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Five-minute dating was five minutes too long. He'd dated nine women tonight, and the last was the least inspiring of the lot.
Jake glanced down at his fact sheet, hoping for help. Victoria. Twenty-nine. Single. There wasn't a lot here to talk about.
'I'm pleased to meet you, Victoria,' he ventured. That's terrific, he thought wryly. Snappy dialogue. Incisive. Excellent way to start things rolling.
'My friends call me Tori,' she ventured, dragging her gaze from the door. Was she thinking about escaping?
'Is this your first try at speed dating?'
'Yes. And you?'
This wasn't exactly scintillating, he conceded. Where did he go from here?
Each of his last nine 'dates'had been vivacious and chirpy. He hadn't needed to make an effort. now, when effort was required, he wondered whether it was worth it.
Had Tori made an effort?
Victoriaor Torilooked a real country mouse. She was wearing a knee-length black skirt, scuffed court shoes and a white blouse with ruffles down the front. Her chestnut-brown curlshad she cut the fringe herself?had been pulled into a rough knot, simply tied with a white ribbon. She wore no make up and no jewellery.
Why was she here if she wasn't prepared to spend some time on her appearance? he wondered. The lines around her clear green eyes were stretched tight, making her seem a lot older than twenty-nine years. But did she care? She looked as if she wanted to be here even less than he did, which was really saying something.
The manager of Dr. Jake Hunter's Australian properties had promised Jake he'd enjoy it, but enjoy was so far off the mark Jake couldn't believe it. But he was here. He was stuck. He had to make conversation.
'So what do you do for a living?'
'I care for injured wildlife.'
That'd be right. She looked like a do-gooder. Not that he had anything against do-gooders, he reminded himself hastily. It was just that she looked the type.
'So you'll have been busy in the fires?'
And here was another conversation stopper. Six months ago wildfire had ripped this little community apart, decimating the entire district. As an outsider Jake didn't know where to take it. Should he say something like, Was your house burned? Was anyone you cared about hurt?
Surely the fact that she'd come to speed dating was proof that it hadn't touched her too badly. But don't go there, he told himself, and he didn't. Which left silence.
'What.what about you?' she asked, sounding desperate, and he thought, Three minutes and fifty seconds left.
'I live in the U.S. but I own properties here, in the valley and up on the ridge. I've come back now to check on them, maybe put them on the market.'
'Were they damaged?'
'Not badly. My manager's been taking care of them for me. He's the one who talked me into coming tonight.'
'So speed dating's not your thing?'
'No,' he admitted, and decided to be honest. She looked the sort of woman who called a spade a spade. 'Rob said you were a guy short. I got dragged into this at the last minute.'
'You don't want to be here?'
'Then I'm wasting your time,' she said, and suddenly the mouse had changed into something else entirely. Her relief was palpable. She rose and took his hand in a grip so firm it surprised him. 'This is the last round so we can finish this now. Goodnight, Jake.'
Then, astonishingly, she smiled, a wide, white smile that had the power to turn her face from plain to something extraordinary. But he didn't have a chance to register the smile for long. She'd released his hand and was heading for the door, her sensible heels clicking briskly on the polished wooden floorboards of the Combadeen Hall.
And to his further bewilderment, the moment she rose she looked.cute? Definitely cute, he thought. Her curls bounced on her shoulders. She had curves in all the right places, the badly fitting skirt unable to conceal her tiny waist, the lovely lines of her legs and the unconscious wiggle of her hips as she stalked to the door.
He wasn't the only one watching. As she tugged the door open and walked out into the night, as the door slammed closed behind her, he realised everyone else in the hall was looking as well, as astonished as he was.
He'd just been stood up for a speed date. He'd been stood up by a smile that was truly stunning.
Should he follow?
Um, no. She was right. Speed dating was not his thing. Nor was any other sort of dating, he acknowledged. He was in town to check on his father's property, to sign documents to put the farmhouse on the ridge on the market and to make a decision about the resort. Then he was out of here. His job back in the States was waiting. He had no place here.
So why was he watching a country mouse stalk away from him, as if he cared?
Why had she come?
Her best friend, Barb, had lied to her. They can't have been a woman short if that guyJake?could patronise her by saying he was only here to make up numbers, to do them all a favour.
Outside, the stars were hanging low in the sky. The air was crisp and clean, and she filled her lungs, as if the hall inside had been full of smoke.
Of course it wasn't, though maybe the smell of smoke would never completely leave her. The fire that had ripped through these mountains had changed her lifeand she wasn't ready to move on, no matter what Barb said.
'Please come tonight,' Barb had pleaded. 'We're desperate to make up the numbers. It'll be fun. Come on, Tori, life can be good again. You can try.'
So she'd tried. Not very hard, she conceded, looking ruefully down at her serviceable skirt. She'd been living courtesy of welfare bins for too long now.
Torior more formally Dr. Victoria Nicholls, veterinary surgeonhad no financial need of welfare bins, but the outpouring of the Australian public had been massive. The local hall was filled with clothes donated to replace what was burned, and it was easier to grab what she needed than to waste time shopping.
She hadn't shopped since.
She shook herself. Don't go there.
But maybe she had to go there. Maybe that was part of the healing. No, she hadn't shopped since the fire. She hadn't dated since the fireor before, of course, but then she'd had Toby. Or she'd thought she'd had Toby. There was the king of all toerags. Even the thought of him made her cringe. That she could have imagined herself in love with him.
She'd been incredibly, appallingly dumb. She'd made one disastrous mistake that had cost her everything, so what on earth was she doing lining up for another?
Oh, for heaven's sake, she was supposed to be moving on. There were good people out there, she told herself. Good men. She had to learn to trust again. Jake had seemed
Bored. Compelled to be there. But sort of interesting?
Maybe Barb was right; she did need to get out more, because Jake seemed to have stirred something in her that hadn't been stirred for a long time.
He'd been long and lean and sort of.sculpted. Rangy. He hadn't bothered to shave, and there was another mark against him. She'd gone to all the trouble of finding this stupid blouse and he'd come with a five-o'clock shadow. Mind, it had looked incredibly sexy, with his deep, black haira little bit wavyand his lovely brown eyes and the crinkles around his tanned face that said he normally didn't look as bored as this; normally he smiled.
How stupid was this? She gave herself an angry shake. She'd met ten men tonight, all of them seemed uninterested and uninteresting, and even though Jake seemed interesting, he was the rudest of the lot.
She'd been stupid once.Any relationship she might have in the future must thus be dictated by sense and not by hormones, and all she'd felt with Jake was hormones. Lots of hormones.
Disgusted, she climbed into her battered van and headed out of the car park, back up the mountain. She'd been away for long enough.
No matter what Barb said, she wasn't ready for a new life. She already had an all-consuming one.
Or did she? Barb was right, she accepted. The life she knew was coming to an end.
Where did she go from here?
Whereveras long as her decisions were based on sense and not hormones, she told herself fiercely and headed back up the mountain.
'Anyone strike your fancy?'
Jake's manager and friend from university days was watching a blonde totter across the car park to her cute little sports car. She was definitely Rob's choice for the night. Maybe he'd even take it further.
As opposed to Jake. He had no intention of ever taking things further. Yeah, it had been crazy to agree to speed dating. He was here for less than a week, and every one of the women he'd met tonight had diamonds in their eyes.
He didn't do diamonds. Diamonds had been drilled out of him early.
Jake had been brought up by a mother who spent her life bewailing an Australian father who was, according to her, the lowest form of life on the planet. Love made you cry, his mother told him, over and over from the time he was a toddler, since she'd taken him back to the States andas she'd said repeatedlyabandoned her dreams for ever.
Maybe his mother's broken dreams had left their legacy. Who knew? He needed a shrink to tell him, but a shrink couldn't change him. He didn't do long-term relationships. He'd never felt the slightest need to take things down that road. Women were colleagues and friends. They were often great companions. The occasional mutually casual relationship was great, but why open yourself to the angst of commitment?
Rob, however, had talked about tonight as though it was the answer to his prayers. As if diamonds were on his agenda. Which was ridiculous.
'What do you see in this five-minute set-up?' he demanded, and Rob gave a crooked smile.
'My perfect woman's out there somewhere. I just have to find her. So there was no one tonight who struck your fancy?'
'Your lady's hot,' Jake conceded, being generous. 'But no.'
'So what did you say to Doc Nicholls?' Rob asked. 'To make her walk out.' 'Doc Nicholls?'
'Tori. Barb says she's the vet up on the ridge, part of the group that rent your house. I'm thinking I should have met her before this, but since the fires life's been crazy. Any negotiation's been done through Barb. Then tonight I couldn't make her talk, but at least she stayed the full five minutes. Unlike you. You didn't say anything to upset her, did you? Barb'll have me hung, drawn and quartered if you've hurt her feelings.'
'How could I have hurt her feelings?'
'You say it like it is,' Rob said. 'Not always best.'
'I don't tell lies, if that's what you mean.'
'So what did you tell her?'
'Just that I was here to make up the numbers.'
'Right,' Rob said. 'That'd be a turn-on. I'm speed dating because I'm being kind. Woo-hoo.'
'Look, it doesn't matter anyway,' Jake said, shoving his hands into his pockets and staring out at the vast night sky. Hankering for Manhattan where stars were in shop windows and not straight up. 'I'll get the house on the market and leave again, though I don't know why you can't do it for me.'
'I offered, if you remember, and for once you decided to take an interest and come do it yourself.'
'The figure seemed ludicrously low.'
'Who wants a house on top of a fire-prone ridge?'
'It was snapped up pretty fast after the fires.'
'Only because there was still green feed around it,' Rob said bluntly. 'And you offered it rent free. But six months on, there's feed everywhere, and it's smoke damaged. Property values on the ridge will rise again but not until the memory of the fire fades a bit. So many of the people round here lost someone. You're lucky you weren't living here yourself.'
Yeah, well. Luck had all sorts of guises, Jake thought, as they headed back down the valley towards the second property his father had left hima lodge with attached vineyard. His mother would definitely say he was lucky not to live here. His mother would be devastated that he was here now.
But how could he help but come? Jake was wealthy before his father died, but his father's death had made him more so. The combined properties, even at post-fire prices, were worth a fortune.
Why had he held onto them? That was a question he was having trouble facing, and maybe that's why he was hereseeking some final connection to his father.
Apart from financial supportgiven grudgingly, according to his motherJake's father had played no part in his life. He hadn't contacted him all through his childhood. There'd been nothing. But twelve years ago, when Jake qualified as a doctor, he'd finally received a letter. Congratulating him and wishing him all the best for his future. Intrigued, he'd written back. That's when he'd discovered his father was working as a country doctor in the hills outside Melbourne.
He'd decided he wouldn't mind getting a personal idea about this man who'd cared for him financially but in no other sense. Tentatively he'd suggested a visit.
But, 'I hear your mother's ill and she'd hate it,' his father had said bluntly. 'I've married again. We've all moved on.
After all these years, what's the point? I'm glad you've graduated and I'm proud of you. I'm sorry I haven't been able to contact you before, but now I have let's leave it there.'
So he'd left it, and then life grew busy. He'd immersed himself in his career. He'd visit Australia one day, he promised himself, but then five years ago his father died, suddenly, of a massive coronary.
Jake had finally come then, to a funeral that shocked him with the community outpouring of grief. He'd sat at the back of the church and watched strangers cry for a father he didn't know. A father who hadn't even objected when his mother had changed his name back to hers. Who seemed to have little connection to him at all.
But when tentatively he'd confessed to the elderly lady beside him who he was, to his astonishment she'd known all about him.
'I'm one of Old Doc's patientsand you must be Jake,' she'd said, sniffing and beaming a watery smile at him. 'His American son. Doc had a baby picture of you up on his clinic wall. I used to say to him it was a shame your mother took you away, but he'd say, "Just because he's in the States doesn't make him any less my son. I love him wherever he is."'
He'd loved him? That was the first he'd heard of it. The woman had wanted to introduce him around, but he was so shocked he'd simply walked away.