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The Outback Marriage Ransom
By Emma Darcy
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst day at Gundamurra
THE plane was heading down to a red dirt airstrip. Apart from the cluster of buildings that marked the sheep station of Gundamurra, there was no other habitation in sight between here and the horizon - a huge empty landscape dotted with scrubby trees. Ric wished he still had the camera he'd stolen. He could take some unbelievable shots here.
"The middle of nowhere," Mitch Tyler muttered.
"I'm beginning to think I made the wrong choice."
"Nah," Johnny Ellis drawled. "Anything's better than being locked up. At least we can breathe out here."
"What? Dust?" Mitch mocked.
The plane landed, kicking up a cloud of it.
"Welcome to the great Australian Outback," the cop escorting them said derisively. "And just remember ... if you three city smart-arses want to survive, there's nowhere to run."
All three of them ignored him. They were sixteen. Regardless of what life threw at them, they were going to survive. And Johnny had it right, Ric thought. Six months working on a sheep station, had to be better than a year in a juvenile jail. Ric, for one, couldn't stand overbearing authority. He hoped the guy who ran this place wasn't some kind of tyrant, getting off on having three slaves to do his bidding.
What had the judge said at the sentencing? Something about getting back to ground values. A program that would teach them what real life was about. In other words, you worked to live, not skim off other people. Easy for him to say, sitting behind his bench in a cushy chair, safe with his silver-tailed government income.
There was no security in Ric's world.
Never had been.
Thieving what you wanted was the only way to get it. And there was a lot Ric wanted. Though stealing the Porsche to impress Lara Seymour had been stupid. He'd lost her now. That was certain. A girl with her privileged background wouldn't even consider a convicted criminal for a boyfriend.
The plane taxied back to where a guy was waiting beside a four-wheel drive Cherokee. Big guy - broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, craggy weathered face, iron-grey hair. Had to be over fifty but still looking tough and formidable. Not someone to buck in a hurry, Ric decided, though size didn't automatically command his respect. If the guy laid a hand on him ...
"John Wayne rides again," Mitch muttered in the mocking tone he habitually used. Sour on the whole world was Mitch. Could become a real drag, living with him at close quarters.
"No horse," Johnny remarked with a grin.
He was going to be much easier to get on with, Ric thought.
Johnny Ellis had probably cultivated an affable manner as his stock-in-trade, as well as a protective shield, though he was big enough and strong enough to match anyone in a punch-up. He had friendly hazel eyes, a ready grin, and sun-streaked brown hair that tended to flop over his forehead. He'd been caught dealing in marijuana, though he swore it was only to musicians who'd get it from someone else anyway.
Mitch Tyler was a very different kettle of fish, charged with a serious assault on a guy who, he claimed, had date-raped his sister. Though he hadn't put that defence forward in court. Didn't want his sister dragged into it. He was lean and mean, dark hair, biting blue eyes, and Ric had the sense that violence was simmering under his surface all the time.
Ric, himself, was darker still in colouring. Typical Italian heritage. Black curly hair, almost black eyes, olive skin, with the kind of Latin good looks that attracted the girls. Any girl he wanted. Even Lara. But looks weren't enough in the long run. He had to have money. And all the things money could buy. It was the only way to beat the class difference.
The plane came to a halt.
The cop told them to get their duffle bags from under the back seats. A few minutes later he was leading them out to a way of life which was far, far removed from anything the three of them had known before.
The initial introduction had Ric instantly tensing up.
"Here are your boys, Mister Maguire. Straight off the city streets for you to whip into shape."
The big old guy - and he sure was big close up - gave the cop a steely look. "That's not how we do things out here." The words were softly spoken but they carried a confident authority that scorned any need for physical abuse.
He nodded to them, offering a measure of respect. "I'm Patrick Maguire. Welcome to Gundamurra. In the Aboriginal language, that means "Good day." I hope you will all eventually feel it was a good day when you first set foot on my place."
Ric found himself willing to give it a chance.
Fighting it wasn't going to do him any good anyway.
"And you are ...?" Patrick Maguire held out a massive hand to Mitch who looked suspiciously at it as though it were a bone-cruncher.
"Mitch Tyler," he answered, thrusting his own hand out in defiant challenge.
"Good to meet you, Mitch."
A normal handshake, no attempt to dominate.
Johnny's hand came out with no hesitation.
"Johnny Ellis. Good to meet you, Mister Maguire." Big smile to the old man, pouring out the charm. Getting onside fast was Johnny.
A weighing look in the steely grey gaze, plus a hint of amusement. No one's fool this, Ric thought, as he himself was targeted by eyes that had probably seen through all the facades people put up.
"Ric Donato," he said, taking the offered hand, feeling the strength in it, and oddly enough a warmth that took away some of the sense of alienation that was deep in Ric's bones.
"Ready to go?" the old man asked.
"Yeah. I'm ready," Ric said more aggressively than he meant to.
Ready to take on the whole damned world one day.
And come out on top.
Maybe even win Lara in the end.
He still couldn't get her out of his head. Probably never would. Class ... that's what she had. Unattainable for Ric right now but he'd get there. One way or another, he'd make it to where he wanted to be.
Excerpted from The Outback Marriage Ransom by Emma Darcy Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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