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From the sprawling veranda outside his bedroom Theo Toyas had a clear and unimpeded view of the drive leading up to his grandfather's fabulous villa. It was six-thirty in the afternoon, and the ferocious heat of the day was beginning to give way to something a little more acceptable. Even so, it was still too hot for anything other than a pair of light chinos and a short-sleeved shirt.
In one hand he nursed a whisky on the rocks, which he had been periodically sipping for the past half-hour, content to just sit back on the cushioned wicker lounging chair and watch the scenery. And the scenery was indeed magnificent. To the right, just a short walk from his bedroom, was a stunning infinity pool overlooking Santorini's famous flooded volcano. Meticulously manicured gardens swept around the pool and curved towards the drive, which had been impressively designed to give the illusion of dropping off the side of the caldera.
He had forgotten how tranquil and soporific the place was, but then again he rarely visited the villa. In fact, appreciating scenery was something Theo didn't do much of. He simply didn't have the time. He lived his life between London, Athens and New York, controlling the vast shipping empire which his great-grandfather had founded and which was now his legacy. Taking time out was almost unthinkable.
But then an eightieth birthday was not something that came around often and his grandfather's eightieth, to be celebrated in the villa on the very island where he had met his wife, was the equivalent of a royal summons. Most of the family members who lived on mainland Greece would be there for just the party, flying in on private planes which had been chartered for the purpose. Others, from as far afield as Canada, would be staying for the full week at the villa, or else hiving off to stay with other family members in other parts of Greece, some of whom they had not seen for a very long time.
Theo planned to stay for three days only, long enough to pay his respects and toast his grandfather's health before resuming his ferociously work fuelled life in London.
A taxi had stopped on the drive and he watched through narrowed eyes as first Michael, his brother, emerged from the car and then his companion.
So this was it. He was finally going to see this mysterious woman who had suddenly appeared on the scene. It had come as a source of relief to everyone, not least his mother and his grandfather. Theo might be single, yes, but he ostensibly enjoyed the company of women. He was also a pragmatist and fully comprehended the advantages of marrying the right girl with the right connections. He would, he had once dryly told them both, be married by forty. In the meantime, they were not to interfere with his private life.
Michael had always been another kettle of fish. Five years younger, he had always been a fragile child, prone to bouts of ill health. Whereas Theo had been sent to boarding school in England from the age of thirteen, something that had gone some way to giving him the hard-edged independence that had become the cornerstone of his formidable personality, Michael had been kept at home. Lina Toyas had not been able to face sending her delicate, sensitive son away from her. She had always worried about him and she still did. The fact that he had never brought home any nice girls to meet her had been just one more thing to worry about. He was shy, she knew, and shy men could often become lonely bachelors and that, for her, would have been a fate worse than death.
The sudden appearance of a girlfriend had brought tears of joy to Lina's eyes.
Theo, in receipt of this emotional telephone call, had been less thrilled.
Things didn't add up and he knew, as a shrewd businessman, that if something didn't add up then it was most probably wrong.
How was it that the name Abigail Clinton had never once crossed his brother's lips? Surely if they had been an item he would have mentioned her somewhere along the line, in one of the many calls he made to his mother in Greece from his home in Brighton? In fact, the girl's name had only been uttered a fortnight ago, when he had amazingly announced that he was engaged to an English girl and would be bringing her to his grandfather's birthday celebrations in Santorini.
Theo had tactfully refrained from voicing any of his suspicions to his mother. He intended to use his brief stay at the villa constructively. He would watch, question and determine whether the girl was, as he suspected, after his brother's money. Because Michael lived in Brighton and ran a couple of restaurants and a nightclub did not mean that he was unaffected by the fabulous Toyas wealth. In fact, he owned a great deal of highly valuable shares in the company and the trust fund into which he occasionally dipped was well beyond most people's wildest dreams. He lived a modest enough lifestyle, and at first glance might just come across as being an up-and-coming successful young businessman. That, as Theo knew only too well, was only the tip of the iceberg, just his brother modestly disassociating himself from the vast fortune that was attached to his name. Anyone interested in tapping into the mother lode would only have to do some rudimentary detective work and he was pretty sure that was exactly what had happened.
He was equally sure that he would do anything in his power to prevent his brother being exploited. Although he worried less about Michael than his mother did, he was still very protective of him. Michael trusted people, a huge drawback in life as far as Theo was concerned. To trust was to be vulnerable. Only fools were vulnerable.
He sat forward, black eyes hard as he focused on the girl emerging from the taxi. She was slight in stature, with long, very blonde hair, almost white-blonde in fact, which fell down her back in one perfectly satin-smooth, straight curtain. She kept playing with it, lifting it with one hand into a makeshift ponytail and then letting it drop, and all the while she stared around her, lips parted, taking in the opulence of the surroundings.
Clocking the price tag around Michael's neck, Theo thought cynically to himself.
Still, he conceded grudgingly, the boy had taste. He couldn't see the details of the girl's face but she was neatly built with slim legs and very slender arms. A boyish figure, barely filling the short, strappy dress. Unlike him, Michael had never shown the least interest in the voluptuous, sexy girls that Greece boasted.
He watched as suitcases were taken out of the taxi, his mind ticking along its ruthlessly logical path. When they disappeared from view he pushed himself off the lounger and sauntered into his bedroom, draining the remainder of the whisky in one gulp and dumping the empty glass on the sideboard in the room.
His room was typical of most of the many rooms in the enormous villa. It was luxuriously but simply furnished. The stained wooden floor was dominated by a large, brightly patterned rug and the walls were painted a pale terracotta, an effective backdrop for the cream curtains that hung from floor to ceiling. Against one wall was an impressive Syrian chest embellished with mother-of-pearl and above that hung a darkly compelling painting of the island's famous volcano by twilight. The majority of the furniture was of dark wood, which gave the room a decadent, opulent feel.
Theo barely noticed any of it. He was busy thinking, working out the best way to approach the girl without rousing his brother's suspicions or incurring his mother's displeasure. The latter, he thought to himself, would be slightly more of a challenge.
And who, he thought with a small smile, ever said that Theo Toyas didn't appreciate a challenge?
He was still contemplating the technicalities of revealing this gold-digger in their midst when, an hour later, he made his way to one of the sitting areas where he knew drinks would already be underway for the guests who had arrived. Not that many of them had so far. Most would be descending the following day, but on this first night there would essentially be just close family members. His grandfather, of course, and his mother, as well as uncles and aunts and their various offspring. And Michael and the woman.
Drinks were being served in the sitting area which overlooked the back gardens. He had spent a couple of pleasantly invigorating hours here earlier on with his mother, arguing the practicality of lighting up the outside area with lanterns and had, as he had expected, lost the debate. As he entered the sitting area, though, he had to admit that the effect was stunning.
The gardens seemed alive with giant fireflies and several of the guests were outside having their drinks, seduced by the romance of the scenery.
'I admit it looks rather splendid,' Theo said, grabbing a drink en route and strolling up to where his mother was quietly contemplating the stage she had masterfully set.
Lina turned to her eldest son and smiled. 'George likes it too. He fussed and fretted about all the effort involved, but look at him out there, puffing and preening like a peacock and accepting all the compliments. It is just a shame that your father is no longer around. He would have enjoyed the moment.'
Theo slung his arm around his mother's shoulder and nodded. 'We haven't had one of these family gatherings since
since that wedding five years ago. Elena and Stefano.'
'They will be here tomorrow. Along with their two children.' Lina turned to him and gave him a long, critical look. She was, he freely admitted, the only human being on the face of the earth who could look at him like that and get away with it. 'It could have been you,' she pointed out, without bothering to beat about the bush. 'You are not a young boy any longer. This dynasty needs its heirs, Theo.'
'And they will be produced,' Theo murmured placatingly, 'all in good time.'
'Alexis Papaeliou will be coming,' Lina ventured. 'She would be a good match, Theo. Her grandfather grew up with George. They still keep in touch now, even though it is not as easy as it once was.'
yes the name rings a bell. Alexis, pretty name, and I have to admit that three months of celibacy is beginning to get to me.' He grinned as his mother blushed furiously at his outrageously personal observation, and then indulged her as she reminded him that he was bordering on being disrespectful. Her voice was teas-ingly indulgent, however, as he had known it would be.
'Of course,' he said lightly, looking out to the gardens and the clusters of chattering people with drinks in their hands, 'there is no rush for me now, is there? With Michael having won the race to secure a bride
'I am merely making an observation, dearest Mama
'In a tone of voice which I am not sure I like. I have met the young woman and she seems perfectly friendly, if a little dazed at the surroundings.'
I'll just bet, Theo thought to himself. The dazedness, he reckoned, would last just about as long as it took her to add up the millions looming just over the horizon. He opened his mouth to share some of these thoughts with his mother, and then thought better of it. She often accused him of cynicism and she would have a very good reason for doing so again now, although he preferred to use the term cautious.
'Where are they?' he asked casually.
'They'll be down in a short while,' Lina said. 'And Theo
'Mama, I am always good.' He looked down at her and smiled as she shook her head and sighed. 'Michael loves this woman. I can see that. Do not spoil anything
'I'll bear that in mind,' Theo said noncommittally, and before he could be boxed into a corner, making promises he had no intention of keeping, he moved away, tugging his mother with him so that he could mingle with the guests.
But he was watching the French doors, all eight of them, which were thrown open to accommodate the easy flux of the guests as they went inside to sit, before strolling back out, drawn by the warmth and the seductive glow of the lanterns. His mind was half on the conversation he was having when they arrived. As soon as she saw the scene outside her hand flew to Michael's arm and he clasped it with his own, a gesture of reassurance. Theo watched as she looked up at Michael and said something and his brother smiled down at her, clearly urging her not to feel intimidated.
A charming charade, he thought. Was it for the benefit of his brother or for the congregation of people, who were now glancing over with interest in their direction?
Her outfit was certainly designed to impress the guests with her innocence. The pale dress was a testament to modesty. The neckline was rounded and buttoned to the top and although it did hug her top half the bottom swung in a swirl around her to her knees. And it was pink, the lightest of pinks, a colour associated with children. There she stood, hesitant and nervous and looking like the innocent he would have bet his bottom dollar she wasn't. The white-blonde hair was tied back in a neat braid, leaving her smooth, vulnerable neck exposed. In fact, he thought, that was precisely what she looked. Vulnerable. He gritted his teeth together impatiently and headed towards them, altering his expression as he approached and going through the genuine motions of greeting his brother before turning to her.
'My fianc e,' Michael said, grinning, 'Abby. Although I expect you have probably heard. News,' he said, turning to Abby, 'travels through this family at the speed of sound.'
Abby smiled and tried very hard to ignore the presence of the man standing next to Michael. He spoke a lot about his brother, Theo, whom he obviously admired, and in her head she had conjured up an image of someone not unlike Michael. Gentle, thoughtful, with the same teasing humour that had made her warm to him instantly.
She couldn't have been further from the truth.
There was nothing gentle about this man, although he was chatting easily enough with them. Even in the looks department he had somehow managed to take the dark good looks that Michael possessed and push them to the outer limits. His black hair was longer than his brother's, curling into the nape of his neck, and his eyes were like flint. Even his features were somehow harder and more ruthlessly defined. It all added up to a package that was intimidating, that sent little cold shivers of fear racing up and down her spine, although she had no idea why she should be afraid.
He was talking to her now, asking her something about the weather in Brighton, a perfectly harmless question, but when Abby looked at him she had the unnerving impression that something dark and threatening was stirring just below the surface.
She also found that her eyes were riveted to his face, which was compelling and scary at the same time.
She edged closer to Michael and knew that Theo had noticed that small shift in her stance, although his face remained impassively polite, his head tilted to one side with every semblance of hanging on to what she was going to say.
The man exuded power and menace. She heard herself stammering out some nonsense about winter by the coast, followed by another humdrum remark about the lovely weather here, how super it was to actually be able to stand outside in the evening. In the middle of her tortured reply Michael removed himself so that he could see his mother and fetch them both a drink, leaving her floundering in sudden, inexplicable panic.
'You can't be that warm,' Theo drawled. He, too, shifted his stance, although it was to block her off from the guests behind him. In a minute he knew that his mother would descend upon them and he intended to let no part of his time be wasted. 'You're trembling.'
'Oh, I'm just
a little nervous, I suppose.' Abby looked away. 'All these people
'Surely you are not nervous of mixing with our family. They are a perfectly ordinary bunch.' He didn't smile when he said this. He just kept looking at her in that way that made her wonder what was going through his head. 'Although I can understand that tackling Michael on his own might be a little different to dealing with
the rest of us.'
'What do you mean by tackling?' Abby asked sharply.
'Why don't you come and meet the rest of the clan?' Theo placed a hand on her arm to usher her in the direction of the assorted guests and he felt her instinctive urge to pull away.
Not, he thought grimly, the sign of someone madly in love with his brother and with nothing to hide. With easy aplomb he directed her to his mother, taking time out to observe her reactions, and then he continued to watch her throughout the rest of the evening. His brother was as solicitous as he had expected and away from him she seemed to relax.
But then no one else was questioning her presence on the island and in his brother's life.