‘I’m afraid it does look as if we might have to postpone the wedding,’ she said, as apologetically as she could—though nothing in her vocabulary seemed a suitable response for such a bizarre situation. What could she say? She looked around nervously, like a stage compère facing a hostile audience. ‘Dimitri is—’
‘The only man she really wants—as her public capitulation has just proved,’ said the Russian with cool arrogance and an even more arrogant smile, which only emphasised the rage in his eyes. ‘Isn’t that right, Erin?’
And now she saw something more than danger in his eyes. She saw the dark flicker of knowledge and Erin’s heart twisted with pain. He did know! He must know. Had he somehow found out about Leo?
Her instinct was to get away from him and she wondered what would happen if she just picked up the skirts of her long dress and ran as fast as her feet could take her. The anonymous grey of the autumnal London day would swallow her up, leaving Dimitri far behind. She could take her wedding dress back to the same thrift shop from which she’d bought it. She could pick up Leo from school herself and tell him that Mummy wasn’t going away on holiday after all and that they wouldn’t be moving to a big house in the country.
If she ran away from him, she could cope—somehow. True, none of her immediate problems would have been solved, but she felt as if she could deal with anything as long as it wasn’t beneath the Russian’s unforgiving scrutiny and the fear of what he might or might not know.
But he had placed his hand at the small of her back—a light but proprietorial gesture which somehow managed to send out conflicting reactions of desire and dread. And she knew she wouldn’t be running anywhere, any time soon.
‘I’m sure this kind of thing happens all the time,’ he said smoothly. ‘The bride getting cold feet when she realises she’s making a big mistake.’
The registrar put her pen down. ‘Perhaps you would all like to leave the building,’ she said quietly, ‘and sort out your problems somewhere else?’
‘My sentiments entirely. Do you happen to have a room we could use to talk in private?’ questioned Dimitri in a pleasant tone which didn’t quite conceal the steely note of determination. And then he smiled and it was like the moon appearing from behind a dark cloud. ‘Please?’
The registrar looked up at him, her disapproving expression melting away beneath the sensual impact of that unexpected smile.
‘There is somewhere you can use,’ she said grudgingly. ‘But please don’t be long.’
‘Oh, we won’t be long. It won’t take long for me to say what I need to say,’ said Dimitri softly, his hand still at the small of Erin’s back. ‘That I can promise you.’
‘Come with me, then.’
They all followed the registrar out into the corridor and the two witnesses who’d been plucked from the street shrugged their shoulders and headed for the exit, probably to the nearest pub. Erin saw the shell-shocked expression on Chico’s face as Dimitri ushered her past and her feelings of powerlessness only increased.
The registrar was opening the door to a featureless-looking room, but now that some of the initial shock was leaving her system Erin started to recover some of her equilibrium. Remember why you were doing this, she reminded herself fiercely. There were good, solid reasons why you did what you did.
And out there stood a confused man who had never been anything but a good friend to her.
Pulling away from Dimitri, she glared at him. ‘I have to go and talk to Chico. I have to explain what is happening,’ she said, even though she wasn’t entirely sure herself. ‘Wait here for me.’
But he caught hold of her wrist, his fingers vice-like against the frantic hammering of her pulse. ‘Okay, speak to him if you must—but make it brief. And just make sure you come back, Erin,’ he said, his voice cold. ‘Because if you try to run away I will find you. Be in no doubt about that.’
She pulled away from him and went to find Chico, trying to explain why there wasn’t going to be a wedding, her heart twisting with distress as she saw his face crumple. But by the time she returned to the featureless room where Dimitri was waiting, her distress had turned into anger and she was shaking with rage as she shut the door behind her. ‘You had no right to do that!’ she flared.
‘I had every right,’ he said. ‘And you know it. And what is more—you didn’t fight me very hard, did you? If you don’t want a man near you, then you shouldn’t kiss him as if you want him to do it to you right then and there.’
‘Is that what I am, Erin?’
‘You know you are!’
‘Shouldn’t you think very carefully about applying that particular word as an insult?’
His loaded words precipitated something—it must have been shock—for why else would her teeth have started chattering so violently? She made one last attempt at rebellion. He has no real hold over you, she told herself fiercely. He’s not your guardian or your keeper, or your boss. ‘I’m going now,’ she said, meeting his eyes with a defiant stare. ‘I want to go home.’
He laughed very softly and the sound filled her with dread.
‘Please don’t be delusional,’ he said. ‘We both know you aren’t going anywhere—at least not until you and I have had a little talk. So sit down.’
Part of her wanted to object to the masterful way he sat her down on a nearby chair, but in truth she was grateful because her knees felt as if they might give way at any minute. But any feeling of gratitude was soon forgotten when she looked into the determined set of his face. She’d forgotten just how ruthless he could be. How he moved people around as if they were pawns on his own personal chessboard. As his secretary she’d been granted the rare gift of immunity to his whims, because once he had liked her and respected her.
Sitting huddled in her too-big wedding dress, she stared up at him. ‘Now what?’
‘Now you tell me all about your Brazilian lover,’ he drawled. ‘Is he hot between the sheets?’
‘He isn’t...’ She hesitated, wondering how much he already knew. ‘Chico isn’t my lover—as I suspect you may have worked out for yourself, since he’s gay.’
His mouth twisted. ‘So it isn’t a love match?’
‘You’re marrying a gay man,’ he said slowly. ‘Who I suspect is paying you for the privilege. Maybe he needs a visa, or a work permit.’ His icy eyes glittered. ‘Am I right, Erin?’
Did her face give her away? Did guilt wrap itself around her features so that he was able to give the smug smile of someone who’d just had his hunch confirmed?
‘And that—as we both know—is against the law,’ he continued softly.
Shaking herself out of her stupor, she glared at him, telling herself that attack was the best form of defence. ‘Is that why you turned up out of the blue today, to point out the finer points of the law?’ She willed herself not to show fear even though inside her heart was pumping like a piston. Brazen it out, she told herself. Just brazen it out. ‘Is that what this is all about, Dimitri—are you about to report me to the authorities?’
Suddenly, his face changed and Erin knew that when he spoke his voice would be different, too. It would be steely and matter-of-fact instead of mocking and casual. He was bored with playing games and was about to cut to the chase. She knew him much too well.
‘But you already know the answer to that question, Erin. You’ve known since the moment you turned round and saw me. You just haven’t had the guts to come out and admit it.’ In the featureless room with the blinds