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There were days when Lucy McKenty knew she was in the wrong job. A woman in her thirties with a loudly ticking biological clock should not devote huge chunks of her time to delivering gorgeous babies.
Admittedly, the babies Lucy delivered usually had four legs and a tail, but that didn't stop them from being impossibly cute, and it certainly didn't stop her from longing for a baby. Just one baby of her own to hold and to love.
The longing swept through her now as she knelt in the straw beside the calf she'd just delivered. The birthing had been difficult, needing ropes and a great deal of Lucy's perspiration, but now, as she shifted the newborn closer to his exhausted mother's head, she felt an all too familiar wrench on her heartstrings.
The cow opened her eyes and began to lick her calf, slowly, methodically, and Lucy smiled as the newborn nuzzled closer. She never tired of this miracle.
Within minutes, the little calf was wobbling to his feet, butting at his mother's side, already urging her to join him in a game.
Nothing could beat the joy of new life.
Except… this idyllic scene was an uncomfortable reminder that Lucy had very little chance of becoming a mother. She'd already suffered one miscarriage and now there was a failed IVF treatment behind her. She was sure she was running out of time. The women in her family had a track record of early menopause and she lived with an ever growing sense of her biological clock counting off the months, days, hours, minutes.
Tick, tock, tick, tock.
Swallowing a sigh, Lucy stood slowly and stretched muscles that had been strained as she'd hauled the calf into the world. She glanced through the barn doorway and saw that the shadows had lengthened across the golden grass of the home paddock.
'What's the time?' she asked Jock Evans, the farmer who'd called her in a panic several hours earlier.
Instead of checking his wrist, Jock turned slowly and squinted at the mellowing daylight outside. 'Just gone five, I reckon.'
'Already?' Lucy hurried to the corner of the barn where she'd left her things, including her watch. She checked it. Jock was dead right. 'I'm supposed to be at a wedding rehearsal by half past five.'
Jock's eyes widened with surprise. 'Don't tell me you're getting married, Lucy?'
'Me? Heavens, no.' Peeling off sterile gloves, she manufactured a gaiety she didn't feel. 'Mattie Carey's the lucky girl getting married. I'm just a bridesmaid.'
Again, she added silently.
The farmer didn't try to hide his relief. 'I'm glad you haven't been snapped up. The Willow Creek district can't afford to have you whisked away from us.'
'Well, there's not much chance.'
'Most folks around here reckon you're the best vet we've ever had.'
'Thanks, Jock.' Lucy sent him a grateful smile, but as she went through to the adjoining room to clean up, her smile wavered and then collapsed.
She really, really loved her job, and she'd worked hard for many years before the local farmers finally placed their trust in a mere 'slip of a girl'. Now she'd finally earned their loyalty and admiration and she knew she should be satisfied, but lately this job hadn't felt like enough.
She certainly didn't want to be married to it!
For Will Carruthers, coming home to Willowbank always felt like stepping back in time. In ten years the sleepy country town had barely changed.
The wide main street was still filled with the same old fashioned flower beds. The bank, the council chambers, the post office and the barber shop all looked exactly as they had when Will first left home.
Today, as he climbed out of his father's battered old truck, the familiar landmarks took on a dreamlike quality. But when he pushed open the gate that led to the white wooden church, where tomorrow his best mate would marry one of his oldest friends, he couldn't help thinking that this sense of time standing still was a mere illusion.
The buildings and the landscape might have stayed the same, but the people who lived here had changed. Oh, yeah. Every person who mattered in Will's life had changed a great deal.
And here was the funny thing. Will had left sleepy old Willowbank, eager to shake its dust from his heels and to make his mark on the world. He'd traversed the globe more times than he cared to count, but now, in so many ways, he felt like the guy who'd been left behind.
From inside the church the wailing cries of a baby sounded, a clear signal of the changes that had taken place. Will's sister Gina appeared at the church door, jiggling a howling ginger-headed infant on her hip.
When she saw her brother, her face broke into a huge smile.
'Will, I'm so glad you made it. Gosh, it's lovely to see you.' Reaching out, she beckoned him closer, gave him a one armed hug. 'Heavens, big brother, have I shrunk or have you grown even taller?'
'Maybe the weight of motherhood is wearing you down.' Will stooped to kiss her, then smiled as he studied her face. 'I take that back, Gina. I don't think you've ever looked happier.'
'I know,' she said beaming. 'It's amazing, isn't it? I seem to have discovered my inner Earth Mother.'
He grinned and patted her baby's chubby arm. 'This must be Jasper. He's certainly a chip off the old block.' The baby was a dead ringer for his father, Tom, right down to his red hair. 'G'day, little guy.'
Jasper stopped crying and stared at Will with big blue eyes, shiny with tears.
'Gosh, that shut him up.' Gina grinned and winked. 'You must have the knack, Will. I knew you'd be perfect uncle material.'
Will chuckled to cover an abrupt slug of emotion that had caught him by surprise. Gina's baby was incredibly cute. His skin was soft and perfectly smooth, his eyes bright and clear. There were dimples on his chubby hands and, crikey, dimples on his knees. And, even though he was only four months old, he was unmistakably sturdy and masculine.
'What a great little guy,' he said, his voice rough around the edges.
Gina was watching him shrewdly. 'Ever thought of having a little boy of your own, Will?'
He covered his sigh with a lopsided grin. 'We both know I've been too much of a gypsy.'
Reluctant to meet his sister's searching gaze, Will studied a stained glass window and found himself remembering a church in Canada, where, only days ago, he'd attended the funeral of a work colleague. He could still see the earnest face of his friend's ten-year-old son, could see the pride in the boy's eyes as he'd bravely faced the congregation and told them how much he'd loved his dad.
Hell, if he let himself think about that father and son relationship now, he'd be a mess in no time.
Hunting for a distraction, Will slid a curious glance towards the chattering group at the front of the church. 'I hope I'm not late. The rehearsal hasn't started, has it?'
'No, don't fret. Hey, everyone!' Gina raised her voice. 'Will's here.'
The chatter stopped. Heads turned and faces broke into smiles. A distinct lump formed in Will's throat.
How good it was to see them all again. Tom, Gina's stolid farmer husband, was grinning like a Cheshire cat as he held baby Mia, Jasper's twin sister.
Mattie, the bride-to-be, looked incredibly happy as she stood with her bridegroom's arm about her shoulders.
Mattie was marrying Jake Devlin and Will still couldn't get over the changes in Jake. The two men had worked together on a mine site in Mongolia and they'd quickly become great mates, but Will could have sworn that Jake was not the marrying kind.
No one had been more stunned when Jake, chief breaker of feminine hearts, had fallen like a ton of bricks for Mattie Carey.
One look at Jake's face now, however, and Will couldn't doubt the truth of it. Crikey, his mate had never looked so relaxed and happy—at peace with himself and eager to take on the world.
As for Mattie…Will had known her all his life…but now she looked… well, there was only one word…
Mattie looked transformed.
Radiant and beautiful only went part way to describing her.
He couldn't detect any sign that she'd recently given birth to twins—to Gina and Tom's babies, in fact, in a wonderful surrogacy arrangement that had brought untold blessings to everyone involved. Mattie was not only slim once again, but she'd acquired a new confidence that blazed in her eyes, in her glowing smile, in the way she moved.
All this Will noticed as everyone gathered around him, offering kisses, handshakes and backslaps.
'So glad you could make it,' Jake said, pumping his hand.
'Try to keep me away, mate. I'd pay good money to see you take the plunge tomorrow.'
'We're just waiting for the minister and his wife,' Mattie said. 'And for Lucy.'
It was ages since Will had seen Lucy, and he'd never been happy about the way they'd drifted apart, although it had seemed necessary at the time. 'Is Lucy coming to the wedding rehearsal?'
'Of course,' Mattie said. 'Didn't you know? Lucy's a bridesmaid.'
'I thought Gina was the bridesmaid.'
Gina laughed. 'You haven't been paying attention, Will. Technically, I'm the matron of honour because I'm an old married woman. Lucy's the bridesmaid, you're the best man and Tom's stepping in as a groomsman because Jake's cousin can't get away.'
'I see. Of course.'
It made sense. If Will had given any proper thought to the make-up of the wedding party, he should have known that Mattie would ask Lucy to be a bridesmaid. She was a vital member of their old 'gang'.
And he was totally cool about seeing her again, even though their relationship had been complicated since his brother's death eight years ago.
He was surprised, that was all, by the unexpected catch in his breath at the thought of seeing her again.
Lucy glanced in the rear-view mirror as her ute bounced down the rough country road towards town. Cringe. Her hair was limp and in dire need of a shampoo and she knew she looked decidedly scruffy.
She'd cleaned up carefully after delivering the calf, but she couldn't be sure that her hair and clothes were completely free of mud or straw. Steering one-handed, she tried to finger-comb loose strands into some kind of tidiness.
She wasn't wearing any make-up, and she was already in danger of arriving late for Mattie's wedding rehearsal, so she didn't have time to duck home for damage control. Not that it really mattered; tomorrow was the big day, after all. Not today.
But Will Carruthers would be at the rehearsal.
He was going to be best man at this wedding.
And why, after all this time, should that matter? Her crush on Will was ancient history. Water under the bridge. He was simply an old friend she'd almost lost touch with.
At least that was what she'd told herself for the past three months, ever since Mattie had announced her engagement and wedding plans. But, as she reached the outskirts of town, Lucy's body, to her annoyance, decided otherwise.
One glimpse of the little white church and the Carruthers family's elderly truck parked among the other vehicles on the green verge outside and Lucy's chest squeezed painfully. She felt as if she was breathing through cotton wool and her hands slipped on the steering wheel.
Her heart thumped.
Good grief, this was crazy. She'd known for twelve weeks now that Will would be a member of the wedding party. Why had she waited until the last moment to fall apart?
She parked the ute, dragged in a deep breath and closed her eyes, gave herself a stern lecture. She could do this. She was going to walk inside that little church with an easy stride and a smile on her face. She couldn't do much about her external appearance, but at least no one need guess she was a mess inside.
She would rather die than let on that she was jealous of Mattie for snaring and marrying a heart-throb like Jake. And she wouldn't turn the slightest hint of green when she cuddled Gina and Tom's darling babies.
More importantly, she would greet Will serenely.
She might even drop a light kiss on his cheek. After all, if her plans to marry Will's brother Josh hadn' t been cruelly shattered, she would have been his sister-in-law.
She was only a few minutes late so she took a moment to check that her blouse was neatly tucked into her khaki jeans. Her boots were a bit dusty so she hastily wiped them with a tissue. There were no visible signs of the barn yard, thank heavens.
Feeling rather like a soldier going over the top of a trench, she didn't wait for second thoughts. She dived through the church doorway, cheery smile pinned in place, apologies for her lateness at the ready.
Thud. Will was standing at the end of the aisle, in front of the chancel steps, chatting to Jake.
Surreptitiously, Lucy devoured familiar details—the nut brown sheen of his hair, the outdoor glow on his skin and the creases at the corners of his eyes and mouth, his long legs in faded blue jeans.
As if these weren't enough to raise her temperature, she saw baby Mia, in a froth of pink, curled sleepily into the crook of Will's arm.
Heavens, had there ever been a sweeter place for a baby to sleep?
The tiny girl and the big man together made an image that she'd guiltily pictured in her most secret dreams and the sight of them now sucked vital air from her lungs.
Somehow she managed to walk down the aisle.
'Lucy!' Mattie called. 'I was just about to ring you.'
'I'm sorry I'm late. I was held up with a tricky calving.' She was surprised she could speak normally when her attention was riveted by Will, not just by how amazing he looked with that tiny pink bundle in his arms, but by the way his head swung abruptly at the sound of her voice and the way he went still and his eyes blazed suddenly.
Lucy felt as if the entire world had stopped, except for the frantic beating of her heart.
Thank heavens no one else seemed to notice.
'Don't worry,' Mattie was telling her calmly. 'We haven't been here long. I've just been going over the music with the organist.'
Everything was so suddenly normal and relaxed that Lucy was sure she'd misjudged Will's reaction. He certainly looked mega-cool and calm now as he greeted her. His light touch on her shoulder as he bent to kiss her and the merest brush of his lips on her cheek scalded her, but Will's grey eyes were perfectly calm.
He even looked mildly amused when he greeted her. 'Good to see you again, Lucy.'