Authors: Carol Marinelli
was beyond embarrassed.
She sat at her desk, scalding in her own skin for a full minute, before she could even think of going back out there.
Her first day with her new boss and he'd found her not daydreaming, not dozing, but fast asleep at her desk. Lavinia was used to bouncing back, and she normally did so with a bright smile, but she didn't even try to summon one as she headed for the gallows.
âI'm sorry, Zakâ¦' She walked into his office where he sat, but her voice trailed off when he gestured her to sit and she realised he was on the phone, talking in Russian. Whatever he was saying, Lavinia was quite sure that it wasn't complimentary
His voice was rich and low. He did not shoutâthere was no need to. There was a ring of confidence and strong assertion behind each word, and she was quite sure this was a man who rarely had to repeat himself.
He was incredibly good-looking, but that was pretty much the norm around hereâhe was no better than his brothers.
, Lavinia conceded.
As if God had made him perfect and then, happy with the formula, had kept on going. There was a salient beauty to himâone that demanded closer inspectionâand, just as she would examine the shots of a new Kolovsky model, Lavinia briefly scanned his features. There was rare perfect symmetry to his bone structure, and his high cheekbones and straight Roman nose were a photographer's dream, or nightmare. For not for a second could Lavinia imagine him posing for the camera. There was nothing compliant about those grey eyes, no
in his demeanour. Normally she could sum a person up easily, but she was struggling to do so with Zakahrâespecially now he had caught her looking.
His eyes held hers as he hung up the phone, and Lavinia felt a warmth spread over her cheeks as he refused to drop his gaze. Rarelyâvery rarelyâit was Lavinia who looked away first, Lavinia who broke a silence that appeared to be only uncomfortable to her.
âI'd like to apologise for beforeâI didn't get any sleep last night, you seeâ¦'
âAre you fit to work?' Zakahr did not care for excuses, and he cut right in. âYes or no?'
âYes.' Lavinia bristled as he refused her attempt to explain.
He stood, leaving her sitting, and went to make the coffeeâit was the only way he would ensure it got done. Zakahr was in fact the one battling a hangover. Aleksi's wedding had been hell. He had done the right thing by the man who had tried to do the same for him, but as soon as he'd been able to Zakahr had got out of there and away from the woman he loathed.
He had done everything he could during the service not to look at Nina, the woman who was by biology only his mother, to just ignore herânot to care. Since finding out he was her son Nina had been admitted to a plush psychiatric hospital.
Karma, Zakahr thought darkly.
There was a saying he had learnt as a childâas the call, so the echo. How good he should feel that it was Nina institutionalised now, and that it was he running his parents' empire. It should have been a feeling to savourâonly yesterday had found him sitting in an anonymous taxi, staring at the hospital, trying to brace himself to go in.
There was so much to say, so much she
to hear in a long-awaited confrontationâexcept, hearing how ill she was, at the final hurdle Zakahr had balked with rare charity, unable to add to her pain.
He had ordered a taxi to the casino, consoled himself that if he chose, soon there would be no House of Kolovsky, soon he could walk away with the name erased and pretend it had never existedâas his parents had done to him. Zakahr had tried to lose himself in noise and stunning women, yet despite his intentions nothing had appealed, and he had spent the night back at the hotel, dousing the bitter churn of emotion in his stomach with hundred-year-old brandy.
And now he was making his assistant coffee!
Seething, he handed her a cup. She tasted it and then screwed up her face and moaned about too much sugar.
He should, Zakahr realised, fire her on the spot.
Just tell her to get out.
Except despite her total lack of professionalism, despite her possibly being the worst Assistant PA in memory, for a little while at least he needed her. Begrudgingly. Extremely begrudgingly. Aleksi had given him a passwordâone that supposedly accessed all areasâbut he had to get in to the system first!
âWhat is the password?' Zakahr asked. âFor the computer?'
âH-o-K.' Lavinia said, and when that didn't work for him she elaborated. âThe
is lower case.'
He shot her a look. âI want to address everyone together this morning,' Zakahr said. âThen I want you to arrange fifteen-minute blocks for everyone from cleaner to top designer. After lunch I want the first one at my deskâyou co-ordinate it. I want their history file in front of meâ¦'
âYou can't.' She watched his lips purse a touchâpresumably
was a word rarely said to Zakahrâbut he really couldn't. âWe have dignitaries arriving. King Abdullah's daughterâshe's coming for a fitting.'
âAnd?' Zakahr shrugged.
âOnce a month or so we have an esteemed bridal guestâa Kolovsky always greets her at the airport and brings her back hereâ¦'
âHere?' Zakahr frownedâbecause surely they would head straight for a hotel?
âHere,' Lavinia confirmed. âBecause this is the moment she's been dreaming of.' He was far too male to understand. âAnyway, she's hardly been cooped up in Economy. She will have been in their own jet. But
someone high up has to greet themâit's what happens, what's expected.'
âThe designer can go,' Zakahr dismissed, but when Lavinia still stood there he offered rare compromise. âYou goâif you have to.'
Lavinia ignored this. âAnd then, as their host, you will invite her to dinner later in the week, and if their stay has been satisfactory you and your guest will be invited by her family to dinnerâ¦' She frowned for a minute. âI think it's that way aroundâyes, in a few days she'll ask you to dinner to thank Kolovsky for its hospitality. She's here for a couple of weeks, as the wedding is only a couple of months off.' She saw him frown. âThere are normally a number of tripsâJasmine's doing it all in one.'
âThe designers can take care of that side of things.'
âThe designers are busy designing.' Lavinia rolled her eyes with impatience. âThe design team will be working day and night on the first designsâ¦'
âI have more important things to do than meet some spoiled princess at the airport.'
âFine.' Lavinia shrugged. âThen so do I.' She turned to go, then changed her mind. âThese things matter, Zakahr.' He was working on the computer and didn't look up, and though in truth it wasn't Lavinia's problem, on her previous bosses' behalf it incensed her. âThis is the biggest day of the Princess's life we've been entrusted with. It's her
!' Lavinia said.
But that word clearly didn't move him, and if he didn't care then neither should sheâexcept Lavinia did.
âI've got a lot going on in my life right now, Zakahr.
And, just for the record, I
race to get here because the new head of Kolovsky was taking office, I
sit putting on my make-up to impress
âI'm here and ready because I knew that the Princess had to be met. I'm not at my best with our international guestsâKate hated sending me. I forget things, I talk too much, or I show the soles of my feet and such. But I turned up today to try to do what is expected, because that's what Kolovsky is aboutâbeautiful gowns, beautiful women, and at the top of the food chain those blasted wedding gowns.'
He just sat there. Zakahr did not need to be told how things were done by some Assistant PA who fell asleep at her desk. Except he knew he just had been. She was a strange mix, Zakahr decided. Disorganised, yet conscientious. There was also a brazenness to herâa boldness in her slender stature as she awaited his response, hand on hip, toes resisting tapping. Still he said nothing.
âFine,' she shrilled to the cold silence. âI'll go myself.'
But first she had to make a phone callâ¦
Back at her desk, Lavinia checked the Princess's flight details, and that the cars were all ready, and waited anxiously for the clock to edge to nine before picking up the phone and dialling.
Ms Hewitt, Rachael's case worker, sounded more angry than exasperated. âI spoke with you on Friday. You cannot ring in for daily checksâyou are
her next of kin.'
âI'm trying to be, though.' Lavinia resisted the urge
to say something smart, knowing that she needed these people to be on her side. âI just want to know that she's okay, and to find out when I can see her.'
âRachael's father is visiting her on Wednesday evening, and again on Sunday. Really, it's very unsettling for Rachael to have so many visitors.'
âShe's my half-sister,' Lavinia bristled. âHow can it be
for her to see me?'
âI'll speak with her carers and see if we can arrange something.'
âAnd that's it?' Lavinia asked. âCan I at least have a phone number so that I can ring her?'
âWe'll contact you if we need to.' Ms Hewitt would not be swayed. âI'll see if I can arrange a visit.'
Lavinia somehow managed to thank her, then replaced the phone and buried her head in her hands. She hated the lack of speedâcouldn't stand what was happening to Rachaelâand knew that Kevin, Rachael's father, was still probably dredging up every piece of dirt he could on Lavinia. He'd done everything he could to shut her out of the little girl's life. Maybe it was better that she was at work, because otherwise she'd be standing outside the kindergarten, waiting for Rachael to arrive, and that wouldn't go down well. Lavinia knew she had to stay calm. Had to accept that nothing was going to happen fastâand that she had to prove she was the responsible one.
âSorry to inconvenience you with work.'
Lavinia looked up to the owner of the voice that dripped sarcasm. He was holding out her jacket, and she didn't even attempt to explain herself. She knew
how bad this looked. Instead she just took her jacket and clipped ahead, trying to switch her mind to the job, to being the happy, outgoing person she was at work, whatever the problems in her private life.
They used the rear entrance. A huge limo swallowed them up, with another following to accommodate the royal entourage, and they headed for the airport as Lavinia filled him in as best she could on Princess Jasmine's details. Even Zakahr's eyes widened when she told him what this gown and the dresses for the bridesmaids would be costing King Abdullah.
No wonder Kolovsky, despite everything, was still riding high.
For Zakahr, it was in fact a relief to get out of the officeâto get away from the scent of Kolovsky, the surroundingsâand for the first time since he had taken over he felt the creep of doubt. He had given himself a month to come to a decision. He was starting to wonder if he could stand to be there for even a week.
For years he had watched the House of Kolovsky from a distance, researching them thoroughly. Levander, Ivan's illegitimate son, had been brought over from Russia as a teenager and given the golden key to Kolovsky. There was no mention of Riminic, Nina and Ivan's firstborn.
Riminic Ivan Kolovsky they had named their baby, as was the Russian wayâRiminic, son of Ivanâthen at two days old they had taken him to Detsky Dom. Some orphanages were good, but Nina and Ivan had not chosen well. The Kolovsky name meant only hate to Zakahr.
At thirteen he had left the orphanage and had done what he had to to survive on the streets. At seventeen
he had been given a chanceâshelter, access to a computer, to a different path. Discarding his birth name, he had followed that path with a visionâand that vision included revenge.
As rumours had escalated that Levander had been raised in Detsky Dom, of course the House of Kolovsky had rapidly developed a social conscience, raising great sums for orphanages and street children.
Zakahr had been doing it since his first pay cheque.
And so he had made contactâattending a charity ball Nina had organised as guest speaker, telling the glamorous audience the true hell of his upbringing and his life on the streets. Nina had been sipping on champagne as she had unwittingly met her son.
âIt's not just a gown.'
Lavinia dragged him from his thoughts. She was still in full flood, Zakahr realised. She'd probably been talking for five minutes and he hadn't heard a word!
âIt's the experience, it's working out the exact colour scheme, it's watching how she walks, her figure, her personalityâthat's why she has to come to us. For the next few days the Princess will be the sole focus of our designers. Every detail has to be sorted out while she's here. The team will be in regular contact afterwards, of courseâand then a week before the wedding our team will fly to her and take care of everything. Hair, make-upâthe works. All the Princess will have to do is smile on the day.'
âAnd how many weddings?' Zakahr asked. âHow often do we have to do this?'
âOnce, sometimes twice a month,' Lavinia said, and
then, when she saw his face tighten, it was Lavinia who couldn't resist. âAnd what with it coming in to spring in Europe we're exceptionally busy now. You'll be doing this a lot.'
âGreat,' he muttered. Talking weddings was so
They sat in silence, and the car was so lovely and warm, and she was just so, so tired, that Lavinia leant back in the sumptuous leather. She wasn't at her desk now, so she did what she would have done had it been any of her old bosses there, and closed her eyes.