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For Nick Papaeliou, the evening was beginning to take on a bizarre, surreal air.
For starters, he was not a man who enjoyed public scenes. He liked to exercise control over every aspect of his life, not least his emotions. And yet, what had happened less than an hour previously? His girlfriend, now relegated to the position of ex-girlfriend, had drunkenly initiated a confrontation that had heralded the demise of their relationship. Of course, he had known for a while that he would have to break off with Susanna, had heard the warning bells begin to ring when her hints had moved from the general arena of proper relationships to the more specific one of wanting to climb off the merry-go-round and settle down before her biological clock began really ticking. But had he listened? No. The intention to finish with her had hovered on the periphery of his consciousness, but he had been in the middle of a highly complex deal and he had stupidly relegated it to the back-burner.
And then the party tonight. Not just the usual boring model bash to which he had grudgingly agreed to go, knowing that it would be the last with her, but a lavish, private dinner hosted by a fashion-designer couple with a passion for social climbing.
The wine had flowed freely and how true it was that alcohol loosened tongues.
He thought back with distaste to Susanna, the tears, the shouting, the pleadingall conducted in front of an audience of roughly forty people.
Naturally he had left, with every intention of heading back to his penthouse apartment in Mayfair where he would be able to forget the nightmarish previous two hours in front of his laptop computer. It would have been the preferred conclusion to an aberrant evening, but
He looked sideways at the young woman sitting in the back of the taxi alongside him. Here he was. Waylaid by a fresh-faced blonde who had been waitressing at the party and had coincidentally been leaving at the same time as he had.
He had found himself joining her for a coffee at the café close by and over his cup of strong black coffee, with his defences momentarily lowered after his bruising public bust-up with Susanna, had engaged in the rare pastime of sitting opposite a beautiful woman to whom he was not in the slightest bit attracted and actually listening to what she had to say, even though much of what she had told him amounted to a story he had heard a thousand times. The beautiful young woman whose dream was to be an actress. Optimism was written all over her youthful face and flowed around him in waves in her excitable conversation and earnest body language.
God, she had made him feel jaded. When he had told her, as kindly and as tactfully as he could, that he was off limits, he had felt, literally, a hundred years old.
How long, he had wondered, could he continue living the bachelor lifestyle? His father had died when he was still a young man in his twenties and his mother had followed him eight years ago. Was that why? Lack of parental pressure to do the expected thing and father the obligatory two point two kids? Or had his single minded and meteoric rise through the ranks provided him with everything wealth and power could buy while, perversely, creating a world into which no one was allowed to take up residence for any period of time?
He honestly didn't know. What he did know was that Lily, the part time model who made ends meet however she could while still believing in her dreams, had stirred an unexpectedly almost paternal interest in him.
Which was why, he now contemplated, he was in this taxi with her, having agreed to accompany her back to her place for a nightcap, amused at her palpable horror when he told her that he should really be going back to his place to do a bit of work.
'No one works on a Saturday in the middle of winter at midnight!' she had exclaimed, shocked, and he had almost laughed at her na veté. She thought, he knew, that she was doing him a good turn in making sure that he had some company after his unpleasant incident at the party, to which she, as everyone else, had been witness. She was also, and he could see this in her wide blue eyes, in awe of him. As most people were. It was something he had become accustomed to taking for granted although, at least in this case, he was pretty sure there was no hidden agenda. She didn't want anything from him and that was refreshing.
The taxi, having wound its way through a myriad deserted streets, all identical in their never-ending rows of unlit terraced houses, finally drew to a stop and, to his further amusement, Lily refused to let him pay, even though she would certainly know him for the billionaire he undoubtedly was.
'It's not much
' she apologised, fumbling in her bag for her front door key.
Nick murmured something suitably polite as she finally opened the front door, but really she was absolutely spot on. It was a house in an area that might, possibly once, have been considered a fairly decent location, but which the passing years had rendered shabby and depressingly uninviting, and stepping inside only served to cement that first impression.
Nick hadn't been to a place like this for a very long time. He had dragged himself up by his bootlaces, worked like a slave so that he could accumulate the necessary qualifications that would enable him to escape a life of mediocrity in the Home Counties, where his father had eked out a living doing manual work at the Big Houses, as he had liked to call them, the likes of which he would never be able to afford. He had been an uneducated Greek and had never dared to aspire beyond his modest sphere.
Nick had had no intention of following his father's footsteps. A first at university had been the start and followed by a rise through the financial world that had left his peers, most of whom came from a background of Big Houses, gaping and speechless. Now, he no longer worked for anyone. He had his own financial empire and called his own shots. When he opened his mouth, the world listened and paid heed.
And with vast power and wealth had come all the trappings. The place in the sun, rarely visited. The country house that he visited occasionally, whenever the ferocious demands of work allowed him the time off. The chauffeured car, the helicopter for those times when he needed to be somewhere faster than a train or car could take him, the lavish apartment in the heart of one of the most expensive areas in London.
He had long ago left behind the type of place now confronting him, with its tiny handkerchief of a front garden and, even in the forgiving cover of darkness, its signs of disrepair. And here in the small hallway, although much effort had obviously been made to brighten the interior, the cheerful primrose-coloured paint was fighting a losing battle with dodgy woodwork and carpeting that was no longer tired, but downright exhausted.
While Lily bent to unzip her boots, sighing with relief as she yanked the first one off, Nick turned to shut the front door. He was unaware of the sound of footsteps and only realised that there was someone else in the house when he heard Lily give a little yelp.
'Rosie! What are you doing up?'
'Who' the voice was unusually husky for a woman 'is that?'
Nick turned around and found himself staring into a pair of narrowed blue eyes, which were glaring at him. Then he took in the rest of hersmall, especially standing next to Lily, and no model's figure, although it was hard to tell because she was swamped in a fairly unflattering ensemble of dressing gown behind which peeked what appeared to be some kind of hideous novelty pyjamas.
'Honestly, Rose, I keep telling you not to wait up for me! I'm a big girl now. I can take care of myself!'
The Rose character, whoever she might be, wore the expression of someone who seriously doubted that statement.
'I have no idea how you can say that, Lily, when you've just waltzed through the door with a complete stranger in tow. At nearly one in the morning. I thought you told me that this was going to be an early one?'
'It was early
Rose, this is Nick. Nick Papaeliou. Maybe you've heard of him?'
'Of course I haven't heard of him,' Rose snapped. 'You know I don't know a thing about these models you hang around with.'
'Model?'Nick couldn't believe his ears. Nor could he quite believe the way those ferocious blue eyes were scornfully dismissing him. 'You think I'm a model?'
'Oh, Rosie. You have to excuse her, Nick. Rose is very, very protective of me. She thinks I'm going to be gobbled up by a big bad wolf one of these days. But that's cool. Hey, what else do big sisters do?'
'She's your sister?' Nick stared at the small, round woman who was still glaring at him, although he noticed a faint pink colour crawl into her cheeks.
'There's no need to look so stunned,' Rose said coldly.
'We're stepsisters actually,' Lily explained, smiling. 'Isn't it amazing? I mean, you hear so many stories about step-siblings not getting along but Rose and I couldn't be closer if we were proper sisters.' She gave Rose an affectionate squeeze. Even without shoes, she was at least six inches taller. 'Rosie, Nick's just popped by for a nightcap
would you mind? I've got to go to the bathroom.'
Yes, actually, she would mind, but Lily was already vanishing up the stairs, still taking them two at a time, the way she always had even as a kid. Sweet, sunny-natured Lily who thought the best of everyone, even the ones who had Health Hazard written all over their faces. Like this one staring at her, still incredulously digesting the fact that the leggy blonde with the waist-length hair, the one whom he had probably expected to escort home to a suitably empty house, was related to someone who was physically as different from her as chalk from cheese.
Rose stared right back at him. He towered over her and was dangerously good-looking, with a strong, harshly sensual face and black, black hair to match the long black lashes and brooding eyes. It took a lot of will-power not to quail before that singularly unblinking stare. She told herself that he was probably nothing more than a B-grade actor who was accustomed to playing the lead role in hammy TV dramas and didn't know when to drop the act. She didn't know why she had originally assumed he was a model. Definitely not pretty enough.
'So, stepsister Rose, do you always wait up for Lily when she goes out?'
Rose favoured him with a look of haughty disdain. She detected the sarcasm in his voice but she wasn't going to rise to it. She spun round on her heel and headed for the kitchen.
'I'm not going to apologise for being rude, Mr Papaeliou,' she said, the minute they were in the kitchen and he had taken up position on one of the chairs by the pine kitchen table, 'but Lily's been messed around by too many shallow, good-looking men and I'm not going to allow it to happen again
' She must have only just finished making a hot drink for herself because there was no need to boil the kettle. His nightcap, far from being a glass of port or a liqueur, was a mug of coffee handed to him in the manner of someone eager to see him off the premises. She stood in front of him, arms folded. 'She may not think that she needs looking after, and, sure, she's more than capable of running her own life, but when it comes to emotions my sister can be very trusting. She doesn't need to get involved with a two-bit actor on the make.'
Nick, for the first time in his life, felt himself struggling to get a handle on the situation.
'Two bit actor?'
'What else? You might play the action hero in whatever third-rate movies you've been in, but you can drop the macho act. It doesn't wash with me. All I know is that Lily is a sucker when it comes to a good-looking man with a few chat-up lines, but they never stay the course and she's had her heart broken too many times
Two-bit actor? Action hero? The woman had the barefaced audacity to make him sound like a comic-book character! But he was certainly not going to allow himself to be dragged into a stand-up fight with a woman with the personality of a Rottweiler. 'Hence you're her self-appointed watchdog. That's very noble of you,' Nick said coolly. 'Does Lily appreciate your over-zealous concern? Or do you save these little speeches for when her back's turned?' He placed the mug on the table without drinking any of the coffee. 'I hate to burst your bubble, but I'm not an empty-headed male model out to sleep with the nearest attractive woman, nor am I a two bit actor with an identity problem.'
'No? Well, it doesn't matter. Model, actor
creative director with an empty casting couch
it's all much of a muchness. Lily's just emerged from a relationship that ended badly and I'm making sure that she doesn't get taken in by another man with too much looks and too few scruples for his own good. I wish there were a more polite way of warning you off, but there isn't.'
Nick was accustomed to women pandering to him, hanging onto his every word, courting him with their feminine wiles. Could his night go any more off course? From a showdown that, inevitably, would reach the gossip pages in some rag, to a confrontation with a perfect stranger who was either partially unhinged or just too plain bloody outspoken for her own good.
Before he could reply to that blazing, generalised condemnation, Lily burst into the kitchen, apologising profusely and winningly for taking so long, but she'd just had to have a quick shower because she'd felt hideously grubby and knew, just knew that she'd stunk of cigarette smoke because everybody, but everybody there had been smoking and not all of it the runof-the-mill tobacco.
Even in the early hours of the morning and after a long day doing a tiring job, she still managed to look incredibly fresh and vital and hopelessly young. It was ludicrous that her sister could imply that he, Nick Papaeliou, who could have any woman he wanted, would be attracted to Lily.
'Have you two been getting to know one another?' Lily asked brightly and Nick, looking at Rose from under his lashes, saw her glance with muted antagonism at him. Lily helped herself to some water from the tap and then turned around and perched against the counter so that she could look at them both.
'Oh, absolutely,' Nick drawled smoothly, giving Rose a slow, meaningful smile. 'Like a house on fire
'Oh, great!' She turned to Rose. 'Poor Nick broke up with his girlfriend tonight and it's always nice to be in company when you're down in the dumps.'
The meaningful smile slowly disappeared as Rose raised her eyebrows and nodded her head slowly.
'I was far from down in the dumps, Lily.' He tried to smile that one off, but he was irritably conscious of her sister's eyes fastened on his face. 'In fact, our relationship was on its way out. Susanna only did what I myself would have done the following day.' How was he now having an inappropriately private conversation with two women he had never seen in his life before tonight?
'Why would you go to a party with someone you wanted to ditch?' Rose asked innocently and Nick gritted his teeth together. 'I mean, the poor woman probably thought that you really cared about her.'
'If you knew Susanna, the very last word you would use to describe her would be poor.'
' Rose allowed that one little word to drop into the silence.
Looking at her, Nick momentarily forgot Lily's presence. 'Still
'Must be awful to break up with someone you care about in front of other people. I always think that when I open the newspapers and they're full of some poor celebrity couple who end up being forced to wash all their dirty linen in public. And in a way, that's not even as bad as the dirty linen being washed in front of friends
she must have been feeling pretty desperate
Lily was watching this interchange with a certain amount of bewilderment.
'And on that note
'Nick stood up. Surprisingly, exchanging barbs with Rose had so completely absorbed his attention that nothing else had occupied his mind. Not Susanna, not work, and he had completely forgotten Lily's presence even though she had been standing in his direct line of vision.
leaving so soon? Well, shall I call a cab for you? You won't find one here, you know. It's not central enough. Lily
' Rose looked at her sister '
you look done in. Why don't you hit the sack and I'll wait up until Nick leaves?'
'Don't be silly, Rose.' She yawned widely. 'How can I invite Nick here for a nightcap and then disappear off to bed?'
'I have already given him a nightcap. It was called a cup of coffee.'
'Rose doesn't do an awful lot of drinking
' Lily smiled at Nick '
do you, Rosie?'
'I'm sure Mr Papaeliou isn't interested in my alcohol consumption.' Lord, but she sounded prim and proper.
'The name's Nick,' Nick said irritably.
Rose ignored him. 'There. You're falling asleep on your feet, Lily. Go to bed. I'll see Mr Pa