Erin met his cool gaze with a feeling of confusion. She had anticipated that this morning’s conversation was going to be difficult in view of what had nearly happened last night, and would need careful handling. She had planned to stick to neutrals—to concentrate on the banal and not give in to all the dark thoughts which were jostling for space inside her head. She had intended to forget last night’s kiss and all the hungry feelings it had provoked, but the look on Dimitri’s face told her she needn’t have worried. It seemed that her concerns about having to resist him again were completely unfounded—because he was looking at her as dispassionately as he might look at a speck of dust on his shirt.
Yet the sight of him striding into the room wearing riding gear was doing dangerous things to her heart rate. Why was he dressed in a way which was so unbelievably provocative? The jodhpurs did things to his body which were only just this side of decent, clinging to every sinew of his muscular thighs and hugging his hips like a second skin. A billowing white silk shirt was tucked into the waistband and hinted at the hard torso which lay beneath. Dark leather knee-length boots completed the outfit and Erin could feel her mouth growing dry because suddenly he looked like every woman’s fantasy. And she had turned him down...
Was she insane?
She cleared her throat. ‘What...what are you doing?’
‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he said, with a touch of impatience in his voice. ‘I’m getting ready to go riding with the Sheikh.’
‘You didn’t mention that last night.’
‘Why? Should I have run it past you first?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said, unable to quell her natural concerns for him, even though he was stonewalling every remark she made. ‘When was the last time you rode?’
She shrugged, but she could feel the familiar flare of fear leaping up inside her.
He seemed so different these days. So cool and in control. A long way from the man who’d never slept—who’d existed on vodka and danger. And now he was putting himself in danger again. He was acting like arrogant, invulnerable Dimitri once more. The man who thought he was charmed—but how long before his charmed life ran out?
She glared at him, resenting the way he was making her feel. She didn’t want to worry about him any more, or fret about him. Those days were over and what he did was none of her business. But something made her say it anyway. Was it the thought of Leo and something happening to the daddy he would only just be getting to know? Or was the shameful truth that she was getting in much deeper than she’d imagined and the thought of something happening to him more than she could bear?
‘Only if you don’t know what you’re doing—and I do. I learned to ride in the Russian army on the famous Don horse—the favoured mount of the Cossacks. Remember?’ His eyes glinted out a challenge. ‘I’ve been well taught, Erin—you know that—and I respect the might and the power of the horse, ever to be flippant about riding one. I do have some redeeming qualities, even if last night you seemed determined to list all my negative ones.’
She bit her lip, wondering if some of the accusations she’d hurled at him had been unduly harsh.
‘Last night.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Those things I said—’
‘Were probably things I needed to hear.’ His eyes glittered. ‘Because most of the things you said were true, and I’m sorry.’
She met his gaze with suspicion and confusion, because contrition was not an emotion she’d ever associated with Dimitri Makarov.
‘Oh,’ she said, unable to keep the faint note of surprise from her voice. ‘Right.’
‘I’ve taken on board that you don’t want any intimacy with me, Erin,’ he said. ‘And with hindsight—I think that may be the best decision.’
Even more confused now, Erin looked at him. ‘You do?’
‘I do. Last night happened for all kinds of reasons, but I’m grateful to you for stopping it in time. Starting a physical relationship creates its own kind of tension between a couple—particularly when it comes to an end. And I think Leo deserves more than his parents warring.’
Now Erin felt completely wrong-footed. ‘You sound...’
Golden-brown eyebrows winged upwards. ‘What?’
She shrugged, unsure how much to say and unwilling to threaten this tentative truce. But last night seemed to have opened up a new channel of communication and maybe it was time to start dealing permanently in the currency of truth. She’d seen the trouble subterfuge could cause and if their uneasy partnership of shared parentage was to have any kind of future, then they needed to be honest with each another. And if sex was off the agenda, they could concentrate on the other stuff. The important stuff.
But that didn’t stop her from being curious. From wondering what made him tick.
‘You make it sound as if you think every physical relationship will end,’ she said.
‘That’s because they do. And if they survive, they are invariably riddled with infidelity. And there’s no need to look at me quite so disapprovingly, Erin. I’ve never made any secret of my cynicism. You should know that better than anyone.’
‘I do.’ She hesitated. ‘It’s just I’ve never known why.’
‘It wouldn’t take a genius to work it out.’ His voice roughened. ‘Don’t they say that the first relationship you observe is the blueprint for your own life?’
‘You mean your parents weren’t happy?’
‘No, they weren’t,’ he said, but he quickly followed up his answer with another question, as if eager to change the subject. ‘Though I suppose your childhood was all milk and honey and picnics on the weekend?’
‘Well, that’s what my parents were aiming for,’ she said, watching as he picked up his riding crop to twist it between his fingers. ‘Only, my perfect childhood didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to. If ever we had picnics, then the sandwiches were jam and the bread was stale, because there was never enough money to go round.’
She sighed. ‘Because my parents were impossible romantics. They’ve spent their lives following the demands of their hearts, but never bothered listening to their heads. They live in Australia now. They went there after seeing a documentary on ostrich farming and decided to start up a farm of their own. They were seduced by big blue skies and a hot sun and the idea of being close to the earth—without stopping to think that a little bit of farming experience might be a good idea before they actually channelled all their savings into it.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘What happened?’
She shrugged. ‘What everyone told them would happen, only they were too stubborn to pay any attention. They lost all their money and the farm was repossessed—and now my mother has had the bright idea of making silver jewellery, at a time when mass-market products are in the ascendancy, so nobody is buying hers. They are currently travelling around New South Wales in a camper van, selling her wares in markets and barely making enough money to make ends meet.’
He was silent for a minute. ‘And what do these two impossible romantics think of Leo?’ he asked suddenly. ‘Do they mind you having a child out of wedlock? Are they close to their grandson?’
She shook her head. ‘No, they’re not close to him—at least, not geographically. We email and talk via the internet once a week, but it’s not quite the same thing. They can’t afford to come to England and I was only able to afford to fly out there once. That was...’ She hesitated.
His eyes narrowed.