What the Greek’s Wife Needs
She wants to be his wife…
…but only on paper!
Tanja’s whirlwind marriage to Leon Patrakis is over. She hasn’t seen him since he returned to Greece five years ago. Yet, to keep the baby daughter she’s adopting, Tanja has a last request: she and Leon stay wed…in name only.
Leaving behind his exhilarating connection to Tanja wasn’t easy for Leon. Yet, to shield her from his family’s notorious reputation, he had no choice. He can’t reject Tanja’s request to make her dreams of a family come true. But ignoring their still-smoldering electricity? Impossible!
"You must be so excited to meet your daughter."
— Tanja, What the Greek's Wife Needs
Way back in my pre-published days, I had an idea for a story where the heroine was stuck in a country she couldn’t leave without a male relative to escort her.
In that iteration, I imagined the hero posing as her husband or maybe they got married under forced conditions–I still want to write that story. But in this one, I decided Leon and Tanja would be married, but estranged. They haven’t spoken in five years, but he suddenly gets the news that she needs him and he swoops in to rescue her.
I was in the middle of writing that delightfully dramatic opening when a baby began to cry in the other room. Not here in my house, but there in that storybook bungalow where everyone’s nerves were already balanced on a knife’s edge.
There was Leon thinking he only had to get Tanja free of these rebel forces, then they could get their overdue divorce and move on with their separate lives. He hasn’t seen her in five years so he knows darned well that the baby she brings out and claims is his isn’t.
Being a true hero, he gets both of them off of the remote island, but that’s only the beginning of their adventure. I hope you enjoy their reunion and gentle fall into becoming the family they all need.
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What the Greek’s Wife Needs
Five years ago
This was it. Tanja Melha was a modern woman and she would go after what she wanted.
Which happened to be a man, leaving her to wonder exactly how modern she really was, but she was also human. Leon Petrakis was sexy and single, and she was headed back to university in a few weeks. This was her only shot at a summer fling that might cure her of a crush she couldn’t seem to shake.
She sauntered down the ramp to the wharf, watching her step around the coiled ropes and other tripping hazards. The August evening was a few degrees cooler down here on the water, and laden with the scent of seaweed and tidal flats. Home, she thought, breathing it in.
Her childhood friends hadn’t been able to leave the island fast enough, heading to Vancouver or Calgary or Toronto. Tanja went to the University of Victoria, and sometimes even that felt too far from Tofino, the small town on Vancouver Island’s west coast where she’d grown up.
Which was another reason she had to carpe this man on this diem. Leon was Greek, but a citizen of the world, living off his sailboat. He was intending to stay the rest of the summer to help her brother expand her father’s marina, but he was the type of rootless bachelor who could easily slip over the horizon at any moment.
As she came up to his slip, she saw him stowing something in the hold of the cockpit in the stern. He wore frayed denim cutoffs and nothing else but a tan.
Lord, he was perfectly made. She drank in his broad shoulders and the twist of his spine, the light layer of dark hair on his thighs, and the absent way he planted his feet and rode the movement of the boat when a rippling wave came in.
“Hey, sailor.” It was supposed to be a casual greeting but came out throaty with the lust that was overtaking her.
He straightened and turned, unhurried and even more magnetically beautiful when his slow smile appeared.
“Hello, Books.” She had a feeling he deliberately used her brother’s nickname for her, trying to push her into the pigeonhole of “best friend’s little sister.” His black hair was long enough to show its natural curl, his eyes dark and brimming with masculine appreciation as he slid his gaze down her blue minidress with its spaghetti straps.
She did the same to him, noting the way the hair on his chest flowed out from his sternum to dance like flames toward the brown discs of his nipples. Another darker line drew her eye from his navel to the brass button that barely held his shorts on his hips.
“I’m all paid up on my moorage fees. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
She dragged her eyes back to his knowing grin. He’d seen where her attention had strayed and liked it, which made butterflies take flight inside her.
“I wondered if you wanted company for happy hour?” She held up the bottle of wine she’d brought. It was a crisp, dry white coated in condensation from the short walk from her car.
After the briefest of pauses, he tilted his head and said, “How could I say no? Come aboard.” He took the bottle in one hand and held out his other to assist her.
He didn’t move back to give her room. When she stepped down into the cockpit beside him, they were toe to toe, practically mashed up against each other. He kept her hand in his and looked down his nose at her.
“I’m too old for you, you know.”
“At twenty-nine? Please. I’m twenty-two. I didn’t come here to lose my virginity.” But she had come here for lovemaking. She couldn’t pretend otherwise. Not when her breath was hitching so unevenly that her breasts grazed his muscled chest.
The corners of his mouth slowly curled. “Should I open this now or later?”
Oh, he was smooth. She told herself that was why he appealed to her. She wanted to know what it was like to be with a man who knew his way around every piece of coastline on a woman’s body.
“Later.” The word was a husk in the back of her throat. She couldn’t peel her eyes off his mouth.
“Come below,” he invited.
She ought to be nervous. In some ways she was. She didn’t do random hookups. She’d had a few boyfriends and had dated since being at university, but her two relationships that had been serious enough for lovemaking had been hard cases of puppy love, intense enough to dent her heart when they fell apart. Sex with the first had been many frustrating experiments in figuring things out, the second a much more successful and satisfying pairing, but they ultimately wanted different things.
The bottom line was, she was hardly an expert in the arts of seduction and eroticism.
“This is nice,” she said of the interior. It was tidier than she’d expected, given how devil-may-care his personality seemed. The windows were surprisingly big and bright, showcasing the gleam of the polished wood and stainless steel. The upholstery was maroon, the curtains smoky gray, the accent cushions sage green and rusty orange.
“Thanks.” He stowed the wine in the refrigerator and rinsed his hands, then dried them on a tea towel, hip leaned beside the sink. “I keep it this way. I wasn’t expecting company.”
“Weren’t you?” She dipped her chin in a small challenge. She’d been flirting unabashedly since returning in June. He had finally, this morning, given her a low whistle and said, “Lookin’ good, Books.”
Now he didn’t bother pretending to be sheepish. “I’m a sucker for a miniskirt. What can I say?” His gaze went down to her low-heeled sandals. “And long legs. Freckles.” His gaze struck the ones on her chest, then her face. “Red hair.”
“Why didn’t you say? I’d have been here sooner.”
“You know why.” He opened his feet, slouching a little lower as he invited her with a roll of his wrist to come closer.
“I don’t,” she assured him, trying to act blasé as she moved into the space he’d made. “We’re consenting adults.”
A fine tremble of anticipation accosted her, belying the maturity she was claiming to possess. Her hands hesitated when she felt the heat off his skin hit her palms, then she gently let them rest on the firm muscles of his upper chest.
His wide hands came to her waist. He didn’t kiss her. He looked deeply into her eyes.
“Mixing business with pleasure gets messy. As you see, I prefer tidy.”
“Your business is with my brother.”
“Mmm.” His mouth pursed as though he wasn’t convinced. His fingers dug a little more intently into her hips, as though he was undergoing some small struggle within himself. “And you’re here for pleasure?” His gaze was incinerating her mouth.
“Hope springs eternal,” she teased in a breathy voice, leaning a little closer. “So far it seems like you want to talk my ear off.”
“That is not what I want to talk off you.” He dipped his head, brushed her mouth once with his own as though testing whether she was sure, then he covered her lips in a long, unhurried kiss that sent an earthquake through her, unhinging her knees.
She had sensed that things would be different with him. Stronger. More exciting. She hadn’t known he would fill her with the energy of a thousand storms.
She curled her arms around his naked shoulders, holding on and moaning at how vital and strong he was, enclosing her in hard arms, crushing her breasts to his chest. The scent of salt air and sunscreen clung to his taut, smooth skin. His light stubble abraded her chin and the faint taste of coffee lingered on his tongue when he swept it into her mouth.
He was only kissing her, and this was already miles beyond anything she’d experienced. All of her was flowering open. She was kissing him back with an abandon that wasn’t like her at all, and she couldn’t help it. The more deeply he kissed her, the more turned-on she was and the more she wanted to turn him on.
He made a deeply sexy noise in his throat, and his fingers dug through her skirt into the crease of her butt. He squeezed the underside of her cheek, pulling her hips into contact with his rippled fly and the hard shape behind it. They were fully plastered to one another, kissing like their lives depended on it. She began to think hers might.
Leon broke away to whisper in Greek. It might have been a curse.
“I really didn’t expect this,” he said in his sensual accent, nipping at her jaw and chin before burying his mouth in her neck. “Are you sure?”
His heart was pounding so hard she felt it against her breast. When he lifted his head, there was something sharp and bright in his gaze. A warning? A revelation that he was as startled by this as she was?
Whatever it was, it caused her belly to tighten and her bones to melt and her hips to press forward into firmer contact with his.
His breath rushed out in a jagged noise. With a lithe twist, he straightened and angled her backward toward a door, gaze locked with hers.
She would have stumbled if he hadn’t steadied her, narrowing his eyes when she licked her lips. Oh. Her abdominals contracted again. She hadn’t realized she had such power over him. She did it again, more deliberately, and color rose in his cheeks. His jaw tightened and his nostrils flared.
As they entered the captain’s quarters, he flicked the curtains closed. She dropped the straps off her shoulders and shimmied the minidress to the floor, leaving herself in the pale blue thong she’d put on in hopes he’d see it. Like it.
He bit the edge of his lip as he looked her over, one hand touching the ceiling when the boat took a sudden rise and dip. His other hand released his button and fly. He dropped his shorts and he was naked. Naked and aroused. Really, really… Wow.
She swallowed, her own hand going to the edge of the nearby shelf to steady herself.
He slid onto the wide mattress that covered the entire space between the two sides of the hull. “Join me.”
She did, flowing onto berth and man in one motion, fusing her mouth to his as she did.
He was so hot! His whole body burned her wherever they touched. The steely hardness of him was almost hurtful to lie against, yet so erotically good.
His fingers trailed down her back, both possessive and light, exploring with laconic purpose, mapping from nape to shoulders, splaying wide and tracing her spine. Gathering into her sides and shifting her against him as though celebrating everything she was.
She braced her hands by his shoulders and continued to move on him in a full body caress, moaning into his mouth at how good he felt beneath her. Rough and satiny smooth, hot and hard, vital and strong. His fingers tangled in the strap of her thong and his palms branded her butt as he guided her to straddle him and move higher on his body.
“I want your nipples,” he said in a guttural voice that nearly undid her.
She shifted higher, sat across his waist, hand braced in the recessed storage space over his head so her breast dangled over his open mouth. He began to suckle at her and her whole body tightened. He wasn’t shy about palming her butt and stroking her thighs and sweeping his touch beneath the damp placket of her thong.
She’d been thinking of this all day. For weeks. Months. Of course, she was slippery and wet. She moaned and squirmed as he teased and caressed, sucking strongly and seeking the bundle of nerves that were so swollen and aching she nearly went out of her mind. Within moments, a sharp climax struck, turning her into a quivering, shaking, panting mess.
He released her nipple and looked up at her with stunned delight and such carnality she felt a fresh rush of heat into her loins.
“I want to feel that when I’m inside you.” His graveled voice made her skin tighten.
“So do I.” Her voice was nothing but faint breath.
They shifted and she kicked away her thong while he quickly applied a condom. He settled on his back and invited her to be on top again. To take him in.
He was thick and hot and so hard he barely felt real, but there was no denying he was all man. His hands moved restlessly on her thighs as she settled into place. His teeth clenched and his throat strained with his effort to stay in control.
“You’ve been wanting this, too,” she accused.
“We’re here now.” His voice was guttural, his hips rising beneath her. “Tell me if that’s too much.”
“No, it’s so good,” she gasped. She pressed her hands to the low ceiling above her and began to undulate on him, moaning freely at how exquisite it felt to ride him in the same rhythm as the soft rock of the boat.
He ran his hands up her front, caressing and stroking, thumbing her nipples and plumping her breasts and letting his hands come back to steady her hips as he began to thrust with more power.
She had never felt like this. Like she was pure woman. Like her body had been made for exactly this purpose. For him. They were the only two beings in this world and they weren’t of this world. They were something exalted. A god and goddess creating the universe with the charged union of their bodies.
When his touch strayed inward and his thumb lazily circled her swollen bud, she groaned in the sheer luxury of letting the tension build even more strongly, one glorious layer at a time.
“You’re so beautiful.” His voice was both faint and distant, yet reverberated in her consciousness. “Tell me when.”
“Never,” she said throatily. “Let’s stay like this for—oh.” A tiny shift in the tide, a slap of a wave against the hull, caused a twitch in their rhythm that sent a shock wave through her.
He made a similar noise, one of gratification and delight. Anticipation. He steadied her and said, “Soon, lovely. Hang on a little longer. When I say.” His thumb circled and circled, becoming her whole world. The point on which she existed while her inner muscles squeezed him and he continued those lovely, lazy thrusts.
It wasn’t long before the noise she made became tortured. This lovemaking was becoming more than she could bear. She couldn’t find words to express how good she felt. Couldn’t say or do anything but push her hands against the ceiling and hold herself still for his upward thrust. For his caress. Waiting and waiting for his dark command.
They shattered into a million pieces.
When the hard pounding on the door sounded as Tanja Melha was climbing into bed, her heart caved in. This was it. They had come for her. She was a foreigner and was being targeted for questioning. Perhaps worse.
Trembling, she dragged on her jeans. They nearly fell off her hips, but tucking in her T-shirt helped.
Everything in her urged her to run, but where? There was no way off Istuval, not since the tiny island off the coast of Tunisia had been taken over by rebels. They were holding the island—and thus her—hostage, all so some authoritarian in a far-off country could have a toehold on the Mediterranean’s shipping lanes.
Tanja heard her friend and housemate, Kahina, call out that she was coming. Kahina’s brother, Aksil, entered and said crisply, “Kahina. There are men here for Tanja.”
Tanja’s knees almost buckled, but she refused to endanger Kahina when Kahina had been so kind, harboring her through all of this. She would face whatever awaited her, but her hands were freezing and stiff, her whole body shaking.
Illi’s little form felt snug and warm as Tanja touched her sleeping daughter. Her heart was sheared in two as she gave herself one last moment with her, biting her lip to prevent a scream of agony.
She didn’t let herself give in to the hysteria. To think the what-ifs. There was no time. Heavy footsteps were scuffling into the bungalow. She touched her lips to the cheek of the four-month-old and deeply inhaled her sweet scent. Tears scorched her eyes, and her throat was so tight she could hardly breathe.
As she straightened, she felt as if her chest was crushed beneath a slab of concrete. Her feet pushed through quicksand as she made herself walk out of the bedroom to meet her fate.
Four men stood inside the door. Aksil must have run from his home across the street when he saw the soldiers arrive on the stoop. He wasn’t wearing shoes and his head was uncovered. He hugged Kahina protectively into his side with a tense nod.
Two men wore olive-green uniforms and cradled automatic rifles in their arms.
The last man who appeared from behind them was as tall and wide and swarthy as the soldiers, but he wore a navy blue pullover atop black trousers and footwear that, in another life, she would have pegged as sailing shoes.
She brought her gaze back to his unshaven jaw, his ruffled dark hair and his fierce glower. The floor seemed to tip beneath her, causing her head to swim and her heart to swoop into her stomach. It soared, then hit the floor.
“Oh, my God!” She clapped her hand over her blasphemy—as if these mercenaries genuinely cared about religious observances. They imposed their restrictive laws for control, not true concern for modesty or faith.
But what on earth was her husband doing here? Could she even call Leon Petrakis that? They hadn’t seen each other in five years. Not since he had abruptly left just days after their quiet wedding because his father had passed away without warning.
Do you want me to come with you?
He had completely shut down from the charmingly seductive playboy she’d married. A week later, he had finally responded to one of her many texts asking when he would be coming back.
That had been that. He hadn’t said much to her brother, Zachary, either. Leon had supposedly been waiting for the full release of his trust fund on his thirtieth birthday. He’d promised to inject capital into the marina when that happened, but he had ghosted the lot of them, destroying her brother’s livelihood and their father’s retirement in the process. Tanja had given up her school savings to help bail out Zach and still owed on the student loans she’d taken to finish her degree.
All of that meant she would rather kill and eat Leon Petrakis than be dragged out of bed to look at him, yet he opened his arms and spoke with what sounded like…tenderness?
“Agape mou. At last. I’m here to take you home.”
He moved forward in long, confident strides, like the lion he was named for, snaring her with easy strength and pulling her into his tall, muscled frame.
Her heart lurched in alarm at the sheer size of him. She’d forgotten this dynamic energy of his, this magnetism and sex appeal. How he made her feel utterly cherished as he crushed her close.
It was a lie, of course. She felt his disingenuousness in the hardness of his muscles as he cradled her. She saw it in his features, distant and closed off. He wasn’t so much older as altered. He was still beautiful, but now he was fierce. Hardened and serious. Everything about him was amplified. This was Leon two-point-O. Leaner and sharper and stronger.
The scent of salt breeze filled her nostrils along with damp cotton and faint notes of aftershave or some other manly, exclusive product. Underlying all of that was a scent that was masculine and familiar. Personal. Him. It was elemental power and a barbaric will that enveloped her the way his arms did, in a claim, like an animal leaving his scent on his mate.
Despite how false she knew this embrace to be, after so many weeks of worry, her body bought what he was selling. She gave an involuntary shudder and leaned into him, unconsciously latching onto him as a piece of her old life and the security and stability she yearned so badly to get back to.
She was losing her mind to fear, she realized, because some latent, ridiculous remnants of her crush on him pulsed heat through her. She hated him. She had decided that years ago, but instead of thrashing him with her fist and decrying him as the heartless profligate he was, she relaxed. Her most primitive self drew in his presence the way her lungs took in oxygen—as though it was something that could be absorbed and used to keep her alive.
Leon cupped her jaw to tilt her face up and stroked a thumb across her cheekbone. The men with guns disappeared, and tingles of pleasure raced across her skin as her husband bent his head and set his mouth warmly against her unsteady lips.
An unexpected spark leaped between them, bursting in her chest like fireworks, sending a singed line out to her fingertips, into her loins and down to her toes.
His flinty gaze flashed in surprise, as though he experienced something like it as well.
They had only been lovers a few short weeks, but seeing that ember flare within him caused her own to intensify. Her mouth softened, and he deepened their kiss in a slow rock of his lips across hers.
She let her lashes flutter closed and leaned more completely into him. It was so intoxicating, so perfect and needed and right. She pressed into her toes, sealing their mouths. It was exactly as it had been five years ago. His kiss was hard and hot and held a hurricane of passion behind it that would have swept her into its eye if he hadn’t tightened his hands on her and set her back on her flat feet.
She swayed, stunned to discover reality crowding in like dark shadows.
None of this made sense. Not his presence here or her pounding heart or the way her hands refused to unclench from his soft pullover.
Keeping his arm around her, he faced the soldiers, speaking French, which was more common than English here, after the local dialect.
“See? As I told you. She’s my wife. She came to teach English, but when the changeover happened she was unable to leave without a male relative. I’ll take her home now.”
Changeover, she thought dimly. Such a well-scrubbed euphemism for foreign military invasion. She went with it, though. She slid her arm around his lower back and leaned into his side. Her other hand stayed on his chest, tensely crushing the soft knit as she gazed up at him, searching for clues as to how he’d known where to find her. Why had he come? She’d been sure he’d forgotten she existed.
The soldiers shifted restlessly, exchanging looks of deep skepticism. “You live here? Without any male relative?” one asked her.
Aksil quickly spoke up. “My sister and Ms. Melha—”
“Mrs. Petrakis,” Leon inserted.
“Yes, of course.” Aksil nodded. “Mrs. Petrakis taught with my sister at the girls’ school before it closed. I take my sister shopping when they need food, but Kahina will come stay with my family now.” Aksil tightened his arm protectively around her.
Leon nodded as though it was all decided. He would have swept Tanja to the door, but she balked. The words what about Illi? formed on her tongue.
Even as his gaze flashed an urgent don’t test me into hers, her daughter let out the beginning of a staccato cry, the irritable one that meant she wanted to sleep, but her tummy had decided she was hungry. Tanja suspected Illi was going through a growth spurt, and desperation was turning her inside out because they were so low on formula.
The sound of Illi’s cry froze everyone into stillness.
Tanja looked to Kahina. Her friend would be welcomed at her brother’s, but his house was already full of Kahina’s nieces and nephews. Asking Kahina to take Illi would be more than an imposition. Illi would take food from the mouths of Aksil’s children.
Illi might not have come from Tanja’s body, but Tanja was her mother now. She wouldn’t go anywhere without her daughter. That’s how she had come to be trapped here.
There would be no taking back the way she played the next seconds, but there was only one way she could play it. This was her chance, her one chance, to take her baby home.
“Agape mou.” She gazed imploringly up at Leon. “You must be so excited to meet your daughter.”
As outrage flared in the depths of his eyes, Leon’s expression hardened before cracking into a faint smile. “It’s all I’ve thought about,” he said in a distant voice.
“I’ll get her.” Kahina hurried into Tanja’s bedroom.
Get in. Get out. Get a divorce. That had been Leon’s straightforward plan when he had received the email from Tanja’s brother, Zach.
Tanja is trapped on Istuval. She needs a male relative to take her out. My wife is due any day or I would go myself. Dad’s on crutches and can’t travel. Since you are technically still her husband…
Technically? He was her husband, despite the five years of estrangement. Dissolving his marriage hadn’t been a priority while Leon had been rebuilding his father’s empire. Divorce papers would have invited his wife to gouge him for a settlement, jeopardizing all he was trying to regain, so he’d let that task slide.
With this rescue, Leon had seen an opportunity to end things without her trying to soak him. He’d headed to Malta where he’d bought a racing trimaran, readied the vessel, set aside bribery cash in various currencies, and stocked up on diapers and formula.
Zach’s email had said “they” were desperate for baby supplies. Leon had taken that to be a collective “they.” That Zach was advising he bring infant goods to grease palms.
Leon hadn’t been given a chance to mention the supplies or the money to his inquisitors. The moment he’d come near the harbor, he’d been boarded. He and the trimaran had been searched and the infant supplies moved onto the dock when he moored. He’d been roughed up, and accused of smuggling and trying to profiteer on the island’s black market.
He had told the truth—he was here to collect his wife. He didn’t have a marriage certificate on him, though, which had made the soldiers skeptical. The identification he did have could have got him detained for a ransom demand if they’d understood exactly who he was. He had a contingency plan in place for that, but thankfully it wasn’t needed. Yet.
He’d been put in a vehicle and driven here to see his wife.
And his baby?
Given the supplies he’d brought, the existence of a baby was almost a blessing. Almost—because this was definitely not his baby appearing in the arms of the woman who lived with Tanja. He hadn’t had any sort of contact with Tanja—intimate or otherwise—in five years.
“This is Illi.” Tanja’s voice was husky with deep, maternal love as she took the girl.
Something flickered in his mind’s eye like a flashbulb taking a photo. He absorbed her tone and the tender way she cradled the baby so protectively. His memory took a snapshot to dwell on the fine details later because right now he had to stay anchored in the tension permeating the air around them.
The baby had neither Tanja’s straight, red-gold hair nor her pale complexion nor hazel eyes. The infant’s black curls and light brown skin could pass for mixed race if Tanja had slept with a man who looked like him, though. Which she must have done.
Why that dug such a deep thorn into him, Leon couldn’t say. Their marriage had been a moment of temporary madness that he only recollected as a statement of fact. His father was dead. His age was thirty-five. His legal status was “married.”
How Tanja had conducted her life these last years was none of his business.
But where was that other man? Surely he would be as affronted to have Leon named his baby’s father as Leon was at having another man’s baby passed off as his? Leon could hardly keep his dumbfounded fury off his face.
He manufactured a smile, though, hyperaware of the scrutiny they were under and that, regardless of who this baby’s father was, the infant was completely helpless and innocent. If she was Tanja’s, for the purposes of this rescue, she was his.
“She’s beautiful.” He tried to look smitten even though he’d never really looked at a baby before. This one was whimpering as she nuzzled her face into Tanja’s chest.
“I’ll make her a bottle.” The other woman took the baby again and hurried away.
“I was upset that you and I were apart. My milk didn’t come,” Tanja said with an apologetic smile toward the soldiers for speaking of such things.
“See?” Leon leaped on her remark to prove his lie. “Her brother told me diapers and formula were difficult to find here. I brought them for my daughter.”
One of the soldiers accepted that with a bored look toward his compatriot. He seemed ready to leave. His fellow soldier wore the look of a man with a hard-on for power. Leon hated men like that. He’d been raised by one and feared he had turned into one, which was why he was so filled with bitter self-loathing.
“Why were you here and not with your husband when you had the baby?” the antagonistic one asked Tanja.
“Things are different in Canada,” she began while Leon spoke at the same time. “My father died—”
Leon bit back a curse and set his arm around her again, squeezing in a signal to let him do the talking.
She was nothing but skin and bones. That alarmed him, but he was more concerned with getting through the next few minutes without an arrest.
“We married in Canada, but I had to return to Greece when my father died.” Ancient history, but true. “Tanja was already scheduled to come to work here. She didn’t know she was pregnant or she wouldn’t have traveled.” He gave her a stern frown. Naughty wife.
He felt her stiffen, but she smiled apologetically at the men. “By the time I realized, I was too far along to go back. It’s been difficult to make arrangements to leave.”
Flights had to be chartered and women weren’t allowed to leave the house, let alone the country, without a male relative.
The soldiers flicked their attention between him and Tanja, seemingly aware they were being strung along but unsure what the truth really was.
“My sister is a widow,” the man from across the street piped up. “She let Mrs. Petrakis and the baby stay here as an act of charity. My uncle is a cleric.” He mentioned the man’s name, and presumably the uncle outranked these foot soldiers because they both stood straighter. “He’s aware of all of this. Let me fetch him. He will determine if all is in order with her departure. Then we’ll have no more inquiries from their governments.”
The bored one nudged the grumpy one and gave a coaxing nod. The other sighed and jerked his head to send the brother out into the night.
From behind them, the baby’s fussing abruptly ceased. Tanja broke away to say, “Why don’t you feed Illi while I pack?”
Leon was starting to think they had a Broadway act in their future, if not a career in espionage. “I’d love to.”
The little midge was placed in the crook of his arm. Milk leaked from the corners of her greedy mouth as she pulled at the nipple on the bottle. Sleepy brown eyes blinked open briefly. Her damp lashes were ridiculously long, her gaze trusting and oblivious of the thick undercurrents threatening to swamp and drown all of them. She let her eyelids grow heavy enough to close again, the simple action causing something to shift uncomfortably in his chest. Like the door on a stone vault was set ajar and a whistling breeze was stealing in. It ought to have been cold and uncomfortable, but it was warm and beckoning.
From the bedroom, he heard the swift thump of drawers and zippers being opened and shut. If the women communicated, they did it silently enough that the only other sound was the gulping from the baby.
Leon didn’t bother contemplating how outrageous it was that he was pretending to be this baby’s father. All he cared about was gettingoff this island with Tanja. Zach could have warned him she had a kid, but fine. Package deal. Whatever. His help with the baby should encourage Tanja toward an amicable dissolution of their marriage.
Tanja reappeared with a small case and an overstuffed bag that she pushed an empty baby bottle into. “Is she finished? I’ll make another so it’s ready while we travel.”
She draped a cloth on his shoulder and guided him to hold the infant there.
The baby wobbled her head, then burped and let her head drop into the hollow of his shoulder. She was the tiniest creature he’d ever held and provoked a strange fire of protectiveness that stung his arteries. Her little noises of distress had him rubbing her back, silently conveying that she was safe, even though they were all balanced on a knife’s edge.
Tanja rattled around in the kitchen. One of the soldiers checked his watch.
The door opened and the brother returned. “My uncle is on his way,” he assured them, sounding as though he’d been running. “Five minutes.”
Five minutes stretched to a tension-filled ten, then an excruciating fifteen. At least the baby fell asleep. Tanja held her and gently swayed, her movement hypnotic enough they all watched.
She looked like she hadn’t eaten in a month, Leon noted. Her cheeks were hollow, her mouth tense, her eyes bruised with sleeplessness.
That fragility made the pit of his stomach feel loaded with gravel. His memory of her was one of athletic leanness with firm, subtle curves. She’d been quick with smiles and banter, and had possessed a core of surety that had made him think their affair would be a simple pleasure between unfettered adults.
Discovering the incredible sensuality beneath her veneer of sunny confidence had been as unexpected as it was dangerous. He’d had a brief surge of craving for her particular brand of heat and had wound up blinded by lust into marrying her.
He’d since told himself he’d imagined that depth of passion, but her siren-like allure was still going strong. It was stinging his lips after a kiss that was supposed to have been a one-act play. He’d had to press her back out of self-preservation or he might have let it engulf them both.
He steered his mind from further exploring that pointless fantasy. A car was approaching. An engine cut and footsteps arrived on the stoop. The door opened and an older man with a white beard and a black robe and cap entered.
Words were exchanged in the local dialect. Tanja offered their marriage certificate.
Leon had a fleeting thought at how strange it was that she had the document on her, but nodded verification that it was his name.
Passports were produced. Leon’s came from the pocket of one of the soldiers. He’d had to keep his cool when that jackass had taken it at the marina. Thankfully, once the cleric recorded details from both, he handed everything back to Leon.
The cleric asked Tanja a few other things in the local dialect, recording her answers on a form. Leon wasn’t sure what that was about. An exit permit, perhaps. There were so many threads of strain in the room, he couldn’t tell which ones were being pulled. Was there some irregularity in her answers? Her allies, the woman who owned this house and the brother from across the street, seemed to be holding their breath and standing very still. Leon had the sense they expected this entire house to cave in on all of them at any second.
The cleric handed Tanja a piece of paper. She smiled politely, but her lips trembled. There was a sheen in her eyes. Her friends were glowing behind their stoic goodbyes.
Leon didn’t waste time trying to interpret it.
“Everything is in order?” he confirmed, forcing the soldiers to look at him. “I’ll take my wife and daughter to my boat, then.”
“I’ll drive you to the marina in my uncle’s car,” Aksil offered as the soldiers left. “His plates are known. We won’t be bothered.”
Tanja had one last chance to hug Kahina, who had become like a sister to her, then her friend hurried across to her brother’s house.
Tanja cradled Illi against her shoulder as she climbed into the back of the sedan. Her bags were so meager Leon didn’t bother putting them in the trunk, only set the small knapsack on the floor and the diaper bag on the seat beside her before taking the front passenger seat.
Now she felt as though she was running, not even worrying over the lack of a car seat. It was a short drive, and her muscles were tense and twitching, her skin coated in clammy perspiration while her lungs felt as though they couldn’t sip enough oxygen. Escape loomed so close she could taste it. She only had to make it a little farther.
Tanja didn’t fully understand who Kahina’s uncle was, only that Kahina had appealed to him when the school had been shut down and all the female students forced into seclusion. The cleric and his wife had interviewed Tanja about how Illi had come to be in her care. After a few weeks of making inquiries, they had concluded she was telling the truth. Illi’s parents were dead. Her only living relative, her adolescent brother, was impossible to locate. The cleric had decided Tanja could continue to mother the girl so long as she didn’t draw negative attention to Kahina or the rest of their family.
Tanja had inadvertently broken that deal this evening. She had waited in terror for the cleric to denounce her to the soldiers, but he’d calmly forged a birth certificate and handed her the document before accompanying Kahina across the street to await the return of his car.
“I presume I owe your uncle a donation?” Leon asked as Aksil turned toward the marina. Leon stripped off his pullover so he was only in a body-hugging T-shirt, shoulders straining the light fabric. He unzipped a hidden pocket of the pullover. “This is euros. I had dinars, but they took it as a ‘moorage fee.’” He pronounced that with disdain. “I also have American dollars and pound sterling on the boat.”
“You hope,” Aksil said dourly, pointing to the glove box.
“Not my first unfriendly port.” Leon left the euros in the compartment. “They won’t find all my stashes.”
“We’ll see.” Aksil dropped his uncle’s name when they arrived at the marina and escorted them down to the slip.
Despite the security the armed guards had supposedly offered, the trimaran had been relieved of nearly everything that wasn’t nailed down. Some of the goods were piled on the dock beside the craft.
“At least they left the sail,” Leon muttered.
“Do you think they siphoned the fuel?” Tanja asked in an undertone.
“Less ballast if I have to paddle,” he retorted grimly, stepping aboard with her bags. “That’s cargo I brought so take what you need from it.” He nodded at the packs of disposable diapers and shrink-filmed cases of formula stacked on the dock.
The soldier who’d been guarding the stockpile shifted warningly. He knew as well as she did how much formula was worth here.
Tanja took what she needed for a few days of travel and, under the watchful eye of the nearby soldier, gave Aksil a last goodbye with Illi.
“We’re going to miss you both,” he said, touching the sleeping baby’s cheek. “My children will be upset they couldn’t say goodbye. Siman will cry.”
“I wish you could all come,” she whispered. The craft was so small it would barely carry the three of them, let alone a family of six plus Kahina, but she meant it.
“We have protection here,” Aksil said with quiet confidence. “And this is our home. You want to go back to yours. But you’ll bring our Illi back to visit someday.”
“I will,” she swore. “Tell your uncle thank you.” There weren’t words for what he’d done for them.
If only he could work a similar miracle with Brahim. She didn’t let herself grow emotional over Illi’s brother, though; otherwise, she’d be tempted to stay, and Brahim had made her promise to take Illi to Canada if she had the chance. Hopefully, once she was safely home, Tanja would be able to contact him and help him, too.
“The map you wanted…” Leon emerged from below to hand off what was no doubt another handful of notes to Aksil. “And some chocolate for your children.”
One or the other would be a final bribe to the mercenaries circling like sharks. Whatever got them out of the port without being shot at, Tanja supposed.
Leon helped her aboard with Illi, then tried the engine while Aksil cast off. The motor turned over and so did her heart.
She ought to be urging Leon to wait until first light to set sail, but she was anxious enough to get off Istuval that she was willing to take her chances in the open waters of a dark Mediterranean. Leon was a very experienced sailor. She knew that much about him, even if he was a stranger in other ways.
Her marriage had become something of an urban legend among her friends, only mentioned if someone was persistent about asking her on a date or setting her up. Since the summer she’d married Leon, Tanja’s life had been school and work, school and work. She hadn’t had time for socializing, never mind a serious relationship. Perhaps if she had met someone who had really tempted her, she might have felt compelled to seek a divorce sooner, but she never had.
Nevertheless, when she had come to Istuval, it had been with the intention of going to Greece afterward, to properly end things with Leon.
Everything had gone sideways shortly after her arrival. Had she procrastinated contacting him? Absolutely. She’d been so hurt and angry after his initial betrayal, she had resolved to force him to come to her if he wanted a divorce. It was a juvenile attitude she had come to regret when five years passed without a word, but the longer their silence went on, the harder it became to be the one to break it.
So she’d put off reaching out to him until she reached Istuval. Then she had told herself she’d contact him once she was settled in her flat and job. She had pushed that until she had her class schedule and her lessons started. As soon as she felt comfortable teaching, she would definitely let him know she was in the “neighborhood.”
By then she’d been so caught up in Brahim and Illi’s situation, chasing her absent husband for a divorce had ceased to be a priority.
Now here Leon was, arguably doing one of the most gallant, husbandly things a man could do. He had swooped in to rescue his wife andhad shouldered responsibility for a child who wasn’t his, without giving away the game.
Tears of gratitude arrived at the backs of her eyes like a battering ram. She could hardly see, but she braced her feet where she stood in the well of the outer deck, near where Leon took the wheel. With the baby clutched firmly to her chest, she waved at Aksil with her free hand.
Aksil waved once, but didn’t linger. He exchanged something with the nearest soldier and made his way back to the car.
“PFDs were taken,” Leon said tersely. “Go below so I don’t have to worry about you falling overboard.”
She didn’t take offense at his abrupt order. She’d sailed with enough captains, her father and brother included, to know that even the best conditions required focus and potentially quick action. They weren’t sailing into a storm, but it was dark and they would all be better off if she did as she was told and let him concentrate.
Even so, she was compelled to say, “Same.” Turning any sailing vessel around to recover a man overboard was tricky. She didn’t want to test whether she had the necessary skill. Not tonight. Not in the dark.
“Once we’re under sail, I’ll settle into the helm and won’t leave it until daylight.” He jerked his head to indicate he would be inside with her.
“Do you need help with the sails? I can put Illi down—”
“I can manage this alone. That’s why I bought her. Go to bed.” He might have glanced at her, but it was hard to tell in the dim glow of the running lights. “We’ll fly once she gets going, but it’ll be tomorrow afternoon before we reach Malta.”
Was that where they were going? She probably should have asked. “You don’t have to stay up all night. I can spell you off.”
“I’ve raced,” he reminded. “Sailed sleep-deprived many times. Go. You look like you haven’t slept in weeks.”
“Thanks,” she muttered. Had he met any new mothers? “Wake me if—”
“I will. But I won’t have to.”
She ducked her head to go through the small door, shuffled hunched over through the tiny space that was the helm with its captain’s chair and low-profile view over the bow, then negotiated the short, steep ladder into the cabin below. The saloon was a sleek, narrow space with a galley on one side and a bench settee with a long, narrow dining table on the other. An oblong door at the end led to the only quarters and was taken up by the V-shaped berth with storage space beneath and a skylight hatch above.
Everything was minimal and modest, not at all the opulent sailboat Leon had been swanning around in when they had met and married.
He had lost his father’s fortune, she had read shortly after he left her in Canada. That’s why he’d failed to invest in the marina her brother had taken over from their father. Recently, Leon had seemed to be coming back on top again—not that she made a habit of stalking him online. On the contrary, she purposely didn’t check up on him.
Maybe he had lost everything again while she’d been cut off from the world on Istuval. Typical corporate raider, successively gambling away people’s livelihoods.
She shouldn’t be so cynical when he’d just saved her and her daughter. She knew that, but she had resented him for a long time, and her exhausted brain was having trouble bringing the two versions of Leon Petrakis together, especially because she was also trying to figure out where to put Illi down for the night.
Cats and trimarans didn’t list as severely as sailboats, but Illi still might be sent rolling. She had mastered flipping onto her tummy and often woke up that way. The mattress was firm enough she should be fine sleeping next to Tanja, especially if she was tucked close to the bow. Tanja felt safe leaving her there with a pillow as a bolster while she brushed her teeth.
She didn’t bother changing into her pajamas, just positioned herself as a second wall of defense to keep Illi safely on the bed, realizing as she lay down that she was actually exhausted. Despite the late hour and her weariness—Leon was right, she hadn’t been sleeping enough—her busy mind fluttered like a trapped bird.
Obviously, her brother had asked Leon to come and get her, but why had Leon relented? What would happen next? Should she bring up divorce herself before she left for Canada? Why did the word divorce cut like a knife through the center of her chest? It was something she wanted. Needed. She couldn’t live in this holding pattern forever.
Then what? How would she pay for her flight home? She would have to tell him—
The engine cut.
Either they were out of fuel, which was so disheartening a thought that she bit back a whimper of anguish, or…
A sail snapped. The boat wobbled and Leon’s feet sounded on the deck above her. She watched for him through the hatch but could see only stars. After a moment, the constellations quit joggling and began to move in a steady path.
It shouldn’t have felt like such a relief to be steering into open water with wind their only propulsion. She had very limited supplies for her baby and suspected whatever groceries Leon had brought had been taken by the soldiers.
But when she heard him come inside and close the door, her entire being relaxed.
“Thank you, Leon,” she whispered, and tumbled into heavy slumber.
Pink was staining the wispy clouds beyond the porthole when Illi began to whimper.
Tanja sat up, disoriented, murmuring, “I’m here, baby doll. Let’s go find your bottle.”
She had left the one she’d prepared in the tiny fridge, but when she went to the galley to retrieve it, she realized there was no microwave. Darn it, this might get loud.
“Everything okay?” Leon leaned down from the helm. He looked tired and scruffy, with a darker beard and weary circles around his eyes, but he was still sexy as hell.
Where the heck had that thought come from? The very last thing she wanted or needed was a recurrence of a case of the lusts.
She yanked her libido back under control and said, “She needs a bottle.”
“Don’t use the water in the tap unless you boil it first. I bought this from a fellow racer who had it stored on Malta. It’s seaworthy, but the tanks are due for flushing. I didn’t have time.”
“Oh. Okay.” She should have asked if the water was safe, but she’d been operating on autopilot last night when she had brushed her teeth. She had poured a glass of water, rinsed and spit, then drunk what remained in the glass out of habit. It had tasted stale and metallic, but she felt fine. Maybe a bit off, but that could be chronic hunger or mal de mer, likely both.
She only needed to warm Illi’s bottle anyway so she set the filled kettle on the stove and started the flame. Then she swayed the unhappy Illi on her hip, keeping hold of a nearby ledge for balance.
“Soon, babykins. I promise.”
Illi was sucking her fingers and pinching her arm, letting her know what a jerk she was for taking so long to give her the bottle she wanted.
“There’s a hold they missed with emergency supplies.” Leon directed her to lift the cushions on the saloon bench and open the narrow hatch beneath. “I had the chocolate in there with some extra bottles of water. I think there’s a jar of instant coffee.”
“And soup and porridge,” she said as she exposed it and found the packets. It was all dry, hardly haute cuisine, but she was so thrilled she was giddy.
The kettle began to whistle. She found a coffee mug that would fit the bottle, then poured some of the hot water around it, lightly bouncing Illi while they waited for it to warm.
She made Leon a coffee in the meantime and passed it up to him. “I don’t see any cream or sugar. I’d rather keep the formula for Illi.”
“This is fine, thanks,” he said drily.
She gave the bottle a shake and tried it on her wrist. It was tepid, but Illi greedily went after the nipple and drained the bottle in record time, eyelids growing heavy as she finished it.
They usually went back to bed after her early-morning bottle, but Tanja settled Illi on the berth with the pillow in place, then propped the door open so she could see and hear her. She came back to the galley to make a bowl of porridge that she took up to Leon.
“I can sit watch if you want to sleep,” she offered.
He looked between her and the bowl and the coffee he’d set aside to cool, then to the various instruments. There was nothing in front of them except a light morning chop and a brightening sky.
“You’re comfortable with all of this?”
“I couldn’t navigate manually.” She nodded at the rack of rolled paper charts, then clicked through the LCD screens on the hub mounted next to the wheel. “But it looks like we’re a few degrees off the course you’ve plotted to avoid… That’s a container ship?” She clicked to the Automatic Identification System screen to see the vessel’s ID and call sign. Another screen told her, “The depth is good, but I’ll keep an eye on it.” She clicked to the radar screen. “And I’ll watch for that little guy off our port bow.”
“And the radio?”
“Hold that button and bust into any channel with noise.”
“Good enough.” He slid off the bench, crowding her in the tiny space, head and shoulders hunched because the ceiling was so low.
She was slouched with a forearm braced on the back of his chair. All she would have to do was tilt her head and lean. Their mouths would fit perfectly. She knew that because that’s how it had been last night when he’d appeared out of thin air like the Greek god of rescues. He had kissed her like he’d meant it. She had kissed him back like she’d missed him.
As his flickering gaze went from her mouth to her eyes and noted where her attention strayed, her pulse began to flutter.
Something flared behind his eyes before he set his jaw. “Give me twenty minutes, and I’ll be primed for another twelve hours.”
There was absolutely no reason she should hear that as bedroom talk, but she did. Which made her blush and shift out of his way in a small fluster, still clutching the bowl of porridge as she hitched herself into the pilot’s seat.
He didn’t bunk in with Illi, only went as far as the galley, where he settled on his back on the settee, knees bent because he was so tall. He crossed his arms and fell asleep in a blink.
She ate her cinnamon-flavored porridge slowly, wishing she could enjoy it more, but her stomach was really unsteady. Maybe it was the coffee. She hadn’t had any in a while and it was pretty strong, but it was such a treat she refused to let the cup she’d made for Leon go to waste.
Maybe her tummy’s protests were anxiety. Now that she was awake again, a tidal wave of apprehension was creeping up, threatening to drown her. Was there a Canadian consulate in Malta? She’d had three stopovers on her way to Istuval and doubted there were direct flights back. That meant she’d have to show a passport in Munich or Paris or some other country. Officials would want to be sure that Illi—who didn’t look anything like her—was really hers.
Would her credit cards work? Tanja hadn’t had internet access in ages and had failed to turn up for her first day of work at the accounting firm, even when they extended her job offer to accommodate her. Her last paycheck from her previous job had been twenty weeks ago and her sublet had only been confirmed for the three months she was supposed to be gone. That meant rent would have come out of what scarce savings she had left…
She sighed. Zach would scrape up what he could to get her home, but he wasn’t flush with cash, given the new house and new wife and expected baby. Did she have a niece or nephew, she wondered? She would have to ask Leon if she could use his phone. Hers had been traded for food weeks ago. Which meant she would have to get a new phone and why did that feel like the most daunting task of all?
Then there was Leon. She glanced at his shins. How was he going to react when she asked for a divorce? When he realized what she’d done?
She had built him into such a sleazeball in her head. Too handsome. Smarmy. A horrible womanizer, a liar and an all-around reprehensible excuse for a human being.
Part of that had been defensive anger. She knew she was as much to blame for their rushed marriage. It hadn’t felt like a hurry at the time, though. She had mooned after Leon for weeks as he came and went with Zach. Her brother had raced with Leon and had nothing but admiration for him, but when their father had decided to retire, Zach had come home to take over the marina. That’s when Zach had cooked up a plan for Leon to invest in the expansion.
Leon had agreed to invest once he turned thirty and Zach had quickly been caught up in the excitement of purchasing more oceanfront property, chasing permits and rezoning bylaws, hiring engineers and architects. He’d borrowed heavily, expecting to pay it all down once Leon injected capital and the real work started.
Tanja had still been doing the books for the business. She’d tried to warn Zach against moving too fast, but she hadn’t tried very hard. She’d been excited, too. In some ways more. Each time Leon came into the office, her entire being had sprung to life in the most mind-scattering way.
She had known it was only chemistry. Sexual attraction. Infatuation. She hadn’t really known him as a person, but she had wanted to. When he finally flirted back, claiming to be too old for her even as he bent to kiss her, she had been over the moon.
Once they were intimate, her crush had bloomed into full-on enchantment. How could it not? Leon was gorgeous and led a glamorous life. For such an incredible man to look twice at her had been enormously flattering.
Then, a week into their affair, he’d proposed. Of course she had said a captivated and breathless yes. Their marrying would be perfect for everyone.
Given all the activity around the marina and Leon’s travel schedule, they’d had a marriage commissioner come out on his yacht for an afternoon with just her father and brother in attendance. Leon hadn’t wanted his parents to find out through online gossip so they’d kept the whole thing on the down low, tentatively planning a honeymoon in Greece to introduce her to them.
The honeymoon hadn’t happened. Leon’s father had died suddenly. Leon left and his promised investment money had never manifested. The marina her father had built had spiraled into bankruptcy. They had all felt duped.
Tanja hadn’t wanted to admit she was married to the man who had ruined them. She’d gone back to school because she was enrolled, but she’d spent weeks hoping Leon would turn up and explain himself.
As the hurt of his abandonment solidified into anger, however, she had convinced herself that whatever she had felt for Leon had been for a man who didn’t really exist. Had the sex even been as good as she remembered? Or was her memory of that as skewed as her vision of him had been?
Based on their kiss last night, he still had the same physical effect on her. She cringed inwardly at suffering that soaring euphoria and wanton hunger again. It was so superficial! Great sex did not equal “great guy,” as he had brutally demonstrated.
Yet here he was, upending her view of him again, sailing into genuinely treacherous waters to extricate her and her daughter from a dangerous situation.
That didn’t exactly put her in a position to disdain him when she, a woman who prided herself on doing things by the book, had pulled a fast one to get what she wanted. Which was her baby. She would make no apologies for fighting dirty to keep Illi fed and safe and with her, but still.
Perhaps he sensed the waves of conflict and culpability rolling off her. Tanja heard him awaken with a long, indrawn breath. His legs disappeared from her periphery. It had been more like an hour than the twenty minutes he’d asked for. She heard him clatter around the galley, setting the kettle to boil before he appeared beside her.
“Stay there,” he said when she started to shift off the captain’s chair. “I’m going to adjust the sails. I’ll clip on,” he added in reassurance.
He clicked through the screens first, pausing to listen to a weather report in Italian, then went out on deck.
When he returned a few minutes later, the kettle was whistling. Tanja moved to make him porridge and coffee, then washed her bowl and sterilized Illi’s bottle so it would be ready when she needed her next one.
She glanced in on Illi, who was fast asleep, then made herself a fresh cup of coffee and took it up to sit in the nook across from Leon where the sparkle off the water didn’t blind her. No matter what happened from here on in, she had to say one thing.
Tanja’s voice was thick with such heartfelt gratitude it caused an itch in Leon’s chest, one that made him think he should have known all along where his wife was, that she was in trouble. She shouldn’t be sounding like he’d done her a huge favor when he’d only done what any decent man would do for his spouse.
Was he a decent man, though? The jury was definitely hung on that one.
He’d spent the night thinking about her, intensely aware of her in the berth below. His wife. A woman he’d married on impulse, mostly because her brother had learned they’d slept together. The expectation of Zach that Leon would propose had loomed like an aircraft carrier.
Which didn’t explain why he had. Leon had never been one to buckle to peer pressure, but he’d liked Zach. They’d been embarking on a business venture together. And Leon had been a different man then. He’d been blinded by lust and living in the moment. Carefree, some would have called him. Oblivious to consequences was another way to put it. He hadn’t expected their marriage would last, but that hadn’t phased him. At the time, he’d seen marriage as something that served many purposes so he’d leaped in without regard.
Tanja had been different then, too. Inexperienced more than immature, but brimming with vibrant youth and promise. She’d had plans for her life, not big ones, but solid, sensible ones. She was always in steady pursuit of them, too. Always in motion, talking and laughing and bustling, not given to sitting still as a wraith, wearing dark shadows beneath her eyes, her profile difficult to read.
Motherhood had changed her, he supposed.
“Zach didn’t tell me you had a baby. Where’s the father?” He flicked his gaze to the horizon, ensuring they still had a clear course.
Before he could mutter I’m sorry, she continued.
“I didn’t have Illi. Not in the pregnancy and delivery sense.”
“But you told the soldiers your milk hadn’t come in.”
“It didn’t,” she said wryly. “Because I was never pregnant.”
“You adopted her?” The unexpectedness of that news caused a bizarre shift inside him, like a seesaw that moved weight across his shoulders, lighter in some ways, heavier in others. It was disconcerting and left his ears ringing.
“Illi is the reason I didn’t get on the flight when the other teachers were evacuated.” She flicked him a glance. “I was fostering her. Zach put me in touch with officials in Canada to help with the adoption process, but internet was sketchy. Then I had to trade my phone for groceries and couldn’t contact him at all. I warned him I would be off-grid, but I guess he panicked when he didn’t hear from me and called in the reserves.” She nodded to indicate Leon. “I should let him know you got me out.”
“I only brought a burner phone and they took it. We’ll have to wait until Malta. How did all of this come about? You being on Istuval?” Istuval was a popular destination for tourists, but usually travelers from Europe and Africa, not North America. Definitely not for anyone since the takeover.
“When I finished my degree and started—”
“You’re an accountant?” He wasn’t sure why that surprised him as much as the adoption. It was the career Tanja had been pursuing when she’d been at university. Once they married she had talked of putting off school to travel with him, though, leaving him with the impression she might have been after an MRS. degree instead of a real one.
“I’m unemployed at the moment, but yes. I’m a CPA. While I was articling, one of the firm’s accountants returned from a stint on Istuval as part of a voluntourism program. It sounded interesting so I applied. I had to pay for my flight, but Kahina’s school offered room and board for a nominal rate in exchange for tutoring women and girls in English. I also taught entrepreneurial skills. Basic accounting for small business, things like that. I signed up for twelve weeks, but it turned into six months.”
“Is that how you met Illi’s mother? She was a student?”
“I never met her. Both her parents are dead. I met her brother.”
Leon let that roll around in his head. It just kept rolling, never coming to rest in a way that made sense.
“You’re going to give me radiation burns, staring at me that hard.” She sipped her coffee. “Brahim was fourteen. He showed up on my first day of class and said his mother was enrolled, but she was too sick to attend. He asked if I could give him a refund. I arranged it, but gave him some course material to give to her. He came back a few days later to ask me about it. He wanted to know how to start his own business so I invited him to join the class.”
“That’s shrewd business right there, getting his education for free.”
“Don’t be cynical. That’s not how he was.” She grew pensive. “Brahim is a very good person. He was trying so hard to support himself and his mother. His stepfather had recently died and he had a new baby sister. I presumed his mother was unable to work because of pregnancy and having a newborn, but she had refused cancer treatment because she was pregnant.”
“Oh, hell.” Leon winced.
“Yeah.” She nodded and bit her lip. “That’s how we lost Mom, so his situation hit me really hard. I wanted to do anything to help him. I offered to watch Illi if he needed to take his mother to treatment, things like that. His mother went back into hospital and Brahim was staying with a neighbor, one who had other children including a baby. Brahim left Illi with her in the mornings so he could clean pools. That paid for the woman to watch and nurse Illi, but she couldn’t keep it up. He washed dishes in the evening so he could buy formula, but he was so tired between that and looking after her, when he showed up for my class he fell asleep at his desk. I started taking Illi in the evenings and that turned into suggesting he sleep on my couch. We had a good little system for a few weeks.”
“Why didn’t you meet their mother?”
“I tried, but Brahim didn’t want me to. He said the hospital thought Illi was with family. He was afraid if they knew he was relying on a foreigner, they would take her away from him. He loved Illi so much. I loved them both.” She rubbed her breastbone. “When he told me his mother was terminal, I started looking into adopting them. It was going to be months of bureaucracy, but Kahina offered to extend my permit so I could stay and teach. It would have worked out eventually, but the café bombing happened. All the teachers packed up and left on any flight they could get. I couldn’t leave Brahim and Illi. They were… I won’t say they were like my kids. They were mine. In my heart, they’re both mine.”
She was pale as bone china. Her eyes glistened, and her voice was husky with an emotion that dug like nails into him. She was calm in her conviction, though, not trying to persuade him. These were the facts as she knew them. It was eerie, making his scalp prickle.
“Where’s Brahim now?”
“I don’t know.” Her voice broke. She took a sip of coffee and her hand shook. “He disappeared a couple of times, came home with bruises. He didn’t want to talk about it, then he got the news his mother had passed. He was devastated. She didn’t even get a proper funeral because the military was cracking down. They closed the school. I kept thinking if I could just get them to Canada… But I couldn’t even go shopping by myself. All the flights were canceled. Kahina took us in, but Brahim refused to come to her cottage. I realize now he was being pressured to enlist and was afraid to put us in their crosshairs because he knew they’d use us against him.”
Leon swore and pinched the bridge of his nose. “He’s a soldier?”
“The last time I texted with him, he begged me to take Illi to Canada. I said I wanted both of them to come, but he said he would be okay as long as he knew she was safe.” Her breath hissed and she swiped at her cheek. “I saved those texts to my cloud account before I wiped my phone. As if anyone will give weight to a teenage boy’s texts when deciding the custody of his little sister. I can’t even prove she washis sister. Although they look alike. I have photos of him saved, too.”
“How far have you gotten with the paperwork in Canada?”
“Not far enough,” she said despairingly. “Kahina’s uncle, the man who came last night? He and his wife pressured me to give Illi to an agency. Istuval is her home, I get that, but I couldn’t—” Her voice broke again and she cleared her throat. “I kept asking him, ‘Who will love her?’ I really wanted an answer. Who would be her mother if her birth mother is dead? He tried to tell me she would be adopted, but we could hear gunshots the whole time we were talking. I finally said, ‘If I have to stay on Istuval to be her mother, then I’ll stay.’ He said I could continue to care for her as long as I didn’t draw attention to the family, so I never left the house.”
“You’ve been under house arrest?”
“Only for the last two months, but most women are living that way. Kahina has a garden and a few chickens. We grow lettuce and tomatoes and peppers. It’s been okay, but formula has been a killer to find. Lately I’ve been giving my share of our eggs to the mother down the street. She’s been nursing Illi a few times a day so I could conserve what formula Kahina managed to beg, borrow or steal.”
“That’s why you look like you haven’t eaten in weeks? Because you haven’t? Bloody hell, Tanja. You need to eat, too.” His alarm came out as fury, making her flinch.
“So does a woman nursing two babies,” she fired back. She added in a mutter, “And that’s how I knew I was Illi’s mother for real. I didn’t care what I had to do or whether I ever ate again so long as she wasn’t going hungry.”
He didn’t know whether to commend or berate her. He only knew it made him furious to think of her withering away even as he respected her level of devotion. The frustration of being sidelined and helpless to go back and fix any of that put an edge in his voice when he asked with exasperation, “Why didn’t Zach tell me all this?”
“I don’t know if he believed I was serious about adopting them until I refused to leave before it was finalized.” She heaved a sigh. “He’s had other worries. His wife was having complications with her pregnancy. He wasn’t in the mood to indulge what sounded like bleeding-heart antics on his sister’s part. The truth is, once the rebels took over, I was afraid to tell him how bad it really was. I didn’t know how much they were monitoring, and I didn’t want to stress him out any more than he was. We were as safe as we could be at Kahina’s.”
“He still could have told me.” Leon had to wonder if Zach had feared Leon would refuse to help if he knew there was a baby involved, but he didn’t want to believe he’d fallen that far in his old friend’s estimation. “You have the paperwork now, though? The cleric approved the adoption or whatever?”
“In a way.” She swallowed and something about her imploring gaze filled his gut with gravel. “He, um, issued a birth certificate for Illi.”
“That says what?” Premonition danced across his shoulders and down his spine.
You must be so excited to meet your daughter.
“Tanja.” He could hardly speak through a throat that was closing like a noose. “Do not tell me you have implicated me in the human trafficking of an infant.”