Authors: Carol Marinelli
was definite. âIt's not your colour.'
âIt's stunning,' Lavinia beggedâbecause the dress
heavenly, and more importantly they had not a moment to spare.
But Katina would not budge.
âYou represent Kolovsky. You're dining with a king. I choose.' Katina pulled down the zipper and Lavinia wriggled out. Katina bundled up the peach dress with a warning to Lavinia to do her make-up as she left her standing in her panties and bra. âYou're running very late.'
have put on her war paintâexcept her make-up bag was at her desk.
Had it been Aleksi, or even Levander, she'd have just padded out thereânot caring if they were there or not. She'd even have answered the phone had it been ringing. The brothers were so used to it they wouldn't notice. But Zakahr came from the staid world of finance.
With ZakahrâLavinia swallowedâit was different. Very different indeed.
âWould you mind fetching me my bag?' She settled for popping her head around the door and calling out
to him. But Zakahr was in his own office, and he could not believe her gall.
He walked out to tell her soâand there was her skinny shoulder and her clavicle, and the deep red silk strap of a bra. He
that this was normal around hereâhe had been down to the design rooms and the dressing rooms and had seen far more than a shoulderâand he was also exceptionally used to women in their natural form in his own personal life.
âIt's in the second drawer,' Lavinia directed.
He practically threw it at her.
âYou could have waited till you were dressed and got it yourself,' he said tartly.
âAnd spilled foundation on a Kolovsky creation? I don't think so,' Lavinia called back. But despite her quick comeback she was blushing right down to her toes, and she leant her head on the door for a moment as she closed it.
did he have to go and be nice about Rachael? Why couldn't he have ignored her, as he had all morning? How,
, was she supposed to get through tonight?
It was too dangerous to ponder, so she drained her energy drink and then slapped on some foundation, rouged a cleavage where there was none, and painted her face with more than her usual care. By then Katina had returned. Lavinia frowned at the rather bold colours, but she held up her arms as the dress slithered down her skin, delighting in the rich caress of the silk. And, yes, when she stepped back and looked in the mirror Lavinia accepted that Katina had been right!
âIt's perfect,' Lavinia breathed, craning her neck for a view from behind as Katina strapped her into the highest of heels. âI'd never have chosen these colours.'
âI told youâ¦' Katina said, and she stepped back, scrutinising Lavinia carefully. And she was never one to lavish complimentsâat least not with the staff. âI wasn't sure you could carry it off.' She handed her a sheer golden net overcoat, and before she left warned Lavinia she had to sign it in when she brought it back in the morning.
âBut for now you're all mine!' Lavinia grinned at the mirror.
Her hair had been curled into long thick blonde ringlets, and loosely piled on top of her head, and her eyes were bluer than ever, thanks to lashings of mascara. But her lipstick was neutral, and she added one final layer of gloss before stepping out to where Zakahr stood, fiddling with his tie at a full-length mirror, reeking of expensive cologne and, on reflection, looking thoroughly fed-up.
Until he caught her eyes in the mirror.
She saw him blink as he slowly turned around.
âYou look amazing!' He couldn't
say itâthere was no disputing the fact; Zakahr felt his tongue on the roof of his mouth as she teetered towards the mirror in a blaze of gold and red and orange.
âI know!' She gave him a wide grin, and it was so unlike any of the usual responses to a compliment he almost smiled. Then she handed him a tie and jiggled with the dress, rearranging very small breasts into some sort of cleavage. âI know I didn't want the job, but I love the perks!'
âOf course,' Lavinia said. âAs is this tie.' She handed him Katina's choice, but Zakahr stared at it in disgust. âIt would choke me,' Zakahr said, and then corrected himself. âI choose my own ties.'
âNot when you're accompanying me!' Lavinia said. âPut it on.'
And, given he now ran the place, he supposed he must.
It was grey, but there were flecks of a colour there from beyond the spectrum, and a silvery tinge that turned his suit into evening wear.
âYou know,' Lavinia twittered on, âKolovsky silk changes depending on the wearer's mood.'
âThat tie was a midnight-blue. I swear it.' Lavinia blinked at the transformation. âNow it's cold and grey.' She gave him a sweet smile. âIt matches your eyes.'
He couldn't help but stare at her. The dress shimmered gold, and there were flashes of red that moved as she did, dancing like an aura around her body.
âI'd better not spill anything. Katina will never forgive me!'
âYou don't get to keep it?'
âGod, no!' Lavinia said. âIt's just on loan for the nightâlike me!' She picked up his wrist and glanced at his watch. âYou've got me till eleven.'
Eleven a.m., preferably, Zakahr thought. Because when she was close all he wanted was to kiss her. He could feel her thin fingers around his wrist, smell her fragrant hair and see the fiery reds darting across the
heavy silk, shimmering and then darkening. It was as if it blushed around her breasts, the curve of her waist. Her skin was pale, and there was a lot on display, long limbed and slender. He wanted to lower his head and brand her skin. He wanted now the pleasure that must surely be his soon. She was, Zakahr decided, if she'd only stay quiet, completely gorgeous.
âShould you cover yourselfâ¦?' Zakahr started, but Lavinia knew those rules at least. Words like
were not in Zakahr's vocabulary. He watched as she pulled on the golden net, covering her arms, skimming down to mid-calf. She looked like a captured mermaid, and he wanted to tear off the net, to free her, to say to hell with Kolovsky and the dignitaries downstairs, to lay her on the office floor and take her now.
âCome on, then.' She seemed completely oblivious to the charged air. She just clipped ahead of him in heels that were impossibly high, squirting perfume as they walked and informing him that an exclusive restaurant had been booked, and was one that they used regularlyâthe rear closed off for their guests. It was an extremely upmarket vegetarian restaurant, where Aleksi usually took his guestsâwhich saved any cultural awkwardness.
âI'd kill for a steak,' Zakahr said, and sighed.
âAnd no alcohol,' Lavinia warned.
âLavinia.' They were in the lift. âI
done this before.'
âYou nearly didn't go to the airport,' Lavinia pointed out.
It was morning in Europe, so the car-ride was taken
up with Zakahr firing off e-mails on his phone. Already her feet were killing her, but Lavinia distracted herself by chatting to Eddie and annoying Zakahr as she did so.
âI'm working,' Zakahr snapped as her laughter sailed through the car. âWe're
working!' Lavinia pointed out, winking at Eddie as she did so. âJust some of us manage to smile as we do so.'
She wasn't so assured a moment later.
âThe press are here.' Lavinia swallowed as they approached. âThe restaurant's usually discreet. How would the press have foundâ¦?'
But quickly Lavinia realized, as she stepped out of the car, that it wasn't the royals who awaited them that had captured the nation's interest. It was the man who walked beside her.
âOh, Godâ¦' Absolutely Lavinia wasn't prepared for thisâshe was used to cameras in a more controlled settingâand the unexpected frenzy that circled them had her spinning momentarily, wondering if she should have foreseen this, if there was a detail she had overlooked in tonight's preparation.
âJust walk.' He sounded completely at ease, and he made it sound easyâexcept her legs wouldn't obey his simple command. Then, perhaps realising she was struggling, he offered assistance, put his arm loosely around her, to guide her.
But as his hand touched her waist the contact almost shot Lavinia into the throng of photographers. She could
feel his hand on her waist more than she could feel her sore feet!
âCome on.' It was twenty-four steps to the restaurant. Lavinia knew because each one took effort. She could smell him, she could feel him, but more than that he was aware of her too.
She knew that.
Knew because when they entered the restaurant it was just herself and Zakahrâtheir guests hadn't arrivedâand it daunted her. The conversation that had flowed so easily was horribly awkward now.
âThey should be here soon.' Lavinia flashed a smile at a passing waiter, just for something to do. âCould I have champagne, please?' But even as she said it she remembered her own warning. âActually, make that a Diet Coâ¦' Her voice trailed off, because that didn't actually go with the dress. âJust a sparkling water, please.' She sighed and rolled her eyes. âLucky me!'
And then she looked across the table and saw him smilingânot grinning, just looking at her and smiling, his dark lips suddenly dangerous, those cold grey eyes warming. And it was attractionâpure, naked attractionâin surely its most potent form. And for the first time in her life she was sampling it.
She sat there as his eyes roamed her.
She breathed in, and then she breathed out, and then she couldn't remember how to any more.
She could feel a pulse in the side of her neck. She knew his eyes were upon it, and she wanted it to be his mouth.
âI'll get you champagne later,' Zakahr said, and for
the first time with a man Lavinia felt the floor slip beneath her, felt the frantic dash of her feet to find solid ground. Because for the first time with a man Lavinia felt suddenly out of her depth.
âI'll stick with water,' she said. âIt's far safer.'
Thankfully their guests arrived, and Lavinia was more than a little relieved when, after she rose to greet them, the King's aides subtly moved her further down the table. The men and women were sitting separately, which meant that, without the distraction of Zakahr, Lavinia could concentrate on the Princess.
Unlike the Queen, Princess Jasmine was veiled, as was the tradition for unmarried women of their small, prosperous land.
âThe women of today know what they want.' The Queen smiled in the direction of her daughter. âJasmine knows exactly the dress she wantsâthough it is hard to capture that along with all our traditions. Throughout the marriage service slowly she will be revealed. Then we have the problem that some of her maids are married, others are betrothed, some from different landsâ¦' The Queen shook her head in exasperation. âKolovsky is the only Western designer we could trust to fulfil all our wishes.'
âOh, they will,' Lavinia said assuredly, then turned her attention to Jasmine, her interest completely genuine. âSo what sort of dress
you want?' she asked. âI can't wait to see what the designers come up with.'
His so-called brothers had overlooked a rare asset, Zakahr realised as he worked through dinner. It could
have been the most awkward of dinners. Jasmine, out in public, was veiled, and Lavinia ate like a bird, so food was hardly top of either woman's agenda, but it was the conversation and laughter that flowed.
Yes, Lavinia spoke just a little
much, and once he noticed she actually interrupted the Queen, butâused to entertaining, and all too aware of its pitfallsâZakahr, on a professional level, found it was actually a relief to have Lavinia with him. King Abdullah required close attentionâthe King was extremely clever, and he wanted to speak business, which Zakahr did bestâand it was made easier knowing the rest of the guests were being attended to. After all, was there anyone on this earth who could talk weddings like Lavinia?
Zakahr doubted it.
Not once, he noted, did her eyes glaze over as the Princess described the Kolovsky designers' visions for her and the bridal party. In fact Lavinia kept halting the Princess and asking for more detail, which the Princess and her mother were only too happy to provide.
âMy daughter is enjoying herself.' As the Princess and her mother's laughter filled the table the King followed Zakahr's gaze. âLavinia is charming.'
She certainly was. Zakahr's eyes lingered, and perhaps she felt them, because suddenly she looked up and she met his gazeâonly she didn't smile and look away.
Lavinia could hear the glasses chinking, the laughter, the noise of the restaurant, but all she could see was this beautiful man as his eyes caressed her from across the crowded table. There was heat in her cheeks, and
she was trapped by his stare, dizzy at her own thought-processes. Startled, she finally pulled her eyes away, tried to concentrate on the conversation, but her mind was still with Zakahr.
The restaurant was warm, and maybe the difficult week was catching up with her, Lavinia told herself as her temples pounded to the beat of her own pulse.
She took a sliver of dragon fruit, felt the cool fruit on her tongue, but it didn't cool her head.
âExcuse me.' She headed for the opulent ladies' room, turned the heavy gold taps and ran water over her wrists. Then she sat on the lounger.
Lavinia pressed her fingers into her eyes as something close to panic washed over her.
Piece by piece, Zakahr had dismantled her armoury.