Max walked into his neighbour’s hospital ward, and the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life was seated at Harold’s bedside. The doctors were saying his old friend had only weeks to live. Here, then, was the first of the vultures.
He stood in the doorway and fought back a wash of anger so deep it was all he could do not to walk forward and smack her. He’d never met this woman, and he had no wish to. He wanted to leave.
But, Harold was pushing himself up on his pillows, reaching out to grasp his hand. “Max,” his elderly neighbor gasped. “Here’s Sarah. Sarah’s here.”
She certainly was.
The woman by Harold’s bed was stunning. She had long blonde hair, a shimmering wave, reaching almost to her waist. Her sky-blue dress was simple, sleeveless and scoop-necked, reaching to just above her knees. Her legs were long, tanned and bare. Ten beautifully painted toenails peeped from strappy sandals. They had some sort of etching on them. Gold.
All Max saw was red.
But, Harold was reaching out to him. It was impossible not to step forward and take the old man’s hand. Harold’s voice might be barely a whisper but his illness couldn’t disguise his joy. “Max, I told you Sarah’d come. I told you . . . ”
He’d told him any number of them would come. Harold had an ex-wife and three step-daughters he’d formally adopted. They’d all been demanding support for years. None of them had been near the old man in the entire time Max had known him.
He glanced at the oxygen mask and the IV lines and monitors and thought, Yep, this woman’s judgment was pretty close to perfect.
“Sarah’s come all the way from New York,” Harold whispered. “For Christmas.”
All that way? Well, why not? Harold’s remaining land was worth a small fortune. That was all he had, though. They’d bled him dry of everything else years ago.
“Glad you could make it,” he said, brusquely, not bothering to disguise his revulsion. “Harold must be glad you could drop in.”
She’d half-risen from her chair. Now she sank down again, her eyes wary.
She had the most beautiful eyes. Cornflower blue? Had he ever seen a cornflower? Nah. He’d read that somewhere, probably in one of his sister’s magazines. He grew corn for his cattle, but not once had he ever seen a cornflower.
Still . . . nice eyes, he conceded, trying to be fair. Great bone structure. The shape of her mouth was almost startlingly beautiful. Good wide mouth and nice white teeth.
They were probably whitened at her step-father’s expense.
It was hard not to be bitter. He’d been looking after the old man’s books for a couple of years now and he’d seen how these women had bled him dry. Lorissa had married Harold, a man a good twenty years her senior, and used him shamelessly to support her daughters. As the money supply dwindled she’d left for America, taking her entourage with her, but demands for support had continued. All Harold had left now was a remnant section of his farm, and now they were closing in on that as well.
He glanced at the woman again, suddenly thinking she looked familiar. Had she ever visited? Surely not—this was a woman he’d remember. Did Harold have photographs? He couldn’t remember ever seeing any.
Why did he think he’d seen her before?
“You’re Max Ramsey,” she said, warily. Should she be wary? Maybe he wasn’t bothering to hide how he was feeling.
“I am.” He released the old man’s hand. “Harold, I’ll come back later when you’re not busy.”
But, Harold was pushing himself higher and his eyes were brighter than Max had seen them for years. The old man was practically glowing.
“Max, she’s staying. Sarah’s staying. And she’s been talking to the doc and the nurses. She reckons she can work it. She says she’s taking me home for Christmas.”
He couldn’t be more surprised if he’d been kicked by one of his prize heifers. He looked at the woman again, really looked. She’d come from New York, Harold had said, and that was how she looked. A New Yorker. A model of some kind?
He thought suddenly, stupidly, of a picture his grandmother had once shown him, of a model called Jean Shrimpton at the races, the running of the Melbourne Cup. The photograph had been taken way before his time, but his grandmother had been indignant about it almost half a century later.
“She was the world’s top model, invited out from England as a showcase of style. So there we all were, in our beautiful suits and our hats and our hair done to the nines, and she just . . . arrived. In a minidress, Max, with bare legs and hardly any make-up and her hair blowing every which way. No hat, Max, can you imagine? She looked appalling.”
Max had remembered looking at the photograph and thinking she hadn’t looked appalling at all. She’d looked stunningly beautiful, but she’d also looked very aware of the effect her appearance made.
That was this woman. Aware. Her eyes spoke of intelligence. She was smiling, she was holding Harold’s hand but her eyes were talking to Max. “What of it?” her eyes were saying. “What are you going to do about it?”
“He can’t go home,” Max heard himself saying. “He needs twenty-four-hour nursing care.”
“I can give him that.” Her voice was beautifully modulated, firm but still wary.
“How the hell . . . ”
“I’ve checked with the staff . . . ”
“So you say. Harold, look at you.” He hated dulling the light in the old man’s eyes but this nonsense had to stop now. “You need oxygen. You need lifting . . . ”
“I can lift myself,” Harold said, with quiet dignity. “If Sarah can give me a hand.”
“Can I have a word with Sarah?”
“You want to say anything to Sarah, you can say it to me,” Harold retorted but just then two nurses knocked and entered.
“Sorry,” one said brightly. “We need to have a moment’s privacy with Mr. Leishman. If you two could wait outside . . . We’ll be five minutes maximum.”
“Right,” Max snapped. “But I won’t stay. I’ll drop by after milking tonight, Harold.”
“I might be home by then,” Harold told him. “Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. I’ll be in my own bed.”
“It might take until tomorrow to get you there,” Sarah warned. “I’ll need to get your house in order, but we’ll talk about it later.”
“I’ll talk to you about it now,” Max snapped.
“That’s fine by me,” she told him and then smiled at Harold. “It’s okay. We can do this. I won’t let Mr. Ramsey—or anyone else—mess with what we’ve decided.”
There was time for no more. The nurses ushered them out and closed the door behind them.
Max was left facing Sarah. The murderous thoughts were still there. She was beauty personified and he didn’t even want to look at her.
What she was doing was worse than cruel.
But this was nothing to do with him, he told himself harshly. He wasn’t Harold’s family. He was simply the guy who’d bought the major part of Harold’s farm. Harold’s remaining land abutted his. Now that Harold could longer run his, he’d leased Harold’s paddocks and ran stock there, so theirs was a business relationship only.
Except, he liked the old man. Plus, he respected him. Max knew a lot about farming, but Harold knew more, and the last few years had been richer because of him. He owed him a debt, and he was damned if he’d stand by and let his scavenging family move in.
What was she proposing? Taking Harold home? Didn’t she realize how close to death Harold had been before he’d finally agreed to hospital? And now . . . Moving Harold could well kill him. Did she think she’d get her inheritance sooner? He wouldn’t put it past her or her blood-sucking family.
Vultures. Vampires. From where he was standing they all looked the same, and she was the embodiment of all of them.
“I can look after him,” she said, softly, almost dangerously, and he snorted.
“How? And why? What gives you the right to barge in and get his hopes up . . . ”
“I love Harold.”
“So where have you been for the last ten years.”
She flushed, but her chin tilted a little. “Not here,” she agreed. “And maybe I should have been, but I didn’t know . . . ”
Of course she didn’t know. She hadn’t been near him.
“He’s settled here and he’s safe,” he snapped. If this woman knew the effort it had been to persuade the old man to accept help, to let himself be admitted to hospital . . . Harold was fiercely independent. He’d refused even to use a cane, walking the farm using a lawn mower as support even when his legs were so doddery it took him minutes to heave himself from a chair. That last morning Max had found him half a mile from the house. He’d been on the ground for two hours before he was found, and Max still felt sick when he thought about it. And responsible.
“Where are his dogs?” she asked.
“What would you know about his dogs?”
“I’ve been writing to him,” Sarah snapped. “Believe it or not. It was only when I didn’t receive my weekly letter, and his home phone rang out that I worried.”
“No one worries about Harold.”
“All the way from New York?”
She opened her mouth to snap again but then obviously thought better of it. She closed her eyes for a second, took a few deep breaths—and started over.
“Okay,” she said, softly now, maybe because a nurse was giving them the death stare from the other end of the corridor. Apparently, raised voices were a no-no. “Okay,” she said again. “I haven’t seen him for years. I didn’t realize he was in such trouble, and I should have. Let’s just get the mea culpa out of the way and move forward. He wants to come home for Christmas.”
“Why? Have you put other people in his house?’
It was an accusation and he blinked. “What?”
“He says you control all his land now and you have the big house. What have you done with Paddy and Tip? And have you rented out the house he’s been living in? I know you can’t have sold it. I know it’s only leased, but what have you done with it?”
So he was right. She did know her step-father’s financial circumstances. She’d probably know to the nearest dollar how much the place was worth. Was that why she was here? Protecting her family’s interests, or just protecting her own interests.”
“The dogs,” she said, and had the temerity to cross her arms and tap her beautifully sandaled toes. “Did you put them down?”
“What the hell do you think I am?” It was an explosion and the death-stare nurse started heading toward them. But, it was Sarah who turned and put up a hand to stop her.
“It’s okay, Miss. I’m sorry. I can control him.”
“Control . . . me?”
“Come out to the car park if you want to yell.”
“I don’t need to yell. He’s not going home for Christmas.” But, he hissed it, a stage whisper.
“Where are the dogs?”
“Probably asleep on my veranda,” he shot back.
And, amazingly her face changed. She leaned back on the wall and closed her eyes again.
“Well, thank God for that,” she said. “I was so afraid . . . If he has his dogs we can do anything.”
“Like what?” He was starting to feel . . . bemused. Off kilter. Less sure of his ground.
“Like take him home. I’m serious. Who’s in his house?”
“Is it liveable?”
He thought of the simple house that Harold called home. Harold had once been the largest landowner in the district. Waratah Bay was a magnificent farm set on the Northern New South Wales Coast, and it had a beautiful homestead to match.
But, Harold’s ex-wife was a socialite with expensive tastes and her daughters took after her. Lorissa had used the shy farmer to send her daughters to the best private schools. Through Harold she’d been able to indulge her every expensive whim, but when another man entered her orbit she’d simply left. However, the girls had been formally adopted and they’d continued to bleed Harold dry from a distance.
Harold had finally subdivided the farm, selling off the greater part with the homestead. That was the part that Max now owned. Harold had move into what had once been the share farmer’s cottage, where he’d lived simply since.
Was it livable? “It’s fine,” Max said curtly.
Harold had only been in hospital for a few weeks but he wouldn’t be going home. His house was spartan, it was probably dusty and was definitely neglected, but how to explain that it had seemed wrong to even go into his house without him, even to check. There’d be time for that . . . later. Part of Max ached for the old guy to be there still, to walk in and haul down two chipped mugs and sit and talk over tea brewed so strong it could practically stand up without the mug. He missed his old friend—a lot. It was breaking him up seeing him as he was. Since he’d entered hospital Harold seemed to have given up, and there wasn’t a thing Max could do about it.
Except, stop this woman making things worse. Drag him home for Christmas? What would that achieve?
“I can give him a proper Christmas,” Sarah said, and he realized she’d been silent for a while, giving him room for thought. “I’ve come prepared. Christmas, Sarah style.”
“Did you bring bed pans?” he demanded and she flinched.
“I can . . . ”
“Because that’s what he’ll need. Do you think I put him in here to get him out of the way? He needs care, twenty-four seven. I can’t do that.”
Her arms were still folded. She was looking at him like he was something the cat had dragged in. Smelly and distasteful. “I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” she said, evenly now. “Contrary to what you think, I have kept in touch. I write to him and I ring. A lot. When he stopped answering the phone at home I guessed—I hoped—he’d be in hospital. There’s only one hospital in Waratah, so finding him was easy.”
“So I found out exactly what’s happening with him,” she said. Her voice wasn’t raised, it was cool and slightly disdainful. “I’ve talked to the district nursing organization and I’ve organized to hire what I need. The nurses told me his house is still empty, so I hope it still is. I don’t break my promises, Mr. Ramsey, unless I’m forced to by circumstances out of my control, and you seem to be the only circumstance between Harold and what Harold wants. So what’s stopping us?”
“You,” he said, goaded. “How the hell can you care for him? You can’t.”
“That’s a judgment, and it’s unfair. You’ve seen my pictures?”
“Your pictures . . . ” And then he realized. He had seen this woman—he wasn’t imagining it.
He’d seen her picture . . . on the side of the local bus! Some women’s deodorant advertisement. Good grief!
“It’s my Slavic cheekbones,” she said and she even managed a rueful smile. “I can’t disguise them. So yes, I’m a model, but . . . ”
“But, I was a nurse first. I left school when I was still pretty much a kid. I managed to work my way through nursing training and then someone on the street saw my cheekbones and stopped me and I was naïve enough to go in for a photo shoot. The rest is history. So I may be a model, but I have nursing training.”
“You never left school as a kid. Your mother . . . ”
“What the hell do you know about me, Max Ramsey?” she demanded, anger flaring. “About the same as I know about you, I imagine. All I do know is that you’re standing in the way of what Harold and I both want. Mr. Ramsey, I’ve come half way around the world to give Harold a decent Christmas, and you should be realizing by now that what I want is what I get. So what about standing aside and leaving Harold to someone who loves him?”
“You . . . Love him?”
“Butt out of what’s not your business,” she snapped. “Get out of my way.”
He didn’t have much choice. She was family. There was no way he could stop what she’d planned, and maybe she could even pull it off. When the nurses finished what they’d been doing, Sarah was re-admitted to Harold’s room, but he stomped down to the nurses’ station and found it had all been arranged.
“Ooh, isn’t it exciting having Sarah Carlton in Waratah—who’d have thought? And her being so nice. She’s even signed her autograph for my niece. Kylie will be over the moon. Yes, we have everything organized.”
It seemed she’d hired what she needed. She intended to set Harold’s house up today and then bring the old man home tomorrow, Christmas Eve. She intended staying with him for a few days afterwards, the nurse told him, though it depended on how she managed, but she was determined to give him Christmas at home.
Max stomped back out to his truck feeling . . . furious?
Did he have the right to feel furious?
“Yes,” he said out loud, and Bing, the old blue heeler who went everywhere with Max except into the actual hospital, looked at him with gentle enquiry.
“I concede, Harold will love having Christmas at home, if she can manage it,” he told his dog, letting Bing jump from the truck tray into the cab. That was a treat. Bing was pretty keen on rolling in cow pats. The cab was usually only available to him in foul weather, but right now Max needed someone to talk to. Bing would have to do.
“But where’s she been all these years?” he demanded. “Why now? Is the family suddenly worried he might leave the whole place to me? Or to a dog’s home?”
Bing whined and put his nose on Max’s knee.
“A dog’s home’d be a much better option than leaving it to those blood suckers,” he snapped, but then he thought of Sarah’s anger, her toe tapping—and what she’d said.
She’d phoned. She’d written.
And he’d seen the letters. For the last couple of years he’d been collecting Harold’s mail from town. It had been a good excuse to drop in, and it was little trouble. There was never much mail, but once a week, without fail, there’d been a crisp, white envelope, with Harold’s address hand-written in blue ink. In these days of emails the hand written letters had seemed special, and Harold had always reacted with quiet satisfaction.
But he’d never told Max who they were from. He’d always put them away—for later. For the long nights when he was constantly alone?
Had that been Sarah?
What was a world-renowned model doing writing to a lonely old man? Carlton . . . That was the surname of the guy Lorissa had run off with, so Sarah must have changed her name yet again. Regardless, she was obviously the family member delegated to stay in touch.
But she’d been phoning him as well? Harold had never said . . .
But then, Harold never talked of his family. It hurt.
Yeah, well, Max knew that feeling. He put his hand on Bing’s soft head.
“There’s nothing we can do about it, mate,” he told him “Families . . . Who’d have anything to do with any of them?”
Sarah sat by the old man’s bed and held his hand. Harold was drifting off to sleep. He was very close to the end, Sarah thought, and not for the first time she wondered whether what she was doing was cruel.
Max Ramsey obviously thought so. He’d reacted to her as if she was pond scum.
“So I should have come earlier,” she said, speaking to herself, but Harold heard and opened his eyes.
“You’re here now, girl,” he whispered. “That’s all that matters.”
And, it was. It had to be.
She hadn’t realized how alone the old man was. Harold had never said just how isolated he really was.
Family . . . Max Ramsey had assumed she was just that. He had it figured; she was one of the step-daughters, and she’d let him go on assuming. For if she wasn’t an adopted daughter, she had no rights. Max could well move in and stop her taking Harold home.
He thought she’d be killing her . . . father.
Father . . . Grandpa, even.
She just wished he was.
End of Excerpt