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Greek Escape: The Dimitrakos Proposition / The Virgin's Choice / Bought for Her Baby

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THE NANNY, COMPLETE with a uniform that suggested she belonged to the very highest echelon of qualified nannies, awaited Acheron and Tabby in the spacious hall of Acheron’s apartment and within minutes she had charmed Amber out of Tabby’s arms and borne her off.

‘Let’s go,’ Acheron urged impatiently. ‘We have a lot to accomplish.’

‘I don’t like shopping,’ Tabby breathed, literally cringing at the prospect of him paying for her clothes.

‘Neither do I. In fact, usually the closest I get to shopping with a woman is giving her a credit card,’ Acheron confided silkily. ‘But I don’t trust you to buy the right stuff.’

Mutinously silent as she slid back into the waiting limousine in the underground car park, Tabby shrugged a slight shoulder, determined not to battle with him when it was a battle she could not win. Even so, he could dress her up all he liked but it wouldn’t change the person she truly was. No, she would be sensible and look on the clothing as a necessary prop for their masquerade, another move in what already felt more like a game than reality because in no realistic dimension did a girl like her marry a guy as rich and good-looking as him.

A personal shopper awaited them at Harrods where, surprisingly enough, Acheron appeared to be in his element. Tabby did not attempt to impose her opinions and she hovered while Acheron pointed out what he liked and the correct size was lifted from the rail. She soon found herself in a changing cubicle with a heap of garments.

‘Come out,’ Ash instructed impatiently. ‘I want to see you in the pink dress.’

Suppressing a groan, Tabby snaked into the classy little cocktail frock, reached down to flip off her socks and walked barefoot out of the cubicle.

Acheron frowned as she came to a halt and he strolled round her, staring at her slight figure in surprise. ‘I didn’t realise you were so tiny.’

Tabby gnawed at her lower lip, knowing she had skipped too many meals in recent months, painfully aware that she was too thin and that what delicate curves she had possessed had shrunk along with any excess body fat. ‘I’m a lot stronger than I look,’ she said defensively.

Acheron studied her doll-like dimensions with unabashed interest, his narrowed gaze running from her fragile shoulders down to her pale slender legs. He could’ve easily lifted her with one hand. He liked curves on a woman yet there was an aesthetically pleasing aspect to the pure delicacy of her build. Her breasts barely made an indent in the bodice of the dress and her hips made no imprint at all. Yet with that tousled mane of long blonde hair highlighting her pale oval face and bright violet eyes, she looked unusual and extraordinarily appealing. He wondered if he would crush her in bed and then squashed that crazy thought dead because sex would naturally not be featuring in their agreement. As she turned away, he froze, taken aback by the sight of the colourful rose tattoo marring the pale skin of her left forearm.

‘That dress won’t do,’ Acheron told the assistant thinly. ‘She needs a dress with sleeves to cover that.’

Gooseflesh crept over Tabby’s exposed skin, and she clamped a hand over the skin marking she had forgotten about. Beneath her fingers she could feel the rougher skin of the scar tissue that the tattoo pretty much concealed from view, and her heart dropped to the pit of her stomach, remembered feelings of bitter pain and heartache gripping her in spite of the years that had passed since the wound was first inflicted. She had made the clear considered choice that she could live better with the tattoo than she could with that constant reminder of her wretched childhood catching her unawares every time she looked in the mirror. Of course, the skin ink wasn’t perfect because the skin surface beneath it was far from perfect and the tattooist had warned her of the fact in advance. As it was, the rose, albeit a little blurred in its lines, had done the job it was designed to do, hiding the scar and providing a burial place for the bad memories. Only very rarely did Tabby think about it.

‘How could you disfigure your body with that?’ Acheron demanded in a driven undertone, his revulsion unhidden.

‘It’s of a good luck charm. I’ve had it for years,’ Tabby told him unsteadily, her face pale and set.

The personal shopper was already approaching with a long-sleeved dress, and Tabby returned to the cubicle, her skin clammy now with the aftermath of shock—the shock of being forced back, however briefly, into her violent past. The rose was her lucky charm, which concealed the vivid reminder of what could happen when you loved someone unworthy of that trust. So, he didn’t like tattoos; well, what was that to her? She put on the new dress, smoothed down the sleeves and, mustering her self-possession, she emerged again.

Acheron stared her up and down, his beautiful face curiously intent. Heat blossomed in her cheeks as he studied her with smouldering dark eyes, his tension palpable. Desire flickered low in her pelvis like kindling yearning for a spark, and she felt that craving shoot through every fibre of her body, from the dryness of her mouth to the swelling sensitivity of her nipples and the honeyed heat between her thighs. It made her feel light-headed and oddly intoxicated, and she blinked rapidly, severely disconcerted by the feelings.

‘That will do,’ he pronounced thickly.

She wanted to touch him so badly she had to clench her hands into fists to prevent herself from reaching out and making actual contact. She felt like a wasp being drawn to a honey trap and fiercely fought her reactions with every scrap of self-control left to her. Don’t touch, don’t touch, a little voice warned in the back of her head, but evidently he was listening to a different voice as he stalked closer and reached for her hands, pulling them into his, urging her closer, forcing her fingers to loosen within his grasp.

And Tabby looked up at him and froze, literally not daring to breathe. That close his eyes were no longer dark but a downright amazing and glorious swirl of honey, gold and caramel tones, enhanced by the spiky black lashes she envied.

His fingers were feathering over hers with a gentleness she had not expected from so big and powerful a man and little tremors of response were filtering through her, undermining her self-control. She knew she wanted those expert hands on her body exploring much more secret places, and colour rose in her cheeks because she also knew she was out of her depth and drowning. In an abrupt movement, she wrenched her hands free and turned away, momentarily shutting her eyes in a gesture of angry self-loathing.

‘Try on the rest of the clothes,’ Acheron instructed coolly, not a flicker of lingering awareness in his dark deep voice.

Hot-faced, Tabby vanished back into the cubicle. Evidently he pressed all her buttons, and she had to stop letting him do that to her, had to stand firm. Of course he was sexy: he was a womaniser. He had insulted her with that crack about her tattoo and had then somehow switched that moment into something else by catching her hands in his and just looking at her. But she wasn’t some impressionable little airhead vulnerable to the merest hint of interest from an attractive man, was she? Well, she was a virgin, she acknowledged grudgingly, as always stifling her unease about that glaring lack in her experience with men. After all she had not intentionally chosen to retain her virginity; it had just happened that way. No man had ever succeeded in making her want to get that close to him, and she had no plans to share a bed with someone simply to find out what it was like.

And then Acheron Dimitrakos had come along and turned everything she thought she knew on its head. For, although he attracted her, she didn’t like him and didn’t trust him either, so what did that say about her? That she had a reckless streak just like her long-lost and unlamented parents?

Tension seethed through Acheron. What the hell was the matter with him? He had been on the edge of crushing that soft, luscious mouth beneath his, close to wrecking the non-sexual relationship he envisaged between them. Impersonal would work the best and it shouldn’t be that difficult, he reasoned impatiently, for they had nothing in common.

He watched her emerge again, clad in cropped wool trousers, high heels and a slinky little burgundy cashmere cardigan. She looked really good. She cleaned up incredibly well, he acknowledged grudgingly, gritting his teeth together as his gaze instinctively dropped to the sweet pouting swell of her small breasts beneath the clingy top.

He had done what he had to do, he reminded himself grimly. She was perfect for his purposes, for she had as much riding on the success of their arrangement as he had. Thankfully nothing in his life was going to change in the slightest: he had found the perfect wife, a non-wife...

He left Tabby alone with the shopper in the lingerie department and she chose the basics before heading for the children’s department and choosing an entire new wardrobe for Amber, her heart singing at the prospect of seeing the little girl in new clothes that fitted her properly. The chauffeur saw to the stowing of her many bags in the capacious boot of the limousine, and she climbed in beside Acheron, who was talking on the phone in French. She recognised the language from lessons at school and raised her brows. So, that was at least three languages he spoke: Greek, English and now French. She refused to be impressed.

‘We’ll dine out tonight,’ Acheron pronounced, putting the phone away.

‘Why the heck would you want to do that?’ Tabby demanded in dismay at the prospect.

‘If we want to give the appearance of a normal couple, we need to be seen out together. Wear that dress.’

‘Oh...’ Tabby said nothing more while she wondered what social horrors dining out with him would entail. She had never eaten out in a fancy restaurant, having always cravenly avoided such formal occasions, intimidated by the prospect of too much cutlery and superior serving staff, who would surely quickly spot that she was a takeaway girl at heart.

Two hours later, having showered and changed, Acheron opened the safe in his bedroom wall to remove a ring case he hadn’t touched in years. The fabled emerald, which had reputedly once adorned a maharajah’s crown, had belonged to his late mother and would do duty as an engagement ring. The very thought of putting the priceless jewel on Tabby’s finger chilled Acheron’s anti-commitment gene to the marrow, and he squared his broad shoulders, grateful that the engagement and the marriage that would follow would be one hundred per cent fake.

‘Fine feathers make fine birds’ had been one of her last foster mother’s favourite sayings, Tabby recalled as she put on mascara, guiltily enjoying the fact that she had both the peace and the time to use cosmetics again. Make-up had been one of the first personal habits to fall by the wayside once she took on full-time care of Amber. But the nanny had been hired to work until eleven that night, leaving Amber free to dress up and go out like a lady of leisure. A lady? She grimaced at the word, doubting she could ever match that lofty description, and ran a brush through her freshly washed hair before grabbing the clutch that matched the shoes and leaving the room.

Acheron’s apartment was vast, much bigger than she had expected. Tabby and Amber had been relegated to rooms at the very foot of the bedroom corridor, well away from the main reception areas as well as the principal bedroom suite, which seemed to be sited up a spiral staircase off the main hall. Acheron Dimitrakos lived like a king, she conceded with a shake of her head, wide-eyed at the opulence of the furnishings surrounding her and the fresh flowers blooming on every surface. They truly did come from different worlds. But the one trait they shared, she sensed, was an appreciation of hard slog and its rewards, so she hoped he would understand why she needed to continue to work.

‘Put it on,’ Acheron advised in the hall, planting an emerald ring unceremoniously into the palm of her hand.

Tabby frowned down at the gleaming jewel. ‘What’s it for?’

‘Engagement ring...marriage?’ Acheron groaned. ‘Sometimes you’re very slow on the uptake.’

Tabby rammed the beautiful ring down over her knuckle and squinted down at it, her colour high. ‘I didn’t know we were going for frills. I assumed you would choose more of a basic-package approach.’

‘Since we’ll be getting married pretty quickly and without a big splash our charade needs to look more convincing from the outset.’

‘I’m already living with you and wearing clothes you bought for me,’ she parried flatly. ‘Isn’t that enough of a show?’

‘Many couples live together without marrying, many women have worn clothing I paid for,’ Acheron derided. ‘What we have has to look more serious.’

The restaurant was dimly lit and intimate and their table probably the best in the room. Certainly the attention that came their way from the staff was so constant that Tabby found it almost claustrophobic. Having studiously ignored her during the drive while talking on his phone, Acheron finally allowed himself the indulgence of looking at his bride-to-be. Her blonde mane tumbled round her shoulders framing a vivid and delicate little face dominated by violet eyes and a lush fuchsia-tinted mouth. He couldn’t take his eyes off that mouth, a mouth modelled to make a man think of sin and sinning.

‘How am I performing so far as your dress-up doll?’ Tabby enquired mockingly to take her mind off the fact that she had still not established which knife and fork to use with the salad being brought to them.

‘You answer back too much but you look amazing in the right clothes,’ Acheron conceded, startling her with that compliment. ‘So far I’m very satisfied with our bargain, and you can be assured that I will play my part.’

As he reached for one fork she reached for another and then changed course mid-movement, her gaze welded to his lean brown hands. Just copy him, her brain urged her.

‘I’ve applied for a special licence. The legalities should be in place in time for the ceremony to be held on Thursday,’ Acheron delivered. ‘My lawyer is making all the arrangements and has contacted Social Services on our behalf with regard to our plans for Amber.’

‘My word, he’s a fast mover,’ Tabby remarked breathlessly.

‘You told me you didn’t want the child to go into foster care,’ he reminded her.

Her skin turned clammy at that daunting reminder of the unknown destination that would have awaited Amber had Tabby not gained his support. ‘I don’t but there are things we still haven’t discussed. What am I supposed to do while we’re pretending to be married?’

A winged ebony brow lifted. ‘Do? Nothing. You concentrate on being a mother and occasionally a wife. I will expect you to make a couple of appearances with me at public events. That is the sole commitment you have to make to me.’

‘That’s great because I want to start up my business a small way,’ Tabby admitted abruptly.

His handsome features clenched hard. ‘No. That’s out of the question. The child deserves a full-time mother.’

Tabby couldn’t believe her ears. ‘Most mothers work—’

‘I will cover your financial requirements,’ Acheron delivered with unquenchable cool. ‘For the foreseeable future you will put the child’s needs first and you will not work.’

Tabby gritted her teeth. ‘I don’t want to take your money.’

‘Tough,’ Acheron slotted in succinctly.

‘You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do.’

‘Can’t I?’

Tabby’s pulse had quickened until it felt as if it were beating in the foot of her throat, obstructing her ability to breathe and speak. Frustrated rage lay behind her choked silence as she stared across the table at him, her small face taut and pale. He was pulling strings as if she were a puppet. And wasn’t she exactly that?

A chill settled over her rage, safely enclosing it. He was willing to help her to adopt Amber and she was stuck with his outdated idealistic attitude whether she liked it or not. Yes, she could walk away from him but if she did so she would also be walking away from the child she loved. And that, Tabby reflected hollowly, she could not do.

Amber had tugged at Tabby’s heartstrings from the day she was born and Sonia was too weak, having suffered her first stroke within hours of the birth, even to hold her daughter. Consequently, for as long as Tabby needed Acheron’s support she would have to conform to his expectations. Facing and accepting that ugly frightening truth had to be one of the most humbling experiences Tabby had ever known because it ran contrary to every tenet she had lived by since adulthood. The threat of no longer being in full charge of her life genuinely terrified Tabby.

‘You seem to have lost your appetite,’ Ash remarked, watching her move the food around her plate without lifting anything to her ripe pink mouth.

It was a steak cooked rare, not the way she liked it. But then she had coped with the menu being written in pretentious French simply by making the exact same menu choices as he had.

‘You killed my appetite,’ Tabby countered thinly.

A forbidding look flitted across his chiselled features. ‘If restarting your business means that much to you, you should give up your desire to adopt a child, who will need much more of your time than you could give her as an independent businesswoman.’

Well, that certainly put his point of view across, Tabby conceded ruefully, sipping her water, ignoring the full wineglass beside it. She never touched alcohol, didn’t trust the effect it might have on her, feared it might even awaken a craving she might find hard to control. She couldn’t argue with Acheron Dimitrakos because setting up her business again would demand a great deal of her time. She compressed her lips, reasonably certain she could’ve coped without short-changing Amber but questioning for the first time whether or not that would have been fair to the child she loved. After all, she had personally never enjoyed the luxury of being a full-time mother and perhaps it would be more sensible to give that lifestyle a shot rather than dismissing it out of hand.

‘Are we on the same page?’ Acheron Dimitrakos asked impatiently over the cheese and crackers.

Mouth full at last of something she wanted to eat, Tabby nodded while trying not to imagine what it would feel like to be financially dependent on a man for the first time in her life.

As they emerged from the restaurant, Acheron banded an arm round her stiff spine, and she blinked in bewilderment at the daunting acknowledgement that they were literally surrounded by photographers. ‘Smile,’ he instructed her flatly.

And, hating it, she did as she was told.

‘What was that all about?’ she demanded once they were driving away.

‘Public proof of our relationship,’ Acheron supplied drily. ‘There’ll be an announcement of our engagement in The Times tomorrow.’

What relationship? Tabby thought with wry amusement. He said jump, she said how high? That was not a relationship, it was a dictatorship, but possibly he didn’t know the difference.

* * *

The plaintive cry roused Acheron from a sound sleep. He listened for a while but the noise continued. After a moment, he rolled out of bed with a curse on his lips and reached the bedroom door, before groaning out loud and stalking back to rummage through a drawer and extract a pair of jeans. He hated having guests. He hated any interruption to his usual routine. But Tabby was a better option than a real wife, he reminded himself with satisfaction, and a good deal less likely to develop ambitious ideas about hanging on to her privileged position.

He pushed open the door of the nursery and saw the baby in the cot. It was kicking its arms and legs in furious activity, its little face screwed up as it loosed a wail that would have wakened the dead. Only, apparently, not her wannabe adoptive mother. Ash hovered by the cot, his wide, sensual mouth on a downward curve. The baby sat up in a flash and looked expectant, even lifted its arms as if she expected him to haul her to freedom. It looked far too lively for a baby supposed to be sleeping.

‘No more crying,’ Ash decreed firmly. ‘I don’t like crying.’

The baby’s arms lowered, its rosebud mouth jutting out in a pout while its bright brown eyes studied him uncertainly.

‘You see, crying gets you nowhere,’ Ash explained helpfully.

Another heartbroken sob emanated from the baby. She looked incredibly sad and lonely, and Ash stifled a groan.

‘Aren’t you going to lift her? She needs comforting,’ Tabby murmured from the doorway, studying the little tableau of inflexible male and needy baby. It was infuriating to register that she couldn’t take her eyes off him when he was wearing only a pair of jeans. He had a six-pack that could have rivalled a top athlete’s and his lean, muscular bronzed chest was state-of-the-art perfection, showcasing a male body that could have played a starring role in any female fantasy.

‘Why would I lift her?’ Ash enquired with a raised brow, flashing her a glance and noticing in that one brief look that she was wearing a pale nightdress that revealed more than it concealed of her tiny body while she stood with her back turned to the light in the corridor. He glimpsed delicate little pink nipples and a pale shadowy vee between her thighs, and his body reacted with instantaneous arousal.

‘Because if you expect our adoption application to impress the powers-that-be, you need to be confident that you can handle Amber.’

‘I will be perfectly confident if the situation demands that of me, but at this hour of the day it would be very unwise to remove her from the cot,’ he declared. ‘She’s there for the whole night. It’s two in the morning, in case you haven’t noticed. Why raise her hopes by lifting her?’

Amber released another howl and, gripped by frustration, Tabby marched over to the cot, swept up the little girl and settled her without ceremony into Ash’s arms. ‘If she has a nightmare she needs comforting. She needs to know someone is there for her and a little cuddle usually soothes her.’

Amber was as shocked as Acheron to find herself in his arms. Wide brown eyes anxiously observed him. ‘Cuddle?’ Ash almost whispered the word in appalled disbelief. ‘You actually expect me to cuddle her?’


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