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Authors: Sara Craven

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women, #General

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BOOK: The Highest Stakes of All
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After that there was silence between them until they reached the villa, where Andonis met them with an appalled look at the small crying burden in his employer’s arms, then burst into a flood of agitated Greek.

Vassos listened, his head bent, his mouth hardening.

He turned to Joanna. ‘Soula may have left Pellas after all,’ he said harshly. ‘The
I use for night fishing has also disappeared, and so, it seems, has Yanni, one of the security men.’ He paused. ‘Did you ever see them together?’

Joanna bit her lip. ‘No, but she was often missing in the afternoons.’

He said something under his breath. ‘Then Hara will tend the child until Stavros returns with the launch and she can be taken to hospital.’ His tone was brusque. ‘There is nothing more for you to do.’

Joanna faced him, chin lifted defiantly. ‘On the contrary,
she said crisply. ‘I shall go to the hospital with her. She’s frightened and in pain, and she needs one familiar face around. Someone who actually cares about her.’ She paused. ‘And—in case you’ve forgotten—her name is Eleni.’

‘This is not your concern—’ he began, but she interrupted him fiercely.

‘So you’ve told me, but I’ve just made it so. I’m going to my room to put on some proper clothes, so bring her there to me, please.’

She walked past Andonis, who looked as if he’d been poleaxed, and made for the stairs, aware that Vassos was staring after her.

In her room, she dragged off his shirt, wrenching open the buttons with such force that she sent several of them skittering across the floor.

‘To hell with it,’ she muttered, sending the shirt to join them. ‘He’ll have a thousand others to take its place.’

She removed her shorts, replacing them with a green dress, full-skirted and short-sleeved, grabbed at random from the wardrobe.

She was dragging a comb through her hair when Vassos knocked abruptly and entered with Eleni, crying loudly and fretfully now in his arms, and an anxious Hara close behind.

‘Stavros has been contacted by radio,’ he said. ‘He will be here very soon.’ He paused. ‘The
has been seen drifting, perhaps with engine trouble, by some fishermen.’

She said stonily, ‘I wouldn’t care if it had blown up.’ She sat down on the chair by the window. ‘Give Eleni to me, please.’

He said more gently, ‘Let Hara take her, Joanna

‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘I began this. So I’ll look after her while she’s here. After all, you can’t pretend that anyone here wants her, not when you all did your best to keep us apart.’ She took the sobbing child gently on her lap, looking down at the creased and dirty pink dress.

‘And, whatever you decide for her,
, she’ll need new clothes,’ she added. ‘Normal things, too. Not more of these awful party frocks that Soula picked for her. Because her life’s going to be no party.’

‘Joanna.’ His voice was quiet. ‘Let us talk about this.’

‘And say what? That I shouldn’t have interfered? I think it’s already been said.’

She bent her head. ‘And I suppose I have to agree with you. If I hadn’t—intervened as I did, Soula would never have dared to go off like this and Eleni wouldn’t have been put in danger.’ She paused. ‘Also you wouldn’t have been forced to remember your—your marriage and its unhappiness. Is that what you want to hear?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘But why should you believe me?’ He turned and left the room, signalling to Hara to accompany him.

Joanna leaned back, careful not to jolt Eleni’s injured arm. She felt very tired suddenly, with the beginnings of a headache. But that was nothing compared with the desolation inside her.

I wanted to help, she thought wretchedly, but instead I’ve simply made everything much worse. Because this accident will have to be explained somehow, and that will trigger all the problems that Vassos most wants to avoid.

And now, she realised, to add to her feelings of guilt, the child’s warm body was curling trustingly into hers, and her sobs were beginning to subside a little.

‘Try and sleep, darling,’ Joanna said softly as Eleni’s thumb stole to her mouth and her eyelids drooped. ‘The doctor will stop your poor arm aching very soon.’ And quietly she began to sing, ‘"There were ten green bottles, hanging on the wall …"’

She was over halfway through the song, deliberately allowing her voice to sink lower, watching Eleni’s small face relax and her breathing steady and deepen, when she felt her own skin begin to tingle as if she was being watched. Knowing that there was only one person in the world who could trigger that particular reaction.

But when, at last, she ventured to glance towards the doorway it was empty. I must have been imagining things, she told herself with an inward sigh. Or just indulging in some wishful thinking.

And her song was finished, and she was sitting cradling the sleeping child, prey to her unhappy thoughts, well before Hara came to tell her that Stavros and the launch had returned and it was time to go.

The hospital on Thaliki might not be large, but Joanna saw at once that it was scrupulously clean and efficiently run, as Vassos had said.

Dr Deroulos, who came to take charge of Eleni, was a short man, his hair and beard grizzled, his eyes calm and kind, as Joanna haltingly explained there had been an accident with a tricycle.

‘These things happen with small children,’ was his comment. He gave Joanna a thoughtful look. ‘And you,
Who are you?’

She said quietly, ‘I’m Eleni’s temporary nanny,’ and did not look at Vassos, standing beside her like a statue.

Eleni was borne away to have her arm set and plastered, and to be checked for any signs of concussion after the bump on her head.

Joanna and Vassos retired to a small, square waiting room, silently taking chairs on its opposite sides. After a while, Joanna ventured to steal a look at him from under her lashes, and saw that his face was set like stone, and that he was staring into space with eyes that seemed to see nothing.

After half an hour had passed, with nothing being said on either side, they were joined by Stavros. Vassos listened to his murmured words, then rose, looking across at Joanna.

‘The police have boarded the
and arrested Yanni and Soula,’ he said brusquely. ‘I am required to help deal with this matter, and I must also arrange for Kostas, who goes fishing with me at night to collect the boat. There will be statements. Maybe a question of charges.’ He paused. ‘Will you be all right—alone here?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Of course.’

And being alone is something I shall have to get used to.

She paused. ‘Did you say you go fishing at night?’

He paused at the door, brows lifting. ‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘If I find I cannot sleep. Why do you ask?’

‘It just seems—an odd thing to do,’ Joanna returned, thinking of all the times his footsteps had passed her door in the darkness.

‘But then,’ he said softly. ‘So many other strange things seem to be happening in my life.
Herete andio,
Joanna.’ And he went.

Over an hour had passed before Dr Deroulos returned with the news that the fracture had been reduced, the bump on Eleni’s head was just what it seemed and nothing more serious, and the little girl would soon recover from the anaesthetic she’d been given while her arm received attention.

‘Oh, thank heavens.’ Joanna sank back on her chair. ‘I’ve been so worried.’

‘You must not blame yourself,
he told her kindly. ‘And nor, I am sure, does Kyrios Gordanis. A healthy child must be allowed to run and play. And little Eleni, in spite of her unpromising beginning, is now fit and well. Her father must rejoice to see it.’ He glanced round. ‘He has gone somewhere?’

‘To the police station, I think,’ Joanna said awkwardly. ‘There’s been a—problem with the previous nanny.’

‘Po, po, po,
he should marry again,’ the doctor said. ‘Provide his daughter with a mother’s care. After all a young, virile man cannot be expected to grieve for ever.’ He frowned a little. ‘I think it haunts him still that he was not present at the birth or at his wife’s side when she so sadly died. But with a premature child like Eleni these things are not always possible to arrange. I just thank the good God that, after a struggle, we were able to save her for him, so he did not have a double tragedy to bear.’

Joanna stared at him. ‘You say Eleni was—premature?’ She shook her head. ‘I—I didn’t know that.’ She hesitated. ‘How early was she?’

‘Barely seven months.’ He sighed. ‘And so tiny—so fragile. For days she hovered between life and death.’

Joanna said urgently, ‘Did Vassos—Kyrios Gordanis, I mean—know this? How delicate Eleni was—and why?’

‘He was in shock after the death of Kyria Ariadne,
Like a man living through a nightmare. My colleague Dr Christaphis decided it would be wrong to burden him with the possibility of further sadness.’

He smiled suddenly. ‘And it did not happen. The Holy Virgin had the child in her protection and she was spared, to become healthy and happy.’ He spread his hands. ‘So what was said or not said at the time surely cannot matter. Not now. Not any more.’

‘On the contrary,’ Joanna said softly, her heart lifting. ‘I think it could matter very much, Dr Deroulos. Very much indeed.’


another hour before Vassos returned.

Joanna had spent the time on tenterhooks, mentally rehearsing what she wanted to say. What he so desperately needed to know.

But when he finally appeared in the waiting room doorway, she took one look at his exhausted eyes, and the greyish tinge to his skin as he halted, putting out a hand as if to steady himself against the doorframe, then jumped to her feet, spilling the remains of the coffee they’d brought her down her skirt.

All the careful words were forgotten. She said, ‘Vassos—about Eleni. There’s something I must tell you.’

He lifted a silencing finger. ‘I already know what you are going to say, Joanna. I have heard the whole story from Soula Karadis, no doubt in the vain hope that the truth would make me grateful enough to spare her.’

His voice was almost toneless. ‘It would seem that my late wife hated me even more than I thought possible. She did have a lover before our marriage—but her pregnancy by him was just a figment of her imagination, invented to drive me away. Which means that Eleni is indeed my daughter, born from the one moment of intimacy in our marriage. But brought into the world much too soon, when her mother decided to throw herself down a flight of steps to rob me of the son she believed she was carrying. Something else I did not know until now.’

He added harshly, ‘It is almost beyond belief. Yet, having known Ariadne, even briefly, I find I can—and do—believe it.’

He looked at her. ‘And you have heard—what?’

‘Nothing like that,’ she denied huskily. ‘Just that Eleni was born at least two months premature, and they were afraid she wouldn’t survive.’ She ran the tip of her tongue round her dry lips. ‘But no one told you at the time because it was felt you had enough to bear with your—grief for your wife.’

‘Ironic, is it not?’ His smile was a slash of pain. ‘And yet I think I did experience an element of grief, if only for a young life cut off so suddenly and so harshly. Guilt, too,’ he added bitterly, ‘that I did not realise just how much she resented our proposed marriage and stop it for both our sakes while I had the chance. Although it is doubtful if that would have kept her alive.

‘But she had her revenge.’ His voice thickened. ‘She died leaving me with the hideous belief that my daughter was another man’s child. Someone I could not even bear to look at. And by doing so Ariadne robbed me of the right to love her—to enjoy her babyhood and watch her grow.’ His voice sank to a whisper. ‘And I might never have known. Never.’

‘But you do know now,’ Joanna said fiercely. ‘So everything can change. That’s what really matters.’ She looked away from him, her throat tightening, longing to go to him and feel his arms close around her. But instead forcing herself to remain where she was. ‘It—it’s all that can matter.’

‘Except,’ he said, ‘that I owe this knowledge to you. If you had not gone to the house today.’ He closed his eyes. ‘I do not want to think what might have happened.’

‘Then think of something else,’ she said. ‘Like being beside Eleni’s bedside when she wakes up next time.’ She paused, trying to smile. ‘I hope she’ll be more welcoming for you. She was cross and a little nauseous when she came round from the anaesthetic, and demanded to be sung to.’

‘Ah,’ Vassos said quietly. ‘That same song I first heard in the gardens at the St Gregoire?’

She stared at him. ‘You—heard me?’

‘I heard a baby crying,’ he said. ‘And a girl singing a lullaby. So, I stood and listened for a while, and wondered if the singer was as lovely as her voice. I did not know, of course—how could I?—that she was the beauty I had seen earlier from the deck of
or the girl I planned to meet later that night across a poker table.’

He drew a deep breath. ‘And today I heard you comforting a sick child with the same melody. And for a moment I could not believe it.’ He paused. ‘Why were you there in the garden that night?’

She looked down at the floor. ‘I was just babysitting for a couple I’d met.’ She found a resolute smile from somewhere. ‘And I really liked taking care of Matthew, so I’ve decided I shall train to look after children professionally one day.’

One day when I’m back in England, and need to find a life for myself—a life that you are no longer a part of. When other people’s children may be all I can hope for …

He was frowning. ‘Is that why you told Deroulos that you were Eleni’s nanny?’

‘I had to think of some reason for being here.’ She flushed a little. ‘After all, I could hardly say I was your mistress.’

‘No,’ he said, his mouth twisting. ‘Perhaps, for the time being, the fiction that you are Eleni’s nursemaid will serve us better,
pedhi mou.’

And maybe, she whispered silently, for the sake of my aching heart, it might be better—easier—if fiction becomes fact. If I become your employee instead of your pillow friend from now on—until you send me away.

As they walked along the passage towards the small private room where Eleni was installed, Dr Deroulos was coming to meet them.

‘Your daughter is awake, Kyrios Gordanis.’ He turned a kindly smile on Joanna. ‘And once again demanding you,

Joanna halted. She said quietly, ‘I think she should spend some time alone with her father now.’ She indicated her coffee-stained skirt. ‘Maybe I could go somewhere and clean my dress?’

‘But of course. It will be a pleasure.’ He signalled to a female orderly, and Joanna was whisked off to a gleaming washroom and supplied with a sponge and towels for a strictly rudimentary rescue job.

But what did a ruined dress matter? she asked herself bleakly, surveying her reflection in the mirror, when it was her life that was about to fall apart?

Yes, Vassos was grateful to her, but she did not want him to turn to her in gratitude, because her intervention had restored his child to him. She needed far more from him than that.

Now, when it was too late, she wanted the tender, passionate lover whom she’d so signally rejected so many times. Wanted to offer him again all the warmth and the ardent, generous desire he’d kindled in her. And to prove to him, beyond all doubt, that her gift to him came from the heart, and without strings.

I love him, she thought painfully, and I always will, but I can’t stay with him, longing all the time for something he can never give. Knowing I have nothing to hope for except his transient desire. And even that will end.

He took me for all the wrong reasons, at a time when his bed and his life were both empty and he needed entertainment. Distraction.

But now the circumstances have changed. He has a daughter to love, who will adore him in return. And one day he’ll remarry, this time to a girl who will love him and give Eleni brothers and sisters. And then that barren house will come alive again at last.

At which time, please God, I shall be far away.

When she finally emerged from the washroom, she turned initially to go back to the waiting room, then after a moment’s hesitation made her way quietly along the passage to the ward.

The door was open and she could see Vassos kneeling beside the bed, Eleni’s small hand clasped in his, and his head was bent as if he was crying—or praying.

Whichever it was, Joanna thought, her heart twisting as tears stung her eyes, her presence would only be an intrusion. And she stole silently away.

She had herself strictly under control when he eventually returned to the waiting room.

‘How is she?’ she asked brightly.

‘Well, and asking for almond biscuits.’ He paused. ‘However, the doctor suggests that she remain here overnight so that he can make sure there are no after-effects from all the shocks she has suffered today.’ His smile was wry. ‘I suspect I am not the least of them.’

Joanna bit her lip. ‘Ever since she’s been able to understand what was being said to her, she’s been told, “Papa will come.” And now you have done.’

‘And now Papa will stay,’ he said softly. ‘And we will take her home in the morning.’

Joanna glanced uncertainly at the waiting room chairs. ‘You mean—spend the night here?’

‘No.’ His tone was faintly brusque. ‘Thaliki has a hotel—the Poseidon. They will have a room for us.’

‘But we’ll need two,’ she said. ‘One for you—and another for Eleni’s nanny.’

There was an odd silence, then he said, ‘Is that truly what you wish? To spend this night apart from me?’

‘Yes, or I wouldn’t have said it.’ She lifted her chin, fighting her inner misery. ‘You should know that by now.’

‘At times like this I feel as if I know nothing about you, Joanna
he said harshly. ‘Nothing at all.’ He paused. ‘And now Eleni is waiting to say goodnight to you. I warn you, she may ask for another song. I hope she will not also be disappointed.’

And he walked out into the corridor, leaving her to follow.

It had been, Joanna thought, as she lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, the longest two weeks of her life. And here she was, faced with yet another sunlit morning. Which, somehow, she would have to survive.

At least in the daytime she could keep busy, looking after Eleni who’d adapted with astonishing speed to her new circumstances, even with a plaster on her arm. Proving, Joanna mused, just how resilient children could be.

And for this, admittedly, Vassos deserved much of the credit, approaching his new role as a father with patience, humour and an element of firmness. Above all spending unstinted time with her, overcoming her initial shyness and, in return, receiving his daughter’s unquestioning adoration.

But, rather to Joanna’s concern, Eleni was inclined to treat her in much the same way, which she feared might lead to problems when a real nanny was eventually appointed in her place.

Vassos had made several flying visits to Athens over the past fortnight, presumably to interview potential candidates, but seemed to have made no final choice.

In fact, Joanna had started to wonder if he might choose a British nanny, as he also appeared to be teaching Eleni to use English as well as Greek names for the things she saw around her, but when she’d ventured to ask him, on one of the few occasions when they’d been briefly alone, he’d retorted that English was the international language of commerce throughout the world and Eleni, as an adult, might well need to speak it fluently.

Which did not sound, she thought unhappily, as if he ever expected to have a son to succeed him.

Apart from that, relations between them were studiedly formal. And when Eleni was not around he seemed quiet and preoccupied, as if in another less sunlit world.

She’d become a member of his staff, she thought painfully. Just as she’d asked. Except that she’d never dreamed how difficult it would be to make such a transition. To share a roof with him, but nothing else.

In the daytime she could cope. Just. But the nights were a very different matter.

She was no longer occupying her former room but, at her own suggestion, had moved to one adjoining Eleni’s new nursery, in case the little girl needed anything in the night.

Hara had indicated, clearly bewildered at this turn of events, that a couple of the maids could take over Eleni’s night-time supervision, the entire household having become her devoted slaves from the moment the child entered the villa, but Joanna had refused with determination, saying that the little girl would prefer to see a familiar face if she woke.

In fact Eleni was a sound sleeper, so Joanna was rarely disturbed in this way, but that made little difference to the wreckage of her own sleep patterns. Heartache and loneliness were her regular companions during long and restless vigils.

And when she did sleep her dreams were erotic fantasies that woke her, gasping, her body on fire, her hands reaching for him and finding emptiness.

She was losing weight, and the shadows beneath her eyes were deepening into violet pools.

I’m fretting, she told herself wryly. And, heaven help me, it shows. So, perhaps it’s a good thing that Vassos rarely looks at me these days.

She flung back the sheet and left the bed, taking a quick shower before dressing in a midi-skirt, in shades of rust and gold, topped with a sleeveless cream shirt. Her hair she brushed back and secured at the nape of her neck with an elastic band.

Then she went next door to rouse Eleni, wash and dress her, then take her down to breakfast on the terrace.

Vassos rose from the table at their approach.
he said softly, inclining his head to Joanna before going down on his haunches to greet Eleni with a kiss as she ran to him.

Joanna sat down, busying herself with buttering a slice of bread, adding honey, and pouring a glass of milk for Eleni. She applauded, smiling, as the little girl, prompted by Vassos, pointed to each item in turn and said its English name, before collapsing in giggles.

As Joanna poured her own coffee, and set down the pot, Vassos said abruptly, ‘Joanna, I must tell you that Stavros has gone to Thaliki to bring back Eleni’s new nursemaid. My cousin Maria has found a girl who has worked with English families in Athens, so can speak your language well. Her name is Mitsa, which is short for Artemis, and she comes highly recommended.’

He paused. ‘I have also made immediate arrangements for your departure, which I hope will please you. When breakfast is over, I suggest that you pack.’

Joanna stared at him, her whole being suddenly numb. She said in a voice she didn’t recognise, ‘So soon?’
And just that brief dismissal as if there had been nothing between us? Nothing …

‘I feel it would be best,’ he said. ‘Before Eleni becomes too dependent on you.’

Her mouth was dry. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I suppose that is—a danger. And I—I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt her.’

His faint smile did not reach his eyes. ‘No,’ he said. ‘That is one thing I can be sure of. And in that she has been fortunate indeed.’

She forced herself to drink her coffee and eat a roll with black cherry jam, in spite of the desperate churning of her stomach.

I’m going, she thought. I’ll never see him again, and I don’t know how I can bear it. Especially when he clearly can’t wait to be rid of me.

BOOK: The Highest Stakes of All
2.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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