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HIS face like thunder, Dimitri Kouvaris strode down the first-storey corridor of his sumptuous villa on the out-skirts of Athens, hands fisted at his sides, his wide shoul-ders as rigid as an enraged bull about to charge.
Eleni, the youngest member of his household staff, flattened herself against the wall at his approach, and only expelled her pent-up breath as he shot down the sweeping staircase two treads at a time.
The soles of his handmade shoes ringing against the marble slabs, he crossed the wide hallway and after a cursory rap entered his aunt's quarters.
"Did you know about this?" he demanded on a terse bite, lobbing over the piece of paper crumpled into his fist. And he watched, the gold of his eyes dark with inner fury, as the thin pale fingers of his father's elder spinster sister smoothed the creases out.
The few words burned like acid into his brain.
Our marriage is over. My solicitor will be in touch regarding our divorce.
Three months and she said it was over! No explana-tion. Nothing but a note left on the pillow of their opulent marriage bed. How dared she?
"She dishonours the Kouvaris name!" he bit out, and the silvery head rose from her prinked-lipped perusal. The sharp black eyes were disdainful as his seventy-year-old aunt dropped the note on the small table at her side and fastidiously wiped her fingers on a silk handkerchief.
"You dishonoured our family name when you made her your bride," Alexandra Kouvaris pronounced, with a profound lack of compassion. "A common gold-digger with her eye obviously on a handsome divorce settle-ment. A high price to pay for an abortive attempt to get an heir, nephew." She settled back in her chair with a rustle ofblack silk and reached for the book she'd been reading, dismissing him. "No, I didn't know she'd gone. I am not in her confidence and I have not pined to be in that position. I suggest you check the contents of your safe to see how much of the jewellery she persuaded you to lavish on her she's taken with her."
His mouth flat with distaste, Dimitri swung on his heels and left. He couldn't verbally flay his aunt for voicing what everyone would be thinkingalthough he'd had to bite his tongue to stop himself from doing just that. In the mood he was in he'd lash out at anyone who dared to breathe in his presence, he conceded savagely. In scant seconds he was back in the bedroom he'd shared with his bride, dragging open hanging cup-boards and drawers, eventually standing, brows clenched, staring out of one of the tall windows that gave a partial view of the distant Acropolis.
She seemed to have left in just the clothes she was wearing, her passport and handbag her only luggage. Not one item of designer clothing or jewellery was missing. Was she, as his aunt had stated, going for the much larger prize? Aiming to reach a divorce settlement of half of his vast wealth, making him a laughing stock?
Prick a Greek male's pride and the wrath of the gods would descend in dire retribution!
Hadn't he given her everything a woman could possibly want? An enviably beautiful home, unlimited funds, servants to cater to her every whim, great sex. His tight features turned dark with temper as too-vivid memories of the way his pre-marriage largely ignored lunch-breaks had turned into sheer paradise between the sheets with his wife, because the hours before night-time had always seemed impossible to get through without availing himself of the delights of her luscious,
Had her generous response been nothing but an act? His lovemaking something to be endured to keep him sweet and unsuspecting until she sneaked away and pe-titioned for divorce?
No one did that to Dimitri Kouvaris! No one! Turning in driven haste, he used his mobile to instruct his senior PA to cancel all meetings for the next three days. He stuffed a few necessities into an overnight bag with his free hand. Then, ending the call, he keyed in the number of the airport and finally, on receiving the infor-mation he needed, contacted the pilot of his private jet.
Tears welled in Joan Ryan's tired eyes as she turned to slide the kettle onto the hotplate of the ancient Aga. That dratted inner shaking had started up again, and over the last twenty-four hours she had drunk enough tea to float a battleship.
Nevertheless, she had to be sympathetic and helpful, put her other problems aside, because no sooner had Joe, her husbandwho should by rights be resting, ac-cording to doctor's orders, following his heart scare, not getting himself stressed outtogether with their three sons walked out of the door than her son-in-law had walked in. And dropped another whopping bombshell.
Maddie had walked out on their marriage.
Maddie wanted a divorce.
It couldn't be happening, she thought on a spurt of uncomprehending agitation. She couldn't for the life of her understand how that marriage had gone so wrong, so quickly. Her daughter had looked radiant with hap-piness when she'd made her wedding vows in the small parish church just three months ago. She and Joe had been so happy too. Just fancytheir tomboy daughter, who'd never even had a proper boyfriend, marrying such a handsome, wealthy, generous dream of a man. Their adored Maddie stepping ecstatically into an assured future.
And now this!
Dimitri looked strainedas any man would after such a shock, not to mention a headlong dash from Greece and driving up here in a hired car. So a nice cup of tea,
She turned, carried the pot to the big old table, and noted that he had sat himself in Joe's chair, his finely made yet strong hands clenched on the pitted pine tabletop.
"I wish I could help," Joan mourned, feeling useless. "For the life of me, I can't understand it. She's never given the smallest hint that anything was wrong in her phone calls. But then, she wouldn't." She dredged up a sigh. "That's Maddie for you. She's always had a streak of in-dependence a mile wide.'Hand shaking, she covered the pot with its padded cosy. "I've heard nothing since her last call a week ago. She hasn't turned up here."
With an effort, Dimitri forced his hands to relax, flatten against the grainy surface. Joan Ryan was obvi-ously as much at sea as he was.
Forget the acid burn of anger inside him. Clearly the poor woman was worried sick. He liked Maddie's parentsadmired their capacity for hard work, their honesty, their love for their family. He couldn't bring himself to tell Joan that her beloved daughter was a sly, scheming gold-digger, marrying him only for what she'd decided she could screw out of him!
He wouldn't have believed it himself until today. Women had been coming on to him since he'd hit his late teens, and he'd learned to suss out gold-diggers from a hundred paces. He would have staked his life on Maddie being genuine, wanting him only for himself, wanting children as much as he did. Had his brain gone soft that first time he'd seen her, wanted her as he'd never wanted any other woman, his heart and soul telling him that here was the one woman in the world he could trust implicitly?
But what other explanation could there be? Colour scorched across his angular cheekbones. Until today their marriage had been fantastic. Not a cross word, just soft words and smiles. Laughter, joy. She'd been just that little bit quieter of late, he'd noted, and once, when he'd gently asked if there was anything wrong, she'd turned that lovely smile on him, reached for him, and assured him that everything was perfect.
An obvious and utterly devious truthbecause ev-erything had been going to her greedy plan. He truly didn't want to believe that of hernot of her. But, lacking any other explanation, he had to face it.
Joan pulled out a chair, sat heavily, and poured the tea with a shaking hand. Compassion for her distressed state forced him to say, "Try not to worry. She'll turn up. She would have taken a scheduled commercial flight, so it would take her much longer to get to Heathrow and then make her way here than it took me. Where else would she go?" He'd checked the departure times of flights to the UK, guessing she would be heading for home. "Can you think of anywhere else?"
Unable to speak for the lump in her throat, Joan shook her head. The lump assumed monumental pro-portions as Dimitri supplied reassuringly, "She'll turn up here. I'm sure of it. But should she phone ahead I must ask you not to tell her I'm here. I need to talk to her, to sort things out."
Carefully, keeping his tone gentle, schooling out the anger, the outraged pride of the Greek male, he covered her workworn hand with his ownbecause Joan Ryan was a patently good woman, and none of this was her fault. "You mustn't worry."
Kindness was her undoing. She'd genuinely had no intention of burdening him with her family's prob-lemscertainly not while he was so upset over Maddie's desertion. But Joan couldn't stop the torrent of sobs that racked her comfortable frame, and then her handsome, caring son-in-law fetched the box of tissues from the windowsill, slid it in front of her and put a com-passionate hand on her shoulder.
"What's wrong, Joan?" he asked. He'd expected her to be puzzled and upset by her daughter's behaviour, but not to the extent of breaking down entirely. "Tell me. I might be able to help."
It all came pouring out.