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'I've found her, Angelos. And she's a goddess.'
Hearing the sound of his father's voice, Angelos Zouvelekis interrupted his conversation with the Greek ambassador to France and turned. 'Found who?' The fact that his father had made an effort to come tonight was a good sign. A few months ago he had been a broken man, unwilling to leave his isolated villa after his second painful divorce in six years.
'The perfect woman for you.' His father shook his head in disbelief, but the corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled. 'Sometimes I wonder if you're really my son. This place is full of gorgeous, beautiful women and what do you do? You talk to boring men in suits. Where did I go wrong with you?'
Seeing the surprise in the ambassador's eyes, Angelos smoothly excused himself and drew his father to one side. 'For me, tonight is about business. I hold this ball every year. The purpose is to part the rich and famous from their money.'
'Business, business, business.'Visibly exasperated, his father raised his hands in despair. 'Does business keep you warm at night? Does it cook you dinner? Does it raise your children? Always with you it is business, Angelos, and already you are a billionaire! You have enough money! You don't need any more money! What you need is a good woman!'
Several heads turned in their direction, but Angelos simply laughed. 'Tonight I'm not making money. I'm giving it away. And you're shocking everyone. Behave yourself,'he said mildly, 'or I'll tell Security to remove you from the building.' But it had been such a long time since his father had summoned sufficient energy to nag him about marriage that he felt nothing but relief. 'And I don't needyou to find me a woman.'
'Why? Do you find one on your own? No, you don't. Not a proper one. You spend your time with women who would not make suitable wives.'
'That's why I pick them,' Angelos murmured, but his father frowned his disapproval, dismissing his comment with another wave of his hand.
'I know who you pick! The whole world knows who you pick, Angelos, because the stories are in every newspaper. One week it is a Savannah, the next it is a Gisellanever the same woman for more than a few weeks, and always they are thin, thin, thin.' His Greek accent thickening his words, Costas Zouvelekis made a disparaging noise. 'How can you be happy with a woman who doesn't enjoy her food? Does a woman like that cook for you? No. Does she enjoy life? No, of course not. How can a woman enjoy life when she is starving hungry? The women you pick have the legs and the hair, and they are like athletes in the bedroom, but would they care for your children? No. Would they?'
'I don't need a woman to cook. I have staff for that purpose.' Angelos wondered briefly whether inviting his father to this particular function might have been a mistake after all. 'And I don't have any children for a woman to care for.'
His father gave a snort of exasperation. 'I know you don't, and I want you to have children. That is the point I am making! You are thirty-four years old and how many times have you been married? None. I am sixty-three and how many times have I been married? Three. It is time you started catching up, Angelos. Make me a grandfather!'
'Ariadne has already made you a grandfather twice.'
'That's different. She's my daughter and you are my son. I want to hold the sons of my son in my arms.'
'I'll get married when I find the right woman, not before.' Angelos drew his father onto the balcony that circled the ballroom and refrained from pointing out that his father's last two attempts at marriage had created emotional and financial devastation.
There was no way he was making that mistake.
'You won't find the right woman by dating the wrong ones! And what are we doing in Paris? Why can't you hold this ball in Athens? What is wrong with Athens?'
'The world is bigger than Greece.'Angelos suppressed a yawn as the conversation shifted onto another familiar topic. 'I conduct business all over the globe.'
'And I never understand why! Did I have to leave Greece to make my first million? No!' Costas peered into the ballroom. 'Where has she gone? I can't see her.'
Angelos raised his eyebrows in question. 'Who are you looking for?'
'The goddess with the body. She was perfect. And now she has disappeared. She was all eyes and curves and soft-looking. Now, that girl would make a good mother. I can imagine her with your children snuggled on her lap and a moussaka cooling on your table.'
Angelos glanced at his father with amusement. 'I suggest you don't tell her that. These days it is heresy to make that sort of comment to a woman. They invariably have rather different aspirations.'
'The women you pick have different aspirations.' His father's voice was fierce as he searched the room with his eyes. 'Believe me, this one was built to be a mother. If you don't want her, then I might be interested myself.'
All trace of amusement left him, and Angelos inhaled sharply.
'Not again!' Didn't his father ever learn? 'Promise me that this time you'll just take her to bed. Don't marry her,' he advised, taking a glass of orange juice from a passing waiter and swapping it for the glass of champagne in his father's hand.
'You only think about bed and sex, but I have more respect for women than that.'
'You need to develop a more cynical approach to the opposite sex,' Angelos advised. 'What respect did Tara show you when she left you after six months, taking with her enough money to keep her going for life?'
His father's knuckles whitened as he gripped the stem of the glass. 'We both made a mistake.'
Mistake? Angelos ground his teeth. He was sure that as far as Tara was concerned the marriage had been a resounding success. She was now an extremely rich young woman.
His father deflated before his eyes, his vulnerability exposed. 'She was very mixed up. She didn't know what she wanted.'
'She knew exactly what she wanted' Angelos broke off, trapped between the option of upsetting his father still further by highlighting the ruthless efficiency of Tara's campaign, or of letting the subject drop and risking the possibility that, even after two such divorces, his trusting father still hadn't learned the lessons that needed to be learned.
Costas sighed. 'A relationship should be about love and caring.'
Angelos winced at this sentimental and dangerous observation and made a mental note to instruct his security team to screen all women showing the slightest interest in his father in order to protect him from further unscrupulous individuals. 'Didn't your last two marriages teach you anything about women?'
'Yes. They taught me that you can't trust a thin one.' Costas regained some of his spirit. 'They want to be size zerobut why is it called that? Because they are zero use to anyone! They are too thin and hungry to live the life a woman is supposed to live. Next time I marry she will be a proper shape.'
'After everything that has happened over the past six years, you still believe that love exists?'
His father's face fell. 'I was in love with your mother for forty years. Of course I believe that love exists.'
Cursing himself for his lack of tact, Angelos put a hand on his father's shoulder. 'You should stop trying to replace her,' he said roughly. 'What you had was rare.' So rare that he'd given up hope of finding it himself. And he wasn't willing to risk settling for anything less.
'I will find it again.'
Not before it had cost the family a fortune in divorce settlements and mental anguish.
Frustrated by his father's misguided optimism about the female sex, Angelos ran a hand over the back of his neck. 'Stay single. It's less complicated.'
'I'm not staying single. I hate being single. It isn't natural for a man to be single. And you shouldn't be single, either.'
Seeing that his father was about to launch into another lecture in favour of the curvaceous woman, Angelos decided that the conversation had gone on long enough. 'You don't need to worry about me. I'm seeing a woman.' It wasn't the relationship that his father was hoping for, but he didn't need to know that.
His father scowled at him suspiciously. 'Is she a proper shape?'
'She is a perfect shape,' Angelos drawled, thinking of the A list Hollywood actress who had spent two extremely exciting nights in his bed the week before. Would he be seeing her again? Possibly. She had the legs and the hair and she was definitely an athlete in the bedroom. Was he interested in marrying her? Absolutely not. They would bore each other to death within a month, let alone a lifetime.
But hope was already lighting his father's eyes. 'And when will I meet her? You never introduce me to your girlfriends.'
With good reason. Introducing a woman to his father would deliver the exact message he was so careful never to send. 'When a woman is important to me, you will meet her,' Angelos said smoothly. 'And now I want to introduce you to Nicole. She's my Director of Public Affairs here in Paris, and she definitely loves food. I know you'll have plenty to say to one another.'He guided his father towards the reliable Nicole, made the necessary introductions, and then turned back to the ballroom to continue networking.
And stopped dead, his attention caught by the woman directly in front of him.
She walked as though she owned the place, with a gentle swing of her hips and a faint smile on her glossy mouth, as if something or someone had amused her. Her blonde hair was piled on her head and her vivid red dress provided a dazzling splash of colour amidst the predictable boring black. She looked like an exotic rainforest bird let loose among a flock of crows.
Instantly forgetting the Hollywood actress, Angelos watched her for a moment and then gave a slow, satisfied smile of his own. His father would be pleased on two counts, he thought, as he moved purposefully towards the unknown woman. Firstly because he was about to stop thinking about business and turn his attentions to the pursuit of pleasure, and secondly because the source of that pleasure definitely, very definitely, had curves.
Not that he required her to perform the various domestic functions that his father had listed. Despite his father's obvious concerns for him, he wasn't interested in a woman's capacity to cook, clean or raise his children. At this point in his life all he expected from a woman was entertainment, and she looked as though she'd been designed for exactly that purpose.
* * *
Smile, walk, smile, don't panic
It was like being back in the school playground, with the bullies circling like gladiators while the malevolent crowd of girls pressed in, watching with sadistic fascination. Waiting for the kill.
The memory was so disturbingly vivid that feelings of terror and humiliation stirred to life, catching her unawares. No matter how many years passed, her past was always there, lurking inside her like dark, filthy slime.
She struggled to throw off all her old insecurities.
It was ridiculous to think of that here, now, when that part of her life had ended long ago.
This wasn't the playground, and she'd moved beyond that. The bullies might still be out there, but they couldn't see her any more. Her disguise was perfect.
Or was it?
She shouldn't have worn red. Red made her stand out like a beacon. And if she didn't eat something soon she was going to pass out.
Didn't anyone eat at these functions?
Wasn't anyone else starving hungry?
No wonder they were thin.
Wishing she'd never decided to test herself in this way, Chantal attempted to stroll casually across the room. Confidence is everything, she reminded herself. Chin high, eyes up. Red is fine. They're only people. Don't let them intimidate you. They know nothing about you. From the outside you more or less look like them, and they can't see who you are on the inside.
To distract herself, she played her usual game of make-believe. The game she'd invented as a means to survive in the lawless, ruthless environment she'd inhabited as a child. Her life had followed a pattern. A new playground, a new set of lies. A new layer of protection.
Who was she going to be this evening?
An heiress, maybe? Or possibly an actress?
No. Not a model. She would never be able to convince anyone that she was a model. She wasn't tall enough or thin enough.
She paused, still pondering her options. Nothing too complicated. Not that she was worried about being found out, because she would never see any of these people again.
Just for tonight, she could be anyone she wanted to be.
A penniless Italian contessa with lots of breeding and no money?
No. This was a charity ball. It wouldn't do to admit to having no money.
An heiress would be best.
An heiress wishing to remain incognito to avoid fortune hunters.
Yes. That was a good one.
Her excuse for not spending the money she didn't have would be that she didn't want to draw attention to herself.
The ballroom was amazing, with its high ceilings and glittering chandeliers. She had to remind herself not to stare at the paintings or the statues, and to adopt an expression of casual in-differenceas though this was her world and such an exhibition of art and culture surrounded her on a daily basis.
'Champagne?' The question came from behind her and she turned swiftly, her eyes widening as she was confronted by a man so devilishly good-looking that every woman in the room was watching him longingly.
Her limbs weakened.
Arrogant, was the first word that came to mind.
Devastating, was the second.
His eyes glittered dark and he studied her with a disturbing degree of interest as he handed her a glass.
What was it about dinner jackets, she mused, that turned men into gods? Not that this man needed the assistance of well cut clothes to look good. He would have looked good in anything or nothing. He was also the sort of man who wouldn't have looked twice at her in normal circumstances.
Chantal felt a sudden explosion of awareness engulf her body, and a deadly sexual warmth spread across her pelvis and down her limbs. He hadn't touched her. He hadn't even shaken her hand. And yet
Dangerous was the word that finally caused her to take a defensive step backwards.
'I thought I knew everyone on the invitation list, but obviously I was wrong.' He spoke with the easy confidence that was the natural inheritance of the rich and powerful, his voice smooth and seductive, one dark eyebrow raised in anticipation of an introduction.
Still struggling to understand the reaction of her body, Chantal ignored the question in his eyes.