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We've sold the motel.
Vanessa Hamilton was still reeling from her cousin's news when she looked up and saw a luxury Range Rover pull up out front of the Jackaroo Plains Motel.
She groaned, wishing she could go think about her situation without interruption from either telephones or guests. Her son was taking his morning nap right now so the timing would have been perfect. She was pleased for Linda and Hugh, of course. It was what they wanted. But she'd only been here three weeks and had planned on staying at least six months.
And right now she had to put all her worry aside as she watched the man push open the glass door. Lord, he was certainly handsome enough to take any woman's mind off her problems.
Or create one.
No one had taught her about these three Rs in school.
He epitomized everything she imagined a wealthy outback male to be. From the tips of his brown leather boots, to bone-colored trousers and the light blue polo shirt a woman was tempted to rub against, to his wrist where an expensive Rolex glistened in the light.
He stopped in front of the reception desk, his blue eyes filling with masculine appreciation. "You're new here," he drawled.
She lifted her chin, annoyed with herself for finding him attractive. "Are you looking for a room?" she asked in her best no-nonsense voice, already knowing they had nothing suitable. The Plaza Hotel in New York was more his style.
Those blue eyes narrowed on her. "No."
"If you're looking to eat in the restaurant—"
"You're not here for the gardener's job, are you?" she said, knowing it sounded ridiculous but one never knew.
His low chuckle resonated with something inside her. Something she didn't want to acknowledge.
"No, I'm not here for that, either."
Suddenly she noticed his gaze dart to her left hand, noting her bare fingers. Uneasiness fluttered inside her stomach that he might think her single and available. It had been weird taking off her rings, but the heat had made her fingers swell a little and the alternative had been to have the rings adjusted. She hadn't wanted to do that, seeing her fingers would return to normal once she returned to Sydney.
Just like she would return to normal, she had promised herself, realizing now it might happen sooner than expected.
Oh, God, she didn't want to go back to the city where her wealthy parents-in-law doted on her one-year-old son, Josh.
More than doted.
"I came to see Linda and Hugh," the man said, drawing her back to the present.
The penny dropped. He was the new owner of the motel. Oh, yes, that explained him. Her cousin said he was rich, predatory, and sucked up failing businesses like a vacuum cleaner, then got rid of half the staff under the guise of modernization.
Well, officially she wasn't on the staff.
She gave him a cool look. "They're not here."
"Where are they?"
There was a moment's pause. "When will they be back?"
One brow lifted, a questioning light in his eyes. "Are you always this helpful?"
"Only when it's part of the job," she said with a politeness that was nothing more than lip service.
His jaw set. "Look, I'm a friend of Linda and Hugh's and—"
Her heart thudded. "A… a friend?"
"Yes, Hugh and I went to boarding school together."
"Oh, I thought—" She stopped. Perhaps Linda and Hugh didn't want it known yet that they were selling.
"It doesn't matter." It all made sense now. She could easily see the two men being friends. Hugh's parents owned a cattle station, but Hugh had been more interested in business than the land and had bought the motel for him and Linda.
Did this man own a cattle station, too? He certainly looked like one of the wealthy landowners.
"The name's Kirk, by the way," he said, snapping her from her thoughts. "Kirk Deverill."
His name flowed over her. Why couldn't he be called Bruce? Or Darryl? Something that didn't sound so masculine or make a woman think about him as a man.
She let out a shaky breath. "I'm Linda's cousin. Vanessa Hamilton."
He paused, as if putting the name to her face and liking what he saw. Then his eyes fell to her lips. "I didn't know Linda had such a beautiful cousin."
She gave a soft gasp. Why did this man's words make her knees weak when almost every available male in town, and some not so available, had said the same thing since her arrival?
The telephone rang and she snatched it up, uncomfortable at the feelings he was raising inside her. She could feel him watching her as she went to a stand to get a brochure on the Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo. She answered a couple of questions for the guest then hung up and put the brochure back.
"I'm sorry. I—" She looked up and caught him eyeing the full length of her denim jeans. "Um… just a question about the zoo," she finished on a lame note.
"No need to be sorry," he said smoothly, not looking the slightest bit uncomfortable at having been caught. Then he considered her. "So tell me. Why the attitude?"
She cleared her throat. "Attitude?"
"You obviously thought I was someone else."
"Perhaps." It wasn't up to her to tell him about the sale. Besides, he could say he was a friend of Linda and Hugh's but that didn't mean he actually was.
"Someone you don't like."
"You realize you owe me an apology," he pointed out.
Yes, and he owed her an apology for the way he'd been looking at her, but did she want to go there? No way.
"Of course, there is a way you could make up for it," he said, a light in his eyes telling her this man was very experienced with women.
She stiffened. Here it comes. One sexist remark and she'd tie him to a tree for the dingoes to eat.
"Have dinner with me tomorrow night."
"Dinner?" Her heart jumped in her chest. "I can't. I mean, I can't desert Linda and Hugh then. It's going to be a big night for them. I'm helping out around the place, you see, and I—"
"You only had to say no." Her reaction seemed to amuse him. "I'm a big boy. I can take it."
Vanessa didn't know whether to be relieved or irritated that he gave in so easily. She'd expected some sort of fight from the guy.
She drew breath. "Fine then. No, I don't want to have dinner with you tomorrow night."
"How about a rain check?"
She gave a startled laugh. "What happened to 'you only had to say no'?"
"I said I could take it. I didn't say I would." An air of indolence exuded from him. "Now, about that rain check…"
All at once she wanted to get the better of him. "Okay," she said, planting a smirk on her lips. "Next time it rains I'll have dinner with you."
His brow rose. "You realize we're in the middle of a severe drought, don't you?"
"Yes, I know."
His firm lips relaxed into a lazy smile and her stomach did a flip-flop. Suddenly she wanted to step around the counter and into his arms. Arms that would snake around her hips and pull her up against his aroused body.
Aroused? Yes, she had the feeling she could excite this man, if she chose to make a move on him.
Not that she would, she told herself as she mentally pulled away in confusion. She'd never felt such an instant reaction before. With Mike the attraction had grown as she'd slowly fallen in love.
Oh, God, how could she even think about comparing her late husband to this stranger? What was wrong with her today? Maybe it was just too much stress. In any case, it was definitely too much of—
"Kirk!" Linda exclaimed, coming through a side door with Hugh, sending a sigh of relief through Vanessa, who was more than ready to go clean some of the vacated rooms. "You're back from Sydney at last."
"Yes, just passing through on the way home." He gave Linda a kiss on the cheek and shook Hugh's hand. Then his gaze slid across the reception desk. "Your cousin's been looking after me."
Linda darted a smile at Vanessa. "Good."
"Did she tell you about the sale?" Hugh said.
Kirk brows drew together. "Sale?"
Vanessa gave Hugh a helpless smile. "I wasn't sure if I should say anything."
"That's okay, love," Hugh said warmly. "Kirk, we put the motel on the market a few weeks ago and this morning we received our first reasonable offer. That's why we rushed into Dubbo. To sign the contract."
A frown crossed Kirk's face. "You're selling?"
"It's either sell now or lose everything," Hugh said, then his face brightened. "But I've been offered a job to manage some apartments on the Gold Coast. It's come at the perfect time. Linda and I want to have another baby in the nottoo-distant future." He hugged his wife to his side. "Don't we, darling?"
Linda smiled up at him. "A little brother or sister for Toby would be lovely."
Kirk scowled. "Listen, if you need money to keep the motel afloat—"
Hugh shook his head. "Thanks, mate, but it's been getting too much for us anyway. It'll be nice to have a normal family life again."
Vanessa watched Kirk seriously consider his friends, then give a slow nod. "I'll be sorry to see you both go."
"Hey, we'll only be a few hours away by air," Linda said.
"When does the sale go through?"
"We're handing over in a month's time." Hugh grimaced. "The buyer is Bert Viner and you know what his reputation is like. I don't like selling to him but—" He put up his hand as Kirk went to speak. "No, we're fine, Kirk. It's time for us to move on."
Linda sighed. "Unfortunately he'll cut back on staff and I hate that people will lose their jobs. And Vanessa was going to stay for six months but now…" Linda looked at her cousin and her eyes clouded over. "I just didn't think it would happen this quickly."
Neither had she, Vanessa thought, forcing a smile. "Oh, Linda, it's not like you hadn't told me that you'd put the motel on the market."
"I know but—"
"Don't worry about me. This is your life we're talking about." They'd worked hard to get to this point in their lives.
"I know but—"
"I've had a nice break," Vanessa said firmly.
Linda took a shuddering breath, then her face filled with resolve. "You're my cousin. We'll think of something."
Vanessa's heart softened as she looked at Linda's upset face and Hugh's concerned one. These two people had welcomed her into their home with love and affection and she didn't want them to feel guilty about any of this.
Then she realized Kirk's intense gaze was on her. He couldn't know her circumstances but she suspected he knew she was deeply worried.
So she welcomed Linda's exclamation. "Oh, heavens, Kirk! We're standing here talking to you instead of offering you a drink. Or how about I make you some lunch? The restaurant's closed but I'd be happy to whip something up for you."
Kirk's smile said thanks but he replied, "Sorry, I can't. I need to get home and do some catching up. I've been away too long."
Linda's expression turned sympathetic. "I'd heard your housekeeper had to go interstate to take care of a family member. It won't be easy getting someone to replace her." She pulled a face. "And here, I haven't even asked how your mother is after her surgery. There were some complications, I believe."
"Yes, but she's finally on the mend. Jade's looking after her now, when she's not working all the hours under the sun, that is."
"I wonder who your sister is like?" Linda teased, then her eyes widened. "Oh, I almost forgot. It's Hugh's parents' thirty-fifth wedding anniversary tomorrow and we're giving them a party in the restaurant. You must come, Kirk. They'd be heartbroken if you didn't. Isn't that right, Hugh?"
"You know they always had a soft spot for you," Hugh said, going over to one of their guests who'd come in and made a beeline for the brochure stand.
"I don't see how," Kirk joked after him, and Vanessa had to wonder the same thing, too. The man had a hardness about him that didn't translate into him being more a friend than a foe. Yet watching him here with Linda and Kirk—and he evidently treated his mother and sister well—didn't fit. That hardness was more than skin deep, she was sure.
"I'll see what I can do," he added.
"Good," Linda said, taking that for his word. "And if you don't mind, you can keep an eye on Vanessa. She doesn't know many people in Jackaroo Plains. She's only been here from Sydney three weeks."
"It would be my pleasure," she heard Kirk say.
She recovered quickly. Her cousin was a mother hen at times but she didn't need looking after, and certainly not by a man who dined on women for breakfast.
"I'll be fine, Linda. I don't want to take Kirk away from the other guests."
"You won't," he said, a purposeful gleam in his eyes sending a shock through her, though it shouldn't have. He'd been making a move on her since he'd walked through the door, and mentally she was already his.
"There you are then," Linda said, giving Vanessa an encouraging smile. All at once she tilted her head thoughtfully. "You're looking quite flushed, sweetie. It's this outback heat. You haven't got the air-conditioning turned up high enough. You should go for a quick swim but don't stay in the sun too long."
Vanessa swallowed with difficulty. "What a good idea," she said, not looking at Kirk.
Thankfully another guest came into the reception area just then, and with Hugh still busy with the previous guest, Linda came around the counter. "Here, cuz. Let me take over. You go have that swim."
Vanessa didn't need further prompting. She twirled toward the door marked Private, desperate to grab any excuse to get out of that man's presence. She heard him tell the others he had to get home.
If only she could ignore him, but Linda and Hugh would think her rude.
She stopped and glanced over her shoulder. "Yes?"
"See you at the party," he said, an intensity to his eyes that made her softly gasp.
Somehow she managed a jerky nod before making her escape. It hadn't been an issue before now but tomorrow night she'd tell him he'd got it all wrong. He had to be told she was a widow. There was no way this man would want any involvement with a woman who was still mourning the man she loved.
Kirk Deverill would never accept being second best.
After six weeks away Kirk had looked forward to coming home but now as he drove toward Deverill Downs, he realized the news that his friends were leaving the area shouldn't really have come as a surprise. He'd miss them. There weren't many people he totally trusted like he did Hugh and Linda.