In the year 1956, Anastacia Fotopoulos finds herself pregnant and betrayed, fleeing from a bad marriage. With the love and support of her dear friends Stavros and Soula Papadakis, Ana is able to face the challenges of single motherhood. Left with emotional wounds, she resists her growing affection for Alexandros Giannakos, an old acquaintance. But his persistence and unconditional love for Ana and her child is eventually rewarded and his love is returned. In a misguided, but well-intentioned effort to protect the ones they love, both Ana and Alex keep secrets - ones that could threaten the delicate balance of their family.
The story continues in the 1970’s as Dean and Demi Papadakis, and Sophia Giannakos attempt to negotiate between two cultures. Now Greek-American teenagers, Sophia and Dean, who have shared a special connection since childhood, become lovers. Sophia is shattered when Dean rebels against the pressure his father places on him to uphold his Greek heritage and hides his feelings for her. When he pulls away from his family, culture and ultimately his love for her, Sophia is left with no choice but to find a life different from the one she’d hoped for.
EVANTHIA’S GIFT is a multigenerational love story spanning fifty years and crossing two continents, chronicling the lives that unify two families.
The air was unusually chilled for early November in NYC, but despite the dropping temperature, sweat trickled down the back of Anastacia’s neck. Unable to wish away the nausea that was taking hold of her and too ill to sit through her last class, she’d left the NYU campus, hopping on an uptown subway to return home for the day. She’d been lightheaded and queasy the past few days, but nothing as violent as what she was currently feeling. Waiting at the crosswalk, the aroma of garlic and cheese permeating from a nearby café antagonized the volcano that was about to erupt in her belly, and she prayed she would get home without incident.
At last, Anastacia ducked into her apartment building, closing her eyes, and offering a silent thank you to the heavens for the safety and comfort of her home. Once inside her foyer, she removed her coat, hung it in the closet and glimpsed herself in the mirror hanging over the Bombay Chest. Pale skin and sunken eyes replaced her usual olive complexion and healthy glow.
I just need to sleep off whatever this is.
Her husband, Jimmy, was not expected home from work for several hours, and she hoped to be feeling better by then.
Suddenly, the sound of voices startled her. She walked through the living room, following the noise. She almost forgot the motion sickness that had forced her home earlier than usual as the guttural sound of rhythmic moans grew louder, interrupted only by a woman’s shrill laughter. Anastacia forced her legs to follow the cacophony and found herself at the doorway of her bedroom. She stood there frozen. Seeing, but not believing. Tears sprang to her eyes and dripped down her cheeks, and she began to shake uncontrollably. Anastacia attempted to speak, but bile rose to her throat, rendering her incapable of uttering a word. Then, a cry that seemed to escape from her very soul, revealed her presence.
In that second, they knew she’d witnessed their betrayal. Anastacia was taken aback by the look of pure satisfaction that flashed across the naked woman’s face. A face that held not even a hint of guilt or remorse.
Her husband’s face told a different story. Shock, fear, maybe regret. For getting caught. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but so many thoughts bombarded her mind that it was as though she were moving in slow motion. But then, the impact of it all slammed into her, and she ran.
Jimmy jumped up, wrapping himself in a bed sheet.
“Ana! Wait!” He pushed the woman off him. “Get off me! Move! Get out of here.”
Barely making it to the bathroom, Anastacia leaned over the toilet, expelling the contents of her stomach.
“Ana,” Jimmy pleaded, coming up beside her.
“Get away from me.” She wiped her mouth with a towel, straightened up and gathered all her strength to push past him.
Jimmy blocked the doorway.
“Ana mou, I’m sorry. Please. Let me explain. Sagapo. I love—”
“Don’t touch me or ever say that to me. You’re disgusting. You both are.” She ducked under his arm, but he grabbed her wrist.
His touch seared her to the bone and she pulled away. She was shamed, shaken—broken, but there was no way she was going to let him see it.
“I said don’t touch me. Never come near me again.”
“It’s not what it looks like. She … it was all her. I never meant to … Ana, please.”
“It looked like it was both of you. Now let me pass,” she spat. He lifted his hands in surrender and stepped aside as she pushed her way past him through the narrow bathroom doorway.
In the hallway, the woman stood, watching, gloating. Although she and Anastacia both had dark brown hair and similar Mediterranean features, she lacked the poise and grace that Anastacia exuded.
“Get out of my home,” Ana ordered her. “I never want to see you again.” Anastacia stormed out her front door, slamming it behind her. Doubling over, she thought she might heave again, but she drew in a deep breath and continued down the hall to Soula’s apartment. She frantically knocked on the door. When she answered it, Soula took one look at her best friend and she hugged her.
“Ana mou, what is it?”
Between gasps and cries, Anastacia relayed the entire humiliating scene, as well as Jimmy’s despicable attempt to explain the unforgivable.
“What do I do now?”
“We go upstairs and talk to your uncle,” Soula said. “He will know how to handle this.”
“How can I tell him? What will my parents say? How could I be so stupid? What will Uncle Tasso think?”
“Of you? Nothing different than before. Of them? They will get what they deserve. Come. We will go together. I will tell your uncle if you cannot.”
Alex drove leisurely, making sure to absorb the beauty of the land before him. Acres of perfectly lined rows of corn occupied both sides of the main road. Roadside farm stands were crowded with shoppers searching for the freshest fruits and vegetables. He admired the hundred-year-old houses and the historic white churches with the high steeples, some dating back to the Revolutionary War. Although he took pleasure in the surroundings, Alex was looking forward to reaching his destination and tried to recall the last time he’d taken a few days to simply relax with friends.
The past few years he’d been driven, first to earn his PhD and then to search for a position as a college professor, leaving little time for socializing or for thinking of home. His heart would always be in Thessaloniki, though it had been broken there.
But in America he had a chance at a new beginning, and the promise of a future without pain. He’d been elated to land his first position at Morton Community College but, after a year and a half, he was anxious to come back to New York. When he was offered a position at a newly formed university on Long Island, he had packed his few belongings and, by January, he was settled into a full class schedule teaching philosophy and sociology.
Alex’s mind drifted as he drove past the quaint towns of the North Fork. As he passed a sign for the Town of Riverhead, he noticed a smaller one below it. It read Polish Town, which brought to mind a heated debate in one of his sociology classes as to why neighborhoods such as Little Italy and Chinatown exist.
“It’s only natural that people would gravitate to others that could speak their language and share common customs.”
“But Professor, wouldn’t it be wiser to assimilate by living amongst people who speak English?”
“Easier said than done. Go to China, Europe, or India and stay a while. Tell me you wouldn’t be searching for people you could communicate with. Wouldn’t you take comfort in finding others that understood your language and ways?”
Alex didn’t have these obstacles when he arrived in America. Having learned English at Aristotle University in his home city, Alex spoke fluently, with just a hint of an accent. That, along with his clear, gray eyes rimmed with long, dark lashes, had female students hanging on his every word.
His mind wandered back to his own college days when he would meet Stavros and other Greek students who would gather for lunch several times a week.
Who was that girl that was always pulling him aside? Penny? No. Poppy. He stretched his mind to remember. He was too busy for pushy females. He was working on his dissertation. There was no time for dates. He laughed at the memory of that annoying, young woman. But then he’d seen Anastacia, and he’d made the time.
The first time he laid eyes on her was in Washington Square Park. She was a vision, impeccably dressed in a midnight blue A-line dress, which was belted at the waist to show off her very slim, feminine figure. But what captivated him was her easy smile, which seemed to radiate up to a set of expressive, brown eyes that somehow seemed familiar to him, as though at his first glance he’d known her his whole life.
He found a seat on a nearby bench. The park was filled with students, business people on lunch break, and mothers pushing strollers. He was just another unnoticeable face in the crowd. One who felt like his whole world had changed in an instant. He kept his textbook open, pretending to read, and snuck a glance in her direction when he could. Overhearing the laughter and the chatter, it seemed that her ability to speak English as well as she did was her friend’s topic of conversation.
“How is it that you sound like you’re from England and don’t have a Greek accent?” inquired a freckled redhead.
“I learned to speak English at the British Institute in Athens. But if it makes you feel better,” Ana teased, “I can try and tawk like a New Yorka.”
“God, do I really sound like that? If I do, then don’t let me influence you.” They both laughed.
He heard them discuss an assignment that was due the next day. Then, looking at their watches they reluctantly got up from the park bench to head to the next class, unaware that Alex was inconspicuously watching Ana as she passed him.
The next day, he asked Stavros about her, and he gladly offered an introduction. Already swamped with work, Alex wasn’t able to join them for lunch until three days later. Until then he found it impossible to concentrate. When they finally met, she was sweet and friendly and, although she had a grace and sophistication about her, she seemed a bit shy.
“It’s nice to meet you, Alexandros.” Anastacia extended her hand politely, but avoided eye contact.
“Stavros says you are also from Athens. Did you know him from your neighborhood?”
“No, we met here at university,” she replied.
As the weeks went on, they spoke here and there, but mostly in general discussions with their entire group. Ana seemed focused and serious about her studies, yet from what he could gather, she left some room for social engagements. Alex was so inundated with his research that he had few opportunities to see Anastacia and, by the time he was a little more acquainted with her, she’d been dating the man she would later marry.
What did she see in that guy?
Alex thought of the night when Stavros had suggested he put his studies aside for one night and join him and their friends for an evening of Greek music and dancing. It didn’t take much convincing once he learned Anastacia would be there. Disappointment washed over Alex when a man she introduced to everyone as her fiancé accompanied her.
“You look like a sick puppy. Stop moping,” Stavros said, as the two of them sat alone nursing their drinks.
“I waited too long. Why didn’t I just ask her out? Engaged—huh! A little soon, wouldn’t you say? What does she know about him?”
“She knows she loves him, or she wouldn’t be marrying him. She’s a pretty sensible girl.”
“He’s a scoundrel. Look at him! I’ve been watching him and he looks at every woman that passes by. He should only have eyes for her. You’re her friend. What do you know about him?”
“Only what she’s told me. He’s older than her, he was in the Army during the war and she said he makes a comfortable living. But she didn’t say what he does.”
“Oh, no. Here comes that Poppy again,” Alex moaned.
“Dance with me, Alexandros,” Poppy pleaded, attempting to pull him out of his seat. “You’ve been sitting all evening.”
“I don’t dance. I am sorry, but I respectfully decline.” He looked past Poppy, to the couple on the dance floor and sighed. He would dance with Anastacia if he had the opportunity.
Oh yes, I remember Jimmy and he turned out to be just what I thought he was.
Now, in a twist of fate, he would see her again. He wasn’t sure though, how her circumstances may have changed her. Would she be the sweet girl with the positive outlook that he remembered, or would she be bitter and jaded by the recent events of her life?
When Alex arrived at the Drossos Motel, he quickly took his luggage to his room and then found Stavros and his family enjoying a picnic lunch under a tree on the motel grounds. Stavros spotted him and rose to greet him with a hug and kiss on both cheeks, a customary European greeting.
“Alex! So good to see you. This is my wife, Soula.”
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Stavros has spoken of you and the children often. I feel as though I know you.”
“And, of course, you already know our Anastacia.” Stavros took Ana’s hand to help her up from the picnic blanket.
There she stood. The petite brown-eyed beauty he’d been taken with years ago. She was as cordial and sweet as she’d always been, and just as beautiful as he remembered her, if not more so. In her arms was a most adorable, doe-eyed little girl who was the very image of her. The four of them caught up on news about schoolmates and family, conversing with ease until the discussion took on a more serious tone.
“What do you think of the latest development back home, Alex?” Stavros asked.
Alex seemed a million miles away and glanced in Ana’s direction often, amused by the playful interaction between mother and daughter.
“Oh. Which development would that be? There are so many lately.”
“I was thinking of the one that you would be most sensitive to. Karamanlis arresting Max Merton as a war criminal.”
Alex was no longer smiling. The mention of this man and the reminder of that war made his blood run cold.
“No matter what they charge him with or what they do to him, it will never make up for the evil and devastation he and the others like him caused. What they did cannot be erased—nor can the visions in my mind.” Alex became very solemn.
The German occupation during World War II had been devastating to all of Europe, but for some, more tragedy had fallen on their land than anyone should ever bear. Thessaloniki, or Salonika as some referred to the city, was home to a large population of Sephardic Jews. Prime Minister Karamanlis had requested that Max Merton, the German administrator of the area during the occupation, testify in a trial. As a result, Merton was arrested and charged with war crimes during the period of the deportation of Jews.
“Barbarians. They came and came, taking good citizens from their homes, loading them on those trains.” Lost in the memory, Alex shook his head, pain shadowing his eyes.
“I think it’s time to take the children in for their naps,” Soula stated. She gestured for Ana to follow her and, though she was listening with interest to what Alex had to say, Ana lifted Sophia and went inside with her friend.
Stavros’ cousin, Alexandria, offered to watch the children that evening, leaving the two couples to dine without interruption or distraction. As she dressed for dinner, Ana wondered if this was a nice gesture or a conspiracy to create a double date. She wished her friends would stop trying to distract her from what was important. Sophia was thriving and the job with Uncle Tasso was better than she ever imagined. She had to admit, Alex was a handsome man—polite and intelligent too. She pursed her lips in annoyance at her attraction to him and shook it off, resolving that it meant nothing.
She tied a pale pink cardigan with pearl buttons over her shoulder, admiring how perfectly the color matched the peony floral print on her sundress. It was a beautiful evening, hot, but dry. Not humid like most summer nights in July.
At Claudio’s by the pier, Ana ordered the grilled red snapper, as did Alex. Soula was craving the lobster tails and Stavros ate steak.
“I think I will eat steak every day this month. On August the first, the fast for the Feast of the Assumption begins and no more meat for me,” Stavros said.
“Stavros, you are missing the point of the fast if you’re a glutton beforehand,” his wife scolded.
“Ba, technicalities.” He winked at her.
Ana found Alex to be very interesting, and enjoyed speaking with him. He was a pleasant and intelligent man. Not as intense or serious as she expected him to be. He was certainly passionate when he discussed his work and his goals, very animated when describing the antics of his students, but he was also warm and easygoing when he asked of her interests and about Sophia. After dinner the four of them took a stroll on the pier, Soula making sure she walked ahead with Stavros.
“Stavros, walk faster.”
“Why? What’s the hurry?”
She pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. “I want Ana and Alex to be alone. You know, get to know each other.”
“Always plotting,” Stavros kissed his wife on the cheek.
“And you? You weren’t plotting when you asked him here?”
Ana and Alex occasionally stopped to admire a boat, and then continued on. They were so close that Alex was tempted to reach over and take her hand in his. He would only need to extend his hand an inch, two at the most. He wondered if she was at all aware of the effect she was having on him. He was nervous. Heat was rising from the back of his neck and his heart was beating too fast. If only this shy woman would look at me instead of the wood planks on the pier, he thought.
The next day, Yanni and Alexandria threw a Fourth of July barbeque on the motel lawn. While the women set the tables and brought out the salads, Stavros and Alex put the girls on the seesaw, and Kostas amused himself in the sand box. Ana was touched by the interaction between Alex and Sophia, and felt a moment of regret that her daughter would miss the presence of a father in her life.
When the sun had set, they grabbed a large blanket and walked down to the lawn near the docks to watch the fireworks. There was a band playing: people lounging on their boats, and others walking the pier trying to decide where the best view would be. Dozens of families sat on blankets, unable to contain the excitement of their children, who were anxiously awaiting the colorful display in the sky.
Soula and Stavros took Kostas for a walk to the candy store, leaving Demetra with Ana, who took the child upon her lap. Alex held Sophia and was pulling funny faces to make her giggle. An elderly couple passed by, smiled and stopped to speak to them.
“You are such a beautiful family,” the older woman commented. “Your girls are darling. Enjoy every minute with them. They grow up too fast.”
“Oh, we’re not—” Ana started to correct her but Alex cut her off politely.
“Thank you, we will,” he said smiling up at the woman. “Have a lovely evening.” When the couple moved on he said shyly, “I didn’t want to disappoint her.”
But in truth, the idea had appealed to him. This was how he pictured his life. He’d spent years on his education and establishing his career. Now he wanted the rest. He wanted a wife and children, a family of his own, and every time he looked at Ana his heart skipped a beat, just as it had the first time he saw her.
The weather cooled to a comfortable eighty degrees, with a breeze coming off the water. The fireworks were glorious, but the thunderous sounds scared Sophia and Demetra. Between the heat and the full day of activities they had no difficulty putting the children to sleep. Not feeling compelled to go inside on such a clear night, Ana took a seat on one of the chairs outside her door and stared up at the stars. She was deep in thought when Alex seemed to come out of nowhere, jolting her from her trance.
“I apologize. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No, think nothing of it. I was daydreaming.” Ana smiled tentatively.
“May I join you? I won’t if you prefer to be alone.”
“No, of course, please.” She gestured for him to sit in the chair beside her.
“I overheard part of the discussion you had yesterday with Stavros about the war crimes trial,” she said when he’d sat down. “I missed most of the conversation when we took the children in for their naps, but I’ve read a little bit about it in the paper.”
“Does the subject interest you?” Alex inquired.
“Well, yes, of course I’m interested in what happens in my country. I worry about the direction of the politics and the future, but I sometimes think of the past too. I was a young girl during the war, and my parents protected me as much as they could from what was going on. But as little as I was, I knew something was different. I saw things I hadn’t before. People were standing in line for food, and many had no money. There were people starving and dying in the streets from hunger. My dad had money and he would buy food on the black market. He would give food to friends and neighbors, but the Germans were always watching. He had to be careful, and he found odd places to hide his money. The Germans seemed to think they were entitled to come into any home and take whatever they wanted.”
“Well, Anastacia, you were a lucky girl to have been so well protected. You were spared horrors that no young girl should have in her memory. I don’t know if Stavros told you, but I am from Thessaloniki, which had the largest population of Greek Jews. There, the Germans did not just occupy. They slaughtered. Before the war there were about fifty-six thousand Jews in the city. Now—well, there’s less than a thousand.”
He shook his head in disgust at the memory. “The Germans sent them off by the thousands to the death camps. The people of the city knew what was happening and we were for the most part powerless.” He stopped himself. “I’m sorry … such heavy talk for such a beautiful night.”
“No … please go on. I asked what you and Stavros were discussing.”
He nodded and gave a sad, haunted smile before he continued. “I came from a very moral and religious family. When a resistance was formed, my parents felt they had to join and do what they could to help as many people as possible. It was a huge risk to do this, as they knew they would be killed if they were caught. My two older brothers served in the army, but I was still young, not quite seventeen. My parents were worried for my safety, so information of their involvement or details of dangerous missions was kept from me. I tried to go about my days as normally as possible, but daily life had changed. The enemy was everywhere. In the streets, our stores, and down by the docks. One day, my mother sent me to the bakery to pick up bread. When I got there the door was locked. I didn’t understand. It wasn’t Saturday. He was open every day but Saturday. A woman called out to me, ‘they took him.’ I looked at her and ran to where I was afraid I might find him. There was a long line of people waiting to board the train, most holding a single suitcase. I tried to find his face in the crowd, but I didn’t see him.”
Alex hesitated. Thoughts and words were flowing from him in a way they never had. There was something about this lovely young woman that allowed him the courage to continue. “As I was about to leave, I saw a friend, a classmate, and I tried to reach him, but I was stopped by a Nazi soldier and told to leave immediately. I wanted to fight for him, like I knew my parents were doing for so many others, but my friend looked at me with defeated eyes and shook his head. I shook my head back and tried to sneak through the line of soldiers for him before I was shoved aside and knocked to the ground.”
Ana’s eyes were glistening with tears that had welled up but not yet fallen.
Alex continued. “I ran home, hoping there was something my parents could do, not accepting it was too late and beyond their ability to help. The sound of the train whistle as it left the station was a final confirmation I would never see my friend again. I hated that whistle every time it pulled in or out of the station. It was not the sound of happy expectation of a journey as it had been in the past, but a hopeless promise of death. From that day on, I would sneak behind doors and listen to the secret meetings held in my home. I knew something important was about to happen. The resistance was planning an escape for a large group of people, and many diversions were organized to throw the Gestapo off track. My brothers were an integral part of the plan and were bringing passports and transport papers with them. A few days later my mother sent me on a long errand, one that would take me miles away and would keep me busy for hours. I had a hunch they wanted me out of the way.”
Ana was so engrossed at his recollection that she barely blinked, or breathed for that matter. Her heart was breaking at what she was afraid he might say next, as he sobbed through the next few sentences.
She reached for his hand as a gesture of empathy and support and, in a whisper, she told him, “You don’t have to. If it helps you, then please, go on, but you don’t have to.”
He nodded, put his other hand over hers for a second, and then lifted his hand to wipe a tear away from her cheek.
“When I got back home, I knew something was not right. There was an eerie silence in the house and an unfamiliar smell. I saw the blood on the wall first—splattered, and a bloodstained handprint. I thought I would choke from fear and ran though the house. And then I saw them. All of them. Face down in the bedroom. Dead. Gunned down. Executed. There was blood everywhere and there was nothing I could do. It was too late. My family was gone. I was alone. I tried to yell, scream or cry, but my voice betrayed me. I made no sound. I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. Then, my mother’s voice came to me. Her instructions were clear, as I recalled hearing them many times. In case of an emergency I should go to her brother, a priest at St. Demetrios. It was from him I learned the whole truth. My parents had left me a letter, in my uncle’s care, explaining the dangerous missions they fought against the Gestapo, and their efforts to hide and protect the Jews of our city. The last words I have from my parents are written on that paper, informing me that if I was reading the letter, the worst had happened and I was to follow the instructions they had left to protect me. They left my uncle enough money to get me to safety, and told me to leave at my first opportunity. They wanted me to know how much they loved me and, although they knew I would go through a difficult time, the sacrifices they made for all people would shape me as a moral and honorable human being. I asked my uncle to hold the letter and the money for me till a future time. I enlisted in the army to fight for my country and to fight the Nazis that murdered my family.”
“Oh, Alex,” Ana cried. “It’s all so awful. It’s too much for a young boy to see, to live through. And here I’m telling you about my minor brush with the war in Athens. I’ve been through nothing compared to you. I’ve heard about many horrors, but when you don’t see them for yourself or experience them firsthand … well, I had no idea.”
“Don’t,” Alex said. “Everyone’s experience is unique to them. Don’t minimize it.”
Ana thought for a moment before speaking. “I was so young, and when you’re a child, you romanticize your childhood, thinking it was wonderful. Bad things happened around me, but my parents protected me. I always felt I had a happy childhood in spite of the war, but it feels so wrong to say that now.”
“No, no, sweet Anastacia. Your parents were right to give you a happy childhood, as mine were right to protect me from harm. I owe everything to my parents. They were wonderful people.”
He looked at her regretfully. “I didn’t mean to sadden you tonight after such a festive day. Maybe tomorrow you will allow me to spend the afternoon with you and prove I can lighten the conversation?”
“That would be nice,” she said, smiling. She got up to open the door to her motel room. “Kalinihta.”
When Alex wished her a good night as well, he turned and walked toward his room.
“Alex,” Ana called out to him and he turned to look her way. “Thank you for sharing such a difficult part of your life.”
Ana found it impossible to settle in for the night. Her mind was racing in so many directions and too many memories flooded it. There was so much more to Alexandros than she thought. She had always thought him to be intense, with his serious attitude and those piercing, gray eyes that were hard to read, but she knew now that she’d misread him. Those eyes were haunted with the pain of losing everyone he loved, and yet she saw a determination in him to make the most of his life in honor of his parents, who did everything to keep him from harm’s way. Her heart ached for the boy who lived through such tragedy, and the man who still carried the memories of finding the lifeless, mutilated bodies of his entire family.
She drifted to her own memories, a child’s recollection. Trying to force her mind to translate those memories into an adult’s perspective gave her pause. The conditions in Athens were probably worse than she remembered. She imagined her parents did not find it necessary to make her understand the reality of the war. She imagined her mother would have been frightened, but she protected her children, making everything seem as normal as possible. She would have to speak to her mother about this, she thought, as she drifted to sleep.
The next few days were easygoing and fun, with no talk of dreadful events. Ana was relieved to see that baring his soul seemed to lighten Alex, as she worried that dredging up the past would cause a melancholy mood. Now when their eyes met, it was with an unspoken understanding, and on her part an appreciation for his courage in speaking about something so painful and his ability to get past it, something she had yet to do with her own misfortune.
They went to the beach and then later took the ferry to Shelter Island. Alex purchased a small soccer ball for Kostas at a local general store. The two of them kicked the ball around as the other adults watched.
“You are very good with the children, Alexandros,” Soula complimented.
“Your Kostas is a good boy. I enjoyed showing him how to play.”
“And Sophia? You’ve caught her attention as well. I watched you take her by the shore and pick up seashells. It’s unusual for a man with no children to be so comfortable with the little ones.”
“She’s a sweet child. I hope to have some of my own one day.” Alexandros looked in Anastacia’s direction, the corners of his mouth drawing up to a hopeful smile.
On the last day of their vacation, they went to a farm stand to buy freshly picked fruits and vegetables to bring back to the city. Then Stavros and Alex loaded up the cars while the women and children said their last good-byes to Yanni and Alexandria.
“We’re ready to go, Stavros. Everything is in the car. Alex, don’t be a stranger. Come see us soon. We are making dinner for Sophia’s birthday. You should come. Sunday at three o’clock,” Soula insisted.
“Um, I’d like that. Ana, is that okay with you? I don’t want to impose,” Alex said.
“Of course you should come,” Ana said politely. “I should have asked you myself.”
She wanted to kill Soula. Not because she didn’t like Alex, but because she was so transparent.
An awkward moment hung in the air. But then Alex took her hand in both of his, looked her in the eyes and said, “I’ll look forward to Sunday.”
Usually too shy to make eye contact, Ana’s eyes met his and held. The jolt that traveled from her hand through his as their skin touched startled her. The sensation was foreign to her and so was the fluttering in her stomach. His hands felt safe, yet she was scared. Her chest tightened a bit as she released herself from his gentle hold. She looked down and nodded. “Yes, Sunday.”
Ana got into the car and waved good-bye as they drove off. She remained quiet trying to make sense of what her body was doing, what it was saying to her.
“Soula, why did you invite Alexandros to Sophia’s party?”
“Why not? He’s a friend. He likes Sophia and we know he likes you.”
“You should have asked me first. I don’t think it’s appropriate. He will get the wrong idea.”
“Don’t you like him?”
“He’s a very nice man, but you need to stop trying to put us together.”
“Dating. It’s called dating. You can say the word.”
“No, Soula, I can’t.”
“Stavros, help me,” Soula pleaded.
“I’m just watching the road.” Stavros drove the car and was smart enough to keep quiet.
“Hey, man, we’re all heading to Jack in the Box drive-thru. You coming?” Danny asked Dean, while loading the last few pieces of equipment.
“No, go without me. Hey! Do me a favor. Take my sister home.”
“No problem, she’s coming with us anyway.”
Dean eyed the remaining crowd, hoping to find Sophia before she left with Danny and Demi.
“Where’s Sophia?” he asked his sister urgently.
“Chill out. She went to the ladies’ room.”
He sped past his sister, sprinting to the restrooms and paced, waiting for Sophia to exit. Her expressive eyes, filled with heat and at the same time innocence, had undone him. Nearly forgetting there were people watching them, he’d been lost in her. His heart raced and a shockwave of electricity seared through him, leaving him with a need to touch her and hold her in a way he never had before.
She tilted her head when she saw him standing by the door, and the glowing smile she gave him nearly brought him to his knees.
“I thought we could drive home together, just the two of us. Maybe go for a ride first?” Dean asked.
“Sure,” Sophia said, looking at him curiously. “Are you okay? Are you disappointed we didn’t win, ‘cause second place is—”
“No, it’s nothing like that. I’m fine with it. I just want … I don’t feel like being around a crowd tonight. Just you.”
“Okay,” she agreed, shrugging her shoulders.
In the car, Dean was unusually quiet. Sophia wasn’t talking either, so to fill the silence he turned up the music in the car as he drove. Every few minutes he would glance at her, but she didn’t look back and he could tell she was uncomfortable. Ten minutes later, he pulled into the nearly desolate parking lot at Northport Harbor. It was too cold to sit at the end of the dock in the gazebo as they often did during the summer, so they stayed in the car. Dean turned to face Sophia and draped an arm over the back of her seat. He wasn’t sure what to say—or what he should say—or even what he wanted to say. His stomach was in knots because his heart and his mind were at war.
“I’m not sure what to do about you,” he started, sucking in a nervous breath.
Sophia frowned. Shaking her head, she asked, “What does that mean?”
“That came out wrong. It’s hard to put into words.” Dean sighed as though the weight of the world was bearing down on him. “You know how I feel about you. You’ve always been one of the most important people in my life. You and me, we understand each other. You’re the one person I am completely myself with. But lately … I don’t know. It’s been weird.”
“So, what are you saying? You don’t feel comfortable with me anymore?”
Dean covered his eyes with the palms of his hands and rubbed. He couldn’t look at those wounded eyes that were waiting for his response.
“No! That’s not what I’m saying. It just feels different between us, that’s all. You stir me up inside. I can’t get you off my mind. I feel things that are different than before and I’m trying like hell to push those thoughts aside.”
“Why?” Sophia asked nervously.
“When I see you—I don’t know. I just want to take you in my arms and hold you. I have this crazy urge to kiss you … but that’s not who we are to each other. God, it’s so out of control. So messed up.”
“Wanting to kiss me is messed up?” Sophia asked with a sharp edge to her tone.
“No, shit, no. The situation is.”
Dean looked at Sophia and for the first time he couldn’t predict what she would say next. A minute ago there was fire in her eyes and now she had a look of compassion.
“I don’t know what you expect from me, Dino. I could slap you for saying kissing me is crazy or that the whole thing is messed up. Do you know how cruel that sounds?”
He opened his mouth to speak, but she silenced him with her hand.
“But then I think, no. You admitted you have true feelings for me. The same ones I’ve had for you for a long time. Except it doesn’t matter. You’ll keep fighting it.”
“I’m not following you.”
She smiled gently, with warmth in her eyes. “My Konstantinos,” she sighed, as she brushed her fingers lightly across the hair that was falling over his face. “I know you better than you know yourself, and as much as I want to be more than simply your closest friend, I’m realistic enough to know it will never happen.”
He lifted her chin with two fingers and asked, “What do you know about me that I don’t know about myself?”
“It’s not what you don’t know. It’s what you won’t admit to yourself.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Enlighten me.”
She blew out a breath. “Okay, well. I see things you do that tell me you are trying to … Ugh!”
“Just tell me. You’ve never held back before,” Dean said.
Sophia took another deep breath and thought for a moment. “You never go out with anyone younger than yourself—older, yes, but younger, never. You act as though you’re above all the teenage stuff, so going out with a fifteen-year-old would be out of the question.”
He started to say something, but she shut him down.
“I’m just getting started. You’d never go out with a Greek girl, right? Right? Why?”
“Because it would make your parents happy. Because it’s what they want and you think if you bring home a Greek girl it’s like they picked her out for you. Again, you are trying to prove how grown-up you are. If you did what they wanted, it would be like you obeyed them. Heaven forbid! Then, of course, the biggest problem is me. Our families are as close as any two families can get. Your parents are like my second set of parents, and it would probably make them even happier if we were a couple. And the last thing you want to do is make your parents happy.”
Dean stared at Sophia dumfounded. How does she do that?
“Okay, okay! I get it,” he said. “It’s a little creepy that you can get into my head that way, but it’s not as simple as you make it sound. You don’t have the pressure from your parents that I do. I’m not even friggin’ eighteen yet, and they keep drumming into my head, marry Greek. And they do it to Demi too. Your parents don’t do that to you. If my parents knew we were going out they’d be watching our every move. Hovering. Expecting. It’s too much. And maybe I don’t want to give my dad anything to be happy about. He never gets off my back.”
“So what you’re saying is that you would rather piss off your father and give me up rather than have everyone be happy and give us a chance?”
Dean looked at her blankly. How was he supposed to answer her?
“Could you take me home now?” Sophia’s voice cracked.
She moved to the far end of the car, turned her back to him and stared out the passenger window. Dean was sure she was about to cry.
“Don’t say that. Come here, please,” he pleaded, as he pulled her back over to him, grabbing her by the waist with one hand, while caressing her cheek with the other. “Sophia mou, look at me. You know I can’t stand it when you’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad,” she said under her breath, as a single tear rolled down her cheek.
She turned her head, embarrassed, but he pulled her back around, drawing her to him. Without thinking, he leaned in and kissed her. It started sweet and tender, an apology for his hurtful words and actions, but all reason was lost as he pulled her onto his lap, and the kiss deepened with all the passion that he’d denied himself for so long. There was no turning back now. Every cell in his body came alive in a way it never had with any other girl.
“God, I’ve wanted to do that for so long. I came really close once, in Santorini. The day I dove off the cliffs. Man, you were pissed.”
“Mmm, so, you want to kiss me when you piss me off. I’ll have to remember that,” she giggled.
“You’re adorable when you’re mad,” he teased, as he drew her in to him once again.
“I don’t know about that. That day by the cliffs, I thought, ‘if he didn’t kiss me then, he never will.’ I had to accept that you would never feel about me the way I feel about you. I was like another little sister to you.”
Dean took her face in his hands, brushed his lips over hers and breathed in her scent. “Trust me, I don’t think of you like my little sister.”
He kissed her, deeply, pulling her body close to his until he was dangerously close to wanting more.
“So, where do we go from here? What about all your hang-ups?” she asked, as she moved back into the passenger seat.
“Hang-ups?” He poked her. “My father being a pain in the ass is not a hang-up.”
She looked at him as though to say ‘get real.’
“I want to be with you,” he said. “I really do, but I haven’t changed the way I feel. Sorry.”
“So that’s it? I like you. You like me. One make-out session and we’re done?”
“Would you consider keeping this thing we have under wraps?” Dean asked.
“What do you mean? Sneak around? Don’t tell anyone?”
“Yeah, for now. Until we see how things go and we can figure out the rest later on. It really wouldn’t be a big deal. Think about it. Who would notice? We’ve always spent a lot of time together. Our parents wouldn’t see anything different,” he said.
“They might find out through one of our friends accidently. My parents would be devastated that I wasn’t honest with them.”
“True. That’s why it has to stay just between us. It’s the only way.”
“We can’t keep this from Demi. You know as well as I do it would be impossible. She would never tell your parents if we didn’t want her to, but … I have to tell you, I’m not comfortable with this; it seems wrong to me.”
“Just go with me on this. Trust me. It will be better this way. I want our relationship to be on our terms and not what my parents expect.”
“Okay. For now,” Sophia agreed with hesitation.
“You can tell Demi—no one else.”
As the weeks went by, the change in Sophia could not be suppressed. She was lighter, happier and her eyes had a more dreamy quality to them. Whatever her task, it reflected the love that was bursting from the depths of her soul. Her bouquets at the flower shop were the most beautiful and creative work she’d ever fashioned. For Valentine’s Day she baked a delicious batch of baklava, while daydreaming how Dean would lick the sticky phyllo and walnuts off her fingertips, and she would kiss the rest of the honey off his irresistible lips. At the dance studio, she lost herself in romantic love songs, staying after class to choreograph pieces to the music that expressed her love for him. But it still bothered her that Dean wanted to keep their relationship a secret.
She wanted to shout to the world that she finally had her Dino. After all these years of daydreaming and wishing, she now knew he felt as she did. But a sour pit in her stomach kept her from complete bliss, and that pit was called dishonesty. It wasn’t in her nature and she didn’t wear it well. At best, she got used to it like a favorite pair of shoes that hurt your feet but were too pretty to take off.
Demi was a clever accomplice, and Dean had been correct when he said it wasn’t unusual for them to spend a lot of time together.
“Sophia! Enough. Let it be for now. You’re not doing anything wrong,” Demi tried to reason with her friend.
“It’s just that I don’t like keeping secrets from my parents, or yours.”
“There isn’t a teenager alive that tells their parents everything. And what aren’t you telling them? That you’re spending time with Dean? You have been doing that your whole life.”
“Not like this.”
Demi rolled her eyes and groaned in frustration. “Sophia, I’m not condoning what my brother is asking you to do, but I do understand why he’s doing it. Don’t forget, they’re my parents too. Give him a little time, but don’t let him get away with it for too long.”
“Dem, do you know how hard it is not to reach out my hand to hold his unless we’re alone? He can’t put his arm around my shoulder when we walk down the hall in school, and at home I’m afraid to look at him with everyone in the room. It’s like I’m always pretending.”
“And when you’re alone?”
Sophia’s eyes lit up and a warm flush came over her face. “When we’re alone it’s like we’re in our own private world. The other day we were walking by the auditorium and he grabbed my arm and we ran backstage where it was completely dark. He told me he couldn’t go the whole day without kissing me. It’s exciting in a way. It’s a little like my favorite play …”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Romeo & Juliet. Running around. Secretly meeting. It didn’t end so well for them, you know.”
“But it could have,” Sophia mused.
The news of Dean’s engagement to Elizabeth Whitaker slammed into Sophia like a tidal wave crashing to shore, destroying everything in its path. How was it possible to feel this pain twice in a lifetime? Losing him the first time had been crippling. This time, permanency extinguished any glimmer of hope for reconciliation. In the recesses of her mind, when she allowed the memory of him to creep in, she’d always imagined that someday they would end up together, the way she thought they were meant to. She still loved him. Even when she ignored him or behaved as though his presence didn’t affect her, he was embedded in her soul.
A stab of pain shot through her when Demi broke the news. Sophia stared back at her in disbelief. “I have to go.” Sophia rushed out Demi’s front door.
“Wait. Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere. I need to be alone for a while.”
Sophia got into her car and drove, and drove. With no destination in mind, and no escape from a feeling of dread, she remembered that first time, when she’d confined herself to her room crying for days. But she was stronger now, and would not allow herself to recoil back to the depressed, heartbroken girl she’d been more than six years ago. She would give herself one weekend to grieve—to allow the pain to swallow her, and then expel it from her body and heart once and for all.
After several hours, Sophia came home and went straight upstairs to her bedroom. The temptation buried in the back of the closet was stronger than her will. Breaking the vow she’d made to her friends so many years ago, she reached for the box Amy had so radically threatened to burn. Draped in the memories of him, she tortured her soul, hoping to purge free of him. She examined every picture and cried over the words he’d written in each card she saved. But when she held his ring in the palm of her hand, she resisted the urge to place it on her finger, knowing it would shatter her. She placed the contents back in the box, closed the lid, and cried, hugging it to her chest. With sobs and rapid breaths so frequent she was in danger of hyperventilating, Sophia rose and shoved the box filled with remnants of Dean deep into the back of the closet where it had been for years.
Next to it sat her high school yearbook. She took it down from the shelf. She hadn’t looked at it in years. Hoping the happy memories from school would wash away her mood, she sat on her bed and turned to the first page. She read Matt’s entry, and then flipped through the book to find where Demi, Mindy, Amy and Donna had written to her.
A jolt of adrenaline pumped through Sophia. Her heart thumped and blood rushed to her brain as shock paralyzed her. On the back page of the book was an entry she’d never seen before. But she’d never given Dean her book. When had he written this?
Over and over she read his words, trying to make sense of them. Confusion and regret washed over her. Was he begging for another chance, hoping she would read his sincere words? Was he asking for forgiveness and friendship? Or was he simply saying good-bye in the nicest possible way? She didn’t know, but she wondered if she’d made the biggest mistake of her life. Dizzy and lightheaded, Sophia thought she might pass out. Would it all have turned out differently if she’d seen this right away?
Sophia heard a rap on the door. “Soph, can I come in?” Demi asked.
The soft, melancholy music playing in the background moved in sync with Sophia’s despondent mood. The soulful voice of Donna Summer crooned a sad tale, mimicking Sophia’s lament that there was nothing left for her now that all hope of love was gone.
“Oh, Soph,” Demi said sympathetically, as she embraced her. The physical contact with her closest friend was Sophia’s final undoing, and she collapsed into uncontrollable sobs. After a few minutes, she took a deep breath, composed herself, and broke her hold.
“I’m okay, I’ll be okay. I’m giving myself one weekend to cry—scream if I need to, and drown myself in every sad song ever written. After that, I’m done. I have no choice. I have to be. He’s not mine to cry over anymore.”
“You can’t turn your feelings on and off like a switch. You have the right to feel what you feel.”
“And to make things worse, look what I found,” Sophia whimpered, as she handed Demi the yearbook.
“Your yearbook?” Sophia opened the book to the back page and handed it to Demi.
“I never saw this until now. I’m not sure what he was trying to tell me, but if I had seen it …”
“He was telling you he loves you,” Demi insisted. “Oh, Soph, this was in here the whole time and you never saw it?”
Sophia shook her head slowly, tears running down her cheeks.
“He’s not married yet,” Demi reminded her. “Anything can happen. It’s not too late. If he knew you never saw his message, it might change everything. Talk to him. Tell him how you feel. You’ve been so determined to act unaffected in front of him that he probably thinks you don’t care, that you’re over him.”
“Oh, Demi … I really do love you. Don’t you think I’ve waited years for him to come to me? To tell me he was an immature kid but he knows better now? We both were too immature for what we had. It was too much—too intense, and we were so young. The connection between us was undeniable, and beyond our control. I doubt I’ll ever feel that way for anyone again and I guess I’m okay with that. Nobody gets that twice in a lifetime. But, Demi, he hasn’t come back to me. He doesn’t want me. He’s made a new life for himself—one that doesn’t include me.”
“You have to tell him you love him. He can’t marry her. He belongs with you.”
“It’s too late. What am I supposed to say to him? ‘Hi, I haven’t given you the time of day in six years, but I want you to know I love you and don’t want you to get married. Please choose me.’ That doesn’t even sound sane to me.”
“Well, I don’t think you’d say it like that. A little more finesse would help.”
“You’re so sure, after all these years, that he would break his engagement and run back to me? You have more faith than I do. A lot has changed. He’s not the same person anymore. I loved the boy I knew. He’s not my Dino. He moved on a long time ago. It’s time I let go of an ideal that no longer exists.”
Demi shook her head. “Elizabeth won’t be good for him. I don’t like her. There’s something … insincere about her. From what I can see, she totally controls him. She acts nice on the surface, but the smile is phony. She has ‘bitch’ written all over her. I don’t understand how my brother can be so blind.”
Sophia thought about what Demi said. “Well, that’s not what I want for him, so I hope that’s not the case. He’s always been protective of us and that goes both ways. I love him enough to want to see him happy. If she were ever to hurt him … I think I would have to rip her lungs out.”
“Mmm, yeah, you go turn those emotions off, Soph. Good job.”
Elizabeth Whitaker was a young woman who was accustomed to getting exactly what she wanted, and the first time she laid eyes on Dean, she set her sights on him. The fact that he had a reputation for being a serial dater hadn’t discouraged her. Even with the music blaring, the lights dim, and rowdy co-eds crammed in the frat house, he stood out in the crowd. Louis from finance class got her a drink and she danced with Brian. But Elizabeth purposely never looked in Dean’s direction. Finding the behavior of most of the idiots there juvenile, she searched for her girlfriend, Cathy, as an excuse to get away from the bore that was trying to impress her.
“Would you like to dance?” Dean asked.
Elizabeth looked up at him smugly. “No, thank you.” She gave him a patronizing smile and turned back to her conversation.
“That guy is gorgeous,” Cathy swooned.
“Yes, he is, isn’t he?”
“Then why didn’t you dance with him?”
“Why would I make it easy for him? What’s the fun in that?”
“He’ll just go after someone else. That guy has a rep, and from what I’ve heard, he’s a one-night stand kind of guy,” Cathy said.
Elizabeth’s wheels were turning. “We’ll see. Guys like that want what they can’t have. Remember that. Never make yourself too available and let them think they pursued you.”
“Excuse me,” Dean interrupted. “I thought since you weren’t up for dancing, I would bring you a fresh drink. Let me introduce myself. I’m Dean.”
“That’s very nice, Dean, but as you can see, I already have a drink.”
“It looks like I came just in time. Your cup is empty.”
“Elizabeth, I’ll see you later,” Cathy said, getting up from the couch. “Here take my seat,” she said to Dean.
“Thank you.” Sitting down beside Elizabeth, he handed her the drink, removing the empty cup from her hand. “So … you have a name. Elizabeth—a pretty name for a beautiful woman.”
He was exactly where she wanted him and she played him like a piano. Aloof one day and teasingly seductive the next, she always kept him guessing as to where he stood with her. If he was drawn to what he couldn’t possess, then so was she, and she was going to have him. But what Dean wanted more than Elizabeth was success, and she used his ambition to lure him in with her father’s connections.
Elizabeth became the envy of the other girls at the college who had tried but failed to win him. Yes, she thought, he was a prize to be claimed—handsome, smart and deliciously irresistible. Her father and Dean got along from the first day she introduced them. It didn’t take long for Mr. Whitaker to offer Dean a position working for him at the hedge fund he ran, and he continued to earn his MBA at night.
Elizabeth was crazy about Dean. He was perfect for her and he slid into her lifestyle seamlessly. His family was a different story. They were a bit on the provincial side and, although they seemed friendly, there was something there, just on the edge of intolerance. And it wasn’t just his parents. It was also their neighbors, those people they referred to as part of their family. Elizabeth would have to put up with them also.
Each time she had to endure an afternoon with them, they would reminisce, telling funny stories from Dean’s childhood and all the summers they spent in Greece. It made her feel excluded and more of an outsider than she already did when she was around them. Was this their intent? To let her know she didn’t fit into their world? Well, she didn’t, and she didn’t see how Dean fit in with them either.
Inevitably, a photo album would materialize, and although it made her smile to see images of Dean as a little boy and teenager, she found herself irritated by the beautiful girl who stood beside him in just about every photo. She hadn’t met this Sophia yet. She was on a tour or something—a stage person, Elizabeth thought, with her superior nose in the air.
“Why would she attend Vassar if she was planning on becoming a … performer?” Elizabeth asked.
“She’s not a circus clown,” Demi retorted in a sarcastic tone. “Sophia is a highly trained ballerina with a prestigious repertory company.”
Demi slid an old photo album in her brother’s direction. “Dean, remember when we took these photos?” Demi asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Sophia made us sleep on the beach so we could wake up and watch the sun come up.”
Dean laughed under his breath. “I remember now. Sophia and I stayed up all night talking.”
“Dean did anything Sophia wanted. He never said no to her,” Soula added.
Elizabeth forced a smile.
“Look at this one,” Soula addressed Elizabeth, passing her an old picture. “Sophia was taking her first steps and Dean was making sure she didn’t fall. From the day she was born, he always wanted to be wherever she was.”
Jealousy washed over Elizabeth. Sophia this and Sophia that. She already didn’t like this girl and was innately threatened by her. On top of it, Sophia was Elizabeth’s future sister-in-law’s closest friend. Really, could it get any worse? Not that she had any interest in Demi either.
Outside, rain was pelting the windows and rumblings of thunder could be heard in the distance. If she didn’t make an escape soon, there would be a fierce storm to contend with right here.
“I think we should go before the storm gets worse. It’s a long ride back to the city,” Elizabeth suggested.
“Sure. It’s probably a good idea. I have an early meeting tomorrow.” Dean went around the table to kiss each person good-bye.
“Thank you for a nice dinner.” Elizabeth couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Thank God these visits were rare. Little by little she was molding Dean into her world, and slowly removing him from his own.