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"This is a joke, right?" Neo Stamos stared at the fancy certificate with the logo of a local charity fund-raiser on it.
His oldest and only real friend, not to mention business partner, Zephyr Nikos had to be kidding. He had to be. No way could the certificate be meant for Neo. He had to have gotten it for someone else and was using it to pull Neo's chain before giving it to them.
"No joke. Happy thirty-fifth birthday, filos mou." Unlike in the early years of their friendship when they had tried to speak only English to one another to improve their grasp of the language, they now spoke in Greek so they would not forget their native tongue.
"A friend would know better than to give me such a gift."
"On the contrary, only a friend would know how appropriate, how needed this little present is."
"Piano lessons?" A year's worth. No damn way. "I don't think so."
Zephyr leaned against the edge of Neo's handcrafted mahogany desk that had cost more than he had earned his first year of gainful employment. "Oh, I do think so. You lost the bet."
Neo glared, knowing anything he said in repudiation would sound like whining rather than the rational argument it would be. As they had so often reminded each other over the years, a bet was a bet. And he should have known better than to make one with his shark of a friend.
Zephyr's gaze reflected his knowledge of Neo's quandary. "Think of it as a prescription."
"Prescription for what? A way to waste an hour a week? I don't have thirty minutes to waste, much less a full hour." Neo shook his head. There was a reason all of his designer suits were purchased and tailored by an exclusive men's dressing service, and it wasn't because he liked to shout his billionaire status to the world.
It was because Neo Stamos did not have time to shop for himself.
"Unless you know about something I do not…" Like the cancellation of one of their property development projects going on worldwide. "There is no place in my schedule for piano lessons."
Bet or no bet.
"There is definitely something going on you don't know about, Neo. It's called life and it's going on all around you, but you're so busy with our company, it's passing you by."
"Stamos and Nikos Enterprises is my life."
Zephyr gave Neo a look of pity, as if the other man hadn't worked just as hard to leave their shared history behind. "The company was supposed to be our way to a new life, not the only thing you lived for. Don't you remember, Neo? We were going to be tycoons by thirty."
"And we made it." They'd made their first million within three years of stepping onto American soil. They'd been multimillionaires a few years later, and held assets in excess of a billion dollars by the time Neo was thirty. Now he and Zephyr were the primary shareholders in a multibillion-dollar company. Stamos & Nikos Enterprises didn't simply bear his name; it consumed his waking and sleeping hours.
And he was just fine with that.
"You wanted to buy a big house, start a family, remember?" Zephyr asked in chiding tone.
"Things change." Some dreams were mere childhood fancy and needed to be left behind. "I like my penthouse."
Zephyr rolled his eyes. "That's not the point, Neo."
"What is the point? You think I need piano lessons?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. Even if your GP had not issued you a warning at your latest physical, I would know something has to give in your life. Considering the stress you live under, it doesn't take a doctor to know you are a heart attack waiting to happen."
"I work out six days a week. My meals are planned by a top nutritionist. My housekeeper prepares them to exact specifications and I eat on a schedule more regular than you keep. My body is in top physical condition."
"You sleep less than six hours a night and you do nothing that works as a pressure valve for the stress in your life."
"What do you consider my workouts?"
"Another outlet for your highly competitive nature. You are always pushing yourself to do more."
Zephyr should know. He was right there competing with Neo. So, the other man had started leaving the office closer to six than eight a couple of years ago. And maybe he'd taken up a hobby unrelated to real estate development or investments, but that didn't mean his life was better than Neo's. It was just a little different.
"There is nothing wrong with striving to achieve."
"That is true." Zephyr frowned. "When you have some measure of balance to your life. You, my friend, do not have a life."
"I have a life."
"You have more drive than any man I have ever met, but you do not balance it with the things that give life meaning."
As if Zephyr had any room to talk.
"You think piano lessons will give my life meaning?" Maybe Zephyr was the one who needed a break. He was losing his grip on reality.
"No. I think they will give you a place to be Neo Stamos for one hour a week, not the Greek tycoon who could buy and sell most companies many times over, not to mention people."
"I do not buy and sell people."
"No, we buy property, develop it and sell it. And we are damn good at making a profit at it. Your insistence on diversifying our investments early on paid off, too, but when will it be enough?"
"I am satisfied with my life."
"But you are never satisfied with your success."
"And you are any different?"
Zephyr shrugged, his own tailored Italian suit jacket moving over his shoulders flawlessly. "We are talking about you." He crossed his arms and stared Neo down. "When was the last time you made love to a woman, Neo?"
"We're past the age of scoring and sharing, Zee."
Zephyr cracked a smile. "I don't want to hear about your conquests. And even if I did, you couldn't tell me about this one because you've never done it."
"What the hell? I have sex as often as I want it."
"Sex, yes. But you have never made love."
"What difference does it make?"
"You are afraid of intimacy."
"How the blue bloody hell did we get from piano lessons to psychobabble? And when did you start spouting that garbage at all?"
Zephyr had the nerve to look offended. "I am simply pointing out that your life is too narrow in its scope. You need to broaden your horizons."
"Now you sound like a travel commercial." And a damn hypocritical one at that.
"I sound like a friend who doesn't want you to die from a stress-related illness before your fortieth birthday, Neo."
"Where is all this coming from?"
"Your GP didn't just warn you at your physical? Gregor took me aside last month during our golf game and warned me that you are going to work yourself into an early grave."
"I'll have his license."
"No, you won't. He's our friend."
"He's your friend. He's my doctor."
"That's what I'm talking about, Neo. You've got no balance in your life. It's all business with you."
"What about you? If relationships are so necessary to a well-rounded life, why aren't you in one?"
"I date, Neo. And before you claim you do, too, let us both acknowledge that taking a woman out for the express purpose of having sex with her, and no intention of seeing her again, is not a date. That is a hookup."
"What century are you living in?"
"Believe me, I'm living in this one. And so are you, my friend. So, stop being an ass and accept my gift."
"Just like that?"
"Would you rather welch on our bet?"
There was no answer for that question Neo wanted to give. "I don't want to take piano lessons."
"You used to."
"What used to? When?"
"When we were boys together on the streets of Athens."
"I had many dreams as a boy that I learned to let go of." Accumulating the kind of wealth currently at his disposal required constant, intense sacrifice and he'd gladly made each and every one.
In the process, he'd made something of himself. Something completely different from the deadbeat father who had taken off before Neo was two and the mother who preferred booze to babysitting.
"Says the man who worked his way off the Athens streets and onto Wall Street."
"I live in Seattle."
Zephyr shrugged. "The stock market is on Wall Street and we lay claim to a significant chunk of it."
Neo could feel himself giving in, if for no other reason than not to disappoint the only person in the world he cared enough about to compromise for. "I will try it for two weeks."
"Two and that is my final offer."
"I bought a full year's worth, you'll note."
"And if I find benefit, I will use the lot." Though he had absolutely no doubts about that happening. "Done."
Cassandra Baker smoothed the skirt of her Liz Claiborne A-line dress in navy blue and white oversized checks for the second time in less than a minute. Just because she lived like a hermit in a cave sometimes, that didn't mean she had to dress like one. Or so she told herself when ordering her new spring wardrobe online from her favorite department store.
Wearing stylish clothing, even if said outfits were rarely seen anywhere but her own home, was one of the small things she did to try to make herself feel normal.
It didn't always work. But she tried.
She was supposed to be playing the piano. It relaxed her. Or so everyone insisted, and she even sometimes believed it. Only her slim fingers were motionless on the keyboard of her Fazioli grand piano.
Neo Stamos was due for his lessons in less than five minutes.
When she had offered the year's worth of piano lessons to the charity fund-raising auction, as she did every year, she assumed she would get another student in her craft. A rising star seeking to work with an acknowledged if reclusive master pianist and New Age composer.
Cass unclipped, smoothed and then reclipped her long brown hair at the nape of her neck. Her hands dropped naturally back to the keyboard, but her fingers did not press down and no sound emitted from the beautiful instrument. She had been sure that just like in years past, the auction winner would be someone who shared her love of music. Hadn't doubted that her next student might not share Cass's adoration for the piano.
She'd had no reason to even speculate that a complete musical novice—a tycoon billionaire, no less—would be her student for the next year. It was worse than unbelievable; it was a personal nightmare for a woman who found it difficult enough to open her door to strangers.
Trying to circumvent that feeling, she'd spent an inordinate amount of time reading articles about him and studying publicity photos as well as the few candid shots of him she'd discovered on the Internet. None of that had helped.
If anything, her worry at the prospect of meeting him had increased. His publicity photos showed a man who looked like he rarely, if ever, listened to any sort of music at all. Why in the world would a man like that want to take piano lessons?
Apparently, he did, though. Because when the bids were well into the tens of thousands, Zephyr Nikos swooped in with an offer of one hundred thousand dollars. It boggled her mind—one hundred thousand dollars for one hour a week of Cass's time. Even though the lessons lasted a year, the bid had been beyond extravagant.
The organizer of the fund-raiser had been ecstatic, keeping Cass on the phone long past her usual chat time with people she barely knew. The older woman had waxed poetic about how wonderful it was Mr. Nikos had bought the lessons for his lifelong friend and business partner, Neo Stamos.
And indeed it had been Mr. Stamos's very efficient, and rather aloof, personal assistant who had called Cass to schedule the lesson. Cass had been tolerant because her own practice schedule was flexible and she had almost no social life to speak of.
Regardless, the 10:00 a.m. Tuesday morning classes were hardly a challenge to her schedule. Though Mr. Stamos's PA made it sound like he would be sacrificing something akin to his firstborn child to be there.
Having no idea why a fabulously wealthy, far too good-looking, clearly driven and supremely busy businessman would want the lessons, Cass was even more nervous than usual at the thought of meeting a new student for the first time. In fact, Cass hadn't felt this level of anxiety since the last time she had performed publicly.
She'd been telling herself all morning, she was being ridiculous. It hadn't helped.
The doorbell rang, startling her into immobility, even though she'd been expecting it. Her heart beat a rapid tattoo in her chest, her lungs panting little, short breaths. She turned on the bench, but did not stand to her rather average height of five feet six inches.
She needed to. She needed to answer the door. To meet her new student.
The bell pealed a second time, the impatient summons thankfully breaking her paralysis. She jumped to her feet and hurried to answer it even as worried questions that had been plaguing her since discovering the identity of her new student once again raced through her mind.
Would Neo Stamos himself be standing there, or his PA? Or maybe a bodyguard, or chauffeur? Did billionaires talk to their piano teachers, or keep underlings around to do that for them? Would she be expected to teach with others in the room? If he had them, where would his bodyguards and chauffeur wait during the lesson? Or his PA?
The thought of several people she did not know converging on her home made Cass feel like hyperventilating. She was proud of herself for continuing down the narrow hall to the front door of her modest house.
Maybe he was alone. If he'd driven himself, that opened another host of worries. Would he feel comfortable parking his expensive car in her all too normal neighborhood in west Seattle? Should she offer the use of her empty garage?
The bell rang a third time just as she swung the door open. Mr. Stamos, who looked even more imposing than he did in his publicity photos, did not appear in the least embarrassed to be caught impatiently ringing it again.
"Miss Cassandra Baker?" Green eyes, the rich color of summer leaves, set in a face almost overwhelmingly attractive in person, stared at her expectantly.
She tilted her head back to meet the dark-haired tycoon's gaze. "Yes." Then she forced herself to make the offer she would have to any other student. "You may call me Cass."
"You look like a Cassandra, not a Cass." His voice was deep, thrumming through her like a perfectly struck chord.
"Cass is what my protégés call me." Although referring to this man as a protégé struck her as decidedly off.