About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Acheron Dimitrakos, known as Ash to his inner circle, and Greek billionaire founder of the global giant DT Industries, said nothing. He did not trust himself to speak. Usually his control was absolute. But not today. He had trusted his father, Angelos, as far as he trusted anyone, which was to say not very much, but it had never once crossed his mind that the older man would even consider threatening the company that Ash had single-handedly built with the bombshell that his last will and testament had become. If Ash didn't marry within the year, he would lose half of the company to his stepmother and her children, who were already most amply provided for by the terms of his father's will. It was unthinkable; it was a brutally unfair demand, which ran contrary to every honourable scruple and the high standards that Ash had once believed the older man held dear to his heart. It just went to showas if Ash had ever had any doubtyou couldn't trust anybody, and your nearest and dearest were the most likely to plunge a knife into your back when you were least expecting it.
'DT is my company,' Ash asserted between compressed lips.
'But regretfully not on paper,' Stevos countered gravely. 'On paper you never had your father transfer his interest to you. Even though it is indisputably the company that you built.'
Still, Ash said nothing. Cold dark eyes fringed with ridiculously long black lashes locked on the sweeping view of the City of London skyline that his penthouse office enjoyed, his lean, darkly handsome features set in hard, forbidding lines of restraint. 'A long court case disputing the will would seriously undermine the company's ability to trade,' he said eventually.
'Picking a wife would definitely be the lesser evil,' the lawyer suggested with a cynical chuckle. 'That's all you have to do to put everything back to normal.'
'My father knew I had no intention of ever marrying. That is exactly why he did this to me,' Ash ground out between clenched teeth, his temper momentarily escaping its leash as he thought of the utterly unhinged woman his misguided father had expected him to put in the role. 'I don't want a wife. I don't want children. I don't want any of that messing up my life!'
Stevos Vannou cleared his throat and treated his employer to a troubled appraisal. He had never seen Acheron Dimitrakos betray anger before or, indeed, any kind of emotion. The billionaire head of DT Industries was usually as cold as ice, possibly even colder, if his discarded lovers in the many tabloid stories were to be believed. His cool, logical approach, his reserve and lack of human sentiment were the stuff of legend. According to popular repute when one of his PAs had gone into labour at a board summit, he had told her to stay and finish the meeting.
'Forgive me if I'm being obtuse but I would suggest that any number of women would line up to marry you,' Ash's companion remarked cautiously, thinking of his own wife, who threatened to swoon if she even saw Acheron's face in print. 'Choosing would be more of a challenge than actually finding a wife.'
Ash clamped his mouth shut on an acid rejoinder, well aware the portly little Greek was out of his depth and only trying to be helpful even if stating the obvious was more than a little simplistic. He knew he could snap his fingers and get a wife as quickly and easily as he could get a woman into his bed. And he understood exactly why it was so easy: the money was the draw. He had a fleet of private jets and homes all over the world, not to mention servants who waited on him and his guests hand and foot. He paid well for good service. He was a generous lover too but every time he saw dollar signs in a woman's eyes it turned him off hard and fast. And more and more he noticed the dollar signs before he noticed the beautiful body and that was taking sex off the menu more often than he liked. He needed sex as he needed air to breathe, and couldn't really comprehend why he found the greed and manipulation that went with it so profoundly repellent. Evidently somewhere down inside him, buried so deep he couldn't root it out, there lurked an oversensitive streak he despised.
It was worse that Acheron knew exactly what lay behind the will and he could only marvel at his father's inability to appreciate that the woman he had tried to push Acheron towards was anathema to him. Six months before the older man's death there had been a big scene at his father's home, and Acheron had steered clear of visiting since then, which was simply one more nail in the coffin of the proposed bride-to-be. He had tried to talk to his stepmother about the problem but nobody had been willing to listen to common sense, least of all his father, who had been sufficiently impressed by the lady's acting ability to decide that the young woman he had raised from childhood would make his only son the perfect wife.
'Of course, perhaps it is possible that you could simply ignore the will and buy out your stepmother's interest in the company,' the lawyer suggested glibly.
Unimpressed, Ash shot the older man a sardonic glance. 'I will not pay for what is mine by right. Thank you for your time.'
Recognising the unmistakable note of dismissal, Ste-vos hastily stood up to leave while resolving to inform his colleagues of the situation immediately to sort out a plan of action. 'I'll put the best business minds in the firm on this challenge.'
Jaw line clenched as hard as a rock, Ash nodded even though he had little hope of a rescue plan. Experience told him that his father would have taken legal advice as well and would never have placed such a binding clause in his will without the assurance that it was virtually foolproof.
A wife, Ash reflected grimly. He had known since childhood that he would never take a wife and never father a child. That caring, loving gene had passed him by. He had no desire for anyone to grow up in his image or follow in his footsteps, nor did he wish to pass on the darkness he kept locked up inside himself. In fact, he didn't even like children, what little contact he had had with them simply bearing out his belief that children were noisy, difficult and annoying. Why would any sane adult want something that had to be looked after twenty-four hours a day and gave you sleepless nights into the bargain? In the same way why would any man want only one woman in his bed? The same woman, night after night, week after week. Ash shuddered at the very suggestion of such severe sexual confinement.
He recognised that he had a decision to make and he resolved to act fast before the news of that ridiculous will hit the marketplace and damaged the company he had built his life around.
'Nobody sees Mr Dimitrakos without an appointment and his prior agreement,' the svelte receptionist repeated frigidly. 'If you don't leave, Miss Glover, I will be forced to call Security to have you removed from the building.'
In answer, Tabby plonked her slight body back down on the plush seating in the reception area. Across from her sat an older man studying documents from a briefcase and talking urgently in a foreign language on his cell phone. Knowing she looked like hell did nothing for her confidence in such luxurious surroundings but she hadn't had a full night's sleep for some time, she no longer owned any decent clothes and she was desperate. Nothing less than desperation would have brought her to DT Industries seeking an interview with the absolute seven-letter-word of a man who had summarily refused to take any responsibility for the child whom Tabby loved with all her heart. Acheron Dimitrakos was a selfish, arrogant pig and what she had read about his womanising exploits in one of her clients' glossy scandal-sheet magazines had not improved her opinion. The man who had more money than Midas had turned his back on Amber without even expressing a desire to meet with Tabby as his co-guardian, or checking out the little girl's welfare.
The call to Security by Reception was duly made in clear crystalline tones undoubtedly intended to scare Tabby off before the guards arrived. Her small face stiff, she stayed where she was, her slight body rigid with tension while she frantically tried to think up another plan of approach because gatecrashing Acheron's office wasn't going very well. But it wasn't as if she had had a choice, although she acknowledged that the situation was very serious indeed when such a callous personality became her last hope.
And then fate took a hand she wasn't expecting and she wasted a split second simply staring when she saw the tall dark man from the magazine pictures striding across Reception with a couple of suited men following in his wake. Tabby flew to her feet and raced after him. 'Mr Didmitrakos Mr Dimitrakos!' she launched, stumbling over the syllables of his wretchedly complicated surname.
And at the exact same moment as her very tall and commanding quarry paused by the lift wearing an expression of sheer disbelief at her approach, the security guards came at a literal run, muttering fervent apologies to the man in front of her!
'I'm Amber's other guardian, Tabby Glover!' Tabby explained in feverish haste as both her arms were suddenly grabbed by the two men with him and she was yanked back a step from her proximity to him. 'I need to see you I tried to get an appointment but I couldn't even though it's desperately important that we talk before the weekend!'
Security really was in need of sharpening up if they allowed him to be cornered on the top floor of his own building by a crazy woman, Ash reflected in exasperation. The young woman was wearing a worn jacket, track pants and trainers, her fair hair tied up in a high ponytail, pale shadowed face bare of make-up. She was small and plain, not at all the kind of woman who would have attracted his attention although no sooner had he decided that than he noticed her remarkable blue eyes, which were an unusual violet in shade and dominated her pinched features.
'Please!' Tabby gasped. 'You can't be this selfishnobody could be! Amber's father was a member of your family'
'I have no family,' Ash informed her drily. 'Escort her out,' he told the security officers, who took over from his bodyguards in restraining Tabby even though she hadn't put up a struggle. 'And make sure this doesn't happen again.'
Taken aback that he wouldn't even give her five minutes of his time, that he betrayed no recognition even of Amber's name, Tabby was momentarily silenced. Then she swore at him like a fishwife, angrily employing language that had never left her lips before. In response, his brilliant dark eyes glittered with a raw angry hostility that momentarily shocked her because that cool front he wore evidently concealed much murkier depths.
'Mr Dimitrakos ?' Another voice interposed, and Tabby turned her head in surprise to see the older man who had been seated near her in the waiting area.
'The childyou'll recall your late cousin's guardianship request, which you turned down a couple of months ago?' Stevos Vannou hurtled forward to remind Acheron Dimitrakos in a quiet, respectful undertone.
An inconsequential memory pinged in the back of Ash's shrewd brain and drew his straight black brows together into a frown. 'What of it?'
'You selfish bastard!' Tabby raked at him, outraged by his lack of reaction and the consequences that his indifference to Amber's fate were about to visit on the child. 'I'll go to the press with this.. you don't deserve anything better. All that wretched money and you can't do anything good with it!'
'Siopi! Keep quiet,' Acheron told her sternly in Greek and then English.
'And you and whose army is going to make me?' Tabby snapped back, unimpressed, the fighting spirit that had carried her through many years of loss and disappointment rising to the fore again to strengthen her backbone.
'What does she want?' Acheron asked his lawyer in English as if she weren't there.
'I suggest we take this back into your office,' Stevos remarked on a loaded hint.
Savage impatience gripped Ash. Only three days earlier he had returned from his father's funeral and, without even allowing for his grief at the older man's sudden death from a heart attack, it had turned into a very frustrating week. The very last thing he was in the mood for was a drama about some child he had never met and couldn't have cared less about. Troy Valtinos, oh, yes, he could remember now, a third cousin he had also never met, who had unexpectedly died and, in doing so, had attempted to commit his infant daughter to Ash's care. An act of sheer inexplicable insanity, Acheron reflected in exasperation, thinking back incredulously to that brief discussion with Stevos some months earlier. He was a childless single male without family back-up and he travelled constantly. What on earth could anyone have supposed he would do with an orphaned baby girl?
'I'm sorry I swore at you,' Tabby lied valiantly in an effort to build a bridge and win a hearing. 'I shouldn't have done that'
'Your mouth belongs in the gutter,' Acheron breathed icily and he addressed the security guards, 'Free her. You can take her out when I'm done with her.'
Tabby gritted her teeth together, straightened her jacket and ran uncertain hands down over her slender denim-clad thighs. Ash briefly studied her oval face, his attention lingering on her full pink mouth as a rare flight of sexual fantasy took him to the brink of picturing where else that mouth might be best employed other than in the gutter. The stirring at his groin put him in an even worse mood, reminding him of how long it had been since he had indulged his healthy libido. He knew he had to be in a very bad way if he could react to such an ignorant female.
'I'll give you five minutes of my valuable time,' Acheron breathed with chilling reluctance.
'Five minutes when a child's life and happiness hang in the balance? How very generous of you,' Tabby replied sarcastically.
Roaring rancour assailed Acheron because he wasn't accustomed to such rudeness, particularly not from women. 'You're insolent as well as vulgar.'
'It got me in the door, didn't it? Politeness got me nowhere,' Tabby traded, thinking of the many phone calls she had made in vain requests for an appointment. As for being called cheeky and vulgar, did she really care what some jumped-up, spoilt snob with loads of money thought about her? Yet her brain was already scolding her for her aggressive approach, telling her it was unwise. If she could get around the freeze front Acheron Dimitrakos wore to the world, he was in a position to help Amber while she was not. As far as Social Services were concerned, she could not be considered a suitable guardian for Amber because she was single, had no decent home and was virtually penniless.
'Start talking,' Ash urged, thrusting the door of his office shut.
'I need your help to keep Amber in my custody. I'm the only mother she's ever known and she's very attached to me. Social Services are planning to take her off me on Friday and place her in foster care with a view to having her adopted.'
'Isn't that the best plan in the circumstances?' Ash's lawyer, Stevos Vannou, interposed in a very reasonable voice as though it was an expected thing that she should be willing to surrender the child she loved. 'I seem to remember that you are single and living on benefits and that a child would be a considerable burden for you'