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Authors: Laurey; Bright

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BOOK: Guilty Passion
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The men volunteered to wash up after dinner, and at Ethan's urging, Janice took Celeste into her small studio to show her some of her paintings.

There were a few oils and bold acrylics, but most were watercolours. “I have one theme.” Janice laughed. “This island. I love painting it.”

Leaving the studio, they sat out on the balcony again, and the men joined them, Jeff drawing up a chair close to Celeste's. “What do you think of Janice's paintings?” he asked her.

“I like them. They're restful and yet interesting.”

“Mm-hm. She's quite talented.”

Henry called his attention with a question about some mutual acquaintance, and Celeste leaned her head against the chair back.

“Tired?” Jeff asked, turning to her again.

“Not really,” she said guiltily, and made an effort to stir herself. She smiled at him and asked, “Do you know a lot of people on the island?”

“Most of the prominent ones and the old identities. I got to know them when I was researching for the book.”

“Tell me about them,” she invited, and managed to concentrate long enough to be genuinely entertained by some anecdotes that for one reason or another had not been included in his history of the island. “Some were too raunchy for general consumption,” he said, grinning. “And some that dealt with people still living or who had a close living relative were plain slanderous. I had no wish to be involved in a libel suit. Besides, I wanted to live here, and if I'd printed everything the locals would probably have tarred and feathered me and thrown me into the sea.”

“Surely not!” Celeste laughed.

“Oh, I don't know. It has happened here, you know. Though not too recently,” he admitted. “There was a time when the respectable settlers were trying to get the upper hand over the beachcombers who populated the island in the earlier days, and they formed a sort of vigilante committee. One of my informants was a descendant of a bloke who allegedly ‘stole the affections' of another man's wife. Which was regarded as a criminal offense, then. The committee tried him in a kangaroo court, tarred and feathered him and rolled him down the beach to the sea. It's all in the town records.”

“What happened to the wife?”

“I never discovered that. Her name wasn't mentioned, and now no one seems to know who she was. I guess her husband was responsible for seeing to her punishment.”

Celeste shivered. “I wonder what he did to her.”

“It would depend on how much he loved her, wouldn't it? Of course, some men find unfaithfulness impossible to forgive.”

Celeste felt Ethan's eyes on her, and knew he had heard part of the conversation, even though he was talking with Janice and Henry. There was a hardness in the glance that flickered from her to Jeff and back again. She wrenched her gaze away from his as Henry stood and said, “Anyone for another drink? I'm going to have a snifter of brandy.”

The two men accepted, but Celeste shook her head. She did feel tired now, and brandy would make her sleepier. Ethan went to help pour it, and when they returned he leaned on the rail with his, facing her and Jeff, and carried on a casual conversation until he said, “Time we went home, I think. Are you ready, Celeste?”

“I should leave, too,” Jeff said. “I'll come with you.”

“We're planning to go along the road.”

“Why not take the beach route?” Henry suggested. “The moon's bright enough.”

“The beach is lovely in moonlight,” Janice said to Celeste. She turned to her husband. “We could walk down with them and go for a swim.”

“Fine,” Henry agreed. “It's a warm night.”

“I'll get some towels,” Janice offered.

She came back with an armful of them, saying, “I've brought extras in case the rest of you would like to have a dip on the way home.”

The beach was a canvas of milky white light and blue shadows. The water hissed and whispered along the sand, and the moon silvered its surface.

“Are you all coming in?” Henry asked as he slipped out of his loose shirt.

“I'm a starter,” Jeff volunteered, and began stripping.

“Celeste is tired,” Ethan said decisively. “I'm taking her home. Have a good time, you lot. Thanks for a very pleasant evening.”

His hand fastened about her wrist as the others said good night, and he made for the cliff face and the path to his house, taking Celeste inexorably along.

He switched on the torch when they began the climb, releasing her as he let her go in front. Celeste was aware of a sluggish stirring of anger. He had been decidedly highhanded, dragging her away without giving her a chance to say what she wanted to do.

“Why didn't you want to swim?” she asked, over her shoulder.

“I didn't say
I
didn't want to.”

“No, you implied that
I
didn't. Without consulting me.”

“So,” he said softly, “were you dying to take off your clothes in front of Jeff?”

She swung round, finding him looming close behind her. The light dazzled her, as he turned the torch upwards, and she blinked. He moved the beam to the ground, and she said, “That's a hateful thing to suggest! You know it's untrue!”

“Do I? How? After all, you've been throwing out lures to the poor guy all evening.”

Shocked, she said, “You're crazy! I was being normally nice to him. And I've never thrown out lures to anyone!”

He made a small sound of disbelief. “Well, you've hooked Jeff. He can't take his eyes off you. Going nude swimming with you would have made his evening.”

“You are being ridiculous,” she said coldly. “It was hardly going to be a tête-à-tête, with Henry and Janice, and
you
along as well.”

“Still, I'm sure Jeff would have enjoyed it. But maybe it wouldn't be a new experience. Have the two of you already been skinny-dipping on your own?”

“No, we have not! Jeff swims nude, as you very well know—you warned me yourself to expect it. I daresay you do, too. But I haven't. . . haven't tried it yet.”

“Be my guest,” he said, stepping aside on the narrow path. “Do you want to go back?”

“No, I don't.” She wasn't going to tell him that she had been relieved at his taking the decision from her, until indignation got the upper hand. Not because she had qualms about undressing in front of Jeff and the Palmers, but because the idea of Ethan seeing her without her clothes had aroused a flood of confusing emotions. “I just think you might have asked me how I felt, that's all,” she finished, and turned to go uphill again.

“Don't go too fast,” Ethan's voice said behind her. “Take your time.”

She didn't answer, but slowed her pace slightly. Something—a large moth, perhaps—flew out of the trees and brushed her hair. She lifted a hand to flick it away, backing instinctively, and coming up hard against the firm bulk of Ethan's body. They were both off balance, and she felt him clamp a hand on her shoulder. The torch fell to the ground and went out as it rolled away into the bushes.

“I'm sorry!” she gasped, and heard him swear in her ear.

Then he said, “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I was just startled. Is the torch broken?”

“I don't know,” he said, releasing her and groping around. “I can't find the damned thing.” She tried to help, but the trees were thick here and the bright moon could barely penetrate the darkness.

He said, “It's no use, we'll go on without it. Give me your hand, I'll guide you.”

He knew the path well, of course, and she obeyed, placing her fingers in his while he led her the rest of the way. Near the top, she stumbled over a protruding root, and he turned, catching her with one arm about her waist, her hand still held in his. For a moment she allowed herself to rest against him, experiencing such a feeling of warmth and safety that she was loath to leave the haven of his arms. She felt the swift rise and fall of his chest as he took a deep, unsteady breath, and she made to move away. But his arm had tightened, and she raised her head to try and read his face, finding it shadowed, although the moon was bright again behind him. Her lips parted, and she whispered his name. He muttered something that sounded like, “Damn you, Celeste!” And then his mouth was on hers, crushing its softness.

Her heart gave one hard thump, and then she felt as though all feeling was suspended, except the pure physical shock of pleasure that Ethan's kiss produced in her. Her mouth opened involuntarily under his demands, and he raised both hands to her head, tipping it backwards and holding it there while he explored and tasted and probed until she was dizzy, clinging to him as though her life depended on his touch.

His hands swept down again to her waist and he held her to him, still with his mouth on hers, her body arching within his arms and her thighs enclosed by his. She shuddered against him and made a little moaning sound, and he suddenly tore his mouth from hers, then grasped her shoulders and shoved her away from him.

They were both breathing fast, and Celeste raised a shaking hand to her mouth, which felt hot and bruised.

Ethan said, “Well, we've found a way of waking you up, haven't we?”

“What?” She felt confused, disoriented, and an icy shiver ran down her spine, because his voice was hostile, cold and contemptuous. “What do you mean?” she whispered.

He lifted his hand, too, deliberately wiping the back of it across his lips as though to erase the taste of hers. “You've been some kind of zombie ever since you arrived here,” he said. “But there was nothing zombie-like about your reaction just now. I must say, Celeste, you've lost none of your skill. That was quite something, for such a recent widow.”

“Ethan, don't!”

“Don't what? Remind you? Perhaps I'm reminding myself. Alec was my brother, after all. If you make me sick to my stomach, it's only half of what I feel for myself, believe me. I swore I'd not let you get to me again.” He gave an angry laugh. “All it takes is a few drinks and a moonlit night, and a melting look from a pair of lying eyes.”

“That's not fair!”

He made an impatient, chopping motion in the air. “Okay! Leave it. There's no point in going over old territory. Let's say we both got a bit carried away. Come on.” He moved forward and caught her arm, pushing her the few steps to the top, then let her go immediately, pacing silently at her side until they reached the house.

Celeste looked at his face as he switched on the light, and found it a dark, closed mask, but as he turned his eyes on her, she felt her anger and hurt dissolve in a tug of compassion. “Don't be so hard on yourself, Ethan,” she said softly. “You've nothing to be ashamed of.”

His eyes narrowed on her. “Unfortunately, I don't share your hedonistic view of life,” he said.

With a flash of spirit, she said, “That's a poisonous accusation! You're wilfully misunderstanding me.”

“Am I? Do me a favour and get out of my sight, Celeste, before I do something that one of us, at least, may live to regret.”

Chapter Seven

Surprisingly, Celeste slept well, and woke late. When she walked into the living room Ethan was sitting at the table outside with Henry Palmer. Stepping onto the terrace, she was glad that after last night she did not have to face Ethan alone.

Both men turned at her approach, breaking off their low-voiced conversation, and she had the distinct impression that she had been the subject of their discussion.

Ethan got up. “Good morning. I was just going to make a cup of coffee. Want some?”

“Thank you.” She didn't quite look at him as she took the chair that Henry pulled out for her.

“I'll bring you some fruit and toast, too,” Ethan offered.

She said “Don't bother,” to his retreating back, but Henry smiled at her and said, “You could probably do with it. How are you this morning?”

A little defensively she answered, “Fine, thank you. How was your swim?”

“You should have joined us,” he told her. “Or are you shy?”

“Ethan thought I was tired.”

He was still smiling, but rather pensively. “Ethan's anxious about you. You're finding that rather smothering, perhaps.”

“He's not my keeper,” Celeste said shortly. “Has he been asking you for advice?”

Henry looked rueful. “Do you resent the idea?”

“I don't think I'm in need of medical attention.”

“I won't force it on you.”

“Does that mean you do think so?”

“Not necessarily. But you did seem somewhat removed from things last night. It was an effort for you to relate to what was going on about you, wasn't it?”

Celeste bit her lip. “I'm sorry if I was rude.”

“You weren't in the least rude. And the effort was largely successful. I was probably the only one who noticed. Ethan said you were more lively than usual.”

She glanced up at him, wondering if Ethan had suggested to Henry that she had been flirting with Jeff last night. There was nothing in the older man's face but a kind of detached concern that she supposed was part of his professional bedside manner.

Henry said, “Sleep all right?”

“Like a log,” she replied. It was true of last night, anyway, and with luck that heralded a new trend. “I've only just got up,” she pointed out.

“Ethan says you're a late riser these days. Some people lie awake half the night and then sleep in. It often doesn't help much.”

Celeste looked away from him, down towards the sea, and he said easily, “Well, if you have any problems, or want to talk, you know where to find me.”

He was being nice, and it was unfair to be annoyed about it simply because she was sure Ethan had put him up to this. “Thank you,” she said. “I'll remember.”

Ethan came back with coffee and a breakfast for Celeste on a tray. While she ate it, the two men talked on general subjects, and she took scant part. When Henry left, she gathered up the plates and said, “I'll take care of these. I expect you want to work.”

“It's Sunday. And I've finished the project I was on. I thought I'd have a day off.”

He hadn't had a day off since they arrived. “I'm sure you're entitled,” she said.

“Like to drive around the island?” he asked her. “If we go really slowly and have lunch along the way, we could make it last all day.”

So they were to pretend last night had never happened, she thought. She stood with her head bowed. “All right,” she said.

“Bring your swimsuit. There are beaches everywhere.”

She put on a pale green cotton blouse and khaki shorts, and rolled her swimsuit into a towel, which she pushed into a canvas hold-all with a comb and a sweatshirt.

When she joined Ethan, he said, “Do you have a hat?”

Celeste shook her head.

He disappeared into the passage between the kitchen and laundry, and came back with a soft-brimmed, army-style khaki hat in his hand. “Try this. It shrank when I washed it, so it might fit.”

It did, reasonably well, and he said, “It may not be glamorous, but it'll keep the sun off. Have you been wandering around the beach all this time without one?”

“I keep in the shade a lot,” she said. “I don't lie about in the sun for hours. My skin won't stand it.” She had a slight tan, but it was acquired very carefully, for her skin was naturally fair.

He drove first to the highest point on the island, a two-humped hill. “Known locally as The Camel,” Ethan told her. From a viewing place at the top, they could see almost the whole circumference of the island, with the capital sprawling up a gentle slope from the sea, and several smaller villages along the coast. Tourists and local families on day trips stood pointing out landmarks to one another and taking photographs.

Winding down to the coast on a road lined with lush trees and waving grasses, Ethan slowly followed the highway until it passed near a sandy beach. A few shops huddled at the other side of the road, and there were perhaps fifty people lying on the sand or swimming in the breakers.

“Want to stop?” Ethan asked.

“Not especially.” The beach was evidently a popular one, but there were no trees here, just an expanse of sand and sea, and it was getting close to midday.

“There's a prettier beach farther on,” he told her. “But we'd have to park the car and walk to it.”

“Sounds good,” she said.

“We could buy something to eat, and picnic there, or eat later when we get to the capital.”

“Whatever you like.”

He glanced at her sharply and drew up by one of the shops. “Are you hungry?”

Celeste shook her head. “I had a late breakfast,” she reminded him. “But I'll go along with whatever you want.”

His mouth curved sardonically, but he said only, “I can wait. The food will be better in Conneston.”

He drove on and eventually parked at the roadside in the shade of some trees.

“From here we go on foot,” he said. “Bring your hat and your swimsuit.”

He carried the hold-all, although she insisted it wasn't heavy, and led her to a narrow path through the trees that soon went downhill, passing a pretty waterfall overhung with ferns. The beach was invisible until they reached the white, glistening sand, and Celeste gave an exclamation of pleasure. The little cove was surrounded by thickly growing ferns, paper mulberries and banana palms, and other trees that she didn't know the names of, all mingled in unlikely harmony. Not far out from the shore lay a conical islet crowned with low-growing trees and bushes.

“Pretty, isn't it?” Ethan said casually.

“It's lovely.” The water was crystal clear, and tiny coloured pebbles and shells were visible on the gently sloping sea floor. At the end of a rock shelf extending into the sea a couple of people stood with fishing rods, but there seemed to be no one else about.

“The locals keep fairly quiet about this,” Ethan said. “It's a place to get away from the tourists when the season's at its height. They say there's good fishing off the rocks there, but I've never tried it.”

“Jeff said you and he go fishing in a boat.”

“Sometimes.”

Mentioning Jeff had apparently been a mistake. Ethan's face assumed a remote, rigid look. She looked at the rocks again and saw a gleaming, twisting object being hauled from the water on one of the lines. “I think they've caught something,” she said.

“Shall we go and see?” he suggested. “Put the hat on.” He hauled it out of the bag and she adjusted it on her head. She had braided her hair in a single plait, and Ethan suddenly grinned and said, “You look about fourteen.”

Without thinking, she grimaced at him. Turning her back, she stalked along the sand, taking an oblique path to the water.

Ethan laughed, and she felt a sharp little slap on her bottom as he caught up. Celeste jumped, cast him an indignant glare and ran to the water, stopping to scoop up a handful accurately in his direction, splattering his jeans. He came after her, but she was racing along the sand, laughing. When her hat flew off, she didn't pause but just kept running. Ethan stopped to retrieve it and she was almost at the rocks when he grabbed at her flying plait to bring her to a halt.

“Ouch!” she cried, although he wasn't really hurting.

“Okay, Atalanta,” he said. “This is where you get your comeuppance.”

Panting, she looked up into his laughing eyes, and saw the laughter change to something else. Her lips parted, and she heard him suck in his breath before he abruptly released her. The next moment he had clamped the hat down on her head, pulling it forward over her eyes. When she lifted it, he had moved back two paces. She felt a pang of regret, mingled with relief. “Anyway,” she said quickly, “you've got the story wrong. Atalanta was the one who stepped aside from the race to pick up the golden apples that Milanion dropped for her, so she had to marry him, as she'd promised to marry the first man to beat her in a race.”

“So Milanion won by appealing to Atalanta's acquisitiveness,” Ethan said, beginning to climb the rocks.

“By cheating. He knew he couldn't beat her fair and square.”

“I'd say by strategy. He must have studied her character and guessed what it would take to outwit her. You're well up in your classical mythology,” he said, watching her as she picked her way between the little clear pools crowded with tiny starfish, waving anemones and slow-moving hermit crabs.

“I used to have a book of Greek and Roman mythology that I read over and over. It was my favourite.”

He held out a hand as her foot slipped and she faltered, but she ignored it, regaining her balance unaided.

The two who were fishing were a man and a woman in their thirties. They had a basket with half a dozen good-sized fish, and as they exchanged a friendly hello with Ethan and Celeste, the woman got another bite and was soon reeling in a large, fighting fish.

Watching it gasp for breath, bleeding from the hook, Celeste turned away. When she looked back again the fish was dead, and the lovely pale rainbow colours of its scales had become dull and lifeless. Going back to the beach, with the sea just as blue and the sun just as warm, she was silent, and the grey blanket of depression that had lifted for a time muffled her again with its deadening weight.

“Want to swim?” Ethan asked her as they regained the soft sand.

Celeste shrugged, wondering if the effort of getting into her swimsuit was worth it. “I don't know. You go in if you like.”

He frowned. “What's the matter?”

“Nothing.” She looked down at the sand. It was stupid to be upset by the death of a fish. She wasn't going to admit that it had made her feel squeamish.

“I don't want to go swimming alone,” Ethan said. “If you don't feel like it, we'll skip the idea.”

“No. I'll. . . I'll come.” She tried to shake off the sudden gloom. If she didn't give in to it, perhaps it would go away.

She changed behind some trees, and when she emerged he was waiting for her. In the distance the fishing couple appeared to be packing up their gear. Evidently they had caught enough for one day. She dropped her towel on the sand and walked towards the waves. Ethan fell into step beside her. There was the first shock of cold, but after a minute or so the water felt deliciously warm. Swimming away from Ethan, she took a course parallel with the shore, while he went on into deeper water.

The other couple gave a friendly wave as they came down from the rocks and made for the path, each with an arm about the other's waist. Celeste waved back, then turned over and floated, staring up at the intense blue of the sky.

Ethan's voice startled her, sounding close by. “Feel like swimming to the island?”

She studied it, thinking. It wasn't far, and it appeared both friendly and mysterious. “Okay,” she said, and turned over, keeping pace with him.

There was no sand, but a handy rock shelf allowed them to clamber ashore, Ethan hauling her after him with strong hands. Others had been here before them, making a faint path through the low-growing bushes and small trees that grew on what she would have thought was bare rock.

“Game?” Ethan asked her, indicating the path, and she nodded. It seemed like a long way up, but she was not going to give in. Once she would have revelled in the idea. If she just made the effort, surely she would be able to enjoy life as she used to.

At the top, she ignored a slight dizziness that seized her, and sank down on her haunches, as though merely wanting to contemplate the view. After a few minutes her breathing steadied and she felt a lot better. From here they could see speckled shells on the seabed below, red seaweed and some darting fish.

Ethan sat nearby, his forearm resting on a raised knee, his tanned skin gleaming with saltwater. After a while he said, “Ready to go back?”

He was already on his feet, and she said “Sure,” and followed him down the path again.

He dived, and she followed, but before they were halfway to the shore she was tired, and when he looked round he must have seen the strain on her face. He trod water, waiting for her to catch up, and then said, “Turn on your back and I'll tow you in.”

“No.” She kept swimming. “I can make it.”

She did, but felt wrung out as she walked slowly out of the water. The trees seemed to sway, and the sun's heat made wavery lines along the sand. She gritted her teeth and was glad when Ethan's hand clamped on her arm, holding her until she reached her towel and slumped down on it, making an effort to breathe normally.

Ethan knelt beside her. “You little fool!” he said roughly. “Why didn't you say it was too much for you?”

“It shouldn't have been,” she said. “I used to be able to swim that distance easily.”

“I know,” he said.

“I'm out of practice, I guess.” That was true. Alec had been a strong swimmer before his accident; afterwards he was self-conscious about being seen at the beach, and his damaged legs had tired quickly. They had not swum often.

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