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‘FORGET ABOUT THEM,’ the family lawyer had advised. ‘Should a problem arise in the future, provision has been made. Your inheritance is ring-fenced. There is no reason why you should concern yourself with this issue.’
Even today at the newly opened London HQ of Stefanos Enterprises, where the proof of his own exhilarating rise to success should have put him in a very different mood, Aristaeus Stefanos couldn’t get that unscrupulous little speech out of his head. Only a month had passed since his father’s death. A renowned philanthropist and business mogul, Christophe Stefanos had been a much-admired figure. A loving son, Ari had been devastated by his sudden death, and in all the years he had known his father, he had never once doubted his essential decency.
In retrospect, that complete trust now struck him as ludicrously naive for a male of twenty-eight years of age. Death had, after all, cruelly exposed his parent’s darkest secret and had shattered Ari’s faith in him. Ari had been forced to acknowledge his father’s feet of clay and to make a decision that he might some day regret even while accepting that he could not live with any other option. Fierce conflicting emotions still bubbled uneasily beneath Ari’s controlled surface. Angry shame and disbelief still rose uppermost whenever he reflected on his father’s choices.
Life, however, was too short to agonise over what could not be changed, Ari reflected grimly. For that reason, rather than taking advantage of the many social invitations that had come his way since his return from his father’s memorial service in Greece, he had decided to do something he had never done before: get to know some of his employees. It wasn’t Ari’s style to get close to his workers. A billionaire shipping tycoon and resort developer, he hired professionals to monitor his staff and kept his distance. His need for a distraction, however, had won out, and what could be more of a diversion than his participation in a company retreat to be staged in the wilds of Norfolk?
The new HQ of Stefanos Enterprises brought staff together from several different sites, and his HR director had suggested the retreat as a means of bringing down barriers and improving communication. Ari wasn’t quite sure he believed in the value of company retreats. He understood the concept and the potential benefits, but he also suspected that many of his executive staff would view the retreat as a nice little holiday on company time.
His handsome mouth quirking, Ari left his office just as an eruption of giggles sounded from the reception area. His hard, dark gaze arrowed in that direction, and exasperation flooded him at the sight of a security guard flirting with the receptionist, who irritated the hell out of him. What was her name again? Cleo, he recalled, and even the name was inappropriate for a female with a mop of blonde curls and blue eyes. Cleo, short for Cleopatra, was, in Ari’s highly experienced opinion, the name for a tall, dark beauty, not an undersized one with the curves of a pocket Venus and the dress sense of an eighties swagged and ruffled floral curtain.
It was fair to say that Ari had no time at all for Cleo the temp. But then she had blundered badly on her first day by letting Ari’s stalker-type ex, Galina Ivanova, walk into his office unchallenged. Of course, she had apologised. Thee mou—had she apologised! While Ari never used two words if one would suffice, Cleo was a hopeless chatterbox and capable of utilising fifty words to do the work of two. She had apologised to him for five solid minutes, staring pleadingly at him with those huge blue eyes of hers that made her look more like a cherub than a grown woman. Having been made aware by Human Resources that he could not simply sack her out of hand, he had grudgingly accepted the apology, but her presence in his vicinity offended him.
‘Have a nice afternoon, Mr Stefanos!’ Cleo called cheerfully, not having the wit to pull a low profile after being caught in the act of distracting the security guard from his job.
Ari struggled not to respond with something derisive and told himself off for letting so minor an incident darken his mood. But Ari liked absolutely everything in his life shipshape and tidy. He had placed things in neat little groups since he was a child. Back then he had found security in making and restoring order. The testing times of his childhood were unforgotten, although he chose not to dwell on them. His wardrobe was colour-coded, his bookshelves alphabetically arranged, his desk immaculate. In his world, there was no clutter and everything and everybody had a place. When anything was out of place, it set Ari’s teeth on edge, which was exactly why the receptionist irritated him, he reasoned in exasperation.
Cleo didn’t ‘fit’ Stefanos Enterprises. She lacked dress sense and sophistication. She was too visible, too chatty and too friendly. She smiled too much. Spend five minutes in a taxi rank with Cleo and she would divulge her entire life story without the smallest encouragement. That kind of verbal licence gave Ari the chills. Thrusting her from mind, he reminded himself that he had a Norfolk-bound helicopter waiting for him…
Cleo clambered into the minibus with her overnight bag.
A lot of the staff were travelling to the retreat by car, but she hadn’t made any close friends at Stefanos Enterprises and she hadn’t been offered a lift. People rarely made much effort to get to know temporary employees and she was accustomed to being somewhat invisible at work when others were socialising. Even so, she had been thrilled to be included in the retreat, which was probably because she would be working at Stefanos Enterprises for another eight months.
She suppressed a grimace, thinking of the incident on her first day that she suspected had ruined any hope she had of ever stepping into a permanent position at Stefanos Enterprises. An enviably confident sleek dark beauty, dressed to the nines in designer fashion, had approached Reception to announce that she was lunching with Mr Stefanos and would go straight through to his office. Cleo hadn’t even thought of questioning the woman further. She had simply assumed that the woman was a regular visitor, possibly even a family member. She hadn’t been shown the banned list of visitors before she began her shift. She hadn’t been told that the boss’s lovers never had access to him during working hours either by phone or by personal appearance. And nobody had been more shaken than her when she saw the furious woman escorted off the premises by two security guards and one of his personal assistants came running to ask what on earth had she been thinking when she had allowed that ‘madwoman’ into Mr Stefanos’s office. An ex, a stalker-type ex, apparently, who refused to take no for an answer and kept on showing up in the hope that he would change his mind. Cleo felt that she should have been warned the minute she took over the desk that her employer’s adventurous, ever-changing love life included such a deceptive personality.
Cleo suppressed her unproductive thoughts. She preferred to concentrate on positive things. A night away from the cramped little studio apartment she shared would be very welcome. Although she had been grateful to find city accommodation that she could share, she often longed for the peace and quiet of her own space, but with the cost of rents in London and her less-than-stellar earning power, that was a luxury she could only dream about. In any case, she reminded herself, she was lucky enough that her landlady, Ella, spent a couple of nights a week at her boyfriend’s place, leaving Cleo in sole possession of the mezzanine bedroom space and the tiny living area they had to share. Ella’s parents had bought the property for their daughter and it really wasn’t large enough for two people. Ella, however, was a student, who was struggling to get by, and she needed Cleo’s rent.
The retreat was being held at a boutique country hotel, situated deep in the countryside and surrounded by woods and fields. The bus arrived late, after an accident caused a long, slow tailback of traffic. As they waited for their key cards at Reception, several remarking on the fact that their belated arrival excluded them from joining the team chats, Lily, one of the clerical staff, turned her head to say to Cleo, ‘Come on… You’re sharing with me.’
Cleo forced a smile, able to see that her companion was no keener on the arrangement than she was. No sooner had they arrived in the comfortable hotel room than Lily was excusing herself to join her friends. ‘We’ll be in the bar after dinner… You’re welcome to join us,’ the pretty blonde told her with a pleasant smile. ‘The more the merrier.’
And a strange face was easier tolerated in a crowd, Cleo reflected ruefully. She was pleased about the invitation, just a little worried that she would not truly be welcome and was only being asked out of politeness. ‘I’m going downstairs to see what I can sign up for.’
‘The yoga classes are supposed to be very good,’ Lily informed her on the way out of the door. ‘And they’ve got one on first thing…’
Cleo wasn’t fond of yoga. Having once signally flopped at twisting her body into a pretzel shape at a class and having felt an absolute failure, she had decided that she simply wasn’t bendy enough.
After freshening up, she went downstairs to explore the other options on offer. Breathing in deep and mustering her courage, she signed up for paintballing and stand-up paddleboarding the following day. Although she was not remotely athletic, she was a firm believer in moving out of her comfort zone when the opportunity was presented, and goodness knew, she thought ruefully, she was unlikely ever to receive another opportunity to try out such activities free of charge. At the very least, it should be fun.
Throwing herself in head first was Cleo’s way when she felt intimidated. Growing up with a single mother perpetually fretting and expecting disaster had taught her to be fearless. Lisa Brown had always had a pessimistic outlook, while Cleo preferred to look on the brighter side of things.
Getting changed for dinner, she tugged out a stretchy comfy dress and heels. The bright colours of the jungle-palm print made her smile, whisking her back to her childhood with a mother who habitually wore black, believing that colours were less elegant. A lot of good that dark, colourless wardrobe had done her poor mother, Cleo reflected wryly. The man she loved, Cleo’s father, hadn’t loved Lisa Brown back and hadn’t wanted a child with her either. Lisa’s pregnancy had eventually concluded their clandestine relationship.
Cleo went down for dinner, glancing round the dining room and seeing only a handful of vaguely familiar faces. She was keeping an eye out for Ari Stefanos, who was reputedly joining his staff for the retreat. That had surprised her, Ari not being the most approachable of employers, and true to form, Lily had mentioned that he was not staying in the hotel, but in some separate luxury property in the woods, well away from the hoi polloi. No, Cleo was looking out for Ari simply because it was always a treat to feast her eyes on him. Those cheekbones, that unruly blue-black hair, that piercing dark-as-night gaze set below level ebony brows, not to mention the lush pink of his eminently kissable mouth.
The first time Cleo had met her employer had been the same day she had attempted to tender an apology for the woman she had allowed to walk unchallenged into his office. That had been her first glimpse of him, and sheer fascination had mesmerised her because there was just something about the precise arrangement of his perfect features that had made her stare like an enraptured schoolgirl. Her tongue had tripped over words, her mouth had dried up and her brain had closed down in that same moment. Ari Stefanos exuded irresistible appeal with every breath that he drew.
He was Cleo’s secret addiction. It was a harmless piece of fun. All the women in the office treated Ari Stefanos to more than one glance: he was shockingly good-looking and smoulderingly sexy. He cast ordinary men in very deep shade. But he was a safe target for appreciation because his distaste for office flings was incorporated in her employment contract. In any case, Cleo knew that she didn’t have the looks to attract such a man.
Cleo had never been in love and had no desire to fall in love either. Her mother had loved her father and it had ruined the best years of her life. No, Cleo would only allow herself to fall in love with a man when it was clear that he was keen enough on her to make a commitment. That was where her mother had gone wrong, trusting promises made in the heat of the moment, making the assumption that deep feelings were involved when they were not. Cleo had no plans to make the same mistake.
And in the short term, admiring Ari Stefanos from a safe distance was an amusing, perfectly prudent and private source of enjoyment.
Unaware that anyone received entertainment simply by looking at him, Ari led a discussion on the company vision for the future before heading for the bar, determined to have one drink and be sociable before he retired to his own quarters.
For some inexplicable reason, his attention immediately landed on Cleo and stayed locked to her. She was seated with a group, engaged in animated discussion, her mop of golden curls glinting in the low lights as she moved her head. She stood up to walk to the bar and he almost winced at the sight of the vivid giant-palm-leaf print she was sporting. A large blue butterfly was stretched across her curvy behind and, like the leaf cupping her full breasts, the loud design somehow accentuated the lush fullness of her glorious curves. In that instant he understood perfectly why she continually attracted his notice. She might be barely over five foot, but she had a superb figure. Pretty good legs too, he noted absently, watching her at the bar, catching her gurgling laugh and the brilliance of her smile as the bartender surged to serve her.
‘She’s very pretty and very young,’ his senior PA, Mel, commented at his elbow as she looked in the same direction.
Ari tore his gaze from Cleo, faint colour edging his high cheekbones as he registered the throb at his groin, and shifted uneasily. ‘She talks too much.’
‘Yes, but she’s very good on Reception,’ Mel countered. ‘Friendly, helpful, welcoming. In my opinion, she’s a big improvement on that frozen fashion doll out on maternity leave.’
Ari gritted his even white teeth. ‘She dresses badly.’
Mel frowned and gave him a surprised look. ‘So, let someone give her the advice to tone down the colours a little and look more…er…professional.’
Tiring of the conversation, Ari tipped back the whisky brought to him without savouring the vintage. ‘I’m going to turn in now. It’s been a long day.’