An Empire of Secrets

Since Creativia is currently running a special promotion for my first novel, Alexander’s Empire (originally published by Berkley Books as Dance of the Gods back in 1988), today’s excerpt will be from that novel. It started out to be a psychological drama about a man who discovers he’s not who he believes himself to be, his fate altered by a tragic accident–but having been written and published in the 1980s, it was also heavily influenced by that time: glitz, glamour, greed and ambition. I chose the protagonist’s name, Alexander, because he was a Greek conqueror like Alexander the Great, but a conqueror of a very different world: international business….

7

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

New York City, December 1986.

A light snow was falling. Up and down Fifth Avenue the windows of all the fabulous shops—Cartier, Saks, Tiffany & Co., Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston, Gucci, Bergdorf Goodman, Steuben Glass—glittered with magnificent holiday treasures that beckoned shoppers to come inside. The sounds of honking horns filled the air as a river of pedestrians—shoppers laden with brightly wrapped Christmas packages, office workers gratefully calling it a day, wide-eyed tourists eagerly taking in the sights, and the usual assortment of street vendors—flooded the streets, resembling a scene from the Exodus. Traffic was bumper to bumper as buses, taxis, and chauffeured limousines jockeyed for positions along the thoroughfare.

Huddled in the back of one of those limousines, Meredith drew her Russian lynx coat around herself for warmth, but it did no good. The chill was deep within her bones, and it had nothing to do with the weather. Inside the limousine it was warm . . . but Meredith was numb with a fear she could not put into words. Normally, she would have been glad the day was over, glad to be going home, but tonight nothing gave her comfort. She felt as though her whole world was about to come crashing down around her, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.

Tonight Meredith was oblivious of the pulsing excitement that was so much a part of life in Manhattan. She glanced absently at the shop windows, having suddenly lost her Christmas spirit. She peered through the window as the limo inched its way toward its destination. On the west side of the avenue, nestled between Forty-eighth and Fiftieth streets, was the sprawling community of skyscrapers, plazas, stores, and cafés known as Rockefeller Center. “As solid as seven million dollars,” Alexander had once told her. Alexander. Meredith was usually eager to get home and spend a quiet evening with her husband, but now she found herself glad he was not going to be there when she arrived. Alexander was in Paris on business, and Meredith was grateful. He knew her too well; he would have recognized her tension immediately. He would have known that something was wrong. Meredith wasn’t sure that this was something she could share with him. Not yet.

The limousine slowed to a stop in front of the Olympic Tower at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street. The chauffeur opened the door for her, and as Meredith stepped out into the cold night air, the wind whipped her long blond hair around her face. She paused for a moment to gaze up at the building, a magnificent bronze jewel rising into the twilight sky. Fifty-two stories of pure opulence, fit for a king. As she made her way toward it, the liveried doorman, poised at the entrance like a member of the Praetorian Guard, smiled and held the door for her. She nodded absently to him and headed across the red-carpeted lobby toward the elevators. She rang for the elevator impatiently, repeatedly. Hurry, she thought anxiously. Please . . . hurry.

“Is something wrong, Mrs. Kirakis?”

She turned, startled. One of the concierges, easily recognized by his familiar dress uniform—brown slacks, blue-gray jacket, waistcoat, and white satin bow tie—stood behind her, a look of concern on his face. “Are you all right, Mrs. Kirakis?” he asked, trying to be helpful.

She managed a weak smile. “Yes . . . I’m just a bit tired, that’s all,” she assured him. “It’s been a long day. I’m glad to finally be home.”

He smiled. “Your husband arrived about an hour ago,” he told her as he held the elevator for her.

Meredith swung around to face him, unable to hide her surprise. “My husband? Are you sure?”

He nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “No mistake. I went up in the elevator with him myself.”

“Thank you,” she said as the doors closed slowly and the car began its ascent. She leaned back against the wall, trembling. She wondered why Alexander was back from Paris so soon. What could have happened? What else could possibly go wrong now?

He was waiting for her when she let herself into their apartment. He came to her and embraced her gently. “I hoped you would not be late,” he said as he released her.

“Did everything go all right in Paris?” she asked as she took off her coat.

“Of course. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that lately we seem to be living in the eye of a hurricane. I can’t help wondering what’s going to happen next,” she admitted wearily. “I thought maybe whatever you went there for fell through or something . . .”

“It could not have turned out better.” He studied her for a moment, his black eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Perhaps you should tell me what is bothering you.”

“Me?” Her laugh was, mirthless. “Overwork, that’s all. Nobody’s told Harv Petersen that slavery’s been abolished.”

“Your work? You are sure that’s all?”

“Scout’s honor,” she said, making her voice light. “I’ve got a splitting headache. I think I might lie down for a while before dinner. Do you mind?”

He shook his head. He didn’t believe her for a minute and she knew it. She was grateful that he was not pressing her to tell him more than she had already. She had not been lying about the headache, however, feeling the familiar throbbing pain in her right temple. She kissed Alexander again and retreated to their bedroom before he decided to question her further.

As she lay in the darkness, she tried not to think about it, but it was impossible. She had thought of nothing else since the special messenger had arrived at her office with it that morning. There had been no letter, nothing to identify its sender—just a photocopy of a legal document that needed no explanation. Its message had been only too clear. Not knowing who sent it bothered Meredith most. It meant that someone knew the truth, someone who could turn it into a dangerous weapon. Meredith sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. She removed the envelope from her oversize shoulder bag as carefully as if she were defusing a bomb. A bomb would not have frightened her as much. She removed the paper from the envelope and stared at it for a long time. How was she going to break this to Alexander? she asked herself for the hundredth time that day. How could she ever make him understand? Would he believe her when she told him that she had no idea who had sent this?

That single piece of paper, in the wrong hands, could destroy them.

 

ONE

 

Los Angeles, July 1979.

Meredith Courtney, a newscaster for television station KXLA, parked her car across the street from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and glanced at her watch. Nine forty-five. Good. She was early. She peered into her rearview mirror and ran a comb through her thick, ash-blond hair. She checked her makeup automatically, a habit she’d picked up after a fellow newscaster once told her she looked overdone on camera. She twisted around in her seat and noticed that the KXLA mobile production van was pulling up behind her. Her cameraman had arrived. She got out of the car and waved to Brian as he began unloading his equipment. He grinned when he saw her.

“Hi, lady,” he greeted her cheerfully. “They got you workin’ early today. It ain’t even noon yet!”

She smiled. “We can’t all be night owls, now, can we?” she teased. “You’ve been spoiled, doing the nightside spot with Harry Jacobs.”

“Who is this guy, anyway?” Brian asked as they crossed Wilshire Boulevard together. “A foreign diplomat or something?”

“Constantine Kirakis?” Meredith laughed aloud at the thought. “Where have you been, Brian? He’s only one of the richest men in the world. You’ve really never heard of him?”

The cameraman shrugged. “I guess I’ve led a pretty sheltered life up until now.”

“You must have,” Meredith agreed, amused. “For the record, Constantine Kirakis is an honest-to-goodness Greek tycoon—ships, oil, diamond mines, the whole package. His is a classic rags-to-riches story if there ever was one: the poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks who built an empire with nothing but his own ambitions.”

“So he is news.”

“Definitely.” Heads turned as Meredith crossed the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire, but she did not notice. She was accustomed to being recognized on her home turf. After all, she knew she was in a highly visible profession. It had never occurred to her that she would have been noticed regardless of her profession. Meredith was a striking woman, slender, bronzed, with the kind of delicate, perfect features and wide blue eyes that made magazine covers, and a magnificent long mane of tousled blond hair. She was a genuine California golden girl.

Meredith maneuvered her way into the jammed banquet room and found a seat, while Brian looked for a suitable location that would give him a clear, unobstructed view of the podium from which Kirakis would be speaking. While Brian knew nothing of Constantine Kirakis, he knew that this tape was important to Meredith, and that was all he needed to know. Meredith Courtney, he knew from past experience, was a perfectionist who insisted upon total commitment and professionalism from all who worked with her. Brian knew she would be hell to get along with if this latest project turned out to be less than perfect. He made some minor adjustments and waited for her signal.

As Constantine Kirakis was introduced, Meredith dug into her shoulder bag for a thick steno pad and a handful of pencils. She took notes in rapid shorthand, thankful she’d taken the time to learn it. Her notes would help her later, when she prepared the material for broadcast. She had already thought of different things she wanted to mention about her subject on the air, and this assured her that nothing would be forgotten. She motioned to Brian, indicating that she wanted a closeup. Constantine Kirakis was an impressive man, something she wanted to convey to the viewers who would see this tape on the eleven o’clock news. She wanted them to feel the power and authority behind his forceful gestures, in his strong voice speaking heavily accented English. She wanted them to sense everything she experienced as she sat there in the crowded banquet room. He was a giant of a man, she noticed now—tall and powerfully built, an imposing figure in his black suit, which created a sharp contrast to his reddened, windburned face and his shockingly white hair and mustache.

He must have been handsome as a younger man, Meredith thought.

As the conference dragged on, Meredith began to feel as though she had wasted her time in coming. She was annoyed by the way the reporters from Shipping News were dominating the conference, obviously viewing this as the perfect opportunity to question Kirakis about tonnage, cargo rates, sea routes, and the issue of shipping versus air freight. Her viewers would not be interested in those topics; they would want to know about the Kirakis Corporation’s many projects now under way in the United States, projects that would mean hundreds, even thousands of jobs. They were interested in the fabulous diamond and emerald choker, reportedly worth over two million dollars, that Kirakis had given his wife Melina for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They wanted to know about Kirakis’s son, Alexander, the heir apparent to the Kirakis empire, the Casanova of the jet set, whose romantic adventures made gossip columns all over the world. At the rate things were going now, Meredith thought dismally, she might have to scrap the idea of showing the Kirakis tape at all.

At eleven forty-five, a Kirakis PR aide interrupted the conference, suggesting they all adjourn to La Bella Fontana, the hotel’s restaurant, for lunch. Maybe if she could manage to be seated next to him at lunch . . . that would be perfect! As the group filed out of the banquet room, she stopped to give Brian some last-minute instructions before sending him back to the station. They would not be allowed to tape in La Bella Fontana—she wouldn’t even ask—but if she could just talk to Kirakis, maybe they could return later and tape an interview in his suite.

Much to her disappointment, the reporters from Shipping News beat her to it. They’re like a bunch of hungry vultures, she thought irritably as she headed for an empty table. Distracted by this latest upset, she collided with a man headed in the same direction. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

The man she’d bumped into was not one of her fellow reporters. He was tall, at least six feet two, dressed in a suit that probably cost a small fortune. He was dark, with sharp, symmetrical features and the most incredible eyes she had ever seen. They were so dark they appeared to have no pupils. His hair was also dark, neatly styled, falling in a deep wave across his forehead. When he smiled at her, his eyes glowed like polished onyx.

“I’m Alexander Kirakis,” he introduced himself. His voice was deep, resonant, with only a slight accent—not at all like his father’s.

“I’m Meredith Courtney—KXLA News,” she said. She stared at him like an idiot, unable to stop herself.

“A reporter?” he asked, somewhat amused. “I would never have guessed. You are far too lovely to be anything except perhaps a model or an actress.”

She smiled. “Do I detect a bit of chauvinism?” she asked.

“On my part? Never!” He laughed, a deep, husky laugh. “You must forgive me . . . I have been brought up to observe certain old-world traditions—”

She raised a hand. “No need to explain. Apology accepted, Mr. Kirakis.”

“Alexander,” he corrected.

“Alexander,” she repeated slowly.

Alexander Kirakis glanced back at the table where his father sat with four men from Shipping News. “You were hoping to join my father, were you not?”

She nodded. “Unfortunately, the sharks got there ahead of me.”

“This is most unfortunate for my father,” Alexander commented as he turned back to her. “He does not often have the opportunity to dine with a beautiful woman on these trips,” he said with a dazzling smile that made Meredith blush unexpectedly.

“Thank you, but—”

“I, on the other hand, never pass up such a promising opportunity,” he continued. “I would be honored if you would consider joining me, Meredith.”

“I’d like that,” she said without hesitation.

“Excellent.” He took her arm, and she felt an involuntary shudder course through her body. “Come, we’ll take one of the booths.” He guided her across the room to one of the curtained booths that afforded total privacy. “I prefer privacy whenever it can be found. It’s such a rarity for me these days,” he explained as they seated themselves. “I hope you do not object.”

“Not at all,” she said quickly. Meredith looked around. She had not been there in some time, and she’d forgotten just how splendid it was. The red velvet wall covering and the trickling fountain in the center of the room gave it an elegant atmosphere. There were flowers everywhere, literally everywhere. It felt as though they had been transported by magic to some artfully contrived hideaway in Europe, perhaps in Vienna or Budapest.

“It reminds me of a place I once stayed in Austria,” Alexander commented, almost as if he had read her mind. “Tell me—have you eaten here before?”

“Once or twice—it’s been a while,” Meredith admitted.

“The food—how is it?”

“Oh, it’s excellent,” she assured him. “There’s no place close by that can compare.”

“I’ll trust your judgment,” he said promptly.

She smiled. “I hope you’re not disappointed, then.” Maybe she would get that interview after all; surely no one could be closer to Kirakis than his own son. She glanced at the menu absently, aware that he was watching her. “I hope you’re enjoying your stay here in L.A.,” she said. The way he looked at her, she felt like a schoolgirl again.

“Definitely,” he answered with a suggestive smile. “Everything I’ve seen here so far is quite beautiful.”

Meredith blushed once more. “I’d think our smog would be hard to take. Where you come from—”

“Where I come from?” He laughed aloud. “I live in New York City!”

“But didn’t you grow up in Greece?”

“I did.” He paused. “I take it you’ve never been there.” “No. No, I haven’t.”

“Athens is very much like Los Angeles,” he told her. “As a matter of fact, it has often been referred to as Los Angeles with ruins. It has the smog, the same traffic tie-ups, the same throngs of tourists. It was once a lovely old city, but in recent years it has become very commercial.”

“I take it you don’t approve,” she concluded, suppressing a smile.

“No, I don’t,” he answered truthfully. “Athens has always been a city rich with history, with tradition. As it becomes more and more a tourist attraction, it loses its specialness. I find it quite sad.”

“Then life in New York hasn’t caused you to sever your ties with your Greek heritage?”

He looked at her, surprised. “Where would you get an idea like that?” he asked.

“Well, everybody knows you’ve lived in the States for almost thirteen years. And everybody knows your father is against it. Wouldn’t you say you’ve become somewhat Americanized?”

He smiled. “In some ways, perhaps. Though I tend to feel that one never completely escapes the influence of one’s family traditions. I have found that I still observe many of the customs I grew up with, no matter where I happen to be.”

The waiter came and took their order. Over lunch, Alexander talked about his parents and his childhood in Greece. He entertained her with anecdotes about the people and situations he had encountered in his travels as a senior vice-president of the Kirakis Corporation. Meredith found herself wondering if this could be the same man she’d read so much about. She saw none of the arrogant, self-centered playboy in this bright, witty, exceedingly charming man who now sat across from her, going out of his way to be cordial. But then, she reminded herself, that had to be part of his charm, part of the fascination he held for some of the most beautiful women in the world. Just this morning, she’d seen a photograph of him in the Los Angeles Times with his woman of the moment, Italian film star Francesca Correnti.

Alexander was honest with her when she asked about the possibility of getting an interview with his father. “We are leaving immediately after this press conference,” he told her. “Our jet is waiting for us at the airport. We will be flying back to New York this afternoon. I am sorry—I think Father might have enjoyed it tremendously.”

I guess it would be asking too much to pray for a heavy fog at the airport, Meredith thought dismally. “Maybe next time,” she said optimistically.

“If there is a next time,” Alexander said slowly. “Father does not come to the States often—not since I’ve taken over as head of our North American operations. In the past few years he has seldom traveled outside Greece. He’s becoming a bit of a recluse in his twilight years, I think.”

“Then maybe I could interview you the next time we meet,” she suggested.

He flashed her an easy grin. “You have my word on it,” he promised. “If and when we meet again, I’ll give you an interview.”

“I intend to hold you to it,” she warned him. As if I’m ever going to run into him like this again, she thought.

***

Alexander and Constantine Kirakis left the Beverly Wilshire that afternoon, flanked by the security guards the elder Kirakis insisted upon having wherever he went. A limousine waited to take them to the airport where their private jet was standing by. “You are sure you will not come back to Greece with me, Alexander?” Kirakis asked as the limo traveled south on the San Diego Freeway. “Your mother would be so pleased to see you.”

“You know it’s impossible for me to get away just now, Father,” Alexander said. “There’s so much I’m involved in at the moment, so many meetings—”

Kirakis looked at him crossly. “You are sure it is business that prevents you from coming home?” He shoved a copy of the Los Angeles Times at his son, folded back to show a photograph of Alexander with Francesca Correnti. “Or perhaps this lady is your reason?”

“Hardly,” Alexander responded indifferently. He knew that Francesca would be there, waiting for him, whenever he returned, no matter how long he stayed away. She was always there, always ready for him. There were times he found her devotion a bit suffocating, times he felt the need to get away from her for a while. He would have liked nothing better than to return to Greece for a week or two. He had not seen his mother in months, and he missed her terribly. She had not been well lately, and her doctors had advised her against making long trips, even by air. This had prevented her from visiting Alexander in New York as she’d done frequently in the past.

Kirakis scowled at the newspaper photograph. “I think you could have been more discreet, Alexander,” he said finally.

“That photograph was taken—”

“As you and the lady were entering the lobby of the Plaza—where she is presently staying,” Kirakis finished. “You could not be more blatant about this—arrangement —if you had taken out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.”

“It is most difficult to be discreet, Father, when the paparazzi follow me everywhere,” Alexander said defensively. “I have almost no privacy these days.”

“That is because you have made yourself such a good target for these people,” Kirakis insisted, his displeasure apparent. “They know if they stay with you long enough, sooner or later you will do something worth photographing. Today it is Signorina Correnti. Who will it be next week—or next month? You have become a media celebrity, my son. Unfortunately, the publicity you have been getting is most unfavorable.”

“Am I being reprimanded, Father?” Alexander asked icily.

“Your mother and I do not approve of the way in which you conduct your private affairs, Alexander—we have made no secret of our feelings about that—but we are aware that we cannot live your life for you,” Kirakis said, choosing his words carefully. “We ask only that you try to be discreet about it. Your mother is quite sensitive about airing the family laundry, so to speak, in public.”

Alexander drew in his breath. “Very well. I shall try to honor your wishes,” he promised. “Now—may we discuss something else? I’m weary of the subject.”

“I am sure that you are,” Kirakis agreed. “But tell me one thing, Alexander—do you not ever give serious consideration to the prospect of getting married? Do you not ever contemplate having a family of your own—children?” There was genuine concern in his voice.

Alexander’s laugh was weak. “I’m not ready for marriage, Father—and I am certainly not ready to become a father,” he said. “And even if I were, I have yet to meet a woman I could consider a suitable wife.”

“When I was your age—” Kirakis began, annoyed.

“When you were my age, Father, you and Mother had been married for almost ten years. You had already established the Athena Shipping Company—which later became Athena Maritime—the flagship company of the Kirakis Corporation. Mother had had two miscarriages and was warned that she could die if she attempted a third pregnancy,” Alexander finished, ticking off the facts on the fingers of his left hand. “Yes, Father—I know our illustrious history by heart. I should. I memorized it as a child, much in the same way that other children memorize fairy tales.”

“You make light of it, Alexander, but it is your heritage —your legacy. When I am gone, you will be the sole heir to all that I have fought so hard to achieve,” Kirakis reminded him. “And like all empires, it must have heirs if it is to endure.”

Alexander turned to look at his father. “So this is why people have children, is it?” he asked with a touch of bitterness in his voice. “Tell me, Father—why do poor people have them? They have nothing to leave to them.”

“I am trying to be patient with you, Alexander, but you do not make it easy,” Kirakis said quietly, staring absently into the traffic as they approached the Los Angeles International Airport. “I assumed that you, above all, would understand. The corporation must always be run by a Kirakis. A Kirakis must always be its majority stockholder.”

“And where is this written, Father?” Alexander asked coldly.

“Ah, it is no use trying to talk to you!” Kirakis growled.

Alexander could be so unreasonable sometimes, he thought. Would he ever really be ready to fulfill his destiny as sole heir to the Kirakis empire?

 

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