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TOM CAMPBELL slammed the door of his trusty rusty Ute, not bothering to lock it. Not because he wouldn't have cared if it was pinched. Or because the area had an unparalleled neighbourhood watch programme. But because it didn't need to.
The good people of Portsea were more likely to make a steal as doctors or lawyers or footballers than to steal a dilapidated tradesman's car. For Portsea was the land of high brushwood fences and vast homes with purely ornamental tennis courts and architecturally designed swimming pools posturing magnificently on the tip of the Mornington Peninsula.
Tom hitched his tool belt higher on his hips, threw a pink pillowcase full of old rags over his shoulder and strode through one such brushwood gate graced with the word 'Belvedere' burnt into a lump of moss–covered wood.
From the top of the dipping dirt driveway he caught glimpses of white wood and a slate–grey tiled roof, which was not an unusual combination for a house by the beach. What was unusual was that, unlike other properties in Portsea, Belvedere wasn't manicured to within an inch of its life. In fact it wasn't manicured at all.
As the foliage cleared, he saw a house that looked as if it had been built over fifty years by half a dozen architects with incompatible visions. At least five levels ambled down the sloping hill towards the cliff's edge. Most of the original pale green shutters were closed to the morning light and by the deep orange rust on their hinges he guessed many hadn't been opened in months. The rest was hidden behind what looked to be years of neglected foliage. If the local council had any idea that this place was in such disrepair they'd be up here in a Sorrento second waving their ordinances on beautification and escalating land value.
Many of the homes in Portsea were empty most of the year and needed nothing more than basic upkeep by overpaid full–time gardeners. As a hire–a–handyman he only did odd jobs. But this place… Already he could see it could do with a lick of paint. And the garden could do with some tender love and care, or a backhoe. It was a renovator's dream. And Tom would be sure to tell Lady Bryce all of that once he had a damn clue what he was doing there in the first place.
Tom smiled to himself. Lady Bryce. That was what the Barclay sisters, the doyennes of Portsea who ran the local haberdashery, had labelled her because she hadn't yet deigned to frequent their fine establishment.
he'd never met her either, though he had spied her driving down the Sorrento main street in her big black Jeep, large sunglasses and ponytail, eyes ahead, mouth in a determined straight line and fingers clamped to the steering wheel as though for dear life. And when weighing up working for a woman who at first glance seemed pretty highly strung against the time it would take away from his fishing he had considered declining politely. But, as usual, when it came to the crunch, he hadn't had it in him to say no.
He could picture his cousin Alex laughing at him even con– sidering turning down a damsel in distress, for Alex seemed to think Tom had some sort of knight in shining armour complex. Tom thought Alex ought to mind his own business.
He ducked out of the way of a low–hanging vine, watched his step for fear of turning an ankle and slowed as a magnificent ten–foot–high wood–carved double front door loomed amidst a shower of hanging ferns. The right door was ajar, but guarded by a sizeable old red–brown hound with a great big smiley–face charm with the word 'Smiley' written upon it hanging off his thick collar.
"Smiley, hey?" Tom said.
The dog lifted its weary head and blinked at him, its floppy ears and sad expression not changing a lick to show that he felt any pleasure at the unexpected company.
Tom reached down and gave the poor old soul a rub on the head. 'Is the lady of the house about?"
A sudden crashing noise followed by a seriously unladylike spray of words told Tom that the lady of the house certainly was about.
"Hello," he called out, but he was met with silence as sudden as the previous verbal spray had been. Not finding any evidence of a doorbell, he stepped over the melancholic guard dog and walked further inside the entrance to find himself face to face with a square stain on the wall, evidence that once upon a time a picture had hung there, a garden bench that had a mildewed look about it as though it had been relegated from outside, covered in a pile of unopened mail, and yet another fern living its sad, bedraggled life in a bright new ceramic pot.
Another curse word, this one softer than the last, caught his hearing and he followed it like a beacon to find himself in a huge main room with sweeping wooden floors in need of a good polish, lit bright by a series of uncurtained ceiling–to–floor French windows through which he had a thicket–shrouded view of the sun glinting off glorious Port Phillip Bay.
Images piled up in his mind of what he could do with this place if given half a chance. And the whole summer, and an open cheque book, and his old team at his side, and a time machine to take him back ten years… He shook his head to clear away the wool–gathering within.
The room he was in was empty. No furniture. No pictures on the walls. Nothing. Well, nothing bar a twisting cream telephone cord snaking across the middle of the room to the far wall, where a large grey drop cloth, buckets of paint, several flat, square structures draped in fabric, a rickety old table, which held numerous jars of coloured water and different sized paintbrushes, and an easel with a three–by–four–foot canvas slathered in various shades of blue.
And, in front of it all, wearing no shoes, paint–spattered jeans, a T–shirt that might at one time have been white and a navy bandanna covering most of her biscuit–blonde hair was the lady in question.
Tom cleared his throat and called out, 'Ms Bryce?"
She spun on her heel with such speed that paint from her brush splattered across the all–blue canvas.
Tom winced. It was red paint. 'Holy heck!" she blurted in a toned down version of the language from earlier. Her voice was husky, her high cheekbones pink and her pale grey eyes aglow.
Well, what do you know? Tom thought. My lucky day. For Lady Bryce was a knockout. He wished his cousin Alex was there with him now so he could poke him hard in the side and tell him—this is why you never say no to a damsel in distress. 'Who the hell are you?" the lady asked, seemingly not nearly as impressed with him. But the day was young. 'And what are you doing in my house?"
Tom actually thought it pretty obvious who he was considering the family of tools swinging low on his hips. But the lady looked as if she knew how to wield that paintbrush of hers as a lethal weapon so he answered her query.
"I'm Tom Campbell, your friendly neighbourhood handyman," he said, deciding to pull out all the stops in the hopes she wouldn't use that thing as a javelin. He smiled the smile that had got him out of trouble on any number of occasions and opened his arms wide to show he was not a threat in any way, shape or form. 'You called a few days ago, asking if I could come around today to fix…something."
The lady blinked. Several times in quick succession. Long eyelashes swooping against her flushed cheeks. Unfairly long eyelashes, he thought, especially for a woman who continued to send off such fierce keep–away vibes. Then her eyes scooted down to rest on his tools.
Tom clenched his toes in his boots to stop himself from shuffling under her acute gaze.
"Right," she said suddenly, punctuating the sharp word by pointing her skinny paintbrush his way.
And dammit if he didn't actually flinch!
Tom took a slow, deep breath. he'd let those crazy old Barclay sisters get inside his head so much that he'd actually begun to believe this poor woman could be some kind of nut job, simply because she hadn't found the need for haberdashery, whatever haberdashery might be.
So far nothing worse had happened than red splatters on her picture. So far she seemed merely antisocial at worst. And at best? Unimpressed by him in particular. Lucky him. 'Tom Campbell. The handyman,"she repeated. 'Okay."she unconsciously twirled the offensive paintbrush in her fingers like a cheerleader's baton before turning back to her worktable, choosing a water pot at random and swooshing the brush in the dirty liquid.
She glanced briefly at her big blue painting, saw the red splatters and swore again. It seemed she wasn't the type to pull her punches because she had company.
Tom felt his cheeks tugging into a smile. If the Barclay sisters knew her penchant for French he was quite sure they would drop the 'Lady' moniker quick smart.
With a shake of her head, she tiptoed off the drop cloth, scrunching her toes as she wiped her bare feet at the edge, and moved to join him.
She walked with a sort of natural elegance, like a ballet dancer, heel to toe, long legs fluid. Her skin had an almost translucent appearance and her clothes hung off her as if she had lost weight quickly and had not found the time or inclination to put it back on.
She was pretty tall too. She must have been near five–ten. Tom drew himself up to his full six feet and one half inch to compensate. And though her eyes were grey, when she wasn't glaring at him they held hints of the same pale blue found in the clear spring sky behind her.
She pulled the navy bandanna from her hair and used it to wipe her hands, then tucked it into the back pocket of her jeans. Next she yanked a hair–band from her ponytail and shook the straight length loose until it hung long and dishevelled halfway down her back, before gathering it all and folding it into a messy low bun.
This little act was merely a habit, he was sure. Her movements were fast, spare and not meant to impress. But they impressed him. In fact he found the whole hair shaking move pretty darned satisfying.
Or maybe that was the point after all. Maybe that was how she got her kicks—conning local workmen into her web for a quickie before tumbling them off the cliff on to the jagged rocks behind her secluded home. Perhaps her infrequent trips into town at the wheel of her suburban tank were to buy quicklime and shovels.
She strode past him and into the massive kitchen and, despite his lively imaginings, Tom followed. There were no scrawled pictures on the fridge. No post–its or shopping lists. No flowers on the window ledge. No jars full of mismatched utensils as were to be found in most of the homes he worked in.According to the Barclay sisters, she'd lived here for months, but the place looked as if she'd just moved in and hadn't unpacked all her boxes.
Still, though he had as much fun seeing inside other people's homes as the next guy, if she didn't have a job for him in the next ten seconds he was going to walk. It really was a glorious day outside and the fish would no doubt be biting…
"What would you like me to do for you, Ms Bryce?"
She switched on the kettle, then turned and leaned her backside against the sink and stared him down, her grey eyes shrewd, distant and enormous.
"Maggie," she said. 'Firstly I would like you to call me Maggie."
He nodded. 'Only if you call me Tom." Having been brought up to believe that a proper introduction required it, Tom reached out to shake hands.
Maggie reached forward herself and gave his hand a brisk pump. Her palm was neither soft nor smooth. Her lean hand rasped against his, her calloused palm creating a strange sensation against his own work–roughened mitt.
Nevertheless, he kept a hold a moment longer than he really ought. As he soon found himself caught in a wave of her perfume.
For, of all the scents to choose from in the big wide world, she wore dark and delicious Sonia Rykiel. He was sure of it. One Christmas a cute blonde at the perfume counter of a department store in Sydney had convinced him to buy it for his sister. But, considering Tess had been bright and vivacious, with not a lick of the dark and delicious about her personality, it had been a running joke between them that she'd never worn the stuff. But on Maggie Bryce he could have sworn the balmy scent wasn't worn so much as radiating from her pores.
Despite the thorns, and the colourful vocabulary, and the bohemian lack of furniture, she was seriously lovely. And he was definitely loveable. As far as he saw it, they were a summer romance just waiting to happen. All he had to do was convince her.
"So you're living all the way out here alone?" he asked, gradually letting her go.
"I have Smiley," she said, reclaiming her hand and crossing her arms. 'You no doubt met him at the front door."
"He's an interesting variety of male companionship," he said. 'I'll give him that."
She snorted elegantly, though Tom'd never known it possible to do so. Then, looking him dead in the eye, she said, 'I'll take Smiley over the rest any day."
"Sure," he said. 'Who wouldn't?"
Okay, so there must have been any number of women who thought him not their type; during his past life in Sydney when he'd at one time been seen as the catch of the town, and again since moving to Sorrento where he was now regarded as contentedly uncatchable. But at least he'd never had one look him the eye and as much as said, Don't even think about it. Until now.
"Smiley obviously can't wield a set of tools with any sort of finesse or I am beginning to believe you would never have called me for help," he said.
"And Smiley has already had a good talking to about that, I assure you."
Now that he knew how, Tom snorted elegantly himself, despite his bruised pride. For beneath the cool demeanour this one was spunky.And Tom liked nothing if not a spunky woman.
The kettle boiled and she blithely ignored him while she set to making coffee for them both.