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A wolf was at her door.
Okay, maybe it wasn't quite at her door, Nikki conceded, as she came back to earth. Or back to the sofa. The howl was close, though. Her hair felt as if it was spiking straight up, and for good reason.
It was the most appalling, desolate sound she could imagineand she wasn't imagining it.
She set her china teacup onto the coffee table with care, absurdly pleased she hadn't spilled it. She was a country girl now. Country girls didn't get spooked by wolves.
Yes, they did.
She fought for logic. Wolves didn't exist in Banksia Bay. This was the north coast of New South Wales. Was it a dingo?
Her landlord hadn't mentioned dingoes.
He wouldn't, she thought bitterly. Gabe Carver was one of the most taciturn men she'd ever met. He spoke in monosyllabic grunts. 'Sign here. Rent first Tuesday of the month. Any problems, talk to Joe down at the wharf. He's the handyman. Welcome to Banksia Bay.'
Even his welcome had seemed grudging.
Was he at home?
She peered nervously out into the night and was absurdly comforted to see lights on next door. Actually, it wasn't even next door. This was a huge old house on the headland at the edge of town. Three rooms had been split from the rest of the house and a kitchen installed to make her lovely apartment.
Her landlord was thus right through the wall. They shared the entrance porch. Taciturn or not, the thought that he was at home was reassuring. The burly seaman seemed tough, capable, powerfuleven vaguely scary. If the wolf came in
This was crazy. Nothing was coming in. Her door was locked. And it couldn't be a wolf. It was
The howl came again, long, low and filling the night with despair.
What would she know?
It was just a dog, howling at the moon.
It didn't sound like.. just a howl.
She peered out again, then tugged the curtains closed. Logical or not, this was scary. Barricade the door and go to bed. It was the only logical thing to do.
Did pain and desolation make any kind of sense?
Step away from the window, Nikkita, she told herself. This is nothing to do with you. This is weird country stuff.
'I'm a country girl.' She said it out loud.
'Um, no,' she corrected herself. 'You're not. You're a city girl who's lived in Banksia Bay for all of three weeks. You ran here because your low-life boss broke your heart. It was a dumb, irrational move. You know nothing about country living.'
But her landlord was right next door. Dogs? Wolves? Whatever it was, he'd be hearing it. He could deal with it himself or he could call Joe.
She was going to bed.
The howl filled the night, echoing round and round the big old house.
There was a dog out there, in trouble.
It was not Gabe's problem. Not.
The howl came again, mournful as death, filling his head with its misery. If Jem had been here she'd be off to investigate.
He missed Jem so much it was as if he'd lost a part of him.
He was settled in his armchair by the fire. Things were as they'd always been, but the place at his feet was empty.
He'd found Jem sixteen years ago, a scrappy, half grown collie, skin and bones. She was attacking a rotting fish on the beach.
He'd lifted her away, half expecting the starved pup to growl or snap, but she'd turned and licked his face with her disgusting tongueand sealed a friendship for life.
She passed away in her sleep, three months back. He still put his hand down, expecting the warmth of her rough coat. Expecting her to be there.
The howl cut across his thoughts. Impossible to ignore.
Okay, he didn't want to get involvedwhen had he ever?but he couldn't bear this. The howl was coming from the beach. If a dog was trapped down there The tide was on its way in.
Why would a dog be trapped on the beach?
Why would a dog be on the beach?
The howl again.
He sighed. Abandoned his book. Hauled on the battered sou'wester that, as a professional fisherman, was his second skin. Tugged on his boots and headed for the door.
There wasn't a lot of use staring at the fire anyway. He'd made a conscious decision when his wife walked away to never live with anyone again. Emotional connection spelled disaster.
That didn't mean he had to like his solitary life. With Jem it had been just okay. Not any more.
Her silk pyjamas were laid out on her pretty pink quilt, waiting for her to climb into her brand new single bed. But the howling went on. She couldn't bear it.
She might not be a country girl but she'd figured whatever was out there was distressed, not threatening. The howl contained all the misery in the world.
Her landlord lived next door. He should fix it, but would he?
The first day she'd been here she'd worried about pipes gurgling in her antiquated bathroom. The bathroom was vast, the bathtub was huge, and the plumbing looked as if it had come from a medieval castle. The gurgling had her thinking there was no way she was using the bath.
Gabe had been outside, chopping wood. She'd hesitated to approach, intimidated by his gruffnessand also the size, the sense of innate power, the sheer masculinity of the man. Chopping wood he'd looked quite something.
Actually he'd been stripped to the waist and he'd looked really something.
She was being stupid. Hormonal. Dumb. She'd plucked up courage and approached, feeling like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. 'Please sir, could you fix my pipes?'
'See Joe,' he'd muttered and promptly disappeared.
She'd been disconcerted for days.
She'd seethed for a bit, tried to ignore the gurgling for a few days, had showers, and finally gone to find Joe.
Joe was an ancient ex-fisherman living on a dilapidated schooner that looked as if it hadn't been to sea for years. He'd promised to fix the gurgling that afternoon. He didsort ofthumping the pipes with a spannerbut while she'd been explaining the problem, a fishing boat swept past. Huge. Freshly painted. Gleaming clean and white. The deck was stacked with cray-pots. The superstructure was strung with scores of lanterns that Joe explained were to attract squid.
Her landlord had been at the wheel.
Still disconcerting. Big, weathered, powerful.
Still capable of doing things to her hormones just by being.
'Turns his hand to anything, that one,' Joe told her as they watched Gabe go past. 'Some of the guys here just fish for squid. Or crays. Or tuna. Then there's a drop in numbers, or sales go off and they're in trouble. I've been a fisherman all my life and I've seen so many go to the wall. Gabe just buys 'em out and keeps going. He went away for a while, but came back when things got bad. Bailed us out. Six of the boats here are his.'
At the wheel of his boat, Gabe looked an imposing figure. His sou'wester might have once been yellow, but that time was long past. He wore oversized waterproof trousers with braces, rubber boots and a faded checked shirt rolled up to reveal arms maybe four times the width of hers. His eyes were creased against the elements, and his face looked almost grim.
After days at sea, his stubble was almost a beard. His thick black hairin need of a cutwas stiff with salt.
His boat passed within yards of Joe's, and he gave Joe a salute. No smile, though.
He didn't look as if he ever smiled.
He bought up other fishermen when they went broke? He made money out of other people's misery?
Her hormones needed to find someone else to fantasise about, fast.
'I'd guess he's not popular,' she'd ventured, but Joe had looked at her as if she was crazy.
'Are you kidding? Without Gabe, the fishing industry here'd be bust. He buys out the guys who go broke, gives 'em a fair price, then employs 'em to keep working. He's got thirty men and women working for him now, all making a better living than they ever did solo, and there's not one but who'd lay down their lives for him. Not that he'd ask. Never asks anything of anyone. Never lets anyone close. If anyone's in trouble Gabe's first on hand, doing what needs doing, whatever the cost. But he doesn't want thanks. Backs off a mile if you try and give it. He keeps to himself, our Gabe. Apart from that one disaster of a marriage, he always has and he always will. The town respects that. We'd be nuts not to.'
He paused, watching as Gabe expertly manoeuvred his boat into a berth that seemed way too small to take her. He did it as if he was parking a Mini Minor in a paddock, as if he had all the room in the world. 'But now his dog's died,' Joe said slowly, reflectively. 'I dunno We've never seen him without her; not since he was a lad, and how he's handling it ' He broke off and shook his head. 'Yeah, well, about those pipes '
That was two weeks ago.
Another howl jerked her back to the present. A dog in trouble.
She had to do something.
There was nothing she could do. This was something her landlord had to cope with.
The howl came again, long, low and dreadful. She'd tugged on her pyjama top. Almost defiantly. Another howl. She paused, torn.
What if her landlord wasn't at home? What if he'd left the light on and was gone?
There was a dog out there in trouble. Not your problem. NYP. NYP. NYP. She closed her eyes. Another howl.
She hauled off her pyjamas and tugged on jeans. Designer jeans. She should do something about her clothes.
She should do something about a dog. Where was a torch? What if it was a dingo?
She grabbed her mobile phone. Checked reception. Checked she had the emergency services number on speed dial.
There was a heavy metal poker by the fireside. So far she hadn't lit the fireor she had once but it had smoked and what did you do about a fire that smoked?
You bought a nice clean electric fire.
Another howlthey were now almost continuous.
Poker in one hand, torch in the other, country-girl Nikkior notwent to see.
The beach beneath the headland was bushland almost to the water's edge. Gabe strode down the darkened track with ease. He'd lived here all his lifehe practically knew each twig. He didn't need a torch. In moonlight, torchlight stopped you seeing the big picture.
He reached the beach and looked out to the water's edge. Following the howl.
A huge dog. Skinny. Really skinny. Standing in the shallows, howling with all the misery in the world.
Gabe walked steadily forward, not wanting to startle it, walking as if he was strolling slowly along the beach and hadn't even noticed the dog.
The dog saw him. It stopped howling and backed further into the water. Obviously terrified.
A wolfhound? A wolfhound mixed with something else. Black and shaggy and desolate.
'It's okay.' He was still twenty yards away. 'Hey, boy, it's fine. You going to tell me what's the matter?'
The dog stilled.
It was seriously big. And seriously skinny. And very, very wet. Had it come off a boat?
He thought suddenly of Jem, shivering on the beach sixteen years back. Jem, breaking his heart.
This dog was nothing to do with him. This was not another Jem.
He couldn't leave it, though. Could he entice it up the cliff? If he could get it into his truck he'd take it to Henrietta who ran the local Animal Welfare shelter.
That was the extent of his involvement. Dogs broke your heart almost worse than people.
'I'm not going to hurt you.' He should have brought some steak, something to coax him. 'You want to come home and get a feed? Here, boy?'
The dog backed still further. For whatever reason, this dog didn't want company. He looked a great galumphing frame of terror.
It'd have to be steak. There was no way he'd catch him without.
'Stay here,' he told the dog. 'Two minutes tops and I'll be back with supper. You like rump steak?'
The dog was almost haunch-deep in water. Was he dumb or just past acting rationally?
'Two minutes,' he promised. 'Don't go away.'
The dog was on the beach. As soon as she walked out of the front door she figured it out. The house was on the headland and the howls were echoing straight up.
Should she knock on her landlord's side of the house?
If he was home he must be hearing this, she thought, and if he'd heard it and done nothing, then no amount of pleading would make a difference. Joe said he helped people. Ha!
He must have heard and decided to ignore it. He was like Joe said, a loner.
Knock and see?
What was worse, the Hound of the Baskervilles or her landlord?
Don't be stupid. Knock.
She knocked. Nothing.
She didn't know whether to be relieved or not. Another howl.
What next? Ring the police?
What would she say? Excuse me but there's a dog on the beach. What sort of wimpy statement was that? She needed to see what was happening. Cautiously.
There was a narrow track from the house to the beach but she'd only been on it a couple of times. It was a private track, practically overgrown. Where did the track start?
She searched the edge of the overgrown garden with the torch but she couldn't find it.
So was she going to bush-bash her way down to the cove?
This was nuts. Dangerous nuts.
Only it wasn't dangerous. There was only about fifty yards of bush-land between the house and the beach. The bush wasn't so thick she couldn't push through.
And that howl was doing things to her insides. It sounded like she imagined the Hound of the Baskervilles would sound, howling ghostly anguish over the moors. Or over her beach.
The animal must be stuck in a trap or something.
If it was stuck, what could she do?
Go to the beach, figure what's wrong and then ring for help.
You can do this. You're a big girl. A country girl. Or not.
She wanted, suddenly and desperately, to be back home in Sydney. In her lovely life she'd walked away from.
Face that tomorrow, she told herself harshly. For tonight go fix a howl.