‘I’m fine, honestly.’ Ella added her reassurance to that of the doctor, hoping that both he and Nikos would leave her alone. ‘I’m just tired. I’m sorry to have worried everyone. I’ll have a sleep and I’ll be OK tomorrow.’
She really, really needed to be by herself.
But Nikos showed no signs of leaving. He spoke to his colleague and then asked one of the staff to show him out while he returned to Ella’s bedside.
‘You didn’t need to call the doctor,’ she murmured, closing her eyes and curling into a ball.
‘Yes, I did. How did you think I felt when I found you in a heap on the floor?’
‘Stop this. Ella—look at me.’ His voice was infinitely gentle and she felt tears scald her eyelids.
‘I just want to be on my own for a bit.’ She kept her eyes tightly shut and then felt his hand slide through her hair, pushing it away from her face.
‘I know you feel bad,’ he said softly. ‘I understand that. What I don’t understand is why. And you’re going to tell me.’
‘Tell me what has upset you so much and we will deal with it.’ His fingers gently massaged her forehead. ‘I will do whatever it takes to make it better, you have my promise.’
His strength and kindness tipped her over the edge and a tear escaped from underneath her closed lids. ‘This isn’t something you can fix, Nikos. It isn’t a noise in the dark, or a spider.’
He reached for something. ‘You were holding this when I found you. It is a photograph of three people. A man, a woman and a little girl.’ The hand that had been massaging her forehead gently wiped the tears from her cheek. ‘Tell me who they are. I want to know why this picture has upset you so much.’
Ella lay for a moment feeling as vulnerable now as she had when she’d been eight years old.
She was painfully conscious of Nikos, his fingers moving gently over her head, infinitely patient as he waited.
‘Tell me who is in the photograph and why seeing it upsets you. Is it you? Are you the little girl?’
The question destroyed all the barriers she’d erected around herself and she started to cry.
She heard Nikos say something in Greek, heard his stunned tone, and then the bed dipped under his weight and he was on the mattress beside her, pulling her into his arms.
‘You accuse me of having secrets,’ he muttered, ‘but you are the one with the secrets, I think.’ He didn’t try and stop her crying, just held her tightly until eventually she was drained and exhausted with nothing left inside her except a feeling of emptiness and a pounding headache.
She lay limp against him, her head cradled against the protective strength of his body. ‘I’m not the little girl in the photo,’ she croaked. ‘But I wanted to be. That’s my dad and his wife. And the child is his daughter. His other daughter. She’s the same age as me. They lived in this house.’
Nikos didn’t loosen his hold. ‘Your father remarried after your parents separated?’
‘No. My father already had a family when he met my mother, but he didn’t tell her. They had an affair. Mum became pregnant with me. For eight years he managed to run two families within ten miles of each other and no one ever suspected.’ She sniffed and rubbed her palm over her wet cheeks. ‘Do you have a tissue?’
He shifted slightly, yanked one from the box by the bed and wiped her face carefully. ‘But he couldn’t marry her because he was already married.
‘I don’t think he ever had any intention of marrying her. It was just an affair that went wrong. When he discovered Mum was pregnant, he set her up in a flat. He spent about half the week with us—the rest of the time Mum thought he was working. She trusted him. She didn’t have any reason to doubt him. She thought he was wary of marriage. It didn’t occur to her that he was already married.’
‘He was spending the other half of the week with his wife?’
Ella took the tissue from him and blew her nose. ‘I think that was what upset Mum the most when it all came out was that he couldn’t even pretend that his marriage was empty and loveless. His daughter was exactly the same age as me. Draw your own conclusions.’
Nikos let out a slow breath. ‘So how and when did you eventually find out the truth?’
‘The cruellest way possible.’ Ella scrunched the tissue into a ball and stared up at the ceiling. ‘I was eight years old and playing in a netball match against another school. Suddenly, there was my Dad, watching. Only he wasn’t watching me. He was watching a girl playing for the other side. He wouldn’t have known I was going to be there because our school only stepped in at the last minute to replace the team that they’d been scheduled to play. I saw him standing there and then I heard the girl say, “That’s my daddy,” and at half-time she went bounding over to him and hugged him. I remember staring at them and then I ran over and said, “Why are you hugging my daddy?” and after that it’s all a bit of a blur. I was…hysterical. They called my mum and it all unravelled from there.’