Maggie Walker often wished she looked more intimidating. She could have taken after her late father, who’d been broad of shoulder, firm of jaw, and had cut an imposing figure no matter whose company he’d sought. She could have taken after her recently deceased great aunt, who’d been a model in her younger years—one of those aloof, impossibly leggy, aristocratic types. She could have been in possession of glacier-cut cheekbones, a piercing blue glare and enough height to make looking down on other people far too easy.
Maggie had inherited none of it.
Instead she’d topped out at five feet two, was slight of form and had a sweetness of face more commonly associated with wet kittens and baby fawns.
Intimidating she was not, but she’d rarely felt quite as invisible as she did now, standing in the main room of a sleepy country town’s local stock and station agent, waiting for the guy behind the counter and currently on the phone to look her way. Maggie had spent her formative years in boarding school and was used to waiting her turn.
It had been quite a few years since anyone had tried to pretend she wasn’t there at all.
Florid of face and with a vocabulary that relied heavily on the word ‘mate’, the guy at the counter continued to ignore her. The shop front was clean, even if currently understaffed. It looked well stocked with supplies, as if they did good business. Hard to believe they did any business at all given their current attention to customer service.
Even a quick nod of acknowledgement would do.
The white farm truck she’d borrowed—no, not borrowed, it was hers now—had Wirra Station written on it in bold, black letters. Given that Maggie inheriting the historic sheep station had been the talk of Wirralong for going on two weeks now, and given that the vehicle could be clearly seen through the window, she was fairly sure Mr I’m A Very Busy Man knew who she was.
She took off her wide-brimmed hat and set it on the counter as she listened to him wax informative about feed ratios for racehorses. She took off her sunglasses and placed them on top of the hat. She kept her satchel full of paperwork slung over a too-narrow shoulder as she moseyed over towards a row of open office doors, but there was no-one inside any of the rooms. There was an exit through to the feed and fencing sheds out the back and a large red ship’s bell hung beside the exit. Surely that was an invitation? She reached for the rope and rang it once, and then several times more because, frankly, she liked the sound of it.
The guy behind the counter paused mid-conversation to glare at her, and that was all the opening she needed. She’d been standing there for the past ten minutes, after all.
“I’m looking for James Henderson Junior,” she said.
“He’s not in today.”
“That’s a shame. Does he have a contact number that’s not disconnected?”
“Look, lady, if James wants to stay in touch with a woman, he does.”
“Good to know,” she said politely. “What a champ.” Maybe the guy behind the counter hadn’t noticed the Wirra Station vehicle parked out front after all. “Thing is, I have here Carmel Walker’s records of a dozen or so payments made to James these past six months for the installation of over sixty kilometres of rural fencing. And call me a city girl, but I’ve been over Wirra Station from top to bottom this past week and I can’t find any new fences at all.”
The guy gave up on his phone conversation with a muttered, “I’ll call you back”.
She headed back towards the counter, maintaining eye contact. No need to telegraph that her picture-perfect confidence stopped at the first layer of skin. “I’m Maggie Walker. I own Wirra Station now,” she stated simply and didn’t offer her hand.
“Morning, Kyle.” She looked around the store. “Family business, is it? James is your … brother? Father?” She’d never laid eyes on James but Kyle looked to be in his thirties, possibly a little younger.
“James is my cousin and, like I said, he’s not here.”
“Is there anyone else who can help me with my fencing query?”
“You said you had receipts,” he countered flatly.
She pulled a sheaf of copies from her satchel and handed them to him. He flicked through them and frowned. “We haven’t done any work for Wirra Station lately.”
“I’m glad we agree. Am I in the right place? That’s your letterhead? James Henderson’s signature on the order form?”
He scowled, and she took it for a yes.
“So I’m in the right place.” She leaned forward, palms on the counter, and fixed him with her most limpid gaze—the one he hadn’t yet learned to be afraid of. “Sixty-eight kilometres of fencing at six thousand two hundred dollars a kilometre, installed. That’s four hundred and twenty-one thousand six hundred dollars gone from Wirra Station’s holding account. For fencing I can’t find. That’s a lot of fraud.”
“Now look here, you crazy b—”
“Problems?” The deep voice that came from the doorway was instantly recognisable. The lazy drawl, the chocolate-coated rumble. The owner of that delectable voice was often at odds with her, or she with him, but he was never one to roar. Nor had she ever seen him back down. Not from a black snake in her great aunt’s garden when they were kids, not from the wild dogs that had trapped her in the hay shed when she was ten. Not even from the hideous car accident that had cost her parents their lives.
Twelve-year-old Maxwell O’Connor had been the first one to reach the accident scene all those years ago. Max had saved her and not them, and in the darkest corners of her heart she still hadn’t forgiven him for that.
Maggie turned to face him reluctantly, wincing only slightly as she met his deep blue gaze. Warmer than the ocean, a couple of stars lighter than the midnight sky, his eyes were his best feature—assuming one discounted his voice. One also had to ignore his untamed mop of messy black hair, his country tan on a lean, rangy body and his smile. His smile was lethal. Good thing she so rarely saw it.
He had long legs and an excellent arse. She’d noticed both this morning as he’d sauntered away from her.
“Maxwell,” she murmured warily.
“Margaret.” Max’s narrowed gaze flicked from her to the man behind the counter and then back to her again. “What’s going on?”
“I was thinking about what you said this morning about Wirra Station’s lack of decent fences.” They’d had that particular conversation just after dawn, with her on one side of a tumbledown, two-strand wire fence and him on the other. His sheep had been on her land again. According to him, he’d had a gentleman’s agreement with her great aunt that until the fences were fixed his sheep could go wherever they damn well pleased. “I remembered seeing a recent invoice for fencing amongst some paperwork, so I went back through Carmel’s financial records and things just didn’t add up. I popped in here to see where Wirra Station’s sixty-eight kilometres of fully installed, fully paid for, rabbit-proof fencing was.”
Maxwell spared her a flat glance, before turning towards Kyle.
“Max, you know I run the feed side of things,” Kyle offered defensively. “The old man controls stock transport. Fencing and farm equipment is James’s gig.”
“Sadly, James isn’t in,” Maggie murmured. “Where exactly is James?”
“And are you expecting him back any time soon, or has my dead aunt’s money gone with him?”
“Maggie,” Max barked. “Not helping.”
“Oh, you have another approach?”
“Yeah, it’s called holding your fire until you’re damn sure you have the right people lined up.”
She rather thought she had exactly the right people lined up and wondered whose word would prevail if negotiations turned ugly. She wasn’t the local here, even if she could trace her lineage back to English settlement. “Fine.” Her gaze clashed with Max’s—heaven only knew what had him so riled—and then she turned back to the man behind the counter and summoned infinite patience and a smile.
“Kyle, Iet’s start again. I have an accounts dispute with …” She glanced at the letterhead on the copied receipts. “… Henderson’s Stock and Station Agents and I’d like to speak to someone who can answer my questions. Today. Otherwise my next step, today, will involve calling a lawyer. My father practised law back in Melbourne—it’s probably not common knowledge around here anymore, but he did. Good schools. That Old Boys’ network is alive and well—don’t get me started. He was only in the early stages of his career when he died, but you wouldn’t believe how successful some of his business partners are now. Barristers, lawmakers, Queen’s Counsel. They still send me Christmas cards, I go to their children’s weddings. They can be ridiculously protective of me and I am absolutely open to taking advantage of their expertise. So I’ll ask again: Is there anyone here I can talk to about those missing fences?”
“You call that holding your fire?” Max was using his ever-so-patient drawl on her again. The one that never failed to wind her up.
“Why, yes, Max, I do. Do you hear me yelling? No. This is my I know there must be a simple explanation around here somewhere voice. Dulcet, isn’t it?”
Max ignored her in favour of communicating with Kyle. “Sounds like Maggie needs to speak to the old man.”
Kyle cleared his throat and said, “Let me make a call”.
Maggie watched Kyle retreat into the very end office and shut the door before turning to Max once more and, honestly, could he not do something with his hair? Like tame it? Buy a comb? Hide it under a hat? Because just looking at it was making her fingers itch. “Is there a hairdresser in town?”
“Because there’s an appointment you don’t want to miss.”
“You’re angry I stepped in to help.” For someone who barely knew her, he had an uncanny knack for reading her thoughts.
“You took over. You always do. And I don’t want or need you to.”
Something that looked a lot like despair flashed across his face, and then the shutters came down and his expression hardened. “I don’t always take over. For you, I’ve often held back.”
Lucky her. “Did you know Carmel had ordered new fencing?”
“She mentioned it on occasion but in all honesty I never took much notice. I thought her fence talk was a delusion, the product of a tired mind. You weren’t here once the dementia set in, Maggie. You didn’t see the end.” He grimaced and ran his hand through his hair and her fingers itched again. “I don’t like the thought of anyone taking advantage of her on my watch.”
“It wasn’t your watch.” Not even his overdeveloped sense of responsibility could make it so. “It was my watch, and I know full well I didn’t do enough.” She’d tried to get Carmel to leave Wirra Station, but Carmel hadn’t budged.
“You could have come home.”
Max was watching her closely, and Maggie drew herself up to her full height and tried to make like a willow. Someone who would bend but not break. “I had a home. One I’d made for myself.” She’d also had a lover who’d been everything she’d ever wanted—right up until she hadn’t been able to give him everything he wanted. “I had a life and it wasn’t here.” She couldn’t hold Max’s bright blue gaze any longer. “I know, all right? I should have come back years ago to care for the woman who’d been forced to take care of me. That’s how debts are paid. But I didn’t, and that’s a matter for me and my conscience and approximately no-one else.”
Silence met her speech and she risked a quick glance in his direction. He’d broadened his stance, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Not for him the shiny boots and spotless country wear of the stock and station agent. He was dressed for work and dirty with it. Mud on his boots and a slash of something greasy along his forearm.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “I’m already feeling guilty about being the too-little-too-late girl.” She was also feeling ever so slightly overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for Wirra Station, not to mention unexpectedly weepy over the loss of a woman she’d never seen eye to eye with. “Doesn’t mean people can cheat a dying old lady and no-one’s going to care. Doesn’t mean I don’t want what’s best for Wirra Station.”
He studied her as if she were a bug beneath a microscope. He always had been able to make her feel far smaller than she already was.
“Care to discuss that admirable sentiment over lunch? I might have a proposal or two to put to you.”
“You want to sell Wirra Station some non-existent fencing too?”
She’d gone too far. She didn’t need his stony glare to tell her that.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “No excuses, just … sorry.” Again.
“Why do you always get so defensive around me?” How such a sexy rumble of a voice could sound so tightly controlled and full of authority she didn’t know. “I’d like to take you to lunch and discuss Wirra Station with you. I’d like to help you with your fencing questions because if James has been paid for services not rendered I’m going to feel somewhat responsible for not picking up on that. Lunch—yes or no? My thoughts on fencing options—yes or no?”
“I—yes.” There was an argument on her tongue but she swallowed it down. You and Max fight over the colour of the sky. Carmel’s words coming back to haunt her. But then there was the snake that hadn’t bitten her because of him, and the dogs that hadn’t savaged her because of him, and that time she’d been drenching sheep in the sun all day and running a scorching temperature by the end of it, and he’d dumped her in a water trough and kept her there and cursed a blue streak at his stupidity and hers. There was care in there somewhere, rough and ready, but it was there. She was alive because of him.
Like it or not, Maxwell O’Connor’s assistance was worth something.
“Yes to both,” she offered with all the politeness she’d ever been taught. “Thank you.”
He eyed her warily. “That was almost too easy.”
“Yeah, well. I’m feeling nostalgic. I’m sure it’ll pass.”
There was that smile again, just a hint of it, and she looked away quickly before it did things to her libido. Like remind her she had one.
Kyle returned and his glance encompassed them both. “The old man—James Senior—he’s still at the sale yards. Says he’ll be back by two but it’s going to take longer than that to pull our financials and get hold of James Junior. If you could give us the rest of today, we’ll give you a call first thing tomorrow. The old man wants you to know that if there’s a problem at our end we’ll fix it.”
Max said nothing. Maggie slipped her sunnies on and picked up her hat. “Fix it how?”
“Lady … Ms. Walker—” Kyle the no-longer-cocky paused and shook his head. “—The old man’s the best one to talk to from here on in. If James has pulled a fast one—and I’m not saying he has—then he’s a moron. He’ll be finished in this town and within the family. I don’t know what kind of fix we’ll be offering, but Henderson’s will see you right. The Henderson family will see you right.”
She glanced towards Max and he gave the slightest nod. She hadn’t been looking to take her cue from him. Or maybe she had and she just didn’t want to admit it. “Thanks, Kyle.” She thought back to his earlier phone call for something pleasant to say. “Good luck with feeding those racehorses.”
And Kyle arced up again. “Is that a threat?”
Now she was coming across as intimidating? How could he possibly have interpreted her parting words in that fashion? “Actually, I was aiming for vaguely friendly, but …” She gave an awkward wave of her hand. “I get the impression I missed that particular mark altogether. It happens.”
Was that a snort from Max? She thought it was and told herself she didn’t care if he was laughing at her abysmal people skills. Not everyone could be country friendly and utterly at ease with themselves and the world in general.
Head high and chin up, Maggie started for the door and somehow Max was there to open it for her, his manners ingrained in the same way his saviour complex was built into the fabric of his bones. He was who he was and so be it. Confidence was sexy. Old-fashioned manners were sexy too.
“Thank you,” she muttered, and there was an echo of another older thank you woven in there somewhere. A thank you she could barely bring herself to remember, such was her shame at how unwillingly she’d once offered it.
End of Excerpt