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TOR SARANTOS IGNORED his security head’s frown at the news that he would require neither his car nor his usual bodyguards that evening.
‘You know what day this is,’ Tor said simply. ‘I go out…I go alone.’
‘With all due respect,’ the older man began heavily, ‘in your position, it is not safe.’
‘Duly noted,’ Tor breathed very drily. ‘But it is what I do, as you well know.’
Every year without fail for the past five years, Tor had gone out alone on this particular date. It was an anniversary but not one to celebrate. It was the anniversary of his wife and daughter’s deaths. He considered himself to be neither an emotional nor sentimental man. No, he chose to remember what had happened to Katerina and Sofia because their sad fate was his worst ever failure. His ferocious anger, injured pride and bitterness had led to that ultimate tragedy, which could not, in conscience, ever be forgotten. Out of respect for the family he had lost, he chose to remember them one wretched day a year and wallow in his shamed self-loathing. It was little enough, and it chastened him, kept him grounded, he acknowledged grimly. After all, he had screwed up, he had screwed up so badly that it had cost two human lives that could have been saved had he only been a more forgiving and compassionate man.
Tragically, the traits of compassion and forgiveness had never run strong in Alastor, known as Tor, Sarantos. Although he came from a kind and loving family, he was tough, inflexible and fierce in nature as befitted a billionaire banker, celebrated for his ruthless reputation, financial acumen and foresight, his advice as much sought by governments as by rich private investors. In business, he was a very high flyer, in his private life, he was appallingly aware that he had proved to be a loser. However, that was a secret he was determined to take to his grave with him, .
That was why he rarely went home now to his family in Greece. Not only did he have an understandable wish to avoid meetings with his Italian half-brother, Sevastiano, but he also didn’t want to listen to his relatives talking with increasingly evangelical fervour about him ‘moving on’. On his visits a parade of suitable young women was served up at parties and dinners even though he had done everything possible to make it brutally obvious that he had no desire to find another wife and settle down again.
After all, he had long since transformed from the young man happily wed to his first love into a womaniser known throughout Europe for his passionate but short-lived affairs. At twenty-eight, he was generations removed from the naïve and idealistic man he had once been, but his family stubbornly refused to accept the change in him. Of course, his parents were as much in love now as they had been on the day of their marriage and fully believed that that happiness was achievable by all. Tor didn’t plan to be the party pooper, who told them that lies, deceit and betrayal had flourished, unseen and unsuspected, within their own family circle. He preferred to let his relatives live in their sunny version of reality where rainbows and unicorns flourished. He had learned the hard way that, once lost, trust and innocence were irretrievable.
Dressing for his night out, Tor set aside his gold cufflinks, his platinum watch, all visible signs of his wealth, and chose the anonymity of faded designer jeans and a leather jacket. He would go to a bar alone and drink himself almost insensible while he pondered the past and then he would climb into a taxi and come home. That was all he did. Allowing himself to forget, allowing himself to truly move on, would be, he honestly believed, an unmerited release from the guilt he deserved to suffer.
Eighteen months later
Tor frowned as his housekeeper appeared in his home office doorway, looking unusually flustered. ‘Something wrong?’
‘Someone’s abandoned a baby on the doorstep, sir,’ Mrs James informed him uncomfortably. ‘A little boy about nine months old.’
‘A…baby?’ Tor stressed in astonishment.
‘Security are about to check the video surveillance tapes,’ the older woman told him before stiffly moving forward. ‘There was a note. It’s addressed to you, sir.’
‘Me?’ Tor said in disbelief as an envelope was slid onto his desk.
There was his name, block printed in black felt-tip pen.
‘Do you want me to call the police?’
Tor was tearing open the envelope as the question was asked. The message within was brief.
This is your child.
Look after it.
Obviously it couldn’t possibly be his child. But what if it belonged to one of his family? He had three younger brothers, all of whom had enjoyed stays at his London town house within recent memory. What if the child should prove to be a nephew or niece? Clearly, the mother must have been desperate for help when she chose to abandon the baby and run.
‘The police?’ Mrs James prompted.
‘No. We won’t call them…yet,’ Tor hedged, thinking that if one of his family was involved, he did not want a scandal or media coverage of any kind erupting from an indiscreet handling of the situation. ‘I’ll look into this first.’
‘So, what do I do with it?’
‘The baby, sir,’ the housekeeper extended drily. ‘I’ve no experience with young children.’
His fine ebony brows pleated. ‘Contact a nanny agency for emergency cover,’ he advised. ‘In the meantime, I’ll sort this out.’
A baby? Of course, it couldn’t be his! Logic stirred, reminding him that no form of contraception was deemed entirely foolproof. Accidents happened. For that matter, deliberate accidents could also occur if a woman chose to be manipulative.
Like other men, he had heard stories of pins stuck in condoms to damage them and other such distasteful ruses, but he had never actually met anyone whom it had happened to.
Fake horror stories, he told himself bracingly. Yet, momentarily, unease still rippled through Tor, connected with the unfortunate memory of the strange hysterical girl who had stormed his office the year before…
Eighteen months earlier
Pixie used the key to let herself into the plush house that was her temporary home. Several glamorous high-earning individuals shared the dwelling, and as a poor and ordinary student nurse she was fully conscious that she was enjoying a luxury treat in staying there. She was happy with that, simply grateful to be enjoying a two-week escape from living under the same roof with her brother and his partner, who, sadly, seemed to be in the process of breaking up.
Listening to Jordan and Eloise constantly fighting, when there was absolutely no privacy, had become seriously embarrassing in the small terraced home she shared with them.
For that reason, it had been a total joy to learn that Steph, the sister of one of her friends, had a precious Siamese kitten, which she didn’t want to abandon to a boarding facility while she was abroad on a modelling assignment. Initially, Pixie had been surprised that Steph didn’t expect her housemates to look after her pet. Only after moving in to look after Coco had she understood that it was a household where the tenants all operated as independent entities, coming and going without interest in their housemates in a totally casual way that had confounded Pixie’s rosy expectations of communal life with her peers.
But in the short term, Pixie reminded herself, she was enjoying the huge indulgence of a private bathroom and a large bedroom with the sole responsibility of caring for a very cute kitten. As she was currently working twelve-hour shifts on her annual placement for her final year of nursing training, living in the elegant town house was a treat and she was grateful for the opportunity. A long bath, she promised herself soothingly as she stepped into the room and Coco jumped onto her feet, desperate for some attention after a day spent alone.
In auto mode, Pixie ran a bath, struggling greatly not to dwell on the reality that during her shift in A & E she had had to deal with her first death as a nurse. It had been a young healthy woman, not something any amount of training could have prepared her for, she acknowledged ruefully. Put it in a box at the back of her brain, she instructed herself irritably. It was not her role to get all personally emotional, it was her job to be supportive and to deal with the practical and the grieving relatives with all the tact and empathy she could summon up.