Ellie held her upper body very stiffly, but her legs were trembling. The prospect of buying the shop had been like a life raft, and now she felt as if she was sinking.
'You'll receive everything due to you, of course. I'm giving you a month's notice,' he continued, 'and I'll expect you to move out of that room upstairs at the same time. You've never had a tenancy agreement, and I require that room for other purposes.'
‘I’ll be out of here sooner than that,' Ellie framed with bleak dignity.
'Well, I must admit that that would suit me very well!' He had the hide of a rhinoceros. Awarding her a relieved look, he closed up the books and departed, humming under his breath.
It was only six o'clock. Ellie sank down at the foot of the stairs. Five years of minimal holidays, low pay and all those extra hours keeping up the accounts. And at the end of it? One month's notice. What an idiot she had been, dreaming her stupid dreams! There were other businesses out there, but precious few would be within her financial reach. It was time to take stock and make fresh plans. She splayed her fingers over her still flat tummy, thinking about her baby, trying not to think about his father.
She was climbing the stairs when the bell went. With a sigh, she turned back. She looked out of the shop's window and simply did not credit the sight of the male grinning her. Ricky Bolton.
'Come on, Ellie...open sesame!'
Maybe he would give her a laugh. Dio had been notoriously low on giving her a laugh. Ellie unlocked the door.
'How did you find out where I lived?'
Ricky kept on grinning, all white teeth, suntan and bold blue eyes. He exuded a buoyant conceit as powerful as an aura. 'I stole a look at your personnel file before I moved on. I've been meaning to call by for ages, but you know how it is—'
'So many women, so little time?'
'Yeah, well, I can't help being a hot property!' Ricky ran appreciative fingers through his thick blond hair and then grimaced. 'Well, to be honest, I got mixed up with this real terrifying bunny boiler for a while...'
Ellie found herself smiling warmly. 'Tell me more,' she encouraged. 'What did she want? A second date?'
'Could I, like...come inside out of the cold?' ‘I’m not feeling that friendly, Ricky. You made a real nui¬sance of yourself on level eight. I also hear you left under something of a cloud? Am I right?'
'Dead wrong!' he contradicted with another hugely self-satisfied grin. 'Good luck came my way and I rocketed up the career ladder.'
'Are you still in that new position?' she couldn't resist asking, wondering if Dio's forecast that he would be fired even faster had been accurate.
'No way! I got myself headhunted out of there again. It wasn't a safe house, if you know what I mean. Fancy a spin in my company car?'
'I'm pregnant, Ricky.'
His grin fell right off his handsome face. 'You're...what? My God, what happened?'
'Flamin' hell, who is this guy? Casanova? Where is he?'
'It figures. Yeah, well, maybe I'll look you up like...next year or something,' Ricky muttered ruefully. 'Probably never. I'm just not into kids at this stage of my life.'
Helplessly amused, Ellie stood up on tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "Thank you for being that honest.'
Startled, Ricky laughed and rested his arms down on her narrow shoulders. He lowered his head to murmur with re¬covering good humour, 'Take it from me, you missed a hell of an experience!'
A split second later, the tall blond was literally wrenched away from her. Ellie stumbled back a step in bewilderment. She was just in time to see Dio throw Ricky up against the wall with a snarled Greek expletive and punch him.
'Stop it!' Ellie screeched, absolutely appalled.
Ricky doubled up, groaning.
'You stay away from her!' Dio roared, hauling him up again. 'You hear me? You stay away from my woman or I'll rip you apart!'
Ricky focused on his assailant with enlarged eyes full of incredulous recognition.
'You're behaving like an animal, Dio!' Ellie gasped, shat¬tered by his violent intervention.
Dio released Ricky with a volatile gesture of savage de¬rision. He studied Ellie, dark golden eyes blazing condemnation. 'And you ask yourself, whose fault is that? I saw you kissing him—'
'On the cheek,' Ricky grunted as he straggled to try and recover his breath. 'You know, I could make a real killing if I charged you with assault'
'You do what you like,' Dio ground out with magnificent unconcern, still glowering at Ellie full force.
'And an even bigger killing if I went to the tabloids with this extraordinary little set-up,' Ricky mused.
'You deserved a good thump for flogging that tip-off you overheard!' Ellie told him roundly.
Dio froze. His arrogant dark head turned slowly, ‘This...this is Ricky Bolton?'