The Protea Boys, страница 1
Table of Contents
Chapter Twenty- Three
Chapter Twenty- Seven
The Protea Boys
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The Protea Boys
Copyright © 2013 Tea Cooper
Cover Artist: Mina Carter
Editor: Haleigh Rucinski
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This one is for you, Lorraine.
To friendship and unconditional love.
“Stop right there.”
Georgie Martin stalled, and her work boots skidded out from under her.
“Watch where you’re going with those wretched flowers. The floor’s wet.”
Almost swallowing the enormous pink blooms clasped in her arms, Georgie sank to the floor with a resounding crack. With the galvanized bucket clutched tightly to her chest, there was little she could do. “I’m sorry... I was wondering if you would be...”
Shifting the flowers from side to side in frustration, she tried to find the owner of the exasperated male voice. She could sense his presence, but the forest of flowers made it impossible to see anything. And to add insult to injury, the water from the bucket sloshed all over the sides, making it slippery and almost impossible to hold. She grasped it tightly, praying she wouldn’t drop it and make even more of a mess.
“Here, give it to me.” A large pair of hands grabbed the bucket. “Can you get up?”
“Yes...I think so.” Keeping her eyes focused on the pair of paint-stained Levi’s, she lifted her hips, eased her feet underneath her body, and stood. Her blood pressure clattered in her eardrums as everything blurred, and she swayed, her repeated apology dying on her lips.
His tanned face, high cheekbones, and clear green eyes disappeared behind the flowers.
The idea of those arms wrapped around her, pulling her close, sent a tremor up her spine. Georgie blinked and pushed her tangled hair from her face, smoothed her shirt, and resorted to another mumbled apology.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t notice the wet floor—these ‘wretched flowers’ were in the way.” She reached out, intent on snatching the bucket back from the man, but he beat her to it and put it down on the scrubbed wooden dresser behind him with an exaggerated sigh.
“Now, what can I do for you, sweetheart?” A grin hovered on his sensual lips as he wiped his wet hands down his chest.
Georgie narrowed her eyes and clenched her fists, trying to resist the temptation to smack the denigrating grin right off his handsome face. Not that it would do her much good. His broad shoulders and muscled chest would probably absorb every bit of her best-aimed punch, bounce it right back at her. A rush of heat washed up through her body, almost overpowering her, and she fanned her face, swallowing her frustration while she tried to concentrate on what he was saying.
He raised a very dark eyebrow into a shock of brown, almost black, hair. “We’re not open yet.”
The man leaned closer and reached out. A frown etched his tanned forehead; he was obviously confused by the gabbling fool who stood in the middle of a puddle on his wet floor. Then he cupped her elbow with his hand, and a surge of anticipation smacked her stomach the moment flesh touched flesh. Her brain instantly cleared, and she scrubbed at the goose bumps stippling her arms.
Shaking the hair from her eyes, Georgie stepped back, gazing up into his piercing green eyes. Her breath caught, and for safety’s sake, she took another step farther back, determined to reclaim some personal space and her shattered equilibrium. More than anything else in the world she wanted to turn on her heels and run, but her legs seemed to think otherwise. They wanted to—just lean.
Seven, eight, nine, ten, she counted, as her therapist had told her, and the perspective of the room shifted back into focus. Then she heaved a slow sigh and prayed she wouldn’t spontaneously combust.
When the pounding in her chest settled, she sucked in a deep breath. “I called in to find out if you’d be interested in buying my proteas for the restaurant on a regular basis.” She gasped in some more air and rushed on. “I can either sell them to you individually or I can provide you with an arrangement.”
A long, agonizing pause stretched out.
Any arrangement you like, preferably one that includes the two of us, up close and personal.
Finally he answered. “Protea, huh? I would have thought roses would better suit a blushing flower like you.”
Incapable of controlling the infuriating heat sweeping her body, Georgie looked frantically around for something, anything, in the newly decorated room with its neatly spaced tables and pristine white tablecloths to cover her confusion and change the subject.
The large, open fireplace won. “An arrangement would look lovely in the fireplace during summer.” The banality of her comment made her cringe. Totally embarrassed, she sneaked a quick look at him from under her lashes, expecting his penetrating gaze to be fixed on her.
He seemed to be lost in some reminiscence, staring at the flowers, his eyes blank and distant. Her hopes plummeted as she waited in the uncomfortable silence until she couldn’t stand it a moment longer.
“Of course if you don’t think they’d be right for the place, then...”
“No.” The man’s curt reply sounded simply rude. “I’m not interested. Proteas aren’t for me.” Then he turned on his heel with almost military precision, giving her the full benefit of his tight, and very cute, butt and walked to the door. With a look that would have done her grade eight mathematics teacher proud, he held the door open.
Lesson over, and smarting from her dismissal, Georgie picked up the dripping bucket of flowers from the dresser and sauntered through the door without a backward glance, all the while taking great care not to slip.
Tossing her hair back, she swore under her breath—cold calling would definitely be removed from her list of selling strategies. She’d stick to firm orders in future.
Firm orders. Firm. Yep, that was certainly a firm body.
As she stamped her way back over the cobblestones, the vision of a cat, not some domestic moggy, but a lithe
He can scratch my psyche any day.
Defiantly, she continued her march to the car, the steel caps of her work boots clicking with every step.
Forget it, kiddo. With your track record, it can only spell disaster.
Tom Morgan leaned back against the doorjamb and squinted into the sun, his arms folded across his wet T-shirt. He grinned at the indignant figure stomping back up the road. He’d probably been a bit hard on her, but the sight of the huge protea flowers had thrown him, thrown him back to a place he had no intention of ever visiting again. It wasn’t much of an excuse, but it was going to have to do.
The creak of the dusty door of her four-wheel drive drifted through the humidity. She leaned into the back of the car with the bucket in one arm and deposited the flowers. Under all the khaki, there was probably a great pair of legs screaming to get out. Tom raked his hair back from his forehead and scratched his head. Why did women do that to themselves? He liked his women in chiffon dresses, strappy sandals, and elegant, shady hats, not cargo pants and work boots.
The Land Cruiser lurched out from the curb and spluttered off down the street.
“That’s the most appalling piece of driving I’ve seen in a long time,” Tom announced to the sandstone building, as a haze of blue exhaust fumes covered the village of Gum Tree Crossing.
Georgie was certain of only one thing—she couldn’t have told anyone the details of her trip home. She’d operated on remote, and her mind certainly hadn’t been on the winding road snaking up out of the village to the farm. Her reactions had her stumped, annoyed, and totally convinced abstinence had made her brain shrivel.
Rubbing her forehead, she tried to erase the indelible impressions crammed into her aching head. What was the matter with her? She’d worked harder than a navvy over the past months to ignore every male she came across, from the old gardener to the bob-a-job Boy Scout who’d cleared the paddocks for her. She’d had to. Her appalling track record and the way she had become the laughingstock of her own business still made her skin crawl. How could she have been the only one who hadn’t known her boyfriend was dating his ex-wife? Her naivety appalled her. Shaking her head in despair, she negotiated the rutted driveway that led home.
In one well-practiced, fluid movement, Georgie kicked off her work boots and ignored yet another dent in the paintwork as they bounced against the doorstep. Her relief lasted exactly one second before the phone rang and she made a lunge for it.
“I have had the best idea.”
Hillary’s excitement billowed out of the phone like smoke, making Georgie grin as she perched on the side of the wooden stool and flexed her cramped toes.
“Hiya. Long time, no see.” She rolled her eyes and chuckled. It had only been yesterday they’d shared a coffee and a gripe about the problems facing single women and small businesses.
“Listen, I’ve been reading the local paper, and Carl’s truck is up for sale. I think we should buy it. It will solve all our problems.”
“Oh, great idea, Hill. But how’s it going to solve all our problems?” Some days the memory of the simple pleasure of hailing a taxi, or better still, buying a take-away coffee made her wonder why she’d given up life in Sydney.
“You need someone to work around your place, and I certainly need some help here. Added to that, half the valley is crying out for gardening services and a handyman.”
“Aren’t we just?” Georgie massaged the muscles along her spine with her spare hand. “How’s a truck going to solve the problem?” If her current performance was anything to go by, she couldn’t even sell a bunch of flowers, never mind drive a truck. “We’d have a truck. Best-case scenario, we’d have a truck full of brush cutters, ride-on mowers, and shovels. Who’s going to use them? I’m rapidly proving my inability.”
“That’s where the brilliant idea comes in.” Hillary’s voice overflowed with excitement. “We buy the truck, we’ve already got all the gear, and then we advertise for guys to work for us. We organize the jobs, and they go and do them, and at the same time, we never have to worry about finding someone to work on our places.”
Twisting a strand of hair around her finger, she concentrated; underneath all of Hillary’s enthusiasm, she sensed the makings of a great idea.
“I’ll get all my landscaping done and gardens finished, and you’ll have the protea farm of your dreams—there you go—problem solved. The Protea Boys to the rescue.”
Georgie leaned over the kitchen bench, the phone cradled against her ear, and listened more closely as her friend chattered on, gradually being sucked in by Hillary’s eagerness.
“We could even paint the truck pink, and they could all wear those lovely Chesty Bond shirts with a pink protea logo on them. And we could drool over their rippling muscles and their tight abs while they work away in the blistering sun.”
A giggle escaped Georgie’s lips. “And apply sunscreen to their poor, tortured skin and wipe their brows when they stop for a drink of refreshing spring water.”
“And hold their towels as they step, dripping with water, from the pool after a cool, refreshing dip at the end of a hard day’s work. And massage their...”
“Stop right there, you fool.” Georgie sniggered into the phone. “I thought this idea solved all our problems, not created them. I’m off men. Remember? Why would I want to get myself embroiled with a bunch of muscular, tanned young men who are bursting with energy and strength?”
“Why indeed?” Her friend’s laugh echoed back at her. “No, seriously, I’m not being silly, I think this idea’s got merit and could be a very profitable little business.”
“I’ve got a business. It is the profitable I’m a bit short on at the moment.”
“And I’ve got it all worked out. I’ll call in this evening, and we can discuss it over a glass of wine on your beautiful veranda as we watch the sun go down. What do you think?”
“I think I’d love to see you. You know you’re welcome anytime—I’ll expect you about six.” Georgie put the phone carefully down and ran her fingers through her hair, pausing to twist the ends around her index finger. Perhaps it was the solution to some of her problems; they’d definitely talk about it more this evening. Meanwhile, she had proteas to pick.
Moving gingerly, step by step back up to the house, Georgie caught sight of Hillary reclining on the veranda. She pushed her damp hair off her face and yanked up her cargo pants and then let out a snicker of laughter as Hillary teetered along the veranda, practicing her hot, sassy bombshell impersonation.
“I’m not too early, am I? I’m really keen to nut out this advertisement. I got a phone call from Carl this afternoon, telling me he could only do two hours’ work tomorrow morning.” The sunglasses disappeared into Hillary’s blonde, wavy hair, and she let out an exaggerated groan. “And he doesn’t think he’ll be back within the next two weeks. It’s impossible.” She rolled her eyes. “How am I ever going to get this B&B up and running?” Stopping to draw a breath, she frowned and stared at Georgie. “Are you okay? You look really flustered.”
“Hi, Hill.” Georgie leaned against the wall and dragged off her boots. Every bone in her body ached. “No, you’re not too early, and yes, I really want to get this sorted, too, so make yourself at home. I’ve been in the paddock all afternoon. I just need a glass of water, a cup of tea, something.” Her reflection in the window stared back at her. What she really needed was a cold shower, something to wash away the rampant thoughts she wasn’t prepared to admit to.
A chilled bottle of Chardonnay waved in front of her.
“You look as though you need something slightly stronger. A couple of glasses of this will do the trick while we toast the sun going down on another day.”
“I’ll be right with you.”
Georgie turned on th
In no time at all, Hillary had unscrewed the bottle of wine and poured two glasses, handed one to Georgie, and wriggled down into the chair. “Ah, this is the life.”
Georgie wandered outside and took the glass and sniffed it appreciatively; the citrusy scent rose to her nostrils. “Cheers—and here’s to the Protea Boys, our first joint enterprise.”
The cool wine slid down the back of Georgie’s throat, and she pulled a chair toward the veranda railing with one hand, her back muscles aching, then sank down against the cushions with a sigh.
“Success,” Hillary said and took a healthy swig from the frosted glass. Only the croaking of the frogs around the dam broke the sunset silence.
“Okay, to business.” Hillary’s words punctuated the fading light and dragged Georgie’s mind from stretched blue T-shirts and undulating abs. “This is going to solve all our problems. I have rung Carl, and he is prepared to let us have the truck for five thousand dollars. It goes really well, but it will need a bit of maintenance as time goes by, and the tray is going to need replacing sooner rather than later. I’ve told him we’ll take it. Is that okay?”
“Yes, it’s fine.” Georgie wiped her hand over her eyes and tried to erase the memory of the figures on her last bank balance. If she could manage to live on a liquid diet for the next few months, she might make it. The farm had to be self-supporting. It was one of the promises she had made to herself when she had sold the business in Sydney. She was not going to touch her investments.
“Carl’s going to deliver the truck in a couple of days. I told him to bring it here because you have more room in your big machinery shed than I do at my place.”
Georgie leaned forward and nodded in agreement. “It’s a great idea. We can leave it in there overnight and not have to unpack the gear every night.”
“So now all we need are the boys.” Hillary’s grin lit up her face and she set her wineglass on the table and rubbed her hands together. “I’ve written this advertisement for the local paper.” She reached into her handbag to pull out a piece of paper, then held it triumphantly aloft between her bright pink fingernails, cleared her throat, and announced: