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Josie Peterson bent down and called her greeting into the half-open window before knocking on the door again.
No movement. No sound. Nothing.
Chewing her lip, she stepped back and surveyed the front of the cottageweatherboard, neatly painted white. A serviceable grey-checked gingham curtain hung at the windows.
Grey? A sigh rose up through her. She was tired of grey. She wanted frills. And colour. She wanted fun and fanciful.
She could feel the grey try to settle over her shoulders.
She shook herself and swung away, took in the view about her. The paths were swept, the lawns were cared for, but there wasn't a single garden bed to soften the uniformity. Not even a pot plant. At the moment, Josie would kill for the sight of a single cheerful gerbera, let alone a whole row of them.
Six wooden cabins marched down the slope away from the cottage. Nothing moved. No signs of habitation greeted her. No cars, no towels drying on verandas, no pushbikes or cricket bats leant against the walls.
Fun and fanciful weren't the first descriptions that came to mind. The grass around the cabins, though, was green and clipped short. Someone took the trouble to maintain it all.
If only she could find that person.
Or people. She prayed for people.
The view spread before her was a glorious patchwork of golden grasses, khaki gum trees and a flash of silver river, all haloed and in soft focus from the late-afternoon sunshine. Josie had to fight back the absurd desire to cry.
What on earth had Marty and Frank been thinking?
You were the one who said you wanted some peace and quiet, she reminded herself, collapsing on the top step and propping her chin in her hands.
Yes, but there was peace and quiet and then there was this.
From the front veranda of the cottage, there wasn't another habitation in sight. She hid her face in her hands. Marty and Frank knew her well enough to know she hadn't meant this, didn't they?
Her insides clenched and she pulled her hands away. She didn't want the kind of peace and quiet that landed a person so far from civilisation they couldn't get a signal on their cell-phone.
She wanted people. She wanted to lie back, close her eyes and hear people laughing and living. She wanted to watch people laughing and living. She wanted
Enough already! This was the one nice thing Marty and Frank had done for her in
She tried to remember, but her mind went blank. OK, so maybe they weren't the most demonstrative of brothers, but sending her on holiday was a nice thing. Did she intend spoiling it with criticisms and rank ingratitude?
Some people would kill to be in her position. Lots of people would love to spend a month in the gorgeous Upper Hunter Valley of rural New South Wales with nothing to do.
She gazed about her wistfully. She wished all those people were lining the hills of this valley right now.
She dusted off her hands and pushed to her feet. She'd make the best of it. According to her map there was a town a few kilometres further on. She could drive in there whenever she wanted. She'd make friends. She was tired. That was all. It had taken too long to get here, which was probably why her landlord had given up on her.
She wondered what kind of people would live out here all on their own. Hopefully the kind of people who took a solitary soul under their wing, introduced them around and enthusiastically outlined all the local activities available. Hopefully they'd love a chat over a cup of tea and a biscuit.
Josie would provide the biscuits.
Impatience shifted through her. She rolled her shoulders, stamped her feet and gulped in a breath of late-afternoon air. She didn't recognise the dry, dusty scents she pulled into her lungs, so different from the humid, salt-laden air of Buchanan's Point on the coast, her home. Her stomach clenched up again at the unfamiliarity.
She didn't belong here.
'Nonsense.' She tried to laugh away the fanciful notion, but a great yearning for home welled inside her. The greyness settled more securely around her. She hastened down the three steps and back along the gravel path, hoping movement would give her thoughts new direction. She swung one way then another. She could check around the back, she supposed. Her landlord could be working in a
shed or vegetable plot or something.
In her hunger to clap eyes on a friendly face, Josie rushed around the side of the house to open the gate. Her fingers fumbled with the latch. Need ballooned inside her, a need for companionship, a need to connect with someone. The gate finally swung back to reveal a neat garden. Again, no flower beds or pots broke the austerity, but the lawn here too was clipped and short, the edges so precise they looked as if they'd been trimmed using a set square.
The fence was painted white to match the house and the obligatory rotary clothes-line sat smack-bang in the middle of it all. An old-fashioned steel one like the one Josie had at home. Its prosaic familiarity reassured her. She stared at the faded jeans, blue chambray shirt and navy boxer shorts hanging from it and decided her landlord must be male.
Why hadn't she found out his name from Marty or Frank? Although everything had moved so fast. They'd popped this surprise on her last night and had insisted on seeing her off at the crack of dawn this morning. Mrs Pengilly's bad turn, though, had put paid to an early start. Josie bit her lip. Maybe she should've stayed and
A low, vicious growl halted her in her tracks. Icy fingers shot down her back and across her scalp.
Please God, no.
There hadn't been a 'Beware of the Dog' sign on the gate. She'd have seen it. She paid attention to those things. Close attention.
The growl came again, followed by the owner of the growl, and Josie's heart slugged so hard against her ribs she thought it might dash itself to pieces before the dog got anywhere near her. Her knees started to shake.
'Nice doggy,' she tried, but her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, slurring her words and making them unintelligible.
The dog growled in answer. Nuh-uh, it wasn't a nice doggy and, although it wasn't as large as a Rottweiler or a Dobermann, it was heavy-set and its teeth, when bared, looked as vicious as if it were. She could imagine how easily those teeth would tear flesh.
She took a step back. The dog took a step forward.
She stopped. It stopped.
Her heart pounded so hard it hurt. She wanted to buckle over but she refused to drop her eyes from the dog's glare. It lowered its head and showed its teeth again. All the hackles on its back lifted.
Ooh. Not a good sign. Everything inside Josie strained towards the gate and freedom, but she knew she wouldn't make it. The dog would be on her before she was halfway there. And those teeth
Swallowing, she took another step back. The dog stayed put.
Another step. The dog didn't move. Its hackles didn't lower.
With a half-sob, Josie flung herself sideways and somehow managed to half climb, half pull her way up until she was sitting on top of the rotary clothes-line.
'Help!' she hollered at the top of her voice.
Something tickled her face. She lifted a hand to brush it away. Spider web! She tried to claw it off but it stuck with clammy tentacles to her face and neck. It was the last straw. Josie burst into tears.
The dog took up position directly beneath her. Lifting its head, it howled. It made Josie cry harder.
'What the devil?'
A person. 'Thank you, God.' Finally, a friendly face. She swung towards the voice, almost falling off the clothes-line in relief.
Her heart all but stopped.
Then it dropped clean out of her chest to lie gasping and flailing on the ground like a dying fish. This was her friendly face?
Fresh sobs shook her. The dog started up its mournful howl again.
'For the love of
The man glared at her, shifted his feet, hands on hips. Nice lean hips she couldn't help noticing.
'Why in the dickens are you crying?'
She'd give up the sight of those lean hips and taut male thighs for a single smile.
He didn't smile. She stared at the hard, rocky crags of his face and doubted this man could do friendly. He didn't have a single friendly feature on his face. Not one. Not even a tiny little one. The flint of his eyes didn't hold a speck of softness or warmth. She bet dickens wasn't the term he wanted to use either.
Heaven help her. This wasn't the kind of man who'd take her under his wing. A hysterical bubble rose in her throat. 'You're my landlord?'
His eyes narrowed. 'Are you Josephine Peterson?'
'Yes.' He scowled. 'I'm Kent Black.'
He didn't offer his hand, which she had to admit might be difficult considering she was stuck up his clothes-line.
'I asked why you were crying.'
Coming from another person the question would've been sympathetic, but not from Kent Black. Anyway, she'd have thought a more pressing question was 'What the dickens are you doing in my clothes-line?'
'Well?' He shifted again on those long, lean legs.
An hysterical bubble burst right out of her mouth. 'Why am I crying?' She bet he thought she was a madwoman.
'Yes.'His lips cracked open to issue the one curt word then closed over again.
'Why am I crying?' Her voice rose an octave. 'I'll tell you why I'm crying. I'm crying because, well look at this place.' She lifted her hands. 'It's the end of the earth,' She fixed him with a glare. It was the only thing that stopped her from crying again. 'How could Marty and Frank think I'd want to come here, huh?'
'Look, Ms Peterson, I think you ought to calm'
'Oh, no, you don't. You asked the question and demanded an answer so you can darn well listen to it.' She pointed her finger at him as if he was personally responsible for everything that had gone wrong today.
'Not only am I stuck here at the end of the earth but
but I'm stuck in a clothes-line at the end of the earth. And to rub salt into the wound, I got lost trying to find this rotten place and ended up in Timbuktu, where I got a flat tyre. Then your dog chased me up this rotten clothes-line and there's spider web everywhere!'
Her voice rose with each word in a way that appalled her, but she couldn't rein it back the way she normally did. 'And Mrs Pengilly took a bad turn this morning and I had to call an ambulance and
and I buried my father a fortnight ago and
Her anger ran out. Just like that. She closed her eyes and dropped her head. 'And I miss him,'she finished on a whisper so soft she hardly heard it herself.
Darn it. She reluctantly opened one eye and found him staring at her as if she was a madwoman. She opened the other eye and straightened. Then smoothed down her hair. She wasn't a madwoman. And despite her outburst she didn't feel much like apologising either. He didn't have the kind of face that invited apologies. She pulled in a breath and met his gaze.
'You're afraid of my dog?'
She raised an eyebrow. Did he think she sat in clotheslines for the fun of it? 'Even at the end of the earth you should put signs up on your gates warning people about vicious dogs.'
He continued to survey her with that flinty gaze and she felt herself redden beneath it. With a sigh, she lifted her T-shirt. She didn't need to glance down to see the jagged white scar that ran the length of her right side and across her stomach. She could trace it in her dreams. To do him credit, though, he hardly blinked.
'How old were you?'
'And you're afraid of Molly here?'
Wasn't that obvious?
She glanced at the dog. Molly? The name wasn't right up there with Killer or Slasher or Crusher, was it? And with Kent Black standing beside her the dog didn't look anywhere near as formidable as it had a moment ago. Josie gulped. 'She's a girl?'
The dog that had attacked her had been a big male Dobermann. 'She growled at me.'
'You frightened her.'
'Me?' She nearly fell out of the clothes-line.
'If you'd clapped your hands and said boo she'd have run away.'
Now she really didn't believe him.
His lips twisted, but not into a smile. 'Moll.' The dog wagged her tail and shuffled across to him. He scratched her behind the ears. 'Roll over, girl.'
His voice was low and gentle and it snagged at Josie's insides. Molly rolled onto her back and a part of Josie didn't blame her. If he spoke to her like that she'd roll over too.
Oh, don't be so ridiculous, she ordered. She focused her attention back on Kent. He parted the fur on the dog's belly.
He had large, weathered hands. Even from her perch in the clothes-line she could see the calluses that lined his fingers.
'Look,' he ordered.
She did, and saw a mirror image of her own scar etched in the dog's flesh. An ugly white raised scar that jagged across Molly's stomach and ribs.
'A man with a piece of four-by-two studded with nails did that to her.'
Sympathy and horror pounded through Josie in equal measure. How could someone hurt a defenceless animal like that? It was inhuman.
She scrambled down out of the clothes-line, dropped to her knees at its base and held out her arms. 'You poor thing.'
Molly walked straight into them.
Kent had never seen anything like it in all his thirty-two years. Molly hid from strangers. When someone surprised her, like Josephine Peterson here obviously had, she'd try and bluff her way out of it by growling and stalking off. Then she'd hide. The one thing she didn't do was let strangers pet her. She sure as hell didn't let them hug her.
For the first time in a long time Kent found himself wanting to smile. Then he remembered Josephine Peterson's blood-curdling cry for help and he went cold all over again. He didn't need a woman like her at Eagle Reach.
A woman who couldn't look after herself.
He'd bet each and every one of his grass-fed steers that Josephine Peterson didn't have a self-sufficient bone in her body. And he'd be blowed if he'd take on the role of her protector.
His lip curled. She was a mouse. She had mousy brown hair, mousy brown eyes and a mouse-thin body that looked as if it'd bow under the weight of an armload of firewood.
Even her smile was all mousinesstimid and tentative. She aimed it at him now, but he refused to return it.
It trembled right off her lips. Guilt slugged him in the guts. He bit back an oath.
She rose and cast a fearful glance at the back of the house. 'Do
do you have any other dogs?'
'No.' The memory of her scarred abdomen rushed on him again. His hands clenched to fists. When she'd lifted her shirt, shown him her scar, it wasn't tenderness or desire that had surged through him. He had a feeling, though, that it was something closely related, something partway between the two, something he didn't have a name for.
What he did know was he didn't want Josephine Peterson here on his hill. She didn't belong here. She was a townie, a city girl. For Pete's sake, look at her fingernails. Long and perfectly painted in a shimmery pink. They were squared off at the tips with such uniformity he knew they had to be fake. This wasn't fake-fingernail country.
It was roughing-it country.
He hadn't seen anyone less likely to want to rough it than Josephine Peterson.
When he glanced at her again she tried another smile. 'Do you have a wife?'
Her soft question slammed into him with more force than it had any right to. She needn't look to him for that either!
He glanced into her hopeful face and despite his best intentions desire fired along his nerve-endings, quickening his blood, reminding him of everything he'd turned his back on. Now that she stood directly in front of him, rather than perched up in his clothes-line or on her knees with her face buried in Molly's fur, he could see the gold flecks inside the melt-in-your-mouth chocolate of her iris. That didn't look too mousy.