In Petrakis's Power
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‘Sleep together?’ he drawled softly.
Anxious not to come across as hopelessly inexperienced and naive to someone who was clearly an accomplished and polished man of the world and about as far out of her reach socially as the earth was from the planet Jupiter, Natalie bit into her sandwich and quickly stirred some sugar into her coffee.
‘This is good,’ she murmured. ‘I didn’t realise how hungry I was. But then I suppose it’s because I didn’t have any breakfast this morning.’
‘You should always endeavour to eat breakfast.’
‘That’s what my mum says.’
‘You told me earlier that she was from Crete?’
The less tricky question alleviated her previous embarrassment a little. Even though she had only visited the country a couple of times, she’d grown up on her mother’s enchanting tales of her childhood homeland, and she would happily talk about Greece until the cows came home. ‘That’s right. Have you been there?’
‘I have. It is a very beautiful island.’
‘I’ve only been there a couple of times but I’d love to go again.’ Her grey eyes shone. ‘But somehow or other, time passes and work and other commitments inevitably get in the way.’
‘You must have a demanding career?’
Natalie smiled. ‘It’s hardly a career, but I’m extremely glad that I chose it. My mum and I run a small but busy bed and breakfast together.’
‘And what do you enjoy most about the enterprise? The day-to-day practicalities, such as greeting guests, making beds and cooking meals? Or do you perhaps like running the business side of things?’
Privately she confessed to being inspired to do what she did because her dad had run an extremely successful hotel business. As she’d grown older she’d picked up some useful tips from him along the way, in spite of the eventual dissolution of her parents’ marriage.
‘A bit of both, really,’ she replied. ‘But it’s my mum that does most of the meeting and greeting. She’s the most sublime hostess and cook, and the guests just adore her. Taking care of the business side of things and making sure that everything runs smoothly is my responsibility. I suppose it comes more naturally to me than to her.’
Ludo’s compelling sapphire-coloured eyes crinkled at the corners. ‘So … you like being in charge?’
The comment instigated an unsettling sensation of vague embarrassment. Did he perhaps think that she was boasting? ‘Does that make me sound bossy and controlling?’ she quizzed him.
Her handsome companion shook his head, ‘Not at all. Why be defensive about an ability to take charge when a situation calls for it … especially in business? A going concern could hardly be successful if someone didn’t take the reins. In my view it is a very admirable and desirable asset.’
‘Thanks.’ Even as she shyly acknowledged the unexpected compliment it suddenly dawned on Natalie that Ludo had revealed very little about himself. Yet he had somehow got her to divulge quite a lot about her own life.
Was he a psychologist, perhaps? Judging by his extremely confident manner and expensive clothing, whatever profession he was in it must earn him a fortune.She realised that she really wanted to know a bit more about him. What sentient woman wouldn’t be interested in such a rivetingly attractive man? Maybe it was time she turned the tables and asked him some questions.
‘Do you mind if I ask you what you do for a living?’ she ventured.
Ludo blinked. Then he stared straight ahead of him for seemingly interminable seconds, before finally turning his head and gifting her with one of his magnetically compelling smiles. Her heart jumped as she found her glance irretrievably captured and taken hostage.
‘My business is diverse. I have interests in many different things, Natalie.’
‘So you run a business?’
He shrugged disconcertingly. Why was he being so cagey? Did he think she was hitting on him because he was wealthy? The very idea made her squirm—especially when he had displayed such rare kindness in paying for her train ticket. Not one in a thousand people would have been so generous towards a complete stranger, she was sure.
‘I would rather not spoil this unexpectedly enjoyable train journey with you by discussing what I do,’ he explained. ‘Besides … I would much rather talk about you.’
‘I’ve already told you what I do.’
‘But what you do, Natalie, is not who you are. I would like to know a little bit more about your life … the things that interest you and why.’
She flushed. Such a bold and unexpected declaration briefly struck her dumb, and coupled with the admission that he was enjoying travelling with her, it made her feel strangely weak with pleasure. The last time she could recall feeling a similar pleasure was when she’d had her first kiss from a boy at school she’d had a massive crush on. Her interest in him hadn’t lasted for more than a few months, but she’d never forgotten the tingle of fierce excitement the kiss had given her. It had been tender and innocently explorative, and she remembered it fondly.
Threading her fingers through her long, gently mussed hair, she lowered her gaze and immediately felt strangely bereft of Ludo’s crystalline blue glance. What would a kiss from his lips feel like? It certainly wouldn’t be like an inexperienced schoolboy’s.
Disturbed by the thought, she drew in a steadying breath. ‘If you mean my favourite pastimes or hobbies, I’m sure if I told you what they were you’d think them quite ordinary and boring.’
‘Try me,’ he invited with a smile.
Natalie almost said out loud, When you look at me like that I can’t think of a single thing I like except the dimples in your carved cheekbones when you smile.
Shocked by the intensity of heat that washed through her at the private admission, she briefly glanced away to compose herself. ‘I enjoy simple pleasures, like reading and going to the cinema. I just love watching a good film that takes me away from the worries and concerns of my own life and transports me into the story of someone else’s … especially if it’s uplifting. I also love listening to music and taking long walks in the countryside or on the beach.’
‘I find none of those interests either boring or ordinary,’ Ludo replied, the edges of his finely sculpted lips nudging the wryest of smiles. ‘Besides, sometimes the most ordinary things in life—the things we may take for granted—can be the best. Don’t you agree? I only wish I had more time to enjoy some of the pleasures that you mention myself.’
‘Why can’t you free up some time so that you can? Do you have to be so busy all of the time?’
Frowning deeply, he seemed to consider the question for an unsettlingly long time. His perusal of Natalie while he was mulling over her question bordered on intense. Flustered, she averted her gaze to check the time on her watch.
‘We’ll soon be arriving in London,’ she announced, reaching over to the window seat for her bag and delving into it for a pen and something to write on. ‘Do you think you could give me your full name and address now, so I can send you the money for my ticket?’
‘We might as well wait until we disembark.’
He bit into his sandwich, as if certain she wouldn’t give him an argument. She wanted to insist, but in the end decided not to. What difference could it possibly make to take his address now or later, as long as she got it? ‘Never a borrower or a lender be,’ her mother had always told her. ‘And always pay your debts.’
Instead of adding any further comment, Natalie fell into a reflective silence. Observing that she wasn’t eating her lunch, Ludo frowned, and the gesture brought two deep furrows to his otherwise silkily smooth brow.
‘Finish your food,’ he advised. ‘If you haven’t had any breakfast you’ll need it. Especially if you face a difficult meeting with your father.’
‘I mean emotional. If his health has deteriorated then your discussion will not be easy for either of you.’
The comment made a jolt of fear scissor through her heart. She was genuinely afraid that her dad’s urgent need to see her was to tell her he’d received a serious diagnosis from the doctor. They’d had their ups and downs over the years but she still adored him, and would hate for him to be taken from her when he had only just turned sixty.
‘You’re right. No doubt it will be emotional.’ She gave him a self-conscious smile and chewed thoughtfully on her sandwich.
‘I’m sure that whatever happens the two of you will find great reassurance in each other’s company.’
The sudden ring of Ludo’s mobile instantly commanded his attention. After a brief acknowledgement to the caller, he covered the speaker with his hand and turned back to Natalie.
‘I’m afraid I need to take this call. I’m going to step outside into the corridor for a few minutes.’
As he rose to his feet she was taken aback to see how tall he was … at least six foot two, she mused. The impressive physique beneath the flawless Italian tailoring hinted at an athletically lean and muscular build, and she couldn’t help staring up at him in admiration. Concerned that she might resemble a besotted teenager, staring open-mouthed at a pop idol, she forced herself to relax and nod her head in acknowledgement.
‘Please, go ahead.’
As the automatic twin doors of the compartment swished open Ludo turned to her for a moment and, with a disconcerting twinkle in his eye, said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t run away, Natalie … will you?’
‘I ASSUME THAT all the papers are ready?’
Even as he asked the question Ludo rapidly assessed the detailed information he’d been given, turning it over in his mind with the usual rapier-like thoroughness that enabled him to dive into every corner and crevice of a situation all at once and miss nothing.
At the other end of the line, his personal assistant Nick confirmed that everything was as it should be. Rubbing a hand round his clean-shaven, chiselled jaw, Ludo enquired ‘And you’ve scheduled the meeting for tomorrow, as I asked?’
‘Yes, I have. I told the client that he and his lawyer should come to the office at ten forty-five, just as you instructed.’
‘And you’ve obviously notified Godrich, my own man?’
‘Good. It sounds like you’ve taken care of everything. I’ll see you back at the office some time this afternoon to give the papers a final once-over. Bye for now.’
When he’d concluded the call Ludo leant his back against the panelled wall of the train corridor, trying in vain to calm the uncharacteristic nerves that were fluttering like a swarm of intoxicated butterflies in the pit of his stomach. It wasn’t the call or its contents that had perturbed him. Finalising deals and acquiring potentially lucrative businesses that had fallen on hard times was meat and drink to him, and he was famed for quickly turning his new acquisitions into veins of easily flowing gold. It was how he had made his fortune.
No, the reason for his current disquiet was his engaging fellow passenger. How could a mere slip of a girl, with the reed-slim figure of a prima ballerina, long brown hair and big grey eyes like twin sunlit pools, electrify him as if he’d been plugged into the National Grid?
He shook his head. She wasn’t anything like the voluptuous blondes and redheads that he was usually attracted to, and yet there was something irresistibly engaging about her. In fact, from the moment Ludo had heard the sound of her soft voice she had all but seduced him … Even more surprising than that, what were the odds that she should turn out to be half-Greek? The synchronicity stunned him.
Distractedly staring down at several missed messages on his phone, he impatiently flicked off the screen and gazed out of the window at the scenery that was hurtling by instead. The mixture of old and new industrial buildings and the now familiar twenty-first-century constructions rising high into the skyline heralded the fact that they were fast approaching the city. It was time he made up his mind about whether or not he wanted to act on the intense attraction that had gripped him and decide what to do about it. It was clear that the lovely Natalie was in earnest about reimbursing him for her train ticket, but he was naturally wary of giving his home address to strangers … however charming and pretty.
Although she’d transfixed him from the moment she’d stepped breathlessly into the first-class compartment and he’d scented the subtle but arresting tones of her mandarin and rose perfume, it wasn’t in his nature to make snap decisions. While he was a great believer in following strong impulses in his business life, he wasn’t so quick to apply the same method to his romantic liaisons. Sexual desire could be dangerously misleading, he’d found. It might be tempting as far as satisfying his healthy libido, but not if it turned into a headache he could well do without.
Sadly, he’d had a few of those in his time. He didn’t mind treating his dates to beautiful haute couture clothing or exquisite jewellery from time to time, but Ludo had discovered to his cost that the fairer sex always wanted so much more than he was willing to give. More often than not, top of the list of what they wanted was a proposal of marriage. Even his vast wealth couldn’t cushion him from the disagreeable inevitability of another broken relationship because the woman concerned had developed certain expectations of him … expectations that he definitely wasn’t ready to fulfil. No matter how much his beloved family reminded him that it was about time he settled down with someone.
His mother’s greatest desire was to become a grandmother. At thirty-six, and her only son, Ludo seemed to be constantly disappointing her because he wasn’t any closer to fulfilling her wish. She was desperate for him to meet a suitable girl—’suitable’ meaning someone who she and his father approved of. But it wasn’t easy to meet genuinely caring and loving women who desired a relationship and children more than wealth and position, he’d found. And when his wealth and reputation preceded him it was apt to attract the very kind of shallow, ambitious women he should avoid.
Frankly, Ludo was heartily tired of that particular unhappy merry-go-round. The truth was, in his heart he yearned to find a soulmate—if such a creature even existed—someone warm and intelligent, with a good sense of humour and a genuinely kind disposition. He returned his thoughts to Natalie. If he embarked on a relationship with her and she should learn that he was as rich as a modern-day Croesus and counted some of the most influential business people in Europe as his friends, then he would never be sure that she was dating him for himself and not his money. Already he’d inadvertently let slip that he lived in the affluent area of Winter Lake. But then she must surely guess he wasn’t short of money if he was travelling first class and could spontaneously pay for her ticket?
Regarding the ticket she’d lost, she’d told him that her father had sent it to her. Was he a wealthy man? Surely he must be. If that was the case then the pretty Natalie must have been used to a certain level of comfort before her parents had divorced. Would she be holding out for someone equally wealthy—if not more so—in a relationship?
Frowning, Ludo quickly decided it would make sense to ask for her phone number if he wanted to see her again, rather than give her his address. That way he would be the one in control of the situation, and if he should glean at any time that she was a gold-digger then he would drop her like a hot potato. Meanwhile, they could meet up for a drink while she was in London under the perfectly legitimate excuse of his allowing her to settle her debt. If after that things progressed satisfactorily between them, then Ludo would be only too happy to supply more personal information, such as his full address.
Feeling satisfied with his decision, he exhaled a sigh, briefly tunnelled his fingers through his floppily perfect hair, and slipped his mobile into the silk-lined pocket of his jacket. Before depressing the button that opened the automatic doors into the first-class compartment he stole a surreptitious glance through the glass at the slender, doe-eyed brunette who was gazing out of the window with her chin in her hand, as if daydreaming. His lips automatically curved into a smile. He couldn’t help anticipating her willing agreement to meet up with him for a date. What reason could she possibly have not to?
‘I don’t understand. You’re saying you want to meet me for a drink?’
Blinking in disbelief at the imposing Adonis who was surveying her with a wry twist of his carved lips as they stood together on the busy station platform, Natalie convinced herself she must have become hard of hearing. Ludo’s surprising suggestion sounded very much as if he was inviting her out on a date. But why on earth would he do such a thing? It just didn’t make sense. Perhaps she’d simply got the wrong end of the stick.
Practically every other woman who’d disembarked from the train was stealing covetous glances over her shoulder at the handsome and stylishly dressed man standing in front of her as she hurried by, she noticed. No doubt they were privately wondering why a girl as unremarkable as herself should capture his attention for so much as a second. Her heart skipped one or two anxious beats.
‘Yes, I do,’ he replied.
His jaw firmed and his blue eyes shimmered enigmatically. For Natalie, meeting such an arresting glance was like standing in the eye of a sultry tropical storm—it shook her as the wind shook a fragile sapling, threatening to uproot it. She held her voluminous red leather bag over her chest, as though it were some kind of protective shield, and couldn’t help frowning. Instead of sending her self-esteem soaring, Ludo’s suggestion that they meet up for a drink had had the opposite effect on her confidence. It hardly helped that in faded jeans and a floral print gypsy-style blouse she felt singularly dowdy next to him in his expensive Italian tailoring.
‘Why?’ she asked. ‘I only asked for your address so that I can send you the money for my train fare. You’ve already indicated that you’re a very busy man, so why would you go to all the trouble of meeting up with me instead of simply letting me post you a cheque?’
Her companion shook his head bemusedly, as if he couldn’t fathom what must be, to him, a very untypical response. Natalie guessed he wasn’t used to women turning him down for anything.
‘Aside from allowing you to personally pay me back for the ticket, I’d like to see you again, Natalie,’ he stated seriously. ‘Did such a possibility not occur to you? After all, you indicated to me on the train that you were a free agent … remember?’
Unfortunately, she had. She’d confessed she didn’t have a boyfriend when Ludo had assumed that if she had he must be too polite to tell her that she snored in her sleep. She blushed so hard at the memory that her delicate skin felt as if she stood bare inches from a roaring fire.
Adjusting her bag, she endeavoured to meet the steady, unwavering gaze that was so uncomfortably searing her. ‘Are you a free agent?’ she challenged. ‘For all I know you could be married with six children.’
He tipped back his head and released a short, heartfelt laugh. Never before had the sound of a man’s amusement brushed so sensually over her nerve-endings—as though he had stroked down her bare skin with the softest, most delicate feather. Out of the blue, a powerful ache to see him again infiltrated her blood and wouldn’t be ignored … even if he did inhabit an entirely different stratosphere from her.
‘I can assure you that I am neither married nor the father of six children. I told you before that I’ve been far too busy for that. Don’t you believe me?’
Ludo’s expression had become serious once more. Conscious of the now diminishing crowd leaving the train, and realising with relief that they were no longer the focus of unwanted interest, Natalie shrugged.
‘All I’ll say is that I hope you’re telling me the truth. Honesty is really important to me. All right, then. When do you want us to meet?’
‘How long do you think you’ll be in London?’
‘Probably a couple of days at most … that is unless my dad needs me around for longer.’ Once again she was unable to control the tremor of fear in her voice at the thought that her father might be seriously ill. To stop from dwelling on the subject, and to prevent any uncomfortable quizzing from Ludo, she smiled and added quickly, ‘I’ll just have to wait and see, won’t I?’
‘If you are only going to be staying in town for a couple of days, that doesn’t give us very much time. That being the case, I think we should meet up tomorrow evening, don’t you?’ There was an unexpected glint of satisfied expectation in his eyes. ‘I can book us a table at Claridges. What time would suit you best?’
‘The restaurant, you mean? I thought you said we were only meeting for a drink?’
‘Don’t you eat in the evenings?’
‘Of course, but—’
‘Eight o’clock it is, then. Let me have your mobile number so I can ring you if I’m going to be delayed.’
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