A TALE OF TWO COUSINS
A Papaioannou Novel
“My room is an utter and complete crap hole. What’s yours like?”
I looked around the small room. Despite the bright sunlight of Athens in a late spring afternoon, the room felt oddly gloomy. There was a distinct air of glory days long relegated to the past, but despite that, I liked it. “It’s fine,” I called back through the connecting door to Maggie’s room. “Not great, but the online reviews say that the owners are diligent about keeping the hostel clean. And it’s cheap.”
Maggie appeared in the doorway clad in only her underwear, her face expressing mingled sadness and disappointment that made me feel like a heel. “I know you did the best you could, but I really wish you could have found us somewhere nicer, Thyra.”
“Nicer costs more money.” I pushed down the guilt, and shook out the gold lace cocktail dress that had been my mother’s, thankful that vintage garments were in style again. “Of which I have none.”
Maggie gave a little snort before withdrawing into her room, leaving the door open so we could talk. “I thought the magazine paid you?”
“An advance only,” I reminded her.
“So? That’s still money, and we could have been staying somewhere that reeked a little less of a low-class youth hostel.”
“The advance was spent. This is all I can afford. If you want to stay somewhere else, you’re welcome to, but I simply don’t have the money to pay for it.” I hoped that would stop her from continuing the gentle stream of complaints that had drifted my way during the last hour, which was the entirety of the time we’d been in Athens. This was our first venture, and already I was regretting having agreed to her plan.
Dammit, I told myself, this is what comes from depending on other people. This is why it’s better to just do things by yourself rather than rely on others.
“What did you spend it on?” What sounded very much to me like annoyance tinged her words. I was a bit surprised—Maggie had always been so supportive in the past that now her sense of unhappiness prickled on my skin. “It can’t have been clothes.”
“Transportation to the airport, plane tickets for two from London to Athens, transportation from the airport, and two rooms at this hotel for four days,” I said, peeling off my t-shirt, which was glued to my back with sweat. Although neither of our budget hotel rooms had its own bathroom, we did each have a sink, and I had a quick wash at it to clean off the worst of the sweat and dirt of travel. “Not to mention food and the incidentals you wanted.”
“That was five hundred euros? Somehow that doesn’t seem right.”
“Well, it was, and we’re here.” I looked out of the window, excitement driving away the sudden worry and misgivings about my cousin. “We’re in Athens, Maggie! Exotic, glorious Athens! On our first job! Aren’t you excited?”
“I’d be more excited if I was in a proper hotel. A princess doesn’t stay in a budget hotel. A princess stays in glamorous places with room service, and fresh towels, and chocolates on the pillow.”
“I’ll buy a candy bar and put it on your pillow tonight,” I promised, hugging myself with the joy that filled me, determined to enjoy myself even if Maggie’s unhappiness was a bit wearing. Although I hadn’t seen much of Athens on the ride in on the bus, what I had seen made me itch to be a tourist.
But first I had to get through the events of the evening that Maggie insisted were necessary. I dug through the meager belongings of my suitcase and for a moment, thought I’d lost my purse. “Do you still have my bag?”
“The black one that wouldn’t fit in your little carryon? Yes, it’s locked away in my suitcase. Do you need it now?”
“Well, it does have my passport, although I don’t suppose I will need that for a cocktail party,” I said, pulling the gold lace dress over my head, and immediately snagging my hair on a metal hook and eye. “Ow. Ow ow ow.”
“What on earth is the … oh.” Maggie bustled into my room, where I spun around with my hands over my head, my arms partway through the dress, flailing ineffectively as I tried to remove the hook from my hair. “Honest to God, Thyra, you’re the only woman I know whose hair deliberately does things to make itself difficult. No, stop struggling—I see where it’s hooked … there.”
“It’s just because there’s so much of it,” I said, pulling the now freed dress down onto my torso before rubbing at a spot on my head where Maggie had inadvertently pulled my hair getting it untangled. “Mom always said unruly hair was the curse of the Patoise family, although your hair never seems to fight you like mine does me.”
She patted the shoulder-length old-gold-colored hair that lay in perfection framing her face. “Maybe you and Aunt Sunny got some bad hair genetics from Grand-mère Patoise, but Mom and I didn’t. Are you ready?”
“I suppose,” I said, taking the small beaded coin purse I used on those rare occasions when I went out for an evening event, and stuffing the entirety of my bankroll—less than one hundred euros—into it. On second thought, I removed half of it, and hid the remainder in my bra, under one of my breasts.
Maggie had been admiring herself in the small mirror over my sink, turning this way and that before giving a big sigh. “It’s just not what a princess should have,” she told me.
“It may not be, but it’s what we can afford, so let’s stop focusing on the negative and enjoy our time while we’re here. Are you sure you need me tonight? I’d be happy to just wander around the city while you gate-crash the party.”
“It’s not gate-crashing if you know about a party,” she said, flashing a smile before hustling me out of the narrow room.
“It is if you aren’t invited, and we aren’t,” I pointed out.
“Meh. We would have been if people had known that Her Serene Highness Princess Juliane of Sonderburg-Beck was in town.” Maggie sailed blithely ahead, completely missing the fact that I rolled my eyes.
“It’s just that … well, you know how I am at parties.” I followed her down the narrow stone stairs, emerging into a small but clean reception room, where two young men with backpacks were checking in. I gave a little wave to Nita, the co-owner who had welcomed us earlier, and hurried after my cousin when she charged out the door, pausing to glance up and down the busy street.
“I know you’re insular, yes.”
“I’m not insular!” I protested, catching up to her.
“Oh?” She tipped her head to study me. “How many friends do you have?”
“That’s a silly question. I have friends,” I said, lifting my chin to attempt to look down my nose at her. This was a move that never worked, mostly because she was taller than me, but also because I had to look through glasses to see her.
“How many?” she repeated, arching one eyebrow.
“I have four roommates—” I started to say.
“Those are roomies, not friends,” she said, waving them away. “You don’t hang out with them for fun, do you?”
“Well …” I didn’t want to continue on with the subject, because I had a horrible feeling she was right.
“Uh-huh. What friends—other than that weird group of computer geeks you live with—do you have?”
“Well, Chris, naturally—”
“Chris is your brother,” she interrupted. “Other than family members and your roomies, who do you consider a friend?”
I thought for a minute, swearing under my breath before waving a vague hand. “I don’t see what your point is. OK, I’m particular about how many people I consider friends. It’s not like that defines me as a person.”
“No, but the fact that you don’t let anyone get close to you does.” She softened the words by giving my arm a brief squeeze. “I’m not trying to pick on you, Thyra, I’m really not, but other than family, you don’t really let people know you, the real you. I just want you to see what others and I see.”
“Others? What others?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. I was extremely uncomfortable with the discussion and would happily have changed the subject if I thought she’d let me. “Who are you talking about me with?”
She was silent, looking away, her gaze scanning the cars that drove past us.
A horrible thought struck me. “Oh, Maggie, you didn’t.”
“I did. He called me. He’s been very worried about you.”
I groaned aloud. “I don’t know why, since he’s done everything he can to make my life a living hell.”
“Kardom?” She whirled around to give me a little frown. “Are you crazy? He’s wild about you. Why would he try to make you unhappy?”
“Because he wants to be top dog in Beck, and he’s doing everything in his power to make that happen. No, don’t tell me you’ve fallen for his line of bull; I don’t want to discuss it. I just want to enjoy Athens and do this interview right. If the magazine likes it, it might lead to other things in addition to the column.”
“I like that!” She whapped me on the arm. “You get to drop statements like your own cousin Kardom is trying to do you a nasty, and then forbid me to talk about it? This is exactly what I’m talking about, Thyra—you put up barriers between yourself and everyone.”
I took a deep breath, and reminded myself that arguing was not how I wanted to spend the evening. “I have a lot of reasons for protecting myself, as you well know, but I admit that perhaps I might go overboard once in a while. If you’re done dissecting my psyche, can we go?”
“Yes, but just remember that I know all about you, and how you are. And you can’t be standoffish and isolated if you want to be the secretary to a princess.”
“Personal assistant,” I corrected, resigning myself to an evening spent in an introvert’s hell—a cocktail party. Afterward, I promised myself, I would take one of the free walking tours that were available around town. There had to be some that ran at night. Perhaps even a ghost tour … “Not to argue the point, but I think royal assistants are isolated and standoffish. It goes with the job.”
She gave a ladylike snort, then asked, “Where are all the taxis?”
“Is that what you’ve been looking around for?” I shook my head, and gave her a little push in the direction of the address she’d given me the day before. I’d looked it up at the library and memorized the location. “We don’t have money for a cab. Come on, it’s only about twelve blocks.”
“Twelve blocks!” She gasped and looked appalled, but hurried after me when I set off at a brisk pace. “I’m going to have blisters if I walk that far.”
“Don’t be silly. Twelve blocks is nothing on a nice night like this. It’s cooled down, there’s lots of people out, and mmm, just smell the smells from the restaurants. You did say there would be food at this party, right?”
“Of course there will be food, cocktail party food. Little nibbles of this and that, but, Thyra, promise me you won’t scarf down great big platefuls of appetizers.”
“I haven’t eaten since this morning, so if there is food, I’ll be partaking, but I promise I won’t let anyone see me making a pig of myself.”
She chatted for almost the entirety of the twelve blocks, telling me how much fun the party was going to be, how much she was going to enjoy being seen as a princess, and that if I wasn’t comfortable, I could find a quiet spot to sit. She finished with a reminder of, “Just remember that these people are going to be very impressed by having a princess in their midst.”
I made a face at that. “Assuming they have even heard of Sonderburg-Beck, which most people in the world haven’t.”
She whapped me again on the arm. “It’s a perfectly fine title. It’s just a little …”
“Of course not.”
“Landless? Worthless? Impossible to cope with?”
“Now who’s being negative?” she asked, giving me a quick grin.
“Just you remember that if this party is as elite as you were told it’s going to be, it’s likely there may be some real royalty there, like one of those Middle Eastern princes that are all over the society magazines. If you take my advice, you’ll steer clear of anyone who looks important,” I warned her. “Oh, I think that’s the hotel there on the next block.”
“Damn,” she said, pausing to fret. “I hate to just walk up to it. Look at all those limos and expensive tiny sports cars. What sort of a princess arrives on foot to a hotel like that?”
“One who is flat broke.” I glanced down a cross street and noticed a smaller, less busy entrance. “Let’s go in the side entrance. That way we will be in the hotel before you make your grand entrance.”
“All right, but I really wish we could have gotten a car. Appearances matter so much.”
I managed to not comment on that, but it was a near thing. Just as I passed the dark entrance of an obviously closed shop, a girl of about ten or eleven popped out, holding a large cardboard box in her arms.
“I hear you talking. You are English lady?” she asked me, her eyes red as if she had been crying.
“Oh, hello. I live there, yes.” I hoped Maggie would stop with me to help the distraught child, but she proceeded on, obviously unaware of the girl.
“You like cats?”
I looked at her box. “Uh … sure, but—”
“I give you cat. Papa say Valentino has to go, but he will die if he is in the street. English like animals, I saw this in TV we watch at school. You take him. I love him. Maybe you love him, too?” Her dark eyes filled with tears that spilled over, making my own eyes prick painfully.
“Wait, I can’t take a cat—”
“He is very good cat. You look like nice lady. You will love him, and treat him well, and then he will have a better life than with me, just like on the English TV shows,” she said, and, with a heart-wrenching sob, turned and dashed down the street.
“Hey, I can’t—I’m not the best person—well, hell.”
No one else was around on that side of the street, certainly no one who looked like a suitable home for an unwanted cat. I flipped open the lid of the box to find an orange cat curled up on a ratty Bugs Bunny blanket. His head tilted back to give me a long, assessing look. There was a black splotch that completely covered one ear and dribbled down the back of his head a little bit. He was wearing a harness, and included in the box were a plastic bag filled with dried cat food, two small cans of what looked like tuna, and a couple of beat-up toys.
“Oh, God,” I told the cat, my heart breaking at the thought of a young girl driven by desperation to find her beloved kitty a home. Then I thought of what it would take to care for a cat properly, and my heart broke a little more, because I knew I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the time or situation or money. “I can’t, Valentino. I just can’t. Tell me you understand.”
The cat stood up, stretched, then sniffed where my fingers were curled through the cutout handle of the box before giving them a head bonk.
My heart melted at the gesture. I’d always wanted a cat, but never could afford one … and with one rub of this odd cat’s head, I was a goner, and we both knew it.
Still, how was I going to afford a cat? There was food, and litter, and vet visits, and toys. … I spent a moment imagining me turning the cat over to the local animal shelter, and almost flinched at the look in Valentino’s eyes.
“You have no idea how much you’ve just complicated my life, kitty. Oh, stop looking at me like I’m a miser. I guess I’ll eat ramen noodles for a month, but you have to do your part. You have to remain healthy, and not demand expensive food,” I told him. “I hope that harness means you don’t mind walking, because I can’t carry a cardboard box with me into a cocktail party, and I’m certainly not going to leave you anywhere. Not since you’re probably traumatized at being parted from your little girl.”
The cat just gave me another long, considering look, his eyes blinking slowly.
“What are you doing?” Maggie called, her hands on her hips, when I hurried up to her. Her expression went from impatience to disbelief when she saw what was in the box I held. “A cat? Where on earth did you find that?”
“A little girl gave him to me. She said her dad was going to dump him on the street, and you’ve seen how people drive here. The kitty wouldn’t last five minutes.”
Maggie gawked at me. “Are you kidding? According to that Web site you read me, there’s a whole neighborhood filled with cats in Athens.”
“Yes, but that’s not here.” I clutched the box tighter, all my hitherto-unknown protective instincts rushing to the fore. I’d be damned before I did anything so callous as to abandon this poor, heartbroken cat.
“You can’t keep a cat!” Maggie insisted.
I met Valentino’s gaze, and once again melted under the effect of it. “Why not? Lots of people have them.”
“How are you going to explain him to your flatmates?” she countered, and I had to admit she had me there.
“I don’t know what I’ll say, but I can’t leave him here. It’s inhuman.” I could be just as stubborn as her.
“He looks healthy. He’ll be fine on his own.” She turned and walked quickly into the entrance of the hotel.
I looked again at the cat, who was curled up, his front feet folded under his chest. “She’s right in that I don’t know what I’ll do with you when I get home. I don’t suppose if I set you down, you’d find someone here to live with?”
He blinked at me again. I sighed. There was no further argument, and we both knew it. “Fine, but if you give me any grief, I will find the nearest Greek SPCA and hand you over.” I took him out of the box and set him on the ground. His tail went up as he sniffed first my feet, then the mat outside the entrance of the hotel, then looked back up at me, clearly waiting for me to open the door.
“You sure? All right, but no peeing on anything.” With the box in one hand, and the cat’s leash handle looped around the other, I opened the door and he strolled in, just as calm as if he’d done that every day of his life.
Maggie stood just inside the door, clearly scanning the surroundings to make sure no one saw her arriving on foot. She turned to say, “It’s all clear—oh, for the love of God! You’re not keeping that!”
“You want me to fit in with the elite rich people of Athens,” I told her, lifting my chin and pushing my glasses farther up the bridge of my nose. “They all have Chihuahuas and pugs and other little dogs they carry around in purses.”
“That’s in Los Angeles, and that is not a teacup Chihuahua. …Oh, never mind. If anyone complains, you’re going to have to get rid of it.”
I frowned, not appreciating the high-handed tone she’d adopted. I knew she wasn’t overly fond of cats, but there was no reason to be so heartless about a poor homeless kitty. I dumped the cat’s box of things at the concierge (who looked at it like it was filled with feces) and hurried after my cousin.
“Now remember,” Maggie said in an undertone at the same time she slid into a hip-slinky walk down a hallway that led to various rooms used to hold events. “These people are the überest of the über. Don’t mention anything about money.”
“Or lack thereof,” I said sotto voce to Valentino. His tail had a little curl at the end, so it looked like a shepherd’s crook. My heart melted even more as he walked so nicely next to me.
“Don’t forget to tell anyone who asks that you’re my PA, and that I’m working for Noblesse International magazine. If they ask what I’m here to write about, say that you’ve been sworn to secrecy. That ought to pique their interests, and maybe we’ll get invited to other parties.”
“We’re only going to be here for a few days,” I reminded her. She stopped outside a door that had a sign in Greek and English that read GEORGIO FOUNDATION OF THE ARTS.
“Yes, and I expect to use every minute we’re here to make valuable connections. OK, showtime! Oh, and remember to refer to me as Her Serene Highness.”
I came close to rolling my eyes for a third time. “I know, Mags.”
With a deep breath, she jerked the door open, and did a slow, exaggerated hip-action stroll into the room.
I looked at Valentino. He looked at me. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it with style,” I said, and hoisted him up, tucking him between my side and arm. I gave him a minute to protest, but he just curled his tail underneath my arm and adopted a regal expression.
“That’s what I’m talking about.” I nodded at him, and tried to move with something other than my usual shamble, striving for the sophistication and elegance that always seemed to fail me.
The room was full of the sorts of tables you see at wine bars, tall, with no chairs, dotted with candles and elegant floral arrangements. Mingling amongst the tables, chatting, laughing, calling to one another, and generally doing the cocktail party dance, were about a hundred and twenty people. They came in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but every single one of the men wore a suit, with the ladies in elegant short cocktail dresses that showed off long, tanned legs, or in the case of older women who obviously didn’t wish to bare that much skin, silky garments that fluttered around them via the breeze coming in from an open patio.
Ahead of me, Maggie paused, posing. For a moment, I had a sense of her being a stranger. “Really,” I whispered to the cat, “I had no idea she’s such a good actress.”
Valentino looked unimpressed. Maggie lifted a hand to wave at someone across the room all the while trilling light laughter.
“Do you see someone you know?” I hissed behind her, panic hitting me in the stomach. She’d sworn that she had no acquaintances who hung out in this set, but my worst fear was that someone would expose our subterfuge.
“No, silly. I’m just letting everyone think I do. Darling!” She laughed again, and started forward, bumping into a woman who appeared to be in her sixties, and who was chatting with two men. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just waving to an old friend when my PA jostled me. Did I hurt you? No? I’m so glad. I couldn’t forgive myself if her clumsiness resulted in you being hurt. But you look familiar. Did we meet at Bunny’s party last year?”
“I don’t know anyone named Bunny,” the woman said with some suspicion, eyeing first Maggie, then me, and finally the cat. Her lips pursed. “And I don’t know you.”
“Of course you don’t, and here my PA had me almost running you down. Thyra.” Maggie gestured toward the two men and the obviously disapproving woman, waiting for me to do my thing.
My stomach tightened, and for a moment, I thought of refusing to go through with the charade, but the weight of the cat on my arm reminded me that I badly needed the money that had been promised for the article. I’d be able to pay my flatmates all the back rent I owed, and put a little into my nonexistent savings account. I’d be able to afford food and litter for the cat. I might even be able to shop somewhere other than thrift stores. And most of all, I might be able to present my case to Beck. “Good evening. May I present Her Serene Highness Princess Juliane of Sonderburg-Beck,” I murmured, and, with a glance that I hoped told Maggie a good deal, backed away. The two men—one of whom was older, the other probably in his early fifties—murmured politely and kissed her hand.
Maggie smiled flirtatiously at the younger one, who whispered something in her ear that had her throwing back her head and giving another trill of laughter.
“Oh, brother,” I muttered to the cat, and, with a quick glance around the room, hurried over to where I could see waiters emerging through a door, laden with trays of hors d’oeuvres. My mouth watered at the same time my stomach rumbled ominously.
One waiter paused, a handsome dark-eyed devil in a plain white shirt and black pants, offering me a flute of champagne. “No, thank you,” I murmured, adjusting Valentino so he could glare at the waiter when he tried to get a glimpse down my dress. The possessor of substantial cleavage, I was no stranger to men trying to do that, which is why my mother’s old dress was so perfect. It left my shoulders bare, but the band across the chest was almost leer-proof.
I spied an unattended table that bore a tray of snacks near the waitstaff entrance, and made a beeline for it, ignoring all the bright chatter around me. “Yum, Valentino. These look tempting. I hope no one sneezed on them or otherwise did something to take them out of the running.” I examined the hors d’oeuvres carefully, but they looked OK, and I quickly popped three phyllo pastries filled with goat cheese and herbs into my mouth, moaning softly to myself. “Oh, lord, I could eat a whole tray of just those. But I suppose I should find something you can eat. Let’s see. … That looks spicy.” I tried a little samosa, saying around it, “Yup, spicy. This looks like some sort of slider. Let’s peel the meat off it and see if you like it.”
Valentino, who’d expressed haughty interest when I started stuffing my face, snuffled the little blob of what I assumed was lamb before licking it off my fingers. With a furtive, quick glance around me, I picked up the platter and took it over to where a couple of chairs had obviously been tucked away forgotten in a corner. It was partially hidden by the door that led to the depths of the hotel, which suited me just fine. I turned my back on the room and hurriedly picked the meat off the three other sliders, feeding it to the cat.
A brief gust of air, making my skirt flutter out around me, preceded a thump on my back that sent me flying forward into the wall. “Bloody hell!” I hit my head on the back of one of the chairs when I stumbled into it, clutching the cat to my side so he wouldn’t get crushed when I half fell onto the chair seat.
“Christ! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you standing behind the door—are you hurt?”
I slid off the chair onto the ground, using one hand to rub the spot on my forehead while I set Valentino down and held tightly to his leash. “Not seriously, no. And it’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have been there. I was just feeding … er …” I looked up when the man who’d spoken squatted next to me, words drying up on my tongue at the sight of him. He looked to be in his late thirties, had short curly black hair and olive-green eyes, and could very easily have graced the cover of the magazine for which I had promised to interview an up-and-coming desirable bachelor. His cheekbones were just high enough to make his jawline angle down to a gently blunted chin in a way that made me feel first hot, then chilled.
“Your cat?” he finished my sentence, smiling as he gave Valentino a little pat on his head. Valentino considered him with his yellow-eyed gaze for a few seconds, then strolled over and sniffed cautiously at his shoes.
I stared at the gorgeous man for a few seconds, my attention on the two indentations that appeared on either side of his cheeks when he smiled. They weren’t exactly dimples, but they were cute enough to remind me that I wasn’t there to ogle the waiters.
“My what? Oh, Valentino. Yes, he’s mine. Newly so. A little girl gave him to me outside the hotel,” I said, managing to get myself under control enough to allow the man to give me a hand. I got up, brushing off the full lace skirt, hoping the crinoline petticoat that I wore underneath to give it the proper shape wasn’t stuck in my underwear, or some other embarrassing circumstance. “I was just giving him a little meat. I think he’s hungry.”
The man looked at first the cat, then me. “Someone gave him to you?”
“A little girl. It was heartbreaking, but I guess he’s my responsibility now.”
“How very thoughtful of you. You have the most amazing eyes.”
I was a bit taken aback by the abruptness of the statement, but then, I was just ogling the man’s jaw and almost dimples, so I guessed I didn’t have much to complain about. “I do?”
“They’re amber. I’ve never seen amber eyes before. And now I’ve offended you.” He smiled again, making me feel like the air-conditioning needed to be cranked up a couple of notches.
“You haven’t, actually, although I’ve always thought of my eyes as a boring old light brown. Yours are very nice, too. They’re kind of a sage, olive green.”
“That would be my mother’s influence. She was Irish. Are you by any chance American?”
Valentino tired of smelling the waiter’s shoes and hopped onto the chair to consider the tray of snacks. I pulled him back, giving him the last of the slider meat. “No, although I grew up in Ottawa. Until my parents died, that is.”
“Ah, that would explain why you sound like my cousins’ wives.” He smiled again, and then stuck out a hand. “I’m Dmitri.”
“Hello, Dmitri. I’m Thyra. And this is Valentino.”
“He looks like one. Er … TEER-uh?” he asked, looking hesitant as he carefully pronounced my name.
“Yup, it’s an odd one, huh?” I spelled it for him. “It’s a family name that my parents insisted I have. I actually have four names, and this is the best of them, so really, it could be worse..”
He laughed. “My father insisted I be called after him, so I completely understand. Luckily, my family lets me use Dmitri—my middle name—instead. Now, I’ve just about knocked you silly with the door, and we’ve exchanged name secrets, so I believe we should progress to the point where I ask if I can get something for you. For your cat? A glass of wine? A bowl of water? A piece of paper so you can give me your phone number?”
I gawked at him for a moment. “Are you insane?”
“Not that I know of,” he said, his cheeks doing that almost-dimpling thing again.
“Wait … I just need to be sure because this doesn’t happen very often. … Are you flirting with me? Oh, God. You weren’t, were you? You were just being funny, and because I like your eyes, and you have those almost dimples, I thought you were, but you weren’t, and now I want to die. And now my mouth won’t stop telling you everything I’m thinking. Gah! Please go away so I can die of embarrassment here in the corner by myself. Well, with Valentino, because he has no one else to take care of him.”
“I was most definitely flirting with you,” he answered, his smile growing into an outright grin. I liked what that did to his face. It made little laugh lines spread out from the edges of his eyes. “Although I doubt if that doesn’t happen very much.”
“I’m short, wear glasses, and am probably the most introverted and socially awkward person you will ever meet,” I said, giving him a wry smile. “You’ll have to trust me that men don’t often give me a second look.” I hesitated, not wanting to lie to him. He seemed so nice, so friendly, that it just seemed wrong. “Not ones who don’t have an ulterior motive.”
He was silent a moment. “I don’t quite know how to respond to that. I want very much to compliment you and say that you aren’t short, that your glasses are charming, and that I don’t find you awkward at all, socially or otherwise, but I suspect you might not take that in the spirit that I intended, so I’ll simply ask you if you would give me your number so that we might continue the conversation at another time. Say, tomorrow? Perhaps over coffee? Lunch?”
“I’d like that,” I said before I remembered that I shouldn’t be spending money on meals out … and then there was the matter of the interview. We were supposed to meet the Greek playboy the following evening. However … after a moment’s consideration, I decided that given Maggie’s attitude, I was due a little fun before I had to fall into step for the interview. “But I was going to go sightseeing tomorrow. I only have a couple of days in Athens, and I really want to see everything I can.”
“That’s perfect!” he said with another eye-crinkling, almost-dimpling smile. Something inside me felt girlish and giggly, a bolt of excitement cheering me up despite the awkwardness of the party. “I’m known for my ability to show off Athens, if you would like me as a tour guide.”
I glanced toward the door behind him, which opened to allow two more waiters to emerge with fresh trays of snacks. “That would be awesome, so long as you can take the time off.”
“I think that can be arranged.” He pulled out his cell phone. “Will you give me your number?”
I shook my head. “I don’t have one. A phone, that is. But if you give me yours, I can borrow my cousin’s phone.”
He hesitated, but held up his phone to show me the phone info on it. “I’ll write it down for you.”
“No, it’s not necessary. My brother and I have this weird mental thing with numbers—he can do mad math problems in his head, and I remember strings of numbers.”
“That must be convenient. Is your brother here in Athens?”
“No, he’s a homicide detective in Scotland,” I said, wincing a little at the pride in my voice. “Sorry, that sounded smug, didn’t it? I didn’t mean that his job was better than anyone else’s, although I am very proud of him. He’s … happy.”
“And you’re not?” The laughter faded from his pretty green eyes.
I hesitated, torn between telling this handsome stranger everything and knowing that even though he had an easy manner and I liked him, it wasn’t wise to go baring my soul when I knew nothing about him. “My life is a bit complicated at the moment.”
“Then I hope that seeing Athens tomorrow will bring you some pleasure,” he said with another pat on Valentino’s head. “What hotel are you staying at? I can meet you there about … shall we say nine?”
“Uh …” I thought quickly. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I was staying at this hotel, but I didn’t want to lie to him. “It’s a small one; you probably wouldn’t know it. How about if I meet you here?”
“As you like,” he answered, his voice smooth, but I felt like he’d just withdrawn from me. I realized with a stab of guilt that he probably thought I didn’t trust him, but before I could rally some sort of excuse for not giving him the name of the hotel, he added, “I should get back to it. I’m sorry again for bumping into you, although I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
“So do I,” I said lamely, feeling even more awkward when he gave me a little nod and moved into the room, probably to pick up some of the empty glasses that had been left on the tables.
It was if the sun had gone behind a cloud, dimming my joy a little. I badly wanted out of there, so I could sit and think about Dmitri, and remember the warmth in his eyes when he smiled, but knew Maggie expected me to be at her beck and call, as befitted a princess.
“Oh, screw it,” I said after a few minutes of inner struggle, and went in search of her. I found her in the center of the room, surrounded by people, her face shining with pleasure. The satisfaction in her eyes gave me a guilty twinge in my belly, but there wasn’t much I could do about my regrets now.
“Can I have a word?” I asked softly when Valentino and I managed to nudge aside a couple of men in expensive suits in order to get to her side.
She shot me a look that was rife with a warning. “Someone on the phone for me?” she asked, giving another lilting laugh, and said with a big smile to the circle of men and women who were evidently hanging on her every word, “Unless it’s His Serene Highness—my brother, the crown prince, you know—I don’t wish to be disturbed.”
I ground my teeth for a few seconds, managing to bite back everything I wanted to say in order to murmur in her ear, “I’m done.”
“Thyra, no!” Her eyes filled with a plea that made me feel like a heel. “You can’t stop now. I’ve only just started, and you said we’d have several days. It’s unfair of you to expect me to walk away before I’ve had any fun!”
“I don’t mean you have to go, too. I’m going to take the cat and go buy him a litter box and some food, and then go back to the hotel. You don’t need me here. Just please remember Beck, and don’t do anything that they wouldn’t like.”
She beamed a smile at me that could have lit up half the city. “I won’t do anything you wouldn’t do,” she answered before turning back to the group of beautiful people. “So sorry about that interruption. Thyra is an excellent PA, but so moody. I think she’s just a bit overwhelmed.”
“Oh, yes,” I said under my breath, hoisting the cat higher as I marched out of the room, my temper getting the better of me. “I’m so overwhelmed by you pretending to be me. How on earth am I going to stand another four days of this, Valentino? How am I going to get through it without cracking or yelling at Maggie to stop acting like she’s so much better than everyone else? What if word about her behavior gets back to Beck, and that just adds fuel to the fire Kardom is trying to start?”
The cat had no answer. I sighed, feeling a kinship in that respect, and took us off before it got too late to visit a pet store.