Authors: Carol Marinelli
She could deal with menâany man, Lavinia told herself. She was
to keep men at a distance.
Except so easily he disarmed her.
She took a couple of slow deep breaths, told herself she could deal with it, and then removed her hands from her eyes and stood. There was a huge gold mirror, and Lavinia looked at her sleek reflection, looked at the dress and the jewels on loan, and the ringlets that were starting to loosen, and she wanted to be
, Lavinia thought. She actually wanted to step into the mirror and escape.
Wanted to give in to the beat of her body, to be the woman of the world Zakahr thought she wasâ¦
âEverything okay?' Zakahr checked as she walked past.
Coffees had been served; the table was relaxed.
Jasmine had moved seats and was now speaking with her father.
âOf course. It's been a good night.'
been a good nightâso much so, the King did not wait for the end of the meal to extend his own invitation.
âWe would love to have you as our guests before we return to our landâI will have my aide contact you.' He shook hands with Zakahr. âIt has been worth the tripâthough I was sceptical,' the King admitted. âI wanted to use our own designersâI did not see why we had to come to you. Usually it is the other way round.'
Out of the restaurant and out of the noise, exhaustion hit Lavinia. She was so tired she was dizzyâas if she'd drunk a whole bottle of champagneâand her feet were positively killing her.
“Where's Eddie?' Unlike Zakahr, Lavinia noticed that their car had a different driver.
âHe got called away.' This driver was far more polished than Eddie, and politely rebuffed Lavinia's further questioning. Zakahr Belenki was the man to impress and, partition closed, the car slid through the night.
Zakahr sat opposite her. He watched as she unstrapped her shoes, and there was a moan of bliss and a look of rapture on her face as she peeled them offâboth Zakahr wanted to revisit later, and he was quietly confident that he would.
âWhere are we going?' Lavinia frowned at the unfamiliar direction.
âI told you there would be champagne.'
âNo champagne for me!' Lavinia snapped a smile.
âI have to drive home.' She didn't bother with the partition, just pressed the intercom and gave the driver her instructions
The car pulled in at the large multi-storey car park, where the staff parked their carsâexcept it was closed for the night, and cars could only exit now. The driver was clearly a little torn between leaving Lavinia to walk alone through the concrete jungle or having his esteemed passenger sit and wait. âWould you mind waiting, sir,' he asked Zakahr, âwhile I escort Laviniaâ¦?'
âI'll walk her,' Zakahr said, quite sure they'd soon be returning.
Lavinia didn't usually
shyâshe was used to beautiful people, used to working alongside strong, male energy, and had survived at Kolovsky by
being over-awed or intimidatedâbut she was shy as they walked through the concrete enclosure of the car park. She carried her shoes, but wished she'd put up with the pain and kept them onâbecause beside him she felt swamped.
âThank you.' She turned and smiled at him when they reached her car, then looked in her bag for her keys.
Zakahr could see one heavy ringlet falling over her eye and had to bunch his fist in order not to move it. He could not read her, could not work her outâusually he did not have to, did not want to. The flirting game was a mere means to an end for Zakahr.
Lavinia, Zakahr knew, could prove tricky at work, but sometimes in her company he escaped the loop of revenge and hate. He had smiled, he had laughed, and it was she who made it happen. Zakahr wanted more.
âAre you sure you don't want that champagne?' Zakahr asked.
She was about to deliver her firm response, only her mind was at odds.
She wanted champagne.
She wanted his bed.
She wanted the woman in the mirror to step into passion.
She was, Lavinia thought, quite possibly going crazy.
She heard her name but she didn't look up. She found her keys and stared at them. She heard the tip in his voice, heard his unvoiced question. Still she didn't look up, because so badly she wanted to say yes to him. His fingers took a lock of her hair as she stood there, and there was an urge to sink into him, to kiss the wrist she could see, to lean on to his chest, to have someone hold her up for a little while.
She was scared to look up, because her warning look was off. But she did it anyway. She looked up into lust and into the blissful escape of him.
She knew the danger, but so sweet would be the reward.
Lavinia turned the key.
One kiss goodnight, she insisted to herself.
He lowered his head slowly, wondered if her mouth would again meet his cheek, hoping that this time it would swell to his.
Only it didn't swell. Instead it rested against his lips.
Her forehead pressed to his, and her mouth did not move at first. It just slowly met his. Her first taste of him,
and she savoured it. She felt the pulse of his lip, and she let herself feel it, and then his lips moved across hers, his kiss slow and measured and so skilled that for the recipient no experience was required. All she had to do was accept it, move with it, give in to it. And then she got the reward of his tongueâit was so cool and luxurious it was like drinking gold. There had been no teenage kisses for Laviniaâher youth had been spent warding off menâand now as a woman she tasted heaven.
Kissing bored Zakahr.
He had kissed manyâso many; he started at this point only as a means to swiftly moving on. A means to an end because it was what women wanted. Only
kiss he enjoyed. This kiss he chose to linger over. She tasted sweet, and her mouth was soft. He tasted deeper. His hands roamed her bodyânot to progress things, but to stay a rare while longer. He felt her waist, and then down to her bottom as his tongue stroked hers. She was gorgeous, but too slender, on the cusp of ripening, and Zakahr wanted to be there to witness it. He was imagining more curves to her body, in his arms a taste of potential that he wanted to explore, but he halted that strange thought-process because Zakahr didn't
futures. Zakahr lived for one night.
Now he could lift his head and without a word take her by the hand back to the luxury of his carâcould kiss her again as they headed for his hotel. Except still he wanted to linger, wanted to kiss her some more, and Lavinia was happy to oblige.
The caress of his hands was exquisite. She could feel the heat on her skin, imagined him leaving a trail of red
on gold, but with the taste of his lips there was room for no other thoughts. He was strong and male, but there was a glimpse of tenderness, a skill to his lips that taught and she followed, a danger to his kiss that took her to places she'd never intended to go.
The feel of his hands was sublimeâhis mouth a retreat from the hammer of her thoughts. Only now did she realise the panic of her existence. Because for the very first time her mind met with beautiful silence. There was just one thought to follow, one need, one want to succumb to, and instead of someone else's tonight the need was
His hand moved to the padding of her bra, stroking her through the silk, but the dense material dimmed the pleasure. She kissed himâdeeper she kissed him. She didn't want it to end, and neither did Zakahr. He almost breathed an apology when she removed his hand from her breast, but moaned into her mouth as he realised it wasn't modesty she was requesting in the deserted car park. Lavinia guided him to the zipper, and he slid it down just enough to slide his hand inside and free her.
She hated her non-existent breastsâshould have been embarrassed that he first met with paddingâbut his quickening breathing spelt desire. His thumb met her nipple, his palm cupped her small breast, and she swelled in his hand. His fingers were stroking the tender flesh beneath her arms, and it was as if her thighs were too heavy for her legs. Her body whimpered for more, and Zakahr grew harder at her pleasure.
âCome with meâ¦' He could not continue this hereâwould not. âCome with me,' he said again, his mouth,
his tongue working hard between the words. The pad of his thumb on her nipple and the heat in his groin were intense, and there was no relief as he pressed it into her.
No relief for Lavinia either.
She wanted to.
So cautious with men, tonightâwith himâshe didn't want to be cautious any more. She wanted to give in to the begging of her body and let him lead her away.
She wanted him to pick her up now and carry her to his car.
She wanted to fall on his million-thread-count sheets and be looked after.
She knew she could not.
Knew when his lips left hers the night must be over.
She could feel him pressed into her and she pushed back, felt his hand dig into her bottom as he pressed her in harder still. She didn't want this to end. Her kisses were frantic, and it was Zakahr who halted them.
âCome on.' He
to stop now. âCome on.'
The world came crashing in.
world. She was supposed to be being responsibleânot standing kissing in a car park at midnight, not pressed up to a man she had known less than a week.
The statement was almost cruel. She could feel his hardness, knew her bold exploration of his body's reaction had brought them both close to the brink. And now she was changing her mind. Lavinia would have given
for it to be otherwise.
She'd dropped her keys. Somewhere in this she'd dropped her keys and her handbag and her shoes. She sank to the floor to retrieve them, mortified because she knew she appeared nothing more than a tease.
âDon't play me, Laviniaâ¦'
âI'm not,' she attemptedâexcept she had. Lavinia knew that. She'd never had the intention to go back with him; had been a completely willing participant in a kiss that had got out of hand. She tried to keep her voice even. âWe have to work togetherâ¦'
She'd worked with Aleksi
, he almost pointed out. But he bit down on that caustic remark. Zakahr did not get her, was unsure as to the game she was playing, though quite sure that she
âI just don't think it's right that I go back to your hotel.'
âWhy?' Zakahr asked, and then said, the barb on his tongue one he could not swallow down, âDo you prefer car parks?'
just a kiss. She almost convinced herself as she parked her car in her reserved space, burning with shame at what had taken place on this very spot.
He thought her cheap.
Lavinia knew that.
Thought her a tease and a flirtâ
if only he knew the truth.
Lavinia handed over the dress and signed the book, and then took the lift up to the office, bracing herself to face himâshe would deal with this the only way she knew how.
Wearing a high ponytail, high heels, silver eyeshadow, and a silver top under a grey linen suit, she swished into the office a full twenty minutes early, bearing chocolate croissants and a smile that made people want to join her.
If Zakahr had been expecting awkwardnessâher notice, evenâhe got neither.
âAbout last nightâ¦' As she placed his coffee and a pastry on his desk, Lavinia somehow managed to look him straight in the eye. âI'd like to apologise for my behaviour.'
behaviour,' Zakahr corrected. âWe were both there.'
âWell, I just want you to know that it was completely out of character for me.' She did her best not to notice the slight rise of one eyebrow. âI've been running on too little sleep, and that combined with too many energy drinks yesterdayâ¦'
âI wasn't aware they were so potent.' He actually admired that she faced him head-on. âLaviniaâ¦'
Zakahr closed his eyes for just a moment. Really, he should just accept her apology at face value and move on. Soon he could move onâexcept she worried him so. He'd been here less than a week, the internal auditors were coming inâ¦ In three short weeks Lavinia would be out of a job, and somehow he had to warn her.
âMaybe I was hastyâ¦' He had to word this so carefullyâcould not let her even glimpse the real meaning behind his words. âWhen I insisted you became my PA I did not realise you had so much to contend with.' He watched her rapid blink. âI don't want a PA who has to survive on energy drinksâ¦'
âI slept well last night.'
Lucky for her, Zakahr thought. Because every time
had closed his eyes their kiss had replayed.
âNext week will be different. I'm seeing Rachael this afternoonâ'
âLavinia,' Zakahr broke in. âI need someone who can work sixty-hour weeksâwho can drop everything and do as the job demands.'
âAre you firing me?'
âOf course not.' Zakahr wished that sometimes she
wasn't so direct. âAll I'm suggesting is that, given your situation, maybe you should start thinking of a job that has more child-friendly hours.'
âSuch as?' Those bright eyes flashed a shade darker, and Zakahr had no answer. âWith all
âI could give you a glowing reference.'
âSaying what?' Lavinia challenged. âLavinia's computer skills are excellent? She checks her e-mails hourlyâ¦?'
âYou're good at your job.' Zakahr was aware of her lack of formal qualifications, and uncomfortably aware that another job that paid like Kolovsky would not be easy for Lavinia to come by. âYou're personable, you're good with clientsâ¦'
âAnd I love my old job,' Lavinia finished for him. âOnce you've hired a PA I can go back to it.'
He couldn't help her without revealing the truth. He had tried, Zakahr told himselfâher future was not his responsibility.
âFine,' Zakahr clipped, and glanced at his watch. âI have to go down to Design.'
It was an unusual situation for Zakahr. Usually he was openly assessing a companyâclosing it or salvaging it. Once it was acquired by Belenki he hand-picked staff to ensure its smooth running, but here at Kolovsky, in order to maintain the faÃ§ade before pulling the pin, the day-to-day running he was usually too busy for was up to him.
He sat through the most mind-numbingly boring visual of the first images for Princess Jasmine's wedding dress.
He had absolutely no
for the product, as Lavinia would say, but he did his best to hide it and congratulated the designers. Cross-eyed with boredom, he headed outâjust in time to catch Lavinia lounging against the wall and talking into her phone. But she was clearly waiting for him, because she turned it off when she saw Zakahr approached.
âYou need to approve some shots and sign that contract.'
Zakahr rolled his eyes.
âUrgently,' Lavinia added, handing him a large folder. âIt's the new range,' she explained. âWe have to get these out today.'
âAre you going back to the office?'
Lavinia shook her head. âIt's almost lunchtime.'
âIt's almost one.' She completely missed his sarcasm and drifted back to her topic as Zakahr flicked through the folder. âJust sign them and I'll drop them off. I shan't be around this afternoonâI've got to go down and have Katina sort out an evening wardrobe for me.' Lavinia gave a delighted grin. âI'm starting to love my new job!'
He was about to ask how, given she was so rarely there, but Zakahr was fast realising sarcasm was wasted on her. If anything, it made her laugh. Lavinia was the oddest person he had ever metâutterly beautiful, but stunningly direct.
âGorgeous, isn't she?' Lavinia commented, peering over his shoulder.
Zakahr wasn't so sure. Rula certainly
gorgeous, with her tumble of auburn hair and cool green eyes, yet she was beyond thin. Even the thick Kolovsky silk she was draped in did nothing to add a curve, and the underwear shots were to Zakahr unappealing.
âShe's so thin.'
âI know.' There was almost a sigh of envy from Lavinia, but she rolled her eyes at herself. âGod, I am
glad to be out of that game.'
She put two fingers to her mouth. âI couldn't do it,' she admitted.
âToo hungry!' Lavinia corrected.
âThis is what Nina would have had you aim for?'
Lavinia just shrugged. âIt wasn't for me.'
âI'll have a look through these and get them back this afternoon.'
âAre you sure?' Lavinia checked. âIn that case I've got ten minutes.' She stopped at a door. âI'm just going to have a quick peek. Are you coming?'
âThe fabric Princess Jasmine has chosen?'
âI've just sat through a half-hour presentation.' Zakahr's head actually ached because he'd been so bored. It bemused him that she expected him to be keen, that they all were so devoted to
! âI've seen the images, the swatchesâ¦'
âIt's not the same.' Lavinia pushed open the door and they stepped inside a vast room, with shelf after shelf filled with rolls of fabric. The fabric codes were all in a computer, and an assistant located them and brought the
rolls to a desk, where they were laid side by side. As she ran her hand over them finally Lavinia could properly picture it.
Zakahr, not for the first time, stood bored, hard-pushed to feign even mild interestâwhere was a financial crisis when he needed one?
âThank you.' Lavinia, satisfied now that she could actually speak with the Princess about her choices, went to walk out. But suddenly she changed her mind, pressing in an access code, pushing on a heavy door and beckoning him in. âHere.'
She gestured down a long aisle of fabric, and then down another one, through a maze of silk. Zakahr followed the blaze of silver ahead, with ponytail swinging, past endless corridors of colour till Lavinia stopped.
âThis is my absolute favourite.'
Zakahr stared nonplussed at the neutral fabric, watched as she pressed a button till a metre or two of the silk had rippled down. Lavinia ran it through her fingers.
âIsn't it beautiful?' Lavinia said, and then she paused. She had been about to say
, but she knew how that irked him, so without missing a beat Lavinia used his name. âIvan spent months getting this rightâthis is one of the original fabrics that made Kolovsky so famous.'
âNo.' She held her hand up to it. âIt's more a creamâand lookâ¦' she slipped her hand behind it ââ¦now it's pink. The fabric is called
âThat means skin.' He was a little bit curious now. He
held it between his fingers, watched as the pinks faded to more golden hues, and it actually
like skinâcool skin. He could see her hand stroking the fabric, see it running through her long fingers, and for the first time Zakahr realised that material could be beautifulâso beautiful. He prolonged the contact as he asked himself how it could be that a piece of material could be erotic.
How could simple, neutral cloth provoke reaction?
But, watching her hand stroke the fabric, watching her fingers while feeling the
beneath his, he actually felt as if she were touching him.
âIt's divine, isn't it?' Lavinia breathed. âNormally they use this as a slip dress. It couldn't actually
a dressâyou'd look as if you had nothingâ¦' Her voice petered out as she watched his strong hand run beneath the cloth, saw the ripples it made as if she was wearing the fabric he held, as if it were her skin beneath his fingers, as if he were stroking herâ¦
âWhy?' Zakahr asked in a voice that wasn't quite as steady as he'd like. âWhy do you say these things?'
âI don't!' Lavinia said, and she was cringing. âWhatever I say around youâ¦' She couldn't explain it. It was like innuendo cityâevery road led there!
âWhat do you want, Lavinia?' Zakahr already knew what
wanted, but she had to want somethingâof that he was sure.
âI don't know,' Lavinia admitted. She wanted his kiss, she wanted everything they had almost had, but she was quite sureâpositive, in factâthat if he knew
her truth he wouldn't want her. âI'm trying not to think about you.'
âMaybe stop fighting it?' Zakahr suggested. âWhy would you resist something so nice?'
âI'm a mother-to-be!' She tried to make a joke, but Zakahr didn't smile.
âSoâsoon you can be responsible, soon you can stay in every nightâ¦' He voiced everything that she wanted to happen, everything she feared. âYou can say goodbye to your passionateâ'
âI'm really not,' Lavinia said. If he knew how boring she was he'd run a mile.
âI dispute that.'
âAre you saying I should just walk away from Rachael? That I should give upâ¦?'
âOf course not,' Zakahr said. âBut you are single
. You can be selfish. You can do what you want. And,' he said, âyou want
It wasn't a question. It was nothing she could deny. Because so very badly she
âYou told me with your mouth.'
âIt was just a kiss.'
âWith your tongue.'
She just stood there.
âWith your hips,' Zakahr said, and watched her redden at the memory of her groin pressing into his. It was as if it were now, her body flaring as she stood, and he refused to leave it there. âYou told me with your hand,' Zakahr said, and in a cruel repeat he did what he had beforeâbut without her guidance this time.
She watched, curious, fascinated, wanting, as he
raised his hand slowly, slipped it inside her jacket. Her nipple jutted through the sheer fabric to greet him. He rested his forehead on her head, and for Lavinia the relief was exquisite.
All night she'd denied this, all day she'd rememberedâand now she got to relive it. âWhy
you fight it?' Zakahr asked, but even as she tried to fathom an answer, even as she tried to do just that, he overrode her with a single word. âDon't.'
âDon't fight it.' Zakahr stroked slowly, and when still she stood he slipped his hand up her cami to the heaven of no padding, no bra, just the taut swell of her.