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Shafts of late-afternoon sunlight pierced the high arched windows of Alyssa Sutherland's studio, turning the huge panes of glass into sheets of liquid copper. Inside the studio, it was as if someone had switched on dozens of electric lights. Caught in the golden illuminance was a large open area with white painted walls, dark, rough-hewn ceiling beams and dark-stained timber columns that supported the soaring ceiling. Visitors to the studio often expressed the opinion that it was more like a country antique shop than a workplace, for the room was filled almost to overflowing with all manner of beautiful and valuable objects, often used as props in Alyssa's paintings. As a centerpiece stood an easel, with a half-finished canvas on it. The artist was at work, her blond head suffused by the sun's radiance.
It took a few moments for the dazzling incandescence to pass by the windows, leaving the delicate, dusky mauve that heralded the brief twilight of the sub-tropics. Alyssa broke off with a sigh, placing her paint-brush in an earthenware pot of solvent, then wiping her fingers on her paint-spattered smock. She had lost all notion of time but a glance at the wall clock told her she'd been working all afternoon without a break, stopping now and then to stare at the paintinga still life of bread, wine and fruit in a Ming dynasty bowlto see how things were progressing.
No magic there today. She doubted a good night's sleep would help much, eitherif she could even subdue her jangled feelings long enough to sink into oblivion. Despite the exquisite strains of Bach's A Minor violin concerto blossoming out of one corner of the studio, her head was seething with angrywords.
A serious relationship had been brought to a bruising end. Brett had packed up his possessions and left the house they'd settled into barely a year before. Only a yearthat was how long their relationship had survived the initial pleasures of being together before taking the downward slope into the stresses and strains of two very different people trying to live in harmony.
Alyssa saw it as Brett's relentless drive to back her into a corner. From the day he'd moved in, he had begun to assert an urge to dominate. That diminished her sense of guilt about the split-up. She believed in equality, but Brett had been more interested in exerting control. She'd finally had enough and found the courage to say so. What she'd often heard was painfully trueyou had to live with someone to even begin to know that person and maybe not even then.
Troubled in mind and spirit, Alyssa turned away to pour herself a cup of coffee. She knew she drank too much of it, but late at night when she was working, the caffeine kept her awake and her senses razor-sharp. Coffee in hand, she settled into a leather armchair, leaning her head against the plush upholstery, her mind returning to that final scene
IT ALL BEGAN innocuously enough, as major upsets often do. One minute she and Brett were sitting on the deck finishing the steak and salad dinner she'd prepared for them, the next, something he saidsomething she found jarringly mean-spiritedtriggered a powerful reaction in her. The straw that broke the camel's back, as she now thought of it. In the preceding months she'd usually shut up at such provocative moments. Anything for peace although she realized now, with a pang of self-disgust, they hadn't been her finest moments. But on that occasion she'd sprung up from her chair, distraught tears in her eyes.
Let it out, Alyssa! You can't stand it anymore!
Her intense response had nothing to do with the topic at hand; it had everything to do with her growing feelings of repression. "I can't be with you anymore, Brett! You you damage my psyche." That was the way she'd come to think of it. How had Brett Harris turned from the man who claimed to love and admire her unreservedly, into a partner determined on controlling her? And in such a short time? It was a side of him she'd never seen, let alone imagined.
That evening he, too, had jumped up, apparently as ready to engage in a major confrontation as she was. His action had toppled a beautiful long-stemmed crystal wineglass that predictably broke, breaking up a valuable set of six. Strangely enough, when she'd decided to use those particular glasses she had a presentiment one of them might break.
Brett cursed his clumsiness, sucked at a tiny cut on his hand, but ignored the dark-crimson wine stain that spread over the white cloth. "Damage your psyche?"
He had developed an irritating habit of repeating her words as though he found them incomprehensible. "What sort of mumbo jumbo is that?" He followed her into the house, a whipcord-lean young man just short of six feet, dark-haired, with hypnotic dark eyes and handsome if rather hawklike features. His hands, not as attractive as his face, clutched the back of the sofa. His dark eyes glittered with contained contempt. "You can't mean that, Ally?"
"I do!" Her voice sounded stricken. "These last six months have been awful. It's truly the end for us."
His response was to take her forcibly her by the shoulders. Alyssa considered any sort of violence, especially violence toward women and children, totally reprehensible. She had often had occasion to express her views, working pro bono for a women's refuge during her short career as a lawyer. He was well aware where she stood on domestic violence. "Every time you come back from visiting that bloody woman, you're different," he accused, his face tight. "Zizi egged you on to do this. Zizi's always overstepping her roleridiculous bloody name. Okay, you might've called her that when you were a little kid but it sounds stupid now. She's never liked me, has she? I could kill her." The expression on his face carried real threat.
"That's appalling!" She shook him off angrily. "And you a man of the law!"
"I'm a man first," he reminded her, anger flashing in his eyes.
"So, does that mean you have the right to lash out?" she shouted at him, although shouting wasn't her style. "Zizi is not at fault here," she said, trying desperately to calm herself. "She had nothing to do with my decision, so keep her out of it. It's about the two of us. It's not working, Brett. You're becoming intolerable to live with."
He released a sharp whistling breath through his nose. "I'm becoming intolerable? You're the who's up until all hours of the night when I want you in bed with me. Goddamn that bloody woman!" he exclaimed, his handsome face ugly with hate. "She's had far too much influence on you. She works on you until she takes over your mind."
It was all so unfair! Zizi's influence had always been good. Zizi was her confidante and dearest friend.
"Oh, spare me!" he groaned at her defense of her great-aunt. "The facts contradict your judgment. Your great-aunt's never had the guts to live in the real world, floating around that old plantation house like some bloody witch. Hell, she's more than a touch mad. Your grandmother, her own sister, has said as much."
It was regrettably true. "Gran and Zizi are different kinds of people," Alyssa said quietly, putting more space between them. "Zizi's living the life she wants. Without her I wouldn't be what I am today. She taught me not only how to paint and see beauty in so many different places, but about life in general. I don't know what I'm going to do when she leaves me."
"The old bitch will live until she's ninety!" Brett scoffed."You have me! Aren't you supposed to love me? You have your parents, plenty of friends. You're supposed to be such a fine painter"
Alyssa rounded on him, saying the words she'd long held back. "You're jealous of what I do, aren't you?"
He didn't even attempt to deny it. "I'm jealous of anything that takes you away from me. When you're working you don't even remember I exist. Couldn't you have stayed a lawyer? You know how upset your parents were when you left the firm."
"That was two years ago, Brett. Mom and Dad came to terms with it. I was always a dutiful daughter. I did what they wanted. I just never got any satisfaction out of practicing law. That's your world, their world. It's not mine. I'm an artist, but you don't want me to be one. My painting's only made you resentful. You'd be thrilled if I said I was going to stop painting altogether."
"You bet!" He spoke with frightening grimness. "It was Zizi who managed to convince you that you had the gift!" He couldn't resist the note of parody. "She even managed to pull a few strings to get you a showing. She chucked her own careerit didn't give her satisfaction or fulfillmentyet she pushed you into it."
"I'm making money, Brett." She was regaining a little of her composure.
"You're making money at last, you mean," he reminded her sharply, totally overlooking the fact that he was living in her house. "Your parents bought you this place." Obviously that devalued her standing in his eyes.
"So you got some acclaim.You have more going for you, that's all.You're young.You're beautiful.You come from a distinguished legal family. Even dotty old Zizi was a name in her day. Elizabeth Jane Calvert! What happened to her? How come she burnt out overnight?"
Alyssa tried slow, deep breathing. "No one knows the answer to that one." Not family, friends, agents, dealers. While still in her twenties, Zizi's brilliant talent had earned her considerable renown. Those were her glory days, the ten-year period between 1960 and 1970. But Zizi had retired at the very early age of thirty to a reclusive life in an old sugar plantation house in tropical North Queensland. It had caused a sensation in the art world.
Alyssa's eyes rested on the middle distance. Other famous artists had fled to the North to escape the rat race and gather the beauty of the tropical environment into their souls. North of Capricorn was glorious. She and Zizi had often cruised around the dazzlingly beautiful coral cays and emerald islands of the Great Barrier Reef in Zizi's little sailing yacht, Cherub. It was Zizi who'd discovered that she had talent as a sailor. Indeed, by age sixteen she far outstripped her mentor much to Zizi's amusement and pride. She loved the sea. She loved sailing. It was in her blood.
From time to time, other prominent artists who'd belonged to the colony had emerged from their rain forest sanctuaries to travel south to the big cities to show the civilized art world what masterpieces they had created. Zizi, however, had stayed there.
Infuriated by Alyssa's inattention, Brett seized her by the arms. "Snap out of it, Ally! You can't think I'm going to let you walk away from me! Not after what we've been to each other. I love you. I can't possibly let you go. I hold your precious Zizi responsible for the change in you."
She stared into his dark eyes, seeing a tiny red glow in their depths. "All Zizi wants is for me to be happy. I tried, Brett."
"You shouldn't have to try!" He shook her as if she were a child and a good shake would bring her to her senses. "Take your hands off me." Flinching, she broke away, rubbing her shoulder.
He came after her. "You're everything I want, Alyssa. I'd kill anyone who tried to take you from me."
Alyssa saw the violence in him, but she was driven by a risk-everything determination.
They stood a few feet apart, regarding each other like the warring couple they'd become. "You're very needy, Brett. You want my undivided attention and if you don't get it I have to tread my way through a minefield of scowling and sulking that goes on for days. It has to come to an end. I'm an artist. I'm going to remain an artist all my life."
"Like Zizi?" His voice was full of contempt.
"I hope I'll be like Zizi one day. I certainly haven't reached her level of excellence yet."
Brett threw up his hands in an impotent gesture of rage. "Who the hell even remembers the genius's name these days?"
She sighed wearily. "Everyone in the art world knows of Elizabeth Jane Calvert. The private collectors who have her early paintings treasure them. They won't part with them. That's why they never come on the market something did go seriously wrong in her life."
"She hasn't told you all about her nervous breakdown, has she?" he sneered. "Your grandmother said she had one. The trouble with you is you're brainwashed!"
"And you're a coward, attacking a woman in her absence."
He stared back at her as though she'd drawn blood. "You go out of your way to provoke me. But I love you, Alyssa. I've loved you since I first laid eyes on you."
She shook her head. "You fell in love with the way I looked, Brett. And with who I was, the daughter of two senior partners in the firm."
"I fell in love with you. I fell in love with you before I even knew who you were. There's something missing, though. You let me make love to you, but I can't get close to you. Not your heart or your mind. One of these days you'll discover that painting isn't enough!"
"That's not going to happen, Brett." She spoke with finality.
His face contorted. "Well, I hate it! It's separated us." He lunged for her and she backed away swiftly, protecting herself from possible physical harm. "We can work this out," he insisted. "If we break up, it'll be a huge mistake. This is all that bloody woman's fault."
Distressed as she was, she was still desperate to show compassion. "I'm sorry, Brett. Truly sorry. But this is my life. I don't love you."
Brett sloughed off his civilized veneer as a snake sloughs off a skin. He surged toward her and struck her openhanded, but with such force she staggered back and fell to the floor, hitting her head against the foot of a teak cabinet.
For long moments he gazed down at her, rooted to the spot. Her long hair tumbled around her face in an ash-blond storm. In the fall, two buttons of her silk shirt had slipped their holes, so he could see the upward curves of her breasts.
Desire soared. He wondered what it would be like to take her right there, on the polished floor. He hunched down, wanting nothing more than to have her whether she wanted it or not. "Oh, God, Ally, I'm sorry. Forgive me." Common decency briefly exerted itself.
He tried to get his arm around her, but his sexual excitement was showing in his flushed skin and his glittering eyes. Alyssa resisted wildly. One side of her face was scarlet, her skin bearing the imprint of his hand. Somewhere deep inside her ear a phone was ringing stridently, yet the outer shell was deaf. "Get out!" she cried, swallowing down her shock. She wasn't going to grieve over their breakup anymore. This new Brett was a monster.
He just knelt there, staring at her. "You're so beautiful!" Lust was coming off him in waves.
It presented a clear threat. "Get out!" Alyssa repeated, beyond fear. "You're a brute and a coward. Violence is a sickness, an illness, a disease!You're sick!"
The cold outrage in her voice, the condemnation in her eyes, slammed the brakes on hard. Brett started to remember who he was; more importantly, who she was. He thrust a trembling hand through his hair. "How did this happen?" he asked in a wondering voice.
Alyssa scrambled unaided to her feet, although she felt ill and more than a little dizzy. "I can tell you this. It will never happen again. Get out!"
Of course there were innumerable phone calls, messages she didn't answer. Sheafs of her favorite flowers arrived, red roses galore. She refused to take delivery. It was over. Dreams had turned to ashes. She'd seen the real Brett, the dark side that had been hidden inside him. She could never ignore it now. She prayed he wouldn't be foolish enough to stalk her, or show up at her door. She knew he was capable of it; she'd glimpsed that disturbing glow in the depths of his eyes. She wanted to keep their breakup private. If the full facts got out, it could mean the end of Brett's promising legal career. She had no wish to harm him. She simply wanted out!