Excerpt from THE TYCOON'S SON

Chapter One

Trish Melrose felt like a hooker.  Or maybe a college student at the end of a bar crawl…

It wasn’t even one o’clock in the afternoon and here she was sitting in a taverna with a carafe of Greek wine on the table in front of her.

Okay, so maybe she didn’t look like a lady-of-the-evening. Her skirt brushed her knees and the linen shell beneath her suit jacket didn’t show a bit of cleavage.  And, as far as the coed thing, the fine lines at the edge of her eyes weren’t usually found on a college girl’s face.

But that didn’t change the fact that for the past thirty minutes she’d been sitting in the small café in Corfu Town, sipping the same glass of wine and plastering a smile on her face whenever the tiny bells above the door jingled a new arrival.  With unabashed interest she’d checked out every man who walked through the door.

She only prayed Theo Catomeris wouldn’t keep her waiting much longer.

As the owner of a growing company that arranged shore excursions for cruise ships, Trish loved everything about her job…except the games.

While arriving late was a common way to show power, in this case it was totally unnecessary.  Theo Catomeris had to know that he was the one in control.  

If he said yes to her very generous offer, billionaire Elias Stamos would be appeased and Trish would retain her firm’s contract with Liberty Cruise lines.

Unfortunately if he said no…

Trish’s fingers tightened around the wine glass. She didn’t even want to think about what would happen if she failed.

There was so much at stake.  If she lost the Liberty contract she’d have to lay off or cut back the hours of at least one of her two employees.  Who would it be?  Twyla, the single mother who gave 110% every day?  Or James, whose wife didn’t work and who’d just bought his first house in anticipation of the baby due next month?  Unlike many businesses, her company wasn’t a sterile office environment.  She and her employees worked hard but they also had fun.  And they all cared about each other.   She couldn’t let them down.

Maybe if she groveled…

She stopped the thought before it could go any further, appalled it had even crossed her mind.  Trish Melrose didn’t grovel.  Had never groveled.  Would never grovel. 

She would do her best to convince Mr. Catomeris that it would be in his--and his wildlife foundation’s--best interest to do business with Liberty Cruise lines.  She’d make the points she’d rehearsed calmly and rationally.

The offer she had for him was a win-win.  If he renewed his contract with Liberty Cruise lines for excursion services--the same services he’d been providing to Liberty passengers prior to the cruise line’s buyout-—Trish would make a hefty donation to his pet project, a foundation to help the wild horses of Kefalonia.

In actuality the money for the donation would come from Elias Stamos.  But the Greek billionaire insisted she leave his name out of the offer.  As far as Theo Catomeris was concerned, Trish’s company would be the one making the donation.  She’d asked several times why the subterfuge was necessary but had never gotten a straight answer.

When she’d seen she was getting nowhere, Trish had checked out the legalities with her attorney and discovered doing it the way Mr. Stamos required was perfectly legal.  Only then had she finally agreed to do it his way.

Now all she needed to do was convince Catomeris to sign.

If he ever showed up, that is. 

What if he’d forgotten?

That seemed unlikely considering she’d confirmed the meeting by email just yesterday.

Did I mix-up the time?

It couldn’t be that.  When the ship had docked off the small Greek island this morning, Trish had made sure her watch was on local time.  She’d double-checked her notes for the location and had arrived at the small taverna on the edge of the Esplanade at precisely twelve fifteen…well ahead of their twelve thirty appointment.

The arched colonnade lined with cafes on the edge of the vast main plaza and park had practically begged to be explored.  But today wasn’t about shopping and sightseeing.  The meeting with Theo Catomeris was her priority.

Trish had already discussed this issue with him once.  Shortly after she’d learned he hadn’t signed the new agreement with Liberty, she’d emailed him, assuming the contract had gotten lost in the mail…or on his desk.  His response had been brief and to the point…not interested.

She’d immediately started looking for other vendors.  But Stamos had insisted on Theo Catomeris.  So Trish had tried again.  She’d followed up the email refusal with a call.  The connection hadn’t been good but there’d been no misunderstanding the response.  Catomeris had made it more than clear he wasn’t interested in working with the new owner of Liberty cruise line.

Mr. Stamos hadn’t been happy with the news but he’d given Trish one more chance.  She would come on one of his cruises and when the ship docked in Corfu, she would meet with Catomeris and make her plea in person.

The action seemed extreme—personally she would have just replaced Catomeris--but Elias Stamos was the client and it was his call.

“You no like the food?”

Trish looked up to find the proprietress’s anxious gaze fixed on the nearly full plate and glass in front of Trish.

Short and nearly as round as she was tall, Menka’s long hair, more silver than black, was pulled back from her face in a fat bun.  Trish guessed her to be somewhere in her late seventies.

Trish offered her a reassuring smile.  She’d always had a soft spot in her heart for senior citizens and Menka clearly went out of her way to make her customers comfortable.  Though the woman’s English was far from flawless, she was easily understood.  In fact, when Trish had first arrived, they’d spent several minutes bonding over discussions of Miami where Menka had relatives.

“I like the food very much.”  To illustrate the point and further reassure the woman, Trish took a sip of wine and popped a piece of feta into her mouth.

She must have been convincing because Menka patted her on the shoulder and moved on to the next table. 

Glancing around the café now half-filled with diners, Trish was suddenly happy that Catomeris had chosen this place to meet instead of one of the upscale restaurants or European bistros surrounding it.

The small, family owned taverna had a warm, homey feel that had put her instantly at ease.  Intricately tatted lace topped the oilcloth covering the tables and the lamps scattered throughout the dining area gave the café’s interior a golden glow. It was almost like meeting in a favorite friend’s living room.

The bells heralding another new customer pulled Trish from her reverie.  She shifted her gaze to the doorway just in time to see Menka wrap her arms around a broad-shouldered man. 

With his dark curly hair, aquiline nose and classic cheekbones, the man standing just inside the doorway could have posed for the Greek statue on the cover of the travel guide nestled in Trish’s purse.  Not only that but he was in the age range of the man Trish had come to meet.

Trish straightened in her seat, her senses on high alert.  Could this man be Theo Catomeris?

His gaze searched the room.  When it landed on Trish she offered him a smile.  Instead of returning the friendly gesture, he turned and spoke to the proprietress again.  Menka shook her head and pointed to Trish, obviously reiterating that Trish was the only American in the room or perhaps, the only one waiting for someone.

As he started across the taverna, Trish took the opportunity to study him.  Like her he was dressed for business.  Anticipation quickened Trish’s pulse.  Since starting in the cruise industry fifteen years ago, her ability to exhibit a cool confidence under pressure had served her well.  After becoming her own boss five years ago she’d been successful in contracting with most major cruise lines to provide excursion services to their guests.

Not to say it hadn’t been challenging.  Every day other companies sprang up promising to do what she did…only better, faster, cheaper.  In the highly competitive travel industry, she’d had to develop nerves of steel.  But this wasn’t just another industry executive she was dealing with, this was a man whose decision could cause her to lose a significant percentage of her current business.

The man seemed determined to make her wait.  He stopped at several tables, taking time to laugh and talk with other patrons.  Many at other tables called out in Greek to him or raised a hand in greeting.  Trish decided the fact that most of the people knew him probably wasn’t all that surprising considering the size of Corfu Town. 

Finally he stood tableside.  Trish rose to her feet and extended her hand.  “Theo Catomeris?”

“Mrs. Melrose.”  A slight smile touched his lips and he gave her hand a brief shake.  “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

His English was perfect with only the barest hint of an accent.

“Please,” she said, taking his hand. “Call me Trish.”

A tingle raced up her arm when her palm met his large calloused one in a firm grip.  Up close his brown hair reminded her of strong coffee, so dark it could almost be black.  But the hint of grey at his temples told her he wasn’t as young as she’d first thought.  In fact, he was probably a couple years older than her own thirty-seven years.

Still, a magnificent forty.  A man in his prime.  She could practically feel the waves of testosterone rolling off of him.

“You may call me Theo,” he said politely, pushing in her chair as she took her seat.

Out of the corner of her eye, Trish saw a few people staring and realized she and Theo had become the main attraction in the small cafe.

“Have you had lunch?” she asked when he took the seat opposite her.

Mentioning food or the weather was always a good conversation starter.  But Theo didn’t have a chance to respond because the proprietress chose that moment to deliver a bottle of ouzo to the table along with ice and water.  The older woman’s cheeks may have been a roadmap of wrinkles but her dark eyes still had a youthful flare and a healthy dose of curiosity.

“This woman is a friend, Theo?” the woman asked, her hands fluttering in the air like a tiny wren.

“Mrs. Melrose and I have done business together in the past,” Theo said smoothly.  “She and I have some work-related concerns to discuss.”

Theo went on to introduce the proprietress as his grandmother, Menka Catomeris.  He also casually mentioned that his grandfather, Tommy, was in the kitchen cooking.

After a few seconds of polite conversation, the woman bustled off to take care of other diners.  But not before giving Theo another hug and making him promise to stop in back and see his grandfather before he left.

Trish felt a pang of envy.  It was obvious the threesome had a warm, loving relationship.

“You’re lucky to be so close to your grandparents,” Trish said, her tone sounding wistful even to her ears. It had been her dream to have her daughter Cassidy grow up surrounded by family.  But her ex-husband’s parents were too busy with their own lives to spend much time with the child and Trish’s parents lived in Nebraska.

Theo poured ouzo into the glass and added water.  “They’re more like parents than grandparents.  I’ve been with them since I was a baby.”

She’d expected him to continue but his lips clamped down as if he said more than he’d intended.

“I’m sorry.”  A wave of compassion washed over Trish.  “Did your parents die?”

“No,” Theo raised the glass to his lips.  “My mother lives in Athens.  My father isn’t…involved.”

Trish almost asked what had happened, but at the last minute regained her common sense.  This was a work-related luncheon and until their business was concluded, it wouldn’t do to let the conversation get too personal.  Still, the more she knew about Theo, the better she’d be able solidify a deal that met both their needs.

“How did you get started doing tours?” she asked.

“I went to college in Athens,” he said in an offhand tone, taking a sip of ouzo.  “Then to Stanford for my MBA.”

Trish smiled.  No wonder he spoke such perfect English.

“And then?” she prompted when he didn’t immediately continue.

“When I returned to Greece, I worked in Athens for a brokerage firm for several years.” His eyes grew distant with remembrance. “But my heart wasn’t in it.  I bought my first boat, returned to Corfu and started my business.”

Trish picked up a piece of feta.  “How many boats do you have now?”

“Six,” he said, a note of pride in his voice.  “We now go to most of the Ionian Islands.  In the beginning it was just Kefalonia.”

Trish took another bite of the delicious cheese, and tried to get a hold on the excitement strumming through her body.  The excursion to Kefalonia was the reason for this meeting and by his comment Theo had just opened the door to that discussion.

“From what I understand Kefalonia is a must see for visitors to this area,” Trish said, doing her best to keep her tone casual.

“You’ve never been there?”  Menke asked, suddenly reappearing to place a plate of filo pastries on the table.  Apparently the older woman had decided if they were there, they were going to eat.

Trish shook her head.  “This is my first visit to the area.”

“You must go,” Menke said.  “Have you thought about doing a tour?”

Trish hesitated.  She and her friend had booked a spot on an excursion to Kefalonia later in the afternoon.  But Trish hated to mention the plans for fear Theo would use it as a reason to cut their meeting short.

“It sounds like Kefalonia is a place everyone should have a chance to see,” Trish answered instead, casting pointed glance toward Theo.

Theo nodded.  “It’s very beautiful.”

“Theo.  Maybe you could—“ Menka stopped mid-sentence, her gaze focused on Theo.  Instead of continuing with ther thought she merely patted Theo on the shoulder and scurried off.

Theo glanced down at the filo pastries his grandmother had placed on the table.  “Yiayia likes to bring me all my favorite dishes when I come here.  I can ask her to bring a menu if you’d like to order something else?”

“Thank you but these will be fine.  They look wonderful.”  The delicious smells in the café had set her stomach to rumbling and she’d always found eating to be conducive to doing business. “While we’re eating, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Corfu?”

Theo obligingly started talking and continued to talk while they ate their salads and then their entrées.  It didn’t take Trish long to realize why he was so effective as a tour operator.  The man possessed a wealth of knowledge about his home country…and a passion.

Yet by the time the galacto boureko--a milk custard pie with filo pastry and a touch of honey--had arrived, Trish had lost interest in geography and history.

Instead she found her attention focused on Theo.  On the way his brown--almost black--hair brushed his shoulders.  On the way his lips closed around the spoon with the custard, on the way he gestured with his fingers to make a point.

Even how he talked fascinated her.  His English was excellent, but occasionally his inflection would reveal that he wasn’t a native speaker.

Trish suddenly wished that she didn’t have an agenda and could just enjoy his company.  If only the words “business” and “contracts” didn’t have to cross her lips.

She wasn’t sure how he was going to react to the incentive she planned to offer him. Regardless of what Mr. Stamos called it, offering Theo’s foundation a generous donation in exchange for him resuming the Kefalonia excursions smacked of bribery. 

“Trish.” Theo’s deep voice broke through her reverie and she looked up to find him staring with that inscrutable look on his face.

“I suppose you want to get down to business.” She practically sighed the word and a dimple flashed in his cheek.  Once she’d laid the offer on the table, the delightful lunch would be over.

He leaned back in his chair.  “What’s on your mind?”

Trish opened her mouth and the words she didn’t want to speak…tumbled out.

 

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