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Jess squirmed in the passenger seat as the car sped along the lonely outback road, windscreen wipers thrashing madly. At thirty-seven weeks pregnant, she would have found this journey tedious under any circumstances.
Tonight, in the inky, rain-filled darkness, with the wrong music playing and the monotonously annoying swish, swish of the wipers, the journey was definitely too late and too long and far too uncomfortable.
Beside Jess, her husband contentedly chewed gum and tapped the steering wheel, matching his rhythm to the latest hit from his favourite band. Alan was pleased with himself. Today he'd landed a new job managing an outback puba chance, at last, to earn regular wages. Jess had to admit she was pleased about this fresh start, away from the city temptations that had caused them so much trouble.
This morning, they'd travelled out to Gidgee Springs to view the pub and to settle the agreement, and in a few months, when their baby was old enough, Jess would probably work in the kitchen, so they'd both be earning again. Fabulous.
Admittedly, life in a tiny outback town wasn't quite what Jess had envisaged when she'd made her wedding vows, but she'd been pretty naive the day she'd married Alan Cassidy on a romantic tropical beach at sunset. Now, three years older and wiser, she saw this new job as a much-needed chance to start over, to get things right. Finally.
As the car sped on Jess peered ahead, worried that the headlights seemed too feeble to fight with the rain. They barely picked up the white dividing lines on the narrow road and she was grateful that the traffic in the lonely outback was so sparse.
She closed her eyes, hoping she might nod off, found herself, instead, remembering the terrible day she'd almost walked out on Alan after he lost the last of their money on yet another hopeless business scheme. Jess had made the tough decision even though she'd known firsthand that single-motherhood was a truly difficult option.
She'd never known her own father, instead had grown up with her mother and serial 'uncles', and it wasn't the life she wanted. But she'd realised she had to leave Alan even though it would mean the death of her dreams of a proper, two-parent family. Those dreams had already crumbled to dust on the day Alan lost their entire savings.
Single, she would at least regain control over her income, and she would have found a way to keep a roof over her baby's head. Then, at the last minute, Alan had seen an ad for this job as manager of a pub. It was another chance. And Jess had stayed.
Years ago, her mother had warned that marriage was a gamble, that very, very few lucky souls could ever hope for a happy ending. Now Jess was taking one last gamble, praying that after today things would be different.
Surely they should be different.
Oh, please, let him be different.
They would finish this interminable drive back to Cairns. Their baby would be born in a few weeks' time and then the three of them would start their new life in Gidgee Springs.
She would give her marriage one last chance.
Reece Weston almost missed seeing the car in the ditch. He was about to turn into his cattle property when the headlights picked up the rounded hump of a dead kangaroo lying in the rain at the edge of the bitumen, and then skid marks veering off the road. Driving closer, he caught the gleam of white metal.
Dread settled uncomfortably in his gut as he pulled over. A small sedan had plunged nose-down into a rocky gully.
He knew the vehicle hadn't been there an hour or two earlier, and chances were he was the first person to come across it. Grim-faced, he grabbed a torch from the glovebox and slipped his satellite phone into his coat pocket.
The night was moonless and black and wind threw rain into his face as he negotiated the slippery bank. The car's front passenger door hung open, the seat empty. Flashing the torch over the sides and bottom of the gully, Reece hoped he wasn't about to find a body flung from the crash. He couldn't see anyone outside the car, but when he edged closer to the wreckage he found the figure of a man slumped over the steering wheel.
Scrambling around the vehicle, he dragged the driver's door open, released the seat belt and felt for a pulse in the man's neck.
He tried the wrist. Still no sign of life.
Sickened, he wrenched open the back passenger door, shoved a suitcase from the back seat into the rain, leaned in and lowered the driver's seat backwards into a reclining position. It would be hours before help could arrive, so saving this guy was up to him. Struggling to get beside the body in the cramped space, he began to apply CPR.
Come on, mate, let's get this heart of yours firing.
Reece had only done this on dummies before, so he was by no means experienced, but he was glad the training came back to him now as he repeated the cycle over and overfifteen compressions and two slow breaths.
He wasn't sure how long he worked before he heard the woman's cry coming from some distance away. The thin sound floated faintly through the rain, and for a split second he thought that perhaps he'd imagined the sound, a trick of the wind. But then he heard it again. Louder.
'Help, someone, please!'
Definitely a woman. She had to be the passenger, surely.
He grabbed his sat phone and punched in numbers for the district's one and only cop, praying there'd be an answer. To his relief the response was instant and he'd never been more pleased to hear the sergeant's gravel-rough voice.
'Mick, Reece Weston here. There's been an accident out near the turn off to my placeWarringa. A small sedan's hit a kangaroo and gone off the road. I've been trying CPR on the driver, but I'm not having much luck, I'm afraid. No signs of life. And now there's someone else calling for help. I'm going to check it out.'
'OK, Reece. I'll alert the ambulance at Dirranbilla, and come straight out. But you know it'll take me a couple of hours. And the ambos could be even longer. Actually, with all this rain, they might have trouble getting through. The creeks are rising.'
Reece let out a soft curse as he disconnected. Times like this, he had to ask why his forebears had settled in one of the remotest parts of Australia. He flashed his torch up and down the gully again, then scrambled onto the road and cupped his hands to his mouth. 'Where are you?' he called.
'On a track off the road. Please help!'
The only track around here led into his homestead. The woman must have scrambled from the car in a bid to reach help for the driver. She sounded both scared and in pain.
Rain needled his face as he started to run, the beam of his torch bouncing ahead down the track, lighting muddy puddles and drenched grass and the slim trunks of gum trees. Rounding a bend, he found the woman huddled in the rain, sagged against a timber fencepost.
He flashed the torch over her and caught her pale, frightened face in its beam. Her hair was long and hanging in wet strings to her shoulders. Her arms were slender and as pale as her face, and she was holding something
A step or two closer, he realised she was supporting the huge bulge of her heavily pregnant belly. He was shocked to a standstill.
The man arrived just as the pain came again, huge and cruel, gripping Jess with a vice-like force. She tried to breathe with it, the way she'd been taught at antenatal classes, but no amount of breathing could bring her relief. She was too horrified and too scared. She wasn't supposed to be in labour now. Not three weeks early, not on the edge of a bush track in the rain and in the middle of nowhere. Not with Alan scarily unconscious and unable to help her.
The man stepped closer. She couldn't see him very well, but he seemed to be tall and dark-haired. Not old.
'Are you hurt?'
She shook her head, but had to wait till the contraction eased before she could answer. 'I don't think so,' she said at last. 'But I'm afraid my labour's started.'
He made a despairing sound. No doubt he wondered what the hell she was doing out here in an advanced state of pregnancy. She felt obliged to justify her predicament. 'My husband needs help. I was trying to find a homestead.'
By now his hand was at her elbow supporting her. Despite the rain, his skin was warm and she could feel the roughness of his work-toughened palm. She sensed she could trust him. She had no choice really.
'Alan's unconscious,' she said. 'I couldn't revive him, and then the pains started when I had to climb up the rocks to the road.' She gave a dazed shake of her head. 'I couldn't use my mobile. There's no network. But he needs an ambulance.'
'I saw him,' her rescuer said gently. He had brown eyes, as dark as black coffee, and he was watching her now with a worried frown. 'I've rung the local police and help is on the way. But, for the moment, I think you need to look after yourself and your little one.'
Jess's response was swallowed by a gasp as another contraction gripped her, then consumed her, driving every other thought from her head.
'Here, lean on me.' The stranger slipped his arm around her shoulders, steadying her against his solid chest.
Just having him there seemed to help.
'Thanks,' she said shyly when the pain was over.
'Look, you can't stay here.' Her good Samaritan slipped off his canvas coat and put it around her shoulders. 'This will at least keep the rain off you until I get you into the truck.' His voice was deep and kind. 'Can you wait here while I fetch it? I'll be as quick as I can.'
'Yes, of course.' She remembered to add, 'Thank you.'
He was gone then, but he was as good as his word, and in no time the truck's headlights lit up the track. The door creaked a little as he opened it and swung down, his long legs seeming to stretch for ever. Before Jess knew quite what was happening, he'd scooped her up into his arms.
At first she was too overawed by his strength to protest, but she quickly came to her senses. 'For heaven's sake. I'm the size of a whale. I'll break your back.'
'Don't fuss. I'm not letting you climb up into this truck. There you go.' With a grunt he deposited her carefully on the front seat. 'We won't worry about the seat belt. I'll be careful and it's not far.'
'But we're not leaving, are we? What about Alan?'
'The ambulance and the police are on their way.' His voice was quiet, but commanding.
Jess gaped at him. Was he suggesting she should just abandon her husband? 'We can't leave him,' she protested. 'The poor man's unconscious. He's all alone.'
She began to tremble as she remembered how still and pale Alan had looked.
Watching her, Reece drew a sharp breath. Her eyes filled with tears and he had to turn away as he wrestled with this new dilemma. It would be too cruel to tell her bluntly that her husband was beyond help. Somehow, he had to keep her focused on her own needs.
'Seems you're about to have a baby,' he said as gently as he could. 'I'm guessing you wouldn't want to have it in a dirty truck's cabin.'
'I can give you a bed at the homestead. It's not much of a choice, I know, but, under the circumstances, I'm sure it's what your husband would want for you.'
Jess felt too confused and uncomfortable to argue. Now, sitting upright in the truck, she could feel her baby's head pushing down.
She felt terrible about leaving Alan, but she guessed she didn't really have a choice. Her priority now was their baby's safety, and almost as soon as the truck started up another contraction began. She dragged in a deep breath as the pain cut harder, deeper, lower, and she began to pant, staring out into the dark, rainy night, trying frantically not to moan and to concentrate instead on her breathing and the skinny trunks of gum trees flashing past.
No one had warned her that the pain would get this bad.
When it finally eased, her rescuer asked, 'Is this your first baby?'
Jess nodded. ''Fraid so. What about you? Has your wife been through this?'
'I don't have a wife,' he said quietly.
'Is there a woman at the homestead?'
Somehow, she managed to suppress a groan of disappointment. She'd been hoping to find a woman who'd been through this. Someone who could, at the very least, reassure her.
'By the way, my name's Reece.' He flashed a shy smile and for a moment his rather stern face looked incredibly appealing. 'Reece Weston.'
'Jess Cassidy. And I should have saidI'm so grateful to you.'
He shrugged. 'I'm glad I found you.'
'So am I, believe me.' She wondered if she ever would have made it, stumbling down this long, rough track in the rain on her own.
'Do you know if the baby's a boy or a girl?'
She supposed Reece was trying to take her mind off Alan.
'No,' she confessed. 'I didn't ask. I told the doctors I didn't want to know. I wanted a surprise.'
The sad truth was, she hadn't wanted Alan to know. He would have been so cocky and possessive if the baby was a boy, and at the time she'd still been undecided about whether she should stay with him.
And now Oh, God, she felt another stab of guilt as she remembered how terribly pale and still Alan had been.
Was there a chance she'd panicked and overreacted? Maybe he was going to be OK. She was feeling so dazed, so sideswiped by the sudden onset of pain coming right on top of the accident.
Ahead of her now, through the rain, she could see a homestead at last. It was a typically North Queensland, timber dwelling, and ever so welcoming tonight with the golden glow of lights on the veranda. As they drew up at the front steps she saw two striped canvas squatter's chairs and a row of pegs holding battered Akubras and coats.
A stooped, elderly man appeared, squinting out at them like a short-sighted, bow-legged gnome.
In a blink, Reece was out of the truck and at Jess's door. 'I'm OK, thanks. Really, you don't have to lift me down.'
Once again he ignored her. 'Don't want you falling. I've got you.' He lifted her easily, and set her down lightly.