‘Show me what?’

 He straightened his shirt, then turned back to face her. ‘I’ll take you to meet her. You can see for yourself why I don’t want my mother anywhere near our wedding.’


 * * *

 The car came to a stop outside an immaculate two-storey house in a quiet Athenian suburb.

 No sooner had the engine been turned off than Christian got out, not bothering to wait for the driver to open the door for him.

 The entire drive had been conducted in silence, Christian sitting ramrod-straight, only the whiteness of his knuckles betraying what lay beneath his skin.

 It was a demeanour Alessandra had never seen from him before. It unnerved her.

 That he’d cancelled his first appointment of the day had unnerved her even more; that, and the grim way he’d said, ‘Let’s get it over with.’

 It was with a deep sense of dread that she followed him out of the car and up the small driveway.

 A tall, thin woman with short white hair appeared at the door, lines all over her weathered face, her thin lips clamped together in an obvious display of disapproval.

 Wordlessly, she turned on her heel and walked back inside, leaving the door open for them to follow.

 The house itself was pristine, a strong smell of bleach pervading the air.

 There was nothing homely about it. What could have been a beautiful home was nothing but a carcass, sanitised functionality at its best.

 If Elena Markos could speak English, she made a good show of hiding it. She made no show of hiding her disdain for Alessandra, refusing her hand when Christian introduced them, and looking through her when Alessandra said, ‘Hárika ya tin gnorimía,’— ‘pleased to meet you’—a phrase she’d practised with the girl who’d brought breakfast to her suite that morning after Christian had grudgingly agreed to bring her here.

 They gathered together in the immaculate kitchen, where the stench of bleach was even stronger. No refreshments were offered.

 Alessandra might as well have been invisible. All of Elena’s attention was on her son. She was speaking harshly to him in quick-fire Greek, whatever she said enough to make the pulse in his jawline throb. When he replied, his answers were short but measured. At one point he seemed to be the one doing the talking rather than the listening, his words making Elena dart her blue eyes to the stranger in the midst, a sneer forming on her face.

 In all her twenty-five years, Alessandra had never sat in such a poisonous atmosphere as this, or felt as unwelcome.

 There was something almost unhinged in Elena Markos’s demeanour. Her eyes were the same blue as Christian’s but were like a frozen winter morning without an ounce of her son’s warmth.

 Simply imagining being raised by this woman made her skin feel as icy as Elena’s eyes. But Christian couldn’t leave it to imaginings. He’d lived it, every cold, emotionless second.

 Was it any wonder Christian eschewed any form of emotional entanglement when this was what he’d grown up with?

 Her mind flitted back to their many conversations at Mikolaj’s taverna. She’d said the name Markos stood for guts and determination but had not appreciated then exactly how great his determination must have been, not just to drag himself and his mother out of poverty but to keep his humanity.

 Mikolaj. She recalled the obvious affection between the two men. Surely it was from this man Christian had learned to form real human bonds? It soothed her to know he hadn’t been completely alone in his childhood.

 So much for the couple of hours Alessandra had anticipated spending there. After twenty minutes, Christian took her hand and said, ‘We’re leaving.’

 ‘Already?’

 ‘Now.’

 Elena glared at them, her eyes like lasers.

 When they reached the door to leave she gave what Alessandra assumed was supposed to be a laugh.

 ‘Fool girl,’ she said, her accent thick. ‘Marry fools. He kill you heart.’

 Alarmed and not a little scared, Alessandra nodded weakly, squeezing Christian’s hand so tightly her blood screamed for circulation.

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