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'You look amazing,' Sally, the beautician, chattered as she fanned out Abbey's unruly mane of flame-coloured curls over her slim shoulders. 'You're going to be the star tonight.'
Abbey seriously doubted that forecast and reckoned that only a woman confident of her face and body would actually want to take part in a fashion show. She was only there by default, stepping in last minute for the amateur model who had twisted her knee in a fall during the dress rehearsal. Abbey had never liked either her face or her body. When she was a child the mirror had been her enemy, destroying her every dream of being a fairy princess in disguise.
One of her earliest memories had been of hearing her father complain that she was an ugly duckling. Sadly for her, however, the swan phase had failed to transpire, Abbey reflected wryly. Her hair had stayed defiantly red, her freckles had increased and her elongated gawky legs had continued to ensure that she towered over most people at a comfortable five feet nine inches in her bare feet. In her opinion, her unfashionably large breasts and hips only increased her oddness. Only once in her life had Abbey considered herself blessed by any claim to attraction. That had been the miraculous day when Jeffrey Carmichael had asked her out. During the months that had run up to their wedding day the world had truly seemed to be a joyous place sprinkled with stardust and happiness. But even Jeffrey had once suggested that she might look better as a blonde.
'Caroline is incredible,' Sally commented as a fair-haired woman in a wheelchair sped busily past. 'I really do admire her. To have lost so much and still be so keen to help others.'
'That's Caroline allover,'Abbey agreed as she admired her brother's wife equally. Caroline might have lost the power of her legs six years earlier, but she still cared for her husband and two children, met the demands of a full-time job and made room for fund-raising activities to support Futures, the spinal injuries charity that had helped her in her hour of need. The fashion show that Abbey had helped to organise was being held in aid of Futures.
'Someone told me that she got hurt in a car crash on her brother's wedding day '
'Yes,' Abbey confirmed, her freckles standing out against her sudden pallor. A drunk driver.'
'I'm sure I read about it in the newspaper at the time.'
'There was a lot of press coverage.' Abbey did not want to think back to what had happened to the wedding party that dark, wet October day. One moment she'd had everything to live for, the next nothing, but she knew how lucky she was to have emerged virtually unscathed from the wreckage. Her brother's life had been torn apart and, although the pessimistic had forecast otherwise, his marriage had survived the cruel blow that Caroline had suffered.
'Love the make-up, Sally,' Caroline remarked, wheeling to a halt beside them. 'You've done Abbey proud.'
'It wasn't difficult. She's got great bones and eyes.'
'You look wonderful,' Caroline told her sister-in-law warmly.
Abbey studied her reflection. She thought she looked outrageous with her violet-coloured eyes smothered in exotic plum shades and glitter and diamante shimmering in an artistic arc across her cheekbones, but she supposed that the spectacular heavy make-up was all part and parcel of the illusion of glamour. 'Is Drew here yet?' she enquired.
Caroline's face shadowed. 'No. He was still at the office when I called.'
Abbey felt Caroline's disappointment and wondered what her brother was playing at. Nobody had worked harder than Caroline to get this show on the road and she deserved for her husband to take respectful notice of her achievement. But, then, the family concierge business, Support Systems, had recently moved to upmarket premises in Knightsbridge and hired more staff, substantially increasing overheads. As a result, all of them were working longer hours and dealing with more clients. Abbey adored the busyness and variety of her job. Customers hired them to take care of everything they could not find the time to do for themselves wide-ranging tasks that ran from walking the dog and picking up dry cleaning to booking holidays, shopping for presents and finding domestic staff and repairmen.
It was all a far cry from the life her snobbish sexist father would have chosen for her. He had refused to allow her to go to university or to train for a profession. Abbey remained painfully aware that, next to her brother, she had been a nobody in her father's eyes. The older man had often treated his only daughter as an irritation and a disappointment. In fact only on the day Abbey married Jeffrey had her father looked at her with approval and pride as if marriage to a successful man was her biggest achievement.
'You look like the Queen in Snow White,' her niece, Alice, whispered, big eyes fixed in fascination to her aunt's face.
'The baddie who thought she was gorgeous and cracked the magic mirror she was always talking to?' Abbey groaned.
'She may have been bad but she was really beautiful,' Alice lisped.
'Watch your face,' Sally warned when Abbey bent down to hug the six-year-old with easy affection. Across the room, Alice's twin brother, Benjamin, was as usual fully engrossed in a book. Abbey was very close to her brother's children. After the car accident she had moved in with the family to help out while Caroline was undergoing an intensive physiotherapy programme. She had soon discovered that the children's needs and her own unrelenting grief had been best met by keeping busy for as many hours of the day as possible.
Nerves were making Abbey as tense as an overstretched piece of elastic. Sally removed the protective cape she wore and Abbey got up to go and peer out at the audience from behind the curtains that shielded the catwalk from the dressing area. 'I don't know why I agreed to do this,' she muttered.
'Because it's for a good cause,' Caroline piped up cheerfully at her elbow. And all our lucky stars came out tonight. Guess who's out here?'
'One of the A-list celebrities you invited?' Abbey guessed.
'Nikolai Danilovich Arlov.'
'For goodness' sake, Abbey. You've got to know who he is! Only a Russian billionaire'
'The one whose vigorous sex life is always giving the tabloids headlines and centre spreads?'As Caroline gave a reluctant nod of confirmation Abbey grimaced. 'The guy's only one step removed from a barnyard animal. He's sleaze personified.'
'His donation will still be welcome. Don't be so judgemental, Abbey,' her brother's wife scolded. 'Rich single men always have loads of girlfriends'
'He always picks sluts willing to spill all their bedroom secrets in print for a hefty payment. It tells you all you need to know about him'
'That the poor guy is a target for the greediest and most unscrupulous gold-diggers in town?'
Are you talking about Nikolai Arlov?' Sally chimed in. 'He's been on his mobile phone ever since he arrived. He is absolutely gorgeous. If I got the chance to sleep with him I'd want to kiss and tell as well!'
Caroline giggled. 'Are you serious?'
'I'd be proud to tell the world that I had caught his eye,' the beautician insisted. And according to what I've read about his generosity, it would be well worth my while to be one of his harem.'
'Men like that are just users,' Abbey opined in disgust.
'What would you know about men like that?' her sister-in-law queried drily. 'When were you last out on a date?'
'You know when,' Abbey reminded her.
'Was it the guy who spent the whole evening talking about his ex-wife and confiding that he still loved her?' Caroline groaned.
'He had tears in his eyes when he told me,' Abbey completed and peered out at the audience. 'Where is the billionaire seated?'
'You can't miss him. He's right at the end of the runway with a sizeable entouragethree beauties ministering to his every need and two massive minders hovering over him.' Sally shared that extraneous information with enthusiasm.
'The paparazzi are waiting outside for him. Just having Nikolai Arlov in the building is a major coup,' Caroline declared with satisfaction. 'Thanks to him, Futures will get valuable free publicity.'
'At least he's useful for something other than selling tacky tabloids,' Abbey declared as the avant-garde designer of the fashion collection moved to the podium and the music switched to the intro and the opening speech. She peered down the runway but it was no good: her long-distance eyesight wasn't good enough. All she could see was a big dark man with two dazzling young women hanging over him like attentive waitresses. The first model sashayed down the runway to a chorus of appreciative applause. Pale at the prospect of her approaching debut, Abbey moved out of the way of the models lining up to await their turn.
Many models had featured in Nikolai's bed, but that did not mean he had garnered any interest in fashion. Business calls were a welcome release from boredom while he waited for the show to begin. But the very leggy redhead who appeared half an hour into the show was so sensationally beautiful that Nikolai actually forgot what he was talking about on the phone. He didn't know what it was about her, but he took one look and he wanted her with an immediacy and an urgency he hadn't experienced in years. Her mesmerising smoky eyes reflected the dense purple-blue of the amethyst pendant someone had cleverly fixed round her throat. Her bone structure was striking, unforgettable. She was all woman from her head of fabulous Titian curls to the swell of her voluptuous breasts and generous hips. A shimmering dark blue evening gown showcased her luscious curves and lent her the theatrical allure of a thirties movie star.
'I want to meet her after the show,' he told Sveta without hesitation. 'Find out who she is.'
Abbey simply thought Nikolai was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He had stunning eyes, cheekbones sharp enough to cut diamonds and a gorgeous wide, shapely mouth. Whatever, one glance and she felt utterly overwhelmed by that amazing combination of purely superficial attributes, her heart thumping inside her like a road drill and her mouth as dry as a bone. She was shocked rigid by her response, for she had always believed she was more cerebral than physical. She didn't know what drew her to him beyond the obvious. It was as though his precise arrangement of features executed some sort of spellbinding effect on her and her wits took a hike, for when she looked once at his bold bronzed features she found she had to look again and again and again and at length to satisfy her indecent craving to see him.
Sveta murmured, 'She's married. She's wearing a ring.'
Nikolai never slept with other men's wives. It was one of the very few embargos he respected: he gave married women a very wide berth. 'Check it out,' he urged, unwilling to credit that she might be out of reach, as it was rare for anything to be unconquerable for Nikolai; there were always ways and means of acquiring what he wanted. And his senses were already humming at the prospect of entertaining the redhead in his bed that night, unveiling those magnificent breasts and endless long legs for his private enjoyment. He remembered the way her glittering gaze had lingered on him and had no doubt that his interest was returned. If she was a wife she was an unfaithful one.
One of the dressers began to strip the evening gown from Abbey and assist her at speed into her next outfit. Another removed her jewellery. Her skin felt clammy and she felt dizzy. What had happened to her out there? Men didn't have that big an effect on Abbey. Her nature was cool rather than passionate. Jeffrey was the only man she had ever wanted and she had fallen for him in her teens, moving from an explosive adolescent infatuation to deep joyous love with continued exposure to his company. There had never been anyone else for her and only loneliness and the fear that she might be acting a little obsessively had persuaded her, with Caroline's encouragement, to try dating other men over the past year. All those dates had been non-starters, for none of those men had had an ounce of Jeffrey's intelligence or natural charm.
Caroline joined her sister-in-law while the younger woman's make-up was being touched up. 'Nikolai Arlov has asked for your phone number!' she announced.
'He can't have it,' Abbey replied without hesitation as her arms were guided into a shirt and her legs into wide-legged trousers. A fashionable tan raincoat was fed into place over both garments and the belt cinched to accentuate her narrow waist. What did she have to say to a Russian billionaire with a notorious reputation with her sex? Absolutely nothing.
'But you will at least speak to him?' Caroline pressed anxiously. 'We can't afford to offend the guy. Think of Futures' funds, Abbey.'
Abbey could not help resenting that piece of advice, for she could see no reason why she should be forced to speak to a man she didn't want to speak to. And then all of a sudden she remembered how she had looked at him minutes earlier and felt guiltily that her behaviour might well have prompted him to make an approach.
'Okay. Drew here yet?'
'Not yet,' the blond woman responded ruefully.
'He's obsessed with work right now,' Abbey proffered as an excuse.
As long as that's all that's keeping him out late so many nights,' Caroline quipped, startling Abbey.
'For goodness' sake, Drew adores you!'Abbey countered.
'He's been rather evasive and quiet on the adoration front recently. But, no, I don't think there's another woman,' Caroline confirmed, meeting Abbey's anxious gaze in the mirror. 'I don't think he's got the time or the energy to neglect two of us!'
Abbey relaxed again, but she hadn't missed the thread of annoyance and worry in her sister-in-law's voice and she resolved to have a word with her brother for his thoughtlessness. What on earth was Drew playing at? Did he really work this late often? Didn't he appreciate that Caroline needed his support and company at home? Abbey refused to work after eight in the evening unless there was a crisis; she usually went into the office very early in the morning and it was impossible to burn the candle at both ends and stay healthy. At night she liked to go home via the gym where she exercised, and then cook a light supper and chill out before bedtime.
'A billionaire wants to ask you out and you're not even shaking!' Sally censured. Aren't you excited?'
'Why would I be? He's extremely handsome, but what would we have in common?' Abbey asked.
'I want you to go out with him just so that you can tell me what it was like,' the beautician confided. 'Are you going to speak to him after the show?'