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By Wilbur Smith
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Wilbur Smith
All rights reserved.
HE CAME FULLY AWAKE before he moved or opened his eyes. He lay for a second assessing his situation, checking for danger, his warrior instincts taking control. Then he smelled her delicate perfume and heard her breathing as softly and regularly as the dying surf running up a distant beach. All was well, and he smiled and opened his eyes. Gently he rolled his head so as not to awaken her.
The early sun had found a chink in the curtains and through it had laid a sliver of beaten gold across the ceiling. It cast an intriguing light on her face and form. She lay on her back. Her face was in repose and it was lovely. She had kicked off the sheet and she was naked. The golden curls covering her mons Veneris were a shade darker than the splendid tangle of the locks that had fallen over her face. Now, so far along in her pregnancy, her bosoms were swollen to almost twice their normal size. He let his gaze drift down to her belly. The skin was stretched tight and glossy by the precious cargo it contained. As he stared at it he saw the small movement as the child stirred within her womb and his breathing was stifled for an instant by the weight and strength of his love for them both, his woman and his child.
'Stop staring at my big fat belly and give me a kiss,' she said without opening her eyes. He chuckled and leaned over her. She reached up with both arms around his neck and as her lips parted he smelled her sweet breath. After a while she whispered into his open mouth, 'Can't you keep this monster of yours on a leash?' She reached down with one hand to his groin. 'Even he must know that at the moment there is no room at the inn.'
'Colour him brainless,' he said. 'But you have never been any great help in keeping him under control. Unhand me, you brazen wench!'
'Just wait a few weeks and I will show you the true meaning of the word brazen, Hector Cross,' she warned him. 'Now ring down to the kitchen for coffee.'
While they waited for the coffee to be delivered he left the bed and drew back the curtains, letting the sunlight burst into the room.
'The swans are in the Mill Pool,' he called to her. She struggled upright using both hands to cradle her belly. He came back to her immediately and helped her to her feet. She picked up her blue satin bed robe from the chair and slipped into it as they crossed to the picture window.
'I feel so ungainly!' she complained as she tied the belt. He stood behind her and with both hands reached around and gently cradled her belly.
'Somebody is kicking again,' Hector whispered into her ear and then took the lobe between his teeth and nibbled it lightly.
'Don't tell me. I feel like a ruddy football.' She reached back over her shoulder and lightly slapped his cheek. 'Don't do that. You know it gives me goose bumps all over.'
They looked down at the swans in silence. The cob and the pen were a dazzling white in the early sunlight, but the three cygnets were a grubby grey. The cob dipped his long sinuous neck into the green waters and reached down to feed on the aquatic plants at the bottom of the pool.
'Beautiful, aren't they?' he asked at last.
'They are just one of the many reasons I love England,' Hazel whispered. 'What a perfect scene. We should have a good artist paint it.'
The river spilled into the pool over a stone weir and the waters were limpid. They could look down ten feet and see the shadows of the big trout lying on the gravel bottom. Willows lined the banks and brushed the surface with their trailing fingers. The meadow beyond was a luscious green and the sheep grazing on it were as white as the swans.
'It's the perfect place to raise our little girl. You know that's why I bought it.' She sighed contentedly.
'I know that. You've told me often enough. What I don't know is what makes you so certain this is a girl.' He caressed her stomach. 'Don't you really want to know for certain the gender, instead of just guessing?'
'I am not guessing. I know,' she said smugly and covered his large brown hands with her slim white ones.
'We could ask Alan when we get up to London this morning,' he suggested. Alan Donnovan was her gynaecologist.
'You are an awful nag. But don't you dare ask Alan and spoil my fun. Now put on your dressing gown. You don't want to terrify poor Mary when she comes with the coffee,' she said fondly.
Moments later there was a discreet knock on the door. 'Come!' said Hector and the chambermaid carried in the coffee tray.
'Good morning to all! How are you and the baby, Mrs Cross?' she said in her cheerful Irish brogue, placing the tray on the table.
'All is well, Mary, but do I spy biscuits on that tray?' Hazel demanded.
'Only three small ones.'
'Take them away, please.'
'Two for Sir and just one for you. Plain oatmeal. No sugar,' Mary wheedled.
'Be a darling, Mary. Humour me. Take them away, please.'
'Poor little mite must be starving,' Mary grumbled but she picked up the biscuit dish and marched from the room. Hazel sat on the sofa and poured a single mug of coffee so black and strong that its aroma filled the room.
'God! It smells so good,' she said wistfully as she handed it to him. Then she poured warm unsweetened skimmed milk into her own porcelain cup.
'Ugh!' she exclaimed with disgust as she tasted it, but she drank it down like medicine. 'So how are you going to keep yourself busy while I am with Alan? You know he will take at least a couple of hours. He's very thorough.'
'I have to take my shotguns to Paul Roberts for storage, and then I have a suit fitting with my tailor.'
'You aren't going to drive my beautiful Ferrari around in the London morning traffic, are you? You'd probably give it a ding, same as you did to the Rolls.'
'Will you never forget that?' He spread his hands in mock outrage. 'The silly woman jumped the lights and drove into me.'
'You drive like a maniac, Cross, and you know it.'
'Okay, I'll take a cab to do my errands,' he promised. 'I don't want to look like a football player in that poncey machine of yours. Anyway, my new Range Rover is waiting for me. Stratstone's phoned me yesterday to let me know that it's ready. If you are a good girl, which we all know you are, I'll take you to lunch in it.'
'Talking about lunch, where are we going?' she demanded.
'I don't know why I bother. We can get lettuce leaves anywhere, but I reserved our usual table at Alfred's Club.'
'Now I know you really love me!'
'You had better believe it, skinny.'
'Compliments! Compliments!' She gave him a beatific smile.
* * *
Hazel's red Ferrari coupé was parked under the portico that sheltered the front door. It sparkled like an enormous ruby in the sunlight. Robert, her chauffeur, had polished it lovingly. It was his favourite amongst all the many cars parked in the underground garage. Hector made an arm for her down the front steps and helped her into the driver's seat. When she had wriggled her belly in behind the wheel he fussed over her, getting the adjustment of the seat just right and the safety belt comfortably looped under her bump.
'Are you sure you don't want me to drive?' he asked solicitously.
'Never,' she replied. 'Not after all the horrid things you said about her.' She patted the steering wheel. 'Get in and let's go.'
It was three-quarters of a mile from the manor house to the public highway, but the estate road was paved all the way. Where it looped into the approach to the bridge over the River Test there was a fine view back to the house. Hazel pulled over for a moment. She could seldom resist the temptation to gloat over what she humbly referred to as 'simply the finest Georgian building in existence'.
Brandon Hall had been built in 1752 by Sir William Chambers for the Earl of Brandon. He was the same architect who had built Somerset House on The Strand. Brandon Hall had been shamefully neglected and rundown when Hazel acquired it. When Hector thought about how much money she had lavished upon the house to bring it to its present state of perfection he could barely suppress a shudder. However, he could never deny the beauty of its elegant and perfectly balanced lines. Last year Hazel had been placed seventh on Forbes magazine's list of the richest women in the world. She could afford it.
Still and all, what woman in her right mind needs sixteen bedrooms, for God's sake? But the hell with expense, the fishing in the river is truly great. Worth every dollar, he consoled himself silently. 'Come on, baby,' he said aloud. 'You can admire it on your way back, but right now you are going to be late for your appointment with Alan.'
'I do so enjoy a challenge,' she said sweetly, and pulled away leaving black rubber burns on the tarmac surface behind her and a pale blue cloud of smoke hanging in the air.
When she reversed effortlessly into the underground parking bay beneath the Harley Street building, from which Alan Donnovan had removed his own vehicle to make room for hers, she glanced at her wristwatch.
'One hour forty-eight minutes! I do believe that's my personal best time to date. Fifteen minutes ahead of my appointment. Would you like to retract that gibe about me being late, smarty-pants?'
'One day you are going to hit a radar trap and they are going to pull your driver's licence, my beloved.'
'Mine is a US licence. These sweet Brit cops can't touch it.'
Hector escorted her up to Alan's suite. As soon as he heard her voice, Alan came out of his consulting room to welcome her; a rare show of respect he generally accorded only to royalty. He paused in the doorway to admire her. Hazel's loose-fitting maternity gown in soft Sea Island cotton had been especially designed for her. Her eyes sparkled and her skin glowed. Alan bowed over her hand and touched it to his lips.
'If all my patients were as patently healthy as you I would be out of a job,' he murmured.
'How long are you going to keep her, Alan?' Hector shook hands with him.
'I can readily understand why you are so eager to have her back.'
Such levity was seldom Alan's style, but Hector chuckled and insisted, 'When?'
'I want to run some checks and possibly consult my associates. Give me two and a half hours, will you please, Hector?' He took Hazel's arm and led her into his inner chambers. Hector watched the door close. He stared after her. He was overwhelmed by a sudden premonition of impending loss such as he had seldom experienced before. He wanted to go after her, and bring her back and hold her close to his heart for ever. It took a long moment for him to recover himself.
'Don't be a bloody idiot. Take a hold of yourself, Cross.' He turned away and went out into the passage and headed towards the lifts.
* * *
Alan Donnovan's receptionist watched him go impassively. She was a pretty Afro-British girl with big sparkling dark eyes and a good figure under her white uniform. Her name was Victoria Vusamazulu and she was twenty-seven years old. She waited until she heard the elevator stop at the end of the passage and the doors open and close behind Hector as he stepped into it, then she brought her mobile phone out of her coat pocket. She had punched his phone number into her list of contacts under the name 'Him!' The phone rang once only and she heard the click on the line.
'Hello. Is that you, Aleutian?' she asked.
'I told you not to name names, bitch.' She shivered when he called her that. He was so masterful. He was unlike any man she had known before. Instinctively her hand went to her left breast. It was bruised and still tender where he had bitten her last night. She rubbed it and the nipple hardened.
'I'm sorry. I forgot.' Her voice was husky.
'Then don't forget to delete this call when we finish. Now tell me! Has she come?'
'Yes, she is here. But her husband has gone out. He told Doctor that he would return at one thirty.'
'Good!' he said, and the line went dead. The girl took the phone from her ear and stared at it. She found that she was breathing hard. She thought about him; how hard and thick he was when he was inside her. She looked down at herself and felt the warmth oozing through the crotch of her panties onto her thighs.
'Hot as a dirty little bitch in heat,' she whispered. That was what he had called her last night. Doctor would not need her for a while, he was busy with the Cross woman. She left the reception room and went down the passage to the toilet. She locked herself in one of the cubicles. Then she pulled her skirts up around her waist and dropped her panties around her ankles. She sat on the toilet seat and spread her knees. She put her hand down there. She wanted to make it last, but as soon as she touched her hot switch she could not hold back. It was so quick and so intense that it left her gasping and shaking.
* * *
Two hours later Hector returned and ensconced himself in a leather armchair in the waiting room facing Alan's door. He picked up a copy of the Financial Times from the side table and turned to the FTSE reports. He did not even glance up as the intercom rang on the receptionist's desk. She spoke softly into the receiver and then hung up.
'Mr Cross,' she called across to him. 'Mr Donnovan would like to have a few words with you. Please would you go through to his room?' Hector dropped the newspaper and jumped up from the armchair. Again he felt the quick stab of anxiety. He had learned over the years to trust his instincts. What dire news did Alan have for him? He hurried across the waiting room and knocked on the inner door. Alan's muffled voice bid him enter. The consulting room was panelled in oak and the shelves were lined with sets of leather-bound medical volumes. Alan sat behind a vast antique desk and Hazel faced him. She stood up as Hector entered and came to meet him, pushing her big belly ahead of her. She was smiling radiantly and that allayed Hector's premonitions of disaster. He embraced her.
'Everything all right?' he demanded, and looked at Alan over Hazel's shining blonde head.
'Tickety-boo! Calm seas and fair winds!' Alan assured him. 'Take a seat, both of you.' They sat side by side and stared at him with full attention. He removed his spectacles and polished them with a piece of chamois leather.
'Okay, shoot!' Hector encouraged him.
'The baby is doing just fine, but Hazel isn't so young any more.'
'None of us are,' Hector agreed. 'But ever so kind of you to mention it, Alan.'
'The baby is just about ready to make its move, but perhaps Hazel might need a little bit of a hand.'
'Caesarean?' she asked with alarm.
'Dear me, no!' Alan assured her. 'Nothing so extreme. What I have in mind is an induction of labour.'
'Explain please, Alan,' Hector insisted.
'Hazel is in her fortieth week of gestation. She will be good and ready by the end of this coming week. The two of you are stuck out in the wilds of darkest Hampshire. How long does it take you to get up to London?'
'Two and a half hours is good time,' Hector replied. 'Some drivers with heavy right feet do it in under two.'
Hazel pulled a face at him.
'I want you to move up to your town house in Belgravia immediately.' Alan had been a dinner guest there on more than one occasion. 'I am going to book Hazel into a private ward in the Portland Maternity Hospital in Great Portland Street for Thursday this week. It's one of the leading establishments in the country. If she goes into spontaneous labour before Thursday you will only be fifteen minutes away from it. If nothing happens by Friday I will give Hazel a little injection and pop goes the weasel, so to speak.'
Hector turned to her. 'How do you feel about that, my darling?'
'That suits me just fine. The sooner the quicker, as far as I am concerned. Everything is ready for us in the London house. I just need to pick up a few things, like the book I am reading, and we can move back into town tomorrow.'
'That's it, then,' said Alan briskly and stood up behind his desk. 'See you both on Friday at the latest.'
On their way through the waiting room Hazel stopped in front of the receptionist's desk and rummaged around in her handbag. She brought out a gift-wrapped bottle of Chanel perfume and placed it in front of the receptionist.
'Just a little thank you, Victoria. You have been so sweet.'
'Oh, you are too kind, Mrs Cross. But you really shouldn't have!'
As they rode down in the lift Hazel asked him, 'Did you get your Range Rover from Stratstone?'
'It's parked just across the street; I will take you to lunch in her and bring you back afterwards to pick up your old can of rust.' She punched his shoulder and led the way out of the building.
He took her arm crossing Harley Street and the taxi drivers coming from both directions, seeing how pretty and pregnant she was, braked sharply to a standstill. One of them leaned out of his window, grinning. He signalled at her to cross in front of his taxi and called out to her, 'Best of luck, luv! Bet it's a boy!'
Hazel waved back. 'I'll let you know.'
Excerpted from Vicious Circle by Wilbur Smith. Copyright © 2013 Wilbur Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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