If only she could stay. She loved a good party, and tonight would probably be great fun. There would be a barbecue and dancing in the woolshed and later, perhaps, she and Kevin could slip away down to the creek in the starlight…It could be the perfect romantic evening.
How could it be perfect, though, when she had promised Hal she would go back? She would spend the whole time feeling guilty.
Her boss wasn’t the easiest of men and, truth to tell, Lucy was a little intimidated by him, but it was Hal who had given her the job and a chance to work in the outback. If it hadn’t been for him, she would never even have met Kevin. And Hal had made it clear that her priority would be looking after his sister’s children during their stay at Wirrindago. Lucy had signed a stringent contract to that effect but, even if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have wanted to let him down. She owed him too much.
But how could she insist that Kevin drive her back tonight? The other stockmen would have to come too, as they only had the one truck, and they would all miss the party. They had few enough social occasions to look forward to, Lucy knew. It wouldn’t be fair to them.
She had promised Hal. It wouldn’t be fair to him not to go.
‘I don’t know what to do, Kevin,’ she said helplessly. ‘I’d love to stay, honestly I would, but I did say that I would go back tonight. If I’d known…’
It was at that moment that Guy came strolling up, as pristine as ever. It looked as if he had hardly broken a sweat on that horse in the crushing heat. Lucy eyed him with deep resentment. He could at least have had the decency to fall off. At least then he would look dirty and normal like everyone else.
As it was, she was convinced with no justification whatsoever that the mess she had found herself in was somehow his fault.
‘Satisfied, Cinders?’ he asked with a glinting smile.
Lucy gritted her teeth. ‘Yes,’ she said tersely.
‘You were good,’ said Kevin. ‘You going in for anything else?’
Guy shook his head. ‘I’m challenged out,’ he said with an amused glance at Lucy. ‘I thought I’d head back to Wirrindago now. Hal could do with a bit of support. For a man who can move a thousand head of cattle around without a blink, he seems unnerved by the thought of two children. But I can’t say I blame him!’
‘Maybe Guy would give you a lift back, Lucy,’ said Kevin, and Guy lifted an eyebrow at Lucy in surprise.
‘Aren’t you staying for the ball, Cinders?’
‘It’s not a ball.’ Kevin was bemused. ‘It’s just a party.’
Lucy was too disappointed to explain. She knew he was only trying to help, but he hadn’t even tried to persuade her to stay, and now he was going to offload her on to Guy Dangerfield, of all people!
‘I told Hal I’d be back tonight,’ she admitted to Guy, almost choking on the words. ‘I didn’t realise that everyone else would be staying.’
‘I’m sure Hal would understand if you wanted to go to the party,’ said Guy, who appeared to be able to read her expression without difficulty. ‘It’s not like you’ll really be reduced to rags if you’re here after midnight! I’ll tell him what’s happened, and Kevin can bring you back with the others tomorrow morning.’
‘It’s all right, thank you,’ said Lucy, frigidly polite. She had no intention of enjoying a romantic evening courtesy of Guy, even if she had been sure that Kevin would think to take her down to the creek in the starlight. He certainly didn’t seem to be making any effort to persuade her to stay, she thought glumly. Perhaps he didn’t like her as much as she had hoped?
‘I made a promise,’ she said, ‘and I’ll keep it.’
‘Good girl.’ Guy nodded approvingly. ‘I can’t say I’d mind having some company on the way back,’ he added. ‘It’s a long drive on your own. The pumpkin’s ready whenever you are, Cinders.’
Lucy cast a last longing look at the woolshed. Tonight it would be throbbing with music and laughter, and the old wooden floor would reverberate with dancing feet. The smell of beer would mingle with the smoke from the barbecue, and the light would spill out through the great doors into the vast, silent outback night. It would be the kind of party she had always dreamed of.
And she wouldn’t be there. Kevin would be dancing with a nice Australian girl who could talk horses with him, and she would be stuck with the only Englishman for hundreds of miles around. She could have wept with disappointment, but she had given her word to Hal and there was nothing she could do about it now.
She sighed. ‘I’m ready now,’ she said.
IT WAS a silent drive at first. To Lucy’s relief, Guy didn’t try to make conversation. If she hadn’t already decided that he was unbearably arrogant and conceited, she might have thought that he was being sensitive about her disappointment. He didn’t tease her about not going to the ball, as she had half expected that he would, but let her stare miserably out of the window and think about Kevin and all the other girls he might be dancing with in the woolshed that night.
With a sigh, she took off her hat and ran her fingers through her flattened hair so that it fell, blonde and dishevelled now, to her shoulders. Glancing at Guy under her lashes, she saw that he was watching her with an unreadable expression and, for some reason, she found herself blushing.
‘You know, you could have stayed,’ he said. ‘Hal would have understood.’
‘I know, but I’d given him my word.’ Aware that she was being self-indulgent, Lucy made an effort to pull herself together. None of this was actually Guy’s fault, she realised, and he was her employer’s cousin. It might be a little late to start being polite, but she could always try. ‘I’m sorry, I’m not being much company,’ she said and mustered a smile. ‘I’m not usually this miserable.’
‘I know,’ said Guy. ‘I’ve been struck by what an extraordinarily happy person you are. Most girls your age would grumble about being stuck in an isolated homestead all day with nothing to do but cook and clean for a bunch of taciturn men and nowhere to go in the evenings, but you seem to love it.’
‘I do love it.’ Lucy was surprised that he thought that there was anything odd about it. ‘It’s all so romantic! Exactly how I always imagined the outback to be! I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here.’
‘It’s just that you give the impression of being a girl who likes to have fun,’ he said, his eyes on the dirt track that ran arrow straight through the red dust to the horizon. ‘I could see how disappointed you were not to be able to go to the party tonight.’
Lucy eyed him uncertainly, not quite sure how to take him when he wasn’t making fun of her. ‘I do love a party, but I don’t mind the isolation.’
She didn’t mind anything as long as Kevin was there. If he’d been beside her instead of Guy, she wouldn’t have given two hoots about the party. As it was, she couldn’t help wondering who he was with and what he was doing.
‘Maybe living so quietly makes you appreciate social events more,’ she said. ‘I’m glad I didn’t have to make all the men come back with me. They don’t get to go out much, and they’ll have a great time. It won’t matter to them if I’m there or not.’
Guy cast her a glance, evidently not in the least fooled by her bright smile. ‘Kevin isn’t going to get together with anyone else tonight, if that’s what’s worrying you,’ he said.
‘How can you know?’ Lucy abandoned the pretence that she wasn’t worried.
‘Hey, Prince Charming never settles for anyone less than Cinderella, right?’
Lucy wasn’t reassured. ‘There might be someone more suitable there.’ She turned the hat wistfully in her hands. ‘I wish I wasn’t so English,’ she confessed in a low voice.
‘Come on,’ said Guy as the truck juddered over a rough patch in the track. ‘Kevin may not be the most talkative guy in the world, but he’s a man, and you’re