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Nik was due home any minute.
Kezia glanced at the clock on the dashboard and pressed her foot down on the accelerator. At this rate her dynamic and notoriously impatient boss would arrive at his country mansion ahead of her, and all hell would break loose. Nik was bringing a group of Bulgarian businessmen to Otterbourne House, hoping to impress them with his plans for a hotel complex on the Black Sea coast, and he expected his PA to be ready and waiting to greet his guests.
Could the day get any worse? Kezia wondered grimly as she peered through the rain. It was bad enough that the catering company she had booked for tonight's party had pulled out at the last minute. Most of the staff had come down with flu, the harassed administrator had explained. But with a day's notice to try and make alternative arrangements, Kezia had been short on sympathy. Fortunately Nik's housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, had rallied round, and was busy preparing a lavish dinner that was set to impress the guests. It had been left to Kezia to collect a selection of desserts from the patisserie, but the trip into town had taken longer than she had anticipated.
The torrential downpour had caused serious flooding along the narrow country lanes, and now dusk was falling.
She needed to focus all her concentration on the road, but as usual it was a certain sexy Greek who dominated her thoughts. An unbidden image of Nik's handsome face filled her mind as she pictured his classically sculpted features. Get a grip, she admonished herself sternly, irritated at the way her heartbeat quickened with every mile that she drew nearer to Otterbourne.
He had been away for the past few weeks, visiting his family in Greece, and she was dismayed at how much she had missed him. It was pathetic for a grown woman of twenty-four to have developed such a ridiculous fixation with a man who was way out of her league, she reminded herself savagely. She felt like a teenager in the throes of her first crush and she would die of shame if he ever guessed how much he affected her.
She reached the outskirts of the village and breathed a sigh of relief. Another five minutes and she would be turning in to the gates leading to Otterbourne House. With any luck she would just beat Nikalthough she would have little time to tidy her hair or check her make-up. Not that he would notice, she conceded bleakly. As far as Nik was concerned she was his ultra-efficient PA, whose sole purpose was to ensure that his life ran smoothly.
As he had explained at her interview, three months ago, he didn't want a decorative bimbo running his office; he was looking for someone who was prepared to put in long hours and who would blend unobtrusively into the background. With her unruly curls tamed into a sleek chignon, and her sensible navy blue suit, he had obviously deemed Kezia the ideal choice.
There had been no element of the sexual tension she recalled from their first meeting at the London head office at least not on his part. he'd given no indication that he even remembered her, and the fact that her tongue had tied itself in knots throughout the interview had added to her embarrass- ment. It was evident that he was only interested in her or- ganisational skills, and sometimes she wondered whether he would notice if she paraded around the office stark naked.
Without warning something shot out from the shadows and ran in front of the car. Kezia hit the brakes, skidded on the wet road and lost control. She was heading for the trees, and with a frantic cry she jerked the wheel. The engine stalled and she ploughed into the bushes that lined the road. So much for concentrating, she thought shakily. The seat belt had saved her from serious injury, but the force of the impact had caused her to hit her head on the steering wheel, and already she could feel a lump the size of an egg swelling on her temple.
She restarted the engine and cautiously backed up onto the road before climbing out of the car. It was too dark to make a proper inspection for damage, but at least the car was drivable. A wave of sickness swept over her. What was it that had run out? Probably a fox that had now disappeared into the undergrowth, she told herself as she squinted through the rain. She was cold and wet, and running seriously late, but the thought of leaving an animal lying injured on the roadside was abhorrent to her, and with a muttered curse she began to search along the verge.
Ten minutes later she was soaked to the skin and ready to give up when a faint whimper drew her attention to the other side of the ditch. The dog was no more than a bag of bones. Its fur was wet and matted, and in the dark in was impossible to see if it was injured, but when she held out her hand it moved tentatively towards her.
"Come on, boy," she whispered gently, feeling the animal tremble with a mixture of cold and fright as she lifted it into her arms. "Let's get out of this rain."
She waded back across the ditch, but as she scrabbled up the slippery bank she felt the heel of one of her shoes give way and cursed loudly. Her new kitten-heel shoes were ruined, and her skirt was covered in mud. Nik was going to go mad, Kezia acknowledged as she hobbled over to the car and deposited the dog on the front seat. He had spent the past week on the phone, relaying precise instructions for the weekend, and it was safe to assume that he would not be impressed when his PA turned up late, looking as if she'd been dragged through a hedge backwards.
Otterbourne House stood at the end of a long drive, hidden from view by tall conifers. Nikos Niarchou felt his heart lift as the limousine rounded the bend and he absorbed the clas- sical elegance of his English country manor. It was good to be back, he thought with a surge of satisfactiondespite the rain. Much as he had enjoyed his trip to Greece, the past couple of weeks seemed to have lasted a lifetime.
It had been good to spend time with his family, but his parents' unsubtle hints about it being time for him to find a nice Greek girl and settle down had driven him mad. His mother had seized on his visit as an opportunity to nag him to slow his pace, assuring him that he looked tired and accusing him of overdoing things, but it had been the sight of his father, unexpectedly frail and looking every one of his eighty years, that had caused Nik to take a break from his hectic schedule.
Now he was eager to get back to workstarting with the presentation that he hoped would impress the Bulgarians into backing his plans for a hotel complex. He was confident that Kezia had organised tonight's reception with her usual effi- ciency. As he ushered his guests through the front door, he glanced around the entrance hall expectantly. Kezia was supposed to be here. He had specifically asked her to act as his hostess, and he frowned when his elderly housekeeper stepped forward to greet him.
"Where's Kezia?" he demanded, without preamble. "Good evening, Mr Niarchou, it's good to have you back."
"It's good to be back, Mrs Jessop." His brief smile revealed a flash of white teeth that contrasted with his olive gold skin but failed to add warmth to his dark eyes. "I was expecting Kezia to be here," he muttered in an impatient undertone. "Where the hell is she?"
He had spent a trying day entertaining the Bulgarian busi- nessmen and their wives aboard his private jet, the language barrier having proved an exasperating obstacle to conversa- tion. He needed his PA here, damn it. Corporate entertaining was one of Kezia's duties, and he had planned to leave his guests in her capable hands while he took a break to shower and unwind. He had given specific orders, and he did not expect them to be flouted without a very good reason.
"There were some problems with the caterers. All sorted now," the housekeeper hastily reassured him, 'but Kezia had to run into town. She'll be here any minute, I'm sure."
"I hope so."
Nik's frown deepened in annoyance. He had come to rely on his PA over the past three months. Sensible and efficient, Kezia was an ideal employee, who could be relied upon to get on with her work without fuss. Beneath her calm demeanour she pos- sessed a sharp wit that made conversations with her interesting as he had discovered the first time he had met her at the London office. He was a man who liked to have his own way, yet he was secretly amused by Kezia's refusal to let him dominate her. He had missed her while he was away, he realised with a flicker of surprise and he was looking forward to renewing their discus- sions on everything from politics to the arts.
His eyes narrowed as the drawing room door opened and a familiar figure emerged. "What is Miss Harvey doing here?"he muttered under his breath to his housekeeper. Tania Harvey, his current mistress, was a sinful siren, with a body to die for, but she had little else to offer other than an encyclopaedic knowl- edge of celebrity gossipand he was not in the mood to listen to hours of tittle-tattle about life on the modelling circuit.
"I understand she's joining you for dinner," Mrs Jessop replied brightly.
"At whose invitation?" There was no disguising the irrita- tion in Nik's voice and Mrs Jessop shrugged helplessly.
"I don't know. I assumed you Perhaps Kezia invited her?" she murmured. "That sounds like her car nowyou can ask her."
"I intend to. Believe me."
Tania was walking towards him, and with a supreme effort Nik stifled his impatience as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Hello, darling. Welcome home," she murmured, pouting prettily in the way he had once found a turn-on but which was now as annoying as her overtly proprietary air. He had no in- tention of allowing Tania or any other woman to consider Otterbourne as homeat least not for the foreseeable future.
"Tania, what a charming surpriseI hadn't realised you would be here," he greeted her politely, as he disentangled himself from her grasp.
"Your PA invited meI assumed on your behalf."The pout deepened. "You are pleased to see me, aren't you, Nik? Kezia was most insistent that I joined you for dinner."
"Was she? That was very thoughtful of her," he murmured dryly. "Naturally I'm pleased to see you, but I'm afraid I'm going to be busy for most of the weekend."
"Lucky I'm here, then. I can help you relax," Tania assured him blithely and Nik's jaw tightened.
Tania Harvey was elegant and blonde, two of the attri- butes he looked for in a woman, but he freely admitted that he had a low boredom threshold. Her hints that she was hoping for a more permanent place in his life were the last straw. It was time to end the affairwhich, if he was honest, had reached its sell-by date even before his trip to Greece.
Close up, Tania wasn't as confident as she appeared. Beneath the glossy faÃ§ade there were shadows in her eyes, and if he'd had any deep feelings for her he would have felt a tug of compassion. Instead all he felt was irritation with his PA for putting him in an awkward situation. Up until now Kezia Trevellyn had proved to be an excellent assistant, but he didn't need anyone to organise his love-life.
The fleet of limousines lining the drive were evidence that Nik and his guests had already arrived. Kezia parked her Mini and switched on the interior light to inspect her face in the driving mirror. God, she looked a mess, she thought dismally. Her hair had escaped its once neat bun and was tangled around her face; there were streaks of mud on her cheeks and a huge bluish lump on her forehead. "Prepare for fireworks," she warned the muddy ball of fur on the seat next to her.
At the sound of her voice the dog cocked one ear and stared at her with soulful eyes. She still wasn't sure if she had actually hit it, or if it had been injured, but to be on the safe side she lifted it into her arms and carried it up the front steps.
"Keziamy dear." Mrs Jessop opened the front door and gasped at the sight of Kezia's bedraggled form but Kezia's gaze was drawn to the tall figure whose presence dominated the room.
"Theos! What happened to you?" Nik demanded, his face thunderous as he strode towards her.
His expression of utter disbelief would have been comical if Kezia had felt like laughing. Instead, all she could think of was that she had ruined her new shoes and was leaving a trail of mud across the floor. She was so wet that her skirt was plas- tered to her thighs, and as a final insult there was a huge ladder in her tights.
"I had a slight accident," she told him briskly, hoping to mask the fact that she felt like bursting into tears. It was delayed shock, she told herself, and had nothing to do with Nik looking as though he would like to strangle her. She hadn't seen him for weeks, and the impact of his exceptional height and broad shoulders encased in a charcoal-grey overcoat made her close her eyes for a second.
He possessed an aura of raw, sexual magnetisma primal force that was barely concealed beneath the veneer of civilisa- tion his clothes awarded him. Remove the designer suit and the man would still be impressiveprobably more so, she acceded faintly as she sought to impose control on her wayward imagination. She had only felt half alive these past few weeks, but now the blood was zinging through her veins.
One look from him could reduce her to jelly, and her face burned as she felt his eyes trawl over her mud-spattered clothes. From the gleam of fury in his gaze it was safe to assume that he was not as impressed by the sight of her.
"What kind of accident? What the hell is going on, Kezia? And what is that?' he growled as his gaze settled on the animal nestled in her arms.
"It's a dog. It ran into the road and I had to swerve to avoid hitting it. I'm not sure I was entirely successful," Kezia added worriedly. "It could be hurt." She trailed to a halt beneath Nik's impatient glare.