Read an Excerpt
There was someone in the house.
With the slam of the front door ringing in her ears, Nicky sat bolt upright in bed, her heart hammering like a pneumatic drill, alarm racing along her veins and her fingers gripping the edges of her book so tightly her knuckles were white.
A couple of seconds ago she'd been lying back against the pillows, happily lost in the romantic world of Don Quijote. She'd been trotting across the dry deserted plains of La Mancha in search of knight errantry and adventure, and vaguely contemplating the intoxicating notion that for the first time in weeks she might actually be beginning to relax.
Then the door had slammed and she'd hurtled back to reality. All thoughts of fighting off imaginary giants had shattered. Any hope of tilting at windmills had evaporated. The sense of relaxation had vanished, and now every instinct she had was alert and quivering and one hundred per cent focused on the fact that there was someone in the house.
And not someone she knew, she thought, her brain galloping through the facts as her blood chilled and a cold sweat broke out all over her skin.
Because as much as she'd like to believe otherwise, there was no way the heavy footsteps stamping over the rough flagstones of the hall and echoing off the walls could possibly belong to Ana, the pint-sized housekeeper. Or Maria, the laid-back cook. Or any of the other staff employed on the estate for that matter. Some of them might be big and burly enough to possess a tread like the one now heading up the stairs, but none of them would be in this part of the house at this time of night.
No one was, apart from her.
And, of course, whoever it was who'd reached the landing, dropped something that hit the floor with a thud and was now striding down the long wide corridor towards her room.
Nicky's heart hammered even more fiercely and her blood roared in her ears as it struck her that the footsteps were getting louder. Closer. That any minute now they'd stop, he'd be at her door, the handle would turn and
Images of what might happen then slammed into her head, vivid and terrifying, and as the alarm rushing around her turned to full-blown panic she started to shake. Her vision blurred, her breath stuck in her throat and she went dizzy, and her heart was now beating so hard and fast it felt as if it were about to burst from her chest.
She was a split second from passing out, she realised foggily, and then the panic exploded inside her because if she did pass out then she'd be toast.
And she really didn't want to be toast. She didn't want not to be able to find out whether she might actually be able to sort out the mess her life had become. She'd waited too long. Suffered too much. Tried too hard
So no, she told herself, struggling through the haze in her head and battling back the panic. No way was she giving up now and no way was she fainting.
Dredging up strength from who knew where and taking a series of deep breaths, Nicky determinedly reined in her spiralling-out-of-control imagination and willed her heart rate to slow because she really had to calm down.
Now was not the time to lose it. Now was the time for cool assessment and a plan, because, regardless of what might lie in store for her, she was damned if she was going to let whoever it was get his grubby hands on her precious camera. Even if it had been sitting in a cupboard and gathering dust for the last few months.
Besides, she'd been in situations far more hazardous than this and had escaped at least physically unscathed so why should this be the one to get the better of her?
The most important question right now therefore was: what was she going to do? Simply lying here, frozen still and quivering with panic, wasn't going to get her anywhere, was it? Nor was dithering. No, it was time for action.
Allowing the instincts that had served her so well for so long to take over Nicky raced through the options. Options that weren't all that abundant, she had to admit, but never mind. She only needed one to work with andaha!now she had it. And in the nick of time, it seemed, because the footsteps had slowed right down and were a fraction of a second from stopping altogether.
Setting her jaw and clutching the book even tighter, she thanked God she'd picked an unabridged and illustrated copy of Don Quijote for her bedtime readingwhich came in at a whopping thousand pages and weighed a tonand silently slid from the bed.
What a week.
Striding down the corridor towards the sliver of light that shone from beneath the door at the end of it, Rafael rubbed a weary hand over his face and stifled a yawn.
He didn't think he'd ever had one like it, and frankly he'd be happy never to experience one like it again, because he couldn't remember a time when the muscles in his body hadn't ached or when his nerves hadn't been wound so tightly, let alone the last good night's sleep he'd had.
The crippling exhaustion could be attributed fairly and squarely to the merger he'd been working on recently and which had finally gone through this morning. It was a deal that had required delicate negotiation, tactful management, endless patience and long, long days at the office. All of which, of course, he'd been happy to handle. He was used to it, and sorting out other people's problems with their businesses was what he did best.
What he hadn't been so happy to have to deal with, however, and what was causing the unbearable tension in his nerves, were the myriad demands that the women in his life had chosen to unleash on him over the last few days.
Firstly, Elisa, the woman he'd been dating but had finished with a fortnight ago, had pitched up at his office the day before yesterday apparently unable to accept they were over. Despite the fact that he'd repeatedly pointed out he'd never promised her anything more than a casual fling, she'd been convinced she could change his mind, and the set of her jaw and the look in her eye had told him that no matter what he did or said she wasn't going to give up easily, as her subsequent battery of phone calls had proved.
Too busy and too knackered to deal with a full-on showdown right then and there, Rafael had sighed, muttered something about discussing it another time, and had eventually pacified her enough to bundle her out and send her on her way.
He'd barely got over that confrontation when his mother had been on the phone complaining about the fact that his father was once again holed up in his study and showed no signs of emerging. She'd demanded Rafael do something about it, although quite what she'd expected him to do he had no idea, because for one thing when his father retreated there was no shifting him, and for another he'd never paid his son any attention before so why would he start now?
When he'd eventually prised out the reason behind his father's withdrawalthe flap his mother was getting in over the organisation of a charity ball months awayhe'd told her he could quite understand why his father had locked himself in his study, and that if it were him he wouldn't emerge until the night of the ball was long gone. At which point his mother had hung up on him in a fit of pique.
Then hot on the heels of that phone call, his eldest sister had invited him to a dinner party she was holding tomorrow night, which he suspected she'd engineered for the sole purpose of lining him up with one of her many single friends.
Rafael did not need help with his love-life, as Lola was well aware, but she'd inexplicably made it her life's mission to see him hitched again. Which was a thoroughly futile exercise because he had no intention of ever remarrying, especially not to any of his sister's friends, given the traumatic mess it had caused the last time he'd tried it. Once was quite enough, as he'd told her on countless occasions, but Lola had an infuriating habit of brushing him aside with a dismissive wave of her hand, and it was getting to the stage where if she didn't back off he might well lose it.
By the time his youngest sister, Gabriela, had begun her relentless onslaught of phone calls and emails, in the interests of self-preservation Rafael had made the snap decision to ignore her and everyone else, and flee the madness that was temporarily defining his life.
Whatever Gaby wanted it could wait, he'd assured himself, jumping into his car and telling his driver to make for the airport via a quick detour to his flat for a suitcase, then hopping on his plane and heading south.
He'd done the right thing by escaping, he told himself now. He'd known it the second he'd got out of his car a couple of minutes ago and for a moment had just stood there in the inky velvet of the night, listening to the blessed silence, breathing in the scent of earth and jasmine as the dry heat wrapped itself around him, and feeling some of the excruciating tension gripping his muscles ease.
Quite apart from probably collapsing with exhaustion, if he'd stayed in Madrid the usually strong bonds of filial and fraternal affection might well have snapped, so he refused to feel even a pinprick of guilt at disappearing without a word. His mother and sisters would survive perfectly well without him for a week or two. And as for his father, well, over the years he'd proved eminently capable of looking after himself by burying himself in his beloved books whenever there was a sudden surge of emotion about the place, as was being demonstrated by his current study sit-in.
So no. No guilt, he told himself, stopping at the door, wrapping his hand round the handle and turning it. He deserved a break. He needed one. All he wanted was a week or two of peace and quiet at the vineyard he'd had no option but to neglect for the last few months. He wanted long early morning walks among the vines and endless lazy afternoons drinking wine by the pool. He wanted rest and relaxation. Fresh air and sun and, above all, solitude. Was that really too much to ask?
Rafael opened the door a fraction to reach in and flip the switch he presumed had been left on by mistake, and his last coherent thought as the door slammed back, as something struck him hard in the temple, as pain detonated in his head and everything went dark inside as well as out, was that evidently it was.
With a heady mix of adrenalin and triumph racing through her, Nicky heard the intruder groan, watched him stagger back in the shadowy darkness, and blew out the breath she'd been holding for what felt like hours.
Hah. That would teach whoever it was that she was not to be messed with. That she might be in a bit of a state at the moment, that she might be out here miles from anywhere and practically all alone, but that she was far from defenceless.
Her attack-being-the-best-form-of-defence plan had been an excellent one, and with the element of surprise on her side he hadn't stood a chance.
Still didn't by the looks of things, she thought with a surge of satisfaction as he swayed to one side, hit the door frame and, with a torrent of angry Spanish, ricocheted off it.
Oh, he didn't sound at all happy, but Nicky ignored the urge to wince and refused to feel guilty at the thought she might have done him some real damage because why should she when she was the potential victim here?
Not that she felt particularly victimish right now. In fact she'd never felt more victorious, which, after weeks of feeling nothing but listless, desperate and hopeless was very definitely something to be tucked away and analysed.
Although that analysis might have to wait until later, she thought, the satisfaction zapping through her slowly dissipating. Because with hindsight maybe her strategy hadn't been quite as brilliant as she'd thought.
He was filling the doorway and therefore blocking her only means of escape, and now, judging by the way he was giving his head a quick shake and straightening, he was making an alarmingly speedy recovery.
Her stomach churned with renewed panic as her mind raced all over again. Oh, heavens. If she wanted to leg it and make it to safety she was going to have to administer a second blow. One that would this time fell him like a tree and incapacitate him for the few minutes she'd need to clamber over him and run.
With barely a thought for the consequences and focused solely on survival, Nicky channelled every drop of adrenalin, every ounce of aggression she possessed, and raised the book again.
But before she could slam it down, he hit the switch, lunged forwards and grabbed her. Stunned by the sudden brightness of the light and by the sheer force of the bulk that crashed into her, Nicky let out a shriek and lost her balance.
As if in slow motion she felt herself go down. Felt her assailant follow her. Felt a large hand clamp onto the back of her head and a strong arm snap round her back. She heard the thud of the book as it landed on the carpet and wondered vaguely what she was going to do for a weapon now.
After what seemed like hours but could only have been a second, she hit the floor. Her breath shot from her lungs. Her vision blurred, her head swam and her entire body went numb. For a few endless moments the only thing she could hear was the thundering of her heart and a weird kind of roaring in her ears.
And then the dizziness ebbed and the shock faded and as feeling returned she became aware of the warm ragged breath on her cheek. Of the hammering of a heart against her chest. And of the very considerable weight half lying on top of her, crushing the breath from her lungs, pressing her into the floor and showing no signs of shifting.
Or of anything for that matter, she realised dazedly, which meant that she had the advantage and she had to use it. Now.
Preparing to knee him where it would really hurt and hoping that that might succeed where Don Quijote had failed, Nicky glanced up to get a good look at the man she'd need to describe to the police.
And froze, her leg bent slightly at the knee and her hands flat against the hard muscles of his shoulders.
She stared up into the face hovering inches above hers, up at the dark-as-night hair, the thickly lashed, startlingly green eyes, the deep tan and that mouth, all so exquisitely put together, the face she'd seen countless times in the photos on Gaby's mantelpiecealthough admittedly never in its current furious stateand her breath shot from her lungs all over again. Only this time in one shuddery, horrified gasp.
The triumph vanished. The satisfaction disappeared. The thundering adrenalin and mind-scrambling panic evaporated in a puff of smoke. And in their wake came a flood of red-hot mortification.
Because, oh, dear God
As unlikely as it seemed, and despite the fact that she'd been assured he was in Madrid and would never show up at the estate he'd lately abandoned, she'd just brained her host.