Erin saw her ex-husband at the exact moment he
saw her, at the very instant she emerged from Customs into the International
Terminal at Sydney airport. Their eyes met across the crowded sea of expectant
faces and she felt a jolt so savage she almost stumbled.
Luke Manning looked exactly as she remembered –
a man who could never blend into a crowd. Wide-shouldered, long-legged and
lean, with dark hair, prominent cheekbones and a mouth that could be brooding
or good humoured by turns, Luke retained an air of inner strength that always
set him apart.
And despite the crowd that jostled him as they
waved and called to loved ones, he gave an impression of remoteness, like the
vast and lonely Australian Outback he loved.
Even at this distance his grey eyes could touch
Erin drew a sharp breath. For a fleeting moment
there had been a spark of excitement in Luke’s eyes, but then just as
suddenly, the light vanished to be replaced by chilling blankness. In the past
she’d never seen such coldness in his face, but its appearance now was hardly
surprising. What else could she expect? Five years ago she’d walked away from
their marriage. She hadn’t seen him since.
Now she felt a flash of panic. Seeing Luke again
was even harder than she’d feared.
She’d been schooling herself to feel nothing.
Nothing. But all it had taken was that single icy glance from those
too-familiar grey eyes and the wounds that were supposed to have healed were
ripped open again.
Once again she felt the awful pain. This was what she’d dreaded, why she
almost hadn’t come.
A small, impatient hand tugged at hers. “You
said my dad would be here.” Joey sounded anxious. “Can’t you see him yet?”
“Yes, sweetheart, he’s here.”
Erin gave Joey’s hand a squeeze, more to
reassure herself than her son. She tried to ignore the trembling in her
stomach, the unwanted surge of anxiety shooting high, filling her throat.
Around them, the lines of fellow passengers were
breaking up as weary travellers were enveloped by welcoming arms. Mere metres
away, Luke Manning stood still, waiting.
Erin’s heart thudded. She had to remember that
this meeting was not about her. Or Luke. They weren’t here to rake up the
past. Neither of them wanted that. Their marriage was a closed book, finished
They were meeting because of their son. This was
for Joey, for his future.
She heard a sharp exclamation and felt Joey’s
hand slip from hers. He’d seen his father.
Even though Luke wasn’t astride a stock horse or
wearing an Akubra hat, he looked so like the photograph on Joey’s nightstand
that his son couldn’t fail to recognise him.
“Hey, Dad!” Joey shrieked, and he began to rush
forward, but after three or four steps he stopped, overcome by shyness.
Erin, pushing the loaded luggage cart, tried to
catch up with the boy, but she, too, was gripped by a vexing hesitation. It
was like a bad dream where she couldn’t seem to move. She’d come so far, all
the way from Manhattan, but these last few steps seemed impossible.
Perhaps she should have accepted her sister’s
offer to accompany Joey in her place.
How terrible this was. The three of them were
like a still-life tableau –
Erin in her trendy, New-York-black trouser suit,
suitably crease-resistant for travelling – Luke, an Outback man in the city,
in pale moleskin trousers, a long sleeved, blue cotton shirt and carefully
polished elastic-sided riding boots – and little, freckle-nosed, red-headed
Joey, staring up at his father as he clutched his favourite possessions in a
New York Yankees backpack.
They stood there, stiffly silent and awkward in the midst of the busy,
And then they seemed to come to life at once.
Luke’s hands came out of his pockets and his mouth quirked into a
quarter-smile. With his eyes fixed on Joey, he stepped forward. Erin forced
their luggage cart to move once more. Joey hitched his backpack over one
shoulder and grinned.
“Hi, Dad.” His face was glowing as he looked up
“Hello, Joey.” Stooping low, Luke offered his
right hand and Erin held her breath as she watched the man and the boy greet
each other. She felt a leaping sensation in her chest as she saw the deep
emotion in Luke’s eyes, the shining pride in Joey’s.
This was such a big moment for Joey – the
culmination of months of longing and desperate impatience that had begun last
fall when he’d started school – when he’d suddenly become obsessed by a need
to know everything about his father.
Now, as Erin watched, Luke’s eyes seemed to
devour the boy. She wondered what he was thinking. Was he remembering Joey’s
birth and how proud he’d been of his new baby son – how smitten they’d both
Was Luke looking for a physical resemblance to himself?
Superficially, Joey looked more like Erin’s
family, the Reillys. Both she and Joey had inherited dark red hair from her
Irish father and their smallish noses were a Reilly feature, too. But already
it was clear that Joey was going to be tall like Luke and his high cheekbones
were an unmistakable Manning legacy.
And the boy’s eyes were smoky indigo, a true
mixture of Erin’s bright blue and Luke’s deep grey.
She wondered if she should break the silence,
but it was Joey who rescued the moment.
Shooting Luke a self-conscious grin, her son
said, “Good day, mate,” in his best attempt at an Australian accent.
Luke’s face broke into a helpless, crooked
smile. “G’day little mate.” His voice sounded choked as his big brown hand
ruffled Joey’s buzz cut. Then he tapped the logo on Joey’s backpack. “How are
the Yankees? Have they had a good season?”
Joey nodded shyly and then Luke looked in Erin’s
direction, his eyes bright, yet wary.
Smile. She had to look cool and okay about this.
Detached. Smile, dammit.
But her lips refused to curve and she was forced to tighten her cheek muscles
until her mouth was pulled outwards and upwards into a very mechanical,
Luke, on the other hand, didn’t even bother to
look pleased to see her. “Hello, Erin.” His gaze was cold again and he spoke
through tight lips.
“Hi, Luke.” She lifted her right hand, but then let it fall back onto the
handle of the baggage cart. Best not to attempt to shake hands – it would be
too embarrassing if Luke ignored her.
His jaw clenched, then relaxed. “How was the
She shrugged. “Very long.”
He nodded grimly.
Erin switched her attention to Joey standing
between them and she stroked his cheek with her knuckles. “This little tiger
managed to sleep for eight hours, so he’s ready and rearing to go.”
Joey’s eyes shone as he stared up at Luke. “Your
cattle ranch is humungous, isn’t it, Dad?”
“As big as the whole of Texas?”
“Don’t be silly, Joey.” Erin’s voice sounded too
tense but it couldn’t be helped. “You know it’s not that big.”
“Well, it’s bigger than Manhattan.” Joey giggled
with the cheerful confidence of a kindergarten kid, not yet required to come
to grips with geography.
“Quite a lot bigger than Manhattan,” Luke
agreed. He turned to Erin. “Let me push that cart for you.”
“It’s okay. I’m managing.”
Over-riding her foolishness, he stepped forward
and his hand closed around her wrist. Oh, help. What was the matter with her?
Did he notice how she almost jumped out of her skin?
For a breathless stretch of time, he looked down
at her small and white hand trapped by his, so large and brown. The contrast
wasn’t merely one of gender and size. The difference between Erin’s
sophisticated New York manicure and Luke’s work-toughened, calloused palm
signalled everything that had been wrong about their union.
“You’ve had a long flight and you’re tired,” was
all he said as he wrested the cart from her. “Let’s go. I’ll take you to the
Without another word he turned abruptly and,
pushing the cart before him, he began to march towards the escalators that led
to the parking lot.
Joey hurried to keep up with Luke and after a small, somewhat weary sigh, Erin
“I wish we could go straight to your ranch,
Dad,” Joey said as the escalator carried them to the floor below.
“You know that’s not the plan, Joey.” Erin’s
tone held a tense warning. “I told you Warrapinya is way up north near the top
of Australia.” For Luke’s benefit she added, “I’ve explained to him that he’ll
be spending a day in Sydney first.”
She’d insisted on this. Heaven knew she wasn’t
looking forward to spending time with Luke, but she needed to discuss ground
rules with him before he took off into the Outback. And she needed to observe
how Luke interacted with Joey. No way was she going to hand her little boy
over for two months in Luke Manning’s care unless she was sure they would get
“Can we fly all the way to your ranch?” Joey
“We certainly can.”
They reached the next floor and Luke hurried
forward again. Joey was almost running to keep pace with his long stride. “Do
you really fly your own plane?” The boy’s voice was squeaky with excitement.
“Sure do. I’ve just upgraded to a twin engine.”
“Oh, wow! That’s so neat.” Joey’s face was a
picture of adoration.
Following behind them, Erin gnawed at her lip. It rankled that Luke had
acquired a small plane and his pilot’s licence after their marriage broke up.
There’d been no planes available when she’d lived on Warrapinya and had
desperately needed one.
But it was useless to dwell on what might have
been. The marriage between the bride from Manhattan and the boss of Warrapinya
had been doomed from the outset and it was only sensible to leave it where it
lay. Discarded. Dead and buried.
From “Claiming His Family"
By: Barbara Hannay
Mills and Boon Romance
Copyright: © Barbara Hannay
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement
with Harlequin Books S.A. For more romance information surf to: http://www.eHarlequin.com