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'So, what are you going to do, then?' Charley asked anxiously.
Lizzie looked at her younger sisters, the familiar need to protect them, no matter what the cost to herself, stiffening her resolve.
'There is only one thing I can do,' she answered. 'I shall have to go.'
'What? Fly out to Thessalonica?'
'It's the only way.'
'But we haven't got any money.'
That was Ruby, the baby of the family at twenty-two, sitting at the kitchen table while her five-year-old twin sons, who had been allowed a rare extra half an hour of television, sat uncharacteristically quietly in the other room, so that the sisters could discuss the problems threatening them.
No, they hadn't got any money—and that was her fault, Lizzie acknowledged guiltily.
Six years earlier, when their parents had died together, drowned by a freak wave whilst they were on holiday, Lizzie had promised herself that she would do everything she could to keep the family together. She had left university, and had been working for a prestigious London-based interior design partnership, in pursuit of her dream of getting a job as a set designer. Charley had just started university, and Ruby had been waiting to sit her GCSE exams.
Theirs had been a close and loving family, and the shock of losing their parents had been overwhelming—especially for Ruby, who, in her despair, had sought the love and reassurance she so desperately needed in the arms of the man who had abandoned her and left her pregnant with the adored twin boys.
There had been other shocks for them to face, though. Their handsome, wonderful father and their pretty, loving mother, who had created for them the almost fairytale world of happiness in which the family had lived, had done just that—lived in a fairytale which had little or no foundation in reality.
The beautiful Georgian rectory in the small Cheshire village in which they had grown up had been heavily mortgaged, their parents had not had any life insurance, and they had had large debts. In the end there had been no alternative but for their lovely family home to be sold, so those debts could be paid off.
With the property market booming, and her need to do everything she could to support and protect her sisters, Lizzie had used her small savings to set up in business on her own in an up-and-coming area south of Manchester— Charley would be able to continue with her studies at Manchester University, Ruby could have a fresh start, and she could establish a business which would support them all.
At first things had gone well. Lizzie had won contracts to model the interiors of several new building developments, and from that had come commissions from homebuyers to design the interiors of the properties they had bought. Off the back of that success Lizzie had taken the opportunity to buy a much larger house from one of the developers for whom she'd worked—with, of course, a much larger mortgage. It had seem to make sense at the time—after all, with the twins and the three of them they'd definitely needed the space, just as they had needed a large four-wheel drive vehicle. She used it to visit the sites on which she worked, and Ruby used it to take the boys to school. In addition to that her clients, a small local firm, had been pressuring her to buy, so that they could wind up the development and move on to a new site.
But then had come the credit crunch, and overnight almost everything had changed. The bottom had dropped out of the property market, meaning that they were unable to trade down and reduce the mortgage because of the value of the house had decreased so much, and with that of course Lizzie's commissions had dried up. The money she had been putting away in a special savings account had not increased anything like as much as she had expected, and financially things had suddenly become very dark indeed.
Right now Charley was still working as a project manager for a local firm, and Ruby had said that she would get a job. But neither Lizzie nor Charley wanted her to do that. They both wanted the twins to have a mother at home, just as they themselves had had. And, as Lizzie had said six months ago, when they'd first started to feel the effects of the credit crunch, she would get a job working for someone else, and she still had money owing to her from various clients. They would manage.
But it turned out she had been overly optimistic. She hadn't been able to get a job, because what industry there was in the area geared towards personal spending was shedding workers, and with the cost of basics going up they were now struggling to manage. They were only just about keeping their heads above water. Many of her clients had cancelled their contracts, and some of them still owed her large sums of money she suspected she would never receive.
In fact things were so dire that Lizzie had already made a private decision to go to the local supermarket and see if she could get work there. But then the letter had arrived, and now they—or rather she was in an even more desperate situation.
Two of her more recent clients, for whom she had done a good deal of work, had further commissioned her to do the interior design for a small block of apartments they had bought in northern Greece. On a beautiful promontory, the apartments were to have been the first stage in a luxurious and exclusive holiday development which, when finished, would include villas, three five-star hotels, a marina, restaurants and everything that went with it.
The client had given her carte blanche to furnish them in an 'upmarket Notting Hill style'.
Notting Hill might be a long way from their corner of industrialised Manchester, on the Cheshire border, but Lizzie had known exactly what her clients had meant: white walls, swish bathrooms and kitchens, shiny marble floors, glass furniture, exotic plants and flowers, squishy sofas…
Lizzie had flown out to see the apartments with her clients, a middle-aged couple whom she had never really been able to take to. She had been disappointed by the architectural design of the apartments. She had been expecting something creative and innovative that still fitted perfectly into the timeless landscape, but what she had seen had been jarringly out of place. A six-storey-high rectangular box of so-called 'duplex apartments', reached by a narrow track that forked into two, with one branch sealed off by bales of dangerous-looking barbed wire. Hardly the luxury holiday homes location she had been expecting.
But when she had voiced her doubts to her clients, suggesting that the apartments might be difficult to sell, they had assured her that she was worrying unnecessarily.
'Look, the fact is that we bargained the builder down to such a good price that we couldn't lose out even if we let the whole lot out for a tenner a week,' Basil Rainhill had joked cheerfully. At least Lizzie had assumed it as a joke. It was hard to tell with Basil at times.
He came from money, as his wife was fond of telling her. 'Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and of course Basil has such an eye for a good investment. It's a gift, you know. It runs in his family.'
Only now the gift had run out. And just before the Rainhills themselves had done the same thing disappearing, leaving a mountain of debt behind them, Basil Rainhill had told Lizzie that, since he couldn't now afford to pay her bill, he was instead making over to her a twenty per cent interest in the Greek apartment block.
Lizzie would much rather have had the money she was owed, but her solicitor had advised her to accept, and so she had become a partner in the ownership of the apartments along with the Rainhills and Tino Manos, the Greek who owned the land.
Design-wise, she had done her best with the limited possibilities presented by the apartment block, sticking to her rule of sourcing furnishings as close to where she was working as possible, and she had been pleased with the final result. She'd even been cautiously keeping her fingers crossed that, though she suspected they wouldn't sell, when the whole complex was finished she might look forward to the apartments being let to holidaymakers and bringing her in some much-needed income.
But now she had received this worrying, threatening letter, from a man she had never heard of before, insisting that she fly out to Thessalonica to meet him. It stated that there were 'certain legal and financial matters with regard to your partnership with Basil Rainhill and my cousin Tino Manos which need to be resolved in person', and included the frighteningly ominous words, 'Failure to respond to this letter will result in an instruction to my solicitors to deal with matters on my behalf. The letter had been signed Ilios Manos.
His summons couldn't have come at worse time, but the whole tone of Ilios Manos's letter was too threatening for Lizzie to feel she could refuse to obey it. As apprehensive and unwilling to meet him as she was, the needs of her family must come first. She had a responsibility to them, a duty of love from which she would never abdicate, no matter what the cost to herself. She had sworn that— promised it on the day of her parents' funeral.
'If this Greek wants to see you that badly he might at least have offered to pay your airfare,' Ruby grumbled.
Lizzie felt so guilty.
'It's all my own fault. I should have realised that the property market was over-inflated, and creating a bubble that would burst.'
'Lizzie, you mustn't blame yourself.' Charley tried to comfort her. 'And as for realising what was happening— how could you when governments didn't even know?'
Lizzie forced a small smile.
'Surely if you tell the bank why you need to go to Greece they'll give you a loan?' Ruby suggested hopefully.
Charley shook her head. 'The banks aren't giving any businesses loans at the moment. Not even successful ones.'
Lizzie bit her lip. Charley wasn't reproaching her for the failure of her business, she knew, but she still felt terrible. Her sisters relied on her. She was the eldest, the sensible one, the one the other two looked to. She prided herself on being able to take care of them—but it was a false pride, built on unstable foundations, as so much else in this current terrible financial climate.
'So what is poor Lizzie going to do? She's got this Greek threatening to take things further if she doesn't go and see him, but how can she if we haven't got any money?' Ruby asked their middle sister.
'We have,' Lizzie suddenly remembered, with grateful relief. 'We've got my bucket money, and I can stay in one of the apartments.'
Lizzie's 'bucket money' was the spare small change she had always put in the decorative tin bucket in her office, in the days when she had possessed 'spare' change.
Two minutes later they were all looking at the small tin bucket, which was now on the kitchen table.
'Do you think there'll be enough?' Ruby asked dubiously.
There was only one way to find out.
'Eighty-nine pounds,' Lizzie announced half an hour later, when the change had been counted.
'Eighty-nine pounds and four pence,' Charley corrected her.
'Will it be enough?' Ruby asked.
'I shall make it enough,' Lizzie told them determinedly.
It would certainly buy an off-season low-cost airline ticket, and she still had the keys for the apartments—apartments in which she held a twenty per cent interest. She was surely perfectly entitled to stay in one whilst she tried to sort out the mess the Rainhills had left behind.
How the mighty were fallen—or rather the not so mighty in her case, Lizzie reflected tiredly. All she had wanted to do was provide for her sisters and her nephews, to protect them and keep them safe financially, so that never ever again would they have to endure the truly awful spectre of repossession and destitution which had faced them after their parents' death.
No! It was impossible, surely! The apartment block couldn't simply have disappeared.
But it had.
Lizzie blinked and looked again, desperately hoping she was seeing things—or rather not seeing them—but it was no use. It still wasn't there.
The apartment block had gone.
Where she had expected to see the familiar rectangular building there was only roughly flattened earth, scarred by the tracks of heavy building plant.
It had been a long and uncomfortable ride, in a taxi driven at full pelt by a Greek driver who'd seemed bent on proving his machismo behind the wheel, after an equally lacking in comfort flight on the low-cost airline.
They had finally turned off the main highway to travel along the dusty, narrow and rutted unfinished road that ran down to the tip of the peninsula and the apartments. Whilst the taxi had bounded and rocked from side to side, Lizzie had braced herself against the uncomfortable movement, noticing as they passed it that where the road forked, and where last year there had been rolls of spiked barbed wire blocking the entrance to it, there were now imposing-looking padlocked wrought-iron gates.
The taxi driver had dropped her off when the ruts in the road had become so bad that he had refused to go any further. She had insisted on him giving her a price before they had left the airport, knowing how little money she had to spare, and before she handed it over to him she took from him a card with a telephone number on it, so that she could call for a taxi to take her into the city to meet Ilios Manos after she had settled herself into an apartment and made contact with him.
Lizzie stared at the scarred ground where the apartment block should have been, and then lifted her head, turning to look out over the headland, where the rough sparse grass met the still winter-grey of the Aegean. The brisk wind blowing in from the sea tasted of salt—or was the salt from her own wretched tears of shock and disbelief?
What on earth was going on? Basil had boasted to her that twenty per cent entitled her to two apartments, each worth two hundred thousand euros. Lizzie would have put the value closer to one hundred thousand, but it still meant that whatever value they'd potentially held had vanished— along with the building. It was money she simply could not afford to lose.
What on earth was she going to do? She had just under fifty euros in her purse, nowhere to stay, no immediate means of transport to take her back to the city, no apartments—nothing. Except, of course, for the threat implied in the letter she had received. She still had that to deal with—and the man who had made that threat.