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The present—Mallarinka Station, Channel Country, South-West Queensland
Sunset saw Haddo riding back to the homestead, dog-tired and yearning for an ice-cold beer and a shower, in that order. He couldn't wait for cooling rivulets of water to stream over his stressed, dehydrated body. He had even contemplated falling fully clothed into a billabong along the way, but hadn't thought he'd be able to drag himself out. Even his favourite workhorse, Fleetwood, was bone-weary.
"Only a kilometre to go, boy!" He patted the gelding's long satiny neck, offering encouragement. Fleetwood responded with a nodding motion of his proud, handsome head. Once Fleetwood had run with the wild horses—until he had been captured. He had broken in Fleetwood himself, though "broken" wasn' t a term he used. A station rule was that none of the horses was to be treated roughly. Only recently he had to let an otherwise good stockman go because of the man's cruel streak.
Over the years he had developed a very different technique from the "breaking" favoured even in his father's day. No spurs, no whips. He didn't so much "whisper" a wild horse into tameness, though it helped. His method was the rope, while keeping constant eye contact with whatever horse he was working. He'd got that eye contact down to a fine art.
Fleetwood had thoroughbred blood in him. His dam was a runaway station mare, and the sire was probably Warri, a big rogue brumby stallion with an impressive harem.
Wild horses were part of the Outback's unique heritage, though the downside was that they did threaten the delicate ecosystems. But out here man and wild horses lived side by side, with properly schooled brumbies replenishing dwindling station stock. Once most of the cleanskins were in, they would start trapping a mob or two. The mobs were coming in from the hill country, in search of water. There were thousands of wild horses out there—many the progeny of good station bloodstock, but others too small or too scrappy to be put to any use.
Gently he swung Fleetwood away from the line of billa-bongs and up onto the vast open plain. It was thickly dotted with spinifex, golden as wheat. It had been a day of stifling heat, always a big problem. The heat made men, horses and cattle sluggish, which meant all three got careless and under-performed, but he had decided the cattle from the outer areas of the station had to be brought in without delay. The heat wasn't going to get better. No use hoping or praying for a storm— although some of the storm-like displays of late had been pretty spectacular, blazing Technicolor versions of an atomic bomb. But, for all the pyrotechnics, there was no rain. The rain gods just weren't answering these days, and when they did he was pretty certain drought would give way to flood. That meant the cleanskins that had been enjoying the good life, undisturbed by man, had to be mustered and branded. With vast unfenced stations, and cattle wandering miles into the desert, the duffing of cleanskins went on.
Pretty much most of the day had been spent trying to muster a big mob of seriously psycho cattle out of Ulahrii, one of the least accessible lignum swamps. At least they'd been compensated by a brief visual delight: Ulahrii had been alight with the most beautiful and fragrant water lilies, great creamy yellow ones that lifted their gorgeous heads clear of the dark green water. He had come upon them in all their beauty, and vivid memories had caused him to suck in his breath.
Tori on her sixteenth birthday. He couldn't get a picture of her out of his mind. A group of them had been swimming in Silver Lake, and Tori had balanced a blue lotus water lily on her rosy head. To him, she had been the very picture of an exquisite water sprite, with her long sensuous hair, her extraordinary alabaster skin that never freckled, the beautiful slanting green eyes, even her little pointy ears. He thought if he could paint he would paint her as that—Nymph of the Lagoon, watching over the water lilies.
She had been so vivid, so totally happy that day—a creature of light from some magical place. One way or another she was always in his mind, though she didn't come willingly to the station any more. Over four years now since their drastic falling out, but in that time he had at least held control over her life. That was until she was twenty-five, when she would come into her inheritance.
He had come into his own inheritance a whole lot earlier than anyone in the family had ever anticipated in their wildest dreams. Two years ago Brandt, his charismatic father, had pole-axed them all by abdicating his role of Master of Mallarinka and the Rushford cattle empire to hare off to South Africa, still very rich, to be with a young South African woman he had met on a visit to Darwin and fallen passionately in love with, literally overnight. This at the age of fifty-five. These days his father and his new wife owned and ran an up-market safari camp that catered to well-heeled international tourists looking for a bit of excitement.
His mother hadn't mourned.
"I gave the best years of my life to your father. Now I'm going to pursue a bit of happiness myself."
The trouble was, the steam had gone out of his parents' largely arranged marriage by the time he had left for boarding school at age ten. His mother, a pragmatic woman, had moved on with a vengeance. She, too, had remarried, in the process acquiring a stepson—a wealthy management stockbroker with an investment bank, like his high-profile father—adding to her own family of himself and his younger sister Kerri. His mother now spent her time between Melbourne and Mallarinka, visiting in Melbourne's cold winter.
His very glamorous sister Kerri's marriage was going through a bad patch. Kerri, like their mother, was a bit of a control freak. She had asked if she could visit, and bring a friend—Marcy Hancock. Of course he had said yes, though he had grave misgivings about letting Marcy come. Sometimes he thought Marcy would still be pursuing him when they were both geriatric, or at the very least middle-aged. It was a mindset. Nothing more. He'd have to start praying some rich Melbourne guy would whisk her off. He'd need to be rich. Marcy Hancock wasn't cut out for normal life in the suburbs.
He rode on, grateful the home compound was coming closer and closer. From time to time he lifted his head to watch the thousands of birds that had been conserving their energy all day head into the swamps and lagoons. Every species of waterbird was among them—geese, ducks, herons, egrets, ibises, blue cranes—and budgies in their billowing iridescent squadrons. There were literally millions of birds on the station. The birds on Mallarinka were doing it lean, like the rest of the desert fauna, but so far they were sticking to their territory. Mallarinka had permanent water, and a few of the larger billabongs, like Bahloo, were still quite deep.
Even at this hour, with the imperious sun losing its heat, the mirage was still abroad. It shimmered across the infinity of desert landscape, creating the most tantalising illusions of distant oases. He readily understood how early explorers responding to those illusions had come to grief. Aboriginal tribes on walkabout could have communicated to them in some way that the inland sea belonged to the Dreamtime, but the aborigines then had been very wary of the white man—and with good reason. Today only goodwill existed on Mallarinka. It would have been impossible to work the station without aboriginal stockmen. They were marvellous bushmen, uncanny trackers and accomplished cattlemen.
He loved his desert home, but he had to admit there was a wild, dark side to it. Man was never in control. Nature was boss. He could only hope to manage his great inheritance and live in harmony with all that stupendous raw power.
The western sky, one moment all aflame was now turning sullen, silver and black shot with a livid green, and the "rain" clouds banked low over the horizon. It would be dark before he arrived. Pip, his great-aunt, would be there. Philippa had long since retired from academic life, and she was staying with him for a month or two. Whatever she liked. He left it up to her. Pip was always entertaining company and he was very fond of her.
"I'm sorry, my dear, but Lucy's having a bit of trouble in Sydney." Philippa was there to greet him the moment he stepped in the back door.
Instantly his heart and head sprang to Tori. He searched Pip's long, distinguished face for clues. "It's Tori, of course?" he groaned, removing his riding boots and shoving them inside the wet room door. 'Just tell me she's all right?" Muscles of anxiety were knotting in his stomach. He was never free of worry where Tori was concerned. Probably doomed to worry about her for as long as he lived. "She hasn't been involved in any accident?"
"No, dear." Philippa hastened to offer reassurance. "Well, not personally. No one was hurt."
"That's all right, then," he responded, his relief apparent. "Just let me have a quick shower. I'm beat. I can't listen to another thing until then. As long as she's all right. And, oh, I'd love a long cold beer."
Philippa laughed. "No problem. I'll join you in a bath-sized G&T." She wasn't kidding either.
Under ten minutes later, Haddo was downstairs again, visibly refreshed. Despite his back-breaking day, his whole being radiated an enormous energy other people saw but he was largely unaware of. He sank into a comfortable armchair, watching Philippa pour him a beer, before making herself a gin and tonic that would knock a lesser woman out.
"God, you're a handsome man!" Philippa remarked with satisfaction, taking an armchair opposite.
Seeing her great-nephew gave Philippa back something of her wonderful brother Quentin—Haddo's late grandfather. There was the same vitality, and the height, the lean powerful body, the finely sculpted features, the flash of those startlingly blue eyes. And, just to top it off, there was the smile—so wonderfully engaging, with fine white teeth contrasting with the dark tan of his skin. Quentin had looked just like Haddo in his youth. Haddo would look like Quentin in old age.
Haddo was smiling crookedly at her. "Let's face it, Pip. We Rushfords are a handsome lot," he joked.
"Yes, isn't it wonderful?" Philippa agreed, then abruptly sobered. "Brandt would still be here if he weren't so handsome and virile."
"He's happy, Pip." Haddo sighed. He missed his larger-than-life father. "Dad's having a whale of a time."
"So he says. I wouldn't be in the least surprised if we get word one of these days that the gel is pregnant."
"I dare say as she's half Dad's age she would want a child." Haddo's answer was reasonable. "Anyway, good luck to them. My heritage is entailed. The Rushford cattle empire remains in my hands until it passes to my son."
"Then you'd better get a move on, dear," Philippa suggested slyly. She knew who she had in mind for her darling Haddo.
"I've got to find a woman to love before I can make a commitment, Pip," he responded, in an off-hand way. "I don't want to be like Dad. I want my marriage to work."
Philippa frowned. "I'm sure Brandt wanted his marriage to work as well. But that South African hussy had him in her sights the moment she laid eyes on him. Bessie Butler told me that. The trouble was, your parents weren't really in love when they married. Not a grand passion anyway. It was all stitched up between the families—the Rushfords and the Haddons. I suppose you could almost say it was a business deal."
Haddo knew the family history. "No wonder Dad craved a bit of adventure, then," he said laconically. "Anyway, it's Tori I want to hear about. So fire away." He downed half his beer at a gulp.
"Poor old Lucy has finally mastered sending an e-mail," Philippa commented.
"There are several on your desk in the study. All saying much the same thing. She must have expected you to hit reply on the spot."
"Well, I suppose I'll be doing that shortly," he answered dryly. "All about Tori, of course?"
Philippa nodded her thickly thatched platinum head. In her late seventies, she was a remarkably well-preserved woman: very active, mentally and physically. A fine horsewoman, she still rode out every day. "How I wish Michael had never died! Probably planned it, with Livinia for a wife," she added waspishly.
"Except it wouldn't have felt right. Nothing in this world would have parted Michael from his only love—his daughter."
Philippa sighed deeply. "I know that, dear. I was just making a sick joke. The proverbial cat would have been a better mother than Livinia."
"Agreed. So, what's Tori done this time?" he asked. "God knows how she's missed out on spending a night in the cells."
"Darling girl!" Philippa murmured fondly.
"Little firebrand," Haddo tacked on tersely.
"She's by no means the wild-child the media like to make out," Philippa spoke up loyally.
"You must be the only one in the family not to agree with them, Pip. I know how protective you are of her—"
"And you're not?" Philippa's eyebrows met up with her hairline.
"I have to be—as you well know. Don't—and I mean don't—tell me it's anything to do with drugs?"
"Absolutely not, dear." Philippa looked shocked. "Tori swore to me she would never touch them."
"And how true is that?" he asked tersely. "They're all around her. She's out every night of the week. Wild parties at the weekend. Always with a posse of press in hot pursuit. And that boyfriend of hers—Morcombe."
"Ah, but it's Josh Morcombe who spent the night in the cells," Philippa now informed him. "Driving under the influence, I'm afraid," she said ruefully. "Unfortunately Tori happened to be in the car with him. That guaranteed a lot of coverage. A couple of their friends were in the back. They'd all been at some nightclub. Anyway, Josh isn't a proper boyfriend, Haddo. She's broken up with him. I believe her latest boyfriend doesn't have two beans to rub together. Tori has never cared about money."
His laugh was short. "Why would she? She's never been without it. So that's the latest misadventure? She was in a car with Morcombe?"
Philippa took a good swig of her drink. 'Nothing happened to Tori. I suppose the police gave them all a talking-to."
"I should damned well think so," he said shortly. "She can't continue like this."
"No, she can't," Philippa agreed. "She's so ferociously bright, that's the thing!"
"She never finished her degree."
"And she was doing so well."
"She's never held down a job. We know she's clever, but she should be making something of herself—not leading this mindless life that can only get her into big trouble."
"Can I tell you, dear, why she didn't finish her degree?" Philippa interrupted gently.