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Authors: Laurey; Bright

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Ethan skimmed the document in front of him. It was dated about a year ago. Alec, he saw, had been surprisingly well-off, quite apart from his salary. All his books were concerned with his subject of Pacific archaeology, and several had become textbooks for universities. A series of television documentaries on his work had led to more popular books aimed at the interested layperson, and it appeared that he or his advisers had displayed a flair for investment.

Grant Morrison was saying to Celeste, “I'd be glad to act for you, if that's what you want.”

Ethan looked up to see her turn on the lawyer what seemed to be a gaze of helpless appeal. “Please,” she said.

Morrison's sympathetic answering look was laced with admiration. Ethan said, his voice overloud in the small room, “Could Celeste challenge this? Contest it?”

Celeste slowly shifted her gaze to him. “Contest?”

Morrison said cautiously, “Possibly.”

Celeste said, “But if Alec—”

“As your legal adviser,” Morrison interrupted her, “I think it would be best to say nothing at the moment.” His eyes briefly met Ethan's, then moved back to her.

“But. . .” she started. Then obediently she lapsed into silence.

“Will you be returning to New Zealand?” Morrison asked her.

“I. . . I haven't thought about it. The house is leased, so I can't go back there. But I can't stay in this flat. The university will want the place.”

“The lease—it's all paid up?”

“I believe so. I think it was paid six-monthly in advance. Alec handled all that sort of thing.”

“So the money will be. . .?”

“I suppose. . . in one of his investment accounts.”

Morrison frowned. “Have you any money of your own?”

Celeste shook her head.

“You do have a joint account of some sort?” the lawyer asked.

“Just for day-to-day expenses. Alec put some money in it each month for me to draw on.”

“What about insurance policies? Did he have any that I don't know about?”

“I don't think he believed in them.”

“In other words,” Aunt Ellie said loudly, “he's left you with no home and practically no income.”

Morrison cleared his throat. “She does own the house. I persuaded him to put it in joint ownership at the time of purchase, when they were married. If we could prove where the lease money is. . .”

“You don't need proof,” Ethan said flatly. “I'll make over the amount to Celeste straight away. There's no doubt she's entitled to that.”

“It's not so simple,” the lawyer objected. “Probate will take about three months and,” he lowered his voice and said to Celeste, “if there's a question of the will being contested, the process could take longer.”

“What's that?” Aunt Ellie demanded. She turned to Ethan. “What's he saying?”

“I should really discuss things with my client in private.” Morrison was beginning to look flustered.

“I don't mind,” Celeste said listlessly. “Ethan is involved, too, and Aunt Ellie is a relation. . . well, of Alec's.” She turned her head away a little, almost as if removing herself from the conversation and leaving it for them to sort out.

Aunt Ellie said, “The girl's exhausted. She needs a good night's sleep. Why don't you come back tomorrow?”

“I have to go back to New Zealand,” Morrison explained patiently. He glanced at Celeste's admittedly pale face and fished a card from his pocket. “Look, here is the address of our Sydney associates. When you feel up to it, contact them, and they can get hold of me then, okay?”

She took the card and said without reading it, “Thank you.”

“And if you need money in the meantime, get in touch. We'll work something out.” He glanced at Ethan, who looked back at him with a hint of grim amusement. He concluded that the lawyer thought Celeste had a case for argument over her share of what Alec had left, and that he didn't want her to accept money from Ethan in case it could be construed legally as some kind of settlement.

Morrison left the copy of the will and took his leave. Ethan followed suit, scribbling the address of his hotel on a piece of notepaper and leaving it on the table. Aunt Ellie declined the offer of a shared taxi, declaring her intention of making sure Celeste went to bed early with a hot drink and a decent supper inside her.

At his hotel Ethan headed for the bar, where he downed a much needed whisky and ordered another, which he sipped with deliberation. He both wanted to be alone and dreaded it. Sitting in the busy bar, he let the noise wash over him, and tried not to think. A woman came in and sat at a table not far from him, looking about her with a coolly speculative air. He felt her gaze light on him, assessing his crisp dark hair that he hadn't had cut in a while, the deep blue eyes under the stark line of his brows, the jut of a straight nose and stubborn chin. Her interested eyes slid over his broad shoulders and taut torso to the long legs stretched out before him, then returned to his face. She smiled.

It was an invitation, and for just a moment he was tempted. She was blonde, more than pretty, and made up discreetly rather than obviously. She looked as though she might have some intelligence, and the prospect of a pleasant hour or two of forgetfulness was definitely an attractive one.

She slipped off the jacket she wore, and shook back her hair, a dangling earring catching the light. It stirred a memory, and Ethan shut off his mind, placed his empty glass on the counter and got up, striding past her without a glance. He had been putting it off, keeping it at bay, for long enough, he told himself as he pressed the button for the elevator. Now was his time for grief.

Chapter Two

After a sleepless night, Ethan breakfasted early and went for a walk. Sometimes the noise and bustle of cities stimulated and even refreshed him, but today he found himself longing for the tranquility and slower pace of life on the island where he had made his home for several years. Even in the tourist season, when thousands of visitors spent their days lazing on palm-fringed beaches and their nights dancing to disco music or “authentic” island bands using electric guitars, Sheerwind, several hundred miles off the east coast of Australia, to the northwest of New Zealand, was still close to being a subtropical paradise. It had most of the amenities of civilized life, with few of the drawbacks. There was even a daily air service to Brisbane and Sydney.

Usually when he visited the mainland, he would nose around computer shops and software outlets to see what was new in the business, and take home magazines and books on the subject. But today he headed for the oasis of Hyde Park. Maybe later he would feel like picking up the threads.

Even as he walked under the green trees, with the rumble of traffic a little abated by distance, he knew that again he was putting off something that had to be done, and was annoyed with himself for his procrastination. It wasn't like him to dither around. He had always faced up to whatever life dealt him. Before he returned home he had to see Celeste again and find out just what had happened to his stepbrother. He owed Alec that much.

He decided against phoning first, although it might have been more considerate. He wasn't sure just how much consideration his brother's widow deserved. And he had a sneaking though admittedly unsubstantiated suspicion that she might make some excuse to avoid him. He didn't want to take that chance.

So he gave her until ten o'clock, then pressed the bell outside the flat.

It was several minutes before she came to the door, tying the belt of a white satin robe as she wordlessly let him in. She flung back a long hank of hair that hung across her shoulder. The gesture reminded him of the girl in the hotel bar, and he felt a renewed surge of the anger that he thought he had exorcised last night.

He said, “Did I get you out of bed?” He meant to sound merely polite, but was unable to keep an edge of sarcasm from intruding.

Her flush was noticeable because she still had that pale, washed-out look that had shocked him yesterday. She turned away from him. “Aunt Ellie insisted on giving me a sleeping pill. I'm sorry.” Her voice sounded tired.

Stiffly, he said, “I should have phoned first.”

“It's all right. If you'll excuse me, I'll have a shower and get dressed. Or. . . are you in a hurry?”

“No hurry.” His voice was clipped. He went over to a window, saying distantly, “Take your time.” He studied the view, because he didn't want to look at her. She unsettled him, with her narrow bare feet peeking from under the robe that was now belted tightly about an unbelievably slim waist. Her pale, unpainted face, her enormous green eyes and lank, sleep-tangled hair that had lost the silky sheen he remembered, gave her a deceptive air of vulnerability.

When she came back the hair had been combed back and bundled into a knot. Her feet were shod in plain flat-heeled black shoes, and her dress was a rather shapeless affair in a colour that was neither brown nor cream. He wondered briefly where she had found it. It wasn't the sort of thing he would have imagined she would give room to in her wardrobe.

“You take this widowhood business seriously, don't you?” he remarked, slightly appalled at himself but unable to resist a desire to needle her.

She blinked and said, “What?”

It was an effective tactic, he thought. Whatever Celeste was, she had never been stupid, but if she preferred to pretend she didn't understand him, he'd let it pass. This time. Because he needed to keep at least on civil terms in order to find out what he had to know.

“Don't you want to sit down?” she asked.

He didn't, particularly. He would rather have paced about the room, but it wasn't really big enough anyway. He said, “Aren't you hungry?”

She shook her head. “I'll have something later. Unless you. . .?” She had seated herself on the couch, but made to get up again.

“No,” he said. “Don't bother.”

She sank back, leaning into the corner of the couch as though she needed its support. He finally took the other end, half facing her, noting the faint flicker of apprehension in her eyes as he did so.

“I want to know what happened,” he said.

She was staring down at her hands now. For a moment she neither moved nor spoke. Then her eyes reluctantly rose to his. “I told you—”

“The bare facts,” he said harshly. “There's got to be more to it than that!”

Her head moved slowly in negation. “I'm sorry, Ethan. I told you all I know. I. . . don't understand it, either. But there isn't any more.”

Ethan said, watching her with narrowed eyes, “Oh, there's more, all right!”

She stared at him, but he couldn't read the expression in her eyes. The pupils were enlarged, and she looked almost blind. “No,” she murmured.

Ethan leaned towards her, stretching out a hand, and with the first clumsy movement he had ever seen her make, she got up and said, “I'm going to brew some coffee. Would you like some?”

She said it with her back to him, her head down, shoulders hunched. Ethan stood, too, swinging her to face him more roughly than he had intended, and holding both her arms.

She stood passively between his hands, her gaze on the buttons of his shirt. “I don't want coffee,” he told her. “I want answers!”

Almost whispering, she said, “I don't have any answers for you. I don't have any for myself.”

He said, his voice low and hard, “Look at me.”

Her head came up slowly. Her eyes were dull, with a strange, unfocused blankness in them. She began to droop again, turning aside.

He said fiercely, “Look at me!” And he put a hand under her chin, his fingers and thumb biting into her skin.

It was a mistake. He knew it as he felt the texture of her skin, smooth and cool against his fingers. Her eyes widened, and there was a little kick of satisfaction in his stomach as he saw that for an instant he had her entire attention. He removed his hand from her face and stepped back, even as her lids drooped and he felt the sudden unexpected weight of her against the loosened grasp of his other hand before she slid from his hold and fell soundlessly at his feet.

He was down on one knee beside her in an instant. He had little doubt that it was a genuine faint, even before he gave her cheek a small, sharp slap and produced no reaction at all.

Picking her up, he realised how very light she was. He shouldered open a door that he guessed—rightly—must lead to a bedroom, and laid her down on the bed. She had taken the time to straighten it and pull up the quilted burgundy cover.

A bathroom opened off the bedroom. He found a facecloth, wrung it out in cold water and pressed it onto her forehead.

It seemed a long time before the closed eyelids flickered, and as she turned her head fretfully, he said quietly, “It's all right. You fainted. Just lie still.”

He freshened the cloth, and after a while her cheeks were less than paper white. She looked at him and said, “Thank you.”

He returned the cloth to the bathroom, came back and said, “I'll make you something to eat. I suggest you don't move until you've had it.” “It's all right,” she said. “I can—”

“You can't,” he argued. “Stay where you are.”

He found the makings of an omelette in the kitchen, and some bread and butter.

“It's not much,” he said, when he carried it into the bedroom. “But it's nourishment. Which appears to be what you need. How long is it since you had a decent meal?”

“You sound like Aunt Ellie,” she said weakly, sitting up carefully. “It looks very nice.”

He adjusted a couple of pillows behind her. “How long?” he repeated.

She shrugged. “I eat all right. Really. I just. . . haven't been very hungry.”

“Get that down you, and I'll make the coffee.”

When he brought it, she had finished the omelette but left the bread. He didn't comment on that, but gave her a mug of coffee. “Milk, no sugar, right?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

He sat on the side of the bed, another mug held in his hands. “You're not pregnant, are you?” he asked. He supposed it was possible, even after eight childless years of marriage.

“No.” She was looking down at her coffee. She didn't add anything to the bald denial, just lifted the mug and took a sip. “This is good. I'm. . . grateful.”

“Maybe we should get a doctor.”

“I'm sure there's no need. I told Aunt Ellie that last night.”

“Had the same idea, did she?”

“You know Aunt Ellie.”

“Yes, I do.” He paused. “What's been going on, Celeste?”

She said, her voice very husky, “Nothing's been going on, except that Alec's dead, and. . . and. . .” Her hands began to shake, and she tried to clasp them about the cup, her head bent.

Ethan took the cup from her, placing it with his own on the bedside table.

She put her hands to her face and took a deep, shuddering breath. Ethan reached for her and made to pull her into his arms.

She stiffened and pushed him away. “No, don't!” she said. “Leave me alone. I'll be all right.”

He stood, shoving his hands in his pockets. After a minute she passed a hand over her eyes and turned to face him, not quite meeting his hard, reluctantly compassionate gaze. “I'm sorry,” she said. “You've been very kind, but would you mind going now? I'd rather like to be alone.”

“There are things we must discuss.”

“Yes, I suppose so. But not now, please. When are you going back to the island?”

“I'll stay until after the inquest. I have business I can do while I'm here. They still think a couple of weeks?”

“Yes, but they said it's just a formality. Do you want to come here again tomorrow?”

“Any particular time?”

“In the morning, if you like. I won't take a sleeping pill.”

He said, “Are you sure you're all right?”

“Perfectly, thank you.” She sounded cool and distant now, as though he were a stranger who had done her a passing service.

He said, keeping his own voice polite and level, “Ten o'clock?”

She nodded. “That would be fine.”

Aunt Ellie came to see him later that day, after phoning and declaring her intention. He met her in the lobby and took her up to his room. It was a long way down the corridor, and she stopped halfway and said, “Hold on there a minute, young Ethan. My legs aren't as long as yours.”

Surprised and contrite, he said, “I'm sorry, Aunt Ellie.” Preoccupied with his thoughts, he had been walking too fast for her.

She stood holding her hand to her heart, and he noticed she was panting. “Are you all right?” he asked, taking her arm. Cursing his own thoughtlessness, he said again, “I'm sorry, I didn't realise. . .”

She wheezed, grimacing. “Damned doctor was right, I suppose. I ought to slow down at my age.”

When she had recovered and he had walked her much more slowly the rest of the way, he put her into a chair in his room and said, “Can I get you anything?”

“Glass of water.”

When he brought it, she had a small white pill in her hand.

“Your heart?” he asked quietly, taking the glass from her to place it on the table.

“Among other things. Don't worry, I'll be all right when I've rested a bit. Now, about Celeste. . .”

Ethan said, “I'm more concerned about you.”

“I have a very good doctor,” she said. “My health is his job, nothing to do with you.” She glared at him, and he gave in to her obvious wish to keep her problems to herself.

“All right,” he said. “But please promise me that you'll go to see him the minute you get back to New Zealand.”

“Oh, I promise,” she conceded grumpily. “Now, will you listen to me about Celeste?”

He shoved his hands into his pockets and stood near the window, half turned from her. “What about Celeste?” he said stiffly.

“That extraordinary will,” she said, “for a start. What was Alec thinking of?”

He contemplated telling her as gently as possible to mind her own business, but was well aware that he might as well tell a steamroller to be careful of the roadside flowers. “What's your guess?” he asked her.

“He didn't trust her with his money,” Aunt Ellie said bluntly.

Ethan said nothing, and she sighed gustily. “Alec was very clever in some things, but as far as women were concerned, he was a fool!”

Alec, Ethan thought, had come to the same conclusion, too late for the insight to be of any use.

Aunt Ellie said, “What will you do if Celeste contests the will?”

Ethan turned. “Fight it.”

She was mildly surprised. But all she said was, “Hmmph. Of course, she has nothing now. He's left her a pittance, and the first payment won't be for months.”

“I know.”

She peered at him, but against the light from the window she couldn't see his expression. “It looks. . . odd, you know. Leaving her virtually nothing. He would have expected you to take his place, I suppose. Financially, I mean. Thought you'd manage the money better. All I can say is—”

He interrupted quite gently. “Aunt Ellie, leave it.”

“Well,” she said, “I suppose it's none of my business.” Disappointed that he didn't contradict her, she went on. “She said something about getting a job.”

Ethan gave a disbelieving little laugh. At Aunt Ellie's questioning glare, he said, “Celeste has never had a job in her life. She didn't even finish her degree.”

“Yes, well, your brother was responsible for that!”

BOOK: Guilty Passion
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