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Lounging in his chair at the head of the boardroom table, Leo Christakis, thirty-four-year old human dynamo and absolute head of the Christakis business empire, held the room in a state of near-rigid tension by the sheer power of his silence.
No one dared to move. All dossiers resting on the long polished table top remained firmly closed. Except for the folder flung open in front of Leo. And as five minutes edged with agonising slowness towards ten, even the act of breathing in and out became a difficult exercise and not one of those present had the nerve to utter so much as a sound.
For Leo's outwardly relaxed posture was dangerously deceptive, as was the gentle way he was tapping his neatly clipped fingernails on the polished surface as he continued to read. And anyoneanyone daring to think that the sensual shape of his mouth was relaxed in a smile needed a quick lesson in the difference between a smile and a sneer.
Leo knew the damn difference. He also knew that the nasty stuff was about to hit the fan. For someone around here had pulled a fast one with company money and what made him really angry was that the fiddle was so badly put together anyone with a rudimentary grasp of arithmetic could spot it a mile away. Leo did not employ incompetents. Therefore the list of employees who might just dare to believe they could get away with ripping him off like this could be shortlisted to one.
Rico, his vain and shallow, gut-selfish stepbrother, and the only person employed by this company to earn his place in it by favour alone.
Family, in other words.
Damn, Leo cursed within the depths of his own angry thinking. What the hell gave Rico the idea he could get away with this? It was well known throughout this global organisation that each branch was hit regularly by random internal audits for the specific purpose of deterring anyone from trying a stunt like this. It was the only way a multinational the size of this one could hope to maintain control!
The arrogant fool. Was it not enough that he was paid a handsome salary for doing almost nothing around here? Where did he get off believing he could dip his greedy fingers in the pot for more?
'Where is he?' Leo demanded, bringing half a dozen heads shooting up at the sudden sound of his voice.
'In his office,' Juno, his London based PA quickly responded. 'He was informed about this meeting, Leo,' the younger man added in case Leo was living with the mistaken belief that Rico had not been told to attend.
Leo did not doubt it, just as he did not doubt that everyone sitting around this table believed that Rico was about to receive his just desserts. His stepbrother was a freeloader. It went without saying that the people who worked hard for their living did not like freeloaders. And all it took was for him to lift his dark head with its hard, chiselled bone structure, which would have been stunningly perfect if it weren't for the bump in the middle of his slender noseput there by a football boot when he was in his teensand scan with his rich, dark velvet brown eyes half a dozen carefully guarded expressions to have that last thought confirmed.
Theos. There was little hope of him managing to pull off a cover-up with so many people in the know and silently baying for Rico's blood, he concluded as he hid his eyes again beneath the thick curl of his eyelashes.
Did he want to cover up for Rico? The question flicked at the muscle that lined his defined jawbone because Leo knew the answer was yes, he did prefer to affect a cover-up than to deal with the alternative.
A thief in the family.
Fresh anger surged. With it came a grim flick of one hand to shut the folder before he rose to his feet, long legs thrusting him up to his full and intimidating six feet four inches immaculately encased in a smooth dark pinstripe suit.
Juno also jumped up. 'I will go and'
'No, you will not,' Leo said in tightly accented English. 'I will go and get him myself.'
Everyone else shifted tensely as Juno sank down in his seat again. If Leo had been in the mood to notice, he would have seen the wave of swift, telling glances that shifted around the table, but he was in no frame of mind to want to notice anything else as he stepped around his chair and strode out through the door without bothering to spare anyone another glance.
Just as he didn't bother to look sideways as he strode across the plush hushed executive foyer belonging to the Christakis London offices. If he had happened to glance to the side, then he would have seen the lift doors were about to openbut he didn't.
He was too busy cursing the sudden heart attack that took his beloved father from him two years ago, leaving him with the miserable task of babysitting the two most irritating people it had been his misfortune to knowhis high-strung Italian stepmother, Angelina, and her precious son, Rico Giannetti.
Ah, someone save me from smooth, handsome playboys and hypersensitive stepmothers anxiously besottedwith their beautiful sons, he thought heavily. Family loyalty was the pits, and the day that Rico's ever-looming marriage took place and he took his life and his gullible new wife back to his native Milan to live with Angelina, could not come soon enough for Leo.
If he could get Rico out of this mess without compromising his own reputation and standing in this company that was, or Rico would not be going anywhere but a prison cell.
A sigh hurt his chest as Leo chose to suppress it, the knowledge that he was already looking for a way out for Rico scraping the sides of his pride in contempt.
What was Natasha going to do if she found out she was about to marry a thief?
Though why the hell his stepbrother had chosen to marry Miss Cool and Prim Natasha Moyles was a mystery to Leo. She was not the nubile celebrity stick-like variety of female Rico usually turned on for. In fact, she lived inside a pretty much perfect long-legged and curvy hourglass shape she ruined by hiding it with her lousy dress sense. She was also cold and polite and irritatingly standoffisharound Leo anyway.
So why Natasha had fallen in love with a life-wasting playboy like Rico was just another puzzle Leo could not work out. The attraction of opposites? Did the cool and prim disguise fall apart around Rico?
Perhaps she became a bodice-ripping sex goddess in the bedroom, because she sure had the potential to be a raging sex goddess with her soft feminine features and her wide-spaced, too-blue eyes and that lush, sexy mouth she could not disguise, which just begged to be kissed out of its
Theos, Leo cursed yet again as something familiarly hot gave a tug low down in his gut to remind how Natasha Moyles's mouth could affect himwhile behind him the object of his thoughts walked out of the lift only to pull to a shuddering halt when she caught sight of his instantly recognisable, tall, dark suited shape striding into the corridor across the other side of the foyer.
Natasha's heart did a funny little squirm in her chest and for a moment she actually considered giving in to the sudden urge to leap back into the lift and come back to see Rico later when his stepbrother wasn't about.
She did not like Leo Christakis. He had an uncomfortable way of always making her feel tense and edgy with his hard-nosed, worldly arrogance and his soft, smooth sarcasms that always managed to make such accurate swipes at just about every insecurity she possessed.
Did he think she never noticed the sardonic little smile he always wore on his mouth whenever he was given an opportunity to run his eyes over her? Did he think it was great fun to make her freeze with agonising self-consciousness because she knew he was mocking the way she preferred to hide her curves rather than put them on show like the other women that circled his wonderful self?
Not that it mattered what Leo Christakis thought about her, Natasha then told herself quickly, while refusing to acknowledge the way her eyes continued to cling to him, or that one of her hands was nervously slotting a loose golden strand of hair back to her neatly pinned knot and the other hand clutched her little black purse to the front of her pale blue suit as if the purse acted like a piece of body armour meant to keep him at bay.
She wasn't here to see him. He was just the arrogant, self-important, overbearing stepbrother of the man she was supposed to be marrying in six weeks. And unless Rico had some very good answers to the accusations she was about to fire at him, then there wasn't going to be a wedding!
Natasha felt herself go pale as she recalled the scene some kind person had relayed to her mobile phone this morning. Why did some people take pleasure in sending another person images of their fiancé locked in the arms of another woman? Did they think that because she was attached to the pop-music industry she couldn't possibly have feelings to wound?
Well, look at me now, Natasha thought bleakly as she dragged her eyes away from Leo to stare at the way her trembling fingers were gripping her purse. I'm not just wounded, I'm dying! Or her love for Rico was dying, she revised bleakly. Because this was it, the final straw, the last time she was going to turn blind eyes and deaf ears to the rumours about his cheating on her.
It was time for a showdown.
Pale lips pressed together now, eyes fixed on the expanse of grey carpet spread out in front of her, Natasha set herself walking across the foyer and into the corridor that led the way to Rico's office in the now-forgotten wake of Leo Christakis.
The door was shut tight into its housing. Leo didn't bother to knock on it before he twisted the handles and threw it open wide, then took a long step forwards, ready to give Rico Giannetti hellonly to find himself freezing at the sight that met his flashing dark gaze.
For the next few numbing seconds Leo actually found himself wondering if he was dreaming what he was seeing. It was so difficult to believe that even Rico could be this crass! For standing there in front of his desk was his handsome stepbrother with his trousers pooled round his ankles and a pair of slender female legs wrapped around his waist. The very air in the room seethed with gasps as Rico's tight and tanned backside thrust forwards and backwards while soft groans emitted from the naked and not-so-prim female spread out on the top of the desk.
Clothes were scattered all over the place. The smell of sex was strong and thick. The very floor beneath Leo's feet vibrated to Rico's urgent gyrations.
'What the hell?' Leo raked out in a blistering explosion of grinding disgust at the precise moment that an entirely separate sound hit him from behind and had him wheeling about.
He found himself staring into the shock-frozen face of Rico's fiancée. Confusion locked onto his hard golden features because he had believed the blonde ranging about on the desk must be her!
'Natasha?' he ground out in a surprise-driven rasp.
But Natasha didn't hear him. She was too busy seeing her worst nightmare confirmed by the two people who were beginning to realise they were no longer alone. As she watched as if from a strange place somewhere way off in the distance she saw Rico's handsome dark head lift up and turn. Sickness clawed at the walls of her stomach as his heavy-lidded, passion-glazed eyes connected with hers.
Then the woman moved, dragging Natasha's gaze sideways as a blonde head with a pair of blue eyes lifted up to peer around Rico's blocking frame. The two women looked at each otherthat was alljust looked.
' Who the?' Leo spun back the other way to discover that the two lovers were now aware of their presence.
The woman was trying to untangle herself, levering herself up on an elbow as she pushed at Rico's bared chest with a slender hand. Shifting his eyes to her, Leo felt true hell arrive as the full horror of what they were witnessing slammed like a truck into his face.
Cindy, Natasha's sister. Two blondes with blue eyes and an age gap that made Cindy seem still just a kid.
His stomach revolted. He swung back to Natasha, but Natasha was no longer standing behind him. Her tense long-legged curvy shape in its stiff pale blue suit was already halfway back down the corridor, making as fast as she could for the lift.
Anger on her behalf roaring up inside him, Leo twisted back to the two guilty lovers. The serious questions Rico should be answering suddenly flew right out of his head. 'You are finished with me, Rico,' he raked out at the younger man. 'Get your clothes on and get the hell out of my building before I have you thrown outand take the slut with you!'
Then he walked out, pulling the door shut behind him before taking off after Natasha at a run and feeling an odd sense of disorientating empowerment now that Rico had given him just cause to kick him right out of his life.
The lift doors closed before he got there. Cursing through his clenched teeth, Leo turned and headed for the stairs. One flight down and the single lift up to the top floor became three lifts, which fed the whole building. Glancing up to note that Natasha was going down to the basement just before he strode inside another lift, he hit the button that would take him to the same place.
His insides were shaking. All of him was pumped up and pulsing becauseTheos, sex did that to you. Even when what you'd seen sickened and disgusted, it still had a nasty way of playing its song in your blood.
Striding out of the lift, Leo paused to look around the basement car park. Natasha's Mini stood out like a shiny red stain in a murky world of fashionable silver and black. He saw her then. She was leaning heavily on the car and her shoulders were heaving. He thought she was weeping but as he approached her he realised that she was being violently sick.
' he muttered for some stupid reason because nothing could be less OK, and he placed his hands on her shoulders.
'Don't touch me!' She jerked away from him.
Offence hit Leo full on his chiselled chin. 'I am not Rico!' he raked back in sheer reaction. 'Just as you are not your slut of a sister!'
She turned and slapped him hard on the face.