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Rosa Baranski sat on the kitchen worktop, ostensibly waiting for the coffee percolator to finish, and gazed down at the slate tiles. She hated the flooring. Even with the benefit of under-f loor heating it always felt so cold.
It was incredible to think she had once lived in a house of the same proportions as the place she currently called home. In that, her first children's home, she had shared the house with forty other children and an ever-rotating shift of adults. The home had been a hub of noise and chaos, something she had hated until she had discovered how terrifying silence could be and how loneliness could destroy your soul.
Back then, her bedroom had been around the same size as the one she had now. Then, she had shared it with four other girls.
In those dark days and nights she had dreamed of escape.
Around two decades on, and for entirely different reasons, she had come to the painful conclusion that she needed to escape again. At least now she had the power simply to leave.
But she could not do anything until she had spoken to Nico. However much her stomach churned at the thought, she could not leave without an explanation. It wouldn't be fair.
For what seemed the hundredth time she read the text message on her phone, her stomach twisting at the bland, almost curt words that leapt off the screen. It was from her brother.
She'd received it a week ago and could not stop reading it. She should delete it but she couldn't. It was her only tangible link to him.
Shifting her position in order to peer out of the window, she felt her belly do a funny skipping thing as she spotted the sleek black Maserati crunch slowly over the long gravel driveway before disappearing from view.
Nicolai was home.
The dread coursing through her bloodstream was reminiscent of the first time she had met him. She had attended an interview for the role of his temporary PA, providing maternity cover for his regular PA, who had gone into early labour.
She had sat in a large waiting room with five other potential candidates. She hadn't been able to help but notice that the secretary who had been placed in charge of them visibly braced herself every time she knocked on his office door. The other candidates must have noticed it too. All of them had sat in hushed, almost reverential silence.
If Nico Baranski's reputation had not already preceded him, the sight of the candidates' faces after they had been interviewed would have been enough to terrify them. One by one they left his office ashen-faced. One woman had been blinking back tears.
Rosa had been the last to go in.
By that point her nerves had been shredded.
She had entered the plush, masculine office and been confronted with an immovable body behind a huge oak desk and a hard, unwavering stare.
She had breathed a visible sigh of relief.
Far from the living embodiment of an ogre her febrile mind had conjured during the long wait for her turn, Nicolai Baranski was but a mere mortal. An enormously well-built, gorgeous mortal, but a mortal all the same.
Her relief had been so great her nerves had disappeared.
When he had finally spoken, inviting her to sit in rapid Russian, she had responded in kind without missing a single beat.
Only by the flicker of an eyebrow had he shown any response to her fluency.
'It says on your resume that you studied Russian at university and then spent a year working in St Petersburg for the Danask Group after your graduation, before transferring back to London,' he had said, flipping through a pile of paper in front of him.
'That is correct.'
He looked up, the brilliance of his light green eyes piercing her. 'Your references are excellent. You are clearly a valued member of the Danask Group. Why do you want to leave?'
'I have gone as far as I can and I am looking for a new challenge. I have already worked my notice with them,' she added, knowing this position needed to be filled quickly.
'How many other jobs have you applied for?'
'None. This is the only one I thought suitable.'
'You do realise the job involves a lot of travel?'
'That is one of the reasons I applied.' The idea of escaping London and her deteriorating home life sounded wonderful. Not that she would say such a thing to him. Rosa kept a strict demarcation between her business and her personal life.
'You will often be required to leave the UK at short notice.'
'I will carry a travel case at all times for such eventualities.'
'You should know I am not interested in hiring someone who clock-watches.'
'I am aware of your reputation, Gaspadin Baranski,' she replied, matching his coolness of tone. 'You pay an excellent salary for good reason.'
He studied her with narrowed eyes before pulling a document wallet out of his top drawer and handing it to her. 'Translate that for me.'
The document was in Russian. She scanned it for a moment before translating. When she was done, Nico leaned back on his chair, a thoughtful expression on his face. 'When can you start?'
And that was it. The job had been hers. She had started immediately.
Now, she inhaled deeply and slowly, pulling the ponytail at the back of her head as tight as she could.
If there was one thing she had learned it was that when there was a potentially unpleasant job to do it was better to face it head-on. Get it over with. Even if it meant telling her husband news for which she had no way of knowing how he would react.
It wasn't until she heard movement from the door connecting the house with the underground garage that she snapped out of her stupor and jumped down, wincing as her bare feet hit the cold floor.
Shoving the phone into her pocket, she used all her powers of concentration to keep her hands steady and pour coffee into the waiting mug without spilling it everywhere.
Would he even bother seeking her out? Or would he hide away in his study as he so often did nowadays?
She listened to the sound of the study door being opened, followed less than a minute later by the sound of the same door closing. Muted footsteps grew closer until he was there, leaning nonchalantly against the kitchen doorframe, filling the space, arms folded across his broad chest.
'Hello, Nico.' She threw him a brief smile, praying he couldn't see the way her knees knocked together. Even though it was Sunday, and he had spent a good portion of the day travelling, he was impeccably dressed in a crisp white shirt, an incredibly snazzy silver-and-pink tie, and tailored dark grey trousers. It made her pale blue jogging bottoms and white T-shirt look positively grungy by comparison. 'Good trip?'
He considered, folding his arms across his chest. 'It could have been worse. I'm not yet convinced they are the kind of people I wish to do business with.'
Which undoubtedly meant he would not be investing in the mineral extraction facility he had spent the best part of a week scrutinising.
He nodded. 'Where's Gloria?' he asked, referring to their housekeeper.
She opened a cupboard and pulled a mug out. 'Her grandson has a bad dose of chicken-pox and she wants to give her daughter a break, so I've given her the weekend off.'
A furrow appeared on his brow. 'Why would you do that?'
Rosa rolled her eyes and poured coffee into the mug before adding a splash of milk. A few drops spilled onto the granite worktop. She wiped it absently with her wrist. 'I did it because she was worried about her daughter.'
'Her daughter is a fully grown woman.'
'That doesn't mean Gloria has abdicated her maternal feelings.' Not that Rosa knew anything about being the recipient of maternal feelings. Not since the age of five, when her mother had abandoned her. She held the mug out to him. 'Besides, it worked in my favour. I need to talk to you.' And she would prefer not to talk in front of an audience.
'That can wait for a minute. I have something for you.' Unfolding his arms, Nico produced a small gift-wrapped package and handed it to her, taking his mug in exchange. 'Happy birthday.'
Stunned at the gifttwo days too lateshe stared up at him. 'Thank you.'
His light green eyes sparkled. 'You're welcome. I'm sorry I didn't make it back in time to take you out.'
'Don't worry about it. Business comes first.' She tried to speak without rancour. Business always came first. In effect, their whole marriage was nothing more than a business transaction.
When she had agreed to what could only be described as a marriage of convenience, she could not have known there would come a point when something she accepted as part of the pact they had made would start to eat at her. She could not have known that something inside her would shift.
The idea of marriageindeed, the deed itselfhad come about in California. They had spent over a week there, working on the purchase of a mining facility. Once the final contract had been signed Nico had insisted on treating the whole team to a meal to celebrate.
They had been the last two standing. After ten days of continuous slog, Rosa had been ready to let her hair down. To her surprise, Nico had been in the mood to cut loose too.
When he'd suggested a drink in the bar that jutted out over the calm ocean she had readily agreed.
It was the first time they had been alone together in what could have been described as a social setting.
They had settled in a corner, the lapping ocean surrounding them. On Nico's instructions the bartender had brought two shot glasses and a bottle of vodka to their table.
Nico had poured them both a hefty measure and raised his glass. 'To Rosa Carty,' he had said with an approving nod.
'The most efficient PA in the western hemisphere.' She had been flummoxed at the unexpected compliment. 'I just do my job.'
'And you do it superbly. I am the envy of my compatriots.'
Before she could respond her phone buzzed for the ninth time that evening.
'Who keeps messaging you?' he asked with a definite hint of irritation.
'My ex,' she muttered, firing a text back.
'Your ex? If he is an ex, why is he contacting you?'
He leant forward. 'We are off the clock now, Rosa. We are socializing, not preparing a board meeting. Tell me.'
They might be 'off the clock', as he so eloquently put it, but there was no mistaking a direct order. 'I changed the locks of my flat before coming to California. He's not very happy about it but I'm fed up with him turning up and letting himself in whenever he feels like it.'
A shadow crossed Nico's eyes. 'Has he threatened you?'
'Not in a physical sense. He's convinced that if he keeps the pressure up I'll go back to him.' She straightened her spine. 'But I won't. Sooner or later he'll get the message.'
'When did you end it?'
'Two months ago.'
'You'd have thought he'd have got the message by now.'
As if proving his point, her phone buzzed again.
Before she could open the message he reached over and removed the mobile from her hand.
'If you keep answering you'll only encourage him,' he said in a no-nonsense manner.
'If I don't answer he sends twice as many.' As she spoke Nico's smartphone beeped in turn.
He looked at the screen, then back at Rosa. 'How long were you with him?'
He held his smartphone up. 'I enjoyed the grand total of two dates with Sophie before she started hinting at making things permanent.' His lips tightened. 'I ended it but she will not accept it. It is always the same. Women always want to make things permanent.'
'That's because you're such a catch,' she said, snatching her phone back. 'How old are you? Thirty-five?'
'Thirty-six,' he corrected.
She looked back down at her phone and read the latest pleading message. 'Well, thenthey all think you're ready to settle down.'
'Not with one of them.' He downed his shot of vodka and then tapped the side of Rosa's full glass. 'Your turn. And if you don't turn your phone off I will throw it in the ocean.'
'Try it,' she said absently, her attention focused on the screen in front of her. She had tried everything to make Stephen get the message. Being nice. Being cruel. None of it was getting through to him.
Before her finger could even touch the keypad to form a response Nico took the phone out of her hand and threw it over the railing and into the ocean. It made a lovely splashing sound before disappearing into the dark water.
The anger that surged through her blood at this highhanded, outrageous act was as unexpected as the deed itself.
She stared at him in disbelief.
There was no contrition. He simply sat there with one brow raised, his features arranged into a perfect display of nonchalance.
She could never have known then that less than twelve hours later she would marry him.
But she had married him. And now she had to deal with the consequences.
Walking over to the long breakfast bar, grabbing her mug of coffee on the way, she hooked a stool out with her foot and took a seat. Her stomach was doing funny flipping motions and she could not take her eyes off the beautiful gift-wrapping. It must have taken him ages to get it so perfect.
It was not until she turned the gift upside down to unwrap it that she saw the sticker holding the ribbon to the box. She recognised the insignia on it and knew in an instant that it had been professionally gift-wrapped. She tried not to let dejection set in. So what if he hadn't wrapped it himself? He had thought of her.
Tearing it open, she found a bottle of expensive perfume.
Nico took the stool opposite and gazed at her expectantly. Black stubble had broken out on his chiselled jawline which, combined with his neatly trimmed goatee, gave him a slightly sinister yet wholly masculine air. His usually tousled black hair was even messier than usual. Rosa found herself fighting her own hands to stop herself from smoothing it downan urge that had been increasing over recent months, and an urge that only served to prove that the course of action she was about to take was for the best.
She looked back at the gift. 'It's lovely. Thank you.' Then she made the mistake of turning it over in her hand and catching sight of the duty-free label on the bottom.
It brought to mind the old T-shirt she recalled one of her foster sisters continuously wearing: 'My dad went to Blackpool and all he brought me was this lousy T-shirt'. Most likely it was the only gift the child's father had brought her.
In Nico's case he had been to Morocco. And all he had brought her was some duty-free perfume. As a birthday present.
If she hadn't known how offended he would be she would have laughed. Although generous to a fault, Nico was simply not wired to lavish gifts on people. He hadn't even bought her a Christmas cardhad been astonished to receive the gift of a silk tie and cufflinks from her.
She would bet none of his lovers had ever been kissed off with an expensive piece of jewellery. His brain did not work that way. The very fact that he had bought something for her touched her deeply, lodging a crumb of doubt into her certainty.