She had always been pretty, but she was stunning now!
‘It has been a long time.’ She walked down the last two steps and hovered on the bottom one, but still he had to bend his head to kiss her on the cheeks. As he did so, he smelt her—again. His body flared in surprised recognition as his lips dusted her cheeks. How nice it would be, Zarios thought wildly, to give her the kiss he had denied her so many years ago.
Had denied himself.
The others moved forward, leaving them alone for just a moment, each lost in their own thoughts.
‘You are looking well.’ He frowned slightly. ‘How long has it been since we’ve seen each other?’
‘A few years?’ Emma shrugged, refusing to acknowledge she knew the exact length of time, down to the month! ‘Four—maybe five?’
‘It’s not that long…’ Zarios shook his head as they headed through to the lounge. ‘It was at your brother’s wedding.’
‘That was five years ago…’ Emma smiled. ‘Actually, it was six!’
‘Come through,’ Lydia scolded. ‘Emma, get our guests a drink.’
At that moment one of the hired help arrived with a hastily filled tray of champagne. Emma grabbed one for herself before Lydia shooed her away.
‘A real drink!’ Lydia hissed to Emma out of the side of her mouth.
‘Whisky?’ Emma checked. That was what Rocco always had when he came over. ‘And a small dash of water?’
‘She has a good memory.’ Rocco beamed.
‘Zarios?’ Emma deliberately forced herself to look him in the eye. ‘What would you like?’ Black eyes held hers, and she could have sworn there was just a fraction of innuendo in the pause that went on for just a beat too long. The torch she had carried for him over the years flared brightly as his eyes held hers, no matter how she tried to douse it.
‘Whisky.’ He added no please or thank you to his order. ‘No water.’
And as easily as if he’d flicked a switch she was lost.
Pouring the golden liquid, she could see her hand was shaking. She hadn’t exaggerated the memory of him. He was as lethal and as potently sexy as he had been all those years ago—and as arrogant and rude, Emma reminded herself. Handing him his glass, trying and failing not to notice the brush of his fingers against hers, she crossed the room and sat on the sofa, as far away from him as possible.
The cat soon found the mouse.
He sat beside her, just a tiny bit too close for her liking. There was no contact, none at all, but she could feel the heat from his body, feel the weight of him, the ancient springs in the leather couch tilting her just a fraction towards him.
He invaded her space—but perhaps that was his trick. No one watching could testify to intrusion; you had to be beside him, or looking at him, to feel it. Taking a sip of her champagne, she wished she had chosen whisky, too—wished for something, anything, strong enough to douse the nerves that were leaping like salmon in her chest.
‘I take it Jake and his wife will be coming tonight?’
‘Just Jake.’ Emma gave a tight smile.
‘They have twins now, don’t they?’ Zarios checked, watching her closely, seeing the brittle smile on her face slip into a more relaxed one as she described her niece and nephew.
‘Harriet and Connor—they’ll be three in a few weeks’ time.’ On cue her brother arrived, bustling into the room.
‘Darling!’ Lydia practically fell on to her son’s neck, the lateness of his arrival immediately forgiven. ‘It’s so good to see you.’
‘Sorry, sorry…’ Jake beamed. ‘The traffic was an absolute nightmare.’
‘On a Saturday?’ Emma couldn’t help herself.
‘The football’s on!’ Lydia beamed. ‘The city’s hell around this time—it’s just wonderful you made it, darling. You did remember the pastries for tomorrow…?’
There was a tiny, appalling pause as Jake’s fixed smile slipped just a fraction, his frantic eyes darting to his sister. Lydia’s mouth opened in horror mid-sentence. Emma was almost tempted not to intervene, to refuse to save the day yet again for her brother and let them see that the one thing, the one thing he had been asked to contribute, had proved too much for him. But, as Jake well knew, she couldn’t do that to her parents.
‘Oh, I forgot to tell you, Mum—the bakers rang to confirm Jake’s order. They’ll be here first thing.’
‘Oh, Emma!’ her mother snapped. ‘You could have let me know!’
‘Where is Beth?’ Rocco frowned, voicing the question Lydia had clearly hoped he wouldn’t. ‘And where are the twins? I was looking forward to seeing them again.’
‘Tonight’s for adults only’ Lydia beamed again, but there was a rigid set to her lips.
‘Why?’ Rocco had been single too long, and missed the warning signs flashing from Lydia’s eyes to simply drop it. ‘Children are part of the family…they should be here…’
Surprisingly, it was Zarios who saved the day.
‘Oh, come on, Pa…’ Zarios gave a thin smile, and Emma was sure there was just a flash of contempt as he halted his father—could hear the slight drip of sarcasm in his expansive deep voice. ‘Surely you remember how hard it is settling little ones to bed at a family function—and all those things you have to remember to bring?’
‘Absolutely!’ Lydia nodded furiously. ‘We’ll see the twins next weekend—oh, and Beth, of course…’
‘Don’t worry.’ Zarios gave Emma a tight smile as the conversation drifted on. ‘My father is a master of the “don’t do as I do, do as I say” school of thought.’
‘Nothing.’ He took a slug of his whisky before concluding, ‘It does not matter.’
Oh, but clearly it did!
He dismissed her frown with a shrug. ‘It is strange seeing my father in this setting—looking forward to seeing little children and catching up with friends. Usually the only time I socialise with my father is at work events…’
‘No.’ He cut her off, and she winced at her own insensitivity—her parents were Rocco’s family. ‘It is strange to see him amongst a family.’
She had always known that once his mother had left Zarios had been raised at a boarding school; her mother had told her how hard poor Rocco had had to work, jetting between the two countries to keep up with the fees, and how devastated poor Rocco had been when sometimes he couldn’t get back to see Zarios.
Only then did it dawn on Emma—really dawn on her—that, as difficult as it might have been for poor Rocco, how much harder it must have been on his son.
STILL, Zarios didn’t appear to be dwelling on it.
If he was here under sufferance he didn’t show it—laughing at Eric’s jokes, and making Lydia blush at every turn with his smouldering smile.
Suddenly the hour had arrived, and the small party moved into the marquee as the band started playing and the guest numbers began rapidly multiplying. Zarios was quickly cornered by Cindy, a good-looking blonde who was a good friend of her mother’s. Emma knew she had to be nudging fifty, but years of botox and bulimia were serving her well tonight. Well, good luck, Emma thought, actually glad of the reprieve.
Zarios unsettled her.
Unsettled each fibre of her being.
Every flicker of his five-star reputation was merited. The question as to how any woman could dismiss such a heartbreak reputation had, for Emma, been well and truly answered—up close he was intoxicating.
Emma suppressed a smile as Cindy laughed a little too loudly at something he said, her hand resting on his arm as she spoke intently—she was welcome to him.
‘Can I talk to you later, Emma?’ Jake came over, waving to a couple of geriatric aunts and smiling as if for cameras—just as he always did.
‘Away from everyone…’ he added, and Emma’s heart sank.
‘Don’t be like that.’ Jake sighed.
‘Are you going to pay me for the pastries?’ If she sounded petty, it was with good reason. If Jake paid her maybe there would be nothing to worry about—maybe she was being surly for no reason.
She truly hoped that was the case.
‘Look, I’m sorry about that.’
‘Jake, it was the one thing Mum asked you to organise. What if I hadn’t ordered them?’
‘But you did!’ Emma could have sworn there was a belligerent tone to his voice, but he quickly checked it. ‘Here…’ He pulled out his wallet and thrust her some notes. ‘Thanks for organising them. I’ll catch up with you later.’
‘Can I ask what it’s about?’
‘Not here, okay?’
Not here, where everyone might find out that you’re less than perfect, Emma thought savagely. But of course she didn’t say it, just gave him a nod and bit hard on her lip, close to tears all of a sudden as Jake walked off.
‘Jake.’ Zarios raised his eyebrows in greeting as Jake brushed past, he’d seen the exchange and Jake must know it. The polite thing to do would be to ignore it, but Zarios couldn’t be bothered with being polite. Shrugging off Cindy, he offered a friendly enquiry as Jake approached. ‘Is everything okay?’