"Your father is alive."
The words beat a painful tempo in Alexa's brain, blocking out the roar of traffic on the busy Volos street behind her. She stared at the man who had uttered them.
He looked back at her, face expressionless, dark eyes hooded. She didn't like his eyes. They were cold and hard, like wet pebbles on a beach, the kind of eyes she imagined a reptile having.
Her father alive? A chill ran over her skin despite the heat of the October sun. She shook her head. She must have misunderstood--that, or her lingering jet lag was worse than she'd thought. The statement was too fantastic, and there was no reason for her to believe this stranger.
She stood up, the sturdy cafe chair teetering. "It's not true." Her thigh bumped the small table and water sloshed in the glasses.
Before she could get away, a large hand gripped her wrist. "Please, you must listen."
"Let go of me," she said tightly.
"If you'll stay for just a moment." He withdrew his hand. Against her better judgment, she sank down on her chair.
The heavyset man leaned forward, gazing at her earnestly. "My dear Mrs. Thetalou, your father, Dimitrios Doukas, is alive."
Tears pricked her eyes, but she blinked to control them. With an effort, she kept her voice steady. "That's impossible. He died over twenty-five years ago. His brother came back and told us." His brother, her uncle, who was also dead.
The man shrugged. "Greece was in a state of turmoil at the time. Mistakes were made. You've seen the Albanians who've come into Greece in the past year since the border was opened?"
She nodded. How could one help it? Poor, ragged, sleeping in the woods or in abandoned buildings, mostly men but some women and children as well--there were thousands of them, wandering the countryside and gathering in the cities. Refugees, looking for a better life.
The man sipped from the cup of coffee he'd ordered. Hiding her impatience, Alexa watched as he fastidiously blotted his upper lip with a white handkerchief. A thin mustache sat below a prominent nose, the ends joining a neat salt-and-pepper goatee that gave definition to his moon-shaped face.
"I hired a group of Albanians to work on my property," he said finally. "One of the men seemed to be better educated than the others, and I put him in charge of the crew. He reported to me every evening. I asked him how he'd learned Greek. There are, of course, many Albanians who speak the language, but it's a kind of dialect. This man's Greek was pure. He told me that years ago he'd had a friend who had taught him Greek, a man named Dimitrios Doukas. After eight or nine years in Albania, this Doukas left. He said goodbye to the family he lived with and walked down the road. They didn't hear from him again."
He paused. His dark eyes searched Alexa's face as if trying to gauge her reaction. Hoping her features remained expressionless, she clenched her hands tightly in her lap to hide their trembling.
"Until a year ago." The words dropped into the silence like a bomb. "The family received a letter, postmarked Ioannina, telling them he was well and settled back in Greece. A sum of money was enclosed, an amount that to them seemed large, although in fact it was only the equivalent of one thousand American dollars. But there was no return address, no way they could trace him."
Alexa shook herself. She wasn't convinced, not without some kind of proof. She'd been six when her father was reported dead, killed in an accident after fleeing political enemies.
He had left a letter, to be opened after his death, advising her mother, Olympia, to leave Greece, to go to Canada where Dimitrios and Olympia had lived in the early years of their marriage. There was money in a bank account. Realizing that she and Alexa were also in danger, Alexa's mother had packed their few belongings and had taken her daughter to Vancouver.
This was the story she'd told Alexa. Alexa didn't remember any of it, not Elatos, the village where they'd lived for less than a year, nor the long journey to the West Coast of Canada. She only remembered her mother crying sometimes at night, when she was tired from a long day of work in a restaurant kitchen.
Surely if her father had been alive, they would have heard from him. Alexa had only dim memories of him, a gentle man who had told her stories in a deep voice that rumbled in his chest when she sat on his knee and laid her cheek against him. She had loved her Papa, and hadn't understood why he had to leave. But her mother had explained to her that bad men wanted to hurt him and that he needed to go far away to hide from them.
"How did you find me?" she asked the man sitting across from her. "And what did you say your name was?"
He smiled briefly. She saw that his right incisor was crooked, almost overlapping the tooth next to it. The imperfection made his lip curl, almost turning the smile into a sneer. She thought she detected a sly gleam in his eyes and vowed to be even more on her guard.
"Kritikos," he said. "Pavlo Kritikos. I know your aunt Eleni. She told me you'd gone shopping, that you liked to watch the ships come in, so I was likely to find you here on the waterfront. At this time of year, after the tourist season, one doesn't see many blondes. You were easy to find."
And an easy mark? Alexa wondered. She didn't trust the man; he was too glib, too friendly.
And his story, of course, was crazy.
"Why didn't my aunt tell me this?"
"She didn't know. I only heard it myself a short time ago. We knew you were coming to Greece, so I decided to wait until you were here. As you probably know, your aunt Eleni doesn't think kindly of your father deserting his family."
Alexa straightened in her chair, grimacing as she tasted her cold coffee. Bitter, like the taste of this tantalizing string of lies. Still, she couldn't think of a possible motive; perhaps she should give him the benefit of the doubt.
"Where is this Albanian?" she asked. "I'd like to talk with him myself."
The broad face took on a look of regret. "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Thetalou. That's impossible. Regrettably, his papers weren't in order and he was deported back to Albania."
"That does it." Alexa stood up, her emotions churning until anger was uppermost. She dropped a handful of coins on the table for her coffee. "Find someone else to tell your lies to. I'm not buying it."
The man remained seated, unperturbed. "If you want to check it out, go to Elatos, in the region of Epirus."
Despite her misgivings, four days later Alexa found herself in a tiny rented Renault, lurching along a road that resembled a dry riverbed. The mountains of Epirus towered around her, jagged ramparts thrusting into a hard blue October sky. Near the road, the slopes were clothed in a blanket of trees that did little to soften the forbidding gray crags glowering in the distance.
She'd driven for an hour since leaving the main highway northwest of Ioannina, and hadn't encountered another soul. The only evidence of human activity was the neatly trimmed logs stacked at intervals along the road, awaiting collection by a logging truck. She prayed the pickup wasn't scheduled for today; she wasn't sure there was room for her to pass a truck on the narrow track.
Protruding rocks and tree roots scraped against the bottom of the car. A four-wheel drive vehicle would have been more practical, but the rental agency in Volos had not run to anything sturdier than the Renault.
She hadn't expected the difficult conditions. Her map, with the curious optimism common to such documents, had shown the road to be at least partially paved. It had been, for two kilometers, but from there had deteriorated steadily.
How did people live here? she asked herself for the tenth time. She laughed, more to hear a human sound than out of humor. Maybe they didn't. Maybe she was on a crazy wild goose chase, all as a result of an absurd story from a stranger.
There was one thing in Kritikos's favor, though. Her aunt Eleni, her mother's sister, did know the man. Which wasn't to say she liked him. "He was in politics years ago," she'd said, her mouth turning down in contempt.
Not much of a recommendation, Alexa thought. But he'd once had connections in Elatos, friends or relatives, Eleni had assured her, so the story might be true. And furthermore, wasn't Alexa curious about her father's native village? Even if nothing came of her quest, she would see the country, gain insight into her own heritage.
Originally Alexa had planned to stay in Greece only a couple of weeks, visiting her aunt in Volos and seeing the sights in Athens. She didn't remember Elatos, and her mother had hardly mentioned the village over the years. It was Alexa's father's people who had come from there, and none of them was alive any more.
Alexa knew her mother didn't have happy memories of the place, only nightmares that had lingered for years, about war and destruction and senselessly spilled blood. Olympia only wanted to forget and, unknowingly, Alexa had absorbed this attitude.
Yet, here she was, delving into virtually unmapped mountains, searching for a man who'd been dead for more than twenty-five years.
Alexa glanced at the sky. Cobalt blue, cloudless. The sun was hot now, but early this morning in Ioannina, her breath had formed clouds in the cold air when she'd walked from the hotel to the car.
The road began to climb again, smoother but narrowing as rocks gave way to a pale, sandy gravel. The snaggled teeth of the mountains loomed closer. Deciduous trees crowded in on the edges of the road.
Alexa shivered as the lush, dark green foliage blotted out the sun. All the travel posters portrayed Greece as a land eternally bathed in a drenching Mediterranean sun. She wasn't prepared for the green gloom that enveloped her, as oppressive as a month of rain.
In the deep shadows ahead she saw movement. A deer, perhaps, if they had deer in Greece. She couldn't remember. There were foxes here. They were supposedly nocturnal, but she'd seen one earlier, crossing the road at a leisurely pace, its bushy tail brushing the ground.
Again. A tall shrub stirred violently. She slowed the car. Two men, one of them carrying a pack, darted across the road and disappeared into the forest, too far ahead for her to make out details of their appearance.
Sweat broke out on her palms. Brought up with a sense of her own independence while her mother worked, she'd never thought of herself as vulnerable. She did now, and apprehension dried her throat. All they had to do was block the road and she would be helpless.
Before she'd left Volos her aunt had filled her head with the dangers of traveling alone, stories of drivers picking up hitchhiking refugees and being robbed--or worse. Alexa had ignored most of it, dismissing the tales as exaggeration. It occurred to her now that she should have listened more carefully.
The road leveled off, and then began to wind down into another valley. Needing all her attention to negotiate hairpin turns, Alexa stifled her momentary fear.
She steered around a curve and abruptly slammed her foot onto the brake. The little car jerked to a stop. In the middle of the road, a tan-and-white cow regarded her with mild brown eyes, its jaw swinging as it placidly chewed its cud.
Rolling down the window, Alexa waved her arm at the cow. Only its tail moved as it whisked a fly. "Shoo, cow," Alexa muttered, debating whether to get out of the car. A short debate in which caution won--she didn't like the looks of those sharp horns.
A shrill whistle sounded from the dense shrubbery beside the road. The cow turned its head, fuzzy brown ears rising to attention.
A man burst out of the bushes, his headlong rush carrying him straight into the side of the car. His sturdy boots scrabbled on the sandy road surface as he fought to regain his balance.
Bracing a hand on the roof, he bent down to the window, his nose an inch from Alexa's. "That's a dumb place to park a car."
"No dumber than where you parked your cow," she retorted. "If you'll kindly move it, I'll be happy to get out of your way." She broke off. "You spoke English," she exclaimed. "How--?"
He grinned briefly, a flash of white teeth that transformed his narrow, dark face from anger to a somewhat wary friendliness. "Your hair. Not many Greeks are so blonde, not even around here."
The grin faded, his gaze sharpening as he took in the dusty car, the single suitcase on the back seat, the map beside her. "Are you lost? You're awfully far off what one might call the beaten track."
His accent was faintly British, she thought. The muscular forearm that rested on the window ledge was bare and tanned, sprinkled with soft black hairs and trapped beads of sweat. He smelled warm, spicy.
Her stomach tensed and she leaned back, although it was impossible to put any real distance between them unless he moved away. She looked up and found his eyes locked on her face.
Remarkable eyes, they were a dark, deep blue, still and watchful, filled with shadows, as if he'd seen things others ran from. She met his gaze and felt a strange stirring in her soul. Instantly she knew that however long she lived, she would remember the haunted beauty of his eyes.
He blinked, breaking the contact with her. The long, curling, black lashes were the only soft feature in his narrow face, a face that was a little too angular to be called truly handsome. A hard face, strong bones and more than a hint of cynicism around the thin mouth.
He had a surprisingly full bottom lip, she mused irrelevantly. A mouth made for kissing. Something dark and primitive moved inside her, a sexual reaction she hadn't allowed herself since her bitter divorce.
Get real, she told herself sternly. He's probably got a wife and six children. So he's the sexiest man you've seen lately. He's not for you.
Besides, she'd only be here for a day or two. She had business to do, business that did not include daydreaming about one of the local residents.
"No, I'm not lost," she said crisply, banishing her errant thoughts. "This is the road to Elatos, isn't it?"
He stepped back and gestured with his arm. "Just ahead. Cross the bridge and you'll see the first houses. Are you looking for someone in particular?"
She hesitated. Her aunt's words echoed in her head. There had been a lot of political turmoil in Epirus during the Greek civil war and again in the sixties and seventies. Eleni was not from the area and hadn't been involved in the dispute; she had no way of knowing whether sympathy might lie with Alexa's father or with his enemies.
With this in mind, Alexa had decided to keep her own counsel until she learned more about present sentiments. "My parents lived here years ago," she said carefully. "I thought I'd have a look at the countryside."
"Oh?" His brow lifted and she could see curiosity in his eyes. "Maybe I've heard of them."
"Not likely," she said. "When they left, you would have been a child. I trust there's some sort of inn or hotel in the village?"
"Just drive straight through. You'll see it on the square." He walked around the front of the car, tapping the cow's flank with the palm of his hand.
Alexa allowed herself a moment of distraction as he strode after the cow. His movements were athletic, his body lean and fit, narrow hips clothed in faded jeans, and muscular shoulders filling out a white T-shirt.
As if he sensed her eyes on him, he turned and waved before disappearing into an unseen path off the road. Chagrined at her behavior, Alexa engaged the gear more forcefully than necessary, spinning the wheels as she clattered across the metal Bailey bridge that looked too flimsy to support the car.
Hidden in the shrubbery, Damian watched the little car trundle around the corner.
Pretty tourist? Or trouble?
Visitors rarely came to Elatos in summer, except for a stray hiker or two. By October, even some of the villagers began to make plans to spend the winter in the city.
Who was she? He didn't believe she'd just stumbled on the last unspoiled mountain village in Greece.
Well, tongues would be wagging by nightfall. A beautiful woman with blonde hair could hardly go unnoticed or untalked about. What was her real purpose here, he wondered. A search for her roots? Maybe. Maybe not. He'd sensed a reserve, a secretive evasion in her hesitation, when he'd asked who she was looking for.
He shrugged. None of his affair, as long as she wasn't a land developer looking to build a tourist hotel that would spoil the peaceful ambience, which wasn't likely. The cost of building a proper road was enough to deter the most ambitious resort scout.
A cold nose nudged him. He absently pushed the cow's head aside before she could wrap her tongue around his arm to taste the salty sweat. Setting his feet into motion, he herded the animal toward the village.
He would find out soon enough who the woman was.
And learn the color of her eyes, which had been hidden by dark sunglasses.
The village consisted of widely scattered houses, sturdily built of the local gray stone. Even the roofs were tiled with slate slabs. The entire effect would have been bleak except for the surrounding trees and the pots of bright geraniums and marigolds that decorated patios and balconies.
Quaint and picturesque, Alexa thought, pleasantly surprised. Even if the report about her father came to nothing, exploring the village would make up for the difficulty of the drive.
The square was laid with flagstones. The birch trees at the corners had started to turn a pale autumn gold. She saw the hotel, with rooms on the second floor above a small restaurant and the village office. Scarlet geraniums in window boxes splashed color against the gray stone walls.
A bell tolled the hour, eleven. Oddly, the church was not on the square, but was situated a block away, its bell tower visible down a narrow street lined with small shops.
The street and the square bustled with people doing their morning shopping. Alexa was enchanted to note that some of the women wore the heavy skirts and ornate vests of years ago. Several old men sitting on a bench wore the white leggings and pleated kilt often thought to be the national Greek costume.
She parked the car and climbed the wide steps leading into the hotel, blinking in the gloom of the lobby.
"Kali mera. Good morning." An attractive young woman with masses of dark hair greeted her from behind the restaurant bar.
"Kali mera," Alexa said politely. "Do you have a room?"
"You speak Greek," the young woman exclaimed. "Where are you from?"
"I spoke little else until I was six," Alexa said. "I'm from Canada."
"How nice. A number of people from here went to Canada, but that was many years ago." She laughed, retrieving a book from under the counter. "Before I was born, you know. Yes, we have a room. How long are you planning to stay?"
"I'm not sure. Is that a problem?"
"Not in October. We stay open all year because we get business people occasionally, wool buyers mostly, but it's quiet in winter." The girl pushed the book across the counter. "If you would sign here, please. And show me your passport."
Alexa signed her name and handed over the passport. The girl flipped it open, pen ready to jot down the information. Her hand stilled in mid-air, the smile sliding off her face.
"Thetalou?" the girl said in a voice barely above a whisper.
Avoiding Alexa's questioning look, she scribbled the number into the book and briskly handed back the document. "Have you come to visit relatives here?" she asked, an odd, almost hostile note in her voice. "Thetalou is a local name."
Alexa bit her lip against a torrent of questions. She said quietly, "I have no relatives here, and Thetalou was the name of my husband."
The girl's expression lightened marginally. "Come, I will show you your room."
They climbed a creaking wooden staircase. The upstairs corridor was lit by a window at one end, through which the sun laid a golden swath across the floor.
The room was unlocked, an old-fashioned skeleton key protruding from the keyhole. The girl pushed open the door, revealing a high-ceilinged, square chamber simply furnished with a bed, a wardrobe and a small desk. "Okay?" she asked in English.
Alexa smiled. "Okay."
The girl handed her the key. "Keep it with you. The outside door is always open. You can get your meals downstairs. I'm afraid it's the only restaurant open in Elatos at this time of year, but I promise you won't be disappointed with the food. Our cook is very good." She smiled. "My name is Poppy. Call me if you need anything."
Unpacked and settled in, Alexa left the hotel a short time later. A luridly decorated truck drove by, its speaker blaring an atonal melody played on violins and wailing clarinets. The driver leaned out of the cab, whistling. "Hey, pretty lady. Where did you get that hair?"
She ignored him, smiling inwardly. All her life, among her mother's circle of Greek friends, she had been teased about her blonde hair. It was impossible to tell the shade of Alexa's father's hair in the single, much handled black-and-white photograph Olympia had of him. "Almost blonde it was," she'd told Alexa. "Not as light as yours. His mother, your grandmother, who died when you were two, was blonde, until her ninetieth year."
It was odd, Alexa reflected now as she started down a path leading from the hotel. Both her parents and her father's had had their children late in life. Dimitrios had been fifty, Olympia thirty-eight, when Alexa, their only child, was born. "And you were a real surprise," her mother often told her. "We'd been married so long, we'd almost given up hoping for a child."
It was still early for lunch, although tantalizing smells drifted from the houses she passed on the rocky path. The sun, its heat magnified in the clear mountain air, beat down on her from the sapphire sky.
She decided to walk around the village, to get her bearings and perhaps stir long-buried childhood memories. The path was steep, the smoothly worn cobblestones hazardous underfoot. It became narrow, winding through a wooded area where there were no houses.
Again she had a feeling of unease, as the dense trees shaded her from the sun. She was being irrational, she told herself. She had no reason to feel unsafe. Even now, she could see the gold-green birch tree at the corner of the square, and hear people talking lower down the path.
Talking about her, perhaps? She'd been conscious of speculative glances as she crossed the square earlier, and of the silence that followed her. Some mystery about the name Thetalou, to go by Poppy's reaction, a curiosity only a trace short of hostility. Was it directed at her, or at anyone who bore that name?
She shivered, a sense of watching eyes prickling her consciousness. Trees arched over the path. The patch of sky visible between the green boughs seemed lower, pressing down on her like a heavy blue lid.
She whirled around, the hair standing up on her skin. There was no one in sight, but she couldn't shake the feeling as she hurried down the path.
She froze in her tracks. The voice was male, familiar, instantly recognizable although she hadn't heard it in over a year.
Her heart cramping in her chest, she turned. And stared into the hard, coffee-brown eyes of Angelo Thetalou, the last man on earth she expected or wanted to see.