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Behind the wheel of his top-of-the-range silver sports car, Luiz Casella edged his foot down on the accelerator and felt the low, responsive growl of the vehicle as it leapt faster along the narrow country road. This was madness; he shouldn't be here, in the depths of a wintry, deserted Yorkshire countryside, pitting his ability to drive against nature's ability to stop him. On one side, endless fields, snow-covered, meandered out towards a horizon fast being consumed by darkness. On the other the bank rose steadily upwards, an icy mass of unforgiving rock that would shatter his car if he made the mistake of getting too close.
Luiz knew that. He also knew that he had to do this, he had to work this crazy, maddening grief out of his system somehow, and he couldn't think of a better way of doing it than by dicing with death a million miles away from the wellordered, clinical sanity of his London penthouse.
It had been nearly a year since his father had died. A strapping, adventurous man in his early sixties, Mario Casella had been alive, strong and vibrant one day, nagging his son that it was time to settle down, threatening to leave Brazil and fly to London to persuade him. The next, he had been a crumpled, lifeless body barely identifiable in the ruins of the small light aeroplane which he had been determined to master.
Luiz had taken the call from his sobbing mother and had returned immediately to Brazil where he had risen to the challenges awaiting him. As the only son, he had become immediate head of the family. He handled everything, from the funeral arrangements to the sudden crisis within his father's company caused by his death. He juggled the managing of his own companies from a distance.
He was the reassuring rock to which his mother, his three sisters, various assorted relatives and a number of business associates had turned. He had not allowed any poisonous thread of weakness to corrupt his remorseless, single-minded determination to do what he knew he had to do. He had appointed the necessary people to run his father's company and made sure they knew that one slip up, and they would be answerable to him. He had arranged for the family mansion to be sold because his mother couldn't face the prospect of living there without her husband. He had found somewhere equally luxurious but much smaller in the same cul de sac as one of his sisters. He had quietly put some of the more sentimental mementoes into storage where they would rest until the time came when his mother would be strong enough to face looking at them. He had done all this without shedding a tear.
When he had returned to London, months later, it was to resume the running of his own personal empire. He threw himself into a work routine that would have crippled any normal human being. He began a ferocious programme of buy-outs that saw his personal wealth increase ten fold.
The latest buy-out of a failing electronics company in Durham had given him the first opportunity he had had to release some of the savage energy that had been burning a hole inside him since his father's death. He had taken advantage of it, arranging for his car to be at the airport and allowing himself a few hours' respite from his gruelling work agenda to drive back down to London.
He hadn't intended to be distracted by country lanes but the challenge of those small, deserted icy roads had been irresistible. He had switched off his GPS navigation and now here he was.
In the failing light, he could see the first light glimmers of snow beginning to fall like translucent powder, necessitating the windscreen wipers. He had switched off his phone, switched off the radio, and all he could hear was the deep, sepulchral silence of winter battling against the low roar of his powerful car.
Had his father felt any pain before he'd died? He would have known that death was imminent as his plane had plummeted out of the sky, like a bird with its wings catastrophi-cally snapped. What had been his thoughts?
Surely no regrets? His father had been the finest example of what a clever man possessed of boundless energy and imagination could achieve. He had taken himself away from his impoverished background and worked his way steadily upwards until he had finally been able to reside in that rarefied place where money was no object. He had married his childhood sweetheart, who had stood by him every inch of the way, and together they had had four children. No; there would surely have been no regrets there.
Luiz liked to think that there was comfort to be derived from that but no amount of mental acrobatics could stifle the pain of the unanswered questions, or knowing that the single one man he had truly admired was gone for ever from his life.
His hands tightened on the wheel. A searing ache began uncoiling in the very pit of his stomach. He clenched his jaw, pressed harder on the accelerator, and in the blink of an eye that unforgiving face of rock was bearing down towards him.
Luiz reacted in a split second, veering away from it, feeling it brush against the side of his car, hearing the shriek of protesting metal against immovable stone, then his car was spinning out of control and hurtling across the country lane, now shrouded in darkness, out towards the expanse of fields.
The impact left him momentarily dazed but his airbag had done its thing and the strength of the vehicle had weathered the crash better than he could have hoped for. But he was still winded and in a bad way as he manoeuvred himself out of the car and dragged himself as far away from it as possible. He was running on a full tank and there was every chance that the thing would go up in flames. Remain too close, and it would take him along for the ride.
But walking was going to be a problem. He gingerly felt his leg and the gash running along it. He was without a coat, in the middle of nowhere and there was not a single light in sight. To make matters worse, the snow had decided to gather momentum. The powdery dust was fast turning into fat snowflakes that began settling on his hair, his useless work trouserslovingly hand-tailored but totally inappropriate in falling snowthe designer jumper which would be soaked through in under half an hour and on the fields stretching as far as the eye could see.
Gritting his teeth, he began making his way slowly back towards the road. He would just have to take things from there. He had his mobile phone and, whilst he was fully aware that the network in these parts would probably be severely challenged, sooner or later he would be able to pick up a signal.
And, hey; a grim smile flitted across his dark, aristocratic face. This physical pain, after months of putting a cap on the far uglier pain of his emotions, almost felt good
Had he but known it, less than two miles away, Holly George, in the act of doing her routine check of her cherished animal sanctuary, heard the distant scream of the car crash and instantly stilled, cocking her head to listen a little harder.
She had grown up in this wild, spectacular terrain and she knew it intimately. She knew its changing moods, its unexpectedly graceful nooks and crannies and she knew its sounds. Especially in the depths of February when the silence could be bottomless.
She snapped shut the gate on Buster the donkey, a new addition, and hurried inside the stone cottage, taking off her woolly hat in the process so that long, curly fair hair the colour of vanilla spilled over her shoulders and rippled down her back.
Someone's come off the road. There was no question of it. For a few seconds she debated whether to call Andy, her partner at the sanctuary, but then dismissed the idea before it had chance to form. Andy had left early for a cookery course in town, hosted by his favourite chef. He had been looking forward to it for the past three weeks and she wasn't about to ruin his good time by dragging him out on a search and rescue mission.
Ben Firth would gladly have got his boys together and headed out with their fire trucks, and Abe, the local doctor, would have rustled up the ambulance, but where would they head? The funny thing with sound around here was that the echoes of it could literally have originated anywhere. But she knew this place like the back of her hand. She would be able to pin point where the crash had happened and get there much faster than Ben and his crew, who were based over fifteen miles away, or Abe for that matter, who was closer but not by much.
Holly George was only twenty-six years old but she was sensible, practical and used to the harsh winters delivered every year in remote Yorkshire. Sometimes it occurred to her that sensible and practical were not very feminine traits, which might have accounted for the lack of men pounding on her front door begging for a date. But whenever she thought of leaving her beloved animal sanctuary and moving to one of the big cities with bright lights, clubs, bars and all those other things her friends kept telling her she needed, she literally felt ill.
Her father had been a farmer and she had always lived around animals. Her body clock was primed for early mornings and the onset of spring was always a reminder of the wonders of lambing. Her father had died years ago, shortly after she had turned eighteen, and she had reluctantly sold the farm, knowing that managing the extensive acres of arable would be out of the question, even with a great deal of help. In its place, she had sunk what she had made on the farm into the animal sanctuary which now occupied her time. Once she had paid the bills there was precious little money left, but she had her cottage, with its grumbling heating system and eccentric plumbing, and she didn't owe a thing on it. She had bought it outright.
But the question of time passing her by while her friends lived it up and tried to drag her out was still the occasional wrinkle in an otherwise uncomplicated existence. She had only ever had one serious boyfriend. James had been training to be a vet and they had met at one of the many courses she enjoyed attending to better her understanding of how to look after the animals she rescued. He had been giving the lecture as part of his coursework and she had immediately warmed to his evident nervousness. They had got chatting and, when their relationship had ended after a year and a half, they had remained firm friends.
Personally, Holly thought that she might very well have missed her chance because she couldn't imagine that there was anyone more on her wavelength than James had been. But he had been transferred south and had just not been able to tolerate the physical distance. She often wondered whether she should have tried harder because time moved on and.
She paused by the front door to reach for the keys to her ancient four-wheel drive and glanced at the reflection in the little brass mirror attached to the hooks for the keys.
This face would never suit the bright lights, she decided, and neither would this body. She lacked the fashionable angular lines that looked good in tight clothes and she had never quite cracked the art of make-up. The bright blue eyes staring back at her were rarely adorned with mascara or eye-liner. Her face was soft, gentle, too feminine to be sexy.
She turned away without dwelling further on her physical drawbacks.
Outside the snow was getting heavier, and she knew that there was no time for second thoughts, but her car was extremely sturdy and as she switched on the engine it let out its usual reassuring rumble.
There were several roads and lanes she could have taken but she unerringly went for the right one. It was the most hazardous. In the past four years, three accidents had taken place on one of the bends that forked left without warning. If that wasn't the site of the car crash, then she would have no difficulty in picking up another lane.
Making her way through the snow, she spotted the car as soon as the narrow road allowed her an unimpeded view straight ahead. It was skewed into the field at an angle that made her urge her old car on faster. Snow was already gathering on it and even from a distance she could see that it was a complete write off.
She was squinting to make out the detail in the beam of her headlights and very nearly missed the figure at the side of the road, barely standing and signalling to her to stop.
A man, on his own, and not kitted out for the weather; she could make that much out as she carefully pulled to the side of the road.
'Is there anyone else with you?' Holly asked anxiously, hurrying over and wrapping her arm around his waist. Half-slumped, she was conscious of the firmness of muscle and the weight of someone much taller than her.
'Just me.' Luiz ground his teeth to bite back the agony of his leg as they hobbled, clutching each other, to a car that looked like the left-over relic from another century.
'I'll arrange for someone to come out and fetch it.'
'Forget it. I couldn't give a damn about it.'
Holly wondered who couldn't give a damn about something as expensive as a car. Letting him go for the second it took to open the passenger door, she felt the brush of his body as he settled into the seat with a grimace of pain.
A thousand questions were running through her head. Which would be the quickest route to the hospital? He was standing and he was talking, but was he seriously injured? Should she be asking him about any family members she could contact? Should she do some sort of routine check to make sure that he wasn't concussed?