‘So...?’ He tilted his head back questioningly.
sp; ‘It’s a little intimidating.’ She met his gaze. ‘Should I change for lunch?’ She looked down at her jeans and sweater.
He shook his head. ‘But, speaking of clothes, I have something for you.’ Taking her hand, he led her past the gloriously over the top canopied bed and into the dressing room. ‘I hope you like it.’
Frankie stared past him, open-mouthed, at a curaçao-blue silk dress. Except that dress was too basic a word for the confection hanging from the rail. Thin, fragile straps, a flowing skirt... Turning the dress, she felt her pulse accelerate. And a devastating neckline cut low to reveal the length of her back.
‘Where...? How did you...?’ she stammered.
‘Bond Street. I had them courier it up.’ His eyes were fixed on her face, examining her reaction. ‘I took a punt at your measurements, so I hope it fits.’
‘Oh, Arlo.’ She breathed out shakily. ‘It’s lovely...but I can’t accept this.’
‘Of course you can. I invited you, remember? And after I spoke to Serena I realised the party was going to be bigger and grander than I thought.’
‘Grander!’ Her head was spinning. ‘You mean, like crowns and things?’
Shaking his head, he brushed her hair back around her ear. ‘No, it’s just that the guest list is a bit of a roll-call of the great and the good. They like to dress up and I want you to feel at home.’
There was no dress on earth that could do that, she thought dully.
‘Who are they?’ she heard herself say.
‘There’s my other cousins, Jack and Arthur. Jack runs a very successful hedge fund and his wife Charlotte co-owns an art gallery in Knightsbridge. Arthur owns an estate over the border in Scotland, and his wife Jemma is a model. Then there’s Tom—he set up a literacy charity...’
She felt hot and shivery, as if she had a fever. Maybe she did have one. It would certainly explain why she wasn’t thinking straight...why she had agreed to this. What had she been thinking? It was hard enough to pretend to herself that she was good enough. She couldn’t possibly spend an evening trying to convince people like Arlo’s friends and family.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do this.’
‘Do what?’ Arlo looked straight into her eyes. He sounded confused.
‘Be here. In this house. With these people.’ Her hands were tingling now, and she felt a rush of panic, cold and swirling and unstoppable, like the waves rising up over the causeway. ‘I thought I could, but I don’t fit in here. I don’t own an estate. I’m not a lady.’
‘So what? I’m not a lord...’ The confusion in his eyes had darkened his irises almost to black.
‘But you’re related to one. And you own an island.’ Her heart was crashing in her ears. ‘You’ve walked to the South Pole alone. Everyone at this party will have done something amazing, won’t they?’
‘And so have you.’ His hands caught her wrists. ‘Look, Frankie, I get that you’re still grieving, but you have got to stop this. You’ve got to let go.’
Her heart squeezed. ‘Of what?’
‘This need you feel to be worthy of life.’ He was looking at her, his face implacable. ‘Look, I understand. You see it all the time in the military. Survivor’s guilt. A belief that you did something wrong by surviving. That being alive makes you guilty.’
In a tiny voice, she said, ‘But I am guilty.’
‘Of what? Surviving something that was completely random?’
‘Not just surviving.’ She drew a breath, trying to maintain control. ‘It’s my fault they’re dead.’
* * *
Heart hammering, Arlo stared at her in silence. Her voice sounded as if it was sticking in her throat. She looked frightened, angry, helpless.
It was like seeing himself at thirteen.
Pushing that thought away, he shook his head. ‘It wasn’t your fault, Frankie. It was an accident.’