The interior of Matryoshka had been designed in seventeenth-century Muscovite style, with intimate low ceilings made of stucco and covered with frescoes of interweaving flowers and the nesting dolls that inspired the restaurant’s name. Elaborate tiled ovens and kokoshnik-shaped arches were lit by flickering candles on the tables and torches on the walls.
As a waiter came to tell them about the specials, Nikos cut him off. “We’ll both have the salmon with caviar and champagne sauce,” he said, closing his menu. “And Scotch—neat.”
“Wait.” Anna stopped the waiter with a hand on his arm. “I would like Chicken Kiev, please. And kulich for dessert,” she added, referring to the Easter fruitcake. “And sparkling water to drink.” She closed her menu, matching Nikos glare for glare. “Not Scotch.”
Caught in the crossfire, the waiter glanced nervously at Nikos, who nodded.
After the young man was gone, Nikos bit out, “I didn’t mean the Scotch for you. I know you’re nursing.”
“Even if I weren’t nursing I wouldn’t want it. Or caviar, either. Ugh.”
He gave her a humorless smile. “A Russian who dislikes caviar? Next you’ll be telling me you have no taste for vodka.”
“I don’t appreciate you trying to order for me. I’m not a child.”
“I was treating you like a lady,” he said coolly, leaning back in his chair.
“Oh? And is that how you justify telling me who my friends can be?”
“Sinistyn’s not your friend,” Nikos bit out. “He’ll use you and toss you aside.”
She gave him an angry glare. “And you want to be the only one who does that to me?”
As the waiter placed their drinks on the table, Nikos looked affronted, furious. “You cannot even compare—”
“Save it. I’ve known Victor since I was eighteen. Our fathers were friends—although they chose to make their living in very different ways. I was Victor’s secretary for five years. I know him better than you do.”
Unfortunately she understood him well enough to know that everything Nikos said about him was true. But she wasn’t going to say that.
Nikos’s hands clenched on the table. “Just how well do you know him?”
Anna tilted her head and watched him narrowly. “He’s asked me to marry him several times.”
He glanced at the stained-glass window. The expression on his face was half hidden, but his jaw was hard. “What?”
“I’ve always said no, but that might change. I won’t be your pawn, Nikos. I won’t take your punishment forever. I won’t allow you to threaten me with losing my child. And if what it takes to match you is to marry Victor…”
She let her voice trail off.
Nikos blinked, very slowly. When he opened his eyes, for the first time since he’d dragged her back to Las Vegas, they were wary. He was looking at her not as a victim to punish but as a challenging adversary. “What do you want?”
“You know what I want. My freedom.”
“I won’t let you take Michael from me. Ever. Get that.”
“Then you can expect a very prolonged custody battle. If Victor and I take you to court, it’ll be splashed in the papers. A full media circus.”
“Is that really what you want?” he said in disbelief. “The two of us pulling at our child like a rope in a tug-of-war?”
“Of course not!” She had no intention of starting a romance with Victor, let alone making him Misha’s stepfather, but she was praying Nikos wouldn’t call her bluff. “I don’t want to ask Victor for help, but what choice have you given me?”
The torches around them flickered in silence for several seconds before Nikos tossed his napkin down on the table. “Fine. You win.”
Nikos abruptly rose from the chair. Anna watched in amazement as he strode across the restaurant and out the door.
He was going to give her joint custody? He was going to let her leave Las Vegas? Let her have her own life back?
She could hardly believe it. In a few days she’d be back in New York, looking for a new job. She knew she wouldn’t find anything as invigorating as working at Stavrakis, but at least she’d be able to take pride in supporting herself and her son. Nikos would insist on child support, of course, but she’d put that money into a trust fund for Misha later. That way it would be clear to everyone, including herself, that Nikos had no hold on her. She’d never give him power over her again.
And to make sure of that she wanted some space between them. The whole country would be a nice start.
Their dinners were served, and she took a bite of her Chicken Kiev. Delicious. She stared into the flickering flame of the torch on the wall. It had almost been too easy. She was actually disappointed Nikos had capitulated so quickly. After the way he’d treated her, her blood had been up for a fight.
“Enjoying your meal?” the waiter asked, refilling her water glass with a smile. “You look happy.”
“Because you’re in love? I am too,” the young man added, and before she could dispute his assumption he leaned forward to joyfully whisper, “I’m proposing to my girlfriend tonight.”
“But what’s this?” He peered at Nikos’s untouched plate. “Mr. Stavrakis didn’t like his salmon?”
“He, um, got called away.” Anna handed the waiter her own empty plate, which she’d all but licked clean. If it weren’t for the caviar spread over the salmon, she’d have eaten Nikos’s dinner, too.
“In that case, I’ll bring your dessert. An extra big slice,” he promised, then winked at her. “Everyone should celebrate tonight.”
She definitely felt like celebrating. But as she dug into the fruitcake a few moments later she noticed her breasts were starting to hurt. Back at the estate, Misha would be getting hungry. She needed to return to the dance club, retrieve the Maserati and get back.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, miss?” the waiter asked.
“Mr. Stavrakis always takes care of his guests. I’d lose my job if I brought you a bill. Sorry. Standing orders.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. Matryoshka was very expensive. As it had been Nikos’s choice to bring her here, and he’d ditched her in the middle of the meal, her conscience would allow him to pay. Heck, his accountants would probably get a tax advantage out of it.
But just as she was about to leave Nikos sat down heavily in the chair across from her.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted out, chagrined. Could he have already gotten a lawyer to draw up the custody papers?
He frowned at the empty table. “Where is my dinner?”
“Long gone. My Chicken Kiev was delicious, though.” She shook her head wryly. “Thanks for ditching me. I had a nice conversation with the waiter. He’s in love. He’s going to propose,” she said airily.
“To you?” Nikos said sharply.
Anna snorted a derisive laugh. “Yes. To me. I have that kind of power over men.”
He took a small sip of Scotch. Casually, almost dismissively, he tossed a small box on the table, pale blue as a robin’s egg. “Here.”
Frowning, she opened it.
Inside the box, nestled on black velvet, she saw a huge diamond ring set in platinum. The facets of the enormous stone, which had to be at least ten carats, sparkled up at her in the candlelight. It took her breath away.
She twisted her great-grandmother’s stoneless ring around her finger nervously. Nikos’s diamond was so big it wouldn’t have even fit inside the Princess’s empty setting. The diamond was bigger than a marble. Excessive to the point of tackiness. And yet…
She swallowed, looking up at him. “What is this? Some kind of trick?”
“No trick,” he said. “We will be married tonight.”
The rush that went through her then was like nothing she’d ever felt. Nikos wanted to marry her. Just as she’d dreamed for so long. Even when she’d known it was impossible—even when, as his secretary, she’d watched him go from one sexual conquest to another, she’d had secret dreams that she might someday be the woman to tame him.
“Put it on,” Nikos said.
But it wasn’t the earnest pleading of a lover—it was an order. Utterly cold and without emotion.
And just like that the pleasure in her heart evaporated.
Nikos didn’t want to marry her.
He wanted to own her.
This was his way of dealing with the threat of Victor. Rather than calling for his lawyer, rather than negotiating for joint custody of Misha, he figured it was easier to just buy her off with a ring. He thought Anna could be purchased for the price of a two-hundred-thousand dollar trinket and some meaningless words.