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'What the devil
He had to be imagining things, Carlos Ortega told himself. He couldn't actually be seeing what was ahead of him.
Easing up on the throttle, he slowed the powerful motorbike to an almost crawl that was far more suited to the narrow country lane he had originally been riding down at a speed that much better expressed the turmoil of his inner feelings and stared straight ahead, frowning. But no matter how he blinked or adjusted his vision, the sight remained the same. The same impossible, unbelievable image just ahead of him. One that set his bemused mind wandering down strange and over-imaginative paths and into crazy ideas.
He'd heard stories of local ghosts. His companions in the bar last night had been only too keen to regale him with them over a pint of beer. This road, the villagers said, was haunted. By a bride who had been left at the altar, and had died broken-hearted, pining away for the man she had once loved but who had deserted her so cruelly. At least, that was the way that the traditional story went.
Not that Carlos believed in any such thing. The small, sleepy backwater of a place he had stayed in for the past couple of days was obviously riddled with stories and superstitions, some of which had been amusing enough last night while propping up the bar in the black-beamed old-fashioned inn where he had been staying. But now?
He found he was shaking his head inside his crash helmet and almost laughing as he had done last night when they had first fed him the story, obviously thinking they needed to earn the drinks he had bought them.
He'd gone down to the bar from his room because for the first time in a long while he'd wanted company. He'd moved from the point of being alone and finding that that was the way he wanted things to be after all that had happened, to feeling strangely lonely, which wasn't something he'd expected. He was used to his own company and he had, after all, come here deliberately to be on his own, to get away from the mess he had left behind him. He had wanted to be as far away from thatas far away from home as possible.
Home. Argentina wasn't any sort of home to him, but then, where was? It had hit with a wrenching jolt that there was now nowhere in the world he could call home. Oh, he had houses of course, several of them in the most expensive and exclusive parts of the world, and any one of them he would be happy to live in. But none of them was where he had any roots; where he thought he truly belonged. Where his family
'Hah! Family!' His laugh was harsh, raw.
What family? He didn't have any family any more.
Everything he had thought was his had been taken away from him at a blow. And the only thing he had been left with was his mother. His lying, cheating, unfaithful mother. The mother who had made him a bastard right from birth and who had never wanted him in her life after that. He didn't even know who he was any more. His whole life had apparently been a fiction, his background, his ancestry, turning into a lie in the space of the time it had taken his grandfather to tell him the truth. A truth that had left him with precisely nothing of everything he had once valued, and once thought was what made him who he was.
So the stories he'd heard had been an amusement, a distraction from feelings he wasn't used to dealing with. They'd helped him pass an unexpectedly restless evening. But this morning in the very cold light of an early April day, belief in ghosts, ghouls and things that went bump in the night was very far from his mind.
The freezing fog was shrouding the edges of the road in swirling shadows, occasionally drifting to obscure the vision on the grass verge on the left-hand side. It came and went so that he was forced to blink hard to clear his vision and make sure there actually was anything up ahead.
And itshewas still there.
A woman. Tall, curvaceous, pale. Hair a rich honey goldwhat he could see of it through the mist. And because it was pulled up in some ornate style on top of her hair, most of it was covered by the filmy veilwhite like the ankle-length dressthat covered her face and fell down her back. Her arms were bare, as were her shoulders, the pale skin almost as white as the fitted bodice that shaped her high, rounded breasts.
The figure of a bride, in full wedding regalia. Just as in the legend of the ghostly bride that had formed part of the evening's entertainment in the bar. But this was definitely no ghost because this particular bride was standing at the side of the roadincongruously clutching a bright blue very modern handbag.
And with her thumb raised in the time honoured gesture of someone hitching a lift.
This time he slowed the bike to a complete halt, coming to a careful stop just a short distance away from the woman.
'Oh, thank God!
The voice was real. Not just something he had heard in his imagination or inside his head. Soft and slightly husky, it sent a shiver through him that had nothing to do with the paranormal ideas he had been conjuring up just moments before. A response that was all to do with the very real world. And the soft rustle of her silken skirts as she hurried towards him was not the silent drift of a spirit that didn't actually exist but very clearly made by something totally physical.
So just what the devil was she doing here?
'Oh, thank God!'
The cry escaped Martha's lips involuntarily, pushed from her by the sheer disbelieving delight of seeing the motorbike pull to a halt at the side of the road. 'At 1 ast!'
At last she was not alone. At last someone else was in the same place as her. Someonea mana big man from the size and shape of himhad appeared on the road that had been empty and isolated for almost too long to bear. Someone who might be able to help her and maybe even get her somewhere safe and warm before she actually froze. She was dangerously close to that already, she admitted to herself as just the effort of running towards him made the blood quicken in her veins, bringing stinging life to the toes she had feared might actually become iced to the ground.
Not for the first time she cursed the wild romantic impulse that had led to her choosing this isolated spot in which to hold her wedding. Of course, originally, the isolation had been everything she had wanted. The large stately home, set in its huge grounds, was miles from anywhere, and hopefully too far from civilisation and too hidden to attract the attention of the paparazzi or anyone else who had been trying to find out just who she was. When she had first seen Haskell Hall it had looked absolutely perfect. The wedding venue of her dreams. A fantasy come true. Here she could have her special day in total privacy and, after that, who cared if anyone who lived nearby ever found out why her life had changed so totally, so dramatically?
But the day she had seen the hall had been a bright, clear, crisp morning, with the sun high in a wide blue sky. The sweeping drive up to the big house had been clear of the mist that had swirled around it this morning, and the temperature had been a good ten degrees or more higher than the bitter chill that seemed to have crept into her bones, turning them to ice as she had trudged up the path towards the road.
It had never seemed such a long, long trek either, when she had first imagined the journey in a horse-drawn carriage that would take her from her fairy-tale wedding and off on the honeymoon of a lifetime, her new husband at her side. But that had been when she had only driven down it in the secure, warm confines of a sleek, powerful car, snugly wrapped in jeans and a cashmere sweater. She would give her soul to be able to wrap something like that around her right now and ease some of the chill that had made the last half an hour or more such sheer misery. Though the truth was that it was the coldness inside that was far worse even than the weather.
Back then, her feet had been comfy and protected inside soft leather boots, not the delicate satin, crystal-decorated slippers that were now totally soaked through and feeling like little more than sodden paper between her feet and the rough surface of the road. Her hair was damp and had started to slide out of the ornate style that had been created only an hour or so before, her carefully applied make-up running down her face, washed away by the rain as she ran down the drive.
And the man she had been planning on marrying was still somewhere back in the Hall, hastily erasing all evidence of the dirty, illicit passion he had just indulged in. A passion that he had never felt for her, except in his lies. 'Please stop
She couldn't get to her rescuer fast enough, almost tripping over her long skirts as she ran towards him.
Two cars had already rushed past her. She wasn't sure if the drivers had actually seen her or, having seen, had decided to put their foot down and rush past, the sight of a bedraggled, mud-splattered bride, miles from anywhere, just too much for them to cope with. And she'd stood there, her feet turning into blocks of ice, her hands going blue, the skin of her face stinging with the cold.
She had thought that today was to be the start of her happy ever after. But for that to happen, then Gavin would have had to be her prince, instead of the ugly toad he had turned out to be. She supposed it could have been worse. If she'd still been caught up in the fantasy of being in lovein love with the idea of being in lovethen she could have had her heart shattered as well. But she'd already had second thoughts, and it seemed that her instincts had been working true. But all the same the vicious, cruel words she had heard had taken every last trace of her self-esteem, her sense of herself as a woman, and shattered it into tiny pieces.
The thrum of the motorbike's engine had her running headlong down the rutted road, suddenly fearful that this unexpected rescuer too would put his foot on the accelerator and speed away, abandoning her totally.
'Pleaseplease don't go
'I'm not going anywhere.'
The voice, muffled slightly by the silver helmet he wore, didn't sound quite English. Or perhaps that was because of the wind roaring in her ears, the racing of her heart in panic at the thought that he might be about to leave her alone again. She was so cold she couldn't think straight.
But at least he had switched off the engine on his bike, had swung his long leg over the machine so that he was standing, tall and darkso tall!in front of her.
'I promise I'm not going anywhere,' he repeated.
'Oh, thank heaven!' It was a fervent sigh, rather ruined by the way that her teeth chattered together on the last word. 'I
'What the hell happened to you?' he demanded, the rich dark voice rough with something she hoped was concern.
How much did she tell him? What did she tell him? It wasn't just the cold that had numbed her brain so that she couldn't think straight. In the moments that she had run to be near him, coming to a halt at his side, she had suddenly found that her mood had swung from relief and delight to a new and disturbing rush of something very different. A sense of apprehension mixed with a sharp, intense awareness of the simple fact that he was a man. A man whose powerful figure and strong frame suddenly made her heart lurch in a mind-spinning shock of response.