Read an Excerpt
Ariadne leaned over the balcony rail and contemplated plunging into the sea. Serve Sebastian Nikosto right if she was found floating face down. He'd have to look elsewhere for a bride. But though summer heat shimmered on the afternoon air, Sydney Harbour looked deep and chill, and she edged back. Knowing her parents had died in those restless waters didn't make them any more appealing. She could be eaten by sharks!
The view was spectacular, she supposed, even after the heart-stopping beauty of Naxos, but it all felt remote to her. Her joy in coming back to Australia had withered. She felt as alien as she ever had in any foreign place. Incredible to think she was born here.
She turned back into her hotel suite and sank onto the bed's luxurious coverlet, reaching listlessly for the tour brochure that had sucked her in. The Katherine Gorge. Uluru. How thrilled she'd been, how excited. The sad joke was there never had been any such pleasures intended for her. She was here to be chained to the bed of a stranger.
Unless she ran. The minuscule hope reared again in her heart. This Sebastian Nikosto had failed to meet her plane. Maybe he'd changed his mind?
The phone rang and she nearly jumped out of her skin. Thea, ringing to apologise for the trick and tell her to come home? Explain about the mistake with the hotel booking?
It was Reception. 'Good afternoon, Miss Giorgias, you have a visitor. A Mr Nikosto. Do you wish to meet him in the lobby, or shall I give him your room number?'
'No.' Her heart had jolted out of its niche but she gasped, 'I'll come down.'
With a shaking hand she replaced the phone. She would just have to tell Nikosto she was Ariadne Giorgias, an Australian citizen, not a commodity to be traded in some deal.
She struggled on with her jacket. Her face was paler than her blonde hair, her eyes the dark blue they looked when she was angry, or afraid.
Her legs felt numb. On the way down in the lift she tried to quell her nerves with some positive thinking. Courage was all that was needed. Australia was a civilised country. Women couldn't be forced here. In fact, she was curious to see what sort of man would sink so low as to barter for a wife in the twenty-first century. Was he so old he was locked in the traditions of the past? So repulsive as to have no other choice?
Anyway, she was brave. She would refuse. After all, she was the notorious bride who'd left the heir to one of the richest fortunes in Greece standing at the altar. That had taken courage, though her uncle and aunt's world had judged it differently.
Still, when she stepped out of the lift on the ground floor and saw the obese elderly man in baggy clothes standing near the reception desk, she felt the blood drain from her heart. How could they? How could they? Then, even as the opulent lobby with its long low lounges and glass-walled views of the city swayed sickeningly in her sight, the man hailed some people across the room and walked to join them.
Oh. So not him. That small relief, at least. For the moment.
Her anxious gaze roved the groups of travellers, busy hotel staff, people queuing at the desks, and lighted on another unaccompanied man, this one tall and lean, dressed in a dark suit. He was standing by the entrance with his back to her, phone to his ear, jacket switched back at one side while his free hand rested on his hip. He was pacing backwards and forwards with a lithe, coiled energy, occasionally gesticulating with apparent impatience.
He turned suddenly in her direction, then checked. Her nerves jumped. She could tell he'd caught sight of her because the lines of his tall frame tensed, and even from this distance she could see him frown. He said something into his phone, then snapped it shut and slipped it inside his jacket.
Despite her moment of bravado, her stomach clenched.
He hesitated a moment, then walked across the wide lobby towards her, his frown smoothing away. Too late though, because she'd already seen it. As he drew nearer she saw, with a growing sense of unreality, that he was good-looking. A sleek, beautiful male in the matchless Greek style, though he had that indefinable, characteristic bearing of an Australian man. Athletically built, even in a suit. Why would he ever need to order in a woman?
He wasn't so old. Thirty-three or -four, nothing more than that. He might just be a nephew, or cousin. Perhaps she was mistaken, and he wasn't the one.
He halted at a couple of metres distance.
'You're Ariadne Giorgias?'
His voice was deep and beautiful, but it was his eyes that held her. They were mesmerising, a dark glinting chocolate fringed by thick black lashes. They swept over her in a cool assessment, made cooler by the stern set of his mouth, but she could guess what they sought. Her breasts, her legs, her child-bearing hips. Would she be a sufficient trophy?
She felt the proud colour rise to her cheeks. Anger and humiliation made her voice scrape in her throat. 'Yes. I'm Ariadne Giorgias. And you are… ?'
Sebastian heard the stiff tone and his expectations received instant confirmation. So, Miss Ariadne Giorgias, child of the Giorgias shipbuilding dynasty and his potential wife, was as spoiled as she was rich. Despite his fury at the trap he found himself in, he felt a curious edge of anticipation as he examined her face for the first time. Whatever transpired, this might be the woman he married.
Her face was nothing like the one he'd once thought the ultimate in feminine beauty, but he could concede it had a symmetry. He could imagine how his sisters would have described it. Heart-shaped, with those cheekbones.
She had creamy skin with an almost satin translucence, and quite astonishing deep blue eyes, glittering now with some sort of emotion. Her full mouth was especially sensuous, somewhere between sweet and sulky. An alluring blend of sultriness and innocence, if he could believe that. A siren's mouth.
She could have been worse. If a man was blackmailed into marriage, whatever the failings that had brought the woman to this point, she should at least look presentable.
He swept the rest of her with a judgemental gaze.
Her hair was a pale ash, paler than it had been in the photo the magnate had posted, though her dusky eyebrows and lashes gave away its true colour. He supposed she was beautiful, if a man happened to admire that particular style of beauty.
She was slightly smaller than he'd expected, though in her designer jeans and jacket her body appeared slim and, he had to admit, graceful, with pretty breasts, a waist so slender a man could span it with his hands, and sweetly flaring hips.
As far as he knew anything about women's apparel she was dressed well, nothing flamboyant. Limited jewellery, though what she had was no doubt the finest money could buy.
He realised his pulse was pumping a little faster than the average. All right, so she was attractive with those eyes. She could afford to be. She seemed pale, perhaps she was nervous, but he cut any softer emotions that might have evoked.
She should be nervous. She'd be even more nervous when she understood the sort of man she'd had the gall to attempt to add to her acquisitions.
As the full picture sank in he found his eyes needing to return to her face.
His lungs tightened. Yes, certainly, it could have been worse.
'Sebastian Nikosto,' he said finally, making a belated move to extend his hand.
Ariadne kept hers at her side. Never to touch him, she resolved fiercely. Not if she could help it.
His brows twitched, and she knew he'd taken note of her small rebuff. But he stayed as smooth as glass. 'Your uncle arranged that I should meet you and show you around Sydney.'
'Oh,' she said softly. 'So it was you who was to meet me at the airport?'
His eyes glinted, then were almost immediately screened by his thick black lashes. 'I apologise for not managing to be there. Tuesdays are always demanding for my office and I'm afraid I got caught up. Still…' He smiled, though it didn't reach his eyes. 'I guessed you would be quite experienced in these matters.' Somehow his voice was the more cutting for being so gentle. He spread his hands. 'And here you are. Safe and sound, after all.'
What 'matters'? With a pang she wondered what he'd heard about her. Would news of the wedding debacle have reached this distant shore? 'Experienced' was no innocuous word. Or did he assume she must be easy? Traded like a piece of livestock on a regular basis?
'No harm done,' he added.
Offhand, to say the least.
She thought of the morning she'd spent waiting for someone— any friendly face—at the airport, her agony of fear and indecision after the long trip and being tricked onto the plane. Praying that somehow, against all the odds, she'd misunderstood, and there would be a representative of the Nikosto family waiting with open arms to invite her into their warm family home. Worrying if she should take herself to the hotel, or run like the wind to some safe haven. Only what safe haven, when she was a stranger here?
The only vague knowledge she had of Australia, apart from her memories of her parents' home, remote flashes of that first little primary school, was the beach house her parents had taken her to for a visit with some distant relative of her mother's. She had no idea where it even was.
As an apology this didn't even rate. Had he been so reluctant to interrupt designing his satellites, or whatever he did? These days, did men expect their mail-order brides to deliver themselves to the door?
'I'm sorry you are dragged away from your worknow,' she said, equally gentle. 'Perhaps you would prefer to postpone this meeting.'
One thick black brow elevated. 'Not at all, Miss Giorgias. I am charmed to meet you now.'
The words were smooth, but uttered in a silky tone that conveyed a wall of ice inside that elegant dark navy suit and pale blue shirt, colours that perfectly enhanced the bronzed tones in his skin and his blue-black hair.
Then, paradoxically, as if her coldness had somehow stirred the male in him, his dark eyes made an involuntary flicker to her mouth, hooked there an instant too long.
She angled a little away, her blood pulsing, indignation struggling with her body's involuntary response to the disturbance in the atmosphere surrounding his big masculine body. Testosterone, no doubt. It was only natural he'd be thinking about her in terms of sex.
She pulled the edges of her jacket a little closer. 'I'm not sure what my uncle told you, Mr Nikosto, but I came out here for a holiday. Nothing more than that.'
He considered her with an unreadable expression, then blasted any pretensions of innocence she might try to place on the situation.
'I'd have thought Pericles Giorgias would have been in a position to buy his niece a bridegroom from any of the grand houses in Europe, Ms Giorgias.' His eyes swept over her again in a smouldering acknowledgement of her desirability. 'I'm surprised to have been so—honoured. And flattered, of course.'
The words blistered her sensibilities. She saw his eyes flare with a dark, dangerous emotion that wasn't anything like feeling flattered, or honoured, and shock jolted through her. The man was angry. Was she such a disappointment? She didn't want him to want her, but the insult sank deep, just the same.
But she mustn't let him see her as some toothless lioness. He'd better learn she could defend herself.
'I'm surprised you could be bought, a man like you,' she mocked, though her voice trembled.
His eyes flashed. 'You'd better be sure you know what you've bargained for, Ms Giorgias. Tell me, once you have me shackled to your side, what do you hope to do with me then?'
She met his smouldering dark gaze, and tried to repress visions of lying naked beside him on some wide bed. Of being held in his arms, pressed against his lean, hard body, his dark eyes… But, she wouldn't… And he couldn't want to… She'd never…
She quickly thrust the images away. What could her uncle have promised on her behalf? With a helpless sense of shame, she scrambled to find some gloss to minimise the outrage Thio Peri had committed against her autonomy.
'My uncle arranged this holiday simply so we could meet. That was all. Just so we could—meet. To see if we… To see if there would be any…' She felt the hot tide of embarrassment rise through her chest and neck and all the way to her ears, and, furious at her weakness, added hoarsely, 'There is no requirement for—for anything further. I'm a free woman. This is the modern world.'
His chiselled, sexy mouth made a faint disbelieving curl, then he said very politely, 'Oh, right. Sure it is. But try to understand this, Miss Giorgias, I'm a serious guy. I'm not some racing-car celebrity or a prince with time on his hands between yacht races. I have a company to run. Some people choose to work, in case you haven't heard. I won't be able to devote myself to your entertainment twenty-four seven.'
He was so cold and unfriendly, all her hurt and tension, the fear and helplessness of the plane trip, the shock of the betrayal, wound her up to an emotional explosion. The fiery blood rushed to her head and she snapped, 'I'd rather you didn't devote yourself to me at all, Mr Nikosto.'
She felt the shock impact of her words, then all at once had a burning consciousness of his gaze on her clasped, trembling hands, and tried to shift them from view. Her loss of control had generated something, though, because she sensed a change in the air.
Sebastian stared, for the first time seeing the shadows under her fierce blue eyes, the rapid, vulnerable pulse in her tender throat. With a sudden lurch in his chest he had a flash of himself as a brute holding some delicate, threatened creature at bay.
A creature with sensitivities, nerves and anxieties. With soft silky breasts under her stiff little jacket. He couldn't control the overpowering thought. A creature—a woman who might soon be his to undress.
If he signed that contract.
Her sulky mouth made a tremor, and against his will, against all the odds, his blood stirred. Hell, but she had a kissable mouth. An intensely kissable mouth.
Poised on an emotional tightrope, her defensive instincts up in arms, Ariadne sensed the tension emanating from him rock into a different sort of beat.