The Rancher's Adopted Family

BOOK: The Rancher's Adopted Family
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The wilds of the West, the Rocky Mountains, the sizzling Outback…Home of the cowboy!

Strong, silent…and single!

These men are as tough as the land they own. As wild as the horses they ride. They just need a good woman to give their big hearts to….

Ride off into the sunset with your rugged rancher!

Amy could see the sky reflected in the water and the overhead branches festooned with orchids. As she stood there, watching the reflection, she saw Seth drifting closer—until he was standing right next to her…

Dangerous tingling sensations spread under her skin. She closed her eyes, wishing she could be more sensible about this man. She’d never been forward with guys, but right now she was fighting a shameless urge to turn and throw herself into his arms.

“I guess we should go back,” he said, looking down at the water.

Amy let out the breath she’d been holding. “I guess.”

Seth didn’t move…and neither did she.

He was standing so close to her that she only had to sway toward him and their bodies would be touching.

“Amy,” he whispered hoarsely, and she saw the movement of his reflection, saw his hand reach out to touch her hair.

When she turned to him, she bumped into his hand. He smiled, let his fingers trace the curve of her cheek, and her pulse began a hectic dance….

B
ARBARA
H
ANNAY
The Rancher’s Adopted Family

Barbara Hannay
was born in Sydney, educated in Brisbane and has spent most of her adult life living in tropical north Queensland, where she and her husband have raised four children. While she has enjoyed many happy times camping and canoeing in the bush, she also delights in an urban lifestyle—chamber music, contemporary dance, movies and dining out. An English teacher, she has always loved writing, and now, by having her stories published, she is living her most cherished fantasy. Visit her Web site at www.barbarahannay.com.

PROLOGUE

A
T FIRST
, when Amy saw two policemen at the ballroom’s grand entrance, she felt no more than mild curiosity. She didn’t dream they were about to turn her life upside down.

She was way too excited to entertain such dark thoughts. For weeks, she’d been on tenterhooks planning tonight’s high-gloss corporate launch. Its success or failure rested almost entirely on her shoulders, and she was relieved that everything was turning out well.

‘Love it, love it, love it!’ her ecstatic clients cheered.

As far as they were concerned, Amy hadn’t put a foot wrong. They were thrilled with the venue she’d found on Melbourne’s Southbank. They were especially thrilled with the video walls that showed off their brilliant new range of environmentally friendly lighting systems.

Amy was equally pleased with the way she looked tonight. She’d dieted for three weeks to squeeze into her divinely chic, but frighteningly expensive little black dress. She’d paid another outrageous sum at a trendy salon in Chapel Street to have glamorous blonde highlights added to her rather ordinary, pale brown hair.

Now, with the addition of killer high heels and her
grandmother’s diamond earrings, she’d received oodles of compliments about both the launch party and her appearance. Tonight it was clear—in Melbourne’s competitive, pressure-cooker world of marketing and corporate events, Amy Ross had
arrived
!

But before she could take her first celebratory sip of her champagne cocktail, she saw the deepening sombreness on the policemen’s faces.

Why on earth were they here?

Surely they must have come to the wrong function. At any moment they would move on.

But no, the older of the two men approached the doorman and Amy saw the look of concern on his face. She felt a cold ripple of anxiety. Hastily, she scanned the crowded ballroom, searching the sea of guests. Could a criminal be lurking in their midst?

Her stomach tightened as she glanced to the doorway again. The doorman was turning.

He pointed directly at Amy.

Oh, God.

The glass in her hand shook, spilling wine onto her gorgeous new dress. Dismayed, she set it down. Any second now, the policemen would come marching into the very centre of this ballroom, and she had visions of the guests falling silent, eyes agog as they stepped aside to make a wide path for the blue uniformed men.

Amy knew she mustn’t let that happen.

Sending her clients a brave thumbs-up gesture, she started off across the vast expanse of highly polished floor, knees knocking, thoughts racing and skidding through distressing possibilities.

Had she accidentally invited one of Melbourne’s infamous gangland criminals to this party?

Or was this personal? Was
she
the policemen’s target? Had her car been towed away?

Had something happened to her parents?
Please, no!

Her stomach gave another sickening lurch as she drew closer to the grim-faced men, but she forced a smile. ‘Good evening, gentlemen. How can I help you?’

The older policeman nodded to her gravely. ‘Are you Miss Amy Ross?’

‘Yes.’

‘You live at Unit 42, 67 Grange Street, Kew?’

‘Y-yes.’
Oh, cringe
. Had she forgotten to turn off the iron? Had her flat burned down?

‘We’ve been informed that you organised this event and sent out the invitations. Is that correct?’

Amy gulped. ‘That’s right.’

‘Could we speak with you privately, please?’

She couldn’t hide her alarm any longer. ‘W-what’s the matter?’

‘We’re making enquiries, Miss Ross. We don’t want to cause any unnecessary fuss, so, if you could just come this way, please?’

Enquiries
. Surely this was a euphemism to cover all kinds of awfulness?

Stomach churning, Amy followed the men out into the marbled splendour of the hotel’s lobby. She felt too ill to ask questions, so she stood very still while the younger policeman drew a piece of paper from his pocket.

She recognised it as one of the invitations she’d sent out for the launch party. Was she about to be quizzed about her guest list?

Amy’s mind whirled. Her clients had vetted her guest list and her only addition had been her best friend,
Rachel. It was all above board. She’d been allocated one private guest and although her initial choice had been Dominic, her boyfriend, she’d changed her mind at the last moment and invited Rachel instead.

Rachel had been her best friend since they were fifteen, and she really understood how BIG this night was.

Besides, Rachel was a single mum and a writer, and since her daughter’s birth she hardly ever got out. This party was a terrific chance for her to exercise her social skills before her first book was published and she became famous.

Amy had no doubt that her brilliant friend would become famous. Of course, she wasn’t surprised that Rachel was running late tonight—she’d probably had trouble leaving Bella with a babysitter.

The policeman tapped the invitation with a long finger. ‘Are you the same Amy Ross who’s listed as Rachel Tyler’s next of kin?’

A strangled cry broke from Amy. She tried not to think the worst, but she was gripped by numb terror.

‘I—I suppose Rachel might have named me as her n-next of kin,’ she stammered. ‘She has no family and I’m her b-best friend.’

‘Your name came up when we checked her driver’s licence,’ the policeman said gently. Too gently.

Shaking, Amy wished with all her heart that she didn’t have to hear what these men had come to tell her.

‘We found this invitation and realised you’d be here,’ he said.

Amy almost screamed. She wanted these men to go. Away. Right now.

Instead they were beating around the bush, driving
her insane with terror. ‘Please,’ she sobbed. ‘Just—tell me.’

‘There’s been an accident,’ the older man said. ‘A fatal accident. Only a block away.’

CHAPTER ONE

A
MY
stood at the open window of the shabby hotel room in Far North Queensland, and watched a utility truck emerge out of the heat haze to the north. She felt an anxious flutter tremble from her stomach to her chest. The driver was almost certainly Seth Reardon.

Her hair was damp against the back of her neck and her cotton clothing stuck to her skin, but as the ute rattled down the street and came to a halt directly opposite the pub she wasn’t sure if her discomfort was caused by the tropical heat or her nervousness.

The driver’s door opened and, with an excessive lack of haste, a man unfurled from the cabin.

His build was tall and lean, a perfect match for his faded jeans and well-worn riding boots. He wore a milk-blue cotton shirt, with long sleeves rolled to his elbows to reveal sun-darkened skin on his forearms. His hair was very black.

From this angle, Amy couldn’t see his face, but he crossed the empty street with a slow and easy stride that commanded attention.

Without warning, he looked up.

And saw her.

Gulp
.

She swung away from the window, her heart thumping strangely. She’d gained a fleeting impression of masculine strength, of a grim mouth and a proud and resolute jaw, and eyes that were a breathtaking vivid blue.

‘Oh, Bella,’ Amy whispered, sending a glance back to the two-year-old playing with a toy pig on the bed. ‘This man is your daddy.’

It was too late to change her mind, but suddenly, for the first time since she’d left Melbourne, Amy wondered if she’d done the right thing to come all this way.

Rachel had been so cagey about Bella’s father. She’d always confided in Amy—
always
—and yet she hadn’t breathed a word about Seth Reardon until Bella’s second birthday.

Rachel had finally made the big confession after the birthday party, a very casual gathering in her backyard—a few playgroup mums and toddlers, with colourful cupcakes, jelly oranges and chocolate frogs.

Afterwards, Amy had helped to wash coffee cups and once Bella had been tucked into bed she and Rachel had opened a bottle of wine and made spaghetti. They’d eaten on the back patio and talked long into the night.

When Amy brought up the subject of Bella’s father, Rachel groaned. ‘Do you always have to act like my conscience?’

‘But Bella’s two years old now,’ Amy protested. ‘And she’s such a gorgeous little thing. I can’t help thinking there’s a guy out there who’s missing out on so much by not knowing her.’

To Amy’s surprise, Rachel actually agreed.

‘You’re right,’ she said, and, after almost three years of silence, the confession tumbled out.

Rachel had met this absolutely amazing guy when she’d been working on a cattle property on Cape York, in Far North Queensland.

‘I suppose I was totally overawed by him,’ she admitted. ‘He was the most attractive man I’ve ever met.’

‘You mean,’ Amy whispered, ‘he was
The One
?’

Rachel’s face was white, her voice edgy. ‘Yes, I’m afraid he was—but that’s what scared me, Ames. That’s why I never kept in touch with him. If I’d told him about Bella, he would have wanted me to live up there with him.’

‘But if you love each other you’d live happily ever after,’ Amy declared. It seemed incredibly simple and romantic to her.

But Rachel’s mask slipped to reveal raw fear. ‘I couldn’t live there,’ she said. ‘He’s the boss of a massive cattle station. It occupies his whole life, and it’s so hot and wild and remote. I’d be mad with loneliness and I’d drive the poor man insane.’

A glass of wine later Rachel said more calmly, ‘You’re right, Amy. God help me, you’re always right. I really must make contact with Seth again. I do want to take Bella to meet him. I just need to find the right time.’

But she’d never found the right time…

Which was why Amy was here now, in the Tamundra pub, almost three thousand kilometres north of Melbourne.

 

When Seth Reardon heard footsteps on the bare timber stairs, he stood in the empty hotel dining room, facing the doorway, shoulders squared, hands lightly fisted at his sides.

He wasn’t looking forward to meeting this friend of Rachel Tyler’s, and he frowned, sensing something odd as he listened to Amy Ross’s approach.

He was here for a business meeting and he’d expected to meet her alone, but he could hear another set of footsteps—eager, small footsteps.

Without warning, a tiny girl burst, like a small torpedo, through the doorway.

‘Hello, man!’

Arms outstretched, the child greeted Seth with a huge grin, as if a reclusive cattleman, whom she’d never met, was the one person in the world she most wanted to see.

Seth’s stomach dropped as she headed straight for his knees, blue eyes dancing, dark curls bouncing. He knew next to nothing about children, would rather face an angry scrub bull than a small, toddling female.

To his relief, an anxious young woman, the same woman he’d glimpsed in the window upstairs—Amy Ross, he presumed—came hurrying behind the child.

‘Bella!’ She reached for the little girl’s hand and halted her headlong dash to embrace Seth’s legs.

‘I’m sorry,’ she huffed, slightly out of breath and blushing brightly. ‘I’m afraid Bella’s very friendly.’

‘So I see.’

Seth’s dryly drawled response was the result of habit rather than displeasure. Now that the child was safely perched on her mother’s hip, he could see that the two of them formed a charming picture.

The child’s dark, curly hair, dimples, and blue eyes were in startling contrast to her mother’s brown eyes and straight honey-brown hair. Amy Ross’s complexion was warmer than her daughter’s, with the slightest hint of a golden tan.

But in spite of the differences in their appearances, the close bond between the two of them was clear, and Seth was suddenly lassoed by unexpected emotion.
He’d been stoically resigned to his life as a loner, but now he felt strangely left out, excluded from a very special unit.

He’d thought he’d thrown off his urges to be a family man.

‘Perhaps we should start again,’ Amy Ross said, and she held out her hand with a smile as appealing as her daughter’s. ‘I’m Amy and you must be Seth. How do you do?’

He accepted her greeting with a stiff nod, and as they shook hands he was super-conscious of the soft warmth of her skin.

‘You didn’t mention that you were bringing your daughter,’ he said with an asperity he immediately regretted.

Amy’s eyes widened. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’m afraid I couldn’t leave Bella behind. She’s usually well behaved.’

Seth made no comment and the little girl continued to regard him with enormous delight, which he found quite extraordinary.

He swallowed to clear the tightening in his throat. He was mad with himself for allowing a total stranger—a woman, no less—to convince him to drop everything and race into town.

Admittedly, Amy Ross’s phone call had delivered alarming news that Seth couldn’t afford to ignore. He’d been shocked to hear about Rachel Tyler’s death. He hadn’t heard from Rachel since she’d worked on Serenity, and he’d tried to put her clear out of his mind.

Her death was a tragedy.

And already, there’d been too much tragedy.

Amy hooked the straps of her shoulder bag more
securely and held Bella’s hand. But the child immediately began to squirm.

‘Man, up!’ she demanded, running to Seth’s side and tugging at his denim jeans with determined little hands.

‘Bella, no.’ Grimacing with embarrassment, Amy pulled picture books from her shoulder bag. ‘Come and sit here quietly and look at these books while I talk to Mr Reardon. Come on now, be a good girl.’

Seth tried to be patient while Bella was persuaded to sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor with books and a handful of toys. He and Amy sat at one of the dining tables.

‘Hey, diddle, diddle,’ the child announced gleefully.

He stifled a sigh of irritation. ‘Does your daughter usually accompany you to business meetings, Mrs Ross?’

‘Cat an’ fiddle,’ chanted Bella.

Flushing, Amy nervously lifted her hair from the back of her neck. Clearly, the heat and the tropical humidity were bothering her. Her hair was damp against her skin, and her neck was flushed and shiny with perspiration.

‘I’m not married,’ she said.

It was only then, as Seth watched her elegant hands securing a twist in her honey hair, that he noticed she wasn’t wearing rings.

So she was a single mother. He supposed he should be more tolerant. He’d heard all the news reports about the excessive costs of day care.

‘I don’t usually have Bella with me while I’m working,’ she said. ‘But I had to travel such a long way this time, and I didn’t want to leave her.’

He bit back a question about the child’s father, but he couldn’t help wondering where the guy was and why he hadn’t been able or willing to help out.

‘You’ve come quite a distance,’ he said.

‘Don’t I know it? It’s so hot and muggy here.’ She lifted the limp collar of her cotton shirt away from her skin. ‘The tourist agency told me it’s as far from Melbourne to Tamundra as it is from London to Moscow.’

Seth nodded. ‘And you’ve chosen the very worst time of the year to make such a long journey.’

Her lower lip pouted. ‘I had no choice. There’s so little time to get publicity organised. Rachel’s book is coming out in April.’

‘Ah, yes, Rachel Tyler’s book,’ Seth said quietly and he narrowed his eyes.

‘Aren’t you pleased about it?’

‘Why should I be pleased? When Rachel was on Serenity three years ago, she never once mentioned to anyone that she planned to write a book. I was very sorry to hear about her accident, but I can’t say I’m happy that there’s a book coming out now, after such a long silence.’

‘Rachel’s—Rachel was—a brilliant writer. She had a wonderful gift for description.’

That was all very well, but what had she described? As a reclusive bachelor, who prized his privacy, Seth was distinctly unhappy that a former employee had written a book about the six weeks she’d spent on his cattle property.

On the phone last week, Amy Ross had gone to great lengths to assure him that the book was a work of fiction and people’s names had been changed to protect the innocent. But Seth wasn’t at all confident he could assume that Rachel Tyler had been discreet.

Rachel had claimed to have been on a backpacking holiday, but she’d never hinted that she planned to race off and write a book about it.

To Seth, Rachel’s behaviour had been sneaky. People in the bush were upfront and open and the whole business of this book made his gut churn with apprehension. Even so, he was determined to find out what he could. It was why he’d agreed to this meeting.

He frowned at Amy. ‘You were Rachel’s best friend, so I assume you can shed some light on this book.’

Amy smiled awkwardly. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know much at all. I’m here because the publishers have a limited budget for the promotion, and I wanted to do as much as I could for—for—’

Her eyes rested on the child. ‘I wanted to do this for Rachel.’

The little girl looked up suddenly. ‘Mummy?’

To Seth’s surprise, Amy paled and closed her eyes, as if the child had upset her.

When she opened her eyes again, a moment later, Seth was struck by their dark, liquid beauty.

There was something very graceful and feminine about Amy Ross that he found eminently watchable. On the other hand, there was something about her story that didn’t quite add up.

The child’s presence…Amy’s nervousness…Her insistence on coming now at such an inappropriate time when the wet season was about to break over their heads.

He knew Amy hoped to return to Serenity with him to take publicity shots, but already he was convinced that even agreeing to this meeting had been a huge mistake.

 

Amy could feel her heart beating in her throat. It had been such a shock to see Seth and Bella together. She’d never dreamed there could be such a strong likeness between
a grown man and a baby girl, and she found it hard to believe that he hadn’t seen the resemblance for himself.

How much time did she have before he began to notice and to ask difficult, searching questions?

She was pretty sure he could see huge holes in her claim that she’d come here solely to gather promotional material for Rachel’s book. She was terrified Seth Reardon might change his mind about allowing her to spend a couple of days on his cattle property, and if that happened she would have no choice but to reveal her real reason for coming north.

But she couldn’t tell him yet.

It was too soon.

To surprise this cold and forbidding cattleman with the news that he’d fathered a daughter was a delicate and difficult exercise. The timing was crucial, and there was no way she wanted to tell him such distressing news now in this strange hotel, miles from anywhere.

This exercise couldn’t be rushed. She needed a chance to get to know Seth Reardon first. She wanted to win his confidence and trust—if that were possible, which right now she seriously doubted. She had hoped that together she and Seth could work out the best way to care for her precious Bella.

Amy forced a shaky smile, uncomfortably conscious that Seth Reardon was an exceptionally good-looking man. Rachel had always had good taste in men, and Seth’s lean, rugged physique and arresting blue eyes were enough to make any young woman forget her mother’s warnings.

Last night, when Amy had arrived here, she’d mentioned his name to the publican’s wife, Marie, and the woman’s reaction had puzzled her.

‘Seth Reardon?’ Her eyes had widened with sudden surprise. ‘Oooh…He’s a quiet one. Doesn’t hang around the pub much. He’s…cold. But there’s something about him though. Eyes that make you wonder.’

‘Wonder what?’ Amy had prompted, hoping to hear a positive comment.

The woman had actually blushed, and then she’d shot a quick glance at Bella, who’d been sitting at the dining table, absorbed in drinking a glass of iced milk with a straw.

‘What?’ Amy had asked again.

‘Oh, I’ve always had a soft spot for a man with blue eyes,’ Marie had said lamely and she’d become very busy clearing dishes while she muttered about needing to get back to the kitchen.

BOOK: The Rancher's Adopted Family
6.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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