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"SOONER or later, you will surely choose to marry someone," Sander Christoulakis pointed out, his emphasis of that last word reluctant. "Why not Ione Gakis?"
Alexio made no response. On one level, he could not believe that this peculiar conversation was actually taking place. Once he would have laughed in his father's face at the very idea of an arranged marriage. But, for almost two years, Alexio had been living in a hell of grief from which he only escaped when he buried himself in work. In a desperate attempt to obliterate the yawning emptiness inside him, he had flung himself into a series of wild affairs but no miracle recovery had followed. Indeed, if anything, those shallow sexual entanglements had left him with a sour taste in his mouth.
"It is an honour that Minos Gakis should have approached our family with the offer of his daughter," Sander continued with quiet persistence, watching his volatile son with hopeful measuring eyes for his reaction. "He has a very high regard for your business acumen and his health has been troubling him. He needs a son-in-law whom he can trust."
Alexio was grimly amused by that clever speech, which suggested that a marriage arranged between families rather than by the young people concerned was as common an event as it had once been in Greece—for it was anything but. He was also marvelling at how the attention of one of the world's richest men appeared to have blinded his astute father to less palatable truths. "Minos Gakis is an evil bastard and a thug. You know it and I know it."
"Nevertheless, his daughter, Ione, is a well brought-up and decent young woman," Sander continued with determination,convinced that only such a marriage would have the power to remove his son from the partying, headline grabbing lifestyle that was currently breaking his adoring mother's heart. "I see no reason why—given time—you shouldn't find happiness with her."
No reason? Bitterness hardened Alexio's lean, powerful face, his brilliant eyes darkening. He could no longer imagine being happy with any woman. But Crystal, the woman he had loved beyond any other, was undeniably gone. But then the issue of his late fiancée was not a subject his father would care to tackle, for the older man was no hypocrite.
Alexio's conservative Greek parents had hated Crystal and had refused to accept her as a bride for their only son. Her wild-child reputation and chequered past had offended their sensibilities. When he had put an engagement ring on her finger, his father had been outraged and his mother had wept, and for months afterwards Alexio had cut his parents out of his life. Only in the wake of Crystal's death had the divisions begun to heal and, even then, only because he had initially been in such a haze of despair that he had been incapable of rousing himself to the effort of rejecting his family.
Yet since then every business deal he had touched had turned to solid gold. He was now infinitely richer than his father had ever been for, while Sander had inherited his shipping fortune and merely conserved it, Alexio had gone into venture capital and software development, taking risks that his more cautious father would never have countenanced. It was ironic that only his own massive monetary gains in recent months could have put him in a position where the billionaire tycoon, Minos Gakis, would consider him as a potential son-in-law.
"I have never even met Gakis's daughter,"Alexio said drily. "You have," Sander contradicted immediately, his brows pleating. "According to Minos, you met her when you spent the night on Lexos."
In his turn, Alexio frowned, but even more darkly. A couple of months back, his yacht had run into difficulty in rough seas off the coast of the island of Lexos and he had radioed for permission to dock there, for Gakis was notorious for the brute henchmen he employed to guard his private island from unwelcome visitors.As it had transpired,Alexio had been made very welcome, indeed lavishly entertained by the reclusive tycoon, but it had been an evening almost surreal in its ghastliness.
Although he was well into his sixties, Minos had had a mini harem of beautiful bimbos staying in his palatial villa and Alexio had been invited to choose one of those women to complete his night's entertainment. He had been revolted by how very willing the fawning females involved had been to satisfy the older man's jaded tastes. Even so, Alexio had not made the dangerous mistake of discussing Minos's proclivities with anyone on his return home. Minos Gakis would make an implacable enemy and only a fool would risk awakening the ruthless older man's wrath to no good purpose by talking out of turn. And when it came to anything that might threaten his thriving business empire, Alexio Christoulakis was no fool…
Surely one of those bimbos could not have been Ione Gakis? Beneath his father's bewildered scrutiny, Alexio vented a humorless laugh at that unlikelihood for, though Gakis was far from being a likeable character, he was not unhinged. But, plunder his memory as Alexio did, he could not recall meeting any other woman that night. Apart from the housekeeper who had shown him to his suite while he'd still been seething with thwarted fury over her employer's offensive amusement at his guest's refusal to sleep with a whore.
"Let me refresh your memory," Sander Christoulakis breathed in some discomfiture, evidently having hoped that his son would recall the young woman without the prompting of the photograph he now set down on the table.
Alexio focused on the photo with incredulity and instant recognition. He muttered a sudden curse and reached for it. Having been taken in profile, it was not a very good shot, but he remembered that submissive bent head, that pale hair pulled back in a severe style and those fragile facial features.
"I thought she was the housekeeper!" Alexio confessed with a sound of frank disbelief. "She behaved like one, not like the daughter of the house! Gakis snapped his fingers and she appeared and he spoke to her as if she was a servant. That timid little thing was Ione Gakis?"
"Minos did say that she's quiet and shy." "Colorless and mousey,"Alexio countered with ruthless bite, but a faint dark line of color now scored his sculpted cheekbones and he swung away for, even in the mood he had been in that evening, he had not been impervious to her natural appeal.
He remembered her all too well: the delicacy of her fine features, eyes as green as emeralds and as startling and unexpected in a Greek woman as her fair coloring. A beauty without artifice and the absolute antithesis of the voluptuous and artificial party girls paraded before him by his host. He had never made a pass at a servant in his life but only her silent formality and his own innate sense of fair play had haltered him.
"I understand that Ione has hardly ever been off that island. Her father believes in keeping his womenfolk at home," Sander Christoulakis remarked with the wry fascination of a man who had a wife and two daughters, who thought nothing of flying all over Europe merely to visit friends or shop. "At some time in the future, I may well consider a marriage of convenience," Alexio conceded, his beautiful mouth hardening on the smouldering reflection that Ione Gakis should have immediately identified herself to him. "But I have no interest in marrying Gakis's oddball daughter. At the very least I would like a wife with some personality."
"A little personality can go a long way." Unwilling to surrender what he saw as a fantastic opportunity for his son, Sander argued with greater vehemence. "And before you criticize Ione Gakis for what she lacks, ask yourself what you have to offer a woman."
"In what way?" Alexio intoned very drily. "If you have no heart to give, only a fortune hunter will want to marry you,"the older man warned in frustration. "Your current reputation as a womanizer is sufficient to make most of our friends extremely reluctant to let their daughters come into contact with you."
"But then I'm not in the market for born-again virgins or ambitious social climbers. So they're very wise," Alexio drawled with dismissive contempt.
Sander Christoulakis suppressed a heavy sigh. He had done his utmost to persuade his son to consider the benefits of such a business alliance, hoping that the challenge of becoming involved in the vast network of Gakis Holdings would tempt Alexio as nothing else might have done. He had also believed that Alexio might be drawn by the sheer practicality of a marital arrangement that would demand so little from him on a personal basis. Spelling out the very obvious benefits of marrying a young woman who would one day inherit all that her father possessed would not have made the smallest impression.
"Minos will be insulted by a flat refusal," Sander pointed out ruefully. "He wants you to meet with him and discuss the proposal. What harm could that do?"
Alexio regarded his parent with the grim dark eyes that his business competitors had learned to respect but, whether he was prepared to show it or not, his interest had already been ignited by his recollection of that night on Lexos. "I'll think it over."
Fierce strain in her jade-green eyes, Ione checked her reflection with care in the mirror, for so formal a summons from her father was rare and intimidating.
Her pale blonde hair was scraped back from her equally pale face. Her dull dark blue dress barely hinted at the shape was exactly how her father believed his daughter ought to look: modest, unobtrusive, sexless. That his ideas were fifty years behind the times and out of place in a wealthy, educated family meant nothing to him for he boasted of his peasant roots and saw no reason why the outside world should intrude on his feudal island kingdom.
Indeed, Minos Gakis was a positive god in his own household. A domineering controlling man with an explosive temper that could turn to violence in the space of a moment and, to him, a woman would always be a lesser being and a possession. While she was still a very young child, Ione had learned the correct code of behavior to observe in her father's radius and she knew well how to control her tongue and keep her head down in a storm. On more than one occasion, after all, she had seen her late mother being battered by the older man's fists, and as she'd grown up, no matter how hard Amanda Gakis had tried to protect her daughter from similar treatment, she too had suffered from his brutality.
Her bedroom door opened with jarring abruptness and without the polite warning of a prefatory knock. Flinching, Ione spun round just as her father's sister, Kalliope, appeared, her thin, sallow face sour.
"Why are you always looking at yourself in the mirror?"
Kalliope snorted with derision. "It's foolish when you're so plain. But then, had you been born a Gakis, you would have been a beauty.
Accustomed to the older woman's gibes, Ione resisted the dangerous temptation to ask what had gone wrong in Kalliope's own case, for even the kindest person would have been challenged to find attraction in those sharp features. As for that crack about her not having been born into the Gakis family, Ione was too well accustomed to the knowledge that she had been adopted to rise to that bait and give the older woman reason to complain to her brother that her niece had been rude to her.
Kalliope observed her brother's every household rule with religious fervour and received considerable satisfaction from reporting those unwise enough to transgress those rules. Furthermore, she liked Ione far less than she had liked Ione's mother, for, while Kalliope had continued to rule the roost over the gentle English bride her brother had taken as a wife, she had found their adopted daughter, Ione, a tougher nut to crack. Ione might not answer back and might show her aunt superficial respect. But ever since the day four years earlier, when Ione had been dragged back kicking and screaming defiance from Athens airport, there had been a silent stoic determination in the younger woman's clear gaze that made Kalliope feel like an angry, frustrated mosquito trying to sting an indifferent victim.
"Your father has exciting news for you," Kalliope informed her curtly.
As Ione crossed the reception room beyond her bedroom in step with her aunt her pace slowed as apprehension gripped her. "I shall look forward to hearing it."
"Yet you've been such an ungrateful daughter," Kalliope told her with harsh disapproval. "You don't deserve what is coming to you!"
What was coming to her? Her aunt's resentment was unconcealed and Ione's curiosity flared even higher, but the sick knot of anxiety in her tummy only tightened. She could never be in her father's presence without feeling fear and he was not a man given to doling out treats. Indeed, Ione had often wondered if her father reaped a mean pleasure from ensuring that she was invariably denied what she most wanted. But then he did not love her, he had never loved her, and, soon after her adoptive mother's death, he had enjoyed telling her why she had been adopted.
Amanda Gakis had given birth to a son, Cosmas, within a year of her marriage but, in the following seven years, she had not managed to conceive again. Desperate for a second son, Minos Gakis had learned that sometimes after a woman had adopted a child her unexplained infertility could subsequently end in her becoming pregnant. In those days, the popular view had been that, having satisfied her longing for a baby, a woman might stop fretting and relax and conception was then more likely to take place. Sadly, however, Ione's arrival in the family had neglected to deliver the required result for her mother had not become pregnant again. As her father had regarded his adopted daughter as no more than the means to that hopeful end, there had been little chance of her securing much of a hold on his paternal affections in that disappointing aftermath.
Her aunt left Ione standing in the echoing marble hall outside her father's office suite. Kalliope knew as well as Ione did that she would be kept waiting. Taut with strain, Ione gazed out the window, untouched by the gorgeous view of the bay that the villa overlooked. Golden sunlight and blue skies reflected on the shimmering seas of the Aegean far below. Lexos was a beautiful island and the huge, fabulous house in which she lived possessed every comfort that wealth could buy. Unfortunately, nothing could compensate Ione for the reality that she was as much a prisoner in her father's home as a criminal in an isolation cell.
The freedom she craved was as much out of her reach as it had ever been. In four endless years she had not been allowed off the island, for her father no longer trusted her. Her attempt to run away had been ill-judged and foolish, a wasted opportunity, she reflected with bitter hindsight, for she had not planned it well enough and had merely forewarned her father of her intentions.
At the time, she had been receiving regular orthodontic treatment in Athens, and it had been relatively easy to slip out dive into a taxi to head to the airport. But she had not had the foresight to check the timetables in advance and had not had the wit to just buy a ticket for the first available seat on any international flight. No, her goal had been London and she had sat around like a fool awaiting that flight only to be cornered plane had even landed. She shuddered at the recollection of the welcome home she had received from her outraged and incredulous father, who had never dreamt until that day that she might dare to try and escape his bullying tyranny.
After all, her mother never had. But then any spirit Amanda Gakis had ever had had been crushed out of her by her husband's sneering verbal attacks and even more punishing fists.
"Where would I go?" her adoptive mother had once asked Ione with open disbelief when her teenage daughter had suggested that leaving her abusive marriage was the only solution to her unhappiness. "How would I live? Wherever I went, your father would find me. He would never let me leave…he loves me too much!"
Love, Ione thought with a pained cynicism far beyond her years. Love had made a victim of the beautiful mother she had adored. Love had been one of Amanda's favorite excuses for the violence she had accepted as her lot in her life, along with the stress of her husband's workaholic ways on his temperament and her own inexcusable stupidity. She had blamed herself. Even while she had lain terminally ill, she had blamed herself for lingering long enough to distress and inconvenience her husband and her son.
Eyes stinging as she realized just how much she still missed the woman whose love had cocooned her from the worst of her father's abuse, Ione stiffened with dread as the older man's smooth executive assistant emerged with a surprisingly unctuous smile on his face.
"Miss Gakis…come this way."