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Revenge was sweet.
Andreas Xenides eyed the shabby building that proclaimed itself a hotel, its faded sign swinging violently in the bitter wind that carved its way down the canyon of the narrow London street.
How long had it taken to track down the man he knew to be inside? How many years? He shook his head, oblivious to the cold that had passers-by clutching at their collars or burrowing hands deeper into pockets. It didn't matter how long. Not now that he had found him.
The cell phone in his pocket beeped and he growled in irritation. His lawyer had agreed to call him if there was a problem with his plan proceeding. But one look at the caller ID and Andreas had the phone slipped back in his pocket in a moment. Nothing on Santorini was more important than what was happening here in London today, didn't Petra know that?
The wind grew teeth before he was halfway across the street, another burst of sleet sending pedestrians scampering for cover to escape the gusty onslaught, the street a running watercolour of black and grey.
He mounted the hotel's worn steps and tested the handle. Locked as he'd expected, a buzzer and rudimentary camera mounted at the side to admit only those with keys or reservations, but he was in luck. A couple wearing matching track-suits and money belts emerged, so disgusted with the weather that they barely looked his way. He was past them and following the handmade sign to the downstairs reception before they'd struggled into their waterproof jackets and slammed the door behind them.
Floorboards squeaked under the shoddy carpet and he had to duck his head as the stairs twisted back on themselves under the low ceiling. There was a radio crackling away somewhere in the distance and his nose twitched at a smell of decay no amount of bleach had been able to mask.
This place was barely habitable. Even if the capricious London weather was beyond his control, he had no doubt the clientele would be much happier in the alternative accommodation he'd arranged for them.
A glazed door stood ajar at the end of a short hallway, another crudely handwritten note taped to the window declaring it the office, and for a moment he was so focused on the door and the culmination of a long-held dream that he barely noticed the bedraggled shape stooping down to pick up a vacuum cleaner, an overflowing rubbish bag in the other hand. A cleaner, he realised as she straightened. For a moment he thought she was about to say something, before she pressed her lips together and flattened herself against a door to let him pass. There were dark shadows under her reddened eyes, her fringe was plastered to her face and her uniform was filthy. He flicked his eyes away again as he passed, his nose twitching at the combined scent of ammonia and stale beer. So that was the hired help. Hardly surprising in a dump like this.
Vaguely he registered the sound of her retreat behind him, her hurried steps, the thud of the machine banging against something and a muffled cry. But he didn't turn. He was on the cusp of fulfilling the promise he'd made to his father on his deathbed.
It wasn't a moment to rush.
It was a moment to savour.
And so he hesitated. Drank in the moment. Wishing his father could be here. Knowing he would be watching from wherever he was now.
Knowing it was time.
He jabbed at the door with two fingers and watched it swing open, letting the squeak of the hinges announce his arrival.
Then he stepped inside.
The man behind the dimly lit desk hadn't looked up. He was too busy scribbling notes on what looked like the turf guide with one hand, holding the phone to his ear with the other, and it was all Andreas could do to bite back on the urge to cross the room and yank the man bodily from his chair. But much as he desired to tear the man to pieces as he deserved, Andreas had a much more twenty-first-century way of getting justice.
'Take a seat,' the man growled, removing the phone from his ear long enough to gesture to a small sofa, still busy writing down his notes. 'I'll be just a moment.'
One more moment when it had taken so many years to track him down? Of course he could wait. But he'd bet money he didn't have to.
'Kala ime orthios,' Andreas replied through his teeth, I'm fine standing, 'if it's all the same to you.'
The man's head jerked up, the blood draining from his face leaving his red-lined eyes the only patch of colour. He uttered a single word, more like a croak, before the receiver clattered back down onto the cradle, and all the while his gaze didn't leave his visitor, even as he edged his chair back from the desk. But there was nowhere to go in the cramped office and his chair rolled into the wall with a jolt. He stiffened his back and jerked his chin up as if he hadn't just been trying to escape, but he didn't attempt to stand. Andreas wondered if it was because his knees were shaking too much.
'What are you doing here?'
Andreas sauntered across the room, until he was looming over both the desk and the man cowering behind it, lazily picking up a letter opener in his long-fingered hands and testing its length through his fingers while all the time Darius watched nervously. 'It's been a long time, Darius. Or would you rather I called you Demetrius, or maybe even Dominic? I really can't keep up. You seem to go through names like other people go through toilet paper.'
The older man licked his lips, his eyes darting from side to side, and this close Andreas was almost shocked to see how much his father's one-time friend and partner had aged. Little more than fifty years old, and yet Darius's hair had thinned and greyed and his once wiry physique seemed to have caved in on itself, the lines on his face sucked deeper with it. The tatty cardigan he wore draped low on his bony shoulders did nothing to wipe off the years.
So time hadn't treated him well? Tough. Sympathy soon departed as Darius turned his eyes back to him and Andreas saw that familiar feral gleam, the yellow glow that spoke of the festering soul within. And he might be afraid now, taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of his former partner's son, but Andreas knew that any minute he could come out snarling. Not that it would do him any good.
'How did you find me?'
'That's one thing I always liked about you, Darius. You never did waste your time on small talk. No "how are you?" No "have a nice day".'
'I get the impression you didn't come here for small talk.'
'Touché,' Andreas conceded as he circled the room, absently taking inventory, enjoying the exchange much more than he'd expected. 'I have to admit, you weren't easy to find.
You were good at covering your tracks in South America. Very good. The last we heard of you was in Mexico before the trail went cold.' Andreas looked up at the high basement window where the sleet was leaving trails of slush down the grimy glass before he turned back. 'And to think you could still be back there enjoying the sunshine. Nobody expected you'd be fool enough to show your face in Europe again.'
A glimmer of resentment flared in Darius' eyes, and his lip curled into a snarl. The hungry dog was out of its kennel. 'Maybe I got sick of beans.'
'The way I hear it, you ran out of money. Lost most of it on bad business deals and flashy women.' Andreas leaned over and picked up the form guide sitting on the desk. 'Gambled away the rest. All that money, Darius. All those millions. And this—' he waved his hand around him '—is what you're reduced to.'
Darius glowered, his eyes making no apology in their assessment of his visitor's cashmere coat and hand stitched shoes, a tinge of green now colouring his features. 'Looks like you've done all right for yourself though.'
No thanks to you!
Andreas' hands clenched and unclenched at his sides while he tried to remember his commitment not to tear the man apart. A deep breath later and he could once again manage a civil tone. 'You've got a problem with that?'
'Is that why you came here, then? To gloat?' He sneered, swinging a hand around the shabby office. 'To see me reduced to this? Okay, you've seen me. Happy now? Isn't that what they say—success is the best revenge?'
Ah, now that's where they're wrong.' This time Andreas didn't restrain himself, but allowed the smile he'd been headed for ever since he'd set foot in this rat trap. 'Success is nowhere near the best revenge.'
The old man's eyes narrowed warily as he leaned forward in his chair, the fear back once more. 'What's that supposed to mean?'
Andreas pulled the folded sheaf of papers from inside his coat pocket. 'This,' he said, unfolding them so that the other man could see what he was holding. 'This is the best revenge.'
And Andreas watched the blood drain from the other man's face as he recognised the finance papers he'd signed barely a week ago.
'Did you even read the small print, Darius? Didn't you wonder why someone would offer you money on this dump you call a hotel on such easy terms?'
The older man swallowed, his eyes once more afraid.
'Did you not suspect there would be a catch?'
Darius looked sick, his skin grey.
Andreas smiled again. 'I'm the catch. That finance company is one of mine. I lent you that money, Darius, and I'm calling in the debt. Now.'
'You can't… You can't do that. I don't have that kind of money lying around.'
He flung the pages in Darius' direction. 'I can do it, all right. See for yourself. But if you can't pay me back today, you're in default on the loan. And you know what that means.'
'No! You know there's no way…' But still Darius scrabbled through the pages, his eyes scanning the document for an out, squinting hard when they came across the clause that proved Andreas right, widening as he looked up with the knowledge that he'd been beaten. 'You can't do this to me. It's no better than theft.'
'You'd know all about theft, Darius, but whatever you call it this hotel is now mine. And it's closing. Today.'
The shocked look on Darius' face was his reward. The man looked as if he'd been sucker punched.
Oh, yes, Andreas thought, revenge was sweet, especially when it had been such a long time coming.
Cleo Taylor was so there.
Her head ached, her bruised shin stung where the vacuum cleaner had banged into it, and three weeks into this job she was exhausted, both mentally and physically. And at barely five o'clock in the afternoon, all she wanted to do was sleep.
She dropped the machine at the foot of her bed and sank down onto the narrow stretcher, the springs that woke her every time she rolled over at night noisily protesting her presence.
Karma. It had to be karma.
How many people had tried to warn her? How many had urged her to be careful and not to rush in? And how many of those people had she suspected of being jealous of her because she'd found love in the unlikeliest of places, in an Internet chat room with a man halfway around the world?
Oh, yes, if there was a price to pay for naivety, for blindly charging headlong for a fall, she was well and truly paying it.
And no one would say she didn't deserve everything that was happening to her. She'd been so stupid believing Kurt, stupid to believe the stories he'd spun, stupid to believe that he loved her.
So pathetically naïve to trust him with both her heart and with her nanna's money.
And all she'd achieved was to spectacularly prove the award she'd been given in high school from the girls whose company she'd craved, but who never were and who would never be her friends.
Cleo Taylor, girl most likely to fail.
Wouldn't they just love to see her now?
A barrage of sleet splattered against the tiny louvred window high above the bed and she shivered. So much for spring.
Reluctantly she thought about dragging herself from the rudimentary bed but there was no way she wanted to meet that man in the hallway again. She shuddered, remembering the ice-cold way his eyes—dark pits of eyes set in a slate-hard face—had raked over her and then disregarded her in the same instant without even an acknowledgment, as if she was some kind of low-life, before imperiously passing by. She'd shrunk back instinctively, her own greeting dying on her lips.
It wasn't just that he looked so out of place, so wrong for the surroundings, but the look of such a tall, powerful man sweeping through the low-ceilinged space seemed wrong, as if there wasn't enough space and he needed more. He hadn't just occupied the space, he'd consumed it.
And then he'd swept past, all cashmere coat, the smell of rain and the hint of cologne the likes of which she'd never smelt in this place, and she'd never felt more like the low-life he'd taken her to be.
But she had to get up. She couldn't afford to fall asleep yet, even though she'd been up since five to do the breakfasts and it had taken until four to clean the last room. She reeked of stale beer and her uniform was filthy, courtesy of the group of partying students who'd been in residence in the room next door for the last three nights.
She hated cleaning that room! It was damp and dark, the tiny en suite prone to mould and the drains smelling like a swamp, and if she hadn't already known how low she'd sunk that room announced it in spades. The students had left it filthy, with beds looking as if they'd been torn apart, rubbish spilling from bins over the floor, and an entire stack of empty takeaway boxes and beer bottles artfully arranged in one corner all the way from the floor to the low ceiling. 'Leaning Tower of Pizza,' someone had scrawled on the side of one the boxes, and it had leant, so much so that it was a wonder it hadn't already collapsed with the vibrations from the nearby tube.
It had been waiting for her to do that. Bottles and pizza boxes raining down on her, showering her with their dregs.
No wonder he'd looked at her as if she were some kind of scum. After the day she'd had, she felt like it.