Seduction And Sacrifice

Dark Secrets, Forbidden Desires, Scandalous Discoveries…Welcome to a glittering new six-part saga set in Australia. This, and every novel to come, features a gripping romance that stands by itself, as the passions, scandals and hopes that exist between two fabulously rich families are revealed. But you'll also find yourself hooked throughout the series as Gemma Smith searches for the secret of her true identity and fights for ruthless seducer Nathan Whitmore's love… .Everyone warned Gemma about Nathan, but she believed he wasn't heartless – just heartbroken. Clearly he was still in love with his ex-wife, Lenore, so Gemma tried to hide her attraction to him… . However, Lenore knew loving a woman wasn't one of Nathan's talents. Not like Zachary Marsden – loyal, handsome, protective, he was the perfect husband, and Lenore had secretly loved him for years. Only, she also knew that her ideal man would never leave his wife… .
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Seduction And Sacrifice


Seduction and Sacrifice Miranda Lee


   

   PRINCIPAL CHARACTERS IN THIS BOOK

   GEMMA SMITH: on her father’s death, Gemma discovers a magnificent black opal worth a small fortune and an old photograph that casts doubt on her real identity. In quest of the truth and a new life, she sets off for Sydney…

   NATHAN WHITMORE: adopted son of Byron Whitmore, Nathan is acting head of Whitmore Opals and a talented screenwriter. After a troubled childhood, and a divorce, he is ruthless and utterly emotionally controlled.

   LENORE LANGTRY: talented stage actress, ex-wife of Nathan Whitmore and mother of Kirsty. Lenore’s tough exterior hides her unrequited love for successful solicitor, Zachary Marsden.

   KIRSTY: the wayward fourteen-year-old daughter of Nathan and Lenore has never come to terms with their divorce.

   JADE WHITMORE: the spoiled, willful daughter of Byron and the late Irene Whitmore, Jade can’t have the one man she wants—her adopted brother, Nathan.

   BYRON WHITMORE: recently widowed, Byron is the patriarch of the Whitmore family, and a stranger to love.

   MELANIE LLOYD: housekeeper to the Whitmores, Melanie is emotionally dead since the tragic deaths of her husband and only child.

   AVA WHITMORE: Byron’s much younger sister, Ava struggles with her weight, being unmarried and her fear of failure.

   A NOTE TO THE READER: This novel is one of a series of six. Each novel is independent and be read on its own. It is the author’s suggestion, however, that the novels be read in the order written.

CONTENTS

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   


CHAPTER ONE

   SHE didn’t cry. Neither did anyone else attending her father’s funeral.

   Not that there were many mourners standing round the grave-side that hot February morning at the Lightning Ridge Cemetery. Only the minister, Mr Gunther, Ma, and Gemma herself. The undertaker had left as soon as he’d dropped off the deceased. If you stretched a point, the grave-digger made five.

   Admittedly, it was forty degrees in the shade, not the sort of day one would want to stand out in the sun for more than a few minutes unless compelled to do so out of duty. Gemma watched the coffin being lowered into the ground, but still she couldn’t cry.

   The minister didn’t take long to scuttle off, she noticed bleakly, nor did Mr Gunther, leaving her to listen to that awful sound as the clods of dirt struck the lid of the coffin.

   Why can’t I cry? she asked herself once more.

   She jumped when Ma touched her on the shoulder. ‘Come on, love. Time to go home.’

   Home...

   Gemma dragged in then expelled a shuddering sigh. Had she ever thought of that ghastly dugout with its primitive dunny and dirt floors as home? Yet it had been, for as long as she could remember.

   ‘Do you want me to drive?’ Ma asked as they approached the rusted-out utility truck that had belonged to Jon Smith and which was now the property of his one and only child.

   Gemma smiled at Ma, who was about the worst driver she had ever encountered. Her real name was Mrs Madge Walton, but she was known as Ma to the locals. She and her husband had come to try their luck in the opal fields at Lightning Ridge more than thirty years ago. When Bill Walton died, Ma had stayed on, living in a caravan and supplementing her widow’s pension by fossicking for opals and selling her finds to tourists.

   She was Gemma’s neighbour and had often given Gemma sanctuary when her father had been in one of his foul moods. She was the closest thing to a mother Gemma had had, her own mother having died at her birth.

   ‘No, Ma,’ she said. ‘I’ll drive.’

   They climbed into the cabin, which was stifling despite the windows being down. Bushflies crawled all over the windscreen.

   ‘What are you going to do now, love?’ Ma asked once they were under way. ‘I dare say you won’t stay in Lightning Ridge. You always fancied livin’ in the city, didn’t you?’

   There was no use lying to Ma. She knew Gemma better than anybody. ‘I might go to Sydney,’ she said.

   ‘I came from Sydney, originally. Nasty place.’

   ‘In what way?’

   ‘Too big and too noisy.’

   ‘I could take a bit of noise after living out here,’ Gemma muttered.

   ‘What will you do with Blue?’

   Blue was Gemma’s pet cattle-dog. Her father had bought him a few years back, fully grown, because he was a fierce guard-dog. He’d chained him up outside the entrance to the dugout and God help anybody who went near him. Gemma had rather enjoyed the challenge of making friends with the dog and had astounded both her father and Ma by eventually winning the animal’s total loyalty and devotion. The dog adored Gemma and she adored him. She didn’t have to think long over her answer to Ma’s question.

   ‘Take him with me, of course.’

   ‘He won’t like the city, love.’

   ‘He’ll like wherever I am,’ Gemma said stubbornly.

   ‘Aye, that he probably will. Never seen a dog so attached to a person. He still frightens the dickens out of me, though.’

   ‘He’s as gentle as a lamb.’

   ‘Only with you, love. Only with you.’

   Gemma laughed.

   ‘That’s better,’ Ma said. ‘It’s good to hear you laugh again.’

   Gemma fell silent. But I still haven’t cried, she thought. It bothered her, very much. A daughter should cry when her father died.

   She frowned and fell silent. They swept back into town and out along Three Mile Road.

   Both Ma and Gemma lived a few miles out of Lightning Ridge, on the opposite side to the cemetery, near a spot called Frog Hollow. It wasn’t much different from most places around the Ridge. The dry, rocky lunar landscape was pretty much the same wherever the ground had been decimated by mine shaft after mine shaft. Picturesque it was not. Nor green. The predominant colour was greyish-white.

   Ma’s caravan was parked under a fairly large old iron-bark tree, but the lack of rainfall meant a meagre leafage which didn’t provide much shade from the searing summer sun. Gemma’s dugout, by comparison, was cool.

   ‘Come and sit in my place for a while,’ Gemma offered as they approached Ma’s caravan. ‘We’ll have a cool drink together.’

   ‘That’s kind of you, love. Yes, I’d like that.’

   Gemma drove on past the caravan, quickly covering the short distance between it and her father’s claim. She began to frown when Blue didn’t come charging down the dirt road towards her as he always did. Scrunching up her eyes against the glare of the sun, she peered ahead and thought she made out a dark shape lying in the dust in front of the dugout. It looked ominously still.

   ‘Oh, no,’ she cried, and, slamming on the brakes, she dived out of the utility practically before it was stopped. ‘Blue!’ she shouted, and ran, falling to her knees in the dirt before him and scooping his motionless form into her lap. His head lolled to one side, a dried froth around his lips.

   ‘He’s dead!’ she gasped, and lifted horrified eyes to Ma, who was looking down at the sorry sight with pity in her big red face.

   ‘Yes, love. It seems so.’

   ‘But how?’ she moaned. ‘Why?’

   ‘Poisoned, by the look of it.’

   ‘Poisoned! But who would poison my Blue?’

   ‘He wasn’t a well-loved dog around here,’ Ma reminded gently. ‘There, there...’ She laid a kind hand on Gemma’s shaking shoulder. ‘Perhaps it’s all for the best. You couldn’t have taken him to Sydney with you, you know. With everyone but you he used to bite first and ask questions afterwards.’

   ‘But he was my friend,’ Gemma wailed, her eyes flooding with tears. ‘I loved him!’

   ‘Yes...yes, I know you did. I’m so sorry, love.’

   The dam began to break, the one she’d been holding on to since the police came and told her that her father had fallen down an abandoned mine shaft and broken his stupid damned drunken neck.

   ‘Oh, Blue,’ she sobbed, and buried her head in the dog’s dusty coat. ‘Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I’ll be all alone...’

   ‘We’re all alone, Gemma,’ was Ma’s weary advice.

   Gemma’s head shot up, brown eyes bright with tears, her tear-stained face showing a depth of emotion she hadn’t inherited from her father. ‘Don’t say that, Ma. That’s terrible. Not everyone is like my father was. Most people need other people. I know I do. And you do too. One day, I’m going to find some really nice man and marry him and have a whole lot of children. Not one or two, but half a dozen, and I’m going to teach them that the most joyous wonderful thing in this world is loving one another and caring for one another, openly, with hugs and kisses and lots of laughter. Because I’m tired of loneliness and misery and meanness. I’ve had a gutful of hateful people who would poison my dog and...and...’

   She couldn’t go on, everything inside her chest shaking and shaking. Once again, she buried her face in her pet’s already dulling coat and cried and cried.

   Ma plonked down in the dirt beside her and kept patting her on the shoulder. ‘You’re right, love. You’re right. Have a good cry, there’s a good girl. You deserve it.’

   When Gemma was done crying, she stood up, found a shovel and dug Blue a grave. Wrapping him in an old sheet, she placed him in the bottom of the dusty trench and filled it in, patting the dirt down with an odd feeling of finality. A chapter had closed in her life. Another was about to begin. She would not look back. She would go forward. These two deaths had set her free of the past, a past that had not always been happy. The future was hers to create. And by God, she hoped to make a better job of it than her father had of the last eighteen years.

   ‘Well, Ma,’ she said when she returned to the cool of the dugout, ‘that’s done.’

   ‘Yes, love.’

   ‘Time to make plans,’ she said, and pulled up a chair opposite Ma at the wooden slab that served as a table.

   ‘Plans?’

   ‘Yes, plans. How would you like to buy my ute and live here while I’m away?’

   ‘Well, I—er— How long are you going for?’

   ‘I’m not sure. A while. Maybe forever. I’ll keep you posted.’

   ‘I’ll miss you,’ Ma sighed. ‘But I understand. What must be must be. Besides...’ She grinned her old toothless grin. ‘I always had a hankerin’ to live here, especially in the summer.’

   ‘You could have your caravan moved here as well. Give you the best of both worlds. I won’t sell you Dad’s claim but you’re welcome to anything you can find while I’m gone.’

   ‘Sounds good to me.’

   ‘Let’s have a beer to celebrate our deal.’

   ‘Sounds very good to me.’

   Gemma spoke and acted with positive confidence in Ma’s presence, but once she was gone, Gemma slumped across the table, her face buried in her hands. But she’d cried all the tears she was going to cry, it seemed, and soon her mind was ticking away on what money she could scrape together for her big adventure of going to Sydney.

   Though a country girl of limited experience, Gemma was far from dumb or ignorant. Television at school and her classmates’ more regular homes in town had given her a pretty good idea of the world outside of Lightning Ridge. She might be a slightly rough product of the outback of Australia, living all her life with a bunch of misfits and dreamers, but she had a sharp mind and a lot of common sense. Money meant safety. She would need as much as she could get her hands on if she wanted to go to Sydney.

   There were nearly three hundred dollars in her bank account, saved from her casual waitressing job, the only employment she’d been able to get since leaving school three months ago. She’d been lucky to get even that. Times were very bad around the Ridge, despite several miners reportedly having struck it rich at some new rushes out around Coocoran Lake.

   Then there was Ma’s agreed five hundred dollars for the ute. That made just on eight hundred. But Gemma needed more to embark on such a journey. There would be her bus and train fare to pay for, then accommodation and food till she could find work. And she’d need some clothes. Eight hundred wasn’t enough.

   Gemma’s head inevitably turned towards her father’s bed against the far wall. She’d long known about the battered old biscuit tin, hidden in a hole in the dirty wall behind the headboard, but had never dared take it out to see what was in it. She’d always suspected it contained a small hoard of opals, the ones her father cashed in whenever he wanted to go on a drinking binge. It took Gemma a few moments to accept that nothing and no one could stop her now from seeing what the failed miner had coveted so secretly.

   Her heart began to pound as she drew the tin from its hiding place and brought it back to the table. Pulling up her rickety chair once more, she sat down and simply stared at it for a few moments. Logic told Gemma there couldn’t be anything of great value lying within, yet her hands were trembling slightly as they forced the metal lid upwards.

   What she saw in the bottom of the tin stopped her heart for a few seconds. Could it really be what it looked like? Or was it just a worthless piece of potch?

   But surely her father would not hide away something worthless!

   Her hand reached into the tin to curve around the grey, oval-shaped stone. It filled her palm, its size and weight making her heart thud more heavily. My God, if this was what she thought it was...

   Feeling a smooth surface underneath, she drew a nobby out and turned it over, her eyes flinging wide. A section of the rough outer layer had been sliced away to reveal the opal beneath. As Gemma gently rolled the stone back and forth to see the play of colour, she realised she was looking at a small fortune. There had to be a thousand carats here at least! And the pattern was a pinfire, if she wasn’t mistaken. Quite rare.

   She blinked as the burst of red lights flashed out at her a second time, dazzling in their fiery beauty before changing to blue, then violet, then green, then back to that vivid glowing red.

   My God, I’m rich, she thought.

   But any shock or excitement quickly changed to confusion.

   Her father had never made any decent strikes or finds in her various claims he’d worked over the years here at Lightning Ridge. Or at least...that was what he’d always told her. Clearly, however, he must have at some time uncovered this treasure, this pot of gold.

   A fierce resentment welled up inside Gemma. There had been no need for them to live in this primitive dugout all these years, no need to be reduced to charity, as had often happened, no need to be pitied and talked about.

   Shaking her head in dismay and bewilderment, she put the stone down on the table and stared blankly back into the tin. There remained maybe twenty or thirty small chunks of opals scattered in the corners, nothing worth more than ten, or maybe twenty dollars each at most. Her father’s drinking money, as she’d suspected.

   It was when she began idly scooping the stones over into one corner to pick them up that she noticed the photograph lying underneath. It was faded and yellowed, its edges and corners very worn as though it had been handled a lot. Momentarily distracted from her ragged emotions, she picked up the small photo to frown at the man and woman in it. Both were strangers.

   But as Gemma’s big brown eyes narrowed to stare at the man some more, her stomach contracted fiercely. The handsome blond giant staring back at her bore little resemblance to the bald, bedraggled, beer-bellied man she’d buried today. But his eyes were the eyes of Jon Smith—her father. They were unforgettable eyes, a very light blue, as cold and hard as arctic ice. Gemma shivered as they seemed to lock on to hers.

   Her father had been a cold, hard man. She’d tried to be a good daughter to him, doing all the cooking and cleaning, putting him to bed when he came home rolling drunk, listening to his tales of misery and woe. Drink had always made him maudlin.

   There were times, however, when Gemma had suspected it wasn’t love that kept her tied to her father. It was probably fear. He’d slapped her more times than she could count, as well as having a way of looking at her sometimes that chilled her right through. She recalled being on the end of one of those looks a few weeks back when she’d mentioned going to Walgett to try to find work. He’d forbidden her from going anywhere, and the steely glint in his eyes had made her comply in obedient silence.

   A long, shuddering sigh puffed from Gemma’s lungs, making her aware how tightly she had been holding her breath. Her gaze focused back on the photograph, moving across to the woman her father was holding firmly to his side.

   Gemma caught her breath once more. For the young woman appearing to resent her father’s hold looked pregnant. About six months.

   My God, she realised, it had to be her mother!

   Gemma’s heart started to race as she stared at the delicate dark-haired young woman whose body language bespoke an unwillingness to be held so closely, whose tanned slender arms were wrapped protectively around her bulging stomach, whose fingers were entwined across the mound of her unborn baby with a white-knuckled intensity.

   So this was the ‘slut’ her father refused to speak of, who had died giving birth but who still lived within her daughter’s genes. Gemma’s father had told her once that she took after her mother, but other than that one snarled comment she knew nothing about the woman who’d borne her. Any curiosity about her had long been forcibly suppressed, only to burst to life now with a vengeance.

   Gemma avidly studied the photograph, anxious to spot the similarities between mother and daughter. But she was disappointed to find no great resemblance, other than the dark wavy hair. Of course it was impossible to tell with the woman in the photograph wearing sunglasses. She supposed their faces were a similar shape, both being oval, and yes, they had the same pointy chin. But Gemma was taller, and much more shapely. Other than her being pregnant, this young woman had the body of a child. Or was it the shapelessness of the cheap floral dress that made her look as if she had no bust or hips?

   ‘Mary,’ Gemma whispered aloud, then frowned. Odd. She didn’t look like a Mary. But that had been her name on Gemma’s birth certificate. Her maiden name had been Bell and she’d been born in Sydney.

   A sudden thought struck and Gemma flipped the photograph over. Written in the top left hand corner were some words. ‘Stefan and Mary. Christmas, 1973’.

   The date sent Gemma’s head into a spin. If that was her mother in the photograph, pregnant with her, then she’d been born early in 1974, not September 1975! She was nearly twenty in that case, not eighteen...

   Gemma was stunned, yet not for a moment did her mind refute her new age. It explained so much, really. Her shooting up in height before any other girl in her class. Her getting her periods so early, and her breasts. Then later, in high school, the way she’d always felt different from her classmates. She hadn’t been different at all. She’d simply been older!

   Distress enveloped Gemma as she stared, not only at the date on the photograph, but at the Stefan part. Stefan had to be her father’s real name, not Jon. Lies, she realised. He’d told her nothing but lies. Why? What lay behind it all?

   Gemma conceded she’d always suspected her father’s name of Jon Smith might be an alias. He’d been a Swede through and through, with Nordic colouring and a thick accent. But the opal fields of outback Australia was a well-known haven for runaways, mostly criminals or married men who’d deserted their wives and families, all seeking the anonymity and relative safety of isolated places. People did not ask too many questions around Lightning Ridge, not even daughters.

   But the questions were very definitely tumbling through Gemma’s mind now. What other lies had her father told her? Maybe her mother hadn’t died. Maybe she was out there somewhere, alive and well. Maybe her father had stolen her as a baby, changed his name and lied about her age to hide them both from anyone searching for them. Maybe he—

   Gemma pulled herself up short. She was grasping at straws, trying to make her life fit some romantic scenario like you saw on television, where a long-lost daughter found her mother after twenty years. Life was rarely like that. There was probably a host of reasons why her father had changed his name, as well as her age. He’d been a secretive man, as well as a controlling one. Maybe he’d thought he could keep his daughter under his thumb longer if she believed she was younger. Or maybe he’d simply lied to authorities about her age that time when they’d tackled him about why he hadn’t sent her to school yet.

   Gemma could still remember the welfare lady coming out here to see her father. Despite her being a little girl at the time, and dreadfully shy, the visit had stuck in her mind because the lady had been so pretty and smelled so good. It was shortly after the social worker’s visit that Gemma had been sent to school. Her ‘birth certificate’ had surfaced a few years later when she had wanted to join a local netball team.

   Gemma was totally absorbed in her thoughts when suddenly the sunlight that was streaming in and on to the table vanished, a large silhouette, filling the open doorway of the dugout. She froze for a second, then quickly shoved the photo and opal back and snapped the lid of the tin shut.

   ‘Anyone home?’ a familiar voice asked.

   ‘Oh, it’s only you, Ma,’ Gemma said, sighing as she stood up and walked forward across the dirt floor.

   Her relief was unnervingly intense. For a split second, she’d been afraid her unexpected visitor might have been someone else. Which was silly, really. It had been six years and he hadn’t come near her, hadn’t even spoken to her when they’d passed on the street. There again, her father was no longer around to act as a deterrent.

   And neither was Blue, she realised with a sickening lurch in her stomach. Oh, my God, was that who had poisoned her dog?

   ‘Come in and sit down, Ma,’ Gemma offered, trying to keep her steady voice while her insides were churning. ‘You’re just the person I need to see.’

   ‘Really? What about?’ Ma bulldozed her bulk over to the table and plonked down in a chair, which protested noisily.

   ‘I was wondering if you’d mind if I slept in your caravan tonight. I feel a bit nervous staying here on my own.’ Which was a huge understatement at this moment.

   ‘Do you know, that’s exactly what I came over here to see you about? I was thinking to myself that Gemma’s too good-looking a girl to be stayin’ way out here on her own. There are some none too scrupulous men living around these parts.’

   Gemma shuddered, her mind whisking to one particular man, a big brute of a miner who had large gnarled hands and had always smelled of body odour and cheap whisky.

   ‘Well, I wouldn’t say I’m God’s gift to men, Ma, and I could certainly lose a pound or two, but, as you say, some men aren’t fussy.’

   ‘Lose a pound or two?’ Ma spluttered. ‘Why, girl, have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? Maybe a few months ago you might have had a layer of puppy fat on you, but you’ve trimmed down this summer to a fine figure of a woman, believe me. And you’ve always had the prettiest face, though you should start usin’ some sunscreen on it. Mediterranean brown is all right for legs and arms but not for faces. You don’t want to wrinkle up that lovely clear skin of yours, do you?’

   Gemma didn’t know how to take this welter of compliments. It wasn’t like Ma to rave on so.

   ‘You make it sound like I’m beautiful or something,’ she protested with an embarrassed laugh.

   ‘Or something just about describes it,’ Ma muttered. ‘You’ll have to watch yourself when you get to Sydney, my girl. City men are vultures.’

   ‘I’m not much interested in men at the moment,’ Gemma replied stiffly. God, she’d thought she’d got over that other business. But she hadn’t at all. It had been there lurking in the depths of her mind, waiting to be dragged up to the surface again, just as he had been lurking, waiting for the opportunity to assault her again.

   Ma reached out to pat her on the wrist. ‘Stop thinkin’ about him, dear. He isn’t worth thinkin’ about, you know. Men like him never are.’

   Gemma gaped a moment before the penny dropped. Ma wasn’t talking about him. She was talking about her father. ‘What do you mean by men like him?’

   ‘Cruel. Selfish. Mean.’

   The word ‘mean’ struck a chord with Gemma. Was that why her father hadn’t sold the opal? Because he was a miser, like Scrooge? Had he gained pleasure by bringing the stone out late at night to drool over its beauty all by himself in secret?

   She would never know now. That she was certain of. Jon Smith had not shared the existence of the opal with anyone, even his daughter. He’d dressed her in second-hand clothes and accepted food hand-outs rather than part with his precious prize.

   Oh, yes, he’d been a mean man.

   Suddenly, she was sorely tempted to show Ma the opal and ask her advice, but people had long stopped showing valuable finds around Lightning Ridge. Greed and envy did strange things to even the closest of friends. So she kept her own counsel and said, ‘Yes, he was mean. But he was my father and he could have been worse.’

   ‘You’d find excuses for Hitler,’ Ma scoffed. ‘How are you set for money?’

   Once again, Gemma resisted the temptation to confess all to Ma. ‘There’s a small parcel of opals Dad saved that I can sell,’ she admitted. ‘Other than that I’ve got about twenty dollars left out of the housekeeping, three hundred dollars savings in the bank, and the money you’re going to give me for the truck.’

   ‘Which I brought over with me,’ Ma said, and pulled a roll of money from the pocket of her dress. ‘Don’t tell the taxman but I did rather well with my fossicking this year.’

   Gemma laughed. ‘I won’t breathe a word.’

   ‘So when are you off to Sydney?’

   A nervous lump immediately formed in Gemma’s throat. My God, the furthest she’d been from Lightning Ridge was Walgett, a whole forty or so miles away. Sydney was another world, a big frightening exciting world! But wild horses wouldn’t keep her away. Not now. Sydney held even more attractions than ever. Her mother had been born in Sydney. Maybe she had relatives there. Maybe she could find them.

   ‘As soon as I can get myself organised, I suppose,’ she said, her resolve deepening.

   ‘Mr Whitmore’s due in town day after tomorrow if you want to sell those opals. He’ll give you a fairer price than most. Don’t take his first offer, though, haggle a little.’

   Gemma frowned. Her father hadn’t liked Mr Whitmore for some reason, had refused to have anything to do with him, saying slick city buyers couldn’t be trusted.

   ‘Dad used to sell his opals to Mr Gunther,’ she said hesitantly.

   ‘That old skinflint? Look, I know he came to the funeral today and Jon might have been able to bully a fair price out of him, but he’ll try to fleece you blind. You listen to me, love, and try Byron Whitmore. A fairer man never drew breath. Just go along to the Ridge Motel any time next Friday and ask for his room.’

   ‘All right, Ma. I’ll do that.’

   ‘Good. Now you can get me a beer, love. It’s bloody hot today.’

   Gemma rose to get her visitor a beer. There were still several cans in the small gas fridge and a full carton leaning up against the far wall. If there was one thing her father never stinted himself on, it was beer.

   ‘So tell me,’ Gemma said on returning to the table and handing the beer over, ‘what’s this Mr Whitmore like?’

   Ma snapped back the ring top on the can and gulped deeply before answering. ‘Byron?’ She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘A big man. Around fifty, I’d say, but he looks younger. Thick wavy black hair sprinkled with grey and the most wonderful blue eyes. Very handsome. Too old for you, though, love. He’s married as well, not that that seems to bother some men once their wives are out of sight.’

   Gemma’s eyes rounded and Ma gave a dry laugh. ‘You are an innocent, aren’t you? Better wise up before you go to Sydney. City men live fast and play fast, and they have an insatiable appetite for lovely young things with big brown eyes and bodies like yours. Still, I don’t think you need worry about Byron Whitmore. He’s a man of honour. A rare commodity indeed!’

   Ma made Sydney sound like a huge dark forest full of big bad wolves. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as that! Besides, no man would get to first base with her unless he was good and decent and kind. Maybe no man would ever get to first base with her, she worried anew.

   That experience years ago had scarred her more than she realised. She’d thought she’d shunned boys up till now because they bored her. Now she interpreted her lack of interest in the opposite sex as a very real wariness. But was it a wariness of the boys themselves, or her own inner self, incapable perhaps of responding to a man in a normal, natural way? Dear God, she hoped that wasn’t so. For if it was, how was she ever going to be happily married and have children of her own?

   ‘Don’t you believe me, love?’ Ma said. ‘About Mr Whitmore?’

   ‘What? Oh, yes, Ma, I believe you. I’m sorry. I was wool-gathering.’

   ‘You’ve had a long, trying day. Look, come over around six and I’ll have a nice dinner ready for you. And bring your nightie.’

   Gemma’s eyes blurred. ‘You’re so good to me.’

   ‘What rubbish! What are neighbours for?’

   But Ma’s faded blue eyes were a little teary too as she stood up. Gemma vowed to write to the dear old thing as often as she could from Sydney. And she would come back to visit. Often. It was the least she could do. If that black opal was worth what she thought it was worth, she’d be able to fly back in style!

CHAPTER TWO

   MR WHITMORE, Gemma was told, was in room twenty-three, and no, he had no one with him at that time.

   The Ridge Motel was the newest in Lightning Ridge, an ochre-coloured assortment of buildings, with reception and a restaurant separate from the forty units which stood at rectangular attention behind a kidney-shaped pool. Room twenty-three was on the second of the two storeys.

   Gemma’s stomach was churning as she climbed the stairs, something that would have surprised many people, including Ma, who had often commented on how confident she was for a girl of her upbringing and background. Gemma knew better, recognising her supposed assurance as little more than a desperate weapon to combat her father’s volatile and often violent nature. She’d found over the years that if she were too docile and subservient he treated her even worse. So she’d learnt to stand up for herself to a degree, sometimes to her sorrow.

   But none of that meant she had the sort of savoir-faire to deal confidently with a city opal trader like Byron Whitmore. Lord, she was shaking in her boots, or she would have been if she’d been wearing boots! Gemma’s only consolation was that she’d decided not to try to sell the big opal today, only the smaller ones.

   A couple of nights’ sensible thinking since her astonishing find had formulated a plan to take the prize to Sydney and have it valued by a couple of experts before she sold it. It had come to her as late as half an hour ago that it might bring more money if she put it up for auction as a collector’s piece. Six-figure amounts kept dancing around in her mind. She’d be able to buy herself a house, pretty clothes, a dog...

   Her heart contracted fiercely. No, she wouldn’t buy another dog. Not yet. Maybe some day, but not yet. The pain of Blue’s death was still too raw, too fresh.

   Gemma dragged her mind back to the problems at hand. Selling these infernal opals. By this time she was standing in front of room twenty-three but she couldn’t bring herself to knock, gnawing away at her bottom lip instead and trying to find a good reason to abandon this idea entirely.

   But that wouldn’t get her any money, would it? She’d already booked tickets for the bus leaving tomorrow night for Dubbo, and the train from there to Sydney.

   If only her father had let her go with him when he’d sold opals, she groaned silently. If only she’d met this Mr Whitmore before. Ma said he was OK but it was hard totally to dismiss her father’s warnings about him.

   Oh, get on with it, you stupid girl! Gemma berated herself. God knows how you’re going to cope in the big bad city if you can’t even do this small thing. Stop being such a wimp!

   Taking a deep steadying breath, Gemma curled her fingers into a tight fist and knocked on the door.

   ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed when it was wrenched open, practically from under her knuckles. ‘Oh!’ she cried again, once she’d fully taken in the man who’d opened it.

   He was nowhere near fifty, neither did he have black hair or blue eyes. At most he was thirty-five. His hair was a golden wheat colour and his eyes were grey. He was, however, very handsome in an unnervingly sleek, citified sort of way.

   ‘I...I’m sorry, I must have the wrong room,’ she babbled. ‘I was wanting Mr Whitmore.’

   Lazy grey eyes swept down her body and down her long bare tanned legs, one eyebrow arching by the time his gaze lifted back to her face. Gemma stiffened, not sure if his scrutiny was flattering or insulting.

   Surely he couldn’t be surprised by how she was dressed. No one wore anything other than shorts in Lightning Ridge in the summer, no one except visitors like this chap. He was all togged up in tailored grey trousers and a long-sleeved white shirt. There was even a dark red tie at his throat. A travelling salesman, Gemma decided. On his first trip outback, probably. It wouldn’t be long before that tie was disposed of and those shirt-sleeves rolled up.

   A small smile tugged at his mouth, as though he were amused at something. ‘Now I know why Byron always looked forward to his trips out here,’ he said drily.

   Gemma frowned. Byron? That was Mr Whitmore’s first name, wasn’t it?

   ‘I’m Nathan Whitmore,’ the man elaborated before she could put her confusion into words. ‘I’m standing in for Byron this trip, a fact that seems to have gotten around. You’re my first client this afternoon, and only my third for the day. You are a client, aren’t you?’ he asked, amusement still in his voice.

   Gemma was unsure now what to do. Ma had recommended Byron Whitmore, not his brother.

   ‘You look concerned, Miss—er...’

   ‘Smith,’ she informed him. ‘Gemma Smith.’

   ‘Aah...and have you had dealings with my father before, Miss Smith?’

   ‘No, I...your father?’ Rounded eyes stared into Nathan Whitmore’s face, seeing the age lines around his eyes and mouth. Either Byron Whitmore was older than Ma thought or his son had been living the life of a rake. Handsome he might be, but that young he wasn’t. ‘I...I thought you were his brother.’

   ‘I understand your confusion. Byron adopted me when I was seventeen and he was thirty-two. We are more like brothers than like father and son.’

   ‘Oh...oh, I see.’ She didn’t actually. Seventeen was rather old to be adopted. Still, it wasn’t any of her business. Her business was getting a good price for the opals in her pocket.

   ‘Let me assure you, Miss Smith,’ Nathan Whitmore said, ‘that I know opals, and I won’t cheat you. Byron would have my hide if I did anything to ruin his reputation for honesty and fairness.’

   ‘He certainly comes highly recommended.’

   ‘Whitmore Opals has a reputation second to none. Shall we go inside, then, and get down to business?’

   Gemma hesitated, her eyes darting over Nathan Whitmore’s shoulder and into the motel room. It was an oddly personal place to do business in. Intimate, even. Now her eyes darted back to that cool grey gaze.

   ‘Dear Miss Smith,’ he said in a rather droll tone, ‘I have not come this far to compromise young women, however beautiful they might be.’

   Beautiful? He found her beautiful?

   My God, I’m blushing, she realised, feeling the heat in her face.

   Hoping it wouldn’t show underneath her tan, she kept her chin up and her eyes steady. He was probably only flattering her, she decided. Hoping, perhaps, to compliment his way into giving her less money than her opals were worth. Ma had warned her about city businessmen. Cunning, ruthless devils, she’d called them only this morning.

   But this one didn’t look like a devil. More like an angel with that golden hair and that lovely full-lipped mouth.

   ‘Shall we sit down at the table?’ he suggested, stepping back to wave her inside.

   One swift, all-encompassing glance took in a typical motel room with a king-sized bed in one corner, a built-in television opposite, an extra divan and a round table and two chairs, over the back of which was draped a grey suit jacket.

   Gemma chose the other chair and sat down, feeling conscious of her bare legs now, especially since the room was air-conditioned and much cooler than outside. She could appreciate now why its occupant was over-dressed. She clasped her hands together between her knees and gave a little shiver. Even her neck felt cool. If she could have taken her hair down out of its pony-tail she would have.

   ‘The air-conditioning too cold for you? Shall I turn it down?’

   ‘If you would, please, Mr Whitmore.’

   How attentive he was, she thought. And how observant. Ma was right. City men were clever. Gemma determined to be on her guard.

   The air-conditioning unit hissed when he turned it right off.

   ‘Please call me Nathan,’ he said suavely as he sat down, a lock of blond hair falling across his forehead. He swept it aside and smiled at her. ‘And may I call you Gemma?’

   Despite her earlier resolve not to be distracted by flattery or false charm, Gemma found herself smiling fatuously back at the man opposite her. She nodded, her tongue seemingly thick in her mouth. A light tangy pine smell was wafting across the table from him which she found both pleasant and perturbing. Did all city men smell like that?

   ‘Well, Gemma?’ he interrupted her agitated day-dreaming. ‘I presume you have some opals with you?’

   ‘Oh...oh, yes.’ Squirming both physically and mentally, she pulled the small canvas pouch out of her shorts pocket. Fumbling because her fingers were shaking, she finally undid the drawstring and poured the stones out on to the table, then watched with heart pounding while Mr Whitmore put a jeweller’s glass to his eye and started examining them.

   ‘Mmm,’ he said once. ‘Yes, very nice,’ another time.

   Finally, he put the glass down and looked over at her with a slight frown. ‘Did you mine these yourself?’

   ‘No, my father did.’

   ‘And you have his permission to sell them?’

   ‘He died a few days ago,’ she said, so bluntly that the man opposite her blinked with astonishment.

   ‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured politely.

   Then you’d be the only one, Gemma thought.

   ‘You couldn’t have known,’ she returned, her voice flat.

   It brought another sharp glance. ‘Do you want individual prices, or are you selling these as a parcel?’

   ‘Which will get me more money?’

   He smiled. Gemma noticed that when he smiled he showed lovely white teeth, and a dimple in his right cheek. That was because his smile was slightly lopsided. There was no doubt that he was by far the most attractive man she had ever met, despite his age.

   ‘There are twenty-seven stones here,’ he resumed, ‘most worth no more than ten dollars. But this one I particularly like.’ He pointed to the largest. ‘It has a vivid green colour that appeals to me personally. So I’ll offer you two hundred and sixty dollars for the rest and one hundred dollars for this one. That’s three hundred and sixty in all.’

   Gemma remembered what Ma had said about not accepting the first price. ‘Four hundred,’ she countered with surprising firmness.

   He leant back in his chair, breathing in and out quite deeply. Gemma was fascinated by the play of muscles beneath his shirt and his surprisingly broad shoulders. He would look something with that jacket on. ‘I was already being over-generous with the three hundred and sixty,’ he said.

   ‘Why?’

   Gemma’s forthright question seemed to startle him for a moment. Then he smiled. ‘Well you might ask. Very well. Four hundred. Do you want cash or cheque?’

   ‘Cash.’

   ‘Somehow I knew you were going to say that.’

   Extracting a well-stuffed wallet from the breast pocket of the jacket beside him, he counted out four one-hundred-dollar notes before returning the wallet.

   They rose simultaneously, Gemma folding the notes and placing them carefully into her back pocket.

   ‘Thank you, Mr Whitmore,’ she said, and extended her hand.

   He shook it, saying, ‘I thought we agreed on Nathan.’

   ‘Sorry,’ she grinned. ‘I find it hard to call my elders by their first name.’ Now that the business end of proceedings was over and Gemma had her money safely tucked away, she was feeling more relaxed.

   ‘Elders,’ he repeated, a grimace twisting his mouth. ‘Now that’s putting me in my place. Might I ask how old you are?’

   ‘Eigh—’ Gemma broke off. She’d been going to say eighteen, but of course she wasn’t. ‘I’ll be twenty next month,’ she guessed.

   He looked surprised, and, for a moment, stared at her hard. She gained the impression he was about to say something but changed his mind, shaking his head instead and walking over to open the door for her.

   She walked past him out on to the balcony, but as she went to turn to say thank you one last time, she saw something out of the corner of her eye that made her heart leap and her stomach flip over. For there he was, standing down by the pool, looking huge and menacing, watching and waiting for her.

   Panic-stricken, she bolted back into the room, almost sending Nathan Whitmore flying. ‘Close the door,’ she said in a husky, frightened whisper.

   ‘What?’

   ‘Close the door!’ she hissed, backing up till her knees were against the bed.

   He did as she asked, then turned slowly to view her fear-filled face with concern in his. ‘What is it? What’s out there that’s frightened you so much? Is it a man?’ he asked sharply. ‘Is that it?’

   ‘Yes,’ she squeaked, appalled with herself that she’d started to shake uncontrollably. Dear God, she’d always thought herself a brave person. But she wasn’t brave at all. Not even a little bit.

   ‘Your boyfriend?’

   She shook her head vigorously.

   ‘Who, then? Dear God, what did he do to you to make you react like this?’

   He was standing in front of her now, holding her trembling shoulders with firm but gentle hands.

   Memories of other male hands surfaced from the backwater of her mind, large calloused hands that pinched and poked and probed...

   A strangled sob broke from her lips, haunted eyes flying to warm grey ones.

   ‘It’s all right,’ the owner of those eyes soothed. ‘You’re safe here with me.’

   Another sob welled up within her and all of a sudden, she was wrapping her arms around him and hugging him for dear life, a whole torrent of emotions cascading through her, leaving her awash with a fiercely instinctive need to hold and be held.

   After a momentary hesitation, Nathan Whitmore answered that need, holding her tightly against him, stroking her neck and back with fatherly tenderness, whispering soothing words as one would to a frightened child. But there was nothing fatherly in the effect such an intensely intimate embrace eventually had on his male body, nothing fatherly at all.

   Nathan abruptly held her away from him, pressing her down into a sitting position on the bed. ‘I’ll get you a drink,’ he said curtly, and turned away before the situation became embarrassing. ‘And then you’re going to tell me what the problem is,’ he called back over his shoulder.

   Gemma stared after him as he crossed the room, her head whirling with an alien confusion. Who would have thought she would ever find a safe haven in the solid warmth of a man’s chest, or enjoy the feel of male arms encircling her?

   She was still looking up at Nathan with startled surprise when he returned with a glass of brandy. For a moment their eyes locked and she could have sworn his were as puzzled as her own.

   ‘Here.’ He pressed the glass into her hands. ‘Drink this up. Then start talking.’

   In a way it was a relief to tell someone after keeping it to herself all these years. But she’d been so ashamed at the time. She’d felt so dirty. Yet the words did not come easily. She stumbled over them, faltering occasionally, and finding it hard to explain exactly what had happened.

   ‘So he didn’t actually rape you,’ Nathan said with relief in his voice after listening to her tortured tale.

   ‘He...he tried,’ she explained huskily, ‘but he...he... couldn’t do it. He was very drunk.’

   ‘And where were your parents while this was happening?’

   ‘My mother’s dead,’ she explained. ‘My father had passed out. He’d been drinking. He came home with him. When Dad fell asleep he climbed into my bed. When I screamed, he put one hand over my mouth while he...he...you know what he did,’ she finished in a raw whisper.

   ‘And does this bastard have a name?’

   Gemma shuddered and shook her head. ‘I never found out and I never asked. I...I see him in town sometimes, watching me.’

   ‘But he hasn’t come near you since.’

   ‘No, but now that my father’s dead, I...I’m scared.’

   ‘How did your father die?’

   ‘He fell down a mine shaft.’

   ‘Are you sure he fell?’

   Gemma blinked her astonishment.

   ‘I think we should go to the police and tell them about this creep,’ Nathan decided.

   Gemma gasped and jumped to her feet. ‘No! I don’t want to do that. I can’t tell them what I’ve just told you. I simply can’t! Besides, I...I’m leaving Lightning Ridge tomorrow, on the bus.’

   ‘To go where?’

   ‘To Sydney.’

   He stared at her for a long moment. ‘Sydney’s a tough town for someone alone,’ he said. ‘Do you have any relatives there?’

   ‘I’m not sure.’

   ‘Don’t you know?’

   She shrugged. ‘My mother was born in Sydney but I never knew her folks. I...I was hoping I might be able to track them down some time.’

   ‘How much money do you have?’

   ‘Enough.’

   His smile was sardonic. ‘Independent, aren’t you? Look, I’ll give you my card. If you find yourself in a hole when you get to Sydney, or you’re desperate for a job, look me up, OK?’ Striding back over to his suit jacket, he drew a small white card from another of the pockets and brought it back to her.

   ‘Tell me what I can do to help right now,’ he added after she’d slipped the card into the breast pocket of her blue checked shirt. ‘Did you drive yourself here? Can I walk you to your car?’

   ‘Yes, I’d appreciate that.’

   ‘And what about when you get home?’

   ‘That’ll be all right. Ma will be there.’

   Nathan frowned at her. ‘But I thought you said your mother was dead.’

   ‘She is. Ma’s not my mother. She’s a friend.’

   He sighed. ‘Something tells me you’re a very complicated girl.’

   Gemma laughed. ‘Ma says I have hidden qualities. Is that the same thing as complicated?’

   ‘Could very well be. But I don’t think I should try to find out.’ Having uttered this rather cryptic remark, he picked up his room key, took Gemma’s elbow and ushered her outside. ‘Can you still see him?’ he asked.

   Gemma’s heart pounded as she looked around. ‘No,’ she sighed.

   ‘Right, well, let’s get you safely home.’

CHAPTER THREE

   ‘SHE’S become impossible, Nathan. Simply impossible!’ Lenore glared at her ex-husband as he sat behind that damned desk of his, looking not the slightest bit perturbed.

   ‘Kirsty is a typical teenager. You shouldn’t let her upset you so.’

   ‘That’s easy for you to say. You don’t have to live with her.’ Lenore slumped down into a chair and sighed heavily. ‘I’m at my wits’ end. They’re threatening to expel her from school. She’s smoking on the sly, swears like a trooper and dresses like a trollop. I...I’ve been thinking of sending her to boarding-school,’ she finished, flicking a nervous glance at Nathan through her long lashes.

   Lenore knew what he thought of boarding-school, having been dumped into different ones by his drug-crazed mother whenever a new man came on to the scene, only to be dragged out once she was alone again and wanting company. By the time he was sixteen a totally screwed-up Nathan had run away from the latest five-star school, just in time to find his mother, dead from a heroin overdose.

   With such a history, it was no wonder Lenore felt a little edgy about suggesting boarding-school for their daughter.

   Nathan reacted just as she’d feared.

   ‘She won’t be going to bloody boarding-school,’ he bit out, snapping forward on his chair. ‘She can come live with me for a while.’

   Lenore’s lovely green eyes widened with genuine surprise, then narrowed into a frown. ‘Where? Not at that beach-house of yours. Who would mind her till you got home from work?’

   ‘I’m living at Belleview till Byron gets out of hospital and on his feet again.’

   ‘Oh, yes, I forgot. Poor Byron. How’s his leg?’

   ‘On the mend. He might have to use a cane for a while, though.’

   ‘He’ll hate that.’

   ‘Better than being dead, like Irene. Though maybe Irene’s death isn’t such a tragedy. She was a miserable bitch, and she made Byron miserable too.’

   ‘For heaven’s sake, Nathan, don’t you ever have any pity for anyone?’ Lenore snapped, irritated with this hard man whom she’d tried to love, but failed. He just wouldn’t meet her halfway. Or even a quarter way.

   ‘I have pity for a daughter whose mother doesn’t want her around,’ he said coldly.

   ‘That’s not true and you know it! Oh, Nathan, you can be so cruel sometimes. Cruel and heartless.’ Tears flooded her eyes and she rummaged in her handbag for a tissue.

   Nathan watched her mop up her tears without turning a hair.

   ‘Let’s get back to the point, shall we?’ he said when she was sufficiently composed. ‘I suggest you go home, get Kirsty to pack her things and bring her round tonight after dinner. But if she comes to live with me, she comes for a whole term at least. No chopping and changing mid-stream.’

   Lenore felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Maybe Nathan would straighten the girl out a bit. Kirsty loved her father. And Nathan loved her too. His daughter was the only female who’d ever been able to get past the steely cover Nathan kept around his heart.

   Kirsty was the main reason Nathan had married Lenore. That, and his mistaken belief that she would be the sort of wife to suit him: an independent woman who wouldn’t lean or demand, who would be there at his side when he needed a social partner, and there, in his bed, when he needed sex.

   Well, Lenore had needed more than that. Much more. So after twelve years of the loneliest marriage she could ever imagine she’d called it quits. People had condemned her for their divorce, saying she’d put her acting career in front of her husband. And maybe there was a bit of truth in that. But she had to have something.

   A depressing sigh wafted from Lenore’s lips. If only things had been different with Zachary all those years ago. If only he hadn’t been married. If only he’d loved her as intensely as she’d loved him, as she still loved him.

   ‘If you’ve finished daydreaming...’ Nathan drawled caustically.

   Lenore blinked and looked up.

   ‘Maybe you’d like to tell me what or who is bringing that wistful look into your eyes. Surely not Kirsty. It wouldn’t be Zachary Marsden, would it?’

   ‘And if it is?’ she retorted, piqued by his sarcasm. ‘Don’t tell me you’re jealous, Nathan. Jealousy is an emotion reserved for people in love. You never loved me any more than I loved you so don’t pretend now, thank you very much.’

   ‘I never pretended a thing with you, Lenore. It was you who seduced me in the first place, you who used my body, not the other way around, you who pretended I meant more to you than I ever could mean.’

   ‘Are you saying you wanted me to be in love with you?’ she asked, disbelieving.

   ‘I’m saying no man likes to be had on the rebound. We could have had a good marriage, if it hadn’t been for Zachary Marsden lurking around in your heart. We could still have had a good marriage if you hadn’t indulged in sentimental rubbish and deliberately kept your supposed love for him alive. Do you think I didn’t notice how often you contrived to put yourself in Zachary’s company? The poor bastard. You’ve done nothing but tease him for years. You know he’s a decent sort of man, that he wants to stay faithful to his wife and family. Give him a break and find someone else to try out your femme fatale talents on.’

   ‘Oh!’ Lenore jumped to her feet. ‘Oh, you’re just impossible! You don’t understand true love. But one day, Nathan, one day you’re going to really fall in love and then you’ll know what it’s like. Who knows? Maybe it’ll make you human, like the rest of us. Maybe I might even learn to like you, as I once mistakenly thought I did.’

   * * *

   Gemma was sitting in a deep leather two-seater in the plush reception area of Whitmore Opals when the most stunning-looking woman she’d ever seen stormed out of Nathan’s office, masses of gorgeous red hair flying out behind a face so arrestingly beautiful that one could only stare. She banged the door shut behind her before covering her luminescent green eyes with sunglasses and striding across the grey-blue carpet on the way towards the exit.

   ‘Bye, Moira,’ she threw at the receptionist on her way past. ‘My commiserations that you have to work for that man. He’s impossible!’

   ‘Goodbye, Mrs Whitmore,’ the middle-aged receptionist called after her.

   Gemma’s head snapped round to stare after the redhead. So! Nathan Whitmore was married.

   She shook her head, smiling ruefully at her own stupidity. Of course a man like him would be married.

   Gemma almost laughed at the silly thoughts that had been tumbling through her head since she’d parted company with Nathan in Lightning Ridge three days before. It had been crazy of her to imagine he’d been genuinely attracted to her, that he’d been loath to let her go. He’d simply been kind to her, that was all. Nothing more.

   I’m as naïve as Ma said, Gemma realised with some dismay.

   When she’d told Ma about what happened at the motel, the old woman had been aghast.

   ‘Good God, girl, and there I was thinkin’ you’d got your head screwed on where men were concerned. But you’re just as silly as the rest. Fancy huggin’ a stranger like that in his motel room. And acceptin’ a drink as well. The danger wasn’t from that ugly old bugger outside, love, but the handsome one inside!’

   Gemma didn’t agree with Ma about that. She was sure Nathan Whitmore was a good man. But she had to agree about herself. Clearly, she was as vulnerable to a handsome face as the next girl, and twice as silly as most. Her actions in that motel room had been incredibly naïve and foolish. If Nathan hadn’t been an honourable man, God knew what might have happened, for there was no doubting she’d been blown away by how she’d felt when in his arms. Her only consolation was that the incident had eliminated her worry that a man’s touch would repel her.

   The receptionist stood up from behind her desk and went over to knock on the door that Mrs Whitmore had slammed shut. After a brusque command to enter, she went inside, exiting a few seconds later with a polite smile on her face. ‘Mr Whitmore will see you straight away, Miss Smith. Please go right in.’

   Gemma stood up, feeling suddenly fat and frumpish in her new pink cotton sundress with its tight bodice constraining her full breasts. Yet that morning, she had thought she looked...inviting. But seeing Nathan’s wife, so sophisticated and slim in a green silk suit, had put a dent in Gemma’s confidence over her appearance. She should have left her hair out, she thought unhappily, not tied it up into a childish pony-tail with an even more childish pink ribbon.

   A dampening dismay was beginning to invade when Gemma checked her self-pity with a stern hand. What did it matter what she looked like? The man was married. Decent girls did not try to attract married men. And she was a decent girl. Or so she hoped.

   Clutching the straw handbag in which she’d placed her precious legacy that morning, Gemma lifted her chin and strode purposefully into the office. But the moment her gaze rested once more on that handsome blond head and those fascinating grey eyes, she was lost.

   Was she imagining things or was he looking at her the way some of the male customers at the café back at the Ridge had started looking at her? As though they’d like to have her on their plate and not a hamburger and chips. Gemma was quietly appalled that for the first time in her life she liked being looked at like that.

   His hunger was fleeting, however, if that was what she’d glimpsed, Nathan Whitmore getting to his feet and coming round to shake her hand with a cool and impersonal politeness. ‘Miss Smith,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘How nice to see you again. Would you like to sit down while I get the door?’ And he indicated an upright wooden-backed chair that sat in front of the desk.

   Gemma sat down, trying not to look as depressed as she suddenly felt. Couldn’t he at least have called her Gemma?

   She watched him walk back round behind his impressive desk, equally impressive in a dark blue suit which fitted his body to perfection and highlighted his golden hair. He’d had it cut since she last saw him, she realised, for when he bent forward slightly on sitting down no wayward lock fell in boyish disarray across his forehead. The sleek, ultra-groomed look gave him a crisp, no-nonsense, almost forbidding air which she still found disturbingly attractive.

   Her mind flew to his wife and her dramatic exit. What had he said or done to upset her so much? Why had she called him impossible?

   The man who’d been so kind to her out at the Ridge was far from impossible. He’d been sweet. Sweet and warm and caring. Still, it appeared that man had been left behind in the outback of Australia. The pragmatic individual sitting behind his city desk in his plush city office seemed like a different person.

   ‘So, how can I help you?’ he opened up.

   Gemma stared at him. No questions about how she was, or how was her trip to Sydney, or where was she staying, just straight down to brass tacks. Her disappointment was sharp, but she gathered herself to answer coolly.

   ‘I have an opal I would like valued.’ If he was going to be all business, then so was she. ‘You do valuations here, don’t you?’

   ‘We do.’

   ‘I realise they aren’t free. I’m quite prepared to pay whatever the going price is.’

   He waived her offer with a dismissive gesture of his hand. ‘That won’t be necessary. Do you have this opal with you?’

   ‘Yes.’

   ‘I could give you a reasonable estimate immediately, if you like.’ He smiled, and she felt a lurch in her stomach.

   ‘Thank you. I’d appreciate that.’ Gemma was only too glad to drag her eyes away from that handsome smiling face to dig the opal out from the depths of her handbag. She’d wrapped it in an old checked teatowel. As she stood up to place her treasure on the desk before him, butterflies crowded her stomach. What if it wasn’t worth as much as she hoped? What if she’d been mistaken about its rarity? Maybe it would prove to be flawed in some way. She didn’t have any experience with opals of this size and quality. Nathan leant over and picked the stone up, turning it over in his hands as she had done.

   ‘My God,’ was the first thing he said, his voice a shocked whisper.

   He peered down at the black opal for a long time, turning it this way and that to catch the brilliant and glowing flashes of light. Finally, his gaze snapped up to hers. ‘Where did you get this?’ he demanded to know.

   Gemma was startled by the accusation in his question. It flustered her. ‘I...I...my father left it to me.’

   ‘And where did he get it?’

   She blinked. ‘I suppose he found it. In one of his claims.’

   ‘I doubt that very much,’ he said slowly.

   Gemma’s mind was racing. What was he thinking? That Dad stole it?

   This solution to her father’s possessing such a treasure had not occurred to Gemma before. The ramifications of it being true struck a severe blow. Ashen-faced, she stared across at the man peering at her with steely eyes.

   ‘You think he stole it, don’t you?’ she cried.

   When Nathan didn’t deny it, she groaned, and slumped back into her chair.

   ‘Oh, my God...’ Her head dropped into her hands, all her dreams crumbling on the spot. She should have known, should have guessed. Her father would have sold that opal if he’d had a legal right to it. But he hadn’t... And neither did she...

   ‘Gemma...’

   She glanced up through soggy lashes to see Nathan squatting beside her chair. His face had softened to a semblance of the face she remembered from the motel and her heart turned over.

   ‘I have no proof at this moment that your opal was stolen,’ he said gently, ‘but it resembles a stone that disappeared over twenty years ago. If you like, I can have it looked at by the man who owned it before it vanished. Believe me when I say you will not get into trouble, no matter what happens.’

   ‘Who...who is the rightful owner?’

   ‘If it is the opal I think it is, then it’s Byron...my father.’

   Gemma gasped. ‘But how incredible!’

   ‘Not so incredible. There was a time when Whitmore Opals was one of the only two opal-trading companies in New South Wales. They owned many precious opals, this one included.’

   A thought struck Gemma and she frowned. ‘How do I know you’re telling me the truth?’

   Nathan stood up, his eyes cooling. ‘The theft was registered with the police at the time, as was a detailed description of the opal. You can check it out if you like.’

   Gemma felt small for having doubted him. ‘No,’ she mumbled. ‘I believe you.’

   ‘If you like I will have a photograph taken of the opal and give you a receipt for it, then if it turns out not to be the opal in question it will be returned to you. Of course, if this happens, we would like the opportunity to buy it from you. An opal of this beauty and rarity does not come up for sale very often.’

   Gemma decided it would be foolish to be too trusting, so she accepted this offer, at the same time agreeing to give Whitmore Opals first right of purchase. But intuition told her this would never come about. The opal had not legally been her father’s, and it would never legally be hers. All her dreams had been dashed. Suddenly, she was here in Sydney, staying in a cheap hotel, with just under a thousand dollars in her purse, no job, no friends and no opal.

   A deep depression settled on her, making her shoulders sag.

   ‘I’ll have Moira get you a cup of coffee while you wait,’ Nathan said. ‘Or would you prefer tea?’

   ‘No, coffee,’ she said limply.

   ‘Black or white?’

   ‘White with one sugar.’

   Moira brought her a couple of biscuits with the coffee, which Gemma ate gratefully, knowing she would have to conserve her money now. She was thinking about what her next move would be when Nathan returned with the photo and receipt, and a black leather briefcase.

   ‘I’ll take the opal to the hospital for Byron to look at this afternoon,’ he said, patting the briefcase.

   ‘The hospital?’

   ‘Byron was in a boating accident a few weeks back. He was lucky to survive. His wife and a couple of friends were killed.’

   ‘Oh, how awful! The poor man.’

   ‘Yes.’

   Gemma interpreted Nathan’s curt tone as grief, since Byron’s wife would have been his adopted mother. But his closed face didn’t allow gushes of sympathy and she fell silent.

   ‘I can understand this opal business has come as a great shock to you,’ Nathan resumed. ‘You were probably relying on the money. But I’m sure Byron will give you a substantial monetary reward for its return.’

   Gemma brightened. ‘Do you think so?’

   ‘I guarantee it. Call back in the morning and I’ll have either the reward for you, or your opal back again. Where are you staying, by the way?’

   ‘The Central Hotel for the present.’

   A dark frown scrunched up his high forehead.

   ‘That’s no place for a young girl like you to be staying. Look, you’d better come home with me. We’ve plenty of rooms, then tomorrow we’ll see if we can’t find you a decent flat.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘Come on, I’ll take you to your hotel right now and get your things, then I’ll drive you home to Belleview.’

   Gemma scrambled to her feet. ‘Oh, but I...I can’t let you do that. What will your wife say?’

   ‘My wife?’

   ‘Yes. Mrs Whitmore.’

   His smile was ironic. ‘I dare say Mrs Whitmore might have plenty to say. But it won’t make a blind bit of difference. Lenore Langtry ceased to be my legal spouse two years ago. Does that put your sweet mind at rest?’

   No, Gemma thought as he swept her out of his office. Not at all, she reaffirmed once herself being settled into the most luxurious car she’d ever seen. Most definitely not, when Nathan stayed leaning over her for a second longer than necessary, peering down her cleavage then up into her eyes with an expression no female could mistake a second time.

   Ma’s warnings came back to haunt her. What was she getting herself into here? This was no schoolboy she was going home with. They were easy to ward off. Neither was he a safely married man with a chaperoning wife in tow. He was a mature man, a divorced man, a...a city man. And she was letting him take her home for the night. Ma would be having apoplexy by now if she knew!

   But no sooner were they under way than Nathan started chatting away with her quite naturally, putting her at ease, making her feel very relaxed in his company. Soon she began wondering if Ma’s warnings had made her paranoid about city men. So he’d glanced at her a couple of times. What did she expect after wearing this type of bare-necked dress? She’d bought it specifically with Nathan Whitmore in mind after all. Oh, she’d denied it to Ma at the time, but there was no point in denying it to herself. She’d wanted him to look at her and he had. But looking was only looking. Nothing to work up a head of steam about.

   Finally, the questions came about her trip down and her impressions of Sydney, Nathan listening with gentlemanly politeness as she babbled on about how large and intimidating she found everything, how she hadn’t been able to sleep the night before because of the traffic noise, how she thought everything was awfully expensive, even a rather dingy hotel room.

   ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get used to a sandwich costing over three dollars,’ she said, with awe in her voice.

   ‘Yes, you will,’ he returned drily, then smiled across at her. ‘But not too soon, I hope. I like you just the way you are.’

   Gemma flushed with pleasure at what she saw as his seal of approval. He liked her. He really liked her. How exciting. Not even thinking about Ma or her warnings could still her dancing heart.

   It must have taken them over an hour to get from the city office block which housed Whitmore Opals down to the hotel then back over the Harbour Bridge. But Gemma didn’t really mind. Her eyes were everywhere. There was no doubt that, despite the claustrophobic feeling the city gave her, it had the most beautiful setting in the world.

   Her mouth remained open as they drove across the Bridge. There was so much to see with Darling Harbour and the Opera House and the Quay and all that lovely blue water. How different from the dry, dusty, grey crater-filled landscape that had been her world for eighteen years.

   No, twenty, she corrected herself again, a frown forming as she remembered her other mission in coming to Sydney. Would she be able to find out more about her mother? A trip to the registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages would be a start. Hopefully, she’d be able to get a copy of her parents’ marriage certificate, which she hadn’t located among her father’s things. Then there were electoral rolls to check. Motor registry lists, maybe. Driving licences, perhaps.

   But would the authorities give her such information freely? If not, maybe the missing-persons division of the police could help, because she certainly couldn’t afford a private detective. Not now. She had to be very careful with her money. And she simply had to get a job.

   ‘Mr Whitmore. Nathan...’

   ‘Mmm?’

   ‘Do...do you think there might be a job for me at Whitmore Opals? I’ve learnt a lot about opals over the years, you know.’

   ‘I’m sure you have. What would you like to do?’

   ‘I don’t know. I could serve behind the counter, I guess. Do you have shops like that, ones that sell opals to the public? Or do you just make jewellery?’

   ‘We have two retail outlets. One down at the Rocks, and one in the foyer of Regency Hotel. Yes, I’m sure we could use someone with your knowledge behind the counter, though you’d be required to do a course in Japanese first. A lot of our customers are Japanese businessmen and tourists.’

   ‘How long would it take me to learn Japanese?’ she asked, concerned about her money situation, not to mention her ability to learn another language. She’d only been average at school.

   ‘With intensive lessons, most people are able to communicate on a basic level after a couple of months.’

   ‘A couple of months! But I’ll have run out of money by then.’

   ‘I doubt that. I’m sure Byron will be very generous with his reward. That opal is conservatively worth over a million dollars.’

   ‘You’re joking!’ Gemma gasped.

   ‘Not at all. Prices are on the rise again.’

   ‘A million dollars...’

   ‘Are you upset that you’re probably not going to be an instant millionaire?’

   ‘Yes,’ she admitted. ‘I am.’

   ‘Money doesn’t always make you happy, Gemma.’

   She laughed. ‘Neither does being poor.’

   Now he laughed. ‘You could be right there. Well, at least you have a better chance than most poor people of ending up rich.’

   ‘How do you figure that out?’

   His head turned to rake over her once more. And once again, Gemma was shocked. Not so much by what she saw behind those grey eyes, but by the way they could make her feel. All hot and heady and helpless.

   ‘A beautiful young girl like yourself should have no trouble ensnaring a rich husband. Who knows? I might even marry you myself.’

   Gemma sat there, stunned. Till he bestowed a wry little smile on her and she realised he was only teasing.

   ‘You shouldn’t make fun of me,’ she said with reproach in her voice, but turmoil in her heart. For she would marry him in a flash if he asked her, this man she’d only met twice, but who already had her in the palm of his hand. It was a shocking realisation and one which underlined her own foolishness where Nathan Whitmore was concerned.

   Gemma had often wondered why women made fools of themselves over men, not having ever understood the strange power of that alien emotion, love. She’d also scorned girls who claimed to have fallen in love at first sight. What rubbish! she had used to think.

   Now, as she wallowed beneath the onslaught of a tidal force of longing, she had to accept she’d been wrong. This had to be love, this dreadful drowning feeling, this mad desire to go along with anything and everything this man suggested, even something as insane as marrying him.

   But of course he hadn’t meant it. She had to keep reminding herself of that. No doubt city men couldn’t resist teasing silly, naïve country girls. She simply had to pull herself together.

   He was smiling at her again, amusement in his eyes. ‘Who says I was making fun of you?’

   A very real resentment began to simmer inside Gemma, who was not a person to simmer in silence. ‘I can just see you marrying someone like me,’ she countered indignantly. ‘People would think you’d gone mad after having someone like Mrs Whitmore as your wife. Now she’s what I call beautiful!’

   ‘Is she now?’ he drawled. ‘Yes, well, Lenore is lovely to look at, no one would deny. But there are all kinds of beauty, my dear Gemma, and all kinds of wives. Speaking of which, you’ll be meeting Lenore tonight. She’s bringing my daughter over to stay for a while. Apparently, the little minx has been creating merry hell at home and is in need of a firm hand.’

   ‘How old is she?’ Gemma asked, picturing a recalcitrant six-year-old.

   ‘Fourteen.’

   Her head snapped round before she could stop it.

   ‘Yes, I know,’ he said drily. ‘I was a child groom. Twenty-one years young the day before my wedding. And yes, it was a shotgun affair.’

   Gemma caught his bitter tone and wondered if his marriage had been under duress right from the start. Marriage simply because the woman was pregnant seemed fraught with danger. The couple had to be in love as well. Still, it was hard to imagine a man not being in love with Lenore Whitmore. Maybe Nathan’s bitterness came from her not being in love with him.

   ‘Kirsty’s basically a good kid,’ Nathan went on. ‘But the divorce hit her hard. She just can’t seem to come to terms with it. Not that I blame her.’

   ‘You...you shouldn’t be bothering with me, then, if you’ve got your daughter coming.’

   ‘Why not? As I said, there’s plenty of room. Besides, you’re not that much older than Kirsty. She might relate to you better than Melanie or Ava.’

   ‘Melanie and Ava?’ Gemma must have sounded as perplexed as she felt, for Nathan chuckled.

   ‘Don’t worry. I haven’t got a harem installed. Melanie’s Byron’s housekeeper. She’s not that old—thirtyish, I guess—but unfortunately projects a personality that would make Mrs Danvers seem warm.’

   ‘Who’s Mrs Danvers? The previous housekeeper?’

   Nathan smiled. ‘A housekeeper certainly, but one of the fictional kind. I’ll tell you about her one day.’

   ‘Perhaps you should tell me who Ava is first.’

   ‘Ah, Ava. She’s Byron’s kid sister. A change-of-life baby. As scatty as anything and young at heart, but as old as Melanie. No, I think Kirsty’ll get along best with you. In fact, I might hire you as her minder while you learn Japanese. What do you say? Bed and board for nix in exchange for keeping an eye on the little devil before and after school?’

   Gemma’s head was whirling. Everything seemed to be going so fast. In the beginning, she’d only been going to stay the night. ‘I...I’ll have to think about it.’

   ‘Will you? Pity. I was hoping you’d just say yes. It would have been the perfect solution.’ His sideways glance carried an odd little smile which Gemma found quite unnerving. It was as though it hid some secret plan only he was privy to.

   ‘Perfect solution?’ she found herself stammering.

   ‘Yes. You would be safely accommodated till you find your feet and I wouldn’t have to worry about my wayward daughter. Still, I have to warn you, Gemma, I don’t take no for an answer lightly. I can be a very stubborn man when I want something.’

   Gemma gulped. She didn’t doubt him for a moment. But what, exactly, was he wanting?

   Oh, Ma...I’m trying to keep my head. I really am. But it’s hard. It’s really hard. If only he weren’t so...so...

   ‘How long before we get to your place?’ she blurted out, her stomach in knots.

   ‘Not far now. But it’s not my home. It’s Byron’s. It’s called Belleview Manor. But mostly we just call it Belleview.’

CHAPTER FOUR

   FOR a girl who had spent her entire life living in a dirt-walled dugout, Gemma’s introduction to Belleview was an overwhelming experience.

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