With Billie gone, there was something missing in Alexei's glittering existence. When she returned, he needed to offer her something special to make her staymaybe a wedding ring of convenience?
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Alexei Drakos broodingly surveyed the crowded Port Vauban marina from the deck of his yacht, Sea Queen. There were paparazzi everywhere. As a man who set a high value on privacy, he was not impressed. He was even less impressed with the topless sunbathers on the vessel moored beside his who were calling out to him and making inviting gestures. As if, Alexei thought with all the disdain of an aristocrat for rotten meat. As a teenager he had sampled many female bodies without the need to make dates or chit-chat, but he had grown up since then.
If Calisto had not begged him to bring her to Cannes, he would have been miles away from the noise, the poseurs and the fuss. Sea Queen was easily the biggest, sleekest and most expensive yacht there but, as he was a fourth generation Drakos, and possessed of fabulous wealth and privilege from birth, such petty comparisons were beneath Alexei's arrogant notice.
Standing six feet four inches in his bare feet, Alexei was built with the lean muscular power of a trained athlete and surprisingly fit for a noted workaholic. Half Russian and half Greek, he was a dazzlingly handsome man with a formidable reputation as a wom-aniser. Yet for the past few months there had been only one woman in his life: Calisto, the ex-wife of the Swiss electronics tycoon, Xavier Bethune. Keen to get back to work and aware that his business team awaited him indoors, Alexei strode back into his on-board office, which was as streamlined and technologically advanced as any on shore.
Some minutes later, Calisto stalked into the crowded room without warning. Alexei was surprised, for he had sent her down the coast to tour his magnificent villa in an effort to get some peace. An echoing silence spread even before Calisto burst into staccato speech. 'You won't believe what I've discovered at your villa!'
'Nothing short of the Loch Ness monster in the bath tub would excuse this intrusion when I am working,' Alexei drawled, and he was not entirely joking as he glanced up from his laptop to survey the irate blonde.
'The place is a disgrace! The swimming pool hasn't been serviced in months, the garden is overgrown and the house isn't even stocked for our stay next week,' Calisto raged, her bright blue eyes full of indignation. And when I asked the housekeeper to explain herself, all she would say was that Billie always dealt with that stuff and that she had received no instructions.'
Calisto Bethune was a six foot tall beauty and former model, quite capable of stopping traffic with her stunning face and shapely body. She was Greek-born, she was gorgeous and, now that she was free of her husband, the woman whom Alexei had loved and lost as a teenager was finally his again.
'Did you hear anything I just said, Alexei?' Calisto prompted impatiently. 'Last month the refit on Sea Queen overran and we couldn't use her. Who was responsible for that? Every place I go in your life things are going wrong and I discover that this Billie creature is at fault!'
'Until a couple of months ago, Billie took care of all my properties as well as my social calendar and travel arrangements. Unfortunately, she insisted on taking a career break and her replacement was so inept, I sacked her after a month'
Calisto studied him wide-eyed, a frown building on her face. 'This Billie that everybody talks about is a woman?'
'Why not?' Alexei returned to his laptop with renewed energy as he was hotwired to the pursuit of profit and in no mood to hear any more about boring domestic problems. No Drakos male he had ever known had concerned himself with such trivialities. In even listening to Calisto's tirade, he believed he was being very tolerant, offering the listening ear that all women were supposed to crave.
And this Billie, this woman insisted on taking time off? Since when do you allow your employees to insist on anything?' Calisto demanded.
Alexei frowned and straightened before he rose to his full height and urged the gorgeous blonde across the hallway outside the office into the opulent and spacious salon. 'I've known Billie since she was a child growing up on Speros. She has a little more licence than the rest of my team'
A frozen look stiffened Calisto's wide cheekbones. 'Does she indeed?'
'Until now Billie has always been available when I want her. Usually she doesn't take vacations or even days off. Day or night, she has worked extremely hard for me,' Alexei volunteered, but his tone was flat because in spite of what he was saying he too blamed Billie for the many annoying developments that had taken the edge off his comfort in recent months.
Billie Foster, his most trusted aide and gofer, his right-hand woman, had insisted on taking an eight-month-long career break to look after her recently widowed but pregnant aunt in England. His even white teeth clenched as he mentally shifted through the aggravations he'd had to tolerate during Billie's prolonged absence. Impersonal and personal matters that he had once taken for granted as being taken care of were suddenly rolling up in front of him undone and causing him considerable inconvenience.
He had never dreamt that Billie might act in so selfish a manner. Even though she knew he disagreed with her taking such a lengthy break, she had gone ahead regardless. He had been too soft with her. He should have told her no. He should have told her that if she left she would have no job to return to. After all, for what did he pay her such a handsome salary? To go running off to England whenever she took the fancy? Alexei had expected a lot more from a young woman whom he had known since childhood and who owed more than she knew to his family's generosity.
'A wife would take charge of your properties and your social calendar. It would be no big deal,' Calisto remarked softly. 'Then you wouldn't need a Billie in your life.'
Alexei was too clever and wary of feminine manipulation to respond. He shrugged a broad shoulder and signalled a steward to bring coffee. Calisto might be the first woman to spend more than a few weeks with him, but marriage was another step altogether in his book. He was all too well aware of how expensive a bad marriage could be: his late father had endured three very nasty and costly divorces. No, Alexei was in no hurry to name the day. Although Calisto was the first to even consider that the altar might be within her sights, she might also yet reveal a deal-breaking flaw. In his experience, women were rarely predictable and even more rarely truthful.
Turning her nose up at the coffee that powered Alexei through his long working day, Calisto put on some music and began to dance, twisting and working her hips in movements as suggestive as any lap dancer's. Recognising that she was trying to use sex to get his attention, Alexei studiously ignored her while wondering why she thought a lap-dancing impression might get her up the aisle. If anything the demonstration repelled him. Outside the bedroom a wife should have a certain dignity, he reflected seriously, adding that quality to the mental list he cherished. Under the influence of a few drinks at a party, Calisto could well become an embarrassment.
A brilliantly coloured print scarf lying on a bar stool caught his attention. Black brows pleating, he lifted it up. It belonged to Billie, who had little sense of colour coordination. A faint old-fashioned peachy scent that was familiar assailed him and his nostrils flared. Just as quickly, his penetrating dark eyes took on a frowning expression of bewilderment. The sense of something erotic skimmed indistinctly through his mind and his body reacted with primal male hunger, hardening with instant lust. Bemused by that powerful reaction and unable to find a logical connection, Alexei registered that he was still holding the scarf. Filled with distaste at the tenor of his thoughts, for there could be no woman more sexually na ve than Billie, he tossed the material down again
'You'll miss all the options here ' As the two women emerged from the public library Billie waved a hand to encompass the busy London street, full of shops, restaurants and bustling traffic. 'That you should return to Greece with me seemed such a great idea after John died, but now I feel horribly guilty for getting you involved in all this. The island is very quiet'
'You're just tired and feeling down again,' Hilary scolded, a tall, slender blonde with gentle brown eyes in her late thirties. She bore little resemblance to her diminutive red-headed niece with her emerald-green gaze, whose heavily pregnant state made her seem almost as wide as she was tall. She urged the younger woman onto the bus and passed the journey with a cheerful monologue about how much she hated the damp English climate and how much she was looking forward to having the peace to write the book she had long been planning.
Billie, who was more tired than she was prepared to admit, remained unconvinced. In an attempt to do the best she could for her own future and her baby's she had ensnared Hilary in her plans but she felt increasingly guilty about that fact. It was a relief, however, to return to her aunt's comfortable semi-detached house and sit down with a cup of tea.
'You just don't appreciate how desperate I am for a change of scene and direction and I couldn't afford either without your support,' the blonde woman declared ruefully. 'Without your financial assistance during John's illness, I wouldn't even still be living in this house. Your generosity made it possible for us to stay here until he had to go into care; being able to be somewhere familiar helped John a good deal because he couldn't cope with change.'
Hilary's voice cracked up a little because her husband had only passed away some months earlier. As a result of early-onset dementia, the essence of John's personality had gone long before he'd died at the age of forty-three in a care home. Towards the end, as his condition had worsened, he had become too difficult for his wife to look after alone. Prior to that, Hilary had supported her husband for several years and had had to give up working as a teacher to do so. The welfare benefits the couple were entitled to had been too meagre to meet their mortgage payments and Billie had come willingly to the rescue to ease their plight.
'I was glad to help,' Billie told the woman who had often been the only voice of sanity during her childhood, even though they had lived so far part.
Billie's mother, Lauren, had moved to the Greek island of Speros when Billie was only eight years old. Lauren had always been an irresponsible parent, who'd put the latest man in her life ahead of her child's needs. More often than Billie cared to remember, a visit or a phone call from her flighty parent's sensible sister, Hilary, had persuaded Lauren to behave more like a normal mother.
Hilary groaned, 'Unfortunately you helped all of us too much for your own good. You bought a house for your mother, you gave John and I an allowance'
'And, all on my own, I spent a foolish fortune building my own house on Speros too,' Billie cut in, uncomfortable with the other woman's gratitude. 'If only I had thought ahead to a time when I might not want to work for Alexei any more. If only I had just put all that money in the bank instead '
'Nobody has a crystal ball. You may not feel it right now but you are still very young at twenty-six,' Hilary reasoned soothingly. 'You had a great job and you were earning a small fortune, so you had no reason to fear the future.'
Billie's delicate features shadowed. She would not be comforted on that score for she blamed herself bitterly for her extravagance. She had grown up in poverty, had lived through the experience of going hungry at mealtimes and of hiding from view when the landlord called for his rent. With those memories behind her, she believed she should have saved up for the proverbial rainy day.
'Nor should you have any reason to fear the future now. Your baby's father is a very rich man,' Hilary pointed out firmly.
Billie's hands clenched into the tissue she was holding. 'I think I'd rather be dead than face Alexei like this. Thank heaven I was out at a hospital appointment the day he called here at the house to see me!'
'Yes, we weren't expecting that. Fortunately he wouldn't come in, so I doubt if he had the time or the presence of mind to notice that I didn't actually look very pregnant,' Hilary remarked wryly.
Billie was still engaged in recalling her shock on learning that Alexei, over in London on business, had decided to visit her without so much as a phone call to forewarn her of his plans. How shocked he would have been had she answered the door to him with an obviously pregnant stomach! It was pure luck that the deception she had entered into with Hilarythe planned pretence that her aunt was the one having the baby had not been exposed on the spot. Afterwards, she had phoned him to ask if there was something he had needed her assistance with and he had laughed and said that his visit had been a last minute idea, taken when he had some time to use up before heading to the airport and his flight home.
'If you ever feel in need of courage to face Alexei Drakos, I would face him for you.' Hilary said this softly but the light of battle was in her usually placid gaze.
Billie lifted her chin. 'It's not a matter of being too scared'
'Oh, I know you're not scared of Alexei Drakos. But you're still madly in love with him and determined to protect him from the consequences of his own behaviour.'
Her colour fluctuating, Billie said sharply, 'It's not like that. I have my pride and my plans. I don't need him in any way. If I continue to work for Alexei for at least a year after my baby's born, I'll be able to save up enough capital to start up my own business back here.'