Milly felt her breath catch in her throat as her manager, Simon, came into the small kitchenette and informed her that Roman Zaretsky had just arrived at the exclusive Club Lounge of Ravello’s—a luxurious London hotel where Milly worked serving their most esteemed guests.
How Milly wished that she had made just a little more effort with her appearance tonight. The cream suit that was her uniform was unflattering for her plump figure, though there was nothing she could do about that. Still, had she known that seriously gorgeous Roman would be in tonight then Milly would have, as she usually did, taken the time to straighten her long red curls and worn just a little bit more make up. Instead, she had stayed a little too long visiting her mother in the nursing home. It had been nice to see her mother, Catherine, in such a good mood and reminiscing about when Milly’s father had been alive. So much so that, instead of dashing home to her small studio flat to get ready for work, Milly had spent time chatting with her mother. She had got caught in a spring shower on her way to work and had arrived a little breathless, her hair damp, but just on time for her evening shift.
“I thought that Roman was supposed to be at his uncle’s funeral today,” Simon commented.
“That was this morning,” Milly said, because she had watched the coverage on the news. “It’s now eight at night.”
“Which is rather tame by Zaretsky standards,” Simon said as Milly went over to a small mirror to refresh her make-up. She pinned a couple of stray curls back into place and reapplied her coral lip-gloss.
As if Roman would even notice, Milly thought. He dated seriously glamorous women.
Well, dating was probably a bit of an overstatement.
Still, as she took the shine off her nose, her two-minute make-over made her feel a little more ready to face him.
“Dear shy, sweet Milly.” Simon said as he watched her. “Roman Zaretsky would crush you in the palm of his hand.”
“I know that he would,” Milly smiled.
“What a way to go though!” Simon, who was very camp, sighed. “He’s completely divine.”
“I thought that you didn’t like him?” Milly frowned. Simon always groaned whenever Roman came into the Club Lounge and was on tenterhooks until he left.
“Oh I like him. In fact, I have a huge crush on him,” Simon corrected. “I just don’t like having a ticking time bomb sitting in my Club. He’s already pissed. Be mean with his drinks, Milly—I want to get out of here bang on time tonight. I certainly don’t want to be filling out incident reports because Roman’s decided to trash the place.”
“He’ll be fine,” Milly said.
“Maybe he shall. He does seem to behave for you. Hey, did you see that Isaak has gone and got engaged?”
Milly had! Roman’s brother’s surprise engagement was all over the news and Internet.
Roman and Isaak Zaretsky were notorious for their bad boy ways and were more known for their reputation with women than their amazing business successes. Roman had actually been married for a short while, but his pregnant wife had died a few months ago in a car crash and it still hadn’t made it to yesterday’s news. In a bid to escape the frenzy of the press, Roman had checked into Ravello’s under a pseudonym.
Everyone knew who he was though.
Since his arrival at Ravello’s, there had been many wild parties held in the presidential suite that had Roman’s signature all over them. He merely paid for the damage and then proceeded to do it all over again.
A little more satisfied with her appearance, Milly tried to concentrate on pouring two glasses of champagne over strawberries for a couple who were here on their honeymoon. Knowing Roman had arrived though, meant that her hands were shaking and the bubbles cascaded over the side of the glasses.
“Milly!” Simon scolded.
She went to tip the drinks down the sink but Simon told her to leave them at the side and they shared a little smile.
One of the perks of the job was the leftovers! When the complimentary drinks and hors d’oeuvre finished at nine pm—and once they’d set up for breakfast, Milly and Simon would be eating the leftovers and drinking, the best, albeit flat, French champagne.
Milly picked up the glasses to head out there.
“Remember to call him Mr. Mason, or Andrew,” Simon warned and Milly nodded.
As she walked out and saw Roman sitting staring out of the window in a black suit, so palpable was his grief that Milly ached to go over and offer condolences, but instead she took the newly-weds their drinks and made a little small-talk with them about the stunning view of London.
Clifford, a judge who stayed at the hotel during the week when he was overseeing a trial, was clamouring for her attention. Clifford gave her the creeps and was always a touch too suggestive. Milly was more than used to it. Some of the upper-class guests assumed that because she worked here and was paid to be friendly, this meant that there might be favours later. It happened with some of the other staff—she was quite sure it happened with Simon—but Milly was blushing and shy around men, though she did her level best not to show that at work.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, Clifford,” Milly sweetly smiled and recalled her mother’s oft-repeated words when she was growing up—you should be an actress, Milly.
Here, in The Club, her acting ability got her through.
Tomorrow, in real life, she might actually become one! Milly used to work here by day, and perform in small productions by night. Painfully shy in real life, on stage—behind the mask of make-up and costume—Milly came alive, but she had had to give up that dream to look after her mother. With her mother now in a home, slowly the dream was coming back and she had an important audition tomorrow.
Milly made her way over to Roman. His black tie was loosened and his long legs were stretched out and he was strumming the table with his fingers. He really was incredibly beautiful, with solemn grey eyes and a full sulky mouth. His brown hair was brushed back and tousled. There was so much restrained energy to him, so much tension, that it might merit Milly being a little nervous in her approach but, unlike Simon, she wasn’t fazed by Roman.
“Good evening, Mr. Mason.” Milly smiled her corporate smile to Roman. “It’s nice to see you back.”
“Milly.” Roman nodded in brief response.
They had established their routine the night Roman had first checked in and she had gone over and introduced herself and asked if she could get him a drink.
“Vodka.” He had given a one-word response and had offered no please, and no thank you when she had brought it to him. That first night she had placed his drink on a small coaster that bore the hotel crest, and as she had turned away almost immediately, he had called her back and had given a brief nod to his now empty glass. Milly had removed it and brought him another drink and Roman had told her that in future he would prefer the vodka to be kept in the freezer and the glasses to be kept cold.
They never deviated from their routine and Milly wasn’t expecting to tonight.
“May I get you a drink?” Milly offered.
He watched as Milly blinked and then she gave a small nod and headed over to another guest.
Roman sat idly watching Milly.
She looked amazing tonight, her hair was a little wild and pinned up and he would love to take it down.
Milly, Roman knew, was the reason that he was here tonight.
Ivor’s funeral had been hell. Returning to the cemetery where Ava had been buried a few months ago, had done nothing to help his dark mood.
Somehow, Milly soothed him.
It was a surprise to Roman that he admitted it even to himself.
He knew how shy she was. Occasionally, they ran into each other in the corridor when he came down to Club and she was on her way into work—her face would redden and she could barely manage to say hi. Sometimes, if he was at the elevators when she came out at the end of her shift, Milly would take the stairs rather than stand with him and wait.
Here, at work, she was outwardly confident, but Roman knew otherwise.
There was little reason to be staying now at Ravello’s—he owned several hotels in London, yet had chosen to come here, initially for the anonymity and that he didn’t want his own staff watching him go under. The press all knew that he was here now and sat within legal distance of the hotel, waiting for him to appear. Or for news to leak that he had trashed yet another room, or got into a fight, or was dating again, as only the Zaretsky brothers could date. He still could not bear to go back to his penthouse where the final fight with Ava had taken place.
Milly was the reason he was here.
There was a certain comfort to her. Her scent was a familiar one, though last night she had changed her perfume and he had commented on that. She had blushed and said it was a present.
He wondered from whom.
He liked the way she did not intrude upon him. She was as polite as the other staff, yet there was no stuffiness to her. Milly did not make unnecessary small talk, nor was she anxious around him in the way that the manager Simon was. Roman knew that Simon watched him like a hawk, terrified that his reputation would catch up with him in the quiet elegance of the Club Lounge.
It just might tonight, Roman thought, as he watched a portly elderly man eye Milly’s rather generous bottom when, having taken the man’s order, she walked off. Roman felt his hands ball into fists, but he held onto his temper, aware that he had had far too much to drink at his uncle’s funeral.
God, but he’d miss Ivor.
Ivor had saved both he and Isaak’s lives.
Roman had been more than used to beatings by his father Boris. The last time though, a decade ago, an eighteen-year-old Roman had returned from a stint living on the streets of Moscow to check on his mother, who had begged him to return home. That night he had been hauled from sleep and met with fists and boots and beaten so badly that he had ended up in hospital. Bruised, fractured, he had lain there staring at the ceiling, his tongue feeling the gap where his front teeth had once been, every breath agony with seven fractured ribs. Roman had decided to return to the streets. He wanted to stay and protect his mother, but was quite sure that if he returned home the next beating would kill him. Isaak had contacted their uncle, Ivor, who had flown back to Russia from London and had come to visit Roman in hospital.
Ivor had repeatedly asked them to join him in London and start a new life.
This time the brothers had agreed.
Roman did everything he could to forget the brutality of his childhood, but he just couldn’t run from the memory of it tonight.
Milly headed to the kitchenette, more than aware of Clifford’s eyes upon her.
He made her skin crawl, not that she let it show.
She poured Clifford his cognac and then with a smile she poured Roman his requested drink.
“Apple juice?” Simon frowned. “For Roman?”
“Maybe he knows he’s had far too much.” Milly shrugged.
“I truly didn’t think that Roman had an off switch,” Simon said. “Well, at least now I can relax—it looks like he’s going to behave.” He glanced down at Milly’s legs. “You’ve snagged your stockings.”
“I know, but I don’t have a spare pair.”
“You’ll have to take them off,” Simon said. “Make sure you have a spare pair with you in future.”
Milly served Clifford his drink first and she felt his eyes roam her bare legs. Then, he told her that he was feeling a little peckish.
“I’ll bring something nice over for you,” Milly offered.
“Bring yourself!” Clifford winked.
Milly went over to Roman and put down a small coaster and then placed his drink in front of him.
“What is this?” Roman asked.
Their eyes met and she watched as Roman frowned.
“I wanted vodka.”
“Sorry, Sir,” Milly said, because in the Club Lounge the customer was always right. “My mistake. I’ll go and get you your vodka now . . . ”
She went to take up the glass but as she did, Roman’s hand went to it and Milly’s hand met his.
It was first contact and it was like placing her hands near a fire on a cold, cold day—it warmed, it made you want to move closer, so close that it might actually burn and Milly felt her breath still in her lungs as Roman spoke on.
“I did ask for apple juice,” Roman said in his delicious, rich accent. “That was a poor attempt at a joke . . . ”
“Oh.” Milly swallowed, her hand moving away from his. “I’m not very used to you making jokes.”
“Because I tend not to make them.” He picked up the glass and drained it in one and then pulled a face. “Revolting. Now that I have had my vitamins for the day, you can get me my usual.”
“Of course.” Milly went and fixed his regular drink and placed it in front of him. Then, came the part that she was rather more used to. Roman knocked back the shot of vodka and put the glass down.
She didn’t ask if she could get him another one, as she usually did, something had signalled to her tonight that he expected her to know his routine and that there would be no deviation.
Clifford called her again as she returned with Roman’s second drink. “Milly, I thought you were going to bring me something nice!”
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Milly said as she put Roman’s second drink down. “Here’s your drink, Mr. Mason.”
“Roman.” He looked up at her and Milly felt her heart constrict as he invited her to first-name terms and for the longest time held her gaze. “I think we both know that I am not Andrew Mason.”
Milly knew that she should simply smile and say, “Enjoy your drink, Roman,” and then walk away. That was what her training had taught her. That was what Simon would expect her to do in this instance.
It was contrary to her heart though.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Milly said.
“You said that you are sorry for my loss. I wondered which one you were referring to. My uncle . . . or my pregnant wife?”
“I shouldn’t have said anything.” Milly shook her head, unable to fathom the depths of his grief.
“Don’t waste your sympathy on me Milly . . . ” He halted, he should not have said that, and yet who the hell was he covering up for anyhow? It was on the tip of his tongue, to expose Ava, to reveal her lies, but he hauled himself back from the edge, for Roman knew full well how much the press would love to get a hold of the truth and he met Milly’s eyes. “I’m not grieving.”
She should have walked off then, Milly knew. She should simply have left it at that, gone and got him another drink and stayed quiet, but she didn’t.
Instead, Milly looked back into his cold grey eyes and saw the pain at the bottom of the lake, she saw the churning anger and she told him what Milly was quite sure was the truth. “I don’t believe you.”
End of Excerpt