She was every bit of everything he remembered about her, all at once, and all at the same time.
That was Kerry McCrae in a nutshell, he thought. All at once, full on, one hundred percent real. No bullshit.
She froze on seeing him, and while the wariness in her beautiful green eyes wasn’t a surprise, the vulnerability sure was. “Starfish—“
“Don’t call me that,” she said, then immediately, and less stridently, added, “Not here.” She ducked around him before he could react and was down the set of wooden steps leading off the narrow, cement loading dock that ran along the back of the pub, heading across the gravel lot.
He started after her. He might not have handled any of this even close to how he’d planned, but he wasn’t flying all the way back home without at least a conversation. A private conversation. You might have wanted to lead with that, you yobbo. “Kerry, wait.”
“Not here,” she repeated, then opened the driver’s side door to a beat up old navy blue truck that looked like it was more rust than actual metal. “Get in.”
“I’ve got a rental. I’ll be happy to—“
She swung her laser green gaze to his. “Get in.” She slammed the door without waiting for a reply, then slammed it a second time to get the handle to catch.
He climbed in the passenger side, not all that surprised to find the inside of the cab surprisingly clean and as well maintained as possible, given the thing had one tire, if not two, in the grave. Kerry McCrae was never fussed about how she looked or what she wore, but when it came to property or equipment, whether it be her own or simply entrusted to her care, no matter how old or worn out, she had a dab hand at keeping it clean and neat, all systems go. Her concern was never about appearance, just functionality and getting the job done.
It was sexy as hell then, and it was sexy as hell now.
“You just spent a whole lot of money and wasted even more of your time so I could turn you down in front of an entire town’s worth of people,” she said, giving him a sideways glance as she pulled out the rear lot and swung the truck down the narrow back road, toward the harbor down below.
“So, what have you got to smile about?”
He settled back in his seat and put the old felt hat he’d taken off when he’d entered the bar, back on his head, and let the smile slide into the grin he realized he’d been holding back. “It’s good to see you again, Starfish.”
She scowled at that, as he’d known she would, but she didn’t call him on it. No point in it, really. As well as he knew her, she knew him equally so.
“I can’t believe you did this,” she said, a moment later, and he noted that along with her irritation, she was gripping the steering wheel as if her life depended on it.
That shouldn’t have reassured him, but it did. “Which part?” he asked with a chuckle.
She gaped at him, then turned her attention back to the road. “All of the parts.” She drove on for another few seconds, making the turn onto the road that led down to the harbor, then suddenly stomped on the brake, making him brace a quick hand on the dash. She jerked the truck to the side of the road and came to a full stop, before turning to him, her expression urgent. “Did something happen? To your family? Cooper, don’t even think about not—”
“What?” he asked, honestly surprised by the sudden barrage, and more so by the clear concern in her eyes.
“Your family,” she repeated, as if he was a bit slow. And maybe he was. About a lot of things. “I was just thinking I can’t imagine them being thrilled with you taking off like this, halfway around the world no less, leaving them shorthanded and—then I thought, oh no, something must have happened, because why else would you—” She broke off, shook her head, and seemed to look sightlessly at her hands, still gripping the steering wheel.
“Because why else would I what?”
She finally looked at him, and along with that goodly dose of agitation and not a little honest confusion, he saw that sliver of vulnerability again. “Because what else would cause a man I knew to be perfectly sane and fully committed to his life running one of the biggest cattle stations in Northwest Territory alongside his big, loud, boisterous and very close knit and beloved family—to up and run halfway around the world chasing after a…after—“
She blinked, closed her mouth, opened it again, then simply shook her head and looked away. A beat passed, then another. “So, they’re all okay?” she asked him anyway, back to staring at her hands. “Big Jack? Ian? Sadie?” She glanced at him. “Little Mac?”
He lifted his hand, palm out. “All safe and sound, I swear. Last I checked, anyway.” His grin settled back to a quiet smile. “The only one who’s lost anything, is me.”
She ducked her chin, then he saw her pull herself together. And when she raised her gaze to his once more, she was all Kerry McCrae. Bold, confident, smart, and more than a little smart assed. Potent combination, that. Or so he’d learned.
When she’d first come to their station, hired on by his father, Big Jack, as a jackaroo—or jillaroo as the female ranch trainees were called—Cooper had told his dad and his two siblings that the American wouldn’t last a fortnight. A wanderer who’d gone a bit troppo more than likely, traipsing around the world for kicks, thinking station life was some romantic outback romp, was about to find out she’d bit off more than she could chew.
He bit back a grin at the memory of how she’d taken on Cameroo and every single member of the Jax family, wrapping them around her like they were a comfortable, well worn coat. And the only chewing that had been done was by him, eating his words.
“You know, a more prudent man might have wanted to use that new fangled thing called a phone, or shoot off an email on that fancy laptop Sadie was so excited about finally getting for her school work,” Kerry said, more quietly now.
“Find out if the other party has even remembered his name, much less if she was interested in doing anything more with him than trying to herd ten thousand head of cattle all over the godforsaken outback.”
“Twenty thousand. And you just told your entire town you loved Australia and its godforsaken outback.”
She nodded, but said nothing, not even a hint of that earthy, easy going smile that was usually never more than a breath away. He let the silence lay as they drove along the harbor road.
She pulled into a sandy lot on the far side of the endless rows of jutting piers. Just ahead the road disappeared behind a thick stand of pine trees before winding its way back out of the harbor and on to destinations unknown.
“Tide’s out,” she said, then got out the truck, closed the door, then banged it shut again to make it stick, before making her way down the rocky ledge to the seaweed strewn ocean floor below. She hadn’t asked for company, nor did she look back to see if he was going to follow.
Cooper wasn’t a particularly well-traveled man. His idea of a big holiday was to go with the family to one of the beaches in Darwin after they’d sold off the annual lot of cattle at the ports there. He’d flown as far away as Auckland, New Zealand, to visit extended family, but he’d never been to any part of the Americas, and had never seen anything that rivaled the coastline of Maine. He’d heard Kerry’s stories about her childhood here, so many of them, but even given how vividly and lovingly they’d been recalled and relayed, they hadn’t done the real deal justice. He’d read up on the country, and specifically the state, before making his flight, had read about the big tidal swings, some of the biggest and most rapid depth changes in the world. Seeing it with his own eyes, however, was far more impressive…and yet his gaze remained fixed on one particularly fiery and unsurprisingly recalcitrant redhead.
She claimed not to want him, not to want what he offered. She’d even made it seem as if his interest in her, his belief that there was something far deeper between them than simply a working relationship, or even a strong friendship, was coming as a surprise. But he knew what he knew, knew the air had fair sizzled between, all but crackling with the kind of sexual tension that took a sort of superhuman control to resist. He knew, first hand, because he’d had to find that control.
He’d been her boss, her employer. She’d been temporary, had made that clear from the start. But then her summer stint had turned into a six month stay, then nine, and then her first full year anniversary was on the horizon…and he’d been forced to admit any ability he had to resist his feelings for her had long since begun to seriously falter. He’d finally stopped denying that there was something there, something special. He just hadn’t known how to take things a step forward. He had been considering the ways, contemplating that first move, what felt like every waking minute of every day. Then she’d gotten the note from her brother. And before Cooper had found the words to ask her to stay, or, at the very least, to come back, she’d been gone.
But he knew what he knew. There had been something there. Something real, and solid, something that because of his superhuman control—and he had to believe hers too—had allowed a true and deep friendship to form between them. Not all at once, either, but slowly, and surely, over time. The kind of time that, by its very nature, brought with it a long string of events that forged lasting bonds.
Everything from grand and momentous holiday occasions, to the mundane, every day, mettle-testing drama that was the reality of running a station the size of Cameroo Downs.
So it wasn’t lust, though she still delivered a fair wallop of that to various parts of his body, and it wasn’t some shallow, love struck notion of what a relationship with her might be.
He knew what it would be. He’d lived it. In all the ways except the most important one. He’d seen with his own eyes, and heard with his own ears, the feeling, the emotion in her voice when she said she loved Australia.
He knew what he knew.
It was because he knew what he knew, that he got out of the truck. And followed he
Interior designer Fiona McCrae has left fast-paced Manhattan to move back home to peaceful Blueberry Cove. But she’s barely arrived before she’s hooked into planning her big sister Hannah’s Christmas wedding—in less than seven weeks. The last thing she needs is for her first love, Ben Campbell, to return to neighboring Snowflake Bay…
As kids, Fiona was the bratty little sister Ben mercilessly teased—while pining after Hannah. But Fi never once thought of Ben like a brother. And that hasn’t changed. Except Fi is all grown up. Will Ben notice her now? More importantly, with her life in a jumble, should he? Or might the romance of the occasion, the spirit of the season, and the gifts of time ignite a long-held flame for many Christmases to come…
Something old might just become something new…
Includes a DIY wedding project!
By midnight PST. when the contest will close Donna will pick the winner ON SATURDAY. I will send you notice with her email address and you will send your info to her.