Mistress:Hired for the Billionaire's Pleasure(3)By: India Grey
In her hand she carried a half empty bottle of champagne that she had picked up from the table in the hall on the way out. Last night’s pre-wedding party, for a handful of the most influential of Carlos’s music industry friends, had apparently gone on into the small hours—although she herself had gone to bed around midnight. No doubt he’d be furious with her for not staying and ‘making an impression’, or chatting up the right people, but her head had ached and her heart had been leaden with dread at the coming day. She’d pleaded tiredness, but had ended up lying awake until the last cars had left in a noisy series of slamming doors and shouted farewells at about three a.m., bearing Carlos off to the plush country house hotel where he was to spend the final night of his long years of bachelor freedom.
And in the darkness Rachel had wrapped her arms around herself and shivered with horror at the thought of what the following night would bring.
Ducking though a low archway cut into the beech hedge, she found herself in the churchyard. A thin mist hung low over the ground, giving the place an eerie air of melancholy which suited her mood perfectly. Tugging the sleeves of her thick cashmere sweater down over her hands, she hugged the bottle to her and walked slowly around to the other side of the church, out of sight of the house. Everything was grey, black, silver in the early morning light. She tipped her face up to the leaden sky, watching the rooks circling above the spire of the church, and felt nothing but despair.
A gust of icy wind whipped her hair over her face and made her shiver. Up ahead, in the shadow of an ancient yew tree, stood the largest grave of all, set slightly apart from the rest, topped by an imposing stone angel with its carved wings partly furled and its pale face downturned. Rachel found herself drawn towards it.
Beneath the canopy of the yew it was sheltered from the wind. The angel gazed down at her with blank eyes, and the expression on its sculpted face was one of infinite compassion and resignation.
He’s seen it all before, she thought bleakly. Those pale, sightless eyes must have witnessed countless weddings and funerals, extremes of joy and tragedy. She wondered whether there had ever been another bride who would rather be going to her own funeral than her wedding.
Sinking down onto the dry earth beneath the angel’s cold, pale feet, she took a swig of champagne, then leaned her cheek against the lichened stone. The sides of the tomb were carved with rows of names and dates, some of which were worn away almost to illegibility and obscured by moss. But the name nearest to her was still sharp and clear. Tracing her fingers over it, she read the words.
The Hon. Felix Alexander Winterton
of Easton Hall
Killed in active service to his country
HE GAVE HIS TODAY THAT WE MIGHT HAVE
She looked up at the angel with a watery smile and raised the champagne bottle. ‘Cheers, Felix,’ she whispered. ‘But in my case that was a real wasted gesture.’Orlando hardly noticed the cold as he got out of the car and walked towards the churchyard. Cold seemed to be his natural element these days. Cold, and gathering darkness, of course.
His last visit to Andrew Parkes had not brought any positive news. His sight was deteriorating more rapidly than Parkes had initially predicted, and he’d advised Orlando that it was now imperative he gave up driving.He would. Today was the last time. The anniversary of Felix’s death. He’d come down to his grave early enough to avoid any traffic, taking the private lanes through the estate. At high speed.
The nature of the condition was that his peripheral vision was pretty much unaffected, while his central field of vision was nothing more than a blur—like a dark fingerprint on a camera lens. Getting around wasn’t yet a problem, but it was the finer details that were quickly slipping away from him. He could no longer read faces, recognise people without them announcing themselves, or carry out easily the million small things he had once done without even thinking. Fastening the buttons on a shirt. Making coffee. Reading his mail.
But he would die before he let other people see that. Which was why he had come back to Easton, and solitude.
Pausing in the shelter of the lychgate, he looked up to where a group of rooks circled above the church, their ragged wings black against a grey sky. Everything was fading to the same monochrome, he thought bleakly, screwing up his eyes to scan the churchyard, where the headstones looked bone white against the dark fringe of bare trees and the shadowy bulk of the yew over the Winterton plot.