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Nicola craned to take in as much of the view as she could from the Cessna's window as they landed on an airstrip that was nothing more than red dirt, bordered here and there with spiky grass and mulga scrub. When the pilot cut the engine the sudden silence engulfed her.
He turned to her. 'Here we are then.'
'Right.' She swallowed and gave a curt nod. Here was the Waminda Downs cattle station in the far west of Queenslandthe Outback, the Never-Never, beyond the Black Stumpand about as far from civilisation as a body could get. She glanced out of the window again and something in her chest started to lift. This place was the polar opposite to her native Melbourne. The total polar opposite.
'May I get out now?'
'Well, as this is your destination, love, i believe that's the plan.'
He let the steps down, she stuck her head outside and the first thing to hit her was the heathard, enveloping and intense. The second, when her feet found firm ground again, was the scenthot, dry earth and sun-baked grasses. The lonely desolation thrust itself upon her consciousness with an insistence that refused to be ignored, greater than the heat that beat down on her uncovered head and greater than the alien sights and scents. A person could get lost out here and never be found.
She surveyed the endless expanse of pale brown grass, interspersed here and there with mulga scrub and salt-bush, and at all the red dirt beneath it, and for the first time in three months she felt like her heart started to beat at the right pace again. Out here she wouldn't encounter acquaintances who would glance at her and then just as quickly glance away again to whisper behind their hands. Or friends who would rush up to grip her hands and ask her how she was doing. Or those people who just plain enjoyed others' misfortunes and would smirk at her.
She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sky. 'This is perfect.'
'Perfect for what?'
That voice didn't belong to Jerry the pilot.
Her eyes sprang open. She spun around to find a man hauling her suitcase from the plane's cargo hold. He set it on the ground and then straightened. He was tall and broad. He gave off an impression of strength. He gave off an even bigger impression of no-nonsense efficiency.
She blinked. 'Where did you come from?' So much for thinking she and the pilot were alone in this wilderness.
He pointed back behind him and in the harsh glare of the sun she caught the glint from a car's windscreen. 'You're from the station?'
One corner of his mouth hooked up. It wasn't precisely a smile, but she had a feeling it was meant to be friendly. 'I'm Cade Hindmarsh.'
He must be about thirty and he was tanned. Really tanned. He had deep lines fanning out from his eyes. Probably from all the habitual squinting into the sun one must do out here. A habit Nicola found herself mimicking already. He tipped his Akubra back from his head and she found herself staring into the bluest pair of eyes she'd ever seen. The sun might've faded everything else out here, but it hadn't faded them.
His gaze was direct. The longer she looked at him, the lighter she started to feel, a burden of weight slipping free from her shoulders and sinking into the dry earth at her feet. He didn't know her. He'd never met her before in his life. Nobody out here knew her. He wouldn't think her pitiful, stupid or a failure. Unless she did something to give him reason to.
She had absolutely no intention of letting that happen.
'Nicola McGillroy,' she said, recalling her manners and introducing herself. Cool, poised and businesslike, she lectured. That was the impression she wanted to give. And the antithesis of a pitiful doormat.
He strode over and extended his hand. She placed hers inside it and found it so comprehensively grasped it made her eyes widen. He grimaced and loosened his hold. 'Sorry. I'm always being told not to grip so hard.'
She swallowed. 'No need to apologise; you didn't hurt me.'
Cade shook hands the way she'd always thought men should shake hands. The reality, like so many other realities, had disappointed her. Cade didn't disappoint. His grip was firm, dependable. Strong. Men who shook hands like that didn't get pushed around. She wanted to learn to shake hands like that.
From beneath the brim of his Akubra those blue eyes twinkled for a moment. Her lips lifted in response, and then with a start she realised her hand was still held in his. She gently detached it.
Her employer tipped his head back and stared at her for several long, pulse-inducing moments. She lifted her chin and met his gaze square-on. She didn't kid herself that his survey was anything other than what it wasa sizing up a summing up. For the next two months she would have charge of his two young daughters. She wouldn't respect any man who merely took her at face value, who went only by her resume and a telephone interview. Even if that telephone interview had been gruelling.
'Will I do?' she finally asked, the suspense sawing on her nerves. She didn't doubt for one moment that if his answer was no he'd put her back on that plane and send her home to Melbourne.
The thought made her throat dry and her heart falter for a couple of beats before it surged against her ribs again with renewed force. She couldn't go back to Melbourne. Not yet!
Melbourne December with their joint reminders of the wedding she should've been planning. She didn't think she could stand it.
'Why is this place perfect?'
Perfect? Nicola Ann, you can't be serious!
Her mother's voice sounded in her head. Nicola resolutely ignored it. 'All of this' she gestured to the landscape 'is so different to what I'm used to, but it's exactly what I imagined.'
'And that's good?'
'I think so.' It was very good.
He planted his feet. 'A lot of people who come out here are running away from something.'
She refused to let her chin drop. 'Is that why you're out here?'
Off to one side Jerry snorted, reminding her that she and her employer weren't alone. 'Love, generations of the Hindmarshes have been born and bred out here.'
She raised an eyebrow at Cade Hindmarsh. 'Is that a no, then?'
Those blue eyes twinkled again. 'That's a no.'
'Some people' she chose her words carefully 'not only want to see what they can of the country, but to experience it as well.'
'And that's why you're here?'
'I know if you were born and bred out here that you're familiar with this kind of life and landscape, but being here is an adventure for me.' It was also a timeout from her real life, a much needed break from Melbourne with all its reminders of her short-sighted stupidity and her cringe-inducing ignorance. She didn't say that out loud though. He might interpret that as running away.
It will all still be here when you get home, you know, Nicola Ann.
And her mother might be right.
Though, in two months' time, hopefully she'd have found the strength to face it all again. She hoped that in two months' time she'd have changed, become a different personsomeone stronger, tougher. Someone who didn't get taken advantage of, lied to or cheated on.
Finally Cade smiled. 'Welcome to Waminda Downs, Nicola.'
A pent-up breath whooshed out of her. 'Thank you.' She grinned. She couldn't help it. She wanted to high-five someone for having passed Cade's assessment. Jerry's chuckle told her that her excitement was visible for all to see.
Cade's smile broadened into a grin that made her blink and just like that she could practically feel Diane's elbow in her ribs and her whisper of, Hot, gorgeous hunk at her ear. The thought of her best friend pulled Nicola up short.
It made her pull back, compose her features and press her hands together at her waist.
Cade's eyes narrowed and his grin faded too until it had vanished completely. Something inside her protested at that, but she stamped it out. She was here to change. Not to gush. Not to be eager to approve of everything and everyone she met without considered judgement first. And not to be patted on the head and treated like a child.
She strode around him to seize her suitcase. 'I'm really looking forward to meeting Ella and Holly.'
Cade remained silent. Nicola bit her tongue to stop from prompting further. She wasn't here to make friends. She wasn't here to win approvalnot from Cade, not from anyone. She was here to do a job and to get her head screwed on straight again. She'd do both those things to the best of her ability.
'Brought that generator you ordered.'
The men unloaded the generator. Beneath his work shirt Cade's arm muscles bulged. Despite the generator's bulk and weight, he didn't so much as break out into a sweat as he carried it to the car. With a wave to Jerry, she set off after him, admiring the broad sweep of his shoulders and the depth of his chest. The man was a veritable Atlas. He stowed the generator into the tray of his ute with ease and then took her suitcase. She told herself the only reason she let him take it was because he'd know how to load the tray to best effect.
It wasn't because it was too heavy and she had pitiful upper body strength.
Her lip curled. Oh, who was she trying to kid? But getting fit was on her to-do list while she was out here. In two months' time she'd be tossing that suitcase around as if it weighed nothing at all. The way Cade did.
She found her eyes drawn too easily to him so, setting her teeth, she did what he didshaded her eyes and watched as the Cessna took off. And then, to stop from staring at him again, she completed a slow three hundred and sixty degree turn to survey the landscape. Finally she shrugged. 'Okay, it beats me. The land looks flat for as far as the eye can see. At least until that ridge way over there.' She gestured to her right. 'But I can't see a homestead.'
'The land is deceptive.' He opened the car door for her, and his unwavering scrutiny made her clumsy. She knocked both an elbow and a knee as she climbed into her seat.
Oh, Nicola Ann, you are such a klutz.
He didn't say anything, but she swore those blue eyes of his twinkled before he closed the door.
Without another word he climbed into the driver's seat and they set off along what Nicola could only loosely describe as a track.
'Is it far to the homestead?'
'About five kilometres.'
She waited. He didn't say anything more. On the rough track the car couldn't go much faster than thirty kilometres an hour and the silence pressed in on her. Cade's tall, broad bulk dominated the interior cab and, for reasons she couldn't fathom, that made her nervous.
'Is the land near the homestead unsuitable for an airstrip?'
He flicked a glance in her direction. She doubted much got past those eyes of his. She could imagine them filling with that soul-destroying combination of derision and pity she'd seen in her friends' eyes during the last few months.
Yes, she could imagine it all too clearly and it made bile rise in her throat.
'Fire,' he said.
She blinked. 'I beg your pardon?'
'The reason the airstrip is away from the house is in case there's an accident that could start a bushfire.'
Oh. It made perfect sense when she thought about it.
At that moment they topped a rise and Cade pulled the car to a halt. She stared at the vista spread before her and her 'wow' breathed out of her before she could help it, before she could remind herself about tempering her enthusiasm and keeping things businesslike.
She shook herself and swallowed. 'Very impressive, Mr Hindmarsh.'
'Cade,' he corrected. 'We don't stand on ceremony out here, Nicola.' He gestured out of the front windscreen. 'As you can see, this is the station complex.'
It was much larger than anything she'd imagined. On the side nearest them was a sprawling homestead with two wings that spread out in a V shape from the main structure. The weatherboards were painted a crisp white and the corrugated iron roof a cool deep green. A veranda wrapped around it all, but it wasn't the homestead's size that stole her breath. It was the garden that surrounded it. Even from this distance she could make out the fronds of the two magnificent tree ferns that stood at the end of each wing, as well as the breadth of the date palms that dotted the lawn. 'I can't believe you have a garden. It's like an oasis.'
'Bore water,' he said. 'But I didn't stop here so you could admire the view. I need you to understand some basic facts so you can stay out of trouble while you're here.'
'You might think coming out here for two months is an adventure, but the land is unforgiving. Underestimate it at your own peril.'
She tried to suppress a shiver. 'Okay.' And then she realised how weak and pathetic her voice sounded. She lifted her chin and made her voice stronger. 'What do I need to know?'
'The land is deceptive to the eye. It undulates. You think you know where you are and then you turn around and can't see the homestead or any familiar landmarks. It's that easy' he clicked his fingers 'to get lost. You're not to go wandering about on your own.'
Her heart sank. There went her plan of jogging her way to fitness and thinness.
Damn it! She'd sworn to return to Melbourne toned and tanned. It would signal to Diane, Brad and all her other friends that she was getting on with her life. It would prove that she had confidence and chutzpah and was no longer an object of pity. She gripped her hands together. And the next time a guy dumped her she wanted to make sure it wasn't because she was half a stone overweight.
'Waminda Downs covers three million acres. That's twelve thousand square kilometres.'
She pulled her mind back.
'That's a lot of ground to cover if someone goes missing.'
She read the subtext. If a person went missing out here they might never be found.
'See that perimeter fence? It's painted white.'
'That encloses the four acres of the home paddock, including the homestead and outbuildings. You can wander freely within that, but do not cross that boundary unaccompanied.'
Four acres would be plenty! 'Roger.'
'And I'd like you and the girls to stay away from the cattle yards.' He pointed to a series of yards on the side furthest away from them. They were separated from the homestead by a number of outbuildings. He proceeded to name the buildings. 'That's the machinery shed.' It was huge. 'Barn and stables.' He pointed. 'Next to them is the jackaroo and jillaroo quarters. Those smaller cottages at the far end are for the stockmen and their families.'
She blinked. Waminda Downs, it seemed, was its own thriving community.
'Why are the cattle yards out of bounds?' She wanted to understand every hazard in her new environment so she could head off any potential disasters.
'We corralled a herd of brumby in there the week before last and we're going to start breaking them in. It's dangerous work.'
'Okay.' She nodded once, hard. 'Anything else I need to know?'
'If you do go exploring within the home paddock you always take a water bottle with you, and wear a hat and sunscreen. It's only four acres, but it's summer and at the height of the day the sun is merciless.'
'Don't worry, Mr Hindmarsh. I won't be letting the girls outside between eleven a.m. and three p.m.'
'The garden is surprisingly cool.'
She'd make her own judgement about that. Located two hours by plane from the nearest hospital, she had no intention of risking sunstroke in her charges.
'And there's just one final thing.'
Something in his tone made her turn. 'Yes?'
His blue eyes flashed. 'The name's Cadetry it.'
She'd never had a problem calling any of her previous employers by their first name, but it suddenly occurred to her that she didn't want to be on a first name basis with this man. She swallowed. He was too too confident, too gorgeous too everything that she wasn't. He brought home to her all the things she lacked with a realness that made her want to turn her face away.