That Devil Love
That Devil Love
Zan’s voice was roughened by passion.
“I can’t wait to have you in my arms, in my bed, in my life….”
Meeting Zan again was a strange enough coincidence, but that he should feel so strongly about her was incredible, almost unbelievable. Yet Annis had to believe it.
By some cruel twist of fate this man was back in her life and apparently intending to stay. Somehow she had to find a way of getting rid of him now. Tonight. Before this madness had time to grow and flourish….
LEE WILKINSON lives with her husband in a three-hundred-year-old stone cottage in an English village, which most winters gets cut off by snow. They both enjoy traveling and recently, joining forces with their daughter and son-in-law, spent a year going round the world “on a shoestring” while their son looked after Kelly, their much loved German shepherd. Her hobbies are reading and gardening and holding impromptu barbecues for her long-suffering family and friends.
That Devil Love Lee Wilkinson
‘I HOPE you didn’t mind coming?’ Stephen, sounding like an anxious schoolboy, broke into her abstraction.
Annis forced a smile. ‘Of course I didn’t. I’m enjoying it.’
He relaxed visibly, and she thought how sweet he was. Genuinely concerned about her. Easy to fool. With his light brown unruly hair and round toffee-coloured eyes, his chubby cheeks and lack of any waistline, he always reminded her of a big, cuddly teddy bear.
‘Only you’ve seemed a bit quiet,’ he pursued.
‘Sorry, I didn’t realise.’
Mentally isolated from the talk and laughter of a party to celebrate what had been described as a ‘successful merger’, she’d been thinking about Richard. Worrying about him.
‘And you didn’t eat much at dinner.’
‘I wasn’t very hungry.’ That at least was the truth.
Giving up the attempt at conversation, Stephen asked a shade hesitantly, ‘Would you like to dance?’
‘Love to,’ she assured him, getting up from her seat at the table.
She was slim and graceful, with the kind of cool yet stunning beauty that made men stare and women sigh with envy. Wanting to play down that beauty, she wore a simple black sheath, her only jewellery small gold hoops in her ears, a narrow gold bracelet circling her right wrist and a gold watch on a plain black strap on her left.
Her smooth silvery-blonde head, with its elegant chignon, held high, she preceded him on to the hotel’s highly polished floor.
The band had started a quiet, smoochy selection, and as they joined the throng of dancers she found herself asking, ‘How do you think this takeover by AP Worldwide will affect people’s jobs?’
Damn! She hadn’t meant to bring the subject up, but Richard had seemed so jumpy, so worried about his future prospects.
He’d poured out all his anxieties to her, rather than Linda, who, with fourteen-month-old twin girls to care for, was heavily pregnant with their third child.
‘No one’s quite sure yet,’ Stephen admitted. ‘But Power’s a decent bloke by all accounts. Ruthless in many ways, but respected for being scrupulously fair, even generous to his employees, so long as they’re on top of their job…’
So long as they’re on top of their job… Her clear aquamarine eyes troubled, she repressed a shiver. Richard had confessed that, as far as work went, he was often out of his depth and relied heavily on Stephen to keep him afloat.
‘It’s not the kind of job I’m suited for,’ he’d told her, miserably. ‘But there’s nothing else going at the moment so I’ve just got to grit my teeth and hope for the best. I can’t afford to get the sack. The bank are threatening to turn nasty. We’ve a huge overdraft, and we’re badly in arrears with the mortgage.’
She knew they had been having difficulties, but was shaken by the extent of them.
Making an effort, Annis thrust the memory of Richard’s haggard face away and dragged her attention back to her companion who was continuing his panegyric.
‘…He’s only in his early thirties, and you don’t get right to the top at that age without being ruthless.’ Stephen, who was so downright nice it was a miracle he knew the meaning of the word ruthless, sounded admiring.
Annis sighed inwardly. There was a dull throbbing in her temples and she longed for the evening to end. As they slowly circled the edge of the crowded floor, she rested her head against Stephen’s well-padded shoulder and made an effort to relax in his safe, undemanding embrace.
A moment later he was pulling away. Straightening.
Her back to the speaker, Annis heard a crisp, authoritative voice say, ‘Good evening. It’s Leighton, isn’t it? Won’t you introduce me to your guest?’
Surprised, flattered, childishly delighted to be noticed and have his name remembered by the great man himself, Stephen beamed and said, ‘Annis, this is Mr Power, head of AP Worldwide…Miss Warrener.’
Annis, who had dutifully turned and extended a civil hand, stood without moving or speaking, shocked into immobility at the sight of the dark, dynamic man who wore his immaculate evening dress with such panache.
In a tough, unnerving way he was strikingly handsome. Unforgettable. There was no mistaking that well-shaped head of shorn black curls, no mistaking that lean, arrogant, strong-boned face. She knew it. Hated it!
‘Zan Power,’ he said, taking her hand in a light but far from casual clasp.
Zan. It was him! There couldn’t be another man who looked like the legendary Jason and was called something as outlandish as Zan.
‘Warrener—’ He was frowning slightly, winged black brows drawing together over heavy-lidded eyes, the irises a dark green rayed with gold, brilliant against the clear, healthy whites. ‘I know that name.’
‘Richard Warrener, Annis’s brother, works for you.’ Stephen supplied the information. ‘He’s part of my team in the computer think-tank.’
There was a momentary flicker of surprise in those extraordinary eyes, which throughout the exchange had never left the perfect oval of her face. Then he was saying in his attractive, cultivated voice, ‘Ah, yes. Isn’t he here tonight?’
Once again it was Stephen who replied, ‘His wife is having a baby quite soon. He didn’t want to leave her.’
‘That’s understandable.’ Still without removing his gaze from Annis’s face, Zan Power went on with a politeness that in no way disguised the purposefulness, ‘May I dance with your charming partner, Leighton?’
Displaying an unexpected firmness which earned her admiration, Stephen answered, ‘That’s really up to Annis, sir.’
‘Well, Miss Warrener?’ He held her gaze in a long, hard glance. There was no smile in his thickly lashed, feline eyes, no attempt to cajole, just a quiet waiting.
About to curtly refuse, she hesitated, remembering all she owed Stephen, then for his sake said a reluctant, tight-lipped, ‘Of course.’
Half suffocated by the loathing that filled her, and an equally powerful feeling she was at a loss to identify, she moved into Zan Power’s arms.
She was long-legged, tall for a woman at five feet, eight inches, yet still her eyes were only on a level with the cleft in his firm chin. Tense and awkward, she concentrated on keeping her body away from any contact with his.
He held her lightly, permitting the space between them, moving with a lithe grace that seemed strange in so big a man. The kind of grace one might expect to find in a gigolo, she thought with deliberate contempt.
Not a man willing to deal in polite platitudes, he asked, ‘When you’re not with Leighton do you always dance so stiffly, and in silence?’
‘It depends who my partner is; how much I’m enjoying the occasion.’ Her voice was cool, composed, belying the red-hot hatred that seethed inside.
They completed the circuit before he attacked from a different angle. ‘Do you enjoy parties as a rule?’
‘Yes,’ she lied.
‘But you’ve disliked every minute of this one.’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘I’ve been watching you.’
When, repressing a shiver, she made no reply, merely continued to move her feet and stare at his black bowtie, he asked with a kind of wry curiosity, ‘Why did you come tonight?’
‘Because Stephen wanted me to.’ She was aware, without even glancing at the man who held her so lightly yet so inescapably, that he was annoyed by her answer.
‘And do you always do what Leighton wants?’
Goading the man who reminded her of a sleek black panther, she said, ‘Whenever possible.’
‘What is he to you? Friend? Lover?’
‘So long as our relationship, whether it’s merely platonic or more than that, doesn’t disturb his work, I really don’t consider that it’s any of your business.’
Tawny green eyes caught and held aquamarine, his very look a threat. ‘I intend to make it my business.’
‘You surely can’t want to control the lives of all your employees?’ she protested incredulously.
‘Then what makes Stephen special?’
A sudden shiver of something closely akin to fear ran through her.
Softly, he went on, ‘I won’t tolerate anything other than friendship between you.’
‘Won’t tolerate…!’ Anger mingled with alarm.
‘So if by any chance it is more than that—’ his face was steely, his mouth a hard line ‘—for everyone’s sake I advise you to put an end to it at once.’
‘You must be out of your mind!’
Ignoring her choked words, he added, ‘However, I don’t think it is. You have the look about you of a Snow Queen, as if no man has been able to melt the ice and turn you into a real woman.’
‘I don’t suppose it’s occurred to you that a man might have caused that ice to form, made me—as you so fancifully put it—like a Snow Queen?’
‘It hadn’t,’ he admitted seriously. ‘But then I don’t know you yet—in either the everyday or the old Biblical sense of the word.’
As her aquamarine eyes widened, he added with cool certainty, ‘Though I fully intend to.’
Heart thudding against her ribs, she somehow dragged her gaze away. As well as angry, she felt scared, threatened. Which was ridiculous.
‘I don’t go in for casual affairs,’ she said haughtily.
‘A casual affair was the last thing I had in mind. I mean to have and to own you completely.’
The calm statement stopped her breath, as though a noose made of fear and fury had tightened around her slender throat.
But however much she abhorred and resented his brand of cool sexual arrogance, it could well hold a fatal fascination for some women.
Was that how he’d managed to bewitch Maya?
‘No comment?’ he queried, with a lift of one black, mobile brow.
Trying to hide how rattled she was, she said dismissively, ‘I’ve already stated that I think you’re insane, Mr Power.’
‘An unusual name.’
‘My young sister couldn’t say Alexander and, probably because it was less of a mouthful, her version stuck.’
‘I presumed you’d chosen it specially to go with the image.’ Before he could react to the taunt, she drew back and, lifting her chin, said disdainfully, ‘If you’ll excuse me now? I’m feeling rather tired.’
Turning away, she was about to leave him standing when his hand shot out and closed round her wrist like a steel fetter.
She froze into immobility.
Silkily, he said, ‘I’ll see you back to your table, Miss Warrener.’ Releasing her wrist, he put a hand at her waist, his light, cool touch burning through the thin fabric of her dress like a brand.
Stephen rose to his feet as they approached, his brown eyes a little apprehensive, as if he half expected a ticking off for his guest’s unsociability.
Instead, Alexander Power said pleasantly, ‘I’ll be in your managing director’s office tomorrow morning at half-past eight. Come and see me there. You can give me a better idea of what exactly your team are doing. Goodnight, Leighton,’ then, with a slight inclination of his black, imperious head, ‘Au revoir, Miss Warrener.’
Why that deliberate au revoir? she wondered apprehensively, as Stephen gazed with a kind of pleased awe after the tall, striking man making his unhurried way back to the top table.
Concealing her disturbed state as best she could, she asked, ‘Would you mind very much if we left now?’
Stephen, who had been waiting for her to resume her seat, said with his usual good-natured compliance, ‘Not if you want to go.’ All the same, he looked disappointed.
Feeling guilty because she knew he was human enough to want to bask in the coveted glory of being singled out by the big boss, she explained, ‘I’ve got a nasty headache.’
He peered at her. ‘You do look rather pale.’ Putting an arm around her waist—his clumsy concern in direct contrast to that other light but sure touch—he shepherded her towards the door. ‘I’ll fetch the car round while you get your coat.’
Though she refused to look in his direction, Annis felt Zan Power’s predatory green-gold eyes fixed on her and an uncontrollable shudder ran through her slender frame.
As they left the sumptuous Piccadilly hotel and drove towards Belgravia, still on a high, Stephen marvelled, ‘Fancy Mr Power remembering me! He’s only seen me a couple of times, quite briefly. Of course he has a reputation for being a remarkable man…
‘You’d never think it, to meet him now and hear him speak, but he came originally from the back streets of Piraeus, with a Greek mother and an English father.’
So he was half Greek… That accounted not only for Zan Power’s looks but also for the almost imperceptible foreignness that lent such dark sorcery to his low-pitched voice.
But Stephen was going on, ‘His mother died when he was about eleven and his father returned to England with the five children of the marriage. When he was barely eighteen his father was killed in an accident. The Social Services were going to split the family up, but he fought like a demon to keep them together.
‘His brothers and sisters were all younger than him, but somehow he managed to support and educate them while he clawed his way to the top.’
Disturbed and agitated, unwilling to hear anything good about a man she detested, and aggravated by the open admiration, almost reverence, in Stephen’s voice, Annis said sharply, ‘If you’ve only met him twice, and briefly, I’m surprised he had time to tell you all that.’
Startled by her unusual irritability, Stephen explained sheepishly, ‘He didn’t tell me. One of the papers got hold of his life story. Zena Talgarth, the journalist who wrote it, described him as “a man’s man but a woman’s darling”.’
She was probably in bed with him at the time, Annis thought acidly. Aloud, she remarked, ‘I suppose cheap publicity and women fawning over him gives someone like Zan Power a kick… I feel sorry for his poor wife.’
Stephen shook his shaggy head. ‘He’s not married and never has been…’
Not married… Annis’s silky brows, several shades darker than her hair, drew together in a frown. She could have sworn that Maya, in one of her last incoherent ramblings, had talked about a wife and family…
‘…And according to the grapevine,’ Stephen went on, ‘he was furious about that newspaper article. He’s a man who guards and values his privacy.’ With a puzzled frown he added, ‘You don’t like him much, do you?’
‘My, aren’t you quick?’ she said sarcastically.
Seeing Stephen’s hurt expression, she was ashamed of herself. ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me.’ Then with magnificent understatement, ‘No, I don’t like him much.’
‘You must have been the only woman at that party who wouldn’t have willingly sacrificed her eye-teeth to dance with him.’
‘If that’s so, it’s a pity he gave me the privilege.’ Her tone was caustic.
‘What don’t you like about him?’
Unused to searching questions from Stephen, she hesitated before saying lamely, ‘He isn’t my type.’
‘I should have thought he was any woman’s type.’ Stephen sounded envious.
She shook her head decidedly. ‘He’s too good-looking, too sure of himself. Far too brash for my taste.’ Her voice rose a little. ‘I hate the Don Juan type who—’
‘He doesn’t have that kind of image.’ Looking a bit surprised by her vehemence, Stephen rushed to defend his hero. ‘Matt Gilvary, his right-hand man, does, or rather did, before he became Mr Power’s brother-in-law. They say he’s steadied down since he was married… But though Zan Power’s no saint,’ doggedly Stephen returned to the point he was making, ‘he’s certainly no Don Juan…’
‘Oh for goodness’ sake can we stop talking about the man?’ Annis burst out.
Instantly contrite, she said, ‘No, I’m the one who should be sorry. I don’t know what’s the matter with me tonight.’
Then, wanting to make up for blighting her companion’s happy mood, his pleasure in the evening, she added impulsively, ‘It’s just that I much prefer someone sweet and kind, like you.’
Thrilled at being compared favourably with a man of Zan Power’s ilk, Stephen was still preening himself when, a few minutes later, they stopped in front of Fairfield Court, the three-storey brick building that housed Annis’s ground-floor flat.
Knowing it gave him a kick, made him feel manly to cosset her, she unfastened her safety belt and waited until he opened her door and helped her alight.
As she stepped out on to the pavement a stylish silver BMW, which had been cruising a couple of cars behind them, drew up in a patch of shadow outside the block opposite.
Having crossed Fairfield’s narrow, open frontage with its pair of leafless weeping willows, she opened the door while Stephen hovered by her elbow, his burgundy silk evening scarf hanging loosely around his neck.
Politeness forcing her, she asked, ‘Would you like a quick coffee?’
‘Love one,’ he accepted cheerfully.
Ashamed, because she’d been hoping he would refuse, she switched on the light and led the way into a pastel-walled living-room which held the minimum of modern furniture.
In no mood for him to linger, she made a single mug of instant coffee, strong and milky and sweet, just how he liked it, and carried it through.
He looked surprised. ‘Aren’t you having one?’
‘When I’m headachy, coffee only makes it worse. I’ll have some cocoa when I go to bed.’ And please let it be soon, she prayed silently.
Patting the empty place beside him, he invited, ‘Why don’t you come and sit by me and relax for a while? It isn’t eleven yet.’
Carefully, she said, ‘I know it’s not late, but I’m feeling rotten…’
‘I’m sorry… I wasn’t thinking.’ He downed his coffee in a few gulps and, scrambling hurriedly to his feet, made for the door. ‘I’m nothing but a stupid oaf.’
‘You’re a dear.’ In the open doorway she stood on tiptoe to touch her lips to his cheek.
His ears turning bright red, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her with clumsy fervour.
Though awkward, his kiss wasn’t unpleasant, and she stood quietly in his embrace for a few seconds before gently freeing herself.
‘I’ll call you some time tomorrow,’ he promised, and shambled to his car.
With the utmost relief, Annis closed the door and locked up.
Wanting only the oblivion of sleep, she hurried to get ready for bed, trying not to think of Zan Power. But, filling her mind with an overwhelming hatred, his powerful presence was there, all invasive, his darkly handsome face printed indelibly on her retinas.
As it had been since the first moment she’d set eyes on him more than three years ago.
Then he’d been responsible for destroying almost everything she’d held dear.
For months she’d been obsessed with thoughts of him and, harbouring a fierce need for revenge, had wanted him to suffer as he’d caused her and her family to suffer.
Her anger, her bitter animosity towards the man she’d caught only the one fleeting glimpse of had been so strong, so all-consuming, that it had taken her a long time to wake up to the fact that if she allowed such feelings to go on he’d end up destroying her too.
Making a valiant effort, she’d pushed him to the back of her mind, caused his image to fade, started to win the struggle to put the past behind her.
Coming face to face with him again out of the blue had brought all the old torment and bitterness flooding back. Undone, in a split-second, everything she’d achieved in the preceding months.
It had also brought her a new and frightening anxiety. Was his stated intention to own her just some macho game? Or had she reason to feel afraid, menaced?
Her head was aching to such an extent that it was difficult to think clearly. But surely in the cold light of day his threat would just seem ridiculous?
She was brushing out the heavy silk hair which fell almost to her waist, gripping the brush until her knuckles showed white, when the doorbell pealed, startling her.
The thought that maybe Linda had gone into labour and Richard needed her to look after the twins sent her hurrying into the living-room.
Though surely he’d have rung her?
As she hesitated, she spotted Stephen’s burgundy scarf lying on the settee, and picked it up with an exasperated sigh. The light was still on so he would know she wasn’t yet in bed. Though why on earth he’d bothered to come back for it…!
A quick glance through the central peephole proved her conjecture right, providing a glimpse of white evening shirt-front and black bow-tie.
She pressed up the catch and unfastened the safety chain, but what she’d been about to say died on her lips as, shock exploding inside her, she gaped at the man filling her threshold.
Before she could make any attempt to collect her scattered wits he’d walked past her as if he owned the place and closed the door behind him.
Looming tall and decidedly dangerous, those amazing green-gold eyes with their thick sooty lashes fixed on her, Zan Power dominated the small room.
Tossing the scarf aside, she asked jerkily, ‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’
His eyes holding hers, he smiled without answering. The irresistible allure of that smile and the certain knowledge that what he wanted was her threw her totally.
Panic-stricken, she cried, ‘Get out! Go on, get out before I call the police.’
Raising narrow black brows, he stood aside so she could get to the phone. ‘Call them, by all means. But what will you tell them? How will you justify such an extreme course of action?’
She stood, trembling in every limb, while her common sense told her she had lost her head and behaved stupidly, given him an added advantage.
Somehow she reined in the runaway panic and, slowly unclenching her hands, admitted, ‘I’m afraid I over-reacted. But you took me by surprise.’
When he made no comment, just continued to stand and look at her, she added awkwardly, ‘It’s getting late and I was about to go to bed.’
She wished she hadn’t said that when his eyes travelled assessingly over her fine Victorian-style cotton nightdress with its long sleeves and high neck, the smooth hair tumbling down her back like pale silk, the bare feet.
His inspection completed, he smiled mockingly. ‘Don’t worry, you’re quite decent.’ Then, briskly, ‘I want to talk to you.’
Zan Power’s voice, clear and low-pitched, with that very faint accent which lent it such devilish charm, sent shivers running up and down her spine.
Pressing slim fingers to her throbbing temples, she waited.
He indicated a chair. ‘Won’t you sit down?’ It was an order in spite of the polite phrasing.
Clearly he intended the tête-à-tête…confrontation…whatever, to be on his terms.
Recognising the futility of trying to oppose him, she sat down, deliberately choosing a different chair.
Amusement flickered briefly in the tawny eyes, before he queried, ‘Where do you keep your aspirin?’
She was surprised into answering, ‘In the bathroom cabinet.’
‘You haven’t taken any?’
Without a word he disappeared through the partly open door to return a few moments later with half a tumbler of water and two round white tablets, which he transferred from his palm to hers.
‘I can tell by the tension in your neck and shoulders that you’ve got a headache.’ Handing her the tumbler, he continued with wry humour, ‘I could get rid of it with a few minutes’ massage, but after your earlier reaction I hesitate to lay a finger on you, even for therapeutic purposes.’
Thank God for that, she thought fervently, swallowing the tablets. She couldn’t bear the thought of him touching her.
For more than one reason.
Despite her hatred of him, like some beautiful but deadly snake he fascinated and attracted her. If he touched her…kissed her…she might be caught body and soul in his coils, unable to free herself ever again from that dark enchantment.
Taking a grip on sanity, she pushed the fanciful notion away and told herself scathingly not to be an idiot.
‘Do you mind if I sit down?’ Without waiting for an answer, he took a seat opposite.
Unnerved afresh by his calm deliberation, the way his gaze never left her face, she said, ‘You wanted to talk to me?’ Then, with a sudden jolt, ‘How did you know where I lived?’
Coolly he admitted, ‘I followed Leighton’s car.’
In her mind’s eye she saw the sleek silver BMW glide out of the traffic stream and draw up opposite.
‘So far as I’m aware it’s not a criminal offence,’ he added sarcastically.
Biting her lip, knowing she had to keep her composure, she said levelly, ‘Perhaps you’ll tell me why you went to so much trouble?’
‘For several reasons.’ He slipped a hand into his pocket.
As she gazed at him he reached over and clasped her right wrist, making her jump convulsively. ‘I wanted to return this.’
Looking down at the gold bracelet he’d snapped on like a handcuff, she stammered, ‘Th-thank you. I hadn’t realised I’d lost it.’
‘You didn’t lose it,’ he admitted coolly. ‘I took it from your wrist.’
‘Did you learn how to do that in the back streets of Piraeus?’ The question was out before she could prevent it.
Just for a moment he looked nettled, then the anger was swiftly masked. ‘I did, as a matter of fact. But though I and my brothers and sisters often went barefoot, our parents managed to feed us and keep a roof over our heads without the necessity for stealing.’
Staring at him with eyes that had turned darker and cloudy, she asked, ‘Why did you take my bracelet?’ In spite of all her efforts her voice shook a little. ‘You must have had a reason?’
‘Oh, I had. Depending on the situation, I decided I might need an entrée, some legitimate excuse for knocking at your door.
‘You see, I couldn’t rest until I knew how things stood between you and Leighton. If he’d driven straight off, I would have let things ride until tomorrow, but when he came in with you I began to wonder if I’d been wrong in my assumption that you were no more than friends.
‘Just as I was about to come over and break up whatever was going on, the door opened…’ His voice soft but lethal, Zan added, ‘When I saw him kiss you, I could have cheerfully broken his neck.’
Fear once again stifling her, she jumped up.
With one cat-supple movement he was on his feet and standing over her, his dark face only inches away from her own. ‘I meant what I said, Annis. From now on I intend to be the only man in your life.’
‘If you think after all you’ve…’ Abruptly she halted the rush of bitter words, biting her inner lip until the lesser pain made the larger more bearable.
The past was best left alone. Nothing she, or Zan Power, for that matter, could do or say would alter a thing.
When she had herself under control, she carried on with icy composure, ‘You don’t seem to understand. There’s no way I’d ever get to even like you.’
‘I don’t want you to like me. Liking is such an insipid, bloodless emotion. I want you to want me. To be as crazy for me as I am for you.’
Her heart racing with suffocating speed, she protested, ‘You’re quite mad.’
‘I might be at that,’ he admitted. ‘But it’s such a wonderful, exhilarating madness that I never want it to end.’
His voice roughened by passion, he went on, ‘I can’t wait to have you in my arms, in my bed, in my life…’
Then more quietly, ‘But I won’t try to rush you. I’ll give you time to get used to the idea. All I want at the moment is a promise that from now on you won’t see any other man.’
Meeting him again out of the blue was a strange enough coincidence, but that he should feel so strongly about her was incredible, almost unbelievable.
Yet she had to believe it. By some cruel twist of fate this man who had torn her whole world apart was back in her life and, apparently obsessed by her, intending to stay.
Somehow she had to find a way of getting rid of him now. Tonight. Before this madness had time to grow and flourish.
‘I can’t give you any such promise.’ She tried to speak calmly, decisively. ‘Apart from any other consideration, you were wrong in your assumption that Stephen and I are just friends. We’ve been lovers for some time now.’
Zan’s olive-skinned face seemed to pale, the skin tightening over the strong bone-structure, as though her declaration was a knife she’d stabbed him with.
With a short, sharp sigh he echoed her earlier thought. ‘Well, I can’t alter what’s happened in the past… But from now on you’re mine. Don’t ever forget that, Annis.’
Running his fingers into her silken hair, he took her face between his palms, and bent his dark head. His lips were firm and sure on her mouth, light, yet completely possessive.
She was still standing rooted to the spot when the latch clicked behind him.
Faintly she heard a door slam, an engine start, and his car draw away. But it was a long time before, moving like some zombie, she went to lock up and reset the safety-chain.
That fleeting kiss had shocked her to the core. Rocked her world. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.
Totally exhausted, she crept straight off to bed and fell asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow. But, though she slept, it was a shallow, restless sleep, haunted by a darkly arrogant face that both repelled and attracted her.
She awoke heavy-eyed and unrefreshed, that same face still effortlessly dominating her mind. Making all her hatred and anger surface. Bringing all the previous night’s fear flooding back in a tide.
But she must try to keep a sense of proportion, she reminded herself sharply. Zan Power couldn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to do.
And perhaps he was already having second thoughts? After flaring up, his sudden passion might have flickered out, like a fire lit in the wrong place.
The best thing, maybe the only thing she could do was carry on as if nothing untoward had occurred, as if he hadn’t turned her whole world upside down yet again, and see what happened.
Dressed in a smart charcoal suit and crisp white blouse, lightly made-up, her hair in its usual smooth chignon, she was almost ready to leave for work when the doorbell chimed.
Expecting the postman, she went to answer.
A young sandy-haired man wearing a green coat with ‘Jay’s, Florist’ embroidered in red on the lapel said a cheerful, ‘Good morning,’ and, handing her a huge bouquet, went off whistling, despite the cold, grey day.
The long-stemmed, dark red roses, scented and velvety, were exquisite. Hot-house blooms like those must have cost a king’s ransom, Annis thought dazedly. Stephen, bless him, had got carried away.
Nestling among the glossy leaves was a small envelope. Opening it, she took out the slip of pasteboard. Written in a strong black scrawl on the gilt-edged card was one word. Zan.
Shock held her rigid for a moment, then, tearing the card in two, she dropped the pieces in the waste-paper basket as if they were stinging nettles.
Unable to bring herself to destroy the roses, after a moment’s thought she picked up the bouquet and headed for the door once more.
Mrs Neilson, her middle-aged neighbour, was just getting about again after an operation, and Annis knocked most days to enquire if any shopping was needed.
None was this morning, but at the sight of the flowers Mrs Neilson’s drawn face lit up. ‘My dear, they’re beautiful!’ she exclaimed. ‘How very kind of you.’
Wishing she could dispose of Zan Power as easily, Annis walked to the Tube station, girding her loins to face what a strange premonition warned her was going to be a fraught day.
JOINING the Friday morning rush, Annis caught a train to Oxford Circus then hurried the few blocks to her Regent Street office, a cramped first-floor room from which she ran Help, her own small temp business.
She employed ten women of diverse ages from varied walks of life, each with the willingness and ability to do several different jobs.
Requests for secretarial, nursing, housekeeping, cooking and catering help were the most common. But she and her staff could, and did, fill a variety of other roles.
Having unlocked the narrow, slightly shabby street door squeezed between a boutique and a video shop, she climbed the uncarpeted stairs and let herself into her office. Two wooden chairs and a desk were its only furnishings.
As she switched off the answering machine and hung her stone-coloured mac on a hook behind the door, the phone started to chirp.
A woman’s businesslike voice identified herself as being from, ‘Blair Electronics. Mr Blair’s personal assistant…’ and requested immediate help in the form of a competent secretary for the managing director.
Adding, ‘I was advised to ask for a Miss Warrener, if she’s available.’
‘I’m Miss Warrener,’ Annis said, and, a frown tugging at her well-marked brows, queried, ‘But surely I haven’t worked for you before?’
‘No, but I understand you were highly recommended by the sales manager of one of our subsidiaries.’
‘How long will you need my help for?’
‘Miss Winton will be away for a month.’
All the details having been settled, Annis jotted down the address and promised, ‘I’ll be with you inside an hour.’
In a little over forty-five minutes, she was climbing the steps to the Marylebone office block which housed the electronics firm.
At the desk in the foyer she stopped to give her name and state her business.
‘Turn right, then left,’ the frizzy-haired receptionist told her, ‘and you’ll find the MD’s office at the end of the main corridor. Go straight in, Miss Warrener. You’re expected.’
Her heels sinking into the luxurious carpet, Annis made her way down the wide corridor. When she reached the unmarked door at the end, she knocked and walked in, as instructed.
Just inside the threshold she stopped short, feeling as though she’d received a punch in the solar plexus, as she saw the powerfully attractive face of the man sitting behind the leather-topped desk.
The shorn black curls, the green-gold eyes and bony, slightly crooked nose, the wide, thin-lipped mouth and cleft chin, were indelibly printed on her mind. If she never saw him again she would carry his hated image to her grave.
‘Good morning, Annis.’ A smile in those tawny eyes, he added, ‘Close the the door and come and sit down.’
When she made no move to do either, he queried, ‘Did you like the flowers?’
Somehow she found her voice. ‘My next-door neighbour did.’
‘So you gave them away?’
‘What did you expect?’ Without waiting for an answer, she rushed on, ‘And I don’t know what you hope to gain by dragging me here… I can’t afford to play silly games. I’ve a business to run.’
‘So have I. That’s why I need a secretary.’
Trying to ignore the unnerving gaze fixed on her face, she demanded, ‘How did you know where to find me?’
‘Leighton was only too willing to provide any information I wanted. It was really quite amusing… But please do sit down.’
She shook her head. ‘You’ve had your fun. Now I’m going.’
Softly, he said, ‘I think not. We have a verbal contract. You agreed to work for me for a month.’
‘The agreement was that I should work for the managing director of Blair Electronics.’
So this was yet another firm controlled by AP Worldwide.
Feeing the trap closing, she protested, ‘Surely making me come here was just to prove how well you can manipulate people? You don’t really want me to work for you…’
‘Oh, but I do. Since having bronchitis just after Christmas, Miss Winton hasn’t been at all well. I gave her a month’s sick leave, so I require someone to fill her place.’
Annis’s long-lashed almond eyes, beautiful eyes which slanted up a little at the outer corners, were blazing with anger and indignation. ‘You mean you got rid of her on purpose!’
He moved his shoulders in a slight shrug. ‘She needed a holiday. A few weeks’ complete rest will do her a world of good.’
Reading Annis’s mind with frightening accuracy, he went on, ‘Of course I can’t force you to stay. But you seem to be building up a nice little business, and if you value it you’d be wise to think carefully before doing anything rash.’
‘That sounds remarkably like a threat.’ Her voice shook a little as it was borne on her what power a man like him could wield.
‘Merely good advice,’ he said smoothly. ‘After all, what’s a month?’
As he spoke he got to his feet and strode over. A moment later he had closed the door, relieved her of her scarf and mac, and was ushering her to a chair.
It was done with such cool assurance that she was sitting down before she had time to weigh up what possible damage he could do Help if she ignored his ‘good advice’.
Resuming his own seat, he observed, ‘You won’t find the work here too onerous. Apart from letters, all I need is someone to accompany me to meetings and take notes, and to act as my hostess if I do any entertaining.’ Casually, he added, ‘It will give you a chance to get to know me.’
‘I don’t want to get to know you,’ she informed him icily.
‘Then I’ll have to see what I can do to change your mind… Now to business. I don’t always tape record—’ he pushed a pad and pencil towards her ‘—so how’s your shorthand?’
‘Slow and inaccurate,’ she informed him sweetly.
He laughed, as if genuinely amused, then, eyes gleaming devilishly, suggested, ‘Well if you prefer, I’ll settle for making use of your other talents.’
Biting her lip, she snatched up the pad and pencil.
They worked without a pause until twelve o’clock. His dictation was fast and decisive, giving no quarter, and she needed every ounce of her concentration to keep up.
All the same she was constantly and acutely aware of the man sitting opposite, of how much she loathed and detested him. Reluctantly aware also of his dark attraction, of the strong pull his magnetism had on her senses.
With a kind of horror she realised that if she hadn’t had such cause to hate him, she might easily have fallen victim to his fascination. Might have found herself hopelessly infatuated with him.
As Maya had been. Maya—the one person Annis had really loved. Her life been a source of wonder to her, her death the greatest of pains. And she had died because of one man—Zan Power.
‘Use my cloakroom if you want to wash and brush up before lunch.’ His voice broke into her thoughts.
Looking up to meet those brilliant eyes, she said blankly, ‘Lunch?’
‘Yes. I want you with me.’ She was about to refuse curtly, when he added, ‘I have a luncheon appointment with Cyrus Oates, the American tycoon. As it’s at his hotel, his wife will be with him.’
‘I’m not dressed for lunching out,’ she objected.
‘You’re dressed like the perfect secretary,’ he assured her mockingly. ‘Which is just as well, because after lunch I’ve a meeting at the bank, and I’d like you to take notes.’
She emerged from the cloakroom some five minutes later, hair and make-up checked, and they took the lift down to the underground car park where his silver BMW was waiting for him.
‘What do you usually do for lunch?’ he queried, when they were settled in the car.
‘Buy a sandwich,’ she told him, omitting to add that with high rents to pay both for her furnished flat and the Regent Street office it was all her tight budget would stand.
As they climbed the ramp to street level and joined the flow of traffic, he ordered, ‘Tell me about your business.’
‘I thought Stephen had given you all the information you wanted.’
Ignoring her prickly response, he asked, ‘Do you usually work alongside your staff as well as coping with the administration?’
‘Yes,’ she answered shortly.
‘But, being the boss, you can take your pick of the assignments?’
Oh, well, if he was determined to talk… And perhaps it was better than sitting beside him in strained silence.
‘It doesn’t usually work like that,’ she answered a shade ruefully. ‘I often get landed with the jobs no one else wants to do.’
Zan gave her a swift sideways glance and raised a black brow. ‘Such as?’
‘Well, there was taking care of George while the family went on holiday…’
‘A twelve-foot python. He turned out to be quite docile, not to say friendly. But feeding him proved a bit of a problem. The worst thing about pet snakes is they prefer their food on the hoof, so to speak. Have you ever tried making a very dead rat look alive?’
He was still laughing when they drew up outside the Farndale Hotel.
They were crossing the foyer when a large, balding man with rimless glasses and a paunch advanced on them. He held out a ham-like fist. ‘Hello, Power. Glad you could make it. This is my wife, Dorothy.’
An equally large lady with eyes as pale as ripe goose-berries in a fleshy face, came forward with an outstretched hand. Having greeted the pair courteously, Zan said, ‘May I introduce Miss Warrener, my secretary.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Miss Warrener,’ Cyrus Oates boomed, while his shrewd grey eyes assessed her slim figure, her cool, patrician beauty.
During lunch, while the men discussed business, Annis asked, ‘Is this your first visit to England, Mrs Oates?’
The polite query was all that was needed to induce a flood of talk with the battering force of Niagara. A look of interest and an occasional word kept it flowing.
They were at the coffee stage, when with a suddenness that took Annis by surprise Mrs Oates finished an account of her visit to Harrods and said in strident tones, ‘Gee, but your boss sure is good-looking. Don’t you think he’s handsome, honey?’
‘I wouldn’t describe him as handsome myself,’ Annis said. Adding with a tight smile, ‘Any more than I’d describe the north face of the Eiger as pretty.’
Her comparison went over the American’s head.
‘But don’t you just love working for him?’
Annis caught a gleam of amusement in Zan’s heavy-lidded eyes which made her aware he was following both conversations.
Evading the issue, she answered, ‘I don’t actually work for Mr Power. I’m only a temp.’
Overhearing the last few words, Cyrus Oates exclaimed, ‘A temp?’ Then to Zan, ‘You don’t get many secretaries look that good. Guess you won’t want to part with her, huh?’
Catching Annis’s eye, Zan said with smooth meaning, ‘I shall certainly be taking steps to keep her with me on a more permanent basis.’
The subtle threat made a shiver crawl over her skin and her palms grow clammy with cold perspiration.
Lunch over, business matters apparently settled to everyone’s satisfaction, they made their farewells and set off for the bank. It was nearly half-past four by the time the meeting was finished, and Annis, who had attracted quite a few curious and interested glances, was feeling stiff and tired. Though she was not normally prone to headaches, her head throbbed dully and the back of her throat was rough and dry.
Outside it was a bleak, prematurely dark afternoon, with more than a hint of snow in the air.
Turning the BMW into the traffic stream, Zan remarked, ‘It’s too late to go back to the office. I’ll take you straight home.’
‘Really, there’s no need to go to all that trouble,’ she said stiltedly. ‘If you drop me at the next corner I can easily get the Tube.’
‘It’s no trouble.’ His tone was quietly adamant.
After a pause, when the expected opposition failed to materialise, he asked, ‘Have you lived at Fairfield Court long?’
‘About three years.’ She tried to hold at bay the hurt, the bitter memories crowding in on her.
‘Do you like being there?’
‘Not particularly.’ The modern, characterless flat, with its small, square rooms, was functional rather than pleasing.
‘Where does your brother live?’
Annis stiffened at the mention of Richard. Then, her voice as casual as she could make it, said, ‘He and Linda have a house in Notting Hill.’
‘Have you any more family?’
Like flicking a lighted match into a keg of gunpowder, that innocent question seemed to explode inside her head. She wanted to strike at him, to claw her nails down his handsome face, to watch him bleed.
Badly shaken by that flare of raw, primitive passion, the violence of her feelings, hands clenched into fists, she shook her head mutely.
Glancing at the frozen blankness of her face, Zan knew he’d hit a nerve. Though he didn’t know how or why. There was so much about this woman that he didn’t know. But he intended to.
When they reached Fairfield Court, Zan accompanied her to the door and waited while she unlocked it, but to her very great relief he made no move to follow her inside.
As she said a coldly formal, ‘Thank you,’ he stooped and touched his lips to hers in another of those light but proprietorial kisses that left her feeling as if she’d been caught in some terrifying whirlpool.
‘Au revoir, Annis.’
A hand to her mouth, she watched him slide behind the wheel and drive away. She was still standing like a statue in the doorway when his car disappeared from sight.
Once inside she made herself a strong cup of tea, took a couple of aspirins and reviewed the catastrophic events of the day.
He’d managed so easily, so effortlessly to trick her into accepting the assignment at Blair’s. But, hating him as she did, and frightened by the way each meeting added more fuel to her desire for revenge, she knew she couldn’t go on working for him.
Anne and Sheila were both first-class secretaries, and on Monday, no matter what kind of upheaval it involved, she would send one of them in her place, and let him do his worst!
If he tried to ring her she would put the phone down, and if he came to her door she would refuse to open it. So long as she was careful, she would never have to see him again.
A hot bath alleviated some of her aches and pains and made her feel a great deal better. But, showing she was still very much on edge, she jumped when the phone shrilled.
‘Annis?’ Stephen’s voice held a mixture of triumph and excitement. ‘I’ve got tickets for Malibu, for this evening. I know it’s short notice but you will come, won’t you?’
‘Well, I don’t really…’
‘I thought you’d be pleased.’ He was instantly deflated.
‘Any other time I would have been, only I don’t feel much like going out tonight. In any case, I promised to be on hand this weekend to take care of the twins if Linda has to go into hospital, and I—’
‘Before we left work I had a word with Richard,’ Stephen broke in with plaintive eagerness, ‘and he told me it might be several days yet before anything happens. Please change your mind…I’m sure it’ll buck you up no end.’
Reminding herself yet again of just how much she owed Stephen, Annis forced herself to say brightly, ‘You’re probably right. Very well, I’ll come.’
‘Wonderful!’ Once again he was bubbling over. ‘I’ll pick you up in about an hour.’
When Stephen knocked she was ready, resolved for his sake to at least appear to be enjoying herself.
‘You look marvellous,’ he told her, eyeing the simple, but elegant dress whose colour perfectly matched her eyes.
‘Thank you.’ She smiled at him, then asked, ‘How on earth did you manage to get tickets for Malibu? I thought they’d been sold out for months.’
‘You’ll see,’ he said mysteriously. Adding, ‘I’ve a taxi outside, so we’d better get off. We haven’t a lot of time.’
Why a taxi? she wondered. But perhaps he was intending to have a drink? Make the evening a festive one? Full of childlike pleasure and importance, he was clearly labouring under great excitement.
Only when they reached the theatre, and it was too late, did she realise why.
In the foyer, two people were waiting for them. A well-dressed woman with black curly hair and a superb figure, and the man Annis had promised herself she would never need to see again.
Coming face to face with him so unexpectedly gave her the same sensation as dropping in a high-speed lift, making her stomach clench and her heart begin to race with anger and alarm.
‘Good evening, Miss Warrener… Leighton,’ Zan said pleasantly.
‘Sorry we’re a bit late…’ Stephen began.
Zan waved away his apology. ‘I’d like to introduce Mrs Gilvary, my—’
‘Don’t be so formal, Zan,’ the woman cut in with a teasing glance. Her smile friendly, she held out her hand first to Annis then to Stephen. ‘I’m Helen, Zan’s sister… How nice to meet you.’
As they were shaking hands the call bell went. Unable to think of any way out of the situation without hurting Stephen, Annis allowed herself to be ushered into the auditorium.
With smooth panache Zan placed her between the younger man and himself, remarking as he did so, ‘I’m glad you were able to join us, especially as it’s such short notice.’ Sotto voce, he added sardonically, ‘But then you told me you always try to please Leighton.’
Annis gave him an inimical glance. ‘In this instance it was Stephen trying to please me.’
Catching the last few words, Stephen said eagerly, ‘I knew you wanted to see Malibu, and when Mr Power said he had two spare tickets and suggested we join him…’
‘You just knew I’d be delighted,’ Annis murmured, the words holding an irony she was well aware the man on her far side had picked up.
Turning her head, she met those thickly lashed, heavy-lidded eyes with a cool challenge which almost faltered at the answering gleam which leapt into their green-gold depths.
In what she could now see was going to be a war of attrition, she would need every ounce of her fighting spirit, she thought, shakily. And was more than thankful when any further exchange was precluded by the lights going down and the orchestra breaking into a lively overture.
Living up to its notices, the musical proved to be bright and fast-moving. But though her eyes were fixed on the stage Annis took scarcely any of it in, all her attention, her awareness focused on the dark, powerful man beside her.
During the interval they had a drink in the bar and discussed the show. If Annis found little to say, no one appeared to notice.
Alternately hot and shivering, her limbs aching, her throat sore, she couldn’t wait for the evening to end.
As soon as the final curtain went down to enthusiastic applause, with unobtrusive efficiency Zan shepherded them out ahead of the crush.
Demonstrating the effect of power and money, his car had been brought round and was standing by the kerb, a light drifting of snow beginning to settle on its shining bonnet.
When Stephen mumbled something about getting a taxi, Zan shook his head. ‘You might have problems on a night like this. I’ll drop you both.’
His tone brooked no argument, and Annis felt sure that had been his intention all along.
Only when she’d been handed into the front passenger seat did she fully appreciate the smoothness of the operation.
‘Zan’s marvellous when it comes to organising things,’ Helen remarked, echoing her thoughts.
‘That’s how you get to the top.’ Stephen’s approving comment precluded the tart rejoinder Annis had been about to make.
‘And stay at the top,’ Helen added for good measure, making them sound as if they were forming the Zan Power Admiration Society.
As the two at the rear struck up a conversation, Annis, sitting silent and aloof beside the man who had always been her bête noire, puzzled over the situation. Dazzled by Zan and all he stood for, Stephen seemed to find nothing amiss in the way they’d been paired off, but it struck her as strange that Helen Gilvary, who was laughing now, showed no resentment at being relegated to the back seat.
Expertly threading his way through the late-night traffic, Zan addressed the younger man. ‘I’ll take Helen home first. You live at Knightsbridge, don’t you?’
‘That’s right…’ By the time Stephen had given him the exact location they were turning into Elwood Place, a quiet street in Mayfair lined with elegant houses.
When they drew up outside the porticoed entrance of number fifteen, Helen smiled and said a pleasant goodnight to them both before getting out.
Displaying his usual courtesy, Zan accompanied her to the door. When he bent his dark head to kiss her cheek, she put her arms around him and kissed him back with obvious affection.
It was a comparatively short drive to where Stephen lived. When he got out, with a reckless determination to rile Zan Annis followed him on to the snowy pavement.
Standing on tiptoe to touch her lips to his, she said, ‘Goodnight, and thank you, darling.’
He looked as startled and delighted as a man who had come into riches beyond his wildest dreams.
When she got back into the car, Zan’s face was as black as thunder. ‘Fasten your seatbelt,’ he ordered brusquely, and drove on, his mouth a thin, angry line.
Suddenly doubting the wisdom of her action, Annis leaned back against the head-rest and closed her eyes.
A finger flicking her cheek aroused her and she sat up, half stupefied, to find they were outside Fairfield Court.
‘Where’s your key?’ Zan asked curtly.
Remembering his furious face when she’d kissed Stephen, she cravenly found herself wishing she hadn’t deliberately provoked him.
‘There’s really no need for you to get out.’
Ignoring her uneasy protest, he made a swift search through her bag and located her key. ‘Wait here.’
She followed him a moment later, shivering as soon as the wind whipped round her.
He turned on the fire and drew the curtains before helping her out of her silver fun-fur. Then, looming tall and dark and overpowering in the small room, he said coldly, ‘I should put you over my knee for that little piece of bravado.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she muttered.
‘You know perfectly well what I mean. I’m aware you only did it to annoy me, but you shouldn’t have raised the poor devil’s hopes like that, when it’s obvious that you don’t care a jot for him.’
‘Well, that’s where you’re wrong! I do care.’
‘Only in as far as it affects your brother.’
Seeing her freeze, he asked silkily, ‘Did you think I wasn’t aware how Leighton has been propping him up? Covering for him? It’s common knowledge. I’ve known for weeks.’
Annis gazed at him with horrified eyes.
He smiled mirthlessly, and she found herself abstractedly noting the excellence of his mouth and teeth.
‘I also know, despite the fact that he’s a married man with a family, how you still tend to worry about him, mother him…’
‘But how could you know?’ she protested. ‘Until last night you’d never set eyes on me.’
He shook his head. ‘I saw you about three weeks ago. You came to Leighton’s office when he was working late one evening. Then you walked out together and got into his car. I made some enquiries, found out who you were…’
Her heart missed a beat, then went racing on as she realised he’d spoken too casually to mean what she’d thought he meant.
‘I hoped very much that he would bring you to the party. If he hadn’t, I would have had to think up some other way of meeting you.’
Her head throbbing, her legs feeling as if they might buckle under her, Annis dropped into the nearest chair.
Studying the mauve shadows like bruises beneath her eyes, the translucent skin stretched tight over delicate bones, the faint dew of perspiration on her upper lip, Zan remarked, ‘You look terrible.’ Towering over her, he put a cool hand on her burning forehead. ‘I think you’re coming down with flu.’
She jerked away and muttered, ‘Don’t touch me.’ Then, at the end of her tether, ‘I wish you’d go. Leave me alone. Stay away from me permanently.’
His lips took on a wry slant. ‘I can’t stay away from you any more than I can stop breathing.’
Tilting her chin, he looked deep into her cloudy eyes. ‘I intend to break down those defences, melt the ice you’ve surrounded yourself with, make you want me as much as I want you.’
There was a dark, brooding passion in his face, a relentless purpose that made her shiver.
‘You’re wasting your time,’ she told him raggedly. ‘There’s no way I’ll ever feel like that about you.’
Apparently unperturbed, he said, ‘You already feel more strongly about me than you do about Leighton.’
She jumped to her feet. ‘That’s quite true. I’m fond of Stephen. You I hate. Now will you get out? I never want to see you again.’
‘That might be difficult as you’re working for me.’
‘I’m not. Not any longer. If you really need help, on Monday I’ll send you a competent secretary, but that’s…’
The phone shrilled through her words.
Reaching out, Zan picked it up and answered with a brisk, ‘Yes?’
After a moment he handed her the receiver.
She gave him a furious look and, taking a deep, calming breath said, ‘Hello?’
‘Thank God you’re back…’ Richard sounded distraught. ‘I’ve been trying to get you for over an hour. I’m at the General Hospital…’ He made a sound halfway between a sob and a groan.
‘What’s the matter?’ Annis demanded in sudden fear. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Linda tripped and fell downstairs. She has a broken arm and there may be internal injuries… The shock caused her to go into labour, but they said it might be hours yet…’
Annis could have wept for her brown-haired, blue-eyed sister-in-law, pretty as a picture and not twenty-one until next month.
‘Mrs Duffy is with the twins, but her husband works nights and she needs to get back to her own family.’
‘I’ll go straight over,’ Annis said through stiff lips. ‘Try not to worry too much. Everything will be all right, I know it will.’
Shaking from head to foot, she depressed the receiver rest, then released it again to call the taxi-rank.
Before she’d put in the first digit, Zan, who’d been standing close enough to hear both sides of the conversation, took the receiver from her hand and replaced it.
‘What are you doing?’ she cried. ‘I need a taxi to get to Notting Hill.’
‘I’ll take you.’
‘I don’t want you to take me,’ she cried fiercely. ‘I don’t need you or your help.’
‘Don’t be a fool, Annis,’ he said shortly. ‘You’re about out on your feet.’
‘I’ll manage,’ she declared stonily.
‘You are the most stubborn woman I’ve ever met!’ He turned off the gas fire, then dropping her coat around her shoulders fairly hustled her out of the flat and across the snowy forecourt to his car.
‘Whereabouts in Notting Hill?’ he asked, as he pushed her in and took his place beside her.
Feeling harassed to death, unable to fight any longer, she told him, and let him remove the safety belt from her fumbling fingers and click it into place.
Resting her pounding head against the soft grey leather of the seat, she prayed silently, feverishly, please let Linda and the baby be all right.
Despite her anxiety she must have dozed again, because when she opened her eyes they were drawing up outside the end-of-terrace villa that Linda and Richard had bought just before the recession sent house prices tumbling.
Snowflakes swirled around them, and her feet, inadequately clad in suede court shoes, were wet and cold before they reached the glass-panelled door.
A plump, dark-haired, flustered-looking woman in her middle thirties answered the knock promptly and exclaimed, ‘Oh it’s you, Miss Warrener! What a relief! They’re both awake. You can probably hear them crying…’
‘I’m sorry I’ve been so long getting here.’ Annis’s voice was croaky.
Mrs Duffy pulled on her coat. ‘Well, now you are here I’d best be off. My own kids are ten and twelve, but I still don’t like to leave them in the house on their own.’
‘It’s very good of you to have stayed so long,’ Annis said gratefully.
‘Can I take you home?’ Zan offered.
Looking gratified, she said, ‘Thanks, but I only live next door.’
The crying, which had temporarily abated, was resumed, rising to a crescendo as Annis hurried up the stairs.
When she reached the narrow landing, all at once feeling sick and light-headed, she staggered a little and was forced to lean against the nearest wall.
Zan’s fingers encircled her wrist, keeping her there while he checked her pulse rate.
‘Let me be,’ she tried to shake off his detaining hand. ‘I’m going to see to the twins.’
‘You’re doing nothing of the kind,’ he corrected firmly. ‘Firstly, you’re not up to it—’ while he was speaking he was opening doors ‘—and secondly, you don’t want to risk them catching any infection.’
She could see the sense in that, all the same…
‘Ah…this looks like the spare room.’ He propelled her inside. ‘Now you’re going to get into bed and I’ll bring you some hot milk.’
‘But what about…?’
‘I’ll deal with the twins.’
And he probably could. He appeared to be able to deal with anything.
The combination of illness and emotional strain making her feel too spent to battle any longer, she stripped down to her undies and, climbing into bed, sat shivering.
In just a few minutes Zan returned carrying a couple of hot water bottles, and a tray with a beaker of milk and two red plastic feeding cups.
Having settled her with a hot water bottle behind her back and another at her feet, he put the beaker and two aspirin tablets on the bedside table before vanishing again.
She was just wondering anxiously how the twins would react to a strange man appearing in the nursery when, as if by magic, the crying stopped.
Sipping the hot milk, which had been liberally laced with brandy, she listened to the murmur of Zan’s voice and thought bitterly how easy he seemed to find it to charm females of any age.
As soon as the beaker was empty she lay down, and within seconds was sound asleep.
Annis surfaced slowly and reluctantly to find her bedroom was full of snowy light. Only it wasn’t her bedroom…
The events of the previous night rushed in like a tidal wave, and she sat up abruptly.
As soon as the room stopped spinning, she struggled out of bed and peered into the nursery. Both cots were empty.
Snatching a robe from behind the bathroom door, she went downstairs as fast as her shaky legs would allow.
No one was in the living-room, but a pillow and a neatly folded blanket suggested Zan had slept on the couch.
The smell of toast and coffee directed her to the kitchen.
Showered, shaved, immaculately—if a shade inappropriately—dressed, and clearly in command of the situation, Zan was putting boiled eggs into Beatrix Potter egg-cups.
Strapped in their high chairs, Rachel and Rebecca, models of rectitude, and as alike as two peas in a pod, contentedly spooned up their breakfast cereal.
‘Hello, darlings.’ Not wanting to get too close, she blew them a kiss.
Rachel, always the more solemn of the two, stared at her round-eyed, while Rebecca smiled and crowed and dribbled ground rice and apricots down her chin.
‘Good morning.’ Zan gave Annis a smile that stopped her breath as effectively as a silken noose. ‘How are you feeling this morning?’
‘Fine,’ she muttered untruthfully.
He set a mug full of milky coffee on the table and pulled out a chair for her. ‘You look as if you need to sit down.’
‘First I must phone the hospital.’
‘I’ve just been talking to them. Your sister-in-law is as well as can be expected. She’s suffering from shock, but they don’t think the internal injuries are too severe.’
Annis’s pale lips framed the almost inaudible question, ‘And the baby?’
‘You’ve got a brand new nephew, born safely an hour ago.’
The relief was so great that Annis sat down abruptly and burst into tears.
A folded handkerchief was put into her hand.
While she dried her eyes and blew her nose, Zan added evenly, ‘I’ve assured your brother that everything is all right at this end, so he’s going to stay at the hospital… Now, do you feel up to some toast?’
Gulping the milky coffee gratefully, she shook her head.
‘Then as soon as Mrs Sheldon arrives I propose to take you home to bed.’
‘Who’s Mrs Sheldon?’
‘She’s an ex-nurse and a very competent nanny. I’ve borrowed her from Helen, whose family, though still young, no longer really need her. She’ll look after the twins for the time being.’
‘But Linda and Richard can’t afford a nanny,’ Annis protested.
‘That’s all taken care of.’ There was a knock, and he added, ‘Ah, this sounds like her now.’
He returned after a moment or so with a neatly dressed, pleasant-faced woman in her forties.
When he’d made the introductions, Mrs Sheldon said cheerfully, ‘Now don’t you worry, Miss Warrener. I’ll take care of everything.’
Feeling like death, Annis gave in and made her way upstairs to get dressed, recognising that even if she could manage to look after the twins it was in their best interest that she shouldn’t.
But someone was paying Mrs Sheldon, and the very last thing she wanted was for any of her family to be in Zan Power’s debt.
IN LESS than half an hour Zan was escorting her into her own flat, and a few minutes later she was tucked up with a hot water bottle listening to him drive away.
After her earlier charged dealings with him, it had been almost an anticlimax when, brisk and practical, he’d said, ‘Have a few days in bed. I won’t expect you at work before Monday week.’ Then, with a kiss as light as thistledown, ‘Take care of yourself, Annis.’
She slept most of the day, and it was early evening when she was awakened by the phone.
‘How are you feeling?’ Richard’s voice asked anxiously.
‘Much better,’ she assured him, and heard his sigh of relief. ‘How is Linda?’
‘A lot more comfortable, and the baby’s doing well. He was nearly seven pounds and…’ Richard filled in the details of his son’s birth, before going on, ‘It’s such a relief to know that everything is being taken care of and I can stay with her. This nursing home is marvellous…’
‘Nursing home?’ Annis echoed blankly.
‘Oh, didn’t you know? Early this afternoon Linda was transferred to Carlton Heights private nursing home… The facilities are first class. There’s a nice sitting-room and I’ve got a bedroom and en-suite bathroom…’
‘But how can you possibly afford a private nursing home?’ Annis asked dazedly.
‘I don’t have to. Mr Power’s paying for everything. It was his suggestion. In fact he made all the arrangements, the same as he did over the children’s nanny…’
Annis felt as though a bottomless pit had opened up at her feet. Urgently, she demanded, ‘Have you stopped to wonder why he’s doing all this?’
‘It seems he’s a philanthropist, especially where his staff and their families are concerned…
‘He sent Linda a special delivery of flowers and said if there’s anything she needs I only have to let him know. He’s been absolutely marvellous…!’
When Richard finally finished singing his boss’s praises, Annis put the phone down, filled with an apprehension that bordered on dread.
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