PROLOGUE


I was checking my email when Nadya called – my wedding invitations were ready. She wanted to deliver them personally rather than send them by courier to our ranch in South Africa. I didn’t think it was necessary for her to make the hour-long trip from Nelspruit, but she insisted. I knew what to expect: a gold butterfly printed on the left corner of the front page and the text in golden writing on the second page. I chose the butterfly as the special symbol of my wedding because it perfectly reflected the new beginning of my life. That’s how I had felt since finding the love I’d been looking for – transformed.

As soon as Nadya arrived, she showed me the invites. The butterfly was missing. “What happened to the butterfly?” I smiled nervously. Surely she wouldn’t mix up my invitations with someone else’s?

“It’s better than you think,” Nadya said quickly, opening the invitation and pointing to a butterfly floating on the inside. Its wings worked as a clasp – by pushing them through a little slit on the front, the butterfly could be on either page. I bubbled with smiles.

Just as she was leaving, I thought of a way to show her my gratitude. I rushed to the cellar to fetch a bottle of Cap Classique 1999 J.C. Le Roux that had been bought especially for the wedding. When I gave it to Nadya, the sparkle in her eyes showed it all; she was as pleased as I was.

Back in the house, I had another look at the invitation. On the front were the gold initials J & A. I pushed butterfly wings through the small perforation to unclasp the invitation.

The wedding date suddenly looked strangely familiar. Do I know someone who has a birthday or something special on the same date? The telephone rang. It was John. He was calling from his office, which is 100 metres away from the main entrance, inside the massive free-flying aviary connected to our house. “Darling, we have visitors. Let’s take them for a game drive. Will you bring the bakkie, please, and the cooler box with some drinks?”

Because our ranch was the only place in the world where you might see more than a hundred white rhinos at once, we often had visitors. When John turned fifty he decided to leave Johannesburg, where he’d been a successful property and hotel industry entrepreneur. He planned to semi-retire and breed rare wild animals while still running his time-share resort business. Putting city life behind him, he’d bought a run-down ranch as well as nine neighbouring overgrazed cattle farms, a total of 7,000 hectares. Now, fourteen years later, the ranch was a healthy ecosystem. One that was perfect for John's new passion – saving the African rhino from extinction.

I drove the pickup truck, known as a ‘bakkie’ in South Africa, to John’s office. The bakkie had been converted especially to take people on game drives. John, along with our three dogs, was already outside greeting our visitors. They were John’s old friends, Carl and his wife, Nadya, from the Eastern Cape. We’d seen them a month ago, in April, when we had been there for a reunion with John’s family. Back then, I hadn’t even been engaged.

Nadya and I quickly settled in the rear of the bakkie on one of the soft green benches, while Carl sat inside the cab next to John. As soon as we started moving, I shared with Nadya my excitement about receiving the wedding invitations from the woman who shared her name.

“Is there some other news on the way?” She gently patted my hand. “There is,” I laughed, watching her wide smile. “But not the news the whole of Malelane is talking about. I’m not pregnant. I proposed to John on our last night in the Cape. We decided to have the wedding in July, when my family from Ukraine come to visit us. Why wait for another year?”

“You proposed to John?” Nadya exclaimed. “My girl, I need to hear that story.” She didn’t need to ask twice; I was ready to share it with the whole world. “We’d arrived in the little town of Greyton late that afternoon. It had been rainy and cold all day long, and as soon we checked into the guest house, John asked the owner if she could recommend the nicest restaurant in town where we could have an early dinner.

“The rain was bucketing down by the time we found the place she’d recommended. It looked like a mini castle. As soon as we’d parked, a man in a yellow raincoat, holding a black umbrella, rushed over to help me out. He walked me inside the restaurant. A moment later, John joined us.

“The maître d’ greeted us at the entrance and asked a nearby waiter to show us to our table. The place was half empty, and as we walked through the room, I felt as though all eyes were on us. We were seated at a table next to a fireplace…”. While telling my story to Nadya, we drove past one of our dams. Lying in the shadow of a tall mountain, it was covered in blue and white water lilies, a favourite place for our pink flamingos. I pointed them out to Nadya. “John bought the first few breeding pairs from the zoo – it’s illegal to take flamingos from the wild. The rest we’ve bred here. ”

“Spectacular view! Not many people in South Africa have such a pleasure at their home,” she said. “You are a lucky girl.”

“I know.” I laughed.
“Darling,” John called from the cabin. “You’ve been talking non-stop as usual. Give Nadya a chance to watch the animals.”

“We’re multitasking,” I called back. My eyes met his in the rear-view mirror and I blew him a kiss. “The flamingo’s call is a lot like the honking noise geese make.” I turned to Nadya. “With your eyes closed you wouldn’t know the difference.” “I should remember to test that.” She smiled.

As we approached a large open area where rhinos roamed among roan antelope, kudu, tsessebe and impala, I fell silent. Even though I’d seen this place hundreds of times before, I still found it fascinating every time I experienced its beauty. It was like being inside a National Geographic film. A family of warthogs, a species related to the wild pig, hurtled into the bush, their tails up like little antennae, while a group of zebras grazed nearby. Ostriches chased each other not far from a small herd of buffalo, who seemed completely oblivious to what was going on. Close by, under the green umbrella of an acacia tree, stood four white female rhinos and their babies. One of the youngsters, almost half its mother’s size, wanted to suckle and was making protracted, squeaking noises. Rhinos started arriving from all over the ranch – they knew it was time for the tractor to arrive with food. In the dry season, the white rhinos were given a supplementary feed of dried alfalfa and pellets, formulated by a wildlife nutritionist.

When Nadya had finished taking photographs, we drove on and I continued my story: “At the restaurant, while enjoying a glass of red wine and the warmth of the fire, I started thinking about the future. John and I had dated for nearly two years and lived together for another two. Being a romantic, I’d hoped John was going to propose on Valentine’s Day, but he didn’t. I couldn’t help wondering whether he was ever planning on marrying me. So I decided to test the waters. “‘Do you think a new ring would look nice on me?’ I put my left hand next to John’s.

“‘Darling, forget it.’ He covered my hand. ‘You had your opportunity two years ago!’

“‘What opportunity?’ I was confused. “‘It was a leap year two years ago. It’s when a woman can propose to a man. But you were too busy chasing after your other boyfriends.’

“I didn’t know there was some tradition when a woman could propose to a man. My immediate reaction was to say that he’d been just as busy with his girlfriends. But then I realised I had the perfect response. After counting – one, two, three – I stood up, walked around the table and knelt down right in front of him. “‘Would you like to be my husband?’ I said, looking into his face, my heart pulsing in my throat. I knew he’d never expect such a thing from me. John’s eyes grew wide as he jumped up from his chair to lift me so that I was standing next to him.

“‘Of course,’ he replied, hugging me tightly.”
Nadya shook her head with a smile. “You are a brave girl, Albina.”
“I am!” I smiled back.

We stopped for evening drinks near the biggest dam on the ranch. I’d packed beers for the men and Lime Breezers for the ladies. Nadya got out of the bakkie and joined the men while I stayed to enjoy the last rays of the sunshine on my face. My thoughts returned to the freshly printed wedding invitations. Why does the date of my wedding feel so familiar?

A few seconds later, a powerful wave of realisation surged through my body, and I opened my eyes. I’d remembered! It was the date on which, ten years earlier, I had lost my virginity.

It was the day I had been raped.

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