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Authors: Tessa Radley

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BOOK: Black Widow Bride
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“Don’t be silly. I’m not yet dead, my son. Switch the television off.” Damon complied. “Now raise the back of the bed.”

While Damon was adjusting the bed-frame setting, Rebecca approached the high bed, deeply shaken by Damon’s mother’s appearance. Only the dark, indomitable eyes showed a shred of the proud woman Rebecca remembered.

“I must look a wreck, hmm?”

Rebecca forced a smile, aware that Soula must have read the shock in her eyes but unable for the life of her to think of any platitude that would sound sincere.

“What? No answer, Rebecca?” The older woman gave a wan smile. “Better that than the lies the rest of the family feed me. This morning my eldest sister, Iphigenia, said I still put women of half my age to shame. Pah! All lies!” She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “But I have to admit it’s not as bad as it looks. White is a terrible colour. Look—” she flung an arm out “—white nightdress, white sheets, white blankets. So bad for an older woman—it simply doesn’t do a thing for my complexion.”

Affection for the acerbic woman overwhelming her, Rebecca bent to plant an impulsive kiss on the cheek that wore a few more wrinkles than it had in the past. “Nonsense,” she whispered into Soula’s ear. “True beauty comes from within. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that?”

They exchanged a long look, then Soula’s arms crept around Rebecca’s neck and pulled her close. “It’s so good to have you here, child. I was starting to despair.”

The note of very real desperation in Soula’s voice and the unexpected warmth of her hug caused something to splinter deep inside Rebecca and she hugged Soula back fiercely. Swallowing the burgeoning lump in her throat, she glanced up at the bank of equipment above the bed and said in a choked-up voice, “I have to admit I don’t like seeing you tied to these machines. When will you be out and about?”

Damon reared up on the other side of the bed, outrage in his eyes. “Out and about? My mother needs—”

“Soon!” Soula interrupted her son.” I will not stay in this place ena lepto—” she held up a thin forefinger “—longer than I need. Not one minute. Look at me! My hair needs attention, my nails need a manicure….” She held out elegant hands spoiled only by chipped nails.

“You should’ve told me. I would’ve organised a beautician, a hairdresser—” Damon waved a hand at her nails “—whoever you needed to fix that.”

“How can I expect you and Savvas to understand? You are men! Look, I’m wearing nightclothes in the middle of the day. And I reek of antibacterial soap.” She paused for breath. “I can’t bear the smell of the antiseptic.”

“Neither can I,” said Rebecca with heartfelt fervour. Memories haunted her of the hospital her brother, James, had been in and out of before his death.

Soula gave her a sharp glance. “Only the experiences of the old and sick bring on such strong dislike.”

“Perhaps.” Rebecca kept her reply noncommittal, aware that she’d already given away more than she’d intended—especially with Damon hovering so close.

Soula patted Rebecca’s hand. “One day you will tell me more, pethi.”

Rebecca looked away. Not likely. It hurt too much.

Every single person she’d loved in her life had been ripped away.

Her parents.

James.

Aaron.

Fliss.

And with Damon she hadn’t even got started before it had all come crashing down on her. All she had left was T.J. whom she loved more than life itself.

She blinked. Soula’s hand was warm on hers and the weight of it resting there made her feel like the worst kind of fraud.

“Rebecca, pethi, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Rebecca forced herself to snap out of the black grief that smothered her. Soula should be the focus of her concern now.

“Come, child, let’s talk about other things.” Soula glanced meaningfully over at her silent son. “Damon, stop glowering and make yourself useful. See if you can find coffee for yourself and Rebecca.”

Rebecca winced, waiting for the inevitable explosion to follow the barrage of orders, then relaxed when Damon simply shot her a hooded look, his mouth slanted.

As soon as the two women were alone, Soula patted the bed invitingly, “Kathiste, come sit. Tell me what you think about this wedding that has me in such a state.”

Not for the first time suspicion rose inside Rebecca and she pinned Soula with a thoughtful look, but the other woman simply smiled and looked angelic.

Raising one speaking eyebrow, Rebecca sat. “And while we talk I’ll tend to some of those things that are bothering you so much. Where can I find your vanity case?”

Twenty minutes later Damon padded silently back into the ward. His mother and Rebecca were chatting softly—too softly for him to hear what they were saying—while Rebecca repainted his mother’s nails. His mother’s crow-black hair had been brushed and secured into a stylish knot that made her look more like her usual immaculate self. Her cheeks held a slight blush, and her lips were coloured with the shade she’d worn as long as he could remember.

Without warning, Soula laughed, and the dull helplessness that had cloaked him since receiving her call started to lift. All at once things seemed brighter. Happier.

His mother was going to be fine. She was not going to die. And he had Rebecca to thank for the transformation. He stepped forward and with his right foot pushed the door shut behind him. The thud caused both women’s heads to shoot around.

Rebecca looked instantly wary, but his mother beamed. “Ah, coffee. Rebecca will enjoy that. Won’t you, dear?” And without waiting for an answer, she continued. “Put it on the trolley where Rebecca can reach it.”

“Two sugars, right?” he asked, unable to help noticing the easy relationship his mother and Rebecca shared. How had he failed to notice the strength of the bond between the two women in the past? Always he’d seen only the differences: one a proud Greek matriarch, widow of one of the richest men in the southern hemisphere, the other born and raised in a series of Auckland foster homes, a woman of questionable morals. One reluctant to succumb to the tyranny of age, the other young and lushly beautiful. Never before had he noticed the common bonds they shared: the strength of will, the burning determination, the stubborn tilt of the chin.

Both were staring at him now, waiting for a response to something he had not heard. He looked from one to the other. “I’m sorry?” he said in his most distant tone, not wanting either woman to conclude that he’d been in dreamland.

“I was commenting on the fact that you remembered that Rebecca takes two teaspoons of sugar in her coffee.” For some reason his mother was smiling beatifically at him.

His brows drew together. “She must have told me.” But he knew she hadn’t. His internal radar had always been attuned to Rebecca’s every action. He’d hated it, resented it fiercely. But there hadn’t been a thing he could do about it. Except pretend it didn’t exist.

And treat her as if she barely existed.

“No, she didn’t,” his mother said triumphantly. “You remembered from all those years ago.”

Backed into a corner, he made the grudging admission. “Perhaps I did.”

To his surprise, it was Rebecca who rescued him. “But then, how many women take two spoons of sugar? Not easy to forget. It’s something that often makes me self-conscious, my addiction to sugar.”

“It shouldn’t,” he said without thinking. “You can afford to eat whatever you like.” And could’ve kicked himself at her startled expression…and his mother’s smug one.

To his relief, his mother didn’t comment. Instead she steered the conversation back to Demetra and Savvas’s wedding and Damon started to relax.

“I can’t help worrying about Demetra. About how she will cope with the strain of a high-profile marriage. She’s very…” His mother paused searching for a word.

“Vivacious?” Rebecca inserted with a smile. “But, Soula, that’s part of her charm. And don’t you worry—as long as Savvas loves her, she’ll be fine.”

“I hope so.” Despite the doubt in the words, his mother looked happier. “But she’s not interested in the arrangements at all. The only thing that matters to her is the home Savvas has bought—and more than the house, the garden.”

“Some women aren’t into the whole wedding spectacle.” Rebecca shrugged. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

“She has other strengths. She’s a landscaper,” Damon said.

“Oh, yes, and she’s very good with children, too.” Soula’s eyes lit up. “I can’t wait to hold my first grandchild. Damon was very remiss.”

Damon felt the explosive reply rising, bit it back and glared at Rebecca. How dare his mother bring this up? To her credit, Rebecca looked extremely uncomfortable.

Even as he glowered, Rebecca rose to her feet. “Speaking of children, I need to get back to the house. T.J. will be wondering where I am.”

“I can’t wait to meet your son, Rebecca. Does he take after you?”

Rebecca looked flustered. “Not really, although there is some family resemblance. His eyes are just like—” She broke off, blood draining from her face.

Damon took pity on her and said, “He has your dark hair.”

“What?” Her face blanked out all emotion. A second later he watched her snap out of the hell she’d retreated to and reply, “Yes, yes, of course he does.”

Damon froze at the undiluted anguish he’d glimpsed in her dark eyes. Eyes so unlike T.J.’s that he concluded that T.J.’s must resemble his father’s. A fleeting image of round blue eyes. Again he found himself wondering about the boy’s—T.J’s, he amended—father.

Then he forced himself to dismiss the speculation.

It was not his concern.

Yet there was something about the boy’s features that was intensely familiar, but he could not put his finger on what it was. Then pirazi—it mattered not. It would come to him.

Rebecca had turned away and was shrugging on her jacket and collecting her bag. Something had stirred up old hurts for her, judging by the speed she made for the door.

“I can’t wait to meet the little one,” Soula said.

“Soon,” Rebecca promised. From the doorway she gave Soula a little wave and bolted.

“You’ll have to wait until you get home,” Damon said firmly to his mother before kissing her cheek and hurrying after Rebecca.

“Come on, come on.”

Shifting from foot to foot, Rebecca stabbed the button again, impatient for the elevator to arrive. Hearing Damon’s distinctive tread behind her, she shoved her hands into her pockets and hunched into her jacket.

“What’s the hurry?” His dark, fluid voice sent shivers that she didn’t need down her spine.

“I need to get to T.J. I don’t usually leave him for such long stretches of time.”

“What about while you work?”

“That’s different. He’s known Dorothy, his caregiver, since birth. Demetra is a stranger, and the surroundings are alien, too.” But even more than getting back to T.J. she wanted to escape. Away from the well-meaning questions, away from Damon and away from the hospital and the memories of awful helplessness it evoked.

An elevator arrived at last, already occupied by a nurse fussing over a hospital gurney. The patient was a young man in his early to mid twenties, Rebecca guessed. One arm was in plaster. What she could see of his face was covered in lacerations, the rest hidden beneath dressings and tape. He looked as though he’d been in a particularly nasty car smash. She stepped inside, transfixed, barely aware of Damon following behind. The patient groaned and turned his head. Rebecca jerked her horrified stare away.

The elevator sank and stopped at another floor. A beeper sounded. The doors slid open again, and the nurse and her patient were gone, the castors rattling against the endless corridor. Rebecca watched the disappearing gurney and prayed fiercely that the young man’s prognosis was better than James’s had been.

Desperation clawed at her throat. She felt sick, light-headed. “I need to get out of here.”

“It’s the hospital, isn’t it?”

“I hate these places,” Rebecca said with feeling, bile burning the back of her throat.

“Thank you for staying…for helping my mother. It made a great difference.”

“It was nothing.”

“Hardly nothing. She’s afraid.” He shot her a searching glance. “Was T.J.’s birth difficult?”

She swallowed hard, disconcerted by the sudden change of subject. His conclusion was not unreasonable in the circumstances. But what to say? “All births are difficult, but the reward is immeasurable. T.J. is a blessing.”

“He’s a son to be proud of. You’ve done well, raising him alone.”

“Thank you.” Her mouth tasted bitter.

If he only knew.

“You had a short stay in hospital after—” He broke off.

“After Fliss died. It was one night.” Rebecca kept her tone flat as the elevator jarred to a stop. The doors shuddered open to reveal a well-lit underground car park. Rebecca hurried out.

Damon followed. “Was that when the dislike of hospitals began?”

“It didn’t help,” she said honestly, stopping and facing him.

“But the phobia was already there.” James, she couldn’t stop thinking of James. The hospitals visits, the hopeless tests, the sudden brutal end. In a sudden blur of pain she remembered the night Fliss died, how she’d cried as Fliss had slipped away. She blinked and forced herself to look up at Damon instead.

BOOK: Black Widow Bride
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