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IN THE best of moods, and ready for her second day temping at Petrakos Industries, Maddie bounced on to the bathroom scales and stilled to look hopefully down at the gauge. She winced at the reading. Possibly it hadn't been a good idea to jump on them. She got off again. Shedding her nightdress and her watch, she reset the weighing machine and stepped on as lightly as possible. Disappointingly, the weight was identical. old Mrs Evans who lived on the ground floor had opined, when Maddie had joined her and her daughter for a delicious three-course Sunday lunch, complete with all the trimmings, just a couple of days earlier.
Perhaps the "salad stuff' would have been safer? Or possibly the bar of chocolate she had eaten on the way home from the supermarket the night before had been an over-indulgence too far? Could extra weight go on that fast? In truth, the long hours she worked just to pay the rent raised her healthy appetite to starvation proportions, and she still did not earn enough to eat well. Her despondent green eyes travelled across the expanse of her full-breasted, generous-hipped reflection. Generous mouth tightening, she looped impatient fingers through her torrent of long red hair, then anchored it back with a clip and got dressed at speed.
The black jeans and white blouse had a closer fit than she liked over her opulent curves, and she frowned. When a fire had broken out at her last address she had lost almost everything she possessed. Although she was trying to build up a new wardrobe by buying from charity shops, it wasn't easy on a low income. As she turned away from the mirror her attention fell on the photo of her late sister by her bed, and she scolded herself for being so precious about her appearance when she was lucky to have her health.
"Look on the bright side,"had been her grandmother's most constant refrain while she was growing up.
"Every cloud has a silver lining," her grandfather had often chipped in with determination.
Yet Maddie and her grandparents had known a lot of heartbreak in their lives. Suzy, Maddie's beloved twin, had been diagnosed with leukaemia soon after the girls'eighth birthday. The stress of coping with Suzy's illness had destroyed their parents' marriage. Their paternal grandparents had taken charge, supporting Suzy through her gruelling treatment, her period of remission, and finally the last stages of her life. And ultimately it had been Suzy's fierce determination to get the most out of the time she'd had left that had taught Maddie the importance of hanging on to a cheerful outlook.
As she waited at the bus stop Maddie was struggling to subdue a juvenile tingle of excitement while she wondered if this would be the day she caught a glimpse of the legendary Giannis Petrakos again. Honestly, when she thought about him she felt more like a schoolgirl than a twenty-three-yearold grown-up! It was embarrassing to recall that she had once cherished a newspaper photo of the startlingly handsome Greek shipping tycoon. But she had been a teenager, and she'd developed a hopeless crush on him.
Petrakos Industries was a towering contemporary office block in the City of London. Maddie had never worked anywhere quite so imposing before, and the standards demanded of the staff were equally high. Even though she was only a temp, and generally entrusted with only menial tasks, her lack of qualifications had produced frowns on her first day. As always, she tried to compensate by being very hardworking and enthusiastic. She would have done just about anything to get a permanent job with such a company, because a decent salary would make a big difference to her life.
"Another five hundred jobs are being moved to Eastern Europe to cut costs," a female voice lamented outside the room where Maddie was engaged in inputting onto a computer database. "The press will go mental over it"
"Petrakos Industries is in the top three most successful companies in the world," male tones chipped in reprovingly. "Giannis Petrakos may be a ruthless bastard, but he's invincible in business. Don't forget that his shark-like instincts are likely to deliver us an even bigger bonus this year."
"Do you ever think about anything other than money?" the woman censured. "Petrakos is a super-wealthy guy with about as much human emotion as a piece of granite."
Maddie was tempted to go to the door and protest that point. But in her guise as an unwilling eavesdropper she knew she could scarcely do so. What was more, while she might long to sing Giannis Petrakos's praises, it was certainly not her place to talk about his private endeavours. Suppressing a sigh, she returned her attention to the database.
After lunch she and her agency co-worker, Stacy, were sent to the top floor to help out. A brunette manager called Annabel told Stacy that she would be serving refreshments at an afternoon meeting.
"I'm a temp, not a waitress!" Stacy declared pugnaciously. "Your role as a temp is to do as you are asked," Annabel retorted crisply. "Petrakos Industries requires a high degree of flexibility from all employees"
"I'm not an employee I'm a tempand I don't serve the tea"
"Not to worry," Maddie slotted in hastily, keen to bring the battle to an end before Stacy argued both of them out of a job. "I'll do it."
In receipt of that offer, Annabel defrosted only marginally, and angled a pointed look of disapproval at Maddie's jeans. "The company dress code doesn't allow jeans, but I suppose you'll have to do."
"You should've slapped that madam down hard for being so cheeky about your clothes," Stacy opined the minute the two girls were alone. "You're doing her a favour."
Maddie grimaced. "It was a fair comment. But with my skirt in the wash I only have jeans left to wear."
"I bet she's just jealous of your looks," Stacy contended with scorn. "Those men walking out of the lift couldn't take their eyes off you, and she didn't like it."
Maddie went red with embarrassment. "I think she was just uptight about the meeting."
"You should make the most out of what you've got," Stacy it in as a glamour model or a lap dancer."
Inwardly cringing at the concept of that amount of naked exposure, Maddie said nothing. Sometimes she thought she fortable with the masculine notice awakened by her hourglass curves.
As she crouched down to remove a china tea-set from the cupboard where it was stored, Annabel thrust wide the door to issue further instructions. "Mr Petrakos will be present at the meeting. When you enter the boardroom, serve the refreshments quietly and quickly."
Striding past in advance of his personal staff, Giannis caught a glimpse of the redhead just before the boardroom kitchen door flipped shut on her. In that split second a razor-sharp image of her imprinted itself on his brain: bright hair that gleamed like beaten copper and gold against her pale alabaster skin and fell in splendour halfway down her spine; the luscious pout of voluptuous breasts that segued down into an improbably tiny waist and then flared out again into the ripe fullness of a very feminine derrière.
A powerful wave of testosterone-charged response assailed Giannis. He always controlled his sexuality, and he was startled by the heady rush of blood to his groin. He assumed his response was a rude reminder of a private truth: he liked women with a little more flesh than the very slender models who invariably came his way. Even so, that disruptive surge of sexual arousal irritated him, and he banished the image of her from his mind. Most probably, he acknowledged, he just needed a woman.
Taut with nerves at the prospect of finally seeing Giannis Petrakos again, Maddie immediately doubled up the amount of coffee in the flask she was preparing. Very strong and very sweet: that was how he liked it. For just a moment memories took over and she smiled, but she blinked back the tears that were pricking at the back of her eyes.
Under cover of the spirited dialogue taking place round the vast conference table, she eased the trolley into the boardroom and gently closed the door. Only then did she allow herself to look in the direction of the male poised by the windows, and even though she had promised herself that she would simply steal one tiny glance, she was transfixed. In the tailored perfection of a black pinstripe business suit, he looked downright magnificent.
If anything, Maddie conceded rather dizzily, he was even more staggeringly beautiful than when she had first seen him. Nine years had eradicated all trace of the boy from his lean strong face, and his powerful muscular frame had filled out. But he still held his proud dark head at an imperious angle that she instantly recognized, and his eyes were unforgettable. As dark as bitter aloes and set deep below straight ebony brows. His gaze was coolly trained on the current speaker. He had incredible eyes: in certain lights or when he laughed they were the same colour as gilded bronze.
"Why aren't you serving?" someone hissed in her ear. Maddie unfroze, and jerked as though she had been slapped. As she reached for the first cup and saucer Giannis Petrakos glanced at her, and she stilled again. Her tummy flipped and her heart began to thump, making it hard for her to breathe. For the space of a heartbeat her surroundings vanished. All she was conscious of was the unfamiliar heaviness of her breasts, the dryness of her mouth, and the almost painful little twist of sensation making its presence felt low in her pelvis. She lowered her lashes in an instant of genuine confusion. It shook her that it took an almost physical effort to force her attention back to her task.
Coffeestrong, black, sweet, she reminded herself, while she wondered what on earth had come over her. And then, guessing, she felt a giant wave of shamed pink colour spreading up from her throat all the way over her dismayed face to her hairline. My goodness, she would never dare to look at him again! Dragging in a jerky breath, she poured his coffee, almost absentmindedly added four heaped spoonfuls of sugar, stirred it, and forced her feet in his direction.