‘I didn’t mean to imply that you were spoilt. I appreciate the Mondelli name has been a mixed blessing for you.’
‘And the Markos name?’ she said, glad to be able to turn the conversation onto him. ‘Has that been a mixed blessing for you?’
He raised a shoulder. ‘The Markos name is nothing special. It doesn’t stand for anything.’
‘Yes, it does. It stands for hard work, determination and guts.’
‘Rocco told me you got into Columbia on a scholarship. That alone tells me how hard you’ve had to work to get where you are.’
‘We all have our crosses to bear, whatever background we’re born into,’ he said quietly. He tapped on the dividing window. Amidst a hail of tooting horns, the car came to a stop. ‘We will walk from here.’
* * *
The taverna was exactly what Alessandra had been hoping for. Set off the beaten track, its marble tables with checked paper table-cloths were crammed inside and out, every one of them taken. Inside, a man played an accordion, the music only just audible above the raucous noise of the patrons, while pictures of celebrities lined the walls in haphazard fashion above empty bottles of wine with melted candles rammed into them.
Just as she was thinking they would never get a table, a balding man of about sixty wearing a white apron stretched around possibly the largest pot belly she’d ever seen ambled over to them, his arms outstretched. In a flurry of Greek, he pulled Christian into a tight embrace, slapping kisses on his cheeks, all of which Christian returned before stepping back and putting an arm around Alessandra’s waist.
‘Mikolaj—Alessandra,’ he said, before adding, ‘Mikolaj doesn’t speak any English or Italian, agapi mou.’
Her offered hand was ignored as she was wrenched from Christian’s hold and yanked into Mikolaj’s embrace, which finished with an affectionate ruffle of her hair, much as if she were a child.
A small table materialised for them against the far wall. Mikolaj pulled the chair back for her, fussing over her until he was certain she was sitting comfortably—although how comfortable anyone could be when crammed like a sardine was debatable. He plonked a laminated menu in front of her then ruffled her hair again for good measure before disappearing into the throng.
Christian took the seat opposite. The table was so small his long legs brushed against hers. She waited for him to move them but realised there was literally nowhere else for them to go unless he twisted to the side and tripped up all the waiting staff.
She craned her neck around, trying to ignore the heat brushing up her legs. ‘This place is wonderful.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘You like it?’
She nodded. ‘This is exactly how I imagined a Greek restaurant to be. You can feel the energy—you don’t get that in high-class restaurants.’
His eyes crinkled. Seeing it made her realise how tense he’d been up to that point. Although unfailingly polite, a barrier had been put up. Was it being here, in his home city, that had caused its construction? Or had she been so wrapped up in her own problems that she hadn’t fully appreciated the effect their situation was having on him? Or a combination of both?
‘The best thing about this place apart from the food?’ he said. ‘It’s tourist-proof—all the people in here are locals.’
‘Don’t tell me you own it?’
‘No. This is all Mikolaj’s.’
‘Is it always this busy?’ It was a Monday evening, hardly the busiest night of the dining week.
Alessandra looked down at the menu. It was all in Greek.
‘I can recommend the stiffado,’ Christian said. ‘Beef stewed in a wine and tomato sauce. The stuffed courgettes are good too.’
‘Can I have both?’
He laughed. ‘You can have whatever you like. It’s all good.’
‘Have you eaten everything on the menu?’
‘A dozen times each.’
‘No wonder Mikolaj treated you like his long-lost son.’