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WHEN Sebasten Contaxis strode to Ingrid Morgan's side to offer his condolences on the death of her only son, she fell on his chest and just sobbed as though her heart had broken right through.
A ripple of curiosity ran through the remaining guests in the drawing room of the Brighton town house. The tall, powerfully built male, every angle of his bronzed features stamped with strength and authority, looked remarkably like...but surely not? After all, what could be the connection? Why would the Greek electronics tycoon come to pay his respects after Connor's funeral? But keen eyes picked out the long, opulent limousine double-parked across the street and then judged the two large men waiting turned, moved closer together and the whispers started.
Stunning dark eyes veiled, Sebasten waited until Ingrid had got a grip on that first outburst of grief before murmuring, "Is there anywhere that we can talk?"
"Still looking after my good name?" Ingrid lifted her blonde head and he tensed at the sight of the raw suffering etched in her once beautiful features. Then he knew that even her love for his late father had in the end been surpassed by her devotion to her son. "It doesn't really matter now, does it? Connor's gone where he can never be embarrassed by my past..."
She took him into an elegant little study and poured drinks for them both. Always slim, right now she looked emaciated and every day of her fifty-odd years. She had been his father's mistress for a long time and some of the few happy childhood memories Sebasten had related to her and Connor, who had been five years his junior. For all too short a spell, Connor had been the kid brother he had never had,tagging after Sebasten on the beach, a little blond boy, cheerfully and totally fearless. As an adult, he had become a brilliant polo player, adored by women, in fact very popular with both sexes. Not the brightest spark on the block but a very likeable guy. Yet it had been well over a year since Sebasten had last seen the younger man.
"It was murder, you know..." Ingrid condemned half under her breath.
Sebasten's winged dark brows drew together but he remained silent, for he had heard the rumour that Connor's car crash had been no accident, indeed, a deliberate act of self-destruction, and he knew that there was no more painful way to lose a loved one. She needed to talk and he knew that listening was the kindest thing he could do for her.
"I liked Lisa Denton...when I met that evil little shrew, I actually liked her!" Ingrid proclaimed with bone-deep bitterness.
The silence lay before Ingrid continued in a tremulous tone. "I knew Connor was in love when he stopped confiding in me. That hurt but he was twenty-four...that's why I didn't pry."
"Lisa Denton?" Sebasten was keen to deflect her from that unfortunate angle.
Her stricken blue eyes hardened. "A spoilt little rich brat. Gets her kicks out of encouraging men to make an ass of themselves over her! It's only three months since Connor met her but I could tell he'd fallen like a ton of bricks." The older woman swallowed with visible difficulty. "Then without any warning, she got bored. She cut him dead at a party two weeks ago...made an exhibition of herself with another man, laughed in his face...his friends told me everything!"
Sebasten waited while Ingrid gathered her shredded composure back together again. "He begged but she wouldn't even take a phone call from him. He'd done nothing. He couldn't handle it," Ingrid sobbed brokenly. "He wasn't sleeping, so he went for a drive in his car in the middle of the night and drove it into a wall!"
Sebasten curved an arm round her in a consoling embrace and seethed with angry distaste at the ugly picture she had drawn up. Connor would have been soft as butter in the hands of a manipulative little bitch like that.
"You're going to hate me for what I t-tell you now..." Ingrid whispered shakily.
"Nonsense," Sebasten soothed. "Connor was your half-brother..." Sebasten released his breath in a sudden startled hiss and collided with Ingrid's both defiant and guilty gaze.
"No...that's not possible," he breathed in total shock, not wanting it to be true when it was too late for him to do anything about it.
Ingrid sank down in a distraught heap and sobbed out a storm of self-justification while Sebasten stared at her as though he had never seen her before. She had never told his father, Andros, because she had known how ruthless Andros would be at protecting the good name of the Contaxis family from scandal.
"If Andros had known, he would've bullied me into having a termination. So I left him, came back eighteen months later, confessed to a rebound relationship, groveled...eventually he took me back!" For a frozen instant in time, Ingrid's face shone with the remembered triumph of having fooled her powerful lover and then her eyes, fell, the flash of energy draining away again.
"How could you not tell me before this?" Sebasten bit out in an electrifying undertone, lean, strong face rigid with the force of his appalled incredulity. In the space of seconds, Connor's death had gone from a matter of sincere and sad regret to a tragedy which gutted Sebasten. But he knew why, knew all too well why she had kept quiet. Fear of the consequences would have kept her quiet throughout all the years she had loved his father without adequate return.
"I'm only telling you now because I want you to make Lisa Denton sorry she was ever born..." Ingrid confided with harsh clarity as his brilliant gaze locked to her set features and the hatred she could not hide. "You're one of the richest men on this planet and I don't care how you do it. There have got to be strings you could pull, pressure you could put on somewhere with someone to punish her for what she did to Connor..."
"No," Sebasten murmured without inflection, a big, dark, powerful Greek male, over six feet four in height and with shimmering dark golden eyes as steady as rock. "I am a Contaxis and I have honour."
Minutes later, Sebasten swept out of Ingrid's home, impervious to the lingering mourners keen to get a second look at him. In the privacy of his limo, he sank a double whiskey. His lean, dark, handsome face was hard and taut and ashen pale. He had no doubt that Ingrid had told him the truth. Connor...the little brother he had only run into twice at polo matches in recent years. He might have protected him from his own weakness but he hadn't been given the chance. Certainly, he could have taught him how to handle that kind of woman. Had Lisa Denton found out that, in spite of his popularity and his wealthy friends, Connor was essentially penniless but for his winnings on the polo field? Or had Connor's puppy-dog adoration simply turned her off big time? His wide, sensual mouth curled. Was she a drop-dead babe who treated men like trophies?
He pitied Ingrid for the bitterness that consumed her. Yet even after all those years in Greece, she still hadn't learned that one essential truth: a man never discussed family honour with a woman or involved her in certain personal matters...
* * * Maurice Denton stared out of his library window and then turned round to face his daughter, his thin, handsome face set with rigid disapproval.
"I can't excuse anything you've done," he asserted. Lizzie was so white that her reddish-blonde hair seemed to burn like a brand above her forehead. "I didn't ask you to," she murmured unevenly. "I just said...we all make mistakes...and dating Connor was mine."
"There are standards of decent behavior and you've broken them," the older man delivered as harshly as if she hadn't spoken. "I'm ashamed of you."
"I'm sorry." Her voice wobbled in spite of all her efforts to control it but that last assurance had burned deep. "I'm really...sorry."
"It's too late, isn't it? What I can't forgive is the public embarrassment and distress that you've caused your stepmother. Last night, Felicity and I should have been dining with the Jurgens but it was canceled with a flimsy excuse. As word gets around that your cruelty literally drove the Morgan boy to his death, we're becoming as socially unacceptable as you have made yourself—"
"Dad—" "Hannah Jurgen was very fond of Connor. A lot of people were. Felicity was extremely upset by that cancellation. Indeed, from the minute the details of this hideous business began leaking into the tabloids Felicity has scarcely slept a night through!" Maurice condemned fiercely.
Pale as milk, Lizzie turned her head away, her throat tight and aching. She might have told him that his young and beautiful wife, the woman who was the very center of his universe, couldn't sleep for fear of exposure. But what right did she have to play God with his marriage? She asked herself painfully. What right did she have to speak and destroy that marriage when the future security of her own little unborn brother or sister was also involved in the equation?
"Do you think it's healthy for a pregnant woman to live in this atmosphere and tolerate being cold-shouldered by those she counted as friends just because you've made yourself a pariah?" her father demanded in driven continuance.
"I broke off my relationship with Connor. I didn't do anything else." Even as Lizzie struggled to maintain her brittle composure she was trembling, for she was not accustomed to hearing that cold, accusing tone from her father, and in her hurt and bewilderment she could not find the right words to try and defend her own actions. "I'm not to blame for his death," she swore in a feverish protest. "He had problems that had nothing to do with me!"
"This morning, Felicity went down to the cottage to rest," the older man revealed with speaking condemnation. "I want my wife home by my side where she ought to be. Right now, she needs looking after and my first loyalty lies with her and our unborn child. For that reason, I've reached a decision, one I probably should have made a long time ago. I'm cutting off your allowance and I want you to move out."
Shock shrilled through Lizzie, rocking what remained of her once protected world on its axis: she was to be thrown to the wolves for her stepmother's benefit. She stared in sick disbelief at the father whom she had adored from childhood, the father whom she had fought to protect from pain and humiliation even while her own life disintegrated around her.
Maurice had always been a loving parent. But then the death of Lizzie's mother when she was five and the fifteen years that had passed before the older man remarried had ensured that father and daughter had a specially close bond. But from the day he had met Felicity, brick by brick that loving closeness had been disassembled. Felicity had ensured that she received top billing in every corner of her husband's life and his home.
"Believe me, I don't mean this as a punishment. I hope I'm not that foolish," the older man framed heavily. "But it's obvious that I've indulged and spoilt you to a degree where you care nothing for the feelings of other people—"
"That's not true..." Lizzie was devastated by that tough assessment.
"I'm afraid it is. Making you go out into the world and stand on your own feet may well be the kindest thing I can do for you. There'll be no more swanning about at charity functions in the latest fashions, kidding yourself on that that's real work—"
"But I—" "—and after the manner of Connor's death, who is likely to invite you to talk about generosity towards those less fortunate?" Maurice enquired with withering bite. "Your very presence at a charity event would make most right thinking people feel nauseous!"
As the phone on the desk rang, Lizzie flinched. Her father reached for it and gave her a brusque nod of finality, spelling out the message that their meeting was at an end. The distaste he could barely hide from her, the angry shame in his gaze cut her to the bone. She stumbled out into the hall and made her way back to the sanctuary of her apartment, which lay behind the main house in what had once been the stable block.
For a while, Lizzie was just numb with shock. Over the past ten days, shock had piled on shock until it almost sent her screaming mad. Yet only a fortnight ago, she had been about to break the news of the fabulous surprise holiday in Bali she had booked for Connor's birthday. She had not even managed to cancel that booking, she acknowledged dimly, must have lost every penny of its considerable cost. But then when had she ever had to worry about money? Or running up bills on her credit card because she had overrun her monthly allowance? Now, all those bills would have to be paid...
But what did that matter when she had lost the man she had loved to her own stepmother? Sweet, gushy little Felicity, who was so wet she made a pond look dry. Yet Felicity, it seemed, had also been the love of Connor's life and, finally rejected by her, he had gone off the rails.
"I didn't mean it to happen...I couldn't help myself!" Connor had proclaimed, seemingly impervious to the consequences of the appalling betrayal he had inflicted on Lizzie. The guy she had believed was her best friend ever, maybe even her future husband, and all the time he'd just been using her as a convenient cover for his rampant affair with her stepmother—the whiny, weepy Felicity! A great, gulping sob racked Lizzie's tall, slender frame and she clamped a hand to her wobbling mouth. She caught an unwelcome glimpse of herself in the mirror and her bright green eyes widened as she scanned her own physical flaws. Too tall, too thin with not a shadow of Felicity's feminine, sexy curves. No wonder Connor had not once been tempted all those weeks...
And Connor? Her tummy twisted in sick response. What a ghastly price he had paid for his affair with a married woman! Connor...dead? How could she truly hate him when he was gone? And how could she still be so petty that she was feeling grateful that she had never got as far romantic setting in Bali? He would have run a mile!
Mrs Baines, the housekeeper, appeared in the doorway looking the very picture of discomfiture. "I'm afraid that your father has asked me to pack for you."
"Oh..." In the unkind mirror, Lizzie watched all her freckles stand out in stark contrast to her pallor before striving to pin an unconcerned expression to her face to lessen the older woman's unease. "Don't worry about it. I'm all grown now and I'll survive."
"But putting you out of your home is wrong," Mrs Baines stated with a sharp conviction that startled Lizzie, for, although the housekeeper had worked for the Dentons for years, she rarely engaged in conversation that did not relate to her work and had certainly never before criticized her employer. "This is just a family squabble." Lizzie gave an awkward shrug, touched to be in receipt of such unexpected support but embarrassed by it as well. "I...I'm going for a shower."
Closeted in the bathroom, she frowned momentarily at the thought of that surprising exchange with Mrs Baines before she stabbed buttons on her mobile and called Jen, her closest remaining female friend. "Jen?" she asked with forced brightness when the vivacious blonde answered. "Could you stand a lodger for a couple of days? Dad's throwing me out!"
"Are you jossing me?" "No, talking straight. Right at this very moment, our housekeeper is packing for me—"
"With your wardrobe...I mean, you are the original shop-till-you-drop girl; she'll still be packing at dawn!" Jen giggled. "Come on over. We can go out and drown your sorrows together tonight."
At that suggestion, Lizzie grimaced. "I'm not in a party mood—"
"Take it from me, you need to party. Stick your nose in the air and face down the cameras and the pious types. There, but for the grace of God, go I!" Jen exclaimed with warming heat only to spoil it by continuing with graphic tactlessness, "You ditched the guy...you were only with him a few months, like how does that make you responsible for him getting drunk and smashing himself up in his car?"
Lizzie flinched and reflected that Jen's easy hospitality would come with a price tag attached. But then, where else could she go in the short term? People had stopped calling her once the supposed truth of Connor's "accident" had been leaked by his friends. She just needed a little space to sort out her life and, with the current state of her finances, checking into a hotel would not be a good idea. Maybe Jen, whose shallowness was legendary, would cheer her up. Maybe a night out on the town would lift her out of her growing sense of shell shocked despair.