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Xander Anaketos stifled his impatience with a civil, if brief smile at the man beside him. Richard Gardner was of the school of businessmen who considered that every deal should be sealed with a drink and an expensive meal. Xander had no time for such niceties. The investment he'd just agreed in principle to make in Gardner's company would be mutually profitable, and the details would be hammered out by their respective subordinates. Now Xander was eager to be gone. He had plans for the evening which did not include making small talk with Richard Gardner. However, he had no wish to snub the older man, and besides, his 'other business' would wait for him.
They always waited for him.
Sonja de Lisle was no exception.
Oh, she might pout for a few minutes, but it wouldn't last. Soon she would be purring all over him. He pulled his mind away. Best not to let his thoughts go to Sonja when he had dinner to get through first.
And before that a drink in the cocktail lounge while they perused the menu.
As the guest, Xander let Gardner choose where to sit, and took his place accordingly. He glanced round, concealing the disparagement in his eyes. This was not a hotel he would have chosen to patronise, but he could appreciate that it was convenient for the business park where Gardner's company was sited near Heathrow. But, for himself, he preferred hotels to have more class, more prestige—usually more antiquity. He liked classic, world-famous hotels, like the Ritz, Claridges, the St John.
Memory flickered. He rarely went to the St John now.
Like a stiletto sliding in between his synapses, an image came into his mind. Blonde hair, curving in a smooth swathe over one shoulder, diamond studs set into tender lobes, long dark lashes and cool grey-green eyes.
Eyes that were looking at him without emotion. A face held very still.
A face he had not seen again.
He thrust the image aside. There was no point remembering it.
Abruptly he reached for the menu that had been placed on the low table in front of them and flicked it open, making his selection without great enthusiasm. Snapping it shut, he tossed it down on the table again and looked around impatiently. He could do with a drink. Did this place not run to waitresses?
There was one a table or so away from them with her back to him. He kept his eye on her, ready to beckon. He could see her nodding, sliding her notepad into her pocket.
She turned towards the bar. Xander held up an imperious hand. She caught the gesture and altered direction.
Then she stopped dead.
Clare could feel the blood and all sensation slowly draining out of her body. It emptied from her brain, her limbs, every part of her, draining down through every vein, every nerve.
And in its place only two things.
Poisonous. Toxic. Deadly.
And completely overwhelming.
She was dragged in its wake, down, down, down through the sucking vortex of time.
Down into the past…
Xander was late.
Restlessly, Clare paced up and down. She should by now be used to him arriving when he wanted to, but this time it was harder to bear. A lot harder. She could feel nerves pinching in her stomach. Every muscle was tightly clenched.
Am I really going to tell him?
The question stung in her mind for the thousandth time. For two weeks it had been going round and round in her head. And with every circulation she knew that there was only one answer— could only be one answer.
I've got to tell him. I can't not.
And every time she told herself that she would feel the familiar flood of anxiety pooling in her insides—the familiar dread.
If—she corrected herself—when she told him, how would he take it? Automatically, in her head, she felt herself start to pray again. Please, please let him take it the way I so desperately want him to! Please!
But would he? Like a lawyer, she tried to shore up her position as best she could, mentally arranging all her arguments like ducks in a row.
I've lasted longer than the others. That has to be a good sign, doesn't it?
Xander Anaketos never kept his mistresses long. She knew that. Had known it since before that fateful night when she had joined their long, long list. But she hadn't cared. Hadn't cared that her shelf-life in his bed was likely to be in the order of six months, if that. Hadn't cared even that she'd got that fact from one of the most reliable sources for such information—her predecessor. Aimee Decord had warned her straight. The woman had been drunk, Clare knew, though it had hardly showed except for the slightest swaying in her elegant walk, the slightest lack of focus in her dark, beautiful eyes.
'Enjoy him, cherie', she'd said to Clare, taking yet another sip of her always full champagne flute. 'You'll be gone by Christmas.' Her smile had almost had a touch of pity in it, as well as malice. And something more—something that had not been jealousy, but something that had chilled Clare even more than jealousy would have. A despairing hunger…
But Aimee Decord had been wrong. Clare had not been gone by Christmas. Indeed, she'd spent the holiday with Xander in Davos, skiing. Just as she'd spent the last two weeks of January in the Caribbean, and Easter in Paris. Followed by a tour of North America, taking in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto—a hectic schedule which had whirled her along in the wake of one business meeting after another. Then it had been back to Europe, a sojourn in Paris again, then Geneva, Milan, another brief, but so very precious holiday in the Caribbean, and back to London.
Six months—nine months. Nearly a year. Very nearly a year.
In fact, Clare knew to the day—the night!—that in three weeks it would be their anniversary. And by then—oh, please, sweet God—by then she would have more to celebrate than that.
She went on pacing restlessly. Nerves still pinching. Still running through the tangled, shadowy fantasies that might or might not prove true.
It wasn' t just that she'd lasted nearly twice as long as other mistresses of Xander Anaketos. Or that he had never installed her in an apartment, as he had the others, preferring that she should accompany him on his constant travels to the continents on which he conducted his complex and never-ending business affairs in the mysterious and arcane realm of international finance. Clare knew nothing about it, and did not enquire, having realised very early on that when Xander did finally clock off from business he wanted no more discussion of it until he was recalled to its demands.
There was another fantasy, most precious of all, that had came true recently, and which she now hugged to herself with a desperate hope.
Their last time together, nearly a fortnight ago, had been different. She'd known it—felt it. At first she'd thought it was only herself, suffused, as she had been, body and heart, with the knowledge that she possessed about what had happened to her so completely and absolutely unexpectedly, and yet so thrillingly.
But the change had not just been in her, she knew—knew. Xander had been different too. Oh, he'd been as passionate as ever, as voracious in his desires and needs, and as dedicated to fulfilling her own physical needs, desires. But there had been something more—more than could be accounted for merely because he had not seen her for ten days and had, the moment he'd stepped through the door, tossed aside his briefcase and swept her into his arms, carrying her off to his bed even while he was removing her clothes and devastating her with his kisses, the kisses of a man deprived for too long of what he most wanted.
The flames had consumed them, as they always did, bathing them like writhing salamanders in the fire of passion. But afterwards…ah, afterwards…Clare shut her eyes, shivering with remembered emotion. He had gone on holding her, tightly, closely, fervently. His hand had slid around her head, spearing through her hair, pressing her into his shoulder, while his other arm had wrapped around her like a clamp. She had heard, against her breast, the tumultuous pounding of his heart, felt her own beating against his.
He had said words to her in Greek and then fallen silent. She'd gone on lying crushed against him, her heart so full, so full. Then his hand had left her waist, and his other hand the back of her head, and he had shifted to cup her head with both his hands, one either side, and she'd half lifted herself from him.
She'd gazed down into his face. The face she knew so intimately, so absolutely. Every line, every plane, every lean contour, every sooty lash, every indentation around his sculpted, mobile mouth. He'd stared into her eyes from the depths of his own dark, midnight eyes, and there had been something in the way he'd looked at her that had made her heart turn slowly over.
He'd said another word in Greek. She hadn't known what it meant, hadn't cared, had only gazed down into his eyes, her heart slowly turning over, like a satellite in space, dissociated from the common earth.
It was that look, that long, endless exchange, that she clung to now. It had become a symbol, a beacon that she was now about to test her fate upon.
He cares for me. I know he does. It's not just the consideration of a lover, the conventional courtesy of a man towards his mistress. It's more than that.
How much more she did not know, dared not hope. But there was something there—a seed, nothing more as yet, but enough, oh, enough for her to feast on!
But she must not feast—she must be frugal in her hope. And she must not, must not, seek to harvest it before it had time to grow, blossom to fruition.
Automatically she paused in her pacing, lifting her hand to her abdomen, and placing it there. She felt, as always, emotion welling up in her. So much depended on that harvest.
If he cares for me then it will be all right. It will all be all right.
But what if she were wrong? Chill shuddered through her.
Too much depended on his reaction. Her whole life. Her whole future.
And not just hers.
Again, in an instinctive gesture as old as time, she cupped her abdomen.
'It will be all right,' she whispered to herself.
Clare went off to the kitchen to make herself a cup of calming herb tea. The kitchen—fearsomely modern—still made her breath catch whenever she went in. So did the whole apartment— but then so did Xander's apartment in Paris, not just the one here in London, and the one in Manhattan.
She still found it strange that he seemed to have no fixed abode anywhere. Nowhere he called home.
But then, neither did she. Since her father's death two years ago she had had no home. Both her parents had been only children, and her mother had died when she was thirteen. The tragedy had thrown her and her schoolteacher father very close together, and his death from a long drawn-out cancer, when she was twenty, had been devastating.
And it had made her vulnerable. Susceptible. With the death of her father she had been entirely on her own. She had gone back to college, her studies having been interrupted when her father's illness had demanded full-time care, but her heart had not been in them. She had gone to London, preferring the anonymity of a huge city, far away from everything familiar and painful. The casual come-and-go of city life had suited her, teeming with people, none of them important to her, or her to them. She had taken temporary jobs, undemanding and unimportant, her emotions completely on hold after all the trauma of her father's death.
And then, without the slightest expectation, her emotions had sprung to life again. Vividly, terrifyingly alive. Alive in every nerve, every sense, every shimmering awareness.
Because of one man. She could remember in absolute detail the moment she had first seen him.
Clare had been sent by her temping agency to cover for a sick receptionist, and on her very first day, as she was sitting behind a plush, modernist-style desk, a covey of suited men had swung in through the doors. Her eyes had gone to them automatically— and stalled.
The man at the centre of the group had been the most arresting male she had ever seen—she hadn't been able to take her eyes from him.
He'd been tall, easily six foot, and lithe, and lean. His suit had been fantastically cut, making him look smooth and svelte and… devastating. And that was even before she'd registered the rest of him.
The sable hair, the tanned Mediterranean skin, the jaw-droppingly good-looking features.
And the eyes.
Eyes to drown in.
He had walked right past her with his entourage, unchallenged by the security guard, who had merely said in a respectful tone, 'Good afternoon, Mr Anaketos.' But just as he'd swung past her, sitting there staring at him, his head had suddenly moved minutely and brought his gaze to her. Abruptly, instinctively, she had twisted her head away…
They had gone past, and she had breathed out again, not even aware till then that she'd been holding her breath.
She had felt alive for the first time in a long, long time. As if she had woken from a long sleep…
It had been stupid, she knew, to have done thereafter what she had done. She'd been a woman rendered incapable of behaving rationally, but she had done it all the same. She had let Xander Anaketos seduce her.
And he had done it with a swiftness that had cut the ground out from under her feet. Before the week was out she had been flying to Geneva with him. How had he done it? She still did not know. She had done her best not to react to him whenever she had seen him, and even when he had paused by the reception desk to have a word with the security guard she had assiduously paid attention only to her computer screen. Yet on the day she'd been due to finish the posting, she had been summoned by phone to Xander's executive office on the top floor, where he had coolly invited her to dinner that night.
She had stared blankly.
'I'm afraid I don't think—' she had begun. Then stopped. Her chest had seemed tight. Xander Anaketos had been looking at her. She'd felt her toes start to melt into her shoes.
So she had gone.
And from dinner she had gone to his bed.