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It was barely light as Rachel let herself out of the front door of The Old Rectory and closed it silently behind her. The damp chill of early morning curled itself around her, and her slow outdrawn breath made misty plumes in the bitter February air.
Already the house was stirring, but only with the impersonal band of cleaners and caterers who had come in early to obliterate the traces of last night's party and prepare for today's celebrations. Even so, making her way carefully across the grass, Rachel felt the back of her neck prickle with fear that she was being watched. Swiftly she headed in the direction of the high hedge that separated the old house from the churchyard, not really knowing whyonly that she had to escape from the house and try to find somewhere where she could think.
And breathe. And step outside of the relentless march of events towards the moment she couldn't even bear to contemplate.
In her hand she carried a half empty bottle of champagne that she had picked up from the table in the hall on the way out. Last night's pre-wedding party, for a handful of the most influential of Carlos's music industry friends, had apparently gone on into the small hoursalthough she herself had gone to bed around midnight. No doubt he'd be furious with her for not staying and 'making an impression', or chatting up the right people, but her head had ached and her heart had been leaden with dread at the coming day. She'd pleaded tiredness, but had ended up lying awake until the last cars had left in a noisy series of slamming doors and shouted farewells at about three a.m., bearing Carlos off to the plush country house hotel where he was to spend the final night ofhis long years of bachelor freedom.
And in the darkness Rachel had wrapped her arms around herself and shivered with horror at the thought of what the following night would bring.
Ducking though a low archway cut into the beech hedge, she found herself in the churchyard. A thin mist hung low over the ground, giving the place an eerie air of melancholy which suited her mood perfectly. Tugging the sleeves of her thick cashmere sweater down over her hands, she hugged the bottle to her and walked slowly around to the other side of the church, out of sight of the house. Everything was grey, black, silver in the early morning light. She tipped her face up to the leaden sky, watching the rooks circling above the spire of the church, and felt nothing but despair.
A gust of icy wind whipped her hair over her face and made her shiver. Up ahead, in the shadow of an ancient yew tree, stood the largest grave of all, set slightly apart from the rest, topped by an imposing stone angel with its carved wings partly furled and its pale face downturned. Rachel found herself drawn towards it.
Beneath the canopy of the yew it was sheltered from the wind. The angel gazed down at her with blank eyes, and the expression on its sculpted face was one of infinite compassion and resignation.
He's seen it all before, she thought bleakly. Those pale, sightless eyes must have witnessed countless weddings and funerals, extremes of joy and tragedy. She wondered whether there had ever been another bride who would rather be going to her own funeral than her wedding.
Sinking down onto the dry earth beneath the angel's cold, pale feet, she took a swig of champagne, then leaned her cheek against the lichened stone. The sides of the tomb were carved with rows of names and dates, some of which were worn away almost to illegibility and obscured by moss. But the name nearest to her was still sharp and clear. Tracing her fingers over it, she read the words.
The Hon. Felix Alexander Winterton
of Easton Hall
Killed in active service to his country
HE GAVE HIS TODAY THAT WE MIGHT HAVE
She looked up at the angel with a watery smile and raised the champagne bottle. 'Cheers, Felix,' she whispered. 'But in my case that was a real wasted gesture.'
Orlando hardly noticed the cold as he got out of the car and walked towards the churchyard. Cold seemed to be his natural element these days. Cold, and gathering darkness, of course.
His last visit to Andrew Parkes had not brought any positive news. His sight was deteriorating more rapidly than Parkes had initially predicted, and he'd advised Orlando that it was now imperative he gave up driving.
He would. Today was the last time. The anniversary of Felix's death. He'd come down to his grave early enough to avoid any traffic, taking the private lanes through the estate. At high speed.
The nature of the condition was that his peripheral vision was pretty much unaffected, while his central field of vision was nothing more than a blurlike a dark fingerprint on a camera lens. Getting around wasn't yet a problem, but it was the finer details that were quickly slipping away from him. He could no longer read faces, recognise people without them announcing themselves, or carry out easily the million small things he had once done without even thinking. Fastening the buttons on a shirt. Making coffee. Reading his mail.
But he would die before he let other people see that. Which was why he had come back to Easton, and solitude.
Pausing in the shelter of the lychgate, he looked up to where a group of rooks circled above the church, their ragged wings black against a grey sky. Everything was fading to the same monochrome, he thought bleakly, screwing up his eyes to scan the churchyard, where the headstones looked bone white against the dark fringe of bare trees and the shadowy bulk of the yew over the Winterton plot.
Something caught the corner of his eye. A flash of red in the gloom. He tilted his head, standing very still as he tried to work out what it was.
A fox? Slinking back to its earth after a night out hunting?
And then he located it again, A girl. A red-headed girl was sitting on Felix's grave.
'What the hell do you think you're doing?'
Rachel's head snapped upwards. A man stood in front of her, towering over her, his long dark coat and dishevelled black hair making him look both beautiful and menacing. His face was every bit as hard and cold as that of the stone angel, but without any trace of compassion.
'Inothing! I was just '
She struggled to stand up, but her legs were cramped from sitting on the ground, her feet numb with cold. Instantly she felt his hands close around her arms as he pulled her to her feet. For a moment she was crushed against him, and she felt the wonderful warmth and strength that radiated from his body before he thrust her away. Still keeping his vice-like grip on her upper arm with one hand, he removed the champagne bottle with the other, swilling the contents around as if gauging how much was left.
'I think that explains it.' His lip curled in distaste. 'Isn't it a little early? Or do you have something particularly pressing to celebrate?'
'No.' She gave a short laugh, and had to clap her hand to her mouth as it threatened to turn into a sob. 'I have absolutely nothing at all to celebrate. I was aiming more for Dutch courage. Or oblivion.' She could feel embarrassing tears begin to slide down her cold cheeks and gave an apologetic smile, stroking a hand over the weathered stone. 'Peaceful oblivion. With lovely, heroic Felix here.'
The dark man didn't return the smile, letting go of her so abruptly that she stumbled backwards and had to lean on the gravestone for support.
'He'll be thrilled to know that a little thing like death hasn't made him lose his touch with women.'
The bitterness etched into the lean planes of his face made Rachel wince. She took in the dark shadows under his slanting eyes, the crease of anguish between his highly arched black brows. Horrified realisation dawned.
'Oh, God, I'm so sorry you knew him?'
There was a pause. And then he held out his hand with a bleak smile that briefly illuminated the stark beauty of his face.
'Orlando Winterton. Felix's brother.'
She took his hand and, registering the warmth and steadiness of his grip, felt a sudden irrational urge to hold on for dear life. For a brief moment his fingers closed around hers, strong and steady, and she found herself wishing he would never let go.
He withdrew his hand, and she felt the colour surge into her cheeks.
'I'm Rachel. And I'm sorry about your brother. Was he a soldier?'
'Pilot. RAF. Shot down in the Middle East,' Orlando said tersely.
'How terrible,' she said quietly, curling up her fingers. They tingled where his skin had warmed them.
He shrugged. 'It happens. It's all part of the job.'
'You're a pilot too?'
'It must take incredible courage. To know that every day when you go to work you're staring death in the face.'
He let out a harsh laugh. 'I think there are worse things to stare at than death.'
Rachel sighed, sinking down onto the dry earth at the foot of the tomb again. 'Tell me about it.'
Above her, Orlando Winterton and Felix's angel towered like twin protectors. She leaned her head back against the stone and lifted the bottle towards them before taking a long swig. 'To couragethe real kind. And to Dutch couragewhich isn't nearly so honourable, but sometimes has to suffice.'
From the edge of his vision Orlando had an impression of dark eyes in a pale face, a generous trembling mouth, a glorious tumble of fiery hair that stirred a memory in the back of his mind and left him with a sudden fierce longing to see her properly. He could sense the despair rising from her like a scent, but whether this was due to the peculiar instinct that had developed as his sight deserted him or because the feeling was so bloody familiar he couldn't be sure.
She held out the bottle to him. He took it, but didn't drink, instead setting it down on top of the Winterton tomb. 'So, Rachel, what's so bad that you're reduced to sitting out here in the freezing cold drinking with the dead?'
She gave a mirthless laugh. 'You do not want to know.'
She was right. He didn't. His own suffering was enough to occupy him on a full-time basis. So why did he find himself saying, 'I usually decide for myself what I want and what I don't want.'
Rachel looked up at him. He was staring straight ahead, and there was something in the dark stillness of his face that made her want very much to confide in him.
'I'm getting married,' she said desolately. 'Today.'
She saw one dark brow shoot up before his face regained its habitual blankness. 'Is that all? Congratulations.'
'Uh-uh. It's not a "congratulations" situation. It's '
Her voice trailed off as she tried to convey the awfulness of what lay ahead. This afternoon, standing in church before people she mostly neither knew nor cared about making vows she didn't mean And worse, much worse, knowing that tonight she and Carlos would be man and wife, with all the expectations that carried.
Orlando Winterton shrugged his broad, dark shoulders, his gaze fixed straight ahead. He looked so distant, so controlled, so very, very strong that she felt her chest lurch. How could he understand? She couldn't imagine that this man had ever bowed to the will of anyone else in his life.
'Weddings don't generally happen by accident or without warning. Presumably you had some say in it?' He levered himself up from the gravestone and, thrusting his hands deep into the pockets of his coat, began to move away.
'No,' she said in a low voice.
There was something in the way that she said it that made Orlando stop, turn, and walk back towards her. His deep-set slanting eyes were the most extraordinary clear green, she noticed, and he had a strange, intense way of looking at her, his head tilted backwards slightly in an attitude of distant hauteur.
'You're being forced into this?'
Rachel sighed heavily. 'Well, there's no gun against my head But, yes. Forced pretty much covers it.'
The last thing he wanted to do was get involved, but his sense of duty, dormant for a year beneath self-pity and bitterness, had seemingly chosen this moment to rouse itself. Wearily he rubbed a hand over his eyes. 'In what way?'
'There's no way out,' she said slowly. 'No Plan B. No choice. This wedding is the culmination of a lifetime of work by my mother.' She laughed. 'If I don't go through with it she'll probably kill me.'
But that was almost preferable to what Carlos would do to her if she stayed and married him. She knew, because he'd done it to her already.
'You can't get married to please your mother.'
The words were laced with scorn, and Rachel felt her head snap back as if she'd just had an ice cube dropped down her spine.
'You don't know my mother. She's '
She hesitated, shaking her head, trying to find a word for Elizabeth Campion's single-minded obsession with her daughter's musical career; the combination of guile and icy manipulation that would have made Machiavelli green with envy, which had enabled her to bring about the ultimate coup in the form of Rachel's engagement to Carlos Vincente, one of the industry's most influential conductors.
'What? A convicted killer?' Orlando's voice was hard and mocking. 'A cold-blooded psychopath? Head of a crack team of hired assassins?'
His cruelty made her gasp. 'No, of course not. But' It was impossible to keep the desperation out of her voice. She so badly wanted to make him see what she was up against, but the words darted around in her head, refusing to be pinned down, while all the time he held her in that cool, detached gaze. 'Oh, what's the point? Just forget it. I can't make you understand, so there's no point in trying. Please, just leave me alone!'
'To drink yourself into a stupor? If that's what you want '
He turned away, and Rachel felt a surge of panic. She had to grip the stony folds of the angel's robes to stop herself from reaching out to hold him back. It was ridiculous, of course; he was nothing more than a passing stranger. But something about the intensity in his face, the bleak self-control in his voice, the immense strength in his shoulders, had made her believe for a moment that he could help her.
'It's not what I want, but I have no choice!'
He stopped and slowly faced her again. He seemed to look right past her face and into her soul.
'Of course you do. You're young. You're alive,' he said with ironic emphasis, gesturing with one elegant hand towards his brother's grave. 'I'd say you have a choice. What you really lack, Rachel, is courage.'