Authors: Carol Marinelli
Even if she wasn't quite what Zakahr was used to, he begrudgingly admired her complete lack of pretence. Rather more privately, after another sleepless night, he felt like doing the same, but instead he took the opportunity for closer inspection.
She really was astonishingly prettyâor was
the word? Zakahr couldn't decide. Her jacket was hanging up, her arms lay long and loose by her sides, she had wriggled out of her stilettos, and sat with her knees together and her slender calves splayed like a young colt. Though there was so much on his mind, Zakahr wanted a moment's distractionâand she was rather intriguing. He actually wanted to know more about her.
âHow long have you worked for Kolovsky?'
âA couple of years,' Lavinia said with her eyes still closed. âI did a bit of modelling for them, but I had an extra olive in my salad one day and Nina said I would be better suited in the office.' She opened one eye. âI'm aesthetically pleasing, apparently, but I'm just not thin enough to model the gowns.'
! Well, average height. But her waist could be spanned by his hand, her legs were long and slender, her clavicles two jagged lines. Zakahr, who trusted his personal shopper to sort out his own immaculate wardrobe, realised he knew very little about the industry he had taken on.
âWhat did you do before that?' Zakahr asked her once more closed eyes.
âModellingâthough nothing as tasteful as Kolovsky. It wasn't my proudest period.'
Zakahr didn't say anything.
Lavinia just shrugged. âIt paid the rent.'
It had more than paid the rent.
Hauled out of school by her raging mother one afternoon, the sixteen-year-old Lavinia had become the breadwinner. She had wanted to finish school, had been bright enough to go universityâand though she hadn't known what she wanted to be at the time, she had known what she didn't want!
Lavinia had also been bright enough to quickly realise that her mother had no need to know just how many tips she was making.
For two years she had squirrelled away cash in her bedroom.
At eighteen she had opened a bank account and started studying part-time.
At twenty-two, six months after starting work at the House of Kolovsky, and with the requisite employment history, she had marched into her bank, taken her money and bought her very small home.
A home she now wanted to share with Rachael.
Just the thought of her sister alone, with a stranger getting her ready for kindergarten this morning, had Lavinia jolting awake. Her eyes opened in brief panic and she looked straight into the dark pools of Zakahr's gazeâa dark, assessing gaze that did not cause awkwardness. He didn't pretend he hadn't been watching her sleep, he did not use words, and somehow his solid presence brought comfort.
âRest,' Zakahr said finally.
Only now she couldn't. Now she was terribly aware of him, felt a need to fill the silence. But he was staring out of the window, his expression unreadable, and Lavinia was filled with a sudden urge to tell him she knew who he was, to drop the pretence and find out the truth.
The drive took a good thirty minutes, and was one Zakahr had made a few times in the past months as he had slowly infiltrated Kolovsky. Each time he'd left Australia his heart had blackened a touch further at realising just how lavishly his family had lived all these years while leaving him to fend for himself.
âIt's just coming upâ¦'
Zakahr frowned as Lavinia interrupted his dark thoughts.
âWhere Aleksi's accident happenedâ¦'
There wasn't much to show for itâthe tree that had crumpled his car simply wore a large pale scarâbut it
A troubled Aleksi had been trying to halt Zakahr in leaving after his speech at the charity ball, unsure as to his own motives, not even realising that the businessman he was dealing with was actually his brother. Something
had propelled him to race to the airport in the middle of the night with near fatal consequences. Though little moved Zakahr, Aleksi's plight had. At seven years old Aleksi had uncovered the fact that he had not just one but two brothers in Russia, and he had confronted his father with the truth. Ivan had beaten him badly enough to ensure that it was forgotten. Only the truth had slowly been revealed.
Out of all of them, Aleksi was the only Kolovsky he had any time for.
âHave you known him long?' Lavinia fished, but Zakahr didn't answer. âI was surprised Iosef wasn't his best manâ¦' Lavinia tried harder ââ¦given they're twins.'
He was, Lavinia decided, the most impossible manâcompletely at ease with silence, with not explaining himself. He didn't even attempt an evasive answerâhe just refused any sort of response.
âFive minutes, Lavinia,' Eddie the driver warned her and, sick of her new boss's silence, Lavinia opened the partition and asked after Eddie's daughter as she pulled out her make-up bag.
âSix weeks to go!' Eddie said.
âAre you excited?' Lavinia asked, and then glanced over to Zakahr. âEddie's about to become a grandfather.'
It could not interest Zakahr less, and his extremely brief nod should have made that clear, but Lavinia and Eddie carried on chatting.
âI can't stop my wife shoppingâwe've got a room full of pink!'
âSo it's a girl!'
Lavinia seemed delighted, and Zakahr watched as she snapped into actionâtouching up her make-up and combing her long blonde hair.
She could feel him watching her, sensed his irritation, and her blue eyes jerked up from the mirror. âWhat?'
He shrugged and looked away before he answered. âI don't like vanity.'
âI'd suggest that you
âYou've dated enough vain women,' Lavinia pointed out. âAccording to my impeccable sources.'
âFive-dollar magazines?' Zakahr was derisive, but still he was intrigued. Lavinia wasn't remotely unnerved by him, and it was surprisingly refreshing. âAre you always this rude to your boss?'
I rude?' Lavinia thought about it for a moment. âThen, yes, I suppose I am. You wouldn't last five minutes in this place otherwise.' She was annoyed nowâhe just didn't get it. âAnd it has nothing to do with my being vainâthis isn't
!' Lavinia said. âThis is me at work. Do you really think the Princess wants someone greeting her in jeans with oily hair?' She was on a roll now! âAnd another thingâwhile by your calculations I was five minutes late, I was actually fifty-five minutes
. Most people start work at nine. And because
insists I look the part, when I got to
I ensured that I did,' she concluded, snapping closed her lipgloss as the driver opened the car door. Then, having said her piece, she suddenly smiled and did what Lavinia did bestâgot on with the job. âLet's go and meet the Princess!'
Zakahr had realised back at the office that it would be extremely offensive for him not to greet the royal guests, and he was more than a little grateful to his dizzy PA for her strong stance. Because it wasn't just the Princessâthe King himself was here. Zakahr quickly assessed that one bad word from this esteemed guest and even the great Kolovsky name would be dinted.
Zakahr swung into impressive actionâgreeting the guests formally in the VIP lounge, and immediately quashing any disappointment that neither Nina nor Aleksi was here to greet them. Lavinia
very good at small talk, Zakahr noted, back in the limousine. She chatted away to the shy Princess and her mother, and very quickly put them at ease. And every layer of lipgloss, Zakahr conceded, was meritedâbecause it was clear the royal family expected nothing less than pure glamour, and Kolovsky could deliver that in spades.
âThe team are so looking forward to finally meeting with you,' said Lavinia now.
She was nothing like the pale, wan woman who had stepped into his office this morning. She was effusive, yet professional, and as they stepped out of the limo it was Lavinia who paved the way, speaking in low tones to Zakahr about what was taking place.
âWe take them through to the design team now.'
The King remained in the car, his aides in the vehicle behind, and they all waited till they had driven off before the colourful parade made its way to the centre of Kolovsky. Every door required more authorisation, but then they were in.
âThank you.' Zakahr was not begrudging when praise was due, and as they left the Princess in the design team's skilled hands he thanked Lavinia. âIt would have been unthinkable of me not to greet the King!'
âI know!' She gave him a wide eyed look. âThey don't normally comeâthe men, I mean. Lucky!'
He didn't know why, but she made his lips twitch almost into a smile. He contained himself as Lavinia showed him the wedding displays, all locked behind glass and beautifully lit. She headed straight for the centrepiece.
âThis,' she said, âis the one they all want. The Kolovsky bridal gown.' He stared at it for a moment. âBeautiful, isn't it?' Lavinia pushed.
âIt's a dress,' Zakahr said, and Lavinia laughed.
dress! It was supposed to be for the Kolovsky daughter, or one of their son's bridesâwell, that's what Nina and Ivan intended.' She didn't see his face stiffen. âIt's the dress of every woman's dreams,' Lavinia breathed, peering closely and steaming up the glass as she did so. âIt actually
,' she added. âI dreamt about this dress long before I ever saw it.'
Zakahr was not going to stand there and engage in idle chit-chat about a wedding dress, and without a word he walked off. But she caught up with him, trotting along to keep up with his long strides, andâannoyingly for Zakahrâcarrying on with her incessant chatter.
âI used to fall asleep dreaming about my wedding, and I swear that was the dress I was wearingâit really is the dress of dreams.'
âYou fell asleep dreaming of your
were in the lift now, and he couldn't keep the derisive note from his voice.
âI was eight or so!' Lavinia shrugged, then coloured a touch as his eyes assessed her.
âYou don't dream of it now?' Zakahr checked, and he watched her ears pinken a fraction.
âSometimes I do.' She shocked him with her honesty. âThen the alarm goes off and it's back to the real world.' She gave him a little wink as the lift door opened. âOr I hit the snooze button.'
Was she being deliberately provocative? Zakahr couldn't be sure, and it irked him. There was an edge to Laviniaâan openness that was inviting, a smile that was beguilingâand yet there was a no-nonsense element to her too, almost a wall. The combined effect, he reluctantly admitted, was intriguing.
âWe have much work to do,' Zakahr said as they reached the office suite. âWe'll start the one-on-one interviews tomorrow, but this afternoon I will address everyoneâliaise with HR, but I want
to arrange it.'
âIt's not possible,' Lavinia told him. âPeople have meetings scheduled, and there areâ'
âAnyone not present has effectively handed in their notice.' He cut her off mid-sentence. He would accept no excuses, and Lavinia's lips pursed as he left her no room for manoeuvre. âJust do as I ask.'
âThe thing isâ'
Zakahr halted her. âThe thing is I am in charge now. Whatever your relationship with your previous bossâ
disregard it. When I say I want something done, it is not up for negotiation.
âWhich night do we dine with the King?'
âWednesday. But I don't do dinner.' Lavinia shook her head. âThey only trust me with the occasional airport run.'
âWell, for now you do the social side of things too,' Zakahr said. âYou have a promotion.'
âI don't want it,' came her immediate response.
Lavinia loved her jobâshe'd vied for pole position with Kate at timesâbut she didn't actually want to do Kate's work. And it wasn't just the fact that she wasn't remotely qualified. There was Rachael, her studies, Ninaâjust so many demands on her time right now it really was an impossible task.
âYou will be remunerated.'
âIt's not about money,' Lavinia said. âI'm busyâ¦'
âToo busy to work?' Zakahr frowned. âI'm not
you a promotionâI am telling you that I need a PA, and you either step into the role or I will have to consider my options.'
âYou'll fire me?'
âIf I don't have a PA what is the point of employing her assistant?'
She felt the knight sweep towards her. Click-click: he knocked away her pawn, and of course it was checkmate. But instead of saying nothing, instead of pleading her case, Lavinia refused to give him the satisfaction. Rather, she blinded him with a smile and accepted defeat with grace. âCongratulations!'
She loved that she'd confused him. âI'd love to accept the role, Zakahr.'
âGood. Move your things out to the main office,' Zakahr said. âThen go through your diary and cancel your social life.' He was completely immutable. âFor now your time is mine.'
had never worked harder in such a short space of time.
Firing off e-mails, replying to e-mails, then resorting to repeatingânot quite verbatimâZakahr's warning, she sent a final e-mail with the word âCOMPULSORY' in capitals, and a little red exclamation mark beside itâthough she did wrangle from an unwilling Zakahr exclusion for Jasmine's design team. Then she cleared the main function room of a group of sulky models and designers who were trying to prepare for a photoshoot for the sulkiest of them allâRula, a stunning redhead who was to be the new Face of Kolovsky. Finally checking the PA system, Lavinia had done in an hour what it would take most a full day to achieve.
Not that Zakahr thanked her as she raced back to her office to collect her bag. He merely glanced up as he came in.
âEverything's in place.' Lavinia spritzed her wrists with perfume. âI'll be back before two.'
âBack from where?'
âLunch!' From his expression she might just as well have sworn. âI'm surely entitled to a lunch-break?' In
support of her argument, Catering wheeled in a sumptuous trolley of delights for Zakahr, but it did not appease him.
âWe will work through lunch,' Zakahr said. âCome and eat with me.'
âI really can't,' Lavinia said. âI've got an appointment. A doctor's appointment.' She ran a hand over her stomach and Zakahr pressed his lips together.
She knew every trick, he realized. Knew with just that fleeting gesture no man would pry into women's businessâand Lavinia was certainly that: a woman.
âSorry!' Lavinia added.
She didn't hang around for his reaction. Instead she darted out to the lift, just a little bit breathless at her lieâbecause if Zakahr knew where she was going on her lunch-break he'd do more than sack her. It was, she knew, the ultimate treachery. He'd go ballistic if he knew where she was heading.
But she couldn't
Nina didn't look upâshe was talking to herself in Russianâbut Lavinia hugged her. Trying to keep the shock from her voice, she chatted awayâexcept Lavinia
shocked. In a couple of days the other woman had surely aged a decade.
Nina had somehow got through her son's wedding. On day leave from the plush psychiatric hospital, and sedated from strawberry-blonde head to immaculately shod feet, she had worn a smile and a fantastic Kolovsky dress,
and with Lavinia's help had managed to get through the service. But clearly the public effort had depleted her.
Her hair hung in rats' tails, her nail polish was chipped, and there was no trace of make-up. The silk she usually wore was replaced by a hospital gown, and all Lavinia knew was that Ninaâthe real Ninaâwould absolutely hate to be seen like this.
âI'm going to do your hair, Nina,' Lavinia said, rummaging in her locker and finding some hair straighteners. âAnd then I'm going to do your nails.'
Nina made no response. She just sat talking in Russian as Lavinia smoothed out her hair. Only when Lavinia sat and worked on her nails did Nina speak in Englishâthe questions, the statements, always in the same vein. âHe hates me. Everyone hates me.'
âI don't hate you, Nina,' Lavinia responded, as she always had since the day the news had hit.
A terrible day that was etched for ever in her mind.
Aleksi had returned from his accident to find Nina had taken over, and a terrible struggle for power had ensued. Nina had taken advice from Zakahr, who from afar had fed her ideas that would make huge profits but, as Aleksi had pointed out, would also cause Kolovsky's demise.
Then Zakahr had swept in, and for Aleksi realisation had hit: the man toying with Nina was actually his brother.
Lavinia could still recall the moment Nina had found out that Zakahr was her son. She had held Nina as she'd collapsed to the floor while Aleksi had told her in no uncertain terms of what Riminic, the child she had
abandoned, had endured in the orphanage, and then in graphic detail what the runaway teenager had gone through to survive on the streets.
âThey will never forgive me.' Around and around Nina went.
âYour family just need some time to process things,' Lavinia said patiently. âAnnika has been in to see you, and Aleksi has rung from his honeymoon. I know Levander has been in touch from the UK, and Iosef
been in to see you.'
âThey are all disgusted with me.'
Lavinia let out a breath and focussed on painting a middle nail. Sometimes she truly didn't know what to say. âThey need time,' she said.
âI had no choice,' Nina pleaded, but Lavinia would not be manipulated. She was used to her mother's ways, and in a lot of things Nina behaved the same.
âThere are always choices,' Lavinia said. âMaybe you made the best decision you could at the time.'
âI should have tried to find him,' Nina said, and Lavinia, who never, ever cried, felt her eyes suddenly well up.
The nails she was trying to focus on blurred, and for a moment she couldn't answerâbecause, yes, Nina
have tried to find him. And, yes, when they were so rich and powerful, surely,
she should have tried to find her son. And it dawned on her, fully dawned, that the brooding, closed-off man she had met this morning was actually the baby Nina had abandoned.
âWhy didn't you?' Lavinia couldn't stop herself from asking. âWhy didn't you even try?'
âI saw how everyone hated me when Levander came to Australiaâwhen they found out I knew his mother had died, and that Levander had been raised in Detsky Dom orphanageâ¦'
Lavinia blew her hair upwards. Nina was getting more and more indiscreet, and the rumour that had quietly blown through Kolovskyâthat Nina had known all alongâwas, to Lavinia's horror, confirmed.
âLevander wasn't my blood, and still they hated me. I couldn't face it if they knew there was moreâthat I had left my own son too.'
âWell, you have to face it.' Lavinia bit down on the sudden white-hot fury that shot through her. âYou have to face it because the truth is here.'
âDoes he ask about me?' Nina begged. âDoes Riminic ask about me?'
âNinaâ¦' Lavinia shook her head in exasperation. âHe doesn't have a clue that I know who he really isâto me he's Zakahr Belenki, someone Kolovsky was doing business with, and he's taken over now that Aleksi is working solely on the Krasavitsa fashion line and you are not well. That's all he thinks I know.'
âHe is beautiful, yes?' Nina said. âHow could I not see he was my son? How did I look in his eyes and not recognise him?'
âMaybe you were scared to,' Lavinia offered. She glanced up at the clock on the wall. She was loath to leave her because at least Nina was talking now, but she had no choice. âI have to go, Nina.'
And then, in the midst of her devastation, as always Nina remembered.
âHow is your sister?'
Lavinia toyed with whether to tell her or not. She had always confided in Nina, but now it just didn't seem the right time.
âShe's doing okay.'
âShe likes kindergarten?'
âShe does,' Lavinia said quietly, thinking of Rachael's serious little faceâa guarded face that rarely smiled. She was reminded of Zakahr.
âYou keep fighting for her.'
Nina stroked Lavinia's cheek, and Lavinia truly didn't get it. She had seen the worst of Ninaâhad heard her bitch and moan, had worked alongside her even as she tried to have Aleksi ousted. With all the shame of her pastâthe fact she hadn't fought for her own sonâthere was so much to despise, and yet Nina could be so kind.
âGive her my love.'
âI will.' Lavinia stood up. âI'd better get back.' She really
better get backâhospital visits didn't really squeeze into lunch-breaks, and she'd have to run through the car park to make it back to the office.
But as she raced out of the lift she saw Zakahr had beaten her to it.
âHow was the doctor?' he asked.
âNot great.' Lavinia put on her best martyred face, but instead of being cross with her Zakahr actually wanted to laughâshe was such an actress.
âPoor you,' Zakahr said, and she caught his eye, not sure if he was being sarcasticânot sure of this man at all.
He unsettled her.
All morning he had unsettled herâin a way very few did.
be intimidated. Lavinia utterly refused to be. Only it wasn't just thatâit was the lack of roaming in those eyes, the stillness in him as he looked not at her, not through her, but
her that made her breath quicken, made the ten-second lift-ride down to the main function room seem inordinately long. And when the lift doors opened she forgot to step out.
âAfter you,' Zakahr said, when she had stood for a second too long.
And because Zakahr didn't know the way to the stage entrance Lavinia had to lead, awkward now, with him walking behind.
âHopefully everything's in placeâ¦' She hung back a touch and walked in step with him, tried to make small talk. But Zakahr, of course, didn't engage in that.
Lavinia was just a little impressed with what she had achievedâand just a little praise would have been welcome. Effectively the place had been put into lockdown, and now, as they stood in the wings, instead of models and the new season's display, it was Zakahr Belenki who was the star of the show, with wary, disgruntled staff waiting to hear their fate.
He wasn't in the least nervous, Lavinia realised, as he leant against the wall reading e-mails on his phone while the head of HR read out his credentials to the tense audience. Even Lavinia had butterflies on his behalf, yet Zakahr was as relaxed as if he were waiting for a bus.
âHold on a secondâ¦' She put her hand up to correct his tie, just as she would have for Aleksi, just as
she would have if Nina had had a strap showing as she was about to walk on. But on contact she immediately wished that she hadn't. The simple, almost instinctive manoeuvre was suddenly terribly complicated. She felt his skin beneath her fingers, inhaled the scent of him as she moved in closer, the sheer maleness of him as she moved his tie a fraction to the centre and went to smooth his collar down.
His hand shot up and caught her wrist.
âWhat are you doing?' Zakahr was the least touchy-feely person on the planet. Flirting, unnecessary touchingâhe partook in neither. Lavinia seemed a master at both.
âSorry!' His reaction confused her. There had been nothing flirtatious about her action, but Zakahr seemed less than impressed. âSheer habit,' Lavinia explained. Only her voice came out a little higher than normal, and her breath was tight in her chest as those eyes now did roam her body. His hand let go of her wrist, but instead of dropping to his side, the warm, dry hand slid around her neck. Lavinia stood transfixed. For a second she thought he was going to pull her towards himâfor a full second she thought she was about to be kissedâbut instead his fingers stole down the nape of her neck to the tender skin there, tucked in a label he couldn't even have seen beneath her thick blonde hair. And then he mocked her with a black smile. She could see the flash of warning, and she could see something else tooâthe danger beneath the slick surface of him.
âThat's better,' Zakahr said, his hand still on the back of her neck. âIt was annoying me.'
âI was justâ¦' Lavinia attempted to explain again that she had just been straightening his tie, but her voice faded as Zakahr shook his head.
âNo games!' Zakahr said. âBecause you have no idea who you are playing with.'
The applause went up, and without a further word he headed out, leaving Lavinia standing in the wings, her neck prickling from his touch, stunned and unsure as to what had just taken place.
And then he smiled.
A slow smile that moved around the room like the rays of the sun.
Those grey eyes somehow met everyone's, and before he had even opened his mouth the audience was his.
âThere is much fear and speculation today,' Zakahr said, his accent more pronounced over the microphone. âI cannot end the speculation, but I hope to allay your fears.'
Everyone had a voice, he told his captive audience, and he would listen to each one. He expected the House of Kolovsky to continue to flourish, and was looking forward to getting to know the staff.
A smile of relief swept the roomâonly it didn't reach Lavinia, and neither did his speech. It was his earlier words that rang in her ears as she watched from the shadow of the wings.
âYou have no idea who you are playing with.'
But she did.
Riminic Ivan Kolovskyâa man surely with no allegiance to the empire, a man who had learnt hate from the
cradle, a man who had practically warned her himself to steer clear.
She didn't trust him. She wasn't even sure if she liked him. And he was absolutely out of her league. So why, Lavinia asked herself as her hand moved to the back of her neck, as she felt the skin he had branded with his touch, did she really want to know him some more?