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The Greek's Virgin Bride
By Julia James
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"YOU want me to do what?" Nikos Vassilis stared at the old man seated at the desk.
Yiorgos Coustakis looked back with a level gaze. At seventy-eight he was still a formidable figure of a man. His eyes were still as piercing as they had been when he was young. They were the eyes of a man who knew the price of everything.
Especially human souls.
"You heard me." His voice was unemotional. "Marry my granddaughter and you can go ahead with the merger."
"Maybe," replied the younger man slowly. "I just didn't believe you."
A twisted smile pulled at Yiorgos Coustakis's mouth. "You should," he advised. "It's the only deal on the table. And a deal, after all," he said, "is what you've flown four thousand miles for, ne?"
His visitor kept his hard, handsome face expressionless. Revealing anything in front of Old Man Coustakis was a major error in any kind of negotiation with him. Certainly he did not reveal the exasperation he had felt when the head of the Coustakis empire had phoned him at three a.m. in his Manhattan apartment the night before last to tell him that if he wanted a deal he'd better be in Athens this morning to sign it.
If it had been any one else phoning him Nikos would have given him short shrift. He'd had Esme Vandersee with him in bed, and sleeping was not what they'd been doing. But Yiorgos Coustakis had attractions that even the spectacular Esme, queen of the catwalk, could not compete with.
The Coustakis empire was a prize worth forgoing any woman for.
But was it a prize worth marrying a woman for? Giving up his freedom? For a woman he'd never met? Never laid eyes on?
Nikos shifted his gaze past the penetrating dark eyes and out through the plate-glass window. Athens lay below - crowded, polluted, unique. One of the most ancient cities of Europe, the cradle of western civilisation. Nikos knew it as a child knew its parent - he had been raised on its streets, toughened in its alleyways, tempered in its unforgiving crucible.
He'd clawed his way up off the streets, fighting tooth and nail, pushing poverty behind him deal by nerve-racking deal, until now, at thirty-four, it was as if he had never been that unwanted, fatherless boy running wild in the alleyways.
The journey had been long, and tough, but he had made it - and the fruits of his triumph were sweet indeed.
Now he stood poised on the edge of his greatest triumph - getting hold of the mighty Coustakis Industries.
"I was thinking," he said, keeping his face blank, "of a share-swap."
He had it all planned. He would reverse Vassilis Inc into the far larger Coustakis empire, and take the lot in a cashless exchange of shares. Oh, Old Man Coustakis would need a lot of personal financial sweeteners, he knew that, but Nikos had that covered too. He knew the old man wanted out, that his health - deny it officially as he would - was not good. But he knew Yiorgos Coustakis would never cede control of his business without a top-dollar face-saving deal - he'd go out like a lion, with a final roar, not like an old wolf driven from the pack.
That didn't bother Nikos - when his time came to quit he'd drive a hard bargain too, just to keep his successor on his toes.
But what Coustakis had just thrown at him had winded him like a blow to the gut. Marry his granddaughter to get hold of the company? Nikos hadn't even known the old man had a granddaughter!
Inside, behind the mask that was the carefully schooled expression on his face, Nikos had to tip his hat to the old man.
He could still catch his rivals out - even a rival who was posing as a friendly merger partner.
"You can have the share-swap - on your wedding day."
Yiorgos's reply was flat. Nikos kept his silence. Behind his composed appearance his mind was teeming. Racing.
"Well?" Yiorgos prompted him.
"I'll think about it," returned Nikos. His voice was cool.
He turned to go.
"Walk out the door and the deal is off. Permanently."
Nikos stopped. He rested his eyes on the man seated at the desk. He wasn't bluffing. Nikos knew that. Everyone knew Old Man Coustakis never bluffed.
"You sign now, or not at all."
Nikos's slate-grey eyes - a legacy from his unknown father, as was his un-Greek height of well over six feet - met with Coustakis's black ones. For a long, timeless moment, they held. Then slowly, unflinchingly, Nikos Vassilis walked back to the desk, picked up the gold pen Yiorgos Coustakis silently handed him, and signed the document lying there.
Without a word, he set down the pen and walked out.
On his brief journey down to ground level in the plush executive lift in the Coustakis HQ, Nikos tried in vain to rein in his thoughts.
Exultation ran side by side with anger - exultation that his longed-for goal was now within his grasp, anger that he had been outmanoeuvred by the wiliest fox he knew.
He straightened his shoulders. Who cared if Coustakis had driven a bargain he hadn't even seen coming? No one could have. The man played his cards closer to his chest than anyone Nikos knew - himself included. And if he could suddenly produce a granddaughter out of thin air that no one had ever heard of till now, well, what did it matter to him, Nikos Vassilis, who was going to get what he'd wanted all his life - a safe, secure, glittering place at the very top of the greasy pole he'd been climbing all his life?
That the unknown granddaughter fated to be his wife was a complete stranger was an irrelevance compared with taking over the Coustakis empire.
He knew what mattered in his life. What had always mattered.
And Old Man Coustakis - and his granddaughter - held the key to his dreams.
Nikos was not about to turn it down.
Excerpted from The Greek's Virgin Bride by Julia James Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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