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Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a woman on the eve of her wedding day, considering the fairy tale that was her life…
This was a dream. It had to be. At any moment, Elena Anastasios was sure her mother would poke her in the ribs to rouse her from sleep. She would wake to find herself staring at her water-stained bedroom ceiling back in their old house in Seattle, Washington, rather than taking in the exceptional sight of the large, hazy yellow sun rising over the deep blue of the Aegean Sea outside her villa window.
Elena drew in a deep breath, waiting for the poke, the pinch, the bucket of cold water that would bring her to her senses. But when she exhaled, she was still on the Greek island of Santorini. And she was still a day away from marrying one of the world's most eligible bachelors.
Lightness crowded her chest. As the only daughter of hardworking Greek-American immigrants, she'd never much believed in fairy tales. Even her mother had told her she had been the most serious girl she'd ever seen, opting to help out in the family restaurant filling napkin holders and salt and pepper shakers rather than playing with dolls.
Now she was living a fantasy. Only a year earlier she'd been worrying about how she was going to make the rent after they'd finally closed the doors on her late father's restaurant. Now she was gazing into a future that didn't hold a single monetary or, indeed, any worry at all.
After getting up and taking a quick shower, Elena pulled on a short silk robe which emphasized curves she rarely noticed she had. She slid her hands over the decadent material and shivered in anticipation. She and Manolis had yet to sleeptogether. Sweetly, he'd insisted that they should wait until their wedding night. She'd been okay with that. In fact, she was hoping she'd get pregnant with their first child on their honeymoon, prolonging the fairy tale element of their courtship.
Her hands stilled on her breasts and the air rushed from her lungs. If she was a little concerned that she wasn't strongly physically attracted to Manolis, she was pretty good at not thinking about it. But her small sighs of relief when he'd say good-night at the end of their dates instead of pressing for a more intimate meeting gave her away. At least to herself. Manolis thankfully didn't appear to notice.
Elena plucked her hands from her tingling flesh. Oh, so what? In her limited experience, sex was overrated. Enormously overrated. A lot of sweaty groans (on the man's part), unmet needs (on her part) and a lingering emptiness, overall, that left her wondering what all the fuss was about.
She loved Manolis. She would make sure that their sex life reflected that. And she'd invested in plenty of sexy lingerie to help her toward that end.
She smiled and stepped to the open patio doors, the view of the caldera—the sea-filled volcanic crater—stealing her thoughts away. It seemed fitting that the most important day of her life should take place in one of the most magical places on earth. If she squinted just so, it was easy to imagine Odysseus sailing the cerulean blue sea, the wisps of clouds pedestals on which Zeus and Hera stood overlooking their domain with a loving and stern hand.
Elena heard a quiet knock on her villa door and then the sound of someone using an access card to open it. She stepped back into the room and watched a young Greek maid in a crisp gray-and-white uniform duck inside carrying a plastic-covered dress and a breakfast tray.
"Good morning, miss," she said in Greek. "Your dress has been pressed, as requested." She hung the clothing on the wardrobe door and placed the tray on the bedside table.
"Thank you," Elena said, going to her purse to pull out a tip.
The maid held her hands up. "No, no. That's not necessary. Kirio Manolis has already well compensated all the help on the premises."
Elena wasn't surprised. Manolis was very generous. And even though he was staying on his mammoth yacht in the harbor, there was a wedding party of at least thirty people in the upscale accommodations, including Elena, her mother in the neighboring villa and her older brother.
Elena knew a moment of regret that her father wasn't there to witness the event. Regret that was no less painful now, two years after his passing.
It had been at his funeral that she'd crossed paths with wealthy Greek entrepreneur Manolis Philippidis again after having been familiar with him most of her life. She wasn't sure how her father had known him—her mother said that the two men had met shortly after immigrating to the States some thirty years earlier—but the handsome older man had proven a rock when Elena's father had suffered a massive stroke that landed him in a coma and then claimed his life shortly thereafter.
Manolis had helped look after her family financially when they'd discovered the restaurant her father had run for over twenty-five years was deep in debt, and he'd gotten her brother a job as an accountant in his extensive company's Seattle offices.
But it had been Manolis's gentle attention to Elena that had won her heart.
It also didn't hurt that her best friend, Merianna, thought he looked like a slightly younger version of a Greek Sean Connery.
"He spoils you," her mother was fond of saying. "No woman deserves the riches he lays at your feet."
"He doesn't lay anything at my feet, Mama, much less riches."
She didn't tell her mother how many extravagant gifts she'd returned to the bighearted man. Probably her mother would have insisted she give them to her instead, to stash away for a week's worth of future rainy days.
Elena wasn't sure when her warm friendship with Manolis had turned into something more. Just that the first time he'd held her, it had felt right. It hadn't mattered that he was closer to her mother's age than her own. Or that he'd been married twice already. All that was important was that for the first time in a very long time, she'd felt safe. As well as wanted.
Elena sighed wistfully as she admired the delicate pink lace of the designer cocktail dress. Tonight was the rehearsal dinner, and tomorrow she would be marrying one of the kindest men she'd ever met.
"Where would you like your breakfast, miss?" the maid asked.
Elena looked around the room. "On the patio, I think. Yes, definitely on the patio."
The maid moved the tray of rolls, coffee and orange juice to the table outside and then moved around the room almost imperceptibly, opening the curtains, fluffing pillows and smoothing the sheets.
"What's your name?" Elena asked.
Elena was glad she'd been raised in a bilingual household. It came in handy now that she was in the land of her parents. The maid had said "pardon me?", as if surprised she'd been asked a personal question.
"Pos s'lene?" she asked in Greek.
The young woman smiled, brightening her quite striking features. At maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, she was tall and quite attractive, the starched uniform doing little to disguise her soft curves and long legs. And there was something almost… regal in the way she held herself. It was a posture that Elena had been practicing, yet it appeared to come naturally to the maid.
"Aphrodite," she said.
Of course, her name would be Aphrodite. "Nice to meet you, Aphrodite. I'm Elena."
The maid's green-eyed gaze seemed to look inside her in a way that wasn't invasive but nonetheless felt a bit discomfiting.
"Is everything all right with Zaharoula?" Elena asked, wondering where the maid who had been looking after her since her arrival had disappeared to.
Aphrodite nodded. "She's fine." She gestured toward the dress. "Are you in Santorini for a special occasion?"
"Yes. I'm getting married tomorrow. To Kirios Philippidis."
"Congratulations," she offered. "This is a man you love?"
Elena squinted at her. Through her own familial experience, she understood that Greeks could be very forthright. But the previous maid had been little more than a phantom presence whenever she'd entered the room. This one…
Was it her, or did Aphrodite stare pointedly at the bed where only she had slept?
Elena pulled her robe around her a little more closely. "Yes. Very much."
Aphrodite disappeared into the bathroom.
Elena walked back toward the patio and picked up a croissant from the tray on the table, feeling suddenly restless. She wanted to go out. Explore the stunning island more thoroughly. Her mother claimed to be suffering from a massive attack of jetlag and had requested she not be awakened until after ten. And Lord knew what Elena's brother was doing. She leaned against the doorjamb, wondering if the locals took the mesmerizing view for granted. It was hard to imagine anyone being able to ignore the exquisite scene. She tried to make out Manolis's yacht but couldn't distinguish it from the others from a thousand feet above the sea's surface. She glanced at the brass telescope on the corner of the patio.
Movement in the water caught her attention. She shielded her eyes, watching someone swim toward a sailboat. She idly moved toward the telescope and focused it on the individual. She watched a man with rope-strong arms as he pulled himself up a ladder, water sluicing from every tanned muscle, his dark hair sleek against his head, his black swim trunks emphasizing the amazing shape he was in. He was Adonis, personified. He stood on deck and turned, shaking excess water off before picking up a thick white towel.
Elena's attention was riveted on the sight of him. Ever since arriving five days ago, she'd crossed paths with more beautiful people than she'd seen in her entire life. While the Greeks appeared to be a health- and style-conscious people, even the tourists seemed to have stepped off covers of swanky travel magazines.
The man on the boat appeared to be looking straight at her too. She hadn't noticed him lifting a pair of binoculars, as if picking up on the fact that he was being watched, and swinging his attention in her direction.
Elena's throat tightened at the thought of being caught openly ogling him. He grinned and gave a half wave. She nearly choked on the mouthful of croissant she'd been chewing and stepped back, away from the telescope and into the villa, out of sight, pretending she hadn't been looking at him.
"Aphrodite?" she called.
"Yes, Miss Elena?" the maid asked as she stepped out of the bathroom carrying used towels.
"Tell me, if I wanted to experience local life here on the island, where would I go?"
Was it her, or was there a glint in the maid's eyes?
"You have asked exactly the right person, miss…"
Ari Metaxas dropped his towel on the teak deck of the sailboat and lifted the pair of binoculars he'd been getting a great deal of use out of, sweeping the island's cliffs, looking again for the metal that the sun had glinted off. He then swung the sailboat's boom around much quicker than necessary, causing his older brother, Troy, to duck, narrowly avoiding a date with the Aegean Sea.
Troy glared at him. Ari grinned as he secured the boom. "Tell me again what the hell we're doing in Greece?"
He looked up at the villa patio, hoping to see the woman he'd spotted through the binoculars, but she was long gone. Taking her short, silky pink robe and long, tanned legs with her.
His brother turned a page of the sheaf of papers in his hands. If Troy wasn't reading a legal document of some sort, he was preparing one. It was said of the two Metaxas boys that when it came to the brain department, Troy had inherited all the genes. Ari, on the other hand, laid claim to the looks and charm.
Ari grimaced, wondering why anyone would think either of them would be happy with those descriptions. Didn't it insinuate that Troy was physically repulsive? And that Ari was as dumb as doorknob?
"We're here," Troy said in the same monotone he'd used to reply to the previous two questions Ari had asked, "because Manolis Philippidis invited us."
"Ah, that's right. The old, rich Greek guy who's getting married tomorrow, the one we're counting on and who's going to help restore Earnest, Washington to its former glory."
He felt Troy's stare again.
That hadn't come out the way Ari intended. But he couldn't help his sarcasm. It bothered him that their hometown was at the mercy of a man who was interested in only the bottom line.
Of course, had the town founders been a little more aware of the same over the past thirty years, perhaps Earnest wouldn't be suffering a twenty-five percent unemployment rate. The one-streetlight center was now little more than a ghost town with more businesses boarded up than open.
While the closing of the Metaxas lumber mill four years ago wasn't completely to blame for the town's woes, it was the most recent event.
And it was what drove Ari and his brother to try to set things right by bringing another, more solid business to the area. One with green potential. An industrial unit to develop and then produce advanced and efficient solar panels that would replace the jobs lost and hopefully create a few more.
Ari just wished that he and Troy had other prospects besides Manolis Philippidis, who had been making them jump through hoops over the past eight months with no guarantee that he would ultimately sign on the dotted line.
"What number wife is this?" Ari asked.
"Three. Now are you going to let me be so I can review these documents?"
Ari walked over to him and took the papers, slapping them onto the table nearby. "Brother, we've been in Greece for two days and I don't even think you've looked up once to see what's around you."
Troy squinted at him and then glanced around at the islands that rimmed the sea-filled caldera they were anchored in. "There, I've looked."
Ari moved the documents away from Troy when he tried to pick them back up. "Doesn't being here move you? This is the land of our forefathers. The land of Atlantis. Of Mount Olympus and Poseidon and—" he looked in the direction of the tall island cliffs a couple hundred feet away "—of Eros and Aphrodite."
Troy snatched the documents from his hands. "Yeah, I think I see all of them drinking coffee at one of those cafés over there." He sighed. "I actually met a guy named Plato this morning at a bay grocer. Then again, that shouldn't surprise me, considering our parents named you Aristotle." He shook his head as if the last thing his younger brother should have been named after was a philosopher. Ari didn't take offense. He was used to the treatment. "Look, Ari, this isn't a vacation. It's a business trip. If we finalize this deal by tomorrow, a year's worth of work will finally come to fruition." He gave a rare grin. "Then we can play."