To move forward, she’ll have to face the past.
Paige Bennett is fulfilling her childhood dream of working and living on the land as a station hand on Whitetail Ridge. Getting her hands dirty, riding horses, working with cattle and kicking up red dust. Life can’t get much better. Or so she thinks, until a devastating act of violent betrayal leaves her unemployed, homeless and broken.
A fight with his father drove Jackson Brady off Karilga, his family’s cattle station in the Queensland outback. Now he’s made a life for himself away from the land, joining a band and settling into the city. When the girl he’s always had his eye on shows up with news from back home, he’s faced with a difficult choice: go home where he’s needed or stay where he’s wanted.
Winding up on Karilga Station, Paige is a shadow of the person she once was. Desperate to forget what happened to her, she considers leaving her beloved channel country. But things aren’t so easily forgotten in the outback. When fate gives her no option but to trust again, will she find love as well? Or at least a safe place to land?
Jackson knows he’s never been more to Paige than a country larrikin who only takes the beer at the end of the day seriously – a sentiment closely echoed by his father. Can Jackson prove himself to his father and become the man Paige needs him to be? Or will it all crumble in the red dirt of the outback?
A heartfelt, deeply emotional story about finding home, facing the past and falling in love, from a captivating new voice in rural romance.
Her gaze swept over the crowded club like an eagle waiting to dive on a fish swimming too close to the surface. She’d always admired eagles. The perfect balance of power and beauty, their feathers pristine and never ruffled, backs as straight as a bird’s could be, heads always held high. Majestic when they stretched out their wings and rode the wind like it blew just for them. Tonight, Paige Bennett was a woman on a mission. Just not the kind of mission she generally undertook in this environment—she wasn’t here for the drinks, the dancing or the men, no matter the dress and heels she wore. In fact, this would be much more comfortable in her boots and jeans. Still, she was nothing if not adaptable.
This was the third club she’d been in tonight, and the third band that hadn’t featured a picture of its musicians in her quick social media events search earlier. She crossed her fingers that she was in the right place. She’d get this done, then go back to her sister’s house, where a different kind of dress hung, much looser around her hips with a more modest neckline. A dress that wouldn’t have her bursting into flames under her mother’s watchful gaze when she attended her niece’s baptism in the morning. Paige had already endured one lecture this weekend and wasn’t in a rush to add another.
The strum of a guitar vibrated through the club and a horde of people pushed past her towards the back of the room, disappearing in a stampede around the bar. This music was more on par with what she was searching for. The other clubs had been full of techno beats under wailing and screaming lyrics. The deep, raw voice that accompanied this guitar reminded her of the late Michael Hutchence but with more huskiness. She followed the crowd into a bigger room with a dance floor in front of a stage. The drums kicked in and the heavy thrum of a bass guitar radiated through her as she spotted him.
The tightness in her shoulders eased. First step of her mission complete. What now? She needed to speak with him, but there was no way he’d catch sight of her at the back and she wouldn’t be making it through to the front of this crowd—they were crammed in tighter than the ball bearings she’d replaced in the tractor last week. Paige glanced up, raising her hand to block the strobe lighting. As she squinted, she noticed sporadic gaps in the crowd on the second-level balcony, closer to the height of the stage. If she could find a spot on the side where Jackson stood, he might see her; his gaze seemed to regularly shift between his guitar, his bandmates and the crowd. It was worth a shot.
Vibrations cut through her bag and she pulled out her phone. Do not stay out too late! Mum xx
Paige rolled her eyes. Only her mother could team a sergeant’s order with kisses. She clicked through to the next message.
Have you found Jackson? Don’t get distracted by any hot bodies. Or do—details are a must!
The second message was from Joy, her boss’s wife, who she had a surprisingly close relationship with. She’d reply later. With a smirk, Paige squared her shoulders, detoured past the bar for a beer then headed for the stairs. She knew as soon as she got back to Whitetail Ridge, the large cattle station in Western Queensland where she worked, Joy would be ready for a girls’ night, complete with beer and popcorn. It was kind of their thing.
Paige paused at the top of the stairs. So many more people than she bargained for. Someone knocked her elbow from behind and her beer sloshed over her fingers. She held the glass out to avoid drips on her dress.
‘Sorry about that.’
‘No harm, no foul,’ she muttered, not even sure who’d said it. Eyeing a free spot on the balcony, she pushed through the crowd to bag it.
She’d been surprised to see Ryan Walker’s name flash up on her phone earlier that morning. It’d been months since he’d actually initiated a call to her. She got it. He was head over heels in love with Hallie. Paige was happy for him, but they’d been best mates since high school—it wouldn’t kill him to pull himself away from Hallie once in a while to check in. Unfortunately, a catch-up was far from the reason behind his call. His tone had been frantic as he begged her to deliver a message to Jackson.
‘It can’t wait for me to get to the city, and we’ve all agreed that it’d be better for you to tell him in person than for me to call him,’ he’d said.
‘Seriously? I don’t even reach the category of friend for him.’ And the feeling was mutual. ‘There’s got to be someone more … appropriate.’
‘There really isn’t. Please, Paige?’
‘It’s pure luck that I’m in Brisbane for the baptism, you realise that, don’t you?’ Fate was a pain in the arse sometimes.
‘Is that a yes?’
‘Okay.’ It was the code of the outback. If someone needed something from you and you were in a position to assist, then you did it, no questions asked. Especially when it was your best friend. Even if you didn’t want to.
Paige shook her head as she leant against the high bar that formed a barricade to the level below. There were a million things she would’ve preferred to be doing than waiting to speak to Jackson Brady. Her abdominal muscles clenched painfully tight at the message she had to deliver. This was more than just ripping a band-aid off; this was like prying off a cast with only your teeth. Paige scrunched her eyes shut. This was going to break him. And the truth was, she didn’t want to hurt Jackson; he’d always associate her with the devastating news and it would taint whatever friendship they may find in the future.
Ripping her eyes open, she focused on Jackson. She hadn’t seen the guy since before he’d had his hissy fit and stormed off his family’s cattle station, Karilga. The Jackson she knew was a spoilt brat who never took anything seriously and who hit on any girl who crossed his line of sight. She doubted spending the last eight months in the city had changed any of that, even if he did look different. Taking another mouthful of the amber liquid in her schooner, she studied him. It was good to see his well-worn Ariat boots on his feet, but those jeans weren’t work ones—the tear in one of the knees was strategically placed and the lighter wash would stain quickly in the red dirt back home. His black shirt stretched snuggly across his frame, defining the muscle that lingered beneath. She scoffed. Its maintenance probably came from a gym rather than physical labour these days. The shadow of stubble lining his jaw, coupled with the new haircut—shaved sides that left the top and back slightly longer—made him look older; more rugged and, as much as she hated to admit it, handsome.
Paige rolled her eyes. She’d always considered Jackson good looking—not that she’d ever tell anyone, especially Ryan, because she’d never hear the end of it. The problem was the selfish immature shit that would pour out of his mouth. Could this break from Karilga have changed him on the inside as much as it had on the outside? The Jackson from before would be wearing a goofy smile and making eyes at the girls in front of him. This version was serious, focused on his guitar and adding vocals during the choruses. Ryan had told Paige stories about musters when Jackson would pull out his instrument and she’d heard he’d been taking lessons from Hallie, but she hadn’t expected him to be this good. How had he gone from mustering cattle in the middle of nowhere to playing on a stage in front of thousands—or at least as many people as were crammed into this place—without breaking a sweat? The guy was a chameleon.
Her phone vibrated with another text from Joy. Hello? Have you found him?
Forcing her eyes not to flick in Jackson’s direction, she tapped out a reply. Yep.
Paige sighed. I want to say he looks like shit … he doesn’t.
The laughing emoji Joy replied with had Paige slipping her phone back in her clutch, but not before she checked the time. She drained her glass. Her family would not be impressed if she stayed out too late tonight. The Bennett family took baptisms very seriously. It’s why she’d had to make the eighteen hundred kilometre trek to the city in the first place. Pity she couldn’t just be FaceTimed into the service. Being the youngest of five siblings and working far away often meant Paige was excused from family get-togethers. It didn’t matter that they’d all grown up in the mining town of Mount Isa, her older siblings had moved away as quickly as they could. Her two sisters lived in the northern suburbs of Brisbane and her brothers lived in Townsville. They were all married with children and what her parents would call respectable careers. They couldn’t wrap their heads around Paige working in the hot outback sun, blisters on her hands and red dust in her face.
But Paige knew the outback was where her heart lay.
As soon as she’d graduated from agricultural college, she’d picked up work at Whitetail Ridge and had been thrilled when Ryan moved onto the neighbouring Karilga Station. They were too far away to see each other regularly, but just knowing he was nearby had been comforting. Even if it had brought Jackson into her life.
A fresh drink was placed in front of her. Her gaze flicked up into the handsome face of a guy in a black button-down shirt shouldering his way to the spot next to her.
‘I noticed you could do with a new one.’
She pushed the schooner back to him. ‘Thanks, but I don’t accept drinks from strangers. Even good-looking ones like you.’
One side of his mouth lifted, showing a single dimple, before he grabbed the beer and downed it. ‘My intentions are good.’
‘I see.’ She took the glass back, sliding her fingers through condensation on the sides.
‘Come with me and watch me buy you the next one.’ Smooth and persistent, two qualities she admired in a bloke. She ducked her head and screwed her nose up, knowing it made her look cute. ‘Any other night, I would take you up on that, but I’m meeting someone for an important conversation and I need a clear head.’
‘It’s just one drink.’
‘It wasn’t the alcohol I was referring to.’
Two dimples. Crazy how attractive dents in cheeks were. She was probably going to regret this later.
‘Well, I’ll be right over there when you’re done.’ He pointed to a group in the back corner.
She watched him go, then turned as the song ended. Jackson stepped back from his microphone at the same time the house lights panned to the audience and his eyes flicked up to connect with hers. He did a double take. She gave him a small wave, unable to hide her smile at his obvious surprise. His shoulders were stiff and, even from this distance, she could see his face was full of questions. A thrill ran through her when his lips turned up into a charming smile. It was good to see him. He was still staring at her when the drummer tapped his sticks together to count them into the next song. Jackson snapped back into action, not missing a beat as far as she could tell, but his gaze kept darting up to her as if checking she wasn’t a mirage. Idiot. They weren’t in the outback now. But in all honesty, the music wasn’t that bad and when the girl next to her vacated her stool, Paige didn’t hesitate to snap it up. She rested her feet on the rail and settled in until she could speak with him.
Or rip his world in half.
On Sale: 06/03/2024