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'So,' Natasha Kirby said, glancing round the lamplit table, her gaze steady, her voice cool and even. 'Is someone going to tell me what's going on? What I'm doing here? Or do I have to guess?'
There was an awkward silence, then Andonis leaned forward, his smile cajoling. 'Why, sister, it is only that it has been some time—too long—since you paid us a visit. Po,po,po, does there have to be a problem before we invite you here, for a little family party?'
'No,' Natasha agreed levelly. 'But I usually come in the spring and early autumn in order to see your mother. Invitations at other times are rarely so last-minute—or so pressing,' she added drily. 'And if this is a party, I certainly don't see many signs of celebration.'
On the contrary, she thought, the atmosphere at the house was more reminiscent of a wake. Her antennae had picked up on it as soon as she'd arrived. Although it was hardly surprising in view of recent events.
And while the meal itself had been splendid—her favourite lamb dish, she'd noted cynically, oven-baked with tomatoes, garlic and oregano until it melted off the bone—the conversation round the dinner table had been strained, almost muted.
Even Irini, the youngest of the late Basilis Papadimos's three children, had been quieter than usual, as if she was deliberately reining back her normal overt hostility to her English foster sister. Which should, Natasha recognised, have been a relief. Yet, somehow, wasn't…
There was another uncomfortable pause, while she watched Andonis look at his older brother, his shoulder lifting in a shrug that was almost resigned.
And Natasha sat back in her chair, sighing under her breath, as she thought, Oh God, there's trouble. I knew it.
The problem was she did know. Because she knew them all—much too well. And had done since her childhood, she thought wryly.
Since the moment, in fact, when Basilis, that great, loud bear of a man who'd been her father's friend, had swooped down in those bleak, traumatic days after Stephen Kirby's sudden death and carried her off to his palatial home outside Athens, ignoring all the protests from the child-support agencies in London.
'I am her godfather,' he had rumbled, his eyes fierce under the heavy eyebrows, daring anyone to oppose him. 'And, to a Greek, that bestows a lifetime of responsibility. Stephanos knew this, always. Knew I would happily accept his daughter as my own. There is no more to be said.'
And when the millionaire owner of the Arianna shipping line spoke with such finality, it was generally better to obey.
She had been welcomed gently by Madame Papadimos, who told her that she must call her Thia Theodosia, then smoothed her soft fair hair with caressing fingers, and gave her a handkerchief scented with sandalwood when the inevitable, bewildered tears began to rain down her white face.
The sons of the house, Stavros and Andonis, greeted her more exuberantly, clearly seeing in her another female victim, alongside their younger sister, Irini, for their teasing and practical jokes.
But being a joint target had not created any kind of bond between Natasha and the Greek girl, only two years older than herself. From the start, Irini had never exhibited even an atom of the philoxenia—the love of strangers—that was the heart of Greek hospitality. On the contrary…
Even though she was grieving, Natasha had soon realised that Irini had resented her from the first step she'd taken over the Papadimoses' family threshold, and that little had happened since to change that in any way. That to the other girl she would always be the outsider—the interloper that her father had imposed upon them.
And sadly the attitude of Basilis himself had not helped the situation. Young as she was, Natasha became uncomfortably aware that Irini's life was already one long, painful contest for her father's attention. A contest that she seemed not to be winning.
Because where his only daughter was concerned, Basilis was kind enough but invariably remote in a way he never was with the boys. Or, Natasha had to admit, with herself, whom he treated with wholehearted affection.
And whether Irini behaved like an angel, or turned into a whining, spiteful, needy devil, as she could do at the drop of a hat, it made no noticeable difference. So, without any real incentive to be good, she usually chose the other option, with nerve-shattering results.
'And to think her name means peace,' Stavros had commented sourly one day, after a particularly spectacular row with screaming and door-slamming. 'She should have been named Hecate of the Three Heads, because she whines like a dog, bites like a snake and looks like a horse.'
He'd been punished for his unkindness, but Natasha knew that he and Andonis had still used the name on the quiet to torment their sister.
And for all she knew, they might be doing so to this day, which could be why the other girl's mouth had thinned into a line of ill-natured grievance, and her dark eyes snapped at the world with undisguised suspicion.
As she'd got older and more perceptive, Natasha had often wondered why Thia Theodosia, who must have realised the reason for Irini's tears, tantrums and sheer bad temper, didn't intervene—point out to her husband the damaging disparities in his treatment of his children.
But perhaps it was because Madame Papadimos had her own personal battle to fight. She had always seemed frail, a shadow to her husband's larger-than-life vibrancy, but now, since Basilis had died suddenly of a heart attack two years ago, she seemed to be slowly but deliberately fading out of the family picture, apparently content to live quietly in her own wing of the villa with Hara, her devoted nurse-companion, in close attendance.
Nor had she joined tonight's dinner party, which Natasha felt was a bad sign in more ways than one, as neither Stavros nor Andonis ever willingly discussed business matters in front of their mother. If this had been a purely social occasion, she would have been there.
Their wives, of course, were a different matter. Both Maria and Christina Papadimos were present—and both clearly on edge, their smiles too forced, their bursts of laughter far too shrill.
I suppose, Natasha thought, sighing inwardly, it's up to me to get the ball rolling, or we'll be here all night and tomorrow, too, and I need to get back to London, and my real life.
She looked round the table. 'So, let's drop the social niceties and have the truth—shall we? I presume that I've been summoned to discuss the recent well-publicised problems of the Arianna line.'
'There is nothing to discuss.' Irini might not have said much so far, but the familiar basilisk glare was suddenly back in full working order. 'Decisions have already been made. You are only expected to agree. To sign where you are bidden. No more than that.'
Natasha bit her lip. This, she knew, had always been a bone of contention—that Basilis had decreed in his will that she, the foster child, should have a place on the Papadimos board, with full voting rights and the same level of salary as the rest of the family.
She had waived the salary, and rarely attended any of the board meetings, but, in view of the stories that had been appearing in the newspapers over the past months, she realised ruefully that this might have been a big mistake.
Because the Arianna line had been stalked by disaster of late. The Arianna Queen had suffered a serious outbreak of food poisoning, affecting almost two thirds of her passengers. The Princess had been detained at Malta when the crew had gone on strike in a dispute over late payment of their wages, and two of the smaller boats had experienced engine faults, resulting in their cruises being curtailed. And the Empress, their new flagship, had been deluged with complaints after the maiden voyage, about poor workmanship in the staterooms and bathrooms that didn't work properly.
And that, she thought, was only the passenger line. The cargo vessels that comprised the Leander fleet had experienced problems, too, with an oil tanker running aground and the inevitable spillage, and a fire on board another ship.
Natasha had read all these horror stories, appalled, knowing that none of these things would have happened when Basilis was alive and in charge, because he was a man with a nose for trouble.
In fact, just before his heart attack, he had been talking about instituting a mass refit on the whole fleet of cruise ships, particularly the galleys, which were showing their age, and the engine rooms.
She could only assume that after his death, in an act of blatant unwisdom, these eminently sensible—indeed necessary—plans had gone quietly into abeyance. Certainly she'd never been consulted about any cancellation or postponement to the modernisation of the Arianna line, or she'd have fought tooth and nail for Basilis's wishes to be adhered to.
It was the only course of action that made economic sense. How could the brothers not have seen it?
Not that Stavros and Andonis often listened to advice, especially from women. And in this, she was forced to admit, they resembled their father, who took the unenlightened view that the female of the species was of more use in the bedroom than the boardroom. And who had shocked Natasha rigid on her eighteenth birthday by summoning her to his study to outline his plans for her own forthcoming marriage.
Apparently, she'd learned with horror, her pale blonde hair, creamy skin and wide, long-lashed green eyes had found favour among a number of the susceptible young men in the wealthy social circles that the Papadimos clan moved in. The question of whether or not she had a brain had not come under consideration by any of her would-be suitors.
She was regarded solely by them all as a trophy bride.
But, Basilis had announced magnanimously, she would be permitted to make her own choice among them. Nor would she go to her husband penniless, the sum of money which her father's will had left in trust for her having multiplied in value under his stewardship. All this, she must understand, in addition to the dowry that he would settle on her himself.
Which, in his assumption, made everything all fine and dandy.
My God, Natasha had thought, trying to suppress the appalled bubble of laughter welling up inside her, looks and money. I've suddenly become the catch of the season, if not the year.
It had taken, she recalled, hours of patient persuasion to convince Basilis that his plans for her were doomed. That she had her own vision of her future, that clashed fundamentally with his on a number of points, and that marriage didn't feature—or not for some years, anyway. And any future husband would be expected to respect her intelligence and her need for independence.
Hours of standing her ground against his roared disapproval and voluble reproaches. Hours, too, of resisting the more subtle emotional blackmail he used as a last resort, when anger and pleading had clearly failed.
And hours of assuring him with perfect truth that she loved him dearly, and that she would be eternally grateful for his care of her while she was growing up. That she owed him more than she could ever repay.
But that she was now in charge of her own destiny, which she was sure rested in England rather than her country of adoption. And that it was there that she would try to carve out a life for herself.
Also she had been very careful not to hint, as she might have done, that it was Irini who could be in need of his matchmaking abilities, as no queue of hopefuls appeared to be lining up to woo her.
Now, she looked away from the other girl's glare and said quietly, 'I see. And may I ask what exactly is on this dotted line that's been prepared for me?'
Stavros reached over with the wine bottle. 'It is merely a small matter of negotiation,' he said soothingly. 'A delaying tactic. No more than that.'
Natasha moved her glass out of range, regarding him stonily. 'Indeed?' she queried drily. 'Well, if it's so trivial, why bring me all this way? Why not just send the papers to my solicitors in London—as we agreed last time I was here?' She paused. 'I do have a business to run, you know.'
Without surprise, she heard a contemptuous snort from Irini, followed by Stavros and Andonis explaining in unison that it was not quite that simple. That it was a family matter, and therefore better dealt with on a personal basis, without lawyers being troubled.
'Oh, God,' Natasha muttered under her breath, watching Christina chewing at her lip, and Maria tugging at the gold chains that festooned her plump neck as they exchanged frankly uneasy glances. Things must be much worse than I thought.
Eventually the full story began to emerge, her foster brothers taking the narration in turns, rather like a Greek chorus from some ancient drama. Strophe, she thought wryly, and antistrophe—as Basilis had painstakingly explained to her on their visits to the theatre to watch the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
Only it was a very different tragedy she was hearing this time. A tragedy of mismanagement, greed and stupidity on a fairly grand scale, with disaster right there, waiting in the wings. Because now there were big questions being asked by their insurers, and the shareholders were running scared, which, for the first time, made Basilis's once-powerful empire seem vulnerable. Something she had never thought could happen.
And where, she asked herself as disbelief warred inside her with something very like hysteria, where was the god in the machine, so beloved in classical drama, who would descend to save the day?
'But we are taking steps to regulate the situation,' Stavros announced grandly. 'To begin with, we plan a major refit of all the passenger accommodation on the Arianna line,' he added, as if it were suddenly all his own idea, and Natasha found she was biting her lip again—hard.
'Well,' she said. 'That's—good.' And certainly better late than never.
'Except that the necessary finance is proving more difficult to obtain than we thought,' Andonis added.
But there'd been money set aside, Natasha recalled, startled. So what had happened to that? Better, she thought, not to ask, perhaps.
But if they'd asked her here hoping for a loan, then they'd be seriously disappointed. Helping Out, the small business she'd started with the inheritance from her father, was established now, and doing well enough for her to have taken on a partner, and be thinking about expansion.