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Rico Christofides stifled his irritation and tried to rein in his wandering attention. What was wrong with him? He was in one of the most exclusive restaurants in London, dining with one of the most beautiful women in the world. But it was as if someone had turned the sound down and all he could hear was the steady thump-thump of his heart.
He saw Elena gesticulating and speaking with a little too much animation, her eyes glittering a little too brightly as she tossed her luxurious mane of red hair over one shoulder, leaving the other one bare. It was meant to entice but it didn't.
He knew all the moves. He'd seen countless women perform them for years, and he'd enjoyed them. But right now he felt no more desire for this woman than he would for an inanimate wooden object. He regretted the impulse he'd acted on to call her up once he'd known he'd be in London for a few days.
Curiously, he was being enticed by a tantalising memory. He'd glanced fleetingly at one of the waitresses as they'd walked in and in an instant something about the way she moved had registered on his brain, throwing him back in timetwo years back in time, to be precise. He'd found himself thinking of the one woman who hadn't been like all the others. The one woman who had managed to smash through the high wall of defences he kept rigid around himself and his emotions. For just one night.
His fist clenched on his thigh under the table. It had to be just because he was back in London for the first time since that night. He forced himself to smile tightly in answer to something Elena had said, which seemed to require that response, and to his relief he could see that she was off again, clearly loving the sound of her voice more than she cared if he was listening or not.
The night he'd met herGypsy if that even was her namethey'd just come out of the club and he'd been about to tell her his name. She'd put a hand over his mouth, saying fervently, 'I don't want to know who you are tonight isn't about that.'
Scepticism hadn't been far away. Either she knew damn well who he was, as he'd been splashed all over the tabloids for days before that night, or else. But Rico had found himself pausing as he'd looked down at her. She'd looked so lovely and young and fresh and untainted. And for that moment, for the first time in his life, he'd pushed aside cynicism and suspicionhis constant companionsand said, 'OK, then, temptress. what about just first names?'
Before she could say anything and still believing deep down and with not a little arrogance that she had to know who he was, he'd held out his hand and said with a flourish, 'Rico at your service.'
She'd placed her small soft hand in his and hesitated for a long moment before saying huskily, 'I'm Gypsy.'
A made-up name. It had to be. He'd chuckled, and he could remember even now how alien it had felt to allow that emotion to rise up. 'Fair enough. Play your silly game if you want. Right now I'm interested in a lot more than your name.'
Someone laughed raucously at a nearby table, jerking Rico out of the memory, but even so a hot spiral of desire ran through him and he had a sudden memory flash of hearts beating in unison, sweat-slicked skin, her sleek body around his in an embrace so velvet hot and tight that he'd fought just to keep control. And then her muscles had started to spasm around him, she'd given a fractured breathy moan, and he'd lost it in a way that he'd never lost it before or since.
'Rico, darling ' Elena was pouting at him, lips too blood-red. 'You're miles away. Please tell me you're not thinking of boring work.'
Rico stifled a cynical grimace. It was that very boring work, and all the many millions he'd made in the process, that had women like Elena hovering around him in droves, waiting for little more than a crooked finger to signal his interest. Even so, the acknowledgement couldn't stop him from shifting uncomfortably in his seat, very disturbed by the fact that he was being turned on not by the woman opposite him, but by a ghost from the past. Because that ghost was the one woman who hadn't fallen at his feet in sycophantic ecstasy when he'd singled her out.
On the contrary: she'd tried to walk away from him. And then the following morning she had walked away from him. But not before he'd left her on the bed, like a callow, unsophisticated youth. Regret burned him, and Rico didn't do regret.
He forced another tight smile and reached across for Elena's far too available hand. She practically purred when he took it. He opened his mouth to offer some platitude as a waitress walked past their table, and he frowned when his body inexplicably reactedtightening almost as if it sensed something his brain hadn't yet registered. He looked up; it was the waitress he'd noticed on the way in. The waitress who had sparked a veritable torrent of memories.
Was he going completely insane? An evocative scent lingered on the air in her wake. He tried to sound casual, and not as if he was afraid he was going crazy. He looked back to his date. 'What scent are you wearing?'
Elena's lips curled seductively as she offered Rico her wrist to smell. 'Poison do you like?'
He bent his head, but even before he smelt the distinctive perfume he knew it was all wrong. Nausea clenched his belly. He looked up again, as if drawn helplessly, to see the back of the waitress. She was taking an order at a nearby table. That evocative scent reminded him ofAbruptly Elena pulled her hand from his with a barely disguised huffy sigh and stood from the table, smoothing a hand over one artfully cocked hip sheathed in silk.
'I'm going to go and powder my nose. Hopefully by the time I get back you won't be so distracted.'
Rico disregarded the reproach in her voice and didn't watch her walk away. He was transfixed now by the slim back of the petite waitress just a few feet away. She had a neatly shaped figurefirm buttocks, defined by the close-fitting black skirt which hid her legs to the knee, and slender but shapely calves and tiny ankles. Feet in low-heeled black shoes. So far so unremarkable.
His gaze travelled back up, past the plain white shirt, with just a hint of the bra underneath, taking in her hair, which looked a dark honey-brown but which he guessed might be lighter in daylight. It was densely curled, tied back into a tight bun, but he could already imagine the wild corkscrew curls that would burst free. Almost exactly likeHe shook his head again, cursing softly. Why was that memory so hauntingly vivid tonight?
The woman turned slightly then, before stopping to respond to something the man at the table was saying, and it was enough to give Rico a proper glimpse of her profile. A small straight nose, determined chin, and a lush mouth with the slightest hint of an overbitewhich he remembered thinking an adorable imperfection in a world obsessed with perfection. Certainty slammed into him on the heels of that thoughtit had to be her. He wasn't going crazy.
His breath stopped. Everything went into slow motion as she finally turned and faced him directly. She was looking down at her notepad, scribbling something, juggling the big menus under her arm as she walked closer, and before he knew what he was doing, with something that felt horrifyingly exultant rushing through him, Rico stood and grasped the woman's arm, stopping her in her tracks.
Gypsy didn't know what was happening at first. All she knew was that someone had a tight grip on her arm. She looked up with a retort on her lipsand fell into steely grey eyes.
And stopped breathing, stopped functioning.
She blinked. Words died in her mouth. It couldn't be him. She was dreamingor it was a nightmare. She was certainly tired enough to be sleep-walking. But she could feel the colour draining from her face, the peripheral noise fading into the background.
She was looking into exactly the same colour eyes asThere her mind shut down. It was him. The man who had haunted her dreams for nearly two years. Rico Christofides. Half-Greek, half-Argentinian, billionaire entrepreneur, a legend of his own making.
'It is you.' He spoke her thoughts out loud in his deep voice, and sent Gypsy's brain into a tailspin. Very distantly she was aware of a voice screaming at her to run, get away. Escape.
She shook her head, but it felt as if she was under water. Was she still standing? All she was aware of was the dark depths of those deep-set stormy grey eyes, boring into her all the way to her soul, his hand tight on her arm. Midnight-black hair, slightly crooked nose, dark brows, defined jaw. It was all so familiar to herexcept her dreams hadn't done him justice. He was so tall, towering over her, his shoulders so broad that she couldn't see anything but him.
Absurdly through the shock came the hurtagainthat he'd wasted little time in walking away from her the next morning. Leaving just an abrupt note which had read: The room is paid for. R.
A pointed cough sounded nearby. He didn't move, and Gypsy couldn't look away. Her carefully constructed world was crumbling into pieces around her.
'Rico? Is something wrong with our order?'
A voice. A female voice. Confirming what Gypsy didn't want to know by saying his name out loud. She registered dimly that it must be the stunning red-haired woman she'd walked past and noticed just minutes before. She couldn't believe now that she'd passed him so blithely, with no hint of warning.
But he ignored the woman and said again faintly, 'It's you.'
Gypsy managed to shake her head and at the same time somehow miraculously extricate her arm from his long-fingered grasp. She prayed that she could speak and say something that made sense. Something that would get her out of this situation and away from him. After all, it had been one nightmere hourshow could someone like him possibly remember her? After the way he'd left, why would he want to remember her? How could this awful fiery awareness be snaking through her veins?
'I'm sorry. You must be confusing me with someone else.'
Gypsy left him standing there and went straight to the staff bathroom, seriously afraid that she might be sick. Taking deep breaths over the sink, she felt clammy and sweaty. And all that was going through her mind was the imperative need to run, get away.
Ever since she'd found out that she was pregnant after their cataclysmic night together she'd known that some day she would have to tell Rico Christofides that he had a daughter. A fifteen-month-old daughter, with exactly the same colour eyes as her father. Gypsy felt nauseous again, but willed it down.
She could remember her terror at the prospect of becoming a mother, along with her instantly deep and abiding connection with the tiny baby growing within her. And with that had come the intense desire to protect her child. She'd seen how Rico Christofides dealt with women who dared to name him as the father of their child, and had had no desire to expose herself to that public humiliation. Even if she'd been certain that she could prove paternity.
Pregnant, and feeling extremely nervous and vulnerable at the daunting prospect of how Rico Christofides might react to the news, Gypsy had taken the difficult decision to have Lola on her own. She'd wanted to be in a strong and solvent position when she contacted him. Working as a waitress, albeit in an upmarket restaurant, was not the ideal situation for her to be in when dealing with someone as powerful as him.
Panic surged again. Gypsy didn't even see her own white face in the mirror. If she didn't get out of there now, Rico Christofides couldn't fail to recall the woman who had acted completely out of character and who, on a tide of desire so intense that she still woke sometimes at night aching, had succumbed to his masterful seduction and indulged in a one-night stand.
Making a fateful decision, uncomfortably aware that she was acting on blind instinct and panic but seeing no other solution, she splashed some water on her face and went to find her boss.
'Tom, please,' Gypsy begged, and mentally crossed everything. She hated lying, and especially using her daughter to do it. But she had no choice. Not with the father of her child just through the kitchen doors. 'I have to get home to Lola. Something has come up.'
Her boss raked his hand through his short sandy hair. 'Jeez, Gypsy you really pick your momentsyou know we're short staffed as it is. Can't it wait for another hour, until we have the main rush over with?'
Gypsy hated herself for this. She shook her head, already taking off her apron as she did so. 'I'm sorry, Tom. Really sorrybelieve me.'
His face tightened and he crossed his arms. Gypsy felt the slither of fear trickle down her spine. 'So am I, Gypsy. I don't want to do this to you, but it's come to this: you've been late nearly every day for the past two weeks.'
Gypsy started to protest, saying something about the inflexible hours of her daughter's minder conflicting with her shift hours, but her boss cut her off.
'You're a good worker, but there's a line of people behind you waiting to get a job here who won't let me down like this.'
He took a breath, and Gypsy's foreboding increased. 'If you leave like this now then I'm afraid you won't have a job to come back to. It's that simple.'
A vivid memory surged back of the moment she'd found out that the man who had turned her world upside down was none other than one of the world's most powerful men, and nausea returned.
The thought of going back out to the dining room and trying to function normally was inconceivable. She'd end up getting fired anyway for spilling someone's dinner into their lap, she was shaking so much. She looked at Tom and shook her head again sadly, already anticipating the drudge of having to look for another job, silently giving thanks that she had some savings to tide them over for a couple of weeks. 'I'm sorry, Tom, I have no choice.'
Her boss stood back after a long moment and gestured with his arm. 'Then I'm sorry too, Gypsy, because you're leaving me no choice.'