Authors: Carol Marinelli
âI need my bed!' Lavinia said, then corrected herself. âBath and
Zakahr was about to agreeâin fact that was exactly what he had in mindâbut he knew women, knew how to be subtle, knew exactly what he was doingâ¦ He lowered his head. A slow, soft kiss, a teasing taste, and then bath and bed would be arrangedâexcept at his hotel.
Only Lavinia had other ideas.
It took a second to register her lips on his cheek, the feel of that plump mouth on his skin, saying goodbye as she might to any friendâa fleeting exchange after a pleasant evening.
âThanks again.' Lavinia climbed into her car, hid her blush with her hair as she leant forward and put the key in the ignition. âI'll see you in the morning. Have a good night.'
Lavinia drove out of the car park on autopilot, put in her card and willed the boom gate to rise, willed herself not to look in the rearview mirror, fighting a sudden urge to screech the car into reverse. So badly she wanted to go to him. She had felt rather than heard his invitation, and even if her mind had said no her body had felt more than inclined to accept.
Lavinia turned into the city street and met a red traffic light. Now she looked in the rearview mirror, seeing not herself but her imageâthe woman Zakahr thought he saw.
What would he think if he knew the truth? That this outwardly assured, flirty woman had no experience with menâthat even his casual kiss would be her first?
Lavinia was an extremely skilled flirt.
Her mother had taught her well, and now it happened without thought.
She could beckon a man to bed with one eye and warn him off with the other. It wasn't a case of being manipulativeâfor a while it had meant survival. And survival had been necessary for a teenager in some of the sleazier jobs Fleur had encouraged for her daughter.
Now twenty-four, and working for Kolovsky, she still retained those skills, but they were used more subtly. Of course she'd flirted with her bosses. But, rather as with the stunning garments they produced, she'd simply
admired them, enjoyed them, loved to have a little play with them and dress up. Despite the rumours to the contrary, it had all been strictly fun.
Flirting with Zakahr, however innocent, was proving downright dangerousâlike teasing a tiger behind bars. Here was one man Lavinia wasn't sure she could handle if he suddenly got outâand it was a relief to be away from him.
As she drove off, there was also relief for Zakahr. Normally he had no compunction about getting involved with staff, none at allâeven his regular PA Abigail was an occasional loverâbut he was here in Australia with the intention
to get involved. And certainly not with someone like Lavinia, who not only knew his past but was dealing with Rachael.
It had killed him to sit and listen to thatâhe didn't want to go through it again.
Zakahr poured vast amounts of money into helping damaged childrenâeach company he resurrected was always structured to work closely with a charity. It came with unexpected benefitsâstaff were more eager, it promoted a sense of purpose. Yes, Zakahr walked the talk, but despite his great work there was no contact. He had left that part of his past behind, and never wanted to visit it again. Despite his impassiveness, hearing Lavinia speak of Rachael had swirled the black river of hate that ran through him.
No, Lavinia and her problems he did
There was a lipgloss rolling around on the floor of the car. He kicked it under the seat opposite, but a moment
or so later it rolled out again to him. He cursed, and picked it up and put it in his pocket.
The car slid past the casino, but that wasn't the sort of high Zakahr needed tonight.
He walked into the hotel and, instead of heading to his suite, headed to the plush barâbecause he
need a good night.
He ordered a brandy, then saw a pretty face and jewels and lipstick and a smile across the room, hoping he might return it.
It was that easy for him.
But, no, Zakahr did
have the good night Lavinia had wished him. Because he pulled out a lipgloss instead of his pen when he went to sign for champagne, and, wondering if she'd hexed him, Zakahr downed his brandy in one and to the smile's disappointment headed up to his suite.
He took off his jacket. It smelt of her.
He took off his shirt, because that now smelt of her too.
He poured another brandy. The room's flowers had been replacedâan arrangement of liliesâand Zakahr felt a soft, thick petal. It felt like Lavinia's skin surely mustâ¦ He stopped himself. He did not need names to faces.
Less than a week into his month, his decision was made. The House of Kolovsky would be no moreânow all he had to do was execute it.
She'd get another job, he told himself. Yet his gut churned with sudden unease.
Zakahr headed to the bathroom, ran the tap and
splashed his face with water. As he reached for a towel he caught sight of his back in the angled mirrorsâscars like tattoos all told their tale, and Zakahr had lived through each hellish one.
Rarely did Zakahr examine them, but he did now.
He saw the thick knot of flesh over his scapula, the dark purple circles that like the memories did not fade, and he was sixteen again, surviving the brutal streetsâstreetwise and hardened, but as scared as hell.
Here was the bigger picture, Zakahr told himself.
the reason he was here and he mustn't forget it.
Couldn't forget it.
God knew he'd tried.
need to sign this.' He did not look up as she handed him a document. He took a long drink of his coffee to escape the scent of her. âContracts are screaming for itâAleksi should have done it before he left.'
âI'll read through it later.'
âThey need it now.'
If they didn't she wouldn't be standing in his office. She was doing her best to avoid him, tapping away on the computer, seemingly engrossed in her work. But Contracts had demanded his signature, and like it or not Lavinia had to face the man who'd filled her thoughts all night, trying to pretend she wasn't the least concerned that tonight they were going out for dinnerâand it wasn't dining with royalty that was daunting Lavinia.
âRula is to be the new Face of Kolovskyâthey're shooting this week, and her contract still hasn't been signed off.' Still he made no move. âIt's an important document.'
âThen it deserves close attention,' Zakahr retorted. âWhich I don't have time for now.'
âSo what do I tell them?'
âThat's entirely up to you.' He took another drink of his coffee. âOut.'
He was loathsome, Lavinia decided as she hung up the phone after not the easiest of conversations with Contracts. He was loathsome, horrible and arrogant, and she was mad to even consider fancying him. In fact she refused toâso she checked her horoscope instead.
The stars are urging you to take the advice being givenâ¦
Fat lot of help that wasâsome advice on pompous, tall, dark and handsome bosses would be nice.
With a jolt she looked up, and for a second was confused. But Iosef always did that to her, given he was Aleksi's identical twin. Though he had plenty of the Kolovsky dash, he was a smudge more down-to-earth than Aleksi, who wore only the best suits and had his hair trimmed weekly.
Iosef was in black jeans and a T-shirt, and didn't look in the best of moods.
âIs he in?'
âHe is!' Lavinia smiled up at Iosefâhe had always been her favourite of the Kolovsky brothers, and they'd shared a little flirtation in the pastâwell, till he'd fallen head-over-heels and married Annie.
âHow is it going?'
Lavinia rolled her eyes.
âWhat are you doing at this desk?'
âI'm the new PA!'
Iosef actually laughed, and for a moment so too did Lavinia.
âWhat's he like to work for?'
âHe makes the rest of you look positively docile. I'll just let him know that you're here.'
âNo need.' Zakahr was at the door, his expression boot-faced. âCarry on surfing the net, Lavinia.'
Zakahr closed the door. Iosef was already sitting down, and Zakahr was rattled that he hadn't waited to be asked, at his clear familiarity with the place.
For now he pushed that from his mind.
âHow are things?' Iosef asked, not remotely embarrassed at being overheard. Arrogance was a strong genetic trait. âHow are you finding it?'
Zakahr did not answer.
âHow's Lavinia doing as PA?'
âAre you here to make small talk?' Zakahr could not be bothered with small talk.
âI have just come from visiting our mother.'
mother,' Zakahr corrected. âHer choice,' he added, because from the day she and his father had abandoned a newborn baby in Detsky Dom she had no longer been his.
âI spoke at length with her psychiatrist yesterday. She is in a fragile mental state.' Like Zakahr, Iosef did not mince words. He did not want to be hereâhe understood completely his brother's takeâbut always with family there was a strange sense of duty. âI was not going to come to you with this, but I've spoken with my wife and we now agree you should at least be told. What you do
with the information is up to you. Nina wants to meet with you, to speak with youâ¦'
âAnd then it will all be okay?' Zakahr sneered. âI would check this psychiatrist's qualificationsâbecause if she is in such a fragile state does he
want me to say all I have to? All I want to? Does he think I am going to walk in and forgive her?'
âHe has warned her how damaging this confrontation could be for her at this stage of her treatmentâbut still she is desperate to see you.'
âTell her it's too late,' Zakahr said. âThirty-six years too late.'
Iosef nodded and stood to leave. He had not come here to argue or to plead, and he had known this would be difficultâthat Zakahr wanted nothing to do with them.
When he got to the door he changed his mind. âAnnie and I are having Annika and Ross over on Saturday for dinner. It would be good to see youâ¦' Iosef hesitated. He knew so little about this man who was his brother, and was trying hard to do the right thing. They actually
having Annika and Ross over, but if Zakahr would only agree he knew his sister and her husband would come. âIf you want to bring anyoneâ¦'
âYou still don't get it.' Zakahr leant back in his chair. âI am not here for a tender reunion with my
.' His lips sneered the word. âAleksi I have respect for. The rest of youâ¦'
âWe didn't know.'
to know,' Zakahr said, but Iosef shook his head.
âWe are all devastated by this, Riminicâ¦' And Iosef could have kicked himself. He had spent the morning hearing his mother wailing and crying the name of the baby she had abandoned, and now he stood before the man who loathed his past so much he had wiped it clean and changed his name. âZakahrâ¦'
âGet out.' Zakahr did not shout it, but it was non-negotiable. Just hearing the name Riminic made the bile churn in his stomach.
Riminic Ivan Kolovsky.
Riminic, son of Ivan.
He could feel the sweat on his forehead as the name played over and over. All Riminic had done, all Riminic had endured.
He never wanted to hear that name again.
Nina could die screaming it, but
never wanted to hear it.
Riminic was gone, Ivan was gone, and if he had his way so too would be the House of Kolovksy.
âZakahr!' Lavinia's voice came over the intercom and he pressed his fingers together and to his lips. The light breeze of her voice hauled him from the eye of the storm. âI need to pop out for an hour.'
âActually, yes.' She hesitated before continuing, âThen I've got to get my hair done, and I'm meeting Katina back here at five to sort out my outfit for tonightâ¦'
âYour point isâ¦?'
âI won't be back this afternoon. You'll have to manage without me.'
There was the crackle of the intercom, an unseen
blush, a call to flirt, an inappropriate response there for the taking. She willed him not to, and thankfully Zakahr obliged.
âHow?' Ms Hewitt asked for the twentieth time, and the answer was, as always, impossible.
In an effort to look more presentable on paper, Lavinia had officially promoted herself to PA, but Ms Hewitt was now questioning how she could hold down such a responsible job
be a full-time carer for Rachael.
âI'm sure I won't be the first single working mum.'
âRachael will need a lot of attention,' Ms Hewitt said.
âThen I'll go part-time,' Lavinia said. But even that didn't appease the case worker. Not that anything Lavinia could say was going to convince Ms Hewitt that Lavinia was a responsible adultâshe still saw Lavinia as the angry, troubled girl she had been all those years ago.
âHave you really thought this through at all, Lavinia?'
âI've thought of nothing else,' Lavinia said.
This whole hour had been pointless. Now the clock was edging towards four. She had her hair appointment soon, then the dinner to get ready forânot that she could tell Ms Hewitt
âHow long till you reach your decision?'
âLavinia, it's not a cut and dried decision. We're about keeping families together, not pulling them apart.'
her family,' Lavinia attempted again, but it
fell on deaf ears. âCan I at least see herâit's nearly a week now!'
âYou can see her tomorrow afternoon for an hourâbut, Lavinia, Rachael needs calm. She doesn't need to know that the adults in her life are fighting over her. When you see her, just keep things light.'
âI can't tell her I want her?'
her.' Ms Hewitt's words were abrupt. âShe has a family that wants her. Yes, it's a family that might need extended supportâ¦' Lavinia opened her mouth to argue, but Ms Hewitt overrode her. âBut making false promises to Rachael isn't going to help matters. Try to keep things even.'
God, why was
being made to feel like the bad guy?
It took every ounce of will-power to stay calm and thank Ms Hewitt, but as Lavinia sat at the hairdresser's she was shaking with silent rage as her thick blonde hair was curled into spirals and pinned.
âProblem?' Zakahr checked as she stomped back into the office after her appointment.
âOnly of my own making!'
Oh, she'd sworn her distance from him, but Zakahr was
, just at the right moment, and asking a question. It was like a champagne cork popping. Her rage was fizzing out, years and years of rage spluttering over the edges with such ferocity Lavinia's eyes actually stung with tears.
âShe'll send her back to Kevin,' Lavinia said.
âYou don't know that.' Zakahr wished he hadn't asked the questionâwished he hadn't heard Lavinia's
response. He gave his brief, soothing answer and turned to go.
back to my mother time after time.' Lavinia's words hit his turning back like arrows. âI'm supposed to keep things
with Rachael and not make promises I can't keep. I'm not even supposed to tell her I want to raise her.'
you raise her?' Zakahr challengedâbecause he believed in action rather than words, and before he offered his support where a child was concerned he had to be sure. âOr is this just a cause for now?'
âIt's why I bought a houseâI've got a room for her at home that I'm waiting to decorate. I've wanted Rachael in my care since she was born. But I'm not supposed to confuse her with all that.' She shook her head, cross with herself for bringing her problems to work, for exploding in front of him. âJust leave it.' She brushed past him, heading for the safety of her office.
âMs Hewitt is wrong.' Zakahr halted her. âAll this stuff about keeping your distance, not building up her hopes.' He could see Lavinia do a double-take, could see her try to speak, to tell him this was not his concernâexcept right now it was. âTake her to your home, show her the room, tell her that no matter what happens, what is decided, it is always there for her. Say that you will do your very best to get her thereâthat even if you are not able to look after her now you are thinking of her, and that the room is
âGo against everything I've been told?' Lavinia's knuckles were white on the office door. âI could lose her.'
âYou're losing her every day you are not honest,'
Zakahr insisted. âHow many milkshakes, how many dolls, how many clothes will fill her soul? She needs to know that you love her, and that you are doing everything you can for herâeven if she can't see it, even if it doesn't feel like it.'
âBuild up her hopes?' Lavinia challenged. âAnd then what if she finds out she's going backâ¦?'
âShe might not,' Zakahr said. âAnd if she doesâ¦' he was exasperated because it was surely simple ââ¦buy her a phone.'
âShe's not even five!'
âA cheap phone.'
âShe'll lose it. They'll take it off her.'
âThen buy her anotherâand another,' Zakahr said. âYou can text her a kiss each night.'
âMs Hewitt saidâ'
âAre you going to change your mind?' Zakahr demanded.
âOf course not.'
is Ms Hewitt's concern. I can guarantee it. That Rachael will be too much like hard workâthat Mr Right will come along but he won't want children, or not someone else's.
you going to change your mind?'
âThen let them accuse you of loving her too much. So long as it doesn't wane, their argument won't last.'
âI don't knowâ¦' Lavinia admitted. But when he said it like that, it made sense. âI want to tell her, butâ¦' She shook her head. âI need to think.'
âYou need a lawyerâ¦' Zakahr said.
âI need a drink,' Lavinia corrected, pulling the ring on an energy drink as Katina waltzed in with an armful of gowns. âAnd to get ready.' She gave him a thin smile. âThank you for listening.'
Zakahr shook his head. âI wish