Chapter 9

The girl was going to get herself killed. A farm was a dangerous place and she was wandering around like a blithering idiot.

"I mean, it's really shocking the way Andrews took over the department," Caroline said. "Bold and brass, just stabbed Coopers in the back and took over."

"Yeah," Ryan said absently, taking a swig of the expensive wine and looking around. The dark views of Sydney surrounded them. The Harbour Bridge in the background. This city had been his home for years now, and now he was back.

"He's making all sorts of changes, upsetting literally everyone, and the brass pretend nothing's happening. They know full well what's going no. Andrews couldn't do this without their approval. That's what people don't understand. Where were you anyway?" Caroline said, cutting into her steak. "All rather covert. Just cancelling our trip like that."

"New Zealand." For some reason, he didn't feel all that comfortable telling her about what had happened, which was ridiculous. Taking another sip, he put his glass down beside his mostly untouched meal. "My brother and father passed away."

"Oh, darling, I'm so sorry." Reaching over the table, she took his hand, but it felt like an empty gesture. To be honest, them touching if it wasn't for sex felt odd. He'd only just realised that. Out of a notion of believing things should be better, he let her hand stay. "That must have been terrible for you. Why didn't you tell me?"

Looking down at his food, he shrugged.

"You keep things too close to your chest. That's your problem."

She didn't say she would have come, because perhaps she wouldn't have. This thing with Andrews made it a supremely bad time for her to be away from the office. Absent during a move like that and you got volunteered for the worse crap the department had going. She'd had to forego defending herself and he understood that. But it wasn't the reason he hadn't called her.

They just didn't have that kind of relationship where they leaned on each other. Not that he'd needed anyone to lean on. Maybe that was the reason he hadn't called—he just hadn't needed her. Caroline and comfort didn't exist in the same room. With Caroline, it was go hard or go home, and that's what he'd appreciated about her.

A chuckle escaped his throat. In a way, Brandi was the same, but she set out like a deluded fool, sure she could make a go of things without the skills or instincts necessary to succeed. There were plenty of those coming into finance, fresh out of university with their finance degrees, thinking they were going to make it big. It didn't work that way. The real instincts were something they couldn't teach in university.

"So what's happening with the estate?" she asked. "I think you told me once that your family had quite a bit of land."

"It's all gone to my brother's wife."

"All of it?" she said incredulously. "That's hardly fair. I didn't even know your brother had a wife."

"Neither did I, really. Married two months after knowing each other a few days on holiday."

Caroline stopped chewing. "And she swoops in and steals the lot? Gold-digging little bitch. She can't do that."

"She has."

"You have to contest the will. You can't let this girl come in and just take everything. It was never supposed to go to her, was it? Are you sure she didn't dispatch them after setting it up that everything went to her?"

Ryan smiled. Of that, he was sure. He might not know her, but she certainly wasn't the type to kill for money. "Quite sure."

"Two months. Fast work," Caroline said. "Certainly gives you grounds to contest the will. They might still give some of it to her, but you have the right to a majority share. It's your family's land. She's a stranger."

Caroline echoed his instincts when he'd first heard the will read out.

"You better get onto it before she sells the land."

"She's not selling; she intends to farm it."

"That's what she says to your face. Now that you're gone, I bet you'll find the 'for sale' sign up. Mark my words."

That wasn't the feeling that Ryan had got. She'd seemed too earnest, but then he could have been fooled. Perhaps she was a spectacular actress, which was the reason Dave had been bamboozled into marrying her within days of meeting her.

In fact, his will to contest the will had been waning, but maybe that was her working her magic. Some people were like that, manipulated and influences people so subtly they always ended up getting what they wanted.

And here he had been, worried about her safety.

"Are you having a coffee?" Caroline asked.

"No, I have an early start tomorrow." Which was also code for not wanting her to come over. Right at this moment, he didn't want anything that wasn't real, and apparently, that extended to Caroline. Perhaps unfair. Caroline had never portrayed herself as anything she wasn't. But something felt wrong. Perhaps he was grieving and simply couldn't just step back into his old life.

While in New Zealand, there had been so much that needed doing, that needed his attention, he'd hardly been able to think about what had actually happened. And now here he was, stepping back into his old life as if nothing was different. He wasn't sure what was different, but something was and he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"I think we should reschedule the Tahiti trip," Caroline said. "I'll have to look through my schedule to see when. How's your schedule looking over the next few months?"

"I don't know," he said honestly. He hadn't even thought about his schedule since returning. Maybe that was a manifestation of mourning as well.

Caroline's eyebrows rose, and then her hand returned to his. "You're a bit cut up about this. Completely understandable. Getting back to work and to your life will give you normalcy, which is exactly what you need."

It was all about being at the top of the game with her, and he knew she was thinking about the time she broke her leg skiing a year back. It was before they were together, but she'd told him about it and how it had taken such a toll in her life. To her, this was just another unforeseen event that knocked one off balance, and the one and only aim was to get back to equilibrium.

Maybe she was right and he was just feeling off balance. Because this dinner was boring him. The food too… contrived. Caroline looked gorgeous, with her expertly applied makeup, silky blond hair and designer dress. But everything felt contrived.

"I'll drive you home," he said as he put his drained wineglass down. Putting his finger up to the waiter, they came over with the bill almost instantaneously, and Ryan put his credit card into the small leather folder.

"If you're sure you want to be alone," she said with a smile. "Maybe you shouldn't be alone."

The last thing he could tolerate was having to entertain Caroline right now. They weren't people who sat on the couch and watched TV. And he simply wasn't up for sex right now. There had to be something very wrong. This was grief, he supposed—even put him off sex. "I'll have to take a rain check," he said. "I'm just not up for company."

"Poor thing. This must be difficult for you."

The staff brought her silk brown trench coat as they left the restaurant. It was cool in Sydney while it was getting cold over in New Zealand. Caroline's bare legs were long and spectacular as he led her to his car in the basement.

"I know it's a terrible time, but you should have your lawyers get onto the will issue. You'll never forgive yourself if this gold-digger runs off with the lot while you're still in shock. It's preposterous that she can even do so at such a vulnerable time. Can your lawyers take care of it, or will you have to get New Zealand ones?"

"The firm has offices there, so they should be able to take care of it." Still, it wasn't something he'd rushed to do, but perhaps his sentimentality was influencing him to have qualms he otherwise would have. And what were those qualms exactly? Taking away the farm because she had some harebrained idea that she was going to keep going? Or even that he had some responsibility toward her because Dave had married her?

It was impossible for him to pinpoint how he was feeling right now—about anything. It was true what Caroline was asserting—he was off equilibrium. In fact, he wasn't feeling much joy in anything right now. Everything felt like a slog. Maybe it was understandable that Brandi was distracting herself by working herself into exhaustion.

There he went again, seeing things that weren't there. She'd only known Dave for a matter of weeks. What feelings could she possibly have developed for him? Was she even mourning at all, or just capitalising on the good fortune that had come her way? Had she even gone so far as to put the farm on the market the moment he'd left? So why wait? Why not just walk straight from Richard Woolston's office to the real estate office? Why the charade?

None of it made any sense and it was hurting his head trying to think it through—to think her through. All he wanted right now was to sit down at home with a bottle of whiskey—alone.