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Nothing was said until they were back in the car and moving, both pressed against their respective doors.

‘What did you think of my mother?’ Christian asked, amusement and bitterness both vying for control in his voice.

Alessandra was unable to do anything but raise her shoulders and blow air out of her mouth.

That had to be the most surreal experience of her life, like stepping into some parallel universe where poison ivy grew instead of roses.

‘Do you understand now why I don’t want her at our wedding?’

‘I think so.’ She shook her head some more. She could still taste the acrid atmosphere, overwhelming even the cloying bleach. ‘What did she say to you?’

‘The usual. That I’m a useless son for leaving it so long between visits; that her house isn’t good enough for her; that the house is too big for her, that it’s too small, that her car is getting old. The usual.’

‘You bought the house for her?’

‘It’s the third house I’ve bought for her—the other two didn’t match her needs. I buy her a new car every year. I give her a large allowance. It’s never enough. I could give her my entire fortune and it wouldn’t be enough. If she came to the wedding, she’d spend the day complaining. Nothing would be good enough for her, and when she isn’t complaining she’ll be telling all our guests about my no-good bastard of a father who broke her heart and deserves castration without anaesthetic.’

His father’s desertion and betrayal had shattered her. Whatever love had once resided in his mother’s bones had been destroyed, leaving nothing but the toxic shell of the woman she must have once been. Christian understood it, could see how she had become like that. Stratos Markos hadn’t just walked away from her, he had walked away from the child they had created together—that was how little she had meant to him. He had wanted no part of her, so worthless that their baby meant nothing to him either.

‘Has she always been like this?’ she asked, her husky voice stark.

‘All my life. She thinks all men are like my father—that’s what she was saying to you when we left, that you’re a fool to be marrying me and that I’m going to break your heart.’

Alessandra’s shock was palpable. ‘She said that about her own son?’

‘She also said it would be kinder for me to rip your heart out now—you forget, agapi mou, that I am my father’s son, something she never lets me forget. In my mother’s world, all men are liars and cheats, especially those with the name of Markos.’

Her doe eyes widened, full of sympathy. ‘You’re not to blame for your father’s actions.’

‘I know that.’ But right then he didn’t want to hear any platitudes. A coldness had settled in his chest, bearing down on him.

It was always the same after he visited his mother. Regardless of the heat outside, inside all he felt was compressing ice.

‘And it’s not fair for her to label all men as bastards because of the misdeeds of one.’

‘But do you not believe that yourself?’ he said roughly. ‘That all men are scum?’

She swallowed, her eyes dimming as if in confusion. ‘I don’t hate men, I just don’t trust them.’

What would it take to get her to trust him? If she’d taken him at his word he would never have had to bring her here.

He wished he could demand it of her, as if trust were like a tap that could be turned on and off at a whim.

After a long pause, he said, ‘We’re lucky we both know how destructive love can be. We won’t fall into the trap our parents fell into. Our child will never have to deal with parents whose love has turned to bitterness and recrimination.’

Their child wouldn’t have to deal with his or her parents loving each other at all. All the love would be reserved for their child and only their child.

He exhaled slowly, waiting for the chill in his chest to lessen but it continued to cling to him like a thick, cold fog.

He hadn’t expected anything different from his mother; he was more or less immune to it. It had been witnessing Alessandra’s visible shock at it all that had really set the cold in, had brought the old feelings and memories hurtling back.

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