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Four months later, Ellie sat at her desk, settling into the precarious role as latest in a string of PAs to the most ruthless and exacting boss the Sirius Bank had ever known. It was twenty-six days since she'd landed the job, and how she'd done it she still wasn't sure. But there was one thing she was sure of.
Sam Stilakos had a very poor memory.
Or a seriously overcrowded sex-life. How else could he have forgotten the night that blazed in her memory like an inferno? Not that she wanted him to remember, she hastened to reflect. If he did she'd be out on her twenty-nine-year-old ear with her life's plan shot to pieces.
Even so, it was distinctly lowering for a woman to discover how completely forgettable she was.
For a while she'd wondered if he was just a very good actor, but she'd stopped thinking that now. Not once in the weeks of seeing him every day, working with him in the tense atmosphere of his office, meeting his deep, inscrutable gaze across the table at board meetings, melting to his dark chocolate voice on the intercomand he buzzed her constantly for the most finicky reasonshad he shown the merest flicker of recognition. Or flirtatiousness. Just scrupulous politeness.
No wonder his ex-wife had issues with him.
A crash from inside his office jolted Ellie from her reverie. The wife's visit wasn't going well. At almost the same moment she glanced around to see an elegantly groomed older lady appear at the outer door. The woman approached the desk, and, with the assured charm of her years, introduced herself as Irene Stilakos.
Ellie concealed her intense fascination behind her professional face. So this was Sam's mother. But she wasn'tGreek!
'He's had an unexpected visitor.' Ellie smiled up into shrewd grey eyes, wondering if Irene had heard the crash. 'He shouldn't be long. Would you like a coffee while you wait?' She indicated the plush armchairs in the small lounge area by the window.
Irene Stilakos smiled a refusal, and selected a chair. Behind her, Sydney glittered in the morning sun like a jewel, but oblivious to the scene, she bypassed the pile of recent glossies and picked up a copy of Sirius's annual report.
She looks friendly, Ellie thought, covertly searching for a resemblance to Sam's stunning chiselled features and imperious dark eyes. With her softly waved hair and lively, pleasant face, you'd never believe she had a son so
The door to Sam's inner office burst open. Ellie jumped, and Sam's mother looked up as a shrill, impassioned voice rent the air. 'Anyone can make a mistake, Sam! Haven't you ever heard the concept of forgiveness?'
There was a deep, curt response, then the pert rear view of Natalie, television soap star and Sam's ex-wife, appeared in the doorway, arms flailing. 'You know why you're scared to come to my wedding, lover?' she screeched. 'Because you haven't been able to find another woman in four years. And do you know why that is, Sam? Do you know why? I'll tell you why. Because you can't replace me! And you nevereverwill.'
She slammed the door so hard Ellie's filing cabinet shuddered. Then midway in storming across the room she halted, muttering, to feverishly rifle her bag.
She wore impossibly high heels Ellie had no trouble in identifying as Jimmy Choos, and a minuscule leather dress with peep-holes that showed her fabulous all-over tan. A flick of her ragged blonde designer hair, with its fashionable black roots, revealed the obligatory tattoo on her shoulder.
She looked like trouble. Sexy trouble, exactly the sort men went mad for.
Unconsciously Ellie patted the smooth coil at her nape. No wonder she'd made no lasting impression. She'd considered going completely blonde herself when Sam had taken over as boss, but had gone the other way instead, choosing a deep, rich, camouflaging red. It seemed to have worked well. Too well, she sometimes thought.
She watched as Natalie pulled out a handful of tissues to dab at her professionally modelled nose. All at once the blonde's eye fell on Sam's mother, and she froze rigid.
Her fashionable pout grew puffier and more defensive. 'Well?' Irene Stilakos started, and sat straighter in her chair. 'Oh,' she said hurriedly. 'Don't mind me, Natalie. I was just thinking you should be careful in those heels. You need to look after those bones in your lower spine. Think ahead, dear, to when you'll be bearing children.'
Natalie hissed in an outraged breath, then to Ellie's alarm she whipped around to her. 'And what are you staring at, Miss Mouse? Hoping you might have a chance with him? It's what you've been hanging out for, isn't it?'
Ellie felt her face flame scarlet. Her lips parted in stunned denial, but there was no silencing her accuser.
'Don't try to deny it.' Natalie's rather high-pitched voice vibrated with passion. 'I've heard you talk to him in that droolydrooly voice. You're after him. You all are. Don't you think a woman knows?'
Ellie scrabbled for her professional poise and drew herself up, searingly conscious of Sam's mother sitting there. And Sam himself was very sharp of hearing. 'That may just be the way I talk,' she retorted as coolly as humanly possible, in her low, admittedly quite husky voice. 'I don't have the luxury of screaming or throwing things. And I have too much work to do to go after anyone.'
'Yeah, right.' Natalie's brittle laugh rang out in the quiet room. 'Just look at her, will you? It's written all over her face.' She shrugged and started for the exit. 'You're welcome to the cold-blooded brute, if you think you can measure up to him.' Her eyes filled up with tears. 'Try living with a perfectionist.' Out in the corridor she flung rawly over her shoulder, 'See what's it like to be dispensable.'With a despairing hair-flick she stalked off in the direction of the lifts.
Ellie gathered her shell-shocked self together to find Sam's mother piercing her with her penetrating grey gaze, intensified by the lenses of her glasses.
'It isn't true,'Ellie said quickly. 'I don't like him at all.'Then, recollecting who she was talking to, she rushed to add, 'I meanhe's very good-looking, and brilliant and everything, but he's not at all my type. He's far too demanding, and arrogant, and bossy. Not that that's a bad thing, of course, when he's the boss.' She made a weak attempt at a laugh. 'Please don't be offended'
Sam's mother gave her a worried smile, as if she needed convincing.
'but I actually prefer less high-powered men. You knowfriendlier.' Her recurring vision of herself enfolded in Sam's strong arms, his stirringly sexy mouth, his midnight satin eyes slumbrous with desire, swam into her mind, but she forced herself to stay on course. 'I like men who are moreaccessible. Emotionally. Do you know what I mean?'
This was, in fact, a bare-faced lie. She only ever fell madly in love with inappropriate men who were totally inaccessible.
Sam's mother seemed to know it, because she frowned at Ellie and gave her head a very slight shake. Ellie thought she must have gone too far and had better backtrack, and lowered her voice confidentially. 'I don't mean he isn't good to work for. He is, he's wonderful, and he can be so-o-o charming to people who don't irritate him, but in a personal, oror sexual sense I could never find him attractive at'
She broke off. Sam's mother's gaze had shifted to a point somewhere above and to the right of Ellie, and Ellie had a horrible sinking feeling that someone was standing at Sam's door. She glanced down and saw a pair of handmade leather shoes, polished to a very high gloss, trouser legs of the finest fabric, and knew immediately who.
Her dismayed gaze travelled the lean, powerful length of Samos Stilakos, and connected with his intelligent dark eyes, brimming with an expression she couldn't quite read. There was a sardonic quirk to his sensuous mouth, and his black eyebrows were drawn.
Her heart jarred to a halt.
'Come in,' he said, holding the door wide for Irene without taking his eyes from Ellie. Irene gave her a warm glance as she went past, and Sam said in deep, clipped tones, 'I'll talk to you later, Eleanor.'
He closed the door.
Ellie plunged into turmoil. How long had he been standing there? She covered her burning cheeks. There was no chance he hadn't heard some of it.
What if Irene told Sam of Natalie's accusation? Wasn't it only natural she would? She would. Of course she would. She'd be telling him even now.
Sam absently steered his mother through some scattered shards of antique vase and across the luxurious expanse of his office. While she settled herself on the deep red leather chesterfield, he wandered over to stare moodily at the view from his wall-sized window. Curious how a couple of smudgy little clouds could take the shine off Sydney Harbour. That bridge could look bloody grim.
'She seems like a lovely girl, Sam,' his mother commented, crossing her ankles.
Sam gave a shrug, but something like a skewer slid through his intestines. Why had she said she didn't like him? Could he have offended her in some way?
He scrolled back through their exchanges about work. Her mouth was often graveintriguingly so, for a woman whose blue eyes could actually glitter at times with mischiefbut she'd seemed happy enough, calm and competent. She'd coped with all the projects he'd thrust her into with cool efficiency, surprising him at times with her instinctive grasp of the big picture.
She was a little too inclined to try injecting her feminine viewpoint into his careful strategies for the bank's recovery, but he could easily keep that under control. In all other ways he still found herpleasing.
He'd honoured his agreement with her, and would continue to do so, although it had been extracted under duress. Her total rejection of an affair was impressive. Although what more tantalising challenge had ever been given a man?
Not that he condoned personal relationships in the workplace. Purists might argue that he shouldn't have placed her so close to him. It had been a business decision, no more, no less, to keep his eye on her. In fact, once or twice he had actually fantasised having a section of the wall removed so he could see her face.
That face. For an instant his eyes drifted shut. The curious breathless feeling he experienced whenever she entered the room came over him. It was amazing how, once a woman's face had been forbidden to a man, that face could become so infinitely more alluring and desirable than any other.
But He knew the rules and there was no risk. That invisible line she'd drawn around herself was as definite as a castle moat, and in twenty-six days he'd never tried to cross it. Not once.
So if she was unhappy He felt a skidding sensation inside his chest. Could it be something to do with that night?
His mother cut in on his thoughts. She was studying him with a thoughtful gaze, her head a little on one side. 'I don't think you should take the things she said personally, dear. She assured me she only meant it in the sexual sense.'
He gave a careless laugh. 'Is that what she said?' Nevertheless the skewer made a savage twist. Women always found him attractive in the sexual sense. If Eleanor O'Dea was the woman he thought she was, whom his instincts told him she must be, she had every reason to find him sexually attractive.
Unless unless he was mistaken.
He thought back to the first time he'd laid eyes on her after he'd taken on the bank. Wasn't it the Christmas party?
He frowned, recalling how once again he'd been taken aback by the scale of it. Mature men and women carousing, hugging each other in boozy camaraderie at the company's expense, some far-gone woman from Sales actually performing a dreamy, inebriated dance on a table-top. When he'd enquired as to who had been responsible for organising this latest orgiastic extravaganza, someone had pointed out Ellie.
His lungs had momentarily seized, for there she'd been, a tallish slender woman standing quietly in the middle of the scene of riotous debauchery, in the thick of it, but in some strange way alone, as if she occupied her own small pool of serenity.
It was her, he was certain. Straight away he'd noticed her soft, curly lips. And her skin. How incredibly pure and satin-white he'd remembered it being, in contrast with her bright hair, and looked to be still under the revolving strobe light. But it was seeing her eyes for the first time that had affected him most. Luminous, sapphire eyes, with long curled lashes, sparkling at the antics of her colleagues like some laughing female devil's.
She'd been wearing very high heels and some brown thingor was it beige?with what looked like a strange glitch in its neckline. As he recalled, it had been quite shapeless. In fact most of the things she wore failed to make the most of her shape. The moonlit shape that haunted him.
His frown deepened. He hadn't been able to take his eyes off her, but when she'd glanced across at him, unbelievably those lovely eyes had looked straight through him.
It had shaken him. Could he have been mistaken?
His mother hastened to soothe him. 'It's not that she doesn't like you for yourself, dear, I'm sure. I think she's exactly what you need out there.' She gazed earnestly at him and added, her eyes as innocent as the dawn, 'Natalie didn't like her one bit.'
Natalie. A grenade lodged in his vitals, but he didn't move a muscle. 'Didn't she?' he said without expression. 'When did Natalie ever like another woman?'
'That's true,' Irene conceded, sending him a quick, searching glance. 'Natalie can be very threatened by the sort of woman she can't compete with.' She clasped her hands. 'That was what I wanted to talk to you about.'
Sam saw the anxiety in his mother's face, and shelved the mystery of his enigmatic PA. A woman who could so easily dismiss the most torrid sex he'd ever experienced was either an actress or a fool. And why a woman so lusciously endowed with feminine charms felt no need to display them to advantage was frustrating, but hardly important. As for her claiming not to like himFrom what he could gather, Ellie O'Dea was one of the more popular staff members. She seemed to like everyone else, so why not him? As he recalled, she'd certainly liked him on that night.
He snapped into focus. 'All right.' He dropped into the chair facing her. 'Go on, then.'Resignedly, he raised a hand to motion her on. 'Let's hear itthe wedding.'
Irene sat on the sofa's edge, the better to make her pitch. Her son's face was patient, but wary, his dark eyes watchful beneath their black lashes. She would have to tread carefully. After Natalie and the divorce she'd seen a tougher layer of cynicism added to his sophistication. His resemblance to his proud father ran deeper than his Greek colouring and hard male beauty. His handsome, urbane surface concealed a well of feelings that wouldn't easily be touched a second time.
'I'll be honest with you, Sam,' she began. 'I'm a little nervous about going to the wedding on my own. My being there is bound to upset Natalie, and she's such a volatile girl, who knows what might happen?' Her hand stole to her heart.
Sam noted the unconscious gesture with a frown.
'If your father were still alive'
He leaned forward and took her lined hands in his strong, smooth ones. 'If Papa were alive he wouldn't let you go.' He made the effort to gentle his voice. 'You don't have to, you know. You could decline.'
'And then this horrible feud would go on! No, dear, whatever your father would have thought, I can't be cut off from my family for the rest of my life. For all his faults I miss my brother, and, although you'll never admit it to yourself, you must miss Michael. He's not only your cousin, he's still the closest friend you ever had.'
A blistering retort rose to Sam's lips but he suppressed it. Her frail heart wasn't up to the savage passions generated by the betrayal of his honour. It was clear enough what she was about to ask for. His attendance at his cousin's wedding.
To his ex-wife.
Smooth it all over, as though it had never happened. His fractured life patched together under a coat of gloss.
It had been a while, he mused, since he'd wanted to cut out both their hearts. Now he only wanted to wipe them from the universe, but he'd never mention it to Irene. She was a womanessentially not even Greek. His father would have understood, if the strain of the dishonour hadn't killed him.
'I won't go to their wedding.' The intensity of the quiet words resonated in the silence for seconds.
His mother nodded. 'No one could blame you, Sam, but if you don't go, this myth Natalie's spreading aroundthat you can't get over herwill seem to be confirmed. Even my brother seems convinced you can't look at another woman.' She rolled her eyes. 'He wrote me such a sympathetic note, asking about your state of mind. "If Sam doesn't want to come we'll understand," he said. "Has poor Sam made any progress?" I have to admit, dear, I found it quite galling.'
Sam broke into a sardonic laugh. Though it was true he hadn't looked for a replacement. There'd been no woman in his life since the divorce. Perhaps lately his apartment had begun to seem quiet, tomb-like even, but one Natalie was enough for a lifetime. In the beginning he'd thought their differences would soon be ironed out, but they had only seemed to widen with time. There'd been no meeting of minds, no shared humour. The charmingly volatile young woman he'd married was too often a spoilt, destructive child. Too much of a child herself to be prepared for the responsibilities of parenthood.
His gut clenched at the memory of the unforgivable thing she'd done in the name of her career. Eventually she'd dragged his cousin into an affair, scandalised his family, and ended by splitting it in halves.
It occurred to him then, as he listened to his mother discussing the arrangements for Natalie's next wedding, that if he ever sought another woman she would be different. More subtle and elusive. The sort of woman who could inspire a man's imagination.
As it often had since the night of the masked ball, a vision surfaced in his mind. And the more he saw of Ellie O'Dea, the more he listened to her low, husky voice on the intercomsometimes he called her just to make her talkthe more he was convinced that his first overwhelming instinct about her had been correct.