Outback Boss, City Bride
For Stella and Julia, my City Screen plotting team
‘THAT’S the man you want.’
Meredith’s dubious gaze followed the pointing finger across the road to where a grim-looking man was just getting out of a battered truck. Not your typical Australian, was her first thought. He was very dark, for a start, and while everyone else out here seemed to radiate a kind of laconic good humour, his face was set in severe, almost intimidating, lines.
As she watched from her vantage point on the pub veranda, he jammed a hat on his head and slammed the truck door. He looked as if he were in a very bad mood.
‘Are you sure?’ she asked doubtfully.
‘Course I’m sure.’ Bill, owner of the pub and self-appointed guide to Whyman’s Creek, hoisted his trousers up over a substantial stomach. ‘I know everyone round here,’ he pointed out proudly. ‘We don’t get many strangers passing through.’
Meredith could believe it. Whyman’s Creek appeared to consist of a pub, a store, an airstrip and not much else. There were a few houses set in dusty, treeless yards dominated by water tanks and a road that ran straight through the town—if you could call it a town—its tarmac wavering in the brutal heat.
And that was it. Meredith knew, because she had explored every inch of it. She had been in Whyman’s Creek for eighteen hours, and that was seventeen and a quarter hours too many in her book.
‘This guy works at Wirrindago, does he?’ she asked Bill as the man turned towards the store.
‘He does more than work there. He owns it,’ said Bill. ‘All one thousand square kilometres of it.’
Meredith tried to imagine a thousand square kilometres, but couldn’t do it. Not that it mattered; she had got the point. Wirrindago was a lot bigger than the backyard of her tiny terraced house in London. You’d think if you owned all that land you’d look a bit happier, she thought, eyeing Hal Granger critically.
Still, she didn’t need him to tell jokes. She just needed him to take her to Lucy.
‘Thanks, Bill,’ she said. ‘I’ll go and have a word with him.’
But before she could decide how she was going to approach him, Bill had put his fingers in his mouth and produced a piercing whistle that made her flinch. ‘Hal!’ he called. ‘Over here, mate!’
The man called Hal stopped with a hand on the screen door of the store and Meredith could feel his exasperation from the other side of the road. ‘What is it, Bill?’ he demanded irritably.
Not at all put out by the ungracious response, Bill beamed and pointed at Meredith with his thumb. ‘Young lady here wants you,’ he shouted back, not that there was any need to raise his voice, Meredith reflected. There wasn’t exactly a deafening roar of traffic.
Meredith couldn’t actually hear Hal’s sigh, but it might as well have boomed out over the outback as he turned and headed across the road. He stopped at the bottom of the steps leading up to the pub’s veranda and frowned up at her, just in case he wasn’t looking intimidating enough already.
‘Yes?’ he said.
‘I’ll leave you two to it,’ said Bill comfortably. ‘Hal’ll see you right,’ he added to Meredith, blissfully unaware of Hal’s obvious irritation, or perhaps too familiar with his scowl to notice. With a final hoist of his trousers, he disappeared into the gloom of the pub, leaving Hal and Meredith regarding each other.
Neither was impressed.
Meredith felt at a distinct disadvantage. It was perfectly obvious that Hal Granger was in no mood to grant favours. Beneath his hat, his eyes were a startlingly light grey and very cold and the dark, frowning brows did nothing to alleviate the impression of barely leashed temper she had sensed when she’d watched him get out of the truck. With that fierce scowl, beaky nose and stern mouth, he could hardly be called a good-looking man, but there was no denying the force of his personality.
Hal Granger, she guessed, was someone to be handled with care. It would have been much better if she had gone over and introduced herself, rather than let Bill whistle him over like a dog.
On the other hand, at least he was there. She couldn’t do anything about it now, and if she dithered any longer about the best way to approach him, he would get even more cross. Putting on her best smile, Meredith took off her sunglasses, with the vague idea that it might make her seem friendlier and more approachable, although not wearing them didn’t seem to have that effect on Hal Granger.
‘I’m so sorry to interrupt you,’ she began, absurdly conscious of her English vowels. She had never realised that she sounded so like the Queen before. ‘But Bill was telling me that you own a cattle station called Wirrindago.’
Hal ignored his cue to ask her what he could do for her. ‘Yes,’ he said again unhelpfully.
Meredith kept her smile fixed in place and ploughed on. ‘I’m Meredith West. I believe my sister’s working for you…Lucy,’ she prompted and the strange light eyes narrowed slightly.
‘Yes, Lucy’s at Wirrindago. I’d forgotten that her surname was West,’ he admitted.
‘Is she OK?’ asked Meredith anxiously.
‘She was fine when I left this morning.’
‘Oh, thank goodness for that!’ Meredith’s shoulders slumped in relief.
In spite of Bill’s assurances that Lucy often came into town on Saturday night with the Wirrindago stockmen and was, according to him, the life and soul of the party, she hadn’t been able to help thinking of all sorts of horrible reasons why her sister hadn’t been in touch. Lucy was sick, had been kidnapped, had an accident, lost her memory, been taken over by aliens…Meredith had run through all the possibilities countless times and the longer she didn’t hear from Lucy, the more plausible they all seemed.
Something about Hal Granger’s cool indifference reassured her in a way that Bill’s friendly concern hadn’t been able to and Meredith could relax at last.
For as long as it took her to wonder why, if Lucy really was OK, her sister hadn’t been in touch. Surely Lucy wasn’t still feeling awkward about the way they had parted? Meredith fiddled anxiously with the arm of her sunglasses.
Hal watched relief warring with worry in her face as she gnawed uncertainly at her lip. It was rather a nice lip too, he was annoyed with himself for noticing. She had a soft, generous mouth that sat oddly with sharp intelligence in her eyes and a certain briskness in her expression.
He would never have guessed that she and Lucy were related. Lucy was blonde and slender and lovely. Her sister was darker, with a round, curvaceous figure and brown hair that looked as if it had been ruthlessly cut to restrain any tendency to unruly curls.
Hal wouldn’t have said that she was pretty—not exactly—but even to his inexpert eye she was immaculately