Innocent in Her Enemy’s Bed
Keeping her enemy close…
…means getting far closer than she thought!
Ilona Callas is aware that Leander Vasilou will do anything for revenge against her stepfamily. She just never pictured herself becoming the formidable Greek businessman’s ally! Yet uniting with Leander will give Ilona freedom and financial independence for the first time.
Since clawing his way to the top after being betrayed, Leander exists alone. Ilona should be his ticket to vengeance…until an explosive moment of intimacy changes everything. So begins a sensual back-and-forth that will lead to one place: their marriage bed!
“Marriage. Now there’s an idea.”
— Leander, Innocent in Her Enemy's Bed
You’ll notice that I write a lot of linked books, which I love, but occasionally I like to write one that stands alone. I knew I would be starting Four Weddings and a Baby next so I wanted to keep this one simple. (I always think it will be simple.)
It wound up with a complicated back story, as usual, but a good old-fashioned enemies-to-lovers has built-in conflict. Ilona is very sweet and very self-protect and Leander really lets her down at the wedding. (I love that awful, awful scene.)
I didn’t know how she would flower into such a strong heroine, one who outsmarts Leander in the best possible way, but I was so proud of her when she did! And I love that Leander finds his own way past darkness and thirst for vengeance to love and Happily Ever After. Enjoy!
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Innocent in Her Enemy’s Bed
This must be what it would feel like walking to the gallows, Ilona Callas’s imagination whispered as she passed through the security gauntlet in the lobby of the Vasilou Tower.
Her skin was clammy and her stomach was filled with lead. Her heart raced and her breathing was so shallow and rapid, she grew light-headed. Her nostrils burned with the scent of danger. Flee!
Perhaps it was the glass elevator. The guard showed her into it and pushed the button, but left her to rise alone. She averted her gaze from the way the plants and people abruptly shrank beneath her and grasped the rail for balance.
She didn’t care for heights, not since her older half brother Midas had dragged her to the edge of a cliff and terrorized her with threats of throwing her off. A joke, her stepmother had insisted. Boys will be boys.
Deep down, Ilona suspected the reason she was here was because Midas was at it again. He was so funny with his destructive pranks, he ought to have his own comedy special on the streaming networks.
The Parthenon came into view then even that behemoth shrank as she continued to rise. Buildings this tall were a rarity in Athens. Most kept to twelve floors or less, ensuring the Parthenon was always in view. The fact the owner of this tower had been allowed to double that height told her he did not confine himself to the rules that governed others.
Much like Midas.
The knives in her stomach turned.
The door pinged and opened. Ilona entered a top floor reception area of stunning design. The marble tiles were arranged so the veins created a river effect, guiding her through a gallery of modern art to a desk stationed before a glass wall etched with a map of the globe.
A woman sat behind the desk, but a scrupulously groomed young man stood by to greet Ilona.
“Kyría Callas. Kaliméra. I’m Androu. Kýrie Vasilou will be with you shortly. May I ask you to wait here?” Androu led her to a door adjacent to the reception area, one that opened into a small, stuffy glass-fronted room. It held a round table and four chairs that were a chic, modern design made from polished wood. He didn’t offer coffee or water before he left her.
The lack of respect was obvious. This room was a prison where she had no privacy. The lighting was artificial, the music not piped in. The only sound was the loud tick of the clock. Ilona didn’t bother trying her phone. The service would be poor; she was sure. This room was deliberately uncomfortable so meetings here would be kept short.
It was not the place to leave a peer.
If Leander Vasilou thought she would depart in a huff of indignation, however, he was deeply mistaken. Ilona had been insulted, attacked and disregarded her whole life. Rather than taking offense, she was grateful for the time to sit quietly and escape the coming confrontation with more pleasant thoughts.
She admired that marble floor and wondered how she might obtain the name of the mason so she could plagiarize the effect in her flat. Or, as she often fantasized, perhaps she would sell her flat and move to the island of her mother’s birth. She loved her work, but today was a perfect example of why it was also draining. It would be far less stressful to work in a café the way her mother had. On Paxos, she would have a view of actual water. She could feed the stray cats and try her hand at pottery. That had always fascinated her. So tactile and magical to create shapes from silt. She would have to look up whether there were appropriate clay deposits—
“Kyría Callas?” Androu was back. “Kýrie Vasilou will see you now.”
A glance at the clock revealed she had been waiting thirty-three minutes.
Since the young man held the door with an air of expectation, she rose.
“Thank you,” she said, but the blanket of dread returned to her shoulders, heavy and cold.
She followed him down a blessedly air-conditioned corridor, through a far more comfortable waiting area, one that provided a small banquet of refreshments and a view of the city.
He waved her into a massive office.
Here, the marble veins in the floor created a mountain effect. On one side, there were a sofa and chairs with a television mounted above a wine cooler set in a cabinet of glasses and bottles of spirits. The other side held a meeting table with six ergonomic chairs, a projector and a blank whiteboard.
In front of her, at the pinnacle of the mountain, natural light poured through a wall of glass, backlighting the occupant of the office, Leander Vasilou.
He sat at a desk made from a curved slab of polished mahogany set atop drawers arranged in a slant. The whole thing looked offset, but dynamic and ultramodern. He wore an earpiece and was speaking in French, booking a tennis match with someone.
The doors closed behind her, but his conversation only lapsed into whether a certain piste at a Swiss ski resort had been attempted, then the merits of protein shakes over whole foods after working out.
He didn’t look at her once.
Ilona hadn’t been invited to sit so she didn’t. She waited with the patience she had gathered around her through a lifetime of being least and last and deeply unwanted. It usually served her well, cushioning her against most of life’s spears and arrows.
She knew he was aware of her, knew he was deliberately trying to get under her skin. To her chagrin, it was working. She wanted to put it down to the attack this stranger was waging on her. Many would label it “just business,” but it was deeply personal to her. It was herbusiness he was attacking.
That wasn’t what was piercing her bubble of detachment, though. It was him.
She had seen photos of Leander Vasilou, but she hadn’t expected his suit-model looks to be so mesmerizing in real life. His eyelids sat heavy and bored over gray irises. A scruff of beard accentuated the height of his cheekbones and the hollows of his cheeks. That same scruff might be hiding a cleft in his squared off chin. It certainly framed a mouth that gave her a small thrill when his teeth briefly caught at the inner flesh of his bottom lip.
“Oh, yes, I remember her very well,” he said, voice dipping into smoky amusement rife with sensual memory.
That tone had the strangest effect on her, turning the greasiness of dread in her belly to warm butter laced with honey.
A flush of heat rose from that same place, radiating into her breasts and turning to an embarrassed heat as she realized she was reacting in a very sexual way to that timbre in his voice.
She never reacted to men. Or women. Not to anyone. Not like this. She dated when an escort was expected—like a gala or holiday party—but she rarely allowed more than a kiss at the end because that was when her interest always dried up.
Oddly, this man, whom she was predisposed to fear and dislike, was making her wonder how his lips would feel against her own. How would they feel in the crook of her neck? His wide hands became a source of fascination as he briefly squeezed the back of his neck and laughed, causing the fabric of his shirt to strain across his well-built shoulders and thick biceps.
She had never once in her life felt her breath leave her because the beauty of a man appealed so strongly. Or experienced a compulsion to unbutton a man’s shirt and nuzzle the hair on his chest because a few fine hairs at his collar caught her attention, but she was envisioning doing that to him and was appalled with herself.
She swallowed, discovering her throat was hot and tight. Her cheeks were beginning to sting as her blush arrived from her chest and swept upward.
She averted her gaze to a sculpture that could have been steel flames. She thought about the time Midas had thrown her doll into the fire at the Pagonis chalet in Switzerland. It had been the last thing her mother had given her.
That painful memory helped her remember why she was here. At nine, she hadn’t had the courage to pluck her doll out of the fire and save it. She wouldn’t be so cowardly today.
She firmed her feet to the floor and drew a long subtle breath of patience.
Leander Vasilou finally ended his call. He dropped his earpiece onto his desk and looked at her with a distinct lack of interest.
“Kyría Pagonis. You wanted to see me.” He didn’t rise, didn’t offer his hand to shake.
She didn’t even glance at either of the chairs she stood between.
“Callas,” she corrected with a polite smile. “My mother wasn’t married to my father so I use her name.” Ilona always corrected that. It was a whole thing with Odessa, her stepmother. “But given you’re attempting to take over my company, I expect you already know my name.”
“I am taking over your company,” he assured her. “Ilona.”
His facetious tone was dangerously close to that other, intimate timbre he had used a moment ago. It had the same effect of unfurling frond-like sensations deep in her belly.
She tried to ignore it, but her throat was constricting again.
“You have acquired forty percent of the shares in Callas Cosmetics. I own forty-five. Pagonis International owns the remaining fifteen, so I don’t know how you—”
“Does it?” he cut in.
The sweet sensations in her stomach curdled. The text from her younger half brother Hercules appeared in her mind’s eye.
You should be here. They’re making decisions without you.
“I understand you’ve made an offer to buy those shares from Pagonis. May I assume you’re prompted by product loyalty? Your skin is certainly flawless,” she said.
There was a flash behind his sharp gaze, like the glint off a knife blade.
“You may assume that my intention is to take over Pagonis International. Acquiring their cash cow is the first step.”
Ilona had been called many things, but never that. And Midas must know he was the real target. That’s why he was throwing her company forward as a sacrifice. Big surprise.
She tightened her grip on her clutch, fighting to keep an impervious expression on her face.
“I’ve bettered your offer,” she said with false calm. “If they sell, it will be to me. I’m here to offer for the forty percent you’ve already obtained. I’m prepared to pay above market value.”
“I’ve upped the ante myself, promising ten percent over any offer you make. The sky is the limit. That was one of the Pagonis board members on that call.” He flicked a finger toward his earpiece. “We’re old friends and he owes me a favor. He’s also greedy as hell. Pagonis will not be selling their shares to you.”
The churn in her stomach grew into a tangle of thorny brambles.
“Why is it that you’re targeting Pagonis?” she asked, lifting her brows in absent interest. “Cosmetics and biotechnology fall outside the Vasilou bailiwick, doesn’t it?” His conglomerate took on large infrastructure projects like bridges and airports.
“I want to take back what’s mine and destroy the rest,” he said very casually, as though mentioning his errands for the day.
Her blood went cold as she began to see where Midas was dragging her. Here was the cliff, and its churning sea was in Leander’s eyes, mercilessly crashing against sharp rocks.
“What, um, what exactly is yours?” she inquired, fighting to keep a level tone.
“The speech recognition technology that your brother ‘developed’ sixteen years ago.” He only curled the fingers on one hand to indicate the air quotes, not even lifting the heel of his palm off the blotter on his desk. Contempt dripped off his tongue. “Most of the credit goes to my father, but I worked with him on it. Then Midas talked us into allowing him to assist us with taking it to market. That was the last we saw of him or any profit we should have earned.”
Of course, Midas had stolen that technology. She kicked herself for not seeing it long before now, but she had still been at boarding school when he had been impressing their father with his business acumen. Then she had focused on building her own enterprise, distancing herself as much as possible from Midas and the corporate headquarters, not wanting to work at Pagonis International because she would have to work directly under Midas.
“That doesn’t explain why you’re coming after my company, rather than some of the subsidiaries that Midas controls,” she said.
“I entered the door that was open. Your shares aren’t as expensive or well-protected against speculative trading. Which doesn’t make sense to me when your company has been infusing the mother ship with much-needed cash for over a year.”
It made sense if he knew her family, but she didn’t let their greed and scorn of her value distract her in this moment.
“Your intention is to persuade the board to sell you its share in Callas Cosmetics and take it over from me? Then what do you plan to do with it?”
“Let it wither and die.”
That pushed her onto her back foot. “Why?” she asked with anxious bafflement. “You just called it a cash cow.”
“Because I want your family to know that I don’t need it the way you do. I want it to hurt. I want you all to feel sickened at the mistake you made, living off the fruits of my father’s labor, stealing the credit and driving him to ruin.”
The gravel rolling in her middle stopped. It became heavy and nauseatingly hard, but at least it was a feeling she was used to. This was very familiar ground.
“Your takeover is motivated by vindictiveness,” she acknowledged.
“Yes.” No hesitation or apology.
Perhaps he was entitled to his antipathy, but she hadn’t stolen from his father. There was no defusing hate, though. Ilona had learned that with Odessa. It didn’t matter that Ilona was her father’s mistake. Ilona had always borne the brunt of Odessa’s resentment.
That seemed to be what Leander had in store for her. He would take the majority share in Callas Cosmetics, then force her to watch as he ran it into the ground. That would crush her, given she had built it from a patch of dry skin on her cheek to a global enterprise.
A familiar despair at injustice floated around the edges of her periphery, but she mentally batted it away. Crying or fighting against the bullies of the world had never served her. The best she could do was soften the punch and get away as quickly as possible.
“I don’t want innocent employees to lose their jobs.” She made her decision with the swiftness of self-preservation and acted on it before second thoughts could creep in. “Our customers depend on the efficacy of our products, especially those with facial scars and burn injuries. It would be a shame to deny them something they need. I propose you buy my shares.”
He snorted and his chair squeaked as he threw himself back in it. “I know what it looks like when a rat jumps ship, Ilona.”
No fernlike tickle when he said her name this time. She was nothing but granite inside, hardened with resolve.
“I propose that you buy my shares for the amount my father gave me when he approved my business plan. That was one hundred thousand euros of start-up capital and a fifteen percent share. I don’t know what I’ll do next, but I’m happy to maintain those terms on any venture I pursue.” A café, for instance. With dolmades served on hand-thrown crockery.
He was taken aback, not that he showed it, but he went very still and his eyes narrowed as he tried to discern what the catch might be.
She enlightened him. “In return I would insist you hire a qualified CEO and do everything in your power to keep Callas Cosmetics thriving.”
“Your forty-five percent is worth ten million euros.”
“Yes, I know.” She offered a flat smile. “And I assure you that if you pursue the Pagonis shares just so you can destroy Callas, I will drive up the price until you pay thirty million for fifteen percent. Or you may have forty-five for one hundred thousand. My research tells me you’re a shrewd negotiator. Well done.”
“Your negotiation skills are terrible. What would you get out of that?”
“A clean conscience,” she said. “I accept that I benefited from your father’s work. It was unknowing, but I did. Losing ten million is a blow. Losing something I built with great pride and care would also cause me great distress. But having served me my just desserts, I assume you’ll leave me alone in future.” She hoped.
He steepled his fingers and swiveled his chair, head cocked as he reassessed her. “Are you trying to protect Midas by handing me the keys to your company? Did he send you here to make this little gesture to distract me from going after Pagonis International? It won’t work. I won’t give up.”
She bit back a hysterical laugh. “I can see you’re very determined.” His ruthlessness was glowing like a neon sign. “The only people I’m trying to protect are the innocent ones.”
Her employees from top level to floor-sweeper were a tight, dedicated team. There was already an ache behind her breastbone at knowing she wouldn’t see them every day, but she was good at compartmentalizing. Showing this man how distraught she was wouldn’t help her case. In fact, he would probably use it against her.
She stood tall and aloof as she waited for his next move.
His head fell back as he regarded her through the screen of his spiky lashes. “Are you angling to stay on as CEO?”
“No.” She suppressed another choke of laughter. “My company is being used as a pawn between you and Midas. I refuse to become one myself. Take the spoils and fight your fight, but leave me out of it. Shall I have the paperwork drawn up?”
“Your eagerness to run is suspicious.” His gaze flickered all over her, leaving little burn marks everywhere it touched.
She had made a mistake. She preferred to stay in the background, but she had caught his full attention and it was deeply disconcerting, both because his antagonism was plain and because she was reacting to him in such an inappropriate way. Some girlish part of her was squirming, worried her hair was out of place or there was a drip of coffee on her blouse.
“What if I asked you to stay on as CEO?” he questioned. “What if I made that my condition for accepting your offer?”
Her heart skipped then stretched with longing. She had built her company with more than pride and care. She had put her soul into it. She didn’t care that her father had eventually decided Midas was the better businessman based on his stolen technology and named him president of Pagonis International. Ilona knew in her heart she outpaced Midas when it came to financial intelligence, marketing insight and management skills.
Much as it would kill her to walk away from what she had created, however, the idea of finally escaping the Pagonis tentacles was even more appealing. That 15 percent in Callas Cosmetics had kept her beholden to Midas after their father passed. If she gave up her company, however, she had no reason to continue associating with any of them.
She would finally be free.
Thanks to this man with the broad shoulders and glinting silver eyes and a sensual mouth that put shocking thoughts in her head.
“Tempted?” he chided in that infuriatingly seductive tone.
“No,” she lied. Her skin was still prickling, wondering if he found her appealing which was so stupid. “The idea of partnering with a man who hates me and wants to use me to exact revenge against my family sounds like a marriage best not undertaken. I suggest—”
“Marriage,” Leander cut in, sitting straight up with another screech of his chair. “Now there’s an idea.”
Ilona Callas’s eyes widened as Leander shot to his feet and came around his desk toward her. In fact, there was a split second where he glimpsed genuine fear flare behind her startled gaze.
Then she blanked her expression and seemed to subtly rebalance her weight, but her knuckles turned white where she held her shiny black handbag. The tendons in her neck stood out with distress.
With a disconcerting swerve in his chest, Leander veered across the room to throw ice into glasses. He opened a bottle of sparkling water, glugging it over the cubes, using the action to steal a moment of reassessment.
Marriage to the illegitimate Pagonis daughter had already occurred to him as the ultimate means to his revenge, of course it had. For a decade and a half, he had mulled every possible path into their empire.
He had set aside approaching Ilona for several reasons, the primary one being that it would tip his hand. Making a stealth move on her company had put him in this first, fail-safe position of having a foot in the door. Morally, he had balked at romancing a woman under false pretenses, even one whose family he categorically despised.
Now that he had met her and she had brought it up, however, marriage returned as a possibility. That stark fear he had just witnessed was concerning, though. It had even briefly eclipsed his blinding desire to destroy the Pagonis family. Much as he wanted to make them pay, terrorizing a woman with sexual threats was not something he would ever do, under any circumstance.
Most especially if he was trying to talk her into marriage.
Is that what he wanted, though? Marriage? To her?
“I realize you didn’t steal the tech yourself, but you’ve lived off those profits, Ilona. That’s how your father was able to invest in your company. That’s why I’m coming after you along with the rest. You don’t get to be a Pagonis only when it works to your advantage.”
There was such a loaded silence behind him, he glanced over his shoulder.
Her glower at his back quickly reconfigured into calm dignity. “I just offered to make good on that.”
She had and he was still puzzling through that offer.
He set the fizzing glasses on the coffee table, nodding at her to join him as he took his customary armchair.
After the briefest of hesitations, she came to perch on the corner of the sofa farthest from him, ankles crossed, hands folded, demeanor one of polite interest.
Damn, but she was beautiful. He had noted that, too, in his many online research trips, but he was far more interested in whether a woman had an engaging personality or a unique perspective on life that challenged his own.
Still, he was red-blooded enough to react to Ilona’s unadulterated sex appeal. She had a supermodel figure—tall and slender, but rounded in all the most alluring places. Her bone structure was delicate, but her depthless brown eyes were steady and unflinching. Her shiny black hair was clasped behind her neck. Her manicure and makeup were natural shades. Even her lipstick was a nude shade with only the barest hint of berry pink.
Somehow that was more tantalizing than garish red, drawing his gaze back to her wide, lush mouth again and again.
She wore simple gold jewelry—hoops in her ears, a chain with an ornate knot that sat in the hollow of her throat and a ring designed like ivy that twined toward the knuckle on her middle finger. Her clothing was a classic navy skirt suit with a pinstripe and a white shirt with its collar popped. Her shoes were a matching blue-black with red soles.
She wasn’t flirting or throwing out lures, though. So he wasn’t sure why he felt such a tremendous pull. It had accosted him the moment she had entered his office, quiet and graceful as a ballerina. Slithered, he had told himself of her near-silent entry. He wanted to view her as a viper, like Midas.
She was too sensual looking to be a cold-blooded reptile, though. He couldn’t tell what she was beneath her understated, faultless demeanor.
Inexplicably, a hummingbird came to mind, one that appeared pretty and small when she was still, but with a heart that was beating a mile a minute. He didn’t know that, but he sensed the way she remained alert, ready to dart away at the least startling movement.
She didn’t touch her water, didn’t fidget or press him to speak. She sat very quietly, exactly as his receptionist had reported she had behaved in the pressure cooker, the room in the reception area where he sequestered those he didn’t really wish to see.
Rather than grow overheated and angry at his rudeness, or trying to maximize her time by making calls, Ilona had sat and waited.
Waiting was hard. Leander knew that because he had had to wait for his opportunity to take Midas down. The wheels were in motion but had yet to pick up momentum. Marriage to Ilona could provide the rocket fuel, but thinking about something like that and doing it were very different.
She was a Pagonis and not to be trusted.
On the other hand, she held a stake in the company. Pagonis International was publicly traded, but the family owned a substantial interest. Their father had bequeathed his shares equally between his three children. His widow owned a similar amount and the family always voted together, maintaining control.
But what if Leander could disrupt that? At the very least, marrying into that family would allow him to reap some of the financial benefit that should have been his all along.
He nodded, warming even more to the idea of capturing this reluctant little pawn.
“You’re not married,” he noted. “Are you engaged? In a relationship?”
“I don’t think it would be wise to offer you any more leverage than you currently possess,” she said with a faint smile.
“Interesting that you think a relationship would be a weakness, not a strength.”
“Goodness,” she said with a glance at her naked wrist. “Did my therapy appointment overlap with my business meeting? I’ll speak to my assistant. There’s no reason you should feel compelled to do double duty.”
He refused to like her, but he was a sucker for sarcasm delivered on such a frosty platter. May I assume you’re prompted by product loyalty?
He was still privately smirking over that cheeky remark.
“I find committed relationships to be a liability myself,” he volunteered, presuming he would have unearthed any serious liaisons while he’d been researching her and her family. “I have no problem with monogamy, but demands on my time are very high. I don’t like people in my space, expecting me to answer to them. I don’t like being emotionally accessible. It’s…tedious.”
Such a mysterious creature. He was reluctantly curious, wondering what it would take to get a real reaction out of her. Not a reflex like pain or fear. Laughter. Passion.
She must possess some of the latter. Callas Cosmetics was enormously successful in a crowded market. Her father’s initial investment was well-documented, and the family name had definitely helped her along, but she hadn’t relied on gimmicks or risky gambles or dirty plays that he could find. She had scaled strategically, always raising money through outside sources with sound proposals.
As someone who had grown his own business from next to nothing, Leander knew there had to be a deep emotional driver to propel a person into doing the hard work every day. His motivator was revenge. The way Ilona was prepared to sacrifice herself for her employees and customers suggested something less dark. It had to be passion.
He could definitely work with that.
“If we were to marry—” he began, then surprised himself with a fantasy of her long, slender legs squeezing his waist while he plumbed the depths of her sensuality, his mouth catching her cries of culmination.
A hot bolt of desire grounded itself behind his fly, causing the flesh there to twitch and thicken. He bit back a curse, nearly missing what she was saying.
“You have completely misconstrued my remark.” She brushed at her knee. “I meant that taking a position under you in my own company sounds like an arrangement that is doomed to fail. It would be similar to a marriage where everyone says, ‘It was obvious from the beginning that it wouldn’t work out.’ I don’t like making obvious mistakes.”
“Thank you for connecting those dots for me. I’ve moved to a new page where I am proposing—” Was he really going here? Taking a position under you…
Her words rang in his ears, but this wasn’t about sex. It was about using her as a Trojan horse to get inside the family so he could deal Midas the lethal blow he deserved.
“I propose you allow me to buy the fifteen percent from Pagonis,” Leander stated, growing more resolved as he located pieces from one of his many plans and modified them to fit this moment. “I will then give you all of my shares in Callas as a wedding gift. You will own Callas Cosmetics outright and may run it however you see fit.”
Her eyes widened with exhilaration before she dropped her lashes, screening her reaction while she looked to the hands she had arranged in her lap.
“That’s an attractive offer, but I don’t wish to marry.” Her gaze came up again, thoughts shuttered. “At all. It’s not personal.”
“No?” He thought again of that flash of fear she had revealed. Was she afraid of all men, not just him? That thought caused an uncomfortable prickle across the back of his shoulders.
Maybe she wasn’t into men at all. He didn’t see that as an impediment to a marriage for business purposes, though.
“I wouldn’t think marriage was something that interests you, either,” she said in a remote tone. “You said you don’t like people in your space. Ironically, we’re a perfect match in that regard. I’m also very private. That’s why it’s best if we stick to our own corners.”
“A marriage without sex? That is a compelling offer.” She was being facetious again, the minx.
“I’m serious. I happen to be straight and was under the impression you are, too, but sharing a bed with my wife is not a deal breaker for me.” He couldn’t believe those words were emerging from his mouth. He loved sex.
He wasn’t an opportunist, though. He didn’t take whatever was available for the sake of it. Besides, he’d be a fool to trust her. Yes, there was often a power imbalance when a man brought a woman into his bed, one that typically favored a man, but there were plenty of men who became ruled by lust. He wouldn’t become one of them.
She tucked her chin, brows coming together with skepticism. “A marriage in name only? Really?”
“Disappointed?” he mocked. “Do you want to have sex with me?”
“Of course not,” she said a little too quickly. “I only met you five minutes ago.” Her snippiness was the first hint of true emotion she’d displayed since walking in here. A stain of pink touched her cheekbones and her gaze slid away from his. Her spine inched a notch taller.
So defensive and wasn’t that interesting.
He rubbed the backs of his fingers against the nap of whiskers under his chin, biting back a smug grin.
“You don’t want children?” he prodded.
Her averted gaze widened as though he’d sucker punched her. She recovered in a blink and swiveled her head to look him dead in the eye.
Such a lie. One she baldly made straight to his face. That ought to be ringing all sorts of alarms inside him, but he was far more interested in why she refused to admit she wanted children. He had always assumed he would have a few one day, after he’d achieved the justice he sought.
His desire to marry her took on a new angle, one where he would have the time to pry out all these little secrets and evasions she was hoarding behind her standoffish exterior.
Don’t, he warned himself. She was a means to an end. That’s all.
“So, it’s agreed,” he stated, having discovered years ago that those words made his wishes come true. “We’ll marry and live in the same home, but within our separate spaces. We’ll confine our marital duties to public appearances and hosting events like family dinners…” He grinned in anticipation of that bloodbath.
“It is not agreed,” she said, quiet, but firm. “I cannot marry a man who hates me. How can you even consider tying yourself to someone you loathe? Unless the point would be to make my life as uncomfortable as possible?”
“On the contrary,” he assured her. “In exchange for switching your allegiance to me, I would provide you with a more comfortable life than ever. You would take full control of your company and all of my wrath would be directed toward the other members of your family.”
“Mmm. And I’m sure being extorted into a marriage of revenge would soon provoke my affection toward you.” Her pained smile fell away. “But I’ve thought of a new avenue I can pursue.” She rose so abruptly he practically heard the burr of wings in his ears. “Keep your shares. I’ll sell mine to my employees. If you then wish to harm the company, you’ll be destroying the livelihoods of invested co-owners who have nothing to do with your thirst for vengeance. If you need a referral for a good PR firm to help weather that scandal, I’m happy to provide some names. Thank you for your time today.”
“You’re really going to walk away from all of this?” The bold black line of her hair down her spine was as enticing as a ribbon to a cat. He wanted to snare it with a claw and drag what was attached into his mouth. “You don’t care that I intend to level Pagonis? You’ll be impacted, too.”
She turned, appearing collected, but he scented the adrenaline running through her. Her throat flexed as she swallowed and her lips were thin with tension.
“I’ve already expressed my concern for innocent people. It’s a global economy and small disruptions in supply chains can have far-reaching consequences. I would hope you’re not so overcome by antipathy you want to cause harm all around the world, but I can’t stop you if that’s your goal. I certainly don’t believe marrying you will give me the power to change your mind.”
“What are you going to tell your brother about this meeting, then?”
“Nothing. As I said, my company is the pawn, not me. If you wish to convey a message to him, I’ll have my assistant forward his contact details. Antio sas.”
Ilona walked straight from his office to the powder room across the lounge. It was as well-appointed and sumptuous as the rest of this top floor with subdued lighting, a selection of her competitor’s luxury soaps and lotions, even a change table and a rocking chair suitable for nursing an infant.
She sat down and did her slow breathing exercises, clearing her mind and bringing her heart rate back to normal before she allowed herself to react.
Her heart took a skip and she clenched her eyes shut, counting to ten as she inhaled, then backward as she exhaled.
Marriage wasn’t remotely possible, she assured herself. She didn’t have to consider it at all. No. She only had to focus on the other piece, where she divested her company to save it. Heartbreaking as that would be, she was proud of arriving at that solution. From a financial and personal standpoint it would be a horrific loss, but she had built it with her own sweat and tears. She could start over with something new. Perhaps she would start a cat café. She could paint cats on the dishes she used to serve spanakopita and souvlaki.
That was such a lovely thought, she actually smiled at her reflection when she rose and dabbed a cool towel at her temples.
She smoothed her hair and examined her makeup. When she was satisfied there was nothing to criticize, she left the powder room, still mentally planning her new life.
“Ah. Good. You’re still up here. That saves security detaining you.” Leander halted midcharge from his office. “Tell them to stand down, Androu,” he said to the young man who caught himself a hair’s breadth before slamming into his boss’s back. Leander held Ilona frozen with his sleet-colored gaze. “Let’s continue our conversation over lunch.”
Ilona fought to speak around the pin that seemed to have punctured her chest. “I have other appointments.”
“Advise Kyría Callas’s assistant to clear her schedule,” Leander told Androu over his shoulder.
“Very good, sir.”
Very not good, but at least Leander was waving her toward the elevator. Ilona gladly made for the exit, needing out of this building and away from this man.
You don’t want children?
Of course, she did. She couldn’t take that step right now, though. Not without bringing the hell of Odessa’s wrath down upon herself.
“It’s not my nature to be obstructive,” she told Leander as the doors closed them into the elevator. “A lifetime of being around domineering men has taught me to pick my battles so I’ll go to lunch if you insist, but I won’t marry someone who is already demonstrating he wants to control my life.”
“It’s lunch,” he said pithily. “Where we will negotiate the fine points of your taking complete control your company. If yours is anything like mine, it is the bulk of your life. Surely that’s worth skipping a marketing presentation or whatever you had on.”
She wished he would quit dangling the prospect of sole proprietorship. It was a very tasty carrot. The shareholders Leander had recently bought out had been mostly reasonable, but Midas occasionally flexed his influence, backing her into a corner for his own enjoyment. She would love to be free of that.
She would love to be free of Midas. Love it.
“You moved your ring,” Leander noted.
“Pardon?” She followed his gaze to her right hand where she had reflexively clasped the rail as the elevator plummeted. “Oh.” Should she tell him? What would he do with the information? Steal her ring? It wasn’t particularly expensive and there was no real way he could weaponize this quirk of hers. “I move it when I want to remember something.”
“Such as?” Suspicion narrowed his gaze.
“Picking up my dry cleaning.” She lifted a shoulder in an absent shrug. “In this case, I want to remember to look up something when I get home.” Clay deposits on Paxos. “I use this ring because it’s a coil. I can shrink or expand it for different fingers. If I have more than one thing to remember, I wear it on this finger.” She pointed to her index finger. “If it’s on this thumb, it’s an event I can’t miss. If I put it on that one, it’s travel.”
“Foolish me, paying for an assistant,” he said dryly. “So anytime I want to clear your schedule, I can just take that ring?”
“You can try,” she shot back, and saw immediately what a mistake it was to challenge him, even mockingly.
Excitement for a wrestle flared in his eyes.
At that exact moment, the elevator dipped below the lobby into an underground parking garage. The glass walls became solid concrete. The lighting changed from bright sunshine to subdued gold, closeting them in intimacy.
The elevator stopped and Leander swayed onto his toes.
He was going to kiss her.
All of her…softened. Her clasp on the rail tightened and her gaze dropped to his mouth. She stood very still, waiting. Wondering. Wanting…