‘Our lives have been very different,’ he said, choosing his words with care. ‘It’s pointless comparing them. You have lived yours and I have lived mine.’

 ‘How has it been different?’ she pressed, leaning forward.


 ‘It just was.’

 ‘But how?’ A troubled look flitted over her face. ‘Christian, we are marrying in five days. I don’t want to marry a stranger.’

 He reached for his wine and took a swallow. ‘You, agapi mou, come from a world of glamour and money. You have no comprehension what it was like for us. We were so poor that for a whole year I went without shoelaces—trivial in the scheme of things but imagine it for a minute. I arrived at university with only one change of clothes. I was the child people like you pretended not to see.’

 Alessandra was like one of those mythical creatures he had watched swish past this very taverna’s front while he’d swept the floor. Unobtainable. Better than him. Better than he could ever be no matter how much money was held in his bank account.

 Angry colour stained her cheeks, and she opened her mouth, surely to argue with him, before she visibly controlled herself. The outrage that had sparked in her eyes softened. ‘Maybe you’re right that I can’t understand what your childhood was like. But I would like to try.’

 He didn’t want her to understand. Christian wanted her to remain untouched by the deprivation and misery that had sucked his mother down a black pit, turning her into a bitter woman who, even if presented with a glass three-quarters full would still regard it as being a quarter empty. All the riches and success in the world hadn’t been enough to earn his mother’s love.

 He had no memory of the happy, vibrant woman Mikolaj assured him she had once been. Love that had turned sour had soured her, marking her with such blackness that nothing he’d done had been enough to turn it into a lighter shade of grey.

 He didn’t want that for Alessandra. Never for her.

 Alessandra needed protection from it before it infected her too.

 ‘We’ve had a good response from all the wedding invitations,’ he said, deliberately and overtly changing the subject.

 One hundred and fifty invites had been couriered across the world. It seemed even heads of state could drop commitments when it suited them and, with all the hype already surrounding their ‘whirlwind courtship,’ as the press was dubbing it, their wedding was shaping up to rival Rocco and Olivia’s as Wedding of the Century. One of the British glossies had offered one million pounds for exclusive rights. They had, politely, ignored the offer. He liked that Alessandra hadn’t been tempted to accept, one of the many ways she differed from all the other women he’d been with.

 But wasn’t that the reason he’d been with those women? Because he could see the pound signs ringing in their eyes and so knew there was absolutely no danger they could ever develop anything like a healthy—or unhealthy, depending on your point of view—attachment to him? He hadn’t needed to protect those women from himself.

 Her eyes sparked again before she sank back into her seat, gazing at him with a thoughtful expression.

 ‘All but a handful have replied and all in the affirmative,’ he added.

 After too long a beat, she asked, ‘What about Rocco? Has he replied?’

 It had been at Christian’s insistence that her brother had been invited. Left to Alessandra, he would have been ignored, something he knew she didn’t mean, her pride and anger doing the talking for her. It would break her heart to walk up the aisle of the chapel in the grounds of the hotel without her brother on her arm.

 ‘No,’ he admitted reluctantly. ‘He hasn’t replied yet.’ And neither had Rocco responded to the dozen emails and text messages he’d sent to him, entreating him not to abandon his sister. Rocco hadn’t replied to a single one of them. He’d ignored all the messages and calls from Stefan and Zayed too.

 The Columbia Four had been broken, just as he’d known they would be.

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