‘Exactly.’ Ella tucked her own legs under her on the seat. ‘Marriage first, babies second. We’ve done it the wrong way round, but that isn’t why I’m not going to marry you. I’m refusing to marry you because I don’t really know you. The man I was involved with wasn’t a billionaire with a tragedy in his past. It’s as if you are someone completely different.’
He nursed his coffee, his gaze disturbingly intense. ‘I am the same man you gave yourself to every night for six months.’
‘No. You keep everything to yourself, Nikos! I can’t marry someone like that.’
‘The money makes no difference to our relationship.’
‘Then why didn’t you tell me about it? Did you think I was some greedy gold-digger?’
‘Money has an unpredictable effect on people.’ He rose to his feet, his voice harsh. ‘You’ve read stories about people who win the lottery and then their lives fall apart. Money changes people. Believe me, I know.’
‘Women chase you for your money?’ She looked away to hide what she was feeling. Of course they did. A man like him would have been chased by women all his life. And not only because of his wealth. ‘Why didn’t you tell me? Every night you stayed in my tiny room in the nurses’ home. We spent six months wrapped round each other in a single bed. At the time I assumed it was just about convenience, but now I’m guessing it was because you didn’t want me to see your home.’
He didn’t answer immediately. ‘What we shared was beautifully uncomplicated. I liked that.’
‘It was dishonest.’
‘No.’ He turned then, his mouth a grim line in his handsome face. ‘On the contrary, what I shared with you is probably the only totally honest relationship I’ve ever had in my life. It was just the two of us. Man and woman.’
Ella found it was hard to breathe.
She didn’t want to remember how close they’d been.
‘So why didn’t you tell me about your past, Nikos?’ She watched the ripple of tension spread across his bare shoulders, all the more visible because he was naked from the waist up.
‘Because the past isn’t relevant.’
‘Of course it is. But you didn’t trust me enough to talk to me about it, and that’s why I can’t marry you. By all means be scarily detached in the resuscitation room—I understand that, I really do. But don’t do the same thing in a relationship.’ She uncurled her legs and tried to stand up, but his hand curled over her shoulder.
‘Theos mou, you will hear me out.’ His tone was civilised and restrained, but his eyes glinted hard. ‘You can either sit there and listen or I’ll carry you back to that space laughingly called a bedroom and find other ways to make you pay attention. Your choice.’
‘Why don’t you try it?’ She placed her hands flat on the wooden seat. ‘With luck you might bang that arrogant head of yours.’
He gave a slow smile, impossibly sure of himself. ‘I like the passionate side of you. It’s the passionate side of your nature that makes our relationship so exciting.’
Ella bit her lip. ‘Were you happily married?’
He drained his coffee and took his time answering. ‘What difference does it make?’
‘I don’t know.’ She spread her hands helplessly, wondering how to get through to him. ‘I suppose I’m just trying to understand something about you.’
‘We were both too young,’ he said finally, and she sighed.
‘What’s that supposed to mean? Crazy in love “too young”, or stupid “too young”?’
‘I was far too idealistic. I wanted to be a doctor, she thought she was marrying a tycoon who would take over the Mariakos family empire.’
‘What does the empire consist of? The headline in the magazine mentioned hotels.’
‘Hotels, leisure, tourism…’ He shrugged. ‘Mariakos Industries has diversified over the decades. It is the secret to staying successful in a turbulent economic climate.’
‘And you didn’t want to be part of that? You didn’t want to be involved?’
‘It was impossible to grow up in my family and not be involved. As children we were all involved. We virtually lived at the Mariakos Athens and our summers were spent on our island, off the mainland. By the time I was eighteen I knew how to run a hotel and read a balance sheet.’