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It was hearing his name on the radio which made her senses scream. Laura never had time for newspapers—even if her dyslexia hadn't made reading so difficult—she relied on the morning news programme to keep her up to date. Usually she only listened with half an ear, and usually she wasn't remotely interested in anything to do with international finance.
But Karantinos was an unusual name. And it was Greek. And didn't anything to do with that beautiful and ancient land put her senses on painful alert for very obvious reasons?
She had been busy making bread—sprinkling a handful of seeds into the dough before she popped the last batch into the oven. But with shaking hands she stopped dead-still and listened—like a small animal who had found itself caught alone and frightened in the middle of a hostile terrain.
'Greek billionaire Constantine Karantinos has announced record profits for his family shipping line,' intoned the dry voice of the news-reader. 'Playboy Karantinos is currently in London to host a party at the Granchester Hotel, where it is rumoured he will announce his engagement to Swedish supermodel Ingrid Johansson.'
Laura swayed, gripping the work surface to support herself, her ears scarcely able to bear what she had just heard, her heart pounding with a surprisingly forceful pain. Because she had preserved Constantine in her heart, remembering him just as he'd been when she'd known him— as if time had stood still. A bittersweet memory of a man who still made her ache when she thought of him. But time never stood still—she knew that more than anyone.
And what had she expected? That a man like Constantine would stay single for ever? As if that lazy charm and piercing intellect—that powerhouse body and face of a fallen angel—would remain unattached. She was just surprised that it hadn't happened sooner.
She could hear the sounds of movement from above as she took off her apron. But her heart was racing as she mechanically went through her morning routine of tidying up the kitchen before going upstairs to wake her son. She often told herself how lucky she was to live 'over the shop', and although helping run a small baker's store hadn't been her life's ambition, at least it gave her a modest income which she supplemented with occasional waitressing work. But most of all it provided a roof over their heads—which was security for Alex—and that was worth more than anything in Laura's eyes.
Her sister Sarah was already up, yawning as she emerged from one of the three poky bedrooms, running her fingers through the thick dark curtain of her hair, which so contrasted with her sister's finer, fairer mane.
'Mornin', Laura,' Sarah mumbled, and then blinked as she saw her older sister's face 'What the hell's happened? Don't tell me the oven's gone on the blink again?'
Mutely, Laura shook her head, then jerked it in the direction of her son's bedroom. 'Is he up yet?' she mouthed.
Sarah shook her head. 'Not yet.'
Laura glanced at the clock on the wall, which dominated her busy life, and saw that she had ten minutes before she had to get Alex up for school. Pulling Sarah into the small sitting room which overlooked the high street, she shut the door behind them and turned to her sister, her whole body trembling.
'Constantine Karantinos is in London,' she began, the whispered words falling out of her mouth like jagged little fragments of glass.
Her sister scowled. 'And?'
Laura willed her hands to stop shaking. 'He's throwing a party.' She swallowed. 'And they say he's getting engaged. To a Swedish supermodel.'
Sarah shrugged. 'What do you want me to say? That it's a surprise?'
'No… But I…'
'But what, Laura?' demanded Sarah impatiently. 'You can't seem to accept that the no-good bastard you slept with hasn't an ounce of conscience. That he never gave you another thought.'
'He what? Refused to see you? Why, you couldn't even get a single meeting with the great man, could you, Laura? No matter how many times you tried. He's never even taken your phone calls! You were good enough to share his bed—but not good enough to be recognised as the mother of his child!'
Laura shot an agonised look at the closed door, straining her ears as she wondered if Alex had done the unheard-of and managed to get himself out of bed without his mother or his auntie gently shaking him awake. But then, seven-year-old boys were notoriously bad at getting up in the morning, weren't they? And they became increasingly curious as they got older…kept asking questions she wasn't sure how to answer…
'Shh. I don't want Alex to hear!'
'Why not? Why shouldn't he know that his father happens to be one of the richest men on the planet—while his mother is working her fingers to the bone in a bread shop, trying to support him?'
'I don't want to…' But her words tailed off. Didn't want to what exactly? Laura wondered. Didn't want to hurt her beloved son because it was the duty of every mother to protect her child? Yet she had been finding it increasingly difficult to do that. Just last month Alex had come home with a nasty-looking bruise on his cheek, and when she had asked him what had happened he had mumbled and become very defensive. It had only been later that she'd discovered he'd been involved in some kind of minor skirmish in the playground. And later still that she had discovered the cause, when she'd gone tearing into the school, white-faced and trembling, to seek a meeting with the headmistress.
It transpired that Alex was being bullied because he looked 'different'. Because his olive skin, black eyes and towering height made him look older and tougher than the other boys in his class. And because the little girls in the class—even at the tender ages of six and seven—had been following the dark-eyed Alex around like eager little puppies. Like father, like son, she had thought with a pang.
Laura had felt a mixture of troubled emotions as she'd gone home that day. She'd wanted to ask her son why he hadn't hit back—but that would have gone against everything she had taught him. She had brought him up to be gentle. To reason rather than to lash out. For two pins she would have withdrawn her son from the school and sent him somewhere else—but she didn't have the luxury of choice. The next nearest state school was in the neighbouring town, and not only did Laura not have a car but the bus service was extremely unreliable.
Lately her son had been asking her more and more frequently about why he looked different. He was an intelligent little boy, and sooner or later he wouldn't allowed her to fob him off with vague and woolly pieces of information about a father he had never seen. If only Constantine would just talk to her. Acknowledge his son. Spend a little time with him—that was all she wanted. For her beloved boy to know a little of his heritage.
She was distracted while she gave Alex his breakfast, and even more distracted during the short walk to his school. Although it was almost the summer holidays, the weather had been awful lately—nothing but rain, rain, rain—and this morning the persistent drizzle seemed to penetrate every inch of her body. She shivered a little, and tried to chatter brightly, but she felt as if she had a heavy lead weight sitting in the pit of her stomach.
Alex looked up at her with his dark olive eyes and frowned. 'Is something wrong, Mum?' he questioned.
Your father is about to marry another woman and will probably have a family with her. Telling herself that the blistering shaft of jealous pain was unreasonable under the circumstances, she hugged her son to her fiercely as she said goodbye.
'Wrong? No, nothing's wrong, darling.' She smiled brightly, and watched as he ran into the playground, praying that the head teacher's recent lecture on bullying might have had some effect on the little savages who had picked on him.
She was lost in thought as she walked back to the shop. Hanging up her damp coat in the little cloakroom at the back, she grimaced at the pale face which stared back at her from the tiny mirror hung on the back of the door. Her grey eyes looked troubled, and her baby-fine hair clung to her head like a particularly unattractive-looking skull-cap. Carefully, she brushed it and shook it, then crumpled it into a damp pleat on top of her head.
Pulling on her overall, she was still preoccupied as she walked into the shop, where her sister was just putting on the lights. Five minutes until they opened and the first rush of the day would begin—with villagers keen to buy their freshly baked bread and buns. Laura knew how lucky she was to have the life she had—lucky that her sister loved Alex as much as she did.
The two girls had been orphaned when Sarah was still at school, after their widowed mother had died suddenly and quietly in the middle of the night. A stricken Laura had put her own plans of travelling the world on hold, unsure what path to take to ensure that Sarah could continue with her studies. But fate had stepped in with cruel and ironic timing, because Laura had discovered soon after that she was carrying Alex.
Money had been tight, but they had been left with the scruffy little baker's shop and the flat upstairs, where they had spent most of their childhood years. They had always helped their mother in the shop, so Laura had suggested modernising it and carrying on with the modest little family business, and Sarah had insisted on studying part-time so that she could help with Alex.
Up until now the scheme had worked perfectly well. And if the shop wasn't exactly making a huge profit, at least they were keeping their heads above water and enjoying village life.
But recently Sarah had started talking longingly of going to art school in London, and Laura was horribly aware that she was holding her back. She couldn't keep using her little sister as a part-time child-minder, no matter how much Sarah loved her nephew—she needed to get out there and live her own life. But then how on earth would Laura cope with running a business and being as much of a hands-on mum as she could to Alex? To Alex who was becoming increasingly curious about his background.
Sarah was giving the counter a final wipe, and looked up as Laura walked into the shop. 'You still look fed up,' she observed.
Laura stared down at the ragged pile of rock-cakes and boxes of home-made fudge under the glass counter. 'Not fed up,' she said slowly. 'Just realising that I can't go on hiding my head in the sand any longer.'
Sarah blinked. 'What are you talking about?'
Laura swallowed. Say it, she thought. Go on—say it. Speak the words out loud—that way it will become real and you'll have to do it. Stop being fobbed off by the gatekeepers who surround the father of your son. Get out there and fight for Alex. 'Just that I've got to get to Constantine and tell him he has a son.'
Sarah's eyes narrowed. 'Why the new fervour, Laura?' she asked drily. 'Is it because Constantine is finally settling down? You think that he's going to take one look at you and decide to dump the Swedish supermodel and run off into the sunset with you?'
Laura flushed, knowing that Sarah spoke with the kind of harsh candour which only a sister could get away with— but her words were true. She had to rid herself of any romantic notions where the Greek billionaire was concerned. As if Constantine would even look at her now! He certainly wouldn't fancy her any more—for hadn't hard work and a lack of time to devote to herself meant that her youthful bloom had faded faster than most? At twenty-six she sometimes felt—and looked—a whole decade older than her years. And even if the fire in her heart still burned fiercely for the father of her son she had to douse the flames completely.
'Of course I don't,' she said bitterly. 'But I owe it to Alex. Constantine has got to know that he has a son.'
'I agree. But aren't you forgetting something?' questioned Sarah patiently. 'Last time you tried to contact him you got precisely nowhere—so what's changed now?'
What had changed? Laura walked slowly towards the door of the shop. She wasn't sure—only that perhaps she'd realised time was running out, that maybe this was her last chance. And that she was no longer prepared to humbly accept being knocked back by the tight circle which surrounded the formidable Greek. She was fired up by something so powerful that it felt as if it had invaded her soul. She was a mother, and she owed it to her son.
'What's changed?' Slowly, Laura repeated Sarah's words back to her. 'I guess Ihave. And this time I'm going to get to him. I'm going to look him in the eye and tell him about his son.'
'Oh, Laura, exactly the same thing will happen!' exclaimed Sarah. 'You'll be knocked back and won't get within a mile of him!'
There was a pause. Laura could hear the ticking of her wristwatch echoing the beating of her heart. 'Only if I go the conventional route,' she said slowly.
Sarah's eyes narrowed. 'What are you talking about?'
Laura hadn't really known herself up until then, but it was one of those defining moments where the answer seemed so blindingly simple that she couldn't believe she hadn't thought of it before. Like when she'd decided that they ought to start making their own loaves on the premises rather than having them delivered from the large bakery in the nearby town—thereby enticing their customers in with the delicious smell of baking bread.
'The radio said he's giving some big party in London,' she said, piecing her whirling thoughts into some kind of order. 'In a hotel.'
Laura swallowed. 'And what industry has the fastest turn-over of staff in the world? The catering industry! Think about it, Sarah. They'll… they'll need loads of extra staff for the night, won't they? Casual staff.'
'Just a minute…' Sarah's eyes widened. 'Don't tell me you're planning—'
Laura nodded, her heart beating faster now. 'I've done waitressing jobs at the local hotel for years. I can easily get a reference.'
'Okay, so what if you do manage to get on the payroll?' Sarah demanded. 'Then what? You're going to march over to Constantine in your uniform, in the middle of his fancy party, and announce to him in front of the world, not to mention his soon-to-be wife that he has a seven-year-old son?'