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Seven years later, The Ritz Hotel, Paris
Alexandros Kouros was bored. It was like a heavy mantle around his shoulders. A black cloud that spread outwards from his very depths, pervading everything. He was oblivious to the fact that he was surrounded by opulence. The opulence that came with being one of the wealthiest men in the world, in one of the world's most exclusive hotels. Hushed whispers encircled him. He tuned them out, the superlatives bouncing off him. They'd surrounded him for years, but he'd never courted them, never needed any assurance.
So handsome so young! The most successful shipping magnate since Onassis Even more money Most eligible bachelor
Now the constant murmurs that followed him wherever he went only added to the ennui he felt. He'd achieved a pinnacle of success attained by just a very few, and only imagined by most. And it had been hard won, which should make it all the more sweet. But was this it? How could he be feeling like this when everything he'd ever worked for lay at his fingertips, when he could snap those fingers and influence the world's economy with just a word, a command And if this wasn't what he wanted, then what the hell was? A distant memory, an old faded dream, reared its head. That had long turned to dust.
A touch on his arm, not gentle. It was predatory, possessive and brought his attention back to the room. To the woman at his side. She was considered one of the most beautiful, desirable women in the world and she was the latest in a long line of similar women who had graced his arm, his bed.
He felt irritation prickle across his skin.Unfortunately, for the sake of politeness, he couldn't remain oblivious to her. He turned to face her and smiled tightly, taking in the platinum blonde of her hair that suddenly looked too garish, too bright. Took in the heavily made-up face, the hard, avaricious glitter in her eyes. The diamonds flashing around her neck. Diamonds that he had bought with scant regard to their worth. He made a split-second decision, suddenly aware that he didn't find her at all attractive any more. Had he ever?
Isabelle Zolanz didn't know it yet, but she was on her way out. He felt relieved for the first time in weeks. The thrill of knowing he'd be free again already helped to diminish the crushing boredom. He didn't want to spend another minute with her. In fact, he decided there and then that they would leave, he'd take her home, break it off now. His suit felt constrictive and he had to school his features into some semblance of neutrality.
Just as he was about to open his mouth and speak, to say some platitude, something flashed in the corner of his eye and he turned on a reflex to look. The room was packed, and in the doorway on the other side of the room stood a woman. She'd obviously just arrived, craning her neck looking for someone, standing on tiptoe. For a split second the noise in the room faded. He couldn't take his eyes off her. Goose-bumps broke out on his skin. The hubbub rushed back.
She was utterly captivating. But in a way that he couldn't define, in a way that confounded him. Not model gorgeous. Not preened or buffed. But something about her caught his attention. She was only of average height but was perfectly proportioned, his expert eye assessing in seconds the way her curves dipped in and out in all the right places. A little more voluptuous than he'd normally go for but calling to him on some deep, primitive level. The simple black V-neck dress drew the eye to her waist and the slopes of her breasts. A pendant hung around her neck, the gem resting in her cleavage. It sparkled as the light hit it and he dimly recognised where the flash had come from.
Just as he also recognised with shock that he felt a compelling desire to walk over, take her hand and lead her back outside to see for himself if her skin was as soft and silky as it looked. The urge was so strong that he actually felt his feet shift, his whole body turn, as if to move in her direction. He wanted to touch the place where her gem rested. And he had to admit with sudden chagrin, as possessiveness was an alien emotion to him, that he wanted to lead her away from the other men who he could see already taking note of her arrival, too. She was like a breath of fresh air in a musty room.
She was pale. Her face had clear, clean lines, cheekbones clearly delineated, eyes wide apart and almond-shaped, making him want to see them up close, see their colour. Honey-streaked hair hung in loose waves over her shoulders and a heavy fringe, swept to one side, hid and alternately revealed tantalising glimpses of her eyes.
His hooded eyes followed her as she walked with effortless feminine grace, her hips swaying, the inward curving line of the small of her back and the jut of her rounded bottom making Alexandros feel a twinge of reaction in his trousers. More than a twinge, in fact.
He felt a tug on his arm and almost shook off the hand that rested there, still completely engrossed in watching this woman. And only remembered then where he was, who he was with. He felt shocked. For a moment he had become entranced. Forgotten nearly everything. He shook his head mentally. Definitely a sign that he needed to move on, if he was lusting after a complete stranger across a crowded room.
But there was something about her. Something he couldn't put his finger on, some kind of familiarity, as if he knew her or had seen her somewhere before
He tore his gaze away with more of an effort than he liked to admit and looked down at Isabelle again. A smooth smile was in place as he remembered wanting to leave, her harsh beauty even more jarring now after that.
He murmured, 'Forgive me I have an important early meeting tomorrow. Would you mind if we left?'
'Not at all, darling. I'll get my coat from the cloakroom.'
She squeezed his arm and smiled, clearly anticipating, somewhat misguidedly, that he wanted them to be alone, and walked away.
As he watched her walk away, Alexandros felt no compunction, no guilt at what he was about to do. A woman like Isabelle Zolanz was well versed in the way he worked, and men like him. He had no doubt she'd be put out, but as no emotions were invested, he knew it'd be for the loss of his money, his largesse and the social standing that came with being seen on his arm. It was a state of affairs he was used to. He enjoyed the thrill of the chase. But lately, if he was honest, every conquest had become stale flat. And there was invariably very little chasing involved.
Even so, he conversely felt the relief flood him again and unconsciously sought out the other woman. But she had disappeared. He grimaced slightly. It was probably for the best. He knew all too well that seeing something like that, building up an image, no matter how beautiful the womanand she wasn't even that beautiful!always led to disappointment.
They were all the same. All the ones that hovered around him like bees around a honey pot. In the rarefied circles he moved in, he didn't encounter another type. Sex and money. They were the two currencies that he understood and knew all too well. He played the game like a virtuoso. In bed and out of it.
A cloud crossed his mind. Was he ready to be free again? There was a certain amount of protection to be had in keeping a mistress. A respite from the tiresome attempts of other women to get his attention. And then he was forced to remember something. He scowled. He actually did need a woman right now. He needed a lot more than that and it irked him beyond belief. But even as he saw Isabelle in the distance, collecting her coat, his stomach felt acidic. He certainly wouldn't be asking her.
Kallie pushed her way through the crowd. She craned her neck looking for her uncle and finally spotted him in a far corner. When she reached him she kissed him on the cheek. 'Sorry, Alexei, I got held up at work.'
'No matter, my dear. Let me get you a drink.'
He spoke quickly and seemed a little jumpy to Kallie. Which was reinforced when he grabbed a glass of water from a passing tray and practically shoved it at her. He avoided her gaze, looking distractedly over her head as he did so, and Kallie felt an uneasy sense of foreboding. Her uncle looked almost nervous.
He suddenly jostled her behind a plant and screened her from the room with his body.
'Alexei ?' Kallie's voice was indignant. She knew her uncle was given to dramatics but this was ridiculous. He was acting as if they were in a bad spy movie. 'What on earth is wrong with you?'She smiled widely and then whispered sotto voce in his ear, 'Are we hiding from your mistress?'
He turned back to face her, affronted, 'Kallie Demarchis, you know I would never look at another woman.'
She put her hand on his arm, soothing him. 'I'm teasing but you're acting so strangely. Do you think I can come out from behind this plant?'
He paled for a second as he took in something across the room. Kallie frowned and couldn't hide a spike of fear. 'What is it? You're scaring me now.'
He looked back at her and loosened his collar. 'Kallie it's someone someone is here, someone you haven't seen in a long time someone '
'Who?' she asked, beginning to feel a little exasperated.
Her uncle avoided the question. 'I tried to call you on your mobile just now but they wouldn't let me use it then I got waylaid by someone else and couldn't stop you coming in before '
She tried to be reasonable, patient. 'Before what? Alexei, why wouldn't you want me to come in?'
She could see her uncle gulp visibly. 'Because well, because Alexandros Kouros is here '
The noise in the room became a buzzing sound in Kallie's ears. She was vaguely aware of her uncle practically wringing his hands and very dimly, in a far-away place, his words slowly sank in with the same devastation as the Titanic hitting the iceberg. She felt an icy numbness take over her limbs and would have dropped her glass except that her uncle caught it in time. The water slopped onto her dress. At least it's only water, she thought with banal shock, it won't stain.
It was just a name, she rationalised somewhere within her still buzzing head. Just a name, attached to someone very famous. Well known. Very wealthy. Very handsome. Influential. Someone who didn't even enter her sphere or orbit. But yet it was the name of someone infinitely memorable. Intimately tied into her past, who had once been in her orbit had been her orbitas big a part of her past as if he'd been one of her own family.
Someone she'd never dreamed of having to face again. And now he was here, somewhere, possibly even just mere feet away. Panic gripped her, making her skin clammy.
Her uncle had grasped her hands and was looking at her. She forced stricken eyes to his, her face leached of all colour.
'Kallie, darling I'm so sorry. The thing is, you can't be here If he sees you '
She nodded slowly, not even really sure why she was nodding, only seizing on the words "if he sees you". She didn't even want to imagine for one second what that reaction might be like or what he might be like now, in the flesh.
She was more than dismayed that she couldn't be feeling just a mild curiosity, to be able to shrug it off, declare the fact that he was in the same room as a funny coincidence, uncaring whether or not they bumped into each other. She was stunned by the strength of her own reaction after all this time, the well of emotion that was still so close to the surface. It shook her to the core and scared the life out of her. She'd never guessed it was still there.
It had only been a kiss, for God's sake, little more than a kiss. Yet it had led to so much more. She chided herself that he must have moved on from what had happened but then she had to remember with a sudden upsurge of nausea that she and her stupid actions had been instrumental in the calling off of his engagement the ruination of the so-called marriage of the decade. To the woman he loved How would he have possibly forgotten that?
Her uncle was getting more agitated, looking slightly shifty. 'The thing is, Kallie I didn't tell you before now as I knew it might upset you, but I've started doing business with him again. Since your parents died, that is. Obviously your father wouldn't have approved but, you see, I had to, Kallie. I had no one else to turn to and when he gave me an appointment ' He laughed a sudden brief laugh, sounding like a little boy. 'Me! An appointment. It would appear he's willing to let bygones be bygones, with me at least. Now, if it had been your father, that would have been a different story' He seemed to catch himself, realising he was starting to babble, and gripped Kallie's hands tighter. 'But if he sees you '
The familiar clench of grief at the mention of her parents went unnoticed for once. Her uncle was referring, of course, to the scandal that had gripped Greece for weeks. The press had devoured the story of how Alexandros Kouros had taken advantage of his family friend's young daughter. Just when he was about to become engaged to Pia Kyriapolous. And even though Kallie had cried tears of frustration, trying to defend him, no one had listened, too intent to paint him the villain and her the poor innocent victim.
It had been even more futile trying to assert her own innocence with regard to the photo and story, and only recently had she confirmed for herself who the real culprit was. The story had since faded, of course, and since her grandmother's death the summer after that, Kallie had only been back to Greece a couple of times. She'd never seen him again.
Her uncle looked so comically terrified that it brought her back to reality. Kallie's heart went out to him.