Read In Bed With a Stranger Online

Authors: India Grey

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Sagas

In Bed With a Stranger (8 page)

BOOK: In Bed With a Stranger
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It was as if the hurricane had passed and they had emerged into a calmer place. But the damage had still been done.

Sophie was too tired, too overwhelmed by the revelations of the evening to think about what that damage might be.

‘You’ve made a very good choice.’

Juliet’s voice was gentle as she looked down at Sophie, fast asleep on her nest of cushions. Her hair was spread out over the vibrant-coloured silk, and in the warm lantern-glow it was every bit as rich and precious and gleaming. She looked like an Eastern princess in some exotic tale.

‘Yes.’ Kit’s throat was tight with emotion. With love, and despair, and fear.

‘Although really, you don’t choose who you fall in love with,’ Juliet said. ‘When it happens, that’s it. And it doesn’t matter how impossible it is, you can’t change it because you know you’re in for good. For life.’

Kit made a hollow sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. A pulse beat painfully in his temples, as if everything that he’d discovered that evening was gathered there. ‘It’s not always that straightforward though, is it? You can’t always just go with it because you
want
to.’

He spoke more angrily than he’d meant to, and realised that she would think he was talking about her and Leo and the small boy they’d left behind. He wasn’t. He was thinking of himself as an adult. Now. Himself and Sophie and their future, which seemed suddenly fragile in the light of the things Juliet had just told him.

Sophie stirred. A frown appeared for a second between her eyebrows and she raised her hands to cover her ears, as if she had heard his outburst and was blocking it out. Kit tensed against the tidal wave of love that crashed through him, the swell of cold, churning panic that followed in its wake.

Juliet waited until she was still again. ‘I understand that you’re angry with me,’ she said, very softly. ‘I don’t expect anything else. But I’m so glad that you came and gave me a
chance to explain. Even if you can’t forgive what happened, I wanted to make sure you knew about Alnburgh.’

She got to her feet, glancing at Sophie again. ‘Let’s not wake her. Come downstairs—I’ve had a copy made of Leo’s will for you. All the details about the estate are in there.’

Kit stood up and went over to Sophie, looking down at her, fighting the urge to bend and kiss her slightly parted lips. In the constantly changing landscape of his life she was the one thing that was the same, the one thing that was true and good and wholly beautiful,
but

He tore his gaze away from her and forced himself to follow Juliet.

‘The details being?’ he asked blandly. The palms of his hands were burning. He didn’t care about the estate. There were other things he needed her to tell him.

‘It was all sorted out legally at the point when we got divorced. Leo forfeited his right to inherit Alnburgh. He figured it was a bargain—he got me, and Ralph got the estate and an heir.’

The stairs from the roof terrace emerged onto a galleried landing over the central hallway below. Lamplight illuminated the intricate plaster friezes and carved doors, the metal grille of an old-fashioned lift. Kit followed her along the landing and into a large room. She flicked a switch and the huge metalwork lantern hanging from the high ceiling lit up a sparsely furnished space, containing only a chest of drawers, a dressing table and a narrow single bed.

Kit’s heart felt a jolt as he noticed the silver dressing-table set—hairbrush, mirror and tortoiseshell comb—he remembered from his mother’s bedroom at Alnburgh.

‘So Leo effectively signed away his son to his brother?’

Juliet went over to the chest of drawers and pulled open the top drawer. ‘He was ill by then. He knew he couldn’t be a proper father, although he wanted to …
so much
. Making
sure the legal agreement was watertight and Alnburgh was yours was the one thing he could do.’

She turned round slowly and Kit saw that she was holding a sheaf of photographs.

‘It was very brutal, his illness.’ There was a break in her voice as she held out the photographs. ‘He was such a strong, powerful man.’

Kit felt as if something were wrapped tightly around his throat. The top photo was of Leo Fitzroy in camouflage uniform, squinting against the sun, half turned towards the camera. The background was the featureless beige of a desert, and Kit could almost feel the heat, picture him walking away, continuing to issue orders to the men who were just out of shot.

‘You’re so like him.’

It was true. He could see that for himself. He looked at the next photograph. Leo in civilian clothes this time, his arm around Juliet in some pavement café, glasses of Pernod and postcards on the tin table in front of them. It was the Juliet Kit remembered, young and smiling. The mother Leo had taken.

‘Marbella,’ she said softly. ‘I was writing you a postcard.’

And so it went on. Pictures of a thinner Leo standing outside Villa Luana, with a gin and tonic in his hand on the roof terrace, in a wheelchair.

Kit’s hand was shaking as he continued to the last photograph. It was a close-up of Leo, skeletal now, propped up against a mountain of pillows, a breathing tube in his neck. His cheeks were sunken, his wasted hands resting impassively on the sheets.

‘The doctors were right about what the disease would do to him,’ Juliet said huskily. ‘As you can see, it ravaged his body completely, without mercy. But it didn’t touch the man I loved inside.’

Kit found he was looking into the eyes of the man in the
photo. His father. His face was slack and expressionless, but his eyes were bright, alive, full of love.

‘That was the cruellest thing,’ Juliet went on. ‘But it was also the most wonderful. And although the price I paid to be with him was
so high
…’ She faltered, pressing a hand to her lips for a moment. ‘Every day we had together was a blessing.’

Kit gave the photos back to her. He had the same feeling he got in the aftermath of an explosion, when all the oxygen had been sucked from the air and his lungs were full of grit. His hands felt as if they’d been crushed by boulders.

‘This illness …’ he said hoarsely, taking a few steps away from her. Suddenly he understood the reason for the single bed, and the lift he’d noticed on the landing, and felt faint.

‘Motor Neurone Disease.’ Juliet sighed. ‘Sadly it’s not that rare.’

Kit swung round to look at her again. Blood was pounding in his ears.

‘Is it hereditary?’

She turned away, shuffling the photos into a neat stack in her hands as she took them back to the drawer again. Seconds ticked by.

‘No,’ she said, without looking at him. ‘Almost always not.’

Another explosion ripped through Kit’s head. He could feel the sweat gathering in the small of his back.

‘What does that mean?’

Juliet was looking through the contents of the drawer, her head bent. ‘We asked the specialist. In maybe ten per cent of cases, I think there might be a genetic link, but for the vast majority it’s just chance. Here—’

She came back over to him, holding out a large Manila envelope and, on top of it, a square velvet box. Kit stared at it without registering.

Ten per cent. One in ten cases …

‘It’s Leo’s will,’ Juliet prompted. ‘You might want your own copy. And this …’ she held out the velvet box ‘… is the Fitzroy ring. The Dark Star. I couldn’t help noticing that Sophie doesn’t have an engagement ring yet. Perhaps—’

A sinister voice inside Kit’s head told him not to take it. That giving it to Sophie would be like shackling her to him with a ball and chain. But somehow he found himself holding the box in his hand.

‘It’s late. We should go.’

Juliet nodded, then reached up to take hold of his shoulders. ‘Thank you,’ she said fiercely. ‘I’m so very, very glad you came.’

Kit leaned down, kissing her briefly on the cheek, wishing he could say the same.

CHAPTER EIGHT

A
S SOPHIE
swam slowly into consciousness the first thing she was aware of was that her head hurt. The second was that the uneasy feeling somewhere in the pit of her stomach was only partly the result of too much champagne the night before.

She opened her eyes. Through the fretwork shutters the sky was a clear delphinium blue. Beside her the bed was empty.

Kit was always up ages before her. It didn’t mean anything was wrong, she told herself, sitting up and putting a hand up to her aching head. Looking down, she saw that she was still wearing last night’s silk tunic.

She let out a moan of dismay.

Oh, God, she’d fallen asleep, hadn’t she? The last thing she remembered was sitting on Juliet Fitzroy’s elegant terrace … the champagne, the warm night, her beautiful voice with its impeccable English accent telling the story of how she’d fallen in love with Leo. And dropping the bombshell that Kit was still a Fitzroy and heir of Alnburgh.

Falling back onto the bed, she pulled the pillow over her head.

There were other, slightly more hazy memories. Kit carrying her down to the car, and how being held against him had made her feel safe again, though safe from what she wasn’t quite so sure. She remembered twining her arms around his
neck as he’d lowered her into the seat, and how he’d detached her with a finality that felt like rejection.

Oh, dear. She had some apologising to do.

Carefully she got to her feet. Being upright wasn’t as bad as she’d feared, and once her head had stopped protesting at the movement she tugged her top down and went in search of water, and Kit.

She found him out on the terrace. He was wearing last night’s trousers and no shirt, and the sight of his broad, muscular back, already the colour of sun-baked terracotta, made her completely forget her hangover. Going up to him, she slid her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to the warm skin between his shoulder blades.

‘If I’ve missed breakfast is there any chance I could just have you instead?’ she murmured huskily.

He went very still. Somehow, Sophie found that more unsettling than if he’d pulled away.

‘You haven’t missed breakfast,’ he said neutrally, putting down the sheaf of papers he’d been reading. ‘I’ll get something sent up now.’

Sophie stood up and stepped back. She felt slightly sick, but couldn’t be sure if it was her hangover or Kit’s chilling indifference. Welcome to Planet Paranoia, she sneered silently at herself, going round to the front of his chair and sitting down on the one opposite. From the front he looked even more gorgeous. He was wearing dark glasses and his hair was standing on end where he’d run his fingers through it. The bottom half of his face beneath the scars, which were healing nicely now, was shadowed with stubble.

‘I’m sorry about last night,’ she said ruefully. ‘And to be honest I’m not that hungry. I really would just rather have you.’

‘There are some things I need to do. I’m still going through this.’

He held up the sheaf of papers. Sophie could see her own
face reflected in the lenses of his sunglasses. Pale. Needy. She aimed for interested and supportive instead.

‘Oh? What is it?’

‘Leo’s will.’

Acid churned in her stomach and the smile faded from her face. ‘Ah. Yes. That was a bit of a bombshell, wasn’t it? So, it turns out Alnburgh is yours after all.’ She laughed uneasily. ‘Jasper will be over the moon.’

‘I’ll need to see him when we get home.’

He seemed to have surrounded himself with some kind of invisible, impenetrable force field. Sophie swallowed back the acid fear that was rising in her throat as she mentally ran through the possible reasons for it.

‘Well, he’s in LA at the moment,’ she said as lightly as she could. ‘Once he hears he’s off the hook he’ll probably throw a party of such epic proportions that he’ll still be recovering by Christmas.’ She broke off, realising that she might not be in the best position to criticise on that score. Moistening her dry lips and pleating the embroidered hem of the silk tunic with shaky fingers, she quickly changed tack. ‘What about you …? How do you feel about it all? You must be happy to find that you’re a Fitzroy after all.’ She managed a smile. ‘And not just
any
Fitzroy, but the one who gets to inherit everything …’

He laughed then. Which, since it had been meant as a joke, was good. But it was a sound of such hollow bitterness that Sophie felt her insides freeze.


Happy?
Not exactly. Believe me, inheriting
everything
is a very mixed blessing.’

She got to her feet, clammy with nausea. She understood his meaning. Being the Earl of Hawksworth brought with it responsibilities, one of which was undoubtedly making a suitable marriage to a woman who had what it took to carry off a tiara and a title, and fulfil the duty of providing further heirs.

Everything she had joked about with Jasper over lunch the other day when this had been impossible enough to joke about. Everything she wasn’t and couldn’t ever be.

Kit lifted a hand to his forehead, rubbing his long, strong fingers across it as if trying to erase something. ‘I have some calls to make.’

‘I’ll go and have a shower,’ Sophie muttered, backing towards the door.

‘I think I’m going to need to get back today,’ Kit continued, without looking up. ‘I’ll get Nick to fly me to Newcastle and hire a car to Alnburgh.’

Sophie stopped. ‘What about me?’

Kit raised his head, but he didn’t turn to look at her.

‘I know how you feel about Alnburgh,’ he said in a voice of great weariness. ‘I don’t expect you to come if you don’t want to. But you must understand that I have to go.’

A tiny spark of hope glowed in the darkness of Sophie’s misery. Or it could have been a spark of desperation. Either way he hadn’t told her that he didn’t want her there.

‘I do want to.’ She swallowed hard, raising her chin and forcing herself to smile as she looked at him. ‘Alnburgh might not be top of my dream destination list but you’ve just been away for five months. I’m not ready to let you go again so soon. I want to come with you.’

Kit waited until he’d heard the distant sound of the bathroom door shutting before expelling the breath he’d been holding and dropping Leo’s will onto the table.

He hadn’t quite been telling the truth when he’d said he was still going through it. He’d been up all night, ploughing through pages of dense legal jargon that effectively restored his birthright, and it was clear enough. Just as Juliet had explained, Leo might have been denied an active role as a father, but he had spared no effort to make sure he passed on Alnburgh to his son.

Sophie was right, he should be delighted. Instead he could only think of what else Leo might have passed on to him.

He checked his watch. The doctors in the military medical unit should have done their rounds by now, so it was a good time to ring to see how Lewis was. It might also be possible to talk to Randall. They’d served together and Kit trusted him. Randall would give him a straight answer about whether the numbness in his hands, the pins and needles in his fingers, were the first signs of the disease that had slowly crucified his unknown father.

Kit picked up his phone and scrolled through his contacts until he found the number. Whether he could deal with that answer was another issue altogether.

Sophie got out of the shower and buried her face in a towel that was as thick and soft as a duvet. Ten minutes under powerful jets of steaming water had done little for her hangover and even less for her sense of dread, particularly as fragmented memories from last night were coming back thick and fast now.

‘You’re as good as anyone else.’
That had been her mother’s mantra when Sophie was growing up, but Rainbow had obviously never spent an evening with someone as poised and graceful and dignified as Juliet Fitzroy. Sophie’s groan of dismay was muffled by the towel as she remembered gulping champagne, swamping Juliet in an inelegant hug the moment she met her, chattering inanely about her flaky job—oh, God, had she really used the phrase ‘specialist hooker’?—and—the final disgrace—falling asleep the moment dinner was over.

She didn’t blame Kit if he was doubting the wisdom of his impulsive proposal.

Going through to the bedroom, she could hear the low murmur of his voice as he spoke into his mobile, but although she strained to hear it was impossible to make out what he was saying. The white dress she’d worn yesterday was thrown over
a chair and she picked it up, sliding it quickly over her head because she lacked the energy to find anything else. Through the intricate shutters she could see him, standing at the far end of the terrace where he must have gone deliberately to place himself out of earshot. His back was towards her, but he was standing as if tensed to fight.

She leaned her head against the shutters for a moment, remembering how she’d once told him that she wanted a man who would fight for her. And he had. When they’d almost been pulled apart by circumstances and misunderstandings he’d looked beyond the evidence of his own eyes and the prejudices of others and he’d come to find her, and fight for her.

Would he do it again?

One thing Sophie had learned from her free-spirited mother was that you couldn’t force love, or keep it in a cage. If she was going to be with Kit, sharing the life that had now been thrust upon him, it had to be because he wanted her there, not because he was honouring a promise made under different circumstances.

She wasn’t prepared to let him go without trying, she acknowledged sadly, but she had to give him space to get to grips with this new development.

Hastily she took a pad of hotel paper from beside the bed and scrawled a note. Then, slipping on her sandals and grabbing her bag, she let herself quietly out.

‘So, what does that mean? That he’s going to be all right?’

The shooting pains down Kit’s forearm told him he was probably holding the phone too tightly as he listened to Randall’s update on Lewis, but his hand was so numb he was afraid of dropping his mobile entirely if he loosened his grip. He stared out into the blue haze over the rooftops of the city, but in his mind he was back in that corridor outside Lewis’s room, strangled by guilt.

‘It means that there doesn’t seem to be any permanent
damage to his spinal cord,’ Randall said smoothly. ‘It was a bloody close thing, but the bullet seems to have missed it by a millimetre or so. Of course, he’s got a long way to go before he’s up and about, but at least it does look like that day will eventually come.’

‘Thank God for that.’

‘Indeed,’ Randall said wryly. ‘But how are you, Kit? I know it wasn’t the easiest of tours.’

‘I’m fine,’ Kit said curtly. ‘I was actually wearing a bomb suit for once, or else I wouldn’t be here. I got a few cuts on my face because the visor was up, but they’re healing OK.’

‘I’m pleased to hear it, but I’m not sure you’ve answered my question,’ Randall remarked gently. ‘I know you walked away from the explosion largely unscathed but I meant, how are you in yourself?’

‘All right. Just need to catch up on some sleep, that’s all.’

He closed his eyes, inwardly cursing as his courage failed him. He wanted to know, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to ask. God, what a coward.

Perhaps Randall sensed something in the sharpness of his voice because he persisted.

‘Not sleeping well?’

‘I never sleep well. But after being away for five months there always seem to be more pressing things to do in bed.’

Randall laughed. ‘In that case you only have yourself to blame.’

That was as far as he was going to press it, and Kit could tell by the tone of his voice that he was about to say goodbye and hang up. Suddenly his blood was pounding, his palms slick with sweat. He took a breath in.

‘Before you go, how much do you know about Motor Neurone Disease?’

There was a moment’s silence. ‘Well, I’m not a specialist. Was there anything specific you wanted to know?’

‘Yes. What are the early symptoms?’

From the other end of the line he heard Randall expel a long, heavy breath. ‘I don’t know, Kit. Every case is different, but muscle weakness in the hands or feet, I guess—probably more noticeably in the hands—clumsiness, lack of co-ordination, that kind of thing. Why?’

Kit ignored the question, his mind spooling back to those long moments beneath the bridge when his fingers had fumbled helplessly with the wire cutters.

‘What treatments are there?’

‘There’s no cure, if that’s what you mean,’ Randall said reluctantly. ‘Progress of the disease can be slowed slightly with drugs. It’s not pretty.’

‘No. I know that.’

‘But those symptoms are common to a huge number of illnesses that are a lot less serious and a lot more common,’ Randall continued, adopting a self-consciously cheerful tone. ‘MND really would be a worst case scenario, and a pretty unlikely one at that.’

Unless there was a genetic predisposition, thought Kit hollowly.

‘Kit? Are you still there? Look, why don’t you come in and see me when you get back? It would give Lewis a boost to have a visit from his commanding officer and I could give you a quick once-over if there’s anything that you’re worried about.’

‘No. There’s no need. Really.’

Wing Commander Mike Randall had been an army medic for long enough to know that soldiers responded to questions from a doctor in the same way they would to enemy torture—with stony refusal to co-operate. A more subtle approach was often needed. ‘How about a game of squash? It’s a while since we’ve played, although that could be because you always win. Fancy thrashing me again?’

Kit understood exactly what Randall was doing, and in
some distant, dispassionate quarter of his brain he appreciated it.

‘I’d love to, but …’ he lifted the hand that wasn’t holding the phone and held it out in front of him, stretching out his fingers as far as he could until the ache in his tendons just about dispelled the tingling numbness ‘… some things have come up. Family business. I’m going to be in Northumberland for the next few weeks.’

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