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The Greek oil billionaire, Giorgios Letsos was throwing the party of the year at his London town house. Yet, instead of socialising, he was answering his emails, escaping the predatory females who had dogged his every footstep since the news of his divorce became public.
'I heard, a female voice murmured outside the library door, which stood ajar after a maid had served her employer with a drink and failed to close it, 'that he got rid of her because she did drugs.'
'I heard, another voice piped up, 'that he dumped her back on her father's doorstep in the middle of the night with all her things.'
'I heard, a third voice interposed,.'that the pre-nup was so tight she didn't get a cent.'
Gio was sardonically amused that speculation was keeping his neglected guests entertained. His cell phone pulsed and he answered it.
'Mr Letsos? It's Joe Henley from Henley Investigations
'Yes?' Gio asked absently, assuming it was the usual quarterly callback to report a negative result, his attention still on his laptop as he mulled over the purchase of another company with the kind of concentration and enjoyment he would never find at any party.
'We've found her
er, at least I'm ninety per cent certain this time,' the older man carefully framed because neither of them would ever forget the mistake he had once made when Gio had gone racing across the city in his limo only to find himself looking at a complete stranger. 'I took a photo and emailed it to you. Perhaps you'd like to check it out before we go any further.'
We've found her
Suddenly, Gio was galvanised into action, springing out of his chair to his full imposing height of six feet four inches, squaring his wide shoulders while he flicked back to the emails. Fierce intensity had fired his dark golden eyes while he identified the right email before clicking on the attachment.
It wasn't a great photo but the small curvaceous figure in the floral raincoat was instantly recognisable to his hard, searching gaze. Excitement and satisfaction roared in an intoxicating wave through Gio's lean, powerful length.
'You will be generously paid for this piece of detection,' Gio breathed with rare warmth as he stared at the picture as though it might disappear at any moment. As she had done. She had contrived to lose herself so completely he had honestly begun to believe that even with all the resources he had at his disposal he would never track her down.
''Where is she?' he pressed.
'I have the address, Mr Letsos, but I haven't yet acquired sufficient info to make up a proper background report,' Joe Henley explained. 'If you give me a couple of days, I'll proceed the usual way'
'All I need, all I want, Gio stressed with rippling impatience at the thought of waiting even an hour, 'is her address.'
And suddenly, Gio was smiling for the first time in a very long time. He had finally found her. Of course that didn't automatically mean he intended to forgive her, he swiftly qualified, straightening his muscular shoulders. His wide, sensual mouth compressed in a manner that would have made his chief executives quail, for he was a tough man, an inflexible, stubborn man, very much feared in the business world. After all, Billie had walked out on him, was, in fact, the only woman ever to pull that stunt on Gio Letsos. But there she was on screen, his Billie, still wearing flowery clothes like a nature explosion, a shock of caramel-coloured blonde curls flowing round her heart-shaped elfin face, her wide green eyes unusually serious.
'You're not a very active host,' a voice remarked from the doorway. The speaker was as short as Gio was tall and as fair as Gio was dark but Gio and Leandros Conistis had been friends since their schooldays, both of them born into wealthy, privileged and pedigreed, if dysfunctional, Greek families and sent to England to board at exclusive fee-paying schools.
Gio closed down his laptop and studied his old friend. 'Did you expect anything different?'
'Even for you, that sounds arrogant,' Leandros countered.
'We both know that even if I threw a nonalcoholic party in a cave, it would be packed,' Gio said drily, well aware of the pulling power of his vast wealth.
'I didn't know you were going to throw a divorce party.'
'That would be tasteless. It's not a divorce party.'
'You can't fool me,' Leandros warned him.
Gio's lean, strong face was expressionless, his famed reserve kicking in hard and fast. 'Calisto and I had a very civilised divorce'
'And now you're back on the market and the piranhas are circling,' Leandros commented.
'I will never marry again,' Gio declared grimly.
'Never is a long time
'I mean it,' Gio emphasised darkly.
His friend said nothing and then tried to lighten the atmosphere with an old joke, 'At least you could trust Calisto to know that Canaletto isn't the name of a race horse!'
Momentarily, Gio froze, his lean, dark, devastating features tightening, for that gag had worn thin years before he stopped hearing it. Sadly, not Billie's most shining moment.
' Leandros was still grinning '
'I don't blame you for ditching that one
what an airhead!'
Gio said nothing. Even with his oldest friend Gio was not given to making confidences or baring his soul. In actuality, Gio had not ditched Billie; he simply hadn't taken her out with him in public again.
In the garage, Billie was going through garments and costume jewellery that she had acquired during the week to sell in her vintage clothes shop. She was sorting items into piles for washing, repair or specialist cleaning while dumping anything past its prime. While she worked, she talked non-stop to her son. 'You're absolutely the most cute and adorable baby ever born,' she told Theo warmly as he kicked his legs in his high chair, smiled beatifically and happily got on with eating his mid-morning snacks.
With a sigh, she straightened her aching back, reflecting that all the bending and stretching had at least started knocking off a few pounds of the extra baby weight she had been carrying for months. The doctor had told her that that was normal but Billie had always had to watch her weight and she knew that while putting it on was easy, getting it back off again was not. And the problem with being only five feet two inches tall with an overly large bust and hips was that it only took a few surplus pounds and a thicker waistline to make her look like a little barrel.
She would take all the kids to the playground and walk round and round and round the little park with the pram, she decided ruefully.
'Coffee?' Dee called out of the back door.
'I'd love one,' Billie told her cousin and housemate, Dee, with a smile.
Thankfully, she hadn't been lonely since she had rediscovered her friendship with Dee, yet they might so easily have missed out on meeting up again. Bil-lie had been four months pregnant when she attended her aunt's funeral in Yorkshire and got talking to Dee, whom she had gone to primary school with although Dee was several years older. Her housemate was a single parent as well. At her mother's funeral her cousin had sported a fading black eye and more bruises than a boxer. Back then Dee had been living in a refuge for battered women with her twins. Jade and Davis were now five years old and had started school. For all of them life in the small town where Billie had bought a terraced house was a fresh start.
And life was good, Billie told herself firmly as she nursed a cup of coffee and listened to Dee complain about the amount of homework Jade was getting, which related more to Dee's inability to understand maths in any shape or form than the teacher overloading Dee's daughter with work. This life was ordinary and safe, she reasoned thoughtfully, soothed into relaxation by the hum of the washing machine and the silence of the children while they watched television in the sitting room next door. Admittedly there were no highs of exciting moments but there were no gigantic lows either.
Billie would never forget the agonies of her own worst low, a slough of despair that had lasted for endless weeks. That phase of her life had almost destroyed her and she could still barely repress a shudder when she recalled the depression that had engulfed her. She had been hurting so badly and there had seemed to be no way of either stopping or avoiding that pain. In fact, in the end it had taken an extraordinary and rather frightening development to show Billie a light at the end of the tunnel and a future she could actually face. She contemplated Theo with glowing satisfaction.
'It's not healthy to love a baby so much,' Dee warned her with a frown. 'Babies grow up and eventually leave you. Theo's a lovely baby but he's still just a child, Billie, and you can't continue building your whole life round him. You need a man'
'I need a man like a fish needs a bicycle,' Billie interposed without hesitation, reckoning that the disaster zone of her one and only real relationship was quite sufficient to have put her off men for life. 'And who are you to talk?'
A tall, whip-thin blonde with grey eyes, Dee grimaced to concede the point. 'Been there, done that.'
'Exactly,' Billie agreed.
'But I don't have the options you have,' Dee argued. 'If I were you, I'd be out there dating up a storm!'
Theo clutched Billie's ankles and slowly levered himself upright, beaming with triumph at his achievement. Considering her son had had both legs in a special cast for months to cure his hip dysplasia, he was catching up on his mobility fast. For a split second he also reminded her powerfully of his father and she didn't like that, didn't go there in her mind because she didn't allow herself to dwell on the past. Looking back on the mistakes she had made was counterproductive. Those experiences had taught her hard lessons and she had forced herself to move on past them.
Dee studied her cousin in frank frustration. Billie Smith was the equivalent of a man magnet. With the figure of a pocket Venus, a foaming mane of dense toffee-coloured curls and an exceptionally pretty face, Billie exuded the kind of natural warm and approachable sex appeal that attracted the opposite sex in droves. Men tried to chat Billie up in the supermarket, in car parks or in the street and if they were behind a car wheel they honked their horns, whistled out of the window and stopped to offer her lifts. Had it not been for Billie's modest take on her own assets and her innate kindness, Dee was convinced she would have been consumed with envy. Of course she would have been the last to envy Billie's unfortunate long-term affair with the ruthless, selfish swine who had broken her tender heart, she thought guiltily. Like Dee, Billie had paid a high price for falling in love with the wrong man.
The knocker on the front door sounded loudly. 'I'll get it,' Billie declared because Dee was doing the ironing and Billie hated ironing with a passion.
Davis hurtled out of the sitting room, almost tripping over Theo, who was crawling earnestly in his mother's wake. 'There's a big car
a really big car on the street!' the little boy exclaimed.
It was probably a lorry with a delivery, Billie assumed, aware that any vehicle with wheels fascinated Dee's son. She unlocked the door and then took an immediate and very abrupt step back, astonishment and panic shooting up inside her like a sudden jarring surge of adrenalin.
'You're a hard woman to track down,' Gio murmured with supreme assurance.
Billie's facial muscles were locked tight by shock. She couldn't have shown him an expression to save her life but her wide green eyes were huge and anxious. 'What are you doing here? Why would you have wanted to track me down, for goodness' sake?'
Gio feasted his shrewd, dark gaze on her. Twenty four freckles adorned her nose and her upper cheekbones: having once counted them, he knew that for a fact. Her clear eyes, delicate features and lush mouth were utterly unchanged, he was relieved to note, his attention sliding inexorably down over her in a staged appraisal because he was strictly rationing himself. A faded blue cotton tee shirt stretched to capacity over her high, rounded breasts and his attention lingered there against his will, lust sending his libido leaping for the first time in a long time.
Relief rather than irritation consumed Gio because it had been far too long since he had experienced that reaction to a woman, so long indeed that he had feared that his marriage had stripped him of his essential masculinity in some peculiar fashion. But then, he would have been the first to acknowledge that he had never wanted any woman the way he had always wanted Billie. He had once flown her out to New York for a single night because he literally could not get through another week without her in his bed.
Billie was so worked up, so horrified that Gio Letsos had come looking and found her, that her feet were glued to the hall carpet. She stared at Gio, unwilling to credit that he was really there in the flesh in front of her, the man she had once loved, the man she had believed she would never see again. Her heart started to thump very, very hard and she sucked in a sudden snatch of oxygen, flinching as Theo drew her back to reality by hauling on her jeans-clad legs with his little fat hands to pull himself upright.
?' Dee asked from the kitchen doorway. 'Who is it? Is there something up?'
'Nothing.' Billie rescued her voice from her convulsed throat and stooped down in a jerky movement to scoop up Theo, her dazed gaze roaming over her cousin's children who were studying Gio as though he had just dropped in from Mars. 'Dee
could you take the kids?'
Her voice emerged all husky and shaken and she had to force herself to direct her attention back to Gio while Dee put out her arms for Theo and urged her own children into the kitchen with her. The kitchen door closed, sealing the hall into a sudden claustrophobic silence.
'I asked you why you were here and why you would have looked for me in the first place,' Billie reminded her unwelcome visitor doggedly.
'Are you really planning to stage this long-overdue meeting on the doorstep?' Gio drawled, all velvety smoothness and sophistication. He was taking control the way he always did and it unnerved her.