It was Abby’s room-mate, Sue, who had inadvertently changed her life. The two of them had met working in a bar down on the Yarra waterfront in Melbourne and became instant friends. They were the same age and, like Abby, Sue had gone to Australia from England in search of adventure.
One evening, nearly a year ago, Sue told Abby that a couple of good-looking blokes, a bit older than them but very charming, had been in the bar, chatting to her. They said they were going to a barbie on Sunday with a fun crowd of people and to come along if she was free, to bring a girlfriend with her if she liked.
Having no better offers, they went. The barbecue was at a cool bachelor pad, a penthouse apartment in one of Melbourne’s hippest districts, with fine views across the bay. But in those heady first hours, Abby had barely taken in her surroundings, because she had been instantly and totally smitten with her host, Dave Nelson.
There were a couple of dozen other people at the party. The men, ranging from about ten years older than her to north of sixty, looked like extras from the set of a gangster film, and the women, dripping with bling, all seemed to have just stepped out of beauty salons. But she barely noticed them either. In fact, she hardly spoke a word to anyone else from the moment she set foot in the door.
Dave was a tall, lean, rough diamond in his mid-forties with a rich tan, short gelled hair and a world-weary face that had probably been seriously handsome in his youth, but now looked comfortably lived in. And that was how she felt, instantaneously, with him. Comfortable.
He moved around the apartment with an easy, animal grace, lavishly sloshing out Krug from magnum bottles all afternoon. He was tired, he said, because he had been playing poker for three days around the clock, in an international tournament, the Aussie Millions, at the Crown Plaza casino. He’d paid an entry fee of one thousand dollars, and had survived four rounds, building up a pot of over one hundred thousand, before being knocked out. A trip of aces, he’d told Abby ruefully. How was he to know the guy had two aces in the hole? When he had three kings, two hidden, for Christ’s sake!
Abby had never played poker before. But that night, after the rest of the guests had gone, he’d sat her down and taught her. She’d liked the attention, liked the way he looked at her all the time, told her how pretty she was, then how beautiful she was, then how good she made him feel just being there with him. His eyes scarcely left her face in all the hours they sat there together, as if nothing else mattered. They were good eyes, brown with a hint of green, alert but tinged with sadness, as if there was some loss hurting him deep inside. It made her want to protect him, to mother him.
She loved the stories he told her about his travels, and how he had made his fortune dealing rare stamps and playing poker, mostly on the internet. He worked a gambling system which seemed so obvious, when he explained it, and so clever.
Internet poker games took place all over the world, 24/7. He’d use the time zones, logging on to games that were being played where it was the small hours of the morning by people who were tired and often a little drunk. He’d watch for a while, then join in. Easy pickings for a man fully awake, sober and alert.
Abby had always been attracted to older men and this guy, who seemed so tough, yet was passionate about tiny, delicate, beautiful stamps and enthused to her about their links with history, fascinated her. For a girl from a staid British background, he was totally different from anyone she had ever met. And although there was that vulnerability about him, at the same time there was something intensely strong and manly that made her feel safe with him.
For the first time in her life, breaking her own rule with total abandon, she slept with him that very night. And she moved in with him just a couple of weeks later. He took her shopping, encouraging her to buy expensive clothes, and often came home with jewellery or a new watch or an insanely lavish bunch of flowers if he’d had a good poker win.
Sue had done her best to dissuade Abby, pointing out that he was a good deal older than her, that he had a somewhat uncertain past and a reputation as something of a ladies’ man – or, put more crudely, was a serial shagger.
But Abby had ignored all of that, dumping her friendship first with Sue and subsequently with the other friends she had made since arriving in Melbourne. Instead, she enjoyed meeting Dave’s older and – to her – much more glamorous and interesting circle. Big money had always had an allure for her and these people were all big spenders.
As a child, in her school holidays she had sometimes gone on jobs with her father, who ran a small floor and bathroom tiling business. She had loved helping him, but a stronger attraction for her was the houses – some of them really incredible – where rich people lived. Her mother worked at the public library in Hove and their little semi in Hollingbury, with its neat garden, which both her parents tended lovingly, was the extent of their horizons.
As she grew up, Abby felt increasingly constricted, and restricted, by her modest upbringing. In her teens she read the works of Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins and Barbara Taylor Bradford avidly, and of every other novelist who wrote about the lives of the rich and glamorous, as well as devouring OK! and Hello! magazines cover-to-cover every week. She secretly harboured dreams of vast wealth, and the grand houses and yachts in the sun that would come with it. She longed to travel and she knew, deep down, that one day she would get her chance. By the time she was thirty, she promised herself, she would be rich.
When a friend of Dave’s was arrested on three murder charges she was appalled, but she couldn’t help feeling a frisson of excitement. Then another of his circle was shot dead in his car, in front of his twins, while watching a children’s football training session. She began to realize that she was now part of a very different culture from the one she had grown up in and had previously understood. But despite her shock at the man’s death, she found the funeral exciting. To be there as part of all these people, to be accepted by them – it was the biggest turn-on of her life.
At the same time she began to wonder what else Dave was really up to. She noticed him sometimes fawning over the guys he had told her were the biggest players, trying to do some kind of business with them. One morning she overheard him on the phone telling someone that trading in stamps was a great way to launder money, to move it around the globe, as if he was trying to sell the concept to them.
She didn’t like that so much. It was as if she hadn’t minded all the time they were on the fringe, just hanging out in bars and partying with these people. But actually doing business with them – almost begging them to let him do business – lowered Dave in her eyes. And yet, deep in her heart, she felt she might be able to help him, if she could just get through the wall he seemed to have erected around himself. Because, after several months with him, she realized she knew no more about his past than when she had first met him, other than that he’d had two previous wives and both his divorces had been painful.
Then one day he dropped a bombshell.