Escape. Nell frowned, puzzled as to why the word had jumped into her head. Then she was suddenly groaning when the frown caused a pain to shoot right across the front of her head.
Someone moved not far away. 'Nell...?' a deep, darkly rasping voice said.
Managing to open her eyes the small crack that was all they would allow her, she peered out at the shadowy outline of a man's big, lean, dark-suited bulk standing stiffly at the end of her bed. Xander, she recognised. Bitterness welled as her heart gave a tight, very painful pinch. What was he doing here? Had corporate earth stopped turning or something? Nothing less would give him the time to visit her sickbed.
Go away, she wanted to say but did not have enough energy, so she closed the slits in her eyes and blocked him out that way instead.
'Nell, can you hear me?'
He sounded unusually gruff. Maybe he had a bad cold or a sore throat or something, she thought hazily. How would she know? She'd barely set eyes on him for months-not since he'd turned up like a bad penny on her birthday and dragged her out to have dinner with him. The candlelit-table-for-two kind of dinner with good wine and the requisite bottle of champagne standing at the ready on ice. Her fuzzy head threw up a picture of his handsome dark image, the way the candlelight had played with his ebony hair and the golden sheen of his skin as he'd sat there across the table from her with his slumberous dark eyes fixed on her face. Sartorial elegance had oozed from every sleek skin pore. The smooth self-confidence, the indolent grace with which he'd occupied his seat that belied his height and lean muscle power. The lazy indifference with which he'd dismissed the kind of breathless looks he received from every other woman in the room because he was special and he knew he was special, and there was not a person in that restaurant that didn't recognise it. Including Nell, though she was the only one there that refused to let it show.
'Happy birthday,' he said and used long, tanned fingers to push a velvet box across the table towards her. Inside the box was a diamond-encrusted bracelet that must have cost him the absolute earth. If she was supposed to be impressed, she wasn't. If he'd presented her with the crown jewels she still would not be impressed. Did he think she didn't know that a bracelet like that was the kind of thing a man like him presented to his mistress for services rendered? Where was his sensitivity? Where it had always been, locked up inside his impossible arrogance, as he proved when he dared to announce then that he wanted to renegotiate their marriage contract as if some stupid trinket was all it would take to make her agree. She pushed the box back across the table and said no-to both the bracelet and the request. Did it faze him? Not in the slightest. He took a few minutes to think about her cool little refusal then nodded his disgustingly handsome dark head in acceptance, and that was basically that. He'd driven her back to Rosemere then drove away again to go back to his exciting life as a high-profile, globe-trotting Greek tycoon and probably given the bracelet to some other woman-the more appreciative Vanessa, for instance. 'I hate him,' she thought, having no idea that the words had scraped across her dry lips.
The sound of furniture moving set her frowning again, a pale, limp hand lifting weakly to the pain that stabbed at her forehead. Another hand gently caught hold of her fingers to halt their progress.
'Don't touch, Nell. You won't like it,' his husky voice said. She opened her eyes that small crack again to find Xander had moved from his stiff stance at the bottom of the bed and was now sitting on a chair beside it with his face level with hers. A pair of dark eyes looked steadily back at her from between unfairly long black silk fringes, a hint of strain tugging on the corners of his wide, sensual mouth.
'How do you feel?' he asked.
Pain attacked her from the oddest of places-her heart mainly, broken once and still not recovered. She closed her eyes, blocking him out again. He shouldn't even be here; he should be in New York, enjoying the lovely Vanessa with the long dark hair and voluptuous figure that could show off heavy diamond trinkets while she clung to someone else's husband like a sex-charged limpet.
'Do you know where you are?' Xander persisted.
Nell quivered as his warm breath fanned her face.
'You are in hospital,' he seemed compelled to inform her. 'You were involved in a car accident. Can you hear me, Helen?'
The Helen arrived with the rough edge of impatience. Xander did not like to be ignored. He wasn't used to it. People shot to attention when he asked questions. He was Mr Important, the mighty empire-builder aptly named after Alexander the Great. When he said jump the whole world jumped. He was dynamic, magnetic, sensational to look at-
Her head began to ache. 'Go away,' she slurred out. 'I don't want you here.'
She could almost feel his tension slam into her. The gentle fingers still holding hers gave an involuntary twitch. Then he moved and she heard the sound of silk sliding against silk as he reached up with his other arm and another set of cool fingers gently stroked a stray lock of hair from her cheek.
'You don't mean that, agape mou,' he murmured.
I do, Nell thought, and felt tears sting the backs of her eyelids because his light touch evoked old dreams of a gentle giant stroking her all over like that.
But that was all they were, empty old dreams that came back to haunt her occasionally. The real Xander was hard and cold and usually wishing himself elsewhere when he was with her.
How had he got here so quickly anyway? What time was it? What day? She moved restlessly then cried out in an agonised, pathetically weak whimper as real physical pain shot everywhere.
'Don't move, you fool!' The sudden harshness in his voice rasped across her flesh like the serrated edge of a knife-right here-and she pushed a hand up to cover the left side of her ribs as her screaming body tried to curl up in instinctive recoil. The bed tilted beside her, long fingers moving to her narrow shoulders to keep her still.
'Listen to me...' his voice rasped again and she arched in agony as pain ricocheted around her body. He tossed out a soft curse then a buzzer sounded. 'You must try to remain still,' he lashed down at her. 'You are very badly bruised, and the pain in your side is due to several cracked ribs. You are also suffering from a slight concussion, and internal bleeding meant they had to operate. Nell, you-'
'W-what kind of operation?'
'Your appendix was damaged when you crashed your car; they had to remove it.'
Appendix? Was that all? She groaned in disbelief.
'If you are worrying about a scar then don't,' Xander clipped. 'They used keyhole surgery-barely a knick; you will be as perfect as ever in a few weeks.'
Did he really believe that she cared about some silly scarring? Down in A&E they'd been tossing about all kinds of scenarios from burst spleen to ovaries!
'I hate you so much,' she gasped out then burst into tears, the kind of loud, hot, choking tears that came with pure, agonising delayed shock and brought people running and had Xander letting go of her to shoot to his feet.
After that she lost sight of him when a whole army of care staff crowded in. But she could still hear his voice, cold with incision: 'Can someone explain to me, please, why my wife shares a room with three other sick individuals? Does personal dignity have no meaning here...?'
The next time Nell woke up she was shrouded in darkness other than for a low night lamp burning somewhere up above her head. She could open her eyes without having to force them and she was feeling more comfortable, though she suspected the comfort had been drug-induced. Moving her head on the pillow in a careful testing motion, she felt no pain attack her brow and allowed herself a sigh of relief. Then she began to take an interest in her surroundings. Something was different, though for the life of her she couldn't say what.
'You were moved this afternoon to a private hospital,' a deep voice informed her.
Turning her head in the other direction, she saw Xander standing in the shadows by the window. Her heart gave a helpless little flutter then clenched. Private hospital. Private room. 'Why?' she whispered in confusion. He didn't answer. But then why would he? A man like him did not leave his wife to the efficient care of the National Health Service when he could pay for the same service with added touches of luxury.
As she looked at him standing there in profile, staring out of the window, it didn't take much work for her dulled senses to know his mood was grim. The jacket to his dark suit had gone and he'd loosened the tie around his throat. She could just pick out the warm sheen of his golden skin as it caught the edges of a soft lamplight. For a moment she thought she saw a glimpse of the man she had fallen in love with a year ago.
The same man she'd seen on the evening she'd walked into her father's study and found Xander there alone. He'd been standing like this by her father's window, grimly contemplating what lay beyond the Georgian glass with its hand-beaten distortions that had a knack of distorting everything that was happening in the world beyond.
That was the night he had asked her to marry him; no fanfare, no romantic preliminaries. Oh, they'd been out to dinner a couple of times, and Xander tended to turn up at the same functions she would be attending and seem to make a beeline for her. People had watched curiously as he monopolised her attention and she blushed a lot because she wasn't used to having such a man show a desire for her company.