Alex Stoner could think of several reasons why he should return to his office, but only one to linger over his lunch in the Plaka. And she wasn’t even his type. He checked his watch, then shook his head as laughter rumbled in his chest. Was he crazy? He’d spent almost two hours trying to make eye contact with a tourist—who was so busy shopping for souvenirs she hadn’t noticed him. She was a tourist. Ah, but what a tourist. Those long legs, that willowy figure, and the face of an angel…
“Get a grip, Stoner,” he said to himself, drumming his fingers on the table. This was his last full day in Athens before he flew out to his island retreat. Plenty of work was waiting back at Stoner Exports, plus that mysterious three-fifteen appointment. He rolled his eyes as more tasks came to mind. He hadn’t packed, and somehow he was going to have to fit in a rug-factory inspection. And he still had work to do on the upcoming meeting with the Grimaldi brothers.
He began reaching for his sunglasses and cell phone, then hesitated. The trees were shading him from the late May sun, his street table offered an excellent view of the Acropolis, and another Athens siesta was about to begin. More important, he told himself as he settled back in his chair, it didn’t hurt to look.
“She’s not your type, Alex.”
Alex glanced sideways at the taverna owner, groaning just loud enough for Dimitri to hear and smile.
“You know me too well, Dimitri, but I passed up the honey cakes today, and I ought to have something sweet.” He looked down the narrow street, searching for the slender brunette.
“You should be at home sampling the sweets of a wife, my friend. Making sons.” Presenting the check, Dimitri demanded as only an old friend could, “What happened to the French girl?”
Alex stood, pulled several bills from his pocket, and placed them on the table. “She left me.”
“I know she left you. But why?”
Alex’s gaze had strayed back to the little shop blaring bouzouki music. He checked his watch again. The brunette had gone in there fifteen minutes ago. “If you must know,” he murmured absently, “because I wouldn’t take her to Zephyros with me.”
Dimitri patted his own shirtsleeves, then laughed loudly, causing several pedestrians to turn and look their way. “She demanded a piece of your soul, and you wouldn’t share it,” he said.
Again, a knowing look passed between the two men. Alex had fallen in love with the uncomplicated lifestyle on Zephyros years ago. Although he could never quite explain it to himself, he’d made it a point never to mix his city life with his island life. Keeping his business clients away was easy enough. The hard part was keeping a lover from finding out about Zephyros. Dimitri offered him a scolding look, then retreated into the taverna. Alex retrained his eyes on the pedestrian-filled street.
For seven years he’d lived and worked in Athens. Seven years and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d stretched a non-business lunch to three o’clock. He ran his fingers through his straight blond hair and sat back down. Hadn’t he read that life ran in seven-year cycles? An amusing thought, but he doubted it. Of course, if he were approaching a momentous change, it wouldn’t hinge on eye contact with a pretty stranger.
With Dimitri’s distracting conversation he’d lost sight of her. Where had she gone? He lit a cigarette, then stubbed it out after two puffs. He was quitting. It was just a matter of time.
Where was that brunette, and why had she made such an impression? Perhaps it was her youthful energy that had captured his attention, or the casual manner in which she flipped back her shimmering curtain of hair. The way she moved in her short denim skirt, pink sweater, and pink leather flats reminded him of girls from his college days. He thought about that for a moment. The appeal of a college girl to his thirty-three-year old self seemed vaguely perverse, or worse, reeking of sentimentality.
He felt his eyebrows lift with that last revelation, because if Alex Stoner knew anything about himself, he knew he wasn’t a sentimental fool. Not the way some men were. Still, there was something warmly satisfying about the brunette. From a distance, he could handle “warmly satisfying.”
After several minutes his waiting was rewarded. She stood in the middle of the street counting her money, in view of every pickpocket in the popular shopping district. She wet her lips, then rested the tip of her tongue in the corner of her mouth as she mentally calculated. He shook his head in masculine appreciation. She was probably being overcharged by every merchant in the Plaka. Shifting several packages, she began walking in his direction. With unnamed relief, Alex reassessed her age as late twenties. She was definitely alone, and by the looks of it, doing her best to bring the art of souvenir shopping to new heights.
Large gold earrings danced against her jaw and in and out of the long curves of her hair. He leaned forward in his chair. Her eyes were the color of root beer, and they were eagerly drinking in her surroundings.
Then it happened.
Alex caught her gaze and held it. She smiled warmly. He returned the smile quickly and reached for another cigarette. What the hell had he expected? A flirty little wink, an open invitation to join her, or even a quick roll of her eyes to discourage him? Any of that wouldn’t have surprised him, but that smile… that warm and open smile. He lit the cigarette and drew in deeply. A familiar loneliness resonated painfully within him. He didn’t like stirring up those feelings, and avoided them whenever they started emerging. Besides, he was getting too old for this kind of torture.
Repositioning her packages again, she tossed her hair away from one eye and checked her watch. Without another glance, she hurried into a narrow alleyway.
“A guileless one,” announced Dimitri from the doorway. He pulled a cloth from the glass he was polishing and shook the twisted material at Alex. “You always manage to pass them up, but if you hurry—”
“Always,” Alex confirmed, picking up his cigarettes. He slipped them in his shirt pocket, gave his friend a mock salute, and began his walk back to his office.
* * *
With her arms wrapped firmly around the carton, Sandy Patterson scurried up the steps of the office building and elbowed open the glass doors marked Stoner Exports. Passing the display of flokati and hand-woven rugs, she made her way down the marble hall, praying that she hadn’t missed Alex Stoner.
His secretary had been polite but firm when she’d telephoned yesterday. “Mr. Stoner’s calendar is completely filled, but I’ll try to fit you in at three-fifteen tomorrow. Please be on time. He’s going on a trip and won’t be back for several weeks.”
Setting the carton on the first desk she came to, Sandy smoothed the sides of her short denim skirt, pushed up the sleeves of her sweater, and gave in to the first sign of tension since she’d arrived in Greece yesterday. She inhaled, looked around the large reception area, then exhaled sharply. No doubt about it. She was late, and every desk in the reception area was empty. Damn. Her mandatory gift shopping was just about done, and she wanted this chore out of the way too. Then she could get on with her own plans. For once free of duties, obligations, and other people’s expectations, she was going to spend the summer painting whatever she felt like painting. When her advanced art classes began in the autumn, she was going to be thoroughly inspired by this trip. Life was suddenly exciting again, and its possibilities for happiness were endless. She felt ready for anything—except rescheduling this meeting with Alex Stoner.
Reaching into her shoulder bag, she pulled out the business card. Except for a bent corner, the card was in the same crisp condition as when she’d received it two years ago. The small white card with the bright blue lettering had been tucked in with Alex Stoner’s letter of condolence over her husband’s death. She rubbed her thumb over the name as she thought about her late husband. Jackson had always insisted on black ink for his cards and stationery.
“Black is not only appropriate, Sandy, it’s the perfect statement of sincerity,” she remembered him saying.
And pedantic properness, she now added silently. She closed her eyes. Those years were over, and once she’d delivered Jackson’s college memorabilia to Alex Stoner, she’d be free of any obligation connecting her to that period of her past. Free to get on with her new life.
“Is there something I can do for you?”
Sandy turned toward the rich baritone voice. “Yes, I…” she began, then pressed the card to her lips. Whoever he was, he was gorgeous, golden, and tall. Very tall. Even at her own five feet nine inches, she had to look up at him. His feet were planted wide apart, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, and his jaw raised for any challenge that dared to confront him. She sensed immediately that he’d been watching her through those half-closed, thickly fringed eyes. The long, straight nose, squared shoulders, and broad chest pinned her in place like a royal command, but his mouth mocked that intimidating image. He had a mouth stolen from a statue. A mouth made for pagan pleasure. She blinked. Lord help her—two days away from Atlanta and she was surrendering to sensuality.
Lowering the card, she pointed it at him. “You’re the man I saw at that little outdoor restaurant—”
He nodded, his steady gaze never faltering. “And you’re the shopper.”
Shaking her head, she laughed softly. “Oh, my. Was I that noticeable?”
His return smile was economical, and as he continued to stare, he pulled his hand from his pocket and shoved back a lock of light blond hair. She’d feel a lot more comfortable if he’d only smile the way he had in the Plaka. It would work wonders now, but he was probably busy and seeking a way out of their exchange. She winced at her next thought. Here she was, a graduate of Miss Hollingsworth’s School for Young Ladies, forgetting her manners. “I’m sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Sandy Patterson, and I’m afraid I’m late for my three-fifteen appointment with Alex Stoner.”
“I’m Alex Stoner.”
She felt her eyebrows raise, but quickly turned the involuntary gesture into a full-face smile as she stepped forward to shake his hand. He wasn’t at all like the outgoing, thrill-seeking scamp Jackson had described. The diamond-in-the-rough description was blotted out by his cool and masterful presence.
“Alex, how are you?”
“Sandy Patterson? I’m afraid I don’t remember ever having met you.”
“You haven’t, Alex. I’m Jackson Benedict’s widow. I took back my maiden name.” The silliest thrill coursed through her as she watched him trying to put the pieces together. Taking his hand in both of hers, she gave him a gentle squeeze. “I’ve really surprised you, haven’t I?”
He still looked stunned, and she began to wonder if her surprise appearance had been such a great idea after all. “I know it’s been two years since he died, but I did promise in my letter to give you a box of Jackson’s college memorabilia.” She let his hand drop from hers and pointed over her shoulder before lacing her fingers together. Only then did he respond.
“Oh, right. I do remember you writing me something about photos and a track jacket.” With a perfunctory strain toward the box, he nodded.
“Those things were put away by a well-meaning friend, and I only just found them a month ago. I was cleaning out the attic and… You know, you don’t look at all like those photos.”
Close up, Sandy Patterson wasn’t just pretty. She was beautiful. Polished and gracious. Patient and warm. And that sparkle in her eyes ricocheted off every erogenous zone in his body. The truth was, she was eliciting more of his interest than any of the clever and sophisticated women he’d chosen to spend his leisure moments with. “Sorry. I’ve been up to my neck in paperwork. I wasn’t expecting… you. I thought my three-fifteen appointment had to do with a business matter.”
He couldn’t take his eyes off her. Her soft southern accent and those sparkling root-beer eyes were a deceptively potent combination. She reminded him of girls he’d wanted and knew he couldn’t have. Those good girls destined to marry men from good families. What a fool he was, believing he’d gotten rid of those old feelings. Those old desires.
Her smile was more hesitant now. “Well,” she began in a whispery attempt at an apology, “I won’t take up any more of your time. It was a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ll just leave the box.”
His carefully nurtured plan for self-preservation shriveled when he saw her turning to leave. “Please, come in. I can spare a few minutes… for Jackson’s widow. “He pushed open his office door and watched heaven move a little closer.
Knowing her scent would be a treasure he’d have to steal, he stood in the doorway, forcing her to pass close to him. He lowered his head as she entered. The soft, warm scent of honeysuckle invaded his nostrils, drifting through his brain like an illegal drug.
Avoiding her eyes, he took his place behind the desk and leaned back in the thickly upholstered executive chair. A minimum of small talk and then she’d leave, taking with her those reminders of his past. Those haunting feelings of inadequacy around the privileged.
Strangely enough, if it hadn’t been for her late husband, he could still be carrying the title Stoner the Loner. Good old Jackson. Stable, reliable, and highborn, Jackson had taken a liking to Alex’s streetwise, enterprising ways. The old adage that opposites attract had been the improbable basis for a friendship lasting until graduation. Did this lovely creature before him have something to do with the slow dissolution of that friendship? Let it go, he told himself. It didn’t matter. Jackson was dead, and all Sandy wanted was to drop off the memorabilia and be on her way. Wasn’t it?
She was fidgeting. He hated when women fidgeted. It was almost as bad as when they cried. He never knew what to do with them when that happened.
“You’re traveling alone, aren’t you?” His question came out sounding more like an accusation than an opener for polite conversation. He saw those root-beer eyes narrow the tiniest bit.
“Yes. How did you know?”
She was suddenly on guard and looking guilty too. Just what was she up to thousands of miles from Atlanta?
“Sandy, when I spotted you today, you were alone. And, if you don’t mind me saying so, behaving incautiously.”
Her pretty pink lips thinned. She laced her fingers together in her lap and tilted her chin. “Incautiously? May I ask what you mean by that?”
He adjusted the knot in his already perfectly knotted tie, then opened both hands palms up. “Forgive me, but you looked like you needed help.” Not quite like the help he needed now. She didn’t look to be in a forgiving mood. Warm and friendly Sandy Patterson had thrown in her smile for a fixed stare at his tie clasp. A long fixed stare that was probably intended to dismiss him as some inconsequential person not worthy of a response. As the uncomfortable silence continued, he fixed his own eyes on the gold chain around her neck. Part of it was hidden in her sweater, and lifting it out, she slid her fingertips over it. The totally feminine gesture stirred him, and when he realized what was happening, he could have kicked himself. Of all the women in the world, it was well-bred, proper Sandy igniting him like dry tinder. He cursed the heat flowing through him. She was exactly the kind of woman who reminded him that no matter how impressive his accomplishments were, he would never fit comfortably in a conventional family situation.
Sandy frowned. Her family and friends had been against her taking this trip, but she’d fought them on every argument. The trip was an important, if not an easy, way of announcing her choice for a new life. Damn Alex Stoner. Not only did he have her squirming under his worldly manner, he’d actually said she looked like she needed help. As if he knew exactly the next button to push, he pointed to her like a forgetful child. Perhaps he meant the move to convey informality, but it struck her as condescending.
“You do realize you were standing in the middle of a pedestrian thoroughfare counting your money in front of everyone?”
She didn’t have a chance to answer because his telephone rang, and with a quick apology he answered it. He spoke in Greek and, after a few words, placed his hand on the desk and turned partly away from her.
Just as well he’d turned away, she thought as her gaze dropped down to the desk… and his hand. Large and masculine, and with a hint of a tan, it contrasted beautifully with the white cuffs of his shirt. His nails were blunt cut, and his university ring, with its blue stone, nestled between the golden hair of each finger beside it. She kept on staring, mesmerized by the sensual images his hand was inspiring. A tingling sensation started between her thighs when she imagined him stroking her, arousing her to tantalizing heights of arousal she’d never reached before. His masterful but delicate touch had her silently gasping for air, and for more…. She jerked up her head when a bus backfired in the street below. If that weren’t embarrassing enough, she found herself looking directly into his blue bedroom eyes. Her cheeks were stinging, her heart was pounding, and her mouth was watering. Could he have any idea what she had just been fantasizing?
He, too, looked as if he’d lost his concentration, and he hurriedly turned away from her again. Seconds later he ended his conversation and replaced the receiver. Plowing his fingers through his hair, he succeeded in rearranging it to something less than perfect and more than attractive.
“Sorry about that interruption.”
Those sexy images wouldn’t stop. They couldn’t, not with the suddenly serious look on this demigod’s face and the penetrating quality of his stare. Thank God Alex Stoner couldn’t see what was on her mind. Those erotic scenes had taken over and were close to out of control. With his next words the intensity of the moment was over.
“Sandy, I hope you thought out your travel plans with some regard to personal safety. I’m surprised you’re making this trip alone. Since 9/11, I think everyone should be more careful.” He shrugged. “Of course I don’t know, you could have plans to meet up with a… friend. I presume you must have a friend in your life by now.”
As his suggestion sank in, the last of the glittering heat fell like a barometer before a storm .He’d meant a lover. Tensing, she leaned over his desk. “Where I come from, we do not presume such things. Nor would we state them if we did. We have manners, Mr. Stoner, and you are out of line.” She’d moved so fast, the delicate gold chain was still shimmying against her collarbone.
“I didn’t mean to insult your reputation, Sandy. But considering your naïveté, you appear to need assistance or maybe a bit of looking after.”
“Looking after?” The words cut through her like a shard of glass. Those had been Jackson’s favorite words when she wanted anything he didn’t want. She was up on her feet. “Wrong. The last thing I need or want is looking after.” Snatching her purse from the chair, she slung it over her shoulder and headed for the door.” I’ll leave you to your memories. Good-bye.”
She was in the hall and pushing her way out of the front doors before he caught up with her. He pulled her back in and drew her around to face him. “Please let me apologize. I had no right to say those things.”
She wasn’t struggling from his grip, but she wasn’t looking up at him either. He knew it wasn’t necessary to keep holding her, but there was a pleasantly solid feeling to her biceps. He pictured her swimming in some country-club pool, dazzling her opponent on a nearby tennis court, or pulling him into her embrace. A hot, crazy embrace where nothing mattered but the feel of skin against skin and mouth against mouth. He closed his eyes and slowly swallowed for control. His desire to make love to Sandy Patterson was overpowering. “Look, couldn’t I make it up to you for being so presumptuous?” ‘
“Where would you find the time?” She was staring at the center of his chest. “Your secretary could barely fit me in today.”
Reluctantly he removed his hands from the pink sleeves of her sweater. He raised his chin and closed his eyes. The rug-factory tour had been put off long enough, but it was getting too late to make the trip today. Then there were the preparations for his Zephyros vacation. “I have to make a day trip up north tomorrow. Maybe you could join me.”
Raising her head just enough to look at him, she appeared to be thinking over his invitation. “Well, I had planned on doing a little more shopping tomorrow—”
“More shopping?” He tried teasing her with a shocked expression. “You’re not finished?”
Her eyes grew wide with indignation.” No, I’m not. I have lots of friends and relatives, and… why am I defending my actions to you? You’re really getting a kick out of this, aren’t you?”
He raised his eyebrows, trying to make her see the humor, but she’d have none of it. “You looked like you were having fun down there today. Like a kid in a candy shop.”
“I’m not a kid in a candy shop.” She reached behind her to push open the door. “I’m twenty-seven. I’m going to have a birthday this summer.” Pressing her lips together and tilting her head to emphasize her seriousness, she turned and left.
He’d done it again. He’d ignited her like a pink rocket, and before he could do anything, she’d launched herself out the door and down the steps of Stoner Exports. She’d passed two pistachio vendors before he caught up with her. Walking fast beside her, he made it a point not to touch her. Who knew what she’d do on a public street?
“Sandy, I’d like to get together with you and talk.”
“Sorry, I have this shopping thing to do. We tourists thrive on it. You know what I mean, Mr. Stoner. When I’m not gawking at the ancient architecture, I’m haggling over every Acropolis paperweight and string of worry beads I can find.”
Staring straight ahead, she continued down the sloping sidewalk until she’d reentered the Plaka. “Are you sure you want to be seen with me? I’ll have to warn you that I can pull out my camera at the least provocation.” Stopping to take a breath, she repositioned her sweater sleeves, then crossed her arms over her middle. “Still want to talk?”
He ran his tongue along the inside of his cheek, fighting back the laughter. “If you can fit me into your busy schedule.”
She spent the next half minute looking at every tree and building on the block before she shook her head and began to laugh.
He laughed, too, then gave her a tentative look. “Are you always so explosive, or is this a woman thing?”
“It’s a Sandy thing.”
First he nodded, then changed directions and shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“That’s the problem, Alex. Nobody gets it.”
He wanted to ask more about her last statement, but sensed this wasn’t the time or place for it. He guided her to the side of the street as a three-wheeled delivery van buzzed by. “You didn’t come all the way to Greece just to find me. You must have other travel plans. How about Delphi? Everyone has a plan to visit Delphi.”
A smile lit her face, a smile like the one she’d given him in the Plaka. “Yes, of course I plan to visit Delphi.”
“Why don’t you let me take you? I’m traveling that way tomorrow, and I could show you the ruins. Then we could have lunch. Talk. And, if it would interest you, I’ll even throw in a tour of one of my rug factories. What do you say?”
At first she appeared skeptical, but lifting those pretty pink shoulders in an enormous shrug, she said, “Depends.”
“How’s the shopping up there?”
“Great. The area’s well known for its pottery and…” Her wide-eyed expression was serious. Too serious. She was teasing him without mercy. He leaned his shoulder against a stone wall and laughed silently. What a wonderfully satisfying feeling that was.