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The only time he relaxed was when he was here on the island of Lefkis, but today was different
Alexander Kosta, saviour of the island? The mayor speaking to the crowd was calling him that. It was better that than the truth, Alexander supposed. A ruthless tycoon who had identified an opportunity didn't have quite the same ring to it.
His gaze strayed beyond the canvas-draped pavilion to the clear blue ocean beyond the harbour. He noted how the sea turned broody and emerald in the distance, and how the sugared-almond-coloured houses clustered round the perfect horseshoe bay had turned more vivid in the late-afternoon sunshine. The island of Lefkis was beautiful and unspoiled, and when it was put up for sale he had been ready.
He noticed everything, and today a young woman had distracted him. Standing in the prow of an old fishing boat, the only flaw in an otherwise picture-perfect panorama, she was glaring at him. He had given instructions for the harbour to be cleared of craft with shallow draft to make way for the super-yachts, but she was still there.
Ellie Foster, or Ellie Mendoras, as she called herself to honour her dead Greek father, had been chosen by the islanders to voice their objections to his vision of progress for Lefkis. But she didn't know the history behind his purchase, and she clearly didn't know what she was up against.
Perhaps he should be glad she had remained on her boat. The crowd was quiet, but if she joined them that would change. Charm was his weapon of choice in a situation like this, and he knew the dissenters would come round. The wealth he could bring to their island was irresistible.
He looked at the girl again. Her very presence was aninsult. Dressed drably in what appeared to be a boiler suit, she couldn't have drawn a sharper contrast to the glamour girls surrounding him. And could her scowl possibly deepen?
Everyone else was smiling at him Everyone smiled at him all the time, now he came to think about it. Why wouldn't they? The charisma of massive wealth worked its magic everywhere he went. Alexander Kosta was the success story everyone wanted a piece of. Born in a shack, he had learned at an early age that the only certainty in life was the food he put on the table, and the only love he could count on was the love that could be bought.
He could buy anything he wanted now, including an island. He had added Lefkis to his property portfolio as he might have added a vase he coveted from the estate of a man who in life had been both his greatest enemy and the greatest spur to his ambition. He envisaged a mini-Dubai springing up where once there had been bare rock and poverty. It was a wonder the island had survived beneath the heel of his predecessor, Demetrios Lindos.
The girl should thank him, Alexander thought, glancing at Ellie. The power-boat race was just the start of the improvements he intended to make. There would be hotels, luxury spas, shopping malls Everyone would benefit, including the troublemaker on her old fishing boat.
Hearing a few locals murmur against his scheme,Alexander firmed his jaw. If they couldn't see what he was trying to doif she stopped them seeing what he was trying to do
She was preparing to disembark. Although she was too far away for him to see her features clearly, the tilt of her chin told a story of its own. Did she really intend to confront him? She had some nerve. The world measured him by what he owned and what he could buy, and everyone listened when he spoke. She should be down on her knees rejoicing that he had arrived in time to save her tinpot island.
Alexander watched Ellie stride determinedly towards him down the quay. Her God-given certainty that she was on the side of the angels got right under his skin.
As if reading his mind, the crowd turned to look in the same direction. He could feel the tension rising as though everyone sensed a storm brewing. They settled again, reluctantly, and stared at him. They weren't sure what to do. They'd had a taste of his generosity in the free food and entertainment he'd provided, and wanted more. In spite of the girl's determination to disrupt the proceedings he judged them more than ready to listen to his plan.
She was nothing to him; a nobody. He shut her out. The crowd was warming to him. Sunlight bathed the scene, enhancing the colours of the bunting fluttering over his head. The wind had dropped, turning the ocean into a limpid lake. This was his island. This peaceful and lovely scene belonged to him now. Ellie Mendoras had made her first big mistake, because if she was looking for trouble, she'd found it.
Money-making wasAlexander Kosta's greatest skill in life. His only skill in life, Ellie told herself contemptuously as she marched down the quay. In spite of everything he had achieved, he wasn't satisfied. He was still hungry for conquests, still searching for the next challenge; the next acquisition.
Well, he could keep his greedy hands off Lefkis. She had vowed to uproot and dislodge him before the tentacles of his empire had the chance to squeeze the life out of the island she loved.
But even as Ellie narrowed her eyes and dreamed of bringing the Greek tycoon to his knees, her heart rebelled and thundered a warning. She wasn't brave. She had never put her head above the parapet before. She lived quietly on the island she loved, surrounded by the gentle people who had helped her heal after a terrible experience back in England had nearly destroyed her.
Which was precisely why she had to help those people now, Ellie determined, quickening her step. Maybe the islanders had mistaken her for her father, Iannis Mendoras, a true hero, but she wouldn't let them down. Walking in the footsteps of a giant was impossible, but she wouldn't disgrace her father's name.
Alexander Kosta had drawn quite a crowd. The market square was packed, with visitors and with locals. She could see him clearly now.
And he took her breath away, Ellie admitted reluctantly. Her heart was throbbing at a ridiculous paceand it wasn't just Alexander's good looks that had thrown her, but the power he exuded. She told herself that no one could have been prepared for that.
Ellie shied away from men after her experience back in England, and thisAlexander Kosta was brazenly male. But now the locals were clustering at her elbows, urging her on. They depended on her and she couldn't turn her back on them now
Alexander's face hardened as he finished his speech and the women, or birds of paradise, as he thought of them, clustered around him. The girls' silk dresses fluttered in the breeze, raising a haze of exotic scent. His fabulous yacht, the Olympus, had brought out every woman of marriageable age irrespective of the fact that she might already be attached to some dupe who had been taken in by her porcelain smile and artificially inflated chest. He took a perverse pleasure in the games the birds of paradise played, but most of all he liked to see them falter when they realised how deeply he despised them.
As the crowd erupted into applause he shrugged the women off. He didn't want their air kisses. He was more interested in glancing in triumph at the cliff-top where Demetrios Lindos's grand old house was being demolished stone by stone. He would rebuild the house where his young wife had sold her body to an old man, but before he did that he would raze it to the ground and stand amongst the ashes.
He was forced to pause as Ellie Mendoras joined the crowd and the voices of protest rose against him again. He understood the reason for it, though that didn't excuse her. Demetrios Lindos had been a harsh tyrant who had kept the island poor, and some of the locals feared he might be worse. It was that fear talking now. But it wouldn't weaken his resolve; the improvements he intended to bring to the island would be made.
Alexander glanced at the old fishing boat. It jarred on him more than the discontent in the crowd. She had inherited the boat from her Greek father, and according to his sources had painstakingly converted it to accommodate tourists on her watered-down lecture tours. She could conduct those tours perfectly well from the new berth he had offered her. She wouldn't be allowed to take up one of the precious deep-water berths when they were all spoken for.
He would crush her rebellion before it spread like an infection, Alexander determined, watching Ellie. Some might think this too small a problem for him to be concerned with, and that trouble was something a man like Alexander Kosta encountered on a world stage, but experience had taught him that a small problem like this spat with a local girl could grow out of all proportion if he ignored it.
She had reached the back of the crowd, from where her eyes blazed defiance at him. Ellie Mendoras, environmental warrior, versus Alexander Kosta? His lips quirked in amusement. Confrontation turned him on.As far as Ellie Mendoras was concerned the situation between them was black and white; he was the enemy, while she was the true saviour of her people. For him the situation held a far more interesting range of possibilities.
As she drew closer his hackles rose. He had declared today a holiday and most people had taken the trouble to dress up. Ellie Mendoras was still in her work clothes, and, apart from sun-bleached auburn hair hanging almost to her waist, she might have been taken for a boy. All that prevented her from appearing completely sexless was the beguiling fire in her eyes, and that was all directed at him.
He watched as she tried and failed to fight her way through the crowd. There was a group of his hard-core supporters at the front. Her face had set in a tight mask of disapproval. Her army had deserted her. Most people were intrigued by his vision of the future. Why couldn't she get it through her head that his way was the only possibility of bringing wealth to Lefkis?
Flexing his muscular frame with impatience, Alexander ordered himself to forget Ellie Mendoras. For a man who had risked much to achieve more, a girl like that shouldn't even register on his radar. Firing one last glance at the small, determined figure straining to see over the shoulders of the crowd, he shut her out completely.
* * * Frustration had tightened a band of steel around her chest. There were so many visitors standing at the front, none of whom, judging by their expensive clothes, had anything to lose by sucking up to Alexander Kosta. The locals were in danger of being ignored if she didn't make her move soon. She had to find a way to reach the stage and snatch the microphone out of Alexander Kosta's hand. She had to make sure the locals' cause was voiced.
Adrenalin was racing, prompting her to act, but the podium was guarded by security staff
She had to wait. She had to move slowly closer and remember what was at stake. The glamorous folk she was standing with now had no interest in local culture. Their goal was to line their pockets at the locals' expense. They would suck the island dry and then move on to the next novelty destination. She had to make them see sense. She had to make the man behind this monstrous plan see sense
Ellie paused to compose herself when she reached the side of the platform. Alexander Kosta, a man in his mid-thirties, was commanding the stage. His charisma alone could hold an audience in awe. What chance did she stand against him?
Whispers from unseen faces urged her forward. That was all she needed to hear. The locals needed her. They were frightened of Alexander Kosta, and were begging her to speak for them.
She was frightened too, Ellie admitted to herself. Beneath his easy smile and handsome face she sensed the ice in Alexander Kosta. This was not a man to cross. This was not a man to take on. He might have been granted the blazing good looks of a film star, but he was not play-acting. She guessed the lightweight linen suit had been precision-tailored to fit his muscular frame, and beneath the open buttons at the neck of his crisp white shirt she could see a lot more than she cared to of the hard, tanned body underneath.
She flinched as he caught her staring. The fact that he had noticed her at all should have acted as a warning, and, to make it worse, her pulse was roaring. She was thankful when he turned his head away as if to say she was of no consequence to him.
But then Ellie realised to her astonishment that she wanted Alexander Kosta to look at her; she wanted him to notice her. It was hard to break the fascination with his piercing sea-green gaze and black, stubble-shaded jaw. His sensual lips and cold expression were so at odds with each other, and there was an erotic haze around him that both frightened and intrigued her. But she had to act, since no one else was prepared to. His intention to bring power-boat racing to the seas of Lefkis was moving forward like a juggernaut that no one could stop. The crowd was hypnotised by his almost mythical status, but a change of thinking could be brought about by a single voice, and today that voice would be heard.
'Go on, Ellie '
Murmurs were rising all around her, and she was on the point of making her move when the audience applauded and Kosta smiled. As he raked a hand through his hair he seemed almost boyish But she knew he was a ruthless tycoonshe couldn't be fooled.
Launching herself forward, she mounted the stage. As she tore across the platform Alexander Kosta started moving towards her. The reflexes of his trained men were no match for his speed
She froze halfway. And then there was chaos. Women screamed and milled about, while Kosta's bodyguards were caught up in the mêlée.
'Don't touch me! Don't you dare touch me!'Ellie shouted, backing away. The look in Alexander's eyes terrified her. She was panicked by his overwhelming maleness.
'Not so brave now, are you?' he observed with satisfaction.
'What good are your bodyguards to you?' she scoffed, rallying to make her stand.
'What do you want?' he demanded harshly.
'Nothing more than a fair hearing'
'And is this how you go about it?'
'How else am I supposed to make you listen?' Ellie was aware her voice was rising.
'Will you hear me out?'
She stood her ground.
'I can think of no better time.'
'What do you think you have achieved by this?' He threw an angry glance over his shoulder, and then turned back to her.
What had happened to all the things she had planned to say? She should be railing at him, but instead awareness was shimmering through her. Her senses were heightened from fear, and from exertion, Ellie reasoned, and because of that adrenalin was racing through her system. And if Alexander Kosta would just look away for a single moment she would compose herself
But he didn't look away.
'Explain yourself,' he ordered coldly.
'I'm speaking for the people of Lefkis'
The sneer in his voice was all it took to trip the detonator in her mind.
'You care nothing for them,' she declared passionately, when she had vowed to be cool and reasoned.
'You're just like all the other oligarchs who visit Lefkis in their white water-borne caravans'
'For someone who wasn't even born on the island, you have a lot to say for yourself,'Alexander Kosta observed coolly.
'My father was born here. He was'
'A fisherman? Yes, I know. And your mother was an English woman who deserted him.'
'It wasn't like that ' Ellie knew she was losing control when it was imperative to remain clear-headed. But when Kosta dared to criticise her family'My mother made a choice, and I respect that'
'Respect?' One brow shot up.
'My English mother taught me respect,' Ellie returned coldly, 'which is why I honour my Greek father's name'
'And why the locals have asked you to speak for them? From what I know, your mother chose safe suburbia over her Greek lover, and you didn't so much as set foot on this island until she died'
The callous way in which he was talking about the parents she loved fuelled Ellie's anger.
'When I came here I fell in love with the island and its people.' One part of her brain simply refused to accept that she had also been running as fast as she could from an elderly friend of her mother's who had attacked her when her guard was down.