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Authors: Elizabeth Adler

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BOOK: The Charmers
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And then the Ducati roared past, the small green car disappeared, the road stopped being underneath us, and we were flying, a glorious dark blue bird, smooth as on a test drive, through the air into the depths below.

Somewhere, somehow, out of the corner of my eye before I shut out everything and fled into unconsciousness, I glimpsed the Ducati tearing up that stretch of the corniche road, its faceless leather-clad driver speeding away without so much as a glance our way. The Porsche was gone, the green car was gone, he was gone, and so, I believed were we. I did not feel it would be to a better place. But then, I didn't have much time to think about anything.

 

4

Chad Prescott

The flight from Paris's Charles de Gaulle to Nice's Côte d'Azur was delayed. That was what Chad Prescott was told when he disembarked from his third flight in twenty-four hours, starting out in a small and very ancient Fokker biplane in a jungle airstrip in the Amazon that took him to Manaus, and from there, on a six-seater Lear to São Paulo. Which was where he had started out to begin with, several months ago.

It seemed longer than that, he thought wearily, taking a seat at the bar in the first-class lounge and downing a beer, his first in a long time. Well, his first
cold
beer. He'd had others but those he'd drunk in locations where refrigeration was erratic, if not completely unknown. He had the generator in his truck, of course, but that was used for medical situations, its energy not to be wasted on simply chilling a beer.

He ordered a ham-and-cheese sandwich. It came on a soggy roll but still tasted better than anything he recalled eating recently. There had never been much time to think of anything other than the job at hand.

Chad was what he'd always termed a “medical man.” Born in Chicago, where he later attended med school, to a French mother and a U.D. engineer father, who had died together in a train crash in Europe, he was used to international travel from childhood, to calling the place he happened to be at that moment, “home.” He was a surgeon specializing in facial reconstruction, which is what took him twice a year to South America, Africa, the Congo—you name it—and where he operated on children with cleft palates, or without noses, or whose jaws were malformed. Job satisfaction rated high on his list, especially when he saw the amazed joy on the young patients' faces when they looked at the results in the mirror. He might not be able to give them beauty, but he gave them normality. It was enough.

His other job was as a consultant at a top Paris hospital, where he kept an apartment on the Left Bank. In Paris he needed to be near the river Seine, to keep it somehow always in view or at least around the corner, a walk from the Rue Jacob, or Bonaparte, or the Café de Flore. Sometimes he thought he lived on the terrace at the Flore; he couldn't count the hours he must have spent in those uncomfortable faux-cane chairs, sipping a glass of wine or a coffee, just watching the world go by. The contrast to the jungles of his other life—his real life as he thought of it—was extreme and he relished it.

Now though, he was heading for the place he loved best of all: his villa in the South of France where he was fortunate enough to own several acres—hectares as they were called—that protected the privacy he needed. Plus, he now owned the villa next door and its land, left to him by his old friend and neighbor, Jolly Matthews, who'd sent him a letter to that effect a couple of months before she died so violently, so tragically. He'd liked the old girl, they'd enjoyed many a pleasant evening together, conversation and the wine flowing, her tales of the past, of the famous musical star, the beauteous Jerusha, and life as it was then, before the crowds and the airports and the hustle and bustle.

He planned to invite guests to his villa, old friends, not many but enough; bistros would be visited; a swim in the cool blue Mediterranean of an early morning; good hot French coffee; a croissant rich with butter; perhaps even a mango from the tree he'd planted himself five years ago, if mangoes were in season. He wasn't sure. Out there, in the jungle villages, he kind of lost track of how the seasons passed, unless it was the rainy season and he found himself engulfed in mud. That was the way life was, but his work gave him the energy, the strength to go on. Still, it was good to be going home to perfect peace and quiet.

His flight was finally announced and they boarded. He was thankful he had spent the previous night in a hotel where he'd had the opportunity to take a proper shower and shave, though his hair badly needed cutting. He chopped at it himself every now and again. It was dark blond, floppy, thick, and dead straight.

He was tall, six-two, perhaps overly lean, but with a tight body gained from hard work and the deprivation of the jungle locations where he spent a great deal of his time, often forced to operate in the flickering light from a generator that sometimes went out completely.

He was respectable enough now, in his khakis and a white polo shirt picked up in the airport shop, his trusty Nikes, and a backpack so ancient it was certainly not recognizable as coming from Loewe, the prestigious Spanish leather company. His face was lightly tanned, well-seasoned he called it, laughing at himself, which made the lines around his dark blue eyes crease up and a furrow appear across his brow. He did not consider himself good-looking, and had no vanity. He was a medical man first and foremost.

Twice a year he allowed himself to “come home.” The villa had been in his family for five generations, and was smaller than might be expected, never added to, never changed. It was basically still the simple white farmhouse it had always been, though now with modern comforts, like showers and electricity and a swimming pool. And a sort of beauty because Chad was a civilized man who hung his paintings on the walls and spent many an hour admiring them, and who filled his library shelves with rare editions as well as with paperback detective stories of the old-fashioned kind, which he found entertaining.

The villa itself was built from local stone for the first floor, and white painted wood for the second. There were no dormers and only a single chimney, venting the fireplace that divided the living area from the kitchen, an odd arrangement he found completely satisfactory because it saved time and effort. Log fires needed fueling and in winter he'd often fall asleep in front of the flames, drawing back his energy, his life.

The only problem with his villa was the driveway, which was shared with the house next door, the Villa Romantica. A dispute had been going on for decades about this, beginning with the original neighbor, Jerusha, the famed singer, actress, artiste supreme, and
woman-de-luxe,
mistress to many, it was rumored, and a superstar of her era. It was still unresolved but now that Chad owned the property, it was no longer an issue.

The flight attendant, a tall young woman with smiling dark eyes, showed him to his first-class seat, took his ratty old jacket—he had not had time to think about buying a new one—and offered him a glass of champagne, which, to his surprise, he found himself accepting. It was Taittinger, he noted with approval. He had not had that taste, felt that spritz on his tongue, the bubbles hitting the back of his throat in their sparkling way, in a long time. He enjoyed it but did not have a second glass. In fact, he extended his seat, turned out the light, put on an eye mask, and fell asleep.

He slept through the entire fight, waking only when the nice attendant shook him gently to warn him they would be landing in fifteen minutes. He went to the tiny bathroom, washed the sleep from his eyes, ran his hands through his hair, which looked even worse under the harsh light, straightened the collar of his polo shirt, and went back to his seat, where he confirmed on his cell phone that the car awaited him.

He knew Nice Côte d'Azur Airport like the back of his hand; he'd been using it for years, from back when it was still merely a small holiday link to the Mediterranean. Now it was a main destination from many countries. He always liked arriving there, with the quick glimpse of the blue sea, the avenues of palms, all long skinny trunks with a fluff of leaves at the top, the grainy pebbly strip of beach scattered with sunburned bodies in summer and a few strollers at the edge of the tiny waves off-season, when the beach shanties selling Fanta and ice cream and dried-up sandwiches in plastic bags were closed. He liked all of it. Anytime. It was home.

Chad came from a family of privilege with enough funds to maintain the Paris apartment, as well as his small villa. Even so, he remained a loner, though he did show up for the local cocktail parties in aid of what he considered “good causes,” to which he contributed what he could. His sole luxury was buying artworks for his small “home”—though when he was asked if he was an art expert he always said he was merely a medical man.

At the airport, he picked up his Mercedes. It made him think of the odd way the car came to be named. Austrian diplomat and businessman, Emil Jellinek, had raced custom-built Gottlieb Daimler cars that he named after his daughter, Mercédès.

The car had been left at the airport by Chad's caretaker and guy-of-all-work, who had been with him for the past ten years and knew how to keep out of the way and how to be there when needed.

First though, Chad decided to stop for a coffee—a good, rich cup of French coffee—at a seafront place where he could sit at a terrace table and watch the Mediterranean change color, the people flaunting their bodies on the pebbly beach, and the world going by. The contrast to his work life never failed to amuse him.

And the fact was it made him happy. He was coming home.

Later, fortified by the coffee and a butter-rich croissant, he turned the Mercedes onto the corniche road, the very same road where the famous fifties movie star, Grace Kelly, had met her untimely death and that wound between the steep hill and the canyon. There was a smile on his face, dark glasses filtered the sunlight, the windows were open to the breeze.

He spotted the dark blue Maserati and the two cars in front of it, and the black Ducati with the black-helmeted biker that roared past him. And, as if in slow motion, he saw the Maserati with a woman at the wheel and a blond passenger next to her spin off the road and into the depths of that canyon.

Chad braked hard, got on his mobile, and called for medical help and the gendarmes. Then he got out of the car and stood looking down at the wreck. It was impossible to access on foot; they would need a helicopter. He remained at the side of the road, awaiting the ambulances and the cops.

 

5

Mirabella

When I came to, I found we were perched precariously, right-side-up, halfway down the canyon. How we had not tumbled to the bottom was a miracle, and we would need another miracle to get us out of there.

The car wobbled under me, then settled itself on the rugged chunks of rock that had stopped our fall. I put up a hand to sweep the hair from my brow, tugged at the seat belt that was cutting into my chest and which had probably saved my life, opened my eyes, and took stock. I could move my head, my arms, my legs.

I glanced sideways at my blond passenger. Poor girl, how unfortunate that she had accepted a lift. Running from a husband she called a bastard was one thing; facing her demise in a car crash with a total stranger was another. The first event you might survive; the second was unlikely, though thank God she did not appear to be bleeding all over the white leather.

Thoughts spun through my head. I had been forced off the road by a mad biker, who presumably wanted me dead. But why? Perhaps it wasn't
me
the Ducati rider was after, it might have been the small green car in front, driving slowly and a bit erratically along the dangerously winding road, veering over the center line practically under the sixteen-wheeler coming at us. A shiver ran through me as I recalled the Ducati shooting past, swinging sideways at the small car, until with a shriek of rubber on cement it had spun off the road and over the edge, and then the Ducati hit me and took off, faster, as they said of Superman, than a speeding bullet.

Oh, Jesus, had I just witnessed a murder? Or was it me he had meant to kill and gotten somebody else by mistake? But who would want
me
dead? Or the young blonde sitting next to me? Surely not even a bastard husband could want
her
dead.

No, it had to be
me,
the “rich bitch” in the expensive car, the woman with all that money she'd not even earned, simply inherited from an aunt who'd died violently and mysteriously. Me, Mirabella, the woman who now owned the villa where we were heading before this event. I could not bring myself to call the dangerous act “attempted murder.” Not yet, anyway. I would have to deal with that later, try to think of who might have something to gain from my death.

Meanwhile, I had to get my head together, find my phone, get help for the other car, though there was unlikely to be any reception down here. Yet, wait, up at the top of the cliff, faces peered over the broken edge-rail, horror written all over them. I put up an arm, waved, saw them flinch with shock, then rush about, obviously trying to get help. I must wait; later I would find out who had tried to kill me. Or Verity.

The rescuers were soon here; some clambering on ropes down the slope while others circled in a small open-sided helicopter, swirling dust into my eyes so I could hardly see. “Saviors,” I should really call them, because I knew in a very short while the Maserati would have continued its tumble into what seemed a bottomless canyon, where even finding our bodies would have been doubtful. Probably been just bits and pieces by then anyway, and since we both seemed currently to be all in one piece, I allowed myself the luxury of tears. In fact I was crying my eyes out, in front of all those TV and press cameras that suddenly appeared out of nowhere, the way they always do at scenes of disaster, though I doubted my demise would have counted as “a disaster,” except to me.

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