Read an Excerpt
They had to be breaking up, Millie decided.
Or rather he was breaking up with her.
To keep her brain from freezing over as she served patrons long into the night at the terribly exclusive Melbourne restaurant, Millie Andrews invented a background for each of the tables she waited on.
And now, as the clock edged past midnight, there were just three tables left.
One was a rather boozy celebratory business dinner, which thankfully, now that the bar was closed, was starting to wind up. The second consisted of a rather strained couple. The lady had duly eaten her way through fish and salad, minus dressing, and was clearly uncomfortable in her very tight black velvet dress. Millie decided she had probably just had a baby and was feeling horribly self-conscious at being out with her very good-looking but extremely passive-aggressive husband'You don't really want dessert, do you, darling?'
And then there was the beautiful pair.
Blonde, svelte and jangling with nerves, a stunning woman was imploring her dining partner to 'just, please, listen'reaching for his hand, her throaty voice urgent as her
Millie couldn't quite make this one outhusband, fiancé
? No neither fitted. Boyfriend? Or just lover, perhaps
? As he sat and listened impassively, utterly unmoved by her desperate pleas.
'Please, if you would just listen to mereally listen
They were too rich to notice or care that a waitress was clearing away their barely touched plates, and Millie's ears were on elastic as the blonde beauty begged for her chance, her bright, blue eyes glittering with tears as she choked the words out and reached for his hand again.
'Before you say it cannot happen, just hear what I have to say first
'Perhaps you should try listening
' he growled. His voice was accented, deep, low and just divine, but since till then the only words he'd growled in Millie's direction had been, 'Rare steak, fresh tomato salad,' so far she hadn't been able to place it.
'All night I have told you no, yet still you persist.'
'Why do you think I persist, Levander?'
Russian, Millie finally recognised, lingering rather too long over clearing the table. His salad had barely been touched; his steak was only half eaten. If she'd followed protocol, she should have asked then if everything had been to his satisfactionif, by chance, there was a problem with his mealbut the intense conversation and his mood certainly didn't encourage interruption, and, given that it was her last night in Melbourne, protocol went where it belonged.
Straight out of the window.
'You persist because you hope I change my mind. How many times do you have to hear me say it to understand that I never will?'
Even as she backed away, and even though the kitchen had long ago closed, Millie was tempted to offer them the dessert menu. Prepared even to whisk up dessert herself if it meant she could listen on.
They fascinated her.
From the second they had walked in she had been entranced.
As he'd walked through the door, standing tall, brooding and vaguely familiar in a charcoal suit, loosening his tie as his eyes scowled over the room, a low murmur had gone around and every head had turnedespecially Millie's, as she'd tried and failed to place him. Ross, the manager, had raced over and steered them to the most private table at the back of the restaurant, then delivered Millie a quick warning before he dispatched her to take their orders.
'Nothing's too much trouble, okay?'
His date was beautiful, yeson any other night she'd be a fascinating subjectbut the glamorous woman faded into insignificance beside her date, because he was
As an artist Millie was often asked where her inspiration came fromand here was a fragment of the answer.
Inspiration came in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected times. Twelve hours before she left Australiatwelve hours before she headed home for Londonher head should be buzzing with "to do" lists. She should be adding up her tips and working out if she could afford the night in Singapore she'd booked en route. Instead she was consumed with this fascinating manhis beauty was, quite literally, inspiring.
His bone structure was impeccable, and his features had Millie's fingers aching to pull out a sketchpad and capture them: in perfect symmetry, as with all true beauties, his high cheekbones razored through his face, a strong jawline was dark and unshaven against his pale skin. His thick, longish hair was charcoal, not quite black, but too dark to be called brown, and whatever pallet his creator had used, the brush had been dipped twice in the same wellhis eyes held the same bewitching hue, only deeper and glossier.
His date was gorgeouspossibly one of the most beautiful women Millie had seenyet she dimmed beside him. The whole restaurant dimmed a touch, and she wanted to capture that, make him the sole focuslike endless Russian dolls, Millie mused, seeing the germ of the picture she would create in her mind's eye: himthe biggest most stunning, most exquisitely featuredand the resthis date, the other clients, the staff, the street outsideever diminishing objects, growing smaller and smaller till there was nothing left.
'You are a cold bastard.' His date hissed the words out, almost spat them across the table. But he didn't flinch and neither, Millie noted, did he attempt to dispute the fact.
'It must be hereditary.'
'So that's it? After all I've told youyou can just sit there?' Still he didn't answerutterly bored, he had the audacity to yawn as she promptly burst into tears.
'You're not even going to think about it?'
Again he didn't answer, and even though Millie still hadn't managed to pin a label on her as, sobbing yet somehow elegant, the blonde stumbled out of the restaurant, it was clear that whatever her title had been a few minutes ago it had just been superseded. As of this moment she was an ex.
'She waits now for me to run after her
'Those charcoal eyes stared up at her, his lashes so thick, his gaze so intense, that for a second Millie's world stopped.
I'd wait, Millie thought, stunned that he was talking to her, that he didn't seem remotely embarrassed that she'd witnessed this intensely personal moment.
'I will sit here for a while longerhopefully she will get the message and go home.'
'Or she might ring you on your mobile,' Millie said, blushing furiously as she did so, because even if it seemed to be idle conversation, as a lowly waitress it was inappropriate to comment. Management's orders were very clear: she should merely smile politely and move on.
Only she didn't.
Instead she hovered on the giddy line of propriety. His eyes pinned her, and the impact of him close up, of actually conversing with him, was utterly, fabulously devastatingand he surely knew it. Knew it because instead of looking away, instead of dismissing her, he responded with a question.
'Would you wait?'
'Her voice when it came was breathy, her shirt suddenly impossibly tight as she struggled to drag air into her lungs, her skin on fireand not because Ross, her manager, was looking on and frowning at the exchange.
'Once I'd calmed down, once I'd
' She didn't get to finish as, almost on cue, his phone rang. And at that point she crossed the line. Instead of turning and discreetly walking away, instead of heading back to the bar to let him take his call, she stood there, watching transfixed as he picked up his phone with long, pale, slender fingers that had Millie wondering if he was also an artistwondering if that might be the reason she was so drawn to him.
'Thank you for the warning,' he said, turning off the phone.
'You're welcome,'Millie croaked, her cheeks flaming as attraction fully hit, and she was, for the first time, privy to that unscrupulous face breaking into a smile.
'Another.' He gestured to his glass, and Millie was about to say no, that the bar had closed about ten minutes ago. But glancing over to her boss, and seeing him frantically nodding, Millie gave a smile and, slipping away, headed over to the bar.
'What was that all about?'Ross asked the second she was within earshot.
'Come on, Millie, don't play games with me. What was that cosy little exchange you were having with Levander?'
'He was just talking.' Millie flushed, and not just at being caught flirtingeven his name was sexy.
'You were the one who said that nothing should be too much trouble. It would have been rude to walk away.'
'You know how to handle things.' Ross shot her a warning look.
'Do you want me to take his drink over for you?'
'Of course not.' Millie shook her head, quickly changing the subject as Ross poured a generous dash of vodka into a glass.
'Should we get the port those businessmen wanted? They might get upset if they see us still serving him.'
'The bar's closed,' Ross said, placing the drink down for Millie to take over.
'At least to anyone who isn't a Kolovsky.'
'Kolovsky?'Mille frowned, trying to place the familiar name and hoping he'd elaborate, but Ross just grinned.
'It's Russian for money!'
Placing his drink in front of him, Millie was curiously disappointed when he didn't look up, when he didn't even give a distracted thanks. Instead he stared across the room and out onto the street, drumming his fingers restlessly. Never had it taken so long to place a drink on a table, to clear away a few stray glasses and waitwait for him to bring her into his delicious focus, to once again, even for a moment, be the woman who held his attention.
Only he didn't.
'You might as well go home, Millie.'Ross came over as the last of the rowdy businessmen finally tipped out onto the street, but the words she'd been waiting to hear all night didn't sound quite so sweet now. Despite her tiredness, despite an empty suitcase waiting to be filled and a flight to be caught back to London in the morning, suddenly she didn't want to go. Staring over at the table, she watched as he leant back in his chair and took a slow sip of his drink. Ross did the same.
'I might as well get started on some paperworkhe looks as if he's settled for the night.'
Millie couldn't help but frownan extra drink for a special customer was one thing, but for Ross to happily sit and while away an hour or two was unprecedented. This time Ross was only too happy to elaborate.
'He's a great tipperas you're about to find out.' He held out a black velvet folder and peeled out an indecent amount of notes, taking his cut and handing the rest to Millie.
'Looks like you'll be staying in Singapore after all!'
'You deserve it. You've been a great workera real asset to the restaurant.'He went over to the till and handed her an envelope.
'There are your other tips and your wages, and there's a reference in there, too. If you're ever back in Melbourne, know that there's always a job here for you.'
More than anything Millie hated goodbyes. Ross wasn't even that much of a friend, but still tears filled her eyes as she took the envelope. Maybe it was emotion catching up, maybe it was the fact that no doubt she'd never be back, her dream trip to Australia to showcase her art having been nothing but a flop, but for whatever reason, she gave him a small hug.
Without this job she'd have been home weeks ago.
Without this job she'd still be wondering if she might have one day made it.
Like it or not, at least now she knew the answer.
There were a million things she had to do, but instead of turning left as she exited the restaurant Millie turned right, noisily clipping along Collins Street on black stilettos that needed re-heeling, barely even glancing into the exclusive shops as she headed to the gallery for one final glimpse of her work in the window.
And then she saw it. Millie's head turned so abruptly that she was positively whiplashed as she put a very beautiful face to a very beautiful name.
House of Kolovsky.
The cerulean blue frontage and the embossed gold lettering were familiar the world overyet so far removed from Millie's existence that till now she'd barely even given the building a glance. Unable to resist now, though, she teetered forward, gazing into a magnificent window, dressed with ream after ream of the heavy silk that was so much the Kolovsky trademark, with opals as big as gulls' eggs seemingly casually tossed inbut the effect was so stunning Millie was in no doubt that each jewel had been placed with military precision, along with the tiny lights that were twinkling and catching the fluid colour of the fabric.
Kolovsky was renowned for its stunning fashion collections as well as the fabrics themselves: rich, heavy silks that were supposed to have the same magical effect as opalscapturing the light and even, it was rumoured by devotees, changing colour according to a woman's mood. Millie had raised her eyebrows in rather bored disbelief when she'd read that in a magazine, but standing with her nose practically against the window, seeing the heavy, fabulous tones and sumptuous attention to detail, Mille could almost believe it. What she was finding rather more difficult to fathom, though, was what had taken place earlier. She had flirted with none other than Levander Kolovsky.
She had seen him beforeit was all coming to her now: notorious bad boy, the darling of the tabloids here in Melbourne, his every move, his every comment, his every encounter faithfully and libellously documented.
Millie let out a gurgle of laughter. She'd been flirting with the biggest rake in Melbourne. Just wait till she told Anton!
Peeling herself away from the window, Millie allowed herself just one final glimpse. She would have loved to feel her body draped in something so exquisite. Not that she could ever afford it. Millie sighed, picking up her pace and walking the few doors down to the gallery. She could barely afford anything at the momentwhich was how a tortured artist was supposed to start, Mille reminded herself. But her usual pep-talk was starting to lose its oomphcold reality hitting home as she stood on the pavement outside the gallery.
Very soon she wouldn't be a struggling artist. Instead she'd be a teacher.
Seeing a light on inside, Millie stood well back, not wanting Anton, the owner, to see her tears as she bade goodbye to her dream.