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by Heather Garside
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Rather than join her wealthy parents in England, rebellious Louise Ashford sets off to work in the frontier settlements of the Australian Outback. She finds herself in the company of a young cattleman of convict descent, but will their passionate union bring grief to them both?
eBook Publisher: Wings ePress, Inc., 2007 2007
eBookwise Release Date: August 2007
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [435 KB]
Reading time: 280-392 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
He saddled the two horses and turned when Louise made no move to go. He stood there looking at her, waiting, and suddenly she dreaded the parting which was soon to come. Her fear that he was about to be lost to her, emboldened her, taking over from her misgivings. She patted the ground beside her. "Come here, please."
He obeyed her, dropping to his heels. "We have to go. You know that."
Her eyes flew up to his face and she swallowed the lump of uncertainty in her throat. "I know. I just wanted to thank you for escorting me this far. You've been very good--I must say it was the greatest piece of good fortune I encountered you at Bauhinia Downs that day." She uttered a shaky, self-deprecating laugh that was totally unlike her. "Perhaps you've thought it otherwise, however."
He continued to regard her intently, saying nothing, and she added, "We should say goodbye now. We shall hardly be able to do so under the eagle eye of Mrs. Greenwood."
She held out her hand to him, which he took perfunctorily, his eyes still holding hers. The expression in them reminded her of the way he'd looked at her a couple of nights ago in his shack, and she realized she'd lured him into something more than a simple handshake. This was the moment to move away and forestall him, but anticipation held her captive. Her heart thudded nervously while he moved closer, clasping her hand in his and moving his calloused thumb caressingly on her palm.
She looked up at him breathlessly, her eyes locked with his, while the movement of his thumb sent little tingles of delight coursing through her body. Then he twisted her hand so that their palms were together, their fingers entwined. He tipped off his hat and bent his face down to hers to find her mouth.
One hand on the ground supported his weight, the other relinquishing hers to come up and stroke the sensitive skin at the back of her neck. The awkwardness of earlier was overtaken by her body's surging response as his mouth moved over hers. Louise was conscious of nothing but a blurred image of green eyes and light-brown hair, tanned skin, and a firm mouth that tasted of pipe tobacco and strong black tea. At last he lifted his head, his hand dropping to her shoulder. Owing to his crouching position their bodies hadn't even touched.
"Louise--" he used her Christian name for the first time, his voice husky--"what the dickens made you leave the Barclays like that?"
She looked at him, startled even in the midst of her desire. "How did you know my name was Louise?"
"It was on one of your handkerchiefs."
Of course. She'd dropped a handkerchief beside the campfire one day and he'd retrieved it for her. It had happened to be one that little Sarah Barclay had embroidered, using Louise's first name instead of the more usual initials. It was lucky she hadn't used the initials. That handkerchief would have to stay packed away in future.
"I'm generally called Lucy, you know."
His hand tightened on her shoulder. "Louise suits you better. But you haven't answered me question. I want you to tell me why you left the Barclays--the truth, that is."
Her nerves tightened. Suddenly she badly wanted to tell him. She could not go on under false pretences like this, letting him believe in Lucy Forrest, the governess. Yet she would have to feel the way, first.
"Lloyd, have you ever heard of the Ashfords?"
"Which Ashfords do you mean?"
"The Harry Ashfords, from Banyandah. They're cousins of James Barclay."
"Harry Ashford," he repeated. He rose abruptly, his face and voice suddenly grim. "Yes, I know of the family. I didn't know they were cousins of the Barclays, though. James Barclay's a bit too good for 'em, isn't he?"
"Why?" She could hardly breathe. "What do you know of them?"
He laughed unpleasantly, looming above her in a way that increased her nervousness. "Not a lot. But I do know that Charles Ashford's supposed to be a rake of the worst kind, and Harry Ashford's a rotten scoundrel who doubled his money by cheatin' other people. Me included."
She gasped. "Have you met him? But surely--"
"Oh, I've never met him. Don't want to, either. I've seen him once or twice, in the distance. But when I was carryin' in Rockhampton, me partner and I contracted to do a few loads for him. More fools us."
"Why? What happened?"
His face was set, his mouth a tight, angry line. He moved restlessly, not looking at her as she stared up at him. "He swindled us, that's what. He's just the sort of arrogant, crooked blighter that makes us workers hate the upper classes' guts--excuse the language. Sorry, I know you're upper class yourself, but you're different." He drew a deep breath. "I don't mind what the other fellow's got so long as he hasn't lined his pockets at the expense of everyone else."
Louise digested this in stunned, painful silence. This was a picture of her father that had never been presented to her before. It was difficult to credit. She knew he was arrogant, but she'd always believed him to be respected in the community as a gentleman. She hadn't heard allegations of dishonesty before; but as his daughter, she realised she would be the last person to hear. Instinctively, she felt Kavanagh wasn't lying. Strange to think she would vouch for his integrity before that of her father.
She resisted a hysterical temptation to laugh. God, if he were to know it was Harry Ashford's own daughter that he was addressing! How could she tell him now?
"What made you bring the Ashfords up, anyway?" Kavanagh was asking in a more level tone, looking down at her now. "Did you meet 'em while you were with the Barclays?"
"Oh, I'd met them before," she dissembled. "But Charles was coming to visit, and that is why I left. I--I was afraid of him."
This was at least part of the truth. However Louise immediately wished she hadn't said it, for Lloyd's gaze sharpened, his eyes hard and discerning. She felt her colour heightening again as she realized how he would interpret that statement, knowing as he did Charles's reputation.
He spun away abruptly, untying Shadow and leading the horse to where Louise now stood. He moved to her side as if to help her to mount, but then he paused, looking down at her. The hardness in his eyes faded and Louise met his gaze uncertainly, wondering if he meant to kiss her again. Her heart beat faster; she knew she should move away and put an end to this foolish dalliance. Yet when he dropped the reins to slide his arms around her, bending his head to hers, she was unable to deny herself this new, exquisite pleasure.
There was a difference in this embrace to the previous one. His mouth was more insistent, and she opened her lips under his, responding purely by instinct. He pulled her close until their entire bodies were in contact--she could even feel his thighs through the layers of clothing that separated them. That slim strong body that she'd become so aware of, had watched so covertly ... this was what she'd been wanting for days now, though she'd scarcely admitted it to herself. Yet even this wasn't enough.
Away from the constraining presence of Cecil Divine, away from the sheer hard work of the past few days, the spark that had flickered between them ignited to a blaze. The kiss went on and on, until he was breathing unevenly and she was almost as strongly aroused as he. Her mind and senses were full of the feel and smell and taste of him. Their embrace was verging on indecent, but she could not bring herself to protest.
It was like a dam that had been slowly filling for the past week, and now the bank had burst, with the water rushing out of control. How ironic that she'd been so indifferent to Jack Barclay, and now had fallen into the arms of this man who was nothing that Jack was, and everything that Jack was not.
It was the recollection of who she was and what she was doing here that finally brought her to her senses. She pulled away from him, panicking a little, remembering the family she was supposed to be going to and whom it was holding her so intimately. A man whose loathing for her father could only be equalled by her father's contempt for him. A man who didn't know her real name and would probably hate her for her deception if he found out.
"Oh, Lloyd, this is impossible." Her voice was unsteady with emotion. "We're worlds apart, you and I. I shouldn't have let this happen." She knew she should be angry with him, but to be fair she'd invited this.
Lloyd stood there looking at her for a moment, breathing heavily. At last he turned away and busied himself with tightening the girth on his saddle. Then, without another word, he helped her on to her waiting horse and mounted himself. He led them back to the road and they resumed their journey in strained silence.
Louise watched him covertly, feeling miserable and ashamed. It was as if she'd been living in a dream world these past few days, and reality had finally hit home. Hadn't she already done enough to defy her parents without becoming involved with this impoverished selector? She'd mooned over his looks the other night, but the truth of it was that he was still more the stockman than the station-owner in his best clean moleskins, leather leggings and scuffed riding boots adorned by a set of worn-looking goose-necked spurs.
It was incredible that those few arduous days together had brought about such a meeting of diverse paths. Certainly she couldn't marry him to put right today's indiscretions--supposing he was of a mind to offer it. That he was attempting to raise himself from the squalor of his origins would count for nothing with her parents.