Authors: Janet Dailey
She stared wordlessly at the tall figure framed by the living-room doors. There was much about the chiseled features that resembled Blake—the wide forehead, the carved cheek and jaw, the strong chin and classically straight nose.
Yet there were differences, too. The sun had burned this man's face a dusky tan, making it leathery and tough, giving a hardness to features that in Blake had been suavely handsome. The eyes were the same dark brown, but they wore a narrowed, hooded look as they seemed to pierce into the very marrow of her soul.
His hair was the same deep shade of umber brown, but its waving thickness was much longer than Blake had ever worn it, giving the impression of being rumpled instead of smoothly in place. As tall as Blake, this man's build was more muscled. Not that Blake had been a weakling by any means; it was just that this man seemed more developed without appearing heavier.
The differences registered with computer swiftness, her brain working while the rest of her was reeling from the similarities. The buzzing in her head continued nonstop, facts clicking into place.
But it wasn't her eyes that Dina trusted. What finally led her to a conclusion was Chet's peculiar behavior before this man appeared; his innate kindness, which would never have permitted a cruel joke like this to be played on her; and the something that he was going to tell before they were interrupted.
Blake was alive. And he was standing in the doorway. She swayed forward, but her feet wouldn't move. Chet's hands tightened in support and she turned her stunned gaze to him. The confirmation was there in his carefully watchful face.
“It's true,” she breathed, neither a statement nor a question.
Chet nodded, a silent warning in his eyes. It was then that Dina felt the cold weight of his engagement ring around her finger, and the blood drained from her face. Her hands reached out to cling to Chet's arms, suddenly and desperately needing his support to remain upright.
“It seems Chet was right,” that familiar, lazy voice drawled in an arid tone. “My return is more of a shock to you than I thought it would be,” Blake observed. The angle of his head shifted slightly to the side to direct his next words over his shoulder without releasing Dina from his level gaze. “She needs some hot, sweet coffee, laced with a stiff shot of brandy.”
“Exactly,” Chet agreed, and curved a bracing arm around her waist. “Let's find you a place to sit down, Dina.” Numbly she accepted his help, aware of his gaze flickering to Blake. “Seeing you standing in the doorway was bound to have been like seeing a ghost. I told you we were all convinced you were dead.”
“Not me,” Mother Chandler contradicted him, moving to stand beside her son. “I always knew somehow that he was still alive somewhere out there, despite what everyone said.”
Fleetingly, Dina was aware of the blatant lie in her mother-in-law's assertion. The thought had barely formed when she realized there were others in the living room. She recognized the faces of close family friends, gathered to celebrate Blake's return. They had been watching the reunion between husband and wife—or rather, the lack of it.
In that paralyzing second, Dina realized she had not so much as touched Blake, let alone joyously fallen into his arms. Her one swaying attempt had been accidentally checked by Chet's steadying hold. It would seem staged and faked if she did so now.
Equally startling was the discovery that she would have to fake it because, although the man in front of her was obviously Blake Chandler, he did not seem like the same man she had married. She felt as if she were looking at a total stranger. He knew what she was thinking and feeling; she could see it in the coolness of his expression, aloof and chilling.
As she and Chet approached the doorway, Blake stepped to one side, giving them room. He smiled down at his mother, his expression revealing nothing to the others that might let them think he found her behavior unnatural under the circumstances.
“If you were so positive I was alive, mother, why are you wearing black?” he chided her.
Color rose in Norma Chandler's cheeks. “For your father, Blake,” she responded, not at a loss for an explanation.
Everyone was still standing, watching, as Chet guided Dina to the empty cushions of the sofa. After she was seated, he automatically sat down beside her. Blake had followed them into the room.
Every nerve in Dina's body was aware of his presence, although she wasn't able to lift her gaze to him. Guilt burned inside her, gnawing away at any spontaneous reaction she might have had. It didn't help when Blake sat down in the armchair nearest her end of the couch.
The housekeeper appeared, setting a china cup and saucer on the glass-topped table in front of the sofa. “Here's your coffee, just the way Mr. Blake ordered it.”
“Thank you, Deirdre,” she murmured. She reached for the china cup filled with steaming dark liquid, but her hands were shaking like aspen leaves and she couldn't hold on to it.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a suggestion of movement from Blake, as if he was about to lean forward to help her. Chet's hand was already there, lifting the cup to carry it to her lips. It was purely an automatic reaction on Chet's part. He had become used to doing things for her in the past two and a half years, just as Dina had become used to having him do them.
Instinctively, she knew he hadn't told Blake of their engagement and she doubted if anyone else had. But Chet's solicitous concern was telling its own story. And behind that facade of lazy interest, Blake was absorbing every damning detail. Without knowing it, Chet was making matters worse.
The hot and sweetly potent liquid Dina sipped eased the constriction strangling her voice, and she found the strength to raise her hesitant gaze to Blake's.
“How...” she began self-consciously. “I mean when...”
“I walked out of the jungle two weeks ago.” He anticipated her question and answered it.
“Two weeks ago?” That was before she had agreed to marry Chet. “Why didn't you let ... someone know?”
“It was difficult to convince the authorities that I was who I claimed to be. They, too, believed I was dead.” There was a slashing line to his mouth, a cynical smile. “It must have been easier for Lazarus back in the Biblical days to return from the dead.”
“Are you positive I can't fix you a drink, Mr. Blake?” the housekeeper inquired. “A martini?”
“Nothing, thank you.”
Dina frowned. In the past Blake had always drunk two, if not three martinis before dinner. She had not been wrong. There were more than just surface changes in him during the last two and a half years. Unconsciously she covered her hand with her right, hiding not only the wedding rings Blake had given her, but Chet's engagement ring, as well.
“The instant they believed Blake's story,” his mother inserted to carry on his explanation, “he caught the first plane out to come home.” She beamed at him like the adoring and doting mother that she was.
“You should have phoned.” Dina couldn't help saying it. Forewarned, she might have been better prepared for the new Blake Chandler.
Simultaneously as he spoke, Dina remembered the telephone ringing in the dawn hour as she had left the house. Seconds. She had missed knowing about his return by seconds.
“I'd switched off my extension,” Norma Chandler said, “and Deirdre was wearing her earplugs. Did you hear it, Dina?”
“No. No, I'd already left,” answered Dina.
“When Blake didn't get any answer here,” Chet continued the story, “he called me.”
“Chet was as stunned as you were, Dina,” Blake smiled, but Dina suspected that she was the only one who noticed the lack of amusement in his voice. She knew her gaze wavered under the keenness of his.
“I came over right away to let you and Mrs. Chandler know,” Chet finished.
“Where were you, Dina?” Sam Lavecek grumped. He was Blake's godfather and a very old friend of both Blake's mother and father. Over the years he had become something of a Dutch uncle to Blake, later extending the relationship to Dina. “Chet has been half out of his mind worrying about where you were all day. Played hooky from the office, did you?”
“I was at the marina,” she answered, and turned to Blake. “The
has been leased to a couple, and they plan to sail to Florida for the winter. I spent the day cleaning it up and moving out all of your things.”
“What a pity, boy!” Sam Lavecek sympathized, slapping the arm of his chair. “You always did love going out on that boat. Now, the very day you come home, it's being turned over to someone else.”
“It's only a boat, Sam.” There was an enigmatic darkness to his eyes that made his true thoughts impossible to see.
To Dina, in her supersensitive state, he seemed to be implying something else. Perhaps he didn't object to his boat being loaned to someone else—as long as it wasn't his wife. Her apprehension mounted.
“You're right!” the older man agreed with another emphatic slap of his hand on the armchair. “It's only a boat. And what's that compared to having you back? It's a miracle! A miracle!”
The statement brought a surfeit of questions for Blake to answer about the crash and the events that followed. Dina listened to his narrative. Each word that came from his mouth made him seem more and more a stranger.
The small chartered plane had developed engine trouble and had crashed in the teeming jungle. When Blake had come to, the other four people aboard were dead and he was trapped in the twisted wreckage with a broken leg and a few broken ribs. There had been a deep gash on his forehead, still seeping blood, and other cuts and bruises. Dina's gaze found the scar that had made a permanent crease in his forehead.
Blake didn't go into too much detail about how he had got out of the plane the following day, but Dina had a vivid imagination and pictured the agony he must have endured fighting his way out with his injuries, letting the wreckage become a coffin for the mangled lifeless bodies of the others. Not knowing when or if he would be rescued, Blake had been forced to set his own leg.
That was something Dina could not visualize him doing. In the past, when there was anything that required professional skill or experience, Blake had always hired someone to do it. So for him to set his own broken bone, regardless of the dire circumstances, seemed completely, out of character, something the man she had known would never have done.
When the emergency supply of rations from the plane had run out, Blake had foraged for his food, his diet consisting of fruits and whatever wild animals he could trap, catch or kill. And this was supposed to be the same Blake Chandler who had considered the killing of wild game a disgusting sport and who dined on gourmet cuisine.
Blake, who despised flies and mosquitoes, told of the insects that swarmed in the jungle, flying, crawling, biting, stinging, until he no longer noticed them. The heat and humidity of the jungle rotted his shoes and clothes, forcing him go improvise articles of clothing from the skins of the animals he had killed. Blake, the meticulous dresser, always presenting such a well-groomed appearance.
As he began his tale of the more than two-year-long walk out of the jungle, Dina discovered the crux of the difference. Blake had left Rhode Island a civilized man and had come back part primitive. She stared at him with seeing eyes.
Leaning back in his chair, he looked indolent and relaxed, yet Dina knew his muscles were like coiled springs, always ready to react with the swiftness of a predatory animal. His senses, his nerves were alert go everything going on around him. Nothing escaped the notice of that hooded dark gaze. From the lurking depths of those hard brown eyes, Blake seemed to be viewing them all with cynical amusement, as if he found the so-called dangers and problems of their civilized world laughable when compared to the battle of survival he had fought and won.
“There's something I don't understand,” Sam Lavecek commented, frowning when Blake had completed his basically sketchy narrative. “Why did the authorities tell us you were dead after they'd found the wreckage? Surely they must have discovered there was a body missing,” he added bluntly.
“I don't imagine they did,” Blake answered in a calm, matter-of-fact tone.
“Did you bury their bodies, Blake?” his mother asked. “Is that why they didn't find them?”
“No, mother, I didn't.” The cynical amusement that Dina suspected he felt was there, glittering through the brown shutters of the indulgent look he gave his mother. “It would have taken a bulldozer to carve out a grave in that tangled mess of brush, trees and roots. I had no choice but to leave them in the plane. Unfortunately, the jungle is filled with scavengers.”