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As soon as Charlotte entered the boardroom she knew he had already arrived.
A shiver ran up her spine like a handful of mice making a tiny nest in the fine hairs on the back of her neck, as her eyes went to where he was standing.
As if he too sensed her presence, he turned his head and his coal-black gaze met hers for the first time in nearly four years.
Charlotte watched as he politely excused himself from one of the members of the museum board and came towards her, each one of his long strides making her throat tighten until she could barely breathe.
She had dreaded this moment for months, ever since she had heard that Damon Latousakis, the father of her little daughter Emily, was the principal sponsor for the Greek Exhibition she was helping the head curator organise for the museum.
Damon came and stood in front of her, his tall frame blocking her vision of the rest of the boardroom.
She tried to disguise her nerves but her voice still came out creaky. 'H-hello, Damon.'
His dark gaze surveyed her in a leisurely manner, taking in her chestnut hair, before dipping to brush her mouth, and then lower, lingering a moment too long on the hint of cleavage her velvet evening dress exposed, before finally coming back to her blue eyes.
Charlotte felt as if he had touched her all over, the electricity passing from his body to hers making her skin prickle and the air surrounding them begin to crackle with tension.
'You have done very well for yourself,' he said in a tone that suggested he hadn't expected her to. 'Under-curator, I hear. That is quite an achievement for a petty thief, but thenas you did to meperhaps you have everyone fooled asto what you are really like.'
Resentment simmered in the tightening coils of her bellythe belly that had nurtured the child he had refused point-blank to acknowledge as his.
'I am the same person I always was, Damon,' she said with deliberate coolness.
His lip curled in disdain. 'No doubt you are, but I was too blinded by lust to see it at the time.'
Charlotte felt her face flame as a host of memories were unleashed by his use of that crude one-word description of what he had felt for her. The vision of the configuration of their bodies rocking in passion made her toes curl inside her high-heeled shoes. Her inner thighs quivered as she remembered how he had taken her to the heights of intimate pleasure time and time again on that two-month long study holiday on the Greek island of Santorini. The fiery heat of the summer sun and the blistering scorch of his passion had burned her to the core of her being.
Damon had lusted after her while she had loved himunreservedly and irreversibly.
'Excuse me, Mr Latousakis.' Diane Perry, one of the museum staff, approached with a nervous smile. 'I hate to interrupt, but may I have a quick word with Charlotte?'
Damon gave her a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. 'But of course,'he said and stepped back. 'I have finished with her.'
Charlotte watched as he turned and walked away, her stomach feeling as if someone had just kicked it with a lead boot.
'What was that all about?'Diane asked with a puzzled frown.
Charlotte forced her features into casual indifference. 'You know what Greek billionaires are like. They have arrogance down to a fine art.'
'Yes, well, arrogant or not, you'd better be careful with Damon Latousakis,'Diane warned her. 'I just got a phone call from Julian's wife, Gaye. Julian's been admitted to hospital with a suspected heart attack.'
'He's going to be fine,' Diane assured her. 'But he is expecting you to keep Mr Latousakis sweet about this exhibition, especially as it now looks as if he will be out of action for a few weeks.'
'A few weeks?' Charlotte gulped.
Diane shook her head gravely. 'The doctors are suggesting he has angioplasty in a day or two. He will probably ring you himself and fill you in on what needs to be done, but in the meantime you'll have to take over the reins.'
'Me?' she squeaked.
'Of course you,' Diane said. 'You're the one with the most experience in Greek miniature sculptures. Besides, it was your idea in the first place to bring together contemporary artists and ancient works. This is the break you've been waiting for, Charlotte. It normally takes years working as an under-curator to get a chance like this. This will show everyone what a talent you have for set design and display.'
Charlotte felt her chest crumple with doubt. 'I don't think I can do this on my own Julian was the driving force behind all this. He was in contact with the sponsors. I had nothing to do with that side of things.'
'Rubbish. You'll be brilliant. You always underestimate yourself. You're one of the most talented people we have working in the museum.'
'Thanks for the vote of confidence, but aren't you forgetting something? I'm a single mum. I can't work the hours Julian was putting in.'
'Most of the work has already been done,'Diane said. 'But you'll have to make the welcome speech tonight. It's important you impress the sponsors, otherwise the exhibition might fall through. You know how competitive this industry is. Everyone wants a bite at the cherry.'
'I hate speaking in public ' Charlotte bit her lip. 'What if I stutter or have a mental blank or something? I always do when I'm nervous.'
'You'll be fine,' Diane said. 'Just have a glass of champagne before you start to calm your nerves. But remember to be especially nice to Damon Latousakis. He's the major sponsor as head of the Eleni Foundation. Without Mr Latousakis's funds and loan of artefacts from his family's private collection, this baby won't get off the ground.'
'It will be fine, Diane,' Charlotte said, her confident tone belying the fragile state of her emotions. 'I can handle men like Damon Latousakis.'
'Good,' Diane said. 'You've got about ten minutes to showtime. Why not go and sit in your office, away from the hubbub, to collect your thoughts?'
Charlotte opened her office door a short time later, her eyes widening in shock when she saw her younger sister in the process of making a bed with a threadbare coat on the floor. 'What on earth do you think you're doing?' she asked, closing the door with a little snap.
Stacey turned and gave her a vacuous smile. 'Hi, Charlie,' she said. 'I'm just having a little rest between jobs.'
Charlotte gritted her teeth, her brows snapping together crossly. 'I told you never to come here when you're in this state.'
'I'm not drunk.' Stacey pouted as she swayed on her feet. 'Just a little relaxed, that's all.'
'Where did you get it this time?'
'Get what?' Her sister's gaze tried to focus on Charlotte's but failed. 'You're such a strait-laced prig, you know that, Charlie? You ought to live a little. Get yourself a little buzz from time to time.'
Charlotte felt the cold hard fingers of despair claw at her stomach as she watched her sister's unsteady progress towards the nearest chair, her bottle-blonde head slipping sideways as she flopped down.
'Why are you here?' she asked.
Stacey looked at her through bloodshot eyes. 'I came to ask for a loan, but don't worry, I've sorted it out now for myself.'
Charlotte felt apprehension creep along her skin like the long thin legs of a stick insect. 'What do you mean?'
Stacey gave her a smug look. 'I ran into a rich Greek guy outside the toilets downstairs a few minutes ago,' she said. 'I offered him a quickie but he turned up his nose. He was such an arrogant bastard. I thought I'd teach him a lesson, so I pinched his wallet from his jacket as I brushed past.'
Charlotte swallowed the lump of dread that was suddenly threatening to choke her. 'H-have you still got it?'
'Got what?' Stacey's head rolled sideways again.
'His wallet,' Charlotte asked. 'Have you still got it or did you throw it away once you took out the money?'
Stacey squeezed her fingers into the back pocket of her leopard-skin print jeans and tossed the wallet to her. 'I was going to give it to my mate Brian for his birthday. It looks like an expensive one.'
Charlotte's fingertips sank into the soft leather as she caught the wallet. She looked down at it for a moment before she opened it, her eyes going wide with horror when she saw the identification photograph it contained.
'Oh, no!' she gasped, her heart starting to clang against her ribcage.
Stacey lifted her head groggily. 'What's up? Do you know him or something?'
Charlotte closed her eyes for a second. Surely she had imagined it. She did this all the time, imagining she was seeing Damon Latousakis's face in every newspaper or magazine she opened. As soon as she saw jet-black hair, darker-than-night eyes and handsomely chiselled features her heart would leap to her throat. It was probably because she had just seen him, she reasonedhis features were fresh in her mind.
She opened her eyes and looked again, her stomach turning to liquid, her heart thumping so heavily she could barely inflate her lungs to breathe.
It was him.
She closed the wallet and put it in her evening bag with shaking fingers. 'How did you get into the building?'she asked.
'I told the guy at the front I was your sister,' Stacey said.
Charlotte suppressed an inward groan. Stacey's bottle-blonde hair was matted at the back and the jeans she had piped herself into were almost as indecent as the low-cut sweater she was wearing.
'Look, Stacey,' she said, glancing at the clock in panic. 'I have to give a speech in about three minutes.'
Stacey turned to her makeshift bed and began to bend down. 'That's all right. I'm just going to have a quick nap before I move on.'
'No!' Charlotte pulled her to her feet. 'No, Stacey, you can't possibly sleep here. I might be ages and if anyone should find you in here '
Stacey shrugged off Charlotte's hand and pouted. 'I get it,' she said with a downturn of her lip. 'You're ashamed of me. I'm not posh enough for your highbrow crowd.'
'That's not true It's just that tonight's very important to me,' she said, trying to ignore the clock ticking on the wall, which seemed to be speeding up.
'Come on, Charlie,' Stacey cajoled. 'I only need a couple of hours sleep and I'll be on my way. I've got another client at eleven.'
Charlotte felt physically ill at the thought of her sister sleeping with whoever would pay her the money to do so.
'How can you do this to yourself?'she asked. 'Look at you, Stacey. You're stick-thin and so pale. You're slowly killing yourself and I swear to God I won't stand by and watch it keep happening.'
'I'll be fine in a couple of days I just wanted one more taste before I give it up.'
One more taste.
How many times had Charlotte heard that empty promise? 'What about giving the detox clinic another go?' she asked.
Stacey pulled a rude face. 'That cruddy place. I wouldn't go there again if you paid me.'
'You get paid to go to lots of other cruddy places and to do God knows what cruddy things with no doubt totally cruddy men,' Charlotte pointed out irritably.
Her sister's lip curled. 'You're just jealous because you haven't had sex in close to four years.'
'Yes, well, look at the trouble it got me into when I did,'
Charlotte said and bit her lip as she thought of what Damon would do if he ever found out who had taken his wallet.
He was a flight of stairs away, waiting with all the other guests to hear her speak
She released her bitten lip and said, 'There's a new private clinic in the Blue Mountains that's supposed to be getting good results. I read something about it the other day. It's frightfully expensive but would you agree to go there if I can rustle up the necessary funds?'
Her sister gave a non-committal shrug and slipped down even further on the floor. 'Maybe maybe not.'
'Will you at least think about it, please?'Charlotte pleaded, tears of frustration beginning to sting her eyes. 'I don't want Emily to grow up without her aunt. You're all we've got, Stacey. Mum would be devastated to have seen you like this, especially after what happened to Dad.'
Her sister laid her head back on the cushion on the floor and closed her eyes. 'All right, I'll think about it,' she said grudgingly. 'But I'm not making any promises.'
No, none that you are likely to keep, Charlotte felt like saying, but instead quietly opened the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and took out the bunny rug she kept for when Emily sometimes came in to work with her. She placed it over her sister's gaunt form, gently tucking in the edges to keep it in place.
Stacey made a soft sound and nestled down deeper, her sunken cheeks and lacklustre hair churning the dread in Charlotte's already tortured stomach.
Once she was certain Stacey was asleep, she retrieved the wallet from inside her bag. She looked at the photograph again, reeling under the flood of memories Damon's too-handsome features evoked.
Those black eyes had burned with desire from the first moment they had locked with hers. She suppressed a little shiver when she thought of how that determined mouth had fed so greedily off hers. How his hands had known every curve and plane of her body and how his hard male presence had filled her with the explosion of his passion, taking away her innocence and leaving in its place an ongoing hunger that in spite of time and distance had never quite gone away.
She closed the wallet and suppressed a shuddering sigh. She would post it back to him anonymously at his hotel first thing in the morning.
Hopefully he would never find out exactly who had stolen it