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Her laugh was so pure and spontaneous it caused Demitri Makricosta to look away from the Italian beauty flirting with him and seek out the source of the sound. As a connoisseur of fake laughter, often given to offering imitations himself, he found the naturalness of the woman's chuckle utterly engaging. It was feminine without being girlish or giggly, warm and sexy without being a put-on.
For a moment he didn't take in anything else but her. Short blond hair swung and fell as she tipped the precision cut backward. Her skin held a pale, translucent quality that made him think her cheek would feel cool but downy soft against his lips. He wondered how her skin smelled. Like summer fruit, maybe. Her profile was feminine and cute, right up to the tilt of her nose, while the rest of her was a study in mouthwatering curves.
Encased in a Makricosta uniform.
Damn, damn and damn.
The disappointment that flooded through him was surprisingly acute.
He took a more thorough tour of her uniform, wishing he didn't recognize it. It wasn't the pencil skirt and wispy red jacket over a bowed white top that the French staff wore here in Paris, which gave him a beat of hope. But if she'd been corporate, she'd have only a scarf or tie in company colors as part of her business ensemble.
Unfortunately, those long pants and the warm blazer belonged to one of the Canadian outfits. The Makricosta Elite in Montreal, if he wasn't mistakenand he shouldn't have any doubt because he had final say on every marketing decision in the family hotel chain right down to the front-line image of the staff.
He didn't want to recognize it. That was the problem. His male interest was seriously piqued by the woman wearing it.
Which wasn't like him. Women were fairly interchangeable for him. He never wondered, "Who is she? What's her story?" Especially when he already had a female hand resting on his cuff and a voice murmuring, "Bello? What is it?"
"I thought I recognized someone," he prevaricated, sending his companion a placating smile before glancing once more at the laughing womanhis employeeacross the lobby.
She was nodding at someone, tucking her hair coquettishly behind her ear, saying something about email that he read on her lips as noise from different sources echoed across the foyer's marble floor and pillars.
Curious what kind of man was keeping that bright look on her face, Demitri leaned back on the velvet settee, losing the touch of his prospective afternoon delight as he did.
Shock went through him as he recognized his brother-in-law. Not that Gideon looked as though he was encouraging the woman, but Demitri still rose to his feet in brotherly indignation. His sister had been through a lot, especially a few years ago when Gideon's PA had intimated to Adara that she and Gideon were having an affair. Demitri wasn't going to sit here while some fresh tart made a play for Adara's husband.
"I do recognize him," he stated grimly. "Excuse me."
But Gideon and the blonde were already parting ways by the time he rounded the colonnade and approached.
The woman swung away with a brisk walk toward the front desk while Gideon glanced up in time to catch sight of Demitri. His expression hardened with determination.
That was when Demitri remembered he was avoiding the man.
"Good," Gideon stated as he approached. "I was going to find you before I left. Adara's birthday. You'll be there."
The eye to eye, man-to-man directive was annoying, but vaguely reassuring. Demitri liked seeing that Gideon was determined to make his wife happy. When that PA had set her sights on Gideon, Demitri had been on the verge of taking her for a tour himself to keep his sister's marriage intact. In the end, Gideon had salvaged his own marriage. He'd fired the woman before anything more than a few false and snarky claims had been made. Despite Adara's worries that Gideon was straying, in reality his devotion to her had never wavered and still appeared rock solid.
Which was good, Demitri supposed. He didn't wish any more strife on his sister than she'd already weathered, but she was so annoyingly happy. So determined to bring him into the fold of happily-ever-after she'd created for herself. The whole situation with his brothers and all their kids, the number of secrets kept from him It grated in a way Demitri didn't like to dig into, so he slid his attention back to the blonde threatening his sister's happiness and latched on to ensuring she didn't try anything further with Gideon.
Better that than dealing with Gideon's demands.
"The date is in my calendar. I'll try to make it." Demitri dismissed him lightly.
Gideon folded his arms. His roots as a dock-rat sailor were visible in the piercing glint of his eyes. "Is there a reason you won't make it a priority?"
Given that Gideon had been part of the family for several years, Demitri didn't think he had to explain why these reunions Adara kept trying to organize were about as appealing to him as an impacted wisdom tooth. "I'll do my best," he lied.
"Would you?" Gideon said flatly. The words just for once were silently tacked onto the end, loud and clear.
And here came Reason One why he had no desire to be around his family. What are you doing with your life? Hold the baby. Isn't he adorable? When are you going to quit chasing skirts and settle down?
Demitri mentally projected two words back at his brother-in-law, punctuated them with a tight smile before he walked away. Wasn't it enough that he had stepped up when Adara was pregnant? Hell, the only reason he'd gone into the family business was for her and Theo. Maybe he'd kept his own hours in the early years, but these days he showed up all the time, and kicked ass, if none of them had noticed. They could all play white picket fences with their new babies if they wanted to. He had zero interest in becoming a family manand would make a terrible oneso they could all back the hell off.
Irritated, he glanced toward the Italian starlet watching him like a spaniel that had heard the car keys. As much as he would welcome the diversion of sex right nowlovemaking was his go-to coping strategy for any sort of tensionhe was oddly disinterested in taking her upstairs. The blonde filled a bigger space in his mind, niggling at him.
Maybe she hadn't meant to cause this brief altercation with Gideon, but animosity toward her still bled into him like adrenaline. He wasn't so immature he couldn't figure out that he was blame shifting. Every time familial obligations tugged at him lately a wave of anger and rebellion came over him. Dark, miasmic thoughts sent him in search of self-destruction on one level or another.
Usually he subscribed to being a lover, not a fighter.
Forced himself to stay on the sane side of violence, too aware of the streak of it in his father. But nameless rage sat in him whenever he confronted the fact that his only real family, his brother and sister, the two people he trusted unequivocally, had kept him out of the loop on the existence of their eldest brother.
Had they not trusted him? Why had they cut him out like that? The betrayal sliced down the center of connection he felt toward them and pushed him out in the cold. If he didn't keep a lid on his emotions, his temper would mushroom out like a radiation cloud. It made for a lot of pressure. A cold, hard, dark feeling deep in his core that he refused to deconstruct, afraid of what he might find.
Instead, he channeled it into a wave of icy energy that carried him past the curious looks from the registration desk through to the administration offices, where he found the blonde Canadian in a chair cozily nudged up against the hotel manager's. The guy wasn't looking at where she pointed on the computer monitor. He was gazing down to where her breasts strained against the fabric of her shirt.
"I need to speak to you," Demitri said.
Natalie glanced up and felt the full impact of Demitri Makricosta, the youngest brother of the family that employed her. The one with the scandalously disreputable reputation. She'd seen him in person before, but always from a distance. Never like this, with his dark brown eyes pushing her back into her chair and then making a proprietary inspection of her buttons.
He was incredibly attractive. That fact was legendary across the hotel chain and impossible to ignore when he was barely ten feet away.
She tried comparing him to his older brother, Theo, who bore a resemblance but was more polished, kept a low profile and remembered every name and number he came across.
But there was no minimizing this man. All she could think was how Demitri was known for the wicked streak that was evident in his winged eyebrows and distant smile. Also for the women he picked up effortlessly, not to mention his utter disregard for little things like policies and procedures. Greek by birth but raised in America, he had a Mediterranean warmth to his skin tone under a shadow of stubble. He dressed like a citizen of the world in tailored pants and a suit vest buttoned over his shirt that accented his very fine shoulders and trim waist. He looked like the hottest of the 1920s gangsters.
Bad. He looked very, very bad. Full to the brim with sin.
She glanced up from taking him in and her gaze tangled with his. One of his superior brows went up in challenge of her checking him out. This was definitely a different kind of man from any she'd ever known. Sharp and far too knowing. How mortifying to be so obvious.
Decorum, Natalie. You're a mom.
Swallowing her discomfiture, she glanced at Monsieur Renault as she rose. A blush stung her cheeks.
"I'll go back to my office and you can call me when you're done. It's nice to meet you, Mr. Makricosta," she said as she approached the door, expecting him to move aside and give her a dismissive nod.
"It's you I want to talk to, Miss ?" He held out a hand.
Shock made her hesitate before she placed her hand in his and was jolted by the warm grip that enclosed hers. "Adams," she provided in a jagged, baffled voice. "Me? Are you sure?" Who did he think she was?
"I'm sure. Show me to your office." He released her and waved her into the hall.
Brushing past him and cooking in self-conscious warmth, she walked ahead of him down the narrow hall to her shared office. Her coworkers were away from their desks. That had been perfect at lunch when she'd connected with her daughter on one of her daily webcam calls. Zoey was having the time of her life with Grandma, not missing Natalie at all, which was a relief, but it still broke Natalie's heart. She'd shed a couple of tears after she'd disconnected, missing her girl dreadfully, and thankful for the privacy to do so. Now, however, her office mates' absence left an isolated mood in the small, musty-smelling room with its rain-blurred windows.
When he closed the door behind them, she felt as though all the oxygen was pulled out. "I'm not sure?"
"Leave my brother-in-law alone," he said flatly.
"I What?" The accusation was such a missile from the blue, she could only stare, insides flash-freezing. "Gideon? I mean, Mr. Vozaras?" she stammered.
"Gideon," he confirmed, but there was an underlying stealth to the word. As though he thought she was overstepping by using the man's name.
"What makes you think there's something going on between us?" She was so shocked she couldn't process how appalling the accusation was.
"I don't think there is. I know him and I know my sister, but I saw you flirting with him in the lobby, asking for his email. Back off or I'll have you fired."
"He showed me a photo of his son! The email is about work." Affront arrived, pushing into her face as a hot flush, straining her tone with the strident notes of the wrongly accused. "I don't go after married men! That's a disgusting thing to suggest. Especially when his wife was kind enough to give me this opportunity. That's the only reason he spoke to me at all. She asked him to pass along a message about a report she wants me to write. I said I hoped their son had got over his cold, and he showed me a photo of the boy after he'd found his way into the refrigerator."
The flicker of disdain that ticked in one of Demitri's cheeks only infuriated her further, fueling her need to bring him down from his high horse.
"Who the hell are you to pass judgment anyway? Everything I've ever heard about your moral standards leaves me stunned and incredulous that you'd question mine."
That got his attention. His death glare gave her pause, but she was too outraged to stop.
"Oh, was that out of line? You don't think someone you only met seconds ago has the right to call you out? I thought rash personal comments were our special thing."
Okay, that did go too far. A hot blush flooded upward while she clenched her mouth shut. And folded her arms. And set her chin as she screwed up her courage to ask through her teeth, '"4re you going to fire me?"
"For?" he prompted with a pithy look.
"Exactly," she shot out, unable to catch back the haughty response even though she was dying inside. She was so mad and embarrassed she couldn't even look at him. She liked this job. Needed it. The whole point in coming away on this assignment was to better her position in the organization. More compensation and responsibility translated to more stability and security for Zoey.
Yet here she was risking everything. What had possessed her to go off like that? Guilt? Because she'd secretly coveted Adara's doting husband, who so obviously loved his wife and child and supported them both in every possible way? Of course any woman would secretly wish she had that, but Natalie wasn't about to steal it to get it.
"What's your first name?" he asked.
"Natalie. Why?" She eyed him while keeping her face averted, half expecting him to pick up the phone to HR. Man, he was good-looking. And not the least bit ruffled. In fact, he almost looked as though he was laughing at her, which was so incensing she had to look away again.
"What are you doing here, Natalie? In Paris, I mean. What has Adara got you on? What's the special report?"