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Grant snorted. Since when had any part of Kate Dickson's dealings with his father been respectful? She and her travelling band of greenies were singlehandedly responsible for crippling Leo McMurtrie's farm. And for his death that had followed.
The town might believe old Leo had had a dicky heart, but there were three people who knew otherwise: Leo's best mate the mayor, the town doctor and Grant—the only child who had found his father in the front seat of his idling vehicle. It hadn't even run out of fuel yet.
Kate Dickson's letter was still open on Leo's kitchen benchtop. Grant had left it, and everything around it, untouched until the doctor had made his declaration and the funeral was over.
He ran his eye over it now.
Negotiate the buffer zone Protect the seals Limit farming activity Regretfully First respect, now regret. Right.
What was respectful about hounding an old man into letting you onto his land and then putting the wheels in motion to have tight conservation restrictions slammed on twentyeight kilometres of his coastline? About repaying a favour by screwing over the man that had given it to you? Kate Dickson called herself a scientist, labelled her work research, but she was nothing more than a bleeding heart with her eyes on making a name for herself.
At his father's expense.
The irony that he found himself in his father's corner for the first time now, only after he was dead, that their only common ground should be beyond the grave, didn't escape Grant. Or was it that he just hadn't been willing to appreciate his father's perspective while he'd been alive and so staunchly defending it?
He balled the delicate handwritten letter—who wrote by hand these days?—and erased the irritating Kate Dickson from his conscience. Then he let his head fall forward onto the hands that fisted on his bench top and took a shuddering breath.
And then another.
A shrill call made him lurch; he snatched up the phone before thinking. 'McMurtrie.'
The uncertain pause sounded longdistance. 'Mr McMurtrie?'
Grant understood the confusion immediately. 'McMurtrie junior.'
'Oh, I'm sorry. Is your father there, please?'
A roadtrain slammed hard into his guts. The man who'd raised him had never really been there for him and never would be now. 'No.'
'Will he be back today? I was hoping to discuss '
Breathless. Young. There was only one female that he could think of who hadn't been at Leo McMurtrie's packed funeral yesterday, that hadn't brought a massive plate of country cooking for his orphan son. That would be oblivious to his death. His eyes fell on the letter. 'Miss Dickson, I assume?'
'Miss Dickson, my father passed away last week.'
Her shocked gasp sounded genuine. So too the agonising pause that followed and the tightness of her voice when she finally spoke. 'I had no idea. I am so sorry.'
Yeah, I'm sure you are. Just as you'd been getting somewhere with your crazy plans. If he made a sound, he would say exactly that. So he said nothing.
'How are you?' she asked quietly. 'Can I do anything?'
The country courtesy threw him for a second. This woman didn't know him from Adam but her concerned tone was authentic. That boiled him more than anything else. 'Yeah. You can keep your people far away from this property. You and your microscope brigade are no longer welcome.'
The voice sucked in a shocked breath. 'Mr McMurtrie—'
'You may have sweettalked my father into letting you on his land but that arrangement is now void. There will be no renegotiating.'
'But we had a commitment.'
'Unless your commitment is in writing, and has the words "in perpetuity" in bold print, then you have nothing.' 'Mr McMurtrie.' Her voice hardened. Here we go
'The arrangement I had with your father was not just about him. It has the backing of the Shire Council. There's district funding attached to it. You cannot simply opt out, no matter how tragic the circumstances.'
Slamming the phone down was the most satisfying thing he'd done all week. It gave him an outlet. It gave him focus. Blaming someone helped; it meant he didn't have to blame the man he'd lost. The man he'd been estranged from for nineteen years.
Nothing Grant did could bring back the father he'd walked away from as soon as he'd hit legal age. But he could do one thing for him—the thing his father had died wanting.
He could save the farm.
He could not run it. He was no more equipped to do that now than the day he had walked away from it when he'd been sixteen. But he could keep it ticking over. A week, a month, however long it took to get it shipshape and ready for sale to someone who could make it great. Probably not what his father had left Tulloquay to him for, but he'd never buckled to his father's demands before and he wasn't about to start now.
He'd never been farmer material growing up and Leo McMurtrie dying hadn't changed one part of that.
Kate Dickson had stood on this rustic porch one time too many, readied herself for this argument once too often. It had taken twelve solid months of negotiating—almost pleading—for Leo McMurtrie to agree to let her team conduct their threeyear research study on his property. And now in the final, crucial year of operations she was right back where she had started. Up against a lawyer, no less.
An hour on the internet had tracked down Leo McMurtrie's only son, Grant. He was some contract specialist from the city, and he was angry and still grieving, if his manner on the phone last week was any indication.
Hopefully the personal touch would do the trick.
She knocked on the freshly painted timber door then smoothed her hands down her best business outfit. Pencil skirts and fitted blazers weren't really her thing but she had two of them in her wardrobe for occasions just like this one.
The door didn't move. Kate glanced around nervously. Should she have called ahead or would he have just ignored that? Someone was home; she could hear the thump of loud music coming from deep inside the farmhouse. She knocked again and waited.
'Come on, McMurtrie.' she mumbled.
When the son still didn't materialise, Kate tested the door. It swung happily open and the musiclevel surged.
'Hello?' she shouted down the long hallway over the doofdoof of heavy metal. 'Mr McMurtrie?'
Cursing under her breath, Kate moved down the hallway towards the deafening noise. The smell of paint hit her immediately and she saw old floralpatterned sheets draped over furnishings in the freshly coated rooms that she passed. The sheets struck her as incongruous on a property belonging to a man's man. Leo McMurtrie had been as tough as nails. Even once they'd finally come to an arrangement regarding access for her team, he'd still been as surly as a mule, with a sailor's vocabulary. The fact he slept on oldfashioned, floral sheets just didn't fit with the man she knew.
Then again, she barely knew him at all. Leo hadn't wanted to be known.
'Hello?' Jeez. Lucky there wasn't an emergency or something. She tiptoed forward. 'What the hell—?'
Out of nowhere, a solidrock wall stepped out and slammed into her, sending her reeling backwards, a damp weight dragging on the front of her suit. Kate lunged for the paint bucket that tipped between them just as a pair of masculine hands did the same, and the two of them ended up halfcrouched on the floor like a badlygonewrong game of Twister. But they did manage to right the bucket and stop any more paint from sluicing down onto the timber floorboards.
The second thing Kate noticed—after subliminally absorbing the sensationally manicured pair of hands that relieved her of the bucket—was the intensity of a pair of eyes the colour of sea grass. They blazed at her from under a deep frown.
She struggled for something else to focus on. Paint pooled at her feet, dripping wildly off her clothes onto the floor.
'Don't move!' Leo McMurtrie's son barked, blocking her passage with his body and placing the tin carefully to one side. It took him a few minutes to wipe up the worst of the mess at her feet with a series of cloths but, as fast as he wiped, she dripped. Paint thickened and blobbed off the pointed seams of the tailored fabric.
'Get that jacket off.'
Kate bristled at his autocratic tone but couldn't ignore the fact that her jacket had taken most of the paint and it was very clearly still streaming onto the floor. She stripped it off, bundled it up with no further concern and tossed it over to the growing pile of paintcovered rags in the corner.
Two sets of eyes went to her beigestained skirt.
'That stays on,' she said unequivocally.
His tight lips wanted to twitch but his scowl wouldn't let them. Kate saw it all play out on his face in the seconds before he masked it. He crouched before her and, without so much as a word, he handscraped the paint off the tight fabric of her skirt, off the thighs underneath that stiffened with surprise, reaching around behind her legs to hold her steady as he did it.
Kate stood compliant and mortified until he'd finished, feeling every bit like the child she'd worked so hard to grow out of. The girl who just did what others told her. McMurtrie junior straightened up and glared at her. Those captivating eyes were evenly set in an oval face framed at the top by short, sandyblond hair and at the bottom by a matching twoday growth. His eyes perfectly matched the khaki shirt that flared open halfway down his chest and which revealed a gold band hanging by a leather thong around his neck. More sandyblond hair scattered across his tanned collarbone.
His lips tightened further as he noticed the direction of her gaze.
Desperate to get things back on a professional footing, Kate pushed her thick hair back from her face and wedged her 'game on' glasses more firmly up her nose. She straightened as best a paintcovered woman could and held out her hand to shake his.
Too late, she noticed the slap of wet paint on her right hand— which meant it was on her hair and probably her glasses too. The hand dropped limply.
Nice one, Kate.
But the pragmatist in her whispered that what was done was done. Nowhere to go but up. 'Mr McMurtrie.'
'Never heard of knocking?' He glared at her, unimpressed.
Her eyes narrowed. Maybe he wasn't grieving. Maybe he was just an ass most of the time. Like father, like son. Even if she'd come to feel great affection for McAss senior, he'd been pure hard work at the beginning.
'Never heard of a perforated eardrum?' she shouted back, eyebrows lifted.
It was only then he seemed to realise that the stereo was still pounding out. He turned away and killed the sound with the flick of a nearby switch. It took her heart a few beats to realise it had lost its synching rhythm. When he returned, his shirt was fixed two buttons higher. The tiniest part of Kate mourned the loss of that manly chest.
'Thank you,' she said, her voice overly loud in the new silence. 'Do you always enjoy your rock at full blast?'
'Better than drinking.'
Kate frowned. How were the two remotely connected? She took a deep breath and started again. 'I'm Kate Dickson. I assume you're Grant McMurtrie?'
'You must be top of your game with scientific deduction like that.'
She ignored the sarcasm. 'You haven't returned my calls.'
'Or my email.' 'No.'
'So I came in person.'
'I can see that.' His eyes drifted lazily over her paintspattered blouse. 'Sorry about your suit.'
Kate shrugged. 'I don't like it anyway.'
'Then why wear it?'
He stared at her, assessing. 'What would you prefer to wear?'
'Ah, that's right. Your seals.'
Kate quietly congratulated herself for getting things neatly back on topic. She had a lot to lose if this meeting didn't go well—more than just her project. 'I need to continue my research, Mr McMurtrie.'
'Then you'll need to find another beach, Miss Dickson.'
'All the early research was done here, I can't simply change locations. Neither can the colony I'm studying. They've been returning to that little cove for years.'
'I know. I grew up here.'
Oh, that's right. A spark of excitement flared through her. 'Do you remember the colony when you were a boy?'
His lids dropped. 'I should. I spent part of every day with them.'
Kate froze. 'No. Did you?'
He stared at her overly long. 'Don't get your hopes up, Miss Dickson. It doesn't mean I have any information for you and it doesn't mean I'm going to say yes. My answer is still no.'
'I don't need a reason. It's the beauty of Australia's freehold system—my land, my rules.'
Kate brought out her big gun. Her only gun. 'Actually, it's not.' His face grew thunderous but she pushed on. 'Technically speaking, it's not your land. Not yet.'
His eyes narrowed. 'Is that a fact?'
'I've been told it will take six to eight weeks for probate and to settle the estate according to the terms of Leo's will. Until then, this farm still belongs to your father. And the contract stands.'
God, she hoped so. She'd had to have dinner with a loathsome octopus in order to get some certainty on that. His price for helping her.
The fury on Grant McMurtrie's face had her crossing her arms across her chest, just in case he reached right through her ribcage and snatched at her heart with that big fist. He glared at her and it fluttered even faster.
'You doubt I have enough connections to get it pushed through? I'm a lawyer, Miss Dickson.'
'Ms!' she hissed.
'Actually, I imagine it's Dr Dickson, if we're being formal. Why not use that?'
'Because Dr Dickson was my father. And because I prefer Ms. If you can't manage that, then just call me Kate.' She took a breath. 'But that's besides the point. I've been told that even with fiddling probate won't take less than six weeks.'
The hostility switched to offence. 'I do not fiddle, Miss Dickson. I merely apply the law.'
Uhhuh. The octopus had been a lawyer, too.
His expression changed. 'What do you imagine will change in six weeks?'
'Maybe nothing. But maybe you'll come to see that the work we are doing is important.'
'To science. To understanding the role of predators on fish stocks. To the future ecology of the oceans.'
Her chest rose and fell twice. 'Yes, to me. This is my life's work.'
And all she had.
His halfsmile, halfsnort managed to be engaging and offensive at the same time. 'Play that tune in a few years when life's work means something more than five or six years.'
'You're not exactly Methusela. What are you forty?' She knew he wasn't.
His nostrils flared. 'Thirtyfive.'
Young, to be the success the internet hinted he was. He must have been very driven. She appealed to that part of him. 'When you were younger, didn't you care about something enough to give up everything for it?'
Posted September 6, 2011
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