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Demos Atrikes lounged against a smooth stretch of wall and surveyed the strobe-lit dance floor with a jaundiced eye as music pounded and bodies writhed around him. Abstract images were projected on a rippling red curtain across from him, and the bored socialites who weren't on the dance floor lounged artfully on curving leather sofas, watching the absurd slideshow.
He already had a headache. He didn't normally come to these types of parties. Yet another striving socialite turning— what? Twenty-two? He glanced at the scantily clad beauties crowding the dance floor and suppressed a sigh of boredom. He generally preferred more sophisticated entertainments, although now even those had started to seem old. Empty.
He'd only come tonight because the birthday girl this time round also happened to be the daughter of one of his current clients, a financial analyst who wanted a custom-designed yacht, worth around twelve million euros.
It made coming to this pop princess party worth his while— or at least half an hour of his time. He downed the rest of his drink and surveyed the writhing crowd one last time. He'd had enough.
When he'd left the office half an hour ago he had been seeking respite, but he knew the pounding music and heaving dance floor would not provide it. He'd lost himself in such amusements too many times, and now he wanted something else. Something more.
He just didn't know what it was.
He'd begun to turn away when his eyes were drawn to a slender, dark-haired beauty in the middle of the floor, gyrating closely with a greasy-haired punk wearing tight black trousers and a half-buttoned silk shirt in a violent shade of pink. She wore a slip dress in silver-spangled Lycra, riding high on her thighs and dipping low on her breasts so that little of that lithe young body was left to Demos's imagination.
She smiled at the man next to her and he reached for her hips, drawing them closer to lock with his in a move so blatantly crude and sexual that Demos's mouth thinned in distaste—even though at thirty-two years old he wasn't old or innocent enough to be a prude.
His eyes flared with awareness and curiosity—blatant interest—uncoiled inside him as he watched the girl stiffen. Was the punk's proprietorial pawing too much, even for a wild-child like her? Then she shrugged, accepting, and tossed back her tangled waves of ink-black hair in a gesture that was both brave and yet somehow wonderfully, pitiably defiant.
They danced like that for a few seconds, no more, before she suddenly twisted away, her hair lashing around her, and moved off the dance floor.
Demos watched, intrigued, as the man in the lurid shirt made to follow her. But with a flirty smile that managed to both promise and reject she shook her head and disappeared among the heated throng.
Without even thinking about what he was doing—or why— Demos followed.
It didn't take long to find her. At six feet four he was head and shoulders above all the women, even those tottering on their sharpened stilettos, and most of the men.
He found her curled up on one of the curving divans scattered around the nightclub's bar area, her eyes wide and staring. Demos stopped and watched her, considering his move.
He hadn't been in the mood to party tonight, he acknowledged, not after nine hours of staring at blueprints, followed by his mother's reproachful telephone call. You must visit, Demos. Your sisters need you…
A mantle, a yoke he'd taken on without a qualm or single pang of uncertainty. Yet now, twenty years later, he felt its shackling weight.
For a moment he threw it off, let his gaze rest on a far more enticing proposition—someone who didn't depend on him, didn't need him, someone he just… wanted. Desire. Pure, plain, simple.
He wanted her. Yet she was oblivious to his presence even though he'd come to a halt only a metre away. He took the opportunity to study her: the sexily tousled hair, the smoky eyeliner and pink pouty lips, the distant look in eyes the colour of lapis-lazuli. She was sitting with her legs tucked under her, and her minuscule skirt rode up even higher so he could see the scrap of her thong.
As if aware of where his wandering eyes had strayed, she snapped her own gaze to his, and for a heartbeat she looked surprised—shocked, even. Demos held her gaze, felt its lure and promise as those pouty lips curved into a smile of sensual enjoyment and with deliberate provocation she recrossed her legs.
Demos swallowed, not wanting to be affected by such an obvious ploy. But he was. Her lips curved more deeply, knowingly.
'Had a nice look?' she asked in a husky purr, and Demos smiled, slipping next to her on the divan.
'Yes,' he murmured back, 'thanks to you.'
She glanced at him with brazen thoroughness, her gaze travelling from his face, with its five o'clock shadow, down to his loosened tie, sweeping across his chest, and down further, her smile still curving with a teasing playfulness that had Demos nearly breaking into a sweat.
He'd had his share of one-night stands—instant physical attraction that had been fulfilled and finished in a matter of moments. Yet he'd never reacted so strongly, so quickly, to a simple look.
'Had a good look yourself?' he asked, leaning closer to her. She shook her head, and her hair brushed his cheek. She smelled of some kind of flowery young scent that he normally would have found overpowering, yet on her it was intoxicating.
'We could remedy that situation.'
She pulled back, raised her eyebrows. 'How?'
She was challenging him, he thought. The smile that curved her lips was both sensual and mocking. He felt a thrill of adrenalin and lust race through him. This girl was different from the spoiled socialites, the shallow models. The women he normally took to bed.
They simpered, they cooed, they draped themselves over him with nauseating predictability. She didn't. She just smiled coolly and waited.
'How do you think?' he finally asked.
'I don't know,' she replied, and he felt from her little smile that she was as intrigued as he was. 'Maybe you can make some suggestions as to how we find out.' There was a look of challenge in her eyes, and she laid one hand as lightly as a butterfly's wing on his thigh. High on his thigh.
And Demos reacted.
So did she.
She jerked her hand away and gave a little laugh, her glance sliding away from his before it returned, resolutely, to meet his enquiring gaze.
The skinny silver strap of her dress had fallen off her shoulder, and Demos reached to adjust it. He couldn't resist sweeping his fingers against that silky bit of skin, to feel if it was as soft as it looked.
Yet the moment his fingers skimmed her collarbone she jerked back, her body stiffening, her eyes blanking. She almost looked afraid.
Demos dropped his hand and leaned back, considering.
What game was she playing?
Then she smiled again, reached for her martini glass, downed the last of her drink and thrust it towards him.
'Why don't we start with you buying me a drink?'
Althea Paranoussis held her glass out, quirking one eyebrow in mocking challenge. The man next to her stared at her for a moment, his own eyes the colour of smoke, darkening to charcoal.
Hard eyes, she thought. Hard mouth, hard face, hard body. Hard everything. She didn't like the cool assessment in his eyes, the way his long fingers wrapped around her glass, taking care to brush hers.
She didn't like the shock of pure sensation that shot up her arm, uncoiled in her belly and put the familiar metallic tang of fear on her tongue.
'What are you drinking?' he asked.
She told him the cocktail she wanted. A name laced with innuendo.
He raised his eyes, and Althea flicked her hair over her shoulders in a move she'd perfected over the years.
'Is that a drink?'
'You'll find out at the bar,' she replied with a naughty little smile.
He gave a terse nod and moved from the divan. Althea watched his long, lean body as it moved through the crowds with easy grace. As he headed towards the bar she wondered if she should disappear.
She was an expert at the art of promising without delivering, of melting into the crowd as she made a little moue of regret. It was the way she stayed safe. Sane.
She leaned back against the leather divan and didn't move. She wanted to see him again, she realised with a sharp pang of surprise. That was strange. She wanted to know more about him. He seemed different from the bored, base young men she normally surrounded herself with. He was older, more confident, and therefore more dangerous. Yet still she didn't move.
There would be time later for excuses, escapes.
Plenty of time.
She glanced up and saw he'd already reappeared, requisite pink drink in hand. It was a ridiculous drink, a silly, soppy, girly cocktail, and she swallowed a laugh at the look of it in his hand. He looked revolted by it, but he handed it to her with a flourish, and the laugh she'd suppressed came out in a rich, throaty chuckle that had him smiling back in bemusement as well as blatant appreciation.
'Perfect,' she murmured. He hadn't bought a drink for himself, Althea noticed as she took a small, careful sip.
He sat down next to her, watching her with an intent narrowed gaze that lacked the lascivious speculation she was used to and yet affected her more deeply, causing a strange shaft of pleasure and pain to pierce her composure, her armour, as his eyes swept slowly over her.
'I don't even know your name.'
She smiled over the rim of her glass and sought to arm herself once more. 'Maybe it's better that way.'
He raised an eyebrow. 'Is that how you like it?'
'Sometimes,' she shot back carelessly. She put her drink down, not quite meeting his eyes.
'I like women to know my name,' he replied. His eyes glinted with both challenge and admiration. 'Demos Atrikes,' he said after a moment, and she tossed her hair back and smiled.
'Pleased to meet you.' She'd heard of him, of course. She supposed she should have recognised him. He was in the tabloids just as much she was, usually with a model or starlet clinging to his arm. And now he wanted her for that precarious position.
Her lips thinned before she smiled again, letting her gaze linger on the harsh yet beautiful lines of his face, noticing the gold flecks in his silver-grey eyes. Silver and gold. The man was rich, she knew. Rich and bored, out for an evening's entertainment. She leaned back against the leather divan, tucking her legs under her, her mouth twisting sardonically.
He noticed. 'Something wrong?' he asked in a murmur, his voice pitched low yet sharpened with cynicism.
'I'm bored.' Althea met his gaze with a challenge of her own. 'Let's dance.'
'You bore easily.'
'Not if given the right entertainment,' she tossed back, eyes and senses flaring.
'I have a better idea,' Demos murmured, leaning towards her so she could feel his breath, cool and minty on her cheek. 'Let's leave this party. I know a taverna near here. We can have a drink, some quiet conversation.'
Althea pulled back, raised one eyebrow in mocking disbelief. 'You want to talk?'
'We can begin with talking,' Demos replied with a smile. 'And see where it leads.' He paused, his eyes flickering over her once again. 'You're different.'
She smiled again, not bothering to hide her cynicism. He had no idea how different she was. 'I'll take that as a compliment.'
'It was intended as one. So?' Demos arched an eyebrow, his eyes dark with enquiry and interest. 'Shall we?'
She shouldn't. She knew she shouldn't. She didn't get that close with men like Demos Atrikes. She didn't get them alone.
Yet she was intrigued despite her intentions not to be, despite her self. He had told her she was different, and now she wondered if he really was too.
It was more than simple curiosity, Althea knew. Her eyes were drawn to the hand he extended, lean and brown and sure. She wondered how that hand would feel wrapped around hers, how his body, lean and long and hard, would feel against hers, and the very fact that she was wondering such things made her breathless and dizzy with fearful surprise.
Althea felt herself slip from the divan even as a disconnected voice reminded her that she never did this. He was just a man, another man, and she knew…
Except maybe she didn't know. Maybe she wanted to find out. She tossed her hair back and reached for the scrap of spangled silk that served as a wrap. Even in Athens the early spring air was chilly. It had a bite.
She slipped her hand in his and felt those strong brown fingers close around hers, sending a jolt of pure sensation through her like a shot to the heart. It wasn't a pleasant feeling; it was too strong and surprising. Althea jerked back, but Demos didn't let go.
He just smiled, and Althea realised he'd sensed her reaction and knew what it meant. Maybe he felt it too.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a glint of pink silk, and her stomach curled with nerves as Angelos Fotopolous walked straight towards her, smiling with unpleasant promise. She turned back to Demos.
'Come on, let's go.'
'In a hurry, are you?' he murmured, even as Althea rested a hand on his arm, her fingers curling, clinging to his suit jacket.
'You're not leaving the party so soon, beautiful?' Angelos said. He'd undone a further button on his shirt and his hair was slicked back from his narrow face.
He reached out to pull her to him, and Althea let herself go slack, unresisting. She felt her body go numb, and then… nothing.
He didn't touch her.
Demos had stopped that snaking arm with a quick vice-like grip. 'She's leaving,' he said in a low, pleasant voice. 'With me.'
'Says who?'Angelos snarled, yet Althea saw the uncertainty enter his eyes. Demos was a head taller and a decade older than Angelos, who still had a rime of pimples along his jaw.
'She says,' Demos replied. 'Don't you?' he asked, sliding her a quick querying glance. He was, she realised, giving her a choice. She hadn't expected it. She had expected him to defend her against Angelos as a matter of personal pride. But to let her choose… ? It was novel.
Maybe he was different.
'I…' She cleared her throat, raised her voice. 'I do. Leave it, Angelos.'
Angelos's eyes blazed, but he shrugged. 'Fine. She's nothing but an easy slut anyway.'
Demos's hand shot out, wrapped around Angelos's throat. Althea blinked. Angelos choked.
'Apologise, please,' Demos said. His eyes were hard, almost black, even though he kept his voice pleasant.
'You'll find out soon enough,' Angelos gasped, his fingers scrabbling at Demos's fist. Speculative murmurs rippled around them in an uneasy tide. They were, Althea realised, attracting a crowd.