‘You’re a good advocate for the work that Futures does. If I offer to make a large donation to the charity, will that buy me some of your precious time?’

Abbey was stunned by the staggering concept of anyone purchasing her time and company with cash. Hot colour washed her cheeks, her violet eyes widening in disbelief. ‘I’m not a hooker for hire, Mr Danilovich.’

He rested his brilliant dark eyes on her. ‘I believe I’m already aware of that fact. But like most keen businessmen I will use any angle that works to get me what I want. If your heart is softened by the prospect of the charity benefiting from my interest in you, I will not be slow to take advantage of it. Do you want to talk figures?’

‘No, I do not!’ Abbey gasped, shocked to the core by his attitude. Only when heads turned in their radius did she realise that her sharp tone had carried farther afield. In receipt of curious glances, she flushed. ‘If you wish to make a donation, please make sure it has nothing to do with me. You should discuss it with Cyril Townsend, Futures’ director.’

‘But it will have everything to do with you. At least let me take you home, lubimaya,’ he breathed, his Russian accent curling richly round the vowel sounds.

Abbey intercepted a pleading look from her sister-in-law and compressed her lips. She was reluctant to embarrass the blond woman by offending the charity’s VIP guest. ‘I’m afraid not. I’m driving my sister-in-law home,’ she confided.

In receipt of yet another rebuff, Nikolai studied her as if he could not believe his ears. ‘Then when will I see you again?’

‘I don’t think a second meeting is on the agenda,’ Abbey replied.

‘I want you.’

I want you. That admission was bold and uncompromising and he delivered it like a challenge, a sworn statement of intent. Her heart lurched inside her ribcage as he stared down at her with stubborn brooding force etched in his lean, sardonic face. He had buckets of sex appeal and, no matter how hard she tried, she was insanely aware of his breathtaking good looks and far from impervious to his rough-edged masculine appeal. Antipathy and resentment shot through her tall shapely body, however, and she lifted her chin. ‘I’m not for sale, Mr Danilovich. And I can’t be bribed.’

‘Every human being under the sun has a price. It may not be money, it may be something else. It doesn’t follow that a bribe, as you call it, is morally wrong if it wins positive results,’ Nikolai traded.

‘We don’t see the world the same way,’ Abbey countered drily, unsurprised by his attempt to package his unacceptable bribe into an excusable act of benevolence. She was dealing with a hard, cynical man whose greatest god was money and who did not know how to accept the word no when it conflicted with his wishes. ‘And I doubt that we ever will.’

‘I’m a realist and rarely wrong.’

‘How comforting it must be to see oneself as supreme in all fields,’ Abbey replied.

‘Apparently not in this encounter,’ he quipped.

‘Goodbye, Mr Arlov. I hope you won’t regard a donation to Futures as being in any way influenced by my behaviour.’ Abbey walked away from him with a strong sense of relief.

Nikolai watched her until she vanished from view. He felt angry and frustrated. He had never met a more annoying or intriguing woman and her unexpected resistance and prickly personality had only heightened the intensity of his desire for her.

A few minutes later, and with her children in tow, Caroline tracked Abbey down to where she was gathering her things in the now-silent dressing area that had earlier buzzed with so much life and noise. ‘What did you say to our Russian billionaire? Leaving, he looked like the iceberg that sank the Titanic.’

‘No iceberg is that hot to trot.’

‘It’s not a hanging offence to fancy you, you know.’ Her sister-in-law sighed. ‘You are single and very attractive.’

‘I didn’t like him at all.’ Abbey chewed anxiously at the soft underside of her lower lip. ‘Did he write a cheque?’

‘No, he didn’t give Futures a penny.’

Abbey compressed her lips in disappointment and followed her brother’s wife out to the lift that would ferry them back down to the car park. She wondered if she would lie awake all night feeling guilty about the donation that hadn’t materialised because she had done nothing to encourage it. Would it have killed her to spend a couple of hours with Nikolai? She drove Caroline and the children home and saw them indoors before heading back to her apartment. Drew had been a no-show. He had sent his wife only an apologetic text. Her soft, full mouth down-curving, Abbey resolved to have a quiet word with her sibling. Caroline wasn’t just her brother’s wife, she was also the woman that Abbey had long regarded and trusted as her closest friend.

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