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Nyree had been up at the crack of dawn. Her great friend and benefactor Miss Em, also known as Professor Emilia Scott, was coming home after a month spent in beautiful New Zealand with her sister, Louisa. The two sisters were very close. Nyree had not been so blessed. She had no sister to share her joys and pains, let alone the agony of sudden and violent family bereavement.
Six years before, when she was just into her teens, her parents had been travelling home from a piano recital. Her mother had been driving—unusual when her husband was with her. They had been very happy that night. Her parents had been soul mates and great music lovers. But, as fate would have it, the night that had begun so happily had ended in disaster. Speeding towards them had been a young man who, despite the law, was using his mobile phone to have a half-hearted argument with his girlfriend about where to go for a weekend away.
The police investigation had concluded that the young man had been so preoccupied with his conversation he had momentarily lost control of the vehicle and swerved onto the wrong side of the road—right into the path of the oncoming car.
Fate moved the players. Man was but a pawn.
Two vehicles taken out. Three deaths. Shattered lives for all who were left.
Those were the days when Nyree had felt her loss so starkly she literally hadn't been able to speak. Not even when her grandmother, Jessica, had told her to "get a grip". She had been taken in, albeit reluctantly, by her father's parents, the only relatives to hand. No matter what pain she'd been in, her grandmother had never let up telling her to "get a grip". It had become a familiar mantra.Never had her grandmother said, I'm here for you, Nyree. We share our pain.
That had never happened. Not then. Not now.
When she was small Nyree had sensed her grandmother didn't much like her, and hadn't liked or approved of her beautiful mother, who'd been of Italian descent. That had been considered a serious drawback. Her grandmother was stuck with an old Anglo-Celt mindset at a time when the nation embraced multi-culturalism. Jessica had been so certain her son had made a disastrous marriage, a clairvoyant might have told her.
The bliss of her parents' marriage had proved her wrong.
Nyree almost hated her grandmother, but couldn' t quite make it. Maybe hate had been left out of her nature, but it had got pretty bad. Almost overnight she'd gone from being a day student at the prestigious school she had attended since Grade One to being a boarder. Her parents, who had been so proud of their little girl, had wanted her to have the best of everything. Swinton College was the best. The college was just down the road, not halfway across the country, but Jessica had dived on the idea of Nyree's becoming a boarder. The truth was, Jessica was actually unfit to be a grandmother.
"Your grandmother means well." Her grandfather, Alan, a far more kindly person, had tried to explain away the decision. He'd known for sure his wife didn't mean well. He'd been married to her for over forty years.
"The child is the spitting image of her mother. I can't handle that. She'd be better off at boarding school. Don't we keep hearing how bright she is?"
To heap tragedy upon tragedy—didn't it always go in threes?—Alan Allcott had died of a heart attack little more than a year later. Fourteen by then, Nyree had been done with being shocked by anything.
"Heartbreak!" her grandmother had pronounced, placing the blame. "That mother of yours is the cause of all this. She was the one driving that night. Not my beloved Martin. My son! He would have known how to take evasive action."
So Grandfather Allcott had made his departure without a lot of fuss. Maybe he had had too much of married life. Another funeral to attend. There she had met her grandfather's brother, Howard, for the first and only time. Howard was "the black sheep of the family", according to Jessica—based on the fact her great-uncle Howard had abandoned the family business over thirty years ago to join an artists' colony in Far North Queensland. She'd made it sound the height of decadence. Great-Uncle Howard had appeared very different from his brother. But then Great-Uncle Howard didn't have a wife like Jessica to sour his system. Despite that, Nyree had persisted in searching for some redeeming feature in her grandmother.
She'd found none.
It had been Miss Em—Professor Emilia Scott, Principal of Swinton College for Girls—who'd kept a keen compassionate eye on Nyree Allcott, one of her star pupils. She'd known all about Nyree's sad home situation and had applauded the girl's strength of character. It had been Miss Em who'd come to Nyree's rescue when her grandmother had more or less kicked her out a month after her school graduation.
"I've done my duty by you, Nyree. You've been given a first-class education. Now you must stand on your own two feet."
Where was she supposed to go? She was after all only seventeen years old.
Miss Em had risen to the occasion—though Nyree's grandmother had been quite beyond her understanding—offering Nyree the comfortable guest flat built underneath her graceful old colonial mansion that looked out over the deep broad river. The older woman had suggested, as Nyree was no longer at school, she should call her Emilia, but Nyree had thought it inappropriate to address her former principal and mentor in such an informal way. It wasn't as though they were level pegging. Miss Em was a woman of stature. She was the greatly respected, always approachable Professor Scott. Miss Em had been Nyree's compromise, and Emilia had let it go at that.
Those days had been very hectic. Then her first year university exams had been over. Nyree had studied child psychology. God knew she had enough insight into the lives of sad and lonely, love-deprived children. She had done well, though it had been no easy thing finding the time to study, often into the early hours, while still maintaining two part-time jobs.
In the years since she had left Swinton College she and Miss Em had become great friends. A good deal of her time had been spent in the main house, enjoying Miss Em's stimulating company—and, as Miss Em had always reassured her, "I'm enjoying every minute, Nyree. Your company is delightful."
It made a nice change from, "Goodbye—good riddance!"
Out on a hillside walk one day, among the yellow blossoming wattles, Nyree had shouted it to the heavens. "Thank you, God, for Miss Em."
She had no idea if He was up there, but she'd said it all the same. When in doubt, any port in a storm! Either way, Nyree Allcott, a true orphan of the storm, had been saved by the generosity and compassion of a wonderful woman.
Barely a year later Fate, over which no one had control, had stepped in again. While Nyree and two of her university friends—ex-Swinton girls—had been enjoying a companionable cup of tea with "Prof Scott". Emilia, with hardly a sick day behind her, had tipped her head back against her wing-backed chair and calmly exhaled a single out breath. It had been her last. That splendid heart had simply given out.
Nyree couldn't even begin to ask herself why. What was the point? She had lost her best friend in the world. Given her history, what could she expect?
Later, when the heavily attended funeral and wake was over, Miss Em's sister Louisa had taken Nyree's trembling hand, telling her she was the granddaughter Emilia had never had. "She loved you, Nyree. She fully intended to change her will, never thinking she would go so quickly. Did any of us, dear girl? I've made out a cheque, which you must take. It will help you through until you get on your feet. It's what Emilia intended."
Everything had been wrapped up quickly after that. Louisa had returned to her family in New Zealand. The Scott family home had been put on the market and sold within a week. Nyree, numb with grief, had moved into a rented house with her university friends.
About ten days ago a letter had arrived with the name of a well-known law firm stamped on the lower left hand corner. Nyree had stood in the hallway, weighing the letter in her hand. She hadn't been able to begin to guess what it contained.
"Open it. Open it!" advised her friend Michelle, peering over the upstairs banister.
"I don't have the heart to open it."
"Let me do it." Michelle raced down the steps. "Maybe your old witch of a grandmother wants to settle some money on you."
"When hell freezes over!" Her grandmother was still hale and hearty. Nyree expected she would leave her entire estate to her chihuahua, Miranda.
Michelle ripped open the letter excitedly, while Nyree stood holding her breath.
"You'd better read this, Nyree. It looks like something good!"
And so it had proved. At a time when Nyree had believed nothing good was going to happen to her, something had.
Miss Em had indeed been a woman to reckon with. In the last six months of her life she had tracked down Nyree's great-uncle, Howard Allcott. She had not met him in person, but they had exchanged letters and spoken on the phone. During that time Miss Em had managed to instil in Howard Allcott a much-needed sense of family. The evidence was right there in front of Nyree's stunned eyes. Howard had died at seventy-nine, making Nyree the sole beneficiary of his estate. Nyree had been requested to make an appointment to see a Mr Morris Brockway, an associate of the firm, who was handling Howard Allcott's estate.
A few days later Nyree had found out that, although there was no money to speak of, there was the greatest gift in the world:
She hadn't been able to believe it. Her heart had leapt with gratitude. She owned a home of her own, with paintings lining every wall.
"You like art, eh?" the solicitor asked with an indulgent smile.
He had never seen a more beautiful young girl in his life. The combination of large lustrous dark eyes, their beauty emphasised by arching black brows and long black eyelashes, flawless olive skin and a rioting mane of caramel coloured hair sun streaked with gold, was breathtaking. He wondered if that remarkable hair was dyed—it was so startling against the big, velvety dark eyes.
"I like the idea of a home of my own more." Nyree's excitement was just barely held in check.
"Don't get me wrong here," the solicitor warned. "My understanding is it's no mansion. It was the homestead for an old sugar plantation. Most of the land has been sold off, but there's quite a bit remaining and the land has become valuable. Word is DHH has plans to build a big eco-friendly tourist resort up there."
"DHH?" Nyree felt the first shiver of premonition.
"Surely you've heard of it? It's huge—although they operate mainly in the North. David Hollister is a billionaire many times over. DHH is David Hollister Holdings. He owns great chunks of everything. Builder, developer, air and road freight, pastoral interests, a chain of resorts. His son and heir, Brant, is a chip off the old block, I believe. He's very much in the news these days, with his dad handing more and more over to him. I shouldn't be a bit surprised if you hear from the son. He's an architect as well an engineer; his father's right-hand man. Good for you to know in advance. I'm certain if you hang out you'll get an excellent price." "Except I won't be selling, Mr Brockway." There was a determined gleam in Nyree's eyes. "DHH will have to look elsewhere."
She took the train from the state capital, Brisbane, to tropical North Queensland, travelling along more than a thousand miles of incredibly lush coastline to get to her destination—the town of Hollister. No question it had been named after the illustrious billionaire or his buccaneering forefathers. Another thousand miles of coastline remained if one wanted to explore the prodigal wilderness of Cape York. No train line had been constructed to go up there. It was still frontier country. Extremely remote, the entire region was covered with rainforest that was becoming of great botanical interest.
She had never fully realised just how big her home state was—667,000 miles of it. It was enough to swallow up Western Europe and still leave the long Pacific coastline and hundreds of offshore islands. She was so looking forward to visiting the Great Barrier Reef—one of the wonders of the world. It would be right on her doorstep. The entire journey was giving her such a thrill. She wondered if Miss Em knew about it all? If there really was a Heaven, Miss Em surely had been whizzed up first-class.
Glorious country rolled past her window, gilded by the sun. It was a lyrical landscape, with a sky a dense cloudless blue above a shimmering membrane of silver heat.
The great numbers of farms astonished her. She saw peanut farms, citrus farms, banana plantations, sugar plantations—an eternal presence in the tropics—lush cattle-fattening properties with humped Brahmins cooling off in blue lotus-filled ponds. As the train passed, they lazily lifted their heads to gaze at the spectacle. It was a panorama of endless green, with the rich red earth smothered in vegetation and ranks of palm trees waving their fronds in the breeze.
A great wealth of mineral resources lay further inland and to the north-west. Mount Isa, with its enormous deposits of copper, lead, zinc and silver; Weipa with its bauxite over the larkspur Great Dividing Range on the distant skyline. Great crimson pioncianas were in bloom everywhere—beside the track, in the fields; there were mango trees laden with fruit, coral trees, tulip trees in orange flower, cascaras with yellow blooms, the ubiquitous coconut palms, bougainvillaea—that brilliant parasite— running wild over abandoned fences, water tanks and the roofs of old timber homesteads left empty and neglected in the all powerful sun. She was going to need a camera to capture this prodigal world.
Along the way they pulled into stations made resplendent with displays of staghorns, elkhorns, palms, a staggering variety of cascading ferns and the state emblem—the purple Cooktown orchid in butterfly abundance. It made the trip even more spectacular. She had done well choosing the Sunlander train over taking a plane. Now she knew so much of the countryside. She wanted to know so much more.