An Obsessive Love
An Obsessive Love
Table of Contents
“You’ll deal with me, will you, Mr. Thorne?” Natasha’s hands flew to her hair, to the severe chignon. Unpinning the clips, she tossed them to the floor.
Dominic Thorne was staring at her in some confusion.
“Maybe I’ll deal with you! Maybe that’s precisely what you need…. How’s this?” She reached up, caught him by the neck and kissed him fiercely, angrily, on the mouth.
SARAH HOLLAND was born in Kent, southern England, and brought up in London. She began writing at eighteen because she loved the warmth and excitement of Harlequin Mills & Boon. She has traveled the world, living in Hong Kong, the south of France and Holland. She attended drama school, and was a nightclub singer and a songwriter. She now lives on the Isle of Man, England. Her hobbies are acting, singing, painting and psychology. She loves noisy dinner parties, buying clothes and being busy.
An Obsessive Love
Vladimir Ivankiev My friend in St. Petersburg
GOLD lettering shone on the grey marble walls of Thorne Industries Ltd. Natasha crossed the busy London street, morning sunlight in her eyes, and smiled politely at the young man who held the door open for her.
He gave her a rather unpleasant smile.
She shrugged and walked into the palatial foyer, chandeliers glittering overhead as she crossed to the lifts. As the lift doors slid open, two men in suits walked out, saw her, and laughed secretively, whispering to each other. Natasha ignored them.
It seemed that all the men who worked for Thorne Industries were gradually becoming more and more sexist—or was it more and more blatantly rude? Certainly, their sexual attention to her was becoming annoying.
With her striking Russian colouring of dark red hair, almond-shaped green eyes and high Slavic cheekbones, she had always attracted male attention. The pout of her dark red lips also made men stare, for it showed a deeply passionate nature at odds with her tall, slender body, and the inborn elegance that was almost balletic.
It was a legacy, her mother had always told her, from her great-grandmother, who had been a ballerina in St Petersburg before the revolution.
It was, however, becoming a nuisance, and one which she tried hard to cover up by wearing severe tailored suits, pulling her long red hair back into a stark chignon, and never wearing make-up to work.
Her tactics didn’t appear to be working, though, she thought with an irritable sigh, because the men just kept on staring and whispering every time she passed.
Trying to shrug it off, she stepped into the lift.
‘Hold it!’ A dark, authoritative voice bit out across the foyer.
Natasha looked up, startled, to see Dominic Thorne himself running towards her. Her eyes widened as she stared at this legendary, never-before-seen figure.
He was genuinely gorgeous, and looked just like his newspaper photographs: fierce blue eyes, tough mouth, dramatic bone structure. He could almost have been Russian, she thought, with such stark and powerfully dramatic good looks.
She watched him admiringly, for he was impossibly tall, his hair jet-black, and his powerful body moved like an athlete’s, muscles rippling beneath the expensive black suit as a gold watch-chain flashed across his taut, formal waistcoat.
‘Thanks.’ He strode into the lift as though he owned it—which indeed he did. He owned this whole building, and the business it networked across the globe.
Natasha studied him from beneath her eyelashes. ‘The chairman’s floor, sir?’
‘Yes, please.’ He looked at her, a tough smile on his mouth, and the blue eyes roved with dazzling sexual appraisal over her striking beauty and slender, elegant body. ‘Do you work here? For me?’
Natasha laughed and pressed the buttons for floor six and then the chairman’s floor. ‘Yes, I’ve been here for about six months.’
‘On floor six?’ His eyes grew intent. ‘That’s Leachman’s department, isn’t it?’
‘I’m his secretary.’
The steely eyes glittered like blue fire, lit from within as he stared down at her, hard lips parting, and drawled, as though in shocked wonderment, ‘My God…you’re Natasha Carne!’
She caught her breath in shock, doing a double-take. How did he know her name?
‘Pleasure to meet you at last,’ drawled Dominic Thorne with a flash of serious sexual interest in his eyes and deep, sexy voice. ‘You wouldn’t believe how much I’ve heard about you!’
The lift doors slid open at floor six, but Natasha couldn’t move because she was still rooted to the spot with shock. The chairman? Dominic Thorne himself had heard so much about her that it was a pleasure to meet her at last?
‘I’m sure we’ll meet again, Miss Came,’ he said softly, ‘but in the meantime, I believe this is your floor.’
‘Yes.’ Her green eyes stared, slanting, almond-shaped and strangely hypnotic. ‘Thank you, sir. Enjoy your day.’
She stepped out in her elegant grey pin-striped skirt suit. Dominic Thorne watched her with glittering blue eyes and a mocking smile as the lift doors slid shut.
What on earth had all that been about? she wondered as she walked across the open-plan area towards her office.
As always, all the men watched her as she passed, and it irritated her to be scrutinised constantly by them. One or two of them sniggered as she walked past.
Natasha, as always, ignored them, her face icy.
Reaching her office, she went inside and wondered again what that had been about with Dominic Thorne. Well, try as she might, she would never find out through telepathy.
But she allowed herself an admiring little smile, thinking of his dramatic looks, the stark power of those strong bones beneath tanned skin, and the flash of fire in his steel-blue eyes.
Could almost be Russian himself, she thought again, grinning like an idiot, and then shook herself angrily.
Indulging in romantic daydreams was so dangerous to her that she ought to be shot for allowing herself to do it over a man she didn’t know. When would she learn?
Determined not to fantasise about the gorgeous Mr Thorne, she went into work mode, put her handbag beside her desk, switched on the computer, checked the answering service, filled the coffee-machine, and then watered the row of plants on the white windowsill before busying herself opening the morning post.
‘Morning, Miss Carne.’ Ted Leachman came in just as she finished opening the last letter.
‘Morning, sir.’ She barely smiled, because she didn’t much care for Ted Leachman.
He was a sly, lecherous man of about fifty with a bald head, a paunch, and a taste for smelly cigars. If she hadn’t been made redundant from her previous job six months ago, she would leave without a second thought. But as it was, redundancy had shaken her confidence temporarily, and she wasn’t prepared to walk out of this job just yet.
‘Bring the post in. Let’s see what we’ve got…’
Natasha took the post into his office, aware of his nasty dark eyes roving over her as she sat opposite, taking dictation. They worked well for twenty minutes, but he had to ruin it by being personal.
‘I’d love to know what you looked like with your hair down,’ said Leachman with an oily smile. ‘Especially in a sexy little off-the-shoulder number…’
Natasha’s green eyes grew icy. ‘Is that sort of remark acceptable in the workplace? I’ll have to check with Personnel to see if my rights are being infringed.’
His face went an ugly red. ‘I was just trying to be nice. When a man flirts with you, it’s not exactly an insult, you know!’
Natasha’s full dark red mouth tightened. He’d been like this since she had first arrived. So had all the other men in the office. Asking her out all the time, making passes, innuendoes, sly suggestive remarks.
She wouldn’t have minded if they took no for an answer and left her to get on with her life the way she wanted to live it. But they didn’t take no for an answer. If anything, no seemed to be the green light for sexual harassment—or something that came perilously close to it.
‘The letter, sir,’ she said, tapping her pad with her pencil.
‘To hell with the letter!’
Natasha arched haughty brows. ‘Very professional!’
‘A man can’t be professional all the time,’ he snapped. ‘What’s wrong with you? I thought you had Russian blood? Aren’t you supposed to be passionate under that cold, Slavic exterior?’
‘If you don’t stop making personal remarks,’ she said icily, ‘I will have no choice but to pursue this matter through official channels.’
His eyes flared. ‘You make me so angry I don’t know whether to hit you or kiss you!’
‘I know precisely which I’d like to do to you,’ she retorted curtly, ‘and I will, I assure you, if you don’t stop this! A good slap in the face, followed by a lengthy court case over sexual harassment. Unless, of course, you prefer to apologise and return to a more professional footing?’
Suddenly, he blurted out, ‘I’m beginning to think they’re right about you!’
‘Mr Leachman, I really can’t——’
‘You don’t like men, do you?’
Her lashes flickered as the atmosphere tilted abruptly into one that promised something unpleasant.
‘That’s it, isn’t it? You’ve rejected every man in the building for the simple reason that you’re frigid.’
She felt breathless with shock.
‘We’ve all been trying to seduce you like mad, as you know very well, and we thought one of us, just one, might turn out to be your type. But you don’t have a type, do you? You’re a frigid little iceberg with no time for anything but your pathetic little career, which is cold comfort on those long, lonely nights, isn’t it? But what else can you do? You don’t like men, don’t like sex, don’t like——’
Natasha got to her feet. ‘Apologise or I’ll report you!’
‘Go ahead and report me. Every man in the building knows already!’ He laughed nastily. ‘They call you Natasha Can’t!’
She caught her breath and her face drained of colour as everything suddenly fell into place: the sly looks, the sniggering behind hands, the coy whispering and the——
Oh God, the way Dominic Thorne had looked at her with sexual mockery, smiling as he recognised her position, and realised who she was, the famous frigid fool on floor six.
No, no, no, no, no…!
They’ve all had bets on you,’ sneered Leachman. ‘Who’d be the lucky guy to make you thaw out with a quick kiss? I might as well tell them to up the stakes to a million to one, because any man who—’
The telephone jangled.
He picked up the receiver. ‘Leachman.’
Natasha stood rooted to the spot with horror, appalled to realise she was shaking, a mixture of rage and humiliation flooding her with such force that she didn’t know whether to scream bloody murder or burst into tears.
‘Yes, sir,’ Leachman was saying into the phone. ‘Right away, sir.’ He banged the receiver down. ‘My God…that was the chairman! Dominic Thorne himself! He wants you to go up to his office, right away.’
It was the last straw for Natasha. Something in her exploded with boiling rage, and she said shakingly through her teeth, ‘Does he?’
Turning on her heel, she stormed out of the office, thinking, So Dominic Thorne has decided to get in on the act, too, has he? Asking me up to his office to make a pass at me and see if the rumours are true?
She slammed out of the office, glaring at the men who sniggered as she passed. This is it, she thought furiously. I’ve had enough. I’m leaving this hell-hole, walking out, job or no job to go to!
But before I do, she thought, jabbing angrily for the call button, I’m going to kick up the biggest scene Dominic Thorne has ever seen.
She knew she was over-reacting, knew her emotions were flying out of her control, but there was nothing she could do about it.
It was all too familiar—the sense of humiliation and helpless rage. To be surrounded by hundreds of people, all of whom had been sniggering at her behind her back, talking about her, placing bets on her, calling her horrible names like Natasha Can’t.
It reminded her of Tony.
That was the problem. It reminded her so vividly of what had happened with Tony that she was completely overpowered by the waves of humiliation and rage—she lost all common sense.
She stormed out of the lift into the luxurious corridor of the chairman’s floor.
Frigid, am I? Well, I suppose it’s better than last time. At least I’m not mad, completely round the bend, a stupid, over-emotional obsessive who everyone knows got fixated on Tony Kerr.
How the memory of Tony suddenly filled her. It ripped aside the icy façade she had built up over the last four years, and made her body shake as the adrenalin pumped violently into her blood and she stormed towards the chairman’s office, thinking, I’ll teach Dominic Thorne a lesson he’ll never forget.
‘Good-morning.’ The secretary smiled politely as Natasha strode like an avenging angel towards her. ‘You must be Miss——’
‘Can’t!’ she bit out thickly. ‘Natasha Can’t!’
The secretary stared as she strode to the door. ‘Miss Can’t…?’
‘Is he in there?’ Natasha asked rawly, not altering her stride.
‘Yes he is, but——’
Natasha strode faster and wrenched open the door. ‘Don’t worry! I’m quite sure he’s expecting me!’
Dominic Thorne was seated at an oval desk, leaning back in a black leather winged chair, a panoramic view of London behind his dark head.
‘Good-morning, Mr Thorne,’ Natasha said through her teeth.
‘Miss Carne.’ Dominic got to his feet.
‘Some mistake, surely?’ she flared passionately. ‘I thought my name was Miss Can’t!’
‘Whatever your name is,’ he drawled sardonically, blue eyes glittering as he strode round the desk towards her, ‘I told you we’d meet again.’
‘She just barged in, sir!’ The secretary was hovering in a panic.
‘Yes, that’s quite all right, Miss West. You can go. I’ll deal with Miss Carne.’
‘Oh, you’ll deal with me, will you?’ Natasha said in a shaking voice as the door closed and she was alone with him. ‘You’ll deal with me, will you, Mr Thorne?’ Her hands flew to her hair, to the severe chignon. Unpinning the clips, she tossed them on to the floor. ‘You’ll deal with me, will you?’
‘I——’ He was staring at her in some confusion.
‘Maybe I’ll deal with you!’ Her dark red hair tumbled free, silky curls falling to her waist as her green eyes spat fire. ‘Maybe that’s precisely what you need!’
‘Miss Carne, I really——’
‘How’s this?’ She unbuttoned her grey jacket, too angry to think about what she was doing, and the powerful dark-haired man in front of her caught his breath as her cream camisole was revealed, full breasts rising and falling below the thin silk and lace.
He stared, a dark flush rising on his cheekbones.
‘And this!’ She reached up, caught him by the neck, and pulled his dark head down to kiss him fiercely, angrily on the mouth.
Dominic Thorne swayed on his feet.
‘See?’ She shoved angrily at him, her eyes blazing. ‘I do like men! I just prefer to select my own!’ Turning on her heel, she stormed over to the door. ‘And by the way—you can take your job and stick it up your exhaust pipe, because I won’t be staying here another second!’
‘Wait!’ A strong hand slammed the door shut just as she opened it, and she looked up furiously to see him towering beside her, blue eyes glittering in heavy-lidded, black lash-fringed sockets. ‘What the hell am I supposed to make of all that? Why are you giving up your job here? What was all that about?’
‘Oh, come on, Mr Thorne! Don’t tell me you don’t know? You made yourself very plain in the lift this morning. A pity I didn’t recognise your smutty tone of voice for——’
‘I am never smutty,’ he bit out harshly. ‘And I genuinely don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!’
‘The rumours that I’m frigid!’ she spat, quivering, red hair blazing around her slim shoulders, strands of it soft against the creamy swell of her breasts, the severe grey jacket open still to reveal the hidden sensuality of her silk camisole. ‘That I don’t like men, don’t like sex, and deserve the nickname Natasha Can’t! Just because I’ve turned you and all your despicable locker-room friends down——’
‘Now wait just a minute! It’s true that I had been told you’d turned down every man in the building. But I did not know they were calling you either frigid or Natasha Can’t!’
‘Why should I lie?’
‘To avoid a nasty court case?’ Her voice was fierce with the threat. ‘Do you have any idea how completely against the law this behaviour—?’
‘If you’re threatening a lawsuit, I’d very much like to know what kind. Are you frigid?’
Natasha tried to slap his face, her eyes blazing.
He caught her hand easily, strong fingers biting into her wrist, eyes overpowering hers, commanding authority easily over her with his superior male strength.
She wriggled angrily. ‘Let me go!’
‘A charge of sexual harassment,’ he bit out, ‘is going to be damaging to both my reputation and that of this company. Now, I want to know exactly what I’ll be facing if you do decide to make an official complaint. Is the treatment you’ve received a genuine case of harassment? And if so, how severe? What precisely has happened? Have the men hounded you for sexual favours? Have they tried to use power over you within the company in exchange for sex? Has anyone assaulted or molested you?’
‘Nothing like that!’ she said rawly. ‘But they have asked me out continually, made insulting remarks when I refused, and now this vile nickname, all the sniggering behind my back, calling me frigid and——’
‘Well? Are you frigid?’
‘No, I am not!’ she shouted hoarsely, mouth shaking, and suddenly the flash of vulnerability in her green eyes made her tear her gaze from his, looking down, suddenly afraid she might burst into uncontrollable tears at any moment.
He stared down at her bent, fiery head for a second in silence.
Natasha struggled not to cry. It was very hard. Waves of emotion, pain and rage and humiliation, were flooding her. Both from the past, and from the present. Suddenly she could see nothing ahead, either, but more pain and rage and humiliation.
Suddenly she couldn’t bear her life any more, or what she’d become, because of that swine Tony Kerr.
‘Hey…’ Dominic Thorne became gentle as he saw her tears and the effort she was making to control them. ‘Please don’t cry.’
‘I’m not going to cry!’ Her voice shook with rigid pride.
‘OK…’ He stared intently at her, compassion darkening his blue eyes. ‘But you’ve been shaken up and you’re reacting emotionally. Come on…don’t let them get to you.’
Natasha wanted to cry even harder. But she was afraid to accept his tenderness, because it reminded her stingingly of the pity one or two people had shown her four years ago, and it made her feel it was still here, it would never end, she would never, ever be free of it.
‘If you’re so damned sympathetic,’ Natasha asked rawly, stepping away from him, her face hurt and pale, ‘and you genuinely don’t know anything about this—why did you ask me up here?’
‘To offer you a job,’ he drawled with a sardonic twist to his hard mouth.
It was such a shock that she just stood there, staring at him.
‘I certainly didn’t expect this kind of reaction from you, but clearly something else has been going on in this building that I ought to know about.’ He watched her with those hypnotic blue eyes and said coolly, ‘So why don’t you sit down, calm down, and let’s discuss the matter properly?’ He put strong hands on her shoulders and led her over to the chair opposite his desk.
‘I’m not a helpless child!’ she said, prickling against any show of kindness or compassion.
‘No, you’re a tempestuous female,’ he drawled sardonically, and then ran one strong hand over her rigid, angry neck-muscles, ‘and you’re horribly tense.’
‘Wouldn’t you be?’ she spat, hating him.
‘Probably,’ he drawled, ‘but I always have the most satisfying option of punching men in the face when they annoy me. You can hardly do that, can you? So I recommend a good stiff drink to calm you down. What’ll you have?’ He crossed the room to a drinks cabinet. ‘A shot of brandy?’
‘I never drink brandy.’
‘High time you started, then.’ He poured some into a tumbler.
Natasha was still trembling, her slim white hands clutching the open lapels of her grey jacket to hide the silky camisole. She knew she couldn’t do the buttons up just yet. She was still shaking too much, so she just sat there, clutching her lapels, and wondering what on earth he had really asked her up here for. Was he serious about offering her a job, or had that been a ruse to stop her filing an official complaint and taking his precious company to court?
‘So who, precisely, is behind this sexual harassment?’ Dominic strode over to her with a glass of brandy. ‘Tell me the names of the——
‘Later,’ she said, eyes suspicious in case he was trying to soften her up. ‘First tell me about this job you planned to offer me. What exactly does it entail?’
‘It’s a secretarial position, working privately for a bestselling historical novelist.’ He perched on the edge of the desk, watching her with a cool smile. ‘My mother, in point of fact.’
Natasha just stared at him in disbelief. ‘Your mother?’
‘I understand you wrote to her a month ago.’
‘I wrote to your mother?’ she echoed, baffled.
‘Yes. Xenia Valevsky. Countess Valevsky. The author.’
She caught her breath, mind reeling as everything slotted into place. Xenia Valevsky was her favourite author, and had been for seven or eight years. She wrote intricately detailed books on imperial Russia, some set in the time of Peter the Great, some Catherine the Great, some leading up to the revolution, but all deeply embedded in Russian life, folklore, language, and richly encrusted with the extravagance of the aristocracy and Imperial families.
Natasha had read every single one of her books, some several times over, and felt deeply connected with her because of it. Eventually, she had written a long fan letter, telling Xenia Valevsky how she admired her, and mentioning that she currently worked for Thorne Industries.
‘I have your letter here.’ Dominic reached behind him on to the desk, picked up a black file, extracted the piece of paper.
Natasha took it and stared at her own handwriting. ‘Xenia Valevsky is your mother…?’
‘She has been for some time,’ he drawled sardonically, blue eyes glittering, and Natasha felt her pulses race, because he really was wickedly attractive.
‘But why the different name? I thought she really was a Russian countess, that her name really was Valevsky.’
‘Yes, but it’s her maiden name. She married my father, remember, an Englishman called Jack Thorne. As for the title, it’s genuine all right, and inherited from her parents. But the land that goes with it is in Russia and now the property of the state, which renders the title almost defunct.’
Natasha nodded, fascinated. ‘I’m amazed to discover I’ve been working for her son all this time without realising it. It’s never been mentioned around the office, or in the Press.’
‘Well, I’m proud of her, of course, but she prefers to keep her English identity—that of Xenia Thorne, my mother—reasonably quiet. Her public image is so strong. Tragic Russian countess turned best-selling novelist, parents escaped during the revolution, et cetera, et cetera. It’s a great image and it sells.’ He laughed drily. ‘Much more romantic than being born in London, marrying my father, Jack Thorne, an industrial factory owner.’ He shrugged broad shoulders. ‘And of course, although I’ve rebuilt the company since my father’s death, it nevertheless remains a basically British firm, for all its international tentacles. So she keeps me out of the imagepicture, too.’
Natasha stared. ‘But—but I would have thought you’d enhance her sales.’
He laughed again. ‘How on earth could I do that?’
Unguardedly, she blurted out, ‘Because you’re so good-looking and so successful!’
His dark lashes flickered, and the blue eyes gleamed as he smiled, a smile so charming that it made her temporarily breathless. ‘Why, thank you, Miss Came.’
A slow burn turned her face a delicious shade of pink. ‘At any rate—what exactly will this job with your mother entail?’
‘Taking dictation, answering the phone, typing up notes, helping with research.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘The usual secretarial bit. But there’s rather more to it than that, particularly at this point. You see, you will be expected to go to Russia with her.’
Natasha caught her breath with excitement.
‘To St Petersburg.’
Her green eyes glittered like emeralds in her white, Slavic face, and she had no idea how beautiful she looked in that moment, how Russian, how feminine, how completely romantic: strange almond eyes shining with excitement, dark red mouth curved radiantly, long red hair spilling around her porcelain skin.
Dominic Thorne stared at her, smiling too, looking suddenly as though what he wanted most in the world was to fall into her eyes.
Natasha blushed again, astonishingly, and said in a strange, husky voice, ‘I—I don’t know what to say. I’ve wanted to go to St Petersburg since I was born. It’s the most magical-sounding name in the world to me.’
‘Then you want the job?’
‘Oh, yes, of course! I’d do anything to get it!’
‘Good.’ He smiled long and slow, his eyes moving over her face, then said, ‘Because you seem perfect for it, and I’m certain you’ll get on famously with my mother. I had you checked out, you understand. An elementary precaution.’
‘You had me checked out…?’
‘Yes.’ He picked up the black file again, flipped it open, reading aloud. ‘Your grandmother was one Anastasia Malakova——’
‘Born April 7, 1913 in St Petersburg, the illegitimate daughter of Marie Malakova, a ballerina at the Kirov and your great-grandmother, and her long-term lover, Prince Sergei Kallensikov——’
‘How did you get all that information?’ Natasha could hardly believe her ears as she heard him reading out the details of her grandmother’s birth. ‘My God, I haven’t told anyone in this office that my grandmother was illegitimate! Let alone the illegitimate daughter of a ballerina and a prince of Russia!’
‘I had you traced back to the village in Kent you were born in,’ Dominic said coolly, and then nearly jumped out of his skin.
‘How dare you?’ Natasha shouted, leaping to her feet, eyes blazing like a tempestuous Russian princess’s. ‘How dare you investigate me like that? Going back to my home town, digging up dirt, making me——’
‘Now, just a minute!’ he bit out forcefully, standing up and dwarfing her with his extraordinary height. ‘I had to have you checked out if I was going to agree to hire you to——’
‘You had no right to go to my home town!’ Her voice shook with appalled emotion. ‘What else did you find out about me? Come on! Tell me! They all talked their heads off, didn’t they? Everyone in that stupid little town! They told you all about Tony Kerr, didn’t they?’ She tried to grab at the black file on the desk. ‘Let me see it! Let me see what lies they’ve——’
‘Who the hell is Tony Kerr?’ he demanded, slamming a strong hand on the file to stop her picking it up, his eyes blazing furious blue. ‘And who the hell do you think you are, talking to me like this?’
Natasha’s heart was pounding violently with rage and fear. The thought of him knowing something about Tony Kerr, about the way she’d fallen so obsessively in love with him, humiliated herself in front of the town—well, it was a nightmare even to think about.
‘Answer me!’ Dominic Thorne bit out harshly. ‘Who is Tony Kerr?’
At once, she looked away, breathing hard. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ He clearly didn’t know, and if she had any sense she wouldn’t push it, or he might just decide to find out.
‘It obviously matters a great deal to you.’ He watched her with narrowed eyes. ‘Who is he? What has he done to make you react like——?’
‘Nothing.’ Her face was tight with emotion. ‘Anyway—I need to know the details of this job with your mother. When would I go to St Petersburg?’
He watched her for a long time, eyes shrewd, and he was clearly aware of her deliberate change of subject, also of the way she was struggling to remain calm in the face of what was clearly extreme provocation.
Suddenly, he seemed to come to a decision to let it slide. ‘You’ll go to St Petersburg in two weeks,’ he said briskly. ‘But first, you’ll have to meet my mother for a preliminary interview. Shall I arrange it for tomorrow morning, eleven sharp?’
‘Very well. Be at this address——’ he handed her a
business card ‘—at eleven tomorrow.’
‘Thank you.’ She put it in her top jacket pocket. ‘I’ll be there. But I must stress that I fully intend to resign from my position here as of this moment—whether I get the job with your mother or not.’
He nodded, unsmiling, and his eyes were very dark. ‘I accept your resignation. Consider yourself free to go. But before you do, I want the names of everyone involved. Tell me precisely what happened and who was directly responsible.’
Natasha told him, her voice cool, clipped and precise.
‘Do you want to make an official complaint?’ he asked when she had finished. ‘You obviously have a solid case. The only problem is—how many of the other men will come forward to testify on your behalf?’
‘None, I should think.’
‘Because you hurt their egos,’ drawled Dominic Thorne, a gleam in his blue eyes as he looked down at her ravishingly unique and dramatic face. ‘A shame they weren’t here to witness your very exciting display of red-blooded passion!’
‘I was in a temper.’ She felt deeply embarrassed. ‘I didn’t know what I was——’
‘Oh, please,’ he drawled sardonically, ‘don’t apologise. It was a scene from one of my favourite office fantasies.’
‘Oh…!’ Her face burnt crimson and she looked away, unable to maintain eye contact, her fingers fumbling with the still loose lapels of her open jacket, aware of his blue eyes roving insolently down to probe the shadowy hollow between her breasts.
‘I only wish I could stay here with you a little longer to discuss it, but I’m afraid I have a board meeting in precisely——’ he glanced at the Cartier watch on his hair-roughened wrist ‘—seven minutes.’
Natasha recognised dismissal when she heard it. ‘Yes, of course.’ She got to her feet, turning to walk to the door.
He followed her. ‘Send Leachman up to me right away.’ Another glance at that expensive watch. ‘I’ve just got time to execute him before the board meeting.’
‘Execute him?’ Natasha turned at the door.
‘Of course.’ He towered over her, face dramatically good-looking and very exciting. ‘You don’t seriously think I’m going to allow him to stay here after this, do you? He’s out. Consider it done.’
Her eyes seemed to stare adoringly, of their own accord, up into that hard, handsome face.
He smiled down at her. ‘And one other thing…’ His gaze lowered intimately to her breasts, his voice growing rough with sexual attraction. ‘Best do this up before you go back down to the den of wolves…’
Natasha’s whole body pulsed with waves of shimmering pleasure as he slowly, surely, began to button her jacket up, flicking his gaze from her eyes to the scented hollow between her breasts, then up to her dark red mouth, then back to her breasts while she stood there, heart pounding, feeling her nipples erect and shivers run up and down her skin.
‘See you soon,’ he murmured, and bent his dark head to brush a brief, burning kiss on her mouth. ‘Just returning the compliment,’ he drawled, and slid one strong hand to her naked throat, inciting shivers of pleasure as he bent his head again, and kissed her passionately.
‘Oh…!’ She succumbed without meaning to, almost as though she were hypnotised, her arms going around his strong neck as he pulled her hard against his powerful body.
The hot onslaught of his mouth made her dizzy, and she clung to him, breathing faster, aware of his heartbeat thundering as his strong hands moved firmly, possessively over her slender body.
Suddenly, the telephone on his desk rang.
‘Damn!’ he said thickly, wrenching his hot, commanding mouth from hers and glancing over one broad shoulder.
Natasha swayed as he released her, and fumbled with the door-handle, going out, his touch still on her skin, his kiss still lingering on her lips, his presence still making her tremble with excitement, romance, magic…
And he was part-Russian, too, just as she was.
I knew it as soon as I saw him, she thought dazedly. My God, he’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a man, everything I’ve ever dreamt of, everything I’ve——
What rubbish! she thought in sudden fear, as she stopped herself weaving fantasies around a man she hardly knew.
I just got carried away because he showed some interest in me, and kissed me. He’s a very attractive, desirable man, and of course I got carried away in a stupid romantic daydream.
But it doesn’t mean anything. It certainly doesn’t mean I’ll ever see him again, even if I do go and work for his mother.
Certainly, she wasn’t going to let herself get into the same mess she got in over Tony! Oh, dear me, no, she thought furiously as she strode out of the lift and back to her own office.
No more fantasies for me, no more obsessive love without foundation, no more love, full stop.
TTHE next morning, she was smartly dressed in a severe black tailored skirt suit, buttoned right up to the neck, with a small, elegant frill at the throat and discreet pearl ear-rings in her ears. As always, she wore her long red hair swept up into a cool chignon.
Xenia Valevsky lived in a beautiful white house in an exclusive London square. A butler answered the door on Natasha’s ring, and ushered her into a very formal drawing-room furnished entirely in French antiques.
Natasha had rarely seen such luxury outside a magazine. She came from an ordinary family—albeit with an extraordinary past.
She felt slightly out of place, therefore, sitting on an elegant yellow brocade sofa with little gold claw feet, while the sunlight shone in through the long windows on to fabulous, elegant antiques.
‘Ah!’ Countess Valevsky entered. ‘Miss Carne!’
Natasha looked up to see her heroine in the flesh, and she was awed for a second, staring at her with a radiant smile, for she was everything Natasha had always thought she would be.
Tall, slender, very elegant, the Countess wore a smart white skirt suit, very similar to Natasha’s, buttoned up to the neck, two strings of pearls across it, her dark hair swept up in an elegant chignon.
‘How wonderful to meet you at last!’ The Countess swept over to her as Natasha stood up, and held out her hands. ‘I’ve been dreaming how you would look, and I can hardly believe that you’re just as I pictured you.’
‘And you’re every bit as beautiful as your photographs, Countess.’
‘Do, please, call me Xenia.’ She moved past her to the blue and yellow brocade armchair. ‘I’ve asked Bowers to bring some tea. Did my son tell you about the research trip to St Petersburg?’
Natasha at once found herself enthusing over the prospect, and before long they were both swapping love-stories over St Petersburg, Imperial history, and Russia.
Bowers brought the tea on a silver trolley.
‘Just wait until you see Peterhof!’ Xenia was saying as she poured from the silver pot. ‘It’s the Russian equivalent of Versailles.’
‘I’ve seen photographs of it.’
‘And, you know, Peter the Great’s study is still there,’ Xenia informed her. ‘I’ve seen it. Actually stood in the same room that he did, when he made all those plans. What a marvellous tsar he was.’
They talked on and on, skipping from one topic of conversation to the next. They clearly had similar minds, similar personalities, similar interests.
Time slipped by unnoticed.
Xenia called for more tea.
They talked about the tragedy of the Romanovs, and Natasha was thrilled to discuss in detail the last months of the Tsar, his imprisonment first in Tsarskoe Selo, then in Tobolsk, and finally at the Impatiev house in Ekaterinburg, where the family were slain.
‘I can see you’re going to be my dream secretary.’ Xenia was as excited as Natasha. ‘I’ve always longed for a secretary who understood Russian history as you do.’
‘I’ve spent my whole life reading every book on Russian history I could lay my hands on,’ Natasha confessed with a smile.
‘Of course you have. With your ancestry.’
‘It’s mainly because I look so much like the Russian side of the family,’ Natasha told her. ‘I’m apparently the living image of my great-grandmother.’
‘She must have been very beautiful.’
Natasha laughed, thinking herself not very beautiful at all.
‘Dominic remarked on it, too,’ Xenia continued. ‘He said you were the most strikingly beautiful woman he’d ever seen. And very Russian.’
Her heart skipped a stupid beat. ‘Well…that was very kind of him.’
‘He’s always been irresistibly attracted to Russianlooking women. He was even in love with one, once. A ballerina, funnily enough. Kyra, her name was. I thought for some time that he would marry her.’
‘Do you think he’s the marrying kind?’ Natasha asked wryly, somehow doubting that a man like Dominic Thorne would ever settle down.
‘He’s thirty-seven now, and beginning to think of having a family. But it’s difficult for him, because he wants the woman to have Russian blood, or at least some Russian connection. And that’s not so easy——’
The doorbell rang softly in the marble hallway.
‘Who on earth can that be?’ Xenia frowned, looking at her elegant watch, then gasping, ‘Oh, no, I completely forgot! Dominic said he’d drop by for lunch!’
Natasha’s heart leapt violently, and a second later she heard his deep, dark, gorgeously masculine voice in the hall.
No fast-beating hearts, she thought angrily, struggling to control her responses. No blushing and no pulsesoar, and definitely no smiling at him like a besotted idiot.
Dominic Thorne isn’t interested in you, he never will be, and you’re not interested in him, either. You mustn’t be interested in him or you’ll do the same thing, all over again, that you did with Tony. Besotted, obsessed, fixated…and then people find out and you’re humiliated.
So ignore his stunning looks, his intellect, his dynamism, his sex appeal, his power and his Russian ancestry. Stop being romantic and start being a bit more level-headed.
‘I know!’ Xenia said. ‘Why don’t you stay for lunch, too?’
‘Oh, no, I really couldn’t.’
‘Why not? I’m sure Dominic would be delighted, and so would I.’
‘I have an appointment with my bank manager at two o’clock,’ Natasha remembered with relief.
‘Oh, what a shame that——’
The door opened and Dominic Thorne, a superb masculine presence, strode in, dominating the room at once with his height and power and air of effortless authority.
‘Still here?’ he drawled, smiling dazzlingly at Natasha, whose heart leapt like mad in response. ‘I take it you’ve got the job, then?’
‘Yes, I have.’ Natasha got to her feet, her face icily serene, determined not to let him know how devastatingly attractive she found him.
‘Good,’ he drawled. ‘I look forward to running into you frequently from now on.’
‘How kind.’ Natasha’s voice dripped ice.
He frowned, because of course she wasn’t even smiling at him, and he had given her the kind of smile that made her do back-somersaults inside.
There was a brief, tense pause.
‘Well!’ Xenia clapped her elegant hands together. ‘Shall we have a little champagne? To seal the bargain and welcome Natasha into the fold?’
‘Yes, why not?’ Dominic gave a hard smile, still frowning, and turned to walk to the door, opening it, drawling over one broad shoulder, ‘I’ll tell Bowers to set the table for three, shall I?’
‘No, I can’t stay for lunch,’ Natasha clipped out coolly. ‘I have a previous engagement.’
He paused in the doorway, eyes narrowing on her, aware of her sudden icy hostility and not understanding it, particularly after the passionate kiss she had given him yesterday when she left his office.
Then he went out, closing the door with an angry click.
Natasha relaxed, turning to her new employer. ‘When do we leave for St Petersburg? Where are we staying?’
‘We leave in a fortnight, and we’ll be staying at the Hotel Europe, right in the centre of the city.’
Dominic’s footsteps came clicking angrily back down the hall.
Natasha’s mouth went dry. ‘Is it a nice hotel?’
‘Ravishing. Malachite pillars, gilded mirrors, hot and cold running waiters…’
The door opened and Dominic strode in, hard-faced and holding a bottle of Bollinger, the neck smoking, three champagne flutes in his strong hand.
‘But Dominic will give you the details next week, won’t you, darling?’
‘Yes,’ he said tersely, putting the glasses down on the gold oak coffee-table and pouring champagne into each of them.
Xenia frowned at him, then at Natasha.
He handed Natasha her glass, his face tough. ‘I’ll drop in at your flat some time next week with the details. Meanwhile, I need you to fill out a form for the entry visa.’
‘Yes, of course,’ she said coldly.
Straightening, he took the form from his inside jacket pocket, giving her a glimpse of that powerful chest, the taut stomach, and the dark grey silk lining of his jacket, the unmistakable black-silver label reading Gieves and Hawkes, No. 1, Savile Row.
Natasha took a pen from her handbag and sat down to fill the form out, marvelling at the excitement she felt on seeing all that Russian writing, so foreign, so romantic, so magical.
When she had finished, she glanced at her watch. ‘I’m afraid I really must dash.’
‘I’ll see you to the door,’ Dominic said curtly, and her pulses hammered as she tried to look cool, kissing Xenia goodbye, saying how much she was looking forward to beginning work with her in a fortnight, then, riddled with tension, walking out with Dominic right behind her.
He closed the drawing-room door.
Natasha increased her pace, hurrying to the front door.
‘Just a minute!’ Dominic bit out under his breath, catching up with her in three long strides, grabbing her arm, spinning her to face his blazing blue eyes. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Why am I suddenly getting the ice-maiden stuff?’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said tightly, stung by his choice of words and the memories of yesterday they brought back.
‘Don’t lie! Yesterday, you kissed me passionately, poured out your heart to me, then kissed me even more passionately. Today you’re ice from the neck down. No, from the eyebrows down—it’s even more noticeable looking into those eyes.’
‘Then don’t look into them, Mr Thorne!’
‘Mr Thorne?’ He laughed harshly. ‘Call me Dominic, or I’ll start to think you kiss every man you meet the way you kissed me!’
Her eyes flared angrily. ‘You know perfectly well I only did that because I was so upset!’
‘The first time—yes.’
Hot colour burnt her face as she remembered the passion with which she had surrendered to his kiss yesterday, the feel of that hard, commanding mouth on hers, the feel of his powerful body.
‘So what’s going on?’ he said thickly, lowering his head closer to hers. ‘Why are you suddenly so hostile?’
‘I’m not hostile.’
‘Natasha, you are not the woman I met yesterday.’
‘I could always produce my passport.’
‘Don’t be funny,’ he bit out, staring angrily into her eyes. ‘You know damned well what I mean.’
She raised her head, face tight with defensive anger. ‘Look—I’ve just accepted a job with your mother. It would hardly be appropriate for me to go around kissing her son every five minutes!’
‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ he drawled with a sardonic smile. ‘I rather enjoyed your kisses yesterday, and I want to enjoy them again.’
Nothing he could have said could have frightened her more. It meant he planned to chase her, to kiss her, to whisper sweet nothings in her ears…
And that would do it, that would make her flip her tiny lid again, that would feed the obsession she already knew could develop for a man as gorgeous and unattainable as Dominic Thorne.
‘Well, you can’t!’ she said icily, and wrenched open the front door, her face a white mask of scorn and contempt. ‘Kindly keep your hands off me from now on, Mr Thorne. I am not interested!’
Turning, she strode away down the path, her face rigid with determination, but she was both shocked and hurt when he didn’t try to follow her, because of course she thought he was wonderful, gorgeous, dazzlingly attractive, and she wanted him.
Her hand shook as she unlocked her little blue sports car, slid behind the wheel of it, and drove away without looking back.
God help me, she thought, her heart still pounding with excitement and fear. I feel more attracted to him than to any man I’ve ever met—and that includes Tony the Swine Kerr.
Look how she had flipped her lid over Tony, and she had barely found him attractive at all in the beginning. He had just been so attentive, so charming, and so unattainable, that in the end she had fallen hook line and sinker for him.
Unattainable was the key word, of course. She had worshipped him like a teenage fan with her idol, and the fact that he had never made love to her had made her obsession worse.
But Dominic Thorne was even more unattainable…
He was everything she had yearned to meet in a man, and far too eligible to take notice of a boring little secretary like her.
Tall, strong, intelligent, sexy, dynamic, sensitive, charming, gorgeous—and with a romantic Russian background, just like hers. He could have been handmade for her by fate.
Yes, she thought grimly, handmade for me to fall for, because that’s what’ll happen if I don’t fight him. And before I know it, I’ll be feeding an obsessive love for him, just like I did for Tony.
Like a secret plant, kept in the darkness of a hothouse, pouring water on it every hour, talking in hushhush whispers to it, words of love and desire making it grow and grow until it became a monster…
I must not let myself fall for Dominic Thorne, Natasha told herself fiercely.
I must not let that obsessive streak out, ever again.
I mustn’t even kiss him again.
He came to her flat ten days later.
She thought she was ready for him, because he had telephoned earlier to let her know he was on his way, and his terse, cold tone of voice hurt something inside her, even while she reciprocated, equally cold and impersonal.
But nothing she did could prepare her for Dominic, because she already secretly wanted him, already secretly found herself daydreaming about him, about his kiss, his smile, his ready wit, his powerful body, and his strong, handsome, Russian face.
Determined to look attractive herself, she changed quickly into a formal trouser suit in dark green, scraped her long hair back into its cool chignon, and put a little make-up on, her hand unsteady as she applied mascara to her dark red lashes.
Then she went into the living-room, pacing like a restless, fiery gazelle, trembling inside with excitement at the thought of seeing him again.
‘What are you up to?’ Dolly, her flatmate, asked curiously.
‘Mr Thorne is coming round,’ Natasha told her non-committally, ‘to give me my visa and the details of my flight to St Petersburg.’
‘So why get all togged up to see him?’ Dolly eyed her formal suit with a frown. ‘It’s just a brief, casual visit, isn’t it?’
‘I imagine so.’
Dolly laughed at her formal words. ‘You imagine so! Honestly, you are a hoot!’
Dolly Day was exactly like her name: a beautiful blonde bombshell. She was one of those warm, naturally glamorous, naturally exciting women with tremendous personality. She had never been deeply hurt by life, and hopefully never would be.
Natasha frequently envied her as she breezed her way through life, surrounded by friends, swamped by admiring men, throwing parties and getting drunk and laughing at herself when anything went wrong, and never having a cross word for anyone.
She was the perfect friend for Natasha, who had been so bitterly hurt that she often wondered if she would ever recover, and was afraid that the answer was very probably—never.
At least while Dolly Day was with her, Natasha would feel the sunshine.
The doorbell rang.
Natasha jumped, nervous eyes flicking round as she froze in the centre of the living-room.
‘Want me to get it?’ Dolly asked with a smile.
‘No, I…’ She ran a slim hand over her smooth chignon. ‘I’ll go.’
By the time she reached the front door, her palms were sweating. She smoothed them on the legs of her trousers, took a deep breath, told herself she had nothing at all to be afraid of, and opened the front door.
His face was so powerful to her now that her heart beat with sickening speed just at the sight of him, and it was difficult to keep her cool. She wanted to kiss him. Her eyes darted with secret passion to his mouth.
‘Hi,’ he drawled coldly. ‘May I come in?’
‘Of course.’ She stepped back, cold and expressionless.
Dominic walked inside, irresistibly sexy in black jeans and black V-necked sweater, the sleeves pushed up a touch to show tanned, hair-roughened forearms, the V-neck showing his powerful chest.
Natasha’s eyes raced over his body with hot, secret longing. She closed the front door behind him, pushed her hands into the pockets of her elegant trousers, and looked up at him through dark lashes, wondering if she was in as much danger from him as she thought she was.
‘Do you have the entry visa for me?’
He towered over her, eyes hard. ‘Yes. Are we to discuss everything here in the hallway?’
‘No, please follow me.’ She led him to the dining-room along the hall, preferring to be alone with him under formal conditions. ‘May I offer you some tea or coffee?’
‘I’d rather have a shot of whisky,’ he drawled, tossing the file in his hand on to the mahogany table.
Natasha’s lashes flickered. ‘I’ll have to ask Dolly.’
‘Dolly?’ His hard mouth twisted in a sardonic smile.
‘My flatmate. If you’d like to wait here, I’ll——’
‘Can’t I meet Dolly?’ he drawled, following her out of the room. ‘I love dollies!’
Jealousy immediately struck at her vulnerable heart, and as she pushed it away she felt it come thundering back, because she suddenly realised how completely different from her Dolly was, and how much Dominic might prefer her vibrant, open warmth to Natasha’s hurt, damaged personality.
‘Of course,’ she heard her icy voice say, and walked elegantly ahead of him to the living-room, opening the door and saying tightly, ‘Dolly, Mr Thorne wanted to know if we had any whisky here?’
‘Whisky?’ Dolly turned from the bookshelf, blonde hair a lion’s mane around her pretty face. She was sexily dressed in black miniskirt and blue silk blouse. Pale pink lipstick shimmered on her luscious, smiling lips. ‘I think Bobby left a bottle here the other night.’
‘Your boyfriend?’ drawled Dominic Thorne, smiling at her with a glitter in his steel-blue eyes.
Natasha watched grimly, jealousy searing her blood.
‘Oh, hi!’ Dolly gave him a warm smile. ‘You must be Mr Thornec. I’ve heard tons about you. Come on in.’
‘Thank you.’ Dominic shot Natasha a mocking glance, as though he knew she was raging with silent jealousy, and extended a strong hand to Dolly. ‘It’s a real pleasure to meet you.’
‘And you.’ Dolly shook his hand, smiling openly. ‘Hey—are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a beer? Bobby left loads round here. He and the boys came round to watch the football.’
Dominic laughed, eyes moving admiringly over her figure. ‘You have a lot of boyfriends, then?’
‘They’re boys and they’re friends.’ Dolly laughed. ‘But that’s about it. So what’ll it be—whisky or beer?’
‘Whisky will be fine.’ He thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans, shot a sidelong glance at Natasha’s tight, angry face. ‘I’ve never met two such different women sharing a flat together. Does it work well?’
‘Oh, wonderfully well.’ Dolly unearthed a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label from under a pile of magazines.
‘But you’re so bright and bubbly,’ drawled Dominic, while Natasha stood there, hating him, ‘and Natasha is so cool and mysterious.’
‘You called me tempestuous the other day,’ Natasha snapped, eyes flashing passionate, jealous green. ‘Make up your mind!’
He looked at her, a sardonic smile on his mouth. ‘Temper, temper…’ he said softly, mockingly, and his smile deepened as he watched the hot, betraying colour rush up her face.
‘Here we are!’ Dolly handed him the bottle of Johnnie Walker and a glass. ‘Not much left, I’m afraid.’
‘Thanks.’ His eyes roved over her with admiration again. ‘Where do you work, Dolly, and who—?’
‘Dolly is going out shortly,’ Natasha cut in tightly, ‘and we mustn’t keep her. She has to be ready when her boyfriend arrives.’
‘She looks stunningly ready to me,’ drawled Dominic, eyes roving with even more blatant sexual admiration over her.
‘Would you please come back to the dining-room with me, Mr Thorne?’ Natasha snapped. ‘I believe we have a lot to discuss!’
Turning on her heel, she strode angrily along the hallway, hearing Dominic say an amused goodbye to Dolly before following her, catching up with her easily on those long, muscular legs of his.
As soon as he entered the dining-room, Natasha closed the door behind him and walked elegantly to the table, hating him for flirting with Dolly and tempting her to make such a fool of herself with her pathetic, absurd and completely unjustified jealousy.
‘You said my visa had arrived…?’ Her voice was icy.
‘Yes, it has.’ He moved to the table too and sat down opposite her, watching her from underneath those heavy, Slavic eyelids.
Natasha felt suddenly uncomfortable. The gleam in those steel-blue eyes sent her pulses racing and her stomach somersaulting. She needed to know what he was thinking.
Irritably, she said, ‘Why are you just staring at me like that?’
‘Because I’m intrigued by your behaviour,’ he said softly, arching black brows. ‘First you kiss me passionately, then you reject me with icy hostility—and then you seethe with jealousy when I flirt with your flatmate.’
Scarlet colour suffused her cheeks. ‘I can assure you I did not feel remotely jealous!’
‘Hmm.’ His smile was sardonic. He toyed briefly with the empty glass in front of him, studied the whisky bottle, but did not pour himself any. Then he looked back at her, and there was a glint of mockery in his blue eyes that made her temper flare.
‘I wasn’t jealous!’
‘Did I contradict you?’
‘No.’ Her mouth tightened. ‘But I noticed a look in your eyes that made me think you——’
‘And you notice a lot about me, don’t you?’
She fell silent, lashes flickering.
‘I mean,’ he drawled lazily, ‘for a woman who feels nothing for me and doesn’t want to get involved.’
At once she looked away, heart thudding fast, realising for the first time just how clever, how shrewd, how very perceptive this man was.
‘You’re a mass of contradictions, aren’t you?’ He was watching her with those steel-blue eyes. ‘That icy, polished façade hides a very tempestuous woman. So far, I’ve seen you show blazing fury, intense passion, seething jealousy—and I’ve even seen you burst into tears. Perhaps it’ss good that you don’t want to get involved with me. If you did, I——’
‘But I don’t want to get involved with you.’ Her strange, intense green eyes flashed up with glittering hostility at him. ‘I don’t want to get involved with anyone.’
‘Apparently not,’ he murmured, watching her intently. ‘Certainly, no man at the office managed to get anywhere with you. And you don’t have a boyfriend, do you? I know, because I had you checked out, remember, and there was no mention of any man in London.’
Natasha looked at the polished surface of the table, rigid with tension, hating him for being so damned clever, afraid of where he was leading with this line of thought.
‘You’ve lived in London for four years, haven’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said tightly.
‘And no man, in all that time?’ He clicked his tongue softly, shook his dark head, smiling like a Siberian tiger ready to pounce. ‘How do you cope with all that emotional energy? You must be like a pressure-cooker, getting ready to explode.’
She sat there silently hating him and saying nothing.
Dominic watched her, waiting for an answer.
The clock ticked softly on the mahogany mantelpiece.
‘But this is so exciting!’ Dominic said softly, eyes deadly. ‘I do love mysteries, and I feel sure you’re one of the biggest mysteries I’ve ever met. I simply must try to unravel you.’
Natasha shot him a look of ill-concealed hatred.
‘It must be something to do with your past,’ he murmured, eyes narrowing in thought. ‘But it can’t be here in London, or my agents would have found it. Therefore, it must be before you came to London. QED.’
‘Will you just go away and mind your own business?’ she said with sudden fierce dislike, because he was much too clever to be allowed to run amok through her past with those damned agents of his.
‘I was right, then,’ he said sardonically, smiling. ‘And it must be something to do with a man, or you wouldn’t now be so determined to avoid them at all costs.’
‘Will you just mind your own——?’
‘So what exactly happened to make you shy away from men? Obviously, there are a number of things that could have caused it. So let’s tick them off. After all, you know what Sherlock Holmes maintained: eliminate the impossible, and whatever you are left with, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. So let’s start with the possibility of some kind of sexual attack.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake!’
‘Well, I did consider sexual violence when I first met you, but not for very long because you’re the one who kissed me—and very passionately, too.’
Her eyes flared. ‘You know why I kissed you!’
‘Your motivation is not under the microscope, sweetie. Let’s just stick to the point.’
‘The point is that I want you to go!’
‘And the point is that somebody in the past—some man—inflicted some kind of damage on you which makes you avoid getting involved. It can’t have been sexual damage, because sex clearly isn’t the barrier.’
‘Will you stop this?’ she demanded fiercely, as fear rose in her.
‘No, it must be emotional, because that’s what you’re really afraid of, isn’t it? You’re afraid of getting emotionally involved with a man, any man, doesn’t matter——’
‘I asked you to stop!’
‘And if that’s the case, then it must be a man in your home town in Kent who——’
‘A man in Kent who hurt you so badly that——’
‘Shut up!’ Natasha shouted hoarsely and got to her feet with such sudden violence that her chair toppled backwards, crashing into a glass cabinet.
They both flinched as the glass exploded in hundreds of pieces on to the carpet. Then they stared at each other. Natasha was appalled by the dark intense understanding in his eyes, and suddenly saw herself as he must see her—nervous, edgy, frightened, strung out like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.
The door burst open.
‘What the hell was that?’ Dolly demanded. ‘I thought I——’ She stopped, staring at them both, eyes shocked—as well she might be, because only a Martian would not sense the frazzled air of powerful emotion blazing between Natasha and Dominic.
‘I knocked a chair over,’ Dominic said raggedly, and ran a hand through his tousled black hair. ‘I’ll pay for the damage, of course.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’ Dolly said. ‘A friend of mine will fix the glass for——’
‘I insist,’ Dominic bit out roughly.
Dolly stared for a second, then said, ‘I’m sorry to have disturbed you.’ She hesitated, staring at Natasha. ‘Are you all right?’
‘No, I’m not,’ Natasha replied at once, her voice shaking. ‘In fact, I think I’ll accept your earlier invitation and come to the party with you and Bobby, after all.’
Dominic’s dark head swung to stare furiously at her. ‘We still haven’t gone over the details of your trip to Russia or——’
‘I’ll look at the papers tomorrow,’ she said tightly. ‘Please just leave them there and go.’
His mouth tightened. He looked from her to Dolly, then back at her again, and his eyes were jet-black with rage because he knew what she was doing and felt powerless to stop her.
‘Fine,’ he said harshly, striding towards the door. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon to check that you know what you’re supposed to be doing.’
‘Sweet of you!’ she drawled thickly, hating him, and he threw her another black look before striding away down the hall.
The front door slammed behind him.
Dolly looked at her as they both heard his footsteps on the stairs. ‘What the hell was all that about?’
‘Nothing,’ Natasha said thickly, unable to confide in her, for some reason, even though Dolly knew all about Tony, and had never betrayed her confidence, not in all the time she had shared this flat with her. But somehow, the effect Dominic Thorne was having on her was so exceptional that Natasha was afraid to confide in anyone about it.
It’s too strong, she realised, horrified.
He’s already obliterating Tony from my mind, and the reasons are so numerous I couldn’t even list them.
Where Tony had been in his early forties, greying, balding and coldly uncommunicative, Dominic Thorne was thirty-seven, dramatically handsome, sexy, powerful, dynamic, intelligent, sensitive, cynical, gorgeous, rich…
As a man in his own right, Dominic wiped the floor with Tony. But as a man in relation to Natasha, he positively ground Tony out like an old cigar under his expensive, self-assured heel.
And as for her sexual feelings towards Tony—well, she had had none. It had all been platonic, more like play-acting than real love, more like teenage adoration for an unattainable man.
But Natasha knew her sexual feelings for Dominic Thorne were as hot and dangerously hungry as they could get, and if he ever did more than kiss her, she would lose her grip on safety forever.
I’ve only met him three times, and I’m already emotionally, mentally, sexually and spiritually involved with him. In a big way. More deeply than I ever have been before, and if I don’t nip it in the bud, right here and now, I’ll end up obsessively, passionately, irrevocably in love with him.
Danger reared like a hissing serpent. Natasha stepped back in fear from it. She mustn’t feel like that. Never, ever, ever…
THE party she attended with Dolly was wonderful fun, but after Dominic’s visit, Natasha wasn’t really in the mood for fun. In fact, she was unable to think of anything but Dominic.
Sitting on the doorstep of the party house at midnight, she stared into the warm, moonlit sky.
How could he have been so damned clever—and so unfeeling? Even if he had guessed the truth behind her isolated, loveless life, he didn’t have to hit her in the face with it, force her to admit to it. It could be argued that he’d just been feeling his way, watching her reactions to see whether he was on the right track or not, but she didn’t believe that. Certainly not when she forced herself to sit down and think about why he had done it.
Why? What could he possibly get out of it? Don’t tell yourself, she thought fiercely, that he wants to get emotionally involved with you, because that way disaster lies.
Oh, she could just see it now.
Her capacity for limitless passion, undying devotion and supreme love would rear its ugly head again, making her look a fool, be a fool, and cope with the humiliation of obsessive folly, all over again.
Well, I won’t go through it, she told herself determinedly. I’d rather die than let a man like Dominic Thorne talk me into getting emotionally involved, just because he finds it a challenge.
What other reason could he have, after all? He wasn’t in love with her. Nor would he ever be. He just found her an intriguing mystery, as he had so honestly said, and a mystery that he wanted to unravel.
Maybe it was even more basic than that, though, she thought angrily. Maybe it had something to do with that damned stupid reputation she had gained at Thorne Industries, and that would make the challenge for Dominic quite irresistible, and definitely sexually based—to be the man, the one man, who managed to get Natasha Came into bed.
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