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Thirty minutes out of Brisbane, dark silver-shafted clouds, billowing like an atomic mushroom, began to roll in from the east. A veteran of countless flying hours, he watched in familiar fascination as the pluvial masses began to bank up in spectacular thunder heads that spiralled into the stratosphere. Nature at its awesome best, he thought; unimaginable power that could pick up a light plane, roll it, drop it, strike it with lightning, or miraculously allow it to pass through.
This afternoon's pyrotechnic show was one he knew he could handle. But spectacular or not, a line of raging thunderstorms wasn't what he needed right now. He felt a knot of frustration tighten in his chest. Abominable weather inspired trepidation in any pilot but he hadn't got the luxury of giving into it. The Baron nosed into the dense grey fog. It closed in on all sides like a wet, heavy blanket, swallowing the aircraft up. Streams of tarnished silver shot through with silent lightning like tracer bullets flew past the wings.
He couldn't accept another disruption to his long journey in stoic silence. He let out a few hearty curses that steadied head and hand, effectively reducing the buildup of tension. As the man behind the controls, he had to remain passive. It was the only way to stay in command.
He was an experienced pilot. It was a long time since he had gained his licenceas it happened, immediately he was eligible. His father, Daniel, had been so proud of him, clapping a congratulatory hand on his shoulder.
"You're a natural, Garrick. You do everything with such ease. I couldn't be more proud of you, son!"
Surely the answer lay in inherited skills? His father had been his role model for everything. He had taken to flying the same way his father had. Naturally. But he was no fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants pilot. He was meticulous. Flying was the stuff of life for him. It was also the stuff of death. He could never forget that. Not for a moment. There had been far too many light aircraft crashes in the Outback. Yet he loved flying with a passion! The roar down the runway, then lifting up like an eagle into the wild blue yonder with only the clouds for company. The incredible freedom of it! It was marvellously exhilarating and marvellously peaceful at one and the same time. Yet over the years he had flown through countless bad and often frightening situations. One need only consider the perilous weatherfar worse than what he was encountering nowover the stifling hot and humid immensity of the Top End savannahs in the middle of the wet season!
His brief moment of frustration over, he found fresh energy, bringing his concentration to bear on winding the plane in and out of a series of down draughts, the sort that always left passengers seriously sick and shaking; there was comfortable seating for four passengers aft. But, for him, there was a weird kind of rush negotiating the thermal traffic. The Beech Baron was a beautiful machinea symbol of what his pioneering family had attainedfrom the twin Continental engines to the state-of-the-art avionics. The Baron was religiously maintained to keep it as safe and airworthy as humanly possible. Even so, at one point severe turbulence began to toss the 2500 kilogram aircraft around like a kid's toy. Mercifully, it cut out before it became a real nuisance.
All in all it had been one hell of a trip. First up, he had agreed to take on a medical emergency flight for a neighbouring station owner who had been without wings for some time. Big financial setbacks were the cause he knew. It was his grandfather, Barton, who had made Rylance Enterprises one of the first pastoral companies to diversify to the extent that Coorango was only one of a number of major income earners. The dicey situation that had faced Garrick on this flight was to land on a sealed Outback road. A road that cut through the middle of the uninhabitable wilds: risky at the best of times, given the width of the road and the danger the kangaroos in the area posed. Kangaroos were easily spooked by noises, never mind the hellish din made by the descending Beech Baron's engines. Generally they went into a blind panic, hopping all over the road and near vicinity, presenting a range of hazards. Some would plonk down on an airstrip as if overtaken by acute arthritis, turning soft dark glossy eyes that said, don't hurt me. Kangaroos didn't do common sense well.
At least there had been no danger of the makeshift airstrip being too short. The bush highway went on into infinity, cutting a straight path through a fiery rust-red landscape densely sown with billowing clumps of spinifex bleached a burnt gold, stunted shrubs with branches like carvings, innumerable dry watercourses that the nomadic Aborigines used as camps and here and there life saving waterholes that gleamed a molten gold in the sunlight.
Sand. Spinifex. Claypans. Such was the Interior.
The station hand, poor guy, had been grey-faced, sweating, in all sorts of agony. Not that to his everlasting credit, he uttered a single word of complaint. At best guess, a gall or kidney stone. The station owner and two of his men had brought the patient by ute to the highway, where they'd loaded him aboard the Beech Baron on a stretcher. It was his self-imposed task to fly the man to the nearest RFD Base. The Royal Flying Doctor Service at that particular point in time was pushed to the limit with an unusually high number of young mothers going into labour and all kinds of serious station injuries, like having a shoulder run through by a bull's horn for one. Apparently the poor beggar had been pinned to the rail for a good twenty minutes.
His Good Samaritan act had set back his time log. He didn't think he deserved the barrage of thanks he had received from the grateful group.
"You're a marvel, you are, Rick, old son!" Scobie, the station owner, a giant of a man with the girth of a beer barrel, had slapped his back in admiration. A lesser man would have lost his balance and toppled to the ground. "Takes one hell of a pilot to land a Beech Baron worth well over a million dollars, dead square at 180ks on a bush highway. Can't thank you enough, mate. Whitey here had his eyes covered the whole time you were landing!" Scobie looked across at the whipcord-lean stockman, who grinned sheepishly.
"Never seen nuthin' like it, Mr Rylance!" volunteered Whitey. "Word is, you're an ace!"
"An ace with a lot of luck, Whitey!"
By the time he reached Brisbane, the storm was over as if it had never been. A brazen brassy sun slanted through the massed cloud display, swiftly dispersing it. The sky was washed a vigorous opal-blue. It was coming on to sunset, the usual tropical glory, but soon after the indigo dusk of the tropics would fall like a curtain. He landed the aircraft as smoothly as any blue crane landing on water, parking it behind a Gulfstream jet. Time would come when he'd get around to buying one outright himself. After flight checks were done, he disembarked from the plane, making his way across the concrete apron to the chauffeur driven limousine waiting to take him to the Rylance riverside mansion.
"Good flight, Mr Rylance?" the chauffeur asked, tipping two fingers to the smart grey cap of his uniform.
"I've had better." He smiled, keeping his hand on his one piece of luggage, a large suitcase which he swung into the boot. He didn't need the chauffeur to do it for him, for goodness' sake.
A moment more and they were underway, keeping to pleasant small talk. The purpose of his long journey was to act as best man for his kinsman, Corin, at his wedding in two days' time. This was to be a great occasion after the extremely traumatic months following the deaths of Dalton Rylance, Corin and Zara's father, and his glamorous second wife, Leila in a plane crash in China. It was an event that had shocked the nation. Dalton Rylance had been an industrial giant. But life went on and one had no recourse but to go with it. Or go under. Corin was a warrior. He was now to receive his reward, marrying the love of his life, Miranda Thornton.
Garrick had met petite, silver-blonde Miranda at Dalton's funeral and taken to her immediately. Not only was she enchanting to look at, she was highly intelligent she planned to become a doctorso that engaging manner might come in handy at some patient's bedside. Corin was lucky. And deserved to be. Life hadn't been easy for him, or Zara either, after the premature death of their mother, the first Mrs Rylance, universally adored by the extended family. Not so the second Mrs Rylance. She certainly hadn't won his mother's heart. Garrick's mother from time to time had a scathing tongue. He had met Leila on isolated family occasions and found her unexpectedly warm and charming. Or at least she had turned on the charm which she had in abundance for him.
"You're a rich, handsome young man, my darling." His mother had offered an astringent explanation. "Goes a long way with women like Leila."
Be that as it may, Leila Rylance had been a stunningly glamorous woman and she had made the arrogant and demanding Dalton happy. So, tragedy all round. Even the super-rich couldn't escape it.
Dalton Rylance and his father Daniel had been second cousins. His own branch of the family had been sheep and cattle barons since colonial days. His father was a wonderful man, a truly inspirational figure and a hero to his family. Tragically, for the past few years he had lived out his life in a wheelchair after suffering severe spinal injuries in a riding accident, caused when he went to the assistance of a foolhardy jackeroo on the station.
Dalton and Daniel had never been close, though his father held a substantial block of shares in Rylance Metals. Dalton Rylance had not been a man who inspired liking, never mind affection, but he had been a brilliant businessman, a larger than life character and a major pioneer of the State's mining industry.
As happened far more often than he cared to dwell on, Garrick's thoughts turned to Zara. She who had abandoned him to an emotional hell. Once upon a time, he and Zara had been passionately in love. Correction. He had been passionately in love. Zara had been spreading her wings. Trying out her prolifically blossoming womanly powers in sexual exploration. Their lovemaking had lifted his heart clear of his body. He had been wild for her. He would have done anything for her. Made any sacrifice, short of abdicating his inheritance. He had always known, as his father's only son and heir he had huge responsibilities waiting for himjust as did Corin, Dalton's heir.
Zara was the Rylance heiress. Dalton, the quintessential chauvinist, had expected little else of her than to look beautiful and in time marry the scion of another enormously rich family and produce heirs. Dalton Rylance had carried the banner loudly proclaiming that women had no head for business.
"Big business can only be run by men."
Predictably, Rylance Metals was male orientated. So, for that matter, was Rylance Enterprises, though that was fast changing. His mother, Helen, sat on the board of all of their companies, taking an active not passive role. It was she who had recommended, then had brought in another two key businesswomen who had proved their worth. His mother was quite a woman. And a great judge of character, which had often made him often wonder how she had slipped so badly with Zara.
His beautiful, beautiful Zara. His dark angel. The stuff of dreams.
At twenty-eight, two years younger than he, she was still unattached when everyone had thought she would marry early and brilliantly. Any young woman as beautiful and radiant as Zara, let alone an heiress, would attract a great deal of male attention. She had never been without her long line of admirers. Only, to her credit, Zara was no spoilt little rich girl. She had turned herself into a highflyer in the business world. Dalton hadn't reckoned on his only daughter's cleverness. But Zara had inherited the Rylance business brain. Even so, Dalton had never offered her a job within Rylance Metals.
One of his few big mistakes. But then Dalton Rylance had been a man of his time. For some years now Zara, armed with a Masters Degree in BusinessDalton had allowed that to protect the inheritance that was to come to herhad called London her home. That was where she lived and worked. And formed dangerous relationships. Some time back, she had been embroiled in a huge scandal over there. A cause célèbre involving a notorious and extremely rich European businessman, Konrad Hartmann, a man with vast multinational interests, who, after a lengthy undercover operation, had been found guilty of fraud on a massive scale. Hartmann was currently awaiting trial these things took timebut no doubt he would enjoy the good life in jail, where he could buy plenty of protection. When the story first broke, the less respected section of the British press had dubbed Zara Hartmann's beautiful young Australian mistress. The seed, not so subtly planted, was that she could have been privy to Hartmann's dubious and convoluted business dealings, or must have had her suspicions. She was, by all accounts, something of a financial whiz-kid herself as well as the daughter of Australian mining magnate, Dalton Rylance. All grist for the mill! The media had a field day, skating as close to libel as they could.
The threat of legal action had called off the hawks. Zara's distinguished and enormously influential boss at the time, Sir Marcus Boyle, had gone in to bat for her. Corin hadn't wasted any time, flying to London to arrange top legal representation. Later, when things settled, he had brought Zara home. Apparently, she had been all too willing to come.
He found no pleasure in the knowledge that Zara had had her fingers badly burned. An ill-advised love affair with a billionaire white-collar criminal, no less, though she had denied any serious ongoing relationship right from the start. But was that strictly true? Only Zara and Hartmann would know. What he knew for a fact was that he would never forgive Zara for how she had treated him. His heart might leap at the sight of her. His eyes might forever be dazzled. But a broken heart didn't easily mend. Heartache more often than not hatched hatred. Obsessive relationships were inherently of extremes. Only he didn't have it in him to hate Zara. All he could do was prevent her from ever again finding a chink in his armour.