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The driving rain lashed against the windscreen of the car, obscuring the road and blurring the sign fixed to the low stone wall, but Angelos Rousakis needed no help or guidance in finding his way to the place he was looking for. The country lane that led to the Manor House hadn't changed at all in the years since he had last seen it, and his hands were already moving on the steering wheel, ready for the turn, even before he glimpsed the gateway.
The savage downpour meant that he could only take the steep, curving driveway in low gear and at a crawling speed but that wasn't something that troubled him. He had waited for this moment, planned for it, for so long that a few more moments didn't matter. The truth was that he was enjoying the anticipation almost as much as he expected to enjoy putting his planning into operation, and as the big sandy-coloured house came into view the sense of grim satisfaction that had been with him ever since he had left Athens deepened and darkened at the thought of what was to come.
Inside that house Jessica Marshall was acting out her part as lady of the manor, unaware of the fact that her days in that role were strictly numberedhad, in fact, already come to an end. In a very short space of time the reality of her situation would hit home to her and he would be there to see her reaction as her world fell apart around her. The thought of that moment was something that made the long, tedious journey from the airport bearable, even in this appalling weather.
'I think we're ready now.'
Jessica spoke softly, stopping her stepfather's butler just as he was about to leave the room after ushering in the latest black-coated, sombre-facedarrival.
'Would you ask them to bring the cars around to the front of the house? Is there a problem?' she added, blue eyes frowning slightly as Peters hesitated, looked a little concerned.
'No problem, miss,' the elderly man explained. 'It's just that I think it might be best to wait a little while yetuntil everyone has arrived.'
Jessica pushed a hand through the soft fall of her chestnut hair as she looked round the room, struggling to remember just who had been invited today. She couldn't think who, if anyone, was missing.
'But everyone is herearen't they?'
Again there was that flash of a disturbing expressionone that crossed Peters's face and was gone in a moment. But Jessica had seen it and the feeling that it left in its wake was one of unease, a niggling sense of something she didn't know aboutbut felt that she should. Something that unnerved and worried her, setting her on edge like a nervous cat.
'Not quite everyone, miss.'
'But who ?'
Jessica glanced around the room, frowning as she completed another survey of the guests. Everyone there was elderly, like most of her stepfather's friends, and she couldn't think if someone was obviously missing from the list of people who should have been invited to Marty's funeral.
'I can't think of anyone '
'There is one last ' Peters hesitated over the right way to describe the person he meant. 'A person I was told to expect,' he finished awkwardly.
'Told by who?'
'Mr HiltonMr Simeon Hilton.'
Her stepfather's solicitor. So this person, whoever they might be, was known to Simeon Hilton. But why hadn't Simeon told her about himor herwhen they had had their last discussion about the preparations?
'I'll ask ' she began when the sound of a powerful car's engine outside cut through her words, making her break off. The next moment the rich, purring sound had been silenced too as the car drew to a halt beyond the big bay window, just out of sight.
'It looks as if our missing guest is here,' she told Peters, whose attention had been caught as well. 'I suggest you go and let them in now and we can get on our way to the church.'
And she could find out who the missing person was, she told herself as she smoothed back a wayward lock of her gleaming hair that had fallen loosely around her face once more, tucking it behind her ear in an attempt to secure it. She'd fastened most of it back for today, but it seemed that one bright lock was determined to escape.
The new arrival must be someone important, she reflected. Important enough for Simeon to have told Peters not to start without them. But if that was the case, then why hadn't he mentioned this expected arrival to her when they had been going over the details of Marty's funeral? She'd asked him to let her know if there was anyone she ought to take particular notice of.
Out in the hall she heard the big, heavy oak door creak open and the murmur of voices.
Male voices. So the mysterious arrival was a he after all. One small part of the problem solved.
There was something about the tone of the voice that responded to Peters's greeting that grated on her, searing over nerves that were suddenly and unexpectedly drawn tight. Something unnervingly familiar that tugged on her senses and reminded her of
Of something just out of reach that she couldn't focus on or grasp at. The thundering sound of the driving rain out beyond the open door had blurred the words and made them totally incomprehensible so that, try as she might, she couldn't make them out. But they had stirred a memory she had thought was hidden deep. One that set her heart racing, brought her breath into her lungs in a sudden gasp, as she struggled with the clenching of her stomach in irrational response.
There was no way this visitor could be him, she reproved herself. And there was no reason to panic over nothing. The strain of the past week was getting to her. The shock of Marty's sudden, devastating heart attack. The long, anxious night while he had lain in a coma. At least he hadn't suffered, and he hadn't lived long after that first attack, but all the same it had been a distressing, exhausting time. She wasn't surprised that it was starting to catch up on her. But it had to be just that which was playing tricks on her mind.
Peters was coming back. As so many times before this afternoon, he paused in the doorway, clearing his throat slightly.
'Mr Angelos Rousakis ' he announced formally and the sound of the name she hadn't even allowed herself to think of hit home like a blow to Jessica's face, making her mind reel in shock.
It couldn't beit just couldn't! She really had to be dreaming. Either that or the confusion of her thoughts had scrambled her brain so that she had got it wrong, hearing the name that was in her mind instead of
The sight of the man who stepped into the doorway, taking Peters's place as the older man moved aside, froze the thoughts in her head, wiping away her ability to think. She could only stand and stare, struggling to reject what she was seeing.
There was no reason at all why he should be here. No reason why he should return to the estate that he had left under such a cloud almost seven years before, just about shaking the dirt of the land from his feet as he'd vowed that he would never ever return.
But there was no denying the evidence of her eyes. The tall, powerful frame was too strong, too solid to be a figment of her imagination, the black-haired head held arrogantly high, the burning black eyes that swept round the room as if he was looking for something.
The sting of guilt and anxiety was so sharp that instinctively she shrank away a little, not daring to take a step back in case the movement drew attention to her, but unable still to control the instinctive response. But it seemed that the tiny movement was enough to catch his eye and that searching gaze focused sharply, his dark head turning in her direction as he took in her shaken face, the sudden loss of the colour that she could feel draining from her cheeks.
In that moment she felt like nothing so much as a small, cowering field mouse that had been spotted by a circling hawk and was now frozen to the spot, simply waiting for it to pounce.
It was as if the seven years since she had last seen him had been stripped away. She was eighteen all over again, burning with the deepest, hottest embarrassment of her life, and hearing a sneering, thickly accented voice saying, cold and clear, 'Don't delude yourself, child. I have no interest in you in that way at all. I don't play with little girls.'
After that appalling last night, she had been so glad to know that he had gone, and she'd hoped never to see him again. So what sort of malign fate had brought the man she had once named the Black Angel back into her life at this terrible moment?
But there was no way she could ignore the new arrival. He was looking straight at her, that arrogant dark head slightly tilted to one side as if he was waiting for her to make the first move. As was everyone else in the room, she realised, suddenly becoming conscious of the eyes that were turned in her direction. Of course, as Marty's only surviving family member, even if only by marriage, she was the one who had to greet every new arrival, as she had been doing for the past hour or so.
Somehow she made herself move forward, stiffening her back, her neck, so that the threatening weakness in her legs didn't show. She was sure that the result was to make her look as if she was marching stiffly like a wooden toy as she crossed the worn gold- and burgundy-coloured carpet, the gathered crowd of friends and neighbours parting like the Red Sea as she moved towards the man in the doorway.
And all the way across the room he watched her come. Those dark, dangerous eyes were fixed on her face as she walked towards him, the burning gaze never flickering, the dark concentration so fierce that she almost felt it sear her skin where it landed.
What was he doing here? And why would he turn up now at the worst possible moment?
'Don't come back!' In the darkness of her mind she heard her own voice in an echo of the words that she had flung at him. 'Don't ever come back! I never ever want to see you again.'
And, 'Don't worry, darling,' he'd said, the tone of the words turning the endearment into the exact opposite. 'One taste of hell is enough for any man in his lifetime. I will not be fool enough to risk that again.'
And yet now here he was, big and dark and large as life. Larger than life when compared with the younger man he had been when she had last seen him. Those years had filled out his lean, rangy frame, giving him an image of solid power that seemed to fill the doorway in which he stood, blocking out the light from the hallway behind him.
For one sudden, terrifying moment she had a sense that he was blocking her way out too. Closing off her way of escape, making sure that she stayed trapped in the room. Her heart seemed to rise up into her throat, beating frantically so that she found it difficult to breathe, and for a moment the sight of his hard-boned, strongly carved face blurred before her eyes, fading into a hissing, whirling mist.
Not for the first time that morning she ardently wished that Chris had been able to be with her today. But her fiancé had an important business meeting in London, one that couldn't be cancelled for anything, and so she had been denied the comfort and support of having him at her side through today's ordeal. If she had knownor even dreamedthat Angelos Rousakis was going to reappear from whatever dark place he had crawled into seven years ago then she would have begged Chris to stay, no matter what. But then how could she ever have imagined that her shameful past would come back to haunt her in this way, in the form of this man?
What had he come for? Why was he here? She had always feared that one day he would turn up, dark and dangerous, seeking vengeance for the way he believed she'd treated him. The image of those gleaming black jet eyes, the expression in them promising burning retribution as he'd flung one last viciously contemptuous look in her direction had haunted her dreams for months afterwards. It had been a long time before the memory had faded and even now it could still come back to haunt her when she was tired or feeling low.
But then reality surfaced and she shook her head slightly, feeling the haze clear, the panic ebb away. Peters had announced Angelos Rousakis as he had every other person who was attending the funeral. The butler had been expecting him because Simeon Hilton had said that he was comingeven if he was the last person on earth that she had been thinking to meet. And that meant that he should be treated as any other guest today. Surely she could manage that even if she would not truly be able to breathe easily until he left the houseleft Englandand she knew he was out of her life again.
So 'Mr Rousakis ' She made herself say it, forced her voice to sound at least calm and indifferent so that if one hadn't known that they had met in the past and the savage hostility that now burned between them, at least it couldn't be guessed from her tone. 'Thank you for coming.'
She forced herself to put out her hand too. Every last bit of training that her mother had instilled into her made her do it. Courtesy to guests was something Andrea had always insisted on and even now she couldn't go against the rules that had been instilled into her. But it was all she could do not to flinch when the burn of his skin against her own actually scorched her palm, sending stinging sensations shooting along every nerve.
'Miss Marshall '
Seen up this close, he was even more imposing, more devastating than he had been in the moment that he had walked into the room. Even in the elegant heels she wore, she was still several inches below him in height, needing to tilt her head back to meet him eye to eye. His tanned olive skin seemed almost impossibly vibrant and alive in contrast to the early spring pallor of the rest of the guests. He was wearing black, like everyone else in the room, but he wore it like no one else in the room.