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It was an idyllic day for a garden party. The sky was a deep blue; sparkling sunshine flooded the Valley; a cooling breeze lowered the spring into summer heat. A veritable explosion of flowering trees and foaming blossom had turned the rich rural area into one breathtakingly beautiful garden that leapt at the eye and caught at the throat. It was so perfect a world the inhabitants of Silver Valley felt privileged to live in it.
Only Charlotte Prescott, a widow at twenty-six, with a seven-year-old child, stood in front of the bank of mirrors in her dressing room, staring blindly at her own reflection. The end of an era had finally arrived, but there was no joy in it for her, for her father, or for Christopher, her clever, thoughtful child. They were the dispossessed, and nothing in the world could soothe the pain of loss.
For the past month, since the invitations had begun to arrive, Silver Valley had been eagerly anticipating the Open Day: a get-to-know-you garden party to be held in the grounds of the grandest colonial mansion in the valley, Riverbend. Such a lovely name, Riverbend! A private house, its grandeur reflected the wealth and community standing of the man who had built it in the 1880s, Charles Randall Marsdon, a young man of means who had migrated from England to a country that didn't have a splendid past, like his homeland, but in his opinion had a glowing future. He'd meant to be part of that future. He'd meant to get to the top!
There might have been a certain amount of bravado in that young man's goal, but Charles Marsdon had turned out not only to be a visionary, but a hard-headed businessman who had moved to the highest echelons of colonial life with enviable speed.
Riverbend was a wonderfully romantic two-storey mansion, with a fine Georgian fagade and soaring white columns, its classic architecture adapted to climatic needs with large-scale open-arched verandahs providing deep shading for the house. It had been in the Marsdon familyher familyfor six generations, but sadly it would never pass to her adored son. For the simple reason that Riverbend was no longer theirs. The mansion, its surrounding vineyards and olive groves, badly neglected since the Tragedy, had been sold to a company called Vortex. Little was known about Vortex, except that it had met the stiff price her father had put on the estate. Not that he could have afforded to take a lofty attitude. Marsdon money had all but run out. But Vivian Marsdon was an immensely proud man who never for a moment underestimated his important position in the Valley. It was everything to him to keep face. In any event, the asking price, exorbitantly high, had been paid swiftlyand oddly enough without a single quibble.
Now, months later, the CEO of the company was finally coming to town. Naturally she and her father had been invited, although neither of them had met any Vortex representative. The sale had been handled to her father's satisfaction by their family solicitors, Dunnett & Banfield. Part of the deal was that her father was to have tenure of the Lodgeoriginally an old coach houseduring his lifetime, after which it would be returned to the estate. The coach house had been converted and greatly enlarged by her grandfather into a beautiful and comfortable guest house that had enjoyed a good deal of use in the old days, when her grandparents had entertained on a grand scale, and it was at the Lodge they were living now. Just the three of them: father, daughter, grandson.
Her former in-lawsMartyn's parents and his sister Nicolebarely acknowledged them these days. The estrangement had become entrenched in the eighteen months since Martyn's death. Her husband, three years older than she, had been killed when he'd lost control of his high-powered sports car on a notorious black spot in the Valley and smashed into a tree. A young woman had been with him. Mercifully she'd been thrown clear of the car, suffering only minor injuries. It had later transpired she had been Martyn's mistress for close on six months. Of course Martyn hadn't been getting what he'd needed at home. If Charlotte had been a loving wife the tragedy would never have happened. The second major tragedy in her lifetime. It seemed very much as if Charlotte Prescott was a jinx.
Poor old you! Charlotte spoke silently to her image. What a mess you've made of your life!
She really didn't need anyone to tell her that. The irony was that her father had made just as much a mess of his own lifeeven before the Tragedy. The first tragedy. The only one that mattered to her parents. Her father had had little time for Martyn, yet he himself was a man without insight into his own limitations. Perhaps the defining one was unloading responsibility. Vivian Marsdon was constitutionally incapable of accepting the blame for anything. Anything that went wrong was always someone else's fault, or due to some circumstance beyond his control. The start of the Marsdon freefall from grace had begun when her highly respected grandfather, Sir Richard Marsdon, had died. His only son and heir had not been able to pick up the reins. It was as simple as that. The theory of three. One man made the money, the next enlarged on it, the third lost it. No better cushion than piles of money. Not every generation produced an heir with the Midas touch, let alone the necessary drive to manage and significantly enlarge the family fortune.
Her father, born to wealth and prestige, lacked Sir Richard's strong character as well as his formidable business brain. Marsdon money had begun to disappear early, like water down a drain. Failed pie-in-the-sky schemes had been approached with enthusiasm. Her father had turned a deaf ear to cautioning counsel from accountants and solicitors alike. He knew best. Sadly, his lack of judgement had put a discernible dent in the family fortunes. And that was even before the Tragedy that had blighted their family life.
With a sigh of regret, Charlotte picked up her lovely hat with its wide floppy brim, settling it on her head. She rarely wore her long hair loose these days, preferring to pull it back from her face and arrange it in various knots. In any case, the straw picture hat demanded she pull her hair back off her face. Her dress was Hermes silk, in chartreuse, strapless except for a wide silk band over one shoulder that flowed down the bodice and short skirt. The hat was a perfect colour match, adorned with organdie peonies in masterly deep pinks that complemented the unique shade of golden lime-green.
The outfit wasn't new, but she had only worn it once, at Melbourne Cup day when Martyn was alive. Martyn had taken great pride in how she looked. She'd always had to look her best. In those days she had been every inch a fashionista, such had been their extravagant and, it had to be said, empty lifestyle. Martyn had been a man much like her fatheran inheritor of wealth who could do what he liked, when he liked, if he so chose. Martyn had made his choice. He had always expected to marry her, right from childhood, bringing about the union of two long-established rural families. And once he'd had herhe had always been mad about herhe had set about making their lifestyle a whirl of pleasure up until his untimely death.
From time to time she had consoled herself with the thought that perhaps Martyn, as he matured, would cease taking up endless defensive positions against his highly effective father, Gordon, come to recognise his family responsibilities and then pursue them with some skill and determination.
Sadly, all her hopesand Gordon Prescott'shad been killed off one by one. And she'd had to face some hard facts herself. Hadn't she been left with a legacy of guilt? She had never loved Martyn. Bonded to him from earliest childhood, she had always regarded him with great affection. But romantic love? Never! The heart wasn't obedient to the expectations of others. She knew what romantic love was. She knew about passiondangerous passion and its infinite temptationsbut she hadn't steered away from it in the interests of safety. She had totally succumbed.
All these years later her heart still pumped his name.
She heard her son's voice clearly. He sounded anxious. "Mummy, are you ready? Grandpa wants to leave."
A moment later, Christopher, a strikingly handsome little boy, dressed in a bright blue shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons and grey cargo pants, tore into the room.
"Come on, come on," he urged, holding out his hand to her. "He's stomping around the hall and going red in the face. That means his blood pressure is going up, doesn't it?"
"Nothing for you to worry about, sweetheart," Charlotte answered calmly. "Grandpa's health is excellent. Stomping is a way to get our attention. Anyway, we're not late," she pointed out.
It had been after Martyn's death, on her father's urging, that she and Christopher had moved into the Lodge. Her father was sad and lonely, finding it hard getting over the big reversals in his life. She knew at some point she had to make a life for herself and her son. But where? She couldn't escape the Valley. Christopher loved it here. It was his home. He loved his friends, his school, his beautiful environment and his bond with his grandfather. It made a move away from the Valley extremely difficult, and there were other crucial considerations for a single mother with a young child.
Martyn had left her little money. They had lived with his parents at their huge High Grove estate. They had wanted for nothing, all expenses paid, but Martyn's fatherknowing his son's proclivitieshad kept his son on a fairly tight leash. His widow, so all members of the Prescott family had come to believe, was undeserving.
"Grandpa runs to a timetable of his own," Christopher was saying, shaking his golden-blond head. She too was blonde, with green eyes. Martyn had been fair as well, with greyish-blue eyes. Christopher's eyes were as brilliant as blue-fire diamonds. "You look lovely in that dress, Mummy," he added, full of love and pride in his beautiful mother. "Please don't be sad today. I just wish I was seventeen instead of seven," he lamented. "I'm just a kid. But I'll grow up and become a great big success. You'll have me to look after you."
"My knight in shining armour!" She bent to give him a big hug, then took his outstretched hand, shaking it back and forth as if beginning a march. "Onward, Christian soldiers!"
"What's that?" He looked up at her with interest.
"It's an English hymn," she explained. Her father wouldn't have included hymns in the curriculum. Her father wasn't big on hymns. Not since the Tragedy. "It means we have to go forth and do our best. Endure. It was a favourite hymn of Sir Winston Churchill. You know who he was?"
"Of course!" Christopher scoffed. "He was the great English World War II Prime Minister. The country gave him a huge amount of money for his services to the nation, then they took most of it back in tax. Grandpa told me."
Charlotte laughed. Very well read himself, her father had taken it upon himself to "educate" Christopher. Christopher had attended the best school in the Valley for a few years now, but her father took his grandson's education much further, taking pride and delight it setting streams of general, historical and geographical questions for which Christopher had to find the answers. Christopher was already computer literate but her father wasn'tsomething that infuriated himand insisted he find the answers in the books in the well-stocked library. Christopher never cheated. He always came up trumps. Christopher was a very clever little boy.
Like his father.
The garden party was well underway by the time they finished their stroll along the curving driveway. Riverbend had never looked more beautiful, Charlotte thought, pierced by the same sense of loss she knew her father was experiencingthough one would never have known it from his confident Lord of the Manor bearing. Her father was a handsome man, but alas not a lot of people in the Valley liked him. The mansion, since they had moved, had undergone very necessary repairs. These days it was superbly maintained, and staffed by a housekeeper, her husbanda sort of major-domoand several ground staff to bring the once-famous gardens back to their best. A good-looking young woman came out from Sydney from time to time, to check on what was being done. Charlotte had met her once, purely by accident
The young woman had left her Mercedes parked off the broad gravelled driveway so she could take a good look at the Lodge, screened from view by a grove of mature trees. Charlotte had been deadheading the roses when her uninvited visitorbrunette, dark-eyed, in a glamorous black power suit worn with a very stylish snow-white ruffled blousehad near tumbled into view on her very high heels.
"Oh, good afternoon! Hope I didn't startle you?" she'd called, the voice loud and very precise.
Well, sort of, Charlotte thought. "You did rather," she answered mildly. The woman's greeting had been pleasant enough. The tone wasn't. It was seriously imperative. Charlotte might as well have been a slack employee who needed checking up on. "May I help you?" She was aware she was being treated to a comprehensive appraisal. A head-to-toe affair.
The young woman staggered a few steps further across the thick green grass, thoroughly aerating it. She had to give up as the stiletto heels of her expensive shoes sank with every step. "I don't think so. I'm Diane Rodgers, by the way."
"Well, hello, Diane Rodgers," Charlotte said with a smile.
Ms Rodgers responded to that with a crisp look. "I've been appointed by the new owner to oversee progress at Riverbend. I just thought I'd take a look at the Lodge while I was at it."
"May I ask if you're an estate agent?" Charlotte knew perfectly well she wasn't, but she was reacting to the tone.
"Of course I'm not!" Ms Rodgers looked affronted. An estate agent, indeed!
"Just checking. The Lodge is private property, Ms Rodgers. But I'm sure you know that."
"Surely you have no objection to my taking a look?" The question was undisguisedly sarcastic. "I'm not making an inspection, after all."
"Which would be entirely inappropriate," Charlotte countered.
"Excuse me?" Ms Rodgers's arching black brows rose high.
"No offence, Ms Rodgers, but this is private property." The woman already knew that and didn't care. Had she tried a friendly approach, things might have gone differently.
As it was, Diane Rodgers was clearly on a power trip.
She gave an incredulous laugh, accompanied by a toss of her glossy head. "No need to get on your high horse. Though I expect it's understandable. You couldn't bear to part with the place. Isn't that right? You're the daughter of the previous owner." It was a statement, not a question.