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It didn't hurt as much as everyone said that it should.
His leg, fractured and mangled in a road accident, would, he had been told, mean six months of extensive rehabilitationand then perhaps he might walk with an aid.
Four months to the day since the accident that had almost taken his life, Aleksi Kolovsky waded through the glittering Caribbean ocean unaided. The doctor had suggested two fifteen-minute sessions a day.
It was his third hourly session, and it was not yet midday.
Whatever he was advised to do, he did more of it. Whatever the treatment, he headed straight for the cure.
After all, he had done this once beforeunder circumstances far worse than this.
He had been a child without doctors, without physios, without this stunning backdrop and the cool ocean that now soothed his aching muscles. He had rehabilitated his fractured body himselffirst in the confines of his room till the bruises had faded, and then, without grimacing, without wincing, he had walked and returned to schooling. Not even his twin, Iosef, had been aware of his struggles; Aleksi had privately continued his healing behind the closed walls of his mind. Iosefhis identical twin.
He smiled a wry smile. He had watched a show last night on the television. Well, he hadn't exactly watched it, it had been on in the background, and he had not paid it full attention. His attention had instead been on the skilled lips working on his tumescent length to raise it to its splendid glory. It had been a different attention, though. Normally he switched off, sex the balmnot any more. The television had been too loud as it spoke of telepathic bonds between twins, and the woman's sighs had been grating. Since the accident, chatter annoyed him, conversation irritated him, and last night her lips had not soothed him. He had hardened, but it had been just mechanical, an automated response that, despite her delight, had not pleased Aleksi. Though he'd yearned for relief, he had realised he wouldn't get it from her. However, there was a reputation to be upheld, so he'd shifted their position.
He'd heard her cries as he did the right thing, pleasuring her with his mouth, and then had feigned reluctance at the disturbance from his phone.
His phone buzzed regularly.
There had been no need to answer itexcept last night he had chosen to. Chosen to make excuses as to why she must leave, rather than give that piece of himself to her.
Was even the escape of sex to be denied him?
The sun beat on his shouldershis skin was brown, his body lean and toned, and he appeared a picture of health above the water. But the scars stung beneath as he stretched his limits and made himself run in the water.
Now it hurt.
It hurt like hell, but he pushed through it.
Could his brother in Australia feel this? Aleksi thought as he sliced the water and forced himself on. Was Iosef, working in an Emergency ward in Australia, suddenly sweating and gripped by pain as he went about his day?
Aleksi doubted it.
Oh, he had no animosity towards Iosefhe admired that he had broken away from the company and gone on to study medicine. Still they chatted, and met regularly. Aleksi liked him, in fact. But there was no telepathic bond, no sharing of minds, no sixth sense
Where had the twin bond been when his father had beaten him to a pulp when he was only seven years old?
Where had the sixth sense been when a week later his brother had been allowed in to see him?
'Some fall ' Iosef had said, in Russian of coursebecause even in Australia the Kolovskys had spoken in Russian.
'Dad is getting you a new bike.' Iosef had come to sit on the bed, laughing and chatting, but as the mattress had indented a white bolt of pain had shot through Aleksi and he had gone to cry out. Then he had seen the warning in his mother's eyes.
'Good,' he had said instead.
There was no special bond Aleksi realised.
You did not ache, you did not bleed just because your brother did.
He ran faster.
Riminic, Riminic, Riminic. Even the gulls taunted him with the name. A brother whose existence he had denied. A brother he had chosen to forget.
There was no end to his shame, and his leg wouldn't let him outrun it.
Sprint over, he was spent, and glad to be exhausted. Maybe now he could get some rest.
The nurse had his pills waiting when he returned to the lavish chalet, but he refused them. He drank instead a cocktail of vitamins and fresh juice and headed for his bedroom.
'I'm going to rest.'
'Would you like me to come in?' She smiled. 'To check on you?'
He growled out a refusal of her kind offercould he not just recover? Could he not have some peace?
He lay on the silk sheets, the fan cooling his warm skin, yet his blood felt frozen.
The pain did not scare himit was the damage to his mind. He had passed every test, had convinced the doctors that he was finecould at times almost convince himself that he wasbut there was a blur of memories, conversations that he could not recall, images that he could not summon, knowledge that lay buried.
The phone buzzed.
He went to turn it off.
Tired, he needed to rest.
And then he saw her name.
Aleksi hesitated before answering. Kate was one of the reasons he was in the West Indies recoveringhe had grown accustomed to her by his bedside, looked forward rather too much to her visits in the hospital and started to rely on her just a little too heavily. And Aleksi had long since chosen to rely on no-one.
'What?' His voice was curt.
'You said to tell you if.'
Her voice came to him over the phone from halfway around the world. He could hear that she was nervous and he didn't blame her. Nina would go berserk if she found out that Kate was calling. Aleksi was not to be disturbed with mundane work mattersexcept Aleksi had told Kate that he wanted to be disturbed.
'Tell me what, Kate?' Aleksi said. He could picture her round, kind face, and was quite sure that she was blushing. Kate blushed a lotshe was a large girl, surrounded by whip-thin models. The House of Kolovsky was a bitchy place to work at the best of times, and at the worst of times it was a snake pitright now it was the worst of times. 'Remember, no matter what my mother says, your loyalty is to meyou are my PA.'
She had been his PA for over a year now. He had cajoled her into taking the position when yet another PA of his had been so stupid as to confuse sex with love. Safe in the knowledge that he would never cross the line with an overweight single mum, he had contacted her. Georgie was now nearly five years old and at school, and Kate was even bigger than beforeno, there was absolutely no question of his fancying her.
'Your brother Levander ' Kate stammered. 'You know he and Millie were looking to adopt an orphan.?'
'They went to Russia last week; they met himtheir new son.'
Aleksi closed his eyes; he had feared this day would come sooner than was convenient. Levander had run the House of Kolovsky head branch in Australia. He had been sensible, and on their father's death a couple of years ago he had got out. Now he worked in London, taking over Aleksi's old role, while Aleksi had taken over the running of Kolovskyeffectively a swap.
Levander had only returned to Australia while Aleksi recuperated.
'I've heard Nina talking; she is going to run it '
'House of Kolovsky.' Kate gulped. 'She has these ideas.'
'Levander would never' Aleksi started, but then again Levander now would. Since he had met Millie, since they had had Sashar, his priorities had shifted. Money had never been Levander's god. Raised in Detsky Dom, an orphanage in Russia, he had no real allegiance to the KolovskysNina wasn't his mother, and with Ivan dead Aleksi knew that Levander's priorities were with his own family nowhis new family, one that wanted to save a child from the hell Levander had endured.
'She has told Levander not to tell you,' Kate explained. 'That no one is to disturb you with thisthat you need this time to heal.'
'The board will not pass it.'
'Nina has new plans, ideas that will generate a lot of money.'
She had stopped stammering now. Despite her shyness at times, Kate was an articulate, intelligent woman, which was why he had bent over backwards to get her on staff. She was different from all the others. Her only interest at work was workwhich she did very capably, so she could earn the money to single-handedly raise her daughter.
'She will convince the board, and she has ideas that they like.'
'Ideas?' Aleksi snorted.
'She makes them sound attractive,' Kate said. 'I sat in on a meeting last week. She put forward a proposal from Zakahr Belenki '
Despite the warmth of the room Aleksi felt his blood chill. 'What sort of proposal?'
'One that will benefit both Kolovsky and Belenki's charity,' Kate said. 'They are talking of a new rangebridal dresses in the Krasavitsa outlets with a percentage of profit.'
Aleksi didn't hear much more. He was aware of his racing heart, as if he were pounding his battered body through the ocean this very minute, except he was lying perfectly still on the bed. The Krasavitsa offshoot of the Kolovsky business was his babyhis idea, his domain. But it wasn't just that Nina was considering tampering with his baby that had Aleksi's heart hammering like this.
What was the problem with Belenki?
His mind, though Aleksi had denied it both to his family and to the doctors, was damaged.
Thoughts, images, and memories were a mere stretch from his grasp. He could remember the charity ball just before his accidentBelenki had flown in from Europe and had been the guest speaker, that much he remembered. And he remembered the fear he had felt at the time too. Iosef had had harsh words with himfor his poor behaviour at the ball, for talking through the speeches, which, yes, he had. Zakahr Belenki had been talking about his life in Detsky Dom, how he had chosen to live instead on the streets, about what he had done to survive there.
It had been easier to have another drink that night than to hear Zakahr's message. Levander had never really spoken of his years there, and part of Aleksi didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to hear how his half-brother had suffered so.
'Has Belenki been back to Australia?'
'No,' Kate said. 'But he has been talking daily with Nina. They are coming up with new ideas all the time.'
Why, Aleksi begged himself, did that name strike fear inside him?
He tried to pull up the man's imageyet, like so much else in his mind, it was a blur as if it had been pixilated like the many other shadowy areas in his mind that he must allow no one else to know about.
'Nina will run the House of Kolovsky into the groundshe cannot run it,' he declared.
'Who else is there?'
'Me,' Aleksi ground out. 'I will be back at my desk on Monday.'
'Aleksi!' Kate's voice was exasperated. 'I didn't ring for that; I just rang because you made me promise to keep you informed. It's way too soon for you to return. Look.'
She lowered her voice and he could just picture her leaning forward, picture her finger toying with a curl of her hair as she tried to come up with a solution, and despite the direness of the situation the image made him smile. The sound of her voice soothed him, and it moved him too, in the way it sometimes didnever more so than now.
'I can ring you every day '
He stared down at the sudden, unexpected passionate reaction of his body and did not answer.
'Can you hear me, Aleksi?'
'I can ring you all the time tell you things and then you can tell me what to do.'
He wanted to close his eyes. He wanted her to tell him things. Hell, how he wanted at this moment to tell her exactly what to do. He didn't want to think about the House of Kolovsky and his family, didn't want to face what he was trying to forget. How much nicer would it be to just lie here and let her tell him things that he wanted to hear?
'Kate ' His voice was ragged. He wanted her on a plane this minutehe wanted her here, wanted her nowbut instead he forced himself to sit upright, to ignore the fire in his groin and concentrate on what was necessary. 'I'll be back on Monday. Don't tell anyone, don't act any different. Just go along with whatever Nina says.'
It wasn't her place to argue, and she didn't. 'Fine,' she said. 'Do you want me to organize?' 'I'll sort everything out from this end,' Aleksi interrupted. 'Kate ?'
'Nothing.' He clicked off the phone and tried to keep his mind on necessary business. Turned on his laptop and raced through figures. He knew only too well that the House of Kolovsky was on a collision course and that he was the only one who could stop it.
He just couldn't quite remember why.
And for the first time in ages he didn't try to. The figures he was analysing blurred in front of his eyes, so instead he clicked on company photographsa who's who of the House of Kolovsky.
Ivan, his deceased father; Nina, his mother; Levander, his half-brother, whom his parents had conveniently forgotten about and left in an orphanage in Russia when they fled to Australia; Iosef, his twin, and his sister Annika. Then Aleksi clicked on his own image, saw his scowling, haughty face before hurriedly moving on.
Finally, for the first time in weeks he allowed himself the respite of her face. Kate Taylor.
Smiling, her face round and shiny, dark hair curling under the heat of the photographer's lights, nervous at having her photo takenthough it was just a head-and-shoulders cor porate shot.
He must be losing his mind.
Imagine that bulk on his healing thigh, he told himself, trying to calm his excited body. He tried in vain to reel in his imaginationexcept he just grew harder at the thought of Kate on top of him.
He had the most beautiful women on tapwarm, eager flesh on the other side of his bedroom dooryet all he could think of was that in a week he would again see Kate.
'Aleksi?' The nurse knocked, her voice low, the door opening just a fraction. 'Is there anything at all you need?'
'Not to be disturbed,' he growled, and as the door reluctantly closed he turned off the computer and lay in the darkness, willing sleep to invade. Then he gave in.
Once, he decided.
Just this once he would allow himself to go thereto think about Kate and imagine himself with her. Or rather, Aleksi corrected as his hand slid around his heated length, just one last time.
Just one time more.