A marriage made on paper…a passion explored in paradise!
When nurse Kenzie Steele takes a job as a companion for a wealthy lady on an idyllic Thai island, she’s certainly not looking for love. But to secure her family’s legacy, she does need a husband! Enter Alex McLeod, the charming A&E doctor whose grandmother’s dying wish is to see him happily married. Only, while their wedding in paradise is all business, their intense chemistry is anything but…
Conveniently Wed In Paradise is Meredith Webber’s 100th book!
Set your pulse racing with dedicated, delectable doctors in the high-pressure world of medicine!
ALEXANDER MONROE MCLEOD paced the small balcony outside his grandmother’s room at the, to him, ridiculously named Palace of Peace and Contentment. The view from the balcony was breathtaking—the brilliant, shining blue-green sea of the Gulf of Thailand, small dark-sailed fishing vessels slowly going about their work, the bright sails of windsurfers from the resort across on the mainland flitting back and forth, and to the right infinite shades of green as thick rainforest ran riot over the sides of the mountain on which the palace was built.
In spite of the colourful and effusive brochures he’d read about the place, the marbled floors and silk-lined walls, he was reasonably sure it had never been a palace, let alone the summer home of long-dead kings of Siam. But it had been a very luxurious hotel, built when the village had been nothing more than a few shacks and some fishing boats. Built with its own generator for power and a permanent water supply from the spring further up the mountains.
The palace also explained his presence here. Bored out of his skull, but needing to stay—
His attention was momentarily diverted from his irritation with his situation by a woman. She was tall, long-limbed and straight-backed, with a mop of dark hair unhindered by a hat—foolish creature—and she was striding down the paved drive that ran through the perfectly kept gardens fragrant with frangipani and manicured lawns he’d swear were clipped each morning with scissors—
To an assignation she had to keep, a destination she wished to reach, or was she simply escaping the place?
Not that he could blame her.
But what lingered in his mind as she disappeared from view, where the drive curved slightly, was his first thought on seeing her—the totally absurd thought that she’d look good on a horse.
Look good on a horse?
He kicked the potted palm in one corner of the balcony and swore quietly to himself. Prolonged inactivity was obviously driving him insane. Or at least turning his brain to mush. He had to find something to do—something he could do without moving too far from the luxurious suite of rooms where his grandmother was dying—the same suite of rooms in which she had honeymooned with his late grandfather.
Returning here to die had been her one wish—her last wish, she’d said, probably to get him here—and although the extensive research he’d done on the place had shown him it was now actually a luxury convalescent home, he’d been doubtful. While a panel of specialists on the mainland advised on medical matters, top-class residential housekeeping, therapeutic and nursing staff made sure the guests—definitely not patients—were well cared for. His grandmother had three cheerful and gentle Thai nurses who attended to her personal needs—bathing, dressing, feeding her—with reverence and concern.
Pampered, more like! he thought with a derisive snort. The place was a luxurious convalescent facility for anyone wealthy enough to afford its exorbitant daily tariff.
Not that the money had been a problem when his grandmother had dropped her bombshell and demanded to die in the place where she had been so happy on her honeymoon. Her side of the family had always been wealthy, but a little app he’d fiddled around with during his student years had eventually been developed and sold. DocSays had brought him wealth beyond imagining in spite of the fact that the most important of the answers it gave anyone using it was, if in doubt, to see a doctor.
Could he update it?
Think of something new?
Or had that questing part of his brain atrophied as he’d practised the medicine for which he’d been training at the time?
But it was worth a try—anything to ease the boredom of waiting around.
If there’d been something he could do for his grandmother on a daily basis—if she’d been well enough to be wheeled out into the beautiful gardens, even taken for a ride in a little tuk-tuk—he’d have been more content.
It was the helplessness he felt—the fact that he, a doctor, could do nothing more to help the woman he loved so dearly—that was getting to him.
And that thought was also annoying—the one about loving her so dearly. She’d brought him up from the age of twelve, and her answer to any upset in his young life had always been, ‘Monroes don’t do emotion!’
Yet, if he gave himself time to think—and at the moment he had plenty—he had to accept that what he had always felt for her was love and that perhaps the stricture should have been, ‘Monroes don’t show emotion.’
His argument against it had been that he was a McLeod but she’d blown ‘such nonsense’ away with an airy wave.
‘For all your name, you’re a Monroe through and through, and don’t you ever forget it,’ she’d told him in a steely voice.
But seeing her now, turned from a strong, determined woman into frail bones and fine, lined, pale skin, he realised the pain he felt when he looked at her had to be emotion.
A love so deep it was as if part of himself was dying.
And repeating her words to himself—Monroes don’t do emotion—did little to stop the pain…
He returned to his pacing, and caught the movement out of the corner of his eye. It was the woman who’d look good on horseback returning.
On a horse?
* * *
Hilary McKenzie Steele wasn’t entirely sure she should be riding up the raked gravel drive of the Palace of Peace and Contentment, but Muriel Walker, her assigned ‘guest’, had told her about the stables.
‘Beautiful horses, Kenzie dear,’ she’d said. ‘There for all of us to ride, but how many do? Do the horses get the exercise they need, do you think?’
‘I’m sure they do,’ Kenzie replied, aware of her position as a sounding board.
Not that Muriel was sick or in need of special nursing care, she was simply bored, moving from one luxurious home or hotel to another.
This luxury convalescent hotel had been on her itinerary for a few years, though why she always insisted on a nurse as a companion, Kenzie had yet to fathom.
Anything different to give her life a little meaning, Kenzie supposed.
Which explained the horse.
Muriel, for all her die-away airs and imaginary illnesses, was only in her early sixties, and, Kenzie was sure, could learn to ride a horse. Surely that would give her something to do.
Kenzie rode to the side entrance. She’d left Muriel in the little sitting room just off the side lobby—Muriel dressed in jeans and a light polo top, a deceptively simple outfit that had possibly cost as much as the horse.
Tethering Bob—Kenzie smiled again at the unlikely name for a Thai horse—she went inside to fetch Muriel.
‘Come on,’ she told the older woman. ‘It’s time you learned to ride.’
Muriel, who’d been resistant to the idea from the beginning, looked at Kenzie and must have read something in her face that told her argument would be futile.
She stood and then smiled.
‘If I fall off I’ll sack you,’ she warned, and Kenzie, although not entirely sure her boss turned friend was joking, laughed.
Kenzie had given a lot of thought to getting Muriel onto the horse, and had come up with this side entrance as the ideal place. Not only would no one see them—she wasn’t going to have anyone laughing at Muriel—but the urns that flanked the shallow steps were on a stepped platform. It had been simple enough to remove one of the urns, giving Muriel steps to get up and a flat area to stand on as she swung herself into the saddle.
Or perhaps clambered into the saddle…
She was helping Muriel with the transfer from the platform to the horse when a man appeared, turning the corner from the drive and stopping to watch the operation.
‘Need a hand?’
Rich, deep, English tones made the three simple words ring through the air, hitting Kenzie’s ears and somehow reverberating through her body in a way that brought heat to her cheeks.
Embarrassment at being caught?
She hoped that’s all it was.
And cursed the colour that rose so easily. Honestly, you’d think by now she’d have outgrown blushing…
‘We’ll manage,’ she said, but far too late, because now he was at the horse, steadying Muriel from the other side, putting her foot into the stirrup Kenzie had shortened earlier.
‘First time?’ he said, smiling up at Muriel.
The smile caused Kenzie more problems than the voice. She shook her head, trying to clear the sudden confusion. Muriel. She had to concentrate on Muriel, not some stranger with a beautiful voice.
Strange man at that and she was here to get over men…
For ever, if she had her way—but that was another problem altogether…
‘Now you take the reins, and hold them so you just feel the horse’s mouth at the end of them,’ she told her charge.
‘Just the left hand,’ the stranger said, releasing Muriel’s right hand from the folded reins. ‘That’s so you can carry the whip in your right and smack him if he’s naughty.’
‘Oh, I couldn’t hit him,’ Muriel protested, and the man laughed.
‘Who are you?’
Kenzie was aware that the question came out far more forcibly—rudely?—than she’d intended, but the laughter had brought back her confusion.
He made a sweeping bow—to Muriel, not to her—and said, ‘Alexander Monroe McLeod, prisoner in this palace, and happy to be of assistance.’
Another worker, Kenzie decided, although she certainly hadn’t set eyes on him in the ten days she’d been here.
‘Your grandmother?’ Muriel asked him softly, and he nodded, and although some things fell into place—the talk of a woman who’d come here to die, her doctor grandson with her—something else was niggling at Kenzie.
She studied the man across the horse and frowned. She knew the face, and the name had rung a bell—several bells—but what…?
And shouldn’t she introduce herself?
Some instinct pushed that thought away, though why, she couldn’t tell.
‘So,’ he said, still speaking to Muriel. ‘Where are we off to on this adventure?’
‘Not very far,’ Muriel assured him. ‘In fact, I think getting on is enough for one day.’
‘Nonsense,’ the man—Alexander Monroe McLeod, how grand—said. ‘You need to get the feel of the animal. So, if your friend leads and I stay right beside you on this side, will you feel safe enough?’
Muriel nodded tentatively and Kenzie flicked the lead rein very gently and clicked a ‘Get up,’ at the horse, who moved obediently and sedately along the path.
The man with the beautiful voice and grand name was talking quietly to Muriel, distracting her from the first-time rider’s usual thoughts of how precarious her perch was and how very far away the ground!
Which gave Kenzie the time to sneak glances at him across the horse’s neck.
She was sure she knew the name but definitely hadn’t met him. Tall, dark-haired, distinguished-looking somehow, with the kind of profile you could put on a coin.
It was such a fanciful thought she had to give herself a stern reminder that she was here to forget a man, not to be fancying a new one, no matter how attractive he was.
Yet he wasn’t the kind of man you’d forget!
Perhaps she’d seen a photograph?
‘I know who you are,’ she said, unable to keep a note of triumph from her voice. ‘You’re the bloke who developed the DocSays app!’
‘What did you say?’ Muriel was obviously mystified.
‘Do you know it?’ he asked, the question a trifle stiff.
‘I doubt there’s a nurse in the world who doesn’t. Working in a hospital can be a bit humdrum at times, so we often see what you’d say about our patients’ symptoms. Harmless fun, and as you always say see a doctor, that’s actually what’s happening with our patients, if you see what I mean.’
* * *
Alex stared at the woman in total disbelief.
‘You compare your actual hospital doctor’s diagnosis with the app?’
‘It’s fun!’ she had the hide to say, before adding, ‘They’re usually the same.’
As if that made a difference! Nurses comparing his opinions to those of other doctors as if it was a game…
‘Who are you?’ he demanded, thrown off balance by this whole situation—the horse, his earlier, and definitely weird, thoughts about the woman, and a laughing face with blue eyes that were rather startling against her lightly tanned skin.
‘I’m Hilary McKenzie Steele,’ she announced, undoubtedly mimicking his own introduction. ‘Known to one and all as Kenzie! My mother died in childbirth and Dad gave me her whole name, so that’s my excuse for its length.’
She was making fun of him, he knew, but he had introduced himself with his full name when Alex McLeod would have done. And all he could offer by way of explanation for its length were hundreds of years of tradition—rather feeble compared to a dead mother.
‘Are you still ready to catch me if I fall?’ Muriel asked, breaking into his senseless thoughts.
‘I most certainly am,’ he said. ‘But tell me how you feel. Comfortable—’
‘Or terrified?’ the woman called Kenzie asked, with a smile in her voice that made it a gentle tease.
‘Well, it is a long way up, but it feels just fine,’ Muriel assured them. ‘Can we go on down the drive—maybe right to the stables?’
‘Of course,’ Kenzie replied, although Alex felt a slight unease about this decision. He hadn’t even known—or if he had he’d forgotten—there were stables and horses, but how far away were they?
‘Um, Kenzie,’ he said, tentatively trying the name on his lips and finding he quite liked it. ‘I’m not sure I can stay much longer.’
‘Oh, that’s okay,’ she answered cheerfully. ‘You can see Muriel has her balance now and there’s a dismounting block at the stables. Do you ride yourself? There are some lovely horses in the stables, and apparently there are trails up through the rainforest towards the top of the mountain.’
‘And you’ve been here how long?’ he demanded, aggrieved that the blue-eyed woman apparently knew so much about the place.
‘Ten days! But I guess us menials mix with locals more than you guests do. This place is very upstairs downstairs, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, Kenzie,’ Muriel murmured. ‘I don’t make you feel like that, do I?’
‘Of course not, you silly goose. I was just teasing.’
‘Teasing me,’ Alex muttered, before looking up at Muriel.
‘Are you sure you feel safe with just Kenzie here beside you?’
Muriel smiled down at him.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Hasn’t Kenzie already proven her worth, showing me how nice it is to be on a horse? Maybe one day, when I can ride by myself—Kenzie’s going to teach me—we can all ride up into the mountains.’
She paused, still looking at him.
‘That’s if you can ride, of course.’
He wanted to snort. He’d practically been born on a horse! But he confined himself to a polite goodbye to both women, and hurried back into the hotel. Even when his grandmother was awake, she was barely conscious and a lot of that time had no idea who he was.
Which, of course, made him very reluctant to miss any moments with her when she did! He thought of the times he hadn’t spent with her. Breaking a lunch or dinner arrangement because he was held up at the hospital, or, worse, out on a date, such ordinary things, but all time he had already missed with her.
And now there was no time to make it up to her—no more time…
But as he went up in the lift, he couldn’t help picturing his first glimpse of the woman with the improbable name—long legs striding easily, back straight, and the cloud of dark hair—black, he thought now, or perhaps a very dark brown.
And the explanation for these thoughts?
He had absolutely no idea and the sooner he got them out of his head the better. Since the farcical end of his engagement and marriage plans he’d remained aloof to the charms of women, throwing himself into work as an alternative—and far easier—passion.
He shook his head in a futile attempt to remove the wayward meanderings of his mind. It was because he was stressed. He couldn’t do anything for Gran, and doing nothing left him with too much time on his hands to dwell on life without her…
But, then, she had looked good on the horse… Kenzie…
* * *
The rest of Muriel’s ride was uneventful, but Kenzie was glad to see a little tuk-tuk waiting to take her and her charge back to the hotel.
‘You should have a hot shower, and I’ll arrange a massage for you,’ she said to Muriel as they climbed into the little rickshaw. ‘You might need another one tomorrow, too, because your muscles have been doing something new.’
‘Then I’ll have to have a massage every day,’ Muriel announced, ‘because I’m going to conquer this horse-riding thing!’
‘You’re a Trojan, Muriel!’ Kenzie told her, ‘But you might be sore tomorrow so we’ll take it easy.’
She saw Muriel safely back to her room and into the shower, arranged the massage, and ordered tea and scones for after it.
Only then did she pull out her phone and open the DocSays app on it. She had to smile at the pixelated image of Alexander Monroe McLeod, which looked, of course, nothing like him. The photos she’d seen occasionally—usually on the financial pages of serious papers—was how she’d recognised him.
Imagine meeting the man!
Her friends would never believe it!
Especially the ones who’d told her she was crazy to take a short contract job at a luxury convalescent home off the coast of Thailand.
‘You’ll be bored to death,’ they’d warned her, and secretly she’d believed them, but at the time she’d have taken a job on Mars to get away from her far too small home town!
Small town, new doctor, whirlwind romance that had the entire town speculating whether Kenzie would finally get married, then the new doc’s wife had arrived…
Kenzie had expected pain—and hurt pride and humiliation had certainly brought that in its train. But in many ways it had been a relief. Much as she wanted to marry and have children—and urgent as that need was becoming—she’d known all along there was something not quite right about Mark…
Something that had, thankfully, held her back from a physical relationship with him…
‘Now, Kenzie,’ Muriel announced, appearing from the bathroom in a cloud of steam and a luxurious peignoir, ‘I will have no argument about it this time. You are to eat with me this evening. We need to plan out my riding lessons.’
‘It might be best to leave any plans until morning. See how you feel then.’
‘We can discuss it over dinner,’ Muriel said forcefully.
So much for diversion!
‘I thought the Sapphire Dining Room tonight. It’s smaller and for all they tell me the same chef oversees both kitchens, I’m sure the food is better there.’
They had argued before about Kenzie dining with her guest, as a cleverly worded sentence in the rules and regulations for ancillary staff seemed to suggest it wasn’t a good idea.
And certainly not on any regular basis!
Feeling obliged to protest, Kenzie offered her usual excuse.
‘But it’s formal, Muriel, you know that, and you also know that I packed for a job on a tropical island, not a luxury escape.’
A light tap on the door interrupted the argument.
‘That’ll be the masseuse. Let her in, and put out my medication, then go and find something to wear. Shall we say my room, at seven? We can have a drink before we go down.’
As the masseuse was already setting up her table, Kenzie dealt out the evening tablets—blood-pressure medication, statins for her high cholesterol, and tonight a weekly tablet to maintain her bone density. She put them all into a small medicine cup, set a glass of water beside it, and left the room.
Idly, as the elevator descended to the ground floor, she wondered if DocSays ate in one of the dining rooms—specifically, the Sapphire?
She pushed the thought away—she was off men—and concentrated on clothes.
If she could find a tuk-tuk outside the palace, she’d have time to get down to the markets in the little village. Not that formal wear was a common feature on any of the stalls, but if she could find a pretty sarong that went with one of her tank tops, she could tie it around her waist and look at least presentable.
The sarong was a light, gauzy cotton in swirling shades of blue, green and purple. With a silky, black tank top and her good black sandals, it would do at a push, but the idea of eating in a formal dining room with the wealthy guests of the palace was daunting to a girl from the bush, where formal meant wearing something on your feet.
* * *
Muriel was delighted to see her, admiring her outfit and her nous in achieving it. She poured a small glass of champagne for each of them and toasted the success of her first riding ‘lesson’.
They went down to dinner arm in arm, Muriel sweeping Kenzie into the dining room as if she were a close friend.
And Kenzie found herself pleased to have Muriel with her, for the grandeur of the place—the smaller dining room at that—was almost overwhelming. She’d grown used to the beautiful grand entrance with its gold-streaked black marble floors, the potted orchids peeping from behind soft ferns, but this was something else.
It lived up to its name of sapphire, for it was decorated, almost entirely, in blue. Pale eggshell-blue walls that looked as if they were lined with velvet, darker blue upholstered chairs that made the white napery look so much more vivid. And the crystal glassware on the table sparkled, refracting light from the elegant chandelier into thousands of bright, winking, stars.
Hadn’t Muriel read the line about ancillary staff knowing their place? This was definitely not Kenzie’s place…
But of course Muriel wouldn’t have read it! As if she would read something as insignificant as a brochure.
But the maître d’ was probably word perfect in it. He raised one perfectly trimmed eyebrow, and would have led them to a table in the far corner had Muriel not protested and insisted she sit by the window.
‘Oh, and there’s that nice man!’ she cried in delight. ‘Let’s ask him to join us.’
The eyebrow rose again, and Kenzie managed to mumble, ‘Dr McLeod,’ to prevent further strain to the small arc of hair.
And for all she’d hoped the invitation would be refused, as she slipped into her seat she saw him rise and cross the room towards them.
He smiled down at Muriel and raised the glass of red wine he held in one hand in a silent toast.
‘So, how was the rest of your ride?’ he asked.
‘Wonderful! Great fun! I’m doing it again and next time Kenzie will ride beside me and still hold the leading rein, but that’s just for safety.’
Kenzie opened her mouth to protest that they might be taking things a little too fast, but Muriel’s raised hand stopped any protest.
‘I haven’t got time to be footling around in a paddock for days on end,’ she said. ‘I want to be a rider, which means I need to hurry things along.’
* * *
Alex took the chair a waiter had pulled to the table for him, and smiled at the two women. He had a feeling the younger of them wished he’d declined the invitation, yet it was she he’d been drawn towards—wanting to see her again, speak to her.
Was it a symptom of his boredom that the young woman intrigued him so much? Laughing at the nurses’ use of his app, introducing herself in an echo of his stuffy announcement of his own name?
Or was it that she was just so attractive?
Naturally attractive, just herself, with no apparent effort to attract—
Well, maybe a little lipstick on beautifully shaped lips, a touch of eyeliner accentuating the smiling blue eyes, but none of the studied and worked-at perfection of most of the women he knew.
Whatever it was, she’d somehow awoken something inside him—something he’d always doubted existed…
There was certainly something about her…
But Muriel was his hostess.
‘I’m called Alex,’ he said to her. ‘I don’t think I ever did that proper introduction, and I know you’re Muriel. Are you here convalescing?’
She smiled her sunny smile.
‘You could say that. I did have a small operation—just the smallest of tucks, you know—but really it’s a break from my usual life, which, until I got up close and personal with a horse today, had become very boring, and sometimes seemed totally pointless.’
‘And the horse has changed all that?’ Alex teased gently, and the woman virtually glowed with delight.
‘But of course it has!’ she said. ‘Kenzie tells me there are horses I can hire to ride in Central Park in New York, and even Hyde Park in London. I can ride just about anywhere!’
‘Have you ridden in these places?’ Alex asked, turning to bring the woman for whom he’d changed tables into the conversation.
She smiled at him, curving pink lips to reveal perfect teeth, a smile dancing in the blue eyes.
‘Not yet,’ she said, ‘but it’s definitely waiting for me in the future.’
‘I don’t think people my age are too worried about bucket lists,’ she said, a little frown turning the words serious. ‘I’m more into planning my immediate future right now.’
He wasn’t sure why he’d asked.
Not that she gave him time to ponder such things, coming out with, ‘Getting married and having children,’ with such alacrity he was taken aback.
‘It’s not my ambition,’ Kenzie continued, trying to explain the unexpected response she’d given to his question, partly because it had shocked her as much as her dinner companions.
‘My ambition was to become a surgical nurse, not that that could ever happen when I also wanted to work as close as possible to my home, and small country hospitals don’t have surgeons.’
She paused before adding, ‘Well, we do have the flying surgeon come in every six weeks, but he brings his own nurse. Anyway, now my family situation has changed I’ve got to do something about producing a couple of children, and my father would prefer it if they were legitimate, hence the marriage part.’
She shrugged, as if her explanation needed no further trimmings.
‘I quite understand your father’s feelings,’ Muriel said, breaking the silence this far too personal statement had produced, but as Alex could find no follow-up it wasn’t broken for long.
A waiter saved the day, arriving to collect the menus and take orders, but as the menus were still unopened on the table, Muriel waved him away.
She also took charge, telling them both to decide what they were eating so they could get back to Kenzie’s problem.
‘It’s hardly a problem,’ Kenzie retorted, then blushed and looked down at her menu, adding, in a very small voice, ‘Well, I suppose it is in a way.’
She looked positively woebegone, but before he could assure her she’d have no trouble finding any number of men to marry, Muriel interrupted with a stern, ‘Decide what you want to eat!’
Having been raised by his grandmother, obedience to older women was second nature to Alex, so he perused the menu and decided on a meen molee—fish curry, delicately simmered in coconut milk, according to the menu.
‘I’m not that adventurous,’ Kenzie said, ‘but the green chicken curry sounds delicious.’
Muriel opted for the yellow vegetarian curry and when the waiter appeared asked him for enough rice for all three of them.
‘And wine, of course—no, make it champagne. Kenzie and I had a little toast earlier, but we need a full bottle with you here, Alex.’
Alex smiled to himself. It could have been his grandmother talking, never thinking to ask his preference—never imagining, he sometimes thought—that it could possibly differ from hers, bless her.
But he felt a twinge of sadness at the thought. His mother had died far too young, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother. She’d been strict about his keeping to the values of his name—the Monroe name, of course—but always fair, and ready to support him whatever path he took in life.
She hadn’t been a physically demonstrative woman—not a hugger, and only rarely did he get a kiss, but he’d always known she loved him deeply, as, indeed, he’d loved her.
And now she was going too, and a large part of his life would go with her.
He shook away the sadness his thoughts produced. Monroes didn’t do emotion!
‘And are you here to further your father’s ambition?’
He’d been lost in thoughts of his maternal relative, so wasn’t sure if Muriel’s question had been thrown at him.
Fortunately, Kenzie was quicker on the uptake.
‘No!’ she said firmly. ‘This is just a short break to recharge and regroup. I’ll get on to it when I get home.’
‘You make it sound like a military operation,’ he teased, hoping to see the smile again.
‘Well, not exactly,’ she said earnestly. ‘But I’ve learned you do have to be careful. People are marrying later, and while an older man—say, in his thirties—would be fine, most of them have regular girlfriends by then.’
‘Thirties is old?’ Alex asked, thinking he’d always considered his own age—thirty-five—as still young, not yet middle-aged, let alone old.
‘How old are you?’ he asked, and now she did smile.
‘Twenty-six, but that’s not the point. I know it probably sounds ridiculous to you, but my mother died when I was born, and for years I’ve just kept hoping that my father would marry again and have more children. And now he’s finally fallen in love again but with an older woman—so no children—which leaves it up to me to keep the family business going.’
She paused, studying him as if to make sure he was following.
‘It’s the property, you see,’ she said. ‘It’s been in the family for six generations—through drought and fires and floods—and was built with the blood and sweat and tears of my ancestors. It’s in our lifeblood, and my father desperately wants it to keep going. We have a resident manager, and I’ll run it with him if something happens to my father, but it’s the next generation. I really need to produce them while my father can pass on all his knowledge and the history of the place.’
‘Which a manager couldn’t do,’ Muriel put in. ‘They’d never feel for things the way the family would.”
‘Or care for it the way the family would,’ she said. ‘We run fifteen thousand head of cattle—Brahmans—up the gulf. They’re a lot of work—we breed them ourselves, castrate them when they’re young, then shift them around according to where the feed is. And then there’s the breeding stock—we turn off about eight thousand a year so you need to replace them—and then there are decisions for the future—drought-proofing, seeking out new markets when prices slump.’
As she’d rattled off all this information, Alex had tried desperately to keep up. The ‘property’ he’d envisaged had been a large house, or maybe a business of some sort—but fifteen thousand cattle plus enough breeders to ‘turn off’—presumably to sell—eight thousand a year?
‘I see!’ he said, rather vaguely as he had no idea how to relate to all this information.
Fortunately, Muriel took up the conversational ball.
‘My second husband had Brahmans—ugly big things they were, too. That dreadful hump. He bred them, took them to shows, won ribbons, which was nice because when he died they put the ribbons on his coffin instead of flowers, which just die anyway.’
By the time Alex had digested this bit of conversation, he was wondering why on earth he’d agreed to join the table. He’d been eating on his own quite happily for two weeks.
He could excuse himself, say he had to check on his grandmother and he’d have his meal sent up, but he knew it would be a lie as her coma-like sleep had deepened late this afternoon and he knew she wouldn’t wake before morning.
Beside which, meeting this slim, upright young woman with the sparkling smile and laughing blue eyes, who’d apparently grown up with fifteen thousand cattle, had certainly banished his boredom. The frank way she spoke of her home and her need to have children to carry on a family tradition not only intrigued him, but it touched on something deep inside him.
The concept of family, he supposed—a concept his grandmother considered of the utmost importance.
So instead of reading stories by solemn Scottish writers to Gran in the morning, he could entertain her with stories of cattle farms.