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The famous London toy shop was crowded with children and parents as Ann threaded her way through, studying the myriad toys on offer. Most were far too expensive, but some gave her excellent ideas. It was strange being back in England. She'd hardly been back here at all in the years since she'd taken Nikos Theakis' chequeand given Ari away.
Four yearsand still guilt assailed her over what she had done. Oh, Carla, did I do the right thing? Tell me I did. Tell me that Ari is loved and happy.
That was all that matteredthat he was growing up, as Nikos Theakis had said he would, in an idyllic childhood. Orphaned, yes, but with family to love him and material wealth in abundance. Not all children were so fortunate.
She steeled herself. Yes, that was what she had to remember. Yet it was with a heavy sigh that she continued her perambulation. Being back in England brought back all the memories of Ari as a baby. Would she even recognise him if she saw him now? Her heart ached. Of all the strictures that Nikos Theakis had laid upon her, the loss of contact had been the worst to bear. But it was the price she'd had to pay.
Familiar blackness filled her as she thought of the man who had taken Ari from her. Remembered the vile things he'd said about Carla, the contempt in his eyes when she'd taken his cheque. His banning her from ever seeing Ari again.
Eyes shadowed, she rounded a display of soft toys, pausing to check the price and flinching when she saw it. Then, across the aisle, she heard a voice that stilled her utterly.
'Ari, my darling, speak Englishremember we are in England now.'
As if in slow motion, Ann's head turned. A little way away was a hugerailway track, laid out with trains whizzing around. Children crowded to see it. Right in her line of sight was a small child, flanked by two women with their backs to Ann.
'That's the train Uncle Nikki is buying me!' came a piping voice.
The younger woman beside him turned to smile. Ann saw her profile and gasped, her hand flying to her throat. Four years might have passed, but Ann recognised instantly the nanny who had taken Ari from her arms. The little boy beside her must be must be
She felt faint with shock, staring, transfixed. Even as emotion convulsed her, the nanny's gaze shifted outwards slightly and caught hers. Ann could see her expression change as she recognised her. Then the older woman saw the nanny's expression, and turned as well.
It was Ari's grandmother. It had to be! For a moment the older woman, elegantly beautiful, but with a frail air about her, returned Ann's stare with mild curiosity, and then her brow puckered questioningly. She murmured something to the nanny, who nodded slowly, assessingly, then walked across to Ann.
'You will excuse me, please,' she said in an accented voice, curious and a little hesitant, 'but is it possible ? Could you possibly be ? You have a look about you of my grandson.'
Ann swallowed, unable to move, her throat still tight as a leash. Then, into her eyeline came another figure. Much taller, male, clad in a black cashmere overcoat, striding towards the train display from the cash desk. Ann's breath caught in her throat. Simultaneously the man's head skewed round, his eyes searching for his mother, absent from his nephew, who was still absorbed in watching the trains scurrying round the track. They lighted on Ann and he stopped dead.
In a second she made her decision. She took half a step forward.
'Yes, I am Ann Turner. Ari's aunt,' she announced.
After that it became a blur. The expression on Sophia Theakis' face turned to pleasure, and she reached out her hands to take Ann's and draw her forward. Immediately Nikos Theakis strode up, his face like thunder. But his attempt to intercept the greeting was too late.
Sophia Theakis held up one small but imperious hand to her son. 'Nikki, this is quite extraordinary,' she said, speaking English. 'Look, this is little Ari's aunt. I can scarcely believe it!'
Her son's face might have been carved from stone. 'Extraordinary indeed,' he drawled, and the menace in his voice vibrated like a warning.
But Sophia Theakis did not hear it. Instead, she was drawing Ann towards where her grandson was still riveted by the train display. She laid a gentle arm on his shoulder, spoke something low in Greek and turned him around. For the first time in four long years Ann looked into the face of the little boy she had last seen as a tiny baby.
His face blurred as her eyes hazed with tears. She dropped down to a crouch and took his little hands.
'Hello, Ari,' she said quietly.
The child frowned slightly. 'Ya-ya says you are my thia. But I haven't got a thia, only a thiosUncle Nikki. Are you married to Uncle Nikki? Then you would be my thia,' he reasoned, with impeccable logic.
Ann shook her head slightly. His grandmother said something, again in Greek.
'But I haven't got a mummy any more. She and my Daddy live in heaven,' said the little boy.
'Your mummy had a sister, Ari,' said Ann, her voice husky as she spoke. 'That sister is me.'
'Where have you been?' demanded Ari. 'Why have you not been to see me?' He sounded indignant as well as confused.
'I live very far away, Ari,' said Ann, trying to give the child an explanation he could cope with.
Ari.' Nikos Theakis' deep voice cut curtly across hers. 'We are keeping Ya-ya waiting and delaying your aunt. She is a very busy woman. I will accompany her to her taxi.'
His voice was as grim as his face, and as he spoke Ann felt his hand clamp heavily around her forearm. Removing her from the scene of her crime was evidently his first concern. But he had reckoned without treachery from within.
'Nikos!' said his mother, surprise and disapproval in her soft voice. She spoke to him rapidly in Greek, with the expressive use of her hands. As she spoke Ann saw his face harden, grow even grimmer. He bit something back to her, and shot a glowering glance in Ann's direction. His mother raised astonished eyebrows, then said something again in Greek to her son.
Nikos Theakis' face set, then he gave a brief, curt nod. As you wish,' he said tightly, in English.
Sophia Theakis smiled, and then turned that smile on Ann. Graciously, she invited Ann to lunch, taking Ann's hands in hers.
'I have longed to meet you for many years, my dear child,' she said in her warm voice. She tucked Ann's hand in her arm. 'Come,' she said.
Ann was in a daze, scarcely able to believe what was happening. They left the store and were conveyed by chauffeured car to the hotel where the Theakis party were evidently staying one of London's premier hotels, overlooking Green Park.
Ann only had eyes for Ari who, realising he had a brand-new admirer, took full advantage, chattering away to her. Yet, despite her undivided attention to the little boy, Ann could not help but feel the dark, glowering presence of his uncle, his anger at her vibrating from every pore, condemning her for her temerity in daring to be there. She ignored it. What did she care if Nikos Theakis were wishing her to oblivion? She returned the compliment tenfold!
Her only concern was Ari.
Her heart clenched again as she took in the miraculous reality of seeing her nephew here, now, in the flesha little boy, no longer a baby, no longer only a wrenching memory .
Lunch passed in a daze as well. What she ate she had no idea. She had no idea of anything except the fact she was sitting at a table with Ari, asking him all the questions a child his age would be ready to answerhis favourite toys and stories and activities. He regaled her copiously, prompted sometimes by his nanny, Tina, and sometimes by his grandmother.
His uncle, however, spoke only when referred to by his nephew. This, however, was not seldom, and Ann could see that Nikos Theakis was regarded as a high authority and the fount of great wisdom by his nephew. What she also had to acceptand she knew she should be glad of itwas how patient and attentive he was to Ari, and how Ari showed no timidity or reticence with him. As for his grandmotherit was obvious to Ann that Ari was the apple of her eye.
Across the years, the ghost of her voice, so heartrending in the letter she had written for Ann, echoed in her head: He will be cherished and loved throughout his life.
Oh, Carla, thought Ann, her throat catching with emotion. You can be happyyou can be happy at how safe and loved your son is!
A small beringed hand was laid lightly on her wrist. It was Ari's grandmother. 'You are thinking of your sister?' she said, her eyes kind.
Ann could only nod, unable to speak. The older woman smiled sadly.
'We do not know why they were taken from usyour sister and my dear sonbut we know they gave us a gift beyond price. And I am so pleasedso pleased, my dearthat you are here with us now, after far, far too long away from Ari.'
Again, Ann could not speakbut this time not because of the emotion of grief. What could she say to this kind, sympathetic woman of how cruel the separation had been for her? How cruel, too, her surviving son's strictures on Carla and herself.
She looked awayand straight into dark, hard eyes. Time buckled, and it was if she were once more standing in front of Nikos Theakis in her dingy flat, with him looking at her as if she were a cockroach. Almost she dropped her eyes under that killing basilisk gaze, but then she rallied, her chin lifting slightly, her eyes clashing with his. Then, as she continued to hold his gaze defiantly, refusing to back down, his expression began to change. She didn't know what it was, but something shifted in those hooded night-dark eyes, and as it shifted something quivered down the length of her spine something that suddenly made her snap her gaze away after all.
Then Ari made some childishly amusing remark, causing her to smile, as well as his grandmother and nanny, and the moment was gone.
As the meal came to an end, Sophia Theakis took Ann's hands again, drawing her to her feet.
'For the moment, alas, we must say goodbye again, while I place myself in the hands of my doctors.' She spoke lightly, but Ann wondered what it was that had brought her to London for medical treatment. Then Ari's grandmother was speaking again. 'But this must not be the end of our acquaintance.
Within a week I shall be returning to Greece for our Easter celebrations, and then, dear child, if it is at all possible, I shall count it the greatest pleasure if you will be my guest there. On Sospiris you shall finally have a chance to make up for the years you have lost with little Ari.' She smiled benignly.
'My son will make all the arrangements. Nikos' She spoke swiftly in Greek, clearly giving him some kind of instruction. He nodded curtly at the end.
'I will indeed,' he said grimly. 'With the greatest pleasure, I will escort Miss Turner to her destination.'
Dark eyes rested on Ann, and she did not need to be a mind-reader to know where it was that Nikos Theakis wanted her destination to be. Somewhere exceedingly hot would do nicely. With flames.
Nikos closed his hand over the rich material of her coatsleeve, his grip tightening on the arm beneath. Tightly leashed anger lashed within him, as it had been doing since his incredulous gaze had first landed on the figure daringdaring!to speak to his mother in the toy store.
Theos mou, he should have expected this! Should have expected that the girl would make such an attempt! Doubtless the million pounds he'd paid her off with had all been frittered away by now.
His brow darkened. Had it been deliberate? Positioning herself in that toy store, richly arrayed as she was in the spoils of her ill-gotten gains? Of course it had! Why was he even questioning it? What else would a girl like her have been doing in a toy store of all places? No, she must have plotted it deliberately, after discoveringhe had yet to find out how!that his mother was visiting London with Ari, and seeking the opportunity to put herself forward. More fool him for not having expected it. For letting her take him totally by surprise
In more ways than one. For a moment Nikos felt again the second of the two shocks that had hit him as he'd recognised the woman accosting his mother. Not the rage that had signalled the moment he registered that it was Ann. But the other one. The one that had almost made him look twice, as if his eyes were deceiving him. Deceiving him that the woman with the knockout face and figure could possibly be the same drab, unkempt girl he'd last seen four years ago.
But then, he thought cynically, it was amazing what a million pounds to spend on herself could achieve by way of improvement! Sleek, beautiful hair, subtle make-up, flattering designer clothes andhis cynicism deepenedan expensive winter tan on flawless skin. Oh, yes, Miss Ann Turner with a million pounds at her disposal could well afford never to be drab and repellent ever again! Now she could look every inch a man-trap, like her trollop of a sister
Not that she was anything like as blatant as her sister. Carla Turner had flaunted the kind of sugar-babe looks that pulled men in the most obvious way possibleincluding his gullible brother!but Ann Turner was in a quite different style.
The word came to him, and irritated him even more. Yet the woman whose arm his own was now pinioning had fitted in as effortlessly with the hotel dining room and their party as if she had been born to it.
His eyes went to her rigid profile, and assessed it.
Yes, classy. Her soigné hairstyle, the discretion of her makeup and the restrained chic of her outfit all created that image.
But it was more than just classiness