Spoken like a true Greek billionaire, with an indifference that suggested that all Greeks owned their own island. Nell was too tired to do more than grimace at his arrogance.
But she couldn't stop the tip of her tongue from running an exploratory track across her still warm and swollen full bottom lip, unaware that Xander witnessed the revealing little gesture and the way he had to clench hard on a certain part of his anatomy to stop the hot response from gaining in strength.
The island turned out to be a tiny baked brown circle of land floating alone in a crystal blue ocean. Nell caught sight of two white crescents of sand, a fir-covered hill in the middle, and a beautiful two-storyed whitewashed villa with a swimming pool nestling in between the two sandy beaches.
They landed in an area close to the pool. Jumping out, Xander had to stoop as he strode round to the other side of the machine to open her door, then held out his hand to help her alight. She stumbled as he hurried her from beneath the rotors. A sharp frowning glance at the exhaustion wrenching at her pale face and he was scooping her off the ground.
'I can walk-'
'If you had to,' he agreed tersely. 'Which you don't.'
With a sigh, Nell gave in because she didn't have the energy to argue with him never mind the strength to put up a physical fight. Her head lolled onto his shoulder, his warm breath brushed her face as he carried her past the glinting blue pool and up a set of wide, shallow steps towards the house. A wall of plate-glass stood open ready for them and a tiny woman dressed in black waited to welcome them with a warm, crinkly smile.
She said something in Greek. Xander answered in the same language, his tone short and clipped. The old woman lost her smile and turned to hurry inside ahead of them, tossing long sentences over her shoulder that sounded to Nell as if Xander was being thoroughly scolded, like a child. He seemed to take it without objection, allowing the woman to lead the way across a cool hallway and up a flight of stairs.
They entered a beautiful room with pale blue walls and white drapes billowing at the floor-length windows covered by blue slatted shutters that helped to keep out the worst of the afternoon heat. Setting Nell down on the edge of a pale blue covered soft, springy bed, Xander clipped out an order and the woman hurried away, leaving him squatting down in front of Nell, whose head was just too heavy to lift off his shoulder. 'The journey was too much,' he hissed. 'I apologise.' Again? Nell thought. 'I just want to go to bed.'
At any other time Xander would have jumped on such an appealing statement. But not right now, when it was clear she was totally wasted and he was worried and feeling as guilty as hell for putting her through such a journey before she had recovered her strength.
Reaching between them, he unbuttoned the lightweight blue summer jacket and slid it carefully from her shoulders then tossed it aside. The white blouse was silky, the tiny pearl buttons more difficult to negotiate from this position and he frowned as his fingers worked, the frown due more to her silent acquiescence. It was a good ten seconds before he realised that she'd actually fallen asleep. The blouse came free and landed on top of the jacket, working by stealth, he gently laid her down against the pillows then shifted his attention to removing her shoes then the slippery silk-lined skirt and lace-edged stockings that covered her slender legs. Leaving her dignity intact with her lacy bra and panties, he was just grimacing to himself because this was as naked as he had ever seen his wife of a year-when he saw what he had missed while he'd been busy undressing her and it straightened his spine with a stark, rigid jerk.
She was so badly bruised he could not believe the doctor had dared to say that she was fit to travel! One whole side of her ribcage was a mass of fading purple and yellow, and he just stared in blistering horror at the two thick seat-belt lines, one that ran from her left shoulder diagonally across her body to her waist, where the other took over, strapping straight across her hips.
What the hell kind of speed had she been doing when she hit that tree to cause such bruising?
Had it been deliberate?
His blood ran cold at an idea he dismissed instantly. But the cold shock of the thought lingered much longer than that. And the guilt he had been feeling at the rough way he'd handled her on the plane grew like a balloon in his chest.
Someone tutted beside him. 'Oh, poor wounded child,' Thea Sophia murmured. 'What kind of man have you become, Alexander, that you bring her this far in this state?'
It was not a question he cared to answer. He was struggling enough with it for himself. Setting his mouth, he bent down to gather Nell into his arms again with as much care as he could manage.
'Pull back the covers, Thea,' he instructed gruffly. Ten seconds later he was resettling his wounded bride against the cool sheets of their marriage bed.
Did she but know it, he thought as he straightened a second time and stepped back to allow Thea to gently fold the covers back over Nell's limp frame. Her hair lay in a thick braid beside one of her cheeks and she had never looked so pale-or so vulnerable.
God give me strength, he thought grimly, glad that only he knew what plans he'd made for the beautiful Helen involving this island, some serious seduction, this room and this bed. Shelved plans. He turned away, grim face mask-like as he watched Thea fuss around picking up Nell's discarded clothes and folding them neatly on a chair. He made a decision. One of those quick-thinking, business minded decisions he was more familiar with. It was called a tactical retreat.
Nell slept on through the sound of rotor blades stirring up again, slept through the whooshing din the helicopter made as it took off. She had no idea at all that while she slept Thea Sophia sat in the chair beside the bed, quietly working her lace with gnarled, nimble fingers while a maid just as quietly unpacked and put away Nell's clothes. The afternoon sun slowly turned the room golden. She only stirred when the sound of rattling crockery made her dry throat and her empty stomach demand she take note.
Opening her eyes, she took several long seconds to remember where she was, and a few more seconds' sleepily watching the old lady in black as she fussed around a table by the window across the room. Then the old lady turned.
'Ah, you are awake at last!' she exclaimed and came across the room with her crinkly face full of olive-toned smiles. 'My name is Sophia Theodora Pascalis,' she introduced herself. 'I am Alexander's great-aunt. You may call me Thea Sophia and I will call you Helen-such a proud Greek name.'
Was it? Nell had never given much thought to her name's origin.
'Of course, if Alexander were here he would have made the formal introductions,' Thea Sophia continued. 'But welcome welcome to our beautiful island and our beautiful home, Helen.' Nell found her face being clasped between two hands in a warm, affectionate gesture, and released again.
'Th-thank you. I'm very happy to meet you, Thea Sophia,' Nell returned politely and it was impossible not to smile back in response.
'Ah, it is I who is happy to see you here at last.' The old lady stood back to beam a very satisfied smile then turned to walk back to the table by the window. 'We will become very good friends, you and I, ne? You will like it here,' she promised. 'When that stupid boy Alexander decides to get his priorities right and come back here you will makes lots of babies between you in that bed as is Pascalis tradition and we shall be a very happy family, ne?'
The baby part floated right by Nell, pushed out by the much more disturbing part of Thea Sophia's chatty speech. 'Xan…Alexander has...gone?' she prompted unsteadily.
'He took one look at your poor bruised body and took to his heels,' his aunt informed her in disgust. 'You would not believe that such a big strong man could be so squeamish, but there you go.' She added a very Mediterranean shrug. 'It will be his guilty conscience taunting him, of course. He was brought up to protect his loved ones. In this, with you, he failed. He will come back when he has come to terms with his...'
Nell had stopped listening. She was pushing the covers away from her body and staring down at her near-naked flesh. Hot colour poured into her cheeks then paled away again when she saw what Xander had seen.
'W-who undressed me?'
'Alexander, of course.'
'Then he left...'
'Ne. ' China chinked against china.
Nell sat up with a jerk and drew her knees up to her chin so that she could hug herself. Tears were burning, hurt tears, angry tears.
Xander had brought her to this island to seduce her-he'd left Nell in no doubt whatsoever about that. One glance at her miserable body and he'd seen his plans thwarted so he'd done what he always did.
He'd walked away. Left her. Marooned her on this tiny island with this sweet but old, old lady, while he returned to his busy, important life, the seduction of his wife shelved-again. 'You ready for a nice cup of English tea now...?'
NELL stepped barefooted onto the sand, dropped her book and her sunglasses down at her feet then removed the wide brimmed straw hat Thea Sophia had insisted that she wear to shade her face from the fierce rays of the sun.