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Mel Porter glanced up as she exited her house. A smile spread across her face as she took in the clear blue sky.
Despite the fact that it was barely June, Melbourne had been in the grip of winter for over a monthincluding overcast skies, rain, bitterly cold wind, overnight frostsand it had been particularly bad here on the Mornington Peninsula, where her turn-of-the-century farmhouse was located. Today, however, the weather gods had granted the huddled masses a reprieve. The winter-bare liquid-amber tree in Mel's front yard stretched its branches toward the sky as though worshipping the unexpected warmth. She wondered what the neighbors would say if she did the same.
She settled for turning her face to the sun and closing her eyes.
She'd never been a winter person. Summer was what it was all about as far as she was concerned. Long days at the beach, barbecues, zinc on noses and the smell of coconut-scented sunscreen She couldn't wait for the warmer weather.
Rubbing her hands together, she walked down the porch steps and across the driveway to the letterbox to collect the morning's mail. She pulled out a number of smaller envelopes with transparent windowsbills, hip hip hoorayand one larger, thicker envelope. Curious, she turned it over.
Everything in her went still when she read the words typed across the top left corner. Wallingsworth and Kent, Lawyers.
She stared at the envelope for a long beat. Then she started walking to the house.
Strange, after waiting and waiting for this moment, it had snuck up on her.
She waited until she was standing at the battered wood counter in the kitchen before she tore open the envelope and pulled out its contents.
There was a short covering letter, but she didn't bother reading it, simply flipped to the next page. Divorce Order, the heading said in crisp black font, accompanied by an official looking seal from the Federal Magistrates Court of Australia.
Mel's breath rushed out in a woosh.
There it is. It's over. Finally.
Her knees felt a little weak and she rounded the counter and sank into one of the oak chairs she'd inherited from her grandmother.
Six years of marriage, gone. At thirty-one, she was single again. Free.
She blinked rapidly and tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. This was a good thing. She'd had a lucky escape. There could have been kids involved, it could have been so much messier and uglier. No way was she going to cry.
This was a good thing.
The urge to call her mother or her sister gripped her, but she resisted. She'd leaned on her family and friends enough in the past few months. They'd comforted her, held her hand while she negotiated to buy the old farmhouse and holiday cottages that now constituted her combined home and livelihood, pitched in whenever she needed help
It was time to start standing on her own two feet.
Her gaze found the clock on the kitchen wall and she gave a little start. She needed to get movingshe had guests arriving before lunch and she needed to clean Red Coat Cottage in preparation for their arrival.
She grabbed the keys on her way out the door and took the scenic route via the garden path to the first of the four cottages on her four-acre plot of land. The property had once been part of a vast orchard that had stretched along Port Phillip Bay from Mount Eliza to Mornington. The land had been broken up and sold off years ago for residential development, and Mel's plot included the old manager's residence as well as four of the compact workers cottages that had once housed the pickers and other laborers. The former owner had reconfigured the latter to appeal to vacationers, and when Mel bought the property six months ago she'd revamped all four cottages, updating the decor, kitchens and bathrooms so that they would appeal to a more affluent market.
At the time, her parents had said she was crazy, wasting money on antiques and fancy bathroom fixtures when the cottages had been attracting perfectly good business for many years as they were. But if there was one thing Mel knew about, it was people with money. She might never have been fully accepted by them, but she understood what they liked. She knew that if she wanted to increase the income from her business by attracting a wealthier client base, she needed shiny, imported things that screamed of luxury and exclusivity. once she'd renovated the cottages to a higher spec, her good friend Georgiathe only one of her so-called "friends" to maintain their relationship postseparationhad used her network of contacts to spread the news. Between word of mouth and the ads she'd been running in various publications, Mel was hoping she was in for a busy year.
She pondered today's guests as she cleaned the bathroom. She'd met Flynn Randall a handful of times during her six years as Mrs. Owen Hunter. He'd always struck her as being halfway decent for someone who had been born with not just a silver spoon, but a whole cutlery service in his mouth. Owen had done his damnedest to turn their casual acquaintance into a friendship, but Flynn had perfected the knack of being friendly while somehow keeping people at a distance. A necessary evil, Mel imagined, when your family was amongst the richest in Australia.
Georgia had secured the Randall booking for hershe and Flynn were old friendsand Mel had already sent her flowers as a thank-you. Next time she made the trek into Melbourne she planned to take her friend out to lunch as well.
She gave the bathtub a final swipe with the sponge before stepping back and giving the room a last inspection. Everything looked good, so she moved into the kitchen. Once she'd finished there, she laid out fluffy white towels and made the bed with high-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. She arranged luxury-brand soaps and toiletries in the bathroom and hung matching robes on the back of the bedroom door. She fluffed the king-size quilt and arranged the down pillows, then spent ten minutes in the garden gathering a bouquet of flowers to go on the tallboy.
There was champagne in the fridge, along with Belgian chocolates and a selection of gourmet teas and coffees. The living room boasted the latest magazinescars and business for male guests, home decoration and fashion for the womenand there was kindling and wood for anyone who wanted an open fire.
Mel did a last check to ensure everything was in place before locking the cottage and heading to the main house. It occurred to her that Owen would be horrified if he knew what she'd done with her divorce settlement. The thought made her smile grimly. The notion that his ex-wife routinely got down on her hands and knees to scrub away other people's dirt would make his eyes roll back in his head.
Mel made a rude noise and offered a two-fingered "up yours" gesture to her absent ex as she crossed the rear lawn. She didn't care what he thought anymore. It was one of the many blessings of being a divorced womanalong with having the whole bed to herself, never having to argue over whether the toilet seat belonged up or down and the luxury of reading into the small hours if the mood took her without having to worry about keeping her husband awake.
Oh, yeah. Divorced life is one big party.
Mel paused. She didn't like the bitter note to her own thoughts. She'd fought hard to claw back her confidence and her sense of herself in recent months; she hated the thought that she might still be grieving the loss of her marriage in some secret part of her heart, that she might miss Owen in any shape or form.
Her marriage had been unhappy for a long time and very ugly toward the end. Her husband's constant criticism had shaped her days and her nights. She'd bent over backward trying to please himbut it had never been enough. In hindsight, she'd come to understand that it never would have been.
Her chin came up as she entered the kitchen. She regretted the failure of her marriage, but she knew she'd done her damnedest to save it and she wouldn't go back if her life depended on it.
So, no, she didn't miss her ex. A fairly important realization to acknowledge on this, of all days. A realization that surely called for a celebration.
She walked to the fridge and opened the freezer door. A box of her favorite Drumstick sundae cones was on top and she grabbed one and tore off the wrapper.
If she were still married, Owen would have warned her that she risked getting fat if she ate ice cream full stop, let alone for breakfast. She took a big, defiant bite.
After all, she only had to please herself now. And what a glorious thing that was.
Rosina answered the door, her face a mask of worry.
"Any change?" Flynn asked as he entered his parents' house.
The housekeeper shook her head. "Nothing."
Flynn nodded tightly and strode down the hallway. His father's study was at the rear of the house, at the end of a short hall. The door was almost always open because, even when his father was hard at work, he always made time to talk. Today it was closed and his mother, Patricia, sat in a chair beside it, her usually stylish salt-and-pepper hair a disheveled mess, her face streaked with tears.
She stood the moment she saw him and walked into his open arms. "I'm so sorry for calling you over," she said, her voice muffled by his shirt.
"we talked about this. we're all in it together."
"I didn't know what else to do. I've begged, I've bullied, but he won't unlock the door. I keep talking to him, making him answer because I'm so scared he's going to do something "
He kissed her temple. "I'll break the door down if I have to, don't worry. But Dad wouldn't do anything to hurt himself."
"You don't know that. He's never locked himself in his study before, either. My God, this disease If it was a person, I would hunt it down and kill it with my bare hands."
Flynn could feel the grief and anger and fear coursing through her and he pressed another kiss to her temple. "We'll sort this out."
She nodded, then stepped back from his embrace. He watched her visibly pack away her emotions as she pulled a scrunched-up tissue from the cuff of her tur-tleneck sweater and blew her nose. By the time she'd finished she was once again in control.
That was the really great thing about Alzheimer's diseaseit affected entire families, not just individuals. It killed slowly, over years, and it wore loved ones down with its relentless attack. In the twelve months since his father had been formally diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer's, Flynn had watched his parents grapple to come to terms with what the future would hold. He'd seen them both rise to the occasion with humbling dignity, even while Flynn had quietly freaked out in private over the imminent loss of the man who was such an integral part of his life.
Somehow, they'd all hung in there. It wasn't as though any of them had a choice, after all. Least of all his father.
Giving his mother a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder, Flynn rapped lightly on the study door. "Dad, it's me. Can I come in?"
There was a short pause. "No."
"Can I ask why?"
"Mom's worried about you. We all are. Talk to us, Dad."
Silence. His mother shook her head helplessly.
"Dad, if you don't let me in, I'm going to have to break the door down."
More silence. Flynn eyed the frame. The house was over a hundred years old, the doorjambs solid. It was going to take some effort, but it was doable.
"For God's sake, just leave me alone." There was so much despair and anguish in his father's words.
Flynn exchanged glances with his mother. "Stand back from the door, Dad."
His mother pressed her fingers to her mouth. Flynn stepped away far enough to give himself a run-up. He'd never kicked a door in before, but he figured that if he aimed his foot at the latch, something would have to give. Eventually.
He tensed his muscles, ready to power forward.
"Wait." His father's voice was resigned. Weary.
The key turned in the lock and the door opened an inch or two. Only a strip of his father's face was visible through the opening.
Flynn's mother swallowed audibly and Flynn squeezed her shoulder again. She gave him a watery half smile.
"You got him to open the door. That's the important bit," she said quietly. She sank onto her chair as Flynn entered the study.
"Shut the door," his father barked the moment Flynn crossed the threshold.
Flynn complied and turned to regard his father. The older man stood behind his desk chair, both hands gripping the high leather backrest. His steel-gray hair was rumpled, his face pale with fatigue and anxiety. His blue eyes watched Flynn almost resentfully.
"What's going on, Dad?"
"Nothing. I want to be left alone. Is that too much to ask? Aren't I entitled to privacy anymore? Do I have to lose that, too, as well as everything else?"
The gruff anger in his father's voice was alien to Flynn. Adam Randall had always had high standards and he didn't suffer fools gladly, but he'd never been a bully and he'd certainly never been a man who let his emotions rule him.
"No one wants to take anything away from you, Dad. We love you. We were worried about you. Can you understand that?"
"I'm not an imbecile!"
"I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to be patronizing. I want you to understand our point of view."
His father stared at him, his eyes filling with tears. His chin wobbled and he took a quick, agitated breath.
"What's going on, Dad?"
His father continued to stare at him for a long moment. Then he stepped out from behind the chair. The crotch of his navy trousers was dark with moisture.
Bone-deep empathy washed through Flynn as he lifted his gaze to his father's anguished face.