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The French doors of her bedroom were open to the cooling breeze, so Ava was able to witness the exact moment the station Jeep bearing their Argentine guest swept through the tall wrought-iron gates that guarded the main compound. The tyres of the vehicle threw up sprays of loose gravel, the noise scattering the brilliantly coloured parrots and lorikeets that were feeding on the beautiful Orange Flame Grevilleas and the prolific White Plumed species with their masses of creamy white perfumed flowers nearby.
As she watched from the shelter of a filmy curtain the Jeep made a broad half-circle around the playing fountain before coming to a halt at the foot of the short flight of stone steps that led to Kooraki's homestead.
Juan-Varo de Montalvo had arrived.
She didn't know why, but she felt excited. What else but excitement was causing that flutter in her throat? It had been a long time since she had felt like that. But why had these emotions come bubbling up out of nowhere? They weren't exactly what one could call appropriate. She had nothing to get excited about. Nothing at all.
Abruptly sobered, she turned back into the room to check her appearance in the pierglass mirror. She had dressed simply: a cream silk shirt tucked into cigarette-slim beige trousers. Around her waist she had slung a wide tan leather belt that showed off her narrow waist. She had debated what to do with her hair in the heat, but at the last moment had left it long and loose, waving over her shoulders. Her blonde hair was one of her best features.
Cast adrift in the middle of her beautifully furnished bedroom, she found herself making a helpless little gesture indicative of she didn't know what. She had greeted countless visitors to Kooraki over the years. Why go into a spin now? Three successive inward breaths calmed her. She had read the helpful hint somewhere and, in need of it, formed the habit. It did work. Time to go downstairs now and greet their honoured guest.
Out in the hallway, lined on both sides with gilt-framed paintings, she walked so quietly towards the head of the staircase she might have been striving to steal a march on their guest. Ava could hear resonant male voices, one a little deeper, darker than the other, with a slight but fascinating accent. So they were already inside the house. She wasn't sure why she did it but, like a child, she took a quick peekseeing while remaining unseenover the elegant wrought-iron lace of the balustrade down into the Great Hall.
It was then she saw the man who was to turn her whole life upside down. A moment she was destined never to forget. He was in animated conversation with her brother, Dev, both of them standing directly beneath the central chandelier with all its glittering, singing crystal drops. Their body language was proof they liked and respected each other, if one accepted the theory that the distance one maintained between oneself and another said a great deal about their relationship. To Ava's mind these two were simpatico.
Both young men were stunningly handsome. Some inches over six feet, both were wide through the shoulders, lean-hipped, with hard-muscled thighs and long, long legs. As might be expected of top-class polo players, both possessed superb physiques. The blond young man was her brother, James Devereaux Langdon, Master of Kooraki following the death of their grandfather Gregory Langdon, cattle king and national icon; the other was his foil, his Argentine friend and wedding guest. Juan-Varo de Montalvo had flown in a scant fifteen or so minutes before, on a charter flight from Longreach, the nearest domestic terminal to the Langdon desert strongholda vast cattle station bordered to the west and north-west by the mighty Simpson, the world's third-largest desert.
In colouring, the two were polarised. Dev's thick hair was a gleaming blond, like her own. Both of them had the Langdon family's aquamarine eyes. De Montalvo's hair was as black and glossy as a crow's wing. He had the traditional Hispanic's lustrous dark eyes, and his skin was tanned to a polished deep bronze. He was very much a man of a different land and culture. It showed in his manner, his voice, his gesticulationsthe constant movement of his hands and shoulders, even the flick of his head. Just looking down at him caused a stunning surge of heat in her chest that dived low down into her body, pretty much like swallowing a mouthful of neat whisky.
There was far too much excitement in her reaction, even if it was strictly involuntary. She was a woman who had to defend her inner fortress which she had privately named Emotional Limbo. Why not? She was a woman in the throes of acrimonious divorce proceedings with her husband Luke Selwyn who had turned nasty, even threatening.
She had long reached the conclusion that Luke was a born narcissist, with the narcissist's exaggerated sense of his own importance. This unfortunate characteristic had been fostered from birth by his doting mother, who loved him above all else. Monica Selwyn, however, had pulled away from her daughter-in-law. Ava was the woman who had taken her son from her. The pretence that she had been liked had been at times more than Ava could bear.
When she'd told Luke long months ago she was leaving him and filing for divorce he had flown into a terrible rage. She would have feared him, only she had tremendous back-up and support from just being a Langdon. Luke was no match for her brother. Why, then, had she married him? She had thought she loved him, however imperfectly. Ava knew she couldn't go on with her life without asking herself fundamental questions.
In retrospect she realised she had been Luke's trophy bridea Langdon with all that entailed. Her leaving him, and in doing so rejecting him, had caused Luke and his establishment family tremendous loss of face. That was the truth of the matter. Loss of face. She hadn't broken Luke's heart, just trampled his colossal pride. But wasn't that a potentially dangerous thing for any woman to do to a vain man?
Luke would mend. She was prepared to bet her fortune on that. Whereas she now had a sad picture of herself as a psychologically damaged woman.
Maybe everyone was damagedonly it came down to a question of degree? Some would say one couldn't be damaged unless one allowed it, furthermore believed it. Unfortunately she had. She felt she was a coward in some ways: afraid of so many things. Afraid to trust. Afraid to stand her ground. Afraid to reach out. Almost afraid to move on. That hurt. For all her lauded beauty, at her core was painfully low self-esteem. Her skin was too thin. She knew it. Pain could reach her too easily.
Ava had lived most of her life feeling utterly powerless: the granddaughter, not the all-important grandson of a national icon. In her world it was sons who were greatly to be prized. But surely that was history? Women through the ages had been expected to make as good a marriage as possible, to honour and obey her husband and bear him children. In some privileged cases for the continuation of the family dynasty.
She didn't give a darn about dynasty. Yet she had found enough courageperhaps courage was the wrong word and defiance was much betterto fly in the face of her authoritarian grandfather's wishes. He had despised Luke and warned her off him. So had Dev, who'd only had her happiness and wellbeing at heart. She had ignored both of themto her costshe had got it badly wrong. Proof of her poor judgement.
It would take her some time before she was able to pick herself up and walk back into mainstream life. She had so many doubts about herself and her strength. Many, many women would understand that. It was a common pattern among besieged women trying so hard to do the right thing, with their efforts totally disregarded or held in contempt by their partners. She sometimes wondered if genuine equality between the sexes would ever happen. Women were still receiving horrific treatment at the hands of men all over the world. Unbearable to think that might remain the status quo.
To be truthfuland she believed she wasshe had to own up to the fact she had never been passionate about Luke, or indeed any man. Certainly not the way Amelia was passionate about Dev. That was loveonce in a lifetime love. In Ava's eyes, one had to be incredibly blessed to find it. Ava was an heiress, but she knew better than anyone that although money could buy just about anything it couldn't buy love. Her marriage, she acknowledged with a sense of shame, had been an escape route from her dysfunctional familymost particularly her late grandfather.
Her grandfather's death, however, had brought about swift changes. All for the better. Dev now headed up Langdon Enterprises, of which Kooraki, one of the nation's leading cattle stations and beef producers, was but an arm; their estranged parents were back togethersomething that filled her and Dev with joy; and Sarina Norton, Kooraki's housekeeper for many years and her grandfather's not-so-secret mistress, had taken herself off to enjoy la dolce vita in Italy, the country of her birth.
And last but not least Sarina's daughterthe long-suffering Ameliawas putting the seal on her life-long unbreakable bond with Dev by getting married to him. Ava had long thought of Dev and Amelia as twin stars, circling a celestial field, never far apart. Now at last they were coming together, after delaying the wedding for some months as a mark of respect for Gregory Langdon's passing.
She now had the honour and privilege of being Amelia's chief bridesmaidone of three. Together the lives of Dev and Amelia had gained their ultimate purpose. They would have childrenbeautiful children. Mel was strong. Ava had always been stunned by Mel's strength. Beside Mel she was very conscious of her own frailty. Despite the fact that all her own hopes had vanished like a morning mist she couldn't be happier for them. Dev was gaining a beautiful, clever wife who would be a great asset to the family business enterprises, her parents were gaining a daughter-in-law, and she was gaining the sister she had longed for.
Triumphs all round for the Langdon family. The past had to make way for a bright future. There had to be a meaning, a purpose, a truth to life. So far it seemed to Ava she had struggled through her existence. How she longed to take wing! She had suffered through the bad timessurely things could only get better?
From her vantage point it was plain to see their visitor projected the somewhat to be feared "dominant male" aura. Man controlled the world. Man was the rightful inheritor of the earth. In a lucid flash of insight she realised she didn't much like men. Her grandfather had been a terrifying man. But at the end of the day what did all that power and money matter? Both were false idols. Strangely, the dominant-male image didn't bother her in her adored brother. Dev had heart. But it put her on her guard against men like Juan-Varo de Montalvo. He looked every inch of his six-threethe quintessential macho male. It surrounded him like a force field. Such men were dangerous to emotionally fragile women wishing to lead a quiet life. In her case, she came with baggage too heavy to handle.
De Montalvo, she had learned from Dev, was the only son and heir of one of the richest land-owners in ArgentinaVicente de Montalvo. His mother was the American heiress Caroline Bradfield, who had eloped with Vicente at the age of eighteen against her parents' violently expressed disapproval. Not that Vicente had been all that much oldertwenty-three.
The story had made quite a splash at the time. They must have been passionately in love and remained so, Ava thought with approval and a touch of envy. They were still together. And Dev had told her the bitter family feuding was mercifully long over.
Why wouldn't it be? Who would reject a grandson like Juan-Varo de Montalvo, who made an instant formidable impact. He had the kind of features romance novelists invariably labelled "chiselled". That provoked a faint smilebut, really, what other word could one use? He was wearing a casual outfit, much like Dev. Jeans, blue-and-white open-necked cotton shirt, sleeves rolled up, high polished boots. Yet he still managed to look the word patrician sprang to mind. That high-mettled demeanour was inbreda certain arrogance handed down through generations of a hidalgo family.
Dev had told her the Varo side of the family had its own coat of arms, and de Montalvo's bearing was very much that of the prideful Old World aristocrat. His stance was quite different from Dev's New World elegant-but-relaxed posture, Dev's self-assured nonchalance. Only as de Montalvo began moving around the Great Hall with striking suppleness a picture abruptly flashed into her mind. It was of a jaguar on the prowl. Didn't jaguars roam the Argentinian pampas? She wasn't exactly sure, but she would check it out. The man was dazzlingly exotic. He spoke perfect English. Why wouldn't he speak perfect English? He had an American mother. He would be a highly educated man, a cultured world-traveller.
High time now for her to go downstairs to greet him. She put a welcoming smile on her face. Dev would be expecting it.