Alison Walker steered her blue Land Rover up the dirt road that led to Drover's Run. It still felt strange, even after a month, to be driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road. She laughed at herself every time she went to the wrong side of the car but after 14 or so years of driving in the States, she'd expect getting used to driving in Australia would take some time.
Pushing a lock of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear, she marveled at the beauty of this land. It was so unlike anything she had seen in the States, even in the mid-west. Vast expanses rolling hills were covered in golden grass that reached up and seemed to caress the crystal blue sky. She couldn't even imagine what it looked like with fresh green grass.
She stopped on top of a hill and looked down at a small herd of Hereford cattle that grazed peacefully on the grass. Personally, Alison preferred Angus cattle to the Herefords but these specimens could very well change her mind. Definitely some quality stock here, she thought before continuing on.
Several minutes later, she pulled the Rover to a stop in front of a large two-story house. Grinning she shook her head. It was unbelievable. This house could have been pulled right from her dreams as a little girl. A short walkway with steps lead up to the front porch where a dark haired woman sat shucking corn on the cob. The woman looked up as Alison climbed onto the porch. She rose. "May I help you?"
"Yes," Alison replied. "I was looking for Tess or Claire McLeod."
"And you are?"
"Alison Walker. I was told that they were looking for someone with background in cattle husbandry."
"Oh yes, I'm sorry. They're expecting you. My name's Meg, by the way." She held out her hand.
"Nice to meet you." Alison smiled and nodded. She followed Meg into the house. The inside was gorgeous, paneled in dark wood and furnished with lots of antique type furniture, just as Alison imagined. In the kitchen, Meg introduced her to Tess and Claire.
"G'day," Claire motioned to a chair. Her long blond hair was pulled up at the sides and flowed down her back.
"Thanks for coming out," greeted Tess, whose hair was shorter and black but just as straight.
"You're welcome. I'm sure I'll be able to help. I saw some of your stock on the way in. Good looking animals. Shouldn't be too hard finding what you need."
"The question is," Claire began, "can we afford it and you?"
Alison smiled. "I'm sure you'll find my fees more than reasonable. I do it because I love it, not to make money."
"We could offer you room and board here too if you like," Tess suggested.
"Really? That would be fabulous! As much as I loved the drive out here, it would get a bit long after awhile. I'd be glad to start first thing tomorrow. I need to go back to the hotel and get my things."
Alison, Tess and Claire reached a quick agreement on salary and Alison headed back to town. She had paid for the night at the hotel and didn't want it to go to waste. After a quick shower, she made her way down the street to a small bar she had seen. Pub, she corrected herself with a giggle. The atmosphere inside was light and airy despite the fact the pub was quite full.
Finding an empty spot at the end of the bar, she sat down, trying to shrug off the stares. "What can I get for you?" the bartender greeted.
"Rum and coke, please."
"Bundy and Coke, coming up." The bartender poured the drink and set it in front of her. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"What gave it away," Alison laughed, "my accent?"
"Something like that," he replied flatly and then turned away.
Alison looked down at her drink. So much for friendly locals. She lifted her glass to take a drink when someone bumped into her arm sending rum and coke all over the bar and her. She turned to curse the clumsy jerk but stopped dead when she saw the handsome and apologetic face staring back.
"Oh, sorry there, love."
Alison swallowed as his purring accented voice sent shivers down her spine. Black wavy hair framed his soft face and eyes. He's got a body like a Greek god, Alison thought before snapping back to reality. "It--it's okay. Really." She took the towel handed to her by the bartender and blotted up some of the liquid from her clothing.
"Well, at least you can let a clumsy bloke buy you another one."
Lost in his smile, she blurted out the first thing that came to her lips. "Promise not to spill it on me?" Then immediately regretted it. To her relief, he laughed.
"Deal. The name's Rod Morgan." He offered his hand as he ordered another drink for Alison as well as himself.
"Alison. Alison Walker."
He handed Alison her drink and held his own up for a toast. "Cheers."
"Cheers." Alison didn't want to tear her eyes from Rod. He was the most gorgeous man she'd seen in a long time if not ever. She hardly could believe he was sitting next to and talking with her.
"So, what brings you over here?"
"I was in Sydney for the past month or so. I just got hired by Tess and Claire McLeod to help with their breeding program."
"Ahh," he nodded. "They're good people. I worked for Jack, their father. You hardly look like the cattle type, more like a proper city girl," he teased.
"Well, I was born in New York City but grew up in Texas, graduated from Texas A&M and was tops in my class in beef cattle science with a minor in animal husbandry. I never wanted to live anywhere else in the States. So when my parents died and I couldn't handling living in their house alone, I decided a big change of scenery is what I needed."
"I'm sorry. About your parents, that is. I'm not sorry you decided to come here though."
Alison felt the heat rise in her cheeks and knew she must be bright red. "Thank you." She caught sight of her watch as she glanced down. "I should be getting back to the hotel. It's getting late and I've got an early day tomorrow."
Rod jumped to his feet as Alison rose. "I'd umm… would you like to have dinner tomorrow night? Or any night?"
"Yes. I'd like that. Tomorrow night is good."
"Say 7:30, here?"
"Sounds good. See then." Alison smiled. "Good night."
Rod watched as the red head left the pub. He had barely looked at other women since he split from Claire almost six months ago. Alison seemed so totally opposite of everything Claire had been, yet so much alike. He felt a draw towards Alison he couldn't remember feeling before. The minute he laid eyes on her, his heart froze and he thought he'd never breathe again. Time just seemed to stop. Maybe this is what love felt like.
Alison woke the next morning hot and bothered from a very erotic dream about Rod. "God," she muttered, turning up the fan in the room. "Get a grip, Ali." She pulled out a pair of jeans and a shirt and showered before heading down to the small restaurant next to the hotel for breakfast.
Stepping inside, she looked around hoping, in the back of her mind, to see Rod. When she didn't, she couldn't help feeling disappointed. An older woman met her at the door and showed her to a small table in the back of the room. After ordering an omelet with vegetables and cheese, home-style potatoes and a cup of tea, Alison pulled a book out from her bag to read, trying to get Rod off of her mind.
His strong arms lifted her easily onto the edge of the counter as she wrapped her fingers in his thick hair. Her breaths quickened as she felt his hand slip under skirt. His fingers skillfully pulled aside her panties and dipped into her hot and waiting…
Alison slammed the book shut. This was not going work. She wanted to get her mind off Rod, not thinking about getting on him. With a sigh she stuffed the book back in her bag and settled with staring out of the front window thinking about the job that lay ahead of her. She quickly ate her breakfast and paid for it before returning to the hotel to check out. An hour later, she was climbing the steps to the McLeod house, loaded down with luggage.
Tess saw Alison as she came up the porch and rushed out to help her. "Here, let me give you a hand."
"Thanks. I didn't know how long I'd be here so I figured I'd better be prepared for anything."
"Well from the looks of this, you've done a good job."
Both women laughed as they hauled the luggage upstairs to a vacant bedroom. "I'll unpack later. I want to get started as soon as I can." She set the luggage, except for her laptop case, in a closet to keep it out of site and out of the way.
"The bathroom's downstairs but we're not on city water so keep the showers short," Tess with a chuckle. "It's kind of an inside joke," she explained further as Alison looked rather confused. "Claire went to check on a couple of mares due to foal but we can get started without her."
They two went down to the kitchen where Alison set up her laptop. Tess went to the stove and put some water on to boil. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
Alison rummaged through the side pocket on her laptop, trying to find the voltage adapter. She'd already fried her portable printer when she first arrived by not remembering about the voltage difference and didn't need to do the same to her computer. She found what she needed and plugged it in. "Yes, please. That'd be great." Turning on the power to he computer, Alison got an idea. "I ran into an old work hand of your father's in town last night."
Tess grimaced. Someone must have told Patrick. "Oh? Who was that?"
Alison looked up to watch Tess' reaction to the name. "Rod." She didn't know what to make of Tess' relieved yet slightly disapproving look. "Seems like a nice enough guy."
"Yeah. He and Claire were engaged but broke it off right after my dad died, about six months ago."
"Oh." Alison looked down at the computer as it started up. Great, just great, she scolded herself. Of all the men you had to fall for, it had to be your boss' ex. Way to go.
"It was a fairly amiable separation. He still comes around now and again to see how we're doing."
"Well, that's good." Alison made a mental note to probe Claire a little bit about the split before saying anything about dinner tonight. Or any other night. "Okay, down to business. I'm going to need to see the pedigree papers of all your breeding stock. I can input them into this program and it'll give me an idea of what their lineage looks like. Then I'll need to see the stock and make note of any physical strengths or weaknesses they have. That will help tell me how you need to compensate."
Tess stared a bit wide-eyed at the computer. "It can do all that?"
"No," Alison grinned. "Most of it I do in my head but it can keep us from doing any accidental inbreeding by tracking lineage."
Alison glanced through the paperwork Tess retrieved for her. "You only have one bull?"
Tess set the tea down and sat across from Alison. "We had to sell the others to help get the place out of debt when my father died."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound so insensitive."
"It's okay," Tess reassured her with a nod. "You couldn't have known. But that's why we need you. We need to know which way would be best for us, artificial insemination or getting another animal."
"Well, I'll know more when I look at the pedigrees and the stock, but with a small operation like this, unless you already have the necessary equipment for AI, another bull or two would probably be best."
Alison finished inputting the data into her computer just before lunchtime and as Claire came back from checking on the mares. Alison stood and stretched. "How are the mares doing?"
"One of them foaled, a little bay filly. The other still has a day or so to go. Are you all settled in?"
"I'm not unpacked yet. I wanted to get the pedigrees in the computer so I can look at the cattle this afternoon before I go back to town…" she stopped short not wanting to say too much.
"Aren't you staying here?" Claire poured a glass of water from the tap.
"Oh yes, absolutely. I just wanted to go and… talk to some of the other cattlemen in the area." She said a silent prayer that Claire wouldn't press further.
"Good luck. Those blokes won't tell a woman here anything, much less one they don't even know."
"Well," Alison shrugged, "it can't hurt to try."
"After we eat, I'll get a horse saddled up for you and we can go out to where the cattle are."
"Thanks, Claire, but you don't need to saddle it for me. I can do that."
"Fine. I'm going to go wash up."
Alison sighed as Claire left, knowing she'd upset her some how.
Tess patted her shoulder. "Don't worry about her."
The ride out to the cattle went nicely. The cattle impressed Alison even more when they were close up. She made a few notes about them but still needed a closer look to match her observations to the specific animal's pedigree. "Is there a way we can round them all up to the pens at the house?" She reined her horse to a stop next to Claire's.
"Round them up?"
"Yeah," Alison frowned in confusion at Claire's laugh that accompanied her question.
"You mean muster them. You're not in America any more." Claire turned her horse back towards the house. "We can. But they can't stay there for too long otherwise we'll have to grain them."
"That's fine. I just need 4 hours or so to make some notes."
"We'll muster them up tomorrow morning then so don't be out too late."
"Okay." Alison nodded. She didn't even notice the sarcastic tones in Claire's voice, her mind already on the thought of having dinner with Rod. She showered quickly, changing into a black denim skirt and red blouse, the dressiest things she owned. Slipping on her boots, she made one final check in the mirror and trotted down the stairs.
"Where you going, all gussied up like that?" Claire stepped from her father's den.
Alison froze in her tracks.
"I thought you were just going into town to talk about other cattle stations?"
"Well, you said the men didn't like to talk to women much. So… I thought I'd catch more flies with honey, you know." Alison could tell by the look on Claire's face she didn't by the story.
"Well, just remember, we have to get up early to muster those cattle to the yards."
"Right." Alison left before either one could say another word. By the time she reached the car, she forgot all about Claire's attitude. The ride into town seemed to take forever. As she reached the door to the pub, she paused and took a deep breath. Shaking, her hand gripped the door handle and pulled. Stepping into the pub, everything seemed to move in slow motion. She looked around the room. She spotted him at the bar. Her heart skipped a beat or two when he looked up at her and smiled.
She looks bloody gorgeous, Rod thought as he rose to greet her. "Hi." He placed a quick kiss on her cheek. "You ready?" She nodded and Rod led her out of the pub toward his car. "I've made reservations at a restaurant in a town about an hour from here." He stopped and grinned as Alison walked around to the driver's side of the car. "You plan on driving?"
"What?" Alison reached to open the door and saw what Rod's comment meant. "Oh." The flush rose in her cheeks. "It's habit forming." Shrugging with a grin, she walked over to where Rod waited with an open door.
"Bloody yank," he laughed as Alison climbed into the card.
"I'll figure this out sooner or later," Alison assured him with a smile. Her eyes never left him while he went to the driver's side of the car. His jeans outlined his entire lower body. If they were any tighter, Alison thought, they'd have to be painted on. The rolled up sleeves on his blue shirt stopped just above his lower forearm. Rod definitely kept himself in shape.
"So why come all the way out here and work for next to nothing? With an education like you have, other places would surely pay you more."
Alison settled back in the seat. "Money isn't everything. When my parents died, they left me more than enough money in oil stocks and bonds that I could live very well off for the rest of my life and never have to work. But I like what I do."
"Now it's my turn. Why didn't you tell me you were not only Jack McLeod's overseer, you were also engaged to Claire?"
"That was over a long time ago. I didn't think it mattered." Glancing over at her, he added, "Does it?"
"No," Alison answered softly, losing herself in his eyes again. "I just would have like to have known so I didn't put my foot in my mouth."
"So she told you?"
"No, Tess mentioned it when I said I spoke with you."
"Well, it was Claire's decision to separate and she was right so I wouldn't worry about it." He took Alison's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "It's over between us."
Alison's whole body went weak from Rod's touch. She forced herself to breathe slower as her heart continued to pound. Butterflies grew in her stomach, making her unsure if she was going to be able to eat. Never had she had such reactions to a man… any man. She had to do something to get her mind off of thought of running her hands over his muscular body and through that gorgeous black hair. "So, umm…" her voice cracked a little. "Have you lived here all your life?"
Rod smiled to himself. At least now he knew the physical reactions he had when near her were mutual. Softly stroking her hand with his thumb, he answered her. "Yeah. Born and raised. My dad left my mum and me when I was six so the minute I finished school I went to work at a cattle station to help my mum out."
"Did have brothers or sisters?"
"No. It was just my mum, me and all the debts my bloody father left us with. Bet you never had worries like that, ay?"
"No." Alison's smile faded, suddenly feeling ashamed for having told Rod of her wealthy childhood. "I'm sorry."
He kicked himself for saying something that stupid after he saw how it upset her. "No worries, love. It all worked out." Now it was his turn to change the subject. "You miss the States at all?"
"No, not really. About the only thing I do miss is a good plate of Mexican food." She glanced over at Rod and they both laughed, easing the tension.
The restaurant Rod drove them to sat on the bank of a small river overlooking it and the Australian bush. The inside décor was very rustic with animal skins and heads hanging on the walls but quiet and romantic none the less.
The hostess led Rod and Alison to a small booth in a corner of the restaurant. Alison slid in next to the window, admiring in the breathtaking view of the river with the moon reflecting off of it.
"You like it?" Rod whispered in her ear, sitting next her.
"It's beautiful." She fought back the urge to turn and kiss him. His breath against her neck stirred her hormones back into high gear.
"Just like you." With a finger, he turned her head. His lips brushed against hers, seeking approval.
Before he could get it, the waiter interrupted. "Would you like a drink from before your meal?"
Rod slowly faced the young waiter with a displeased glare. "A beer will be fine for me. Alison?"
"I'll have one as well." Flustered, Alison picked up the menu and began scanning the food selections.
"And what can I get you for dinner?" the waiter continued.
"We'll each have the number three, medium rare, baked potato with everything, bleu cheese dressing…"
Alison stopped scanning the menu when she heard Rod order for them both. Granted, the food choice was excellent, a surf and turf combination as it was called back home, of filet minion and lobster tail. He even got the choice of salad dressing and the doneness of the filet right. She just never had anyone up and order for her and not consult her first.
"Is that okay with you?"
Alison tried to smile pleasantly, handing the menu to the waiter. "Yes, that'll be fine."
Rod hurried the waiter off. Something in her voice worried him. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No." Alison fiddled with the silverware in front of her. "I'm just not used to people ordering for me."
Oh bloody hell, Rod thought, you've got remember she's not used to the way things are done out here. "We can get the waiter back and change the order, if you like."
"That's okay. It's exactly what I would have ordered anyway," she replied sheepish, realizing she was making a big deal out of nothing.
"You sure? It's just habit…"
"Really, it's okay." This time she leaned forward to meet his lips. They greeted her eagerly, sending a rush of desire over and through her body. Her slid behind his neck, wanting to pull him as close to her as possible. Rod seemed happy to oblige until the waiter returned with their drinks, clearing his throat as he set them down.
"Thank you," Rod replied with an aggravated sneer. Picking up his beer, he rolled his eyes as the waiter once again left.
Rod and Alison ate their dinner amidst general small talk about their lives and where they grew up. By the time they reached the pub where Alison had parked her car, it was after midnight. The only sound that echoed through the town were their own hushed voices.
Alison stood next to her car, shyly toying with a button on his shirt. "Thank you for dinner. I had a really good time."
"Does this mean you'll do it again?" He lifted her chin.
"Only if you promise there will be no waiters with very bad timing," she replied in jest, though her thoughts were clearly on something else.
Rod barely found the breath to reply. She was so beautiful and he wanted her so bad. "Anything for you. Anything." He grabbed her face and pulled her into a kiss. She responded in earnest, running her hands up his stomach and across his chest to the back of his neck. A growl rumbled through his chest as he pressed harder against her and the car.
Alison pulled back, trying to catch her breath. "Rod… wait." She swallowed, willing her heart to slow back to a normal pace. "Not here."
Rod looked around at the town. Despite the fact it was deserted, she was right. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't help…"
Alison cut him off with a finger over his lips. "Don't be sorry. I just want to take it slow, or at least slower." She checked her watch. "I've got to get back. We're rounding… I mean mustering the cattle in a few hours so I can check them out and I've got to be there."
Rod nodded. "Will you be able to find your way back okay?"
"Yeah, shouldn't be a problem."
"I'll call you tomorrow." He reluctantly opened the door to her car.
"Please. But call in the afternoon. I should be finished with the cattle by then." She slipped in the car and shut the door. The engine roared to life in the otherwise silent night. If she didn't leave now, she never would.
"Will do." Rod stepped back to watch Alison drive off into the midnight darkness. If he did see her tomorrow night, it wouldn't be soon enough.
The clock softly chimed 2:00am when Alison began climbing the stairs to her room. She felt guilty enough being gone so long on her first night here so she tried to be as quiet as possible. Her return however did not go unnoticed. Claire peeked out from her room giving Alison an icy stare though she knew it would not be seen.
Clicking the door shut behind her, Alison slipped out of her clothes and into bed. She set her alarm clock for 4:30am so no one else would have to wake her. But her mind was too busy playing back the evening's events she thought she'd never get to asleep.
Several hours later, the alarm clock jolted Alison from her sleep. She blinked in the darkness of the room, wondering if last night had just been a dream. The pile of clothes that she stepped on going to turn on the light indicated it hadn't been. A pleased grin spread across her face. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the tenderness of his kiss and the pressure of his body against hers. That feeling definitely was not a dream.
Hardly tired at all, she pulled on her work clothes and headed downstairs for some breakfast. Meg stood in front of the stove cooking while Tess and Claire sat at the table sipping coffee. "Good morning!" Alison said cheerfully.
"Morning," Meg replied. "Would you like some coffee?"
"I'd love some, thanks."
Claire shoved her chair back and rose. "I'm surprised you're awake considering you didn't get in until 2:00am in the bloody morning," she grumbled, push past the bewildered Alison.
"Claire!" Tess jumped up and stormed after her sister, bound and determined to get an answer to Claire's sudden dislike of Alison. She grabbed her sister's arm, pulling her to a halt. "Would you mind telling me what that was all about? You've been acting like a complete bitch to her since yesterday afternoon."
"She lied about what she was going to do last night, Tess!"
"So? She's our helper not our daughter. What does it matter?"
Claire folded her arms across her chest. "She had a date with Rod last night."
Now it all made perfect sense to Tess. "You haven't been seeing him for six months now and it was you who broke it off. He has the right to date anyone he chooses." Claire didn't answer so Tess continued on. "You weren't thinking of getting back together with him?"
"But you said yourself, whatever it was you two felt for each other it wasn't love."
"Maybe I was wrong!" Claire turned away and stormed off.
"Great," Tess groaned, walking back to the kitchen. Just what they needed. They finally get someone who knows what they're doing to help get this cattle station back on track and Claire decides to get jealous and possessive over a man she's barely seen in half a year.
Alison jumped to her feet when Tess returned. "What did I say? Did I do something wrong? Why is she mad at me?"
"You'll have to ask her that." Tess shook her head. "I wouldn't worry about it right now. Eat your breakfast. We'll be leaving for the paddocks soon."
Flopping into the chair, Alison stared at her breakfast. What in the world could have gotten Claire so mad? Then, it dawned on her. She looked up at Tess, now sitting across from her. "It's about Rod, isn't it?"
"What about Rod?" asked a young, female voice.
Glancing at the door, Alison didn't recognize any of the three women who just walked in. Two were young girls: one with long straight black hair and one with short light brown hair. The other was a bit older; her dark hair wrapped up in a bun.
"Nothing," Tess answered. "Alison this is Rosa and Jodi Wilcox," motioning to the two with the dark hair, "and Becky."
"So," Becky snatched a piece of bacon from the plate Meg set down. "Does this have anything to do with the date you and Rod went on last night?"
Alison looked around the room in utter amazement.
"It's a small town," Beck shrugged. "Word travels fast."
"Obviously." Alison leaned back in the chair. "I'd prefer we not talk about this though. Okay?"
"Claire's a little touchy with the subject," Tess explained further.
"You know if this is going to cause problems, let me know so I can stop it before it gets started."
"Claire will get over it." Meg placed the rest of breakfast on the table. "Don't let her stop you from doing anything or seeing anyone that makes you happy."
Becky chuckled. "Heck, if I thought I had half a chance, I'd go after that bloke myself."
"In your dreams!" Jodi laughed, giving Becky a playful shove.
Inwardly, Alison sighed, relived that everyone was taking this with a lighthearted nature, but still concerned over Claire's disapproval. Not that she blamed Claire. She could very well act the same way if the situation were reversed. That didn't make it any more comfortable though.
Claire stayed behind while the others brought the cattle down from the upper paddocks. Alison found herself to be the most experienced person at driving cattle in the group. Despite that, within ninety minutes the cattle stood mooing contentedly in the yard pens.
Alison weaved her way between the animals, glad that they were calm around people. It made her job much easier. "And I thought they looked good from the road." She ran a hand along one cow's back then leaned down to study her underline. "Your father sure knew what he was doing," she said jotting some notes on her notepad.
"He's done nothing else but this." Tess climbed on top of the fence and sat down. "I should hope he knew what he was doing."
"I've known cattlemen whose fathers and grandfathers have done nothing but raise cattle and they still don't have a clue. Believe it or not," Alison looked up with a grin, "your father was a rare breed himself."
"Is that good?" Jodi asked from her perch on the gate.
"Yeah, that's good," Alison laughed. When she finished examine all the cattle three hours later, she climbed over the corral and joined Tess on the other side.
"So, what do you think?" Tess anxiously pushed her hair from her face.
"Well, at first glance, I'd say there are at least six cows and heifers that you should sell. They aren't bad quality. You should be able to get a good price for them. But they're Crispian's offspring and we want to reduce the inbreeding. I'll know exactly how many after I put all this on the computer and can get a better look at the lineage."
"Great! We'll take the cattle back to the paddocks while you work on that."
Rod paced across the living room. Stopping at the phone, he stared. Then, he started pacing again. It was past noon now and he wanted to call Alison. He didn't want her to think he was overly anxious even if he was. He'd hardly slept after coming back from their date. He just lay on the bed and looked at the clock every few minutes. Time just seemed to drag. Even the hectic schedule of his morning duties lasted forever.
He also didn't want to talk to Claire. He knew he'd have to face her sooner or later. He just preferred it to be later. She had to know about him and Alison. News like that traveled quickly in a town this small.
Chiding himself for acting like a schoolboy, he marched over to the phone and dialed the McLeod's house. If Claire answered, he'd just act as if it was anyone else. After several rings, the phone was picked up.
"Meg?" he asked, trying not to sound too relived. "This is Rod."
"G'day, Rod," her voice sounded very unsurprised by his call. "What can I do for you?"
They must know, Rod figured. "Umm… I was wondering if I could talk to Alison. If she's not busy that is."
"I'll go get her for you." Meg set the phone on the table and walked out on the porch. She noticed Claire had looked up from her sulking but said nothing to her. "Alison!" she shouted across the yard. "Phone for you!"
Alison glanced at the house when she heard Meg's call, her heart skipping a beat. "Are you sure you don't want my help taking the cattle back?" she asked Tess.
"No worries. Go answer your phone call." Tess nodded towards the house. The sudden change of expression on Alison's face told her whom the call was likely from.
"Thanks!" Alison trotted up the back porch of the house and walked in with Meg. She couldn't look Claire in the face as she passed by though.
"Why don't you take the call in the office?" Meg suggested.
"I will, thank you." Alison shut the door to the office as she walked in. Taking a deep breath, she picked up the phone. "Hello?" She heard the click of the other receiver being hung up.
"Alison, it's Rod."
"Hi!" His smooth voice sent tingles down her body.
"I hope I didn't interrupt anything."
"No, not at all. I had just finished up with the cattle. Tess, Jodi, and Becky are taking them back out to the paddock."
"Oh, good. I worried that you might have gotten a late start seeing as we were out so long last night."
"You mean this morning," she giggled.
"Yeah," he laughed in reply. His heart finally stopped pounding in his chest.
"It didn't affect me at all. I'm hardly even tired."
"Me either. Look, I was umm… I was wondering if you'd like to get later. I know some nice places to watch the sunset."
"I'd like that."
"Can we meet at my place at five? I'll give you directions."
Four o'clock that evening, Alison said goodbye to Tess and promised to try and be back earlier that the previous morning. Tess assured her it didn't matter. Alison thanked her and climbed into her car, hoping her knee length peach skirt, white tank top and short boots would be suitable for wherever Rod planned on taking her.
It took less time than she planned to get the cattle station where Rod worked and lived. She drove past the single story main house to another dirt road that took her to where Rod's small house was situated. Quickly parking the car, she restrained herself from running up to the front door. She took a moment to compose herself, then knocked. What little composure she had melted away when he opened the door. He smiled at her, his red shirt hanging down at his sides. It was unbuttoned, exposing the most incredible chest Alison had even seen. Her eyes wandered down also noting the top button to his jeans had not been done.
Alison jerked her head upward. "Huh?" Her face felt hot. He had to have seen her staring. "Oh, yeah. Sorry. It didn't take as long as I thought it would."
"That's okay." He stepped aside to let her pass. "Come in." He inhaled deeply as she passed by. A sweet floral smell tickled his senses and stirred his passion.
Alison brushed past and into the living room. She was afraid to turn and look at him, not wanting to make a fool out of herself again.
"Have a seat if you like. I'll finish getting dressed." Rod walked back to the bathroom.
Alison nervously wrung her hands together. She couldn't believe the effect that man had on her. Relax, she told herself, just relax. She stepped to a window and gazed out across the grassland. A soft break had begun to blow. The rippling of the grass looked like waves across an ocean. So engrossed in the beauty of the land, Alison didn't hear Rod walk up behind her. She didn't jump when his strong hands caressed her shoulders.
Her skin felt incredibly soft and silky under his touch. He leaned down to her shoulder, inhaling more of her erotic scent. Easing the strap of her top off her shoulder, his lips brushed against the exposed skin.
Alison inhaled sharply. Reaching back to wrap her arm around his waist was the only thing that kept her knees from giving out on her. She tilted her head to the side as Rod pushed the hair from neck, trailing kisses up to her ear. Whirling around, she faced him, her breaths coming in short gasps. "Rod…"
"ROD!" someone shouted, running up the porch. "Rod, come quick!" A young blond man rushed into the house, not even phased by the face Rod stood with a woman in his arms. "Mandy's foaling and she's having problems!"
Without a thought, Rod and Alison rushed out to the barn, following the young man. "How long she been like this, Ben?" Rod dropped to his knees next to the downed mare. Her breathing was labored and she started to lather into a sweat from straining.
"An hour or so. We didn't even know she'd started."
Rod pulled off his shirt. "Get me so hot water, soap and mineral oil. I have to go in and see how the foal is laying."
Ben ran off to get the supplies and Alison settled down in the hay at the mare's head. "Shhh…." she stroked the frantic mare's forehead. "Easy, girl, easy."
Rod glanced up for a moment to watch Alison comfort the animal. She took to it like it was second nature. He turned back to his work when Ben set down the hot water, soap and mineral oil. He washed his arms thoroughly with the soap and water before applying the mineral oil. Propped up on one elbow, he slid his free hand inside the mare, feeling for the position of the foal. He grimaced and winced. "Damn it!"
"What's wrong?" Alison looked down at Rod.
"The foal's head is twisted back and the cord is wrapped around its neck. My hands are too bloody big."
"Let me!" Alison scrambled around back of the mare and scrubbed up.
"Never more. Now move out of the way." Settling in where Rod had been, Alison went to work.
Rod stepped back watching in amazement. Alison worked like a pro, never once bothered by the blood or the mess. The mare reared its head back several times while Alison worked.
"Hold her down!" Alison had gotten the foal's head turned around and free of the cord and now pulled it from the mare. The horse gave a heavy groan and the foal came free, landing right on top of Alison. She laughed in glee as the little foal took its first breath of life.
"You did it!" Rod cheered, letting go of the mare so she could stand and take care of her baby.
Rolling the foal off her and into the hay, Alison stood back and let nature take its course. "Yeah, I did." She tried to wipe the tears of joy away but hand nothing to wipe them away with.
"You were great," Rod said softly, dabbing at the tears with his shirt.
"Thanks. I feel so silly crying but it never ceases to amaze me."
"Life." She smiled up at him.
Breathlessly, Rod stared into her eyes. "Look at you," he finally said. "Your clothes…"
Alison shrugged with a smirk. "No worries. I've got a pair of pants in the car. If I could just borrow a shirt."
"After what you just did," he kissed her on the forehead. "You can borrow anything you like."
"You still want to go out?" Rod called down the hall from the kitchen when the bathroom water shut off.
Alison pulled the green polo shirt over her head. "Mmm…" she grinned. "Smells like him." She tucked it in her pants, buttoned them up and went out into the kitchen. "If you still want to take me."
"That shirt looks better on you than it does on me." He handed her a cup of tea. "And of course I still want to take you."
"Thank you." She took a sip. "Very good."
"Where did you learn how to do that?"
"I spent the last eight years, after I graduated, on a ranch in Texas. I mean sure, they taught us the textbook basics in college but I didn't really learn anything until I did it for real." She looked down at her cup and chuckled. "I was a glutton for punishment. Any birthing season, be it horses or sheep or cattle, I'd be the first to volunteer. When we'd lose a few after working so hard, and I was ready to give up, a miracle would happen, like what happened out there, and my faith would be renewed."
"And that's why you love what you do."
"Yep. The miracle of life makes me think there's hope for this world." She set the tea down with a sigh. "Now, how about we catch at least a little bit of the sunset?"
On a rocky hilltop, overlooking a pasture of grass and scattered trees, Alison stared into the pastel colored sky. This reminded her so much of home, of the hill out behind the house she grew up in, her parents' house. A chill ran through her and she rubbed her hands over her arms to ward off the goose bumps.
"Cold, love?" Rod wrapped his arms around her. "The wind up her can get a bit chilly. I've got a jacket in the car."
Leaning against him, she shook her head. "No. I'm fine. Now."
"Mmm." Rod rested his chin on her head. "Bet you've never seen anything like this in Texas."
"Close. But no, this is definitely unique." She craned her neck to look up at him. "The company helps too."
Rod turned Alison around. "I couldn't think of anyone else I'd rather be up here with." Lightly, he brushed the back of his fingers across her cheek. His hand cupped the back of her head, tilting it so his lips could easily capture hers.
Alison returned his kiss as eagerly as he gave it. Her fingers entangled themselves in his thick black hair when he moved to nibble at her ear and down her neck. She felt his hand slid down her chest to the top button on her pants. It popped free and she took a hasty step back. "Rod, wait."
"What is it? What's wrong?" He saw a sudden fright in her eyes.
"I just want to be sure this is right." Biting her lip, she hung her head. "I've been hurt too many times."
"If you think I'm like one of those American blokes of yours," he lifted her chin to meet his gaze. "Who'd sleep with you and then throw you away, you're wrong. I feel something for you I've never felt for anyone else before."
"Not even Claire?"
"Not even Claire. I won't rush you, Alison. But this feels right to me. And I think it feels right to you and that's what scares you more than being hurt again." When she stayed quiet, he told her one more thing. "Because it scares me too."
"You're right. It scares me. It scares me because when I get near you, I see nothing else. I get so lost in you, so easily and we've barely known each other for three days. I think of nothing else but you, day and night. No one has ever had that kind of control over me."
"How do you think I feel? I couldn't sleep at all last night. Then this morning, I could barely concentrate on my work. All I wanted was to see you again, to touch you."
"Oh, Rod." She reached out and touched his face. "I'll be at Drover's Run for six months at least, maybe even a year. I love how I feel with you. What if that stops?"
"We can't spend our lives playing 'what if' games, Alison. I've already wasted part of mine doing that. If we both feel this is right, then that feeling with never stop."
Alison closed her eyes, searching her heart. She never believed in love at first sight. She always thought the idea silly. How could two people who didn't even know each other love each other? Maybe this wasn't love. But then again. When Alison opened her eyes, looking into his, all she could whisper was 4 small words. "Make love to me."
Claire stood, arms folded across her chest, staring down the road. Her foot tapped impatiently on the porch.
“What’s wrong with you?” Tess asking coming out of the house.
“It’s nine o’clock in the bloody morning and Alison is nowhere to be found! She didn’t even come back last night.”
Tess rolled her eyes. She was at it again. A cloud of dust caught her attention. “Look, she’s back now. Quit your worrying.”
Alison parked the car and trotted up to the house, still wearing Rod’s green shirt. That fact didn’t go unnoticed by Claire. “Morning!”
“Where in the bloody hell have you been?” Claire hissed.
“What?” Alison back peddled a few steps, startled by the sudden attack.
“You’re not being paid to root around with all the blokes in town!”
“Sleep with,” Tess clarified. “And I think it’s really none of your business, Claire.”
Alison waved Tess off. “You think I’ve been sleeping around? Is that what you’re really mad about, Claire? Or is it the fact I’ve had a few dates with your ex-fiancé?” Claire growled and tried to storm off, but Alison caught her by the arm, whirling her around. “You’re the one who broke it off with him. So the only person you’ve got to be mad at is yourself.” She let go of Claire’s arm. They stormed away, her to her room and Claire to the barn, both in tears.
Alison leaned against the door to her room as it clicked shut. Wiping away the tears with the back of her hand, she forced herself to calm down. Not having fully unpacked yet turned out to be a good thing after what just happened. It wouldn’t take her as long to get ready to leave. She pulled the suitcase from the closet, dropping it on the bed. She repacked the few clothes she had taken out and then sat down at the laptop to finish typing up her recommendation for which animals to sell. At least she would have accomplished a little something before leaving. Once that was finished, she slipped out the back of the house and drove to see Rod.
She never thought it would turn out like this. She liked Drover’s Run. She liked Claire. But with the bitterness that seemed solidified between them, thanks mostly to her own insensitive outburst, staying would be next to impossible. Her vision started to blur as the tears returned. She brushed at them, angry for acting like such a child over this whole matter.
Stopping the car in front of Rod’s house, Alison climbed out and started for the door.
“G’day,” a voice said behind her.
Alison turned. “Ben. Hi. How are you?”
“Fine thanks. If you’re looking for Rod, he’s in the barn checking on that filly you delivered last night.”
“Thanks,” Alison smiled. Walking to the barn, she tried to figure out how to tell Rod what had happened. She stepped through the open door and froze in her tracks. Rod and Claire stood in an embrace in the middle of barn. She tried to turn quietly to leave but crashed into some tools sitting by the door. She didn’t bother to pick them up. She just ran to her car, despite the calls of both Claire and Rod.
Crying, she franticly pulled the keys from her jeans’ pocket. They fell to the ground under the car. As Claire reached her, she dropped to her knees to retrieve the keys.
Claire pulled Alison to her feet. “Alison, wait! Listen to me!”
“You don’t have to say anything,” she sobbed, wrenching free of Claire’s grip. “I just came to tell Rod I was leaving Drover’s Run!”
“No! It’s not what you think. You can’t leave!” She waited for the words to sink in. “I got jealous, Alison. I’m sorry.” Claire hung her head. “I just never prepared myself for facing the time when Rod would find someone else.”
Alison stood speechless, staring at Claire. “But…”
“No,” Claire shook her head. “What you saw in there was just a hug between mates, nothing more. It’s over between us.” She took Alison’s hands. “He cares about you. You can’t leave him. And you can’t leave Drover’s Run.” She paused for a moment. “Where else would we find someone else as good as you that we could afford?”
Alison laughed between her fading sobs.
“What’d you say? Can we make another go?”
Alison nodded. “I never meant to hurt you, Claire.”
“What I said to you was wrong. It was mean. I probably wouldn’t have acted any differently than you. In fact, I know I would have because I’ve been there.”
“Apology accepted. Friends?” Claire held out her hand.
“Friends,” Alison smiled and shook her hand before the two women hugged.
“Is it safe to come out?” asked Rod from the barn.
The women turned to see him peeking out from around one of the doors. They laughed and motioned for him to come out. He put his arms around both of them, kissing Claire on the top of the head.
“Well,” Claire pulled away. “I’ll leave you two to talk.” She started to walk away but turned back. “Rod, why don’t you join us for supper tonight?”
“I’d like that.”
“Me, too,” Alison replied. “And Claire… thanks.”
Rod waved goodbye as Claire left. “You were really going to leave?”
“Yeah.” Alison suddenly felt foolish. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Hugging Alison close, he sighed. “I’m glad it’s over. I don’t want to lose you.”
Claire rode back to Drover’s Run, unsure if what she had said and did was right. She really only did it because Rod had asked. She never intended on telling him she and Alison had gotten into a fight, much less that it was over him. She had gone to see him hoping something would still be there between them. When she didn’t feel what she had hoped for, it upset her even more and she broke down and cried, telling him everything. He, in turn, told her how he felt about Alison. Rod asked her to try and make amends with Alison. So she did. She didn’t really feel any better though.
Tess looked up from saddling her horse when she heard the hoof beats. She climbed over the corral, taking the reins of Claire’s mount. “Where have you been?!”
Swinging her leg over the horse, Claire dropped to the ground. “I went to see Rod.”
Tess groaned. “What in the bloody hell did you do that for?”
“I—I just needed to see him.” She loosened the cinch on the saddle, not wanting to look at Tess.
“Well, I thought you’d like to know, Alison’s leaving!”
“No, she’s not.” Claire stopped what she was doing. “She went to see Rod, too.”
“And you were there? And she’s not leaving?”
“No. We decided we’d give it another go.”
Tess leaned back against the fence. “What changed your mind?”
“Rod.” She pulled the saddle off the horse. “He asked me to. Plus, he cares for her.”
“And you can live with that?”
Claire didn’t answer, just took the saddle into the barn. She came back out with a brush. “Do me a favor, tell Meg to sent another place for dinner. Rod’s coming over.”
“Grand.” Tess shook her head and walked away. “Maybe I’ll hit the pub tonight.”
Alison returned to Drover’s Run shortly after Tess informed Meg of their dinner company. She greeted them and went immediately to change. She didn’t want to take Rod’s shirt off, but if Claire was trying to deal with the situation, the least she could do is not make it any harder for her. Tess still sat in the kitchen with Meg when Alison came back down. “I’ve got a final list of the animals to sell,” she announced.
“Good,” Tess nodded. “We can go over it in the morning.”
Alison turned to Meg. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Sure,” Meg pointed to the cupboards. “You can set the table. Eight places.”
Alison set about gathering the necessary items as she spoke again. “Tess, I was wondering something.”
Tess glanced at Meg, hoping this wasn’t a Claire or Rod question before answering cautiously. “What?”
“I noticed you have a nice brown gelding out in the pastures. I’m going to be needing a horse of my own soon and since he’s not being used, I’d like to buy him.”
“I don’t think Oscar’s for sale. He used to be my father’s horse. He spooks at anything. That’s how my father died. Oscar even spooked when Claire was riding him. If it hadn’t been for Rod…” Tess trailed off.
“If it’s just because Oscar’s skittish that you don’t want to sell him, I can cure him of that.”
“You’ll have to ask Claire about it.”
“Ask me about what?” Claire stepped in the kitchen, pulling off her hat.
Alison smiled but could feel the tension rise in the room. “I need a horse and I was just asking Tess about buying Oscar.”
“Oscar’s not for sale. He was my dad’s horse. I’m sorry.” Claire left before the conversation could continue. She ran up the stairs to her room. First Alison took Rod away from her and now she wanted to take her father’s memories away. Claire wasn’t about to lose either one without a fight.
Downstairs, Alison quietly finished setting the table, disgusted with herself for upsetting Claire yet again. She just hated to see such a beautiful horse go to waste out on pasture. Maybe if she could prove to them that she could ride Oscar, they’d change their mind.
Claire walked quickly back into the kitchen and got a glass of water, giving Alison the cold shoulder. Alison could just imagine what it was going to be like once Rod got here. She glanced at her watch. Unfortunately it was too late to try and call. He would already be on his way over.
Much to everyone’s surprise and pleasure, dinner went very smoothly. Claire laughed and smiled along with everyone else. She joked with Alison and Rod as if nothing had ever happened between them. She even told the two to go talk a walk while she cleaned up the kitchen.
Under a tree, Rod glimpsed at the house through the darkness. “Are you sure that’s the same Claire?”
Alison shrugged, not wanting to say anything too harsh about her. “I’m sure this isn’t easy for her.” She leaned back against the huge tree.
“I know, love.” Rod stepped up close to her. “She best get used to it though.” Slowly, a smile spread across his face. “Cause I don’t plan on give you up anytime soon.”
“But possibly in the distant future?” Alison teased.
Rod’s answer came as a deep and passionate kiss, his body pressing against hers. He wished they weren’t at Drover’s Run. His body’s every desire was to make love to Alison right here and right now.
The moment Rod’s lips touched hers Alison knew nothing else. She lost herself in the touch of his hand, the taste of his mouth, the strength of his body. Nothing else existed but them. Her hands pushed up across his chest, to the back of his neck and wove themselves into his hair.
Rod pulled back slightly and gazed down her face. He marveled at the desire and passion and love in her eyes. He hoped she could see the same in his. Caressing her cheek with his fingertips, he spoke softly. “You are so beautiful. I don’t ever want you to leave.”
Her mind still reeling from the kiss, Alison could barely find the voice to reply. “I don’t ever want to either.”
Their moment was interrupted by a shout from the house. “Rod!” It was Tess. “Rod, Jack Parker’s calling. There’s trouble at the station!”
Rod sighed. “I’ve got to…”
Alison touched a finger to his lips. “You don’t have to apologize. I understand.”
“Thank you,” Rod smiled and headed down to the house with Alison. He went straight for the phone while Alison stopped just inside the doorway. “What’s wrong, Jeff?” Rod shook his head. “That’s just bloody great.” He paused. “Yeah, I’m on my way.” He hung up the phone and offered an explanation to Alison and Tess. “Someone ran into on of the fences. A bunch of cattle got out and have to find them and get the fence fixed.”
“Good luck,” Tess said, watching the couple walk out of the house.
“Thanks,” Rod called back from the patio to Tess. At his truck, Rod reluctantly climbed in. “I wish I didn’t have to go.”
“I know, Rod. It’s okay.” Giving him a quick kiss, Alison backed away. “Call me or come by tomorrow.”
With a heavy heart, Alison watched Rod drive away.
Shortly after dawn the next morning, Alison sat on the porch dressed and sipping tea. She’d hardly slept that night. She spent most of it thinking of Rod, hoping he had been able to find all the stray animals and get the fence fixed. She missed him like she’d never missed anyone else before, with the possible exception of her parents. It felt so strange to her to be so consumed by this man. Yet, it all felt so wonderful too. As smile spread across her face as thoughts of him warmed her body against the nip of the morning air.
Alison was still smiling when Claire joined her on the patio with a cup of coffee. “Morning. You’re up early.”
“Couldn’t sleep. In fact, I finished up the list of cattle you should sell and how much you should get. It’s sitting on the desk in the office.”
“Good. Tess and I are going into town later this morning. We’ll take it with us.” She leaned against the patio railing. “Got any plans for today?”
“Not really. I thought I might go for a ride.”
“You can take either Tess’ or my horse. We won’t be back until the afternoon.”
“Great. Thanks. I’ll do that.”
Claire nodded and left Alison on the porch. Alison felt bad that she wasn’t doing anything but as soon as they got either a new bull or the semen for artificial insemination, she’d be busier than she cared to think about. So she sat on the porch and watched the morning activities for a couple hours.
As Rosa and Becky rode in from the paddocks, Alison couldn’t help but laugh. “You guys have a shadow,” she called out.
“Yeah,” Rosa looked over he shoulder. “Bloody animal jumps the fence and follows us in.”
“Oscar’s just lonely.”
“He’ll be more than lonely if he keeps it up. Guess we’ll just stick him in the barn until we go out tonight.” Rosa laughed.
Alison decided the barn was a good place to go so she put her cup in the kitchen and grabbed her hat and riding boots. On the way to the barn, she waved to Tess and Claire as they left for town.
Rosa and Becky had all ready stalled their mounts as well as Oscar to continue with their morning chores. Oscar nickered when Alison passed by. “What’s the matter, fella?” She stopped to pat horse. Demanding more, Oscar pressed his head into Alison’s chest. She held her balance and chuckled. “Silly horse. What’d you think? Should we go out for ride?” Before common sense could talk her out of it, Alison had Oscar saddled and was riding out to the open fields.
The horse needed no urging to break into a gallop once they reached the fields. He seemed just as eager to experience the freedom as Alison was. The time she spent in Sydney away from horses had been far too long.
Oscar raced through the grass so fast the wind stung Alison’s eyes, but she didn’t care. It felt too exhilarating. For the short time she gave the horse free rein, all her cares were swept away in the wind. She could see a light layer of sweat build up on Oscar’s coat and slowly reined him down to walk. Oscar tossed his head and snorted in disapproval. “Don’t worry,” she patted his neck. “We’ll do that again. Don’t worry.”
She guided the horse up a hill to the edge of a ravine. A group of large boulders formed a small cave next to a lone tree. Jumping down, she stood at the edge of the cliff and looked down. It was only 50 or so feet down but all the rocks and boulders that jutted out all along the side of the cliff would make for a painful trip. She gazed up at the horizon and noticed the bank of clouds that loomed in the distance. “I hope they stay away for awhile longer.”
A shrill whinny broke through the otherwise still air. Alison whirled around. Oscar stood on his hind legs rearing at a snarling dingo. He dropped down on all fours and sidestepped at the dingo tried to circle around him.
Alison swallowed hard, trying to remain calm. She could tell the dingo was a bitch with a litter of pups somewhere nearby. Running away would only provoke the already angry mother further. Not realizing she was so close to the edge of the ravine, Alison stepped back as Oscar reared up again. The dirt gave way and she tumbled down.
Meg looked up from sweeping the front porch at the sound of an approaching vehicle. Claire and Tess were returning from town early, which could mean either good news or bad news. The smiling faces that greeted Meg told her it was good news. “So what’s with the big grins?” she asked as the came up onto the porch.
“We just sold all those cows and heifers,” Claire announced proudly. “And for more than what Alison suggested.”
“That’s wonderful! Who bought them?”
“Jeff Parker. Rod’s coming by shortly to pick them up.”
“Where’s Alison?” Tess asked. “I want to let her know.”
“I’m not sure,” Meg replied.
“She said she wanted to go out for a ride so I told her to take one of our horses. She’s probably still out.” Claire nodded towards the fields.
Meg shook her head. “I was just in the barn. Both your horses are still there.”
Just then, Becky raced up, panting and out of breath. “We can’t find Oscar!”
“Calm down, Becky.” Tess placed a hand on the young girl’s shoulder. “Now, what are you talking about?”
“It’s Oscar. He followed up in again this morning so we left him in the barn. But now he’s gone.”
Claire frowned. “And Alison’s gone, too. I told her not to ride him!”
“Claire, we don’t know that she took him.”
“Why are you always defending her, Tess? No one else here would ride Oscar. And she was asking about buying him.”
The approach of a truck and trailer interrupted their argument. They all turned to see Rod climb out and trot up the sidewalk to them. “G’day ladies.” His cheery mood faded when he saw the solemn looks on their faces. “What’s the trouble?”
“Oscar and Alison are missing,” Tess told him.
Rod looked off at the clouds that were quickly approaching. “It’s going to storm soon too. She’s a good rider though. I’m sure she’ll be back in a few.”
“Maybe not.” Becky pointed up the road.
Oscar raced up to the end of the sidewalk. He whinnied then circled frantically and reared.
“What the devil’s gotten into that animal?!” Claire stormed towards the horse. She reached out to grab the reins but Oscar backup quickly, tossing his head. “Get over here you bloody horse!”
“Wait!” Tess ran down to Claire with Rod following behind. “What if he knows where Alison is? Maybe that’s why he’s acting so weird.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Tess. He’s just a horse.”
“But look at him!”
Oscar raced away from the group a few strides then whirled around and raced back. He repeated this several times before whinnying franticly and rearing.
Rod didn’t wait for Claire and Tess to debate the matter any further. He grabbed Oscar’s reins and swung into the saddle. “Follow us in the truck.” He swung the horse around in the direction it had come. One kick in the sides and Oscar raced down the dirt road.
The huge bank of storm clouds rolled in faster than Rod and Oscar raced across the Outback. Rain drops fell, slowly at first and then harder and heavier. The cold wind whipped the drops into Rod’s face and eyes and chilled his whole body. Rod just hoped Oscar would lead him to Alison before too long.
As they neared a hill, Oscar began to slow. He picked his way to the top of the hill and stopped near some large boulders. Rod jumped from the horse’s back. Claire and Tess arrived a moment after and joined him in his frantic search. Not seeing any signs of her on the hilltop, Rod leaned over the edge of the ravine and looked down. “She’s down there!”
About two-thirds of the way down, Alison’s motionless body lay draped across some rocks like an old rag doll. The wind and rain made it too hard to see the extent of her injuries.
“How are we going to get her up?” Tess shielded her eyes from the icy, pounding rain.
“I’ve got rope in the truck. I’ll go down and get her.” Rod retrieved the rope from the truck. After securing one end to the bumper, he threw the other end down the ravine. “Once I’m down, I’ll tie the rope to me. You’ll have to use the truck to help be get back up.”
“Let’s give it a go. Claire, you wait in the truck until I tell you to back it up.”
Claire nodded and ran to the truck.
Carefully, Rod started down the ravine. He slipped several times, sending a shower of mud and rock down after him. Luckily, he was off to one side of Alison so most of the debris missed her.
When he reached her, she was soaked. Blood from various wounds ran down her face and arms and seeped through her tattered jeans. Her breaths were slowly and strain but at least she was breathing.
Rod tied the rope around his waist and gingerly laid Alison over his shoulder. He hoped it wouldn’t cause too much more damage. “Bring me up slow!” he called to Tess. With one hand on the rope and the other around Alison’s leg, he slowly began climbing up with the help of the truck. Midway up, he slipped. He twisted around so Alison wouldn’t hit the ravine wall and a large rock crashed into his side. He left out a groan as he heard Tess tell Claire to stop. Once he righted himself, he signaled to Tess to continue.
At the top of the ravine, Rod rolled Alison off his shoulder and onto her back. He then hauled himself up.
Tess knelt down beside the battered Alison. “Thank god she’s alive,” she sighed as Claire joined them.
“She need to get to a doctor and quick though.” Rod freed himself from the rope and picked Alison back up.
“I’ll go with you to the hospital!” Claire volunteered.
“I’ll take Oscar then. You two get going!”
It took nearly two hours to get from the mud soaked dirt roads to the hospital. Alison never regained consciousness though she would moan and groan on occasion. The doctors admitted her right away, leaving Claire and a pacing Rod in the waiting room for what seemed like an eternity.
As Rod paced by her for what seemed like the hundredth time, Claire stood and caught him by the arm. "I'm sure she's gonna be fine. She's too ornery to die."
Rod nodded, pulling Claire into a hug. "I can't lose her, Claire." He dropped his head, trying to fight back the tears. "I just can't." The whole drive into the city, Rod kept hoping this was all a bad dream, that he'd wake up and Alison would be lying in bed beside him.
Hearing the hurt and anguish in his voice, Claire began to cry. "I'm sorry, Rod. I promise when we get back, I'll get rid of Oscar." her face
"You've nothing to be sorry for, Claire. It's not your fault. It's not anyone's fault." He stroked her blonde hair. "It just happened." He looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps.
Claire heard them too and turned to face a salt and pepper gray haired man in surgery scrubs.
The man held out his hand. "I'm Doctor Campbell. Are you Ms. Walker's relatives?"
Rod shook the doctor's hand. "No. She doesn't have any. We're her friends. Rod Morgan and this is Claire McLeod."
"Well then, why don't we sit down." Dr. Campbell motioned to the waiting room seats and sat down.
"How is she?" Rod sat down and leaned forward, anxious to hear the news.
"Other than the cuts and bruises on the outside, she had some minor internal damage that we were able to repair easily and a hairline fracture in one of her ribs which will heal on it's own." He paused, scratching his head. "That's the good news."
"What's the bad news?" Claire asked.
"She took several hard blows to the head, the worst being to the occipital lobe in the back of her head. That lobe is where the visual centers are."
Rod stiffened. "And what does that mean?"
Dr. Campbell looked from Rod to Claire then back to Rod. "She can't see."
Claire let out a gasp. "Oh no!"
"Now, it could be just temporary. Her sight could return in a day or a week."
Rod put his arm around Claire's shoulder. "But it might not?"
"That's a possibility as well, I'm afraid." The doctor rose. "You can see her if you like. She knows what's going on. That's why it took so long. We have her eyes bandaged to help them rest and hopefully heal quicker. It's room 134 at the end of the hall."
"Thanks, doc." Rod walked with Claire down to Alison's room. They stopped for a moment, both taking a deep breath before entering.
A nurse had just finished securing the bandage around Alison's eyes and helped her lean back against the bed. She saw the pair enter. "You have visitors," the nurse told Alison.
"Who-who is it?" Alison voice wavered with uncertainty.
"It's Rod." Rod took the nurse's place next to the bed as she left. He gently took Alison's hand.
"And Claire." Claire stood on the other side of the bed.
Alison gripped Rod's hand tightly. "I'd say it's good to see you but…" she trailed off, trying to make a joke. The trembling in her voice gave away whatever façade of bravery she tried to put forth.
"The doctor told us what's going on." As Rod sat on the edge of the bed, Alison sat up, wrapping her arms around him. He held her tighter as she began to cry.
"I'm sorry, Alison," Claire sighed. "I should have gotten rid of Oscar a long time ago. I'll make sure it never happens again."
Alison pulled away from Rod slightly, looking in the direction of Alison's voice. "No," she shook her head. "It's not like that. Oscar didn't throw me."
"No. He tried to protect me. I stopped to look around near the ravine. A dingo came out of nowhere and Oscar tried to chase it away. I slipped backing away from them." She reached out to where she thought Claire stood. "Promise me you won't do anything to him? It's not his fault."
Claire took her hand. "I won't. I promise. Plus it was Oscar who led us to you." She gave Alison's hand a quick squeeze. "I'll go call Tess, let her know what's happening."
"Thanks, Claire." Alison laid her head back on Rod's shoulder as she heard the door open and close. She felt his hand run down her hair. She tried to wipe away the tears that started again. Her hand was met by bandages, which only made her cry harder. Alison pulled at them in frustration.
Rod grabbed her hands, pulling them away from the bandages. "Stop, Ali. Leave them alone."
Alison stopped struggling. "What am I going to do, Rod? I can't do my work if I can't see."
"The doc said it might be temporary." He brushed away the tears that had come through the bandages.
"And he said it might not be." Alison slid her hand up Rod's chest to neck and then to his face. She so desperately wanted to see him, to see the sparkle in his eyes, the smile on his lips. "I'm scared, Rod," she whispered.
"So am I," he replied softly before kissing her.
A knock on the hospital room door interrupted them. "It's Dr. Campbell and Claire, Alison."
"Come in." Alison lay back against the bed as Rod stood. She heard footsteps and turned her head to try and figure out where they were going.
"I'm just going to take your pulse, Alison," Dr. Campbell said, picking up her wrist. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I got hit by a truck, stiff and sore."
"Well, that's to be expected. You took quite a fall. How does your head feel? Are you experiencing any headaches or dizziness?"
"No. It's just a little tender in the back."
"That's where you hit it so it'll be like that for a week or so. If nothing's changed in the morning, you can go home. I've got the name of a good neurologist for you. He's been advised of your situation and will be expecting a call from you within the next few days."
"Maybe it'd be best if I found a place to stay nearby."
"Don't be ridiculous," Claire replied. "You can still stay with us."
"Or me." Rod added.
"You both have cattle stations to run. You don't have the time to be playing nursemaid and chauffeur to me." Alison shook her head. "I'm not going to put you guys out."
"You don't have a choice," Claire firmly replied. "Tess agrees. We can use the downstairs bedroom for you and Meg's in the house most all day anyway. Between the three of us and Rod, it won't be a problem."
"No buts!" Rod put his hand on Alison's arm.
"Far be it from me to get involved," Dr. Campbell laughed, "but I think you've lost this argument, Alison."
She conceded with a nod and a yawn.
The doctor patted her arm. "It's getting late. Visiting hours are over and she needs her rest."
"Doctor," Alison sat up. "Can Rod stay, please? I promise I'll rest. I just…" She didn't know how to finish the sentence. Saying she was too scared to be alone sounded childish. It was the truth though. Not being able to see anything was very unnerving for her. With Rod here, she'd at least feel safe.
"I think I can make an exception." He nodded to Rod and walked out of the room.
"I guess I'll be going then. Either Tess or I will be back to pick you up in the morning."
"Claire," Alison didn't know if she had left yet.
"No worries. G'night."
Claire left and Rod laid Alison back down on the bed. "Get some rest, love."
"Promise me you won't leave."
"I promise." He kissed her on the top of the head. Pulling the chair up against the side of the bed, he sat and watched as she curled up to sleep. He felt so helpless, wishing he could do something to make her better but knowing there was nothing he could do. She loved life and the beauty of the outdoors so much it seemed a cruel twist of fate to have her lose her sight. It only mattered to him because he knew she was scared and unhappy. He would love her no matter what.
Alison jolted awake. Sitting straight up in the bed, she gasped and groped around in the apparent darkness. Her mind struggled through the fog of sleep to remember where she was and what had happened. Touching the bandages on her head, it all came back to her. "Rod?" Her voice was barely above a whisper. Before she even finished saying his name, she felt his hand wrap around hers.
"It's okay, Alison. I'm here."
"Wha--what time is it?" Her voice wavered as she clutched his hand, seeking comfort.
"A bit after seven in the morning. Are you okay?"
Alison gave a halfhearted chuckle. "I had a dream that," she paused, "that this was all a dream."
She started to cry. Rod rose, pulling her tightly to him. "Oh, love…" he trailed off, not sure if anything he said could offer her comfort. He held her there, stroking her hair as she clung to his chest and cried. He too had woken up several times during the night thinking, or maybe just hoping, it was all a dream.
Finally, the sobs quieted and Alison pulled away. "I'm sorry, Rod. I…"
Rod cut her off. "No worries, love. Really. I'm here for you."
Alison heard the door to the room swing open and a cheery male voice say, "G'mornin', mates! Breakfast is served." A metal cart rattled in with what Alison assumed was trays of food.
"Let's get you sitting up. Oh, I'm Martin, by the way."
"Hi," Alison replied, feeling the back of the bed tilt forward. She heard more rattling and clanking as Martin set up the tray and her breakfast in front of her.
"Okay," Martin took her left hand. "Here's your oatmeal." He set her hand on the side of the bowl. "Your juice is up here." He moved her hand straight up to a cool plastic cup. "It's got a lid and a straw for you."
Alison took her other hand and found the cup, feeling for the lid and straw. She nodded for Martin to continue.
"And over here," he guided her right hand to another bowl, "are some nice sliced kiwis and strawberries. You can use the spoon or eat them with your fingers if you like."
"Thanks," Alison felt around until she found the spoon.
"When you're done, just ring for the nurse. She'll take the dishes away and bring the doc in for you." Martin nodded to Rod and left.
Clumsily, Alison dunked the spoon in the bowl of oatmeal. With the spoon loaded with oatmeal, she guided it towards her mouth. Her aim was off and it slopped under her chin. She pulled it away and tried again. This time it went across her cheek. A third try yielded no better results. Frustrated, she dropped the spoon on to the tray. "I hate oatmeal anyway." She sighed and leaned backed.
Rod picked up the spoon and bowl. "Let me give it a go." He put the spoon to Alison's lips.
She pushed it away. "I don't want to be fed. If I can't do it myself, I don't want to eat!"
"You've got to eat something, Alison." He offered the oatmeal to her again.
"NO!" She slapped the spoon from his hand, sending it and the oatmeal flying across the room.
Rod dropped the bowl of oatmeal to the tray and picked up the bowl of fruit, stuffing it in her hands. "Then eat the fruit. You can use your fingers. And don't tell me you don't like kiwi and strawberries."
She sniffed the bowl of fruit. She did love the stuff. The night they first went out for dinner she ordered two plates of the fruit for dessert and ate almost all of it on her own. Her finger searched for a piece of fruit. When it found one, she slowly lifted it to her lips and then into her mouth.
"There. Now was that so bad?"
"Great, I'll end up eating with my fingers for the rest of life." Alison sighed and put another piece of fruit in her mouth.
"That's okay. I'll just have to clean them up for you." Rod took the hand Alison used to pick up the fruit. Slowly, he licked the juice from her fingers.
For the first time since she been in the hospital, Alison laughed. "Oh, Rod. What am I gonna do with you?"
"Here in the hospital?" He teased. "Probably nothing. But you are going to finish that fruit." He kissed the back of her hand and let it go.
Shortly after Alison finished her fruit and managed a couple bites of oatmeal, Dr. Campbell came in with Tess.
"How are you feeling this morning, Alison?" Dr. Campbell began taking Alison's vital signs. "I see you ate some. That's good."
"I'm okay. My head hurts a little less."
Tess stood at the foot of the bed with Rod. "Did you get some sleep?"
"Some. In between all the strange dreams."
Dr. Campbell pulled his stethoscope away from Alison's chest. "Another good sign. What I'd like to do, is remove the bandages from your eyes, Alison."
"Okay." Alison leaned forward as the bed tilted upright. She sat as still as her anxiousness would let her as layer by layer the bandaging and gauze came off. Once off completely, she blinked several times and squinted. She turned her head from one side to the other and blinked some more.
"What can you see?" Dr. Campbell finally asked.
"Nothing." Alison hung her head, trying not to cry.
"Nothing at all?"
"Just a big bright white nothing." Alison closed her eyes. Somehow it felt better to know she couldn't see because they were closed than to have them open and know she couldn't see.
Dr. Campbell motioned to Rod to turn out the lights. "Alison, I want you to open your eyes and look in my direction."
Alison did as she was told. She blinked. Something was different.
"Now what do you see?"
"Nothing. Only it's darker."
The doctor reached into his lab coat and pulled out a light. "Tell me if you see any difference in the brightness." He shined the light in her eyes.
"It's brighter now."
He pulled the light away.
"Now it's darker again."
"You can turn the lights on again, Mr. Morgan. Well, that is encouraging. At least there is some receptiveness in your eyes. It could very well mean this is temporary."
"I sure hope so."
"That's great news, love!" Rod replied excitedly.
"I saw could. It's still too early to tell anything for sure. I suggest you go home and set up an appointment with the neurologist. He may better be able to diagnose you."
Over the next few weeks, Alison went nearly every other day to see the neurologist but nothing changed and he had no solutions. During that time, she did her best not to be a burden on Rod, Tess or Claire despite their best efforts to constantly pamper her. Rod was over nearly every night at dinnertime. He helped to her eat and when they were through, he'd sit with her wherever she wanted and read to her from her favorite books.
During the day, she'd sit on the porch if the weather were nice. If it were raining or cold, she'd sit inside and listen to the radio. She tried watching television but there was too much visual information she missed and it only served to frustrate her more.
Sometimes Meg or Tess or Claire would take her out to the barn. Alison would stand for what seemed like hours and brush Oscar from head to hoof. Everyone agreed they'd never seen Oscar's coat look so shiny. This was when Alison felt the most normal. She might not be able to see but at least she was doing something useful.
Other times, she would sit alone in her room and cry. She cursed at God or whatever being it was that allowed this to happen. She demanded to know what she had done to deserve such a fate. Never again could she admire the beauty of the countryside, of a horse giving birth, or of Rod's handsome face. Life seemed like nothing more than a cruel joke at times. Especially today as she tried to make her way from her bedroom to the kitchen.
She turned to go down the hall. Several steps later she kicked something and heard a loud crash. She had kicked the table, knocking the lamp off and breaking it, she was sure.
Meg raced in the hallway to see what had happened. "Are you all right?"
"I'm sorry," Alison cried.
"It's okay. It's just a lamp. Tell me where you wanted to go and I'll take you there." Meg took Alison's hand.
"No," she pulled away. "Never mind." Sobbing, she went back into her bedroom and shut the door. Flopping face down on the bed, Alison cried until she had no more tears left. Then she sat up and wiped off her face. She couldn't stay here any more. She couldn't continue to do this to Meg and the others. Stumbling to the phone in her room she began to dial a number.
Meg had just thrown away the last of the broken lamp when Rod came in the kitchen door. "What's going on, Meg?"
"Alison accidentally kicked the table in the hall. The lamp fell off and broke."
"Is she all right?"
"Physically, yes. But emotionally and mentally, she's hurting. She went back into her room crying."
"I'd better go make sure she's okay." He brushed past Meg with a nod. Outside Alison's door, he heard her talking on the phone.
"I know. I'm sorry I didn't call you sooner, Aunt Mary. But I thought that maybe this would all go away in a short while. And now that it's not, maybe I should come to New York. They've got great doctors there… no, I haven't made any arrangements yet. I wanted to be sure you'd let me stay with you… I will. Thank you and tell Uncle Michael I said hello. I'll call as soon as I've made the arrangements… you too. Bye bye."
Rod took a quick breath. She couldn't leave him. He had to have misheard something. He knocked on the door and entered. Alison sat at the desk, staring at the phone. "It's Rod, love."
Alison looked toward him. She could tell by the sound of his voice he had heard. "I'm sorry, Rod. I just can't stay here any more. I'm just getting in everybody's way."
"Don't say that!" He went to her and pulled her to her feet. "We all want you here."
Alison shook her head. "It's not working and it's not fair to you, any of you."
"Alison," Rod took her face gently in his hands. "I love you. I don't want you to leave me."
Alison leaned into his hand, pressing it her cheek with hers. "If you love then please don't make this any harder than it already is. They have some of the best doctors in New York. Maybe they can help." A slow flow of tears ran down her cheek. "I love you, Rod Morgan, more than I've ever loved anyone."
Six months later, two days before Christmas, Alison stood staring out the bay window of her Aunt and Uncle's upstate New York home at the snow covered ground. Some of her sight had returned. Now she could make out the blurry outline of objects depending on how far away they were. If they were within arm's length she could see their color and make out details. She could even read for short periods of time if she wore glasses. Still she was considered legally blind.
Turning away from the window into the colonially decorated living room, Alison made her way over to a rocking chair. Ultimately it was the right decision to make coming to New York, but she missed everyone at Drover's Run, especially Rod. She closed her eyes and her hand automatically wrapped around the horseshoe necklace he had given her just before she left. She could still picture his face, the soft face, the black locks of hair and the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
She had spoken to him a few times since coming here, but the ache she felt every time she did, knowing he was so far away and out of reach, made it very hard. Six weeks ago was the last time they spoke. He had called but the conversation got cut short by Alison's doctor's appointment. Still, she could hear him whisper her name.
His voice, so tender and loving, still sent chills down her spine even when it was just in her head.
Alison's eyes flew open and she jumped to her feet. That wasn't coming from her head. Whirling around she faced the door. She could make out someone standing in it, someone tall and wide, wearing a hat. She swallowed hard. "Oh my god… Rod?"
"Glad you still remember me."
"Oh god!" Alison ran to him. Throwing her arms around him, she began to cry.
"I've missed you, Alison," his whispered into her ear. "More than you could know."
"I know, Rod. I know because I've missed you too." She laid her head against his chest and listened to the beat of his heart. It was the most wonderful sound she had ever heard.
"Claire and Tess and everyone said to tell you hello and they hope you'll come back soon."
Alison took a step back, and stared into his face, his beautiful face. "But what are yo… how did… why…" Alison didn't even know where to start.
"I called your Aunt up awhile back and told her I had to come see you." He stroked her cheek. "I make arrangements with Parker to take some time off. When I go back, my job will be waiting for me."
"But why? I mean I understand you wanted to see me, but still."
"I had to give you your Christmas present in person. It wouldn't seem right any other way."
"Close your eyes."
"Rod Morgan this better not be a trick."
"Trust me. Now close your eyes." He waited until Alison shut her eyes. "No peeking now." He reaching into his duster pocket and found what he was looking for. Taking her left hand, he slipping the ring on her finger as he knelt down on one knee. "Alison Walker, will you marry me?"
Alison opened her eyes and stared in disbelief at Rod and the beautiful gold and diamond ring on her finger. "A-are you serious?"
"I've never been more serious in my entire life. Will you marry me?"
"Yes!" Alison shrieked, bouncing up and down. "Yes!"
That Christmas the best present Alison Walker received was hearing Rod Morgan say those two precious words, "I do."