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A truck had sunk in front of his car.
Wasn't Australia supposed to be a sunburned country? Maxsim de Gautier, Prince Regent of Alp D'Estella, had only been in Australia for six hours, but his overwhelming impression was that the country was fast turning into an inland sea.
But at least he'd found the farm, even though it wasn't what he'd expected. he'd envisaged a wealthy property, but the surrounding land was rough and stony. The farm gate he'd turned into had a faded sign hanging from the top bar reading 'Dreamtime'. In the pouring rain and in such surroundings the name sounded almost defiant.
And now he could drive no further. There was some sort of cattle-grid across the track leading from road to house. The grid had given way and a battered truck was stranded, halfway across.
That meant he'd have to walk the rest of the way. Or swim. He could sit here until the rain stopped.
It might never stop. The Mercedes he'd hired was luxurious enough but he'd been driving for five hours and flying for twenty- four hours before that, and he didn't intend to sit here any longer.
Was there a back entrance to the farm? There must be if this truck was perpetually blocking the entrance. He rechecked the map supplied by the private investigators he'd employed to locate the child, but the map supplied him with one entrance only.
he'd come too far to let rain come between him and his goal. he'd have to get wet. Dammit, he shouldn't need to, he thought, his sense of humour reasserting itself. Wasn't royalty supposed to have minions who'd lie prone in puddles to save their prince from wet feet?
Where was a good minion when you needed one? Nowhere. And he wasn't royalty, at least not royalty from the right side of the blanket.
Meanwhile it was a really dumb place to leave a truck. He pushed open the Mercedes door and was met with a deluge. The hire-car contained an umbrella but it was useless in such a torrent. He was soaked before the door was fully open, and the sleet almost blinded him. Nevertheless he turned purposefully towards the house. It was tricky stumbling over the cattle-grid, but he pushed on, glancing sideways into the truck as he passed.
And stopped. Stunned. It wasn't empty. The truck was a two- by-two seater and the back windows were fogged. The back seat seemed to be filled but he couldn't make out what was there. But he could see the front seat. There were six eyes looking out at himeyes belonging to a woman and a child and a vast brown dog draped over the woman's knee. He stared in at them and they stared back, seemingly as stunned as he was.
This must be the Phillippa the investigators had talked of. But she wasdifferent? The photograph he'd seen, found in a hunt of university archives, had been taken ten years ago. he'd studied it before he'd come. She was attractive, he'd decided, but not in the classic sense. The photograph had showed a smattering of freckles. Her burnt-red curls had looked as if they refused to be tamed. She was curvy rather than svelte, and her grin was more infectious than it was classically lovely. She and Gianetta had been at a university ball. The dress she'd been wearing had been simple, but it had had class.
But now He recognised the freckles and the dusky red curls, but the face that looked at him was that of a woman who'd left the girl behind. Her face was gaunt, with huge shadows under her eyes. She looked as if she needed to sleep for a long, long time.
And the boy beside her? He had to be Marc. He was a black- haired, brown-eyed kid, dressed in a too-big red and yellow football guernsey. He looked as if he'd just had a growth spurt, skinny and all arms and legs.
He looked like ThiÃ©rry, Max thought, stunned. He looked like a de Gautier.
Max dredged up the memory of the report presented to him by the private investigators he'd hired before he came. "The boy's guardian is Phillippa Donohue. They live on the farm in South Western Victoria that was owned by the boy's parents before they were killed in a car crash four years ago. We've done a preliminary check on the woman but there's not much to report. She qualified as a nurse but she hasn't practised for four years. Her university records state that her mother died when she was twelve. She went through university on a means-tested scholar- ship and you don't get one of those in Australia if there's any money. As to her circumstances now We'd need to visit and find out, but it's a tiny farming community and anyone asking questions is bound to be noticed."
So he knew little except this woman, as Marc's guardian, stood between him and what the people of Alp D'Estella needed.
He didn't know where to start.
She started. She reached over and wound the window a scant inch down so she could talk to him. Any lower and the rain would blast through and make the occupants of the truck as wet as he was.
"Are you out of your mind?" she demanded. "you'll drown." This was hardly a warm welcome. Maybe she could invite him into the truck, he thought, but only fleetingly for it wasn't an option. Opening the door would mean they'd all be soaked.
"Where are you headed?" she asked. She obviously thought he'd stopped to ask directions. As she would. Visitors wouldn't make it here unless they badly wanted to come, and even then they were likely to miss the place. All he'd seen so far were sodden cows, the cattle-grid in which this truck was stuck, and a battered milkcan that obviously served as a mail box, stuck onto a post beside the gate. Fading lettering painted on the side said 'D & G Kettering'.
D & G Kettering. The G would be Gianetta.
It was four years since Gianetta and her husband had died. he'd have expected the sign to be down by now.
What was this woman doing here? Hell, the agency had given him so little information. "Frankly we can see no reason why Ms Donohue is there," they'd said. "We suspect the farm must be sub- stantial, giving her financial incentive to stay. We assume, however, that eventually the farm will belong to the boy, so there's no security in her position. Given her situation, we suspect any approach by you to take responsibility will be welcome."
They weren't right about the farm being substantial. This farm looked impoverished.
He needed to tread carefully while he found out what the agency hadn't.
"I was searching for the Kettering farm," he told her. "I'm assuming this is it? Are you Phillippa Donohue?"
"I'm Pippa, yes." Her face clouded. "Are you from the dairy corporation? You've stopped buying our milk. You've stopped our payments. What else can you stop?"
"I'm not from the dairy corporation."
She stared. "Not?"
"I came to see you."
"No one comes to see me."
"Well, the child," he told her. "I'm Marc's cousin."
She looked out at him, astonished. He wasn't appearing to ad- vantage, he thought, but then, maybe he didn't need to. He just needed to say what had to be said, organise a plane ticketor plane tickets if she wanted to comeand leave.
"The children don't have cousins," she said, breaking into his thoughts with a brusqueness that hinted of distrust. "Gina and Donaldtheir parentswere both only children. All the grand- parents are dead. There's a couple of remote relations on their father's side, but I know them. There's no one else."
But he'd been caught by her first two words. The children, he thought, puzzled. Children? There was only Marc. Wasn't there?
"I'm a relation on Marc's mother's side," he said, buying time. "Gina was my best friend since childhood. Her mother, Alice, was kind to me and I spent lots of time with them. I've never met any relations."
She sounded so suspicious that he smiled. "So you think I'm with the dairy corporation, trying to sneak into your farm with lies about my family background? You think I'd risk drowning to talk to an unknown woman about cows?"
She stared some more, and slowly the corners of her mouth curved into an answering smile. Suddenly the resemblance to the old photograph was stronger. He saw for the first time why his initial impression from the photograph had been beauty.
"I guess that would be ridiculous," she conceded. "But you're not their cousin."
Their cousin. There it was again. Plural. He didn't understand, so he ploughed on regardless. "I am a relation. Gianetta and I shared a grandfathernot that we knew him. I've come from half a world away to see Marc."
"you're from the royal part of the family?" she said, sounding as if she'd suddenly remembered something she'd been told long since.
He winced. "Ummaybe. I need to talk to you. I need to see Marc."
"you're seeing him," she said unhelpfully.
He looked at Marc. Marc looked back, wary now because he wasn't understanding the conversation. he'd edged slightly in front of Pippa in a gesture of protection.
He was so like the de Gautiers it unnerved Max. "Hi," he told Marc. "I'd like to talk to you."
"We're not in a situation where visits are possible, "she said, and her arm came around Marc's skinny chest. They were protecting each other. But she sounded intrigued now, and there was even a tinge of regret in her voice. "Do you need a bed for the night?"
This was hopeful. "I do."
"There's a guesthouse in Tanbarook. Come back in the morning after milking. We'll give you a cup of coffee and find the time to talk."
Her smile broadened. "I'm sorry, but it's the best I can do. We're a bitstuck at the moment. Now, you need to find Tanbarook. Head back to the end of this road and turn right. That's a sealed road which will get you into town."
"Thanks," he said but he didn't go. They were gazing at him, Marc with curiosity and slight defensiveness, Pippa with calm friendliness and the dog with the benign observance of a very old and very placid mutt. Pippa was reaching over to wind up the window. "Don't," he told her.
"Why are you sitting in a truck in the middle of a cattle pit?"
"I can see that. How long do you intend to sit here?"
"Until the rain stops."
"This rain," he said cautiously, 'may never stop." He grimaced as a sudden squall sent a rush of cold water down the back of his neck. More and more he felt like a drowned rat. Heaven knew what Pippa would be thinking of him. Not much, he thought.
That alone wasn't what he was used to. Women normally reacted strongly to Maxsim de Gautier. He was tall and strongly built, with the Mediterranean skin, deep black hair and dark features of his mother's family. The tabloids described him as drop-dead gorgeous and seriously rich.
But Pippa could see little of this and guess less. She obviously didn't have a clue who he was. Maybe she could approximate his agethirty-fivebut it'd be a wild guess. Mostly she'd be seeing water.
"Forty days and forty nights is the rain record," he told her. "I think we're heading for that now."
She smiled. "So if I were you I'd get back in your car and head for dry land."
"Why didn't you go back to the house instead of waiting here in the truck?"
Until now Marc had stayed silent, watching him with wariness. But now the little boy decided to join in.
"We're going to get fish and chips," he informed him. "But the cattle-grid broke so we're stuck. We have to wait 'til it stops raining. Then we have to find Mr Henges and ask him to pull us out with his tractor. Pippa says we might as well sit here and whinge 'cos it's warmer here than in the house. We've run out of wood."
"The gentleman doesn't need to know why we're sitting here," Pippa told him.
"But we've been sitting here for ages and we're hungry."
Marc, however, was preparing to be sociable. "I'm Marc and this is our Pippa and this is our dog, Dolores.And over the back is Sophie and Claire. Sophie has red hair ribbons and Claire's are blue."
Sophie and Claire. Over the back. He peered through the tiny slot of wound-down window. Yes, there were two more children. He could make out two little faces, with similar colouring to Marc. Cute and pigtailed. Red and blue ribbons. Twins?
Sophie and Claire. He hadn't heard of any Sophie and Claire. Were they Pippa's? But they looked like Marc. And Pippa had red hair.
No matter. It was only Marc he needed to focus on. "I'm pleased to meet you all," he said. This was a crazy place to have a conver- sation, but he had to start introductions some time. "I'm Max."
"Hi," Pippa said and put her hand on the window winder again. Dismissing him. "Good luck. We may see you tomorrow."
"Can't I help you?"
"I could tow you."
"Do you have a tow-bar on your car?"
"Umno." It was a hire-cara luxury saloon. Of course he didn't. "Can I find Mr Henges and his tractor for you?"
"Bert won't come 'til the rain stops."
"you're planning on sitting in the truck until then?"
"Or until it's time for milking."
The thought of milking cows in this weather didn't bear con- sidering. "You don't think maybe you could run back to the house, peel off your wet things, have a hot shower andoh, I don't know, play Happy Families until milking?"
"It's warmer here," Marc said. "But we want fish and chips," one of the little girls piped up from the back seat.
"There's bread," Marc said, in severe, big-brother tones. "We'll make toast before milking."
"We want fish and chips," the other little girl whimpered. "We're hungry."
"Shh." Pippa turned back to Max. "Can you move away so I can wind up the window? We're getting wet." 'Sure." But Max didn't move. He thought of all he'd come to say to this woman and he winced. Back home it had seemed simpleto say what needed to be said and walk away. But now, suddenly, it seemed harder. "Isn't there anything I can do for you first?"
What was he saying? The easiest thing to do right now would be to walk away from the whole mess, he thought. Someone else could tell these people what they had to know. But then, he'd have to remember that he'd walked away for a long time.
"We don't need anything," Pippa told him, oblivious to his train of thought, and he dragged his attention back to the matter at hand. Truck stuck. Fish and chips.
"I'm thinking I should talk to Marc about this," he said, focusing on food. "This is, after all, men's business. Hunting and gathering. You were heading to the shops when your truck got stuck. Looking for fish and chips."
"Yes," said Marc, pleased at his acuity, and Sophie and Claire beamed agreement, anticipating assistance. "We've run out of food," Marc told him. "All we have left is toast. We don't even have any jam."
Right. He could do this. Jam and fish and chips. But not drowned like this.
"I have a car that's not stuck in a cattle-grid," he told them. "But I'm soaking wet. You have a house where I can dry off, and I've come a long way to visit you. Let's combine.You let me use your house to change and I'll go into town and buy fish and chips."
"We can't impose on you," Pippa said. But she looked desper- ate, and he wondered why.
First things first. He had to persuade her to let him help. "I'm not an axe murderer," he told her. "I promise. I really am a relation."
"I'm Maxsim de Gautier. Max."He watched to see if there was recognition of the name, but she was too preoccupied to think of anything but immediate needand maybe she'd never heard the name anyway. "I'd really like to help."
Desperation fadedjust a little. "I shouldn't let you."
"Yes, you should. You don't have to like me, but I'm definitely family, so you need to sigh and open the door, the way most families ask rum-soaked Uncle Bertie or similar to Christmas lunch."
She smiled in return at that, a wobbly sort of smile but it was a welcome change from the desperate. "Uncle Bertie or similar?"
"I'm not even a soak," he said encouragingly and her smile wobbled a bit more.
"You have a great accent," she said inconsequentially. "It soundsfamiliar. Is it Italian or French?"
"you're very wet."
"The puddle around my ankles is starting to creep to my knees. If you leave this decision much longer I'll need a snorkel."
She stared out at him and chewed her lip. Then she seemed to make a decision. "Fine."
"Fine I'll trust you," she managed. "The kids and I will trust you, but I'm not sure about Dolores.'she hugged the dog tighter. "She bites relations who turn out to be axe murderers."
"She's welcome to try. How will we organise this?"
"My truck's blocking your way to the house."
"So it is," he said cordially. "Why didn't I notice that?"
Her decision meant that she'd relaxed a little. The lines of strain around her eyes had eased. Now she even choked back a bubble of laughter. "We need to run to the house. We'll all be soaked the minute we get out of the truck."
"I assume you have dry clothes back at the house?"
"I'm bored of sitting in the truck," Marc said. "Me too," said Sophie. "Me too," said Claire. "Right," Pippa said, coming to a decision. "On the count of three I want everybody out of the truck and we'll run back to the house as fast as we can. Mr de Gautier, you're welcome to follow."
"I'll do backstroke," he told her. "What's your stroke?"
"Dog-paddle." She pushed open the driver's side door and dived into the torrent. "Okay, kids," she said, hauling open the back door and starting to lift them out.
"Let me," he told her. "I'll take the kids. You take Dolores."