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Mattie was grinning as she turned into the driveway at her new address. She couldn't believe her good luck. The block of flats was so much nicer than she'd expected, with charming whitewashed walls, Mediterranean-blue doors and sunny balconies that overlooked the bay.
Her flatnumber threewas on the ground floor, which meant she wouldn't have to climb too many sets of stairs in the later months of her pregnancy, and Brutus would be able to run in and out to the garden to his heart's content.
As she parked on the driveway, she saw a welcoming pot of bright pink geraniums beside the doormat and the garden was filled with sunshine. Mattie could already picture her life here. In the mornings, she would bring her laptop outside and watch the sun sparkle on the water while she worked. She could put Brutus on his lead and take him for walks along the path beside the bay.
The flat was close to the hospital and it had all the right vibes. If she stood on tiptoe, she could even see the tip of Sydney Harbour Bridge. She was going to love living here for a whole year.
Everything about her new venture felt good. She'd talked to the doctors at length and she'd thought about the project from every angle, and she knew she was doing the right thing.
It was green lights all the way and, if all went well, by the end of the year she would deliver to her best friends the precious baby they both longed for. All she needed now was a successful implantation and the surrogacy would begin.
Humming happily, Mattie reached for the door key in her handbag, scooped up Brutus from his basket and opened the car door.
A blast of strident music burst like a machine gun from number three and Mattie's happy smile disintegrated. Stunned, she checked her key tag, but there was no mistakenumber three was definitely the right flather flat. Gina had assured her for the hundredth time when she'd handed over the keys this morning.
'It's yours for as long as you need it,' she'd said.
Everything was arranged. Gina's brother Will owned this flat, but he was working on a mine site in Mongolia and, as Mattie had refused any kind of monetary exchange for the surrogacy, Gina had settled on the use of the flat instead.
The last thing Mattie had expected was to find another tenant here, playing musicloud heavy metal music that set her teeth on edge. She clutched Brutus more tightly as she stared at the blue door.
Had squatters moved in? Were they throwing a party?
She almost returned to the safety of her car, but her sense of justice prevailed. She'd been assured many times that this was her flat. Gina and Tom were excessively grateful that she was willing to help them in their quest for a baby. Justice was on her side.
Mentally gathering her courage, she marched up the path, up the two stone steps and knocked.
And then thumped with her fist.
At last the volume of the music was lowered and the door opened, and Mattie took a hasty step backwards.
The man who suddenly filled the doorway did not look like a squatter. Far from it. But he did look like a pirate.
At least, that was Mattie's first thought, which was no doubt prompted by his rather wild dark hair and his scruffy jawand the fact that his shirt was unbuttoned to reveal rather a great deal of dazzling tanned chest. Mattie tried very hard not to look at his chest, but it was an incredibly eye-catching sample of male anatomy.
He propped a bulky shoulder against the door frame and studied her from beneath disconcerting half-lowered lids, and he managed to look both annoyed and bored by her intrusion. 'How can I help you?'
When he spoke, Mattie stopped thinking about pirates. For a moment she stopped thinking altogether. His voice was rich, dark and smooth, like an extremely sinful chocolate dessert. Combined with his gaping white shirt, it sent her mind completely blank.
She forced her gaze up and away from his chest and looked him bravely in the eye. 'I
there's been a mistake.'
A dark eyebrow lifted lazily. 'I beg your pardon?'
Mattie tried again. 'There seems to have been some kind of mix-up.' She waved her door key. 'This is my flat. Number three. I'm supposed to be moving in here today.'
He cast a quick, assessing glance that took in Brutus, curled in her arms, and her little car, crammed to the roof with her worldly possessions. Then he glanced back over his shoulder into the living room and, for the first time, Mattie saw his companiona long-legged blonde, reclining on the sofa with a glass of wine in her hand.
'What's she want?' the woman called.
Ignoring her, the fellow narrowed his eyes at Mattie. 'Did the real estate office send you here?'
'No.' She straightened her shoulders. 'I have a
a private arrangement
with the owner. He knows all about it.'
'Does he now? And would you mind telling me the owner's name?'
'Excuse me?' Mattie was incensed. 'What right have you to ask that? I can assure you, my claim on this flat is legitimate. Is yours?'
To her annoyance, he chuckled. Mattie almost stamped her foot and Brutus, sensing her distress, licked her hand. And then the woman on the sofa uncurled her long legs, set down her wineglass and joined the fellow in the doorway. She draped an arm around the man's massive shoulders. 'What's going on, Jake?'
'Just a minor border incursion.' The man, whose name, apparently, was Jake, watched Mattie with a look of faint amusement.
A territorial battle,' he told the blonde without taking his dark diamond-bright gaze from Mattie.
An unwelcome ripple of heat fluttered over Mattie's skin. She glared at Jake for causing it, and deliberately turned her attention to his sulky companion and rattled the keys again. 'There's been an unfortunate mistake about the flat. I'm supposed to be moving in here.'
'When?' asked the other woman in a tone as unhelpful as her boyfriend's.
'Today. Now. This afternoon.' Mattie pointed to the number three on the tag. 'I have a key.' Again, she glared at Jake. 'Do you have a key? Or did you break in?'
His response was to fold his arms and favour her with a withering look.
In desperation, Mattie said, 'Look, I told you I have an arrangement with Will Carruthers.'
'Will Carruthers sent you here?' Jake's eyes widened with surprise. 'Why didn't you tell me that in the first place?'
Mattie was surprised too. 'Do you know Will?'
'Of course I know him. I work with him in Mongolia. He's my best mate.'
'Oh.' She gulped unhappily. 'So I suppose he knows you're here?'
'Absolutely. I'm on leave. I had a week in Japan and now I'm in Sydney for a week and Will insisted I use his flat.'
Mattie clung to the faint hope that Jake's week was almost up. 'When did your week start?'
'Day before yesterday.'
Deflated, she dropped her gaze to Brutus, and he made sympathetic doggy noises and tried to lick her chin. 'There's obviously been a mix-up with the times.'
She tried not to sound too disappointed, but if she and this Jake fellow both had a claim on the flat, and if he was here first, she supposed she had no choice but to find somewhere else to stay for the rest of this week.
She wondered despondently where she should start her search for accommodation. It would have to be somewhere cheap and she didn't know Sydney very well.
'Rotten luck for you,' chirped the girlfriend and she grinned smugly at Mattie as she rested her chin possessively on Jake's shoulder.
'You haven't explained how you know Will,' Jake drawled.
'I've known him all my life,' Mattie told him and it was perfectly true. Even though she hadn't seen much of Will Carruthers in recent years, they belonged to a circle of friends who'd grown up together in Willowbank in Outback New South Wales.
'Will's sister, Gina, is my best friend,' she explained. 'And Gina and Will organised between them for me to live here for twelve months.'
Jake frowned as he digested this and then he shrugged. 'In that case, I guess there's no reason why you can't move in. After all, there are two bedrooms.'
His companion let out an annoyed huff.
Mattie's mouth opened and shut, then opened again. She really didn't want to have to start searching for somewhere else, and this pair would only be here for a few more days. Are you sure you don't mind? I don't want to intrude.'
He uttered a gruff sound of impatience. 'I've offered, haven't I? Anyway, I don't plan to be around much.' He turned to the girl. 'We may as well hit the town now, Ange, while' He paused and gave Mattie the briefest flicker of a smile. 'What's your name?'
'Matilda Carey.' She held out her hand rather primly. 'Mostly I'm called Mattie.'
'Jake Devlin,' he said, giving her hand a firm shake.
'Pleased to meet you, Jake.'
He indicated the small, silky terrier-cross in her arms. 'Who's this?'
Jake chuckled. 'Oh, yeah, he's a real brute, isn't he?' Then he remembered his companion. 'This is Ange.'
Mattie smiled at her. 'How do you do?'
'Oh, I'm fine,' Ange responded sulkily.
'Would you like a hand to bring your things inside?'
Jake's courtesy surprised Mattie, but its effect was offset by the predictably dark look on Ange's face. 'Oh, heavens, no,' she assured him. 'I can manage easily. I only have a canary cage and a few suitcases.'
A canary?' Jake looked both amused and puzzled. He scratched his head and the gesture caused all sorts of muscles in his chest to ripple magnificently.
Mattie was about to explain that she'd inherited the canary from her grandmother but, once again, his chest distracted her.
'Jake.'A warning note had entered Ange's voice. 'We're heading off now, right? I'll get my things.'
'Sure,' he said and he began to close the buttons on his shirt.
Mattie watched as the two of them hurried away to find a taxi and then she went into the flat. It wasn't quite the exciting introduction to her new home that she'd pictured. The unpalatable music, although diminished, still throbbed from the stereo and she quickly switched it off.
She crossed the lounge room, skirting the coffee table with the abandoned wine bottle, bowl of nuts and glasses, and went through to the kitchen. The sink was littered with dirty dishes and the dishwasher door hung open, as if someone had intended to stack it but had been distracted by a better idea.
Down the hallway, she found the bathroom and she was not surprised to see wet towels dumped on the floor, as well as a pair of black lace knickers. Mattie had shared flats before and some of her flatmates had been untidy, so she was more or less used to this kind of scene. It was weird, then, that the sight of those knickers depressed her.
The next room was a bedroom, dominated by a king-size bedunmade, of course. The bed's tangled sheets told their own story, as did the empty champagne bottle on the bedside table.
An inexplicable hollowness in Mattie's stomach sent her hurrying on till she came, at last, to a neat bedroom at the back of the flat.
It was much smaller than the main bedroom and there was no view of the bay, but it was perfectly clean and tidy.
And mine, Mattie thought. That was something. Actually, when she gave it further thought, she realised that she would probably have taken this room for herself anyway, and kept the front room with the view for visitors.
Then again, she mused, mulling over this as she headed back to unload the car, she probably wouldn't have too many visitors this year. Gina and Tom would want to visit from time to time and so would her parents, now that they'd recovered from the shock of hearing what she planned. But she'd agreed with Gina that they should keep their surrogacy arrangement very private, so she'd told her other friends very little about her move to Sydney.
Mattie's decision to move to the city had not been made lightly. She and Gina had talked it over at length. They both knew that if she'd stayed in Willowbank, they couldn't possibly keep the surrogacy under wraps. And Gina had been sensible enough to recognise that her constant vigilance of Mattie's pregnancy would be stifling, so they'd agreed it was better this way.
In some ways, however, it was going to be a lonely year. That was the one thing that had concerned the psychologist when she'd explored Mattie's motivations and commitment to the surrogacy process. Mattie had managed to convince her that she was perfectly happy with her own company. As a children's book author and illustrator, she was used to spending long hours lost in her work.
'Do you have a partner? A boyfriend?' the psychologist had asked.
Mattie had told her there was no special man in her life. She didn't add that there hadn't been a special man in her life for almost three years.
'What if you meet someone in the next few months?' the other woman had prompted. A pregnancy will restrict your social life.'
Mattie had thought it best not to mention that her social life had been on hold for quite some time. 'It's only one year out of my life,' she'd said with a shrug.
'But you're going to need support.'
'The baby's parents will come to Sydney for regular visits,' she'd responded with jaunty confidence. 'And my friends and family are only a phone call or an e-mail away.'
She'd wisely avoided announcing that she hadn't asked for support, but the truth was that Matilda Carey made a habit of giving support to others, rather than receiving it. Her impulse to help and rescue had begun so far back in her past it was as vital to her nature as her heartbeatand that wasn't going to change in a year.
It was past midnight when Mattie heard the front door open and the sound of heavy footsteps on the terracotta tiles. She expected the murmur of voices or laughter, but all she heard was a thump and a muffled curse, as if someone had tripped, then more footsteps and, eventually, taps turning on in the bathroom.
The footsteps continued on to Jake's bedroom and Mattie pulled a pillow over her head. If those sheets were going to be tangled again tonight, she didn't want to listen to the sound effects.
She was washing up her breakfast things when Jake stumbled into the kitchen next morning, bleary-eyed and unshaven like a bear with a sore head, her mother would have said.
'Morning,' Mattie said breezily, flashing a careful smile over her shoulder.
He replied with a grumpy monosyllable.
'There's tea in the pot and it's still hot, if you'd like some.'
Jake shook his head and scowled at the sparkling clean kitchen benches. 'What's happened to the coffee plunger?'