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Authors: Laurey; Bright

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BOOK: Guilty Passion
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“How well do you know Steven Craig?” he rapped out.

She opened her mouth, then closed it again, swallowing. “I refuse to answer that,” she said, her voice unsteady. “I can only guess that grief is affecting your judgement—and your manners. Perhaps you'd like to go now.”

“If that's what you want.”

“I think it is. And I'm not sure that going to Sheerwind with you is such a good idea after all.”

“Don't be stupid. The tickets are bought. You've got to be out of this flat by tomorrow anyway. Where else could you go?” “A hotel, until—”

“Until what? Don't cut off your nose to spite your face because of a moment's anger with me, Celeste. I'll see you tomorrow.”

He should have been more careful, he told himself as he reached the street outside. Antagonising her at this stage would do him no good. He didn't want her backing out of the arrangement before they got to the island. He had been reluctant at first to suggest she should stay with him, but on second thought the idea had several very cogent merits. He wanted her where he could watch her and analyse her reactions, and eventually, he hoped, remove the huge question in his mind over his stepbrother's death.

Ethan had booked them on the evening flight. When he arrived at her flat in plenty of time to pick her up, Celeste looked at him warily and made a halfhearted attempt to cry off the idea of going with him.

He ignored her muted demur and simply marched into her bedroom, closing the last of her cases himself. And almost before she knew it she was whisked off to the airport. There, too, Ethan took charge. Celeste couldn't help feeling numbly grateful for that. Her pitiful attempt to assert herself having failed, she was dimly thankful that she didn't have to be responsible for presenting tickets and checking baggage and finding the correct departure gate and searching for seat numbers.

She spent most of the flight gazing unseeingly out of the window while the water below them turned from green to blue to inky, reminding her of Ethan's eyes, dark and fathomless. And cold. When he touched her arm, she shivered, and he said, “Do you want a blanket?”

He was handing her a glass, and she took it from his hand and said, “No, I'm fine.”

“Drink up,” he said. “It'll do you good.”

“Alcohol?”

“Drink it.”

Once she would have challenged an order as peremptory as that. She tried to muster a spark of annoyance, but it was too much trouble to argue. Instead, she simply obeyed, and when a warm, fuzzy sensation spread through her, she handed the glass back and closed her eyes with a sigh.

Minutes later, it seemed, he was urging her to eat the light meal provided by the airline, and then coffee with a sweet biscuit. He was, she told herself, being nothing but kind and thoughtful, and the flutter of panic she felt as they circled the island, lying like a tear-shaped emerald in a darkening sea, was nothing to do with the fact that she was probably going to be virtually alone with him for an indefinite length of time.

With a feeling of unreality, she sat beside him in the car he had collected at the airport. They passed through Conneston, a pretty town with unpretentious buildings softened by palms and rubber trees and hibiscus. Then the lights that were beginning to wink on were left behind and the car took a narrow road uphill, later descending to skim by the sea, before climbing again.

“How far is it?” Celeste asked when Ethan had been driving for twenty minutes.

“Nearly there,” he replied. A few minutes later he turned into a steep driveway winding downhill among the trees, to draw up before a house that seemed built into the hillside.

“I'll let you in, and then fetch the bags,” Ethan said.

He opened the door with a key, fumbling inside for the light switch. She blinked as the light met her eyes, and he said, “Go straight ahead, there's another switch on your left inside the room at the end of the passage.”

She went down the passageway and stopped in the doorway. Facing her was a wall of glass, giving a breathtaking view of a starry sky and moonlit ocean. She turned on the light and walked across the room on thick natural wool rugs to the spectacular windows, gazing out. She saw Ethan's reflection as he paused in the doorway behind her.

“It's beautiful,” she said, turning to face him.

“Great in daylight, too,” he said. “Follow me and I'll show you your room.”

The main room occupied the whole side of the house facing the sea. At one end was a staircase of natural timber, and he led her up it, turning at the top to shoulder open the door to a bedroom that, like the big room downstairs, looked out on the sea. There was a double bed covered with an apricot-coloured spread, matched by the cushion on a peacock chair standing in one corner. The rest of the furniture and a pair of louvred wardrobe doors were painted white. On the polished wood floor lay an Indian rug, and the whole effect was one of lightness, coolness and comfort.

“I'm next door.” Ethan deposited her bags on the floor. “And the bathroom is just across the way. Do you want one of these cases lifted onto the bed?”

Celeste shook her head. “No, thank you. It's very nice. Do you. . . live alone?”

He looked at her with a faint quirk of his lips. “Is that a problem?”

“I just wondered if there was a housekeeper or. . .”

“Or a live-in lover?” he queried. “No, to both. There is a lady who comes twice a week to clean the house and do the laundry and ironing. She lives not far from here, and the arrangement suits us both. I can cook—and do the rest, for that matter, but I prefer to pay someone else to do the boring bits.” He paused. “Are you concerned about the proprieties? I can assure you no one on the island will be bothered.”

She said, “Neither am I. It isn't important.”

“But then you're not bothered by much these days, are you?” he said. “I wonder what it would take to get a real reaction from you.”

She blinked. A flicker of apprehension shadowed her eyes. “I'm not sure I know what you mean.”

“Never mind,” he said abruptly. “The bed will be made up. I phoned and asked Mrs. Jackson to prepare the room. And you'll no doubt find she's put clean towels in the bathroom for you. She'll have left milk for us, too. Would you like a drink of something?”

“I know it's early, but I'd rather like to have a bath and go to bed,” Celeste said. “If that's all right.” The bed looked very comfortable and inviting, and it held no bitter memories.

“Fine.” Ethan shrugged. “If you need anything, just yell down the stairs.”

“Thank you. You're very kind, Ethan.”

He turned on his way out, his eyes slightly narrowed. “Don't count on it,” he said briefly.

She refused to examine the implications of that, as she unpacked a nightdress and light cotton wrap. In the bathroom, attractive and functional in pale green and apricot, she found fluffy apricot-pink towels folded over a rail with a discreet bronze plaque above it inscribed, “Guests.” The green ones on another rail were for Ethan, she supposed.

A small basket on the counter held sachets of shampoo and conditioner, some bath salts and a shower cap. It seemed that Ethan was prepared for female guests. She wondered how often he entertained a woman, and quelled the thought as she ran hot water into the pale green bath.

After a luxurious soak in the tub, she returned to the other room feeling pleasantly relaxed. The bed was as comfortable as she had expected, and it faced the windows. Outside the room a wide balcony ran the length of the house. She had left the curtains undrawn, so that the last thing she saw before she closed her eyes was the starry sky outside. The sound of the waves washing an unseen beach lulled her to sleep.

When she woke the sun was streaming in on the bed. Except for the night that Aunt Ellie had pressed a sleeping pill on her, she hadn't slept so well for ages.

She lay for a few minutes just watching the restless blue water outside and the tips of the trees that she could see. Then she threw aside the covers and went barefoot to push open the sliding glass door and step out onto the balcony.

The house was about halfway up a steep slope that was covered in a thick press of green trees and bushes broken by splashes of colour—purple bougainvillea, scarlet hibiscus, and yellow ginger plants with red stamens and large, floppy green leaves. There was oleander and sweet-scented frangipani, too. Leaning over the railing, she could see that outside the living area was a large terrace, on which stood a wrought iron table and chairs and a sun lounger. Steps led from the terrace to a path that disappeared into the trees. The beach was not visible from here, but no doubt the path would end there. There must be a beach. She could hear the murmur and swish of water, but the waves didn't thunder as they had at the spot where Alec. . .

Shutting out the thought, she stepped back into the bedroom. There was no sign of Ethan as she used the bathroom, although the door of the room next to hers was ajar. At the end of a short passageway, another door was firmly closed. Perhaps he was working. A glance at her watch had showed her that it was near ten o'clock.

She dressed in a white shirt, blue denim skirt and sandals, and tied back her hair with an elastic band. The air was warm and very pleasant. She went down the stairs and found a covered tray and a note placed in a prominent position on the long, low table in the living room.

Help yourself
, said the note.
And make yourself at home. Coffee in the kitchen. I've gone to get supplies and collect mail. Back before twelve
.

Under the cover was a glass of fresh orange juice, a bowl of wheat flake cereal, with a small jug of milk, some sugar in a matching bowl, and a dish on which reposed a fresh yellow papaya and a lemon.

She took the tray outside to the little table, and sliced open the papaya, eating it sprinkled with lemon juice. She made a halfhearted effort at the cereal, but in the end most of it went into a garbage pail she found in the kitchen that opened off the main room, toward the back of the house. After washing up her dishes, she strolled outside again. When Ethan returned she was sitting on the lounger, her legs stretched out, eyes closed, her hair loose because when she leaned back it had been uncomfortable, so she had pulled off the elastic and pushed it into her pocket.

She heard him say, “Hello,” and she opened her eyes and made to get up.

“Stay there,” he ordered. “I see you found your breakfast.”

“Yes, thank you. It was very thoughtful of you.”

“No problem.” He shrugged. “Sleep okay?”

“Fine, thank you.”

He had a bundle of letters in his hand, confined by a rubber band. “Mind if I open my mail?”

“Of course not. Please go ahead.”

He slipped off the rubber band and began riffling through the envelopes. When he stopped with a smothered exclamation, Celeste said, “Something wrong?”

He looked at her strangely, as though he could see right through her, and drew one envelope out of the stack, tossing the rest onto the nearby table. “It's from Alec,” he said tightly. “Postmarked the day after he died.”

Celeste gasped. “That's impossible!”

“Not impossible,” Ethan answered curtly. “He must have posted it just before. . .”

“Oh. Yes, of course.” She swallowed. She had phoned Ethan almost as soon as she herself had been told of Alec's death. The letter might have been posted that night, before he drove the car off the cliff. It would have taken a couple of days to arrive at the island, and Ethan had probably left for the funeral without picking up his mail. She felt sick, her temples cold.

Ethan turned away from her and paced to the edge of the terrace. He stood there with his back to her for several seconds, before bending his head and ripping open the envelope. She watched him put it into his pocket before unfolding the sheets of paper he had taken from it. Celeste closed her eyes.

A few minutes later she opened them again as Ethan bent over the chair, his hands on the armrests.

He said roughly, “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she murmured, her cheeks warming as she saw the hard, glittery look in the eyes that suddenly swept over her.

Her own eyes widened, and her heart pounded uncomfortably. “What is it?” she asked. “Ethan, what are you doing?”

“Doing?” he repeated, holding her eyes with an implacable gaze. “Just looking, Celeste, taking a long, hard look at the woman who caused my brother to commit suicide.”

Chapter Four

“Suicide?” Celeste whispered. Her gaze locked with his. “It was an accident! The coroner said—”

“The coroner was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt to spare Alec's family and friends. But
you
know what was going on in his mind before he drove off that cliff, don't you, Celeste? You know he did it deliberately.”

“No,” she said, her voice shaking. “Oh, no!”

Ethan's mouth was an ugly line. He straightened, as though he couldn't bear to be close to her. “Oh, yes!” he said. “And you're responsible. . . you little tramp!”

Celeste gasped.
“Ethan!”

“Have I shocked you? My, what delicate sensibilities we have all of a sudden. Can't you stand a spade being called a spade?”

She swung her legs off the lounger and stood. “It isn't fair to blame me,” she said unsteadily. “I didn't do anything. . . .”

“Didn't you? This,” he said, looking down at the letter clutched in his hand, “is as near to being a suicide note as you're ever likely to see.”

“Suicide note?”

“Chapter and verse. He knew that you'd soon be leaving him—for someone younger, someone he had trusted.” He held the letter out to her. “Read it.”

Recoiling from it, Celeste cried, “It isn't true! He couldn't have thought. . .”

“Alec was a scientist. He didn't jump to conclusions easily. He'd have looked at the evidence, weighed it carefully.”

Celeste said, trying to be reasonable, “But in his private life he was different. You hardly saw him for years at a time. Do you really know what he was like? If I even spoke pleasantly to a man, he thought I was flirting. . . . It was all in his imagination.”


All
of it?” Ethan sneered.

“Ethan, you have to realise. . . he was abnormally sensitive about some things, and getting more so. . . . I wondered sometimes if he was mentally unbalanced.”

Ethan gave a short, harsh laugh. “You expect me to believe that? About
Alec
?”

Celeste gave a hopeless little shrug. Of course she shouldn't have expected it. Ethan worshipped his older brother; it was the habit of a lifetime. Nothing she could say was going to alter his opinion. Bewildered, she stood with her hands clenched at her sides, staring at him.

He said, “You can cut out the innocent act. I told you, I know all about you. I didn't see much of Alec over the past few years, thanks to you and. . . certain related factors which we needn't go into just now. But we were always close. He wrote to me often. Long letters, Celeste, very private letters in which he told me a lot of things that he would never have discussed with anyone face-to-face. It was a safety valve for him, to be able to pour out his heart over a marriage that had gone sour, over a wife who was. . . faithless.”

Celeste cried, her cheeks losing all colour, “That's not true! Ethan, you
can't
believe that's true.”

“Why not?” he said, unemotionally. “You might say I've had a sample of the evidence—at first hand.”

Wordlessly, Celeste shook her head. “No,” she murmured. This couldn't be real, she told herself. It didn't feel as though it was real. It felt like a dream, a nightmare from which she must surely wake.

She turned and headed for the house, wanting to get away from him, to be alone behind a closed door.

Hard hands grasped her and swung her around. Ethan said, “Celeste!” and the hands on her shoulders tightened, gave her a little shake. She knew she was going to faint, and she thought,
Not again
.

Vaguely she was aware that he had hoisted her into his arms and was carrying her. She felt cold and floaty, and very dizzy, quite unable to help herself.

After what seemed a long while, she began to feel less sick and the blood seeped back into her veins. She opened her eyes and found that Ethan had placed her on the bed where she had slept last night, and dropped a light duvet over her. A folded facecloth lay over her forehead.

Ethan frowned down at her. “Better?” he inquired curtly.

She murmured, “This is becoming a habit. I'm sorry.”

“Maybe that's my line,” he said. “Lie still.”

She did, closing her eyes, but said, “Are you apologising?”

“If I caused this, yes. I'm not a sadist.”

“But you're not sorry for. . . what you think,” she said tiredly. “Are you?”

For a moment he didn't reply. Then he said evenly, “Don't worry about it just now. The letter was a bit of a shock. Maybe I overreacted.”

“But if you really believe. . .” She moved her head, and her eyes fluttered open, finding his.

“I said don't worry about it,” he repeated, reaching down to adjust the cloth, which had slipped. “You're obviously not up to discussing it. Just stay there for a while. I'll get you a cup of coffee.”

Too weak to do otherwise, she obeyed him. When he had brought the coffee, Ethan stood by the window, his hands thrust into his pockets. Celeste sat up on the bed, against the pillows he had adjusted for her, and sipped at the cup, then suddenly put it down and rushed out of the room and across the passage to the bathroom.

When she had finished being sick and rinsed her mouth with water from the basin, she found Ethan beside her, holding her arm as she straightened. Fleetingly glancing at his face, she saw that he was pale and tight-lipped.

“I'm all right,” she said, making a halfhearted attempt to evade his hold, but she swayed in the doorway. He picked her up, carried her to the other room and deposited her on the bed again.

Celeste raised a hand to a clammy forehead. The room was whirling, but it gradually steadied, and she could see Ethan frowning down at her. “Lie still,” he commanded. “You'd better stay in bed for the day. Where's your nightgown? You do wear one?”

“Under the pillow.”

He found it and turned down the bed, moving her gently over to do so. Then he slipped the canvas shoes off her feet, and sat on the bed and began unbuttoning her blouse.

“I'll do that,” she said.

“Sure you can manage?”

“Yes.”

He stood. “You don't want any more of this?” He picked up the coffee cup.

“No, thank you.” She shuddered.

“I'll come back in ten minutes,” he promised.

When he returned she was lying in the bed with her nightgown on and the sheet up under her arms. She felt frail and exhausted but mercifully uncaring. She knew what Ethan thought of her, and it didn't seem to matter.

He left the room, and she lay quiet, and even dozed, waking up to realise it was late afternoon.

She went to the bathroom, and Ethan must have heard her moving about, because when she returned, with her wrap loosely over the nightgown, he was in her room. Automatically, she drew the edges of the wrap together.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“A little dizzy, still.” She sat down thankfully on the bed, and he helped her off with the wrap and pulled the blankets over her.

“Could you eat something?”

She shook her head.

“Fruit juice, then. Diluted, perhaps. You musn't get dehydrated.”

“All right.”

She drank the juice but refused anything else. Later he brought an omelette, and she managed a few mouthfuls, followed by weak tea, and afterwards cleaned her teeth in the bathroom. By the time Ethan looked in on her again, she was fast asleep.

When she woke it was full daylight, and she knew she had slept for hours. She lay there for a time, reluctant to leave the bed, even though her watch told her it was after eleven o'clock. Then, with a sigh, she got up slowly and, finding that she could stand without dizziness, had a shower, dressed in a blouse and skirt and made her way carefully down the stairs.

Ethan came out of the kitchen, his face quite expressionless. “Feeling better?” he queried.

“Yes, thank you,” she answered stiffly. “Ethan, I think it would be better if I left.”

“You only just got here,” he reminded her. “And anyway where would you go? You're obviously in a poor state of health. This is the only place you can rest and recover, which is what you badly need.”

She moistened her lips. “How can I do that, if you. . . if you're going to be accusing me of. . .” A hand wavered to her temples. She felt perilously close to tears.

Ethan came swiftly forward, taking her arms and shoving her gently into a chair. “Listen,” he said. “You don't have a choice. I'm the only one around to care for you.”

“Care for me!” A flash of sarcasm lit her eyes.

“Look on that episode yesterday as an aberration. It won't happen again.” “But you think that I—”

“Forget it,” he said shortly. “I lashed out without taking time to consider what I was saying. I want you fit, before I. . . before we talk about it again. I owe it to Alec to look after you. Just stay until you're back to normal, okay?”

The familiar lethargy was creeping over her again. She didn't want to think about the terrible things he had suggested. It was tempting to relegate the whole episode to the back of her mind and pretend it had never happened. Especially when Ethan was being so persuasive, his voice quiet and reasonable. Her brain felt muzzy, and she wasn't up to arguing, let alone making arrangements for the flight back and someplace to live and the myriad other decisions that would be needed if she left. She knew it was weak and spineless, but the very prospect of having to do all that both frightened and exhausted her. “All right,” she agreed, stifling the warning voice at the back of her mind. “I'll stay.”

He said, “Good.” Then he left her, to return later with two plates of salad. “Think you can get this down?” he asked.

“It looks delicious.” She wasn't hungry but, somewhat to her shame, she was grateful for his determination to take care of her.

“Outside?” he suggested. “I've got a sun umbrella up now.”

She had not noticed, even though she had spent the last five minutes staring out at the patio and beyond it to the sea.

While they ate they spoke little, but gradually Celeste was aware of the slackening tension, and as they sipped coffee afterwards, Ethan said, “Did you go down to the beach yesterday morning?”

Celeste shook her head. “I saw the path. Is it safe?”

“Perfectly.” He cast her a sharp glance, and she knew that he was thinking of how Alec had died, smashing onto the wave-swept rocks at the bottom of a cliff. He said, almost too casually, “If you're nervous I'll take you down the first time.”

Celeste said, “No, I'll be all right on my own. I'm sure you have things to do.”

“Some. Work has a habit of piling up when I'm away. If you're thinking of going there now, perhaps you shouldn't be alone, though.”

“I feel fine,” she lied. “And I'd like to see the beach.” She didn't feel fine, but she wasn't dizzy or sick anymore. She was quite capable of walking a few hundred yards.

“Don't be surprised if you see a naked body or two. Only locals use the beach, and it's accepted that nude swimming and sunbathing are okay.”

“Thanks for warning me. It's safe for swimming, then?”

“Unless a storm blows up. But I think you should wait until you feel stronger before swimming on your own.”

“I don't really feel like swimming today, anyway.” They were talking like strangers, politely but with no warmth. “I'll do the dishes before I go,” she offered.

“Don't bother. It'll only take a minute. You're the invalid.” He gathered up the plates and got to his feet.

“I'm not,” she said. “I mean, it's just. . .” Her voice trailed off. She didn't know what it was, but it seemed an age since she had felt truly alive.

“Depression, the doctor said,” Ethan told her.

“Yes, but he thought. . .”

“Thought what?” His gaze had sharpened.

“It doesn't matter,” she said listlessly. The doctor had obviously assumed that Alec's death was the cause, and she had not told him that this lack of energy and even of interest had begun long before that, only intensifying to unmanageable proportions in the days after Alec died. She shook her head and stood up. “I'll go down to the beach.”

“Sure you're all right?”

“Yes. I'm sure.”

He watched until she entered the trees, then turned and went inside.

The path was steep, Celeste found, but quite easy to negotiate. In some places steps had been cut and a wooden railing provided. She emerged from the trees onto soft white sand and looked about her. The cove was an almost perfect crescent, with headlands enclosing it. About a hundred yards from the shore, the sea cut off one of the headlands from a flat-topped rocky islet, bare of vegetation and ideal for sunbathing, if one wanted to swim that far. Looking back to the shore, among the trees on the surrounding slopes she could see a couple of roofs. So there were other houses about. But the beach was deserted. No bodies, naked or otherwise. She took off her shoes and slowly walked along the water's edge until she reached the rock shelf, grey and worn smooth by the water. Climbing up easily, she wandered along beside a series of pools filled with anemones and tiny crabs and little black fish, and sat down in the shadow of a tree growing low on the cliff. She leaned back against the smooth sandstone and watched the sun's restless glitter on the water.

Someone called her name, and her eyes flew open. For a moment she was disoriented, the hushed sound of the sea in her ears, the dazzle of shimmering water in her eyes. The sun had slipped low, and the sea had a brilliant orange sheen. Her arms were cold, and she shivered and rubbed them as a shadow against the light resolved itself into the figure of a man. Ethan, his eyes dark and angry. She realised that he was barefoot and had rolled up the legs of his jeans to the knees, but even so they were wet.

BOOK: Guilty Passion
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