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The devil had come to her father's funeral.
Though Selene Louvardis had always heard it would be bad-mouthing the devil to call Aristedes Sarantos that.
Aristedes Sarantos. The destitute nobody who'd risen from the quays of Crete to rocket to household-name status in the shipping industry and beyond. A name that everyone whispered in awe, a presence everyone heeded. A power everyone feared.
Everyone but her father.
For over a decade, since she'd been seventeen, not a week had passed without her hearing about yet another clash in her father's ongoing war with the then twenty-seven-year-old man. The man her father had once said should have been his biggest ally, but who'd become his bitterest enemy.
Now the war was over. Her father was dead. Long live the king. If her brothers didn't put their own differences aside, Aristedes Sarantos would soon assimilate the empire that her father had built and they'd expanded before each had tried to pull it in a different direction. If her brothers couldn't work together, Aristedes would rule supreme.
She'd been shocked to see him at the funeral. They'd arrived to find him there. He'd stood in the distance, dominating the windy New York September day as if he existed outside time and awareness, his black coat flapping around his juggernaut's body like a giant ravenor a trapped, tormented soul. She hadn't thought it strange when someone had speculated that he'd come to claim her father's.
She'd thought he'd leave after the burial. But he'd followed the mourners' procession to her family mansion. For the past minutes, he'd surveyed the scene from the threshold, assessing the situation like a general taking stock of a battlefield, a magician setting his stage by casting a thrall on the crowd.
The moment she thought he'd turn around and leave, Sarantos moved forward.
She held her breath as his advance cut a swath through the crowd. On a physical level, apart from her brothers, who stood his equal, everyone he passed by dwindled into insignificance. On other levels, he was unrivaled.
Her brothers wore their distinction like second skins, and she had heard from the endless women who ricocheted in their orbits how sinfully irresistible they were. To her own senses, they had none of Sarantos's gravity well of influence, of ruthless charisma, of unrepentant danger.
She felt it now like an encroaching wave of darkness, seductive and overpowering and inescapable.
Only her brothers stood their ground at his approach, glaring at him with a decade's worth of pent-up enmity. She feared the youngest of her three older brothers, Damon, would intercept him, kick him out. Or worse. His expression showed him struggling with the impulse before paying Sarantos what his older brothers had decided his presence here deserved. Pointed disregard.
Suddenly she felt fed up with them all.
No matter what they thought or felt, out of respect for their father, they should have done what he would have. Hektor Louvardis wouldn't have treated anyone who'd come to his turfincluding Sarantos, his worst enemywith such sullen passive aggression.
Just as she decided to tell her oldest brother, Nikolas, to act his part as the new patriarch of the Louvardis family and shake the man's hand and accept his condolences graciously, her lungs emptied.
Said man was zeroing in on her.
She froze as his steel-and-silver gaze slammed into hers across the bustling space, holding her prisoner.
Her next scheduled breath wouldn't come. Her mind stuttered to a standstill as the power and purpose of his strides eliminated the gap between them, before it kicked off again in a jumble. She was dimly aware that everyone was openly hanging on his every move like she was, bursting with curiosity and anticipation.
Then he stopped before her and brought the whole world to a halt with him. Made it cease to exist. Made her feel tiny, fragile, when she was anything but.
She stood five-foot-eleven in her two-inch heels, but he still dwarfed her. She'd never realized he was this imposing, this incredible. And he wasn't even handsome. No, calling him handsome would almost be an insult. He was one of a kind. Unadulterated power and raw maleness in human form. And she already knew that the unique package housed as formidable a brain, intensifying his appeal. But again, appeal was a lame word when describing his impact. Aristedes Sarantos didn't just appeal to her. He incited a jarring, helpless, unstoppable response.
She winced inwardly. What a time to revisit the feverish crush she'd had on him since the first time she'd seen him. She'd soon known it was futile, not just because he was her family's enemy, but because he took zero interest in others. She still hadn't been able to stop herself from taking every opportunity to feed her fascination by sneaking as many up-close glimpses of him as possible.
But she'd never been this close. Had never had him looking down at her with such focus. She could now see that his eyes were the crystalline manifestation of molten steel, bottomless vortices of
She gave herself a mental slap.
Stop fluttering over his imperfect perfections like a schoolgirl who's bumped into her rock idol. Say something.
She cleared her throat. "Mr. Sarantos." She extended her hand. "Thank you for coming."
He didn't answer, didn't take her hand. Just stared down at her until she realized it was as if he didn't really see her. She pulled back her suspended hand to her side, her eyes lowering, escaping the embarrassment and the crowd's scrutiny.
"I'm sorry he's gone."
His voice, so low, so dark and fathomless, boomed along her nerves and inside her rib cage like a bone-shaking bass line. But it was his words, their import, that made her gaze flicker up to the unwavering opacity of his own.
Not I'm sorry for your loss, the mantra everyone had droned to her for the past hours. He wasn't here to offer her, or any of her family, condolences, real or perfunctory.
Aristedes Sarantos was here for himself. He was sorry her father was gone. And she suddenly realized why.
"You'll miss fighting with him, won't you?"
His eyes bored into hers, yet still made her feel as if he was looking through her into his own realizations. "He made my life interesting. I'll miss that."
Again, he was focused on what her father's death meant to him. His candidness, his unwillingness to bend to the laws of decorum, to dress his meaning in social acceptability and political correctness, took her breath away. And freed her to admit her own selfishness.
One day, she'd probably think about the loss of her father in terms of having his prolific life aborted at a robust sixty-six, in terms of what the whole family, the whole world, had lost. But she could think of nothing but her own loss now. The gaping void his absence left inside her.
"He made my life so many things," she whispered. "I'll miss them all."
Again he didn't commiserate.
After a beat he said, "He wasn't ill."
Statement. She nodded, shook her head, felt her throat closing. She had no idea. He hadn't seemed ill. But her father would have never admitted to any weakness, would have hidden it at any cost. He could have been gravely ill, for all they knew.
"And he died shortly after 11:00 a.m. yesterday."
Her father had been found dead in his office at 12:30 p.m. Selene had no idea how Sarantos had found that out.
He went on. "At 9:00 a.m, the head of my legal team was in touch with yours, concerning our complementary bids for the British navy contract." She knew that. She'd been the one his man had talked to. She'd relayed the restrictive, ruthless, nonnegotiableif in her opinion, ultimately fair and practicalterms to her father by phone. "At eleven, Hektor called me." Selene lurched at the sound of her father's name on his lips. If she didn't know better, she'd say this was how a man uttered a friend's name. More than a friend. "He tore into me, then he hung up. Within the hour he was dead."
Before she could say anything, he gave her a terse nod and turned on his heel.
She gaped after his receding form until he exited the mansion.
Was that it? He'd come to say it had been him who'd pushed her father beyond endurance, drove him to his death? Why?
But since when did anyone understand why the unfathomable Aristedes Sarantos did anything?
Instead of running after him and demanding an explanation, she could only burn in an inferno of speculation and frustration as the hours dragged on before everyone had pity on her family and left them alone.
She allowed her brothers to wrap up the macabre proceedings and stumbled out of the mansion.
She had to get away. Probably permanently.
She flopped into her car. She'd roam the streets. Maybe tears would come again, relieve the pressure accumulating inside her.
She'd just swung her car outside the gates when she saw him.
It was totally dark, and he stood outside the streetlight's reach, but she recognized him at once.
Aristedes Sarantos. Standing across the street, facing the mansion, like a sentinel on unwavering guard.
Her heart revved from its sluggish despondence into a hammering of confusion, of curiosity. Of excitement.
Why was he still here?
She decided to ask him, that and everything else, made a U-turn. In a minute she brought the car to a stop beside him.
She thought he hadn't noticed her until she opened the passenger window, leaned across and addressed him. "You came without a car?"
It was a long, still moment before he unfastened his gaze from the mansion and swept it down to her.
He gave an almost imperceptible shrug. "I sent it away. I'll walk back to my hotel."
Before she could think, she unlocked the doors. "Get in."
He stared at her. After another endless moment, he opened the door, lowered his muscled body beside her with all the economy and grace of a leopard settling into an effortless coil.
Electricity skidded across her skin, zapped her muscles. Air disappeared from the night. All from one brush of his shoulder, before he presented her with his profile and went statue-still.
She knew she should ask which hotel, start driving. Do something. She couldn't. Just having him this near was messing up her coherence centers. And that when he seemed not to notice her. How would she feel if he.
Stop it, you moron. You're a twenty-eight-year-old businesswoman and attorney, not some slobbering teenager!
It was him who spoke, to specify which hotel. Then he fell silent again. His silence badgered her with the blunt edge of the emotions it contained, smothered.
Before tonight, she'd thought Aristedes Sarantos had no feelings.
In twenty minutes she pulled in the driveway of one of the five-star-plus hotels he was known to live in. As far as the world knew, the man who could buy a small country had no home.
He opened his door. Just as she thought he'd exit the car without a look back, he turned to her, snatching the air from her lungs again. His eyes glinted in the dimness with something that shook her, something bleak and terrible.
"Thank you." His voice had dipped an octave lower than usual. After a beat he added, "See you in the battlefield."
He turned then. He would exit the car, and she would never see him again except as the enemy. But before they returned to their battle stations, she had to know.
"Are you okay?" she said, fighting the desire to reach for his hand, to cup his face, to offer him something.
He stilled, turned back to her. One formidable eyebrow rose. "Are you?"
She inhaled tremulously. "What do you think?"
"But cross-examining me would make you feel better."
A chuckle burst out of nowhere. "I'm that transparent?"
His gaze darkened. "Right now, yes. Shoot." "Here?"
"If you like. Or you can walk me to my room."
The way he said that, such a manifestation of virility, had another chuckle trembling on her lips. And she discovered it wasn't only her lips that were trembling. She was shaking all over.
He reached for her hand, absorbed its tremors in the steadiness of his. "When was the last time you ate?"
He had a point. This reaction was due to low blood sugar along with everything else. "Yesterday morning."
"That makes two of us. Let's get something to eat."
And for the next half hour, she just let him steer her. He took her up to his presidential suite, ordered a Cordon Bleu dinner, encouraged her to eat by showing her how a meal was supposed to be demolished, systematically, like he did everything.
It felt surreal, having Aristedes Sarantos catering to her needs. Weirder still to be in his suite but to feel no threat of any sort. She didn't know if she should be pleased that he was such a gentleman, or disappointed he could be so much of one around her.
After dinner he took her to the suite's sitting area, served her herbal tea. They hadn't talked much during dinner. She'd been too shaky, and he'd been drifting in and out of his own realm.
He brought his own mug, stood there feet from her, hand in pocket, focus inward. Suddenly he started talking.
"We've had too many confrontations to count, but our last one was different. It wasn't like him. It was a rant."
He'd brought it back to her father. To what had driven him to crash his funeral. Guilt? Was he capable of feeling it? Her father had been adamant that Aristedes had no human components.
"You think you pushed him too far," she whispered. "Caused his death."
He exhaled, shook his head. "I think he pushed himself too far, in his need never to let me win, or at least to never let me go unpunished for winning."
"You still feel responsible." This was her own statement.
He didn't refute it. "I never understood his enmity. We weren't rivals. We worked in complementary fields. We should have been allies."
"That's what he said once."
This was news to him. Disturbing news. The bleakness gripping his face deepened. "But he disapproved of me and my origins too much to accept that he could put his hand in mine."
Her gaze, her voice, sharpened. "My father wasn't a snob."
He shrugged, unaffected by her sudden resentment. "He wouldn't have considered it snobbery. Certain things are too deeply engraved in the Greek persona. But you wouldn't know that. You were born here."
"That might mean I'm more American than Greek, but my father remained mostly Greek. I knew him."
Two simple words. They fell on her with shearing force, stripping away a confidence she could have sworn her life on. And it made her mad.
She sat up to bring him into the searing immediacy of her displeasure. "I wasn't only his daughter, I was his protégée, then his business associate."