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She really should not be doing this. She really shouldn't.
It was a jobthat was all. A job she needed now, thanks to what had happened, and needed badly.
A job working closely with Vasilii Demidov. Very closely. As his temporary PA, in fact. Mid-stride, Laura Westcotte stopped walking along London's Sloane Street.
Oh, for heaven's sake.
She wasn't fourteen any more, and in the grip of a massive crush on the very grown-up and breathtakingly, spine-shiveringly, far too excitingly male older half-brother of one of the new intake of day pupils at the school where her aunt was the matron and she'd been a pupil by virtue of her aunt's post, was she?
No, she wasn't.
Nor was she still the same silly girl who had secretly and eagerly searched the internet for every scrap of information she could find about Vasilii Demidov, committing to memory every single piece of information she'd managed to find about him. Thank goodness the big social networking sites hadn't existed then, for her to make a total public fool of herself with, Laura thought wryly. Snatching that photograph of him to daydream over in private had been bad enough.
She'd taken it when he had come to the school to collect his half-sister one Friday afternoon. Her hands had been trembling as she'd watched him walk from his car to where his half-sister had been waiting for him, the muscles of his male body moving so powerfully beneath their covering of denim jeans and a black tee shirt that the sight of him had made her go hot with longing. It was a wonder that the resultant photograph hadn't been so blurred as to be unrecognisable. She had hidden the print in her most sacred of special places: the 'secret' drawer of the jewellery box that had originally belonged to her mother, and which had always somehow held an echo of her mother's special scent. She still had that jewellery box.
And the photograph?
Now she was being ridiculous. If she did then it was simply because she'd never thought to throw it away. No other reason.
She had been such a very young and idealistic fourteen-year-old that worshipping from afar had come as naturally as breathing.
She had woven such ridiculous fantasies about the two of them meetingthe kind of fantasies that only an over-romantic, lonely girl with her hormones burgeoning into reckless life could weave. In her imagination she had even allowed herself to believe that because they had both lost their mothers there was a special bond between them.
All that and she had never even come face to face with him properly, never mind spoken with him. She had, though, dreamed endless daydreams about him, torn between an aching longing for him to notice her and the thrill of fear she had felt at the thought of that happening, and how she would cope with that level of sensual excitement.
So what? That had been then. This was now. She had just mentally said his name several times without her heartbeat going into fifth gear and then overdrive, hadn't she? No, she wasn't fourteen any more, Laura assured herself. But she still couldn't stop herself from glancing into the window of the expensive designer shop she was hurrying past on her way to her interview, as though she needed to reassure herself that the reflection she could see there was that of an assured twenty-four-year-old woman, and not a fourteen-year-old girl. A woman, moreover, whose brunette hair swung sleekly and under control to her shoulders, and whose blue-green eyes in her heart-shaped, Celtic pale-skinned face, like her soft full lips, were discreetly made-upas befitted a careerwoman about to undergo an interview for a job upon which her immediate financial security depended.
So why the need to check? Surely she didn't really fear that somewhere within her that lonely, overly idealistic and romantic girl she had once been still existed, and that by some dangerous alchemy Vasilii Demidov could resurrect that girl and her crush on him just by the mere fact of them breathing the same air?
Instead of thinking about the past she should be focusing on her own present, Laura reminded herself. To mangle that famous Oscar Wilde quote, to be rejected and dismissed for one job for which she was well qualified might be overlooked as merely unfortunate, but to be rejected for a second would be a bad mark against her that would lie on her career history for a long time to come.
She was under no illusions, of course. She knew exactly why she hadn't been given the verbally promised promotion in her previous job. The reasons had, after all, been made more than clear to her by the company's new CEO.
The pain and humiliation of what she had undergone momentarily drove the colour from her face.
Oh, yes, she needed this joba top-of-the-tree job working for Vasilii Demidov, as his PA, on a six-month contract that carried a salary that had made her catch her breath. It was nearly twice as much per month as she had been earning, plus it would open doors for her and enhance her CVnot to mention distance her from the present calamity to her career.
The fact that she had recently been on the internet once again, researching Vasilii Demidov, meant nothing other than thatlike any candidate for a new jobshe wanted to arm herself with as much knowledge about the business for which she hoped to be working as she could. And, in the case of Vasilii Demidov's business, Vasilii himself was the business.
And what a business. Vasilii had taken charge of the business portfolio originally begun by his late father and had turned it into a multinational empire. The head office of this empire might technically be located in Zurich, but from what Laura had been able to learn the reality was that the head of the empire still adhered to the traditions of the Nomad desert warriors of his maternal family. He travelled almost continuously between all the places in which he had business and financial interests.
Unlike so many other Russian oligarchs, Vasilii did not own lavish homes all over the world. Instead he stayed in hotel suites or concierge apartments, as though at heart his spirit needed to move as ceaselessly as the sands had once moved beneath the feet of the camels in the camel trains of his mother's people.
How intrigued and awed she had been at fourteen to learn that Vasilii, whilst being half Russian through his Russian father, could trace his roots back through his mother's family to one of the most noble and ancient races to travel the deserts and the rugged terrain of the southernmost part of Russia's old territories. There was a legend she had read saying that this tribe of light-skinned and light-eyed desert warriors had once mixed their blood with that of a lost Roman legion, and that their centuries-old pride in their warrior skills came from that time. There had been other stories on the internet about the tribe, and its fierce pride and equally fierce adherence to its own code of honour.
Like so many of the old desert tribes its numbers had been reduced by war and disease long before Vasilii's mother had been born. She had fallen in love with Vasilii's father, and then been lost to both her husband and her son in the most tragic of circumstances. She had felt such a surge of idealistic love when she had learned from her aunt the story of the kidnap and subsequent death of Vasilii's mother.
But that had been then, and this was nowand everything she knew about Vasilii Demidov now suggested that he was a man immune to the kind of vulnerabilities experienced by the rest of the human race. A powerful, hard-headed man, who was completely focused on the success of his business. Not the kind of man who was likely to welcome the knowledge that a fourteen-year-old had had such a huge crush on him that she
That was enough!
Laura checked her watch and then quickened her walking pace. She must not be late for this all-important appointmentand she definitely must not be late because she was daydreaming about the man who would be interviewing her.
From his exclusive concierge apartment on the top floor of one of London's most prestigious hotels, Vasilii had an excellent view of Sloane Street and the surrounding neighbourhood as he stood at the window of the apartment's smart boutique-hotel-style sitting room. A shaft of late July sunshine falling across his face threw into relief the harsh scimitar-sharp angle of his cheekbones and the taut line of his jaw.
To his Russian compatriots the golden warmth of his skin and the autocratic boldness of his nose might mark his genes as those of an outsidersomeone who belonged more to the Arab world than their ownbut he had grown up just as much of an outsider to the world in his late mother's family as he had his father's: truly accepted by neither, marked physically by his mother's genes and mentally by his father's brilliance as a businessman. An outsider who had learned young to walk alone and to trust no one other than himself. Especially after his mother had been kidnapped and then murdered by her kidnappers in a rescue attempt that had gone wrong.
To have been as emotionally dependent on his mother's love as he had been as a child, and then to lose that love, had taught the man he had become the necessity of protecting himself against such vulnerability. And that was exactly what he had done, holding other people at a distance and promising himself that he would never allow himself to become vulnerable to the pain of love and loss again.
Right now, though, it wasn't the past that was making him frown, it was the present. The present and a certain Miss Laura Westcotte.
If it had been unfortunate that his PA had had to take compassionate leave for six months to be with his sick wife, then it had been irritating that the temp hired to take his place had gone down with a particularly vicious form of the norovirus bugjust when Vasilii had been at the most delicate state possible of negotiations with the Chinese, and thus most in need of a PA who was not only fluent in Mandarin but also in Russian, and of course English, and who understood the protocol and etiquette complexities of negotiating with high-ranking Chinese dignitaries and officials. Vasilii might be fluent in all three languages himself, but one of the things one did not do when negotiating with high-status Chinese officials was risk losing face or, even worse, risk causing them to lose face by doing one's own translating.
Vasilii had quickly discovered that when dealing with the Chinese the existence of an impressive retinue of personnel was extremely important. Which was why right now he was waiting to interview Laura Westcotte, the applicant best qualified to suit his needs according to the headhunters he had hired to find someone.
However, there were excellent reasons why Laura Westcotte was not the applicant or the PA Vasilii wanted. The first was that she was femaleVasilii never took on female staff to work closely with him. He had quickly learned that female graduates were far too likely to see himunmarried and extremely wealthyas potential husband material, and Vasilii had no intention of getting marriedever.
A muscle flickered in his jaw, as though he'd had to tense his body against a surge of unwanted emotion. Marriage, like any close relationship, meant giving something of yourself to others. It meant commitment, and it meant being vulnerable to loss and thus to the most terrible pain.
The contradiction within him that came from his dual heritage meant that living alongside the modern Russian was a fierce desert warrior, whose handed-down moral code and beliefs were hopelessly out of step with modern-day life. And why should he marry? There wasn't any need. His half-sister Alena's recent marriage to a fellow Russian meant that in all probability there would at some stage be children from that marriage, to work for and take over the family business in due course.
But it wasn't just his aversion to having a female PA that made him antagonistic towards having Laura Westcotte as his PA. Despite her impressive CV, what he'd learned about her through Alena, along with the investigations he'd had made about her, proved she lacked both responsibility and ethics, and therefore could not be trusted. In short, morally she was everything he did not want in his PA. Unfortunately, though, there was no other applicant for the post who was anywhere near as well qualified for it.
It wasn't just that her Mandarin and Russian were, according to all the enquiries he had made about her, beyond compare, it was also that her grasp of the manners and customs of both the modern-day-business and diplomatic Chinese worlds was so nuanced as to be in a class of its own. Those skills were exactly what he desperately needed right now if he was to secure the Chinese contract he had been pursuing for the last fifteen months. Not to secure it wouldn't just affect his business empire and its profits, but also its future growth potential.
No, he had no other choice. He would have to offer Laura Westcotte the job.