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Bangkok was hot, very hot. And humid.
By the time Nicole had walked the kilometre from her cheap hotel to the orphanage, her singlet top was clinging to her back.
The Nicole of a few months ago would have complained incessantly about her limp-rag hair and sweaty clothes. If she'd been staying in Bangkok back then, she would not have moved from her five-star, air-conditioned hotel, except to take a dip in the pool, or a ride in a luxury limousine.
But that Nicole no longer existed. On one traumatic day last June, her very spoiled eyes had been opened by the discovery that the three main people in her life were not the good guys she'd believed them to be.
First, she'd walked in on her soon-to-be husband having sex on his office desk with his PA. Neither of them had noticed her presence in the doorway at the time.
Shattered, Nicole had fled home to her mother who'd amazingly tried to convince her that it was impossible for wealthy, successful men to be faithful. If Nicole was sensible, she'd learn to turn a blind eye to her fianc 's sexual transgressions.
'I always do whenever Alistair strays,' her mother had said without turning a hair on her beautifully coif-fured blonde head.
The realisation that her stepfather had been sleeping around, and that her mother collaborated with his adultery, had shocked Nicole, possibly even more than David's infidelity.
It had all been too much. A pampered princess she might have become since her mother married Alistair, but she was not without morals or feelings.
The following day she'd returned her engagement ring, resulting in an argument during which David had said some cutting things to her about her inadequacies in the bedroom. After that she'd had an equally unpleasant confrontation with her stepfather, who'd called her na ve and narrow-minded.
'The winners in this world don't always follow the rules,' he'd stated arrogantly. 'David is a winner. As his wife, you, my dear Nicole, could have had it all. Now I'll have to find you another rich husband who can keep you in the manner to which you've become accustomed.'
Nicole had been rendered speechless by the inference that David had been procured for her by her stepfather.
But, with hindsight, she realised that had probably been so.
Nicole had immediately quit her totally superficial and no doubt nepotistically acquired position in the PR department of Power Mortgages. That same afternoon, she'd answered an ad in a newspaper to go on a backpacking holiday with another girl whose friend had withdrawn from the trip at the last minute. A week later Nicole had flown out of Mascot Airport with nothing but her severance pay, hopeful of finding some much needed independence, plus some new priorities other than the supposed good things in life.
Now, four months later, she was a different person.
A real person, she liked to think, living in the real world.
'Nicoe, Nicoe!' the children at the orphanage chorused when she walked into the dusty compound where they were playing.
Nicole smiled at how they couldn't pronounce the letter 'l'. Yet on the whole their English was very good, courtesy of the wonderful woman who ran the orphanage.
After hugs and kisses all round, the children begged her to sing something for them. Music had always been a great love of Nicole's and she had a good voice.
'What song would you like?' she asked, hooking her carry-all over her shoulder and heading for the shade of the only tree that graced the yard.
'Warzing Matinda!' a little boy called out.
'"Waltzing Matilda", you mean,' she said, ruffling his thick black hair.
'Yes, Nicoe. Warzing Matinda.'
She laughed, and they all laughed, too. It always amazed Nicole how happy these children could be. Yet, materially speaking, they had nothing. She'd thought she'd been poor before her mother had met and married Alistair. Compared to these orphans, she'd been rich.
All right. Let's sit down here.'
The kids all settled down in the dirt under the tree, their eager faces turned up towards her.
Nicole opened her mouth and began to sing.
'"Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolabah tree.
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled.
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me
None of the children moved a muscle till she finished the famous Australian ballad, after which they jumped up and clapped and begged her to sing it again. She would have, if the chime on her cellphone hadn't interrupted.
'Excuse me,' she said as she fished out her phone from her bag. 'Off you go and play for a while.'
Nicole already suspected who might be calling. Her mother rang her every week, all the while pretending that her daughter wasn't disgusted with her. Nicole didn't have the heart to cut the woman out of her life entirely. She still loved her mother, and knew her mother loved her.
'Yes?' she answered.
'Nicole, it's your mother.'
Nicole frowned. Something was wrong. Her mother never called herself that. On top of which, her voice sounded very strained.
'Hello, Mum. What's up?'
' Mrs Power broke off, then suddenly blurted out, 'You have to come home.'
Nicole's frown deepened. 'Come home? Why?' She paused. 'Mum, where are you?'
'I can't tell you that.'
'What? Why not?'
'Your father doesn't want anyone to know where we are.'
Alistair Power is not my father,' Nicole said coldly.
'He's more of a father than that married creep who impregnated me,' her mother snapped. Alistair, no! Let me talk to her.'
Nicole heard the sound of a scuffle in the background.
'Now you listen to me, you ungrateful little chit!' Alistair spat out down the line. 'If it had been up to me, I wouldn't have bothered with this call. But your mother loves you, though lord knows why. This is the situation. My company has gone belly-up and my creditors are baying for more blood, so we've left Australia for good. The bank has repossessed the house in Belleview Hill and no doubt will sell it, lock, stock and barrel, to some greedy opportunist.'
but all my things are still there!' Nicole protested.
'That's why your mother called. To tell you to get your butt back to Sydney pronto before the locks are changed and all your personal possessions are sent to a charity or the rubbish tip.'
'They can't do that!'
'Who's to stop them? I certainly can't.'
Nicole groaned. She didn't give a damn about her designer clothes. But she did care about all the mementos of her childhood, especially her school days, which had been very happy. There were several photo albums and scrapbooks which were irreplaceable to her. That they might be thrown into some skip filled her with horror.
'Here's your mother again,' Alistair growled.
'You don't have to worry about your jewellery, dear,' her mother said in a sugary-sweet voice. 'I brought it all with me.'
'I don't care about the jewellery, Mum.'
'But it's worth a small fortune!'
She was right, Nicole realised. Her stepfather had showered her with beautiful pieces over the years: diamonds, pearls and lots of emeralds.
'To match your beautiful eyes,' he'd said more than once, ladling on the false charm which came so easily to him.
It suddenly occurred to Nicole that if she sold her jewellery, she would have the funds to make some much needed improvements to this orphanage. It would be silly to throw such an opportunity away for the sake of pride.
'Would it be possible for you to send my jewellery to me, Mum?'
'Of course. But where? Every time I ring you, you're in a different country. Which one is it now?'
'The same one as last time. Thailand. On second thoughts, could you courier all my jewellery to Kara's place? I'll let her know it's coming. You remember her address, don't you?'
'How could I possibly forget? I drove you there enough times. You are going home, then, to collect your things?'
'Yes. As soon as I can get a flight to Sydney.' Thank goodness she already had a pre-paid return ticket, because she was almost broke.
'That's good. It really bothered me, having to leave behind all those lovely clothes of yours.'
Nicole sighed. Glad to see you've still got your priorities right, Mum.
'I'm sorry I can't tell you where we are. But you don't have to worry,' her mother whispered down the line. 'We have plenty of money to live on. Alistair deposited a good chunk into an offshore account last year. If you need anything, you only have to ask.'
Nicole shuddered. Over my dead body. 'I should go, Mum.'
'Ring me from Sydney, won't you?'
Nicole shook her head as she hung up. There was no hope for her mother, she realised sadly. No hope at all.
Total revenge, Russell was forced to accept as he drove towards his enemy's mansion in Bellevue Hill, was very difficult to achieve.
For sixteen years, the thought of vengeance had sustained him as he'd worked tirelessly to create the means to bring down the man who'd been responsible for his father's death. To make Power pay for what he'd done not just to Russell's father, but to thousands of other desperate people.
At last the opportunity had presented itself, courtesy of the meltdown of the prime mortgage market in the USA. Russell had gone in for the kill, ruthlessly selling all the shares in Power Mortgages that he'd secretly acquired over the years. In one short week, he'd succeeded in wiping millions off that amoral bastard's fortune.
When Sydney's real estate grapevineto which Russell was privyrevealed that Power had borrowed extensively to support his lavish lifestyle, and that his banker had repossessed his multi-million dollar mansion, Russell had made an immediate offer for the house which he'd known would not be refused. He hadn't bothered with an inspection of the building, or with viewing the contents, which were part of the deal. He hadn't wanted to set foot in the place till it was his.
And now he was on his way there, the contracts safely signed, the keys in his pocket.
He should have been over the moon.
But he wasn't.
Because the bastard had escaped, that's why. Fled the country, flown off to some secret overseas hideaway, where he'd probably funnelled millions into off-shore accounts so that he wouldn't have to pay back his many creditors in Australia.
The thought of Alistair Power lying back on some beach in the Bahamas irked Russell no end. Men like that had no right to live, let alone live in the lap of luxury.
Still, there was some satisfaction to be gained from knowing that his enemy's reputation had been ruined. No longer would Power be f ted by presidents and prime ministers. Nor would that smarmy smile of his be continuously flashed across television screens, because of coverage of whatever super-glamorous party he happened to be throwing that weekend.
The venue for those parties came into view. Russell finally saw the finished version of the three-storeyed mansion he'd visited that fateful day sixteen years earlier.
An hour ago, he'd been listening to the man handling the sale at the bank wax lyrical about how the house had been designed to take full advantage of its site on one of the highest points in Bellevue Hill: how each floor had lots of terraces and balconies, all with wonderful views of the city and harbour; how the top level was devoted entirely to living rooms, providing the perfect setting for parties.
But no verbal description could do justice to the visual impact of the building, with its dazzlingly white cement-rendered walls and the rich, royal-blue trim around its many windows and doors.
Russell pulled into the driveway and braked to a halt in front of a pair of security gates.
Sixteen years ago, there'd been no security at all. In fact, there'd been nothing to stop him from doing what he'd gone here to do.
Part of him would always regret that he'd settled for vengeful words that day, rather than actions. Still, if he had given in to his violent urgings, he'd be currently looking through prison bars and not the wrought-iron ones in front of him. He certainly wouldn't be sitting here in a rich man's car, wearing a rich man's suit.
Russell pressed the remote he'd been given, waiting with learned patience till the gates swung open, after which he drove slowly around the circular drive that surrounded a magnificent marble Italian-style fountain.
Russell bypassed the six-car garage at the side of the house, parking his racing-green Aston Martin at the base of the flight of stone steps which led up to a now impressively columned front porch. With the house keys in his hand, he climbed out from behind the wheel then walked up the steps, stopping once he reached the top to turn round and take in the view.
The grounds were as magnificent as the fountain, having the grandeur which would have befitted a palace, with extensive lawns edged with perfectly pruned hedges and perfectly placed shade trees.