Jessica Hart

Outback Boss, City Bride

Release Date: 2007


“one fast paced story that readers won’t be able to put down”
★★★★1/2 blue ribbons Romance Junkies

“Jessica Hart brings the Outback vividly to life in this captivating romance that will touch your heart and tickle your funny bone. …RITA award-winning author Jessica Hart never disappoints her readers with her spellbinding and sophisticated stories brimming with warmth, wit, drama and romance”
★★★★ Cataromance

Romantic Times: ★★★★1/2

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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 verandah, 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 back yard 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 verandah 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 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 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 an alien … 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 and sturdier, 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 groomed. She had on a pair of well-cut trousers and a tailored, pale blue shirt that she wore with a string of pearls - pearls, for God’s sake! – and her shoes had little peep toes so that he could see her painted toenails from his vantage point at the bottom of the steps.

She looked cool and capable and utterly ridiculous. If she were holding up a card screaming ‘city girl’ in glaring letters, she could hardly have made it clearer that she was completely out of place.

Hal had no time for city girls.

He settled his hat on his head. ‘Is that it?’ he asked.

Meredith’s head jerked up at that and she stared at him. Her eyes, Hal realised with an odd jolt, were a deep, dark blue and very beautiful.

‘I’d hardly have come all the way out from England to ask one question, would I?’ she said tartly before she could stop herself. ‘Of course that’s not it!’

Hearing the irritation in her voice too late, Meredith made herself stop and draw a breath. She had to ask him a favour, and she wasn’t going the right way about it, but honestly! It must be perfectly obvious she needed more than to hear that Lucy was OK.

She had been travelling for what seemed like days, and she was hot and worried and woozy with jet-lag. Why couldn’t he just be nice and offer to take her to Lucy, preferably on a magic carpet that would transport her there in an instant because if she had to travel an inch more she was going to crumple into a heap and cry with exhaustion?

But crumpling wasn’t an option, and nor was crying. It never was, in Meredith’s experience, although other people she knew seemed to get away with both on plenty of occasions.

So she straightened her shoulders, folded her sunglasses, and pinned what she hoped was a conciliatory smile on her face. ‘The thing is, I need to see Lucy,’ she said. ‘I’d hoped to hire a car to get me to Wirrindago, but Bill tells me that’s not practical.’

‘It’s more than not practical. It’s irresponsible and stupid,’ said Hal flatly. ‘You weren’t seriously planning to set off on your own into the bush?’

‘I presume there are roads,’ said Meredith, hating the fact that she sounded defensive.

‘Not the kind of roads you’re used to,’ he said. ‘There aren’t a lot of signs either. You wouldn’t last five minutes.’

Meredith stiffened. If there was one thing she hated, it was being told that she couldn’t do something, but she folded her lips on a snappy retort just in time. She couldn’t afford to alienate him any more than she had apparently done just by standing there, or she would be stuck here in Whyman’s Creek, and that was the last thing she wanted.

‘No, well, that’s more or less what Bill said,’ she conceded. ‘Which is why I need your help.’ She drew a breath. ‘I was wondering if you could take me with you when go back to Wirrindago?’

‘You want to come to Wirrindago?’ His hard grey gaze swept dismissively over her and Meredith stiffened. There was no need for him to make it quite that clear what he thought of her. ‘I don’t think it’s your kind of place,’ he said.

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