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SHE'd psyched herself for farm terrors-but not for this.
Shanni steered her car onto the verge, but she didn't drive in the gate. No way.
Shanni wasn't a farm girl-in fact her best friend had burst out laughing when she'd divulged her destination. But Jules had grown up on a farm, so she'd talked Shanni through what she might face.
"Cows will ignore you as long as you don't interfere with their calves. Calves are curious but harmless, and most modern farms employ test tubes instead of bulls. Check if a cow has a dangly bit, and if it does don't go near it. HorsesBig doesn't mean scary. Say boo to a horse and it'll take itself off. Most farm dogs are all bluster. Look them in the eye and shout "sit." Oh, and watch for cow pats. They're murder on stilettos."
So she'd left her stilettos at Jules's chic Sydney bedsit. She'd rehearsed her "sit" command and she was ready for anything.
Anything but this.
There were kids sitting on the gate. Multiple kids. One, two, three, four.
They were watching her. Well, why wouldn't they? Shanni's car might well be the only car along here in a week. The meandering gravel track followed a creek that came straight from the snow melt. Distant mountains were capped with snow, even though spring was well under way. Undulating paddocks were dotted with vast red gums. The beauty of New South Wales's high country was world renowned.
The cows looked safely enclosed in paddocks. She couldn't see a horse or a dog. What she saw was far more terrifying. Girl, boy, boy, girl, she decided, running down their ranks. Matching grubby jeans, T-shirts, sensible boots.
Siblings? Maybe, though there was a redhead, a blonde andtwo brunettes.
Forget the hair. They were sitting on the gate of the farm where she'd agreed to work.
She'd stuck her Aunty Ruby's letter on the dashboard so she could read the directions. Ignoring the kids-who were clearly waiting for her to do something-she reread it now, holding it like she was handling a scorpion.
Aunty Ruby's letter read like she talked-so fast she hardly paused for breath.
Pierce won't let me help him. He was always the sweetest boy. I'm sure you thought so, too, and he's had such a bad time. And now this. His wife died six months ago. His wife! He didn't even tell me he was getting married, that's how much he doesn't want to bother me, and now she's dead. And the boys are worrying about him. They say he's falling behind in his work. He's cutting corners, the boys say, and there's a huge contract he's risking losing. Mind, I think losing a wife makes any other loss irrelevant, but the boys won't talk about that. No one will. They treat me as if I'm ancient, not to be bothered.
Anyway dear, I know Michael broke your heart-at least your mother said he did though how you can love a man with a ponytail-but worse, you've lost your sweet little London gallery. If you were thinking about coming homeCould you bear to help with a baby for a few weeks until Pierce gets this contract sorted? He's been looking for a housekeeper but the boys say he's having trouble. I could go-but of course they won't let me.
Ruby's frustration sounded through the letter. Beloved Ruby, who'd spent her life helping others, was being held at arm's length by her foster sons, but she could no sooner resist sticking in her oar than she could breathe.
If she couldn't help, then she was sure that Shanni could. And Shanni just might.
Housekeeper to a sort-of-cousin and his motherless baby? On a farm on the other side of the world from her life in London? In the normal scheme of things, she'd laugh at the suggestion.
But this was Pierce MacLachlan-
Pierce was one of Ruby's many foster kids. At any family celebration, there'd always been three or four of Ruby's waifs.
There were three things affecting Shanni's decision to help him. Number one was sympathy. She did remember Pierce. Twenty years ago, Pierce had been fifteen to her almost ten. She'd met him at her Uncle Eric's wedding and she'd been shocked. Ruby had just taken him in-"for the fourth time," she'd told Shanni's mother. He'd looked far too skinny, far too tall for his clothes, far too-desolate.
And now he'd lost his wife. That was awful.
Shanni was a soft touch.
And, okay, admit it. Twenty years ago she'd thought Pierce had the makings of-gorgeous. Her hormones had just been waking up. Pierce was a tall, dark and mysterious fifteen-year-old, all angular bones and shadows. In truth he'd probably just been excruciatingly shy and malnourished, but he'd run rings round the rest of her rowdy cousins. So added to sympathy was-lust?
Yeah, right. She was a big girl now. Pierce was probably a five-feet-two midget with a pot belly. And she was supposed to be broken hearted.
But then there was number three, and that was the biggie. She didn't have enough money to stay in London. She'd lost her gallery and her lover. Ruby said Pierce had a farm. She could just pop in and see what the set-up was, and if it wasn't suitable then she could retreat to her parents' spare room and lick her wounds.
Only, the option of her parents' spare room was no longer available.
So she was here. Facing four kids.
Four kids? She was scared enough of one baby.
She couldn't stay, she thought, staring again at the four kids. But where to go? Where?
She hadn't done her homework before she'd headed home. She'd received Ruby's letter and suddenly she'd just come. To find that her parents were overseas-well, she'd known thatbut to her horror they'd sublet their house. Hadn't they known their daughter was intending to need it? They might have guessed she'd flee to Australia without asking questions, to be met by strangers having a barbecue in their back yard.
She sniffed, but she didn't cry. When had she ever?
She should have cried when she'd found Mike in bed with one of his stupid models-but even then
She'd come home mid-afternoon with the beginnings of the flu and had walked in and found them. Just like in the sitcoms, they hadn't seen her. Well, they'd hardly been looking.
She'd retreated to the laundry and filled a bucket. Then, while her whole body had shaken with suppressed rage-as well as the first symptoms of a truly horrid dose of influenza-she'd decided water alone wasn't enough. She'd stalked into the kitchen and hauled out the ice. Even then they hadn't heard her, though her hands were shaking so much she'd dropped two ice trays. It had taken five minutes before enough ice melted to bring the bucket of water to almost freezing, but it had definitely been worth the wait. Throwing it had been a definite high point.
Though, in retrospect, maybe tears would have been better. For, although she'd been ruthless with the ice bucket, she hadn't moved fast enough with the shared credit card. By the time she'd emerged from influenza and betrayal, Mike had revenged himself the only way a low-life creep with the morals of a sewer rat knew how.
It had been enough to tip her over the edge financially. Her tiny mortgaged-to-the-hilt art gallery had ceased to be.
But she was still irrationally pleased that Mike hadn't seen her cry. If I can cope with Mike without tears, I can cope with this, she told herself, staring out at the kids on the gate while her stomach plummeted as far as it could go and then found a few depths she hadn't known existed.
The kids were puzzled that she wasn't turning in. The oldest kid-a pre-adolescent girl with short, copper-red hair that looked like it had been hacked with hedge clippers-had jumped off the gate in preparation for opening it.
Surely she'd got it wrong.
She wound down the window-just a tad-admitting nothing. "Is this Two Creek Farm?" she called. "Yes," the oldest boy called. "Are you Shanni?" "Yes." Her voice was so faint it was barely a squeak. "Finally." The girl with the bad haircut hauled the gate wide while the three kids still sitting on the top rail swayed and clung. "Dad says we can't go inside until you get here. What are you doing, parking over there?"
"Your dad's expecting me?" "You rang. Didn't you?" "UmYes."
The girl looked right, looked left, looked right again-had there ever been another car up here?-and crossed the road to talk. "Dad said, "Thank God, Ruby's come up trumps. We've got a babysitter.""
"I see.'she swallowed and looked again at the kids on the gate. "I guess-your dad's name is Pierce?"
"He's Pierce MacLachlan.'the girl poked her hand in the open car window. She was all arms and legs and a mouthful of braces. "I'm Wendy MacLachlan. I'm eleven."
"I see," Shanni said faintly, while her hand was firmly shaken. "The others are Bryce and Donald and Abby,"Wendy told her. "Bryce is nine. Donald's seven. Abby's four. There's Bessy as well, but she's only eight months old so she doesn't talk yet, and she's away with Dad. She's actually Elizabeth, but she's too cute to be an Elizabeth."
Bessy. The baby. One true thing. "Where's your dad?" "He had to take Bessy to the doctor. We think she's got chicken pox. She hasn't got any spots yet, but she's grizzling so much she must be sick. Dad didn't get any sleep last night. When you rang he looked like he might cry."
"Oh," Shanni said. Even more faintly. She looked over to where the other three children were swinging on the opened gate. "Have you all had chicken pox?"
"Oh yes," Wendy said blithely. "I had it first and then Donald and Abby and Bryce got it all together. Dad said he was going round the twist, but I helped."
"I'm sure you did." "We didn't want Bessy to catch it, but she did anyway. Dad's buggered." She blinked. "Whoops, I'm not supposed to say that.
Dad says. But when you rang and said you were coming Dad said, "Thank God, I'm so buggered I'll pay half my kingdom for decent help." And then he looked at all of us and said he'd pay all his kingdom."
A lesser woman would turn around right now, Shanni thought. A lesser woman would say whoops, sorry, there's been a dreadful mistake, and go find a nice homeless shelter rather than face this.
"We shouldn't be here by ourselves," Wendy admitted, her voice faltering just a little. "But the station wagon's got a flat tyre, and when Dad pulled out the spare it was flat, too. Mum must have had a flat tyre and not told Dad She swallowed. "Before-.before she died. Anyway, Dad's car's only a twoseater, and he really needed to take Bessy to the doctor and we won't all fit. So I said we'd be fine, only he worries about Abby cos she keeps doing stuff like getting her toe stuck in the sink. So I promised we'd sit on the gate and not move until you came. Abby promised faithfully not to fall off."
"Ruby," Shanni said to herself under her breath. Dear, dotty Aunty Ruby
How could she cope with this? What she wanted was breathing space. Time to get her head clear, paint a little, take time to think about where she wanted to go from here. A bit of wandering on a farm, taking in the sights, maybe with a cute little baby in a pram. Winning the gratitude of a boy she'd once felt sorry for.
And solitude, solitude and more solitude. There was a shriek from the other side of the road. The boys had swung the gate hard and, despite her promise, Abby had fallen backwards. The four-year-old was hanging by the knees, her blonde pigtails brushing the dirt. Her hands were dragging on the ground, trying to find purchase, while the gate swung wildly to and fro.
"Help," she yelled. "Wendy, heeeelp."
Wendy sighed. She looked to the right, looked to the left, looked to the right again and stomped back across the road. The kid's boots look too tight, Shanni thought. Her feet looked like they hurt.
Wendy yanked Abby backwards into her skinny arms, staggering under her weight. The gate sung wildly again with its load of two little boys.
"Are you coming in?" Wendy called across the road, still staggering. Abby was far too heavy for her.
Shanni met her look head on.
It was a strange look for a child. She doesn't think I'm coming in, Shanni thought. It was a look of a child who'd needed to grow up before her time. Despite herself, her heart lurched.
Oh, help. Stop it, she told herself. Stop it.
You're such a soft touch, her friends told her, and she knew they were right. Before she'd left London she'd had to find homes for the three cats she'd taken in against her better judgement, plus twenty cacti her elderly neighbour had persuaded her to water when she'd gone away for the weekend-only the weekend had turned out to be a decision to join her son in the Riviera for ever.
A lesser woman would have ditched the cacti. She hated cacti. She'd boxed them up and taken them halfway across London to a batty cactus lover she'd found on the internet.
Even MikeHe hadn't had anywhere to stay, and he'd been such a promising artist. Had she mistaken sympathy for love?
So don't you dare feel sorry for this family, she told herself. Leave. Now.
But Wendy was watching her, her small face closed. She wasn't expecting help. And then she stopped looking at Shannidecision made.
"It doesn't matter what Dad said," she told her little sister. "I'll take you inside." She hugged her little sister in a gesture that was pure protection, turning her back on Shanni. "You've scraped your fingers. We'll find a plaster."
Oh, heck. "What did you say your names were?" Shanni called. "Bryce," the oldest boy called. "Bryce and Wendy and Donald and Abby. And Bessy at the doctor."
"Okay, Bryce," Shanni said wearily. "Where do I park?"