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The gray sky dripped rain like mist, fine as cobwebs, across the dark minarets of Istanbul as Louisa Grey cut the last autumn roses from the garden. Her hands, usually so steady, trembled around her pruning scissors.
I can't be pregnant, she told herself fiercely. Can't be!
Abruptly Louisa sat back on her haunches, wiping her forehead with her sleeve in the cool twilight of early November. For a moment, she stared at the red and orange roses of the lush garden of the old Ottoman mansion. Then her hands fell into her lap. She felt the weight of the pruning shears against her gray woolen skirt.
Blinking fast, she turned her head blindly to stare out at the red sunset shimmering across the Bosphorus.
One night. She'd worked for her ruthless playboy boss for five years. One night had ruined everything. She'd fled Paris the very next day, demanding a job transfer to his neglected home in Istanbul. She'd tried to put their night of passion behind her. But now, a month later, she had one terrified thought. One question that kept repeating itself in her mind. Every day, the question became louder and more afraid.
Could she be pregnant with her boss's baby?
"Miss? The cook's taken ill," a girl said in accented English behind her. "Please, may he go home?"
Louisa's shoulders instantly became steel-straight. Pushing her black-framed glasses up on her nose, she turned to face the young Turkish maid. She knew she must reveal no weakness to members of her staff who looked to her for leadership. "Why does he not ask me himself?"
"He's afraid you'll say no, miss. With so much to be done for Mr. Cruz's visit—"
"Mr. Cruz is not expected until the morning of the dinner party. Tell the cook to go home. We will manage. But next time," Louisa added sharply, "he must ask me himself and not send someone else because he's afraid."
"Also tell him he must be completely well by the day of the party, or he will be replaced."
With a timid movement like a curtsy, the maid departed.
Once Louisa was alone, her shoulders sagged. Leaning forward, she gathered two fallen roses from the grass and placed them in her basket. She picked up the pruning shears and rose heavily to her feet. She forced herself to go through the household checklist in her mind. The marble floors and chandeliers were sparkling clean. Her boss's favorite foods had been ordered to arrive fresh from the markets each day. His bedroom suite was ready, needing only these fresh roses to sweeten the dark, masculine room for whichever beautiful starlet he might choose to bring home with him this time.
Everything must be perfect for his visit. Mr. Cruz must have no reason whatsoever to complain. No reason, Louisa thought as she clipped the stem of the bush's very last rose with rather more force than necessary, to speak to her alone.
She heard the wrought-iron gate open with a long scraping sound behind her. She'd have to get that oiled, she thought. She turned, expecting to see the gardener, or perhaps the wine seller with the large delivery of champagne she'd ordered for the dinner party.
Instead she sucked in her breath as a towering figure stepped from the shadows. Except this man didn't just step out of the shadows.
He was the shadow.
"Mr. Cruz," she whispered, her mouth suddenly dry.
His eyes glittered in the twilight as he looked at her. "Miss Grey."
His deep, husky voice echoed across the garden, causing her heart to pound in her chest. She clenched her fingers tightly around the basket and pruning shears so her suddenly clumsy hands wouldn't drop them. He was three days early. But when had Rafael Cruz ever done what was expected?
Handsome, ruthless and rich, the Argentinian millionaire had the darkly seductive charm of a poet—and a heart like ice.
Tall and broad-shouldered, with a latent power in his thickly muscled body, he stood out from all other men with his strength, his masculine beauty, his wealth and his stylish appearance. But today, his black hair was tousled. His usually immaculate black suit looked rumpled and his tie was loosened and askew at his neck. His jawline was dark with shadow below his sharp cheekbones and Roman nose. Light gray eyes stood out starkly against his tanned olive skin.
Disheveled as he was, today he looked barely civilized, half-brutal. And yet he was somehow even more handsome than she remembered.
A month ago, Louisa had been in his arms. For one night, he'd taken her body, he'd passionately taken her virginity—
She cut off the thought and took a deep, steadying breath.
"Good evening, sir." Her voice betrayed nothing of her emotion. It was dignified, almost cool—the perfect manner for the valued servant of a powerful man. Her training held her in good stead. "Welcome to Istanbul. Everything is in readiness for your visit."
"Of course." His lips curved into a sardonic smile as he came closer to her. His dark hair was windblown and damp. "I would expect nothing less from you, Miss Grey."
She tilted her head back to look up into his brutally handsome face.
There was something dark in his gaze. Something indescribably weary. The smoothly ruthless playboy looked strangely troubled in a way she'd never seen before.
Against her will, worry and concern for him smothered her heart as the mist deepened into rain, splattering noisily against the dark trees above.
"Are you… are you all right, Mr. Cruz?"
"Perfect," he said coldly. He clearly resented her intrusion.
Louisa tightened her hands against the basket handle, furious at herself. What was she thinking? She knew better than to ask a personal question. If her ten months of house management training hadn't taught her that, living for five years as Rafael Cruz's housekeeper in Paris certainly should have!
He never showed his feelings. She'd tried to do the same. It had been easy for the first year or two. Then somehow, in spite of her best efforts, she'd started to care….
Looking at him now, all she could think about was the last time she'd seen his face, the night she'd realized she was hopelessly, wretchedly in love with her playboy boss. She'd been sobbing alone in the kitchen when he'd come home unexpectedly early from a date with yet another impossibly beautiful woman.
"Why are you crying?" he'd asked in a low voice. She'd tried to lie, to tell him she just had something in her eye, but when their eyes had met she'd been unable to speak. Unable to move as he walked directly to her. He'd taken her in his arms and she'd known, down to her bones, that it could only end in her own heartbreak. And yet she couldn't push him away. How could she, when she loved him, this untamable, forbidden man who could never truly be hers?
In his penthouse near the Champs-élysées, against the backdrop of the sparkling city and the Eiffel Tower lit up like a beacon in the night, he'd exhaled her name in a growl. He'd grabbed her wrists and pushed her against the kitchen wall, kissing her so savagely that all she could do was gasp out his name in the first shock of explosive, mutual need and the joint hunger of their embrace.
She'd wanted him with desire she'd repressed for years. But how could she have ever allowed herself to surrender, knowing it could only end badly?
And that was before she'd even started to worry she might be pregnant…
Don't think about it! she ordered herself desperately. She couldn't be pregnant. If she were, Rafael would never forgive her. He'd think she'd done it on purpose, that she'd lied to him!
She licked her lips. "I'm…glad you're well," she faltered.
His dark slate eyes traced her face, lingering on her mouth before he abruptly turned away, slinging his overnight bag over his shoulder. "Bring dinner to my room," he barked.
He stalked into the house without looking back.
"At once, sir," she whispered as the rain fell faster.
Heavy droplets pounded against her face and body, plastering her hair to her head and smearing her glasses.
After her boss disappeared into the mansion, she was able to breathe again. Protecting the basket of roses from the rain with her gray woolen blazer, she fell into step behind the two male assistants carrying his suitcases from the limousine now parked in the carriage house.
The fading ribbons of sunset streaked red across the low clouds as Louisa entered the grand foyer of the nineteenth-century mansion. She carefully wiped her feet before noting her boss's wet footprints across the marble that would now need to be meticulously re-cleaned. Her eyes followed the dirty footsteps up the sweeping stairs. She saw his dark head and broad-shouldered back disappear behind the landing to his bedroom suite.
The house felt so different now he was here. Rafael Cruz electrified everything. Especially her.
The men followed him up the stairs with the suitcases, and once she was alone, Louisa leaned against the wall, her legs sagging with relief.
Their first meeting was over. It was done.
It seemed that Rafael—Mr. Cruz, she corrected herself angrily. His first name kept sneaking into her mind!—had already forgotten all about their night of passion in Paris.
Now if only she could do the same.
Her eyes looked again toward the second-floor landing. But why had he seemed so troubled? Something was very wrong, and she knew it had nothing to do with their one-night stand. Women were interchangeable to him. Easily forgotten. Completely replaceable. No woman could ever touch Rafael's heart.
So if not for a woman, what had brought him to Istanbul three days early—and in such a black mood? She stared up the empty stairs toward his room. She suddenly yearned to know what troubled him. Yearned to offer him solace, some kind of comfort…
She stomped on the thought angrily. Every woman thought Rafael needed comforting. It was part of his seduction, something he used ruthlessly to his advantage. Women were drawn by his brutish, brooding charm, imagining him a modern Heathcliff with a darkly haunted past. They all yearned to comfort the world-weary Argentinian millionaire with the handsome face and whisper of a broken heart. Louisa had already seen endless women delude themselves into thinking they, and only they, could save his soul. Only Louisa knew the truth.
Rafael Cruz had no soul.
And yet she loved him. She was a fool! Because she, of all women, knew the kind of man he really was— cold, ruthless and unforgiving!
Swear to me you can't get pregnant, Louisa, he'd said to her that breathless night. I cannot get pregnant, she'd said.
If it turned out she'd lied to him…
I'm not pregnant, she repeated to herself furiously. It's impossible!
And yet, she was afraid to take the test that would tell her for sure. She told herself she was just late. Very late.
Leaving her wet shoes at the front door, she carried the basket of roses into a little mudroom near the large modern kitchen. She filled an expensive crystal vase with water, then arranged the roses carefully inside it. She cleaned the pruning shears and put them away in their drawer. Going up to her room upstairs, she removed her wet clothes, replacing them with a new gray skirt suit as plain and serviceable as the first. She tidied her brown hair back into a severe bun, dried the rain off her glasses with a towel, then gave a single glance at herself in the mirror as she passed. She looked plain and orderly and invisible—just as she wished.
She'd never wanted Rafael to notice her. She'd prayed he wouldn't. After what had happened at her last job, invisibility felt like her only protection. But somehow, it had failed her. Somehow, he'd noticed her anyway. Why had he taken her to his bed? Pity? Convenience?
She took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders. Then she carried the vase of roses into the kitchen.
Almost immediately, her spirits lifted. The kitchen, along with the rest of the mansion, had changed quite a bit in the month since Louisa had arrived here. Her constant attention, working eighteen-hour days to hire staff and oversee cleaning and remodeling of the once-faded house, had turned it into a well-run home. Louisa gently touched the polished wood of the door frame, smiling down at the colorful, gleaming mosaic floor. Overseeing this mansion's restoration to its former glory had been a huge amount of work, but had given her a great deal of pleasure.
Once, it had been neglected. Now it was loved. Treasured.
Louisa set her jaw stubbornly. So she wouldn't allow one moment of weakness to force her out of this job she'd loved with such passion for five years. She'd been a convenient woman for Rafael to take to his bed, nothing more. She loved him, but she would try her best to kill that love.
She would do her job. Keep her distance. Try to forget how he'd taken her virginity.
She'd forget the way his lips had pressed against hers, so hot and hard and demanding. She'd forget the sensation of his powerful body pressing her to the wall. Forget his strength and the dark hunger in his eyes as he'd lifted her up in his strong arms, and carried her without a word to his bed….
Louisa stood for a moment, alone in the kitchen. Then she started. What had she been doing here? Right. Making his dinner. The cook had gone home sick. She only hoped he had the same hideous stomach flu she'd had in Paris six weeks ago, so he'd be right as rain in three days, in time for Rafael's birthday dinner. She could make simple dishes, but she was no chef. Her cooking skills tended more toward baking cakes and brownies than preparing chimichurri sauce for flank steak or preparing a piquant cazuela de mariscos, a seafood stew in tomato broth, for a party of twelve!