‘Why do you get yourself so worked up about nothing?’ Angelos released an extravagant sigh. ‘Sit down before you fall down. Haven’t I already given you my assurance that I have no intention of holding that former debt over your head in any way? But, in passing, may I ask what you needed that loan for?’

‘I got into a real financial mess, that’s all,’ she muttered evasively, protecting her father as she always did, conscious of the derisive distaste such weakness roused in other, stronger men. And, drained by her outbursts and ashamed of them, she found herself settling back down into the chair again.

For the very first time she was genuinely scared of Angelos Petronides. He owned a piece of her, just as Leland once had, but he would be expecting infinitely more than a charade in return. She wasn’t taken in by his reassurances, or by that roughly gentle intonation she had never dreamt he might possess. In the space of ten minutes he had reduced her to a babbling, screeching wreck and, for now, he was merely content to have made his domineering presence felt.

‘Money is not a subject I discuss with women,’ Angelos told her quietly. ‘It is most definitely not a subject I ever wish to discuss with you again.’

Angelos Petronides, billionaire and benevolence personified? Maxie shuddered with disbelief. Did he ever read his own publicity? She had sat in on business meetings chaired by him, truly unforgettable experiences. The King and his terrified minions, who behaved as if at any moment he might snap and shout, ‘Off with their heads!’ Grown men perspired and stammered with nerves in his presence, cowered when he shot down their suggestions, went into cold panic if he frowned. He did not suffer fools gladly.

He had a brilliant mind, but that superior intellect had made him inherently devious and manipulative. He controlled the people around him. In comparison, Leland Coulter had been harmless. Maxie had coped with Leland. And Leland give him his due, had never tried to pose as her only friend in a hostile world. But over her now loomed a six-foot-four-inch giant threat without a conscience.

‘I know where you’re coming from,’ Maxie heard herself admit out loud as she lifted her beautiful head again.

Angelos gazed down at her with steady black eyes. ‘Then why all the histrionics?’

Maxie gulped, disconcerted to feel that awful surge of temper rise again. With that admission she had expected to make him wary, force him to ease back. About the last reaction she had expected was his cool acknowledgement that she was intelligent enough to recognise his tactics for what they were. The iron hand in the velvet glove.

‘Have dinner with me tonight,’ Angelos suggested smoothly. ‘We can talk then. You need some time to think things over.’

‘I need no time whatsoever.’ Maxie stared back up into those astonishingly dark and impenetrable eyes and suffered the oddest light-headed sensation, as if the floor had shifted beneath her. Her lashes fluttered, a slight bemused frown line drawing her fine brows together as she shook her head slightly, long golden hair thick as skein on skein of silk rippling round her shoulders. ‘I will not be your mistress.’

‘I haven’t asked yet.’

A cynical laugh was torn from Maxie as she rose restively to her feet again. ‘You don’t need to be that specific. I certainly didn’t imagine you were planning to offer me anything more respectable. And, no, I do not intend to discuss this any further,’ she asserted tightly, carefully focusing on a point to the left of him, the tip of her tongue stealing out to moisten her dry lower lip in a swift defensive motion. ‘So either you are a good loser or a bad loser, Mr Petronides...I imagined I’ll find out which soon enough—’

‘I do not lose,’ Angelos breathed in a roughened undertone. ‘I am also very persistent. If you make yourself a challenge, I will resent the waste of time demanded by pursuit but, like any red-blooded male, I will undoubtedly want you even more.’

Without even knowing why, Maxie shivered. There was the most curious buzz in the atmosphere, sending tiny little warning pulses of alarm through her tautening length. Her unsettled and bemused eyes swerved involuntarily back to him and locked into the ferocious hold of his compelling scrutiny.

‘I will also become angry with you,’ Angelos forecast, shifting soundlessly closer, his husky drawl thickening and lowering in pitch to a mesmeric level of intimacy. ‘You made Leland jump through no hoops...why should I? And I would treat you so much better than he did. I know what a woman likes. I know what makes a woman of your nature feel secure and appreciated, what makes her happy, content, satisfied...’

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