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Only 6:46 on Tuesday, with a fine May sunrise tinting the sky over Athens a pale, translucent peach.Yet for Dimitrios Giannakis, the day was already old and too grimly familiar. He hadn't needed to hear the medical team's latest bulletin when they met for their regular early-morning consultation. One look at their faces had told him all he needed to know.
Seated in his office now, Dimitrios regarded the telephone on his desk with the kind of loathing a man might show if he thought a pit viper was about to uncoil itself from the instrument and settle in his lap. This was not a call he wanted to make. Would, in fact, have done almost anything to avoid it if he'd had any choice in the matter. But the tragic fact was, he'd run out of options. Brianna Connelly was his last hopeor, more accurately, Poppy's last hope. And when it came to his daughter, Dimitrios allowed nothing, especially not his injured male pride, to come between her and what she so desperately needed.
Of course, the odds of Brianna agreeing to his request were slim to none. She'd made it clear enough, more than four years ago, where her priorities lay: in the glossy, artificial world of high fashion, which paid homage only to youth and beauty. But he had to ask. Was willing to beg, if necessary, to give his little girl a fighting chance.
The sweep second hand on his watch inched toward seven, making it almost nine the previous evening on Canada's west coast. As good a time as any to do what had to be done.
Jaw clenched, he lifted the handset from its cradle and punched in the number for Brianna's penthouse apartment, which, fortunately, was where his sources told him she was currently to be found. Time was of the essence, and by tomorrow she could be on location in some inaccessible corner of the Sahara, Iceland or the Australian Outback. Hers, after all, was a face and a body greatly in demand worldwide, and she too inexhaustibly ambitious to reject any assignment which might further her career.
The phone rang three times before her answering service picked up and asked him to leave a message. Glowering, he swiveled his chair to face the window. "It's Dimitrios Giannakis, Brianna. It's urgent that I speak to you as soon"
'Dimitrios?" Her voice, slightly husky and disturbingly erotic, intercepted, caressing his ear like a kiss.
Steeling himself against the sensory impact, he said curtly, "Good. You are there."
If he hadn't known better, he might have thought her small intake of breath signaled dismay or regret, but whatever the cause she recovered quickly and replied with matching brevity, "Obviously. What can I do for you?"
For years now he'd prided himself on being his own man, able to conquer the world and bring it to heel on his terms. The idea of groveling to anyone, least of all a woman he despised, almost made him retch. But fate had zeroed in on his one weak spot, his daughter, and although he'd have gone to his grave before he asked anything for himself, as his child's advocate, he had no choice but to swallow the bitter taste in his mouth and turn to the one person in the world who might possibly be able to help her. Alienating Brianna Connelly within seconds of contacting her was hardly the route to take.
Bearing this in mind, he attempted to soften his approach. "How are you, Brianna?"
How are you, my lovely?
Happier than I ever thought it possible to be
Slamming shut the door on memories that were particularly inappropriate at this moment and pointless at any time, he waited for her reply.
She laughed, a brittle, uncertain sound. "Considering we haven't exchanged more than ten words in years, Dimitrios, I hardly think you care one way or the other about my state of health. Nor would I have thought we shared anything in common since my sister's death. So why don't you cut to the chase and tell me what you're really after? I have an early flight tomorrow and need to get a good night's sleep."
He should have known it was still all about her. Some things never changed.
But some things did, and swinging back to his desk again, he picked up Poppy's framed photograph, taken just six months earlier, before illness had left her little face looking so pinched and wan. Grimacing with distaste, he did what he had to do. "Very well. I have a favor to ask of you, and I warn you now, it's huge."
Four years ago, Brianna had vowed never again to set foot in Greece, and except for the time she'd attended Cecily's memorial service when she'd quite literally flown in and out of Athens on the same day, she'd stood by that promise. Yet within forty-eight hours of his latest call, not only was she in the country, she was on Dimitrios Giannakis's doorstep, deposited there by his uniformed chauffeur who'd been waiting to meet her when she landed at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Spata. Changing her original travel plans had been easy enough. Her suitcases had stood already packed for her much-anticipated, month-long hiatus in Bermuda, and the clothes she'd packedcasual summertime outfits for the most partwould serve her equally well in Athens.
"I'm perfectly capable of getting myself from the airport to a hotel," she'd said, when she'd relayed her arrival date and time to Dimitrios.
He, however, had vetoed any such idea. "You will be met," he informed her flatly, "and you will be accommodated in my house where you will be pampered and cared for throughout your stay. It's the very least I can do. I am, after all, deeply in your debt."
His house? The word didn't come close to describing the residence confronting her now, and she hadn't even seen the inside yet. Perched on a low rise of cliff above the Aegean, and surrounded by lush gardens, its soaring white stucco exterior blushing in the sunset, the place was intimidatingly grand. Palatial, evenand Brianna wasn't exactly unused to luxury. But then, what else had she expected? She knew from experience that Dimitrios wasn't a man to do things by half.
She'd have laughed at the irony of the thought if she hadn't been so tense she could hardly breathe. Although she would never admit it, the prospect of seeing him again, let alone living under his roof, terrified her. He'd shredded her heart once and it had taken the better part of four years for it to heal. She wasn't keen on having him trample all over it a second time. Yet proximity gave opportunity for just such an outcome, especially under the present emotional circumstances.
"Well, you could have said no," her longtime agent and friend, Carter Maguire, had pointed out, when Brianna explained the reason she had to cancel all assignments in the immediate future.
To Dimitrios, yes. But how did any woman turn her back on a critically ill three-year-old?
His estate lay a few miles south of Rafina. The chauffeur, a taciturn man who'd uttered not one word during the thirty-minute drive from the airport, dumped her luggage beside her, reached forward to yank on the bell pull hanging by a chain beside the front door, then without waiting to see if anyone answered, climbed back behind the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz and drove away.
Over the fading sound of the departing car, she heard footsteps approach from inside the house and braced herself. The moment of truth had arrived. If she could weather this first meeting with Dimitrios, the worst would be over.
But the man who opened the door was too short, too genial, too bald and about twenty years too old to pass for her brother-in-law. With a mile-wide smile, he ushered her across the threshold. "Kalispera, Despinis Connelly, kai kherete! Good evening and welcome! We have been expecting you and are all so happy you have arrived."
We? She cast a nervous glance around the vast, marble-floored entrance hall, expecting Dimitrios to appear momentarily, but found nothing beyond a profusion of flowering shrubs in jardinieres, and a floating staircase leading to the upper floors.
The man hauled her suitcases inside. "I am Alexio," he informed her cheerfully. "I and my wife, Erika, we run the household staff. She is waiting to meet you in the courtyard with a light refreshment, and later will show you to your room. Meanwhile, I will have your luggage taken care of."
"Thank you," Brianna said. "You're very kind."
"Parakalo." He inclined his head. "You're welcome. Dinner will be served at nine o'clock, after Dimitrios returns."
"He's not here?"
Alexio's smile dimmed. "He's at the clinic with the little one," he explained, escorting her to the far end of the hall and through open glass doors to an inner courtyard. "He stays most evenings until she falls asleep. Most likely he will be home within the hour."
More flowering plants, a wall fountain and comfortable wicker furniture graced the tiled courtyard, making it a haven of shady tranquility, but the woman waiting to greet her wasn't quite as affable as Alexio. Although polite enough, Brianna saw reserve in her eyes, felt it in the cool touch of her hand as Alexio performed the introductions.
"You will wish to sit for a few minutes and relax after your long journey," his wife said, indicating a frosted pitcher of iced tea and bowl of fruit on the table.
Although pleasant enough on the surface, her words emerged less as an invitation than a command. Brianna, though, had been granted a short reprieve, and she wasn't about to waste it. She couldn't avoid Dimitrios indefinitely, but she could seize the chance to freshen up and look her best before she had to face him again. "That's very thoughtful of you, but I've been sitting for most of the last twenty-four hours and actually would like nothing more than to relax in a hot bath."
The woman switched her gaze to Alexio and muttered something in Greek. He responded by fanning his hands, palms down, and said quietly, "Do not fuss yourself, Erika." Then, addressing Brianna, attempted to ease the unmistakable tension in the air. "My wife is worried that she has yet to unpack your suitcases and prepare the clothes you wish to wear to dinner."
"Please don't be," Brianna told her. "I'm used to traveling and can manage perfectly well on my own."
Erika didn't quite sniff in disdain, but she came close. "Dimitrios will not like it. He has instructed us to treat you as if you are royalty."
"I'll make sure he knows that you have. Now, if you'll please show me to my room
"This way, then."
As Brianna might have expected, the suite she'd been assigned outshone anything the best hotel in Athens could provide. Large and airy, it had a sitting alcove at one end beyond which a deck overlooked the sea and sprawling rear gardens whose centerpiece was a huge saltwater infinity pool. The finest linens draped the bed. A mirrored dressing room connected to a bathroom completely outfitted in travertine marble. Here was a place to which she could retreat, should things become too heated and unpleasant with Dimitrios.
"If I've overlooked anything you might need, be so kind as to let me know," Erika said woodenly, preparing to leave with Alexio, who'd followed them upstairs with the suitcases.
Brianna cast an eye over the flower arrangements set at various points about the room, the carafe of iced water and upturned crystal glass on a tray, and remembered the array of toiletries in the bathroom. "I can't imagine there is. Nothing, that is, except"
"You mention changing for dinner. Exactly how should I dress?"
"Decently," the woman replied. "In keeping with the standards of this home."
Shocked speechless by such rudeness, Brianna simply stared at her. Apparently just as taken aback, Alexio practically shoved his wife out of the room and closed the door on her before turning to Brianna again. "Erika, her English is not always the best," he offered apologetically. "What she means to say is that dinner is more
civilized than breakfast or lunch. A pretty dress will do very well, but when Kyria Giannakis was alive
" He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Her ideas of what was seemly and proper did not always coincide with her husband's."
"I understand perfectly," Brianna said, and she did. Cecily had never been one to abide by anyone's rules but her own. If her behavior the last time she and Brianna had spent time together was any indication, she'd probably taken delight in flouting her husband's wishes at every turn.
Small wonder then that Erika was so hostile. She probably expected Brianna to be no better than her late twin, and who could blame her? After all, they had been identical, at least in looks, to the point that some people had never learned to tell them apart.
Especially not Dimitrios.