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EVERY EYE AROUND the crowded conference table locked in astonishment on to Althea Lekkas’s exquisite face when she gasped. ‘I’m sorry… I’m calling off the wedding!’
‘You can’t!’ expostulated her father, Linus, jumping upright with knotted fists of fury. ‘If you call it off this late in the day, I’ll disown you!’
Jude Alexandris almost laughed at that melodramatic threat from his future father-in-law, who was embarrassingly keen for the marriage to take place. After all, the Alexandris billions were a living legend and Jude was accustomed to being regarded as a literal golden goose. Not that the huge weight and purchasing power of all that money had ever made anyone in his family happy, he acknowledged grimly.
His grandfather was a manipulative, bitter old man who had outlived three wives. His father, an only child like Jude, had been a high-flyer in business but utterly useless on the husband and father front. His mother, Clio, discarded by her husband and denied her son, had thrown her broken heart into creating a world-famous garden and only there had she found some measure of contentment. Jude himself? He recalled being truly happy only once, when he was twenty-one and on top of the world because back then he had loved Althea, and had believed that she loved him. He had truly believed that he could ignore all the cynics and rewrite Alexandris family history.
Sadly, that naive hope hadn’t lasted long. Althea had slept with another man, destroying everything he had ever felt for her and, seven years on, they were merely friends, who had agreed to marry for purely practical reasons. Thanks to his grandfather’s machinations, and the pressure those had put on him, Jude needed a wife in a hurry and Althea, divorced in the wake of a short, disastrous marriage, craved the freedom from family expectations that a second marriage would give her.
As Althea burst into floods of tears, Jude stood up in one fluid motion to ask if there was an office free. He was very tall at six foot five, lean and muscular with the physique of an athlete. He cropped his riot of black curls short. Flaring ebony brows framed shrewd dark eyes set below lashes long and lush enough to make the average woman weep in envy. A beautiful child, he had grown into an even more beautiful man. Lean, sculpted features, sheathed in olive skin and worthy of a Greek god, completed the vision of a male who turned female heads wherever he went.
One of his English legal team rose in haste to accommodate Jude’s request for a more private space and he urged Althea out of the room into one across the corridor.
‘I didn’t mean to just drop it on you like that…not in front of an audience!’ Althea sobbed. ‘But I can’t go through with it! It would be wrong for me…maybe not for you, but for me.’
‘Are you sure this isn’t just wedding nerves?’ Jude asked, leaning back against the door with the cool of a man who rarely lost control of his emotions.
This had been the day the prenuptial agreement was to be signed, and the wedding was to take place within the week. Jude would have been content with a quick civil ceremony, but Althea had wanted a big wedding, which had taken weeks of planning. Thanks to her insistence on all the glitzy trappings, he was now perilously close to the finishing line, which was only a couple of months away. If he didn’t have a wife by his thirtieth birthday, his mother, Clio, would be forced to leave her home and her precious garden and there would be nothing he could do to forestall that blow and the devastation it would inflict on her. Unfortunately for Clio, she lived in an Alexandris family property, which Jude would only inherit after his grandfather passed away and his grandfather, Isidore, was using that as a threat to force his grandson into taking a wife. His mother might be a rather difficult personality but Jude still wanted to protect her.
‘No, it’s not nerves.’ The slender blonde drew a tissue out of her bag and dabbed carefully at her eyes, struggling not to dislodge her fake lashes. ‘I realised that I was marrying you for the wrong reasons, that I’d be looking for more than you were willing to give and that I wouldn’t want to let you go at the end of it. That wouldn’t be fair to you or me, so I’m backing out now because I do value your friendship and I don’t want to lose that as well.
‘No, don’t say anything,’ Althea muttered in a wobbly undertone as he studied her with a troubled frown, his wide, sensual mouth compressing at that explanation. ‘I’m doing the right thing for both of us and you know it. You’re never going to feel anything more for me than you do now. I killed all that when I slept with your best friend. And now I’m leaving you in a hell of a mess and Dad’s going to go crazy about the wedding costs I’ve incurred.’
‘I’ll cover the expenses,’ Jude interposed, reaching for her hand.
‘You can’t, not when I’m the one backing out of our agreement,’ Althea protested, tugging her hand gently from his. ‘I’m always screwing up, Jude.’
‘No, you can blame me for this. I should never have told you what my grandfather was threatening to do in the first place.’
‘We’re friends. I offered, you didn’t ask for my help,’ Althea reminded him ruefully. ‘No, this is on me. Blame it on my never quite getting over you and craving the kudos of walking down the aisle with you. That appealed to my vanity and I’m ashamed of it. You’re not a trophy to be shown off.’
Registering that her reasons for not marrying him were not reasons he could argue with, Jude expelled his breath in a sharp hiss of grudging acceptance. ‘Let’s go back in and deal with the fallout.’
‘But what are you going to do now?’ Althea demanded, searching his face with a more calculating light in her gaze.
‘Find me a wife…one without the finer sensibilities that persuaded you to back out on me,’ he murmured wryly while fiercely resisting the urge to remonstrate with her about the feelings she was insisting she still cherished for him.
‘You won’t find anyone at this late stage,’ Althea countered. ‘You’d be wiser rethinking what you’re willing to offer me.’
Jude almost groaned out loud because he had already offered Althea everything he was prepared to offer. Unfortunately, she was still on the rebound from a bad marriage, and fanciful. She ignored the reality that seven years earlier she would never have slept with another man in the first place had she genuinely loved him and that in any case these days they were no longer the boy and girl they had once been. She had been his first love, his only love, but fidelity was a hard limit for Jude and, although he had forgiven her as a friend, she had annihilated the deeper feelings he had once had for her. She didn’t understand that, couldn’t accept that bottom line, but then that was Althea, always wanting most what she couldn’t have, always believing that a pretty gesture or the right words could work a miracle. Jude had always had a tougher and less idealistic outlook because his dysfunctional background had stolen his innocence when he was still very young.
His earliest memory was of his parents fighting over his father’s extramarital affairs. He remembered his father’s arrogant defiance and his mother’s agonised hurt and hysterical recriminations. He was the unfortunate baby who had been christened Judas in the cradle by his embittered mother because she had first caught his father in another woman’s bed shortly before she gave birth. In that moment, Jude had become the symbol of everything his mother had suffered, and he suspected that even now she had yet to manage to forgive him for it. His grandfather had despised his daughter-in-law and had renamed his grandson Jude and when, inevitably, there was a divorce, the older man had moved heaven and earth to ensure that Jude’s father was awarded full custody of his son and that his mother saw as little as possible of her child as he grew up.
‘You’re an Alexandris male,’ Clio had told Jude during one of her brief visits. ‘It’s written in your genes that you’ll lie and cheat with women just like your father. You won’t be able to help yourself.’
But, Jude was a natural rebel. As soon as he’d been told that, he had sworn that he would not repeat his father’s mistakes. After all, he had grown up with the consequences of his father’s inability to maintain a stable relationship with any woman. He had had several stepmothers and his absentee father had taken countless lovers as well. Ironically, his father had never loved any woman the way he had loved Jude’s mother, but he had been far too proud to admit that even to himself. Dion Alexandris had lived a life full of thrills and spills, ultimately dying in a racing accident in a car he should not have been driving. Jude was equally volatile, but he also had his mother’s common sense and his grandfather’s cool, cutting intellect, and he was a renowned ‘fixer’ in the business world, possessing that rare ability to rise above ego and emotion and see right to the heart of a matter to find a solution to complex problems.
Jude was on the way out of the office when one of his legal team members addressed him. ‘What will you do now?’
He glanced down with a frown at the smaller man, struggling to recall his name while remaining disconcerted that a junior executive would approach him in such a familiar fashion. ‘Cherchez la femme,’ he responded drily.
Calvin Hetherington squared his slight shoulders. Although he was not tall, he had the smooth, blond, boyish good looks of a fashion model. ‘What you need is a woman you can pay to marry you and who won’t make a fuss when you walk away.’
‘Is that so?’ Jude said discouragingly.
‘I know someone who wouldn’t cause you any trouble, who would marry you for a set fee.’
‘I’m sure I can find a gold-digger of my own,’ Jude murmured flatly.
‘But you need someone discreet, someone willing to stick to your rules, not a spoiled and privileged woman from your world,’ the older man contended. ‘Someone who will do it for a price without hassle or consequences.’
It was a compelling truth even if Jude wasn’t in the mood to listen to it. ‘And where am I likely to find this wonder woman?’ he prompted drily.
A card was settled into his empty hand. ‘Ring me if you decide you’re interested.’
‘Who is she?’ Jude demanded impatiently.
‘My stepdaughter. I want her out of my home because my girlfriend won’t move in until she moves out,’ Calvin offered with a wry roll of his eyes. ‘But Tansy has no money, no job.’
‘Not my problem, not in my interests either,’ Jude sliced in with ruthless bite as he strode into the lift, thrusting the card into his pocket while reflecting that occasionally you met some real weirdos, although he had not expected to discover that even a junior member of his British legal team fell into that category. Where had that presumptuous idiot got the idea that he could freely suggest some random young woman as a bride for Jude? Jude, who had grown up knowing that because of his unlimited wealth he could marry virtually any woman he set his sights on. He wasn’t desperate enough to consider settling on a complete stranger…was he?
No, of course, he wasn’t. Yet the seductive suggestion of a woman who would play by his rules and provide him with no unwelcome surprises could only linger with him in the wake of that messy denouement with Althea. Someone he paid to marry him, someone who had no personal stake in the marriage other than enrichment, he mused. Yes, that option would suit him best, a woman without her own agenda, a woman without personal feelings involved in the exchange, a woman who would simply marry him because he paid her handsomely to do so.
Even better, such a woman could be dispensed with as soon as he was able…easily, casually and without consequences. Yes, although Jude might not have appreciated his timing, Hetherington, he thought, glancing down at the card to get the name, had actually made a valid point. Simple guidelines and goals often worked the best. After all, he had already screwed up badly when he’d chosen to rely on Althea and their supposed friendship. Althea had made it all personal and emotional while Jude had seen absolutely no reason why emotion should figure in any part of the arrangement. A woman who could see that truth as clearly as he did would be his perfect match.
Jude had already reached a decision when he strode back into his opulent penthouse apartment. He had to consider every option before he ran out of time and that meant checking out the gold-digger possibility. He rang Hetherington. ‘I’m willing to meet your stepdaughter,’ he said flatly. ‘Set up a meeting.’