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Lily pulled her hat down to shade her eyes from the burn of the hot Greek sun and took a large gulp from her water bottle. 'Never again.' She sat down on the parched, sunbaked earth and watched as her friend carefully brushed away dirt and soil from a small, carefully marked section of the trench. 'If I ever, ever mention the word "love" to you, I want you to bury me somewhere in this archaeological site and never dig me up again.'
'There is an underground burial chamber. I could dump you in there if you like.'
'Great idea. Stick a sign in the ground. "Here lies Lily, who wasted years of her life studying the origin, evolution and behaviour of humans and still couldn't understand men"I She gazed across the ruins of the ancient city of Aptera to the sea beyond. They were high on a plateau. Behind them, the jagged beauty of the White Mountains shimmered in the heat and in front lay the sparkling blue of the Sea of Crete. The beauty of it usually lifted her mood, but not today.
Brittany sat up and wiped her brow with her forearm. 'Stop beating yourself up. The guy is a lying, cheating rat bastard.' Reaching for her backpack, she glanced across the site to the group of men who were deep in conversation. 'Fortunately for all of us he's flying back to London tomorrow to his wife. And all I can say to that is, God help the woman.'
Lily covered her face with her hands. 'Don't say the word "wife". I am a terrible person.'
'Hey!' Brittany's voice was sharp. 'He told you he was single. He lied. The responsibility is all his. After tomorrow you won't have to see him again and I won't have to struggle not to kill him.'
'What if she finds out and ends their marriage?'
'Then she might have the chance of a decent life with someone who respects her. Forget him, Lily.'
How could she forget when she couldn't stop going over and over it in her head?
Had there been signs she'd missed?
Had she asked the wrong questions?
Was she so desperate to find someone special that she'd ignored obvious signs?
'I was planning our future. We were going to spend August touring the Greek Islands. That was before he pulled out a family photo from his wallet instead of his credit card. Three little kids wrapped around their dad like bindweed. He should have been taking them on holiday, not me! I can't bear it. How could I have made such an appalling error of judgement? That is a line I never cross. Family is sacrosanct to me. If you asked me to pick between family and money, I'd pick family every time.' It crossed her mind that right now she had neither. No money. No family. 'I don't know which is worsethe fact that he clearly didn't know me at all, or the fact that when I checked him against my list he was perfect.'
'You have a list?'
Lily felt herself grow pink. 'It's my attempt to be objective. I have a really strong desire for permanent roots. Family.' She thought about the emotional wasteland of her past and felt a sense of failure. Was the future going to look the same way? 'When you want something badly it can distort your decision-making process, so I've put in some layers of protection for myself. I know the basic qualities I need in a man to be happy. I never date anyone who doesn't score highly on my three points.'
Brittany looked intrigued. 'Big wallet, big shoulders and big'
'No! And you are appalling.' Despite her misery, Lily laughed. 'First, he has to be affectionate. I'm not interested in a man who can't show his feelings. Second, he has to be honest, but short of getting him to take a lie detector test I don't know how to check that one. I thought Professor Ashurst was honest. I'm never calling him David again, by the way.' She allowed herself one glance at the visiting archaeologist who had dazzled her during their short, ill-fated relationship. 'You're right. He's a rat pig.'
'I didn't call him a rat pig. I called him a rat b'
'I know what you called him. I never use that word.'
'You should. It's surprisingly therapeutic. But we shouldn't be wasting this much time talking about him. Professor Asshat is history, like this stuff we're digging up.'
'I can't believe you called him that.'
'You should be calling him far worse. What's the third thing on your list?'
'I want a man with strong family values. He has to want a family. But not several different families at the same time. Now I know why he gave off all those signals about being a family man. Because he already was a family man.' Lily descended into gloom. 'My checklist is seriously flawed.'
'Not necessarily. You need a more reliable test for honesty and you should maybe add "single" to your list, that's all. You need to chill. Stop looking for a relationship and have some fun. Keep it casual.'
'You're talking about sex? That doesn't work for me.' Lily took another sip of water. 'I have to be in love with a guy to sleep with him. The two are welded together for me. How about you?'
'No. Sex is sex. Love is love. One is fun and the other is to be avoided at all costs.'
'I don't think like that. There is something wrong with me.'
'There's nothing wrong with you. It's not a crime to want a relationship. It just means you get your heart broken more than the average person.' Brittany pushed her hat back from her face. 'I can't believe how hot it is. It's not even ten o'clock and already I'm boiling like a lobster.'
'And you know all about lobsters, coming from Maine. It's summer and this is Crete. What did you expect?'
'Right now I'd give anything for a few hours back home. I'm not used to summers that fry your skin from your body. I keep wanting to remove another layer of clothing.'
'You've spent summers at digs all over the Mediterranean.'
'And I moaned at each and every one.' Brittany stretched out her legs and Lily felt a flash of envy.
'You look like Lara Croft in those shorts. You have amazing legs.'
'Too much time hiking in inhospitable lands searching for ancient relics. I want your gorgeous blonde hair.' Brittany's hair, the colour of polished oak, was gathered up from her neck in a ponytail. Despite the hat, her neck was already showing signs of the sun. 'Listen, don't waste another thought or tear on that man. Come out with us tonight. We're going to the official opening of the new wing at the archaeological museum and afterwards we're going to try out that new bar on the waterfront. My spies tell me that Professor Asshat won't be there, so it's going to be a great evening.'
'I can't. The agency rang this morning and offered me an emergency cleaning job.'
'Lily, you have a masters in archaeology. You shouldn't be taking these random jobs.'
'My research grant doesn't pay off my college loans and I want to be debt free. And anyway, I love cleaning. It relaxes me.'
'You love cleaning? You're like a creature from another planet.'
'There's nothing more rewarding than turning someone's messy house into a shiny home, but I do wish the job wasn't tonight. The opening would have been fun. A great excuse to wash the mud off my knees and dress up, not to mention seeing all those artefacts in one place. Never mind. I'll focus on the money. They're paying me an emergency rate for tonight.'
'Cleaning is an emergency?'
Lily thought about the state of some of the houses she cleaned. 'Sometimes, but in this case it's more that the owner decided to arrive without notice. He spends most of his time in the US.' She dug in her bag for more sunscreen. 'Can you imagine being so rich you can't quite decide which of your many properties you are going to sleep in?'
'What's his name?'
'No idea. The company is very secretive. We have to arrive at a certain time and then his security team will let us in. Four hours later I add a gratifyingly large sum of money to my bank account and that's the end of it.'
'Four hours? It's going to take five of you four hours to clean one house?' Brittany paused with the water halfway to her mouth. 'What is this place? A Minoan palace?'
'A villa. It's big. She said I'd be given a floor plan when I arrive, which I have to return when I leave and I'm not allowed to make copies.'
'A floor plan?' Brittany choked on her water. 'Now I'm intrigued. Can I come with you?'
'Sure' Lily threw her a look 'because scrubbing out someone's shower is so much more exciting than having cocktails on the terrace of the archaeological museum while the sun sets over the Aegean.'
'It's the Sea of Crete.'
'Technically it's still the Aegean, and either way I'm missing a great party to scrub a floor. I feel like Cinderella. So what about you? Are you going to meet someone tonight and do something about your dormant love life?'
'I don't have a love life, I have a sex life, which is not at all dormant fortunately.'
Lily felt a twinge of envy. 'Maybe you're right. I need to lighten up and use men for sex instead of treating every relationship as if it's going to end in confetti. You were an only child, weren't you? Did you ever wish you had brothers or sisters?'
'No, but I grew up on a small island. The whole place felt like a massive extended family. Everyone knew everything, from the age you first walked, to whether you had all A's on your report card.'
'Sounds blissful.' Lily heard the wistful note in her own voice. 'Because I was such a sickly kid and hard work to look after, no one took me for long. My eczema was terrible when I was little and I was always covered in creams and bandages and other yucky stuff. I wasn't exactly your poster baby. No one wanted a kid who got sick. I was about as welcome as a stray puppy with fleas.'
'Crap, Lily, you're making me tear up and I'm not even a sentimental person.'
'Forget it. Tell me about your family instead.' She loved hearing about other people's families, about the complications, the love, the experiences woven into a shared history. To her, family seemed like a multicoloured sweater, with all the different coloured strands of wool knitted into something whole and wonderful that gave warmth and protection from the cold winds of life.
She picked absently at a thread hanging from the hem of her shorts. It felt symbolic of her life. She was a single fibre, loose, bound to nothing.
Brittany took another mouthful of water and adjusted the angle of her hat. 'We're a normal American family, I guess. Whatever that is. My parents were divorced when I was ten.
My mom hated living on an island. Eventually she remarried and moved to Florida. My dad was an engineer and he spent all his time working on oil rigs around the world. I lived with my grandmother on Puffin Island.'
'Even the name is adorable.' Lily tried to imagine growing up on a place called Puffin Island. 'Were you close to your grandmother?'
'Very. She died a few years ago, but she left me her cottage on the beach so I'd always have a home. I take several calls a week from people wanting to buy the place but I'm never going to sell.' Brittany poked her trowel into the ground. 'My grandmother called it Castaway Cottage. When I was little I asked her if a castaway ever lived there and she said it was for people lost in life, not at sea. She believed it had healing properties.'
Lily didn't laugh. 'I might need to spend a month there. I need to heal.'
'You'd be welcome. A friend of mine is staying at the moment. We use it as a refuge. It's the best place on earth and I always feel close to my grandmother when I'm there. You can use it any time, Lil.'
'Maybe I will. I still need to decide what I'm going to do in August.'
'You know what you need? Rebound sex. Sex for the fun of it, without all the emotional crap that goes with relationships.'
'I've never had rebound sex. I'd fall in love.'
'So pick someone you couldn't possibly fall in love with in a million years. Someone with exceptional bedroom skills, but nothing else to commend him. Then you can't possibly be at risk.' She broke off as Spyros, one of the Greek archaeologists from the local university, strolled across to them. 'Go away, Spy, this is girl talk.'
'Why do you think I'm joining you? It's got to be more interesting than the conversation I just left.' He handed Lily a can of chilled Diet Coke. 'He's a waste of space, thee mou.' His voice was gentle and she coloured, touched by his kindness.
'I know, I know.' She lifted the weight of her hair from her neck, wishing she'd worn it up. 'I'll get over it.'
Spy dropped to his haunches next to her. 'Want me to help you get over him? I heard something about rebound sex. I'm here for you.'
'No thanks. You're a terrible flirt. I don't trust you.'
'Hey, this is about sex. You don't need to trust me.' He winked at her. 'What you need is a real man. A Greek man who knows how to make you feel like a woman.'
'Yeah, yeah, I know the joke. You're going to hand me your laundry and tell me to wash it. This is why you're not going to be my rebound guy. I am not washing your socks.' But Lily was laughing as she snapped the top of the can. Maybe she didn't have a family, but she had good friends. 'You're forgetting that when I'm not cleaning the villas of the rich or hanging out here contributing nothing to my college fund, I work for the ultimate in Greek manhood.'
'Ah yes.' Spyros smiled. 'Nik Zervakis. Head of the mighty ZervaCo. Man of men. Every woman's fantasy.'
'Not mine. He doesn't tick a single box on my list.'
Spy raised his eyebrows and Brittany shook her head. 'You don't want to know. Go on, Lily, dish the dirt on Zer-vakis. I want to know everything from his bank balance to how he got that incredible six pack I saw in those sneaky photos of him taken in that actress's swimming pool.'
'I don't know much about him, except that he's super brilliant and expects everyone around him to be super brilliant, too, which makes him pretty intimidating. Fortunately he spends most of his time in San Francisco or New York so he isn't around much. I've been doing this internship for two months and in that time two personal assistants have left. It's a good job he has a big human resources department because I can tell you he gets through a lot of human resources in the average working week. And don't even start me on the girlfriends. I need a spreadsheet to keep it straight in my head.'
'What happened to the personal assistants?'
'Both of them resigned because of the pressure. The workload is inhuman and he isn't easy to work for. He has this way of looking at you that makes you wish you could teleport. But he is very attractive. He isn't my type so I didn't pay much attention, but the women talk about him all the time.'
'I still don't understand why you're working there.'
'I'm trying different things. My research grant ends this month and I don't know if I want to carry on doing this. I'm exploring other options. Museum work doesn't pay much and anyway, I don't want to live in a big city. I could never teach' She shrugged, depressed by the options. 'I don't know what to do.'
'You're an expert in ceramics and you've made some beautiful pots.'
'That's a hobby.'
'You're creative and artistic. You should do something with that.'