The Society Wife

By: India Grey

THE shadow of the helicopter fell over the lush velvet lawns of Stowell Castle, stirring up the hot August air and ruffling the canopies of the great trees in the parkland.

Tristan Romero de Losada Montalvo glanced down. Below him the party was already well under way, and he could see waiters carrying trays of champagne circulating between the groups of outlandishly dressed guests scattered across the emerald grass. Dispassionately he noticed that people were looking up, emerging from the marquees placed at opposite ends of the lawn and shielding their eyes from the sinking sun to watch his arrival.

It was set to be the party of the year, because Tom Montague’s Annual Charity Costume Ball always was. This was the event that drew the glitterati and the aristos back from their Malibu beach houses and Tuscan palazzos to indulge in twenty-four hours of lavish hedonism in the idyllic setting of Stowell Castle’s gardens.

It was also the event that had drawn Tristan Romero back from the jaws of hell some two thousand miles away, for reasons that had nothing to do with indulgence or hedonism.

He was here for Tom.

Sighing wearily, he circled the helicopter round over the lawn so that the roofs of the marquees snapped and strained like galleons’ sails. Tom Montague was the seventh Earl of Cotebrook and one of the most genuinely good and generous people imaginable; a combination which Tristan felt was particularly dangerous—especially where women were concerned. Tom only ever looked for the good in people, even when it was invisible to the rest of humankind. Which was why they’d been friends for such a long time, Tristan thought acidly, and why he now felt duty bound to come and make sure that the girl that Tom had talked about incessantly over the past few weeks was worthy of him.

But, of course, he would be dishonest as well as emotionally bankrupt if he tried to pretend that that was his only reason for coming.

Ultimately he was here because the tabloid press and the paparazzi and the gossip columnists expected him to be. It was part of the deal he had made when he sold his soul to the devil. Grimly he swung the helicopter round, following the path of the river that looped around Stowell and marked its northern boundary. As he came lower his eyes raked the trees along the river bank, looking for the telltale glitter of sunlight on a long lens.

They would be there, of that he was sure. One of the hardened group of paparazzi elite, who were dedicated enough to go the extra distance for a picture and ruthless enough not to question the ethics of getting it. They would be there somewhere, watching and waiting.

He would be almost insulted if they weren’t. Many people in a similar position to him complained endlessly about press intrusion, but to Tristan that was missing the point. It was a game. A game of strategy and skill, in which the truth was an irrelevance and a lapse of concentration could cost you your reputation. Tristan didn’t like the paparazzi, but neither did he underestimate them for a second. It was simply a case of use or be used. Be the manipulator or the victim.

And Tristan Romero would never be a victim again.

Down below Lily Alexander slipped through the crowds of people in their spectacular costumes as if in a dream. The champagne in her hand was vintage, the silk Grecian-style dress she wore was designer, and the stretch of grass beneath her bare feet was at that moment just about the most enviable place to be on the planet.

So why did she feel as if something was missing?

There was a saying on the London modelling circuit: ‘There are three things that money can’t buy: love, happiness and an invitation to the Stowell Annual Costume Ball.’ Magical was the word people used to describe it, in tones of wistful reverence. Lily was unutterably privileged to be here, as she told herself for about the fortieth time that evening, blotting out the dissatisfied little voice that answered, But where’s the magic? Surely there has to be more to life than this…

A shadow passed across the dipping sun, darkening the extravagant pink and gold evening. Walking across the lawn in search of Scarlet, Lily was aware of a throbbing in her head; a steady, rhythmic pulsing, like a second heartbeat, which only seemed to intensify her edginess.

This year the theme of the party was Myths and Legends, and as the sun cast long shadows across the grass silken-clad girls with elaborate, shimmering fairy wings were mingling with Greek gods and screen icons. Several large marquees stood around the fringes of the lawn, with a space in the centre where, according to Scarlet, a troop of semi-naked stunt riders were going to perform later.