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"What do you mean you quit? It's only four and a half weeks to Christmas! We're so busy with guests and functions that we can barely move. Look, let's talk about it. If you're not happy, we can work around that. Find you something else to do."
Tamsyn sighed inwardly. Find her something else to do. Sure, that would solve how she felt right nownot. She couldn't blame her brother, Ethan, for wanting to make things right for her. He'd done it all her life, after all. But this situation was beyond his fixing. That was why she'd needed to get away.
A holiday was something she'd been thinking about for a while. Working at The Masters, which in addition to being their family home was a vineyard and winery with luxury cottage accommodation on the outskirts of Adelaide in South Australia, hadn't given her any satisfaction for a very long time. She'd been restless, feeling as if she didn't really fit in anymoreat work, at home, in her family, even in her engagement.
The debacle of the night before had only proven just how right she was.
"Ethan, I can't talk about it. I'm in New Zealand."
"You're in New Zealand? I thought you were staying here in Adelaide with Trent last night," Ethan's incredulity was clear as it transmitted through the hands-free kit in her rental car.
Tamsyn counted slowly to ten, letting her brother continue to let off steam before replying.
"I've ended our engagement."
There was the briefest of silences as her words sunk in.
"You what?" Ethan sounded as if he wasn't certain he'd heard her correctly.
"Long story." She swallowed against the pain that had lessened to a persistent dull throb deep in her chest.
"I have ears."
"Not now, Ethan. I c-can't." Her voice broke and tears spilled uncontrolled down her cheeks.
"I'm going to hurt him," Ethan growled from far across the Tasman Sea with his characteristic brotherly protec-tiveness.
"No, don't. He's not worth it."
Her brother sighed and she could feel his concern and frustration in that single huff of air. "When are you coming back?"
"I I don't know. It's kind of up in the air at the moment." She didn't think that now was a good time to tell him she'd only bought a one-way ticket.
"Well, at least you trained your assistant to take over when needed. Is Zac up to date with everything?"
Even though she knew he couldn't see her, Tamsyn shook her head and bit her lip.
"Um, no. I fired him."
"You wh?" Ethan fell silent as he started to put two and two together, coming up with his usual four. Even so, he couldn't keep the incredulity from his voice. "Zac and Trent?"
"Yup," she said, her throat almost paralyzed and strangling the single word.
"Will you be okay? I'll come over. Just tell me where you are."
"No, don't. I'll be fineeventually. I just need " She drew in a shuddering breath. She couldn't even find the words to say what she really neededshe had to simply tell him something he'd understand. "I just need some time alone. Some space so I can think things out. I'm sorry about leaving like this. Everything is in my computer, you know the password, and the bookings are all duplicated on the wall planner as well. Worse comes to worst, they can phone me if they need to."
"We'll take care of it, don't worry."
Her big brother's firm conviction wasn't as good as being right there with him, but in terms of comfort it came close.
"No problem, but Tam? Who's going to take care of you?"
"I will," she said firmly.
"I really think you should come home."
"No, I know what I need to do. It's important to me, now more than ever." This part, she had to share with himeven though she knew he wouldn't like it. "I'm going to find her, Ethan."
Silence, then another sigh. "Are you sure now is the best time to go searching for our mother?"
It had already been a few months now, but the shock of discovering their motherwho they'd long been told was deadwas alive and living in New Zealand still reverberated through her mind almost every moment of every day. Learning after his death that their father had lied to them all this time was one thing, discovering the rest of their family had supported him in the lie was anotherbut realizing that their mother had chosen to remain apart from them, to never even try to make contact, well, that had raised so many questions in Tamsyn's mind they'd begun to define everything about the way she saw herself.
Tamsyn grimaced and shook her head slightly. "Can't think of a better time than now, can you?"
"Yeah, actually, I can. You're hurt, you're vulnerable. I don't want you to get let down again. Come home. Let me put an investigator on to it so that you know what you're going into when they find her."
She could picture him right now, the frown on his forehead, the thinned line of his lips as he worried from afar.
"I want to do this myself. I need to. Look, I'm not far from that address you gave me a couple of months ago. I'd better go," she said, checking the distance on the screen of her GPS.
"You're just going to show up, no warning?"
"Tam, be sensible. You can't just arrive on someone's doorstep claiming to be their long-lost child."
"Except I'm not lost, am I? She knew where we were all along. She's the one who left and didn't come back."
She couldn't hide the hurt in the words. A hurt that warred with resentment and anger and sorrow and so many unanswered questions that Tamsyn had hardly had a full night's sleep since she'd heard the news that her mother still lived. That the woman she'd quietly fantasized about, a mother who'd loved her and cared for her too much to ever leave her behind, didn't exist. She had so many questions and she had convinced herself that she was strong enough now to face the answers. She needed to so she could move forward with her life, because what she'd believed up until now had been based on lies and fabrication. Trent's betrayal was the final straw. She didn't even know who she was anymore. But she was ready to find out. Ethan's voice broke into her thoughts.
"Do me a favor, find a motel or somewhere and sleep on it before you do anything you might regret. We can talk in the morning."
"I'll let you know how it goes," Tamsyn replied, ignoring her brother's plea. "I'll call you in a few days."
She disconnected the phone before Ethan could say another word and listened carefully as the disembodied voice on the GPS carefully enunciated that her turn was coming up in five hundred meters. Tamsyn's gut clenched tight. She had to do this. As irrational and out of character as it was for her, the woman who usually planned everything out to the finest degree, she needed to do this.
Carefully, Tamsyn turned in at the imposing stone-wall-lined entrance to a long driveway. She drew the car to a halt and closed her eyes for a moment. This was itsoon she could be face-to-face with her mother for the first time since she was three years old. A shudder passed through her body as her adrenaline levels kicked up a notch.
The past twenty-four hours had been a roller-coaster ride. One that had alternately left her giddy with anticipation or sick to her stomach. Tamsyn opened her eyes and took her foot off the brake. The car began inching forward, rumbling loudly over the cattle guard beneath the tires and along the long straight stretch of driveway that gently inclined up the hill.
To the left and the right of her, regimented lines of grapevines grew, their foliage lush and green and the early signs of fruit could be seen hanging on the vines. Considering it was only late November, Tamsyn's experienced eye could see that this vineyard was in for a bumper crop.
She continued along the long driveway. It snaked up a steep incline until finally, after a particularly tight hairpin turn, she saw the house ahead of her. The sprawling two-story building, crafted in stone and cedar, dominated the crest of the hill. Her lips set in a firm line of disapproval. So it clearly hadn't been a lack of money that had kept her mother from staying in touch, she thought cynically. Was this how Ellen Masters had used the money her husband had sent her for the past twenty-odd years?
Tamsyn used that cynicism to propel her out of her car and toward the front door. It was now or never. Taking a deep breath, she reached for the iron door knocker and lifted it, only to let it drop with a solid clang. A short time later she heard footsteps echo from inside. Her stomach tied in knots as every last ounce of her resolve suddenly fled. What the hell was she doing here?
Finn Gallagher opened his front door and had to force himself not to take a step back. He recognized the woman standing in front of him with a surety that went soul deep. Ellen's daughter.
So the little princess from Australia had finally decided to visit. Too little, too late, as far as he was concerned. Far too late.
The pictures he'd seen of her over the years, hadn't done her justice, though he had the sense he wasn't seeing her at her best. His sweeping gaze took in the mussed long dark brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders and the dark bruises of tiredness that stained porcelain skin under wide-spaced brown eyes. Eyes that reminded him so much of her mother. The woman who, together with her partner, Lorenzo, had mothered him when his own family had disintegrated.
Her clothes were creased but still stylish, and clung to her curves in a way that drew his eye to the opening of her blouse and especially to the tempting swell of creamy skin exposed there. Her skirt skimmed her hips and down her slender thighs to end just above the knee. Not long enough to be dowdy and not so short as to be inappropriate, but somehow still enticing.
It all spoke to the privileged upbringing she'd enjoyed. He found it difficult not to feel bitter when he knew how hard her mother had scraped and worked for a decent life. Clearly the Masters family had looked after their ownthey just didn't look after those who walked away from them. Those who didn't conform.
His gaze drifted back to her face where he noticed her full lips tremble slightly before pulling into a nervous smile.
"H-hello, I was wondering if Ellen Masters lives here?" she said.
Her voice was tight, as if her throat was constricted and in the late-afternoon sun that slanted across her face he could see telltale signs of tear tracks. Natural curiosity rose from inside him but he quelled it with his usual determination.
"And you are ?" he asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.
"Oh, I'm sorry." She held out a delicate hand. "I'm Tamsyn Masters. I'm looking for my mother, Ellen."
He took her hand in his, noting instantly the coolness of her touch, the fragility in the bones of her fingers as his larger, stronger ones closed around hers. He struggled against the instinct to go into protection mode. There was something very not right in Tamsyn Masters's world right now, but, he reminded himself, that wasn't his problem.
Keeping her away from Ellen was.
Two here's no Ellen Masters here," he replied, letting go of her hand. "Was your mother expecting you?"
She had the grace to look shamefaced. "No, I kind of hoped to surprise her."
Surprise her? Yeah, he just bet she did. Without sparing a thought to whether or not her mother would, or could, see her. How typical of her type, he thought angrily. Pampered, spoiled and thinking the world spun for her delectation. He knew the type wellunfortunately. Too well. They were the kind who'd always expect more, no matter how much you gave. People like Briana, his ex. Beautiful, seemingly compassionate, born into a life of opportunitybut in the cold light of day as grasping and as single-minded as Fagin in Oliver Twist.
"Are you sure you have the right address?" he asked, tamping his fury down.
"Well.I thought." She reached into her handbag and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper and read off the address. "That's right, isn't it? I'm at the right place."
"That is my address, but there's no Ellen Masters here. I'm sorry. It looks like you've had a wasted trip."
Before his eyes, every particle in her body slumped. Her eyes suddenly brimmed with unshed tears and a stricken look froze her delicate features into a mask of sadness. Again that urge to protect her welled within himalong with the compulsion to tell her of the well-concealed and unsealed driveway she'd have passed on the road here. The one that led to the cottage where Ellen and Lorenzo had lived for the past twenty-five years or sobut he just as determinedly pushed the impulse back.
He knew for a fact Tamsyn Masters had legally been an adult for ten years. What whim had finally driven her to seek out Ellen now? And, more important, why hadn't she reached out to her mother sooner, when it could possibly still have made a difference to the other woman's happiness?
"Ioh, well, I'm sorry to have bothered you. My information can't have been correct."
She reached into her handbag for an oversize pair of sunglasses and shoved them none too elegantly onto her face, hiding her tortured gaze from view. As she did so, he caught sight of the white band of skin on the ring finger of her left hand. Had the engagement he'd read of over a year ago come to an end? Had that been the catalyst to send her searching for her mother?
Whatever it was, it was none of his business.
"No problem," he answered and watched as she walked back to her car and turned it around to drive back down the driveway.
Finn didn't waste another second before reaching for his cell phone and punching in a number. It went straight to voice mail and he uttered a short sharp epithet in frustration while listening to the disembodied voice asking him to leave a message.
"Lorenzo, call me. There's been a complication here at home."
He slid his phone back in his pocket and closed the front door of his house. Somehow, though, he had the feeling he hadn't completely closed the door on Tamsyn Masters.