“Welcome home, my wife.”
Morgan froze inside Villa Angelica’s expansive marble and limestone living room with its spectacular floor to ceiling view of blue sky and sea, but saw none of the view, and only Drakon’s face.
It’d been five years since she’d last seen him. Five and a half years since their extravagant two million dollar wedding. Two million dollars on a wedding for a marriage that had lasted just six months.
She’d dreaded this moment. Feared it. And yet Drakon sounded so relaxed and warm, so normal, as if he was welcoming her back from a little holiday instead of her walking out on him, and their marriage, five years ago.
“Not your wife, Drakon,” she said softly, huskily, because they both knew she hadn’t been his anything for years. They hadn’t spoken in years. There had been nothing, no word, no contact, not after the flurry of legal missives that followed her filing for divorce.
He’d refused to grant her the divorce. She’d spent a fortune fighting him. But no attorney, no lawsuit, no amount of money could persuade him to let her go. Marriage vows, he’d said, were sacred and binding. She was his. And apparently the courts in Greece agreed with him. Or were bought by him. Probably the latter.
“You are most definitely still my wife, but that’s not a conversation I want to have across a room this size. Do come in, Morgan. Don’t be a stranger. What would you like to drink? Champagne? A bellini? Something a little stronger?”
But her feet didn’t move. Her legs wouldn’t carry her. Not when her heart was beating so fast. She was shocked by Drakon’s appearance. Wondered for a moment if it really was Drakon and unnerved, she looked away, past his broad shoulder to the wall of window behind him, with that breathtaking blue sky and jagged cliffs and azure sea.
So blue and beautiful today. A perfect spring day on the Amalfi Coast.
“I don’t want anything,” she said, her gaze jerking back to him, although truthfully, a glass of cool water would taste like heaven right now. Her mouth was so dry. Her pulse was too quick. Her head was spinning, making her dizzy from nerves and anxiety. Who was this man before her?
The Drakon Xanthis she’d married had been honed, sleek, and polished, a man of taut, gleaming lines and angles.
This tall, intimidating man in front of the picture window was broader in the shoulders and chest than Drakon had ever been, and his thick inky brown and black hair hung in loose curls to almost his shoulders, while his hard fierce features were hidden by a dark beard. The wild hair and beard should have obscured his sensual beauty, rendered him reckless, powerless. Instead the tangle of hair and beard highlighted his bronze brow, the long straight nose, the firm mouth, the piercing amber gold eyes.
His hair was still damp and his bronzed skin gleamed as if he’d just risen from the sea, the Greek god, Poseidon, come to life from ancient myth.
She didn’t like it. Didn’t like any of this. She’d prepared herself for one thing, but not this…
“You look pale,” he said, his voice so deep it was almost a caress.
She steeled herself against it. Against him. “It was a long trip.”
“Even more reason for you to come sit.”
Her hands clenched into fists at her sides. She hated being here. Hated him for only seeing her here at Villa Angelica the place where they’d honeymooned for a month following their spectacular wedding. It’d been the happiest month of her life, and then honeymoon over, they left the villa, flew to Greece, and the honeymoon really was over. Nothing was ever the same between them again. “I’m fine here,” she said.
“I won’t hurt you,” he replied softly.
Her nails pierced her skin. Her eyes stung. If her legs would function, she’d run. Protect herself. Save herself. If only she had someone else to go to, someone else who would help her, but there was no one. Just Drakon. Just the man who destroyed her, making her question her own sanity. “You already did that.”
“You say that, my love, and yet you’ve never told me how—“
“As you said, that isn’t something to discuss across a room of this size. And we both know I didn’t come here to discuss us. Didn’t come to rehash the past, bring up old ghosts, old pain. I came for your help. You know what I need. You know what’s at stake. Will you do it? Will you help me?”
“Six million dollars is a lot of money.”
“Not to you.”
“Things have changed. Your father lost over four hundred million dollars of what I gave him.”
“It wasn’t his fault.” She met his gaze and held it, knowing that if she didn’t stand up to him now, he’d crush her. Just as he’d crushed her all those years ago.
Drakon, like her father, played by no rules but his own.
A Greek shipping tycoon, Drakon Sebastian Xanthis was a man obsessed with control, and power. A man obsessed with wealth and growing his empire. A man obsessed with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Bronwyn. The stunning Australian who ran his Southeast Asia business.
Her eyes burned and her jaw ached.
But no. She wouldn’t think of Bronwyn now. Wouldn’t wonder if the willowy blonde still worked for him. It wasn’t important. Morgan wasn’t part of Drakon’s life anymore. She didn’t care who Drakon employed or how he interacted with his female vice presidents or where they stayed on their business trips or what they discussed over their long dinners together.
“Is that what you really believe?” he asked now, voice almost silky. “That your father is blameless?”
“Absolutely. He was completely misled—“
“As you have been. Your father is one of the biggest players in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes ever. Twenty five billion dollars is missing, and your father funneled five billion of that to Michael Amery, earning ten percent interest on the five billion.”
“He never saw that kind of money—“
“For God’s sake, Morgan, you’re talking to me, Drakon, your husband. I know your father. I know exactly who and what he is. Do not play me for a fool!”
Morgan ground her teeth together harder, holding back the words, the tears, the anger, the shame. Her father wasn’t a monster. He didn’t steal from his clients. He was just as deceived as they were and yet no one would give him an opportunity to explain, or defend himself. The media had tried and convicted him and everyone believed the press. Everyone believed the wild accusations. “He’s innocent, Drakon. He had no idea Michael Amery was running a pyramid scheme. Had no idea all those numbers and profits were a lie.”
“Then if he’s so innocent, why did he flee the country? Why didn’t he stay like Amery’s sons and cousins and fight instead of setting sail to avoid prosecution?”
“He panicked. He was frightened—“
“Absolutely rubbish. If that’s the case, your father is a coward and deserves his fate.”
She shook her head in silent protest, her gaze pinned to Drakon’s features. He might not look like Drakon, but it was him. She knew his deep, smooth voice. And those eyes. His eyes. She’d fallen in love with his eyes first. She’d met him at the annual Life Ball in Vienna, and they hadn’t danced—Drakon didn’t dance—but he’d watched her all evening and at first she’d been discomfited by the intensity of his gaze, and then she’d come to like it. Want it. Crave it.
In those early weeks and months when he’d pursued her, Drakon had seduced her with his eyes, examining her, holding her, possessing her long before he’d laid a single finger on her. And of course by the time he did, she was his, completely.
The last five years had been brutal. Beyond brutal. And just when Morgan had found herself again, and felt hopeful and excited about her future again, her world came crashing down with the revelation that her beloved, brilliant financier father, Daniel Copeland, was part of Michael Amery’s horrific Ponzi scheme. And instead of her father handling the crisis with his usual aplomb, he cracked and ran, creating an even bigger international scandal.
She drew a slow, unsteady breath. “I can’t leave him in Somalia to die, Drakon. The pirates will kill him if they don’t get the ransom money—“
“Would serve him right.”
“He’s my father.”
“You’ll put yourself in debt for the rest of your life, just to buy his freedom, even though you know that his freedom will be short-lived?”
“You do understand that he’ll be arrested the moment he tries to enter any North American or European country?”
“He’s never going to be free again. He’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison, just like Michael Amery will, once he’s caught, too.”
“I understand. But far better for my father to be in an American prison than held by Somali pirates. At least in the United States he could get medical care if he’s sick or medicine for his blood pressure. At least he could have visitors and letters and contact with the outside world. God knows what his conditions are like in Somalia—“
“I’m sure they’re not luxurious. But why should the American tax-payer have to support your father? Let him stay where he is. It’s what he deserves.”
“Do you say this to hurt me, or is it because he lost so much of your money?”
“I’m a businessman. I don’t like to lose money. But I was only four hundred million of the five billion he gave to Amery. What about those others? The majority were regular people, a working middle class. People who trusted your father with their retirement money…their life savings. And what did he do? Your father wiped them out. Left them with nothing. No retirement, no security, no way to pay the bills now that they’re older and frailer and unemployable.”
Morgan blinked hard to clear her vision. “Michael Amery was my father’s best friend. He was like family. Dad trusted him implicitly.” Her voice cracked, broke and she struggled to regain her composure. “I grew up calling him Uncle Michael. I thought of him as my uncle.”
“Yes, that’s what you told me. Just before I gave your father $400 million to invest for me. I nearly gave him more. Your father wanted more. Twice as much, as a matter of fact.”
“I am so sorry.”
“I trusted your father.” His gaze met hers and held. “Trusted you. I know better now.”
She exhaled slowly. “Does that mean you won’t help me?”
“It means…” His voice faded, and his gaze narrowed as he looked at her, closely, carefully, studying her intently. “Probably not.”
“Probably?” she repeated hoarsely, aware that if Drakon wouldn’t help her, no one would. The world hated him. The world wanted him gone. They all hoped he was dead. And they all hoped he’d suffered before he died, too.
“Surely you must realize I’m no fan of your father’s, glykia mou.”
“You don’t have to be a fan of my father’s to loan me the money. We’ll draft a contract, a legal document that is between you and me, and I will pay you back in regular installments. It will take time, but it’ll happen. My business is growing, building. I’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars of orders coming in. I promise—“
“Just like you promised to love me? Honor me? Be true to me for better or worse, in sickness and in health?”
She winced. He made it sound as if she didn’t ever care for him, when nothing could be further from the truth. The truth was, she’d cared too much. She’d loved him without reservation. And by loving him so much, she’d lost herself entirely. “So why haven’t you divorced me then? If you despise me so much, why not let me go? Set me free?”
“Because I’m not like you. I don’t make commitments and run from them. I don’t make promises and then break them. I promised five and a half years ago to be loyal to you, and I have been.”
His deep gravelly voice was making her insides wobble while his focused gaze rested on her, examining her, as if she were a prized pet that had been lost and found.
“Those are just words, Drakon. They mean nothing to me. Not when your actions speak so much louder.”
“Yes, your actions. Or your lack of action. You only do something if it benefits you. You married me because it benefitted you…or thought it’d benefit you. And then when times were difficult…when I became difficult…you disappeared. You wouldn’t grant me a divorce but you certainly didn’t come after me, fight for me. And then when the world turned against us, where were you again? Nowhere. God knows you wouldn’t want your name sullied by connection with the Copeland family!”
He studied her for an endless moment. “Interesting how you put things together. But not entirely surprised. You’ve inherited your mother’s flare for the dramatic—“
“I hate you! I do.” Her voice shook, and her eyes burned but she wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He’d taken everything from her but not anymore. “I knew you’d mock me, humiliate me. I knew when I flew here, you’d make it difficult, but I came anyway, determined to do whatever I had to do to help my father. You’ll let me plead with you, you’ll let me beg—“
“That was a very passionate speech, so please forgive my interruption, but I’d like to clarify something. I don’t believe you’ve begged. You’ve asked for money. You’ve demanded money. You’ve explained why you needed money. But there’s been very little pleading, and absolutely no begging, at all.”
A pulse beat wildly in her throat. She could feel the same wild flutter in her wrists and behind her ears. Everything in her was racing, raging. “Is that what you want? You’d like for me to beg you to help me?”
His head cocked, and he studied her, his gaze penetrating. “It’d certainly be a little more conciliatory, and far less antagonistic.”
“Conciliatory.” She repeated the word, rolling it over in her mouth, finding it sharp and bitter.
He said nothing, just watched her, and she felt almost breathless at the scrutiny, the breathlessness of old, remembering how it’d been between them during their four weeks here on their honeymoon. It was in this villa she learned about love and lust, sex and pleasure, as well as pain and control, and the loss of control.
Drakon never lost control. But he made sure she did at least once a day, sometimes two or three times.
Their sex life had been hot. Explosive. Erotic. She was a virgin when she married him and their first time together had been uncomfortable. He was large and it’d hurt when he entered her fully. He’d tried to make it pleasurable for her but she’d been so overwhelmed and emotional, as well as let down. She couldn’t respond properly, couldn’t climax, and she knew she was supposed to. Knew he wanted her to.
He showered with her afterwards, and kissed her, and beneath the pulsing spray of the shower, he lavished attention on her breasts and nipples, the curve of her buttocks and the cleft between her thighs, lightly playing with her clit until he finally accomplished what he hadn’t in bed—she came, one of his arms holding her up as she climaxed. He held her up since her legs were too weak to do the job, and then kissed her deeply, possessively, when she could catch her breath, assuring her that the next time he entered her, it wouldn’t hurt. That sex would never hurt again.
But that didn’t mean sex was always easy or comfortable.
Drakon liked it hot. Intense. Sensual. Raw. Unpredictable.
He loved to stand across the room from her---just as he was doing now—and he’d tell her what to do. Tell her what he wanted. Sometimes he wanted her to strip and then walk naked to him. Sometimes he wanted her to strip to just her panties and crawl to him. Sometimes he wanted her to wear nothing but her elegant heels and bend over…or put a foot on a chair and he’d tell her where to touch herself.
Each time Morgan would protest but he’d look at her from beneath his black lashes, his amber gaze lazy, his full mouth curved, and he’d tell her how beautiful she was and how much he enjoyed looking at her, that it gave him so much pleasure to see her, and to have her trust him…
She hated those words, hated the element of dominance, but it was part of the foreplay. They had good sex in bed, but then they had this other kind of sex…the sex where they played erotic games that pushed her out of her comfort zone. It was confusing. But inevitably she did what he asked, and then somewhere along the way, he’d join her, and his mouth would be on her, between her legs, and his hands would hold her, fingers tight on her butt, or in her hair, or gripping her thighs, holding them apart, and he’d make love to her with his mouth and his fingers and his body and he’d arouse her so slowly that she feared she wouldn’t ever come, and then just when the desire turned sharp and hurt, he’d relent. He’d flick the tip of his tongue across that small sensitive nub, or suck on her, or stroke her, or enter her and she’d break. Shatter. And the orgasms were so intense. They seemed to go on forever. Maybe it’s because he made sure they went on forever. And by the time he was finished, she was finished. There was nothing left. She was drained, spent, but also quiet. Compliant.
He loved her flushed and warm, quiet and compliant. Loved her physically that is, as long as she made no emotional demands. Required no attention. No conversation. No time, energy or patience.
Morgan’s chest ached. Her heart hurt. She’d been so young then, so trusting and naïve. She’d been determined to please him, her beautiful, sensual Greek husband.
Their honeymoon here, those thirty days of erotic lovemaking, had changed her forever. She couldn’t even think of this villa without remembering how he’d made love to her in every single room, in every way imaginable. Taking her on chairs and beds, window seats and stairs. Pressing her naked back or breasts to priceless carpets, the marble floor, the cool emerald green Italian tiles in the hall…
She wanted to throw up. He hadn’t just taken her. He’d broken her.
“Help me out if you would, Drakon,” she said, her voice pitched low, hoarse. “I’m not sure I understand you, and I don’t know if it’s cultural, personal, or a language issue. But do you want me to beg? Is that what you’re asking me to do?” Her chin lifted and tears sparkled in her eyes even as her heart burned as if it’d torched it with fire. “Am I to go onto my knees in front of you, and plead my case? Is that what it would take to win your assistance?”
He didn’t move a muscle and yet the vast living room suddenly felt very small. “I do like you on your knees,” he said cordially, because they both knew that on her knees she could take him in her mouth, or he could touch her or take her from behind.
She drew a ragged breath, locked her knees, praying for strength. “Haven’t forgotten,” she said, aware that she was in trouble here, aware that she ought to go. Now. While she could. While she still had some self-respect left. “Although God knows, I’ve tried.”
“Why would you want to forget it? We had an incredible sex life. It was amazing between us.”
She could only look at him, intrigued by his memory of them, as well as appalled. Their sex life had been hot, but their marriage had been empty and shallow.
Obviously that didn’t trouble him. It probably didn’t even cross his mind that his bride had feelings. Emotions. Needs. Why should it? Drakon’s desires were so much simpler. He just needed her available. Wet and willing, as if she were an American porn star in a rented Italian villa.
“So on my knees it is,” she said mockingly, lifting the hem of her pale blue skirt to kneel on his limestone floor.
“Get up,” he ground out sharply.
“But this is what you want?”
“No. It’s not what I want, not like this, not because you need something, want something. It’s one thing if we’re making love and there’s pleasure involved, but there’s no pleasure in seeing you beg, especially beg me. The very suggestion disgusts me.”
“And yet you seemed so charmed by the memory of me on my knees.”
“Because that was different. That was sex. This is…” He shook his head, features tight, full mouth thinned. For a moment he just breathed, and the silence stretched.
Morgan welcomed the silence. She needed the silence. Her mind was whirling, her insides churning. She felt sick, dizzy and off balance by the contradictions and the intensity and her own desperation.
He had to help her.
He had to.
If he didn’t, her father was forever lost to her.
“I’ve no desire to ever see my wife degrade herself,” Drakon added quietly, “not even on behalf of her father. It actually sickens me to think you’d do that for him—“
“He’s my father!”
“And he failed you! And it makes me physically ill that you’d beg for a man who refused to protect you and your sisters and your mother. A man is to provide for his family, not rob them blind.”
“How nice it must be, Drakon Xanthis, to live, untouched and superior, in your ivory tower.” Her voice deepened and her jaw ached and everything in her chest felt so raw and hot. “But I don’t have the luxury of having an ivory tower. I don’t have any luxuries anymore. Everything’s gone in my family, Drakon. The money, the security, the houses, the cars, the name…our reputation. And I can lose the lifestyle. It’s just a lifestyle. But I’ve lost far more than that. My family’s shattered. Broken. We live in chaos—“
She broke off, dragged in a breath, feeling wild and unhinged. But losing control with Drakon wouldn’t help her. It’d hurt her. He didn’t like strong emotions. He pulled away when voices got louder, stronger, preferring calm, rational, unemotional conversation.
And of course that’s what she’d think about now. What Drakon wanted. How he liked things. How ironic that even after five years, she was still worrying about him, still turning herself inside out to please him, to be what he needed, to handle things the way he handled them.
What about her?
What about what she needed? What she wanted? What about her emotions or her comfort?
The back of her eyes burned and she jerked her chin higher. “Well, I’m sorry you don’t like seeing me like this, but this is who I am. Desperate. And I’m willing to take desperate measures to help my family. You don’t understand, living in Europe, what it’s like for us. We’re in pain. My family is in pain. Everyone is hurting, heartsick with guilt and shame and confusion—how could my father do what he did? How could he not know Amery wasn’t investing legitimately? How could he not protect his clients…his friends…his family? My sisters and brother---we can’t even see each other anymore, Drakon. We don’t speak to each other. We can’t handle the shame of it all. We’re outcasts now. Bottom feeders. Scum. So fine. Stand there. Mock me with your principles. I’m just trying to save what I can. Starting with my father’s life.”
“Your father isn’t worth it. But you are. Stop worrying about him, Morgan, and save yourself.”
“And how do I do that, Drakon? Have you any advice for me there?”
“Yes. Come home.”
“Yes, home to me—“
“You’re not home, Drakon. You were never home.”
She saw him flinch and she didn’t like it, didn’t like to hurt people, but it was time he knew the truth. Time he heard the truth. “You asked me a little bit ago why I’d want to forget our sex life, and I’ll tell you. I don’t like remembering. It hurts remembering.”
“Why? It was good. No, it was great. We were unbelievable together—“
“Yes, yes, the sex was hot. And erotic. You were an incredibly skillful lover. You could make me come over and over, several times a day. But that’s all you gave me. Your name, a million dollar diamond wedding ring, and orgasms. Lots and lots of orgasms. But there was no relationship, no communication, no connection. But I didn’t marry you to just have sex. I married you to have a life. A home. Happiness. But after six month of being married to you, all I felt was empty, isolated, and deeply unhappy.”
She he held his gaze, glad she’d at last said what she’d wanted to say all those years ago, and yet fully aware that these revelations changed nothing. They were just the final nail in a coffin that had needed to be sealed shut. “So unhappy I could barely function, and yet there you were, touching me, kissing me, making me come. I’d cry after I came. I’d cry because it hurt me so much that you could love my body and not love me.”
“I loved you.”
“You can accuse me of being a bad husband, of being cold, of being insensitive, but don’t tell me how I felt, because I know how I felt. And I did love you. Maybe I didn’t say it often—“
“But I thought you knew.”
“Clearly, I didn’t know.”
He stared at her from across the room, his features so hard they looked chiseled from stone. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he said finally.
“Because you hated me talking to you.” Her throat ached and she swallowed around the lump with difficulty. “Every time I opened my mouth to say anything you’d roll your eyes or sigh or turn away—“
“Not true, either.”
“It is true. For me, it’s true. And maybe you were raised in a culture where women are happy to be seen and not heard, but I’m an American. I come from a big family. I have three sisters and a brother and am used to conversation and laughter and activity and the only activity I got from you was sex, and even then it wasn’t mutual. You were the boss, you were in control, dictating to me how it’d be. Strip, crawl, come—“ She broke off, gasping for air, and shoved a trembling hand across her eyes, wiping them dry before any tears could fall. “So don’t act so shocked that I’d beg you to help me save my father. Don’t say it’s degrading and beneath me. I know what degrading is. I know what degrading does. And I’ve been there, in our marriage, with you.”
And then she was done, gone.
Morgan was racing to the door, her heels clicking on the polished marble, her purse on the antique console in the grand hall close to the front door, her travel bag in the trunk of her hired car.
She’d flown to Naples this morning from London, and yesterday to London from Los Angeles, almost twenty hours of traveling just to get to Naples, never mind the tortuous winding drive to the villa perched high on the cliffs of the coast between Positano and Ravello. She was exhausted, and flattened. Finished. But she wasn’t broken. Wasn’t shattered, not the way she’d been leaving him the first time.
Count it as a victory, she told herself, wrenching open the front door and stepping outside into the blinding sunshine. You came, you saw him, and you’re leaving in one piece. You did it. You faced your dragon and you survived him.
End of Excerpt.
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