In Petrakis's Power
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Her brow puckering, Natalie was thoughtful. ‘Okay, I’ll give it to you. But don’t forget it might be me who’s delayed or can’t make it if my dad isn’t well … in which case you’d better let me have your number.’
With another one of his enigmatic smiles, Ludo acquiesced unhesitatingly.
She’d never got used to a doorman letting her into the rather grand Victorian building where her father’s luxurious flat was situated. It made her feel like an audacious usurper pretending to be someone important.
The contrast between how her parents lived was like night and day. Her mother was a conscientious and devoted home-maker who enjoyed the simple and natural things in life, while her father was a real hedonist who loved material things perhaps a little too much. Although undoubtedly hard-working, he had a tendency to be quite reckless with his money.
Now, as she found herself travelling up to the topmost floor in the lift, Natalie refused to dwell on that. Instead she found herself growing more and more uneasy at what he might be going to tell her.
When Bill Carr opened the door to greet her, straight away his appearance seemed to confirm her worst suspicions. She was shocked at how much he’d aged since she’d last seen him. It had only been three months, but the change in him was so marked it might as well have been three years. He was a tall, handsome, distinguished-looking man, with a penchant for traditionally tailored Savile Row suits, and his still abundant silver-grey hair was always impeccably cut and styled … but not today. Today it was messy and in dire need of attention. His white shirt was crumpled and unironed and his pinstriped trousers looked as if he’d slept in them.
With alarm Natalie noticed that he carried a crystal tumbler that appeared to have a generous amount of whisky in it. The reek of alcohol when he opened his mouth to greet her confirmed it.
‘Natalie! Thank God you’re here, sweetheart. I was going out of my mind, thinking that you weren’t going to come.’
He flung an arm round her and pulled her head down onto his chest. Natalie dropped her bag to the ground and did her utmost to relax. Instinct told her that whatever had made her father seek solace in strong drink must be more serious than she’d thought.
Lifting her head she endeavoured to make her smile reassuring. ‘I’d never have let you down, Dad.’ Reaching up, she planted an affectionate kiss on his unshaven cheek as the faintest whiff of his favourite aftershave mingled with the incongruous and far less appealing smell of whisky.
‘Did you have a good journey?’ he asked, reaching over her shoulder to push the door shut behind her.
‘I did, thanks. It was really nice to travel first class, but you shouldn’t have gone to such unnecessary expense, Dad.’
Even as she spoke Natalie couldn’t help but recall her meeting with Ludo, and the fact that he’d stumped up the money for her ticket when he’d heard her explain to the guard that she’d lost hers.His name was short for Ludovic, he’d told her. For a few seconds she lost herself in a helpless delicious reverie. The name was perfect. She really liked it … she liked it a lot. There was an air of mystery about the sound of it … a bit like its owner. They hadn’t exchanged surnames but every second of their time together on the train was indelibly imprinted on her mind, never to be forgotten. Particularly his cultured, sexy voice and those extraordinarily beautiful sapphire-blue eyes of his. Her heart jumped when she nervously recalled her agreement to meet him for dinner tomorrow …
‘I’ve always wanted to give you the best of everything, sweetheart … and that didn’t change when your mother and I split up. Is she well, by the way?’
Her father’s curiously intense expression catapulted her back to the present, and Natalie saw the pain that he still carried over the break-up with his wife. Her mouth dried uncomfortably as she privately empathised with the loss that clearly still haunted him.
‘Yes, she’s very well. She asked me to tell you that she hopes you’re doing well too.’
He grimaced and shrugged. ‘She’s a good woman, your mother. The best woman I ever knew. It’s a crying shame I didn’t appreciate her more when we were together. As to your comment that she hopes I’m doing well … It near kills me to have to admit this, darling, but I’m afraid I’m not doing very well at all. Come into the kitchen and let me get you a cup of tea, then I’ll explain what’s been going on.’
The admission confirmed her increasingly anxious suspicions, but it still tore at Natalie’s insides to hear him say it. Feeling suddenly drained, she followed his tall, rangy frame into his modern stainless-steel kitchen, watched him accidentally splash water over his crumpled sleeve as he filled the kettle at the tap—was she imagining it, or was his hand shaking a little?—and plugged it into the wall socket. He collected his whisky glass before dropping wearily down onto a nearby stool.
‘What is it, Dad? Have you been having pains in your chest again? Is that why you wanted to see me so urgently? Please tell me.’
Her father imbibed a generous slug of whisky, then slammed his glass noisily back down on the counter, rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes. Communication was suspended for several disturbing moments as he looked to be struggling to gather his thoughts. ‘For once it’s not my health that’s at stake, here, Nat. It’s my livelihood.’ His mouth shaped a rueful grimace.
Outside, from the busy street below, came the jarring sound of a car horn honking. Natalie flinched in shock. Drawing in a steadying breath, she saw that her dad was perfectly serious in his confession.
‘Has something gone wrong with the business? Is it to do with a downturn in profits? I know the country’s going through a tough time economically at the moment, but you can weather the storm, Dad … you always do.’
Bill Carr looked grim. ‘The hotel chain hasn’t made any profit for nearly two years, my love … largely because I haven’t kept up with essential refurbishment and modernisation. And I can no longer afford to keep on staff of the calibre that helped make it such a success in the first place. It’s so like you to blame it on the economy, but that just isn’t the case.’
‘Then if it’s not that why can’t you afford to modernise or keep good staff? You’ve always told me that the business has made you a fortune.’
‘That’s perfectly true. It did make a fortune. But sadly I haven’t been able to hold on to it. I’ve lost almost everything, Natalie … and I’m afraid I’m being forced to sell the business at a loss to try and recoup some money and pay off the vast amount of debt I’ve accrued.’
Natalie’s insides lurched as though she’d just narrowly escaped plunging down a disused elevator shaft. ‘It’s really that bad?’ she murmured, hardly knowing what to say.
Her father pushed to his feet, despondently shaking his head. ‘I’ve made such a mess of my life,’ he told her, ‘and I suppose because I’ve been so reckless and irresponsible the chickens have come home to roost, as they say. I deserve it. I was blessed with everything a man could wish for—a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter and work that I loved … But I threw it all away because I became more interested in seeking pleasure than keeping a proper eye on the business.’
‘You mean women and drink?’
‘And the rest. It’s not hard to understand why I had a heart attack.’
Needing to offer him some comfort and reassurance, even though she was shocked and slightly dazed at what ‘the rest’ might refer to, Natalie urgently caught hold of his hand and folded it between her own.
‘That doesn’t mean you’re going to have another one, Dad. Things will get better, I promise you. First of all, you’ve got to stop blaming yourself for what you did in the past and forgive yourself. Then you have to vow that you won’t hurt yourself in that way ever again—that you’ll look after yourself, move on, and deal with what’s going on right now. You said you’re being forced to sell the business at a loss … to whom?’
‘A man who’s known in the world of mergers and acquisitions as “the Alchemist” because he can turn dirt into diamonds at the drop of a hat it seems. A Greek billionaire named Petrakis. It’s a clich?, I know, but he really did make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. At least I know he’s got the money. That’s something, I suppose. The thing is I need cash in the bank as soon as possible, Nat. The bank wants the money from the sale in my account tomorrow, after we complete, or else they’ll make me bankrupt.’
‘Don’t you have any other assets? What about this flat? Presumably you own it outright?’
Again her father shook his head. ‘Mortgaged up to the hilt, I’m afraid.’ Noting the shock in her eyes, he freed his hand from hers, winced, and started to rub his chest.
Natalie’s own heart started to race with concern. ‘Are you all right, Dad? Should I call a doctor?’
‘I’m fine. I probably just need to rest a bit and stop drinking so much whisky. Perhaps you’d make me a cup of tea instead?’
‘Of course I will. Why don’t you go and put your feet up on the couch in the living room and I’ll bring it in to you?’
His answer to her suggestion was to impel her close into his chest and plant a fond kiss on the top of her head. When she glanced up to examine his suddenly pale features, his warm smile was unstintingly loving and proud.
‘You’re a good girl, Natalie … the best daughter in the world. I regret not telling you that more often.’
‘You and Mum might have parted, but I always knew that you loved me.’ Gently, she stepped out of the circle of his arms.
‘It does my heart good to hear you say that. I don’t want to take advantage, but perhaps you won’t mind me asking another favour of you?’
Her throat thick with emotion, Natalie smiled back at him. ‘Ask away. You know that I’ll do anything I can to help.’
‘I want you to come with me to this meeting I’ve got with Petrakis and his lawyers tomorrow. Just for a little moral support. Will you?’
Instinctively she knew it would probably be one of the hardest things she’d ever done, watching her father sign away the business he’d worked so hard to build all these years to some fat-cat Greek billionaire who didn’t have a clue about how much it meant to him, or care that the sale might be breaking his heart …
‘Of course I will.’ She lightly touched her palm to his cheek. ‘Now, go and put your feet up, like I said. I’ll make that cup of tea and bring it in to you.’
Her father’s once broad shoulders were stooped as he turned to exit the room. Natalie had never felt remotely violent towards anyone before, but she did now as she thought of the Greek billionaire known as ‘the Alchemist’ who was buying his business from him for a song when he could no doubt well afford to purchase it for far more and at least give her dad a fighting chance to get back on his feet again …
IF NATALIE HAD had a restless night, then her father had had a worse one. Several times she’d heard him get up to pace the hallway outside their bedrooms, and once when he’d omitted to close his door she’d heard the sound of violent retching coming from his bathroom. It had so frightened her that she’d raced straight into his room and banged urgently on the en-suite door. He had pleaded with her to let him sort himself out, telling her that it had happened before, that he knew how to deal with it, and Natalie had reluctantly returned to her room, heavy of heart and scared out of her wits in case he should have a seizure or a fit during the night.
After not much more than three hours’ sleep she’d woken bleary-eyed and exhausted to find blinding sunshine beaming straight at her through the uncovered window, where she’d forgotten to roll down the blinds.
After checking that her dad was awake, she stumbled into the kitchen to make a large pot of strong black coffee. She rustled up some toast and marmalade and called out to him to come to the table.
The dazzlingly bright sunshine wasn’t exactly a good friend to Bill Carr that morning, Natalie observed anxiously. The complexion that she’d judged as a little pasty yesterday looked ashen grey and sickly today. He made a feeble attempt at eating the toast she’d made, but didn’t hesitate to down two large mugs of coffee.
Afterwards, he wiped the back of his trembling hand across his mouth, grimaced and said, ‘I suppose you could say I’m ready for anything now.’
The weak smile he added to that statement all but broke Natalie’s heart.
‘You won’t have to face this alone, Dad. I’ll be with you every step of the way … I promise.’
‘I know, darling. And, whilst I know I hardly deserve to have your support at all, I honestly appreciate it and one day soon I’ll make it up to you … that’s my promise to you.’
‘You don’t need to make it up to me. We’re family, remember? All I want is for you to be well and happy. Now, remind me what time we have to be at this Petrakis’s office?’
‘Okay. After I shower and dress I’ll phone a cab to pick us up. Where is the office we’re going to?’
‘Not far away, then. Well, you’d better go and get ready, too. Do you need anything ironed?’
Getting to his feet and digging his hands deep into the capacious pockets of his dressing gown, her father seemed completely nonplussed by the question.
Taking in a consciously deep breath to calm her disquiet, Natalie asked, ‘Do you want me to come with you and check?’
‘No, darling, it’s fine. I’m wearing my best Savile Row suit, and my one ironed shirt has been hanging in the wardrobe ready ever since I got the call that the meeting was today.’
‘Good.’ Giving him an approving smile, Natalie stole a brief glance at the fashionably utilitarian stainless-steel clock on the wall. ‘We’d better get our skates on, then. We don’t want to be late.’
‘For the execution, you mean?’ His grimace, clearly tinged with bitterness and regret, had never looked more pained. Yet the comment also contained a hint of ironic humour.
‘I know it must be hard for you to contemplate letting go of the business that you put your heart and soul into to building,’ she sympathised, ‘but maybe this could be an exciting new start for you. An opportunity to put your energies into something else … something a little less taxing that you could manage more easily. Even the direst situations can have a silver lining.’
‘And how am I going to start another business if I have barely a penny to my name?’
‘Is running a business the only way you can earn a living?’
‘That’s all I know how to do.’ Exhaling a leaden sigh, her father drove his fingers exasperatedly through his already mussed silver hair.
Struggling with her personal sense of frustration at not being able to find an instant solution that would cheer him and give him some hope, Natalie dropped her hands to hips clad in the pyjama bottoms and T-shirt she’d borrowed from him to wear to bed and thought hard.
‘What if we ask this Petrakis if he could extend some humanitarian understanding and pay you a reasonable sum for the business? After all, if you say he has a reputation for being able to turn dirt into diamonds then surely he must know that he’s bound to make another fortune from your hotel chain? What would it hurt for him to pay you a fairer price?’
‘Sweetheart … I don’t mean this unkindly, but you know very little about men like Petrakis. How do you think he acquired his considerable fortune? It wasn’t from taking a humanitarian approach to making money! Whatever you say to him, however impassioned or eloquent your argument, it would be like water off a duck’s back.’
Natalie’s grey eyes flashed angrily. ‘And that’s how the business world measures success these days, is it? Someone is only thought of as successful if he’s single-mindedly ruthless in his dealings and doesn’t give a fig about the psychological damage he might cause to anyone—not even a fellow entrepreneur who’s down on his luck—just as long as he can get what he wants?’
Breathing hard, she knew how much she already despised the Greek billionaire even though she hadn’t even set eyes on him yet. But there was also something else on her mind. If this meeting with Petrakis was too devastating for her dad—and she’d certainly be able to tell if it was—then she couldn’t abandon him later on tonight to go and have dinner with the enigmatic Ludo. Even though she’d barely been able to cease thinking about the man since meeting him on the train yesterday …
‘Apparently that is the case. But don’t distress yourself by being angry on my behalf, love. I know I asked you to come with me for moral support, but this isn’t your battle. It’s mine. Now, I think we’d better go and get ourselves ready.’
Giving a resigned shrug, her father turned on his heel. With a heavy tread he made his way down the varnished wood-panelled hall to his bedroom, as if carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
‘Ludovic … how are you? Traffic’s bloody awful out there today. Everything’s moving at a snail’s pace.’
Ludo had been staring out of the window of his plush Westminster office, hardly registering anything on the road outside because his mind was fixed on one thought and one thought only. Tonight he was meeting the exquisite Natalie for dinner. He closed his eyes. For just a few short seconds he could imagine himself becoming entranced by the still, crystal-clear lake of her gaze all over again, and could conjure up the alluring scent of her perfume as easily as if she were standing right next to him. It was impossible to recall the last time he’d had this sense of excited anticipation fluttering in the pit of his stomach at the prospect of seeing a woman again … if it had ever happened at all. So, when the booming voice of his public-school-educated lawyer Stephen Godrich unexpectedly rang out behind him he was so immersed in his daydream that he almost jumped out of his skin.
With a wry smile he pivoted, immediately steering his mind back into work mode. There would be time for more fantasies about the lovely Natalie later, after they’d met for dinner, Ludo was sure.
Automatically stepping forward to shake the other man’s hand, he privately noted that the buttons on the bespoke suit jacket he wore had about as much hope of meeting over his ever-expanding girth as Ludo had of winning the Men’s Final at Wimbledon … An impossibility, of course, seeing as polo was his sport of choice, and not tennis.
‘Hello, Stephen. You’re looking well … in fact so well I fear I must be paying you too much,’ he joked.
The other man’s pebble-sized blue eyes, almost consumed by the generous flesh that surrounded them, flickered with momentary alarm. Quickly recovering, he drew out a large checked handkerchief from his trouser pocket and proceeded to mop the perspiration that glazed his brow.
‘Being an inveterate lover of fine dining definitely has its price, my friend,’ he remarked, smiling. ‘I know I should be more self-disciplined, but we all have our little peccadillos, don’t we? Anyway … do you mind if I ask if your client has arrived yet?’
Glancing down at the platinum Rolex that encircled his tanned wrist, Ludo frowned. ‘I’m afraid not. It looks like he may well be late. While we’re waiting for him I’ll get Jane to make us some coffee.’
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