Authors: Laurey; Bright
“What on earth do you think you're doing?” he demanded. “Did you faint again?”
Celeste blinked. “No, I. . . I must have fallen asleep,” she said feebly, starting to get up.
Reaching down, he curled a hand about her arm, almost yanking her to her feet. He examined her closely, and said, “Are you all right?”
“You chose a hell of a place to sleep. Didn't it occur to you the tide might cut you off?”
“I didn't intend to sleep at all. It just happened. I'm sorry if I've worried you.”
“Never mind,” he said briefly. “Let's get you back.”
They picked their way around the rocks, but in the end the water was between them and the sand, and Ethan splashed into it up to his thighs.
Celeste paused to hitch her skirt, but Ethan had turned and before she knew what he was going to do he had her in his arms and was wading to the shore.
He let her down on the dry sand, and she said, “That wasn't necessary.”
“No sense in both of us getting wet clothes. Come on.”
He led the way up the path. Following him, Celeste found herself panting when they got to the top. He turned and frowned at her. “Why didn't you say that I was going too fast for you?”
She stopped, catching her breath. “I seem to have put you to a lot of trouble already.”
His frown deepened. “No trouble,” he said curtly. “Take it easy. I'll go and change.”
Watching him disappear into the house, she wondered why tears were prickling at her eyelids. Blinking them away, she trailed after him as far as the lounger on the terrace. She settled herself on it and laid her head against the cushion. If only she didn't feel so lifeless. No wonder he was irritated with her. Having to be rescued from her own foolishness like some brainless damsel in distress. Fainting at his feet, not once but twice. She would be disgusted with herself if she could only muster up enough energy to feel such an emotion. To feel any emotion at all.
You did feel something
, an inner voice whispered.
Down there on the beach, when Ethan held you in his arms
Yes, for a few seconds she had been wholly alive again, feeling the beating of his heart against her breast, the warmth of his skin through the shirt he wore, the strength and sureness of his hold on her.
Firmly she shut that out of her mind. A momentary awareness, like the sudden awareness in the coroner's court when she had looked up and found his eyes on her with hard disbelief. And like the rush of relief and gladness that she had felt when at the funeral she had seen him waiting for her at the rear of the church. When she had thought,
He's here. Ethan's here. Everything will be all right now
Only, of course, he hadn't been waiting for her. He had come to see his brother buried, and everything was not all right. Everything was wrong, horribly wrong. Ethan didn't trust her, he didn't like her at all, and he blamed her for causing Alec's death.
“Nothing will ever be right again,” she whispered to herself, shivering. “Never.”
The stark truth hit her, and she raised her hands, rubbing at the sudden gooseflesh on her arms. She got up and went inside, running up the stairs to her room, arriving there breathless and with tears on her cheeks. She wiped at them impatiently. She had never been the weepy, swooning type.
Pull yourself together
, she admonished sternly,
for heaven's sake!
Her feet and her hair felt gritty with sand, and she decided to shower and change. Her sandals had been left lying on the beach, she realised, wondering if they would be there tomorrow or if the tide would have washed them away. She couldn't be bothered going down there again to find out, and she daren't mention it to Ethan. Already he thought her several kinds of idiot. She didn't want to give him reason to add to the list.
She washed her hair in the shower, and after towelling it half-dry, she pinned it back in a knot. She put on the dress she had donned when Ethan called the day after the funeral, and slipped her feet into a pair of fawn-coloured medium-heeled shoes. When she went downstairs it was to find Ethan in clean dark blue slacks and a lighter blue shirt, standing with his hands thrust into his pockets, and looking out at the rapidly fading sunset.
He must have heard her, and it seemed to her that he turned reluctantly as she reached the bottom of the stairs. His gaze swept over her and she thought he looked rather disparaging. But all he said was, “Are you ready to eat?” “Have I kept you waiting? Iâ” “Don't start apologising again,” he said curtly. “We'll have it in the kitchen if that's okay with you.”
“Perfectly.” The kitchen was large and well-appointed; a table was tucked into one corner by the window, with a banquette to sit on.
Ethan had already set two places, and he gestured for her to sit down while he brought a casserole from the microwave oven and set it on the table. Several slices of buttered French bread nestled in a napkin-lined basket, and a plate of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes were already on the table.
The casserole contained rice and fish with a spicy flavour, and when she had eaten a modest plateful, she said, “You're a good cook.”
Ethan shrugged. “I can do a few simple dishes. It's all I need when I'm on my own. If you want variety, you may have to take a hand yourself.”
“I'd be glad to do my share,” she said politely. “There's no reason for you to wait on me all the time.”
“When you feel up to it.”
“I told you, I'm not an invalid.”
“Maybe not,” he conceded. “Have some more.”
Celeste shook her head. “No thanks, I couldn't.”
“That wasn't much of a meal. My talents don't run to sweets, but there is some cheesecake in the freezer.”
“No, really. I don't eat sweets often.”
“You're much too thin,” he told her.
She had lost weight in the last few years. But then she had grown olderâmuch older. Trying to lighten the subject, she said, “It's fashionable to be thin. Do you prefer plump women?”
“Fashion,” he said caustically, “has a lot to answer for.” He recalled Aunt Ellie's remarks at the funeral. “You were never plump,” he told Celeste. “But I rememberâ”
When he stopped abruptly, she looked up and then away, her pulse quickening.
Ethan got up and took her plate, clattering it against his. “If you don't want a sweet,” he said, “how about some fruit and cheese, and then coffee? We'll have it in the living room.”
“That sounds very nice,” she said huskily. “Can I help?”
“I'll manage. Go and sit down in the other room.”
He brought a couple of cheeses, and a bowl of bananas, melons and papayas on a tray. “Help yourself while I bring the coffee,” he invited.
Afterwards, Celeste said, “Please let me do the dishes. I feel useless.”
He nodded, and she spent the next ten minutes in the kitchen, coming back to find him standing in front of the window as he had before, only now it was dark outside. He had switched on some side lights that cast a soft glow but hid his expression from her as he turned. “I'm going for a walk,” he said. “If you want something to read, there are books over there.” He nodded to a bookcase that occupied almost the whole of one wall.
So he wanted to be alone. “Thank you,” Celeste said. “I think I'll go to bed early.” In spite of her long sleep, she felt very tired.
He nodded. “Fine. Good night, then.”
He went out, taking a torch from a drawer in a dresser near the door. Perhaps he made a habit of having an evening stroll.
Celeste ran her eyes over the bookcase. Ethan seemed to have a very catholic taste, she thought. There were a few classics, a shelf of Australian and New Zealand fiction, and several recent bestsellers. All of his brother's books were there, and she hastily skimmed over those to a solid row of books on oceanography, marine animals and natural history, giving way to a mixture of topics including a history of Australia, an ecological handbook and a book on prison reform, as well as two thick volumes on the workings of the human mind, and a guide to Western philosophy.
Tonight she wanted something light and easily digested, so she bent hopefully to the shelf of paperbacks near the floor, going down on her knees to examine the titles.
Most of them were thrillers, with one or two westerns and some paperback editions of popular novels. At the end of the shelf were thin volumes of pamphlet size, one of them a short history of Sheerwind Island. She took that and a couple of thrillers and went up to bed.
She had read just five pages before her eyelids drooped, and she switched off the bedside lamp, only to spend the next hour or so waiting for sleep to come.
It was some time before Ethan quietly climbed the stairs and went into the bathroom. She heard the water running as he showered, and the soft closing of his bedroom door later, then muted sounds and finally silence.
At last she went to sleep, but woke again in the early hours. Prey to disconnected thoughts and disturbing emotions, she tossed restlessly and tried to shut off her mind. When dawn streaked the sky she slept again, and the next time she opened her eyes it was full daylight, her watch showing her the time was almost ten.
Going down to the living room, she found a woman with her back to the stairs, running a cloth over the low table.
“Good morning,” Celeste said.
The woman straightened. “Oh, good morning.” She had a pleasant, middle-aged face under pepper-and-salt curls. “You must be Mrs. Ryland.”
“Yes, Mrs. . . Jackson, isn't it?”
The woman smiled. “That's right. Mr. Ryland's told you about me, then. I'm sorry about your husband.”
“Mr. Ryland said to tell you there's breakfast in the kitchen, and if there's anything else you want, to ask me. I hope you found all you needed in your room and the bathroom. I expect you've got your own shampoo and stuff, but I bought a few things in case you'd forgotten. A lot of men just use soap for their hair, and I know I can't do without a good shampoo myself.”
“Everything was perfect. It was very thoughtful of you. Where is Mr. Ryland?”
“He's in his workroom, upstairs. He doesn't like to be disturbed once he's started work.”
“I won't disturb him. And I don't think I'll need to disturb your work, either, Mrs. Jackson.”
“That's all right, dear. Anything I can do. . .”
Celeste thanked her again and made for the kitchen. She washed up the dishes afterwards and made her way down to the beach. Her sandals were not on the sand, and she clambered onto the rocks, searching along where she had been yesterday.
There was no sign of them. The tide was coming in, and she didn't want to have the same experience as the previous day, so she scrambled back to the sand, to find a man coming out of the trees.
“Hi!” he hailed her. He was tall and brown-haired, dressed in a pair of cutoff jeans and a white T-shirt. As he came closer she saw that he had brown eyes and a pleasant grin.
A little cautiously, Celeste smiled back. “Hello.”
“Lost something?” he asked her.
“Yes. I left my shoes on the beach yesterday, but I guess they got washed away by the tide.”
“I saw you wandering about as though you were looking for something, when I was on my way down from my place. I'll help you, if you like.”
“Thank you very much, but I don't think it's much use. You live up there?” She could see faint signs of another path and the gleam of window glass among the trees on the slope.
He nodded. “I'm Jeff Saunders, by the way. You're staying with Ethan?”
She saw the slight hint of speculation in his eyes, and said, “I'm his sister-in-law. Celeste Ryland.”
“Very glad to meet you, Celeste.” He paused, obviously putting two and two together. “Then it was your husband who. . . died recently? Ethan's brother?”
“I'm really sorry. Ethan was cut up about it, I know.”
“Yes. He and Alec were very close.”
“How long are you staying?”
“I don't know yet. It depends on. . . a number of things.”
Jeff nodded sympathetically. “Look, if there's anything I can do. . .”
“Thank you. Everyone's very kind, but there isn't much anyone can do.”
“I guess not. Did you come down here to be alone? If you want me toâ”
“No, it's all right. Ethan's working, and Mrs. Jackson is cleaning the house. I just thought I'd find my sandals and keep out of their way for a while.”
“How would you like to come up to my place for a cup of coffee or a fruit juice? I could do with some company. Haven't seen a soul since Ethan left for the mainland. Most of the houses nearby are holiday homes, you know. Except for the Palmersâthey live over there, just about dead opposite my placeâEthan and I are the only permanent residents. And both of us spend weeks at a time away from home.”
“What about Mrs. Jackson?”
“Oh, she comes from around the point. There's a community in that bay, bigger than ours. About a dozen residents, and more holiday places. In the season it's pretty lively there. Here it just stays nice and quiet, except for the odd picnic party.”
“What do you do?” Celeste asked as they climbed the steep path through the trees.
“For a living? I'm a writer.”
“What do you write?”
“A bit of everything. I'm trying to make a living at it, which isn't easy. I've had a couple of thrillers published, which have done quite nicely but not set the world on fire, and a lot of travel writing and other journalism. And a short history of Sheerwind.”
“Oh, I thought your name was familiar. I was reading it last night.”
“Hope you enjoyed it.”
“I went to sleep,” she confessed. Well, she hadn't really, but she had felt sleepy. She caught the grin he gave her over his shoulder as he led the way up the path, and said, “Sorry! But I was very tired.”