Despite the fact that he intimidated her Lani felt sure a sensitive man lurked behind his arrogant mask. It was evident in the way he handled his daughter, who was now cuddling him and whispering to him. Lani couldn't hear what she said, but knew it was something in her favour.
Lani knew then she would willingly trade all her wealth for the chance to be a part of their life.
Disentangling Susie's small arms from about his middle he opened the door and ushered Lani inside. "I'm sorry for my earlier behaviour. But surely you can understand that this has all caught me off-guard. I was told I was about to get a tenant that I didn't want or need. Then you turn up."
Lani knew her cheeks were flushed. She felt hot under the collar and it wasn't anything to do with the hot wind that gusted about them. "I promise I won't steal the family silver, or wreck the flat," she said solemnly. The nagging question in her mind was why he found her so unsuitable personally. Something was upsetting him--and she was hard put to understand just what. That attraction that had flared at their first meeting hadn't been entirely her imagination she was sure.
As he closed the door and the air from the air-conditioning wafted about them, cooling her instantly, he said, "You're more than welcome in my home. But just so we have no misunderstanding later, let me assure you that the animal out there..." He jabbed a finger in the general direction of the paddock they'd just left. "That horse is here under sufferance."
So, she had her answer. It wasn't she who was causing all his angst, but Matilda. How strange. Lani didn't know whether to be relieved or indignant. At least it wasn't her he was so strongly against after all.
"And at no time will you encourage my daughter to have anything to do with it."
"Dad!" In her indignation Susie forgot her usual irreverence.
"I mean it, Susie." His countenance was stern.
Lani couldn't help it, she laughed. How could a man object so strongly to a horse?
"I fail to see what's so amusing in my appeal," he said, his brows knitted.
"Was it an appeal? It sounded more like an order to me." Lani straightened her face.
"As you like." He certainly wasn't amused. "But I have to insist. I'm very serious about this. No, don't say another word," he admonished his daughter, who was tugging on his shirtsleeve. "I have a strong suspicion that I'll live to regret this, so don't you complicate things. Val and you have done enough, don't you think?"
Lani ceased to be amused at that. "Look, on second thoughts I think I'd better leave. I don't want to cause family disruptions."
"No, stay." He put a hand on her arm, and its warmth made her skin tingle.
Ryan drew his hand away as if it had touched a flame. He was drawn to this woman on a level he didn't quite understand. There was a purity about her, something untouchable; yet he had an irresistible urge to touch.
She aroused a feeling in him he couldn't remember experiencing before. Not even with Monica at the start of their romance.
Clearing his throat, he said, as sternly as he could, "But heed my request, Lani, about the horse. Don't let this scrap of mischief talk you around. I'm serious--she has nothing to do with the animal."
A small frown marred her forehead. "All right," she agreed, but with a touch of reluctance, he noted. "I'll stay, but on the condition that you explain why you have such a low opinion of horses. Did you get thrown off one in your youth? They're not all dangerous creatures you know."
Ryan ran a hand over his nape. "Susie, go and see what Waldo's doing. Go on," he insisted when she refused to budge and gave him a glare. With a gentle push he sent her on her way.
"Don't you go leaving, will you?" she appealed to Lani.
Lani smiled reassuringly. "Not without saying goodbye." Susie didn't look pleased with that at all.
When they were alone, Ryan gestured for Lani to sit at the table and sat opposite her. "My wife was horse-mad," he said bluntly. No point in beating around the bush. "She lived for them." The old anger rose--would it ever completely go away? "Unfortunately she died for them too. She neglected her family; giving her animals all the damned attention until they ruled her life."
Lani nodded. He could see he had shocked her. Might as well get it all out. "I worked like a man possessed in the early years of our marriage, but Monica wasn't behind me. She complained about the long hours I was away and convinced herself that it was all right to go off to horse shows and events because she was lonely."
"I know all about loneliness," she said in a small voice. He would ask her about that enigmatic statement later.
Ryan sighed, and rubbed at his forehead. "We had little in common, but I tried to make the best of things. That's why we ended up with Susie. Soon after Val was born she began leaving him habitually with my mother to go off in her quest for gold trophies and blue ribbons. As soon as she could after Susie's birth she was off again, impatient to restart on the show round. Susie barely knew her mother at the time of her death."
"I'm sorry," she whispered. Her soft eyes were filled with sympathy. He wondered if this woman would leave her baby in the care of others to race off to a horse event. "How was she killed?"
"She was returning from an event in New South Wales with a couple of friends." Ryan grimaced faintly. Even now the old hurt nagged at him. "I never found out exactly what happened in the moments before the crash. I think they were all in high spirits after winning a three-day event and weren't paying attention to the traffic. Monica couldn't drive, never wished to, so she wasn't driving. She lived for riding and her horses--it was an obsession with her by that stage. Some idiot went through a red light and crashed into the car."
Her face had paled. "Ironically the car wasn't badly damaged, but the horse trailer was hit. One of the horses was trapped." She flinched, but he went on, "Knowing horses you can imagine how that would affect them. Monica didn't hesitate of course. She tried to free it." Dragging in a breath he continued, "The panic-stricken animal lashed out and Monica sustained multiple head injuries." With a soft grunt, he rubbed at his jaw. "The bloody horse walked away with a few scratches and a swollen knee. Monica never regained consciousness."
"I see. How terrible for you--and for the children." Her beautiful eyes were clouded with sympathy.
"Terrible?" It sounded callous but had to be said. "The kids were more upset when their Gran died. It says a lot for their relationship with their mother when they missed my mother more than their own."
A small gasp left her lips and she didn't say anything for a few moments. "All right," she said then. "I'll grant you have more than enough reasons to hate horses, but I don't see how you can keep Susie from them forever. One day you'll have to relent. She's already decided she's going to buy one of her own when she's old enough."
"No way!" Ryan shook his head adamantly. "As long as she's living under my roof she won't own a horse."
"She won't be living under your roof forever, Ryan."
That was the first time she'd called him by name. It was stupidly adolescent of him, but it pleased him more than was relevant--even though her statement annoyed him. "But while she is, then she obeys my rules."
"That's very inflexible," she had the cheek to admonish. Perhaps it was--but that's how it would stand. "Surely you can see that this thing you have against horses has grown out of all proportion."
He shrugged. That had hit too near the truth. But he'd be blowed if he was going to let this woman pass judgement on him. "I hardly think so. If their mother hadn't been so obsessed by the bloody things she would be here now."
"Maybe so. But you're attitude is so wrong."
Probably. "I suppose it was expecting too much to ask you to see it from my perspective. Let's just beg to differ for now." He sighed. This argument threatened to go round in circles. "I've been honest with you, Lani, how about you coming clean with me now."
She looked shocked by his question. "Come clean?" she said huskily. "How do you mean?" That nervousness was back. Perhaps she was an escapee from prison. No, stupid idea--how would she own a business if that was so? Perhaps she was a con-artist. All sorts of possibilities tumbled around in his brain.
"Don't make out you have no idea what I mean. You're more sensible than that. It strikes me as very odd that a woman with a business of her own, who has enough money in the bank to be able to afford to pay outright for a property such as you were after, should settle for renting a tiny flat in someone else's home."
He watched her closely. "How--?" She cleared her throat, looking uncomfortable. "How do you know that I own the shop? How do you know I haven't got to get a mortgage from the bank?"
"Come off it." Ryan made a small sound of derision. "Your name is on the shop window as the sole owner of the boutique. And don't take me for a fool. You don't need a loan, do you?"
She stared down at her fingers as they twined on the table in front of her, before agreeing, "No," quietly.
"Right, so tell me, just why would a woman like you be interested in a poky little flat?"
Her head shot up, her gaze intent. "Like me? How do you know what I'm like?"
"As I've already stated. You own a shop, obviously aren't hard up. Have recently moved here from interstate." She shifted under his steady scrutiny. "You intrigue me. Have you some deep, dark secret?"
She didn't answer, but ran a thumb over the gold watch on her wrist. Leaning forward he picked up that wrist and ran his own thumb over the watch face. "A present?"
High colour flooded her cheeks and she looked taken aback.
"No, I bought it myself." Snatching her arm free she put her hands on her lap, so hiding them from his view. Her chin jutted. "Perhaps I'm just lonely. Perhaps I need the company, and when I saw this opportunity to find that company I jumped at it, without thinking it through." She sighed and her breasts rose and fell. Ryan jerked his gaze away from the soft mounds. "When Val said that he didn't think I should be living alone, I contemplated it and realised he was right."