Killing Her Softly
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by Freda Vasilopoulos
Description: Leslie Adams arrives in a small Corfu village to discover that her late husband had led a dual life. She is puzzled by Simon Korvallis's initial hostility but when he offers to help her with her inheritance, she is suspicious of his motives. Unexplained gifts appear in her house and then the threats begin. Is it Simon who wants her gone, or someone else? Romantic Suspense by Freda Vasilopoulos writing at Tina Vasilos; originally published by Harlequin Intrigue
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1995
eBookwise Release Date: July 2012
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [301 KB]
Reading time: 192-269 min.
"I suppose you've come to finish the job, have you?"
The man's voice jerked Leslie out of her comfortable somnolence. She lifted her head, squinting against the glare of the setting sun. "Excuse me?"
Leslie blinked at the angry man standing before her. The handsome, angry man, she noted irrelevantly. She straightened in her chair, suddenly aware that the chatter of the Greek voices around her had stilled, as if the patrons of the small seaside taverna were holding their breath. "I beg your pardon?" she said distinctly. "I've never seen you before in my life."
"Your husband has, Mrs. Adams."
"Has he?" she said, suppressing the twinge of guilt she felt. Any strong feelings between her and Jason had died years ago; she found it difficult to grieve for him. Yet, wasn't she here on Corfu because of unfinished business? Jason's business.
She had a feeling that that business had just come to her, in the form of the man glaring down at her. "Well, Jason's dead, isn't he?" she added.
An odd chill ran through her at the blunt tone. She opened her mouth to speak, then snapped it closed again as the deep voice continued, the words clipped and intense, with a faintly British accent.
"They never found a body, did they? Only the sailboard, washed up on the beach. Knowing what a devious man Jason was, I wouldn't put it past him to fake his own death."
Leslie felt her face turn pale. Involuntarily, she shivered. "The police closed the case," she said in what she hoped was a dismissive tone. "Accidental drowning. They said only fools and tourists windsurf in April, especially with the cold spring this year."
This is not a tropical island. She could still hear the police captain's pedantic voice rumbling in her ears. The first thing she'd done after landing at Corfu airport yesterday was go to the police station. The report was brief, incomprehensible to her, but the captain had translated the dry facts into passable English.
Death by misadventure. A fall into the cold spring sea, hypothermia in spite of the wet suit witnesses said Jason had been wearing. Perhaps even a heart attack----Jason hadn't been a young man. As for the body, it would probably never be recovered. The strong undertow could have washed it to across to Italy or up the coast along Albania.
The captain had offered his condolences but, as far as the police were concerned, it was over, another unfortunate case of a man underestimating a ruthless sea.
"I hear you're living in the old Adams house," the stranger said, sitting down without asking her permission.
Curious about his outrageous statements, she said nothing. Not that he would have listened if she issued a protest. The stubborn set of his jaw told her he did what he pleased.
"News travels fast," Leslie said dryly, picking up her wine glass and sipping from it. Her fingers shook only a little.
He gestured toward the people around them who'd returned to their meals. "In a place this size it does. A beautiful stranger in town, who just happens to have been married to Jason Adams, once a local celebrity. Why did you come, Mrs. Adams? There's nothing for you here."
"There's the house," she reminded him, glancing up to thank the waiter as he set plates of lamb chops, French fries, and salad in front of her.
"Good evening, Simon," the waiter said to the man sitting across from her. "Can I get you anything?"
"A coffee, please. Strong, with sugar." He tilted back his chair and crossed his ankle over the opposite knee.
"Make yourself at home," Leslie muttered, picking up her knife and fork. She cut a piece of meat and ate it, savoring the rich flavor.
The coffee came and he sipped it thoughtfully, his dark eyes narrowed as he studied her. Defiantly, she stared back at him. His face was lean and tanned, compelling rather than conventionally handsome. Unruly black hair in need of a trim gleamed in the dim light. His expression was cool, almost austere in its remoteness.
Leslie felt an odd flutter in her midsection, and sweat broke out on her palms. Desperately hoping the warmth creeping under her skin didn't reach her face, she let her gaze slide down his body. His chest was broad, his waist and hips narrow, the cleanly muscled body of a man accustomed to work. Warmth stirred within her, latent desire rousing and stretching.
Drawing a deep, fortifying breath, she checked her wandering thoughts, reminding herself that she was a thirty--one-year-old woman who had long outgrown adolescent hormones, and was glad of it. "How long did you know Jason?" she asked.
"Since I was a child. He and my father had business dealings once."
Leslie nodded, understanding at last. "And it ended badly."
He stared at her, dropping the raised chair legs to the floor with a thump. "Why do you say that?"
"Your attitude. You're bitter about something. Jason went to Canada at least twelve years ago. Since you mention your father, I presume there was trouble between them." She leaned forward earnestly. "I assure you it had nothing to do with me."
"Didn't it? Then why have you come here? And, more to the point, how long are you planning to stay?"
She frowned, her temper beginning to simmer. "What possible business is that of yours? What did that waiter call you----Simon?"
"Simon Korvallis," he said, extending his hand as if his full name represented a formal introduction.
She shook his hand, feeling the heat of his skin and the callused roughness of his palm. His grip was firm without crushing her fingers. "You are----?" he asked.
"You know who I am," she said, snatching back her hand.
"I mean, your first name."
"It's Leslie. Jason never mentioned you."
"He never mentioned you, either," he said. Obviously he'd seen Jason in the past year, or at some time during their marriage. Leslie didn't even feel surprised that Jason might have come back here without telling her. When had he ever kept her informed about his activities?
"How long did you know Jason?" Korvallis asked.
"Almost twelve years. We were married for most of that time. Until we divorced last year."
"You were divorced?" His brows lifted. "And he left you the house?"
Leslie paused, then decided that the ambiguity surrounding her position in the house was none of his business. "His lawyer said I could use it." For how long, she didn't know, nor did she have any idea of the ultimate disposition of the house, since the estate hadn't been settled.
"Twelve years," Korvallis said softly. "You must have been awfully young when you married him."
"I was," she said wistfully. She'd married him with youthful impulsiveness and optimism, and lived to regret it. "I was nineteen when we met. Jason was forty-one at the time."
He didn't even blink. "Any children?"
"So it's just you to claim the house."
An odd note in his voice flicked at her nerves. "I didn't even know about the house until a month ago. I didn't know Jason grew up on Corfu."
This time his brows lifted, one higher than the other, giving him a sardonic look. "Didn't you and your husband communicate, Mrs. Adams?"
"Not often," she admitted flatly. "I told you we divorced."
"But of course you must have known that your husband was married before, didn't you?"
She gaped at him, the food she'd eaten turning to lead in her stomach. "He was what?"
"Married. Forgive me, I see you didn't know." He gestured with one hand. "But don't worry, he wasn't a bigamist. His first wife died a long time ago."
"Did they live here?" Her face felt tight, her mouth dry. She could feel a nerve jumping in her jaw and slowly unclenched her teeth.
"Some of the time, yes. Although in the last years before she died, she lived in Athens and in England. I guess she'd had enough of him by then. Jason was a strange man."
She couldn't argue with that statement. She'd have added secretive and manipulative.
"He has no relatives, so I guess if anybody's entitled to the house, you are. What are you going to do with it?"
She knitted together her frayed emotions. This had gone on long enough. "Why do you want to know, Mr. Korvallis?" she said sharply.
He looked unfazed, calmly drinking the last of his coffee and setting down the thimble--size cup. "A number of reasons, Mrs. Adams," he said at last. "None of which you would like."
"Wouldn't I? Then don't bother to tell me." She lifted her hand to summon the waiter. She'd only eaten half the food but her churning stomach warned her of disastrous consequences if she forced more of it down. Standing, she took the bill from the waiter's hand.
Korvallis also stood up. He reached across and grasped Leslie's elbow. "Mrs. Adams, there are people in this village who would like to see an end to the legacy of Jason Adams. What happened may be old news by Canadian standards, but Greeks have long memories. And we don't forgive easily. In fact, even I could contest his will on moral grounds."
"There----" Wasn't a will, she almost blurted but stopped herself just in time.
"Not that I want that mausoleum of a house." He frowned speculatively. "On the other hand, if you want to sell it, I might be willing to help you find a buyer."
"Who are you?" she gasped, struggling to free her arm. To her relief, he let go at once. "What do you want?"
"I'm not sure I want anything," he said, his expression bleak. "Except, perhaps, justice."
Simon reseated himself and watched as Leslie paid the bill and walked away. Her hips swayed gently beneath the denim skirt she wore. She crossed the circle of light cast by a street lamp. His gaze moved up to her hair, a glossy swath that reached to the middle of her back. Thick and wavy, so blonde that it was almost white, it shimmered like moonbeams on water.
Her hair was a beacon that drew eyes toward her, the last visible part of her when she stepped beyond the light. Either she didn't notice the attention she generated, or she ignored it, as she disappeared into the shadows farther up the path.
Under other circumstances, and if they were both different people, he might have been attracted to her. She was a good--looking woman. Her features were a little too strong for classic beauty, but her skin had the glow of good health. The gray eyes, large and shaded by surprisingly dark lashes, shone with character and maturity. The dark ring around the iris gave them a silver luminance that made them seem too transparent to contain secrets. Yet, he sensed secrets. And an old, deeply rooted pain.
She wasn't mourning her husband's death, that he knew for sure, feeling a perverse satisfaction. Hard on the heels of this thought came the realization that against his better judgment, he was attracted to her.
Not wise at all--
He hadn't reached the age of thirty-six without having had his share of female companionship. In fact, there had been one woman with whom he'd been fairly serious for about a year, until she'd decided he was too involved in his career to make a good husband. But his life was different now. And Leslie Adams awakened something in him that he thought had died long ago.
Maybe it was a romantic notion that for every man there was a special woman. Deep down inside, he had to admit he half believed that. He'd had his parents as an example of two people who were truly one.
Was Leslie the one for him?
He shook his head, gazing moodily into his coffee cup. She couldn't be, not after having been Jason's wife. Jason, who'd earned his contempt. Jason, who'd almost ruined his reputation.
Was it over? Or was Jason still alive, waiting and watching?
Maybe he should have gone back to London after the Melanie fiasco, to avoid the gossip. But while his years of real estate development in England had brought him financial security, they hadn't brought him contentment. The orchards right here in Platania had done that, and the small business he'd built up.
He'd survived, and the talk had died down. He could only pray that Leslie's presence didn't revive it.
Leslie's footsteps slowed as she neared the top of the hill on which the house stood. Her breath rasped in her throat, and she muttered in annoyance. Months of too much work and too little exercise were catching up to her. She couldn't even make it up the path without stopping to rest, and in the afternoon she'd seen gnarled old ladies tramp up without even breathing hard. There were a lot of old people in the village. The constant walking up and down the hills must be the reason for their longevity.
Those people----why did they stare at her? She'd noticed it from the moment she stepped off the bus at noon. Was it only curiosity? She didn't think so. The stares were too intense, making her self-conscious and uneasy.
Of course, she might be imagining half of it, coming to a small village where she felt unsure of herself, not knowing the language or the customs.
She sat down on a stone wall next to the path, her shoulders hunched. Jason had lied to her, if what that man, Simon Korvallis, said was true. It shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, but it still hurt.
She knew she shouldn't feel this mixture of anger and disillusionment, not when she hadn't been entirely honest with Jason herself. She'd been working in a doughnut shop and putting herself through college when she'd met him. After their first conversation, Jason had made a point of coming in more and more frequently. When he asked her out to dinner, she'd accepted. She'd enjoyed herself. The age difference hadn't seemed important.
A month later, he'd asked her to marry him. She hadn't been sure if what she felt was love, but he'd been charming and persuasive and she'd sensed he was lonely. Having grown up in a succession of dreary foster homes, kept sane only by her keen intelligence and determined spirit, she knew what loneliness was. She'd consented to marry him.
At first their marriage had been a success. In fact, they'd gotten along better than most couples she knew. They'd traveled across Canada that first summer, seeing the country and getting to know each other.
At least Leslie thought they had. It was only later that she became aware of the gaps in Jason's life, the huge areas she knew nothing about.
A previous marriage? She'd never questioned him, and Jason had never mentioned any family. He'd lied, at least by omission. He'd had a wife-- She wondered what other important facts he'd kept from her.
Perhaps he had children, children who could be near her age. No, Korvallis had said Jason had no family left. Which might explain the circumstances that had brought her to Corfu.
The letter she'd received a month ago from a law firm in Athens had come as a complete surprise. A partner in the firm, a Mr. Papadopoulos, had expressed his condolences on her loss and informed her that Jason had asked that she be notified in the event of his death. Since there was no one else, her participation might be required to settle his estate. They would contact her again.
It was all very odd--practically a summons from the grave.
It hadn't taken her long to make up her mind what to do. Summers were traditionally slow in the investment business. She'd decided to take a long--overdue holiday, her first in the five years she'd worked as a loan officer for an investment bank. She would attend to Jason's business in person. Despite the distance that had grown between her and Jason in recent years, there was the sweet memory of the early years when they'd been happy together. She figured she owed it to Jason to see to his affairs.
Leslie got up from the low wall, turning abruptly as a disembodied voice floated up from the shrubbery next to the path. "Lovely evening, isn't it? Have you seen a small brown dog?"
Before she could summon words to her suddenly dry mouth, a man stepped out into the open. "I'm sorry," he said with a courtly bow. "I didn't mean to startle you. My dog seems to have run off."
He came forward, a small, slight man with a scholarly face topped by a thatch of white hair. He pulled a small plastic bag of dog biscuits from the pocket of a threadbare Harris tweed jacket, tossing a handful on the path and calling, "Come, Scruffy. Where are you hiding?"
Glancing up the slope, he frowned worriedly. "I hope that woman hasn't got him. No telling what she would do."
"What woman?" Leslie asked, confused.
"That woman next door to you. She's always harassing my poor Scruffy. No, I didn't name him. His previous owners, who horribly mistreated him, did. And that dreadful mynah bird of hers is always terrorizing him with its screams."
Leslie hadn't heard any screams, nor had she met her neighbor, although she'd glimpsed the house through an overgrown hedge.
Stuffing the bag back into his pocket, he extended his hand. "Forgive my bad manners. I'm Cecil Weatherby. And you are----?"
"Leslie Adams." She hastily gathered her wits and shook his hand.
He frowned. "You were Jason's wife. How interesting." He examined her face, his deep--set eyes intent, his expression unreadable. Just when she was feeling uncomfortable enough to step back, he nodded. "If I were a portrait painter, I'd paint you. In a Victorian dress." His fingers drew patterns in the air. "With a cameo at the throat and your hair swept up. Such a virginal neck."
Leslie wavered between amusement and indignation. Virginal? She'd been married for ten years.
"My condolences on your husband's death," he said. His tone was curiously flat and emotionless, at odds with the words, leaving her more puzzled than before.
"Thank you," she replied, not knowing what else to say. The orange light from the street lamp cast his face in shadow, but she guessed that the man was in his seventies. Older than Jason, then.
"Did you know Jason?" she asked.
"Yes." He did not elaborate, adding after a brief pause, "I'm sure we'll see each other again. Perhaps you could come for dinner. You might be interested in seeing my paintings."
At her startled look, he smiled faintly. "Yes, my dear, I am an artist. I'm surprised Jason never mentioned me, since he sometimes helped me market my work."
He lifted his hand in farewell. "Have a good evening." Like a wraith, he seemed to dematerialize as the dense shrubs closed around him. She heard his voice drifting on the night air. "Here, Scruffy. Where are you? Come and get your treat."
A low--wattage bulb over the front door welcomed her with a pale yellow light that barely made a dent in the darkness. She stopped in her tracks, the heady fragrance of jasmine closing around her.
Who had turned the light on? She was sure it hadn't been on earlier. She shrugged. Perhaps it was fitted with an electric eye that turned it on automatically at dusk.
Her initial reaction to the house this afternoon had been disappointment. In her mind, she'd imagined a cube-shaped, whitewashed Greek island house.
Reality was a rectangular two-story building with dark green shutters and ugly ochre walls. The house had a closed look about it, as if it held secrets. Only the tangled, subtropical garden in which it sat softened the harsh lines.
Suppressing her uneasiness, she'd opened the front door with the key she'd picked up in Corfu town. And instantly forgot the exterior shortcomings.
The spacious rooms had shimmered with noon light, ornate ceilings hinting of gentility long past. Sunbeams caught dust motes and turned them into sparkling fairy dust. She'd been enchanted.
Now she wasn't so sure. It was too dark, too quiet, as if the night held its breath. The scent of jasmine was strong and cloying, and carried an undertone of sweet, rotting vegetation. A funeral smell.
She paused before opening the door. Included with the letter from the law firm had been a note from Jason, in a separate envelope. It had been short and not very enlightening. "If you're reading this, I'm no longer alive. I wasn't much of a husband to you, and that is my only regret. My attorney will be in touch, when the estate is settled."
That was all. No explanation. And only the most perfunctory apology for his deceptions and omissions.
The message had accomplished one thing; it had brought her to Platania. Two days ago, after landing in Athens, she'd gone to the law office. That she was not expected had immediately become evident.
"Jason's affairs are very complicated," she'd been told. "His will is incomplete. Our Mr. Papadopoulos is looking after it. Meanwhile, you may as well go to Platania. There's no problem with you staying at the house, since you seem to have power of attorney over all of this."
The lawyer's look implied he meant "this mess" but was too polite to say so. Leslie had thanked him, baffled by the whole situation. The answers must be in Platania, she'd decided late that night. And the next morning she'd caught a plane to Corfu.
Now, instead of answers, she had even more questions.
A rustle in the shrubbery brought her head snapping around. The old man again? Or someone else? Key ring in hand, she tensed, acutely conscious of her isolation.
She gave a shaky laugh as an enormous cat strolled across the flagstones. He sat down, gazing at her with clear amber eyes that seemed to hold both curiosity and wisdom. Leslie smiled. "Well, hello. Do you live here?"
The cat regarded her silently, then licked a paw and began to wash his face. He was a far cry from the lanky stray cats she'd seen slinking around the village square earlier. His coat was thick and sleek, a dark steel gray, with the dense texture of velour. Dropping his paw, he pricked his ears. As dignified as a grand duke, he rose, turned, and melted into the shadows.
Leslie blinked, half expecting to see some echo of his presence, like the smile of the Cheshire cat. Laughing ruefully, she shook herself. She had no time for fancies.
Putting the key in the lock, she turned it, again surprised to note its well--oiled condition. All in all, the house was in good shape. But then, Jason must have lived here on occasion, even during their marriage, which would explain some of his long absences. Business trips, he'd called them. The furnishings, draped in dust covers, were ghostly white shapes in the gloom. On the wall opposite the door, Leslie could see the amber porch light dimly reflected in a baroque mirror.
She groped along the wall for the light switch, wishing she'd noted its location earlier, in daylight. Moving forward a step, to the left of the open door, she felt the raised edge of the brass switch plate.
A blue flash blinded her, and pain sizzled up her arm. "Ouch!" She jerked back her hand, the keys dropping from her nerveless fingers.
Muttering under her breath, she rubbed her tingling arm. She hadn't had a shock like that in years. Too strong to be static electricity. She would have to have an electrician out in the morning. The voltage here was twice that in Canada, nothing to fool around with.
A soft meow told her the cat was back. She bent to pick up her keys, brushing against the velvet fur. In the darkness outside, a bird or animal shrieked, making goose flesh break out on her skin.
The scream was followed by a crash. The foyer mirror opposite the door shattered into jagged pieces.