Maxie frowned uneasily. ‘I don’t know what you’re driving at...’

‘What is marriage? Solely a legal agreement.’ Angelos shrugged with careless elegance but she was chilled by that definition. ‘Once I recognised that basic truth, I saw with clarity. I’ll make a deal with you now that suits us both. You sign a prenuptial contract and I will marry you...’

‘S-say that again,’ Maxie stammered, convinced she was hallucinating.

Angelos rested satisfied eyes on her stunned expression. ‘The one drawback will be that you won’t get the public kudos of being my wife. We will live apart much of the time. When I’m in London and I want you here, you will stay in this apartment. I own this entire building. You can have it all to yourself, complete with a full complement of staff and security. The only place we will share the same roof will be on my island in Greece. How am I doing?’

Maxie’s hand was shaking so badly, champagne was slopping onto the thick, ankle-deep carpet. Was he actually asking her to marry him? Had she got that right or imagined it? And, if she was correct and hadn’t misunderstood, why was he talking about them living apart? And what had that bit been concerning ‘public kudos’? Her brain was in a hopelessly confused state of freefall.

Angelos took her glass away and set it aside with his own. He pressed her gently down onto the sofa behind her and crouched down at her level to scan her bewildered face.

‘If a marriage licence is what it takes to make you feel secure and bring you to my bed, it would be petty to deny you,’ Angelos informed her smoothly. ‘But, since our relationship will obviously not last for ever, it will be a private arrangement between you and I alone.’

Maxie stopped breathing and simply closed her eyes. He had hurt her before but never as badly as this. Was her reputation really that bad? In his eyes, it evidently was, she registered sickly. He didn’t want to be seen with her. He didn’t want to be linked with her. He would go through the motions of marrying her only so long as it was a ‘private arrangement’. And a temporary one.

Cool, strong hands snapped round her straining fingers as she began to move them in an effort to jump upright. ‘No...think about it, don’t fly off the handle,’ Angelos warned steadily. ‘It’s a fair, realistic, what-you-see-is-what-you-get offer—’

‘A mockery!’ Maxie contradicted fiercely.

And that had to be the most awful moment imaginable to realise that she was very probably in love with Angelos. It was without doubt her lowest hour. Devastated to suspect just how and why he had come to possess this power to tear her to emotional shreds, Maxie was shorn of her usual fire.

‘Be reasonable. How do I bring Leland’s former mistress into my family and demand that they accept her as my wife?’ Angelos enquired with the disorientating cool of someone saying the most reasonable, rational things and expecting a fair and understanding hearing. ‘Some things one just does not do. How can I expect my family to respect me if I do something I would kill any one of them for doing? The family look to me to set an example.’

Maxie still hadn’t opened her eyes, but she knew at that instant how a woman went off the rails and killed. There was so much pain inside her and so much rage—at her, at him—she didn’t honestly know how she could contain it. Mistress within a marriage that nobody would ever know about because she was too scandalous and shameful a woman to deserve or indeed expect acceptance within the lofty Petronides clan...that was what he was offering.

‘I feel sick...’ Maxie muttered raggedly.

‘No, you do not feel sick,’ Angelos informed her with resolute emphasis.

‘I...feel...sick!’

‘The cloakroom is across the hall.’ Angelos withdrew his strong hands from hers in a stark demonstration of disapproval. Only when he did so did she realise how tightly she had been holding onto him for support. The inconsistency of such behaviour in the midst of so devastating a dialogue appalled her. ‘I didn’t expect you to be so difficult about this. I can appreciate that you’re a little disappointed with the boundaries I’m setting, but when all is said and done, it is still a marriage proposal!’

‘Is it?’ Maxie queried involuntarily, and then, not trusting herself to say anything more, she finally, mercifully made it into the sanctuary of the cloakroom.

She locked the door and lurched in front of a giant mirror that reflected a frightening stranger with the shocked staring eyes of tragedy, pallid cheeks and a horribly wobbly mouth. You do not love that swine—do you hear me? she mouthed with menace at the alien weak creature in the reflection. The only thing you’re in love with is his body! She knew as much about love as a fourteen-year-old with a crush! And she could not imagine where that insane impulsive idea that she might love such a unreconstructed pig could’ve come from...it could only have been a reaction to overwhelming shock.

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