Read an Excerpt
Why had she lied?
Alina Ritchie let out a long nervous breath as her taxi neared an incredibly sumptuous hotel.
Pulling her mirror out of her bag for perhaps the fifth time since the taxi had collected her from the apartment she shared with Cathy, she checked her appearance and wished again that, if she had one, her deeply buried sophisticated gene might today make itself known.
So far it hadn't.
Alina had put her toes through her one pair of stockings but thankfully they hadn't laddered and she had simply tucked the hole under her feet. Her carefully applied make-up had all but disappeared and even the short walk to the taxi had seen her pinned, long, dark hair start to coil and frizz in the humid, late-summer air. Alina set to work, taking the shine off her face with a brush and hopefully smoothing her hair with her embarrassingly damp palms.
Today had to go well, Alina told herself.
Even if she had only got this opportunity by default, it was the break that she had been waiting so long for.
Determined to forge a safe career and with her mother's somewhat bitter but terribly sage advice burning in her ears, Alina had put aside her interest in art and opted instead to study for a business degree. 'Ask yourself how many struggling artists there are, Alina,' her mother had said when, at the final hurdle of her application, Alina had wavered. All she had wanted to do was paint but her repertoire, as her mother had all too often pointed out, wasn't particularly vast.
Alina painted flowers.
Lots of them!
On canvas, silk, paper, and in their absence she painted them in her mind.
'You need a decent job,' Amanda Ritchie had warned. 'Every woman should have her own wage. I can't support you, Alina, and I hope I've brought you up to never rely on a man.'
Her mother's disenchantment, the fact Amanda was losing her small working flower farm had sealed Alina's fate-she'd opted for the corporate world but there were more than a few struggling PAs as well, and Alina was one of them. Work had been very thin on the ground and Alina's rather introverted, at times dreamy nature didn't fit in too well in the busy corporate world.
Alina's main source of income came from a restaurant where she waited tables four, sometimes five nights a week. Just before leaving for work last night she had taken a frantic call from a very exclusive agency that Alina had signed on with a few months ago. They rarely called her-Alina, with her rather round shape, didn't quite fit into their rigid square holes
Until they were desperate!
Alina had blinked in surprise when she'd heard what they had in mind for her. A city hotel had called with an urgent request that a temporary PA position be filled for a very esteemed guest. None of the agency's preferred staff were available at such short notice, especially as the time frame was vague-a couple of weeks perhaps, possibly a month. Not wanting to pass such a plum opportunity to another agency, they had called Alina.
'Your résumé says that you have had some dealings in real estate?' Elizabeth, who had first interviewed Alina, had checked.
Alina hadn't exactly lied.
Rather, she just hadn't specified on her résumé that the sum total of her real estate experience had comprised of helping her mother sell the farm before the bank had foreclosed on it.
Then Elizabeth had told her that the client she would be working for was none other than Demyan Zukov.
'I take it that you do know who he is.'
You couldn't not know who Demyan Zukov was! He actually dined at times at the very elite restaurant where Alina worked, though their paths had never crossed. The last time he had been there she had been home, sick with tonsillitis, and on her return had had to suffer all the staff talking about the very glamorous guest.
Alina had been very tempted to confess there and then that this role was completely out of her league but the thought of having Demyan listed on the credentials part of her résumé had simply been too irresistible to pass up.
The agency had ensured the contracts and signatures were rushed through-Elizabeth had even turned up at the restaurant where Alina had been working that night to ensure that the deal was signed off.
'All our clients are important, Alina, but I hope I don't have to tell you just how important this one is.'
'Of course not,' Alina had said, but Elizabeth had been too worried to be subtle. 'Are you sure that you're up to this, Alina?'
It hadn't helped that when she'd delivered her assured answer Alina could see the doubt evident in Elizabeth's eyes.
You are up to this, she told herself as she stepped out of the taxi and stood for a moment at the entrance to the hotel, trying to will herself calm, watching as elegant men and slim-suited beauties walked by confidently.
Yes, today had to go well because if it didn't
Alina blew out a breath as she made a promise to herself.
If this didn't work out then she was going to quit even trying to survive the corporate world and just hands up admit that it wasn't for her.
If only she'd kept to her diet, Alina thought, feeling the bite of her waistband.
That was the problem with working at the very topend restaurant at The Rocks-the owner was nice and ensured that all of the staff got a meal from the sumptuous menu on their break.
Who could say no to that?
She was a country girl at heart and had an appetite to match, yet today she had to play the part of a slick city PA who allowed nothing to faze her.
Not even the formidable Demyan Zukov.
Alina could feel sweat on her top lip as she made herself known to Reception and was asked to show her ID.
'One moment, please.'
Oh, God, Alina thought, she wasn't even going to get past the receptionist! But a few moments later she returned and handed Alina a card for the elevator that would take her up to the presidential suite.
Alina actually felt sick as the elevator hurtled her towards the twenty-fourth floor. Worse, though, was when the elevator door opened at its destination and a very beautiful raven-haired, mascara-streaked woman stepped in as Alina stepped out.
That must have been his date for the night, Alina decided.
Alina had read more than her fair share of glossy magazines and so she was pretty well versed as to Demyan's rather decadent lifestyle.
Or she'd thought she was!
As Alina walked down the corridor a teary, pale blonde beauty teetered on high heels towards her. Alina could see, though she very quickly diverted her eyes, that the woman's left breast was exposed.
Nothing fazes you! Alina reminded herself for the hundredth time, though she was terribly tempted to simply turn tail and run.
Just act as if you've seen it all before, Alina told herself.
But she hadn't.
As she went to ring the doorbell to his suite her hand paused when the door opened and Alina swallowed nervously as she prepared herself to come face to face with the legend that was Demyan Zukov. Instead, it was a gorgeous redhead that stepped into Alina's line of vision, though the woman barely gave Alina a glance as she swept her way out of the master's chambers.
Alina was very used to being looked straight through.
Nondescript-she had actually heard Elizabeth describe her as that on the phone once.
It was an asset at times, Elizabeth had assured her as Alina had sat there with cheeks flaming. Some of their clients actually asked for the most nondescript women, Elizabeth had explained, so as not to inflame jealous wives.
'Hello!' Alina knocked on the open door and waited. When there was no response she wondered if she should step inside or wait to be invited in. Her brief from the agency had stated that she was to arrive at eight.
Alina glanced at her phone-it was two minutes to.
'Hello!' Alina knocked and called out again. 'It's Alina Ritchie from the agency.'
Again there was no response.
Perhaps, given his busy night, he'd overslept, Alina thought, tentatively stepping inside.
The place was in utter chaos. There were clothes strewn everywhere as well as plates and glasses still wearing the evidence of having once been dressed with the most lavish food and drinks.
'Hello!' Alina said again, but then her panic mounted and she wondered if she was about to find him dead from his excesses in bed.
Stop it! she cursed her overactive imagination, but really, with all the evidence to hand and with all that she had read about Demyan, it was a distinct possibility.
She stood, trying to work out what she should do, but then she almost shot from her skin as a deep, richly accented voice came from behind her.
'Good, you are here.'
Alina swung around and braced herself-for what, she didn't really know but the sight that greeted her certainly wasn't on the list of possibilities that her mind had produced. Demyan might just as well have spent the night being groomed and pampered in the hotel spa to prepare for this moment. Like a beautiful phoenix rising from the ashes, he stood, looking absolutely exquisite, amidst the chaos.
The angels must have dressed him because his attire was the closest thing to perfection Alina had ever seen-an immaculate dark suit accentuated his tall, lean frame and his shirt was so white it was gleaming, but what drew Alina's eye wasn't just the dark silver-grey of his tie but that it matched his eyes, when first she met them, perfectly.
No, not perfectly, Alina, decided, because colours and hues were perhaps her favourite things.
Nothing could match his eyes-they made even the night sky seem dated. If he wasn't so imposing, Alina could have stared into them for ever.
As if she needed to be told.
Alina took his outstretched hand and felt his long dry fingers close around hers. She caught a waft of his cologne, one that would surely mean her weekend was going to be spent in a perfume department just so that she could inhale that heady sent again-bold, clean and fresh yet with a musky undertone. She had never smelt anything quite so delicious before.
'Alina?' Demyan gave a small frown. 'That is a Slav name, no?'
'No,' Alina croaked. 'Celtic ' She could barely speak he was so stunning. Where was the crashing hangover he should be nursing? His black hair was freshly washed and brushed back and he was clean-shaven. Demyan's skin was smooth and pale-certainly he didn't come up all red and blotchy as Alina did if she drank so much as one glass of wine. On second brief inspection Alina saw that his dark eyes were perhaps a touch bloodshot but apart from that there was no evidence to denote a clearly wild night.
This was his usual, this was how he lived, Alina realised as she attempted to speak on. 'Actually, it can be both.'
'Both?' Demyan checked. He'd already lost the thread of the conversation and desperately needed the kick-start of a very strong coffee. Usually he did not leave his bed without one but, remembering that he had ordered the temporary PA to be here at eight, instead of having his coffee brought to him, Demyan had first showered and dressed for work.
Work always came first for him.
He had never once been late, or missed an appointment. Every facet of his life he controlled to the letter.
Demyan was not at the top of his game by either chance or mistake.
'I think it's both Slav and Celtic. It means ' Alina stopped herself then as she sensed his distraction. What would Demyan care about the meaning of her name? He had merely been making small talk. 'What can I do for you?' Alina asked instead.
'Coffee.' Demyan said. 'A lot of it. And could you also ask that someone comes to sort the place out?'
'Do you want breakfast as well?' Alina asked, heading for the phone to ring down for room service.
'I want coffee,' Demyan said, but halted her as she went to pick up the phone. 'Just press the bell in the butler's kitchen.' He frowned as she blushed and did as asked.
She couldn't even get an order as simple as coffee right but, though Alina had worked with a few overseas clients at hotels, she had never found herself in the presidential suite before, where a butler was just a bell press away.
'Could you organise coffee and for someone to come and sort out the suite?' Alina said, when the butler knocked and she opened the door. She bit back on her need to apologise for the terrible mess as the butler's eyes glimpsed the chaos behind her.
Demyan gestured to her to join him at a large walnut table, where he had pushed aside an empty bottle of cognac and several glasses and was opening up his laptop.
'I have allocated all of today to let you know what I expect from you in the coming weeks. I have two properties that I wish to sell ' Demyan hesitated. He had a vast property portfolio and most of his investments were purchased and sold unseen, but all of that took place away from Australia. The two properties that were about to go on the market here were far more personal. 'I want you to speak discreetly with some agents and give me the best two, perhaps three, and from there I will meet them and decide who to go with.'
'I'll ring a few this morning-'
'And say what?'
His tone was suddenly sharp and, looking over, Alina saw that his eyes had narrowed and she realised that she had clearly said the wrong thing.
'Firstly, you haven't even seen the properties. Secondly, you are to be discreet. The last thing I need is the press to find out before I tell ' Demyan hesitated again. He certainly wasn't going to discuss his predicament about Roman.
'You will make discreet enquiries with the agents, face to face, give me a shortlist, then I shall make my selection and then I will speak with them.' He was still frowning. 'You have done this type of thing before?' Demyan checked. 'Because I also have a farm out in the Blue Mountains and it is going to be a complicated sale. I have tenants and they're not going to be particularly thrilled that I am selling. I do not need someone with no experience making-'
'Do they run their business from the farm?' Alina interrupted, blowing out a breath as Demyan gave a small nod, because there she did know what she was doing- her mother's farm had at one stage nearly been sold to overseas investors, which might have meant that her mother could have retained the business. Unfortunately, at the last minute the property had sold to a well-heeled family that wanted a place in the mountains as a weekender.
'I know a very good agribusiness agent,' Alina said. 'One who is very used to sitting tenants and international investors, though of course I'll liaise with others.'
He had been about to tell her to leave.
Even ordering something as simple as a coffee had proved complicated but, just as he was about to dismiss her, Demyan decided to give her another chance.
'You are a country girl?' Briefly he tried to understand her.
'Ex,' Alina said. 'Though you know what they say ' 'No,' Demyan said. 'They?'
'You can take the girl out of the country ' Her voice trailed off. 'It's a saying. You can-'
'I will call the tenants now.' Demyan cut her off in mid-sentence. He was possibly the most abrupt man she had ever met.
Alina watched as he effortlessly, and without so much as a flinch, broke the difficult news. 'I want to clear my portfolio here,' Demyan said, and Alina looked away; it was all just a little too close to home. 'I understand that, Ross,' Demyan said, 'but my decision has been made '
Demyan stopped talking for a moment as Ross made rapid pleas. 'It will be going on the market as soon as possible.'
He just said it.
It was too close to home because Alina felt tears prick at the back of her eyes as she thought of Ross picking up the phone and how so much had just been dashed in one call.
Alina could hear Ross's voice rising, asking why Demyan couldn't have given them more notice, and then, for the first time, she heard a trace of emotion in Demyan's voice. 'I only decided last night.'