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It was the end of a long day in the goldfields, and Kelly had personally found almost a teaspoon of gold. The slivers of precious metal were now dispersed into scores of glass vials, to be taken home as keepsakes of a journey back in time.
Her tourists were happy. She should be, too.
But she was wet. She was dressed in period costume and raincoats hadn't been invented in the eighteen-fifties. As the day had grown colder Kelly had directed her tour groups down the mines, but she'd been wet before she'd gone down and the cold had stayed with her. Now she emerged from underground, desperate to head to her little cottage on the hill, strip off her dungarees and leather boots and sink into a hot bath.
She might be a historian on what was the re-creation of a piece of the Australian goldfields but, when it came to the offer of a hot bath, Kelly was a thoroughly modern girl.
The park horsesa working team that tugged a coach round the diggings during the daylumbered up the track towards the stables and she stood well back. Horses Once she'd loved them, but even now, after all this time, she hated to go near them. She waited.
Once the horses passed she expected her way home to be clear, but there were always one or two tourists lagging behind, as eager to stay as she was eager to leave. She had to manoeuvre her way past a last couple. A man and a child. They seemed to have been waiting for the horses to pass so they could speak to her.
Who were they? She hadn't seen them on the tour and she'd surely have noticed. The guy was strikingly good-looking: tall, tanned, jet-black hairaristocratic? It was an odd description, she thought, but it seemed strangely appropriate. He was lean and strongly boned. Almost what was the word aquiline?
The little boythe man's son?was similarly striking, with olive skin, glossy black curls and huge brown eyes. He looked about five years old, and the sight of him made Kelly's gut clench as it had clenched countless times over the past five years.
How many five-year-old boys were there in the world?
Could she ever move on?
Could this be her?
Rafael stared across the track at the slip of a girl waiting for the horses to pass. Princess Kellyn Marie de Boutaine of Alp de Ciel? The thought was laughable.
She was wet, bedraggled and smeared with mud. She was dressed like an eighteen-fifties gold-miner, only most eighteen-fifties gold-miners didn't have chestnut curls escaping from under their felt brimmed hats.
He'd read the report. This had to be her.
But this was harder than he'd thought.
Back home it had seemed relatively straightforward. He'd been appalled when he'd received the investigative report. Like the rest of the population of Alp de Ciel, he'd thought this woman was a well, no fit mother for a prince. He'd thought she'd left of her own free will, as unwilling to commit to her new baby as her royal husband had been.
But what the report had told him
He cast a glance down at the child at his side. If the report was true If she'd been forced away
He had to step forward. If he did only this one thing as Prince Regent, it had to be the righting of this huge injustice.
Mathieu was gripping his hand with a ferocity that betrayed his tension. They'd come all this way. The child couldn't be messed around.
The womanKellyn?was about to leave. The park was about to close.
This had to be done now.
The horses were gone and yet they were still here. Man and child. Watching her.
'Can I help you?' Kelly managed, forcing forward her stock standard I'll-make-you-enjoy-your-experience-here-or-bust smile that most of the staff here practised eternally. 'Is there anything you need to know before we lock up for the night? I'm sorry, but we are closing.'
The rest of the group were moving away, making their way towards the exit. Pete, the elderly security guard, was leaning on the gates, waiting to close.
'I can give you a booklet with pictures of the diggings if you like,' she offered. She smiled down at the child, trying really hard not to think how like how like
No. That was the way of madness.
'I see you came late,' she said as the child didn't answer. 'If you like, we can stamp your tickets so you can come back tomorrow. It's not much extra.'
'I'd like to come back tomorrow,' the child said gravely, with the hint of a French accent in his voice. 'Can we, Uncle Rafael?'
'I'm not sure,' his uncle replied. 'I'm not actually sure this is who we're looking for. The guy on the gate he said you were Kellyn Marie Fender.'
Her world stilled. There was something about this pair There was something about the way this man was watching her
'Y yes,' she managed.
'Then we need to talk,' he said urgently and Kelly cast a frantic glance at Pete. She was suddenly terrified.
'I'm sorry,' she managed. 'The park's closing. Can you come back tomorrow?'
'This is a private matter.'
'What's a private matter?'
'Mathieu is a private matter,' he said softly, and he smiled ruefully down at the little boy by his side. 'Mathieu, this is the lady we've come to meet. I believe this lady is your mother.'
The world stopped. Just like that.
Death was the cessation of the heart beating and that was what it felt like. Nothing moved. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
She gazed at the man for a long moment, as if she were unable to break her gazeas if she were unable to kick-start her heart. She felt frozen.
There'd been noises beforethe cheerful clamour of tourists heading home. Now there was nothing. Her ears weren't hearing.
She put a hand out, fighting for balance in a world that had suddenly jerked at a crazy angle. She might fall. She had to get her heart to work if she wasn't to fall. She had to breathe.
The man's hands came out and caught her under the elbows, supporting her, holding her firm, forcing her to stay upright.
She fought to get her next breath.
Finally she found the strength to stand without support. She tugged away a little and he released her, watching her calmly as she took a couple of dazed steps back.
They were both watching her, man and boy. Both with that same calm, unjudging patience.
Could she see could she see?
Maybe she could.
'Mathieu,' she breathed, and the child looked a question at the man and nodded gravely.
'Parlez-vous Anglais?' she asked for want of anything more sensible to ask, for she'd already had a demonstration that he did, and both man and boy nodded.
'Oui,' the little boy said again. He reclaimed his uncle's hand and held tight. 'My Aunt Laura says it's very important to know Anglais.'
'Mathieu,' she breathed again, and her knees started to buckle again. But this time she was more in control. She let them give, squatting so she was on the child's level. 'Tu est Mathieu. Mon mon Mathieu.'
The little boy hesitated. He looked again at his uncle. Rafael noddedgravely, definiteand the little boy looked again at Kelly.
He kept on looking. He was taking in every inch of her. He put a hand out to touch her dungarees, as if checking that they were real. He looked again at her face and his small chin wobbled.
'I don't know,' he whispered.
'You do know,'Rafael said gently. 'We've explained it to you.'
'But she doesn't look '
Kelly had forgotten to breathe. It seemed the child was as terrified as she was. And as unbelieving. He blinked a couple of times and a tear rolled down his cheek, unchecked.
She had an urgent need to wipe it away. To touch him.
She mustn't. She mustn't even breathe. She had to wait.
And finally he came to a decision. He gulped a couple of times and gripped his uncle's hand as if it were a lifeline. But the look he gave her There was desperate hope as well as terror.
'Uncle Rafael says you are my mama,' the child whispered.
And that was the end of her self-control. She, who'd sworn five years ago that she was done crying, that she'd never cry again, felt tears slip helplessly down her cheeks. She couldn't stop themshe had no idea how to even try. She couldn't think what to do, what to say. She simply squatted before her son and let the tears slip down her cheeks.
'Oi! Kelly.' It was Pete on the gate, concerned at her body language, concerned to get these stragglers out of the park. 'It's five past five,' he yelled.
Rafael glanced down at Kelly, who was past speaking, and then called to Pete, 'We're not tourists. We're friends of Kellyn's.'
'Kelly?' Pete called, doubtful, and Kelly somehow stopped gazing at Mathieu, gulped a couple of times and found the strength to answer.
'Lock up, Pete,' she called unsteadily. 'I'll let them out through the cottage.'
'You sure?' Pete sounded worried. The head of security was a burly sixty-year-old who lived and breathed this park. He also treated the park employees as family. Any minute now he'd demand to see Rafael's credentials and give Kelly a lecture on admitting strange men into her home.
'It's okay,' Kelly called, straightening and forcing her voice to sound a lot more sure than she felt. 'I know I know these people.' Her voice fell away to a whisper. 'I know this child.'
The parka restoration and re-enactment of life on the goldfields in the eighteen-fiftieshad mine-shafts, camps, shops, hotels and also tiny homes. As much as possible it was a viable, self-supporting community and the homes were lived in.
Kelly's cottage was halfway up the hill. There were ten of these cottages in the park, and Kelly felt herself lucky to have one. It might not have mod cons but it had everything she needed and she could stay steeped in history and hardly ever step out into the real world.
Which was the way she liked it. She didn't think much of the outside world. Once, a lifetime ago, she'd ventured a long way out and been so badly hurt she might never venture out again.
Now she stepped through the front door of her cottage feeling as if her world were tipping. The warmth of her woodstove reached out to greet her, and it was all she could do not to turn round and slam the door behind her before these strangers followed her in.
For the more she thought about it, the more she thought this must be some cruel joke. Fate would never do this to her. Life had robbed her of Mathieu. To hand him back It was an unbelievable dream that must have no foundation in reality.
But here they were, following close on her heels, allowing her no time to slam the door before they entered.
The child's gaze was everywhere, his eyes enormous, clearly astonished that behind the façade of an ancient weatherboard hut was a snug little home. There was no requirement by the park administration that the interiors were kept authentic but Kelly loved her ancient wood-stove, her battered pine table, the set of kangaroo-backed chairs with bright cushions tied to each and the overstuffed settee stretched out beside the fire.
She had soup on the stoveleek and potatoand the smell after a cold and bleak day was a welcome all by itself.
Now they were inside, she didn't know where to start. The manRafaelwas watching her. She watched the child. Mathieu watched everything.
'Is this where you live?' the little boy asked at last. He was backing away from eye contact with her now. The mother-child thing neither of them knew where to start.
'Yes.' She couldn't get enough of him. She didn't believe yetbut she wanted to, oh, she wanted to, and for this tiny sliver of time she thought what if what if?
'Do you have a real stove?'
'This is a real stove. Do you want to see the fire inside?'
She flicked open the fire door. He stared at the pile of glowing cinders and frowned.
'Can you cook on this?'
'You can see the pot of soup.' She lifted a log from the hearth and put it in. 'My fire made my soup. It's been simmering all day. Every now and then I've had to pop home to put another log on.'
'But you must have a stove with knobs. Like we have in the palace kitchens.'
The palace kitchens. Alp de Ciel. Maybe maybe
'I do have an electric stove,' she said cautiously, feeling as if she were buying time. She opened a cupboard and tugged out a little electric appliancetwo hotplates complete with knobs. 'In summer when it's really hot I cook with this.'
'But in winter you cook with fire.'
'It's very interesting,'Mathieu said, while Rafael still watched and said nothing. His gaze disconcerted her. She wanted to focus exclusively on Mathieu but Rafael had unnerved her.
'Does it cook cakes?' Mathieu asked.
'There's a cake in the pantry,' she said. She'd been miserable last night and had baked, just for the comfort of it. There'd been a staff meeting planned for this morning and she'd intended to take it along, but then one of the guides had called in sick and she'd had to take his place. So the cake was intact.
She produced it now while the child watched with wide-eyed solemnity and the man kept watching her.
'It's chocolate,' Mathieu breathed.
'Chocolate's my favourite,' Kelly admitted.
'Uncle Rafael says you're my mother,' Mathieu said, still not looking at her but eyeing the cake as if it might give a clue to the veracity of his uncle's statement.
'So he does.'
'I don't really understand,' Mathieu complained. 'I thought my mother would wear a pretty dress.'
It was too much. Kelly stared at the child and she thought she was crazy, this was crazy, there was no way this was real.
I thought my mother would wear a pretty dress.
This little one had a vision of his mother. As she'd had a vision of her child.
'I feel like crying,' she said to the room in general, thinking maybe that saying it might ward it off. But shock itself was stopping her from weeping. Every nerve in her body was focused exclusively on this little boy.
'I don't understand either,' she said at last as both males looked apprehensive. They were also looking a little confused. No, she wasn't wearing a dress. She was wearing dungarees and a flannel shirt and leather boots. She was caked in mud. She was no one's idea of a mother.
She hadn't been a mother for five years.
'You know Mathieu's father is dead?' Rafael said gently, and her eyes jerked up to his.
'Kass is dead?' She stared wildly at him and then looked down at the little boy again. 'Your papa?'
'Papa died in a car crash,' Mathieu said in a matter-of-fact voice.
'Matty, I'm so sorry.'
Matty. The name Mathieu had been chosen by his father. It had seemed far too formal for such a scrap of a baby. Matty was what she'd called him for those few short weeks
'Aunt Laura calls me Matty,' he said, sounding pleased. 'Aunt Laura says the nurses told her my mama called me Matty.'
'But ' Her head was threatening to explode. She sank on to a chair because her legs wouldn't hold her up any more. 'But '
'Matty, why don't you do the honours with the cake?' Rafael suggested. With a sideways glance at Kellywho was far too winded to think about answeringhe opened the cutlery drawer, found a knife blunt enough for a child to handle, found three plates and set them on the side bench. 'Three equal pieces, Matty,' he said. 'You cut and we'll choose. As wide as your middle finger is long.'