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He pushed his chair back and swivelled it so that he could watch the sun set over Darwin and the Timor Sea as he thought about the evening ahead. His wife, uncharacteristically, had been more than happy to allow his parents carte blanche in organising the festivities - she was only now due to fly into Darwin.
His mother, not uncharacteristically, had been delighted to take on the task and the family home, one of them, would be polished to within an inch of its life and glowing with flowers. Mountains of delicious food would be in the last stages of preparation for the buffet supper and the long veranda would be cleared for dancing.
So far so good, he thought drily. What his mother had not dreamt, and what he'd only become aware of when she'd blithely dropped by the invitation list earlier in the day, was that she'd invited his ex-mistress, whose name was known to his wife, to be amongst the hundred or so people celebrating his first wedding anniversary ...
A discreet knock on the door interrupted his reflections and his devoted secretary, Paula Gibbs, came in with the last of the dictation he had given her - and the slim, colourful gift box he'd asked her to get out of the safe before she left for the day.
"Thanks, Paula," Alex said, and motioned her to sit down while he signed the letters. He pushed them back across the desk to her and his hand hovered over the present. "Would you like to see it?"
"I'd love to!"
Alex opened the box, studied the contents for a moment, then with a shrug pushed it across towards Paula.
She picked up the box and let out a little gasp. "It's beautiful! I knew it would be pearls, but diamonds as well! And Argyle pinks if I'm not mistaken."
"You're not," Alex said wryly, and added in answer to the query in his secretary's eye, "Giving her Constantin pearls would be a bit like giving coals to Newcastle. At least she'll know I had to buy the diamonds."
Paula closed the box after a last lingering look at the pearl necklace with its beautiful diamond clasp. Then she said firmly, "But Mrs Constantin isn't like that, I'm sure."
He replied, after a moment's thought and with a fleeting smile, "No, Mrs Constantin is not like that at all, Paula." But he was suddenly and insanely tempted to add - Would the real Mrs Constantin please stand up?
He stood up himself instead, because Paula was an ardent fan of his wife, and, anyway, his problems were his alone. But the question was still on his mind as he drove the short few blocks home to the apartment that faced Bicentennial Park and Lameroo Beach. It had been a cause of some amusement for his wife that the Sultan of Brunei was reputed to own the penthouse in the same building. "Are you in the same class wealth-wise as the Sultan of Brunei, Alex?" she'd asked with a gleam of sparkling fun in her blue eyes.
He'd denied the charge in all honesty, adding that the Constantin family fortune, added to the Beaufort fortune which she herself had inherited, would probably be less than small change to the Sultan of Brunei and, indeed, the Paspaley family which had pioneered cultured-pearl farming in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
"But you've also done very nicely out of pearls, thank you, haven't you, Alex?" she'd remarked, and added,
"Plus the cattle stations, cruise boats et al?"
He'd agreed, but pointed out that she had also done very well out of her family's fortune.
"True." She'd glanced at him with a question in those stunning blue eyes.
"I only make the point because you seem to hold my family fortune in a certain sort of low esteem," he'd said.
"Is it because I'm only a first-generation Australian of Greek descent whereas the Beauforts go back to the pioneering roots of this part of the country?"
"Darling," his wife had said, "I never make those kind of judgements. The Beauforts may have been around these parts for a long time but your family is a model of propriety compared to some of my ancestors."
"So why do you look condescending at times?"
She'd shrugged. "Sorry. Didn't mean to. But perhaps some of your Greek family's customs don't entirely impress me. I'll leave you to work out which one in particular." And she'd flitted away before he'd had the chance to remind her that her own mother, who had Russian blood in her, had actively participated in the custom she was referring to ...
All this was still on his mind as he took the lift to their apartment, and all the illuminated rooms told him that his wife had arrived back from Perth on schedule. In fact, as her bedroom door was open and Sibelius was pouring out Finlandia from her CD player, he was able to observe Tatiana Constantin née Beaufort unseen and at his leisure.
She was dressed and applying her make-up. Her dress was long, strapless, and clung to her figure. It was the same cornflower-blue as her eyes and her dark hair was in a loose, shining bob to her shoulders. At five feet two, she was petite with a delicate figure and smooth, pale skin.
But his wife always had an air of vitality about her, often even suppressed excitement. He'd taken it for a girlish attribute at first - she was only twenty-one now - with not a great deal of substance behind it.
Then again, he'd taken a lot about Tatiana Beaufort on face value when he'd allowed his parents and her mother to manoeuvre them into an arranged marriage. So it had come as something of a surprise when she'd told him unemotionally on their wedding night that she was aware of its orchestration. She was even aware that he had a mistress, she even knew her name. And he'd had to revise his opinions of his wife further when she'd suggested that a year's grace for them both might be a good idea. A year, at least, for her to make up her mind whether to make it a real marriage.
He had agreed and, a year later, was still revising his opinions. Yes, there was something irrepressible about Tatiana Beaufort, there probably always would be, but he'd been wrong about the lack of substance. Just how to quantify it was not so simple, however.
There was no doubt she'd made the best of this first year of their 'marriage in name only' or marriage by contract, as she'd called it. She'd relished the role of mistress of his several homes, breathing life and comfort and colour into them. She'd entertained with charm and originality. She'd travelled extensively with him and given the appearance of being a proper wife to the outside world, and she'd been genuinely interested in the process of cultivating pearls.
She had also added stature to the Constantin family by means of her charity work. She was a born social worker and she spent a lot of time working unpaid in a legal aid office. The only thing she hadn't done to date to completely fulfil his parents' expectations was to present them with a grandchild. Which, of course, was what it had all been about in the first place.
His parents were deeply family oriented, and it had been a cross to bear that they'd only been able to have one child. Therefore all their hopes rested on him, and they took an abiding interest in every aspect of his life. Occasionally this was claustrophobic and exasperating, but mostly he bore it with equanimity and did his own thing anyway. But when he'd reached thirty and shown no inclination to marry and provide the dynasty with heirs his mother had decided to take matters into her own hands.
Excerpted from The Constantin Marriage by Lindsay Armstrong Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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