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A Father in the Making

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«A Father in the Making» - Элли Блейк

Nate Lyster and Mia Verbeek are in perfect agreement–letting someone new into your life is much too risky. Mom to four kids, Mia can't let just anyone get close, while wandering cowboy Nate learned young that trusting another means chancing heartbreak.But when a fire turns Mia's life upside down, Nate is the only one who can get through to her traumatized son. Nate fits into Mia's family perfectly, and they soon realize that a loving family is what they both want. Can they put the hurts of their pasts behind them…for a chance at a perfect love?
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“Why don’t you put me out of my misery and just tell me what I can do for you?”

“Why don’t you put me out of my misery and just tell me what I can do for you?”

He swallowed, shifting his weight until it was evenly distributed on both shiny new riding boots. “Ms. Somervale, my name is Ryan. Ryan Gasper. I am Will Gasper’s brother. I know it is a long time coming, but I have come in response to your letter.”

Laura watched in stunned silence as in seeming slow motion he then pulled a crumpled piece of lavender notepaper from the pocket over his heart and held it toward her.

“I have come to find out if what you wrote in your letter is true. Are you the mother of Will’s child?”

Ryan Gasper, Laura repeated in her mind. Wannabe cowboy, city gent, heaven-in-a-pair-of-blue-jeans is Ryan Gasper!

“Ms. Somervale, I’m not here to cause you or your…family any trouble. I’ve come because…”

Why had he come? To find the child she had written about in her letter to his parents. Absolutely. But after that, he was running on gut instinct alone.

Dear Reader,

If you drive not so very far north of Melbourne, braving congested traffic and suburbia as far as the eye can see, you will eventually find yourself on a long winding road leading you to a whole new world.

Think wombat holes hidden in tall grass, fallen logs that double as homes to families of wild rabbits and yabby-filled dams, which are the haunts of families of gray kangaroos. From abundant hilltop farms, panoramic views reveal the smudge of the city skyline to the south, tracts of clear-cut green pastures to the west, distant eucalypt-scattered hills to the east and sweeping, burnt umber sunsets the likes of which you have never seen….

And though in my many visits to the region I have never met a Laura Somervale—singing her heart out to an audience of magpies as she hangs the washing on her wonky old clothesline—or seen such a magnificent property as Kardinyarr, nor a town quite like quirky Tandarah, the great Australian Outback hovering on the very edge of Melbourne offers inspiration enough to make them seem entirely possible!

Happy reading,

Ally

www.allyblake.com

A Father in the Making

Ally Blake



www.millsandboon.co.uk

Having once been a professional cheerleader, Ally Blake’s motto is “Smile and the world smiles with you.” One way to make Ally smile is by sending her on holidays, especially to locations that inspire her writing. New York and Italy are by far her favorite destinations. Other things that make her smile are the gracious city of Melbourne, where she now lives, the gritty Collingwood football team and her gorgeous husband, Mark.

Reading romance novels was a smile-worthy pursuit from long back, so with such valuable preparation already behind her, she wrote and sold her first book. Her career as a writer also gives her a perfectly reasonable excuse to indulge in her stationery addiction. That alone is enough to keep her grinning every day!

Ally would love for you to visit her at her Web site www.allyblake.com

Books by Ally Blake

HARLEQUIN ROMANCE®

3782—THE WEDDING WISH

3802—MARRIAGE MATERIAL

3830—MARRIAGE MAKE-OVER

3870—THE SHOCK ENGAGEMENT (part of Office Gossip trilogy)

To my friend Mel, for a trillion different reasons, with an extra hug thrown in for the loan of the gorgeous view from the corner of her desk way back at the beginning of all of this.

CONTENTS

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ONE

RYAN pulled off the winding country road onto a long gravel driveway and slowed his car to an idle. A weathered wooden sign at the turn read Kardinyarr. He looked to the return address on the letter laid flat on the passenger seat of his car. Youthful handwriting on lavender stationery, dappled with fairies, smudged with tears, scrunched into a ball, and flattened again, told him that this was the place. Kardinyarr was where he hoped against hope to find her.

Though she had written the letter several years earlier, Ryan had only stumbled upon it that week, and it was all he had to go on.

He gunned the engine, his tyres skipping and jumping over the uneven dirt track. He slowed again as a family of grey kangaroos bounced at the same pace along the other side of the neat wire fence, before leaping onto the road, hopping in front of his car, and bounding up the rise to his left and disappearing over the other side of the hill.

‘Well, that’s not something you see every day,’ he said.

Ryan ignored the ‘Private Road’ sign at the first gate and drove up the hill. At the fork in the drive he pulled left, coming to stop under a sprawling banksia tree in the front yard of a rambling brick home.

The CD of a keynote speech he had given at a recent economic summit in London, an addendum to a university-level economics textbook he was in the final stages of editing, came to a sharp halt as he switched off the car engine. His mind otherwise engaged, he had barely heard a word of the familiar oration on the two-hour drive from Melbourne, but the deep well of silence that now filled the car was deafening.

So this was Kardinyarr House; the last home his little brother had known. Backlit by the light of the setting sun, proudly situated atop its windy hill, it was just as Will had described it all those years before. A black corrugated roof and matching shutters framed the clinker brick. A neat veranda laced with black wrought-iron trim hugged the house, rendering a pretty finish to the sturdy structure.

Ryan’s recent hasty research told him it had been left vacant in the years since Will’s passing, the foreign owners of the property keeping the acreage as an investment rather than an operating farm. As such, Ryan had expected scattered leaves, debris on the veranda, and obvious decay. However, the place seemed neat and tidy. Maintained. Welcoming.

Will had e-mailed the family when he had first arrived at Kardinyarr.

There is no place like it. The colour, the light. The fresh air gets under your skin.

Ryan opened the car door and took in a deep breath of clean country air. Will had been right. There was nothing quite like the mix of scents bombarding him—sweet pollens, swirling dust, and hazy country heat that seemed to have a scent all of its own. The acrid smell of car fumes that he’d left behind in Melbourne faded to a memory.

‘Okay, Will,’ Ryan said aloud. ‘It’s charming here. I get it. But so charming as to shoulder out all other options in your life?’ Ryan shook his head.

Kardinyarr was meant to have been a brief stop on Will’s winter backpacking trek around the country. But from the chain of information Ryan had uncovered in the last few days he believed that if his brother had not been killed, he might never have left at all. All because of the girl in the crumpled lavender letter.

Ryan grabbed the offending document, folded it carefully, and placed it in the top pocket of his shirt. He hopped out of the car, instinct causing him to lock it. A wry smile tugged at his mouth. He hadn’t seen another living soul for five kilometres, bar the kangaroos and a half-dozen cattle standing under the shade of a wide-branched gum. You can take the boy out of the city…

The pleasant breeze tickling at his hair dropped suddenly, and he heard a noise coming from the other branch of the gravel drive. Opera. It had the sharp scratchy timbre of a record, and in the now still air it carried past him and beyond, echoing in the gullies either side of the hilltop. He swished a buzzing fly from his face and looked to the broken wooden gate that had long since been swallowed by lily pillies, climbing vines, and a lush Japanese maple.

On the other side of that gate he hoped to find the woman who had written that long-ago, tear-smudged letter. Perhaps she could tell him why his infuriating little brother had been offered the world, and refused it.

Laura’s head bounced up and down in time with the music.

She loved days like these: a little cloud cover to take the edge off the summer heat, but not enough to stop the differentiation of light and shadow playing across the Kardinyarr hills. Once she had hung the washing, and finished dinner, she had a slot in her evening for a too hot bubble bath. The very thought had her happy as a kookaburra!

The record player was turned up loud enough to create a hanging-out-the-washing soundtrack. She hummed along with the orchestra and sang aloud in makeshift Italian to the magpies lined up on her roof gutters, tragic operatic hand movements and breast-thumping included. Okay, so she was no Pavarotti, but what did the magpies know?

Enough, it seemed, as soon they skedaddled, flying off in muddled formation to land in a gum tree further along the hill. ‘Come on guys!’ she shouted. ‘You’ll usually put up with a great deal when you know there’s honeyed bread in it for you!’

The song finished, another began, and Laura went back to her chore.

She grabbed a heavy white cotton sheet and lobbed it over the clothes-line, thinking she would teach them a lesson. ‘No honey on your bread today. So there!’

Ryan pushed his hands deep into his jeans pockets as he walked up the gravel drive.

Once, Will had e-mailed their sister, Sam.

I have never felt so alive. You guys have to come out here. You have to come and see what I mean. Only then will you understand why I plan to stay.

But they hadn’t come. They had all been too busy. His sister Jen as first violin of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Sam with her young family and her self-funded quilting magazine, with its monthly worldwide readership in hundreds of thousands. And his parents, wildlife documentary film-makers, who spent all their time in faraway jungles.

Within a fortnight of that e-mail having been sent, Will had been buried back in their home town of Melbourne. It had been a drizzly winter’s day, with a hundred people watching over him—or so Ryan had later been told.

Past the broken wooden gate and atop the short rise, a small transformed worker’s cottage came into view. Multi-coloured flowers bordered the full-length portico, trying desperately to cling to life in the dry conditions. A water tank sat rust-free against the near wall. The fence was neat and the grass was short, but in need of rain. And through the white sheets flapping on the old-fashioned circular clothesline, Ryan caught sight of an ambiguous female form. Laura Somervale.

What would she be like, the woman for whom Will had given up an Oxford scholarship? Would she be quiet and bookish? Would she be artistic and soulful? Or would she simply be a girl? A country girl who had caught the eye of a lonely, mixed-up, directionless city boy? Would life have worn her down, or would there still be a glimmer of the girl with the fairy stationery? What sort of woman could make a Gasper turn his back on all that?

Some kind of woman, Ryan thought sardonically, for here she was, doing it again. She had drawn him out of his perfectly civilised world of five-star hotels and nightly political debate over cocktails, and into her world of dirt and heat and flies, with a page of tear-smudged words written many years before.

The circular clothesline turned and Ryan glimpsed a flash of sun-kissed auburn curls.

She’s adorable. And sweet. She makes me laugh. She makes me feel ten feet tall. This is her home, and, as such, it feels like my home too.

A wry smile crossed Ryan’s mouth. Will must have known exactly the response his realist big brother would have given to such poetic musings; which was why he had never let Ryan in on the exact nature of his feelings about the girl he’d met at Kardinyarr. Will had saved the deep and meaningful outpourings for their sister.

‘Adorable’ Ryan didn’t need. Answers. Information. Reason. Those things he could tie off in a neat, contained system, once he’d closed the page on the question still buzzing in the back of his mind after all this time. Why here, Will? Why?

As Ryan neared, he realised that the woman behind the flapping white sheet was singing…almost. Occasionally the notes coming from her and the notes coming from the speakers matched, but due more to random luck than skill. It was unabashed, full-tilt, and indescribably terrible.

He slowed. Perhaps he ought to have called first. Meeting her like this would be like talking to someone with parsley caught in their teeth. Did you mention the fact and embarrass them? Or ignore it and pretend it wasn’t there? As Ryan tussled with his decision, the woman pulled herself around the heavy damp sheet until she was revealed fully to him, and he couldn’t have switched direction if a bushfire had sprung up between them.

Auburn curls twirled long and thick down her back, tied into a low loose ponytail with what looked like a pink shoelace. The setting sun shone straight through the cotton of her simple floral sundress, highlighting a long-limbed, youthful figure hidden beneath.

The wind picked up, whipping from out of the gully at the rear of the property and across the hilltop. It was enough to knock Ryan sideways, but the woman’s feet remained steadfastly planted as she reached up to peg a pillowcase to the line. The wind blew about her knees, the thin fabric of her dress clinging to her. Her curling ponytail flapped in a horizontal line before sinking into a thick wave down her back when the wind settled.

She bent down to gather another sheet, one bare foot kicking out behind her for balance. As she came back upright she returned to full voice, head thrown back, hips swaying as the music reached a blazing crescendo.

‘Now, how do you like that, Maggie?’ she called out, turning on the spot, arms outstretched, her dress spinning high revealing a pair of smooth, tanned legs.

This was Laura Somervale? This vivacious creature was brooding Will’s mystery dream girl? This happy-go-lucky woman had written words of honest, tear-drenched pain and longing to a family she had never met?

It was suddenly too much. What had he been thinking of, jumping in the car with nothing more than an overnight bag and cannon-balling out to the middle of nowhere to find her? He should have used her example and written.

He stepped backwards, but the crunch of his riding boots on the gravelly earth sounded loud in the now still air. Like a hiker who had stumbled upon a scorpion, Ryan stopped still with one foot cocked against the ground.

The woman spun from the hips and stared him down with eyes the colour of the creamy-gold grass at her feet. The afternoon sun shone into her face, casting a glow over her naturally bronzed skin. And, since his breath had long since escaped his lungs, Ryan said nothing as he returned her silent stare.

Laura held up a hand to shield her eyes from the setting sun as she looked over the stranger who had wandered unexpectedly onto her small patch of the world.

All thoughts of Pavarotti and too hot bubble baths slipped from her mind to make way for a pleasing combination of tight, dark curls and eyes as blue as the wide-open sky above. The stranger’s shoulders were broad enough to carry a bale of hay, his long legs were encased in taut new denim, and strong muscled forearms appeared below the rolled-up arms of a new chambray shirt. There was even something faintly familiar about his steady blue gaze but, considering all the other visual enticements on offer, she couldn’t put her finger on it. Either way, the gent was so nicely put together he could have been a poster boy for country living.

But parked under the banksia tree in front of big, beautiful, empty Kardinyarr House next door, was the gent’s car. She had been singing so loud she hadn’t even heard it arrive. The car was black, sporty and expensive, and covered in fresh dust. The dust made her smile. No matter that he wore the local uniform, and wore it extremely well, this guy was no local. Clothes too new. Car too flash. Haircut too neat. He had city boy written all over him. Laura was a born and bred country girl, so it was unlikely this guy had ever meandered through her life before.

So who is he? she wondered. Some lost tourist looking for directions? Or a strip-o-gram organised by Jill, her friend and resident busybody? Ha! If only!

Nah, he’s a salesman, she decided. In that flash car, with those trying-to-look-like-a-cowboy-clothes, he was equipped to charm his way into selling something to somebody. She then noticed the length of the stranger’s shadow. Whatever he was selling, the sooner he was gone the better. The tiny window she had later in her day, time in which to soak in that too hot bubble bath, relax, maybe even read a chapter of the thriller that had been collecting dust on her bedside table, was slipping away the longer she dilly-dallied.

‘Hello, there,’ she singsonged.

He gave her a short nod, tipping his hand to an imaginary hat as he did so. Ooh, too smooth.

‘Am I interrupting you?’ he asked. His voice fitted the rest of him to perfection. Persuasive, elegant, and deep as the gully slipping away behind him.

‘It’s probably best you have,’ she answered. ‘Or I would never have had all this washing on the line before the sun sets.’ Hint, hint. I’m a busy woman with no time for salesmen, devastatingly handsome or otherwise…

‘You weren’t talking to someone?’ he asked, missing her point as he looked past her to find the elusive Maggie.

Her grin turned to a grimace. To be caught singing was one thing. To be caught talking to the birds was quite another. Living atop her beloved hill, she had been without daily adult contact for far too long. ‘Only the magpies,’ she admitted with a shrug, but naturally they had not remained in sight to prove her tale.

His deep blue eyes crinkled at the edges, hinting that a decent smile played thereabouts on occasion, but no smile creased his handsome face just yet. ‘Do they talk back?’

‘Not in so many words,’ she said. ‘But we have an understanding. They listen to me sing and I thank them with food. Honeyed bread is their culinary preference.’

‘Ah, so you buy their affection?’

‘It seems to be the only way I can get any nowadays.’ Oh, Laura, did you seriously just say that? ‘Any audience willing to listen to me sing—Puccini in particular,’ she qualified. ‘Not affection. I get plenty of affection without having to pay for it.’

Just shoot me where I stand, please, she begged anyone listening in to her thoughts. The intent gleam in the stranger’s intense blue eyes had her gabbling. Or maybe it was the fact that most of the guys around those parts were wizened, bow-legged, and married, and this one seemed to be a very nice combination of anything but. Then again, perhaps it was the still distant possibility that the guy was a strip-o-gram that had her in a flap. What the heck? she thought. I have the music going if he has the moves!

Ryan was speechless. An in-demand public speaker, he modified the thinking of powerful people every day: politicians, special-interest groups, people a lot bigger and scarier than this auburn-haired spitfire.

Sweet? This woman was a heck of a lot more interesting than plain old sweet. Her eyes told the tale before she even opened her mouth—she was direct, sassy, and visibly attentive. But, then again, perhaps this wasn’t Laura Somervale. Absurdly, Ryan’s pulse quickened at the theory that perhaps this was a complete stranger, some glorious, undiscovered creature he had chanced upon all on his own.

And then he remembered the inflammatory letter burning a hole in his shirt pocket. Oh, this was she. This creature with her bare feet and tumbling curls was the girl who had spilled her broken heart onto girlish lavender paper. Now who’s being a poet? Come on, smart guy, stop delaying the inevitable and fess up, his conscience implored. Just tell her who you are and what you know.

The woman’s feet caught up with her hips as she turned fully to face him, and he saw that her spare hand gripped a set of little girl’s pink overalls.

The words in the lavender letter, which until that moment had seemed somehow unreal, crystallised in that moment. A little girl. Ryan’s heart thundered so hard his ears rang from the blood-rush. She had a little girl.

‘So, now that you have been witness to me embarrassing myself on several levels,’ the woman said, ‘I’m sure you can find it in yourself to tell me what you’re doing here.’

‘I came by way of Tandarah,’ he said, evading the question, needing the extra time to control his breathing again. ‘The woman who runs the Upper Gum Tree Hotel sent me here.’

Suddenly the strip-o-gram fantasy was not nearly so ridiculous after all. Laura felt her cheeks warm. She even had to clear her throat. ‘Jill Tucker?’ she said. ‘Short silver hair? Mischievous gleam in the eye?’

The man nodded. ‘She sent me up here as I’m looking for Laura Somervale.’

Well, if he was a salesman he was exceedingly customer-specific. Laura dropped the hand shielding her eyes long enough to swish it about, presenting herself to him like a prize on a game show. ‘Well, now you’ve found me what are you going to do with me?’

When he didn’t answer straight away, simply watching her with that relentless, memorable blue gaze, Laura did as she was wont to do when faced with an unsettling silence. She stumbled in with both feet a-tapping.

‘Have I won the Lotto?’ she asked. When he still didn’t flinch, she blundered on. ‘No? Well, I don’t need aluminium siding on the house, I only buy the local weekly newspaper, and I am perfectly happy with my long-distance phone plan—especially since everyone I know lives hereabouts.’

His slow blink proved he was selling none of the above. But a curious smile kicked at the corner of the wannabe-cowboy’s lips. Just as she’d expected, it was an engaging smile, a tempting smile, and a smile that gave her heart-rate an entirely satisfying kick.

Laura changed her mind about the salesman angle and decided her run of bad luck had ended and God was offering her one big, juicy payback in the form of a dashing man. Instruction sheet attached—feed three square meals a day, does have expensive tastes, but likes to give back rubs and draw too hot bubble baths three times per week.

‘Now, this has been a fun way to spend the last few minutes,’ she said, ‘but why don’t you put me out of my misery and just tell me what I can do for you?’

He swallowed, shifting his weight until it was evenly distributed on both shiny new riding boots. ‘Ms Somervale, my name is Ryan. Ryan Gasper. I am Will Gasper’s brother. I know it’s been a long time coming, but I have come in response to your letter.’

Laura watched in stunned silence as in seeming slow motion he pulled a crumpled piece of lavender notepaper from the pocket over his heart and held it towards her.

‘I have come to find out if what you wrote in your letter is true. Are you the mother of Will’s child?’

Ryan Gasper, Laura repeated in her mind. Wannabe cowboy, city gent, heaven-in-a-pair-of-blue-jeans is Ryan Gasper!

Her mind went over all fuzzy, as her memories skipped and tumbled back through the years to the last time that name had been foremost in her mind…

She stood, sheltered, hidden by a weeping willow, a good twenty metres behind the congregation at the edge of the cemetery, feeling like Alice gone through the looking glass.

In her pale pink sundress and her borrowed tweed coat, her pink headband holding back her mass of curls, which had gone wild in the drizzly Melbourne weather, she felt out of her depth, like a kid playing dress-up, hoping the adults wouldn’t notice she didn’t really belong.

The hundred-odd people huddled together against the cold were a who’s who of the Australian social set. Even she, a girl from the bush, recognised the multitude of television personalities and politicians alike. They were all dressed up in glamorous black, in hats, in designer sunglasses. The only hat Laura had ever owned was a twenty-year-old Akubra of her father’s, bumped and bruised by years of wear while working the land.

Standing apart from the throng, she clutched a letter in her cold hand: a letter laboured over, cried over, written longhand, on stationery she had received a couple of years before on her sixteenth birthday. Fairies danced in the top corner of the page and hid behind toadstools along the bottom rim. She hadn’t really paid attention when writing on it; she had only given in to the burning need to get her despairing words onto paper.

She rested a protective arm across her flat belly. It would not be flat for much longer. Talk between the young mothers in Tandarah came back to her. Stretch marks. Bladder problems. Varicose veins. She was eighteen, for goodness’ sake! How had her life turned so completely in the last two months that she had ended up here?

But what choice did she have? What with both her parents gone, these people were the only family her child would know—this overwhelming, well-to-do, influential, formidable group of people standing watching over the casket of heavy wood that contained their son, their brother.

Through gaps between the sea of black coats, Laura watched as the casket slowly sank into the rain-drenched ground. From nowhere, the disturbing strains of a solo violin wafted over the gloomy scene, and her heart grew so heavy with sorrow she could barely breathe.

Will. Dear, sweet Will. He had been so unassuming. So gentle. So uncomplicated. One would never have guessed that he came from such a family. But in the last few days she had found out the truth of it. She had read the small notices of condolence in every newspaper in the country. Devoured them. Clipped them and kept them in a precious shoebox beneath her bed back home. Somehow it had helped her live outside of herself, outside of the poignant realisation that she was pregnant, and that the father of her unborn child had been killed before he even knew.

Laura made an effort to place as many of the mourners as she could—anything to take her mind off the weight in her heart. The violinist had to be one of the sisters—Jen. The younger of the sisters, Samantha, was very pregnant herself, and married to a television actor. Will’s parents, the elegant couple standing either side of the minister, were award-winning film-makers.

But where was the elusive elder brother? The one Will talked about more than the rest. Ryan. The workaholic perennial wanderer, the oft-published, world-renowned economist who travelled the world at the whim of foreign governments in order to advise them on economic policy. Will’s hero.

The family moved forward, each to throw a blood-red rose atop Will’s coffin, but no young man came forward with Will’s sisters and parents. As far as Laura could tell, illustrious big-brother Ryan was not there.

She had come this far, catching a bus, a train and a tram, alone, to get there, to be present when her young friend was lowered into the ground. Ryan Gasper had the means, the money, and the time. How could a man not move heaven and earth to be at his own brother’s funeral? And how could Laura bring her only child into a family such as that? So scattered. So civilised. So impenetrable.

Laura looked to the letter in her hand, now crunched into a tight ball in her shaking palm. She smoothed it out again and slipped it deep into the pocket of her borrowed coat. She would post the letter on the way back to Tandarah, and then it would be up to them to make the next move.

‘Until then,’ she whispered, her words forming a cloud of steam in the chill winter air. ‘I think it’s fair to say it’s just you and me, possum.’

Eighteen years old, and all alone in the world bar the tiny speck of life inside of her, Laura turned and walked away without looking back…

Ryan watched Laura’s warm, open face slowly crumble and turn paper-white. She didn’t move, didn’t blink, and didn’t even seem to notice when the pink overalls left her limp hand and fluttered to the dusty ground.

‘You’re Will’s brother?’ she whispered, her previously chirpy voice now thin and faraway. Wisps of dappled hair had fallen from their restraint and curled across her forehead. Without all the bluster and noise she suddenly looked very frail. Delicate. And terribly young. He took a step her way, for fear she might swoon.

‘Ms Somervale?’

She made no move, as though she had not heard him.

‘Laura? Are you all right?’

When she swallowed, her lips trembled. Then her haunted gaze locked in on the letter in his still outstretched hand. Her hand flew to her mouth and her teeth clamped down on the length of her index finger. Ryan knew not if she was stopping herself from crying out or biting down hard to cover up a deeper pain elsewhere inside of her. And then, just when Ryan was about to reach out and gather her against him—anything to stop the unnerving trembling that he had caused—she did the incredible: she managed to muster up a smile.

‘You’re Will’s brother,’ she repeated, and this time it was a shaky statement, not a question. ‘Ryan. The economist, right? I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you. Will never did carry pictures of any of you. And you weren’t at his funeral.’

Did that mean she had been? He’d had no idea. His family must not have either. Astonishing. She had been in their midst all those years before, and none of them had known. ‘Ms Somervale, I’m not here to cause you or your…family any trouble. I’ve come because…’

Why had he come? To find the child she had written to the Gaspers about in her letter? Absolutely. But after that he was running on gut instinct alone.

He reached down slowly, so as not to startle her, and picked up the pink overalls. ‘I need to know, Ms Somervale.’ He handed them back to her and saw understanding dawn upon her face.

She took a great breath, as though gathering her scattered trains of thought, nodded, and her bottomless golden eyes fluttered back up to meet his. ‘The Upper Gum Tree,’ she said, coming out of some sort of trance. ‘The hotel in town where you met Jill Tucker. Six o’clock tonight.’

Before he even had the chance to ask her what made the Upper Gum Tree at six o’clock so special, a voice called out from deep within the cottage.

‘Mu-u-um!’

‘Coming, possum!’ she called back, her flashing eyes begging that he keep his attention on her and nowhere else. But it was a hopeless demand as suddenly the owner of the pink overalls and the shouting voice came skipping out of the cottage.

The crackling record, the whisper of the breeze, even the vibrant vision of a barefoot Laura Somervale slipped away as every ounce of Ryan’s being focused on the little girl. She had Laura’s oval face, healthy glow, and dishevelled curls. But the Gasper traits were unmistakable. The intelligent blue eyes. The square jaw. Even the way she bit at the inner corner of her mouth was a habit his sisters had never overcome.

There was no longer any doubt in Ryan’s mind. Laura Somervale had given life to his brother’s child.

The little girl was holding a crayon drawing in her hand, and she stopped short when she saw that her mother was not alone. ‘Mum?’ This time her voice was not so resolute.

Laura’s glance flicked towards the little girl, her voice neutral. ‘Go back inside, Chloe.’

Chloe. Ryan spun the name around his mind several times. Chloe Gasper. No, surely not. Chloe Somervale.

‘Get Chimp’s dinner ready. I won’t be long. Okay?’ No matter that she was trying desperately to sound all right, they heard the strain in her voice. Chloe nodded, and looked over at Ryan. He gave her his best effort at a friendly smile, but her face creased into an uncertain frown before she hustled back inside.

‘Please, Mr Gasper,’ Laura said, her own voice firming with each word. ‘Meet me at the Upper Gum Tree Hotel at six tonight. We can talk there.’

And then she turned and walked away, leaving Ryan with little choice but to do as she asked.

Feeling Ryan Gasper’s now staggeringly familiar gaze burning into her back, Laura picked up her washing basket, spun on her numb feet and hurried inside, the smile she had fashioned fast sliding into oblivion.

Will’s brother had come, and he had her letter. No wonder she’d thought she had seen him somewhere before. He didn’t look at all like Will, who had been barely nineteen, lean and lanky, with streaky blond hair when she had known him. But the something that had tugged at her subconscious was the fact that his deep, dark eyes were as vividly blue as her own daughter’s.

In the intervening years since Will’s funeral she had never heard back from his family, reasonably deducing that they either didn’t believe her, wanted nothing to do with her, or simply didn’t care. Truth be told, the more years that went by, the more that suited her just fine. But now here he was. The dashing, determined, older brother Will had yearned to equal, to emulate and, on the flipside, to disoblige as much as humanly possible. The brother who had not even deigned to show up at his funeral.

Laura shook her head to clear the returning fuzz. None of that mattered now. What mattered was that the time had come for Laura to share her darling little girl. He had said he wasn’t there to cause her any trouble. Maybe. Maybe not. If he thought for a second that he could take Chloe away…

Laura’s chest tightened as adrenalin kicked in. No matter how cool and self-assured Ryan Gasper’s voice was, no matter how bewitching his gaze, how tempting his smile, or how Will had worshipped him, she didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him. This was too important. The way she handled this, the way she handled him, would be the most important situation of her life.

‘Mum!’ Chloe called again. She bundled into the room, her strawberry-blonde ringlets pulled back into messy pigtails. ‘Who was that man?’

‘A friend,’ Laura said, taking care how she approached the subject with Chloe. She instinctively chose not to create any sort of preconceived image of him. She had always taught Chloe to make up her own mind about people, not to listen to gossip.

She dumped the basket of wet clothes, with the dusty, dirty overalls splayed across the top, sat on the couch, tugged her daughter onto her lap, and held on tight. Too tight. Thankfully, Chloe didn’t struggle away as she sometimes did when Laura became mushy.

‘Now, what have you got there, possum?’ Laura asked, her voice running on back-up power.

‘I have to draw a picture of my family for school.’ Chloe held out her crayon drawing of a house, a couple of animals, and a trio of people. ‘I have you and me, Chimp and Irmela,’ she said, referring to their pet fox terrier and overweight jersey cow respectively. ‘And Jill is at the front gate. Is that enough?’

It always has been enough until now, Laura thought. ‘I don’t think you’ve missed anybody.’

‘Well, Tammy is putting in all of her cousins. Even the ones who live in Scotland.’ Chloe twisted on her lap to look her in the eye. ‘Do I have any cousins in Scotland?’

Laura opened her mouth to say no, of course she didn’t, but then she thought of the man in the black shiny car. Chloe might very easily have cousins all over the world, for all she knew.

From the moment Laura had posted her letter she had put the shoebox full of old clippings about Will under her bed, and had quite specifically not gone out of her way to hear about the Gasper family. But it seemed the time had come for her to peek at the world outside of her community, to find out about Chloe’s extended family—and she had until six o’clock to figure out how to go about it.

Well, she had until six o’clock to finish the laundry, cook dinner, check Chloe’s homework, finish the pies for the Country Women’s Association meeting that night, and to figure out how she was going to handle the arrival of Ryan Gasper. The too hot bubble bath was so far down the list it dropped and fell away.

Once Chloe was ensconced back at the desk in her bedroom, Laura picked up the phone and dialled the Upper Gum Tree Hotel. When Jill answered the phone she all but blubbed with relief. ‘Jill, it’s Laura. We have a problem. I need you to set aside a table for me, and I need it to be discreet.’

.

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