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His mother was alive.
Ethan Masters walked blindly through Adelaide's city streets, the staggering knowledge continuing to ricochet in his mind. A mind already struggling to come to terms with his father's recent unexpected death. He'd thought that would be the hardest thing he would ever have to face. But this discovery today, that the man Ethan had idolized and revered above all others had lied to him and his sister for the past twenty-five years, was much worse.
Grief mingled with a sharp sense of betrayal sliced through him anewits blade serrated and leaving behind a raw pain that throbbed incessantly deep inside his chest. He didn't know what to do with the information he'd been given today. Part of him wished he'd never learned the truth. In fact, if he hadn't discovered an anomaly in his father's personal accounts he would still be none the wiser. The family solicitor's reluctance to explain had only made him more determined to discover where the monthly payments had been going.
So, now he knew. The woman who had abandoned him and his sister, Tamsyn, had accepted money to stay away, happy to let her children think she'd died in the car accident that had spared their lives.
Even worse, his father's siblings, Ethan's uncle Edward and aunt Cynthia, had colluded in the lie.
It went against everythingevery family institutionhe'd been brought up with. Bad enough that his memories of his parents had been tainted. But to know that so many people he trusted had gone behind his back it was more than he could take. Maybe he should have gone straight home after his meeting in the cityconfronted his aunt and uncle, told Tamsyn the truth. But if he himself found it next to impossible to weigh the information he'd received today, how could he expect to face his sister with the news?
The very idea of telling Tamsyn sent a shudder down his spine. Tamsyn was, by nature, a caretaker. She wanted everyone to be happy, and she worked darn hard to achieve that goal. Always had, even as a child. It was one of the reasons why her branch of the family business was so sought after and came so highly recommended. This news could well destroy her. He couldn't bear to see that happen. He hadn't spent the past twenty-five years of his life being her champion to fall at this hurdle now. No, this was his problem to deal with and he needed to work out his next move before facing everyone. He'd reach that decision a darn sight faster without the various demands of the family business, not to mention his extended family buzzing around to distract him.
A flicker of exotic color and movement caught his eye. A young woman who stood out from all the somber office workers marking the end of their working week by spilling from nearby buildings. Small, slender and blond, her dress a multihued swirl that clung briefly to outline her buttocks and thighs as a passing vehicle threw a gust of air in her direction. An incongruously large and cumbersome pack was settled on her back, yet she carried it as if it weighed nothing at all. Intrigued, Ethan watched as she slipped through the doors of a nearby pub and out of sight.
Without a second thought, Ethan followed her footsteps. He pulled himself up short as he entered the building and firmed his lips into a grim line. For someone who hadn't wanted distraction he'd certainly found it in the noisy confusion of pub patronsa blend of tourists, students and office workers. For a second, he considered leaving. But what the hell, maybe concentration would come more smoothly after a drink. Straightening his shoulders, he headed to the bar. He scanned the crowd all the while, but he saw no sign of the colorful butterfly that had drawn him here.
Minutes later, Ethan listened to the beat of the music energizing the people on the dance floorpeople whose lives were clearly far less complicated than his had so rapidly becomeand deftly swirled the red wine in his glass. He watched as the rich ruby liquid ran in tiny rivers down the inside and inexorably into the bowl.
"Not to your taste, sir?" the barman asked from across the gleaming wooden bar.
"It's fine," Ethan admitted, belatedly adding his thanks.
He continued to scan the crowd reflected in the mirror over the bar, and allowed his thoughts to wander. Rolled the truth around in his head that the life he'd lived since the accident had been based on untruths.
Looking back, he remembered that his father had been different after the crash. That bit more remote, that bit more stern and demanding of excellence in those around him. That bit less trusting. But once he'd recovered from his own injuries, Ethan, in his six-year-old mind, had rationalized that by believing his father was sad and lonely, just as he and Tamsyn were. So he'd tried his hardest, with everything, to be all his father demanded and more. And all for what? To discover that John Masters had been living a lie for the past twenty-five years and worse, had coerced everyone around him to do the same.
Even knowing it had been achieved, Ethan struggled to see how his father had carried it off. It was the stuff of soap operas, not his life. At least, not the life he'd thought he had.
He lifted the wine goblet and took a mouthful, letting the burst of berry and clove explode on his tongue before swallowing. Not bad, he conceded, but it stood in the shadow of his most recent international-award-winning Shiraz. Then the alcohol hit his stomach, reminding him he hadn't eaten since leaving The Masters, his family home and seat of their renowned winemaking business, early this morning.
"Deep in thought?"
The ultrafeminine voice caught his attention and he turned to take in the features of the slightly built blond-haired woman who'd inserted herself at the bar next to his chair. The butterfly. Up close he could see she was a little older than the average student here but she definitely didn't fit in with the corporate types, either. Her eyes were a bright, clear blue, her skin a honeyed light tan. Her eyebrows rose ever so slightly, awaiting his answer.
"Something like that," he responded.
"They say a problem shared is a problem halved," she offered with a welcoming smile. "Want to talk about it?"
Her lips glistened with the shimmer of a tinted gloss that perfectly complemented her skin. Her blond hair gleamed and fell in a short waterfall to shoulders exposed by the bright floral halter-necked dress that clung softly to her body. A bolt of sexual energy surged through him, but hard on its heels was a heavy dose of reality. Despite the fact he'd followed her in here, he wasn't the kind of guy who was into pub pickups. Hooking up with a stranger wasn't the answer to his problems. He wasn't ready for thisfor her. "No, thanks."
His response was more brusque than he'd intended. He was just about to add to it, to somehow soften what he'd said, when she gave him a thin smile, the warmth suddenly leaving her eyes as his "not interested" message got through loud and clear. He turned away slightly, feeling absurdly ashamed of himself, as she placed her order and waited for the barman to deliver it. He hadn't meant to be rude. After all, upon seeing her outside, hadn't he come in here seeking her?
Although she wasn't in his direct line of vision, he found himself acutely aware of her. Of her long, tapered fingers drumming on the wooden barher nails surprisingly short and practicalof her light summery fragrance wafting enticingly toward him in the air-conditioned environment. And particularly, of the gentle sway of her body in time to the beat of the music pumping from the bar's speakers. He should apologize, but as he turned to do so he discovered she'd already downed the shot she'd ordered and now threaded her way back through the crowd.
Relief that she'd moved on mingled with an odd sense of loss. Ethan took another sip of his wine and swiveled on his chair. Leaning back against the edge of the bar, he surveyed the writhing mass of people dancing on the floor. His eyes were immediately drawn to the blonde. She moved with inherent grace to the throb of the beat of the music and he was forced to acknowledge an answering throb in his own body. It had been too long since he'd relaxed and let his hair down. He should have encouraged her friendly overture rather than snubbed her. He scanned the room again before his eyes returned to her. He'd been too quick to turn away from her before and now he couldn't take his eyes off her.
A guy staggered up from a group of business types with a mounting collection of empties on their table, and made his way through the throng on the dance floor. He stopped behind the blonde woman, placing his hands on her hips and dancing suggestively behind her. Ethan felt a wave of possessive anger claw through him before pushing it back where it belonged. She wasn't his to worry about, he told himself. Even so, he still couldn't turn awayespecially when she carefully placed her hands on her new dance partner's and took them from her body. Ethan stiffened on his chair. Having the other guy touch her was all well and good if she was happy with it, but when she so clearly wasn't
The guy stumbled a bit, then righted himself only to grab at the woman's hand and turn her around to face him. He leaned forward to say something close to her ear. An expression of disgust slid across her face and she shook her head while trying to disengage his hold on her. This was wrong on so many levels it made Ethan's blood boil. No always meant no. Before he knew it, he was off his stool and edging his way through the dancers, his eyes firmly trained on one target and one target only.
"Sorry I'm late," he said, bending and placing a kiss on the startled woman's cheek. He turned slightly, placing his body firmly in front of her, and faced her wannabe beau. "She's with me, mate," he said, his stance and his expression saying in no uncertain terms that it was time for the other guy to back off.
To his relief the man gave him a drunken apologetic smile and returned to his table. Ethan turned back to the blonde.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"You didn't need to do that. I can take care of myself, you know," she replied haughtily.
For some reason the thought of this svelte creature, who didn't even come up to his shoulder, "taking care of herself" made him laugh out loud. "That much was obvious," he said when he managed to get his mirth under control.
He was surprised when her face creased into a smile and she laughed along with him.
"I suppose I really should just say thank-you," she said, still smiling.
"You're welcome. You didn't look as if you were enjoying his company."
"No, you're right, I wasn't." She held out her hand. "I'm Isobel Fyfe."
He accepted her hand, instantly aware of the daintiness of hers in his much larger one. His fingers tightened re-flexively as every one of his protective instincts roared to the forefront of his mind. He didn't let her go as he leaned forward slightly, his masculine bulk shielding her from those around them.
"Can I buy you a drink, or perhaps dinner somewhere else?" Ethan asked as he was jostled by the crowd. "It's a bit of a crush in here."
For a minute he thought she'd refuse but then she nodded.
"Dinner. Let me get my pack. The barman's holding it for me."
Ethan led her back toward the bar, her hand still in his. When she retrieved her large and well-worn backpack from behind the bar, Ethan automatically reached to relieve her of it as they made their way to the front door.
"It's okay," Isobel said. "I can manage. I'm used to it."
"Yes, but at least let me salve my male conscience by carrying it for you. I promise I won't lose it."
"Oh, well, when you put it like that." She smiled, handing the dusty pack, still with airline luggage tags attached, over to him. "Besides, it really doesn't match my shoes."
Ethan cast a glance at the high-heeled sandals she wore and had to agree. "Are you okay to walk in those or should we take a taxi?"
"Where were you thinking of going?"
He named a Greek restaurant farther down Rundle Street. "It's not far."
"Then let's walk," she said, slipping one small hand into the crook of his free arm. "It's a beautiful evening."
Ethan slung the pack over one shoulder, hardly caring for the creases it would generate in his Ralph Lauren Black Label suit.
"That wasn't your usual haunt, was it?" Isobel asked, nodding her head back toward the pub they'd just vacated.
"That obvious?" he asked with a smile.
For a moment he withstood her silent perusal as she eyed him carefully. The sense that she was checking him out in more ways than one made his blood begin to hum in his veins, sending warmth spreading out to his extremities.
"Yes," she answered succinctly.
Intrigued, he pressed her as to why.
"A few things," she said as they came to a stop at a street crossing and waited for their signal. "But mainly it's your demeanor. You've got this air about you. Some would say that it's probably wealth and privilege but I think there's more to it than that. You look like you aren't afraid of hard work." She took both of his hands in hers and turned them this way and that, examining them carefully before letting them go and tucking her hand back in the crook of his arm. "Yes, well tended but not in a prissy way. And yet there's an air of entitlement about you, or command, if you'd rather think of it that way. You're willing to work hard, but you're used to giving orders and having them immediately obeyed."
Ethan gave a short bark of laughter. "And you can tell all that just by looking at me?"
She shruggeda delicate motion of her slender shoulders. "You asked," she replied simply. "Are we crossing?"
Her question reminded him that they were supposed to be going to dinner. He took a minute to clear his mind as they strolled across the intersection and down the sidewalk. How had this happened? he wondered, supremely conscious of her hand nestled at his elbow and the feminine sway of her hips as she walked along beside him. How had he gone from having a drink to unwind, to escorting a woman he'd only just met to dinner? How long had it been since he'd acted on impulse like this?
The answer to the last question was simple. Never.