"Why do you have to go now?" Tony threw his lanky frame onto a chair, his brow creasing in a frown that sat uneasily on his handsome face. "And to this benighted place in Greece. Mikrohori. Where's that?"
"South of Volos, in central Greece." Joanna Paradisis moved briskly across her office to the filing cabinet.
Tony shook his head, his dark hair falling into boyish disarray. "But it's been a year since you inherited your godmother's house," he persisted. "What's a week or two more? We could go together when I have my holidays."
"I want to go on my own. I told you weeks ago that I needed a break, but I just couldn't fit it in."
The harsh metallic scrape of the drawer opening nearly drowned out her words as she continued speaking. "Besides, I have to look over that hotel in Volos that's for sale. Since the house is near there, it seemed like a good time to take my holidays." Rifling through the neatly labeled files, she muttered beneath her breath when the desired folder didn't materialize.
"But your appointment isn't for another two weeks. And, you don't even know if this house is habitable. If you take me along with you, I could get rid of the spiders and other beasties that may be living there."
Joanna slammed shut the drawer and pulled out the one below it, the quick smile she gave Tony failing to erase the tension from her face. "I can get rid of my own creepy-crawlies, Tony. If there are any. The place isn't a hovel, by any means. It was modernized the year before Katerina died. And the lawyer's letter assured me it's in perfect order."
She frowned as she bent over the next drawer. Tony cared about her. She couldn't blame him for wondering at the timing and length of her holiday. She'd never taken more than a week or ten days at a stretch.
But, aside from her business appointment, she wanted to look up Alex Gregory. Although fifteen years had passed since Alex had lived next door to her family's house in Vancouver, the sense of unfinished business with him had become stronger in the past year, especially as Tony's attempts to deep their relationship had become more frequent. She'd been in love with Alex once, puppy love perhaps, but she'd never forgotten him.
Alex now had his own law practice in Volos. It was likely that he was the present guardian of the house, since her late godmother was his aunt.
"Even if the place is a palace," Tony said, "what are you going to do on your own for two weeks? You'll be bored out of your skull."
Her smile returned, this time revealing genuine humor. "No, I won't. The house is in an authentic Greek village with a marvelous beach. Staying there will give me a chance to get acquainted with the area. It's supposed to be beautiful, spectacular scenery, but hardly developed for tourism at all. I'll be able to swim, catch up on reading, get a sun tan."
Tony looked skeptical. "You relaxing, Joanna? I'll believe it when I see it. You've never slowed down in your life. One or two days in that village, and you won't know what to do with yourself. Besides, what about the promotion? You'll want to be here when your father announces it."
"I don't think he's in much of a hurry. He'll wait until I get back." The drawer banged as she closed it. Only half aware of Tony's appreciative eyes on her as she bent to the bottom one, she muttered, "Now where has that girl put the file? Drat her anyway. She's never here when I need her."
Tony leaned back in the chair, linking has hands behind his head. "Labor laws state that a secretary or personal assistant is entitled to a lunch hour even when her boss eats at her desk."
When Joanna made no reply, he went on. "You want to know what I think, Jo? Your father, with all due respect to him, is pulling some kind of power play by considering the two of us for the same promotion. Isn't he afraid one of us will resent the other?"
"Who knows what goes on in his devious mind? Maybe he thinks it'll bring us closer together, no matter what the outcome. The winner consoling the loser." She straightened, waving a tan folder above her head. "At last. It was right at the back of the drawer."
"The Z's usually are," Tony said dryly, getting up and taking the file from her hand. "Thanks, Jo. I knew I could count on you. Everyone counts on you, Joanna. You deserve to be our newest vice president."
A little frown etched a crease above her short, straight nose. "If I get the promotion, won't people say it's because my father's the boss?" She knew Socrates didn't give favors to anyone, least of all her, but she was aware that the office grapevine carried occasional grumbles of nepotism. Not true, of course. Socrates Paradisis, founder and owner of Paradise Hotels--which he had by sheer grit and perseverance made into an international corporation--rewarded only hard work. Promotions came by merit alone.
Joanna had joined the family business right after graduation from university. Although some of her colleagues might assume that she'd gained her present executive position solely through Socrates's influence, those closest to her knew otherwise.
Joanna worked hard. Fortunately, despite the long hours she put in, she found the work exciting, enjoying the travel, the challenge of finding locations and developing new hotels and resorts in the various sun spots of the world.
At least she had until the past year. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but she had become conscious of restlessness, asking herself if this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Challenge had indeed become the key word; enjoyment seemed harder and harder to maintain.
Tony threw one arm around her shoulders, his palm rubbing the soft wool of her lemon yellow suit. "Nobody would dare say anything, Jo. We all know you work longer hours and get more done than anyone in the company. I'll bet your father's already decided on you."
"But what about you, Tony?"
"Hey, you know me better than that, Jo. I'd be happy for you. There'll be another opportunity for me. You've worked for the company longer than I have. You deserve to get it."
Pushing the drawer shut with one leather-shod toe, Joanna propped her elbow on top of the cabinet. She combed her fingers through her thick brown hair, making a ruffled disorder of the bangs that covered her forehead.
"But he's more like to give it to you." The smile she gave Tony was touched with irony. "You have the advantage in this. You know that."
Tony shrugged. "Yeah, he's a bit of a chauvinist, but he's never let personal feelings affect business decisions." His face became serious and his arm tightened around her. "You're not going to like what I have to say..."
"Then don't say it," she teased, running a playful finger down his smoothly shaven cheek.
"Your father--" Tony went on as if she hadn't spoken, although he gave her a fleeting grin. "Your father would like us to get married."
Joanna pulled away, her movements abrupt as she folded her arms across her chest. "My father, dear man that he is, should know by now that I'm an adult. He can't dictate who I marry."
"No, he can't," Tony agreed. "But would it be such a bad idea? We get along well."
Joanna perched on the edge of her desk, her expressive face showing a mixture of amusement and severity. "Tony, we're friends. We've had some good times. Let's not spoil it."
Tony's brows rose. "Spoil it, Jo? Don't you think that friendship is the best grounds for marriage? Not rosy, romantic dreams that fall flat after the honeymoon."
Joanna fought an urge to smile. Tony had been known to send her two dozen pink roses for no other reason than that the sun was shining. Of the two of them, he was the one who did charming, crazy, romantic things, while she was the realist.
"Marriage has also been known to ruin friendships," she said lightly, determined to keep their conversation from straying into treacherous emotional waters. She liked Tony, but she was not in love with him. She suspected his feelings for her might run deeper than he let on. "Would you want to risk that?"
He paused on his way to the door, giving her a speculative look. "Maybe I would, Joanna. If the outcome was worth it." Turning, he walked out of the office.
Joanna sank down into the chair Tony had vacated. Wearily she rested her head against the padded upholstery. Pinching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, she willed away the incipient headache that was becoming a constant companion to her days.
Oh, Tony, what am I going to do with you? she thought. In her way, she did love him, but with the same unstinting affection she felt for her brothers. He was a kind, good-natured man who had the utmost respect for Joanna's achievements. As for the promotion--he was sincere in wishing it for her.
But did she want it? Once it would have represented the ultimate accomplishment. Now, she often felt ambivalent toward her career. Yes, she wanted the promotion, but not as eagerly as she would have even a year ago.
At the same time, she didn't want Tony to be hurt. Setting the two of them up for the same promotion had not been one of Socrates's more diplomatic moves. Maybe it was a ploy to bring the two of them closer together.
Almost from the day Tony had joined Paradise Hotels, Socrates had made no secret of the fact that he considered Tony the perfect match for Joanna.
Involuntarily she smiled. Socrates might once have thought no boy was good enough for his only daughter, but now that she was twenty-nine, he really wanted her to marry. But she felt her personal life was her own. It didn't matter what Socrates thought of the men she knew. He approved of Tony, though, often assigning them joint projects to work on, a not so subtle attempt at matchmaking. And Joanna knew she could do much worse than to marry Tony.
Except that she wasn't in love with him, nor did she feel ready for marriage. Somewhere in the hidden corners of her mind lingered dreams of an ardent love, a love such as she'd had for Alex. Was that kind of passion an adolescent fantasy that didn't belong in the world of adult realities?
She had to see Alex again to find out. Fifteen years was a long time to nurture a memory.
The phone on the desk emitted a well-mannered chirp, but for the first time in her life she ignored it. Tony was mistaken about her enjoyment of the long hours. Too often in the past year she'd been running on adrenaline, a situation that left her feeling debilitated by the end of the day. She'd managed to hide it but knew she couldn't for much longer. She needed time away from the pressure of work.
Getting up from the chair, she walked to the window, looking out over the Vancouver skyline. The double glass insulated her from the sounds of traffic congestion on the streets below but didn't shut out the panoramic view that had often allowed her to regain peace of mind during a hectic day.
The North Shore mountains, still snow-covered in June, thrust their jagged silver peaks into the cloudless sky as always, but today their steadfast serenity failed to touch her. Her thoughts remained troubled as she pressed her forehead against the cool glass.
Why did life have to be so complicated? Her career had blossomed; many of her ambitions had already been realized. But at what cost? It was a question she'd once asked herself only in the darkness of the night. Now it surfaced to haunt her days as well.
The phone began ringing again, and she cast it a glare that had no effect on its insistent summons. Turning back to the window, she smiled as two crows, their flight as erratic as bits of charred paper, fluttered past on the other side of the glass. She could almost hear their quarrelsome squawks.
A floatplane taking off from the placid waters of Burrard Inlet crossed her vision in an orange streak. She clasped her elbows in her palms. Soon she, too, would be on a plane, a larger one, yes, but on a journey that might be called an odyssey into the past.
Joanna turned slowly, her brows knitting with annoyance at the interruption. The frown quickly turned into a smile as her father, looking distinguished in a light gray suit, stepped into the room.
"Didn't you hear the phone ringing?" he asked, giving her an indulgent smile that had more than a trace of mischief in it. "I suppose you were busy with Tony."
"Tony left some time ago, Dad. I was just thinking." She kissed his cheek, pulling a humorous little face as she stepped back. "Prickly. I don't know how Mother stands it."
Socrates laughed as he took a seat. His heavy, fast-growing beard had been a joke between them since Joanna was practically a baby. "Mountains are pretty today," he commented, his gaze going past Joanna to the window.
"Yes, they are." Sitting down, she folded her hands on the desk before her and waited expectantly. Socrates wouldn't have come to her office just to pass the time of day. But he never came directly to the point, especially when it was important. Disarming his victims by a laid-back charm was his policy.
"What did Tony want?" He kept his eyes on the view.
Joanna pretended to read a letter she picked up from the IN basket, taking her time about answering. "He wanted a file."
Socrates's dark gaze swung back to her. Although Joanna kept her eyes down, she was aware of his keen scrutiny. "Nothing else?"
He was so predictable. Hiding her amusement, she looked at him, her blue eyes wide and innocent. "What else could he want?"
"You to make up your mind," Socrates said bluntly. "This business of going on holiday alone to some village in Greece that barely a dot on the map... It's time you stopped dangling Tony on a string. He'd make an excellent husband."
Now we get to the real business, Joanna thought, trying to control her anger. "When and if I decide to marry, I will find my own husband." The words came out with deceptive mildness.
Socrates regarded her intently for a moment. "Tony's in love with you, you know."
Joanna kept her expression carefully bland. Although she suspected it, she hadn't realized anyone else could see the depth of Tony's feelings. "Now, Papa," she said, reverting to her childhood name for him. "We're just friends."
He crossed one leg over the other, adjusting the crease in his immaculate trousers. "Tony's not just friends. I've got eyes. But if you don't give him some encouragement, you'll lose him."
"How can I lose him when I don't have him?" Joanna busied herself with the next item from the IN basket, hoping he'd take the hint.
"He loves you, but he's not going to wait forever." This last was said in a dark voice, portending doom. Joanna swallowed a laugh. Socrates reveled in the theatrical. "And you're not getting any younger. Time you settled down and had some babies."
"When I'm ready," Joanna said calmly, drawing on the experience of nearly three decades of dealing with her father's autocratic tendencies.
Socrates shifted in the chair, fussing with the knot in his red and gray striped tie. "Tony's ready now. Why, just the other day he was complaining about the way you've been keeping him at arm's length. And this business of rushing off to Greece, to Mikrohori, of all places."
"I have business in Volos," she reminded him. "And it's time I looked at Katerina's house and decided what to do with it."
"Tony said something about your looking Alex up while you're in Volos?"
Joanna jerked her head up. She'd mentioned Alex a couple of times to Tony, even admitting to the crush she'd had on him when they'd discussed teenage escapades. Tony also knew that Alex lived in Volos, but Joanna hadn't revealed that aspect of her plans to him. Obviously he'd reached some rather astute conclusions on his own. "I may need legal counsel when I deal with the hotel manager there," she said in a neutral tone. "Alex is the logical choice."
Socrates scowled with a disapproval she hadn't seen him use toward her since she was about twelve. "There are other lawyers in Greece, Joanna. I know how it was between you and Alex--"
"How it was, past tense," Joanna interrupted crisply. "A lot of years have gone by since then."
"He hurt you, Joanna, leaving like that and then never writing."
"He wrote." But even as she said the words, a twinge of remembered pain stabbed her heart.
"Sure," Socrates said. "To your brother, and to us as a family at Christmas, but never to you personally."
"You don't know that." Pride forced her to make the protest.
"Yes, I do. I saw the hurt in your eyes every time. There wasn't a single personal note for you."
Joanna shuffled the sheets of paper on her desk. "I've gotten over it. But it would be rude for me to go to Volos and not look up Alex."
"As long as you remember it's business." Socrates stood up, buttoning his suit jacket across his flat stomach. "Joanna, if you want some advice--don't give me that long suffering look--forget Alex. I know how it is with kids but it was puppy love, and over a long time ago. Tony's real and here. You can't bring back the past."
Joanna met the fierceness of his gaze, her heart swelling at the realization of how much he loved her, how he would have died rather than see her hurt. But he had to know he couldn't protect her forever. Ever since she'd left her teens, she'd had to assert her independence, and she'd generally succeeded by employing diplomacy and a knowledge of how Socrates thought. His interference had never diminished her love for him. Neither did his machinations now, but she wished he'd leave Tony out of them.
As for Alex, well, that was something she had to settle on her own.
"Dad, I do love you." She smiled as his expression softened. "But I am an adult," she continued firmly. "I have to live my own life, make my own mistakes."
"And this may be the biggest one." Socrates turned toward the door. "If you don't make up your mind about Tony soon--"
"Wait," Joanna called after him. "What was it you wanted?"
But he was gone, and she concluded that he'd gotten what he wanted, or at least said his piece. She sighed. Never mind. They'd had these little altercations before. One of the most serious had happened on the day Joanna had moved out of the family home into her own apartment. The storms always passed, leaving the bond between them stronger than ever. Socrates would come around.
By the following afternoon Socrates had apparently forgotten their argument. He drove Joanna to the airport, respecting her silence as they entered the terminal. He knew she didn't particularly like to fly although it was a necessary part of her job. Every trip brought an apprehension she tried to hide but which only disappeared when the plane was safely airborne.
In fact, the discomforts of flying were far from Joanna's mind, driven out by a vague guilt. She'd been unable to reach Tony to say goodbye. Her rather cavalier dismissal of his concerns yesterday had come back to bother her later in the day. She'd gone to the office this morning with the intention of making it up to him, only to find he'd flown to San Francisco to take care of an emergency in the Paradise hotel there. He'd left her a note wishing her luck, but the impersonal tone of the words had left her dissatisfied.
At the security point, Socrates hugged her tightly, conveying his love even though their conversation in the car had been confined to last minute advice on how she should handle the possible purchase of the hotel in Volos. "Remember what I told you, Joanna."
"I know, Dad," Joanna assured him patiently. "It's not the first such negotiations I've handled."
"But this Mahalis Samaras is a Greek. They're very canny."
Joanna's eyes twinkled. Canny Greeks, she thought. With a father like Socrates, she knew all about that. "Yes, Dad, I'll be careful that they don't put anything over on me. If I can't make a deal with Samara, I'll demand to see the owner, the mystery man who keeps such a low profile. You didn't happen to find out his name, did you?"
Although Joanna had set up the appointment with Samaras, Socrates was the one who'd originally told her the hotel was for sale, a piece of news he'd garnered through one or another of his friends. Networking was very much alive in the large Greek community in Vancouver. Few business opportunities were announced; business transactions often depended on following up a hot rumor.
"No, I haven't." Socrates shook his head. "I've been asking around, but so far nothing."
"Oh, well, it probably doesn't matter," Joanna said philosophically. She would have liked to have had more concrete information on the deal, but it wasn't critical. In the past, she'd gone into negotiations with even less. "Samaras assured me he has full authority."
"I'm sure you'll handle it, Joanna." Socrates enfolded her in an embrace that seemed more fervent than usual. She hugged him back, her heart warming at his words, at the confidence he showed in her, which he rarely vocalized.
"I'll give you a call after the meeting," she promised, letting him go. "Give Mother my love and tell her I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to speak to her this morning."
"She's always at those charity things lately," Socrates grumbled. A standard grumble, Joanna knew. He was proud of Mary's success in fundraising.
"You'll see her this evening, Dad."
"Sure, I will." He gave her another quick hug. "Have a good holiday, Joanna. And good luck with Samaras." He paused, then added, "Be careful."
With Samaras? Or with Alex? Joanna shook her head as she headed into the security line. Socrates worried too much.
Reaching Mikrohori on the west coast of the Pelion peninsula proved to be more complicated than Joanna had anticipated. After a long, exhausting flight to Athens, she had to endure a tedious five hour bus trip to Volos, where she spent the night. She was aware that Alex's office wasn't far from her hotel, but she was too hot and tired to seriously consider dropping in. She wanted to be looking and feeling her very best when she met him again.
Early the next morning, discovering that buses to the village ran only once a day and made frequent stops, she struck a deal with a taxi driver to drive her there. Two hours in a noisy Mercedes along a twisting road that sometime followed the coast and sometimes delved inland over tree-cloaked hills brought her to the village.
The house, she saw when she reached it, was in excellent condition, exactly as the lawyer's letter had described it. And considerably more substantial. She'd expected a cottage of perhaps four rooms. Instead she found a two-story structure solidly built of the gray local stone, sitting in a well-tended garden filled with flowers.
The key she'd possessed for over a year fitted smoothly into the lock, another indication that the house was being cared for by somebody. Alex? Or someone hired by him? She knew he owned most of the land that surrounded the place. He probably still used the house, which had served as a summer retreat for various members of his family in the past.
She shivered despite the oppressive heat. What was he like now? When they met, would she even know him?
The heavy wooden door swung open soundlessly, letting her into a tiled hall that was blessedly cool. Setting down her suitcase, she exhaled slowly. It was perfect, a haven from the heat, a shelter from the pressure that had become a way of life for her. She could hardly wait to settle in and take a swim in the turquoise sea she'd glimpsed from the taxi.
Pushing the door closed, she lifted her arms above her head and, kicking off her sandals, executed an ecstatic little dance around the hall. She paused in the middle of a graceful turn, wriggling her toes against the cold tiles, and laughed aloud as she saw the damp footprints her hot, dusty feet had left behind.
Dust and sand seeped into everything, she'd noticed, although the spacious hall around her appeared immaculate. Her white cotton dress, crisply pressed when she'd put it on that morning, hung limp and wilted. Worst of all, she'd picked up a smudge on the skirt that looked suspiciously like engine oil, probably impossible to remove.
She glanced up the stair, then at the doors opening off the hall. Where was the bathroom? She needed a shower.
She stooped to pick up the suitcase she'd set just inside the door, grimacing at the grittiness of sand against her palm. Dropping the handle, she pulled a tissue from her pocket to wipe her hands.
A muffled noise somewhere in the house jerked her to attention. She froze, listening intently, but when she heard nothing further, she shook her head. Fancies, that was all. An old house like this was bound to give a few arthritic creaks.
Using the ragged bit of tissue, she wiped the handle of the suitcase, then straightened, glancing around for a waste bin. A large framed print of a typical Greek cottage caught her eyes. The brilliant clashing colors of a red door set in an ochre wall against a Prussian blue backdrop of sea seemed to personify the charming exuberance of the Greek spirit.
She would be happy here. She would be able to regain her perspective on her life.
She made another little pirouette around the hall, laughing in delight as a sunbeam slanted through the window high on the wall and set dust motes dancing.
A shadow crossed the sunbeam. She paused, hands slowly falling to her sides. The fine hairs on her nape prickling, she looked up.
And met a pair of black eyes that looked as startled as she felt.
For a moment, the hall spun around her as she fought to bring her emotions under control.
"Alex?" she said tentatively. "Alex Gregory?"
She would have known his voice anywhere. It had changed, become deeper, but he still had that hint of an indefinable accent that was the result of his having lived in various countries around the world.
For the space of ten heartbeats they stared at each other. Then Alex smiled faintly. "Joanna, welcome home."
A strange greeting, but she supposed it was partly correct. This was her house. She had a right to think of it as home. She gathered her tattered composure, willing her heart to stop pounding. "You scared me. I didn't expect to find anyone here."
His mouth curved, his smile broadening. "I often sail my boat down from Volos for a weekend, so I usually stay here. I didn't think you'd mind. How are you, Joanna? I see you've finally decided to visit the land of your ancestors."
She tilted her head to look squarely at him, wondering if she imagined a hint of sarcasm in his low voice. "I've been to Greece before."
"Flying over for a weekend to cut the ribbon of a new hotel hardly counts. How long are you staying?"
"Two weeks, maybe a bit longer."
She couldn't take her gaze off him, the tissue crushed to shreds in her damp hand, forgotten. He leaned negligently on the stair rail, black eyes narrowed as he stared back at her.
He had changed over the years.
He was lean and muscular, but no longer skinny. His shoulders, filled out and broadened in adulthood, were bronze and bare under the black tank top he wore tucked into off-white jeans.
His face had altered most, the angular boy's features molded into a hard, handsome maturity. His eyes, black as moonless midnight, moved restlessly over her, and in them she saw cynicism, as if he'd lost the dreams he'd confided to her so long ago. Only around his mouth lingered traces of the sensitivity she knew he was capable of.
"Come on," he said, coming the rest of the way down and picking up her suitcase. "I'll show you around."
He stepped aside to let her go ahead up the stairs. She could hear the amusement in his voice as he murmured, "I so enjoyed that little dance you did just now. Proves you still know how to play."
The irony of the statement struck Joanna. In her mind the opposite was true. She looked down at her wrinkled dress, the black stain, seeing herself through his eyes. Her face felt hot; no doubt it was shiny and flushed. Alex must think her the urchin she'd so often resembled in her teens, with tangled hair and untidy clothes, she thought in dismay. Yes, she'd wanted to see him, but on her own terms.
"You haven't seen me in fifteen years, Alex," she said as he joined her at the top of the stairs. "I've changed."
He turned toward her, reaching out to run a fingertip along the faint lines that bracketed her mouth, lightly tracing the tiny furrow above her nose. His touch was cool, conveying a tenderness that was at odds with the dark intensity of his eyes. "Yes, you have changed, Joanna. You look stressed out. I recognize that look because it's how I was before I came to Volos."
Stressed out. Burned out. What was the difference? If he could see it, it only confirmed what she suspected.
Burnout. The word nagged her, like a dull toothache, but its implications had lost much of their power to frighten her. The question of whether she was allowing pride and ambition rather than personal choice to dictate her life and her career had become too important.
She followed him down the hall. He showed her several bedrooms, neatly appointed but obviously unused. Near the end of the hall he directed her into what must have been the master bedroom when the house had been occupied by his aunt. The room was large, with wide windows that gave a panoramic view of the pebbled beach, the sea, and the village along its edge.
She looked around, noting the casual pine furniture, the wide bed covered by a light blanket. The ceilings were high, the open windows with their billowing lace curtains bringing the freshness of the sea into the room.
She took a deep breath of the salt-scented breeze, already feeling more relaxed. Here she could rest, knit up her frayed inner resources, and decide her future, even map out a new one if necessary. She'd always dreamed of buying a small country inn and running it on her own. Out here, away from corporate pressures, it didn't seem so impractical after all.
Her eyes fell on the masculine toiletries that lay on the mirrored, old-fashioned vanity, and serenity fled. Alex's things. With a start, she realized this was where he was staying.
"You can have this room," he said, "since it's now your house."
"But--but it's yours," she stammered, her face flushing anew.
The muscles under the bronzed skin flexed as he lifted one shoulder. "I was leaving, anyway."
"Yes, the weekend's over. It's Monday and I've got to get back to my office. You'll have the house all to yourself."
As he spoke, he scooped the shaving gear and hairbrush into a small canvas bag, slinging the strap over his shoulder. "There're two closets. One is empty. You can use it."
From a corner he took a duffel bag, stuffing a heap of wrinkled sheets into it. "I've put fresh sheets on the bed. I'll bring these back the next time I come."
"But you didn't even know I was coming," she pointed out, puzzled.
"No, but I always leave the place tidy since it's not really mine any more."
A chill crept into her stomach, a peculiar sense of apprehension, as if she'd forgotten something vital. Before she could analyze the feeling, or respond to Alex's apparently off-hand remark, he spoke again. "You weren't at the funeral."
Funeral? For a moment she floundered in confusion. Then comprehension dawned, followed swiftly by guilt. His aunt. Her godmother.
But her tone was determinedly steady. "No, I was trying to straighten out some trouble at one of our hotels in the Caribbean. I knew Katerina was in hospital, but she seemed to be recovering. Then she had that second stroke and it was all over."
He gazed at her, his mouth a thin line below his perfect, straight nose."You should have been there."
She'd told herself that a thousand times, racked with remorse when she'd returned to Vancouver to find the woman she'd looked on as a grandmother, not only gone but two days in her grave.
"I couldn't," she said, hating the defensiveness in her voice. Excuses trembled on her lips, but she bit them back. They were valid, she knew, but Alex wouldn't see it that way. She hadn't either. It was guilt that had kept her from claiming her inheritance before this.
"Really, Joanna?" he said, a cynical smile curling his lips.
Shouldering the duffel bag, he brushed past her and headed for the stairs. A moment later she heard the solid thud of the front door. The sound echoed in her heart with a painful finality.