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Naomi Sinclair stared at the face filling the TV screen in her partner's office, an avalanche of memories swamping her. Memories of a time when she'd known exactly how the Titanic had felt.
She'd crashed into her own iceberg, after all. A colossal one by the name of Andreas Sarantos. The one whose ice now reached out from the screen to freeze her marrow and simultaneously spill lava into her bloodstream.
Despite all the cautionary tales of what befell those who approached him, she'd steamed ahead on an intercept course. When she'd collided with him, it hadn't been for a catastrophic but brief encounter. Oh, no. She'd smashed herself against his frozen annihilation for two tumultuous years. Total wreckage had been the only possible outcome.
Now her whole being quivered at seeing Andreas again, after four long years. With the sound off, and with him looking right at her so fiercely, she could imagine him saying what he'd said that first day she'd pursued him.
You don't want to get mixed up with me, Ms. Sinclair. Walk away. While you still can.
She could still hear his voice, dark and pulsing with sensual menace, that slight Greek accent making it more compelling. Could still feel his eyes burning her with their inimitable brand of aloof yet searing lust.
She hadn't heeded his warning. Not before she'd had a protracted demonstration of how right he'd been. His words had not been a cautioning, but a promise. Of destruction. One he'd carried out. And she'd had no one to blame but herself.
"What do you know! He's back in town."
The comment, laced with surprise and not a little excitement, pulled Naomi back to reality with a thud.
Tearing her gaze from the gorgeous yet forbidding face still filling the screen, she blinked at her partner.
Malcolm Ulrich's comment made her realize where Andreas was. In front of his Fifth Avenue headquarters. He was "back in town." Where he hadn't been for four years.
Though she knew he could be in the next room and make no effort to see her, her heart hammered at the realization.
Malcolm turned his gaze to her, his green eyes eager. "I'd just about given up on doing business with him, since he deals only in person, and only when he's here." Her partner looked at the TV again. "But here he is."
She unwillingly followed suit, found Andreas's eyes drilling into hers as he glowered at the camera with all the tolerance of a wolf regarding a rabbit.
Malcolm sighed. "I still can't believe I didn't manage to pin him down to something when he pulled our fat out of the fire back in Crete, then came here personally to discuss how he resolved our problem with Stephanides. But it's never too late, and that guy is bigger than ever. This time I'll do whatever it takes to nail down his elusive hide long enough for him to give our expansion plans serious consideration."
A scoff almost escaped her. She hadn't gotten "serious consideration" from Andreas when she'd been in his bed every night. Not even mind-blowing sex had swayed him to get involved in something he hadn't considered "financially feasible." He'd said their sustainable development methods posed too many logistical problems and promised too little profit for him to bother with. That had been the sum total of the business talk they'd had during their liaison.
But she doubted telling Malcolm that would dissuade him from continuing his pursuit of Andreas. And it might make him suspect there'd been more between her and Andreas than he, and the world, knew. Only Nadine, her only sister, and Petros, his only friend, had known the truth. To the world, she and Andreas had been two professionals who'd crossed paths sporadically, he as the Greek multi-billionaire venture capitalist whose magic touch every business in the world craved, and she as a partner in a real estate development company struggling to make its mark in an increasingly competitive field.
When it had been over, she'd been endlessly grateful for that fact. No one knew of her folly, making it possible for her to pretend the ordeal had never happened. And she wanted to keep it that way. As much as it pained her, she had to let Malcolm butt his head against the wall that was Andreas Sarantos.
But it wasn't as if Malcolm didn't know it was probably futile, anyway. He'd been after Andreas's transformative financing even before they'd become partners seven years ago. It was when Andreas finally answered one of Malcolm's persistent invitations that she'd first met him, a year after she, Malcolm and Ken had set up Sinclair, Ulrich & Newman, or SUN Developments.
Andreas had come to inspect one of their first projects, with Malcolm hoping to tempt him to finance their ambitious offshore expansion plans.
From photos, Naomi had already thought him the most incredible looking man she'd ever seen. But it had taken that face-to-face encounter to turn her inside out.
His gaze and handshake had been cool, detached, yet an all-out invasion at the same time. Throughout his fifteen-minute presence, he'd fascinated and intimidated her as no one had ever done. He'd made few comments, but those had been so ruthlessly denuding, they'd uncovered weaknesses neither she nor her partners had realized had been inherent in their system. Then he'd abruptly taken his leave, giving no indication if he'd been interested or not in their business plan-or in her.
That hadn't stopped her from thinking of him to distraction afterward .
The images on the screen changed, interrupting her reminiscing. Her gaze clung to his figure as he strode away to his limo. Even from the back, he looked every inch the indifferent raider who conquered without trying, devastated without effort and cared nothing about the damage he left in his wake. The reporter, a woman evidently unnerved by her close encounter with the Greek god, regretted that she hadn't been able to get enough from Mr. Sarantos.
Enough from, or of? a voice inside Naomi scoffed.
But if she could have given the woman a word of advice, she would have told her that no one got a thing from Andreas Sarantos. Nothing but hurt, heartache and humiliation.
Malcolm reached for his cell phone. "I'd better call him right away, reserve the first free hour he has while he's here, before the whole city starts hounding him."
Feeling as if she'd run a mile, Naomi rose unsteadily to her feet. "I'll leave you to it."
"Hey.. " Malcolm stood, too, his expression dismayed. "We haven't even started our meeting."
"There's always tomorrow." Naomi stopped at the door, mainly to lean on it until she regained her balance. "And I'd probably be useless to you, worrying about Dora, anyway."
Which was, incidentally, true. Leaving Dora with a slight fever had made her unable to focus on anything all day. She'd spent most of it checking back with Hannah obsessively, though her nanny kept insisting everything was fine. Now Andreas's unexpected return-even when Naomi was certain that the news spot would be her only exposure to him-had finished off any possibility for coherent thinking today. Might as well head home early.
She attempted a smile. "Just as well you found a more important thing to pursue today."
"Nothing is more important than you!"
Naomi's smile remained unchanged at his protest, and she made no response as she closed his office door behind her.
Malcolm had always made such gallant statements, but lately she'd been detecting something more in his courteous remarks. Something she hoped she was wrong about. She'd hate it if anything spoiled their friction-free working relationship and friendship. She'd started the partnership with him and Ken in the first place because both men had been happily married. But after Malcolm's wife died from cancer three years ago, she'd started picking up different vibes from him. They'd become more noticeable since Na-dine's and Petros's deaths three months ago. Naomi dreaded thinking Malcolm might be rebooting his program with her as the object of his monogamy.
Her mind was overflowing with this disturbing possibility and with Andreas's out-of-the-blue return when she entered her apartment in Manhattan's Upper East Side.
She'd thrown her purse on the foyer table and was hastily hanging up her coat when she heard footsteps rushing toward her. She swung around to find Hannah, once her nanny and now Dora's, looking anxious.
The heart that had been thudding all the way here now pounded with alarm. "Is Dora's fever up again? Why didn't you call me? I would have come back at once, taken her to the doctor!"
Hannah looked momentarily taken aback before waving her hand. "Oh, I told you countless times today that her temperature went down after you gave her medicine, and hasn't come up again. We had a wonderful day and she went down for the night a couple of hours early."
Naomi leaned against the wall as tension deflated abruptly. She exhaled. "When you came rushing like that- God, my mind's been all over the place, more than usual today."
Sympathy overflowed in Hannah's shrewd hazel eyes. "After what you've been through, it's natural for you to be jumpy. It's amazing you've held up this well. But you don't have to worry about Dora. Robust little tykes like her can weather far more than a temperature. After raising four kids of my own, and you and Nadine, with Dora my seventh baby, I should know."
"While I feel I know nothing," Naomi lamented. "Next week Dora will be ten months old and I still feel like a total novice. I keep worrying every minute she's out of my sight. Accidents do happen ." Like the accident that had taken Nadine's and Petros's lives.
The words clogged in her throat, the wound that had never stopped bleeding for the past three months opening yet again.
Hannah reached for her, gave her one of those hugs that, as far back as she could remember, had always made things better even at the worst of times. "Being paranoid is part of being a parent, sweetie. And you have more reason than usual for your anxieties. But we won't let anything happen to our Dora, ever, and she'll grow up safe and loved, and become a beautiful, exceptional woman like her mom and aunt."
Agony swelled all over again as her sister's exuberant face filled Naomi's mind. Before tears flowed, she nodded into Hannah's ample shoulder, letting her touch and scent soothe her. Hannah had always been an integral part of her life, filling the void her mother had left behind when she'd died when Naomi was only thirteen.
Sniffling and attempting a smile, she pulled away. "So why did you come rushing to the door like that? Did you think I was an intruder or something, since I'm a bit early? Shouldn't you have come armed?" Her smile wobbled as another alarm sent her hair-trigger nerves into an uproar again. "If you ever suspect anything of the sort, lock yourself in a room with Dora and call the police-"
Hannah raised both hands. "You really are extra jumpy today. This apartment building is intruder-proof, and you've certainly padlocked all entrances against an invading army. Anyone who comes in here has to be invited." She stopped, hesitated, unease creeping over her genial face again. "Which brings me to the reason I rushed out to intercept you."
"Intercept me before what?"
"Before you walked into your family room and found me."
Naomi lurched, a spear of shock lodging in her heart. That voice. The voice that had never stopped whispering its insidious spell inside her mind.
A bolt of stupefaction wrenched her around.
And there he was, filling the archway of her foyer.
Andreas Sarantos. The man she'd barely escaped four years ago, with her soul and psyche in tatters.
It was impossible, preposterous for him to be here. In her apartment, where he'd never even dropped her off, let alone set foot inside, during the years they'd been together though not really together.
But there he was. His presence reached out and enveloped her, drowned her. Elemental, primal. Bigger than she remembered, broader, more ominous. He stared at her across the dozen feet of barely breathable air that was all that stood between them. Then he started obliterating them.
He approached like advancing darkness, and his aura eclipsed her, made her insides quiver with a mess of reactions she'd never thought she'd experience again. If anything, time had faded her memories of his impact. Or had he grown more overwhelming?
But he can't be here, her mind screamed, as her heartbeats spiraled into the danger zone.
The chips of steel he had for eyes captured hers, freezing her to the spot. Then they swept her from head to toe, engulfing her in simmering ice.
Her gaze careered down his body in return. From sun-gilded hair, to skin the texture and color of polished teak, to the slashes and planes and hollows of a face assembled with ruthless perfection. His body was shrouded in a suit that looked molded on him. She knew from extensive experience that the flesh beneath had been carved by a divine hand. But all that physical flawlessness would have never affected her if it hadn't been imbued with a charisma and character that bent masses to his merest whim. This man, this force of darkness, commanded thousands, his every decision and action impacting millions. And he'd once had her completely in his power, to do with as he pleased. As she'd once begged him to.
She'd also once begged him to let her go. Because even then she'd feared she wouldn't have the strength to walk away. What he'd done next, to spite her, to torment her, had had her swearing never again.
But she'd believed she had nothing to worry about. That he'd disappeared from her life forever. After his latest and most terrible transgression, she'd been certain she would never lay eyes on him again.
But there he was. Why? Why?
"What the hell are you doing here?"
She barely recognized the alien rasp that hissed out of her. Then she heard Hannah's agitated voice.
"When I found him at the door, I assumed you instructed the concierge to send him up. And since you do know him, I let him in." Even Hannah thought the extent of Naomi's acquaintance with Andreas had merely been a few encounters when her sister had married his friend. "He led me to believe you did invite him, said he had to arrive early, but insisted I didn't disturb you at work, and that he'd wait for you."
Naomi turned to Hannah, barely processing her apologetic account, only one thing registering within the mass of shock her brain had become. Fury.
Before she could assure her the fault had all been An-dreas's, he spoke again, addressing the older woman. "Thank you for being the perfect hostess, Mrs. McCarthy. Tea was lovely. But now that Naomi is here, you can tend to your other business."
He was dismissing her!
And Hannah, one of the strongest characters Naomi had ever known, was already obeying him without hesitation, not even pausing to catch her eye to check if that was okay with her.
This tipped her still reverberating shock over the edge into pure outrage.
She ground her teeth as she turned to him, pulling herself to her full height, even though it still left her almost a foot shorter than his six foot five. "Now that I am here, you can go."
Andreas waited until Hannah disappeared, no doubt to the farthest recess of the apartment, then cocked his head at Naomi. "I will go back to your family room. Or would you prefer we conduct this meeting in some other room?"
Some other room.
His words dripped with nuance. Not that he necessarily meant the bedroom. He'd once turned every square foot of wherever they'd met into a setting for intimacy. The sexual variety only, of course.
That he could imply any such thing now added another layer of blackness to his already dark-as-sin character.