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May 31, 2009
The sun was barely above the horizon as Cal got dressed. He raked his hands through his damp hair, the thick strands still dripping with water. He usually showered at the end of a long workday rather than first thing in the morning, but he'd come in so late last night that he'd flopped onto the bed and fallen asleep with his dusty clothes on.
Strange how a year had flown by so quickly. It seemed like just last month that they'd finished the mustering and now they were about to start all over again. He should have been accustomed to the rhythms of the station by now, but the older he got, the more Cal was reminded that time was slipping through his fingers.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled his boots on, then rolled up the sleeves of his work shirt. As he reached for his watch on the nightstand, Cal noticed the letter he'd received from the matchmaking service sitting out. He grabbed it and shoved it into the drawer. Better not to let anyone know what he was contemplating, especially Mary, the station housekeeper. He'd be facing the Aussie inquisition over the dinner table if she found out.
He'd discovered the Web site a few months back OutbackMatesan organization devoted to finding spouses for country men and women. He'd filled out the application last week and sent it in with an old photograph of himself. According to the letter, his profile would appear on the site next week. It was a bold move, but he was nearing thirty and he hadn't had a long-term relationship with a woman for
The station kept him so busy that he rarely took more than a day or two away. Cal knew all the single women in Bilbarra and not one of them would make a suitable wife. The past few years he'd been forced to go as far as Brisbane for feminine companionship. Unfortunately, the single women he'd met there weren't interested in romance with a rancher who lived five hours away, eitherexcept when he happened to be in town. Then he was good for a quick romp between the sheets.
He stood and stared at himself in the mirror on his closet door. Reaching up, Cal smoothed his hands over his tousled hair. He wasn't a bad-looking bloke. Though he didn't possess the charm and sophistication his two younger brothers did, he could show a girl a good time. And he could be romantic if required. That had to count for something, right?
As he jogged down the stairs, Cal turned his thoughts to the workday ahead. The month of June would be spent preparing for mustering, herding the cattle back into the station yards for inoculations, branding, tagging and sorting. From the first of July through the end of that month, every jackaroo on Kerry Creek Station would exist on caffeine, fifteen-minute meals and barely enough sleep to get them through a day's work.
The six station hands were already gathered around the table, devouring heaping platters of scrambled eggs, bacon, baked beans and toast. Mary hovered nearby, filling requests for coffee, juice and tea in her calm, efficient manner.
As he entered the room, the stockmen shouted their greetings. Cal took his place at the head of the table, observing the scene before him. Was it any wonder a woman would find station life unappealing? Table manners were all but nonexistent. Not a one of the stockmen had bothered to comb their hair that morning and he'd wager that most hadn't shaved in the past three days. What was the point when they all looked the same?
"I don't see why Miss Moynihan can't take her meals with us," Davey said, glancing around at his fellow jackaroos. "We can act polite." He snatched his serviette from his collar and laid it on his lap. "See?"
Cal reached for a piece of toast, then slathered it with strawberry jam. "Who is Miss Moynihan?"
"We have a guest," Mary said, setting a mug of coffee in front of him. She smoothed a strand of gray hair back into the tidy knot at the nape of her neck.
"Since you weren't here, I took it upon myself to offer her a place to stay. She's a genealogist come all the way from Dublin, Ireland, to do research on the Quinn family. She's been driving back and forth between here and Bilbarra for the past two days, waiting for you to get back."
"You invited a genealogist to stay at Kerry Creek?" Cal frowned. "What does she expect to find here?"
"She'd like to talk to you about Crevan Quinn, in particular. She's documented the Quinn line going all the way back to the ancient kings of Ireland. You ought to take a look at her work. It's all very interesting."
"Where did you put her?" Cal asked.
"She stayed in the south bunkhouse last night. She'll be driving back to Bilbarra to fetch her things this morning, if you approve. I don't think her research will take long."
"I'mnot going to have time for her," Cal said, grabbing the platter of eggs and scooping a spoonful onto his plate. He sent Mary a shrewd look. "If you ask my opinion, I think you're happy to have another woman on Kerry Creek who will sip tea and eat biscuits with you all afternoon."
Mary gave his head a playful slap. "I'm the only one on Kerry Creek who has managed to maintain a bit of civility. Look at the lot of you, gobbling down your food like hogs at a trough. I'd wager you'd all act differently if we had a lady at the table."
"Oh, so you invited her to stay so we'd improve our manners?" Cal picked up his serviette and placed it daintily in his lap, holding out his little fingers as he did so. "Hear that, boys? Our Mary thinks we're all a bunch of uncouth cane toads."
"Can I tell her you'll meet with her after dinner tonight?"
"Let Brody or Teague take this one," Cal said wearily. "I've got far too much on my list."
"Brody took off for Bilbarra on Friday and hasn't been seen since and Teague has responsibilities with Doc Daley. He spent last night at Dunbar Station and isn't supposed to be back until later this morning."
The phone on the wall rang and Mary wiped her hands on her apron before picking it up. When she finished with the call, she sighed and shook her head.
"What is it?" Cal asked.
"That was Angus Embley. Your brother raised quite the stink in town last night. It appears Brody's lost his keys down the dunny at the Spotted Dog. Angus asked if someone could bring him a spare set and bail him out of jail."
"I'm not going," Cal said. "This is the third time in as many months."
"You will go," Mary said, her voice firm. Though she wasn't related to the Quinns, she had served as a surrogate mother ever since their own mother had left the station twelve years before. Cal recognized the tone of voice and knew not to argue.
Since Brody had arrived on Kerry Creek a few months ago, he'd been nothing but trouble. A motorcycle accident had ended his career as a pro footballer and Brody had found himself at loose ends, unable to deal with the loss of everything he'd worked for. Though he wasn't a pauper, the money he'd made wouldn't last forever. Sooner or later, Brody would have to make a decision about a new career. But for now, he'd been living off his notoriety and the patience and generosity of his oldest brother. But this had gone far enough.
"Teague probably has to fly into Bilbarra today. He can just"
"You'll not leave your brother sitting in the nick," Mary scolded. "Besides, it will do you good to get off this station for a few hours. You can pick up supplies and the mail, and maybe even get yourself a decent haircut."
"All right, all right," Cal said. He pushed away from the table and stood, then snatched another piece of toast from a passing platter. "If I leave now, I'll be back before lunch."
Mary fetched her list and handed it to him. "Stop by the library, too, will you? Daisy called to tell me my books were in."
"Any other requests?" he asked, looking around the table.
"The windmill up in the northwest paddock is rattling," Skip said. "We should probably take it apart before mustering and replace the bearings."
"I'll order the parts," Cal said. He grabbed his stockman's hat from the peg near the door, then nodded to the men gathered around the table. "Comb your hair for once, will ya, boys? I'm sick to death of looking at you."
Cal jogged down the porch steps to his ute. He tucked Mary's list into his shirt pocket, then hopped behind the wheel. A cloud of dust billowed out behind him as he drove down the long dirt road.
Though the drive into Bilbarra took two hours, Cal had made it so many times in his life that he barely noticed the time passing. The closer he got to town, the smoother the roads became, though none of them were paved. He slipped a CD into the player and let his mind wander, thinking about his chances of finding a wife.
He'd always known his place was at Kerry Creek. From the time he was a boy, he'd carefully watched each element of the operation, taking on more and more responsibility with every year that passed. He'd never expected to be boss cocky before he turned thirty. But when his parents had decided to reconcile, his father had reluctantly handed the reins over to Cal and left for Sydney.
Cal imagined that Jack Quinn's decision had been made easier knowing the station was in good hands. And after his parents' last visit, he could see the choice had been right for them both. His mother taught school in Sydney and his father had started a small landscaping business. They'd bought a house near the ocean and were happy being together again.
As he turned east on the main road into Bilbarra, Cal squinted as the early-morning sun emerged at the top of a rise. He grabbed his sunglasses from the dashboard, but they fell to the floor of the ute. Bending down, he searched for them with his fingers. But when he glanced out the windshield again, Cal was startled to find himself heading directly toward a figure standing in the middle of the road.
Gemma saw the truck coming toward her and frantically waved her arms above her head. She'd been stuck here, at the edge of nowhere, for nearly thirty minutes. Not a single living creature had happened by beyond a few hundred flies and a small, evil-looking lizard. But now, as the vehicle was coming closer, she realized the driver hadn't seen heror he didn't intend to stop.
She shouted, jumping up and down to gain the driver's attention. For an instant, she thought he might run her down and she scurried to safety, but then suddenly, the truck veered sharply and drove off the edge of the road. It came to a dead stop when the front wheels hit the bottom of a shallow gully. Gemma held her breath, afraid to move, adrenaline coursing through her. She'd been the cause of this accident and now she wasn't sure what to do. Her mobile wasn't working and she was at least fifteen kilometers from Bilbarra and help.
"Oh, please, oh, please," she chanted as she raced over to the truck, climbing down into where it had come to rest. The driver's-side window was open and she could see a man inside. He was conscious and staring out the windscreen. "Are you all right?" she asked, coughing from the dust that hung in the air.
He turned and looked at her, then blinked vacantly. "Yes," he murmured. He closed his eyes, then opened them again, shaking his head. "Are you real? Or am I dead?"
His question caught her by surprise and she reached inside and grabbed his arm, then pinched it hard. "Do you feel that?"
"Ow!" He rubbed his skin, glaring at her.
"I'm very real. And you're fine. You haven't hit your head, have you? Are you bleeding anywhere?"
He reached up and pushed his hat off. The moment he did, Gemma got a good look at his face. She took a step back, a shiver skittering through her body. Suddenly breathless, she tried to inhale. But her lungs had ceased to function properly. She felt a bit dizzy and wondered if all that adrenaline was wearing off too quickly. Her fingers gripped the edge of the window as she tried to remain upright.
The driver pushed against the door with his shoulder and it swung open, sending her stumbling backward. "I'm so sorry," she said. Good Lord, he was absolutely the most gorgeous thing she'd ever seen in her life. Although Australia was teeming with beautiful men, Gemma felt quite certain that she'd hit the jackpot with this bloke.
He was fine, handsome without being pretty. His features, taken individually, were quite ordinary, but together they combined to make up a man of unquestionable masculinity, rugged and powerful and perhaps a tiny bit dangerous.
Gemma took another step back as he approached and her heel caught on a rock. An instant later, she landed on her bum, the impact causing her to cry out. Gemma felt something move beneath her hand and she looked down to see a lizard squirming between her fingers.
This time, it was a shriek that erupted from her lips as she scrambled to her feet to escape. But she lost her balance again and pitched forward into his arms. He held on to her until she was back on her feet, looking down at her in utter bewilderment.
"Is it poisonous?" she asked, frantically wiping her hand on the front of his shirt. "Jaysus, I hate those things. They're slimy little buggers. Look, did he bite me?"
Her question seemed to shake him out of his stupor. "It's a gecko." He smiled crookedly. "II reckon you are real. I don't expect angels screech like that." He gradually loosened his grip on her arms. "I almost hit you, miss. What the hell were you doing in the middle of the road?"
"I was trying to wave you down," Gemma said. "I have a punctured tire. I've tried to change it myself, but I can't get the bloody things off. The
screws. The bolts. Didn't you see me?"
"Nuts," he said. "They're called nuts." He took her elbow and gently led her back to the road. "The sun was in my eyes." Drawing a deep breath, he surveyed the scene, his attention moving between his truck and her car. "Come on, I'll help you change it."
She looked back over her shoulder. "Shouldn't we get your truck back on the road first?"