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I'll handle it. Those fatalistic words still reverberated in Angel's head a week later. She'd gone to speak with Stavros' father herself, to try and remonstrate with him, but he hadn't even deigned to see her. It couldn't have been made clearer that they were social outcasts.
Abruptly Angel was pulled out of her spiralling black thoughts when her boss called her name. It must have been the second or third time, judging by the impatience on his face.
'When you can join us back on earth, go down to the pool and make sure it's completely clear and that the tea lights are set out on the tables.'
She stuttered an apology and fled. In all honesty Angel's preoccupation had been distracting her from something much more panic-inducing and stressful. Almost too stressful to contemplate.
She was here at the Parnassus villa, high in the hills of Athens, to waitress at a party that was being thrown for Leonidas Parnassus, the son of Georgios Parnassus. Everyone was buzzing about the fact that he might be about to take over the family business and what a coup it would be, Leo Parnassus having become a multimillionaire entrepreneur in his own right.
It hit her again as she hurried down the steps that were expertly overgrown with extravagantly flowering bougainvil-lea. She was in the Parnassus villa, the home of the family who hated hers with a passion.
For a second she stopped in her tracks, a hand going to her breast as an intense pain tightened in her chest. This was the absolute worst place she could be in the world. For a second she felt hysteria rising at the irony of it. She, Angel Kassianides, was about to serve drinks to the cr me de la cr me of Athens, right under the Parnassuses nose. The thought of what her father would do if he could see her now made her break out in a cold sweat.
She bit her lip and forced herself to go on, breathing a sigh of relief when she had a quick look around the pool area and saw no one. The guests hadn't started to arrive yet and, though there were some staying at the villa, Angel knew that they'd be getting ready. There was no reason for anyone to be by the pool, but still… an uneasy prickling skated over her skin.
She hadn't been able to avoid coming here tonight. She and her waiter colleagues had been halfway to their secret destination in a packed minibus before it had been revealed, for 'security reasons'. Angel knew well that if she'd bailed out of this evening her boss would have sacked her on the spot. He'd sacked people for less in his prestigious catering company. She couldn't afford for that to happen—not when her income was the only thing helping put her sister through college and keeping food on their table.
She tried to reassure herself: her boss was English, recently moved to Athens with his English/Greek wife. He knew nothing of the significance of who Angel was, nor her scandalous connection to the Parnassus family. She busied herself placing out the tea lights in their antique silver holders in the middle of the white damask-covered tables, and sent up fervent thanks that, tonight of all nights, not one of the other staff were local. Things were so busy at the moment that her boss had had to call in their part-time workers, and they were all either foreign or from outside Athens.
Her only fear now was that someone at the party might recognise her. But, knowing these people as she did, she'd no doubt that in her uniform of black skirt and white shirt they'd not take a second look at her. She worried her lip again. Perhaps she could just stay in the kitchen and get the trays together and avoid—
Angel started suddenly when she heard the splash of water coming from nearby. Someone was in the pool. Carefully she placed the last candle down and made to slip away, back up to the kitchen. As if she'd been subliminally aware of it but had blocked it out, she realised that someone must have been in the pool all along—but not swimming, so she hadn't noticed them.
The sky was a dusky violet colour, so perhaps that was also why she hadn't—Angel glanced quickly to her right as a flash of movement caught her eye, and her legs stopped functioning when the sight before her registered on her retina and in her brain.
An olive-skinned Greek god was hauling himself in one powerfully sleek move out of the water, droplets of water cascading off taut muscles. Everything seemed to go into slow motion as the sheer height and breadth of him was revealed. Angel shook her head stupidly, but it felt as if it had been stuffed with cotton wool. Greek gods didn't exist. This was a man, a flesh-and-blood man. And the minute she registered that she was standing transfixed, staring at him, she panicked.
But her body wouldn't obey her order to move, or it would, but her limbs all moved in independent directions, and to her utter horror she found herself backing into a poolside chair and almost toppling over it. And she would have, if the man hadn't moved like lightning and grabbed her, so that instead of falling back she fell forward into his chest, with his hands around her upper arms.
For a long moment Angel tried to tell herself that this wasn't happening. That she wasn't breathing in an intoxicating mix of spice and earthiness. That she wasn't all but plastered against a bare, wet chest which felt as hard as steel, her lips just a breath away from pressing against skin covered in a light dusting of intensely masculine hair.
Angel tried to break away, and pulled back, forcing his hands to drop. Heat scorched upwards over her cheeks as she finally stood upright again and found her eyes level with hard, flat brown nipples. She looked up, swallowing, and her gaze skittered up and past broad shoulders to his face.
'I'm so sorry. I just… got startled. The light… I didn't see…'
The man quirked an ebony brow. Angel swallowed again. Lord, but his face was as beautiful as the rest of him. Not beautiful, she amended, that was too girly a word. He was devastating. Thick black hair lay sleek against his head, and high cheekbones offset an impossibly hard jaw. His mouth was forbidding, but held a promise of sensuality that resonated deep in her body.
Suddenly that mouth stopped being forbidding and quirked. She nearly had to put out a hand again to steady herself. A thin scar ran from his upper lip to his nose, making her fight the absurd urge to reach up and trace it. Making her wonder how he'd got it—this complete stranger!
Are you okay?'
Angel nodded vaguely. He sounded American; perhaps he was a business colleague, a guest who was staying over. Although somehow, in her muddled brain, that didn't fit either. He was someone. She struggled to remember where she was, what she was here to do. Who she was.
She nodded. 'I'm… I'm fine.'
He frowned slightly, seemingly completely at ease with his lack of dress. 'You're not Greek?'
Angel alternately shook and nodded her head. 'I am Greek. But I'm also half-Irish. I spent a lot of time in boarding school there… so my accent is more neutral.' She clamped her mouth shut. What was she blathering on about?
The man frowned a little deeper, his glance up and down taking in her uniform. And yet you're waitressing here?'
The incredulity in his tone made Angel's sanity rush back. Only girls from privileged backgrounds in Greece went abroad for schooling. Immediately she felt vulnerable. She was meant to be fading into the background, not engaging in conversation with the guests of the hosts.
She backed away, looking somewhere in the region of his shoulder. 'Please excuse me. I have to get back to work.'
She was about to turn when she heard him drawl laconically, 'You might want to dry off before you start handing out champagne.'
Angel followed his gaze down to where it rested on her chest. On her breasts. She gasped when she saw that she was indeed drenched, her shirt opaque and her plain white bra clearly visible, along with two very pointedly hard nipples. How long had she been plastered against him like some mindless groupie?
With a strangled gasp of mortification Angel scrambled backwards, nearly tripping over a chair again and only just righting it and herself before there could be a repeat rescue performance. All she heard as she fled back up the steps was a mocking, deep-throated chuckle.
A little later, Leonidas Parnassus looked around the thronged salon and tried to stifle his irritation when he couldn't see the waitress. It had made him uncomfortable, how urgent his need to see her again had been as soon as he'd walked into the main reception room. It had also made him uncomfortable how vividly her image had come back to him in his recent shower, forcing him to turn the temperature to cold.
And now her image surged back again, mocking his attempts to thrust it aside. He recalled how she'd looked, with a dark flush on her cheeks, those intensely light blue eyes wide and ringed with thick black lashes, staring at him like a startled fawn. As if she'd never seen a man before.
She had a tiny beauty spot just on the edge of a full lower lip, and he grimaced when he felt the effect remembering that had on his lower body. He hated having such an arbitrary response. But when he'd seen her arrive by the pool and do her work, with quick, economic movements, her glossy light brown hair pulled into a high topknot, something about her had stirred him. Something about her intense preoccupation, for patently she hadn't noticed him in the pool. And Leo was not a man who was used to going unnoticed.
When he'd caught her against him in that completely instinctive move tendrils of her hair had come free and framed her face and the defined line of her jaw, making him want to slip his hand into the glossy strands and cause it to fall down around her shoulders. He could almost feel it over his hands now, the heavy silky weight.
Irritation spiked again. Where was she? Had she been a figment of his imagination? His father approached then, with a colleague, and Leo forced a benign smile to his mouth, hating the fact that he was in thrall to a nameless waitress.
Distracting him momentarily was the reality he now faced of just how frail his father had become, even since he'd seen him last. As if something within him had shifted subtly but profoundly. He felt a deep-seated sense of inevitability steal over him, he was needed here, his own empire notwithstanding. But was his place really here? He tried out the word now: home. His heart beat fast.
He thought of his sterile, yet state-of-the-art penthouse apartment in New York; the steel and silver skyscrapers of the world he inhabited. He thought of his impeccably groomed and very experienced blonde mistress; he thought of what it might be like to walk away from all of that—and he felt… nothing.
Athens, being here for the past week, had confounded his every expectation. He'd thought he'd feel nothing. On the contrary, he felt as though he'd been plugged into something deeply primal within his soul. Something had been brought to life, and wouldn't be pushed back to some dim and distant recess.
Just then, as if to compound this feeling, he caught sight of something in the far corner of the room. Glossy hair piled high, a long neck. A familiar slim back. Leo's heart started to thud, this time to a very different beat.
Angel was trying to keep her head down and not meet anyone's eye. She'd done her best to stay in the kitchen, preparing the trays, but her boss had eventually sent her up to the main salon as she was his most experienced staff member. At that moment she caught a pointed frowning look from Aristotle Levakis across the room—he was business partner to Parnassus, and her stomach quivered with renewed panic. This was a disaster in the making. Aristotle Levakis knew her, because their fathers had been friendly before Aristotle's father had died. Angel could remember that Aristotle had been to one or two parties at her father's house over the years.
In the act of offering some red wine to a small group of people, she had to keep going, but then she got accidentally jostled by another waiter. The tray tipped off balance, and with mounting horror Angel watched four glasses full of red wine disgorge their contents all over a beautiful woman's pristine and very white designer dress.
For a second nothing happened. The woman was just looking down at her dress, aghast. And then it came, her voice so shrill that Angel winced. Conversely, at the same time, an awful silence seemed to descend.
'You stupid, stupid girl—'
But then, just as suddenly, a huge dark shape appeared at Angel's side, and she barely had time to take in a breath before she registered that it was the man from the pool. Her heart skipped a beat, before starting again erratically. He sent her a quick wink before taking the gasping woman aside to speak to her in low, hushed tones, and Angel saw her boss hurry forward to take the matter in hand.
Her boss and the woman were summarily dispatched, and then the man turned around to face Angel. Words dropped into her head but made no sense. He was so downright intimidating in an exquisite tuxedo that shock was rendering her speechless, breathless and motionless.
He calmly took the now empty tray from her hand and passed it to another waiter. The mess from the fallen drinks was already being cleared up. Angel would have protested that she should look after it, if she could have spoken.
Everyone else in the immediate vicinity seemed to melt away, and with a light, yet commanding touch from his hand on her arm Angel felt herself being manoeuvred across the room, until they'd walked through a set of open patio doors and out to the blessed quiet of the grand terrace.
The cool and fragrant evening air curled around Angel like a caress, but she felt hot, right down to her very core. Hot from embarrassment and hot from where this man's big hand was curled around her upper arm. They came to a stop beside a low wall, beyond which a pristine lawn sloped gently downwards and off into the distance.