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As two of the more elderly directors of Dionides Shipping again pressed questions that had already been answered Atreus let his attention stray to the Art Deco bronze on the far side of the boardroom. It was of a voluptuous Spanish dancer, only half-clad in what might once have been a romanticised concept of gipsy clothing.
When Atreus had first taken over as CEO of the family business he had been stunned by the sexy statue, which had seemed so out of step with his grandfather's stern, old-fashioned outlook on life.
'She reminded me of my first love,' the old man had confided with a faraway look in his faded eyes. 'She married someone else.'
Atreus could not imagine such a disappointment happening to him. The women he met these days were financially astute and a challenge to shake off. Ever since he'd been a teenager he had been relentlessly hunted by gold-digging beauties who would throw themselves in his path in attempts to ensnare him and his wealth. Black-haired, with eyes dark as sloes, and six foot three inches in height, Atreus had always been an object of desire. By the time he had twice become the unhappy focus of false paternity claims he had decided that he would only marry a woman with a fortune and social standing to match his own. His late father, Achilles, had set his only son a chilling example by living an exemplary life until the age of forty, when he had inexplicably gone off the rails by abandoning his wife and only child to run off with an artist's model famous for dancing on tables. From then on wild self-indulgence and extravagance had ruled the lives of both Atreus's parents, and he had lost his early childhood to their excesses. After that, raised almost entirely by his strict paternal uncle and aunt, Atreus had been deeply suspicious of any inner prompting to step off the straight and narrow. That had been his father's fatal flaw; it would not be his.
Regardless of that fact, the Art Deco bronze had contrived recently to acquire a strange significance for Atreus. It reminded him of an episode some weeks earlier that had taken place on his country estate. On a warm summer afternoon while he had been walking through the woods he had come upon a curvaceous brunette skinny-dipping in the river. Her presence on private land had infuriated him. After all, he had paid a fortune for the seclusion of his large estate, and he employed numerous staff to guard his privacy from trespassers and camera lenses. Ironically, ever since then the memory of the brunette's indescribably lush and creamy curves had had an extraordinarily erotic hold on him—awake and asleep. Yet she had been a woman who had borne not the slightest resemblance to the slender elegant blondes who usually attracted him…
In fact she had not been his type in any way, Atreus acknowledged impatiently. According to his estate manager, Lindy Ryman was an eccentric animal-lover who scratched a living making and selling pot-pourri and candles. A regular churchgoer, she was also a well-respected member of the local community, who hid her remarkable curves beneath drab long skirts and wintry woollens. Atreus had been tough on her in the woods, for at first he had been convinced that she had deliberately schemed—like so many women before her—to set up their encounter. Once he'd appreciated that she was no cunning temptress he had sent her flowers and an apology. He'd been amazed when she'd ignored those olive branches and failed to make use of the phone number he had included.
His mood darkening at the length of time his thoughts had stayed focused on the Ryman woman, Atreus suddenly wondered if he should offer her compensation to surrender her tenancy on his estate. Out of sight would be out of mind, and that might well be the best cure for what afflicted him. He had no doubt that he was too intelligent and logical to succumb to the attraction of a woman who was so outrageously unsuitable for him in every way…
'You dumped Sarah?' Lindy repeated, turning to glance at Ben.
'She was getting serious. Why do women always do that?' Ben enquired, with the pained expression of a male continually tortured by besotted females.
Look in the mirror, Lindy almost told him. She could still recall when she had fallen under the enchantment of Ben's floppy blond hair, light green eyes and rangy frame. That had been way back when they'd first met at university, and he had put her firmly in the pigeonhole marked 'Friends'. There had been no jumping ship. Some of the best days of her life had been wasted while she'd wished that she was tiny, cute and giggly instead of shy, sensible and quiet. Since then Lindy had got over him, and grown accustomed to watching him cut a destructive swathe through a long line of beauties. Ben didn't want commitment, it seemed, just a good time. A City of London trader, he had a successful career and all the worldly trappings that ranged from a flash car to smart suits and the membership of the right gym. Yet Ben never really seemed happy with his lot, Lindy acknowledged ruefully.
'If you weren't as keen as she was, I suppose you were better breaking up with her,' Lindy retorted evenly. Her soft heart went out to Sarah, who had sounded like a pretty nice person and who was probably grieving now over the loss of him—as Lindy had once grieved without even the excuse of ever having had him.
'You are the most fabulous cook.' Ben sighed, taking another bite of her crumbly iced carrot cake and savouring the taste.
Lindy compressed her lips, too well aware that no such proficiency would ever increase her appeal to the opposite sex. She was convinced that her real problem was that there was too much of her. Ever since she had been likened to a fertility statue at school, and bullied unmercifully on that basis, she had despised her full-breasted, generous-hipped body. Diets and exercise seemed to have little impact, and although she carried no surplus weight anywhere else she was embarrassed by her healthy appetite. Ben always dated small, skinny girls who made Lindy feel enormous and clumsy.
Lindy had dropped out of university when her mother fell ill. An only child from a poor home, she had had to give up studying for a law degree to nurse her mother through a long and sadly terminal decline. On the brink of returning to university Lindy had come down with a nasty bout of glandular fever. By the time she had recovered her own health she had lost interest in studying and had gone for an office job instead. Her flat-sharing days in London with her friends Elinor and Alissa had been fun, but since then both women had married, moved abroad and had families, so their meetings now were few and far between. Even so, it had been during a summer visit to Elinor and her husband Jasim's English country home that Lindy had first fallen blissfully in love with the countryside. As soon as she had found a rural property at a rent she could afford—The Lodge, a small gatehouse at the edge of a grand estate—she had taken the plunge and jumped off the hamster's wheel of urban working altogether.
Since then Lindy had devoted herself to making a living through pursuits she enjoyed. She grew lavender and roses, and made pot-pourri and candles which sold well via the internet. She took occasional part-time jobs when her bank account needed plumping up, but devoted most of her free time to helping out at the local animal sanctuary. She had acquired two rescue dogs: Samson and Sausage. Her friends might insinuate that she was throwing her youth away, but Lindy was content with her home, her small income and her simple life.
Of course every Eden had to have a serpent, she conceded ruefully. Hers was Atreus Dionides, the new, fabulously wealthy owner of Chantry House, a wonderful Georgian jewel of a mansion surrounded by a beautiful estate. Thanks to him, she was no longer free to roam where she liked through hundreds of acres of parkland and wood. Worst of all, her single unforgettable meeting with the wretched man had humiliated and distressed her so much that she had actually considered moving.
'Are you quite sure that you don't mind looking after Pip?' Ben checked again, on his way out of the front door.
'He'll be fine here.' An essential streak of honesty made Lindy sidestep the question, for if truth be told Pip was far from being her favourite house-guest.
The Chihuahua belonged to Ben's mother, who expected her son to look after her pet whenever she went on holiday. Unhappily, Pip was a very cross little animal. Had he been larger he would have had to wear a muzzle. As it was, the tiny canine continually growled, snapped and barked, and even Lindy's love of dogs was taxed by Pip's bad temper and tendency to bite.
Lindy walked Ben out to his car. 'You shouldn't have parked on the drive. I don't have a parking space here. The estate manager did ask me to ensure that my visitors parked outside the gates,' she reminded him awkwardly.
'The new owner is really making life difficult for you. If he keeps it up, I bet it could constitute harassment,' Ben replied, climbing into the driver's seat and opening the window on the passenger side to continue the conversation.
Lindy tensed and then froze when she saw a long dark limousine gliding through the tall black gates. In a trice, she had dropped down into a crouch by the passenger door, so that she was hidden from view by Ben's sports car.
'What on earth are you doing?' Ben demanded with raised brows.
'Just don't drive off until the limo has gone past!' Lindy hissed, staying down, her face as red as a beetroot and as hot as fire.
The limousine continued down the drive at a stately pace and disappeared round a corner. Lindy slowly rose up to her medium height, glossy dark brown hair rippling round her shoulders, her violet-blue eyes strained and uneasy.
'What were you doing?' Ben asked in a tone of wonderment.
'Never mind.' Lindy shrugged rather unconvincingly. She told Ben she would see him the following Friday, when he came back to pick up Pip, and hurried into her cottage as fast as her legs would carry her, where she found the Chihuahua snarling viciously at poor Sausage, who had taken refuge beneath a chair.
Six weeks had passed since Lindy had met Atreus Dionides, in circumstances that still brought her out in a cold stricken sweat of reluctant remembrance when she strived to adjust to the reality that the Greek shipping tycoon had seen her stark naked. As he was the very first male who had ever seen her in that state, and he had utterly humiliated her, she was still struggling to get over the experience. Had she had the slightest suspicion that anyone might see her she would not have removed so much as a sock in public. After all, she was self-conscious even in a swimsuit, and skinny-dipping wasn't something she had ever done before… or would ever do again in this lifetime.
In fact every time she thought about that afternoon she cringed and cursed her stupidity. On what had turned out to be the hottest day of the year she had spent the morning helping to unload a delivery of hay at the animal sanctuary. Riding home on her bike, her clothes sticking to her overheated skin, she had thought longingly of the river, where the rocks formed a safe natural pool. The previous summer she had paddled there on several occasions.
Of course back then the estate had been deserted, for it had still belonged to an old man who'd spent most of his time abroad and who had placed no restrictions on his tenants' movements. Atreus Dionides, on the other hand, surrounded himself with high-tech security and knew to the letter of the law what rights he had and what rights his tenants had. The estate office had wasted no time in sending out a letter laying out the new ground rules and stressing the new owner's desire for total seclusion and privacy within his extensive grounds.
But on that hot day six weeks ago Lindy had only intended to cool her bare feet for a few minutes. It was a quiet part of the river, where she had never seen another living soul before and where the trees and shrubs on the banks provided dense cover. Aware that Atreus Dionides usually only used the house at weekends, and that it was midweek, Lindy had succumbed to temptation and impulse and had done something totally out of character. Stripping down to her birthday suit and leaving her clothes in a pile, she had sunk slowly into the pool with a heady sigh of pleasure, revelling in the clean, cold refreshment of the water on her hot damp skin.
'What are you doing here?' an authoritative male voice had demanded, only minutes after her immersion, and she'd very nearly jumped out of her skin in fright.
Whirling round wide-eyed, Lindy had focused on the male poised on the bank and hastily dropped lower in the water to conceal her breasts. Sporting a sophisticated urban black business suit, teamed with a white shirt and silk tie, Atreus had looked bizarre against the backdrop of the natural woodland and all the more unreal. She had known who he was immediately as she had seen his photo when the local newspaper had published an excited article about the new owner of the Chantry estate. Even in black and white newsprint he was a very handsome man, if a little cold and grim in his chilly perfection of features. In person, however, Atreus Dionides was a glowing vision of bronzed masculinity and dark Mediterranean good-looks that would have stopped any woman dead in her tracks.
'This is private property.'
Lindy had crossed her arms in front of her lest the water was not providing sufficient concealment. 'Er… I'm sorry. It won't ever happen again. If you go away I'll get out and get dressed.'
'I'm not moving anywhere,' Atreus had delivered loftily. 'You still haven't told me what you're doing here.'
'It's a hot day. I fancied a swim to cool off,' she'd explained uneasily, while wondering why on earth he felt the need to ask when the answer should have been obvious.
'Stripped, ready and waiting for my first appearance?' the Greek tycoon had retorted with sizzling derision. 'I don't go for naked ladies in the woods, or for brief outdoor encounters. You're wasting your time.'