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After the Affair

By´╝ÜMiranda Lee

CHAPTER ONE


'Sold! To the lady here in the front row.'

Cassie glanced at the successful buyer sitting next to her, then watched dispiritedly as Lot Forty-Seven was carried away. She sighed. The lovely blue vase would have been a perfect wedding present for her mother and Roger, but seventeen hundred dollars was ridiculously expensive.

'Lot Forty-Eight, ladies and gentlemen...a tea-service...a fine example of nineteenth-century silver...'

Cassie wrinkled her nose and sat back. She didn't like silver. No doubt it was a rare antique, but it was not to her taste.

The bidding started, again without her taking part. Really, the whole auction was proving to be a disappointment. When she'd heard that the river island of Strath-haven had been sold and selected items from the homestead were to be auctioned on site, Cassie had pictured a small affair, with every opportunity of picking up a bargain gift.

Instead, collectors had descended on the property in droves, coming from as far afield as Sydney and Brisbane. Cassie had even noticed a helicopter landing in the grounds when she was arriving.

The prices had been exorbitant, with Cassie growing more and more pessimistic. Her only consolation at the wasted afternoon was that she'd actually been able to visit this place without turning a hair. In nine long years she had avoided even looking at Strath-haven, which wasn't easy, since the island sat in the river directly opposite the Palmer farm.

Admittedly, when she'd driven down to the river and crossed the footbridge that connected the mainland to the island, she had refrained from looking down to the far point and the small building nestling there. But that was only to be expected. She was not a masochist!

The bidding continued, the auctioneer going through another twenty lots with amazing speed. Those Cassie could afford, she didn't like. Those she liked, she couldn't afford.

A glance at her watch told her it was nearly four-thirty. Jason's Saturday afternoon cricket match would be over soon, and if Cassie wasn't home by five her son would badger his grandmother into walking over to the auction. Cassie knew that her mother would be tired after an afternoon keeping the score at cricket, and Cassie already felt guilty over how often her mother looked after Jason, despite the older woman's insistence that she enjoyed it.

'Don't be silly, darling,' her mother had said more than once when Cassie had expressed her concern. 'You are my only child, Jason my only grandchild. I love being with him!'

Nevertheless, Cassie made up her mind to leave the auction after the next few lots.

'And finally, the paintings,' the auctioneer announced. He turned and indicated a selection leaning against the wall behind him. His assistant presented a rather small square-framed canvas, holding it up high before resting it on the table in front of Cassie.

"The first one is Lot Seventy. An untitled, unsigned work by an unknown artist. Yet clearly a work of some merit. And an attractive local landscape, too. Now, ladies and gentlemen, what am I bid...?'

Cassie stared.

And stared.

She could hardly believe it.

Her heart began to thud.

She recognised the distinctive use of the pale colours, the broad sweeps of the palette knife, the impressionistic style.

Shocked eyes swept over the scene.

Cassie's stomach churned as she realised that there was only one place where the artist could have set up his easel to paint this picture—where the river was on the left, the suspension bridge in the distance, and the impressive two-storeyed house in which she was now sitting on the right. She had seen that particular view herself many many times. From the far point of the island, on the riverbank, right next to the small studio.

The studio...where Dan had come to stay and paint that fateful summer; where she had posed so innocently for a portrait; where their affair had begun...and ended.

A wave of irony washed over Cassie. She thought of all the hours—the days—she had spent, wheeling Jason's pram through art galleries in Sydney, searching for one of Dan's paintings. It was a perverse desire...wanting to own one, wanting some tangible evidence of his existence. Her mind had kept telling her quite categorically that she should despise the man and never want to see him, or anything belonging to him, again.

Still, she had gone on searching during the entire time it had taken her to complete her veterinary science degree—a foolish, obsessive quest. She had returned home to Riversbend empty-handed, yet this particular painting had been here all along, barely a mile from her home.

'Two thousand... Last bid was yours, sir. Any advance on two thousand?'

Cassie came back to the reality of the auction with a jolt. The painting was being sold! Her mouth opened of its own accord. 'Twenty-one hundred.'

Eyes snapped her way. She had not bid before.

Cassie's pulse started racing. She knew that she was doing a mad thing. She was supposed to be buying a present, not giving in to some ghastly sentimental indulgence. It wasn't as though she felt anything for the man any more. Her love for him was well and truly dead. She felt absolutely and positively nothing.

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