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Costas switched off the ignition and studied the house he'd crossed the world to find. A red-brick bungalow in suburban Sydney. It was plain and solid, but with an air of recent neglect. Junk mail spilled from the letter box and the lawn was overgrown.
He frowned as he opened the car door and got out, stretching some of the stiffness from his tall frame.
Despite the uncollected mail he knew she was home. Or she had been thirty hours ago, before he'd left Athens. He refused to consider the possibility that she wasn't here. There was too much at stake to countenance failure.
Unclenching fingers that had curled into fists, he shrugged, trying to relieve the rigid set of his shoulders. He'd flown in first-class luxury as usual, but he'd been unable to sleep. The tension that had gripped him for so long now had reached crisis point. He hadn't slept for three days, had barely eaten.
He wouldn't rest till he got what he needed from this woman.
It took twenty seconds precisely to stride across the quiet street, through the low gateway and up the cement path to the front door.
He jabbed the doorbell and cast an assessing gaze across the tiny, unswept patio to the lacy cobwebs blurring the corners of the front window. She was a lazy housekeeper. His lips curved in a cynical twist. Why didn't that surprise him?
He pushed the buzzer again, keeping his finger on for a few extra seconds.
He wasn't in the mood to be ignored. Especially by this woman. Impatience rose in a hot, flooding tide. He'd had enough of her ignorant selfishness. Now she would learn just who she was dealing with.
Stepping off the patio, he surveyed the side of the house. Sure enough, one of the windows waswide open, only the flyscreen separating him from the interior. But he'd be damned if he'd resort to illegal entry.
Unless he had to.
Returning to the front door, he pushed his finger down on the bell and kept it there. The incessant peal echoed through the house.
Good! That would shift her. No one could stand that appalling clamour for long.
Nevertheless it was several minutes before he heard the slam of an internal door. And even longer before someone fumbled at the latch.
Anticipation tightened his body. Once they were face to face, she'd do as he wanted. She'd have no choice. He'd cajole if he had to, though considering her behaviour he was sorely tempted to dispense with the niceties and go straight to threats. He'd use whatever tactics necessary. He took a slow breath and summoned his formidable control. He'd need it for this interview.
The door opened to reveal a woman. Obviously not the one he'd come to see but sto Diavolo!
He froze, his composure splintering as sunlight illuminated her features.
His heart slammed against his ribs and sweat beaded his brow. His neck prickled as he stared straight at a ghost.
She had the same classically pure bone structure. The same wide eyes, elegant nose and slender neck.
For a heartbeat, for two, he was caught in the illusion. Then with a single, shuddering breath common sense reasserted itself. This woman was flesh and blood, not a spectre from the past come to haunt him.
Now he saw the subtle differences in her face. Her eyes were a lustrous honey-gold, not dark. Her mouth was a perfect bow, fuller than Fotini's lips had been.
He took in the knotted cloud of her dark hair with its hint of auburn. The creases along her cheek where she'd obviously lain. The crumpled blouse and dark skirt. She must have had an end-of-week celebration last night then crashed out in her work clothes. He took in her pasty colour and the dark rings under her vacant eyes and wondered if it was illicit drugs she favoured or just old-fashioned alcohol.
Did it matter? The sight of her disturbed him, stirring too many memories. But he had no time to concern himself with anyone but the woman he'd raced round the globe to find.
'I'm looking for Christina Liakos,' he said.
She stared up at him, blinking owlishly.
He frowned, wondering if she was sober enough to understand. 'Kyria Liakos?' he tried in his own language.
Her eyes narrowed and he saw her knuckles whiten on the edge of the door.
'I've come to see Christina Liakos,' he tried again in deliberately slow, precise English. 'Please tell her she has a visitor.'
She opened her lips but no words emerged. Her mouth worked as if she was about to say something, then she shut it and swallowed convulsively. Her eyes were impossibly huge in her face.
'Oh, God!' Her whisper was hoarse, barely audible even from so close. And then in an instant she was gone, stumbling back down the corridor, leaving Costas to stare after her through the open doorway.
He didn't hesitate. A second later he was in the narrow hall, reaching out to pull the door shut behind him.
The young woman lurched into a room towards the back of the house. Her hunched shoulders, the hand clamped over her mouth, told their own story. She'd over-indulged last night and now she faced the consequences.
For a moment he experienced that horrible sense of déjà vu once more, sparked by her startling resemblance to Fotini. But he had no sympathy to waste on a stupid young woman who didn't respect her own body.
His senses were on the alert, ready for the confrontation with his quarry. Yet the house had an aura of emptiness. Already he sensed that he and the girl with the hangover were the only ones here. But he had to make sure.
It only took a couple of minutes to check the entire house, it was so small. The place was comfortably furnished and tidy, except for the shambles of a living room, with its litter of bottles, glasses and plates of stale food. And the kitchen, where someone had barely started on the mountain of washing-up.
It must have been some party, he decided, surveying the haphazard stack of platters and the left-over food spoiling on the counter, the glasses jammed into the sink.
And still no sign of the woman he'd come so far to find. The woman who held his future in her hands.
But there was one person who knew exactly where Christina Liakos was.
He turned and strode into the bathroom, only to pull up abruptly.
It wasn't the awful retching sound that stopped him. Or any sense of delicacy at the thought that she might prefer privacy.
To his horror it was the sight of her trim, beautifully rounded bottom in that tight black skirt as she bent over the toilet. And the shapely length of her legs encased in sheer black stockings.
Ridiculous, he told his suddenly alert body. No woman could be sexy while she vomited into a toilet bowl. Even a woman as beautiful as this.
Sophie's eyes streamed as she gulped another breath into her raw, aching throat. Her mouth tasted foul and she shook so hard she could barely support herself. The nausea was fading but her whole skin prickled uncomfortably in reaction. And it felt as if someone had wrapped a band around her head and constricted it till even the throb of her blood hurt.
She opened her eyes to see a damp flannel thrust in front of her. A man's hand held it. A large, square, capable-looking hand with long fingers. Olive skin. A sprinkle of silky dark hair. The sleeve of a finely woven suit. A flash of snowy white cuff. The subdued elegance of a gold cufflink.
Sophie stared but didn't have the strength to reach out.
'I can't,' she croaked. She felt so weak that it took all her energy to stay on her feet.
There was a burst of sound behind her. Swearing, by the sound of it, but in incomprehensible Greek. And then an arm like hot steel wrapped around her waist and drew her upright till she sagged against the solid wall of his body. His intense heat was like a furnace at her back. But even that couldn't thaw the chill that gripped her.
He swiped the blessedly wet flannel over her brow, down her cheeks, along her mouth and chin and she silently gave thanks to this man, whoever he was.
She recalled looking up into a set face. Into eyes so dark they shone like jet, revealing nothing. Or maybe that illusion was due to the barely leashed anger she'd sensed in him. Even his arrogantly angled black brows lent fierceness to his brooding countenance. He'd had an aura of edginess, of danger, that belied his tailored suavity.
He was a complete stranger. No woman would forget a man like himall hard, arrogant male and sexy as sin.
Her head lolled against his chest as the lassitude swept her again. She yawned so wide her jaw cracked. As soon as he left she'd go back to bed, she thought dully.
But then his hand was at her shoulder, fingers digging into the tender flesh so that she winced. He shook her and her whole body flopped, unresisting.
'I said, what did you take?' His voice was deep, with the hint of an accent, and Sophie felt a tug of feminine response to the timbre of it. 'Tell me!'
Hazily she realised he was speaking to her.
'Tell you what?' Her brain had fogged up. Now the nausea was passing she felt almost human, but everything was so vague.
Only his punishing grip on her shoulder and the way he held her in close round the waist kept her anchored in reality.
His lips were at her ear, his breath hot against her skin as her eyes fluttered shut.
'What have you taken?' His voice was slow and patient but it held a razor-sharp edge. 'Was it drugs? Pills?'
Pills. That was right. She'd taken two pills. Or was it three? She was sure they'd said two only. 'Pills,' she said, nodding. 'Sleeping pills.'
Another burst of cursing. This guy really had a temper problem. She plucked at his arm, trying to free herself. Suddenly she felt trapped rather than supported by his strength.
'Can you stand by yourself?' he asked.
'Of course.' But when he whipped his arm away, Sophie had to grab for the basin to stay upright.
She felt him move away and relief seeped through her weary bones. He'd helped when she needed assistance, but he was a total stranger. As soon as she'd had just a few minutes to gather her strength, she'd make him leave. Her grip on the vanity unit grew desperate as she forced herself to stand straighter.
Was that water running?
She swung round, then wished she hadn't when dizziness swept her. It was a fight to stay standing, even with the vanity unit to lean against.
It was his hands on her clothes that jerked her out of her stupor. The brush of his knuckles as he unbuttoned her blouse. She swatted at his hands but he was too deft. The blouse was already hanging open as he reached round to unzip her skirt.
With a surge of frantic strength she pushed him away with both hands, only to find it wasn't fine wool suiting under her hands, or crisp cotton, but the warm contours of a solid male chest.
What the ?
Dampness hazed his olive skin and his muscles rippled under her hands. She pushed again and felt the tickle of chest hairs against her palms, shooting sensations of pure pleasure through her body. But it was like pushing at a brick wall for all the impact she made. It was an impressive chest.
Right now she was scared, not admiring. Her breath caught on a harsh sob of fear as she tried desperately to thrust him away.
'Leave me alone!' Her voice was breathless, wavering. 'Get out of here now or I'll call the police.'
He ignored her completely, bending instead to tug her pan-tihose down her legs. His insistent pressure on first one ankle and then the other allowed him to strip it off. If only her coordination hadn't deserted her she might have put up a better resistance.
'I'm not going to hurt you,' he snarled when she aimed a clumsy punch at him and managed to graze his cheek as he straightened. His dark gaze raked her with such disgust that she almost believed him.
She was cradling her fist when he pulled her up and over his shoulder, knocking the breath out of her.
She slumped, disoriented against him, flesh to flesh. The room whirled around her, as dizzying as the blatantly masculine scent of his bare skin. She felt raw heat, rigid bone and muscle, the brush of his hair against her side as he swung her round.
Then, without warning, he slid her down his torso and onto her feet. Straight into a blast of water from the shower. The full force of it hit her back, then her head.
Wet hair streamed down her face, half-blinding her. The pounding water was so heavy it hurt. All that kept her there was the strength of his hands on her shoulders, holding her up and away from him. She swayed and his grip tightened, but he kept her at arm's length.
His dark eyes were unreadable, gleaming with an inner fire. His face was harsh, his jaw set like stone. It was a face Sophie didn't have the energy to deal with right now.
She sagged, her knees loosening, as the water slowly brought her body back to weary, tingling life. Her head fell forward, drooping under the weight of water and of growing consciousness.
This grim-faced stranger thought she needed sobering up, she realised with a fleeting twist of dark amusement. Maybe he thought she'd come close to overdosing. Why else would they both be in the shower in their underwear?
At another time, in another life, she might have thought this scene humorous or embarrassing. Or even provocative. She in white lace bra and panties. The Greek god with the inscrutable eyes and the magnificent body clad in nothing but black briefs.
But not today.
Today was Saturday, she realised, her mind clearing completely as the searing pain of remembrance tore through her chest. No wonder she felt like hell. Yesterday had been the worst day of her life.
'I'm all right now,' she mumbled. 'You can get out.'
'I said I'm all right.' She lifted her head and met his stare. If it weren't for the blast of warm water sluicing down she would have shivered at the icy chill of his unwavering gaze.
'You don't look it,' he said brutally. 'You look like you need medical attention. I'll take you to the hospital and they can'
'What? Pump my stomach?' She blinked at him through the water and wet hair plastering her face. Outrage warred with exhaustion, holding her motionless but for the tremor in her legs. 'Look, I took a couple of sleeping tablets and obviously they didn't agree with me. That's all.'
'How many exactly?'
'Two,' she said. 'Maybe three, I wasn't really concentrating. But not enough to OD, since that's what you're thinking.'
'And what else did you take with the pills?' His voice was sharp, accusing.