‘I have never, will never, pressure a woman.’

‘Good.’ Her voice was a croak, but somehow she got the word out. His hand was behind her now, lazily holding the door she leant against. There was not a shred of contact between them, but she felt as if he was inside her.

‘Do you feel pressured now?’

His mouth was mere inches from hers, her mind was quailing, but her treacherous body flared in an instant recall of their one dizzy time together.

‘You haven’t answered the question…’ Zarios said slowly. ‘Emma, am I pressuring you now?’

‘No.’

‘Do you want me to kiss you?’

Yes.

She didn’t say it, but the word snapped like a twig between them.

She wanted to forget, to escape…for just one moment. To forget this living hell and taste the heaven she had once witnessed. To accept the temporary relief his mouth would surely provide.

To be held instead of holding up.

He kissed her then, his mouth crushing hers. Except she was kissing him back with all her might, pressing her body into his as if she wanted to climb inside him to escape, revelling in the freedom that his touch, his kiss, his being somehow brought her. Oh, she was lost, lost, lost, and it was wonderful. She was back in oblivion and it tasted divine. His tongue stroked hers, extricated her from the hell of the past few weeks. How she kissed him back—biting on his lip, sucking his flesh, holding his head as he held hers. They were devouring each other with hot, angry kisses that soothed.

The ferocity of his erection pressed into her groin just wasn’t enough. The incessant pressure of his mouth, the delicious probing of his tongue and the contentious feel of his hand pushing up her skirt, creeping along her thigh, was bliss. Yet it still wasn’t enough! And he knew, he knew, because his fingers were hard on the soft flesh of her inner thigh. She parted them, just moved her feet a fraction, and still he kissed her, still his fingers crept higher, till they arrived at her sweet, welcoming moist warmth. As he slid his fingers inside her, his skilled hand dimmed reason. She pulled her head away from his kiss, biting on his shoulder or else she’d scream, knowing that in just a second she would come in his hand.

And then he stopped. His cruel withdrawal momentarily stunning her.

‘As I said…’ His free hand lifted her chin so he could look at her, even as still he held her in the palm of his hand. ‘I do not waste my time with rules I know will be broken.’

As he removed his hand, hers met his cheek. Tears, hate, shame and loathing—all were there in her aim. Not just for him, but for the betrayal of her own body, that even after all he had done still she could want him.

He didn’t even flinch, just walked to his computer, four livid strokes where her fingers had been on his cheek.

Her phone was buzzing in her bag. Her body was twitching and confused at the withdrawal of his affection. Her mind was begging her to get out, warning her that she might as well make a deal with the devil himself rather than enter into this with Zarios.

And yet…

When everything had gone, there was nothing left to lose.

‘I have one condition…’

‘I thought we just dealt with that.’

‘There will be no other women.’ Emma swallowed hard. ‘As long as this charade continues, as long you are engaged or married to me, there are to be no other women or the deal is off.’

He gave a surly shrug.

‘I mean it…’ Emma shivered. ‘You are not to see anyone else. I won’t be humili…’ Her voice trailed off. It was a bit late for that.

‘Fine,’ he clipped. ‘I am as good as my word—and here it is. If during our time together I sleep with another woman then you can walk away without owing me a cent. Now…’ he turned his face to the screen to conclude the messy business ‘…can I have your bank details?’

‘I hate what you did to me,’ Emma said, just to be sure he knew it. But Zarios was as unmoved as he was unimpressed.

‘Your bank details, Emma?’

She hated herself even more for giving them.

CHAPTER SEVEN

‘YOU’VE got it?’ Jake was pale with relief. ‘I can ring them…you can transfer it now…’

‘Why don’t I just deposit it into your account?’

‘For Beth to see?’

‘She’s going to find out, Jake. Once the inheritance goes through, you’re going to have to explain why there isn’t any…’

‘That’s weeks away.’ Jake shook his head.

‘It’s two weeks away, Jake. And you can deny it all you like, but this problem isn’t going to go away. Beth has to be told.’

‘I know that,’ Jake shrilled. ‘I know that. But I can’t tell her now, Em. Not with the way things are. If Beth and I can just get past this…And anyway…’ his face crumpled in despair ‘…I don’t trust myself with that sort of money…’

‘You’re getting help?’

‘I’m going to meetings every day…I haven’t gambled in weeks.’

Her bank details jumped up on the screen and Emma swallowed, reeling at the balance, her fingers hovering over the keyboard as Jake read out his loan shark’s details.

‘You have to pay me back, Jake.’

‘You know I will.’

‘No, Jake, I don’t.’ She turned to face her brother. ‘I want it in writing. I want the money you owe me to go directly into my bank account when the settlement goes through.’

‘Are you saying you don’t trust me?’

‘I don’t trust you, Jake.’ After what she’d had to go through today, it wasn’t hard to say. ‘I don’t trust you with money—I’d be an absolute fool to. I need it in writing.’

‘Fine!’ he snapped, ripping out a piece of paper from her printer and scrawling a note stating the sum that was being borrowed, and that he would pay her back at the time of their settlement. ‘Satisfied?’

Emma took the piece of paper and placed it in her bag, hardly able to make out the digits on the keyboard as her eyes swam with tears. She knew the second she hit ‘confirm’ she was truly indebted to Zarios. For the next two weeks she was a pawn in the elaborate game he was playing—conning poor Rocco.

‘Never do this again, Jake. I will never help you again.’

‘I’ll never ask.’

And he meant it. Staring into eyes that were as blue as her own, seeing the wretchedness in his features, the shame, the grief, the embarrassment, she knew that he meant it and reached out her arms to her brother.

‘I’m so ashamed…’ he sobbed. ‘I hate myself more than you hate me.’

‘I don’t hate you, Jake. I’m just scared for you.’

‘I miss them, Em.’

‘I know.’

‘They’d be so ashamed…’

‘Don’t think about that.’

‘I’ll make them proud.’ He was a snivelling mess, his grief, his shame, his fear so raw, so real, that surely, surely this was his rock bottom? Surely this had to be the last time? ‘I’m never gambling again. I’m going to make you proud—make Beth and the twins proud…’

‘Make yourself proud, Jake.’ She gave a tired smile as he glanced at his watch.

‘I’ve got a meeting…’

‘Then go.’

‘How did you get Zarios to agree?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’ Emma gave a thin smile. ‘You’ve got the money.’

‘Thank you.’

Jake wasn’t the only one with an important meeting to attend. Staring out of her window Emma watched as Zarios’s sleek silver car purred up to the kerb. She could almost sense that he knew the money had just been spent.

That she was now his.

That thought was confirmed when, instead of opening his car door, instead of walking down the path to her flat, Zarios gave a short burst on his horn that told her, as if she didn’t already know, he was here.

That he had come to claim what he now owned.

‘Emma!’ Rocco rose from his chair and embraced her. ‘It is good of you to come and see me…’

The house was just as it always was whenever Emma went there. Situated in the exclusive Melbourne suburb of Toorak. The door had been opened by Roula, Rocco’s elderly housekeeper, and she had walked them through the home which was more like a vast mausoleum to his brief marriage—its walls and surfaces lined with images of their brief union    .

Emma was shocked at the frailty of Rocco as he held her. In the few weeks since she’d last seen him he’d aged more than a decade, and Emma knew it wasn’t just his illness he was suffering from, but a broken heart—he’d loved her parents, too.

‘You should have told me you were bringing Emma over,’ Rocco scolded his son.

‘What, and spoil the surprise?’ Zarios smiled.

‘I am too old for surprises.’

‘You’re sixty,’ Zarios pointed out, but it was hopeless. Age really was just a number, and despite his wealth, despite the trappings they afforded, the years really had ravaged his father.

‘Emma is staying tonight,’ Zarios informed Rocco. ‘She needs a break, and there is also something—’

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