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The best way to get work done on an airplane was not to look out the window.
As always, Shay Russell had a ton of work to do, so she didn't look out the window once in three flights. Taking off from Sydney airport, she opened her laptop the moment the flight attendants announced that it was permitted, and barely took her eyes from the screen long enough to ask for coffee.
It came lukewarm, and was accompanied by the cookies she'd by this time learned to call biscuits when talking to Australians.
She was from New York.
She was busy.
She wished she didn't have to adapt her vocabulary to Australian conditions, even though she'd been here for a year. Half the TV here came direct from the U.S. Australians knew what the word cookie meant. Culturally, her New York-based boss at Today's Woman magazine considered Australia to be the fifty-first state. He was wrong, as it happened, but she wished Australia would listen to him. It would make her job a lot easier.
Between Brisbane and a dot on the map called Charleville, she stayed focused on laptop, electronic organizer and handwritten notes. And on the mail plane's final hop to Roscommon Downs, she thought solely about her magazine's circulation figures until she felt the final dip of the descent.
The wheels had just touched down when she finally looked up to see the sun glinting on a wide stretch of silvery lake lapping almost to the edge of the airstrip.
Birds wheeled in a blue sky. Other birds splashed lacy arcs of water into the air as they landed on the lake and folded their wings. Some dark reddish brown cattle grazed on the thin stretch of grass between the airstrip and the water.
She would take some photos of it, with the hopefully photogenic Dustin Tanner and his new fiancée, Mandy, smiling in the foreground. It might even make a good enough cover shot for the magazine. She was pushing the "Wanted: Outback Wives" campaign as hard as she could, but the shot would need to be pretty special.
As soon as the plane came to a halt, she hopped up out of her seat, impatient for the pilot to open the door and let her out. She was the only passenger, and hers was the only suitcase he had to unload. It was the small, efficient, wheeled kind, and she grabbed it from him saying a quick, "Thank you," and began to trundle it along the hard, damp clay of the airstrip toward the four-wheel-drive vehicle awaiting her.
"No worries, love," the pilot said in reply, apparently in as much of a hurry as she was.
Looking at the pretty lake — the pretty big lake — he pulled a couple of boxes from the bowels of the aircraft. He put them on the ground, waved at the man standing beside the vehicle, wrenched the cargo hatch closed and leaped straight back into his tiny cockpit.
While walking toward the waiting vehicle, Shay remembered a research detail she needed from her assistant for next week, and flipped her electronic organizer out of her jacket pocket to note it down in cryptic shorthand, keyed in with one hand. She'd gotten very good at that. Her stride stayed exactly the same.
Somebody passed her. A woman, heading for the plane. "Have fun," the short brunette said, but didn't stop.
"You, too," answered Shay, equally brief. She was still looking at the tiny screen in her hand.
Behind her, the airplane engines began to rise to a screaming state of readiness for takeoff. Ahead, a man in sunglasses, a gray polo shirt and jeans waited beside the four-wheel drive, as motionless as the trunk of a tree. It might be Dustin Tanner, but she wasn't sure because they'd only met once, months ago. She vaguely thought he'd had a couple of friends who'd also submitted their details for the "Wanted: Outback Wives" campaign. A guy with blue eyes, from South Australia? Callum? No, Callan. Or was she confusing both men with other people?
They'd had such a huge response from single farmers all over Australia, it was hardly surprising that she couldn't keep track. Even though Dustin had been pictured in the magazine at the beginning of the year, she'd retained no visual memory of him at all.
Reaching the solitary figure, she hedged her bets and simply stuck out her hand. "Shay Russell."
"Shay..." He muttered something under his breath. Then he swore. "The magazine!"
"That's right." She smiled. "We — "
"Met in Sydney, at the magazine cocktail party," he finished, to her relief. He flipped his sunglasses up and wiped his fingers across his eyes before dropping the dark lenses back into place. "That's a while ago."
"Yes. Yes, it is," she agreed.
So this tall, dark, strongly built stranger was indeed Dustin. Good. There need be no more fear of awkward misunderstandings if he had turned out to be a ranch hand, or whatever they called them out here.
Shay switched at once into professional-gush mode, at the same time remembering with the unused portion of her brain that there was something else she needed Sonya to research for her in Sydney. Would she be able to e-mail or phone from here?
"Thanks so much for agreeing to a follow-up story, Dustin."
"Call me Dusty, but the thing is — "
"Dusty. We are so excited about the whole thing. An engagement, with the wedding date already set! It's wonderful. It will thrill our readers, to find out that our campaign has had some success stories so quickly." She hated gushing. He didn't seem too impressed by it, either, so she stopped and switched tack. "Um, can I put my bag in the back or something?"
Fifty yards away, she heard the plane begin to taxi along the red dirt runway. The engine speed seemed particularly high and the noise made talking difficult.
"I'm sorry?" His strongly drawn face wore a blank expression.
"Put — my — bag — in — the — back," she yelled.
"But...didn't you see her?" He still looked blank. His not-too-full, not-too-thin bottom lip dropped open, showing even white teeth. "No, I said — " she began, even louder.
He cut her off. "I'm talking about the engagement. It's off. It's only just happened." He wiped his eyes with his fingers again, this time barely troubling to push the sunglasses out of the way. "That's her. You spoke. Didn't she say?" He pointed over her shoulder.
Shay turned, followed his gesturing arm and saw the plane's wheels just leaving the ground. The airstrip shimmered with what looked like a desert mirage. Dusty swore again.
"Her?" she echoed. "Mandy? Your fiancée? In the plane? As in...leaving?"
"Right. Ex-fiancée. It's over. She's not coming back." Shay looked helplessly at her surroundings — at the damp airstrip, at the flat horizon, at that really quite enormous lake. It appeared to spread around to the opposite side of the airstrip as well, which made the airstrip's location an odd choice. It was more like an island than an airfield.
"The engagement is over?" she clarified to Dusty, just in case she'd still gotten it wrong, because — because —
Oh, hell! "Yes," he said, and walked past her to pick up the boxes that the pilot had left on the ground.
As he came back in her direction a few moments later, carrying the boxes, she looked at him more closely.
She wasn't surprised that Mandy had gone.
Or maybe he only looked like this because Mandy had gone. He was rigid with suppressed emotion, and there were lines of stress folded into deep grooves at the corners of his nicely shaped mouth.
He had an ancient felt hat wadded into one hand, and hair that could do with a good brush. His polo shirt was untucked on one side, but he'd pushed it too tight into the waistband of his jeans on the other. She had an out-of-character maternal impulse to fix his clothing.
Was it maternal? There was a sudden kick of awareness inside her that in better circumstances he might actually be a very good-looking man, the kind to appeal to a very different set of female instincts. He had a great facial bone structure, an impressively tight, hard stomach and not an ounce of fat on his entire frame, but, maternal impulse or not, she'd have to tactfully persuade him to tidy up a little before —
Before the photos for the magazine story?
Triple shoot! The realization ambushed her again. Her story was dead.
She had personally introduced this couple, Dustin and Mandy, at the cocktail party in February that had launched phase two of Today's Woman magazine's "Wanted: Out-back Wives" campaign. They had apparently hit it off at once. They'd spent most of the evening together, and had started e-mailing and calling each other as soon as Dustin had returned to Roscommon Downs.
He had come down to Sydney to see Mandy and she had come up here to see him. They had fallen in love with satisfying speed. Dustin had proposed. Mandy had accepted and had called Shay, all tearful and excited, to announce the news and ask if Shay wanted to do a follow-up story. The woman had displayed a naked hunger for the publicity, but Shay wanted the story anyhow.
And now Mandy had called off the whole thing.
It hit Shay like a blow to the stomach.
She'd come all this way...time out of her schedule... forcible separation from her office space...extra expenses to justify...for nothing. Her hair was already turning to frizz in the lake-induced humidity. And for some incomprehensible reason, neither Dusty nor Mandy had managed to tell her not to come before she'd gotten here.
She opened her mouth and took a big breath, ready to cut her losses and launch into some rapid-fire questions about getting away again — ASAP. The plane with Mandy in it had already taken off, which was an incredible nuisance. When was the next mail flight? Shay had been scheduled to leave tomorrow afternoon, but if she could go very first thing in the morning instead, she wouldn't have wasted a totally timetable-crippling, career-scuttling, nervous breakdown-inducing amount of time on this fiasco of a romance.
But then something stopped her from speaking — a sudden rush of intuition and understanding that was the equivalent of someone clapping their hand across her mouth to prevent her foot from shoving itself in.
Dusty is feeling really bad about this, she realized. Gutted, as Australians said. That was why he had failed to clarify the situation in time.
Shay would have to possess the hide of a rhino and the tact of a flea to pester him about flight schedules right now.
"I'm sorry, this is bad timing, isn't it?" she said. He'd put the boxes in the back of the four-wheel drive and pushed his sunglasses up again. He had incredible eyes, the color of deep pools of warm brandy, and his eyes were suffering. His mouth said he was trying not to let it show, but the eyes were winning. "To have me show up like this? I'm sure you'd rather be alone."
"Uh, yeah. It's okay." His mouth barely moved as he spoke. His square jaw looked as if someone had wired it shut.
"Well, no. It's not okay. I've been there. I know." It was the same for everyone, wasn't it? "You want to lick your wounds and eat junk food."
"Yeah, fat, salt and chocolate. A broken heart is the best flavor enhancer."
He didn't smile. They were strangers, and he wasn't ready. She thought she could see a chink of vulnerability inside him like hot lava behind the cracking seam in a rock. He was deeply uncomfortable about it, too. He wore the vulnerability like boots that didn't fit.
Meanwhile, she'd triggered too many of her own bad memories.
She remembered the weight she'd put on two years ago, and only just managed to lose again, after her most recent, should-have-been-perfect-for-her art museum curator boyfriend Adam had intellectualized his way out of their relationship. He'd fed her all this stuff about "meetings of the mind" and "fractured perceptions" that she'd tried so hard to understand, but no longer bought for a second.
Her discovery two weeks later that he had already been sleeping with someone else had something to do with her change in attitude. She'd been so hurt, and then so angry. She'd buried herself in work even more than usual because success was definitely the best path to recovery. She hadn't been out with anyone since, and that was just fine.
Once bitten, twice shy.
Or in her case, three times bitten, shy until further notice.
"Don't worry about the story for a minute," she said to him. "I'm really sorry. You said it only just happened?"
She wanted to touch him, give a sympathetic pat to his shoulder or arm — both body parts were so sturdy and well muscled — but managed not to. His body language screamed at her not to get that close, not to break down his rock-hard defenses with too much feminine understanding.
What did outback cattlemen do in this situation? They couldn't stay up half the night crying over chocolate with their women friends, and wondering out loud and in great detail what they'd done wrong. They had to suffer in silence.