Glimpses of fields pushing into the distance sneaked through the dark foliage. The ever-present mountains cast cool shadows through the sunshine. And, if his GPS wasn't glitching, any moment to the east...
There. Sunlight bounced off arched windows and turned pale sandstone turrets into rose-gold. Pink and gold banners flapped high in the breeze while the Palace of Vallemont sat high and grand on its pretty bluff, like something out of a fairy tale.
And the knot in Will's stomach grew so that it pressed hard against his lungs.
The first time he'd been invited to the palace had been well over a decade before. Circumstances—by way of a skiing accident—had seen to it that he'd been forced to stay at his grandparents' mausoleum of a townhouse in London that summer, leaving his sister, Clair, to visit the royal family as Hugo's special guest on her own.
Only a few weeks later, Will's life had been irrevocably, tragically altered. The boy who'd already lost so much became a young man who'd lost everything. And Vallemont, this postcard-pretty part of the world, had been a throbbing bruise on his subconscious ever since.
Memories lifted and flurried. He'd handled things less than admirably at the time. This was his chance to put things right. He held the steering wheel tighter and kept moving forward.
The thicket filled out, the view narrowing to the curving tunnel of green and rutting muddy road that hadn't had the benefit of recent sunshine. A herd of sheep suddenly tripped and tumbled their way across the road.
Will slowed again, this time to a stop. He rested his elbow on the windowsill, his chin in his hand, his finger tapping against his bottom lip. If life wasn't so cruel, random and insensate, he might one day have attended a very different wedding in this storybook place. Not as a ghost from the groom's past, but as best man and brother, all in one.
He shook his head.
were not relevant. The world simply kept on turning. Day would dissolve into night. And tomorrow it would start all over again.
The last of the sheep skittered past, followed by a wizened old man in overalls holding a crook. He tipped his hat. Will returned with a salute. And then he and the knot in his belly were off again.
He kept his speed down as rain had dug deep grooves into the ancient mud and stone. The trees hung dangerously low over the road, dappling sunlight over the windscreen, shadow and light dancing across his hands, hindering his vision for a second, then...
Will slammed on the brakes. He gripped the wheel as the car fishtailed, mud spattering every which way, the engine squalling, the small tyres struggling to find purchase.
Then the car skidded to a jarring halt, momentum throwing him forward hard against the seatbelt, knocking his breath from his lungs. At which point the engine sputtered and died.
His chest burned from the impact of the belt. His fingers stung on the wheel. Blood rushed like an ocean behind his ears. Adrenaline poured hotly through his veins. And beneath it all his heart clanged in terror.
He'd heard a noise. He was sure of it. The growl and splutter had been punctuated with a thud.
Expecting carnage, axle damage from a fallen log, or, worse, a lone sheep thrown clear by the impact, Will opened his eyes.
Sunlight streaked through the thicket. Steam rose from the road. Wet leaves fell like confetti from a tree above. But there was no sheep in sight.
Instead, dead centre of his windscreen, stood a woman.
He blinked to make sure he wasn't imagining her. So pale, sylph-like in the shadows of the dark, dank vegetation, she practically glowed.
As if in slow motion, a leaf fluttered from above to snag in a dark auburn curl dangling over her face. Another landed on a fair bare shoulder. Yet another snagged on the wide skirt of a voluminous pink dress three times bigger than she was.
Those were details that stampeded through Will's mind during the half-second it took him to leap from the car. The mud sluicing over the tops of his dress shoes and seeping into his socks mattered only so far as the fact it slowed him down.