Natalie eyes widened, looking owlish beneath her glasses. “And you asked Vitya for help? When I went to his club I saw the kind of man he really is. He isn’t our friend. If he were, he wouldn’t have been loaning our parents money at that huge interest rate. I thought he was trying to help us. But now I think he only went into business with Father in the first place to be close to you. After you left to work for Nikos he dissolved the partnership and started loaning Father money instead.” She took a deep breath. “I think since you wouldn’t agree to marry him he’s been drowning our family in debt to force your hand.”
“It can’t be true,” Anna gasped. All right, so Victor had made advances the whole time she’d been his secretary. He’d chased off other suitors. He’d pressured her to marry him. He’d even gotten her father to try to use his influence over her. But Victor would never have deliberately hurt her family just to possess her.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Natalie pressed. “Why else does he keep loaning Mother money? He knows we have no way to repay it.”
Anna rubbed her head wearily. “I don’t know. But I’ll figure it out. I’ll handle this, Natalie, don’t worry. As soon as I get custody of Misha I’ll return to New York and find a job—”
“You still think he’ll let you repay the money?” Natalie interrupted, looking at Anna as if seeing her for the first time. “If you think he’s gone to all this trouble to let you set up some kind of payment plan, you’re as delusional as Mother. Who’s happy to take his money, by the way, because she’s sure you’ll marry him. Which you probably will. You always have to sacrifice yourself, don’t you? Even when it does more harm than good. You’ll reward him after he’s destroyed our family to get his hands on you.”
“You don’t know that’s really true!”
“I don’t?” Natalie shook her head. “You need to grow up and see the real world.”
Her baby sister was telling her to grow up? “I do see the real world—”
“My whole life I’ve thought you were some kind of saint, you know? Sacrificing your own future to take care of us. When I wanted to study accounting so I could get a good job to help support our family you insisted I major in art instead—”
“I knew art was your passion!” Anna said, stung.
“Maybe.” Natalie snorted derisively. “But it’s no way to make a living. The truth is, you didn’t want my help. You always have to be the one to do everything. God forbid you ever depend on someone else.”
“I was trying to do the right thing for you!”
“Then why didn’t you stand up to Victor ages ago and tell him to back off? Instead of running away to work for someone else? Why did you get pregnant by Nikos, then run away? Why are you still so desperate to run away from Nikos now? You’re keen to stand up for others, but when it comes to yourself you just run away.”
Anna stared at her, breathing heavily. “Natalie, please…” she whispered.
Natalie’s eyes were hard. “You want to be strong? Fine. You got yourself in your mess. With Victor. With Nikos. Get yourself out of it. Just don’t kid yourself that your choices are for us. All you’ve done is make things worse for us. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Turning on her heel, she went for the door.
“Natalie!” She grabbed her sister’s wrist. “Don’t leave like this. Please.”
“Let me go,” Natalie said coldly. Her sister wrenched her arm away, and this time Anna released her.
After she left, Anna slowly sat down on the bed in the cool darkness of her room, still shocked by Natalie’s attack. Her sister had always been the one person Anna could count on. She hadn’t asked any questions when Anna had appeared on her doorstep in Russia, but had simply taken her in her arms and let her cry on her shoulder. She’d fought Nikos’s armed henchmen to try to keep Misha safe.
Heartsick, Anna left her room and realized she’d blindly gone to Nikos’s office to seek comfort. But his door was closed. She stared at the door, longing for him to take her in his strong arms and tell her everything would be okay. She would almost believe it if he was the one who said it. No doubt another example of her being delusional.
Was Natalie right?
Instead of being the one who’d saved and supported her family, had Anna been the cause of its ruin?
It was true that she’d never really stood up to Victor. He’d made passes at her, and Anna hadn’t known how to deal with his flirtations, so she’d simply put up with them. She’d never told him flat-out to leave her alone. When they’d gotten to be too much, she’d run away to work for Nikos.
And as for Nikos…She’d known his faults, but she’d still fallen in love with him. She should have been more careful. Especially about jumping into his bed. What had she been thinking to allow herself to conceive a child with a man who not only wasn’t her husband but didn’t even love her?
The closed office door stared down at her reproachfully.
Turning away with a heavy heart, she went to the nursery, where Misha was still napping in his crib. She gently picked him up and cuddled him in the rocking chair. Tears filled her eyes as she stared out the window at the pool, where for a brief time that morning she’d felt like she was part of a happy family.
How could she fix everything she’d done wrong?
How could she make things right?
The one thing she couldn’t do was ask Nikos—or anyone—for help. Natalie was right. Anna had caused this mess. She was the one who should take care of it. Alone.
Closing her eyes, she held her baby as she rocked back and forth. It was time to face reality.
Misha shouldn’t suffer just because Anna had such a hard time being around his father. No matter how much she wanted to return to New York, she couldn’t. She had to live close enough to Nikos that they could raise their son together. Misha deserved that much.
But she wouldn’t marry Nikos either. She’d been careless enough to get pregnant, but she wouldn’t make it worse by marrying him. She’d be miserable as his wife, committing herself to a man who didn’t even love her.
Anna would share parenting with Nikos, but that was it. She needed her own place. Her own life. Her own job.
She sat up straight in her chair as her eyes flew open.
She’d get Nikos to rehire her.
It was the perfect solution. She’d be able to travel with him around the world, so Misha would always see them both. Plus, working as his executive assistant was not only the best job she’d ever had, he’d also paid her a high salary that would be virtually impossible to find anywhere else. Enough so that she could set up a payment plan with Victor, which she’d force him to take.
It might be difficult to see Nikos every day, no doubt watching him date other women, but she’d deal with it. She would take responsibility for the choices she’d made.
Misha gave a little sigh. Opening his dark eyes, so much like his father’s, he smiled up at her. Anna smiled back.
All she had to do was convince Nikos to hire her as his secretary—while keeping herself from falling into his arms—and everything else would fall into place.
It wouldn’t be easy, but, hey—Nikos had asked for her help weeding out unsuitable résumés. She grinned. She’d pretend to go through them while taking over the secretarial job herself. She’d lull Nikos into complacency while she proved she could both work and be a good mother to his child. She’d prove to them both that she wasn’t a screw-up. She’d prove she could do it all.
“What’s wrong with this one?” Nikos demanded, exasperated. “Carmen Ortega has thirty years of experience working with CEOs of billion-dollar companies!”
“Those companies had shareholders,” Anna said sweetly, tossing the résumé in the trash. “She’s accustomed to toeing the line for many bosses instead of sticking to one. Too many cooks, you know.”
No, he didn’t. He had no idea what she was talking about. Nine days of looking through résumés, and Anna had found fault with every single one. But, since he’d asked specifically for her assistance, he had no choice but to continue this farce until he could get Anna to fall in love with him.
It was proving to be harder than he’d thought.
His plan had been to lure her with romantic dinners, gifts, and family outings. Instead, work had somehow taken over. She’d turned the romantic dinners into working meals, taking notes in shorthand between dainty bites of Cavaleri’s pasta primavera and pad thai. When he’d given her flowers and chocolates, she’d thanked him gravely for remembering Secretaries’ Day. Secretaries’ Day! As if there was any damn way he’d remember some made-up holiday like that!
The family outings with baby Michael, including splashing in the pool, taking walks along the edge of the desert, and strolling through L’Hermitage, had certainly been enjoyable. Nikos had relished holding his son as they walked across the casino floor, through the Moskva Shopping Complex and into the elegant, soaring lobby of the turn-of-the-century-styled hotel. “This will all be yours someday,” he’d whispered into his son’s ear, and he’d been filled with pride.