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When the limousine appeared, a perceptible wave of anticipation rippled through the well-dressed cliques of people gathered on the church steps. Two cars had already drawn up in an advance guard, from which muscular men wearing dark glasses and talking into walkie-talkies had emerged to fan out in a protective cordon. At a signal from the security team the chauffeur finally approached the passenger door of the limo. The buzz in the air intensified, heads craning for a better view, eyes avid with curiosity.
Leonidas Pallis stepped out onto the pavement and immediately commanded universal attention. A Greek tycoon to his polished fingertips, he stood six feet three inches tall. A staggeringly handsome man, he wore a black cashmere overcoat and a designer suit with an elegance that was lethally sexy. That cutting-edge sophistication, however, was matched by a cold-blooded reserve and ruthlessness that made people very nervous. Born into one of the richest families in the world and to parents whose decadence was legendary, Leonidas had established a wild reputation at an early age. But no Pallis in living memory had displayed his extraordinary brilliance in business. A billionaire many times over, he was the golden idol of the Pallis clan and as much feared as he was fêted.
Everyone had wondered if he would bother to attend the memorial service. After all, just over two years had passed since Imogen Stratton had died in a drug-fuelled car crash. Although she had not been involved with Leonidas at the time, she had enjoyed an on-off association with him since he'd been at university. Imogen's mother, Hermione, swam forward to greet her most important guest with gushing satisfaction, for the presence of Leonidas Pallis turned the event into a social occasion worthy of comment. But the Greek billionaire cut the social pleasantries to a minimumthe Strattons were virtual strangers. While Imogen was alive he had neither met them nor wished to meet them and he did not have an appetite for fawning flattery.
Ironically the one person he had expected to greet him at the church, his only surviving acquaintance in the Stratton family circle, had yet to show her face: Imogen's cousin, Maribel Greenaway. Refusing an invitation to join the front pew line-up, Leonidas chose a much less prominent seat and sank down into it with the fluid grace of a panther. As quickly, he wondered why he had come when Imogen had despised such conventions. She had revelled in her fame as a fashion model and party girl. Living to be noticed and admired, Imogen had loved to shock even more. Yet she had worked hard at pleasing him until her absorption in drugs had concluded his interest in her. His hard-sculpted mouth flattened. Ultimately, he had cut her out of his life. Attending her funeral had presented a challenge and the fallout from that rare inner conflict had been explosive. The past was past, however, and like regret, not a place Leonidas had ever been known to visit.
Maribel had winced, gritted her teeth at that news and said nothing. Over the past eighteen months her relatives had made it clear that she was now persona non grata as far as they were concerned. That had hurt, since Maribel cherished what family connections she had left. Even so, she fully understood their reservations. Not only had she never fitted the Stratton family mould, but she had also broken the rules of acceptance.
Her aunt and uncle set great store on looks, money and social status. Appearances were hugely important to them. Nevertheless, when Maribel had been orphaned, her mother's brother had immediately offered his eleven-year-old niece a home with his own three children. In the image-conscious Stratton household Maribel had had to learn how to melt into the background, where her failings in the beauty, size and grace stakes would awaken less censure and irritation. Those years would have been bleak, had they not been enlivened by Imogen's effervescent sense of fun. Although Imogen and Maribel had had not the slightest thing in common, Maribel had become deeply attached to the cousin who was three years her senior.
That was the main reason why Maribel was determined that nothing should be allowed to interfere with her sincere need to attend the service and pay her last respects. Nothing, she reminded herself doggedly, not even a powerful level of personal discomfiture. That sense of unease exasperated her. Over two years had gone by. She had no business still being so sensitivehe didn't have a sensitive bone in his body.
Her violet-blue eyes took on a militant sparkle and her chin came up. She was twenty-seven years old. She had a doctorate and she was a university tutor in the ancient history department of the university. She was intelligent, level-headed and practical. She liked men as friends or colleagues, but had reached the conclusion that they were far too much hassle in any closer capacity. After the appalling upheaval and the grieving process that she had had to work through in the wake of Imogen's sudden death, Maribel had finally found contentment. She liked her life. She liked her life very much. Why should she even care about what he might think? He had probably never thought about her again.
In that mood, she mounted the church steps and took the first available seat near the back of the nave. She focused on the service, looking neither right nor left while her sixth sense fingered down her taut spine and her skin prickled. Self-conscious pink began to blossom in her cheeks. He was present. She knew he was present and didn't know how. When she couldn't withstand temptation any longer, she glanced up and saw him several rows ahead on the other side of the aisle. The Pallis height and build were unmistakable, as was the angle of his arrogant dark head and the fact that at least three extremely attractive females had contrived to seat themselves within easy reach of him. Involuntarily she was amused. Had Leonidas been a rare animal, he would long ago have been hunted to extinction. As it was, he was dazzlingly handsome, totally untamed and a notorious womaniser. He mesmerised her sex into bad behaviour. No doubt the women hovering near him now would attempt to chat him up before the end of the service.
Without warning, Leonidas turned his head and surveyed her, the onslaught of his brilliant dark deep-set eyes striking her much like a bullet suddenly slamming into tender flesh. Her fight-or-flight response went into overdrive. Caught unawares and looking when she would have given almost anything to appear totally impervious to his existence, Maribel froze. Like a fish snared by a hook and left dangling, she felt horribly trapped. Mustering her self-discipline and her manners, she managed to give him a slight wooden nod of polite acknowledgement and returned her attention to the order of service in her hands. The booklet trembled in her grasp. She breathed in slow and deep and steadied her hold, fighting the riptide of memory threatening to blow a dangerous hole in her defences.
The glamorous blonde who slid into the pew beside her provided a welcome diversion. Hanna had belonged to the same modelling agency as Imogen. Indifferent to the fact that the vicar was speaking, Hanna lamented at length about the traffic that had led to her late arrival and then took out a mirror to twitch her hair into place.
'Will you introduce me to Leonidas Pallis?' Hanna stage-whispered as she renewed her lip gloss.
'I mean, you've known him for ever.'
Maribel continued to focus her attention on the service. She could not credit that once again a woman was trying to use her to get to Leonidas and she was quick to dismiss the idea that she could ever have been deemed an acquaintance of his.
'But not in the way you mean.'
'Yeah, you were like living as Imogen's housekeeper or whatever in those days, but he must still remember you. Have you any idea how rare that is? Very few people can claim any sort of a connection with Leonidas Pallis!'
Maribel said nothing. Her throat felt as if a lump of hysteria were wedged at the foot of it and she was not the sort of woman who threw hysterical fits. It was ironic that she could only think about Imogen, who had set her heart on a man she could not have, a man who would never care enough to give her the stability she had so desperately needed. Sometimes it had been very hard for Maribel to mind her own business while she had lived on the sidelines of her cousin's life, forced to witness her every mistake. The discovery that she herself was equally capable of blind stupidity had been hugely humiliating and not a lesson she was likely to forget in a hurry.
Hanna was impervious to the hint that silence might be welcome, adding, 'I just thought that if you introduced me, it would look more casual and less staged.'
Casual? Hanna was wearing a candy-pink suit so tight and so short she could barely sit in it. The feathery hat-confection in her long, streaming blonde hair was overkill and would have been more appropriate at a wedding.
'Please please please. He is so absolutely delicious in the flesh,' the other woman crooned pleadingly in Maribel's ear.
And a total, absolute bastard, Maribel reflected helplessly, only to be very much shocked by such a thought occurring to her in church and on such a serious occasion. Face colouring with shame, she cleansed her mind of that angry, bitter thought.
Leonidas had decided to be amused by that stony little nod from Maribel. The only woman he had ever met who refused to be impressed by him. A challenge he had been unable to resist, he acknowledged. His heavily lidded dark gaze roamed at an indolent pace over her, noting the changes with earthy masculine appreciation. Maribel had slimmed down, the better to show off the abundant swell of her full breasts and the voluptuous curve of her hips. The spring sunlight arrowing though a stained glass window far above glinted over hair the colour of maple syrup, skin like clotted cream and a generous mouth. Not beautiful, not even pretty, yet for some reason she had always contrived to grab his attention. Only this time he believed that he could finally understand why he was looking: she had the vibrant, sensual glow of a sun-ripened peach. He wondered if he was responsible for awakening that feminine awareness. Just as quickly, he wondered if he could seduce her into a repeat performance. And, on that one lingering look and that one manipulative thought, his slumbering libido roused to volcanic strength and sharpened his interest.
'Why are you in such a hurry?' Hanna hissed, when Maribel attempted to ease past her stationary figure.
'Leonidas was looking in this direction. He's already noticed me. I asked you for such a tiny favour.'
'Someone as beautiful as you doesn't need an introduction,' Maribel whispered in sheer desperation.
Hanna laughed and preened. With a toss of her rippling golden tresses, she sashayed out into the aisle like a guided missile ready to lock onto a target. Several inches shorter, Maribel used the blonde as cover and ducked out in her wake to speed for the exit like a lemming rushing at a cliff. It wasn't cool to be so keen to avoid Leonidas, but so what? Mindful of the reality that her aunt no longer wished to acknowledge her as a member of the family, Maribel knew that it was her duty to embrace a low profile. In her haste, however, she cannoned into the photographer lying in wait beyond the doors. Wondering why she was spluttering an apology when the man was assailing her with furious abuse, Maribel rubbed the shoulder that had been bruised by the collision and hurried on out and back to the car park.
Unreceptive to the many opposing attempts to gain his attention, Leonidas strode out to the church porch. He was thoroughly intrigued by the mode and speed of his quarry's flight, because Maribel was, as a rule, wonderfully well mannered and conservative. He had expected her to hover unwillingly out of politeness and speak to him. But she had not even paused to converse with the Strattons. While his protection team prevented the lurking paparazzo from snatching a photo of him, he watched Maribel approaching a little red car. For a small woman, she moved fast. Lazily, he wondered if she was the only female who had ever run away from him. Exasperated, he inclined his handsome dark head to summon Vasos, his head of security, to his side and gave him a concise command.
As Hermione Stratton, closely followed by her two daughters, surged to a breathless halt by his side, Leonidas spoke conventional words of regret before murmuring in his dark, deep voice, 'Why did Maribel rush off?'
'Maribel?'The older woman opened her eyes very wide and repeated the name as if she had never heard of her niece.
'Probably racing home to that baby of hers,' the tallest, blondest daughter opined with more than a touch of derision.
Although not an ounce of his surprise showed on his lean bronzed features, Leonidas was stunned by that careless statement. Maribel had a baby? A baby? Since when? And by whom?
Hermione Stratton pursed her mouth into a little moue of well-bred distaste.
'I'm afraid that she's a single parent.'
'And not in the fashionable category. She was left in the lurch,' her daughter chipped in, smiling brightly at Leonidas.
'Typical,' her sister giggled, rolling inviting big blue eyes up at him.
'Even with all those brains, Maribel still made the biggest mistake in the book!'