MIDWAY through the following week, Ellie told Mr Barry that she had finally made an appointment at the bank.
Ellie smiled, thinking that her elderly employer was be¬coming very absent-minded. 'So that I can apply for a loan to buy this business,' she reminded him gently.
Horace Barry looked dismayed. 'Leave that for a while yet, Ellie,' he urged.
Bewildered by that reaction, Ellie murmured reluctantly, 'I suppose I could cancel the appointment—'
'Yes… yes, much the best thing for now,' he cut in to agree with a pronounced air of relief.
With a muttered reference to some books that required sorting, the older man then took himself off without offering any further explanation. Ellie frowned. Wasn't he quite as eager to retire as he had always said he was? What else could it be? Keen to save on estate agency fees, Horace Barry had given her to understand that if she was able to offer a fan-price by the end of the year, the shop was hers. Ellie told herself not to make mountains out of molehills. It wouldn't hurt her to wait, but she was disappointed. Just then, the challenge of taking on her own business would have been very welcome.
Another two weeks passed by on leaden feet for Ellie. Mr Barry was a quiet man, but he had become exceptionally quiet. Almost evasive with her. Troubled and distracted by that suspicion, Ellie had to glance at the calendar in her room one evening before she belatedly noticed the absence of a certain telling pen-mark. All of a sudden Ellie saw that she had something far more immediate to worry about.
Stress and sleepless nights had probably disrupted her monthly cycle, she told herself in dismay. She was only about a week late. But the more she worried about the possibility of being pregnant, the more likely a development it seemed. She might well have conceived. She was young and healthy and, according to her calculations, the timing of that contra¬ceptive failure could not have been worse.
As Ellie entered the Alexiakis International building for work that same evening, she saw Dio for the first time in almost three weeks. Tall, blue-black hair gleaming under the lights, his bold, bronzed profile commanding, he was striding towards the executive lift, three other men in his wake. Shock made Ellie's stomach flip right over. She came to an invol¬untary halt on legs that felt distinctly wobbly. Her head swam and she gulped in oxygen, feeling perspiration break out on her skin.
'How are you, Ellie?' a deep, dark drawl enquired with leaden casualness.
Blinking furiously, Ellie focused on a pair of polished hand-stitched leather shoes and slowly lifted her head. Her wide, incredulous gaze centred on Dio and stayed there, locked onto him like a guided missile, her heart pounding like crazy. Black fathomless eyes stared down into hers.
'You look like a ghost facing an exorcist,' Dio murmured in flat continuation, looking her over with unashamed and even more inappropriate thoroughness.
Noticing his three former companions holding the lift for his benefit while watching the encounter with the equivalent of dropped jaws, Ellie forced her brain to spring back into gear. 'Go away, for goodness' sake!' she urged, her colour high. 'You're not supposed to know me!'
'Damned if I do and damned if I don't,' Dio rhymed with sardonic amusement. 'Why are women so irrational?'
'Why are men so unbelievably thick?' Ellie breathed, side¬stepping him to hurry on past with a downbent head. Before she had completed that escape, however, she noticed a couple of the other cleaners nearby. Their attention was welded to her with speculative heat. Ellie's heart sank.
When she went down for her break later, she was intensely uncomfortable. If one of her co-workers had challenged her openly about her encounter with Dio, she would have known that nothing suspicious had been detected. But the sudden silence which greeted her appearance, the covert glances and the buzz that broke out when she left again told her other¬wise. And what other reaction could she have expected? she asked herself sickly.
Dio hadn't just given her a fleeting nod or a passing word. In the act of stepping into the lift, Dio had come all the way back across the foyer to acknowledge her and embark on a conversation. What on earth had possessed him? Didn't he appreciate how much he had exposed her to adverse com¬ment?
Meg Bucknall followed her into the service lift. 'I thought I'd better wait and have a word with you in private,' she admitted frankly.
Ellie tried not to stiffen and nodded.
'Ellie, the girls were adding two and two and making four before you even started your shift,' Meg shared ruefully. 'Everyone knows you switched with me that night and then just vanished for most of that week.'
'I didn't think anyone would be that interested.'
'In the normal way of it, they wouldn't have been. But a few of them had already joked about how much you looked like that blonde with Mr Alexiakis in Greece. None of them were suspicious...but him going out of his way to speak to you tonight was strange enough to confirm the wildest ru¬mours.'