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'Listen, Stace, I don't know how this happened. I only turned my back for a minute.'
'You were discussing football scores and you stopped watching what was happening on the floor. You can't do that when you're in charge, Gary.' Stacie Wakefield cut off the words of the assistant floor-boss of the hulling section of the almond-processing plant. 'Carl's not here. That means you're in charge!'
They stood ankle-deep in spilled harvested almonds. Stacie had spotted the problem from the office upstairs and rushed down in time for the overload to pour onto the floor. 'You may have stopped the spillage but look at it, Gary. Another five minutes and this section will be so far behind that the rest of the plant will have to wait for product. Just because Carl isn't here today, doesn't mean'
'All right, maybe I did get distracted.' The words were mumbled before he shook his head. 'Look, I'll get it sorted out, so don't stress, okay? I'd noticed the problem by the time you got down here, hadn't I?' Gary gave her a wink and a nudge as though to convince her he was quite calm about this glitch, and that she should be too.
'You noticed too late.' Stacie muttered the words, and added more loudly, 'I hope you can get it sorted out.'
'It'll be all right. Well, gotta get moving.' Gary's gaze shifted behind her left shoulder. 'Time's money.'
With these words, he strode away.
Why had he done that all of a sudden after standing about, wasting time, playing down the mess to Stacie first? Because the new owner was approaching from behind her, that was why!
If that weren't the case, Stacie would eat the latest doggy coat she'd created for her home-based business, the Bow-wow-tique. Well, maybe not the dark-green one she'd made last week, but she'd added that to Fang's winter collection so it didn't really count.
New owner, Stacie.
He's not going to go away and come back at a more convenient time just because you don't want him to see this spill on the flooror because none of this is your responsibility but Carl's asked you to take care of the new boss.
In the end it was only a meet and greet. If the owner needed anything outside of Stacie's knowledge or authority, she'd let him know what she could and couldn't do and manage.
Stacie pinned on what she hoped was a calm, helpful expression, and turned to face
Six foot of sandy-haired, muscular man who was indeed headed her way. In fact, he was only a couple of steps from reaching her.
She fought for control against a widening of her eyes as she took in a broad chest that seemed to fill her vision: shoulders encased in a fitted white T-shirt with a corduroy tan jacket pulled over the top; blue jeans; work boots.
He had a square jaw, straight nose. His features and his attitude denoted strength, presence.
Her gaze shifted to his mouth, to a set of lips that could only have been made for long, slow kisses. His eyes were a deep hazel, green, blue and grey fringed with sooty lashes. At the moment, they were examining her with focused attention.
This was a man who would not turn his back on a challenge, nor step away if things became difficult.
Had he seen Gary's nudge and wink? Had he heard Gary's parting words?
As for the new owner, what was Stacie doing, thinking of kisses? And of 'strong' and 'tough' as something appealing and way too interesting?
It was thanks to the actions of her ex-boyfriend four months ago, thanks to a number of disappointments in that department over the years culminating in such hurt. Thanks to two people Stacie had loved that she shouldn't be thinking of any such things.
Her chin jutted. She had chosen to be single now and she would be far happier alone. That was her resolution, and already she was happier!
And what she'd noted of the new plant-owner's appeal had been an 'observation' style of thought. Only that!
'Hello.' She cleared her throat against the breathy tone that had suddenly invaded it. Dust in the air, probably. Well, maybe not. It was a clean plant.
Just get on with it, Stacie.
'You're the new owner? I'm Stacie Wakefield, the administrative assistant here.' She stuck out her hand. He probably had a wife at home enjoying those kisses, or a steady girlfriend. Of course there'd be someone. Just as, for Stacie, there'd been a sister waiting.
Thinking about that wouldn't help her.
Embrace her fresh start. That was what Stacie wanted to do.
And she was doing it!
She'd moved here to the township of Tarrula, positioned as a stopover destination between Sydney and Melbourne, and had got this job to keep her going while she built up her home business until she could live independently from it. And while Stacie was employed here at the plant, even if it was really just typing, filing and answering the phone, she would give the job her best. 'Carl apologised that he couldn't be here to officially welcome you this morning. He's unwell, but expects to be back on deck tomorrow.'
The manager had come down with a migraine at the last minute before work this morning.
'Then I'll be staying longer than I'd intended today to fill the managerial gap. Troy Rushton.' Broad, capable fingers closed around hers.
Just like that, he embraced the situation and took ownership of it.
'Stacie ' she started, and stopped because she'd already told him her name.
Nerves; this tingling in her fingers had to be nerves; the buzzing in her brain that made her lose the thread of the conversation must be from the same source. Stacie wanted to make a good impression on the new owner. She valued her job. The spill had stressed her out. She was off-centre because Carl had phoned in sick at the last moment.
As Stacie dropped her hand away, she got as far as smoothing her navy pencil-pleat skirt and stopped herself. She was perfectly presentable, if not in any way stunning.
She kind of wished she hadn't included the iridescent pink stick-ons over her blue nail-polish today, though. But her nails were her one indulgence in terms of beauty efforts. Short, but rarely forgettable.
When they had all been younger, her sisters had said her nail-decorating choices were 'tacky' and 'so not sexy, Stacie'. Two beautiful Cinderellas and one very plain duck.
The 'gorgeous' genes had gone to those older sisters. That hadn't mattered until Andrew and Gemma.
'I see there's a problem here. Who's the floor manager today?' Troy's gaze searched her face, skimmed over nose, mouth and eyes and the straight brown hair that fell to the middle of her shoulders.
Stacie thought he might have paused; was that a flicker of interest?
A moment later Troy's gaze turned to the troubled production area. He probably hadn't even noticed what she looked like, let alone had any other reaction. How silly she was beingsilly on two levels, because she shouldn't be aware of him in the first place. Stacie was done with putting herself on the line with all of that.
And she hadn't truly faced up to any of the hurt of the situation she'd tried to leave behind when she'd moved here.
Stacie had been back for a visit with the family. What more was she expected to do?
Visit when Andrew and Gemma were there.
'Gary's just over here.' Stacie led the way towards the assistant floor-manager. She was very busy. There wouldn't be a lot of time to visit family in upcoming months at all.
Troy Rushton's left leg caused a limp as he walked at her side, and his expression seemed to tighten. Not in pain, but perhaps in frustration.
Was that a permanent injury? What was Troy's history? What had brought him to this small New South Wales town and to this processing plant? Stacie had so many questions about him, but some curiosity was to be expected. He was the new owner. And gorgeous to go with it in a brooding, tough-looking way. 'I'll fill you in on plant operations as best I can, and if you need any information to help you or your family get settled here.'
'No family.' His words were a flat statement with no emotion attached that Stacie could discern. 'And the rest will wait until this production situation is sorted out.'
Right. So he was single. That was irrelevant, of course.
With an almost imperceptible nod, Stacie stopped at Gary's side. 'Gary, this is our new owner, Troy Rushton. Mr Rushton, please meet Gary Henderson.'
'Henderson.' Troy shook Gary's hand and then his eyes narrowed as he looked about them. 'What's going on?'
Gary lifted a hand to the back of his neck. 'We, ah, we had a machinery choke.'
It was just one word, but asked in a brooks-no-excuses tone.
'I'll get back to the office,' Stacie put in quickly.
Troy acknowledged her words with a brief glance, and Gary's with a narrowing of his eyes. He stepped further into the production area. 'Let's get this cleaned up. Then we'll finish this discussion.' To Stacie he said, 'I'll be up there shortly.'
Stacie made her way upstairs to the offices. By the time she'd put the kettle on in the little kitchenette and returned to her desk, Troy had walked in.
The office space suddenly became more vibrant, more alive.
Oh, Stacie. Why think like that?
For no good reason. That was why. And that lack of good reason needed to sort itself out right now. 'Would you like a hot drink while I take you through things up here?'
'No thanks. But in Carl's absence let's tackle the necessities. Bring whatever work you have, and a notepad.' He crossed the open-plan area to the manager's desk and sat as though he belonged there.
He did look right there, sitting in Carl's chair. But he also looked vital and a lot younger than Carl. A man that every woman in town would fall for, Stacie decided.
Not her, though. She was immune.
Well, men seemed to be immune to sticking around with her. Andrew, anyway. And others who'd been dazzled by her sisters.
Not the point, Stacie.
No, it wasn't. And she'd made a life choice for herself now. She'd moved forward: new town, new job, new goals.