Because this house, with its air of pampered luxury, reminded her of man’s weakness.
She opened the car door, drawn to the house by a masochistic drive that she didn’t understand. Part of her wanted to tell him that she just couldn’t live here but another part of her was dying to look inside. How many hours had she spent wondering? Picturing what it was like.
She wanted to see. She wanted to stop imagining and know.
‘Do they let you in wearing jeans?’ She made the joke to divert attention from her reaction but she knew from his keen gaze that it hadn’t worked.
He knew something was wrong.
Wishing he wasn’t so astute, she rubbed her hands over her jeans. ‘Perhaps I’ll go shopping.’
‘I will take you shopping. It will fit nicely with a commitment I have in London. In the meantime, I’ll show you around.’
Rather than using the front door, Nikos guided her round to the back of the house, which faced the beach. Taking her hand firmly in his, he led her up the steps that led to the terrace.
Ella stood for a moment, almost expecting to feel a hand on her shoulder removing her for being an impostor.
From this privileged position on the cool wooden deck she had a view over the whole beach and she watched the families crowded together, playing on the sand.
‘Tell me what you’re thinking.’ His voice was soft and Ella kept her eyes on the beach because a tiny part of her wanted to tell him everything.
But that tiny part was firmly embedded under the barriers she’d erected to keep everyone away from her vulnerabilities. ‘I sat and dug in that very same spot, with Helen. We were eight years old.’
And she hadn’t been able to stop crying.
Her view of the world had been damaged forever.
Relationships were as fragile as sandcastles, she thought bleakly, staring at a child on the beach piling sand into a bucket and then tipping it out. Full of hope and expectations, you built something. And it took so little to knock it down.
‘You lived here as a child?’
‘No. I lived ten miles down the road.’ In a cramped one-bedroom flat that had been as different from this house as Africa was from Antarctica.
‘Do your parents still live locally? You’ve never talked about them.’
‘You never asked. Talking wasn’t part of our relationship, was it?’
‘I’m asking now.’
She gave the answer she always gave. The answer she’d memorised decades before. ‘My parents separated when I was young. Dad went abroad. We’re not in touch any more. Then my Mum died and I went and lived with Helen. I was lucky. They took me in.’ She was quite proud of the fact that she’d managed to make her childhood sound like something ordinary. Something that a million children might have experienced. Sure that she had a tight grip on her emotions, she was even confident enough to elaborate. ‘Helen used to build these fantastic castles. Moats, drawbridges, battlements—and then she’d work out ways that the prince was going to arrive and take her away to happy-ever-after land.’ The breeze was picking up and Ella rubbed her bare arms gently.
‘And you?’ He pulled her against him, warming her. ‘What was your prince going to do?’
‘I was much too realistic to think about princes.’ She felt the strength of him and the temptation to cling was so great that she had to force herself to pull away. Strolling forward to the edge of the terrace, she felt her knees shake. ‘I ought to unpack and get changed for work. Can I…?’ Her voice cracked. ‘Would you mind if I found my own way around?’ It would be easier that way. She wasn’t sure she could trust her reactions and at least this way she knew there wouldn’t be any witnesses.
He was frowning slightly, but he didn’t argue. ‘Go ahead. Take a shower and change and I’ll meet you out here for something to eat when you’re ready.’
Ella walked slowly towards the house feeling the same way she’d felt when she’d been eight years old.
Hands clammy, heart out of control, she paused in the doorway and then inhaled deeply and stepped into her past.
Nikos stood on the terrace with his back to the beach, his fingers tapping an impatient rhythm on his thigh as he watched her enter the house.
Why did she want to look around the house on her own?
Was she insecure about the size of it?