Imprisoned by the Greek’s Ring
His vengeance won’t be complete…
Until he has her as his bride!
After ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, ruthless Greek Atlas Chariton is back to take revenge on Lexi Haring — the woman who put him there. He’ll meet her at the altar and bind her to him — for life!
But once married, the bliss of her sensual surrender threatens to unravel his hard-won vengeance…
Conveniently wedded, passionately bedded!
Imprisoned by the Greek’s Ring
The worst finally happened on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday afternoon in the middle of a gray and sullen British spring.
It wasn’t as if Lexi Haring hadn’t been expecting it. They’d all been on tenterhooks since the news had come in. After all these years—and all the appeals that the Worth family solicitors had assured everyone were nothing but noise right up until the very end—Atlas Chariton was a free man.
Not just free. Innocent.
Lexi had watched the press conference he’d given, right there in front of the American prison where he’d been serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole for the murder that DNA evidence at his last appeal trial had conclusively proved he didn’t commit. He’d been released the same day.
She hadn’t been able to turn away from a single moment of the breathless coverage, if she was honest, and not only because every channel was showing the press conference live.
“I’ve maintained my innocence from the start,” Atlas had said in that dark, powerful voice of his that had seemed to come straight through the screen, the English he spoke with both a British accent and that hint of his native Greek as richly mysterious to her ears as ever. He’d had the same effect on her he always had. He filled the small bedsit Lexi counted herself lucky to have in her shabby West London neighborhood. It was a long bus ride plus ten minutes’ brisk walk to the Worth estate where she worked, thanks to her uncle’s continuing kindness to her. And even if she sometimes felt her uncle wasn’t all that kind, she kept it to herself and tried to remind herself of that luck. “I am delighted to be proved so beyond any possible remaining doubt.”
Atlas looked older, which was only to be expected, though no gray had dared yet invade that thick black hair of his that threatened to curl at any moment. The stark ferocity that had always been there on his face and stamped into the long, lean lines of his body was more evident now, eleven years after he’d first been arrested. It made his black eyes gleam. It made his cruel mouth seem even harsher and more brutal.
He made Lexi shiver the way he always had done, though he was all the way on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Her heart kicked at her the way it always had when he was near. And it was as if he was aiming that pitiless midnight stare directly at her, straight through the television cameras.
She thought he was. Of course he was.
She had no doubt that he knew perfectly well that she was watching.
It reminded her of the way he’d glared at her a decade ago, when she’d been eighteen and overwhelmed and had stuttered every time her gaze had clashed with his across that overheated, airless courtroom on Martha’s Vineyard. And yet she’d still somehow managed to choke out the testimony that had damned him.
She could still remember every word she’d said. She could taste each one on her tongue, bitter and thick.
She remembered too much of that time. The intense pressure her uncle and cousins had put on her to testify when she hadn’t wanted to—when she’d been desperate to believe there was another explanation. That there had to be another explanation.
And the way Atlas had watched her in that stony, furious silence when she’d broken down on the stand and admitted she couldn’t think of one.
“What will you do now?” a reporter had asked him outside the prison.
Atlas’s mouth had curved, lethal and cold, more dangerous than the sharpest knife. Lexi had felt it deep in her belly as if he’d thrust it into her, steel edge to hard hilt. No one could possibly mistake it for a smile, surely. No one could miss the fact it was a weapon.
It was her curse that even now, even after everything that had happened, he was the only man alive who made her heart skip a beat, then pound, long and low.
“I will live my life,” Atlas had said, dark and sure, a terrible promise. “At last.”
Lexi had known what that meant. What was coming as surely as night followed day. Her uncle Richard had hemmed and hawed and blustered rather than face the subject head-on, but she thought he’d known, too. Her cousins Gerard and Harry, meanwhile, had acted as if it wasn’t happening. The same way they’d acted eleven years ago when Philippa had been found dead in the pool at Oyster House, the family’s summer estate in Martha’s Vineyard. The way they’d behaved through the trial and the appeals process all this time, as if they weren’t involved. As if it would all go away and revert to normal if they pretended nothing had happened in the first place.
And as if there had ever been any possibility that a man like Atlas would simply fade away into the ether, in jail or out.
Lexi had always known better. When she’d wanted desperately to believe in his innocence and when she’d reluctantly believed in his guilt. Because to her, no matter what, Atlas Chariton had always been the only man in all the world.
“The last thing he’s going to want to do is take up where he left off,” irascible Harry told anyone who would listen in the Worth family home and offices peppered throughout the grand old stately house and estate that had been in the family for hundreds of years, spread across the acreage that had been gloriously maintained in West London since the seventeenth century. Harry was always that confident, about everything. “I’m sure he’s got as little interest in us as we do in him.”
But Lexi knew better. She’d been the one up in that witness box. She’d been the one who’d watched Atlas’s face as she’d testified against him. So harsh and terrible. All judgment and the promise of retribution.
At the time she’d convinced herself it was a measure of the man himself. The signs he was a killer, right there in his grim gaze and that set to his proud jaw—and that despite the more tender, secret things she’d felt about him then.
A schoolgirl’s crush, she’d told herself then, to excuse herself. That was all.
Today it felt like an indictment. That she’d had a desperate, endless crush on a man like Atlas and had testified against him the way she had—had she really been telling the truth to the best of her ability? Had she bowed to her uncle’s whim the way she always did? Or had she simply wanted to get Atlas’s attention however she could, linking herself to him forevermore?
She didn’t know how to answer that.
Or to be more truthful, she didn’t want to know the answer to that.
Whatever her emotions, the science told the truth. There was no getting around it, much as she might have wanted to, in some desperate attempt to feel better about what she’d done. She’d thought she’d been standing up for Philippa, doing the right thing even if it had torn her up inside, and she’d hated herself for the part of her that had ached for the Atlas she’d thought she’d known, but now…
Now she would pay. Of that she had no doubt.
She’d had the weeks between his release and his arrival in London to reconsider every thought she’d ever had about Atlas, and to cast herself in the light he most assuredly saw her, which was in no way flattering to either the teenager she’d been or the woman she was these days.
And now he was here.
Lexi forced a smile and nodded at the wide-eyed secretary who’d brought her the news.
“Thank you for coming all the way out here to tell me,” she said, and was proud of how calm she sounded. How serene and capable, as if this disaster was happening to someone else.
“Mr. Worth wanted me to tell you especially,” the secretary told her, her northern vowels sounding extra pronounced, as if the heightened tension around the estate over these past weeks was getting to her and bringing out her Yorkshire.
Lexi could sympathize. She kept her smile steady as she looked past the other woman, out toward the great, green sweep of the lower lawn and the straight march of the famous drive that led to the grand sprawl of Worth Manor in all its ancient splendor. It had once been the pride of a very rich merchant and the impoverished noblewoman he’d married and tried to win with the things his money could do, and sometimes Lexi liked to imagine that the estate itself was ripe with all that old longing time had not assuaged. Today was another gray, wet day in a long run of the same, with only the desperately cheerful flowers along the borders of the winding drive to suggest that spring was limping along.
There were two vehicles parked outside. One was the little sedan that the secretary had driven down from the manor house, small and nondescript. The other was a gleaming black, classic Jaguar convertible that looked like it deserved its own Bond film. If not a franchise.
Her stomach lurched, then knotted, and she felt pale all the way through. But it wouldn’t do to show any of that.
Nor would it help.
“If you hurry back,” Lexi said in the same deliberately, preternaturally calm voice, because she had nothing else to work with today except the appearance of serenity, “you might beat the rain.”
The secretary nodded her thanks, pulling her serviceable mackintosh tighter around her sturdy torso and letting herself out of Lexi’s small office. Lexi stayed where she was. Frozen solid, in fact. Lexi could hear the secretary’s heels click loudly against the uneven floorboards as she moved down the hall toward the front door.
Lexi’s office, such as it was, was far away from the main part of the estate and the manor house itself. She spent her days out in what had once been a carriage house, separated from the family and the estate’s hundreds of daily visitors as much as it was possible to be while still on the same property. Her cousins lived on the estate, of course—Gerard and his family ensconced in the residential wing of Worth Manor as befit the heir to everything, and Harry in one of the cottages where he could come and go and drink as he pleased. Neither one of them had ever shown the slightest interest in leaving home or exploring the world outside of a few years at university.
Philippa had been the only member of the family who’d wanted something—anything—different. She’d been nineteen when she’d died, filled with plans and dreams and a wild, unmanageable and overwhelming certainty about how beautiful her life was going to be if she could just start living it. She’d found her father tyrannical and the expectations placed on her as the only Worth daughter enervating.
More than that, she’d been kind and silly and fiercely loyal, and Lexi missed her. Every day.
Lexi reminded herself of Philippa when she was tempted to harbor dark thoughts about her uncle and cousins—something she tried to talk herself out of almost as soon as they occurred, because she thought it made her a very small person indeed if she allowed herself to be as ungrateful as she felt sometimes. Too often, in fact. Uncle Richard had been unduly kind to her when she was nothing to him but a niece he hardly knew, who he could easily have written off the way he had her mother.
Richard had never approved of his challenging and problematic sister Yvonne’s marriage to unreliable partier Scott Haring. Much less the desperate, squalid life his sister went on to lead with a man so weak and fatally flawed. And yet there he’d been the day Lexi’s parents had finally succumbed to their addictions, ready to scoop her up and give her a life.
Of course she was grateful for that. She would always be grateful for that.
And on the days it was hard to feel grateful while she did the work her cousins and uncle blew off, again, and then repaired to her grotty little flat while they lounged about in luxury, it was helpful to remind herself that Philippa would have viewed everything about Lexi’s life as a grand adventure. Literally everything. The bedsit in a neighborhood where Lexi could come and go anonymously and as she pleased. The commute to work on buses and along streets filled with regular Londoners going about their regular lives. These were things Philippa, raised in a very specific sort of high society bubble, catered to and sheltered in turn, would have found nothing short of magical.
Even this, Lexi thought as she heard the carriage house door open and shut again with rather more force than usual, and then the secretary’s startled gasp as punctuation.
She knew exactly who’d arrived to face her at last, with no American courts or attorneys or bailiffs to keep her safe from him. Not even the marginal, grudging support of her uncle and cousins. Not this time.
It was finally happening, after the gnawing worry of the past decade and the wild panic of the past few weeks.
Her worst nightmare was coming true at last.
Atlas was here.
She heard the heavy, obviously male tread of his feet in the hall outside her door. Was it her imagination, or did he sound as if he was made of stone? As if he’d really and truly turned into the monster they’d made him—she’d made him—after all his years away?
And now that it was finally happening, she didn’t know what to do with herself. Should she stand? Remain seated? Hide in her cramped little coat closet and wait for him to go away—delaying the inevitable?
She knew what she wanted to do, and glanced at her closet as if she might dive for it. But Lexi had never had the option to hide herself away from the unpleasant things in life. That was what happened when a girl was left to raise herself while her parents chased dragons wherever they led, which was never anywhere good. And it was what happened when she was then brought to live with a new family who treated her well enough, in the sense that they provided for her, but never, ever let her imagine that she was one of them.
But that veered toward ungrateful, she told herself as steadily as she could when the world was ending. And she wasn’t ungrateful. She couldn’t be.
Because then she’d be no better than her lost mother. And she’d spent her whole life trying her best to be nothing at all like Yvonne Worth Haring, once a sparkling heiress with the world at her feet, who’d died in squalor like any other junkie.
Lexi refused to start down that path, and she knew—she remembered too vividly—that the road to her mother’s hell was liberally paved with ingratitude and all of it aimed straight at her uncle.
The heavy tread stopped outside her door and her heart pounded at her, so hard it made her feel dizzy. Lexi was suddenly glad she’d stayed in her seat, tucked up behind the narrow desk she used because a full-size desk wouldn’t have fit in the small room. She wasn’t sure her legs would have held her upright.
And she was having enough trouble keeping her heart from clawing its way out from behind her ribs without adding a collapse to the situation.
The door swung open, slow and ominous, and then he was there.
Right here, she thought wildly, panic and dread exploding into something else, something sharper and all too familiar, as she sat there, struck dumb, unable to do anything but stare back at him.
He filled up the door to her tiny office with rather more brawn and heft than she remembered. He’d always been sculpted and athletic, of course. It was one of the reasons he’d been so beloved all over Europe in his heyday, and hadn’t exactly helped her with the red-faced longing she’d tried so hard to hide. Another reason Europe had adored him was his epic rise from nothing and the power he’d gathered along the way—but Lexi thought his inarguable male beauty had helped that fascination along.
It had been difficult for her to get past way back when. It still was.
She recalled every inch of him, even if memory had muted him a little. In person he was bright, hot, unmistakable. That bold nose that made his profile so intense. The belligerent jaw and curiously high cheekbones that should have canceled each other out but instead came together to make him a little too extraordinary for her poor, overtaxed heart.
He’d had all that ten years ago. He had it all still, though it was all…different, somehow. He was still beautiful, certainly, male and hard and clearly as lethal as he was mouthwateringly handsome. But it was a harder and more intense sort of beauty today. A storm rather than a work of art.
As altered as he was.
Lexi felt as if his hands were wrapped tight around her neck, holding her breath for her. This close to doing exactly what she’d accused him of doing ten years ago.
Any second now, she’d start to choke…but not yet. She was frozen solid. Panicked from her head to her feet and unable to do a single thing but stare at him, the apparition from her own personal hell.
Atlas stood in the door to her office and filled it up, all flashing black eyes and that pugilistic set to his brutal jaw. He wore a dark, obviously bespoke suit that clung to his shoulders and made her far too aware of their size and sculpted, muscled width. As if he could not only bear the weight of the world on them if he chose, he could block it out, as well. He was doing that now.
He had always had that rough, impossible magnetism. It had rolled from him wherever he went, making the hair on the back of Lexi’s neck stand up straight whenever he’d been near. Making it hard to breathe when he entered a room. Making her so aware of him that it was like a body ache.
The ache had kept her awake some nights, tucked away beneath the eaves in the manor house, where she’d lived in the servant’s quarters and had been expected to find her circumstances evidence of her uncle’s generosity. It hadn’t exactly faded in the years since—it had just shifted into the nightmares that woke her in her tiny little bedsit and some nights, kept her from falling back to sleep.
He was far more compelling now. Brutally, lethally compelling. There was something untamed and dangerous about him that his luxurious suit did nothing to hide. If anything, the expertly tailored coat and trousers called attention to how wild he was, how much more he was than other men. He was so much bigger. Rougher. Infinitely more dangerous though he wore the disguise of civility with such ease.
And he glared at her as if he, too, was imagining what it would be like to take her apart with his own two hands.
She couldn’t blame him.
Lexi’s throat was so dry it hurt.
Her palms felt damp and her face was too hot. She had the vague notion she might be sick, but there was something in the pitiless way he regarded her that kept her from succumbing to the creeping nausea.
“Lexi,” he murmured, her name an assault. An indictment. And he knew it. She could see he knew it, that it was a deliberate blow. That he reveled in it—but then, he’d earned that, too. “At last.”
She was proud of the way she said his name. No catch in her voice. No shakiness. No stutter. As if she was perfectly composed.
All a lie, of course, but she’d take anything at this point. Anything that got her through this. If there was any getting through something like this.
He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t step farther into her office. He only stood where he was and regarded her in that same nearly violent way, all terrible promise and impending threat.
It was excruciating.
“When did you arrive in London?” she asked, still managing to keep her voice calm. If thin.
One dark brow rose, and she felt it like a slap.
“Small talk?” His voice was harshly incredulous and made her feel small. Or smaller. “I arrived this morning, as I’m certain you know full well.”
Of course she knew. He’d been all over the news the moment his plane had set down in Heathrow.
Lexi wasn’t the only one who couldn’t seem to get enough of the scandalous rise and fall of Atlas Chariton. A man who’d built himself from nothing, then swept into the world of high-society high stakes as if he’d been made for it. He’d been hired as the CEO of the Worth Trust at a shockingly young age and had overseen the major renovations and reorganization that had taken the grand old estate from its old, moldering status to a major recreation center for public use and in so doing, had made himself and everyone else very, very wealthy. He’d opened the famous, Michelin-starred restaurant on the grounds. He’d created the five-star hotel that had opened and run beautifully while he’d been incarcerated, thanks entirely to his vision and planning, a point the papers had made repeatedly. He’d started the new programs that had continued in his absence, going above and beyond the usual stately house home and garden tours, making Worth Manor and its grounds a premier London tourist and local destination.
And then he’d been convicted of murdering Philippa and put away.
They’d all been living off his vision ever since.
But by the look of him, Atlas had been living off something else entirely.
A black, dark fury, if Lexi had to guess.
“And how do you find the estate?” she asked, as if she hadn’t taken his warning to heart.
Atlas stared at her until a new heat made her cheeks feel singed, and she felt very nearly lacerated by her own shame.
“I find that the fact you are all still standing, unchanged and wholly unruined, offends me,” he growled. “Deeply.”
“Atlas, I want to tell you that I—”
“Oh, no. I think not.” His teeth bared in something she was not foolish enough to call a smile. She remembered what his smiles had looked like before. How they’d felt when he’d aimed them her way. They had never been like this. Ruthless and terrible in turn. “No apologies, Lexi. It’s much too late for that.”
She found herself rising then, as if she couldn’t help herself. Maybe she simply couldn’t sit there another moment, like some kind of small animal of prey. She smoothed down the front of her pencil skirt and hoped she looked the way she’d imagined she had this morning in her mirror. Capable. Competent. Unworthy of this kind of malevolent focus.
“I know you must be very angry,” she began.
And he laughed. It was a hard, male sound that rolled down the length of her spine and seemed to lodge itself there in her lower back, where it spread. Until there was that same old aching thing again, low in her belly and made of a kind of fire Lexi didn’t pretend to understand.
But there was no getting around the fact that she’d never heard a laugh like that before. So utterly devoid of humor. So impossibly lethal she wanted to look down and check herself for bullet holes.
“You have no idea how angry I am, little girl,” Atlas told her, that grim fury and something else making his black eyes gleam as they tore straight through her. “But you will. Believe me, you will.”
End of excerpt
Imprisoned by the Greek’s Ring
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