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Holly harding had the world at her feetor she should have had.
The only child of wealthy parentsalthough her father had diedshe could have rested on her laurels and fulfilled her mother's dearest ambition for her, that she settle down and make an appropriate, although of course happy, marriage.
Holly, however, had other ideas. Not that she was against wedlock in general, but she knew she wasn't ready for it. Sometimes she doubted she ever would be, but she went out of her way not to dwell on the reason for that
Instead, she concentrated on her career. She was a journalist, although occasionally she partook of the social scene so dear to her mother's heart; Sylvia Harding was a well-known socialite. It was on two such occasions that Holly had encountered Brett Wyndham, with disastrous consequences.
'A masked fancy-dress ball and a charity lunch? You must be out of your mind,' Brett Wyndham said to his sister Sue.
He'd just flown in from India, on a delayed flight that had also been diverted, so he was tired and irritable. His sister's plans for his social life did not appear to improve his mood.
'Oh, they're not so bad,' Sue said. She was in her late twenties, dark-haired like her brother, but petite and prettyquite unlike her brother. She was also looking a bit pale and strained, whilst trying to strike an enthusiastic note. 'And it is a good causethe lunch, anyway. What's wrong with raising money for animal shelters? I thought that might appeal to you. I mean, I know they may only be cats and dogs.'
Brett said wearily, 'I can't stand them. I can't stand the food, I can't stand the women'
'The women?' Sue interrupted with a frown. 'You don't usually have a problem there. What's wrong with them?'
Brett opened his mouth to say, They are usually the most ferociously groomed set of women you've ever seen in your life, from their dyed hair, their fake eyelashes, their plucked eyebrows, their fake nails and tans; they're ghastly. But he didn't say it. Although she didn't have a fake tan or fake eyelashes, his sister was exquisitely groomed and most expensively dressed.
He shrugged. 'Their perfume alone is enough to give me hay fever,' he said moodily instead. 'And, honestly, I have a problem with the concept of turning fund-raising into society events that bring out all the social climbers and publicity seekers.' He stopped and shook his head.
But Brett Wyndham was not to be placated. 'As for masked fancy-dress balls,' he went on, 'I can't stand the fools men make of themselves. And the women; something about being disguised, or thinking they are, seems to bring out the worst in them.' 'What do you mean?'
'I mean, beloved,' he said dryly, 'They develop almost predator-like tendencies.' For the first time a glint of humour lit his dark eyes. 'You need to be particularly careful or you can find yourself shackled, roped and on the way to the altar.'
Sue smiled. 'I don't think you would ever have that problem.'
He shrugged. 'Then there's Mark and Aria's wedding coming up shortlythe reason I'm home, anyway.' Mark was their brother. 'I've no idea what's planned but I'm sure there'll be plenty of partying involved.'
Sue's smile faded as she nodded, and tears came to her eyes.
Brett frowned down at her. 'Susie? What's wrong?'
'I've left Brendan.' Brendan was her husband of three years. 'I found out he was being unfaithful to me.'
Brett closed his eyes briefly. He could have said, I told you so, but he didn't. He put his arms around his sister instead.
'You were right about him.' Sue wept. 'I think all he was after was my money.'
'I guess we have to make our own mistakes.'
'Yes, but I feel so stupid. And' she gulped back some tears 'I feel everyone must be laughing at me. Apparently it was no big secret. I was the last person to know,' she said tragically.
'It's often the way.'
'It may be, but it doesn't make it any easier.'
'Are you still in love with him?' Brett queried. 'No! Well, how could I be?' Brett smiled absently.
'But one thing I do know,' Sue said with utter conviction. 'I refuse to go into a decline, I refuse to run away and hide and I refuse to be a laughing stock!'
But his sister overrode him, with tears in her eyes still, but determination too. 'I'm patron of the Animal Shelter Society so I will be at the lunch. The ball is one of the festivities planned for the Winter Racing Carnival; I'm on the committee, so I'll be there too, and I'll make sure everyone knows who I am! But' she sagged a little against him 'Iwould dearly love some moral support.'
'I beg your pardon?' Mike Rafferty said to his boss, Brett Wyndham.
They were in Brett's apartment high above the Brisbane River and the elegant curves of the William Jolly Bridge. Sue, who'd insisted on picking him up from the airport, had just left.
'You heard,' Brett replied shortly.
'Well, I thought I did. You asked me to make a note of the fact that you were going to a charity lunch tomorrow and a masked fancy-dress ball on Friday night. I just couldn't believe my ears.'
'Don't make too big a thing of this, Mike,' Brett warned. 'I'm not in the mood.'
'Of course not. They could even bequite enjoyable.'
Brett cast him a dark glance and got up to walk over to the window with his familiar long-legged prowl. With his short, ruffled dark hair, blue shadows on his jaw, a kind of eagle intensity about his dark eyes, his cargo pants and black sweatshirt, his height and broad shoulders, he could have been anything.
What did come to mind was a trained-to-perfection daredevil member of a SWAT team.
In fact, Brett Wyndham was a vet and he specialized in saving endangered species, the more dangerous the better, such as the black rhino, elephants and tigers.
He dropped out of helicopters with tranquilizer guns, he parachuted into junglesall in a day's work. He also managed the family fortunes that included some huge cattle-stations, and since he'd taken over the reins of the Wyndham empire he'd tripled that fortune so he was now a billionaire, although a very reclusive one. He did not give interviews but word of his work had filtered out and he'd captured the public's imagination.
As Brett's PA, it fell to Mike Rafferty to ensure his privacy here in Brisbane, amongst other duties at Haywireone of the cattle stations in Far North Queensland the Wyndham dynasty called homeand at Palm Cove where they owned a resort.
'So will you be saying anything to the press?' he queried. 'There's bound to be some coverage of the lunch tomorrow, even if you'll be incognito at the ball.'
'No. I'm not saying anything to anyone although, according to my sister, my presence alone will invest the proceedings with quite some clout.' He grimaced.
'It probably will,' Mike agreed. 'And what will you be going to the masked ball as?'
'I have no idea. I'll leave that up to youbut something discreet, Mike,' Brett growled. 'No monkey suit, no toga and laurel wreath, no Tarzan or anything like that.' He stopped and yawned. 'And now I'm going to bed.'
'Mum,' Holly said to her mother the next morning, 'I'm not sure about this outfit. Isn't the lunch supposed to be a fundraiser?' She glanced down at herself. She wore a fitted little black jacket with a low vee-neck over a very short black-and-white skirt. Black high-heeled sandals exposed newly painted pink toenails, matching her fingernails. She wore her mother's pearl choker and matching pendant earrings.
'It certainly is,' Sylvia replied. 'And a very exclusive one. The tickets cost a fortune, although of course they are tax deductible,' she assured her daughter. 'But you look stunning, darling!'
Holly grimaced and twirled in front of the mirror. They were in her bedroom in the family home, a lovely old house high on a hill in Balmoral. She still lived at home, or rather had moved back in after her father had died to keep her mother company. There were plenty of advantages to this arrangement that Holly was most appreciative of, which was why she humoured her mother now and then and attended these kinds of function.
Quite how she'd got roped into going to a charity lunch and a masked fancy-dress ball within a few days of each other she wasn't sure, but she knew it did give her mother a lot of pleasure to have her company. It also gave her a lot of pleasure to dress her daughter up to the nines.
Holly was quite tall and very slim, two things that lent themselves to wearing clothes well, although when left to her own devices she favoured 'very casual'. She herself thought her looks were unexceptional, although she did have deep-blue eyes and a thick cloud of fair but hard-to-manage hair.
Today her hair was up in an elaborate chignon, and sprayed and pinned within in inch of its life to stay that way. Sylvia's hairdresser, who made house calls, had also done their nails.
Sylvia herself was resplendent in diamonds and a fuchsia linen suit.
Despite her mother's preoccupation with the social scene, Holly loved Sylvia and felt for her in her loneliness now she was a widow. But the most formative person in Holly's life had been her father, imbuing her not only with his love of the different but his love of writing.
Richard Harding, had he been born in another era, would have been a Dr Livingstone or Mr Stanley. He'd inherited considerable means and had loved nothing better than to travel, to explore out-of-the-way places and different cultures, and to write about them. The fact that he'd married someone almost the exact opposite had been something of a mystery to Holly, yet when they'd been together her parents had been happy.
But it was Holly who Richard had taken more and more on his expeditions. Amongst the results for Holly had been a well-rounded informal education alongside her formal one and fluency in French, plus some Spanish and a smattering of Swahili.
All of it had contributed towards Holly's present job. She was a travel reporter for an upmarket magazine but with a slight difference: hard-to-get-to places were her speciality. As a consequence, to bring to life her destinations, she'd used bad-tempered camels, stubborn donkeys, dangerous-looking vehicles driven by manic individuals and overcrowded ferries.
According to her editor, Glenn Shepherd, she might look as if a good puff of wind would blow her away but she had a hint of inner steel. She had to, to have coped with some of the situations she'd landed herself in.
She'd shrugged when he'd said this to her and had responded, 'Oh, I don't know. Sometimes looking and playing dumb works wonders.'
He'd grinned at her. 'What about the sheikh fellow who introduced you to all his wives with a view to you joining the clan? Or the Mexican bandit who wanted to marry you?'
'Ah, that required a bit of ingenuity. I actually had to steal his vehicle,' Holly had confessed. 'But I did have it returned to him. Glenn, I've been doing travel for a couple of years nowany chance of a change?'
'Thought you loved it?'
'I do, but I also want to spread my wings journalistically. I'd love to be given something I could investigate or someone I could get the definitive interview from.'
Glenn had sat forward. 'Holly, I'm not saying you're not capable of it, but you are only twenty-four; some kinds ofinsight, I guess, take a bit longer than that to develop. It will come, but keep up the good work in the meantime. More and more people out there are getting to love your pieces. Also, re the definitive interview, we have a policy; any of our staff can try for one, so long as they pull it off ethically, and if it's good
enough we'll publish it. But I must warn you, it has to be outstanding.' 'As in?'
'Mostly as in, well, surprise factor.' He'd shrugged. 'Brett Wyndham, for example.'
Holly had grimaced. 'That's like asking for the moon.'
Holly came back to the present and took one last look at herself. 'If you're sure,' she said to her mother, 'We're not terribly over-dressed?'
'We're not,' Sylvia said simply.
Holly saw that she was right when she took her place in the upmarket Milton restaurant that had been turned into a tropical greenhouse. She was amidst a noisy throng of very upmarket-looking guests. Almost without exception, the women were exquisitely groomed, expensively dressed and their jewellery flashed beneath the overhead lighting; many of them wore hats. Not only that, a lot of them seemed to know each other, so it was a convivial gathering helped along by the wine that started to flow. Recent cruises, skiing holidays and tropical islands featured in the snippets of conversation Holly heard around her, as well as the difficulties attached to finding really good housekeepers.
There were men present but they were rather outnumbered. One of them took his place beside Holly.
Goodness, gracious me! was Holly's first, startled reaction.
The man who sat down beside her was tall and beautifully proportioned; he was dark and satanic looking. He had a suppressed air of vitality combined with an arrogance that was repressed, but nevertheless you couldn't help but know it was there in the tilt of his head and the set of his mouth. All in all he made the little hairs on her arms stand up in a way that made her blink.
He was casually dressed in khaki trousers, a sports jacket and a navy-blue shirt. He looked out moodily over the assembled throng then concentrated on the first speaker of the day.
The patron of the shelter society introduced herself as Sue Murray. She was petite and dark, and clearly under some strain, as she stumbled a couple of times, then looked straight at the man beside Holly, drew a deep breath, and continued her speech smoothly. She gave a short resume of the shelter society's activities and plans for the future, then she thanked everyone for coming. There was loud applause as she stepped down.
'Poor thing,' Sylvia whispered into Holly's ear. 'Her husband's been playing around. Darling, would you mind if I popped over to another table? I've just spied an old friend I haven't seen for ages. I'll be back when they start serving lunch.'
'Of course not,' Holly whispered back, and turned automatically to the man beside her as she unfolded her napkin. The seat on the other side of him was empty too, so they were like a little island in the throng. 'How do you do?'
'How do you do?' he replied coolly and studied all he could see of her, from her upswept hair, her pearls, the vee between her breasts exposed by her jacket and her slim waist. But it was worse than that. She got the distinct feeling he was viewing her without her clothes and with a view to assessing her potential as a partner in his bed.