She opened her eyes and she was in a hospital bed and the first thing she saw was Alec Nichols.
"There's nothing in the house for you to eat," she whispered, and started to cry.
Alec's eyes filled with pain, and he put his arms around her and held her close. "Elizabeth!"
And she mumbled, "It's all right, Alec. Everything is fine."
And it was. Every inch of her body felt bruised and beaten, but she was alive, and she could not believe it. She remembered the terror of that drive down the mountain, and her body went cold.
"How long have I been here?" Her voice was weak and hoarse.
"They brought you in two days ago. You've been unconscious since then. The doctor says it was a miracle. According to everybody who saw the scene of the accident, you should be dead. A service crew came across you and rushed you in here. You have a concussion and a hell of a lot of bruises, but, thank the Lord, there's nothing broken." He looked at her, puzzled, and said, "What were you doing up there on that firebreak road?"
Elizabeth told him. She could see the horror onhis face as he lived through the terrible ride with her. He kept repeating, "Oh, my God," over and over. When Elizabeth had finished, Alec was pale. "What a stupid, terrible accident!"
"It wasn't an accident, Alec."
He looked at her, puzzled. "I don't understand."
How could he? He had not read the report. Elizabeth said, "Someone tampered with the brakes."
He shook his head incredulously. "Why would anyone do that?"
"Because - " She could not tell him. Not yet. She trusted Alec more than she trusted anyone else, but she was not ready to talk. Not until she felt stronger, not until she had had time to think.
"I don't know," she said evasively. "I'm just sure someone did."
She watched him and she could read the changing expressions on his face. They went from disbelief to puzzlement to anger.
"Well, we're certainly going to find out." His voice was grim.
He picked up the telephone, and a few minutes later he was talking to the Chief of Police in Olbia. "This is Alec Nichols," he said. "I - Yes, she's fine, thank you...Thank you. I'll tell her. I'm calling about the Jeep she was driving. Could you tell me where it is?...Would you keep it there, please? And I'd like you to get hold of a good mechanic. I'll be there in half an hour." He replaced the receiver. "It's in the police garage. I'm going over."
"I'm coming with you."
He looked at her in surprise. "The doctor said you must stay in bed for at least another day or two. You can't - "
"I'm coming with you," she insisted stubbornly.
Forty-five minutes later Elizabeth checked her bruised and swollen body out of the hospital over a doctor's protests, and was on her way to the police garage with Alec Nichols.
Luigi Ferraro, the Chief of Police of Olbia, was a swarthy, middle-aged Sardo, with a large stomach and bandy legs. Next to him was Detective Bruno Campagna, who towered over his chief. Campagna was a muscularly built man in his fifties, with an air of solid competence. He stood next to Elizabeth and Alec, watching a mechanic examine the underside of a Jeep that was raised on a hydraulic hoist. The left front fender and radiator had been smashed, and they were streaked with the sap of the trees they had crashed into. Elizabeth had felt faint at her first sight of the car, and she had had to lean on Alec for support. He looked at her with concern. "Are you sure you're up to this?"
"I feel fine," Elizabeth lied. She felt weak and terribly tired. But she had to see for herself.
The mechanic wiped his hands on a greasy cloth and walked over to the group. "They don't build them like that no more," he said.
Thank God, Elizabeth thought.
"Any other car woulda been in bits and pieces."
"What about the brakes?" Alec asked.
"The brakes? They're in perfect condition."
Elizabeth felt a sudden sense of unreality engulfing her. "What - what do you mean?"
"They're workin' fine. The accident didn't hurt them at all. That's what I meant when I said that they don't build - "
"That's impossible," Elizabeth interrupted. "The brakes weren't working on that Jeep."
"Miss Roffe believes that someone tempered with them," Chief Ferraro explained.
The mechanic shook his head. "No, sir." He walked back to the Jeep and pointed to the underside. "There's only two ways you can fregare - " He turned to Elizabeth. "Excuse me, signorina - screw up the brakes on a Jeep. You can either cut the brake links or you can loosen this nut" - he indicated a piece of metal on the underside - "and let the brake fluid run out. You can see for yourself that this link is solid, and I checked the brake drum. It's full."
Chief Ferraro said to Elizabeth soothingly, "I can understand how in your condition it could - "
"Just a moment," Alec interrupted. He turned to the mechanic. "Isn't it possible that those links were cut and then replaced or that someone drained the brake fluid and then filled it again?"
The mechanic shook his head stubbornly. "Mister, those links ain't been touched." He took his rag again and carefully wiped off the oil around the nut that held the brake fluid. "See this nut? If anyone had loosened it, there'd be fresh wrench marks on it. I'll guarantee that no one's touched it in the last six months. There's not a thing wrong with these brakes. I'll show you."
He walked over to the wall and pulled a switch. There was a whirring sound and the hydraulic lift began to lower the Jeep to the floor. They watched as the mechanic got in it, started the engine and backed the Jeep up. When it was touching the back wall, he put the Jeep in first gear and pressed down on the accelerator. The car raced toward Detective Campagna. Elizabeth opened her mouth to scream, and at that instant the Jeep jerked to a stop an inch away from him. The mechanic ignored the look the detective gave him and said, "See? These brakes are perfect."
They were all looking at Elizabeth now, and she knew what they were thinking. But that did not change the terror of that ride down the mountain. She could feel her foot pressing on the brakes, and nothing happening. Yet the police mechanic had proved that they worked. Unless he was in on it. And that meant the Chief of Police probably knew too. I'm becoming paranoiac, Elizabeth thought.
Alec said helplessly, "Elizabeth - "
"When I drove that Jeep, those brakes were not working."
Alec studied her for a moment, then said to the mechanic, "Let's suppose that someone did arrange it so that the brakes on this Jeep wouldn't work. How else could it have been done?"
Detective Campagna spoke up. "They could have wet the brake lining."
Elizabeth could feel an excitement stirring in her. "What would happen if they did that?"
Detective Campagna said, "When the brake lining pressed against the drum, it would have no traction."
The mechanic nodded. "He's right. The only thing is - " He turned to Elizabeth. "Were your brakes working when you started driving?"
Elizabeth remembered using the brakes to back out of the carport, and braking again later when she came to the first curves. "Yes," she said, "they were working."
"There's your answer," the mechanic said triumphantly. "Your brakes got wet in the rain."
"Hold on," Alec objected. "Why couldn't someone have wet them before she started?"
"Because," the mechanic said patiently, "lf anyone had wet them before she started, she wouldn'ta had no brakes at all."
The Chief of Police turned to Elizabeth. "Rain can be dangerous, Miss Roffe. Particularly on these narrow mountain roads. This sort of thing happens all too often."
Alec was watching Elizabeth, not knowing what to do next. She felt like a fool. It had been an accident after all. She wanted to get out of here. She looked at the Chief of Polce. "I - I'm sorry to have put you to all this trouble."
"Please. It is a pleasure. I mean - I am distressed about the circumstances, but it is always a pleasure to be of service. Detective Campagna will drive you back to your villa."
Alec said to her. "If you don't mind my saying so, old girl, you look ghastly. Now, I want you to hop into your bed and stay there for a few days. I'll order some groceries by telephone."
"If I stay in bed, who's going to cook?"
"I am," Alec declared.
That evening he prepared dinner and served it to Elizabeth in bed.
"I'm afraid I'm not a very good cook," he said cheerfully, as he set a tray down in front of Elizabeth.
It was the understatement of the year, Elizabeth thought. Alec was a terrible cook. Every dish was either burned, underdone or oversalted. But she managed to eat, partly because she was starving, and partly because she did not want to hurt Alec's feelings. He sat with her, making cheerful small talk. Not a word about what a fool she had made of herself at the police garage. She loved him for it.
The two of them spent the next few days at the villa, with Elizabeth remaining in bed, and Alec fussing over her, cooking all the meals, reading to her. During that time it seemed to Elizabeth that the telephone never stopped ringing. Ivo and Simonetta called every day to see how she was, and Helene and Charles, and Walther. Even Vivian called. They all offered to come and stay with her.
"I'm really all right," she told them. "There's no reason for you to come. I'll be returning to Zurich in a few days."
Rhys Williams called. Elizabeth had not realized how much she had missed him until she heard the sound of his voice.
"I hear you decided to give Helene some competition," he said. But she could hear the concern in his voice.
"Wrong. I only race on mountains, downhill." It was incredible to her that she could joke about it now.
Rhys said, "I'm glad you're all right, Liz."
His tone, as much as his words, warmed her. She wondered if he was with another woman now, and who she was. It would be someone beautiful, of course.
"Did you know you made the headlines?" Rhys asked.
" 'Heiress narrowly escapes death in car accident. Only a few weeks after her father, the well-known - ' You can write the rest of the story yourself."
They spoke on the phone for half an hour, and when Elizabeth hung up she was feeling much better. Rhys seemed so genuinely interested in her, and concerned. She wondered whether he made every woman he knew feel that way about him. It was part of his charm. She remembered how they had celebrated her birthdays together. Mrs. Rhys Williams.
Alec walked into the bedroom. He said, "You look like the Cheshire cat."
Rhys had always been able to make her feel that way. Perhaps, she thought, I should tell Rhys about the confidential report.
Alec had arranged for one of the company planes to fly them back to Zurich.
"I hate to take you back so soon," he said apologetically, "but there are some rather urgent decisions that have to be made."
The flight to Zurich was uneventful. There were reporters at the airport. Elizabeth made a brief statement about her accident, and then Alec had her safely inside the limousine and they were on their way to the company headquarters.
She was in the conference room with all the members of the board, and Rhys, present. The meeting had been going on for the past three hours, and the air was stale with cigar and cigarette smoke. Elizabeth was still shaken from her experience, and she had a pounding headache - Nothing to be concerned about, Miss Roffe. When the concussion wears off, the headaches will go away.
She looked around the room, at the tense, angry faces. "I've decided not to sell," Elizabeth had told them. They thought she was being arbitrary and stubborn. If they only knew how close she had come to giving in. But now it was impossible. Someone in this room was an enemy. If she quit now, it would be his victory.
They had all tried to convince her, each in his own fashion.
Alec said reasonably, "Roffe and Sons needs an experienced president, Elizabeth. Particularly now. For your own sake, as well as everyone else's, I would like to see you walk away from this."
Ivo used his charm. "You're a beautiful young girl, carissima. The whole world is yours. Why do you want to become a slave to something as dull as business when you could be out, having a wonderful time, traveling - "
"I've traveled," Elizabeth said.
Charles used Gallic logic. "You happen to hold the controlling stock, through a tragic accident, but it makes no sense for you to try to run the company. We have serious problems. You will only make them worse."
Walther spoke bluntly. "The company is in enough trouble. You have no idea how much trouble. If you do not sell now, it will be too late."
Elizabeth felt as though she were under siege. She listened to them all, studying them, evaluating what they were telling her. Each of them based his argument on the good of the company - yet one of them was working to destroy it.
One thing was clear. They all wanted her to get out, to let them sell their stock, and bring in outsiders to take over Roffe and Sons. Elizabeth knew that the moment she did that, her chances of finding out who was behind this were finished. As long as she stayed here, on the inside, there was the possibility that she could learn who was sabotaging the company. She would stay only as long as she had to. She had not spent the last three years with Sam without learning something about the business. With the help of the experienced staff he had built up, she would continue to carry out her father's policies. The insistence from all the board members that she get out now only made her more stubbornly determined to remain.
She decided it was time to end the meeting.
"I've made my decision," Elizabeth said. "I don't plan to run this company alone. I'm aware of how much I have to learn. I know I can count on all of you to help me. We'll deal with the problems one by one."
She sat at the head of the table, still pale from her accident, looking small and defenseless.
Ivo threw up his hands helplessly. "Can't anyone talk logic into her?"
Rhys turned to Elizabeth and smiled. "I think everyone's going to have to go along with whatever the lady wants to do.
"Thank you, Rhys." Elizabeth looked at the others. "There's one thing more. Since I'm taking my father's place, I think it would be best to make it official."
Charles stared at her. "You mean - you want to become president?"
"In effect," Alec reminded him dryly, "Elizabeth is already president. She's merely showing us the courtesy of letting us handle the situation gracefully."
Charles hesitated, then said, "All right. I move that Elizabeth Roffe be nominated president of Roffe and Sons."
"I second the motion." Walther.
The motion was carried.
It was such a bad time for presidents, he thought sadly. So many were being assassinated.