‘You and he never hit it off. Don’t let that come between us,’ Maribel told her with complete calm. ‘Now how long can you stay for? We have so much to catch up on.’
A tray of tea and delicate little nibbles was brought in and served.
‘I was really disappointed that I couldn’t come to your wedding in Bakhar,’ Maribel confided. ‘It wasn’t possible for me to leave Imogen at the time. She wasn’t well at all.’
‘I understood that. You were amazingly patient with her.’
‘I was very fond of Imogen.’ Even so, ever since Leonidas had confided that Maribel reminded him of Imogen, Maribel’s self-esteem had nosedived. She was crushed by the conviction that she had only ever been a poor substitute for her cousin, and haunted by the suspicion that she had no right whatsoever to expect or ask for anything more than tolerance and acceptance from Leonidas. Surely if she had been the morally decent woman she liked to believe she was, she would have withstood the temptation that Leonidas had offered on the night that Elias was conceived?
‘I saw your son walking into the house with you,’ the princess remarked softly. ‘He looks very like Leonidas.’
‘I imagine you were very shocked to find out who his father was.’
Tilda looked troubled. ‘How frank can I be?’
‘I was very concerned.’ Tilda pulled a face and her voice became hesitant. ‘I’m probably about to offend you for ever when I tell you why I felt I had to come and see you before your wedding.’
‘I doubt that very much. I don’t take offence easily, especially not with the people I trust.’
‘I was afraid that you might feel you have no choice but to marry Leonidas to retain custody of your son. He’s a formidable man and very powerful.’ Tilda released her breath in an anxious sigh. ‘But you do have a choice—I’m willing to offer you financial backing if you need it to go through the courts and fight him.’
‘Does Rashad know about this?’
Tilda frowned. ‘Rashad and Leonidas have a friendship quite independent of our marriage. I’ll be honest—Rashad wouldn’t approve of my interference, particularly when there is a child involved, but I have my own money and my own convictions about what’s right and what’s wrong.’
‘You’re a dear friend.’ Maribel was very much touched by Tilda’s offer of monetary assistance. ‘But I’m going to marry Leonidas. I could give you a whole host of reasons why. Yes, I do feel under pressure. I do feel I can’t compete. But at the same time, Leonidas is wonderful with Elias and my son needs a father more than I wanted to admit.’
‘There’s more to marriage than raising children,’ Tilda said wryly.
A rueful smile touched Maribel’s lips and for the first time in weeks she felt curiously at peace with the turmoil of her emotions, because one unchanging truth sat at the centre of it all. ‘I’ve always loved Leonidas, Tilda—even when he was the most unlovable guy around. I can’t even explain why. It’s been that way almost since the first time I saw him.’
Leonidas returned to Heyward Park late the night before the wedding. He flew in from Greece with a plane-load of relatives. Mirabel chose a classic top and skirt in russet shades to wear with the pearl necklace and earrings, and greeted the arrivals in the front hall. Leonidas entered last, just in time to overhear his bride-to-be chatting quite comfortably with his trio of great-aunts, not one of whom spoke a word of English. Her grasp of Greek was basic but more than adequate for the occasion. A light supper was on offer, but there was also provision for the less lively members of his family who preferred to retire for the night in readiness for the celebrations the next day. Her confidence in dealing with both staff and guests was impressive. But he was quick to notice that her lush curves had slimmed down, and that when she saw him her clear eyes screened and her delicate features tightened.
‘My apologies for bringing a large party back at this hour, glikia mou,’ Leonidas murmured. ‘And my compliments for handling them with so much grace and charm.’
‘Thanks.’ Her acknowledgement of compliments from a most unusual source was brisk. Even a brief encounter with his brilliant dark eyes was sufficient to raise self-conscious colour in her cheeks. She could greet his sixty-odd relatives with equanimity, but one glimpse of him reduced her to a schoolgirlish discomfiture that mortified her. With his stylishly cut ebony hair and lean, sculpted bone structure he looked devastatingly handsome. His black business suit was perfectly tailored to his lithe powerful frame. As usual, he emanated high-voltage masculinity and rampant sex appeal.