Mel Cooper intends to travel the world and shake off the shackles of her past. Until charismatic billionaire Nikos Parakis offers her a glimpse into his world full of opulent riches and sensual delicacies
into a gilded cage?
Salesgirl Mel may not be the rich lothario's usual type, but she can't resist Nikos's tempting offer: a no-strings romance with sun, sea and sinful seduction. But soon Mel discovers the cost of sultry nights with the captivating Greekshe's pregnant! And when Nikos learns she's carrying his heir, Mel risks losing her liberty once more
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Nikos Parakis twisted his wrist slightly to glance at his watch and frowned. If he wanted to make his appointment in the City he was going to have to skip lunch. No way could he fit in a midday meal now, having delayed leaving his Holland Park apartmenthis base in the UKin order to catch a lengthy teleconference with Russian clients. He'd also, on this early summer's day, wanted to get some fresh air and brief exercise, so had dismissed his driver and intended to pick up a taxi on the far side of the park, in Kensington High Street.
As he gained the wide tree-lined pavement he felt a stab of hunger. He definitely needed refuelling.
On impulse, he plunged across the road and headed for what appeared to be some kind of takeaway food shop. He was no food snob, despite the wealth of the Parakis banking dynasty at his disposal, and a sandwich was a sandwichwherever it came from.
The moment he stepped inside, however, he almost changed his mind. Fast food outlets specialising in pre-packed sandwiches had come a long way in thirty years, but this was one of the old-fashioned ones where sandwiches were handmade on the spot, to order, constructed out of the array of ingredients contained in plastic tubs behind the counter.
Damn, he thought, irritated, he really didn't have time for this.
But he was here now, and it would have to do.
'Have you anything ready-made?' he asked, addressing the person behind the counter. He didn't mean to sound brusque, but he was hungry and in a hurry.
The server, who had her back to him, went on buttering a slice of bread. Nikos felt irritation kick again.
'She's making mine first, mate,' said a voice nearby, and he saw that there was a shabbily dressed, grizzled-looking old man seated on a chair by the chilled drinks cabinet. 'You'll 'ave ter wait.'
Nikos's mouth pressed tight, and he moved his annoyed regard back to the figure behind the counter. Without turning, the server spoke.
'Be with you in a sec,' she said, apparently to Nikos, and started to pile ham onto the buttered slice before wrapping the sandwich in a paper serviette and turning to hand it to the man. She pushed a cup of milky tea towards him, too.
'Ta, luv,' the man said, moving to stand closer to Nikos than he felt entirely comfortable with.
Whenever the man had last bathed, it hadn't been recently. Nor had he shaved. Moreover, there was a discernible smell of stale alcohol about him.
The man closed grimy fingers around the wrapped sandwich, picked up the mug in a shaky grip and looked at Nikos.
'Any spare change, guv?' he asked hopefully. 'No,' said Nikos, and turned back to the server, who was now wiping the sandwich preparation surface clean. The old man shuffled out.
The server's voice followed him. 'Stay off the booze, Joeit's killing you.'
'Any day now, luv, any day ' the man assured her.
He shuffled out and was gone, lunch provided. Presumably for free, Nikos supposed, having seen no money change hands for the transaction. But his interest in the matter was zero, and with the server finally free to pay him attention, he repeated his original question about the availability of ready-made sandwichesthis time most definitely impatiently.
'No,' replied the server, turning around and busying herself with the tea urn.
Her tone of voice had changed. If Nikos could have been bothered to carewhich he didn't, in the slightesthe might have said she sounded annoyed.
'Then whatever's quickest.'
He glanced at his watch again, and frowned. This was ridiculoushe was wasting time instead of saving it!
'What would you like?'
The server's pointless question made his frown deepen.
'I said whatever's quickest,' he repeated.
'That,' came the reply, 'would be bread and butter.'
Nikos dropped his wrist and levelled his gaze right at her. There was no mistaking the antagonism in her tone. Or the open irritation in his as he answered.
'Ham,' he bit out.
'On white or brown? Baguette or sliced?' 'Whatever's quickest.' How many times did he have to say that?
'That would be white sliced.' 'White sliced, then.' 'Just ham?'
'Yes.' Anything more complicated and he'd be there all day.
She turned away and busied herself at the preparation surface behind her. Nikos drummed his fingers on the counter. Realising he was thirsty, he twisted round to help himself to a bottle of mineral water from the chilled drinks cabinet against the wall.
As he put it on the counter the server turned round, sandwich prepared and wrapped in a paper serviette. She glanced at the bottle and Nikos could see she was mentally calculating the combined price.
'Three pounds forty-five,' she said.
He had his wallet out already, taking out a note.
'That's a fifty, she said, as if she'd never seen one before.
Perhaps she never had, thought Nikos acidly. He said nothing, just went on holding it out for her.
'Haven't you anything smaller?' she demanded.
With a rasp of irritation she snatched it from him and opened the till. There was some audible clinking and rustling, and a moment later she was clunking his change down on the countertop. It consisted of silver to make it up to a fiver, a single twenty-pound note and twenty-five individual pound coins.
Then she raised her gaze to Nikos and glared at him.
And for the first time Nikos looked at her.
Looked at herand saw her.
He stilled completely. Somewhere inside his head a voice was telling him to stop staring, to pick up the ludicrous heap of coins and pocket the note and get the hell out of there. Get a taxi, get to his meeting, get on with the rest of his life and forget he'd ever been hungry enough to step into some two-bit sandwich bar patronised by alcoholic down-and-outs.
But the voice went totally and entirely unheeded.
Right now only one part of his brain was functioning. The part that was firing in instant, total intensity with the most visceral masculine response he had ever experienced in his life.
Thee mou, but she was absolutely beautiful.
There was no other word for her. In an instant Nikos took in a face that was sculpted to perfection: high cheekbones, contoured jawline, straight nose not a millimetre too long or too short, wide-set eyes of startling blue, and a mouth. Ah, a mouth whose natural lushness was as inviting as a honey-drenched dessert
How the hell didn't I notice her straight away?
But the question searing through him was irrelevant. Everything right now was irrelevant except his desirehis needto keep drinking her in. Taking in the incredible impact her stunning looks were having on him. His eyes narrowed in their instinctive, potent perusal of her features, and he felt his response course through him.
He was not a man who had been deprived of the company of beautiful women in his thirty-odd years. As the heir to the Parakis banking dynasty he'd become accustomed to having the hottest girls making a bee-line for him. And he knew that it wasn't just the Parakis millions that drew them in. Nature, for whatever capricious reason, had bestowed upon him a six-foot framewhich he kept in peak condition with rigorous and ruthless physical exerciseand looks that, without vanity, he knew women liked. Liked a lot.
The combination had proved highly successful, and his private life was plentifully supplied by any number of keen and eager females only too happy to be seen on his arm, or to keep him company in bed. Given that, therefore, it would have been perverse of him not to have chosen those females who were of the very highest calibre when it came to their appearance.
And this woman, who had drawn his attention so riv-etingly, was most definitely of that elite calibre.
His gaze worked over her, and as it did so another realisation struck him. She wasn't wearing a trace of make-up and her hairblonde, from what little he could see of itwas concealed under some kind of baseball cap. As for her figurealthough she appeared to be tallshe was clad in a baggy T-shirt that bore the legend 'Sarrie's Sarnies' and did less than nothing for her.
Hell, if she looked this good stuck in this dump, dressed in grunge, what would she look like dressed in designer labels?
For a momentjust a momenthe felt an overriding desire to put that to the test.
Then, in the next second, he crashed and burned.
'If you want a piece of meat, try a butcher's shop!'
The server's harsh voice cut right through Nikos's riveted attention to her physical attributes.
A frown of incomprehensionand annoyancepulled his brows together.
'What?' he demanded.
Her face was set. Absently Nikos noted how looking angry actually made her even more stunning. Her cerulean eyes flashed like sapphires.
'Don't give me that,' she snapped. 'Now, take your change, and your damn sandwich, and go!'
It was Nikos's turn to experience anger. His face hardened. 'Your rudeness to a customer,' he said freezingly, 'is totally unacceptable. Were you one of my employees you would be dismissed instantly for taking such an attitude to those whose custom pays your wages.'
For answer, she put the palms of her hands on the counterNikos found himself noting how well shaped they wereand braced herself.
'And if I worked for youwhich, thank God, I don'tI would be suing you for sexual harassment!' she bit back. Her eyes narrowed to slits. 'That's what I meant by wanting "meat", sunshine!'
Nikos's expression changed. The hardness was still in his eyes, but there was something else, too. A glint that, had the stunning but inexplicably bolshie female facing him been one of his acquaintances, she would have known sent a crystal-clear message.
'Since when is it illegal to admire a woman's beauty?' he riposted silkily.
To prove his point he let his gaze wash over her again. Inside him, the visceral reaction she'd aroused so powerfully warred with the irritation he'd felt ever since his hunger had hit himan irritation that her hostility and rudeness had elevated to outright anger. He wasn't sure which emotion was predominant. What he was sure of, though, was that right now his overpowering desire was to rattle her cage.
'If you want to go round ogling women like meat, then you should damn well wear sunglasses and spare us the ordeal,' she shot back.
Nikos felt yet another emotion spark through him. Almost unconsciously, he found himself starting to enjoy himself.
One arched eyebrow quirked tauntingly. 'Ordeal?' he asked limpidly.
And then, quite deliberately, he let his gaze soften. No longer assessing. More caressing. Letting her see clearly that women who received his approbation most definitely did not regard it as an ordeal.
And before his eyes, to his intense satisfaction, he saw a wave of colour suffuse her clear, translucent skin. Her cheeks grew stained and her gaze dropped.
'Go away,' she said. Her voice was tight. 'Just go away!'
He gave a low laugh. Game, set and matchthank you very much. He didn't need any further confirmation to know that he'd just effortlessly breached her defences got right past that bolshie anger barrier and hit home, sweet home.
With a sweeping gesture he scooped the pile of coins into his pocket, together with the solitary twenty-pound note, then picked up his ham sandwich and the bottle of water.
'Have a nice day,' he said flippantly, and strolled out of the sandwich shop.
His irritation was gone completely.
As he emerged he saw the down-and-out, Joe, leaning against a nearby lamppost, wolfing down the sandwich he had been given. On impulse, Nikos reached into his jacket pocket, jingling with all the pound coins she'd landed him with.
He scooped up a handful and proffered them. 'You asked about spare change,' he said to the man, who was eyeing him.
'Ta, guv,' said the man, and took the handful eagerly, his bloodshot eyes gleaming.
His grimy hands were shaking, and Nikos felt a pang of pity go through him.
'She's right, you know,' he heard himself telling the man. 'The booze is killing you.'
The bloodshot eyes met his. They were not gleaming now. There was desolation in them.
'I know, mate.'
He pulled his gaze away and then he was off again, shuffling down the street, pocketing the money, shoulders hunched in defeat. For a moment Nikos's eyes stayed on him. Then he saw a taxi cab approaching along the High Street, with its 'For Hire' sign illuminated. He flagged it down and flung himself into the back seat, starting to wolf down his ham sandwich.
His own words to the down-and-out echoed in his head. 'She's right, you know '
His jaw tightened. Damnshe was, too. And not just about that wretched alcoholic.
Finishing his sandwich, he lifted his mobile phone from his inside pocket and pressed the speed-dial key for his London PA. She answered immediately, and Nikos gave her his instructions.
'Janine, I need to have some flowers delivered.'
Mel stood, palms still pressed into the surface of the counter, and glared after the tall retreating figure. She was madtotally hopping mad. She hadn't been this angry since she couldn't remember when.
Damn the arrogance of the man!
She could feel her jaw still clenching. She hadn't liked him the moment he'd walked into the shop. The way he'd spokennot even waiting for her to turn around to him, just making his demands as if she was some kind of servant. Underling. Minion. Lackey. The insulting words marched through her head.
She'd tried for her customary politeness while she was finishing Joe's sandwich, but then she'd caught the way the damn man had looked at Joeas if he was a bad smell. Well, yes, he wasbut that wasn't the point. The point was that Joe was in a bad way, and for heaven's sake anyone would have felt pity for the guy, surely? Especiallyand now her jaw clenched even moreespecially a man whom life had so obviously not treated anything like as grimly as it had poor old Joe.
That had put her back up straight away. And from then on it had just got worse.
The whole monosyllabic exchange about what kind of sandwich he'd wanted replayed itself in her head, followed byoh yeshis dropping a fifty-pound note down in payment. Mel's mouth tightened in satisfaction. Well, it had given her particular pleasure to dump all those pound coins on him by way of change.
Boy, it had riled himshe had seen that immediately. Trouble was and now her expression changed yet again, to a mix of anger and something else quite entirely he had had that comeback on her.
Right through her body she could feel the heat flush. It was running right through herthrough every vein, right out to the tips of her fingersas though someone has tipped hot water into her. And to her own mortification she even felt glorious heat pooling in her core, felt her breasts start to tingle with traitorous reaction.
Oh, damn! Damn, damn, damn!
Yet she couldn't stop herself. Couldn't stop the memoryinstant, vivid and overpoweringof the way he'd looked at her. Looked right at her. Looked her over.
Meat, she said desperately to herself. As if you were a piece of meatthat's how he looked at you. Just as you told him.
She fought to call back the burst of satisfaction she'd felt when she'd rapped that out at him, but it was impossible. All that was possible now was to go on feeling the wonderful flush of heat coursing through her. She fought it down as best she could, willing it to leave herto leave her alonejust as she'd told him to go, just go away.