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Ella sat as still as a statue in the smart waiting area.
Locked deep in her stressful thoughts, she didn't notice the admiring glances she received from the men walking past. In any case, she was accustomed to screening out the unwelcome notice that her physical beauty attracted. Her white-blonde hair, that rare shade most often seen only on children, turned heads as much as her bright blue eyes and slender, shapely figure. Her hands were tightly laced together on her lap, betraying her tension.
'Dr Smithson?' the receptionist said. 'Mr Barnes would like you to go in now.'
Ella got up. Beneath her outward show of calm, a burning sense of injustice was churning in her stomach. Her prayers had gone unanswered and common sense was still being ignored. She could only marvel that her own flesh and blood could have placed her in such a cruel position. When would enough be enough? When would her family decide that she had paid a steep enough price for the decision she had made seven years earlier? She was beginning to think that only her death would settle that outstanding account.
Mr Barnes, the lawyer she had first consulted two weeks earliera tall, thin man in his forties reputed to be at the very top of the tree when it came to complex child-custody issuesshook hands with her and invited her to take a seat.
'I've taken advice from the specialists in this area of the law, and I'm afraid I can't give you the answer that you want,' he told her with precision. 'When you donated eggs to your sister to enable her to have a child, you signed a contract in which you relinquished all claim to parental rights over any baby born subsequently'
'Yes, I accept that, butas my sister and her husband are now dead surely the situation has changed?' Ella broke in with the urgency she was trying hard to keep under control.
'But not necessarily in your favour,' Simon Barnes responded wryly. 'As I mentioned before, the woman who carries the baby to birth is deemed to be its legal mother. So, although you are a biological parent, you cannot claim to be the child's mother. Furthermore, you have had no contact at all with the little girl since she was born, which doesn't help your case.'
'I know.' Ella was pale with strain and a curious feeling of shame, for she still found it hard to handle the fact that her sister, Susie, had pretty much cut her out of her life as soon as her infant daughter had entered the world. Ella had not even been allowed a photo, never mind a visit and a face-to-face encounter. 'But I'm still legally Callie's aunt.'
'Yes, but the fact that you were not named as a guardian in your sister and brother-in-law's wills does harm your case,' the lawyer reminded her tautly. 'Their solicitor will testify that the only party Callie's late parents were prepared to nominate was Aristandros Xenakis. Don't forget that he too has a blood tie with the child'
'For goodness' sake, Aristandros was only her father's cousin, not an uncle or anything!' Ella proclaimed with helpless heat.
A cousin and lifelong friend, who putatively accepted responsibility for the child in writing well before the accident that killed your sister and her husband. I need hardly add that you cannot reasonably hope to fight his claim to custody. He is an extremely wealthy and powerful man. The child is also a Greek citizen, as is he.'
'But he's also a single man with an appalling reputation as a hellraiser!' Ella protested fiercely. 'Scarcely an ideal father-figure for a little girl!'
'You are in dangerous territory with that argument, Dr Smithson. You too are single, and any court would question why your own family are not prepared to back you in your claim.'
Ella reddened at the humbling reminder that she stood alone and unsupported. 'I'm afraid that my relatives will not take a single step that might risk offending Aristandros Xenakis. My stepfather and my two half-brothers rely on his connections to do business.'
The lawyer released his breath in a slow hiss of finality. 'My advice is to accept that the law is unlikely to get you any closer to seeing the child, and that any attempt to challenge her current custodial arrangements will destroy any goodwill you might hope to create.'
Tears were burning like drops of fire behind Ella's unflinching gaze as she fought to retain her self-discipline in the face of that bad news. 'You're telling me that there's nothing I can do?'
'I believe that the wisest move in your circumstances would be to make a personal approach to Aristandros Xenakis. Explain the situation and, on that basis, ask him if he will allow you to have contact with the child,' Simon Barnes advised ruefully.
Ella shivered at that piece of advice; it was like a sudden, bitingly cold wind blowing against her bare, shrinking flesh. Aristandros had Callie. Aristandros, who despised Ella. What possible hope did she have of gaining a sympathetic hearing from him?
'Some day you will pay for this,' Aristandros had sworn seven years earlier when she was only twenty-one and in the middle of her medical studies.
'Don't take it that way,' she had begged him painfully. 'Try to understand.'
'No. You understand what you have done to me,' Aristandros had urged, diamond-bright dark eyes hard as granite and cold as winter ice. 'I treated you with honour and respect. And in return you have insulted and embarrassed me and my family.'
Gooseflesh pebbling her skin beneath her clothes, Ella left the solicitor's office and headed home to the spacious loft apartment she had purchased jointly with her friend, Lily. The other woman, who was training as a surgeon, was still at work when she got back. Ella and Lily had met at medical school and had been friends ever since, initially pooling and sharing resources, like the apartment and a car, while offering each other support during stressful times.
In common with many young doctors, Ella worked long hours and had little energy left with which to stamp her own personality on her surroundings. She had still not got round to choosing a colour scheme for her bedroom. A pile of books by the bed and a piano in one corner of the airy living-area testified to how she liked to spend her free time.
Before she could lose her nerve, she rang the UK headquarters of Xenakis Shipping to request an appointment with Aristandros. A member of his staff promised to call her back, and she knew she would be checked out since she was not a business client. She wondered if he would even agree to see her. Maybe out of curiosity? Her tummy flipped at the prospect of seeing him again.
She could hardly remember the girl she had been seven years earlier when she'd broken her heart over Aristandros Xenakis. Young, inexperienced and naïve, she had been much more vulnerable than she had appreciated. Her strong sense of self-belief had ensured that she'd stood up for what she believed in, but living with that decision had proved much more difficult than she had expected. Moreover, she had not met another man, as she had dimly assumed she would back then. She had recently begun to believe that she would never meet anyone she wanted to marry.
Was that another reason why she had agreed to donate eggs to her infertile sister? Susie, two years her senior, had suffered a premature menopause in her twenties, and her only hope of motherhood had been through donated eggs. Susie had flown over from Greece to London where Ella had been working as a junior doctor in a busy A&E department to ask for her sibling's help.
Ella had been touched when Susie had approached her with her request. In truth, prior to that meeting, Susie had been as distant and critical of her outcast sister as the rest of the family. It had felt good to be needed, even better to be told that a baby born from her eggs would be much more precious to Susie than a baby born with the help of an anonymous donor. Of course, there had also been the greater likelihood of the child inheriting a closer physical resemblance to Susie through the use of her sibling's eggs.
Ella had not hesitated to agree to her sister's appeal. It would have been unimaginable for her to refuse. Susie had married Ari's cousin, Timon, and they'd had a good marriage. Ella had believed that a child born to the young couple would enjoy a happy, secure life. While Ella had undergone the screening tests and treatment for egg donation, she had also attended counselling and signed an agreement to make no future claim on any child born.
'You're not thinking this through,' Lily had argued at the time. 'This process is not as straightforward as you seem to think it is. What about the emotional repercussions? How will you feel when a child is actually born? You'll be the biological mother but you'll have no rights at all over the child. Will you envy your sister feel that her child is more yours?'
Ella had refused to accept that there could be anything other than a positive outcome to the gift of her eggs. While she'd been undergoing the donation process, Susie had often talked about what a wonderful aunt Ella would be for her child. But, shockingly, Susie had rejected Ella from the day that Callie was born. Indeed she had phoned Ella to ask her not to visit her in hospital, while also demanding that Ella leave her and her new family alone.
Ella had been horribly hurt, but she had tried to understand that Susie had felt threatened by her sibling's genetic input to her newborn baby. She had written to her sister in an effort to reassure her, but her letters had gone unacknowledged. In despair at the rift that had opened up, she had gone to see Timon when he was in London on business. Timon had admitted ruefully that his wife was eaten up with insecurity over Ella's role in the conception of their daughter. Ella had prayed that the passage of time would soothe Susie's concerns but, seventeen months after Callie's birth, Timon and Susie had died in a horrific car crash. And, as a final footnote, the young couple had been dead almost two weeks before anyone had thought to let Ella know, so that she hadn't even got to attend the funeral.
When Ella had finally found out that her only sister was dead, she'd felt terrifyingly aloneand not for the first time in recent years. Her father had died shortly after she was born, so she had never known him, and Jane, her mother, had married Theo Sardelos six years later. Ella had never got on with her stepfather, who was a Greek businessman. Theo liked women to be seen rather than heard, and he had turned his back on Ella in angry disgust when she'd refused to marry Aristandros Xenakis. The emotionally fragile Jane had never been known to oppose her dictatorial husband, so there had been no point appealing to her for support. Ella's twin half-brothers had sided with their father, and Susie had refused to get involved.
Ella sat down at the piano and lifted the lid. She often took refuge in music when she was at the mercy of her emotions, and had just embarked on playing an étude by Liszt when the phone rang. She got up to answer the call and froze in the middle of the room once she realised that she was talking to a member of Aristandros's personal staff. She made no attempt to protest when she was asked to travel to Southampton the following week to meet him on board his new yacht, Hellenic Lady; she was simply overwhelmingly relieved that he was actually willing to see her.
Yet Ella could not imagine seeing Aristandros Xenakis again, and when Lily returned from work her friend was quick to tackle her once she realised what she was planning to do.
'What is the point of you upsetting yourself like this?' Lily asked bluntly, her vivacious face unusually serious beneath her curly brown hair 'I would just like to see Callie,' Ella breathed tightly.
'Stop lying to yourself. You want much more than that. You want to be her parent, and what are your chances of Aristandros Xenakis agreeing to that?'
A stony expression stamped Ella's delicate features. 'Well, why not? How is he planning to continue partying with a baby of eighteen months?'
'He'll just pay people to look after her. He's as rich as that fabled king who touched things and turned them to solid gold,' Lily reminded her doggedly. And the first thing he's likely to ask you is what has his business to do with you?'
Ella paled; a streak of determined optimism had persuaded her to overlook certain realities, like Ari's hardline attitudes and probable hostility towards her. 'Someone needs to look out for Callie's interests.'
'Who had more right than her parents? But you're questioning their decision that the child should go to him. Sorry, I'm playing devil's advocate here,' Lily explained ruefully.
'Susie was hopelessly impressed by the Xenakis wealth,' Ella confided. 'But money shouldn't be the only bottom line when it comes to bringing up a child.'
'It's the size of a cruise ship!' Ella's taxi driver exclaimed while he leant out at his vehicle's window to scan the immense, sleek length and the towering decks of the white mega-yacht Hellenic Lady.
'Absolutely huge,' Ella agreed breathlessly, paying him and climbing out on to the quay. She smoothed damp palms down over the trousers of the elegant brown trouser-suit which she usually wore for interviews.
A young man in a smart suit advanced on her. 'Dr Smithson?' he queried, a good deal of curiosity in his measuring gaze. 'I'm Philip. I work for Mr Xenakis. Please, come this way.'
Philip was as informative as a travel rep escorting tourists. Hellenic Lady, he told her, was brand-new, built in Germany to Aristandros's exact specifications and about to make her maiden voyage to the Caribbean. As they boarded, various members of the crew greeted them. Philip ushered her into a lift while telling her about the on-board submarine and helicopters. Ella remained defiantly unimpressed until the doors slid back on the upstairs lounge, and her jaw almost dropped at the space, the opulence and the breathtaking panoramic views through the windows.
'Mr Xenakis will be with you in a few minutes,' Philip informed her, ushering her out onto a shaded upper deck furnished with beautifully upholstered seats.