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The shadow of the helicopter fell over the lush velvet lawns of Stowell Castle, stirring up the hot August air and ruffling the canopies of the great trees in the parkland.
Tristan Romero de Losada Montalvo glanced down. Below him the party was already well under way, and he could see waiters carrying trays of champagne circulating between the groups of outlandishly dressed guests scattered across the emerald grass. Dispassionately he noticed that people were looking up, emerging from the marquees placed at opposite ends of the lawn and shielding their eyes from the sinking sun to watch his arrival.
It was set to be the party of the year, because Tom Montague's Annual Charity Costume Ball always was. This was the event that drew the glitterati and the aristos back from their Malibu beach houses and Tuscan palazzos to indulge in twenty-four hours of lavish hedonism in the idyllic setting of Stowell Castle's gardens.
It was also the event that had drawn Tristan Romero back from the jaws of hell some two thousand miles away, for reasons that had nothing to do with indulgence or hedonism.
He was here for Tom.
Sighing wearily, he circled the helicopter round over the lawn so that the roofs of the marquees snapped and strained like galleons' sails. Tom Montague was the seventh Earl of Cotebrook and one of the most genuinely good and generous people imaginable; a combination which Tristan felt was particularly dangerousespecially where women were concerned. Tom only ever looked for the good in people, even when it was invisible to the rest of humankind. Which was why they'd been friends for such a long time, Tristan thought acidly, and why he now felt duty bound to come and make sure that the girl that Tom had talked about incessantly over the past few weeks was worthy of him.
But, of course, he would be dishonest as well as emotionally bankrupt if he tried to pretend that that was his only reason for coming.
Ultimately he was here because the tabloid press and the paparazzi and the gossip columnists expected him to be. It was part of the deal he had made when he sold his soul to the devil. Grimly he swung the helicopter round, following the path of the river that looped around Stowell and marked its northern boundary. As he came lower his eyes raked the trees along the river bank, looking for the telltale glitter of sunlight on a long lens.
They would be there, of that he was sure. One of the hardened group of paparazzi elite, who were dedicated enough to go the extra distance for a picture and ruthless enough not to question the ethics of getting it. They would be there somewhere, watching and waiting.
He would be almost insulted if they weren't. Many people in a similar position to him complained endlessly about press intrusion, but to Tristan that was missing the point. It was a game. A game of strategy and skill, in which the truth was an irrelevance and a lapse of concentration could cost you your reputation. Tristan didn't like the paparazzi, but neither did he underestimate them for a second. It was simply a case of use or be used. Be the manipulator or the victim.
And Tristan Romero would never be a victim again.
Down below Lily Alexander slipped through the crowds of people in their spectacular costumes as if in a dream. The champagne in her hand was vintage, the silk Grecian-style dress she wore was designer, and the stretch of grass beneath her bare feet was at that moment just about the most enviable place to be on the planet.
So why did she feel as if something was missing?
There was a saying on the London modelling circuit: 'There are three things that money can't buy: love, happiness and an invitation to the Stowell Annual Costume Ball.' Magical was the word people used to describe it, in tones of wistful reverence. Lily was unutterably privileged to be here, as she told herself for about the fortieth time that evening, blotting out the dissatisfied little voice that answered, But where's the magic? Surely there has to be more to life than this
A shadow passed across the dipping sun, darkening the extravagant pink and gold evening. Walking across the lawn in search of Scarlet, Lily was aware of a throbbing in her head; a steady, rhythmic pulsing, like a second heartbeat, which only seemed to intensify her edginess.
This year the theme of the party was Myths and Legends, and as the sun cast long shadows across the grass silken-clad girls with elaborate, shimmering fairy wings were mingling with Greek gods and screen icons. Several large marquees stood around the fringes of the lawn, with a space in the centre where, according to Scarlet, a troop of semi-naked stunt riders were going to perform later.
On unicorns, apparently.
A warm breeze was stirring the leaves of the stately horse chestnut trees, making them bend and sigh. By this time tomorrow she would be half a world away in the arid heart of Africa, and all of this would seem more like a dream than ever, if that were possible. Perhaps it was normal to feel like this just before a trip like the one she was about to embark on? She was branching out from the safe confines of the shallow, superficial life and plunging straight into the depths of a world that until now she had only read about in the papers and seen on TV news reports. Being nervous was probably completely understandable. Except that nervous didn't quite describe the feeling she had
The word flashed into her head from nowhere, echoing round it, amplified by the throbbing that was growing louder all the time. She tipped her head back, suddenly aware that the evening air held a kind of tension; a pulsing energy that resonated inside her, filling her with a sense of anticipation. A helicopter was suspended high above and, mesmerised, she watched its blades slicing through the soft apricot sky as it circled like some dark, powerful predator.
Suddenly she jumped as the mobile phone she was clutching tightly in her hand rang, breaking the spell. She answered quickly, pressing it tightly to her ear so that the shrieks of laughter and the sporadic bursts of ear-splitting music from the rock band that was tuning up in the marquee couldn't be heard on the other end of the line by the director of the African children's charity with which she was going to be working.
'Yes, fine, thank you, Jack. All ready for tomorrow, I think
The noise persisted, all but drowning out Jack Davidson's voice, and Lily walked quickly across the lawn away from the party in the hope of finding somewhere quiet to talk.
'Yes, I'm still here
' she said loudly. 'Sorry, it's a bad line.'
She kept her head down, focusing all her attention on the voice in her ear. Jack was running through the itinerary for the trip, and the words 'orphanage' and 'feeding station' seemed utterly incongruous in her present luxurious surroundings. She kept walking, rounding the corner of the castle with its massive stone turret and heading out across the open ground beyond. She had left behind the lush greenness of the formal gardens and was now crossing an area of rough, parched grass behind the castle. The sounds of the party were muted here, but the noise of the helicopter blades was getting louder, pulsing insistently through the honeyed afternoon, whipping up the heavy air until Lily felt as if she were standing in the eye of the storm.
High above, Tristan Romero smiled as he watched her.
The reason he hadn't seen her earlier, he realised, was that her pale golden colouring had made her melt perfectly into the drought bleached grass of the field. She was like a goddess of the harvest, he thought with a stab of curiosity as he hovered above her. She was wearing some kind of delicate crown of golden leaves on her head, but this didn't stop her long, wheat-coloured hair rippling out in heavy streamers in the wind from the rotor blades. She stood still, struggling to hold down her dress as it billowed up around her, but her efforts were hampered by the fact that she was holding a mobile phone to her ear with one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, and simultaneously trying to control her wind-blown hair.
He came down just in front of her and couldn't resist keeping the blades going for a minute longer than was necessary, so he could enjoy the delicious spectacle of her long, long brown legs beneath the flyaway dress, which was being flattened against the most incredible body.
There was something familiar about her, he thought as he pulled off his headset and jumped down from the cabin. In the sudden stillness she had shaken back her heavy hair and as he walked towards her he got a proper look at her face. He wondered whether he'd slept with her before.
No. With a body like that he would almost certainly have remembered. She was tall, but there was a slow grace in her movements that told him that bedding her would be an unforgettable experience. Tristan felt desire uncurl somewhere low down in his exhausted body. She was still on the phone, her head bent, clearly totally preoccupied with the conversation she was having. As he got closer he heard her say, 'Yes, yes, don't worry, I know it's important, but I'm writing it all down. I've got all the details here in front of me.'
A beautiful girl with an outrageous disregard for the truth.
How intriguing, he thought as she finished her conversation and looked up at him.
He felt a small shock jolt through his body, as if he had just touched a live wire. Against the golden tones of her hair and skin and dress, her eyes were a cool, clear silver; the colour of the mist that hung over the lake first thing in the morning.
'Eight-thirty,' she said out loud. Her voice was slightly breathless, and she was looking straight at him, but almost as if she weren't seeing him. 'Eight-thirty, tomorrow morning. Heathrow Terminal One.'
He smiled, quirking an eyebrow as he carried on walking towards her. 'I'll remind you when we wake up,' he said dryly.
It was a joke. A throwaway remark. He had made it without even intending to stop walking, but the moment the words left his lips two things happened.
Firstly, he heard it: the quiet cicada whirr of a camera shutter, and from the corner of his eye caught the glint of a lens in the shadow of the trees. And secondly, he saw the instantaneous darkening of those extraordinary silver eyes.
Tristan Romero had many skills. Heading up the list had to be seducing women and manipulating the press. He didn't even have to think about it. Before she could utter a single word of protest he had put his hand around her waist and was pulling her towards him.
The first thing she had noticed about him was his eyes.
His dark hair was cut close into his perfect neck, a couple of days of stubble emphasised sculpted cheekbones and his skin was tanned to a deep, even gold that made the blue of his eyes seem almost shocking. Looking up into them, desperately trying to imprint on her memory the instructions she'd just been given for meeting the rest of the African expedition tomorrow, Lily felt her throat tighten as sharply as if someone had wrapped a cord around her neck and pulled it. Hard.
Blue you could float in.
She'd spoken out loud because she knew that all the information that she'd just been given was in danger of evaporating from her brain like water hitting hot stone. His answering remark was clearly a joke, but her body didn't seem to get the humour. The world stopped and time vanished into a vortex of cinematic, freeze-frame intimacy as the blueness pulled her down. In the deep underwater world of his eyes everything slowed. Lily could hear nothing but the drumming of her pulse in her ears, feel nothing but the bloom of heat beneath the surface of her skin, the prickle of awareness low down in her pelvis.
And then he'd pulled her against him and she wasn't drowning any more. She was burning. His kiss was pure magic. Firm, expert, and shockingly tender. Lily felt as if the sinking sun had slipped from the flame-streaked sky and set the world on fire, and that she were standing in the midst of the leaping flames with no desire to be rescued. His arm was around her waist, his hand resting in the small of her back. Lily felt herself arching helplessly towards him, her handsstill holding the phone and the champagne glasshanging uselessly by her sides as her lips opened for him and the darkness behind her closed eyes glittered and glowed with blistering lust.
It was just a distant shout, but suddenly he was lifting his head, pulling away slightly so that his blue eyes met hers. For a second Lily caught a look that was almost like despair in their depths, but then it was gone and he was letting her go.
Dazedly she turned round. From the direction of the party Scarlet and Tom were walking towards them, hand in hand, and behind them came a drift of girls dressed as fairies and mermaids and wood nymphs in shimmering silks and floaty chiffons.
'Finally!' Tom shouted, his kind face breaking into a grin as he walked up to the man who had just fallen out of the sky like some avenging angel and kissed her to within an inch of her life. With his pale, romantic English looks Tom looked absurdly at home in his St George costume, and oddly pure and noble next to the dangerous glamour of the beautiful stranger. 'I see you've already met Lily,' he said easily.
' The devastatingly sexy mouth that moments ago had been caressing hers now twisted into an ironic, mocking smile as that blue gaze swept over her, taking in the coronet of golden laurel leaves in her hair and the Grecian pleated silk dress. 'That makes it easier. I wasn't sure if you were meant to be Helen of Troy or Demeter, goddess of the harvest.'
Lily felt the colour flood her cheeks. The dress was one she had worn in a shoot a couple of years ago when the Gladiator look had been at its peak. Suddenly she wished she'd taken the time to plan something a bit more interesting, like Scarlet, who was stunning in a little black dress and diamonds as Coco Chanel.
'I was kind of thinking Helen of Troy
' she said awkwardly, not meeting his eye.
'Of course. The face that launched a thousand products. You're the girl from the perfume advertisements?'