Read The Australian Heiress Online

Authors: Margaret Way

The Australian Heiress

“You can leave now, Mr. Lombard. I can look after myself.”

“I’m sure you can, Camille, and very well, too.” Nick paused. “It may not seem like it now, but—considering everything that’s happened—you’d probably be happier away from here. I can help you, if you’d allow me.”

“Help
me?” Camille was uncertain whether to laugh or cry. “What kind of hypocrite are you?”

“I had nothing whatsoever to do with Hugh’s decision,” he said with some asperity. “I can’t imagine why you think I did.”

“You
must think I’m a fool! On your own admission, you won’t rest until you take full vengeance on the Guildford name.”

“But Camille…that doesn’t include
you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Way is a true legend in the world of romance writers and readers. She has been published for almost thirty years and is renowned for her strong, passionate characters and her wonderfully lyrical and evocative descriptions of Australia.

She was born and educated in the river city of Brisbane, and now lives within sight and sound of beautiful Moreton Bay in the state of Queensland. She delights in bringing her homeland alive for readers.

Prior to beginning her writing career, Margaret had a musical one—she was a pianist, teacher, vocal coach and accompanist. She still plays the piano seriously; she also collects art and antiques and is devoted to her garden.

Superromance is proud and thrilled to be publishing Margaret Way’s first
long
novel!

Books by Margaret Way

HARLEQUIN ROMANCE

3295—ONE FATEFUL SUMMER

3331—THE CARRADINE BRAND

3381—ONCE BURNED

3391—A FAULKNER POSSESSION

3427—HUSBANDS ON HORSEBACK (with Diana Palmer)

3455—GEORGIA AND THE TYCOON

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The Australian Heiress
Margaret Way

PROLOGUE

H
E WAS SCREAMING
aloud but he didn’t know it, ramming
Sea Eagle
up the thundering wall of water until she shot through the great curling crest only to fall into a yawning chasm. The boiling sea rushed over her teak decks like waterfalls. A sane man would never have taken the boat out, but he hadn’t been sane for some time. The best part of twenty years, if the truth were known. After the sordid events of the past year, the gale-force winds and the towering walls of water were like cleansers, washing him free of the slime of defeat.

Tropical cyclone Reva had set him on course. The monsoonal hurricane, spawned in the Coral Sea, was hammering North Queensland, causing big seas all along the Eastern Seaboard. He’d made his decision two days ago when he’d stared at his reflection in the executive-suite bathroom. He’d looked like hell, his skin blotched, his eyes dull and sunken. Even his hair had lost its crisp curl and lay limp and matted against his aching skull. He had never been a heavy drinker, but over the past few months he’d been downing whiskey as though it offered no more threat to his health than water.

Once they’d called him Superman. The business tycoon whose wildest and most daring schemes always
worked. Now he was beaten, broken, disgraced. On his way to jail if he was fool enough to wait around. From one of the highest fliers in the country to nothing more than a con man who’d somehow managed to build a business empire largely on sand. Not that he hadn’t always known it was going to happen. Even at his peak, he’d never felt secure. That was what came of one hell of a childhood with an old man who’d bashed him senseless until the day he’d turned sixteen. That was when he’d found out he was capable of anything. Even murder.

Now he was fifty-six years old. He hadn’t the slightest desire to reach fifty-seven, even if he
could
fight his way out of the cesspool.
Sea Eagle
would take him where he wanted to go.

He closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again, it was to another episode of terror.

Natalie!

She was standing only a few feet away from him. Her immense eyes, unsurpassingly lovely in life, were empty sockets, the once red-gold glory of her hair misted over with a tracery of white like a gruesome bridal veil. She wore something gauzy, insubstantial. He could see right through her. Not a ghost, he knew, but a figment of his disordered mind—Natalie the never-ending apparition. She had come back to witness his death as he’d always known she would.

Yet no one but Natalie had ever meant anything to him. That was what people didn’t understand. Horror lay at the heart of his spectacular success. He could never change what had happened that terrible day. Never share his dark secret with anyone. He could only strive to change the hell into which he’d descended.
He had worked like a dog to find relief. For years around the clock, almost too frightened to close his eyes.

The child, Camille? He couldn’t bear to look at her. People had interpreted it as grief. Only
he
knew that the child’s eyes, so like Natalie’s, told him he was a killer. He couldn’t take that, but he
had
provided for her. In his view, lavishly. She’d had everything. Expensive clothes. The finest education. To the world he was the doting father. Few had known the real story, and they hadn’t been about to say anything.

Only Lombard and his henchmen had dared to attack him openly. In the end they’d hounded him to death, pulling him down like a pack of savage dogs. Wasn’t it something he’d always known would happen? Something he’d always dreaded?

Natalie had been his great dream, the deepest, purest desire of his life. To take her from her family, her friends, the weak fool who’d loved her, had been the biggest challenge of his life. He’d handled it masterfully. All in the name of love. He was a ruthless bastard at heart. Shades of the old man! Yet all he’d ever wanted was the two of them to be together. Such was the tyranny of obsession.

The sea was hammering
Sea Eagle’s
steel hull. The seas were becoming so mountainous he half expected the yacht to break apart. If it wasn’t for the whiskey, he’d be frozen solid. He reached down, made a grab for the bottle. He barely got it to his mouth. Just a drunken swig with most of it washing down his chin before the wind plucked the bottle out of his bleeding fingers and hurled it spitefully into the churning sea.

Pain started clawing at his belly, nearly doubling
him over. It was time. He didn’t care. The worst that could happen to him had happened long ago.
Sea Eagle
heaved up on the next crest. He let go of the wheel, allowing the boat to pitch wildly toward the specter of Natalie as if he intended to destroy her again. He had a right. She was still his wife.

Just as he reached her, the apparition disappeared. His arms, which had been moving to embrace her, clutched at nothing.

Endless love and desolation, a continuation of the grief he’d carried for more than twenty years. There was no redemption for him. She had escaped him, after all, just as she’d escaped him that terrible day when he’d lost the last shred of his sanity. There was only one more drama to play out.

A great torrent of foaming water broke over the deck, beating him to his knees. He slid down the deck, making not the slightest effort to gain purchase anywhere. It was all a question of knowing
when
to give in. With the furies singing in his ears he allowed himself to be swept into the black whirling maelstrom. Let the sea take him. Let the fish strip his bones.

CHAPTER ONE

I
NSIDE THE
G
UILFORD
mansion the crush of people was so great Camille began to wonder if anyone would get to see the paintings. It was what they were here for: the collectors, the socialites, the media personalities, the art establishment, just the right mix of money and glamour to preview her father’s internationally recognized art collection soon to go to auction. The art first, then the antiques, finally the house, a magnificent neoclassical mansion Harry Guilford had built on the shores of Sydney Harbour, arguably the most beautiful harbor in the world.

The house was a splendid achievement, a jewel in the crown, but it was nothing compared to the business empire over which her father had once presided. For many years Harry Guilford had stood head and shoulders above the rest. Superman, with the fabled Midas touch. Small wonder even his many enemies found it near impossible to believe he’d lost everything. Close to a billion dollars, gone like a puff of smoke.

Many were still convinced he had somehow rigged his suicide at sea, only to disappear like the infamous Lord Lucan. Debris from his yacht,
Sea Eagle,
had been found, but never Harry Guilford’s body. It had been consigned to the deep. Or maybe Argentina, said the skeptics.

Camille and the few who’d been close to Harry accepted his suicide. It was just what Harry would do and just the way he would do it. No note had been left for his daughter. No expression of sorrow or regret. No secret bank account in Switzerland. No hidden nest egg, only notoriety and crushing debt. On this night of nights Camille had gone from being a wealthy heiress happily engaged to a handsome young businessman to a woman possessed of little more than youth, health, intelligence and her tragic mother’s legendary beauty.

Yet this same young woman, dressed in a stunning gown of apple green chiffon, the fitted strapless bodice embroidered in green, pink and gold, moved with poise and dignity among the crowd. It was her job to greet, to introduce, to circulate, to offer information on the collection she knew intimately. She’d lived with it all her life, had even begun to acquire a modest reputation as a connoisseur. But then, she’d always had Claude Jameson, the distinguished art critic, dealer and author, as her honorary uncle and mentor. Claude was here tonight, as was the trustee of the bankrupt estate, Bruce Barnard, senior partner of the firm of chartered accountants, Brooks Barnard. Reserve prices had been set on all the paintings, but Barnard had the final word. Camille was grateful he was such a nice man. In their dealings with each other he treated her with courtesy and consideration. Which wasn’t always the case. Many people wanted revenge on the Guilford name. Innocent as she was, Camille had already found that out.

It was from the head of the upper-level gallery she found herself witnessing the arrival of Philip Garner,
her ex-fiancé his arm loosely around the waist of Robyn Masterman. They were moving through the open doorway into the white marble atrium with its threestory rotunda, the dome inspired by a Florentine cathedral. Philip, who was of course familiar with the house, was looking up, pointing out details on the dome to Robyn, who was doing her level best to look unimpressed.

Where can I hide?
Camille thought, knowing there was no sanctuary anywhere.

Many of the guests along the gallery had already moved to the balustrade to savor the arrival. It was a piece of theater, and the timing was perfect. It was faint comfort to Camille that old-guard society was turning its collective head away in disapproval. She herself tried blinking in the vain hope it might somehow make the pair dematerialize, but their images remained—glossy, glamorous and very real. She wanted to cry out in protest, but instead, took a deep calming breath and turned away.

A distinguished-looking couple moved toward her, recognizing, no doubt, that she might need help over a bad moment. Sir Marcus Kershaw, High Court judge, and his wife, Julia, a handsome woman with remarkable eyes and steel gray hair, herself a brilliant lawyer and advocate of women’s rights. Their wellbred faces were perfectly smooth, but not for a moment had they missed the entrance or the subsequent nervous charge in the atmosphere.

Lady Kershaw clasped Camille’s arm, pressing it ever so slightly. “Wretched people! Head up, my dear. It’s the only way.”

So supported, Camille’s poise held. Now wasn’t the
time to become involved in her own shock. That was for later, when she was alone. Not everyone was as kind as the Kershaws. A very large woman draped in violet chiffon began declaiming the merits of the paintings in a very loud voice, and this offered a moment’s distraction. The woman paused before a radiant Charles Condor, leveled a magnifying glass over the famous signature. Surely everyone knew the late Harry Guilford had been a notorious con man!

Lady Kershaw offered a sardonic aside, and Camille found herself laughing. She’d always liked Julia, even though some people, while admiring her, found her a rather daunting figure.

Soon other guests wandered over to join them. Elegant, civilized people adept at small talk.

It will pass,
Camille thought.
All I’ve got to do is hang in there.

But where was Linda? She needed her badly. Linda, who was married to Stephen Carghill and expecting her first child, had been her best friend from their first day at boarding school when two lost and lonely little girls had sought and found comfort in each other’s company. Linda knew better than anyone how vulnerable Camille was tonight. But even Linda had been wrong—she’d been certain neither Philip nor Robyn would have the gall to show up. But Robyn Masterman wasn’t a woman to be easily embarrassed. She enjoyed collecting scalps, then boldly showing them off. Preferably right under the loser’s nose.

Camille risked another downward glance. The couple were now on their way to the grand sweeping staircase with its ebony railings of delicate wrought iron. The exchange of greetings continued without pause. It
was apparent Robyn was enjoying herself. She had one of those voices that carried. She could probably have made it in the theater, Camille thought.

Flashbulbs went off, unquestionably to the delight of this pair, who lived to be photographed. Camille had to admit they looked marvelous together. Perfect foils. Robyn, a dramatic brunette in the style of Paloma Picasso, wore a long red crepe shift spangled with sequins. The dress had shoestring straps, and one side of the skirt was split to the thigh. Camille recognized it as an original Valentino, crushingly expensive. A string of diamonds glittered around her throat Pendant earrings, unashamedly faux but as extravagant as waterfalls, swung almost to her shoulders. Her hair was drawn back tightly from her strong-boned face and tucked into an elaborate braided hairpiece.

Camille was forced to survey Philip through veiled eyes. Once he had cast a spell on her, and she feared he could do it again. Emotions stabbed, old memories. The knowledge that their love was no more than her own desperate need hurt terribly. She’d accepted what Philip was. The troubling thing was it still cut her to the quick.

He looked superb in evening clothes. Medium height, slight of build, but elegant. The light burnished his blond hair, enhanced the dazzling blue of his eyes. He looked like an aristocrat That was his cover.

Philip
she thought with intense disenchantment Once he’d been her support and her comfort. Her best friend. Overnight he’d turned into the man who’d walked away. Run, really. No use ducking it.

It had been easy for Philip to break through her defenses. For after a lifetime of emotional deprivation,
she’d finally found in him someone of her own. She knew now that a woman of substance would have rejected him out of hand.

While Robyn preened, Philip appeared slightly nervous. What was he expecting? That she’d rush up and berate him? It wouldn’t happen.

She was the Ice Princess. The Australian Heiress. The press had dubbed her both and the labels had stuck. Even now.

It wasn’t long after her father’s death that Philip had come to her, taken her tenderly in his arms and, as she abandoned herself to the comfort he offered, told her gently she deserved far better than he could offer. It was then she had broken her strict code of nonviolence. She’d taken one really good swipe with her ring hand, in the process damaging Philip’s perfect straight nose.

The memory still gave her a wry laugh. When all was said and done, Philip had only wanted her for her money.

Camille’s somber reflection came to a halt when at last Linda appeared. Petite, with shining brown hair and huge doleful brown eyes, her friend hurried toward her.

“You saw them?” Linda’s husky voice shook with outrage.

“Who
didn’t?”
Camille tried for humor.

“Have they no decency?”

“None at all, apparently.”

“In two minutes they’ll be on us,” Linda warned.

“Well,
I’m
not going to duck.”

“Neither am I. But, oh, Milly, don’t you wish he’d drop dead on the spot?”

Camille sighed. “Yes, but I don’t suppose he’s
that
desperate for attention.”

“He was never good enough for you,” Linda said with a fresh surge of anger. “He’s a con man, always was.”

“I wish I’d known that before he conned me.” Camille made an attempt to change the subject. “I have to tell you you look fantastic in that outfit.”

Linda glanced down at the exquisite blue-and-gold sari she wore and smiled, revealing a deep engaging dimple. “A brain wave and just perfect for a pregnant lady. I know you’re trying to distract me, Milly, but I’m still thinking about Philip and Robyn. They’ve overstepped the mark this time. Most people are on your side, though. What tears me up is that you were so unlucky. You could have had anyone you wanted. Why Philip?”

Camille sighed again. “In part my own insecurities. I needed someone to love me and I thought he did.”

“He
did
love you, insofar as he’s capable of loving anyone.”

“Me and my fortune. Emphasis on the latter.”

“Probably,” Linda admitted. “Strange—Harry never objected to him?”

“I don’t think Harry really cared, as long as he thought he had control. We were never exactly close, my father and I, as you know.”

“Well, it was
his
loss he never got to know his beautiful clever daughter.”

Camille’s expression turned bleak. “Let’s face it, Lindy. Harry didn’t want me, but I was in his life. As for Philip, he didn’t make a fool of me. I did that all by myself.”

T
HIRTY MINUTES LATER
every name on the guest list had been checked off. The entrance foyer, the gallery, the magnificent reception rooms lit by spectacular chandeliers were thronged with people.

Many of the guests had passed the Guilford mansion innumerable times, but few had ever been invited in. With Harry Guilford’s millions and buccaneering style it was expected the house would be the last word in knock-’em-dead opulence. But far from ostentatious, the interior decor was remarkable for its classic good taste.

Most people assumed it was the work of a leading decorator, but in fact Camille had taken on the job herself; once her father had decided she knew what she was about, he’d given her carte blanche. Of course, Harry would have found it inexcusable in a woman
not
to be able to decorate a house. That was women’s work, after all. A man’s work was making money.

But now Harry was dead and the winding-up process was excruciatingly painful. Some might have considered their only child their greatest treasure. Not Harry Guilford. For nearly all her life Camille had borne the pain and bewilderment of rejection. It had been a terrible thing to know she offered her father no parental delight. Perhaps a son would have mattered.

It had taken one of her father’s top executives to suggest she could become a real asset to the corporation. Not really believing it, her father had taken her on and Camille had bloomed—to the extent it seemed possible her father might notice her as a person in her own right

Yet he never had. Now he never would. Because no
one had ever mattered to Harry Guilford except his wife, Natalie. Camille’s mother.

Her mother had died when Camille was six, when she was no longer a baby but a child capable of feeling terrible grief. The tragic story was as disturbing now as ever. Natalie Guilford had drowned, washed off her husband’s yacht in a violent squall. The horror of the incident had almost sent her adoring husband mad.

As for Camille, she’d spent her lonely childhood asking God
why?
All the children she knew had mothers. Mothers who loved and cared for them. Natalie’s sudden violent death had created an unfillable void in her child’s life. Worse, Natalie had been pregnant, and so Camille had also lost a sibling, whether a brother or sister, she still didn’t know. The subject seemed a terrible taboo and was never mentioned. Then she’d been shunted off to boarding school while her father, his heart turned to stone, concentrated on forging a business empire.

A flash from a nearby camera brought Camille back to the present. Moments later she was asked to pose beneath her own portrait. It was the only painting she actually owned. Life-size, it had been commissioned by Harry to mark the occasion of her twenty-first birthday, four years ago. Not because he loved her, but because of the highly favorable publicity it garnered. Harry was cast in the press as the doting father who showered his daughter with fabulous gifts. Although the notion was a myth, Camille had never said a word to dispel it.

For the next few minutes flashbulbs exploded in her face while she obligingly posed before her seven-foothigh portrait. In it she wore an extravagant gown of
lace and taffeta. The deep green backdrop was the perfect foil for her mane of hair, which was a glorious mixture of red, gold and amber. It foamed in sumptuous waves and curls over her shoulders and haloed a classically beautiful face, dominated by large lustrous eyes and a full curving mouth. The artist had captured wonderfully the color and texture of the skin, the luminosity of white sloping shoulders and the rather daring décolletage he had insisted upon for such a bravura painting. The hands, always a real test of a painter’s skill, were judged perfect, the tapering fingers adorned with a single ring—a diamond-wreathed aquamarine.

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