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'What do I want to do about the Royale hotel group?' The speaker, a very tall and well-built Greek male with blue-black hair, raised an ebony brow and gave a sardonic laugh. 'Let's allow Blake to sweat for the moment
'Yes, sir.' Thomas Morrow, the British executive who had asked the question at the behest of his colleagues, was conscious of the nervous perspiration on his brow. One-on-one encounters with his powerhouse employer, one of the richest men in the world, were rare and he was keen not to say anything that might be deemed stupid or naive.
Everybody knew that Sergios Demonides did not suffer fools gladly. Unfortunately, priding himself on being a maverick, the Greek billionaire did not feel the need to explain the objectives behind his business decisions either, which could make life challenging for his executive team. Not so long ago the acquisition of the Royale hotel group at any price had seemed to be the goal and there was even a strong rumour that Sergios might be planning to marry the exquisite Zara Blake, the daughter of the man who owned the hotel chain. But after Zara had been pictured in the media in the arms of an Italian banker that rumour had died and Sergios's curious staff had not noticed their boss exhibiting the smallest sign of annoyance over the development.
'I took the original offer to Blake off the table. The price will come down now,' Sergios pointed out lazily, brilliant black eyes glittering at that prospect for more than anything else in life he liked to drive a hard bargain.
Purchasing the Royale group at an inflated price would have gone very much against the grain with him, but a couple of months ago Sergios had been prepared to do it and jump through virtually any hoop just to make that deal. Why? His beloved grandfather, Nectarios, who had started his legendary business empire at the helm of the very first Royale hotel in London, had been seriously ill at the time. But, mercifully, Nectarios was a tough old buzzard, Sergios thought fondly, and pioneering heart surgery in the USA had powered his recovery. Sergios now thought that the hotel chain would make a timely little surprise for his grandfather's eightieth birthday, but he no longer had any intention of paying over the odds for the gift.
As for the wife he had almost acquired as part of the deal, Sergios was relieved that fate had prevented him from making that mistake. Zara Blake, after all, had shown herself up as a beautiful little tart with neither honour nor decency. On the other hand her maternal instincts would have come in very useful where his children were concerned, he conceded grudgingly. Had it not been for the fact that his cousin's premature death had left Sergios responsible for his three young children, Sergios would not even have considered taking a second wife.
His handsome face hardened. One catastrophe in that department had been quite sufficient for Sergios. For the sake of those children, however, he had been prepared to bite the bullet and remarry. It would have been a marriage of convenience though, a public sham to gain a mother for the children and assuage his conscience. He knew nothing about kids and had never wanted any of his own but he knew his cousin's children were unhappy and that piqued his pride and his sense of honour.
'So, we're waiting for Blake to make the next move,' Thomas guessed, breaking the silence.
'And it won't be long. He's over-extended and underfunded with very few options left,' Sergios commented with growling satisfaction.
'You're a primary school teacher and good with young kids,' Monty Blake pointed out, seemingly impervious to his eldest daughter's expression of frank astonishment as she stood in his wood-panelled office. 'You'd make the perfect wife for Demonides'
'No, stop right there!' Bee lifted a hand to physically emphasise that demand, her green eyes bright with disbelief as she used her other hand to push the heavy fall of chestnut-brown hair off her damp brow. Now she knew that her surprise and disquiet that her father should have asked her to come and see him were not unfounded. 'This is me, not Zara, you're talking to and I have no desire to marry an oversexed billionaire who needs some little woman at home to look after his kids'
'Those kids are not his,' the older man broke in to remind her, as though that should make a difference to her. 'His cousin's death made him their guardian. By all accounts he didn't either want or welcome the responsibility'
At that information, Bee's delicately rounded face only tightened with increased annoyance. She had plenty of experience with men who could not be bothered with children, not least with the man standing in front of her making sexist pronouncements. He might have persuaded her naive younger sister, Zara, to consider a marriage of convenience with the Greek shipping magnate, but Bee was far less impressionable and considerably more suspicious.
She had never sought her father's approval, which was just as well because as she was a mere daughter it had never been on offer to her. She was not afraid to admit that she didn't like or respect the older man, who had taken no interest in her as she grew up. He had also badly damaged her self-esteem at sixteen when he advised her that she needed to go on a diet and dye her hair a lighter colour. Monty Blake's image of female perfection was unashamedly blonde and skinny, while Bee was brunette and resolutely curvy. She focused on the desk photograph of her stepmother, Ingrid, a glamorous former Swedish model, blonde and thin as a rail.
'I'm sorry, I'm not interested, Dad,' Bee told him squarely, belatedly noticing that he wore an undeniable look of tiredness and strain. Perhaps he had come up with that outrageous suggestion that she marry Sergios Demonides because he was stressed out with business worries, she reasoned uncertainly.
'Well, you'd better get interested,' Monty Blake retorted sharply. 'Your mother and you lead a nice life. If the Royale hotel group crashes so that Demonides can pick it up for a song, the fallout won't only affect me and your stepmother but all my dependants '
Bee tensed at that doom-laden forecast. 'What are you saying?'
'You know very well what I'm saying,' he countered impatiently. 'You're not as stupid as your sister' 'Zara is not:
'I'll come straight to the point. I've always been very generous to you and your mother.'
Uncomfortable with that subject though she was, Bee also liked to be fair. 'Yes, you have been,' she was willing to acknowledge.
It was not the moment to say that she had always thought his generosity towards her mother might be better described as 'conscience' money. Emilia, Bee's Spanish mother, had been Monty's first wife. In the wake of a serious car accident, Emilia had emerged from hospital as a paraplegic in a wheelchair. Bee had been four years old at the time and her mother had quickly realised that her young, ambitious husband was repulsed by her handicap. With quiet dignity, Emilia had accepted the inevitable and agreed to a separation. In gratitude for the fact that she had returned his freedom without a fuss, Monty had bought Emilia and her daughter a detached house in a modern estate, which he had then had specially adapted to her mother's needs. He had also always paid for the services of a carer to ensure that Bee was not burdened with round-the-clock responsibility for her mother. While the need to help out at home had necessarily restricted Bee's social life from a young age, she was painfully aware that only her father's financial support had made it possible for her to attend university, train as a teacher and actually take up the career that she loved.
'I'm afraid that unless you do what I'm asking you to do the gravy train of my benevolence stops here and now,' Monty Blake declared harshly. 'I own your mother's house. It's in my name and I can sell it any time I choose.'
Bee turned pale at that frank warning, shock winging through her because this was not a side of her father that she had ever come up against before. 'Why would you do something so dreadful to Mum?'
'Why should I care now?' Monty demanded curtly. 'I married your mother over twenty years ago and I've looked after her ever since. Most people would agree that I've more than paid my dues to a woman I was only married to for five years.'
'You know how much Mum and I appreciate everything that you have done for her,' Bee responded, her pride stung by the need to show that humility in the face of his obnoxious threatening behaviour.
'If you want my generosity to continue it will cost you,' the older man spelt out bluntly. 'I need Sergios Demonides to buy my hotels at the right price. And he was willing to do that until Zara blew him off and married that Italian instead'
'Zara's deliriously happy with Vitale Roccanti,' Bee murmured tautly in her half-sister's defence. 'I don't see how I could possibly persuade a big tough businessman like Demonides to buy your hotels at a preferential price.'
'Well, let's face it, you don't have Zara's looks,' her father conceded witheringly. 'But as I understand it all Demonides wants is a mother for those kids he's been landed with and you'd make a damned sight better mother for them than Zara ever would have doneyour sister can barely read! I bet he didn't know that when he agreed to marry her.'
Stiff with distaste at the cruelty of his comments about her sister, who suffered from dyslexia, Bee studied him coolly. 'I'm sure a man as rich and powerful as Sergios Demonides could find any number of women willing to marry him and play mummy to those kids. As you've correctly pointed out I'm not the ornamental type so I can't understand why you imagine he might be interested in me.'
Monty Blake released a scornful laugh. 'Because I know what he wantsZara told me. He wants a woman who knows her place'
'Well, then, he definitely doesn't want me,' Bee slotted in drily, her eyes flaring at that outdated expression that assumed female inferiority. 'And Zara's feistier than you seem to appreciate. I think he would have had problems with her too.'
'But you're the clever one who could give him exactly what he wants. You're much more practical than Zara ever was because you've never had it too easy'
'Dad ?' Bee cut in, spreading her hands in a silencing motion. 'Why are we even having this insane conversation? I've only met Sergios Demonides once in my life and he barely looked at me.'
She swallowed back the unnecessary comment that the only part of her the Greek tycoon had noticed had appeared to be her chest.
'I want you to go to him and offer him a dealthe same deal he made with Zara. A marriage where he gets to do as he likes and buys my hotels at the agreed figure'
'Me go to him with a proposal of marriage?' Bee echoed in ringing disbelief. 'I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my life! The man would think I was a lunatic!'
Monty Blake surveyed her steadily. 'I believe you're clever enough to be convincing. If you can persuade him that you could be a perfect wife and mother for those little orphans you're that something extra that could put this deal back on the table for me. I need this sale and I need it now or everything I've worked for all my life is going to tumble down like a pack of cards. And with it will go your mother's security'
'Don't threaten Mum like that.'
'But it's not an empty threat.' Monty shot his daughter an embittered look. 'The bank's threatening to pull the plug on my loans. My hotel chain is on the edge of disaster and right now that devil, Demonides, is playing a waiting game. I can't afford to wait. If I go down you and your mother will lose everything too,' he reminded her doggedly. 'Think about it and imagine itno specially adapted house, day-to-day responsibility for Emilia, no life of your own any more '
'Don't!' Bee exclaimed, disgusted by his coercive methods. 'I think you have to be off your head to think that Sergios Demonides would even consider marrying someone like me.'
'Perhaps I am but we're not going to know until you make the approach, are we?'
'You're crazy!' his daughter protested vehemently, aghast at what he was demanding of her.
Her father stabbed a finger in the air. 'I'll have a For Sale sign erected outside your mother's house this week if you don't at least go and see him.'
'I couldn't I just couldn't!' Bee gasped, appalled by his persistence. 'Please don't do this to Mum.'
'I've made a reasonable request, Bee. I'm in a very tight corner. Why, after enjoying all my years of expensive support and education, shouldn't you try to help?'
'Oh, puh-lease,' Bee responded with helpless scorn at that smooth and inaccurate resume of his behaviour as a parent. 'Demanding that I approach a Greek billionaire and ask him to marry me is a reasonable request? On what planet and in what culture would that be reasonable?'
'Tell him you'll take those kids off his hands and allow him to continue enjoying his freedom and I think you're in with a good chance,' the older man replied stubbornly.