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The smudge on the horizon gradually transformed into an island which surged up, pine-clad, from the dazzling blue sea. As the charter boat grew nearer, Isobel could see tavernas with coloured awnings lining the waterfront, and houses with cinnamon roofs and icing-white walls, stacked like children's building blocks on the slopes above. She scanned the houses as the boat nosed into the harbour, trying to locate the apartments shown in her brochure, but gave up, amused, when she saw that most of them had the blue doors and balconies she was looking for. She hoisted her backpack as the boat docked and picked up her bags with a sigh of relief. She'd arrived!
Isobel's first priorities were lunch and directions to her holiday apartment on this picture-perfect island of Chyros. The taverna her brochure indicated for both was inviting and lively, its tables crammed inside and out with people eating, drinking and talking non-stop. She made a beeline for one of the last unoccupied tables under the awning outside, and tucked her bags close to her feet as she sat to study the menu. With a polite 'parakalo,' she pointed out her choice to a waiter and was quickly provided with mineral water and bread, followed by a colourful Greek salad with feta cheese. She fell on the food as though she hadn't eaten for days; which wasn't far off the truth. She enjoyed the arrival part of holidays a whole lot more than the travelling.
'You enjoyed the salata?' asked the waiter, eyeing her empty plate in approval.
Isobel smiled, delighted to hear English. 'Very much; it was delicious.' She produced her brochure. 'Could you help me, please? I was told I could collect the keys to one of these apartments here.'
He nodded, smiling. 'My father has keys. He owns the Kalypso. Wait a little and I take you there.'
Isobel shook her head, embarrassed. 'That's very kind of you, but I can't interrupt your work. I can take a taxi—'
He grinned. 'My father is Nikos, also owner of the taverna. He will be pleased if I take you. I am just home from the hospital.'
She eyed the muscular young man in surprise. 'You've been ill?'
'No. I work there. I am a doctor. But at home I help when we are busy. I am Alex Nicolaides. If you give me your name for my father, I take you to the Kalypso.'
She told him she was Isobel James and, by the time she'd downed more water and paid the bill, the helpful Alex was on hand again.
'It is near enough to walk,' he informed her and picked up her luggage, but Isobel hung on to the backpack.
'I'll take this.'
'It has your valuables?' he asked as they walked along the marina.
'In a way.' She pulled the peak of her cap down to meet her sunglasses. 'Some of my drawing materials.'
'You are artist, Miss James?'
Isobel smiled. 'I try to be.'
Her escort was right. It was not far to the Kalypso holiday lets, but in the scorching sunshine it was far enough for Isobel to feel very hot and travel-weary by the time they reached a group of six white cottages scattered on the hillside on the far side of the waterfront. Offset at different angles amongst the greenery, all of them had blue-painted balconies overlooking the boats bobbing on the brilliant waters below.
Her guide checked the number on Isobel's key tag and eyed her doubtfully. 'Your house is last, high on hill. You will not be lonely?'
She shook her head. Far from it. The peace and semi-isolation of the cottage was exactly what she needed.
The other houses had been left quite a distance behind by the time the young man led the way up a steep path quilted with soft, slippery pine needles. He put the bags down on a veranda furnished with reclining chairs and a table, and with a flourish unlocked the door of Isobel's holiday home.
'Welcome to Chyros, Miss James; enjoy your stay.'
She turned from the view. 'I'm sure I will. One last thing— where exactly is the nearest beach?'
'Next to the harbour. But down here is one you will like better.' He pointed to a path among the Aleppo pines behind the house. 'Smaller, very pretty, and not many people because the path is steep.'
'Sounds wonderful. Thank you so much for your help.' Isobel gave him a warm smile as she said goodbye and went inside to inspect her new quarters, which consisted mainly of one big air-conditioned room with a white-tiled floor and yellow-painted walls. It was simply furnished with a sky-blue sofa and curtains, two white-covered beds and a wardrobe; and through an archway at the end a small kitchen and adjoining bathroom. Everything was so scrupulously clean and peaceful it felt like sanctuary to Isobel.
Her friend Joanna, her regular holiday companion in the past before her marriage, had disapproved of Isobel's choice and had urged her to stay at a hotel on somewhere lively like glitzy Mykonos. But Isobel had opted for quiet, idyllic Chyros, where she could paint, or do nothing at all for the entire holiday, with no demands on her time. Or her emotions.
Isobel unpacked, took a quick shower and, cool in halter neck and shorts, went outside on the balcony. She sent a text to Joanna to report safe arrival and sat down with her guidebook, hair spread out on a towel over her shoulders to dry a little in the warm air before she set about taming it. A fan of Greek mythology from the time she could first read, she checked the location of the island of Serifos, where legend said Perseus and his mother Danae had been washed ashore in a chest set adrift on the sea, but decided the journey there could wait until she'd recovered from this one.
Isobel sat back, content to do nothing at all for a while, but in the end balanced a pad on her knee as usual and began to sketch the boats in the harbour below. Absorbed, she went on working until the light began to fade and sat up, yawning, too tired to go back down to the taverna for supper. Instead, she would eat bread, cheese and tomatoes from the starter pack of supplies provided with the cottage, then, with her iPod and a book for company, she would go early to bed. Tomorrow, as Scarlett O'Hara said, was another day.
Isobel lingered on the veranda as lights came on in the boats far below, and in the houses climbing the slopes above them. Music and cooking smells came drifting up on the night air as she leaned back in her chair to watch the stars appearing like diamonds strung across the dark velvet sky. Contrary to Joanna's worried forecast, she felt peaceful rather than lonely. For the first time in weeks she was free of the dark cloud she had been unable to shake off, no matter how hard she worked. And there had to be something really special in the air here, because she felt sleepy, even this early. It would be no hardship to go to bed.
She woke early next morning, triumphant to find she'd not only fallen asleep easily, but passed the entire night without a bad dream to jolt her awake in the small hours.
After breakfast Isobel dressed in jeans and T-shirt over a pink bikini, pulled her hair through the back of a blue baseball cap and set out in the cool morning air to find her way back down to the harbour. She strolled past the boats on the waterfront and then turned up towards the town square, returning friendly smiles from ladies in black and from old men already seated outside their doors. She found a little kiosk-type corner shop already open and bought postcards, bread, mineral water and luscious grapes, then retraced her route back to the cottage. Finally, armed with sunglasses and a few basic necessities in her backpack, Isobel set off on the path recommended by Alex Nicolaides.
He was right. It was steep enough to make the descent downright scary in places. But the beach, deserted and utterly beautiful, was well worth the effort when she finally arrived, panting, on the bone-white shingle edging the crescent of sand. Isobel gazed, entranced, itching for paint to capture the way the sea shaded in jewel colours from pale peridot-green, through aquamarine and turquoise into a deep celestial blue. Greenery grew surprisingly close to the water's edge, with tamarisk and something she thought might be juniper among the pines and aromatic maquis-type vegetation. She sighed, frustrated, as a salt breeze rustled the pines. The scene cried out for watercolour. But getting the necessary materials down that path would be tricky. For now she would settle for just sketching it. Isobel chose the nearest rock formation as a base, took off her jeans and shirt, slathered herself in sun-cream, then pulled the peak of her cap down low, settled herself on a towel with her backpack to cushion her against the rock and began to draw.
No one climbed down the path to join her, but after an hour or so of perfect peace, small boats began discharging passengers at intervals and soon there were people sunbathing and picnicking, and children playing ball, shrieking joyfully as they ran in and out of the sea. So much for peace and quiet. Smiling philosophically, Isobel braced herself for the climb up the cliff to go in search of an early lunch. But while she gathered up her belongings she spotted a gap in the rocks on the far side of the beach and couldn't resist strolling over to investigate. On closer inspection, the fissure was very narrow and dark with overhanging shrubbery. But, by taking off her backpack and hugging it to her chest, she could just manage to squeeze along the rocky passage, which narrowed so sharply at one point Isobel almost gave up. But when the passage widened again curiosity propelled her forward, her sneakers slipping slightly on the wet rock as she emerged at last into a much smaller cove sheltered by high, steep cliffs. With not a soul in sight.
Isobel surveyed her deserted paradise in delight. She would make do with grapes and water for lunch, right here. She stripped down to her bikini again and settled under the overhang of a rock formation shaped so much like a rampant lion she promised herself to sketch it later. She drank some water, nibbled on her grapes, then took off her cap and moved further into the shade of the rock to catnap.
But her newfound peace was soon shattered by the roar of some kind of engine. Basic survival instinct sent Isobel scrambling up on to the steep rock as a man on a Jet Ski shot straight towards her. At the very last minute he veered away, laughing his head off as he went speeding out to sea again. Heart hammering, Isobel cursed the idiot volubly, so furious she lost her footing as she turned to jump down and flailed wildly to avoid falling, her scream cut off as her head met rock with a sickening crack that turned the world black.
Lukas Andreadis was looking forward to a swim followed by a good dinner and an entire evening with no discussion of takeovers, air travel, shipping, or any other form of transport. After working towards it all his adult life, he would celebrate his triumphant defeat of Melina Andreadis alone, in the place he loved best. He began to relax as the helicopter flew over familiar blue waters. When the island finally came into view his spirits rose as usual at the mere sight of Chyros, which stood for peace and privacy in a life which held precious little of either back in Athens. But, as he took the helicopter low on its descent to the villa, Luke cursed in angry frustration. A naked female was sunbathing on his private beach. Again. He set the machine down on the helipad at the back of the house, switched off the engine and jumped out, crouching low until he was free of the rotating blades. He hurried past the pool to make for the trees lining the cliff edge, and scowled down at the figure lying motionless far below. Why, in the name of all the gods, couldn't they leave him alone? He turned as his faithful Spiro came rushing to greet him, and exchanged affectionate greetings before pointing down at the beach. 'Someone down in the cove again. Where the devil is Milos?' 'He needed time off. Shall I take the boat?' 'No; leave it to me.' Luke collected his bags and strode past the palms and oleanders in the lush garden. Instead of going through his usual ritual of breathing in the peace and welcome of his retreat, he raced up the curving staircase, threw off his clothes, and pulled on shorts and T-shirt, thrust bare feet into deck shoes, smiling in reassurance at Spiro as the man began to unpack. 'Don't worry, I won't hurt the woman.'
'I know that!' retorted the man, with the familiarity of one who'd known—and loved—his employer from birth. 'Wear your dark glasses—and don't drive too fast.'
Luke Andreadis collected two sets of keys, stopped in the kitchen for an affectionate greeting with Eleni, Spiro's wife, then checked again from the cliff edge, his face grim when he saw the prone figure still frying down on the beach. The stupid woman was risking a bad case of sunstroke at the very least—but not for long.
He ran back through the garden, vaulted into the jeep parked behind the villa and drove up the cypress-lined drive and out on to the road, taking the twists and turns of the tortuous descent at a speed which would have given Spiro a heart attack. Forced to slow down as he reached the town, Luke drove more circumspectly through the main square and on past the tavernas and coffee shops on the waterfront, then parked well out of sight at his secluded private mooring at the far end. He leapt onto the deck of the Athena, cast off and switched on the engine and, once clear of the marina, sped across the water past the crowded beach and round the cliffs to his private cove. He moored the boat at a jetty hidden among the rocks, his eyes smouldering. The woman was still there.
'You're trespassing,' he bellowed, storming across the shingle. But as he reached her he realised that the woman was unconscious. Sprawled at an awkward angle, she lay face down and utterly still, a mass of long fair curls streaming over her shoulders. He reached up to turn her face towards him, but dropped his hand when she opened pain-filled blue eyes which darkened in terror at the look of menace on the face close to hers.
'You had a fall. What are you doing here?' he demanded.