And the bride price ?
If Catherine says no, she gives up custody of her orphaned niece. But if she says yes, will she be losing her heart to a man who wants her only in his bed?
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"THEY wouldn't have suffered."
"Of course they wouldn't have." Catherine could hear the bitterness in her own voice, see the flicker of confusion in the young nurse's expression, but she was too raw, too exhausted, and frankly too damn angry to soften the blow, to spare anyone's feelings.
"My sister and her husband refused to suffer anything. Why worry when you can have a drink? Why dwell on your problems when there's always family to bail you out?" She shook her head fiercely, pressing her fingers against her eyeballs and trying to quell the scream that seemed to be building up inside her.
She knew the poor nurse didn't have a clue what she was going on about, that she was just trying to be kind and say the right thing, and that the car accident had happened in an instant, that it had been over for Marco and Janey before the skidding vehicle had even halted—but her words simply weren't helping. Instead they were touching nerves so raw that every last word made Catherine flinch as she tried and failed not to envisage the final moments of her sister's short life.
Maybe later, Catherine told herself, taking deep breaths and trying to calm herself. Maybe later, when she could think straight—maybe in a few weeks—those words might bring some comfort. But sitting alone in the hospital interview room, exhausted and shellshocked, trying to fathom all that had happened, they brought no comfort at all.
"I really am sorry." The nurse handed her a small manila envelope and Catherine held on to it tightly, feeling the hard shape of the metal inside it.
"So am I." The bitterness had gone from her voice now, and Catherine gave the nurse a small nod of thanks. "You've all been wonderful."
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Catherine shook her head, couldn't even manage an answer, and again she was left alone. Tearing the brown paper, she slid out the contents, staring curiously dry-eyed at the three pieces of jewellery in her palm, tracing the outline of each precious piece as every one told its story. An awful sense of déjà-vu descended as she eyed the solitaire diamond ring Janey wore, that had belonged to their mother—the same ring that had slid out of an envelope and into her hand eight years ago. But familiarity brought no comfort. The crash that had killed her parents and the lessons it had taught offered no barrier to the pain she felt now.
It was actually eight years and two months ago, to be precise.
Eight years and two months since she had been handed her parents' belongings along with more responsibility than any nineteen-year-old deserved. But the endless meetings with solicitors and accountants as they attempted to unscramble the chaos her parents had left in their wake had been the easy part.
Dealing with a wayward sixteen-year-old—her sister Janey—had proved the greater feat.
Catherine stared at the ring for a long moment and suddenly she was back there, standing at her mother's dressing table, wishing her thick, dark, curly hair could be as smooth and as straight as her mother's and Janey's, wishing her solemn brown eyes could sparkle blue like theirs.
Instead she had inherited her father's looks—his personality too.
Well, most of it. She was serious, studious, yet she wasn't weak as her father had been, didn't cave in the way he had. One giggle from their mother, one tiny pout of her pretty mouth and John Masters had been lost— would agree to whatever his lovely Lily wanted to put the smile back on her face.
And Janey had been the same—she had possessed the certainty that her looks would get her whatever she had wanted, the same take it or leave it attitude that had held men intrigued, the same inner confidence that someone would always pick up the pieces of the chaos she created—and up till now it had worked.
The glint of the massive sapphire that caught her eye next reminded Catherine so much of her sister's blue eyes that for a second it hurt, physically hurt, to hold the engagement ring Janey had worn with such glee. She had been sure it was her ticket to the fast lane, an end to the financial mess she had got herself into, a way out of the problems that had been just too big for Catherine to sort out this time, however hard she tried.
"Marco's amazing!" Catherine could hear Janey's dizzy, slightly breathless voice as clearly as if she were in the room now. "Oh, Catherine, you should see where he lives. It's right on the beach—and when I say on the beach, I mean it's literally on it. You step out of the patio and on to the sand. His garage alone is as big as your flat."
Catherine couldn't have cared less what size Marco's garage was, but she had let Janey ramble for a while, listened to her excited chatter, hoping that it would calm her, that if she let her go on for long enough the euphoria might somehow wear off and that she could find out some more important answers.
"What does he do?" When Janey didn't answer she pushed further. "For a living—what does Marco do?"
Janey gave a small shrug, tossed her hair and poured herself a drink.
"He has fun." There was an edge to Janey's voice, a defiant look in her eyes as she stared at her older sister. "His mother died when he was a teenager," Janey explained, but without a hint of compassion. "Just as ours did; only the difference is Bella Mancini actually left something for her children..."
"You mean she left money!" Catherine's voice held a warning ring. Lily might not have been the most conventional mother, but her love of life and her passion for her children had left a void that could never be filled, and no amount of inheritance would have lessened the pain of losing her.
For Catherine at least. "Oh, spare me the speeches," Janey spat. "I don't want to hear again how money isn't important. I don't want to hear again how you worked two jobs while you went through teacher training college—but didn't mind a bit just as long as we were together. If our parents hadn't forgotten to pay their life insurance premiums you wouldn't have had to work so hard. You wouldn't have had to sell the family home and move into a pokey little flat..." 'I didn't mind," Catherine insisted. "Well, I did," Janey snapped, her eyes narrowing. "I hated being poor and I have no intention of spending the rest of my life chewing my nails over bills. Marco can look after me now, the same way his mother looked after him. Bella Mancini was a property developer, and when she died the business went to her children."
A flash of recognition offered a ray of hope. The Mancini empire! Oh, Catherine wasn't exactly into reading the business pages of the newspaper, but even without a shred of business acumen she'd have needed to live in a cave for the last decade not to know about the Mancini empire and the stranglehold it held on the Melbourne property market.
The drive along Port Phillip Bay was littered with their latest acquisitions—the smart navy signs telling anyone who cared to see, that this bayview property was being developed by Mancini's.
To make it in the cut-throat world of property development would take stamina, intelligence and, dare she even say it, responsibility. Which, Catherine realised, were the very things Janey needed in a man to keep her on the straight and narrow.
"So Marco's into property development? He's part of the Mancini chain?" Catherine asked, trying not to sound too keen. She had learnt long ago that her approval was the kiss of death for any of Janey's relationships. But the hope that Janey's latest boyfriend might actually posses a scrap of responsibility was doused as quickly as it flared.
"Marco's sold his share of the business to his brother Rico," Janey corrected, with a note of irritation that Catherine refused to acknowledge. She was determined to find out more about the man Janey was involved with, and was liking him less with each revelation. "When Marco turned eighteen he was all set to go on board, but by then Rico had decided that he wanted to "grow" the business, to work sixty-hour weeks—"
"That's what people do, Janey," Catherine interrupted, but Janey tossed her blonde hair and took another slug of her wine.
"Why?" she asked, with a glint of challenge in her eyes. "Why would you bother when you've already made it? Marco's rich in his own right; he doesn't need to work and so he doesn't—it's as simple as that."
"So he lives off his inheritance?" Catherine shook her head, bewildered. "He's never even had a job?"
"You sound just like his brother," Janey sneered. "And I'll tell you the same thing Marco tells Rico. He doesn't sponge off his family; the money is his to spend."
"But what sort of a man—?" 'Oh, what would you know about men?" Janey spat back spitefully, "Who are you to give me advice?"
"I'm your sister." Cheeks flaming, she had tried to keep her voice even, determined not to rise to the venom that appeared every time she tried to reel Janey in. "I care about you, Janey, and whether you like it or not I'm concerned about you. Since Mum and Dad..." Her voice trailed off for a second. She didn't want to rake up the past, didn't want to go over those painful memories, but knew that now it was called for. "I've done my best for us, Janey. I've tried as hard as I can to be there for you, and I'm asking you to listen to me now. I just think it's all too soon. You've only known this Marco for a couple of months. Why are you rushing into things? Why not wait a while and see how things—?"
The words were enough to still Catherine, enough to shed a whole new different light on the rumblings of their argument. But even though the news had floored her Catherine deliberately didn't look shocked; she even managed to bite her tongue as Janey took a long sip of wine, knowing now wasn't the time for a lecture.
"Then I'm here for you," she said again. "We can sort this out, Janey. Just because you're pregnant it doesn't mean you have to marry him. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."
"You really are stupid, aren't you?" The sneer on Janey's pretty face was like a slap to Catherine's cheek. "For a schoolteacher you really are thick—do you know that? As if I'd get knocked up by accident."
"Knocked up?" 'Pregnant." Janey gave a malicious laugh. "Don't think for one moment, Catherine, that I don't know what I'm doing. Don't for one second think that this baby is an accident."
"Janey, I'm sorry." Catherine stood up. "I wasn't suggesting you don't want your baby. I just never thought you..." She struggled helplessly for a second. "You've never shown any interest in babies."
"And I don't intend to start." Janey's eyes narrowed spitefully. "Do I really have to spell this out, Catherine? I've never had it so good. I can go into a shop, any shop— and not look at the price tags. I can walk into the best restaurants without checking the prices. And if you think I'm going to let it end then you don't know me at all.
Maybe Marco does love me, maybe this would have carried on indefinitely, but I'm not prepared to take the risk. So I've created my own little insurance policy." She patted her stomach, but without a trace of tenderness, laughing mirthlessly at Catherine's shocked expression. "And if you're worried about my lack of maternal instincts, then don't waste your time; Marco can afford the best nannies. I won't have to do a thing. So you can save the big sister lectures, save the boring speeches—because I don't need you, Catherine."
Even a year later the words hurt. The shiny cool gold of Janey's wedding band held its own batch of memories—only this time they weren't exclusive to Janey.
Rico, smart in his dark suit, pausing a fraction too long before handing the rings over, his hand hovering over the Bible before dropping them down in an almost truculent gesture. For Catherine had come the welcome realisation that she wasn't alone in her doubts about this union...
"How are you doing?"
The nurse was back, providing a welcome break from her painful memories, and Catherine gave a tired smile, standing on legs that felt like jelly and smoothing down her skirt as she picked up her jacket.
"I'm fine, but I think I'd like to go to the children's ward and sit with Lily."
A wave of bile threatened to choke her as she thought of her niece, orphaned and alone in the children's ward, and for a moment she wrestled with a surge of hatred— hatred for her sister that was surely out of place now she was dead. "They said they'd call down when they were ready. It shouldn't be too much longer. I know you must be exhausted, dealing with all this on your own, but at least we've finally managed to locate Marco's parents. Apparently they're holidaying in the States; that's why it's taken so long."
"His father and stepmother," Catherine corrected. "His mother died a long time ago."
"Well, they've been contacted." Catherine gave a weary nod. She hadn't expected the Mancinis to drop everything, and even though she knew a lot needed to be organised and a lot of choices needed to be made, secretly she was relieved nothing would be done tonight.
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