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'Theo Tsardikos? You expect me to go and beg him for money?' Dione stared at her father in disbelief. 'I can't do it.'
Theodossus Tsardikos was a man to be reckoned with. His name was revered throughout the whole of Greece, and maybe the world for all she knew. He was her father's sworn enemy. He ran a very successful and very luxurious worldwide hotel chain; only the rich and famous could afford to stay there.
Yannis had once tried to persuade Theo to let him franchise his restaurants inside the hotelsthe suggestion had been received with raw contempt. Theo made no secret of his dislike of Yannis Keristari. And Dione couldn't blame him.
Yannis slumped back against his pillow. 'Then this will be the end of me.'
'I think,' said Phrosini, with a worried glance at her husband before looking pleadingly at her stepdaughter, 'that your father meant you to think about it. Let's go home. We'll come back later and talk about this.'
As they left his hospital room Dione glanced over her shoulder at the man who had been such a big controlling influence on her life and found it hard to believe that he was asking her to do this. She'd done most things; she'd been the best daughter she could under the circumstances, but begging for money? From his archenemy? How insulting could he be?
Her mind flew back twenty-four hours to when she'd received the phone call from a distraught Phrosini saying he was ill and was asking for her.
'Of course I'll come. I'll be on the next available flight.'
Dione turned to her mother, an anxious expression on her lovely face. 'I need to return home. Father's in hospital; he's had a heart attack.'
Jeannie's hand flew to her mouth. 'Oh, dear!Naturally you must go. I'll tell Chris for you. I do hope Yannis will be OK.'
A magnanimous thought after the way he had treated her, decided Dione. But that was her mother; she rarely thought ill of anyone. She was quiet and undemanding and Dione privately thought that she let people walk all over her. Not that she would ever tell her parent that; she loved her too dearly.
To her dismay there were no available seats on flights to Athens until the next day, but at least it gave her the opportunity to tell Chris herself.
'I'll come with you,' he said at once when he saw her that evening. 'I can't let my fiancée go through this alone.'
He'd said it so proudly that Dione felt guilty. She had been planning to take Chris to Greece to meet her father, to get his approval for their wedding, but not under these circumstances. The shock of discovering that she was going to marry an Englishman would probably kill her father altogether.
Yannis was Greek through and through. Very proud, very traditional, and it was his ambition that Dione should marry one of his own kind. Dione, though, had other ideas. She wanted to escape her father's domineering nature and the only way she could do it, as far as she could see, was to marry and settle in England.
She had met Christopher Donovan on one of her frequent visits to the UK and when he proposed she had thought about it long and hard before finally accepting. It wasn't that she didn't love Chris, she did, but it was his love for her that she wasn't so sure about.
He had gone out with her on the rebound from a previous relationship and assured her that it was all over. But she had heard from a third party only the other day that the girl still hankered after him and that he had been seen with her. She had tackled Chris and he had looked startled at first, and then said that there was no truth in it.
'I think it would be best if I went alone,' she said to him now. 'My father's too ill to meet strangers.'
'You're probably right,' he agreed. 'You will phone me?'
The plane landed at Athens Airport and Dione strode through the arrivals lounge, a stunningly attractive woman in a cream trouser suit teamed with a chocolate-coloured top. Her long blue-black hair brushed her shoulders sensuously with each step that she took in her high-heeled sandals, causing many a male head to turn.
Dione was oblivious. She headed for the taxi rank, not expecting anyone to meet her, but surprised and pleased to see her stepmother.
'Phrosini, how nice of you! I didn't anticipate this.' She hugged the woman warmly, easily falling into her second language. 'Shouldn't you be with Father? How is he? Is he any better?'
Phrosini was short and plump but extremely beautiful, and it was easy to see why her father had fallen in love with her. She was as different from Dione's mother as it was possible for two people to be. His first marriage had been a definite mistake. They had probably loved each other to begin with, surmised Dione, but her mother had been too weak to stand up to his bossy nature. Phrosini could handle him beautifully without him even realising it.
'There's no change,' answered Phrosini. 'Except that he's excited you're coming. He really is ill, Dione. I'm worried to death.'
'Why didn't you let me know sooner?'
Phrosini grimaced apologetically. 'I didn't want to spoil your holiday. I know how much you enjoy being in England with your mother. At first I thought he'd recover quickly, but he didn't and he started asking for you. I couldn't reason with him.'
They drove straight to the hospital. 'I'm sorry, I know you'll want to freshen up, but your father's anxious to see you,' explained Phrosini.
And when Dione walked into Yannis' room she was shocked by his appearance. He wasn't a tall man, had always been slim and dapper, but he'd lost so much weight that he looked gaunt to the point of danger, his skin grey and drawn, and he was hooked up to a host of machines that monitored his every function.
'Dione!' he croaked. 'You're here!'
She crossed the room and hugged him. 'Yes, Father. How are you feeling? It's so naughty of you not to let me know you were ill.'
He stroked her hand. 'Didn't want to worry you, child.'
'So what brought on your heart attack?' she wanted to know. 'I thought you had the constitution of an ox.'
'Not any more.'Yannis glanced at Phrosini. 'You tell her,' he said in a hoarse whisper.
'Tell me what?'
Phrosini closed her eyes, and when she opened them again Dione saw a wealth of worry. 'Your father's business is failingbadly.'
'What?' Dione frowned. How could that be? Yannis had inherited a restaurant from his father and turned it into a successful chain. There had been no talk of it losing money.
'Trade's been dropping off considerably,' Phrosini informed her, her voice quiet and desperate. 'It needs a big injection of money for a facelift and your father hasn't got it. He's paying out more than he gets in. We're almost bankrupt, Dione.'
Dione was shocked but not truly surprised. She had trained in England as an interior designer, hoping to move there permanently and get a job, but Yannis had insisted she work for him. She spent her time travelling between the different restaurants, renovating where necessarybut always under Yannis' eagle eye.
He was a pure traditionalist, so old-fashioned that he would never let her impose any of her modern ideas. He said traditional values gave the restaurants atmosphere and would not be shifted. Dione had privately had her doubts. People wanted modern and lively these days. They didn't want to live in the past.
'This is awful,' she said. 'I had no idea.'
'Nor did I,' confessed Phrosini. 'Your father kept it from meand as a result he's in here.' She put her hand over her husband's and squeezed gently. 'You're a very stubborn man, you know that.'
Yannis grimaced. 'It's all up to you now, daughter,' he said quietly, looking at Dione. 'You're my only hope.'
'Me?' Dione touched her fingers to her chest. 'How can I help? I don't have that sort of money.' She really didn't have a lot of savings. Her father paid her the minimum wage he would have paid anyone else and it all went on her flights to England.
'I want you to go and ask Theo Tsardikos for a loan,' he explained in a hoarse, breathless whisper. It clearly cost him to even talk. 'He'll drive a hard bargain, I know that, but if anyone can do it you can.'
'I know it's a lot to ask of you,' said Phrosini now as they sat and drank coffee back at home in their beautiful villa and talked about Yannis. 'But you're our only hope, your father's only hope. If he doesn't get this money his life will be over. He won't have the will to live. He's dying now. The doctors are doing all they can but ' She let her voice fade away and even she looked pale and ill. 'Surely there must be some other way?' pondered Dione. She wasn't afraid of Theo Tsardikos, even though he was a powerful man; it would be more embarrassing than anything else. 'What about the banks?'
'They're closing in on him.'
And Dione knew that he didn't have any friends who would help. There were not many people who liked her father; he was a tyrant of the highest order, and she had more reason than most to hate him after the way he had treated her mother. But he was her blood after all and though she found it hard to forgive him she loved him. She kept the peace mainly for her emotionally vulnerable mother's sake, not knowing what he might say or do to her if she got on the wrong side of him.
Jeannie and Yannis had divorced sixteen years ago. When their marriage broke up he had moved back to his native Greece, taking Dione with him. Reluctantly he had let her visit her mother during school holidays. Now she spent as much time in England as she possibly could, and had been on the second week of a month's visit when she had got the call.
'It's a lot to ask of me.'
'I know,' said Phrosini.
Dione had grown close to her stepmother and loved her dearly but at this moment in time she wished that she wasn't asking the impossible of her. Phrosini had never had any children of her own, much to Yannis' disappointment because he'd always wanted sons, and so she looked upon Dione as her own daughter.
Now Dione faced the little Greek woman with compassion in her eyes. 'It looks as though I have no choice.'
And when they went back to the hospital to tell her father Dione was glad that she'd made the decision. He looked if possible even more sallow and ill than earlier. He lay in his bed, his breathing laboured, but as soon as he heard her news he smiled and a light appeared in his eyes.
'Thank you, Dione. Thank you from the bottom of my rotten heart.' And he took her hands and squeezed them.
Dione took a deep breath as she stood outside the door and prepared to face the legendary Theo Tsardikos.
Her father's life depended on her succeeding.
But how easy would it be, when they were total enemies?
Theo looked with interest at the woman standing in front of him. He was aware thatYannis Keristari had a daughter but he had never met her and was pleasantly surprised.
She was tall and slender and very fine looking, somewhere in her twenties, he imagined. She wore a grey jacket with a matching pencil-slim skirt and high-heeled shoes. The jacket was fastened to just above her breasts and a gold pendant dangled enticingly close to her cleavage. He couldn't help wondering why she had chosen to fasten it so demurely on such a warm day, and it amused him to assume that she wore nothing beneath.
Her eyes were dark and sloe-shaped with a fan of thick lashes, her nose straight and small, and her mouthwas delicious. He forced himself to look from it. She was nothing like her father, which came as something of a surprise. And totally unlike any other Greek woman he'd met. He was fascinated. Even more so than with the reason she was here.
Which had yet to be revealed.
Clearly Keristari had sent her. Theo had heard through the grapevine thatYannis Keristari's business was in trouble. Had his daughter's visit anything to do with it? Perhaps he was offering to sell him his restaurants?
He showed his visitor to a seat, not once taking his eyes off her, and waited for her to speak. She was graceful in her movements and smelled like a dream.
'Please, call me Theo.'
'This isn't a social visit,' she declared with a delightful toss of her head that revealed a long, slender neck simply begging to be kissed. Theo sat down behind his desk to stop himself from advancing towards her. 'Maybe,' he growled. 'But there's no need for formalities, especially when you're the daughter of an old acquaintance of mine.' He'd been about to say enemy, but realised that this could get her back up before she'd even given her reason for being here. 'Would you like coffee? I can get someone to'
It was an instant decision. She was clearly on a mission and wanted to get it over with. 'So how can I help you?' He folded his arms, allowing his eyes to half close as he studied her intently. He could feel a stirring in his groin that shocked him to the core. This was the daughter of a man he hadn't the faintest admiration for. He should be totally indifferent to her. So why wasn't he?
'My father needs money.'
He felt quite sure she hadn't intended to blurt it out like that because a tell-tale colouring to her skin belied her cool outer image. But he was glad that she had because he now knew where he stood.