Authors: Laurey; Bright
Ethan said, “You could have let me help you over the last part.”
“I wanted. . . to do it on my own.”
“What are you trying to prove, Celeste?”
“I'm not trying to prove anything. I don't need your help.”
He turned away and picked up his own towel, standing to rub himself dry.
“I suppose that seems ungracious,” Celeste said.
His eyes looked as hard as glass. “It just doesn't seem very sensible,” he said. “Nothing is more obvious at the moment than the fact that you do need help from someone. Why not me?”
She sat up. “You're not qualified.”
He stopped what he was doing, holding the towel in his hands. “Henry is.”
“I'm not ill.”
Ethan came down beside her again and grasped her shoulders. “You're certainly not up to par. When I first met you, that swim would have been a pushover for you. You could have done it twice over and then raced me to the end of the beach and back.”
“I told you, I'm out of practice.”
“I'll buy you a decent lunch,” he said. As she made to get up, he added, “No hurry.”
“I'm all right now.” She was always saying that to him. She went to get her clothes on, and combed out her damp hair after removing it from its plait.
He made her go slowly on the walk back, and insisted on a five-minute rest halfway to the road. When they got into the car he seemed rather preoccupied, and they didn't talk much until he drew up into a parking bay on a low promontory overlooking the sea. “See those rocks out there?” He pointed to a series of dark shadows in the water. “That's where the
ran aground. The plaque set into the stone on the shore here commemorates the wreck.”
They got out and read the words on the plaque starkly telling the tale of the ship on its way to Botany Bay with a cargo of stores and a detachment of soldiers for the New South Wales Corps, with some of their families. The ship had been caught in a storm and thrown ashore with the loss of over a hundred lives. There was a picture etched in the bronze showing the storm-tossed vessel with sailors clinging to the rigging, and women and children being helped into a lifeboat.
“Down thereâ” Ethan pointed to a patch of ground near the beach on which stood a small monument “âis where some of those washed ashore were buried by the survivors. The individual graves can't be identified anymore, but the names of those known to have been drowned or who were never found after the wreck have been recorded on the monument.”
Celeste shivered, and he said, “It's a local landmark, and an obligatory stop for visitors. But perhaps I shouldn't have brought you here. Had enough?”
“Yes.” She turned with alacrity back to the car.
When they reached the outskirts of the capital they had lunch at a restaurant decorated with fishing nets and glass floats and seashells. Casual dress was accepted but the food was superb.
“Their seafood is particularly good,” Ethan promised her. “I recommend the shrimp salad.”
Salad sounded fine, she thought, but she was unable to finish the generous helping presented by the chef. Ethan frowned at her half-empty plate and offered her dessert, which she declined, shaking her head.
“A cheeseboard,” he instructed the waiter, and with his eyes on her she helped herself to a cracker and a slice of GruyÃ¨re, but refused any more.
“Feel up to a stroll on the waterfront?” Ethan asked her after they had drunk their coffee.
Celeste nodded. A stone wall had been built along the waterline, and fishing boats and pleasure craft were tied to it. A man was selling fresh-caught fish from one of the boats, and Ethan looked at Celeste inquiringly.
“Not for me, please,” she said hastily, and he laughed. “You had shrimps for lunch,” he said. “What's the difference?”
None, of course, but she said, “I don't feel like fish. You have some if you like.”
“Will you cook it for me?” he asked.
Celeste paled a little. “You're a good cook. You could fix it yourself.”
He shook his head. “I'll pass, today,” he said kindly.
He was being so nice she couldn't help wondering if he was lulling her into a false sense of security. He drove home, taking the time to point out other landmarks, such as the overgrown ruined stone walls of a small cottage on a hillside sloping up from the road.
“That belonged to Tattie Connors, the third mate who set himself up as âking of the island' after the wreck, but was deposed and murdered by a cabal of soldiers and sailorsâthough not before he'd fathered a child on one of of the women. Connors is still a name to be reckoned with on Sheerwind. The present chairman of the island council is a direct descendant.”
“It's a pity the cottage hasn't been preserved,” Celeste said.
“You've read Jeff's book,” he said. “Tattie haunts the place. No islander would touch the stones.”
According to local legend, Jeff had written, people who had dared at various times to cart off stones for building other dwellings had died shortly afterwards, one by drowning, one in a drunken fight, and two more from apparently natural causes. And one man had been found mysteriously dead among the ruins after apparently deciding to sleep off the results of an alcoholic binge within its decaying walls. The prosaic explanation was that he died of excessive drink combined with exposure, but the legend had obviously gained strength from the incident.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Celeste asked.
“I believe the influence people have over others lives after them,” Ethan said. “And by all accounts Tattie was a fairly baneful character.”
A car swept past them going in the opposite direction, and as Ethan waved, he said, “There's Henry and Janice. He told me Janice likes you, by the way.” He cast her a sideways glance.
She said, trying to sound light, “Do I detect a note of surprise?”
After a moment he said, “Perhaps. I wouldn't have thought you two had much in common.”
“People don't always have to have much in common to establish a relationship.”
“The attraction of opposites?” he said, and added softly, “Is that what it was between you and Alec?”
Her palms went instantly damp. Here was the suddenly unsheathed rapier, the unexpected thrust at the heart. She touched her tongue to her lips.
It was a perfectly innocent question, she told herself, the kind of casual remark anyone might make who knew both her and Alec. Treat it as such. “I don't think we were so opposite in our interests,” she said. “I was an anthropology student, remember.”
“You were supposed to major in history, weren't you?”
“Yes,” she agreed cautiously, “but I was interested in anthropology.”
“You told Alec once that you took the courses with the best-looking professors.”
Celeste turned her head to stare. “It was a joke!” she said. She vaguely remembered making the remark. It was soon after they became engaged, and for some reason that day Alec had been feeling particularly depressed about his disability. “You're not only the best teacher of your subject,” she had assured him, “as the university very well knows, but you're the most handsome professor as well.” And when he said rather sourly, “Is that why you signed on for my course?” she had laughed and answered, hoping to cheer him up by some gentle teasing, “Of course! I always took the courses with the best-looking professors!”
Ethan said, “He was seventeen years older than you.”
“Yes.” The significance of the age gap should have diminished with the years, but she had never felt it was happening. Despite her best efforts. Alec had often reminded her of it. He had, for a couple of years, seemed to take a delight in introducing her as “my child-bride.” She had eventually figured out that he felt defensive about the difference in their ages, as he did about so many things, and it was his way of defying the criticism that he imagined might be directed at them. When she had said that it was nobody's business but theirs, and anyway at twenty, an age she had achieved just days before their wedding, she was hardly a child, he had replied, “You are to me. And most of my colleagues think I'm a cradle-snatcher. Don't worry, my dear. They're all green with envy.”
In a moment of insight she had realised then that having his colleagues “green with envy” was exactly what he hoped to achieve one way or another. It revealed the first crack in the pedestal on which she had put him. But she had told herself that he was entitled to have human failings like everyone else. If he'd become oversensitive since losing so much of what was important to him in life, and was not above taking a petty satisfaction in scoring points off others, it didn't make him less of a man.
It was a long time before she recognised that, although he possessed all the determination and physical courage of the genuine hero, the man she had married was using her to boost his own ego, yet at the same time subtly but surely eroding her own sense of self. Increasingly she found herself trapped in an uncomfortable double bind from which there seemed to be no escape.
Alec, she was sure, had never been fully conscious of what he was doing, or how destructive to her personality and their marriage his behaviour was. He had never lost his temper, never said an ostensibly cross word. The progress of his undermining of her confidence and her happiness was so insidious that she couldn't put a finger on when it began, or how. At first she had been ecstatically happy. She had never made love with anyone but Alec, and she found in him a perfectly satisfactory lover. He had taken care to bring her pleasure, and would repeatedly ask her to tell him how much she enjoyed their lovemaking. It was only later that she came to suspect that his anxiety was because he wanted to be assured that his wounded legs had not affected his virility, rather than a concern for her well-being.
And at first he had seemed to like her preference for eye-catching clothes. She had dressed for him, but naturally enough she received compliments from others. Accepting them innocently, as they were meant, she was sure, she had been disturbed when she noticed that Alec had ceased enjoying the gaiety and adventurousness of her style of dress, and instead regarded it as a form of showing off. He didn't criticise openly, but his comments, delivered in a tone of amused tolerance, were humiliating. That was when she had deliberately started toning down the colours, the styles, until in the end she had a wardrobe full of unexciting, neutral-coloured clothes that did nothing for her naturally pale complexion, nor for her mood, and that would not draw a second glance from anyone.
Yet still she continued to attract second glances. She didn't think that as a child she had been particularly pretty, and when she had shot up in height at the age of eleven, towering over most of her classmates including the boys, she had thought she was going to turn into some kind of freak. At thirteen she had seriously decided that she would dye her hair black, and had a passionate wish to be dark and petite with flashing brown eyes. But at sixteen she had looked in the mirror one day and realised that she was lucky in her appearance. She wasn't the most beautiful girl in the world, but neither did she have anything to worry about in that department. Her figure lent itself to dressing up, and she had a clear complexion, nice eyes, a brilliant smile. She made friends easily, and in high school she was popular and had a good time. Mostly she went out with a crowd rather than on one-to-one dates. Intending to go to university, she didn't want emotional ties and had never thought of contracting an early marriage. So she steered clear of serious relationships. Vaguely she envisaged a career in some form of research, perhaps for television. She pursued her own interests at university, working towards a history degree. Until the day she found Alec Ryland swearing on the stairs, and persuaded herself that what she felt for this man whom for months she had admired from afar was loveâlove everlasting.
Love everlasting. Now she doubted if there was such a thing. Certainly at nineteen she had not had any doubts on the subject. When she had found herself pursued by the famous, clever and handsome Alec Ryland, it had been easy to convince herself that this was the real thing.
She wondered if her mother had been similarly dazzled by Alec's charisma. He had a forceful personality, only enhanced by the accident and by the drive he had exerted to overcome its results. At first Mrs. Gray had expressed doubt, but on meeting Alec for herself, her objections seemed to melt away. He did look younger than thirty-seven, it spite of the pain he had mastered, and he had persuaded the older woman that her daughter was in safe hands.
Anyway, opposition would not have made any real difference. Celeste had been dazzled by Alecâhis name, his fame, his interest in a pretty but unremarkable studentâand nothing would have stopped her from marrying him. Unless, a voice whisperedâunless, perhaps, she had met Ethan before the wedding. . .
Stifling that thought, she sighed.
Ethan said, “Tired? We're nearly home.”
Home. Only, of course it wasn't home for her. And never would be. She was a visitor, someone Ethan had taken in because he felt a responsibility for her, and perhaps compassion, and because, he had hinted, he wanted something from her. He wasn't satisfied with the facts of his stepbrother's death. He wanted answers, answers that he believed Celeste could provide.
Drawing up in the garage, he leaned over and opened her door for her.
“Thank you,” she said. “It's been a very pleasant day.”
“For me, too,” he said formally. “Celeste. . .” As she moved back, he caught her chin in his hand, scrutinising her face. She tried to look back at him calmly, tried to ignore the quickening of her pulse. “Yes?” she said.
“Never mind.” He let her go abruptly and opened his door.
They made sandwiches together in the kitchen and sat outside to eat them in the gathering dusk. Celeste felt pleasantly tired and rather tousled, and when she yawned behind her hand, Ethan said, “Have I worn you out?”
“I don't mind. But I think I'll have an early night.”
He didn't say that she seldom did otherwise. Last night they had been late, and that was sufficient excuse.
“Are you going into town today?” she asked him the next morning.
“Not unless you want to. Something you need?”
“Nothing urgent.” She wanted shampoo and hand cream, but it could wait. “I thought you'd need to post your finished programme.”
“I've installed a modem for that.”
“I send it through the computer via a telephone link. Much faster than mailing it.”
“You've never been in my workroom,” he said. “Want to have a look?”
“I'd like that.” She had tapped on the door once or twice, telling him there was a meal ready if he wanted it, but had not dared to open it. Even Mrs. Jackson was only allowed in to clean the room and had strict instructions, she had told Celeste, that nothing was to be moved.
“Be my guest,” Ethan invited, and led her up the stairs.
It was a large room, and there were two desks in it, each holding a computer.
“If one breaks down,” he explained, “it could be days before I can get it fixed, even weeks. That's a drawback of being so far from the mainland.”
“It looks very efficient.” She surveyed the banks of file drawers and shelves of computer manuals and other technical books. But there was a couch with its back to the room in front of the big window, old and comfortable and sagging.
Ethan explained with a slight grin, “When I'm stuck for inspiration I stretch out and admire the view until my brain gets back into working order.”
“Jeff said that what you do is creative.”
“I like to think so.”
“Have you. . . have you looked at the disks that were in Alec's car?”
“Started to. I think I can recover most of what's on them. I'd say they weren't quite as badly damaged as they might have been. The briefcase kept out most of the water.”
“Steven will be pleased.”
“I hope he'll do justice to Alec's work.”
“I'm sure he will. Steven had a great deal of respect for Alec.”
“He's also a very ambitious young man. I'll be printing out all those notes before I give the disks to him.”
“I don't understand.”
“I want to be sure that my brother gets all the credit that's due him.”
Celeste said, “I don't think that Steven would steal any credit. You don't know him.”
“I asked you once before,” Ethan said softly, “how well you know him.”
Her head came up, and she looked fully and unwaveringly into his eyes for once. Steadily, she said, “I think I told you it was none of your business.”
“Something like that,” he agreed.
“Nothing's changed,” she said, and walked out of the room.
A few days later, on the beach, Celeste met Henry Palmer mooching about with a stick. His face brightened when he saw her, and he came towards her. “Janice is in the throes of creation,” he said. “I'm at a bit of a loose end. How about coming into town with me? It's her birthday next week, and I'd value your advice on a present.”
“I'd like that,” she said. “I haven't seen much of the shops in Conneston.”
“Ethan too busy to take you to town?”
“I've been with him a couple of times to buy supplies and collect the mail, but I haven't really needed to shop much, and he's been working on a project that has a deadline.”
“Do you drive, yourself?”
“I have a licence, but I wouldn't care to drive Ethan's car.” She was a good driver, but it was one of the things that Alec had wanted to do for himself. As soon as he could he had purchased a specially adapted car, and when they were together he would always drive.
She left a note for Ethan and sat beside Henry in the car, enjoying the view while he drove quite slowly into the town. There were a number of gift shops selling souvenirs and local crafts of varying quality, and after a pleasant hour's browsing and discussion, they settled on a plain wooden bowl fashioned of polished island mangrove with a lovely grain.
In the same shop were hand-painted and tie-dyed silk blouses and scarves and even a few dresses made by a local woman. Attracted by a scoop-necked, sleeveless dress with a swirling pattern in greens and blues with a hint of lavender, Celeste picked up the full skirt and spread it to examine the colours that flowed into one another like the changing colours of the sea.
“Very nice,” Henry commented. “Try it on.”
Celeste smiled, shaking her head.
“Why not? It would suit you,” he told her.
“Oh, I just bought a dress.”
“So buy another. I'd like to see you in it. Try it on. To humour an old man.”
Celeste laughed. “Is this how you go on when you're shopping with Janice?”
“Depends,” he said. “I'm afraid I couldn't persuade her to get into that. This, nowâ” he picked up a long scarf with colours ranging from strong pink through deep red and purple to black “âI can see her wearing it.”
“So can I,” Celeste agreed. “Yes, it would suit her.”
“I'll have it,” Henry decided grandly. “If you try on the dress.”
Celeste gave in and the proprietor ushered her into a curtained alcove. The dress was a perfect fit, and she had to admit it did things for her. The silk was light and soft against her skin, and the full circular skirt floated deliciously about her knees.
“Don't forget I want to see,” Henry called to her, and she pulled aside the curtain and stepped out in front of him.
“You remind me of a mermaid,” he said simply. “Straight out of a fairy tale.”
Celeste laughed, shaking her head.
“I want to buy it for you,” he said. “A thank you for helping to choose Janice's presents.”
He chuckled. “I'm old enough for it not to be compromising, wouldn't you say?”
“I wouldn't dream of accepting it,” she said. “I can buy it for myself, if I want it.” She turned to the mirror again. It did look beautiful on her. She couldn't help coveting it.
“Go on,” Henry urged. “It might be made for you, and you know it.”
In the end, she succumbed, telling the salesperson she would wear the dress and asking for her skirt and blouse to be wrapped for her. And in a fit of recklessness, encouraged by Henry, she bought a pair of high-heeled pale green leather sandals to go with it, and a coral pink lipstick.
As they were returning to the car, Henry spied a wide-brimmed finely woven bleached palm-leaf hat, with a gauzy scarf tied around the base of the crown, and said, “Now, that's just the thing to finish off that dress.”
“Oh, no!” she said firmly.
“I insist,” he told her, and marched her into the shop. She was still protesting when he paid for the hat after she had laughingly tried it on, and marched her out again. “I want to show my appreciation somehow,” he said.
“I don't think you needed my help at all,” she said, as he opened the car door for her. “You seem to be one of those rare males who actually enjoy shopping.”
“Guilty.” He smiled at her. “But it's more fun with company.”
He left her at the end of the driveway, and she walked down to the house feeling happier than she had for a long time. A slight smile curving her lips, she went through to the living room and stopped in the doorway as Ethan turned from the window, his hands in the pockets of his slacks.
She couldn't see his face properly against the light, but something about the way he stood silently watching her was vaguely disquieting. She raised a hand and removed the hat, automatically shaking out her hair. Ethan's hands came rather quickly out of his pockets, and he said, “Enjoyed yourself?”
“Yes, I did. You got my note?”
“I got it. You look very glamorous.”
“Thank you.” But the way he said it, the remark hadn't sounded much like a compliment.
“Henry rates the full treatment, does he?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You've never dressed up like that when you've gone into town with me.”
“I didn't with Henry, either. We found these in Conneston.”
“The dress, the shoes and the hat. Henry talked me into them. He wanted to repay me for helping him choose Janice a present. Of course Iâ”
them for you?”
About to deny it, she felt a wave of anger. There was no mistaking his disapproval. It was nothing to do with him, anyway, even if Henry had bought her a whole wardrobe. Seized by a sudden imp of perversity, she said innocently, “Why not?” and, dropping the printed paper bag holding her discarded clothes, advanced into the room, the romantic hat in one hand, her walk deliberately provocative, the silk whispering against her legs. When she reached the middle of the mat, she twirled in front of him like a model, sending a teasing glance over her shoulder as the skirt flared, before she faced him again, spreading her hands. “Don't you like it?”
Her heart gave a lurch of fright as he took a step towards her. “What the hell are you playing at?” he demanded.
“What the hell do you think?” she shot back. “You're not my keeper, Ethan. If I want to accept gifts from Henry or any other man, that's between him and me. You have no right to question me about it.”
“You're incredible,” he said. “I could have sworn that Henry, of all men, wouldn'tâ”
“Of course Henry
! What do you take him for? What do you take
for, for heaven's sake?”
“I don't know,” he said. “I'm still trying to figure that out.”
“I bought the dress myself,” she said wearily. “Henry did offer, and I let him buy the hat when he insisted. An appreciation, he said, for helping him choose a present for his wifeâwhom he loves dearly, as I'm sure you're aware. So work that out, why don't you? I'm going upstairs to change.”
On Janice's birthday they were invited to join the Palmers for a barbecue on the beach. Jeff was there, too, of course, and a half dozen other people whom Celeste didn't know. She found herself nervous of meeting them, and had to make an effort to appear at ease.
Some of the guests were swimming, but even Jeff wore a pair of briefs in psychedelic colours, which earned him some teasing from the others. He accepted it with good humour, flopping down beside Celeste after leaving the water, and saying to her, “Don't listen to them, Celeste. They're just jealous.”
From the other side of the fire built in a ring of stones, where Henry was expertly grilling steaks, Ethan looked over at Celeste and Jeff, his gaze skimming from one to the other. Then he returned his attention to his conversation with a pert young dark-haired woman who had made a beeline for him and seemed resolved not to be prised from his side. She was the daughter of a couple who were introduced as old friends of the Palmers, and apparently she had just completed her first year at university. A miniscule bikini showed off her luscious youthful figure enhanced by a smooth, even tan. Earlier she had initiated an energetic game of beach cricket and, watching her scampering along the sand, even Henry had been unable to hide an appreciative twinkle in his eye.
Jeff chuckled in Celeste's ear. “I see our Marietta is making a dead set at Ethan. A very determined young lady, that.”
“He doesn't look as though he minds, exactly,” Celeste said, as she watched Ethan throw back his head and laugh at something the girl said.
“Can't say I blame him,” Jeff admitted, grinning. “But she is a bit young for him.”
She was, Celeste thought, far too young, but as the thought entered her head, she said, “I was probably about her age when I met my husband.”