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Married to a Mistress(6)

By:Lynne Graham

‘Oh...’ Liz breathed, and blushed until all her freckles merged. ‘Oh, dear, no...you don’t want to get mixed up with a man like that.’

Maxie lay in bed that night, listening to the distant sound of the traffic. She couldn’t forgive herself for being attracted to a male like Angelos Petronides. It was impossible that she could like anything about him. ‘A woman of your nature,’ he had said. His one little slip. Wanton, available, already accustomed to trading her body in return for a luxurious lifestyle. That was what he had meant. Her heart ached and she felt as if she was bleeding inside. How had she ever sunk to the level where she had a reputation like that?

When Maxie had first been chosen as the image to launch a new range of haircare products, she had been a complete unknown and only eighteen years old. Although she had never had the slightest desire to be a model, she had let her father persuade her to give it a try and had swiftly found herself earning what had then seemed like enormous amounts of money.

However, once the novelty had worn off, she had loathed the backbiting pressure and superficiality of the modelling circuit. She had saved like mad and had planned to find another way to make a living.

But all the time, in the background of her life, her father had continued to gamble. Relying on her income as a safety net, he had, without her knowledge, begun playing for higher and higher stakes. To be fair, Leland’s casino manager had cut off Russ Kendall’s credit line the minute he’d suspected the older man was in over his head. Maxie had met Leland Coulter for the first time the day she settled her father’s outstanding tab at his casino.

‘You won’t change the man, Maxie,’ he had told her then. ‘If he was starving, he would risk his last fiver on a bet. He has to be the one who wants to change.’

After that humiliating episode her father had made her so many promises. He had sworn blind that he would never gamble again but inevitably he had broken his word. And, barred from the reputable casinos, he had gone dangerously down-market to play high-rolling poker games in smoky back rooms with the kind of tough men who would happily break his fingers if he didn’t pay his dues on time. That was when Maxie’s life had come completely unstuck...

Having got himself into serious debt, and learning to his dismay that his daughter had no savings left after his previous demands, Russ had been very badly beaten up. He had lost a kidney. In his hospital bed, he had sobbed with shame and terror in her arms. He had been warned that if he didn’t come up with the money he owed, he would be crippled the next time.

Distraught, Maxie had gone to Leland Coulter for advice. And Leland had offered her an arrangement. He would pay off her father’s gambling debts and allow her to repay him at her leisure on condition that she moved in with him. He had been very honest about what he wanted. Not sex, he had insisted. No, what Leland had craved most had been the ego-boosting pleasure of being seen to possess a beautiful young woman, who would preside over his dinner table, act as his hostess, entertain his friends and always be available to accompany him wherever he went.

It hadn’t seemed so much to ask. Nobody else had been prepared to loan her that amount of money. And she had been so agonisingly grateful that her father was safe from further harm. She hadn’t seen the trap she was walking into. She hadn’t even been aware that Leland was a married man until the headlines had hit the tabloids and taken her reputation away overnight. She had borne the blame for the breakup of his marriage.

‘Jennifer and I split up because she had an affair,’ Leland had admitted grudgingly when Maxie had roundly objected to the anomalous situation he had put her in. ‘But this way, with you by my side, I don’t feel like a fool...all right?’

And she had felt sorry for him then, right through the protracted and very public battle he and his wife had had over alimony and property. Jennifer and Leland had fought each other every inch of their slow path to the divorce court, yet a week before the hearing, when Leland had had a heart attack, the only woman he had been able to think about when he was convinced that he was at his last gasp had, most tellingly, been his estranged wife. ‘Go away, leave me alone... I need Jennifer here... I don’t want her seeing you with me now!’ he had cried in pathetic masculine panic.

And that had hurt. In a crazy way she had grown rather fond of Leland, even of his silly showing-off and quirky little vanities. Not a bad man, just a selfish one, like all the men she had ever known, and she hoped he was happy now that he was back with his Jennifer. But he had used her not only to soothe his wounded vanity but also, and less forgivably, she recognised now, as a weapon with which to punish his unfaithful wife. And Maxie could not forget that, or forgive herself for the blind naivety that had allowed it to happen in the first place. Never, ever again, she swore, would she be used...

Early the next morning, Maxie helped Liz pack. Her friend was heading off to stay with friends in Devon. The fact that her house wouldn’t be left empty during her absence was a source of great relief to Liz. The previous year her home had been burgled and her studio vandalised while she was away.

As soon as she had seen the older woman off, Maxie spent an hour slapping on make-up like war-paint and dressing up in style. Angelos Petronides needed a lesson and Maxie was determined to give it to him.

Mid-morning, she pawned the one piece of valuable jewellery she owned. She had been eleven when she’d found the Victorian bracelet buried in a box of cheap costume beads which had belonged to her mother. She had cried, guessing why the bracelet had been so well concealed. Even in the three short years of her marriage, her poor mother had doubtless learnt the hard way that when her husband was short of money he would sell anything he could get his hands on. Afterwards, Russ would be terribly sorry and ashamed, but by then it would be too late and the treasured possession would be gone. So Maxie had kept the bracelet hidden too.

And now it hurt so much to surrender that bracelet. It felt like a betrayal of the mother she could barely remember. But she desperately needed the cash and she had nothing else to offer. Angelos Petronides had to be shown that he hadn’t bought her or any rights over her by settling Leland’s loan. The sacrifice of her mother’s bracelet, temporarily or otherwise, simply hardened Maxie’s angry, bitter resolve.

Half an hour later, she strolled out of the lift on to the top floor of the skyscraper that housed the London headquarters of the vast Petronides organisation. She spared the receptionist barely a glance. She knew how to get attention.

‘I want to see Angelos,’ she announced.

‘Miss...Miss Kendall?’ The brunette was already on her feet, eyes opened wide in recognition: in a bold scarlet dress that caressed every curve, her spectacular hair rippling in a sheet of gold to her waist, and heels that elevated her to well over six feet, Maxie was extremely noticeable.

‘I know where his office is.’ Maxie breezed on down the corridor, the brunette darting after her with an incoherent gasp of dismay.

She flung wide his office door when she got there. Infuriatingly, it was empty. She headed for the boardroom, indifferent to the squawking receptionist, whose frantic pursuit had attracted the attention of another two secretarial staff.

Bingo! Maxie strolled through the boardroom’s double doors. An entire room full of men in business suits swivelled at her abrupt entry and then gaped. Maxie wasn’t looking at them. Her entire attention was for Angelos Petronides, already rising from his chair at the head of the long polished table, his expression of outrage shimmering in an instant into shocking impassivity. But she took strength from the stunned quality that had briefly lit those fierce black eyes of his.

‘I want to see you now,’ Maxie told him, sapphire-blue eyes firing a challenge.

‘You could wait in Mr Petronides’s office, just through here, Miss Kendall.’ The quiet female intervention came from the slim older woman who had already rushed to cast invitingly wide the door which connected with her employer’s office.

‘Sorry, I don’t want to wait,’ Maxie delivered.

A blazing look of dark, simmering fury betrayed Angelos. It was the reaction of a male who had never before been subjected to a public scene. Maxie smiled sweetly. He couldn’t touch her because she had nothing to lose. No money, no current employment, nothing but her pride and her wits. He should’ve thought of that angle. And, no matter what it took, she intended to make Angelos pay for the state he had put her in the day before.

In one wrathful stride, Angelos reached her side and closed a forceful hand round her narrow wrist. Maxie let out a squeal as if he had hurt her. Startled, he dropped her wrist again. In receipt of a derisive, unimpressed glance that would’ve made a lesser woman cringe, Maxie noted without surprise that Angelos was a quick study.

‘Thank you,’ she said, and meant it, and she strolled through to his big, luxurious office like a little lamb because now she knew he was coming too.

‘Unexpected visitors with unpredictable behaviour are so enervating...don’t you think?’ Maxie trilled as she fell still by the side of his impressive desk.

Angelos swore in Greek, studying her with seething black eyes full of intimidation. ‘You crazy—’ His wide mouth hardened as he bit back the rest of that verbal assault with the greatest of visible difficulty. ‘What the hell are you playing at?’ he growled like a grizzly bear instead.