by Maggie Brown
When Sarah Phillips lands on top of Harriett Roberts in an overturned car it’s not an ideal first meeting. The overwhelming confusion she feels threatens her plans for a fresh start as a doctor in the inhospitable Australian Outback.
Veterinarian Harry Roberts doesn’t need some city girl-pretty girl rocking her world. The Outback is no place for lightweights—and no place for women who ask too many questions.
One touch, one unguarded look…The future could be promising, if neither of them had a past.
“Fasten your seat belt, please.”
Sarah opened her eyes, disoriented, then the memories came flooding back. She took a breath of cold air, wrapping her arms tight. It had made sense to make a new life. Now, however, doubts rolled in as she gazed out the window at the dawn swallowing remnants of the grey night. The range of mountains far below took on faint arrays of pinks and mauves as the small plane banked in a steep curve, heading west. She sniffed, her temper frayed from lack of sleep. The trip from Melbourne was taking forever. Changing planes in Brisbane meant an overnight stay to catch the flight for Arrow Creek at five in the morning, an unreasonable hour to be expected to get to the airport in her opinion. To make matters worse, the schedule included landings at two other towns on the way which she hadn’t noticed when she booked.
“Is this your first time to western Queensland?”
Sarah turned to the elderly woman occupying the next seat. In the dim light of the plane she looked like an old black-and-white photograph. She suppressed the impulse to discourage conversation for it was against her nature to be rude. “Yes, the first time I’ve been anywhere this far west of the coast.
“Where’s your home?”
“Melbourne. Are you from Arrow Creek?”
A shake of the head. “My husband and I live at the Gold Coast. I’m Martha, by the way.”
“I’m going to mind the children while my daughter-in-law has her baby. It’ll be my twelfth grandchild.” Pride was there in the faded eyes as they drifted down to Sarah’s left hand, which was resting on the book in her lap. “Not married, dear? A pretty thing like you?”
Sarah raised an eyebrow, pushing aside the feeling she had “bloody reject” tattooed on her forehead. “No. I was engaged. Not now.” She didn’t elaborate, conscious of the quizzical eyes staring. Nobody would leave her alone. She was sick of putting up with this crap from her family, let alone a complete stranger. It was going to be a long flight.
A soft “Oh” hissed from the woman before the plane provided a welcome diversion by descending for its first stop, lurching like a wounded albatross through a stratum of air pockets in the already hot sky. Twenty minutes later they were in the air again. As her travelling companion prattled on, Sarah replied in monosyllables, getting more depressed by the minute. All she wanted was to be left alone to wallow in self-pity.
“Do you have a job to go to?”
“Actually I’m the new Arrow Creek doctor.” She smiled as the woman opened her mouth, then clamped it closed. Good, that shut her up.
Sarah pointedly flicked open her book, a light romance she’d bought at the airport newsagency. It had not been a wise choice in her present state of mind. It only brought back memories of her engagement. She should have been happy. Craig was every woman’s fantasy and he wanted her. Sarah had tried with him, really tried. He was the perfect lover, skilled and worldly, but something—no, everything—was missing. There always was. When she’d given back the ring a year ago, she wondered how anyone had the courage to take that final step into marriage.
What the hell’s wrong with me? Thirty-three and I can’t make any relationship work. On the other hand, why should marriage be the beginning and end of my identity and achievements anyhow? Surely it all comes down to what I want in the end.
At the next stop Martha got off and a young boy bounced into the seat beside her. On this leg refreshments were served, a slightly stale fruit muffin with stewed tepid coffee. Sarah pined for her favourite coffee shop on Burke Street when she took a sip. To add insult to injury, the boy, soon after stuffing every morsel of the muffin in his mouth, succumbed to the constant rocking of the plane and vomited it up in a spasm as they descended to land at the Arrow Creek airport.
She stood on the gangway blinking into the light, flicking away trailing curls from her face. They had a mind of their own in any breeze. She gave up years ago wishing for straight hair, resigned to the fact she had to put up with her mop of curly red hair.
As she brushed pieces of half-digested blueberries from her Louis Vuitton skirt, she surveyed the small airport. Good lord, I’ve flown back to the fifties in a time machine. A dilapidated weatherboard building, partially covered by a tired purple bougainvillea bush, was the sole checkout point. Two hangars stood at the far end of the runway, separated from the car park by a wire fence in need of repair. She wobbled her way over uneven bitumen, the tips of her high heels catching in tar, making walking in a straight line impossible. After the suitcases were deposited through the gate, the six other passengers were claimed by friends, vanishing into waiting cars and leaving Sarah alone. Annoyed, she looked down the road. She had expected red-carpet treatment on arrival; doctors were in short supply in the bush.
Great, they’ve bloody-well forgotten me.
Ten minutes later, as she was turning on her iPhone, the sound of an engine split the hush and an old pickup truck appeared round the corner and chugged to a stop beside her. A blue cattle dog jumped down from the back and the driver emerged, dressed in stained jeans, a faded shirt hanging loose and a battered hat pulled low. Sarah wrinkled her nose in distaste. I don’t believe it. The hospital has sent the flipping gardener to pick me up.
“Doctor Sarah Phillips, I presume.” The voice was low and husky, and the hat came off with flourish. Sarah’s jaw sagged. It wasn’t a man—it was a woman with straight black hair to die for and lips to rival those of Angelina Jolie. Long lashes framed dark green eyes, twinkling emeralds in the sunlight. Her tall slim body radiated health and the vitality of one used to outdoor life. Christ, she’s drop-dead gorgeous. Even in those ghastly clothes she makes me feel like an escapee from a frump farm.
Sarah stepped forward. “You’re late.” The words slipped out without thought, then she blushed, conscious there was no valid reason to be so ungracious.
The woman shrugged and then frowned, her welcoming smile vanishing. “Sorry, Doc. We’d better start again. I’m Harriett Roberts. Friends call me Harry.” She thrust out her hand.
As she grasped it, Sarah felt a faint tingle in her palm. The hand felt warm and somehow safe. She raised her eyes to study the woman’s face more closely, quashing a gasp when a jolt hit, an adrenaline rush so powerful it literally took her breath away. The woman was truly beautiful, but there was something else—something she couldn’t put her finger on—something that made her heart race and body ache. It took all her willpower to appear unaffected. “Hi. Do you work at the hospital?”
“I’m the local vet. Sorry about looking like this. I had to give a friend a hand with cattle work and didn’t have time to change.” She seemed a little subdued, giving Sarah an odd look, then blushing and sliding her eyes away. “When I saw you, I didn’t think you’d be the new doctor. I was expecting an older woman.”
“I can assure you I’m old enough,” Sarah snapped, resorting to anger to quell the feelings she was experiencing.
“Come on, we’ll get your luggage and get you to town.” Harry eyed the pile. “Hell, are these all yours? Just as well I brought the pickup.”
“Where will you leave the dog?”
“Jack will be coming with us. I can’t leave him here. He belongs to a mate of mine. I needed him for the cattle work.”
“Those suitcases cost a fortune.”
“Tough. There’s no other option,” was the only answer she received as Harry placed the cases in a heap in the back. When they were all in, Harry whistled to the dog, which took a leap and landed with a thud on top.
Sarah wrenched open the left cab door, finding a greasy mess on the seat there that forced her to contort her body to fit in the place least likely to dirty her cream linen skirt. By now she was wholeheartedly regretting opting for glamour to make a good impression instead of choosing plainer, more practical clothes.
“Just throw some of the stuff on the floor. It won’t be long to get you to town.”
Sarah didn’t deign to reply.
When she turned the ignition key, though, the engine only gave a pathetic whine. After a few more tries, she grimaced. “Sorry. I should have got a new battery the other day. Come on, we’ll have to give her a push.”
“Push! Push! Helloooo, do I look like Superwoman?”
Harry looked at her, saying nothing, merely raising an eyebrow.
“Oh bother.” Sarah struggled out, knowing she faced a losing battle. The height of the vehicle was not designed with tight skirts in mind, which made sliding down the best option.
The vehicle eventually gained enough speed for Harry to leap into the driver’s seat and turn the key. With a splutter and a backfire, the engine coughed once, then roared to life, leaving Sarah to totter after it in her heels until Harry stopped to let her clamber back in.
It was past noon by the time they headed down the road leading to the highway that would take them to Arrow Creek. Sarah sank back, feeling strangely disconnected from her surroundings. They looked so foreign. No hustle and bustle of the city, just quietness, which she found more disconcerting than the roar of traffic. Conscious of the body next to hers, her nerves on edge, she stared out at the vegetation lining the road, closing her eyes, forcing herself to relax. As she opened them, something huge leapt in front of the truck. She gave an involuntary scream, clutching at Harry’s hands resting lightly on the steering wheel. Panic took over, and with a reaction she couldn’t control, she grabbed the wheel itself and yanked hard.
The vehicle swerved from side to side, Harry working frantically to keep it on the road. “For heaven’s sake. It’s only a roo, not a bloody elephant. Where have you been all your life?”
The truck was still lurching as they neared the T intersection with the highway. Desperate now, the vet cranked the wheel to take the bend. The wheels began skidding on loose gravel, the car failed to take the corner and with a crash they hit the ditch on the far side of the road. There the truck came to rest, perched at a precarious thirty-degree angle.
It took minutes for the dust to settle and Sarah’s heart to stop pounding. She looked at Harry with concern. The vet was on the floor of the vehicle, her head squashed at an odd angle against the door beneath her and her legs pressing hard into the gear stick. Sarah, on the uphill side of the lean, was much better off, though the straining seat belt was digging sharply into her torso and her temple ached where it had hit the wheel.
A flush of heat swept over her face as the enormity of what she’d done, sank in. “Are you all right. I’m so very sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
A groan escaped from the vet. “Can you see Jack?”
Sarah craned her head to look out the window and was relieved to see the dog sitting panting at the top of the ditch. “He’s okay. How about you?”
“Well, I’m not exactly in the most comfortable position, am I? I can hardly bloody breathe. I can’t do anything where I am so it’s up to you.”
“That’s going to take some doing,” said Sarah, swallowing. “We’re on a hell of a lean.”
“First thing—don’t panic. Undo your seat belt to give yourself more mobility, then open the door and climb up and out.”
Sarah fumbled with the clasp, all thumbs, until eventually there was a metallic click and the belt zipped back. Having not thought to hang on to something for support, she fell down against Harry, jamming her further against the door.
“Be careful,” Harry snapped.
Struggling to get upright, Sarah only succeeding in pushing herself closer to Harry until they were squeezed together. Sarah became acutely aware of the body beneath hers, the strong legs, curved stomach and soft breasts pressing against her own. Her nipples tightened into hard nubs. Heat swept across her skin and desire more powerful than any she’d ever known lodged in her groin. It took all her willpower to keep her body from grinding against the one beneath it.
Oh god, what’s happening to me?
She managed to raise her head far enough to look Harry in the eye. Dark green irises flashed back, pupils dilated, her expression unreadable. Her full lips were moist and inviting. Sarah bent closer, mesmerized, a breath away from kissing her before she jerked her head backward.
Panicked now, she swivelled awkwardly, trying to grasp the handle of the door behind her. The vet wriggled her body in an attempt to provide support, which only exacerbated the situation. With a whoosh, Sarah fell back down again. Harry grunted, looking slightly shell-shocked, as gravity pressed them together once more. They were face to face now and Sarah’s knee was lodged between Harry’s long legs, pushing against the crotch of the jeans. A wave of desire rippled through Sarah. Her body took on a mind of its own, straining out of control to feel the flesh beneath the clothes.
“Have another go at the door.” The words whispered in her ear, hissing through teeth as though they had had to be forced out.
Sarah could barely speak. “Right.”
This time as she manoeuvred around, she braced her free leg against the middle console, taking a firm hold of the door handle. The regret as their breasts separated hit her like a soft slap. As she pushed the door, her other knee ground further inside the legs for support. A gasp escaped from Harry.
“Sorry. I’m trying not to hurt you.” Sarah was desperate now, lunging toward the door, her knee pumping upward into fabric that covered the softness between Harry’s legs.
The vet groaned. “The door has always been hard to open.”
Sarah looked down at the woman’s face. Perspiration covered the tanned skin and the jaw clenched in spasms. That made it worse. Moisture pooled between Sarah’s legs and arousal built like a fire inside her. Her sex began to throb. She knew if this went on much longer she’d reach orgasm.
Willing herself to give a superhuman effort, she pushed and the door gave way.
Thank Christ. She crawled forward, untangling their legs, struggling to get over the console. “You’ll have to give me a shove.”
Firm hands grasped her buttocks, and Sarah’s excitement rose again. They continued to push, forcing her through the door until she sprawled on the ground. She lay there quietly for a moment, then struggled to her feet, spitting dirt out of her mouth while she smoothed down the front of her skirt and adjusted her blouse. As she made her way to the door of the truck, she heard the sound of feet crunching on the gravel behind her.
She turned to see a thickset man striding down the embankment, his face creased with worry. “You all right?”
She ran her fingers nervously through her hair. “I guess so. Harriett’s still inside the vehicle.”
He took a cursory look over the scene and poked his head through the window. “That you, Harry? You hurt?”
“I’m all right. Gimme a hand to get out, will you, Bill?”
“Take my hand. Then I’ll hook on my Toyota and give you a pull out to the road.”
Sarah sat on a stump nearby, silent, as Harry crawled out the door. She didn’t want to look the woman in the eye, but she knew she’d have to say something. “Sorry about the mess I’ve made here.”
Harry, stiff and unresponsive, seemed as embarrassed as she was. She gave a wan smile, caught Sarah’s gaze for a brief second before turning quickly away. “Accidents happen. Don’t worry about it. It’s insured.”
Sarah stayed on the stump, clutching her arms round her body, rocking back and forward as Bill backed his four-wheel drive down the hill and hooked a chain to the bull bar. As it took the weight, the vehicle righted itself and slowly crawled out of the ditch onto the main road. She watched while they inspected the damage, pulling at exposed body work and testing tyres. Harry didn’t look her way again. It was Bill who finally signalled her to come on up.
“Not much damage sustained.” He thrust out his hand. “I’m Bill Stevens, by the way. Harry tells me you’re the new doctor.”
“That’s me. Sarah Phillips. I’m afraid I’ve stuffed up already.”
The big man gave a laugh. “Not used to kangaroos, eh?”
“Bit foreign to me, I’m afraid. The only ones we see nowadays in Melbourne are in the zoo.”
“You’ll have to get used to them out here. There’s plenty around. The truck’s right to drive so Harry will get you to town. You’re lucky your suitcases didn’t get damaged. A bit dirty but that’s all.”
“Thanks for your help, Bill. I’ll look forward to seeing you again, though hopefully not in my professional capacity.”
He gave a grin. “See you, Doc.” He draped his arm over Harry’s shoulder and gave her a playful punch. “See you around, sport.”
They stood silent until the Toyota disappeared down the road, then Harry turned to stare at Sarah, eyes hard, bright. “You all right?”
“Bit shaken up, but okay. Listen, Harry, I want…”
“No need to say anything more about this,” she interrupted. “Just get in and I’ll get you to the hospital.”
“You can at least let me apologise.”
“For frig sake, I told you there’s no need to discuss it further.”
Sarah stiffened, offended. But she had no right to be, she knew. Harry’s anger wasn’t about the accident, it was about what happened inside the cab. Realizing the enormity of what she’d done, Sarah was flooded with shame. Oh, God. I came on to this beautiful woman like a bitch on heat. A woman! What was I thinking? Without another word, she climbed into the passenger seat and stared out the window, only dimly aware of her companion whistling to the dog before settling into the driver’s seat.
The rest of the journey was a blur as Sarah grappled with the emotions she had experienced. Nothing would be the same again, she knew. Her libido had blazed alive, like no other time in her life. There was absolutely no doubt now why she hadn’t been able to make relationships with men work. What she’d forced herself to suppress over the years. She knew she would never be able to go back. Never be satisfied with less now. A tear fell down her cheek. She didn’t bother to wipe it away. She wasn’t crying for Harry’s embarrassment, she was crying for herself. She knew now for certain.
She was stuffed.