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Jane Linden Parked her black Mazda in front of Red Hill Real Estate and checked her hair in the visor mirror. Just her luck! The only person in this small rural town who could sell her late aunt's farm for her was Cole Roberts, the man who'd broken her heart thirteen years ago. Cole wasn't a bad man; in fact, she'd never known anyone as loyal to his family. But that didn't mean he hadn't made her suffer.
Hitching her red leather tote higher on her shoulder, Jane climbed out of the car. Seeing him again would not be a problem. She was over him; him and his green eyes and killer grin. She'd be in and out of Red Hill faster than she could snap her fingers. And he would never know she'd cried herself to sleep for three years because he'd married Leslie Stanwyck instead of her.
All that had happened a long time ago. Jane was a different person, older and wiser. She might not have made a name for herself in Hollywood, but those acting lessons Rafe had given her way back when were finally going to pay off. Bright and breezy, that's the way she'd play it. Ignore the pain, hide the anger; Cole no longer meant a thing to her. How could he? Thirteen years was way too long to carry a torch.
A bell tinkled as she entered through the glass door of the real estate agency. A small seating area was to her right, reception to her left. The young woman behind the curved desk wore black rectangular glasses and had fine dark hair swept into a ponytail.
Leslie's little sister. The last time Jane had seen this girl she'd worn pigtails and Bratz T-shirts. Jane pushed her sunglasses up into her hair. "Millie?"
Millie glanced up with a bright smile. "Hi, um Do I know you?"
"Jane Linden. I wentto high school with Leslie." She glanced past reception to the narrow hall and the private offices. "Is Cole in?"
"I'll see if he's available." Millie reached for the phone.
"He and I are old friends. I'll surprise him." Jane hurried past before Millie could stop her. Old friends, indeed. They'd been far more to each other than friends; and in the end, far less.
Through the glass wall of his office she could see Cole working on something at his desk, his brow creased in concentration as he chewed on the end of a pencil. In spite of her pep talk, her heart turned over at the sight of his face, still familiar even though she hadn't seen him in three years, the time he'd come to L.A. to visit Mary Kate.
Steeling herself, she knocked once and opened the door. "Well, just look at you! All dressed up in a suit and tie behind a big fancy desk. You're quite the successful businessman."
Cole started at her voice, his eyebrows lifting as he set aside his pencil and newspaper. He smoothed a hand lightly over his neatly combed dark brown hair. "Jane! I'm surprised to see you back in Red Hill so soon." He glanced past her eagerly. "Did you bring Mary Kate this time?"
Jane had come alone four weeks earlier to arrange her aunt Esther's funeral. Mary Kate had stayed in L.A. with friends. She'd had the lead in the classroom concert as well as end-of-term exams.
"She's at the farmhouse." Jane's grip on her tote strap tightened. As the girl's father, Cole had rights whether she liked it or not. Bright and breezy, she reminded herself and pasted on a smile. "We arrived yesterday. We're both still jet-lagged so I let Mary Kate stay home."
"Have a seat," Cole said. "I'm sorry about your aunt Esther. She was so young."
"Thanks." Jane sat stiffly on the edge of the visitor's chair. "Her heart attack was unexpected."
"I'm sorry I missed the funeral," Cole continued formally. "I was closing a deal on a house that afternoon or I would've come. I called you the next day but you must have already left."
"I was only in town a few days," Jane explained, shifting in her chair. It was hard to be bright when the subject was so sad, hard to be breezy when the conversation was this stilted. "I had work commitments and wanted to be back for Christmas."
"How long are you in Australia?"
Jane forced herself to relax and sink back into the chair. Her short white skirt slid halfway up her thigh. She saw his gaze drop before he quickly glanced away. She tugged the fabric down. "We're back for good. Goodbye, L.A., hello, Melbourne. I've got a job as a publicist with Moonray Productions. In fact, I've hit the ground running, publicizing the premiere of a movie called Swept Away."
"You mean it?" he said. "You're back?"
She nodded. "A moving company is packing up my house in Pasadena and shipping everything down here."
"That's wonderful news," Cole said, smiling for the first time. "I'll be able to get to know Mary Kate properly. Stephanie will be excited."
"How is Stephanie?" Jane asked politely. "Does she live with you?"
"She's great. She stays with me on the weekends and during the summer holidays and with Leslie during the week when school's in." He angled a framed photo on his desk so Jane could see the picture of a young girl with Cole's open grin and Leslie's straight blond hair. "She's turning twelve next month. Loves horses."
"Mary Kate, too," Jane said, softening.
"Yeah?" Cole's face lit.
Something like warmth flashed between them, a shared moment over their daughter. Then Cole leaned back in his chair, his face carefully neutral.
"Leslie's married to Fergus Palmer now," Cole went on. "They have two little boys from his first marriage."
"So I heard." Cole's divorce from Leslie had gone through before his trip to L.A. At first Jane had wondered if he'd been hoping to get back together with her, but his interest had proved to be solely in Mary Kate.
Cole glanced at her bare left hand. "What about you? Are you still seeing that producer you introduced me to in L.A.?"
"That was a long time ago. Anyway, I don't have time for a relationship," Jane said. "Mary Kate and I are a self-contained unit. We don't need anyone else."
Cole came upright with a thump of his chair legs on the mat. "You can't decide that for Mary Kate. She has family here. Me, Stephanie, her grandmother and her uncle Joey"
Jane held up a hand, shifting back to the edge of her seat. Any hint of warmth had vanished and the time for polite chitchat was definitely over. "She'll see you all, don't worry."
They glared at each other, unmoving.
Then Cole let out a breath and flexed his shoulders. Unexpectedly, he gave her the grin that used to twist her heart into knots. "Doesn't take much to set us off, does it?"
Jane smiled stiffly, keeping a tight grip on herself, refusing to respond to that grin. So much for bright and breezy.
Cole cleared his throat and changed the subject. "Have you come home to live at Cockatoo Ridge?"
"No," Jane said. "That's why I'm here. Esther's will has gone through probate and her estate has been settled. I want you to sell Cockatoo Ridge for me."
"You're selling the farm?"
She supposed she could hardly blame him if his surprise was mingled with a touch of resentmentif not outrage. She could hardly blame him if it was. Cockatoo Ridge had been built by his great-grandfather and had belonged to his family for generations until Cole's father had been forced to sell it to pay gambling debts. No doubt Cole would love to have it back, but she couldn't afford to be sentimental. Cole was unlikely to be able to meet the high price the property would rightfully command. "I have no use for the land," she explained. "The house is old and needs work. I've got my eye on a high-rise apartment in the city. It's right on the waterfront, a corner apartment with fabulous views of the bay. There are theaters and restaurants nearby and it's close to work."
"It costs a bomb. That's why I need to sell the farm straightaway. For the highest possible price."
"Those are mutually exclusive criteria," Cole informed her, suddenly businesslike. "You can sell quickly for a lower price or wait for a decent offer. Midsummer isn't the best time to sell. Why not enjoy the warm months in Red Hill and put the property on the market in autumn?"
And give her horse-crazy daughter a chance to settle into a country home and not want to leave? No way. "If I wait, I could lose the apartment."
Cole tapped his pen on the blotter, frowning at her in silence. Then, with a sigh, he pulled out his appointment book and turned the pages. "I'll come out and value the farm and we can settle on an asking price."
"It hasn't changed since your family lived therea rambling Victorian house and barn on ten acres with a creek running through it. Do you really need to see it?" The less she saw of him, the better.
"It's been years since I was at Cockatoo Ridge,"
Cole said. "I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't inspect the property in person."
Jane nodded, resigning herself. "How about tomorrow? I'm heading back to Melbourne on Sunday night."
"You always were in a desperate hurry to leave town."
She eyed him steadily. "I still am."
"I wish I could get you to reconsider," he said, his gaze hardening. "This is an opportunity for me to get to know Mary Kate. I've had precious little contact with her over the years."
Jane took a deep breath and counted to ten. Mary Kate talked to Cole on the phone on birthdays and at Christmas. She replied to his e-mails. Was it Jane's fault the time difference made communication difficult? Or that an almost-twelve-year-old had little interest in a faraway father she'd never known and rarely saw?
"It's not easy finding the time and money to make overseas trips," she said. "I came back when she was five. You've been over a couple of times."
"The last time I was only in L.A. for a week before you whisked her off to Canada on a trip you'd neglected to mention before I flew all the way over there."
Jane jiggled a sandal-clad foot impatiently. "It was a last-minute thing. She'd been invited to the Calgary Stampede by a classmate and begged me to let her go."
"There were other times I asked to visit, but there was always some reason it wasn't convenient."
"And there were times when I suggested you come and you had other plans," Jane reminded him. "It's not that I don't want you to see her" She broke off abruptly, unable to speak her real fears aloudthat Cole would try to take Mary Kate away from her.
"I hope not. She's my daughter, too." Cole's voice took on an edge, sounding to Jane almost like a threat.
Her chin rose. "I bore her, I gave birth to her, I raised her. She's mine. You have Stephanie. Isn't that enough?"
"If I had ten children, I would still want Mary Kate," Cole insisted. "Kids aren't stuffed toys. When you've got enough you don't mind giving one away. I wish you'd never left Red Hill with my child."
"Did you really imagine Mary Kate and I could have lived in this small town and played second fiddle to Leslie and Stephanie?" Jane demanded. She'd known he'd been going out with Leslie but the couple had broken up before Leslie had gone on holiday with her parents. Then Leslie had come home pregnant. Cole's future had been stitched up within a week, long before Jane had had any inkling that she was also pregnant.
Cole was silent, his jaw tightening. Throwing her an unreadable glance, he pulled out an appointment card and began to write on it.
Jane tilted her head, studying him. Who wore ties nowadays or combed their hair with a part? He was like Clark Kent, the handsome nerd who doesn't make the most of his sex appeal. "You haven't changed."
"You're wrong," he said flatly. "As you frequently are, but there's no telling you that."
He rose and came around the desk. Jane got to her feet, trapped between Cole and the wall. He held out the card. She tried to take it but he wouldn't let it go.
"Well?" he asked. "Am I going to see Mary Kate?"
"Of course you're going to see Mary Kate," she said, tugging at the card. "Are you going to help me out, or should I go hire an agent in Dromana?"
Cole released the card. "Ten o'clock tomorrow morning."
Jane spun on her heel and strode to the door, her red tote bumping against her hip, her hands shaking. She breezed past Millie, throwing her the brightest smile she could manage. All she could think of now was getting to her car.