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Master of Wangaree Homestead Guy Radcliffe is from one of the most revered families in the Outback. Now he wants a wife, and a queue of society beauties are at his door! Alana Callaghan is from the wrong side of town and doesn't fi t the glamorous, pampered world of the other girls. But that hasn't stopped her from secretly being in love with Guy for years—even though she knows he'll never view her as wife material. A wedding at Wangaree will ...
Master of Wangaree Homestead Guy Radcliffe is from one of the most revered families in the Outback. Now he wants a wife, and a queue of society beauties are at his door! Alana Callaghan is from the wrong side of town and doesn't fi t the glamorous, pampered world of the other girls. But that hasn't stopped her from secretly being in love with Guy for years—even though she knows he'll never view her as wife material. A wedding at Wangaree will take place—but can Alana be Guy's bride?
Alana awoke before the birds. She had long since made it her habit. This was the time when the Valley was possessed of a special magic. Misty shades and depths cloaked the land, sliding down the ravines between the sentinel hills, only to vanish with the first slants of the rising sun. Occasionally a lone kookaburra beat her to it, but she managed her pre-dawn awakening pretty much every day of her life, even on Sunday, and Sunday was her well-deserved day of rest. She didn't need the hysterical wake-up call of the kookaburras or the ecstatic screech of flocks of cockatoos to rouse her. Her body clock was set. Besides, there was such beauty in the stillness, a wonderful quietude of the heart, that reached out and folded her in its soft arms.
Barefooted, she padded out onto the verandah, her spirits lifting as she was swept by cool little breezes. They whipped at her thin nightdress, moulding it against her body like petals sheathed a rose. She arched her back and stretched her arms, something sensual in her actions. The palest green mist hung over the densely treed hills, and the sky above was a transparent grey that was washed with pastel bands of yellow and amethyst along the horizon.
One twinkling star still blossomed, diamond-white with the faintest pink halo.
She had a wonderful unobstructed view over the Valley from the upper verandah. At all times of the day it presented a picture postcard of this part of rural Australia that was well beyond the precincts of the great Desert Heart. The garden beneath her was overflowing with colour: hibiscus, oleander, frangipani, giant bouginvillaea bushes in hot pink, purple and white. They spilled over arbours and walls andeven climbed trees in their bid to reach the sun; close by, a rich diversity of nectar bearing native shrubs brought in parrots and brilliantly plumaged little lorikeets in their legions. It made a wild paradise of a garden that was now sadly neglected and in many places running rampant. The garden was huge by any standards. There simply wasn't the time.
Briar's Ridge was the centre of her life, but nowadays the homestead was hurting badly. Still, the Valley was the most desirable place on earth to live. This was where she was rooted. This was the place she had run wild as a child. She loved the fragrance of the eucalypts that dominated the high ridges, filling her lungs with their astonishing freshness. She felt she could even gargle on it, it had such antiseptic power. The eucalypts could be counted upon to flood the landscape with their marvellous aromatic scents and, when in flower, an amazing range of pods and blossom. Reluctantly she lifted her hands off the balustrade. It was so beautiful, a still dreaming world, but already the sky was lightening. Better get going.
Another day, another battle for survival. Over the past three years the farm had been going downhill, despite all their backbreaking hard work. Of course there was the drought. The man on the land was always fighting drought, but her father's decline into a grief-stricken, booze-fuelled lethargy was the crux of the matter. Inside she was torn by her suspicions over Guy Radcliffe—the man she privately dubbed Lord and Master of the Valley—who had been giving her father a helping hand. It was all done on the quiet, of course. That was Guy's way. Nevertheless, the thought oppressed her. Her feelings towards Guy—though she had known him all her life—were so strangely ambivalent they filled her with confusion; a confusion she was always at great pains to hide.
Guy Radcliffe, as Master of Wangaree, one of the nation's great historic sheep stations, was without a doubt the richest and most successful man in a highly prosperous region, and he was a well-known philanthropist. It was equally well known that he liked to keep his many dealings with his adoring subjects strictly under wraps. Dispensing largesse and a helping hand was a Radcliffe tradition, as befitting the Valley's leading family since the earliest days of settlement. Guy's ancestors had pioneered Wangaree Valley. For more than a century their wealth had ridden on the sheep's back. Then, with the downturn in the wool industry, the Radcliffes had been among the first of the sheep barons to diversify. These days Radcliffe Wine Estates had been added to the family portfolio. In a few short years it was already at the forefront of viticulture, with Guy as company chairman and brilliant CEO.
There wasn't much Guy couldn't do. He was The Man. No argument. Not only did he oversee the Radcliffe wine and olive production, he also still adhered to the old tradition of producing the world's best ultra-fine wool, prized by the textile industry and the world's great fashion houses. This most beautiful and expensive cloth was well suited to blending with silk and cashmere. Briar's Ridge, on the other hand, had until fairly recently produced excellent fine-medium wool, suitable for middle-weight suiting. If the coming wool sales went badly, the farm could slide into ruin.
Could they possibly hold on?
A few splashes of bracingly cold water brought her fully awake. She stared in the mirror unseeingly as she patted her face dry with a soft towel. She always laid her gear out the night before to save time: same old thing. Hers was a uniform of tight fitting jeans—she looked great in them, or so her good friend Simon told her—and today a blue and white checked cotton shirt. Seated on the side of the bed, she bent to retrieve her boots, pulling them on over grey socks. She didn't even bother to check her appearance. Who was to see her but the sheep and her dogs? The dogs were beautiful border collies, Monty and Brig—Brig being short for Brigadier. Border collies were special dogs, in her opinion. Though some sheep men in the Valley wouldn't have them. They thought them too temperamental, preferring sprightly kelpies or Australian Shepherds. Certainly Border Collies could seriously misbehave if they weren't getting enough exercise. They had quite a tendency to nip heels, which didn't make them popular with visitors, and they could be destructive, but their phenomenal intelligence, their wonderful herding ability and their infinite energy, willingness and capacity to work tirelessly all day long had won Alana's heart.
From long habit she quickly applied sunblock to her face, throat and the V above her shirt, and put protective gloss over her lips. A square of scarlet silk secured her thick honey blonde hair at the nape. She shoved her well worn cream Akubra down over her forehead as she made for the door. Barely ten minutes had elapsed, but the light had changed. The soft dove-grey of pre-dawn was taking on a solid blue cast as the sun leaned over the hills, flooding the Valley in golden dayshine.
Now the dawn chorus was up, building to a great crescendo. The noise was deafening to a city-dweller. She loved it. Nothing sweeter. Thousands and thousands of male birds in the Valley calling love songs to the thousands and thousands of females ready to listen. It usually took a good hour for the cacophony to die down, but some birds persisted for the best part of the day, pouring out their passion.
Today it was her job to ride up into the hills and round up the wethers—the castrated male sheep—before they started to scatter all over the hillside or moved deeper into the ridges with their tall trees. Usually she had her older brother Kieran's invaluable help, but Kieran was away in Sydney on business for their dad. Briar's Ridge was so deep in hock there was the real, sickening possibility they could lose it. These days their father rarely left home. He clung to the valley where his wife, their mother, was buried. Alana swallowed on the agonisingly hard lump in her throat. She couldn't afford to break down. She was no stranger to sorrow, but life went on—no matter what.
Downstairs the homestead was silent, except for the loud ticking of the English long-case clock in the entrance hall. It kept wonderful time and was actually very valuable. Her mother had brought it and all the other beautiful antiques in the house with her on her marriage. Some people in the Valley—her Denby relatives in particular—thought Annabel Callaghan-née-Denby had married beneath her. Like the Radcliffes, the Denbys were the old squattocracy.
One hand on the mahogany banister, Alana descended the central staircase, turning left to tiptoe along the wide, polished wood corridor, covered with its splendid Persian runner—her mother's. She moved past the big master bedroom—her father no longer slept there—and on to a much smaller room that in the old days had been the nursery. There their father—a big man, easily topping six feet—had set himself up, turning his back on all his old comforts and the crushing memory of having a much loved woman lying beside him, aching to hold her when she was no longer there.
The door was ajar, so she could hear him snoring. Even that was a relief. These days, almost three years after her mother's death, Alana dreaded the thought that one morning she would find her beloved father dead. Broken hearts killed. Guilt killed. Even his drunken snoring sounded desperate. She pushed the door a little more, saw him lying, his dark, tanned, handsome face squashed into a pillow, his raven, silver-flecked curls matted. He was covered by a very beautiful ultra-fine wool rug her mother had woven. One long brown arm was flung over the side of the bed, and an empty bottle of whisky lay on its side, a few inches from his fingertips.
Just how many empty bottles had she dumped, even hidden? He always bought more. On the small bedside table was a large studio portrait in an antique silver frame. A young woman's lovely smiling face looked out of it. The hairstyle was different, but the thick honey-blonde hair, the creamy complexion, the large hazel eyes that at different times had turned pure green, were the same. Then there was the smile. It could have been a photograph of her. Alana vividly remembered how the close resemblance between them had delighted her mother.
"When you're older, my darling girl, you too will be named the most beautiful woman in the valley at the Naming."
The Naming was a special event at Wangaree's Wine Festival. The festival attracted large crowds from all over the State of New South Wales and beyond. Wine-lovers, food-lovers, music-lovers—they all came. And Guy always hired some famous artist to perform under the stars in the grounds of his lovely historic mansion, Wangaree. The Naming didn't happen every year, more like every three, but Guy had already announced, to great excitement, that it would be on the agenda this year. It wasn't just the honour—there was an all-inclusive holiday for two to California's beautiful Napa Valley with it, and spending money to boot!
She had no intention of entering. She thought of herself as a modest working girl. Besides, there was no money for a knock-out evening gown—though she could still get into the beautiful dress her mother had made her for her eighteenth birthday party. Let one of her Denby cousins carry off the prize. There were three of them: Violette, Lilli and Rose. All flower names, all born into a privileged world far removed from her own. Indeed, there had been little or no interaction between the families. Violette—never, never Vi—the eldest, at twenty-seven, and judged to be the most glamorous of the three girls, but not by much. All three sisters were extremely good-looking, although Rose was by far the nicest. Violette and Lilli were pure snobs, and Violette was one of Guy's special friends—but so far there had been no serious commitment, like an engagement.
Thank God! Something inside of Alana shied away violently from the thought of Violette's ever becoming Mrs Guy Radcliffe. But then she didn't want any other girl in the Valley to become his wife either. Now, that was a real puzzle. It wasn't as though she was in the running, or as if she wasted any time making herself unhappy about it. Her world was very different from Guy's. Violette was certain to win The Naming. Good luck to her.
As it happened,Alana's mother had been the inspiration for the original Naming, though the festival was the brainchild of the Radcliffes. She thought she would never be as beautiful as her mother, Annabel, and nor did she have her mother's wonderful craft skills. Her mother had excelled at quilting, rug-making, dressmaking, cooking, baking, making a house and garden beautiful, keeping her family well and happy. All those were art forms. Her mother had had them in abundance. Her own skills were with animals. Alana was an excellent rider. She had won many cross country and endurance races, beating Violette, who was a fine rider, on three separate occasions. That hadn't gone down too well with the Denbys. They had the born-to-win mentality of the Valley's social elite.
With the familiar tug of sadness she closed the door on her sleeping father, leaving him to his self induced oblivion. Every day of her life, while she was up in the hills within the cathedral of trees, she prayed he would break out of his prison of guilt and remorse. Everyone in the valley except Alan Callaghan knew it wasn't his fault his wife had died after a crash involving their station ute and a big four-wheel drive leisurely exploring the famous sheep and wine district. Holding to the centre of an unfamiliar valley road, the four-wheel drive had side-swiped the ute hard as it rounded a bend. Alan Callaghan and the driver of the four-wheel drive had literally walked away, with minor injuries—her father a broken wrist. Annabel Callaghan had not been so lucky. For some reason she hadn't been wearing her seat belt, though she had always been so particular with her children.
"Fasten up, Kieran. Fasten up, Lana. I don't care if we are on a back road. Do as I tell you now."
Her mother had not fastened up that day. That was the tragic part. A life lost through one careless mistake.
"I should have seen to it. Why didn't I?"
Alan Callaghan would never forgive himself.
In the big, bright yellow and white kitchen, Alana grabbed up a couple of muesli bars and an apple, then let herself out though the back door, heading for the stables. The stables were a distance from the homestead, on the far side of the home paddock. Her fastidious mother had not wanted a single horsefly to get into the house, so her father had had the stables relocated even before her mother had moved in as a new bride.
Posted April 19, 2011
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Posted December 3, 2011
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