Read an Excerpt
'Carlos O'Connor will be attending,' Mia Gardiner's assistant Gail announced in hushed, awed tones.
Mia's busy hands stilled for a momentshe was arranging a floral display. Then she carried on placing long-stemmed roses in a standard vase. 'He is the bride's brother,' she said casually.
Gail lowered the guest list and stared at her boss. 'How do you know that? They don't have the same surname.'
'Half-brother, actually,' Mia corrected herself. 'Same Spanish mother, different fathers. She's a couple of years older. I think she was about two when her father died and her mother remarried and had Carlos.'
'How do you know that?' Gail demanded.
Mia stood back, admired her handiwork but grimaced inwardly. 'Uhthere's not a lot that isn't known about the O'Connors, I would have thought.'
Gail pursed her lips but didn't disagree and studied the guest list instead. 'It saysit just says Carlos O'Connor and partner. It doesn't say who the partner is. I thought I read something about him and Nina French.' Gail paused and shrugged. 'She's gorgeous. And wouldn't it be lovely to have all that money? I mean he's got a fortune, hasn't he? And he's gorgeous too, Carlos O'Connor. Don't you think so?'
'Undoubtedly,' Mia replied and frowned down at the tub of pink and blue hydrangeas at her feet. 'Now, what am I going to put these in? I know, the Wedgwood soup tureenit sounds odd but they look good in it. How are you going, Gail?' she asked rather pointedly.
Gail awoke from her obviously pleasurable daydream about Carlos O'Connor and sighed. 'I'm just about to lay the tables, Mia,' she said loftily and wafted away, pushing a cutlery trolley.
Mia grimaced and went to find the Wedgwood tureen.
Several hours later, the sun went down on Mount Wilson but Mia was still working. Not arranging flowers; she was in the little office that was the headquarters of the Bellbird Estate.
It was from this office in the grand old homestead, the main house on the estate, that she ran the reception function business, Bellbird Estate, a business that was becoming increasingly well-known.
Not only did the old house lend its presence to functions but its contents delighted Mia. It contained lovely pieces of old furniture, vases, lamps, linen and a beautiful china collectionincluding the Wedgwood tureen.
She catered for wedding receptions, iconic birthday partiesany kind of reception. The cuisine she provided was superb, the house and the gardens were lovely but perhaps the star of the show was Mount Wilson itself.
At the northern end of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, it had been surveyed in 1868 and had gradually acquired a similar reputation to an Indian 'hill station'English-style homes with cool-climate English gardens in alien settings, this setting being bush and rainforest.
And anyone's first impression of Mount Wilson had to be how beautiful it was. Yes, the road was narrow and clung to the mountainside in tortuous zigzags in places but the trees in the villageplane trees, limes, elms, beeches and liquid ambers, were, especially when starting to wear their autumnal colours, glorious. There were also native eucalypts, straight, strong and reaching for the sky, and native tree ferns everywhere.
The glimpses of houses through impressive gateways and beyond sweeping driveways were tantalising, many old and stone with chimneys, some smothered in creepers like wisteria, others with magnificent gardens.
All in all, she'd thought often although she kept it to herself, Mount Wilson shouted moneynew money or old money but moneyand the resources to have acres of garden that you opened to the public occasionally. The resources to have an estate in the Blue Mountains, a retreat from the hurly-burly of Sydney or the heat of its summers .
And tomorrow Juanita Lombard, Carlos O'Connor's half-sister, was marrying Damien Miller on Mount Wilsonat Bellbird, to be precise. Damien Miller, whose mother, rather than the bride or her mother, had booked the venue without mentioning who the bride was until it was too late for Mia to pull out without damaging her business reputation.
Mia got up, stretched and rubbed her back and decided enough was enough; she'd call it a day.
She didn't live in the main house; she lived in the gardener's cottage, which was in fact a lot more modern, though unusual. It had been built as an artist's studio. The walls were rough brick, the plentiful woodwork was native timber and the floors were sandstone cobbles. It had a combustion stove for heating, a cook's delight kitchen and a sleeping loft accessible by ladder.
It was an interior that lent itself well to Mia's photography hobby, her images of native wildlife and restful landscapes, enlarged and framed, graced the walls. It also suited her South American poncho draped over a rail, her terracotta tubs full of plants and her chunky crockery.
It was also not far from the stables and that was where she went first, to bring her horse, Long John Silver, in from the paddock, to rug him and feed him.
Although it was summer, there were patches of mist clinging to the tree tops and the air was chilly enough to nip at your fingers and cheeks and turn the end of your nose pink. But the sunset was magical, a streaky symphony of pink and gold and she paused for a long moment with her arms around Long John's neck to wonder at life. Who would have thought Carlos O'Connor would cross her path again?
She shook her head and led Long John into his stall. She mixed his feed and poured it into his wall bin, checked his water, then, with a friendly pat and a flick of his mane through her fingers, she closed him in.
That was when she came to grief. She'd collected some wood for her stove and was taking a last look at the sunset when, seemingly from nowhere, what she'd kept at bay for hours enveloped herthe memories she'd refused to allow to surface ever since she'd known who would be at tomorrow's wedding flooded back to haunt her.
'Surely I can do this,' she whispered. 'I've come so far since those dayssurely I can do this?'
She closed her eyes but nothing could stop those memories as she allowed herself the luxury of picturing Carlos O'Connor in her mind's eye. Luxury? Or was it a torment?
Whatever, how could she forget that night-dark hair that sometimes fell in his eyes? That olive skin his Spanish mother had bequeathed, yet the grey eyes that came from his Irish father and could be as cool as the North Sea or so penetrating his glance made you mentally sit up in a flurry and hope like mad you had your wits about you.
How could she forget the satanic edge to his looks that was so intriguing; irresistible but at the same time capable of making you feel you were playing with fire?
Or not remember the way he laughed sometimes and that wicked sense of humour?
Or the times when no one would have suspected he was at the helm of a multi-national construction company. Times when he exchanged his suit for jeans and T-shirt and indulged his favourite pastimessailing, riding, flying. In fact he was rarely formal when she thought about it. But above all how could she ever forget lying in Carlos O'Connor's arms?
She stood perfectly still for a long moment, then she reached into her pocket for a tissue and mopped herself up, determined that she would recover her equilibrium before tomorrow.
Mercifully, when she woke early the next morning, it was to see that at least the weather was fine; the sun had just started to climb into a cloudless sky. She had all sorts of contingency plans for wet weather but it was a relief not to have to resort to them.
She got up, dressed swiftly in jeans and an old shirt and brewed herself a cup of tea, which she took out into the garden. She loved the garden, all five acres of it, and although Bellbird employed a gardener it was Mia who supervised what went in and came out, something that led her into frequent discord with the gardener, Bill James, a man in his sixties who'd lived all his life on the mountain. Bill and his wife, Lucy, lived in another cottage on the property.
Lucy James was away at the moment. She made an annual pilgrimage to spend a month with her daughter and her six grandchildren in Cairns. To Mia's regret, Bill drove Lucy up to and back from Cairns but only ever stayed a couple of days with them.
That left Mia in the position of having to cope with Bill living on his own and hating it until Lucy returned. If he was cranky when his wife was present, he was ten times crankier when she wasn't.
Still, it had been a huge stroke of luck how she'd come to be able to start her reception business at Bell-bird in the first place. She'd met the two old ladies, sisters and spinsters and now in their late eighties, who owned Bellbird, at Echo Point.
It had been her first visit to the Blue Mountains' premier tourist attraction, from which you could look over the Three Sisters and the Jamison Valley.
From the viewing platform she'd gazed out over the scenery and been enchanted by the wondrous views.
The elderly sisters had sat down on the bench beside her and struck up a conversation. Before long she'd learnt about the estate on Mount Wilson, the fact that the sisters now lived in a retirement home in Katoomba, which they hardly had a good word to say for. And the fact that they were looking for a use for their estate.
Mia had explained that she'd come up to the Blue Mountains with the idea of opening a function businessand things had progressed from there. Of course the sisters had had her vetted but what had started out as a business venture had blossomed into a friendship and Mia often visited them in their despised retirement home that was actually very luxurious and well-run. And she often took them bunches of flowers and snippets of gossip about the mountain because she could well imagine what it must be like living away from Bellbird.
If there was one area of concern for her regarding the estate it was that her lease was renewed annually and due for renewal shortly. Her two spinsters would be perfectly happy to renew it but had let drop that they were under some pressure from their nephew, their closest relative and heir, to think of selling Bellbird and investing the money for a higher return than the estate was earning them.
On the morning of the Lombard/Miller wedding, things at Mount Wilson were looking pretty grand. The gardens were in spectacular form and so was the house, Mia noted, as she reluctantly went indoors and did a thorough inspection.
The ceremony was to be conducted by a marriage celebrant in an elegant rotunda in the garden, whilst the meal was to be served in the huge main dining room that easily seated the estimated seventy-five guests. It was a spectacular room with a pressed iron ceiling and long glass doors that opened onto the terrace and the main rose garden.
Dancing would be in the atrium with its cool tiled floor, and tables and chairs were dotted around the main lawn.
'Well, it all looks good,' Mia said to the newly arrived Gailshe lived on the mountain only a few minutes' drive away. 'And here come the caterers. OK! Let's get started.' And she and Gail gave each other a high five salute as was their custom.
In the time she had before the wedding party arrived Mia took a last look into the wedding suitewhere the members of the bridal party would dress and be able to retire to if need be. And, content that it was all spick and span, she jogged to her own quarters, where she took a shower and dressed herself for the event.
She studied herself thoughtfully in the mirror when she was ready. She always contrived to look elegant enough to be a guest but a discreet one, and today she was wearing a slim short-sleeved jade-green Thai silk dress with fashionable but medium heels in matching leather and a string of glass beads on a gold chain. She also wore a hat, more of a fascinator, to be precise. A little cap made from the same Thai silk with feathers and a froth of dotted voile worn on the side of her head.
He probably won't recognise me, she reassured herself as she stood in front of her cheval mirror admiring her reflection, and particularly the lovely fascinator, which seemed to invest her with more sophistication than she usually exhibited.
But even without the hat she was a far cry from the kind of girl she'd been in those days. Always in jeans, always outdoors, always riding when she could get away with it. Her clothesher hair alone must look different from how she used to wear it. She grimaced.
Her hair was a sore point with her. Nearly black, it was wild and curly, yet it never looked right when it was cut to be manageable. So she wore it severely tied back when she was being formal, something she'd not done when she was younger.
Nothing, she had to acknowledge, had changed about her eyes, though. They were green and Gail had once told her her eyelashes were utterly to die for and so was her mouth. She also possessed a pair of dimples that she wasn't a hundred per cent keen onthey didn't seem to go with the sophisticated woman of the world she liked to hope she resembled.
She turned away from the mirror with a shrug and discovered, to her horror, that she was trembling finely because she was scared to death all of a sudden.
No, not all of a sudden, she corrected herself. Ever since she'd realised who the bride was, she'd been pretending to herself that she was quite capable of dealing with the O'Connor family when, underneath that, she'd been filled with the desire to run, to put as much distance between them as she could.
Now it was too late. She was going to have to go through with it. She was going to have to be civil to Arancha O'Connor and her daughter Juanita. Somehow she was going to have to be normal with Carlos.
Unless they didn't recognise her.
She took a deep breath and put her shoulders back; she could do it.
But all her uncertainties resurfaced not much later when she moved the Wedgwood tureen with its lovely bounty of hydrangeas to what she thought was a better spother last act of preparation for the Lombard/ Miller weddingand she dropped it.
It smashed on the tiled floor, soaking her feet in the process. She stared down at the mess helplessly.
'Mia?' Gail, alerted by the crash, ran up and surveyed the mess.
'I'm s-sorry,' Mia stammered, her hand to her mouth. 'Why did I do that? It was such a lovely tureen too.'
Gail looked up and frowned at her boss. At the same time it dawned on her that Mia had been different over the last few days, somehow less sure of herself, but why, she had no idea. 'Just an accident?' she suggested.
'Yes. Of course,' Mia agreed gratefully but still, apparently, rooted to the spot.
'Look, you go and change your shoes,' Gail recommended, 'and I'll clean up the mess. We haven't got much time.'
'Thank you! Maybe we could get it fixed?'
'Maybe,' Gail agreed. 'Off you go!'
Mia finally moved away and didn't see the strange look her assistant bestowed on her before she went to get the means to sweep up what was left of the Wedgwood tureen.