Why hadn't she been paying attention?
Why hadn't she registered the horribly familiar sounds of footsteps on the gravel?
If Natalia hadn't been thinking about the silver earrings -- the type which caught the light when you moved -- she might have ignored the sharp ring of the bell. As it was, she was completely distracted when she pulled open the door to see the towering form of her enstranged husband standing there, sunlight glinting off his ebony hair.
His stance was fixed and immovable. He seemed to absorb all the light which surrounded him, like a piece of blotting paper drinking up in a dark spill of ink.
Natalia's heart contracted with pain. The last time she'd seen him he'd been knotting his tie with fingers which had been trembling with rage. A green tie, she recalled -- which matched his eyes perfectly.
His gaze licked over her now like a cobalt flame. She got the feeling he was undressing her with that gaze. Was he? Didn't he once tell her that whenever a man looked at a woman he was imagining what it might be like to make love to her? And she had listened to him of course, because Dimitris had been the expert when it came to sex and she had not. Her heart began to thump heavily in her chest.
Why was he here?
She wished she'd had time to brush her hair. She wasn't trying to impress him, but even so -- a woman still had her pride. She thought he looked shocked. As shocked as she felt -- though she suspected his momentary loss of composure was for very different reasons. She knew she looked nothing like the woman he had married. The glided creature who had gazed up at him from behind a misty veil of tulle was nothing but a distant memory. These days she wore the same clothes as other women. She did the same things as other women. No more couture and fast cars. Her hand strayed up to push an errant strand of hair behind her ear. No more expensive trips to the hair salon either.
While he, of course, looked exactly the same.
Six feet and eyes of green, Dimitris Valerianos. An olive-skinned powerhouse of a man and a legend in his native Greece. A man with a face of dark and rugged beauty. And a man she had never wanted to see again.
"D-Dimitris," she said, her voice stumbling over a word she hadn't said in a long time.
"Thank heaven for that." He gave a sardonic smile she knew so well. "For a moment back when I thought you'd forgotten me."
Natalia almost laughed because the suggestion was so ludicrous. Forget him? It would be easier to forget her own name. True, he wasn't on her mind 24/7 the way he used to be when they'd first split. Before she had decided to take herself in hand. She'd known she would never recover if she continued to obsess about him. The stern talking-to she'd given herself had carried her through the worst. It got her through those bleak, dark days when she had missed him so much that it had felt as if someone had ripped her heart out and crushed it.
But she had recovered because people always recovered, even if at the time they never thought they would. And she had survived worse things than a marriage which should never have happened in the first place.
"You're not an easy man to forget, Dimitris," she said, and then added as an afterthought, "More's the pity."
He laughed the but it sounded strange. Maybe she just wasn't used to the sound of make laughter any more. Or the sight of a man -- any man -- turning up on the doorstep of her cottage and staring at her with such a disturbing sense of entitlement.
His green eyes bored into her. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
Something about his demeanor was unsettling ans Natalia felt a flicker of foreboding. "Is there any point?"
"You're not even a bit curious to discover why I'm here?" He gaze moved over her shoulder, to glance into the cozy interior of her cottage. "Why I've driven all the way down from London to this godforsaken little place you've chosen to live in?"
"I imagine it must be for your benefit and yours alone," she answered. "And if that's the case, then I'm not interested. I've got nothing to say to you that hasn't already been said."
"I wouldn't speak too soon if I were you, Nat,"
"Veiled threats won't work, Dimitris." She gave him a tight smile. "Time after time you've refused to give me a divorce and we seem to have reached a stalemate. So unless you've got the papers with you, it's going to have to be hello and goodbye. I'm sorry if you've had a wasted journey but..."
She began to close the door on him but was stopped by his frankly outrageous action of inserting one soft Italian shoe into the narrowing space. For a moment she actually thought about pushing all her weight against it but Natalia knew there was no point in trying. She was strong for a woman, but he was built like an ox. She remembered the first time he'd picked her up and carried her effortlessly to bed. How she had purred her pleasure out loud. Natalia shuddered at the memory. How could she even have been that woman?
"I don't need your strong-arm tactics," she said.
His eyes met hers and Natalia knew this was one battle she wasn't going to win. "Then I suppose you'd better come in," she said ungraciously. "Perhaps you'd like to beat your chest like an ape while you're at it?"
"I might," he agreed. "I know how much that macho stuff turns you on."
Don't rise to it, she told herself when though she could tell from the cool smile on his face that she seemed to be enjoying this. But then Dimitris thrived on battle, didn't he? He liked the frisson and the taste of triumph. That was one of the things reasons for his global success and his boardroom victories.
Over his shoulder, she could see his gleaming limousine parked awkwardly at the bottom of the tiny lane. It couldn't have been more in your face if it had tried and she hoped none of her neighbours were home. She had tired of the same which had once been hers and had done her best to leave it all behind. She worked hard at being normal. She'd spent time blending into her local community, trying to prove that she was just like everyone else. The last thing she wanted was for Dimitris Valerianos to come along and blow all her efforts with one ostentatious display of wealth. "You're taking up a lot of space worth that gas-guzzling piece of machinery,"
"You want me to ask my driver to move it?" He raised his eyebrows. "I could send her away for a couple of hours, if you like."
Stupidly, one word registered above all the others. A word which echoed annoyingly in her head. "You have a female driver?" She questioned, unprepared for the flash of primitive jealousy which shot through her.
"Why not?" He shrugged. "Weren't you always telling me that I should practice a little more equality?"
"Your idea of equality ended when women got the vote, Dimitris. I thought you didn't like female drivers? You went into about my driving often enough."
"That was different," he said, shutting the door behind him and giving her a patronizing smile. "You are temperamentally unsuited to being behind the wheel of a car, Nat. Probably because of your artistic nature."
She'd only been in his company for five minutes but already Natalia wanted to tip her head back and scream. But anger was good, she told herself. It kept the adrenaline flowing. It stopped her thinking about the pain of the past. It stopped her from wanting him. And that was the crazy and scary thing. That she still wanted him.
"So why are you here?" she asked. "To remind me how lucky I am not to have to put up with your sexiest attitude any more -- or is there something else on the agenda?"
For a moment Dimitris didn't answer. Instead he let his eyes travel over her, slowly acquainting himself with someone he'd once known better than any other woman. But the truth was that he was taken aback by her appearance.
The Natalia he'd met and fallen in love with had been a glossy pop-star. A woman with fame at her fingertips and a world who couldn't get enough of her. 'Sexy Nati' the press used to call her and they hadn't been wrong. Everyone told him she was the last woman he should have married. That a woman like her was ill-suited to a man with such fiercely traditional Greek values. Even when she had abandoned her singing career and tried to play the good wife with varying degrees of success, people had still regarded her with suspicion and subsequent events seemed to have proven them right.
Yet the Natalia who stood before him now was a low-key version of the woman who had turned heads whenever she'd walked down the street. The shiny red hair -- her trademark look -- had gone. She still wore it long, bit now it was black to it's natural colour, it hung over one shoulder in a thick plait of strawberry-blonde. Gone were the contact lenses she was always losing and instead, her silvery-blue eyes were accentuated by a pair of dark-rimmed spectacles. He didn't think he'd ever seen her wearing glasses before and they made her look oddly serious and surprisingly sexy. The only jewellery she wore was a pair of silver earrings -- heavy twists of metal which caught the light as she moved.
In faded jeans and a plain cotton shirt, her transformation couldn't have been more dramatic and it was hard to reconcile this new sober image with the glittering woman he'd married. But with Natalia, what you saw wasn't necessarily what you got. Of every woman he'd ever known -- and there had been quite a few -- she had depths like no other. Hidden, mercurial depths which had captivated him from the start.
"You've changed," he said slowly.
She answered his scrutiny with a shrug, even though she could feel the inevitable sting of wounded pride. Because she had seen that look in his eyes and had known exactly what it meant. She had been judged and found wanting and even if it shouldn't hurt, it did.
If she'd known he was coming she would have put on some make-up and changed out of her old jeans. She might have disagreed with such a plan of principle, but what woman wouldn't have made an effort if she'd known she was about to come face-to-face with one of the most desirable men in the world?
"Most people change, Dimitris," she said. "It's one of the few certainties in life." But she thought that, as usual, he had managed to buck the trend, because everything about him seemed exactly the same. The same thick black hair, which could never quite be tamed, no matter how expensive his barber. The same effortless elegance -- easy when you had a body of muscular perfection which radiated easy power. He always wore a suit when he was in England and today was no different. His only concession to the warm summer day had been to ditch his tie and loosen the top two buttons of his shirt, but that made him look disturbingly accessible. And he wasn't, she reminded herself. He definitely wasn't.
She fixed him with an inquisitive look, knowing that she needed to get rid of him and as quickly as possible. "So are you going to tell me why you're here?" she said. "Maybe it's my lucky day and you have go those divorce papers. Or are you still stalling?"
Dimitris tensed, her flippant tone reminding him of the essential differences between them. Keep reminding yourself of those, he thought grimly. "I prefer to think of it as giving time for the dust to settle rather than stalling. You know my views on divorce, Nat," he said. "Half the problems in this world can be laid at the door of broken marriages."
"But when two people can't live together -- what's the alternative?" she questioned. "A life of misery with two people trapped in a relationship which has become a nightmare? Surely the world has moved on from that?"
He ignored that. "Aren't you going to invite me to sit down?" His gaze flickered around the cluttered room. "To offer me some coffee and show a little hospitality? Black mark for you, Nat. Have you forgotten all the things you learnt as my wife? Was all my tuition wasted?"
It was a dig at her background. She knew that. He was attacking her where she was at her most vulnerable -- a position from which she could never fight back. But today she wasn't going to take the bait because nobody could help where they came from. The only thing which mattered was the person they had become. And she had become a person who was no longer dazzled by the Greek billionaire's arrogance or impeccable background.
"I certainly haven't forgotten your high-handedness and sense of privilege," she said coolly. "But since you're clearly not going anywhere, we might as well do this with a degree of civility. Even if we both know it's only a veneer."
"Oh Nat," he murmured. "What a cynic you have become."
"I learnt from the very best," she retorted, leaving him standing in the middle of her sitting room as she went out into the kitchen to make coffee.
Her fingers were trembling as she boiled the kettle and spooned coffee into a pot. Why had he turned up now, when she'd just about got her life back on track?
When she'd seen -- if not exactly a light at the end of the tunnel -- at least some hint that the world didn't have to stay black and miserable for ever.
It hadn't been easy, going from being a famous pop-star to wife of a global magnate -- and then back to relative obscurity again. Sometimes her life seemed to have had more transitions than a quick-change artist. The failure of her marriage had been almost unbearably painful at times, but she had come through it. She had survived.
But now it all came rushing back. The pain and the fear. The look on Dimitris face when he'd finally arrived at the hospital with eyes like stone, when she'd lost her baby. The second pregnancy she had failed to carry. When she'd discovered just how unbearably painful a late miscarriage could be. The memory was so overwhelming that for a moment Natalia had to lean over the sink, sucking in several deep breaths of air until she'd composed herself enough to go back into the sitting room.
She set the tray down. He was sitting in a chair which seemed too small for him and his brooding figure seemed to dominate the room.
"So," she said, handing him a cup. But she didn't sit down and join him. She didn't want to do anything remotely intimate because that was fraught with danger. She perched her bottom on the window sill, thinking that looking down on him from a height might give her something of a psychological advantage.
"So,"he echoed. Pushing aside a pile of brochures which were piled up on the coffee table, he put his cup down and looked around. "This is a bit of a fall from Greece, isn't it?"
She knew it was stupid to react but, even so, Natalia couldn't stop herself from bristling with indignation. "This is my home and I love it," she said. "At least I can close the door at the end of the day and know that I'll find peace inside."
"But it is small. Surprisingly small." He fixed his gaze on two goldfish which were swimming round and round in a bowl. Goldfish? Since when did his wife start keeping fish? He frowned. "I realize that no alimony had been finalized --"
"And I've told you that I don't need your money!"
"Which is clearly not true if you're having to live like this."
"I like living like this!"
"Do you? Yet you walked away from a life where you had homes all over the world -- beautiful homes?"
"They were your homes, Dimitris, not mine."
"And now they tell me you are working as a jewellery designer?"
"They?" Natalia raised her eyebrows. "No need to ask how you found out. I suppose you hired some private investigator to spy on me."
"I don't consider finding out a few basic facts about my wife to be 'spying'," he answered. "I'm just intrigued by the life you've chosen. You earned a fortune when you were with the band. What's happened to all the money?"
She sucked in a breath, tempting to tell him to mind his own business. Because it wasn't his business and he had no right delving into it. But Natalia knew how persistent he could be. How he liked the facts to be laid out in front of him. If he wanted to know something he was only going to find out anyway -- because when you were a man like Dimitris Adrian Valerianos, you could find out pretty much anything you pleased.
"A lot of it went on my... family."
"Ah yes. Your family." He picked up his coffee and sipped it, wincing slightly at the weakness of the brew. Her background had added to her general unsuitability as a Valerianos wife. She came from the kind of dysfunctional family which had been completely outside his experience. Her mother had never been married and her three children had been fathered by unknown and absent men. The ramshackle, gypsy-like quality of Natalia's home life had appalled him -- but even that had not been strong enough to take the edge off his hunger for her. He had brushed aside suggestions that two people from such differing backgrounds might never find any mutual areas of compatibility and had married her anyway. "How are they?"
Natalia's eyes narrowed with suspicion because there was an odd note in his voice and it was alarming her. Dimitris didn't usually enquire solicitously about her family and he certainly didn't drive nearly two hundred miles in order to do so. In the past she might have asked him why he wanted to know -- when she was still in that honeymoon phase of believing that things like that mattered. When all their dreams had been intact and lying ahead of them. But she had moved beyond that phase a long time ago and his opinions were no longer relevant.
"They're okay," she said.
She met his eyes and gave a sigh of resignation. "Look, you've obviously got something on your mind -- so why not just come out and say it?"
There was a pause. "I've seen your brother."
"My brother?" she echoed in alarm, because this could only mean trouble. Hiding her sudden sense of fear, she composed her features into an expression of mild interest. "Which one?"
"I think you know very well which one. Jadon."
Natalia's heart was now going, thud, this, thud. Jadon. Of course. Jadon who had been trouble from the moment he was born. Still she kept the tremble from her voice, trying to make her question sound as indulgent as the question of any caring sister. "What did he want?"
Dimitris put his cup down with a small sound of exasperation, watching as her heavy-lidded eyes suddenly became hooded. "Let's dispense with the air of innocence, shall we? You're not stupid, Nat. What do you think he wanted?"
The invisible hand which was clenched around her heart grew even tighter and Natalia knew that the time for pretence had passed. "Money, I'm guessing," she said numbly.
"Money!" he agreed. "That thing he can't do without. The one thing he's never bothered to earn himself throughout his useless, idle life."
"Please don't insult him."
"Oh, c'mon -- isn't that taking sisterly loyalty a little too far? Since when did the truth become an insult -- or have you spent so long avoiding it that you just don't see it any more? And maybe here's a truth you really should take on board." His body stilled and his eyes grew watchful. "Don't you see that giving him everything he wants has helped make him the man he is today?"
Furiously, she shook her head and glared at him. Because how would someone like Dimitris ever understand? Dimitris who had been born into a world of lavish wealth. He hadn't known what it was like to come home from school to an empty fridge. To have to cut a hole at the top of your shoes because you'd outgrown them.
In Dimitris' world there had been relatives -- far too many of them in her opinion -- and servants, who had all doted on him. He'd never had to go to the police station to bail out his drunken mother and then to lie about it to social services, terrified that the family would be split up of the truth ever emerged. He'd never had to hold a terrified and sobbing child who had woken up from yet another nightmare to discover that the real world could be infinitely worse.
"You don't understand." She said.
"Oh, I think I do," he said coldly. "Jadon has found that the well of easy money you've always provided has run dry -- so who better to turn to than his wealthy brother-in-law?"
The thudding of her heart increased. "What does he wants money for?"
"Why do you think? To mop up the mess he's made of his life with his gambling addiction."
Natalia closed her eyes as a terrible sense of inevitability crept over her. She'd tried everything to help Jadon with his gambling habit. In the early days she had sat down and talked to him and he had lied through his teeth and told her he'd quit. She'd believed every word he'd said as she'd signed over yet another cheque supposed to help put him back on the straight and narrow. Or maybe she had just wanted to believe it. Later, she had paid for the first of many visits to the rehab clinic -- until he was kicked out of the last one for starting up a poker school with his fellow patients.
She opened her eyes to find Dimitris studying her. "I expect that you told him no and sent him away," she said. "In fact, I'm rather hoping you did. The last counsellor I spoke to told me that I should 'withdraw with love'." She saw the perplexed look on Dimitris face as he heard the term and she remembered how disparaging he'd been about people how had sought professional help for their problems. " It means you have to stop giving him money and bailing him out. It's supposed to make him take control of his own life."
"Actually, I didn't send him away."
"You didn't give him money?" Her voice rose in alarm. "That's what's known in the business as 'enabling'."
"I don't give a damn what it's known as!" he bit out. "I'm more concerned with the consequences of his actions."
Her fear growing by the second, Natalia blinked at him from behind her glasses. "What are you talking about?'
"I'm talking about the fact that Jadon has borrowed money. Lots of it. Against your name -- and against mine as it happens, since we are still legally married and the Valerianos connection is like liquid gold," Resolutely, he ignored the horrified widening of her eyes. "He had built up the kind of debts which made even my eyes water -- and I'm no stranger to large sums of money --"
"How much?" She butted in.
He told her and Natalia blanched because she didn't have that kind of money. Not any more.
"And the kind of people he's borrowed it from tend to get rather...angry if they don't get their loans back," he continued.
Natalia's hand flew to her mouth. She could feel the hot rush of breath against her fingers as Dimitris green gaze iced into her. "What are we going to do?"
Dimitris nodded as a grim feeling of satisfaction washed over him, because that was the first sensible thing she'd said. We. "It looks like I'm going to have to pay off his debt for him---"
"There's no alternative, unless you happen to have the money sitting stashed away. That is, unless you want his pretty face altered out of all recognition?" His eyelashes suddenly narrowed. "These people can be dangerous, you know."
Natalia know about danger. She'd grown up surrounded by it. And hadn't that been one of the best things about her sudden fame -- that she'd been able to escape from the dark and seedy side of life? The last thing she wanted was for Jadon to be catapulted back to that place, where nothing seemed safe. She looked at Dimitris' hard features, realising that he was offering to help. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me until you've heard what it entails," he said. "I'll pay off his debt for him -- but this time, he doesn't go back to his old life and repeat the same old pattern. And neither does he go into some fancy clinic where he uses that abundance of Gibson charm to manipulate his counsellors."
"So what are you proposing he does?" She questioned. "Apply for a personality transplant?"
"Nothing quite so drastic. My solution is simple. He needs to change. To work his body like a man. To see the sun come up in the morning and put his head on the pillow at night, instead of spending it in the casino, like a zombie." His eyes bored into her. "And maybe he wants to change because he has agreed to go to work for one of my cousins in Greece."
"Are you serious?"
"On one of the family's vineyards," he continued. "Your darling brother has agreed to do some hard, physical labour for the first time in his life."
She stared at him in disbelief. "He's agreed?"
"I didn't give him very much choice in the matter," he snapped. " It was my condition for bailing him out."
Natalia felt a worrying see-saw of emotions as she took in what he'd just told her. He could be so hard and indomitable that it was all too easy to forget his streak of kindness.
But he hadn't been kind when she'd most needed him to be, had he? He hadn't been there for her at all when she'd reached out for him. He had pushed her away until there had been nothing but distance left between them any more...
"So...why come here to tell me this?" She questioned.
He gave a cold, hard smile. "No ideas, Nat? You think I should bail out your brother just out of the goodness of my heart?"
She met the obdurate look in his eyes and a whisper of fear began to creep over her skin as she realized what lay behind his words. "You mean...there's a price?"
"There's always a price," he said softly. "I would have thought you'd have learned that by now. And the price is that I want you back as my wife."
Natalia's mouth opened as if in slow motion, though no words emerged. She could feel the sudden thunder of her heart and a great rush of unexpected excitement because hadn't some rogue part of her always dreamt of this moment? That Dimitris would come back and tell her he was willing to forgive her for walking out. Willing perhaps to try again.
But even as hope flared inside her with a bright sharp heat, she forced herself to quash it. Because their marriage could never be saved. She knew that. The past held too much sorrow and there could be no future. They might go through the motions of reconciliation -- but now a darkness lay at the heart of what they'd once had. And Dimitris would never be able to tolerate it.
"Your wife?" She echoed.
His mouth hardened. "There's no need to look so horrified," he said. "It's purely a short-term measure."
Natalia only just stopped herself from shuddering at her own foolishness, terrified that he would know the crazy thoughts she'd been entertaining. Did she really think that Dimitris would be willing to try again? That a man that proud and powerful would be will to forget the fact that she'd humiliated him with her desertion.
Blankly, she stared at him. "But why? Why on earth would you want to resurrect our marriage?"
Dimitris watched the way she lifted her shoulders in confusion and the gesture made the fabric of her shirt ride over the generous curve of her breasts. The eyes behind her glasses were the silvery-blue colour only that right now they were dark with bewilderment. And suddenly he felt a stab of lust so powerful that could have pressed her down onto the carpet and made her come alive in his arms.
"My sister is having her baby daughter christened and I want you beside me."
The impact of his words was like a series of small, sharp knives aimed straight at her heart. It hurt to think of his sister managing to produce the first of the next generation. It shouldn't have done, but it did. For her to have succeeded where she herself had failed so badly somehow seemed to bring g it all back again. "I...I'd heard Myra was married, of course," she stumbled. "And that she was pregnant. It just all seems to hsce happened so quickly."
He gave a short laugh. "It was a whirlwind romance, it's true. But you've been gone two years now, Nat. Or did you imagine that the world would stop turning the moment you walked out of my door?"
Natalia's breath was coming in shallow and rapid little bursts. For a minute she actually felt faint. Concentrate on the facts, she told herself. Try to talk him out of this insanity. "Why would you want me there when we're divorcing? When my attendance there would only excite gossip and comment?" She fixed him with a look of appeal, as if from one reasonable person to another. "Surely you don't want that, Dimitris?"
"It's not just the christening," he said and now his voice took on a dark and sombre note. "My grandmother is ill. In fact, she's very ill and they've brought forward the christening, even if she's not actually well enough to attend."
Despite everything, Natalia's heart turned over. "I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "I know how much you love your grandmother. But your family won't want me there, Dimitris -- especially not at such an emotional time. Your mother always thought I was the worst possible wife you could have chosen. You know that. And that kinda feeling could spoil the atmosphere and ruin the day for Myra. What's it going to be like if I suddenly waltz back to Rhodes in your arm?"
"My family will do what I want them to do," he stated flatly. "And I want you there."
Natalia glared. How could she have forgotten his controlling nature? His desire to make everything in the world happen the way he wanted it to? "You still haven't answered my question, Dimitris. Why me, after everything that's happened? There must be hundreds of women who would make more suitable partners. Your little black book was certainly bursting at the seams before I came along."
"But you were the only woman I married. And my marriage is the only thing in my life which could be considered a failure." His eyes were steely now. They gleamed with a determination she recognized only too well. "I don't like failure -- perceived or otherwise -- and it will make my grandmother happy to see us together again. She believes in marriage. At the end of her life it will please her to discover that her favorite grandson is back with his wife."
"But that's...that's dishonest."
"More dishonest than you promising to love and cherish me, until death do us part? Were you remembering those vows when you walked out and broke them?"
To Natalia, this was nothing but a cold-blooded manipulation of the truth, but she bit back her objections.
What was the point of trying to reason with him when he would tie up in knots with his clever, educated arguments? She wouldn't go to pieces in front of him. She couldn't afford to. She needed to be strong. "I won't do it, Dimitris," she said quietly.
"But you have no choice. Not if you want to save your brother's skin. I suggest you think about it." His coffee barely touched, he rose to his feet. "I'll give you till tomorrow lunchtime to make up your mind."
She watched him as he walked over to the door and Natalia felt like a person clinging to the edge of a cliff whose fingers were slowly slipping. Suddenly the once solid surface of her life was crumbling away and she was losing her grip.
"And what if I don't?"
His smile was as cold as steel. "Then I throw your brother to the wolves......."