Queensland sheep station owner Jack Prescott wasn't ready to be a full-time father. He'd do his duty and care for his orphaned nephew, but he had no place in his battered heart for a baby…or for guardian Madison Tyler, the woman hell-bent on disrupting his life.
Yet Jack couldn't ignore the attraction he felt for Madison. Their affair was fast and furious…and soon fraught with regret. The city girl's stay in the Outback was only temporary and Jack had a little boy to care for. How could they even consider bargaining for more time when neither was prepared for forever?
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Jack Prescott wandered out from the public hospital room, his senses locked in a mind-numbing daze.
He'd received the call at ten that morning. He'd immediately jumped in his twin engine Piper Navajo and had flown to Sydney with his heart in his mouth the whole way. He and Dahlia hadn't spoken in three years. Now he'd missed the chance to say goodbye.
Or I'm sorry.
Through stinging eyes he took in the busy corridor. The air smelled of antiseptic and, beneath that, death. As of today, he was the last surviving Prescott and there wasn't a soul to blame but himself.
A passing doctor, deep in conversation, knocked Jack's shoulder. He swayed, braced his legs then spread out his remarkably steady hands to examine the calloused palms. How long before the nightmare truly hit? Before he fell to his knees and cursed this godless world? Where was the mercy? Dahlia had only been twenty-three.
A woman in the crowded waiting room caught his eye, her fair hair streaming over one side of a red summer dress. She held a bundle. A swaddled child.
Jack rubbed a gritty eye and refocused.
Beneath fluorescent lights, tears glistened on her lashes, and as she gazed back down the corridor at him, Jack wondered if they'd met before. When her mouth pressed into an I'm-so-sorry smile, his gut hollowed out.
One of Dahlia's friends.
But he wasn't sure he could put words together yet. Those token pleasantries like, "Oh, you knew my sister. Yes, she was very beautiful. Sorry, but I have to leave…make arrangements."
When the woman continued to wait, her pale hand supporting the baby's head, Jack couldn't avoid a meeting. He forced one leaden foot in front of the other and, an eternity later, stopped before her.
"You're Dahlia's brother, aren't you?" she asked. "You're Jack." Her flushed cheeks were tearstained, her nails bitten to the quick and her eyes…
Her eyes were periwinkle blue.
Jack sucked in a breath. When was the last time he'd noticed something like that? He wasn't sure he even knew the color of Tara's eyes. Perhaps he should take note when he got back. Not that theirs would be that kind of marriage. Not from his perspective, in any case.
After the death of his wife three years ago, Tara Anderson had spent increasing amounts of time at Leadeebrook, the Queensland sheep station where he lived. Jack had been slow to appreciate Tara's company; he wasn't much of one for talking these days. But as close as his deceased wife and this woman had once been, so he and Tara had become good friends, too.
Then, last week, Tara had offered more.
He'd been straight. He would never love another woman. His wedding band was threaded on a gold chain that never left his neck while his wife's ring lay at the foot of a photo he kept on his bedroom chest of drawers. Sue had not only been his wife, she'd been the other half of his soul. The better half.
Still Tara had put her argument forward. He needed someone steady in his life, she'd said. She needed someone to help manage her property. That had gotten Jack's attention. Twenty years ago, Jack's father buckled under hard times and had sold half his land to a neighbor, Tara's great-uncle. Later, he'd tried to buy the land back but Dwight Anderson wasn't interested.
After Sue's death, Jack's life had seemed pointless. He'd found no joy in occupations that had once caused the blood to charge hot and fast through his veins. Even throwing a saddle over Herc and giving his stallion free rein down a beloved Leadeebrook plain had seemed a chore. But the idea of fulfilling his father's dream of regaining those choice acres had offered Jack's darker days a glimmer of meaning.
Tara was a good woman and attractive by any man's standards. Perhaps they could help each other out. But before he married again, a matter needed sorting.
The human race relied on the power of maternal instinct—women wanted children and Tara would make an excellent mother. But he had no wish to become a father.
He'd made mistakes—one error unforgivable. He thought about it often and not only when he visited the tiny grave which lay beside his wife's in the Leadeebrook family plot. Having your heart ripped from your chest once was enough for any man. He wouldn't tempt fate by siring another child.
If Tara wanted a marriage of convenience, it would be without plans of a family. Although she had acquiesced with a nod when he'd told her as much, the mist in her eyes had said that she hoped he'd change his mind. Not tomorrow. Not ten years from now. On that point he was firm.
Jack's gaze had settled on the lightly-swaddled bundle when the woman in the red dress spoke again.
"Dahlia and I were friends," she murmured in a thready voice. "Good friends."
He inhaled, rushed a hand through hair that was overdue a cut and got his thoughts in order. "The doctor said it was a hit-and-run."
At a pedestrian crossing, of all places. Dahlia had died of i nter na l i nju r ies o n ly m i nut e s b efo r e he'd a r r ive d. He'd t o uche d her hand, still warm, and remembered how he'd taught her to ride Jasper, his first mount, and how he'd consoled her when her pet lamb had passed away. When she'd reached out and had begged him to understand…when his sister had needed him most…
"She regained consciousness briefly."
The woman's words took Jack off guard. The back of his knees caved and he sat, wishing he hadn't. Taking a seat implied he wanted to talk. What he wanted was to take off his boots, down a stiff Scotch and…
He looked up too quickly and the light faded in and out.
And what? Face forms, funeral directors, a choice of clothes for the coffin?
"She spoke to me before…before she slipped away." The woman's lips were full and pink now, the bottom trembling the barest amount. "I'm Madison Tyler." She repositioned the baby and lowered to sit beside him. "Friends call me Maddy."
He swallowed hard against a closed, dry throat. "You said she regained consciousness…spoke to you."
Surely not about him. Dahlia had been a wreck after their parents' deaths. Not even his wife's patience and support had gotten through to her. That final night, Dahlia had shouted she didn't want another thing to do with her brother, his stupid rules or Leadeebrook. She'd come to Sue's funeral but he'd been too dazed to speak. Over the years, he'd received Christmas cards, but no forwarding address.
His hands clenched on his thighs.
Lord and Holy Father, he should have set pride aside and found her. Protected her. Brought her back home.
The baby stirred and Jack took in the sleeping face, the shadow of tiny lashes on plump healthy cheeks. So new and full of promise.
Full of life.
Clearing his mind and the thickness from his throat, he found his feet and the bulk of his control.
"We can talk at the wake, Miss…"
He drew his wallet from his back pocket and dug out a card. "I'll see that the notices are posted. You can get me on this number if there's anything."
Finding her feet, too, she searched his eyes.
"I need to speak with you, Jack. I need to speak with you now." She stole a glance at her baby. "I didn't know…Well, Dahlia hadn't spoken about you before."
When her gaze meshed with his again, her eyes were round and pleading, as if she wanted an explanation. She seemed sweet enough, and understandably shaken, but whatever Dahlia had said, he wasn't about to justify himself to a stranger. To anyone, for that matter.
His gaze broke away as he waved the card. "I really ought to go."
"She told me that she loved you," she blurted out, jerking half a step closer. "That she forgave you."
Bent over, placing his card on the chair, he stopped, clamped his eyes shut and willed away the thumping heartbeat in his ears. He wanted this week to be over. Wanted to get back home. Back to his land. What he knew. What he could keep.
He straightened slowly and kicked up a firm chin. The baby was stirring, beginning to squeak and complain. A part of Jack was drawn to the sound while another only wanted to plug his ears and stalk away. The last straw would be to hear an infant cry.
Exhaling, he shoved the wallet in his back pocket. "There's nothing you can do here. You should get that baby home."
When she purposely held his gaze, he shook his head then shrugged. "Sorry. You've lost me."
But she only rolled her teeth over her bottom lip, her eyes huge and…
He assessed her classic bone structure—flawless porcelain complexion, the delicate curve of her jaw—and, despite the day, an instinctive flicker of arousal licked over his skin.
Was she implying that the child was his?
Some time after his wife's death, concerned friends had tried to lure him out from behind the walls he'd built around himself. They'd invite him to Sydney, to introduce him to suitable ladies within their circles. Although his heart had remained closed, there'd been a time or two he'd invited a date back to his inner city penthouse.
Was that why this woman seemed familiar? Had he slept with her sometime in the past?
He shucked back tense shoulders.
No. He'd have remembered those lips.
He spared a tight smile. "Maddy. Neither of us is in any mood for games. Whatever you have to say, I'd appreciate it if you would spit it out."
She didn't flinch or coil away from his candor. Rather her expression took on a steely air.
"Dahlia left the baby with me today," she said. "He's not my son. This baby is your nephew."
Two beats of roaring silence passed before her words hit his chest, winding him as surely as if he'd been rammed by a twenty-foot log. He blinked rapidly, tried to find his breath. He must've heard wrong.
A tear rolled down her cheek, catching and beading on the bunny blanket's blue hood while her periwinkle eyes gleamed with quiet strength.
"Your sister's last wish was for me to introduce you to one another. She wanted you to take him, Jack. Take him home with you to Leadeebrook."
Fifteen minutes later, sitting across the table from Jack Prescott, Maddy brought the china cup to her lips, certain that she'd never seen anyone look more drawn.
Or more handsome.
With the shadow on his strong square jaw—as well as his demeanor—growing darker by the minute, his teaspoon click-clacked as he stirred sugar into his cup.
Over the intercom, someone called for Dr. Grant to go to ward 10. An elderly woman at a nearby table smiled at the baby before tasting her scone. By the cashier, a nurse dropped a full plate. The clattering echo bounced off the walls yet Jack Prescott seemed oblivious to it all. His hooded yet intense gaze was focused only inward.
From beneath her lashes, Maddy analyzed the planes of his rugged, Hollywood face—the cleft chin, the straight proud nose. How he managed to look both passionate and detached at the same time she couldn't guess. She sensed a fierce, almost frightening energy broiling beneath the mask. He was the kind of man who could single-handedly beat a bushfire in forty knot gusts and refuse to let anything he cared for suffer or die.
The million dollar question was: What did Jack Prescott care about? He'd barely looked at the baby, the orphaned darling he'd only just met. The man sitting at this table seemed to be made of stone, a perfect enigma. She might never know why Dahlia had excluded her brother from her life. If it weren't for little Beau, Maddy wouldn't want to know.
Jack settled his cup in its saucer, and then slid a bland expression toward the baby, who was settled again, asleep on his side in the carriage with a tiny fist bunched up near his button nose. Jack had been the one to suggest coffee, but after so long of a silence, Maddy couldn't stand his chilly calm a moment more. She had a task to complete—a promise to keep—and a finite amount of time in which to do it.
"Dahlia was a great mother," she told him. "She'd finished her degree in business marketing before the baby was born. She was taking a year off before finding and settling down to a good job." Maddy's gaze dropped to her cup as a withering feeling fell through her center. Now was the time to say it. Now was the time to confess.
"Dahlia had barely been out of the apartment since bringing him home," she went on. "I'd talked her into going to the hairdressers, having her nails done—"
Maddy's stomach muscles gripped and she grimaced under the weight of her guilt.
If she hadn't suggested it, hadn't made the appointment and practically pushed her friend out the door, Dahlia would still be alive. This baby would still have his mother and have no need to rely on this brusque man who seemed set on ignoring him.
"He's three months old today," she added, in case he was interested, but Jack only concentrated on stirring more sugar into his drink.
Maddy blinked several times then pushed her cup away and glanced, sick at heart, around the noisy room. This exchange was never going to be easy, but could it have gone any worse? What was she supposed to do now? The man was as sensitive as a slab of cold steel.
"Where's the father?"
Maddy jumped at his graveled question. But the query was an obvious one, even if he wouldn't like the answer.
She lowered her voice. "Dahlia was the victim of a rape." His face darkened before he swore and shoveled a hand though hair black as ink. "And before you ask," she continued, "she didn't report it."
Flecks of gold ignited in the depths of his hostile green eyes. "Why the hell not?"
"Does it matter now?"
Like so many in her situation, Dahlia hadn't wanted the misery of a trial. She hadn't known her assailant and preferred to keep it that way. She'd needed to heal as best she could and bury the horror as well as the hurt. Then Dahlia had discovered she was pregnant.
Choking on raw emotion, Maddy focused and straightened her spine. "What matters is she had a beautiful baby." This bright little boy she'd loved very much.
Jack studied the baby, the single line between his dark brows deepening as a pulse ticked at one side of thick, tanned neck. His next question was a grudging growl.
"What's his name?"
Jack Prescott's nostrils flared and his gaze slid away.