Daniel Renton dived into the cool, glassy water
of the Star River. His naked body slid down, down through the dark green
silence till he reached the feathery grasses on the sandy river bottom. Then
with a short, swift kick he arced up again and saw, high above, the cloudless
blue of the sky and the tapering trail of smoky green gum leaves.
He broke the surface and struck out for the
opposite bank, revelling in the cool, clean water rushing over his skin,
between his bare thighs, between his fingers and toes, washing every inch of
Daniel swam powerfully, almost savagely, as he
had every day since he’d returned a fortnight ago to Ironbark, his Outback
Queensland cattle property. But he always demanded more from the sleepy river
than it could possibly give him.
Oh, the water rid him of the sweat and the dust
and grime he’d acquired during a hot morning’s work repairing fences, but it
couldn’t rid him of the rottenness that lived inside him. He doubted anything
could free him from that.
He might be out of jail at last, but the
emotional taint of his shameful months of captivity clung to him with a
tenacity that no amount of bathing could banish.
Flipping onto his back, Daniel floated. The
river was slow and he hardly drifted at all. It was always so wonderfully
The birds had retreated into midday silence and
the tree tops stood perfectly still. The river was as peaceful and silent as
an empty church and Daniel tried to relax, deliberately blanking out the
heartbreak and anger and pain that hunkered deep inside him. If only the
darkness could float away.
He loosened the muscles in his shoulders, in his
arms and legs. He closed his eyes.
“Hello! Excuse me!”
The voice, coming out of the silence, startled
him. Splashing upright, Daniel trod water and looked back to the far bank.
Against a backdrop of green and golden wattle, a figure in a floppy straw
sunhat waved arms wildly, trying to catch his attention.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” a female voice
Daniel groaned. And glared at her. Who on earth
could she be? Hardly anyone in the district knew he’d come home. Still
treading water, he shaded his eyes. The young woman was standing at the very
edge of the water, leaning as far out as she dared and peering at him. Beneath
her big floppy sunhat, she wore a sleeveless white T top that left her midriff
bare and blue floral shorts and sandals. A woven straw bag hung from her
A tourist. Not a local.
He didn’t welcome any intrusion, but at least a
stranger would be easier to deal with than someone who knew him. A local would
be suspicious or curious and Daniel wasn’t ready to deal with either reaction.
“What are you doing on my property?” he growled.
“Car trouble, I’m afraid.”
Grrrreat. A city chick with car trouble. He
released a deep, weary sigh.
A million years ago, he might have considered a young woman with a broken down
vehicle a pleasant diversion. But his days of trying to impress women were
long gone. These days he just wanted – no, he needed – to be left alone.
A year and a half on a prison farm tended to do
that to a man. It robbed him of do-good urges. It had almost robbed Daniel of
the will to get out of bed in the morning. What was the point in trying? Life
was a bowl of –
“I’m sorry, but can you help me?”
She was leaning so far out over the water she
looked as if she was about to dive in and swim to him.
“Hang on!” It was a bark rather than a reply.
This was a cattle property, not a bloody service station. But he struck out,
swimming towards her in an easy freestyle. When he neared the shallows he
stopped and stood in hip deep water, his feet sinking into the weedy bottom.
The stranger on the riverbank was well disguised
by her huge straw hat but he caught a glimpse of light coloured hair tied back
or tucked up somehow. Apart from the snug fit of her blue floral shorts she
had a schoolmarmish air about her. Serious and anxious.
And yet... he could feel her studying him with
frank interest. Her mouth flowered into an open pink O as she took in details
of his bare torso.
“What’s the problem?” he asked.
She gulped and said a little breathlessly, “I –
I’m afraid I’ve r-run out of fuel.”
Immediately a bright blush flooded her neck and
“I know it was stupid of me and I’m so sorry to
trouble you, but I don’t know what to do.” Her hands flapped in a gesture of
helplessness. “I tried to ring the only person I know around here, but there
doesn’t seem to be anyone home, even though they were expecting me. I managed
to coast down the side of the mountain, but then my car conked out at the
bottom. I saw your gate and your mail box and so I turned in here and your ute
was on the track back there and I –”
“Whoa,” cried Daniel. “I get the picture. You
want enough fuel to get you into town.”
Her face broke into an amazing smile. “Yes.” She
beamed at him as if he’d offered to fly her straight to Sydney in a Lear jet.
“If you could spare some fuel that would be wonderful.”
Her warm smile lingered as she stood there.
“You’re – you’re – very – kind.”
Kind? A jaded half-laugh broke from him. It had
been too long since anyone had called Daniel Renton kind – especially a young
woman – and it had been even longer since a woman had stared at him with such
She continued to stand there, looking at him.
“We’ll both be embarrassed if you don’t turn
your back while I get out of the water,” he said dryly.
“Turn my back? Oh. Oh... You’re naked. Sorry.”
However she didn’t sound especially sorry and
she took her time turning, holding the brim of her hat close to her head with
“You’re safe enough now,” she called, and her
voice was warm with the hint of yet another smile. “My hat makes great
blinkers and I promise I won’t look till you say so.”
Mildly surprised that she’d stood her ground
rather than making a nervous dash for the nearest patch of thick scrub, Daniel
left the water quickly and hauled on his jeans without any attempt to dry
“All clear,” he said gruffly.
She let go of the hat brim and turned back to
him, pink and smiling again, or perhaps still pink and smiling and she watched
with continued interest as he shook his head from side to side and flicked
water droplets from his thick dark hair.
“I’m sorry. I’m being a nuisance.”
He shrugged. “I was just taking a break. But I
don’t have a lot of time.”
Reaching down for his blue cotton shirt, he retrieved his watch from the front
pocket and checked the time before slipping the watch onto his wrist. It was
lunch time and his stomach was rumbling. “Where’s your car?”
“Out on the road.”
“Not in the middle of the road?”
“No. I’m silly, but not totally brainless. I
managed to push it well off the bitumen. It’s under a tree. I guess it’s about
five hundred metres from your front gate.”
“What sort of vehicle?”
“So you need petrol?” He bit off a curse.
“Well... yes. I told you I’ve run out.”
“Is that a problem?”
“I only use diesel.”
“Oh.” Two neat white teeth worried her lower
“I guess I’ll have to give you a lift into
Gidgee Springs.” He knew he should have said this more graciously, but a trip
into the nearest township would mean exposing himself to the questioning
glances of prying locals.
“I don’t want to put you to that much bother,”
she said, obviously sensing his reluctance. “If you have a telephone book I
could ring a service station in Gidgee Springs. They should be able to send a
can of petrol out here.”
“On a Sunday? You’ve got to be joking.” Daniel
let out a hoot of laughter. “I’ll give you a lift, but you’ll have to wait.
I’m going to grab a bite to eat first.”
“By all means. Yes, you must have your lunch.”
She sounded prim and schoolmarmy again.
After pulling on elastic sided riding boots and
shrugging into his shirt, he began to make his way through the scrub to the
track where he’d left the ute, doing up shirt buttons as he went. The woman,
ducking branches heavy with golden wattle, hurried to keep up.
“By the way, my name’s Lily,” she said to his
back. “Lily Halliday.”
“Daniel,” he offered grouchily over his
“Yes.” He stopped, suddenly wary, and he sent
her a swift, searching frown. “How did you know my name?”
Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “It’s painted
on your letter box. D. Renton. Ironbark station.”
He sighed as he continued walking. He might have
been released from prison but he was still constantly on edge and alert.
Always defensive. He’d forgotten how to relax, how to trust. Simple details of
freedom could catch him out. His name painted on his letter box. A trip into
town for groceries. A stranger’s friendly smile. He wondered if he would ever
again accept such ordinary everyday normality as his right.
They reached his rusty old ute, parked in the
shade of an ancient camphor laurel tree. He stepped towards the passenger
door, intending to open it for Lily, but she clearly didn’t expect anything so
gentlemanly from him and she rushed forward.
“No need to wait on me.” Without further
ceremony she yanked the door open and jumped into the passenger seat.
By the time Daniel ambled around to the driver’s
door Lily had removed her hat. And as he settled behind the wheel, she slipped
off the blue elastic band that tied back her hair and shook it free.
Her hair was heavy and silky, the pale colour of
new hemp rope. It tumbled in waves over her shoulders like rippling water, and
with a complete lack of self-consciousness, she began to sift strands of it
through her fingers. Finally she lifted the full weight of it from the back of
her neck, exposing damp little curls stuck to her warm, pink skin. Then she
re-twisted her hair into a loose knot and slipped the band back into place.
During the entire process Daniel watched, transfixed.
Eventually, Lily glanced sideways and she
realised he was staring at her. Their gazes met. And froze. They both held
Something in Lily’s misty blue-grey eyes reached
deep into the darkness inside Daniel and tugged. He felt an almost shocking
sense of connection. It was completely unexpected. Unwilling.
From “Claiming the Cattleman's Heart"
By: Barbara Hannay
Mills and Boon Romance
Copyright: © Barbara Hannay
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement
with Harlequin Books S.A. For more romance information surf to: http://www.eHarlequin.com