His Penniless Beauty

By: Julia James

CHAPTER ONE





SOPHIE stood, holding herself motionless, quite still. She stared, unblinking, at the reflection staring back at her in the long mirror of the hotel’s powder room. The woman in the mirror looked out at her with the same expressionless stare.

She was wearing a clinging, low-cut satin evening dress, her blond hair slicked with hairspray around one shoulder. Her eyes were heavy with glittery make-up, lashes loaded down with coal-black mascara, skin larded with foundation, earlobes dripping crystal, mouth sticky with scarlet lipstick.

It isn’t me!

The cry came from somewhere very deep in Sophie. Very deep. Like a buried place. A grave.

The grave of the person she once had been.

Would never be again.

Heaviness lay like a deadweight in her stomach, wound around by revulsion at what she could see in the mirror.

‘Excuse me—’

The voice was clipped, impatient, wanting Sophie to move aside. Jerkily, she did so, catching the look of unveiled contempt in the older woman’s eyes as she took her place to inspect her appearance. Sophie knew what she had seen. Knew why the woman had looked contemptuous. She felt her stomach churn again. The inside of her mouth was dry, and she poured herself a glass of water from the jug placed on the vanity unit for the use of guests, gulping it down as if it could still her turmoil. For one final time, she stared at herself bleakly in the mirror. Then, with a sudden short intake of breath that cut like glass in her throat, she seized up her evening bag and walked out of the powder room with a stiff, taut gait, on heels so high they swayed her body despite the rigidity in her aching leg muscles as she forced herself to keep going.

Across the hotel lobby, in the bar, her client was waiting for her.




Nikos Kazandros glanced around him. The vast, opulently decorated reception room was dimly lit, crowded, and noisy with thumping music and too-loud voices. It was exactly the kind of party Nikos avoided—full of louche, hedonistic people in search of kicks that inevitably involved entertainment that ran to little white lines and the indiscriminate use of bedrooms. A frown formed on Nikos’s darkly planed face.

His reluctance to go in was not echoed by his companion.

‘Nik—c’mon. This party’s going to be really hot!’

Georgias’s voice was slurred. Since his father was a long-time friend of Nikos’s own father, Nikos had taken on the role of minder to the impressionable twenty-two-year-old for the younger man’s brief stopover in London. For Nikos, a show and dinner would have been enough, but Georgias had wanted to party. Knowing that if he acted too heavy-handed the kid would cut and run and end up God knew where, Nikos had temporised. He would give Georgias an hour here max, no more, and make sure the only stimulant he imbibed was alcohol.

Not that drugs would be the only temptation here. The place was heaving with girls, the kind who—Nikos’s lip curled in contempt—flocked wherever wealthy men partied, eager to make themselves accessible to them. He and Georgias had already been sized up, and a moment later a blonde with more hair than dress was inviting them to dance. Nikos let Georgias take up the invitation with alacrity, turning down with a curt shake of his head the immediate follow-on invite from a brunette who had also scented fresh meat. She flounced off with a pout, leaving Nikos propping the wall up, a cynical twist to his mouth, counting the minutes till he could call time on Georgias and get the hell out of here.

Girls like those here held no attraction for him. Barely one step away from hookers, they made it clear their sole interest in a man was the size of his wallet. They traded sex for a lush lifestyle.

Their one virtue was that they were perfectly open about it.

For a moment Nikos’s face closed fast. Some lacked even that virtue…concealing to the last their real interest…

Some could look as innocent as the morning dew, and all the time—

No. Automatically, as it had done repeatedly for four years now, the guillotine sliced down.

He’d made a mistake. Been a fool. Worse than a fool. But he’d pulled back in time—just in time. For a microsecond, nothing more, bleakness filled his eyes. Then it was gone, replaced by a hardness that etched the features of his face, set his high cheekbones into relief below his dark, long-lashed eyes.

Yet another party-girl approached him, and yet again he dismissed her, to her displeasure. His eyes flicked back to the dancers, to keep Georgias in his view. But as he did so, there was a sudden gap in his eyeline to the far side of the room.

Everything stopped. Every faculty he possessed stopped working. Except one.

Vision.

And one other. Memory.

Burning, coruscating, vicious memory.

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