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The opulent cloakroom was adorned with stylish contemporary fittings and fresh flower arrangements and was as large as many reception rooms. At a vanity unit that was more private than any of the others on offer, the bride was touching up her smudged eye makeup with a careful hand, while scolding herself for getting so weepy and overcome at the altar. However, her green eyes also shone with happiness. She jumped when the door from the hall noisily opened to feed in a burst of animated chattering females.
' Calisto threw tantrums, so clearly Alexei decided that life would be easier with a doormat,' a very correct English voice pronounced with a giggle. 'He will get bored so fast'
'And she's just a worker from his office Who ever would have believed that a Drakos would even have looked at her?' someone else observed acidly.
'And so plainpositively dumpy!' the first speaker added with vitriol. 'As for that dress. No train and all that fussy dated embroidery. Obviously Alexei is on the rebound'
Gritting her teeth together and keeping herself out of view, Billie was literally trying to mentally seal her ears and stop listening to the bitchy comments. She reflected in disbelief on the exquisite hand-embroidered heirloom dress that she had fallen madly in love with, feeling affronted and hurt by that criticism of her gown. She could have put a face to every voice though. All three women featured on Alexei's impossibly long list of former lovers, each of whom had gone on to marry or move in with one of his wealthy friends or business colleagues and thus contrived to stay within his social circle.
'Calisto must have really screwed upa billionaire on the rebound. If I'd known that miracle was on the horizon, I'd have gone for a divorce and made myself available!' the Englishwoman confided in a petulant tone that implied her outrageous suggestion was far from being a joke.
'But Calisto was a one-off,' her companion returned crushingly. 'She's the only one of Alexei's exes that he's ever revisited.'
'What's that worth now when he's just married right out of his class and culture? I give this mismatched union three months, four if she plays her cards right and ignores it when he strays,' the Englishwoman forecast. 'Then Alexei will ditch his homely little bride so hard and fast her head will spin!'
That was the exact moment when a glint of defiant green flared in Billie's eyes. Pride would not allow her to skulk out of sight somewhere in the splendid villa that was now her home. As she moved into view three female faces froze in a rictus of almost comical discomfiture. Sidestepping their stilled figures, her bright auburn head held high, Billie left the cloakroom.
Hilary, her aunt, was walking in circles in the hall while she rocked the sobbing baby in her arms. Her eyes settled on Billie in some relief. 'I've been looking everywhere for you. Nicky just won't settle for me. I think he's getting another tooth'
'Let me take him.' Billie sped over immediately to grasp the little but solid, squirming body of her baby son. Her secret son, she reminded herself guiltily, gazing down worriedly into his cross little face. She adored him, wanted to show him off, not behave as though he were Hilary's child and her infant cousin. But that masquerade had been forced on her when she chose to bring Nicky and her aunt back with her to the island of Speros, for she had yet to tell the man she had just married that morning that she had conceived a child by him on the night following his parents' funeral. Unhappily, Alexei, having suffered a fall and a blow to the head shortly afterwards, had no memory of their brief intimacy. Their son's face was flushed below his spiky shock of silky black hair. She hugged him close in spite of her aunt's exhortations for her to be careful of her wedding gown. The scent and feel of the baby in her arms was a comfort to her frayed nerves and the charm seemed to work both ways because Nicky started to simmer down and indeed began to snuggle into his mother's soothing embrace.
A tall, devastatingly handsome, black-haired, olive-skinned male strode across the echoing hall towards Billie and Hilary. Instantly, all Billie's senses went on red alert and she sucked in a ragged breath to steady herself. She collided with Alexei's dark-lashed exotic bronzed eyes and her surroundings became immediately invisible: his effect on her was that shocking and intense. Her mouth ran dry because she could still barely credit that she was now his wife. That was a dream so long held and suppressed by her that even on her wedding day it could only seem to her to consist more of fantasy than fact. Alexei, blithely ignoring the greetings of those who would have sought to deflect him from his bride, drew level with her.
For a split second he seemed to stare at the sight of Billie cradling a child in her arms and his attention lingered on the striking contrast of the baby's tawny complexion and black hair against Billie's white dress, auburn hair and naturally pale skin. It struck him as surprising that the kid bore not the slightest resemblance to any one of his female relatives. A slight frown line forming between his sleek ebony brows, he dismissed that fleeting thought and snapped an imperious set of long fingers to bring a manservant running, at which point he addressed him in a low-pitched aside.
'You keep on disappearing like mist, khriso mou.' He inclined his handsome dark head in approval as one of the team of nannies hired to take care of the guests' children joined them and put out her arms to take Nicky.
'Oh, no I'll take care of him,' Hilary said straight away.
'Nonsense. That is why the nannies are here, so that our guests can relax and enjoy our day with us,' Alexei pointed out lazily.
Billie passed over Nicky with pronounced reluctance. He began to complain but the nanny swept off again at speed and her son's muted cries of protest soon disappeared into the distance. Her cheeks pink, Billie gave Alexei a glance that spoke of reproach. With the cool intolerance of an autocrat, he had banished Nicky from their wedding celebration for the simple sin of crying. She folded her empty arms, shaken by how protective she felt of her child and of how much she longed for the nerve to chase after the nanny and retrieve him. Alexei had to be told the truth about Nicky's origins soon he had to be!
'You shouldn't have interfered,' Billie remarked as her aunt drifted off at a signal from her sisterBillie's mother, Lauren.
'As a good hostess you should have taken care of the problem for your aunt,' Alexei admonished smoothly. 'Hilary can't even dance with a baby in tow. I should imagine she'll be glad of a break from the incessant demands of so young a child.'
At that rebuke, the colour drained from Billie's face, leaving her pale while her soft brown curling lashes screened her discomfited gaze. She was shaken by the awareness that Alexei had spoken the truth and that it was a truth that she had ignored in her eagerness to keep her son within reach. Nicky should have been passed over to the nanny team earlier in the day along with all the other young children, leaving her aunt free to take full relaxed advantage of a rare day out. More and more she was appreciating just how complex and challenging her deception had become. She was no longer being fair to Hilary. Although Hilary had agreed to look after her great-nephew and behave as though he were her son, neither woman had foreseen just how onerous and complicated that responsibility might become.
From the doorway, Billie regretted their combined naivety about Nicky while she watched as the captain of Alexei's yacht, Stuart McGregor, boldly swapped place cards at the top table to ensure that he got a seat beside her attractive blonde aunt. The older man had been keenly pursuing their acquaintance from the first day that he had met Hilary. He had already visited Billie's house on several occasions, calling in on the pretext of books he wanted to loan her aunt and then inviting her out to lunch or for a walk. Although Stuart had yet to suggest that he was seeking anything more than platonic companionship from Hilary, the recent widow seemed to like Stuart and might well already be wishing that she could come clean and admit that Nicky was not actually her child. Billie realised that the pretence that Nicky was Hilary's son had put her aunt in a very awkward position. For the first time it occurred to Billie that a lot of people other than Alexei would condemn both women when the truth finally came out. After all, nobody liked to be lied to and deceived.
'You're very fond of Hilary's baby, aren't you?'
'Of course, I am,' Billie responded, almost wincing at the unnecessarily defensive note in her reply.
Alexei laughed softly. 'And the compliment is returned. The child was clinging to you with both hands like a little limpet.'
'The child's name is Nicky,' she told her bridegroom.
'Whatever.' Alexei had already lost interest in the topic and without further comment he curved an arm round his bride's slender body to direct her back into the airy room where their guests were already taking their seats for the meal.
The world-famous and very beautiful singer whom Alexei had engaged to entertain them while they ate rested her huge sultry brown eyes on the bridegroom and aimed every lovelorn passionate note she sang in his direction. Steadily growing as rigid as a concrete post in her seat, Billie watched the byplay and registered that something much more important than good business was prompting the entertainer's behaviour. Evidently there was, or had been at one time, a much more intimate link between her husband and the artiste, the existence of which Billie had never suspected.
Before she could even think of what she should or should not say on that score, Billie found herself leaning closer to her new husband and saying in an acid undertone new to her repertoire, 'You've slept with her, haven't you?'
Alexei quirked a satiric brow. 'I won't dignify that question with an answer.'
'Well, it's pretty obvious to everybody here,' Billie declared, refusing to heed the voice of caution chiming to be heard inside her head. 'I'd have to be stupid not to see the way she's looking at you.'
'I don't see a problem'
'Well, I expect you wouldn't,' Billie agreed, thinking bitterly that he was too accustomed to receiving languishing looks and flirtatious smiles from women to appreciate that his bride might find such displays particularly offensive on her wedding day. Just for once she would have enjoyed the absence of that kind of blatant behaviour in his radius. Just for once she wanted to take pole position and shine more than any other woman around him. As the juvenile quality of her wishes pierced her, she almost laughed. Since when had she wanted to show off? And just when had she forgotten that she owed the ring on her wedding finger to qualities that Alexei deemed superior to mere sexual attraction? It was a sobering acknowledgement.
'I don't expect you to fuss about such trivialities,' Alexei told her drily.
Billie bridled, as she very much disliked the suggestion that she had no right or excuse to experience feelings of resentment and disapproval when other women went out on a limb to give an unashamed sexual come-on to her new husband. Feverish colour highlighted her cheekbones and enhanced the bright emerald sparkle of her eyes. 'If it was an ex-lover of mine parading the fact in front of you, how would you feel?'
'I'd knock his teeth down his throat,' Alexei conceded with a softness that was all the more chilling for its assured cool and conviction. 'But then I'm the only lover you'll ever have, so, in our case, that situation will never arise. You're exclusively mine, khriso mou. I like and appreciate that.'
That macho response sent Billie's teeth flying together with a snap and she bit back a stinging response. It infuriated her that he was right, that he would never know the slightest discomfort on her behalf in another man's radius. She had no past, no sexual history to challenge his indefensibly sexist and hypocritical attitude, but then she was holding back on enough secrets to sink the Titanic, she reflected with a belated shiver of foreboding. It worried her even more that he was so confident that she was a virgin. It was a little too late to disabuse him of that notion now. She had allowed too many comments in that line to flow past her unchallenged. But after that night following the funeral when he had swept her off to bed with him, she was no longer intact. Would he be able to tell the difference? She very much hoped not.
She had already decided to wait until the next day before making a clean breast of events with regard to that night. She was praying that they could enjoy their wedding day and hopefully their wedding night as well without the daunting necessity of a confessional session that would shatter all harmony between them. Even one night of intimacy would surely make Alexei a little more understanding and approachable? After all, nobody would be less tolerant than Alexei when he suddenly discovered that he was not in possession of all the information there was to know about her, or indeed that she had gone out of her way to conceal certain facts about herself. Her troubled eyes resting on his hard classic profile and the fundamental strength and obduracy that were etched there, Billie struggled to stay calm despite the daunting challenges that lay ahead of her. With an idle thumb she massaged the new ring on her wedding finger as if it were a talisman that would protect her.
'The only problem I can see right now is your mother,' Alexei delivered in a stern undertone. 'She's getting out of control.'
Billie's startled gaze followed his across the room to where Lauren had risen from her seat to begin dancing with a man, even though the rest of the guests were still sitting. Her mother cannoned clumsily into another table and then a chair while continuing to laugh and talk very loudly, all her attention predictably pinned to her male partner. Lauren, who had obviously imbibed a fair amount of alcohol, was impervious to the dirty looks she was attracting as those around her tried to concentrate on listening to the world-class performance the singer was putting on.