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'Come on, put your back into it! Why am I not surprised that you're slacking as usual while I'm doing all the work?'
Sakis Pantelides reefed the oars through the slightly choppy water, loving the exhilaration and adrenaline that burned in his back and shoulders. 'Stop complaining, old man. It's not my fault if you're feeling your age.' He smiled when he heard his brother's hiss of annoyance.
In truth, Ari was only two-and-a-half years older, but Sakis knew it annoyed him when he taunted him with their age difference, so of course he never passed up the chance to niggle where he could.
'Don't worry, Theo will be around to bail you out next time we row. That way you won't have to strain yourself so much,' Sakis said.
'Theo would be more concerned about showing off his bulging muscles to the female coxes than he would to serious rowing,' Ari responded dryly. 'How he ever managed to stop showing off long enough to win five world championships, I'll never know.'
Sakis heaved his oars and noted with satisfaction that he hadn't lost the innate rhythm despite several months away from the favourite sport that had at one time been his sole passion. Thinking about his younger brother, he couldn't help but smile. 'Yeah, he always was more into his looks and the ladies than anything else.'
He rowed in perfect sync with his brother, their movements barely rippling through the water as they passed the halfway point of the lake used by the exclusive rowing club a few miles outside of London. Sakis's smile widened as a sense of peace stole over him.
It'd been a while since he'd come here; since he'd found time to connect with his brothers like this. The punishing schedules it took to manage the three branches of Pantelides Inc meant the brothers hadn't got together in way too long. That they had even been in the same time zone had been a miracle. Of course, it hadn't stayed that way for long. Theo had cancelled at the last minute and was right this moment winging his way to Rio on a Pantelides jet to deal with a crisis for the global conglomerate.
Or maybe Theo had cancelled for another reason altogether.
His playboy brother wasn't above flying thousands of miles for a one-hour dinner date with a beautiful woman. 'If I find out he blew us off for a piece of skirt, I'll confiscate his plane for a month.'
Ari snorted. 'You can try. But I think you're asking for a swift death if you attempt to come between Theo and a woman. Speaking of women, I see yours has finally managed to surgically remove herself from her laptop '
He didn't break his rhythm despite the jolt of electricity that zapped through him. His gaze focused past his brother's shoulder to where Ari's attention was fixed.
He nearly missed his next stroke. Only the inbuilt discipline that had seen him win one more championship than his brothers' five apiece stopped him from losing his rhythm.
'Let's get one thing straight-she's not my woman.'
Brianna Moneypenny, his executive assistant, stood next to his car. That in itself was a surprise, since she preferred to stay glued to his in-limo computer, one finger firmly on the pulse of his company any time he had to step away.
But what triggered the bolt of astonishment in him more was the not-quite-masked expression on her face. Brianna's countenance since the day she'd become his ultra-efficient assistant eighteen months ago had never once wavered from cool, icy professionalism. Today she looked
'Don't tell me she's succumbed to the Sakis Pantelides syndrome?' Ari's dry tone held equal parts amusement and resignation.
Sakis frowned, unease stirring in his belly and mingling with the emotions he refused to acknowledge when it came to his executive assistant. He'd learned the hard way that exposing emotion, especially for the wrong person, could leave scars that never really healed and took monumental effort to keep buried. As for mixing business with pleasure-that had been a near lethal cocktail he'd sampled once. Never again. 'Shut up, Ari.'
'I'm concerned, brother. She's almost ready to jump into the water. Or jump your bones, more like. Please tell me you haven't lost your mind and slept with her?'
Sakis's gaze flitted over to Moneypenny, trying to pinpoint what was wrong from across the distance between them. 'I'm not sure what's more disturbing-your unhealthy interest in my sex life or the fact that you can keep rowing straight while practising the Spanish Inquisition,' he murmured absently.
As for getting physical with Moneypenny, if his libido chose the most inappropriate times-like now-to remind him he was a red-blooded male, it was a situation he intended to keep ignoring, like he had been the last eighteen months. He'd wasted too much valuable time in this lifetime ridding himself of clinging women.
He strained the oars through the water, suddenly wanting the session to be over. Through the strokes, he kept his gaze fixed on Moneypenny, her rigid stance setting off alarm bells inside his head.
'So, there's nothing between you two?' Ari pushed.
Something in his brother's voice made his hackles rise. With one last push, he felt the bottom of the scull hit the slope of the wooden jetty.
'If you're thinking of trying to poach her, Ari, forget it. She's the best executive assistant I've ever had and anyone who threatens that will lose a body part; two body parts for family members.'
'Cool your jets, bro. I wasn't thinking of that sort of poaching. Besides, hearing you gush over her like that tells me you're already far gone.'
Sakis's irritation grew, wishing his brother would get off the subject.
'Just because I recognise talent doesn't mean I've lost my mind. Besides, tell me, does your assistant know her Windsor knot from her double-cross knot?'
Ari's brows shot up as he stepped onto the pier and grabbed his oars. 'My assistant is a man. And the fact that you hired yours based on her tie-knotting abilities only confirms you're more screwed than I thought.'
'There's nothing delusional about the fact that she has more brains in her pinkie than the total sum of my previous assistants, and she's a Rottweiler when it comes to managing my business life. That's all I need.'
'Are you sure that's all? Because I detect a distinct reverence in your tone there.'
Sakis froze, then grimaced when he realised Ari was messing with him. 'Keep it up. I owe you a scar for the one you planted on me with your carelessness.' He touched the arrow-shaped scar just above his right brow, a present from Ari's oar when they had first started rowing together in their teens.
'Someone had to bring you down a notch or three for thinking you were the better-looking brother.' Ari grinned, and Sakis was reminded of the carefree brother Ari had been before tragedy had struck and sunk its merciless claws into him.
Then Ari's gaze slid beyond Sakis's shoulder. 'Your Rottweiler's prowling for you. She looks ready to bare her teeth.'
Sakis dropped his oars next to the overturned scull and glanced over, to find Brianna had moved closer. She now stood at the top of the pier, her arms folded and her gaze trained on him.
His alarm intensified. There was a look on her face he'd never seen before. Plus she held a towel in one hand, which suggested she was expecting him not to take his usual shower at the clubhouse.
Sakis frowned. 'Something's up. I need to go.'
'Did she communicate that to you subliminally or are you two so attuned to each other you can tell just by looking at her?' Ari enquired in an amused tone.
'Seriously, Ari, cork it.' His scowl deepened as he noted Brianna's pinched look. Again acting out of the ordinary, she started towards him.
Moneypenny knew never to disturb him during his time with his brothers. She was great like that. She knew her place in his life and had never once overstepped the mark. He started to walk away from the waterfront.
'Hey, don't worry about me. I'll make sure the equipment is returned to the boathouse. And I'll have all those drinks we ordered by myself too,' Ari stated drolly.
Sakis ignored him. When he reached speaking distance, he stopped. 'What's wrong?' he demanded.
For the very first time since she'd turned up for an interview at Pantelides Towers at five o'clock in the morning, Sakis saw her hesitate. The hair on his nape rose to attention. 'Spit it out, Moneypenny.'
The tightening of her mouth was infinitesimal but he spotted it. Another first. He couldn't remember ever witnessing an outward sign of distress. Silently, she held out his towel.
He snatched it from her, more to hurry her response than a need to wipe his sweat-drenched body.
'Mr Pantelides, we have a situation.'
His jaw tightened. 'What situation?'
'One of your tankers, the Pantelides Six, has run aground off Point Noire.'
Ice cascaded down his back despite the midsummer sun blazing down on him. Sakis forced a swallow. 'When did this happen?'
'I got a call via the head office from a crew member five minutes ago.'
She licked her lips and his apprehension grew. 'There's something else?'
'Yes. The captain and two crew members are missing and '
Her pinched look intensified. 'The tanker hit an outcropping of rocks. Crude oil is spilling into the South Atlantic at an estimated rate of sixty barrels per minute.'
Brianna would never forget what happened next after her announcement. Outwardly, Sakis Pantelides remained the calm, ruthlessly controlled oil tycoon she'd worked alongside for the past eighteen months. But she would've failed in her task to make herself indispensable to him if she hadn't learned to read between the lines of the enigma that was Sakis Pantelides. The set of his strong jaw and the way his hands tightened around the snow-white towel told her how badly the news had affected him.
Over his shoulder, Brianna saw Arion Pantelides pause in his task. Her eyes connected with his. Something in her face must have given her away because before she'd taken another breath the oldest Pantelides brother was striding towards them. He was just as imposing as his younger brother, just as formidable. But, where Sakis's gaze was sharp with laser-like focus and almost lethal intelligence, Arion's held a wealth of dark torment and soul-deep weariness.
Brianna's gaze swung back to her boss, and she wasn't even slightly surprised to see the solid mask of power and ruthless efficiency back in place.
'Do we know what caused the accident?' he fired out.
She shook her head. 'The captain isn't responding to his mobile phone. We haven't been able to establish contact with vessel since the initial call. The Congolese coast guard are on their way. I've asked them to contact me as soon as they're on site.' She fell into step beside him as his long strides headed for the car. 'I've got our emergency crew on standby. They're ready to fly out once you give the word.'
Arion Pantelides caught up with them as they neared the limousine.
He put a halting hand on his brother's shoulder. 'Talk to me, Sakis.'
In clipped tones, Sakis filled him in on what had happened. Arion's gaze swung to her. 'Do we have the names of the missing crew members?'
'I've emailed the complete crew manifest to both your phones and Theo's. I've also attached a list of the relevant ministers we need to deal with in the government to ensure we don't ruffle any feathers, and I've scheduled calls with all of them.'
A look flickered in his eyes before his gaze connected with his brother's. When Sakis's brow rose a fraction, Arion gave a small smile.
'Go. I'll deal with as much as I can from here. We'll talk in one hour.' Arion clasped his brother's shoulder in reassurance before he strode off.
Sakis turned to her. 'I'll need to speak to the President.'
Brianna nodded. 'I've got his chief of staff on hold. He'll put you through when you're ready.'
Her gaze dropped to his chest and immediately shifted away. She stepped back to move away from the potent scent of sweat and man that radiated off his deep olive skin. 'You need to change. I'll get you some fresh clothes.'
As she headed towards the boot of the car, she heard the slide of his rowing suit zip. She didn't turn because she'd seen it all before. At least that was what she told herself. She hadn't seen Sakis Pantelides totally naked, of course. But hers was a twenty-four-seven job. And, when you worked as close as she did with a suave, self-assured, powerful tycoon who saw you as nothing but a super-efficient, sexless automaton, you were bound to be exposed to all aspects of his nature. And his various states of undress.
The first time Sakis Pantelides had undressed in front of her, Brianna had taken it in her stride, just as she'd brutally trained herself to take most things in her stride.
To feel, to trust, to give emotion an inch, was to invite disaster.
So she'd learned to harden her heart. It had been that or sink beneath the weight of crushing despair.
And she refused to sink
She straightened from the boot with a pristine blue shirt and a charcoal-grey Armani suit in one hand and the perfectly knotted double Oxford tie Sakis favoured in the other. She kept her gaze trained on the sun-dappled lake beyond his shoulder as she handed the items over and went to retrieve his socks and hand-made leather shoes.
She didn't need to see his strong neck and shoulders, honed perfectly from his years of professional, championship-winning rowing, or his deep, ripped chest with silky hairs that arrowed down to his neat, trim waist and disappeared beneath the band of his boxers. She most certainly didn't need to see the powerful thighs that looked as if they could crush an unwary opponent, or pin a willing female to an unyielding wall in the right circumstances. And she especially didn't need to see the black cotton boxer briefs that made a poor effort to contain his-
A loud beep signalling an incoming call from the limo's phone startled her into dropping his socks. She hastily picked them up and slid into the car. From the corner of her eye, she saw Sakis step into his trousers. Silently, she held out the remaining items and picked up the phone.
'Pantelides Shipping,' she said into the receiver as she picked up her electronic tablet. She listened calmly to the voice at the other end of the line, tapping away at her keyboard as she added to the ever-growing to-do list.
By the time Sakis slid next to her, and slammed the door, impeccably dressed, she was on her fifth item. She paused long enough to secure her seat belt before resuming her typing.
'The only answer I have for you right now is no comment. Sorry, no can do.' Sakis stiffened beside her. 'Absolutely not. No news outlet will be getting exclusives. Pantelides Shipping will issue one press release within the hour. It will be posted on our company's website and affiliated media and social network links with the relevant contact details. If you have any questions after that, contact our press office.'
'Tabloid or mainstream media?' Sakis asked the moment she hung up.
'Fleet Street. They want to verify what they've heard.' The phone rang again. Seeing the number of another tabloid, she ignored it. Sakis had more pressing phone calls to make. She passed him the headset connected to the call she'd put on hold for the last ten minutes.