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It was her assumption, rather than her arrogance, that first caught Xante's attention.
Wintry London skies were dark, and a rapid-fire of rain had scattered most of the people off the pavements. Even though it was midday, the cars that pulled into the plush forecourt of his hotel had their headlamps on and their wipers swishing furiously. A few braved the weather; coats overhead, they ran back from lunch to their work or their next meeting, while the organised or more seasoned Londoners opened umbrellas and carried on chatting into their phones. Only a select few took refuge in the forecourt of Xante Rossi's Twickenham hotel.
Xante owned several hotelsthey were part of his impressive portfoliobut rarely was the man himself to be found standing in their foyers, checking that everything was in order. He had staff to take care of those details. But today was different. Xante had a particular soft spot for his Twickenham establishmentit allowed him to indulge his passion for rugby. Today the England rugby team was arriving for an official function which was being held to raise serious money for charity. Serious money. The crème de la crème of high society would be attending the charity auction tonight that would be held at the end of dinner and would prove an opportunity for the rich to publicly display their wealth under the guise of it being for a good cause.
Xante liked all sports, butunusually, perhaps, for a Greekrugby was his passion. He loved the noble game; the blood, sweat and toil that made the game great. Philotimia was a sense of honour so vital to his people that it was written into the Greek legal code, and forXante the great game of rugby represented philotimia perfectly.
Once the players were all here at his hotel they would train and travel as a team, but for now they were trickling in from across the country, and Xante had already greeted several, including the captain. It was natural that he wanted to be here to personally welcome the teamand it was natural, for entirely different reasons, that he noticed the willowy blonde arrive in the foyer. Svelte and tall, she'd have captured and held any man's attention, and she was holding Xante's now.
It was the way she shrugged off her coatnot with arrogance, just with the assumption that someone would catch itthat told him she was well heeled.
He had chosen his staff well. Albert, his chief concierge, moved quickly, realising that the bell boy had failed to notice her rich aura, and he caught the coat in an impressive move. Then, without a backward glance, the woman walked into the foyer.
Only then did she hesitate.
Taking in her surrounds, green eyes darting, she fleet-ingly looked a fraction lost, and only then did Xante fathom that she wasn't a guest.
The hotel was practically in lockdown. Xante had brought in many extra staff to ensure that his important guests' privacy was respected. Fans would remain outside, and journalists, however heavily disguised, were at this moment being politely turned away. But this woman, seemingly without prearrangement, had waived scrutiny and waltzed in as if she owned the place.
Certain people did not require a passport, Xante knew, and this lady appeared to be one of them.
She was strolling around the foyer, looking at the artwork on display, presumably waiting to meet someone. Xante's head was full of questions, which meant he required answersand quickly, please! It was the hallmark of his success.
'That lady.' Xante checked with his concierge, the one person in the place who would certainly know. 'Who is she?'
Albert was talking to a couple, telling them about numerous shows that were on at the West End, before swiftly moving to his desk to check ticket availability. A brilliant multi-tasker, Albert still managed to deliver the required information to his boss as the theatre agent placed him on hold.
'Karin Wallis,' Albert said in low tones, and Xante frowned at the familiar name. His life was too busy to read the who's who of London, Paris or Rome, or wherever his schedule dictated that he be, and he relied on people like Albert to do the groundwork for him.
'Is she famous?' The name was familiar. Xante's brow furrowed as he tried to place it.
'She's from one of England's most famous families,' Albert murmured. 'They regularly grace the social pages.'
'And?' Xante pushed, because Albert never volunteered gossiphe always wanted to be asked!
'The parents died a couple of years ago. The brother's a bit of a rogue, but charming; the younger sister attends boarding school.'
'What about Karin?' Xante was tired of squeezing out information. 'What do you know about her?'
'Well, the press refer to her as "the Ice Queen".'Albert gave a tight smile. 'They would argue that the name merely refers to the numerous ski trips the lady takes she's justreturned from one in Switzerlandhowever ' Albert gave a small cough to show he was uncomfortable discussing such things and reluctant to give his boss advice; it was a dance they performed regularly.
'Go on,' Xante invited.
'Frankly, sir, you'd be wasting your time with her. No one gets close to Karin Wallis.'Always discreet, Albert immediately terminated the conversation as the couple reapproached the desk. 'It shouldn't be much longer now, sir ' Even if Xante was his boss, the guests came firstthat was the reason Xante employed him, after all.
Xante nodded, heading to Reception, where he checked in with the floor manager, reminding him that he wished to be informed whenever one of the team arrived.
The Ice Queen!
How Xante wished he had time to rise to Albert's unwitting challenge today. Impossibly good-looking and obscenely wealthy, Xante Rossi had no trouble attracting women. Raised on a Greek Island by his widowed mother, Xante had fought hard just to exist, scavenging for food in the overflowing bins outside the restaurants where the rich tourists ate, scouring the fishing nets for their rotten remains. His father's death had devastated him, but on that wretched day, all those years ago, something else had happened that had frightened the nine-year-old Xante.
He had been at the beach, waiting for news with uncles, cousins and friends, whilst his mother had been back at the house, keeping vigil, praying for a miracle. Then the boat had returned with its grim load.
An uncle who had been fishing with Xante's father had broken the harsh news to him, letting the small boy cry for a while before telling him that now he must be strong. The priest had gone to break the news to his mother.
He couldn't remember the walk home. Maybe they had gone in a car; Xante truly couldn't recall.
What he did recall though was the shock of walking into the house and seeing his mother dressed head to toe in black.
She'd only been in her twenties, but that day, in Xante's eyes, she'd aged two decades.
All the colour, all the vibrancy, was wiped away for ever. On that fateful day, he'd lost not just his father but his mother's laughter too. How he had wanted it back. Had wanted her to dress again in pretty floral skirts and white, cotton tops; had wanted her hair in curls instead of hidden behind a black scarf; had wanted her to wear make-up again and had wanted to smell her sweet perfume.
But those days, like his father, had gone for ever.
His mother, the house, shrouded in grief.
But at fourteen Xante had found a diversion.
He'd been tall for his age, good-looking even then, and the tourists that had flocked to his home town had provided rich pickings. The older kamaki boys had told him that, having mastered the art of kissing, it was time to move on to the mountains. Riding up on his scooter with a pretty girl who'd worn vibrant colours and makeup, and who'd laughed at his jokes and held tight to his waist, Xante had finally found freedom from the stuffy confines of home.
He had been found out, of course. The school had written to his mother about his poor attendance, and she had called for his uncle, who had located him on the mountain in a rather compromising position. Then Xante had been hauled back home and beaten to within an inch of his life, his mother screaming of the shame he had brought to their family name.
It had put an end to his mischief for a while.
Xante had buckled down at school, and his grades had picked up, but always the mountains had called him.
And still, even today, Xante remembered that surge of triumph he had felt in his kamaki days when he had eked a delicious response from virgin flesh, or had aided a lonely housewife to escape the drudgery of the marital bed and discover her most intimate secrets again.
Ice Queen! Xante smiled to himself; there was no such thing.
Still, he was far too busy for distraction today. He took a seat in the guest lounge, where his computer demanded his attention. Coffee was automatically served, but Xante couldn't help but observe the woman in question as she walked into the room.
The vigilant head-waiter immediately guided her to a seat, and for the first time Xante realised she was nervous. Xante read women easily; he had grown up mastering the skill. And, though most would have missed it, Karin Wallis was certainly nervous. Her eyes were darting around the room as she entered, but there was such poise to her that most wouldn't have noticed; all they would have seen was an elegant woman walking in gracefully.
Heads turned as she passed.
Elite sportsmen, who could have and did have the most beautiful women by their sides, noticed her just as Xante had. There was nothing sleazy about it. The women all looked too; there was just something about her that merited more than a passing glance.
That was the word.
Her fine, porcelain features, the elegant way that she sather legs slightly to the side, and crossed neatly at her slim ankleswere all noted by Xante.
She wasn't a hotel guest, of that he was now sure. There was no laptop at her side, either, and she wasn't checking her watch as if to meet anyone. In fact, she took the proffered menu, and when Xante heard her crisp, well-schooled voice order tea and a sandwich he realised she intended to eat alone.
His phone bleeped. The call was an important one, as it always seemed to be these days, so he took it, speaking in Greek with his broker. He instantly forgot about the blonde, his mind back on business now until she stood up. It was a move that unwittingly cost Xante an inordinate amount of money, and he ended the call telling his broker that he would deal with the fallout himself, before promptly switching off his phone.
She was wandering around the room, staring intently at the small memorabilia-display on the far wall. She'd lost weight recently, Xante surmised. She was wearing a smart, charcoal suit, but her skirt hung just a fraction too low on her slender hips and her jacket was too wide for her shoulders. Still, she was generously curved where it mattered. At the top of those slender legs was a pert bottom, and as she undid her jacket she unwittingly revealed a glimpse of cashmere bosom. It had been unwitting, as there was a slight prudishness to her that appealed to Xantebecause, from his extensive experience, there was no greater pleasure than feeling the uptight come undone.
Yes, prudish described Karin Wallis perfectly. She wore little make-up to accentuate her fine features; her thick, blonde hair sat on the nape of her neck, coiled into a low bun. Her cashmere jumper was worn high on her neck, her skirt low on her knees, and her shoes were just a little too flat and heavy to really set off such magnificent legs. But still she was stunning. Still Xante had to look away, reaching for a newspaper and pretending to read for a full five minutes before it could be considered decent to stand.
Busy or not, Xante decided as he crossed the room, there was always time for a beautiful woman.
Karin didn't actually know what she was doing here, or even what she was going to do now that she was.
It had been four weeks since she'd realised the rose was missing. She'd confronted her brother Matthew and had found out that he'd sold it. She'd agreed to sell off yet another painting, an ornate dresser and her late mother's favourite earrings to pay for their sister's final year of schoolingnot realising that when she had signed the documents he'd deliberately beguiled her and had added the jewelled rose to the document too.
The ruby-encrusted rose that had been awarded to her grandfather the year the England rugby team had won every game they had played was so much more than a trinket. It had been her grandfather's prized possessionKarin's too. So many times she had escaped the chaos at home to go and spend some time with her widowed grandfather at Omberley Manor, the home she and Matthew now lived in. There had been many afternoons spent listening to the wonderful tales of his glory days, and Karin remembered each one with love. By the time Karin was fifteen, her grandfather had long since washed his hands of his wayward son and wife, and had told Karin that the rose would be hers on his death. For Karin the rose was the last link to her grandfather and to the great man he had been. It also represented everything her family could have been. And, if she protected her sister from the truth just a little while longer, it was a symbol of everything Emily might one day become.
Karin had been frantically searching for the rose for weeks. Next week she had a formal function to attend at Twickenham to celebrate her grandfather's achievements, and it was assumed she would bring the jewel with her, but every attempt to trace it had proven futile. All she knew was that the rose had been sold to an anonymous bidderthe buyer, apparently, had insisted on anonymityand Karin didn't even know if it was a he or she.
Till this morning.
Karin had been taking her morning coffee-break, sitting in the library-staffroom and reading an article in the newspaper about the start of the Six Nations rugby tournament that was due to begin the following February. A small piece about the lavish hotel in Twickenham where the England rugby team would be for a charity event had caught her eye. It would seem that the owner, a Greek shipping tycoon, had an impressive display of sports memorabilia, she'd readhis latest acquisition, the bespoke ruby-rose.
Karin lived a rigid and ordered life. She chose to; it was better that than succumb to the reckless, gluttonous gene that had ultimately killed her parents and was now wreaking havoc on her brother. She rarely acted on impulse.