Barbara Hannay.

Outback Wife and Mother






Alexandra? What are you doing here? About the Author Title Page Dedication PROLOGUE CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN EPILOGUE Copyright

Alexandra? What are you doing here?

Clearly Fletcher regarded her as an intruder. How could this happen? He had come to the city and made exquisite love to her and changed her life forever. Youre surprised to see me, Ally whispered.

Surprise is one word I could choose, I guess, Fletcher drawled, his deep voice rumbling with sarcasm. His eyes traveledvery deliberatelyover her slim frame. What are you doing here? he repeated, his voice less harsh this time, as if he had run out of breath suddenly.

I have brought your little godson, Connor. Youre his guardian now....

I know damn well Im his guardian, but what have you got to do with it?

Well, the point is, resumed Ally, Im his nanny.

The color in Fletchers face deepened while, with the worst sense of timing, a kookaburra broke into raucous laughter in a gum tree overhanging the track. Ally! You cant be!

Barbara Hannay was born in Sydney, educated in Brisbane and has spent most of her adult life living in tropical North Queensland, where she and her husband have raised four children. While she has enjoyed many happy times camping and canoeing in the Australian bush, she also delights in an urban life-style-chamber music, contemporary dance, movies and dining out. An English teacher, she has always loved writing and now, by having her stories published, she is living her most cherished fantasy.

Outback Wife and Mother is Barbaras outstanding debut title for Harlequin Romance-we just know youll love her heartwarming style, so look out for more from her in the future!

Outback Wife and Mother
Barbara Hannay


www.millsandboon.co.uk

For John Dow,

who was my father and my first hero

PROLOGUE

MUMMY was crying again.

Lying in his bed, the boy could hear her muffled sobs and his fathers pleading voice in the next room.

But, Vivienne, you mustnt go. You cant leave us.

He could see the friendly silhouette of his teddy bear on the pillow beside him, but not even his favourite toy could help him feel safe or happy. Not when he could hear the desperate sadness in his mothers voice.

I feel soso stifled here in the outback, she sobbed. I think Ill go mad.

Eventually, he pulled the pillow over his head to shut out the frightening voices...

Then with the first creamy fingers of dawn, his mother crept into the room, smelling as fresh as flowers. She sat on the edge of his bed and he buried his head in her lap.

Mon petit, she whispered, stroking his hair. I will miss you so much.

Something started to thump loudly in his chest. You dont have to miss me, Mummy, he cried. Im going to stay on Wallaroo with you and Daddy for always.

With a choked moan, she hugged him close, cradling him with her soft, warm arms. Oh, cheri, she whispered and, looking up, he saw her beautiful eyes fill with bright tears. Always remember, I love you very, very much. But you belong here.

There was a crunch of tyres on gravel in the yard outside, and then heavy footsteps on the wooden floorboards of the veranda. Ned, the stockman, stood in the doorway. He cleared his throat as he fiddled with his wide-brimmed hat.

Yes, Ned. Im coming, she said softly.

The boy felt her warm lips on his cheek and she held him so tightly he couldnt breathe. Then she stood up and drifted away from him, out of the room, as soft and pretty as the morning mist on the river.

His feet hit the cold floor as he hurried after her.

Outside, the bush was already waking. A huge flock of pink and grey galahs rose from the gum trees along the creek, filling the reddening sky with their raucous chorus. Ned opened the door to the truck and she slipped inside. The little boy could just make out her pale face through the window glass.

He ran faster, but as he reached the top of the steps, two strong arms caught him and lifted him up and he felt his fathers bristly morning cheek pressed against his. Weve got to let her go, Fletcher, he said, his voice sounding gruff and strange. She doesnt belong in the bush. She needs the city lights.

What was Daddy talking about? Of course Mummy belonged here. The trucks engine spluttered to life and the station dogs barked and yapped at its tyres.

Its just you and me now, little mate. At least she let me have you...

The truck rolled forward.

Thoroughly bewildered now, the boy struggled in his fathers arms and cried out to her, Mummy, dont go!

But the truck gathered speed. And she looked back at him one last time, raised a graceful hand to her lips and blew him a kiss.

CHAPTER ONE

FLETCHER HARDY ran an irritated finger around the inside of his uncomfortably stiff collar and glared at the marbled floors and mirrored walls of the enormous ballroom. He had rushed straight to the hotel from a press conference about the drought in North Queensland and he had to postpone a dinner meeting with the Minister for Primary Industriessimply to watch half starved girls sashaying around in outrageous costumes!

He prided himself on never doing anything against his will, but in a rare moment of weakness he had allowed his cousin, Lucette, to talk him into coming to a fashion show.

Grimacing as his shoulders met the unfamiliar constraints of his tux, he strode impatiently towards the rows of seats arranged around the catwalk. He ignored the swing of expensively coiffed female heads trailing after him like sunflowers following the sun.

And he scowled as he found his seat and lowered his long body into it.

Fashion! Ridiculous female obsession, hed always claimed, happily overlooking the minor detail that he had, on odd occasions in the past, been known to admire an elegantly designed garment gracing a beautiful woman.

As soon as Lucette had heard Fletcher was travelling south to Melbourne, shed begged him to come and watch the show so he could admire the set she designed especially for this exhibition. Hed found his kid cousins enormous pride in her first real assignment quite touching and so, to humour her, he had come. But where was she now? The live band was blasting out its opening number and the lights were going down and still no Lucette! Shed left him to brave this torment on his own!

Typical. With any luck there would be an interval and he could leave.

Wrapped in these angry thoughts, he refused to join in the applause as the grinning compere, dressed in a gold tuxedo, approached the microphone, welcomed the audience and delivered a totally incomprehensible joke about fashion. The audience roared. Fletcher growled.

This evening, the Quintessential Collection brings us a preview of the new season highlights from five of Australias top young designers. We begin with the delightful Alexandra Fraser. Im sure most of the menfolk here would agree with me, that Ally is herself rather beautifully designed... Here the compere paused for a brief titter from the audience, while Fletcher almost groaned aloud. Today we see fine examples of her ultraurban, minimalist designs in pale cashmeres and silks, the compere continued with a wide, plastic smile. And you should note the clever addition of silk cummerbunds to her slinky pants and long evening skirts.

Fletcher raked a hand distractedly through his thick, dark hair as, for the sake of his sanity, he turned his attention to Lucettes set. OK, it was good. Against an ethereal backdrop resembling the sky at dawnall pinks and goldsthere were delicate, gilded arches encrusted with winking bud lights and a runway edged with more tiny lights and misty clumps of tulle. It all seemed appropriate, he decided, suggesting a show, which would present the quintessence of earthly beauty. And as far as he could see the decor provided a suitable accompaniment for the palely elegant fashions, which soon emerged.

But as for the deportment and grace of the models slinking and strutting along the runwayhe barely noticed them. His eyes were squinted with his efforts to read his watch in the darkened room. But his attempts were futile so instead he began scanning the audience, searching for Lucette. After several fruitless minutes, he tried the watch again. No use. When could he safely slip away?

Restlessly, he squirmed in his seat. His elbow bumped the thin woman sitting beside him and she glowered at him from beneath her wide-brimmed hat.

About to scowl back at her, his attention was suddenly captured by a woman emerging down the runway. Dressed in the simplest of short gowns in deep purple, the colour of crushed violets, she stood out in stark contrast to the whites, creams and beiges worn by the models surrounding her.

Ladies and gentleman, our very own Alexandra Fraser.

So this was the designer of the first collection. She was bowing as the crowd applauded her. Cries of Bravo could even be heard, so obviously she was being well received.

She smiled out into the audience and at that precise moment, the simple, two syllable word woman took on an entirely new level of meaning for Fletcher Hardy.

This woman was like no other hed ever seen before. An unnerving tension seized his body. His hands gripped the upholstered arms of his seat and incredibly, this hardened man of the lands throat tightened over a huge lump of unexpected emotion as his gaze remained transfixed by the figure on the catwalk.

She was surrounded by tall, willowy models, but his eyes were drawn from their almost asexual leanness to ber startling femininity. Her gleaming dark hair and pale skin were a perfect foil for the rich colour of her oneshoulder dress and the delectable curves it barely concealed. Her slender legs and the graceful movement of her dainty hands as she acknowledged the models were utterly fascinating. Spellbound, he watched this dark-haired, enchanting designer.

She was the most exquisite female he had ever seen.

Her features were delicate yet determined and her thickly lashed grey eyes sparkled with intelligence and spunk. Surrounded as she was by models looking as vacant as dolls in a shop window, this woman looked vibrant, incredibly alive, undeniably sexy.

And then she was gone, tossing a final smile over her one bared shoulder before disappearing with the models back through Lucettes golden arches.

Another group of models bounced onto the runway accompanied by wild heavy metal music. Fletcher had a vague impression of a kaleidoscopic mix of lace and satin teamed with psychedelic stockings and electric blue lips, but his mind was still totally absorbed by Alexandra Fraser. If only he had bothered to pick up a catalogue on his way in, he might have discovered more about her.

Restlessly he sat through the gyrations and outlandish creations of the second collection but as soon as its designer, a young man whose bald head was wildly tattooed, appeared to receive his applause, Fletcher rose from his seat and made his way quickly to the back of the ballroom.

He found a stack of catalogues on a small side table and hurriedly snatched one up, leafing through it impatiently. Reading by the light of a dimmed wall lamp, he found little to satisfy him. There was a brief description of Alexandra Frasers collection and a list of several awards she had won and then a quoted comment.

Alexandra says of fashion design, I keep to simple tines, neat silhouettes, no frills or fluffiness, but this doesnt mean my clothes cannot be soft or reveal the body. For me design is a passionate experience. It fu161s me totallymind, body and soul.

To his annoyance Fletcher Hardy did not find the scraps of information at all comforting and he skulked around the back of the ballroom as the show continued, feeling startled and miserable. How could fashion fulfil such a beautiful woman?

And he knew then that, after the show, his next move would be to dismiss the waiting limousine, courtesy of the Cattlemens Union.

And then he would be heading backstage.

Ally Fraser made her excited way through the backstage confusion. Around her, models were changing, some removing wigs or false eyelashes, while assistants gathered up costumes and shoes. As she passed, nearly everyone looked up to smile or to openly congratulate her. She was trying not to grin too widely, but her collection had clearly drawn the most enthusiastic audience response of the entire Quintessential show and she was over the moon. More importantly, shed noticed at least two fashion journalists nodding and smiling at her when shed taken her bow.

She stopped to check that several of her garments were being stored away properly and thought fleetingly of how wonderful it would be to be able to head straight for home and an early night. But although she was dead tired after the hectic pace of the past few weeks, she steeled herself to go outside to join in the cocktails and to be particularly pleasant to the fashion editors.

Quickly she glanced around the crowded room, making sure everything was under control before she left.

However there was a rather uncontrolled and excited babble erupting from the models in the far corner as a strange man walked into their midst. Ally stared, intrigued. These girls were so used to having all kinds of people wander in and out of their changing areas that they usually took no notice. But they were paying a great deal of attention to this good-looking stranger.

To her surprise, Ally saw that he was ignoring the girls varied stages of undress as he advanced purposefully across the room. Most newcomers, especially males, couldnt keep their eyes from straying frantically. To her even greater surprise, she realised that the tall, dark intruder appeared to be heading straight for her. In his sleek, black tux, marching head and shoulders above the models, he advanced, staring at her so intently she felt her pulses begin to race.

Im looking for Lucette Hardy, he said, as soon as he reached her.

His voice was deep and resonant and his claim sounded quite plausible and yet Ally found that she couldnt believe him. She had never considered herself to have telepathic insight, but this mans eyes were so fiercely fixed on hers that she knew straight away that he was seeking her out. And the knowledge held her, standing before him, mesmerised by his height, his strong, handsome face and his piercing blue eyes which looked exactly as if they had been made from summer skies.

As those eyes continued to explore every detail of her face, she struggled to speak. Poor Lucettes come down with flu, she said. Shes devastated to miss the show.

So thats what happened. He looked away briefly and then his eyes found hers once again. You are he began and then cleared his throat as he corrected himself. Your designs are absolutely exquisite. With a sweeping gesture, he indicated the racks of her clothes. The simple lines ... He paused, apparently lost for words.

And neat silhouettes? she supplied, her lips curled in sudden amusement.

He grinned then, a cheeky grin that totally transformed his face. OK, I read your comments in the catalogue. But honestly, I like the dress youre wearing best of all.

Thank you, she replied. It was certainly not the first ime she had received a compliment, but most of the praise that came her way was delivered with such a pracised smoothness that it smacked of insincerity and slipped over her like an old, warm blanket that she took for granted. This evening her heart pounded erratically in espouse to his clumsy admission and she stared back at he sun-tanned, ruggedly handsome face knowing that she had never met a man like him. In contrast to her world of image-makers and haute couture, his masculin ,ty seemed to be stripped of all pretension.

He frowned and she was surprised at the way his gaze iropped to his work-toughened hands as if he were sudienly shy. With a totally unexpected jolt of disappointment, she thought, soon hell say it was a pleasure to meet me and then he ll be gone.

In the awkward silence, she looked back at him, taking in his broad shoulders, thick, black hair, rugged features and vivid blue eyes and wondered how someone who embodied the fantasies of half the women on the planet could make such a hash of what was clearly meant to be i simple pick-up.

We havent really met you know, she heard herself saying a little too eagerly. You havent even told me your name.

He grinned again and visibly relaxed, his strong fea ures turning so sunny that for a moment Ally thought the technical crew were playing tricks with the lighting.

Im Fletcher Hardy, Lucettes cousin. In Melbourne on business. I actually came to admire Lucettes work. She half expected him to trot out something trite about ending up admiring the designer instead, but to her relief he didnt. Instead he asked, When do you finish here?

Im afraid Ive got to do my duty out there first. She grimaced, pointing to the ballroom. Meet the press, that sort of thing.

He pulled a face. You have my sympathy. Ive had a day of that sort of thing myself.

Really? She looked at Fletcher Hardy contemplatively. Now let me guess. You do something in the outdoors. A ski instructor? No, the press wouldnt bother you about that. Perhaps a mountaineer? Are you about to conquer something generally considered unconquerable?

Fletcher laughed, throwing back his head and drawing sharp glances from others in the room, then he looked her over slowly and said softly and with wicked audacity, Id say I might be in with a chance.

The ripple of excitement that raced up her spine shocked Ally. This cousin of Lucettes was losing his shyness with breathtaking speed.

I never was much good at guessing games, she said quickly to cover her sudden self-consciousness. But she didnt mind his cheek. Shed never before felt such an immediate connection with another person, especially a man. No one else, on first meeting, had accelerated her heartbeat to such a heady, scampering pace. Youll have to remain a mystery for now, she added. I really must go to this party. Why dont you join us?

Sure. Lead the way.

Ally was aware of many eyes watching as Fletcher followed her into the cocktail party. As they helped themselves to champagne cocktails, Derek Squires, the baldheaded, much-tattooed designer rushed over to them.

Darlings, he crooned.

Hello, Derek. Id like you to meet Fletcher Hardy.

And hello-o, darling, smiled Derek, eyeing Fletcher with open interest Fletcher nodded politely.

Hows it all going? Ally asked.

Just keep me away from that dreadful woman, shuddered Derek.

Whos that?

Phoebe Hardcastle. She had the cheek to criticise my lovely blue lipstick. Said my girls looked half drowned. He trembled in horror. She has the creative imagination of a fruit fly.

She certainly can be very cutting, agreed Ally, flashing a quick glance at Fletcher to see how he was reacting to the conversation. His eyes were wide with interest.

She has no understanding of fashion flair. Stupid cow.

Now lets not get too critical of cows, cut in Fletcher. Theyre my stock-in-trade. Both Derek and Ally looked at him curiously, waiting for more explanation. I raise cattle, he said with a shrug.

Oh, how awful for you, murmured Derek, backing off hurriedly.

Ally smiled, her grey eyes dancing as she looked up at Fletcher from under her thick, dark lashes. I knew you did something in the outdoors.

Ally Fraser, boomed a commanding voice from behind them. Spare me a minute or two if you please.

An alarming-looking woman with bright red hair, thick spectacles and a heavy jaw pushed her way next to Ally.

Oh, Phoebe. How are you this evening?

Tolerable, dear. But Ive deadlines to meet. Can you answer a couple of quick questions?

Ally shot Fletcher a swift, mildly apologetic glance and nodded. Fire away.

What I want, darling, the redhead began, shoving a small tape recorder under Allys nose, is for you to sum up in a nutshell...who youre trying to appeal to...who you expect to wear your clothes...who is going to connect with them.

But Ive told you all that many times, Ally protested.

New show, new comments, the journalist shot back, her eyes hard and unsympathetic.

Very well, replied Ally after only a moments hesitation. I think my clients are people who are looking for value...for something contemporary, but with classical elegance as well...

She felt a strong hand pat her heartily on the back and looked up to catch Fletcher winking at her.

There were more questions which Ally answered as best she could, but the whole time she was terribly con scious of the way Fletchers hand stayed there, resting on her bare shoulder. Her skin beneath the warm hand tingled deliciously in response.

And are you planning to launch a range of perfumes, like some of the other more successful designers? Phoebe was asking.





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