The Secret Beneath the Veil
“You may kiss the bride.”
With five little words, Mikolas Petrides secures a vital business merger and finally repays his grandfather for rescuing him from the horrors of his childhood. But when he lifts his new bride’s veil, it’s not the woman he was expecting!
Viveka Brice will do anything to protect her little sister, even pretend to marry a stranger. Her deception revealed, she flees the wedding, but is soon confronted by Mikolas. He is a man who always gets what he wants, and if the marriage is off, Viveka will have to compensate him—by becoming his mistress instead!
The Secret Beneath the Veil
"Who the hell are you?"
— Mikolas, as he lifts the veil to see Viveka, who is not his bride. The Secret Beneath The Veil
Mikolas was originally Maksym. I pictured him as a Russian and originally had him steal Viveka through the Bosphorus to the Red Sea. I wanted to revisit Clair and Aleksy from The Russian’s Acquisition.
Clair and Aleksy have been fan favorites. If you haven’t seen their Christmas epilogue, look for the link in the extras.
For a number of reasons, my editor suggested I make some changes with Mikolas, including making him Greek. I actually adored the new setting in Greece and had a ton of fun making his mansion as over the top extravagant as imaginable. The bathroom has a forest in it!
As for Viveka, you will see why she is not only the perfect woman for Mikolas, but why she deserves his love when he is finally able to offer it.
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The Secret Beneath the Veil
The afternoon sun came straight through the windows, blinding Viveka Brice as she walked down the makeshift aisle of the wedding she was preventing—not that anyone knew that yet.
The interior of the yacht club, situated on this remote yet exclusive island in the Aegean, was all marble and brass, adding more bounces of white light. Coupled with the layers of her veil, she could hardly see and had to reluctantly cling to the arm of her reviled stepfather.
He probably couldn’t see any better than she could. Otherwise he would have called her out for ruining his plan. He certainly hadn’t noticed she wasn’t Trina.
She was getting away with hiding the fact her sister had left the building. It made her stomach both churn with nerves and flutter with excitement.
She squinted, trying to focus past the standing guests and the wedding party arranged before the robed minister. She deliberately avoided looking at the tall, imposing form of the unsuspecting groom, staring instead through the windows and the forest of masts bobbing on the water. Her sister was safe from this forced marriage to a stranger, she reminded herself, trying to calm her racing heart.
Forty minutes ago, Trina had let her father into the room where she was dressing. She’d still been wearing this gown, but hadn’t yet put on the veil. She had promised Grigor she would be ready on time while Viveka had kept well out of sight. Grigor didn’t even know Viveka was back on the island.
The moment he’d left the room, Viveka had helped Trina out of the gown and Trina had helped her into it. They had hugged hard then Trina had disappeared down a service elevator and onto the seaplane her true love had chartered. They were making for one of the bigger islands to the north where arrangements were in place to marry them the moment they touched land. Viveka was buying them time by allaying suspicion, letting the ceremony continue as long as possible before she revealed herself and made her own escape.
She searched the horizon again, looking for the flag of the boat she’d hired. It was impossible to spot and that made her even more anxious than the idea of getting onto the perfectly serviceable craft. She hated boats, but she wasn’t in the class that could afford private helicopters to take her to and fro. She’d given a sizable chunk of her savings to Stephanos, to help him spirit Trina away in that small plane. Spending the rest on crossing the Aegean in a speedboat was pretty close to her worst nightmare, but the ferry made only one trip per day and had left her here this morning.
She knew which slip the boat was using, though. She’d paid the captain to wait and Stephanos had assured her she could safely leave her bags on board. Once she was exposed, she wouldn’t even change. She would seek out that wretched boat, grit her teeth and sail into the sunset, content that she had finally prevailed over Grigor.
Her heart took a list and roll as they reached the top of the aisle, and Grigor handed her icy fingers to Trina’s groom, the very daunting Mikolas Petrides.
His touch caused a zing of something to go through her. She told herself it was alarm. Nervous tension.
His grip faltered almost imperceptibly. Had he felt that static shock? His fingers shifted to enfold hers, pressing warmth through her whole body. Not comfort. She didn’t fool herself into believing he would bother with that. He was even more intimidating in person than in his photos, exactly as Trina had said.
Viveka was taken aback by the quiet force he emanated, all chest and broad shoulders. He was definitely too much masculine energy for Viveka’s little sister. He was too much for her.
She peeked into his face and found his gaze trying to penetrate the layers of her veil, brows lowered into sharp angles, almost as if he suspected the wrong woman stood before him.
Lord, he was handsome with those long clean-shaven plains below his carved cheekbones and the small cleft in his chin. His eyes were a smoky gray, outlined in black spiky lashes that didn’t waver as he looked down his blade of a nose.
We could have blue-eyed children, she had thought when she’d first clicked on his photo. It was one of those silly facts of genetics that had caught her imagination when she had been young enough to believe in perfect matches. To this day it was an attribute she thought made a man more attractive.
She had been tempted to linger over his image and speculate about a future with him, but she’d been on a mission from the moment Trina had tearfully told her she was being sold off in a business merger like sixteenth-century chattel. All Viveka had had to see were the headlines that tagged Trina’s groom as the son of a murdered Greek gangster. No way would she let her sister marry this man.
Trina had begged Grigor to let her wait until March, when she turned eighteen, and to keep the wedding small and in Greece. That had been as much concession as he’d granted. Trina, legally allowed to marry whomever she wanted as of this morning, had not chosen Mikolas Petrides, wealth, power and looks notwithstanding.
Viveka swallowed. The eye contact seemed to be holding despite the ivory organza between them, creating a sense of connection that sent a fresh thrum of nervous energy through her system.
She and Trina both took after their mother in build, but Trina was definitely the darker of the two, with a rounder face and warm, brown eyes, whereas Viveka had these icy blue orbs and natural blond streaks she’d covered with the veil.
Did he know she wasn’t Trina? She shielded her eyes with a drop of her lashes.
The shuffle of people sitting and the music halting sent a wash of perspiration over her skin. Could he hear her pulse slamming? Feel her trembles?
It’s just a play, she reminded herself. Nothing about this was real or valid. It would be over soon and she could move on with her life.
At one time she had imagined acting for a living. All her early career ambitions had leaned toward starving artist of one kind or another, but she’d had to grow up fast and become more practical once her mother died. She had worked here at this yacht club, lying about her age so they’d hire her, washing dishes and scrubbing floors.
She had wanted to be independent of Grigor as soon as possible, away from his disparaging remarks that had begun turning into outright abuse. He had helped her along by kicking her out of the house before she’d turned fifteen. He’d kicked her off this island, really. Out of Greece and away from her sister because once he realized she had been working, that she had the means to support herself and wouldn’t buckle to his will when he threatened to expel her from his home, he had ensured she was fired and couldn’t get work anywhere within his reach.
Trina, just nine, had been the one to whisper, Go. I’ll be okay. You should go.
Viveka had reached out to her mother’s elderly aunt in London. She had known Hildy only from Christmas cards, but the woman had taken her in. It hadn’t been ideal. Viveka got through it by dreaming of bringing her sister to live with her there. As recently as a few months ago, she had pictured them as two carefree young women, twenty-three and eighteen, figuring out their futures in the big city—
“I, Mikolas Petrides…”
He had an arresting voice. As he repeated his name and spoke his vows, the velvet-and-steel cadence of his tone held her. He smelled good, like fine clothes and spicy aftershave and something unique and masculine that she knew would imprint on her forever.
She didn’t want to remember this for the rest of her life. It was a ceremony that wasn’t even supposed to be happening. She was just a placeholder.
Silence made her realize it was her turn.
She cleared her throat and searched for a suitably meek tone. Trina had never been a target for Grigor. Not just because she was his biological daughter, but also because she was on the timid side—probably because her father was such a mean, loudmouthed, sexist bastard in the first place.
Viveka had learned the hard way to be terrified of Grigor. Even in London his cloud of intolerance had hung like a poison cloud, making her careful about when she contacted Trina, never setting Trina against him by confiding her suspicions, always aware he could hurt Viveka through her sister.
She had sworn she wouldn’t return to Greece, certainly not with plans that would make Grigor hate her more than he already did, but she was confident he wouldn’t do more than yell in front of all these wedding guests. There were media moguls in the assemblage and paparazzi circling the air and water. The risk in coming here was a tall round of embarrassed confusion, nothing more.
She sincerely hoped.
The moment of truth approached. Her voice thinned and cracked, making her vows a credible imitation of Trina’s as she spoke fraudulently in her sister’s place, nullifying the marriage—and merger—that Grigor wanted so badly. It wasn’t anything that could truly balance the loss of her mother, but it was a small retribution. Viveka wore a grim inner smile as she did it.
Her bouquet shook as she handed it off and her fingers felt clumsy and nerveless as she exchanged rings with Mikolas, keeping up the ruse right to the last minute. She wouldn’t sign any papers of course, and she would have to return these rings. Darn, she hadn’t thought about that.
Even his hands were compelling, so well shaped and strong, so sure. One of his nails looked… She wasn’t sure. Like he’d injured it once. If this was a real wedding, she would know that intimate detail about him.
Silly tears struck behind her eyes. She had the same girlish dreams for a fairy-tale wedding as any woman. She wished this were the beginning of her life with the man she loved. But it wasn’t. Nothing about this was legal or real.
Everyone was about to realize that.
“You may kiss the bride.”
Mikolas Petrides had agreed to this marriage for one reason only: his grandfather. He wasn’t a sentimental man or one who allowed himself to be manipulated. He sure as hell wasn’t marrying for love. That word was an immature excuse for sex and didn’t exist in the real world.
No, he felt nothing toward his bride. He felt nothing toward anyone, quite by conscious decision.
Even his loyalty to his grandfather was provisional. Pappoús had saved his life. He’d given Mikolas this life once their blood connection had been verified. He had recognized Mikolas as his grandson, pulling him from the powerless side of a brutal world to the powerful one.
Mikolas repaid him with duty and legitimacy. His grandfather had been born into a good family during hard times. Erebus Petrides hadn’t stayed on the right side of the law as he’d done what he’d seen as necessary to survive. Living a corrupt life had cost the old man his son and Mikolas had been Erebus’s second chance at an heir. He had given his grandson full rein with his ill-gotten empire on the condition Mikolas turn it into a legal—yet still lucrative—enterprise.
No small task, but this marriage merger was the final step. To the outside observer, Grigor’s world-renowned conglomerate was absorbing a second-tier corporation with a questionable pedigree. In reality, Grigor was being paid well for a company logo. Mikolas would eventually run the entire operation.
Was it irony that his mother had been a laundress? Or appropriate?
Either way, this marriage had been Grigor’s condition. He wanted his own blood to inherit his wealth. Mikolas had accepted to make good on his debt to his grandfather. Marriage would work for him in other ways and it was only another type of contract. This ceremony was more elaborate than most business meetings, but it was still just a date to fix signatures upon dotted lines followed by the requisite photo op.
Mikolas had met his bride—a girl really—twice. She was young and extremely shy. Pretty enough, but no sparks of attraction had flared in him. He’d resigned himself to affairs while she grew up and they got to know one another. Therein might be another advantage to marriage, he had been thinking distantly, while he waited for her to walk down the aisle. Other women wouldn’t wheedle for marriage if he already wore a ring.
Then her approach had transfixed him. Something happened. Lust.
He was never comfortable when things happened outside his control. This was hardly the time or place for a spike of naked hunger for a woman. But it happened.
She arrived before him veiled in a waterfall mist that he should have dismissed as an irritating affectation. For some reason he found the mystery deeply erotic. He recognized her perfume as the same scent she’d worn those other times, but rather than sweet and innocent, it now struck him as womanly and heady.
Her lissome figure wasn’t as childish as he’d first judged, either. She moved as though she owned her body, and how had he not noticed before that her eyes were such a startling shade of blue, the kind that sat as a pool of water against a glacier? He could barely see her face, but the intensity of blue couldn’t be dimmed by a few scraps of lace.
His heart began to thud with an old, painful beat. Want. The real kind. The kind that was more like basic necessity.
A flicker of panic threatened, but he clamped down on the memories of deprivation. Of denial. Terror. Searing pain.
He got what he wanted these days. Always. He was getting her.
Satisfaction rolled through him, filling him with anticipation for this pomp and circumstance to end.
The ceremony progressed at a glacial pace. Juvenile eagerness struck him when he was finally able to lift her veil. He didn’t celebrate Christmas, yet felt it had arrived early, just for him.
He told himself it was gratification at accomplishing the goal his grandfather had assigned him. With this kiss, the balance sheets would come out of the rinse cycle, clean and pressed like new. Too bad the old man hadn’t been well enough to travel here and enjoy this moment himself.
Mikolas revealed his bride’s face and froze.
She was beautiful. Her mouth was eye-catching with a lush upper lip and a bashful bottom one tucked beneath it. Her chin was strong and came up a notch in a hint of challenge while her blue, blue irises blinked at him.
This was no girl on the brink of legal age. She was a woman, one who was mature enough to look him straight in the eye without flinching.
She was not Trina Stamos.
“Who the hell are you?”
Gasps went through the crowd.
The woman lifted a hand to brush her veil free of his dumbfounded fingers.
Behind her, Grigor shot to his feet with an ugly curse. “What are you doing here? Where’s Trina?”
Yes. Where was his bride? Without the right woman here to speak her vows and sign her name, this marriage—the merger—was at a standstill. No.
As though she had anticipated Grigor’s reaction, the bride zipped behind Mikolas, using him like a shield as the older man bore down on them.
“You little bitch!” Grigor hissed. Trina’s father was not as shocked by the switch as he was incensed. He clearly knew this woman. A vein pulsed on his forehead beneath his flushed skin. “Where is she?”
Mikolas put up a hand, warding off the old man from grabbing the woman behind him. He would have his explanation from her before Grigor unleashed his temper.
Or maybe he wouldn’t.
Another round of surprised gasps went through the crowd, punctuated by the clack of the fire door and a loud, repetitive ring of its alarm.
His bride had bolted out the emergency exit.
What the hell?
Viveka ran every day. She was fit and adrenaline pulsed through her arteries, giving her the ability to move fast and light as she fled Grigor and his fury.
The dress and the heels and the spaces between planks and the floating wharf were another story. Bloody hell.
She made it down the swaying ramp in one piece, thanks to the rails on either side, but then she was racing down the unsteady platform between the slips, scanning for the flag of her vessel—
The train of her dress caught. She didn’t even see on what. She was yanked back and that was all it took for her to lose her footing completely. Stupid heels.
She turned her ankle, stumbled, tried to catch herself, hooked her toe in a pile of coiled rope, and threw out an arm to snatch at the rail of the yacht in the slip beside her.
She missed, only crashing into the side of the boat with her shoulder. The impact made her, “Oof!” Her grasp was too little, too late. She slid sideways and would have screamed, but had the sense to suck in a big breath before she fell.
Cold, murky salt water closed over her.
Don’t panic, she told herself, splaying out her limbs and only getting tangled in her dress and veil.
Mom. This was what it must have been like for her on that night far from shore, suddenly finding herself under cold, swirling water, tangled in an evening dress.
Viveka’s eyes stung as she tried to shift the veil enough to see which way the bubbles were going. Her dress hadn’t stayed caught. It had come all the way in with her and floated all around her, obscuring her vision, growing heavier. The chill of the water penetrated to her skin. The weight of the dress dragged her down.
She kicked, but the layers of the gown were in the way. Her spiked heels caught in the fabric. This was futile. She was going to drown within swimming distance to shore. Grigor would stand above her and applaud.
The back of her hand scraped barnacles and her foot touched something. The seabed? Her hand burned where she’d scuffed it, but that told her there was a pillar somewhere here. She tried to scrabble her grip against it, desperately thinking she had never held her breath this long and couldn’t hold it any longer.
She clawed at her veil with her other hand, tried to pull it off her hair. She would never get all these buttons open and the dress off in time to kick herself to the surface—
The compulsion to gasp for air was growing unstoppable.
A hand grabbed her forearm and tugged her.
Yes, please. Oh, God, please!
Viveka blew out what little air she still had, fighting not to inhale, fighting to kick and help bring herself to the blur of light above her, fighting to reach it…
As she broke through, she gasped in a lungful of life-giving oxygen, panting with exertion, thrusting back her veil to stare at her rescuer.
He looked murderous.
Her heart lurched.
With a yank, he dragged her toward a diving ramp off the back of a yacht and physically set her hand upon it. She slapped her other bleeding hand onto it, clinging for dear life. Oh, her hand stung. So did her lungs. Her stomach was knotted with shock over what had just happened. She clung to the platform with a death grip as she tried to catch her breath and think clear thoughts.
People were gathering along the slip, trying to see between the boats, calling to others in Greek and English. “There she is! He’s got her. They’re safe.”
Viveka’s dress felt like it was made of lead. It continued trying to pull her under, tugged by the wake that set all the boats around them rocking and sucking. She shakily managed to scrape the veil off her hair, ignoring the yank on her scalp as she raked it from her head. She let it float away, not daring to look for Grigor. She’d caught a glimpse of his stocky legs and that was enough. Her heart pounded in reaction.
“What the hell is going on?” Mikolas said in that darkly commanding voice. “Where is Trina? Who are you?”
“I’m her sis—” Viveka took a mouthful of water as a swell bashed the boat they clung to. “Pah. She didn’t want to marry you.”
“Then she shouldn’t have agreed to.” He hauled himself up to sit on the platform.
Oh, yes, it was just that easy.
He was too hard to face with that lethal expression. How did he manage to look so action-star handsome with his white shirt plastered to his muscled shoulders, his coat and tie gone, his hair flattened to his head? It was like staring into the sun.
Viveka looked out to where motorboats had circled to see where the woman in the wedding gown had fallen into the water.
Was that her boat? She wanted to wave, but kept a firm grip on the yacht as she used her free hand to pick at the buttons on her back. She eyed the distance to the red-and-gold boat. She couldn’t swim that far in this wretched dress, but if she managed to shed it…?
Mikolas stood and, without asking, bent down to grasp her by the upper arms, pulling her up and out of the water, grunting loud enough it was insulting. He swore after landing her on her feet beside him. His chest heaved while he glared at her limp, stained gown.
Viveka swayed on her feet, trying to keep her balance as the yacht rocked beneath them. She was still wearing these ridiculously high heels, was still in shock, but for a few seconds she could only stare at Mikolas.
He had saved her life.
No one had gone out of their way to help her like that since her mother was alive. She’d been a pariah to Grigor and a burden on her aunt, mostly fending for herself since her mother’s death.
She swallowed, trying to assimilate a deep and disturbing gratitude. She had grown a thick shell that protected her from disregard, but she didn’t know how to deal with kindness. She was moved.
Grigor’s voice above her snapped her back to her situation. She had to get away. She yanked at her bodice, tearing open the delicate buttons on her spine and trying to push the clinging fabric down her hips.
She wore only a white lace bra and underpants beneath, but that was basically a bikini. Good enough to swim out to her getaway craft.
To her surprise, Mikolas helped her, rending the gown as if he cursed its existence, leaving it puddled around her feet and sliding into the water. He didn’t give her a chance to dive past him, however. He set wide hands on her waist and hefted her upward where bruising hands took hold of her arms—
“Nooo!” she screamed.
That ridiculous woman nearly kicked him in the face as he hefted her off the diving platform to the main deck of the yacht. Grigor was above, taking hold of her to bring her up. What did she think? That he was throwing her back into the sea?
“Noooo!” she cried and struggled, but Grigor pulled her all the way onto the deck where he stood.
She must be crazy, behaving like this.
Mikolas came up the ladder with the impetus of a man taking charge. He hated surprises. He controlled what happened to himself. No one else.
At least Grigor hadn’t set this up. He’d been tricked as well or he wouldn’t be so furious.
Mikolas was putting that together as he came up to see Grigor shaking the nearly naked woman like a terrier with a rat. Then he slapped her across the face hard enough to send her to her knees.
No stranger to violence, Mikolas still took it like a punch to the throat. It appalled him on a level so deep he reacted on blind instinct, grabbing Grigor’s arm and shoving him backward even as the woman threw up her arm as though to block a kick.
Stupid reaction, he thought distantly. It was a one-way ticket to a broken forearm.
But now was not the moment for a tutorial on street fighting.
Grigor found his balance and trained his homicidal gaze on Mikolas.
Mikolas centered his balance with readiness, but in his periphery saw the woman stagger toward the rail. Oh, hell no. She was not going to ruin his day then slip away like a siren into the deep.
He turned from Grigor’s bitter, “You should have let her drown,” and provoked a cry of, “Put me down!” from the woman as he caught her up against his chest.
She was considerably lighter without the gown, but still a handful of squirming damp skin and slippery muscle as he carried her off the small yacht.
On the pier, people parted and swiveled like gaggles of geese, some dressed in wedding regalia, others obviously tourists and sailors, all babbling in different languages as they took in the commotion.
It was a hundred meters to his own boat and he felt every step, thanks to the pedal of the woman’s sharp, silver heels.
“Calm yourself. I’ve had it with this sideshow. You’re going to tell me where my bride has gone and why.”