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Authors: Laurey; Bright

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Celeste said, “Revenge? But it was you who wanted revenge!”

“You're so sure of that,” he said. “How do you know what I wanted?”

“I'd seen the letter—Alec's last letter. And what you wrote on it.”

“And?”

“Ethan, I beg you to tell me the truth, just this once.”

“I don't recall,” he said, “that I've lied to you.”

“Haven't you? Not in words, perhaps.” She looked at him intensely, trying to gauge the effect of her question. “Did you follow me to complete your. . . punishment of me, for Alec's sake? To make me pay?”

He stood up and said hoarsely, “
No!
I came because. . . the truth is I can't stay away from you. I couldn't stay on Sheerwind without you. Every time I turned around, I remembered you being there. Every time the shadows moved at the edge of the path to the beach, I thought I'd see you come out of the trees. When I walked on the beach the sea was whispering your name, all along the sand. Celeste. . .” He closed his eyes. “Celeste, please come to me.”

“I don't dare,” she said, her mind fiercely keeping some control over her wilful heart.

He frowned at her, his face taut. “I love you,” he said. “And you—”

She cried, “I can't! I daren't. You'll destroy me, Ethan.”

“No! I swear that isn't what I want.”

“Even if you don't,” she said sadly, “we can't escape from Alec's shadow. You still believe everything that he said, don't you? In your heart. Oh, I don't blame you. The letters that he sent, for years on end. . . I can see how they must have been so convincing. Because you were right about what was between the lines.”

“Celeste!” Ethan said. “I know now he was telling me the literal truth. None of it was your fault.”

She cried, “That's what
he
said! That I was too young and selfish and
stupid
to know what I was doing. And the truth is—”

“The truth is,” Ethan said, reaching out to grasp her shoulders, “that you weren't doing anything. Not consciously, not unconsciously, not at all. I know that, Celeste, I do. I know that my poor brother was a sick, lost soul, that he projected all his fears about his inability to do the work that he loved, and losing out to younger men in that area, onto you and his marriage. You were his scapegoat for an enormous feeling of failure and futility, and I think at the last he recognised that and was sorry for it. In a twisted way, he even tried to make amends.”

“By killing himself?” She shivered.

“You were not to blame for that,” he said. “Or any of it. In that last letter, he hinted that he wanted me to make it up to you, put things right. He said to me once, that you were like a butterfly that he wanted to catch and keep to himself. What he did was what butterfly collectors always do. Suffocate the object of their desire and kill it, so that they can admire it forever. But then it isn't a butterfly anymore, just a dead, dusty specimen. He had begun to realise, I think, what he was doing to you. Steven had seen it. When I saw him last, he said something in passing that made me rethink a lot of things.”

“What?”

“That when he first knew you, he'd never met anyone so quenched. An odd word, I thought. It fitted the woman I met after Alec died. I would never have described you that way before. I had to face then the possibility that Alec had done that to you. What he said in his letter—that he wanted to wear you like a gage—that was very revealing, when you think about it. He wanted to flaunt you as a challenge to other men, didn't he? And yet if one of them took you from him, it would have confirmed his deepest fears. You were a symbol of everything that he was afraid of losing, all his feelings of inadequacy. And he tried to make you responsible for all of it.”

“Oh,” she said, sagging with relief. “If you understand that. . .”

“I do. Believe me. I don't love Alec any less for discovering he wasn't the almost perfect being that I always thought. I seem to have had a prolonged case of childish hero worship. I think the suspicion was growing on me that I was wrong about you—and therefore wrong about Alec—very soon after I got you to Sheerwind. The more I got to know you, the more my heart kept telling me that the picture I had built up of you from Alec's letters, and from justifying my own feelings and actions to myself, was false. I admit that at first I had some half-baked idea of forcing a kind of confession from you, making you face your own guilt. Mostly, looking back at it, as a way of assuaging my own, just as cutting myself off from you completely had been. I'd always felt like hell about that episode while I was staying with you. Which was another reason why I was only too ready to think it must have been all your doing, something you indulged in regularly with any passing male. It was convenient for me,” he said, his mouth twisting with self-disgust, “to persuade myself that you deliberately led me into temptation. What a smug, judgemental bastard I've been!” he added.

“I don't blame you,” Celeste said, and moved forward to lay her head against his chest.

His arm came about her, holding her. “You're very forgiving,” he said. “Far more than I ever was. It was ages before I could get my head straight and forgive you for running out on me after I'd asked you to wait, and told you I loved you.”

“Told me?” She raised her head, but he dropped a quick, fierce kiss on her lips and then went on. “If that night meant nothing to you, if you could walk away from it with a cold little thank-you letter, then maybe Alec was right. Maybe you were a manipulative bitch, after all. And if I followed, I'd be inviting you to make me your tame lapdog forever, make me as miserable as you'd made him. As I thought you had.”

“It wasn't that! I was terrified that it would be just the same as with Alec, only worse, because. . . because I'd never felt as deeply for him,” she finished. “And you'd be punishing me twice over—for what you thought I'd done to him, and because you despised me at the same time that you wanted me. I knew you felt guilty. It seemed an impossibly risky basis for a relationship. Eventually we'd destroy each other.” She caught at the lapels of his jacket. “And you
hadn't
said you loved me. Never!”

“I did! When I called you the next day! The last thing that I said to you was, ‘I love you.'”

“I didn't catch it. I was already putting down the phone.”

He stared. Then he said a word that made her blink. “Sorry!” he muttered. “Of all the stupid. . . how could I be such a fool! But I do love you. I knew that night on the island that I loved you, even though I'd been fighting it for so long. And I thought you loved me. I believed in you utterly then, without understanding anything about Alec and you. I knew in my bones that you couldn't be the person he had portrayed in his letters. Then, when I thought you'd walked out just as though I didn't matter, it threw me right back to square one. I decided I'd allowed you to fool me, that you weren't worth anything. Only. . . your ghost was always there, haunting the place. And, rationalise as I might, I could never quite convince my heart. Then after talking to Steven, I saw there was another meaning to Alec's last letter. Things began to fall into place. And I realised something else. When I was staying at your house that time, he was testing us—our loyalty to him. Remember how he kept throwing us together at every opportunity? It wasn't natural. He was torturing himself with possibilities. He must have been torn apart, wondering. . . . It was twisted, and somehow incredibly sad.”

“Poor Alec.” Celeste shivered in his arms, and they tightened about her.

“If you can forgive me,” he said, “if you can believe that I'll never doubt you again—and I swear that's over—I want us to be together forever. I want to marry you, Celeste. Please say yes. Please.”

“Yes.”

He looked at first as though he hadn't heard. Then he said, “Just like that?”

“What more do you want?” she asked reasonably.

“More? No more! It's enough. It's plenty! It's a hell of a lot more than I had any right to even hope for! I'll get a licence tomorrow. Wear that dress for me when you marry me. . . would you, please?”

She nodded.

“And you don't mind getting married quickly?” he asked anxiously.

“I couldn't bear to wait.”

“I don't deserve you,” he said with something like awe. “I know I don't, but I'm so thankful that you're willing to have me.” He kissed her as though he was performing an act of worship, and then kissed her again, quite differently.

It would never last, she thought, before thought ceased altogether, but she was rather enjoying all this unwonted humility. It was so unlike him.

It lasted though, until their wedding day. There were few guests, and afterwards Aunt Ellie served them a magnificent meal. For once she decided the occasion warranted a late night, and it was midnight before Ethan and Celeste were dismissed and were able to go back to Celeste's house.

“I can't believe this,” Ethan said, putting her on her feet after sweeping her into his arms to cross the doorstep. “I thought I'd have to beg you, convince you that I'll never treat you badly again, that I can keep my insane jealousy in check, that I'll never, never be suspicious. I came to Auckland prepared to woo you, persuade you what a reasonable human being I really am, and then when I heard you were going to that ball with Grant Morrison I practically forced Rennie's father to buy me a ticket, just so I could watch the two of you. Do you know, I almost had myself convinced that if he meant something to you, if I thought he'd make you a better husband—he probably would, too—I'd walk away.”

Celeste was laughing. “And instead, you practically kidnapped me from under his nose. And what
was
all that about making me jealous? Rennie seems to think our marriage is entirely her doing.”

“Sharp as a brass tack, that girl. She took one look at me looking at you, and cottoned on straight away. Thought she'd help things along. Why are we standing here like this? Can I please take you to bed?”

“Will you promise,” she asked, linking her hands about his neck, “to repeat that offer every night of my life?”

“Every night,” he vowed, and as she slid her fingers into his hair, he kissed her deeply, his hands running down over the beautiful dress to draw her closer. “This dress,” he muttered, “seems terribly flimsy. I'd hate to tear it. But I love the way I can feel your body through it.”

She wondered if he could feel the sudden heat that coursed through her. “It doesn't allow,” she said, kissing his jaw as his head moved to nuzzle her neck, “for much in the way of underclothes.”

She certainly felt what that did to him, and caught her breath as he nipped gently at her earlobe. “Show me,” he growled, “before I tear it off you and have my wicked way.”

“I will,” she said softly. “I promise. Come with me.” And she led him into the darkened passageway and all the way to her bedroom.

All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this ebook or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 1990 by Laurey Bright

ISBN 978-1-4976-2238-8

This edition published in 2014 by Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
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BOOK: Guilty Passion
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