January 20, 2015
January 20, 2015
Playing By The Greek’s Rules
Puffin Island Book #0.5
RT Book Reviews Reviewer’s Choice Award Nominee 2015
Love Story Award nominee 2015 - Best Short Romance
"Morgan’s powerful page turner is a tale of two opposites. Her narrative is richly entertaining and informative, the settings are elegantly opulent and her characters are so real they become your friends. Lily’s anecdotal humor steals the show." 4.5 * Top Pick RT Book Reviews
LILY PULLED HER hat down to shade her eyes from the burn of the hot Greek sun and took a large gulp from her water bottle. ‘Never again.’ She sat down on the parched, sunbaked earth and watched as her friend carefully brushed away dirt and soil from a small, carefully marked section of the trench. ‘If I ever, ever mention the word “love” to you, I want you to bury me somewhere in this archaeological site and never dig me up again.’
‘There is an underground burial chamber. I could dump you in there if you like.’
‘Great idea. Stick a sign in the ground. “Here lies Lily, who wasted years of her life studying the origin, evolution and behaviour of humans and still couldn’t understand men”.’ She gazed across the ruins of the ancient city of Aptera to the sea beyond. They were high on a plateau. Behind them, the jagged beauty of the White Mountains shimmered in the heat and in front lay the sparkling blue of the Sea of Crete. The beauty of it usually lifted her mood, but not today.
Brittany sat up and wiped her brow with her forearm. ‘Stop beating yourself up. The guy is a lying, cheating rat bastard.’ Reaching for her backpack, she glanced across the site to the group of men who were deep in conversation. ‘Fortunately for all of us he’s flying back to London tomorrow to his wife. And all I can say to that is, God help the woman.’
Lily covered her face with her hands. ‘Don’t say the word “wife”. I am a terrible person.’
‘Hey!’ Brittany’s voice was sharp. ‘He told you he was single. He lied. The responsibility is all his. After tomorrow you won’t have to see him again and I won’t have to struggle not to kill him.’
‘What if she finds out and ends their marriage?’
‘Then she might have the chance of a decent life with someone who respects her. Forget him, Lily.’
How could she forget when she couldn’t stop going over and over it in her head?
Had there been signs she’d missed?
Had she asked the wrong questions?
Was she so desperate to find someone special that she’d ignored obvious signs?
‘I was planning our future. We were going to spend August touring the Greek Islands. That was before he pulled out a family photo from his wallet instead of his credit card. Three little kids wrapped around their dad like bindweed. He should have been taking them on holiday, not me! I can’t bear it. How could I have made such an appalling error of judgement? That is a line I never cross. Family is sacrosanct to me. If you asked me to pick between family and money, I’d pick family every time.’ It crossed her mind that right now she had neither. No money. No family. ‘I don’t know which is worse—the fact that he clearly didn’t know me at all, or the fact that when I checked him against my list he was perfect.’
‘You have a list?’
Lily felt herself grow pink. ‘It’s my attempt to be objective. I have a really strong desire for permanent roots. Family.’ She thought about the emotional wasteland of her past and felt a sense of failure. Was the future going to look the same way? ‘When you want something badly it can distort your decision-making process, so I’ve put in some layers of protection for myself. I know the basic qualities I need in a man to be happy. I never date anyone who doesn’t score highly on my three points.’
Brittany looked intrigued. ‘Big wallet, big shoulders and big—’
‘No! And you are appalling.’ Despite her misery, Lily laughed. ‘First, he has to be affectionate. I’m not interested in a man who can’t show his feelings. Second, he has to be honest, but short of getting him to take a lie detector test I don’t know how to check that one. I thought Professor Ashurst was honest. I’m never calling him David again, by the way.’ She allowed herself one glance at the visiting archaeologist who had dazzled her during their short, ill-fated relationship. ‘You’re right. He’s a rat pig.’
‘I didn’t call him a rat pig. I called him a rat b—’
‘I know what you called him. I never use that word.’
‘You should. It’s surprisingly therapeutic. But we shouldn’t be wasting this much time talking about him. Professor Asshat is history, like this stuff we’re digging up.’
‘I can’t believe you called him that.’
‘You should be calling him far worse. What’s the third thing on your list?’
‘I want a man with strong family values. He has to want a family. But not several different families at the same time. Now I know why he gave off all those signals about being a family man. Because he already was a family man.’ Lily descended into gloom. ‘My checklist is seriously flawed.’
‘Not necessarily. You need a more reliable test for honesty and you should maybe add “single” to your list, that’s all. You need to chill. Stop looking for a relationship and have some fun. Keep it casual.’
‘You’re talking about sex? That doesn’t work for me.’ Lily took another sip of water. ‘I have to be in love with a guy to sleep with him. The two are welded together for me. How about you?’
‘No. Sex is sex. Love is love. One is fun and the other is to be avoided at all costs.’
‘I don’t think like that. There is something wrong with me.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s not a crime to want a relationship. It just means you get your heart broken more than the average person.’ Brittany pushed her hat back from her face. ‘I can’t believe how hot it is. It’s not even ten o’clock and already I’m boiling like a lobster.’
‘And you know all about lobsters, coming from Maine. It’s summer and this is Crete. What did you expect?’
‘Right now I’d give anything for a few hours back home. I’m not used to summers that fry your skin from your body. I keep wanting to remove another layer of clothing.’
‘You’ve spent summers at digs all over the Mediterranean.’
‘And I moaned at each and every one.’ Brittany stretched out her legs and Lily felt a flash of envy.
‘You look like Lara Croft in those shorts. You have amazing legs.’
‘Too much time hiking in inhospitable lands searching for ancient relics. I want your gorgeous blonde hair.’ Brittany’s hair, the colour of polished oak, was gathered up from her neck in a ponytail. Despite the hat, her neck was already showing signs of the sun. ‘Listen, don’t waste another thought or tear on that man. Come out with us tonight. We’re going to the official opening of the new wing at the archaeological museum and afterwards we’re going to try out that new bar on the waterfront. My spies tell me that Professor Asshat won’t be there, so it’s going to be a great evening.’
‘I can’t. The agency rang this morning and offered me an emergency cleaning job.’
‘Lily, you have a masters in archaeology. You shouldn’t be taking these random jobs.’
‘My research grant doesn’t pay off my college loans and I want to be debt free. And anyway, I love cleaning. It relaxes me.’
‘You love cleaning? You’re like a creature from another planet.’
‘There’s nothing more rewarding than turning someone’s messy house into a shiny home, but I do wish the job wasn’t tonight. The opening would have been fun. A great excuse to wash the mud off my knees and dress up, not to mention seeing all those artefacts in one place. Never mind. I’ll focus on the money. They’re paying me an emergency rate for tonight.’
‘Cleaning is an emergency?’
Lily thought about the state of some of the houses she cleaned. ‘Sometimes, but in this case it’s more that the owner decided to arrive without notice. He spends most of his time in the US.’ She dug in her bag for more sunscreen. ‘Can you imagine being so rich you can’t quite decide which of your many properties you are going to sleep in?’
‘What’s his name?’
‘No idea. The company is very secretive. We have to arrive at a certain time and then his security team will let us in. Four hours later I add a gratifyingly large sum of money to my bank account and that’s the end of it.’
‘Four hours? It’s going to take five of you four hours to clean one house?’ Brittany paused with the water halfway to her mouth. ‘What is this place? A Minoan palace?’
‘A villa. It’s big. She said I’d be given a floor plan when I arrive, which I have to return when I leave and I’m not allowed to make copies.’
‘A floor plan?’ Brittany choked on her water. ‘Now I’m intrigued. Can I come with you?’
‘Sure—’ Lily threw her a look ‘—because scrubbing out someone’s shower is so much more exciting than having cocktails on the terrace of the archaeological museum while the sun sets over the Aegean.’
‘It’s the Sea of Crete.’
‘Technically it’s still the Aegean, and either way I’m missing a great party to scrub a floor. I feel like Cinderella. So what about you? Are you going to meet someone tonight and do something about your dormant love life?’
‘I don’t have a love life, I have a sex life, which is not at all dormant fortunately.’
Lily felt a twinge of envy. ‘Maybe you’re right. I need to lighten up and use men for sex instead of treating every relationship as if it’s going to end in confetti. You were an only child, weren’t you? Did you ever wish you had brothers or sisters?’
‘No, but I grew up on a small island.. The whole place felt like a massive extended family. Everyone knew everything, from the age you first walked, to whether you had all A’s on your report card.’
‘Sounds blissful.’ Lily heard the wistful note in her own voice. ‘Because I was such a sickly kid and hard work to look after, no one took me for long. My eczema was terrible when I was little and I was always covered in creams and bandages and other yucky stuff. I wasn’t exactly your poster baby. No one wanted a kid who got sick. I was about as welcome as a stray puppy with fleas.’
‘Crap, Lily, you’re making me tear up and I’m not even a sentimental person.’
‘Forget it. Tell me about your family instead.’ She loved hearing about other people’s families, about the complications, the love, the experiences woven into a shared history. To her, family seemed like a multicoloured sweater, with all the different coloured strands of wool knitted into something whole and wonderful that gave warmth and protection from the cold winds of life.
She picked absently at a thread hanging from the hem of her shorts. It felt symbolic of her life. She was a single fibre, loose, bound to nothing.
Brittany took another mouthful of water and adjusted the angle of her hat. ‘We’re a normal American family, I guess. Whatever that is. My parents were divorced when I was ten. My mom hated living on an island. Eventually she remarried and moved to Florida. My dad was an engineer and he spent all his time working on oil rigs around the world. I lived with my grandmother on Puffin Island.’
‘Even the name is adorable.’ Lily tried to imagine growing up on a place called Puffin Island. ‘Were you close to your grandmother?’
‘Very. She died a few years ago, but she left me her cottage on the beach so I’d always have a home. I take several calls a week from people wanting to buy the place but I’m never going to sell.’ Brittany poked her trowel into the ground. ‘My grandmother called it Castaway Cottage. When I was little I asked her if a castaway ever lived there and she said it was for people lost in life, not at sea. She believed it had healing properties.’
Lily didn’t laugh. ‘I might need to spend a month there. I need to heal.’
‘You’d be welcome. A friend of mine is staying at the moment. We use it as a refuge. It’s the best place on earth and I always feel close to my grandmother when I’m there. You can use it any time, Lil.’
‘Maybe I will. I still need to decide what I’m going to do in August.’
‘You know what you need? Rebound sex. Sex for the fun of it, without all the emotional crap that goes with relationships.’
‘I’ve never had rebound sex. I’d fall in love.’
‘So pick someone you couldn’t possibly fall in love with in a million years. Someone with exceptional bedroom skills, but nothing else to commend him. Then you can’t possibly be at risk.’ She broke off as Spyros, one of the Greek archaeologists from the local university, strolled across to them. ‘Go away, Spy, this is girl talk.’
‘Why do you think I’m joining you? It’s got to be more interesting than the conversation I just left.’ He handed Lily a can of chilled Diet Coke. ‘He’s a waste of space, theé mou.’ His voice was gentle and she coloured, touched by his kindness.
‘I know, I know.’ She lifted the weight of her hair from her neck, wishing she’d worn it up. ‘I’ll get over it.’
Spy dropped to his haunches next to her. ‘Want me to help you get over him? I heard something about rebound sex. I’m here for you.’
‘No thanks. You’re a terrible flirt. I don’t trust you.’
‘Hey, this is about sex. You don’t need to trust me.’ He winked at her. ‘What you need is a real man. A Greek man who knows how to make you feel like a woman.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I know the joke. You’re going to hand me your laundry and tell me to wash it. This is why you’re not going to be my rebound guy. I am not washing your socks.’ But Lily was laughing as she snapped the top of the can. Maybe she didn’t have a family, but she had good friends. ‘You’re forgetting that when I’m not cleaning the villas of the rich or hanging out here contributing nothing to my college fund, I work for the ultimate in Greek manhood.’
‘Ah yes.’ Spyros smiled. ‘Nik Zervakis. Head of the mighty ZervaCo. Man of men. Every woman’s fantasy.’
‘Not mine. He doesn’t tick a single box on my list.’
Spy raised his eyebrows and Brittany shook her head. ‘You don’t want to know. Go on, Lily, dish the dirt on Zervakis. I want to know everything from his bank balance to how he got that incredible six pack I saw in those sneaky photos of him taken in that actress’s swimming pool.’
‘I don’t know much about him, except that he’s super brilliant and expects everyone around him to be super brilliant too, which makes him pretty intimidating. Fortunately he spends most of his time in San Francisco or New York so he isn’t around much. I’ve been doing this internship for two months and in that time two personal assistants have left. It’s a good job he has a big human resources department because I can tell you he gets through a lot of human resources in the average working week. And don’t even start me on the girlfriends. I need a spreadsheet to keep it straight in my head.’
‘What happened to the personal assistants?’
‘Both of them resigned because of the pressure. The workload is inhuman and he isn’t easy to work for. He has this way of looking at you that makes you wish you could teleport. But he is very attractive. He isn’t my type so I didn’t pay much attention, but the women talk about him all the time.’
‘I still don’t understand why you’re working there.’
‘I’m trying different things. My research grant ends this month and I don’t know if I want to carry on doing this. I’m exploring other options. Museum work doesn’t pay much and anyway, I don’t want to live in a big city. I could never teach—’ She shrugged, depressed by the options. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘You’re an expert in ceramics and you’ve made some beautiful pots.’
‘That’s a hobby.’
‘You’re creative and artistic. You should do something with that.’
‘It isn’t practical to think I can make a living that way and dreaming doesn’t pay the bills.’ She finished her drink. ‘Sometimes I wish I’d read law, not archaeology, except that I don’t think I’m cut out for office work. I’m not good with technology. I broke the photocopier last week and the coffee machine hates me, but apparently having ZervaCo on your résumé makes prospective employers sit up. It shows you have staying power. If you can work there and not be intimidated, you’re obviously robust. And before you tell me that an educated woman shouldn’t allow herself to be intimidated by a guy, try meeting him.’
Spyros rose to his feet. ‘Plenty of people would be intimidated by Nik Zervakis. There are some who say his name along with the gods.’
Brittany pushed her water bottle back into her backpack. ‘Those would be the people whose salary he pays, or the women he sleeps with.’
Lily took off her hat and fanned herself. ‘His security team is briefed to keep them away from him. We are not allowed to put any calls through to him unless the name is on an approved list and that list changes pretty much every week. I have terrible trouble keeping up.’
‘So his protection squad is there to protect him from women?’ Brittany looked fascinated. ‘Unreal.’
‘I admire him. They say his emotions have never played a part in anything he does, business or pleasure. He is the opposite of everything I am. No one has ever dumped him or made him feel less of a person and he always knows what to say in any situation.’ She glanced once across the heat-baked ruins of the archaeological site towards the man who had lied so glibly. Thinking of all the things she could have said and hadn’t plunged her into another fit of gloom. ‘I’m going to try and be more like Nik Zervakis.’
Brittany laughed. ‘You’re kidding, right?’
‘No, I’m not kidding. He is like an ice machine. I want to be like that. How about you? Have either of you ever been in love?’
‘No!’ Spy looked alarmed, but Brittany didn’t answer. Instead she stared sightlessly across the plateau to the ocean.
‘Brittany?’ Lily prompted her. ‘Have you been in love?’
‘Not sure.’ Her friend’s voice was husky. ‘Maybe.’
‘Wow. Ball-breaking Brittany, in love?’ Spy raised his eyebrows. ‘Did you literally fire an arrow through his heart?’ He spread his hands as Lily glared at him. ‘What? She’s a Bronze Age weapons expert and a terrifyingly good archer. It’s a logical suggestion.’
Lily ignored him. ‘What makes you think you might have been in love? What were the clues?’
‘I married him.’
Spyros doubled up with soundless laughter and Lily stared.
‘You—? Okay. Well that’s a fairly big clue right there.’
‘It was a mistake.’ Brittany tugged the trowel out of the ground. ‘When I make mistakes I make sure they’re big. I guess you could call it a whirlwind romance.’
‘That sounds more like a hurricane than a whirlwind. How long did it last?’
Brittany stood up and brushed dust off her legs. ‘Ten days. Spy, if you don’t wipe that smile off your face I’m going to kick you into this trench and cover your corpse with a thick layer of dirt and shards of pottery.’
‘You mean ten years,’ Lily said and Brittany shook her head.
‘No. I mean days. We made it through the honeymoon without killing each other.’
Lily felt her mouth drop open and closed it again quickly. ‘What happened?’
‘I let my emotions get in the way of making sane decisions.’ Brittany gave a faint smile. ‘I haven’t fallen in love since.’
‘Because you learned how not to do it. You didn’t go and make the same mistake again and again. Give me some tips.’
‘I can’t. Avoiding emotional entanglement came naturally after I met Zach.’
‘Sexy guy.’ She shaded her eyes from the sun. ‘Sexy rat bastard guy.’
‘Another one,’ Lily said gloomily. ‘But you were young and everyone is allowed to make mistakes when they’re young. Not only do I not have that excuse, but I’m a habitual offender. I should be locked up until I’m safe to be rehabilitated. I need to be taken back to the store and reprogrammed.’
‘You do not need to be reprogrammed.’ Brittany stuffed her trowel into the front of her backpack. ‘You’re warm, friendly and lovable. That’s what guys like about you.’
‘That and the fact it takes one glance to know you’d look great naked,’ Spy said affably.
Lily turned her back on him. ‘Warm, friendly and lovable are great qualities for a puppy, but not so great for a woman. They say a person can change, don’t they? Well, I’m going to change.’ She scrambled to her feet. ‘I am not falling in love again. I’m going to take your advice and have rebound sex.’
‘Good plan.’ Spy glanced at his watch. ‘You get your clothes off, I’ll get us a room.’
‘Not funny.’ Lily glared at him. ‘I am going to pick someone I don’t know, don’t feel anything for and couldn’t fall in love with in a million years.’
Brittany looked doubtful. ‘Now I’m second-guessing myself. Coming from you it sounds like a recipe for disaster.’
‘It’s going to be perfect. All I have to do is find a man who doesn’t tick a single box on my list and have sex with him. It can’t possibly go wrong. I’m going to call it Operation Ice Maiden.’
Nik Zervakis stood with his back to the office, staring at the glittering blue of the sea while his assistant updated him. ‘Did he call?’
‘Yes, exactly as you predicted. How do you always know these things? I would have lost my nerve days ago with those sums of money involved. You don’t even break out in a sweat.’
Nik could have told him the deal wasn’t about money, it was about power. ‘Did you call the lawyers?’
‘They’re meeting with the team from Lexos first thing tomorrow. So it’s done. Congratulations, boss. The US media have turned the phones red-hot asking for interviews.’
‘It’s not over until the deal is signed. When that happens I’ll put out a statement, but no interviews.’ Nik felt some of the tension leave his shoulders. ‘Did you make a reservation at The Athena?’
‘Yes, but you have the official opening of the new museum wing first.’
Nik swore softly and swung round. ‘I’d forgotten. Do you have a briefing document on that?’
His PA paled. ‘No, boss. All I know is that the wing has been specially designed to display Minoan antiquities in one place. You were invited to the final meeting of the project team but you were in San Francisco.’
‘Am I supposed to give a speech?’
‘They’re hoping you will agree to say a few words.’
‘I can manage a few words, but they’ll be unrelated to Minoan antiquities.’ Nik loosened his tie. ‘Run me through the schedule.’
‘Vasillis will have the car here at six-fifteen, which should allow you time to go back to the villa and change. You’re picking up Christina on the way and your table is booked for nine p.m.’
‘Why not pick her up after I’ve changed?’
‘That would have taken time you don’t have.’
Nik couldn’t argue with that. The demands of his schedule had seen off three assistants in the last six months. ‘There was something else?’
The man shifted uncomfortably. ‘Your father called. Several times. He said you weren’t picking up your phone and asked me to relay a message.’
Nik flicked open the button at the neck of his shirt. ‘Which was?’
‘He wants to remind you that his wedding is next weekend. He thinks you’ve forgotten.’
Nik stilled. He hadn’t forgotten. ‘Anything else?’
‘He is looking forward to having you at the celebrations. He wanted me to remind you that of all the riches in this world, family is the most valuable.’
Nik, whose sentiments on that topic were a matter of public record, made no comment.
He wondered why anyone would see a fourth wedding as a cause for celebration. To him, it shrieked of someone who hadn’t learned his lesson the first three times. ‘I will call him from the car.’
‘There was one more thing—’ The man backed towards the door like someone who knew he was going to need to make a rapid exit. ‘He said to make sure you knew that if you don’t come, you’ll break his heart.’
It was a statement typical of his father. Emotional. Unguarded.
Reflecting that it was that very degree of sentimentality that had made his father the victim of three costly divorces, Nikos strolled to his desk. ‘Consider the message delivered.’
As the door closed he turned back to the window, staring over the midday sparkle of the sea.
Exasperation mingled with frustration and beneath that surface response lay darker, murkier emotions he had no wish to examine. He wasn’t given to introspection and he believed that the past was only useful when it informed the future, so finding himself staring down into a swirling mass of long-ignored memories was an unwelcome experience.
Despite the air conditioning, sweat beaded on his forehead and he strode across his office and pulled a bottle of iced water from the fridge.
Why should it bother him that his father was marrying again?
He was no longer an idealistic nine-year-old, shattered by a mother’s betrayal and driven by a deep longing for order and security.
He’d learned to make his own security. Emotionally he was an impenetrable fortress. He would never allow a relationship to explode the world from under his feet. He didn’t believe in love and he saw marriage as expensive and pointless.
Unfortunately his father, an otherwise intelligent man, didn’t share his views. He’d managed to build a successful business from nothing but the fruits of the land around him, but for some reason he had failed to apply that same intellect to his love life.
Nik reflected that if he approached business the way his father approached relationships, he would be broke.
As far as he could see his father performed no risk analysis, gave no consideration to the financial implications of each of his romantic whims and approached each relationship with the romantic optimism entirely inappropriate for a man on his fourth marriage.
Nik’s attempts to encourage at least some degree of circumspection had been dismissed as cynical.
To make the situation all the more galling, the last time they’d met for dinner his father had actually lectured him on his lifestyle as if Nik’s lack of divorces suggested a deep character flaw.
Nik closed his eyes briefly and wondered how everything in his business life could run so smoothly while his family was as messy as a dropped pan of spaghetti. The truth was he’d rather endure the twelve labours of Hercules than attend another of his father’s weddings.
This time he hadn’t met his father’s intended bride and he didn’t want to. He failed to see what he would bring to the proceedings other than grim disapproval and he didn’t want to spoil the day.
Weddings depressed him. All the champagne bubbles in the world couldn’t conceal the fact that two people were paying a fortune for the privilege of making a very public mistake.
Lily dumped her bag in the marble hallway and tried to stop her jaw from dropping.
Palatial didn’t begin to describe it. Situated on the headland overlooking the sparkling blue of the sea, Villa Harmonia epitomised calm, high-end luxury.
Wondering where the rest of the team were, she wandered out onto the terrace.
Tiny paths wound down through the tumbling gardens to a private cove with a jetty where a platform gave direct swimming access to the sea.
‘I’ve died and gone to heaven.’ Disturbed from her trance by the insistent buzz of her phone, she dug it out of her pocket. Her simple uniform was uncomfortably tight, courtesy of all the delicious thyme honey and Greek yoghurt she’d consumed since arriving in Crete. Her phone call turned out to be the owner of the cleaning company, who told her that the rest of the team had been involved in an accident and wouldn’t make it.
‘Oh no, are they hurt?’ On hearing that no one was in hospital but that the car was totalled, Lily realised she was going to be on her own with this job. ‘So if it normally takes four of us four hours, how is one person going to manage?’
‘Concentrate on the living areas and the master suite. Pay particular attention to the bathroom.’
Resigned to doing the best she could by herself, Lily set to work. Choosing Mozart from her soundtrack, she pushed in her earbuds and sang her way through The Magic Flute while she brushed and mopped the spacious living area.
Whoever lived here clearly didn’t have children, she thought as she plumped cushions on deep white sofas and polished glass tables. Everything was sophisticated and understated.
Realising that dreaming would get her fired, Lily hummed her way up the curving staircase to the master bedroom and stopped dead.
The tiny, airless apartment she shared with Brittany had a single bed so narrow she’d twice fallen out of it in her sleep. This bed, by contrast, was large enough to sleep a family of six comfortably. It was positioned to take advantage of the incredible view across the bay and Lily stood, drooling with envy, imagining how it must feel to sleep in a bed this size. How many times could you roll over before finding yourself on the floor? If it were hers, she’d spread out like a starfish.
Glancing quickly over her shoulder to check there was no sign of the security team, she unclipped her phone from her pocket and took a photo of the bed and the view.
One day, she texted Brittany, I’m going to have sex in a bed like this.
Brittany texted back, I don’t care about the bed, just give me the man who owns it.
With a last wistful look at the room, Lily tucked her phone carefully into her bag and strolled into the bathroom. A large tub was positioned next to a wall of glass, offering the owner an uninterrupted view of the ocean. The only way to clean something so large was to climb inside it, so she did that, extra careful not to slip.
When it was gleaming, she turned her attention to the large walk-in shower. There was a sophisticated control panel on the wall and she looked at it doubtfully. Remembering her disastrous experience with the photocopier and the coffee machine, she was reluctant to touch anything, but what choice was there?
Lifting her hand, she pressed a button cautiously and gasped as a powerful jet of freezing water hit her from the opposite wall.
Breathless, she slammed her hand on another button to try and stop the flow but that turned on a different jet and she was blasted with water until her hair and clothes were plastered to her body and she couldn’t see. She thumped the wall blindly and was alternately scalded and frozen until finally she managed to turn off the jets. Panting, her hair and clothes plastered to her body, she sank to the floor while she tried to get her breath back, shivering and dripping like a puppy caught in the rain.
‘I hate, hate, hate technology.’ She pushed her hair back from her face, took it in her hands and twisted it into a rope, squeezing to remove as much of the water as she could. Then she stood up, but her uniform was dripping and stuck to her skin. If she walked back through the villa like this, she’d drip water everywhere and she didn’t have time to clean the place again.
Peeling off her uniform, she was standing in her underwear wringing out the water when she heard a sound from the bedroom.
Assuming it must be one of the security team, she gave a whimper of horror. ‘Hello? If there’s anyone out there, don’t come in for a moment because I’m just—’ She stilled as a woman appeared in the doorway.
She was perfectly groomed, her slender body sheathed in a silk dress the colour of coral, her mouth a sheen of blended lipstick and lip-gloss.
Lily had never felt more outclassed in her life.
‘Nik?’ The woman spoke over her shoulder, her tone icy. ‘Your sex drive is, of course, a thing of legend but for the record it’s always a good idea to remove the last girlfriend before installing a new one.’
‘What are you talking about?’ The male voice came from the bedroom, deep, bored and instantly recognisable.
Still shivering from the impact of the cold water, Lily closed her eyes and wondered if any of the buttons on the control panel operated an ejector seat.
Now she knew who owned the villa.
Moments later he appeared in the doorway and Lily peered through soaked lashes and had her second ever look at Nik Zervakis. Confronted by more good looks and sex appeal than she’d ever seen concentrated in one man before, her tummy tumbled and she felt as if she were plunging downhill on a roller coaster.
He stood, legs braced apart, his handsome face blank of expression as if finding a semi-naked woman in his shower wasn’t an event worthy of an emotional response. ‘Well?’
That was all he was going to say?
Braced for an explosion of volcanic proportions, Lily gulped. ‘I can explain—’
‘I wish you would.’ The woman’s voice turned from ice to acid and her expensively shod foot tapped rhythmically on the floor. ‘This should be worth hearing.’
‘I’m the cleaner—’
‘Of course you are. Because “cleaners” always end up naked in the client’s shower.’ Vibrating with anger, she turned the beam of her angry glare onto the man next to her. ‘Nik?’
Her mouth tightened into a thin, dangerous line. ‘Who is she?’
‘You heard her. She’s the cleaner.’
‘Obviously she’s lying.’ The woman bristled. ‘No doubt she’s been here all day, sleeping off the night before.’
His only response to that was a faint narrowing of those spectacular dark eyes.
Recalling someone warning her on her first day with his company that Nik Zervakis was at his most dangerous when he was quiet, Lily felt her anxiety levels rocket but apparently her concerns weren’t shared by his date for the evening, who continued to berate him.
‘Do you know the worst thing about this? Not that you have a wandering eye, but that your eye wanders to someone as fat as her.’
‘Excuse me? I’m not fat.’ Lily tried vainly to cover herself with the soaking uniform. ‘I’ll have you know that my BMI is within normal range.’
But the woman wasn’t listening. ‘Was she the reason you were late picking me up? I warned you, Nik, no games, and yet you do this to me. Well, you gambled and you lost because I don’t do second chances, especially this early in a relationship and if you can’t be bothered to give an explanation then I can’t be bothered to ask for one.’ Without giving him the chance to respond, his date stalked out of the room and Lily flinched in time with each furious tap of those skyscraper heels.
She stood in awkward silence, her feelings bruised and her spirits drenched in cold water and guilt. ‘She’s very upset.’
‘Er—is she coming back?’
‘I sincerely hope not.’
Lily wanted to say that he was well rid of her, but decided that protecting her job was more important than honesty. ‘I’m really sorry—’
‘Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.’
Knowing that wasn’t quite true, she squirmed. ‘If I hadn’t had an accident, I would have had my clothes on when she walked into the room.’
‘An accident? I’ve never considered my shower to be a place of danger but apparently I was wrong about that.’ He eyed the volume of water on the floor and her drenched clothing. ‘What happened?’
‘Your shower is like the flight deck of a jumbo jet, that’s what happened!’ Freezing and soaked, Lily couldn’t stop her teeth chattering. ‘There are no instructions.’
‘I don’t need instructions.’ His gaze slid over her with slow, disturbing thoroughness. ‘I’m familiar with the workings of my own shower.’
‘Well I’m not! I had no idea which buttons to press.’
‘So you thought you’d press all of them? If you ever find yourself on the flight deck of a Boeing 747 I suggest you sit on your hands.’
‘It’s not f-f-funny. I’m soaking wet and I didn’t know you were going to come home early.’
‘I apologise.’ Irony gleamed in those dark eyes. ‘I’m not in the habit of notifying people of my movements in advance. Have you finished cleaning or do you want me to show you which buttons to press?’
Lily summoned as much dignity as she could in the circumstances. ‘Your shower is clean. Extra clean, because I wiped myself around it personally.’ Anxious to make her exit as fast as possible, she kept her eyes fixed on the door and away from that tall, powerful frame. ‘Are you sure she isn’t coming back?’
Lily paused, torn between relief and guilt. ‘I’ve ruined another relationship.’
‘Another?’ Dark eyebrows lifted. ‘It’s a common occurrence?’
‘You have no idea. Look—if it would help I could call my employer and ask her to vouch for me.’ Her voice tailed off as she realised that would mean confessing she’d been caught half naked in the shower.
He gave a faint smile. ‘Unless you have a very liberal-minded employer, you might want to rethink that idea.’
‘There must be some way I can fix this. I’ve ruined your date, although for the record I don’t think she’s a very kind person so she might not be good for you in the long term and with a body that bony she won’t be very cuddly for your children.’ She caught his eye. ‘Are you laughing at me?’
‘No, but the ability to cuddle children isn’t high on my list of necessary female attributes.’ He flung his jacket carelessly over the back of a sofa that was bigger than her bed at home.
She stared in fascination, wondering if he cared at all that his date had walked out. ‘As a matter of interest, why didn’t you defend yourself?’
‘Why would I defend myself?’
‘You could have explained yourself and then she would have forgiven you.’
‘I never explain myself. And anyway—’ he shrugged ‘—you had already given her an explanation.’
‘I don’t think she saw me as a credible witness. It might have sounded better coming from you.’
He stood, legs spread, his powerful shoulders blocking the doorway. ‘I assume you told her the truth? You’re the cleaner?’
‘Of course I told her the truth.’
‘Then there was nothing I could have added to your story.’
In his position she would have died of humiliation, but he seemed supremely indifferent to the fact he’d been publicly dumped. ‘You don’t seem upset.’
‘Why would I be upset?’
‘Because most people are upset when a relationships ends.’
He smiled. ‘I’m not one of those.’
Lily felt a flash of envy. ‘You’re not even a teeny tiny bit sad?’
‘I’m not familiar with that unit of measurement but no, I’m not even a “teeny tiny” bit sad. To be sad I’d have to care and I don’t care.’
To be sad I’d have to care and I don’t care.
Brilliant, Lily thought. Why couldn’t she have said that to Professor Ashford when he’d given her that fake sympathy about having hurt her? She needed to memorise it for next time. ‘Excuse me a moment.’ Leaving a dripping trail behind her, she shot past him, scrabbled in her bag and pulled out a notebook.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m writing down what you said. Whenever I’m dumped I never know the right thing to say, but next time it happens I’m going to say exactly those words in exactly that tone instead of producing enough tears to power a water feature at Versailles.’ She scribbled, dripping water onto her notebook and smearing the ink.
‘Being “dumped” is something that happens to you often?’
‘Often enough. I fall in love, I get my heart broken, it’s a cycle I’m working on breaking.’ She wished she hadn’t said anything. Although she was fairly open with people, she drew the line at making public announcements about not being easy to love.
That was her secret.
‘How many times have you fallen in love?’
‘So far?’ She shook the pen with frustration as the ink stalled on the damp page, ‘Three times.’
‘Cristo, that’s unbelievable.’
‘Thanks for not making me feel better. I bet you’ve never been unlucky in love, have you?’
‘I’ve never been in love at all.’
Lily digested that. ‘You’ve never met the right person.’
‘I don’t believe in love.’
‘You—’ She rocked back on her heels, her attention caught. ‘So what do you believe in?’
‘Money, influence and power.’ He shrugged. ‘Tangible, measurable goals.’
‘You can measure power and influence? Don’t tell me—you stamp your foot and it registers on the Richter scale.’
He loosened his tie. ‘You’d be surprised.’
‘I’m already surprised. Gosh you are so cool. You are my new role model.’ Finally she managed to coax ink from the pen. ‘It is never too late to change. From now on I’m all about tangible, measurable goals, too. As a matter of interest, what is your goal in relationships?’
‘Orgasm.’ He gave a slow smile and she felt herself turn scarlet.
‘Right. Well, that serves me right for asking a stupid question. That’s definitely a measurable goal. You’re obviously able to be cold and ruthlessly detached when it comes to relationships. I’m aiming for that. I’ve dripped all over your floor. Be careful not to slip.’
He was leaning against the wall, watching her with amusement. ‘This is what you look like when you’re being cold and ruthlessly detached?’
‘I haven’t actually started yet, but the moment my radar warns me I might be in danger of falling for the wrong type, bam—’ she punched the air with her fist ‘—I’m going to turn on my freezing side. From now on I have armour around my heart. Kevlar.’ She gave him a friendly smile. ‘You think I’m crazy, right? All this is natural to you. But it isn’t to me. This is the first stage of my personality transplant. I’d love to do the whole thing under anaesthetic and wake up all new and perfect, but that isn’t possible so I’m trying to embrace the process.’
A vibrating noise caught her attention and she glanced across the room towards his jacket. When he didn’t move, she looked at him expectantly. ‘That’s your phone.’
He was still watching her, his gaze disturbingly intent. ‘Yes.’
‘You’re not going to answer it?’ She scrambled to her feet, still clutching the towel. ‘It might be her, asking for your forgiveness.’
‘I’m sure it is, which is why I don’t intend to answer it.’
Lily absorbed that with admiration. ‘This is a perfect example of why I need to be like you and not like me. If that had been my phone, I would have answered it and when whoever was on the end apologised for treating me badly, I would have told him it was fine. I would have forgiven them.’
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘You do need help. What’s your name?’
She shifted, her wet feet sticking to the floor. ‘Lily. Like the flower.’
‘You look familiar. Have we met before?’
Lily felt the colour pour into her cheeks. ‘I’ve been working as an intern at your company two days a week for the past couple of months. I’m second assistant to your personal assistant.’ I’m the one who broke the photocopier and the coffee machine.
Dark eyebrows rose. ‘We’ve met?’
‘No. I’ve only seen you once in person. I don’t count the time I was hiding in the bathroom.’
‘You hid in the bathroom?’
‘You were on a firing spree. I didn’t want to be noticed.’
‘So you work for me two days a week, and on the other three days you’re working as a cleaner?’
‘No, I only do that job in the evenings. The other three days I’m doing fieldwork up at Aptera for the summer. But that’s almost finished. I’ve reached a crossroads in my life and I’ve no idea which direction to take.’
‘Fieldwork?’ That sparked his interest. ‘You’re an archaeologist?’
‘Yes, I’m part of a project funded by the university but that part doesn’t pay off my massive college loans so I have other jobs.’
‘How much do you know about Minoan antiquities?’
Lily blinked. ‘Probably more than is healthy for a woman of twenty-four.’
‘Good. Get back into the bathroom and dry yourself off while I find you a dress. Tonight I have to open the new wing of the museum. You’re coming with me.’
‘Me? Don’t you have a date?’
‘I had a date,’ he said smoothly. ‘As you’re partially responsible for the fact she’s no longer here, you’re coming in her place.’
‘But—’ She licked her lips. ‘I’m supposed to be cleaning your villa.’
His gaze slid from her face to the wash of water covering the bathroom floor. ‘I’d say you’ve done a pretty thorough job. By the time we get home, the flood will have spread down the stairs and across the living areas, so it will clean itself.’
Lily gave a gurgle of laughter. She wondered if any of his employees realised he had a sense of humour. ‘You’re not going to fire me?’
‘You should have more confidence in yourself. If you have knowledge of Minoan artefacts then I still have a use for you and I never fire people who are useful.’ He reached for the towel and tugged it off, leaving her clad only in her soaking wet underwear.
‘What are you doing?’ She gave a squeak of embarrassment and snatched at the towel but he held it out of reach.
‘Stop wriggling. I can’t be the first man to see you half naked.’
‘Usually I’m in a relationship when a man sees me naked. And being stared at is very unnerving, especially when you’ve been called fat by someone who looks like a toast rack—’ Lily broke off as he turned and strolled away from her. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or affronted. ‘If you want to know my size you could ask me!’
He reached for his phone and dialled. While he waited for the person on the other end to answer, he scanned her body and gave her a slow, knowing smile. ‘I don’t need to ask, theé mou,’ he said softly. ‘I already know your size.’