Ella laughed with delight as the speedboat bounced across the waves like a dolphin in a playful mood. With sea spray cooling her face and the wind in her hair she suddenly felt ridiculously light hearted. ‘This is fantastic.’ She turned to look at him, wondering what his colleagues would say if they could see him now. The Ice Doctor was no longer in evidence. He looked relaxed, bronzed and every inch the billionaire tycoon.
He may have rejected that lifestyle but, looking at him, no one would have been left in any doubt that he’d been born to it.
As they approached the island the water became shallow and Nikos steered the boat confidently alongside another small jetty.
A man and a woman were waiting hand in hand and the woman stepped forward and spoke in a torrent of Greek, tears in her eyes as she embraced first Nikos and then Ella.
Slightly startled, Ella assumed that this demonstrative exchange was a Greek custom. And then she felt the tightness and warmth of the hug and realised that this embrace had nothing to do with social convention. Drawn into the circle of the woman’s arms, Ella felt that generous, welcoming hug unravel every cautionary layer she’d so carefully wrapped around herself. Without thinking, she found herself relaxing and tightening her arms in response.
The unconditional acceptance brought a lump to her throat and when she was finally released, Ella didn’t trust herself to speak.
When was the last time anyone had hugged her like that?
‘This is my mother,’ Nikos said gruffly, and Ella simply nodded, feeling foolish and yet at the same time comfortable because the woman still had a grip on her hand and that touch felt so natural.
Shyly, Ella greeted Nikos’s father and then looked up in surprise as a horde of children came sprinting towards them.
‘Nieces, nephews, cousins—my family is never-ending,’ Nikos drawled, but she could tell from the sudden softening of his eyes just how much he loved them.
For the next twenty minutes she watched in stunned amazement as he shrugged off his cloak of icy indifference and opened himself up to his family. One by one, he scooped up his little nieces and nephews, while listening indulgently to a tirade of Greek from his father.
He responded with the occasional word, and then turned his attention back to his mother. As he hugged her again, Ella felt the lump in her throat grow larger.
How could she ever have thought him cold?
This man wasn’t cold. He was guarded.
And she knew all about being guarded.
The family swarmed around Ella, asking endless questions, drawing her into their midst, until eventually Nikos took her hand in his and led her towards the house.
‘My family are a little overwhelming.’ There was wry humour in his eyes. ‘I think you can probably understand now why I have my own villa, and why it is an hour from here. I made sure I was far enough away to make it inconvenient to drop in unannounced.’
‘I think they’re wonderful.’
His eyes lingered on her face. ‘So why are you looking sad?’
‘Not sad.’ Just stunned, because she’d seen a different side of him. ‘You have a lovely family. You’re lucky.’ What would it have been like, she wondered, growing up knowing you were that loved?
Nikos looked at her quizzically but, before he could respond, his mother descended on them and drew Ella onto a beautiful terrace that surrounded a breathtakingly beautiful infinity pool.
Unsure what to say, Ella glanced around her, feeling as though she was standing on a movie set. ‘You have a beautiful home.’
‘A beautiful home, yes. We are very fortunate.’ Nikos’s mother slipped her arm through Ella’s. ‘But a house is just a building, isn’t it?’ She glanced around the beautiful terrace, her gaze lingering on the orange trees planted in large terracotta urns and the brightly coloured bougainvillea spilling over whitewashed walls. ‘What makes a house special is the people who live in it. And today I am a happy woman because I have my whole family around me.’
‘I hope you don’t mind me visiting,’ Ella said awkwardly, slightly shocked to see that Nikos’s mother was looking at her with tears in her eyes.
‘Mind? It is because of you we are having this celebration. We had all given up hoping that Nikos would give his heart again. It has been so long.’ She gave a slow shake of her head. ‘The things I have read about him—the way he has lived his life—not good. Understandable, maybe, after everything he suffered, but not good. A Greek man should be settled with a woman. For all his cosmopolitan lifestyle, Nikos is a Greek man. He needs a wife and babies.’