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ARE YOU LOOKING FOR A TREE CHANGE? Do you long for fresh air and birdsong? Do you relish fresh-picked produce? Do you hunger for a gentler pace of life? RENT A FARMHOUSE FOR $1 A WEEK! If you're a community-minded family, why not rent a farmhouse for $1 a week in beautiful Bellaroo Creek?
We can promise you a fresh start and genuine country hospitality.
Cameron Manning paced from the fence to the empty farmhouse and back again. He checked his watch. The second hand hadn't moved much from the last time he'd looked. With a curse, he threw himself down on the bench, squatting beneath one of the Kurrajong trees that screened this farmhouse from the rest of his property, and drummed his fingers against his thigh. Where was the woman?
The slats of the bench, badly in need of a nail or ten, bit into his back. It would've been more comfortable to sit on the veranda, but here the deep shade screened him. It'd give him a chance to contemplate his new tenants unobserved.
He scowled. If they ever turned up.
To be honest, he didn't much care if they did or not. All he wanted was Tess Laing's signature on his contract so he could hightail it out of here again. He had work to do. Serious work.
He leaned forward, steepling his hands under his chin as he glared at the farmhouse. Now that he had the cattle station on the western edges of his property sorted and in the capable hands of an under-manager, and he and station manager Fraser had dealt with all that needed overseeing for the operation of the sheep station and the planting and harvesting of the wheat crop, the only item left remaining was the canola contract.
He needed that locked in.
Once it was he'd be free to leave this godforsaken place. He'd shake off the dust of the poisonous memories that not only plagued his dreams at night but his waking hours too.
He leapt up, a familiar bitterness coating his tongue and the blackness of betrayal settling over him like a straitjacket. For the first time in his life he understood his father's retreat from the world.
He recognised the same impulse in himself now. He gritted his teeth. He would not give into it.
Blasting out a breath, he glanced at his watch. 3:30 p.m. The woman had said she'd arrive somewhere between two and three o'clock. He slashed a hand through the air. Lucky she wasn't an employee.
Lucky for her, that was. He could fire an employee. He wrenched his gaze from the forty hectares of lovingly improved land that stretched out behind the farmhouse. Land he'd spent the last two years painstakingly improvingturning the soil, digging out rocks, fertilising backbreaking work. And now
He seized the contract he'd tossed onto the bench, rolled it up and slapped it against his legs. Once it was signed he could shake the dust of Bellaroo Creek from his feet for good. After that, his mother could deal with the new tenants.
And good luck to them.
He paced some more. He threw himself back to the bench and kept his gaze firmly fixed on the road and not on those contentious forty hectares. Finally a car appeared at the end of the gravel road, moving slowlya big, solid station wagon.
Cam didn't move from his spot in the shade, not even stirring when the breeze sent a light branch dancing across his hair, but every muscle in his body tightened. He dragged in a breath and counselled patience. He would explain the inadvertent mix-up to Tess Laing. He would patiently explain that a mistake had somehow seen his forty hectares included in her lease on the house. He would get her signature to turn those forty hectares back over to him. End of story.
If the mix-up had been inadvertentan honest mistake. Bile burned his throat. Honesty and his family didn't necessarily go hand in hand. He expected betrayal from Lance. His nostrils flared and his lips thinned. He would never underestimate his little brother's treacherous resentment again. He would never again trust a word that spilled from Lance's forked tongue. But his mother, had she ?
An invisible hand tried to squeeze the air out of his lungs, but he ignored it to thrust out his jaw. Mistake or not, he needed that land. And he would get it back. He'd talk this woman out of whatever ridiculous hobby farm idea she'd come out here with. He'd offer her a fair price to lease the land back. He'd make whatever bargain he needed to. His hand curled around the contract. Once he had her signature, Kurrajong Station's obligations would be met. And he'd be free to head off for the far horizons of Africa.
Lance, Fiona and his mother could sink or swim on their own.
The car finally reached the farmhouse and pulled to a halt. He rested his elbows on his knees, eyes narrowed. Would she be some hard-nosed business type or a free-spirited hippy?
Three car doors were flung open and three passengers shot out from the car's interior like bottled fizzy water that had been shaken and then openeda woman and two children. All of them raced around to the front of the car and bounced from one foot to the other as if they'd been cooped up for too long.
He studied the woman. She didn't look like a hard-nosed businesswoman. She didn't look like a nature-loving hippy either. She looked
In her red-and-black tartan skirt, thick black tights and black Doc Martens she reminded him of a ladybird. Her movements, though, were pure willy wagtaillight, graceful cheeky. In fact, she looked like a university student. He sat up straighter. She couldn't be old enough to have two kids!
He turned his attention to the childrena boy of around seven and a girl a year or two younger. He had a vague recollection of his mother mentioning their ages as being a real coup for the school. It was the main reason the committee had chosen this family from the flood of applicants.
A frown built inside him. They might be a coup for the school, but right now they were a disaster for him.
Finally he allowed himself a grim smile as the woman shook out her arms and legs as if she'd spent too many hours in the cargranted it was a bit of a hike from Sydney to Bellaroo Creekand then moved to rest her hands on the front fence, a child standing either side of her. Her dark hair shone in the autumn sun. It made him realise how brightly the sun shone in the soft autumn stillness of the afternoon.
The boy glanced up at her, indecision flitting across his face. 'What do you think?' He glanced back at the cottage. 'Did you know it would look like this?'
Cam pursed his lips at the edge of disappointment lacing the boy's words. The little girl moved closer to the woman as if seeking reassurance. Cam straightened. If they hated the place they'd happily sign the whole kit and caboodle back over to him! That'd solve everything.
'I had no idea what it'd look like.'
Her voice sounded like music.
She beamed down at the children and then clasped her hands beneath her chin. 'Oh, but I think it's perfect! ' She knelt on the ground, heedless of the danger to her tights, to put an arm about each of them.
The little girl pressed in against her. 'Really?'
'You do?' The little boy leaned against her too.
Cam wondered where she came by such confidence and enthusiasm. She was from the city. What did she know about country living?
Unless she'd known about those forty hectares before times and knew of their value. Unless Lance had already got to her, somehow. Unless
'Look at the size of the yard. Just think how perfect it'll be once we've mown the lawn and trimmed back that hedge of ' She gestured with her head because it was obvious she didn't want to let go of either child.
'You don't know what it is,' the boy accused.
'I have no idea,' she agreed with one of the widest grins Cam had ever seen.
Plumbago. He could've told her, but something hard and heavy had settled in his stomach. He could've at least mown the lawn for them, couldn't he? He might've been flat out with organising the cattle station, the wheat crop and mustering sheep, but he should've found the time to manage at least that much. He mightn't want these new tenantshis mother had manipulated him superbly on that frontbut that wasn't this woman's fault, or her children's.
'But won't it be fun finding out?'
'And just imagine how pretty the cottage will look once we've painted it.'
She was going to paint his cottage?
'Cream!' She grinned back at the kids. 'We'll draw straws.'
He hoped she rigged that one.
The little girl started to jump up and down. 'We can have chickens!'
'And a dog!' The little boy started to jump too.
'And a lemon tree and pretty curtains at the window.' The woman laughed, bouncing back upright.
'And we'll all live happily ever after,' they hollered together in a chorus, and Cam found he couldn't drag his eyes from them.
It was just a house on an average acre block. But it hit him then what this property represented. A new start. And he knew exactly what that meant.
With everything in his soul.
The woman clapped her hands, claiming his attention once more. 'I think we should sing our song to our new perfect home.'
And they started to sing. The children held a wobbly melody and the woman harmonised, and they so loved their song and grinned so madly at each other that Cam found his lips lifting upwards.
'The house loves us now,' the little girl whispered.
'I believe you're right.'
'I love a veranda,' the little boy said and Cam knew it was his way of saying he approved of the house of their new start.
The woman smiled that smile again and Cam had to shift on his bench. 'Right,' she said, dusting off her hands, 'what we need now is the key.'
That was his cue.
He hadn't meant to sit here for so long watching them without declaring himself. He'd only thoughthopedthat a moment's observation would give him the measure of his new tenants. Except He found himself more confounded than ever.
'That'd be where I come in.'
Both children literally jumped out of their skins at his abrupt declaration and he found himself wishing he'd cleared his throat first to give them warning of his presence.
The little girl ducked behind the woman, her hands clutching fistfuls of the woman's shirt. The boy wavered for a moment or two and then moved in front of the woman, face pale and hands clenched, but obviously determined to protect her. It was a simple act of courage that knocked Cam sideways. His heart started to pound.
The woman reached out and tousled the boy's hair and pulled him back in against her. She kept her voice solidly cheerful. 'Aha! You'll be our emissary from the town.'
Not quite, but 'I have your key.'
'Good Lord!' She planted her hands on her hips as he emerged more fully into the sunlight. 'Look at the size of you. I bet you're a big help to your mum.'
And beside her both children immediately relaxed, and he found himself careful to keep the smile on his face and to move towards them slowly. 'Actually, I guess I'm your landlord. I'm Cameron Manning.'
She frowned. 'I thought Lorraine ' 'My mother.'
'Ah.' She nodded, and then a cheeky grin peeked out. 'The mother you're such a big help to, no doubt.'
Actually, there was every doubt in the world on that head.
'I'm Tess, and this is Tyler and KristinaTy and Krissie for shortand we're very pleased to meet you.'
She held out her hand and he moved the final few feet forward to shake it. With such dark hairnearly blackhe'd thought she'd be pale but she had skin the colour of deep golden honey. Her palm slid against his, smooth and cool. Large brown eyes surveyed him with undisguised intensity as if attempting to sum up the man beneath the bulk. She smelled of liquorice and cool days, and when he finally stepped back Cam found his heart pounding.
'Can you ride a horse?' Tyler asked, awe stretching through his voice.
'I want to be a cowboy when I grow up.'
'Then you've come to the right town,' Cam said, though he could hardly believe that he spoke them. He hadn't meant to be so welcoming. He'd meant to be businesslike and brisk. But that boy had stepped in front of his mother when he'd thought she'd needed protecting. There were grown men who were afraid to take Cam on physically. At six feet three and sporting the kind of muscles that hard work on the land developed, he understood that reluctance.
He was big and he was strong. Yet, still, this little boy had faced his fear and Cam couldn't ignore that.
'Auntie Tess' the little girl tugged on the woman's sleeve 'I've gotta go.'
Auntie? She wasn't their mother?
'Right.' She stared at him expectantly. 'The key?'
He recalled how he'd considered talking them out of this property. The contract he'd left sitting on the bench fluttered in the breeze. He considered Tyler's act of courage and Krissie's excitement about chickens and the way Tess had quieted the children's fears with a song.
A new start. He knew all about the need for those. He fished the key out of his pocket and handed it over.
The three of them raced to the front door of the old farmhouse. Cam retrieved his contract and then stood under the Kurrajong tree and dragged in a breath. Okay, the house was neither here nor there. He had no plans for it. Those forty hectares, though, did matter and he wantedneededTess's signature on the dotted line.
And he wasn't leaving until he had it.
He followed them into the house.
'Bags this room!' Tyler shouted from the corridor off to the right. 'It has a view of the front and I can see who's coming, which is good 'cause I'm the man of the house.'
That almost made Cam smile again, only he remembered how pale the boy had gone when Cam had appeared unannounced.
The toilet flushed, the sound of water running in a tap and then Krissie raced down the corridor too. 'Auntie Tess, this is your room! And this one is mine 'cause it's right next to yours!'
Cam let out a breath as he glanced around. The yard might need some TLC, but the women from the Save-Our-Town committee had cleaned this place to within an inch of its life. The furniture might be mismatchedfavouring comfort more than elegancebut there wasn't a single dust bunny in sight. 'Coffee?' he called out, wanting Tess to know he'd followed them into the house.
'Excellent idea,' she called back.
He strode into the kitchen and put the jug on to boil. The farmhouse wasn't fancy by any means, but it had a certain homey charm. He had the impression that Tess would turn it into a home in the blink of an eye.
What on earth was he talking about? He shook his head. She already had, and he wasn't sure how. It took more than a smile and a song to make a home.
He let himself out of the back door, the contract burning a hole against his palm as he moved down the steps to stare out at those magical forty hectares. She was paying a dollar a week in rent for all that. It was enough to make a grown man weep.