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HE WAS HERE.
Though surrounded by the champagne-saturated party crowd aboard the Padakis yacht moored at Zea Marina in Piraeus, Tracey picked him out immediately.
Along with a bevy of exotic-looking women in elegant gowns, there were close to thirty formally attired business tycoons of various ages and nationalities talking over or gyrating to the loud music.
A portion of them were overfed and out of shape. Several stood taller and fitter than the rest. Some of that percentage still had their hair. A few had a whole head of black hair and an enviable olive skin blessed by the Mediterranean sun.
But only one man possessed all the gifts and had the shoulders of a Colossus too.
The sight of him in these surroundings sent a weakness
She'd first met him ten years ago through her grandfather, who was the head of Loretto's Mustard Company. If it hadn't been for him, she wouldn't have become acquainted with the brilliant entrepreneur from Greece. He'd been invited as a guest to the mansion in Buffalo where Tracey had always lived with her parents and grandfather.
After her father's death, from which she'd never recovered, she and her mother had tried their best to stay out of the way of her widowed grandfather who, like a bad king, demanded obedience.
If Tracey's grieving mother hadn't needed her support to deal with him, Tracey would have run away. Though he presented one face to the public, he was an evil man.
She never knew him to be intimidated by anyone, except when he talked about Nikos Lazaridis. In those moments Tracey heard envy, even jealousy, in his voice.
"In another couple of years he'll be worth more than our family ever thought of being."
"Why do you think that?"
"Have I ever told you the story of Helios, the sun god?"
"In 292 BC the Colossus was erected on the Greek island of Rhodes. It was a statue of Helios, roughly the same size as the Statue of Liberty, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World."
Tracey couldn't understand why he was telling her this. "In The Odyssey, Homer called Helios the all seeing, all hearing. Even the goddess Demeter went to him for help in locating her daughter Persephone."
"Is that why you talk about him more than anyone else? Because he knows everything?"
She pondered his answer. "I thought you said you knew everything."
"I did…until I met him."
That day she'd learned Nikos had grown up in central Greece, the child of a poor farmer. A son whose sheer grit and brains had come up with an idea that had made history along with his fortune.
A week after the conversation, she accidentally met the man her grandfather had put on a par with Hellenic myth.
She'd been calling to her little black pug, Samson, who loved chasing birds. He'd been a gift from her beloved father before he'd been killed in a car accident.
As she rounded a corner to catch up with her dog, she discovered a man who was perfection. His height and coal-black hair made him different from any other as he stood outside the mansion with her grandfather. To her delight he was cuddling Samson, talking to him in endearing terms while being licked.
Paul Loretto didn't like children or animals, so her mom had helped to keep her pet hidden. To Tracey's horror, she realized too late her grandfather had come home early from the office with a guest. In front of this man, her grandfather scolded her unconscionably hard for not restraining her dog. It brought tears to her eyes, but he'd been too angry to care or even introduce her to the stranger.
If the visitor hadn't been there, her grandfather would have dragged her back into the house by the arm and locked her in her room. But the stranger had been there to prevent him from physically lashing out at her. He mitigated the pain further by flashing her a tender smile.
"You must be Tracey."
"Yes," she murmured, fighting not to let him see how hurt and humiliated she was.
"I'm Nikos Lazaridis. I met your mother last night. This little fellow is so cute, I just might take him home with me. I used to have a dog, too."
His deep-throated laugh of pleasure while he continued to play with Samson wrapped right around her heart.
"What kind was he?"
"A black-and-white mutt. I found him on the road injured, and took him home."
"What did you call him?"
"Zeus," he said, handing the dog back to her with care.
"The head god of Olympus."
His eyes flickered, as if he was pleased she knew something about the myths. "I named him that to make him feel important."
"Zeus was lucky you found him," she whispered. Tracey's heart swelled as their eyes clung with an understanding she could feel on several levels. He'd rescued his own dog from a terrible fate as surely as he'd rescued Samson from the wrath of her grandfather. Would that one day he might come from out of the blue and rescue Tracey.
After giving up the dog to her, Nikos's strong hands remained on her arms. He seemed to sense how frightened she was and wanted to protect her. The way he looked at her made her feel beautiful.
That was the day an awkward slip of a fifteen-year-old girl with long, embarrassingly red hair left unconfined, fell in love with the twenty-eight-year-old Nikos and worshipped him from afar. Silently, hopelessly, because after all, he was the Colossus of Rhodes come to life for her.
Since that fateful day ten years ago, there'd been more deaths; the tragic death of her precious Samson for whom she still grieved in her heart; the painful death of her innocence; the welcome death of her grandfather; the welcome death of her travesty of a marriage.
Most significant of all, the recent death of her mother, who'd succumbed to an aggressive form of cancer, leaving Tracey in the greatest pain of her life.
To the world, it meant she was now the major stockholder in the Loretto corporation. But all Tracey knew was that she was alone inside her soul.
"I'm afraid for you, Tracey," her mother had whispered near the end. "When you take my place at the next board meeting, they'll laugh at you behind your back the way they laughed at me. To them I was nothing more than a comical figurehead. "Your business degree will do you no good unless you have something else up your sleeve that will make them sit up and take notice. You're going to need a mentor outside the company who will help you."
Tracey had figured that out a long time ago. "You mean like Nikos Lazaridis?" Though they'd only seen each other perhaps a dozen times in the three years before her marriage—always in the company of her grandfather—Nikos's name had come automatically to Tracey's lips.
"Yes, darling. I believe he's a man you can trust. Don't let what's happened with Karl scar you."
It wasn't what Karl had done. He'd been a pawn in a game his father and her grandfather had engineered. She'd gone along with it to survive. Paul Loretto was the real culprit, but she'd held back certain information in order to save her mother the full horror of it.
"Have no fear, Mom."
Those were some of the last words they'd exchanged before her sweet parent had passed away.
If her grandfather knew what she was about to do right now, he'd climb out of his grave to stop her….
Tracey slipped a folded note to one of the young waiters circulating the deck with a tray of drinks. "Please give this to Mr. Lazaridis for me. Tell him I'll be waiting here."
He took the note, giving her the once over followed by a cheeky wink. "Of course, Ms. Loretto."
She held up some large bills for incentive. "Don't mention my name."
The waiter stared at the money, then back at her. "Do not worry."
Satisfied she'd made her point, she handed him the bills and watched him disappear to the other end of the yacht.
She knew he was bursting to tell everyone that the notorious Tracey Loretto with all her millions had shown up here to party with the legendary billionaire who, at the age of thirtyeight, continued to evade marriage.
No doubt the waiter's bank account would be further enhanced when he informed the press later on that she'd come hunting for husband number two.
With her mission accomplished and being utterly exhausted, she leaned against the railing on this hot June night, not seeing the lights of the Padakis yacht reflected in the harbor while she waited….
"Kyrie Lazaridis? Forgive the interruption."
Nikos excused himself from the conversation he was engaged in and turned to the waiter. "What is it?" he murmured.
"A very beautiful, exciting American woman waiting at the bow of the yacht asked me to give this to you."
As he stared at the folded paper in the young man's hand, Nikos's black brow lifted in speculation. "How much did she pay you?"
Nikos watched the other man's eyes light up. "Five thousand American dollars."
Though repulsed by the woman's tactics, he could understand the waiter's eagerness to accept such a large bribe. Once upon a time a young Nikos and his brother Leon had worked alongside their impoverished father to keep their small farm going. Back then, even a small portion of five thousand dollars would have changed their destiny.
Nikos switched from Greek. "Are you conversant in English?"
"I speak a little, Kyrie."
"Then read the note to me." Nikos couldn't bring himself to do it. The depths to which partying, empty-headed female predators sank revolted him. After he'd listened, he would tell the waiter what answer to give her that would send her packing.
Taken by surprise, the young man exhibited a blank look before he opened the flap.
"H-Hail, Helios," he began in broken English.
"Hail, Helios?" Nikos demanded in surprise, certain the waiter hadn't read it correctly. He took the note from him and finished studying it for himself.
Did you know my grandfather always called you that? The watchman of both gods and men. The first to see all things.
Nikos felt the impact of her words like a thunderclap.
Grandfather told me you're Olympia's spy from whom not much can be kept secret.
Thank you for the beautiful flowers. I'm sure Mother could smell their divine fragrance all the way to heaven.
Now that she's gone, I wonder if it's possible that you, who sees far and wide know why I've come?
A tight band constricted Nikos's lungs. Even after all this time, her reach was long and sure. She had no shame.
He put the note in his breast pocket for safekeeping. Wheeling around, the last thing he saw was the waiter's stunned expression as Nikos strode away, ignoring everyone waiting to talk to him.
Once upon a time Tracey Loretto had been like some ephemeral mermaid whose head appeared like a lick of flame above the waves for a brief moment, then recognizing she was spotted, darted off again, hiding her timidity and fear in the depths of the sea.
But that was before she'd grown up and developed land legs, finally understanding the kind of power she had over men.
If her mother's illness couldn't bring her to her parent's side then what twisted bit of alchemy had been wrought for her to surface on Nikos's shore?
It was a dream he'd entertained until the day Paul Loretto had glibly told him that on her eighteenth birthday, he was giving Tracey away in marriage to Prince Karl Von Axel.
Being that the prince had been the twenty-five-year-old playboy son of a European family who had no money and nothing to offer Tracey but a defunct title, Nikos had felt the shock of that announcement like a mortal blow. He couldn't believe the Tracey he thought he'd known was capable of such poor judgment.
At that point Nikos had ended all visits to Buffalo. Any further business meetings with Paul, a hard, shrewd man, had taken place in Athens, with no discussion of Tracey entering into the mix again.
The disastrous seven-year-marriage that had followed had given rich fodder to the tabloids. Nikos had watched her selfdestruct from a distance. Every time the media had brought up her scandalous behavior, he'd thanked providence their paths had never crossed again.
Even before Paul's death, there had been problems within the Loretto company. Their quarterly earnings over the past few years had fallen. Division at the highest level had created instability, sending up a red flag.
Without her grandfather to pamper her, and no rich husband to support her extravagant tastes and whims, the ex-princess had turned her attention to Greece. In fear of her never-ending money source drying up one day, Nikos represented the ultimate safety net.
She'd come to target his wealth. Though Nikos was a commoner, ironically he had the lucrative trappings more than sufficient to keep her in the lifestyle her grandfather had provided from the cradle.
Nikos had news for her….