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For the first time in three long hard-travelled months, Nikos Theakis strode in through the doors belonging to his London offices and instantly claimed the full attention of every person present in the slick modern granite-and-glass foyer.
Tall and dark, blessed with the kind of lean, hard, powerful body of a peak trained athlete, the air around him positively vibrated with excess energy as he moved, bringing forth a flurry of, 'Good morning, Nikos,' that sounded breathless and charged.
That he had the same effect everywhere he went said a lot about the man's personality. He was sharp, smooth, determined and driven. Working for him was like catching a ride on a rocket ship to the stars. Exciting, breathtaking, teeth-chat-teringly scary sometimes because he took major risks others shied right away from. He was committed and focused and famously never, ever wrong.
Today he was frowning, the two straight black bars of his eyebrows drawn together across the bridge of his arrogantly straight nose. The lean golden cut of his classical Greek features locked in concentration on the conversation he was involved in via his mobile telephone. His acknowledgement to the greetings therefore consisted of a series of distracted nods of his glossy dark head as his long stride took him across the foyer and into one of the waiting lifts.
'In the name of Theos, Oscar,' he swore softly, 'What kind of game are you trying to set me up with here?'
'No game,' Oscar Balfour insisted. 'I've thought this through carefully, now I am asking you for your support.'
'Asking?' Nikos pounced on the word with lethal satire.
'Unless you're too big and important now to help out an old friend…'
Stabbing a long finger at the top-floor button, Nikos shrugged back the brilliant white shirt cuff so he could check the time on his wafer-thin multifunction platinum watch, then bit back the desire to curse. He had been back in the country for less than an hour after spending weeks flying around the world like a damn satellite, putting together a rescue package for a crisis-embattled multiconglomerate which did not deserve to go under because its international investors had turned chicken and pulled the plug on their loans. He was tired, hungry and seriously jet-lagged but upstairs in his boardroom awaited a group of anxious people desperate to hear the final results of his toils.
'Stop trying to pull my strings,' he flicked out impatiently.
'I'm flattered that you think I still can,' Oscar drawled.
'And stick to the point,' he added, well aware that Oscar was the ruthless, cunning cut-throat king of manipulation so using that kind of invert flattery on him was wasted. 'Instead, tell me what in hell's name you expect me to do with one of your spoiled-to-death daughters?'
'Not bed her anyway.'
About to stride out of the lift into the hushed luxury of the top-floor corridor, that short cool evenly delivered statement froze Nikos to the spot for a second, the acid-bite affront hoisting up his proud dark head.
'That was not even remotely funny,' he denounced with icy cold dignity. 'I have never rested so much as a suggestive finger on any one of your daughters. It would be—'
'Disrespectful to me—?'
'Yes!' Nikos incised, for no one knew better than Nikos himself how much he owed to Oscar for turning him into the person he was today. Maintaining a respectful distance between himself and Oscar's beautiful daughters was a simple matter of paying honour to that debt.
'Thank you,' Oscar murmured.
'I don't want your thanks,' Nikos dismissed, and started moving again, covering the length of the corridor with the elegant grace of his long restless stride. 'And neither do I want one of your decorative daughters cluttering up my offices pretending to be a proficient PA just to please you,' he tagged on. 'Why this sudden decision to put them to work anyway?' he asked curiously as he pushed open the door to his own suite of offices.
His secretary, Fiona, glanced up from her computer screen and beamed him a welcome-back smile. Indicating to his mobile, Nikos gave a series of instructions via a long-fingered hand which the experienced Fiona showed she understood with a nod of her curly blonde head, leaving him free to shut himself inside his own office knowing the group of people waiting for him in the boardroom would be informed of his delay.
It was only as he shut the door behind him that he picked up the silence hanging heavy on the phone. It made him frown again because Oscar Balfour possessed a brain which functioned at the speed of light so silences of any nature were unusual enough to cause Nikos a pang of concern.
'Are you all right, Oscar?' he questioned cautiously.
The older man released a sigh, 'Actually, I feel like hell,' he admitted. 'I have started to wonder what the past thirty years of my life have been about.'
Picturing this big tough larger-than-life investment tycoon with his snow-white hair and neat goatee beard and the pride of his long aristocratic heritage stamped onto every facet of him—
'You're missing Lillian,' Nikos murmured.
'Every minute of every hour of every day,' Oscar confirmed. 'I go to sleep thinking about her and spend the night dreaming about her, and I wake up in the morning searching for her warm body next to mine in the bed.'
'I'm—sorry.' It was a grossly inadequate response to offer, Nikos knew that, for Oscar Balfour was still grieving the recent loss of his wife. 'It's been a tough time for all of you…'
'With one death and two raging scandals following hard on the back of a world financial crisis which threatened to turn us all into beggars?' Oscar let out a dry laugh. 'Tough doesn't cover it.'
Since Lillian Balfour's swift and untimely death three months ago, the great Balfour name had been rocked by scandal after scandal. From the moment Oscar took it upon himself to announce that he had a twenty-year-old daughter no one previously knew about, anyone with an axe to grind on a Balfour had come creeping out of the woodwork to air any grievance they might have. In short, Nikos mused, for the past few months the Balfours had been featuring in their very own no-holds-barred fly-on-the-wall documentary. It might not have been by consent but it had been scandalously spicy.
'You survived the crisis pretty well intact,' Nikos went for a positive note.
'So I did,' agreed Oscar. 'As you did.'
About to walk to his desk, Nikos found himself diverting across the room to go and stand in front of the large framed photograph of his home city he had mounted on the wall. If he narrowed his eyes he could just make out the murky dark spot down in the bottom corner, which represented the slum area of Athens where he'd spent the first twenty years of his life living by his wits from hand to mouth.
A nerve twitched along his hard jaw line, the rich colour of his eyes shadowing with his thoughts. Being street poor was as good an incentive he could come up with for working like a dog to ensure he would never be poor again, he pondered bleakly. And without the good fortune of an accidental meeting with Oscar, he would probably still be down there, living that same hand-to-mouth existence—with the odd spell in prison thrown in for good measure, he tagged on with a stark honesty that made him grimace.
This one man, this brilliant and shrewd, cunning-as-a-wily-fox Englishman had seen something in the arrogant young fool he had been back then, gone with his instincts and given him the chance to pull himself free of that life.
Made suddenly aware of the fine silk expense of his Italian suiting and his handmade shirt and shoes, Nikos turned to walk over to the plate of glass which gave his spacious top-floor office its famous London city views. He owned several other office buildings just like this one in the major capitals, along with the homes to complement his high-status lifestyle. He had the private yacht, the private plane, the personal investment portfolio to rival any out there…
The poor boy done good, Nikos quoted silently from a recent article an Athens newspaper had written about him.
Shame, he thought, about the scars he kept so deeply hidden inside even Oscar knew nothing about them.
'However, my daughters did not have a clue that there even was a world banking crisis,' Oscar's voice arrived in his ear once again. 'You're right, Nikos, I've spoiled them. I indulged their pampered princess lifestyles to a point of parental abandonment, and now I'm reaping the rewards for my neglect. I intend to put that right.'
'By cutting them off from your money and sending them out into the big bad world to sink or swim on their own—?' Despite the gravity in the conversation Nikos released a dry laugh. 'Trust me, Oscar, that's overkill.'
'Are you questioning my judgement?'
Yes, Nikos thought. 'No,' he deferred to the deep respect he held for this man, 'of course not.'
'Good,' Oscar said. 'Because I want you to take Mia under your wing and teach her everything she needs to know to survive as a Balfour.'
'Mia—?' Nikos repeated, needing a moment to connect with the unfamiliar name. 'Is she the—' He bit his teeth together, but too late.
'Is Mia—what?' Oscar demanded.
'The—new one,' Nikos described with what he thought was credible diplomacy considering the sensational way she had been outed as a Balfour.
'You can use the term illegitimate without offending me, Nikos,' drawled Oscar. 'Though I cannot be certain that Mia will feel the same way. She's—different than my other daughters… To put it bluntly,' Oscar sighed out, 'Mia just is not coping well as a Balfour. I think living in London and working alongside you will be good for her—teach her some self-confidence and toughen her up.'
'No way, my friend,' Nikos refused coolly.
'You can escort her to a few functions,' Oscar continued as if Nikos had not spoken. 'Show her how to play the social scene.'
'If she isn't coping within the safety of Balfour Manor, then what you're suggesting is the same thing as throwing her to the wolves,' Nikos pointed out. 'Take my advice and send her to one of the many matronly widows you know in London and let them teach her how to cope as a Balfour. I am a lone wolf, Oscar,' Nikos stressed. 'I always work alone and I eat the vulnerable.'
Another short silence sang down the phone line, only this one did not carry the heavy weight of grief like the last one had done. This one carried the stark chilling coldness of Oscar's sudden change of mood.
'I thought,' he said, 'we had already established that you don't eat my daughters.'
'I was not referring to—'
'Don't make me remind you that you owe me this, Nikos,' Oscar interrupted. 'Now I'm calling in the debt.'
Recognising the outright challenge which effectively pinned him to the floor with lead weights, Nikos tried for a last-ditch appeal. 'Oscar…'
'Are you going to refuse to do this favour for me?' Oscar cut in.
'No,' Nikos sighed out in heavy surrender. 'Of course I'm not refusing you.'
As Oscar had pointed out, he owed him—big time.
'Good. Then it's settled.' Oscar sounded warm again. 'And I thought that since you don't like live-in staff invading your private space, she could use the staff apartment attached to your London penthouse.'
Like a cornered animal Nikos thundered out, 'You mean you want me to babysit her as well as give her a job?'
'She will be with you tomorrow—be nice.'
Be nice, Nikos mocked as he tossed his mobile phone down on the top of his desk with more violence than the essential piece of equipment deserved, then turned to sink his lean hips onto the desk's polished edge.
In the act of honouring a moral debt he owed to Oscar, he had just agreed to compromise his own business values. A growl of bubbling frustration vibrated against his chest at the same moment a knock at his door heralded Fiona's appearance as she stepped into the room.
'Sorry to disturb you,' she murmured quickly, seeing the glowering frown pushing his flat black eyebrows together. 'But one of the Miss Balfours is down in reception asking to see you… She mentioned something about needing a spare set of keys to your apartment—?'
Nikos froze, as for the first time in his adult life he felt the rising tide of a hot blush try to destroy his legendary cool. What Fiona was really saying was that Oscar's new, shy, not-coping-very-well cuckoo had just strolled into his reception and made an announcement which effectively placed them in an intimate relationship!
She was not even supposed to arrive here until tomorrow. He had not even met her yet! Now the foolish woman had just set this whole damn building alive with hot and spicy speculation about the two of them!
Miss damn Balfour wasn't just foolish, she was outright dangerous!
Nikos leapt upright. To hell with being nice, he thought furiously as he strode right past the very curious Fiona and back down the corridor. In his experience you were not nice to a dangerous substance. What you did was treat it with cold hard respect while you carefully disposed of it.
Mia was standing by the reception desk already locked tautly into regret for blurting out what she had said in the way she had said it, when she saw the doors to one of the lifts slide open and a tall, dark, screamingly familiar man stride out.
Surprise closed her brain down for a second. She actually trembled on a moment of pure skin-tingling shock. His height, his colouring, his long hard body locked inside a crushingly elegant designer-cut business suit—it was the man who had almost run her over on the driveway of Balfour Manor on the day she had first arrived. Even the way he was coming towards her like a man on the war path screamed shocked recognition at her and filled her with the cowardly urge to start backing off.
'Oh, Dio,' she was unable to stop herself from gasping when he came to a stop an arm's length from her. 'It's you.'
His sentiments exactly, Nikos thought grimly. For he was suffering from the same stark shattering shock of recognition he could see written on her face, though he possessed the self-control to keep his shock under wraps. Still, he did not seem able to prevent his eyes from making a thorough sweep of her tumbling-loose glossy-black hair and her simple white T-shirt with a short pale blue skirt. And she was wearing flat shoes, he noticed without wanting to. A pair of soft gold leather pumps which reduced her in height but did nothing to spoil the length of her fabulously long golden legs.
With barely a flicker of a silky black eyelash to say he'd understood what her shaken gasp represented, he questioned, 'Miss Balfour?' with clear cool polite formality. 'Since we have not met before, I am Nikos Theakis. It is a pleasure to meet you at last.'