Meet Me in the Middle (Wattle Valley, #2)
When love is their only common ground, will they have the courage to meet each other in the middle?
Neve’s battered heart isn’t ready to love again. But when she accidentally charges in on her brother’s best friend while he is buck naked, she starts to see him in a new light-far from the brother-figure he used to be.
For Anders, fighting the demons that tell him he’s not deserving of love is an ongoing battle, but he is ready-he wants marriage, kids, the whole package. He just never thought he would want all of that with Neve. She is his best mate’s little sister and, for that reason alone, she is off limits.
But falling in love is always a risk. Will Neve gain the courage she needs to open her heart again before it’s too late? And can Anders be confident enough in himself to fight for what he deserves?
Set in the small town of Wattle Valley, a new rural romance about taking big risks for the sake of love from up-and-coming star Jacquie Underdown.
Neve fell into an easy jogging rhythm, passing cosy homes set upon huge properties. Plumes of smoke puffed from chimney stacks, filling the air with a subtle smoky scent.
Wattle Valley was waking to the chirping melody of rosellas and cockatoos. The distant chug of tractors drifted on the frigid wind. As Neve wended through the long, broad streets, each jerky outward breath was synced to her footfalls on the frost-bitten road.
She rounded onto Wattle Lane, the longest road in this small town, where many of the original homesteads still stood. But halfway down the street, a dark, four-legged creature caught her eye.
To find kangaroos or wombats on her morning run was not unusual, but the subtle clench in her belly told her it was neither of those animals.
A cattle dog loped out from the early morning shadows cast by a tall eucalyptus. The dog lifted its head from a patch of grass it was idly sniffing and looked at her.
Neve stopped dead.
Her body tightened, heart raced. A dog off the leash, with no owner in sight, was not what she needed right now. Especially a cattle dog. Only a year ago, one had barked at her then chased her, puncturing the back of her thigh with its sharp teeth before the owner noticed and called it back. Needless to say, she didn’t run that route anymore.
But Neve didn’t know if this dog was dangerous. She hesitated, lightly stepping from one foot to the other, trying to decide if she should keep going or turn back in the direction she had come and hope it didn’t chase her.
She calmed her breathing as best she could and took one slow step forward. It held her gaze steady, but upon her step, its ears pricked.
All of that old fear she had held about dogs, this type of dog, had her skin prickling. This breed was protective. A working dog with boundless energy. Was she about to encroach on this dog’s territory? A territory it wanted to guard with its teeth?
Outsprinting this beast was impossible.
One house back was her brother’s good mate’s home. She glanced behind her to see if any lights were on. A dull glow illuminated the front windows. Anders was awake. If she could make it there and get inside before the dog was upon her, she would be safe.
But what if his door was locked or he took a long time to answer it? Meanwhile, the dog could latch onto her front leg and be halfway through chewing it off.
No choice. She had to try. Neve spun and sprinted, faster than she had ever run in her life. Images flashed in her mind of calves being bitten from bones and frenzied growling as the dog tore at her flesh. This spurred her on.
She bounded off the road onto the green lawn to take a shortcut across the yard. The front door was ten metres ahead. She propelled towards it like it was life or death.
One glance over her shoulder to see the dog, his open mouth, ears pinned back and fast sprinting legs. For a medium-sized dog, it sure looked enormous to her now as it charged across the grass towards her.
A squeal sprang from her throat as she shoved down on the front door handle. It swung open and she staggered inside, then slammed the door shut behind her. Silence but for her breathing and drumming pulse.
She leant her head back against the door and sighed.
‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’ came Anders’ deep, frantic voice.
His eyes were wide and his mouth was parted in surprise. His dark hair was wet and he was, completely, as the day he was born, naked.
Just long, tanned flesh, fully exposed.
In that split second, as they stood there frozen, she saw everything.
He flinched and cupped his hands over his …
Her hands flung to her face and she covered her eyes before quickly spinning around. ‘There’s a dog out there. I was so scared …’
Anders cleared his throat. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
Her mouth was parched. Her breathing fast, and not only because she was almost eaten alive. She spun back to face him tentatively. He had managed to cover himself with a couch cushion. Her cheeks flooded with heat, so she turned back to face the wall.
‘A dog chased me here. It nearly tore my throat out.’ Despite her best efforts, her voice cracked. Her eyes were misting.
Shock. Too many unexpected encounters in the one morning.
‘Did it hurt you? Are you okay?’
She shook her head. Nodded. ‘I managed to get away from it. Just.’
A long exhalation. ‘Let me get some clothes on, and I’ll deal with the dog.’
She nodded. ‘Thank you. I’m so sorry to come barging in … but there were no other options … I didn’t know you’d be n-naked.’ She turned again and peered at the beige cushion held steadfastly against him and narrowed her eyes. ‘Why are you naked?’
He pointed up the hall, then to the pile of washing sitting on the dining table in a basket. ‘I just showered. My clothes are down here.’ His eyes were wide and his words were fast. Every muscle in his body was flexing as he tried to conceal himself. His expression was one of mortification, shock and …
A laugh exploded from Neve. Of all the moments she had to storm into this house unexpectedly, it happened to be the moment he dashed from the bathroom to the dining room—naked.
‘What’s so funny?’
She laughed even harder until she could barely breathe, let alone answer him. She pointed to the cushion and back to her chest, giggles bursting from her. ‘This,’ she managed, breathless. ‘Now. You. Naked.’
He narrowed his eyes, raised his finger and circled it in the air. She turned around again, her shoulders still shuddering.
Rapid footsteps followed by the hasty sliding of clothes over skin. ‘Okay,’ he said.
When she spun back to face him, her delirium had eased somewhat, though her eyes still watered. Anders was dressed in a pair of jeans and a pale blue long-sleeve jumper that hugged his biceps and accentuated his deeply tanned skin.
Her mood sank a little. Strangely, even under such circumstances, she much preferred him naked. She shook her head, banishing those wicked, utterly absurd thoughts.
Anders was her older brother’s best friend. He had been a familiar face to their family for as long as Neve could remember. In all that time, she had never seen him naked. Of course she hadn’t. Why would she have?
She tried not to think how that was a damn shame because Anders was a lean, tanned and muscled specimen from his face all the way down to his toes.
She shook her head to clear those inappropriate thoughts away. Anders was her brother’s best friend. Going there, anywhere there, was ridiculous.
He pulled his shoulders back. ‘Now, where’s this dog?’
Her heart thumped harder again, remembering what had chased her here. She pointed to the door. ‘Outside.’
He nodded, his brows lowering and his lips drawing into a serious line, then pointed to behind the lounge. ‘Stand back there.’
She stood directly behind him instead, peeking around his shoulder as he opened the door.
Sunlight burst through first. She squinted.
And sure enough, there it was. The dog. Sitting on the front step, tongue hanging out of its mouth, panting hard.
It didn’t move when it saw Anders, thank god.
Anders looked back at her. ‘Is this the dog?’
She nodded. Her heart rate was speeding out of control.
Anders narrowed his eyes as he faced the dog, then looked at Neve again. A small smile crept over his lips. ‘This dog? This happy dog wagging its tail?’
She peeked further around his shoulder and noted the tail wagging and the joyful demeanour the dog now had. She grimaced and shrugged. ‘I think so. It looks the same, but I’m certain it was after my blood a moment ago.’
Anders crouched and patted the dog around his ears. ‘What are you doing outside, boy? Chasing girls up the street?’ His voice was a coo. The dog wagged its tail harder, so his entire backend was moving from side to side. ‘Come on—’ he gripped the dog by the collar, ‘—let’s get you back home.’
Anders turned to her as he started out the door. ‘He belongs to the old man next door. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. Though, he’s never usually out on the street like this. He must’ve escaped without Don knowing.’ His hazel eyes found hers. ‘You coming with me or are you going to cower inside?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘I’ll come too, I guess. Now that I know he’s not going to rip my throat out.’
Anders laughed. Neve followed him next door, skipping to keep up.
Anders looked at her and spoke calmly, though there was an underlying urgency. ‘Take the dog.’
She did, unthinkingly, linking her fingers under the dog’s collar.
He pointed ahead to the side of the house. ‘There’s a gate. Put him behind there. Then call an ambulance.’
She blinked. Shook her head. ‘What?’
Anders raced towards the left side of the yard where the long gravel driveway was. She glanced to where he was headed. A body was lying on the ground, blood pooling from his head staining the gravel red. A man, eighty or so years old, not moving.
She gasped and threw her free hand over her mouth. The edges of her vision blurred. Breaths were hard to draw in. Myriad memories of her mother collapsed on the ground, drool sliding from the side of her mouth, filled her mind.
‘Dog behind the gate. Ambulance,’ he said over his shoulder as he picked up the pace and jogged towards the body.
His words penetrated through her shock. She ran the dog up to the fence and shoved him into the backyard before closing the gate hard behind her. Her phone was strapped to her arm, so she grabbed it out of its case, dialled triple zero with shaky hands, and was directed to the correct area.
Her heart was hammering and her head was light as she made her way over to Anders.
‘I need an ambulance to … to …’ She looked around for a house number. A big black 2 followed by a 5 was stuck to the façade of the house near the front door. ‘Twenty-five Wattle Lane.’ She was willing, forcing herself to be calm, but she couldn’t hide the jumpiness in her voice. ‘An old man has fallen over on his driveway. It’s steep. He’s hit his head.’
She remembered the same conversation nearly two-and-a-half years ago about her mum. The fear that had consumed her from the inside out to see her beautiful mother in that defenceless, defeated condition.
‘Is he conscious?’ asked the nasal voice on the end of the phone, snapping her out of her reverie.
Anders was assessing the man, feeling his pulse, and checking his airways. ‘Is he conscious?’ she asked him.
‘He’s got a pulse. Unconscious. Looks like a head injury. I’m performing first aid now.’
Neve repeated what Anders said to the calm voice on the other end of the line. A voice so contradictory to how she, herself, felt.
‘An ambulance has been dispatched. If you could have a list of any medication he is on ready for the officers when they arrive.’
She nodded, then remembered she had to actually speak. ‘I’ll see what I can do. Thank you.’
After the call ended, she shoved her phone down her bra, unsure if her shaking hands would see it back into her running pouch. She stared at Anders as he applied first aid to the man with unflinching professionalism and compassion. So calm. Neve was the exact opposite, so she stood back.
Sirens sounded in the distance and she sighed with relief. ‘They’re on their way. I can hear them.’
‘Good work, Neve.’
The ambulance pulled up a few minutes later and Anders assisted the crew, explaining what he could about the man’s state. The man woke as he was being hoisted onto the stretcher and groaned.
‘Don. Don?’ Anders asked, leaning over him as the paramedic unwrapped a green whistle and shoved it in the old man’s mouth. He inhaled hard but shakily on it.
Don’s rheumy eyes looked at Anders.
‘You’ve had a fall, mate. The ambulance is here and is going to drive you to the hospital. They’ll take good care of you there.’
Don nodded and sucked hard on the whistle.
‘Do you need me to call anyone for you?’
A tear fell down the man’s face, and he shook his head.
Anders put his hand over Don’s. ‘That’s fine. I’ll pack some clothes and toiletries for you and bring them up soon. I’ll take care of your dog, all right?’
The paramedics pushed the stretcher into the back of the ambulance. One jumped in to sit next to Don for the trip. The other shut the doors, thanked Anders and climbed in the front before driving away slowly.
‘Oh my god,’ Neve said. She held up her hands; they were trembling. ‘Will he be okay?’
‘I hope so.’
‘How are you so calm? I feel like crying.’ As she said the words, a film of tears clouded her eyes.
He shook his head. ‘I’m not sure. I just did what I had to do.’
She wiped at her cheeks, knowing the truth in those words. When her mum had her stroke, Neve was the one who found her. Nerves or not, she was the one that had to call the ambulance and keep Mum company until they arrived. She was the one who had to travel in the back of the ambulance to the hospital. She had to do what she had to do.
Anders slung an arm around her shoulders. ‘Come on, I’ll make you a cup of tea. You’ve had a rough morning.’
Anders pushed through the front door of his home and gestured Neve take a seat at the dining table, then he quickly moved the basket of clean laundry.
‘A cup of tea?’ he asked.
Poor Neve’s face was pale. She hadn’t uttered a single word as they had made their way back from Don’s. For his day job, Anders coached kids, so he had completed myriad first aid courses over the years. All that training kicked in the moment he saw Don collapsed on the driveway.
Neve, on the other hand, didn’t have that training and considering the traumatic experiences she has endured over the past few years, it had obviously crept up and shaken her about.
The blood pooling on the driveway wouldn’t have helped. Especially after the dog incident. Not to mention the humiliating fact that Anders was naked when she charged into his house earlier.
Heat rose up his neck and into his cheeks remembering the moment she burst through the door. He had frozen on the spot, everything hanging out for all the world to see. It wouldn’t have been an issue with any other person, but with Neve, it seemed to transgress unstated but firmly set boundaries.
She was Jager’s little sister. He had known Neve since he was twelve years old. Sure, she was a grown woman now with all the grown-up womanly components, but it still felt … wrong?
Don’t misunderstand him, Neve was gorgeous—long blonde hair, big blue eyes and a strong, curvaceous body—and under normal circumstances, he’d love a sexy woman to burst through his front door and catch him starkers. But Neve wasn’t any usual beautiful woman—there was a big complication. Namely, her big brother.
He shook his head to clear the thoughts away. Don had been taken to the hospital and here he was fixating on the fact his best mate’s little sister copped an eyeful of him in his birthday suit.
He made two cups of tea, placed one in front of Neve. Her eyes were clearer now—that was a good sign. And the shaking had stopped, judging by the firm hands gripping the teacup.
He took a seat opposite her at the dining table and cradled his cup. ‘Feeling a little better?’
She nodded. ‘I … I’m not great with dealing with this kind of thing anymore. Not since Mum. Not since my car accident.’ Without her even seeming to realise, she traced a fingertip along the pink scar that ran from her forehead, through her eyebrow and farther down her cheek to the top of her lip.
Neve’s mum had suffered a major stroke two-and-a-half years ago. From what Jager had told him, Neve was the one who had found her. Mrs Mitchell had survived, which, considering the barely functioning shell she was now, requiring full-time nursing care, may not have been the kindest outcome.
Then, barely six months after that, Neve and her ex-boyfriend were in a major car accident. She was lucky to come out of that alive, though she didn’t escape the scars. Scars that were not only physical going by today’s reaction.
‘That’s understandable, Neve. Don’t beat yourself up. Don is now in the best of care. And you had a big part to play in that.’
Neve blew out a long breath. ‘You were so calm.’
He chuckled. ‘On the inside. I felt a bit robotic, to be honest.’
She shook her head. ‘You were great.’
He lowered his face to hide the heat of modesty creeping along his cheeks. When he met her gaze again, tears were wetting her eyes. He frowned.
Her watery chuckle held a strong edge of self-consciousness and apology as she rubbed her hands across her eyes, wiping the tears away. ‘I’m so sorry. This is ridiculous. I hadn’t realised it was all sitting below the surface. Seeing Don kinda brought it all back.’
He leant over the table and placed his hand on top of hers. ‘Neve. It’s okay. I understand.’
She glanced at their hands. Her attention amplified the heat of their connection. To touch her, even in this small way, felt like … more. He slowly withdrew his gesture and smiled sympathetically.
Neve sipped her tea. ‘So you’re going to head up to the hospital later?’
‘I’ll give them time to treat Don and book him in. I could swing by and pick you up and we can go together if you like?’
She shook her head. ‘I’d rather avoid hospitals if I can. Please text me, though, to let me know how Don is once you’ve seen him?’
‘Sure. No worries.’
Neve sighed deeply, pushed her chair back and stood. ‘I better get home.’
‘I’ll drop you off, hey?’
‘Thanks. I’m not much in the mood to run anymore.’
Anders drove to Jager’s house, which Neve had lived in with him for the past eighteen months. It was a quaint three bedroom low-set brick house with the endless countryside as their backyard. He pulled into the long gravel driveway and dropped the gearstick into neutral.
‘You won’t tell Jager about seeing me naked, will you?’
Neve laughed. ‘It wasn’t your fault I barged in …’ She looked away.
‘I know, but Jager might read something into it if he knew. You know what he’s like.’ Massively over-protective where Neve was concerned, especially since the car accident. Neve’s ex had been drink-driving. To say Jager’s level of trust when it came to men who dated Neve was low was a massive understatement.
‘I won’t tell him.’ She stepped out of his ute and leant back in. ‘Thanks for your help with the dog.’
‘No worries. Anytime. Except for the whole naked thing, maybe we could, you know, skip that next time.’
She giggled. ‘See ya.’
And she shut the door.
The last thing he wanted to do and tried to stop himself from doing was ogle his friend’s little sister as she made her way to her front door. But Neve was gorgeous, dressed in tight black running pants and a snug-fitting hoodie. Her blonde hair was pulled into a messy ponytail that hung to the middle of her back.
She was fit yet still held onto curves. All at once, a thousand images flooded his brain of gripping those curvaceous hips in his hands—preferably minus her clothes.
Where the hell did that thought come from?
Anders slammed his palm against the steering wheel and groaned, but he accidentally hit the horn and it blared in the silent morning.
Neve spun, a questioning look on her face.
‘Bloody hell.’ His face was hot as he lowered the window and stuck his head out. ‘Nothing, it was an accident,’ he called out to her.
She nodded, waved and turned back towards the house.
As he drove away, despite what his body was saying, he declared that Neve was off limits. No matter how gorgeous she was, he didn’t need that sort of complication in his life.