Read an Excerpt
'After we visit the ducks, there's got to be more knocking on doors for you and me, Ella. I know you'd probably rather be crawling around the furniture at home, but this is how it has to be for this morning.' Jessica Baker spoke the words to her daughter as she pushed the baby stroller over a rough patch of grass and let her glance rove around Randurra's memorial park.
Not that Ella could understand, but it made Jess feel better to speak out loud, to remind herself she did have a plan.
Ahead on the wide knoll beside the duck pond children were playing. A tall, dark-haired man watched them from beneath a gum tree. He was talking on his mobile phone.
Life went on whether people were trying not to shake in their boots or not. Jess didn't want to be someone who shook in her boots. She might wobble just a little here and there, but Jess was a single mother supporting her daughter. She couldn't afford to shake.
Any more than you can afford that enormous back bill of overdue rates and interest payable on the house.
Ten years' worth that Jess hadn't known existed, thanks to Ella's con artist father and the agreement he had made when he purchased Jess's small cottage, in exchange for Jess signing herself and Ella out of his life for ever.
Jess stiffened her spine and took one hand off the stroller to smooth it over her gold sleeveless top and down over the splash-dyed orange and black skirt. 'We'll be right, Ella. We'll sort this out somehow.'
In the stroller, Jess's daughter made a crowing noise. 'Du! Du!'
'Yes, indeed. We're going to see the ducks. You've earned that for being such a good girl this morning.'
Ella's vocabulary had a lot of 'Du' words in it, but in this case Jess was quite certain that her one-year-old knew exactly what she was talking about. Ella wanted to see the ducks before Jess finished her door-knocking and went home.
Jess's gaze moved ahead to the children. Two teen-aged boys wrestled each other on the grassy bank. A studious-looking girl of around ten had hold of a smaller girl's hand and was warning her not to go too close to the water. A third little girl had plonked down on the grass to pick blades of it. As a potential offering for the ducks?
'Let's go add our bread crusts to the offering, Ella.' Jess wasn't afraid of bunches of children. She looked after five regularly to bring in income. She'd had four more but that family had left Randurra at the start of December.
Jess had been trying since then to get more work. She was a qualified daycare mum. This morning when her financial situation had shifted from 'already uncomfortable' to 'downright scary' with the arrival of that notice about the overdue rates and interest, Jess had taken her efforts directly to the people of Randurra. She'd knocked on a lot of doors. She'd offered to do anything. It didn't have to be childcare so long as she could keep Ella with her.
Jess and Ella were drawing closer to the duck pond area. The man had his gaze fixed on the children in that way that said 'father'. Were they tourists going somewhere for the long school summer holidays and had stopped here for a breather?
Jess's heart did a funny flip as the man turned his head and she caught a good look at his face. He appeared to be around thirty-six or thirty-seven. He was tall, with tanned skin and a firm jaw and thick, wavy, dark brown hair that just touched the collar of his white polo shirt. He had jeans on. Tan lace-ups on his feet. It was a warm day, but not killer hot as it had been in the few days straight after Christmas. Jess wanted to see his eyes.
No, she didn't.
All those children meant he must be married.
Jess wasn't looking for a man anyway. After the fiasco of Peter, Jess couldn't trust in that sort of relationship any more.
'No. You're a key client and the financials have been under my care for a long time. I want to be the one to do this work.' The man's voice was low, deep and utterly calm as he spoke into the phone.
But his posture had stiffened and as Jess drew closer she caught a glimpse of very genuine stress as his gaze roved over those five children before he asked for a little time to 'get things in place', and abruptly ended the call. In that one moment, he looked as Jess had felt this morning when she read the notice saying the house would be sold up if she didn't pay all the costs in thirty days or less.
The man looked out of his depth.
As though he was asking how he could fix this.
What had happened? Jess wondered.
She watched the man suck it all inside, paste on his previous expression and just stand there. But inside, his mind was racing, searching for those answers. Jess knew because Jess had done this.
'Can I help you somehow?' She spoke the words before she could stop herself, and made a gesture with her hand. The row of wooden bangles on her arm clanked. 'It's just that you were on the phone and you looked '
She didn't want to say he'd looked panicked. Truly he looked far too strong to give in to outright panic. Strong and appealing and manly.
All entirely irrelevant, Jessica Baker, and you're just as strong.
Occasional very justified bouts of the wobbles notwithstanding!
Jess cleared her throat. 'I'm a local. Did you need directions, or information about services or anything?' She might sound like an animated travel brochure now, but that was better than noticing the man as, well, as a man.
'Uh, hello. Thanks ' Deep hazel eyes fringed with thick black lashes searched her face, and then dropped to Ella where she sat in the stroller crowing in delight to see so many children playing near her.
He had beautiful eyes. Eyes that showed his age and maturity, and that made Jess's breath catch.
Did his eyes hold a hint of consciousness within them, too? Jess was twenty-two, a lot younger. She'd never noticed a man this age quite so much. She didn't really understand her reaction and.she wondered if she was correctly reading his.
He seemed to give himself a mental shake before he responded. 'That's kind of you. We just moved here so I don't have a good grip on everything about Randurra yet.' He extended his hand. 'Dan Frazier.'
Well, that was all about business so maybe Jess had imagined the other.
'Jess Baker. Jessica, really, but I prefer Jess. I moved here about fourteen months ago.' Just in time to settle into the cottage before she made the short trip to the local hospital to give birth to Ella. 'So I know pretty much everything there is to know about the town.'
She tried not to stutter over the words, because the touch of Dan's fingers closing around hers gave her the strangest feeling of comfort. And made her too aware of him. She took a deep breath and lifted her hand to check that the green band in her hair was straight, its enormous bow sitting firmly. Did Dan Frazier think she was an airhead because of that bow? Jess wasn't. The clothing and accessories were part of keeping her head up, of showing her determination in her own way.
Life had thrown a major curve ball today, but she hadn't let that stomp her. She'd put on her bright clothes and had marched to the town council building. She'd done her best to calmly and rationally discuss the situation with that nasty man who'd delivered the overdue notice, Lang Fielder. It had been to no avail today but she wouldn't stop at one go!
And then she'd knocked on half the doors in Randurra, looking for work. Jess still had the other half to knock on. She wasn't stomped yet.
'Da-a-ad.' A girlish voice came their way. 'Rob and Luke are going to fall into the water.'
'Are not.' A voice halfway to his father's deepness replied. 'We're just playing, Daisy.'
'Well, stop it. Don't you know there'll be approximately fifty thousand different kinds of germs in that pond?' The girl called Daisy pushed a pair of glasses up her nose in a knowing and disapproving way.
Jess stifled a smile.
'Maybe you can point me in the direction of child-care facilities in Randurra, if anywhere exists here that caters for a family group with this age range.' Dan's hand reached down to touch the silky hair of the youngest child, who'd come running to wrap her arms around his legs.
He met Jess's gaze again as he pushed his mobile phone into the breast pocket of his polo shirt. 'I thought I'd have time to check out various childminding possibilities. I didn't expect to need this kind of care more than rarely, anyway, but it appears the Frazier family's two-days-old sea change just ran into a typhoon.'
Randurra wasn't on the coast, of course. It was inland from Sydney. Apparently that phone call had produced a metaphoric typhoon that meant Dan Frazier needed urgent childcare for the whole family.
Could Jess be so lucky? 'I may be able to help you. What exactly do you need?'
'Oh, I don't need much.' He gave one short bark of laughter. 'Just the equivalent of Mary Poppins to fly down with her umbrella and volunteer to mind all my children while I travel to and from Sydney for the next few weeks, and for me to know they'll all be safe with her when she's a total stranger and I don't like leaving them with anyone.'
He frowned again. 'My sister used to cover the times when I had to work away from home, but I weaned right off needing that, and she's got her own life to focus on now.'
There was no mother in the picture? Was Dan a widower? Jess's mind boggled at the thought of him raising five children by himself. Peter hadn't even been prepared to be a part-time father to Ella from long distance.
Some other part of Jess that really should know better also insisted on pointing out Dan's single status.
A single status and almost twice your age, Jess!
'So you moved here, you didn't need childminding, and now something's exploded?' Better to ask about that. 'Is it to do with your work? Did it make a very big splat as it hit the wall?'
'That's a creative analogy.' He didn't smile, exactly, but the creases at the corners of his eyes did.
Dan went on. 'One of my clients needs to go through a potential change of ownership audit, and the prospective buyers want it done fast. I'm the company's accountant so I have to be on hand to help answer all the number-crunching questions, and supply the necessary information and explanations to go with it. This is a large key client for me, and they want this change of ownership. It's going to benefit the company tremendously and I need to hold on to their business, so I can't afford not to help.'
His gaze shifted over her hair and returned to her eyes. 'I moved the children here to get us all out of Sydney, into a decent-sized home that we could own ourselves. I thought I'd have all of January without having to think about work at all.'
'You can't blame yourself for the unforeseen.' She touched his arm briefly.
She only meant to express understanding and perhaps a little of the compassion that Mary Poppins might have extended when she finished folding her umbrella.
But it didn't end up feeling like only a touch. Dan's skin was warm and manly. A tingle shot up Jess's arm.
Beneath her fingers, Dan's muscles locked as though he, too, had perhaps been startled by the contact. For a moment their gazes meshed and a consciousness passed between them.
Jess hadn't expected to feel such a strong connection. They had only just met. He was heaps older. She wasn't going there again with any man after the way Peter had hurt her. She withdrew her hand.
Over by the pond, one young Frazier after another fell still and silent.
Four sets of hazel eyes locked onto Jess, and baby Ella, and their father.
One whisper drifted to Jess on the summer breeze. 'Daddy's talking to a girl.'
Another. 'They're practically holding hands. He hasn't been near a girl since Mummy died.'
'Shut up, Rob. Shut up, Mary.' This came from the eldest boy. 'Whoever that is, Dad's not interested like that!' The boy sent a sharp stare Jess's way before he turned away, shoulders tensed beneath his T-shirt.
Jess felt put in her place, a woman far younger than this man and, indeed, why would Dan be interested?
You don't want him to be interested, Jess.
And perhaps the boy hadn't meant to sound so aggressive? He was probably used to dealing with all his younger siblings and occasionally got frustrated with them.
Had Dan heard those whispers? How long ago had he lost his wife? Had Jess misread his reaction when she touched him?
Had he wished she hadn't touched him? Or reacted as Jess had reacted to him?
'Sorry about them. They're a little excitable thanks to the move.' Dan's neck had reddened slightly.
So he had heard. At least some of it.
'No need to apologise.' She ignored the neck. Well, other than the tanned, muscled appeal of it. Jess had to ignore that, too. Because widowed didn't necessarily mean emotionally available, even if the red was a result of consciousness of her, not simply embarrassment thanks to his children.
Not that it mattered to Jess one way or another, of course. Jess was very much not ready to jump into that particular pond again herself. She really needed this work and couldn't afford to let anything so foolish as a sudden attraction mess it up, if she could actually get Dan Frazier to employ her.
She had knocked on half Randurra's doors. She'd got nowhere. She had tried not to worry that she might get nowhere with the other half. Folks all seemed to have their childcare and other needs sorted out.
And perhaps Jess and Dan Frazier could help each other. 'Dan, I realise we've only just met and I haven't flown down with an umbrella like Mary Poppins. Actually, my brolly's black with pink polka dots and half the spokes are bent out of shape because I got it jammed under the seat of the car one day.' Jess drew a breath.
'But I'm a qualified, practising daycare mum.' An underemployed one at the moment. 'I care primarily for younger children but I am trained to take school-aged children as well.' If those opportunities came along. Jess spared a thought for the surly expression of Dan Frazier's eldest a moment ago, but if there were any problems she could win him over, surely? 'There aren't any official "Before and After School" style of care facilities in Randurra for school-aged children.'