Twenty-one years old and fresh back from spending three years high up in the Canadian Rockies with a mother who preferred getting up close and personal with pieces of driftwood she found on the shores of the Kananaskis River than she did with living people. Nell had gone to Canada for her annual two-week visit with the reclusive Kathleen Garrett and stayed to the end when her mother had coolly informed her that she didn't have long to live.
Nell liked to think that her quiet company had given her mother a few extra years of normal living before it all got too much. Certainly they became a bit more like mother and daughter than they'd been throughout Nell's life when previous visits to her mother had made her feel more like an unwanted distant relative. Coming back to England and to her father's busy social lifestyle had come as a bit of a culture shock. She'd gone to Canada a child who'd spent most of her life being shunted from one boarding-school to another with very little contact with the social side of her industrialist father's busy life. Three years living quietly with her mother had been no preparation for a girl who'd become a woman without really knowing it until she met Alexander Pascalis.
An accident waiting to happen... Nell frowned as she tried to recall who it was that had said those words to her. Then she remembered and sighed because of course it had been this tall, dark silent man looking out of the window who'd spoken those words to her. 'A danger to yourself and to anyone near you,’ he'd rumbled out as he'd pulled her into his arms and kissed her before sombrely asking her to marry him.
She looked away from his long, still frame, not wanting to go back to those days when she'd loved him so badly she would have crawled barefooted over broken glass if that was what it took to be with him. Those days were long gone, along with her pride, her self-respect and her starry-eyed infatuation.
Her mouth was still dry, the muzzy effects of whatever they'd given her to stem the pain making her limbs feel weighted down with lead. When she tried to lift her hand towards the glass of water she could see on the cupboard beside her, she could barely raise her fingers off the bed.
'I need a drink,' she whispered hoarsely.
He was there in a second, sitting down on the bed and sliding an arm beneath her shoulders to lift her enough to place the glass to her lips. She felt his warmth and his strength as she sipped the water, both alien sensations when she hadn't been held even this close to him since the day of their marriage.
'Thank you,' she breathed as the glass was withdrawn again. He controlled her gentle slide back onto the pillows then sat back a little but didn't move away. Something was flickering in his dark eyes that she couldn't decipher-but then he was not the kind of man who wanted other people to read his thoughts-too precious, too-
'Your car was a write-off,' he remarked unexpectedly.
Her slender shoulders tensed in sudden wariness. 'W-was it?'
He nodded. His firmly held mouth gave a tense little twitch. 'You had to have been driving very fast to impale it so thoroughly on that tree.'
Nell lowered her eyes on a wince. 'I don't remember.'
'Nothing?' he questioned.
'Only driving through the gates at Rosemere then turning into the lane. After that-nothing,' she lied huskily.
He was silent for a few seconds and she could feel him studying her. Her cheeks began to heat. Lying had never been her forte. But what the devil did not know could not hurt him, she thought with a stab at dry sarcasm that was supposed to make her feel brave but didn't.
'W-what time is it?' She changed the subject.
Xander sprang back to his feet before glancing at the gold watch circling his wrist. 'Two-thirty in the morning.'
Nell lifted her eyes to watch the prowling grace of his long body as he took up his position by the window again. 'I thought you were in New York.'
'I came back-obviously.'
With or without Vanessa? she wondered. 'Well, don't feel like you have to hang around here for my benefit,' she said tightly.
He didn't usually hang around. He strode in and out of her life like a visiting patron, asked all the right polite questions about what she'd been doing since he'd seen her last and sometimes even lingered long enough to drag her out with him to some formal function-just to keep up appearances. He occupied the suite adjoining her bedroom suite but had never slept in it. Appearances, it seemed, only went as far as delivering her to her bedroom door before he turned and strode out of the house again.
'It is expected.'
And that's telling me, Nell thought with another wince. 'Well, I hereby relieve you of your duty,' she threw back, moved restlessly, which hurt, so she made herself go still again. And her eyelids were growing too heavy to hold up any longer. 'Go away, Xander.' Even her voice was beginning to sound slurry. 'You make me nervous, hanging around like this...'
Not so you would notice, Xander thought darkly as he watched the little liar drop into a deep sleep almost before her dismissal of him was complete. The night-light above her bed was highlighting her sickly pallor along with the swollen cuts and bruises that distorted her beautiful face. She would be shocked if she knew what she looked like.
Hell, the miserable state of her wounded body shocked him. And her hair was a mess, lying in lank, long copper tangles across the pillow. Oddly, he liked it better when it was left to do its own thing like this. The first time he'd seen her she'd been stepping into her father's house, having just arrived back from taking the dogs for a walk. It had been windy and cold outside and her face was shining, her incredible waist-length hair wild and rippling with life. Green eyes circled by a fascinating ring of turquoise had been alight with laughter because the smallest of the dogs, a golden Labrador puppy determined to get into the house first, had bounded past her, only to land on its rear and start to slither right across the slippery polished floor to come to a halt at his feet.
She'd noticed him then, lifting her eyes up from his black leather shoes on one of those slow, curious journeys he'd learned to recognise as a habit she had that set his libido on heat. By the time she'd reached his face her laughter had died to sweet, blushing shyness. What a look, he mocked now, recalling what happened to him every time she'd blushed like that for him-or even just looked at him.
Xander looked away and went back to his grim contemplation of the unremarkable view of the darkness outside the window, not wanting to remember what came after the blushing look. He should have backed off while he still had a chance then right off. If he had done they would not be in the mess they were now in. It was not his thing to mix business with pleasure, and the kind of business he'd had going with Julian Garrett had needed a cool, clear head.
Sexual desire was neither cool nor clear-headed. It liked to catch you out when you were not paying attention. He'd had a mistress, a beautiful, warm and passionately sensual woman who knew what he liked and did not expect too much back, so what did he need with a wild-haired, beautiful-eyed ingénue with a freakish kind of innocence written into her blushing face?
A sigh ripped from him. Nell was right and he should leave. He should get the hell away from here and begin the unpalatable task of some very urgent damage control, only he had a feeling it was already too late. The tabloid Press would already be running, churning out their damning accusations cloaked in rumour and suggestion. The only part of it all that he had going for him was the Press did not know what Nell had been in the process of doing when she crashed her car on that quiet country lane.
His pager gave a beep. Turning away from the window, he went to collect his jacket from where he'd tossed it on a chair and dug the pager out of one of the pockets.
Hugo Vance was trying to reach him. His teeth came together with a snap. And so to discover the truth about his wife's new friend, he thought grimly, shrugged on his jacket, sent Nell one final, searing dark glance then quietly let himself out of the room.
FOR the next few days Nell felt as if she had been placed in purdah. The only people that came to visit her belonged to the medical staff, who seemed to take great pleasure in making her uncomfortable before they made her comfortable again.
The first time they allowed her to take a shower she was shocked by the extent of her bruising. If anyone had told her that with enough applied pressure you could achieve a perfect imprint of a car safety belt across your body she would not have believed them-until she saw it striking across her own slender frame in two ugly, deep bands of dark purple bruising. She had puncture holes and stitches from the keyhole surgery and her cracked ribs hurt like crazy every time she moved. She had bruises on her legs, bruises and scratches on her arms and her face due to ploughing through bushes in an open-top car before it had slammed into the tree.
And the miserable knowledge that Xander had seen her looking like this did not make her feel any better. It was no wonder he hadn't bothered to come and visit her again.
Her night things had been delivered, toiletries, that kind of thing. And she'd even received a dozen red roses-Xander's way of keeping up appearances, she supposed cynically. He was probably already back in New York by now, playing the big Greek tycoon by day and the great Greek lover by night for the lovely Vanessa.