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Грэхем Линн

The Secrets She Carried

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ERIN walked into the cloakroom of the hotel and ran her wrists below the cold water tap until the panicked thump of her heartbeat seemed to slow to a tolerable level. Get a grip on yourself, she told her tense reflection as she dried her hands. Why should Cristo come back into her life now and try to wreck it? On his part it would be a pointless exercise …

Unless he was after revenge. At the vanity counter she tidied her hair and noticed with annoyance that her hands were no longer steady. He had already contrived to wind her up like a clockwork toy, firing all her self-defence mechanisms into override. And she needed to watch out because panic would make her stupid and careless. She breathed in slow and deep, fighting to stay calm. He didn’t know about the children so evidently he had not read a single one of her letters. Had he known about the twins he would have left her in peace, she was convinced of it. What man went out of his way to dig up trouble?

Cristo did, a little voice piped up warningly at the back of her head, and all of a sudden time was taking her back to their first encounter.

At the time Erin was employed in her first job as a deputy manager at a council leisure centre. Elaine, one of her university friends, was from a wealthy home and her father had bought her an apartment in an exclusive building. When Elaine realised what a struggle Erin was having trying to find decent accommodation on a budget, she had offered Erin her box room, a space barely large enough for a single bed with storage beneath. But Erin hadn’t cared how small the room was, she had enjoyed having Elaine’s company, not to mention daily access to the residents’ fancy leisure complex on the ground floor.

Erin had always been a keen swimmer and had won so many trophies for her school that she could have aspired to an athletic career had her parents been of a different ilk. Regretfully, in spite of her coach’s efforts at persuasion, Erin’s parents had been unwilling to commit to the time and cost of supporting a serious training schedule for their talented daughter. However, Erin still loved the sport and swam as often as she could.

The first time she had seen Cristo he had been scything up and down the pool with the sleek flow of a shark. His technique had been lazy, his speed moderate, she had noted, overtaking him without effort as she pursued her usual vigorous workout.

‘Race me!’ he had challenged when he caught up with her.

And she still recalled those dark deep-set gorgeous eyes, gleaming like polished bronze, electrifying in his lean, darkly handsome features.

‘I’ll beat you,’ she warned him ruefully. ‘Can you take that?’

The dark golden eyes had flashed as though she had lit a fire inside him. ‘Bring it on …’ he had urged.

And just like him, she had loved the challenge, skimming through the water with the firing power of a bullet, beating him to the finish line and turning to cherish his look of disbelief. Afterwards she had hauled herself out of the water and he had followed suit, straightening his lean powerful length to tower over her diminutive frame, water streaming down over his six-pack abs, drawing her attention to his superb muscular development. It was possibly the very first time that she had ever seriously noticed a man’s body.

‘You’re tiny. How the hell did you beat me?’ he demanded incredulously.

‘I’m a good swimmer.’

‘We have to have a retrial, koukla mou.’

‘OK, same time Wednesday night but I warn you I train every day and your technique is sloppy—’

‘Sloppy …’ Cristo repeated in accented disbelief, an ebony brow quirking. ‘If I wasn’t tired, I’d have beaten you hollow!’

Erin laughed. ‘Sure you would,’ she agreed peaceably, knowing what the male ego was like.

He extended a lean brown hand. ‘I’m Cristophe Donakis … I’ll see you Wednesday and I’ll whip your hide.’

‘I don’t think so,’ she told him cheerfully.

‘Cristophe Donakis? You met Cristophe in the residents’ pool where us ordinary people swim?’ Elaine later gasped in consternation. ‘What on earth was he doing there? He owns the penthouse and he has a private pool on the roof.’

‘Well, he was slumming this evening. Who is he?’

‘A spoilt rotten Greek tycoon and playboy with pots of money and a different woman on the go every week. I’ve seen him taking them up there in the lift. He’s very fond of decorative beauties. Stay clear. He’d gobble you up like a mid-morning snack,’ Elaine warned her drily.

But that same night the recollection of Cristo’s flawless male perfection got Erin all hot and bothered in her dreams and she marvelled that he could have that effect on her, for her strict upbringing had made her reserved and wary about all things sexual. Even at a glance she had recognised that Cristophe Donakis was a very sexual animal. On the Wednesday she beat him a second time, albeit with a little more effort on her part.

‘Join me for a drink,’ he suggested afterwards, his hungry gaze wandering at leisure over her slim curves in the plain black and red suit she wore, rising to linger on her soft full mouth, the sexual charge of his interest blatant and bringing self-conscious colour to her cheeks.

‘No, thanks.’ Fear of getting out of her depth and of somehow making a fool of herself made Erin especially cautious

‘A rematch, then … third time lucky?’ he prompted, amusement dancing in his stunning eyes below the fringe of black curling lashes.

‘My flatmate tells me you have your own pool.’

‘It’s in the process of being replaced. Rematch?’ he pressed again, pure challenge gleaming in those bronzed eyes. ‘The next time the loser buys dinner. Give me your phone number and we’ll arrange a date for it. I’m about to leave for the US for a week.’

She admired his persistence and had never been able to resist a dare. The third time he beat her, punching the air with uninhibited triumph. And that was also the moment she fell for Cristo, loving the naturally dramatic streak that he kept concealed below the surface in favour of cool assurance and the gloriously wicked grin that could burnish his hard dark features with adorably boyish enthusiasm.

She fed him in an American-style diner down the street in the sort of basic unsophisticated setting that she could tell was unfamiliar to him, but he proved a good sport and an entertaining raconteur, who drew her out about her job and her ambitions. He assumed that she would accompany him back to his apartment after the meal, looked at her in frank surprise when she refused, for he was very much a male accustomed to easy conquests. After that rebuff it took him two whole weeks to phone her again.

‘He’ll hurt you,’ Elaine forecast. ‘He’s too handsome, too rich, too arrogant. You’re very down to earth. What have you got in common with a guy like that?’

And the answer was … nothing. But like a moth drawn to a candle flame she had refused to acknowledge the obvious and eventually she had got burned, badly enough burned to avoid getting involved ever since. From time to time other men had made a play for her but she had resisted, reluctant to entertain such a complication in her life. In any case living under the same roof as her mother was almost as good as wearing a chastity belt, she reflected with sheepish amusement.

Cristo was already seated in the elegant restaurant. He levered upright as she approached, his keen dark gaze welded to her delicate features. She looked like an angel, fragile, pure, amethyst eyes luminous as jewels in her heart-shaped face. He noticed the other men following her progress and the seductive image of her spread across his silk sheets flashed through his head, instantly hardening him. He marvelled at the effect she had on him even though he knew that she was both dishonest and untrustworthy, a thoughtless, foolish little slut below the patina of that perfection. No truly clever woman would have tossed him and what he could buy her away for the cheap thrill of a casual encounter and what he considered to be a paltry sum of money.

Erin felt the heat of his appraisal and flushed, her spine stiffening, her bone structure tightening as she exerted fierce self-discipline. Willing herself not to react, she sat down and immediately lifted the menu to peruse it. She picked a single course, told him that she didn’t want any wine and sat as straight as a child told to sit properly at table.

‘So, tell me what you want and get it over with,’ she suggested, eager to take charge of the conversation rather than sit there quailing like a victim.

His dark golden eyes rested on the hands she had clasped together on the table top and his beautiful mouth took on a sardonic twist. ‘I want you,’ he countered levelly.

Her smooth brow indented. ‘In what way?’

Cristo laughed, raw amusement lightening his stunning eyes to a shade somewhere between amber and honey. ‘In the most obvious way that a man wants a woman.’

But she couldn’t credit that, for hadn’t he ditched her and moved on to marry an exceptionally beautiful Greek woman, a socialite called Lisandra, within weeks of their split? She hadn’t been able to hold him then, hadn’t been important enough to him to retain his interest. He had moved on with his life without her at breathtaking speed. Now he was divorced and it was mean of her to reflect that his marriage had barely lasted long enough for the ink to dry on the licence. Maybe he had got bored with his wife and being married in the same way that he had got bored with Erin. Maybe he didn’t have what it took to really care about any woman.

‘That’s the price of my silence,’ Cristo drawled smooth as silk.

Blackmail? Erin was shocked, so shocked that her teeth settled into the soft underside of her lower lip and she tasted the faint coppery tang of blood in her mouth. ‘The silence relating to this supposed thieving you believe me to be guilty of—’

Know you to be guilty of,’ Cristo traded.

‘You can’t possibly be serious,’ Erin breathed tightly.

Lean bronzed face radiating raw assurance, Cristo ran a lean brown forefinger down over the back of her hand and every skin cell in her body leapt into tingling awareness. ‘Why would you think that? We had a very good time between the sheets.’

Assailed by unwelcome memories, Erin went rigid but that fast, still shockingly attuned to a certain dark intimate note in his deep drawl, her body reacted. Inside her bra, her breasts swelled, her nipples tightening into prominent points, and her breath rasped in her tight throat. She blinked, lashes lowering, shutting out the hot dark golden gaze pinned to her. He could still get to her and that shocked her but was it so surprising? She had lived like a nun since her children were born, grateful just to have a job and a roof over her head in the wake of the struggle to survive while she was pregnant and unemployed. A good time.

That phrase cheapened her, made light of what she had once believed they had shared. Was a good time all she had been? Or was the very fact that he was back in her life, trying to force her to give him her time and her body again, proof that she had actually meant something more to him? It was a heady suspicion. Not that she still cared about him, she reflected, but like any woman she had her pride.

‘So what are you suggesting?’ Erin queried, resolving to play him along for a while until she better understood her position. ‘Are you asking me to come back to you?’

Na pas sto dialo … go to hell!’ Cristo growled, incredulity flashing across his spectacular bone structure at that explosive suggestion. ‘I’m talking about one weekend.’

Her delicate face froze tight. She felt the painful sting of that contempt right down to her marrow bone and inwardly swore that somehow, some way, some day he would pay for insulting her like that. Had the waiter not arrived with their meals she could not have trusted herself not to say something unwise. Forced to hold her tongue, she studied her plate fixedly, her hackles raised, bitterness poisoning her. How dared he? How dared he treat her like some hooker he could rent for an hour or two?


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