Xenakis’s Convenient Bride
The challenge: two weeks without your billionaire fortune!
Greek magnate Stavros Xenakis must go undercover to win a bet—and escape his grandfather’s demands that he take a bride. Until encountering deliciously tempting housekeeper Calli proves that a wife is exactly what he needs!
Calli’s baby being taken away robbed her of the ability to trust anyone. Now Stavros’s offer to marry her gives her the chance to finally find her son. But Calli doesn’t expect their honeymoon to be so sinfully sensual—and for life as the temporary Mrs. Xenakis to be so exquisitely satisfying…
Look for Dani’s free online prequel to this series as well as the full-length novels by her fellow authors:
The Secret Billionaire’s Mistress, by Dani Collins
Di Marcello’s Secret Son, by Rachael Thomas
Xenakis’s Convenient Bride, by Dani Collins
Salazar’s One Night Heir, by Jennifer Hayward
Xenakis’s Convenient Bride
He was no gentleman. She didn’t know what he was, but had the distinct feeling he was somebody. Not a normal plebeian like her.
— Calli, on meeting Stavros in his guise as 'pool boy.' Xenakis's Convenient Bride
I was so thrilled when I was asked if I wanted to work on an ‘Undercover Billionaire’ trilogy with amazing fellow authors, Jennifer Hayward and Rachael Thomas.
The premise is a wager that the men can’t survive without their fortune for two weeks. They have to hold down real jobs and can only contact each other. Rachael’s hero worked as a mechanic, Jen’s hero is a groom in a stable and my Stavros is a pool boy! He’s also a reckless, sexy playboy who needs to settle down.
For my heroine, I initially thought Calli had had an affair with Stavros in the past, and miscarried his baby. That didn’t work for a number of reasons, but after some excited brainstorming with my husband, poor Calli did wind up losing her baby. He was stolen! She marries Stavros in an effort to find the boy and get him back.
We had so much fun writing these books. I even wrote a short online read about the man who sets up their challenges, so we know how the wager comes about. It’s called The Secret Billionaire’s Mistress and you can find it on Harlequin.com’s free online reads.
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Xenakis’s Convenient Bride
Stavros Xenakis threw his twenty-thousand-euro chips into the pot, less satisfied than he usually was postchallenge, but it had nothing to do with his fellow players or his lackluster hand.
His longtime friend Sebastien Atkinson had arranged his usual après-adrenaline festivities. It had wound down to the four of them, as it often did. Many turned out for these extreme sports events, but only Antonio Di Marcello and Alejandro Salazar had the same deep pockets Stavros and Sebastien did. Or the stones to bet at this level simply to stretch out a mellow evening.
Stavros wasn’t the snob his grandfather was, but he didn’t consider many his equal. These men were it and he enjoyed their company for that reason. Tonight was no exception. They were still high on today’s exercise of cheating death, sipping 1946 Macallan while trading good-natured insults.
So why was he twitching with edginess?
He mentally reviewed today’s paraski that had had him carving a steep line down a ski slope to a cliff’s edge before rocketing into thin air, lifted by his chute for a thousand feet, guiding his path above a ridge, then hitting the lower slope for another run of hard turns before taking to the air again.
It had been as physically demanding as any challenge that had come before and was probably their most daredevil yet. Throughout most of it, he’d been completely in the moment—his version of meditating.
He had expected today to erase the frustration that had been dogging him, but it hadn’t. He might have set it aside for a few hours, but this niggling irritation was back to grate at him.
Sebastien eyed him across the table, no doubt trying to determine if he was bluffing.
“How’s your wife?” Stavros asked, more as a deflection, but also trying to divine how Sebastien could be happily married.
“Better company than you. Why are you so surly tonight?”
Was it obvious? He grimaced. “I haven’t won yet.” He was among friends so he admitted the rest. “And my grandfather is threatening to disinherit me if I don’t marry soon. I’d tell him to go to hell, but…”
“Your mother,” Alejandro said.
“Exactly.” They all knew his situation. He played ball with his grandfather for the sake of his mother and sisters. He couldn’t walk away from his own inheritance when it would cost them theirs.
But “settle down?” His grandfather had been trying to fit Stavros into a box from the time he was twelve. Lately it had become a push toward picket fences. Demands he produce an heir and a spare.
Stavros couldn’t buy into any of that so, yet again, he was in a power struggle with the old man. He usually got around being whipped down a particular path, but he hadn’t yet found his alternate route. It chewed and chewed at him, especially when his grandfather was holding control of the family’s pharmaceutical conglomerate hostage.
Stavros might be a hell-raiser, but his rogue personality had produced some of the biggest gains for Dýnami. He was more than ready to steer the ship. A wife and children were cargo he didn’t need, but his grandfather seemed to think it would prove he was “mature” and “responsible.”
Where his grandfather got the idea he wasn’t either of those things, Stavros couldn’t say. He upped his ante to a full hundred thousand, despite the fact his hand had not improved. He promptly lost it.
They played a little longer, then Sebastien asked, “Do you ever get the feeling we spend too much of our lives counting our money and chasing superficial thrills at the expense of something more meaningful?”
“You called it,” Antonio said to Alejandro, tossing over a handful of chips. “Four drinks and he’s philosophizing.”
Sebastien gave Stavros a look of disgust as he also pushed some chips toward Alejandro’s pile.
“I said three.” Stavros shrugged without apology. “My losing streak continues.”
“I’m serious.” Sebastien was the only self-made billionaire among them, raised by a single mother on the dole in a country where bloodlines and titles were still more valuable than a bank balance. His few extra years of age and experience gave him the right to act as mentor. He wasn’t afraid to offer his opinion and he was seldom wrong. They all listened when he spoke, but he did get flowery when he was in his cups. “At our level, it’s numbers on a page. Points on a scoreboard. What does it contribute to our lives? Money doesn’t buy happiness.”
“It buys some nice substitutes.” Antonio smirked.
Sebastien’s mouth twisted. “Like your cars?” he mused, then flicked his glance to Alejandro. “Your private island? You don’t even use that boat you’re so proud of,” he said, moving on to Stavros. “We buy expensive toys and play dangerous games, but does it enrich our lives? Feed our souls?”
“What are you suggesting?” Alejandro drawled, discarding a card and motioning for it to be replaced. “We go live with the Buddhists in the mountains? Learn the meaning of life? Renounce our worldly possessions to find inner clarity?”
Sebastien made a scoffing noise. “You three couldn’t go two weeks without your wealth and family names to support you. Your gilded existence makes you blind to reality.”
“Could you?” Stavros challenged, throwing away three cards. “Try telling us you would go back to when you were broke, before you made your fortune. Hungry isn’t happy. That’s why you’re such a rich bastard now.”
“As it happens, I’ve been thinking of donating half my fortune to charity, to start a global search-and-rescue fund. Not everyone has friends who will dig him out of an avalanche with their bare hands.” Sebastien smiled, but the rest of them didn’t.
Last year, Sebastien had nearly died during one of their challenges. Stavros still woke from nightmares of reliving those dark minutes. He’d wound up with frostbite burns on his fingers, but he’d been frantic to save Sebastien, unable to watch a man die again. A man whose life he valued. He felt sick recollecting it and took a sip of his whiskey to sear away the nausea.
“Are you serious?” Alejandro charged. “That’s, what? Five billion?”
“You can’t take it with you.” Sebastien’s shrug was nonchalant. “Monika is on board with it, but I’m still debating. I’ll tell you what.” He leaned forward, mouth curling into the wicked grin he always wore when he proposed cliff diving or some other outrageous act. “You three go two weeks without your credit cards and I’ll do it.”
“Starting when? We all have responsibilities,” Alejandro reminded.
After a considering pause, Sebastien canted his head. “Fair enough. Clear the decks at home. But be prepared for word from me—and two weeks in the real world.”
“You’re really going to wager half your fortune on a cakewalk of a challenge?” Alejandro said.
“If you’ll put up your island. Your favorite toys?” He took in all three men. “I say where and when.”
They all snorted with confidence.
“Easy,” Stavros said, already anticipating the break from his grandfather’s badgering. “Count me in.”
Four and a half months later…
She floated in the pool on a giant ivory-colored clamshell, the pattern on her one-piece bathing suit a stark contrast of pink and green geometry against her golden, supple limbs. Her black hair spilled away from her face, a few tendrils drifting in the water. She wore sunglasses and red toe polish.
She was fast asleep.
As Stavros took in the way her suit painted her breasts and cut high over her hips, then smoothed over her mound to dip into the fork of her thighs, he stirred with desire. A detailed fantasy played out in his mind of diving in and coming up next to her, rolling her into his arms like an ancient god stealing a nymph and having her on that wicker sofa in the shade, behind the curtain of water on the far side of the pool.
The only sound in the high-walled courtyard was the patter of the thin waterfall. It poured off the edge of the ivy-entwined trellis that formed a roof over the lounge area and bar. The raining noise muffled his exhale as he set down the box containing power tools, a sledgehammer, trowels and adhesive compounds.
He stood and drank in another eyeful.
Perhaps being cast as a pool boy wasn’t so bad after all.
Last night, he’d stood in a tiny, stuffy, not air-conditioned bachelor apartment cursing Sebastien with sincere vehemence.
His two-week challenge had started and his new “home” was a walk-up over a coffee-roasting operation. The smell was appalling. He couldn’t decide which was worse: window open or closed. He had left it open while he compared his inventory of supplies with Antonio’s photo from two weeks ago.
At least he’d had a heads-up from his friend as to what this challenge entailed. Given Antonio had been sent to Milan, Stavros had suspected he would be sent to Greece, and here he was.
Which had given Stavros a moment of pause. He didn’t care if he lost the boat, and even Sebastien’s grand gesture was one he could make himself if it came right down to it. He had stepped off that many cliffs and platforms and airplanes at twenty-thousand feet, he shouldn’t have hesitated to step off a ferry onto the island of his birth.
But he had.
Which made him feel like a coward.
He had forced himself to disembark and walk to his flat where he had discovered that, like Antonio, he had been provided a prehistoric cell phone and a stack of cash—two hundred euros. Lunch money. But where Antonio had been given a set of coveralls, Stavros had been given board shorts.
They were supposed to go two weeks without their wealth and reputation, but apparently his dignity had to be checked at the door, as well. At least his costume wasn’t one of those banana hammocks so popular on European beaches. The uniform was tacky as hell regardless, pairing yellow-and-white-striped shorts with a yellow T-shirt.
Squinting one eye at the logo, Stavros had read the Greek letters as easily as he read English, and was offended in both languages. Zante Pool Care. Sebastien had told him to book vacation time, ensure his responsibilities were covered, then had sent him to work as a pool boy.
His phone was loaded with exactly three contacts: Sebastien, Antonio and Alejandro. He had texted Antonio a photo of his supplies along with the message, Is this for real?
If it turns out anything like mine, you’re in for more surprises than that.
Antonio had discovered a son. How much more astonishing could it get?
If Stavros had a child living here, it would be a miracle. He’d left when he was twelve and had only kissed a girl at that point. Once he moved to America, high-risk behavior had become his norm. His virginity had been lost at fourteen to a senior at the private school he’d attended. She had favored black eyeliner and dark red lipstick—and young men with a keen interest in learning how to please a woman. Scrappers were her favorite and he’d been one of those, too.
A year later, he’d been making conquests of his grandfather’s secretary and the nanny looking after his youngest sister. He wasn’t proud of that, but he wasn’t as regretful as he probably should be. Sex had been one of the few things to make him happy in those days.
Sex with that woman right there would certainly take the sting out of today’s situation. The next fourteen days, in fact.
Another rush of misgiving went through him. This challenge was not a simple two weeks of pretending to be an everyman. Sebastien had left him a note.
You may remember our conversation last year, when you came to visit me as I was recovering from the avalanche. You opened that excellent bottle of fifty-year-old Scotch whiskey in my honor. I thank you again for that.
At the time you told me how losing your father had given you the strength to dig through the snow to save my life. Do you remember also telling me how much you resented your grandfather for taking you to New York and forcing you to answer to your American name? I suspect you were really saying that you didn’t feel you deserved to be his heir.
Sebastien had chided Stavros for not appreciating his family and heritage, since Sebastien hadn’t had those advantages. In his note, he continued:
I grant you your wish. For the next two weeks Steve Michaels, with all his riches and influence, does not exist. You are Stavros Xenakis and work for Zante Pool Care. Report at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow, three blocks down the road.
Antonio lasted two weeks without blowing his cover, so I have committed the first third of my five billion to the search-and-rescue foundation. Do the same, Stavros. It could save a life. And use this time to make peace with your past.
Stavros had stayed up later than he should have, some of it jet lag, but mostly conjuring ways to get out of this challenge. Besides, he couldn’t sleep in that hot room, tossing and turning on the hard single bed. Old-fashioned honor had him accepting his lot and falling asleep.
Then, even earlier than he needed to rise, the sun had struck directly into his eyes. Large trucks with squeaky brakes had pulled in beneath the open window.
Disgusted, Stavros had eaten a bowl of dry cereal with the canned milk he’d been provided. He’d bought a coffee from a shop as he walked to “work.”
His boss, Ionnes, had given him a clipboard that held a map, a handful of drawings and a work order. He had dangled a set of keys and pointed at a truck full of supplies and equipment, telling him to be sure to unload it since he wouldn’t have the vehicle tomorrow.
Stavros might have booked a flight home at that point, but he had left his credit cards in New York, as instructed. He’d been completing Sebastien’s challenges since his first year of university. None had killed him yet.
Nevertheless, as he’d followed the map, he had recognized the dip and roll of the road through the hills, eighteen years of changes notwithstanding. His heart had grown heavier with each mile, his lungs tighter.
Perhaps he wasn’t defying his own death with this challenge, but the loss of his father was even more difficult to confront.
He had sat in the driveway a full five minutes, pushing back dark memories by focusing on the changes in the home they’d occupied until their lives had overturned with the flip of a boat on the sea.
The villa was well tended, but modest by his current standards. It had been his mother’s dream home when she married. She was a local girl from the fishing village on the bottom of the island. She had insisted her husband use this as his base. It had been a place where he could enjoy downtime. Quality time, with his children. She had called him a workaholic who was losing his roots, spending too much time in America, allowing the expanding interests of the family corporation to dominate his life.
The villa hadn’t been new. It had needed repairs and his father had enlisted Stavros to set fresh paving stones at the front entrance while his mother and sisters had potted the bougainvillea that now bloomed in masses of pink against the white walls.
The memories were so sharp and painful as Stavros sat there, he wanted to jam the truck in Reverse and get away from all of it.
But where would he go? Back to the blaming, shaming glint in his grandfather’s hard stare? Back to the understudy role he hated, but played because his father wasn’t there to be the star?
Cursing Sebastien afresh, Stavros glanced over his work order. He wasn’t cleaning the pool, but repairing the cracked tiles around it. Déjà vu with paving stones. The mistress of the house would direct him.
He blew out a disgusted breath. After two decades of bearing up under his grandfather’s dictates, and now facing a demand that he marry, he was at the end of his rope with being told what to do.
No one answered the doorbell so he let himself in through the gate at the side and went down the stairs into a white-walled courtyard that opened on one side to the view of the sea. His arrival didn’t stir Venus from her slumber.
Damn, but his tension wanted an outlet. He let his gaze cruise over her stellar figure once more. If she was a wife, she was the trophy kind, but she wasn’t wearing a ring.
The mistress of the place, his employer had said. He would just bet she was a mistress. How disappointing to have such a beauty reserved by his boss’s client.
In another life, Stavros wouldn’t have let that stop him from going after her.
This was another life, he recalled with a kick of his youthful recklessness.
Crouching, he scooped up a handful of water and flicked it at her.
The spatter of something against Calli’s face startled her awake—in the pool, where she reflexively tried to sit up and immediately unbalanced. She tumbled sideways, sunglasses sliding off her nose, arms outstretched but catching at nothing. She plunged under the cold water into the blur of blue. Oh, that was a shock!
Calli caught her bearings and pumped her arms to burst through the surface, sputtering, “You are so grounded. Go to your room.”
But that wasn’t Ophelia straightening to such a lofty height at the side of the pool. It was a conquering warrior, tall and forbidding, backlit by the sun so Calli’s eyes watered as she tried to focus on him. His yellow T-shirt and shorts did nothing to detract from his powerful, intimidating form. In fact, his clothes clung like golden armor hammered across the contours of his shoulders and chest, accentuating the tan on his muscular biceps.
She couldn’t see his eyes, but felt the weight of his gaze. It pushed her back and drew her forward at the same time, making her forget to breathe, making her hot despite being submerged to her shoulders and treading water.
Heat radiated through her, that dangerous heat that she had learned to ignore out of self-preservation. This time it wouldn’t quash, which caused a knot of foreboding in her belly. He mesmerized her, holding her suspended as though in amber, snared into a moment of sexual fascination that seemed destined to last eternally.
He folded his arms, imperious, but his voice held a rasp of humor. “Lead the way.”
To his room, he meant. It wasn’t so much an invitation as an order.
She had the impression of a dark brow cocked with silent laughter, which made her feel vulnerable. Not threatened, not physically, but imperiled at a deep level, where her ego resided. Where her fractured heart was tucked high on a shelf so no one could knock it to the floor again.
Her chest prickled with anxiety and she wiped her eyes, trying hard to see him properly, trying to figure out who he was and why he had such an instant, undeniable effect on her. His T-shirt sported the pool man’s logo, but she’d never seen him before.
“I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Obviously. Up late?”
“Yes.” It struck her very belatedly that it couldn’t have been Ophelia to wake her. Calli had fallen asleep in the pool because she’d arrived home in the wee hours after leaving Ophelia at her maternal grandparents’ home in Athens. She had driven half the night, then dozed in the car as she waited for the ferry.
Takis wasn’t here. No one was except her and this barbarian of a man.
“I was traveling.” She skimmed toward the stairs at the shallow end. “I knew workers were coming and didn’t want to miss speaking to you by falling asleep inside. Where is Ionnes?”
“He gave me my assignment and told me I have two weeks.”
“Yes, there’s a party scheduled.” The roll of alarm wouldn’t leave her belly. It trebled when his shadow fell across her as she climbed the steps. He had plucked her filmy wrap from the chair and held it out for her like a gentleman.
He was no gentleman. She didn’t know what he was, but had the distinct feeling he was somebody. Not a normal plebeian like her.
She took the wrap and struggled to push her wet arms into the loose sleeves. Why was she shaking? Oh, Ophelia had misguided taste! Why wasn’t this wrap opaque? It was a birthday present and Calli had thought it delightfully feminine when she had opened it, but with the simple hook-and-eye closure over her navel, it was more provocation than cover, hanging open down her cleavage and parting in a slit over the tops of her thighs.
He noticed. He studied her from chin to toe polish, unabashed in the way he let his gaze move down and up, tightening her hair follicles inch by inch.
It wasn’t the first time she’d been eyed up, but the locals knew she wasn’t interested. Or considered her off-limits, at least. With tourists, she pretended she didn’t speak English if she wanted to reject an advance.
Either way, it was always easy to brush men off, but not today. She felt his gaze. She told herself it was the water trickling off her, but that had never turned her inside out this way.
Once again she was accosted by defenselessness. Why? She’d been inoculated against men who used their looks to devastate.
Nevertheless, that’s what he was. Devastatingly handsome. Standing on the same level with him didn’t make him any less intimidating. He was big and powerful and now that she could properly see his face, she caught her breath in reaction. He wore a day’s shadow of stubble and finger-combed hair, but those hollow cheeks and ebony brows were pure perfection. It wasn’t the sculpted beauty of his face that arrested her, though. It was the fierce pride and unapologetic masculinity he projected.
It was the undisguised desire that flared in his black-coffee eyes as their gazes locked. The arrogant assumption he could have.
Because he knew she was reacting to him? Knowledge made his eyelids heavy while smug anticipation deepened the corners of his mouth.
She couldn’t tear her eyes from his wide mouth, his lips brutally sensual, his jaw determined.
As he spoke, his voice lowered an octave to something that promised, yet warned. “Tell me what you want. I’m at your service.”
Her body stung with a renewed flood of heat, countering the chill of her damp suit. Please let him think the cold hardened my nipples. But it was him. She knew it and he knew it and it scared her.
She scrambled back a step, trying to escape his aggressively sexual aura, and nearly stumbled into the pool.
He caught her by the arms, saving her from falling onto the steps under the water. It was chivalrous, but paralyzing, leaving her shaken. What was wrong with her?
She tried to lift her chin and look down her nose at him. “Let me go.”
The amused heat in his brown eyes cooled to mahogany. “If that’s what you want.” He waited a beat, then lifted his hands away and straightened to his full height. “Watch your step.”
He wasn’t cautioning her about a slippery pool deck.
Her stomach wobbled and her heart pounded so hard she wanted to press her hand against her chest to calm it. She clenched her fist instead, swallowing to ease the dryness in her mouth.
“Your accent is strange.” She narrowed in on that as a way to hold him at a distance. Something about his voice caused a prickle of apprehension in her. “Where are you from?”
His expression blanked into what must be a winning poker face. Which had to mean he was lying when he said, “I was born here.”
“In Greece or on this island?” She knew most of the locals by sight, if not by name. “I don’t recognize you. What’s your name?”
A flash of something came and went in his gaze. Annoyance? “Stavros. I’ve lived abroad since I was twelve. I’m back for a working vacation.”
She might have latched on to his lack of a surname if she hadn’t just realized what colored his fluid Greek.
“You’re American.” On vacation.
Her blood stuttered to a halt in her veins, sending ice penetrating to her bones. No. Never again. No and no. She didn’t care how good-looking he was. No.
As if he heard the indictment in her tone, he threw his head back, expression offended. “I’m Greek.”
She knew her prejudice was exactly that. It wasn’t even a real prejudice. She quite enjoyed chatting with rotund, married American tourists or any American woman. She wanted to go to America. New York, to be precise.
No, the only people she truly held in contempt were straight men who thought they could treat the local women like amusement-park rides. It didn’t matter where they came from. Been there, done that, and her wounds were still open to prove it.
But the man who had left her with nothing, not even her reputation, happened to be American, so that was the crime she accused this one of committing.
“You’re here to fix the pool,” she reminded with a sharpness honed by life’s hardest knocks. “You only have two weeks. Better get to it.”
Day three and Stavros was sore. He worked out regularly, but not like this. After ten hours of physically breaking tiles with a sledgehammer and wheelbarrowing them up a flight of stairs, he had exchanged a few texts with Antonio. His friend’s conglomerate built some of the world’s tallest buildings.
Can I use a jackhammer?
He had included a photo.
I wouldn’t. Could damage the integrity of the pool.
Stavros didn’t have the cash to rent one anyway. If he rented anything, it would be a car. He had had to catch a lift with the coffee truck this morning and walk the rest of the way. What the hell did Sebastien think he would learn from this exercise?
Hell, it wasn’t exercise. It was back-breaking labor. Which was allowing him to work out pent-up frustrations, but not the one eating a hole through him.
He wanted that woman. “Calli,” she had informed him stiffly when he had asked for her name. She had pointed out the tiles that had been cracked by the roots of a tree. Since those tiles and that tree had to come out, they were redoing the entire surface surrounding the pool. He was.
She had disappeared into the house and had been a teasing peripheral presence ever since, flitting behind the screened door, playing music now and again, occasionally talking on the phone and cooking things that sent aromas out to further sharpen an appetite made ravenous by hard work.
He’d eaten well the first night, then did the math and realized he would have to make his own sandwiches the rest of his time here. It made the scent of garlic and oregano, lamb and peppers all the more maddening.
Who was she cooking for? It was ten o’clock in the morning and no one else was here, not even the man who kept her tucked away on the Aegean like a holiday cottage. A married man, presumably.
Stavros couldn’t quit thinking about that. Or the way she’d looked as she had risen like a goddess from the water. The physical attraction in that moment had been beyond his experience. He’d been compelled to move closer, had physically ached to touch her. His body still hummed with want and he had this nagging need to get back to that moment and pursue her.
But she had wished him dead on the spot. For being American.
It had been a slap in the face, not least because he had been working through mixed feelings over his identity for most of his life, ever since his father’s father had yanked him from this paradisiacal island to the concrete one of Manhattan.
He’d always been too Greek for his grandfather’s tastes and not Greek enough for his own. Having Calli draw attention to that stung.
Which left him even more determined to get back to that moment when she had revealed she desired him—him. Woman for man, all other considerations forgotten, most especially the man who kept her.
He hadn’t experienced impotent rage like this since his early days of moving to New York, when he’d been forced to live a life he didn’t want, yet defend it on the schoolyard. And he’d never before experienced such a singular need to prove something to a woman. Force her to acknowledge the spark between them.
He wanted to catch her by the arms, pull her in and kiss her until she succumbed to this fierce thing between them, show her—
He was too deep in thought, throwing too much weight behind the hammer. A chunk of broken tile flew up and grazed his shin, completely painless for a moment as it scored a lancing line into his flesh.
Then the burn arrived in a white-hot streak. He swore.
Calli heard several nasty curses in a biting tone. It meant trouble in any language.
She had spent the last few days trying to ignore Stavros, which was impossible, but she couldn’t ignore that. She instinctively clicked off the burner and moved to glance through the screen-covered door to the courtyard.
He was bare-chested, wrapping his lower leg with his T-shirt. Blood stained through the bright yellow.
She ran for the first-aid kit, then hurried out to him. “What happened?”
It was obvious what had happened. He wore sturdy work boots and had showed up in jeans this morning, but it was already hot, even in the partially shaded courtyard and with the cooling curtain running beside the outdoor lounge. He had stripped down to his shorts an hour ago—yes, she had noticed—and now a jagged piece of tile had cut his leg.
“Let me see.”
She started to open the kit, but as he unwrapped the shirt, she knew this was beyond her rudimentary skills. Good thing she wasn’t squeamish.
“That needs stitches.”
“Butterfly bandages will do.”
“No, that’s deep. It needs to be properly cleaned and dressed. Are your shots up-to-date?”
He gave her a pithy look. “I have regular physicals, and yes, I’m one hundred percent healthy.”
She had a feeling he wasn’t talking about tetanus, but refused to be sidetracked. For the last six years she’d been dealing with an overbearing boss and keeping his spoiled daughter out of trouble. She had learned to dig in her heels when circumstances required.
“Do you know where the clinic is? It’s not a proper hospital and only open during the day. You’re best to go now or you’ll be paying the call-in fee for after hours. Or trying to find a boat to the mainland for treatment there.”
She tried to ignore the twist and flex of his naked torso and the scent of his body as he reached to take a roll of gauze from the kit. “I don’t have a vehicle.”
“Shall I call your employer?”
“No one likes a tattletale.” He efficiently rewrapped the T-shirt and used the gauze to secure it, then used barbed clips to fasten the tails.
“No one likes stained tiles.” She nodded at the red working its way through the layers of gauze. “I meant should I ask him to come take you to the clinic. I noticed you don’t have the truck today.”
“He’ll say I have a job to finish. Which I do.”
That was a barb at her, but he had been attacking his task doggedly, seeming determined to complete on time. Yes, she had peered out at him regularly, and his relentless work ethic dented her perception of him as a useless philanderer, intriguing her.
“Shall I drive you?”
“Look.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, swore under his breath. “I don’t have insurance. And I can’t afford to pay for treatment. Okay?” He begrudged admitting it, she could tell. It wasn’t so much a blow to his pride, though. He was impatient. Exasperated.
She was surprised. Not that he resented admitting he was short on resources, but that he was down on his luck at all. He didn’t possess even a shred of humility and oozed a type of confidence she only saw in men with fountains of money, like Takis. Who was this man? What had happened to knock him off his keel?
“You think Ionnes will fire you if you make a work-injury claim? He’s not like that. But I’ll have them send the bill here. We can lump it in with the costs of the repair. My boss won’t mind.” Since she would pay it out of her own pocket.
She’d been at rock bottom once and Takis had saved her. She looked for chances to pay it forward. “I have to pick up a few groceries anyway.”
That was another white lie and she wasn’t sure why she tacked it on. Maybe to spare his pride because she knew what it was like to face losing self-esteem along with everything else.
Or because she wanted to spend time with this man, now her view of him was out of focus. She studied his stern visage only to have his attention narrow on her, like a predatory bird spotting an unsuspecting hare.
Why on earth had she thought he needed anything from her, least of all benevolence? That innate fierceness in his expression took him from handsome to all powerful. He was magnificent. She was spellbound, exactly as a bird’s prey might be. Frozen in fascinated horror as she stared into her own demise.
“Your boss?” Sexual tension swooped in on the wings of a speculative look to perch between them, impossible to ignore.
Her scalp prickled and her breasts felt constrained by her bra. Who was she kidding? The sexual awareness had only dissipated because she’d been hiding in the house for three days. Had she realized he had made the same assumption about her as everyone else did she might have let the fallacy continue, since it offered a type of protection.
She wanted to be annoyed. Furious. Hurt.
She was scared. Her heart battered the inside of her rib cage like a fist against a wall. She needed protection because that youthful indiscretion that had put all the wrong thoughts into all the smallest minds was still alive in her. She had buried it deep behind the rarely used dishes, but he’d found it. He was reaching into her, bringing it to the light, blowing away the dust and asking, What’s this?
With her stomach in knots and her blood moving like warm honey, she pretended ignorance. Indignation.
“Takis Karalis.” She clumsily shoved the gauze and scissors back into the first-aid kit. “The owner of this villa. I’m his housekeeper. Why? What did you think?”
His gaze flicked over her, reassessing. It should have insulted her, but it caused a bright heat to glow inside her. She wanted him to discover that hidden part of her. Play with it. Polish it and make it shine.
In that moment, she wanted to be his type, able to be casual about intimacy and physical delights. There was such promise in his eyes. Such pleasures untold.
But that way lay heartache of the most shattering kind. She knew it far too well. She had to remember that.
“You’re not the first to think I’m his mistress.” She hadn’t bothered fighting the perception because her reputation had been in ruins the day Takis offered her this job. What was one more snide remark behind her back?
She needed to hold this man off, though, or she might self-destruct all over again.
“That’s really sexist, you know, to assume that sleeping with the owner is the only reason I would be living here. Or to think I couldn’t own this house. Not when it sounds as though I’m a lot closer to affording it than you are.”
He didn’t move, but his silence blasted her, warning her to mind herself.
A power struggle with this man was deeply foolish. In fact, trying to keep him at a distance might be a lost cause.
That thought was so disturbing, she could only blurt, “I’ll meet you at the car.”
She charged—retreated—into the house where she quickly scraped the moussaka filling she’d just finished browning into a bowl. She set it in the fridge before collecting her keys and purse, hands shaking.
Outside, her car was blocked by the pallet of new tiles he had unloaded a few days ago, along with the bin of broken ones.
Damn. No way could she risk staining the convertible. She glanced at his makeshift bandage. That must be painful, but he was stoic about it.
“We’ll have to take the scooter.” She moved to the stall and reached for her helmet, offering him Ophelia’s. They were both pink, matching the Vespa.
“It’s too small,” he dismissed with a dry glance.
“I’m sure you’re right. Your big head would never fit.” Shut up, Calli. She set aside the helmet and paused before buckling on her own. “Do you want to go by yourself?”
“I don’t know where the clinic is, do I? I might bleed out before I find it. No, by all means, take me.”
He was being sarcastic, but his voice hit a velvety note with that last couple of words, causing a clench of heat in her. Her mind filled with imaginings she didn’t even want to acknowledge. Take me. She maneuvered the scooter out of its spot with a practiced wangle, started it and balanced it between her legs.
He took up twice the space Ophelia did and wasn’t shy about setting his hands on her hips. He guided her backside into a snug fit between his thighs.
She tried to stiffen and hold herself forward, but that only arched her tailbone into his groin. There was no escaping the surrounding heat off his bare, damp chest or rock-hard thighs shoved up against the outsides of hers. She wore shorts and a T-back sports cami. It was a lot of skin grazing skin. He let his hands fall to the tops of her legs, fingertips digging lightly into the crease at her hips.
She stopped breathing, held by an electrical current that stimulated all her pleasure points.
His growing beard of stubble scraped her bare shoulder and his breath heated the sensitive skin where her neck met her collarbone. “Shouldn’t you be speeding off to save my life?”
“I’m seriously debating whether it’s worth saving.”
He hitched forward, jamming her buttocks even tighter into the notch of his spread legs.
She took off in a small act of desperation, glad for the muffle of the helmet and the buzz of the motor so she didn’t hear his laugh, even though she felt it.
She sensed him turning his head this way and that as she took the shortcut over the top of the island, through the area with the very best views, between the extravagant mansions that dominated the peak of the hill. Then, as they came down the other side and the road wound toward the coast, the horizon appeared as a stark line between two shades of blue. They descended to where the land fell away in a steep cliff.
On the mountainside above them, stone fences kept sheep in their fields and hopefully off the roads. She kept her speed down just in case. The scent of blossoms in the lemon groves filled the morning air and she couldn’t help relax as the cool breeze stroked over her skin.
His thumbs moved on her and she grew tense in a different way. Tingles of anticipation raced up her rib cage, longing for his touch to rise and soothe, cup her aching breasts and draw her back into him more fully.
How did she even know what that would feel like enough to want it? Her sexuality had been flash frozen before it had had time to properly bloom. She didn’t want to want a man’s touch. It was self-destructive madness.
Descending the hairpin turns rocked her against him, driving her mad. She had come this way because it was quicker, but she usually avoided this route into the port town. It wasn’t the once-daily ferry traffic and swarm of fresh tourists that bothered her. This part of the island actually had the best beaches and the better shopping. Ophelia begged to come here and there were a handful of really great restaurants.
Unfortunately, this route took her directly past a kafenion where local men sat and watched the world go by. Her father was often among them and she braced herself as they approached, refusing to look, keeping her nose pointed forward as she passed.
Not that he would acknowledge her, especially with a man behind her. He would ignore her completely, exactly as she would ignore him. She just preferred not to set herself up for that blaze of layered pain.
They hit the melee of the village streets and she was glad they had the scooter. It allowed her to zigzag around traffic snarls and down narrow alleys, coming in the back way to the clinic where she parked next to staff cars.
“Who is Ophelia?” he asked as they dismounted.
“How—?” She followed his nod at the helmet she’d hung off the handlebars. “I forgot that was there.” She rubbed the small, faded words she’d written across the back of her helmet shortly after Takis had bought the scooter. Ophelia, stop that.
Calli was only nine years older than the girl and didn’t have any siblings. In a lot of ways, Ophelia felt like a little sister to her. In others, Calli’s feelings went much deeper, more maternal. She adored the girl and was going to miss her terribly, even though Ophelia could be a complete brat at times.
“She’s Takis’s daughter. I look after her. Takis travels a lot, but she just turned fourteen and has convinced him to send her to boarding school. She’s with her grandparents, shopping for everything she’ll need. She outgrew this island long ago.”
Takis hadn’t wanted to see it. Losing his wife had jaded him. He wanted to keep his daughter sheltered as long as possible. Unfortunately, that had meant the girl had chafed and acted out—for Calli, thanks very much.
He was finally allowing the girl to spread her wings, though, which loosened the complex grip of gratitude and genuine love that had kept Calli here, raising a child who needed her while yearning to find her own.
“So you’re a nanny.” He said it like he didn’t believe it.
“Hmm? Oh. Yes. Nanny, housekeeper, party planner. Whatever Takis needs me to be.” She started toward the clinic. “Barring what you suggested earlier.”
“Good.” He moved quicker than her, catching at the door to hold it for her, filling her vision with his contoured chest lightly sprinkled with fine black hair, his skin burnished bronze, his nipples dark brown. “I’m glad you’re single.”
“I intend to stay that way.” Her voice husked despite her attempt to sound haughty.
A pained fist clenched behind her breastbone. Vacation. Playboy. She flipped her hair as she passed him. “I should have given you one of Takis’s old shirts. I’ll buy you something from the shop across the road. After I make arrangements to pay your bill.”
Stavros walked outside, pocketing a course of precautionary antibiotics, rolling his eyes at the primitive concoction he’d been given. He might have pointed out the far more effective class that had recently passed approval if he hadn’t already been skating so close to revealing his identity.
As he had wrapped his injury, he had realized he couldn’t use the global health insurance that covered Steve Michaels, heir to a multinational pharmaceutical corporation. Using his Greek surname for the admission form had been another gamble. The nurse, a woman approaching retirement, had eyed him, saying she had attended school with a local woman who had married a Stavros Xenakis. Any relation?
He had ducked raking over the past. It promised to be a lot worse than this dull ache in his shin. Besides, Antonio had managed to get through two weeks without blowing his cover. Stavros’s ego refused to fail where his friend had succeeded.
He spotted Calli standing in the shade near the Vespa. As he approached, her gaze took an admiring sweep over his still-naked torso, betraying that her disdain for him was an act even as she shook out a T-shirt and offered it to him with an expression on her face like an offended matron’s.
The shirt was imprinted with a subtle design of the Greek flag in stripes of white against the blue of the shirt, which was something he might have chosen for himself if he wore T-shirts with logos.
“I expected ‘Greece’ is the word.”
“I almost got the one that said ‘Made on Mount Olympus,’ but, you know, why state the obvious?”
“Careful, Calli. That sounds like you find me attractive.” He shrugged on the shirt, telling himself it was his competitive nature that made him provoke her. Pursue her. She was a nanny, for God’s sake. One who was snobbishly turning down the pool boy. That made her an amusing distraction, not someone worth obsessing about.
“Keep telling yourself that.” She turned to reach for her helmet.
“You are telling me.” He caught her arm, waiting for her gaze to flash up to his. “Every time you look at me.” He demonstrated by taking her other arm and gently pressing her elbows back, giving her plenty of opportunity to recoil, but she didn’t, not even when her breasts nudged his chest.
She caught her breath and set tense fingers on the sides of his rib cage, even notched her chin in a signal of defiance, but she didn’t tell him to stop. A fine quiver made her lashes tremble. Her pulse fluttered in her throat and she searched his gaze for his intention, but she wasn’t afraid. She was excited.
She was daring him.
This was why he was obsessing. A primitive, powerful hunger rose in him, answering the siren song she was singing.
“I know the signs of desire in a woman.” He looked down at where her nipples were hard beneath the soft cups of her bra. He wanted to bite at them through the fabric. “They’re painted all over you. Just as I’m sure you felt me hard against your ass the entire ride down here. We react to each other. Why fight it?”
He was hard again, steely and aching as he watched her lips part. His ears buzzed, awaiting her words, but she only let panting breaths whisper between them.
The compulsion to plunder her mouth nearly undid him, but he tasted the side of her neck first, liking the tiny cry of surprise that escaped her as he ran his hot tongue over salty skin that smelled of coconut and lavender. He delicately sucked, then nibbled his way up her neck. She melted with each incremental bite of his lips against her skin.
By the time he got to her mouth, she was making a delicious noise of helplessness, leaning her body into his, breasts pressing in soft cushions against his chest. Her lips were as plump and responsive as any he’d ever tasted. More. He was starving. Rapacious. She’d been driving him crazy, invading his dreams every night and now, finally, she was his.
Releasing her arms, he let one hand trail down to cup her ass and draw her soft belly into the ache pulsing between his thighs. His other hand went into her hair, tugging to pull her head back so he could feast on her throat again, loving the way it made her knees weaken so she twined her arms around his neck and hung helplessly against him, mons pushed against his straining erection.
He wanted to back her into the shade and take her against the wall of the clinic, but he could hear a car crunching on the gravel as it entered the lot behind them. He forced himself to lift his head and waited for her heavy eyelids to blink open, for her honey-gold eyes to focus.
“Did you want to make another remark about my finances now, to put me in my place?” He kept his tone light, but he never let anyone get away with insulting him. Screw Sebastien’s challenge. He was still a man and he wasn’t a weak one.
She paled beneath her golden tan and pushed out of his arms, gaze dropping with shame. “This was a punishment? Well, didn’t you teach me.”
The scrape of bitterness in her tone dug like talons into his gut. She covered her glossy black hair with the helmet, avoiding his gaze, but he could see her thick lashes moving in rapid blinks.
He was used to sophisticated women who made the most of their attraction and offered themselves without ceremony. Lately, since his grandfather’s wish that he marry had become known, there had been an even bigger frenzy of pretty piranhas circling and luring, promising any carnal act he requested if he would only put a ring on a finger.
This one stood before him with her bare, fraught expression and mouth still pouted by their kiss, wearing an unassuming wardrobe over a body that looked fit from sporty exercise, rather than sculpted by starving herself and bankrolling a plastic surgeon. When she had kissed him back, it hadn’t been the toying provocation of a woman trying to lead a man by his organ. She’d been hot and wanton, completely swept away—as he had almost been.
He put his hand on her flat stomach, urging her to pause and look at him. “I kissed you because I wanted to.”
“You kissed me because you thought you were entitled to.” She snapped the buckle under her chin. “I knew what kind of man you were the day we met.” She grasped his finger, disdainfully peeling his hand away from her abdomen and discarding it. “I forgot once, but I won’t make that mistake again.”
“American?” The contempt curling her lips went into him like a blade, even sharper than the first time. “Not Greek enough for you?”
“A tomcat. Here for a good time, not a long time.”
Calli caught sight of a car, not her mother’s, but close enough to make her take the opposite direction out of town, not wanting to pass her father’s end again.
Besides, she found the southern end of the island more peaceful. Fishermen launched their small boats and grape growers eked out a living from the dry, rocky land. It was very desolate, but also very Greek. It was home.
She loved this island. She had stayed after her father threw her out for many reasons, money being the big one, at least at first. She hadn’t had the means to get off the island, let alone to New York, and hadn’t wanted to be exiled from her home along with losing everything else.
She hadn’t wanted to leave until she could go to America, but no matter how she tried, those goalposts kept moving. Takis had even tried to help her, but that had fallen apart. Meanwhile, he gave her a better job than anyone with her limited skill set could expect. The longer she stayed, the deeper her ties to him and Ophelia grew, rooting her here even more.
Staying had been a statement of defiance, too, as much as a lack of choice. Her father thought she had shamed him? So be it. She had stayed and lived in what appeared to be flagrant sin with a man much older than herself, continuing to shame him. He deserved to feel ashamed. She would never forget what he had done to her and her son. She wanted him to know it.
But soon she would have to say goodbye and make her way to New York. Once Ophelia left, Calli planned to leave, too.
She was terrified.
“He’s in a better place,” her mother had said, two days after Dorian was gone, when Calli had caught up to her at one of her cleaning jobs.
“Stop saying that! He’s not dead.”
Her father could shout that lie until he was blue in the face, but Calli knew. Brandon’s parents had offered her money to hand over the baby, claiming they had a nice family who would raise him to their standards, but she had to give up all claim to him. She had refused.
Then suddenly Dorian was gone and she knew, didn’t have proof but she knew her father had taken the money and sold her son to them.
“Why are you doing this?” she had cried at her mother. “Why are you letting him get away with it?” It was more frankness than had ever passed between them, so many things always left unsaid to keep the peace.
“Look at you!” Her mother had turned on her with uncharacteristic sharpness. “You’re a child. One turned willful and wild. What kind of mother would you make? And you want to bring up your baby in this?” She’d showed no pity as she waved at Calli’s swollen eye and cut lip, the bruises on her shoulders and back, the dirt clinging to her clothes and hair from sleeping on the beach.
It was true she didn’t want her son raised under the heavy hand of a hard, angry man like her father. She had learned an even uglier rage lived in him than she had ever feared or imagined.
“I’m going after him,” she had declared.
“Don’t. Those are powerful people, Calli. They can offer more, but they can take more. He is in a better place. Accept it.”
“What kind of mother are you to say that to me?” Calli had ducked the scrub brush that came flying at her, then had run out of the house to avoid a fresh beating on top of the one still throbbing black-and-blue under her skin.
She had numbly retraced this long stretch of ragged coastline on foot after leaving that stranger’s house, fighting her mother’s words. Calli had been a good mother, for the short time she’d been allowed to try.
But she’d been young enough to still put stock in the words of those who were older, those who seemed to know better. As she was forced into more and more desperate decisions simply to stay alive, she had started to wonder if her mother wasn’t right. She was a terrible person. Not fit to be a mother.
Now it was six years later and she had tried several times to locate her son, but things had happened to prevent her. Each small failure had reinforced that she wasn’t meant to have him.
He was in a better place without her.
But she would never rest until she knew that for sure.
It made moments like this bittersweet. As the road quieted and the cool, salt-scented air swept over her, she drank it in, trying to relax and live in the moment. To accept life’s hard turns and just be.
But that made her hyperaware of Stavros’s strong frame surrounding her.
It made her remember their kiss.
Think of Brandon.
That memory was a distant recollection of flattery and pretty lies that she had believed because she had wanted to. Those first stirrings of attraction were nothing compared to the way this man’s aura glowed off him and sank through her skin, slanting rosy hues through her without even trying. He set her alight in ways she hadn’t believed were possible.
She told herself the vibration of the bike caused her nipples to feel tight and her loins to clench in hollow need. She was hot because it was a hot summer day. She was flush against the front of his hot body while the hot sun beat down.
Still, it was all she could do to stop herself from inching back into the hard shape pressed to her butt. She knew what it was and it provoked an ache into her breasts and belly and the juncture of her thighs. It was maddening.
She told herself not to give him this power over her, but it wasn’t voluntary. It simply was.
And now she was forced to slow and extend this ride. Up ahead, the road was plugged with sheep, the herd thick between the thornbush-covered hillside and the rail that kept traffic from dropping off the short, sharp ledge to the scrub-covered shoreline.
On impulse, she made a sharp right onto the narrow peninsula that jutted out into the sea. Might as well be a decent hostess if they were right here. At least she could take a break from the physical contact.
Behind her, Stavros said something, a curse or a protest, she wasn’t sure. His hands seemed to harden on her hips, fingertips digging in, but not in a sensual way.
Worried about getting back to work?
“The sheep will be twenty minutes clearing the road. It would take that long to go back around the other way,” she called back as she wound along the goat track to the end.
The motion rubbed their bodies together even more and she was relieved to finally stop the bike and climb off. “At least there’s a breeze out here. And it’s pretty.”
It was spectacular. The jut of land provided a near 360-degree view of the horizon. As she took off her helmet, there was no sound except the whisper of wind in the long grass and the rush of foaming waves against the boulders that formed the tip of the spit.
The rugged beauty was deceptive, though. Sometimes people walked out on those boulders, tourists who didn’t know better. One slip could be deadly. The currents were dangerous and if bad weather was headed for the island, it showed up here first, chopping the sea into crashing waves, then throwing itself against the land in mighty gusts and nasty pelts of rain.
When Stavros stayed by the bike, she glanced back. “Is your leg bothering you?”
He sent her a filthy look, one loaded with resentment and hostility, taking her aback.
She parted her lips, not knowing what to say.
The way he stalked behind her, toward the tip of the spit, had her stammering, “You can’t swim here. It’s too dangerous. People die.”
“I know.” The gravel in his voice made her scalp prickle.
Stavros paused where the end of the striated rock had been broken off by a millennia of waves, the pieces left jagged and toppled in the churning water below.
Part of her had disbelieved that he had ever lived here, but as he looked out as if he saw something in the rolling, shifting sea, she had the impression he had stood in that exact spot before. Searching.
Her heart dropped.
He seemed very isolated in that moment, with his profile stark and carved, his hands slowly clenching as though he was bearing up under tortuous pressure.
His anguish was palpable.
She moved without consciously deciding to, standing next to him, searching his expression, wanting to reach out and offer comfort.
His flinty gaze seemed to drill a hole into the water, one that led directly to the underworld. He looked as though he was girding himself to dive straight into it.
His ravaged face made her throat sting. His posture was braced and resolute. Like he was taking a lashing, but refused to cringe. He accepted the castigation. Bore it, even though there was no end in sight for this particular punishment.
A clench of compassion gripped her, but he was a column of contained emotion.
“Stavros.” It was barely a whisper. She wanted to say she was sorry. How could she have known this would be so painful for him?
His face spasmed before he hardened his jaw and controlled his expression. When he cut his gaze to hers, it was icy cold. His voice was thick with self-contempt.
“Man whore is the least of my character flaws.”
Her heart lurched. She knew how deeply that word whore cut. She hadn’t meant to sink to that level when she had called him a tomcat.
In that moment, she knew he was nothing like superficial Brandon who threw money at an unplanned child to make it go away. Stavros was as deep as the vast sea they faced, churning beneath the gilded surface he presented to the world.
“I didn’t know—” She touched his cold arm, but he shrugged off her light fingers.
“Let’s go. I have a job to finish so I can get the hell off this island.”