Isaak glanced at the ancient clock on the library wall, inwardly seething. He had arrived before midday and it was now well after one. Kate Edwards was pushing him beyond the limit of his patience.
He waited for no one—usually it was the other way around, but as he sat in the old London library Isaak had no thought of leaving.
He would outstay her.
Still, the surroundings he now found himself in had come as a surprise. Isaak had expected his uncle’s tart’s workplace to be a brothel or a strip club certainly not this magnificent building.
How had Kate Edwards done it? How had this woman managed to get his astute uncle to sign over the last of his fortune?
Isaak could guess how!
The contract in his hand was so revolting Isaak was tempted to curl it in a ball here and now. Isaak did not care about the money; his uncle’s estate was the equivalent of loose change to him. More, he was livid with this woman who had somehow made a usually wise old man her prey.
He had not heard her approach and Isaak looked up from unusual disadvantage for he would have preferred to be standing when they met.
He rectified that immediately, but not before he got a glimpse of dark stockinged legs in velvet Cuban-heeled shoes and heard the soft, slightly nervous edge to her voice. “You wanted to see me.”
As Isaak rose Kate stepped back a fraction for she had not anticipated his height nor just how imposing his actual presence would be.
She was met by the unshaven version of Isaak today and although he was wearing a suit and his attire was immaculate, somehow he looked as if he had just fallen out of bed. His eyes were bloodshot, though she guessed that it was from excess rather than grieving the loss of his uncle.
Or was that his reputation clouding her judgement? Kate truly did not know.
“Should we go somewhere private?” Isaak asked and Kate hesitated. His Russian accent was rich, his voice deep and definitely not soothing. The curt edge to his tone and the way his lip curled in distaste told Kate what he thought of her. “If not,” Isaak responded to her silence, “we can discuss things here. I have no issue with that.”
A few of her students were walking down the stairs, all looking over their shoulders for a second glimpse of Isaak. They all knew he was Ivor’s nephew but his arrival in the library was curious and his beauty was worth a second look, that was for sure.
“Your office?” Isaak’s brusque call for a response broke into her thoughts and Kate glanced down to the contract he held in his hand and nodded. Certainly she did not want her business discussed here.
Her heels made no noise as they walked along the corridor, Isaak noted—the reason for her stealth-like approach.
Her scent was a contradiction.
Floral, light, sweet, it trailed her lightly as Isaak followed Kate up the stairs.
Everything about her was contrary to the image he had conjured. Her figure was subtle, Isaak noted. Well, what he could make of it for her clothes were shapeless, from the heavy skirt to the ill-fitting cardigan. Her long dark curls were worn in a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck.
And those eyes.
Isaak could not decide if they were green or hazel—he would find out soon, for she unlocked her office and invited him in.
“Excuse the mess.”
It was inexcusable! Isaak glanced at the stacks of books and papers. There were maps and photos and several white boards all filled with scribble. From his neat corporate mind, he wondered how the hell she got anything done. Isaak half expected a cat to jump out as she moved some files to free up a seat.
He was about to say the same but changed his mind.
Humour had no place in this conversation.
“I assume you know the reason for my visit?” Isaak said when she invited him to take a seat.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your uncle,” Kate offered, the tip of her nose reddening, tears filling her eyes, and still Isaak could not decide on their colour. “He was a wonderful man.”
“Spare me the tears,” Isaak said, irritated by his own fascination with her. Tossing the contract onto the littered desk, he watched her flinch. “You recognise this I presume?”
For the first time she met his gaze, and though nervous, she held it.
You can do this, Kate, she told herself. Soon this uncomfortable meeting would be over and she would be able to get on with her life.
Except there was an awful lot of money that she couldn’t repay.
He watched her attempt to assert herself. How she sat straighter in the chair and attempted to fix him with her gaze and amazing eyes.
God, but she was stunning. Now he could see how his uncle had been beguiled. There was smatter of freckles on her neat, slightly snubbed nose that told him her creamy, flawless complexion did not come from a bottle and her wide, generous mouth had Isaak briefly wonder what it would look like if she smiled.
He would not be finding out, Isaak swiftly decided and his eyes abhorred her as she spoke.
“I’d like to say that just because there was money involved in our relationship I still cared for your uncle.”
“Please!” Isaak scoffed. “How come he never mentioned you to me?”
Kate shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“I do,” he retorted. “Because he must have known I would tell him that he was being taken as a fool.”
“Your uncle was far from foolish. He was a very intelligent man.”
“So, when were you to announce your engagement?” Isaak asked.
“We hadn’t decided.”
“And when was the marriage to take place?”
“We hadn’t got to that yet,” Kate said and heard Isaak’s hiss of irritation at her vague response.
“How did you two meet?”
Kate avoided his gaze and looked to the pile of reference books in front of her, choosing not to answer, for it was Isaak’s history, too, that was up for question. “I don’t have to answer that.”
His questions were rapid, his impatience mounting at the vague answers she gave. “So you didn’t know when you were going to get the second million?”
“But you knew it was coming.”
“And the third million would come when you divorced…” His fingers jabbed at a clause on the contract. “I am aware of marriages of convenience but even I am taken aback by the cold details of this contract—you agree to share his bed for four nights during your honeymoon in Paris? You agree to be affectionate towards him but only in public? The list goes on and on, so please don’t attempt to tell me this was about anything other than money.”
It had been, though.
She and Ivor had hatched this plan on their trip to Russia, when Kate had confided to Ivor the shocking state of her family’s business. Their trip had been about unearthing secrets and Ivor had told her one of his own. His playboy reputation now exhausted him.
Late one night, after an arduous day spent searching museums, Ivor had told her he had once known the love of his life and that the other women he had been linked with over the years had meant little.
“I doubt I’ll ever know the love of my life,” Kate had admitted and she had told him her dark truth.
Yes, in most parts of her life she had it together. She adored her career and had stepped away from the family business when she did not approve of their dealings, she had a close circle of friends, and was paying off her home. Yet she was frigid, a twenty-six-year-old virgin with serious issues, but she was determined to work on that.
The old man had merely smiled.
From there the plan had hatched for a sexless marriage.
She would be his wife for a year with no hint of scandal from either party. Ivor had laughed and said that if he slipped up then it would be a very expensive mistake.
Kate looked over to Isaak. There was no way she could explain how the contract had transpired for she would not be discussing her sex life, or lack of it, with him.
“You need to repay the money,” Isaak said. “The contract states that if the marriage does not go ahead, for whatever reason, then all monies are to be returned.”
“Surely it’s not my fault…” Kate’s breathing was starting to trip up her words. “Surely there’s a clause that covers this.”
“You signed the contract.” Isaak pointed out, although he too was surprised that something so basic had not been more adequately covered. “It states you are to pay back the money or a suitable arrangement can be made at my discretion…”
“Then we need to come to a suitable arrangement because I can’t give it to you.” Kate said. “It’s already gone.”
“That’s a considerable amount to have spent in…” he glanced at the date on the contract, “just over a week.”
“It went to my family’s business.”
“They know about this contract?”
Kate nodded and Isaak cussed in Russian under his breath at a family that would sell their daughter to an old man.
“Were all the payments going to them?”
“They were.” She closed her eyes for a moment in shame, not for herself but for her mother and brothers’ greed—their only reaction to Ivor’s death had been questions about money and how they were going to cope without the next instalment.
She looked at his nephew, here to recoup a million.
Did anybody care about the man?
“Why would you do this for your family?” Isaak asked.
“Duty.” Kate gave a tight shrug. “Obligation, guilt…”
Isaak shifted a touch uncomfortably, for the first time her words reached him in a place he knew well.
Isaak had every reason to loathe his father. He had made his mother’s and children’s lives a living hell and yet, now an old, very sick man, still living in Russia, the brothers paid for him to have the very best care in his final years, and when Kate spoke again this time it was Isaak who looked away.
“This arrangement gave me a chance to finally turn my back on them guilt free. I had decided that this was the last thing I’d ever do for them.”
Isaak swallowed; yes, he understood her language. “It doesn’t end that easily though.” He gave her a very tight smile. “I’m not talking about the contract.”
“I know!” Kate rolled her eyes. “You’re right of course, it won’t it end it but I thought it might buy me some time.”
Green, Isaak decided. Her eyes were more green than hazel and yes, he would like to see her smile.
“Where is the ring?” Isaak asked, dragging his mind back to business. “It states it is to be returned on termination of the marriage.” That part of the contract had confused Isaak too, for it had described the ring as a family heirloom. There were no heirlooms; the Zaretskys had been dirt poor.
Kate stood and went to the safe. “Here.”
It was stunning.
A white gold setting, there was a diamond that had even Isaak’s expensive eyes widen and it was encrusted with rubies and emeralds. It truly was a work of art.
“That must cover some of it,” Kate said hopefully.
“It was always to be returned.”
“I could have said that I lost it.”
“Then you would have seen me in court.” His voice gave her no room to manoeuvre; it told her that he very much had the upper hand in this.
“There are earrings too,” Kate said. “Your uncle gave them to me as a gift. They’re worth a considerable amount, perhaps fifty thousand.” She took them from the safe and placed them on the desk.
“Which leaves you nine hundred and fifty thousand pounds short,” Isaak pointed out. “You will repay it.”
Isaak closed his eyes for a moment and reminded himself how angry he was with Kate and told her a part of why. “You realise he was giving you the last of his fortune.”
Kate’s eyes widened in shock and she shook her head. “No, I thought he was a billionaire.”
“He was once.” Isaak said. “But he was a philanthropist and had given most of his wealth to charity. Had he lived, you would have left him broke.”
Yes, he was angry.
He pocketed the ring but not the earrings, stood, and shot her a warning. “This does not end here and, this time, I am referring to the contract.” He picked it up from the desk. “Are you going to attend the funeral?” His eyes told her that he would prefer that she did not but, defiant, she met his stern gaze.
“Of course,” Kate said, but then she watched his jaw clamp together and those blood shot eyes screw closed, and Kate realised he wasn’t just upset about the money, Isaak really did seem to care about Ivor. Watching this arrogant man briefly struggle for composure, she reconsidered. “If it would make it easier for Ivor’s family I’ll stay away and pay my respects later.”
Isaak opened his eyes to the soft of her voice and her compassion had him falter. “Whatever you feel is the right thing to do,” he said. “You live with your conscience, not I.”
He turned to go but Kate halted him.
“With the ring,” Kate said. “It’s not a replica, it would be awful if something were to happen to it.”
He said nothing and Kate let out a breath as he closed the door to her office.
She needed to be careful too, Kate realised.
Her fate had been left to Isaak Zaretsky’s discretion.
It didn’t feel a very safe place to be.
End of Excerpt