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Piraeus, Greece May, nine months later
"THERE SHE IS, Stefan. Alexandra's Dream." David Anderson squatted beside his new son and pointed at the dark blue hull that towered above the pier. The cruise ship was a majestic sight, twelve decks high and as long as a city block. A circle of silver and gold stars, the logo of the Liberty cruise line, gleamed from the swept–back smokestack. Like some legendary sea creature born for the water, the ship emanated power from every sleek curve. Even at rest it held the promise of motion. "That's going to be our home for the next ten days."
The child beside him remained silent, his cheeks working in and out as he sucked furiously on his thumb. Hair so blond it appeared white ruffled against his forehead in the harbor breeze. The baby–sweet scent unique to the very young mingled with the tang of the sea.
"Ship," David said. "Uh, parakhod."
From beneath his bangs, Stefan looked at Alexandra's Dream. Although he didn't release his thumb, the corners of his mouth tightened with the beginning of a smile.
David grinned. That was Stefan's first smile this afternoon, one of only two since they had left the orphanage yesterday. It was probably because of the boat. According to the orphanage staff, the boy loved boats, which was the main reason David had decided to book this cruise. Then again, there was a strong possibility the smile could have been a reaction to David's attempt at pocket–dictionary Russian. Whatever the cause, it was a good start.
The liaison from the adoption agency had claimed that Stefan had been taught some English, but David had yet to seeevidence of it. David continued to speak, positive his son would understand his tone even if he couldn't grasp the words. "This is her maiden voyage. Her first trip, just like this is our first trip, and that makes it special." He motioned toward the stage that had been set up on the pier beneath the ship's bow. "That's why everyone's celebrating."
The ship's official christening ceremony had been held the day before and had been a closed affair, with only the cruise line executives and VIP guests invited, but the stage hadn't yet been disassembled. Banners bearing the blue and white of the Greek flag, as well as the Liberty circle of stars logo, draped the edges of the platform. In the center, a group of musicians and a dance troupe dressed in traditional white folk costumes performed for the benefit of the ship's first passengers. Their audience was in a festive mood, snapping their fingers in time to the music while the dancers twirled and wove through their steps.
David bobbed his head to the rhythm of the mandolins. The musicians were playing a folk tune that seemed vaguely familiar, possibly from a movie he'd seen. He hummed a few notes. "Catchy melody, isn't it?"
Stefan turned his gaze on David. His eyes were a striking shade of blue, as cool and pale as a winter horizon and far too solemn for a child not yet five. Still, the smile that hovered at the corners of his mouth persisted. He moved his head with the music, mirroring David's motion.
David gave a silent cheer at the interaction. He hoped this cruise would provide countless opportunities for more. "Hey, good for you," he said. "Do you like the music?"
The child's eyes sparked. He withdrew his thumb with a pop. "Moozika!"
"Music. Right!" David held out his hand. "Come on, let's go closer so we can watch the dancers."
Stefan grasped David's hand quickly, as if he feared it would be withdrawn. In an instant his budding smile was replaced by a look close to panic.
David squeezed the boy's fingers and leaned in to give him a hug. He was tempted to scoop the boy into his arms and tickle him until he giggled, just the way he did with his nieces and nephews back home, but he knew better than to push things. Their relationship was only beginning. Trust couldn't be forced, it had to be earned, especially with a child who had gone through all that Stefan had.
Did he remember the car accident that had killed his parents? It would be a mercy if he didn't. As far as David knew, Stefan had never spoken of it to anyone. Whatever he had seen had made him run so far from the crash that the police hadn't found him until the next day. The event had traumatized him to the extent that he hadn't uttered a word until his fifth week at the orphanage. Even now, he seldom talked.
David sat back on his heels and brushed the hair from Stefan's forehead. That solemn, too–old gaze locked with his, and for an instant David felt as if he looked back in time at an image of himself thirty years ago.
He didn't need to speak the same language to understand exactly how this boy felt. He knew what it meant to be alone and powerless among strangers, trying to be brave and tough but wishing with every fiber of his being for a place to belong, to be safe, and most of all for someone to love him….
Stefan had scars on his feet because he'd lost his shoes when he'd run from the crash. David had scars on his back because he'd had nowhere to run. Yet it was the other scars, the wounds no one else could see, that hurt the most and took the longest to heal. David understood that, too.
He knew in his heart he would be a good parent to Stefan. It was the reason he had never considered halting the adoption process after Ellie had left him. He hadn't balked when he'd learned of the recent claim by Stefan's spinster aunt, either: the absentee relative had shown up too late for her case to be considered. The adoption was meant to be. He and this child already shared a bond that went deeper than paperwork or legalities.
A seagull screeched overhead, making Stefan start and press closer to David.
"That's my boy," David murmured. He swallowed hard, struck by the simple truth of what he had just said.
That's my boy.
"BUT STEFAN'SNOT his child. He can't be." MarinaArtamova shook back her bracelets and crammed her phone to her ear as she wove through the crowd in the cruise terminal. "How could things have gone so far? This is all a terrible mistake."
"Marina, calm down. You're not listening to me. I said in the eyes of the law, Stefan is considered David Anderson's son. The adoption has already gone through."
Marina fought against the urge to throw her phone. Her lawyer was emotionless and methodical, everything she wasn't, which was why she'd hired him. From the time her career had begun to flourish, he'd served her well, navigating the maze of international law as competently as he handled her Moscow traffic tickets. But his insistence on playing by the rules this time was frustrating. "Rudolph, it's not one of my designs that has been stolen, it's my sister's child."
"Stefan wasn't stolen. All the correct procedures were followed."
"How could they have been? His name was spelled wrong. That's why I couldn't find him. Or maybe I couldn't find him because those greedy commissars at the adoption agency didn't want to lose their fat fees from the American. Did you think of that?"
"Marina, although I do admire your flair for the dramatic, as far as I know there was no conspiracy here. It was merely incompetence. Our welfare system is overburdened and underfunded, so mistakes are not uncommon."
"Is this why you called me? To tell me there is nothing you can do?"
"Quite the contrary. I've found a judge who will hear our petition next week."
She scrutinized the line of passengers at the check–in, just in case DavidAnderson and Stefan hadn't already gone through. The people she saw ran the gamut from clusters of gray–haired vacationers to couples who were probably honeymooners, judging by the way they stood entwined with each other. There were several couples with children in tow, but there was no sign of her blond nephew or the man who had stolen him. "They're leaving today, Rudolph." "Yes, I'm aware of that. We've known their itinerary for a week. It can't be helped. Our only recourse is to wait for the court to reverse the adoption."
"Do you expect me to be satisfied with that? He's my nephew. My godson. He doesn't need some stranger, a divorced foreigner, he needs me…." Her voice broke on the last word. She dug through her shoulder bag in search of a tissue, then gave up and grabbed the end of her silk scarf instead. "I owe it to my sister," she said, blotting her eyes with the scarf. "I know we had our differences, but she would want me to raise him."
"I assure you, the judge will take all of this into account. Be patient, Marina."
She gave the check–in line one last look, then scowled at the white–suited cruise company personnel who manned the desk. A few of them were snapping their fingers and one was dancing in place to the rhythm of the Greek folk music that was coming through the speakers behind the counter. Apparently they were celebrating the ship's launch. Alexandra's Dream had been completely refurbished and carried high expectations, so everyone except Marina was in a party mood. She gave her eyes another swipe and flipped her scarf over her shoulder. "I can't be patient, Rudolph. I'm not going to stand by and watch my nephew get ripped from his country and his roots to live on the other side of the world."
Rudolph hissed out a slow breath. "Marina, I don't like the sound of that. What are you planning?"
"I'm going to talk some sense into this American kidnapper."
"No. Absolutely not. As I already advised you, we'll handle this through the courts. Any direct contact with Anderson might give him ammunition his lawyer could use against you later."
"Once he hears my side, we won't need the courts."
"Marina, leave this to me. No offence, but diplomacy is not your strong suit."
"Diplomacy be damned. Their ship's due to sail at five o'clock."
"Then you wouldn't have an opportunity to speak with him even if his lawyer agreed to a meeting."
"I'll have ten days of opportunities, Rudolph, since I plan to be on board that ship."
"I'll call you tomorrow with an update." She terminated the connection to cut off the protest she knew was coming and shoved the phone into her bag. She would let the lawyers worry about the legalities; her only worry was the child. She unzipped the compartment that held her papers. Her hand shook as she withdrew her ticket.
It had been outrageously expensive to obtain last–minute passage on Alexandra's Dream, but her money had to be good for something besides keeping her accountant in sable and paying Rudolph's exorbitant fees.
Olena had never wanted any part of her younger sister's wealth. It had been yet another source of the friction between them. Whenever Marina had offered money to make her sister's life easier, Olena had laughed and said she had all the riches she could wish for. She had a husband who loved her and a son she adored. No amount of rubles could buy that.
She'd been right. Olena and Borya had been the happiest couple Marina had ever seen. God, it was hard to believe they were gone.
Would they still be alive if Marina had tried harder to help them? She should have gone home more often. Or she should have persuaded them to move to Moscow and work for her—she would have found something they could do. At the very least she should have overruled Borya's pride and bought him a new car. She kept telling them that old heap was a death trap….
The scene before her wavered. Marina blinked the tears away and headed for the check–in. She had plenty of regrets, but this was no time to indulge them. The nightmare was nearing its end. The grief and frustration of her nine–month–long search were almost over.
That's why she didn't give a damn what Rudolph or the law said. She wasn't going to let anyone keep Stefan from her now.