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The small bathroom was deserted, the water liberally splashed over the sink and the floor attesting to its recent occupant. Rachel surveyed the male artifacts with fondness and an eye toward the future; for the first time in years she would have a man to buy presents for. His birthday was only a few months away, and then there'd be Christmas, and all the other holidays she'd have with him. The very thought made her almost dizzy with happiness, and she sang in her clear, warm contralto as she showered the stickiness from her skin.
There was a pot of coffee on the stove, still warm, but no sign of Emmett. She poured herself a cup, controlling an anticipatory shudder at its muddy blackness, and strolled out onto the porch. He didn't see her coming, didn't hear her, and she allowed herself the luxury of standing there in silence for a moment, watching him.
"I've changed my mind." He didn't move, didn't turn his head to acknowledge her presence, but she realized he had always been aware of her, probably from the moment she left her bedroom. "I think it would be better if you returned to California today. Harris was right: I still need some time to myself to get used to things."
Rachel was unperturbed. She moved into his range of vision, taking the seat beside him and staring out at the ocean. She took a sip of the coffee, stalling for time, and nearly spoiled the effect by choking on the devil's brew. She was dressed in shorts that showed off her long, winter-pale legs, and an old clinging T-shirt, and her wet hair was tied back loosely, the drying curls framing her face. A face that had just the barest hint of a smile. "No, Emmett," she said, firmly, kindly, and took another sip of coffee.
He turned his head slowly, majestic with outrage, and his hazel eyes would have chilled a lesser mortal. "No?" he echoed. "Listen, kid, you don't tell me no. I'm the older brother here—what I say goes. And I say you go."
"No, Emmett," she repeated serenely. "What would you like for breakfast? I saw some eggs and cheese in the fridge; I can manage a decent omelet, if you'd like. You're out of bread, but we can do a little shopping later today."
"I'll pick some up on the way to the airport."
"If you say 'No, Emmett,' again, I'm going to beat you," he growled, and was rewarded with an unperturbed laugh.
"You certainly would not. You never hit me when I was a child, and I certainly deserved it. You didn't even spank me when I destroyed your beloved baseball jacket. So you aren't about to start hitting me now."
"You're a hell of a lot more frustrating than you were at twelve," he grumbled.
"I thought we worked this out last night," she said mildly, watching his expression out of the corner of her eye. He'd shaved, and his clean jawline lessened some of his world-weary, battle-worn look. He was quite handsome, she realized with sudden surprise, if only his eyes weren't quite so wary and his mouth didn't curl in that cynical droop. "I can cook, you can clean; I can ask questions, you can ignore them. It should work out fine." Bravely she took another swallow of coffee. "Speaking of questions, I don't suppose you'd feel like telling me where you've been for the last fifteen years?"
"Trying to get away from you," he snapped, his gaze still trained on the ocean, missing her sudden, unexpected withdrawal.
She recovered quickly, used to low blows. Besides, he hadn't meant it. He couldn't know that she'd suffered for years with the fear that everyone she cared about had abandoned her, starting with her parents right on through to her erstwhile fiancé. "A little drastic, don't you think?" she returned, her voice slightly husky.
He did look at her then, not missing the subtle nuance in her voice. "Fifteen years is a long time. Do you want dates and places; a job résumé?" The edge in his voice was softened slightly.
"Just a summary would do fine," she replied. "You can give the dates and places to the lawyers."
He shot her a suspicious glance, but she continued to smile sweetly at him. He might almost have imagined that raw note of pain in her voice a moment earlier. Well, now was as good a time as any to try out the elaborate tale he and Harris had concocted. Of course Rachel, for all the intelligence that shone out of those warm brown eyes, was more than a little biased, but still, it would serve as an initial test. "It seemed a good idea for me to leave the country for a while," he said diffidently, stifling the sudden, almost forgotten flash of pain at the cause of that defection.
"I remember," Rachel said softly, recognizing but misinterpreting the look of pain in his eyes. "You were involved with some of the student radicals in their bomb factory in Cambridge. You were there when the place exploded, right? It was years before the men stopped coming around the house, looking for you."
He squashed down the sudden surge of anger that filled him. He could remember it as if it were yesterday—the acrid smell of smoke, the rubble of the small, elegant town house that had housed the tiny, inefficient bomb factory. "I was close by," he replied in a flat, cold voice. "And I wasn't in the mood to go into explanations to the powers that be. Hawaii seemed as good a place as any to hide out in for a while."
"And support yourself growing dope." There was no judgment in her voice, just a simple, cool, statement of fact.
"There was that, too," he admitted. "Hawaii's got a great climate. But things started getting a little complicated, and I decided it might be time to see the world. You don't really expect me to go into details, do you? They include several years in an ashram in India, some time in the Middle East, even a stint in South America."
The old Emmett would have been at home in an ashram; she wasn't too sure about this cynical new one. "And what made you decide to return home?"
He turned, giving her his best, most charming smile, one liberally laced with cynicism. "For the money, of course. Surely you don't think Aunt Minnie's myriad charms would entice me?"
"Imagine your remembering Aunt Minnie. She is pretty unforgettable at that," Rachel mused. "What about Ariel and Grandfather? Didn't you think they deserved some word, some sign that you were still alive?"
Emmett shook his head. "Too much time had passed. I figured I was better off dead to all concerned. After all that time I figured I didn't owe anyone anything."
"Not even me?" There it was again, that damnably plaintive note that she so wanted to avoid. "Then why did you keep sending me birthday presents?"
There was a long, strained silence. "I guess because I'm sentimental at heart," he said finally. "But not sentimental enough to let you stay here."
"Tough." She rose with one fluid gesture, stretching her long limbs into the sky. "You aren't getting rid of me, Emmett; you might as well accept the fact and stop fighting it. I'll be making two omelets—it's up to you if you don't want to eat one."
She could feel his eyes following her as she headed back into the house, though there was no way she could guess his thoughts. His voice trailed after her. "Make them scrambled."
Without turning back, she grinned. "You got it."
Harris Chandler didn't look the slightest bit surprised at Emmett's approach that afternoon. He did raise one aristocratic eyebrow at his apparel. The chinos were neat and clean, the chambray shirt relatively untattered, and he was clean-shaven for the first time in what seemed like weeks.
"Turning over a new leaf, my boy?" he murmured, carelessly pulling out a chair for him with one foot and signaling for the waiter. "Perhaps having Rachel here wasn't such a bad idea after all."
"It was a damnable idea," Emmett snarled, leaning back in the uncomfortable chair that Harris's inn seemed to specialize in. Or perhaps he just hadn't regained enough extra flesh to cushion him from the elegant ironwork. The bar was empty at that hour, but he hadn't even bothered to check Harris's room first. A few months' acquaintance had taught Emmett all he needed to know about Harris's habits.
"I'll be gentlemanly enough not to say I told you so," Harris said with a smirk. "Though I'm surprised disillusionment has set in quite so quickly. She hasn't even been here a full day and already you're climbing the walls. Tsk tsk, my boy. Still and all, it is a tre
at to see you in decent clothes."
"Say one more word, Chandler, and I'll strip them off and walk naked back to the cottage," Emmett growled.
"Dear me, are you sure you're not actually my nephew? He's the only person I know who might have actually done such an outrageous thing."
"You know damned well who I am, Harris," he said in a low tone, reaching for the Heineken that the waiter, who knew him from experience, had placed in front of him. That wasn't precisely true, of course. He had told Harris as much as he felt he needed to know and nothing more.
Harris smiled faintly. "Do I, dear boy?" He took a delicate sip of his rum and tonic. He didn't start his serious drinking till after the dinner hour; at this time in early afternoon he was still on his maintenance dosage. "So what are you planning to do about dear Rachel? A sister at a time like this could be damned inconvenient."
"Have you any suggestions?" Emmett stared morosely into the dark green bottle.
"None that you'd like. You could always bring Melea back with you tonight. I don't think Rachel would like that very much at all."
"Damn it, man, the girl's supposed to be my sister."
"That's what she thinks." Harris nodded. "But I've seen the way she looks at you; it's not going to be long before that poor girl has the most crushing case of incestuous longing. You could circumvent such an unpleasant experience and drive her out quite effectively with a little strategic jealousy. Or you could have a drunken binge."
"That's more your style," Emmett snapped.
"Now, now, there's no call to be rude," Harris replied, unaffronted. "I'm only trying to help. Have you simply told her she has to leave?"
"I tried to first thing this morning. I got exactly nowhere." Emmett shook his head in disgust. "She's about as tractable as a bull elephant."
"I could have warned you about that."
"You could have warned me about a lot of other things," Emmett shot back. "She gave me quite a turn when she told me I'd been sending her birthday presents every year since I'd been gone. How did that little bit of information escape you?"
"What?" Harris paled beneath his thin layer of tan. "Are you serious?"
"Do I look like I'm in a joking mood, Chandler?" Emmett shot back. "Emmett Chandler has been sending his sister presents every year for the past fifteen. I only hope I can find out what they are before I make some mistake so bad that even a trusting soul like Rachel will see through me."
"Oh, I have great faith in you, dear boy. You won't let a little thing like that trip you up." Harris waved his doubts away with an airy hand, and Emmett found he had to agree. When the time came that he couldn't outthink the opposition with both eyes shut, the time had come for him to retire. But since when was Rachel the opposition? Since he had gotten into this, and the sooner he remembered it the better. Whether he liked it or not.
"But do you realize the ramifications of all this, dear boy?" Harris was continuing, his face flushed with excitement.
"I'm way ahead of you. It's proof positive that Emmett Chandler is still alive, and reasonably aware of what's going on in his family. Unless, of course, some well-meaning friend or relative has been taking care of the presents for the last few years as an act of kindness."
"You haven't met the Chandlers, nephew, or you'd know that none of them is motivated by acts of kindness, with the rare exception of Rachel. And I'm afraid it's unlikely to be friends, either. Rachel has never been one for casual friendships—she's always been rather shy and reserved. Very bright and capable, of course, but essentially wary of entanglements. The only person she ever really cared for deeply, apart from her grandparents, of course, was you. I beg your pardon, but you know who I mean."
"Thanks a lot," he drawled. "You've really made me feel a lot better about the whole thing."
"Now is hardly the time for a guilty conscience, my boy. We're too far along for that. Just keep in mind that you aren't planning to hurt her but are merely helping us flush the real Emmett out of the woodwork."
"And if Emmett never shows?"
"Then there'll be a tragic accident, and you'll start a new life with a substantial sum of money, and Rachel will get the chance to formally mourn her missing brother. It'll give her a nice sense of completeness, which experts say is so necessary in resolving relationships."
"Hmph. And if Emmett shows up, how do you think the Chandlers will view the impostor?"
"Impostor is too harsh a word, dear boy. They'll take my word that you were my assistant, and we knew all the time that Emmett would return. And you'll still be possessed of a comfortable sum of money. Which is why you got involved in this in the first place, isn't it?"
Emmett ignored that comment. "What makes you so sure that the real Emmett would turn down the bequest? There aren't too many people who'd turn down millions of dollars for a principle." Especially not dope-growing, bomb-making Emmett Chandler, he thought viciously.
"Of course he will. He always hated the money as much as Rachel did. The sooner he divests himself of it the happier he'll be, and he won't think twice about passing it on to the next in line. Mainly his aunts and uncles, your humble servant included."
Emmett immediately jumped on the most important part of the conversation. "Rachel hates the money?"
"Hard to believe, isn't it? She turned it down; otherwise she would have inherited some of it, I expect. She only accepted a small trust fund left by her mother, and then she went ahead and traded all those nice, sound, blue-chip stocks in for the most ridiculous things. Solar companies, medical research, the like. Nothing with a decent profit to their names. I doubt she makes a quarter of the interest she should. Father is probably turning over in his grave at the thought. No, she hates the Chandler millions with a passion—only wants what she earns herself. So you see, you two are completely ill-suited. Here's Rachel who turns down a fortune, and you who'd do anything for one." There was no condemnation in his voice, more a distant respect. Harris Chandler could understand greed; principles were a little more foreign to him.
Emmett rose to his feet, looking down at his fellow conspirator out of hooded eyes. "Any more surprises, Chandler? I don't like working in the dark."
"I've told you everything I know, my boy. I only wonder if you've been equally frank with me."
Emmett's smile was an unpleasantly cynical curve to his world-weary mouth. "Sure I have, Chandler." He strode out of the bar, leaving the older man to stare after him out of troubled, slightly bloodshot eyes.
"I wonder," he said again. And signaled for another rum and tonic.
« ^ »
Several days later Rachel had to admit that things were not going as she had planned. Emmett had been drawlingly, studiously polite, eating the food she cooked, answering her questions, initiating her into the mysteries of the ancient and crotchety Land Rover that served as transportation. The rest of the time, when he was there at all, he spent sitting on the porch, drinking too much beer, smoking too many of the dark, strong cigarettes he preferred, and watching the ocean. Shutting her out, politely, effectively, and completely. And there was absolutely nothing she could do about it but try to be patient.
Rachel tried to reach him through cooking, but half the time he wasn't even there for meals. She'd go out to the porch to call him, and there'd be no trace of him—just a smoking ashtray and a few stray beer bottles. He never seemed to get drunk from all the Heineken he put away—just more and more remote, watching her out of those wary, cynical eyes as she wandered along the beach. If he did stay for dinner, he'd disappear soon afterward, returning some time in the middle of the night, long after she'd fallen into the deep, dreamless sleep the fresh air and hot days blessed her with. But he was always there in the morning, sitting on the porch with his long legs propped up on the railing, a cup of his perfectly vile coffee in his hand.
She had been there three days when she decided on a more positive approach. One of her happiest memories from childhood had been Emmett's twenty-first bi
rthday. It was just before he'd dropped out of college, and Ariel and Henry Emmett were at their usual doting fondness, the four of them a tight-knit, happy family for the last time in Rachel's memory.
Rachel had always remembered the food from that night: Emmett's favorite, cioppino, a savory seafood stew that had originated in San Francisco. It should bring back memories of home as nothing else could. Determined for one last try, she took the car when Emmett was out on one of his interminable, solitary walks, and bought all the ingredients, including cake flour and bitter chocolate. Her memory was good enough to reconstruct the dinner, with the added help of a Joy of Cooking dated 1942. If she ever had to deal with a sugar and egg and butter shortage, the book would come in very handy, she thought, losing herself in the wartime recipes for a good hour while the cioppino simmered and the cake cooled. She could only hope Emmett wouldn't return too swiftly—she wanted it to be a surprise.
She was startled out of her cookbook reverie by the realization that it was past six and Emmett still hadn't returned. Heaven only knew when he would. In the meantime she had better take advantage of his absence and take a long, soothing bath, put on her freshly washed sun dress, and use every artifice of makeup in her repertoire. By hook or by crook she'd seduce him into paying more attention to her, or die trying.
Feeling a slight bit of discomfort at her inadvertent use of the word seduce, Rachel pushed her wicked thoughts out of her head. It was only a figure of speech, anyway. But heavens, her brother was being the most stubborn man alive. And he used to be such a sweet, amenable creature. Almost too amenable, Ariel used to say, blaming that quality for most of Emmett's troubles. Well, he'd certainly cured himself of that particular failing, she thought with a wry smile.
The bathroom was filled with the scent of jasmine and the steam from her lengthy, heavenly bath as she carefully applied her makeup. The first, gentle layers of tan had warmed her face, turning it from pale to a soft golden color. The sun had already lightened her chestnut hair with a few streaks of blond. With a critical eye she surveyed her body, clad only in a lacy, peach-colored bra and wispy bikini panties. Breasts too small, she decided, hips just a tiny bit too big. But the legs were long and turning a delicious tan, and her stomach was just slightly rounded. Not a ten, mind you, but not bad, either. Too bad it was wasted. If only there were some gorgeous man, looking enough like Emmett to make it interesting…