There’s more than one way to be lost.
A runaway at fifteen, Tia Walsh lost herself amid the squats and the gangs in the inner city. Years later she’s come to Coorah Creek seeking a new start. Sergeant Max Delaney senses that everything about Tia spells trouble. But that trouble is not all of her own making, and the dangerous past she tried to leave behind is hot on her heels.
Sarah Travers has returned home after three years of studying to find that her parents have been keeping a devastating secret. Her teenage crush, Pete Rankin, is facing his own struggle with a harsh reality that will take him away from the girl and the life that he loves.
But when a little girl goes missing in the harsh outback, all that matters is finding her safe.
Winner of the Romantic Novelists’ Association Epic Romantic Novel of the Year Award.
The huge yellow machine moved forward slowly on wheels that were twice the height of the men watching. Like some prehistoric monster, it growled softly as the powerful engine hauled more than two hundred tonnes of rock and dirt and precious ore out of the mine pit. The machine turned towards the railhead and the skeletal iron gantries silhouetted against the brilliant blue outback sky.
Inside the air-conditioned cab, the hands on the wheel seemed far too small to control such a gigantic and powerful machine. But they were steady, giving no indication of the driver’s nervousness, or the importance of the next couple of minutes.
The watchers on the ground followed at a safe distance as the truck crossed those last few metres, and finally came to rest next to the railhead.
Inside the cab, the driver turned off the engine and waited with bated breath.
One of the watchers stepped closer to the vehicle, peered closely at the precise placement of the wheels in relation to the railhead, then stepped back and looked up at the cab. He raised one arm, his thumb pointed skywards and a ragged cheer broke out from the men around him.
From her place so far above them Tia Walsh couldn’t hear the cheer, but she saw that thumbs up. She had done it!
An unfamiliar feeling swept through her. Pride at her accomplishment. It was such a very long time since she had felt pride in anything. It was an unlikely job she had chosen, driving a huge Caterpillar truck in an open cut mine, but that only made this moment all the sweeter. She had trained and now passed the test. She was something and somewhere she had never expected to be.
Somewhere no one would ever think to look for her.
Rising from her seat, she opened the cab door and quickly descended the metal steps, before jumping the last distance to the ground. Her steel-tipped safety boots raised a small puff of red dust as she landed.
‘Well done, Walsh. That’s it. You’re one of us now. Welcome to the Goongalla Mine team.’
Mine manager Chris Powell held out his hand, as a small collection of drivers behind him gave another cheer. The drivers were all clad in protective clothing: hard hats and safety boots, Day-Glo yellow vests and heavy cotton long trousers. They were even wearing long-sleeved shirts despite the heat. Safety was paramount at the mine, and to a man they adhered to the rules.
To a woman, too. Tia was quite happy to wear all that safety gear. It couldn’t disguise the fact that she was the only woman in the crowd, but it did help her to blend in.
She wished they weren’t making such a fuss. The mine, they said, was a community as much as it was a job. Tia didn’t really care. She didn’t want to be part of a community. She’d been part of something like that once before, and never wanted to repeat the experience. She just wanted to do her job and be left alone. She hated being the centre of so much attention.
She shook the manager’s offered hand. ‘Thanks.’
Powell beamed and nodded, then stepped back as Tia’s fellow drivers crowded around to shake her hand. Tia did her best to accept the congratulations with good grace, but she was beginning to feel trapped.
‘So, everyone who is off shift, the first round at the Mineside is on me.’ Blue, Tia’s instructor, and the mine’s senior driver, received his own cheer for that offer.
‘Not for me, thanks,’ Tia said quickly.
‘What?’ The other drivers were starting to move in the direction of the mine gates, but Blue held back. ‘You’ve got to come. It’s tradition when someone passes the test.’
‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
She knew that tone, and immediately shook her head. She had been waiting for this and she was going to set the record straight right now. Hopefully Blue would pass it on to the rest of the men.
‘As I said thanks, but no thanks.’ They both knew she wasn’t talking about beer.
Her instructor shrugged. ‘Fair enough. No harm in asking.’
‘See you tomorrow.’
They parted company, Blue heading towards the pub, and Tia towards the accommodation compound that she now called home.
Like most of the big outback mines, Goongalla Uranium had a large number of workers who were flown in to work a ten-day shift then flown out, back to their homes, for a week off. These FIFO workers lived in small portable tin huts, with just a bed and bathroom and a TV. The dongas sat in lines around a central mess building, where everyone ate, and spent hours playing pool or watching the footy on TV.
Although Tia wasn’t a FIFO worker, she had been allowed to rent one of the two big trailer homes in the compound. They were set back from the dongas for a little extra privacy and had been used by the engineers during the mine’s construction phase. It was a true mobile home, with a kitchen as well as the bathroom and TV. Tia had been here a week now, and hadn’t cooked a meal in that kitchen. She was twenty-five years old and had never cooked a meal in any kitchen. It wasn’t that she was a bad cook. She simply did not know how to cook. She’d never had the chance to learn.
She unlocked the door. That was another thing strange to her: a home with a door that she could lock and to which she held the only key.
The trailer showed very few signs that anyone lived there. It was clean and tidy, the bed at the back neatly made and a coffee cup upturned in the draining rack next to the sink. The only personal item was a red and black full-face motorcycle helmet sitting in a corner of the couch. Tia had learned long ago that anything left where it could be seen would probably not be there when she came back. Nothing as simple as a locked door was going to change such hard-learned habits.
She opened the small refrigerator. It held a dozen cans of Coke and some milk for her coffee. Nothing else. She pulled out a can of Coke, but hesitated before opening it. She had just taken a big step forward. Maybe she should celebrate. She was now licensed and trusted to drive a truck worth maybe a million dollars. That wasn’t bad going for a homeless runaway. She could have a drink and maybe even treat herself to a pub meal. The food at the mess was hearty and filling, but the menu wasn’t very varied. A change would be nice. She was still avoiding the Mineside pub and her workmates, but the town had one other pub.
She stripped off her work clothes and after a quick wash, slid into a pair of jeans and a simple white T-shirt. She ran a brush through her long hair and slipped it into a ponytail. Then she reached for the motorcycle helmet.
The Harley was parked outside, its elegant chrome tailpipes gleaming softly in the sunlight. A light layer of red dust had begun to settle over it, as it did over everything around the mine, but that couldn’t hide its beauty. Tia had been told the bike was worth a lot of money. She didn’t know how much. She hadn’t paid for it. She checked the registration plates. The mud she had smeared over them to obscure the lettering was still there. Good. Anyone who wanted to check the bike would have to get pretty close to do it. And she wasn’t letting anyone get that close. Not now. Not again. Not ever.
She slipped the helmet over her head and swung her leg over the bike. It was time to check out Coorah Creek.
Sergeant Max Delaney liked to walk the streets at sundown. He’d developed the habit as a young police constable, newly graduated from the Academy and assigned to Fortitude Valley in Brisbane. The Valley had been a run-down, crime-ridden black spot littered with illegal gambling dens and brothels, but when he was assigned there it was starting to develop into a hub of inner-city nightlife and entertainment. Max had loved watching the bright neon lights flare into life as the sun set. He’d loved the smell of the exotic spices from the restaurants in Chinatown. He’d loved that final flare of sunlight off the glass office towers of the inner-city business district, visible from the high spots on his beat. But, most of all, he’d loved the knowledge that he was making it safe for people to walk those streets.
The sun was setting as Max left his office and walked out into the streets that he now patrolled. From the west, a glow of molten gold spread over his new town. The light painted the wooden buildings in the main street with a soft glow that hid the faded paint and softened the corrugated iron roofs. Even the fine red dust that seemed to cover everything looked better in this light. On the other side of the road, the Coorah Creek Hotel – possibly the most prosperous establishment in the outback town – glowed with welcome. There were no people on the street and the only sound was the distant cry of a crow.
He had come a long, long way since the Academy and those early exciting years as an inner-city beat constable. Coorah Creek wasn’t exactly a crime hotspot. The occasional drunk driver or pub brawl kept him busy on a Friday night. There were accidents on the long straight highways that ran east and north back towards civilisation. Like everywhere else, there was a bit of underage drinking and the odd bit of teenage shoplifting, although there was not much in the town’s few shops to tempt them. Teenagers here were in little danger of falling headlong into a life of crime.
This wasn’t how he had imagined his life at thirty-three. In his youth he’d seen himself as a detective, homicide maybe, or organised crime. Something exciting that would lead to commendations and possibly TV appearances. Back then he had even occasionally thought about a having a family and a home in some nice leafy suburb, with good schools and neighbours to invite over for a backyard barbecue. He had never for one moment thought he’d end up in a tiny town in Queensland’s far west, just a stone’s throw from the desert.
Sometimes life didn’t go the way you planned.
But still his life was far better than some.
Swinging a plastic shopping bag from his hand, he turned up a narrow dirt road that ran off at right angles to the highway. It wasn’t much of a road, more a rutted laneway. There were only two houses in the lane. One was dark and deserted. The other had a light showing through a window. Both houses were old and run-down, but the home with the light had a flash of green around it. Someone tended that garden with a great deal of love. Early spring flowers were in full bloom. They would fade soon as the heat of high summer sapped the life out of the west country, but for their brief moment in time, the flowers were a bright splash of colour amid the long brown grass and the cracked, bare dirt.
Max walked past a group of rose bushes tipped with brilliant yellow and white blooms, climbed the wooden stairs and knocked on the door.
The woman who opened it had a toddler balanced on her hips. She was quite thin and looked tired. The sadness and lines on her face were those of a middle-aged woman, but Max knew Nikki was much younger than she looked. She was barely out of her teens, but life had made her old before her time.
‘Oh, hello, Sergeant.’ She lifted a hand to smooth the hair from her face.
‘Hello, Nikki. How are you?’
‘I’m doing all right,’ Nikki said in a voice that suggested even she didn’t believe it.
‘Anna looks lovely,’ Max said, gently stroking the toddler’s hair. The little girl’s clothes were faded and worn, but she was freshly bathed and her hair was combed. Nikki didn’t have money to lavish on her child, but she made up for this by the strength of her love.
The young mother’s face glowed. ‘She’s such a good girl,’ she said.
Max nodded. He held out the shopping bag for Nikki to take. ‘I thought she might like these.’
‘Oh.’ Nikki juggled her daughter a bit and opened the bag. She reached inside and withdrew a beautifully carved wooden horse, painted a golden brown with a creamy mane and tail.
‘Horsey …’ said Anna as she grabbed it with both hands.
Nikki reached back into the bag and this time withdrew a black and brown dog. With the horse clasped firmly in one hand, Anna reached for the dog.
‘They’re beautiful,’ said Nikki in a very little voice. ‘We can’t accept—’
‘Yes you can,’ Max interrupted her. ‘I carve these things in the evenings, just to keep my hands busy. My place is littered with them. You’d be doing me a favour taking them.’
They both knew that wasn’t strictly true, but it was a way for Nikki to save face.
Anna settled the discussion by holding both toys close to her heart and laughing out loud.
‘She loves them,’ Nikki said. ‘She doesn’t get new toys very often. Steve’s job doesn’t … well, we’re hoping he’ll get moved into a new job soon.’
‘That’s good news,’ Max said.
‘Oh, where are my manners?’ Nikki said. ‘Would you like to come in for a cup of tea or something?’
Max was touched by the invitation. This family had barely enough for themselves, let alone to share. Nikki had still been at school when Anna was conceived. Her boyfriend Steve was a few months older and had just started working at the mine when his daughter entered the world. They were far too young to be parents. Steve did his best, but they struggled. Max wasn’t the only person in town who helped them.
‘Thank you, but no,’ Max said. ‘I’d better get back.’
She nodded. ‘Thank you so much for the toys.’
‘You are very welcome.’ Max turned and walked away. As he did he could hear the little girl laughing. It was a wonderful sound.
He’d just turned back onto the main road when he heard a low rumble. He stopped walking and listened as the noise grew louder. He recognised it in an instant. Only one motorcycle made that sound. That was a Harley-Davidson. He’d heard some talk that there was a Harley in town. It belonged to a new worker at the Goongalla mine, a couple of kilometres south of the town. Max hadn’t seen either the bike or its rider. That was about to change.
The Harley rumbled into view on the road from the mine. The rider was wearing leathers and a full-face helmet. Max felt his policeman’s instinct twitch a little. The bike roared past and pulled into a space outside the Coorah Creek Hotel. The rider dismounted and walked up the stairs. From this distance Max couldn’t see much about him. He hadn’t even removed his helmet. That set off alarm bells. He’d spent enough time dealing with biker gangs back in the city to know that this could mean trouble for his sleepy little town.
Max crossed the road, walking with more speed and purpose.
The Harley was quite something. A classic American muscle machine. It had a custom paint job – black and red flames covering the petrol tank. The polished chrome of the raised handlebars gleamed in the light of the late afternoon sun. The big headlight would send a brilliant shaft of light down the outback roads at night, no doubt encouraging the rider to ride the big machine hard and fast. The powerful engine was astonishingly clean. The Harley owner clearly loved his hog and spent a lot of time working on it. Except for one thing. Max frowned as he tried to read the bike’s reggo. The plates were covered with dried mud. He could even see the marks where someone had used their fingers to press the wet mud over the plate, making it impossible to read. There was only one reason why someone would do that.
Max glanced towards the pub. As Coorah Creek’s police chief and the only law enforcement officer for three hundred kilometres in any direction, he should check out the guy who rode this bike. Most of the mineworkers drank at the town’s only other pub, the Mineside. They didn’t mix too much with the townsfolk. It wasn’t a strict rule, but it seemed to work. The Mineside was a little rougher. The men could relax there without the need to mind their language. The Coorah Creek Hotel was more for the long-term residents of the town. And for families. The Harley owner either didn’t know that or else he didn’t care.
Max resisted the urge to run his fingers along the shining paintwork of the hog. As a rule, Harley owners didn’t like people touching their machines. Max didn’t want to start anything with this guy, not yet at least. He walked up the stairs into the pub.
The fans above the long wooden bar were not turning. By Queensland standards it was positively cool for this time of year, but spring wouldn’t last long. It was getting hotter every day. There were a handful of people in the bar, but Max knew them all. He nodded to acknowledge their hellos, and stepped up to the bar.
‘Well, hello, Max. Nice evening, isn’t it? Not too warm for this time of the year. The long-term weather forecast says we’re in for a really hot summer. They say that as if it’s something special. Or some kind of surprise. But I ask you, when did we ever have anything but a really hot summer. OJ?’ Trish Warren, the owner of the pub and its chief barmaid, was in her mid-sixties. A short, grey-haired woman with shrewd eyes and a mind to match, she knew he never drank beer when he was in uniform.
Max cast a quick glance through the doorway from the public bar to the lounge. It was empty. Turning back to the bar, he noticed a half-finished beer slowly dripping condensation onto the highly polished wood of Trish’s bar. A leather biker’s jacket hung over a nearby bar stool. A black and red full-face helmet sat on top of it.
Trish placed a glass of juice in front of Max, following his glance to the beer.
‘I see what’s going on here. You’re looking for the Harley rider?’
Trish grinned. Max knew that grin. It usually meant Trish was up to something. She nodded her head in the general direction of the toilets at the back of the pub.
Max picked up his juice. He would wait. He braced himself for a verbal downpour from Trish. The publican was a good woman. Some said she was the heart of this small town. But she talked like no one Max Delaney had ever met. He had no idea how her husband Syd had lived with it all these years.
But Trish said nothing. With a smirk twitching the corners of her mouth, she went back to polishing glasses.
Max’s instincts went on an even higher alert. When Trish wasn’t talking, something was up.
He caught movement from the corner of his eye. He slowly turned to look at the figure walking towards him from the direction of the toilets.
The Harley owner was wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt, but looked nothing like any biker Max had ever seen. His first thought was how did someone so small and frail manage a big bike like the Harley? She was tiny. She would barely reach Max’s chin. And she was thin. He could see the shape of the bones on her shoulders. Her breasts were small but shapely under the tight white fabric of her top. Her hair was a dark mahogany colour, caught into a ponytail that hung halfway down her back. It was slightly ruffled, no doubt from wearing a motorcycle helmet. Max just knew her eyes would be green. They couldn’t be any other colour. Not if there was any justice in this world.
She should have been beautiful, but she was a little too thin and something about the way she walked robbed her of her beauty. She kept her head down, her shoulders hunched as if she was trying not to be noticed. She knew he was watching her, and glanced in his direction. Her eyes were indeed green, and reminded him of a wild animal, poised to fight or to run. But there was something else in those eyes. Something that suggested she was stronger than she looked. Something that suggested she could be dangerous.
She slid back onto her stool and reached for her glass. Her fingers were long and thin and devoid of either rings or polish on the nails. They looked as fragile as a bird’s wing. She raised the beer and took a long drink.
As she moved, the low curved neck of her T-shirt flexed and Max caught a hint of colour above her right breast. She had a tattoo. He couldn’t see it clearly and had no idea what the image might be. Max wasn’t a fan of tattoos, but that hint of colour was nothing if not sexy.
Max turned his eyes back to his own glass and let out the breath he had unconsciously been holding. From the moment he’d seen the Harley, he’d been afraid it meant trouble in his town. He was right. This girl was trouble, but not the sort of trouble he’d expected.
Tia kept her gaze on her beer glass as she turned it slowly in her hands.
The problem with the Harley was that it attracted all sorts of attention. She’d stayed in the mine compound since her arrival two weeks ago to avoid notice. Just her luck. Her first visit to the town and she runs into a cop. She took another drink, knowing this would be her first and last beer. Ordering a second would simply guarantee that the cop would be breathalysing her the minute she swung her leg over the bike. That would be a joke. She seldom drank much, and certainly wasn’t stupid enough to step onto the Harley when she was drunk. Nor was she stupid enough to give a cop any chance to pull her over. She knew enough about cops to stay well away from them.
‘Can I get you another beer or something to eat? The food here is pretty good,’ the grey-haired barmaid asked.
Tia shook her head. She had planned to grab a burger, but she wasn’t going to stay here with the cop. She’d get something to eat later, back at the mine mess. She drained the last of her beer and stood up. Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the bar in front of her, she slung her jacket over her shoulder and picked up her helmet. As she turned towards the door, she couldn’t resist casting a quick sideways glance at the cop. He was making no attempt to hide the fact that he was staring at her. Her defences rose. Tia had no illusions about her looks. Men found her attractive. On more than one occasion she had been forced to use her looks to get herself out of trouble. But things were different now. She wasn’t that same girl any more. She didn’t like to be stared at. And certainly not by a cop. She had good reason not to like cops.
She walked out of the bar. Standing beside her bike, she shrugged into the leather jacket. Her helmet still in her hands, she slung one leg over the Harley and looked back at the pub. The cop was standing in the doorway, watching her. He was tall and fit. A few years older than her. During the quick look they had shared in the bar, she’d decided he was quite handsome, with tanned skin and dark eyes. He wasn’t one of the fat pigs she had met in the past, but he was still a cop. And cops were the enemy.
Tia pulled the helmet over her head, feeling an unexpected relief when she knew he could no longer see her face. She slipped on her leather gloves and hit the Harley’s starter. The engine roared into life. She felt the bike vibrating beneath her, like some animal waiting to be let loose.
She couldn’t resist. She gunned the engine and spun the bike, sliding the rear wheels and sending a small shower of loose gravel flying in the general direction of the pub. Then she roared off down the street, a hair’s breadth over the limit. In her mirrors she saw the cop still standing in the doorway of the pub, watching her tail-light fade into the darkness.
She smiled as the hog carried her back towards the mine.
Release date: 2023-12-01