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Nikos Katrakis was by far the most dangerous man aboard the sleek luxury yacht. Ordinarily Tristanne Barbery would take one look at a man like himso dark and powerful her breath caught each time she gazed at him from her place within sight of the elegant marble-topped bar where he stoodand flee for her life in the opposite direction.
Any man who seemed to dim the sparkling blue-green waters of the Mediterranean Sea with his very presence was far too complicated, far too much for Tristanne. This is not about you, she told herself fiercely, then ordered herself to release the fingers she'd clenched into fists. She willed away her nausea, her shakiness. Her panic. Because this was not, indeed, about Tristanne. It was about her mother and her mother's crippling, impossible debts. And she would do whatever she had to do to save her mother.
There were other rich and powerful men aboard the boat, rubbing expensively clad shoulders together while gazing at the glittering shores of the Cote d'Azure: the olive-clad hills and pastel waterfront facades of Villefranche-sur-Mer to the left, the red-topped villas of Cap Ferrat to the right, and the sparkling sweep of Villefranche Bay spread out around them in the late afternoon sun.
But Nikos Katrakis was different from the rest. It wasn't simply because he owned this particular yacht, though his ownership was as clear as a brandalmost visible, Tristanne thought; almost seeming to emanate from him in waves. It wasn't even the undeniable physical power he seemed to just restrain beneath his deceptively calm surface, even dressed as casually as he was, in denim trousers and a white dress shirt left open at the neck to display a swathe of dark olive skin.
It was him.
It was the way he stood, commanding and yet so remote, so alone, even in the center of his own party. There was a fierce, unmistakably male energy that hummed from him, attracting notice but keeping all but the most brave away. He would have been devastating enough if he were unattractivehe was that powerful.
But of course, Nikos Katrakis was not, in any sense of the word, unattractive. Tristanne felt a shiver of awareness trace its way down her spine, and she could not bring herself to look away. He was more powerful than her late father had been but not, she thought, as cold. And somehow she could sense that he was no brute, like her brother, Petera man so cruel he had refused to pay her mother's medical bills, a man so heartless he had laughed in the face of Tristanne's desperation.
Yet something about Nikos made her think he was different, made her think of dragonsas if he was that magical and that dangerous; as if he was epic. He was too virile. Too masculine. His power seemed to hum around him like an electric current. Dragon, she thought again, and her palms suddenly itched to sketch the bold, almost harsh lines of his facethough she knew that was exactly the sort of thing Peter so scorned. There was no explaining creativity to her overbearing brother.
But all of that was precisely why Nikos Katrakis was the only man who would do. She was wasting time simply gazing at him, trying to get up her nerve, when she knew Peter would be searching for her before too long. She knew he did not trust her, no matter that she had agreed to go along with his plan. And she would go along with it, or seem to, but she would do it on her terms, not his. And she would do so with the one man Peter hated above all othersthe one man Peter viewed as his chief business rival.
She had moved beyond nervous into something elsesomething that made her pulse flutter and her knees feel like syrup. She could only hope that it didn't show, that he would see what her brother, Peter, claimed everyone saw when they looked at her: nothing but Barbery ice.
It's about time you used your assets to our advantage, Peter had said in his cold voice. Tristanne shook the memory away, determined not to react to him any furthereven in her own mind. Not when so much was at stake. Her mother's survival. The independence she had fought so hard to win. Tristanne sucked in a fortifying breath, sent up a little prayer and forced herself to walk right up to Nikos Katrakis himself before she talked herself out of it.
Nikos looked up from his drink at the polished wood and marble-topped bar and their eyes met. Held. His eyes were the color of long-steeped tea, shades lighter than the thick, dark hair on his head and the dark brows that arched above, making them seem to glow like old gold. They seared into her. Tristanne's breath caught, and a restless heat washed over her, scalding her. The sounds of the high-class partygoers, their clinking glasses and cultured laughter, disappeared. Her anxiety and her purpose fell away as if they had never been. It was as if the whole worldthe glittering expanse of the French Riviera, the endless blue-green Mediterranean Seafaded into his hot, gold gaze. Was consumed by him, enveloped into himchanged by him, that fanciful voice whispered in the back of her mind.
"Miss Barbery," he said in greeting, his native Greek coloring his words just slightly, adding a rough caress to his voice. It sounded like a command, though he did not alter his careless position, lounging so indolently against the bar, one hand toying with his glass of amber-colored liquor. He watched her with old, intent eyes. The hairs on the back of Tristanne's neck stood at attention, letting her know that he was not at all what he seemed.
Something wild and unexpected uncoiled inside of her, making her breath stutter. Shocking her with its sudden intensity.
He was not careless. He was in no way relaxed. He was only pretending to be either of those things.
But then, she was banking on that. Surely her brother, who cared only about money and power, would not be as obsessed as he was about this man unless he was a worthy opponent.
"You know my name?" she asked. She managed to keep her composure despite the humming reaction that shimmered through her, surprising and unsettling her. It was the Barbery family trait, she thought with no little despair: she could appear to be perfectly unruffled while inside, she was a quivering mess. She had learned it at her father's emotionless kneeor suffered the consequences. And she wanted only to use this man for her own ends, not succumb to his legendary charisma. She had to be strong!
"Of course." One dark brow rose higher, while his full, firm lips twisted slightly. "I pride myself on knowing the names of all my guests. I am a Greek. Hospitality is not simply a word to me."
There was a rebuke in there somewhere. Tristanne's stomach twisted in response, while he looked at her with eyes that saw too much. Like he was a cat and she a rather dim and doomed mouse.
"I have a favor to ask you," she blurted out, unable to play the game as she ought toas she'd planned so feverishly once she'd realized where Peter was taking her this afternoon. There was something in the way Nikos regarded herso calm, so direct, so powerfully amusedthat made her feel as if the glass of wine she'd barely tasted earlier had gone straight to her head.
"I'm so sorry," she murmured, surprised to feel a flush heating her cheeks. She, who up until this moment had considered herself unable to blush! "I wanted to work up to that. You must think I am the rudest person alive."
His dark brows rose, and his wicked mouth curved slightly, though his enigmatic eyes did not waver, nor warm. "You have not yet asked this favor. Perhaps I will reserve judgment until you do."
Tristanne had the sudden sense that she was more at risk, somehow, standing in front of Nikos Katrakis in full view of so many strangers than she was from Peter and his schemes. It was an absurd thought. You must be strong! she reminded herself, but she couldn't seem to shake that feeling of danger.
Or stop what came next. What had to come nexteven though she knew, suddenly, with a deep, feminine wisdom that seemed like a weight in her bones, that this was a mistake of unfathomable proportions. That she was going to regret stirring up this particular hornet's nest. That she, who prided herself on being so capable, so independent, did not have what it took to handle a man like this. One should never rush heedlessly into a dragon's lair. Anyone who had ever read a fairy tale knew better! She bit her lower lip, frowning slightly as she looked at him, feeling as if she fell more and more beneath his dark gold spell by the moment. It was if he was a trap, and she had walked right into it.
The trouble was, that didn't seem to frighten her the way it should. And in any case, she had no choice.
"The favor?" he prompted her, something sardonic moving across his face. Almost as if he knew what she planned to ask himbut that was silly. Of course he could not know. Of all the things that Tristanne knew about Nikos Katrakisthat he was ruthless and magnetic in equal measure, that he had clawed his way from illegitimacy and poverty into near-unimaginable wealth and influence with the sheer force of his will, that he suffered no fools and tolerated no disloyalty, that he alone drove her cold brother into fits of rage with his every successshe had never heard it mentioned that he was psychic. He could have no idea what she wanted from him.
"Yes," Tristanne said, her tone even. Confident. In direct contrast to the mess of unsettled churning within. "A favor. But just a small favor, and not, I hope, an entirely unpleasant one."
She almost called it off then. She almost heeded the panicked messages her body and her intuition were sending hershe almost convinced herself that someone else would do, that she need not pick this man, that someone less intimidating would work just as well, could accomplish what she needed.
But she glanced to the side then, to ease the intensity of Nikos Katrakis's gaze and to catch her breath, and saw her brother shoulder his way into the bar area. Half brother, she reminded herself, as if that should make some difference. Peter's familiar scowl was firmly in place when he looked at herand who she was with. Behind him, she saw the clammy-palmed financier Peter had handpicked for herthe man he had decreed would be his ticket out of financial ruin for the modest price of Tristanne's favors.
"You must bolster the family fortune," he had told her matter-of-factly six weeks earlier, as if he was not discussing her future. Her life.
"I don't understand," she had said stiffly, still wearing her black dress from their father's memorial service earlier that day. She had not been in mourning, not even so soon after his death. Not for Gustave Barbery, at any ratethough she would perhaps always grieve for the father Gustave had never been to her. "All I want is access to my trust fund a few years early."
That bloody trust fund. She'd hated that it existed, hated that her father thought it gave him the right to attempt to control her as he saw fit. Hated more that Peter was its executor now that her father was deadand that, for her mother's sake, she had to play along with him in order to access it. She'd wanted nothing to do with the cursed Barbery fortune nor its attendant obligations and expectations. She'd spent years living proudly off of her own money, the money she'd earned with her own handsbut such pride was no longer a luxury she could afford. Her mother's health had deteriorated rapidly once Gustave fell ill; her debts had mounted at a dizzying rate, especially once Peter had taken control of the Barbery finances eight months ago and had stopped paying Vivienne's bills. It fell to Tristanne to sort it out, which was impossible on the money she made scraping out the life of an artist in Vancouver. She had no choice but to placate Peter in the hope she could use her trust to save her mother from ruin. It made her want to cry but she did notcould notshow that kind of weakness in front of Peter.
"You don't have to understand," Peter had hissed at her, triumph and malice alive in his cold gaze. "You need only do as I say. Find an appropriately wealthy man, and bend him to your will. How hard can that be, even for you?"
"I fail to see how that would help you," Tristanne had said. So formal, so polite, as if the conversation were either. As if she did not feel like giving in to her upset stomach, her horror.
"You need not concern yourself with anything save your own contribution," Peter had snapped. "A liaison with a certain caliber of man will make my investors more confident. And believe me, Tristanne, you'll want to ensure their confidence. If this deal does not go through, I will lose everything and the first casualty will be your useless mother."
Tristanne understood all too well. Peter had never made any secret of his disdain for Tristanne's mother. Gustave had put his empire in Peter's hands at the onset of his long illness, having cut off Tristanne for her rebelliousness years before. He had no doubt expected his son to provide for his second wife, and had therefore made no specific provision for her in his will. But Tristanne was well aware that Peter had waited years to make Vivienne Barbery pay for usurping his own late mother's place in what passed for Gustave's affections. He had dismissed her failing, fragile health as attention-seeking, and allowed her debts to mount. He was capable of anything.
"What do you want me to do?" Tristanne had asked wood-enly. She could do it, whatever it was. She would.
"Sleep with them, marry them, I do not care." Peter had sneered. "Make certain it is publicsplashed across every tabloid in Europe. You must do whatever it takes to convince the world that this family has access to serious money, Tristanne, do you understand me?"
On the Katrakis yacht, Tristanne looked away from the financier and back to Peter, whose gaze burned with loathing. And as easily as that, her indecision vanished. Better to burn out on Nikos Katrakis's fireand annoy Peter in the process by contributing using his avowed worst enemythan suffer a far more clammy and repulsive fate. Tristanne repressed a shudder.