Authors: Carol Marinelli
was no one less fun to work for.
It was straight down to business after yet another sleepless night.
Not only did she have Rachael to worry about, there was now that incident with Zakahr. She
been flirting, she'd thought indignantly as she'd lain there. Or maybe she had? Blushing in the darkness, Lavinia had rolled over, replaying that seemingly innocent gesture over and over, replaying: Zakahr's warm fingers on the back of her neck, her being momentarily trapped at his bidding.
Even though she'd hauled herself to work early, Zakahr, of course, was already there. She made him coffee and took it in, but he neither looked up nor thanked herâjust asked for some staff files and reminded her that he wanted to commence interviews at nine. Lavinia rued her night of imaginingsâclearly it hadn't troubled him a jot.
Lavinia ached for the old daysâgossiping by the coffee machine, chatting with Aleksi. Even Kate would have made things so much more bearable. But with Zakahr it was just work, work, work.
Her lunch break consisted of a mad dash for the vending machine and yet another energy drink.
âAnnika's on the line.' When a moment later Zakahr still hadn't picked up his sister's call, Lavinia buzzed him again, and then knocked on his door. âAnnika's on the phone for you.'
âI'm busy with interviews. Who's next?' Zakahr asked, raising an eyebrow at the large energy drink she was carrying. It was Lavinia's third of the day.
âI'm just trying to get hold of herâit should be Alannah Dalton, Head of Retail,' Lavinia said, handing him the file.
âAnd?' Zakahr asked, because Lavinia's little off-the-record additions were actually spot-on.
âA right old misery. She moans about everythingâthinks the whole world's out to get herâ¦' Her voice trailed off, and Zakahr looked up to see that Lavinia's eyes were closed and that despite her make-up there was a sallow tinge to her cheeks.
âAre you going to faint?' He sounded weary at the thought of it.
âNo,' Lavinia whispered. âI'm justâ¦' For an appalling moment she thought she might be sick, but it abated and she took a deep breath, licked very dry lips. The world was swimming back into focus. âI had no sleep last night.' She saw his jaw tighten. âI know it's not your problemâit's entirely mineâ¦'
She sat on his large sofa and put her head on her knees for a moment. He just sat at his desk and watched, neither worried nor impressedâif anything, he was bored by the drama of her.
âI'll be fine,' Lavinia said a couple of moments later.
Only she wasn't.
She made it out of his office even as little dots danced before her eyes. She gulped down water, ate four jelly beans and a bag of crisps that had been hiding in her desk, and took a call from Alannah.
Lavinia buzzed Zakahr. âShe's on her way from the boutique. They had an important client.' She didn't actually hear his response, because there was a loud ringing sound in her ears.
When Alannah Dalton didn't appear, and neither did Lavinia respond to his intercom buzzer, Zakahr marched out of his office, less than impressed, to find her once again head-down at her desk.
âI'm not asleep,' Lavinia said without moving. âAnd I really am sorry.' She had to tell himâwell, not tell him everything, but she had to admit a bit of the truthâit was either that or get fired. âI've got some personal problems. I hardly had any sleep over the weekend, just worrying, and it was the same last nightâ¦'
Now she did lift her head, and Zakahr rather hoped she'd put it down again. Her lips were white, her mascara was sliding down her cheeks, and he was now worried rather than weary. He was used to more staff, used to snapping his fingers and producing solutions, but in a situation of his own making there was no one.
He went to the en suite bathroom, ran water onto a hand towel and brought it back to her. He wasn't entirely convinced by her story, but she was clearly ill, so he took the towel, and she accepted it without thanks, burying
her face in it as Zakahr stood silent till finally she came up for air.
âI'll be better tomorrow.' Lavinia was insistent. âI'll be back to normal.'
âI'll get my driver to take you homeâ' Zakahr started, but he halted as she winced. The thought of walking, of getting into a car, clearly had her dizzy all over again. âYou need to restâ¦'
He led her to what had actually been her old office, before Zakahr had insisted on the promotion, and she fell into the familiar cushions with relief. It had never been more blissful to lie down. But now that the world was back in focus embarrassment was seeping in.
âI'm really sorry.' There was colour coming back to her face now, though her make-up was on the towel which she had pressed to her forehead. âI can explain.'
âJust rest for now,' Zakahr said. Seeing that she was shivering, he did the right thing and took off his jacket and covered her. Then he pulled the blinds. By the time he had finished she was sound asleep.
Zakahr rang down to Reception and had someone sent up to replace Lavinia for the rest of afternoon, while he carried on conducting staff interviews. Alannah Dalton
a right old misery, as Lavinia had said.
He was a skilled interviewer, and he listened as the staff ranted and raved, and saved their own skin by blaming others.
He learnt a lot.
Confirmed a lot.
The cracks in Kolovsky had started long before Ivan's deathâof course he pursued this, but on too many
occasions his mind wandered to the woman asleep next door, no matter how many times he tried to halt it.
âWere there staff favourites?' Zakahr asked them all.
It was as simple as that.
Of course he had to listen to a lot that did not interest him in order to get to the bit that did. It was common knowledge that Lavinia had been sleeping with Aleksi, and maybe Levander too, before him. Lavinia, he was repeatedly told, always kept in with the boss.
Zakahr kept his face impassive as over and over this was reiterated, but he almost felt regret as he realised that the smile he was starting to like, the chatter, the jokesâeverything that was Laviniaâwasn't pleasing exclusively to him.
In a break between interviews Zakahr walked into the darkened office and stared down at her for a full moment. With her face relaxed by sleep, her mouth minus the gloss, she looked younger, prettierâinnocent, almost.
Though clearly that wasn't the case.
He found her file and bundled it up with a few others, and then he settled back for a read.
She had been hauled in to HR several timesâalways at another colleague's requestâand Kate herself had made a couple of complaints, but there had never been any action taken.
Zakahr was quite sure he knew why.
At five p.m., she stepped into his office, with a red mark from the cushion on the side of her face.
âI don't know what to say!' She handed him his jacket, which he took without a word. âThank you, though. I'll see you tomorrowâassuming, of courseâ¦' Lavinia tried to keep her voice upbeat, but even she could hear its waver ââ¦that I still have a job?'
âDo you even
this job?' Zakahr asked.
âOf course I do,' Lavinia responded immediatelyâbecause now more than ever a solid working history was vital.
âThen can I suggest you go home to bed and sleep tonight?' Zakahr said tartly. âAnd that you eat something instead of relying on caffeineâ¦' She exasperated himâwhy, he didn't know. She was too pale, too thin and too careless with herself, and even though it was far from his problem for a moment it felt like it. âLet's both get something to eat.'
Lavinia shook her head. Because even if she was starving, even if all she'd have the energy to rustle up this evening was egg on toast, the thought of being out with Zakahrâof an evening away from the office, actually talking to himâhad her body on instant alert. She'd heeded his warning. She wasn't about to toy with him. His company out of office hours would be perilous at least!
âI'm really not up to a fancy restaurant todayâand we're eating out with the King tomorrow. Right now I just want to go home, have a bath, and go to sleep.'
, bath and then sleep,' Zakahr said through gritted teeth, not trusting her to do so. Taking it into his own hands, he stood. âYou need to eat, and so do I.'
her somewhere very dark, very low-key, and actually rather relaxing.
âHow do you know about this place?' Lavinia had grumbled as they'd turned into a back street and he'd led her to what must be one of Melbourne's best-kept secrets. As she slipped into deep velvet seats Lavinia peered around and saw it was filled with the rich and the beautiful. âI've lived here all my life and didn't know it existed.'
âConcierge,' was Zakahr's concise reply, but then he stopped being her boss for a moment and gave her a brief smile. âThe food is good.' And she
need to eat. She ordered a snow pea and asparagus risotto, which was smothered in pepper and fresh parmesan, and layered butter on a warm roll.
Conversation came easily, and Lavinia surprised Zakahr by tucking in to her food the moment it arrivedâand even if she only managed a quarter of the large plate he watched with surprising pleasure as colour came back to her complexion and that sparkle came back to her eyes.
âBetter?' Zakahr asked.
âMuch,' Lavinia admittedâbecause the food
been lovely, and the company pleasant rather than challenging. Far from feeling awkward, for the first time in ages Lavinia found herself unwinding.
âYou need to take better care of yourself.'
âI take very good care of myself,' Lavinia responded, but then relented. âUsually.'
Zakahr waited for her to elaborateâhis skilled interview technique continued long after office hours. He chose to give away little about himself, and the easiest way to accomplish that was to ask about
lifeâbut though Lavinia spoke easily about work, weddings and the like, she was surprisingly reticent when it came to her current problems. In fact, when Zakahr subtly asked the nature of her problems, Lavinia turned the question on
âJust family stuffâbut then you'd know all about family dramas, wouldn't you?' She watched his steak knife pause, and after a moment he actually put down the cutlery and took a drink of water before speaking. He was unsure if he'd misheard, because it was such a guarded secretâone the Kolovskys dreaded getting outâsurely the Assistant PA couldn't know?
âDo you come from a large family?' Zakahr asked instead of answering.
âI've got a half-sister.' She saw him frown, and realised she was making no sense. And though she was really too weary to explain herself, so much had been bottled inside for so long that Lavinia found herself opening up. âMy mum died last year.'
âI'm sorry,' Zakahr said, as was polite, but Lavinia gave a tight shrug.
âShe lived longer than expected,' Lavinia said. âI'm rather amazed that she made it into her fortiesâmy mum was someone who really didn't take care of herself.' She pushed the risotto around her plateâhungry, but not, angry, but not. Just sharing her burden, just voicing it, might bring fresh perspective.
âWhat about your father?' Zakahr pushed.
âI don't have a father,' she said. âWell, I don'tâ¦'
âYou don't keep in touch?'
âI don't know who he is.' She gave a tight smile that was born from embarrassment. âNeither did my mother.'
âI doubt it.
âLook.' Lavinia gave up with her food. âMy half-sister is younger than meâ
younger. She lives with her father and his new partner. It was bad enough leaving her there when my mother was aliveâI know what I went through as a childâbut now that she's goneâ¦well, I know that Kevin doesn't want her, and nor does his new partner. I'm trying to get custody, but they're opposing itâ¦'
Zakahr looked up, unable to imagine the high-fashion, rather dizzy Lavinia taking on the role of single mum. But since the moment he had met her she had surprised him.
âI thought you said that they didn't want her?' Zakahr frowned. âWhat is her name?'
âRachael, and she's four.' Her tense mouth softened
even as she said the name. âThey
want her. But Mum had a life insurance policy, and there's a small trust for herâthey'd get paid. Not a huge amount, but enough to make it worth their while to keep her. They deny it's about money, of course, but I know I'm right.'
âSo how do you know that they don't want her? Really know?' Zakahr askedâbecause he dealt only in fact.
âHer dad's got two older boys who can do no wrong, and his partner's got two little girls from another relationship. And now they've just had a baby of their own.'
âA large blended family,' Zakahr said, but Lavinia screwed up her nose.
âRachael doesn't fit into the blend,' Lavinia said. âShe's clever, she's a serious little thing, and they just have no time for her. I buy her clothes, but I go there and the girls are wearing them while Rachael's in rags. She spends most of her time in her room.' He saw the flash of tears in her eyes as she took a large gulp of water. âIt's the hardest thing to explain,' Lavinia admitted. âIt's actually
to explain. I used to see her once a fortnight, and if I argued or pointed anything outâwell, I just didn't get to see her the next time.'
âSo you've stayed quiet?'
âDo you know how hard it is to stay quiet when you know a child is suffering?'
Zakahr said nothing.
âI arranged some childcare for herâit had a kindergarten programme. I told Debbieâ¦'
âThe partner?' Zakahr checked, and Lavinia nodded.
âI told her that it might give her a break, that I knew
Rachael was hard workâI made it sound like I was doing them a favour. But in fact I wanted her away from them, and hopefully for one of the teachers to see what was going on.'
âWhich they did?'
âShe had some bruises on her arms,' Lavinia said. âAnd they were worried about some of the stuff she'd been saying. She was taken into foster care on Friday. I thought I'd get herâI really thought it would be automaticânow I'm being
.' She shrilled out the word. âI've got my own record with them,' Lavinia admitted. âI was bounced in and out of care for most of my childhoodâ'
âAnd that goes
you?' Zakahr checked. âYou are responsible nowâyou have a good jobâ¦'
âI didn't always,' Lavinia said, and she was so weary with it all, so tired of trying to justify herself, she simply stopped. To Zakahr she would be honest. âThe “modelling” that I used to doâafter my mum pulled me out of school at sixteenâI was actually a stripper for a few years. Then I did some dancingâ¦'
âI'm assuming not classical?'
There was nothing derisive in his voice, no shock in his eyesâall he did was listenâso much so that Lavinia even managed a wry smile.
âSteer me away from all poles!' she said to his bland expression. âI just can't help myself sometimes.'
âYou modelled as well?'
âThat's how I ended up at Kolovskyâit was a fashion week, the agents were frantic, Kolovsky were a bridesmaid shortâ¦ It was luck, really.'
âYou'd still be dancing without Kolovsky?'
âGod, no,' Lavinia said immediately. âI'd all but given up on Mum by thenâI still gave her some money for Rachael, but it all went on gin. I was looking for another job. This one, though, paid far more than I'd dreamed. It was a Godsend.' She caught his eyes. âI know I haven't made the best impression, but I really do need this jobânow more than ever. Two years as Assistant PA, a recent promotion to PAâ¦' She gave a tight smile. âWell, it beats an unemployed ex-stripper.'
âHave you taken legal advice?'
âWhat can a lawyer do?' Lavinia asked. âIt's up to the authorities.'
âA lawyer can ask questions.' Zakahr thought for a moment. âYou say Kevin is good with his sons?' Lavinia nodded.
âSo why not Rachael?'
âMaybe he prefers sonsâ¦' Lavinia started, then changed her mind. âHe seems to dote on the new baby, though, and she's a little girl.'
Lavinia rolled her eyes. It was all very well for Zakahr, with his billions, to suggest a lawyer. âI'll just keep working on Ms Hewitt!' She smiled over to him, but Zakahr didn't smile back. In fact he was annoyedânot with Lavinia, but with his brothers, with his so-called family.
Hell, he'd known Lavinia a couple of days and already knew her story. She'd been Aleksi's loverâsurely he should have sorted this out for her? And what about
Nina? They had lawyers galore at Kolovskyâsurely someone could have stepped in?
âYou need to speak to someone,' Zakahr said, reluctant to be dragged into a problem that wasn't his, but unable to stay quiet.
âWhat I need,' Lavinia corrected, âis to keep my job. So, thank you for listening, and I promise after a good night's sleep I'll be back to my usual self!'
He rather liked her
usual self! Still, that wasn't the issue.
âListen to me, Lavinia. You can't deal with this without a lawyer.'
dealing with it,' she insisted. âI know the system well enoughâMs Hewitt was my own case worker years ago. You know, it really
a shame you can't choose your family!' Maybe she should just stay quiet, not admit that she knew, but Lavinia didn't work well being subtle, and frankly she'd had enough of playing games. âZakahrâI know who you are.'
âYou shouldn't listen to gossip.'
âEveryone's too scared to gossip about
,' Lavinia said. âI was there when Aleksi confronted Nina with the truth that you are in fact her son.'
âWas,' Zakahr corrected.
,' Lavinia said.
âThey are not my family.'
âSo why are you here?' Lavinia challenged. âIf you want nothing to do with them, why are you here?'
âTo claim what is rightfully mine,' Zakahr lied; he was hardly going to tell her of his intention to destroy it.
âYou could talk to herâ¦' Lavinia knew she was
venturing into dangerous territoryâknew this was absolutely not her placeâbut Nina's devastation was real. âAt least hear what she has to sayâ¦'
âI can forgive tardiness, I can forgive rudeness, and I can accept that in some things for now you know better.' His voice was like ice. âBut don't
try to advise me on my family.'
âFine,' Lavinia said. âBut what gives you the right to advise on mine?'
âI'm right,' Zakahr snapped.
âSo am I!' She reached for her bag.
Zakahr sat for a moment, unable to believe she knewâthat that was all she had to say on the subject. Conversation was not something Zakahr often pursued, but despite the difficult subject matter, despite broaching topics that were completely out of bounds, he was enjoying her company. Except Lavinia was looking at her watch.
âI really have to go home.'
âI'll take you now. I'll ring for my driver,' Zakahr said, deciding it would be nice to see where she lived. Only Lavinia wouldn't hear of it.
âI'm fine to drive.'
They walked through the streets, both in silence, back towards the darkening offices.
âWhat did she say?' It was Zakahr who broke the silenceâcurious despite himself. âWhat did Nina say when she found out I was her son?'
âShe screamedâwailed.' Lavinia didn't soften the brutal details of that day. âIt was one of the saddest things I've ever seen.'
âShe doesn't deserve sympathy.'
âShe wasn't asking for it,' Lavinia said.
To Zakahr it felt strange to be talking about this. For so long it had been private knowledge. In the last few weeks it had come to the fore, with harsh words spoken with his so-called family, but now, like a cool breeze, Lavinia had swept into the most closed area of his life, and to be walking at eight p.m., to be talking about that which was never discussed, with a woman he had only just met, was as unfamiliar as it was refreshing.
She challenged himâmade him question his own thoughtsâ¦duplicated them on occasion.
âMaybe you should hear what she has to say.' She was gentle rather than probing, but it touched the rawest of nerves.
âThere's nothing to talk about with herâyou yourself cut ties with your own mother.'
âNo,' Lavinia corrected. âI simply gave up trying to change her.'
Zakahr didn't want to think about it. Zakahr, as they reached the staff car park, wanted instead the easy solution.
Lavinia was incredibly pretty.
Her mouth, devoid of lipstick, was full and plump, and despite a few hours' sleep in the office still her body seeped with exhaustion. He thought how nice it would be to take her back to his hotel.
How much nicer for her, Zakahr thought, rather than driving home, to come back to his luxurious suite, to be pampered.
Sex, for Zakahr, was the equivalent of benzodiazepine.
It helped one sleep, and when the bottle ran out it was easily replaced. He had no qualms about one-night stands, one-week standsâ¦. He caught a waft of her fragrance. Maybe, he realised, here was a woman who could hold his interest for a month.
âThank you.' She smiled up at him as they reached her car. âIt's been really nice to talk.'
âWe can talk some more.'
There was an invitation there, and Lavinia's body reacted to itâwhether it was embarrassment at sleeping the afternoon away, or just that it had been so pleasant to actually talk about her problems, for a while there her guard had been down and she'd simply enjoyed his company. But there was a knot in her stomach as she faced him. Not the knot of anxiety that was familiar these days, but a knot far lower in her body, which tightened as she stood there. Her mouth, which had chatted easily all evening, felt now as if it were made of rubber as she tried to ignore his thinly veiled offer.