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Sophie stood, holding herself motionless, quite still. She stared, unblinking, at the reflection staring back at her in the long mirror of the hotel's powder room. The woman in the mirror looked out at her with the same expressionless stare.
She was wearing a clinging, low-cut satin evening dress, her blond hair slicked with hairspray around one shoulder. Her eyes were heavy with glittery make-up, lashes loaded down with coal-black mascara, skin larded with foundation, earlobes dripping crystal, mouth sticky with scarlet lipstick.
It isn't me!
The cry came from somewhere very deep in Sophie. Very deep. Like a buried place. A grave.
The grave of the person she once had been.
Would never be again.
Heaviness lay like a deadweight in her stomach, wound around by revulsion at what she could see in the mirror.
The voice was clipped, impatient, wanting Sophie to move aside. Jerkily, she did so, catching the look of unveiled contempt in the older woman's eyes as she took her place to inspect her appearance. Sophie knew what she had seen. Knew why the woman had looked contemptuous. She felt her stomach churn again. The inside of her mouth was dry, and she poured herself a glass of water from the jug placed on the vanity unit for the use of guests, gulping it down as if it could still her turmoil. For one final time, she stared at herself bleakly in the mirror. Then, with a sudden short intake of breath that cut like glass in her throat, she seized up her evening bag and walked out of the powder room with a stiff, taut gait, on heels so high they swayed her body despite the rigidity in her aching leg muscles as she forced herself to keep going.
Across the hotel lobby, in the bar, her client was waiting for her.
Nikos Kazandros glanced around him. The vast, opulently decorated reception room was dimly lit, crowded, and noisy with thumping music and too-loud voices. It was exactly the kind of party Nikos avoided—full of louche, hedonistic people in search of kicks that inevitably involved entertainment that ran to little white lines and the indiscriminate use of bedrooms. A frown formed on Nikos's darkly planed face.
His reluctance to go in was not echoed by his companion.
'Nik—c'mon. This party's going to be really hot!'
Georgias's voice was slurred. Since his father was a longtime friend of Nikos's own father, Nikos had taken on the role of minder to the impressionable twenty-two-year-old for the younger man's brief stopover in London. For Nikos, a show and dinner would have been enough, but Georgias had wanted to party. Knowing that if he acted too heavy-handed the kid would cut and run and end up God knew where, Nikos had temporised. He would give Georgias an hour here max, no more, and make sure the only stimulant he imbibed was alcohol.
Not that drugs would be the only temptation here. The place was heaving with girls, the kind who—Nikos's lip curled in contempt—flocked wherever wealthy men partied, eager to make themselves accessible to them. He and Georgias had already been sized up, and a moment later a blonde with more hair than dress was inviting them to dance. Nikos let Georgias take up the invitation with alacrity, turning down with a curt shake of his head the immediate follow-on invite from a brunette who had also scented fresh meat. She flounced off with a pout, leaving Nikos propping the wall up, a cynical twist to his mouth, counting the minutes till he could call time on Georgias and get the hell out of here.
Girls like those here held no attraction for him. Barely one step away from hookers, they made it clear their sole interest in a man was the size of his wallet. They traded sex for a lush lifestyle.
Their one virtue was that they were perfectly open about it.
For a moment Nikos's face closed fast. Some lacked even that virtue… concealing to the last their real interest…
Some could look as innocent as the morning dew, and all the time—
No. Automatically, as it had done repeatedly for four years now, the guillotine sliced down.
He'd made a mistake. Been a fool. Worse than a fool. But he'd pulled back in time—just in time. For a microsecond, nothing more, bleakness filled his eyes. Then it was gone, replaced by a hardness that etched the features of his face, set his high cheekbones into relief below his dark, long-lashed eyes.
Yet another party-girl approached him, and yet again he dismissed her, to her displeasure. His eyes flicked back to the dancers, to keep Georgias in his view. But as he did so, there was a sudden gap in his eyeline to the far side of the room.
Everything stopped. Every faculty he possessed stopped working. Except one.
And one other. Memory.
Burning, coruscating, vicious memory.
Like a zombie, he started to walk forward. His face was a mask, his pulse insensible.
Into the vortex.
Towards the one human being he had never wanted to see again for the rest of his life, but who was standing there, across the room, staring at him with an expression of absolute shock on her face. For a moment it was like a knife slicing open his guts. His eyes flicked to the man beside her.
What the hell—? Nikos recognised him, but not with pleasure. Cosmo Dimistris was a man well at home at parties like this. And well at home with the kind of women who frequented them. Nikos's eyes lasered back to the woman at Cosmo's side, her closeness telling him exactly what she was doing there.
Cosmo's wealth telling him exactly why she was there.
So she was still playing the same game…still hanging out with rich men.
Emotion lashed through him, whipping up from deep inside—from a place he had long, long since buried. Shock was still uppermost in him, but he was controlling it now. Channelling it. Focussing it. Targeting it.
Targeting it on the one person who had been his sole lapse of judgement. His one mistake.
Sophie felt her face beneath the mask of her make-up freeze. No, she thought faintly through the numb miasma in her head, it couldn't be! It just couldn't! Not him—not here—not now.
But it was him. Nikos Kazandros. The name tolled in her brain. Tolling her fate. Her doom.
Her eyes could not tear themselves from him. Could not move from the hard, sculpted planes of his face, the sable hair, slashing cheekbones and the night-dark eyes. Could not move from the lean, packed muscle of his six-foot height, the lithe length of his leg, the panthered grace of his stride.
Nikos Kazandros—walking out of the past. Making her oblivious to everything—everything except him. Oblivious to the man she was with, whose company had been anathema to her all evening.
She had made it through drinks at the hotel bar, followed by dinner, over which he had regaled her with boasting about his wealth and possessions, while she had smiled fixedly and asked flattering questions as if she cared less. Then they had arrived at this nightmare party that they seemed to have been at for hours. A sick headache was pressing around her temples, and her stomach was still churning at what she was doing, and why. Sophie had tried desperately to cling to the numbness, just to see her through the remainder of this hideous evening.
And now that numbness had been blasted away as if by nuclear detonation, in one hideous, appalling moment. The moment of ghastly recognition of the man walking towards her.
Somewhere, wildly, like a trapped, panicking bird, she could feel thoughts battering around inside her skull. How could it be him? How could it? At a place like this?
It hadn't taken her more than thirty shocked seconds to stare around at the lavish penthouse apartment, with the pounding music and the alcohol and drugs circulating freely, and the men cut from the same cloth as the one at her side, and the women—the women looking just the way she did…
To see Nikos Kazandros here, at a party like this…
Memory stabbed through her head.
Covent Garden, a gala night, the men in black tie, the women glittering in jewellery and designer gowns, with the world's greatest tenor and soprano pouring out their voices on stage. Nikos in evening dress, immaculate, devastating, and herself, sitting beside him in their dress circle seats, so quiveringly, shiveringly aware of him…
Nikos glancing towards her, with eyes that held in them an expression that made her heart turn over…
The guillotine sliced down. The one that had been slicing down through her brain for four long, endless, punishing years. Cutting out Nikos Kazandros.
As he made his way towards her, Nikos could take in the full impact of her appearance. Kohled eyes, slicked hair, scarlet mouth, trashy dress. Revulsion curled in him. So this was Sophie Granton now. Four years on. In a place like this. For a brief, knifing moment he felt a different revulsion.
That she should have come to this!
Memory skidded through his head, but he banished it. She had never existed, the girl he'd thought her to be. She'd been someone he'd made up, created for himself out of his own delusions. Delusions that had come crashing down when Sophie Granton had shown what she really wanted.
His mouth twisted. Not me. Just the Kazandros money. To save the family coffers.
He came up to her, stood looking down at her. The look of shock had gone from her face, wiped as if he'd never seen in it. Now her face was blank. Empty. There was no sign that she thought there was anything incongruous about her presence here. Or her appearance. Or who she was with and why. For a second, he just let his hard gaze flick over her. Then it was gone. He glanced at the man at her side, acknowledging his recognition of him.
There was a moment's pause, then the other man said, his voice at once both oleaginous and mocking, speaking in their native language, 'Well, well, this is a new departure for you, Nik. Finally decided to lighten up? Are you with anyone, or are you just going to help yourself to what's on offer? I must say some of the girls here look even more tempting than the one I've brought along. If you're on your own you can take your pick of them.'
His eyes went greedily out over the room, where the assembled female flesh for hire was displaying itself, but his hand had closed possessively over Sophie's wrist all the same, Nikos saw. Stamping his ownership. Again, Nikos felt the thrust of revulsion ice through him.
As Cosmo's hot, stubby fingers closed around her, Sophie swallowed. She'd been trying to avoid the slightest physical contact all evening, but now, with horror opening like a pit beneath her feet, as Nikos Kazandros walked out of the nightmare past into the nightmare present, she was almost grateful for it. Grateful, too, that she could not understand what was being said between the two men.
When she'd realised that the man she was to meet that evening had a Greek name, she'd felt as if the gods themselves were mocking her. Bitterness had risen in her throat, as well as revulsion, and revulsion had twisted through her again when she had walked up to him in the hotel bar some three hours earlier. Greek he might be, but Cosmo Dimistris was as physically different from the only Greek man she knew as a warthog from a leopard. Shorter than her in her high heels, overweight, face like putty, with hot, lascivious eyes, and hands with stumpy fingers and damp palms.
Well, she thought viciously, what did she expect? If a man had to pay for a woman's company in the evening he would hardly be an Adonis, would he? Against her will, her eyes went to the man standing opposite now, and the contrast with the man at her side was cruel and stark. Oh, dear God, he hadn't changed! Not in four agonisingly long years! He was still the most devastating man she had ever laid eyes on! Even now, with a look of killing contempt in his night-dark eyes, she could feel his power as his gaze razored over her. She knew what he saw, even though she had masked her own expression with a blankness that cost her all her strength to hold in place. For a terrible moment, she felt his contempt like a physical blow, shaming and searing her. Then the lasering glance was gone, and he was looking back at Cosmo Dimistris.
'I'm minding Georgias Panotis—Anatole Panotis's son,' he said tersely. 'The kid's wet behind the ears.' He nodded to where Georgias was still close, dancing with the girl with more hair than dress.
Cosmo gave a coarse laugh. 'Going to spoil his fun?'
'Like the fun you have?' His voice was edged, and once more his eyes went to the woman who was going to provide Cosmo Dimistris's 'fun' tonight.
Nikos felt emotion cresting through him like a dark, killing anger. Out of nowhere, like a black tide, he felt the urge to wrest Cosmo's hand from her wrist, tell him to go and find his fun somewhere else! He clamped it down, quelling it by force, slamming down the lid on it as if it were glowing nuclear waste. Sophie Granton was not worth a microgram of emotion—not a moment more of his time. Not then, not now.
His eyes flicked over her one last time. She showed nothing in her eyes now. Nothing after the first shock of recognition. Or was it dismay? He felt the question sting. Yes, he thought with turbid anger, why not dismay? Four years ago she had nearly, so very nearly, succeeded in making a fool of him. Well, she would deceive no one now! He could look at her with impunity. With the only kind of look she deserved. His mouth twisted in contempt as his eyes flicked over her again. She was blanking him, he could see, and his eyes narrowed. There was something about her blankness, her closed, expressionless face, that sent a stab of anger through him. She hadn't been like that when he'd peeled her off him.
Tears, sobbing, clinging to him, clutching at him.
Cosmo was speaking again, and Nikos made himself listen. 'Speaking of fun…I need some of the powder kind.'He dropped Sophie's wrist and changed to English. 'Stay right there, baby.'
To Sophie's dismay, he headed off across the room, to be promptly pounced on by a trio of girls, none of whose attention seemed to bother him. She stared after him. Where was he going? Why? Panic broke through. Dear God, she couldn't be left here like this—with Nikos Kazandros right in front of her. She made to lurch forward, but it was too late. A single word stayed her.