into a magnificent country house hotel and Nikolai was ordering dinner.
‘It feels strange to be anywhere without paparazzi,’ Abbey confided. ‘Do you know I haven’t got so much as a toothbrush with me?’
Nikolai sent her a flashing smile of amusement. The suite was large, opulent and extremely comfortable. Wonderful flower arrangements scented the rooms. Champagne was served when Abbey reappeared after freshening up as best she could in the marble bathroom. She sensed Nikolai’s tension and it bothered her and made her wonder what was wrong.
‘Just one more diamond,’ Nikolai murmured softly, extending a small jewellery box to her.
‘Another?’ Abbey exclaimed in dismay, flipping open the lid, and then freezing to stare down at the huge diamond solitaire ring. ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’
‘You really are making this a challenge.’ Nikolai sighed. ‘I couldn’t get down on one bended knee and keep my face straight, but I always assumed that most women are programmed to recognise an engagement ring at first glance.’
Abbey’s smooth brow indented. ‘It’s an engagement ring?’ she gasped in shock.
‘Will you marry me?’ Nikolai asked, tugging the ring out of the box and trying to put it onto the wrong finger.
‘Oh, my gosh…yes!’ Abbey told him, extending the correct finger to be helpful.
‘You don’t want time to think about it?’ Nikolai checked, his dark gaze liquid with emotion as he studied her.
‘What’s there to think about?’ Abbey whispered in a wobbly voice as shock began setting in hard on her and tears clogged her throat and stung her eyes like mad. ‘I love you loads.’
‘Do you?’ Nikolai was staring down at her hard enough to strip paint. ‘So why are you crying?’
‘I’m so h-happy!’ Abbey hiccupped.
Nikolai was holding on tightly to both her hands as if he was working up to saying something. A muscle jumped at his tense jaw line. ‘I meant it when I told you I’d never felt like this before. I didn’t even realise what love was until I fell for you—’
Abbey squeezed his hands. ‘You fell for me?’
‘A head-on collision. Crash-bang-wallop, as you Brits would say,’ he mocked. ‘I was so jealous of what you felt for Jeffrey.’
Abbey was studying him wide-eyed. ‘You…were?’
‘It drove me crazy.’
‘I was just a teeny bopper when I loved Jeffrey. It was different,’ Abbey admitted ruefully, freeing one of his hands to reach up and trace the angle of one hard masculine cheekbone, rejoicing in her freedom to touch him. ‘You should appreciate the fact that I fell for you, warts and all! You paraded all your faults and I still managed to love you.’
‘What faults?’ Nikolai fielded.
Abbey rested her palm on his shirt front. ‘I don’t think we should go there tonight. You know, I’m not perfect either. I was just trying to point out that even though you bribed me into dining with you on our first date and I knew that was very wrong, I still fell head over heels in love with you.’
Nikolai covered her hand with his. ‘I had to fight just to get time with you and then I took advantage of you that first night and knew I would pay for it—’