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Her hair was damp against the back of her neck and her cotton clothing stuck to her skin, but as the ute rattled down the street and came to a halt directly opposite the pub she wasn't sure if her discomfort was caused by the tropical heat or her nervousness.
The driver's door opened and, with an excessive lack of haste, a man unfurled from the cabin.
His build was tall and lean, a perfect match for his faded jeans and well-worn riding boots. He wore a milk-blue cotton shirt, with long sleeves rolled to his elbows to reveal sun-darkened skin on his forearms. His hair was very black.
From this angle, Amy couldn't see his face, but he crossed the empty street with a slow and easy stride that commanded attention.
Without warning, he looked up.
And saw her.
She swung away from the window, her heart thumping strangely. She'd gained a fleeting impression of masculine strength, of a grim mouth and a proud and resolute jaw, and eyes that were a breathtaking vivid blue.
'Oh, Bella,' Amy whispered, sending a glance back to the two-year-old playing with a toy pig on the bed. 'This man is your daddy.'
It was too late to change her mind, but suddenly, for the first time since she'd left Melbourne, Amy wondered if she'd done the right thing to come all this way.
Rachel had been so cagey about Bella's father. She'd always confided in Amy—always—and yet she hadn't breathed a word about Seth Reardon until Bella's second birthday.
Rachel had finally made the big confession after the birthday party, a very casual gathering in her backyard—a few playgroup mums and toddlers, with colourful cupcakes, jelly oranges and chocolate frogs.
Afterwards, Amy had helped to wash coffee cups and once Bella had been tucked into bed she and Rachel had opened a bottle of wine and made spaghetti. They'd eaten on the back patio and talked long into the night.
When Amy brought up the subject of Bella's father, Rachel groaned. 'Do you always have to act like my conscience?'
'But Bella's two years old now,' Amy protested. And she's such a gorgeous little thing. I can't help thinking there's a guy out there who's missing out on so much by not knowing her.'
To Amy's surprise, Rachel actually agreed.
'You're right,' she said, and, after almost three years of silence, the confession tumbled out.
Rachel had met this absolutely amazing guy when she'd been working on a cattle property on Cape York, in Far North Queensland.
'I suppose I was totally overawed by him,' she admitted. 'He was the most attractive man I've ever met.'
'You mean,'Amy whispered, 'he was The One?'
Rachel's face was white, her voice edgy. 'Yes, I'm afraid he was—but that's what scared me, Ames. That's why I never kept in touch with him. If I'd told him about Bella, he would have wanted me to live up there with him.'
'But if you love each other you'd live happily ever after,' Amy declared. It seemed incredibly simple and romantic to her.
But Rachel's mask slipped to reveal raw fear. 'I couldn't live there,' she said. 'He's the boss of a massive cattle station. It occupies his whole life, and it's so hot and wild and remote. I'd be mad with loneliness and I'd drive the poor man insane.'
A glass of wine later Rachel said more calmly, 'You're right, Amy. God help me, you're always right. I really must make contact with Seth again. I do want to take Bella to meet him. I just need to find the right time.'
But she'd never found the right time…
Which was why Amy was here now, in the Tamundra pub, almost three thousand kilometres north of Melbourne.
When Seth Reardon heard footsteps on the bare timber stairs, he stood in the empty hotel dining room, facing the doorway, shoulders squared, hands lightly fisted at his sides.
He wasn't looking forward to meeting this friend of Rachel Tyler's, and he frowned, sensing something odd as he listened to Amy Ross's approach.
He was here for a business meeting and he'd expected to meet her alone, but he could hear another set of footsteps—eager, small footsteps.
Without warning, a tiny girl burst, like a small torpedo, through the doorway.
Arms outstretched, the child greeted Seth with a huge grin, as if a reclusive cattleman, whom she'd never met, was the one person in the world she most wanted to see.
Seth's stomach dropped as she headed straight for his knees, blue eyes dancing, dark curls bouncing. He knew next to nothing about children, would rather face an angry scrub bull than a small, toddling female.
To his relief, an anxious young woman, the same woman he'd glimpsed in the window upstairs—Amy Ross, he presumed—came hurrying behind the child.
'Bella!' She reached for the little girl's hand and halted her headlong dash to embrace Seth's legs.
'I'm sorry,' she huffed, slightly out of breath and blushing brightly. 'I'm afraid Bella's very friendly.'
'So I see.'
Seth's dryly drawled response was the result of habit rather than displeasure. Now that the child was safely perched on her mother's hip, he could see that the two of them formed a charming picture.
The child's dark, curly hair, dimples, and blue eyes were in startling contrast to her mother's brown eyes and straight honey-brown hair. Amy Ross's complexion was warmer than her daughter's, with the slightest hint of a golden tan.
But in spite of the differences in their appearances, the close bond between the two of them was clear, and Seth was suddenly lassoed by unexpected emotion.
He'd been stoically resigned to his life as a loner, but now he felt strangely left out, excluded from a very special unit.
He'd thought he'd thrown off his urges to be a family man.
'Perhaps we should start again,' Amy Ross said, and she held out her hand with a smile as appealing as her daughter's. 'I'm Amy and you must be Seth. How do you do?'
He accepted her greeting with a stiff nod, and as they shook hands he was super-conscious of the soft warmth of her skin.
'You didn't mention that you were bringing your daughter,' he said with an asperity he immediately regretted.
Amy's eyes widened. 'I hope you don't mind. I'm afraid I couldn't leave Bella behind. She's usually well behaved.'
Seth made no comment and the little girl continued to regard him with enormous delight, which he found quite extraordinary.
He swallowed to clear the tightening in his throat. He was mad with himself for allowing a total stranger—a woman, no less—to convince him to drop everything and race into town.
Admittedly, Amy Ross's phone call had delivered alarming news that Seth couldn't afford to ignore. He'd been shocked to hear about Rachel Tyler's death. He hadn't heard from Rachel since she'd worked on Serenity, and he'd tried to put her clear out of his mind.
Her death was a tragedy.
And already, there'd been too much tragedy.
Amy hooked the straps of her shoulder bag more securely and held Bella's hand. But the child immediately began to squirm.
'Man, up!' she demanded, running to Seth's side and tugging at his denim jeans with determined little hands.
'Bella, no.' Grimacing with embarrassment, Amy pulled picture books from her shoulder bag. 'Come and sit here quietly and look at these books while I talk to Mr Reardon. Come on now, be a good girl.'
Seth tried to be patient while Bella was persuaded to sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor with books and a handful of toys. He and Amy sat at one of the dining tables.
'Hey, diddle, diddle,' the child announced gleefully.
He stifled a sigh of irritation. 'Does your daughter usually accompany you to business meetings, Mrs Ross?'
'Cat an' fiddle,' chanted Bella.
Flushing, Amy nervously lifted her hair from the back of her neck. Clearly, the heat and the tropical humidity were bothering her. Her hair was damp against her skin, and her neck was flushed and shiny with perspiration.
'I'm not married,' she said.
It was only then, as Seth watched her elegant hands securing a twist in her honey hair, that he noticed she wasn't wearing rings.
So she was a single mother. He supposed he should be more tolerant. He'd heard all the news reports about the excessive costs of day care.
'I don't usually have Bella with me while I'm working,' she said. 'But I had to travel such a long way this time, and I didn't want to leave her.'
He bit back a question about the child's father, but he couldn't help wondering where the guy was and why he hadn't been able or willing to help out.
'You've come quite a distance,' he said.
'Don't I know it? It's so hot and muggy here.' She lifted the limp collar of her cotton shirt away from her skin. 'The tourist agency told me it's as far from Melbourne to Tamundra as it is from London to Moscow.'
Seth nodded. 'And you've chosen the very worst time of the year to make such a long journey.'
Her lower lip pouted. 'I had no choice. There's so little time to get publicity organised. Rachel's book is coming out in April.'
'Ah, yes, Rachel Tyler's book,' Seth said quietly and he narrowed his eyes.
'Aren't you pleased about it?'
'Why should I be pleased? When Rachel was on Serenity three years ago, she never once mentioned to anyone that she planned to write a book. I was very sorry to hear about her accident, but I can't say I'm happy that there's a book coming out now, after such a long silence.'
'Rachel's—Rachel was—a brilliant writer. She had a wonderful gift for description.'
That was all very well, but what had she described? As a reclusive bachelor, who prized his privacy, Seth was distinctly unhappy that a former employee had written a book about the six weeks she'd spent on his cattle property.
On the phone last week, Amy Ross had gone to great lengths to assure him that the book was a work of fiction and people's names had been changed to protect the innocent. But Seth wasn't at all confident he could assume that Rachel Tyler had been discreet.
Rachel had claimed to have been on a backpacking holiday, but she'd never hinted that she planned to race off and write a book about it.
To Seth, Rachel's behaviour had been sneaky. People in the bush were upfront and open and the whole business of this book made his gut churn with apprehension. Even so, he was determined to find out what he could. It was why he'd agreed to this meeting.
He frowned at Amy. 'You were Rachel's best friend, so I assume you can shed some light on this book.'
Amy smiled awkwardly. 'I'm afraid I don't know much at all. I'm here because the publishers have a limited budget for the promotion, and I wanted to do as much as I could for—for—'
Her eyes rested on the child. 'I wanted to do this for Rachel.'
The little girl looked up suddenly. 'Mummy?'
To Seth's surprise, Amy paled and closed her eyes, as if the child had upset her.
When she opened her eyes again, a moment later, Seth was struck by their dark, liquid beauty.
There was something very graceful and feminine about Amy Ross that he found eminently watchable. On the other hand, there was something about her story that didn't quite add up.
The child's presence…Amy's nervousness… Her insistence on coming now at such an inappropriate time when the wet season was about to break over their heads.
He knew Amy hoped to return to Serenity with him to take publicity shots, but already he was convinced that even agreeing to this meeting had been a huge mistake.
Amy could feel her heart beating in her throat. It had been such a shock to see Seth and Bella together. She'd never dreamed there could be such a strong likeness between a grown man and a baby girl, and she found it hard to believe that he hadn't seen the resemblance for himself.
How much time did she have before he began to notice and to ask difficult, searching questions?
She was pretty sure he could see huge holes in her claim that she'd come here solely to gather promotional material for Rachel's book. She was terrified Seth Reardon might change his mind about allowing her to spend a couple of days on his cattle property, and if that happened she would have no choice but to reveal her real reason for coming north.
But she couldn't tell him yet.
It was too soon.
To surprise this cold and forbidding cattleman with the news that he'd fathered a daughter was a delicate and difficult exercise. The timing was crucial, and there was no way she wanted to tell him such distressing news now in this strange hotel, miles from anywhere.
This exercise couldn't be rushed. She needed a chance to get to know Seth Reardon first. She wanted to win his confidence and trust—if that were possible, which right now she seriously doubted. She had hoped that together she and Seth could work out the best way to care for her precious Bella.
Amy forced a shaky smile, uncomfortably conscious that Seth Reardon was an exceptionally good-looking man. Rachel had always had good taste in men, and Seth's lean, rugged physique and arresting blue eyes were enough to make any young woman forget her mother's warnings.
Last night, when Amy had arrived here, she'd mentioned his name to the publican's wife, Marie, and the woman's reaction had puzzled her.
'Seth Reardon?' Her eyes had widened with sudden surprise. 'Oooh… He's a quiet one. Doesn't hang around the pub much. He's…cold. But there's something about him though. Eyes that make you wonder.'
'Wonder what?' Amy had prompted, hoping to hear a positive comment.
The woman had actually blushed, and then she'd shot a quick glance at Bella, who'd been sitting at the dining table, absorbed in drinking a glass of iced milk with a straw.
'What?' Amy had asked again.
'Oh, I've always had a soft spot for a man with blue eyes,' Marie had said lamely and she'd become very busy clearing dishes while she muttered about needing to get back to the kitchen.
Amy had been left with the impression that Seth Reardon was dangerous.
Even Rachel had admitted that Seth had been cool and distant at first, until she'd got to know him. Not that Amy would allow her mind to dwell on thoughts of Rachel and Seth becoming familiar…
The very idea… of Seth Reardon making love… was like a close encounter with a lightning bolt.