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Kate Brodie stood with her suitcase beside her, her sensible jacket folded over her arm, and looked across the stretch of sunburned grass to the site of her first and worst heartbreak.
She had hoped to feel calmer about coming back to the Australian Outback after nine years, but her first glimpse of the low, sprawling homestead baking beneath the harsh sun sent her stomach churning like a tumble dryer.
Such an annoying reaction after all this time. She was no longer the naïve English teenager who'd come to her uncle's cattle property for a holiday. She'd recovered years ago from the embarrassing crush she'd wasted on Noah Carmody, her uncle's handsome young stockman.
Kate looked again at the silent homestead with its ripple-iron roof, reaching low like a shady hat over deep verandas, and her throat tightened painfully. She could almost picture her Uncle Angus standing at the top of the front steps, waiting to welcome her, his silver hair shining in the sun's dazzle and his smile as wide as his open arms.
He'd lived in virtual exile in Australia—which had always seemed like the bottom of the world to Kate—but he'd been her only male relative and she'd loved knowing that he was there, like a deep-sea anchor. It was so hard to accept that he'd gone for ever.
Turning slowly, she looked about her, taking in the vastness, the overwhelming emptiness of the Outback. The tourist coach that had brought her from Cunnamulla had already disappeared into the shimmering heat haze and flat, red earth dotted with grey clumps of dried grass stretched as far as the eye could see.
Her uncle's letters had hinted at the prolonged drought in this part of Australia, butshe was shocked to see how desperately hot and dry it was.
Nine years ago, these same parched paddocks had been oceans of lush grass, and the creeks had run with clear, fresh water. Pretty green lawns and bright flower-filled gardens had surrounded the homestead.
Now, with the gardens gone, every blade of grass shrivelled, and the earth sun-bleached and bone-hard, the homestead had lost its grandeur. It looked sad and faded, as if it, too, had succumbed to the cruelty of the withering sun.
Four lone frangipani trees had survived the drought and they stood, two on either side of the front steps, like maids of honour. They were ablaze with extravagant blooms, and their gaudy splashes of colour were like thick daubs in an oil painting—pristine white, sharp lemon, deep rosy-pink and rich apricot.
A photographer's dream.
But now wasn't the time for photographs
A hot wind gusted, picking up gritty dust and throwing it in Kate's face. She ducked her head and blinked hard. After her tediously long journey, dirt in her eyes was almost too much. She was weary to the bone. Jet lagged.
And she still had to face up to Noah.
Which shouldn't be a problem. She was sure Noah Carmody had long forgotten the awkwardness of her teenage infatuation. For heaven's sake, it had all happened when she was seventeen. Noah had recognised her crush, had taken pity on her and kissed her.
Unfortunately, she'd responded with a wantonness that had shocked him. That was the embarrassing part Kate fervently hoped Noah had forgotten.
She'd been so wild and headstrong back then, so desperately in love with him. And with the buoyancy of youth she'd bounced back from his rejection. Focusing on the kiss rather than the rejection, she'd gone home to England with her head full of dreams of leaving school, of getting a job, and saving hard to return to Australia.
She'd planned to work as a jillaroo in the Outback, to meet up with Noah again, and she'd been sure that, given time, she could win his heart and marry him.
How pathetic she'd been, fighting her mother's protests and refusing to get her A levels, or to go to university. She'd given up everything for that one dream. And then, at about the same time she'd earned the money to buy her plane ticket to Australia, word had arrived via Uncle Angus that Noah had married an Australian girl.
Even now, all these years later, the memory of that letter made Kate's throat close over. Thank God she'd eventually recovered. It had taken years, but at last Kate was normal. Her latest boyfriend, Derek Jenkins, was a rising star in London banking and Kate was quietly confident that she was over Noah. Completely and permanently over him.
When she saw him again, she would be as reserved and polite as he'd always been with her, and the only emotion she would show would be her grief over Angus's passing.
Now Kate marched resolutely across the final stretch of dirt to the front steps, where an elderly cattle-dog, sleeping beneath the low veranda, lifted his head and blinked hazel eyes at her. He rose stiffly and approached her, his blue-and-white-flecked tail wagging.
Kate stopped. She hadn't had much experience of large dogs, and she expected him to bark, but he remained utterly silent, watching her keenly.
'Is anyone home?' she asked.
The dog gave another lazy wag of his tail, and then retreated to the shade beneath the floorboards, like a pensioner allowed to enjoy the shade after a lifetime of hard work.
Kate couldn't blame him for keeping out of the sun. Already she could feel it stinging the back of her neck. Sweat trickled into the V of her bra and made her skin itch. She hurried up the short flight of timber steps into the welcome shade on the homestead veranda.
And stopped dead.
The very man she'd been fretting over was sprawled in a canvas chair. Shirtless.
Kate gulped. And stared.
His face was covered by a broad-brimmed akubra, but she couldn't mistake that long, rangy body and those impossibly wide shoulders. His bare chest was bronzed and broad, and it rose and fell rhythmically.
By contrast, Kate's breathing went haywire.
It was the shock, she told herself, the shock of finding Noah Carmody asleep at midday. The last, the very last thing she'd expected.
She'd invaded his privacy, but, heaven help her, she couldn't stop staring.
She took another step and the veranda's bare floorboards creaked, but Noah didn't move. Her gaze fixed on his hands, large, long fingered, suntanned and beautiful, loosely folded over the belt buckle of his jeans.
Carefully, she set her suitcase down and continued to stare. His hips were lean, his thighs strong, and his blue-jeans-clad legs seemed to stretch endlessly in front of him. He'd removed one riding boot and kicked it aside, and his right foot now looked strangely exposed and intimate in a navy blue sock with a hole in the big toe. No doubt he'd fallen asleep in this chair before he'd got the other boot off.
Kate's lips formed the word, but no sound came out. She sent another hasty glance beyond the veranda, to the wide expanse of dry, empty plains spreading to infinity in every direction. She'd get no help from out there.
The house was silent, too. The front door was slightly ajar, offering a hint of a darkened and cool interior, but no sounds came from inside. Beside the door, an old hat with a battered crown hung on a row of pegs, and next to it a horse's bridle and a leather belt with a pocket-knife pouch. The possibility that her Uncle Angus had left them there, planning to use them again, burned a lump in Kate's throat.
She took another careful step towards the door. Someone must be awake—Noah's wife, or a housekeeper at least. But if she knocked she might disturb Noah. To Kate's dismay, her confidence shrank to zilch at the thought of that tall, muscle-packed, bare-chested man waking and setting his cool grey eyes on her.
She could avoid waking him if she went round to the back door. Then she would find the housekeeper in the kitchen. It was almost midday, for heaven's sake, and someone should be up and about. No doubt that someone should wake Noah
Turning carefully, she began to tiptoe, retracing her steps over the creaking veranda floorboards to the steps. Halfway across the veranda, she heard a deep, gravelly voice.
She spun around.
It was just as she'd feared.
Noah was out of his chair, standing tall. So tall. And heart-stoppingly attractive with a day's growth of dark beard shadowing his jaw. His eyes narrowed against the sun's glare. 'It is you, Kate, isn't it?'
'Yes.' Little more than a squeak emerged fromher tight throat. 'Hello.' She swallowed awkwardly. 'Hello, Noah.'
'Yes. Of course it's you.' His teeth flashed white in his suntanned face as he grinned. 'No one else has that colour hair.'
He crossed the veranda swiftly, and Kate thought, for a pulse-raising moment, that he was going to hug her. Her mind galloped, and with alarming ease she prepared herself for being hauled into his arms.
His bare chest would be warm and solid, and his satin-smooth skin would be stretched over muscles that were whipcord-hard after so many years of working in the Outback. Those amazing, strong arms would be about her once more. So sexy. And comforting, too, after her long and exhausting journey.
But Noah didn't hug her. Of course. She should have known he'd be careful and distant.
He held out his hand and shook hers formally. 'This is a surprise—a nice surprise—Kate. I'm afraid I—I've been in a bit of a mess since Angus's death. But it's good to see you.'
Shadows lingered beneath his eyes and his cheekbones seemed more prominent than they'd been nine years ago.
She said, 'I was terribly shocked to hear about Uncle Angus.'
Noah shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his jeans. 'It was so sudden.'
His light grey eyes assessed her, taking in her too-fair skin and her travel-rumpled clothes, her pale-red hair, already limp after little more than an hour in the Outback's heat.
He lowered his glance to take in his own shirtless state and his mouth tilted sideways in an apologetic smile. Turning quickly, he snagged his shirt—faded blue cotton—from the back of the chair and he shrugged it on, his big shoulders straining its seams.
Covertly, Kate watched the fluid, deft movement of his fingers as he closed the buttons. Starting from the bottom, inch by inch, like a striptease in reverse, his hunky brown torso disappeared beneath the thin fabric. She hoped she didn't sigh, but she couldn't be sure.
Noah sat down again to pull on his abandoned boot. 'As you can see, I wasn't expecting you. I'm sorry. I'm afraid the wake went rather late last night.'
'The wake?' Kate frowned in puzzlement.
'We held a wake for Angus in the Blue Heeler pub in Jindabilla. A huge crowd came. People from all over the Channel Country.' Noah's eyes lightened momentarily. 'We gave him a great send off.'
'But—but—' Kate couldn't hold back the tremor in her voice. 'But you don't usually have a wake before the funeral, do you?'
At first Noah didn't respond.
His mouth pulled in at the corners and his bright gaze narrowed. 'No, not usually.' His voice was cautious and quiet, and his hand came up to scratch the side of his neck. 'Hell,' he whispered.
'What? What's the matter?'
He looked pained and rubbed at the side of his forehead, and she wondered if he had a headache. A hangover?
'You've come for the funeral.' He spoke softly, without looking at her, almost as if he was talking to himself.
'Well, yes. Of course that's why I've come.'
He almost winced as his gaze met hers. 'I'm sorry Kate. I'm afraid the funeral was yesterday. Yesterday afternoon.'
She stared at him in disbelief.
His Adam's apple rippled as he swallowed.
Spinning away from him, she clutched blindly at the veranda railing. Her mouth trembled and tears stung, then spilled. How could this have happened? She'd come all this way!
'Why—?' She swiped at her cheeks, pressed three fingers against her lips as she struggled for composure. Took a breath. 'Why didn't you wait for me?' she asked, without daring to look at Noah.
'I'm so sorry,' he said again and his voice was exceedingly gentle. 'We didn't— I didn't know you were coming.'
'But I said I'd come.' She glared at him. 'I telephoned. I spoke to someone here. I told her I was delayed, but I said I was definitely coming.'
She bit down on her lip to hold back a sob. Noah had no idea how deeply she'd always loved her uncle. And he couldn't possibly understand that she'd sacrificed an important photographic assignment to come all this way at such short notice. Or that she'd come despite her mother's bewildering indifference to her brother's death.
When Kate had announced that she would attend Angus's funeral, her mother had been predictably surprised, almost offended. 'Darling, no one down there will expect you.'
But Kate was used to her family's antipathy to their Australian relatives and had learned to ignore it.
Her boyfriend, by contrast, had been disconcertingly eager. 'Of course you must go. Stay as long as you like and have a holiday.' Not a word about missing her. Until she'd asked. And then, of course, Derek had told her she'd be missed enormously.
So, despite mild misgivings, Kate had been determined to come. It was very important to make a showing of family solidarity. She'd wanted, more than anything, to demonstrate to this tight-knit Outback community that at least someone among Angus Harrington's distant family cared, really cared, about his passing.
And she'd wanted the comfort of ritual, of a church service and a kindly minister saying prayers. Without that, she felt as if she couldn't really say goodbye.
But now She'd flown all this way, had travelled more than ten thousand tedious miles—in a jet, then a tiny inland plane no bigger than a bird, and then finally in a bouncing bus over narrow and bumpy Outback roads—for nothing.
Fighting her gathering exhaustion and despair, she turned to Noah, her voice rising on a querulous note. 'I spoke to a woman. I thought she was your housekeeper. I can't believe she didn't tell you I was coming.'
A muscle worked in Noah's jaw. Frowning, he shook his head. 'You can't have spoken to Ellen. She's been in such a state since Angus died, I sent her into town to stay with her sister.'
Kate huffed angrily. 'Well, I don't know who it was then. I was on my mobile and the line kept cutting out, but I told her that I was held up at Heathrow. We had terrible snow and high winds all over England, and there were twenty-four-hour delays at every airport.'
Sighing heavily, Noah stood with his hands sunk on his hips, not meeting Kate's gaze but looking somewhere out beyond, to the faded sky that hung listlessly above the parched brown paddocks.
'Truly, I'm very sorry, Kate. I didn't get your message. I—I think you must have spoken to Liane.'
'My ex-wife. She came back for the funeral.'
'We were divorced just before Christmas.'
Posted January 10, 2011
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Posted January 5, 2010
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