The story is this: young Jessica Clavering learns the true story of her family and birth when the mysterious old opal miner who bought the family manse befriends her. Ben is a great character, full of stories and mischief. When he learns he is dying, he sends for his son, Joss Madden and arranges a marriage between the pair. Jessica agrees to the marriage as a way out of her family life, and they set out for Australia's opal fields and a home called Peacocks. Once there, Jessica finds herself beset by danger....physical and emotional. Will she find out what happened to the magnificent opal called The Green Flash at Sunset? Will she discover who and what is threatening her? And is her new husband a thief and a murderer? In a world where only the strong survive, and morality is defined by necessity, who can she trust?
The first half of the book is filled with lively detail, and Jessica's relationship with Ben unfolds in a believable, and interesting fashion. Ben's stories of the Australian Outback, opal mining, and his long life are fun and its easy to see why Jessica is so charmed by him. He brings a strong defiant streak to her stuffy Victorian world, and helps her to break free from her mournful, bitter family. She discovers that she is the product of a love story, her mother is really her grandmother, and her father supposedly deserted her mother on the eve of their wedding. Heady stuff.
Ben's engineering of a wedding between Jessica and his natural son, Joss, also seems a logical next step. Jessica longs to go to Australia and Joss is Ben's heir...if he marries Jessica and takes her back to Australia with him. Joss is one of the "peacock's" of the title. Proud, aloof, handsome, and headstrong, he is the perfect Holt hottie. Jessica is so turned off by the stories Ben tells her about Joss, that she is determined their marriage be "in name only", which makes Joss even more aloof and prideful.
The descriptions of a mining town in Australia, and the home called "Peacocks" are fascinating...as are the inner-workings of an opal mining company. Holt really makes the time and place come alive. The obsessive search for and possession of opals, in particular one called The Green Flash at Sunset is the current running throughout the book, and from it springs the mystery and danger Jessica finds herself in. She is both attracted to and deeply suspicious of Joss, and almost loses her life as a result.
What seems to be missing is a real relationship between Joss and Jessica. Lots of sparring, lots of suspicion, lots of misunderstandings....all pretty standard fare. Jessica's sudden understanding of her love for Joss seems abrupt, as does his love for her. It may be a result of this book having been written in the 1970's, as well as the author's more delicate handling of sex, but the whole affair seemed to lack chemistry.
I plan on re-reading other Holt novels, as well as those by Phillipa Carr, another pseudonym for the author, Eleanor Hibbert (see the sidebar). Like Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt is a part of cherished memories of learning about love through books while I was too young to learn about it in real life. She will always hold a special place in my "library of the heart" as a result.