She stood on the sidewalk outside the house, a tall, slender young woman in a blue silk dress. The high gates in the garden wall were open, but this didn't guarantee her welcome, she knew. They were seldom locked except at night, and darkness was only now falling softly about her.
The house was even more beautiful than she remembered, the luxurious Kifissia residence of Jason Stephanou, the millionaire industrialist--wasn't that how the magazines termed it? she mused. A wry smile curled her mouth, briefly erasing the worry from her eyes.
Sophie's head was whirling with exhaustion after the long flight from Vancouver to Athens, but renewed anxiety brought out a clammy sweat on her palms. She rubbed them together, shivering slightly, though the evening was not much cooler than the hot August day had been. Her mind went back over the last three hectic days, which had upset the painfully acquired tranquility of her life.
Come at once. Father ill.
The terse wording of the telegram had been almost identical to one that had summoned her to Vancouver nearly two years before, only this one concerned her father-in-law, not her natural father. But her ties to Stavros were nearly as strong as those that had bound her to her own father. During the brief year of her marriage, she had grown to love her father-in-law--even as she had grown increasingly distant from Jason, her husband.
Apprehension sent another shiver through her. The nagging suspicion that Jason had sent the telegram hadn't left her these past three days. Could he have used this pretext to call her back to his sphere of influence?
She'd left him because of her father's illness, but then she had stayed away, unable to return to the marriage that made a mockery of all her expectations of love.
Would Jason, with his arrogant Greek mind, forgive what must have seemed an act of defiance? Sophie considered herself, by birth and upbringing, to be completely Canadian, but her Greek father had imparted to her a sharp comprehension of his country's ancestral customs and conventions.
Greeks were proud and possessed long memories. She could not escape the fact that she and Jason were still husband and wife.
She decided it was futile to attempt to analyze the complexities of Jason's mind on the sidewalk in front of his house. With a determined set to her chin, she picked up her suitcase and overnight bag. She closed her mind to doubts about her welcome and quickly rang the doorbell.
Before its echoes faded she heard footsteps approaching, and in a moment the door opened, revealing Voula, the Stephanou housekeeper. Her incredulous start of amazement confirmed Sophie's suspicions about the telegram. She was not expected.
Voula enfolded Sophie in a warm embrace that started tears burning at the backs of her eyes. Expected or not, she was welcome. She had come home, really home.
"Sophie, you're back," Voula cried happily, closing the door as Sophie stepped into the house.
"How is Stavros?" Sophie asked anxiously. She effortlessly made the transition from English to Greek.
"Stavros?" the housekeeper repeated, puzzlement clouding her brow. Then her face cleared. "He's all right now. He had a little attack a few days ago, but as long as he takes his medicine, it's nothing."
Her fine dark eyes regarded Sophie keenly. "He's an old man, Sophie. He missed you after you left. He'll be so happy to see you."
Sophie had a sense of plunging downward in a runaway elevator. "You mean he hasn't been seriously ill?"
"Not seriously, no," Voula said. "It's his heart. He's had minor episodes several times in the last year. If only he would remember to take his medicine." She took the suitcase from Sophie's unresisting fingers. "You'll be able to remind him."
"But I received a message," Sophie insisted, desperately trying to think. It must have been from Jason. If only her head were clearer--
She laid her hand on Voula's arm. "How many of the family are here?" she asked, unable to voice aloud the question that burned within her: Is Jason here?
"Only Stavros and Paul, and a male nurse Jason engaged for Stavros a few days ago to get him over this attack."
"So Jason isn't here," whispered Sophie.
Voula eyed her with a certain sympathy. In Greece, servants were often treated more like members of the family than hired help, and this household was no exception. "He's gone to Corinth for a couple of days on business."
Sophie's shoulders sagged in relief. A slight reprieve, but would it be long enough for her to arm her defenses? Corinth was only eighty kilometers away; the way Jason drove his silver-gray Jaguar, he could be home in less than two hours once he heard of her arrival.
But now she had the advantage of knowing with certainty that he had sent for her, and it wasn't likely that only concern for Stavros had motivated him.
After two years of ignoring her existence, why did he suddenly want her presence in his house?
At that moment Stavros himself came out of the dining room. He looked much as she remembered him, his thick white hair springing vitally from his lean forehead, the brilliance of his blue eyes undimmed by time. He was perhaps a little thinner, a little worn, but he looked remarkably fit for a man she'd feared to find on his deathbed.
"Sophie, my dear." He embraced her, kissing her enthusiastically on either cheek. "It's about time you came home."
Sophie swallowed hard before the lump in her throat would allow her to speak. Her legs were rubbery, threatening to give way under her. "I thought you were ill, Patera. I'm glad you're looking so well." At his request she'd always addressed him by the formal title of "father."
Stavros shrugged in a typically Greek way. "Just a little setback. As you can see, I've recovered. Jason was unnecessarily alarmed."
Sophie's mind cleared momentarily, and her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Had Stavros known of the message? Perhaps even been party to it? He was a strong-willed man whose faculties had in no way dulled with age, and he'd made no secret of the fact that he thought her the ideal wife for his tempestuous elder son.
The idea dismayed her. With the two of them working together, what chance did she have of avoiding the web that was drawing her inexorably back into the family circle?
She became aware that Stavros was watching her strangely. She smiled at him without malice. Whatever he had done was motivated only by the best intentions. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm just tired. It was a long flight."
Stavros tucked her hand firmly into his elbow. "Come along. You must meet Paul and have something to eat."
Paul was a younger edition of Jason, with similar features, but she knew in an instant that he lacked the drive and single-minded determination that had taken Jason from a poverty-stricken beginning in a remote Peloponnese village to being a millionaire in control of an international corporation.
She had met Paul briefly at the wedding, but barely remembered him. He had been granted only a twenty-four-hour leave from the army to attend the festivities. By the time he'd completed his tour of duty, she'd already left Jason.
She felt his green eyes watching her speculatively as she tried to eat a little of the food Stavros pressed on her. Paul was about her own age of twenty-four, eight years younger than Jason. Unlike his brother, he had known little deprivation in his childhood. His pleasant, open expression was in direct contrast to Jason's unyielding toughness.
She sensed that Paul would be willing to be friends with her, and she was glad, as the day might yet come when she would need a friend to act as a buffer between her and Jason.
It was late by the time Sophie was able to excuse herself. Stavros and Paul had wanted to hear all about her activities of the past two years. They only let her go when her fatigue became so obvious that even in their enthusiasm at seeing her again, they were forced to take pity on her.
Voula took her upstairs. Sophie knew immediately where the housekeeper had put her things--in the room that had been hers and Jason's, which she assumed Jason still used. This last was confirmed the moment she entered the door. His blue velour robe hung behind the door, and the hairbrushes she had given him the first Christmas they had spent together lay on the dressing table.
"Voula," she said in consternation, "I can't sleep here."
Voula's dark eyes were filled with sympathy, but she slowly shook her head. "All the other rooms are occupied. Besides, Jason won't be back for a few days. Tomorrow we'll see what other arrangements can be made."
Sophie had to be satisfied with that. Her fatigue weighed heavily on her, dulling her thought processes, and she found herself unable to argue further, wishing only to fall into bed and sleep forever. Perhaps when she woke she would find herself back in Vancouver, living a quiet, orderly life divided between her shop and her comfortable apartment, where she had contentment if not exactly happiness.
She undressed and went into the bathroom that adjoined the bedroom. Mechanically she began applying lotion to her face. Her skin, smooth and creamy over the classic bone structure of her face, was the envy of her friends, but Sophie took her looks for granted. Her well-groomed appearance and the candid clarity of her gray eyes gave others an impression of a self-contained young woman who knew her own mind.
Only she knew that her coolly elegant exterior often masked inner sorrow and uncertainty.
At first she slept soundly; then she became restless, tossing from side to side on the pillows. In a state midway between waking and sleeping she saw Jason--Jason with his hard, handsome face and his lean, graceful body. As had happened all too often in the last months of their marriage, he was shouting at her.
"How could you have bought this garbage?" he demanded, lifting each of the framed paintings she had brought home and tossing them aside.
"Helen says the artist has merit, that someday he'll be famous. It's an investment," Sophie said reasonably, although her temper was rising.
"How much did you pay for them?"
Silently, biting her lip to contain her resentment, she handed him the receipt.
"That much, for three pictures?" He seemed almost to choke with rage. "Have you taken a good look at them?" He thrust one under her nose. "This type of thing is common on every street corner. Who is this painter?"
"Helen said--" Miserably, she trailed off, staring into his angry face. Now that she looked at the pictures again, without the artist's compelling sales pitch, she saw that they were mediocre, ordinary scenes of Greek islands like those available in every tourist shop in Athens.
"'Helen said!'" he snorted in disgust. "Don't you have a mind of your own, Sophie? It's my money you're spending so foolishly. Helen's monthly income would keep the average Greek family for a year. I'm not yet in the financial bracket where I can afford to subsidize every artist who talks persuasively."
Sophie lifted her chin. "Then next time I'll use my own money."
This only angered him further. "Sophie," he said through gritted teeth, "stop acting like a spoiled child. You are my wife. You will live on my money. Just forget that your father could probably buy me out." He glared at her, and if looks could kill she would have disintegrated on the spot.
Then he added as if he were thinking out loud, "At the moment. It won't always be like that."
With a start Sophie came fully awake, her eyes sweeping the room as if she expected to see Jason in the flesh. For a moment she didn't recognize her surroundings, then memory flooded back. This was Jason's room, Jason's bed.
That dream! Or was it a dream? She shook her head, blonde hair swinging about her shoulders. It had happened, if not exactly like the dream. She had done many foolish things, childish acts to get Jason's attention.
His involvement with business had been such that she'd seen little of him, and they had rarely gone out together except for business dinners and parties. After being the center of her father's existence throughout her childhood and adolescence, Sophie had expected the husband who had wooed her with amazingly romantic persistence and ardor to continue to indulge her every whim.
When he began to resume his demanding workload soon after their honeymoon, she had been jarred out of her self-centered little world, becoming at first petulant and then, when this had little effect on Jason, angry. She had found small ways to get back at him, like buying the worthless paintings or shopping for extravagant clothes she never wore.
How young she had been! And how very foolish.
She sighed, sitting up in bed, wide awake since her inner clock was still on Vancouver time. Throwing aside the single sheet that covered her, she got up and walked to the window, her long white nightdress swinging about her ankles.
Drawing aside the curtains, she stepped out on the narrow balcony. The garden lay silver and blue in the moonlight, the heavy scent of the roses a narcotic that seeped into her mind, drugging it into forgetfulness.
In a velvet sky the pale moon sailed serenely, reminding Sophie of another night when she and Jason had just been married. They had sneaked out
Of the beach hotel and gone swimming naked in a warm sea phosphorescent with moonlight, making love afterward in sand softer and more sensuous than a bed.
Had she really been so innocent and so trustful of Jason? It was hard to imagine now.
A night bird called plaintively, and she returned to the present. How beautiful Greece was. Despite remembered pain, she felt welcome here. Even in the taxi coming from the airport, the heat and noise of the city had wrapped her with familiarity. And the first glimpse of the Acropolis had made her wonder how she had contemplated never returning to the city from which her ancestors had sprung.
Was that why she had come now, even in the face of her apprehensions about Jason? Had the sea, the sun and the indelible memories called her?
With a deep sigh she turned back into the room, closing the shutters and banishing the treacherous moonlight.
Again Jason came to her, but a different Jason. He was smiling that peculiarly sweet smile strangers never saw, and his voice was seduction itself as it had been during their short courtship and their ecstatic honeymoon.
Sophie reached out her hands to him to pull him close. "Jason," she murmured longingly, lovingly.
His mouth touched hers in a tender kiss that sent the blood singing along her veins. Jason loved her and wanted her back. His warm hands stroked her body, effortlessly removing her clothes, and he laughed that she would wear anything to bed when he would only take it off.
"Jason," she sighed, and the sigh became a gasp of pleasure as he caressed her thighs with ravishing sensuality. Straining toward him, she gave a breathless cry that seemed to embody all her longing. "Jason, Jason, love me. Oh, love me."
His voice was rough with his own desire, a tender murmur in his throat. "Yes, my darling, yes."
Her fingers dug into the hard muscles of his back as he bent over her; then he was inside her, filling her, completing her, the two of them blending into a single entity. She cried out with a mindless, rapturous ecstasy--
For a long moment she lay bemused. How real it had been; yet the bed was empty beside her. The throbbing pulse deep inside her gradually subsided, and she was inexplicably filled with hazy contentment, as if some long-endured tension had snapped. Like a tired child, she turned her face into the pillow and slept once more.
Sophie awoke when the morning was already in full bloom. Someone had been in the room; the shutters were open, letting golden sunlight flood the floor and the bed. The light breeze that gently moved the curtains carried
in the sweet scent of roses. In the light of morning the aroma held no seductive danger, only the warm essence of summer.
A thermos of coffee stood beside a delicate china cup and saucer on the bedside table. The room was warm and she threw off the sheet, arranging the pillows as a backrest, and poured out some coffee. It was thick, black and sweet, pure ambrosia.
She sipped it slowly, her mind going over the strange night. Dreams. Only dreams. She tried to convince herself they didn't mean anything, but somehow it wasn't that easy. She'd always listened to the whispers of her subconscious, had always had an intuitive ability to size up people and situations. Her father had said it was a gift
Only with Jason had her instincts short-circuited. But now with the wisdom of hindsight, she realized this was probably because Jason hadn't let her into his inner self. He kept a mask over his emotions, showing little of the human being inside the astute businessman.
No wonder Sophie, used to the adulation of her father, had reacted like a hurt child to Jason's frequent indifference. Yet now she could feel shame at her immature behavior. She should have cultivated a deeper understanding of Jason rather than running away at the first excuse.
There was no excuse.
However, she thought, stirring restlessly in the comfortable bed, that was all water under the bridge now. Whatever it was that Jason wanted from her, she would listen to him, behave with dignity no matter what he suggested, and then go on her way, back to her work and her ordered life.
She had gotten over her infatuation with him, and despite her erotic dream, she was immune to his pull on her senses. She would not go back to being his wife; she didn't want a husband whose only interest was making money.
Later, showered and wearing a cool yellow sundress, Sophie went downstairs to the garden terrace where Stavros and Paul were seated at a glass-topped table set for lunch.
"Good morning," Sophie said wryly. "Although I suppose 'good afternoon' would be more accurate."
Paul jumped up and pulled out a chair for her. "Good morning, dear sister-in-law. The sleep has done you good." He spoke in Greek out of deference to his father as she had also done, although last evening she had learned that his English was as fluent as Jason's.
Stavros took her hand in his cool dry fingers. "Sophie, please stay with us for a while. You do look better than you did last night, but you're much too thin. You're all alone now, and you probably don't take care of yourself as you should."
Sophie was surprised at his apparent knowledge of her affairs. In last evening's conversation she hadn't mentioned her father's death, but it seemed they knew of it.
"How did you know I'm alone now?" she asked curiously.
"News has a way of getting around," Paul said enigmatically.
Sophie would have pursued the subject, but Voula appeared just then with platters of salad and tiny fried fish. "Oh, look, my favorite," she exclaimed instead, with a smile of appreciation at the middle-aged woman who always treated her like a dearly loved daughter.
Jason hadn't shown up by dinnertime, and his brother suggested that he was unlikely to come home before tomorrow or the next day. They discussed mutual acquaintances during the meal, and inevitably Helen's name came up.
Helen, the helpful false friend who had contributed as much to the failure of Sophie's marriage as either Sophie or Jason; Helen, the snake in a designer dress who had used Sophie to stay near Jason while waiting for her chance at him, waiting, stalking, ready to pounce--
Had Jason been so unsuspecting?
With rigid control, Sophie asked if she still lived in Athens.
"She has an apartment here," Paul told her, "where she lives when she's not traveling around the world's most luxurious resorts. Even though they were divorced, her husband left her the bulk of his fortune when he died. Don't you write to her, Sophie? I understood you'd been close friends."
"We had a disagreement," Sophie said with masterful understatement, "and lost touch." She toyed with her fork, staring down at her plate, all appetite for the delicious pastitsio suddenly gone. "Is she here now?"
"No, she thinks Athens is too hot in August. She went to New York a couple of weeks ago. Actually, she went with Jason when he was there on business, and she stayed on."
"Do you see much of her?" Sophie asked, delicately probing.
"She comes to dinner once in a while," Stavros said. "She's one of our few remaining relatives. I believe Jason sees something of her."
Sophie felt faintly ill. She picked up her water glass and drank from it to avoid making a further comment. Then Paul asked about a friend of the family who now lived in Vancouver, and the moment passed.
After they had finished eating, as soon as she decently could, Sophie pleaded jet lag and went upstairs, again to the master bedroom. Stavros' nurse, though unobtrusive during the day except for administering the old man's medicine, had not yet left, but Voula assured Sophie that tomorrow she could have the guest room.
This evening, however, sleep was determined to elude her. She lay wide-eyed and wakeful as memories of Jason and what had gone on between them in this room, and this bed, came back to plague her, like black bats released from a cave. In an effort to take her mind out of these dark caverns, she thought of her last meeting with Helen.
Helen, a distant cousin of Jason's by marriage, and newly divorced at the time of Sophie's marriage, had taken Sophie under her wing and introduced her to Athens society. Sophie, away from home for the first time in her life, had embraced the sophisticated woman's friendship with eager innocence.
Through her husband's business interests, Helen also knew Vancouver and some of the people Sophie knew. She visited the city several times a year, even after her divorce.
Some months after Sophie had left Athens to be with her ailing father, Helen had stopped by Sophie's house in Vancouver. She was dressed in mourning black due to the recent death of her ex-husband. Sophie had realized that despite their divorce, Helen hadn't been without feeling for the man whose main attraction she'd admitted was his wealth. Helen had nursed him through his final illness--not with her own hands, perhaps, but she'd stayed at his side. Her devotion had been rewarded; her ex-husband had left her his millions and control of his international corporations.
Helen was hardly a grieving widow, Sophie had seen at once. She'd worn an air of brittle triumph, and from the moment of her arrival she'd treated Sophie with barely concealed condescension. Gone was the solicitous friendliness she'd shown in Athens.
Sophie had been bewildered and hurt by the change in the woman she had considered one of her closest friends, but not really surprised. Even in Athens, Helen had often made mildly malicious remarks about some of the people in their social circle--she didn't keep friends for long--and in her heart Sophie had known it would be only a matter of time before Helen would grow bored with her.
Then, too, Sophie had changed in the three months since leaving Greece. Nursing her father back to a measure of health after his serious illness, coupled with the disillusionment of seeing her marriage disintegrate had matured her in a way even Helen must have noticed at once.
Sophie had metamorphosed from a young, often foolish and impulsive girl into a woman who was beginning to understand her own feelings and goals.
At Sophie's father's invitation, Helen had stayed to dinner. During the meal she'd been pleasant enough, talking about Athens and about her husband's widespread business empire that she had been controlling--with the help of a large and competent staff of managers and accountants.
She still had charm, Sophie had to admit, especially toward anyone of the opposite sex. Helen largely ignored Sophie, and the younger woman had listened quietly, wanting to ask about Jason without really understanding why. Jason hadn't contacted her since she'd left; why should she care what he was doing?
After dinner, when Sophie's father had gone to his room, the women talked in a desultory fashion. Sophie soon wished Helen would leave. She was amazed that she had considered herself to have so much in common with Helen in Athens. Now they had nothing to talk about.
At last Helen rose and picked up her purse, preparing to leave. At the living room door she turned to Sophie, a vindictive smile on her coldly beautiful face. "Haven't you wondered why Jason hasn't been in touch with you?" she asked, uncannily echoing Sophie's thoughts.
Warm color flooded Sophie's cheeks before she could control it. "Why, I--" she stammered, momentarily at a loss for words.
"He's been too busy with me," Helen stated, her gleeful eyes sparkling like ice chips. "You know," she added conversationally, "he only married you for your dowry, and now he no longer needs to keep up the pretense."
Sophie couldn't have been more astonished if Helen had dropped a real bomb rather than a verbal one. "My dowry?" she repeated dazedly. "But Jason is a rich man."
"Now he is. The last six months have been phenomenally successful for him. Your father offered him a substantial marriage settlement, and he took it. It was only hard luck that he had to take you with it."
Sophie sank down onto a chair. "How do you know this?" she asked weakly, despising herself for revealing what a blow this was to her.
"My husband did a good deal of business with Jason, and when he died I learned of Jason's past difficulties. It was fairly common knowledge among international financiers that many times in the last few years Jason was teetering on the edge of disaster. The worst time was when he married you. Your father's money bailed him out. Now with his spectacular luck, all his business gambles have paid off, and he's a millionaire."
Sophie was stunned. Jason had never said he loved her, but his tenderness toward her, especially at the beginning of their marriage, and his unconcealed joy in their lovemaking, had been enough to calm any doubts she might have had--and she had to admit she hadn't had many.
Now to come face to face with his mendacity, to find that he had cheated her and used her to further his passion for making money, shocked her to the depths of her being.
Helen was observing her closely with those eyes that looked like polished lake pebbles. "Surely you didn't think Jason actually loved you," she sneered, giving a harsh laugh that clashed with her sophisticated appearance. "What a naive child you are!"
"Naive I may be," Sophie managed to retort. "But I wouldn't be so stupid again."
"Then why don't you give Jason a divorce, Sophie?" Helen said with no more emotion than she would use to discuss the weather.
Sophie went cold inside, as though a wintry wind had stolen all the heat from her blood. "What makes you think I won't?" she countered, her face absolutely colorless. She wrapped her arms around her stomach to stop its sudden heaving.
Helen shrugged, her shoulders lifting in a graceful movement. "He wants to marry me," she said, dropping her second bombshell. "If you give him a divorce, he can."
Speechlessly, Sophie had stared at the woman who was rapidly destroying all her illusions about loyalty and friendship. Then Helen dropped the final bomb. "We've been lovers since you left. In fact, Jason could hardly wait to get into my bed after you were gone. So you might as well set him free. You were never the woman for him anyway, Sophie. I grew up with him, and he's always felt responsible for me."
"But you didn't marry him?"
"No," Helen said quietly. "He was still poor, and I couldn't live that way. You've no idea how it was in that village--dirt floors, no bathrooms, sometimes even no water. I had to get free, so I married a rich man. I'll never be poor again. It was worth it to sleep with that old man, and he never knew how I hated it. I kept up my side of the bargain."
Her face hardened into determination. "But now I want Jason."
Strangely, this deathblow had the opposite effect on Sophie. Far from demolishing her defenses, it caused her to reassemble a remnant of pride. She stood up, her face white but composed. "You may tell Jason that he can have a divorce any time he wants it. I won't fight it. But until now Jason has never asked me for a divorce. Perhaps he's not as anxious to be free as you would like to believe."
With a dignity beyond her years, she held the door open to allow Helen to leave the room. "And you may tell Jason also that I never want to see him again. Or you," she added coldly.
Her expression was so fierce that for a moment Helen looked nonplussed, but she made a rapid recovery, unable to resist a parting shot. "I'll send you an invitation to the wedding."
"Do that," said Sophie with icy calm. "But edge it in black. You won't be able to keep Jason any more than I could."
She'd gone up to bed in a stupor. To learn in one hour that both Jason and Helen had used her for their own ends was distressing enough. But to know that her own father had betrayed her and virtually sold her into marriage shook the foundations of her love for him. How could he have done it?
The next day she intended to confront him with her knowledge. There had to be an explanation.
But subsequent events rocked her world even more severely, and the explanations did not materialize for months afterward. By then it hardly mattered.
A cold shiver went through Sophie now as she lay in the wide bed in Jason's room. Despite Helen's allegations that she and Jason were lovers, Jason had not contacted her about a divorce. The wedding invitation had never arrived.
Did he want a divorce now? Was that why he had lured her here, or was there some other, deeper reason?
With a sudden impulsiveness she decided that she would stay, at least until she found out. Reluctant though she was to admit it even to herself, she was curious to see Jason again. Also, Stavros dearly wanted her to spend some time with him, and that was a compelling inducement for her to stay as well.
She still missed her own father, although ten months had passed since his death. Stavros might have many years yet, but there was always the possibility that his heart would give out tomorrow--the angel of death didn't play favorites.
Stavros had been a second father to her, had given his love to her with fewer ulterior motives than even her own father, and she owed him this small gift of happiness.
Besides, she hadn't had a real holiday since opening the shop. In the August doldrums, Laura could run it quite competently without her. She would relax for a few days, then perhaps scout the Athens clothing industry for items to send to Laura. It was time they added fresh lines to enhance their stock.
As for Jason, she could handle him. She didn't love him now, so he had no more power to hurt her. Let him do his worst, if he felt so inclined. The peace of mind and the strength of character she had so painfully acquired in the past two years would see her through.