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"There's a man waiting for you in the principal's office," Laurette Jones said as she came into Ava Monroe's classroom. "I'll take care of your class until you come back."
"Is everything okay with Theo?" Ava asked. Her son was enrolled in pre-kindergarten at the exclusive Florida boarding school where she taught second grade. It was rare for her to be called away from her class in the middle of the day. The relative quiet of the warm February afternoon suddenly seemed ominous.
"I don't know. Karin asked me to come and get you." Laurette worked for principal Karin Andrews in the administration offices. "Thanks, Laurette," Ava said, hurrying down the hallway, fighting the urge to run. She knew she was borrowing trouble, but Theo had asthma and they'd yet to find any medicine to get it under control. Just the thought that he might be having a breathing episode made her palms sweat.
She stopped by the nurse's office on her way and learned that Theo wasn't there. Relief swamped her. She hoped that Theo hadn't gotten into trouble in class. He wasn't a hellion but he was lively, and his teacher was pretty understanding most days.
She rounded the corner leading to the administration offices and heard a deep voice speaking in a heavy accent. She froze in her tracks. She'd never forgotten that voice, because she still heard it in her dreams. Christos Theakis. Her heart beat faster as she tried to tell herself she was imagining things. But she knew she wasn't. She rapped on the frame of the open door that led to Karin Andrews's office.
"Come in, Ava, we've been waiting for you."
She stepped into the office. And there he was. Christos leaned against Karin's desk, but straightened tohis full height when she entered. He was about six feet tall and dressed in that cool European style that was both casual and sophisticated.
She brushed her hands down the sides of her floral-print skirt and told herself she wasn't still the small-town girl he'd once seduced. But she felt as though she was.
"Hello, Christos. I am so sorry about your recent loss."
He nodded his head solemnly at her offer of condolences. She saw grief and sorrow in his eyes, but he quickly controlled the emotions.
She'd had Christos and the entire Theakis family on the brain since they'd been in the news over the past month. His older brother, Stavros, sister-in-law, Nikki, and two nieces had been killed when their private jet had crashed minutes after take-off from Athens, Greece.
Ava, who had once been nanny to the girls, had burst into tears when the reporter had revealed the names. Things hadn't ended well with her employment with the Theakis family, but she'd adored those children.
Her son had been confused about why she was crying and had consoled her as only a four-year-old could, with his favorite stuffed animal, Monkeyman, and lots of hugs.
But the sting of knowing that the little girls she'd played with and cared for were deceased was still with her.
"We need to talk."
Christos's terse words snapped her back to the present. Such arrogance. She used to find it attractive. Ah, who was she kidding, she still did. There was something appealing about a man who knew what he wanted and made no bones about it. So different from the wishy-washy men in her circle, who struggled even to decide where they should eat dinner on a Friday night.
"Yes, we do," she said, trying to project a little arrogance of her own.
Christos arched an eyebrow at her and turned away. "May we use your office, Ms. Andrews?"
Karin flushed under Christos's gaze, something Ava had rarely seen the ultraprofessional woman do. She gave Christos a warm smile as she stood and walked toward the door. "Of course. And please, call me Karin."
The walnut-paneled door closed behind the principal with a distinctive thud. Christos said nothing and the silence built around them. Ava tried to figure out what to say but all the words running around in her head sounded banal.
Finally she glanced up at him and found he hadn't moved from his position against the desk. "So why are you here?"
"To claim the Theakis heir."
Ava was exactly as he remembered her. The strawberry-blond hair, the delicate features and those wide blue eyes that were more mysterious than the deepest fathoms of the ocean. She had been unique to him. An anomaly in a world filled with people who wanted to be near him because of his money, his connections or his pedigree, she'd wanted to be with him in spite of all that. Or so he'd thought. She'd seemed fresh and innocent, and he knew that was a large part of the reason he'd been so attracted to her.
He would have bet his vast fortune that Ava was incapable of lying. And he knew now that he would have lost. He let the silence grow between them, watching her, knowing it made her uncomfortable. He still wanted her. Damn her for that. Even knowing she'd given birth to his brother's child
Ava deserved the discomfort, he thought. She'd slept with him and his brother, and now he needed the child. His brother's son. God, what a mess.
Christos was the playboy of the family, the jetsetter who, for the most part, had always been more interested in his own pleasures than anything else. But for a few brief months during that summer when Ava had been in Greece forget it, he wasn't going to rehash that.
He'd cast her out of his life, but everything had changed with Stavros's death. God, he missed his older brother and his nieces. He didn't miss his sister-in-law as much, but then Nikki had never been the kind of woman who'd wanted to be friends with him. He'd always been the second son to her. Not the heir.
His own temper was legendary, as was Stavros's, and the fight they'd had overAva well, it had taken on mythic proportions. And the part that stabbed him in the gut was that he'd thought they had years to work it out. Instead he'd never share a quiet moment with his brother again.
He knew what his father wanted from him. Take over the business, marry and produce more Greek babies. Ensure that the Theakis line continued. His father had sent him to Ava to claim the boy whom Stavros had paid her to keep quiet about.
He even knew what Stavros would say to him if he had been able to see into the future he would advise Christos to marry Ava and claim the boy as his own. Move them back to Greece where the boy could be raised to inherit the shipping empire that had been in their family for generations. His father's advice had been the same, but then Stavros and Ari were cut from the same cloth.
"I'm surprised you're here. I didn't think I'd ever see you again," Ava said at last.
He couldn't deal with the circumstances that had brought him here and he wouldn't talk about them with her. Not now. Tristan, one of his best friends, assured him that grief lessened over time, but Christos couldn't imagine this pain fading. "What does the boy know about his father?"
"The boy? His name is Theo. And I I told him that you were an important Greek businessman whose interests kept him busy."
That he was an important Greek businessman. God, he couldn't believe she was still clinging to the lie that he was the father. He'd been careful every time they'd come together. Only slipping up once, he thought. But even then he'd pulled out as soon as he realized what he'd done. And Stavros well, his brother had always been blunt when it came to sex and condomshe didn't use them.
"You are a businessman. And you're always busy, at least, according to Hello! magazine. I don't see how Stavros's death changes anything. You made your choice a long time ago."
He shrugged that aside. He wasn't going to get into the paternity issue again. That boy was a Theakis and he was returning to his family. They had the legal document she'd signed when she'd taken the money Stavros had offered.
He tried not to think about those long-ago days in Greece. As soon as he'd seen her with his brother he'd left, returning to a life of endless traveling and parties that he used to blur memories of their time together. He'd gone back to his old lifestyle with a vengeance. Being the second son meant his life was full of frivolity and socializing. No one expected anything of the second son. He had focused on his business interests during the day, but he'd partied all night.
"Where's the boy?" he asked.
Ava tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, eyeing him warily. Crossing her arms over her chest, she glanced out the window. "What do you mean, the heir? You told me " Her voice quivered.
"I know what I told you but times have changed. I need you to be the woman I once thought you were."
That was nothing less than the truth. He needed something from Ava that even she couldn't have predicted. He needed her to be the kind of mother his had been. The kind of mother who could raise a boy to handle a world of privilege and expectationbecause he wouldn't have enough time to do that.
"What woman was that?"
"One I could trust. My father's health is failing and he misses his grandchildren."
"Theo is nothing like the girls. He can't replace them," she warned.
"What do you mean?"
"He's American, Christos. He knows a little of your background and heritage, but he's not Greek."
"I'll teach him what he needs to know."
Still she shook her head. "Ari hates me."
"My father will love your son."
"I don't know. I'm not the naive young girl I was," she said.
"You're still young," he said. She was twelve years younger than he was, which he'd once thought excused some of the lies she'd told him. But he wouldn't be as forgiving this time.
"Being a mother has matured me in a way nothing else could have."
"Then you know that keeping your son from the Theakis family is not something that I can allow to continue."
She nodded. "When I saw the news about Stavros and his family, I thought about contacting you."
"Why didn't you?"
"I was afraid to deal with you."
"I can understand that," he said. He'd treated her almost cruelly when she'd come to him with the news of her pregnancy. But then, he hadn't been interested in cleaning up his brother's mess. So he'd turned her away.
After his father's heart attack, he'd hired a private investigator to find her. When the old man had seemed so fragile and Christos had made promises he wasn't exactly sure he could keep. Find the Theakis heir and bring him home.
He'd never forgotten Ava, despite the way things had ended between them. He'd come here to claim Theo as the Theakis heir, but watching the way the light played over her hair made him realize he wanted to claim the woman, too.
"I want to know the boy."
"Oh, okay. When?" she asked.
She was nervous; he read that easily in her stance and the way she was stammering to answer his questions. He told himself to lighten upexcept, he couldn't. What he felt about her and the boy was too intense. She'd lied to him and he wanted to see her squirm a little now.
"Today, Ava. I think we can work this out on our own without involving my attorneys."
"Of course," she said. "I wasn't saying you couldn't see him. Just asking when you wanted to."
"Does he have our family name?"
"Was that in the agreement with Stavros?"
She crossed her arms under her breasts and arched one eyebrow at him. The show of temper made him hotter than he'd have thought it could.
"Why do you care? You said you wanted nothing to do with my child."
"But that has changed," he said. "Theo is a Theakis and I need him."
"As I just said, he shares my last name."
"That will be the first thing I change. I'll have my attorneys start the paperwork."
"Uh, isn't that moving fast? Why"
"It isn't fast. Not after we've missed so much of his young life."
She flushedwith anger, he imaginedand nodded toward him. "I'm sure that Theo will be pleased to meet you. He knows your name."
She didn't respond to the last but he caught another glimpse of her temper in her eyes before she turned away.
"I'll have Karin call him out of class. He's a little afraid of the principal's office. Maybe you should wait in the gardens. I'll bring him to you."
Theo chattered as she walked him down the hall toward the gardens, asking her specific questions about Christos. But she really didn't know what to say. Finally they stepped out into the Florida sun and he slipped his little hand in hers, quieting as he looked at the tall man standing with his back toward them.
She knelt down next to her son and hugged him close. "He's very excited to meet you."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, she is," Christos said, coming over to them.
"Theo, I'm Christos Theakis."