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Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, gateway to Australia
Never a good travellerher privileged lifestyle had ensured a great deal of international jet-settingOlivia had come to the conclusion this had to be the epic journey of all time. First there was the flight from London to Singapore. Horrendous! Well over fourteen hours of claustrophobia. She had tried, largely in vain, to gather her resources with a one-night stopover at Raffles. Lovely hotel with a unique charm. She fully intended to revisit it at some future date, but for now on to Darwin, the tropical capital of the Northern Territory of Australia, yet another four and more hours away.
She couldn't read. She couldn't sleep. All she could do was dwell on her disastrous fall from grace. She knew she had no alternative but to fight back. And not take an age about it either. She and her siblings were due back in London five months hence to celebrate their father's birthday on October 2. Nothing for it but to pull up her socks! Re-establish her aristocratic credentials.
Could be hard going in Australia.
Looking wanly out the aircraft porthole she could see the glitter of the Timor Sea. It was a genuine turquoise. That aroused her interest sufficiently to make her sit up and take notice. They continued their descent, and Darwin City's skyline rose up.
Skyline! Good grief!
She craned her neck nearer the porthole. After London, New York and the great cities of Europe, all of which she had visited, it looked more like something out of a Somerset Maugham novela tropical outpost, as it were. It was bound to be sweltering. She knew the heat of the Caribbean where her father owned a beautiful private island, but she had a premonition the heat of Darwin was going to be something else again. And she the one who had often been described as the "quintessential English rose"! Anyone who knew the slightest thing about gardening would know roses hated extreme heat.
Yet her father had sent her here and she had obeyed his decision. But then hadn't she obeyed him all of her life? Struggling to always be what he wanted, while Bella was out enjoying herself, men falling around her like ninepins.
"Only flings, sweetie! Something to get me through a desperately dull life."
She had thanked Bella for sharing that with her. Far from being the quintessential English rose she was starting to think of herself as the quintessential old maid who, far from bedding lovers, burnt gallons of midnight oil reading profound and often obscure literature. She even dressed like a woman ten years her senior. Or so Bella said. How had that developed? Her father's fault for expecting way too much of her, especially from an early age. Bella's taunt aside, she thought she always looked impeccably groomedthat was her dutybut she saw now with her perfect up-do, her whole style could be too much on the conservative side for a woman of twenty-eight.
Twenty-eight! My God, when was she going to start the breeding process? Time was running out. Bella had had dozens of affairs and countless proposals. She'd had exactly two. Both perfect disasters. Geoffrey, then Justin. They had only wanted her because she was her father's daughter. Bella's men wanted just Bella. Wasn't that a bit of a sore point? But could she blame them? Bella was everything she was not: sexy, exciting, daring, adventurous, not afraid to show lots of creamy cleavage, whereas she was as modest as a novice nun. She could see herself now as being as dull as ditch water. That image bruised her ego. Or what was left of it.
What would she make of Australia? The Northern Territory she understood was pretty much one sprawling wilderness area. She hadn't wanted Australia. Too hot and primitive. But in the end she had accepted the commitment. She was a Balfour, British to the bone.
Darwin City. City? She could see a township built on a bluff at the edge of a peninsula surrounded on three sides by sparkling blue-green water. It overlooked what appeared to be a very large harbour. Being her, she had made it her business to read up on the place so she knew the city had been destroyed and rebuilt twice. Once after the massive Japanese air raid in February 1942 during World War II, when more bombs were dropped on an unprepared Darwin than had been dropped on Pearl Harbor. Then again after the city was destroyed by a terrifying natural disaster, Cyclone Tracy, in 1974. She rather thought after something as cataclysmic as that she would pack up her things and move to the Snowy Mountains, but apparently the people of the Top End were a lot tougher than she.
She well remembered McAlpine as projecting a powerful image: tough, aggressive, a man's man, but women seemed to adore him. It was a wonder his body didn't glow with the force of that exuberant energy. Not that he wasn't a cultured man in his way. Rather he projected a dual image. The rough, tough cattle baron with an abrasive tongue, and the highly regarded chairman and CEO of M.A.P.C., the McAlpine Pastoral Company. Her billionaire businessman father wouldn't have bought into the company otherwise.
Much as she loved and respected her father she realised there was some ambivalence in her towards him. He hadn't been what she and Bella had wanted. A doting, hands-on dad. Their father, always in pursuit of even more power and moneythrow in womenhadn't been around for his daughters most of the time. In a sense that had left her and Bella, in particular, orphans, mere babes in the woods. She had detected the same kind of brilliance and that certain ruthlessness in McAlpine.
Her father had worked his way through three wives, a catastrophic one-night stand and more than likely a number of affairs they didn't know about. She chose to ignore the fact that her and Bella's mother, Alexandra, had cheated on himwho knows for what reason? Might have been a good one. Their mother was their mother after all. They had wanted their memory of her to remain sacred. Ah, well! Sooner or later one had to face the realities of life.
She knew of McAlpine's marriage to an Australian heiress with an unusual name. It had ended in an acrimonious divorce. She wasn't in the least surprised. He was that kind of man. Probably he had treated his ex-wife badly, had affairs. There was a young daughter, she seemed to recall, who no doubt would have been swiftly dispatched to her mother to look after. One couldn't expect a tycoon to work out a little girl's problems. She and Bella hadn't enjoyed much of their father's attention or problem solving.
With an effort she shook herself out of what Bella liked to call "Your martyr mode, darling! There it is again!" She didn't recognise it herself. She was no martyr even if she was practically a saint with the weight of the world on her shoulders.
She had noted the cattle baron was big on sex appeal. Something women drooled over. He was devilishly handsome. In her view in an overtly sexy way. But she had to concede real sexual presence. She was prepared to grant him that but she, for one, had had no trouble combating it. Such men shrieked a warning to a discerning woman like herself. She preferred far more subtle English good looks and stylelike Justin's, even if he had turned out to be an appalling cad. Bella had called him a "love rat." She couldn't see McAlpine as a rat. But then what did she know? She, who appeared to be incapable of one lasting relationship with a man.
What she did know was, she neither trusted nor liked McAlpine. She didn't doubt her ability to keep him in his place.
She was a Balfour after all. A sensible, stable person who had never required being kept an eye on. Maybe she had blotted her near-perfect copybook, but she'd had the grace to accuse herself of her failures. Her task now was to regain her self-esteem and emerge as a more nurturing, more compassionate, more liberal-minded person willing and able to accept advice. But not from McAlpine.
Inside Darwin International Airport she looked around her in disbelief. Was Darwin a beach resort? The atmosphere was torrid even for May when it surely should have been cooling down. The hot humid air was fitfully swept by cooling breezes off the harbour. Overhead domed a burning blue sky. Northern Hemisphere skies didn't have that intensity of colour. Soaring coconut palms and spreading flamboyant trees were everywhere. She had to wonder if ever a stray coconut fell on some unfortunate head. She supposed one could always sue.
The vegetation was rampantly tropical, full of strong primary colours that assaulted the eye, the air saturated with strange fragrances. Sunlight streamed down in bars of molten gold. As for the quality of the light! Even with her sunglasses on her eyes were dazzled. So much so in the middle of her ruminations she nearly collided with someone.
"I'm so sorry." She was tempted to tell the man who had accosted her he couldn't have been watching where he was going.
"No worries, love."
She registered in amazement his incredible outfit. Navy boxer shorts with a frog-green singlet. "You need help, little lady?"
That, when she was some inches taller than he. She momentarily closed her eyes. "I'm fine, thank you. Someone will be meeting me."
Olivia's Balfour blue eyes glinted. Why did it have to be a man? She could have been meeting a favourite aunt. She continued making slow progress through the swirling throng, marvelling at the sights around her.
She had never seen such flimsy dressing in her entire life, nor so much bare skin. Not even on the Caribbean islands. Nor so many marvellously attractive children, girls and exotic young women with startlingly beautiful black eyes, and skin either gilded honey, cafe au lait, light fawn or chocolate. They were all petite, with lovely slender limbs. Not for the first time in her life she felt like a giraffe, more pallid than she really was. Even Bella might have a job being singled out here. She didn't know if these people were part aboriginal, part Indonesian, part New Guinean, part Chineseanywhere from South-East Asia.
She didn't know this part of the world at all. But they were all Australians, it seemed. They spoke with the same distinctive Australian accent, so much broader than her own andit had to be saidthe voices so much louder. No comment seemed to be offered quietly. She recalled her own voice had often been referred to as "cut glass." But then they all spoke like that, the Balfours.
Heavens, was it possible she was a snob after all? For a moment she wondered if she had caught herself out. Looking around her she saw Australia's proximity to Asia was well in evidence. This was a melting pot. Fifty nationalities made up the one-hundred-thousand-strong population and they all seemed to be waiting for flights out or meeting up with relatives and friends. She remembered now Darwin was the base for tourists who wanted to explore the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park and the great wilderness areas of Arnhem Land. She could readily believe such areas would be magnificent, but she couldn't think how they would find the strength to go exploring in such heat!
She hadn't thought to take off her long-sleeved Armani jacket. No chance of her ever getting about in floral bras, halter necks and short shorts like the young women around her. Not that there was anything wrong with her legs. Or her arms. Any part of her body for that matter. The jacket she wore over a slim skirt and a cream silk shirt beneath. Now she wished she had taken off the jacket. She was melting with little chance to mop her brow. The humid heat was far beyond anything she was used to. By Darwin standards she realised she was ridiculously overdressed. Absolutely nobody looked like her. Even her expensive shoes felt damp and clonky.
She was fully aware of all the curious glances directed her way. She also had quite a number of pieces of luggage to be offloadedall necessary, all bearing the famous Louis Vuitton label. Now she wished she had bought some ordinary everyday luggage. It was starkly apparent she didn't fit in. Worse, she must have looked helpless.
"All right, love, are you?"
Olivia turned, astonished. Obviously she did have helpless or hopeless tattooed on her brow. For out of the milling crowd had emerged a pretty dark-skinned woman somewhere in her thirties, a little pudgy around the tummy, wearing a loose, floral dress alight with beautiful hand-painted hibiscus and some kind of rubber flip-flops on her feet. Despite that Olivia could see with her trained eyes that this was a woman of consequence, albeit in her own way. She had that certain look Olivia recognised, the self-assurance in the fathomless black eyes. She also wore a look of kindly concern. Olivia valued concern and kindness. Olivia liked her immediately. Something that happened rarely with strangers.
"Thank you for asking, but I'm quite all right."
"Don't look it, love!" The woman flashed a smile, still observing Olivia closely.
Did all these people speak their thoughts aloud? Olivia felt giddy and terribly overheated, as though the sun had bored a hole in her skull.
"Yah pale, and that lovely porcelain face of yours is flushed and covered in sweat. What say we sit down for a moment, love." She paused to look around her. "Long flight, was it? You're a Pom, of course. No mistakin' the accent." The woman laughed softly. "No offence, love. Me great-grandad was a Pom. Sent out to oversee the Pommy pearling interest. Used to be big in those days. His family never acknowledged me but that's OK. I never acknowledged 'im. So come on." She took Olivia's nerveless arm in a motherly fashion. "Over here. Don't want you faintin' on us."
Olivia's laugh was brittle. "I've never fainted in my life." Nevertheless she allowed herself to be led away.
"Always a first time, love. They reckon five out of ten people faint at some point of their life. I fainted when I got speared one time. Accident, o' course, but I nearly died. Me and Rani were out fishin' for barrathat's barramundi, if you don't know. Best-eatin' fish in the world."
"I have heard of it," Olivia said, not wanting to be impolite. "It's terribly hot, isn't it?" She sank rather feebly onto one of the long bench seats arranged in rows.
"This is cool for us, love. By the sound of it you wouldn't want to be here in the wet. It's just over." The woman took a seat beside her. "What are you doin' here anyway? Don't look like a tourist to me. Look more like the wind blow you in, the wind blow you out. A bit spooky!"
"Spooky?" Olivia felt what was left of her self-confidence ooze away.