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Stavros Denakis surveyed the crowd spilling out from his villa and permitted himself a single satisfied smile.
The engagement party was perfect. As planned.
It was a superb evening for a celebration. The black velvet of the Aegean sky shone with a lustrous net of stars and a light breeze tempered the heat.
The murmurs and laughter of delighted guests rose above a discreet background of live music. The crates of iced vintage champagne emptied almost as quickly as they were supplied.
Unerringly Stavros located his father's wheelchair on the flagged terrace nearest the house. The old man wore a rare smile as he chatted with one of his cronies. Even from this distance his renewed vigour was obvious.
Yes. Stavros had made the right decision with tonight's announcement.
Dispassionately he watched Angela walk down the wide stairs to the second terrace, drawing attention even among the crowd of wealthy, beautiful people. She was poised and elegant, wearing with apparent nonchalance the collar of diamonds he'd given her. There was just enough sway in those sleekly rounded hips to hold a sensual promise. For the right man.
The perfect fianc e.
She joined a cluster of guests who were neither relatives nor close friends. They were business associates.
Angela understood the value of these new associates to his latest expansion. Not indispensable to him: no one was that. But useful, worth time and effort. Already she was charming the group with her beauty and attentive interest.
She had just the right blend of wit and good looks. Of intelligence and sensuality. Of spirit and acquiescence to his wishes.
She would make the perfect wife for the CEO of Denakis International.
He swung round to see his head of security approaching.
Stavros registered mild annoyance. There must have been yet another attempted press intrusion. A major one this time, for Petros to bother him with it now.
For weeks his staff had repelled attempts by the paparazzi to find a way into tonight's celebration. It had even been necessary to enforce a blanket no-fly zone over the island to ensure privacy.
'Is there a problem?'
A ripple of expression crossed Petros'features, a fleeting look of unease. That in itself was unique. Immediately Stavros stiffened, alert to the fact that something was most definitely wrong.
'We have a
He nodded. That much was obvious.
'A young woman has arrived.'
What had she done? Broken her neck attempting to scale the perimeter wall? Half-drowned herself trying to swim ashore unseen? Whatever her actions, the results were serious judging by the almost-expression on Petros' dour features.
'She is demanding to see you.'
For an instant Stavros felt his eyes widen in astonishment. That anyone should demand to see him. Or that his well-trained staff should not be able to escort a lone female off his premises, no matter how demanding she was. Either eventuality was extraordinary.
His curiosity grew. 'Who is she?'
'She refuses to give her name, kyrie.'
Stavros raised an eyebrow. 'And yet her presence here bothers you? She isn't Press?' Intriguing.
'She says not. No Press card. Not the right attitude either.' Stavros forbore to query that. His staff were professionals, they knew their business.
?' Of course there was more.
'And she says it's urgent she sees you, speaks with you privately.'
If he made time for every crank, competitor or journalist who wanted to see him, Stavros would never have privacy. Or time to run the most exclusive fine jewellery enterprise in the world.
The House of Denakis had a generations'old reputation for magnificent artistic creations, avidly acquired by the wealthiest of the international lite. Its pieces were worn by royalty, if they could afford it. It set the standard to which other houses aspired. Managing it required not only dedication, flair and outstanding business acumen, but also ruthless single-mindedness.
He curbed his impatience as Petros pulled out a palm-sized portable monitor and handed it over. The screen showed a young woman sitting on a straight-backed chair in a bare room. Her back was to the camera but Stavros could see she wore the ubiquitous modern uniform of jeans and a T-shirt. She was slim. Dark hair pinned up on the back of her head.
Her posture caught his attention. She sat straight and alert in her hard seat. But it wasn't nerves that made her sit so. She didn't project an aura of apprehension. Instead her bearing seemed almost regal.
He frowned at her air of confidence. Who was she to be so sure of herself after trespassing onto his property? For a moment something about her nagged at his subconscious. Could he know her? Have met her perhaps?
He shrugged. It didn't matter. She hadn't been invited so he didn't intend to see her.
'Show her off the premises,' he said as he passed the monitor back. 'She's wasting your time.'
But still Petros lingered. He cleared his throat.
Stavros tilted one impatient eyebrow.
'There's more, kyrie. You may wish to consider meeting her.'
'And why would I do that?'
There was no doubting Petros' discomfort now.
'She has your ring. With your family seal.'
Stavros froze. He stared into his security chief's hard features. This wasn't a con. The ring was distinctive, one of a kind, and Petros had been with the family long enough to know the genuine item when he saw it.
Even though the ring had been missing now for four years.
'You have it?' Stavros held out his hand, but Petros shook his head.
'I've seen it, examined it closely. But she has it on a long chain round her neck and refuses to give it up till she sees you. I could have taken it from her but it seemed best to wait and be sure
To be sure just who this woman was.
Again Stavros experienced that jab of curiosity. Its intensity disturbed him.
There were no unwelcome surprises in his life. He paid an army of staff very well to ensure just that. Even his professional life followed the anticipated patternthe pattern he laid out for it. There were challenges, goals and opportunities but, with his formidable business skills, his extreme wealth and above all his determination, success was guaranteed.
He took a slow breath as he registered the turmoil of almost-buried emotions.
It was his duty to get the piece back if he could, to pass on to the next generation. It had been ancient when one of his ancestors had worn it into battle during the War of Independence. Old even when an earlier ancestor had travelled to Byzantium seeking the emperor's favour.
And it held more recent memories too. Of a time he'd rather forget.
Of the only time in his life that he'd failed.
'Come!' He turned his back on the noise of his engagement celebration. 'Show me this woman who claims to have my property.'
Tessa refused to give in to the exhaustion that threatened to swamp her now she'd finally arrived. She pushed her shoulders back, lifted her chin and prepared to wait.
Just a little longer, and then it would be over. Then she could rest.
She surveyed the blank white wall in front of her. The bare table, the empty chair. What was this room used for? It looked like an interrogation cell.
She shivered as a flash of memory burst upon her. Of another small, windowless room. Not so pristine, or so quiet. The paint on those walls had long since peeled away, leaving the slapdash structure of mortar and cheap bricks visible. The floor was gritty underfoot and littered with debris.
And the smell. Her nostrils flared as she remembered.
That room had been rank with the scent of fear. Fear and pain.
Resolutely she turned her mind back to the present. She was half a world away, literally, from that place. And that room no longer existed, had long since been bulldozed into rubble.
The trouble was that memories couldn't be destroyed as easily as buildings.
She took a deep breath and automatically reached for her talisman on its chain. Its weight was comforting between her breasts. It had seen her through hard times, a promise of hope in times of need and despair.
And now she'd come to give it back. She didn't need it any more.
It had been a shock to discover its real owner was very much alive. She must have sat, statue-still, for long minutes as she'd stared at the magazine, right into the face of the man who'd haunted her for the last four years. The airport lounge had receded to a peripheral blur as she took in his unmistakable features. His arrogant air of assured power.
'The golden couple: Stavros Denakis and Angela Christophorou. Will it be wedding rings for two?' So the caption had run.
The photo above it had shown a glamorous couple entering a nightclub. She was gorgeous, model-chic in a figure-moulding silver dress that revealed a fashionable amount of superb cleavage. And an even more stunning amount of diamond jewellery.
Yet she was overshadowed by the presence of the man beside her, tall and powerfully built, his face severe and not a little intimidating as he stared right into the camera. A man with a purpose. With power. With the sort of magnetism a woman couldn't ignore.
Tessa swallowed against the lump of emotion that clogged her throat. She still remembered the surprisingly comforting touch of his hand, enclosing hers. The brush of his lips, fleeting but hot, like a brand against her own. The way his charcoal eyes had darkened almost to black as he'd stared down at her.
Amazing that she could remember such minute detail after all this time, even down to the tremor of excitement that had skittered down her spine at his scrutiny.
But then, he was the man who'd saved her life.
Every minute they'd spent together was emblazoned in her mind. Through the intervening years she'd revisited that time so often, drawing strength from the recollection of his formidable will-power, his unhesitating, almost casual acceptance of the need to help her.
The memory of the man himself had been a far more potent talisman than the piece of jewellery he'd left behind.
The sound of footsteps, rapid and purposeful, broke across her thoughts and she stiffened in her seat, preparing herself to face him.
The lock clicked and the door swung open and there he was. Stavros Denakis.
Her eyes widened as she took him in. He was bigger than she remembered, so powerfully built across the shoulders that he filled the doorway. She watched his hand clench white-knuckled on the door knob and his chest expand as he drew in a deep breath.
His face might have been sculpted in stone, the flesh tight over a magnificent bone structure. There was a flash of white as his lips drew back for an instant in an expression of shock. His eyes bored into her, dark and doubting. They narrowed as they swept from her head to her waistall he could see of her behind the table.
Tessa felt that scrutiny like a physical touch and tilted her chin up, her eyes meeting his.
Recognition flared through her. It wasn't just the sight of him but the way she responded to his presencethe quickened pulse, the breathless constriction of her chest, the tell-tale quiver of excitement as she looked up at him.
She'd know this man in the dark, blindfolded.
He'd affected her like that the first time they'd met. Why should she be surprised to discover that hadn't changed?
He strode forward and came to a halt just in front of the small table.
'Who are you?' he demanded in English. His voice was deep, a mere whisper, but with the sort of authority that guaranteed an answer.
'Tessa Marlowe.' She swallowed against the sudden dryness in her mouth.
He jerked his head up abruptly in clear rejection. For a moment there was silence between them, broken only by the sound of her shallow breathing. Then he leaned forward, planting both fists on the table before her. His head loomed close to hers and she stiffened against the urge to retreat, shrink back in her chair.
She breathed deep, searching for calm. But instead another sensation ricocheted through her. The subtle, tantal-ising scent of him evoked something unmistakable, a female awareness that circled and curled in on itself, deep in the pit of her belly.
'Don't you remember me?' she whispered, her voice hoarse with stress.
His eyes looked obsidian-black now, slitted and gleaming between long lashes.
There was no recognition there. No welcome. Only doubt. And fury.
'Who are you?' he said again.
'I told you. I'm Tessa Marlowe.'
He slammed his palm against the table. 'No! Tessa Marlowe died four years ago.'
The air seemed to crackle, the tension between them sucking the oxygen from her lungs.
She'd expected surprise, astonishment, but not this anger that welled from him in waves. The force of it pinned her against the hard back of her seat.
She gathered her strength and spoke, surprised to hear her voice so calm and cool. 'You're mistaken. I was injured, unconscious. But that's all.'
He gazed at her, unblinking. 'Prove it.'
She fumbled at the neckline of her T-shirt. Drew the familiar chain up till she felt it in her hand: the ring she'd protected and cherished all these years.
For a moment she hesitated, held it close in her clenched fist. Then she dragged it out, holding the chain at full length away from her, its burden resting in her open palm.
He watched her intently, didn't even blink. A sizzle of energy jagged between them and she wondered why she hadn't heard the sound of a thunderclap to accompany it.
Then he flicked his eyes from hers and down to the prize she held in her hand.
Released from his thrall, she sagged in her seat, exhausted by the assault this man made on her senses.
She heard the hiss of his indrawn breath and knew that at last he believed.
Stavros stared, unbelieving, at the ring in the centre of her slender palm.
He'd recognise it anywhere, had known it all his life. The heavy circlet of gold, worn but still solid. Its centrepiece engraved in ancient times with tiny, exquisite carvings of a hunter in a chariot facing a lion at bay. It had been designed for use untold generations ago as a sealthe unique identifying mark of a man of power.
And now it was the symbol of his house, the House of Denakis. A stylised version of that chariot, that hunter, graced the doors of Denakis showrooms in Athens, Paris, London, New York, Zurich and Tokyo.
He reached out a hand and touched the engraved surface of it. His finger connected with the warmth of her palm and he watched her tremble.
So, she was nervous after all. With her uptilted chin and her unwavering gaze she gave the appearance of pure confidence.
He focused again on the ring. No doubt about it: it was genuine, and completely out of place on that cheap, low-grade chain.
He frowned. Explanations were required.
Stavros picked up the ring between his fingers, again letting his fingers brush the flesh of her palm. This time she whipped her hand away, leaving him in sole possession of the ring.
He pretended to study it, but his attention was focused on her. The rapid rise and fall of her breasts. The soft sound of her breathing. The warm, soap scent of her, more evocative somehow than the expensive designer perfumes to which he was accustomed.
He let the ring drop, watched the shabby chain fall against her plain T-shirt, between her breasts. Then he raised his eyes again to hers.
Even now, prepared for it, he was stunned by the sight of her. When he'd entered the room he'd thought he'd seen a ghost. Reaction had stopped him in his tracks, churning his stomach.
Tessa Marlowe had died four years ago in an explosion that claimed a dozen lives. He had a copy of her death certificate! Officially she didn't exist any more. The memory of the day she'd died, of mangled vehicles in that shambles of a street, lived with him still.
And yet, here she was. Alive. The shock of it reverberated down his spine.
Fleetingly he wondered what poor nameless woman had been wrongly identified after the bomb blast. For he knew with a bone-deep certainty that this was Tessa Marlowe. The high, slanted cheekbones, the elegant neck and heart-shaped face. The slight frame. And of course those eyes.
He'd seen green eyes before, but not this pure, unadulterated emerald. He'd only found that shade in the most priceless gems. Collectors would pay a fortune for a stone that colour. It was unique.
This was indeed Tessa Marlowe. She was unmistakable.