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Authors: Emma Darcy

Heart of the Outback

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Heart of the Outback

by

Emma Darcy

CHAPTER ONE

“.. .Alida Rose…”

Gareth’s hand stilled on the bow tie he had been trying to fix to his satisfaction. It wasn’t her. It couldn’t be her. Not after all these years. Gareth’s mind groped to remember exactly how many years it had been.

Perhaps he had misheard the name. His mind shied away from the memory conjured up as he shifted his gaze from his reflection in the mirror to the reflection of his daughter.

Stacey was sprawled across his bed, the evening newspaper spread around her as she gleefully read out the article that described what he had to suffer through tonight. Other names spilled from her lips, a list of who’s who in the fashion world, all vying for the coveted award of Australian Designer of the Year. Surely to God he had misheard that name!

It would be penitence enough to sit through an inane parade of ridiculous clothes. He didn’t need the added torture of seeing the one woman who would inevitably remind him of his most grievous sin. He had been through enough hell, carrying the burden of that secret guilt.

Stacey looked up, caught his eyes and grinned. The bright vitality of her thirteen-year-old face poignantly recalled the image of her mother, the woman he had loved and married, the woman whose love had been big enough to offer him sexual freedom when disease had rendered her incapable of functioning as a woman.

The idea of loveless sex had been repugnant to Gareth after what he and Kate had shared together. He hadn’t sought to relieve his enforced celibacy. Yet when temptation had come at an opportune time… He still hated himself for having succumbed to the need that had overwhelmed all his finer instincts.

There had been something compelling about Alida Rose. From the moment they met he had wanted her. She had wanted him, too. But that was no excuse for losing all control, for feeling things he had never felt with Kate. It had been a betrayal of his marriage, not a simple, easily dismissed surrender of a sexual drive that he had all but forgotten in caring for his crippled wife.

And Alida Rose had been so hard to forget, a torment of loss to add to his guilt. Madness to feel what he had in the face of who and what she was. A city woman. A dress designer committed to superficialities. While Kate, the true partner of his life…

“You’re really going to hate this, Dad,” Stacey declared, her dark eyes dancing teasingly, unaware she echoed his uncomfortable thoughts.

“Yes, I expect I shall,” he replied grimly, then tried to shake off his preoccupation with the past. Kate was at peace now. Nothing could hurt her any more.

“They’re going to have a rock band playing all night.”

His grimace was one of pained resignation.

Stacey laughed, well aware of his preference for classical music. “You shouldn’t have let Aunty Deb put the screws on you to take her. She’s got plenty of friends. She doesn’t really need you with her.”

Much as he hated society gatherings, Gareth owed his sister too much to refuse her a favour when she asked. She had given invaluable support during Kate’s last months, and now she had offered her home to Stacey for the duration of her secondary education. His visits to Perth were few enough. The least he could do was oblige his sister when he was here.

He forced his fingers to rework the bow tie into an acceptable state as he answered his daughter. “Deb wanted an official escort. I doubt your uncle Max would approve of her taking any other man. And since he’s in New Zealand on business…”

Stacey made a scoffing sound. “That’s her excuse, Dad. Uncle Max didn’t want to go, and so he went to New Zealand. That gave Aunty Deb her opportunity. If you ask me, Aunty Deb just wants to show you off. Even the girls at school think you’re pretty hot stuff.”

He frowned at Stacey. Her language was starting to deteriorate. Put the screws on belatedly registered in his mind. Now hot stuff! “What’s that supposed to mean?” he queried disapprovingly.

Kate wouldn’t have liked to hear their daughter speaking like that. She had always been so keen on Stacey getting a proper education. Even though they could well afford to employ a governess, Kate had preferred to supervise Stacey’s correspondence lessons herself. Now it seemed all her insistence on good expression was being eroded.

Stacey heaved a sigh as though he was the backward student. “You know, too hot to handle. That kind of thing. That’s how they talk. I have it on good authority that you’re a cross between Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood. Some girls are stupid. But that’s how they think. They say you have Paul Newman eyes, too.”

“Good God!” He was appalled to think of his daughter’s friends discussing him in such terms. “Is this the education you get at an exclusive school for young ladies?”

“Not from the teachers. But it’s what most of the girls think of.”

“I’ll go and see the headmistress.”

That got her attention. She swung her long pony legs off the bed and sat up, an anxious look on her face. “Dad, please don’t cause trouble.”

“No trouble.”

She took his double meaning and saw there was going to be plenty of trouble. “Dad, it’s the same everywhere,” Stacey put in desperately, anxious to extend his education. “The school you and Aunty Deb think so highly of is a hotbed of repression. All the private boarding schools are. We play sport with the other schools, so I know they’re the same. All the girls talk about is sexual fantasies and stuff like that.”

“Don’t you think it should be stopped?”

“Going to the headmistress isn’t going to stop it, Dad,” she warned him with a wise look.

He noticed the slight bumps of budding breasts pressing against the soft cotton T-shirt she wore with her jeans. She had only just turned thirteen. Did it happen so soon these days? Was he hopelessly out of date? What would Kate think of this?

Stacey’s expression changed to one of appeal. “It is sort of interesting, you know.”

“It should be stopped,” he muttered grimly. “Crazy obsessive nonsense! They should be thinking about-well, sport and schoolwork and…”

“I don’t have a mother to talk to about it.”

That stopped him. Girls matured earlier than boys. He had to remember that. And with Stacey boarding at school during the weekdays, a whole lot of thirteen-year-olds together, reaching puberty, aware of the changes in their bodies, getting silly about it with no mature person around to give them a sense of proportion …

Teachers probably weren’t the answer. And what good could he do? Stacey was only here at Deb’s because he was in Perth and the headmistress understood their situation. Property owners like Gareth came down to Perth so infrequently that the schools gave them every opportunity to be with their children. Of course, Stacey had Deb to stay with on weekends. Couldn’t his sister be a standin mother for her?

“Maybe your aunty Deb…”

Stacey sighed and looked askance. “It’s not the same.”

She was right. It wasn’t the same. For twelve years she had been with him and Kate. Stacey had not yet forged any deep familiarity with his sister. No doubt Deb was involved in her own social activities on weekends, which left Stacey dependent on her school friends for company and confidences. If he made trouble for them, she could be ostracised from any friendship.

“I’ll think about it,” he said slowly. “Going to the headmistress, I mean.”

Stacey’s face lit with relief. Knowing she had won, she lay down on the bed again, propping pillows behind her head, resting content.

“Of course, the girls think you are impossibly romantic because you own a big cattle station in the Outback. That makes you a sort of macho king of the range.”

He gave her a look of sheer disbelief.

Stacey grinned. “Well, Riordan River is in the Macdonnell Ranges.” She attempted to look serious. “I think that’s where the Clint Eastwood bit comes in, because he’s a bit of a cowboy in a sort of way. And you’re tall and strong-looking and…”

“Spare me schoolgirl fantasies,” Gareth muttered darkly.

“Well, you are my dad, Dad,” Stacey assured him. “Most of the other girls’ fathers are weeds compared to you. I must say I like having you as my dad.”

“Thank you,” he bit out.

“And then there’s the attractive cleft in your chin.”

“It’s a darned nuisance when I’m shaving!”

Stacey ignored his irritable protest. “That’s the Cary Grant bit. And having such blue eyes with your black hair and darkly tanned skin…”

“Haven’t your friends got better things to do than to dissect me into movie actors’ parts?” he rasped in exasperation. “What’s on your list for homework?”

“That’s it, you see!” Stacey said triumphantly, bouncing up to sit hugging her knees. Cunning gleamed in her vibrant dark eyes as she pursued her argument. “I know Aunty Deb talked you into placing me at Heatherton because it’s her old school, and it’s socially advantageous—” she wrinkled her nose in disgust “—but I’d be much better off at a normal coed high school where—”

“There are boys,” he finished drily.

“I’m used to being with boys. I’ve been with boys all my life. And they’re a lot more fun than stupid girls. They’re not always talking about clothes and make-up and looking sexy.” She pouted in a travesty of nymphet sexiness.

“Stacey.” Gareth sighed and swung around to face her. “Give it time, sweetheart. You’ve lived an isolated, narrow kind of life on the station. I know this is a different kind of world for you. But it’s part of life, too. Country, city… it’s best that you experience both so when you’re old enough to choose what will most satisfy you, you can cope with whatever you have to meet.”

Her face fell. Her dark eyes pleaded with his. “I hate it here. I want to be on the station with you, Dad. And when you’re dead, I’m going to run it.”

His loneliness sent a surge of empathy through him. Yet he had to resist it for Stacey’s own good. He didn’t like the way her education was being broadened at the present moment, but broadened it had to be. His daughter—Kate’s daughter—was going to develop all her capabilities and become a well-rounded person whether she liked it or not.

“Stacey, Deb hated being away, too, when she was your age,” he said quietly, and he hoped persuasively.

“But I don’t want to become a socialite,” she argued mutinously. “It’s stupid!”

“Tell me that when you’re eighteen, Stacey. Then you will have fulfilled your mother’s plan for you and the choice will be yours.”

“But that’s five more years, Dad,” she wailed.

“I know.” An ironic smile curved his lips. “Almost a lifetime. Let’s see now. In a couple more years, I will have lived eight spans of five years.”

“Yes.” She glowered at him for being amused. “And Aunty Deb says you’re getting all dried up.”

He cocked an eyebrow in arch enquiry. “Does she now?” He reached back and picked up his empty glass from the dressing table. “Well, perhaps you’d be so kind as to pour your old dad another drink.”

She huffed and swung herself off the bed, giving him a look of exasperation as she stood up and flicked back her thick black plaits. “Aunty Deb says you drink too much, too.”

“I’m beginning to think Aunty Deb has far too much to say.”

“I heard her tell Uncle Max that you’re deadening your natural urges with the whisky bottle. So it can’t be good for you,” Stacey warned seriously.

His face tightened. His sister obviously needed a lesson in discretion. She spoke altogether too freely in front of his daughter. “I’ll be the judge of that, Stacey,” he said with a curtness that brooked no argument.

“If you say so, Dad,” she said uncertainly, giving him a worried look as she took the glass from his hand. “She also said it’s time you stopped being a eunuch. What’s a eunuch, Dad? Aunty Deb wouldn’t tell me, and Uncle Max went all red as though he was going to explode when I asked him. I tried looking it up in the dictionary but I couldn’t find it.”

Gareth gritted his teeth. He was going to give Deb one hell of a talking-to tonight. “The same as a gelding, Stacey,” he answered in terms she readily understood.

“Oh! No good for mating any more.” She digested the concept then cast a curious look at him.

“I assure you I’m fully intact and perfectly capable of anything I so desire,” he stated defensively.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

She grimaced at his slowness. “You know. Desire anybody.”

He swore under his breath. Stacey was growing up too damned fast under his sister’s wing. Not to mention peer-group influence. “I loved your mother, Stacey.”

“Yes, I know, Dad,” she agreed gravely. “But I can hardly remember when you slept together.”

“That was because…” He sucked in a sharp breath. This was getting more complicated than he could handle. “Damn it all!” he burst out in frustration. “This conversation is at an end. Would you mind getting me a drink while I finish dressing to your aunty Deb’s requirements?”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you over Mum,” she said softly, shaming him with her understanding. “I guess that’s why you drink so much,” she observed as she went out the door to do his bidding.

Gareth closed his eyes and shook his head. He knew precisely when he had started drinking with mind-numbing regularity. It had become habit now, but then… Then he had sought any means that might help him dull his senses, help him forget enough so that he could get to sleep at night.

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