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Authors: Laurey; Bright

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BOOK: Guilty Passion
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“I don't think Celeste was that keen to complete it,” he said cynically.

“Certainly not once she'd met Alec,” Aunt Ellie agreed.

No, his brother had been a much better meal ticket than any degree, Ethan thought. And at that particular period of his life, Alec had been easy game for a pert beauty with an eye on the main chance.

Aunt Ellie said, “I don't think she's fit to work at the moment. I offered to take her home with me, but she said no. I have to go back, the neighbours can't feed the cats forever, only I don't like leaving Celeste.”

Ethan said, “She'll survive.”

“In her state?” Aunt Ellie said sceptically.

“What state?”

“The girl's almost catatonic. You must have noticed!” As he just stared back at her, frowning, she said in exasperation, “No, you men never notice what's under your noses.”

Ethan said, “She's not the only one who's depressed! There'd be cause for surprise if she wasn't, wouldn't there?”

“I'm not talking about the sadness and grief of bereavement. I've seen grief before. This is different. Reminds me of a niece who spent some time in psychiatric care.”

“Whatever else she is, I don't think Celeste is crazy!”

Aunt Ellie said tartly, “You're an intelligent man, Ethan. You know very well there are degrees of mental illness. And no one is immune.”

Of course he did. He bowed his head in acknowledgement of the reproof.

“I think Celeste should see a doctor,” Aunt Ellie said.

“I did offer to get her a doctor yesterday,” he said.

“Why?”

“She fainted,” he told her reluctantly.

Aunt Ellie clicked her tongue. “Someone ought to look after her. She's got no family left. And she won't let me. . . “

Ethan said, “I'll make sure she sees a doctor. I'm meeting her tomorrow, anyway.” He still had doubts about her condition, but a medical opinion might clear them from his mind.

Evidently, that was what Aunt Ellie had come for. Refusing a cup of tea or coffee and a snack, she took her leave, apparently relieved that the responsibility had been lifted from her shoulders.

When Celeste opened the door to him the following day, he inspected her closely. She had dressed in a pair of dark trousers and a white shirt, with the same flat shoes as yesterday. Her hair was pulled back again, and she still wore no makeup. Was it possible that her pallor was natural and her dejected manner assumed? Uneasily, he thought not.

She let him in and asked him to sit down, offering a drink, which he refused. Sinking into a chair opposite, she looked down at her clasped hands. Then apparently fixing her eyes on the right shoulder of his jacket, she said, “What did you want to talk about?”

“Never mind that now,” he said. “Aunt Ellie thinks you should see a doctor.”

“Aunt Ellie is a dear, but she fusses.”

“I think you should, too,” he told her.

Her eyes met his in slight surprise, then slid away. “I'm all right,” she muttered.

“Are you?” He stood up. “You weren't yesterday.”

“Reaction. Lack of food. Don't worry about me, Ethan.”

“Why do you think Alec didn't leave you his money?” he shot at her.

He saw the way her hands suddenly tightened on each other. “I. . . imagine because he wanted you to have it,” she said, almost inaudibly.

“He knew I'd always had enough of my own. My work brings me more than I need.” Creating custom-designed computer software programmes paid very well indeed.

“Then perhaps,” she said, without any particular inflection, “he just didn't want me to have it.”

Ethan said, “He wasn't that vindictive.”

She flashed him a glance then, and he saw briefly a bitterness that seared him, before the shutters came down and her face resumed its cold indifference.

“Has it occurred to you,” he asked, “that it was because he expected me to look after you?”

“No,” she said baldly.

“That's what Aunt Ellie thinks.”

She cast him another glance, and he waited for her to ask if it was what he thought, but she said instead, looking down at her hands again, “You don't have to provide for me. I'll manage.”

“I'm sure you would. It shouldn't take too long to find another husband who can keep you in the style Alec accustomed you to.”

For an incredulous moment or two he thought she wasn't going to react. Then she lifted her eyes and with the puzzled expression of a hurt child said, “Why don't you like me anymore, Ethan?”

“Because,” he said deliberately, refusing to remove his gaze from those amazingly innocent eyes, “I know all about you, Celeste.”

He watched the slow, delicate colour reach her cheeks. Consummate actress that she was, she couldn't control that betraying blush, and his eyes hardened as they watched until the colour receded, leaving her deathly pale. He was afraid she was going to faint again, and a niggling suspicion entered his mind. He had heard of people who could faint at will, just as some women could turn on tears whenever they wanted.

He said, harshly, “Don't pass out on me again!”

“No. No. I w-won't!” Her breasts rose and fell quickly beneath the white shirt, and she closed her eyes, drawing in another breath, her hands still tightly clasped.

“Stop it!” Ethan said. He leaned over her and gripped her shoulders, giving her a little shake. “Stop it, Celeste!”

She said, “I'm. . . s-sorry.” She was gasping, her eyes now wide and frightened. “I feel very. . . strange.”

He hauled her to her feet and pushed her down on the couch. She was taking deep, shuddering breaths.

“Better?” he asked curtly.

She made a small, moaning sound. “It's like. . . high tension wires right through my body, my arms, legs. . . tingling.” She put a shaking hand to her forehead, then lifted both hands in front of her, saying, “I can't move my fingers.”

The fingers were rigid, he could see.

Ethan said, “I'll get a doctor.”

She didn't argue, telling him where to find the number. Following the doctor's instructions he found a paper bag in the kitchen and told her to breathe into it. She obeyed without question.

As the attack subsided, he removed the bag and told her, “The doctor said it sounded like hyperventilation. He'll drop in later to see you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. Her eyelids drooped, and he said, “Go to sleep if you want.” He fetched a blanket from the bedroom, tucked it about her and waited for the doctor.

“What she probably needs is a good long holiday,” the man said later, as Ethan ushered him out. “There's no physical ailment. She's underweight and in a state of nervous depression. I could prescribe antidepressants, but if she's able to relax properly for a while, she'll most likely recover perfectly well without any medication. Of course, losing her husband. . . but it's usually better to let grief take its course, rather than mask it artificially. Some things pills can't cure.”

Ethan thanked him and closed the door, then went to the bedroom where Celeste was lying on top of the burgundy cover.

“You're looking better,” he said, studying the faint colour in her cheeks.

“I feel a fool. I thought. . . for a few minutes. . . that I had some kind of paralysis. It was horrible.”

“I could see you were scared.” And it had, he realised bleakly, brought him no satisfaction.

“You've been very kind,” she said. “Although as it turns out, calling the doctor was quite unnecessary.”

“Not quite.” He came over to the bed and stood gazing down at her. “He said you need a holiday. I'm taking you back to Sheerwind with me.”

She stared up at him, then said, “No. I can't.”

“You can't stay here,” he said. “You told me so. And you won't go with Aunt Ellie back to New Zealand. Anyway, she couldn't look after you.”

“I don't need looking after.”

“You do. At least for a while. And I'm the only one there is to do it.”

“No, Ethan. I—” She started up, and he pressed her back on the bed.

“Rest,” he said. “Doctor's orders. What would you like for lunch?”

“I can fix it.” She made a feeble movement, then gave up at the firm persuasion of his hand on her shoulder. “I don't know,” she said tiredly. “I don't care.”

He fetched her sandwiches, made with tinned salmon he had found, and ate some himself in the kitchen. She brought her plate in, and when he frowned at her she said, “I wasn't told to stay in bed all day. He just said to take things easy.”

“How do you feel?”

“Fine. Really.”

“Good. We could leave for Sheerwind straight after the inquest.” “Ethan, I told you—”

“You'll need clothes for at least a month. Might as well bring the lot. I'll help you pack the rest of the stuff into boxes and we'll have it stored. Is any of the furniture yours?” “No, the place was furnished, but—”

“That makes it simpler. I'll notify the university for you. Leave the arrangements to me.”

In the end she gave up arguing, and just sat on the couch and bowed her head as though the effort was too much. Ethan thought he should feel some kind of triumph in the small victory. Instead he was vaguely ashamed of himself, and because he felt that was unfair, the shame turned to anger with her. When he said he was leaving she stirred herself and listlessly accompanied him to the door. He said, “I'll see you tomorrow.”

One shoulder lifted in a tiny shrug. “All right.” She had that unseeing look again, and for a second he had a crazy desire to shake her into awareness, or—His mind clamped down on the thought that followed as his eyes involuntarily traced the shape of her pale mouth.

No, he told himself firmly. That was a sure way to disaster.

Chapter Three

On the day of the inquest, Celeste was conscious of a faint gratitude for the fog of indifference that seemed to have surrounded her since her husband's death. Ethan picked her up from the flat and ushered her into a hired car with the impersonal consideration that had become the hallmark of his behaviour towards her. He had been as good as his word, organizing everything with calm efficiency, leaving her nothing to do except make an occasional decision, such as to give away Alec's clothes to the Salvation Army. When she tried to thank him he said, “Aunt Ellie wouldn't have gone home unless she knew someone was taking care of you.” Which was probably true, but it chilled her a little. In spite of his determined courtesy and apparent concern for her, even through the lethargy and indifference that affected her she sensed something in him that gave her a feeling of unease. Something hidden and dangerous.

Which must be nonsense, she told herself, as he seated her in the courtroom and took his place beside her. Ethan had never done anything to make her afraid of him. In spite of his size and his strong build, he was one of the least violent men of her acquaintance.

She scarcely heard the official evidence, the police and the doctor giving their dry, unemotional accounts. Then it was her turn, and she left Ethan's side and was given a Bible. When she had repeated the words she was asked to say, she was allowed to sit down, and the coroner expressed his regret at her loss before she was questioned. Everyone was really very kind, she thought distantly, as she tried to concentrate on the questions, answering mechanically.

“Was there anything unusual in his behaviour that evening?”

“No. He seemed tired.”

“Only tired?”

She said, “A bit tense. That wasn't unusual. He worked in his study for about an hour, before he went out. I suppose to unwind.”

“And was that usual?”

“He did sometimes go driving at night, alone,” she said. No, it wasn't a regular occurrence, but an occasional one. He might be gone for a couple of hours or more. No, she didn't know where he went, he had never told her. She thought he just drove around. No, he had not mentioned where he intended to go the night that he died. She was in bed, reading, and had heard him leave.

“And he left no message for you, no note?”

“There was no note.” The police had asked her that at the time.

“You know the place?” she was asked. “The place he went to?”

“Yes. I know it. We had been there together when we first came to Sydney. Someone told us about the view.”

“The view of the sea, from the top of the cliff?”

“Yes.” She swallowed, her hands tensing in her lap. It had been a perfect day, the sea glittering in sunshine, and Alec had seemed relaxed and affectionate and looking forward to his work at the university. She had been hoping that in a fresh environment, and with the stimulation of the fellowship and the obvious esteem in which he was held by his colleagues, Alec would be happier and their marriage might have a chance for a new beginning. They had left the car and peered over the safety rail at the rocks below with the water roaring over them. When she shivered Alec had put an arm about her waist and said, “You wouldn't have a chance if you went over, here. It would be instant death.”

“Did your husband mention suicide, Mrs. Ryland?”

She hesitated. “No. Not really.”

“Not really?”

She became aware of Ethan's eyes fixed on her with sharp intensity, and for a moment the blessed fog wavered and lifted. “I mean, not specifically.” She wrenched her eyes away from Ethan. “He. . . talked about it sometimes in general terms. When there was something in the paper or on television about. . . about people who had killed themselves.”

“And you had not had any argument the night that Mr. Ryland died?”

“We never argued,” she said simply, and her gaze returned to Ethan, a shiver running down her spine as she met his eyes. He didn't believe her.

After she resumed her seat, Alec's doctor gave evidence that Alec had been in good heath, except for some mild discomfort from old injuries, for which he had adequate medication. That would account for the traces of painkiller found at the autopsy. The packet it came in carried a warning about not driving after taking the drug, but he would not have expected any serious impairment of function unless other factors were present—alcohol or, yes, possibly fatigue.

The head of the Department of Pacific Studies at the university said Professor Ryland had been progressing well with the study he had commenced under the terms of the fellowship. He had expressed appreciation of the calibre of the assistance he had received from the university, and certainly had no reason to be depressed about his work. The day of his death had been a particularly busy one, with a graduate class in the morning and a field trip in the afternoon with first-year anthropological students. Only the previous day he had completed a week-long trip to an ancient aboriginal site with a group of students and lecturers. The fellowship did not oblige him to take part in these activities, but Professor Ryland had always been extremely generous with his time and expertise. He had seemed rather tired on his return.

The coroner nodded. There was no reason, he said when all the evidence had been given, to suppose that Professor Ryland's death had been anything but a tragic accident. After a strenuous week or so, and being on medication that might have the effect of making the patient drowsy, he should not have undertaken a lengthy drive at that hour of the night. He had probably fallen asleep at the wheel or, in the dark and in his weary state, simply misjudged the distance to the edge of the cliff. There was indeed no sign that he had braked before the car hit the safety rail and smashed right through it. The authorities should perhaps consider improving the standard of the railing, but on the other hand, such structures could hardly be expected to withstand the impact of a vehicle driven at speed.

Outside the courtroom, someone stepped toward Celeste, saying her name, but Ethan's hand was on her arm, and he brushed the man aside and hurried her to the car, gunning away from the curb with a forbidding frown on his face.

“Who was that?” she asked, wondering if she should have been polite and stayed to accept more condolences.

“A reporter,” he said shortly.

There had been some mild interest from the press. Alec was a minor celebrity, and the nature of his death had of course engendered curiosity.

“Well, I hope they're satisfied now,” she murmured.

“Satisfied?”

“That it was an accident. A ghastly accident.”

He glanced at her and said, “
Was
there a note?”

She turned to stare at him. “You heard me tell the coroner—”

“I know what I heard,” he said harshly. “Now
I'm
asking. Was there a note?”

“No! Why should I lie?”

He shrugged. “To avoid fuss and publicity. Or for more personal reasons.”

She shook her head. “I don't understand you. There was no note,” she added flatly.

She made coffee for them both on their return, and Ethan was standing by the window of the sitting room while he drank his, when the doorbell rang.

She brought the visitor into the room and introduced him. “This is Steven Craig. He's a postgraduate student who was assisting Alec in his work. Steven, this is Alec's brother, Ethan Ryland.”

Ethan recognised the fair young man who had been standing with Celeste after the funeral, while he and Aunt Ellie were at the buffet. The one who could hardly wait until her husband was cold in his grave before he started pawing the widow, he thought, and gave the man a nod, not offering to shake his hand.

Steven Craig was a little older than he had first appeared, probably in his mid-twenties. The blond hair and boyish good looks were deceptive.

Celeste said, “Please sit down, Steven. Will you have a cup of coffee? It's made.”

While she fetched it, he sat in one of the armchairs, and looked up at Ethan, still standing by the window. “I'm sorry about your brother,” he said. “It's a great loss to us all.”

Ethan nodded again.

“I counted it a privilege to be working with him,” Steven added.

Ethan said politely, “I'm sure.”

“He was one of the most respected men in the field. In his time, of course, he'd been quite a pioneer. I mean, those studies he did in the New Guinea highlands on one of the last of a truly Stoneage people. And the work he carried out there, before his accident. . .”

Celeste came back into the room with a steaming cup, which she handed to Steven. Ethan noted that she hadn't asked how he liked his coffee.

She sat opposite Steven, and he said, “I'm sorry to barge in like this just after the inquest, but someone said you're going away.”

“She'll be staying with me,” Ethan said.

Steven shot him a look, then nodded. “I see.” To Celeste, he said, “I guess you'll be relieved that it—the inquest—is over.”

“Yes,” she said. “Were you there?”

“At the back,” he answered. “You left too fast for me to speak to you.”

“There was a reporter,” she explained.

“Oh. Well, the verdict should put paid to any gossip. I mean. . .” He paused, embarrassed.

“It's all right. I know there was some. . . speculation that Alec might have committed suicide.”

Steven looked down at his coffee, frowning. “You never had reason to think so, did you?”

Ethan's glance sharpened, flicking from the young man to Celeste as Steven raised his head and looked full at her.

“No,” she said. “Of course not.”

Steven nodded, and Ethan said, “What are you getting at, exactly?”

Steven turned to him. “Nothing,” he said—a shade too quickly, Ethan thought. “There've been rumours, and it must be a relief to Celeste to have them laid to rest. I'd have said Alec would be the last person. . .” He paused. “Anyway, I'm sure you both would rather drop the subject. I just wanted to say that I'm glad about the coroner's decision. I know it must have been an ordeal for Celeste.”

He sipped his coffee, and Ethan banged his empty cup into a saucer and said, “Was there anything else?”

“Well, yes, as a matter of fact.” He spoke to Celeste. “I'm sorry to bring this up now, but I wondered if you'd found some of Alec's notes about the project we were working on. And. . . I wanted to ask you if you'd mind if I finished it on my own. It would be a sort of memorial to him, and. . . well, frankly, I've put so much work into it myself that I'd hate to see it all wasted.”

“You're welcome to anything you can use,” she said immediately. “I'm afraid I don't recall. . . Ethan?”

He had helped her clear the small study; in fact he'd done most of the packing of Alec's books and papers. “I figured it was probably all at the university,” he said.

Steven said disappointedly, “There's very little there. He used to bring a lot of work home. I thought. . .”

“Sorry,” Ethan said curtly.

“It could be on computer disks, not paper. He had a computer here. It's still in his study?” he asked Celeste.

“Yes,” Celeste said. “It was on loan from the university. There was a box of disks, wasn't there, Ethan?”

“Blank,” Ethan said.

“Blank?” Steven was dismayed.

“Unused,” Ethan told him. “I checked them all.” “Are you sure? I mean, if you're not accustomed—”

“I do know about computers. I design software for a living,” Ethan told him. “There was nothing on any of the data disks.”

“Sorry. It's just that I don't understand. He must have left some notes somewhere!”

“The car,” Celeste said.

Both men looked at her, and she said, “The police found. . . there were some disks among the things in the car. I'd forgotten. The police still have them, I think.”

Steven groaned. “Immersed in sea water. They'll be ruined, won't they?”

“Very likely,” Ethan said unemotionally. After a moment, he added, “I could try to recover the data from them.”

“I'd be awfully grateful!” Steven said, his face lighting up.

“For my brother's sake,” Ethan said crushingly. “It would be a pity to see the last year of his life go for nothing.”

Steven flushed. “Yes, of course. We'd all like to see his study published.”

“And yours,” Ethan said dryly.

“Look,” Steven said. “I did do a lot of work on it. It's important to me. I'm sorry if I seem selfish—”

“I understand,” Ethan said. “Leave it with me. I'll get in touch. Through the university?”

“Yes, or at home. Celeste knows the number, don't you?”

“I have it,” she said as he turned to her.

“Right,” Ethan said crisply. “If that's all. . .?”

Steven put down his half-finished coffee and said, “Will you give me an address? I may need to contact you, if anything turns up at the university after all, for instance.”

“'Ethan Ryland, Sheerwind' will find me. The post office at Conneston, which is the only real town on the island, keeps my mail for me to pick up. There is a phone, too.” He gave Steven a card.

When Steven had gone, Celeste said, “You didn't need to hurry him off like that.”

“Did you want him to stay? Hold your hand, perhaps, like he did at the funeral?”

She stared at him, and then said quietly, “That's offensive, Ethan. He did nothing of the kind.”

“I apologise. Although I take issue with your definition of ‘nothing of the kind.”'

A faint frown appeared between her perfect brows. “Perhaps you could explain that.”

“Stroking your arm, kissing you. . .”

She blinked. “It didn't mean anything.” With a slight flaring of anger, she said, “Lots of people kissed me at the funeral. Some of them I barely knew.”

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