Joanna Ford had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen! Author’s note—For Female Readers Only! Title Page PROLOGUE CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN EPILOGUE Copyright
Joanna Ford had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen!
That was Brett’s first thought as he was introduced to her.
“Hi, Joanna, it’s nice to meet you.”
The hand she extended to him was tentative, but the touch of her palm in his packed a real wallop. “I...hope my being here isn’t going to be an inconvenience.”
“Absolutely not,” Brett replied. If he’d been caught off guard by the contrast between her angelic features and sinful curves, it was nothing compared to the impact her sudden smile had on him.
He was honest enough to admit to himself that, had Joanna been a few years older, his vow to avoid women would have been postponed....
Author’s note—For Female Readers Only!
When my editor first asked me if I’d like to write a book entirely from the hero’s viewpoint, I jumped at the chance. First, because of the challenge it presented. We all know guys don’t think like us—although, let’s be honest, the world would be a smarter place if they did!
The second reason was...revenge. Now, as a married woman, the mother of two sons and a romance author, I’m anything but anti-men. In fact, despite all the undue stress they cause us women with their quirky little habits, they are by and large an endearing species.
My great fear, however, has always been that we don’t really cause them nearly as many problems as they cause us. They constantly ridicule us for our women’s intuition; but really, what can we do when they are so reticent about revealing their true thoughts or feelings to us?
They can, on rare occasions, be perceptive themselves—as was proven when my husband’s best mate, Mark, informed me that my husband-to-be was crazy about me...long before he came to that realization himself!
I confess I had a lot of fun “thinking” like a man for this story, and I hope you’ll get a few smiles reading it, too....
Oh, and incidentally, this book is dedicated to my fourteen-year-old son, Jordan, whose quick thinking and instincts for protecting the female sex saved not only two chapters of this book but also his little sister’s life when she inadvertently switched off the computer! Ah, men...you gotta love ’em!
Man about the House
THE customs officer who’d welcomed the previous passenger into the country with minimum fuss, despite grubby jeans, a bare chest and tatty leather waistcoat, was becoming more and more pedantic in his inspections of Brett’s Louis Vuitton luggage.
‘Fair go, mate,’ be said irritably. ‘Do I look like a sleazebag drug courier?’
‘I couldn’t say, sir,’ the man informed him, his face expressionless as he flicked his eyes over Brett’s crumpled designer sports coat. ‘But the sniffer dogs didn’t seem to think so.’
Despite himself, Brett grinned at the subtle, ironic humour of the man’s response. He’d missed the Australian trait of blending dry, cheeky wit with a perfectly straight face during the four years he’d been in the ‘let’s-do-lunch’ capital of the world. The small, unexpected dose of it now reminded him he’d re-entered the pretention-free zone of home.
After the hectic pace of his LA existence as producer of a cable TV lifestyle show, in a business climate that worshipped over-achievers and workaholics, Brett was more than ready to embrace the more laid-back attitude of his home country. For all that the television and film industries in Australia operated on only a fraction of the budgets available to their North American counterparts, the commitment of those involved seemed more, not less, professional. There was no way the star of an Aussie television series would arrogantly not turn up for work until his salary was doubled, because there was no way network executives would cop for that kind of prima donna behaviour.
Okay, so coming home meant he was going to be earning less, but conversely he’d be less stressed and in a better position to re-evaluate the current state of his life and what was important to him. Thirty-four seemed like a good age to do this, especially since he’d wasted the last three years of his personal life on a live-in relationship with a former-model-wannabe-TV-presenter who’d cared more about what he could do for her career than she had for him.
He groaned mentally when the image of Toni Tanner popped into his head, vowing that in the wake of the pouty, manipulative, china-smashing shrew he’d stupidly imagined himself in love with the only women he wanted in his immediate future were his twin sister, Meaghan, her daughter, Karessa, and his mother.
When the customs clerk finally cleared his luggage, it was with an easy smile and an uncomplicated, ‘Welcome home, mate.’
Maybe it was the accent, but somehow those words sounded a hell of a lot more sincere than all those routine have a nice day’s he’d been on the receiving end of for the last four years. More than once he’d been tempted to snap back with, Don’t tell me what kind of day to have! if only for the sake of seeing if that would generate an honest, impulsive response. Though to be fair, he reasoned, steering his luggage trolley towards the exit, that particular habit hadn’t started grating on him until Toni had, and—
‘Brett! Hoy, Brett! Over here!’
Turning his head, he immediately spotted the grinning, arm-waving antics of his sister and his fourteen-year-old niece.
THEY crossed the car park with Karessa chattering nineteen to the dozen, as if it was imperative Brett be brought up to speed with everything that had happened in her life since his visit six months ago at Christmas. One of his fears when he’d made the decision to move overseas was that the easy relationship he’d shared with his niece would become stilted by distance or just the inevitable changes of her moving from childhood to young adulthood. It was a relief to know it hadn’t happened, that Karessa could still be as open and spontaneous with him as she’d been at two, eight and ten.
From the day she was born, in the absence of a father or grandfather, Brett had taken it upon himself to provide her with a male role model. Though he hadn’t entirely ruled out having his own kids, given his habit of falling for women with zero interest in becoming mothers he suspected his niece was going to be as close as he got to fatherhood. But hearing her gush about various boys and bands made it even more obvious his ‘little’ niece was rapidly growing up.
In contrast to her mother, who, like him, was a green-eyed blonde, his niece had inherited her late grandfather’s russet hair and whisky eyes, but like all the McAlpines she was going to be tall—perhaps taller than her mother. At five foot ten, Meaghan was only six inches shorter than Brett, but already Karessa stood eye to eye with her. Or at least she would if she ever actually stood still instead of leaping about like a hyped-up thoroughbred filly.
‘And you know what’s really cool, Brett? Meggsie said I can work at the agency during the next school break!’
Brett frowned at his sister. ‘You’re going to start her modelling?’
‘No, I am not.’ The reply was accompanied by a determined look at Karessa. ‘What I’m hoping to do is discourage such stupidity. So feel free to back me up on this, little brother.’
Brett laughed at the abject plea for him to do just the opposite his niece shot at him. ‘Think you guys can at least give me a few days before expecting me to act as Solomon?’
‘Take as long as you like,’ Karessa said, grinning. ‘I’m not going to change my mind, no matter what you say, anyway.’
‘Now there’s a shock,’ he said dryly. ‘No need for a DNA test to prove you’re Meaghan’s daughter.’
Just then the two women came to a halt beside a sparkling red, latest model BMW. There was one thing he hadn’t missed while he was away: his sister’s thrill-seeker driving style!
‘Of course, Karessa,’ he said, looking at the very crumpled rear passenger side fender, ‘we can always hope you inherited my driving skills. Hell, anyone’s save Demolition Donna’s, here.’
‘I know,’ his niece said solemnly. ‘That’s my nightly prayer.’
‘Oh, shut up, both of you!’ Meaghan’s rebuke was weakened by the hint of a reluctant smile. ‘It wasn’t my fault. I was pulling out of the mall parking lot into traffic and this young idiot slammed into the side of me.’
‘Late twenties. Body to die for. Major hunk,’ Karessa tossed over her shoulder as she slid into the back seat.
‘He was a reckless idiot!’ her mother insisted.
‘Meaghan, if you were pulling into traffic, then you were in the wrong,’ Brett said mildly, wondering what his chances were of talking his sister into letting him drive. ‘Unlock the trunk, will you? So I can load my luggage.’
‘You’re back in Australia now; it’s a boot, not a trunk. And how come if I was in the wrong I wasn’t charged, huh?’
‘You offered to fix them up with a couple of models?’ he teased.
Karessa’s grinning face poked through the window. ‘He didn’t want to call the cops.’
‘Because he knew he was in the wrong!’ Meaghan retorted. ‘Besides, he was driving a four by four with bull bars. There was no damage to his car, so Mum and Joanna talked him into just taking my insurance details.’
Brett closed the boot. ‘Joanna?’
‘Joanna Ford. She works for the agency.’
Well that explained things, he concluded, too easily able to visualise a scene where his sister was loudly and vehemently denying all responsibility while one of the agency’s models was batting her baby blues and flaunting her figure in a bid to further confuse the other driver. The poor guy wouldn’t have stood a chance.
The sight of his sister moving to the driver’s door quickly rerouted his concerns from her last unfortunate victim to trying to avoid meeting another today. ‘I’ll drive if you like.’
Meaghan looked utterly perplexed by his offer. ‘You’ve spent the last four years in a country where they drive on the wrong side of the road... Why on earth would I want you to drive?’
‘Oh, very droll. For your information this is only my second prang in fourteen months. And neither were my fault so just quit the wisecracks and get in the car.’
She shook her head as she slid behind the wheel. ‘To think I’ve been looking forward to having you back, even knowing you’d be looking over my shoulder every day.’
Brett strapped himself into the passenger seat as the engine was gunned to life with more gusto than was necessary or intended by the vehicle’s engineers. ‘I’m not going to be looking over your shoulder, Meaghan.’
‘Oh, sure, that’s what you say now... But I know you, Brett McAlpine. The only reason you’ve stayed a silent partner in the agency these last four years is because you’ve been on another continent. Once you get back in the office you aren’t going to be able to help yourself.’
‘I’m not going to be back in the office.’
‘What?’ Meaghan turned fully to look at him, bringing the steering wheel with her.
‘Watch out!’ he shouted, grabbing for the dashboard.
His sister, typically, remained unperturbed at narrowly missing a signpost. ‘What do you mean, you won’t be coming into the office? You own half the business.’
‘Well, for a start you don’t need me.’ It was the truth. Meaghan’s driving might suck, but she’d proved herself to have a good head for business. ‘In the time I’ve been away you’ve managed it brilliantly,’ he said honestly.
‘Aw, but I’ve been looking forward to working with you, Brett,’ Karessa whined, pushing her head between the front seats to peer woefully at him. ‘I thought you’d let me be your assistant or something. If you’re not going to be there I’ll probably get stuck doing Meggsie’s dumb filing. Or something equally borr-ring.’
‘You won’t have time for “dumb filing”, daughter dear,’ Meaghan said, looking into the rearview minor. ‘You’re going to be too busy sharpening my pencils.’ Her eyes flicked to Brett. ‘Now, would you care to tell me what brought this on? When you said you were coming home to stay, I assumed we’d be running the business together. That was the plan when you left.’
From Brett’s side of things it hadn’t been so much a plan as an expedient excuse. When he’d suggested he go fifty-fifty in the modelling agency five years ago, it had only been because he knew how desperately Meaghan wanted to buy the business and the precise limits of her finances. Had he merely offered to lend her the money his sister, being the most stubbornly proud person on God’s earth, would have refused his help point-blank, so he’d gone with the line that he was looking for something he could ‘come back to’ when he got bored with television production. He’d had no real desire to run a modelling agency back then, and even less now. The last thing he needed was facing a lot of Toni clones on a daily basis, who’d have no hesitation about fawning over ‘the boss’ if they thought it would help them get ahead.
‘Yeah, well, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve had some promising offers from the networks here, and there’s another venture I’m mulling over. By the way, has Mum given you any idea when she’ll be back?’
Meaghan shook her head. ‘You know Mum. But she did say that knowing you’d be here to keep an eye on business for her she’d feel less pressured to hurry back.’ She grinned. ‘Nice to know she’s started transferring the heat to someone else at last.’
The comment confirmed Brett’s suspicions that the only reason their semi-retired mother had requested he ‘keep an eye on business’ while she was overseas was because she still hadn’t given up the idea of having one of her children take over the running of her interior design business. Kathleen McAlpine’s driving ambition in life had been to establish a “true” family business which she could pass on to her children and grandchildren in due course. However, while her only two children had inherited their mother’s tenacity and eye for colour, they lacked her passion for building an interior design dynasty.
Meaghan had started out following their father’s career path of fashion design, before falling into modelling for a short while and ultimately joint ownership of the agency with him. Brett, meanwhile, had completed an Arts and Communications degree, lucked into a job as a set designer, then used his good fortune to get a job as a researcher on a current affairs programme. From there, he’d gradually worked his way up to production assistant. His switch from working, quite literally, behind the scenes of current affairs to travel and lifestyle shows had been more a case of accident than planning, but one which allowed him to exercise his communication skills in tandem with his creativity.
He wasn’t absolutely certain how long television production would continue to hold his interest, but he did know that when he was ready for a career change it wouldn’t be in the direction of interior decorating. It wasn’t that he doubted he’d be successful at it—he’d inherited both his fashion designer father’s eye for clothing and his mother’s flair for co-ordinating furnishings—he just couldn’t see any challenge or excitement in telling someone what colour to paint their walls or where to hang their Dali print. On the other hand, he’d recently come to the decision that opening a chain of stores selling quality furnishings to the upper and middle income earners had the potential to be a very lucrative investment. It might also be a way of appeasing his mother’s disappointment when he told her once and for all he wasn’t interested in taking over her busi—
He and Karessa swore in unison as Meaghan jumped on the brakes with whiplash-inducing force. Their driver, however, was blithely unconcerned that she’d almost ran up the backside of the car in front of them—the driver of which had mistakenly assumed Meaghan took note of surrounding traffic and that using his indicator was sufficient notice that he was changing lanes.
‘By the way, Brett,’ she said calmly, ‘you’re going to need a car. I’ve got a friend who owns a BMW dealership who’ll do you a good deal if you’re interested.’
Considering the number of cars Meaghan had gone through in the last seventeen years, he would have expected her to be on a first-name basis with every car salesman and panelbeater in Sydney. ‘Thanks, but I’m not in any rush. I’ll use Mum’s until I decide what I’m going to—’
‘No, you can’t.’
‘Let me guess,’ he groaned. ‘You’ve been exercising it while she’s been away and as a result it’s gone to the big car dump in the sky.’
‘For your information, smarty, it’s in A1 condition in her garage! It’s just that once Joanna gets her licence, she’ll need it to get to work.’
He blinked. ‘Who?’
‘Oh, right. The one who helped you out at your last accident scene. Why’s she driving Mum’s car?’
‘Because she doesn’t have one and Mum said she could. How else is she going to get to work in the city every day?’
‘Well, last time I was here there were these things called buses.’
‘Get real, Brett!’ Karessa piped from the back seat. ‘You know what an uphill hike it is from Nan’s place to the nearest bus stop.’
‘Nan’s place!’ He straightened in the seat. ‘This Joanna’s living at Mum’s?’
Meaghan nodded. ‘Has been for about two months now.’
Oh, great! Here he’d been, imagining himself mentally and emotionally regrouping in blissful solitude, only to find out his absent mother had a model in residence. A damn model of all things!
‘Would you mind telling me why Mum would find it necessary to bring in a boarder?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Brett! Joanna’s not paying to live there. Mum only managed to talk her into taking up the offer by telling her she needed a house-sitter while she was away. Of course, back then no one knew you’d suddenly decide to come home and need somewhere to stay.’
‘Gee, the warm welcome got cold fast Not long ago you claimed you were looking forward to having me home.’
‘I was—I am.’ She shrugged off the lack of conviction in her voice. ‘It’s just it would’ve been better for everyone if you’d had your own place to go to.’
‘Well, I’m not going to disagree there, kiddo,’ he said dryly. ‘But I could hardly tell Glen I wanted him and Tracy to move out of my place when she’s practically one contraction away from giving birth to their fifteenth kid in three years.’
When he’d first decided to head overseas, renting his house to his newly married cousin for the two years he’d originally intended being away had seemed like a smart thing to do. Then, when he’d deluded himself into believing his future was with Toni, he’d extended the arrangement he’d made with Glen for a further three years. His cousin had since begun reproducing at such a rapid rate Brett suspected the guy had to be ignorant as to what was causing it, but when a guy had three kids under three and a fourth due any minute you didn’t chuck him out in the street.
So, now he was stuck having to share his mother’s house until he could make alternative arrangements. Wonderful. ‘Exactly how long is this Joanna person going to be staying?’
‘As long as she wants to.’ His sister’s look was sharp.
‘You’ll really like her,’ Karessa assured him. ‘Won’t he, Mum?’
‘Just as long as he doesn’t like her too much.’ There was stiff warning in the statement, but before Brett could say he had no intention of getting tangled up with any woman in the immediate future, his sister launched into lecture mode.
‘I mean it, Brett,’ she said. ‘This kid has had a really tough time. When she first came into the agency she had a self-confidence reading of minus one hundred. She’s starting to come out of herself a bit now, but she’s still emotionally fragile. So if you so much as even think about doing a seduction number on her, I’ll personally tear you limb from limb.’
‘Trust me, Meaghan, the girl’s safe from my unscrupulous claws,’ he said facetiously. ‘The last thing I need after Toni is another model.’
‘She’s not a model. Too short. But she’s as far removed from that witch Toni as any other human being with a heart.’
Irritated at having his plans disrupted, Brett grunted, wondering how long it would take him to find a decent place to rent. However, his sister and niece were still going on about Joanna and how sweet she was.
‘She’s a country girl who came into the agency to enrol in a deportment course right when I was looking to replace our receptionist...’ Meaghan was saying, obviously under the misapprehension that he was interested. ‘She had no job, next to no money and was staying in a bedsit in inner Sydney—’
‘Oh, well, it’s easy to see where common sense would advise lashing out on an expensive grooming course in those circumstances,’ he said.
‘As it happens, Mr Know-It-All, in Joanna’s case it was the most practical thing she could do! She’s an intelligent, ambitious girl, but she had absolutely no—and I mean zilch—sophistication. Apparently her parents were well into their forties when she was born, and from what I can gather more Amish than the Amish.’