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The atmosphere in the Markonos summer villa could not grow any cooler if an ice storm had swept down from the Arctic and in through the open terrace doors.
Eyeing his father across the width of the dinner table, Andreas Markonos delivered a cold, clipped, 'No,' with an economy that brought the shutters slamming down on his hard, handsome face.
His father ripped out a sigh of frustration. 'I do not understand you!' he muttered. 'You tell me you are ready to take full control from me and here I sit ready to hand that control over to you! So what is your problem?'
The problem was simple in Andreas's estimation. 'I will not respond to blackmail.'
'It is not blackmail but good business sense!' the older man rapped out. 'If a man wishes to succeed in our world he must have stability in his personal life! Think about it,' he insisted. 'We make snap decisions by mobile telephone, we throw our weight around by electronic mailwe can even look our victims directly in the eye via satellite technology. There is a real danger of becoming drunk on one's own power!'
'Are you suggesting that I am drunk on power?' Andreas demanded.
'Ah' the flick of his father's hand was dismissive 'you know very well that you shock and impress everyone with your ability to think at the speed of light,' he conceded. 'But I have been there before you, Andreas. I know how it feels to fly so high you are in danger of singeing your wings! I keep you grounded to some extent at present but who will do so when I retire?'
It was like waving a red rag at a cantankerous old bull. Orestes Markonos lurched forward in his seat, his seventy-year-old world-toughened expressionpinning his son with a ferocious look. 'Don't use that sarcastic tone on me, Andreas,' he warned thinly. 'You know what it is I am talking about. I had your mother and my beloved children to keep me firmly tethered to God's good earth. You merely have some very loose ties to some very loose women. It is not good enough!'
'I still will not marry again to please you,' Andreas returned coolly.
'You did not marry to please me the first time!' his father hit back. 'And Louisa was a mistake, you confessed as much yourself.'
A sudden stillness grabbed hold of Andreas, he felt it freeze the muscles in his face. Raising the heavy arc of his glossy black eyelashes, 'Never,' he incised very softly, 'have I ever said that Louisa was a mistake.'
'You were both too young and impetuous then,'growled Orestes, going for the compromise while clearly resenting doing it. It showed how much of his bluster was just a cover-up for his waning power in the face of his son's growing potent mental strength.
Which was why Andreas rarely allowed it to show like this. He respected the old man too much to want to make him feel the pinch of his ageing weaknesses.
This, however, was different. This subject was forbidden territory and his father knew it. No one spoke Louisa's name in his presence without feeling the icy whip of his response to it. And nobody mentioned his defunct marriage!
A hard sigh had him tossing aside his napkin and climbing to his feet. Turning, he strode across the room towards the drinks cabinet, with his lean body clenched inside the formal black dinner suit his mother always insisted her men wore when they sat down to eat dinner at home.
Home, he mused, slicing a glance around the elegant dining room belonging to an island villa that had been in the family in one form or another for as long as a Markonos had existed on this earth.
An island home he rarely visited these days. A place his father had been forced to issue what amounted to a royal summons to get him to come to at all! He'd understood what the summons had been about, of course, or he would have found a pressing excuse to be elsewhere. He had understood why his mother had politely excused herself after dinner and left the two of them alone.
His father's retirement from the fast-paced, cut-throat spin of empire-building was long overdue. It was time for the great Orestes Markonos to step aside and hand control to his oldest son.
For an unacceptable price.
'I am proud of you, Andreas,' his father fed after him. 'You are rib of my rib, blood of my blood! But if you want to walk in my shoes then I will insist that you find a new wife who will curtail your propensity to'
'I am already married,' Andreas cut in as he picked up the brandy decanter.
'A situation that can be remedied quickly enough,' said the older man, tossing that legal problem to one side as if it did not count. 'My lawyers will deal with it'
'Your lawyers?' As he swung round, the sudden spark to hit Andreas's dark eyes made his father add quickly,
'To make mere preliminary enquires on your behalf, of course.'
'Of course,' he turned back to the decanter, 'but not without my consent.'
The message was clear. His father hissed out his breath. 'Five years is long enough to grieve a past which cannot be altered.'
Was it? Pouring brandy into a squat crystal glass, Andreas chose to ignore that loaded comment.
'It is time for you to move on from it and build a new life for yourself on the solid foundations I am offering you here, with a good wife to help to keep you groundedmore sons!'
The final part of that recklessly tactless statement grabbed hold of Andreas's gut like a violent twist of a fist. 'Do you want one of these?' he managed to ask evenly enough.
'No!' Orestes barked out. 'I want you to listen to me! It is not healthy to lead the life you do these days! You upset your mother with it and lead me to despair!'
'Then you have my sincere apologies for upsetting you both.'
'I don't want your apology!'His father shot to his feet, five feet ten inches of sturdy Greek male in his seventh decade ready to take on his lean, muscled, beautifully constructed six-foot three-inch thirty-year-old son. 'I am still your father no matter how big you feel you are for the size of your shoes these days, so you will listen to the sense that I speak!'
'When you say something I want to hear!'
The angry rasp of his voice ripped around the elegant dining room. In the silence that thundered after it Andreas pulled in a tense, seething breath, angrily aware that any minute now his mother was going to come in demanding to know what was going on!
He decided to remove himself from the battlefield. Turning on his heels, he walked out through the doors which led onto the terrace. Behind him he heard his father throw back his chair and winced. As he stood glaring out across the villa's sweeping gardens towards the silk-dark ocean beyond, his grim glinting gaze settled on the string of ferry lights just gliding into view.
With no room for an airstrip on the island the weekly ferry provided an essential lifeline to the small island of Aristos. Within the hour, Andreas judged from a lifetime's experience, the small harbour town would be bursting with activity when the efficient transfer of cars, trucks, products and people began to take place. Two hours after that and the ferry would sail away again, leaving the island to settle back to its usual easygoing pace.
He liked it this way. He liked to know that without air access to tempt mass tourism here this small part of Greece would remain simply Greek. In the height of the summer season a few holidaymakers found their way here but they were rarely intrusive. Beautiful though the island was, it did not offer enough to hold most visitors here a full week until the ferry came back again. And if it were not for the advantages of being members of the rich and powerful Markonos family, with private helicopters to fly them in and out, even they would rarely get back here.
A sound of movement told him that his father was coming to join him.
'My wife and the mother of my son,' Andreas put in. 'And you are mistaken if you believe that my youth or Louisa's youth made it easier for either of us to deal with what happened five years ago, because it didn't.'
'I know that, son,'Orestes acknowledged huskily, 'which is why I have left the subject alone for as long as I have.'
Fixing his attention on that string of ferry lights, Andreas had to fight to stop from spitting out something cutting because his father had not left the subject alone. He had not left it alone when Louisa had first come to live here as his young and pregnant daughter-in-law. He had not left it alone when, shrouded in grief, she had caught that ferry and left the island for good.
For the best had been the phrase Orestes had used on that occasion. For the best had returned each time the older man had attempted to bring up the subject of divorce.
Divorce,Andreas repeated to himself as he stared at those damn ferry lights. Now, there was a word that mocked itself. For how did you divorce yourself from the woman who'd lain in your arms night after night and loved you with every look and touch and soft sigh she uttered? How did you divorce yourself from the sight of her giving birth to your child?
And how did you divorce yourself from the inconsolable sight of her the day you placed that child in the ground?
You didn't. You lived with it. Night and day you lived with it. Night and day you scanned through a kaleidoscope of memories; some light, some dark, some so unbearable you wished you could switch off your head. And for the best became a soul-stripping insult, just as time to move on did. For how did you divorce yourself from all of that grief and agony and move on in your life as if it had never happened at all?
You didn't. You just lived with it.
'No.' Cold as ice now, he turned to put his glass down. 'This conversation is over.'
'This is madness!' the older man exploded, losing all patience. 'Your marriage is finished! Accept it! Divorce her. Move on!'
Grim features cut from rock, Andreas turned and walked down the terrace, his long stride driving him down the steps and into the gardens with the darkness swallowing him up. Two minutes later he was behind the wheel of his open-top sports car and roaring away.
He should not have come here, he told himself as he sent the car sweeping down the driveway. He should have ignored his father's summons and done what he usually did at this time of year, which was to put himself as far away from this damn island as he could!
The tense shape of his mouth bit back hard against his teeth when he was forced to stop at the road to allow an old man and his ambling donkey and cart to pass by.
Life at its most idyllic, he observed cynically. A donkey, a cart and a bottle of ouzo stashed somewhere. A small-holding up in the hills with a homely, fat wife waiting for him, a few olive trees, some chickens and a small herd of goats to tend.
A way of life in other words, so detached from his own way of life that it was impossible to believe that he and the old man had been born on this same small Greek island at all.
Like chalk and cheese, he contrasted. Like two alien beings that happened to find themselves occupying the same patch of ground.
Like him and Louisa when he had been the arrogant twenty-two-year-old home from university for the long summer break and she had been a sweet seventeen spending six weeks with her family in a rented villa by the beach.
Six weeks that had changed both their lives forever. He had not been able to keep his hands to himself and she had been so willing to be seduced.
Stupid, blind, reckless youth, Andreas damned that mindless time in his life. They had fallen for each other like a pair of blind lemmings and taken on the whole damn opposition from two different worlds! Three years after their first meeting the two of them had grown so old that the man in his cart and his homely, fat wife would lookfeelyounger now than he and Louisa had done back then.
A thick curse raked the back of his throat as he breathed it. Throwing the car into gear, he set it moving again, feeling the silken heat of the summer evening brush his face in much the same way it had done on the fateful night he had driven this same route into town. His only intention then had been to meet with his friends in a bar by the harbour where they would indulge in their favourite occupationsdrinking beer and discussing fast cars and even faster women as they watched the weekly ferry come in.
He had not expected to see a leggy, long-haired blonde walking off the ferry wearing a pale blue miniskirt and a tiny top that barely covered the tender thrust of her breasts. Blue, blue eyes, he recalled, and the most amazingly smooth, creamy skin that blushed fire when she'd caught them all staring at her. She had been holding on to her younger brother's hand, lagging behind her parents because the nine-year-old boy had wanted to look at the other boats tied up at the quay.
And there he had been, Andreas remembered, already living with the arrogant belief that he was a sexual cynic, yet so blown away by the sight of her that he was left to suffer the kind of hot dreams about her which sent him out to hunt her down the next day.
His hard mouth flicked out a tense grimace. He'd found her sunbathing on the beach in front of the rented villa. It had taken them two hours to fall madly in love with each other, two weeks before they gave in to their raging desires and finally took their feelings over the edge, followed by two weeks of totally rampant, reckless loving then two weeks of hell once Louisa told him he'd made her pregnant.
Her parents had despised him. His parents had despised himbut they'd despised Louisa more.
'They think I'm a cheap little slut '
Andreas winced at the memory of those words leaving her pain-stifled throat. Back then he could not even deny the charge because his parents had thought of her in that way. Her parents had seen him as an over-privileged, over-indulged, over-sexed seducer of innocent young females, but he could take their contempt because he had been indifferent to it. Louisa, on the other hand, could not take his parents' low opinion of her.
'They will come to love you as much as I do once you produce their first grandson,' he could hear himself reassuring her with all the careless arrogance of his youth.
It had been great to believe at the age of twenty-two that love could conquer everything. With hindsight and eight years to add to his twenty-two he could now positively say that if he had been forced to live in Louisa's shoes back then he would have walked away from their marriage a lot sooner than she had made her escape.
Maybe she should have run sooner. If she had run then maybe their son would still be alive now and he would have more than this ache he lived with night and day along with this
He stopped the car.
Climbed out of it.
Walked away from it with his shoulders racked like iron bars.
He came to a stop at the head of the peninsula that separated the harbour town on his left from the luxury villas spread out along the coast to his right. Pushing his hands into the pockets of his black silk trousers, he honed his frowning gaze onto the string of white ferry lights once again.
Time to let go of the past and move on, his father had said. Andreas wished the hell that someone would tell him how he could make the past let go of him.
Had Louisa let it go? The question flicked like the tip of a whip across his grim features. How would he know? How the hell would he know anything about her when they'd had no contact in five years? She could be shacked up with some nice, steady Englishman for all he knew, giving him those soft, loving touches and smiles and
His stomach muscles contractedall of him contracted: mouth, jaw, throat, chest, loins
Turning away from what was now threatening to eat into him, Andreas wrenched at his tie as he walked back to the car. The strip of dark silk slid from around his shirt collar and landed on the passenger seat. He followed it with his jacket then flipped diamond-studded cuff-links out of his white shirt cuffs and discarded them the same way. A minute later and he was back behind the wheel and heading for town with his shirt tugged open at his brown throat and the sleeves rolled up his hair-roughened forearms, his mind grimly fixed on only one thing.
Finding a bar and getting drunk to blot out the memories.