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Maggie’s Run

An Outback Brides Romance

Kelly Hunter

 

 

Maggie’s Run

Copyright© 2018 Kelly Hunter


The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

First Publication by Tule Publishing Group 2018

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-949068-62-7

Please note the use of Australian English spelling and grammar throughout this story.

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Epilogue

The Outback Bride Series

Excerpt from Belle’s Secret

About the Author

Chapter One

Maggie Walker often wished she looked more intimidating. She could have taken after her late father, who’d been broad of shoulder, firm of jaw, and had cut an imposing figure no matter whose company he’d sought. She could have taken after her recently deceased great aunt, who’d been a model in her younger years—one of those aloof, impossibly leggy, aristocratic types. She could have been in possession of glacier-cut cheekbones, a piercing blue glare and enough height to make looking down on other people far too easy.

Maggie had inherited none of it.

Instead she’d topped out at five feet two, was slight of form and had a sweetness of face more commonly associated with wet kittens and baby fawns.

Intimidating she was not, but she’d rarely felt quite as invisible as she did now, standing in the main room of a sleepy country town’s local stock and station agent, waiting for the guy behind the counter and currently on the phone to look her way. Maggie had spent her formative years in boarding school and was used to waiting her turn.

It had been quite a few years since anyone had tried to pretend she wasn’t there at all.

Florid of face and with a vocabulary that relied heavily on the word ‘mate’, the guy at the counter continued to ignore her. The shop front was clean, even if currently understaffed. It looked well stocked with supplies, as if they did good business. Hard to believe they did any business at all given their current attention to customer service.

Even a quick nod of acknowledgement would do.

The white farm truck she’d borrowed—no, not borrowed, it was hers now—had Wirra Station written on it in bold, black letters. Given that Maggie inheriting the historic sheep station had been the talk of Wirralong for going on two weeks now, and given that the vehicle could be clearly seen through the window, she was fairly sure Mr I’m A Very Busy Man knew who she was.

She took off her wide-brimmed hat and set it on the counter as she listened to him wax informative about feed ratios for racehorses. She took off her sunglasses and placed them on top of the hat. She kept her satchel full of paperwork slung over a too-narrow shoulder as she moseyed over towards a row of open office doors, but there was no-one inside any of the rooms. There was an exit through to the feed and fencing sheds out the back and a large red ship’s bell hung beside the exit. Surely that was an invitation? She reached for the rope and rang it once, and then several times more because, frankly, she liked the sound of it.

The guy behind the counter paused mid-conversation to glare at her, and that was all the opening she needed. She’d been standing there for the past ten minutes, after all.

“I’m looking for James Henderson Junior,” she said.

“He’s not in today.”

“That’s a shame. Does he have a contact number that’s not disconnected?”

“Look, lady, if James wants to stay in touch with a woman, he does.”

“Good to know,” she said politely. “What a champ.” Maybe the guy behind the counter hadn’t noticed the Wirra Station vehicle parked out front after all. “Thing is, I have here Carmel Walker’s records of a dozen or so payments made to James these past six months for the installation of over sixty kilometres of rural fencing. And call me a city girl, but I’ve been over Wirra Station from top to bottom this past week and I can’t find any new fences at all.”

The guy gave up on his phone conversation with a muttered, “I’ll call you back”.

She headed back towards the counter, maintaining eye contact. No need to telegraph that her picture-perfect confidence stopped at the first layer of skin. “I’m Maggie Walker. I own Wirra Station now,” she stated simply and didn’t offer her hand.

“Kyle Henderson.”

“Morning, Kyle.” She looked around the store. “Family business, is it? James is your … brother? Father?” She’d never laid eyes on James but Kyle looked to be in his thirties, possibly a little younger.

“James is my cousin and, like I said, he’s not here.”

“Is there anyone else who can help me with my fencing query?”

“You said you had receipts,” he countered flatly.

She pulled a sheaf of copies from her satchel and handed them to him. He flicked through them and frowned. “We haven’t done any work for Wirra Station lately.”

“I’m glad we agree. Am I in the right place? That’s your letterhead? James Henderson’s signature on the order form?”

He scowled, and she took it for a yes.

“So I’m in the right place.” She leaned forward, palms on the counter, and fixed him with her most limpid gaze—the one he hadn’t yet learned to be afraid of. “Sixty-eight kilometres of fencing at six thousand two hundred dollars a kilometre, installed. That’s four hundred and twenty-one thousand six hundred dollars gone from Wirra Station’s holding account. For fencing I can’t find. That’s a lot of fraud.”

“Now look here, you crazy b—”

“Problems?” The deep voice that came from the doorway was instantly recognisable. The lazy drawl, the chocolate-coated rumble. The owner of that delectable voice was often at odds with her, or she with him, but he was never one to roar. Nor had she ever seen him back down. Not from a black snake in her great aunt’s garden when they were kids, not from the wild dogs that had trapped her in the hay shed when she was ten. Not even from the hideous car accident that had cost her parents their lives.

Twelve-year-old Maxwell O’Connor had been the first one to reach the accident scene all those years ago. Max had saved her and not them, and in the darkest corners of her heart she still hadn’t forgiven him for that.

Maggie turned to face him reluctantly, wincing only slightly as she met his deep blue gaze. Warmer than the ocean, a couple of stars lighter than the midnight sky, his eyes were his best feature—assuming one discounted his voice. One also had to ignore his untamed mop of messy black hair, his country tan on a lean, rangy body and his smile. His smile was lethal. Good thing she so rarely saw it.

He had long legs and an excellent arse. She’d noticed both this morning as he’d sauntered away from her.

“Maxwell,” she murmured warily.

“Margaret.” Max’s narrowed gaze flicked from her to the man behind the counter and then back to her again. “What’s going on?”

“I was thinking about what you said this morning about Wirra Station’s lack of decent fences.” They’d had that particular conversation just after dawn, with her on one side of a tumbledown, two-strand wire fence and him on the other. His sheep had been on her land again. According to him, he’d had a gentleman’s agreement with her great aunt that until the fences were fixed his sheep could go wherever they damn well pleased. “I remembered seeing a recent invoice for fencing amongst some paperwork, so I went back through Carmel’s financial records and things just didn’t add up. I popped in here to see where Wirra Station’s sixty-eight kilometres of fully installed, fully paid for, rabbit-proof fencing was.”

Maxwell spared her a flat glance, before turning towards Kyle.

“Max, you know I run the feed side of things,” Kyle offered defensively. “The old man controls stock transport. Fencing and farm equipment is James’s gig.”

“Sadly, James isn’t in,” Maggie murmured. “Where exactly is James?”

“Ireland.”

“And are you expecting him back any time soon, or has my dead aunt’s money gone with him?”

“Maggie,” Max barked. “Not helping.”

“Oh, you have another approach?”

“Yeah, it’s called holding your fire until you’re damn sure you have the right people lined up.”

She rather thought she had exactly the right people lined up and wondered whose word would prevail if negotiations turned ugly. She wasn’t the local here, even if she could trace her lineage back to English settlement. “Fine.” Her gaze clashed with Max’s—heaven only knew what had him so riled—and then she turned back to the man behind the counter and summoned infinite patience and a smile.

“Kyle, Iet’s start again. I have an accounts dispute with …” She glanced at the letterhead on the copied receipts. “… Henderson’s Stock and Station Agents and I’d like to speak to someone who can answer my questions. Today. Otherwise my next step, today, will involve calling a lawyer. My father practised law back in Melbourne—it’s probably not common knowledge around here anymore, but he did. Good schools. That Old Boys’ network is alive and well—don’t get me started. He was only in the early stages of his career when he died, but you wouldn’t believe how successful some of his business partners are now. Barristers, lawmakers, Queen’s Counsel. They still send me Christmas cards, I go to their children’s weddings. They can be ridiculously protective of me and I am absolutely open to taking advantage of their expertise. So I’ll ask again: Is there anyone here I can talk to about those missing fences?”

“You call that holding your fire?” Max was using his ever-so-patient drawl on her again. The one that never failed to wind her up.

“Why, yes, Max, I do. Do you hear me yelling? No. This is my I know there must be a simple explanation around here somewhere voice. Dulcet, isn’t it?”

Max ignored her in favour of communicating with Kyle. “Sounds like Maggie needs to speak to the old man.”

Kyle cleared his throat and said, “Let me make a call”.

Maggie watched Kyle retreat into the very end office and shut the door before turning to Max once more and, honestly, could he not do something with his hair? Like tame it? Buy a comb? Hide it under a hat? Because just looking at it was making her fingers itch. “Is there a hairdresser in town?”

“What?”

“Because there’s an appointment you don’t want to miss.”

“You’re angry I stepped in to help.” For someone who barely knew her, he had an uncanny knack for reading her thoughts.

“You took over. You always do. And I don’t want or need you to.”

Something that looked a lot like despair flashed across his face, and then the shutters came down and his expression hardened. “I don’t always take over. For you, I’ve often held back.”

Lucky her. “Did you know Carmel had ordered new fencing?”

“She mentioned it on occasion but in all honesty I never took much notice. I thought her fence talk was a delusion, the product of a tired mind. You weren’t here once the dementia set in, Maggie. You didn’t see the end.” He grimaced and ran his hand through his hair and her fingers itched again. “I don’t like the thought of anyone taking advantage of her on my watch.”

“It wasn’t your watch.” Not even his overdeveloped sense of responsibility could make it so. “It was my watch, and I know full well I didn’t do enough.” She’d tried to get Carmel to leave Wirra Station, but Carmel hadn’t budged.

“You could have come home.”

Max was watching her closely, and Maggie drew herself up to her full height and tried to make like a willow. Someone who would bend but not break. “I had a home. One I’d made for myself.” She’d also had a lover who’d been everything she’d ever wanted—right up until she hadn’t been able to give him everything he wanted. “I had a life and it wasn’t here.” She couldn’t hold Max’s bright blue gaze any longer. “I know, all right? I should have come back years ago to care for the woman who’d been forced to take care of me. That’s how debts are paid. But I didn’t, and that’s a matter for me and my conscience and approximately no-one else.”

Silence met her speech and she risked a quick glance in his direction. He’d broadened his stance, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Not for him the shiny boots and spotless country wear of the stock and station agent. He was dressed for work and dirty with it. Mud on his boots and a slash of something greasy along his forearm.

“Sorry,” she muttered. “I’m already feeling guilty about being the too-little-too-late girl.” She was also feeling ever so slightly overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for Wirra Station, not to mention unexpectedly weepy over the loss of a woman she’d never seen eye to eye with. “Doesn’t mean people can cheat a dying old lady and no-one’s going to care. Doesn’t mean I don’t want what’s best for Wirra Station.”

He studied her as if she were a bug beneath a microscope. He always had been able to make her feel far smaller than she already was.

“Care to discuss that admirable sentiment over lunch? I might have a proposal or two to put to you.”

“You want to sell Wirra Station some non-existent fencing too?”

She’d gone too far. She didn’t need his stony glare to tell her that.

“Sorry,” she muttered. “No excuses, just … sorry.” Again.

“Why do you always get so defensive around me?” How such a sexy rumble of a voice could sound so tightly controlled and full of authority she didn’t know. “I’d like to take you to lunch and discuss Wirra Station with you. I’d like to help you with your fencing questions because if James has been paid for services not rendered I’m going to feel somewhat responsible for not picking up on that. Lunch—yes or no? My thoughts on fencing options—yes or no?”

“I—yes.” There was an argument on her tongue but she swallowed it down. You and Max fight over the colour of the sky. Carmel’s words coming back to haunt her. But then there was the snake that hadn’t bitten her because of him, and the dogs that hadn’t savaged her because of him, and that time she’d been drenching sheep in the sun all day and running a scorching temperature by the end of it, and he’d dumped her in a water trough and kept her there and cursed a blue streak at his stupidity and hers. There was care in there somewhere, rough and ready, but it was there. She was alive because of him.

Like it or not, Maxwell O’Connor’s assistance was worth something.

“Yes to both,” she offered with all the politeness she’d ever been taught. “Thank you.”

He eyed her warily. “That was almost too easy.”

“Yeah, well. I’m feeling nostalgic. I’m sure it’ll pass.”

There was that smile again, just a hint of it, and she looked away quickly before it did things to her libido. Like remind her she had one.

Kyle returned and his glance encompassed them both. “The old man—James Senior—he’s still at the sale yards. Says he’ll be back by two but it’s going to take longer than that to pull our financials and get hold of James Junior. If you could give us the rest of today, we’ll give you a call first thing tomorrow. The old man wants you to know that if there’s a problem at our end we’ll fix it.”

Max said nothing. Maggie slipped her sunnies on and picked up her hat. “Fix it how?”

“Lady … Ms. Walker—” Kyle the no-longer-cocky paused and shook his head. “—The old man’s the best one to talk to from here on in. If James has pulled a fast one—and I’m not saying he has—then he’s a moron. He’ll be finished in this town and within the family. I don’t know what kind of fix we’ll be offering, but Henderson’s will see you right. The Henderson family will see you right.”

She glanced towards Max and he gave the slightest nod. She hadn’t been looking to take her cue from him. Or maybe she had and she just didn’t want to admit it. “Thanks, Kyle.” She thought back to his earlier phone call for something pleasant to say. “Good luck with feeding those racehorses.”

And Kyle arced up again. “Is that a threat?”

Now she was coming across as intimidating? How could he possibly have interpreted her parting words in that fashion? “Actually, I was aiming for vaguely friendly, but …” She gave an awkward wave of her hand. “I get the impression I missed that particular mark altogether. It happens.”

Was that a snort from Max? She thought it was and told herself she didn’t care if he was laughing at her abysmal people skills. Not everyone could be country friendly and utterly at ease with themselves and the world in general.

Head high and chin up, Maggie started for the door and somehow Max was there to open it for her, his manners ingrained in the same way his saviour complex was built into the fabric of his bones. He was who he was and so be it. Confidence was sexy. Old-fashioned manners were sexy too.

Who knew?

“Thank you,” she muttered, and there was an echo of another older thank you woven in there somewhere. A thank you she could barely bring herself to remember, such was her shame at how unwillingly she’d once offered it.

“You’re welcome.”

Max followed Maggie in his truck, careful not to rush her as she parked out front of the Wirralong pub. He pulled up a couple of empty parking spots away, careful not to crowd her, because Maggie never had done anything but attack when pressured. He’d come into town for a stop valve and ended up taking Maggie Walker to lunch, but he wasn’t complaining. He had plenty to say to her—assuming they could sit and eat together peacefully.

They were older and wiser than they’d once been.

A man could hope.

He hadn’t liked the situation he’d walked in on at Henderson’s. Old Jim Henderson was as solid as they came, but Kyle had a mean streak and James Junior was a Casanova and a gambler both. Damn right she’d be dealing with the elder Henderson from now on in. He’d make sure of it.

It didn’t help that she was still pocket sized and more beautiful than a person had any right to be. Scramble a man’s brain just by looking at her. She’d always scrambled his. Too stubborn for her own good. Never asked for help, even if she needed it. Especially if she needed it. He could still remember the feel of her slight form; wet, bedraggled and burning up against him after a day spent drenching sheep. She’d fought against him, even in the throes of heatstroke. He’d never been so furious at both her and himself for not calling an early halt to the stinking hot workday. She’d been the bane of his existence that summer, every too-stubborn, too-fragile inch of her.

He’d taken Maggie back to his place and watched as his mother had made her drink water and tended her until her core temperature had dropped to within reason and then put her to bed. He’d sat down to dinner amidst silent recrimination for working Maggie so hard, and he’d eaten what he could and then excused himself outside to throw up every last bit of it.

His father had found him later, shivering but not from cold, and had sat there with him in silence, tendering no judgement, no words at all, until much, much later when he’d said he figured Max had probably caught some heatstroke too and did he want to come back inside. The little Walker chit was awake and getting skittish. Fierce as a wet kitten, his father had said, but otherwise okay and looking for something familiar to fix on.

That something familiar being him.

Years before that he’d held Maggie in his arms and watched the blood leak out of her belly as her family car had fireballed in front of them. She’d fought him that time too, kicking and screaming to be free of him and he’d held on so tight. Held on, because if he hadn’t he’d have lost her.

He’d been twelve to her eleven and they’d called him a hero for pulling Maggie from the wreckage. Everyone but Maggie had called him a hero and her stilted thank you had been forcibly given. He’d heard the crack of Carmel’s hand as she’d ordered Maggie into Wirra Station’s formal sitting room to thank him for her life. He’d seen the handprint on Maggie’s face as she’d faced him and said the words demanded of her. He’d sat there in that stuffy old room, scrubbed clean and dressed in his Sunday best, and for the first time in his life he hadn’t known what was expected of him. He’d been supposed to ask Maggie how she was, but her parents were dead and her great-aunt could barely stand the sight of her, so he’d sat there in silence instead of saying something stupid.

He’d done a lot of that over the years—especially around this woman.

The front bar of the Wirralong pub was largely empty at this time of day but the brasserie out back had a good number of customers for a town with just over five thousand people, and more to the point, it was air conditioned.

“What are your plans for Wirra Station?” he asked, when they’d put their food orders in and he’d set a cold lime soda on the coaster in front of her.

“I don’t know yet.”

“Because if you’re looking to sell, I’m looking to buy.”

She raised a delicate eyebrow as if he’d surprised her. “Can you afford it?”

“Yes.”

“Which of your operations are you looking to expand?”

“Fat cows, fine wool merinos and some feed cropping.”

“What if you just took grazing rights and leased the land from me?”

But he’d already considered that idea and discarded it. “There’s too much infrastructure work to be done. Fencing, water, weed control. Sowing new pasture and getting it established. The land’s not fit for use as is and I’m not willing to put the work in if I only benefit for a couple of years.”

“I see.” She studied her hands, so slender and fine. Her nails were short but shapely. He wanted to reach out and run his fingertips across her knuckles to see if her skin was as soft as it looked. He had a feeling her skin would always feel soft to his work-roughened hands. He looked up to find her studying him, her expression defeated and somehow sad. “Well, then. I guess it’s yours if you want it.”

It was almost too easy. “No-one you need to run that decision by?”

“I’m the last Walker standing.” Her smile turned jagged. “The decision’s all mine.”

And still it felt forced upon her. “You could keep it. Stay and run it.”

Fight for it.

“Nah,” she offered quietly. “Carmel wasn’t one for teaching, and I know next to nothing about running a farming operation the way it should be run.”

As far as he could tell, Carmel hadn’t known much about that either. “You could learn.” But she was already shaking her head.

“I don’t want to learn. My memories of the place aren’t the best and there’s no money left in the Wirra Station accounts, just debt and plenty of it. I’d have to sell the Melbourne house I inherited from my parents in order to make the kind of improvements the place needs to become functional again. Weed control, sowing pastures, buying stock …” She shook her head. “There are three hundred head of sheep left on the books, not that I can find them, and apparently you’re looking after some Wirra Station rams. Artificial insemination. Quarterly cheques from you. There’s been no other income for the past two years.”

It was worse than he thought. “Those three hundred sheep you’re missing are running with my mob now. They’re the last of Wirra Station’s breeding stock and they’re worth more than you know. Carmel would never sell them to me outright but she did let me run them. Between her bloodlines and mine, we’re producing the best fine wool merino fleeces in the state. There should be a wool cheque or two from me in your accounts as well.” He’d known Carmel was running lean. He’d been generous. “I know they’ve been cashed.”

“I’ll take another look,” she murmured. “The accounts are a mess. I put in a couple of hours a day on them and it’s all I can do not to tear my hair out.”

She had beautiful hair. Fine light brown that caught the sun and ribboned towards gold. “You should keep the hair,” he offered and won a tiny smile from her.

“It’s not just the hair. And it’s not that I’m madly attached to the Melbourne house and would never sell it. It’s stuffed full of dead people too, just like Wirra Station, but it doesn’t demand everything Wirra Station does, you know? Work wise. Nightmare wise.”

“What kind of nightmares?”

She said nothing. Wouldn’t even look at him.

“Because just for the record, I still wake up screaming about fire and ash and red dust and death.” She looked at him in shock and he tried to paper over the great gaping hole he’d ripped in his defences. “Not always. Just sometimes,” he muttered. “That night was formative.”

They’d never talked about it, not once. He’d never known how to begin. Given Maggie’s silence, probably not like this.

The food came and he dug in, even though he’d never felt less like eating.

They sat there while Maggie pushed her meal around her plate and the property deal of a lifetime hovered over him like a stain. He didn’t want to blow the deal. Wirra Station had been neglected for far too long and needed someone who knew the lay of the land to take it in hand. Someone who could make the most of it, namely him.

But he’d cut off his right arm before doing wrong by Maggie Walker ever again.

“You could marry me,” he offered quietly, and in all honesty, he wasn’t quite sure where that had come from.

She blinked. Opened her mouth as if to protest and closed it again on nothing but air.

He ploughed on, trying to make sense of his own thoughts on the matter. Most of which revolved around him being there for her and holding her in his arms when the nightmares started up again, although how that could ever do anything other than trap them inside that fatal night was anyone’s guess. And still he ploughed on. Possibly the farmer in him. “You contribute the land, I bring the infrastructure money and management expertise. O’Connor Enterprises expands. Wirra Station comes to life again. You also get to keep your Melbourne house, so you can head off for a city fix whenever the isolation becomes too much. Everybody wins.”

Her eyes widened but her mouth stayed firmly shut. The limb he was stretched out on felt way too lean to hold the weight of his offer.

“It’s a business opportunity, Maggie. People marry for reasons other than love all the time.”

“Yes, but—” She waved a slender hand in his direction. “Don’t you want to marry someone who likes you? Or even loves you? Because that really doesn’t seem like too big an ask.” She did that hand waving thing again. “For you. I mean, you come from one of those families who support each other. Your parents love each other. Why would you settle for less?”

Good question.

He watched as she subsided into silence and reached for her lime soda. He waited. He was good at waiting.

“You must want Wirra Station a lot,” she said at last.

He did. He also thought she was underestimating the hold she’d always had on him. A lot. “Just a thought.”

“I’m not marrying you,” she said flatly, and the strength of his disappointment took him by surprise.

“Fair enough. I’m aware it was a long shot.” Hadn’t stopped him from taking it though. She eyed him warily and if there was any defence against shuttered doe eyes and ridiculously long black lashes, he hadn’t yet found it. “Although I do still think we’d be compatible.”

Compatible?” She sounded incredulous. “The first time I met you, I was five and visiting with my parents and you and your father were out in Carmel’s woolshed with a pregnant ewe. You had your skinny six-year-old hand and half your arm all up inside the animal. They’d fetched you from school because your hand was small enough to fit and you were cheaper than a vet.”

He shook his head at the memory and tried to suppress a grin. “The look on your face.”

“You were six! Who does that to a six-year-old?”

“Yeah, but the ewe lived and the lambs lived and I got to wash my hands and eat cake and miss school.”

“See? This is what I mean. We are not compatible. I am not cut out to be a farming person.”

“If it helps any, these days I’d probably just ring the vet. Even if I did have a six-year-old handy.”

“And then there’s the not-so-small matter of children.” She made it sound like an accusation. “I’m assuming you want them eventually, if not sooner.”

“Yes.” Why lie?

“A business union won’t get you children.”

“No? Because it might.”

“Not with me it won’t.”

She sounded all the way certain and the expression on her face warned him not to push his luck. They were still talking. Negotiating. She hadn’t started cursing him. Yet. “Tell me something, Margaret Mary, and be honest. Are all your thoughts of Wirra Station bad ones? Do you have any love for the homestead and the land at all?”

“Why? Are the town folk worried I’m going to sell off a piece of their history to a soulless overseas conglomerate?”

As far as he was concerned, the people of Wirralong were a pragmatic lot. “As long as whoever buys it runs it as it should be run—stocks it and looks after it and creates jobs—I doubt anyone’s going to care who owns it.”

Her mouth curled. “You’d care.”

“Yes, I would.” No point denying it. “I want it to be me.”

“So do I.” She squared her shoulders as if preparing for battle. “You say you can afford it. Make an offer, a reasonable market-value offer, and it’s yours.”

“I have one condition.”

She eyed him warily.

“I want you to stay on for three months, full time, to sort through everything in the homestead while I act as your farm manager and get the land ready for use. I can teach you everything you need to know about running the place and if you still want to go ahead with the sale after that, I’m all for it. We factor the money I’ve already spent on improvements into the sale price. You’ll walk away a rich woman without a care in the world. Life of luxury. But … if at the end of the three months you decide to stay on, you sell your Melbourne house, pay me back what I’ve spent, and the place is yours to run, and run well, from that point onwards.”

She sat back in her chair and studied him as if he were some fascinating new creature that might bite if she ventured any closer. “Why would you do that for me? Is this some kind of ‘you saved my life and now you’re responsible for me forever more’ thing?”

“No, this is me thinking that with Carmel gone and no-one around to judge you and find you wanting, you might be able to see past the nightmares and begin to appreciate your heritage.”

“Why do you care?”

“Because I do.” He’d had enough of this conversation. “Before I buy the place—and God knows I want to … Before I claim what’s yours I need you to know and fully understand what you’re giving up.”

He stood. Time to leave before he started offering her various essential body parts currently in his possession. “If Henderson wants to do the work you’ve already paid for, you might want to mention a few other services you’re in need of. A new dam at the bottom of the south ridge. Water troughs, tanks, pipes and seals, pumps.”

“You want me to buy more from them?” She sounded confused rather than incredulous.

“Didn’t say anything about buying it. They’ve had your money for quite some time. Charge interest and take it out in trade. Call it a warning for anyone with a mind to scam the new owner of Wirra Station. Word’ll get around soon enough. It’s what I’d do.”

“Yeah, but I’m not sure what you do is always wise.”

She would know.

She was still looking at him as if she’d never seen him before and he’d had enough of it. He’d been bound to her in tragedy and death since he was twelve years old. He knew the shape of her screams and she knew the sting of his tears. She knew him, for better and for worse. “Are we drawing up this contract of sale or not?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

Nothing stopping her from selling the place to someone who wouldn’t saddle her with unwanted terms and conditions. Nothing but a shared history neither of them wanted to recall.

“What are you going to do if I don’t accept your terms and conditions?” she asked.

“Move on.” Property acquisition of a lifetime and he’d blown it. He nodded, and headed for the door, not wanting her to see how much he cared. He really should have known better than to get his hopes up.

Dealing with Maggie Walker had always cost more than he could afford.

Chapter Two

Maggie watched Maxwell O’Connor swagger out the door of the dining room and only realised she’d been staring once he’d gone. Moments later a waitress came to clear the table.

“I see you’ve met the O’Connor,” the woman said with an Irish lilt of her own.

The O’Connor?”

“Well, he does have parents, but believe me when I say there’s only one of him.” The girl smiled and her dark eyes smiled with her. It seemed impossible not to smile back.

“He drives me nuts,” she offered reluctantly, and the other woman laughed.

“Can I get you anything else?”

“No thanks, I’m done.” The name tag said the woman’s name was Maeve.

“So … you’re new around here? I’ve not seen you before,” said Maeve.

Maggie hesitated, and then cursed her instinctive reserve. Standoffishness didn’t go down well in Wirralong. She’d learned that lesson the hard way. “I’ve just inherited Wirra Station. I’m the only Walker left, so here I am.”

“Oh, so you’re the one.” Maeve made it sound like an honour. “The whole town’s talking about you.”

“I know.” She stood up. “Thanks for the meal. It was good.”

“We do an even better Sunday roast.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Maggie was through the front door and out on the wide, verandah covered pavement moments later. The pub stood at one end of Wirralong’s main drag, which consisted of two blocks worth of shops and services, some of which were hanging on by a thread. There’d been money here a hundred years ago, and plenty of it, but the days of the golden fleece were long gone. Like many small country towns with declining populations, Wirralong struggled to survive.

Why she’d once been so daunted by the simple act of walking down the main street of the town was anyone’s guess. Maybe it was because the people in it had never failed to make her feel small and mean and petty for being reserved around strangers. Stuck up. Unfriendly. Words she’d been labelled with back when she’d been newly orphaned and terrified of her own shadow. A judgement she’d never been able to overthrow.

Several years of therapy and behaviour modification strategies later, she could at least recognise how other people saw her, and try to counter it, even if she did still revert to aloof, stand-offish type when hard pressed.

All she had to do to make a better impression was have the confidence to believe that she was worth something. Worth talking to, worth getting to know. Worth the effort.

Max had always thought she was worth the effort and still did, judging by his offer to teach her about farming and give her time to make up her mind about what she wanted to do.

She crossed the road, deep in thought and wanting to walk off the meal she mostly hadn’t eaten by doing a lap of the main street. Memories and a glimpse of glorious red hair through a shopfront window caused her to stop and smile in recognition. She’d seen that same red hue at the funeral, taken condolences and weathered a hug and a promise to catch up, but she hadn’t done anything about it so far. She could start here when it came to digging back into the fabric of the town. She could be friendly and accessible. Fake it ’til you make it.

The sign said Hair Affair. The redhead looked up, her bright eyes and ready smile radiating a warm welcome. Elsa O’Donoghue was one of those rare people who’d always had a smile for Maggie, no matter how awkward Maggie had been. Elsa waved her in and Maggie went.

“Hey,” she said as she stepped inside, only to be engulfed in a warm hug and a cloud of curly red hair.

“Finally,” said Elsa. “I thought Wirra Station had swallowed you whole.”

“It still might.” Maggie returned the hug and the smile and extricated herself gently. It wasn’t that she didn’t like touch—it was more that she never quite knew how to respond to it. She looked around the salon. It had a row of mirrors and hair-cutting stations, a couple of washing and rinsing hair basins and a small front counter with a row of hair products behind it. Nothing flash, but it was clean, bright and cheerful—a pure reflection of its proprietor. A client was sipping something that looked like green tea and half-heartedly reading a magazine while waiting for the goop on her hair to do whatever that particular goop did. Music played cheerfully in the background, something surprisingly not country or western or both. “So this is the booming business?”

“It is.” Elsa spread her arms wide. “I’m starting small and working my way towards greatness. You like?”

“I love it. I bet you get customers coming in and wanting their hair exactly the same as yours.”

“Are you kidding? This hair of mine takes work, not to mention it’s red. And I have freckles.”

“You don’t have that many freckles.” Maggie gestured towards Elsa’s nose. They’d had this conversation before and there was comfort in it. “That there’s a smattering of freckles.”

Elsa reached out to test the length of the bangs that framed Maggie’s face. “Now that’s a good cut,” she murmured. “Frames your face to perfection. Where’d you get it done?”

“Melbourne.”

“Figures. Any time you want it done better, you just give me a call.”

“Oooh, big talk and confidence. I like that.”

“And it won’t cost you the earth,” said the woman in the chair.

“Better book me in for next week, then,” said Maggie and watched Elsa do just that.

“So you’re staying?” asked Elsa. “Because pretty much the whole town wants to know.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing yet. Did you know that Wirra Station used to breed racehorses once?”

“No, but it would explain the size of the stables,” said Elsa. “Is there any burning reason why you have to go back to Melbourne to live?”

“Not a one. That’s as far as I’ve got on the what to do with Wirra Station front. Having said that, if I stay on much longer I’m going to need a plumber. I need a new hot water system and a new shower head. Decent water pressure. In my wilder dreams I install a whole new shower recess.”

“Is it that bad?”

“Worse. The 1920s was not a luxurious time for bathrooms.” And given that there’d been no major renovations since then, the homestead was authentic in the extreme. “I’m praying I can get at least some things fixed without running afoul of the heritage listing on the place.”

“You should be able to modernise the wet rooms, provided you keep the exterior as is,” said the woman in the chair, giving up all pretence of not listening. “Jeannie Lamb. My husband’s a builder. He doesn’t do bathrooms, but he can recommend someone who will, and he has a lot of experience with heritage home repairs. We don’t call them renovations, by the way, and the first thing he’ll tell you is that it’s better to go in hard with a fully visualised restoration plan rather than constantly putting forward piecemeal changes. Even if it takes you years to get things done, get the permissions out of the way fast. Trust me, getting heritage foundation permission to make changes is something you only want to do once.”

“There you go,” said Elsa. “Words from the wise. Jeannie, this is Maggie Walker. Maggie just inherited Wirra Station. Jeannie and her husband bought the Burke place a few years back in a fit of enthusiasm for simple country living.”

“And ignorance,” added Jeannie. “Don’t forget the ignorance. Bottom line is my Ron’s a builder and I trained as an architect too many years ago to count. We’re both retired, but Ron stays busy doing the odd job here and there and I still have my contact list and can source anything you want by way of building materials and furnishings.”

“I do like the sound of that.” It was talent Maggie hadn’t expected to find here. “Where is the Burke place again?”

“Out past the old school ruin,” said Elsa.

“Ah.”

“You have no idea where I’m talking about, do you?” asked Elsa, laughing.

“Absolutely none. But I do have another question for you.”

Elsa nodded.

“Maxwell O’Connor.”

Elsa’s accompanying hum was downright appreciative.

“Not you too.”

“Hey, I have eyes. And then there’s his—”

Maggie held up her hand. “I don’t need a list of the man’s virtues.” She had eyes too. “I want the gossip. What’s he been doing since high school? Strengths. Weaknesses. Moneymaking ventures.”

Elsa’s eyes had narrowed ever so slightly. “Why?”

“Because I’m curious.”

“Curious as in wildly attracted to him, or curious as in you want to ruin the man?”

“Curious in that he wants to buy Wirra Station and I want to know where the money’s coming from.”

“Oh. That’s an easy one.” Elsa was back to her sunny self. “Max took off around the world after school on an agricultural exchange. One of those a few months here, a few months there, a few months everywhere kind of deals. He ended up staying away for four or five years and setting up an international wool co-op that auctions superfine wool directly to high-end Italian and Chinese processors. The wool’s the best of the best. By the time he rolled back into Wirralong he was a self-made man with an Italian model girlfriend.”

“Oh.” Well. “Good for him.”

“The O’Connors bought the Camerons out a few years back and doubled the size of their operation. Makes sense he’d have his eye on Wirra Station too. Jewel in the crown.”

Maggie snorted. “Clearly you haven’t seen the place lately.”

“She may be an old lady but she will always be majestic,” said Elsa. “And if you think Max wouldn’t take care of her, you’re wrong. He’s got a lot of time for what’s his.”

“Maybe I could sell him the land and use the money to do up the house and the outbuildings.” An idea was starting to form, one that didn’t involve a new career as a farmer, or playing by Maxwell O’Connor’s rules. “I could turn it into a bed and breakfast. Or a function centre that specialises in woolshed weddings.” Wirra Station had a monstrous woolshed. It too was heritage listed. “Or garden weddings.” Mustn’t forget the garden. No-one who’d seen it ever did.

“Now you’re talking,” said Elsa. “You could offer a complete wedding package. Married in the garden and the reception in the woolshed. Put the wedding party in the house beforehand and the newlyweds in the stockman’s cabin afterwards. This idea’s got legs.”

This idea was nuts. “I’d need a builder.” May as well embrace the full fantasy. “A team of builders, fully committed to the project.”

“Hello-o?” Elsa pointed a hairbrush at Jeannie. “And I can think of at least three tradesmen in town who’d be one hundred per cent on board with committing to the kind of work you’d need done. Just think—eventually these high-society weddings are going to need caterers and waitstaff and florists and make-up artists. Hairdressers.” At this, the brush got pointed in Elsa’s direction. “It’s a brilliant idea.”

“Why high-society weddings? Why not ordinary weddings?”

“Because high society is where you’re socially connected. It’s your thing.”

“You’re mistaking the orphan being sent to a posh boarding school with the orphan being liked at the posh boarding school,” Maggie said.

“You will have to work on your people skills,” said Elsa with a grin.

“Bite me. I’m much better than I was. Okay, slightly better. Okay, that’s what employees are for.” Maybe the aloof aristocrat was alive and well in her after all. But the idea of making something out of Wirra homestead was beginning to grow on her. Could she really turn that bag of bones and bad memories into something positive? A place where love was celebrated and good memories thrived? “I’m an unemployed art historian turned part-time photographer, not a … whatever that would make me.”

“The word you’re looking for is entrepreneur,” said Elsa.

“I’d never get the money back that I’d be pouring into the place. It’d be a labour of love.” And given that she really didn’t love the place … “Possibly a labour of stupidity.”

“And philanthropy,” said Jeannie. “You’d be restoring a significant historical building and opening it up for public use. That’s a public service.”

Elsa nodded enthusiastically.

“I don’t know,” said Maggie. “Change isn’t always welcome around here.”

“You’d need to bring the townspeople on board with your plan,” said Jeannie airily, as if that was the easy part. “Start with fundraising woolshed dances for the Rural Fire Service, while the building work is still in progress. Let them see and experience what you’re trying to create. Offer your woolshed and paddock space as a once-a-month venue where classic car enthusiasts can gather. You’re going to need them onside so that they’ll offer bridal vehicle services. Have a medical services fundraiser evening when you’re ready to trial your catering team for the first time. Goodwill and publicity all rolled into one.”

“Yes,” said Elsa. “All of this.”

“Whoa,” said Maggie. “I’m a professional fundraiser now? Back up, way back, to the part where I need a plumber and a new hot water system.”

“You know what else you need?” said Elsa. “Support for your vision.”

“My wha—”

“We should start a ladies’ night in. A time and place where we can dream big and spin ideas and pamper ourselves. We could have it here to begin with. First Monday or Tuesday of the month, how does that sound? I’m free. Make our skills all open and accessible. Jeannie, you in?”

“I’m possibly in,” said Jeannie with the smiley age lines. “Got to pace myself.”

“I’ll ask Serenity—she’s the beautician who works from the back of this place.” Elsa was on an all-inclusive roll. “Green hair this month and a music playlist that not everyone can appreciate. You’ll like her.”

“I will?” Okay, no need to get all sceptical. “I mean, sure. Why wouldn’t I?”

“I’m predicting you’ll bond over your many failed attempts to make sense of other people. And she’s the best make-up artist I’ve ever seen and you’re going to need her once the bridal parties start arriving. I say get in early and secure her services.”

“It would probably be pointless to remind you that this wedding business does not yet exist.” Although it was worth a try, nonetheless.

“Pointless.” Elsa nodded sagely. “I’ll organise that ladies’ night. Afternoon. Whatever. Friday. Five-thirty. See you then.”

It probably hadn’t been The O’Connor’s influence that made James Henderson Senior so very compliant when he called to speak with Maggie the following morning. Two teams of fencers would work day in and day out until the fencing that had been paid for was done. There would be water troughs and tanks delivered and installed. Pipes, two windmills, three pumps, one dam and a hot water system he’d heard she was looking for, and someone who could install it—he threw it all her way at no extra cost and Maggie let him.

Max had said it wouldn’t be wrong; that it would make her position strong in the eyes of others and such things would matter if she was staying on.

If she was staying on.

The dream she’d spun about turning the homestead into a destination wedding venue was refusing to let her go and the more time she spent opening up rooms that hadn’t seen daylight or fresh air in years, the more it began to seem like a possibility. The homestead was a stunning piece of architecture, even in its old age. Eleven bedrooms, three drawing rooms, a formal dining room, a library, even a sizeable ballroom that opened onto a verandah that led directly to the garden. A garden that had never been neglected the way the rest of Wirra Station had been let go.

Generations of Walkers had thrived here once. And Maggie had a yearning, as the last of them, to make the house look loved and cared for and happy before she let it go.

If she let it go.

It was different without Carmel here. Less anxiousness on Maggie’s part. No-one waiting to tell her not to poke and pry and stay out of this room and that room. She’d had to get Jeannie’s Ron over simply to unlock the doors of some of the rooms. The keys were either long gone or still hidden, and it wasn’t so much that she expected to find dead bodies or gruesome histories in those rooms that had been abandoned … but she was rather relieved when she didn’t.


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