Authors: Nicola Marsh
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College, #Teen & Young Adult
“No, you won’t.” Mrs Gee actually twisted my ear. Hard.
“Ow.” I rubbed it, much to her amusement. “That’s harassment.”
She winked. “Lucky for you, it’s not of the other kind.”
“Gross,” I muttered, and she laughed out loud.
“Whip that apron off before I do it for you,” she said, her outrageous teasing making me feel like I finally belonged.
“Slave driver,” I said, doing as she said, and following her out the back door onto the bullnose verandah that surrounded the entire homestead.
We headed to the front, where Doreen and Gladys, the housekeeper who kept the homestead clean and the bedrooms stocked, stood near the front door, shading their eyes with their hands to watch the car approach.
“Who picked them up?”
Mrs. Gee smirked. “Bluey.”
“Hope the Yanks appreciate a good bull castration story,” I said, wondering what the politician and his girlfriend thought of the station manager’s bluntness. I’d heard more than my fair share of Bluey’s gory tales including calves stuck during birthing, dissecting snakes to eat their insides and the self-amputation of his toe when it got impaled on barb wire. The American tourists wouldn’t know what hit them.
“Considering Bluey’s love of discussing cattle’s gonads, they will now.” Mrs. Gee straightened as the car stopped not far from us and Bluey hopped out to open the back door.
“Should we break into the Star Spangled Banner now or later?” I muttered.
“Ssh,” she said, shooting me a disapproving glare. “Behave.”
“Yes, Mum.” That softened the tension pinching her mouth as her attention returned to the guests.
A girl stepped out of the car first and my first impression? Yowza.
She wouldn’t last a day out here let alone a month.
Pale skin. Brunette. Big brown eyes that darted around like she expected to be attacked by a rampant freshwater croc at any second. And she wore sandals. Pink, open-toe, strappy things best suited to the city. The color matched her loose dress perfectly, but what was underneath that shapeless thing intrigued me more.
She had curves. Nice ones.
And that’s when her boyfriend got out of the car, giving me a hard dose of reality.
Stop checking out the young American chick. She’s off limits
Doreen stepped forward and shook hands with the dufus. “Nice to meet you, Reid.”
“Likewise.” Reid’s white-toothed smile was more blinding than the sun. “And I’d like you to meet my sister, Jess.”
“Don’t even go there, kid,” Mrs. Gee said under her breath, so softly I wondered if I’d imagined the warning.
“She’s not my type,” I said, managing to sound like I meant it.
As if she had some inbuilt radar homing in on lying pricks, the girl turned her head slightly and her curious gaze locked onto me.
Her eyes widened. Her lips parted. Her cheeks flushed a pink to match her dress.
And my cock twitched.
“Keep your snake in the cage, Jack.” Mrs. Gee gave me a none too gentle shove forward when Doreen beckoned us.
Fuck, what was it about women of any age and their ability to read minds?
The closer I got to the brunette, the more my skin prickled like the time I’d eaten too many kiwi fruit and had an allergic reaction. Maybe I was allergic to cute brunette’s who couldn’t stop staring at me too?
The stupid thing was, the closer we got, the more I wanted to touch her. Tug on her ponytail. Ruffle her cool exterior.
She looked too…
to be out here. Like a delicate exotic orchid against the harsh outback.
Which was plain dumb, because for all I knew she could be a ball breaker.
I shook the politician’s hand when Doreen introduced us, but not much registered beyond the fact the guy was young, probably only a few years older than me, yet the socio-economic gap between us was huge.
“And this is Jess,” Doreen said, her curious gaze swinging between us. “Meet Jack McVeigh, our new chef extraordinaire.”
Did the missus have heatstroke? Because I wasn’t an extraordinary anything, least of all a chef. A half-arsed cook willing to learn and experiment? Maybe.
“Pleased to meet you, Jack.” The moment Jess’s hand touched mine I wanted to yank back. Her hand was cool despite the late afternoon heat, but she somehow managed to send a sizzle up my arm.
It should’ve jumpstarted my brain and flashed huge warning signals like ‘stay the fuck away.’ Instead, I deliberately held onto her hand a tad longer than polite, wanting to see if I could rattle her as much as she’d rattled me.
Her gaze locked on mine and what I saw blew my mind.
Interest. Tempered with a healthy dose of curiosity and fear.
Well, that made two of us, because the kind of instant attraction I’d just experienced with a girl out of my league and off limits? Frigging terrifying.
“Enjoy your stay,” I muttered, managing to sound rude and condescending, as I frowned, released her hand and stepped back.
She raised an eyebrow, imperious and cool. And I’d never wanted to unsettle someone as I did her at that moment.
“Jack’s prepared a fabulous afternoon tea,” Doreen said, ushering them inside. “Let’s eat.”
“Let’s,” Jess said, shooting me an indecipherable glance from beneath her lashes, and in my warped, lust-filled haze, I almost thought she wished she could eat me.
Fuck, this was going to be a long four weeks.
Four, long weeks of seeing
My cheeks flushed at the thought as I tried to chew and swallow a piece of cake. Red velvet. My favorite. Not that he could’ve known. But it seemed like some great, screwed up, cosmic sign.
That the first time I’d ever felt like jumping a guy, he was an outback cook with a bad attitude.
This was all Chantal’s fault, putting stupid ideas about hot Aussie movie stars into my head. Because the fact was, Jack did look like Chris Hemsworth. A lot.
Dark blond hair. Startling green-blue eyes. Requisite stubble. Tall. Tanned. Broad-shouldered. Bad boy to the bone.
Damn. Bad analogy. I couldn’t think about bone and Jack in the same sentence without squirming.
When he’d spoken in that deep, gravelly voice and touched my hand? I’d felt like…like…stripping off and climbing all over him.
Had to be jetlag. A whirlwind day in Melbourne and two in Sydney hadn’t been long enough to readjust my body clock.
Yeah, must be jetlag. I needed a week, maybe two, to get with the program. A program that didn’t involve crushing on hot Aussie bad boys with equally bad attitudes.
Reid and Doreen’s conversation washed over me as I sat at the dining table, wondering if I could sneak into the kitchen to see if my reaction to Jack had been a one-off.
For someone who hadn’t had a lot of experience with guys, I couldn’t understand what was so special about him. Discounting his rugged good looks and sexy Aussie accent, why was I obsessing over a guy I’d just met? A guy I’d barely see over the next four weeks.
“I’ll need to spend more time in Sydney next week for business and was hoping it’s okay if Jess stays here?”
Reid’s question filtered through and recaptured my attention. My brother hadn’t mentioned dumping me in the outback while he schmoozed in the city. Then again, considering the phonies he hung out with, think I’d rather take my chances out here.
Doreen nodded, but a small frown creased her brow. “That’s fine, but I won’t be around either. I’ve got my quarterly meeting scheduled with the financial planner in Brisbane.”
“Don’t worry. In that case, Jess can travel with me and we’ll come back after I finish business.” Reid glanced across at me and I glared while shaking my head.
Doreen laughed. “Jess looks like she’ll be happier here.”
“Jess would,” I said, earning more laughter.
“If it’s okay with you, Reid, she could stay here?” Doreen pointed toward the kitchen. “Mrs. Gee lives in, as does Gladys, our housekeeper—”
“That sounds great,” I said, my overt enthusiasm earning an eye roll from Reid and a compassionate smile from Doreen. “No offense, Reid, but given a choice between Sydney or here? The outback wins hands down.”
Reid hesitated and I continued, “Besides, how much trouble can I get into out here? Surely it’d be safer than having me traipse around Sydney, spending way too much of your money while I shop during the day and checking out the clubs at night—”
“You’re not legal,” he said, sounding triumphant.
Doreen cleared her throat and hid her smile behind her hand. “Actually, here in Australia, Jess is legal. Our teens can go clubbing and drink at eighteen.”
I knew my brother. He’d been protecting me since Dad walked out on us so no way would he like the thought of me exploring a strange city on my own, let alone at night while he was busy with his long dinners.
“You sure you want to stay here on your own?” Reid’s dubious expression meant he was still torn, so it was up to me to make his mind up for him.
“I won’t be alone. There’s Mrs. Gee and Gladys.”
How much I was looking forward to seeing more of him? That was on a strict need to know basis.
“Plus after spending all semester indoors listening to lecturers, I’d love to get some fresh air.” And now, for the sealer. “With my student loans, it’s going to be a lifetime ’til I get back here, if ever, so I’d really like the chance to enjoy it.”
I must’ve inserted the right amount of pleading into my tone because Reid finally nodded. “Okay, Sis. You’re on your own.” He jabbed a finger at me. “But behave.”
He grinned at his own joke, knowing that was one instruction he didn’t have to issue. I always behaved. I never did anything wrong.
With a hot Aussie guy roughly my age that had ‘trouble’ invisibly tattooed on his broad chest? Definitely time I stepped out of my comfort zone to see how much fun I could have if I misbehaved.
Dusk was my favorite time of the day.
When I’d dished up the last meal to the workers, scrubbed the last pot and rinsed the last pan, I could finally relax. Head back to my self-contained shack about half a mile from the homestead, crank up the classic rock I liked and kick back.
But first, a shower to wash off the grime of the day. It was my ritual, something I savored, because I’d never been able to relax during a shower at any of the foster homes I’d grown up in.
Being naked in a stranger’s house always made me feel vulnerable. And that’s what every house I’d been shunted to felt like: a stranger’s place. I’d never felt at home in any of them, not even the three years I’d spent in outer western Sydney with a family who appeared surprisingly normal on face value. But the Ainsworths had their hang ups like the rest and I never felt anything other than what I was. The outsider. The interloper. Being welcomed at the dinner table for the simple fact having me there meant the family received a payout from the government.
It sucked. And while I hadn’t endured some of the degrading stuff other foster kids put up with in exchange for a roof over their heads, I always felt vulnerable. Like my entire life could come crashing down on my head at any time.
Like I did every night, I glanced around. Yeah, like anyone would be taking a stroll around the station at this time of evening, just waiting until I made use of the outdoor shower. But old habits died hard and once I confirmed I wouldn’t be accosted by a stray wallaby or rabid wombat, I cranked the shower lever, tested the water and stripped.
I liked that the shower stall only came up to my waist. Enhanced the feeling of openness, of being one with nature. Corny shit, I know, but every evening I did this felt frigging great.
I stepped under the tepid stream and tipped my head back. The moment I particularly enjoyed as part of my ritual because I got to see the billion stars starting to twinkle in the clear mauve sky.
There was no sky on earth like the outback sky. Not that I’d traveled much but the sky in Sydney wasn’t a patch on this. And somehow, when I looked up at the stars every night, I reckoned I deserved this after all the years I’d showered in a hurry so I wouldn’t be caught out.
I lathered up, taking my time as I always did despite the rationed water. Yeah, I definitely deserved this.
A noise captured my attention, the crunch of gravel underfoot, and I glanced over my shoulder. And froze.
Taking a dusk stroll, rounding the corner of my shack.
This was my place. My down time. Last thing I needed was little Miss Prim and Proper muscling in. Her type may think they owned the place but she should be in the homestead where she belonged, sipping chamomile tea and watching soppy chick flicks.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I turned off the water, belatedly realizing my predicament.
My towel hung on the outside railing. In front of my shack. A good twelve feet away.
“I like walking at this time of evening.” She shrugged, unable to tear her gaze away from my chest. “After spending all day in lecture theatres, it’s great to clear my head.”
Figured. She was probably a brainiac too. “You’re at university?”
“Yeah, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I’m a freshman.” She wrinkled her pert nose as if she’d smelled something nasty. “But I’d much rather be here right now.”
“Let me guess. Boyfriend troubles?”
I didn’t want to engage in conversation with her, but I had to admit she piqued my curiosity, because she hadn’t been afraid to take a stroll in the semi darkness in the outback on her first night here.
“I’d need to have a boyfriend for there to be trouble,” she muttered, a frown appearing between her brow. “What’s it like?”
“Having a boyfriend? Couldn’t tell you. I’m straight.”
Her frown eased and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. A mouth I suddenly couldn’t look away from. “I meant showering outdoors.”
“Care to try?” I laid my hand on the stall knob and she took a step back.