Ilios frowned. When and how had he decided, without knowing more about her, that Lizzie Wareham had strength? Strength was something he admired and respected, after all. Especially when that strength was hardwon.
‘No, of course I don’t,’ Lizzie told Ilios fiercely, immediately tormented by the horrific images his callous words had conjured up. ‘I just don’t understand why you should want to marry me.’
It was the wrong thing to have said.
‘I don’t,’ Ilios assured her, and the look he gave her sliced her pride to the bone. ‘It is my lawyers who believe that the best way for me to protect what is rightfully mine from my cousin’s greedy machinations is for me to marry. Tino needs money. He thinks he can blackmail me into giving him that money by threatening to challenge my right of inheritance under our grandfather’s will. He knows that I will never give up what is in effect a sacred charge on me, a duty to both the history of our name and its future, so he thinks I will give in to him. But I shall not. He claims that the fact that I am known to have sworn never to marry and do not have a wife means I have broken an unwritten article of faith—namely that Villa Manos must be passed down through the male line of our family. Villa Manos and its lands are a sacred trust. They have been in our family for over five hundred years. They are the essence of what we are. Manos blood, my father’s blood, was sacrificed for them. There is nothing I will not do to hold my duty and to meet it. Nothing!’
His fury, and the pride that went with it, filled the air around her so that she could almost feel and taste them, Lizzie recognized.
‘Tino believes that he has backed me into a corner,’ he continued angrily. ‘That I will be prepared to buy him off in order to keep Villa Manos. My solicitors advise me that the best and only guaranteed way to block Tino’s plans is for me to marry. After all, with blackmail one payment is never the end, it is merely the beginning. If I were to give in to him now—which I have no intention of doing—Tino would think that he has me in his power.’
Privately Lizzie found it impossible to imagine that anyone, male or female, would be foolish enough to think they could control a man like Ilios Manos.
‘Why don’t you simply find someone you genuinely want to marry?’ she suggested. ‘After all, a man with your—’
‘With my what?’ Ilios stopped her. ‘With my wealth? That is exactly why I am not married and why I never intend to marry. Only a fool voluntarily puts himself in a position where a woman can enjoy a rich man’s money both in marriage and then out of it, after they both discover that they no longer want one another. The curse of wealth is that it has the same attraction for sharks as fresh blood. My marriage to you will be different. You will already have been paid to wear my name and my ring. My cousin does not have the temperament for a long fight. Once he sees that I am married he will lose interest and the marriage can be annulled.’
Lizzie shivered as she heard the implacable merciless coldness in Ilios’s voice. It reminded her all too well of what the reality of her situation was.
Once, before their parents’ death, she might have been an impulsive eager young woman who believed that one day the sensuality of her nature would find joyous fulfilment with a man who was her soul mate. But that had been a long time ago. Since then she had believed that sensuality and its satisfaction were things she had put to one side without regret. Now, though—albeit against her will—she suspected that Ilios Manos had reignited her female desire. That made her vulnerable to him in a way that could not be countenanced.
For her own sake she should protect herself by returning to England and never thinking about him or seeing him again. For her own sake. But what about her family? For them, for their sake to protect them, she needed to stay here and accept the terms that Ilios was forcing on her. How could she possibly put herself first?