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Engaged to Die
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"We always go to Saint Thomas in January." Irene lifted a thin dark eyebrow. "If it weren't for Virginia, we'd be there now."
Carl stared into her amber eyes, looked quickly away. Those eyes -- they reminded him uncomfortably of a cat watching a bird, remorseless, predatory, unfathomable. He focused on the coffeepot, a fine china one with pink roses twining around the spout. He watched the clear black stream of coffee, strong, hot, nerve-stretching, pour into his cup. Because of his diabetes he permitted himself only a half cup every morning, no cream, no sugar. He wished with a quick bitterness that he could as easily control his appetites in every sphere. Including Irene. But no matter how little she cared -- and sometimes it seemed to him that she made her disdain for him more apparent every day -- he knew he would never leave her, that he would do what she wished, when she wished. What was her fascination? It wasn't her beauty, though her dark hair had the sheen of midnight and her almond-shaped eyes and smooth creamy skin and sultry mouth inflamed him. Right this moment he wanted her with a hunger that was painful. But her attraction was more than beauty and passion. There was an aura of recklessness about her that held infinite allure. Funny, he'd always been such a cautious man ... He took a sip of coffee. The hot liquid burned his tongue.
"Wouldn't we?" It was a taunt. She held out one perfectly manicured hand, glanced at the shining red nails, turning her hand this way and that.
"Irene" -- his tone was harsh -- "I can't swing it this year."
Her gaze lifted from her hand. Cold eyes stared at him. "It's that bad?"
"You know what's been happening. The money's gone." He looked through the shining glass of their private upstairs sitting room at the magnificent sweep of the courtyard. Water bubbled cheerfully in both fountains. Winter-bare rosebushes filled the formal beds in the terrace. When Dad was alive and footing the bill, there'd been a full-time gardener. If no one trimmed and spruced, they'd have a burgeoning wilderness by summer. God, everything cost so much. Now he worried whether he could afford the taxes. He'd been pleased several years ago when his father decided to deed the house to him, on the proviso, of course, that Susan and Rusty would always have their own wing. Now, the huge Italian-style villa was as burdensome as trying to heft an elephant. Maybe Virginia ... He didn't want to ask Virginia. Not if he could help it. The house was his, the only property actually in his name. Everything else, including the gallery, belonged to her. But the taxes ... Beyond the terrace was the point, much of it screened by pines and palmettos. He couldn't see the ruins of the old fort from the window, but he knew that once conquering Union troops had bustled about, stood by their guns, ready to engage the Confederate forces trying to regain the island. So long ago. The island families that had created fortunes from sea cotton lost everything then. Their world changed. But the world was always changing. Battle, pestilence, and sudden death. Good Lord deliver us ...
"You aren't listening to me!" The words were flung toward him, sharp as barbs catching a bull's flank.
Carl felt the beginnings of a headache. He'd had a lot of headaches lately. Who wanted to buy paintings now? If he didn't come up with at least twenty thousand in a couple of weeks, the gallery would have to go into bankruptcy. It would have broken Dad's heart. Would Virginia help? Surely she would. But to Virginia twenty thousand dollars sounded like a fortune. She still had a substantial amount of cash. Dad had believed in cash. If she were fearful -- and so many were fearful now -- would she see it as throwing good money after bad? If she didn't help ... Who would ever have believed that the Neville Gallery could go down? It was a solid business, catering to rich vacationers and to the well-heeled retirees who'd settled on the South Carolina sea island of Broward's Rock to escape harsh northern winters. They still had money, but the days of free spending for luxuries were gone. If only he'd been more cautious when times were good. He'd put all he earned from the gallery into stocks. He'd bought more on margin. Dad always warned against buying on margin.
Only a year ago, he and Irene had been rich enough to do anything, go anywhere. That was over. He'd had to borrow to make good. Money was due now on the notes. If Irene knew just how little money they had ...
"I want to go to Saint Thomas." She tossed down her napkin, pushed back her chair. She rose gracefully, lithe and athletic, stopping at the breakfast room door to flash the enigmatic smile that had held him in thrall since the day they met. "You'll find a way, Carl. I know you will."
"Maybe we should tell Virginia to stick it. Just not show up. The damn gall of her having the damn party at the gallery at the same time as the Mackey opening." Rusty shoved a hand through his hair, now a faded red, nothing like the flaming thatch he'd had when Susan first met him. His charm had attracted her, and the Hollywood boy-next-door appeal of his broad open freckled face. And just like Hollywood, it was all show and no substance. Oh, he was charming still, but now there was often an undercurrent of petulance when they were alone. In public, he was always a pukka sahib, perfectly attired in a navy polo shirt, chinos, cordovan loafers, welcome at a country club, on a cruise ship, hail fellow well met.