Lizzie loved her nephews. She had been present at their birth, anxious for her young sister, and grieving for the fact that Ruby was having to go through her pain without their parents and without the man who had fathered her children. But when the twins had been born and she had held them all the sad aspects of their birth had been forgotten in the rush of love and joy she had felt.
They had reached the villa now, and even though she had seen it before, and knew what to expect, Lizzie was still filled with admiration and awe as she gazed at its perfect proportions, outlined against the bright blue sky.
The warm cream colour of the villa toned perfectly with the aged darker colour of the marble columns supporting the front portico and with the soft grey-white of the shutters at the windows. The gravel on which the car was resting exactly matched the colour of the marble columns, and the green of the lawns highlighted the darker green of the Cyprus trees lining the straight driveway. The whole scene in front of them was one of visual harmony.
There was no other car parked outside—which Lizzie presumed meant that the man Ilios had come here to see had not as yet arrived.
‘We’re earlier than I expected, so I’ll show you the inside before Andreas arrives,’ Ilios announced as he opened the car door for Lizzie and waited for her to get out.
They walked to the entrance side by side. Side by side but feet apart, Lizzie thought sadly as she waited for Ilios to unlock the magnificent double doors.
Above them, where in Italy there would have been the family arms and motto, was an image of a small sailing ship.
‘Alexandros Manos earned his fortune as a maritime trader,’ Ilios informed her, following her gaze. ‘It was his fleet that paid for this land and for the villa.’
Ilios had opened the door, and was stepping back so that Lizzie could precede him inside the villa.
The first thing she noticed was the smell of fresh paint, unmistakable and instantly recognizable. Her educated nose told her that the smell came from a traditional lime-based paint rather than a modern one.
With the shutters closed the interior was in darkness—until Ilios switched on the lights, causing Lizzie to gasp in astonished delight as she spun round, studying the frescoes that ran the whole way round the double-height central room.
She had seen frescoes before, of course, many of them. But none quite like these.
‘Are they scenes from the Odyssey?’ she asked Ilios uncertainly after she had studied them.
‘Yes,’ Ilios confirmed. ‘Only Odysseus bears a striking resemblance to Alexandros Manos. To have oneself depicted as the hero of the Odyssey was, of course, a conceit not uncommon at the time. I’ve had the frescoes repainted because of the damage they’ve suffered over the centuries. Luckily we had some sketches of the original scenes to work with. The work still isn’t finished yet,’ Ilios added, indicating the final panel of the fresco, where a woman was bending over a loom, unpicking a thread, with the outline of a large dog at her feet.
The fresco was badly damaged, with paint peeling from it and marks across it that looked as though someone had scored the panel angrily with something sharp. Even so it was still possible to see what the panel was meant to represent.
‘Penelope? The faithful wife?’ Lizzie guessed, remembering the legend of how Odysseus’s wife Penelope had held off the suitors who wanted to marry her and take possession of Odysseus’s kingdom by saying she would only accept one of them when she had finished her tapestry, and then unpicking it every night in secret so that it would never be finished, so sure had she been that her husband would eventually return.
Ilios’s terse, ‘Yes’, told Lizzie that he didn’t want to discuss the subject of the panel, so she turned instead to follow him into one of the smaller rooms.