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Грэхем Линн

The Secrets She Carried

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ERIN escorted Cristo to the fitness suite that connected with the spa.

‘You can’t buy Sam’s hotels,’ she said tightly in an undertone, the words framed by gritted teeth. ‘I don’t want to work for you again.’

‘Believe me, I don’t want you on my payroll either,’ Cristo declared with succinct bite.

Well, she knew how she could take that. If he took over, she would be out in the cold as soon as the law allowed such a move and, appalling as the prospect of unemployment was, it was a welcome warning at a moment when she was feeling far too hot and bothered to think straight. What was it about Cristophe Donakis? That insidious power of his that got to her every time? Sheathed in a charcoal grey pinstripe suit, fitted to his lean powerful body with the flare that only perfect tailoring could offer, Cristo looked spectacular and, although she very much wanted to be, she was not indifferent to his high-voltage sexual charge. Cristo was a very beautiful man with the sleek dark good looks of a Greek god. As she turned to look at him, eyes as blank as she could make them, there was a lowdown buzz already feeding through her every limb like poison. She knew what that buzz was and feared it deeply. It was the burn of excitement, gut-deep, breathtaking excitement.

‘I wasn’t expecting to find a gym here,’ Cristo remarked, eying the banks of machines and their sweating occupants, swivelling his handsome head to glance through the glass partition to where a couple of men were training with heavy weights. He returned his attention to her just as Erin slicked her tongue across her white teeth as if she was seeking to eradicate a stray smudge of lipstick. She wasn’t wearing very much, just a hint of pale pearlised gloss that added unnecessary voluptuousness to the full swell of that sultry mouth, which he was working very hard not to imagine moving against his Don’t go there, his cool intelligence cautioned him, acting to suppress the kind of promptings that would interfere with his concentration.

‘An exercise suite dovetails perfectly with the spa. The customers come here to train and attend classes, treat themselves to a massage or a beauty treatment and go home feeling spoiled and refreshed.’ As Erin talked she led the way into the spa and gave him a brief look at those facilities that were free for his appraisal. ‘People have less free time these days. It makes sense to offer a complete package at the right price. The profits speak for themselves.’

‘So, how much are you creaming off in reward for your great moneymaking ideas?’ Cristo enquired smoothly.

Her brow furrowed, amethyst eyes flickering in confusion across his strong bronzed face. ‘I don’t get commission for bringing in more business,’ she responded uncertainly.

‘That wasn’t what I meant and you know it. I’ve seen enough of the premises here. We’ll move on to Blacks now and fit in the last place before dinner,’ he told her arrogantly.

Cristo strode out to the front of the hotel and the silver Bugatti Veyron sports car that was his pride and joy. Erin followed more slowly, her agile brain struggling to work out what he had meant. ‘I’ll take my own car,’ she called in his wake, crossing to the BMW. ‘Then I can go home without needing a lift.’

Cristo wheeled back in his tracks, brilliant dark eyes gleaming between lush curling lashes. He was quick to note the premium model that she drove and he wondered with derision just how she afforded such a vehicle. ‘No, I’ll take you. We have business to discuss.’

Erin could think of nothing she wanted to discuss with him and she wanted him nowhere near the home she shared with her mother but, as Sam’s right-hand woman, keeping Cristo happy was paramount. She wanted Cristo to vanish in a puff of black smoke like the fallen angel he resembled but she did not want Sam to lose out because she hadn’t done her job right: she owed the older man too much for his faith in her and could not have looked him in the eye again if she scared off Cristo to suit her own personal preferences. Yet was she capable of scaring him off? There was an air of purpose about Cristo that said otherwise. To be fair, Sam’s busy hotels would make a good investment. She pulled out her phone to ring Owen, the manager at Black’s, to give him notice of their intended visit.

With pronounced reluctance she climbed into Cristo’s boy-toy car, trying not to recall the time she had attended the Motor Show with him where the beautiful models draped over the latest luxury cars had salivated every time Cristo came within touching distance. Women always always noticed Cristo, ensnared by his six-foot-four-inch height and breadth and the intensity of dark eyes that could glitter like black diamonds.

Out of the corner of his gaze, Cristo watched her clasp her hands on her lap and instantly he knew she was on edge, composing herself into the little concentrated pool of calm and silence she invariably embraced when she was upset. She was so damn small, a perfect little package at five feet two inches calculated to appeal to the average testosterone-driven male as a vulnerable female in need of masculine protection. His shapely mouth took on a sardonic slant as he accelerated down the drive. She could look after herself. He had once enjoyed her independent streak, the fact she didn’t always come when he called. Like most men he preferred a challenge to a clinging vine but he knew how tricky she could be and had no intention of forgetting it.

Erin wanted to keep her tongue pinned to the roof of her mouth but she couldn’t. ‘What you said back there—that phrase you used, “creaming off,” —I didn’t like the connotations—’

‘I didn’t think you would,’ Cristo fielded softly, his dark accented drawl vibrating low in his throat.

Gooseflesh covered the backs of her hands and suddenly she felt chilled. ‘Were you getting at something?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Don’t play games with me,’ she urged, breathing in deep and slow, nostrils flaring in dismay at the familiar spicy scent of his designer aftershave.

The smell of him, so familiar, so achingly familiar, unleashed a tide of memories. When he was away from her she used to sleep in one of his shirts but she would never have done anything so naff and revealing when he was around. Sometimes when she was at his city apartment she used to wash his shirts as well, she recalled numbly, eager to take on any little homely task that could made her feel more like one half of a committed couple. But Cristo had not made a commitment to her, had not done anything to make her feel secure and had never once mentioned love or the future. Recalling those hard facts, she wondered why she had once looked back on that phase as being the happiest of her life. Admittedly that year with Cristo had been the most exciting, varied and challenging of her twenty-five years of existence but the moments of happiness had often been fleeting and she had passed a great deal more time worrying about where their affair was going and never daring to ask. She had worked so hard at playing it cool with him, on not attaching strings or expectations that might irritate him. Her soft full mouth turned down at the recollection—much good all that anxious stressing and striving had done her! At the end of the day, in spite of all her precautions, he had still walked away untouched while she had been crushed in the process. She had had to accept that all along she had only been a Miss All-Right-For-Now on his terms, not a woman he was likely to stay with. No, she was just one more in a long line of women who had contrived to catch his eye and entertain him for a while until the time came for him to choose a suitable wife. The knowledge that she had meant so little to him that he had ditched her to marry another woman still burned like acid inside her.

‘Maybe I’m hoping you’ll finally come clean,’ Cristo murmured levelly.

Erin turned her head, smooth brow indented with a frown as she struggled to recall the conversation and get back into it again. ‘Come clean about what?’

Cristo pulled off the road into a layby before he responded. ‘I found out what you were up to while you were working for me at the Mobila spa.’

Erin twisted her entire body round to look at him, crystalline eyes flaring bright, her rising tension etched in the taut set of her heart-shaped face. ‘What do you mean, what I was up to?’

Cristo flexed long brown fingers round the steering wheel and then turned to look at her levelly, ebony dark eyes cool and opaque as frosted glass. ‘You were helping yourself to the profits in a variety of inventive ways but I employ a forensic accounting team, who have seen it all before, and they traced the transactions back to you. You were stealing from me.’

For a split second, Erin was pinned to the seat by the sheer weight of her incredulity and her eyes were huge. ‘That’s an outrageous and disgusting lie!’ she slammed back at him, her voice rising half an octave with a volume stirred by simple shock.

‘I have the proof and witnesses,’ Cristo breathed in a tone of cutting finality that brooked no argument, igniting the engine again and filtering the car back onto the main road without batting an eyelash.

‘You can’t have proof and witnesses for something that never happened!’ Erin launched at him furiously. ‘I can’t believe that you can accuse me of something like that—I’ve never stolen anything in my life!’

‘You stole from me,’ Cristo shot back at her with simmering emphasis, his bold bronzed profile hard as iron. ‘You can’t argue with hard evidence.’

Erin was stunned, not only by the accusation coming so long after the event and out of nowhere at her, but by the rock-solid assurance of his conviction in her guilt.

‘I don’t care what evidence you think you’ve got. As it never happened, as I never helped myself to anything I wasn’t entitled to, the evidence can only have been manufactured!’

‘Nothing was manufactured. Face facts. You got greedy and you got caught,’ Cristo asserted grittily. ‘I’d have had you charged with theft if I’d known where to find you but by the time I found out you were long gone.’

Trembling with frustrated fury, every nerve jangling with adrenalin, Erin waited impatiently for him to park outside the nineteen-thirties black and white frontage of the Black’s Inn hotel. Then she wrenched at the handle on the passenger door and leapt out. Cristo watched her through the windscreen, bleakly amused by the angry heat in her shaken face. She was shocked that he had found her out and not surprisingly frantic to convince him that she was as innocent as a newborn lamb of the charges. Naturally she wouldn’t want him to label her a thief with her current employer. Even if she had resisted temptation this time around, mud stuck and no boss could have a faith in a member of staff with such a fatal weakness.

Slowly and with the easy moving fluidity of a natural athlete, Cristo climbed out of the car and locked it.

Erin’s small hands clenched into fists at her side as she squared up to him. ‘We’re going to have this out!’

Infuriatingly in control, Cristo cast her a slumberous glance from below his ridiculously long lashes. ‘Not a good idea in a public place—’

‘We’ll borrow Owen’s office.’ Erin stalked into the hotel and saw the lanky blond manager already on his way out to welcome them. She hurried over to him. ‘We’ll do the tour in ten minutes. Right now we need somewhere private to talk. Could we use your office?’

‘Of course.’ Owen spread the door wide and as she passed him smiled down at her and whispered, ‘By the way, thanks for the heads-up.’

Cristo noticed that friendly little exchange but not its content and wondered at the precise nature of Erin’s relationship with the handsome young manager. Generally she liked older men, Cristo reflected until he recalled the youth barely, if even, into his twenties that he had surprised in her hotel bed and his expressive mouth clenched hard. He recalled Sam Morton’s gushing praise of his beautiful area manager and his derision rose even higher.

He doubted that he’d ever met a man more in a woman’s thrall. Sam thought the sun, the moon and the stars rose on Erin Turner.

Erin closed the door on Cristo’s entry and spun back to him, amethyst eyes dark with anger. ‘I am not a thief, so naturally I want to know exactly why you’re making these allegations.’

He studied her with narrowed eyes. She was breathing fast, her silky top sliding tantalisingly against the rounded bulge of her breasts. Creamy lickable mounds topped by succulent strawberry nipples, he remembered lasciviously, his desire firing at that imagery as a bolt of lust shot through him in a flash, leaving him hard as a rock. What she lacked in height she more than made up for with wonderfully feminine curves. He had loved her body. Even worse, he had dreamt of her passion when he was away from her, craving the unparalleled sexual satisfaction he had yet to find with anyone else.

‘I’m not an idiot,’ Cristo informed her coldly, forcing his keen mind back to a safer pathway. ‘At the Mobila spa, you sold products out of the beauty store on your own behalf, falsified invoices and paid therapists who didn’t exist. Your fraudulent acts netted you something in the region of twenty grand in a comparatively short time frame. How could you think that that level of deceit would go unnoticed?’

‘I am not a thief,’ Erin repeated doggedly although an alarm bell had gone off in her head the instant he mentioned the theft and sale of products from the store.

She knew someone who had done that for she herself had actually caught the woman putting a box of products into her car. Sally, her administrative assistant in the office, whom she had relied on heavily at the time, had been stealing and selling the exclusive items online. Unfortunately Erin had no proof of that fact because she had neither called in the police to handle the matter nor shared the truth that Sally had been stealing with another member of staff. Instead she had sat a distraught Sally down to talk to her. Together the two women had then done a stocktake and Erin had ended up replacing the missing products out of her own pocket. Why? She had felt desperately sorry for the older woman, struggling to cope alone with two autistic children after her husband had walked out on her. But had she only scraped the tip of the iceberg when it came to Sally’s dishonesty? Had Sally even then been engaged in rather more imaginative methods of gaining money by duplicitous means?

‘I have the proof,’ Cristo retorted crisply.

‘And witnesses, you said,’ Erin recalled. ‘Would one of those witnesses be Sally Jennings?’

His lean strong face tightened and she knew she had hit a nerve. ‘You can’t talk or charm your way out of this, Erin—’

‘I’m not interested in charming you. I’m not the same woman I was when we were together,’ Erin countered curtly, for what he had done to her had toughened her. There was nothing like surviving an unhappy love affair to build self-knowledge and character, she reckoned painfully. He had broken her heart, taught her how fragile she was, left her bitter and humiliated. But she had had to pick herself up again fast once she discovered that she was pregnant. Choice and self-pity hadn’t come into that challenging equation.

Erin stared back at him, pale amethyst eyes searching his darkly handsome features, blocking her instinctive response to that beautiful bone structure. Had he truly not read a single one of her letters? What had happened to human curiosity? Her phone calls had gone unanswered and his PA had told her she was wasting her time phoning because Cristo wouldn’t accept a call from her. Even when she had got desperate enough to call his family home in Greece she had run into a brick wall erected by his spiteful foster mother, who had proudly told her that Cristo was getting married and wanted nothing more to do with, ‘a woman like her’. As if she were some trollop Cristo had picked up in the street for a night of sex, rather than the woman who had been his constant companion for a year.

Although, perhaps it hadn’t been his foster mother’s fault. After all, while she might have seen herself in the light of a serious relationship, it was clear that Cristo had seen her entirely differently. He had never let her meet his family and, even though he’d known that she wanted him to meet her mother, he had found it inconvenient every time she’d tried to set up even a casual encounter. She might have been part of his private life but he had walled her off from everyone else in it, for she had only occasionally met his friends and never again after the evening when one of his mates had made a point of commenting on how long he had been with Erin.

‘I think you’ll change your tune once you appreciate how few choices you have,’ Cristo responded softly. ‘Now let’s view the facilities here. I have a tight schedule.’

Her mouth tightening, she followed him out of the office. How did he expect her to change her tune? Certainly, he hadn’t listened to a word she’d said. Had Sally Jennings lied about her? What else could she think? Had her abrupt departure from her job at the Mobila spa played right into the older woman’s hands when the irregularities were exposed by the accounting team? Change her tune? What had he meant by that comment? Her brain engaged in working out what she could possibly do to combat such allegations, Erin realised that she would have to see the evidence he had mentioned to work out her own defence and how to nail the real culprit. Had she been a total idiot to let Sally off the hook when she caught her stealing? She was appalled that her sympathetic and supportive treatment of the older woman might have been repaid with lies calculated to make Erin look guilty in her place. Confronting Sally, appealing to her conscience—if she had one—might well be the only course she could take. But what had Cristo meant about choices?

Owen brimmed with enthusiasm as he showed them round the spa, describing the latest improvements and special offers as well as the upsurge in custom that had resulted. He finished by offering them coffee but Cristo demurred, pleading time constraints as he whisked Erin back out to the car and angled it back out onto the road to make their last call. Brackens was Sam’s most exclusive property. A Victorian house set in wooded surroundings, it was very popular with couples in search of a romantic weekend and the spa was run as a member’s only club.

Erin watched Mia, the elegant brunette in her thirties who managed Brackens, melt at Cristo’s first smile and allowed the knowledgeable manager to do most of the talking as she showed them round her impressive domain. Erin was struggling to concentrate on the job at hand. There was too much else on her bemused mind. So, for almost three years, Cristo had been under the impression that she had stolen a fat wad of cash from him. Why hadn’t he contacted her? Why had he virtually let it go instead of informing the police? Cristo never let people get away with doing the dirty on him. He was a man few would wish to cross but he did reward loyal, hardworking staff with generous bonuses and opportunities.

Watching Mia laugh flirtatiously with Cristo made Erin feel slightly nauseous. She could recall when she had been even more impressionable. One glance at that lean dark face of sharp angles and creative hollows and those stunning black diamond eyes and she had been enamoured, her interest caught, her body humming with unfamiliar thrills. Her wariness with men, her long hours of study while others partied, had made her more than usually vulnerable for a young woman of twenty-one. She slammed down hard on the memory, awarding Cristo a veiled glance when he ushered her back to his Bugatti with a fleeting remark on her quietness.

‘May I go home now?’ she enquired as he turned the sports car.

‘We’re having dinner together at my hotel,’ Cristo informed her. ‘We have things to talk about.’

‘I have nothing to talk to you about. Sam does his own negotiating,’ Erin volunteered drily. ‘I’m just the hired help.’

‘If rumour is to be believed, you’re not just anything when it comes to Sam Morton.’

Erin went rigid in the passenger seat at the suggestion. ‘Do you listen to rumours?’

‘You slept with me while I was employing you,’ Cristo reminded her without heat.

Her teeth ground together. For two pins she would have slapped him. ‘That’s different. We were already involved when I began working for you.’

Cristo compressed his beautifully shaped mouth, his thoughts taking him back even though he didn’t want to go there. He had never had to work so hard to get a woman into bed. Her elusiveness, her surprising inhibitions had heightened his desire, persuaded him that she was different. Yes, she had been different, she had lined her pockets at his expense throughout their affair, he recalled grimly. She had taken him for a fool just as she was taking Morton.

‘Sam and I are only friends—’

His eloquent mouth quirked. ‘The same sort of friendship you had with that other friend of yours, Tom?’

Erin stiffened, remembering how suspicious Cristo had become of her fondness for Tom’s company towards the end of their affair. ‘Not as familiar. Sam’s from a different generation.’

Tom was a mate from her university days, more like a brother than anything else and still an appreciated part of Erin’s life. Unfortunately Cristo didn’t believe that platonic friendships could exist and Erin had eventually given up trying to convince him otherwise, reasoning that she was entitled to her own friends regardless of his opinions.

‘Morton’s old enough to be your grandfather—’

‘Which is why there’s nothing else between us,’ Erin slotted in flatly. ‘I’m not sleeping with Sam.’

‘He’s besotted with you. I don’t believe you,’ Cristo framed succinctly.

‘That’s your prerogative.’ Erin dug out her mobile phone and tapped out her home number.

Her mother answered. In the background she could hear a child crying. Lorcan, she guessed. Her son sounded tired and cross and her heart clenched, for she felt guilty that she couldn’t be there with him. It hurt that she got to spend so little time with her children during the week and she cherished her weekends with the twins when she tried to make up for her absence during working hours.

‘I’m sorry but I’ll be late home tonight,’ she told Deidre Turner.

‘Why? What are you doing?’ the older woman asked.

‘I have some work to deal with before I can leave.’

Tight-lipped and knowing she still had a maternal interrogation to face, Erin put her phone back in her bag. The very last thing she could afford to tell her parent was that Cristo had reappeared in her life. She would never hear the end of it, much as she had yet to hear the end of the reproaches about bringing two children into the world without first having acquired a wedding ring on her finger. But she didn’t blame her mother for her attitude. Educated in a convent school by nuns and deeply devout, Deidre had somewhat rigid views. At the same time, however, she was a very loving and caring grandmother and Erin could not have coped as a single parent without the older woman’s support.

‘I still don’t know what this is about,’ Erin complained as Cristo parked outside the foremost hotel in the area. ‘I didn’t steal from you three years ago but until you give me more facts I can’t defend myself.’

‘One of the transactions was traced right back to your bank account. Don’t waste your time trying to plead innocence,’ Cristo shot back at her very drily.

‘I don’t want to have dinner with you. It’s not like we parted on good terms,’ Erin reminded him doggedly.

Cristo climbed gracefully out of the car. ‘It’s like this. Either you dine with me and we talk or I go straight to your boss with my file on your thefts.’

He spoke so levelly, so unemotionally that for several taut seconds Erin could not quite accept that he had threatened her without turning a hair. The blood drained from below her fair skin and she froze until she recognised that he had given her a choice. She could tell him to take his precious file of supposed evidence and put it where the sun didn’t shine. She could call his bluff. But, unhappily for her, she knew Cristophe Donakis and she knew what he was capable of.

He didn’t bluff and he was very determined. He would push to the limits and beyond to gain a desired result. He was tough, sufficiently volatile to be downright dangerous and a merciless enemy. If Cristo truly believed that she had stolen from him, he would not settle until he had punished her for her offence.

For the first time in a very long time, Erin felt utterly helpless. She had too much at stake to risk her children’s future. She had worked very hard to get to where she was and she would fight just as hard to retain it …


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