The Last-Minute Marriage
MARCUS BENSON shoved open the fire-escape door-and ran straight into Cinderella.
Marcus running into anyone was unusual in itself. The influence of the Benson Corporation reached throughout the international business community, and Marcus, at its head, was a man held in awe. Bumping into people was unheard of. A path usually cleared before him.
It wasn’t just power, wealth and intellect contributing to the aura surrounding him. He was in his mid-thirties, tall and superbly fit, with jet-black hair and striking, hawklike features. His charisma and influence were such that women’s magazines were unanimous in declaring him to be America’s most eligible bachelor.
And Marcus was likely to stay that way.
Well, why not? His experience of family life had been a disaster. His time in the armed forces had taught him loyalty and friendship, but loyalty and friendship had ended in tragedy. So Marcus Benson was a man who walked alone.
But that was before he met Peta O’Shannassy.
And Peta’s kids, dogs, cows and catastrophe.
He didn’t see that now, though. All he saw was a kid who reminded him oddly of Cinderella.
But Cinderella should be in her castle kitchen, tending the fire. Hungry. Wasn’t that how the story went? Surely she shouldn’t be eating her lunch on the landing of a New York fire-escape.
Maybe Marcus was making a few assumptions. He assumed this was Cinderella. He assumed it was lunch. In reality, all Marcus saw was a spilled yellow drink, a flying bagel, and, underneath, a tattered kid with bright chestnut curls and skimpy clothes.
So maybe she wasn’t Cinderella.
Who, then? A street kid? She was wearing shorts, a frayed T-shirt and battered sandals. His first impression was of a waif.
His second sensation was horror as waif-and lunch-fought for balance, lost, and tumbled to the next landing.
What had he done?
He’d been in too much of a hurry. There weren’t enough hours in the day for Marcus Benson. He had people waiting.
They’d have to wait. He’d just knocked a kid down half a flight of stairs. She was crumpled in a heap on the next landing, looking as if she wasn’t going anywhere.
It seemed an eternity while she slid, but in fact it was two or three seconds at most. The next moment, Marcus was brushing the bright curls away from her face. Trying to see the damage.
Again he had to do a rethink. She wasn’t a street kid-or not the type that he recognised.
She was clean. Sure, she was covered in what remained of her bagel and her milkshake, but her mop of curls were soft to touch. Her shorts and her T-shirt were freshly laundered under the mess he’d made, and she was…
She wasn’t a kid.
Maybe she was about twenty, he thought. Her eyes were closed but he had the impression that it wasn’t unconsciousness that was causing her eyelids to stay shuttered. There was a sense of exhaustion about her, as if she was closing her eyes to shut out more than the pain and shock of the moment. Dark shadows smudged deeply under her eyes. She was thin. Far too thin.
His first impression solidified. Cinderella.
Her eyes fluttered open. They were wide green eyes, deep and questioning. Pain-filled.
‘Don’t move,’ he said urgently and she focused on his face, questioning.
‘Ouch,’ she whispered.
She appeared to consider.
‘Definitely ouch,’ she said at last, and the strain in her voice said she was trying hard to make light of something that was worse than just ouch. She didn’t move; just lay on the steel-plated landing as if she was trying to come to terms with a catastrophe that was just one of a series. ‘I guess I spilled my milkshake, huh.’
‘Um…’ He looked down to the next flight of steps. ‘Yeah. Definitely.’
‘And my bagel?’ Her accent was Australian, he thought. It was warm and resonant, with a tremor behind it. From shock? From pain?
But she was worried about her bagel. He smiled at that, albeit weakly. If she was worried about her bagel, chances were that she wasn’t suffering injuries that were life-threatening.
‘I’d imagine your bagel is at ground level,’ he told her. ‘It’ll have turned into a lethal missile by now.’
‘Oh, great.’ She closed her eyes again and his impression of exhaustion deepened. ‘I can see the headlines. Australian drops New Yorker with jelly-loaded bagel. I’ll probably get sent to prison-for-terrorists on the first flight out of here.’
‘Hey.’ It was too much. Marcus Benson, who seldom-well, never, in fact-let himself get involved, put his hand on her cheek in a gesture of comfort. Good grief. He’d blasted her down a flight of stairs. He’d ruined her lunch. He’d hurt her-and she was trying to turn it into a joke.
‘Australian Braining New Yorker with Bagel is the least of our legal worries,’ he told her. ‘How about Corporate Idiot Shoves Australian Downstairs?’
She opened one eye and looked up at him. Cautiously. ‘You mean I can sue?’
‘For at least the cost of a bagel,’ he told her, and his words produced a smile.
It was a great smile. A killer smile. Her eyes were deeply green and they twinkled, as if it was their permanent state. Maybe she wasn’t twenty, he thought. Maybe she was older. With a smile like that… Well, a smile like that took practice.
He’d never seen a smile like it.
But he couldn’t stop and think about a woman’s smile. Or he shouldn’t. He was in a rush. The reason he’d used the fire stairs was that he was in a hurry. The lift had jammed at just the wrong time. His assistant would be waiting at street level, checking her watch. He had a deal to close.
But he couldn’t just leave this kid here.
He lifted his cellphone. ‘Ruby?’ he snapped as his assistant answered.
‘Marcus.’ This was a busy day, even for the super-efficient Ruby, and his assistant sounded worried. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m on the fire-escape. Can you come up, please? I have a situation.’
As he tucked his phone back into his jacket he found himself suppressing a grin. A situation on the fire-escape. That’d have Ruby having kittens all the way up. Ruby was efficient but things like…well, situations on fire-escapes were unusual, even for Ruby.
She’d cope, he thought. Ruby always coped. But until the cavalry arrived he needed to focus on the girl.
‘Are you hurt?’ he asked, and found she was staring straight up at him now, both her eyes fully open. She’d rolled over on to her back. There was a dollop of jelly wedged under her curls near one ear, and he had the weirdest desire to wipe it away…
Heck, cut it out, Benson, he told himself. This was getting personal. He didn’t do personal. That was what Ruby was for.
But apparently the waif didn’t want his attention just as much as he didn’t wish to offer it. ‘Thank you for asking,’ she said politely. ‘But I’m fine. You can go away now.’
He blinked. ‘I can go away?’
‘You’re in a rush. I sat in your way. You’ve squashed my bagel, you’ve spilled my milkshake and you’ve hurt my ankle, but hey, it’s my fault. I’m-’
‘You’ve hurt your ankle?’
‘It appears,’ she said with cautious dignity, ‘to be hurt.’
He checked her out. Her legs were long and tanned and smooth. Really long, in fact, and really tanned, and really smooth. They were great legs. It was incongruous that they ended up with shabby leather sandals that looked as if they came from a welfare shop.
The shoes weren’t the only jarring note. One ankle was puffing while he watched.
‘Hey! It’s me who’s supposed to swear. Why don’t you just go away so that I can?’
‘Don’t let me stop you.’
‘A lady doesn’t swear in front of a gentleman,’ she told him, lifting her ankle so she could see it. Mistake. She winced and let it drop. Cautiously. But still the determination was there to move on. Ignoring pain. ‘While I might not be a lady, by the look of the suit you’re wearing, you must be a gentleman,’ she managed. ‘That’s about the most gentlemanly suit I’ve ever seen.’
Here they were again. Talking about him. He found himself glancing down at his Armani suit and thinking, Yeah, that’s all it took. Wear a suit that cost a few thou’ and bang, you’re a gentleman.
Even if he did toss kids downstairs.
‘I’m really sorry,’ he told her, and she nodded as if she’d been waiting for it.
‘I wondered when we’d get around to that.’
She took him aback. It wasn’t just her accent that was unusual, he decided. It was everything about her. She was hurting-hurting badly. He could see it behind her eyes. But she wasn’t letting on. She was sassy and smart, and she wanted him to disappear so she could swear in private. Or do whatever she had to do in private.
‘Is it only your ankle that’s hurting?’ he asked.
‘Isn’t that enough?’
‘I guess it is.’ He touched her foot, lightly probing, and saw that it hurt. A lot. ‘That was quite a fall.’
‘You thumped out of there hard.’
‘I guess I did.’
‘I’m fine,’ she said, and he knew that, though she was trying to keep things light, there was a load of bitterness behind the words. ‘Leave me be.’
‘That ankle might be broken.’
‘Yeah, with my luck…’ She broke off and seemed to try to haul herself together. She even managed to produce that smile again. Almost. ‘No. Don’t worry. It’d be hurting more if it was broken.’
‘Can I help you inside?’ He motioned to the door he’d just come from.
‘To the offices of Charles Higgins?’ Her eyebrows hiked up in mock incredulity. ‘Attila in there wouldn’t let me sit on her settee and eat my bagel. You think she’ll let me sit on her settee now I’m covered with banana milkshake?’
‘I guess she wouldn’t,’ he said, his voice a trifle unsteady. Attila… He knew exactly who she was talking about. Charles Higgins’s secretary.
‘You were waiting to see Charles?’
Marcus knew Charles Higgins. The man was sleaze. A king-sized ego with the morals of a sewer rat. Because of renovations-the same renovations that were causing problems with the lifts now-Marcus had been forced to share a corporate washroom with Charles Higgins for the last few weeks. But that was as far as their relationship went. The man’s brains were in his balls. He had a reputation for dealing dishonestly with dishonest money.
Marcus owned this building. He might lease part of it to Higgins but it didn’t mean he had to like the man.
He couldn’t understand for a minute what business this girl would have with a slime-ball of a lawyer like Higgins.
‘You had an appointment?’
‘At ten this morning. Three hours ago.’ She was still lying on the landing, her fingers tentatively probing her ankle. ‘Attila keeps fobbing me off. Finally I was so hungry I dived out and got lunch and Attila told me I’d have to eat out here. Enter you.’
That made sense. Higgins’s secretary, a woman of indeterminate years and with a bosom like plate armour, had a reputation for being nastier than Higgins himself. If that was possible.
‘You know…’ It was a crazy conversation. Any minute now Ruby would arrive and rescue him, but meanwhile maybe he could give her a bit of advice. It couldn’t hurt. ‘You know, maybe if you want to talk to high-powered New York lawyers, then maybe shorts and T-shirt and scruffy sandals aren’t going to cut it.’
‘Scruffy…’ She probed her ankle and winced yet again but she was able to focus on what he was saying. ‘You’re saying my sandals are scruffy?’
‘Yes,’ he said firmly, and he almost got that smile again. Not quite. She was in real pain, he thought. Where on earth was Ruby? ‘Scruffy is a polite way of describing them, really.’
‘They’re my aunty’s.’
‘She’s dead,’ the girl said as if that explained all. It didn’t. But he had to say something.
‘Oh,’ he said and this time he definitely got the smile.
It was worth working for. It was a great smile.
‘I brought corporate clothes,’ she told him. ‘I’m not silly. But I’ve come from Australia. I came in a hurry because my aunt was dying, but I did pack decent clothes. Unfortunately the airline is playing keepings-off with them.’
‘I put my clothes on the plane in Sydney. I put me on the plane in Sydney. I got off the plane here, but clearly my suitcase fell out somewhere around Hawaii. So now someone in Hawaii’s wearing my good, Charles-facing suit while I’m forced to wear the only clothes I have. I had one pair of decent shoes but I was stupid enough to use the same pavement as a New York mutt with poor choice in toilet placement. With ten minutes to make it here, Aunt Hattie’s sandals were all I had.’
‘You didn’t think of buying something else?’ he asked, and that was a mistake. He’d shoved her down the stairs, he’d hurt her, and she’d reacted with humour. Now, though, he got a blaze of anger that made him take a step back.
‘Yeah. Toss a little money at the problem and it’ll go away. Of course. What’s money for? Just like Charles. You leave your mother with Peta until it looks like you’ll inherit; then you haul her over to the other side of the world. Economy class. When she’s dying! Even when you can afford all this! Only you don’t really want her. You dump her in some appalling nursing home to die alone, making sure you get her to change her will first…’ She bit her lip and the wash of pain across her face was dreadful.
‘Um… I don’t have a mother,’ he said cautiously and the anger exploded even more.
‘Of course you don’t. I wasn’t talking about you. I was just grouping you.’
‘I see.’ He didn’t. In fact, he didn’t have a clue what was going on. Her anger was palpable and he needed to break through it in order to get some… Well, some order.
‘Who’s Peta?’ he asked.
‘Me.’ She glowered.
‘You’re Peta? Hi. I’m Marcus.’
She wasn’t about to be distracted.
‘I can do without the introductions. I haven’t finished being angry yet.’
His eyebrows hiked. ‘I’m sorry. But… Peta?’
‘My dad wanted a boy,’ she snapped, recovering momentum. ‘And will you be quiet when I’m letting off steam? You and Charles and Attila the Hun in there, you judge. You think just because I’m not wearing an Armani suit-yeah, I can tell it’s Armani, I’m not stupid, no matter how patronising you sound-that I don’t matter. I’ll never get to see Charles. I’ve used the last of my money to care for and bury Hattie, and if I don’t get to see him…’ She gave a deep, raspy breath, the pain and the shock of the last few minutes finally surfacing to the point where they couldn’t be hidden.
She’d been using her anger as a barrier, Marcus realised, and it wasn’t working. Whatever was behind was breaking through.
‘This is stupid,’ she whispered. ‘You don’t give a toss, and anyway, you’ll have a secretary like Attila in there, and even if I threaten to sue the pants off you, you’ll just turn to your secretary and say fix it. Keep her away from me…’
But of course he would.
‘Mr Benson?’ a voice said behind them and it was Ruby. His cool, unflappable assistant to whom he handed life’s problems. Life’s hiccups. The personal stuff. ‘Is there a problem, Mr Benson?’ Ruby said smoothly. ‘How can I help?’
Ruby was wonderful. She was the answer to Marcus Benson’s prayers.
Somewhere in her indeterminate post forties, a stout and sensibly dressed Afro-American, Ruby gave off the aura of someone’s mother or someone’s aunt. She was neither.
Nor did she have any secretarial qualifications. She had been an obscure, unnoticed clerk in Marcus’s vast financial empire when he’d found her almost by accident seven or eight years back. Marcus had been trying to juggle a Japanese delegation, a team of lawyers after his blood, and a posse of journalists and photographers from Celebrity-Plus Magazine. His highly qualified secretary had wilted under pressure.
In desperation he’d gone to the outer office and called for anyone-anyone!-who could speak even a little Japanese.
To his astonishment Ruby had risen ponderously to her feet. She’d studied a little Japanese at night school, she’d told him, and he’d expected nothing. But what he’d got… In twenty minutes she’d charmed the Japanese businessmen and organised an on-site lunch, she’d diverted the reporters with vouchers to a nearby exclusive wine bar, and she was calmly taking notes while Marcus coped with the lawyers. And when he appeared flummoxed she even suggested priorities.
Her priorities were always right. Marcus had never looked for another assistant. Ruby didn’t move fast. She was unflappable, and she was worth diamonds. More than diamonds. Now she assessed the situation at a glance, she figured what Marcus wanted and she proceeded to provide it.
‘If Mr Benson has hurt you, we’ll do everything in our power to rectify it,’ she told the girl. ‘Mr Benson has an appointment right now which must be kept, but I can help.’ She gave Marcus an enquiring look-a look they both knew-which asked whether she should be sympathetic. She got a nod. A distinct nod and a smile. The combination of nod and smile was Marcus’s sign language for go all out to be nice.
And Marcus meant it. He was feeling really guilty here. If Ruby could make things better for this chit of a girl, then it’d be worth losing his precious assistant for half a day.
‘I’ll take you to the local medical facility and let someone see that ankle,’ Ruby was saying as Marcus backed away a little. Letting her take charge. ‘We’ll replace your damaged clothes. I’ll buy you a decent meal and I’ll organise a cab to take you home. Is that okay?’
Marcus’s face cleared. It sounded good to him. Generosity would definitely help here. There was still the niggle of guilt, but Ruby would assuage it.
But it seemed they were not to be let off so easily. Or maybe they were being let off too easily.
‘Thank you.’ Peta pushed herself into a sitting position. She glanced from Ruby to Marcus and back again. Her face had shuttered, showing no pain, no anger…just nothing. It was a defence, Marcus realised. A shield.
‘Thank you but I don’t need help,’ she told Ruby, with another half glance at Marcus that said, Yeah, hadn’t she been right all along? Here was his secretary ready to sweep his problems under the carpet. Peta’s look said she knew exactly the type Marcus was-the type who decreed when life got too difficult, pay someone.
Her look also said the sooner she was shot of him the better she’d like it.
‘I’m not going to sue, and my problems are not your problems,’ she told them both. ‘I have an appointment to see Mr Higgins. He’s running hours late as it is. If I leave now he’ll say I missed my appointment and I can’t afford to do that. So thank you, but I’ll stay here. Filthy or not. I can’t afford to lose this chance.’
‘Mr Higgins won’t see you like that,’ Ruby told her, blunt as ever, and Marcus’s face tightened.
‘I’ve already told her that. I doubt if he’ll see her at all.’
Ruby’s lips pursed, acknowledging that he might be right. ‘But if she has an appointment…’
‘You know Charles, Ruby. He’s not about to let Peta anywhere near his corporate offices looking like this.’
‘Hey, excuse me,’ Peta said cautiously, looking up at the two heads talking over her. ‘Can I join in this conversation?’
‘Of course.’ Marcus’s brows snapped together as Ruby’s eyes widened. The waif wasn’t a victim, then.
‘He has to see me,’ Peta was saying. ‘I have an appointment.’
‘An appointment with Charles means nothing if he figures there’s the least chance you might not be able to pay,’ Marcus told her. ‘And pay well.’
‘He has to see me,’ she repeated. ‘He’s my cousin.’
Silence while they took that on board.
‘Charles Higgins is your cousin?’ Ruby asked, and Peta nodded. She didn’t look too pleased about it, though. In fact, she looked as if she’d prefer the relationship didn’t exist.
‘He is. Worse luck.’
‘But you have to make an appointment to see him?’ Marcus didn’t understand.
‘You’re running really late, Mr Benson,’ Ruby said warningly, but Marcus had heard enough.
To say he disliked Charles Higgins would be an understatement. He detested the man. The word around town was that the man was utterly unscrupulous. He and his equally unscrupulous associates had rented office space here when Marcus had been in Europe; Marcus had been really annoyed that the man had been granted a twelve-month lease, and given the least excuse Higgins was out of here. He was trying to manoeuvre it now. But meanwhile… This girl would get nowhere with him. He knew that.
So did Ruby. He could read it in her face.
So, the best thing they could do for this girl was to clean her, feed her and give her a ride back to whatever cheap accommodation she was using.
He’d hurt her. He’d made her life difficult when it was already impossible. He could see that. There was real desperation in her eyes.
He knew enough of Charles Higgins to guess that the girl would be being screwed. He had no idea how-all he knew was that it was true. She was alone and bereft and he’d hurt her.
She expected him to throw his assistant at her and leave her to face the wolves alone.
Damn, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t.
‘Ruby, can you reorganise my afternoon?’ he said, and he said it as though every word was being dragged out of him. As if he couldn’t believe what he was saying.
Not seeing this deal through this afternoon might well cost him thousands. But it couldn’t be helped. When Marcus made a decision the decision was made-and his decision was made right now.
‘If you’ll set everything back a few hours, I’ll take Peta over,’ he told Ruby. And then, as his assistant’s eyebrows hit her hairline, he clinched it.
‘I’ll face Charles Higgins with her.’
Marcus was left in no doubt of what she thought of him. She was still seated, with Marcus and Ruby speaking over the top of her. She was still-waif-like? Her mop of chestnut curls was tousled and wild, her freckled nose was completely free of make-up and that dollop of jelly was still there. And so was her antagonism towards him. Peta stared up at him and he thought ruefully that he might as well be Charles Higgins himself. Was it the suit? he wondered. Or the presence of his assistant? Tokens of power… Whatever, there was no doubting that she was looking at him with contempt, as if such an action as he proposed was just a figment of his imagination.
‘Why not?’ he demanded. He looked from Peta to Ruby and found their expressions matched. Both women were looking at him as if he’d lost his mind.
‘The project is important,’ Ruby murmured, but he thought he detected a trace of a smile behind her normally expressionless eyes.
‘I know. I’m trusting you to keep things on ice until I can take over again.’
‘And when will that be?’
‘A couple of hours.’
‘Let’s keep you clear until tomorrow,’ Ruby suggested and there was no mistaking the laughter now. ‘You might find ankle-fixing and clothes-shopping and lawyer-facing takes a bit longer than you think.’
‘Um… Maybe you can do the ankle fixing and the shopping,’ he said, suddenly uneasy. ‘Then I can take her in to see Charles.’
‘No!’ Astonishingly, Ruby shook her head in definite disagreement. ‘No, Mr Benson, I shouldn’t do that. This is a fine gesture on your part and it’d be unfair of me to take over.’
‘Hey.’ Still seated beneath them, Peta was catching her breath. Catching her dignity. Sort of. ‘There’s no need for any of this. I told you. I don’t need help.’
‘If you need to face Charles then you need help,’ Marcus told her and Ruby nodded.
‘Take his advice, miss,’ she said gently. ‘You’re Australian?’
‘If I was in Australia, then I’d take your advice on your territory,’ she said. ‘But this is corporate America. There’s no one more at home in this territory than Marcus Benson. You put yourself in his hands and you’re putting yourself in the hands of an expert.’
‘I don’t want to be in anyone’s hands.’
‘You truly think you can get what you want without me?’ Marcus demanded and she faltered.
‘To be honest…’
‘To be honest, what?’
‘To be honest, I don’t think I can get what I want anyway,’ she admitted. ‘I was a fool to come. But I need to try.’
‘So if you’ve come all this way,’ Marcus said, his tone becoming gentler, ‘why not give yourself the best chance you could possibly have? Take my advice.’
‘Put myself in your hands?’
She stared up at him, bemused, and he gazed back down. Astonishingly, her eyes were bright and challenging. Her chin tilted upward, somehow defiant. She might look bereft but she certainly didn’t act bereft. She had spirit, Marcus thought appreciatively. And courage.
It seemed she also had the sense to know when to concede. ‘Okay.’ She swallowed. ‘Okay.’
Ruby beamed. Marcus Benson’s assistant, it seemed, was enjoying this. Enjoying this a lot. ‘You do exactly what Mr Benson says,’ Ruby told her, and Peta gave her a rueful smile.
‘I’m not much good at doing what anyone tells me.’
‘Then be tactful,’ Ruby told her and his assistant even had the temerity to chuckle. ‘Maybe it’ll be good for both of you. Okay. I’m off to save the world-or your deal, Marcus-while you two front the awful Charles. I know which I’d rather. Good luck.’
‘Um…do you employ her?’ Peta asked as Ruby disappeared down the fire-escape with an airy wave. Ruby had come to work this morning looking tired, but now she was practically bouncing down the fire-escape.
‘I acquired Ruby,’ he said, watching her disappear. ‘By accident. Sort of like getting hit by a bus.’
‘You really like her.’ Peta’s face had focused. All at once she seemed really interested. Her distrust backed off a pace.
‘I don’t do like,’ he told her. ‘I’m a businessman.’
‘So if Ruby threatened to quit…’
‘I’d raise heaven and earth to keep her,’ he admitted. ‘Of course I would. As I said, I’m a businessman.’
First the ankle. Which she intended to ignore.
‘My ankle’s just a bit bruised. It’s no problem.’
‘Your ankle’s puffing while we watch.’
‘I’ve done worse than this and lived without a doctor. I’ve come too far and time’s too important to waste any in a doctor’s waiting room.’
‘You won’t have to wait. Put your hands around my neck and I’ll carry you…’
‘You? Carry me? What, are you crazy? I’ll be sorry for myself with a strained ankle; you’ll be a cripple for life.’
‘I can carry you.’
‘No one carries me. Ever.’ She hauled herself up against the stair rail and took two tentative hops.
It clearly hurt. A lot.
Enough. ‘Yes,’ he told her. And, although he’d never done such a thing in his life, he stepped forward and hoisted her into his arms.
She weighed nothing.
‘Do you ever eat?’ he demanded, stunned, and she gave an indignant wriggle.
‘Eat? Are you kidding? Of course I do. Except when corporate businessmen throw my lunch downstairs. Put me down.’
‘No.’ Maybe she wasn’t too thin, he decided, tightening his grip. Maybe there were curves-just where there should be curves. She smelled good. She felt…good.
Inane. It was a stupid response but he couldn’t help it.
‘Are we catching the lift?’ she demanded and he stared down into her overbright eyes.
‘No. We’ll take the stairs.’
‘You’ll drop me.’
‘I won’t drop you.’
‘I’ll do more damage than a bagel if I hit anyone below.’
‘I won’t drop you.’
‘No one’s ever carried me before,’ she said, and to his astonishment she stopped her indignant wriggle and suddenly relaxed. ‘Good grief.’ Her green eyes twinkled. ‘Okay. Let’s do it. Maybe I’ll even like it.’
‘And if you burst a blood vessel we’re going to an emergency department after all.’
‘So we are,’ he said faintly and held her a little tighter. ‘So we are.’
She had him intrigued. Her reaction when she saw his car intrigued him as well. Robert, his chauffeur, was waiting at street level. He must have been pre-warned by Ruby. He didn’t blink an eyelid when he saw his boss approach with his strange burden and by the time Marcus reached the car the back door was already open.
Peta, however, was less than ready to enter a black limousine with tinted windows.
‘Holy cow. I’m not getting in that thing.’
‘You’re sounding like a country hick,’ Marcus told her and she glared at him.
‘Yeah, well, you sound-or look-like a mafia boss. I know which I’d rather be. Chauffeurs. Limousines. Tinted windows, for heaven’s sake.’
‘I need them tinted. I work in this car.’
‘Right.’ She hesitated, removing her arms from around his neck, and as she did he was aware of a sharp jab of loss. She’d put her arms around him for security but it had felt…good. But she wasn’t thinking about the sensations he was feeling. She was doing some forward projections. ‘No one can see in. How do I know if I get in this car I won’t end up in concrete shoes?’
Enough. ‘Robert, help me put her in the car-with force, if necessary,’ he told his bemused chauffeur. ‘And open the blasted windows! Mafia… Good grief!’
Then there was the medical clinic-a personalised service only available to New York’s mega-rich. Peta was almost hornswoggled.
‘You just roll in here and someone sees you?’ They were waiting for X-rays and the chairs they were sitting in were luxurious leather. Gorgeous!
‘There’s no of course about it,’ she snapped. ‘If I’d had this when Hattie…’ She took an angry breath. ‘Could Charles Higgins afford this sort of place?’
‘If the rent he pays is any indication, of course he can.’
‘I’ll kill him,’ she muttered and sat back and glowered the entire time her leg was bandaged.
‘You’re lucky. It’s not broken but it’s still badly bruised,’ she was told by the attendant doctor. ‘Stay off it. The nurses will fit you with crutches.’
Fine. Obviously still angry and with Marcus silent by her side, she hobbled her way to reception. And grew angrier still when Marcus paid.
‘I can pay.’
‘I’m very sure you can’t,’ Marcus told her gently. ‘It was my fault. Let me.’
‘Money,’ she whispered. ‘It solves everything. As long as you can screw the world to get more of it.’
Then there was the little matter of her clothes. With Peta safely resettled in his mafia car, Marcus directed Robert to Fifth Avenue.
‘I just need a wash and I’ll be fine,’ she told him, but he shook his head.
‘No. Charles is never going to admit you into his office looking like this.’
‘But nothing. It’s stupid going back there now to wait for a reception you’re not going to get. Let me help.’
Let him help more. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. Was he crazy?
He didn’t get involved-he never got involved-and for him to make this offer…
She had no expectations of him, he thought. He could back away right now. There’d be no repercussions. He’d never hear from this woman again.
But he couldn’t. He stared down at the defiance in her face, and he saw the trace of desperation behind the defiance. There was no way he could walk.
He wanted to help. Come what may. For the very first time in many, many years, Marcus Benson wanted to be involved.
MARCUS thought he knew women. Marcus was wrong. And so was the shop where he took Peta.
One of the women he’d dated had told him once that the shop stocked fabulous business clothes but Peta hobbled in and looked around in suspicion. The shop assistants reacted the same way.
They smiled at Marcus. They were cautiously and patronisingly polite to the waif he had in tow.
Still, they were here for clothes. Not for pleasantries. Marcus didn’t have time to mess around.
‘Can you fit Peta out in something corporate?’ he asked the assistant and Peta flashed him a look of annoyance.
‘That makes me sound like a Barbie doll. Let’s dress her in Corporate today.’
‘Don’t you want me to help you?’
‘All right.’ As the assistant searched the racks for something suitable she flashed him a look that was half apology, but the defiance was still there. ‘I know. You’re being really nice. I’m being really stupid. But this feels…wrong.’
‘It’s sensible. Just do it.’
‘Try this,’ the assistant said, with a bright smile at Marcus. Peta was ignored. She held the suit up against Peta, but it was Marcus who was clearly expected to make the decision.
He might have, but he never got the chance. As the girl smiled across at Marcus, Peta lifted the price tag.
Marcus doubted if he’d ever heard a woman yelp before but she yelped. She pushed the suit away and stared at him as if he’d lost his mind.
‘What, are you crazy?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look at the price. I can’t afford this.’
‘I’m paying. I told you. I ruined your clothes.’
‘Yeah, you spilled my drink over my five-buck shirt and you’re intending to replace it with stuff that costs three thousand dollars?’ She fended off the suit some more. ‘Three thousand dollars! Look, this seemed a really nice idea, and I’m delighted to have a bandage on my ankle and these neat crutches, but suddenly it’s out of hand. You’ve done enough. I can’t take any more. Can I leave? Now?’
She was backing towards the door.
‘You won’t get in to see Charles,’ Marcus warned. He watched the conflicting emotions play over her face and felt the same conflict himself. He’d been enjoying himself, he decided. It wasn’t half bad-millionaire playing benefactor to very attractive waif. But the waif was supposed to be grateful. She was supposed to smile sweetly and acquiesce.
This was like Cinderella saying the glass slipper didn’t fit. Or didn’t look right.
She was still backing, no mean feat on brand-new crutches, and the conflicting emotions were giving way to overriding distress. ‘I just have to deal with Charles my own way,’ she muttered.
‘You agreed to do this.’
‘I was stupid. I must have hit my head on the way down the stairs. So now, somehow, I’m standing in a swish store with a guy who has more money than I’ll ever dream about-and he’s offering to spend enough money on a suit to feed my family for a year.’
Her face shuttered even more, and the pain intensified. ‘I don’t need to talk about my family. I’m out of my depth. I need to leave. I’m sorry.’ She backed a bit more until she was balancing in the doorway. ‘I’m sorry. Thank you very much for all you’ve done.’
‘I can’t do this. I can’t.’
He caught her three doors down. She’d tried to move fast but she was on crutches.
He’d followed. Of course he’d followed, even though he was unsure why he was still intent on helping. But he let her have a little space until she cooled down.
She was forced to cool down. Her anger could only carry her so far before the pain in her ankle caught up with her. He watched her slow. He saw her steps falter as if she was unsure where to go from here.
He saw her shoulders slump. Saw the despair catch up.
And when he caught her… As he put a hand on her shoulder and turned her around to face him, he wasn’t surprised to see tears welling behind those lovely eyes.
The tears stopped the moment he touched her. She swiped her cheek and pulled back. Swaying dangerously. He put out his hands to steady her but she backed some more.
‘Leave me alone.’
‘You shouldn’t be sorry. You were trying to be nice.’
He carefully pushed away the urge to play fairy godfather some more. He tried to put himself in her place. It was hard, but maybe he could manage it.
Once upon a time he’d been dependant, too, and he knew how much harder it was to take than give. It was just… In the last few years there had been so many takers.
Peta was a novelty. But he could adjust.
‘I was a bit insensitive,’ he managed. ‘I had this idea that I could help. And I’d like to.’
‘I can, you know,’ he said softly. ‘It would be my privilege. If you let me.’
‘Yeah, toss money.’ Another angry swipe at tears she clearly despised and an angry sniff. ‘It’s all you know how to do.’
‘I’m sorry.’ He was stymied. He didn’t have a clue what was happening. How had he got himself in this situation?
He could just stop. He had no reason to persist.
Why did he?
He had no idea what this woman wanted with Charles Higgins. He had no idea whether he could help her.
All he knew was that he wanted to know more.
‘Can we start again, please?’ he asked, and she sniffed once more and stared up at him, her face loaded with suspicion.
‘I’ve driven into this like a blunderbuss,’ he admitted. ‘I have no idea what’s going on. I want to help. I don’t even know why I want to help but I do.’ He reached out and touched her hand. He didn’t hold. He simply touched.
He knew that she still had the urge to run. He had it himself.
‘Tell me what you need,’ he told her. ‘What can I do to help? Right now.’
She took a deep breath. Regrouped. Around them were a bustle of Fifth Avenue shoppers-smartly dressed women, suited businessmen. Marcus fitted right in.
Peta didn’t fit in at all. But she obviously wasn’t thinking of her appearance. She stared at him for a while longer and then made a confession-as if she was forced to admit something she was ashamed of.
‘I need something to eat,’ she told him.
‘I lost my bagel-remember? I didn’t have breakfast and that was my lunch. And then I need a ticket on the subway to the backpacker’s where I have my things. I need to stay until tomorrow-for Aunt Hattie’s funeral. But that’s it. I was stupid to try to see Charles. I just want… I think now that I just want to go home.’
‘Right.’ He nodded, aware all the time that she was poised for flight. ‘Okay. I’ll organise you transport. But let me feed you first. No.’ He shook his head as she backed again and he gave a rueful smile. He knew what she was thinking. At long last he was getting the idea. Money didn’t impress this woman. Money made her want to run. ‘There’s a great deli nearby and it’s not expensive. It’s simple food but it’s good. Concede at least that I owe you a meal. Can you cope with me for a little while longer?’
She stared up at him, seemingly bemused. She balanced on her crutches while she surveyed him. Her green eyes were suddenly thoughtful.
It wasn’t the sort of look he was accustomed to receiving from the women he moved with. To say it disconcerted him was putting it mildly.
‘You must think I’m really ungrateful,’ she said at last, and it was so far from what he was really thinking that he blinked.
‘I don’t. Let me feed you.’
‘Like something in a cage at the zoo?’
He smiled. ‘I’m sorry. That was badly phrased. Share a meal with me. Please.’
‘Out of charity?’
‘Out of my need to give you recompense.’
She stared at him for a long moment-and in that moment something shifted. The Cinderella image receded still further. There was a strength here, he realised. A latent force.
She was out of her depth. She wasn’t sure what was happening to her right now, but this was a woman who would normally be in charge of her world.
Things were out of control but she was still fighting.
He’d be lucky if she’d agree to have a meal with him.
But she did, and he was aware of an absurd surge of gratitude as she did the thanking. ‘Thank you,’ she told him. ‘I’d like that.’
‘So would I.’ And he meant it.
The deli he took her to was one he hadn’t eaten at for years, but still he knew it. The proprietor, a big man in his late sixties, greeted him with pleasure.
‘Well. If it isn’t the great Marcus come to patronise this humble establishment…’
‘Cut it out, Sam,’ Marcus growled and Sam grinned.
‘Yeah, right. To what do we owe this honour?’ He glanced at Peta and his wide smile was a welcome all by itself. ‘A lady. Of course. And a lady of taste. I can sense that already. I bet you could wrap yourself around one of my specials and not even think about counting calories.’
‘I bet I could.’ In the face of Sam’s friendliness she seemed to finally relax-just a smidgeon. ‘Tell me what’s good.’
‘What’s good? In this establishment everything’s good. Tell you what…’ He cast a sideways glance at Marcus and got an almost imperceptible nod for his pains. Sam’s deli was famous in this city and his reputation was richly deserved. He sensed what people needed and he provided it. You came to Sam’s for comfort food and friendliness and good humour. Sam provided it in bucketloads. ‘Why don’t I bring you my specials?’ he told them. ‘My lunch works. You sit back, think of nothing except what you need to talk about and let me worry about your meal. It’s what I do best.’
Think of nothing except what they needed to talk about…
It seemed there was nothing to talk about. Or Peta didn’t seem to think there was. The food that Sam brought them was wonderful: a vast, steaming bowl of clam chowder- Sam’s speciality, handed down from his grandma, who’d invented clams herself, he told them-and some sort of corn flapjacks that were truly spectacular.
It was good food. No. It was great food, Marcus conceded, and he found himself wondering why it had been so long since he’d been here. He sat back, enjoying the food but also enjoying the buzz. The place was full of students and young mothers and academics and artists who looked as if they didn’t have a buck to their name. All of them were attacking their food the same way Peta was. This was food to be relished at every mouthful.
And while she ate, he found himself thinking of the date he’d been on last night. Elizabeth was a corporate lawyer-a good one. She was smart and sophisticated and beautiful. But she’d toyed with her salad, she’d drunk half a glass of wine and refused dessert.
Her beautiful waistline came at a cost, Marcus had thought, and though she’d invited him up to her magnificent apartment afterwards for coffee, coffee was all they’d had. He’d felt no desire to take things further.
But now…sitting on the far side of the table and watching Peta devour her chowder and relish every mouthful of her flapjacks, he thought he’d rather have this contented silence than smart conversation. Genuine enjoyment.
‘What?’ she demanded suddenly, and he looked a question.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You’re looking at me like I’m an interesting kind of bug. I don’t like it.’
‘You’re Australian,’ he told her. ‘What do you expect?’
‘You’ve never met an Australian?’
‘Not one who likes clam chowder as much as you do.’
‘It’s the best.’ She smiled up at him and he blinked. Whew! That smile was enough to knock a man sideways.
Where had it come from? It was a killer smile. Wide and white and there was a dimple right at the corner of her mouth…
Yeah, right. Get a grip, Benson, he told himself. You need involvement here like a hole in the head.
He needed any involvement like a hole in the head.
‘You want to tell me why you need to see Charles Higgins?’ he asked and her smile faded. He was aware of a sharp stab of regret. Damn, he shouldn’t have mentioned it.
But it was why they were here. It was important. And, to tell the truth, he was intrigued.
This girl had just knocked back a gift of a three-thousand dollar suit. Just like that. Would any other woman he knew do that? It wasn’t as if it had come with strings. It would have been a gift, pure and simple.
‘You might have knocked me down, but it was partly my fault,’ she told him, and it was as if she’d read his thoughts. ‘I don’t want to be beholden. To anyone. You spend three thousand bucks on a suit for me and I’ll feel sick about it for the rest of my life. And Charles will know it’s a front.’
‘Charles knows you?’
‘I told you. He’s my cousin.’
She could see where his thoughts were heading and she was way ahead of him.
‘You think because I’m family I should have an entrée with him.’
‘Something like that.’
‘I’m over here because my aunt died,’ she told him. ‘Charles’s mother. I spent the last few days sitting by Aunt Hattie’s bedside. I haven’t seen Charles. Hattie is due to be buried tomorrow. Charles may or may not come to the funeral. He’s certainly not paying for it.’
‘So…’ He took a wild guess. ‘You’re not a close family?’
‘I’m a very close family,’ she told him, and took another mouthful of her flapjack. Difficult conversation or not, she wasn’t forgetting that she was truly enjoying this food. But her voice, when she spoke again, held more than a trace of bitterness. ‘I’m so close I’m practically glue,’ she added. ‘Good old Peta. She’ll do the right thing. The family thing. But not Charles.’
‘So why do you need to see him?’
She took a deep breath. She seemed to brace herself. Her fork was set down and her chin tilted in a gesture he was starting to recognise.
‘Aunt Hattie and my father owned half our family farm each,’ she told him. ‘My father left us his half when he died ten years back, and the agreement was always that Hattie would do the same. She hasn’t. She’s left her half to Charles. So I need him…’ Her voice faltered then, as if accepting the sheer impossibility of what she was about to suggest. ‘I need him to agree not to sell it. To let me farm it until…until I’m free.’
She looked up at him and her eyes were blind with a pain he couldn’t begin to understand. ‘The farm is all I have,’ she told him. ‘It can’t mean anything to Charles. It’s just money. He must see that to do anything but let me live there would be desperately unfair.’ She bit her lip and then picked up her soda, trying desperately to move past a pain that seemed well nigh unbearable. ‘But that’s nothing to do with you. Charles is my cousin. My problem. You’ve given me a feed. Now I’ll clean myself as best I can, go back and try to face him one more time-and if I can’t I’ll go home. But at least I’ll have tried.’
He couldn’t bear it. The look of pain. The defiance. David and Goliath, and Goliath was Charles Higgins… She had to let him take the next step with her. ‘You can’t face him alone,’ he told her.
‘Of course I can.’
‘There’s no of course about it,’ he growled. ‘Charles is a slime-ball. Maybe he’s different with family but he’s still a slime-ball. Okay, I might be off the track with my offer of three-thousand-dollar suits but my instincts are right. We’ll get you something neat to wear and I’m coming in with you. I might not get you more than an interview but I can get you that.’
‘For a start, I own the building he rents office space in.’
She stared. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘I’m not. Regrettably. I’ve already decided not to renew his lease when it expires but he doesn’t know that. I can apply pressure.’
‘Finish your soda,’ he told her, aware at the back of his mind of his total amazement that he was doing this. That he was getting more and more involved. ‘We mustn’t keep Charles waiting now, must we?’
They did the dress thing again, but this time Marcus had the sense to keep it simple. They headed to a moderately priced department store and Marcus stood back while Peta chose a neat skirt and blouse and strappy sandals. She looked great, Marcus decided, and then wondered: Why do women wear three-thousand-dollar suits when they can look just as good in far cheaper clothes?
But maybe that wasn’t fair. Maybe Peta wasn’t any woman. She’d look great in anything, he thought, as Robert drove them back to Higgins’s office.
The only problem was that she was a bit pale. Her hands were clenched so tightly that he could see the white in her knuckles. But she was still determinedly keeping up conversation as they made their way past Central Park.
‘It’s Central Park I most wanted to see,’ she told him. ‘Ever since I was a little girl I dreamed of riding around Central Park.’
‘You’re a country girl?’
‘I told you-we live on a farm. I milk cows for a living.’
It didn’t matter. Did it?
She was expecting a courteous, impersonal reply. He had to fight to find one. Somehow. ‘So…you live on a farm yet you dream of coming to New York to ride a horse?’
‘It’s a different kind of riding.’ She gave a hesitant smile and he saw that her hands were still clenched. He had to fight back the urge to lift them-to forcibly unclench them. ‘John Lennon loved this park,’ she was saying. ‘Jackie Kennedy loved this park. All these people that I’ve only read about.’
‘You admired Jackie O?’
‘The lady had class.’
‘And John Lennon?’
‘Oooh, those glasses were sexy.’
‘Really?’ he said faintly and was rewarded by a chuckle. Her hands, he noticed with satisfaction, were finally starting to relax. ‘So who else do you think of as sexy?’ he asked. ‘Just John? Paul? George? How about Ringo?’
‘Ringo was sexy,’ she agreed. ‘Really sexy. When I see the old clips I think he’s cuteness personified. But now every time I hear him I think of Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s a bit disconcerting.’
‘I imagine it might be.’
She was so different. How had his day been hijacked? he wondered. How had this happened? Instead of making plans and signing million-dollar deals, he was discussing the sexiness of Thomas the Tank Engine.
And enjoying it.
But then they were pulling up outside the offices where Charles presumably lay waiting, and her hands clenched white again.
‘Don’t sweat it,’ Marcus told her and he surprised himself by placing a hand over her much smaller one. The touch surprised them both. It was as if a frisson of electricity ran between them, warm, intimate and somehow immeasurably comforting. ‘I’m right behind you,’ he heard himself saying. ‘Every step of the way.’
Miss Pritchard-alias Attila the Hun, Charles’s secretary-was her normal appalling self. Peta stepped out of the lift and she saw her coming and sighed. She didn’t even pretend to be courteous.
‘What do you want?’
‘I’m here for my appointment,’ Peta said, trying to keep her voice steady. ‘It was for ten this morning.’
‘Mr Higgins had a moment free at two,’ the woman said, her disdain obvious in her intonation. ‘But you weren’t here. He has no more appointments available until late next week.’
‘Then could you ask Mr Higgins if he’ll make an appointment free for me,’ Marcus said, his lazy drawl making the woman’s face jerk from Peta to the man following behind. The man who, until now, had stood in the background and had not been noticed. Marcus. ‘I believe the lease for this office space is soon up for renegotiation,’ Marcus drawled. ‘As landlord I expect a certain professional standard of my tenants. Peta had an appointment at ten this morning and she’s still waiting. To have disgruntled clients hanging around my office space is not what I wish in my buildings.’
He motioned to a chair. ‘Peta, if you’d like to sit down…’ He gave the secretary a glimmer of a mockery of his smile-the sort of smile that had made many a business opponent come close to bursting a blood vessel in entirely appropriate anxiety. ‘We’ll wait,’ he told the woman. ‘Tell Mr Higgins that we’re here and we’ll wait for as long as it takes.’
Attila’s eyes had been flat and cold before. Now, suddenly, they looked like those of a goldfish. A goldfish that was swimming over an unplugged hole. There were very few people in this city who weren’t aware of Marcus’s power. It was legendary. ‘But…’
‘Just tell him,’ Marcus said wearily. ‘I’d like to get this over quickly. I hope Mr Higgins feels the same.’
It appeared Mr Higgins did. Five minutes later they were ushered apologetically into the great man’s presence.
To say Peta was tense was an understatement. This interview was overwhelmingly important to her, Marcus thought. The look on her face as she walked into Charles’s office said she intended to be calm, practical and efficient.
She obviously hadn’t counted on the store of anger that must have been walled up for so long that the moment she saw her cousin it could do nothing but burst.
Charles was seated behind a vast mahogany desk. Before he could stand, Peta had stalked across and slammed her hands palm downward on the gleaming surface, so hard she made the in-tray jump.
‘You uncaring toad,’ she spat, and Marcus blinked in astonishment. But Peta was obviously past caring.
‘You brought Hattie over here and she came because she thought you loved her. She hoped you loved her. But you didn’t. You abandoned her.’ Peta’s voice was loaded with contempt and with icy rage. ‘She could have died at home. With me. With Harry. With people who loved her. But you told her you wanted her here. You conned her into coming where she knew no one. How could you?’
‘My relationship with my mother has nothing to do with you,’ Charles snapped. The man was in his late thirties, florid, wearing a three-piece suit that was as sleazy as it was expensive, and he was obviously deeply disdainful of the woman before him. ‘I have no idea what you want from me, Peta, or why you’ve bothered with this appointment.’ He cast an uneasy glance at Marcus and then looked back at Peta. It was apparent that Marcus was the only reason he’d agreed to see her-the only reason he didn’t get up now and push her out the door. ‘Or how you’ve dragged Mr Benson into this.’
‘No one drags me anywhere,’ Marcus said softly. He hauled up a chair and sat, with the air of a man who was here for the entertainment.
‘This is family business,’ Charles told him, and Marcus gave him his very nicest smile.
‘Consider me Peta’s family. I’ve just elected myself. Peta, I hate to mention it but I don’t think haranguing Charles on his mistreatment of his mother-justified as it may be-is going to achieve a lot. Let’s just cut to the chase and get out of here. This place makes me nervous.’
Charles flushed. ‘You don’t have to stay.’
‘I’m with the lady. Peta, say what you need to.’
Peta bit her lip. She half turned towards him and Marcus was waiting for her. He met her look and he sent her a silent message.
Settle. Anger’s not going to achieve anything. What’s important?
Peta caught it. She fought for control, taking a deep breath. Moving forward.
‘The will…’ she began.
‘Ah, yes.’ Charles had had time to do a regroup, too. ‘The will.’ With another nervous glance at Marcus, Charles settled deeper into his leather chair. His huge desk was guaranteed to intimidate the most influential of clients, and he clearly had no intention of moving from behind its protective distance. ‘What on earth do you have to say about my mother’s will?’
‘Hattie meant to leave her half of the farm to me.’
‘Not so, cousin.’ Charles even smirked.
Why do I want to hit him? Marcus thought, and he had to force himself to stay still. To stay an uninvolved bystander.
‘Hattie lived at the farm for all her life,’ Peta was saying. ‘We all have. Everyone except you. You left twenty years ago. But the farm paid for your education. For your travel.’ She gazed around the opulent office. ‘I bet it subsidised this. Your costs have already bled us dry. You’ve taken half our profits for ever. It’s crazy that she left her half of the farm to you.’
‘I’m her son.’
‘But we’ve subsidised you with so much already and she knew I can’t afford to buy you out. That it’d force me to sell.’
‘That’s not my problem.’
‘No.’ She took a deep breath, obviously forcing herself to stay calm. ‘No, it’s not. And it shouldn’t be. All I’m asking… All I’m asking is that you’ll hold on to your half of the farm-let me keep farming it-until Harry’s of age.’
‘Harry being…’ He almost sneered but then appeared to remember that Marcus was watching and turned it somehow into a vaguely supercilious smile. ‘Harry being how old?’
Twelve. In the background Marcus frowned, absorbing the information. It didn’t fit-did it? Surely Peta wasn’t old enough to have a twelve-year-old son?
Maybe he should have asked more questions.
‘We need to stay on the farm until Harry’s eighteen,’ Peta was saying, almost pleading. ‘Charles, you know how important the farm is to us all.’
‘It was never important to me.’
‘It paid for your education. It let you be what you wanted and I want Harry to have that choice, too. And it’s a really good investment,’ she told him. ‘I’m more than happy for you to keep taking half the profits, and the land is growing more valuable all the time.’
‘I’ve checked,’ he told her. ‘It’d sell for a fortune now. Because it’s near the sea it can be cut up into hobby farm allotments. You own half. We both stand to make a killing.’
‘We love the farm.’
‘Get over it. I’m selling.’
‘Look, if that’s all you have to say…’ He eyed Marcus with disquiet, obviously still wondering how on earth Marcus came to be involved. ‘You’re wasting my time.’
Peta swallowed. Her hands clenched and unclenched. But, looking on, Marcus saw the moment she realised the futility of pleading. He saw her shoulders sag.
He saw her accept defeat.
And it hurt. It hurt him as well as the girl he was watching. Why did he want to hit someone? Not just someone. Charles. The urge was almost overwhelming.
But Peta had moved on. To the next important thing. ‘Will you come to Hattie’s funeral tomorrow?’ she whispered.
‘Funerals aren’t my scene.’
‘Hattie was your mother.’
‘Yeah.’ Another sneer. ‘And she’s dead. I’m over it, just like you should be. And, as soon as the funeral’s over, the farm’s on the market. It’d be on the market today if it wasn’t for that clause.’
‘Clause?’ Marcus queried.
This was the sort of negotiation he was good at. He’d learned from long practice that it was better not to jump in early-to simply sit back, listen and absorb. Focus on essentials. And probe everything.
Charles flashed him an annoyed glance. ‘My mother put a stupid codicil in her will. I left before the lawyer finished, and she did it…’
‘Tell me about it,’ Marcus said gently and Charles glowered.
‘It’s none of your business.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘If I’m married then I inherit,’ Peta said, obviously distressed. ‘It makes no sense. Just before Hattie left to come here, I went out with one of the local farmers. Twice. It was enough to make Hattie think about me getting married. As if I could. But she thought… Well, she worried about me, my Auntie Hattie. She thought I’d spend my life caring for the family and not myself. So she must have thought she’d push. By putting in a stupid clause at the end. If I’m married then I’ll inherit. But it’s not an option.’
‘In a week?’ She gave a bitter laugh. ‘Hattie… Well, she was terminally ill. She was a bit muddled, even before she left Australia. That was probably how Charles persuaded her to come. She’d have worried about me, but she was here in New York, alone, and Charles would have pushed her hard to leave him the farm. So she wrote a will leaving everything to Charles, but apparently, after Charles left her alone with the lawyer, she added a codicil. The codicil says if I’m married within a week of her dying then the farm reverts to me. But… A week? Maybe she meant a year. Maybe… Well, who knows what she meant, but she said a week. That’s by Wednesday.’ She turned to her cousin again, her eyes dulled with the knowledge of what he would say. She already knew.
‘Just leave. You’re wasting my time.’ Charles rose, smoothed his already too smooth waistcoat and walked around to the door. He was really overweight, Marcus noticed. Short. Pompous. A slime-ball. It was as much as he could do not to flinch as the little man stalked past him to open the door.
‘I’m sorry she’s wasted your time, Mr Benson,’ Charles told him. ‘I’m sorry she’s wasted mine. Go back to the farm, Peta, where you belong. Enjoy it for the last few weeks before it’s sold. But get used to it. It’s on the market the moment the week is up.’
‘I’m sorry I wasted your time.’
They’d been silent as they rode the lift to ground level. They emerged on to the street to brilliant sunshine and Peta blinked as if she couldn’t believe sun could exist in a place such as this.
‘I assume the farm is worth a lot,’ Marcus said mildly, and she blinked again.
‘What? Oh, yes. You heard what he said. It is.’
‘So you’ll be well off?’
‘Split…no. I won’t be well off.’
‘Do you have any professional training?’
‘Do you have a career?’
‘Yes. I’m a farmer.’
A farmer. He might have known. Of course. ‘Can you get a job somewhere? Farming?’
‘Are you kidding? With four kids? Who’s going to take me on?’
‘Four kids?’ he said cautiously, and she shrugged as if it was none of his business. As indeed it wasn’t.
Or it shouldn’t be.
‘Look, I said I’m sorry.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Okay. Enough. You’ve been really nice to me. Much nicer than I possibly could have hoped for. I’ve come over here and I’ve been with Hattie while she died. Thanks to you, I’ve seen Charles and I’ve asked him what I had to ask. I knew it was hopeless but I had to try. For the boys. Now I’m planning to bury my Auntie Hattie with all the love that I can, and then I’ll get on an aeroplane and return to Australia. There’s an end to it.’
‘You have four kids?’ He was stuck in a groove, he thought, but had to know. How old was she? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?
His eyes moved involuntarily to her waistline and he thought, no. No way.
She saw his gaze shift. ‘What are you staring at?’
‘Your figure,’ he admitted with a rueful smile. ‘You’ve held up pretty well for four kids.’
Her eyes widened. She looked stunned. And then her face, which had looked strained to the point of breaking, suddenly creased into laughter. A gorgeous chuckle rang out, making others on the pavement turn and stare.
She had the loveliest smile. The loveliest laugh.
‘You’re thinking I’m a single mum with four kids?’
‘They’re my brothers,’ she told him. ‘Daniel, Christopher, William and Harry. Twenty, eighteen, fifteen and twelve in that order. All students. The farm supports them all.’ She caught herself. ‘Or, I guess, I support them all. They help. They’re great kids but it’s mostly over to me. Until now. Now I guess the capital will pay for their education but heaven knows where we’ll live. The university vacations are four months long. That’s when we’re a family. And Harry loves the farm so much. It’ll break his heart if we have to leave.’
Silence. Marcus stared at her in disbelief.
Four brothers? She was supporting four brothers?
Good grief! So great a load on such slim shoulders. He winced and she managed a smile. Her laughter had gone again. The burden was back in place.
‘I’ve said it before. It’s my problem. Not yours.’
‘You could always marry.’ His voice was still faint with shock and she gave a rueful smile.
‘By Wednesday? I don’t think so. It was a crazy codicil made by a confused old woman who would have been desperate to make things right for everyone. Which was always going to be impossible.’ She took his hand in hers and shook-a warm, firm handshake that was a shake of dismissal. ‘Thank you very much for helping me, Mr Benson. You’ve done more than enough and I’m really grateful. Goodbye.’
And that was that. She turned and manoeuvred her crutches away from him, limping down the pavement, which was crowded with late afternoon shoppers.
She stood out, he thought, and it wasn’t just her crutches. In truth, it wasn’t her crutches at all. It was her flame hair. Her figure. The lovely curve of her slender neck. And her strength. The way she braced her shoulders, as if expecting to be struck.
It was so like David and Goliath, he thought again, but she had no slingshot. She had no weapon of any kind.
He stood and watched her go. He’d been dismissed. She was asking nothing of him.
She was on her own.
He couldn’t bear it. He didn’t have a clue what he was doing-what he was saying-but he knew only that he had to do it.
‘Peta, stop,’ he called, and she paused and half turned towards him.
‘Yes?’ She had the air of someone who’d already moved on. She looked slight and pale and somehow almost ethereal. As if any moment she’d vanish.
She could, he realised. He had this one moment to prevent it or she’d be gone and he need never see her again.
Which was what he wanted-wasn’t it? He didn’t get involved. He never got involved. He’d made a vow a long time ago and he’d never been tempted to break that vow.
Until now. Until the choice was to break the vow or to watch Peta take the next few steps and take her burden back to Australia.
He didn’t even know what her burden was. He hardly knew her. He had a corporate deal to stitch up; he had a date tonight with a woman most men would kill to be seen with; he had a life in New York…
Peta was watching him, her pixie face questioning. Waiting. Waiting for release so she could disappear.
He couldn’t give her that release. And there was only one way to stop her disappearing.
‘There is a way you can be married by Wednesday,’ he called, and the shoppers around them paused in astonishment.
Peta paused in astonishment.
‘How?’ she called, but maybe she hadn’t called it. Maybe her voice was a whisper. They were twenty yards apart and there were people between. He saw her lips move. He saw the thought in her eyes that he was holding her up for nothing.
But he wasn’t. He knew what he had to say and when he said it, it sounded right. Even inevitable.
‘You can marry me.’
SHE couldn’t believe what she’d heard. One minute she was looking defeat and despair in the face. This was the end of the world as she knew it. Tomorrow she’d have to bury Aunt Hattie with all the love and honour she deserved, trying to block out the hurt caused by this appalling last will. Then she’d climb on to an aeroplane and go home to face the boys and tell them that she didn’t have a clue what their future held.
As opposed to…what?
As opposed to facing the man twenty yards away from her and trying to make sense of his crazy statement.
‘I beg your pardon?’ she said at last and there was general laughter among the passers-by. Marcus’s words hadn’t just shocked Peta. More than one person had stilled to listen-to hear her response to this fascinating question.
‘He’s asking you to marry him, love,’ an elderly woman told her. ‘He looks a good sort of catch. I’d think about it if I were you.’
‘She’s young,’ someone else proffered. ‘Plus she’s pretty. She’s got plenty of time to play the field.’
‘No, but look at that suit,’ the older woman retorted. ‘The guy’s obviously loaded. You do it, love, but don’t go signing one of them pre-nup agreements. You take him for all he’s worth.’
‘Pretty funny proposal, if you ask me,’ someone else said. ‘You think she’s got leprosy or something, that he has to stay two shops away from her to ask her to marry him?’
‘Your girl got leprosy?’ someone else demanded. ‘Is that why the crutches?’
Even Marcus smiled at that.
So did Peta. It’s a joke, she thought. It’s a joke in appalling taste, but it’s a joke for all that.
‘Thanks,’ she called, with what she hoped was a vestige of dignity. ‘It’s a very nice proposal but I have a funeral to go to, and then a trip home to Australia. I can’t fit you in.’
‘I’m serious, Peta.’
She flinched. Stop it, she thought. She’d been through enough. It was time for the sick jokes to subside. It was time for everything to subside. For now, all she wanted to do was to crawl away into a dark cupboard somewhere and mourn her aunt as she deserved.
But Marcus was striding towards her through the throng of entranced passers-by. She felt an almost overwhelming urge to turn and run-fast-but of course she couldn’t. Her ankle wouldn’t let her. She had to stand and be polite. It was the only thing she could think of to do.
But she wanted to run.
Or did she?
‘I’m serious.’ He reached her and his hands came out and caught hers. They were much bigger than her hands-much stronger. She could feel their strength and she could feel the urgency behind the strength.
She’d been holding her crutches. As he caught her hands, the crutches fell away-which made her feel even more helpless than ever.
‘Peta, we can do this.’
‘What…what?’ She could scarcely muster a whisper.
‘We can marry. As you turned away just now I saw it. Your aunt’s will has an out. You need to marry before Wednesday and you can. You can marry me.’
‘But…you don’t want to marry me.’
‘Of course I don’t. I don’t want to marry anyone. But that’s just it. Because I don’t want to marry anyone then I can marry you.’
‘No. It’s sensible.’
‘Why is it sensible? How can it be sensible?’ She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Or simply to run. This big man with the smiling eyes was looking down at her with an expression that said he had all the answers to her problems right here. She just had to trust him.
Trust him? She didn’t know him. She pulled on her hands but his hold tightened.
‘Peta, it can work.’
‘How can it work? How can it possibly work?’
But fifteen minutes later, when he’d calmed her down sufficiently to listen, she was starting to concede that it just might.
‘I’ll have my lawyers sift the will this afternoon,’ Marcus told her. ‘But if that’s all you need-to be married-then I’m happy to oblige.’
She sat across the table from him. They’d found the first coffee shop they could; they’d sank into two deep armchairs and they hadn’t moved. Peta felt as if she’d been hit by a sledgehammer.
‘But…you only spilled my lunch,’ she managed. She felt as if all the wind had been sucked out of her. ‘You hardly ravished me. You hardly destroyed my honour or my marriage prospects. And here you are offering to marry me. Why?’
‘I don’t like Charles Higgins.’
‘Then kick him out of your building. Put salt in his water cooler. Cut off his supplies of waistcoats. Whatever. But not this. You’re offering to get involved up to your neck.’
But he was shaking his head, smiling. ‘No, I’m not. I’m simply offering to get married. That’s all. A simple ceremony. We do the deed. Despite what the lady on the street says, we draw up a pre-nuptial agreement saying we have no recourse to each other’s property after divorce, and then we go our separate ways. After your estate has been settled, we’ll divorce. My lawyers can take care of that. Apart from the one simple ceremony, we need never have anything to do with each other.’
‘But-I still don’t understand.’ She looked up from the mug of coffee she was cradling and met his look head-on. His smile just deepened her sense of confusion. ‘Okay, you don’t like Charles Higgins,’ she said. ‘That’s not a reason for doing this. Not for you. It’d solve my problems, and that’s so important to me that I’m almost tempted to fall in with your crazy plan. But there has to be a catch. There must be. What do you want in return?’
She watched his face. It was a good face, she thought, somehow forcing herself to be dispassionate. It held strength and warmth and humour. A girl could do a lot worse than marry a man like this. Especially as the marriage would last a whole five minutes.
But it was crazy. It was!
It seemed, though, that it hadn’t been a spur-of-the-moment offer. He was really thinking.
‘It’d be something good to do,’ he said at last. ‘I don’t know whether you can understand that, but it’s important to me.’
‘No. I don’t understand. Explain it to me.’
‘I’d like to help.’
‘By playing King Cophetua to my beggar maid?’ She flushed and stared down into her coffee dregs. ‘I’m sorry. That was ungracious of me.’
‘But it’s how my proposition makes you feel?’
Her chin jerked up at that and she met his gaze, startled. ‘Yes. It does. You understand.’
‘That it’s a lot harder to take than to give? Yes. I know that.’
‘And I know nothing about you.’
‘Peta, I come from a background where there was nothing to do but take,’ he told her. His eyes held hers, steady and strong. Telling her he was speaking a truth that was important to him. ‘We had no choice. My mother was a welfare recipient and I had to fight anyone and everyone to get where I was-and accept help from all sorts of people I’d rather not be indebted to. So… I’ve spent a lifetime getting to the other side of that divide and now I’m in a position to give. It doesn’t mean, though, that I’ll expect gratitude or undying devotion. Just a simple thank you and then we’ll get on with our lives. And one day when you’re on the other side of the divide you might be able to do the same for someone else.’
‘Like…take a good deed and pass it on?’
‘Something like that, yes.’
‘It’s some good deed!’ She was sounding a bit hysterical, she decided, but then she thought, why shouldn’t she sound hysterical? Maybe she was hysterical.
‘Let’s just marry and move on.’
‘How on earth can I marry you?’
‘Easy. We get ourselves a licence and we marry. There are formalities we need to go through but I’d imagine if I throw a bit of money and power at those formalities they’ll disappear. I don’t have the best legal team in New York for nothing. You said we have until Wednesday.’
‘That’s the day after tomorrow. No sweat. We can do the thing easily.’
‘You sound like you do it once a week.’
‘I haven’t. I’ve never married.’
‘And if you meet the bride of your dreams next week?’
‘That won’t happen.’
‘Why ever not? Are you gay?’
That stopped him in his tracks. He very nearly dropped his coffee and, when he recovered, his mouth quirked upward in a grin.
‘No, Peta, I’m not gay.’
‘You needn’t sound so patronising,’ she told him crossly. ‘I can’t tell. You hardly wear a sign or something. What other reason can you have for not marrying?’
He hesitated. Considering. He was about to indulge in confidences, Peta thought, and she also thought: that’s something this man seldom does. What was it about him that made her know that he kept himself to himself? Entirely.
But he was breaking his rules now and his voice, when he spoke, had a reluctance that told her he didn’t have a clue why he was doing it.
‘My mother married four times,’ he told her. ‘Four times! And for every ceremony she was your traditional bride. She dressed me up as a pageboy, she glowed with excitement and she told me it’d be a happy-ever-after ending. But she chose losers. Every wedding threw us deeper into trouble. So I stood at the last of those ceremonies and I told myself it would never happen to me. I’d never take those vows. Some things are ingrained, Peta. I’m not about to change my mind now.’
She thought about that but it didn’t make sense. ‘So your mother wasn’t very good at getting married,’ she said gently. ‘I’m sorry. But there’s still a whole bunch of people in the world who think marriage is a very good idea.’
‘There were other things. Getting attached… I learned early that independence is better.’
‘Probably easier,’ he admitted, and she stared into his face and saw he really meant what he said.
Maybe it was the truth. Independence had a lot going for it. She’d heard. She’d never, ever had it.
But now wasn’t the time to be thinking regretfully about an independence she’d never had and was hardly likely to have. Now she had a man sitting in front of her offering her a possible way out of the difficulties that were threatening to overwhelm her.
She didn’t know anything about this man. His offer was ludicrous.
He was watching, waiting for an answer. Where on earth was an answer when you needed one?
‘I don’t even know you.’
‘You don’t need to know me.’
‘You might be a con artist.’
‘Yeah. About to scam you out of half your farm. That gives you a choice. It seems that you either trust me and risk losing half your farm or you definitely lose half your farm to Charles.’
‘You can’t be serious?’
‘I am serious.’
‘But… I can’t.’
‘Why not? Is there anyone else that you want to marry?’
She thought about that for a whole two seconds. The concept was crazy. ‘No, but-’
‘But there you are. Take it or leave it. I’m offering. I’m not really sure why I’m offering but it seems sensible. Will you marry me, Peta? For better or worse. Until distance does us part? Until at least Friday?’
She looked blankly at him-stunned.
‘You really are serious.’
‘I really am serious.’
Her mind was going in a thousand different directions. A million. But overriding all… Overriding all was the thought that maybe somehow she could keep the farm.
Her head was spinning. Her ankle was throbbing. She felt so near the edge that any minute now she’d topple over. To make such a momentous decision…
‘Peta.’ His hand gripped hers and held, hard. ‘Peta, you don’t need to understand. You can’t, because I hardly understand myself. All you have to do is trust. Just say yes.’
Just say yes…
Easy to say. Will you marry me?
Maybe it wasn’t momentous at all, she thought wildly. People were divorced every day. What was the marriage? A simple document that could be annulled at any time. And the boys would be safe.
She bit her lip. She stared into Marcus’s calm grey eyes and he stared back. Still Marcus held her hand. Still Marcus watched her, waiting.
And in the end it was easy. There was nothing else to say.
‘Okay,’ she whispered. ‘Okay, Marcus. Thank you very much. I have no idea why you’re wanting to do this but I’m very grateful. So yes, I’ll marry you. As soon as possible.’
Marcus Benson, in organisational mode, was a man to be reckoned with. Peta was put into Robert’s care and taken back to her hotel with instructions to rest her ankle. Marcus moved on to the wedding.
He’d told Peta he could organise this by Wednesday. In truth it was a guess. He had no idea if it was possible.
A man with no idea turned naturally to his assistant. In crisis, find Ruby. Fast.
Ruby was summoned peremptorily from the boardroom where she’d been putting things on hold because of Marcus’s absence. The unflappable Ruby was already feeling under pressure. By the time she reached his office she was almost ruffled, and when Marcus told her he wanted her to organise his wedding she was surprised into the unthinkable response of choking.
It took a glass of water before she could make herself understood.
‘What’s wrong with me getting married?’
She thought about it. Marcus was behind his desk. He watched her with patience, seeing her eyes grow round in response to this extraordinary request. Seeing her think it through.
‘To the waif?’ she asked cautiously and he nodded.
‘To Peta. That’s right.’
And Ruby-who had never in Marcus’s lifetime been known to show surprise at anything-proceeded to drop her jaw almost to her ankles.
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not,’ he told her, annoyed. ‘Just tell me what I need to do it.’
She thought some more. She sipped water and took a visible grip. ‘Um… Weddings. I’ve never done weddings. But… Okay. I can do this.’ A bit more thinking. Then, ‘Do you have any preferences?’
‘Like church, civil, white, rose petals, bridesmaids…’
‘No preferences. Just a fast wedding.’
‘Tomorrow!’ Ruby’s voice came out practically a squeak. She regrouped-sort of. ‘Uh, did you say tomorrow?’
‘That’s right. Wednesday at the latest.’
‘There are things like licences. I’m sure there are. Formalities. Queues.’
‘Throw as much money as you need at the problem. Just fix it.’
‘Gee, how romantic.’
‘Ruby,’ he said warningly and her eyebrows hiked.
‘Just fix it.’
‘Certainly, Mr Benson. Very good, Mr Benson.’ She took a deep breath and he could see she was fighting laughter. ‘Do we know the bride’s name?’
The eyebrows hiked again. ‘I know her first name’s Peta,’ she said with exaggerated patience. ‘We’re going to need a bit more information. Just a bit.’
‘Right.’ He handed a sheet of paper across the desk. ‘I had her write down her details. I’m not stupid.’
‘So.’ Ruby looked down at the sheet. ‘Peta O’Shannassy. Aged twenty-six. Australian.’
‘That’s right.’ He hadn’t known. He frowned suddenly. Hell, what was he getting himself into? Peta O’Shannassy. She’d written down her name but this was the first time he’d heard it.
‘She needs me to do this,’ he told Ruby, and she paused from reading the sheet and looked at him. Really looked at him.
‘She’s in trouble?’
‘You want to tell me?’
He sighed. But Ruby on side was a force to be reckoned with and he’d learned a long time ago it was better just to give in and tell. Briefly he outlined what was happening and, when he had finished, her face had changed. The laughter had gone. The determination he felt was strangely mirrored in his assistant’s eyes.
Ruby had met Peta. She knew Charles. Marcus’s dislike wasn’t purely personal.
But Ruby was moving on again, on to business. Her speciality. ‘You’ll need a decent pre-nuptial agreement. One that will hold water.’
‘Can you get that underway?’
‘Sure.’ She hesitated. ‘You know, Charles won’t take this lying down. Not if there’s money involved.’
‘I suppose he won’t.’
‘Let me run this past our lawyers,’ she told him. ‘I’ll organise a copy of the will to be faxed here this afternoon. You don’t want to go into this blind. Or…’ She paused and a glimmer of laughter appeared again behind her eyes. ‘Or any more blind than you appear to be.’
Then she hesitated. ‘Marcus…’
‘You know… Peta has her contact address here.’
‘I told her to put it down in case you need her to fill in forms.’
‘Mmm.’ She looked again at the piece of paper and cast a cautious glance at him. ‘Do you know where she’s staying?’
‘It doesn’t matter. This wedding is a formality. Where she lives is her business.’
‘Right.’ There was another thoughtful glance. ‘It’s just… I know this hotel. A neighbour had a friend from Canada who stayed there one night. It’s the cheapest place in town. But he came out of it robbed blind.’
It was entirely Peta’s business where she stayed, he told himself.
But of course it was no such thing. Marcus took the written sheet from Ruby and stared down at the address. His…his bride?
‘Can you fix it?’ he asked Ruby.
‘What-turn up there and tell her Marcus says move?’
‘I guess not.’ He’d seen enough of Peta to figure that wasn’t the best way to go about things. But… He didn’t get involved. He didn’t!
He was involved. He was involved up to his neck. ‘I need to go,’ he said finally, and Ruby nodded.
‘Of course you do,’ she agreed. ‘Marcus Benson to the rescue. Good grief!’
But Marcus was no longer listening.
Marcus had already gone.
By the time Robert dropped her at the door of her hotel Peta was past exhaustion. She lay back on the hard mattress and tried for sleep. She’d hardly slept since she’d arrived in this country. The doctors had given her pain-killers and warned her they’d make her sleep. She should be out for the count.
But sleep was nowhere.
It wasn’t the noise that prevented her from sleeping. She’d stayed in this place for over a week and she’d learned to turn off from the drunken cacophony that surrounded her.
Nor was she disturbed about her own security. There was something distinctly comforting about having nothing left to steal. Her passport and her airline ticket were in a money-belt next to her skin and there was nothing else.
The throb in her ankle had even eased.
She should sleep.
But how could she? Marcus was with her. Every time she closed her eyes he was right there, filling her head, his gentle eyes probing…
He was marrying her?
The thought was unbelievable. The concept was unbelievable. Marcus Benson was marrying Peta O’Shannassy.
Who was Marcus Benson? She didn’t know. But what could she do about it?
The sensible thing would be to hire a private detective and find out at least a little of the man she intended to marry. She didn’t have enough funds to consider it.
But… Her hand rested on her money belt and the same comforting thought arose.
She had nothing worth stealing. He could hardly cheat her. What did she have? Half a farm, split five ways. She had so many encumbrances she felt weighed down with concrete.
If Marcus was marrying her for anything other than altruism then he had a big surprise coming, she decided.
He could have Harry.
The thought came out of left field and, surprisingly, it was good. Marcus would like Harry. Harry might even like Marcus. Harry was the smallest of her responsibilities but sometimes he felt the heaviest.
Yep. She might love Harry to bits but if Marcus wanted him… She was definitely ready to share.
Sharing. It was a good concept. A great concept. Even if it was pure fantasy.
But it was enough to distract her. Her mind stopped spinning just a little. Exhaustion took its toll.
Finally she slept.
She woke to shouting.
So what was new? People shouted in this place all the time. Half the inhabitants of this boarding house were drunk or stoned or both. But this time it was closer than usual.
Her dormitory held eight beds and the last four beds in the row were covered with fighting bodies. Someone was yelling; there were people punching, clawing, rolling.
There was the sound of broken glass and a woman screamed.
She opened her eyes and someone was grabbing her. Lifting.
‘Put me down!’ It was an instinctive scream of terror.
‘Don’t draw attention to yourself,’ her intended husband told her. ‘Is this your bag? Shut up and let me get you out of here.’
Marcus took her back to his apartment. He brooked no argument, hardly speaking until Robert had deposited them at the entrance to his apartment building, until they’d ridden the lift to the penthouse and he had her behind his closed door.
Even then he wouldn’t listen to protests.
‘I’m marrying you. That involves keeping you alive until at least tomorrow. So have the sense to obey orders.’
She was still dazed, doped with the pain-killers the doctors had given her. Three quarters asleep. But not so far gone that she couldn’t protest. She was balanced precariously on crutches. He’d carried her out of the seedy backpackers’ but that had been the end of his carrying role. She’d emerged to face the doorman of this luxury apartment block on her own two feet-just. ‘I’m not good at following orders,’ she managed.
‘How did I guess that?’ His severe mouth quirked upward into a wry smile. They were standing in the entrance to his apartment and all she could see was black marble and mirrors. If she wasn’t so dopey she’d panic, she thought. She should at least try.
‘I can’t stay here with you.’
‘I guessed you’d say that, too,’ he told her. He pointed to three doors. ‘Bathroom, bedroom, kitchen. I’m staying at my club. I’ll see you in the morning.’
She gazed at him, confused beyond belief. This day had got away from her. All she knew was that somehow a day that had started as a disaster had somehow been salvaged, and it had been salvaged because of this man in his lovely suit, with his lovely eyes, with his lovely smile.
Yeah, she was getting maudlin, but he made her feel… He made her feel…
Not maudlin. Something very different from maudlin.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
‘I mean it.’ She reached forward and took his hand. Then, before he could guess what she intended, she raised her face and kissed him softly on the lips. It was a token kiss-a touch-a kiss of gratitude and weariness and need for human comfort. It shouldn’t have caused confusion but, as she stepped back, confusion was what she saw in his eyes.
‘I’d better leave.’ His voice was strange. Husky. Unsure.
‘You don’t need to.’ She could sleep on the settee, she meant to say. She meant to add…something. But tiredness and the drugs she’d been given had the better of her and she couldn’t think of anything more to add.
What had she said? He didn’t need to leave? No. She was right. More than that; she very much wanted him to stay. She was so alone.
What a wimp. She caught herself, fighting for her dignity. Fighting through the haze of pain-killers for any sort of sense at all.
‘I know what you meant,’ he told her and he smiled. It was his smile that was her undoing, she thought desperately. It was a smile that twisted, distorted, changed her world.
‘But I still think I’d better go,’ he told her. He touched her, a feather-light fingertip tracing of her cheek. Was she imagining things-or was there reluctance to leave?
She couldn’t tell. She was in no fit state to tell anything at all.
He knew it. He swore softly. ‘Lock the door after me,’ he told her. ‘And stay safe until morning. No arguments.’
And that was that. He walked out and slammed the door behind him.
No arguments? She stared at the closed door. How could she argue when he was gone?
She was so befuddled she was past thinking. She gathered her crutches and limped forward, stunned. The first door led to the bedroom. To the bed. It was vast, piled high with a mountain of white pillows.
It looked wonderful.
There was silence all around her. There was silence for the first time since she’d reached this city.
She had no argument at all. She hobbled to the bed, let her crutches fall-and let herself fall.
Wise or not, five minutes later she was asleep. But as she slept her fingers rested on her cheek-where Marcus’s fingers had touched.
He lay in his bed at his club and he swore into the night. One ceremony and he was finished with her, he thought. One ceremony.
But when he’d walked into that place-had seen the louts fighting-men in a women’s dorm-crazy with drink-broken glass…
And Peta, sleeping as if she was so exhausted she couldn’t face waking, even to protect herself.
And then she’d kissed him. Her kiss… It had been so defenceless. So-
So he didn’t know what. All he knew was that when she’d asked that he stay it had taken all his self-possession not to gather her into his arms and sweep her into his bed.
I’ll look after her until she leaves New York, he told himself. That’s all I’ll do. And then I’ll forget her.
When Peta had arrived all she’d seen was the bed. And Marcus. When she woke she finally took in her surroundings and they weren’t to her taste at all.
She stretched in the vast, luxurious bed and gazed around her. And winced.
Lat night she’d been stunned, exhausted and doped with pain-killers. This morning…
This place might be comfortable, silent and safe but it was also sterile.
It was like something out of Vogue, she thought, and then thought, Nope. Not ordinary Vogue. Maybe a Gentleman’s Hygienic Vogue, if such a magazine existed.
At a guess it had been decorated by a professional whose brief was clinical, modern and masculine. The place was cool grey and black. Lots of glass and chrome. Nothing out of place.
She tossed back the covers and hobbled the few steps to the window. Not everything met with her disapproval. Below was Central Park. There were horse-drawn carriages driving right by.
The view was lovely.
She turned around to the apartment and winced again. This wasn’t lovely. Not a photograph. Not a personal thing. The place looked as sterile as a hotel.
Who on earth was this man she was marrying? What was she doing in his apartment?
She didn’t have time for questions. She glanced at her watch and practically yelped.
The only time the funeral director had been able to fit Hattie’s funeral in was really early.
Like…in half an hour?
She had to go. Marcus had grabbed her meagre bag of possessions and it was still in the hall. She’d wear the suit Marcus had given her yesterday and feel grateful for it. She pressed out the worst of the creases with her hands, showered and dressed in minutes and then she paused at the door, ready to go.
She glanced around the apartment and thought that she wasn’t really sorry to leave. The backpacker hotel was awful but if this was home… She’d hate it almost as much.
It was Marcus’s home.
So what? Marcus was nothing to her. Nothing at all.
Ruby’s phone call woke Marcus from sleep-which was unusual. He was usually awake at dawn, checking the international markets. But he’d lain awake long into the night, deeply disturbed by the events of the day.
Peta had got to him. His intended bride. He didn’t know how but she’d somehow wriggled her way through his defences and made him concerned. More than concerned. Deeply involved.
He hoped she was sleeping. He hoped her bed didn’t seem too big and too strange.
The thought of her alone in his barren apartment was hugely unsettling and for the first time ever he found himself wishing he’d spent a bit more time making the place welcoming. Maybe he should indulge in a few cushions or something. It hardly mattered to him. Home was a place to sleep and dump clothes for cleaning. Strangers organised by Ruby came and magically made the place tidy; fixed his gear; left dinners in the refrigerator on the off-chance that he’d get home hungry.
He hardly noticed.
But he wished his apartment was better now, and by the time he finally slept he’d almost decided to call in another decorator. Which would be a real waste. As soon as Peta left he wouldn’t be interested in the place again.
So why was he fussed now?
Why was she getting to him?
He’d slept fitfully and when Ruby woke him his voice was still slow with sleep.
‘You got her out of there?’ she demanded.
‘The backpackers’ place.’ Ruby sounded anxious. ‘You shifted her?’
‘Yeah. She’s at my place.’
‘Your place?’ He could hear the quickening of interest and he almost smiled.
‘I’m at the club.’
‘Right.’ She thought that through. ‘The club. On the other side of town. That’s cosy.’
‘What is it you want, Ruby?’
It was his turn to pause. ‘There’s a problem?’
‘Not with getting you married. I found a judge who’s prepared to fit you in, and the legal team have fixed everything up.’
‘Then what’s wrong?’
‘It’s the bit about Peta leaving the country that I don’t like.’
‘What don’t you like?’
‘She goes home tomorrow?’
‘I’d imagine so.’
‘And you’re staying here.’
‘What else would I do?’
‘A real husband,’ Ruby said thoughtfully, ‘would go with her.’
Marcus had been lying back on his pillows. Almost relaxed. Now he stirred himself. He focused.
He knew this tone.
‘Ruby, this is not a serious marriage.’
‘That’s not what the legal eagles are going to say,’ Ruby told him. ‘I had Adam and Gloria run through the ramifications of this thing. They say that if any legal gain hinges on a marriage then the marriage has to be seen to be serious. A simple ceremony and wedding certificate isn’t going to cut it. Charles will have it tossed out on the first hearing. Not all your power and influence will make it work unless you’re prepared to spend time together. If you marry the girl, you’re going to have to do it properly.’
‘Do it properly? What are you suggesting?’
‘Well.’ He heard her take a deep breath, as though to launch into something she was unsure of. ‘Adam and Gloria and I have been thinking.’
Adam and Gloria-the firm’s top legal minds. And Ruby. Combined they were his three top people. ‘Adam and Gloria and you,’ he said cautiously, ‘have been thinking what?’
‘That you should take a holiday.’
It was his turn to think.
‘Are you still there?’ she asked.
‘I might be.’ His tone was cautious.
‘You ever had a holiday?’
‘I don’t need-’
‘Marcus, you’ve been making money ever since your mama abandoned you when you were twelve years old,’ she told him and Marcus almost dropped the phone.
‘What the hell?’
‘You think I don’t know? You think none of us know? You’ve fought every inch of your life. Every inch. All you know is how to make money, Marcus.’
‘I know.’ He could almost hear her holding up her hands, backing off a bit. They didn’t intrude into each other’s personal lives. They never had.
They liked it that way.
But it seemed Ruby was intent on breaking the rules in more ways than one.
‘Marcus, I started out in this financial business because my man and my baby were killed in a car crash,’ she told him, her normally matter-of-fact voice becoming gentler. ‘I fill my life with my job now because I’ve done loving and I have nothing left. But you… You haven’t even started.’
Her man and her baby. Ruby had had a man and a baby?
They’d been killed?
He hadn’t known that. Hell, why hadn’t he known that?
He’d never asked. He’d understood that there was something in her history but he’d never asked. It hadn’t been his business.
And she’d never intruded into his space, either.
So why now? ‘You’re telling me I need to fall in love?’ he ventured, and he was rewarded by Ruby’s rich chuckle. She laughed so rarely. It made him think…
What did it make him think? How little he knew this woman? How crazy was the suggestion she was making?
‘We’re not expecting miracles here,’ Ruby told him. ‘But Adam and Gloria and I, we figured you’ve just tied up the e-commerce deal for Forde and there’s nothing happening over the next few weeks we can’t handle. We figure if you’re serious about validating this marriage, then you need to take a holiday. You need to see Australia.’
‘A few days won’t make a difference,’ he told her and she had all the answers.
‘A few days won’t. Two weeks will. We’ve checked. The Amerson v. Amerson case sets the precedent. The Amersons married, had a two-week honeymoon, and then separated to work in different countries. They rang each other once a week and e-mailed lots. He was killed, his wife inherited, but his brother sued for his estate, claiming the marriage wasn’t valid. The judge decreed it was fine. So that’s the precedent you’re planning to use. Two weeks in Australia, Marcus, followed by the odd phone call and e-mail. It’s that or forget it.’
‘You can.’ He heard the smile in her voice. ‘You know you can. She’s a nice kid.’
‘She’s a what?’
‘No? You tell me what else she is, Marcus,’ Ruby said gently-and replaced the receiver without another word.
Leaving him stunned.
Leaving him totally bemused.
He should pull out of this right now, he thought grimly. He stared up at the gilt ceiling of the ornate club bedroom and he thought things through. Or he tried to. Things were getting really muddled.
He thought of where he’d found Peta last night.
He thought of where he’d been-how hard he’d fought to get where he was.
He thought of Ruby, not telling him all these years about her baby and her man. And he thought about why he’d never asked.
He thought of Peta, taking his hands, kissing him…
A holiday. What harm would two weeks do?
What harm indeed?
‘Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.’
Peta stood in the garishly decorated funeral chapel and listened to the priest intone words of farewell to her beloved Hattie.
There was no one else. Charles hadn’t come. Of course he hadn’t. She’d disliked Charles for a long time, but now… She gazed at the plain wooden coffin and tried hard not to think about how distressed Hattie would be if she knew her son wasn’t here to say goodbye.
She tried instead to think of the good times. Of the Hattie she’d known and loved-the Hattie who’d been a mother figure to her for so long.
The good times refused to surface. It distressed her immeasurably that Hattie was being farewelled here, instead of in Hattie’s own beloved church back in Australia. She hated the whole thing. That she was being forced to marry a stranger to protect her legacy-a man whose motives she couldn’t begin to understand.
Marriage. The idea seemed crazy. It was a figment of her imagination-part of the nightmare that was yesterday. Her feelings for Marcus must have been induced by pain and by drugs, she decided. Today he was a hazy memory.
Today all she could focus on was Hattie.
The coffin was right before her. It was the only real and tangible thing in this whole mess. The priest was murmuring the last blessing, casting Peta an apologetic glance as he did so. He was a kindly man. He could tell she was distressed at this curt service, but he had three more of these to do this morning.
The curtain swung closed in front of the coffin-and it was over.
‘She’ll have been really glad that you were here.’
The sound of the familiar voice made her jump, and when Marcus’s hand came lightly down on her shoulder he had no idea how close she came to turning into his broad shoulder to weep. Marcus a hazy memory? It seemed she was mistaken. He was very, very real.
‘I went back to my apartment and found you were already gone. Then Ruby rang and said the service was now. I’m sorry I didn’t make it earlier.’
‘I thought you might need a bit of support,’ he told her. ‘And I also figured that’s what husbands are for.’ He smiled, a gentle smile that was close to being her undoing. ‘You loved her.’
It was a statement-not a question-and Peta nodded.
‘I’ve been doing a little research.’ He cast an uncertain look at the curtained end of the room-they both did. There was the sound of wheels-one coffin making way for the next. Peta tried really hard to concentrate on what he was saying. ‘Your aunt only came back to the States when she became ill,’ Marcus told her, apparently seeking confirmation of someone’s research. ‘At Charles’s insistence.’
‘Australia was her home,’ Peta said drearily. ‘But Charles wanted his mother to die here.’
‘Can’t you guess?’ Peta shrugged. ‘He made a flying visit to Australia when the doctors told her she had very little time, and he insisted she come back with him. Hattie… I think at that stage Hattie was so grateful he was taking an interest that she’d agree to anything. She came. Then, whenever I rang, she said things were fine. She was even getting better, she said. Only suddenly she stopped ringing and Charles wouldn’t answer my calls. I worried and worried and finally it was too much. I got on a plane and came.’
She didn’t add that she’d spent all her savings. Everything.
Marcus was calmly watching her, obviously seeing her distress. ‘And Charles wasn’t doing the right thing by her?’
‘What do you think? Of course he wasn’t. There was…nothing. She was Australian. She had no health insurance. She wasn’t being treated. She was so much worse and he’d put her in a really horrid nursing home and abandoned her. She was so glad to see me. So glad. She was really confused. I found a doctor to see her but by then it was far too late to have any effect. The cancer had done something to her calcium levels, the doctor told me, so she was only having glimpses of reality but at least she knew I was here. She died a week after I arrived.’
‘Having changed her will in favour of her son.’
She shook her head, bleakness threatening to overwhelm her. ‘It was her right.’
‘I think I’m going to enjoy this wedding,’ Marcus said grimly and then he glanced at Peta’s pale face and obviously decided against pushing his anger further. There was another funeral waiting to happen. This wasn’t the time-or the place.
‘Let me buy you something to eat.’
‘No.’ She hauled herself together. ‘No, thank you.’
The undertaker was approaching now, an anxious little man, clearly wanting to clear the room so that the next sad little ceremony could take place. He looked at Marcus with obvious curiosity. And then his eyes widened in recognition. ‘Marcus-Marcus Benson?’
‘Yes.’ Marcus held out his hand in greeting and the man’s slightly impatient expression slipped away.
‘Don’t hurry,’ he told them. ‘There’s another funeral due but take your time.’
‘We will. Thank you.’ Marcus’s glance was dismissive but Peta edged towards the door.
‘I need to go.’
‘Are you afraid of me?’ he asked, his tone softening. ‘You know, fear’s no basis for a marriage.’
‘I’m not afraid of you. I don’t even know you. And that’s no basis for a marriage, either.’
‘No.’ He paused. ‘No, it’s not. And therein lies the problem.’
‘There’s a problem?’
‘Well, then…’ She cast another uncertain glance at the curtains, as if unsure whether she should move on. But outside there was a group of mourners gathered, and the funeral director had moved back to wait respectfully by the door. He wouldn’t hurry a man of Marcus’s stature, but he was still anxious.
Hattie wasn’t behind the velvet curtain, Peta told herself. Hattie had gone.
Her future had probably gone as well. This man had offered her a solution which was as crazy as it was unworkable. What was he saying? That there was a problem?
‘Well, then.’ She did an almost visible regroup. ‘Well, then. There’s no need even to tell me what the problem is. This whole marriage idea was a crazy, unworkable plan. I need to catch a plane tomorrow and you, I’m sure, have work to do. Thank you for coming this morning. Thank you for your accommodation last night.’ Her voice faltered just a little. ‘I… I’m very grateful. I sort of needed someone.’
‘Anyone,’ he agreed, and she smiled.
‘You were a very nice anyone.’
‘Well, it’s not every day that a girl gets an offer of marriage from someone as neat as you.’ She looked over to the funeral director and gave him a reassuring smile. ‘It’s okay. We’re leaving.’ She put her hand out and shook Marcus’s, a firm shake of farewell. Moving on. Fast. Before she broke down. She didn’t know whether it was Hattie’s death or the fact that she was so far from home-or that she’d just allowed herself a glimmer of crazy hope with this mad marriage scheme…
She had to get out of there. Fast.
‘Goodbye,’ she muttered and turned away before he could see her face-but he wasn’t letting go. He held her hand and turned her back to face him. ‘No.’
‘It’s still on,’ he told her. ‘The marriage.’ He smiled, a funny lopsided smile that was amazingly endearing. ‘Ruby says I can marry you.’
‘Well, bully for Ruby.’ She paused. ‘Your assistant gave you permission to marry?’
‘No.’ Marcus cast an uncertain glance across at the undertaker. The man’s ears were practically flapping. ‘Um… Well, yes. Ruby does the busy work. She’s figured out the things we need. The formalities. As well as that, I asked her to run the will past a couple of my lawyers. It’d be a waste if we were to marry and not be able to overturn the will.’
‘A waste,’ she said blankly.
‘Well, it would.’ He held out a placating hand to the undertaker. ‘Five more minutes.’ Then back to Peta. ‘You see, the lawyers are of the opinion that if you married me and got on the plane tomorrow and I stayed here, then Charles could argue that the marriage was a farce.’
‘So what are you saying?’ Her eyes widened. ‘Are you saying we have to consummate the marriage?’
The undertaker gave a start. The little man choked, met Marcus’s eye and carefully backed out of the door. A little. Not out of earshot.
Marcus grinned. ‘No, we don’t have to consummate the marriage.’
‘Well, that’s a relief.’
‘I thought you might say that.’
She smiled. It was a weak sort of smile but it was a smile for all that. It was the first time she’d smiled that day and it felt okay. More. It felt good.
She was so grateful to this man, she realised. Even if his crazy plan didn’t come to fruition-as it surely couldn’t-his presence over these two days had lightened her load immeasurably.
He’d made her smile. He’d made her feel as if somebody cared.
She forced herself to focus on practicalities. Somehow.
‘So we don’t consummate the marriage. What do we do?’
‘Ruby says we need a honeymoon,’ he told her. ‘It seems, legally, we need to spend some time together if we’re to be seen as truly married. I’ve just finished stitching together a deal which has taken nearly three years to pull off. Ruby tells me I haven’t taken a holiday in ten years and I guess she’s right. She’s just read me the riot act and told me that if I don’t take some time off I’ll drop dead from overwork. Anyway…’ He gave a grin that was half amused, half embarrassed. ‘Anyway, if you’d like a honeymoon… If you’d like…I could come back to Australia with you for a couple of weeks.’
She stared at him. Stunned. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘I never kid.’
‘You want to come home with me?’
He grinned again. ‘There’s no need to say it like I’m a stray dog.’
‘I don’t want you.’
She tried taking a breath. It didn’t quite come off. ‘I’m sorry.’ She shook her head. ‘No. I’m not sorry. I don’t want a husband.’
‘That’s good, because I don’t want a wife.’ He shrugged, still smiling. ‘But Ruby says I offered and I ought to go through with it. I’ve never been to Australia.’
‘This is crazy. You can’t just take two weeks off-for a stranger.’
‘I can-for a holiday.’
‘You mean… You’d go off on a tour or something?’
‘Ruby says I’d need to stay at your farm.’
‘Do you want to stay at my farm?’
‘But I’m prepared to.’
She shook her head. ‘Marcus, I don’t think I can cope with that level of obligation.’
‘I can understand that. But maybe-if you want the farm badly enough, you need to swallow your pride and accept my help. Accept that I can afford to give it and accept that I’ll ask nothing in return.’ He smiled. ‘Except a small glow of virtue which I promise I’ll keep under my smug little hat.’ He caught her hands and held them, and he looked down at her, his gaze strong and sure. Compelling. ‘Are you strong enough to accept this? Taking’s hard, Peta. I know that. But-maybe you have no choice.’
His smile faded. He might be as confused as she was but he didn’t seem to be showing it. His gaze said trust me. His gaze told her he knew the direction she should take; she just had to let him take the lead. Do what he said.
To let a stranger help her in such a way… It seemed crazy. Impossible. But his eyes said trust me. His eyes said let me take the lead.
And for Peta, who’d never had anyone take the lead in her life, the concept was suddenly almost overpoweringly appealing.
‘I’ll knit you a pair of socks for Christmas.’
‘That would be very nice,’ he told her and she choked.
‘You haven’t seen my knitting.’
‘But you’ll accept?’
‘I don’t have a choice,’ she said simply. ‘I’m very grateful. I hate that I need to be grateful, so I guess… You’re just going to have to get used to my socks!’
He ushered her next door to a coffee shop, he ordered pastries and coffee and she didn’t argue. She even ate something.
They ate in silence. She was achingly aware that he was watching her-that she was being somehow measured-but there was nothing she could do about it.
She wasn’t even sure that she minded.
‘What happened to your parents?’ he asked at last, and Peta felt her insides twist. It was as if this man could really read her mind. The sensation was incredibly unnerving.
‘My mother died having Harry,’ she told him. ‘Eclampsia. My father was killed when his tractor rolled ten years ago.’
‘And you’ve been it ever since.’
‘There was Hattie,’ she told him.
‘So Hattie looked after you?’
‘I was sixteen.’
‘So Hattie didn’t look after you?’
‘I was strong. I could run the farm. I loved Hattie and I couldn’t have coped without her, but she had crippling arthritis.’
‘So let me get this straight,’ he said, obviously thinking it through. ‘You were sixteen when you were left on a farm with four other children. The oldest was how old?’
‘Daniel was eleven.’
‘And your cousin? Charles?’
‘He’s a lot older than me. He left before my father died. Hattie sent her share of the farm profits to him, and we only saw him when he wanted more money.’ She bit her lip. ‘She didn’t know… Hattie didn’t understand how successful Charles was. He kept needing more.’
But Marcus wasn’t interested in how successful Charles was. He was focused on Peta. ‘So you’d have been sixteen. You were still at school?’
‘It didn’t hurt me to leave. I loved farming.’
‘You mean you had to leave.’
‘Yes,’ she admitted honestly. ‘I had to.’
‘And what about now?’
‘I run a really successful farm.’
‘Do the boys help?’
‘Of course they do. Only Daniel and Christopher are at university now and William is at a special school in the city.’ She smiled, thinking of her high-achieving brothers. ‘Daniel will be a vet and Christopher is in first year law. And William is brilliant. He won a scholarship to a special school for gifted kids.’
‘But-you support them all?’ He sounded appalled and she shook her head.
‘No. They all help. During the holidays.’
‘But the rest of the time there’s just you?’
‘And Harry.’ Her smile widened, thinking with real affection of the baby of the family. ‘Harry’s great. You’ll love…’ She caught herself and changed the tense. ‘You’d like Harry.’
‘When I meet him.’
‘There’s no need for you to meet him.’
‘There’s every need,’ he said brusquely. ‘I thought I explained it to you. Where’s Harry now?’
‘Stowing away in Daniel’s university college.’ She hesitated. ‘He was unhappy about me being away. He’s only twelve. So we thought that if he could stay with the boys he’d be happier. The kids are great. They’re looking after him. But I need to get back.’
‘I can see that you do.’ He was staring at her as if she’d grown two heads. ‘You carry all this load on your shoulders…’
‘Hey, they’re my family,’ she said, not liking his tone of absolute astonishment. ‘What would you do?’
What would he do? They stared at each other and she thought that he really didn’t have a clue. He knew nothing of what she had. Of the benefits as well as the responsibilities.
He’d turn away, she thought. He’d run. What man would willingly come within a thousand miles of the sort of responsibility she carried?
But he didn’t turn away. Instead, he glanced across her shoulder and smiled and she turned to the coffee shop window to see Ruby waving from the pavement.
‘What will I do?’ Marcus asked, his voice suddenly almost teasing. Almost laughing. He waved back to Ruby, beckoning her in. ‘I’ll tell you what to do. I’ll hand you over to Ruby to turn you into a bride. I have a deal to stitch up and then I’m free. I’ll marry you and carry you back to Australia. For two weeks. On two conditions.’
‘What are they?’
‘That you don’t make me milk a cow! And you don’t put me in charge of a twelve-year-old.’
If Marcus was forceful, Ruby was worse. She shooed Marcus back to work and outlined her plans. Which left Peta stunned. Ruby had a vision of a white wedding and nothing was going to deflect her-and the wedding was scheduled in four hours’ time.
‘I can get married in what I’m wearing,’ Peta said, totally confounded, but Ruby would have none of it.
‘Marcus Benson has half the women of the world wanting to marry him-and you’re going to wear a day dress?’ Ruby smiled, somehow managing to rob her words of offence. ‘Peta, he’s doing you a favour. The least you can do is accept in the manner it’s intended.’
It sounded reasonable-sort of. There was only one thing for it, Peta decided. She needed to swallow her pride. ‘I’m broke,’ she confessed.
Ruby hesitated, but only for a moment. ‘Yeah. You are. But Mr Benson has given me a fat cheque to outfit you for the wedding. He told me to do it subtly but I don’t know how. Except by telling you that you’d be doing all of us a favour by accepting.’
A fat cheque. Peta drew in her breath. ‘I thought I told him-’
‘Yeah, you told him. He said yesterday that he’d offended you. He said he tried to dress you as a socialite and you tossed it back in his face.’
‘Well, I would have, too,’ Ruby said honestly-unexpectedly. ‘And I think more of you for doing it. But throwing back corporate suits and refusing wedding gowns are different things.’
‘He’s not… I don’t see…’
‘You are marrying him,’ Ruby said gently. ‘You know you are. And you needn’t feel guilty that you’re doing so. There’s no way Marcus will marry anyone else.’
‘But I can’t accept his money,’ Peta said with distress, and Ruby reached out and gave her hand a squeeze.
‘Yes, you can. You’d be doing Marcus a real favour.’
‘How am I supposed to accept that?’ Peta demanded. ‘This is ridiculous. I know nothing about Marcus-and here he is, threatening to take over my life.’
‘He’s not, you know. He’s simply involving himself. For the first time ever.’
‘I have no idea what you mean.’
‘You know nothing about him?’
‘No. Apart from his awful mother. But just because his mother stuffed her life doesn’t mean he should stay isolated for ever.’
‘You know he fought in the Gulf War,’ Ruby told her, and the statement was so far out of left field that Peta blinked. Marcus had disappeared in the car that had brought Ruby here, but his presence still lingered. His coffee mug was still on the table before them and Peta found herself glancing at it as if it held some answers. Which was plainly ridiculous.
‘You know Marcus came from a poor background?’ Ruby probed.
What did this have to do with her? ‘He told me.’
‘Did he tell you he invested the first dime he ever made?’ Ruby gave a cautious sideways look. ‘He’s good at making money. Seriously good. And he’s smart. One of his stepdads introduced him to computers and the man’s never looked back. He had investments in the Internet before most people had ever heard of it. But he couldn’t escape his background-or lack of it. He was one seriously deprived kid. His mother disappeared when he was twelve and from then he was truly alone. He fought tooth and nail and he got a bit behind him. When the last of his foster families threw him out, he joined the army. Heaven knows why. I’d imagine… He’d never belonged anywhere. Maybe the army promised a sense of family. Or maybe it was that he wasn’t all that interested in living.’
‘Ruby, that’s awful.’
‘So was his stint with the armed forces,’ Ruby said bluntly. ‘I’m not supposed to know this, you understand, but a sergeant in his regiment came to see him one day when Marcus was out of town. Darrell’s had a hard time-he was pretty badly scarred and down on his luck and on impulse I invited him to share lunch. So I did and I got the full story of what Marcus went through. Okay, we were on the winning side, but Darrell… He said they saw so much death. Darrell said at the start of the campaign Marcus was an outgoing guy who could share a joke but the more killing they saw the quieter he grew. And then his battalion was caught in an ambush. Most of them were killed. And for Marcus… It was the end. At least that’s the way I see it. He’s internalised it; he’s never talked about it and he’s just shrivelled. He came back and he concentrated on building an empire that’s stunned the world. But there’s nothing else. And then along comes you.’
Peta stared at her across the table, at this big kindly woman with trouble in her eyes.
‘Along came me? What have I got to do with it?’
‘He cares,’ Ruby told her. ‘For the first time. He cares what happens to you. He really cares. He’s thinking about your welfare and he’s offered to marry you. With pride. Even if the marriage will only last for two weeks, you’re the only bride he’ll ever have. Think about that, Peta. Do you really want to knock back his offer to make you a bride? You don’t think you could possibly bring yourself to play the part?’
‘But… How? Why?’
Ruby smiled, reaching across the table and taking Peta’s work-worn hands in hers. ‘All I know is that he’s agreed to stop making money for two weeks. He’s agreed to care for you a little. I think… If you were to pay him back by making it fun…’
‘I suspect,’ Ruby said slowly, ‘that it’s a concept both of you have trouble with.’ She smiled some more, and there was a tinge of real regret in her eyes. ‘You know, it’s not illegal. And, as for me… You know, Marcus has just given me a cheque for an obscene amount of money to organise a wedding.’ She hesitated. And the look on her face changed. ‘You know, I had a daughter once,’ she whispered. ‘If Amy had lived she’d be just about your age. I could be buying her a wedding dress.’
Peta stared at her. Dumbfounded. There were needs all over the place here. Not just hers. Not just her brothers. There was Marcus. And now there was Ruby. ‘So it’s not just me and Marcus who need to have fun?’ she ventured.
‘Is it ever just the two of you?’ Ruby’s eyes held lingering pain. ‘I’ve learned the hard way to keep to myself and no, it’s not much fun. But today… Maybe today and for the next two weeks, we could all let our barriers down.’ Her smile returned, and there was a hint of pleading behind the tired eyes. ‘If you’d like, if you’d let me, what I’d really like to do is make you the most beautiful bride the world has ever seen. Show the world what a bride should look like-see how much we can achieve in a few short hours. And then…’ A hint of mischief appeared behind her smile. ‘I’d like to write up the most beautiful gilt invitation and have it hand delivered to Charles Higgins-marked urgent.’
Charles. At least Charles was neutral territory. ‘You don’t like Charles, either?’
‘I can’t stand the man.’ Ruby rose and stood, smiling down at Peta and her smile was a challenge. ‘Well. What do you think? Are you prepared to put aside a few scruples and have fun?’
‘You mean, do the full bridal bit?’
‘It would be great,’ Ruby admitted and there was a real trace of wistfulness in her voice. ‘Marcus can afford it. The man’s so wealthy this is less than pin money. And a wedding-a real wedding-in four hours. It would be fun. Wouldn’t it?’
Peta stared up at her. More and more she didn’t understand what was happening-more and more she felt as if she was right out of control. But if she was so far out of control why not go the whole way? Why clutch at traces of dignity that were impossible to maintain?
Why not have…fun?
‘A white bride,’ she whispered.
‘The whole works.’ Ruby was beaming. ‘I know just the place.’
‘Marcus would run a mile.’
‘Marcus is committed. He goes through with his promises.’ Ruby’s smile deepened. ‘Let’s do the whole thing. I know where his sergeant lives-it’s half an hour from here. Can you cope with me as a matron of honour and Darrell as best man? And I’ll bet Charles will come. He’ll arrive expecting to see a farce and what he’ll see is the works.’
‘Let’s do it.’ Ruby held out her hand to pull her to her feet. ‘Why not?’
‘I can think of a thousand reasons why not.’
‘Do any of them matter more than enjoying yourself?’ Ruby glanced across the street to the funeral parlour and winced. ‘Life’s for living. Come on. I dare you.’
MARCUS was running late. Once he’d got back to his office there were a thousand things that needed to be sorted. To leave for Australia at this short notice seemed impossible.
But Ruby had been there before him, making the impossible somehow inevitable. Every one of his staff seemed intent on pushing him out of the place!
So somehow he’d done it. He’d pushed himself to the limit, but even Robert’s skilled driving hadn’t been able to get him across town right on time.
He was ten minutes late…
‘I hope your bride hasn’t beaten you,’ Robert said, and when Marcus glanced at his chauffeur’s face in the rear-view mirror he found he was grinning.
‘Just how many people know I’m getting married this afternoon?’ he demanded, and Robert chuckled.
‘I’m thinking just about the whole world. The phone in the outer office has been running hot. I gather you haven’t been exactly quiet with your wedding plans.’
No. No, he hadn’t.
What would happen if there were photographers there? he thought suddenly. What if the press had heard about it? He hoped to heaven that Ruby had been able to persuade Peta to buy a dress.
Peta stood in the outer office of the Justice’s offices and felt absurd. But strangely…good. Light. Free.
Ruby had been right. It had been the best fun. They’d gone to the biggest bridal emporium in New York and when Ruby had explained that it was a rush job, that the wedding was this afternoon, that Peta was marrying Marcus Benson and that money was no object, they’d fallen over themselves to help.
And Peta, who’d lived in a nightmare for so long, had simply acquiesced. Or more than acquiesced, she admitted. She’d tried on one exquisite creation after another. The dress they chose was, in the end, comparatively simple-deceptively so. Of magnificent ivory silk, it had tiny shoestring shoulder-straps and a scooped sweetheart neckline. It looked as if it had been made for her. It clung like a second skin to her tiny waist and then floated out in diaphanous folds, falling softly to her ankles.
She’d stood before the mirror and Ruby had gazed at her, her eyes had misted and she’d breathed, ‘Yes!’
The thing had been decided.
They’d found her strappy white sandals, and an urgently called beautician had threaded white ribbons through her auburn hair and applied make-up. Just a little. ‘With that tan and that complexion you need to cover nothing. Oh, my dear, you look so beautiful.’
And she did. The Peta who stared back at herself from the long mirror in the bridal parlour seemed unrecognisable.
Then, at Peta’s insistence, the bridal team had turned their attention to Ruby because, ‘If I’m doing this, then so are you!’ Protesting but laughing, Ruby had allowed herself to be talked into a pale blue suit of the finest shantung. The sales-girls had found the dearest little hat and matching shoes; the beautician had decided there was time to give Ruby’s curls the most modish of cuts, and Ruby had ended up almost as dazed as Peta.
The team in the bridal parlour had arranged a car to bring them here-a white limousine!-they’d organised white orchids, and at the last minute they’d thrust champagne glasses into their hands and they’d poured champagne for themselves as the limousine departed towards their date with Marcus.
‘And I bet they put that on Marcus’s bill,’ Ruby whispered. They sipped their champagne; they looked at themselves in stunned awe-and then they did what any sane, mature women would have done in the same position.
On arrival, they’d learned that Marcus wasn’t there yet but Darrell was-Marcus’s sergeant. He’d done them proud as well, dressed in full military regalia, looking so gorgeous that Peta hardly noticed the scars on his burned face.
‘I’m real happy for you,’ Darrell told her. ‘Marcus deserves someone to make him happy. He was so damned good to me…’
He broke off, choked, and Peta knew how he felt.
She was pretty choked herself.
‘You’re sure he’ll come?’ she whispered to Ruby and Ruby gave a smile that said she was as nervous as Peta. The giggles had disappeared.
‘I surely hope so. Or you’re just going to have to marry Darrell.’
Great. Peta glanced nervously out the window at the street. There were a cluster of photographers in the doorway-obviously waiting for someone important. They’d been here when she arrived. They’d ignored Peta-there’d been three brides arrive since Peta had-but they were obviously intent on someone else.
‘This is crazy,’ Peta whispered. She looked down at her beautiful bouquet of white orchids and she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. ‘The whole thing… It’s a crazy dream. I can’t…’
But then she paused. A car she recognised pulled up out the front. Robert emerged, and then Marcus.
Marcus, looking impossibly handsome. Marcus in a dark suit with, for heaven’s sake, a tiny white orchid twisted in his lapel.
It was all she could do not to turn and run. Run for her life. But Ruby was taking her arm and beaming as if she’d won the lottery, and Darrell was between Peta and the door and there was nothing to do but wait. Wait until he’d run the gamut of photographers.
Wait until he reached his bride.
The door opened and he saw her.
For a moment he thought he must be in the wrong place. He’d been expecting a bureaucrat’s office. An official behind the desk. Peta in some sort of more respectable outfit that Ruby had persuaded her to buy.
Instead he had a bride.
He froze. For one awful moment he was transported back to the nightmare of his childhood. To the glitz and glitter of his mother’s dreadful weddings.
But the momentary impression was just that. Momentary. This was no nightmare. This was Peta. She’d been speaking to Ruby but she turned as he entered and she looked up at him.
Until this minute he’d thought that all white weddings were a nightmare. All his life he’d remembered the gaudy, tinselly creations his mother had worn and he’d felt ill.
But this was different. It had to be. Peta’s dress was simple but breathtakingly beautiful.
Peta was beautiful. Her smile widened. Her eyes locked with his.
And in that instant something inside Marcus that he’d hardly known existed shattered and evaporated as if it had never been. The thought that nothing or no one could ever move him.
He’d never thought any woman could be so lovely.
Maybe she wasn’t lovely in the way that the tabloids described loveliness, he thought, dazed. Her hair was still a mop of tousled curls-no amount of brushing could hide that. Her nose was snub and she had freckles from a lifetime in the sun. But her dress… Her dress clung to her perfect figure in a soft cloud of white silk. The white ribbons through her beautiful hair were more beautiful than any veil.
No. It wasn’t her dress. It wasn’t the bride thing. It was her eyes…her smile…the way she looked at him, half apologetic, half daring, wanting him to share this moment, wanting him to laugh, to smile, to simply share her pleasure.
She was smiling and smiling, and it was enough to make his heart lurch. Marcus Benson’s heart. Immutable. Untouchable.
She’d ditched her crutches and she looked…perfect.
No. How could she be perfect? Perfection was an illusion. It was crazy. Concentrate on something other than that smile.
Peta’s wasn’t the only smile. Ruby was there as well-a Ruby he hardly recognised, in a soft blue suit that made her look…well, softer somehow. As if that awful shell she’d built around her had somehow cracked.
Ruby had spoken of a man and a child in her past, but Ruby had worked for him for years and had said nothing before about her private life. How on earth had the advent of Peta into their lives allowed her to lift herself out of her past?
Because that was what had happened. Ruby was smiling from Marcus and back to Peta and the look she directed at Peta was one of pure pride.
And then there was Darrell. How had Darrell got to know about this? Darrell was normally a dour, middle-aged man to whom life had not been kind. His wife had left him during the agonies of skin grafts; he was still deeply traumatised by the events in the Gulf and the ex-serviceman had little to smile about. But now… Now Darrell was dressed in full military regalia and he, too, was smiling, as if this was a true wedding-a true happy ever after.
Which it wasn’t. The idea was ridiculous.
But Peta was still smiling at him and, as he walked towards her, she slipped her hand in his arm and held it as if he was already hers. It was a purely proprietorial gesture.
It should have made him run a mile.
But there were three people smiling at him-four, if you counted the man behind the desk. And outside was the press. The world was waiting to see if he could make this commitment.
It wasn’t a commitment, he told himself, and there was more than a trace of desperation in his inner monologue. It was a piece of paper. Nothing more.
He should hold himself stiffly. He shouldn’t smile. He should get this over with fast and move on.
But not to smile would be stupid. Maybe it’d even be cruel when everyone else was waiting.
He stared at Peta once more and it was too much. The corners of his mouth curved. His eyes lit. He smiled…
He smiled just for her.
He took her hand in his-firmly, with no hesitation in the world. And they turned to the man who was waiting to marry them. They made their vows.
Man and wife.
‘I now pronounce you man and wife…’
For two weeks?
They’d forgotten Charles.
Ruby had organised his invitation but no one had thought of him again. But as the official words faded and Marcus stared down at his bride, stunned by the enormity of what had just happened, the door burst open and in walked Peta’s cousin.
To say he was angry would be an understatement. The man was nearly apoplectic. Charles stood in the doorway, his eyes almost starting from their sockets. His expensive three-piece suit denoted him as an executive, but the uncontrolled fury on his face was more that of a petty criminal. A thug. When Peta turned to see who it was, he lunged straight at her.
He would have hit her. He’d hit her before. Marcus saw that at a glance. He saw Peta flinch and he saw her body brace.
This man had lived with Peta, he thought grimly. There’d been enough violence in Marcus’s past for him to recognise the pattern.
There’d also been enough violence in Marcus’s past for him to react, and to react fast. In one swift movement, Peta was thrust behind him, and his body was protecting her from her cousin’s angry rush.
‘You little…’ Charles moved sideways as if to grab her but Marcus was faster. He had him by the shoulders, holding him in a grip of steel.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’
‘That…slut!’ Charles was beyond logic. He’d come here at a run; he was out of breath and he was out of control. He shoved against Marcus’s hold but he was going nowhere.
Foiled, he was forced to explain. To try to voice his fury.
‘I got to the office after lunch to receive this.’ He hauled back from Marcus’s grasp and pulled the invitation from his top pocket. ‘This! I don’t know how she conned you-’
‘No one conned me.’ Marcus’s voice was flint-hard, cold as ice.
‘She must have. That slut, that-’
‘Stop. Right now. You’re talking about my wife!’
The word acted like a wall of ice water. Charles flinched. And stared.
‘It’s not possible. Peta… Your wife? Why would you want to marry her?’
Somehow Marcus managed to hold himself in check. Just. ‘You’re being offensive.’
‘It’s she who’s being offensive,’ Charles spat. ‘She’s just doing this to rob me of what rightfully belongs to me. The farm’s mine. I went to all the trouble to drag the old lady back here-’
‘Get out.’ Marcus turned to the official who was standing, mouth agape, staring in stunned amazement. ‘Do you have security guards in the building?’
‘I was invited,’ Charles hissed.
‘The invitation is rescinded.’
‘So’s your marriage. Marriage? This marriage is a mockery. It’s illegal. You can’t just marry her and walk away with my property. I’ll have it annulled.’
‘I have no intention of marrying Peta and walking away,’ Marcus said, deliberately misunderstanding him. ‘I’m taking Peta back to Australia.’ Then, as Peta pushed her way out from behind him, Marcus put his arm around her and pulled her in to him. They stood arm in arm. Man and wife.
‘I’m taking Peta home,’ he said gently, his eyes on Charles’s face. ‘In all honour.’
‘You’ve never… You’ll never…’
‘I am. Get used to it.’ He looked across at Darrell. ‘Darrell, if there aren’t security guards to deal with this…’-he said the word this as if it referred to some lower form of pond scum-‘then could you help me evict him?’
‘With pleasure,’ Darrell told him.
‘I’ll help,’ Ruby added.
‘Hey, me, too,’ Peta put in. ‘He’s my cousin. I should get to slug him.’
‘Brides don’t slug,’ Marcus told her and she managed a smile. Albeit a shaky one.
‘You have something else to do,’ Ruby reminded her. ‘Something important.’ Marcus’s assistant glanced at Charles as if he was of no significance at all. ‘If you’ve quite finished?’
‘I haven’t.’ Charles backed to the door as Darrell took a measured step towards him. ‘You’ll hear from my lawyers.’
‘I hope they have better party manners than you do,’ Marcus told him. Then he deliberately turned away from the man and faced Ruby. ‘What has my bride forgotten to do?’
My bride… It sounded strange. It was a declaration of intention-a declaration that, come what may, Charles’s lawyers couldn’t hurt her.
It was a gesture of pure protection and, as he made it, Marcus thought, whoa, where am I going? But he couldn’t unsay it. He couldn’t unfeel it.
He looked down into her face and, as Darrell slammed the door behind her obnoxious cousin, he could see that she was as confused as he was. He was offering protection, but to Peta protection seemed an unknown sensation. She’d fought her own battles, he thought, and somehow, he knew her battles had been just as hard as his own.
The knowledge intensified the sensation. It made him feel even more at sea. More…helpless?
This was an illusion, he told himself. The way he felt about her. The way he held her, pulling her in to his body. It was a façade put on to convince Charles that here was a real marriage.
But Charles had gone now. There was no one here they had to fool, yet Marcus was still holding her and there was no way he was releasing her. No way!
‘What’s she forgotten to do?’ Marcus asked again, and it was Ruby who pulled them all together, Ruby who collected herself. She looked to the official who was still standing in astonishment that the wedding could be so rudely interrupted. But this was a senior official who’d obviously overseen some very strange marriages in his time. He rose to the occasion as a good official should.
‘Can we continue?’ Ruby prodded, and the man stopped staring at the closed door and managed a smile.
‘Right. Where was I? Goodness me. I know. I now pronounce you man and wife.’ He took a deep breath and beamed at the pair of them, from Marcus to Peta and back again. The interruption might have been strange and unsettling, but standing before him were a couple whose body language said they belonged. Someone else may have tried to ruin this occasion but Henry Richard Waterhouse, officiating for the City of New York, was here to marry these people and marry them he would.
‘That’s it, folks,’ he said. He closed his book. ‘Except for the last bit. The best bit. My favourite part of the day. And here it comes.’ His beam widened. ‘You may now kiss the bride.’
The word rose unbidden. No. But he didn’t say it. Somehow he managed to cut it off. Somehow…
Marcus stared down at Peta and, for heaven’s sake, he saw panic there. It was the same panic he felt himself.
They were staring at each other, stunned, as if neither could believe it had come to this. That this wild planning had suddenly landed them in this place, where there was nothing to do but for Marcus to lift his hand, to tilt her chin, for his eyes to lock with hers.
And for his mouth to lower on to hers.
He didn’t want to do it. He didn’t…
He lied. He wanted to do it more than anything in the world.
And it was only a kiss, he told himself fiercely. It meant no more than their signatures on a piece of paper.
It was only a kiss.
But then his lips touched hers and it was much, much more.
His world changed, right there.
It was as if some sort of short circuit had shut down his brain. Cool, calm Marcus Benson who did nothing without thinking it out, whose world was a series of well planned, carefully orchestrated moves, who never let himself be shifted outside his zone of complete control…
Suddenly he was no longer in control. No. He hadn’t been in control since he’d met her, he thought desperately, but he was much more out of control now. His lips met his bride’s, and the electricity surging between them felt as if it could slam him into the far wall.
But only if she came, too, he thought, stunned, because there was no way he was letting her go.
He’d put his hands on her waist to draw her close to him-just a little-not to pull him hard in against her. But the warmth of her body was suddenly a fierce, molten link. The fire that surged in that link between them was unbelievable. His hands felt as though they belonged exactly where they were. They were forged into position. As if they’d found their home.
And her mouth… His mouth…
She tasted of Peta, he thought, with the tiny part of his brain that was left available to do any analysis at all. She tasted of nothing he had ever experienced before. She was so soft and yielding, and yet there was such strength.
He could taste the woman of her. He could feel the part of her that yielded to him and yet did not. That found her home in him and yet… And yet… And yet stayed her own sweet self.
She was curving in to him and he knew she was as bewildered as he was at this feeling. This feeling he could hardly begin to analyse. He had nothing to compare it to.
It was too much. He was past thinking. He was oblivious to the small group of onlookers-to Ruby and Darrell and the city official, all looking on with bemusement. All he knew was how her lips tasted. How his heart lurched.
How the barren wasteland of his heart suddenly seemed a far-off memory.
‘I’m sure you’ll be very, very happy.’
The official’s words broke in to the moment. Somehow. The man was beaming and waiting to grip Marcus’s hand, to claim the privilege of kissing the bride, of moving on to the next ceremony…
He didn’t hurry them. But this kiss had lasted a long time.
Marcus moved back. A little. Not much. His hands remained on Peta’s waist. He stared at her, dazed. She gazed back and his confusion was mirrored in her eyes.
‘I’m sorry…’ They spoke over each other and the moment somehow broke.
‘There’s no need to apologise to each other.’ The official was still beaming, his hand out to take Marcus’s and there was nothing for it but to release Peta. To let the moment go. ‘A man need never apologise for kissing his wife, and vice versa, and you have a lifetime ahead to do just that.’ He gripped Marcus’s hand and shook while Marcus fought desperately for normality. For sanity. Then the official turned and kissed Peta, breaking the contact even more. Giving Marcus room.
Letting reality in.
Then, the formalities over, the official stepped back and smiled some more. ‘There. All done. I’m sorry for the interruption to the ceremony but it doesn’t seem to have spoiled the moment. Congratulations.’ He glanced at his watch-surreptitiously, but it was a message for all that. ‘There’s some papers for you both to sign in the outer office, but that’s it. Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Benson. Welcome to your new life.’
The world took over. Of course it did.
Over the next hour Marcus moved on automatic pilot. He signed the register. He accepted congratulations. He faced the press. He shielded his bride as best he could and he smiled. He ate a meal-heaven knew what it was-in the restaurant Ruby had booked to celebrate the occasion. He listened to Darrell’s shy speech and he smiled.
By his side, Peta smiled as well, and her smile seemed just as forced as his.
Finally the formalities were over. ‘Darrell and I will take a cab home,’ Ruby told her boss. She reached into her handbag and hauled out a pouch. ‘These are your air tickets, your passport and all the documentation you’ll need for the next few weeks. Your plane leaves tomorrow morning at nine a.m.’
‘Mine goes tomorrow night.’ Peta had chatted during the meal but she’d sounded strained and the strain was still evident in her voice.
‘We took the liberty of changing your flights,’ Ruby told her. ‘You had a small taste of publicity today. With the short notice, the press contingent was limited. But Marcus’s wedding is going to hit the headlines tomorrow morning, and you’ll hardly want to be around for the fuss. The society tabloids have been trying to matchmake for Marcus since he made his first million.’
‘And now he’s hooked.’ Darrell’s smile matched Ruby’s. ‘That’s great.’
But it wasn’t great. ‘I didn’t hook anyone.’ Peta glowered. ‘He climbed on the line all by himself.’
‘And he can climb off again in two weeks,’ Ruby told her. She gathered her handbag and looked to Darrell. ‘Shall we leave these two-fishermen?-together?’
‘Sounds good to me.’ Darrell grinned. He took Marcus’s hand and shook-hard-and then he grasped Peta’s hands and pulled her in for a kiss to both cheeks.
‘You keep wiggling that hook,’ he said gently. ‘Marcus is the best mate in the world and he needs you more than he knows. So wiggle until he’s firmly caught. All the love in the world to you both.’
Then they were alone. The restaurant had alcoves that were separate rooms, giving absolute privacy. Ruby and Darrell had disappeared and Marcus was left with his bride.
The sensation was…unbelievable.
If only she wasn’t so lovely, he thought, a little bit desperately. Or a lot desperately. If only she wasn’t so vulnerable. So helpless. So-
‘I need to get this gear off. I feel like something that’s climbed off the top of a cake.’
Maybe vulnerable wasn’t the right word. Maybe vulnerable was a façade that went with the dress.
And she was right. This was silly. They needed to get back to normal. Remove the traces of bridal. But Marcus was aware of a faint tinge of regret in her voice-maybe because it struck an exact chord with what he was feeling. They were moving back into the real world and it hurt.
Maybe he could delay things.
‘Even Cinderella had until midnight,’ he told her. ‘Would you like to extend the fairytale?’
She stilled. ‘To do what?’
‘You’re leaving New York tomorrow,’ he told her. ‘You haven’t ridden around Central Park. Would you like to?’
She stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. Then she grinned and gestured to her dress. ‘In this?’
‘The best fairytales end in full glamour,’ he said cautiously, still unsure of what he was doing. ‘Do you trust me?’
‘I don’t trust anyone offering fairytales,’ she told him but the smile that went with her words was suddenly almost cheeky. ‘Prince Charming always seemed a bit of a pansy to me.’
And suddenly he found he could smile, too. Properly. He could drop the mask of indifference. She was asking nothing of him in the long term. She wouldn’t cling. He could stay with her and then walk away, his good deed done for life.
‘If I promise not to be a pansy…’
‘I doubt if you could be a pansy if you tried.’
‘Don’t mention it.’
‘So what about it? Do you want to have fun?’
Fun. The word hung between them. He stared down at her and he knew instinctively that the word was as foreign to Peta as it was to him.
Fun. Ha! But she was looking up at him and her head was cocked as if listening to an echo that was so far away she could hardly hear.
‘You want us to have fun?’
Did he? What was he getting himself into? he wondered wildly. If only she wasn’t wearing that dress.
But she was and there was no choice.
‘Yes,’ he told her. ‘Yes, I do. I want us to forget all about the Benson financial empire and the O’Shannassy farm and the likes of cousin Charles. For this afternoon you’re wearing a fairytale dress and I’ve never been married in my life. Can we wave our wand and make it last a bit longer?’
And then a decision-and that smile that could heat places in a man’s heart that he hadn’t known existed.
‘Okay.’ His beautiful bride tucked her hand confidingly in his arm and held. Claiming the proprietorship that he’d claimed when he’d given her his name.
‘Okay, Mr Benson,’ she told him. ‘For this afternoon I’ll stick with the fairytale. Me and my non-pansy Prince Charming. You and your lopsided Cinderella with the fat foot. Imperfect but game. Let’s take ourselves out into New York and have fun.’
HE TOOK her to Central Park.
Robert dropped them at the Grand Army Plaza as a carriage drew up, a magnificent horse-drawn coach with wonderful greys snorting in their traces. The driver raised his hand in salute to the bridal couple and Marcus beckoned the man closer.
‘You looking for a fare?’
The man beamed. ‘Do you and your lady want a ride?’
‘We surely do.’
‘We’d like to see the whole of Central Park-as long as it takes.’
‘Well now.’ The driver grinned some more and scratched his head. A crowd was gathering, taking in the sight of this lovely bridal couple.
‘Well now,’ the driver said again. ‘Step aboard.’ He turned to his horses. ‘Come on, boys. Let’s give these folks an afternoon to remember. And, seeing as they’re just married, we might even give them a rate!’
For Peta the next few hours passed in a whirl. She’d been transported into a make-believe world where anything was possible. Where she was beautiful, desirable, loved. Where the sheer slog of daily grind was replaced by magical clothes, a matched pair of greys, the sights of Central Park, people waving at the bridal pair. The sights…
They climbed down occasionally so Marcus could show her things he enjoyed. When her ankle held her back he simply lifted and carried her, to the delight of the bystanders and ignoring her indignant squeaks. She stood on the mosaic that said Imagine while a hundred tourists took photographs. She checked the animals in the children’s zoo and more cameras clicked. She stood on the little bridges and the rocks in the Rambles and Marcus laughed and said why didn’t he have shares in digital cameras?
And then he grinned and remembered that he did.
Through all, their patient coachman waited, smiling benignly. They’d told Robert to leave them for two hours but it was almost three before Marcus was sure his bride had had her fill. Marcus phoned Robert and told him not to wait. At the end he had their coachman drop them off near a little place he knew…
The little place was a restaurant with food to die for. Still in their wedding regalia, they were ushered to the best table in the house. Peta drank wine and ate food that she’d never imagined existed.
She was tired, but wonderfully so. She hardly spoke. All afternoon she’d hardly spoken. She simply soaked it in, as if this was happening to someone else. Not to her.
This couldn’t possibly be happening to her.
But it was. She ate her food, dazed, while Marcus watched her with a tiny smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He was playing fantasy, too, she decided and she could hardly object.
She didn’t want to object.
And then, as the waiter poured coffee and she thought this surely must end, a four-piece band started up. Soft music. Simple. Lovely. And Marcus was rising, still with that queer half smile, quizzing her with his eyes. He knew her secret. He was sharing this make-believe.
‘Would you like to dance?’
Would she like to dance? The prospect was almost overwhelming. Would she?
‘I don’t… I can’t… My ankle.’
‘Trust me,’ he said. ‘You can. I’ll take your weight. Lean on me. Tonight we can do anything.’
She rose. There was nothing else for it. Her lovely skirts swished against the floor, swirling around her. Marcus pulled her into his arms, lifting the weight from her ankle so she could hardly feel it. The band took one look at this lone couple on the dance floor and struck up the bridal waltz.
It needed only that. Peta choked on laughter and buried her face in Marcus’s shoulder.
‘Laughter?’ He swung her expertly around the dance floor and somehow her feet followed. As if they knew the way all by themselves. Peta, who’d never had the time or the opportunity to be on a dance floor before this night, seemed to know how without any teaching.
Of course she did. On this night anything was possible.
‘We’re such frauds,’ she whispered into his shoulder and she felt him stiffen. Just a little. And then she felt him chuckle in return, a low, lovely rumble.
‘As long as we both know it.’
‘What time does Robert turn into a mouse?’
He looked startled at that-but he caught the analogy and grinned.
‘He’s fine until at least midnight. But can I just ask if you’ll leave a forwarding address if you do any casting of slippers.’
‘My address is Rosella Farm, Yooralaa, Australia.’ She smiled. ‘Just so you don’t have to do any unnecessary fitting. There’s a lot of women between Yooralaa and New York to be trying on glass slippers on all of them.’
‘And maybe the fairytale wouldn’t hold. Maybe someone would have a smaller foot.’
She stilled and looked down to where her right foot peeked out from under her dress. Her ankle was bandaged. The bridal salon had solved her problem by giving her a right sandal three sizes larger than the left.
‘I must remember to drop the left one,’ she murmured. ‘Otherwise I’m doomed. Or you’re doomed. You might end up with a bride who’s two hundred pounds.’
He grinned. ‘But maybe we need to rewrite the fairytale,’ he suggested. ‘In fact, I’m sure we do. We need to rein up a few more mice and order a bigger pumpkin. Because, instead of fleeing alone, you get to take your Prince Charming along. I’m coming home with you.’
For heaven’s sake. As he swung her once more around the dance floor she thought she detected the faintest trace of satisfaction in his voice. What had she got herself into?
‘Hey!’ She pulled back. ‘Let’s not get carried away here.’ She focused then. Really focused, hauling the fairydust out of her head. ‘This isn’t real. I mean, even after midnight, after the two weeks. None of this is real.’
‘No.’ But he didn’t stop dancing. Another turn. He was holding her tight to take her weight, half dancing, half carrying. His head was resting on her curls. Which was sensible. Wasn’t it? He had to hold her to take the weight of her injured ankle. There was no other reason for it, though, she thought wildly. No other reason she was curved into him, her body moving as one with him.
‘Maybe we should go home,’ she whispered.
‘I mean, to your apartment. I mean… You to your club.’ That was the sensible thing to do. Wasn’t it?
‘I don’t think we can do it tonight,’ he told her. ‘We’re married.’
‘So we have the society pages watching. Do we want them to know we slept apart on the night of our wedding?’
‘I’m sure you don’t mean that.’
She thought about it for a bit. Which was really hard. The way her body was feeling… All she was doing was feeling. She had no room for anything else.
‘You mean…because of Charles?’
‘What else could I mean?’
Of course. What else could he mean? Silly girl.
If only she could think straight. If only he wasn’t so near.
‘So…’ She caught herself. ‘You’re saying we need to…to stay in the same place?’
‘We need to stay in the same place.’
‘I have a settee in the sitting room that turns into a bed. You needn’t worry.’
‘I’m not worried.’ It was true. It was impossible to be worried when she was feeling as she was feeling. As if she was floating.
‘So…you think we should go home?’
‘One more turn around the dance floor,’ she whispered and he held her closer and she felt him smile.
‘How about six?’
The fairytale ended at the front door.
Robert brought them home. Marcus helped his bride alight from the car; she stumbled on her bad ankle and he refused to listen to her protests. He swept her into his arms and carried her into his apartment and the door slammed behind them.
They were left alone. The lights were dim. He was standing in the hallway holding a girl in his arms-his bride-and she was gazing up at him with eyes that were luminescent, trembling, sweetly innocent.
She was so desirable. And she was his wife! He could kiss her right now…
‘Cut it out,’ she told him, jerking her face back from his and jiggling in his arms. ‘Marcus Benson, put me down. Right now.’
‘I know what you thought. I can read it in your eyes.’
‘I knew you’d want something.’ She bounced and wriggled some more and he was forced to set her down.
‘I don’t want anything.’
She fixed him with an old-fashioned look. ‘You’re saying you don’t want to take me to bed?’
There was nothing he’d like better. She read his expression and he couldn’t get his face under control fast enough. ‘Ha!’
‘I didn’t marry you,’ he said softly, ‘to get you into my bed.’
‘No. You married me as a favour. But now we’re married…’
‘It’d be a bonus,’ he admitted, and smiled. ‘You’re saying you don’t think so?’
‘I don’t want to go to bed with you.’
‘There’s a definite physical attraction…’
‘Between man and woman,’ she snapped. ‘And tom cats and lady cats. And ducks and drakes and pigs and sows. You dress up in that gorgeous suit and you treat me like you have today and of course there’d be an attraction. But there’s no way in the wide world I’m going to bed with you.’
It was a reasonable question, he thought, but Peta had other ideas on what was reasonable.
‘If I fall in love with you I’m stuffed.’
‘Work it out, smart boy,’ she said and kicked off her bridal sandals. ‘Cinderella had no life at all. I’m going to bed. Do I sleep on the settee or do you?’
‘You can take the bed.’
‘Right, then,’ she told him and walked into the bedroom with scarcely a limp. And closed the door behind her. Leaving him…flabbergasted.
What followed was a night of no sleep.
How could she sleep? Peta lay in Marcus’s too-big bed and watched the moonlight play over her bridal gown, which was draped carefully over the bedside chair. The dress seemed to shimmer in the moonlight, as if it had a life of its own.
A bridal gown. She’d had a wedding.
There’d be photographs, she thought. There’d been so many cameras pointed at her this day. Maybe one day years from now she’d leaf through an ancient magazine and see this picture.
The picture of a fairytale. With Marcus. Her Prince Charming.
Did Prince Charming milk cows?
Maybe not. In fact, he’d made that a condition of marriage. The thought made her chuckle. She should sleep, she thought. Tomorrow was another huge day.
But Marcus was just through the wall. And he’d wanted to take her to his bed. It had been so hard to bounce herself out of the fantasy, she thought, and wondered how she’d ever done it.
He married me, she told herself. I’m his wife.
What, so you’d go to bed with him to repay the debt?
You’d go to bed with him because he makes your toes curl. She winced and wriggled her toes, making them uncurl in the dark.
It’d be a disaster, she told the other part of her brain-the part that was screaming at her to swallow her principles, forget her sensible self and…and do what good girls didn’t do. We’re worlds apart. You owe him a lot but you don’t owe him your heart.
I have his bed, she told the dark. His bed and his name, without the man. Best of both worlds.
Maybe having a man in her bed would be no bad thing. Maybe having Marcus…
Go home, Peta, she told herself. Get yourself back to your dogs if you want company. Settle for reality.
Reality was good, she told herself. Reality was her future.
But for now… She lay in the moonlight and looked at her wedding dress. And thought about Marcus.
Reality seemed a long way away.
He wanted the fantasy.
Marcus lay in the dark and stared up at the ceiling. It was flat. Uninteresting. Boring.
He was flat, uninteresting, boring.
Today had been so different. Today he’d felt transformed. As if life somehow could be something of worth.
He lay back on his pillows and made himself remember all those weddings he’d been to as a child. His mother, starry-eyed in white, promising him the world.
‘This time he’s going to take us away from all this. We’re starting on a new life, Marcus,’ she’d said, over and over again.
Yeah, right. Pure fantasy. Each time, the new life had begun before the wedding cake was finished and it had been invariably bleak and dreadful.
So here he was, caught up in the same fantasy his mother had used to make life bearable. White weddings. The fairytale.
It was just as well Peta had sense for the both of them, he told himself. Otherwise he’d have her in his arms right now!
Which was a truly crazy thought. To marry her was fine. But to make love to her as his wife… No!
How on earth had he ever become caught up in this? A wife? Australia? The immediate future seemed ridiculous. He’d been caught by a pair of twinkling green eyes, hauled in as surely as his mother had, sucked in by promises.
But it had been Marcus who’d made the promises.
‘And I’m surely not dreaming of any happy ever after,’ he told the ceiling. ‘My life’s here.’
Alone with a ceiling?
He’d upgraded her ticket.
Peta wriggled down into the cocoon of her first-class seat-cum-bed and tried really hard to think indignant thoughts. How had he found out her flight was economy? How had he managed to change it, and what right did he have to do so?
But her knees weren’t under her chin. She was nestled into a full-length bed. There were fluffy blankets tucking her in, soft pillows under her head, soft music playing on her personal entertainment system.
She was on her way back to reality. Back to cows and hard grind. Maybe she could indulge in a little fantasy for now, she thought. And that was exactly what she was doing. Especially as her husband-her husband!-was lying right beside her. If she just reached out…
She didn’t want to reach out. Of course she didn’t. Peta O’Shannassy had a very tight grip on reality.
He could have used his own jet. But: ‘You know how she reacted with the clothes,’ Ruby had told him. ‘She’ll react exactly the same to a private jet.’
‘She agreed to your plans for a wedding dress.’
‘That was fantasy. A private jet, in Peta’s eyes, would be ridiculous.’
‘But hell-sitting round airports…’
‘Join the human race.’
‘I’ve been part of the human race,’ Marcus had said grimly. ‘I’ve moved on.’
‘Well, pretend for two weeks,’ Ruby had said bluntly, so here he was, on a commercial flight with the prospect of a five-hour stopover in Tokyo.
It was comfortable enough.
Who was he kidding? He was really comfortable. And Peta’s round-eyed astonishment had been a delight, even if he did have the feeling she was controlling indignation at his perceived waste of money.
Peta. His bride.
The lines were becoming more blurred by the minute.
THE moment she landed she transformed.
For the last few hours of the flight Peta had withdrawn into herself. Finally, at the announcement to fasten seatbelts for landing, she turned to Marcus, her face resolute.
‘Thank you very much,’ she told him. ‘You can stop pretending now.’
‘I mean…’ She flushed a little but her face became more resolute. ‘The whole wedding thing. Letting me travel with you first class. Buying me clothes. Treating me as your wife. It’s been great but you don’t need to do it any more. No one here cares.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
She smiled at that but it was an uncomfortable little smile.
‘I’m sorry. Maybe I put that really badly. It’s just… Well, hardly anyone here will have heard of you, and they surely won’t be fussed whether we’re married or not.’
‘You mean… Are you telling me to go away?’
‘You really think that Charles will check that we’re together?’
‘Charles will check.’
‘How can he?’
‘Private investigators are relatively cheap when there’s a lot of money at stake.’
She thought about it and then nodded, her face decisive. ‘Okay. Maybe you’re right. But no one can come further than our farm gate without the dogs barking their heads off. You can have Hattie’s house. My aunt lived separately from us but her house is on the farm, too.’
He thought about it. ‘You don’t want me to stay with you?’
‘I don’t have a guest bedroom.’
‘You have four brothers.’
‘So, if three of them aren’t living at home, why isn’t there a spare bedroom?’
She paused. She opened her mouth to speak but then appeared to think better of it. And then she smiled.
‘You can have Hattie’s house,’ she told him again. ‘Let’s leave everything else for now. I wonder who’s going to meet us?’
Everybody met them. The plane touched down in Melbourne; they walked through the doors from Customs and Peta disappeared in the midst of a mêlée of large, male redheads. Marcus saw Peta’s brothers as a group, their family likeness unmistakeable as they leaned forward over the barrier in their eagerness to see their sister, and then Peta was through and they merged. Peta was enfolded into a group hug, and the hug went on for so long he thought he’d lost her.
But finally she was released. Tousled and laughing, she gazed at them all with affection. Four boys, three of whom were well over six feet, and the fourth a smaller, freckled one with the promise of at least a foot of growth to come.
‘I’ve missed you all so much,’ she told them. ‘Come and meet Marcus.’
The oldest broke away from the group at that. Lean and gangly, just out of adolescence, the boy’s smile died and his face grew serious. Red-headed, freckled like his brothers and all of about twenty, the kid had the same look on his face as the one Peta had worn when Marcus first met her. Defiance, and a vulnerability he was trying to hide. He stepped forward and took Marcus’s hand in a grip that was surprisingly strong for one so young.
‘I’m Daniel,’ he said simply. ‘Peta rang. She told us what you’d done for us. We’re all so grateful.’
And Marcus, man of the world, world-weary and sophisticated, found himself almost blushing. For heaven’s sake. The gratitude of a stripling…
The gratitude of them all. They were all looking at him as if he was their very own personal genie. Peta was smiling, and…
And heck. Enough was enough.
‘I only married your sister,’ he growled. ‘That’s hardly a huge sacrifice on my part.’
Daniel managed a shy grin. ‘I don’t know about that, sir. She’s very bossy.’
‘Hey!’ Peta said.
‘She’s messy, too,’ the littlest one volunteered. ‘And she can’t cook for nuts.’
‘She’s pretty good at animal obstetrics, though,’ the second one-Christopher?-volunteered. ‘Daniel’s doing vet science but he still reckons there’s no one he’d rather have around during a messy birth than Peta.’
‘Meet my brothers,’ Peta said faintly. ‘Daniel, Christopher, William and Harry. It’s just as well you didn’t meet them before taking the matrimonial plunge, hey? A list of all my faults and virtues-including delivering cows. Good grief!’ She reached out and grabbed the littlest again, hugging him close. ‘Did you miss me?’
‘Yeah.’ Harry sounded embarrassed but he let himself be hugged and even managed a swift hug back before masculine pride tugged him backward. ‘Can we go home now?’
‘Hey, how grateful is that?’ Daniel demanded. ‘Harry’s been really well looked after in university college.’
‘You weren’t found out?’
‘Everyone knew he was there,’ Daniel told her. ‘Even the masters. But they didn’t say a word.’
‘I was really good,’ Harry said with virtue. ‘I was so good I’m good up to my neck. Peta, I’m really glad you’re home.’
‘So you can be bad again?’
‘Yep,’ he said and everyone laughed.
But the laughter was a little strained. Marcus was aware that he was being carefully appraised and the sensation was definitely unnerving.
‘I don’t suppose you guys have any free time to come back to the farm?’ Peta asked, and had three head shakes.
‘It’s end of term,’ Daniel told her. ‘Exams. In three weeks we’ll all be home to do the hay. Unless you need us.’ He cast a sideways glance at Marcus and his message was unmistakeable. Unless you need help with this strange guy you’ve brought home. Unless he’s not really the benefactor he’s supposed to be. ‘But meanwhile…’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I’ve got lectures this afternoon and so have the others. Can we leave the brat with you?’
The brat. Peta had her arm around Harry’s shoulders and the three older boys were looking at him with expressions that said not one of them thought he was a brat. This family exuded affection, Marcus thought, and the sensation was so…well, warm that it made his gut twist in a sudden surge of longing. But that wasn’t what he was here for. He was involved enough with Peta. He had no intention of becoming more involved with her family.
‘I brought your truck into the car park,’ Daniel was telling his sister. ‘But you can’t all drive home in it. You won’t fit.’
‘I assume Marcus will hire a car. I doubt he’ll want to be stuck on the farm at my beck and call.’
‘Isn’t that what marriage is all about?’ William asked.
‘William…’ Peta’s tone was warning but the kid was grinning.
‘Hey, what would we know?’ he asked, spreading his hands. ‘But you guys have been married-what-two days? You must be old hands by now. Becking and calling all over the place.’
There was general laughter. It was still strained-this was a situation that must surely lend itself to awkwardness-but they were nice kids, Marcus thought.
They were a nice family. Of course. How could they not be when Peta was…
No. He needed to stick with practicalities here. A car. He glanced down at his travel documents and, sure enough, there was a docket for car hire. But…
‘Maybe this isn’t big enough for all of us, either,’ he told them. ‘It’s a sports car from a specialist firm. Ruby knows what I like.’
‘What sort of sports car?’ Harry demanded, releasing his sister’s hand in an instant.
‘A Morgan 4/4.’
‘A Morgan?’ Harry’s eyes practically popped out on stalks. ‘You’ve hired a Morgan 4/4? Peta, you’ve married a guy who hires Morgans?’
‘Pretty cool, hey?’ Peta’s eyes twinkled at the bemused Marcus, and the strain eased. ‘I guess that settles that. Can we have a quick meal with you guys here to catch up with news? Then we’ll go. I’ll drive the truck and Marcus and Harry can follow behind in the…what did you say? The Morgan. Right. Let’s move.’
Which was why an hour later Marcus found himself travelling south along the New South Wales coast road, not with his fantasy bride-his Cinderella-but with a scrubby schoolboy who asked questions at a mile a minute and who was clearly entranced by this new personage his sister had brought home specifically for his enjoyment.
The farther south he and Harry drove, the more disconcerted he grew. Harry appeared to have accepted Peta’s explanation of this marriage as a great piece of good fortune-that good fortune appeared to have been capped off by Marcus’s taste in gorgeous blue Morgans-and Harry enveloped Marcus as if he’d been courting Peta for years. The little boy seemed totally, gloriously happy.
‘It’s not just because of the Morgan,’ he told Marcus. ‘It’s because I’m going home. You’ll love it.’
He was more and more out of his ken.
By the time Marcus arrived he’d driven through some of the loveliest country in the world-with a schoolboy by his side chattering thirteen to the dozen. He didn’t have a clue what he was letting himself in for.
Peta had reached the farm before them. When he pulled to a stop she was crouched on the veranda steps of a dilapidated cottage, surrounded by a gaggle of misbegotten dogs. The dogs came barking furiously down the steps to the car and Peta followed.
She was still limping, Marcus noticed. She was still the Peta he’d left two hours ago. She was wearing the clothes she’d worn on the aeroplane-the skirt and top they’d bought in New York to face Charles.
But she looked indefinably different. The haunted air had gone, he thought. She was smiling and there was something about that smile…
It was happiness. Her smile was a glow from inside, impossible to turn off. And why? Because she’d just arrived back at this godforsaken place…
No. That wasn’t fair, he decided. The country was beautiful. Charles had fought for this place and for good reason. The farm land was softly undulating coastline, dotted by magnificent eucalypts and backed by mountains. In the afternoon sun it looked magic.
But not so the house. The veranda looked as if it’d topple at any minute, and the house attached to it was worse.
‘Welcome to Rosella Farm,’ Peta was saying through dog barks. ‘Down. Down, guys.’ But there was no way the dogs were obeying. They were almost turning inside out as they realised it was Harry in the car. Harry did a mighty leap, and dogs and kid ended up rolling joyously in the dust.
But Marcus was still staring at the tumbledown house. ‘Is this really your home?’
‘Yes.’ Peta’s smile faded a little. ‘But don’t worry. Aunt Hattie’s house is better. It’s a couple of hundred yards further on, behind the dairy. I’ll take you there now.’
‘Right.’ He climbed out of the car, looked around him and made a decision. He needed to ground himself here. This was unfamiliar territory and Marcus dealt in facts. Knowledge was power. Or, at least, knowledge was being just a little less disoriented than he was feeling right now. ‘I need a guided tour,’ he told her.
Was it his imagination, or did she back off a bit? ‘Harry can show you over the farm after school tomorrow.’
Harry’s cheerful face emerged from his pile of assorted dogs. ‘Sure. But it’ll take ages. I’ll stay home from school tomorrow and show Marcus everything. You’ll need me to entertain Marcus. Girls never know what to do with guys.’
His grin was infectious but Peta was obviously immune. But at least she could look at Harry now instead of Marcus. He was right. She had backed off. ‘Not likely,’ she told her brother. ‘You’ve missed enough school already. But you can take Marcus down to Hattie’s now.’
Thus he was summarily dismissed. Marcus frowned. It was a neat plan. Harry could take him to her aunt’s house and therefore let her get on with her life.
So? That was what he wanted, wasn’t it?
‘I’ll bring your bag in first,’ Marcus told her. He’d taken their combined luggage.
Peta shook her head and held out her hand for the bag he’d pulled out of the car. ‘I’ll take it.’
‘Is fine. Leave it here.’
‘Don’t you want me to see your house?’
‘There’s nothing to see.’
‘You don’t want me to carry it to your room?’
‘Peta sleeps on the veranda,’ Harry volunteered. ‘Out the back, out of the wind.’ He pushed the dogs aside, rose and turned to playing host. ‘There’s only one bedroom and Peta makes me sleep in that.’
‘Peta sleeps on the veranda?’
‘It’s…cool,’ Peta said.
‘I bet it is,’ he said, stunned. ‘In winter I bet it’s really cool. You sleep out all year round?’
‘We all had to sleep on the veranda until Dad died,’ Harry told him. ‘Us boys had a really big bed, and Peta had a littler one at the other end. When Dad died the big ones made William and me move inside so I can hardly remember. But I think I liked it.’
‘It’s none of your business,’ Peta told him. Her face shut him out as best she could as she attempted to move on. ‘But if you’re thinking Harry wasn’t looked after, he was. When he was a baby he slept with me. Now… There’s basic groceries at Hattie’s. There’s food in the freezer and long-life milk and juice in the pantry. I’ll go shopping tomorrow for whatever else you need. But meanwhile…’
‘What are we eating for dinner?’ Marcus asked.
The ‘we’ hung in the air, halting conversation. It was a push in the direction of sharing.
Was that wise? Probably not, Marcus thought, but the idea of calmly driving to another house and foraging in the freezer alone was really unappealing.
‘We’ll be eating sausages,’ Harry volunteered. ‘Peta always cooks sausages. She burns them, too.’
‘Will there be sausages in my…in Hattie’s freezer?’
‘Sure,’ Harry said expansively. ‘Peta buys millions of sausages.’
‘Okay.’ Marcus smiled down into his bride’s confused face. ‘Then I’m cooking. Dinner’s on at my place. In, say, an hour?’
‘You don’t even know what’s there,’ Peta said faintly.
‘How far away are the shops?’
‘Fifteen minutes by car.’
‘No worries, then. Job’s done.’
‘You can’t cook!’
‘Who said I can’t cook?’
‘Can you really?’ Harry demanded, suspicion and hope warring on his adolescent face. ‘Really?’
‘Not stuff like…sushi.’
Marcus grinned. ‘I doubt even my ability to whip up sushi given a core ingredient of sausage.’
‘Ace,’ said Harry, deeply satisfied. ‘Isn’t it ace, Peta?’
Her face said it was anything but ace. ‘I need to milk the cows.’
‘I’m not paying anyone to milk tonight. If I don’t milk there’s no income.’
‘Can I help?’
‘I like milking alone,’ she said stolidly. ‘You concentrate on your sausages.’
‘Is fine. You’ve done enough,’ she told him. ‘I don’t want you to help.’
The joy had faded. It was still there, he thought, but there was discomfort, too. As though she’d realised that the joy had to be paid for.
And the price was…him.
The second farmhouse was like a doll’s house. In much better condition than the first, it had obviously been built for one very fussy woman.
It was pink. Very pink. The outside was a demure brick but the moment Marcus walked inside he was assaulted by pinkness. Pink walls, pink paintings, pink doilies…
‘Auntie Hattie liked pink,’ Harry said by his side. Peta had abandoned them, leaving Harry to do the honours.
‘I can see that she did,’ Marcus said cautiously and then he looked down at Harry’s bland face. ‘It’s horrible.’
‘It is,’ Harry said, blandness making way for mischief. ‘Our place is better, even if it’s falling down.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Marcus stared around him. ‘How come this place is so much better than yours?’
‘Well, if you ignore the pink…’
‘Oh, you mean money,’ Harry said with just a trace of scorn. ‘Aunt Hattie always had more than us.’
‘Can you tell me why?’
‘Easy. My grandpa was fair.’
And Harry was off, all too ready to tell a story of an injustice he obviously felt strongly about. ‘My grandpa had two kids, my Dad and Auntie Hattie. Auntie Hattie had a baby when she was a teenager-that was Charles-but she stayed living here. Grandpa built her this little house. My Dad married my Mum and had five kids. When Grandpa died, he left the farm half to Dad and half to Hattie, even though our family did all the work. Peta says Dad was really angry. She says that’s another reason why Dad hated women.’
‘So all the income from the farm had to be split into two. Half to Hattie and half to us.’
‘Who works the farm?’
‘Peta, mostly. We help.’
‘Did Hattie help?’
‘Hattie never worked.’ Harry gazed around the little house and grimaced. ‘Except to paint things.’
‘That seems unfair on Peta,’ Marcus said thoughtfully and Harry nodded.
‘Yeah, it is, really unfair, but Charles always said we had a choice-do it like that or we could leave the farm. My Dad never wanted to leave the farm-he couldn’t be bothered and as long as there was enough money for his drink…’ He bit his lip at that, and suddenly looked very young. ‘I guess I shouldn’t have told you about Dad drinking. It’s what Daniel told me. But Peta would growl.’
‘I won’t tell her.’ Marcus frowned. ‘So… Peta stayed and worked the farm. Why did your brothers leave?’
‘Peta made them.’
‘She said there was never going to be enough money for us all to be farmers and they were going to have careers if she had to drive them off with sticks.’ His grin returned. ‘When Peta gets bossy no one can argue with her.’
‘I guess you’re right at that.’
‘Are you really going to make sausages?’
‘Not if I can help it. Where’s the freezer?’
‘I’ll show you. Hattie used to go to the city sometimes and buy gourmet stuff. There might be something interesting. But…not too interesting.’
‘Let’s go look,’ Marcus told him. ‘Can you cook?’
‘No!’ Harry told him, startled.
‘Then you’re about to learn.’
By the time Peta came in from the dairy she was tired. Good tired, she thought though, as she showered. Great tired. The cows-her girls-were all fit and healthy. They’d swivelled their great bovine heads as she’d appeared at the gate to lead them up to the dairy; there’d been gentle moos and, moving among them, she felt she’d come home.
No one could take it from her, she’d thought over and over as she’d washed teats, adjusted cups, released one cow after the other and given each an affectionate pat as they ambled off towards an evening of grazing the lush pasture on the cliffs around the house. Home. At long last the threats to her security-her father and her cousin-were gone.
Marcus had given this to her. It was a huge gift. Vast.
She stared down at the plain band of gold on her finger. Marcus had insisted they each wear one for a year-‘Let’s do this right.’
He’d done it right.
And she’d sent him off to Aunt Hattie’s.
Maybe he’ll like pink, she told herself, and grinned to herself as the cool water streamed over her. And at least he’ll be comfortable.
And he’d be away. Separate. Life could get back to normal. From this day…
‘Peta?’ Harry was yelling for her and she poked her head out of the shower.
‘Marcus and me have made dinner. It’s ace. You gotta hurry before it gets cold. Marcus says hurry.’
He waited for her, jigging up and down with impatience as she hauled on clean jeans and a T-shirt. ‘Come on. Come on.’
So much for eating toast on the veranda and getting her head together. ‘Didn’t you want to have dinner just with me tonight?’ she asked.
‘Are you kidding?’ Harry demanded, amazed. ‘Marcus is ace.’
‘And you should see what we’ve cooked.’
Peta walked in the back door of Aunt Hattie’s little house and stopped in astonishment. Curry! She’d never smelled such a thing in this house. It’d take three cans of air-freshener for Hattie to lose it. Hattie would never tolerate it.
Then Marcus appeared in the doorway and she stopped thinking about Aunt Hattie.
She’d never seen him like this.
The first time she’d met him, Marcus had been dressed formally. He’d been wearing a business suit. For the wedding he’d gone even more formal, and he’d worn a suit on the way out here on the plane. He’d looked an experienced business traveller and Peta had been vaguely self-conscious beside him.
No. Peta had been incredibly self-conscious beside him.
But now… He’d changed. Transformed. He was wearing jeans that were almost as faded as hers, with a plain T-shirt that stretched tight across his chest and showed the muscles rippling down his arms. His deep black hair was tousled as if he’d run his fingers through it often and often. There was a smudge of something orange on his cheek.
He was wearing a pinny.
It was one of Aunt Hattie’s pinnies, she thought. Pink. Frilly. With a bow attached.
She stared. She’d come prepared to be stiff and formal and polite-welcoming to a guest but here to have a fast meal and then say a formal good night and get away.
Stiff, formal and polite didn’t get a look in. One glance and she was lost. Laughter bubbled up and exploded.
‘What?’ he demanded, mock offended as she whooped. ‘What? Don’t you like my apron?’
‘It’s…’ She fought gamely for control but lost. Another whoop or two and then she tried again. ‘It’s a very nice pinny. Did you tie the bow?’
‘I tied it for him,’ Harry said behind her. ‘He had his hands all covered in yuck stuff and said “find an apron” and that’s all Auntie Hattie had.’
‘It’s a very nice apron,’ she managed. ‘It’s a very nice bow. Well…well done, boys.’ She fought a bit more for control. ‘Um… Is that curry I can smell?’
‘It is.’ Marcus beamed at her as if a protégée had just proven herself incredibly clever. ‘Harry said he liked curry.’
‘How… Did Auntie Hattie have curry powder?’ She was fascinated.
‘You don’t make curry out of curry powder,’ he told her.
‘No. You really don’t cook, do you, Mrs Benson.’
The label came out unexpectedly and hung. She bit her lip and tried desperately to ignore it.
‘When I was eight years old, I had a very sensible grade teacher,’ she told him. Somehow. ‘Mrs Canterbury was Yooralaa’s answer to Emily Pankhurst. One day she took us girls aside and said if we were ever to amount to anything we should never learn to type, never learn to sew and never learn to cook. I followed her advice to the letter.’
‘Well done, you,’ he said faintly, obviously bemused. ‘And here you are, amounting to lots. But hungry. Curry powder, huh?’
‘So how do you make curry without curry powder?’
‘You take the little bottles of herbs Hattie has in a collection labelled Gourmet Delight. It looks as if it was bought for decoration rather than use but she has everything. Coriander, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, you name it. Nothing’s ever been opened so it’s still good. Then you lift the cute little ornamental chilli plant off the veranda where it’s obviously been placed because it clashes with pink. You pick two chillis. You take a hunk of frozen lamb, a can of tomatoes, a few lemons from the tree outside, and voilà.’
‘Voilà? Is that Indian for delicious?’
‘Of course it’s Indian. And absolutely it’s for delicious. Hungry?’
Was she hungry? She smelled again and the smell did things to her insides she found extraordinary.
No. It wasn’t just the smell, she thought. It was the whole experience.
A man in Hattie’s house.
A man in her life!
There were enough men in her life, she told herself desperately. She had four brothers whom she loved. She’d coped with a neglectful father and a violent cousin. Six men. She didn’t need any more. Ever.
But Marcus was holding the chair for her to sit. No one had ever held a chair for her. Marcus was smiling at her. No one had ever smiled at her…
Was she crazy? Of course people had smiled at her. All the time!
No one had ever smiled at her like Marcus.
She was home, she told herself. Life had to get back to normal. This was some crazy two-week aberration-a man cooking for her-a man acting as if he cared. It’d go away. He’d go away and then her life could go on as normal.
They sat across the table from him, Peta and her little brother, and they ate his curry as if they’d never eaten such food. They savoured every mouthful.
Marcus’s cooking was his secret pleasure. His mother had never cooked. For the first few years of his life he’d lived on hamburgers and Coke. Then one of his mother’s boyfriends had wooed her by hiring a chef for the night. Marcus had been sent to bed while the two had a romantic tête à tête, but the smells had been tantalising. The next day the leftover ingredients filled the kitchen. He’d investigated, then had a long discussion with the lady in the next door apartment.
The result had left him delighted. It had been the start of a skill that until now had never been shared. But sharing…
It was great, he thought. His food was being consumed with total enjoyment and it added to his satisfaction tenfold. Peta and Harry discussed the curry with absolute fascination; they ate every scrap and the three dogs under the table were left to eye each other disconsolately.
‘Where did you learn to do this?’ Peta demanded and he told her. That felt odd, too-talking about the past to a woman who looked as if she was really interested. Who looked as if she really cared.
She didn’t. She couldn’t, he told himself. This farm was her life and she had no part in his. He knew that, but as the last of the curry was finished and she rose to go, he was aware of a sharp stab of loss.
‘I’ll make coffee,’ he told her but she shook her head.
‘I have milking in the morning. Five a.m. I need to go to bed. And it’s back to routine for Harry. He has school.’
‘Come on, Harry.’ Peta hauled Harry to his feet and whistled the dogs. ‘Come on, guys. We need to go home and let Mr Benson get his sleep.’
‘It’s just after eight o’clock,’ Marcus said, startled. ‘Even Prince Charming got a better look-in than that.’
‘You left Cinderella in New York,’ Peta said firmly. ‘And she’s staying there.’
THE silence was deafening.
Peta and Harry left, the dogs followed, and Marcus was left in his little pink house with his thoughts.
His thoughts weren’t exactly little and pink. They were large and black. He cleaned the kitchen and polished the pink bench-tops. He unpacked, put his clothes on the pink clothes hangers, stared at the pink walls, thought about how many hours there were in two weeks and how much pink a man could stand.
Not much more than this.
He set up his laptop and logged into his work space. It was nine at night, which meant it was five in the morning in New York. No one was online.
He’d expected a sheaf of correspondence from Ruby. There was nothing.
A man could go crazy.
Where was everyone? He stared at his cellphone. He could ring. There were plenty of things he could discuss.
He’d wake everyone up.
They worked for him. They’d get over it.
‘Have a holiday,’ Ruby had told him. ‘I mean it, Marcus. No work. Take two weeks. We don’t want to hear from you. See if you can do it.’
She’d said it as a challenge and he’d reacted as if she’d been stupid. But now, staring at his cellphone and at his idle computer, he knew Ruby wasn’t stupid. Ruby knew him better than he knew himself.
Maybe because she’d walked the same lonely road.
Tonight had been good, he thought. Tonight had been…excellent. Teaching a twelve-year-old to cook a curry.
It was more than that, he conceded. His pleasure had come from watching a twelve-year-old enjoy himself. And more than that. Watching a twelve-year-old’s big sister enjoy her little brother’s pleasure. Giving his Cinderella more.
Tonight Peta had been happy and it had felt good. It was a strange sensation but it had felt right. Making Peta happy.
Whoa! He caught himself and gave himself a mental swipe to the side of the head. He was getting soppy here. This whole situation was for two weeks, he told himself. Only two weeks. Two weeks, Benson, and you’re out of here.
He was going nuts.
But what the heck was a man to do? He flicked on the television and watched an inane American sitcom. What on earth was this country doing, importing this stuff? Was it funny?
How the heck would he know when he couldn’t concentrate?
How had he ever got himself into this mess? he demanded of himself. The world seemed to be going to bed, but how could he go to bed? His head said it was six a.m. New York time and every single part of him was awake.
Peta had adjusted to New York time, he thought, so maybe she’d be feeling like he was. How could Peta be calmly going home to bed?
On her veranda?
That was another thing to think about. To chew over. To make a girl sleep on the veranda…
This set-up was dreadful, he thought. Appalling. She must have had the pits of a childhood. He thought of her lying in a bed-probably with broken springs-probably with thread-bare blankets-setting the alarm for the crack of dawn or earlier, so she could get up to milk her cows.
She was a real Cinderella, he decided, whether she admitted it or not. And he… He’d volunteered to rescue her.
No, he hadn’t. Offering to marry someone for two weeks out of practicality hardly turned him into Prince Charming.
There must be more he could do.
She couldn’t be asleep. Not if the bedsprings were sticking into her. And…what was that fairy story about the pea? The princess sleeping on a hundred feather mattresses, yet still disturbed by one pea underneath the bottom layer.
Fairytales! He was losing his mind.
But the image refused to go away and he found himself opening the back door and staring outside. You’re going to rescue her from a pea?
I’m not going anywhere.
But he was. He refused to stay one minute longer in this little pink room in this little pink house.
He’d just wander by her veranda, he told himself. Just to make sure. And if there were any peas that needed removing…
Well, maybe he was just the man to do it.
Don’t do it, he told himself. Just go for a walk. And if you end up close…
Sleep was nowhere. Peta lay and stared into the dark and tried to conjure up the pure contentment she’d always felt in this bed. In this place.
When their father had died the boys had conducted a vote and had decreed the inside bedroom was Peta’s. She’d refused. For as long as she remembered she’d lain in this little bed at the far end of the veranda while the boys lay in the bigger bed at the other end. They were not too far away, but not too near. This was her private place. Here she could haul the bedclothes up to her nose and disappear into her thoughts, while out in the wide world cows chewed their cuds, trees rustled in the wind, the sea did its thing, owls hooted, frogs croaked…
This farm was alive at night and it was her company. She’d missed it so much while she was in New York.
She should be revelling in it now.
She should be sleeping. She should. Instead she lay and stared out into the starlit sky and all she could see was Marcus.
Marcus did a circuit of his little house and decided to extend his tour. The moon was full. He could see the shapes of the cows in the paddocks, the shadowy trees and the mountains in the background. He could hear the soft hush-hushing of the surf below the house. He could smell the eucalypts and the salt of the sea.
All of which should make Marcus, a city boy born and bred, scurry back to his little house and close the door against the elements. Instead he found himself wandering in a wider arc from the house. Just walking. Following the tracks made by generations of Peta’s family as they went about their business on the farm.
Getting closer to Peta?
He’d already discovered from Harry that Peta had visited Hattie-often. He’d learned that Hattie’s presence had meant that the children were allowed to stay on the farm when their father died. But apparently Hattie had been a weak woman who’d cared for Peta but hadn’t been able to stand up for her against her own son.
‘I can’t remember much about Charles,’ Harry had told him. ‘I was too little when he went away. But Daniel says Charles was a real creep. He hit everyone who got in his way. Auntie Hattie had to stay here when Charles was a kid because there was nowhere else to go, but Charles hated it. He hated us. Everyone was really pleased when he went away and it was awful when he came home. Dan says he just came home looking for money and he made Auntie Hattie cry. There was never enough money for him. That made Peta angry; she wouldn’t let him hit Auntie Hattie so he used to hit Peta. A lot.’
The bleak little outline fitted exactly with what Marcus knew of Charles, but it made him see red just to think of the creep hitting Peta.
Of anyone hitting Peta.
Marcus had never really thought about it but, if forced, maybe he would have said he’d had an appalling childhood. But apparently there were others who’d had appalling childhoods. More appalling childhoods than his.
So? Other people had got over it. So why couldn’t he?
The image of his mother and her series of boyfriends still made him cringe, but it was more than just his childhood holding him apart from the human race, he thought. He knew what happened when he got attached to people. Dreadful things. It was so much better to stay apart…
His feet kept walking. The moonlight played on his face. He wasn’t in the least tired.
He walked closer. Closer to Peta’s sad little house. Closer to the veranda. She’d be solidly asleep, he told himself. No one would wake.
The dogs were his undoing.
They came out of nowhere, not vicious, not snapping, but ecstatic to see a human being awake. Harry-informative Harry, whom Marcus had pumped unashamedly during curry-making-had told him that the dogs had stayed here while Peta was away, fed by the businesslike neighbour who did things for money. To have Peta and Harry home was obviously wonderful in the dogs’ eyes, but Peta and Harry had gone to bed, which was really boring, and here was the friend who’d fed them scraps from his curry.
Marcus’s plan on walking unnoticed round the farm counted for nothing. As an ex-soldier he should have known better. The dogs were yapping and yelping and bounding, and then a voice called out of the night.
‘Tip. Bryson. Who’s out there? Come here, boys.’
Peta. He’d scared her, Marcus thought, dismayed. He hadn’t meant…
‘If that’s you, Marcus, watch your feet for cow pats. We’ve let the cows graze in the home yard.’
Cow pats. So much for terror!
What was a man to say to that? It seemed the lady wasn’t scared at all. ‘I’m watching,’ he managed, stunned.
‘Good for you,’ she called and, astonishingly, there was laughter in her voice. ‘Come here, boys.’
She meant the dogs, he thought. Only the dogs.
‘Are you in bed?’ he called.
‘I surely am.’ This was really strange, like speaking to a disembodied head. ‘Which is where you should be.’
‘I’m not tired. Why aren’t you asleep?’
‘Maybe I would be but strange men keep wandering around in my cow pats.’
‘You don’t sound as if you’re even near sleep,’ he complained. ‘Are you saying it’s my fault you’re awake?’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ she said cautiously. ‘Not exactly.’
‘What would you say?’
‘That I’m really happy to be home.’
‘Even if it means you’re sleeping on the veranda?’
‘I like sleeping on the veranda.’
‘Seriously.’ There was a moment’s hesitation and then obviously a decision. ‘Come on up and see.’
‘You’re inviting me into your bedroom?’
‘I’m inviting you onto my veranda. There’s a difference.’
‘And the dogs get to play chaperon.’
‘Hey, I’m hardly about to get swept away on a tide of girlish passion here,’ she said with some asperity. ‘And if you’re thinking of indulging in the same…’
‘That’s the one. I have a pitcher full of cold water and I’m prepared to use it.’
He choked. ‘It’s a great invitation.’
‘And it’s only made once. Are you coming up or not?’
Was he? His feet were already moving.
She looked about twelve years old.
Marcus reached the end of the veranda and stopped in astonishment. He wasn’t sure what he had thought he’d find but it wasn’t this.
Her bed was a single bed pressed hard against the far wall. So far so good. That was what he’d thought she’d have. But he’d expected a barren little cot. What he found were…
Cushions. Pillows. Quilts. A vast mound of glorious bedclothes in semi-ordered chaos. In the dim moonlight he could scarcely make out colours but he could see enough to know that this was a mad and vibrant mix, an eclectic scattering of whatever Peta fancied. There must be a dozen huge pillows mounded up beside her, spilling over onto the floor. The oldest of the farm dogs, a greying old collie called Ted-dog, was curled up beside the bed. As Marcus approached he gave his tail a faint wag as if to say, I’m very pleased to see you and I’ll be even more pleased if you don’t expect me to get up.
Marcus could see where he was coming from. If he was curled up on a mound like this…
So much for his pea.
‘It’s great, isn’t it?’ Peta said. She wiggled farther down under her bedclothes so only her nose emerged from the gorgeous quilts.
‘I thought you were deprived,’ Marcus said before he could stop himself and she pushed the quilt down a fraction.
‘Abusive father. Dead mother. Made to sleep outdoors…’
‘My dad wasn’t abusive. He never liked girls but he didn’t take it out on me. He simply didn’t have time for me.’
‘And your mother?’
‘She wasn’t much interested, either. I have really scant memories of her. She stayed inside and had babies.’
‘Something you would never do?’
‘If I had babies I might make a push to make sure they were happy,’ she told him. ‘Our mother really liked babies but as soon as we started being messy it was outside and get on with our lives.’ She pushed herself up on her cushions and looked past him out to where the moon hung over the sea. ‘It was just as well it was a great outside. How lucky were we?’
‘We had this.’ She put a hand down and fondled Ted-dog’s ears. ‘We had the dogs. We had each other. We had a great childhood.’
‘You didn’t have any money.’
‘I don’t see you happy,’ she said softly. ‘Because you have money. Where would you prefer to sleep? In that sterile, awful Manhattan apartment, or here? This is the best bedroom in the world.’
‘And if it rains?’
‘I hang plastic from the veranda rails. And if it gets really, really cold I might even let a dog or two in for company. It’s great.’
‘You don’t sound convinced.’
‘I think I like central heating.’
‘Turn around,’ she said. Her voice was suddenly urgent. She was sitting bolt upright now in her amazing bed. She was wearing a T-shirt, he thought. A T-shirt. How many women of his acquaintance slept in anything other than sexy negligées?
But, ‘Look,’ she said again and he was forced to turn and look.
And he was caught.
It was lovely, he had to concede. In fact, in truth, it was breathtakingly beautiful. The moon was casting a ribbon of silver over the sea. Below the house, the waves were breaking in long, low lines. The foam from their breaking was caught in the moonlight, a soft white pattern of hushed time.
The sand was wide-the tide must be full out as the beach seemed to spread for miles. The house was only about two or three hundred yards from the beach. The soft breaking of wave after wave was a lullaby all by itself.
Between here and the beach stood four or five vast gums, their canopies almost another roof. There was a huddle of cows under one. Sleeping. Settled on the lush pasture for the night. He couldn’t see from here but he could imagine their jaws contentedly chewing, conjuring flavours of the grasses they’d eaten during the day.
‘This is why I married you,’ Peta said softly. ‘Not for money.’
‘Not for love?’
She turned and grinned at him. ‘You’re looking for romance?’
‘I’ve had a very nice wedding,’ she told him. ‘Thank you very much. But isn’t that how the story goes? A white wedding and then the princess gets to live happily ever after?’
‘With her prince.’
‘Who needs a prince? I have this. I have my dogs. I have security for the boys.’
‘You’re telling me I can go back to New York?’
‘Oh, no, I need you here,’ she told him quite kindly. ‘You said that yourself. Two weeks to make the marriage valid.’
‘And then I can clear off?’
‘That’s what you want to do-isn’t it?’
‘But I did decide I’d invite you up onto my veranda,’ she told him, as if granting some huge concession. ‘Just once. So you can see what you’ve given me.’
‘So you can point out that you don’t need me after two weeks?’
‘That, too. I keep getting the feeling that you see me as some sort of charity. Well, I was,’ she admitted with sudden candour. ‘You’ve saved me. I just wish I could save you back.’
‘You don’t have a very satisfactory life,’ she told him.
Marcus stared down at her in the moonlight. She was hugging her knees, looking at him in consideration. As if he was some sort of interesting bug…
The sensation was indescribable. He’d be less uncomfortable if the story of his life was splashed across the front page of the New Yorker.
‘Will you cut it out?’ he demanded.
‘Cut what out?’
‘Butting into what’s none of your business.’
‘If you don’t want me to,’ she said, obliging. She ducked down under her covers and disappeared up to her nose again. ‘Good night.’
He’d been dismissed. He should turn around and head down those rickety steps again. But…
But. It was a simple word and he couldn’t get over it. But. But what? He didn’t have a clue.
‘Aren’t you suffering from jet lag?’ he asked.
‘Jet lag? After the aeroplane bed I had? You have to be kidding.’ Her voice was muffled by bedclothes, almost indistinct.
‘I mean time zones,’ he said, a little bit desperately. ‘I feel as if it’s morning.’
‘I do, too, a bit,’ she agreed, still muffled. ‘But the cows will be awake at five o’clock. I have to get up then, so I need to sleep.’
‘You want me to go away.’
She put the sheet down a smidgeon and stared up at him, only her eyes above the sheet.
‘Hattie’s house is creepy,’ she told him. ‘All that pink. I wouldn’t wonder if you’re lonely.’
‘And you’re not?’
‘I do miss the boys,’ she admitted. ‘Harry sleeps inside now. He has a computer and he reckons the cables get wet out here. So he ended up in the bedroom. But I liked it when they slept out here.’ She motioned to the other end of the veranda. ‘It’s a great place to sleep. If you like you could try it.’
‘What…share your veranda?’
‘It’s a very long veranda.’
‘Do you always ask strange men…’
‘You’re not a strange man. You’re my husband.’
Yes. Yes, he was. The thought was incredible.
‘And if I tell the dogs to attack they’ll do just that,’ she added.
Pop went his fantasy bubble. He choked. He turned to stare down at the mutts who were draped decoratively over the cushions. ‘I don’t believe it.’
‘Believe it,’ she said seriously. ‘Daniel did that for me the last time Charles came home.’
‘He trained the dogs. They’re great with cattle and they’re highly intelligent. Charles… Well, Charles gave me a hard time one night and Daniel decided if I was to stay here alone I needed protection. So now there’s just one word I have to say and they turn into a pack of snarling savages. Want to see?’
He was getting accustomed to the moonlight now and he could see her grin.
He wasn’t getting accustomed to the situation, though. This woman had stood beside him two days ago and promised to be his wife. She’d stood for press photographers, her hand in his, his lovely bride. She’d slept beside him in the plane, she’d tucked her hand in his as they’d gone through customs, she’d let him take control, manage things, do what he was good at.
What had he expected here?
Not this. An invitation to share her veranda with a pack of killer dogs between them.
He stared out at the night. It was…perfect.
He could sleep here. He could sleep with Peta. Or he could go back to the pink puffy concoction that was Hattie’s bed, or to the horror-fantasy-poster-covered room that had been the creation of an adolescent Charles before he left home.
‘It’s a very generous offer,’ Peta said cheerfully, following his line of thought. ‘I don’t make it to anyone. But now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to sleep.’
She turned over on to her side; the covers came right up, and her body language said that whatever he did was up to him. She’d made her offer and the rest was his business.
He should go home.
Home? Who was he kidding? Home was Hattie’s pink palace.
It wasn’t so different to his place in Manhattan, he thought. Both seemed suddenly indescribably bleak. He stared down at Peta for a long moment and then slowly walked the length of the veranda.
The bed was made up. It was three times the size of hers. The boys had slept in it, Peta had said. All the boys?
And maybe it wasn’t such a bad childhood. He stared down at the mound of bedclothes and thought of four little boys tumbled among the pillows. With Peta sleeping close by.
Not so bad. Not so bad at all.
He hesitated, but not for long. He turned and stared at the mound of bedclothes that was Peta.
He slipped off his outer clothes and slid under the bedclothes, feeling like a kid on a camping trip. And here was another surprise. There were no burst bedsprings. No thread-bare blankets. The bed enfolded him. The smells and the sounds enfolded him and one of the dogs came up and put his nose above the side of the bed, nosing a hopeful enquiry.
‘Let me see. I’m guessing you must be Tip. You’re one of the killer pack?’
A wag of the tail and a low woof. A quiver of the backside. Hopefulness personified.
‘If you have fleas you’re out of here.’
‘He has no such thing!’ It was an indignant squeak from the other end of the veranda.
‘I thought you were asleep?’ Then Marcus gasped as the big dog accepted the flea enquiry as a welcome and wriggled right in. Right across his chest.
‘Tip likes it there,’ Peta said in satisfaction. ‘I’ve never slept with a husband. Doesn’t it feel odd?’
Odd? That was the understatement of the century, Marcus thought. He lay and stared outward at the stars while Peta settled again and the big dog started to snore gently beside him.
He’d never sleep. How could he sleep?
He’d never sleep.
MARCUS BENSON hadn’t slept for more than four hours straight since he was fourteen years old. He hadn’t needed to. Hadn’t wanted to. If he slept then he dreamed, and now it was easier to wake and log on to the world’s financial markets and exercise his brain by making money rather than letting his thoughts dwell on the demons in his past.
Until this night.
He slept. The sun crept over the horizon. Peta rose and took herself off to the dairy. The dogs bounded off after her, jubilant at having their mistress back in her proper place, and still Marcus slept.
He woke as Harry tore round the side of the house, hauling a school bag over his shoulder while he manoeuvred a piece of toast with half his mouth.
He glanced sideways at the veranda and stopped short.
It was hard to say who was more surprised-Harry or Marcus. They stared at each other. Marcus stared down at his watch. Then stared back at Harry.
‘You slept with Peta.’ It wasn’t an accusation. There was no aversion in Harry’s tone-just surprise.
‘I slept on this end of the veranda,’ Marcus said hurriedly. ‘Peta slept on the other.’
‘Yeah, she’d never share with us,’ Harry said, taking another mouthful of toast. ‘We told her it was warmer in bed with us but she preferred the dogs. Guess she preferred the dogs to you, too, huh?’
‘I guess so,’ Marcus said weakly. ‘Um… Are you off to school?’
‘Yeah. Yikes.’ Harry looked round to where a faint cloud of dust in the distance heralded an arriving school bus. ‘Gotta go. What’s for tea tonight? Something good? Ace. See ya.’ And he was off in a tangle of toast, school bag and undone shoelaces.
Marcus watched him run, saw him catch the bus by the skin of his teeth, grinned, and then turned back to the enigma of his watch.
His grin faded. How on earth had he slept so long?
No matter. He had.
From the dairy there was the gentle hum of the milking machine and the occasional moo of an indignant cow. Peta was up? Peta was working?
The thought was almost unbelievable. So, too, was the thought that she was working and he was sleeping.
He was supposed to be rescuing her, he thought. Great Prince Charming he was. Marry the girl and send her back to her cinders.
But helping her wasn’t as simple as it had seemed. Two minutes later he walked in the dairy door-only to have the nearest cow start back in alarm and Peta call, ‘Stop right there.’
This was a different Peta yet, he thought. She was a woman at work. In faded jeans, a checked overshirt with rolled up sleeves, her hair caught back with a couple of serviceable combs and her knee-high rubber boots liberally coated with mud, she looked every inch at home in her environment.
As opposed to Marcus. The cows stared at him as if he’d landed from outer space and that was exactly how he felt.
‘I’ve come to help,’ he told her.
‘Thanks, but you’ll scare the cows.’
‘Why will I scare the cows?’
‘They’re not used to seeing New York billionaires in their dairy.’
‘You didn’t have to tell them I was a billionaire,’ he said cautiously and she smiled.
‘They might have guessed by the shoes. Soft suede shoes don’t cut it here.’
‘I guess they don’t.’ He looked down at his footwear. ‘Um… Would your brothers have any rain boots I can borrow?’
‘There’s another giveaway.’ She adjusted the cups on a sleek, fat cow and then rose to bring the next cow into the bail. ‘We-the cows and I-call them gumboots.’
‘Because the cows and I are Australian.’ The cow pulled back from her and she sighed. ‘Yeah, the boys all have gumboots you can borrow but it won’t help. You’re making it hard for me.’
‘Just by being here?’
‘Cows don’t like strangers.’
‘I have to do something,’ he told her. ‘If you think I’m just going to sit round being ornamental for two weeks…’
‘Don’t you like being ornamental?’
‘I’ve never really thought about it,’ he admitted. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘So you really want to work?’
Hmm. A little voice was telling him to be cautious. ‘I might.’
‘Well, then. You could get rid of the pink.’
‘You could paint Hattie’s house.’
‘So that you can live in it?’
‘I’m staying on my veranda. But the boys bring friends home from university and a non-pink guest house would be nice.’ She gave him her very nicest smile. ‘That is, if you really do want to be useful. But I’m happy if you’re not. You deserve to be ornamental if you feel like it.’
‘Is there anything in between?’ he asked, thinking it through. ‘Say, if I don’t want to be ornamental and I don’t want to paint houses.’
Her answer to that was immediate. ‘You could make me breakfast.’
‘You’ve decreed that I’m cook?’
‘I thought you decreed that yourself. I do a mean bowl of cornflakes and I’m willing to share.’ She glanced across at the yard to where only ten more cows patiently queued. ‘I’ll be back at the house in half an hour.’
‘For cornflakes or whatever variation you care to dream up.’
He’d had enough of pink. He made pancakes in Peta’s house. He felt really, really strange.
While he cooked he watched Peta through the window. He saw her finish in the dairy, sluicing it down ready for evening milking. She took herself to the outside shower-a primitive arrangement that he’d already inspected and found wanting-and he watched as she emerged dressed the same way as she’d been in the dairy, only cleaner.
Peta’s house had a lean-to kitchen-not a patch on Hattie’s bright beauty, but it had the huge advantage of being homely. The kitchen was obviously the place where Peta and the boys spent most of their lives. There was an ancient fire-stove, a vast wooden table, rickety chairs, battered linoleum, and windows looking out over the farmland to the beach beyond. It was a great room.
It was better when Peta walked in. Somehow.
She stopped in the doorway and sniffed in delight, and her smile lit the room.
‘Pancakes. Coffee. There. I knew there was a reason I married you.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t keep referring to our marriage as if I’m some sort of acquired toy,’ he complained and she paused from kicking off her gumboots.
‘It’s the only way I can think of it,’ she told him. Her eyes turned suddenly serious. ‘Not that you’re a toy boy. I didn’t mean that. But that it’s a sort of game. I can’t believe we did it. That I wore that dress. That I made those vows.’
He watched her face, and he shared her confusion. She was right. This was a far cry from white, lacy and bridal in New York. But underneath she was just the same Peta. The reason he married her still held. She needed help and she deserved it. ‘It’s not a game,’ he told her.
‘But it’s not for real.’
‘For two weeks it has to be real.’
‘When I think about it superficially,’ she said slowly, walking into the kitchen in her socks and lifting the flipper for the pancakes, ‘then it’s fine. But then all of a sudden it hits me. Wham. A complete stranger married me so I can stay here. So Harry can live here if he wants. So we can have a permanent home. But… To marry a stranger… How on earth did it happen?’
‘Fantasy,’ he told her. ‘Everyone likes a fairy story. I’ve already flipped the pancakes. They’re ready to eat. Sit.’
So she moved to the table and sat. He couldn’t object to her reaction to the pancakes-she ate as if she was ravenous-but as the pile dwindled she pushed back her plate and the look of trouble settled on her face again.
‘I’m sorry I wouldn’t let you help in the dairy.’
‘It’s not. I owe you so much. I should let you do whatever you want.’
‘But not sleep on your end of the veranda?’
Now where had that come from? The moment he said it he regretted it. She flinched. And then she faced him. Head on.
‘Do you want to?’
Did he want to? Hell!
But as he gazed at her across the table, as he let the sensation of her flinch settle, he knew there was only one answer.
‘No, Peta,’ he told her. ‘I don’t want to. I’m not here to take advantage of you. It was a stupid thing to say and I’m sorry.’
‘You’d be within your rights.’
‘I don’t think you’ve met very nice men,’ he told her. ‘If that’s what you think of marriage. That it comes with automatic rights.’
She stared at him. The moment stretched on. And on.
‘Tell me what you’re intending to do now,’ he said at last, and if his voice didn’t come out as he’d intended he couldn’t help it.
‘You already got married,’ he reminded her. ‘What’s next?’
‘You mean, in life?’
‘I was thinking more how you intended spending the morning,’ he told her. ‘Sort of between here and lunch. There’s not a lot of hatches, matches and dispatches we can fit in until then.’
‘Oh.’ She sounded flummoxed. ‘You mean…like shopping?’
‘Is shopping on the agenda?’
‘We’re living out of the freezer. It’d be good to get something fresh.’
‘I’m good with shopping.’
‘You want to come into town and push a supermarket trolley in Yooralaa?’ Her smile, irrepressible, came flooding back. ‘There’s no cans of caviar for miles.’
‘Cut it out.’
She peeped him a smile. ‘Okay. I’m sorry. But I’m sure you don’t want to come.’
‘I’m sure I do.’
‘Peta, I refuse to stay locked in Hattie’s house for two weeks while the world decrees our marriage is valid. I’m coming with you.’
‘But people will think…’
‘That we’re married? That’s what they’re supposed to think.’ He hesitated. ‘That is-there aren’t suitors waiting in the wings who’ll be put off if they see me at your side?’
‘I find suitors are an awful pest,’ she told him. ‘They mess up the house something awful and object to gumboots.’
‘Which is why you just cut straight to the chase and got married. Okay.’ He rose and smiled down at her. She looked great, he decided. He might even enjoy walking side by side through the supermarket with her holding his trolley.
‘Don’t get any funny ideas,’ she said and he blinked. Peta, the mind reader.
‘Look, separate ends of the veranda is a concept I can deal with,’ he told her. ‘But separate supermarket trolleys is maybe taking independence too far.’
‘You can never have too much independence. I thought that was your motto.’
He’d thought so, too. He stared after her as she disappeared to find some shoes respectable enough to wear to town and he thought, yeah, independence. What had happened to his ideal now?
It was a very satisfactory day-the sort of day Marcus had never had in his life.
First there was the trip to the supermarket. He’d expected that she might be embarrassed but instead she introduced him to all and sundry and he was conscious of suppressed laughter.
‘Hi, Mrs Michaels. This is my husband, Marcus.’
It was Marcus who was flustered.
‘They need to know you’re here,’ Peta told him. ‘Charles knows any number of locals and I’m sure he’ll be contacting them to make sure you’re here. You don’t mind, do you?’
‘After all, you don’t have to see any of these people after two weeks. It’ll be me who’ll be playing the deserted bride.’
‘I’m sure you’ll play a beautifully pathetic divorcee,’ he managed and she chuckled.
‘You’d better believe it. How many cans of spaghetti do we want?’
‘None,’ he told her. ‘Canned when you can have fresh?’
‘Sure. I’m a canned girl.’
‘If you don’t want to be a divorcee by tomorrow then you put the cans back.’
There were locals watching them. Whispering. News was spreading.
‘There’s not a lot of friendliness,’ he said as they proceeded through their shopping list.
‘My dad lied and cheated and my cousin did the same,’ she told him. ‘Our family are still pretty much outcasts.’
‘I learned early to keep myself to myself.’
‘But you pay your debts?’
‘I don’t have debts. The O’Shannassy credit dried up a long time ago. I pay cash or I get nothing and that’s the way it’s always been. Now… Baked beans?’
‘Not baked beans.’
‘And not processed cheese, either. Honestly, woman, do you have no soul?’
‘I eat to live,’ she said with a certain amount of pride.
‘You’re proud of that?’
He shook his head. ‘It’s a culture thing,’ he told her. ‘It must be. You come from convict stock?’
‘I surely do,’ she told him. ‘I have baked beans in the blood.’
‘It’s a whole life I never knew existed,’ he said faintly. ‘And I’m not sure I want to.’
But he did want to know.
As the day wore on, the more fascinated he became. They took their shopping home, and then Peta took him on a tour of the fences. ‘They need to be checked once a week,’ she told him. ‘The cows damage them and if stock gets out I’m in real trouble.’ So they hiked along the fence line with Peta’s fencing tools slung over her shoulder. For the first two minutes.
‘You’re not carrying them,’ she told him. ‘They’re dirty. You’ll get your nice shirt soiled.’
‘Peta…’ He lifted the tools from her grasp. ‘Your ankle still hurts and you’re married, remember? Isn’t the husband supposed to be hunter gatherer?’
‘Only in families when the little woman stays home and cooks. And you wouldn’t let me buy baked beans.’
‘So I wouldn’t,’ he said, and grinned. He handed one of the six tools back. ‘Okay. You get to carry one spade and you get to cook cornflakes and toast. But for the rest, you have a husband. Use him.’
They fenced. They found a cow in the bottom paddock caught up in a hedge of gorse and a gully caused by erosion. They dug her free and watched her make her way back to the herd, with nary a thankful glance. They ate sandwiches that Peta had stuck in a backpack before they’d come out and they sat on the cliff and watched the sea. A dolphin pod appeared on cue, surfing through the breakers and cruising along the coast line. Marcus could see why Charles fought for development rights to this place. As a holiday resort it’d be fabulous.
As a farm it was better.
‘Is the beach safe for swimming?’ Marcus asked.
‘It sure is.’
‘Nope. I have to milk.’
‘Harry will be home any minute. Take him swimming.’
‘Doesn’t anyone help you milk?’
‘I like milking. I don’t need help.’
‘Peta, you have me. Use me.’
‘I don’t need a husband in any more than name,’ she interrupted, her face closed. ‘You know that. Thank you for my day.’ She rose and gave what seemed to him to be a regretful glance at the ocean. ‘Stay here and rest. I’m off to play milkmaid.’
‘Peta, I want to come. Your foot must be hurting.’
‘My foot’s fine. It has to be. And I told you, you’ll scare the cows. Keep Harry company.’
But Harry didn’t want company. Harry had homework. ‘I’m way behind and there’s a cool project I have to do on volcanoes.’
‘Would you like some help?’
‘Nah,’ Harry told him. ‘Thanks anyway but I’m used to doing stuff on my own.’
So was Marcus. Wasn’t he? Dismissed and not enjoying the sensation as much as he might expect, Marcus made his way back to the beach.
At least here was pleasure. The water was gorgeous. He swam with the strength of a champion swimmer-not for nothing had he purchased an apartment with rights to an indoor lap pool-but he swam alone.
He was so unsettled. What was he doing?
Nothing. He was doing nothing. He wasn’t needed.
It should make him contented. Two weeks holiday with nothing to do and no demands on him.
It made him… He didn’t know what. He’d never had nothing to do in his life.
And he’d never wanted to be needed-by someone who didn’t want him.
She watched him.
Peta milked her cows and all the time she was achingly aware of the man on the beach below the dairy. She could see him stroking back and forth across the bay. He looked superbly fit and at home in the surf, a far cry from the tailored New York businessman she’d fallen for five days ago.
Uh-oh. The words settled. Then they settled some more. Had she fallen for Marcus Benson?
Of course she had.
‘And I’ve fallen hard.’
She said it out loud and the cow whose teats she was cleaning swivelled round and stared down at her. Bemused.
‘Do you guys fall inappropriately in love?’ she demanded and the cow kept on staring.
She stared back, and then sat back on the wet cobbles and stared some more. What had she said?
The truth. She’d said the truth.
‘How can I fall in love with Marcus Benson?’ she asked herself. ‘How can I possibly do that?’
She’d done it.
She turned and stared down at the sea. He was still stroking back and forth in steady, even strokes.
‘We have absolutely nothing in common,’ she told her cows. ‘He’s like some modern-day Prince Charming, Marcus the Magnificent, rushing round rescuing damsels in distress. It’s all very well being a damsel in distress but it doesn’t make for any sort of equal relationship.’
‘Do you want an equal relationship?’
‘I don’t want to feel rescued for the rest of my life.’
‘Yes, you do.’
‘No.’ She was talking to herself, to the cows, to anyone who’d listen. She had two sides of her brain competing. Or maybe it was her head and her heart.
‘He’d come up my end of the veranda,’ she told her cow. ‘If I pressed.’
‘You wouldn’t have to press. You know darn well what it feels like whenever we touch. He feels it, too. I know he does. And he’s a male.’
‘Are you suggesting a spot of seduction?’
‘You’re married to him. It’s hardly illegal.’
‘Are you out of your mind? In two weeks he’ll go away and…’
‘And break your heart.’
Head and heart converged right there. The truth was unpalatable but it was unescapable.
‘You’ve really fallen for him, haven’t you?’ she whispered.
‘Maybe I have,’ she whispered back. ‘But it’s not the knight in shining armour I want. Or…not very much. It’s the man who makes Harry laugh. The man who cares for his assistant. Who makes Ruby smile. Who makes my heart twist…’
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
‘So keep on with what you’re doing,’ she told herself. ‘Keep it light. Keep it distant. And above all, keep your heart intact.’
‘Your heart hasn’t been intact for five days.’
‘It has to be.’
Peta finished milking and returned to the house to find Harry packing sausages into a picnic basket.
‘Beach night,’ he said as she paused in the kitchen door.
Beach night. It was a custom they’d had for years. On a warm, still night like this they’d take their dinner to the beach, light a fire and cook it there. They’d swim and eat and return to the house at dusk.
It was a great idea. But… Was it a great idea when Marcus was around?
‘He’s still down there,’ Harry told her. ‘I went to see and he’s gone for a run. He’s just a dot on the horizon. I reckon we could get the campfire burning before he comes back.’
‘I thought… Won’t he want to cook? He bought lots of ingredients this morning.’
‘It’s our turn to cook-and we make great sausages,’ Harry retorted. ‘I’ll watch them so you don’t even get to burn them.’
‘Go get your swimsuit,’ he told her. ‘Hurry up.’
But… She just knew it wasn’t wise. Help.
They’d done this often. They were expert. By the time Marcus returned from his run, they had the fire burning and there was already a bed of hot coals. They’d scooped the flame from the centre and the sausages were sizzling in their pan. Marcus had seen the smoke in the distance and, as his jogging slowed to a walk, he realised they were here and waiting for him. The smell of sausages reached him and he had no need of Harry’s shouted announcement.
‘We’re having a barbecue. Come and get it.’
Peta looked up from turning the sausages. She had on a swimming costume, but she’d thrown an oversized T-shirt over it. A pity…
‘Hey, great pecs,’ Harry called and he suddenly thought an oversized T-shirt was a really good idea. Peta was smiling at him and heck, he felt like blushing.
‘Cut it out,’ he growled.
‘Are you brave enough to eat one of my sausages?’ Peta was saying, taking pity on him but still smiling. Harry hastened to reassure him.
‘I’ve done most of the cooking and the cake for afterwards is one you guys bought at the bakers today.’
‘So I needn’t worry about being poisoned?’ he asked and watched Peta’s smile widen. She had the loveliest smile…
‘My cooking’s not that bad.’
‘Yes, it is,’ Harry said cheerfully. ‘How many sausages, Marc? Three or four?’
‘Six.’ He sank down on the picnic rug. Sausages were something he normally wouldn’t consider but they looked great. He’d been outside all day. He was starving, he realised. Even if Peta had burned them…
‘If you’re hungry enough you’ll eat anything,’ she said, as if reading his thoughts. ‘Cooking classes are a waste of time.’
‘And cooks are a waste of time?’
‘I’m sure whatever’s important to you is your own business,’ she said primly and he grinned at the twinkle behind her green eyes. She had the capacity to tease. To make him smile inside. To make him feel…
Heck, to make him feel as if he did want to save her. To take her as his Cinderella and turn her into his companion for life. If she could always be here. Laughing at him. Gently mocking. Making his life light from within…
Stupid thought. Brought on by hunger and by sausages. He made a frantic attempt to haul his senses-all his senses-back to what was most important.
‘Did you bring ketchup?’ he asked.
‘Ketchup?’ Harry looked nonplussed.
‘He means sauce,’ Peta told him. ‘He talks American.’
‘You should learn Australian,’ Harry said, handing over the sauce bottle. ‘It’s not really even sauce. It’s dead horse. You say pass the dead horse and every Australian knows what you mean. So I guess dead horse is Australian for ketchup.’
‘I have a lot to learn,’ Marcus said faintly.
‘You do,’ Harry agreed. ‘You’re going to have to hurry up to fit it all into two weeks.’
They ate their sausages and their chocolate cake and then Peta went for a swim. Harry disappeared back to the house-to finish his volcanoes. Maybe Marcus should have gone, too, but how could he leave Peta swimming alone? The fact that he knew for sure she swam alone nearly every day didn’t cut it. She was swimming alone now and he was staying.
In truth, he wanted to go back into the water as well, but he couldn’t. Something stopped him.
Being in the water with her… Somehow it seemed like taking a step to her end of the veranda.
So he watched from a distance that was safe enough to almost seem detached. Almost.
She didn’t swim as he had. She must be tired, he thought, as he watched her float on her back and gaze up into the flame-filled sunset. She’d been up since five this morning and for most of that time she’d been working hard. Her ankle must be hurting. She had no need to stretch her muscles as he had. She was content just to float.
She was content.
There was the difference, he thought. That was why he was so attracted to her. She was…peaceful. She’d settled back into her lot with joy. All she wanted was her farm and a future for her brothers. She had no need of anything else.
Problems that would fester and sour in others were nothing to her. The locals seemed to have sent her family to purgatory. She had little money and even less in the way of material possessions. Her future was bound by this tiny farm.
She wouldn’t want what he had to offer, he thought, and the thought jarred.
Was he offering?
He didn’t know.
But… Was he offering? The thought stayed. Like an insidious fleck of some matter he’d never heard of, it nestled in his brain and grew.
She was lovely. She made him smile. If he could take her back with him to the US… Turn her into his real happy ever after…
She wouldn’t leave Harry.
She could bring him, too.
They’d never desert this farm.
He could put a farm manager in, he thought. Keep it safe for them. For their future.
What the hell was he thinking?
Nothing, he decided fiercely, or nothing that made sense. He’d decided early that he was a loner. What had changed now?
Peta had changed. Peta had changed him.
He watched her float on, desperate to join her but forcing himself to stay. Forcing himself to be sensible. By the time she emerged from the water he almost had himself convinced that his thoughts were a nonsense.
She came up the beach towards him, smiling, shaking her head with the water from the curls forming a glistening arc around her head. The dogs went flying down the beach to meet her and then wheeled away to chase gulls, to chase their tails, to simply soak up the warmth of the gathering dusk. Marcus sat back on the sand and watched Peta towel her hair, smile down at him, simply…simply be.
This was a sensation he’d never experienced before. For the last half hour he’d sat and done nothing, simply let the night soak into him. The place. The time.
‘You’re lovely,’ he said softly and his words hung in the night with a promise of something that was as yet undisclosed.
She stopped towelling and stared down at him. She’d giggle, he thought, or disclaim. Or arch her brows… He’d seen it all.
Instead she smiled, a gentle smile that was almost sympathetic.
‘You’re not bad yourself.’
‘Gee, thanks.’ It was inane but it was all he could manage. He swung himself to his feet and took her towel. ‘Let me do that?’
She pulled away, ducking under the towel and backing.
‘You don’t want to.’
‘Towel your hair? I do. Very much.’
‘You know what I mean.’ Her smile had died. ‘The up close and personal bit isn’t going to work.’
‘Neither of us are in a position to take it further.’
‘We have two weeks…’
Wrong thing to say. Her face shuttered and the barriers went up. He could see it.
‘Keep to your own end of the veranda, Marcus,’ she told him. ‘Or maybe it’d be better if you went back to Aunt Hattie’s.’
‘No!’ Keep it light, he told himself desperately. Keep it light. ‘Anything but that. Please don’t condemn me to drown in pink.’
‘Then don’t touch me.’
‘Why don’t you want to be touched?’
‘Who said I didn’t want to be touched?’
‘You assume all over the place,’ she said crossly. ‘You assume and assume and assume. I needed to accept your very generous offer to marry me and save my farm but that doesn’t make me inclined to see you as Mr Wonderful for the rest of my life.’
‘Want to be Mr Wonderful? No. Of course you didn’t. You don’t want to be up on a pedestal, and I don’t want to keep you there. But when you come down…’ She took a deep breath. ‘You see, the problem is that when you come down from your pedestal, Marcus, then I see you just as a person. Or, not just as a person. As Marcus. Marc. Someone who’s as needful as me. Someone who’s even more lonely. And who’s lovely and generous and who smiles and makes me feel crinkly inside and… Marcus, no, I didn’t mean… I don’t mean…’
He didn’t get to hear what she didn’t mean. How could he? Standing there with her hair dripping and her green eyes luminous and her face earnest, she was so obviously trying, trying to sort it in her mind, to tell the truth, and he’d have to be inhuman not to react.
She was so lovely. She gazed up at him and he reached forward and took her hands in his and their eyes locked and held.
Afterwards he couldn’t remember who had moved first. Whether she’d stood on tiptoe and tilted her chin so her face met his, or if it had been he who’d drawn her into him and who’d cupped her face and tilted those lips…
No matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing mattered but that her body was being drawn into his and all he could feel was the warmth of her, the feel, the softness of the curves of her body against him. Dear heaven. The way her still damp body curved into his, her breasts moulding to his chest, her body melting, her lips tasting of sea and salt and warmth and desire and…
He didn’t know whether he said the word. Whether he said her name. He couldn’t. How could he kiss and speak at the same time?
But it was as if he shouted it. It was as if his whole being was an exultant cry. Peta!
She was his. His! His hands held her, linking around the small of her back, tugging her closer, loving her, wanting her.
The world stopped right there. Or maybe it started. It was as if his heart had stopped and then started afresh, anew, and he was someone else. The wonder. The joy.
He’d never known he could feel like this. All his life… The barrenness of his childhood. The awfulness of his time in the army. The knowledge that he could never let anyone close. That people disappeared all the time. The dreadful time in the Gulf, learning for the first time about friendship only to have it blasted to bits before his eyes. The years of business where all that mattered was money; where employees were people you treated with consideration because that way they worked best but you never, ever got involved…
He was involved now. He was involved right up to his heart.
And this woman was his wife. His wife! What miracle was this?
The kiss deepened. She was surrendering to him. Her lips had parted and he was plundering her mouth, taking the kiss deep, deeper…
Dear heaven, he wanted her. Her wanted her more than life itself. More than he’d ever dreamed he could want a woman.
The kiss lasted for ever. The waves rolled in and out; the dogs wheeled back to them, vaguely worried at their immobility but fast bored. They wheeled away again. All except Ted-dog, who lay at his mistress’s feet and softly whined, as if in warning.
She was heeding no warning. She’d given herself up to this moment, to the taste of him, to the feel of him. To the sensation he was feeling and that he knew she must feel, too. Here was her man and here was his woman. Man and woman. One.
It had to end. Somehow it had to end. The dusk was turning to night. The next move had to come and it had to come from him.
He pulled back somehow, and he stared down into her face. She looked up at him, her eyes confused, tender, but there was still that wonderful smile. The laughter that had been there the first time he’d seen her. The laughter that caught and held…
‘It seems… Peta, it seems that indeed you are my wife,’ he said in a voice he hardly recognised. ‘My wife.’
Her smile faded. ‘What do you mean by that? “Indeed you are my wife…”’
‘We made vows.’
‘No.’ She backed away, a trace of fear washing over her face. ‘No, we didn’t mean them.’
‘We didn’t mean them but they’re coming true.’
‘To have and to hold?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘In sickness and in health. Until death us do part. To love and to cherish. To be one. I don’t think so, Marcus.’
‘Maybe not,’ he said slowly. Not that. Not a complete joining. She was beautiful, he thought. She was the most desirable thing. But… Somehow he forced his confused mind to think. Somehow.
He was a loner. He’d been raised to be a loner; it had been instilled in him since birth and how could he change that now?
But… She was a loner, too. She was independent. She wasn’t a clinging vine. She’d take what he could give.
‘No,’ she said and he stared.
‘I know what you’re about to suggest and I want no part of it.’
‘Peta, we’re married.’
‘We’re not married.’
‘Are you denying you want me?’
‘Of course I want you,’ she said shortly. ‘Of course I do. You can feel it. Like I can feel you want me. But it’s not enough. Not nearly enough.’
‘Because I want it all,’ she said abruptly, her fingers going to her lips as if they were bruised. As they well might be. ‘All or nothing. I won’t do less.’
‘What on earth do you mean by that?’
‘I’ve fallen in love with you, Marcus.’
Just like that. He couldn’t believe she’d said it. He stood back, stunned.
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘I know you don’t,’ she whispered. ‘But oh, Marcus, I want you to know. I want you to learn.’
But her face had closed. ‘I’m being stupid,’ she whispered. ‘I’m looking for the fairytale. Stupid, stupid, stupid. And it’s time for us to go home.’ She stooped and lifted the picnic basket, breaking eye contact. He felt it. It hurt. It was a withdrawal and it hurt more than he could have imagined it would have. ‘I’m sorry. I should never have kissed…have let you kiss…’
‘We both wanted it.’
‘I know. But not…to take it further.’
‘We could,’ he said urgently. ‘Peta, listen. This love thing. I don’t know it. I’ve never-never dreamed… But you, what I feel for you… I’m prepared to take a chance.’
‘That’s big of you.’
‘No.’ He tried to grasp her hands but she stepped back again. ‘Don’t. Peta, listen. We’re married. You’re my wife. We could do this. You could have this place as your base while Harry needs you but I’d rebuild. I’d make it fit for you. You’d visit me in New York when I had time to spare…’
‘You’d make this place fit for me?’ Her voice was suddenly dangerous.
‘It’s a dump, but it could be fabulous. The house site-could you imagine what we could build here?’
‘And you’d visit…how often?’
‘My work’s in New York. But I’ll have spent two weeks here now. I’ll come when I can.’
‘This is sounding more and more romantic.’ Her voice said it wasn’t romantic at all.
‘You say you love me.’
‘I don’t love you like that.’
‘Like I’ll give in to you because I love you. Like I’ll take the crumbs because I love you. I’ve fallen hard for you, Marcus. Stupidly hard. But I have the sense to see it’s never going to work.’
‘It will work.’ He reached out again. This time he caught her hands and she froze.
‘Let go of me.’
‘I said let go. I’ve told you. The dogs are trained.’
‘You’re saying you’ll set the dogs on me?’ His voice rose incredulously.
‘I surely will.’
His own anger rose then. What sort of a game was she playing? ‘Hell, Peta, if I leave, if I go back to the States tomorrow you’re sunk.’
‘You’re saying you’ll call this whole thing off because I won’t sleep with you?’ she demanded. ‘Because I won’t fit in with your crazy plans for a mock marriage then you’ll let Charles have the farm?’
He froze. What the hell…? ‘Of course not. I’m not into blackmailing.’
She stared at him for a long moment, her anger turning icy. ‘That’s good then,’ she said at last. ‘So you’re not blackmailing me and I’m not doing anything else. Good night, Marcus. It’d be better if you didn’t come near my veranda tonight.’
WHAT followed were five very strained days.
‘Don’t you guys like each other any more?’ Harry demanded.
‘We like each other,’ Marcus told him. He was cooking-a beef casserole with red wine and mushrooms. Harry would eat with him and take home a plateful for Peta to eat when she came in from the dairy.
For she’d refused to eat with him again. She’d put herself to work. She’d thrown herself into the farm and Marcus had been free to fend for himself.
It hurt-but in a sense he accepted it was right. They couldn’t come near each other without sparks flying. He’d asked her to be his wife and she’d refused. That was her right and in a way it was nothing less than he’d expected. To love a woman was impossible.
To love anyone was impossible.
But he’d become attached to Harry-more attached than he cared to admit. While Peta spent her time with her cows, avoiding him, Harry hauled his homework to the pink house each night. He gossiped while Marcus cooked or worked on his laptop. He was inquisitive and friendly and bubbly with twelve-year-old enthusiasm, and Marcus knew that when this two weeks was up it wouldn’t just be Peta he’d miss.
So why didn’t he do something about it?
What could he do? He’d already asked her to take it further. He’d offered…
He hadn’t offered enough. He hadn’t offered himself.
‘I’m a loner,’ he told Harry now as they chopped onions over companionable tears. ‘Peta’s a loner, too. That’s why she eats her dinner by herself.’
‘She never eats dinner by herself when my brothers are at home. It’s just ’cos she’s avoiding you.’
‘So she doesn’t like me.’
‘Of course she likes you.’
Maybe she likes me too much. The words were there, unsaid. The thought…
It made him feel…
Scared. He sliced his last onion and turned to get the steak from the fridge. Giving him time to get his voice in order.
‘Peta and I are very different,’ he told Harry. ‘My life’s in New York and Peta’s is here. If we get…attached…’
‘You’re saying if you eat together you guys might fall in love?’
‘You might.’ Harry was an intelligent and perceptive twelve-year-old, and now his face creased into a smile of pleasure. ‘That’d be ace.’
‘Why would it be ace?’
‘You could stay here all the time. We could keep your cool little Morgan. You might even drive me to school in it.’
Some plans had to be scotched, and scotched fast. ‘My life’s in New York.’
‘Why? You’re working here. You work on the telephone and the computer. You don’t have to milk cows for a living.’
‘No, but there are other things.’
‘Harry, you don’t have a clue what my life entails.’
‘I bet this life is better,’ he said solidly.
‘I have a Porsche in New York,’ Marcus told him, trying to put his decision in terms Harry could understand. But could he understand it himself? He slammed the cleaver through the steak as if it had personally offended him.
‘But you’ve got your Morgan here already, and we’ve got an ace tractor. Our tractor’s practically veteran.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather have a Porsche?’
‘All twelve-year-old boys like Porsches,’ he said with an air of near desperation.
‘I know what Porsches are, of course,’ Harry told him. ‘My mate Rodney’s got a bunch of posters up on his wall. And if you brought it out here I’d love to have a ride. But I don’t reckon they’re as good as Morgans. Is that what you want?’ He cocked his head to one side, questioning. ‘For Peta to go back to New York and drive your Porsche?’
‘Peta is staying here,’ Marcus told him and sliced the steak again. Hard. ‘And I’m going back to New York. I’m sticking with my Porsche and Peta’s sticking with her tractor.’
‘Yeah, but Peta’s got more than the tractor,’ Harry said wisely. ‘She’s got the cows and the dogs and the house and me.’ He grinned up at Marcus, confiding. ‘You’re going to have to come up with something better than a Porsche to compete with us.’
‘I don’t want to compete.’
‘Peta’s saying she isn’t going to fall in love with you, too,’ Harry told him, veering off at a tangent that was as stunning as it was perceptive. ‘I think the two of you are nuts.’
Harry and Marcus were down at Hattie’s house making dinner. Peta sat in her dairy longer than she needed. Much longer.
Soon she’d have to go home. There’d be a plate of something delicious in her oven, made by Marcus, brought home by Harry and left for her to eat by herself. Harry thought she was a dope.
He was right. She was a dope.
No. What was happening was dangerous. She knew enough about her own heart to realise how vulnerable she was.
She’d fallen so hard. Well, why wouldn’t she? she asked herself bitterly. He’d saved her world. He’d dressed her as a princess. He’d swept her off her feet and now he was offering her…
He was offering her his world.
So she should take it.
Be contented with crumbs?
That’s what he was offering, she thought. There was no way Marcus was offering his heart. He was holding himself separate, still playing the hero whose life didn’t change with the redemption of his heroine.
How did Cinderella cope? she thought. Being grateful for the rest of her life. Knowing you owed the whole of your life to one man.
But she could sleep at night in his arms…
Marcus was hardly even offering that, she thought. Yeah, sleep in his arms when it was convenient. And the rest of the time… Sleeping here in a great house built with his money, being grateful, being endlessly grateful, or sleeping in that dreadful, cold apartment in New York, being more grateful still.
‘The whole thing is stupid,’ she told Ted-dog when his greying head nuzzled her hand in concern. ‘He’s dreaming. He’s playing fairytales and one of us has to be sensible.’
I don’t want to be sensible. I want to go down there and eat with them, and laugh with Marcus and enjoy the work he’s helping Harry with, and walk home with him to my veranda and…
‘Cut it out.’
She had to cut it out. There was no choice.
She gave her dog one final pat and rose to fetch the hose. She’d sluice out the dairy. Slowly.
And then she’d go home to dinner. To bed. Alone.
It was mid-morning when they came.
Peta was down the paddock, cleaning out a water trough. She saw the car turn into the driveway. Marcus was home, she thought. At nine in the morning it was five at night back in New York so he’d be in mid-conference with someone important. Maybe she’d better go back to the house and intercept the visitors before they interrupted him.
Maybe if he was interrupted he’d come out…
No. It had only been that first day that he’d spent time with her. He wouldn’t come out. She’d told him to keep his distance and he obviously agreed.
Who would blame him? That night on the beach had been an aberration. She looked down at herself with a rueful smile. She was coated in mud. The trough had been overflowing and the ground around it was knee-deep mud. The float had blocked-the float that cut off the water flow when the trough was full-so she’d had to wade through mud and realign the float regardless of mess.
She wiped her face with the back of her hand and then wished she hadn’t. Yuk.
So who were the visitors?
No one important, she thought. Please.
Marcus was staring at his computer screen and seeing nothing. His razor-sharp mind seemed to have become fluff. Instead of the fierce concentration he applied to his work, his attention kept wandering to the window. Sometimes he’d see her, in her overalls and her gumboots, her hair pulled back from her face but wisping in escaping curls. Sometimes her face would be smudged with dirt. Usually her face would be smudged with dirt. She’d be doing something heavy and filthy, like carting buckets or driving the tractor or…
Or any of the things he’d offered to save her from. She shouldn’t have to do it. She shouldn’t want to!
And there was the rub. He’d envisaged his happy ever after and she wanted no part of it.
‘Are you there, Mr Benson?’ The online teleconferencing was in full swing and he should be concentrating. But Peta…
He could see her. She was down the paddock, delving in a trough of some sort. He could see the mud from here.
‘I’m here.’ It took a huge effort to haul his eyes from the window and back to the screen.
And then he heard a car turn into the driveway.
Great. He’d have to wrap it up now. Peta was too far away to welcome visitors.
‘I need to leave this, gentlemen,’ he told the screen, not even caring that the corporate problem they were discussing wasn’t near to being resolved.
He had his own problems and they were nothing to do with New York.
Or maybe they were. He walked outside and a car was pulling up before the main house. As he stared in astonishment, out stepped Darrell. Darrell gave him a wave, then walked around the car and opened the passenger door.
‘It was too complex to do from New York.’
They were all seated on the edge of Peta’s veranda. Peta had brought out lemonade and handed it out like a good hostess. She’d ditched her gumboots. Now she sat and swung her feet. One sock had a hole in it. Her toe peeped out.
Marcus was trying to concentrate on two things-what Ruby was saying and Peta’s toe. If anyone had ever told him he’d find a woman’s toe erotic he would have said they were crazy.
Her toe was driving him wild!
‘What was too complex to do from New York?’ he managed and Ruby beamed. She looked thoroughly pleased with herself. Darrell sat by her side and he, too, looked like the cat that had just got the canary.
What had got into the pair of them?
‘It’s about your will,’ Ruby said.
‘Peta’s aunt’s will,’ Ruby told him, as if humouring a child. ‘For heaven’s sake, Marcus, focus here.’
Ruby-telling him to focus? ‘Okay.’ He put up his hands as if in surrender. ‘Hattie’s will. What about it?’
‘You asked me to find out about it before you left. There wasn’t time for any investigations before you needed to be married, but we’ve done it now.’ She turned to Peta. ‘You told Marcus that your aunt had high calcium levels and was confused in the last weeks of life?’
‘I… Yes.’ Peta frowned. ‘She was a bit confused. She wasn’t all that clear when she left here. I was really worried.’
‘Did you know that your doctor here took blood samples two weeks before she left Australia?’
‘She was having blood tests all the time.’
‘That’s right.’ Ruby pulled a form from her capacious bag. ‘One of the forms Marcus had you sign before you left gave us the power to check medical records. We put in a request for the information on the grounds that she’s now deceased and you stand to lose.’
‘How do I stand to lose?’
‘You stand to lose by her change of will. There’s an earlier will leaving you the farm.’
Peta’s frown deepened. ‘I remember. She always said she wrote one. But that was well before she went back to the States.’
‘Of course it was,’ Ruby told her. ‘And we found it. Our lawyers discovered that Hattie wrote a will two years before she died-long before she got sick-and she lodged it with a Yooralaa solicitor.’
‘What’s that got to do with me?’ Peta asked.
‘That’s why we’ve come,’ Ruby said triumphantly. ‘I knew you two couldn’t do the investigations. You had to stay on the farm and be happily married. I was planning on sending one of Marcus’s solicitors but then I thought, maybe I could do it. And Darrell decided to come, too.’ For the first time she looked a little disconcerted. Embarrassed, Marcus thought, stunned.
But she was moving on.
‘And guess what we’ve found?’ she told them. ‘Hattie’s medical records. Marcus was right. The tests here said her calcium levels were through the roof before she left Australia. Once she had medical attention in the States, her records there confirm it. The calcium levels would force any judge to concede that her judgement was significantly impaired for at least six weeks before her death. Darrell and I have been here for two days and we’ve been working hard. We’ve had legal opinions from Australian lawyers and we’ve had legal opinions from US lawyers. They concur. The new will doesn’t stand, Peta. The farm is yours. Married or not, Charles can’t touch you.’
Peta stared, not immediately comprehending. ‘It’s… The farm’s mine?’
‘It’s yours.’ Ruby was still smiling. She cast a sideways glance at Marcus, expecting him to be pleased. ‘Marcus told me to do everything to get the will overturned. He suspected this.’
‘He wasn’t sure, of course, or he’d never have married you.’
‘No.’ Peta looked blankly at Marcus. ‘No. Of course he wouldn’t.’
‘So now all you have to do is get the marriage annulled,’ Darrell told them. And then he, too, smiled. Teasing. ‘You can use the old non-consummation line. Unless, of course, you have…’
‘No,’ Marcus snapped. ‘We haven’t.’
‘That’s good,’ Ruby told them, her smile fading. She looked from Peta to Marcus and back again, for the first time seeming to sense the deep undercurrents running between them. ‘I’m glad you’ve had that much sense.’
‘Well, that’s what we came to tell you,’ she said, setting down her lemonade glass with a definite clink. ‘Adam and Gloria presented Charles with the legal evidence invalidating the will last night our time. The evidence is indisputable. Peta, the farm is yours and no conditions apply. So… There’s no need to keep on with the marriage. I’ve brought the annulment forms. If you both sign them you can go on with your lives as if this had never happened. Marcus, there’s no need for you to stay.’
‘Unless you want to,’ she added. ‘You really could do with a holiday.’
‘This isn’t much of a holiday,’ Marcus told her and Peta flushed.
‘Our accommodation isn’t quite five-star,’ Peta muttered. She, too, lay down her glass and turned to Marcus. ‘So you can go home?’
‘Yes.’ There was nothing else to say.
‘I need to thank you. So much…’
‘There’s no need.’
‘There is.’ It was an absurdly formal little tableau but there seemed no right way to go forward from here. ‘I can’t… I don’t know how to repay you. If I could think of anything…’
‘My offer still stands,’ Marcus told her while Ruby and Darrell watched in silence.
‘What-to make our marriage last?’
There was an audible intake of breath from Ruby but Marcus didn’t move his gaze from Peta.
‘Marriage when you can fit me around the edges.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he told her. ‘We could do this. If you’d be prepared to give it a chance…’
‘It doesn’t have a chance.’
‘What doesn’t have a chance?’ Ruby demanded and Peta turned to her, despairing.
‘He wants to build me a mansion, right here, instead of my veranda. He wants to visit for a couple of weeks a year and for the rest of the time he wants to install me in his black marble apartment and keep his bed warm for the twenty minutes a day he can spare for me.’
‘That’s not fair,’ Marcus snapped.
‘What else are you offering?’
‘I run a financial empire, Peta,’ Marcus told her. ‘I’ve never asked anyone else to marry me…’
‘And I should be really grateful,’ Peta told him. ‘I’m sure Cinderella did it really well. But not me.’
‘What else do you want?’ They were almost unaware that Ruby and Darrell were staring, agog. This was too important to be distracted.
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Then figure it out,’ Peta told him. She sighed and her shoulders slumped as the rest of the world appeared to enter her consciousness again. She turned and faced Ruby and Darrell. ‘I’m sorry. You’ve been so good. Do you have to go back to the States immediately or can I put you up here for a night or so? My accommodation’s pretty basic.’
‘It looks great to me,’ Darrell told her. He looked sideways at Marcus. ‘I’ve spent months on a battlefield. Marcus has, too. I’ve no need for marble tiles.’
‘Will you go straight home?’ Ruby asked Marcus and Marcus tried to get his addled brain to think. He might as well. This was stupid. What was Peta expecting? That he share her gumboots? He hadn’t worked so hard all his life for this.
‘Yeah,’ he told them. ‘I will.’
‘I haven’t had a holiday for years,’ Ruby told him, still eyeing him with a dubious look that said her mind was running at a tangent. ‘Do you mind if I stay on?’
‘Go for it. Just as long as you like pink.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with pink,’ Peta flashed. ‘If you’re happy you don’t notice.’
‘Of course you notice.’
‘Get a life, Marcus,’ she told him.
‘It’s you who’s refusing-just because you don’t like black marble.’
‘If you think that’s the reason I’m refusing then you have rocks in your head,’ she told him. ‘I’m refusing because you can’t see that it’s not important. That I’ve offered the only thing that’s important and you haven’t a clue how to return it. And I’m not even sure that you want to. Ever.’
He left half an hour after Harry returned from school. He could have left earlier but the thought of leaving before saying goodbye to the kid was almost impossible.
And saying goodbye even then was incredibly hard.
‘I sort of hoped you guys might have made it long term,’ Harry told him, trying not to let his almost-manly chin wobble. ‘I sort of liked cooking. And you helping with projects and stuff.’
‘Your brothers will be home soon.’
‘Yeah, but they don’t stay and they’re not the same. And you made Peta smile…’
‘Only at the start.’
‘Yeah, but you could again if you wanted to,’ Harry said with perspicacity. ‘Couldn’t you?’
There was no answer to that. ‘I have to go.’
‘Did you say goodbye to Peta?’
‘You’re mean,’ Harry said. His jaw set a little and he moved around Marcus’s car and gave a kick to the tyre. ‘I thought you were a friend.’
‘See you.’ He picked up his school bag and sloped off into the house.
Darrell and Ruby were nowhere to be seen. Peta was in the dairy.
There was no one to watch him drive away.
Peta was putting cups on one of her favourite cows when she heard his engine start. She turned and watched as his lovely little Morgan turned out of the driveway and headed out towards the highway.
Terrific. He was gone.
She put her head on the cow’s warm flank and wept.
‘Are you going to tell me what that was all about?’
It was late that night. Darrell and Harry had both gone to bed, Harry reluctantly but Darrell because his head was still halfway between New York and Australia. Peta and Ruby were left alone. They gravitated towards the veranda and sat, watching the moon out over the ocean.
‘Are you saying he really asked you to stay married to him?’ Ruby demanded and Peta nodded.
‘You heard him. Sort of.’
‘Are you intending to explain?’
‘He didn’t say he loved me. He just said… He figured it could work. He kissed me and he liked it. He enjoyed playing fairy godfather, genie, whatever. He’d give us more. Build this place up to be a mansion and come and visit for a few weeks each year so he could see how benevolent he was. And I could visit him in New York-I think he actually used that word, visit-and stay in his horrible mausoleum of an apartment and be there waiting for him in between corporate necessity.’
‘It…it doesn’t sound like a romantic kind of proposal,’ Ruby said a trifle unsteadily and Peta eyed her with suspicion.
‘Are you laughing at me?’
‘Oh, my dear, I’d never laugh.’ Ruby hesitated and then placed a large hand on Peta’s. ‘You did the right thing. He has to see…’
‘He’ll never see.’
‘Sometimes miracles happen,’ Ruby said gently. There was a moment’s silence and then she continued. ‘For instance, me and Darrell…’
‘Now that’s something I don’t understand.’
‘Darrell needs me,’ she said simply. She closed her eyes. The sound of the sea intensified in the stillness and when Ruby opened her eyes again there was a peace about her that Peta had never seen. ‘Life’s been bleak,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t put my pain behind me. But with you…playing brides, seeing what was happening to Marcus while he thought you needed him… I don’t know. I let my guard down for a moment, I guess. And then Darrell took me home after your wedding and we got to talking. His body… He’s so scarred and he’s closed off as well. We talked and we talked and we’ve been together ever since.’ She smiled, a slow soft smile that contained all the joy in the world. ‘I guess we’ll be together for ever. It’s that simple.’
It’s that simple.
The words wafted around them. There was joy here, but also…
‘He can’t see it,’ Peta said.
‘You mean… You love him?’
‘Of course I love him.’
‘You told him?’
‘And he ran.’
‘No. He offered me marriage. On terms.’
‘For a billionaire, he really is a dope,’ Ruby told her.
Silence. The silence went on and on. And on.
‘Well,’ Ruby said at last. ‘Well. What we need here, girl, is a plan.’
‘It’s what Marcus is principally good at. Corporate plans. Takeovers. Strategies. He’s spent eight years teaching me how to do it. So let’s get to work.’
‘You telling me to butt out, girl?’
‘No,’ Peta told her, half laughing. ‘No. Ruby, I need all the help I can get.’
‘Spoken like a true Benson,’ Ruby told her. ‘We haven’t annulled that marriage yet!’
‘So what’s the plan?’
‘Is that all?’
‘He’s had a taste of something he didn’t know existed,’ Ruby told her. ‘Let’s leave him alone to think about it.’
THE telephone service was out of order.
‘Out of order?’ Marcus had his people contact the telecommunications authorities in Australia, only to be told that the fault had been reported as non-urgent. The people concerned had cellphones. And no, he couldn’t obtain those numbers, no matter how much he paid.
He knew Ruby’s cellphone number. She had it turned off. She’d sent a fax from the local post office saying she’d decided to take a month off and learn how to milk cows.
Ruby was milking cows while Marcus was…
Marcus was earning money. Launching a new range of Internet software. Ruling his empire.
Doing what he always did.
‘How long can silence last?’ Peta asked and Ruby paused from her first attempt at milking a cow.
‘As long as it takes. Be patient.’
Two weeks. Three.
Marcus took a lunchtime stroll down to Tiffany’s. He spent a long time staring at the jewel cases and in the end chose a single diamond. Perfect. Flawless. Worth a king’s ransom.
He insured it for another king’s ransom and sent it courier.
‘To my Cinderella,’ the card read. ‘Please reconsider.’
By return courier came a small box containing the diamond and something else. A withered daisy chain.
‘I’m not Cinderella. I’m just me. I love you, Marcus. But I don’t want your diamonds.’
He stared at the note for a long time. So long that his temporary assistant grew nervous.
‘Are you okay, Mr Benson?’
‘I’m fine,’ he told her, his face grim. He handed over the diamond. ‘Can you arrange to have this returned?’
‘Oh, Mr Benson…’ The girl looked down at the diamond and let out her breath on an ecstatic sigh. ‘Oh, Mr Benson, any woman would die for a diamond like this.’
‘Not my woman,’ he said before he could stop himself. ‘Not the woman I love.’
‘Are you sure?’
It was the end of three long weeks and Peta was still staring out at the moon every night. Somewhere under this moon was Marcus. Alone.
‘He has to see,’ Ruby told her. ‘He has to have time to realise what he’s missing.’ She gave a rueful smile. ‘It took me more than twenty years to learn to love again. Let’s hope Marcus can do it faster.’
‘And if he doesn’t?’
‘Then we panic,’ Ruby told her. ‘But not yet. There’s things we can do.’
Marcus was in a meeting when the next delivery arrived. His secretary interrupted him with apologies. ‘But you did ask me to let you know if anything came from Australia.’
Two boxes were waiting.
The first box contained Peta’s wedding dress. Satin, lace, matching shoes, ribbons from her hair. Regardless of the curious eyes of his office staff, Marcus lifted it out. He could smell the perfume she’d worn that day. There was a small note.
‘Thank you for the fairytale.’
‘There’s another box,’ his secretary told him, obviously agog to see what it held.
He took a grip-sort of-and opened the second box.
It was a pair of gumboots. His size. And another note.
‘Reality is more fun.’
He set the gumboots down on the gleaming mahogany desk. Ridiculous.
The time dragged. He put the gumboots and the wedding dress in the top of his closet and left them there. The concept of him ever needing either again was crazy!
He dated again. Or he tried to date again. The women seemed shallow, pointless, cold.
Peta was on the other side of the world.
She’d said she loved him. If she loved him why wouldn’t she take him? he asked himself. On his terms.
Because, a small voice whispered behind his heart, because his terms were…cruel?
What he’d offered was all he was prepared to concede, he thought grimly. To promise more was to promise something that he couldn’t deliver.
Coward, he told himself.
But to take the next step…
To take another step was impossible.
Ruby contacted him at the end of the month. For a moment he couldn’t believe he was hearing right, and then he excused himself from his meeting and locked himself in his office to take the call where he could concentrate.
‘Ruby. Where the hell are you?’
‘Where you should be,’ she informed him cheerfully. ‘Here. In Australia. Having a really good time.’
‘You’re my employee.’
‘Not any more. I quit. Darrell’s asked me to marry him.’
Silence. He thought of his clinical, efficient assistant who in the years he’d employed her had never let her personal life interfere with her work. She’d never had a personal life!
She was marrying his dour, scarred sergeant?
‘He’s lovely,’ Ruby said in a voice he hardly recognised. ‘You know he is. And we’ve decided to stay on and help Peta for a while. This farm really needs more than just Peta to run it. Marcus, I can milk!’
‘Peta’s never let you near her cows!’ He couldn’t believe it.
‘It took time to gain their trust,’ Ruby conceded. ‘A month. Darrell and I have been helping to bring the cows in, getting them used to us, learning each one’s name. And now I can put the cups on. I can clean the vats. I know all about mastitis and bacteria counts and swishing down the dairy’s my favourite. Oh, Marcus, it’s so much fun.’
‘But…you belong here.’
‘No. I belong here. Darrell’s here. No one stares at his scarred face here. He’s much better at milking than me. Peta says we can redecorate the pink house and live in it for as long as we want. We’ve both got savings and Darrell’s got his veteran’s pension. We can be really comfortable. We don’t need much here. There’s so much already. We can be really rich-with nothing. Nothing but each other.’
Silence. Marcus sank down on to the desk behind him, aware suddenly that he needed its support.
‘You know that I asked Peta to be married to me?’ he said at last. ‘Properly, I mean.’
‘Are you talking about sending her that darned fool diamond?’
‘It cost a fortune,’ he snapped and from the other side of the world he could hear the smile crossing Ruby’s face.
‘Why would Peta need a ring that cost a fortune?’
‘She said she loves me.’
‘She told me that, too.’
‘So why won’t she marry me?’
‘You didn’t ask her to stay married to you,’ Ruby said softly, her voice growing serious. ‘You know you didn’t.’
‘How the hell…’
‘You asked her to visit you in New York. Visit! You implied she’d be your society hostess. Your wife in the short periods you had time for her. You told her you’d stay here for a couple of weeks a year. What sort of marriage is that?’
‘If she loved me…’
‘She’d give up her life for you. Is that what you want? Well, maybe she would. Maybe she’s breaking her heart because she can’t.’
‘You know, the real Cinderella didn’t have commitments,’ Ruby said gently. ‘Stepping out of rags into riches is all very well if you have nothing to leave behind. Nothing to lose. As I remember, Cinderella had no alternative. But there’s Harry.’
‘Harry could come with her.’
‘And her three other brothers? They’re still really close. She’d never leave them. She has an old dog, Ted-dog. You met him. Ted-dog went off his feed last time Peta was in New York. He’d pine. So… Peta has a life here. And what are you offering? Diamonds? Diamonds don’t make very good bedtime companions.’
‘It’s your fear,’ Ruby told him. ‘I’ve never said this before because I’ve been just the same as you. Dead scared of life. But you know very well that Peta could never accept your offer of riches and position. She loves you.’
‘How can she?’
‘Of course she does,’ Ruby snapped. ‘But you, you don’t love her. You love what she could be if she forgot her responsibilities-her family, her farm-yet it’s that very loyalty that’s made you want her. You’re deceiving yourself, Marcus. You’re telling yourself you’d like a wife but you’re making it impossible for her to be just that. You’re a loner. Your offer of marriage to Peta is nothing more than a taunt.’
‘I know, I know,’ she said and her tone was suddenly almost cheerful. ‘This is no way to speak to my employer. Isn’t it lucky I quit?’
He was left alone. With his corporation. His fortune. His position in society. With the black marble in his bathroom.
It took three months. Three months when every morning Peta sat in her dairy and thought of what she’d left in New York. Three months when the annulment papers weren’t served. She should do something about it herself, she thought, but each time she raised it Ruby said, leave it.
‘He must,’ Ruby told her.
And then one morning she could bear it no longer. She woke and found Darrell and Ruby were already bringing in the cows. Harry was preparing his own breakfast, interspersing cornflakes with wedges of chocolate cake Ruby had made the night before. Peta walked into the kitchen: the warmth of the old wood stove reached out to meet her and her ancient dog wuffled around her feet.
And she couldn’t bear it.
‘Harry, would you mind if I went back to New York for a bit?’ she asked, and Harry gave it his careful consideration while he attacked his cornflakes.
‘To fetch Marcus?’
She took a deep breath. ‘Someone has to.’
‘Ruby says we have to wait for him to be sensible.’
‘I think I’ve waited long enough.’
Harry thought about it some more. And nodded. ‘Okay. Ace by me.’
‘You’ll be all right here by yourself?’
‘Darrell and Ruby will look after me. Will Marcus come, do you think?’
‘I hope so.’
‘Tell him Ruby cooks now. He doesn’t have to eat your sausages.’
‘If he loves me he’d eat my sausages.’
‘Even Ted-dog doesn’t like your sausages,’ Harry told her. ‘But good luck.’
Marcus emerged from a meeting and his chauffeur was waiting for him. Which was unusual. Robert usually met him at street level. What was even more unusual was his message.
‘There’s someone waiting for you on the fire-escape.’
‘What do you mean, there’s someone on the fire-escape?’ he demanded.
‘Just what I said. Someone with lunch.’ Robert smiled and Marcus’s heart gave a lurch.
‘See for yourself, sir,’ Robert told him.
Of course it was Peta.
She was sitting on the fire-escape where he’d first met her, only this time she was seated on a step out of range of the swinging door. She was wearing tattered shorts, a faded T-shirt and sandals. She was holding a bag of bagels and a couple of drink containers were by her side.
‘Hi,’ she said and held out her bag. ‘You want a bagel?’
‘Peta,’ he said cautiously and she smiled.
‘Yep. You remember me?’
Remember her? It was all he could do not to lunge forward and take her in his arms-right now. But her expression forbade it. She was smiling but she was formal. Holding him at arm’s length.
‘What are you doing here?’ he managed.
‘I thought we could start again.’ She bit into a bagel.
‘You thought we could start again?’
‘We could share.’ She wiggled over on the step so there was room beside her. ‘I’ve brought enough for two.’
‘I figured out we started all wrong,’ she said. ‘You saved me and I’m very grateful. By the way, I see Charles’s plate has disappeared from your list of occupants. That makes me even more grateful. But no relationship can exist on gratitude. Ruby says I should leave you a bit longer but I got lonely. So I figured… If I was lonely you might be worse. I thought I should come across and see if we can be friends.’
‘Friends.’ She was still sitting on her step, holding out her bag of bagels. She was taking his breath away. ‘I don’t know whether I can be a…a friend.’
‘Everyone needs a friend,’ she said, biting into her bagel as if the bagel and not the words were the most important thing. There was a moment’s pause while she chewed and swallowed. Then she stared down at the bitten bagel, considering where to bite next. Not looking at him. Chatting as if they were casual acquaintances. Nothing more. ‘According to Ruby, you think you can live in isolated splendour for ever,’ she told him. ‘But black marble’s not all it’s cut out to be.’
‘Sit. Eat your bagel.’ She held out her bag again and he sat and took one without thinking. The last thing he wanted at this minute was a jelly-filled bagel. ‘We get to share,’ she said and the seriousness in her voice was unmistakeable.
‘What friends share. Bagels. Fire-escape steps. Life.’
‘I love you, you know,’ she said conversationally. ‘You might have rescued me, but now it’s my turn to try to rescue you. To save you from a lifetime of black marble. If you want saving. But you have to decide. Now… Tell me if I’m intruding. Robert says you’re busy.’
‘I’m always busy.’
‘See, that’s the thing I don’t understand,’ she said, licking a jelly-smeared finger with concentration. ‘You’re a billionaire already. You’re busy making money. Why? So you can buy more black marble?’
‘So what else do you want to buy?’
He stared at her. They were seated side by side but she’d pulled back as he’d sat so she was two feet away from him. Too far.
What did he want to buy?
‘A new bed for your veranda?’ he said cautiously. ‘A big one.’
‘Now you’re talking.’ She beamed. ‘What else?’
‘Maybe a jet. So I can commute.’
‘What, come home at weekends?’
‘Home’s where I am, Marcus,’ she said softly. ‘I love you. Ruby says I should stop saying it, and let you figure it out for yourself, but I can’t. I love you so much that I can’t bear it a minute longer. I love you, I love you, I love you. And I love you so much that there’s no way I can accept your offer of a couple of weeks a year and a few weekends thrown in for good measure. I’d go crazy. That’s the life for someone who wants your position. But I don’t want the position, Marcus. I just want you.’
‘I know. You can’t take it in. That’s why I’m here. Now don’t panic. I’m not here for ever. I’m just here for a little while to see… To see if there’s any possibility that it can work.’ She rose, crumpling her empty carrier bag and looking at it ruefully. ‘That’s lunch. Finished. But you’ve got things to do, places to go. I’ll meet you tomorrow.’
To say he was bewildered would be an understatement. He reached out to grasp her but she backed off fast.
‘Same time, same place?’ she said. ‘Bagels okay with you?’
‘I’m not eating caviar.’
‘You don’t have to eat caviar.’ He made a lunge but she was fast, dancing down to the next landing and laughing up at him.
‘See you tomorrow. Bye.’
It was a really long day.
Marcus went to his afternoon meeting but he had to excuse himself. He could think of nothing but Peta. Peta of the ragged clothes, the dancing eyes, the lovely voice…
I love you, I love you, I love you.
People had said it before.
No one had meant it. No one like Peta.
All he had to do was step forward. Risk everything?
Risk what? His independence? His money? His black marble?
Halfway through the afternoon he left the building and made his way to Central Park. And walked. Never before had he walked as he walked that afternoon. He walked and he walked, unaware of where he was going, unaware of the people around him, unaware of anything but Peta’s lovely face and her dancing eyes and her words…
I love you, I love you, I love you.
Such a simple thing. To take this step…
Fairytale heroes had never had it this hard, he thought ruefully. Find your Cinderella, marry her in all honour, install her in your palace and get on with your life.
His Cinderella had had the happy ending. The white lace and wedding vows. His Cinderella wanted more.
A friend? A friend as well as a hero?
And finally he found he was smiling. The longer he walked the more he smiled.
She was no Cinderella. She was his own lovely Peta. She’d sent back the white lace and offered him gumboots instead. He’d ignored her offer. So she’d followed him. She was doing her own rescuing. She was offering him…
He knew what she was offering him. The world.
The world his mother had taught him to believe in was a world where the white lace was everything. He’d rejected that, but he hadn’t seen that there was an alternative.
A lovely, lovely alternative called Peta.
Where was she?
She wouldn’t be staying at the same dangerous place she’d stayed at last time, he thought. No! Almost as soon at the thought entered his head he was in a cab heading across town.
She wasn’t there.
At least she wasn’t staying somewhere dangerous. The thought was a little comforting but not very.
Where the heck was she?
She’d meet him same place, same time tomorrow? Could he wait that long? Short of phoning every hotel in New York it seemed he had no choice.
Dammit, what was money for? He headed back to his offices, put his staff on to the job and together they phoned every hotel in New York.
No Peta. Where…?
He travelled across town to Ruby’s and then to Darrell’s apartments. Both of them were locked and deserted.
There was nothing else he could do. He just had to wait.
Or… Maybe there was something he could do. Maybe there were a few things…
SHE sat on the fire-escape and waited. To say she felt ridiculous would be an understatement. What was she doing? Sitting on a fire-escape with a bag of bagels, waiting for a New York billionaire to come and share them with her?
Waiting for him to figure out what she was trying to do. Waiting for him to see that it was important.
Twelve. Twelve-thirty. He was running late.
Running late? What, was she crazy? Late for what? Late for his bagel?
The door swung open. And it was Marcus. He’d obviously just come from a meeting of some sort-he was wearing the lovely Armani suit she’d seen the first time she met him.
He was carrying his briefcase. And a shopping bag.
‘Good afternoon,’ he said gravely and she gave him a tiny, faltering smile.
‘I like bagels.’ She knew she sounded defensive but she couldn’t help it.
‘Can I sit down?’
‘Sure.’ She edged along on her step and eyed him sideways. ‘Be my guest.’
He sat. He propped his shopping bag against the railings, set his briefcase between the two of them and flipped it open.
‘I brought my contribution. I hope to heaven it hasn’t spilled. Sam assured me the container was safe.’
‘Clam chowder and corn flapjacks. I remembered that you like them.’
‘I do,’ she said cautiously and watched as he hauled two bowls, two spoons, two plates from his case. ‘You want to share my bagels?’
‘That’s the plan. If you share my chowder.’
He didn’t say anything more. He served his chowder, they split the flapjacks and they ate. The silence between them was strange but not strained. The sun was warm on their faces. For now, they were content to eat and let what was passing between them hold sway.
It was a really strange meal, Peta thought, but there was such a warmth running between them. Such a force of…love? They were a foot apart but she could feel his strength as if he was holding her. He was smiling. He looked as if he was smiling inside.
Somewhere inside her, something started to sing.
‘Too bad if someone wants to use the fire-escape,’ she murmured and Marcus attempted to look grave.
‘They can find their own. This one’s taken. For however long we need it.’
‘It’s a shame we can’t settle here for ever,’ she said softly. ‘On neutral territory.’
‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.’
‘This love thing…’ He set down his plate and turned to her. And waited while she set down her plate. ‘I’m not very good at it,’ he confessed.
‘You have the basic ingredients.’
‘Yeah, but not the recipe.’
‘I’m sure we could teach you. Me and Harry and Ruby and Darrell and Ted-dog…’
‘I think you already have,’ he said softly.
There was definitely a singing thing going on inside her. Marcus was smiling at her. Smiling with her. He wasn’t moving towards her, but he didn’t need to. This big, smiling man with the eyes that had seen far too much but had finally found their home.
She smiled back at him, and somehow… Somehow right at that moment she knew that it would be okay.
There’d be a place for them. There’d be some way they could do this.
‘I have a couple of gifts,’ he told her and her joy faltered a little.
‘Marcus, I don’t want diamonds.’
‘No jewels at all?’ His face fell. He felt in his jacket pocket and brought out a jeweller’s box.
Nestled on white velvet was indeed a jewel but this was no diamond. It was a twist-a knot of strung silver, breathtakingly simple and breathtakingly lovely. Embedded in the web of silver strands were three tiny sapphires. Tiny but perfect. They glistened in the sunlight, and in their depths was the colour of Peta’s eyes, the colour of the sea.
‘It’s a ring made specially for you,’ Marcus told her. ‘Because of who you are. Because of what you are. I know you don’t want tiaras and ball-gowns but I needed to do something to express my love for you.’ Then, as she opened her mouth to speak, he placed his finger on her lips. ‘And there’s more. I might as well get it over and done with. Show you the full catastrophe.’
He flipped up the shopping bag. Out tumbled…gumboots?
They weren’t just gumboots, though. They were gumboots with attitude. They were amazing-as if Frida Kahlo had used each as a blank canvas for the most amazing artwork Peta had ever seen.
There were four gumboots. Four stunning pieces of art. Two Peta’s size. Two Marcus’s size.
‘I had to move heaven and earth to have a friend do these for us,’ Marcus said. ‘He’s sealed them so we can use them in the dairy. Together.’
She gasped. She held a gumboot up and turned it around, awed. ‘You think the cows will let us milk with these on?’
‘I think the cows will love them. When they get used to them.’
‘How can they get used to them,’ Peta whispered, ‘in two weeks a year…?’
‘Well, there’s another thing we need to discuss,’ Marcus said. ‘Now I know you love your veranda. And I know you won’t let the boys sleep at your end. But would you look at this?’
From the depths of his briefcase he hauled out a set of plans and, while she sat in stunned silence, he spread them out for her perusal. The wind was starting to rise, so he spread them over the landing and weighed each corner down with a gumboot.
‘Plans,’ he said in satisfaction.
‘Here’s your veranda. It’s turned into a master bedroom in the plans but it’s still very much a veranda.’
‘Marcus…’ She shook her head in bewilderment. ‘I told you. I don’t want a mansion.’
‘Will you cut it out?’ He was grinning at her. ‘Peta, there’s a huge gap between your veranda and what the rest of the world calls a mansion. I think we’re pretty safe adding extravagances like, say, a hot shower.’
‘I know. Sheer luxury,’ he retorted. ‘A friend-Max-has made these plans up. He’s worked from my memory and he worked in a rush but it’s a start. Your veranda, although I hope we can rename it our veranda, stays intact-almost-though the holes in the floorboards will have to go. The kitchen, I love-and so do you-so that stays as well. Just restored as it should be. He’s added a big living room out the back for when the boys come home-somewhere they can entertain their friends. A bedroom for each of them. Two bathrooms. Now I know two bathrooms sounds a lot but hey, I swear it still doesn’t rank as a mansion. I bet your everyday run-of-the-mill mansion has at least four.’
‘And this bit out here is the office,’ he told her, and she heard, for the first time, a hint of real anxiety in his voice. ‘I thought…seeing Ruby’s staying there anyway we could set up a base. I could delegate a lot of the responsibility to our top people here, and Ruby and I could work with teleconferencing, faxes, the Internet. I mean, we are an Internet company. It does seem reasonable. Mind, I’d probably need to visit New York-twice a year, maybe, but for not more than ten days or so. If I promised faithfully not to use first-class travel and put my knees under my chin… What do you think, Peta?’
What did she think? Her world was exploding around her, shards of joy bursting in all directions. He was looking at her with such a look of anxiety. Her Marcus.
‘You’d sit in economy class for me?’
‘I’d sit anywhere for you.’
‘Even on a fire-escape?’
‘If you were there.’
‘Marcus, I’d stay in a black marble apartment if you were there,’ she admitted and the look of anxiety faded.
‘Will you wear my ring?’
Once again, that absurd anxiety. She looked down at the tiny velvet box and there was no choice. She lifted the ring and slipped it on her finger. It glistened in the sunlight; she held it out and she fell in love all over again.
‘Oh, Marcus. It’s lovely.’
‘Really.’ She faltered. ‘I should have something for you.’
‘You have you. You have your love.’
‘Will…will you wear gumboots for me?’ she said in a voice that wasn’t quite steady.
He kicked off his shoes and his spectacular gumboots were on his feet in an instant. She looked down at them and she managed a shaky chuckle. ‘They’re wonderful.’
‘Did you know that I fell in love with your bare toe?’ he asked and she looked at him with wonder in her eyes.
‘How can that be?’
‘Sexiest toe I’ve ever seen. Just like Cinderella.’
‘Do you intend to kiss me or will I kiss you?’
‘Well, there’s a problem.’
‘A problem?’ Her heart felt as if it must surely burst. Her Marcus. Her love…
‘I’m a bit worried about this fairytale thing we appear to be stuck in,’ he admitted and stared down at his gaudy feet. ‘My feet are already transformed. If you kiss me, will I turn into a frog?’
‘Let’s try, shall we?’ she whispered. ‘Let’s try really hard. And if you turn into a frog-I promise to keep right on loving you. Marcus Frog. Marcus Anything. I’m yours for ever.’
A WEEK later they were heading home-home to another wedding ceremony that was even simpler than the first but far, far more important. Marcus ushered her on board his jet; he took her into his arms and, as the jet soared to cruise altitude, he silenced her protests with a kiss.
But he couldn’t silence her for ever.
‘Marcus, this is obscene! You promised me that you wouldn’t fly first class. And this…’
‘Why? What’s wrong with it?’ He was inclined to be indignant.
‘This is so… First class has nothing on this!’
‘I know,’ he said smugly. ‘This is nothing like first class. First class, by definition, is the set of seats for those with more money than the normal passenger. The seat you’re sitting on is the seat for the normal passenger. Therefore, it’s economy. Cattle class.’
‘It’s your own private jet.’
‘Yep. And you’re in the economy section. Get used to it.’
But still she was stunned, torn between indignation and laughter.
‘Marcus, how much did it cost to get those gumboots painted?’
‘Do you care?’
But he was smiling. ‘My love, we’ll do good things with our money,’ he told her. ‘Wise things for the needy. Sensible things for our family and for our farm. For the good of our cows and our dogs and our kids. And we’ll do fun things. Fun things just for us. I’ve worked too hard for my fortune not to derive some pleasure from it.’ His smile deepened. ‘Like the money I spent to pay out Charles’s lease so that neither you, nor I, nor any of our employees have to see the man again.’
‘Marcus…’ Once again he’d left her speechless.
‘Mind, I can’t help feeling almost sorry for the man,’ Marcus told her gently. ‘He’s just so…stupid. He can’t see that all he’s hurting is himself.’ He smiled softly into her hair. ‘Maybe he needs to find his own Cinderella,’ he whispered. ‘But he’s not having mine. Mine’s taken. Now… What do we do in economy seats? Do we put our knees under our chins? I think I promised to do that, and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to make you happy. Or will you kiss me instead, my love? What do you think? Take your pick.’
Take your pick. He was incorrigible. Peta tried to glare but it didn’t come off. Instead she chuckled but her chuckle was drowned as his lips met hers and she was kissed as he’d never stopped kissing her and he never would.
Their seats inched back to reclining. Man and woman, loving each other. For ever.
Heading homeward, for a life together-in the world’s most extraordinary gumboots!