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In spite of the driving rain that lashed her face, stinging her eyes and almost blinding her, Sadie had no trouble finding her way to the offices where she had an appointment first thing that morning. From the moment that she left the tube station and turned right it was as if her feet were taking her automatically along the route she needed, with no need to look where she was going.
But then of course she had been this way so many times before. In other days, some time ago perhaps, but often enough to know her way without thinking. Of course then she had been heading in this direction in such very different circumstances. In those days she would have arrived in a taxi, or perhaps a chauffeur-driven car, with a uniformed driver sliding the limousine to the edge of the kerb and opening the door for her. Then, the offices towards which she was heading had belonged to her father as the head of Carteret Incorporated. Now they were the UK headquarters of the man who had set out to ruin her family in revenge for the way he had been treated.
And who had succeeded far more than he had ever dreamed.
Burning tears mingled with the sting of the rain as Sadie forced her feet towards the huge plate glass doors that marked the entrance to the elegant building, blinding her so that she almost stumbled across the threshold. Bitter acid swirled in her stomach as the doors slid open and she recognised the way that the words Konstantos Corporation were now etched in big gold letters on the glass where once she had been able to see her father's name—her family name—displayed so clearly.
Would she ever be able to come back here and not think of her father, dead and in his grave for over six months, while the man who had hated him enough to take everything he possessed from him now lorded it over the company that her great-grandfather had built up from nothing into the multi-million corporation it now was?
'No!' Drawing on all the determination she possessed, Sadie shook her head, sending her sleek dark hair flying, her green eyes dark with resolve, as she stepped into the wide, marble-floored foyer. Her black patent high-heeled shoes made a clipped, decisive sound as she made her way across to the pale wood reception desk.
'No!' she muttered under her breath again.
No way was she going to let cruel memories of the past destroy her now. She couldn't let them take away the hard-won strength she had drawn on to get herself here. The resolve that was holding her upright and, she prayed, stopping her legs from shaking, her knees from giving way beneath her. She had come here today because it was her last—her only chance. She had to brave the lion in his den and ask him—beg him— to give them this one small reprieve. Without it the thought of the consequences was impossible to bear. For herself, her mother and her small brother. She couldn't let anything get in the way of that.
'I have an appointment with Mr Konstantos,' she told the smartly dressed young woman behind the reception desk. 'With—Mr Nikos Konstantos.'
She prayed that no tremor in her voice gave away how difficult she had found it to say the name—his name. The name of the man she had once loved almost to the point of madness. The name she had once believed would be hers too for the rest of her life—until she had realised that she was just being used as a pawn in a very nasty power game. A cruel game of revenge and retribution. A settling of scores from wounds that had originally been inflicted long ago and had been many, bitter years festering viciously, until they had poisoned so many lives. Her own amongst them.
And your name is?' the receptionist enquired.
'Carter,' Sadie supplied, hoping that the sudden dropping of her green eyes to examine some non-existent spot on one of her hands didn't betray how difficult she had found it to come out with the lie. 'S-Sandie Carter.'
She had had to resort to the subterfuge of a false name, she acknowledged inwardly, a nasty taste in her mouth at having been reduced to it. She knew only too well that if she had tried to gain an appointment with him under her real identity then Nikos Konstantos would never even have given her a moment's consideration. Her request to see him would have been refused with cold-blooded arrogance and unyielding rejection. Her attempt to contact him would have been squashed dead under his arrogant heel before it had even struggled into life and she would be back where she had been at the start of this week: lost, desperate, penniless, and without a hope in the world.
She didn't have much of a hope now, but at least the receptionist was checking through a list of names and times on her computer, smiling her satisfaction as she found the fictitious one that Sadie had given her, and making a swift click with her mouse as she checked it off.
'You're a little early…'
'Not to worry—I can wait…' Sadie put in hastily, knowing only too well that 'a little early' was a major understatement. She was way too early—by more than half an hour. But nervousness and a real fear that she might have backed out of this if she hadn' t left home just as soon as she was ready had pushed her out of the door well before the time needed for her journey.
'No need,' the other woman assured her. 'Mr Konstantos's first appointment cancelled, so he can see you straight away.'
'Thank you,' Sadie managed, because it was all she could say.
She'd committed herself to this interview and she had to go through with it. But now that the time had come she felt sick at just the thought of confronting Nikos here, in what had once been her family's offices. What had possessed her to do this? To think that she could cope with seeing Nikos for the first time in five years, and come back into the building that did so much to emphasise how far her family's fortunes had fallen—both at the same time.
'I think perhaps…' she began again, her already shaky courage deserting her, meaning to say that she'd changed her mind—she had another appointment, or her mother had just called… anything to give her an excuse to leave, get out of here now. To run and hide before she had to come face to face with…
The receptionist's tone, her sudden change of expression, would have alerted Sadie to just what was happening even without the use of that emotive name. The other woman's eyes had widened, her gaze going straight to a point over Sadie's shoulder, behind her back. And the expression in it, as in the way she had said the name—that name—told Sadie without another word needing to be spoken just who had come up behind her, silent as a hunting jungle cat, and possibly just as deadly.
'Has my ten-o'clock appointment arrived?'
'She's right here…'
The receptionist smiled as she indicated Sadie standing before her desk, and she clearly thought that Sadie would smile back. Smile and turn. Possibly say hello or some such.
But Sadie knew that she couldn't move. Her legs seemed to have frozen to the spot. Her mind too had iced up, leaving her incapable of registering a single thought other than the fact that he was behind her.
That Nikos Konstantos was right behind her. And that at any moment he would see her and realise who she was.
It was the voice that had done it. Just those few words in those deep, sensually husky tones had short-circuited her brain waves, making it impossible to think of anything but the shivering sensations that ran up and down her spine. Once she had heard that voice whisper to her in the darkness, murmuring sounds of delight and promising her the very best— the world—the future. And, entranced by that sexy accent, lost in the world of sensuality that just being with him had always created around her, she had foolishly, naively believed in every word.
Every lying word.
Her silence had gone on too long. It had had the opposite effect to the one she had hoped for. What she had really wanted was to become invisible. Or for the beautiful marble floor to open up so that she could fall right through, out of sight. But instead, by standing still and silent, she had puzzled and confused the other woman so that she frowned in faint enquiry, making a slight nod of her head to draw Sadie's attention to the man behind her.
A man who couldn't possibly be unaware of the way she was standing there, stiff and awkward and with blatant disregard for normal polite behaviour.
'This is Mrs Carter…' The receptionist tried again. 'Your ten o'clock…'
She had to move; she had no choice. Any more delay and she would raise all his suspicions, put him on edge. Drawing on all her strength and squaring her shoulders, Sadie snatched in a deep, sharp breath and turned on her heel. The effort she put into the movement made it far too strong, too wild, so that she whirled round, almost spinning out of control as she came suddenly face to face with the man she had once believed she was destined to marry.
He recognised her instantly, of course. No matter how much she might have changed over the past five years—and she had changed—she knew that. She had to have changed. There was no way she could still be the younger, more relaxed, far happier Sadie who had first met Nikos. But there was no doubt, no hesitation in his recognition of her. She saw the way that his face changed, the sudden tightening of his mouth, the flare of something wild and dangerous in his eyes, and her blood ran cold inside her veins at the sight.
'You!' he said, and that was all. The one word was riddled with all the disgust, contempt and obvious hatred that he felt for her, making her shiver inwardly in fearful response.
'Me,' she managed, sheer nerves making her tone inappropriately flippant, so that she saw the way that anger snapped his dark straight brows together in an ominous glare. 'Hello, Nikos.'
'My office—now,' he said, and spun on his heel, striding away across the foyer, never once looking back, and obviously believing that she would follow. That she would have no option but to obey the harshly muttered command he had flung at her.
And really, she did have no option. It was either that or leave, with her mission unaccomplished. And now that she had braved the lion in his den, surely she had the worst over with?
Or did she? It was true that she'd been pushed into this meeting she'd been dreading, but she had had no time to prepare, or even to think about what she was going to say. And she had hoped to approach Nikos as calmly and quietly as possible. Instead she had done just the opposite.
She'd knocked him off balance too, and he was angry as a result. Coldly furious.
It was there in every inch of his long, powerful body as he strode across the foyer towards the lifts. It stiffened the straight spine, tightened the powerful shoulders and held his dark head so arrogantly high that she felt it gave him an even more impressive height than usual.
It was impossible not to reflect on the sheer impact of that stunning frame, the width of chest, narrow sexy hips and long, long legs. She had rarely seen him quite so formally dressed when she had known him before, and the effect of the severely tailored outfit was to turn him into a distant, unapproachable figure. Deep inside there was an ache in her heart at the memory of the younger, warmer, kinder Nikos.
At least he had seemed warmer and kinder then. It was only later that she had discovered the truth about how he really was.
'Are you coming?'
The sharp question dragged her back to the present with a jolt. Warm and kind were not the words to use about Nikos now. In fact, in everything about him he was the exact opposite. As he stood just inside the lift, one long finger jammed hard on the button that held the door open, he directed a cold, icy glare at her face that had her jumping into action fast, almost scurrying the last few steps into the compartment and huddling back against the wall.
Nikos's only response was a sharp movement that released the button, letting the door slide to, shutting them in.
'I…' Sadie tried, but another of those arctic glares froze the words on her tongue.
She had forgotten how deep a bronze his eyes could be in certain lights. In others they could be almost molten gold, the colour of the purest honey and just as sweet—or they had been once upon a time. There was nothing sweet in the look he turned on her now, nothing to melt the knot of ice that seemed to have clenched around her stomach, twisting it brutally until she felt raw and nauseous deep inside.
And Nikos clearly had no intention of even attempting to lighten the atmosphere or to make her feel any better. Instead he simply leaned back against the wall of the compartment, folding his strong arms across the width of his chest as he subjected her to the sort of savage scrutiny that made her feel as if the burn of his gaze might actually shrivel her where she stood. Why she didn't just collapse into a pile of ashes under it she didn't know. Instead, she shifted awkwardly from one foot to another then, unable to bear the terrible silence any longer, forced herself to try again.
'I—I can explain…' was all she managed, before he made a slicing, brutal gesture with his hand that cut off all attempt at speech.
'In my office.'
It was tossed at her, almost flung into her face, no hint of expression or trace of warmth on his features. His expression was a stone wall, no light in his eyes, his jaw set and hard.
'But I…' she tried again.
'In my office,' he repeated, and his tone left her in no doubt that he would brook no argument so there was no use in even trying.
Besides, the confined space of the lift was too small, too claustrophobic for her to want to risk confronting him while she was trapped there. She might have been prepared to face him in his office—in more civilised surroundings—but not here, not now. Not like this.