How was your week? I've been head-down writing, trying to finish a book so I can take a few days for some family commitments. Read on for your next instalment from Xenakis's Convenient Bride, available now on Mills & Boon and Harlequin.
Xenakis's Convenient Bride is Book Two in the Secret Billionaire's trilogy. This sexy, exciting series features jaded tycoons making a wager they can go two weeks without their fortunes and names. They go undercover and lose their hearts.
Last week I posted the prologue. If you missed it, you can read it here.
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.
~ * ~
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In case you missed it, there's a prequel to this series that shows why Sebastien is so keen to make his wager with his friends. It's called The Secret Billionaire's Mistress and you can read it here.
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Have a great weekend,