Authors: Alissa Callen
Kree Garrett’s younger brother Seth is all the family she has left, so when he goes missing while working in the Australian outback, she races from America to join in the search.
To everyone’s relief, Seth is rescued by local volunteers and Kree finds, in an abandoned historic Cobb & Co. Coach House, the opportunity to thank the community she’s fallen in love with. But it isn’t only the town she’s fallen for.
Ewan Mackenzie has given up everything for his brother’s family, but he can never give enough to assuage his guilt at what happened one dark night, years ago … Ewan knows he doesn’t deserve happiness; however, with Kree he finds it hard to keep his distance.
Can Kree and Ewan leave the tragedies of their pasts behind long enough to find a future together?
by Alissa Callen
by Cheryl Adnams
Found him. Alive.
Ewan Mackenzie stared at Travis’s text message. The noise and bustle of the outback search-and-rescue command post behind him faded to an indistinct murmur. Three simple words and the world could breathe again. All the police, emergency services, farmers and Glenalla townsfolk who’d searched for the missing American backpacker could now take their lives off pause.
Relief pushed Ewan’s exhaustion aside and dulled the tension that had been gripping him tighter than any tourniquet. The eighteen-year-old gap-year traveller hadn’t fallen victim to the vastness and isolation of the Australian bush. For the first time in two days, the sun warmed Ewan’s skin and he registered the rustle of the autumn breeze in the nearby silver-tipped gum trees.
His hand shook, blurring the letters on the small screen before him. He slipped the phone into his jeans pocket and swiped his cold palms over the dusty denim covering his thighs. The tremble in his fingers transferred to his shoulders.
It seemed it didn’t matter how often he helped search-and-rescue achieve a positive outcome, the blood on his hands would never rub off.
The thump of Whiskey’s tail sounded from the ute tray-back, directly in front of Ewan. The kelpie gazed at him with anxious eyes and whined. Ewan booted his anguish into the bottomless pit where it belonged. Whiskey sensed his every mood, and his guilt was not the dog’s to carry.
‘It’s okay, mate,’ he said, voice soft, as he tousled the kelpie’s thick, black coat. ‘All’s good. Our job’s done. They’ve found Kree’s brother.’
Whiskey sidled closer, unconvinced. Ewan forced a lightness he didn’t feel into his tone. ‘We’re heading home, Whisk. There’s cold beer in the shed fridge, and if you’re lucky Midget won’t have found the bone you buried under the orange tree.’
He ruffled Whiskey’s neck again and his doggy-mate’s eyes closed. But Whiskey’s contentment failed to quell the emptiness that had begun to seep through Ewan. Now that Seth Garrett had been found his dark-haired sister, who’d flown all night to help look for him, would return home.
From the moment Kree had walked into the tin hall that housed their makeshift command post, the sadness of her brave smile had pummelled his defences. Winter-pale and pretty, her quiet courage had stirred something deep within him, something he’d thought was long dead. He knew how much strength it took to go on when the world collapsed around you. But despite his sense of affinity, instinct had cautioned Ewan to stay away from the attractive American. He’d managed to keep a polite distance until she’d approached him after lunch yesterday while he’d consulted the map spread out on his ute bonnet.
‘Ewan? Ewan Mackenzie?’ she’d asked in her smooth and modulated accent.
He’d caught the subtle scent of vanilla before turning to meet her blue eyes. The beat of his heart had tripped. ‘Yes.’
‘Old Harry tells me you’re the next spotter in Travis’s plane?’
Throat dry, Ewan had nodded.
She’d extended a hand towards him. ‘Thank you.’
‘No worries.’ He’d hesitated and then returned the universal gesture of gratitude. ‘We’re doing everything we can to find your brother.’
‘I know.’ Her voice had lowered and her fine-boned fingers had curled around his as though they belonged there. Lips parted, she’d stared at him for a solemn second that stretched into two and then, hand trembling, she’d slipped her fingers free.
Ewan’s blood had pounded long after she’d returned inside the hall. Even the compass pointing north on the map before him hadn’t been able to centre him. A fleeting smile in a woman’s eyes had never affected him so much.
He stopped patting Whiskey, and the kelpie lifted a large paw to bat his forearm in protest.
Ewan shook his head. ‘We’ve gotta go, Whisk. The farm jobs won’t have done themselves while we’ve been away.’
He reached for the rolled-up canvas swag at his feet. There was no need to find Kree and tell her Seth was safe. Travis would have texted the command post leader and she would have received the news straight away. There was also no need to intrude on her relief to say goodbye. It wasn’t his place to share in her joy or to expect any thanks. It was enough he’d
helped save a life. He should get home to Marellen. He’d had a liquid breakfast of too-hot coffee and his gear was already packed, ready for another morning shift spotting in Travis’s Cessna light plane.
He tossed last night’s bed plus the adjacent duffle bag onto the ute’s tray. Behind him, the good news spread faster than a wind-fuelled bushfire. He could hear backs being slapped, jokes cracked and long-forgotten laughter beginning to dissolve the strain that had hovered like an ominous cloud. He had to get out of there before he’d be expected to join in the jubilation. He’d check he’d packed his phone charger and make tracks.
Whiskey’s ears twitched and his tail thumped the ute tray-back with such force, Ewan was sure the shock absorbers cursed. His fingers stilled on the duffle bag zipper. There was only one other person at the command post who could cause Whiskey to act like a hyper-active pup.
Ewan slowly turned and with each degree of rotation his self-control slid more firmly into place. He’d already let fatigue and emotion weaken him. He’d lowered his guard and allowed her in. There couldn’t be any more cracks in his armour. There couldn’t be any more revisiting the memory of how perfectly she’d fitted against him when he’d briefly held her close to comfort her when a sighting of Seth had proved a false alarm. And there couldn’t be any more yearning for the things he couldn’t ever have.
Black and tan flashed in his peripheral vision as Whiskey leaped from the ute to the ground. Ewan took off his Akubra and raked a hand through the snarls in his hair.
Whiskey’s adoration for the soft-talking American would
make a hasty retreat impossible. Ewan held the hat in front of his face to mask his expression before settling it back on his head and pulling the brim low. Kree had been on Australian soil for under two days but his self-preservation had already ear-marked her perceptiveness as trouble. The way she searched his face for what he wasn’t telling her was as dangerous as a cornered western brown snake.
Kree bent to scratch Whiskey’s stomach as he collapsed in a besotted heap in the red dirt at her feet. His back leg shook as she tickled his favourite spot. She laughed, a musical and sweet sound, light with relief. Ewan folded his arms and gazed past the girl and dog towards the wide, tree-lined gravel road that would take him home. It didn’t matter that he’d finally heard Kree laugh, or that the sound had warmed the edges of the chill that refused to leave his heart. She’d soon fly home to the States.
Kree straightened but continued to rub Whiskey’s belly with the toe of her laced hiking boot. She grinned at the dog. ‘So much for being Mr Tough Guy, Whiskey, you’re nothing but a big baby.’
Ewan’s hands clenched beneath his crossed arms. Ashen, and with her brown hair scraped into a careless ponytail she had been pretty. But now, with colour flushing her cheeks and happiness gleaming in her eyes, she was, well, breathtaking.
Whiskey sighed as she stopped rubbing his belly.
‘I can’t believe Travis found Seth.’ Her smile widened as her eyes met his. ‘I can’t believe he’s okay and that it’s really all over. Thank you for everything you’ve done.’ She lifted her arms towards him.
Tension coiled in Ewan’s stomach as he realised she intended to hug him. He couldn’t risk touching Kree again, even for
a brief hug – his control was already tenuous. He broke eye contact with the pretence of rolling up the long sleeves of his work shirt. ‘You’re welcome, but no thanks are necessary,’ he said as though unaware of her intentions. He flicked the shirt cuff over his wrist, hoping his fingers remained steady. ‘I’m just glad all’s ended well.’
When Kree didn’t reply, he risked a quick glance at her. Eyes narrowed, her hands were now resting on her jeans-clad hips.
‘Thanks are necessary. There’s no way the horses, motorbikes and other vehicles could have searched the same amount of ground you and Travis covered by air.’ She paused and he wished his hat was still shielding his expression. She had a direct way of looking at him that made him worry she could see all his secrets. ‘And it was your suggestion we widen the search to the north. No one else believed Seth could have run so far.’
‘It was you who stressed that Seth was fit enough to cover long distances. You also suggested he could have headed towards Pike’s Ridge because he’s used to running in rough terrain. I was simply the messenger-boy.’ He pushed his rolled-up sleeves past his elbows. He had to get going. He needed to sit on the verandah alone, away from all celebration and companionship, and remember that women like Kree Garrett were not for the likes of him. ‘Really, no thanks are needed.’
‘Yes, they are.’ She turned to consider the assortment of vehicles and clusters of State Emergency Service volunteers dressed in their trademark vivid-orange pants and jackets. ‘I have to thank everyone – you, Travis, all the volunteers, the Glenalla community – for being involved in finding my brother.’
A group of men near a mud-covered quad bike lifted a hand to her and she smiled and waved in return. Even intractable old Harry, who usually only left his farm for fire, floods or food, gave her a nod. Kree might have arrived a stranger, but she’d quickly earned the respect of the locals. Jet-lagged and bleary-eyed from her long-haul flight from Denver, she’d thrown herself into the search-and-rescue efforts. Quick with an appreciative word or a cup of tea for a weary volunteer, she’d worked tirelessly until Ewan had spotted her swaying on her feet. Despite her protests, he’d bundled her into his ute to take her to town, to sleep in Mrs Butler’s spare room. Kree had curled up in the passenger seat, her head pillowed on her arm and her legs tucked beneath her before he’d even hit the main road.
She turned to face him again, chin tilted. Before he could work out what she was planning, she’d closed the distance between them and kissed his unshaven cheek. He caught the scent of vanilla, felt the softness of her mouth and weathered the stab of loss as she moved away.
‘Thank you,’ she said, her eyes serious, ‘for everything.’
‘Anytime,’ he managed, hoping his Australian drawl would mask the hoarseness of his reply.
Her lips curved. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope there’s no next time. When I get my hands on my little brother, he’ll be lucky to be allowed to go and buy milk from the 7-Eleven.’
‘Don’t be too hard on Seth. He’s young. Accidents happen.’ Ewan turned to where his swag was lying in the ute and grabbed the leather strap. Kree might have come to thank him for his search efforts, but what she was really saying was goodbye. There were no 7-Elevens in the one-grocery-shop
town of Glenalla. Her leaving was inevitable, and the best thing for him – so why had a sudden restlessness filled him?
Kree leaned her arms on the side of the ute and watched Ewan re-position the swag beside the duffle. Whiskey jumped in the tray-back and snuck his head under Kree’s hands for another pat.
‘Accidents do happen, but where Seth is concerned, they happen rather regularly.’ Her voice lowered. ‘I love him dearly, and he’s the only family I have, but I’m hoping this experience will teach him to be less impulsive. I just wish he’d told Maureen and Don which direction he’d planned to go for a jog in. All he said was that he was going for a run and would be back by dinner.’
‘After two days alone in the bush, I’m sure when you get a chance to talk to him he’ll be wishing the same thing.’ Ewan prodded at his duffle to feel for the hard square of his phone charger.
‘Bill said they’d bring him here for a medical assessment, and that then I can go with him to Dubbo hospital.’
‘That’s right.’ Ewan didn’t miss the underlying note of concern. Kree may have channelled all her fears into staying positive and keeping her faith that her brother would be found, but no doubt there would be a price to pay for her stoicism. He of all people knew emotions could only be denied for so long. He checked his watch. ‘And they should be here soon. The rescue chopper will have flown to Travis’s location by now.’
When she failed to reply, Ewan looked across at Kree. Face averted, she’d stopped patting Whiskey and was staring at the hills beyond the patchwork of ploughed brown and fresh green paddocks.
It might have taken five years for the big-dry to break, but Mother Nature had since gifted the Glenalla district with
good follow-up rains. It’d been so long since he’d seen grass, he’d forgotten green came in any other shade than the muted olive hues of drought-hardy trees. Winter crops would soon unfurl into lush life and contented, sleek-coated stock would again graze.
‘It won’t be long before this will be a bad memory,’ Ewan said quietly as Kree continued to stare at the bush-carpeted hills.
A heavy silence answered him.
‘Kree?’ He half-raised a hand towards her.
She turned to him, eyes over-bright. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’
‘It won’t be long before this will all just be a bad memory.’ Ewan reached for his duffle bag before he did something stupid, like reach for her. The sadness that tugged at her full mouth called to him, even as his conscience anchored his boots to the tyre-marked ground. He’d long ago lost the right to be drawn to someone. The sooner Kree Garrett left the district, the sooner he could return to his penance of solitude.
‘Maybe,’ Kree said. To Whiskey’s delight she once again ruffled his coat. ‘But I’d always planned on visiting Australia while Seth was here. Spring might technically have arrived in the Rocky Mountains but it’s still freezing back home, so I’m hoping to stay and enjoy the sunshine a little longer.’
For the second time that morning, Ewan’s fingers stilled on the zip of his duffle bag. He didn’t look up as he spoke. ‘You’re … staying?’