Read the first tear-jerking chapter below, then mark your calendars for December 26th.
Ana E Ross is back with a steamy, emotional, and passion-fueled romance to keep you reading all night long.
Raph scowled at the six-foot, three-inch man staring back at him in the bathroom mirror. Fatigue had settled in pockets under his sleep-deprived eyes, and a black five o’clock shadow covered his olive skin. He took great pride in his appearance, but with the circumstances of the last week and a half, especially the last few hours, grooming had been the furthest thing from his mind.
Bending under the weight of sadness and unease, he turned on the faucet, splashed cold water on his face, then threaded his wet hands through his rumpled hair, pressing the black strands against the collar of his white shirt. Lifting a clean towel from a stack on the counter, he dried his face and eyed his reflection again. He still looked disheveled, but at least he felt somewhat refreshed.
He exited the bathroom and, ignoring the hum of voices coming from the living room, he headed in the opposite direction toward the large oak door at the end of the hall. As soon as he opened it, the smell of ammonia and antiseptic flooded his nostrils and the sound of air being forced through congested lungs filled his ears.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Raph strolled over to the bed and gazed at the ninety-three-year-old patriarch of the Giannopoulos family sleeping in the middle of the bed. His wraithlike body was propped up by pillows on each side, and his skin was so pallid, he was almost indistinguishable from the white cotton sheet beneath him—a stark contrast to the towering man he used to be.
His name was Andris Sebastian Giannopoulos, and he was Raph’s beloved pappoús.
Andris was more than a grandfather, though. He was the man who’d made Raph feel safe and protected as a little boy. Raph remembered the feelings of security when his grandfather held his hand as they crossed a busy street, of excitement when they flew kites on the beach while waves lapped at their feet and the wind tugged at their clothes, and of contentment as they solved jigsaw puzzles together.
Solving jigsaw puzzles was Andris’ favorite pastime, and of his three grandsons, Raph was the only one who indulged in his hobby with him. He loved the challenge of creating beauty from chaos, but that wasn’t the only thing that had kept Raph sitting and sifting through thousands of identical cardboard pieces for hours, days, and sometimes weeks. It was his love for his grandfather, and the joy he got from spending time with him. He hoped that over the years he gave the old man as much love and joy as he received from him.
The flap of the white window curtain moving in the cool evening breeze brought Raph back into the dimly lit room. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he eased his body down onto the chair beside the bed, reached out and methodically brushed the wrinkled brow, just as Andris had brushed his when he was a little boy in need of comfort. And God knew, he and his brothers, Neo, and Tele, had needed a whole lot of comfort when they were children.
Even though they had outgrown that need, their grandfather still piled it on every chance they gave him, until two years ago when he suffered a stroke that robbed him of his ability to speak and his mobility on the right side of his body.
Under the care of the best doctors and therapists that money could buy, after many small incremental improvements, two weeks ago, Raph and his brothers had gotten good news from the doctors. Andris had regained his speech and partial use of his right arm. It was the miraculous breakthrough they’d all been praying for. They had immediately taken the family jet to Athens and from there to Santorini.
For the past week and a half, Andris had been talkative as he visited with his grandsons, his great-granddaughter, Petra, Tele’s four-year-old daughter, and their extended family. Everyone thought he was surely on his way back to a full recovery, but a few days ago, even though his speech was still strong, his body had weakened, and he’d developed a severe case of pneumonia. This morning, his doctor had warned the family that the infection and his old age, would claim him before the next sunrise. It was as though his grandfather had fought his way out of his prison of silence and immobility, just to bid his family farewell.
Raph’s brothers, his niece, and the children and grandchildren of Illaria, Andris’ late sister, had said their final goodbyes this afternoon. Raph’s mother, Jordan, was expected to fly in from New York this evening to say her goodbyes to the father-in-law who had accepted her into his heart and loved her like she was his own daughter.
Even though they had all traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Santorini to visit each other when they were younger, Raph wished he’d spent more quality time with his pappoús over the last ten years. But he’d been too busy turning G3 into the billion-dollar real estate development giant it was. In his twenties, he’d thought he had all the time in the world to do all things he wanted. It had taken Andris’ stroke for Raph to realize the importance of family over business, but by then it was too late. He’d been misguided, stupid, and focused on the wrong things in life.
After the happy, tearful trips down memory lane this afternoon, Andris had asked everyone, except Raph, to leave. He wanted to have a talk with him, but he’d been so worn out from the visits that he’d fallen asleep shortly after the room had cleared.
Raph stilled as his grandfather’s hand stirred against his thigh, and his eyes fluttered open.
“Raph… Raph…” he whispered, looking around the room until his eyes focused on Raph’s face.
“I’m here, Pappoús.” Raph resumed caressing his brow.
“The clock. You’ll take it with you.”
“Yes, Pappoús, I will take the clock with me.” Raph wondered why, of all the possessions Andris had acquired during his ninety-three years on earth, that forgotten clock was the first thing he spoke about upon awakening. It was as though he’d been dreaming about it.
Raph looked at the seven-foot-tall grandfather clock, ticking away in the corner where it had been since he was thirteen years old. He had been here in Santorini when his grandfather had it moved from an outbuilding on the estate to his bedroom. His mother had remarried that same year and he and his brothers were looking forward to spending the summer in Greece to get away from their new stepfather, but Andris had asked Jordan to send Raph two weeks ahead of his brothers.
Neo and Tele had also wanted to leave early, but Andris had insisted that Raph came alone, with a promise to take each of them for one week every summer from then on—a promise he’d kept until his teenage grandsons had gotten too busy with friends, girlfriends, and eventually business, and began spending less and less time with the old man.
That summer, Raph and his grandfather had traveled all over mainland Greece to places he’d never been before and hadn’t been to since. It had been nice not to have to split his attention with his brothers for two whole weeks. Then, two days before Neo and Tele were to arrive, his pappoús had brought him into this room and asked him to help him clean the prized family heirloom for the very first time.
While they’d carefully laid out the pieces and polished the carved eagle standing guard on top of it, Raph had felt as if his grandfather wanted to tell him something important. But every time he started a sentence, he would get tongue-tied as if he couldn’t find the words to say what he wanted to say.
Raph had never seen his grandfather at a loss for words until that day. Raph remembered the firm grip of his grandfather’s hands on his shoulders, and the urgency in his voice while he made him promise to take the clock to California if anything should happen to him––to make sure it stayed in the family.
He grimaced at the thought that he would soon be the unenthusiastic owner of that monstrosity, but a promise was a promise. “I’ll take the clock,” he said again to set his grandfather’s mind at ease.
“Thank you.” Andris gave him a faint smile, then said, “It’s my fault, to mikró mou gio.”
Raph’s hand stilled on his forehead. He gazed into the fading brown eyes. “Your fault for what, Pappoús?”
His grandfather swallowed and took a few shallow breaths. “Everything. Your father and Yaya. They died because of me.”
Raph stared at him, baffled. Why was his grandfather blaming himself for something that happened over two decades ago? Is this why he’d asked to be alone with Raph? Was it the reason he’d fought his way back from two years of silence and paralysis? Alarm quickened his pulse at each speculation.
Pulling a tissue from a box on the nightstand, he wiped the tears that slid from the corners of Andris’ eyes. “Pappoús, Yaya and Baba died in an accident. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was—”
“It’s more than that. It’s everything. It’s Cleon. It’s Giannport. It’s… It’s…” Andris’ voice trailed off as his lungs fought for air. “You’re not listening to me. You’re…You––You’re not hearing me!” Andris’ frail body began shaking in the bed as he went into a coughing fit.
“It’s okay, Pappoús. It’s okay,” Raph said as he placed his hand on Andris’ shoulder, trying to calm him down. He waited for him to catch his breath. “Pappoús, you gave Giannport to Cleon after Baba and Yaya died because—”
“Óchi. Óchi.” Andris shook his head in frustration. “He knew something. He took it.”
“You mean by force?” Anger churned in Raph’s stomach at the thought that Cleon, his distant and estranged cousin, had coerced his grandfather into abdicating his forty-year position as CEO of Giannport Vineyard & Wineries, only to watch it sold off, vineyard-by-vineyard, until it all but ceased to exist. All that remained was one dilapidated vineyard in Aetós, the launching pad for the Giannopoulos wine-producing empire that was once the most successful in all of Europe.
“If your father had lived, he would run Giannport. Pass it to you, Neo, and Tele.”
Raph could not argue with that fact. His father, Xander, who’d loved the wine making business, would have taken over Giannport years ago, and Raph’s mother, who was one of the few female sommeliers in the world, would have helped him run it.
But as fate would have it, Xander and Kerena, Raph’s father and grandmother, died in a car crash not too far from the family home in Santorini when Raph and his brothers were six-years old. If things were different, yes, he would have been coached and prepped to take over Giannport, but there was no going back. “If Cleon stole the company from you, I will make him pay, Pappoús. I swear!”
“Óchi! Leave it alone. Doesn’t matter now. Waste of time. Promise me you’ll leave it alone.”
Raph frowned. Why would he say that his cousin had taken the company away from him by force in one breath, and then in the next say that it didn’t matter anymore? Of course, it mattered. What was he afraid of? What was he hiding? “I promise, Pappoús,” he said, even as he knew in his heart that he could not just forget it.
His grandfather let out a deep breath and relaxed into the mattress again as Raph continued to soothe his brow with long, gentle strokes of his thumb.
“You are head of the family now, Raph. Take care of your brothers and your mother and little Petra. Find the right woman and fall in love.”
“You know me, Pappoús, I wouldn’t know the right woman if she punched me in the nose.” Raph laughed to lighten the grim aura in the room, and to keep himself from saying exactly how he felt about women and love.
“You’ll know her when you feel. When you dream about her.”
“You mean when I see her?” Raph asked with a questioning frown.
“Óchi. You don’t see love. You feel love. Experience love,” he whispered on a smile. “She might not be the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen, but you will know she’s right when you feel her in your heart, when you dream of her, mikró mou gio. You must carry on the Giannopoulos bloodline,” he said, before closing his eyes and lapsing into silence.
Raph was only older than Neo by five minutes, and Tele by seven, yet his brothers had always looked up to him. They had allowed him to lead the pack even when they were children, and it was understood by all that once their grandfather made his earthly exit, Raph would become the de facto patriarch of the Giannopoulos family.
As for carrying on the family bloodline, Tele had already grown his little branch, and he was sure that soon Neo would settle down and plant a few seeds of his own. As for him, marriage and a family were not in his life’s plan.
“Neró,” Andris whispered in a voice, much weaker than it had been a few minutes ago.
Raph took the glass of water from the nightstand and helped him take a few sips through the straw. When he motioned that he’d had enough, Raph replaced the glass then held his waning gaze. “I love you, Pappoús,” he said in a choked voice, needing him to hear it one last time. “I wish we’d spent more time together during the years before your stroke.”
“We had our moments, mikró mou gio. More moments than many people get with their loved ones. You and I solved so many puzzles together.” His eyes lit up and his thin lips cracked on a crooked smile. “You brought me so much joy.”
Raph pressed his lips together as wrenching knots formed in his belly. “You brought me joy, too, more than you would ever know, Pappoús.” He wiped his sleeve across his eyes and nose.
Andris squeezed Raph’s hand. “You were always my favorite.”
Raph grinned through his mounting pain. He knew his grandfather told Neo and Tele that they were his favorite, too, but he also knew the old man held a tad more fondness in his heart for him. He tightened his fingers around his grandfather’s. “I know, Pappoús. And you’ve always been my favorite grandpa.”
“I know your heart, mikró agóri. I know what you gave up.”
Raph’s eyes narrowed to slits. “What do you know, Pappoús?”
Andris simply smiled, then said, “I want you to do some… something for me.”
“Of course. Anything for you, Pappoús.” He fought to suppress the grief spreading through his gut with each passing second.
Andris’ brow knitted, and he beckoned Raph closer. “Take us to Aki—Aki—li—na, Rapheus.”
Raph stared wordlessly at his grandfather for a second, then asked “Where?” What—”
“Will you take us, me and Yaya?”
“Yes. I will take you and Yaya to Akilina, but—”
“No one else is to know. Not your brothers. Not your mother. Only you must go. Promise.”
“Yes, Pappoús. I won’t say a word. But what is Akilina? Where is it?” he asked, curiosity and surprise warring in his mind.
Andris’ eyes darted around the room with a burning faraway look. “I… Island. Carib… bean. My Ra.”
“Your Ra? What is a Ra?”
Raph drew back in confusion as he tried to absorb the information his grandfather just dumped on him. He took a deep breath and hoped his voice would not portray his alarm. “You’re saying you were born on this island in the Caribbean? I’ve seen your birth certificate, Pappoús. You were born in Aetós. You were born here in Greece.” He paused, again wondering at his grandfather’s state of mind. “Are you getting your facts mixed up, Pappoús?”
“Óchi.“ He shook his head and tightened his lips in frustration. “Óchi,” he said again.
“I’m sorry, Pappoús. I don’t mean to upset you. I’m just trying to understand what you mean––what you want me to do.”
His grandfather’s eyes darted around the room again, causing an eerie feeling to skitter up and down Raph’s spine. What, or who was he looking for?
“My baba. He was promised. To another. He fell––they fell…in love. They eloped. To Akilina,” Andris said, pausing after each sentence while his chest rose and fell and the crackling in his breath increased in intensity and speed.
Nausea rose to Raph’s throat as he realized that his grandfather was struggling to take his last breaths. “Pappoús,” he whispered. Tears raced down his face and landed on his hands clasped around his grandfather’s. “Pappoús…”
“I’m sorry, Rapheus. I’m so sorry. I didn’t tell you. I— I wanted to… I— I—meant to. But then I…” Andris closed his eyes tightly and pressed his lips together as a lone tear slid from the corner of his eye, rolled down his temple, and into his ear.
Raph’s stomach cramped at the sadness and regret he’d heard in his grandfather’s voice and the turmoil on his face. “What Pappoús?” He shifted on the chair as his body tightened with urgency. He wiped a hand across his nose. “What did you want to tell me?” He needed to know.
Andris made a sudden movement of his head to the left side of the room. His eyes brightened for a flash second as if he’d latched on to an object, and then his head began to move, ever so slowly to the right, his gaze intense and alert as if he were following movement.
When his focus zeroed in on a spot above Raph’s head, a chill enveloped Raph, and he had the feeling that a ghost had passed through him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on edge and goosebumps covered his skin. But he did not feel panic, only a quiet acknowledgement of the existence of things beyond this world. He knew in that moment that his father’s and his grandmother’s spirits had come to escort his grandfather into the afterlife. Raph pressed his lips together to bite back his sob. “Pappoús...”
Andris’ gaze shifted to Raph, and he managed a faint smile. “Akilina. Raph, take us to my Ra.”
“I will, Pappoús. I will take you to your Ra.” Tears stung his eyes and blinded him. Knowing it was the last time he would gaze into his grandfather’s eyes, he hurriedly dried his own tear-filled eyes with the sleeve of this shirt.
“Thank you... Rapheus.” Andris’ gaze shifted to the portraits of his son and wife on a table at the foot of his bed. They had been placed there after his stroke so he could see them without having to strain his eyes. He took deep shallow breaths—breaths Raph knew were his very last.
“Pappoús…” His chest felt heavy as lead and his breath solidified in his throat.
Andris squeezed Raph’s hand. “Xander. Kerena, agápi mou,” he whispered, and with those final words, his lips sealed together on a smile. His grip relaxed around Raph’s fingers. And his green eyes shimmered in the bedside light one last time before his lids closed around them.
And there, in the quiet suite of his family’s estate in Santorini, Andris Sebastian Giannopoulos peacefully died.
The grandfather clock chimed seven times, tolling out the evening hour.
“Antío, Pappoús. Se agapó,” Raph leaned over and pressed his lips to his grandfather’s cool forehead. He held his frail hand, dropped his head on his chest and wept, regret for not spending more time with him stabbing at his broken heart.