The Dimitrakos Proposition

By: Lynne Graham

CHAPTER ONE



‘BEARING IN MIND the history of the company’s expansion and success, it is a most unjust will,’ Stevos Vannou, Ash’s lawyer, declared heavily in the simmering silence, a wary eye locked to the very tall, dark and powerfully built male across the office.

Acheron Dimitrakos, known as Ash to his inner circle, and Greek billionaire founder of the global giant DT Industries, said nothing. He did not trust himself to speak. Usually his control was absolute. But not today. He had trusted his father, Angelos, as far as he trusted anyone, which was to say not very much, but it had never once crossed his mind that the older man would even consider threatening the company that Ash had single-handedly built with the bombshell that his last will and testament had become. If Ash didn’t marry within the year, he would lose half of the company to his stepmother and her children, who were already most amply provided for by the terms of his father’s will. It was unthinkable; it was a brutally unfair demand, which ran contrary to every honourable scruple and the high standards that Ash had once believed the older man held dear to his heart. It just went to show—as if Ash had ever had any doubt—you couldn’t trust anybody, and your nearest and dearest were the most likely to plunge a knife into your back when you were least expecting it.

‘DT is my company,’ Ash asserted between compressed lips.

‘But regretfully not on paper,’ Stevos countered gravely. ‘On paper you never had your father transfer his interest to you. Even though it is indisputably the company that you built.’

Still, Ash said nothing. Cold dark eyes fringed with ridiculously long black lashes locked on the sweeping view of the City of London skyline that his penthouse office enjoyed, his lean, darkly handsome features set in hard, forbidding lines of restraint. ‘A long court case disputing the will would seriously undermine the company’s ability to trade,’ he said eventually.

‘Picking a wife would definitely be the lesser evil,’ the lawyer suggested with a cynical chuckle. ‘That’s all you have to do to put everything back to normal.’

‘My father knew I had no intention of ever marrying. That is exactly why he did this to me,’ Ash ground out between clenched teeth, his temper momentarily escaping its leash as he thought of the utterly unhinged woman his misguided father had expected him to put in the role. ‘I don’t want a wife. I don’t want children. I don’t want any of that messing up my life!’

Stevos Vannou cleared his throat and treated his employer to a troubled appraisal. He had never seen Acheron Dimitrakos betray anger before or, indeed, any kind of emotion. The billionaire head of DT Industries was usually as cold as ice, possibly even colder, if his discarded lovers in the many tabloid stories were to be believed. His cool, logical approach, his reserve and lack of human sentiment were the stuff of legend. According to popular repute when one of his PAs had gone into labour at a board summit, he had told her to stay and finish the meeting.

‘Forgive me if I’m being obtuse but I would suggest that any number of women would line up to marry you,’ Ash’s companion remarked cautiously, thinking of his own wife, who threatened to swoon if she even saw Acheron’s face in print. ‘Choosing would be more of a challenge than actually finding a wife.’

Ash clamped his mouth shut on an acid rejoinder, well aware the portly little Greek was out of his depth and only trying to be helpful even if stating the obvious was more than a little simplistic. He knew he could snap his fingers and get a wife as quickly and easily as he could get a woman into his bed. And he understood exactly why it was so easy: the money was the draw. He had a fleet of private jets and homes all over the world, not to mention servants who waited on him and his guests hand and foot. He paid well for good service. He was a generous lover too but every time he saw dollar signs in a woman’s eyes it turned him off hard and fast. And more and more he noticed the dollar signs before he noticed the beautiful body and that was taking sex off the menu more often than he liked. He needed sex as he needed air to breathe, and couldn’t really comprehend why he found the greed and manipulation that went with it so profoundly repellent. Evidently somewhere down inside him, buried so deep he couldn’t root it out, there lurked an oversensitive streak he despised.

It was worse that Acheron knew exactly what lay behind the will and he could only marvel at his father’s inability to appreciate that the woman he had tried to push Acheron towards was anathema to him. Six months before the older man’s death there had been a big scene at his father’s home, and Acheron had steered clear of visiting since then, which was simply one more nail in the coffin of the proposed bride-to-be. He had tried to talk to his stepmother about the problem but nobody had been willing to listen to common sense, least of all his father, who had been sufficiently impressed by the lady’s acting ability to decide that the young woman he had raised from childhood would make his only son the perfect wife.

‘Of course, perhaps it is possible that you could simply ignore the will and buy out your stepmother’s interest in the company,’ the lawyer suggested glibly.

Unimpressed, Ash shot the older man a sardonic glance. ‘I will not pay for what is mine by right. Thank you for your time.’

Recognising the unmistakable note of dismissal, Stevos hastily stood up to leave while resolving to inform his colleagues of the situation immediately to sort out a plan of action. ‘I’ll put the best business minds in the firm on this challenge.’

Jaw line clenched as hard as a rock, Ash nodded even though he had little hope of a rescue plan. Experience told him that his father would have taken legal advice as well and would never have placed such a binding clause in his will without the assurance that it was virtually foolproof.

A wife, Ash reflected grimly. He had known since childhood that he would never take a wife and never father a child. That caring, loving gene had passed him by. He had no desire for anyone to grow up in his image or follow in his footsteps, nor did he wish to pass on the darkness he kept locked up inside himself. In fact, he didn’t even like children, what little contact he had had with them simply bearing out his belief that children were noisy, difficult and annoying. Why would any sane adult want something that had to be looked after twenty-four hours a day and gave you sleepless nights into the bargain? In the same way why would any man want only one woman in his bed? The same woman, night after night, week after week. Ash shuddered at the very suggestion of such severe sexual confinement.

He recognised that he had a decision to make and he resolved to act fast before the news of that ridiculous will hit the marketplace and damaged the company he had built his life around.



‘Nobody sees Mr Dimitrakos without an appointment and his prior agreement,’ the svelte receptionist repeated frigidly. ‘If you don’t leave, Miss Glover, I will be forced to call Security to have you removed from the building.’

In answer, Tabby plonked her slight body back down on the plush seating in the reception area. Across from her sat an older man studying documents from a briefcase and talking urgently in a foreign language on his cell phone. Knowing she looked like hell did nothing for her confidence in such luxurious surroundings but she hadn’t had a full night’s sleep for some time, she no longer owned any decent clothes and she was desperate. Nothing less than desperation would have brought her to DT Industries seeking an interview with the absolute seven-letter-word of a man who had summarily refused to take any responsibility for the child whom Tabby loved with all her heart. Acheron Dimitrakos was a selfish, arrogant pig and what she had read about his womanising exploits in one of her clients’ glossy scandal-sheet magazines had not improved her opinion. The man who had more money than Midas had turned his back on Amber without even expressing a desire to meet with Tabby as his co-guardian, or checking out the little girl’s welfare.

The call to Security by Reception was duly made in clear crystalline tones undoubtedly intended to scare Tabby off before the guards arrived. Her small face stiff, she stayed where she was, her slight body rigid with tension while she frantically tried to think up another plan of approach because gatecrashing Acheron’s office wasn’t going very well. But it wasn’t as if she had had a choice, although she acknowledged that the situation was very serious indeed when such a callous personality became her last hope.

And then fate took a hand she wasn’t expecting and she wasted a split second simply staring when she saw the tall dark man from the magazine pictures striding across Reception with a couple of suited men following in his wake. Tabby flew to her feet and raced after him. ‘Mr Didmitrakos...Mr Dimitrakos!’ she launched, stumbling over the syllables of his wretchedly complicated surname.

And at the exact same moment as her very tall and commanding quarry paused by the lift wearing an expression of sheer disbelief at her approach, the security guards came at a literal run, muttering fervent apologies to the man in front of her!

‘I’m Amber’s other guardian, Tabby Glover!’ Tabby explained in feverish haste as both her arms were suddenly grabbed by the two men with him and she was yanked back a step from her proximity to him. ‘I need to see you...I tried to get an appointment but I couldn’t even though it’s desperately important that we talk before the weekend!’

Security really was in need of sharpening up if they allowed him to be cornered on the top floor of his own building by a crazy woman, Ash reflected in exasperation. The young woman was wearing a worn jacket, track pants and trainers, her fair hair tied up in a high ponytail, pale shadowed face bare of make-up. She was small and plain, not at all the kind of woman who would have attracted his attention...although no sooner had he decided that than he noticed her remarkable blue eyes, which were an unusual violet in shade and dominated her pinched features.

‘Please!’ Tabby gasped. ‘You can’t be this selfish—nobody could be! Amber’s father was a member of your family—’

‘I have no family,’ Ash informed her drily. ‘Escort her out,’ he told the security officers, who took over from his bodyguards in restraining Tabby even though she hadn’t put up a struggle. ‘And make sure this doesn’t happen again.’

Taken aback that he wouldn’t even give her five minutes of his time, that he betrayed no recognition even of Amber’s name, Tabby was momentarily silenced. Then she swore at him like a fishwife, angrily employing language that had never left her lips before. In response, his brilliant dark eyes glittered with a raw angry hostility that momentarily shocked her because that cool front he wore evidently concealed much murkier depths.

‘Mr Dimitrakos...?’ Another voice interposed, and Tabby turned her head in surprise to see the older man who had been seated near her in the waiting area.

‘The child—you’ll recall your late cousin’s guardianship request, which you turned down a couple of months ago?’ Stevos Vannou hurtled forward to remind Acheron Dimitrakos in a quiet, respectful undertone.

An inconsequential memory pinged in the back of Ash’s shrewd brain and drew his straight black brows together into a frown. ‘What of it?’

‘You selfish bastard!’ Tabby raked at him, outraged by his lack of reaction and the consequences that his indifference to Amber’s fate were about to visit on the child. ‘I’ll go to the press with this...you don’t deserve anything better. All that wretched money and you can’t do anything good with it!’

‘Siopi! Keep quiet,’ Acheron told her sternly in Greek and then English.

‘And you and whose army is going to make me?’ Tabby snapped back, unimpressed, the fighting spirit that had carried her through many years of loss and disappointment rising to the fore again to strengthen her backbone.

‘What does she want?’ Acheron asked his lawyer in English as if she weren’t there.

‘I suggest we take this back into your office,’ Stevos remarked on a loaded hint.

Savage impatience gripped Ash. Only three days earlier he had returned from his father’s funeral and, without even allowing for his grief at the older man’s sudden death from a heart attack, it had turned into a very frustrating week. The very last thing he was in the mood for was a drama about some child he had never met and couldn’t have cared less about. Troy Valtinos, oh, yes, he could remember now, a third cousin he had also never met, who had unexpectedly died and, in doing so, had attempted to commit his infant daughter to Ash’s care. An act of sheer inexplicable insanity, Acheron reflected in exasperation, thinking back incredulously to that brief discussion with Stevos some months earlier. He was a childless single male without family back-up and he travelled constantly. What on earth could anyone have supposed he would do with an orphaned baby girl?

‘I’m sorry I swore at you,’ Tabby lied valiantly in an effort to build a bridge and win a hearing. ‘I shouldn’t have done that—’

‘Your mouth belongs in the gutter,’ Acheron breathed icily and he addressed the security guards, ‘Free her. You can take her out when I’m done with her.’

Tabby gritted her teeth together, straightened her jacket and ran uncertain hands down over her slender denim-clad thighs. Ash briefly studied her oval face, his attention lingering on her full pink mouth as a rare flight of sexual fantasy took him to the brink of picturing where else that mouth might be best employed other than in the gutter. The stirring at his groin put him in an even worse mood, reminding him of how long it had been since he had indulged his healthy libido. He knew he had to be in a very bad way if he could react to such an ignorant female.

‘I’ll give you five minutes of my valuable time,’ Acheron breathed with chilling reluctance.

‘Five minutes when a child’s life and happiness hang in the balance? How very generous of you,’ Tabby replied sarcastically.

Roaring rancour assailed Acheron because he wasn’t accustomed to such rudeness, particularly not from women. ‘You’re insolent as well as vulgar.’

‘It got me in the door, didn’t it? Politeness got me nowhere,’ Tabby traded, thinking of the many phone calls she had made in vain requests for an appointment. As for being called cheeky and vulgar, did she really care what some jumped-up, spoilt snob with loads of money thought about her? Yet her brain was already scolding her for her aggressive approach, telling her it was unwise. If she could get around the freeze front Acheron Dimitrakos wore to the world, he was in a position to help Amber while she was not. As far as Social Services were concerned, she could not be considered a suitable guardian for Amber because she was single, had no decent home and was virtually penniless.

‘Start talking,’ Ash urged, thrusting the door of his office shut.

‘I need your help to keep Amber in my custody. I’m the only mother she’s ever known and she’s very attached to me. Social Services are planning to take her off me on Friday and place her in foster care with a view to having her adopted.’

‘Isn’t that the best plan in the circumstances?’ Ash’s lawyer, Stevos Vannou, interposed in a very reasonable voice as though it was an expected thing that she should be willing to surrender the child she loved. ‘I seem to remember that you are single and living on benefits and that a child would be a considerable burden for you—’

Acheron had frozen the instant the phrase ‘foster care’ came his way but neither of his companions had noticed. It was a closely guarded secret that Ash, in spite of the fact his mother had been one of the richest Greek heiresses ever born, had once spent years of his life in foster care, shifted from home to home, family to family, enduring everything from genuine care to indifference to outright cruelty and abuse. And he had never, ever forgotten the experience.

‘I haven’t lived on benefits since Amber’s mother, Sonia, passed away. I looked after Sonia until she died and that was why I couldn’t work,’ Tabby protested, and shot a glance brimming with offended pride at Acheron’s still figure. ‘Look, I’m not just some freeloader. A year ago Sonia and I owned our own business and it was thriving until Troy died and she fell ill. In the fallout, I lost everything as well. Amber is the most important thing in my world but, in spite of me being chosen as one of her guardians, there’s no blood tie between Amber and me and that gives me very little real claim to her in law.’

‘Why have you come to me?’ Ash enquired drily.

Tabby rolled her eyes, helplessly inflamed by his attitude. ‘Troy thought you were such a great guy—’

Ash tensed, telling himself that none of what she had told him was any of his business, yet the thought of an innocent baby going into foster care roused a riot of reactions inside him drawn from his own memories. ‘But I never met Troy.’

‘He did try to meet you because he said his mother, Olympia, used to work for your mother,’ Tabby recounted.

Acheron suddenly frowned, straight black brows pleating as old memories stirred. Olympia Carolis, he recalled very well as having been one of his mother’s carers. He had not appreciated when the guardianship issue had arisen that Troy was Olympia’s son because he had only known her by her name before marriage, although if he stretched his memory to the limit he could vaguely recall that she had been expecting a child when she left his mother’s employ. That child could only have been Troy.

‘Troy was frantic to find a job here in London and you were his business idol,’ Tabby told him curtly.

‘His...what?’ Ash repeated with derision.

‘False flattery won’t advance your cause,’ Stevos Vannou declared, much more at home in the current meeting than he had been in the last, for the matter of the will would require considerable research of case law to handle.

‘It wasn’t false or flattery,’ Tabby contradicted sharply, angry with the solicitor for taking that attitude and switching her attention back to Ash. ‘It was the truth. Troy admired your business achievements very much. He even took the same business degree you did. That and the fact he saw you as head of his family explains why he put you down as a guardian in his will.’

‘And there was I, innocent that I am, thinking it was only because I was rich,’ Acheron breathed with sardonic bite, his dark deep drawl vibrating down her spine.

‘You really are a hateful, unfeeling creep!’ Tabby slammed back at him tempestuously, fiery emotion ablaze in her violet eyes. ‘Troy was a lovely man. Do you honestly think he realised that he was going to die at the age of twenty-four in a car accident? Or that his wife would suffer a stroke within hours of giving birth? Troy would never have taken a penny from anyone that he hadn’t earned first.’

‘Yet this lovely man left both his widow and child destitute,’ Ash reminded her censoriously.

‘He didn’t have a job, and Sonia was earning enough money at the time through the business we owned. Neither of them could possibly have foreseen that both of them would be dead within a year of having that will drawn up.’

‘But it was scarcely fair to name me as a guardian without prior discussion of the idea,’ Acheron pointed out drily. ‘The normal thing to do would have been to ask my permission first.’

Rigid with tension, Tabby made no comment. She recognised that he had a point but refused to acknowledge the direct hit.

‘Perhaps you could tell us without further waste of time exactly what you imagine Mr Dimitrakos could do to help you?’ Stevos Vannou sliced in, standing on the sidelines and thoroughly disconcerted by the sheer level of biting hostility erupting between his usually imperturbable employer and his visitor.

‘I want to ask Mr Dimitrakos to support my wish to adopt Amber.’

‘But is that a realistic goal, Miss Glover?’ the lawyer countered immediately. ‘You have no home, no money and no partner, and my own experience with Social Services and child-custody cases tells me that at the very least you need a stable lifestyle to be considered a suitable applicant to adopt.’

‘What the heck does having or not having a partner have to do with it?’ Tabby demanded defensively. ‘This past year I’ve been far too busy to waste time looking for a man.’

‘And with your approach it might have proved a considerable challenge,’ Acheron interposed without hesitation.

Tabby opened and closed her lush mouth in angry disconcertion and took a seething step closer to the Greek billionaire. ‘You accused me of having no manners? What about your own?’ she snapped in outrage.

Studying the two adults before him squabbling and insulting each other much as his own teenaged children did, Stevos averted his attention from them both. ‘Miss Glover? If you had had a partner it would certainly have made a big difference to your application. Raising a child today is a challenge and it is widely believed that two parents generally make that easier.’

‘Well, unfortunately for me a partner isn’t something I can dig up overnight!’ Tabby exclaimed, wishing the wretched man would think of something other than picking holes in her suitability to adopt Amber. Didn’t she have enough to worry about?

A germ of a wild idea leapt into Stevos’s brain, and he skimmed his insightful gaze to Acheron and addressed him in Greek. ‘You know, you could both help each other...’

Ash frowned. ‘In what possible way?’

‘She needs a stable home and partner to support her adoption application—you need a wife. With a little compromise on both sides and some serious legal negotiation, you could both achieve what you want and nobody would ever need to know the truth.’

Acheron was always quick on the uptake but for a split second he literally could not believe that Stevos had made that speech, could even have dared to suggest such an insane idea. He shot a disdainful glance at Tabby Glover and all her many obvious deficiencies and his black brows went skyward. ‘You have to be out of your mind,’ he told his lawyer with incredulity. ‘She’s a foul-mouthed girl from the back streets!’

‘You’ve got the money to clean her up enough to pass in public,’ the older man replied drily. ‘I’m talking about a wife you pay to be your wife, not a normal wife. If you get married, all your problems with regard to ownership of the company go away—’

In brooding silence, Acheron focused on the one massive problem that would not go away in that scenario—Tabby Glover. Not wife material screeched every one of his sophisticated expectations, but he was also thinking about what he had learned about Troy Valtinos and his late mother, Olympia, and his conscience was bothering him on that score. ‘I couldn’t marry her. I don’t like her—’

‘Do you need to like her?’ Stevos enquired quietly. ‘I shouldn’t have thought that was a basic requirement to meet the terms of a legal stipulation to protect your company. You own many properties. I’m sure you could put her in one of them and barely notice she was there.’

‘Right at this moment the first thing on my agenda has to be the child,’ Acheron startled his lawyer by asserting. ‘I want to check up on her. I have been remiss in my responsibilities and too quick to dismiss them.’

‘Look...’ While Stevos was engaged in giving Ash an alarmed look at that sudden uncharacteristic swerve of his into child-welfare territory, Tabby had folded her arms in frustration and she was glowering at the two men. ‘If you two are going to keep on chatting in a foreign language and acting like I’m not here—’

‘If only you were not,’ Ash murmured silkily.

Tabby’s hands balled into fists. ‘I bet quite a few women have thumped you in your time!’

Shimmering eyes dark as sloes challenged her, his lean strong face slashing into a sudden smile of raw amusement. ‘Not a one...’

Amber, Tabby reminded herself with painful impact, her heart clenching at the thought of the child she adored. She was here to ask for his help for Amber’s sake, and Amber’s needs were the most important consideration, not how objectionable she found the despicable man. His charismatic smile struck her like a deluge of icy water. He was incredibly, really quite breathtakingly, handsome and the fact that he found her amusing hurt. Of course, Tabby had never cherished many illusions about her desirability factor as a woman. Although she had always had a lot of male friends, she’d had very few boyfriends, and Sonia had once tactfully tried to hint that Tabby could be too sharp-tongued, too independent and too critical to appeal to the average male. Unfortunately, nobody had ever explained to Tabby how she could possibly have survived her challenging life without acquiring those seemingly unfeminine attributes.

‘You want to meet the child?’ Stevos stepped in quickly before war broke out again between his companions and wasted more time.

A sudden smile broke across Tabby’s face like sunshine, and Acheron studied her intently, scanning her delicate features, realising that there could be an attractive female beneath the facade of bolshie belligerence. He liked women feminine, really, really feminine. She was crude and unkempt and the guardian of Olympia’s granddaughter, he reminded himself doggedly, striving to concentrate on the most important element of the equation. And that was the child, Amber. He cursed the fact that he had not known of the connection sooner, cursed his own innate aversion to being tied down by anything other than business. He had no relatives, no loving relationships, no responsibility outside his company and that was how he liked his life. But not at the expense of basic decency. And his recollection of Olympia, who had frequently been kind and friendly to a boy everyone else had viewed as pure trouble, remained one of the few good memories Ash had of his childhood.

‘Yes. I want to see the child as soon as possible,’ Acheron confirmed.

Tabby tilted her head to one side, taken aback by his change of heart. ‘What changed your mind?’

‘I should have personally checked into her circumstances when I was informed of the guardianship,’ Acheron breathed grimly, angry with himself for once at the elaborate and very protective support system around him that ensured that he was never troubled by too much detail about anything that might take his mind off business. ‘But I will take care of that oversight now and be warned, Miss Glover, I will not support your application to adopt the little girl unless I reach the conclusion that you are a suitable carer. Thank you for your help, Stevos, but not for that last suggestion you made...’ Sardonic dark eyes met the lawyer’s frowning gaze. ‘I’m afraid that idea belongs in fantasy land.’

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