Dresswise, Alexia had changed her mind at the last minute, opting for a dramatic dark green gown in heavy, structured jacquard silk with a high, Oriental collar. It had a touch of the Cruella De Vil about it, but not in a bad way, and it was utterly elegant and restrained. The pearl-and-diamond choker was less restrained, but at Alexia’s age, a choker covered a multitude of sins, and it was a De Vere family heirloom, which naturally delighted Teddy. With her hair recolored, styled, and sprayed into place, her skin revivified, and her makeup flawlessly applied by the incomparable Marguerite, Alexia both looked and felt a million dollars. Battle-ready, as Teddy would have called it.
“Blast this bloody, buggery thing. Where is Bailey?”
Teddy fumbled with his bow tie in front of the mirror. A regular attendee of black- and white-tie events for well over forty years, Teddy nevertheless approached each bow tie as incompetently as if it were his first.
“You don’t need Bailey.” Alexia tutted, patting his hands away and taking charge herself. “Over, around, under, through. There. It’s not rocket science, darling.”
Slipping both arms around her waist, Teddy pulled her to him. Closing her eyes, Alexia inhaled his familiar smell, a combination of Floris aftershave, Pears soap, toothpaste, and polished shoe leather. Safety. Home. She had never been attracted to Teddy sexually, not even when they were young. But she had found his physical presence comforting, pleasant rather than exciting, like cuddling a slightly worn but much-loved teddy bear. She felt the same way now. She wished she could bottle that feeling somehow, keep it to savor when she was alone, when the stresses of the present and horrors of the past became too much for her.
“I love you.”
Teddy De Vere had been married to Alexia for more than three decades. He understood his wife well enough to know that verbal expressions of affection were not her usual style.
Reaching out, he put a concerned hand on her forehead. “Are you feeling quite well, old girl?”
Alexia batted his hand away, embarrassed. “Stop making fun. Can’t I tell my own husband how much I love him from time to time?”
“I’m not making fun.” And suddenly she saw that he wasn’t. “Darling, darling Alexia,” Teddy whispered urgently. “If you had any idea how much I love you, how far I’d go to protect you . . .”
“You’d be terrified.”
He kissed her then, passionately, thrusting his tongue into her mouth like a teenager in the back row of a movie theater. Alexia was so shocked she responded in kind. It was exciting, like kissing a stranger, but after a few moments she was aware of being watched. Pulling away, she saw Roxie, her wheelchair parked in the master bedroom doorway. She looked stunning in a cream silk dress. At least she would have done if it weren’t for the look of revolted horror on her face.
Alexia lost her temper. “What is the matter, Roxanne? Haven’t you seen a husband and wife kiss before?”
“Steady on, darling,” murmured Teddy, but Alexia was on a roll.
“No, I’m sorry, Teddy, but I won’t ‘steady on.’ How dare she look at us like that! I’m tired of creeping around my own house, my own husband, like I’m walking on eggshells. Your father and I love each other, Roxanne. We are happy together, blissfully happy, and if you don’t like it . . . well, I’m afraid that’s simply too bad.”
Roxie opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. For what felt like an eternity, she sat frozen in the doorway. When she did finally speak, her voice came out as a croak.
Cold fear flooded Alexia’s heart. “Michael? What about Michael? Has something happened?”
“That’s what I came to tell you.” Tears streamed down Roxie’s face. “There’s been a terrible accident.”
Summer Meyer leaped out of the taxi and ran through the electric double doors into the John Radcliffe Hospital. Situated out in Headington, a few miles North of Oxford city center, the Radcliffe was home to one of the busiest accident and emergency departments in the country. It was still only late afternoon, but the sun was out, it was a Saturday, and the pubs were open. This being Oxford, Summer found herself fighting her way to the reception desk through a sea of drunken students, noisily bemoaning their mostly self-inflicted injuries.
“Michael De Vere,” she said breathlessly. “Motorcycle accident. He came in a few hours ago.”
Please, please hold on, Michael. Please don’t die.
A litany of hideous coincidences had prevented Summer from arriving earlier. Roxanne was listed in Michael’s wallet as his next of kin. When Roxie heard the news she’d called Summer immediately. Unfortunately Summer’s U.S. cell phone battery died, and she’d left Michael’s flat to go makeup shopping just minutes before Roxie called and left her voice mail. Summer finally heard Roxie’s message almost two hours later. She would not forget it as long as she lived. Coming back to the flat and hitting play, expecting to hear Michael’s voice, she had found herself listening instead to Roxie. Choking with sobs, Roxie told her that Michael had been “crushed” by a truck in a horrific accident, and was on his way to hospital. But it was the last five words of Roxie’s message that had branded themselves eternally on Summer’s memory:
“He might not make it.”
Summer ran out into the street, still barefoot and with her long hair dripping from the shower, but it took her fifteen minutes to find a free cab, and a further five to convince the driver to take her in her half-dressed, hysterical state. Once they did get going, the traffic on the beltway was terrible.
The receptionist in the emergency room typed Michael’s name into her computer.
“De Vere. Yes, here we are.”
“How is he? Is he in surgery?”
The receptionist looked up from her screen. “And you are?”
“Summer. Summer Meyer.”
“Are you family?”
“I’m his girlfriend.”
“Sorry. Family only.”
“But I just told you. I’m his girlfriend.”
“Y’gan be my girrrlfren, ’fyou want . . . gorgeous fucking arse.” A revolting, paralytically drunk man in a suit careered into Summer from behind, groping her as he tried to steady himself.
Turning around, Summer pushed him off hard, sending him flying back into a nearby group of patients. “Fuck off!
“Look,” she implored the receptionist, “Michael’s sister called and asked me to come. She’s his next of kin. Please. I am family. I have to see him.”
“Wait here a moment.”
Getting up, the woman conferred with a colleague in whispered tones. Summer saw the pained, serious looks on their faces and drew the obvious conclusion. I’m too late. He’s dead. She wanted to ask the question outright, but found that the words refused to come. Instead she stood mute and helpless as the receptionist returned, handing her a slip of paper with a number on it.
“If anyone asks, say you’re related. Critical care, fourth floor, lift bank C. This is your pass.”
“Is he dead?” Summer finally blurted it out.
The receptionist looked down, unable to meet her eyes.
“They’ll explain everything to you on the fourth floor, my love.”
“Please! Just tell me. Is he dead?”
The receptionist exchanged an anxious glance with her colleague. “Look, we’re not supposed to say anything,” she whispered to Summer. “But according to my notes, Michael De Vere was pronounced dead about an hour ago. I’m so sorry. Critical will tell you more.”
Summer pushed her way through the swing doors in a daze.
I’m too late.
An orderly stopped her. “Are you all right, miss? Can I help?”
Summer held up her piece of paper like a zombie. The orderly waved her on. Elevator bank C was over there. Turn right for trauma, left for critical care. Reception up the stairs. Summer was aware of people moving around her, nurses and patients and visitors and doctors. There was piped-in music and a coffee shop selling plastic-wrapped sandwiches and a big fish tank with a gang of bored children hovering around it and huge glass windows with light streaming through them. But for her, everything had stopped. She moved through the corridors like a ghost, numb and silent.
He’s dead. Michael’s dead.
Bizarrely, she found herself thinking about the party. What was happening at Kingsmere while Michael’s private tragedy unfolded? Would the event still go on as planned? Or would heads of state arrive and be turned away? She tried to picture the scene.
“I’m so sorry, Your Highness. There’s been a tragedy. The hosts’ son has been killed.”
“You going up, love?”
Michael’s dead, we can’t go ahead.
“Fourth floor. Doors opening.”
Michael’s dead, in a hospital bed, we can’t go ahead.
“This is critical care. Can I help you?”
“Summer.” Teddy De Vere’s voice was the first thing to reach her. She turned around and there he was. It took a few seconds for the fog to clear, for the shock to fade enough for her to recognize Michael’s father’s kind, familiar features.