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Keira keely climbed out of her car and pushed her sunglasses up to rest on the top of her head before double-checking the written instructions the estate agency had given her.
Since she'd turned off the highway several kilometres back she'd travelled along this gravel lane for precisely six and a quarter minutes, just as the receptionist at the real estate agency had told her to.
This had to be the place. She hadn't passed a single house on the road so far, and there wasn't another house in sight. This had to be itCandlebark Farm.
She hoped so. The big old homestead with its wide shady verandas looked inviting in the December sunshine, and after six hours on the road inviting was exactly what she needed. The country township of Gunnedah was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Sydney, but so far it hadn't lived up to its promise of easygoing country hospitality.
She stretched her arms above her head and shook out her legs, did her best to banish her irritation.
'Some old-fashioned country hospitality is exactly what we need, Munchkin.' She patted her still-flat tummy. 'And, believe me, this place looks like it delivers that in spades.'
She pushed through the front gate. The lawn was a little long and the shrubs a little shrubby, but that only added to the charm of the place. She paused, breathed in the country goodness, and willed some of its peace to enter her soul.
The day had proved a complete shambles so far. Not only had the estate agent not been free to take her through her aunt's housealthough when she'd rung him during the week he'd assured her it wouldn't be a problembut her appointment with her aunt's solicitor had been cancelled too. 'We can reschedule it for Wednesday, Ms Keely.'
Wednesday! It was Saturday. She was only here for a week. With tight lips the secretary had pencilled Keira in for Tuesday morning for a 'short' appointment. Whatever that meant. Keira reminded herself the cancellation hadn't been the secretary's fault.
Her platform sandals with their pink, lime and aqua strapssuper-comfortable and strangely accommodating of the way her feet had started to swellclattered against the wood of the veranda. They were so noisy she half expected to find someone waiting for her at the front door by the time she reached it. But no.
She tried the old-fashioned knocker and waited. Knocked again. And waited some more.
She glanced back at her car. She had groceries that would spoil soon if she didn't get them out of the heat. Had the Hilliersthe family who lived at Candlebarkforgotten she was coming?
She followed the veranda around to the back of the house. 'Hello?'
After a moment the back screen door jerked open. A boy stared out at hera teenage boy, wearing a scowl. Keira swallowed. 'Um.. is this Candlebark Farm?' 'Yeah.'
She pointed back the way she'd come. 'You didn't hear me knocking on the front door?'
The scowl deepened. 'No one uses the front.' Right. She'd remember that for future reference. She drew in a breath and had opened her mouth, meaning to introduce herself, when the boy muttered, 'If you're looking for my dad he's in the barn.' With that he disappeared back inside the house, the screen door clattering shut after him.
Keira blinked. Right. The, um.barn.
Shading her eyes, she surveyed the landscape spread before her. Just beyond the fence line, stretching for as far as the eye could see, waist-high stalks nodded and swayed, making intriguing patterns as the breeze travelled through them, their golden heads bouncing and jostling. Wheat. Unsurprising, she told herself. After all, Gunnedah was smack-bang in the middle of New South Wale's wheat belt. And although it made a fine sightpretty, evenshe hadn't travelled six hours to admire wheat fields.
She turned her attention to the array of outbuildings on her left. Without further ado she set off towards the largest one.
Were all teenagers surly?
'Ooh, Munchkin, we're going to have some serious talks before you hit that age.'
The thought of the baby nestled safely inside her made Keira's chest expand. She flung her arms out, as if to hug the world, and lifted her face skywards to relish the warmth of the sun. A laugh escaped her. So what if there were a few hiccups this week? That was what she was here to sort out.
Just like that, her usual optimism reasserted itself. She chuckled again, and admitted maybe that had more to do with the fact that her nausea had receded. Finally.
The barn's double doors stood wide open. 'Hello?' She stepped inside. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden dimness. No sound but her own disturbed the quiet. She moved further inside and made her voice louder. 'Hello?'
'There's no need to shout.'
She nearly jumped out of her skin when a man, flat on his back on some kind of trolley, emerged from beneath a tractor almost directly in front of her. She backed up a few steps to give him more room. He had grease on one cheek and both hands. He didn't get up. His scowl, identical to the teenage boy's back at the house, proclaimed their kinship.
'You lost? Lookhead back the way you came. When you hit the sealed road turn left and go straight ahead. Gunnedah is about fifteen minutes away.'
He slid back under the tractor again. She swore she heard him add in an undertone, 'Where you can buy a map.'
Ten minutes ago she might well have been tempted to kick himnot literally, of course. Now the misunderstanding only made her laugh. 'This is Candlebark Farm, isn't it? If so, then I'm not lost. Are you Mr Hillier?'
With a long-suffering sigh he emerged again. 'Yeah? So? Who wants to know?'
'I'm Keira Keely.'
He didn't sit up, so she rested her hands on her knees and grinned down at him. 'I'm renting your room for the next week.'
Those dark eyes blinked. The face shuttered closed, but the frown deepened, carving deep grooves either side of his mouth. Keira's renewed optimism wavered. It wasn't the kind of mouth that promised country hospitality.
'You sure you're meant to arrive today?'
'A hundred percent certain.'
'Right.' In one fluid motion he was on his feet and wiping his hands on a rag that hung from the back of his jeans. 'Didn't Jason show you your room?'
The surly teenager?
The man still hadn't cracked a smile. She swallowed. He was tall, lean-hipped and broad-shouldered. She hadn't noticed that when he'd been sprawled at her feet. He was glaring too. And his words sounded like an accusation.
It hit her then how quiet it was out here how isolated. She took a step back.
'Youuh' he lifted a hand in her direction and made as if to grab her 'might want to watch'
She took another hasty step back, her sandal-clad foot landing in an oozing, steaming pile
'where you're going.'
of something disgusting.
She stared down at her foot, and then back at him. 'What am I standing in?'
He didn't offer to help. In fact he didn't do anything at all. Gritting her teeth, she lifted her foot clear of the mess and placed it on firmer ground, closing her eyes when the stuffed squished between her toes like slimy, putrid mud.
To her disbelief, when she opened them again she found the man making as if to lie back down on his trolley and disappear beneath the tractor again.
'I'll finish up here, and then I'll show you your room.'
She didn't mean to snap, but the stuff oozing between her toes had started her stomach roiling and churningagain. If she was going to throw upagaintoday, she wanted that to happen in the privacy of a bathroom, not on some roadside and certainly not in this man's barn.
Nobody had warned her that being pregnant could make her feel so awful. Surely the very definition of morning sickness was sickness that happened in the morning. Not all day!
She'd never stepped in horse manure before so she didn't know what her reaction in an unpregnant state might be. But in her current ten-weeks-gone condition her scalp started to tighten and a film of perspiration clung to her skin, making her oppressively clammy.
She pointed to her foot. She didn't look at it. She didn't trust her stomach to cope with the sight. 'Lead me to a tap. Now!'
She thought he was going to refuse, but with a cut-off oath he strode out of the barn's double doors back towards the house. Keira half-limped, half-squelched after him. Back in
the sunlight, she dragged in deep breaths of aircleansing breaths. The faint breeze cooled her skin, rescuing her from the worst of her clamminess.
Her scowling host slammed to a halt and pointed to a tap situated to one side of the back steps. Keira hobbled over to it, turned it onhardand shoved her foot, platform shoe and all, beneath the jet of water, uncaring that it soaked the bottoms of her three-quarter-length jeans. When she was sure she could bend down without falling over, she unbuckled her shoe and left it where it fell, and set to scrubbing her foot clean, ridding herself of the smell that had made her stomach rebel so violently.
When that was done she hobbled across to the back steps, sat, then shoved her head between her knees and concentrated on her breathing.
She was aware of Mr Hillier's stunned surveillance irritation emanated from him in tidal waves of folded arms and half-muttered imprecations. Thankfully, though, he didn't address anything to her directly. Finally the nausea receded, and she was able to lift her head and meet his gaze.
And then wished she hadn't. His lip had curled. He was staring at her as if she was something unmentionable that had crawled out from beneath a rock.
'Do you threaten to faint every time you step in horse manure?'
She opened her mouth to tell him horse manure wasn't an occupational hazard in the city, but her mind got sidetracked when the actual sight of him finally registeredwhen her eyes flashed an unforgettable image to her brain. He stood with legs apart and hands on hips. She doubted whether he cared two hoots about how he came across physically, but whether he meant it to or not his current posture showed off the length of his legs, the strength of his thighs, not to mention the breadth of those shoulders, to perfection.
The woman in her heartily approved of all that masculine muscle and texture. The physiotherapist, however, noted how tension gathered in the muscles of his neck and shoulders, not to mention his back. If this man wasn't careful he'd end up with a frozen shoulder or
One of those dark eyebrows lifted. In the next instant heat flooded through her as she tore her gaze away.
She hadn't been staring! She hadn't!
She dragged herself to her feet. 'I had a touch of car sickness,' she mumbled, as if that could explain everything. 'I, um, I have groceries in the car that I really ought to unpack.'
The snapped-out word had her swinging back to him. His gaze had narrowed. 'You do understand that all you're renting from me is a room? This isn't some fancy bed and breakfast or farm stay holiday.'
This was the country hospitality she was to expect? Keira drew herself up to her full height. 'Mr Hillier' she injected her voice with as much ice as he 'the agency with whom you advertised your room assured me I would have the use of a kitchen to prepare my own meals.'
Since becoming pregnant she rarely ate out. And in the last couple of days it hadn't been just because she was frantically saving her pennies now she had a baby on the way, but because unfamiliar cooking smells assaulted her in a way they never had before, making her sick. It seemed safer to stay away from restaurants.
She glared. 'Are you telling me I've been given the wrong information?'
He stared at her as if appalled at the thought of sharing his kitchen with her. He made no reply. Keira had to blink and swallow and fight hard to keep her shoulders from slumping. 'I understand that it's only two weeks till Christmas, and that this is a busy time of year. I've obviously arrived at an inconvenient time for you and your family. I won't bother you any further. I'll take my obviously outdated assumptions about old-fashioned country hospitality and make other arrangements.'
She spun around and headed for her car. It was only after she turned the corner of the house that she realised she'd left her soiled shoe behind. She didn't break stride. She wasn't going back for it. It was ruined now anyway.
She was leaving without even looking at the room? She'd dragged him away from his tractor, when there'd only been one more nut to tighten, for this?
Luke considered letting her just leave. The truth was he'd rather undergo a root canal than rent out his room to a woman like her. At least at the dentist's he wasn't expected to make polite conversation. Old-fashioned country hospitality? He didn't have time for that kind of nonsense. He had a farm to run.
He shifted his weight. The thing was she'd paid her week's rent up front. And he'd already spent it on a deposit for the hire of next month's combine harvester.
'Wait!' He swept up her shoe and set off after her. 'You've already paid for the room.' And he didn't want to dip into the overdraft to provide her with a refund.
She didn't turn around.
'And you've forgotten your shoe.'
She whirled around at that. 'It's ruined!'
'No, it's not.' Typical city girl. Get a bit of honest dirt on something and it was instantly unsalvageable. No concept of recycling or making do. But then he noticed her sandal still had greenish streaks of horse manure clinging to it. He pulled the rag from the back of his jeans and set to wiping it clean.
It took a major effort of will not to curl his lip at the sandaltwo-inch cork platforms with a criss-crossing of colourful straps. This wasn't so much a shoe as a silly piece of confection. A bit like the lady herself.
He glanced at her again and his skin grew tight. She was too young, too fresh and pretty, too shiny. It hurt his eyes to look at her.
She folded her arms and tapped a foot. 'Well, that's an improvement.'
He snapped to, glanced down, and found that while he'd been busy cataloguing every line of her face he'd streaked her shoe with grease. He cut back something rude and succinct. Black streaks slashed through the green ones, in some spots completely replacing them. There was no way he'd get that grease out.
Nice one, Hillier. How are you going to convince the lady to stay now?
'I'll pay for the damage,' he found himself offering. 'Not necessary. They only cost me five dollars in a sale and, believe me, I've had my five dollars' worth out of them. But '