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He looked like a cowboy, against the backdrop of rust-red outback dirt and endless blue sky.
Or to be more accurate, like every woman's fantasy of a cowboy.
An ancient, broad-brimmed hat tilted low over his forehead. It shaded his face so that the color of his eyes was impossible to read, but one look at his profile would tell a red-blooded woman all she needed to know. Strong jaw, firm mouth, an intensity in the way he watched the world...even when he looked as if he wasn't really seeing it.
His body was even stronger than his jaw, but he wasn't the type who needed to wear his T-shirts too tight to emphasize washboard abs and bulging biceps. The muscles were just there, hard and motionless beneath faded denim and stretch cotton. He'd learned to conserve his energy for when he really needed it — for a long day of boundary riding, cattle branding or herding his animals to fresh pasture. Right now, since he didn't need it, he leaned his tanned forearms on the wooden rail in front of him, the way he would have leaned them on a stockyard gate.
Yes, any woman who'd picked him as a cowboy would have been close. He was a cattleman, an Australian outback farmer, owner of his own huge spread of acreage. He was no one's wage slave, but answered only to his land, his animals and his family.
Nine out of ten women took a good look at him as they walked past. Eight out of ten were impressed with what they saw, and would have liked to find out more. Just what color were those eyes? Did he have tan lines around those solid upper arms? What did he have to say for himself? Did he like dressy blondes or down-to-earth brunettes? Was he available? Was he as good as he looked?
But if the cattleman noticed any of the female attention he was getting, it didn't show. You would have said that Callan Woods's thoughts were at least two hundred miles away, and you wouldn't have been wrong.
"Look at him, Brant! What are we going to do?" Branton Smith felt helpless at his friend Dusty Tanner's question. Like Callan himself, they both lived most of their waking hours out of doors. They worked with their hands. When they struck trouble, it was something physical — drought or flood or fire or an injured beast — and the solution to it was physical, also.
They just worked harder. They climbed on a horse and herded cattle or sheep to higher ground. They got out of bed two hours earlier in the morning and fed their animals by hand, dropping feed bales off the back of a truck until their hands were callused like leather and every muscle burned. They were big, strong, capable men, and they had brains. They looked for active, assertive answers.
But what could they do about Callan? "Just be there for him, I guess," Brant said in answer to Dusty's question.
He wasn't surprised at Dusty's bark of derisory laughter. "You sound like an advice column in a teenage magazine, mate!"
Had to be cruddy advice, too, because they'd both "been there" for Callan since his wife Liz's death four years ago, and he only seemed to have folded in on himself even more this year.
He stood, as they did, with his forearms propped on the rail that kept spectators back from the racetrack, while around him swirled the color and noise of Australia's best-known outback racing carnival. Judging by Callan's thousand-yard stare, his slumped shoulders, his tight mouth and his silence, however, he barely knew that he was here.
The three men had been best mates for years, since attending Cliffside school in Sydney more than seventeen years ago. Then, they had been three strong, shy outback boys, boarding away from home for the first time, in the company of the sons of stockbrokers and car dealers and property tycoons.
Now they owned racehorses together, five sleek beautiful animals at the present time, of which two were racing at today's carnival. Three of their horses were trained at a place near Brant's extensive sheep-farming property west of the Snowy Mountains, while the two running today were with a trainer in Queensland, near Dusty.
As a hobby, the racing syndicate just about paid its way. As an exercise in mateship, it was solid gold.
Their spirited two-year-old mare Surprise Bouquet had put in a reasonable performance in her maiden event this morning. She'd placed fifth in a field of sixteen after a poor jump from the barrier, and she should do better next time around. Saltbush Bachelor was the horse they had real hopes for today.
Callan, Brant and Dusty couldn't meet face-to-face all that often, given the distance between their properties, but this race carnival was a tradition they kept to whenever they could. Callan had missed a couple of years when Liz had been ill. She'd died at around this time of year. A couple of weeks along in the calendar — end of September. Maybe that was part of Callan's problem. The Birdsville Races and September and Liz's death were all wrapped up together in his heart.
"He's thirty-three," Dusty muttered. "We can't let him go on thinking his life is over, Brant."
Standing beside his two mates, Callan wasn't thinking that.
But yeah. He knew Brant and Dusty were concerned about him. They weren't all that subtle on the issue. Those frequent anxious looks, the muttered comments he didn't always hear but could guess the gist of, the over-hearty suggestions about going for a beer, the occasional comment about a woman — nothing too crude, just "nice legs" and that kind of thing — after which they'd both nudge him for an agreement, which he would dutifully give.
Yes, she had nice legs, the blonde or the brunette or the farmer's daughter with her hair hidden beneath her hat.
Brant and Dusty both thought it was time he moved on, found a new mother for his boys.
Callan had thought so, too, once.
Three years ago, to be exact, here at this same annual racing carnival.
To him, it felt like yesterday.
He could still remember the panic, the loneliness, the physical hunger, the ache for his own loss and the even harder ache for what his boys would miss without a mother, after that first endless year without Liz.
But, sheesh! What the hell had he been thinking that day? Had he really thought that a party-going, city-bred twenty-something with "nice legs," carrying a glass of champagne in one hand and in the other a race guide she wasn't interested in, could possess the slightest power to help him move on?
There had been a nightmarish wrongness about that woman's body. The freckles across her nose weren't Liz's freckles. Her hair wasn't Liz's shade of blonde. Her curves weren't right, or her voice. He'd been looking for all the wrong things, and he hadn't even found those.
"They're in the barrier," Brant reported, his voice rising to cut across Callan's thoughts. "He looked lively but not too wound up."
"And Garrett is hungry for this win," Dusty added. "He'll ride him just right."
Both men had binoculars pressed to their eyes, now. They didn't want to miss a second of the race, or of their horse's ride. They wanted Callan to care that Saltbush Bachelor was running with a good period of training and some successful starts behind him, and actually had a shot at a win.
The silk shirts of the jockeys shimmered with color in the bright sun, the way the desert air shimmered on the horizon. The nearby airfield had light planes lined up like minivans in a shopping mall's parking garage, and the population of the tiny outback town had temporarily swelled from a few hundred to several thousand. Callan could smell beer and barbecued sausages, sunscreen and horse feed and dust.
He roused himself enough to answer his two friends. "Yeah, Mick Garrett's a good jockey." But he didn't lift his own binoculars and barely noticed the anticipation that knotted their bodies and their voices as the race got underway.
Instead he thought about his boys back on Arakeela Creek with their grandmother, thought about what he'd need to do with the cattle next week when he was home, thought again about three years ago here in Birdsville and that disaster of a nice-legged woman who could never in a million years have looked — or felt — or sounded — enough like Liz.
He thought about the other woman, too, a few months later — a blond and freckled Scandinavian backpacker whom he'd permitted to camp down by the Arakeela Gorge water hole, and who had been happy to make all the moves in what had soon turned out to be a limp disaster of a one-night stand.
Lord, he hated remembering! He'd been so crazed with grief and loneliness, but how could he have thought that hooking up with some stranger would do anything to heal him, let alone anything to provide him or his boys with a better future?
Watching Callan's mental distance and his thinned mouth, Brant and Dusty looked at each other again. Didn't need to speak about it, but spoke anyway.
"Does he even know it's started?" Dusty muttered.
"Knows," Brant theorized. "Doesn't care."
"If Salty wins —"
"Won't make a blind bit of difference to him. Hell, Dusty, what are we going to do? Being there is just bull. You're right. We both know it. He needs action."
"Action? We're doing everything we can. When he wanted to pull out of our racehorse syndicate, we basically told him he couldn't."
"And his mother talked him round on that, too." The race wheeled around the far curve of the track and the jockeys' colors blurred. From this angle, it was impossible to see how Saltbush Bachelor was running. As long as he wasn't hemmed in at the rail. As long as Garrett didn't leave his run too late.
Beside Brant, two would-be Paris Hiltons were screaming for the horse they wrongly thought they'd bet on. Van Der Kamp wasn't running until the next race, but neither Brant, Dusty nor Callan troubled to give the two overexcited young women this information.
"Kerry's worried," Brant went on, still talking about Callan's mother. "She phoned me last week and asked us to look out for him this weekend."
"Like we wouldn't anyway."
The momentum of the race picked up as the horses came around into the home straight. The Paris Hilton girls had realized their mistake over Van Der Kamp and were cheering for the correct horse, now — Salty himself.
"He's going to do it!" Brant yelled. "He's up there. It's going to be close. Can you see, Dusty? Callan?"
Callan didn't answer.
The horses thundered past, their legs a blur of pistonlike movements, their jockeys'colors once more tangled together. Just twenty meters to go, then ten.
"He's there, he's...no, he's not going to win, but second. He's — hell, he's losing ground, but he's going to get —" Brant stopped.
Second place? It was too close to call. They'd have to wait for the official result. Brant listened to the distorted sound of the PA system for several seconds and managed to catch winner and place-getters' names. Even allowing for the distortion, none of them sounded remotely like Saltbush Bachelor. Their horse had lost out for third place by a nose.
"So much for omens," said one of the Hilton types to the other.
"Guess we're not scoring ourselves an outback bachelor today," the other one replied.
Beside them, Callan didn't even react — despite their nice legs — and Brant and Dusty could only look at each other helplessly once again.
"Talk to your sister, Brant," Dusty suggested. A small, irritating bush fly buzzed near his lips. Like most outback-bred people, he'd learned not to open his mouth too wide when he spoke, which was an advantage in confidential conversation. "Maybe this needs a woman's touch. Nuala has a good head on her shoulders."
"A good head full of crazy ideas," Brant said.
"Maybe a crazy idea is just what we need."
"Yeah, because the plain, ordinary ones haven't worked, have they? Okay, I'll talk to her about it when I get back. But I'm warning you, it might not be an idea we want to hear."
Dusty got a stubborn look on his face. "If there's a chance of it helping Callan, mate, at this point I'll listen to anything."