Authors: Kelly Ilebode
Also by Kelly Ilebode
In Search of Grace
The Manor at Echo Lake Trilogy
Dragan’s Redemption Book One
Aaron’s Revenge Book Two
The Legacy Book Three
Kelly and the Angel Series
The Birth of the Sparrow
The Flight of the Sparrow
The Turning Point
To Ruth, my partner in crime back in the day, and the one who knows the truth from fiction in what seems like a lifetime ago. Thanks for having my back all of these years, because no one would ever have believed the wild ride but you.
To Tammy Oliver. Thank you for being sister, friend and supporter of my author dream.
Copyeditor – Faith Williams, The Atwater Group
Cover Art - Anita Carroll
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright©2015 by Kelly Ilebode
The large commuter bus idled loudly, while the exhaust caused a choking stench to envelop the cool Burlington, Vermont morning air around it. Many of the passengers grimaced at the odor, except one. Cassandra Oliver was too excited to allow something as trite as exhaust to ruin her morning. She had smelled enough exhaust from lifting bales of hay for hours onto the back of a flatbed trailer as the tractor ambled along the never-ending field. Now that was exhaust. No. This was the first day of the rest of her life. She was finally free, and freedom smelled sweet as the summer grass to her. The line waiting to board moved forward. Cassie watched as the people in front of her handed the driver their tickets, where he ripped off the top copy before he handed the rest back to the passengers.
Anxiously, she reached into the used pocketbook that hung from her shoulder to retrieve the ticket that would be needed to give her access to that freedom she craved so much. For a heart-stopping moment, Cassie didn’t see or feel it. Pulling everything out, Cassie held the items in one hand as she glanced into the depths and heaved a sigh of relief when she saw the papers on the bottom of the bag. With renewed excitement, she pulled out the needed documents just as she reached the front of the line.
“Good morning.” The driver smiled at her, speaking softly and with a thick accent. He had noticed her the moment she stepped out of the battered station wagon. Her long, mousey brown hair, pulled back into a tight ponytail, did not detract from the clean, makeup-free skin that glowed with excitement of an impending adventure. The woman/child who stood in front of him was curvy in all of the right places. The shorts she wore gave him full view of legs that seemed to go on forever. She was a true beauty, but he suspected the way she shifted constantly, shoulders hunched, that she thought otherwise. Oh, if he were twenty years younger, he would show her just how beautiful she was. He saw this plenty of times, driving for so many years. Some, he actually saw come back: unable to take city life, half the person they were before they left. Some he met in Boston, and listened to their stories of how they broke away from the mundane life of the country. You could read the experience on their faces. The ones who made it grew up fast. As hard as they thought farm life was, the city life could be even tougher and harsher. He wondered how this one would fare.
Shyly, she glanced into his dark eyes before she quickly looked away. “Good morning,” she mumbled softly. Her anxious eyes watched as he took her papers and ripped off the top copy of her ticket.
“One way to Boston.” He handed back her copy.
Nodding absently, she looked to the opening and the stairs that led into her ride to the new life.
“Bravery is most notable at the first step, young lady, for without that step the journey will never start.”
There was no way the driver could have known how true those words were to her at the moment. As she stared into his intense black eyes, she saw sincerity and a hint of something else. Maybe he did know what she was feeling. Without responding, she gripped the metal handle tightly with her hand, now moist from the nerves fluttering in her stomach, as she stepped up onto the platform. He was right; it was the hardest step for her and even through her excitement, so many doubts ran through her mind. She wanted to look back, just once, but she was afraid if she did, she would jump back off the platform and ask to be taken back to the farm. Instead, she continued up. No. This was not the time for self-doubts. If it didn’t work out, she would rethink her life then, and only then.
The bus was almost completely full, with few empty seats except up front. Choosing to sit alone, she slid in the first seat behind the driver and placed her backpack by her side in hopes it would deter anyone from sitting down next to her. It wasn’t long before the driver stepped into the bus. Cassandra could feel his curious eyes on her as he snapped his seat belt around his waist before he adjusted his mirrors. The bus slowly moved away from its spot.
Head leaned back, Cassandra closed her eyes as the bus slowly picked up speed, making its way to the highway. Tears slipped between her eyelashes, and Cassie allowed them to flow, allowed herself this one last time to feel the sadness of letting go of her past. All of the scrimping and hard work paid off. She made it out, and she wasn’t broken—well, not completely. Her past was on them, but her future was all her. Cassie smiled through her tears and turned her head to the window. “Look out, Boston,” she whispered softly. “Here I come.”
The bells jangled loudly above the pizzeria’s main door as Cassandra entered. The tiny shop, within walking distance of her job, had quickly become one of her favorite after-work hangouts since she moved to Chestnut Hill three months ago.
God, had it only been three months?
She frowned. It seemed like a lifetime since she had stepped off the bus at South Station in downtown Boston. She had this job lined up, working for Mason and Jennifer Hunter as a nanny for their two children, months before she started. Mason had been waiting for her, as promised, to pick her up at South Station to give her a ride to their house. Cassie knew what he looked like—Jennifer had sent pictures almost every week: pictures of the family, the house, and the dog. It seemed like the ideal home to work for and she had been so excited at the time. She remembered showing everyone and anyone back home who took an interest of her new job the pictures. She raved about how beautiful Jennifer was and how smart Mason was, being one of the top executives in a prestigious financial company.
It took less than a week for the excitement of moving from the farm in Vermont to the big city to wear off. This was certainly no ideal family and the picture that Jennifer painted in her many letters and photographs was all for show. Cassie literally worked six days a week from eight a.m. to eight p.m.
How could she have been so stupid to not have asked about the hours?
She was no slouch and worked many hours not only on the farm, but her side job at Walmart, but this was tougher than any barn she mucked out. To top it off, the agreed upon one hundred dollars a week that seemed so much at the time, because room and board were included, were now viewed by her as slave wages. Cassandra knew she had some serious thinking to do about her future. Right now though, she was starving.
“Hey Cassie! You are finally here,” Tony called out to her in greeting from behind the counter.
Cassie smiled at her friend. Tony greeted her the same way every night, and she realized that she had come to rely on that giant smile on his round face to ease the homesickness she had been feeling lately. There was no home to go back to, and there never would be.
“Hey, Tony.” Cassie waved and heaved a sigh of relief as she slid into the corner booth that was situated far away from the large storefront window. She liked this spot; it gave her a great view of the pizzeria but also afforded her the privacy she craved so many nights. She remembered Tony had come over to explain to her, in his thick Greek accent, on the first night she had walked in, that this booth was reserved for family. At the time, Cassie had misunderstood, and replied that there were plenty of other spots in the restaurant that large families could sit at. Then, at his expression, she went on to reassure him that if a large family needed the space, she would move. Tony left her alone, but would shake his head and chuckle every time he looked at her. It was another employee who had told her the error that she had made. The corner booth was for their families, not families in general. Cassie had been horrified and left the restaurant, planning on never going back. But, come back she did and when she had sat at one of the other tables, Tony had escorted her to the corner booth and had even sat down next her. That was the beginning of their friendship.
A plate of pasta slid in front of her. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. It smelled delicious as always.
As her eyes opened, she caught his worried glance. “You need to eat more. You are losing too much weight.”
“You shouldn’t discuss a woman’s weight, Tony. You could get into a lot of trouble. That being said, if you only knew how ironic your statement is to me right now.” Cassie took a bite of the hot noodles. They tasted fantastic. His comment reminded Cassie of how her employer, just this morning, had told her that she was starting to look healthy with the weight loss, but also punctuated the compliment with that Cassie could stand to lose a good twenty pounds more. At his pointed stare, she shrugged. “According to Mrs. Hunter, I could stand to lose more.”
“Ah. The American wealthy seem to have this notion that thin is the standard for beauty in this country. Now in my country….”
Cassie laughed. “Yes, I know, someone like me would be considered a treasure in Greece.”
Tony placed a hand over his heart and feigned shock as he winked at her affectionately. “Well, not any more at your current size. Gain ten pounds and I would be happy.” Tony laughed at her shocked look. “Do you doubt my sincerity, little one?”
Grinning across the table at him, she shook her head. “Not at all, Tony.” In fact, Cassie appreciated his compliments, and her spirits picked up immediately.
The door jangled loudly. Still smiling at Tony, she watched curiously as his features changed to surprise, before becoming impassive as his whole body stiffened. Hurriedly, he rose to greet the new arrivals, but not before he turned back to her and whispered softly, “Cassie, time to go home, sweetheart.”
Stunned, she shook her head, not fully comprehending his whispered words. She turned to check out who had stepped through the door. She had to see the one who seemed to cause a ripple of energy to cascade through the shop, just by his presence; the one who caused Tony to jump up as if the president of the United States had arrived, and even now was shaking hands with almost reverently. With the stranger’s back facing her, she couldn’t see his face, but she could certainly admire his physique. His white T-shirt, molded to his back, was tucked into dark slacks, which was cinched around a tight waist with a dark belt. His shoes gleamed in the bright light of the restaurant. As she ran her eyes back up, she caught Tony’s glance again, and he frowned at her, and then she had to stifle a giggle as his eyes went wide when she stuck her tongue out at him behind the man’s back. Even Tony seemed to have a hard time holding back a smile.
Her face flamed red as a pair of cold eyes stared at her. She had not even noticed the man who stood next to Adonis. Cassie sensed that this man missed nothing. Unlike his friend, who was visibly relaxed in every way, this man wasn’t. He had the same skin tone as Tony, albeit a bit darker. She was not sure how she knew, but this guy was dangerous. Cassie might be a country girl, but she suspected he wore the jacket to hide something even more dangerous than him. Cassie swallowed hard. Tony was right: she needed to go home and none of this was any of her business. She grabbed her unfinished plate of food and carried it to the counter, where George already had a container ready for her.
Cassie didn’t dare look at anyone. She felt an overwhelming desire to just leave. Whoever this person was, every person who worked in the pizzeria knew him. But if any of his or her expressions were a gauge, she wasn’t sure he was all that welcome. After a mumbled thanks to George, she turned quickly, unaware that the men had moved towards the counter and now blocked her way. Cassie slammed into a hard body. Gasping at the unexpected contact, she struggled with the container, praying she wouldn’t spill it all over the stark white shirt.
Strong hands reached out and gripped her arms to steady her.
Cassie froze in place. Finally having the opportunity to see the Greek god’s face for the first time, she was not disappointed. He was tall—over six feet, Cassie guessed. His thick black hair was longer than average but framed a perfectly chiseled face, accented by black eyebrows. His eyes, lined at the corners with tiny wrinkles, made her wonder whether they were there from laughing or from the sun.
“I have this, Sakis.”
Cassie felt a strong hand grip her forearm tightly, and she had to bite her lip from crying out. A gesture that did not go unnoticed by Adonis.
“Stephanous, let go of the young lady.”
Cassie immediately felt herself released. Cassie wanted to add “good doggy” when she felt him remove his hand, but logic won out—or maybe her affection for Tony. Either way, she kept her mouth shut.
“My apologies, Sakis, Stephan. Cassie was just leaving.” Tony gently pushed against her back and steered her around the men, towards the door.
“Wait, one moment!”
As he turned to face her again, Cassie realized that she now had the Greek god’s full attention.
“Cassie, short for Cassandra?” he asked coolly. At her tentative nod, he lifted her chin with his finger. “What a lovely name, for an even lovelier flower.”
His dark eyes swept over every inch of her, as if seeing her for the first time, and her skin reddened even more.
“Thank you,” she stammered before she rushed out of the door, flustered. She knew that every eye was on her until she disappeared around the corner.