Her Outback Commander
Her Outback Commander
Welcome to the intensely emotional world of Margaret Way where rugged, brooding bachelors meet their match in the burning heart of Australia …
Praise for the author: “Margaret Way delivers … vividly written, dramatic stories.” —RT Book Reviews
“With climactic scenes, dramatic imagery and bold
characters, Margaret Way makes the Outback come alive …” —RT Book Reviews
“Welcome to Katajangga,” Blaine said, taxiing the Beech Baron towards the huge silver hangar.
“This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen! A small country town in the middle of an endless ocean of red sand and rioting miles of wild flowers.”
Blaine too was feeling that excitement, like little darts piercing his skin. He was having seriously divergent thoughts about this beautiful young woman. A lack of trust, like a sleeping serpent coiled around a spinifex bush and yet always ready to strike. At the other extreme a deep pleasure in her company. She looked entirely innocent of any wrongdoing in connection with his late brother, yet his gut feeling told him he had to face the possibility she was lying, or at the very least hiding their connection. Blaine knew he would have to separate the truth from the lies.
About the Author
MARGARET WAY, a definite Leo, was born and raised in the subtropical River City of Brisbane, capital of the Sunshine State of Queensland. A Conservatorium-trained pianist, teacher, accompanist and vocal coach, she found her musical career came to an unexpected end when she took up writing—initially as a fun thing to do. She currently lives in a harbourside apartment at beautiful Raby Bay, a thirty-minute drive from the state capital, where she loves dining al fresco on her plant-filled balcony, overlooking a translucent green marina filled with all manner of pleasure craft: from motor cruisers costing millions of dollars, and big, graceful yachts with carved masts standing tall against the cloudless blue sky, to little bay runabouts. No one and nothing is in a mad rush, and she finds the laid-back village atmosphere very conducive to her writing. With well over one hundred books to her credit, she still believes her best is yet to come.
Her Outback Commander
HE KNEW her the moment she moved into the hotel lobby. The doorman in his natty top hat held the door for her, his face wreathed in smiles. Who could blame him? A woman like that inspired smiles. But just why he was so sure it was she he couldn’t fathom. Gut feeling? He didn’t question it, even when it went against all his preconceptions. But then his mental picture had been based on the description Mark had given his mother, Hilary, in a one-off letter sent months after he had married the Canadian girl. Nevertheless the feeling of recognition was so powerful it was almost a force in itself. It shook him when he was a man who shielded himself against shock.
For one thing, Mark’s description didn’t begin to do her justice. She was beautiful. No other word would do. She always would be, given her bone structure, he thought. She also radiated an air of refinement—a cool reserve that in itself was unusual. Not Mark’s scene at all. She was immaculately groomed, her stylishness understated. She was a recent widow, after all, he thought grimly. Obviously her lovely outward appearance camouflaged the shallowness of the woman beneath.
He had chosen the most inconspicuous spot he could find to wait for her. He reasoned it would give him a slight advantage, observing her before she had a chance to observe him. That way he might be able to form a better idea of what sort of young woman Mark had married. Right now he found himself unable to grasp the reality when set against his half brother’s description. Where, for instance, was the blonde hair? And surely she was supposed to be petite? But then she was wearing high heels, and women moved on, changing their hair colour as fashion or mood dictated.
He knew in his bones he hadn’t picked the wrong woman, despite the many discrepancies. He was supposed to keep an open mind. This had to be Mandy—Mark’s widow, Amanda. She didn’t look like a Mandy, or even an Amanda. Pretty names, but they didn’t suit her. Perhaps it was one of Mark’s little jokes? From boyhood Mark had revelled in deception, spinning an elaborate web of fantasies, half-truths and shameless lies that had tied everyone in knots. Their father had once confided he was worried Mark was becoming something of a sociopath. A harsh judgement when their father hadn’t been a judgemental man. But it had to be admitted Mark had barely registered the difference between right and wrong. Nothing had stopped him when his mind was set on something. He certainly hadn’t cared about people. His self-interest had been profound. That hadn’t been an easy truth for either his father or him to accept.
As for his tastes in young women? Mark had only been interested in pretty girls who had all their assets on show. Other qualities a young woman might offer, like warmth, companionship, spirituality or intellect, came right down the list. Mark’s type had always been the stereotypical glamour girl. “Air-heads” Marcia, his twin, had always called them acidly, with the exception of Joanne Barrett, the fiancée Hilary had picked out for her son and whom Mark had so callously abandoned. This woman he had finally chosen to marry presented a striking departure from the norm.
As she stood poised a moment, looking about her, he rose to his feet to hold up an identifying hand. Poor Joanne wouldn’t have been in the race beside this young woman, he thought, with regret mixed with resentment. There was no comparison. At least in the looks department.
No welcoming smile appeared on her face.
Nor on his.
His heart was locked against her like cold steel.
She walked towards him, a willowy figure, glancing neither to left nor right. She seemed to have little idea of the admiring glances she was receiving, from men and women alike. But then a beautiful woman would never escape constant attention. She was probably so used to it she didn’t notice.
His trip to Vancouver, beautiful city though it was, surrounded by mountains and sea, unfortunately wouldn’t entail pleasure, or even time for some sightseeing. He regretted that. But he would have to say he wasn’t at home in such cold—let alone the rain. Outside the centrally heated hotel it was freezing, with a biting wind. He had never known it to be so cold, even when wintering in Europe. He had been born and raised on a vast Australian cattle station on the fringe of one of the world’s great deserts, the scorching blood-red Simpson. But he was here for a specific purpose: to arrange for his half-brother’s body to be taken home and to invite Mark’s widow to return with him to Australia, to attend the funeral and finally meet the family. The family she had chosen to totally ignore for the two short years of her marriage.
He didn’t think she would ignore them now. There was a sizable legacy he wished to give her, for a start. Very few people knocked back money. Besides, a few deserving people had a right to know why Mark had acted the way he had. First and foremost his mother Hilary, his twin Marcia, and the cruelly jilted Joanne. He needed no explanations. Mark’s actions had never shocked him. And they had never shocked their late father, who had spent the last two years of his life as an invalid, his spine fractured so badly that two operations hadn’t helped at all. The titanium pins simply hadn’t been able to hold. To make matters so much more devastating, their father had suffered a rare type of amnesia since his near fatal accident. He remembered nothing of the day when he, a splendid horseman, born in the saddle, had been thrown violently from his favourite mare Duchess.
She walked towards him quite calmly, when inside she was anything but calm. This was Blaine Kilcullen. Mark’s brother. She would have recognised him even if he hadn’t raised that signalling hand. It was an authoritative hand—the hand of a man well used to getting instant attention. Yet the gesture didn’t strike her as arrogant. More a natural air of command. He was very tall. Much taller than Mark. Six-three, she guessed, with wide square shoulders, long lean limbs. Superbly fit. He cut an impressive figure. But then Lucifer had been a splendid angel before the Fall.
Memories shunted into her mind: Mark’s damning condemnation of his brother.
Handsome as Lucifer and just as deadly.
It had been delivered with a kind of primal anger, even hate. Mark had had a big problem with anger, she remembered. Indeed there had been quite a few aspects of Mark’s personality she had found jarring, and had done so right from the start. Charming one minute, and within the space of another he could turn oddly cold, as if the shutters had come down. Impossible to pinpoint the exact reason for the abrupt change.
Mark had claimed his brother was the cause of so much of the unhappiness and pain in his life. He might well have contributed, she reasoned, given the strength of Mark’s bitterness and his sense of abandonment.
“Blaine is the reason I had to get away. Leave my home, my own country. My dad died, but long before he died he rejected me—because of Blaine and his manipulative ways. Blaine was out to eliminate me and he did it in the worst possible way. He bitterly resented Dad’s love for me. In the end Dad pushed me away. I was never good enough. I could never measure up. Snow will blanket the Simpson before I speak to my brother again.”
Alas, Mark had got his wish. At least in part. He had been fated never to speak to his brother again. He had died in snow. A skiing accident after he had, despite warnings, left the trail they had been taking and not long after crashed headlong into a tree. She and Amanda had been watching at the time. It had been a horrible experience, one that could never be forgotten. But Mark had enjoyed playing the daredevil, like some macho adolescent. Perhaps his former life, the never-ending efforts to prove himself against a superior brother, had dictated his attitude? At times she’d had the awful dread he might be borderline suicidal. He’d definitely had issues. But then she had managed to convince herself she was most likely overreacting. She was no psychiatrist, after all.
“Amanda?” The cattle baron extended a lean, darkly tanned hand.
Time for her to unfold another one of Mandy’s stories.
She had spent so many years covering for her cousin she was starting to feel drained.
“I’m so sorry, Mr Kilcullen.” His handshake was firm, brief, but she felt a very real frisson of reaction—a kind of shock wave produced by skin on skin. She tried to hide her involuntary reaction, launching into an explanation. “There wasn’t time to let you know, I’m afraid. I’m Sienna Fleury, Amanda’s cousin. Amanda asked me to take her place. A migraine. It came on quite suddenly. She suffers from them.”
Exquisitely polite. But she had no difficulty reading his mind. More cold indifference from the woman Mark had married. More rejection of the Kilcullen family of him as the family envoy.
“Please allow me to offer my most sincere condolences.” She spoke gently. “I was fond of Mark.” It was far from the truth, but then it never did seem right to speak ill of the dead. At the beginning she had made a super-human effort to like Mark, but there had always been something in his eyes that disturbed her. Amanda, however, had fallen madly in love with him, so in rejecting Mark the family had known it would be as good as rejecting Amanda. Something she could not do, having looked out for Amanda for years like a surrogate big sister.
“Thank you, Ms Fleury.” He felt his grim mood softened by her lovely speaking voice. The musical Canadian accent fell soothingly on his ear. Looking back at her, he felt something click in his mind, pretty much as if a light switch had been turned on. Hadn’t Amanda’s bridesmaid featured quite a bit in Mark’s letter to his mother? At the time Hilary had confessed she found the talk of the bridesmaid quite odd. Could this be the anonymous bridesmaid? From believing she was Mark’s widow, he was now convinced she could be Amanda’s bridesmaid.
Sienna, quietly observing him, detected the shift in his attitude. She wondered what had caused it. From Mark’s account the brothers had been mortal enemies. Believing her husband implicitly, Amanda had made no effort to contact her late husband’s estranged family, no effort to effect some sort of reconciliation. She had even been obdurate in not wanting to advise them of Mark’s fatal accident. But that had been against the right code of behaviour. Sienna had contacted her father, Lucien Fleury, one of Canada’s most highly esteemed artists, and begged him to make the call as Amanda couldn’t or wouldn’t.
“Always been problematic, hasn’t she? Poor little Mandy.” An understatement from her father, who rarely bothered to mince words.
Amanda was his niece. His sister Corinne and her husband had been killed in a car crash when Amanda was five. Sienna’s parents, Lucien and Francine, had taken in the orphaned Amanda, raising her with Sienna, eighteen months older, and Sienna’s adored older brother Emile, now a brilliant architect and interior designer working out of New York.
Blaine Kilcullen’s deep voice, with its clear cutting edge, broke into her thoughts. No discernible Aussie accent. More a cosmopolitan voice. “Shall we have a drink before dinner?” he suggested, his diamond gaze revealing nothing of what he thought of her and her unheralded role as stand-in for his half-brother’s widow.
“I’d like that.” What else could she say? She actually found him every bit as daunting as Mark had said. But then she had to give him a little leeway. These were unhappy times.
Inside the luxurious lounge, he helped her remove her cashmere coat, laying it over the back of a chair along with the deep yellow scarf she had worn around her throat. It was quite a while since she had been inside this downtown Vancouver boutique hotel. She glanced appreciatively around her. The hotel was famous for its European style: glossy, warm dark timbers, richly upholstered furniture, fine antique pieces, lots of lovely flowers, and beautiful works of art that adorned the public areas as well as the luxurious suites.
He held her chair. She sat down, smoothing back the long hair that had been caught into her woollen scarf.
“What would you like?” He diverted his gaze from the shining waterfall of hair, turning his attention to the ceiling-high, well-stocked bar.
“Perhaps a brandy cocktail?” She didn’t really want anything.
He settled for a fine cognac.
Careful not to stare, she was nevertheless making her own assessment with her artist’s eye. At twenty-six she already had several successful art showings behind her. She was also a talented photographer, with a good body of work. Her primary job, however, was managing her father’s gallery in Vancouver, and overseeing two others—one in Toronto, the other in New York. What was her take on the man in front of her? Blaine Kilcullen, Australian cattle baron, was without a doubt the most striking-looking man she had ever seen, even allowing for the severe expression on his handsome face. But then he would be in mourning for his brother. Bitter regrets, surely? Thoughts of “what might have been”?
He was wearing a beautifully tailored dark suit with a silk tie she very much liked: wide cobalt blue and silver stripes, the blue edged with a fine line of dark red. He would probably look just as elegant in traditional cattleman’s gear, she thought. The leanness and the long limbs made an ideal frame for clothes. The surprising thing was the Mark hadn’t resembled his brother in the least. Mark had had golden-brown hair and mahogany dark eyes, and he’d been around five-ten. This man was darkly handsome. His thick hair had a natural deep wave, and his strongly marked brows were ink-black. In stunning contrast his eyes had the glitter of sun on ice.
Their drinks arrived. She readied herself for what was to come. Conversation would be difficult. The great irony was that it wasn’t her affair at all. Amanda was Mark’s widow. It was Amanda’s place to attend this crucial meeting with a member of Mark’s family, albeit estranged. Only Amanda had pulled the old hysteria trick. Over the years she had turned it into an art form. The sad fact of the matter was Amanda really could make herself ill, thus giving her the upper hand. They had all bowed to her tantrums, acutely sympathetic to the fact she had lost her parents, but by the time she’d reached her teens it had become apparent that Amanda actually enjoyed wallowing in her feelings. Earlier in the day she had maintained, with tears gushing, she couldn’t possibly meet Mark’s cruel, callous brother.
“We’re talking about the brother who tried to wreck his life, Sienna. You expect me to head off to a pow-wow, smoke the peace pipe? Not likely!”
Mark had impressed upon Amanda and the family that he had hated his brother, blaming him for his banishment from the Kilcullen ancestral home—although he had been very sketchy about that. It was a desert fortress, apparently, set down in the middle of nowhere. She had checked the Simpson area out on the internet, reading about the breathtaking changes that occurred in the wilderness after rain. It sounded quite fascinating.
Mark had thought differently. “Canada suits me fine. God knows it’s far enough away—the other side of the world.” From time to time there had been such abrupt surges of anger, amounting to rants, flushed skin, darting eyes. She’d once suggested Mark might need professional help to Amanda, falling back defensively against Amanda’s hysterical tirade.
“How dare you? Dare you? Dare you?”
Sienna had never mentioned it again.
The odd thing was Mark hadn’t met Amanda in their home city of Vancouver. He had met her when she and Amanda were holidaying in Paris. Mark had been working behind the bar of their luxury hotel at the time.
“Just a fun job, and I get to meet all the beautiful girls.”
Mark had lived for fun, taking casual jobs here and there in the hospitality industry where—surprisingly—he had shone. But then Mark had been physically a very attractive man. Only he had committed to nothing. Amanda was a born flirt, who’d had a succession of boyfriends, but she had fallen for him good and hard— and in a remarkably short time. As for Sienna herself, the sensible one, she hadn’t taken to Mark—despite his good-looks and superficial charm. But he’d been the type Amanda had always been attracted to.
It hadn’t come as much of a surprise when Mark had followed them home less than a month later. He’d met the family, who had recognised an imbalance there, but felt compelled for Amanda’s sake to be tolerant. Amanda paid attention to no one, but in retrospect it would have been an excellent idea for her to listen. She would have no other. Within six months she and Mark had been married, at a small but lavish affair Lucien had turned on for them. There had been no one on Mark’s side, although there had been a goodly sprinkling of Fleurys and friends to swell the numbers and make an occasion of it. It had later been revealed Amanda had been pregnant the time—something she had kept from them—but sadly she had miscarried barely a month later. She had not fallen pregnant again for the remainder of their short and, as it had turned out, largely unhappy marriage.
Sienna had often wondered if that was the reason Mark had married Amanda—although to be fair Amanda was very pretty and she could be good company when the mood took her. It had never seemed to Sienna that Mark had been in love with her cousin. Using her, maybe? Their family was wealthy. Her father was an eminent artist, her mother a dermatologist and her brother was becoming quite a celebrity designer. For that matter she was doing pretty well herself. Only Mark had never seemed short of money. He’d appeared to have private means. The jobs he’d taken had seemed to be no more than hobbies. At one time he had tried to talk her into allowing him to join her at the gallery. No question of that. She hadn’t wanted Mark anywhere near her. He made her very uneasy. Barely a year into the marriage Mark had finally shown her why. She couldn’t bear to think about that awful, shameful evening. It still haunted her. From that night on she had loathed him …
Blaine Kilcullen was speaking, drawing her out of her dark, disturbing thoughts. “I do hope your cousin is well enough to speak to me tomorrow, Ms Fleury. I need to see her.”
“Of course you do,” she hastily agreed, thinking there
would be world peace before Amanda got out of bed.
“What is the real reason for her not coming, Ms Fleury?”
“Please—Sienna.” She took a sip of her cocktail. It
perturbed her, the effect this man was having on her.
It was as if he had a magnetic power. She was usually composed. Or that was her reputation. Amanda was the bubbly one. At least before her brief marriage had started to disintegrate.
“Sienna it is.” He smiled briefly. That was enough. The smile lit the sombreness of his expression like an emerging sun cut through clouds. “Sienna—a significant name. Was it inspired by the colour of your hair?” He let his eyes linger on her long, lustrous mane. It was centre-parted no doubt to highlight the perfect symmetry of her oval face. The colour was striking: a blend of dark red, amber and coppery-brown. Her large beautiful eyes were thickly lashed. The colour put him in mind of fine sherry when held up to the light.
“My father named me,” she said, a smile playing around her mouth. “Apparently even as a newborn my fuzz of hair was the colour of burnt sienna. That’s a paint pigment. My father is quite a famous artist here in Canada. Lucien Fleury.” She spoke with love and pride.
“It was your father, then, who rang Mark’s mother to let her know of the accident?” Things were starting to fall into place.
Mark’s mother. Why not our mother? “Yes, Amanda was so distraught she had to be sedated.” Not true. Amanda had been drunk. Another cover-up. Amanda had taken to alcohol big-time.
“I feel I should see your father’s work,” he said, surprising her. “My family have been great collectors over the years. I have a great-aunt—Adeline—living in Melbourne, whose house is like a private museum. Paintings, sculptures, antiques, Oriental rugs, the most exquisite Chinese porcelains behind glass. She tells me every time she sees me she’s leaving me the lot.”
“Does that please you?” He was a cattle baron, a man of action, of the Great Outdoors, though his whole persona was that of a cultured man of the world. “Not everyone likes such things.” She had friends who had little taste for art and antiques though they had the money to possess both.
His handsome mouth was compressed. A sexy mouth, very clean cut, its edges raised. She knew he wasn’t married. That had emerged during the course of the conversation between Mrs Hilary Kilcullen and her father. “In my case, I do. But God knows where it will all go. My current plan is to give the lesser stuff away. There’s quite a large extended family. But you wouldn’t know about that.”
“Unfortunately, no.” She lowered her gaze. “I should point out it’s Amanda who is your brother’s widow.”
“Half-brother,” he corrected a shade curtly, again surprising her. Mark had never said. “My mother died of the complications of malaria when I was going on six years of age. She and my father were staying at a friend’s coffee plantation in New Guinea at the time. Both of them had had their shots, but in my mother’s case the vaccine didn’t take. My father, our New Guinea friends, the entire family were devastated by the loss. I still remember my beautiful mother, though those memories have kept changing over time. Hard to forget what she looked like, however. My father commissioned a large portrait of her by a famous Italian artist to celebrate their marriage. It hung in the Great Room. It never came down.”
Not even when the second wife, Mark’s mother, took her place? That couldn’t have been easy for Hilary Kilcullen. Come to that, this cattle baron himself was eminently paint-able. She knew her father could do a wonderful portrait of him, but she very much doubted whether he would be up for a commission.
“So you have a permanent reminder of your mother,” she said with gentle compassion. “I’m so sorry for your loss.
The feeling of being deprived of your mother must never go away. I’m very close to my mother. I can’t imagine life without her.”
“Then you’re blessed,” he said, looking across the small circular table and right into her eyes.
Really looking—as though she was in some way important to him or his agenda.
“And you have both your parents,” he continued. “My father died a few years back.”
Just as Mark had said. She’d concluded Blaine Kilcullen was a man of iron control, but a flash of pain crossed his chiselled features.
“Dad remarried, according to Adeline, to give me a stepmother.” He didn’t tell her Adeline had actually said a ready-made nanny. Everyone in the family knew his father’s marriage to Hilary had been one of convenience, although Hilary, daughter of a pastoralist friend of the family, had long idolized Desmond Kilcullen from afar.
“Mark never made it clear you and he were half brothers. He always talked about you as though you were—well … full brothers.”
“Did he?” He took care to keep his tone even. He could well imagine what Mark had told them all, the damage Mark had done. Not only to him, but to the rest of the family. Mark had near destroyed himself with bitterness and resentment. “Mark was still engaged to a very nice young woman when he took off without a word to anyone,” he said, just to put part of the record straight. “He jumped on a freight plane that had flown machinery into the station, as it happened. From the look on your face you didn’t know about that either.”
“Remember, please,” she said again, “I’m Amanda’s cousin.” She needed to explain her lack of knowledge.
“But you are close?” He resumed his piercing silver-grey scrutiny.
She hoped she didn’t flush. She and Amanda had coexisted rather than ever growing close as she had hoped. The closeness simply hadn’t happened. “Amanda’s parents were killed when she was five. Her parents were returning from a long trip and her father apparently fell asleep at the wheel. My mother and father opened up their home and their hearts to Amanda. Amanda, my brother Emile and I all grew up together. He’s a highly gifted architect and interior designer.”
“So the artistic gift runs in the family?” he said. “May I ask what you do?”
He actually sounded interested. “I manage one of my father’s galleries, and I paint myself. As you say, it’s in the blood.”
“Do you show your work?”
She gave him a sparkling glance. He knew the sparkle was unconscious, but a man could find it powerfully seductive. “I’ve had four showings up to date. Each time they become more successful. I specialize in landscapes, the occasional still-life. My father’s speciality is portraiture, though he can paint anything. Many of his subjects have been very important people, and of course very beautiful women. My father worships a woman’s beauty. I’m not in his league—” she smiled “—but Lucien is wonderfully supportive. Which is not to say he isn’t highly critical when he feels the need. My brother loves Dad but he took off to New York to make his own way in the world. When Emile is home it’s like being around twins—Dad and Emile are so much alike.” She changed the subject, although she could see his interest was unfeigned. “Did you know Amanda and Mark actually met in Paris, not here in Vancouver?”
He gritted fine white teeth. “Sienna, it was Mark’s plan to vanish into thin air. At that time he was a very disturbed young man.” No need to add that he’d had chips as big as desert boulders on both shoulders.
“You don’t want me to press you about Mark?” At her question he gave her a searching look. It was as though he wanted to know everything that went on inside her.
“I think I have summed it up,” he said in a clipped voice.
“Perhaps you should know what he thought of you?” Unforgivably, she was returning his brusqueness.
“Not right now,” he said. “Mark was family. His death matters.”
He had turned the tables on her. She felt ashamed of herself. “Of course it matters. Please forgive me. I only thought it would explain so much about Amanda if I could tell you—”
“That Mark hated me?” His black brows rose. “Sienna, I know. It was a very bad case of sibling rivalry. We all live in isolation on a vast Outback station, yet Mark and I never really connected. We never did things together. It’s hard to explain.”
Not to me, she thought. It was almost exactly her experience with Amanda.
“I was my father’s heir. His firstborn. Mark grew up knowing I was the one who would inherit Katajannga. That’s the name of our cattle station. Not that he had any interest in being or becoming a cattle man.”
Her interest had soared. “That’s the name of your station? Katajannga? How extraordinary Mark never mentioned that.”
“Mark kept a lot of things locked up,” he said sombrely. “There’s a long story attached to the name. It more or less means ‘revelation’, or sometimes ‘many lagoons’ when translated from the aboriginal. One can understand why. After good rains the desert is indeed a revelation.”
Her beautiful eyes, fixed on his, revealed her fascination. “I’m here to listen.”
“When Mark’s wife is not?”
She sat back abruptly, trying to interpret the question. “You said that as though you’re trying to catch me out?”
“Did I?” He didn’t back down.
“I can’t be held responsible for Amanda, you know.”
“Of course not. But I have the feeling you’re covering for her now.”
She released the breath she’d been holding. “Amanda just can’t deal with this now, Mr Kilcullen. Surely you understand?”
Heightened feelings were contagious. “How well did you know Mark?”
A flash of temper put fire in her deep golden eyes. “As well as anyone knew him.”
“An odd answer, surely? Or do you mean his wife aside?”
“Please don’t hassle me, Mr Kilcullen,” she said, sitting straighter.
“God forbid!” A smile tugged at his mouth. “And I insist you call me Blaine. After all, you invited me to call you Sienna. I’m not a monster, you know.”
“Aren’t you?” Mark had really hated him.
He read her mind. “Probably Mark’s exact word. Monster. Should I be offended?”
Colour rose beneath her lovely creamy skin. “I’m just seeking the truth.”
He lifted his brandy balloon, took a mouthful, savouring it before responding. “Sienna, Mark may have seen me that way,” he said tersely, “but I’d like you to keep an open mind. You won’t find anyone from where I come from to hang a label like that on me. In fact anyone who tried to would be in for a hard time. My father was a greatly respected man. ‘The Kilcullen’ he was always called, as his father, his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. He was my role model. I could never let him down.”
Had that made less room for Mark? “I would think your father regarded you as the perfect son. Would you say Mark let him down?” Mark, being Mark, would have done just that. He had certainly let his wife down. “You would have been your father’s golden boy.” She pinned that silvery gaze, knowing she was acting out of character but she couldn’t seem to help herself. He was a very provoking man.
“Wrong colouring, surely?” His handsome face relaxed into another half-smile. “Golden boy fitted Mark much better.”
He should smile more often, she thought. It was a stunning illumination. “This has to be confusing.” She focused on a beautiful arrangement of flowers nearby. They would all have to rethink everything damning Mark had uttered about his family.
“It will be confusing when one feels compelled to change one’s opinion. I have a fair idea of what Mark told his wife. And you. He would have told you, of course.”
She took a full minute to answer, not ready for this. “Why ‘of course’? What could you be implying?” She hoped to God she hadn’t flushed. She wanted to keep her explosive memories of Mark private—especially from his half-brother.
“Let’s call it a desire to know what happened to my half-brother. As far as my family is aware you were the one person outside Amanda that Mark didn’t hate or resent in some way. Mark fed on resentment.”
That was her own judgement, yet she felt as if she was being dragged into a deep, murky pond. “Let’s get this straight,” she said. “When exactly did Mark talk about me? More to the point, why? I didn’t see Mark all that much.” Made sure I didn’t.
He tossed back the remainder of his cognac. “Don’t let me upset you, Sienna. None of this is easy. I only mean Mark obviously thought very highly of you. He wrote about you to his mother. That’s if you were Amanda’s bridesmaid and her best friend?”
“I was my cousin’s bridesmaid.” She frowned in perplexity.
“As I thought. Only Mark failed to mention you and Amanda were related. Knowing Mark, I would say it was a deliberate oversight. Hilary insisted on showing me his letter, although I didn’t particularly want to read it or even know what Mark had to say at the time.”
“Well, you could tell me now.” She settled her gaze on him. “The notion that he bothered to write about me at all doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What did he say? Mark had good-looks, and an easy charm when the mood took him. That would be no surprise to you. But to be painfully honest we didn’t get to be friends.”
“Except Mark didn’t see it that way.” His shapely hand gently rocked his empty brandy balloon. “Not so surprising when one thinks about it. Mark believed what he wanted to believe.”
“Which, in my case, was what?” she asked, with more than a touch of asperity.
“Well, you are a very beautiful woman. And you seem to have been important to Mark.”
She gave an exasperated groan. “If I was, he didn’t share that with me.” She had no alternative but to lie. “What has that got to do with anything anyway?” she asked. “Mark fell in love with Amanda. Mark married Amanda. End of story.”
“Only you know the story, Sienna. We don’t. But I’m more than prepared to listen to anything you want to tell me. The marriage was happy?”
“Why wouldn’t it have been?” she parried. She wasn’t about to tell him there had been lots of crises, rows, Amanda in floods of tears. What good would it do?
He studied her. “The simple answer. I knew Mark.”
She had known him too. “It was happy enough,” she answered, caught up in a swirl of emotion. Even the air seemed charged.
“You were there when he had his fatal accident?”
Memory swept over her. She lowered her head, unaware the light was bouncing off her rose-gold hair. “Yes. Amanda had invited me along.” She had only relented and gone because Amanda had seemed desperate she join them at the ski resort. She still didn’t know why Amanda had appeared so distraught. “I don’t need to tell you Mark had a reckless streak. Amanda and I are experienced skiers. We’ve been skiing all our lives. Mark, very tragically, thought he was a lot better than he actually was. It was a terrible day. Amanda went totally to pieces.”
“But you didn’t?”
Her eyes flashed. “That sounds remarkably like an accusation of sorts.” Her response was just as terse as his question. “I was deeply shocked and saddened, of course, but I was glad I was there. Amanda needed me.” Amanda was one of the neediest young women in the world. But no need to tell him that either.
His eyes lingered on her beautiful face, now flushed with colour. He had angered her. But it couldn’t be avoided. “You do know I’m here to arrange for Mark’s body to be shipped home? I also want to invite Amanda to return with me. She must want to attend Mark’s funeral, surely? And she can finally meet the family. We will, of course, meet all her costs. Do you think she would do that?”
Sienna had to take time before she could answer. “Blaine,” she said in a subdued voice, “Amanda is rather a fragile person.”
“And you’re her anchor?”
“I’ve always looked out for her,” she admitted. “We’ve all deemed it important to look out for Amanda. She lost both her parents at such an early age. I must tell you she couldn’t have found better foster parents than my mother and father. There were and remain kindness itself.”
“I’m sure of that,” he said. “Hilary said your father sounded very kind and compassionate. But you don’t think Amanda will meet me, let alone come back to Australia with me?”
She stopped him by placing the tips of her fingers very briefly over his. It was a totally spontaneous action born of compassion. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
Her skin was warm and as soft as silk, yet it sent tremors shooting down his spine. “I don’t want to go back without her.” His expression tautened. “She should want to attend Mark’s funeral, surely? She did agree to our taking his body home. And as Mark’s widow she stands to inherit money. I administer the Kilcullen Family Trust now my father has gone. I can make it easy for Amanda to access her inheritance or difficult for her to gain control of the funds. I don’t think she should escape meeting her late husband’s family at long last. Hilary will welcome her. So will Marcia, Mark’s twin.” He was far from sure in Marcia’s case. Both Mark and Marcia had inherited difficult natures. Not from Hilary, herself but Hilary’s family.
Mark had left them right out of the loop, Sienna inwardly lamented. “Mark never once said he had a twin. He could only be drawn on you.”
Blaine shrugged an impeccably tailored shoulder. His tone was ironic. “I expect there’s an avalanche of things you don’t know. Do you think the trip back to Australia would be made easier if you accompanied your cousin?”
His suggestion rocked her. It also gave her a totally unprepared for thrill.
“That’s if you could possibly spare the time?” he said. “I could hang on for a day or two. As an artist, I think you’ll find our Channel Country has a lot to offer. At the moment it’s boom time. We’ve had record rains over the past couple of years. The desert dunes are thickly clothed in green. There are wild flowers as far as the eye can see. Flood waters have even rolled into Lake Eyre, turning it into the fabled inland sea of pre-history. A number of Australian landscape artists have stayed with us on the station of recent times. And Hilary and Marcia love company.”
“You’ve quite astonished me.” She was unable to free herself from his gaze. It was downright mesmerizing.
“But the idea isn’t entirely unacceptable to you?” Brackets framed his mouth. Amusement? Triumph? She couldn’t tell. He was a man of contradictions.
“Perhaps …” She found herself admitting, “But you don’t know me! I’m a stranger.”
“Oddly enough, you don’t seem like a stranger to me.” The remark was delivered without his thinking, yet it had sprung from deep inside him. More than one switch had been turned on, he thought with a degree of self mockery. He had more than enough problems, yet he wanted this woman to come. He wanted to see her on his own land. He had never remotely expected this. being exploited, perhaps, by a beautiful woman wasn’t on his agenda.
Sienna, ever perceptive, had caught the subtle nuance.
The level of intensity between them had gone up several notches. She dropped her eyes, startled to discover she was powerfully attracted to Mark’s ‘Lucifer’. Attraction was beyond anyone’s control, she excused herself. It simply happened. Often when one least needed it to happen.
“So many things we’ve lived with without knowing,” she said ruefully.
“There are things that you need to know. Amanda, you, your family who raised her. Surely you all thought it extremely odd that Mark didn’t reach out and at least invite his mother and his twin to his wedding?”
There was a fraught pause. Sienna stared back at the beautiful flower arrangement, seeking a moment of calm. “Of course we did!” Her tone showed more upset than she’d intended. “Especially in relation to his mother. We didn’t know about Mark’s twin. But it was Mark’s decision. Amanda did everything he asked of her. She fell blindly in love with him. As you’ve guessed, things changed.”
“And they’ve changed even more drastically now Mark’s dead,” he said, his expression sombre. “He can no longer dictate his widow’s actions. She’ll be given an opportunity to find out what Mark’s family is really like. As you’re so close, I’m hoping you’ll be able to persuade her, Sienna. And there is the money,” he added somewhat dryly. “What exactly does Amanda do? I’m assuming as she and Mark were childless she has a career?”
She could hardly say, as was actually the case, that Amanda shared Mark’s aversion to work. “Mark didn’t want Amanda to take a job during their marriage. She had to be there for him at all times.”
“I see.” He didn’t look surprised. “And what did Mark work at?”
She took a deep breath. “This and that,” she said evasively. “He found jobs easily in the hospitality industry.
That seemed to suit him. What does it matter now? Mark always had money. We assumed he had private means.”
“He had a bottomless well,” Blaine announced in a very crisp voice. “His mother. The mother he didn’t want to see. But he was quite happy to take her money. As far as I’m aware—I could be wrong—my stepmother kept in fairly constant touch with Mark.”
“She would have wanted to, as his mother. The whole situation defies belief! But it’s really none of my business.”
He made a jeering sound. “Oh, I think it is. You’re here, aren’t you? You’re standing in for your cousin. You obviously protect her. If Amanda needs to be talked into coming back with me, I would say you’re the one to do it. You’d be very welcome to come too—as in Amanda’s case, with all expenses paid. You would be doing us a huge favour. The past has to be washed clean. All the things that were kept secret brought out into the open. Much healthier that way.”
“I can’t work miracles,” she said, averting her head.
Her profile was exquisite. She was a very beautiful woman. But there was nothing threatening in her style of beauty. She had been born with natural charm. “So much for the migraine!” he returned, very coolly.
She felt hot blood flushing through her. “She’s in pain,” she burst out. “She did love him, you know.”
He responded bluntly. “Only—very sadly for Amanda—he fell out of love with her. If indeed he was ever in love with her. Mark lost interest in most things very fast. He left behind him a young woman who believed he loved her. They were engaged to be married. Mark’s mother was convinced Joanne would be the ideal young woman to lend Mark much needed strength and support. He rejected it from the rest of us. Joanne is a fine young woman. Our pioneering families have always been close.”
“So chances are Joanne will hate Amanda? If she comes to the funeral they will come face to face.”
“Time has passed, Sienna,” he offered, with a spread of his elegant tanned hands.
“Not enough time, I would think. A wounded heart can’t heal overnight.”
He studied her wonderfully expressive face. “You sound very sure. Has anyone wounded your heart?”
“Of course. A little,” she said lightly. “I’m twenty-six, but no real heartache to speak of. I’m prepared to wait for the right man to come along. And what about you, Blaine? You’re good with the questions. What about a few answers? You’re not married?”
“Finding the right wife would be a whole lot easier if I had more time,” he said. “If you visit the station you’ll realize I have a big job on my hands. We all thought my father was going to live for ever. He was such a force! So strong and powerful. It was unbearable to see him struck down. It changed my life. It changed all our lives.”
“Can you speak about it?” she asked gently.
“Mark never did?”
His light eyes really did glitter. He must have inherited those remarkable eyes from someone. Father? Or the mother who had died so young? “Not beyond the fact your father had died. He wasn’t forthcoming about how.”
“I imagine not,” he said grimly. “It was Mark who found him lying crippled and unconscious out in the desert.” The vibrancy of his voice had been damped right down. “It was the big muster. Somehow Dad and Mark became separated from our group. We all thought Mark had packed it in. He had a habit of doing that. Dad had probably gone after him, to pull him back into line. Anyway, Mark galloped frenziedly into the lignum swamps, where we were flushing out unbranded cattle, yelling near incoherently that Dad was dead. Duchess, my father’s very special mare, had thrown him and then trampled him into the ground. Mark had taken his rifle and shot the mare in a fit of grief and rage.”
He remembered how wave after wave of waterfowl had risen in fright and outrage at the racket Mark was making. How every last man had stood in a devastated gut-wrenching silence at the drastic news. Everyone had confidently expected Desmond Kilcullen to live for many more years, liked and respected by the entire Outback community.
His pain was so palpable it stabbed at her. “How horrendous!” Sienna was about able to visualize the tragic scene.
“Horrendous, indeed.” He underscored her comment. “I damn nearly dropped dead myself from shock. According to Mark, Duchess had kicked Dad in the head. Accidents always will happen around horses, but my father was a consummate horseman. And Duchess was a wonderful one man horse. Something unexplained must have freaked the mare out. If terrified she would have reacted convulsively, throwing my unprepared father. Mark shot the mare on the spot. Dad spent the few remaining years of his life in a wheelchair, his memory of that terrible day blasted from his mind.” He didn’t add that any semblance of family life had been shattered.
Sienna sat horrified. “I’m so sorry Mark mistook your father’s condition.”
“I don’t know how, but he did,” he told her bleakly. “He was in a massive panic.”
“It’s such a terrible story.” She considered a moment. “Do you think it could have caused Mark’s subsequent behaviour? Could he have felt some measure of guilt? I mean in the sense that he was the one to find your father.
He had to shoot the mare. Was the mare a very temperamental animal?”
The handsome features visibly tightened, highlighting his fine bone structure. “Duchess was a very special horse, so of course she was a spirited animal. Something must have badly spooked her, as I’ve said. Mark was nearly off his head at the time. No one could get much sense out of him—especially me. He acted like I was accusing him of something. Dad could recall nothing of that day, although much of his past memory came back over time.”
“So you never could piece the exact sequence of events together?”
“No.” His expression grew darker.
Two tragic accidents that had claimed father and now son. “When did Mark abandon his family and fiancée, exactly?”
“Far too soon.” He didn’t tell her Mark had shied clear of visiting their father in hospital. Mark had been long gone before their father’s second unsuccessful back operation.
“Mark must have been crushed, given what had happened,” she offered, as some sort of mitigating circumstance.
“It was my father who was crushed.”
“Sorry, sorry—wrong word,” she apologized. “But Mark could well have felt guilt. Would you have shot the mare?’ She waited, wanting his answer.
“No.” His reply was emphatic. “My father wouldn’t have wanted it. I have to see it this way: something spooked the mare. An encounter with a camel in heat is a possible explanation. They can be ferocious. Male camels come on heat, not the female. They can’t be avoided. They’re part of the Outback now. They were brought in by Afghan traders in the early days of settlement. They thrived.”
“So it could have been a rogue camel, then?” she asked.
He shot her a searching look. “There was any number in the area. But we were all well aware of that. Dad had handled plenty of rogue camels. I have myself. One doesn’t waste a moment getting away. Or, if forced to, one takes the camel out. They come at full charge.”
“So there remains a question hanging over that dreadful day?”
He took his time to answer. “A question that will never be answered, Sienna. Dad is dead. A disaster that fell like an impenetrable fog over our lives. It has never lifted. Now Mark is dead too.”
“How much sadder could that be?” She bowed her head.
“Sienna, I must appeal to you to speak to Amanda on my behalf.” He spoke more urgently. “This is no time for inaction. Mark was her husband. I want her to come back to Australia with me. She won’t be alone in her grief. Hilary loved her son. She missed him every single day he was gone.”
“Of course she would, as his mother.” She well understood the strength of the bond. She was very close to her own mother. “And he did write to her, if only to inform her of his marriage. But his twin? Marcia? You seem to have avoided mentioning her much?”
She was proving very insightful. “Strangely enough, the twins didn’t get on all that well. They could be antagonistic, although they understood one another completely. Marcia isn’t feeling her twin’s loss like their mother. Which is not to reduce the close bond entirely—Marcia is deeply distressed. I’m afraid Mark’s behaviour put us all off side. Marcia and Joanne remain good friends. Marcia felt Joanne’s pain of betrayal. If Mark thought he was abandoned it wasn’t true. Leaving was Mark’s choice. It was his family and his fiancée who felt abandoned. I think it’s time now to bring closure. If Amanda can’t do it on her own, you’re the one who can help her.”
Some strong communication was passing between them. She couldn’t begin to speculate on what it was. All she knew for sure was that he had made it sound as if her very destiny hinged on her going to Australia.
SIENNA was hardly inside the door of her apartment when the phone rang. She didn’t hurry to answer it. It could only be Amanda, wanting a second-by-second account of how the evening had gone. That was Amanda! It was well after midnight. But time—everyone else’s time—meant nothing to her cousin. Maybe some time soon the family could start treating Amanda like a woman instead of an ever needful little girl. It was a role Amanda had settled into as the best and easiest way to get her through life. Now her husband’s tragic end. No one could have foreseen that. Amanda needed support. It always had been Sienna’s job to prop her cousin up. At such a time as now it would be cruel not to.
“Hell, Sienna, have you only just got home?” A slurred and highly irritable voice greeted her.
Amanda’s modus operandi was to put her on the back foot. Sienna drew a calming breath. “Hi, Mandy. Calm down, now. I fully intended to ring you first thing in the morning. Can’t it wait? It’s well after midnight.” Blaine Kilcullen had insisted on seeing her home. They’d had to wait for a cab. Despite all her earlier misgivings time had flown. One could even say on wings. The man was so charismatic a woman might well need to build protective walls.
“No, it can’t!” Amanda retorted. “I’m ill with grief.”
Of course she was. Sienna softened her stand. “I’m sorry, Mandy. I truly am. But drink won’t help.”
“Always the role model!” Amanda warbled. “As if that’s all there is to life—being a role model. My wonderful, clever, oh-so-beautiful cousin.” A pause while she took another gulp of whatever drink was to hand. Vodka, most likely. Amanda had started bending her elbow not all that long into her marriage. Now it was getting out of hand. “Tried to take him off me, didn’t you?” Amanda was back to her sickening accusations. “It wasn’t me who made my dear husband’s hormones soar. It was you—and I was powerless to do anything about it.”
It had taken Sienna many years to recognize Amanda’s jealousies and deep resentments. People had pointed it out to her over the years but she had chosen not to listen. “Amanda, please stop this” She tried to ignore the sick lurch in her stomach. “We’ve been over it too many times. I was not attracted to Mark. Mark was your husband. If he’d been the sexiest man in the world—which he wasn’t—he’d have been totally off-limits. I refuse to be drawn into any more discussions on the subject, much as you’re compelled to bring it up.”
Amanda must have made a wild sweep with her hand, because Sienna could hear glass breaking. Probably the glass she’d been drinking out of.
“Aren’t you forgetting I discovered the two of you together?” Amanda raged on, in that upsettingly slurred voice.
“Face it, Amanda. You know the truth.” Yet irrational guilt settled hard and heavy on Sienna’s shoulders. Her conscience couldn’t have been clearer in regard to that appalling evening. Still she felt a measure of guilt for the pain that had been caused to her all too vulnerable cousin.
“He loved you—don’t you realize that?”
Sienna held the phone away from her ear. “What Mark loved was creating great disharmony. You’re upsetting us both with this talk, Amanda. My sole loyalty is to you. Look, I can’t talk to you while you’re in this mood. I’m going to hang up now. Get some sleep. I promise I’ll ring you in the morning.”
The force of the threat stopped Sienna in her tracks. “Don’t make me withdraw my support, Amanda,” she said quietly. “And by the way, Mark’s half-brother—he didn’t tell us that, did he?—is nothing like Mark tried so hard to present him. He’s a very impressive man.” The polar opposite of everything that had been Mark.
“Such camaraderie in a few short hours!” Amanda hooted. “Just tell me this. Is there any money? Did he look like he’s got pots of money? God knows, Mark left me with nothing.”
But Amanda had always had a safety net in the family. They would have been expected to pick up the shambles Amanda had made of her life. But now there was Kilcullen money. “To be fair to Mark, he did keep you both in some style. Apparently his mother proved to be a bottomless well when he needed topping up. She must have done it pretty regularly. And just look how he treated her! I’ll tell you another thing, so you can sleep on it. Blaine—”
Sienna moved the phone away from her ear again. “I can hardly refer to him as Mr Kilcullen,” she said, suddenly sick to death of her cousin. “Your late husband’s half-brother very much wants you to accompany him back to Australia. He’s assured me you will be welcomed. Mark has a twin, by the way, name of Marcia. Apparently they weren’t all that close—unlike most twins.” Now definitely wasn’t the time for Amanda to learn about the scorned fiancée.
“Mark wouldn’t have deliberately lied to me,” Amanda asserted in a thick voice, when her normal tones were soft and breathy.
“Mark had a twin, Amanda,” Sienna said. “The truth was an alien concept to him. He lied to us all the time. He kept his true self and his true life well under wraps. Probably he was laughing at us. He had a cruel streak.”
“He was a fabulous husband.”
Clearly Amanda was in denial. “Mandy, you contradict yourself all the time. Why were you always so desperate for me to join you and Mark? You never did explain. Was the marriage all but over? Was that what it was all about, Mandy? Do you ever come clean?”
Silence for a moment, then Amanda’s harsh reaction. “I need you to understand something, Sienna. If my marriage was over, it was because of you. You had to take the one thing I had.”
Sienna was too appalled to continue. Drink turned some people happy. It turned others abusive. “I’m hanging up now, Amanda,” she said, thinking things would never get better. Amanda would most probably worsen. “You’ve been drinking. You don’t know what you’re saying. You’re exhausting my good will. In case you’re thinking of ringing back, I’m taking the phone off the hook.”
“Do it. Go on—do it!” Amanda urged, her voice rising to a crescendo.
Sienna did, wrapping her arms around herself. There were only two ways to deal with Amanda. Put up with her, or remove her from her life. After all these years since decided she could never do that. Maybe a good man would come along to take care of her cousin.
Sienna was upstairs, talking to valued client and family friend Nadine Duval, when Amanda walked through the front door of the gallery.
“Sienna, where are you?”
Her voice was pitched so high and loud it was startling. It echoed right through the large open space, its white walls hung with stunning paintings from her father’s last sell-out showing. In the last fifteen years Lucien Fleury had moved on to international eminence with numerous critically acclaimed exhibitions. Sienna was enormously proud of him. He in turn was enormously proud of both his children. Both had been hailed as major talents.
“In the genes, Sienna, my darling.”
Of course he took the credit.
Nadine Duval, an extremely rich woman, who had paid a fortune for arguably her father’s finest canvas in the showing, gave her an understanding little smile. “That will be Amanda, poor girl. We all feel so sorry for her, but I just bet she’s giving you a bad time. You have to get free of her, Sienna,” Nadine warned, not for the first time. “The girl is trouble.”
“Well she’s suffering now,” Sienna explained, beginning to walk Nadine down the spiral staircase.
“Of course she is.” Nadine’s response was vaguely ironic.
“I’ll have the painting delivered this afternoon,” Sienna promised, when they arrived at the bottom.
Nadine reached for her hand. “Thank you, my dear. Tell Lucien I want to see him. Maybe lunch?”
They exchanged kisses.
Amanda looked far more fragile than the strength of her voice had suggested. Indeed she looked waif-like. She had lost weight when she couldn’t afford to do so. Her skin, her best feature, was so pale it was almost translucent. She had violet half-moons beneath her eyes, and the silky curls of her pretty blonde hair had lost their lustre and bounce.
“I really don’t like that woman,” she growled.
It was a mercy Nadine had gone through the door to her waiting limousine.
“Your loss, Mandy. Nadine has so much character.”
“And of course she loves you too.” Amanda was looking hung over, and haggard for her years.
“I hope you haven’t come here to make a scene, Amanda.” Sienna was worried that just might happen. It was fortunate that, with the exhibition over, all that remained was for her to have the paintings delivered to their clients. That meant fewer visitors to the gallery.
“Nothing matters. Nothing matters any more,” Amanda said, face and voice full of woe.
Sienna’s tender heart smote her. “Come through to the office. Would you like a cup of coffee? You don’t look good, Amanda. I know this is a terrible time, but you have to take care of yourself.”
“Why, exactly?” Amanda asked bitterly, sinking her fingers into the skin of her face and dragging her eyes down. “I know I look awful. No need to rub it in.”
“I hope I wasn’t doing that. I care about you, Mandy. We’ll all help you work through your grief.”
“Who’s all?” Amanda shot back, as if she had been fiercely rejected all her life instead of cosseted. “I hardly see Aunty Francine.”
“She works, Amanda, as well you know. But she does ring you often,” Sienna reminded her. Like the rest of them, Francine had tried hard to take to Mark, but found she couldn’t. Consequently, as often happened, it had put distance between them all. “The family are busy people with busy lives, Amanda. But we’re all there for you when we’re needed. Come and sit down,” she urged, putting out a sheltering arm. “I have things to tell you.”
Once seated in the office, Amanda began to gnaw on her nails. “It’s taking all my energy just to stay alive.”
Sienna risked another caution. “You have to stop drinking, Mandy.”
“I need something to get me through,’ Amanda maintained doggedly.
Sienna made coffee from her excellent little machine, adding cream from the refrigerator and two teaspoons of sugar. “I have some cookies if you want them?”
Amanda laughed shortly. “I can’t get a thing down my throat.’ She looked up, her blue eyes moist, her expression wretched. “What am I going to do, Sienna? What sort of a job am I going to get? I was never a good student. Not like you. I didn’t make university. Not only did you get all the looks, you got all the brains and a gift for painting.”
“From Lucien,” Sienna acknowledged, taking a seat behind her mahogany desk. “Drink up, and I’ll tell you what Blaine Kilcullen had to say.”
“It had better be good,” Amanda warned. “What a shocking lot those people are. How cruel they were to Mark.”
“There are two sides to a story, Amanda,” Sienna said quietly, not wanting to provoke her cousin. “Mark did his level best to put us off his family.”
“He had good reasons.” Wrath registered on Amanda’s white face.
Mark had seen himself as a victim. It struck Sienna that was the way Amanda saw herself too. It showed a link between them. All the bad things that happened in life were never their fault. The fault lay with others. Both had dark places.
“Oh, my God, Sienna!” Amanda cried, when Sienna had finished outlining Blaine Kilcullen’s proposal. “There’s money!” She gave a great cry of relief.
“The Kilcullens aren’t going to see you in financial trouble, Mandy.” So much for the Fleury family’s generosity! She recalled one of her father’s recent comments.
“She’s not you, my darling, frail little creature that she is!”
“I don’t know exactly how much, but I’d say a substantial sum. Blaine administers a family trust. After meeting him, I have to say I don’t see him as the ogre Mark made him out.”
“Lucifer, don’t you mean?” Amanda cried, not about to put all the things Mark had said behind her. “The fallen angel. Does he look like Mark?” she asked. “I don’t know if that would make me feel better or worse.”
Sienna shook her head. “You wouldn’t spot the relationship, but he is a half-brother. He’s dark, with the most remarkable light eyes.”
“So he got to you, did he?” Amanda shot her a look full of malice. “Did you get to him? That’s your speciality, isn’t it? Getting to guys, fascinating them.”
Sienna threw up her hands in defeat. “You’d use a sledgehammer on me if you could, Amanda. At the same time you use me—and I allow it. Not for much longer.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.” Amanda backed off when she saw her cousin really meant it. “I’m just so sick with worry and grief.” Tears oozed out of her eyes.
“I understand that.” Sienna relented, as usual, although she knew Amanda could turn tears on and off at will. “Would you consider going to Australia?”
Amanda quelled the tears. “I could never go without you,” she declared flatly. “You’ve looked after me since we were kids. I need you, Sienna. Only you could get me through.”
Sienna felt a rush of warmth. Not at what Amanda had said, but at the involuntary exhilaration she felt at the idea of going to Australia. “Time is of the essence,” she said. “He has to fly back home. He has a vast cattle station to look after, big responsibilities.”
“And he doesn’t feel guilty?” Amanda with one of her lightning changes of mood, banged the table. “He got through to you, all right, but I’m a different story. I’m Mark’s widow. Mark told me everything, how his brother ruined his life.”
“Half-brother,” Sienna corrected. “There was a tremendous amount of conflict in Mark.”
“It’s not the first time you’ve tried to malign Mark.” Amanda made it perfectly plain Sienna’s observations were unwelcome.
“I’m not maligning him, Mandy. I’m trying to point out some reason for all the discrepancies. He never told you about his twin. He never told you he was getting money from his mother. Mark’s account of his past life was all we had to go on up until I met Blaine Kilcullen. If you agree to meet him you can make up your own mind. It’s your decision, Amanda.”
“Why can’t he just give me the money?” Amanda suggested, looking hopeful. “I’m entitled to it.”
“And Mark’s mother and sister are entitled to meet you,” Sienna said, more sharply than she had intended. “You gave permission for his family to ship his body home. Surely you can find it within yourself to meet them and attend Mark’s funeral?”
“I don’t want to.” Amanda started to work herself into one of her rages. “I hate them. I hate Mark for the things he did to me.”
“What things?” Sienna trapped her cousin’s darting eyes. “What is it you’re keeping to yourself? The reason you wanted me at the ski resort? I thought it very odd, considering the number of times you’d warned me off.”
“I wanted to have it out with him. I wanted you there.”
Sienna released a long breath. “You’re lying. You’ve been lying all your life—” She broke off abruptly. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. But you’re not telling me the truth.”
“The truth will go with Mark into his grave,” Amanda said bleakly. “When does this man want me to meet him? I can’t do it today. I have to have my hair done.”
“Does this mean you will go, Amanda? If you want me to go with you I have to make urgent arrangements.”
“Really? The only thing you need to do is tell your father,” Amanda sneered. “He’ll find a stand-in. Lucien adores his beautiful Sienna, with the marvellous hair and the matching amber eyes. He’s told everybody you are his favourite model.”
“After my mother,” Sienna contradicted. “I am no way as beautiful as my mother.”
“Who would believe you?” Amanda’s voice was brittle enough to break.
Sienna sat back, feeling defeated. “Amanda, we’ve all done our best for you, yet you keep slamming us with insults even when you put your hands out for money. I do care for you, Amanda. But I need your definite answer now.”
Tears sprang into Amanda’s eyes. “Do you have to be so dictatorial? You have to give me time.”
Sienna shook her head. “There’s little time available.” She rose as she heard the buzzer signalling someone had entered the gallery.
“If that’s another client get rid of them,” Amanda’s tears miraculously dried up.
“It might take a minute or two. Stay here.”
She walked out into the main room, startled to see the visitor to the gallery was none other than Blaine Kilcullen, cattle baron. She couldn’t help noting he looked marvelous: handsome, powerful, successful—someone very special. He had been studying her father’s remaining paintings—many had already been delivered—and now he turned his raven head to her. “Good afternoon, Sienna.”
She felt heat sweep her body when all he had done was say good afternoon.
“I thought, while I could, I’d take a look at the gallery,” he explained. “Your father has an international reputation, I understand? Looking at these paintings, I can see why. This portrait of you is stunning!”
He stood directly in front of the bravura portrait—a homage to a young woman’s beauty. The canvas shimmered with light. The treatment of her flesh was so good he had an urge to stroke, to check if the bloom was real. Her long hair had unfurled all around her face and cascaded down her back. The exactness of the colour of hair and skin was amazing. She was posed tucked into a roomy gilded armchair, clearly French, so the lovely pattern of the silk upholstery added to the arrangement. One bare arm hung over the side, her fingers curving over the gilded wood. She was wearing a long strapless dress in palest gold. Citrine and diamond drop earrings picked up the colour, as did a matching citrine and diamond pendant enclosed in swirls of gold that drew his eye to the high, youthful curves of her breasts.
“It’s not for sale,” she explained. “My father won’t part with it.”
“I don’t blame him.”
She felt the flush that came to her cheeks. “He looks on it as a lucky talisman for opening nights. I was about to turn twenty-one when he painted it. The earrings and pendant were my parents’ gift to me. I should tell you my mother is the real beauty in the family. I thought the portrait was going to be a present for me, but he kept it himself.” She laughed at the memory. “One never knows what to expect with Lucien. It flatters me.”
In no way was she fishing for compliments, he thought. She genuinely believed the portrait did flatter her. “I disagree.” He remained in place, studying the luminous canvas. “Have you had an opportunity to speak to Amanda?”
“I have, actually.”
“And?” He turned to her with his diamond-sharp gaze.
It was at that precise moment Amanda chose to appear—an actress entering from the wings to take centre stage. In the interim she had somehow managed to transform herself. From looking like a rag doll she was now looking almost perky. She had fluffed up her blonde curls and applied some make-up to good effect. She might even have used eyedrops because her blue eyes were wide and strangely bright.
“Blaine, at long last we meet!” She came forward with not one but two arms outstretched.
Award-winning material, Sienna thought. Not that she hadn’t seen such transformations in the past.
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