Into her crowd of beautiful people came… Nikos.
She was taking a last visual sweep of the room, noting descriptions for tomorrow's fashion column.
The men were almost uniformly in black—black T-shirts, black jeans and designer stubble. The women were Audrey Hepburn clones. Cinched waists, wide skirts and pearls. The fifties look was now.
There was little eating. Cinched waists and 'body slimmers' didn't allow for snacking, the waiters were sparse and it wasn't cool to graze.
Nikos was holding a beer, and as the waiter passed with a tray of tiny caviar-loaded blinis he snagged four. He tipped one into his mouth, then turned back to search the room.
After all these years, he could still stop her world.
She'd forgotten to breathe. It was important to breathe. She took a too-big sip of her too-dry Martini and it went down the wrong way.
Uh-oh. If it wasn't cool to eat, it was even more uncool to choke.
But help was at hand. Smooth and fast as a panther, Nikos moved through the crowd to be by her side in an instant. He took her drink, slapped her back with just the right amount of force, and then calmly waited for her to recover.
She could faint, she thought wildly. An ambulance could take her away and she'd be in a nice, safe emergency room. Safe from the man she'd walked away from almost ten years ago.
But fainting took skills she didn't have. No one seemed about to call for help. No one seemed more than politely interested that she was choking.
She didn't remember him as this big. And this… gorgeous? He was wearing faded blue jeans instead of the designer black that was de rigueur in this crowd. His shirt was worn white cotton, missing the top two buttons. He had an ancient leather jacket slung over his arm.
The fashion editor part of her was appreciative. Nice.
More than nice. Nikos.
She coughed on, more than she needed to, trying desperately to give herself space. His dark hair was curly, unruly and a bit too long. His brown-black eyes were crinkled at the edges, weathered from a life at sea. Among this crowd of fake tans, his was undeniably real. His whole body was weathered by his work.
Her childhood love.
He'd grown from a gorgeous boy into a… what? She didn't have words to describe it. She was the fashion editor of one of the world's leading glossies, and she was lost for words.
Words were what she needed. She had to think of something to say. Anything. Almost every eye in the room was on them now. She couldn't retreat to choking again.
'You want your drink back?' His tone was neutrally amused. Deeper than last time she'd heard him. A bit gravelly, with a gorgeous Greek accent.
Sexy as hell.
He was balancing his beer, her Martini and his three remaining blinis. He'd used his spare hand to thump her.
He was large and capable and…
Now she'd stopped choking, the crowd had turned their attention to him. Well, why wouldn't they? The models, designers, media and buyers were openly interested. Maybe more than interested. Their concentrated attention contained more than a hint of lust.
'You going to live?' Nikos asked mildly, and she thought about it. She might. If he went away.
'What are you doing here?'
'Looking for you.'
'It's invitation only.'
'Yep,' he said, as if that hadn't even crossed his mind as something to bother about. How had he done it? People would kill for an invitation to this launch. He'd simply walked in.
'You look cute,' he said, raking her from head to toe.
Right. She'd gone to some trouble with her outfit. Her tiny red skirt was clinging in the right places, she'd managed to make her unruly black curls stay in a knot that was almost sophisticated, but in this crowd of fashion extremists she knew she disappeared.
'Go away,' she said, and he shook his head.
'I can't do that, Princess.'
'Don't call me that.'
'It's what you are.'
'Please, Nikos, not here.'
'Whatever,' he said easily. 'But we need to talk. Phones don't work. You keep hanging up.'
'You don't hang up phones any more.' Very knowledgeable, she thought. What sort of inane talk was this?
'On Argyros we hang up telephones. After we talk to people.'
'I don't live on Argyros.'
'Yeah, that's what I want to talk to you about. It's time you came home.' He handed her back her Martini. He drained his beer and ate his three bite-sized blinis, then looked about for more. Two waiters were beside him in an instant.
He always had been charismatic, Athena thought. People gravitated to him.
She'd gravitated to him.
'So how about it?' he said, smiling his thanks to the waiters. Oh, that smile…
'Why would I want to come home?'
'There's the little matter of the Crown. I'm thinking you must have read the newspapers. Your cousin, Demos, says he's talked to you. I'm thinking Alexandros must have talked to you as well—or did you hang up on him, too?'
'Of course I didn't.'
'So you do know you're Crown Princess of Argyros.'
'I'm not Crown Princess of anything. Demos can have it,' she said savagely. 'He wants it.'
'Demos is second in line. You're first. It has to be you.'
'I have the power to abdicate. Consider me abdicated. Royalty's outdated and absurd, and my life's here. So, if you'll excuse me…'
'Thena, you don't have a choice. You have to come home.'
Thena. He was the only one who'd ever shortened her name. It made her feel… as she had no business feeling.
Just tell it like it is and move on, she told herself. Be blunt and cold and not interested. He was talking history. Argyros was no longer anything to do with her.
'You're right,' she managed. 'I don't have a choice. My life is here.'
But not in this room. All of a sudden the room was claustrophobic. Her past was colliding with her present, and it made her feel as if the ground was shaking underneath her.
She and Nikos in the same room? No, no, no.
She and Nikos in the same city? She and Nikos and their son?
Fear had her almost frozen.
'Nikos, this is futile,' she managed. 'There's no use telling me to go home. My home is here. Meanwhile, I have things to attend to, so if you'll excuse me…' She handed her Martini glass back to him and, before he could respond she swivelled and made her way swiftly through the crowd.
She reached the door—and she kept on walking.
She hadn't retrieved her checked coat. It didn't matter. Outside was cold, but she wasn't feeling cold. Her face was burning. She was shaking.
Maybe he'd let her be.
Or maybe not. He hadn't come all the way from Argyros to be ignored.
It was raining. Her stilettos weren't built for walking. She wanted to take them off and run. Because of course he'd follow.
Of course he did.
When he fell in step beside her she felt as if she'd been punched. Nikos… He threatened her world.
'Where are we going?' he asked mildly.
'Nowhere you're welcome.'
'Is this any way to greet family?'
'I'm not your family.'
'Tell that to my mother.'
His mother… She thought of Annia and felt a stab of real regret. She glanced sideways at Nikos—and then looked swiftly away. Annia… Argyros…
She'd walked away from them ten years ago. Leaving had broken her heart.
'It's your heritage,' he said mildly, as if he was simply continuing the conversation from back at the fashion launch.
'I never had a heritage. It was all about Giorgos.'
'The King's dead, Athena. He died without an heir. You know that.'
'And that makes a difference how?'
'It means the Diamond Isles become three Principalities again. The original royal families can resume rule. But you know this. By the way—did you also know that you're beautiful?' And he took her arm and forced her to stop.
She'd been striding. Angry. Fearful. Confused. Rain was turning to sleet. Her heels, her tight skirt and sheer pashmina wrap were designed for cocktail hour, not for street wear.
She should keep going but she wasn't all that sure where to go. She couldn't outwalk Nikos and she surely wasn't leading him back to her apartment. She surely wasn't leading him to her son.
She might as well stop. Get it over with now.
She turned to face him. A blast of icy wind hit full on, and she felt herself shudder.
Nikos's ancient leather jacket was suddenly around her, warm from his body, smelling of old leather and Nikos and… home. Argyros. Fishing boats in an ancient harbour. White stone villas hugging island cliffs. Sapphire seas and brilliant sun. The Diamond Isles.
Suddenly, stupidly, she wanted to cry.
'We need to get out of this,' Nikos said. His hand was under her elbow and he was steering her into the brightly lit portico of a restaurant, as if this was his town and he wasn't half a world away from where he lived and worked.
'You call those clothes?' he growled, and she remembered how bossy he'd been when they were kids, and how he was always right.
Bossy and arrogant and… fun. Pushing her past her comfort zone. Daring her to join him.
The number of times she'd ended up with skinned knees, battered and bruised because: 'Of course we can get up that cliff; you're not going to sit and watch like some girl, are you?'
She never did sit and watch. Even when they'd been older and the boys from the other islands became part of their pack, she'd always been included. Until…
Let's not go there, she told herself. She'd moved on. She was fashion editor for one of the world's best-selling magazines. She lived in New York and she was fine.
So what was Nikos doing, here, ushering her into a restaurant she recognised? This place usually involved queuing, or a month or more's notice. But Nikos was a man who turned heads, who waiters automatically found a place for, because even if they couldn't place him they felt they should. He was obviously someone. He always had been, and his power hadn't waned one bit.
Stunned to speechlessness, she found herself being steered to an isolated table for two, one of the best in the house. The waiter tried to take her jacket—his jacket—but she clung. It was dumb, but she needed its warmth. She needed its comfort.
'What's good?' Nikos asked the waiter, waving away the menu.
'Definitely something sweet,' he said, and smiled across the table at her. 'The way the lady's feeling right now, we need all the sugar we can get.'
She refused to smile back. She couldn't allow herself to sink into that smile.
'Crêpes?' the waiter proffered. 'Or if you have time… our raspberry soufflé's a house speciality.'
'Crêpes followed by soufflé for both of us then,' he said easily, and the waiter beamed and nodded and backed away, almost as if he sensed he shouldn't turn his back on royalty.
Nikos. Once upon a time…
No. Get a grip.
'I'm not going anywhere,' she muttered into the silence. 'You can't make me go back.'
Nikos smiled again—his smile wide and white, his eyes deep and shaded, an automatic defence against the sun. His smile was a heart stopper in anyone's language. Especially hers.
'You're right. I can't make you. You need to decide yourself. But that's why I'm here—to help you to decide that you need to come home.'
'My home's here.'
'Your career until now has been here,' he agreed. 'You've done very well.'
'There's no need to sound patronising.'
'I'm not patronising.'
'Like you'd know about my career.'
He raised his brows, half mocking. 'There were seven candidates for the position you're now in,' he said softly. 'Each of them was older, more experienced. You won the job over all of them and your boss believes he made a brilliant decision.'
'How do you know…'
'I've made it my business to find out.'
'Well, butt out. There's no need…'
'There is a need. There was always a chance that you'd inherit, and now you have.'
'I have no intention of inheriting. Demos wants it. Demos can have it. It should be you, but if that's not possible… Demos.'
'It was never going to be me.'
'You're nephew to the King.'
'You know the score,' he said evenly. 'Yes, my mother was the King's sister, but the King's lineage has to be direct and male. That's me out. But the individual island crowns have male/female equality. First in line for the throne of Argyros is you. Princess Athena, Crown Princess of Argyros. Sounds good, hey?' He smiled and tried to take her hand across the table. She snatched it away as if he burned.
'This is crazy. I've told you, Nikos, I'm not coming home.'
'Can I ask why not?'
'I don't belong there.'
'Of course you do. My family has always welcomed…'
'Your family,' she interrupted flatly. 'Of course. How's your wife?'
Why had she asked that? What possible difference did it make? But suddenly—she had to know.
Nikos didn't answer directly. He'd given up trying to take her hand. Instead he'd clasped his hands loosely on the table top. He flexed them now, still linked. Big hands and powerful.
He wasn't wearing a wedding ring.
She shouldn't even care. She shouldn't have asked.
But she had asked, and there was something in his face that said the answer was never going to be easy. For a couple of moments she thought he wouldn't answer at all. But finally he beckoned a waiter, ordered a beer and answered.
'Marika and I are divorced. She's remarried and left the island.' His gaze was expressionless, not giving a clue if this still had the power to hurt.
Ten years ago—two months after she'd left the island— her aunt had written.
By the way, Nikos has married Marika. Rumour is there's a baby on the way, but I guess no one worries about such things any more. You know, I always thought you and Nikos would marry, but I know King Giorgos would hate that. So you're best out of it.
Until then she'd hoped, desperately, that Nikos would follow her. But when she'd read that…
Marika was a distant relation of Nikos, giggly, flirtatious and ambitious. She'd always thought Marika was in love with her cousin, Demos—but obviously it had been Nikos all the time.
She'd been so shocked she'd been physically ill.
Then, four months later her aunt had written a much shorter note. 'A baby. A little girl for Nikos and Marika…' Her note had trailed off, unfinished, and the writing on the envelope had been scrawly.
It was no wonder. The letter had been delivered two days after her aunt's death.
She'd wept then, for not going home in time, for not guessing her aunt was ill until she'd received the letter, for knowing her last link to the island was ended. And if she'd wept for the fact that Nikos had a baby with Marika, then so be it, the whole thing was grey.
'I'm sorry,' she said now, feeling useless. 'How… how long?'
'How long ago since she left? Nine years. It wasn't what you might call a long-term marriage.'
His tone was bitter. Oh, Nikos, she thought. You, too? Wounds might heal, but scars remained.