'And stay there while I get the rest of your friends under control!'Tiffany Campbell left two goats on the correct side of her family's goat farm fence and headed off further into council-owned creek land to grab the remaining two strays.
Some of the farm's fencing could do with improving, but until her adoptive parents returned from France Tiffany would have to make do with shoring this section up. She wanted things to run smoothly while Colin and Sylvia were away. Wanted them to see they'd been right to trust her with the responsibility of running the farm in their absence. She could do this.
Not that she was trying to earn their approval or anything. She just liked to do a good job of whatever she tackled. For now, that meant keeping Campbell goats away from Reid land, whether the creek appealed to the goats this warm summer's day or not.
Arms pumping, bushman's hat rammed down hard over her corkscrew brown curls, Tiffany stomped on booted feet towards the animals.
She did her best to make her five-foot-andone-quarter-of-an-inch frame appear large and intimidating. 'Hie, hie. Shoo. Towards the gate now, and I'll open it and let you both back through.'
One of the goats obligingly trotted forward.
'Good goat.' Tiffany opened the gate, and shut it again quickly once the goat had entered the paddock.
That left one goat, and Tiffany recognised this goat very well. She should, since she owned it. A personal acquisition bought in a fit of lonely insanity as it turned out.
'Right, Amalthea. I want you back in the paddock with the others.' Tiffany stepped forward.
With a loud maaaa and a look that seemed distrustful, disbelieving and decidedlygoddess-like all at once, the goat bolted. Tiffany gave chase, but lost the nimble-footed creature when the goat disappeared around a bend in the creek.
Just beyond that bend stood the footbridge Jack Reid had always used to get from his place to hers. At least until her misguided actions had sent him clear out of Australia and to the other side of the world months ago.
Footsteps sounded on the bridge. Loud, stomping steps in a gait she would recognise anywhere. Tiffany froze to the spot in a mixture of hope and uncertainty. She had wanted a better resolution to her situation with Jack—a chance to truly deal with it rather than continuing to pretend everything was all right from opposite sides of the world. But was she ready to broach that resolution right now?
You'll just have to be ready, won't you?
'I didn't even know he was back from Switzerland.' Her muttered words indicated how far she and Jack had moved from their old, close and comfortable friendship. Would this sudden meeting make any difference to that? Maybe Jack hadn't even planned to see her during his visit here. Would he be sorry to have stumbled into her?
From somewhere nearby, the goat goddess let out a loud and annoyed bleat. A second later Amalthea trotted past Tiffany and disappeared into the brush.
Those swift human footsteps rounded the bend in the creek. And the time for questions ended—because there was Jack.
Solid, in the flesh, as wonderful and as gorgeous as ever. Tiffany wanted to see him only as best friend material—as he wanted to see her. Instead, her heart-rate picked up, her palms heated, and the skin on her arms and at the back of her neck began to prickle.
The reaction was embarrassing and unwelcome and infuriating. Hadn't she gained any ground since he'd left? She focused her efforts to ensure she revealed none of that unacceptable reaction when she spoke. 'Hello, Jack. This is a surprise.'
'Tiffany!' His head snapped up. Deep blue eyes churned with surprise, anger, and other emotions she couldn't define.
Fists clenched at his sides, Jack stopped in front of her. Muscles bunched in the tanned lean jaw, but something in his face softened, too. He clearly wasn't angry with her, as his stomping steps before he'd seen her had indicated. That left surprise, and that softening of his features. A warm feeling spread through her in response, despite all that had gone before.
'I thought I'd find you on the farm.' He spoke the words in that deep, delicious voice of his. 'I didn't expect to see you here.'
'But you did expect to see me?' At least that was a little hopeful
'Yes. Maybe I should have let you know I was coming back into the country and back here.' He hesitated and his mouth tightened. 'I phoned Mum from Sydney and arranged to visit her. Samuel was to be away on business for the next week, and I thought there'd be time to make plans with you once I'd settled into the house with Mum. Instead Samuel came back, and my visit ended half an hour after I got there.'
His tone was flat, but strong emotion lurked beneath the carefully composed words.
'I'm sorry, Jack.'
Samuel Reid was an often unpleasant man who appeared to share no warmth with his wife and was openly aggressive towards his son. Jack's mother was as bad, in her own way. She simply ignored life as much as she possibly could.
Tiffany kept her tone neutral as she went on. 'Samuel must have caught you by surprise.You don't usually give him a chance to try and launch into an altercation with you.'
'It was more than a war of words this time.' Jack's jaw worked before he shook his head. 'None of the Reids are fit for family relations. I proved that today.'
Just as she began to gape at this pronouncement, he seemed to forcibly dismiss the topic.
'I came to the creek for a breather. I intended to seek you out at the farm after that. I want our old friendship back, Tiff. We're completely safe with that, and I've missed you.'
It was an odd way for him to put things— as though he lumped himself in with his parents in terms of dysfunctionality in relationships. But Jack just wasn't like that. What had Samuel Reid said or done this time to upset him so?
Before she could think of a way to subtly pursue the topic, Jack spoke again.
'Tell me what you're up to here at the creek.' Dried twigs snapped beneath his booted feet as he stepped closer to her. 'I thought I saw a goat as I came over the bridge.'
'You probably did see a goat. I've had to retrieve several from this creek land, and there's still one to collect.' She inhaled the scents of dry grass and gum leaves, but mostly she was caught in the deep blue of Jack's eyes.
'I'll help you catch the goat,' he offered, 'and maybe then we can visit.'
It was brilliant that he wanted their friendship back. She should be on her knees and grateful for it, not disappointed in any way.
'That would be nice. I'd like to hear about your trip.' She would like a chance to resolve their issues, but she didn't say that. Instead, she tried to inject a teasing note into her voice. 'I was terribly jealous about all those fabulous places you'd get to visit across Europe while you consulted for your law firm. The photography opportunities alone would have been mind-blowing.'
'Actually, I got fairly busy once I reached Switzerland.'The smile he returned faded too quickly. 'I sort of dug in there and didn't move around as much as I might have. You'd have enjoyed taking photos, though. You're right about that.'
'It's great that Hobbs & Judd agreed to let you consult over there. You probably handled some big corporate law matters for them and raised their international profile exponentially.'
When he didn't say anything, she nodded her head. 'I won't ask you to confirm it. I know you wouldn't be able to give me information about what you worked on, but I imagine it would have presented a challenge to consult overseas that way.'
'It was something like that.' Again there appeared to be dark shadows in the blue of his eyes, but he forced words out in a hearty, determined voice. 'It was a great opportunity to spread my wings, too—to look at the law from a different perspective for a while.'
Yes, and he had developed that yen for a different perspective right when she had revealed a personal interest in him. Oh, call it what it was: a romantic interest.
Clearly he still wanted her to believe his decision to go had had nothing to do with the fact she'd thrown herself at him. Maybe he thought if they didn't speak of it openly they could pretend it never happened.
Unfortunately, she couldn't forget that easily. But he was back, and he wanted to be friends again, and that was good. She nibbled on her lower lip. She would figure out how to deal with the rest.
Jack's sharp gaze followed the movement of her mouth before he abruptly looked away.
It was just as before. Something inside her warmed to that expression, decided it had a meaning quite opposite to what it really had. Well, this time she would take care not to be fooled by such thoughts. She pasted a bland, cheerful look on her face.
He gave her an odd look in return, but at least she had overcome her musings.
'It is good to see you, Tiff.' He reached out with one arm and hugged her against his side.
It was a friendly hug, if guarded. It didn't matter that her head fitted against his shoulder perfectly, or that it felt like a kind of promise to be close to him like this.
That's all in your imagination, Tiffany Campbell, and you cannot afford to be hurt again, nor to take a wrong step and lose the return of friendship he's offered. So pull yourself together.
She wrapped her arm around his waist and briefly returned the hug, then forced herself to step away. There. See? She could do this. It just needed to be one step at a time. That was all.
Jack let go, too. Eyes narrowed, sooty black lashes concealing his expression, he searched the area around them. His voice was deep, husky, but the words were prosaic. 'Where do you think the goat might be hiding?'
While Jack looked away from her she took the chance to study him. The jeans and lace-up boots were his usual fare for when he wasn't at work in the city. The brown loose-fitting cotton shirt was not. He usually favoured fitted T-shirts. His hair was cropped shorter than she had ever seen it, too.
She hadn't taken it in until this moment, but now she did, and noted something that was more than a change in appearance alone. Jack had altered somehow on the inside. Because of what had happened between them, or because his life had moved on in ways she hadn't seen? She didn't know, but she sensed it. 'You seem different.'
'No. I haven't changed at all.' His head whipped round and his gaze latched onto hers, demanding she believe him. One hand rose to touch a spot beneath his arm, and dropped away as quickly.
Then he forced a smile, let his eyes crinkle at the corners and gestured towards her attire. 'I like that ensemble, though. It's got a nice "bush walker with cork hat" feel to it.'
What was that all about? Not his joke, but what had preceded it?
Slowly, she pushed her hat back. 'There are no corks hanging from this millinery masterpiece, and my shorts and hiking boots are sensible for this work.'
Both were boring as heck. But at least the T-shirt was pretty—bright pink and clingy, with little cap sleeves. Silly thoughts. She could be dressed in a wheat bag and it would make no difference, because Jack didn't see her that way. And he didn't really care how she looked right now, either. She would swear he wanted to distract her attention away from his own appearance—except that made no sense.