Hugh tried to feel some guilt over his pleasure at Kathryn being suddenly single again, but failed. When he looked at her all he felt was a desire so intense that he sometimes wondered how she couldn’t sense it.
‘If I tell you,’ she said at last, her tone taut and edgy, ‘promise you won’t judge me.’
Now he was even more intrigued.
‘I can’t imagine you doing anything seriously wrong, Kathryn.’
‘Not wrong exactly ’ She sighed. ‘Look, to cut a long story short, in July last year an old lady I knew died and left me her house in her will, provided I married by the time I was thirty. If that date passes and I’m still single, the house will eventually be sold off and the proceeds given to cancer research.’
Hugh was totally taken aback. ‘Is that legal?’
‘Apparently so. I did ask.’
‘It was around that time that I said yes to Daryl’s proposal.’
Hugh frowned. ‘Are you saying you never loved Daryl? That you were only marrying him to get your hands on this house?’
‘See?’ she snapped. ‘I knew you’d think that.’
‘What am I supposed to think?’
‘I honestly thought I loved him,’ she insisted fiercely.
‘But you didn’t.’
‘I can see now that I probably didn’t. I’m not heartbroken this morning. Not about him, anyway. Just about the the ’
‘The house,’ he finished for her.
‘Yes,’ she said with a long, shuddering sigh.
‘So where is this house?’
Hugh’s eyebrows arched. He’d heard of Pearl Beach. An artist friend of his had a holiday place up there. From what he gathered, it cost a lot to live there.
‘I see,’ he murmured.
‘No, you don’t,’ Kathryn said irritably. ‘You can’t possibly. You don’t know me. You have no idea why I would do such a thing. It has nothing to do with greed, or materialism. I would never sell the house. Never! Val knew that. It’s ’ She shrugged helplessly. ‘Oh, what’s the use? It’s too late now.’
Maybe. Maybe not.
‘Why do you think your friend made her will that way? Why didn’t she just leave you the house and be done with it?’
Kathryn’s face was pained. ‘I think she was worried that I’d never get married. I’ve always planned to, but I always found it hard to take that final step, to commit myself for life to one person. I guess, deep down, I wasn’t confident that I could make a marriage work.’
‘I know how you feel,’ Hugh said drily.
Her glance was sharp. ‘Yes, I can imagine. Anyway, I took Daryl up to meet Val the Christmas before last and she liked him. Believe it or not, he can be very sweet and charming when he wants to be. She said that it was obvious we were right for each other and I was a fool if I didn’t marry him. I said that I would, eventually, but maybe she didn’t believe me. That’s the only reason I can come up with.’
‘Sounds logical. So why does this house mean so much to you?’
She shook her head from side to side. ‘You’d never understand.’
Her smile was wry. ‘You just wouldn’t.’
‘Let’s just say that this house is to me what Tara was to Scarlet O’Hara.’
Hugh wasn’t quite sure what that meant. He’d never read Gone with the Wind or seen the film. But he would, as soon as he could get a copy of the DVD.
‘I first went there when I was nine,’ she went on, her eyes clouding over to a far-away expression. ‘Val used to have children with special needs for holidays. She was very good to me. After I grew up, I used to go there whenever I needed emotional comfort and peace. It was my sanctuary. I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to cope in the future without it. But I guess I’ll just have to. Life does go on.’
She picked up her coffee and took a couple of swallows before putting it down again, her eyes clear and cool once more. ‘Hugh, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to resign.’
‘Resign!’ Hugh wasn’t one to panic easily but he was close to it at that moment. ‘Why in hell would you have to do that?’ he argued. ‘You’re not getting married now. There’s no reason for you to resign.’
Her face betrayed definite agitation. ‘There’s nothing here in Sydney for me any more, only bad memories and and well look, I just need to get away. You won’t have any trouble filling my shoes.’
‘Oh, yes, I will,’ he said with dark irony.
‘No, you won’t,’ she insisted. ‘I’ll work out my notice, give you plenty of time to find another PA.’
‘I don’t want you to leave,’ he said, fixing his eyes firmly on hers.
She flushed. ‘I’m sorry, but I have to.’
‘You don’t have to. You’re choosing to.’
‘All right,’ she said with the defiant tilting of her chin. ‘I’m choosing to.’
‘The same way you chose to marry a man you didn’t love.’
‘That’s not a very nice thing to say.’
‘It’s the truth.’ She might not like admitting it, but it was the truth.
An almost ridiculous thought popped into Hugh’s head, one which he immediately tried to banish. But it took hold, tantalising him, tempting him.
‘If there was still a way by which you could acquire your friend’s house,’ he said slowly, ‘would you do it?’
‘What do you mean? What way?’
He could see the excited hope in her eyes, see that, yes, she might just go for his suggestion.
‘You turn thirty when exactly?’
She frowned at him. ‘The twenty-third of February.’
‘That gives us just over five weeks.’
‘To do what?’ she asked, and picked up her coffee once more.
‘Get a marriage licence and get married.’
THE mug Kathryn had just picked up clattered back to the table, sending a great slosh of coffee over the rim.
‘Oh!’ she cried out, and hurriedly pushed back her chair as the staining liquid raced towards the edge of the table. Luckily, it missed her skirt and dripped down onto the cream tiles.
Her face, when she lifted it back to his, was flushed, her eyes quite angry. ‘You shouldn’t say crazy things like that!’
She was quite right, of course—it was crazy. But so was the driving sexual need which had been building in him these past few weeks. He had to have her. He would have her, through fair means or foul.
Still, Kathryn’s reaction to his proposal suggested she was not about to say yes to his offer, a realisation which annoyed the hell out of him. All his life women had fallen into his lap. Why not this one?
He should have known she was not the sort of woman to allow herself to be blackmailed into bed. Still, that wasn’t how he wanted her, was it? He wanted her warm and willing. Wanted her to look at him as he’d seen her look at that creep she’d been going to marry.