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ASWRY amusement lit his eyes, which could be as dark and deep as an underground river, Alexandros Christakis watched his grandfather walk round the sleek silver Ascari KZ1 he had just had delivered. A supercar, it was the ultimate boy-toy, for only fifty would ever be built. The older man's excitement at being that close to such a rare and powerful vehicle was palpable.
"A car that costs almost a quarter of a million." Pelias, tall and straight in spite of his seventy-five years, shook his grizzled head and smiled with almost boyish approval. "It is sheer madness, but it does my heart good to see you taking an interest in such things again!"
Alexandros said nothing in response to that leading comment, his expression unrevealing, his legendary reserve impenetrable. Gossip columnists regularly referred to the billionaire head of the CTK Bank as beautiful. Alexandros loathed the press, and had little time for such frivolity. His lean, bronzed features might have a breathtaking symmetry that turned female heads wherever he went, but the forceful angle of his jawline, the tough slant of his cheekbones and the obdurate set of his wide, sensual mouth suggested a fierce strength of character that was more of a warning to the unwary. "You're still a young man—only thirty-one years old." Pelias Christakis spoke with caution, for he had long been in awe of his brilliant grandson and rarely dared breach his reticence. "Naturally I understand that you will never forget your grief, but it is time for you to take up your life once more."
Marvelling at the old man's essential innocence,Alexandros murmured flatly, "I took my life back a long time ago."
"But all you have done since Ianthe passed away is work, and make more and more money from bigger and bigger deals! How much money can one man need in a lifetime? How many homes can one man use?" Pelias Christakis flung up his hands in an extrovert gesture that encompassed the superb Regency country house in front of him. And Dove Hall was only one item in his grandson's vast property portfolio. "You are already rich beyond most men's dreams."
"I thought onwards and upwards was the Christakis motto." Alexandros brooded on the unhappy truth that people were never satisfied. He had been raised to be an Alpha-male high-achiever, with the merciless killer instincts of a shark. He was competitive, ambitious, and aggressive when challenged. Every aspect of his upbringing had been carefully tailored to ensure that he grew up as the exact opposite of his late father, who had been a lifelong layabout and an embarrassment to his family.
"I'm proud of you—immensely proud," his grandfather hastened to assert in an apologetic undertone. "But the world can offer you so much more than the next takeover or merger. Companionship may seem an old-fashioned concept—"
"Of course there have been women." Alexandros compressed his handsome mouth, only his respect for the older man's good intentions restraining him from the delivery of a more caustic response. "Is that what you want to hear?"
Pelias raised a beetling brow in rueful emphasis. "I'll be more interested to hear that you've been with the same woman for longer than a week!"
Exasperated by that censorious response, Alexandros immediately grasped what his grandfather was driving at, and cold annoyance overpowered tolerance. "But I'm not in the market for anything serious. I have no intention of getting married again."
His companion treated him to a look of surprise. "Did I mention marriage?"
Unimpressed by that air of virtuous naivety—for Pelias was not a good dissembler—Alexandros said nothing. He was grimly aware that the very fact that he was an only child put an extra weight of expectation and responsibility on him. Traditional Greek culture set great store on the carrying on of the family name. Understandably, his grandparents held the convictions of their age group. But Alexandros felt equally entitled to his own views, and believed that only honesty would suffice. As he had not the slightest desire to be a father, he had no plans to remarry. Becoming a parent had been his late wife's dream, if not her obsession. Now that Ianthe was gone, he saw no reason to pretend otherwise.
"I don't want another wife...or children, for that matter," Alexandros admitted in a flat, unapologetic undertone, his lean dark face aloof. "I appreciate that this must disappoint you, but that's how it is and I'm not going to change."
Pelias Christakis had lost colour. Stripped of all the natural exuberance of his warm, engaging personality, he suddenly looked old, troubled, and very much at a loss. Feeling like the guy who had not only killed but also tortured Santa Claus, Alexandros suppressed any urge to soften the blow and raise false hopes. It had had to be said.
* * * Now a veteran at jumble sales, Katie leapt straight into the competitive fray, rummaging through the pile of baby clothes. Emerging victorious with an incredibly smart little jacket and trouser set, she asked the lady on the stall, "How much for this?"
It was more than she could afford, and she put it back with a regret that was only fleeting—because she had long since learned that her real priorities were shelter, food and warmth. Clothes came fourth on her survival list of necessities, so newness and smartness were almost always out of reach. She found a sweater and a pair of jeans at a price within her means. Though both garments were shabby they had plenty of life left in them. The twins were growing so fast that keeping them clothed was a constant challenge. As she paid, the lady offered to reduce the price on the trouser set, but Katie flushed and said no thanks, for she had now spent what she had to spare. The pity she saw in the woman's eyes embarrassed her.
"They're lovely boys," the stallholder said reluctantly. She had noticed that Katie's hands were bare of rings, and although she hoped she was a charitable woman she very much disapproved of young unwed mothers.
Katie glanced at her sons, seated side by side in the worn twin buggy, and a rueful smile of maternal pride crept across the weary line of her mouth. Toby and Connor were gorgeous babies, and very well advanced for their age of nine months. The combination of black curly hair, pale golden skin and big brown eyes gave them an angelic air that was rather deceptive. The twins thrived on attention and activity, screeched the place down when disappointed, whinged at length when bored, and required very little sleep. But Katie absolutely adored them, and often studied them with the dazed feeling that she could not possibly have given birth to two such clever and beautiful children. Not only did they not look like her, they did not act like her either. Only in low moments, when she was fighting total exhaustion, was she willing to admit that she was finding it a real struggle to cope with their constant demands.
On the walk home, she found herself looking at other young women. It bothered her when she caught herself thinking that the ones without kids seemed more youthful, light-hearted and attractive. She saw her reflection in a shop window and stared, her heart sinking. Suddenly she wanted to cry. There had been a time when, had she made the required effort, she would have been called pretty. Now that was just a memory, and she was a small thin girl with a pinched face and red hair caught back in a ponytail. She looked nondescript and plain. She swallowed hard, knowing that Toby and Connor's father would never look at her now.
Once she had marvelled that he had ever deigned to notice her. She had thought it was so romantic that a dazzlingly attractive male who could have had literally any woman should instead have chosen her. But the passage of time and cruel experience had destroyed her fanciful illusions one by one and forced her to face less palatable truths. Now Katie accepted that he had only noticed her because she had been the sole female in his vicinity when he'd felt like sex. She had given him what he wanted without making a single demand. He had never at any stage regarded her as anything other than a social inferior—for he had never even taken her out on a date. When her breathless adoration had palled, he had dumped her so hard and fast she still shivered thinking about it. Nothing had ever hurt her as much as that cold, harsh descent from fantasy to reality.
Only a few minutes after she'd got back to her bedsit, her landlord appeared at her door. "You'll have to go," he told her bluntly. "I've had another complaint about the noise your kids make at night."
Katie stared at him in horror. "But all babies cry—" 'And two babies make twice as much of a din." 'I swear I'll try to keep them quieter—" 'You said that the last time I spoke to you, and nothing's changed," the older man cut in, unimpressed. "You've had your warning and I'm giving you two weeks'notice. If you don't move out willingly, I'll have you evicted. So let's keep it simple. Get yourself down to Social Services and they'll soon sort you out with another place!"
Appalled at his belligerent attitude, Katie tried in vain to reason with him. Long after he had gone, she sat with her arms wrapped round herself while she fought the awful feeling of despair stealing over her. She was painfully aware that she had virtually no hope of fighting such a decree when complaints had been lodged against her. Her tenancy was only of the unassured variety, and she did not even feel she could blame the other tenants for kicking up a fuss. The walls were paper-thin and the twins did regularly cry at night.
The bedsit needed decorating, the furniture was battered and the shared facilities were dismal. But the room had still come to feel like home to Katie. Furthermore, the building was in good repair and the area was reasonably respectable and safe. She was not afraid to walk down the street. Unlike during her pregnancy, when she had spent a couple of months in a flat on an inner city estate. Drug dealing and gang warfare had been a way of life there, and she had been terrified every time she'd had to go out.
Although she had been about to put Toby and Connor down for a nap, she realised that she would have to go straight back out again. In two short weeks she would be homeless, and she needed to give the housing authorities as much time as possible to locate alternative accommodation for them. Just when had she sunk so low that she no longer had the power to help herself? She blinked back a sudden rush of tears. She was twenty-three years old. She had always been a doer—independent, energetic and industrious. But she had not realised how difficult it would be to raise two children alone. She had not realised how poor she would be either. Indeed, in the latter stages of pregnancy she had made enthusiastic plans about getting her career back on track. She had expected to return to full-time employment, not end up dependent on welfare handouts for survival. Ill-health, accommodation problems, transport costs and sleepless nights had slowly but surely destroyed her hopes.
A week crawled past, during which Katie did everything she could to find somewhere else to live. But the few leads she had got turned into dead ends. Midway through the second week she began to panic, and a social worker informed her that she would have to go into emergency bed and breakfast accommodation.
"You'll hate it,'her friend Leanne Carson declared. "The room won't be yours to do what you want with, and there probably won't be any cooking facilities."
"I know," Katie muttered heavily. "Crying babies won't be flavour of the month there either.'The pretty blue-eyed brunette whom Katie had met in hospital sighed, "You'll be moved on again in no time. Why are you being such a doormat?"
"What do you mean?" 'You told me that the twins' dad had money. Why don't you spread a little of that cash in your own direction? If the stingy creep is newsworthy and wealthy enough, you could sell your story to the press."
"Don't be daft." Katie pressed pale fingers to her pounding temples.
"Of course you'd have to spice the story up. Ten-times-a-night sex, how insatiable or kinky his demands were—you know the sort of thing..."
Katie reddened to the roots of her hair. "No, I don't—" 'The sordid details are what make tittle-tattle like that entertaining and worth oodles of cash. Don't be such a prude! The guy's a total bastard. He deserves to be embarrassed!"
"Maybe he does, but I couldn't do it. That's not what I'm about. I appreciate that you're only trying to help, but—"
"You're never going to get up out of the gutter with that bad attitude." Leanne rolled scornful eyes heavy with mascara and glittering blue shadow. "Are you just going to lie down and die? Let the bloke get away with it? If you really love your little boys, you'll be ready to do whatever it takes to give them a better life!"
Katie flinched as though she had been slapped. Leanne dealt her a defiant look. "It's true, and you know it is. You're letting the kids' father...this Alexandros what-ever...you're letting him escape his responsibilities."
"I contacted the Child Support Agency—" 'Yeah, like they've got the time and resources to try and pin your kids on some foreign business tycoon! He's rich. He'd refuse to take DNA tests, or he'd stay out of the country, or pretend he'd lost all his money. If you insist on playing it by the book, you'll never see a penny from him," the other woman forecast with cynical conviction. "No, if you ask me, you're only going to escape your current problems if you do a kiss-and-tell for the tabloids!"
Katie couldn't sleep that night. She thought of the sacrifices her own mother had had to make to bring her up. Widowed when her daughter was only six, Maura had had to work as a cleaner, a caretaker and a cook to make ends meet. In the darkness, Katie lay still and taut with discomfiture. Alexandros had dumped her, ignored her appeal for help and broken her stupid heart. She had decided she would sooner starve than appeal to him again. But had she let false pride get in the way of her duty towards her infant sons? Was Leanne right? Could she have done more to press her case with Alexandros?
Two days later, Katie moved out of her bedsit with Leanne's help. Luckily her friend was able to store some stuff for her. The surplus had to be dumped or passed on to be sold on a market stall, because Katie could not afford storage costs. The bed and breakfast hotel was crowded and her room was small, drab and depressing.