The Greek's Convenient Cinderella by Lynne Graham

CHAPTER ONE


            EVERY EYE AROUND the crowded conference table locked in astonishment on to Althea Lekkas’s exquisite face when she gasped. ‘I’m sorry… I’m calling off the wedding!’

            ‘You can’t!’ expostulated her father, Linus, jumping upright with knotted fists of fury. ‘If you call it off this late in the day, I’ll disown you!’

            Jude Alexandris almost laughed at that melodramatic threat from his future father-in-law, who was embarrassingly keen for the marriage to take place. After all, the Alexandris billions were a living legend and Jude was accustomed to being regarded as a literal golden goose. Not that the huge weight and purchasing power of all that money had ever made anyone in his family happy, he acknowledged grimly.

            His grandfather was a manipulative, bitter old man who had outlived three wives. His father, an only child like Jude, had been a high-flyer in business but utterly useless on the husband and father front. His mother, Clio, discarded by her husband and denied her son, had thrown her broken heart into creating a world-famous garden and only there had she found some measure of contentment. Jude himself? He recalled being truly happy only once, when he was twenty-one and on top of the world because back then he had loved Althea, and had believed that she loved him. He had truly believed that he could ignore all the cynics and rewrite Alexandris family history.

            Sadly, that naive hope hadn’t lasted long. Althea had slept with another man, destroying everything he had ever felt for her and, seven years on, they were merely friends, who had agreed to marry for purely practical reasons. Thanks to his grandfather’s machinations, and the pressure those had put on him, Jude needed a wife in a hurry and Althea, divorced in the wake of a short, disastrous marriage, craved the freedom from family expectations that a second marriage would give her.

            As Althea burst into floods of tears, Jude stood up in one fluid motion to ask if there was an office free. He was very tall at six foot five, lean and muscular with the physique of an athlete. He cropped his riot of black curls short. Flaring ebony brows framed shrewd dark eyes set below lashes long and lush enough to make the average woman weep in envy. A beautiful child, he had grown into an even more beautiful man. Lean, sculpted features, sheathed in olive skin and worthy of a Greek god, completed the vision of a male who turned female heads wherever he went.

            One of his English legal team rose in haste to accommodate Jude’s request for a more private space and he urged Althea out of the room into one across the corridor.

            ‘I didn’t mean to just drop it on you like that…not in front of an audience!’ Althea sobbed. ‘But I can’t go through with it! It would be wrong for me…maybe not for you, but for me.’

            ‘Are you sure this isn’t just wedding nerves?’ Jude asked, leaning back against the door with the cool of a man who rarely lost control of his emotions.

            This had been the day the prenuptial agreement was to be signed, and the wedding was to take place within the week. Jude would have been content with a quick civil ceremony, but Althea had wanted a big wedding, which had taken weeks of planning. Thanks to her insistence on all the glitzy trappings, he was now perilously close to the finishing line, which was only a couple of months away. If he didn’t have a wife by his thirtieth birthday, his mother, Clio, would be forced to leave her home and her precious garden and there would be nothing he could do to forestall that blow and the devastation it would inflict on her. Unfortunately for Clio, she lived in an Alexandris family property, which Jude would only inherit after his grandfather passed away and his grandfather, Isidore, was using that as a threat to force his grandson into taking a wife. His mother might be a rather difficult personality but Jude still wanted to protect her.

            ‘No, it’s not nerves.’ The slender blonde drew a tissue out of her bag and dabbed carefully at her eyes, struggling not to dislodge her fake lashes. ‘I realised that I was marrying you for the wrong reasons, that I’d be looking for more than you were willing to give and that I wouldn’t want to let you go at the end of it. That wouldn’t be fair to you or me, so I’m backing out now because I do value your friendship and I don’t want to lose that as well.