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Callum Roper slouched against a veranda post and glared at the distant cloud of dust. In the outback, dust travelling at that speed meant one thing - a vehicle heading this way.
He wasn't in the mood for visitors.
Turning his back on the view, he lowered his long body into a deep canvas chair and snapped the top off a beer. He took a deep swig and scowled. Truth was, he wasn't in the mood for anything much these days! Even beer didn't taste the same.
"Why'd you have to do it, Scotty?"
He hadn't meant to ask the question out loud, but there it was, lingering like the dust on the hot, still air. Why did you have to go and die? Damn you, Scotty.
Taking another, deeper swig, he grimaced. How long did it last, this grief business? His younger brother had been dead for six weeks now and he still felt as raw and hurt as he had the day the helicopter crashed and he'd first glimpsed Scott's lifeless body in the cockpit.
Slumping lower in the canvas seat, he reached for the cattle dog at his side and rubbed the soft fur between its ears, willing himself to relax. But a picture of Scott's sunstreaked curls, laughing brown eyes and cheeky grin swam before him. It was the face of an irrepressible larrikin. And it had gone for ever.
Late afternoons like this were the worst. This was the time of day he and Scott used to sit here on the veranda, having a beer and a yarn. His brother had been such damn good company. Drinking alone without Scott's humorous recounts of their day wasn't any kind of fun.
He cast a bitter glance over his shoulder towards the encroaching vehicle. Entertaining visitors without Scott's easy banter would be hell!
Luckily, cars didn't foray into these parts very often. Birralee Station was beyond Cloncurry in far north-western Queensland, further outback than most people liked to venture.
But this particular cloud of dust was definitely edging closer down the rust-red track. He could hear the motor now and it sounded tinny, not the throaty roar of the offroad vehicles his neighbours used.
Surely no one with any sense would come all the way out here in a flimsy little city sedan? City visitors were even worse than well-meaning neighbours.
Scott had been the one for the city. He'd always been flying off to Sydney or Brisbane to seek out fun and female company. Callum was content to stick to the bush, restricting his socialising to picnic races and parties on surrounding properties. He'd never felt the urge to go chasing off to the city.
Almost never. His hand tightened around the beer can as a reluctant memory forced him to acknowledge that there had been one city woman he'd wanted to chase. A woman with crow black hair, a haunting, sexy voice and a gutsy, shoulders-back attitude. He'd wanted to chase her, catch her and brand her as his.
But his little brother had always had the happy knack of smiling at a girl in a certain way and rendering her smitten. Instantly. Accepting that the woman he'd desired had preferred Scott had been a bitter lesson.
Hell! What was the use of sitting here, thinking about all that again?
Callum jumped to his feet and frowned as he realised the car had stopped. He squinted at the stretch of bushland before him, searching for the tell-tale dust. Late afternoon sun lent a bronze glow to the paddocks of pale Mitchell grass, but there was no sign of movement. The cloudless sky, the trees and grass, even the cattle, were as still as a painting.
Crossing to the edge of the veranda, he stood listening. All he could hear now was the high, keening call of a black falcon as it circled above the cliff on the far side of the creek.
He frowned. By his calculations, the car had been close to the creek crossing. Perhaps the driver had stopped to check the water's depth before fording the shallow stream.
Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on the veranda railing and listened, watched and waited.
A good five minutes or more passed before the engine started up again. But when it did, it screamed and strained. Then there was silence again, before another useless burst from the motor.
"Silly sod's got himself bogged." He listened for a few more minutes. There was more high-pitched whirring from the straining motor. More silence.
Shaking his head, he let out a heavy sigh. The last thing he felt like was playing hero to some uninvited city slicker, but he could hardly ignore the fact that someone seemed to be having car trouble so close to his homestead.
He had no choice. Cursing softly, he loped down the front steps and across the gravel drive to his ute.
Stella knew she was bogged. She was down to her axle in loose pebbles and sand in the middle of the outback - the middle of nowhere - and she was sick as a dog, more miserable than a lost puppy.
Another wave of nausea rose from her stomach to her mouth and she sat very still, willing her stomach to settle. It probably hadn't been very bright to stop in the middle of the creek, but she'd felt so ill she'd had no choice.
How hard was this going to get? She'd been in enough mess before she'd left home, but now she was stuck in this crummy little creek hundreds of kilometres from anywhere - and out of the mobile network. When she needed to phone Scott, she couldn't!
It was her own fault, of course. She should have tried ringing him again before she'd left Sydney and told him she was coming. Then he would have given her detailed directions. He might have warned her about this creek crossing.
But if she'd rung him, he would have expected to know why she wanted to see him. And she hadn't liked to explain about the baby over the phone.
After their breakup, she couldn't have discussed her pregnancy over the phone. There was just too much to talk about and it was all too complicated. She wanted to work out the very best solution for their baby's future, and to do that she needed to discuss it with him face to face.
And she hadn't wanted to waste precious money on air fares when she might need it for the baby, so she'd spent five days - nearly a week - driving all this way from Sydney.
Sighing heavily, she looked at her watch and then at the reddening sky. It would be dark soon and, for the first time since she'd left home, she felt genuinely frightened.
Fighting off the urge to panic, she forced herself to consider her options. She couldn't spend the night sleeping in the car in the middle of an outback creek; and trying to make camp under trees up on the bank had no appeal. No, she'd rather gamble on how far she was from the homestead and try to walk from here.
She reached into the back of her little car and groped for her shoes, but before she could find them the sound of a motor came throbbing towards her.
Her head shot up and she peered through the duststreaked windscreen. Silhouetted against the sun, a utility truck crested the low hill on the other side of the creek, then rattled effortlessly down the dirtand gravel-strewn slope.
"Thank you, God." Smiling with relief, she dropped her shoe and her spirits soared as she watched the ute rumble towards her over the loose, water-washed rocks in the creek-bed. Perhaps it was Scott driving. "Please, let it be Scott."
There was a male figure at the wheel and a blue heeler cattle dog perched on the seat next to him.
The truck pulled to a halt beside her.
From her little low car, she looked up. The driver's face was shaded by the brim of his akubra hat, but she saw black stubble on a resolute jaw and dark hair on a strongly muscled forearm.
Not Scott. Oh, dear, no. Not Scott, but the one man she'd hoped to avoid. His brother, Callum.
Excerpted from A Bride At Birralee by Barbara Hannay Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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