Can a fling turn into a family?
After a chance meeting in Brisbane, Shayne Smith and Cassie Long had a perfect fortnight together. But when Shayne returned to his historic sheep property, they both assumed there was no future in a relationship between a city girl and a grazier.
Six months later, Cassie arrives at Maiden’s Landing to let Shayne know they made more than memories in their brief idyll. She has no expectations, only a duty to let him know.
Shayne’s life is already complicated with a property to run and a sixteen-year-old daughter growing up fast. He never expected the woman he can’t forget to turn up on his doorstep bringing news that is all too familiar.
Fiercely independent Cassie isn’t asking anything of him, but he persuades her to stay at his homestead until the twin babies are born. Cassie’s difficult pregnancy means that any possibility of romance must be put on hold – despite the intense attraction they feel for each other. How long can they resist? And will each of them overcome their own baggage so they can build a future together?
It had to be sheep.
Cassie slowed to a crawl on the long driveway, catching glimpses of green paddocks scattered with white blobs between the poplars lining the unpaved thoroughfare. They were fenced in safely, she reassured herself multiple times, white-knuckled fingers clutching the steering wheel. Stupid sheep.
She breathed easier as the road climbed away from the paddocks, rising to the homestead, perched on a hill that had been visible from the main road. She’d stopped at the gate to look over the property, not planning to go in, taking in fresh growth after the recent rain and the house itself, laden with history. That was the time to ignore the impulse to keep going. Now, halfway up the driveway in full view of the house, was almost too late. An easy drive of twenty kilometres on a bitumen road had lured her into thinking she could come and look. Once she’d seen the place, it seemed stupid to return to town and wait for him to come to her. She wanted it over, needed it done.
The march of poplars halted abruptly, giving way to formal gardens with a mix of local and exotic trees and shrubs, garnished with splashes of colour low to the ground. Azaleas? The driveway veered off to one side of the large house, but Cassie turned into the brick paved circular drive around a colourful rose garden. In the centre of the island stood an ornamental stone fountain with a Victorian era cupid surveying his domain, dry now in deference to the heat of summer in a region only recently declared free of drought.
She slowed the hybrid hatch to a halt in front of the impressive steps leading to a lace trimmed verandah. The two-storey building was heritage listed, dating from the earliest settlements in Maiden’s Landing. The property itself was part of the original Maiden’s holdings, long since broken up. Maidens Hill. She’d had to find it on the internet, because Shayne Smith, master of all he surveyed, had been close lipped about his personal life in the few days they’d been together in Brisbane.
Adjusting her large cotton wrap into concealing folds over the loose summery dress, she grabbed the brown paper store bag from the passenger seat and climbed out of the car. The glossy red duco was coated with dust. A city car and a city girl in an unfamiliar environment. For the car, at least. She hadn’t always been a city girl.
The front door with its stained-glass side panels and bronze knocker was daunting of itself. It spoke of the secrets Shayne had kept. The discreet doorbell came as a relief. Her finger hesitated over the button as she admitted she’d been keeping secrets, too. With a sharp jab, she committed herself and heard it chime somewhere deep inside the house.
Perhaps she should have stayed in the small town. Booked into her accommodation and called Shayne to arrange a meeting, as he’d suggested. Only she’d woken up too early and a restless anxiety had driven her onto the road long before she’d planned. At least by being early she hadn’t been tied up in weekend traffic, escaping the city with her full laden car.
A skittering sound was followed by a deep bark and then footsteps on a timber floor. Cassie braced herself and was astonished to meet familiar blue-green eyes on a lanky teenager not much shorter than herself. The girl’s sandy hair was in two messy plaits, her jeans were grubby, and a button up checked shirt showed sweat stains on the underarms as if she’d been out working on the property. She probably did. Cassie knew what that was like.
What was more disturbing was suspecting Shayne Smith had a daughter. And a dog. And a wife? Unless she was a sister. He’d never spoken of family. He had been clear about not having any personal commitments, and she’d believed him. The black and white collie stared up suspiciously but stayed beside his mistress. Well trained.
‘Yes?’ The girl’s enquiry came out with a sullen aggression and Cassie realised she’d been staring.
‘Cassie Long. I’m here to meet with Shayne Smith. Is he home?’
The girl looked her up and down and her nose wrinkled. ‘He’s home, but he’s not in the house.’
She should have expected it. Saturdays were still working days when there was stock to tend. ‘May I wait for him here?’
Cassie could see she was tempted to send her away, but perhaps lacked the confidence. One dirt-stained hand tugged at a plait. ‘I suppose you better come in.’
‘I could wait in the car.’
Sandy brows rose over those distinctively coloured eyes. ‘You’d need to keep the engine running or you’d cook.’ She turned away. ‘You can wait in the front room. I’ll text Dad you’re here.’
He had a daughter. No mention of a wife so far. The nausea she’d thought gone surged into the back of her throat and she swallowed the taste. She’d trusted him. Had to trust him.
The house was everything you’d expect from a historical home, from the carved timber staircase to the pressed metal ceilings and milky glass light shades. The furnishings in the room off to the right were less grand. It was dominated by a good quality leather lounge suite and a timber coffee table on hard-wearing carpet suited for a casual room. This would be where the family relaxed and watched the large screen television mounted on the plain, off-white painted walls. The window overlooked the front garden, where her car windscreen glinted in the sun.
The girl waited until Cassie settled in an armchair, then went to the door where the dog waited. At the last minute, she turned. ‘I left my phone in the kitchen. I’m Kim and this is Barney. He’s not allowed to jump on the furniture.’
She vanished into the hall, leaving Cassie and Barney to eye each other warily. He was an old dog, she realised, discovering the extra white on his muzzle and the faded brown of his eyes. Which probably explained why a working dog was in the house. In her experience, they were usually kept outside.
The stalemate was broken when Barney crossed the room to lie on a fluffy mat in front of the fireplace. Cassie settled in for a long wait, the bag sitting on her lap. She was tempted to put it on the coffee table, but perhaps concealment was a better option with Shayne Smith’s daughter around.
The sound of someone in the hall sent her tension soaring. Heavier footsteps, masculine with a slight halt. The man appeared in the doorway, like an echo of the man she remembered. Maybe younger but with the same thick sandy hair, the extra length held back in a ponytail, and the same eyes, his face half concealed under a shaggy beard. Definitely related.
‘Hi. Ben Smith, Shayne’s brother. Kim tells me you’re here to meet with him. You’re Cassie?’
‘Yes.’ She braced herself to stand, but he waved her down, entering the room with an obvious limp and planting himself on an upright chair near the couch.
‘Stay where you are. Kim’s bringing some water.’ He swiped a hand over his forehead, drawing her attention to the crease caused by a hat he must have shed on his way into the house. ‘Shayne won’t be long. He’s finishing up the irrigation programming.’
He’d hardly finished speaking when Kim brought in a jug of iced water with a stack of glasses in her other hand. She’d freshened up since she’d answered the door, her hands clean and her hair tidied. She dumped them on the coffee table. ‘Help yourself.’
‘Kim.’ There was a warning tone in Ben’s voice.
She rolled her eyes. ‘Would you like a glass of water, Miss Long?’
‘Call me Cassie and yes, please.’
The girl poured out four glasses of water and handed one to Cassie and another to Ben. Taking one for herself, she perched on the arm of the other empty armchair. ‘What brings you here, Cassie?’ She placed a sarcastic emphasis on the name, but this time, Ben didn’t bother to reprimand her.
Cassie indicated the bag. ‘Your father left some things behind when he visited last year. I was in the district, so I’m returning them.’
Kim snorted. ‘You should have posted them instead of driving all this way. You are from the city, aren’t you?’
‘How do you know?’
‘Dad doesn’t date locally. He thinks it’s not good for me to know he’s off getting shagged. He waits until he goes to Brisbane.’
‘Kimberley.’ Ben slammed his drink onto the small table beside his chair. ‘Don’t be rude.’
‘I’m telling it like it is in case “Cassie” gets any ideas. He won’t marry you. He didn’t even marry my mother when she got pregnant.’
The sudden hollowness in her belly came out of nowhere. She sipped at her water, hoping it was more about needing something in her stomach than the comment from Kimberley about Shayne not marrying her mother. Not that Cassie was after marriage. It somehow didn’t resonate with the man she’d thought Shayne Smith had been. But he’d taken responsibility and they obviously lived here with him. She placed the empty glass on the coffee table with more care than Ben had used. ‘I’m not chasing your father, Kim. I’m returning something of his while I was in the district, and I was hoping to catch up on some … business. It’s obviously not convenient. I should go.’
‘Go where?’ The deep voice from the doorway sent her pulse haywire. ‘I thought you were going to ring when you arrived in town so I could meet you there.’
Having seen the daughter and brother, his impact should have been less. It hit her in the gut and stole her breath. She struggled to her feet, still clutching the bag. ‘I had time to spare, and I thought … It doesn’t matter. I’ll head off. Back to town. Back home.’ Anywhere but here with his family looking on.
‘Look, if you can hang on a few minutes, I’ll go get changed and we can talk.’
The swipe of his hand down his body forced her to look directly at him. His jeans and long-sleeved checked shirt were wet and muddy, and he’d shed his boots somewhere, leaving his large feet in thick work socks. Even his face had a smear of mud on the rugged square jawed features, blending into the light brown beard. The facial hair was new. He’d been clean shaven six months ago. It was neat and closely trimmed, unlike his brother’s shaggy locks.
She could only imagine his hat had saved the bulk of his thick hair because the ends dripped water down his muscular neck and the rest remained dry. He was stocky, but she knew it was all muscle. All brawn and plenty of brain. An attractive combination she still felt in the pit of her stomach.
His mouth twitched as if he knew what she was thinking. ‘I had an argument with a stopcock.’
Why was she thinking wicked thoughts? Cassie had seen him wet before. Wet and naked. Her body reacted predictably. This was what she’d been afraid of all those months ago when she’d forced herself to walk away. He was too much. Meant too much. She had to control this thing she sensed between them. He’d been talking about his farm work no matter where her mind had wandered.
She knew what a stopcock was, and he hadn’t said it with obvious innuendo. Or had he? There was something about the glint in those eyes that brought out the green.
She collapsed into the chair; her legs too wobbly to sustain her. She blinked away the image, breathing herself into a hard-won serenity.
He turned away with a warning glance at his daughter. He yanked the shirt over his head as he walked out the door, leaving her with the doubtful joy of seeing his broad back in a navy singlet, muscles bunching as he ran one hand through his hair, sending water droplets flying. She’d seen those strong limbs in action. Felt them. All of them.
Dragging her attention back, she met the accusing gaze of his daughter. The coincidence of identical clothes didn’t escape her this time. This girl worshipped her father and any of his girlfriends, women friends, would have to compete with it. Where was the girl’s mother? ‘Is your mum around?’
The pained expression on the girl’s face showed she’d blundered. She hoped the woman wasn’t dead.
‘She’s in South Dakota. On a ranch.’
‘She lives there permanently?’
‘With a new family. I have two half-brothers.’ There was a world of hurt in the words, even with the touch of pride in mentioning her brothers.
‘Really? I have a half-brother. Do you see them much?’
‘Not for nearly five years.’
It was a long time for a child. She must have been only ten or eleven. Was that the last time she’d seen her mother? No wonder she clung to her father. This was awkward. She should have done as he suggested, contacting him from town and meeting up at the pub. The complications of family hadn’t occurred to her when she’d asked the woman at the petrol station where to find Maidens Hill.
The girl must have recognised the concern in her face because she lifted her chin. ‘We Skype all the time.’
Shayne’s brother, Ben, was sitting half slouched on the chair, the almost empty glass held loosely in his hand, his wrist resting on his thigh. His narrowed gaze had a speculative gleam.
Cassie pushed aside her embarrassment. ‘You work here with Shayne?’
‘Yeah. I manage the merinos. Shayne does the coloureds. Goats and alpacas too.’
‘I thought he was into horses.’
Ben raised an eyebrow. ‘He has a few. It’s more a hobby.’
‘I do barrel racing,’ Kim interjected. ‘Like my mum.’
Oh great. Shayne had been involved with a rodeo queen. This whole day was turning into cruel and unusual punishment. ‘Does she still race?’
‘Yeah. It’s one reason she went to America. Then, when she met Cal, she stayed. He’s a bronco rider. They have a cattle property.’
Maybe the aggressively cowgirl outfit wasn’t just about her dad. ‘Do you compete at the rodeo?’
‘Yeah. I’m training now. Maiden’s Landing rodeo is next month and soon after that will be Bialga.’
Would she still be here in a month? She’d planned to stay in town, but maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, he wasn’t married, but his daughter would be a priority. It was too late to escape. She’d committed to at least wait until Shayne came back. Why was he taking so long? A glance at the clock on the old-fashioned mantle told her it was only a few minutes. It was her nerves that made every moment stretch out. The brother’s curious eyes and his daughter’s hostile gaze didn’t help. It was going to be a conflagration when they found out why she was here. Worse than she’d thought, considering it wasn’t only Shayne who would be impacted.