He didn’t even wait for their response—just stalked out of the boardroom and back to his luxurious office, telling his assistant he was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Flicking off the lights, he lay on his leather sofa and tried to turn off his thoughts, tried not to go down that path. But at every turn the map led the same way, her face was the only thing he could picture. The only solace was sleep—at least in his dreams she was laughing.
‘They are behind you.’
‘Of course they are.’ Zarios had shaved and changed, his hair was gleaming. He was utterly together.
‘You are right.’ For the first time ever Rocco praised his son. ‘I am proud of you.’
‘I will not let your company down.’ Zarios accepted his compliment with backhanded grace. ‘I may let myself down at times, but it will never translate to our shareholders.’
‘Your mother is coming back to me.’
As Zarios opened his mouth to tell his father exactly what he thought of that decision the older man got there first.
‘Thirty years later in life than you, my son, I have worked out that I don’t care what others think any more. Just as you will not appease them—I will not appease you. I love your mother. I have missed her for half of my life…’
‘Can’t you see she is just back now you are ill—now there is money?’
‘Perhaps…’ Rocco shrugged—the same shrug he had inadvertently handed down to his son. ‘But is it better to die cold and alone in bed with your pride intact, or warm and caressed and believing that love exists?’
‘What if she is using you, Pa?’ They both knew Zarios wasn’t talking about his mother as for the first time he begged his father’s advice. ‘What if you know she is trouble? What if you know?’
‘Then you ask yourself if the good outweighs the bad.’
Oh, and it did. Closing his eyes, Zarios recalled Emma’s scent, the sound of her laughter, and knew that he would lie for a week in the gutter with banshees wailing over him if it meant he could spend one night by her side.
‘People don’t have to be perfect for us to love them,’ Rocco said. ‘Emma is proof of that.’
‘Emma?’ Zarios frowned; they were supposed to be talking about him.
‘You’re the buffoon.’ Rocco smiled. ‘When will you get it in your head that Emma loves you?’
He would tell her.
Sitting at his desk, Zarios rested his head in his hands, his fingers bunching in his cropped hair as he prepared himself for the hardest task—to trust her, to forgive her, to tell her he was sorry.
He didn’t care about the money, and he could help her with her problems—because what they had found, what they had shared, albeit briefly, was priceless.
‘Zarios!’ Jake knocked on his office door, his smile wide. ‘Have you seen Beth or Emma? We were supposed to be meeting in the coffee bar opposite before coming to sign all the papers and tidy everything up.’
‘Not yet…’ Zarios dragged himself from his introspection and forced a smile, then glanced at his watch. ‘There’s still a while yet.’
‘I can’t get hold of Beth, that’s all—maybe she’s having trouble with the babysitter.’
‘Maybe.’ Zarios shrugged, because talk of babysitters and the like was a foreign language to him. ‘Jake, I wanted to talk to you. When I rang you the other day about Emma—’
‘Actually—’ Jake gave a tiny grimace ‘—when we discussed Emma’s problem—well, I didn’t feel comfortable anyway. But given you were practically family…’ He dropped the apologetic smile. ‘And now you’re not.’
‘I still have your sister’s best interests at heart.’
‘Really?’ Jake frowned in distaste. ‘I think it would be better for everyone if you kept your distance.’
Which made sense, Zarios told himself. After all, Jake was just looking out for his sister—but he hadn’t seemed too concerned moments before.
An uneasy feeling was building inside Zarios. Emma had said Jake was the one with the problem, and he’d dismissed it as her being in denial. Jake with the beaming smile and gleaming shoes. Jake with his fancy car and nice city lifestyle.
Jake with the depressed wife and out-of-control twins.
His mind was racing, he was dialling her number, leaving rambling messages on her message bank. He attempted to filter their every conversation, trying to discard, dismiss, verify, trying to assimilate the facts…
Charging out of his office, he was just in time to glimpse the meeting room door close, Zarios rueing the fact he’d removed himself from the management of their parents’ estate. Pacing the floor like a caged animal, he wanted to be in there, wanted to be on the other side of the door, sitting beside Emma.
Emma halted her own pacing for a second and stared at her bleeping phone. There had been several frantic messages from Jake, asking where she was, and now Zarios had joined in—ringing her, texting her. Well, they’d all know soon enough.
‘Thanks for coming…’ Emma felt like the biggest bitch in the world as she let Beth into her tiny flat. ‘Where are the twins?’
‘I’m having them looked after today.’ Shy, evasive, Beth declined a drink and then perched on the edge of Emma’s sofa. ‘You know, don’t you?’
‘That I’m leaving him today.’
Emma felt the thud as the rest of her world crashed.
‘I’m not after his money.’ Beth shook her head. ‘He can have it—he can go throw it up the wall or put it on black—I just don’t care any more…’
And Emma saw it then. If she had danced on the edge of Jake’s addiction then Beth had lived in the full clutch of it. Here was a woman who was ready to walk away with nothing more than the clothes she was wearing and her babies—who deserved so much more.
‘I love your brother…’ Her tired, puffy eyes met Emma’s. ‘But as much as I love him I hate him. I know there isn’t a good time to leave. I’ve tried…’ great sobs heaved at her body ‘…but there was always something to get past first—the twins’ birthday, Christmas, your dad’s sixtieth, your parents’ funeral—I keep waiting for the moment to be right. And it’s not coming. Today,’ she sobbed, ‘he gets a million dollars. Please, God, today I can go…’
There was nothing she couldn’t tell this woman, Emma realised as she put her arms around tired, weary shoulders—nothing she could say that would hurt her more than she already was.
‘I know.’ She felt tension, denial in her sister-in-law’s shoulders. ‘I know how hard this has been on you, and I’ll do what I can for you and the twins. Beth…’ She felt the mingling of grief and relief flood through her sister-in-law as she offered her support. ‘I know about his habit. I’ve lent him my share of the inheritance…’
‘More fool you, then.’ Beth’s voice was bitter, but Emma knew it wasn’t aimed at her. ‘You know you won’t get it back?’
‘I’ve hired a lawyer.’ Emma’s voice was shaking as she admitted to her sister-in-law what she had done. ‘He’s representing me today—Jake’s just about to find out.’
As Jake marched out, his face like thunder, Zarios knew his hunch had been right. The nice-guy act had vanished and, not even acknowledging Zarios, he brushed past, banging his hand on the lift button, impatience in every cell. He finally gave in and took the stairs.
‘You did the right thing!’ Jed, one of the directors, rolled his eyes as the exit door slammed. ‘Removing yourself—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nastier handover of assets.’
But Zarios wasn’t listening. His eyes were looking over his colleagues’ shoulder as the members of the meeting tripped out, desperate to see her, to offer his late support.
‘She sent a lawyer on her behalf. The transaction went ahead, and then Jake was served with notice. She’s suing him for the money he owes her, and all his assets have been frozen. He owes money everywhere.’ Jed’s lips were grim. ‘Can’t help but feel sorry for him, really. Not only did his pay-day not come, he’s just found out that his wife’s left him, too.’
Zarios could feel the blood pounding in his temples as realisation struck. The problem he had brushed aside when she’d tried to tell him, so sure had he been that the debt had been hers, had been her trying to help her brother. Ice seemed to be running through his veins and yet he was sweating, Zarios realised, as he recalled Jake’s murderous expression as he left the office.
A man at rock bottom was a dangerous one.
‘It’s not his fault, of course…‘ Irony laced Jed’s words. ‘We’re trying to contact the wife to warn her…’
But he was speaking to an empty space. Zarios was two steps ahead, jumping into the lift that had appeared, desperate to get to Emma—to warn her, to tell her, to protect her.
He could taste bile in his throat, the bitter, acrid taste of fear, and it was swirling in his stomach and rising as full realisation hit.