Caroline and Futures’ charity director greeted the Russian tycoon and began to talk to him. Abbey sipped her glass of wine and studied the tall black-haired Russian, wondering why his obvious boredom should set her teeth on edge. No doubt he performed miracles with his money, but he didn’t necessarily have to have a personal interest in the charities that benefited from his generosity. She was conscious that his attention was on her, not on his companions. Her bra felt tight when she breathed and her breasts tingled with awareness inside the lace cups. Minutes later, Abbey was beckoned over and introduced.

‘Abbey Carmichael…Nikolai Danilovich Arlov…’


NIKOLAI held on to Abbey’s slim hand longer than was necessary and commented as he walked her away, ‘You’re the most beautiful woman here tonight.’

‘I’m flattered that you noticed me when you were so busy with your phone,’ Abbey murmured tongue-in-cheek, embarrassingly aware of the way his gaze was welded to her generous mouth. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss him and startled herself with the thought.

Ignoring the potential sting of that comment, Nikolai smiled while Caroline shot the younger woman a warning glance. ‘I’m afraid that business dominates my life. Let me buy the blue dress for you. It would be a sin if it was bought and worn by any other woman.’

Shock at that careless offer made Abbey’s lips part company and she blinked in surprise. ‘No, thanks, Mr Arlov. I prefer to buy my own clothes.’

‘Nikolai,’ he urged, watching her for the response he was accustomed to receiving from her sex.

Meeting his stunning dark eyes head-on, she felt extraordinarily short of breath and her tummy flipped. He had astonishingly long and luxuriant black eyelashes for a man. Her nipples had tightened into stinging hardness and she was terrified they would show through her cotton T-shirt. She folded her arms hurriedly. She had never been so conscious of her own body or of a man’s proximity in her entire life and the level of that awareness was unnerving her. ‘I don’t think I know you well enough—’

‘A situation which I am eager to remedy,’ he cut in, smooth as glass. ‘Would you like to go to a club when this affair winds up? Or perhaps for a meal?’

‘No, I’ll be winding up, too. I have to get up for work in the morning,’ Abbey pointed out in a flat, discouraging tone.

Exasperated dark as ebony eyes rested on her mutinous face. ‘Are you always this difficult to pin down for a date?’

‘I’m just not interested in getting to know you any better,’ Abbey told him honestly. ‘Don’t waste your time on me.’

Blunt rejection was not an occurrence that Nikolai was familiar with. Women usually went out of their way to attract his attention and hold it. His gifts were received with shrieks of pleasure and gratitude, not ignored or refused. To be turned down by a woman who did not even try to sound regretful was a novel experience for him and not one he savoured.

‘I allow nobody to waste my time. Tell me, do you continue to wear a wedding ring to keep other men at a distance?’

Abbey could not credit his insolence in daring to ask her that question. Did his choice of words suggest that he was already aware that she was a widow? If anything Nikolai Danilovich Arlov was proving to be even more obnoxious than she had expected him to be, she acknowledged, her pride still smarting from his impertinent offer to buy her the blue evening gown. She glanced down at the familiar band of gold on her wedding finger. ‘No, I still wear my wedding ring to remind me that I was once married to a very special man.’

Rare anger sparked and flared through Nikolai. He breathed in slow and deep. The defiant tilt of her chin, her patronising tone and the haughty look in her eyes offended his pride and masculinity. But more than anything else he did not want to hear her say such things. He wanted her to be carefree and hot as he was for a more intimate acquaintance, not some idealistic clean-living widow who had buried her heart in the grave with her Mr Perfect husband. Keen to steer the conversation to other channels, he asked her where she worked.

Abbey told him with pride that she was a partner in a concierge business with her brother.

‘The service industry is booming at present,’ he remarked, and he asked her how she had got involved in devoting her spare time to a spinal injuries charity. She explained that Caroline was married to her brother and described the very real support given by Futures during the challenging transition the blond woman had had to make from being able-bodied and independent to disabled.

‘Like a lot of people in the same position her whole life changed and she didn’t know where to turn,’ Abbey advanced with enthusiasm, for she was happier to talk about the charity than talk about herself. ‘She could no longer do the job she had trained for—she was a chef and a good one. Her home wasn’t adapted to her needs and she had financial problems because the accident put paid to her earnings. Futures stepped in with advice, counselling and a grant that covered her most pressing requirements—’