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The setting sun only barely lit the winding path that Penny was following, making it impossible for her to walk fast, however much she wanted to.
No, the truth was that deep down inside she wanted to run. She wanted to get away from the villa as quickly as possible, to run as far and as fast as she could possibly manage. She wanted to run and run and never come back, to get away from the poisonous atmosphere in the house she had left behind. But the truth was that up until now any such action had been impossible.
Well, now she knew that she could leave--perhaps she ought to leave. But doing so would be to admit to herself that there really was no longer anything more to hope for. That her dream of love and a future was over, gone for good. Dead like her fantasies.
No, even now she still couldn't put Zarek's name, her husband's name, at the end of that sentence. If she did that then she was admitting that everyone else was right and she was the foolish one, the only one who had taken so long to let go.
To admit that she no longer had a husband. That the man she had adored and married was never coming home again.
Reaching the spot where the path petered out onto the shore, she kicked off her sandals and paced onto the pebbled beach. Out at sea, she could just make out the dark shape of a small rowing boat and the man who sat in it, broad shoulders hunched away from her, his head just a black silhouette against the sunset. He was wearing some sort of hat--a baseball cap pulled down low so there was no way she could decipher any of his features.
Even now the thought of someone on the water made her shudder inwardly. Out there, somewhere thousands of miles away, Zarek had lost his life. The depths of the ocean were his only grave. That was what she had had so much trouble coming to accept.
And she was going to have to accept one further, even more hateful truth. The fact that even when he had been alive Zarek had never truly loved her. Their marriage had been a lie, on Zarek's part at least. To him it had been purely a coldblooded plan for an heir, never the love match she had believed it. So why was she still holding onto his memory when it was so obvious that he wasn't coming back?
Finding a smooth outcrop of rock just above the tiny horseshoe shaped harbour, she plonked herself down on the makeshift seat and rested her elbows on her knees, supporting her chin in them as she stared out at the small craft bobbing on the restless waves. Sitting there, just staring out into the darkness, she let her unwilling memory go back over the scene she had just left behind.
The voice had come from behind her, just as she reached the front door of the villa and had her fingers on the handle, ready to turn it. It made her freeze into stillness, keeping her eyes directed away and fixed on the heavy wood in front of her.
'Are you going somewhere?'
There was no mistaking just whose voice it was. Only one woman had that cold, distant tone that made her sound as if she were speaking through a cloud of ice, freezing the words in the air as they came out.
And only one woman called her Penelope in quite that way. Using the full version of her name to make it sound like a criticism or a reproach when everyone else--her own family or everyone who liked her--only ever used the shortened form of Penny or even Pen.
Not her mother-in-law. Or, to be more correctly precise, her stepmother-in-law.
'I thought I'd go out for a walk.'
At this time of the day?'
'It's cooler in the evenings. And I prefer it that way.'
Still she didn't turn round. She didn't need to, of course, but more than that she didn't want to. She could already see Hermione Michaelis' elegant figure in her mind's eye. Slender to the point of emaciation, her hair kept unnaturally jet black with the constant use of hair dye, so that the few streaks of grey that were starting to appear were carefully disguised in an attempt to look so much younger than her fifty-nine years.
'I still haven't really adjusted to the heat in the daytime.'
After so long?' her mother in law queried, making Penny bring her sharp teeth down on the softness of her bottom lip in an effort to bite back the instinctive retort that had almost formed on her tongue.
'So long' was only a relative term, depending on who used it. To Hermione maybe the past two years or so had seemed like an age. An age in which she had to live with her unwanted daughter-in-law, who now stood between Darius Michaelis' second wife and the full control of Odysseus Shipping, which was what she had been aiming for from the very first moment she had met Zarek's father.
And 'so long' barely described the past two years that Penny had lived through ever since the news about Zarek's fate had come through to the island. The news that had turned her life upside down, destroying the hope of future happiness, and taking away with it any chance of being able to tell her husband how she truly felt about him.
The brief time of her marriage seemed to have flashed by in the blink of an eye, but the two years since then had taken an eternity to live through. An eternity that had dragged out to seem longer and longer with every day of hope that perhaps this was the day he might return. And then the dreadful, appalling moments that had killed all hope of that for ever. Since then her life had been something to be endured, a desert to live through. Empty and arid, without the love she had once hoped for.
No, who was she kidding? Even before he had vanished-- been killed, they said--Zarek had never offered her the love she dreamed of, Penny told herself with bitter realism. He had married her in a cold-blooded business arrangement, entering into a marriage of convenience because it suited him to do so, because he wanted an heir. And she was the one who had been fool enough to think it was something else.
'My skin is sensitive to the sun--and I don't want to burn. That can be so aging.'
The faint hiss of Hermione's breath in between clenched teeth told her that her deliberate dart had hit home. The older woman was paying the price for a lifetime of sun worshipping and the effects that none of her hugely expensive facials and even a recent facelift could really eradicate.
'So are you taking the dog?' Hermione turned the last two words into an expression of total distaste.
There was only one dog that she could mean. Argus, the great black and white hound who had once been so devoted to his master Zarek and who seemed to be the only other living soul who along with Penny mourned his loss. In the first few weeks after Zarek had gone missing, she had feared that they would lose Argus as well as the big sheepdog had pined for his owner, turning his head away from all food. But in the end he had transferred his devotion to Penny herself and now followed at her heel almost everywhere she went, lying under her desk when she had to work.
'I think not. He's already had a long walk today and the last time I looked he was fast asleep.'
Fast asleep on her bed if the truth was told but there was no way she was going to admit as much to Hermione. Her mother-in-law was only looking for an excuse to get rid of the big dog and Penny wasn't going to take any risks that way. Argus had kept her company when she had needed a friend most. His warm, reassuring bulk was there by her side in the darkness of the night. His long, shaggy fur had absorbed the tears she had shed on that dreadful night when the appalling truth that Zarek was in fact dead had been reported to them. The dog was the one living link to her lost husband and she would always love him for that.
'Nasty flea-bitten creature.'
Penny could practically see Hermione's mouth curl in disgust but she wasn't going to turn and check if she was right.
'There's one thing I can assure you and that is that my dog does not have fleas.'
Wrenching the handle roughly, she pulled the door open and stepped forward, enjoying the rush of air, scented with the tang of the sea, that flooded into her face. She felt trapped and confined--a feeling that was becoming the norm in a way that made her lungs constrict so that it was almost impossible to breathe naturally.
'Don't be long. It's getting dark already.'
Concern? Now that was new in a way that brought her head finally swinging round to meet Hermione's black glittering eyes. Immediately she knew that if she had been thinking that the older woman had her safety at heart, she was wrong. The light that was in that gaze was cold and predatory. The look of a cold-blooded buyer eyeing up her investment to check that all was well. Or a breeder with plans for producing a number of prize-winning offspring from a rather skittish brood mare.
No, that had been Zarek, Penny forced herself to acknowledge inwardly. He was the one who had seen her only as breeding stock for his dynasty.
'I'll be fine...'
'We need to talk to you...'
Penny's voice clashed with Hermione's, the sound of that 'we need to talk to you' making Penny's heart clench and thud roughly against the side of her ribs.
She knew only too well just what that 'need to talk' would entail. She had to. It was the one thing that Hermione and the rest of the family always wanted to talk about.
'I'll be back when I'm back,' she flung in defiance, pushing herself out of the door and into the freedom of the garden before Hermione could do anything to prevent her.
She almost ran down the path, her feet flying over the pebbles as they carried her as quickly as possible. She actually feared that Hermione would come after her, grab at her arm and drag her back, hauling her back inside the house to face 'the family' and the things they wanted to talk about. The older woman was capable of it.
Out at sea, the man in the small boat had given up on the fishing or whatever it was that had taken him onto the dark ocean this late. He was reaching for the oars, the powerful muscles in his arms and shoulders tensing under the white long-sleeved tee shirt as he began to pull against the waves. He must be a strong man, Penny reflected privately. Only someone with a great deal of muscular power could make that much progress against the swell of the tide. Watching him, she felt an unexpected shiver of awareness wash over her skin, perhaps as a result of the cooling breeze that blew in from the sea.
Or possibly it was the effects of the unhappy feelings that plagued her at the thought of that 'talk' that awaited her when she got back to the villa. When Hermione and her sons, Jason and Petros, would start on at her again, trying to persuade her to make the decisions they had been itching for her to come to for so long. At least they had had the sensitivity and the tact to let the last month go by without ever saying a word. They'd let her have the second anniversary of Zarek's disappearance, the day that marked the announcement of his death, without their insistent demands that it was time to look ahead instead of back, to plan the future, to 'move on'.
Dropping her face into her hands, Penny pressed her fingers hard against her closed eyes. Sometimes the misery could still grab her by the throat and make her wonder how she could live the rest of her life without ever seeing him again. He might not have loved her but she had adored him.
'I'll never forget you...'
But the realisation of the truth made the words catch in her throat even as she whispered them behind her hands. Because the truth was that with each day that passed she was finding it harder and harder to recall exactly the devastating attraction of her husband's forceful appearance, the powerful bone structure and sexual appeal of his stunning features. If she tried to visualise him against the darkness of her closed lids she found that the image danced and blurred before her and she could no longer form that once-beloved face in her mind.
The banging of heavy wood against wood jolted her out of her reveries. The fisherman had reached the land, his boat thudding against the pillars of the small jetty as he came up close. As she lifted her head to watch she saw him reach out to pull the vessel even nearer, his oars taken from their locks and dropped at his feet.
He really was a big man, Penny told herself, watching as the lean, powerful frame was silhouetted against the last of the sun, now sinking finally beyond the horizon. Tall, but not bulky--his rangy figure had a controlled power about it as he vaulted easily onto the jetty, bringing with him a coil of wet rope, the drops of seawater that fell from it glistening in the lingering remains of the light. It was the first time in so very long that she had even been aware of a man and how his body looked that she felt her heart kick hard against her ribs in a sense of shock at what she was thinking.
This much closer, she should have been able to see his face but the baseball cap that was pulled down low over his forehead hid so much. And the little that was left was concealed by the thick growth of a dark and bushy beard, which together with the overlong black hair falling onto the straight, strong shoulders gave him a wild, rather primitive look that made her toes curl into the pebbles in slightly shocked response.
Perhaps it was time that she made him aware of her. Let him know she was here.