In this, her third novel, the multitalented author of Night in Eden returns to the glorious setting of nineteenth-century Australia, to the ancient, primal vistas of the outback, to a land as untamed as a man's soul. . . .
Patrick O'Reilly loves life in the wilderness. All he needs is his land, his work, and the company of the children he adores. The last thing he wants is the prim and proper Englishwoman who arrives to care for his unruly children. Amanda Davenport seems unprepared for the harshness of the place O'Reilly calls home, and yet he finds himself inexplicably drawn to this proud woman and the fire he knows exists beneath her refined exterior.
Accepting a job as governess is the only way Amanda can earn passage back to her beloved England and away from this land that she hatesrugged, uncivilized, intoxicating, like Patrick O'Reilly himself. Despite her fears, Amanda gradually awakens to the shimmering heat of this wild primitive land, to the children she can't help but love, and to this magnificent man whose raw sensuality dares to expose her own undeniable passion. . . .
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Candice Proctor is also the author of Night in Eden and The Bequest. She lives in Adelaide, Australia, with her husband and their two young daughters.
Read an Excerpt
Port Adelaide, South Australia
It was like an ache, Amanda Davenport decided, this need she had, this yearning to be back in England. Home, where she belonged.
She did not belong here. Even on a night such as this, when the sky above hung black and empty, and thick clouds obscured the unfamiliar southern stars, she still felt the wild, disturbing alienness of this place.
Tightening her hands around the smooth railing of the wrought-iron balustrade that wrapped the hotel's upper veranda, she gazed out over the port's dark, empty streets. At night, she couldn't see the unfamiliar colonial buildings with their peculiar blue-black stone walls and their deep verandas designed to keep out the hot Australian sun. She couldn't see the drooping leaves of the gray-green eucalyptus trees, or the dry, brooding hills in the distance.
Yet she had no need to see this place to know its strangeness. It was there, in the wattle and eucalypt-scented breeze, in the eerie cry of the kookaburra, in the indefinable aura of primitive mystery that hung in the air like an unseen presence.
A shiver coursed through her, causing her to hug her mantelet against the winter chill. The sound of a strangling cough from inside the room brought her head around and she slipped quickly inside, folding her wrap over a wooden chair back as she crossed to the bed where her employer, Mrs. Blake, lay dying. Taking a glass of water from the bedside table, Amanda eased one arm beneath the older woman's shoulder. "Here. Drink this," Amanda said, raising the glass to Mrs. Blake's lips.
"I don't need more water. My lungs feel as if I'm drowning already." But the older woman drank anyway, her breath coming in short, wheezing gasps. After a few sips, she sank back against the pillows, her eyes closing.
Looking at her, it seemed to Amanda as if in the last twenty-four hours Frances Blake had shrunk in upon herself. Her cheeks had hollowed, her eyes sunk into gray, parchmentlike folds of skin. She was not an old womanfifty, perhaps fifty-five. A life spent accompanying her botanist husband on his expeditions around the world had toughened her body and her outlook. But she had not been strong enough to survive the shock of seeing her husband murdered by the same thief who had left her virtually penniless. The doctor talked about tourniquets and foxglove, and said that with rest and proper treatment she might survive. Amanda doubted it.
In another day, a week at the most, Frances Blake would probably die. But by that time, the ship that was to have carried Amanda and her employers back to England would have sailed. And there was no money to buy a new passage.
She sank onto the seat of the wooden chair, her gaze pulled against her will to the glazed veranda doors. Beyond their wavy glass panes she could see only darkness. Yet somewhere out there the Prince Edward lay at anchor, ready to catch the morning tide.
"It will be dawn soon." Mrs. Blake's raspy voice grated oddly in the still night air, echoing Amanda's own thoughts. "You must go."
Amanda turned to meet the other woman's pale gray eyes and shook her head. "I won't leave you here alone." No one should have to die alone so far from home, she thought, but she didn't say it.
Frances Blake's hand moved restlessly against the coverlet. "Jasper and I should have arranged things better," she said. "I am leaving you in an awkward situation."
"I'll get back to England somehow. Don't worry about me." Amanda leaned forward to take the other woman's hand. It felt alarmingly weightless and clammy, the thready pulse surging in slow throbs that sometimes missed a beat.
A peculiar smile twisted Mrs. Blake's bloodless lips. "I have worried about you for some time now, my dear. Even before we left England."
The casual term of endearment surprised Amanda even more than the peculiar words, for her relationship with the Blakes had always been one of respect rather than affection. "Don't worry about me," Amanda said again. But Frances Blake's eyes had already closed, and in a moment Amanda heard the older woman's breath ease into the slow, even rhythms of sleep. Sighing, Amanda sank back in her chair and closed her own eyes.
Several hours later she was aroused by the piercingly sweet call of a magpie that lured her once again to the veranda. She slipped through the French doors, her heart slamming up against her ribs as she saw the brightening of the eastern sky. It was almost dawn.
She gazed out over the harbor. In the dim light she could just make out the dark spires of the ship's masts outlined against a bank of low gray clouds. In her imagination she could hear the rattle and creak of the anchor chain being hauled in, hear the snap of canvas as the sails filled with the salt-tinged wind. Feel the motion of the ship as it heaved with the swelling tide and set sail for England.
Tears burned her chest and clogged her throat. Swallowing hard, she turned away blindly and went inside.
Ten hours later, early in the afternoon of the third of July 1864, Frances Blake died, leaving Amanda alone and friendless in a strange, hostile land.
Amanda stood on the footpath, one hand anchoring her sensible hat against the tug of a chilling wind as she gazed up at the impressive bluestone facade of the house before her. She had no need to consult the clipped newspaper advertisement she had come to answer. She had read and reread those two sentences so many times, they seemed burned into her brain.
English gentlewoman required to act as governess. Interested parties may present their credentials to Mrs. Henrietta Radwith, 23 East Terrace, Adelaide, this Wednesday afternoon between the hours of two and four.
Amanda had never worked as a governess, but she was better educated than most men, and she was certainly an authentic English gentlewoman. She could only hope that might be enough.
It had been four weeks since the Prince Edward had sailed for home, and she had yet to find a new situation. Lately, simply staying alive was becoming more of a concern to her than getting back to England. She had taken to skipping dinner every other day in an attempt to conserve her dwindling resources. But time was running out.
Unconsciously pressing the fingers of one white-gloved hand to her hollow midriff, Amanda mounted the shallow stone steps and tapped a polite tattoo with the brass door knocker.
"Miss Amanda Davenport," she said to the lanky, craggy-faced manservant who answered. "I have come to"
Her voice trailed off as the man jerked his head toward the depths of the house, inviting her to enter. "Take a seat. Mrs. Radwith'll see ya in the library when it's yer turn."
Amanda stepped inside a vast, marble-floored hall at least sixty feet long and ten feet wide, and felt her hopes plummet down to the pointed toes of her high-topped shoes. A miscellaneous assortment of tapestry and brocade-covered chairs, settees, and miners couches had been shoved against the paneled walls between the fluted pilasters, decorative plasterwork arches, and handsome cedar doors that marched the length of the hall. And every seat but one was already occupied by an aspiring respondent to Mrs. Radwith's advertisement.
"Thank you," murmured Amanda. Perching on the edge of the hard wooden bench near the front door, she folded her cold-numbed hands over her bag in her lap and steadfastly resisted the urge to twist her fingers together in nervous agitation. English gentlewomen did not betray their emotions.
And so she sat, cold, nervous, but unmoving as, one by one, the other women were escorted to the paneled library door at the far end of the hall near the grand cedar staircase, then shown out again. One hour stretched into two until, finally, Amanda was the only woman left.
She rose and followed the strange butler to a large, well-proportioned room of green velvet and darkly paneled, book-lined walls. A fire snapped and flared on the wide hearth, filling the room with welcome warmth. She found it an effort to shift her attention from those lovely flames to the handsome, dark-haired woman enthroned behind the massive mahogany desk.
The woman was expensively dressed in a gown of lilac alpaca trimmed with black velvet braid. In age, she might have been anywhere in her late thirties or early forties. She made no effort to rise but simply stared at Amanda over the top of gold wire-framed spectacles she wore pushed down to the end of her nose.
It had been more than five years since the death of Amanda's father had forced her to seek employment, yet she still resented these interviews, still hated being scrutinized like a rental horse in a cheap livery stable. She had to force herself to stand demurely and endure the rude scrutiny.
"How old are you?" demanded the woman.
Amanda's chin jerked up. "Twenty-seven." And how old are you, she thought with an irreverent ripple of private amusement.
The woman sniffed, her gaze again traveling from the ugly, unfashionable hat Amanda used to hide the flamboyant blaze of her hair, to the simple mantelet that covered her prim and plain brown fustian gown. Mrs. Radwith held out an imperious hand. "Your credentials."
Amanda passed them over.
"Pray be seated."
Amanda took the straight-backed chair facing the desk and once again folded her hands in her lap. The ticking of the heavy bronze clock on the marble mantle counted the passing of the minutes.
"Given your background," said Mrs. Radwith without looking up as she flipped through the pages, "I would have expected you to seek employment as a private secretary, rather than as a governess."
"I tried, ma'am. No one in Adelaide appears to be interested in hiring a female secretary."
"It is an unusual occupation for a female." The pages flipped again. "And exactly what is your experience as a governess?"
Amanda's fingers tightened around the strap of her bag. "My father was a doctor of divinity at Oxford, so I received an excellent education. I am able to"
"I didn't ask about your education. I can see from your references how extensive it is." Mrs. Radwith tossed Amanda's credentials onto the leather desktop and peeled the spectacles off her face to fix Amanda with a steady stare. "I am asking if you have ever actually served as a governess."
Amanda rose with calm dignity. "Please accept my apologies for wasting your"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, sit down."
Amanda sank to the chair edge.
"Tell me something, Miss Davenport. Did you by any chance count the number of females waiting in my hall this afternoon?"
She had, of course. She didn't see any point in denying it. "I believe there were twenty-three."
"And how many are still waiting?"
"None. I am the last." Amanda met the woman's brilliant blue stare, and felt a peculiar combination of hope and alarm surge through her. "Why is that?" she asked boldly.
Mrs. Radwith leaned back in her leather upholstered swivel chair. "First of all, let me explain that the advertisement was placed on behalf of my brother, Mr. Patrick O'Reilly. Mr. O'Reilly owns a large run to the north of here, near the township of Brinkman."
Amanda's forehead crinkled. "A run?"
"A pastoral property, named Penyaka. It consists of some one and a half thousand square miles of saltbush and Mitchell grass country, stocked with approximately twenty thousand head of cattle and one hundred thousand sheep."
Not the outback, Amanda thought, swallowing a flash of panic. Please not the outback.
At her silence, Mrs. Radwith raised her eyebrows. "Still interested?"
Amanda's empty stomach growled, drowning out the clang of warning bells in her brain. "Exactly how far to the north is it?"
"It's in the Flinders Ranges, on the very fringe of the colony's habitable area. To be frank, it is frighteningly isolated. Living conditions are primitive, one might even say dangerous."
Her words sent hideous, half-remembered tales of bushfires and black savages, of floods and snakes and poisonous spiders, chasing one another through Amanda's head. She thought of the endless miles of raw, untamed wilderness they had sailed past on their way to Adelaide, of the drunken, uncouth bushmen she had occasionally seen on the streets of Adelaide, and decided that if she were the type, she would probably have shuddered.
Instead, she asked, "Precisely how much is your brother prepared to pay?" The question was only a formality; Amanda was so desperate, she'd take almost anything.
"Sixty pounds a year."
Sixty pounds! It was all Amanda could do to keep from grinning with vulgar delight. Governesses in England had been known to work for fifteen pounds a year. With sixty pounds, she would be able to purchase passage back to England and still have a tidy sum on which to live while she searched for a new situation at home.
She carefully schooled her features into a serene expression. "And how many children does your brother have?"
"Three. Two girls and a boy, ranging in age from eleven to six."
"I believe myself capable of handling their instruction."
A disconcerting gleam of amusement flashed in Mrs. Radwith's eyes, then disappeared. "I am delighted to hear that, Miss Davenport. I should warn you, however, that the cost of sending you north is so high that if you accept this position, you must undertake to remain for a period of at least one full year. If you leave before the first twelve months are up, you will be required to pay your own way back to Adelaide. And if you leave within the first six months, the cost of sending you up to the Flinders will be deducted from your salary. "
"And what is the cost?"
"Ten pounds. One way."
Amanda bit back a startled exclamation.
"Which means," Mrs. Radwith continued, "that if you stay less than four months, you will find yourself back in Adelaide with less money than you have now. And before you commit yourself, I think it only fair to tell you that one governess my brother hired left after two weeks. The longest any woman has lasted was six months."
Amanda smiled. "One might almost suspect you of trying to dissuade me."
"Perhaps I am. I see no point in sending you to my brother if I am not convinced you will be able to deal with the conditions you will find there."
Amanda felt her smile slip. She wasn't convinced she was capable of dealing with the conditions, either; she simply didn't see that she had much choice. Still, she felt compelled to ask the obvious question, "Exactly why did the other women leave?"
For the first time in the course of their interview, Mrs. Radwith looked vaguely uncomfortable. "Doubtless the isolation and harsh environment were partially to blame. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that my brother's children arehow shall I put it?difficult. It is not easy for a man to run a station and raise three children at the same time."
"Your brother is a widower?"
"I beg your pardon. From what you said, I assumed the children's mother"
"The children's mother is not discussed."
A pregnant silence descended upon the library while Amanda digested this statement. In the distance she could hear the familiar clip-clop of horses' hooves and the harsh, exotic screech of a cockatoo.
"Well?" demanded Mrs. Radwith. "Are you still interested, or not?"
Amanda tightened her hold on the bag in her lap. "If I could have some time to think about it? Until Friday, perhaps?"
Mrs. Radwith rose majestically to her feet. "As you like. If the position is still available by then, you will be welcome to have it. I'll call Roberts to show you out." She reached for the velvet bellpull hanging beside the mantel.
Raw panic gripped Amanda. "Wait."
Mrs. Radwith turned, one eyebrow lifting haughtily. "I cannot hold the position open for you, if that's what you wish to ask."
Amanda's heart thudded wildly. She hated to make snap decisions. But in this instance, there was no time to do anything else. And what choice did she have, anyway? She could commit herself to spending the next year trying to teach three unmanageable children in the wilds of the Australian outback. Or she could starve in a gutter. It was that simple.
She sucked in a shaky breath, then pushed it out in a long sigh. "I'll do it."
Patrick O'Reilly lay flat on his back in Mary McCarthy's rumpled bed, the fingers of one hand clenched in her hair as the thick dark mass slid enticingly across his belly.
"Ah, Mary," he said with a gasp, his head arching back against the pillow, his eyes squeezing shut. "You're good."
Suddenly, that wonderful moist warmth left him and he felt her weight shift upward. He opened his eyes and lifted his head to look at her. "Why did you stop?"
She rested her chin on his chest, her fine dark eyes sparkling up at him, and he was struck again by what a handsome woman she was. She was older than he by at least five years. A lifetime spent in the bush had darkened her skin and sharpened her features and etched fine fans around her eyes. But her bone structure was good, and there was strength and character in every line.
He watched her smile. "I don't see any point in startin' somethin' again when we won't be able to finish it," she said.
"Hell, woman; you already started it." He ran his hands down her bare back to cup her buttocks as he lifted his hips. "And why won't we be able to finish it?"
"Oh no you don't." She slid sideways to lie naked beside him. "You seem to be forgettin' that the reason you came into town in the first place was to meet your new governess."
He grunted, rolling onto his hip so that they lay face-to-face, breast to chest. "I haven't forgotten. But I haven't heard the mail cart come through town yet." He took her mouth in a long, hot, sucking kiss. "Have you?"
She laughed into his mouth. "I don't think we'd have heard it if Saint Peter had blown his trumpet and called all the souls to Judgment Day."
"Aw, come on now. We weren't making that much noise, were we?" He traced her lips with his tongue. "Then again," he said softly, moving on to nibble at her neck. "Maybe we were."
She rolled onto her back and bracketed his cheeks with her hands, guiding his head lower. Mary wasn't the least bit shy about letting a man know what he could do to please her. "Besides," she said, lifting her chin, "what you plannin' on doin'? Pullin' on your boots and trousers as you run down the hill to meet the cart when you do hear it comin'? That oughta impress the new governess, all right."
O'Reilly let his nibbles ease down Mary's collarbone to her small, firm breasts and heard her sigh. "That's assuming this Miss Amanda Davenport is even on the cart," he said. "The last governess Hetty was supposed to be sending chickened out before she even left Adelaide."
"What's this one like? Did your sister say?"
"Nah." He swirled his tongue around one of Mary's dusky nipples and watched it harden. "Her message just told me the woman's name and when to expect her. Which means she's probably some dried-up, fifty-year-old spinster who's as rigid and unyielding as her whalebone stays. I just hope to God she's not another one of those damned English gentlewomen Hetty loves."
"I feel sorry for governesses."
Something in Mary's voice made him glance up at her. "Why?"
"Their lives are so narrow. So ... empty."
O'Reilly shrugged. "I've always thought people make and miss their own opportunities in life." He brought his hand up to cup her breast.
"You need to find someone who will stay, Patrick. Your children need a woman who's around long enough that they can learn to trust hermaybe even develop some affection for her. Especially the girls. I know you spend as much time with them as you can, and you're a wonderful father, but ..." She paused. "You really ought to think about marrying again."
He went utterly still. If it'd been any other woman talking, he'd have suspected her of angling for a proposal. But he knew Mary, he knew the names of at least two other men who spent time in Mary's bed, and he knew she had no intention of marrying any of them. He began moving his hand again, slowly caressing her breast. "I still have a wife, remember?"
"When it comes to wives, it's the legalities that count, I'm afraid."
She rolled onto her side again to look at him. "You could always divorce Katherine for adultery."
He flopped back on the pillow, one bent arm coming up to shade his eyes. "Oh, that would be lovely. I stand up in court and call my children's mother a whore."
Mary rested one hand on his chest. "Not a whore, exactly. How about a wandering wife?"
"Huh." He closed his hand over hers and swiveled his head to meet her gaze squarely. "Why don't you remarry? George has been dead four years now."
She scooted close enough to rest her head on his shoulder. "No one can ever replace George; you know that. Not in my heart." He heard a smile creep into her voice. "In my bed is a different matter."
He laughed softly and tightened his arm around her shoulders. "You know, Mary; that's what I like about you. You've got to be the most forthright, honest woman I've ever met. A man always knows exactly where he stands with you. What you want."
She let out a huff and skimmed her fingertips over his lower belly, smiling at the inevitable reaction she aroused. "You like me because we both want basically the same thing from each other. You want your lovin' fun and easy, and you know I'm not lookin' for complications any more than you are."
"I like you for a lot more than that, Mary, and you know it."
She twisted her head to look at him again. "Yes. I know it. And you're a good friend, Patrick O'Reilly."
He framed her face with his thumb and fingers. "Then you ought to know I have no intention of ever getting legally tangled up with another woman. One mistake like that was enough."
"We all make mistakes when we're young."
He sat up. "Bloody hell, woman. Why are you so anxious to marry me off?"
She sat up beside him. "Because I don't think you're really happy."
He stared into her wise woman's eyes, horrified to realize she saw that deeply into him. Reaching out, he pulled her onto his lap. "Hell, Mary. Why should I be happy? I've got a thousand square miles of scrub ready to dry up and blow away in this damn drought. I've got a good hundred head of sheep dying every week, and in another month I'll probably be losing that many every day."
"And if it rains tomorrow and the creeks run again and the grass grows tall and sweet, would you be happy then, Patrick?"
They faced each other. "Are you happy, Mary? Really happy?"
She rolled away to pluck his pants off the floor and throw them at him. "Go meet your governess."
Amanda trudged up the dry, rutted track, her high-topped shoes kicking up little eddies of red dust as she walked. Her arms ached from the strain of carrying her writing desk, but it had been her mother's and she hadn't wanted to leave it with her other things in the broken-down cart that had been forced to stop at the blacksmith's shop on the edge of town.
Breathing heavily, she topped a small rise, then paused, conscious of an inner spasm of dismay as she gazed out over the township of Brinkman. According to the driver of the cart that had brought her here, Brinkman had been founded in the late 1850s; yet the settlement was still unbelievably raw. Constructed mainly of crudely cut sandstone blocks or upright saplings, it was not so much a town as a haphazard scattering of hovels flung amid the red rocks and dry scrub of the Flinders Ranges. Apart from the blacksmith's shop and the buildings of the copper mining company that had given the town birth, she could see only a squat store, a handful of cottages with bark or thatched roofs, and a one-story stone hotel with a weathered sign proclaiming "Brinkman Inn, Ichabod Hornbottom, Proprietor."
Amanda walked on, puzzled. Beneath the harsh glare of the winter sun, the town seemed deserted. A team of bullocks hitched to a loaded wagon stood in front of the store, but it was a crude equipage, hardly the sort one would expect the brother of Mrs. Radwith to drive. Flies buzzed in the still air. As Amanda approached, one of the bullocks flicked its tail and shook its head, rattling the yoke, before subsiding back into somnolence.
There was no one here to meet her.
She blinked back a ridiculous urge to burst into tears. As the motherless only child of a scholar, Amanda had been alone most of her life. But she didn't think she had ever felt as alone as she did at this moment, standing in the deserted street of this strange town on the edge of nowhere.
Her entire body felt sore and unutterably weary after countless days of being thrown around on the hard seat of the cart as it rattled over a series of impossibly primitive tracks. Fine dust filmed her skin and clothing, and it had been so long since she'd been able to bathe properly that she was embarrassingly convinced that she smelled.
An icy breeze kicked up, swirling the dust around her. The bright sunlight stung her eyes, and she started thankfully toward the slice of deep shade offered by the veranda of the hotel across the street. As she climbed the high step to the stone flagging, a chorus of ribald cheers and hearty male laughter erupted through the only one of the hotel's two doors that stood partially ajar. She hesitated, then pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The sharp scent of cheap alcohol pinched her nostrils. Through a haze of cigar and pipe smoke she could see a rough bar supporting some half a dozen men in red or plaid flannel shirts and rugged trousers. As Amanda's narrow-heeled shoes clicked over the bare floor, voices stopped in midsentence. Heads pivoted. Glass-filled hands arrested their progress toward open mouths. The atmosphere in the small, airless room fairly crackled with mingling shock and masculine outrage.
Conscious of having unwittingly committed a severe social solecism, Amanda took a step back over the threshold. But she didn't retreat any farther. "Pardon me for disturbing you, gentlemen," she said, her precise, Oxford-bred vowels sounding terribly out of place in this rough bush bar. "I am looking for a Mr. Patrick O'Reilly."
Half a dozen pairs of squinting eyes stared at her. Just when Amanda had decided that no one was going to answer her, a thin, stooped man with a graying fringe of hair stepped out from behind the bar. "O'Reilly ain't here," the man said, shifting a wad of tobacco from one sun-darkened, whiskered jaw to the other as he looked her up and down. "You that new governess he's been expectin'?"
"Yes." Amanda watched the old man purse his lips to let loose a stream of golden-brown tobacco juice that landed with a sickening, malodorous plop inside the brass cuspidor on the floor. She wrinkled her nose. It was impossible to imagine any brother of Mrs. Radwith frequenting this crude establishment, but she asked anyway. "About Mr. O'Reilly ..."
"He was here for a wet one a bit ago," said one of the men near the bar. "He's probably off with Mary now."
A couple of the men exchanged grins. Someone tittered, and someone else muttered, "Now that's the kind of wet one I need." Everyone laughed except for Amanda.
"Mary?" repeated Amanda.
"Mary McCarthy," explained the grizzly old man with the wad of chewing tobacco. "The widow what owns the shop."
"Thank you." Amanda turned to stare at the squat stone building across the road. Her gaze fell on the bullock-drawn wagon she had noticed earlier, and for the first time, it occurred to her that this rough equipage might actually belong to Mr. O'Reilly. Her already depressed spirits sagging even lower, Amanda crossed the dusty track to push open the shop door.
She found herself in a long, narrow room crowded with big bins sporting hand-printed labels proclaiming their contents. Flour. Oatmeal. Rice. Sago. Barley. Sugar. Shelves of groceries and dry goods climbed the entire height of three walls, while through the door at the back she could see a storeroom filled with bags of bulkier itemspotatoes and onions, jumbled together with caskets of nails and drums of kerosene and enormous wheels of wire and stout hemp.
There were two long wooden counters running along opposite sides of the front room, and against one of these lounged a tall, dark-haired boy, all arms and legs and bony shoulders. He stood hunched over an accounts book and seemed oblivious to Amanda's presence until she cleared her throat and said, "Excuse me? I'm looking for Mr. O'Reilly."
The boy's head came up, showing her a fierce, closed expression. "He ain't here."
"I was told he was with a Mrs. Mary McCarthy. Is she"
"Who said it?" the boy demanded, sudden, angry color flooding his face. "And what else did they say about my mother?"
"Nothing," said Amanda quickly, backing up. "Nothing at all. Thank you." She swung about, shifting the weight of her writing desk to her other arm as she went to stand in the lee of the shop's meager veranda and wonder what she was supposed to do next.
A movement at the edge of the settlement drew her attention. Squinting against the bright sunlight, she realized that a man had appeared on the stoop of a sandstone cottage that stood in the shadow of a dusty red bluff. Digging his fists into the small of his back, he stretched and yawned, his long, beautiful body curving into a graceful arc, his unbuttoned waistcoat and blue serge shirt hanging open to reveal a lean-muscled expanse of naked, sun-bronzed masculine flesh.
Straightening, he lifted his hat to catch the chin strap, and the stark Australian sun glanced on golden hair bleached every shade from ochre to the color of ripe wheat. He settled the hat back on his head, stretched again, then turned as a woman appeared in the open doorway behind him. A woman with long dark hair that tumbled unbound and rumpled about her shoulders, as if she had only just come from her bed.
As Amanda watched, the man caught the woman around the back of the neck with the crook of his elbow and pulled her to him. Even at this distance, Amanda could hear the woman's delighted laugh, see her fingers splay, then clench at the man's shoulders as he bent his head and covered the woman's mouth with his own. He kissed her long and hard, his hands roving familiarly over her body. Unable to tear her gaze away, Amanda watched, conscious of an uncomfortable heat that was part shock, part a desperate, unnamed longing that flooded through her.
Releasing the woman with a familiar pat to her posterior, the man hopped off the stoop to land lightly, easily, in the barren yard, his open shirt flapping freely about his lean hips. Tucking his chin against his chest, he went to work on the buttons as he strolled down the hill.
Amanda watched the man come at her. She assured herself that this could not be Mr. Patrick O'Reilly. He was too young and attractive, too casually sensual, too Australian. But he kept coming. Just short of the shop where Amanda waited in the shadows, he stopped and tucked his shirttails into white moleskin trousers so well worn that the cloth looked almost like supple leather. A very large, lethal-looking knife hung in a sheath strapped to one hip.
A sudden gust of wind caught at Amanda's skirts, rustling the stiff fustian and starched petticoats and billowing them out around her. The man paused with his hand still stuffed halfway down the waistband of his trousers. His head fell back and a pair of startlingly blue eyes stared at her from beneath straight, dark brows. She heard him mutter something beneath his breath, something that sounded suspiciously like "shit."
He yanked his hand from his waistband and doffed his hat. "Miss Davenport?"
Amanda's voice seemed to have stopped working. All she could do was nod.
A beguiling set of dimples appeared in his lean, tanned cheeks as he flashed her a devil's grin. "G'day," he said. "Welcome to the Flinders."