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Fathers are supposed to be invincible. When Harriet Brown was seven, her father rescued her from a burning house. To her he had seemed ten feet tall. But now lying unconscious in the hospital bed after a car accident, his fractured leg encased in plaster and bandages wrapped around his head, he looked frighteningly frail and vulnerable.
Harriet choked back a sob. She had driven three hours from Sydney to Wilmot gnawed with mounting anxiety, only to find him comatose.
"He's going to be fine. It's just the morphine," the nurse told Harriet, giving her a curious look. Harriet hadn't been back in Wilmot for ten years, and she didn't recognise the nurse, but the curiosity wasn't wholly unexpected. "So you're Ken Brown's younger daughter?" added the nurse. "I must say you don't look anything like your sister."
Harriet had heard that comment countless times when she was growing up. It didn't have the power to vex her anymorewell, maybe not much.
"I thought Cindy and my mother would be here." Harriet looked around the ward.
"They were here earlier, but they've gone for the day."
Harriet sat with her dad for half an hour, hoping he would wake up and see that she was here, but he didn't stir. She smoothed the grey tufts of hair springing from his forehead. Her dad had never let her down. He used to tell her she was the prettiest fairy in town when she knew she was too short and dumpy to be any kind of fairy. He had stood behind her through everything, the only one who had never openly blamed her for what had happened. Now he lay bruised and broken, his skin raw, his eyelids like crepe paper, the air rattling through his throat with every breath he heaved.
Harriet wiped away a stray tear and left. Outside, she drew in a lungful of brisk air and shivered in her thin sweater. Here in the upper Hunter Valley the evening temperatures dropped a lot further than in Sydney. Long autumn shadows stretched across the parking lot as she hurried back to her car. The ten-year-old hatchback looked slightly drunk, listing to one side, and she let out a groan when she saw the flat tire.
She bent down to examine it, and saw the nail embedded in the rubber. Great. Just what she needed. She glanced over her shoulder. The parking lot was deserted. Could someone have done this on purpose? As payback? No. She shook her head. She was just paranoid. No one would vandalise her car because of what she'd done all those years ago. Get a grip, she told herself, standing up and taking a deep breath. It's just a flat tire. No big deal.
A dark blue pickup truck loaded with ladders and toolboxes pulled into the spot next to her. The man who got out looked familiar.
"Got a problem with your tire there?"
Her stomach went into freefall. She recognized that voice. She gulped hard. It couldn't be. It was.
Adam Blackstone. Almost unrecognisable. Ten years ago he'd had smooth, boyish good looks, designer clothes, and a sports coupébut now! Now his dark hair was close-cropped, he drove a truck, wore work boots, jeans and a plaid shirt, and he looked rugged and gritty as sandpaper. The prince had turned into a woodcutter. Even his eyes seemed differentstill grey, but with tiny creases at the edges and a dark sombreness lying in their smoky depths. The only thing unchanged was the way his mere presence sucked all the oxygen and words from her mouth.