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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 refinementa 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 MandyMark'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 fiancee 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 coldlet 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 mebecause 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 reactiona 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 othersone 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.