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Cristophe Donakis opened the file on the Stanwick Hall Hotel group, which he expected to become the latest addition to his luxury hotel empire, and suffered an unanticipated shock.
Ironically, it took a great deal to shock Cristophe. At thirty years of age, the Greek entrepreneur and billionaire had seen a lot of bad behaviour and when it came to women in particular he was a complete cynic with low expectations. Orphaned at the age of five, he had survived several major setbacks in life, not the least of which had included foster parents whom he loved but with whom he had not a single thought in common, and a divorce, which still rankled for he had entered his marriage with the best of good intentions. No, what caused Cristophe to vault upright behind his desk and carry the file over to the window to avail of the best possible light was a glimpse of a startlingly familiar face in a photograph of the Stanwick executive staff.. a face from his past.
a pocket Venus with pale hair that glittered like polished silver gilt and eyes the colour of amethysts. Straight off, his lean, darkly handsome features clenched into forbidding angles. Erin occupied a category all of her own in his memories, for she had been the only woman ever to betray him and, even though almost three years had to have passed since their last meeting, the recollection could still sting. His keenly intelligent gaze devoured the photograph of his former mistress standing smiling at the elbow of Sam Morton, the elderly owner of Stanwick Hall. Clad in a dark business suit with her eye-catching hair restrained by a clip, she looked very different from the carefree, casually clad young woman he remembered.
His tall, powerful body in the grip of sudden tension, Cristo's dark-as-night eyes took on a fiery glow. That fast he was remembering Erin's lithe form clad in silk and satin. Even better did he recall the wonderfully slippery feel of her glorious curves beneath his appreciative hands. Perspiration dampened his strong upper lip and he breathed in deep and slow, determined to master the near instantaneous response at his groin. Regrettably, he had never met another Erin, BUT then he had married soon afterwards and only in recent months had he again enjoyed the freedom of being single. He knew that a woman capable of matching his hunger and even of occasionally exhausting his high-voltage libido was a very rare find indeed. He reminded himself that it was very probably that same hunger that had led her to betray his trust and take another man into her bed. An un-apologetic workaholic, he had left her alone for weeks while he was abroad on business and it was possible that he had invited the sordid conclusion that had ultimately finished their affair, he conceded grudgingly. Of course, had she agreed to travel with him it would never have happened but regrettably it had not occurred to him at the time that she might have excellent, if nefarious, reasons for preferring to stay in London.
He studied Sam Morton, whose body language and expression were uniquely revealing to any acute observer. The older man, who had to be comfortably into his sixties, could not hide his proprietorial protective attitude towards the svelte little manager of his health spas. His feelings shone out of his proud smile and the supportive arm he had welded to her spine in a declaration of possession. Cristo swore vehemently in Greek and examined the photo from all angles, but could see no room for any more innocent interpretation: she was at it again
bedding the boss! While it might have done him good to recognise Erin's continuing cunning at making the most of her feminine assets, it gave him no satisfaction at all to acknowledge that she was still happily playing the same tricks and profiting from them. He wondered if she was stealing from Morton as well.
Cristo had dumped Erin from a height when she let him down but the punishment had failed to soothe an incredulous bitterness that only increased when he had afterwards discovered that she had been ripping him off. He had had faith in Erin, he had trusted her, had even at one point begun to toy with the idea that she might make a reasonable wife. Walking into that bedroom and finding another man in the bed he had planned to share with her, along with the debris of discarded wine glasses and the trail of clothes that told its own sleazy story, had knocked him sideways. And what had he done next?
Lean, strong face rigid, Cristo grudgingly acknowledged his own biggest mistake. In the aftermath of his discovery that Erin had cheated on him, he had reached a decision that he was still paying for in spades. He had made a wrong move with long-term repercussions and for a male who almost never made mistakes that remained a very humbling truth. With hindsight he knew exactly why he had done, what he had done but he had yet to forgive himself for that fatal misstep and the fallout those closest to him had suffered. Handsome mouth compressed into a tough line at that reflection, he studied Erin closely. She was still gorgeous and doubtless still happily engaged in confidently plotting and planning how best to feather her own nest while that poor sap at her elbow gave her his trust and worshipped the ground her dainty feet trod on.
But Cristo knew that he had the power to shift the very ground in an earthquake beneath those same feet because he very much doubted that the reputedly conservative and morally upright Sam Morton had any awareness of the freewheeling months that Erin had enjoyed in her guise as Cristo's mistress, or of the salient fact that at heart she was just a common little thief.
That bombshell had burst on Cristo only weeks after the end of their affair. An audit had found serious discrepancies in the books of the health spa Erin had been managing for him. Products worth a considerable amount of money had gone missing. Invoices had been falsified, freelance employees invented to receive pay cheques for non-existent work. Only Erin had had full access to that paperwork and a reliable long-term employee had admitted seeing her removing boxes of products from the store. Clearly on the take from the day that Cristo hired her, Erin had ripped off the spa to the tune of thousands of pounds. Why had he not prosecuted her for her thieving? He had been too proud to parade the reality that he had taken a thief to his bed and put a thief in a position of trust within his business.
Erin was a box of crafty tricks and no mistake, he acknowledged bitterly. No doubt Morton was equally unaware that his butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth employee played a very creditable game of strip poker. That she had once met Cristo at the airport on his birthday wearing nothing but her skin beneath her coat? And that even the coat had gone within seconds of entering his limousine? Did she cry out Morton's name and sob in his arms when she reached a climax? Seduce him as only a very sensual woman could while he tried to give the business news his attention instead? Most probably she did, for she had learned from Cristo exactly what a man liked.
Disturbed that he still cherished such strong memories of that period of his life, Cristo poured himself a whisky and regrouped, his shrewd brain swiftly cooling the tenor of his angry reflections. The phrase, 'Don't get mad, get even' might well adorn Cristo's gravestone, for he refused to waste time on anything that didn't enrich his life. So, Erin was still out there using her wits and her body to climb the career and fortune ladder. How was that news to him? And why was he assuming that Sam Morton was too naive to know that he had caught a tiger by the tail? For many men the trade-off of as much sex as a man could handle would be acceptable.
And Cristo registered in some surprise at his predictability that he was no different from that self-serving libidinous majority. I could go there again, he thought fiercely, his adrenalin pumping at the prospect of that sexual challenge. I could really enjoy going there again. She's wasted on an old man and far too devious to be contained by a male with a conventional outlook. He began to read the file, discovering that Erin's wealthy employer was a widower. He could only assume that she had her ambition squarely centred on becoming the second Mrs Morton. Why else would a scheming gold-digger be working to ingratiate herself and earn a fairly humble crust? He was convinced that she would not have been able to resist the temptation of helping herself to funds from Sam Morton's spas as well.
Her healthy survival instincts and enduring cunning offended Cristo's sense of justice. Had he really believed that such a cool little schemer might turn over a new leaf in the aftermath of their affair? Had he ever been that naive? Certainly, he had compared every woman he had ever had in his bed to Erin and found them all wanting in one way or another. That was a most disconcerting truth to accept. Clearly, he had never got her out of his system, he reflected grimly. Like a piece of baggage he couldn't shed, she had travelled on with him even when he believed that he was free of her malign influence. It was time that he finally stowed that excess baggage and moved on and how better to do that than by exorcising her from his psyche with one last sexual escapade?
He knew what Erin Turner was and he also knew that memory always lied. Memory would have embellished her image and polished her up to a degree that would not withstand the harsh light of reality. He needed to puncture the myth, explode the persistent fantasy and seeing her again in the flesh would accomplish that desirable conclusion most effectively. A hard smile slashed Cristo's handsome mouth as he imagined her dismay at his untimely reappearance in her life.
'Look before you leap,' his risk-adverse foster mother had earnestly told him when he was a child, fearing his adventurous, rebellious nature and unable to comprehend the unimaginably entertaining attraction of taking a leap into the unknown. In spite of all his foster parents' efforts to tame his passionate temperament, however, Cristo's notoriously hot-blooded Donakis genes still ran true to form in his veins. His birth parents might not have survived to raise their son but he had inherited their volatile spirits in the cradle.
Without a second thought about the likelihood of consequences, indeed merely reacting to the insidious arousal and sense of challenge tugging at his every physical sense, Cristo lifted the phone. He informed the executive head of his acquisitions team that he would be taking over the next phase of the negotiations with the owner of the Stanwick Hall Hotel group.