I love her.
I love her and I’m an idiot and this has to stop.
Michael’s tangled love life was far from the only thing on his mind. For weeks now he’d been acting as if everything were normal. As if he didn’t know. He’d driven back and forth to Kingsmere, installing lighting and working on the ill-fated pagoda, as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened. Something terrible.
And Michael De Vere hadn’t the first idea what to do about it.
He needed to talk to someone. But who? Talking to his mother was impossible. Even if he knew what to say, Alexia’s schedule was so jam-packed there was simply no opportunity to get her alone and focused. As for his father, Teddy De Vere had always lived in his own world, a fantasy of past family glories attached to some archaic concept of chivalry that Michael had never fully understood. Teddy could no more handle the truth than a four-year-old child could handle Michael’s new gleaming red Ducati. The truth would break him, shatter him into a thousand shardlike fragments like a dropped Christmas tree ornament. Michael couldn’t tell his father.
Which left him with Roxie.
Angrily Michael twisted the bike’s handlebars, pumping more gas into the already shrieking engine. Poor Roxie, his once-vivacious, outgoing sister, reduced to a lonely, embittered cripple for the sake of a worthless former lover. If Roxie were to suffer any more, it wouldn’t be because of Michael. She too was a closed door.
Last night he’d come close to confiding in Summer. But he’d stopped himself before he went too far. Saying the thing out loud, talking to another person about it, would have made it real. Michael De Vere had realized with sudden clarity last night that he did not want this to be real. He wanted it to be gone, hidden, buried, as it had been for so long. He wanted his innocence back, but he couldn’t have it, and it made him so mad he wanted to scream and scream and never stop.
I have to get through the party. Make it a success, smile through it for all our sakes. After that, I’ll deal with this. Decide what the hell to do.
He was approaching the top of Coombe Hill. From the peak one could see the spires of Oxford on one side and the slumbering Cotswolds on the other, mile after mile of honeyed villages and lush green valleys, still dotted with the white sheep that had once been the region’s lifeblood and primary source of income. Glancing down at his speedometer—he was already doing sixty, but it felt much faster on such narrow, deserted roads—Michael twisted the gas again, accelerating on the climb so that his wheels briefly left the ground as he cleared the top of the hill. He remembered the rush from childhood, doing wheelies off of humpback bridges with Tommy on their BMX push bikes. But the Ducati was a different beast altogether, wild and dangerous, like riding a leopard bareback.
Luckily, Michael was a skilled rider. Bringing the bike back down with ease, he leaned gracefully into the turn as the ground fell away beneath him. As the gradient grew steeper, he eased off the gas, but the speedometer needle kept rising, propelled by the Panigale’s own momentum. Michael squeezed lightly on the front brake. Nothing happened. Surprised but not especially alarmed, he squeezed more forcefully, instinctively pushing down on the front wheel with his body weight to slow the bike’s progress.
Nothing. What the hell?
The bottom of the hill was fast approaching. Adrenaline began to course unpleasantly through Michael’s veins. Mercifully there were no other cars on the road, but the bend at the valley floor was almost forty-five degrees, after which the lane almost immediately fed into a T-junction with the busy A40. Forcing himself to stay calm, he looked at the speedometer again.
At this speed, using the rear brakes alone could be highly dangerous, with bikes tending to skid out of control, but there was no other option. What were you supposed to do to keep control in a rear-brake skid? He willed himself to remember. That’s it. Keep your eyes on the horizon.
He looked up, but as he did so tears of panic stung his eyes. The horizon was no longer a placid, flat line. It was a tidal wave of fields and sky, hurtling toward him at breakneck speed.
Michael’s arms and legs shook as he gripped the rear-wheel brake, abandoning caution and wrenching it toward him with all his strength. His whole body tensed, waiting for the skid, for the jolting halt, but there was nothing. The brake rolled loose and limp in his hands.
That was when he knew.
Jesus Christ. I’m going to die.
A strange peace came over him, slowing his heart rate and reactions and immersing all his senses in a sort of muffled slow motion. He knew it was the end. But it was as if it were happening to someone else. As if someone else were watching the trucks on the main road race closer and closer, unable to stop or move or even swerve aside, passively succumbing to the inevitable like a paralyzed spectator.
The last thing Michael De Vere thought was, I left Summer this morning without saying good-bye. I should have said good-bye.
Then came the impact and the blackness and there were no more thoughts and nothing mattered anymore.
Roxie De Vere gazed at her reflection in her dressing room mirror.
She claimed not to care about her appearance. There would never be another man for her after Andrew. Even if her body weren’t broken and useless, she had no heart left to give, no sexual desire, no appetite for life or love and the inevitable pain that came with both. And yet, on a night like tonight, with the whole world watching, Roxie took a certain perverse pleasure in making herself look beautiful. If there was anything more poignant than a young girl confined to a wheelchair, it was surely a ravishing beauty confined to a wheelchair. More importantly, Roxie knew that when she looked her best, even now, it irritated her mother.
She’d pulled out all the stops tonight. Her naturally thick, blond hair was swept up into an elaborate chignon, fixed in place with antique Victorian hairpins studded with prettily colored glass beads. Her drop diamond earrings had once belonged to Teddy’s grandmother, Lady Maud De Vere. The light they reflected contrasted perfectly with Roxie’s smooth, softly sun-kissed skin. Her gown was simple, nothing like the fancy Dior confection that Alexia had been planning to buy for her in Paris. Left to her own devices, Roxie had opted for a plain, cream silk column that discreetly covered her shattered legs while encasing her full, smooth breasts in a subtly boned corset. The result was both innocent and sensual, an effect that Roxie highlighted with subtle makeup—palest pink lips and cheeks flushed with a dusting of shimmery peach blush. A simple, heart-shaped gold pendant hanging sweetly at her neck completed the picture.
Pushing herself over to the window, Roxie looked down at the legions of liveried staff running back and forth like ants. Tommy Lyon was striding around the grounds, a worried general in the hours before battle, shouting and gesticulating and generally marshaling the troops in Michael’s absence. Very unusually, Michael had failed to show up at Kingsmere on this most crucial of afternoons. Tommy had no idea where he was, and Michael’s cell phone, usually glued to his ear, was switched off. With the firsts guests due to start arriving in an hour, tensions were understandably running high. Roxie hoped that her friend Summer Meyer’s unexpected appearance in Oxford last night wasn’t behind her brother’s disappearing act. If Summer had caught Michael in flagrante with one of his bimbos, anything could have happened. Not that he wouldn’t deserve everything that was coming to him. But Roxie liked Summer and she liked Summer and Michael together. She’d be sorry to see Michael fuck that one up.
Back on the dressing table, Roxie’s cell phone rang. Michael’s name flashed across the screen. Speak of the devil.
“You better have a good excuse, Houdini. Poor Tommy’s about to have a breakdown out there.”
“Miss De Vere?”
The voice on the line wasn’t Michael’s. “Yes. Who is this?”
“Oxfordshire police. I’m afraid there’s been an accident.”
“How do I look?”
Alexia twirled in front of Teddy like a high school senior on prom night.
Teddy puffed out his chest happily. “You look perfect, my dear. I could die of pride.”
Good, thought Alexia. Perfect was what she’d been aiming for.
Gone was the haggard crone of this morning. Gone also the frightened woman haunted by pictures of Jenny Hamlin’s mutilated corpse. Or the paranoid politician, looking over her shoulder for imagined enemies. There would be no enemies tonight. No death. No fear. No surprises. The prime minister and his wife might have let Alexia and Teddy down, but Alexia intended to make sure it was the Whitmans who regretted their absence at tonight’s party, not the De Veres. The party was, as Lucy Meyer had predicted, going to be “awesome.”