Rival's ChallengeBy: Abby Green
ANTONIO CHATSFIELD SENT silent not interested vibes to the lustrous dark-haired beauty sitting at the bar with her breasts displayed to prominent advantage in her low-cut dress, her kohl-enhanced eyes firmly on him.
Everything about her jangled at his sensitive nerve ends. She was too obvious. Too smooth. Too polished. This whole place was too polished. He cast a jaundiced glance around the dark and sensual bar space of his family’s London flagship hotel. For the past decade he’d been used to surroundings that were more likely to be made of rubble and scented with the stench of chaos, death and panic. But he pushed those thoughts aside. Not now.
He’d chosen to come here for the dark corners and dim lighting as opposed to drinking himself into a stupor in the hotel suite which he currently called home. He smiled grimly to himself: at least he could appreciate the functionality of wanting to numb himself while in the presence of other humans. His therapist would undoubtedly approve.
That functionality had been hard fought for but even now the familiar feeling of skin-prickling clamminess was never too far away for him to forget completely—the stomach-churning terror that used to grip him at random moments, sparked by something as minor as a dog barking or a loud noise, wrenching him out of the present and back to the cataclysmic past.
But the drink wasn’t having much of an effect this evening. It was as if the acerbity inside him was diluting the effects. Even the woman lost interest now, turning her attention to another man who had just arrived at the other end of the bar. Antonio saw them exchange glances and saw the man indicate for the bartender to order her another drink.
Mentally he saluted them. He’d had enough encounters like that in his time. He just wasn’t in the mood for one right now. Something spiked in his gut; he hadn’t been in the mood for longer than he cared to admit, preferring to bury himself in work to avoid the gaping chasm inside him that he used to fill with meaningless encounters and high-octane danger.
He’d only been back in London for a couple of months, after years in exile, albeit punctuated by trips home. He was back because his family was in a state of crisis. His father had installed Christos Giatrakos as CEO to take charge of the family business—a worldwide string of eponymous luxury hotels that had been the byword in glamour and luxury since the 1920s.
The crisis was one of reputation and potential damage to the exclusive Chatsfield brand. Antonio’s younger siblings, with the exception of his sister Lucilla, who had begged him to come and help, were all seemingly hell-bent on various forms of self-destruction amidst screaming headlines and lurid paparazzi shots. God knew, Antonio had indulged in his fair share of self-destruction along the way. He’d also left home when a lot of them were on the cusp of adulthood, so he could hardly judge them now.
Antonio had turned his back on his inheritance a long time ago and had had no intention of taking up the reins again, especially not when the autocratic Greek CEO wanted him to utilise his military and business expertise under the position of head of strategy to orchestrate the resurrection and expansion of the Chatsfield brand.
But his closest sibling, Lucilla, had begged him to reconsider, indicating that it would be the perfect position from which to help her topple the CEO. Apparently Giatrakos didn’t know better than to let the enemy in through the front gate. And Lucilla’s entreaties had called to that part of Antonio that still wanted to make things better. He felt that he’d left it too long to step in and offer to help his other brothers and sister, who were all fully fledged adults by now, but Lucilla had expressly asked him to help her. She wanted to prove to Giatrakos that they could restore the somewhat tarnished Chatsfield name by covertly taking over a rival hotel business, the Kennedy Group, before the shareholders’ meeting in August, demonstrating that they had no need of an outsider. And if that meant coming back to a place he’d have preferred never to see again, then so be it.
A familiar ache grew in Antonio’s chest to think of his siblings and how none of them, including himself, had ever really had a chance, let down by their parents long ago. He’d done his best for a while, but it hadn’t been enough.
The old wounds of the blazing row he’d had with his father more than ten years ago were still vivid. That was when he’d realised how futile his efforts were and that perhaps the best thing he could do for his family was to walk away and let them get on with it. As his father had reminded him all too succinctly, Antonio wasn’t his brothers’ and sisters’ father and never would be, so he might as well give up trying.
A mirthless smile touched Antonio’s mouth. His sister Lucilla knew him well. She sensed the guilt he felt for having left his family when he had, even though she’d been the one to urge him to go. She also sensed his restlessness, his rootlessness. But perhaps most of all she was counting on his well-ingrained sense of responsibility still being partly intact. They’d been united in a heavy burden the day their mother had left their home, never to be seen from that day to this.