Authors: Laurey; Bright
Ethan Ryland was late for his stepbrother's funeral because he hadn't wanted to encounter the widow until the service was over. He would make some excuse later about the difficulty of transport to Sydney from the island.
He couldn't see Celeste at the front of the crowded church, but when the service was concluded and she followed the coffin out, his eyes unwillingly travelled beyond the polished casket and found the slight figure in blackâslighter even than he remembered. But perhaps that was the effect of the dress; he had read that black was supposed to be slimming. She wore a black lace head covering, too, contrasting with the wheat-coloured hair that glimmered through it. The ends of the mantilla were draped at her throat, framing a face that shocked him by its pallor, by the hollows in the cheeks and the dull, sunken look of the green eyes.
He made an involuntary movement, and her gaze swivelled to his. She paused, and her pale mouth breathed his name. “Ethan!”
He had heard her say it in very much the same way in utterly different circumstances, and memory tightened his lips and brought a hardness to his almost navy blue eyes.
She said it again, murmuring a little louder, “Ethan.” And she held out her hand to him. “You should be with me.” He stood unmoving, and her face seemed to grow a shade paler. She whispered, “With him.”
Behind her others were respectfully waiting, and as he remained where he was, a shadow crossed her features. Her outstretched hand, with its suggestion of pleading for comfort, wavered.
He stepped out of the pew and took her fingers in his, gripping them as he tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and led her from the church.
Outside it was incongruously sunny. Celeste had to introduce him to most of the people who paused at the church door to offer sympathy. But there were a few whom he recognised as colleagues of Alec's from earlier years, and there was, surprisingly, Aunt Ellie, who must have flown over from New Zealand. In his school days Aunt Ellie had always vaguely reminded him of a battleship. She presented her cheek to them both for a kiss, told him, “You were late,” as though he might not know it, then subjected Celeste to a piercingly critical glance but said only, “It was a very suitable service.”
Aunt Ellie was really Alec's aunt, not his. His mother had once said with a mixture of tolerance and exasperation that Ellie was “an impossible woman, but her heart's in the right place, I suppose.” She was slightly deaf and given to making blunt comments in a penetrating contralto, and although Ethan couldn't have said that he knew her well, he had grown used to seeing her at every family occasion. The last time had been at Alec's wedding.
While he stood at Celeste's side accepting commiserations, and later sat with her and Aunt Ellie in the undertaker's limousine, he didn't need to look at her. After the interment, he stayed behind at the graveside for a while, and when he turned to follow the others, he found that she was waiting for him by the car.
Coming towards her, he studied her dispassionately. She was very composed. Her eyes were dry, and he doubted she had shed a tear since Alec had died. Apart from that, she was the picture of a grieving widow. Not even any makeup. She looked almost plain. Playing the part to the hilt.
“You should have gone on,” he said, when he reached her.
“I wouldn't have left you,” she replied as he opened the door for her. “Aunt Ellie went ahead with someone else,” she told him after he had joined her. “The chancellor of the university has made a room available for the. . . mourners. They've arranged some kind of refreshment, too. I'm afraid. . . we'll be expected.”
“They've been very kind,” she said. “Taken over, really. The flat isn't big enough for so many people. And I don't think I could have catered. Alec had a lot of friends. . . colleagues.”
Ethan didn't answer, and she said, “I'm sorry I had to let you know so. . . abruptly.”
“It must have been a shock for you, too.”
She said, after a moment's pause, “Yes, it was.”
It might have been a shock, but a wholly unwelcome one? He reminded himself that this was no time to pick a fight. Oddly, he wanted to. More than anything he wanted to accuse her, yell at her, vent on her some of the accumulated rage that had been building inside him ever since she had telephoned him and said calmly, “Ethan, I have something to tell you. It's bad news. . . .”
She said now, “I asked the vicar to wait for you to arrive, but there was another service after. . . he couldn't. . .”
“It doesn't matter. My fault for being late.”
“Where are you staying?”
She turned to him. “Oh, but. . . you could come to the flat if you like.”
She didn't sound particularly eager. Ethan was staring past the driver at the windscreen. “No, thanks. You said the flat was small.”
“There is a spare bedroom.”
He looked at her then. A thorough, deliberate stare. “I hadn't doubted it for a moment,” he said.
She didn't even flinch. The apology that hovered on his tongue died an instant death. If she could take that with such composure, she didn't need any apologies.
“I suppose I'll have to move out,” she said. “The flat goes with the fellowship, and now that Alec's. . . gone, I won't be entitled to. . .”
Her voice trailed off, and he said, “You have the house in Wellington. Alec said in one of his letters that you didn't want to leave it when he got the fellowship in Sydney.”
“Did he?” she said with faint surprise. “Yes, I'm fond of it. But it was leased for the two years of the fellowship, and that's not up yet. And anyway, I'm not sure that I. . .”
“That you want to return to it without him?” Not seeming to notice the scepticism in his voice, she bowed her head briefly, and then turned to gaze out of the window.
When they arrived at the place he took her elbow and escorted her like a considerate brother-in-law, then stood by with a glass of whisky while she sipped sherry and fielded more condolences with languid grace. The room was large and tastefully decorated and impersonal, and he wondered if Celeste had purposely stationed herself in front of the wine-red velvet drapes that made her appear frail and fairer than ever in her narrow black dress. She had let the lace mantilla fall on her shoulders, and her hair, which he remembered as fine and soft like spun silk, was pulled back and pinned at her nape. Her profile, he thought angrily, was surely perfect. No lack of makeup could detract from that bone structure.
He turned away to find somewhere to deposit his empty glass, and was waylaid by Aunt Ellie, shaking her jowls at him and saying tartly, “Now don't you go drowning your sorrows, young Ethan. Your brother was too young to die, but he did a lot of things in his life, more than most people do in twice the time God gave him. Maybe it was enough.”
Ethan smiled slightly. “Maybe. I'll try to remember that, Aunt Ellie. And I've no intention of drinking any more. I've just realised how little I've had to eat today.”
Food had been the last thing on his mind, and he wasn't sure how long ago he had eaten a hasty and meagre breakfast, but come to think of it, he'd had no lunch, and it was now past three.
“Well, at least someone's given that girl a sandwich,” Aunt Ellie said approvingly, nodding over his shoulder at Celeste. “And I hope she eats it. I've no patience with all this dieting that young women go in for. Told her last time I saw her, before they came over to Australia, eat up and get some meat on those bones of yours, girl. Picking here, picking there. Not enough to keep a bird alive. âCeleste likes to be slim,' Alec said. âShe wouldn't look so good in her nice clothes if she was fat. Don't nag her, Aunt Ellie.' Well, I think it's unhealthy!”
A couple of people cast amused glances in their direction, and Ethan said, “I could use a sandwich myself. What about you?” Gently he steered her in the direction of the discreetly laid out buffet table.
As he handed Aunt Ellie a plate of asparagus rolls, he saw that Celeste was talking to a young man who leaned towards her with a protective airâalmost an air of intimacy, Ethan thought, his eyes narrowing as he watched. The man had fair hair highlighting a golden tan, and a cleft chin. He put a hand on Celeste's arm, stroking it briefly. Celeste gave him a tiny smile and lifted the dainty sandwich she held, biting into it. The man's hand lifted to her shoulder and squeezed, his head bent toward her. Ethan's jaw clenched. Someone else came up to them, and the man kissed Celeste's cheek and moved away.
Ethan left as soon as he decently could, but was waylaid at the door by a rather good-looking man with well-combed brown hair greying at the temples. Ethan vaguely recalled being introduced to him.
“Grant Morrison,” the man obligingly refreshed his memory. “I'm an old friend of your brother's, and I'm also his solicitor. I wonder if I might see you with Celeste later? I'm sorry, but I've got to fly back to Wellington early tomorrow. It's about the will.”
“Where?” Ethan didn't care about the will, but he supposed it was one of the things that must be attended to. When, he wondered, would he get some quiet, alone time to grieve?
“I've suggested to Celeste that I come to the flat this evening, about seven. Is that okay with you?”
Ethan shrugged. “Okay.”
“You know where it is?”
“I know the address. I'll get a taxi.”
“Fine. What about now? Can I give you a lift?”
“Thanks, but I'd like to walk.”
The solicitor nodded sympathetically. “He was a great man, your brother. One of the best in his field, I'm told. See you tonight, then.”
Aunt Ellie opened the door to him that evening.
“Are you staying here?” he asked her, slightly surprised.
“No, with a friend I went to school with. Haven't seen her in years. Christmas and birthday cards. Pity it takes a funeral to bring us together.”
“Yes,” Ethan agreed as she led him into a small but elegantly furnished sitting room.
Celeste turned slowly from a corner table where she had been arranging several glasses and a decanter. She still wore the black dress but had taken off the mantilla. “Hello, Ethan,” she said quietly.
He nodded, unsmiling. Her face, like her voice, was almost expressionless, and he couldn't help examining her curiously. When they had first met he had thought that he had never known anyone so alive, her every mood and emotion reflected in her face and especially in her clear green eyes. Alec, he remembered, had said, “She's like a butterfly, a gorgeous tropical butterfly, and I wanted to catch her and keep her for my own.”
Celeste's eyes flickered away from his. “Please sit down. Would you like a drink?”
He fancied a strong whisky, but as he took a seat on the long couch, Aunt Ellie said, “It's a good dry sherry.”
“Thank you,” he said. At least it would give them something to do while they waited for the solicitor.
Celeste poured the amber liquid into three glasses, and he went over to take two of them. As she picked up the third he saw that her hand was not quite steady. He glanced at her sharply, but she turned away and went to sit in one of the armchairs facing the sofa, leaving him to pass Aunt Ellie her drink and reseat himself.
No one proposed any toast, and they sipped at their drinks in silence, until Aunt Ellie boomed, “You're looking peaky, girl! Have you eaten since this afternoon?”
Celeste said, “I had some coffee and leftovers. I'm not very hungry.”
Aunt Ellie clicked her tongue. “Starving yourself won't do any good. You should have let me come back with you after the funeral.”
“It was kind of you to offer, but. . . I wanted to be alone.”
“Hmmph!” Aunt Ellie finished her sherry. “The thing is, are you fit to be alone? If you're not going to eatâ”
The doorbell rang, and Celeste put down her glass with an air of suppressed relief. “I'll let Grant in.”
She ushered the lawyer into the room, and he sat in the chair next to hers and declined the offer of sherry. He seemed to hesitate over the papers he slid from the pigskin briefcase he carried. Then he looked up at Ethan, glanced at Celeste and said, “Well, I suppose we should get on with it. Do you want me to read it aloud?”
Aunt Ellie said decisively, “Just tell us what it says, young man. No need for any legal palaverâwe don't want a scene from an Agatha Christie novel. And speak up.”
Grant Morrison gave a faintly embarrassed smile. “Well. . .” He paused and, looking down at the sheets of paper in his hands, said, “What it boils down to is, the house in Wellington was in joint ownership and it passes to Celeste, with its contents, except for Alec's research library and his original research notes. Those are to go to the university there. Some of the books, I understand, are quite rare. The bulk of his estateâinvestments, royalties from his books and so onâis bequeathed to Ethan Ryland, his stepbrother. Ethan is named trustee under the will, too.”
“Can a trustee be a beneficiary?” Aunt Ellie asked.
“There's no legal bar against it,” the lawyer said. “Of course, if a beneficiary is a minor an older trustee is usually appointed.” He glanced again at the document. “Celeste is to have the interest from a couple of trust accounts, which is paid twice a year, these payments to cease when she, hmm, remarries. It's only a couple of thousand per annum,” he added. “There is provision for any children, but. . . I guess that's theoretical.”
Celeste sat with her hands loosely clasped in her lap, her head bowed. Ethan said, “May I see?” and held out his hand for the paper.
The lawyer handed it over. He cleared his throat and asked Celeste, “Do you have a solicitor of your own?”
She looked up rather blankly and shook her head. “Would you. . . Can't you act for me? If I need anyone. . .”