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The Cinderella Seduction
By Hope Tarr, Stacy Abrams, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Hope Tarr
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Old Town Alexandria, Virginia
"Happy Fourth, Stefanie!"
Personal chef Stephanie Stefanopoulos looked up from the tray of baklava she'd readied for baking to see her father standing on her kitchen threshold. "Hey, Pop, what's up? You're way early. The Fourth isn't until next week," she added with a smile.
Taking in his gaunt face and hollow eyes, she felt a queasy sense of unease plant itself in the pit of her stomach. Since falling prey to her former fiancé's Ponzi scheme three months earlier, her father hadn't been sleeping or eating much. And close though they were, it wasn't like him to just show up, not without at least calling en route. Even with the traffic gods in your corner, his Northwest DC home was easily a half hour's drive from Stefanie's townhouse in Alexandria Virginia's Old Town. Clearly this wasn't a casual call. Something was wrong — very wrong.
Coming toward her, he circuited his gaze around her state-of-the-art chef's kitchen, the granite-topped counter and modularized cooking stations buried beneath trays of pigs in a blanket, gourmet mini burgers, and bowls brimming with potato and macaroni salads. "You wouldn't know it from in here."
Several of her in-home catering clients were getting into the Independence Day spirit early, requesting picnic fare for their personalized menus. Stefanie didn't mind. It was good practice for the two parties she'd signed on to cater for the Fourth, one a backyard barbecue at a congressman's MacLean McMansion, the other a rooftop gathering at her best friend, Macie's.
She swiped sticky hands on her once-white apron. "Usually business slows down after Memorial Day, but we've just added two new full-time clients."
Despite the financial disaster that had exploded in their faces three months ago, she had a lot to be grateful for. Her personal chef business, Good Enuf to Eat, was thriving. Delivering readymade, healthful home-style meals to dual-career couples was proving to be surprisingly recession-proof. While on the surface her service looked like a luxury, the data she'd compiled for her website and brochures showed that signing up actually saved people money previously spent on carryout, prepackaged foods, and pricey dinners out. And all her ingredients, including the meats, were 100 percent organic, sourced from family farmers in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
"You mean you added them," he corrected, pulling out one of the high-backed stools to sit. "You've worked hard these past eight years." The paternal pride in his voice didn't quite cover the quaver.
Compliments had always left Stefanie feeling awkward, vaguely embarrassed, and now was no exception. "Thanks, but I had a lot of help, especially from you." Despite being deeply disappointed that she wouldn't be following him into the family real-estate business, he'd given her the seed money for Good Enuf to Eat.
He answered with a shrug, picking up a serving spoon she'd washed but forgotten to put away. Watching him turn it over again and again, she stepped out from behind the counter and slid onto the seat beside him. "Is ... everything okay?" she asked, knowing it wasn't.
A first generation Greek American, her father subscribed to the stiff upper lip school of manhood. If there was a problem or obstacle, the solution was to bulldoze through it. Complaining was a waste of time and in real-estate development, time meant money.
He let out a huge sigh and admitted, "I wanted to talk to you, father to daughter ... without an audience." By "audience," he meant her stepmother and twin stepsisters; the latter had graduated from NYU in June and moved home for the summer.
Stefanie's mother's death had been hard on everyone, but her father's remarriage a few years later to Jacquie, a divorced real-estate agent with twins, hadn't done much to restore her faith in Happily Ever After. At first she'd tried welcoming her new family with food made from the Old World recipes her mother had passed down. But no matter how sizzling her souvlaki or how moist her baklava, her stick-thin stepfamily picked at their plates.
Fresh fear seized her. "Are you feeling all right? You don't look so good."
Still twirling the spoon, he shrugged. "I feel fine. It's what's happening with Olympia that's sickening. I fear we may lose her. I may lose her."
Olympia Development, the real-estate development firm founded by her immigrant grandfather to seize the opportunity afforded by the post — World War II building boom, wasn't only a business to them. The company felt almost like another family member.
Stefanie dragged a hand through her hair, belatedly remembering the braid.
"You never have told me. Just how much did you invest with Pete?"
Even having had three months to digest the fact that she'd been engaged to a white-collar criminal, saying her ex's name still made her voice hitch. The Ponzi scheme he'd perpetrated on her pop, among others, was under investigation by the feds. In the meantime, fantasies of grinding him into meat pies a la Sweeney Todd came up with frightening frequency. Safely beyond the reach of her serrated forks, poultry shears, and cast-iron bacon press as well as US law, he was likely roasting his larcenous lily-white hide on a beach in the Caymans.
The spoon stilled. Still staring down at it, her father let out a poof of breath. "Enough ... too much. Three million."
"Three million dollars?"
He nodded without looking up. "I'm going to have to start selling off our assets, starting with Acropolis."
At the mention of Acropolis Village, a lump lodged in her throat. "Not Acropolis! But it's your dream."
Nestled on the Chesapeake Bay's western shore in Southern Maryland, the mixed-use waterfront retirement village was to have been an oasis for Greek and Greek American seniors wishing to continue their cherished traditions into their golden years. Residents could transition from independent living in snug terracotta bungalows to sunny assisted-living condo-style apartments as needed. Once the final phase of construction was completed, amenities would include a private beach, coffeehouse, bakery, festival ground, and a clubhouse modeled on a traditional taverna. Stefanie had even planned to put a Good Enuf to Eat food truck onsite for the weekends.
Unfortunately, the project had proven to be a monumental money pit. In the aftermath of the 2008 global recession, construction had stalled. Currently more than 70 percent of the units remained empty. Despite the affordable pricing, it was hard to sell seniors on the promise of "someday." All the construction scale models and architectural plans in the world couldn't disguise that much of the property was still an open construction site. When Pete had assured them he could quadruple Olympia's cash reserves in nearly no time, the "opportunity" had been too tempting to refuse. Like a hungry fish offered a juicy worm, the board, on which Stefanie sat along with her stepmother and their corporate attorney, had unanimously approved the deal.
"Dreams change," he said sadly, broad shoulders slumping. "These days my 'dream' is to figure out a way to stay solvent and have some legacy to pass onto my grandchildren — your children."
Stefanie swallowed against the emotion thickening her throat. It was bad enough that she'd been the one to introduce Pete to her father. That she hadn't exactly been madly in love with him made her unwitting collusion seem even worse. Looking back, she saw that what she'd loved most was the notion of taking herself off the dating track.
DC wasn't exactly fertile fields for a Junoesque personal chef whose clients were mostly couples. At twenty-nine, she'd started to wonder if putting all her eggs in one basket — work — had really been so smart. By the time Pete had pushed his way into her life, she'd jumped at the chance to be in a committed relationship. She should have known that a single, attractive man strolling into her shop and signing up on the spot for six months of weekly personal catering was too good to be true. Thinking of the oily way he'd ingratiated himself first with her and then with her father set off a salvo of guilt and fury.
Fitting his hand over his brow, he admitted, "It gets worse."
She shifted to face him. "You'd better tell me everything."
"You remember Costas International?"
She thought back to several board meetings ago. "Yeah, sure, it's the Greek resort development company based out of Athens, right?"
"They loaned us the capital for phase two of Acropolis," she added, casting her thoughts back to about two years ago. Other than sitting in on the quarterly sessions, she wasn't actively involved in the company's operations.
"They did. And now the new CEO has called in the loan. In full," he added ominously.
Stefanie groaned. "Let me guess — thanks to Pete, we don't have the money to repay it."
He nodded again, this time darting a sideways look at her. "I'd hoped to recoup the losses through rentals and pre-purchases, but with two-thirds of the site still a mud pit, it's hard to attract home buyers."
According to the contract, if he defaulted, Costas could acquire Olympia and sell off the assets piecemeal. The prospect of her grandfather's company being raided for parts like a junked car tore at her heart — and her family pride.
"There's got to be something we can do."
Eyes bleak, he shook his head. "Unless the CEO of Costas can be persuaded to grant me more time, losing the company is inevitable. Bankruptcy may not be far behind."
"How much are we talking about?"
"Two and a half million."
Stefanie felt her mouth fall open. It was close to the amount Pete had swindled, damn him. "Can't you appeal to Mr. Costas, explain your circumstances, and ask for a modification of the contract?"
He eyed her. "What would you have me say? That I let a slick college boy make a fool of me?"
Ouch. Grasping for straws, she said, "But I thought you and Mr. Costas were old friends."
"My relationship was with Maximos, the founder. Max retired last year and turned the company over to his son, Nikolaos."
She sucked on her bottom lip, thinking. "Can't you blame it on the economy? It's not like you're the only developer who's been hit hard by the recession."
He shook his silvered head. "Considering the Greek economy has been in the toilet for years, I doubt that would win any sympathy. And Max's heir conducts business ... very differently. He's a lawyer," he added, making a face, "with fancy degrees from Cambridge and Yale and a reputation as hard-nosed despite being a playboy."
"A playboy?" Stefanie couldn't help but smile at the old- fashioned word.
He nodded. "According to Max, Niko has a different girl for every night of the week — skinny girls, curvy girls, tall girls, short girls. Movie stars, models, cocktail waitresses, a coach from Dancing with the Stars — it's like he can't make up his mind."
Stefanie hated to admit it, but Costas's inclusive appreciation of female beauty was kind of refreshing, especially for someone in his privileged position.
"Don't get me wrong, he's not a bad kid — no drinking or drugging — but he definitely has a weakness when it comes to women. Max used to worry he'd never settle down. He hoped turning over the business to him would ground him. Little did I know I'd end up in being the one grounded — buried alive."
Stefanie settled a hand atop his arm. "Don't talk like that, Pop. There must be a way out, something we can do."
"That's what I told myself, too, until I got ... this." He stuffed a hand into his pocket, pulled out a folded paper, and passed it to her.
Feeling queasy, Stefanie unfolded the e-mail and scanned the few curt lines. Nikolaos Costas was coming to the US to meet with his American business partner — Olympia. He expected a face-to-face meeting with its CEO — her pop — and his money repaid in full before he left for home. But it was the final line that sent a shaft of shock straight through her.
"He's due into DC on July second? The Independence Day holiday week, seriously?" The ballsy timing solidified her emerging picture of Nikolaos Costas as a spoiled trust-fund brat, a selfish asshole who expected everyone else to clear their calendars at his command.
Gaze bleak, her father nodded. "I know it's a busy time for you, but I need your help."
The buck, or in this case all 2.5 million of them, stopped with her. "Anything — you know that."
"I need you to act as my hostess, show Max's son around town, stall while I work on raising the repayment. I've already gotten in touch with my banker about extending my line of credit and I may be able to bring on additional investors by selling shares in the project. I just need time."
"Playboy" cycled back into Stefanie's consciousness, and a kernel of an idea, totally crazy, of course, began taking shape in her mind. If Nikolaos Costas had a "weakness" for women, might that weakness be used against him? If he only went for stick-thin models, she'd be shit outta luck, but from what her pop had said, he didn't have a type. She bit her lip and glanced down at herself. Her jeans were dusted with flour and the unpainted toes peeking out from her sandal-style Crocs were in dire need of a pedicure.
Confidence flagging, she looked up. "Maybe we'd be better off getting Lena or Leslie to take him around. They have the summer off and they love going out."
Dazzling men with their model looks and killer wardrobes was what her stepsisters lived for. Coming of age in a pond of Paris Hilton-styled swans, Stefanie had always felt like an ugly duckling.
His fist came down on her granite countertop, sending party platters jumping. "You are my blood. You are my heir just as Niko is his father's."
Alarmed by his reddening face, Stefanie reached for his hand. Unfurling the taut fingers, she said, "Pop, please, remember your blood pressure."
He nodded, blowing out a breath. "Forgive me, I didn't mean to lose my temper. It's just that I'm sick and tired of watching you take a backseat to Jacquie's girls. You have a good brain, a big heart, and your own beauty, the best kind of beauty, the kind that starts on the inside. Just like ... your mother," he added, laying a palm to his heart.
Chastened, Stefanie gave his hand a squeeze before letting it go. "You're right. I'm sorry."
Dropping his hand, he sighed. "All I'm asking is that you keep Nikolaos Costas fed and entertained while I work this out. He won't have had a home-cooked meal since he left Greece. C'mon, little one, it's only for a few days."
Little one — talk about pulling out all the stops.
Still, he was right. She was the one who'd brought the wolf, Pete, into their family fold. It wasn't her stepsisters' responsibility to clean up the mess she'd made. It was hers.
Her thoughts boomeranged from the congressman's high-profile party to Macie's rooftop picnic. Being in two places at once had seemed a tough enough trick to pull off, but now it seemed she'd need to find a way to be in three. She chewed on her lower lip, mentally maneuvering food preparation, deliveries, and employee schedules.
"I suppose I can get Karen to cover the MacLean barbecue and Eli can do the drop-offs for the weekly regulars, but there's also Macie's party. She'll kill me if I don't show."
She stopped, anticipating his objection. Surely for the Fourth he would want to host his VIP visitor at his home, the gracious Cleveland Park Tudor Revival where she'd grown up.
Instead, his grin reached from ear to ear. "Perfect, you'll take him with you. A traditional American Fourth of July with your friends could be just the thing to soften him up. Besides, you haven't taken off a holiday since you started eight years ago. As they say, all work and no play — "
"Makes Stefanie a dull spinster girl, yeah, I get it." Dull and desperate, or so she'd been until three months ago.
He shrugged. "I'd like grandchildren someday. So sue me."
Stefanie groaned. "Yeah, well, here's hoping Nikolaos Costas doesn't do it first."
The earlier crazy kernel of an idea sprouted to a full-blown stalk. Her father needed Nikolaos Costas "softened up." Plying him with her authentic Greek cooking could be a strong first step toward winning him over, but would it be sufficient? His weakness wasn't for food but women, and Stefanie was certainly that as well as 100 percent Greek and a good — okay, awesome — chef. She knew how to dress a lamb and set a table to perfection.
But up until now, she'd been too busy to bother applying that aesthetic to herself. It had been easier — and safer — to take the backseat, as her father had pointed out. Could she maybe channel some of her culinary self-confidence to her life once she took off the chef's jacket?
Thanks to Pete's Ponzi scheme, she didn't really have a choice. Beyond righting wrongs and familial duty, she had something to prove — to herself. With Pete she'd been easy prey, gulled by his glib tongue and smooth moves and her own sadly sagging self-esteem. But when it came to Costas, she knew in advance who and what she was dealing with — a player. A player for whom variety was the spice of life — and Stefanie's life could definitely do with some spicing up. Only this time she would be prepared. She would be in control. She would be the wolf, not the sheep, the seducer, not the seducee.
Excerpted from The Cinderella Seduction by Hope Tarr, Stacy Abrams, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2013 Hope Tarr. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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