Still waters run deep in Wongan Creek...
When spray drift ruins his crop and throws his ability to hold on to the family farm into question, Harley Baker wants to confront his neighbour and shout his rage and worry to the sky. But arguments are tricky when the woman whose herbicides killed his crop is also the woman he's loved his whole life.
Tameka Chalmers knows that her father's farming methods are outdated, inefficient, and even dangerous, so when Harley charges her with the loss of his livelihood, she can only accept the blame. There's so much she would like to do differently, but her father's rule is absolute and if she wants to keep working the farm she loves, she must do as she's told.
But the simple action of speaking with Harley, the man she wants but can never have, starts an unexpected chain reaction of events that throw everything she's ever known into question: her past, her family, her life. Dark secrets come to light and when Tameka is injured in a house fire, she and Harley have one small chance to seize a lifetime of happiness, if only they are able to rise from the ashes and claim it.
About the Author
Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and now proudly Australian, Juanita is a freelance editor and proofreader. She escapes the real world by reading and writing romantic fiction. The year 2012 was a turning point in her writing career, with her debut novel Fly Away Peta released in August. Her short story Rough Diamond also made the finals in the Romance Writers of Australia Little Gems competition and was published in their Diamond Anthology. Juanita is a keen volunteer and member at the Romance Writers of Australia. When she's not writing, editing or proofreading, Juanita is the cleaning fairy and mother to three boys (hubby included, his toys are just a little more expensive). Her not-so-miniature dachshund, Sam, is her critique partner and keeps her company while writing.
Read an Excerpt
Tameka confiscated the rope Harley's dog had destroyed along with three hundred square metres of her newly sown barley field.
'Hooley dooley, Loki, what have you done?'
Oh, Harley Baker would pay for this, for sure. She paid no attention to Loki's attempts to claim her attention even though twenty-three kilograms of Catahoula Leopard dog leaping at her torso wasn't easy to ignore.
'Sit down!' Tameka said sternly, surprised when Loki obeyed and looked at her with his melt-your-heart eyes. No-one melted her heart. Not Harley Baker and not his dog either. 'Bad dog.'
Loki gave a short bark and offered up a reconciliatory doggy grin.
'Don't smile at me.'
She looked over the dog's head at the destruction in his wake and ignored the paw that scratched at the leg of her denims in a bid for attention.
Her neatly ploughed and planted rows of barley resembled a churned up dirt bike track after the annual fair in the wake of Loki's destruction, the almost empty container of liquid concentrate mix she'd used for spot-spraying and hadn't had time to put away yet overturned in the soil.
Now there was Loki's health to worry about too. If he'd ingested some of the herbicides her father insisted on using, he could be a very sick dog and that would break her heart. No amount of pushing towards using organic herbicides could sway Louis Chalmers away from chemical poisons.
But then no amount of hard work and dedication could make him believe she was worthy of his praise either. No, her dad would be far happier if he'd had a son instead of a daughter.
Loki's adventures in the barley would only prove him right that she was an incompetent farmer and manager who couldn't even keep the gate between the two farms shut — no matter whose fault it was that the dog had chosen her field as his playground.
She set the container upright and checked that the lid was still securely screwed into place as the low gear warble of a four-stroke engine reached her ears. That'd be Harley coming to look for his dog. No four-legged horses for that farm boy. His were all steelframed, power hungry two-wheelers as sleek and sexy as he was.
She shivered inside her sheepskin-lined jacket and tugged her beanie down around her ears. A sexy pain in the arse who once had owned her heart.
The 200cc Trojan appeared out of the remains of the morning fog, and Tameka sucked in the cold air, letting it burn down her throat and into her lungs as she watched the bike progress down the firebreak.
When dealing with Harley, she needed a heart of ice or he'd get under her skin and make her remember what he felt like under his flannel-checked shirt and denims. A distraction she couldn't afford when it made her long for the friendship and love they'd lost.
Oh, she knew exactly what he looked like under those clothes thanks to a dare when they'd been young and stupid. He'd been eighteen and filling out in all the right places when he'd lost his bet about her father letting her manage the farm. She'd made him do two laps of the firebreak around Bakers Hill on his damn bike — naked, wearing only his boots — in the middle of winter. And then there was that one time in his ute ... At least he had clothes on today. It would make it much easier to stay angry with him.
He pulled up at the fence, and she let the rhythm of the engine throb through her, itching for a ride. Her father wouldn't have bikes in the field. That's what utes were for. And where the ute didn't go, you walked. She looked at Harley's face under his red beanie. Not only was he wearing clothes, he was also wearing a very angry face. Good, because she was angry too and spoiling for a fight.
'Your bloody dog just wrecked all my hard work. Churned up my field and made it his damn playpen.' Raising her voice over the engine noise, she threw her arms wide across the scene. The culprit sat centre stage for a split second before his brain kicked into gear and he pounded across the field of destruction to greet his owner.
'Sit. Stay,' Harley commanded.
The dog sat his butt in the churned up soil and peered through the fence, head cocked to one side, ears pinned back and a questioning whine in his voice. Harley cut the engine and pushed down the stand. Denim clung to his thighs as he swung his leg back across the seat.
Tameka tried hard not to appreciate the view while she ignored the hitch of breath in her throat. Watching Harley move had once been her favourite way to spend the day. It still was, except now she did it from the other side of the fence. On the odd occasion they did speak it was as if they were strangers and had never been lovers or even good friends, their conversation polite, stilted and all business.
The easy stride of those long legs, the way he dragged a hand through his hair when he was annoyed, embarrassed or simply irritated. His smile and easy laughter, how he used to make her feel-special, wanted, loved — were all happy memories she kept locked in her dreams to chase away the monsters at night.
Today his flannel shirt was red and black, just visible under a black puffer jacket, his footy scarf wrapped around his neck to ward off the morning chill. West Coast Eagles — another reminder of what they'd once had together. Through thick and thin, she'd always be a Dockers fan. Purple would always clash with yellow and blue.
But right this minute it wasn't about the good-natured football rivalry they'd once had between them or the times they'd spent cheering for opposite teams, finding reasons to kiss and make up. That was in the past. Today was all about the partially ruined rows of barley crop she'd have to re-seed.
Harley pushed through the open gate in the fence between their farms. A pang of regret nudged Tameka's heart. She missed the days when he'd come through that gate for reasons that didn't cause a scowl on his face. When they'd been on speaking terms — on kissing terms — except on Derby Day. Back in the years when the competition between her and Harley had been about who could climb the highest in the old gum tree down by the creek or who could sow a row faster.
The only purpose the gate served these days was when Loki nosed it open to chase the birds out of the trees around the dam, or like today, kill and bury his rope for resurrection later.
'I'll come down and weld that bloody gate shut.' He stopped with his boots inches from hers, and she could smell the remnants of his shower soap and toothpaste as he called, 'Loki, heel!'
Loki obeyed, his ice-blue gaze full of apology as he leant against Harley's leg and begged for an ear scratch.
A pang of regret filled her heart at the way Harley stood so close, his body heat warming her personal space. There'd been a time when she could reach out and tug at his beanie or steal his scarf. Or lean up against him and kiss the spots of colour the cold morning put in his cheeks.
'Might be best.' She raised her eyes from his mouth to his face and caught the grim expression there, her heart sinking at the annoyance in his eyes. 'Who stole your sunshine and rainbows this morning? I'm the one with the churned up field.'
He whipped off his beanie, shoved it in his jacket pocket and blew out a warm, angry breath that tickled her face.
'That'd be you, Tameka.' He reached inside his puffer jacket, his arm brushing across her chest, and pulled out a cutting with wilted leaves. 'Looks like we're even over Loki's mess because your infernal preference for phenoxies has destroyed almost my entire crop on this side of the fence line.'
Shit. Tameka took the cutting from his hands, stepped back and studied it. Her heart plummeted. Deformed leaves hung limply from the stunted stems; misshapen, brittle and burnt. Damn it, hadn't she warned her father about spray drift? Harley's towering hops would have copped a good portion of it. With his bines climbing at over ten metres high, there'd be little chance of them avoiding the damage phenoxy spray caused to broadleaf crops. No matter how careful she was about spraying.
Harley shoved a hand through his toffee-coloured hair. 'Long-term, preventable herbicide damage. How many times do we need to have this conversation?'
'My hands are tied, Harley.' Anger pushed her heart back up where it belonged. Of course he'd blame her. Everyone would.
'Bullshit. You're the farm manager on Golden Acres. You call the shots.'
And if he believed that, he was dumber than she'd given him credit for. Her father would never let go of the reins completely for as long as he breathed in this life. But Harley wasn't done lashing out at her yet. She would bear the brunt of it — his anger and frustration-knowing he had every right to feel that way, powerless in that there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it, no matter how hard she tried. She stayed silent and let him offload his grievances to the top of her head while she studied the mud.
'Every year I lose crop I can't afford to because you continue to use chemical weed killers. As if the water shortages aren't doing enough damage. Damn it, Tameka, you have no idea the council hoops I have to jump through to get approval to use recycled water until I can get my dam built.'
She shook her head and bit her tongue. As if she hadn't already explored alternatives to phenoxies and tried to convince her dad to use them. And the lack of rain affected her crop as much as it did Harley's, even with their dam as back up.
When she didn't buy into the argument, he continued. 'So, you know what? Your churned up rows don't quite cut it compared to three hectares of stunted growth that produced little or no damn crop this year.' He closed the gap between them until they stood boot to boot once more.
No, of course they didn't. The back-breaking hours she'd spent on and off the tractor towing the archaic box air seeder with its failing air hoses, tilling the soil, fertilising, checking, measuring, only to have her father inspect it, find it lacking and make her do it all over again — none of it counted. Anger made tears sting her eyes. She fought them back. Tameka Chalmers didn't cry and screw Harley Baker for making her want to.
'Take your dog and your dickatude and get off my land.'
She raised her hands and shoved him hard, catching him off guard so he stumbled back and fell on his arse in the soil. She bent and picked up the tortured remains of Loki's rope and lobbed it at his chest. Then she turned and walked away.
Damn him for invading her space and making her feel like spilling her guts to him like she used to before. To tell him exactly what she had to do to keep Golden Acres up and running. And the rest. The whole horrible, God damn miserable story.
She hesitated at Harley's shout but didn't stop or turn around.
'I'm sorry I yelled at you, okay. It's been a bitch of a day, and it's only just bloody started.'
As if every day was freaking paradise for her. He could rot in hell along with his damaged crop. She didn't care what he had to say.
'It's not just the phenoxy damage. Some of the cones on the north-side bines have developed downy mildew. My harvest is down fifty percent thanks to all the damage, and my profit with it. The bank is threatening to foreclose on my loan if I can't make payment. If they won't grant me an extension ...'
The desperation in his tone almost had her turning around, but nothing should make her feel sorry for Harley Baker.
'I'll lose everything.'
Except that. Her heart plummeted to her boots and stopped her in her tracks at the thought of what that meant for Harley and Bakers Hill. She wouldn't wish that kind of ruin on her worst enemy because she knew the cost of it all too well herself.
Harley watched Tameka's spine stiffen and rubbed at his chest. For such a wispy thing, she still packed a punch. Under that heavy sheepskin jacket, she was whippet-thin with long legs that went all the way up to a tight, fit-in-your-hand arse.
Pity she didn't know how to girl anymore. Not since she'd been ripped from his arms and things had changed between them forever. Regret edged its way into his mind. He missed the girl she used to be. The kind of girl he needed right now. His girl. Simpler times.
She turned and walked back as Loki licked Harley's face then made a play for the rope. He tossed it across the fence, sending the dog chasing back through the gate onto his land.
His arse still in the soil, Harley pulled up his knees, leant his elbows on them and hung his head, feeling the tension grip his neck, his heart heavy.
With very little crop yield for the market, his loss would be so great he might not be able to hold onto Bakers Hill for much longer. Then he would never see Tameka again, not even from a distance.
Her shadow fell over him in the weak sunshine. 'Well, that sucks.'
He hadn't meant to tell her anything. They didn't talk much these days, not unless it was business-related and totally necessary. He looked up into those almond-shaped, chocolate-brown eyes he'd loved so much, and saw that they too had forgotten how to smile — like her lips. Not that either of them had much to smile about these days.
'I'm in deep shit, Tikki.'
The childhood name slipped from his lips, a reminder of the days when she'd known all his secrets, witnessed all his failures and celebrated his successes. When they'd been friends. Before the Big Bang.
She extended her hand, all long fingers, and short nails and callouses from hard work. He took it and let her pull him back on his feet.
His good mate Tikki had been a tough rival and sworn-to-secrecy confidante growing up, unlike the adult Tameka who'd grown cold and distant. All his fault. But this was business and nothing to do with what they'd once had.
She let go as soon as he was up and shoved her hands into the pockets of her thick jacket. 'When did you hear?'
He dusted the soil from the seat of his denims. 'Last night. I got a call from Greg Saunders to arrange a meeting this week.' As apologetic as the bank manager had been, it hadn't softened the punch of failure, the reality of what he had to face to keep hold of everything he loved. 'I've been up all night going over the figures, trying to scrape something together, some alternative to keep going.'
Tameka pressed her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes, her distress clear in her frown and the downward tug of her mouth. 'What about your mung bean crop? Was that damaged too?'
'No, that's done pretty well. The greenhouses saved the crop from contamination this year, but the cost set me back a bit.' Harley pulled his beanie out of his pocket and tugged it back on. 'It's been an expensive few years. I had no choice but to mortgage the property to have funds to build the dam and the greenhouses. Filling the recycled water tanks we had put in doesn't come cheap either.' Yet another penance to pay for his actions that had caused this whole damn mess.
She opened her eyes to look at him again. 'I'm sorry, Harley. If I could change what happened ...'
But they couldn't. Nothing could stop his father's heart attack from happening or bring Ryan back, or change the events of the day he'd lost his best friend. 'Maybe I should take John Bannister up on his offer and sell out.'
'No damn way. That would kill your father, Harley. Bannister will be digging holes all over the land in search of gold and every ounce of sweat your family has put into the soil will be lost. Suck it up, princess, and find a way to deal with the problem that doesn't involve selling out to Wongan Creek Mining.'
Despite his testiness and frustration, he let some of his anger slip away. For a brief moment there he'd caught a glimpse of the old Tikki, the one who delivered tough love and a kick up the butt when he needed it most. It did nothing to help his current situation though, and with gold fever gripping the town, many farmers in the region were jumping to take up the cash offers John Bannister was dealing out. A much easier and cheaper option than to continue to sustain the losses each harvest brought to the region, whatever the cause.
'I've lost a major portion of my hops. The crop will take a year or two at least to recover from the damage this time.'
Time he didn't have when his livelihood relied on every hectare of the bines being profitable and disease-free. He dropped his hands to his hips. Reality kicked like a mule. Having to tell his father that he'd failed would be bad enough, but buckling to the pressure to sell out or have the property repossessed would finish his old man off for sure.
Excerpted from "Secrets at Wongan Creek"
Copyright © 2017 Juanita Kees.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd.
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