DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Huge massive thanks to Colbalt Librarian, Cindy & Rachel for their beta help, feedback and patience . Also to Ralst for posting and anybody taking the time to read it - much appreciated. By pure coincidence, I started to write this end Dec 08 and the opening & climatic scenes were already laid down and were not influenced by the tragic event & devastation that befell Victoria, Australia in early 2009 - my heartfelt wishes go out to the people of that area. I hope one day to return for another visit.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Dan Taylor always slept soundly. He was normally the first one up on the farm along with his bother-in-law and the last one to bunk down.
But some part of his intuitive subconscious was always alert. As he lay there now, his sleeping brain sensed something that was the dread of most farmers when it was a dry season. The smell of fire.
He woke up with a start. "Christ!" he thought. "The bloody barn!"
"Mayrah!" He shook his wife awake. "Something's on fire!"
She woke and got up quickly with him. He left her to dress and ran to the front door and yanked it open. He stood in shock as he saw it wasn't the barn but the old family house that was alight.
Mayrah appeared behind him and handed him his trousers. He pulled them on and they both left their house.
He ran barefoot over to the drover's house and pulled open the door.
"Everybody get up, the bloody main house is on fire!" he yelled, then turned and left.
Mayrah's brother Darel appeared at his side, out of breath.
"I saw the fire a mile out. Thought I heard a dingo and went to check." Darel said.
They raced over to Dan's truck and got in. It was the longest 1/3 of a mile he'd ever driven and he didn't bother with the road up to the house. He ploughed straight across, and crashed through the fencing as they neared the residence. He saw the rest of the crew, following him in the other trucks.
Dan swerved as he pulled up and they all got out. The heat from the flames was already intense.
"Jesus!" Dan mumbled. There appeared no way for them to get in through the front door. "The bloody wind ain't helping. It's fanning the bloody thing, look at the roof!"
Huge plumes of orange flames shot skywards.
"Mike!" Dan yelled as he and Darel began to scout the perimeter of the house. "Jenny!"
Suddenly, somebody burst from the back door of the house and proceeded to roll in the dirt on the ground.
"Mike!" Dan rushed over. He helped Mike get up and he saw the child in his arms. Her pyjamas were scorched at the back and her skin showed signs of being burnt.
"Take her," Mike thrust the child at Dan. "Jenny's still inside, upstairs." He turned to go back in but Dan grabbed his arm.
"Don't be a bloody fool. You'll never make it!"
"I'm not leaving her, Dan, that's my wife and your sister in there." Mike wrenched his arm away and shielded his face, as he went back into the inferno.
Mayrah took the child from Dan.
He looked at the group of men now gathered, trying to douse the fire. He looked at the house once more and then the child and felt torn. He would be the only family she had if Mike didn't make it out with Jenny, but he thought if there was a chance of getting them both out he should take it. He went to go forward but Darel held his arm.
Dan looked at his smiling face, his dark aboriginal skin shining from the reflection of the fire.
"You wait here mate, I'll go." He had seen the anguish on Dan's face and knew the dilemma he faced.
Before he could stop him, Darel disappeared into the smoke.
"No." Dan cried out.
A few moments later a creaking, cracking rumble was heard and everyone stopped and watched in horror as the roof caved in.
Dan closed his eyes, clenched his fists and sank to his knees. Mayrah knelt beside him and put her hand on her husband's shoulder. He turned to look at her and saw the quiet calm on her face.
He looked at the 3 year old child, clinging to his wife, her eyes wide with fear, flecks of orange reflected in their colour, from the still burning flames. Despite the obvious pain she must be feeling in her back, she didn't cry.
Dan knew she was theirs now.
He lied at the hospital. He said the child was his daughter. As far as the authorities knew, the family had perished in the fire and the other local farm owners backed him up. He wasn't sure if the authorities would let him raise her and he wasn't about to wait to find out. The thought of her going into care was not an option as far as he was concerned.
Dan drove them to their new home. Ben Parr was the adjacent landowner to Mike and Jenny. Shocked at the tragedy, he beat another landowner to buying the land and enlarged his family owned farm, in Victoria, Australia.
He knew Dan Taylor was one of the finest leading foreman there was around and took him on.
"Well, what do you think?" Dan said to Mayrah as they pulled up and looked at the little house that would be theirs.
"Yeah, nice outside."
He smiled. Mayrah was a woman of little words. Most of the aboriginal people were. She preferred outside living to being cooped up inside four walls. The only time she came inside was to cook and sleep beside him.
Their two young sons jumped down from the bed of the truck and made their way into the house.
Dan looked at Mayrah carrying their adoptive daughter.
"Poor little mite hasn't said much has she?" he remarked.
"She doing fine. Just ain't got much to say right now." Mayrah said.
"Going to take after you then." Dan smiled at her.
He held out his arms to his little niece and the child reached for him.
He smiled at her and tweaked her nose and she giggled. She always laughed when he did that. Her large eyes lit up as she smiled.
"Come on then, let's go in and see what room's going to be yours shall we Nikki?" He smiled at her again as he carried her inside.
30 years later.
Dan looked at Nikki sitting next to him in the truck. Her brow was deeply furrowed as she frowned. He knew she wasn't comfortable not wearing her usual work clothes. She much preferred her jeans or shorts to the grey slacks and shirt she was now wearing. Even Dan was finding it difficult not to loosen the tie that seemed intent on strangling him.
But she looked stunning today. She had put on some make up, something she normally didn't bother with and didn't need and he felt himself puff up with pride.
"Why did we have to dress up for this anyway?" Nikki asked.
"Ben wants to make an impression, like we're a professionally run business."
"We are! Who is this guy, a representative of the bloody Queen? He's just a distant relative of Ben's."
"I know but you know how important this is to him, Nikki. It's family. Ben always thought he'd have his own to pass the farm onto. Sadly Marie was too fragile for this life. They never had kids. Not for want of trying but she miscarried too many and the docs said no more attempts. That's why he built that bloody great house of his."
"We all know he has ideas of grandeur. He's like a King needing a bloody heir!"
Ben's original farm had had more houses on it for workers than any other small farm of its kind at the time. He built his large house in the hopes it would be filled with children.
"You can't blame him for that. The Wade family was just the same. They had that land and it was passed down from generation to generation. Your dad was the last in the line. Ben did a decent thing in saving it."
"Things change, Dad. Ben can't expect it not to. Look how much he's had to adapt. Gone from just sheep to cattle, to growing crops as well. And look how long it took him to come round to the idea. How many arguments we had over that one."
Dan smiled. If two people ever butted heads it was Nikki and Ben. Both were as stubborn as one another. He'd lost count of the times Ben had fired her and Nikki had told him to shove it. As mediator, he always managed to get them to come round to some sense of humility and apologies would be made, albeit grudgingly on Nikki's behalf. But Dan was aware that Ben sometimes deliberately goaded her. He actually enjoyed their fights and adored her as much as Dan.
Nikki had learnt from hands on experience how to run the farm. Apart from her schooling she hadn't attained any formal training or qualifications. But she was the best leading hand Ben and Dan had known. And it was Dan that had groomed her. He often felt guilty that her life was this remote and wondered if he should have pushed her more to leave the life and head to the city. He couldn't stand the thought of her ever leaving, though, and was quietly grateful that she had taken to it.
His guilt also extended to other areas in her life. He blamed himself for treating her too much like his sons. He wished he had spent more time treating her like a girl; that perhaps in doing so, she wouldn't be as lonely as she had been. Not having anyone to share her life with. There were plenty of willing men over the years. But Nikki explained to him years ago, it wouldn't have mattered if he'd dressed her in frilly pink frocks when she was little. He wasn't responsible for her preference in partners. It was just who she was.
Mayrah was also a big influence while Nikki was growing up. She would often take Nikki up to her own neck of the woods during the summer breaks from school, in the Northern Territory, and Nikki lived a simple native life. Her cousins, who she looked upon as her brothers, were her play mates and co-conspirators. She did her best to follow them when she was tiny and she had had to learn very quickly about the dangers of wandering off on her own. As she became older, it was something she would do often. For days at a time, surviving on the techniques she had been taught.
Half the time Dan was unaware of her adventures. He stayed working at the farm, and only later discovered about her walkabouts. Mayrah on the other hand never feared. She knew Nikki was smart enough to look after herself.
Primarily the two farms became a large sheep and then cattle station, but even in her early twenties Nikki had seen how other farms had had to adapt. Ben had held out the longest until he finally came round to her way of thinking and began crop growing. It meant that or lose the farm; something he wasn't prepared to do.
"What does this relative do anyway?" Nikki asked.
"He's a crop expert. Agricultural degree and all that. His father has a farm in Britain but there's several boys so Ben offered him to come out here and see what he thinks. Fresh ideas."
"He's coming with his fiancée apparently."
"Bloody hell, how'd Ben wrangle that with immigration?" Nikki exclaimed.
"Well apart from the fact that she'll be the guy's wife at some point, she could easily get a job here in her own right. She's a vet."
"Oh well, sounds like happy families to me. Ben should be over the moon." Nikki mumbled as they pulled up outside Ben's home.
Ben enthusiastically welcomed them into the large hallway.
Nikki shook her head in disbelief at Ben dressed in a three piece suit. It was 102 outside and felt 101 in and he was sweating up a storm. She wasn't sure if it was from the heat or nerves.
At 63, he was still a good looking man. His dark hair had only just started to grey at the sides. His face carried a little fat and his body was stocky, but his height hid the extra pounds. He was always smiling and it reflected in his brown eyes.
"Well, Nikki, didn't realise you could scrub up so nice." Ben teased as he smiled broadly at her.
She ignored him. "What are we having, tea and cucumber sandwiches?"
Dan cleared his throat, letting them both know that this wasn't the appropriate time for them to start one of their pithy exchanges.
"Come on through to the study and meet my " Ben frowned. "He's on my great grandfather's brother's side. Not sure what that makes him?"
"A snot nosed Pom?" Nikki offered and headed towards the study.
Ben stared after her. "She's not used to dressing up is she?" he said to Dan and smiled.
"This better be worth it, or you'll know all about it." Dan said and followed him.
Ben opened the study door and the two people looking at the view out of the window turned around.
"Dan, Nikki, this is Sean Parr and his fiancée, Helen Stewart." They all converged and shook hands.
Nikki was surprised at the woman's hand shake. It was firm and confident and the smile was sensational. She was slim and her shoulder length dark blonde hair appeared streaked with highlights.
"Sean, Helen, this is Dan Taylor my leading foreman, and Nikki Wade, our leading hand, and Dan's right hand man."
Nikki noticed the very causal attire of the two arrivals. Jeans and T-shirts.
As if reading her mind, Helen spoke. "We apologise for our appearance. We didn't realise things would be so formal."
The Scot's accent threw Nikki momentarily, but not for too long.
"We run a very professional business. First impressions count for some people." Nikki said bluntly.
Dan sensed the unease descend on the room and attempted to break it.
"I bet it was a long trip, all the way from the UK?" He held out his hand indicating the chairs in Ben's study."
Helen politely began to talk to him about it as they sat, while Ben went over to his drinks cabinet.
It left Nikki and Sean standing next to each other. She sensed he was trying to think of something to say so she put him out of his misery.
"Shall we sit?" she asked and moved to one of the chairs, leaving him to follow.
"Okay, everybody like a scotch?" Ben asked. He proceeded to hand out glasses with a generous measure in each one.
"So," Ben said as he sat in one of the leather armchairs. It hissed as he plonked his large frame into it. "Any questions?" He aimed this at Sean.
"Well, apart from what you've told me over the last few months and now finally being here, I guess I couldn't really get a grasp of the size of the farm. How do you actually manage to grow the wheat? It appears to be rather arid?"
Ben looked at Nikki to be his spokesperson. She sipped her drink and leant forward, the leather sighing as she moved.
"We have a temperate climate in Victoria. Better than most areas, although at the moment we are experiencing a heatwave, that's why it appears dry. We irrigate. It's rather extensive, thanks to Ben's investment in a very good and expensive system. We still have to rely on rainfall as well, and boring for water. We can dam most of it. It's also used to water the livestock. The plan is to grow more crops on this area of land and move the sheep and cattle to graze further out. We know we have water we can bore for out that way."
"Soil content?" Sean asked.
"Crap." Nikki said.
"That's where your expertise comes in." Ben added.
"It does get very dry out here. Soil erosion and salinity are problems and low soil fertility." Nikki continued.
"So you use superphosphate and nitrogen?" Sean asked.
Ben, Nikki and Dan all nodded.
"Interesting." Sean said thoughtfully.
"What about you, Helen? Any questions?" Dan asked this time.
"How do you manage the livestock?" she answered.
"We either ride out and check or take the trucks. We can drop feed and we can round up the sheep for shearing and cattle for milking. We have issues with predators on the sheep, namely Dingos. But we keep a watchful eye." Dan smiled at her.
"Think you're up for looking after our livestocks well being?" Ben said.
Nikki frowned and looked at Ben.
"I've asked Helen if she'll help Bill Johnson. The old bugger needs to retire. He's over eighty and can't manage all this anymore. It will be ideal having our own vet on hand." Ben explained.
Nikki saw the sense in it. Bill was ancient.
"I'm looking forward to it.' Helen replied.
"Here, Sean, let me show you the old family album. You certainly have the Parr look. I think I've got a picture of my great grandfather. You'll see the family resemblance."
Ben got up and Sean indulged him, following him over to an extensive book case.
Dan raised his empty class at Nikki and Helen and they both nodded in agreement that a drop more scotch would do nicely. He smiled and took their glasses.
Nikki noticed Helen trying to stifle a yawn with her hand. "Long trip?" she asked.
Helen nodded. "Sorry, was trying not to look as though I was bored. Yes, a long trip. We arrived yesterday evening. The time difference is quite something. We'd normally be in bed right now." She tried to stifle yet another yawn as Dan handed her the scotch.
"How is the house?" Dan asked. He knew they were going to be living in the original Parr family home.
"It's lovely. Just how I imagined. It has a real family sense to it."
"You come from a large family?" Dan asked.
"No. There was just me and my dad. My mum died when I was very young."
"Oh." Dan sipped his drink.
"What about you?" Helen asked politely.
"Me and the missus have three. Nikki here and two older boys." Dan told her.
Helen frowned. She remembered the introduction and their last names had been different. She assumed Nikki was married. And she was also unable to see the resemblance between father and daughter. Dan was blue eyed and his hair a light sandy colour, thinning slightly but not showing any signs of grey. He was tall and carried a slight paunch to his gut, but it was difficult to place his age and she estimated early sixties. Helen assumed that as there appeared to be no resemblance, it meant Nikki took after her mother.
"Do you have family, Nikki?" Helen asked.
Nikki saw the inquisitive look on Helen's face. She sipped her scotch before answering.
"No. I'm not married. Dan is actually my uncle. He raised me when my parents died when I was three."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"No need to be. Dan and Mayrah are the only parents I've ever really known." Nikki smiled.
They turned as Ben and Sean broke out in a loud burst of laughter.
"Sean reckons my old grandmother looks just like his father. Moustache and all!" Ben informed them. He made his way back over to his chair and Sean sat on the arm of Helen's.
"How 'bout we give you a tour of the place on Monday?" Ben suggested. "Have another day tomorrow to get over the jet lag. Nikki can show you around."
Nikki half raised her glass to her mouth then lowered it.
"I'm running a farm, Ben, not a bloody tourist attraction!" She was annoyed at his suggestion. There were plenty of other farm hands that were capable.
Ben looked at her. "But you know this place better than anyone. Me and Dan will be going over to Banner's farm. He's got some sheep he wants to sell."
"It's not a problem if Nikki is busy. I'm sure we can find our way around." Helen said dismissively of Nikki's comment.
Nikki narrowed her eyes. Helen's comment appeared aggressive, although it was quietly said and Nikki wasn't sure if she was being goaded by the woman.
"No, no," Ben said. "Nikki can do it." he assured her.
Nikki stood up. "Well, if that's the meeting done with, I have work to do today." She raised an eyebrow in Ben's direction.
"Oh, okay. Perhaps we'll all meet up again Tuesday and discuss the new wheat crop and the area we want to grow it in. See what you think, Sean, when Nikki gives you the tour." Ben suggested.
Dan quickly downed the last of his scotch and stood up. Helen and Sean also stood and they all proceeded to shake hands once again.
"It was nice to meet you. I look forward to the tour." Helen said as she held Nikki's gaze and shook her hand.
It was a defiant look, Nikki thought. She reciprocated. "I'll ride up at 5.30am. Be ready."
They both sensed the confrontational air between them, but nobody else seemed to notice.
"Well, they looked like a nice couple." Dan said as he got into the truck.
"Yeah, bloody marvellous." Nikki mumbled. She was trying to figure out the attraction between Helen and Sean. He was rather boyish, compared to the confident energy that seemed to crackle from Helen. An unusual pairing Nikki pondered.
Helen lay on the bed, stripped to her underwear, feeling the breeze from the ceiling fan. They had stayed a little while longer talking with Ben about family history, before they drove the half mile back to the house. Helen had felt tired and needed to take a nap.
"Well, everybody seems nice." Sean said as he entered from the bathroom. He removed his shirt and jeans and lay down beside Helen.
"Yes." Helen yawned.
"Nikki's certainly a stunning looking woman." He remarked.
"I guess so. I suppose you would notice." Helen smiled at him.
"Hard not to. Can't believe she's the leading hand. Must drive most of the blokes out here mad."
"I would suspect her manners do too. She's very " Helen thought for a moment. "Blunt."
"Well, I'm sure that's a small price to pay."
Helen looked at him. "Do I detect a slight crush already? She's not married you know."
"Really?" Sean teased her with his enthusiasm at the news. "No, you know there's only one woman for me." He smiled and pulled Helen towards him. "Not jealous are you, that I find her attractive?"
"Well, as she is, I'd be more worried if you didn't!"
Sean laughed and kissed her. Helen cuddled into his side and recalled the dark hair and brown eyes of the woman they were discussing. She clearly remembered turning from the view of the study window at hearing them enter, and being surprised by the beauty of the tall slim woman standing between Ben and Dan. She was certainly striking to look at along with a brooding, forceful energy. Her smile was warm and the lilting Australian accent was fetching.
Helen yawned again and saw Sean had fallen asleep. Resting her arm across his waist, she forgot her thoughts as sleep quickly claimed her.
Nikki arrived at the old Parr house on Monday morning at 5.30am. Her own little house was only two miles away and she had ridden over on Charlie, her favourite horse. After removing his saddle, she left him in the small corral by the barn.
She walked to the house, noticed one of the picket fence posts needed replacing and made a mental note of it. She stepped up onto the porch and knocked on the door. A few moments later Sean opened it.
"Morning, Nikki," He smiled as he greeted her. "Come on in." He stepped aside and Nikki entered.
"Helen's not ready yet I'm afraid. My girl's not a morning person. Never on time. She'd be late to her own funeral."
"Hmmm." was all Nikki said. She actually wondered if Helen was being deliberately slow in getting ready, after their last exchange.
"Would you like some coffee?" Sean asked.
Nikki pondered for a moment, her irritation rising. She had things to do and she just wanted to get the day going. But it seemed it was out of her hands at this moment. She took a deep breath.
"Yeah, okay." Nikki slumped in one of the armchairs. "Thought you Poms were all tea drinkers?"
"Helen doesn't drink tea. She starts her day with coffee. Only thing that makes her human." He headed to the kitchen.
Nikki tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair. She heard a creak and looked in the direction of the stairs. Helen was making her way slowly down, buttoning up her shirt as she did so.
Nikki watched her. Helen still looked half asleep and unaware that she was there. Her hair was messy and her expression tight. Even with no make up, she looked extremely attractive. She tucked her shirt into her jeans.
"Good morning." Nikki said.
Helen looked up and saw her. "Morning." she mumbled.
Sean was right, Nikki thought. Helen definitely wasn't a morning person. Sean appeared and handed them both mugs of coffee and kissed Helen quickly on the lips.
Helen sat on the sofa holding her mug in her hands. "Jesus, this is an ungodly hour." she said.
Nikki sipped her coffee. "How do you cope if you get an early morning emergency call from a farmer, about a sick animal?"
Helen leant back and closed her eyes. "Well, depending on whether I have time for coffee, depends on whether I'm pissed off enough to save the animal or just put it to sleep."
Nikki arched an eyebrow at the confession. Helen opened her eyes again.
"Shame I can't get away with it, with people." Helen said and drank some more coffee.
Nikki laughed and saw her reaction surprised Helen. "I feel the same way sometimes."
Helen began to smile. They all sat quietly for a moment, drinking.
"Okay, that's better." Helen announced. Sean took all their mugs back to the kitchen.
"You've got him well trained." Nikki commented.
"He's dragged me half way round the world. I reckon I've got a good two years of IOU to go." Helen stood up and went to get her boots.
Outside, Sean handed Nikki the keys to the pickup.
"I'll let you do the honours," he said.
"This is extraordinary!" Sean constantly repeated the statement as they drove. "I can't get over the the sheer vastness of the farm. Compared to this, our farm back home would be just someone's back garden here."
He shook his head again in disbelief. "How many workers do you have?"
"Not as many as you think right now. Come harvest time, we'll have drovers, seasonal bods that will help. We'll have a few extra for the shearing but we try and cope, to keep costs down. In a few weeks we have a shearing competition in the local town, just the local farms. Some non locals come in for it and we'll pick from those."
"Really?" Sean said. "Not blowing my own trumpet, but I won a few shearing competitions myself when I was younger. Our farm is actually sheep, but I went more into agriculture."
"You should let Ben know. Good way for you to get to know the local farmers and they like new competitors. They haven't been beaten in a while."
"Oh, who's the current champ?" Sean asked.
Nikki just smiled. "Somebody local."
Nikki stopped after a while and they got out of the truck to inspect the current crop. Sean scooped up some soil and rubbed it between his fingers. He walked along a row, gently fondling the young shafts of wheat.
Helen turned to look at Nikki and saw she had closed her eyes and was smiling.
"Listen." Nikki said softly.
Helen was stunned that Nikki knew she was watching her.
"I can't hear anything." Helen said. There was no discernable noise as far as she was concerned.
"You're not listening. Close your eyes." Nikki continued speaking softly.
Helen thought it an odd request, but closed her eyes anyway. She stood for a few moments then became aware of a faint sound. There was no breeze, but she heard the movement of the wheat, a faint whispering, as though the crop were talking to each other in a hushed conversation.
"I hear it." Helen said quietly and smiled. She opened her eyes to see Nikki smiling at her.
"It has to be a perfectly still day like today." Nikki said.
Sean made his way over. "Everything looks great."
"What else do you want to see?" Nikki asked.
"Whatever you have time for."
"Okay, I'll take you to see the equipment, water supply. The whole kit and caboodle."
"Are you sure we're not keeping you from your work?" Helen asked.
"Ben's paying me for my time and his request was to give you the tour." Nikki answered.
It was lunchtime when Nikki dropped them back at the house.
"Do you want to come in for lunch?" Helen asked.
"No, but thanks anyway. I have stuff to do. Ben and Dan should be back shortly, if you want to discuss what you've seen today, Sean." Nikki said.
"Okay." Sean answered.
"I believe Bill Johnson is paying a visit tomorrow?" Nikki looked at Helen.
"Yes, I'm looking forward to meeting him."
Nikki nodded and before she headed off to get Charlie, she smiled at them both.
"Welcome to our part of the world, by the way." She turned and walked away.
Sean left early with Dan to go out on the farm again and Helen had the morning to herself before her meeting with Bill Johnson. She made her way to the kitchen and found the coffee still warm, so poured herself a mug and went to the living room.
As she went to sit down, she heard a noise out the front and put her mug down on the coffee table and went to investigate.
Helen saw Nikki in the garden through the door and slowly opened it, stepping out on the porch.
She stood watching her working on one of the fence posts. Nikki wore a white muscle shirt, exposing her shoulders and her midriff. Her shorts were tight and her bush hat was pushed back on her head. Work boots protected her feet, while heavy duty gloves protected her hands.
Helen watched her grab the post and pull it, back and forth, to loosen it from its hole in the ground. Then she raised her leg against it for more leverage. Helen noticed the taut thigh muscle, straining at the exertion and that Nikki's arms were also toned.
Nikki took off her hat and wiped the back of her hand across her brow. Her hair was damp and dripping with sweat.
Without checking to see if there was an audience, she pulled the muscle shirt over her head, and doused it with the hose.
Her shoulders muscles rippled as she wrung it out and Helen noticed the discolouration on the right shoulder blade. Helen realised it was a scar. Possibly a burn.
Leaning forward, Nikki held the hose at her neck and let the water fall down over her back and chest, soaking her bra. Then she pulled the damp shirt back over her head and carried on loosening the post.
Helen smiled and went back inside before emerging with a glass of cold orange juice.
"Here," she said as she approached. Nikki turned to look at her. "You look as though you could do with cooling off."
"Oh, thanks." Nikki took the glass, holding it in an oversize glove.
Nikki tilted her head back, closed her eyes and proceeded to down the drink. Helen watched a small trickle of orange juice escape from the side of her mouth and edge its way slowly down her chin. It hung there as a tiny droplet, before falling onto her chest, and Helen saw the faint orange colour, spread out on the fabric of her shirt, as it left a small stain.
Helen now found herself gazing at Nikki's throat, watching the action as she swallowed gulp after gulp. The closed eyes caught her attention next, as she noticed the long dark eyelashes.
Nikki finished the drink and opened her eyes, wiping her mouth across her arm.
"Thanks." She offered the glass back to Helen.
Helen stared at the brown eyes unaware that she was supposed to take the glass. Nikki thrust it a little closer.
"Oh, sorry," Helen felt herself blush. "Would you like some more?"
"No, I'm fine thanks."
Nikki turned back to her task and Helen was relieved that Nikki hadn't noticed her staring at her. Even drenched with sweat and wearing scrappy work clothes, Helen thought Nikki was, without doubt, a gorgeous looking woman.
"Would you like some help?" Helen asked.
"If you want." Nikki stopped again. "I just want to get this post out and put that new one in." Nikki nodded at a new one lying on the ground.
"No problem. Let me get some gloves."
Between them they got the job done despite the rising heat.
"Fancy something to eat?" Helen asked. "I can make us some breakfast."
"If you've got time." Nikki said.
"I'm not meeting Bill until lunchtime. Come on in."
Nikki followed Helen into the kitchen.
"What would you like?"
"Eggs, scrambled will be fine."
Helen set about making the eggs and Nikki found the orange juice in the fridge.
"When you need more supplies, let Ben know. He can arrange someone to go into town and get it."
"That's great," Helen said. "But I wouldn't mind going myself. Is it far?"
"No, not really. Charlton's a nice town. All the amenities."
Helen dished up their eggs and Nikki took her plate and orange. "Want to sit outside on the porch, if you're not too hot?"
Helen nodded. They sat quietly ingesting their breakfast.
"I noticed a scar on your back earlier. It looked like a burn?"
Nikki sipped her orange. "Yes. My parents died in a house fire. My real dad got me out and went back for my mother. Mayrah's brother also went to help rescue her. None of them made it."
"I'm sorry. I didn't realise that's how your parents had died."
Nikki saw the genuine look of shock on Helen's face.
"Thank you. Ben bought my dad's farm. He hadn't left a will, so it went on the market. I guess in essence I'm carrying on the Wade legacy. I just don't own it."
"Didn't you receive an inheritance from the sale?"
"There was some, but most of it went to pay off debts. I have a little nest egg from what was left. Something for a rainy day."
"Would you like your own land?" Helen asked.
"I guess that's everybody dream, but it's not as romantic as it sounds. But I'm sure you know that. Its hard work; long hours. Ben's lucky, he's survived where others haven't. Years ago, the farms here were a lot smaller and owned by many families. Now the farms are larger and owned by a select few. Ben's had luck on his side, except in one area. No one to leave all this to. I think he's hoping Sean will become the heir apparent."
"Do you think Sean would want to take all this on?" Nikki asked.
"It's a romantic notion as you said. I think he's very willing to prove he's worthy of the task."
"And you? Could you see yourself here?"
Helen exhaled. "I'm not sure if it's too early to say. But after only a few days, I feel incredibly attached already. It's weird. I can't tell if it's the excitement of being here, or something more intrinsic; like I'm meant to be here. I suppose that sounds all rather silly." she smiled.
"No, not at all. I've heard that before. Visitors have a sense of home sometimes. They can't explain the feeling. It just is."
Helen nodded in agreement. "Have you ever been out of Australia?" she asked.
"Ben sent me to New Zealand once, years ago to visit a sheep farm. And I've been to Tasmania. There's so many places to holiday here. Cairns, Cook Islands. I'd like to visit the UK. Like most people over here, that's where the Wades originally came from. So maybe one day."
"I can't imagine you'd need to leave Australia to travel. The place is so huge, too much to see in one lifetime."
Nikki smiled and nodded.
"Is Bill going to ride out with you, or take the truck do you know?" Nikki asked.
"I don't know. I assumed truck. Although riding out sounds nice."
"You ride?" Nikki smiled. "Then that's the best way to see it. But if Bill suggests it, convince him to take the truck. He's over eighty and a little fragile, but he's a stubborn old sod. If you say you don't ride, then he'll actually be relieved."
Helen laughed. "No problem."
"Perhaps in a couple of days, I'll ride out with you, if you and Sean would like to see the livestock on horseback?"
"Okay. Right, I'd better be off. Have fun will Bill. He's a great character, full of stories."
Nikki picked up her hat and plopped it back on her head and headed down the path. Helen sat on the steps and watched her as she swung up onto Charlie's back. Nikki gave Helen a small wave before she turned and trotted away.
Helen raised her hand and smiled. She sat and watched until Nikki was just a speck.
It was several days later before Nikki contacted Helen about checking on the livestock. They made arrangements and Nikki saddled up a horse for Helen.
"This is Trigger. He can be a bit frisky, but he's alright. Just let him know who's boss."
Helen patted him on the neck and spoke softly to him. Nikki handed Helen a water bottle and mounted up onto Charlie.
"Sean didn't want to come?" Nikki asked, as Helen swung up onto Trigger's back.
"No, he's not much of a rider," Helen said as she made sure her feet were in the stirrups.
Nikki sniggered. "Yeah, I've heard that about English blokes."
Helen looked at her, seeing the grin and smiled. "I guess Australian men are better then?" She arched an eyebrow.
Nikki looked at her out of the corner of her eye. "I really wouldn't know," before urging Charlie to turn right and canter off.
Helen was momentarily puzzled and encouraged Trigger to catch up.
They rode for some time, stopping to check on the scattered herd. Helen looked for any sign of injury among the cattle, but overall they appeared healthy.
Pausing to stop for some water, they sat atop their horses and drank from their water bottles.
Nikki glanced over at Helen beside her. The bush hat suited her, Nikki thought, and she was a very competent rider. She saw Helen's eyes take in the surrounding scenery. She had removed her sunglasses, to wipe her face and Nikki saw how the sunlight made them appear green, almost blue in colour.
Nikki sipped some more of her water and noticed Helen's shirt gapping a little at the top buttons. It allowed her a view of a breast inside, rising and falling gently as Helen breathed.
"This is certainly stunning out here." Helen remarked. She turned to look at Nikki and was surprised to see her looking at her, although she couldn't see her eyes behind her shades.
"You're lucky to have this as your playground." Helen smiled.
Realising Helen was speaking, broke Nikki from her gaze.
"Sorry?" Nikki said.
"The view, out here?" Helen said again.
Nikki cleared her throat. "Oh yes, the scenery is certainly spectacular." She drank some more water. "Especially from where I'm sitting." she added and smiled to herself.
Helen assumed they were talking about the same thing.
"It gets better further out, too. My parent's old house is out that way. That's where we will probably move the livestock."
"How much further?" Helen inquired.
"Couple of hours on horse back."
"That would be a nice trek one day."
"What about today? Everything looks fine here, if Sean won't mind you being gone the night? By the time we get there, it'll be fairly late. But it will give us the chance in the morning to scout around?"
Nikki made the suggestion and expected Helen to say no.
"Why not?" Helen said enthusiastically. "How about provisions?"
"We keep some stuff at the old foreman's and drover's houses. Some of the guys come out this way and use it as a stay over. Just tins and stuff but if you're not afraid of a bit of dirt
"Really not a problem. I'm used to having my arms up to my shoulders in an anatomical part of a cow that I shan't mention. Dirt and dust really isn't an issue." Helen smiled and Nikki laughed.
"Okay, I'll radio in."
"Damn, I wish I had my camera" Helen said once again. She couldn't get over the scenery.
"This will still be here next time." Nikki smiled.
"Is that the farm ahead?" Helen asked.
As they got closer Helen saw the state of the old house. The burnt out remains of what was left. They dismounted and walked towards it.
"This looks like it was a lovely home." Helen commented.
"I guess, I vaguely remember it." Nikki answered.
They made their way round the side and Helen saw some new construction. Only a few uprights and frames, but she could see the shape of the rooms.
"Is someone repairing it to live in it again?"
"Yep. That was the idea. I thought it would make a nice family home again. Kids running around and stuff. But it didn't turn out that way. They weren't interested." Nikki said.
Helen saw the saddened expression on Nikki's face.
"You've been reconstructing?" Helen asked.
"Trying to. It was originally a two storey, but there was no way I could attempt that, that's why I'm going out the back. See," Nikki pointed and Helen saw her enthusiasm return.
"The main living area isn't too bad, and the kitchen and bedrooms would come out this way, along with a couple of bathrooms."
"Has Ben not offered any help?" Helen thought it odd if not.
"He did. But I said that I wanted to do it. I come out here every now and then. Dad, Dan, helped with the new foundation."
"Well, I hope you get it finished. It will be a lovely family home. You never know, the right man might come along again." Helen suggested.
"Nice idea. Just wrong gender." Nikki said and looked directly at Helen.
It took Helen a moment for the revelation to sink in.
"Oh, I see. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have assumed ."
"It's okay. Let's saddle up again and just go over the rise there. You'll probably hate me for showing you." Nikki smiled and walked towards the waiting horses.
"I hate you." Helen smiled at Nikki.
The scenery was spectacular once again and Helen could understand why the Wade family had made this their home, and why Nikki wanted to return some day.
"Hungry?" Nikki asked. Helen nodded. "Okay, let's go and see what's on the menu."
They turned the horses around and made their way back. Trigger decided he wanted to be in front and Helen let him have his own way. Suddenly he reared up violently and Helen just managed to hang on. He continued to buck and Nikki raced along side, trying to grab the halter, but he crashed into Charlie and Charlie reared up as well and Nikki had no choice but to pull him away until he calmed down.
Helen desperately tried to hang on but one foot slipped from the stirrup and she found herself falling sideways off his back. She managed to turn her body before she hit the ground and landed on her ankle. She felt it twist beneath her and the pain shot up her leg.
Trigger ran towards Nikki and she placed Charlie in his path. She grabbed his mane and he calmed down and stopped. She looked over at Helen and saw she was frozen to the spot, staring straight ahead.
Helen stared at the eyes of the snake, swaying four feet away from her. She realised that even at that distance, if it lunged her reaction wouldn't be quick enough and she wouldn't stand a chance. Her heels dug into the earth and her fingers gripped the dirt beneath her as her heartbeat pounded and the adrenaline raced through her body.
Nikki saw the snake and slowly dismounted. At the moment, its focus was Helen and Nikki knew it wasn't sure whether it was in any more danger. Trigger had terrified it and it was looking to either flee or fight.
"Don't move." Nikki said quietly as she gently edged herself closer. "It's a Tiger snake. They rarely bite. But don't give it any reason to."
Nikki knew even the vibration of her boots on the ground was enough to upset it. She found a rock and picked it up. She approached from the side and waited until she was a little closer.
Raising her arm, Nikki loosed the rock and it landed just behind the snake. Startled at a possible attack from behind, it turned in that direction and then to the side and slithered off quickly.
When Nikki was sure it wasn't about to come back, she hurried to Helen and knelt beside her.
"Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
Helen swallowed. "I think I'm going to throw up."
"It's just shock. It'll wear off," Nikki assured her. "Can you stand?"
"My ankle." Helen was now aware of the pain.
"Here," Nikki held out her arms and Helen grabbed her shoulders. "Stand up slowly and see if you can put any weight on it."
As Helen stood and put her foot down, her ankle gave way and she groaned.
"Let's get to the old foreman's house and take a proper look." Nikki whistled for Charlie and he trotted over.
Nikki helped Helen up onto Charlie's saddle then led them over to Trigger. She checked his legs for any signs that the snake might have bitten him and then mounted and led the way back.
With her arm around Nikki's shoulder and Nikki supporting her at the waist, Helen hobbled up onto the tiny porch way and Nikki opened the door.
"Might be a bit untidy in here. Probably not what you're used to." Nikki helped Helen over to an old armchair, and quickly scanned the place to see how untidy it was.
"Just because we come from Britain, doesn't mean we all live like the bloody Queen." Helen said as she eased herself into the chair. "My concern right now is the likelihood of any unwanted visitors in here!"
"Don't worry, this place is regularly used. Not much chance of anything getting too settled. But you still might want to check under the seat on the bog. See a tiny brown spider, run like crazy."
Helen looked at Nikki and wasn't sure if she was joking.
Nikki laughed. "Sorry, not funny under the circumstances." She turned and thought she'd better check the old toilet anyway. She flicked on the light switch, now the daylight had started to fade.
"Okay, let's see if we can get that boot off." Nikki knelt in front of Helen and undid the laces, then eased it off Helen's foot.
Helen grabbed the arms of the chair as a stab of pain shot through her ankle. Nikki slipped off her sock and they saw the small swelling.
"Tell me if this hurts." Nikki asked. She gently rotated the ankle and Helen stiffened into the chair.
"Okay, if it was broken, you wouldn't have stood the pain from me doing that. Your big toe would be halfway up my nose by now."
Helen laughed. "I'd definitely want my camera for that."
"I think you've just sprained it." Nikki smiled and gently started to massage Helen's foot, rubbing it firmly.
Helen looked at Nikki, concentrating on her task, her eyes focused on the foot. Helen noticed her hands and her slender fingers as they moved rhythmically applying a gentle pressure. She found herself mesmerised by them, the motion of them stroking back and forth. It was almost sensual. She was used to Sean massaging her feet in this way, not a women and she felt uncomfortable at the feeling. Especially after what she had discovered about Nikki.
Nikki slid one hand under the leg of Helen's jeans and massaged the calf muscle. She knew this would tighten too at the trauma and the muscle would need to be stimulated to keep it flexible.
"This feels tight." Nikki said, still not looking at Helen.
Helen gripped the arm of the chair, not just from the tightness of her leg, but from the shock that Nikki's hand had moved to that spot. The massaging hand felt good. Too good.
"Really, it's fine. It all feels much better. Thanks." Helen said hurriedly.
Nikki looked up. "Are you sure? We should probably elevate the ankle anyway, to help the swelling." She gently released Helen's foot and found an old wooden chair and cushion, placed it in front of Helen and lifted her foot onto it.
"Thank you," Helen said.
"Okay, let's see what grub we've got." Nikki headed to the kitchen and was pleasantly surprised to see it was clean. Her surprise didn't last long when she saw what was on offer.
"God, these guys are slobs." she said to herself. She picked out the only choices and took the tins back to the lounge.
"Okay, we have a choice of beans, or pork and beans, or spicy beans," Nikki announced. "These guys don't mind their own company."
Helen laughed. "Pork and beans sounds fine."
While the beans heated in a saucepan, Nikki put the horses in the old barn for the night.
She rinsed off the plates and found some bottles of beer.
"Found these, if you don't mind your beer warm." She handed one to Helen.
"Thanks," Helen said. "The only way to drink it."
Nikki slouched down in the other armchair. She untied her boots and pulled them off.
"Think it'll be any bother for the livestock out here?" she asked.
"Everything looks fine. Will you be bringing in any more equipment?"
"Yes. I actually think Ben should look at this area for crop growing, too. My parent's farm was smaller than his, but I think it could be utilised much more than just for sheep. My brother Dan junior says the soil is pretty good."
"Does he farm around here, too?" Helen sipped her beer.
"He's up in the Northern Territory. They mine a lot up there. He's a geologist. My other brother David works with him. Dad tried to get them to come down this way, but its home for them up there. It's Mayrah's birthplace. We would spend time here with Dad and then travel that way when school was out when we were younger. A lot more arid. Hotter and drier than here."
"Sounds like you miss it."
"I do sometimes. That's why I go back every now and then. You and Sean should try and get up there. Alice Springs and Uluru; Ayers Rock. It's quite something to see. The earth is almost a blood red. And you should see the sunset on the Rock. It actually changes colour. It glows this reddish orange. And the view from the top is like nothing else on earth. It's like looking across the whole of it."
Nikki swallowed some beer and closed her eyes, and pictured the place again. Her description was so convincing that Helen actually felt she was there.
"Sounds amazing. I'll mention it to Sean." Helen shivered and Nikki noticed.
"Are you cold?" Nikki got up and went over to the old fireplace. "Can get chilly at night sometimes." She put some old firewood in the grate and set about lighting it. She picked up the rough blanket from the couch and placed it over Helen's lap.
"Might be a bit of delayed shock, too," she suggested. "There's some sleeping bags and blankets. I'll make us up on bed on the floor here by the fire. We took the beds away and the old drovers bunks won't be comfortable or warm out there."
Nikki disappeared to get them. Helen felt uncomfortable at the prospect that Nikki expected them to sleep together on the floor.
With the makeshift bed laid out, Nikki brought them another beer each and lay down on the blankets and supported her head in her hand.
The fire crackled behind her and Helen watched the small orange flames flicker. Their glow appeared a fitting backdrop behind Nikki and the dim lighting highlighted the darkness of her hair and eyes.
Helen took a quick swig from the bottle. 'What is Dreamtime?" she asked.
Nikki was surprised by the question. She huffed. "I'm not sure I can really explain it. It's a spiritual belief for the Native Australians. Different meanings to some tribes. It's very difficult for whites to understand and their perception of it can be a little skewed."
She drank some beer. "Native Australians, they way they lived and moved across the land were, are, the closest thing to mother nature, in culture and the way they survived. Drop a Marine and a native out here in the middle of nowhere and my money would be on the native to arrive safely and better fed than the marine. They have no sense of time, in essence. They tend to live in the now."
Helen sat mesmerised as she listened to Nikki. She spoke softly and her voice conveyed warmth rather than the bluntness Helen was used to. Helen desperately tried to think of something else to say, aware that she was staring at dark chocolate coloured eyes.
Nikki waited for Helen to speak, sensing the sudden awkward silence. She was more than aware that Helen was staring at her and wasn't sure if Helen expected her to carry on talking. She yawned, unexpectedly, and felt tired. She finished the last of her beer.
"Don't know about you, but I'm ready for bed." Nikki got up and took their empty bottles out to the kitchen.
Helen took the opportunity to hobble to the bathroom, now the pain in her ankle had abated.
When she came back, Nikki was stoking the fire.
"Okay, you want to be near the fire?' Nikki asked.
"I'll take the couch. I'm warm enough now. You look as though you need more rest. It'll be cramped for two on the floor." Helen suggested.
"Helen, seriously, it's going to get cold. And that couch isn't going to be comfortable."
Helen interrupted her. "No, it's fine really. I'd rather take the couch." She flinched at the way it sounded.
Nikki shook her head slightly. "I see."
Helen heard the bluntness return.
Nikki looked at her and felt disappointed. "Would you have slept down here, if I hadn't told you I was gay?" She roughly unzipped the two sleeping bags she'd zipped together.
"That has nothing to do with " Helen started to say.
"Oh, please. Don't insult me, Helen. At least be honest enough to admit it!" Nikki glared at her.
Helen felt her own anger rise, but it was a defensive anger at being caught. She went to speak but Nikki beat her to it.
"You think I deliberately lured you out here, is that it? Well don't flatter yourself! For your information, I'm not in the habit of seducing straight women. They have too many bloody hang ups. I thought we might be a good fit as friends, but now my sexuality seems to have put the kybosh on that. You are attractive, I'll admit that much. But that doesn't mean that everytime I see a beautiful woman I just want to fu " Nikki stopped herself. "To get her into bed. Give me some credit."
Nikki handed the sleeping bag to Helen and turned away and climbed into the bag on the floor. She turned and faced the fire. She knew she found Helen very attractive, in fact she was gorgeous and under different circumstances she stopped herself from thinking about it.
Helen closed her eyes. She now felt ashamed. Nikki just wanted a friend and she'd misjudged the situation and motive.
"Nikki, I'm sorry," Helen said, and hoped Nikki would turn around, but she saw her pull the sleeping bag further over her head. "I'd like us to be friends."
There was still no acknowledgement from Nikki. Helen sighed deeply and got into the bag.
Nikki was right, the couch was uncomfortable. An hour later and Helen was still awake, freezing cold. The fire was still going and she saw Nikki had unzipped her bag and had thrown it open due to the heat. She was lying on her back, her arms flung out to the sides.
Helen contemplated for a moment, then gave up. She got out of her bag and made her way over. She knelt down beside Nikki and gently shook her shoulder.
Nikki woke with a jolt and her eyes took in the sight of Helen hovering over her, the sleeping bag around her shoulders. She saw Helen shivering.
"What's up?" She wanted to make Helen ask.
"You're right. I'm bloody freezing. Can I lay down here?"
Nikki couldn't hold out against Helen's discomfort any longer. Her eyes were apologetic and melted Nikki's anger from earlier.
"Come here," she said softly. "Let's put these together again." She sat up and they joined the bags.
"Get in this side, by the fire," Nikki suggested and Helen got in and curled up.
"Thank you." Helen said then started to smile. "Try anything and I'll kick your arse."
Nikki laughed. Helen turned and faced the fire and felt Nikki turn behind her, facing the same way. In no time their body heat and heat from the fire had them roasting.
Nikki started to smile. "Helen?"
"Yes?" Helen replied sleepily.
"You feel good." Nikki said.
Helen tried not to laugh, but she couldn't stop herself. "Shut up. I said I was sorry."
Sometime in the night Nikki woke up and felt a body against her own. She had turned away from the fire and Helen was now curled up behind her, pressed into her back, and Helen's arm rested lazily across her waist. Nikki didn't know whether to remove it, aware that Helen had subconsciously moved and would probably be horrified to discover what she had done; that it wasn't Sean she was cuddling.
Nikki took a chance. "Helen, turn over."
Helen mumbled and did as she was asked without waking. Nikki was grateful it had worked. But she suddenly wished she hadn't. She selfishly wished she had waited, lain awake a while longer, feeling Helen against her. She was surprised at the feeling, the emptiness at the separation.
Don't. She scolded herself. Knowing full well, this would only be a hopeless situation. One she couldn't fall for.
"Hey, how was your trek?" Sean asked as Helen entered the house.
"Fine." Helen smiled.
She and Nikki had woken early and made their way back, rechecking the area and it was now lunchtime. Helen had left Nikki at her house and had just finished putting Trigger up in his stall.
"No problems?" Sean asked. He walked over to her and pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
"None. We should go out there, in the truck. You'd love the scenery. I think Nikki had a good point about growing crops out there." Helen eased off her boots. "I need to take a shower." she said.
Sean followed her to the shower and saw her limp.
"What's wrong with your leg?" He frowned.
"Oh, just a slight misunderstanding with a snake" Helen started to remove her shirt.
"What?" Sean exclaimed.
Helen smiled. "It's okay, my horse was spooked and dumped me on the ground. I just twisted it. It's fine now, just stiff. Luckily Nikki was there to help."
Helen removed her jeans and started on her underwear while Sean stood watching her.
"By the way, one of the other farm hands mentioned something crazy about Nikki. I overhead him say that she's gay. I don't think ."
"She is," Helen interrupted. "She told me herself."
"When? How long have you known?" Sean looked surprised.
"Oh. Everything was okay out there? No problems?"
Helen saw his slightly worried frown.
"Sean, I'm not sure what you're getting at, but if you think there was a motive on her part, then you're completely wrong!" Her voice rose a little with anger.
"Sorry, that was a bit stupid. It's just, you know, you're gorgeous and I dare say Nikki would think so, too."
"I'd stop before you dig a bigger hole." Helen looked at him and thought she saw a sign of insecurity. "Are you worried that I might consider?" She saw him blush.
"Oh, Sean." Helen laughed.
"No, no!" He quickly answered and pulled her naked body against him. "I know my girl likes her men to wear Y-fronts." He smiled.
Helen kissed him quickly. "Then be a good boy and make us some lunch?"
As she stood in the shower Helen took a deep breath. She felt bothered. She remembered feeling her arm across Nikki's waist last night; hearing Nikki softly tell her to turn over. She was grateful at Nikki's gesture and surprised by it. And for some reason that's what bothered Helen.
A couple of days after their ride out, Helen returned from town with some shopping and as she carried the bags to the door, she noticed something left on the porch. She placed the bags down and picked up the book. A note was attached.
"This might help explain. Nikki"
Helen smiled as she saw the book was about Dreamtime.
Their paths crossed occasionally over the next few weeks. Nikki was busy and so was Helen. She found herself accompanying Bill Johnson to some of his other clients as well as keeping an eye on the livestock.
Nikki told Ben about Sean's competition wins and Ben entered him in the upcoming event.
On the day they all went en masse into town. Breakfast was BBQ and there was plenty of it.
"Sean," Ben said as they sat at a large table. "See that guy there? He's going to be some fierce competition. Been runner up the last two years."
Sean looked over and saw the six foot four man he was talking about.
"Who's actually the reigning champion?" Helen asked.
Ben and Dan and the rest of the farm hands at the table all looked at her as though she should know.
"You're sitting right next to her!" Dan answered.
Nikki gave Helen a mischievous grin and carried on eating her breakfast.
"Nikki's not been beaten in five years," Ben added.
"Who knows," Nikki said as she drank some water. "That could all change today. You up for it, Sean?" she dared.
"I'll give it a go." Sean sounded confident.
"Good man!" Ben slapped him on the back.
"Okay, let's see what you Brits are made of. Anything like your cricket team, it'll be a walk over." Nikki challenged again.
"If I recall, our Rugby team beat you for the world title." Sean threw the challenge back.
"Yeah, by a couple of points and a lucky kick," Nikki laughed.
Helen was aware of the psychological game Nikki was playing, goading Sean deliberately.
"Come on children, play nice." Helen said.
Nikki smiled. "Come on champ, let's go and show them how it's done." Nikki stood up and so did Sean and they walked over to the competitor's area to register.
It was another few hours before the serious competition started. Younger age groups went first, and the crowds were enthusiastic in their encouragement.
Finally the big match was announced along with the competitor's names. They all received a cheer, and when Sean was announced as another competitor from Ben's farm, it seemed to spark an added interest, everybody eager to see what the man from Britain could do.
The largest cheer went up for Nikki, as her name was announced and she seemed oblivious to the adulation, choosing to ignore it.
With the rules announced, they each had ten sheep to shear cleanly and with no nicks to the skin.
The eight competitors grabbed their first sheep as the start was given.
Nikki was quick at getting the sheep into position and raced ahead, removing the wool expertly with the shaver. Sean was only in third place after the first one; the two year runner up was looking nervous at the newcomer's ability.
The sweat started to pour, as another blisteringly hot day pounded down on them all.
Shouts of encouragement were given and Ben joined Helen in support of Sean, even though it was obvious that Nikki had it practically sown up.
Sheep number five and all were in the same position. Two competitors were now clearly lagging; the exertion from grabbing the sheep and holding them in position was taking its toll.
Helen watched Nikki closely. She was focused on her task, working quickly and methodically, seemingly unaware of the others. Her face was locked in concentration, a crease in her brow, beads of sweat trickling from her hair line at her temples down the sides of her face. Her arms were also covered in a sheen of perspiration and her T-shirt clung to her back.
Sheep number six and they lost the runner up. He nicked the sheep and lost the shaver, losing valuable time and Sean now raced ahead. With number seven, he and Nikki were neck and neck.
When Nikki grabbed the last sheep, Sean was right there with her and the crowd grew ecstatic. Her supporters were now cheering loudly, while she noticed Helen was the only one encouraging Sean. Even Ben was yelling for her.
Nikki looked over at Sean quickly and in that moment made her decision. She fumbled with the shaver and let it fall from her hand.
"Shit!" she yelled. Her supporters suddenly grew quiet as they watched Sean race ahead removing the wool.
Nikki looked up and saw Helen staring at her, her eyes narrowed. Then she went back to egging Sean on.
Sean finished a good five seconds ahead of Nikki. A large cheer went up and Helen smiled and made her way over and he grabbed her and kissed her.
The men commiserated Nikki then began to shake Sean's hand, some slapping him on the back.
"Not many can beat Nikki," one of them said.
Nikki walked over to a table and picked up a bottle of water. She stood gulping it down, out of breath and saw Helen approach.
"That was quite a show." Helen said.
"We know how to have a good time." Nikki smiled.
Helen stared at her for a moment. "Why did you drop the shaver?"
Nikki lowered the bottle of water from her lips. "My hand was sweating
"You deliberately dropped it."
Nikki recognised Helen's accusing gaze. She slowly nodded.
"Why?" Helen asked.
"If he's to be accepted here, Sean needs to have the respect of the other workers and other farmers. He's just proved he's not some wimp."
Helen smiled. "Thank you."
"He still has a long way to go. But it's a start." Nikki said. "Let's go back over, so we can get our trophies. Mine will be a cup. Sean's will be you."
Nikki saw Helen frown. "Stay close to him. Lots of guys here would love the opportunity."
Nikki shook Sean's hand graciously and everybody mingled after the award ceremony.
As Nikki wandered around talking to people, she found she was never far from a group that included Helen. She discreetly watched at times, unable to hear the conversation, but heard the peals of laughter. Helen's laugh and smile were infectious and it wasn't long before Helen was surrounded by captivated men and women, eager to meet the relative newcomer.
Ben found Nikki talking amongst a small group and signalled that he wanted to speak to her.
"What's up?" Nikki asked.
"I want you to go with Helen next week, to the stock show in Melbourne."
Nikki sighed deeply. "What am I, her babysitter? She can go with Bill."
"Nikki, please, he's an old fart. And for her first time, I'd rather she be with somebody who can look out for her. You're capable of fending off "
"Helen's a big girl, Ben."
"I know, but .do it for me?" He smiled at her.
She didn't answer straight away. "Okay." She sighed again.
He put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a squeeze. "You're a star. You going to celebrate at the pub?"
"No, I'm going to shoot off. It's been a long hot day and I need a shower."
Helen was introduced to so many people, her hand ached from all the hand shaking.
Sean found her and she saw the happy smile on his face.
"Hey, this is great isn't it?" he said. Helen nodded.
"Would you mind if I go with Ben and Dan and all the guys? They're going to the pub."
Helen thought he looked like an excited schoolboy. "Of course not. Go and do some male bonding. I won't wait up."
He pulled her towards him and kissed her, then left. As Helen looked around she couldn't see Nikki anywhere. She saw Dan and made her way over.
"Hi, Helen. What a great day eh? Sean was a hit!" Dan exclaimed.
"Yes, even surprised me," she said. "Have you seen Nikki?"
"She left about an hour ago. Up early this morning and a long day tomorrow, too."
"Oh I thought as you guys were having a lad's night "
"You know, you should go and get her. See if you can convince her to come back out here to the pub."
"Okay, I'll see what she says." It wasn't what Helen had in mind, but at least she knew Nikki was at home.
By the time Helen got to Nikki's, it was dark. The front door was open, and Helen was about to tap on the screen door, when she saw Nikki inside, asleep on the couch. Helen quietly opened the door and stepped in and eased the door closed behind her.
A book was open and rested against Nikki's chest and her legs were stretched out, her feet bare, while classical music softly played in the background. As Helen looked around, she noticed the room was cosily decorated. It had a warm feeling to it. A bookcase bulged with books and Aboriginal art work decorated the walls.
Helen crept forward and saw the cover of the book. Nikki was reading 'The Mayor Of Casterbridge.' She smiled as she looked at her sleeping face.
Nikki woke with a start and Helen jumped and shrieked.
"Shit!" Nikki exclaimed. She sat bolt upright and the book fell to the floor.
"I'm sorry," Helen started to laugh at the startled look on Nikki's face. "I didn't mean to scare you like that."
"I suddenly sensed someone there." Nikki exhaled with relief.
Helen bent down and picked up the book and handed it to her. "A Thomas Hardy fan?"
"And a Samuel Barber fan. Adagio for Strings if I'm not mistaken." Helen said of the music playing.
"Yes. One of my favourites. A very stirring, emotional piece. Seven minutes of sheer musical perfection."
"I wouldn't have figured you for a classical music lover." Helen smiled and sat in an armchair.
"What were you expecting? A rock lover or Melissa Etheridge tempting me to come to her window?" Nikki looked at her. "Would it help if I came with an instruction manual? A guide for those lesbians that don't fit the stereotypical image?"
Helen shook her head but managed to smile. "You really are something else. You love to push, don't you?" She stood up. "That's not what I was implying. I came here to see if you would like dinner. The guys are having a lad's night and I thought you might like a girl's night, but I seem to have interrupted your self imposed solitude. I'll leave you in peace."
"Wait," Nikki got up quickly and gently grabbed Helen's arm to stop her leaving. "Wait. "Sorry. I'd love dinner." Nikki gave her best smile, hoping it would work.
"Okay," Helen relented at the smile. "Let's go to my place ."
"What's wrong with my place? I can whip us up something. You like Thai food?"
Helen looked surprised again.
"Yes, we can also cook. We're not all beer swigging, tool belt wearing pizza lovers." Nikki said.
Helen just looked at her. "You're loving this aren't you?" And she started laughing.
Nikki took her hand. "Come on, I'll let you chop the veggies."
Helen looked at the plate of food Nikki placed in front of her. "This smells fantastic."
"Thai Green curry is my speciality. If you don't like it, I'm fucked. I haven't been shopping. The only other thing I have is vegemite."
Helen threw her head back and laughed. She heard the cork pop as Nikki wrestled it out of the wine bottle and it glugged as she poured it into their glasses. It was a wonderful light golden colour and Helen nosed it before taking a sip.
"Wow, that's a good Chardonnay." She picked up the bottle and looked at the label.
"We make some pretty damn good wines here in Oz." Nikki said. She went over to her CD player and selected another disc.
As she sat down at the table, Melissa Etheridge began to play. Helen raised an eyebrow at her.
"What can I say? A weak moment." Nikki forked some rice and curry into her mouth.
"Hmm, this tastes incredible." Helen said, speaking with her mouth half full. "Would you come over and make it for me and Sean?"
"Sure, does he like spicy stuff?"
"Yes. There's an image that Brits only like food if it's been boiled to death or roasted to oblivion and no seasoning added. In fact, the national dish is now Indian food."
Nikki sipped her wine. "How long have you both been together? If you don't mind me asking."
"Almost three years."
"Just before we came over. We thought it a good idea. We weren't sure about my getting a visa. Ben could sponsor Sean easily as family. I appeared to have more chance as his fiancée. But, as it turned out ."
Nikki stopped eating. "You only got engaged for that reason?"
Helen saw her confused look. "I know it sounds drastic. But I dare say at some point in the future, it would be the inevitable path anyway."
Nikki wasn't convinced. It obviously wasn't a proposal out of love, just one of convenience.
"Inevitable path? Doesn't sound very romantic." Nikki said and continued eating.
Helen shrugged. "Sean said he wasn't going to come unless I did. And I didn't want him to miss such a great opportunity. Ones like this only come along once in a life time, if at all."
They finished the meal and Nikki opened another bottle of wine, as they reposed on the couch.
"I haven't heard this in ages." Helen stated. "Julia Fordham isn't it?" She cocked her head and listened to the song playing.
"Yes, Love Moves In Mysterious Ways. Incredible voice, gorgeous, underrated and should have been bigger than she is."
Helen looked at Nikki sitting beside her; she had closed her eyes and was softly smiling, lost in the lyrics of the song.
Heaven knows, love is just a chance we take. We make plans, but then love demands a leap of faith.
So hold me close, never ever let me go. 'Cos even though we think we know, which way the river flows. That's not the way love goes.
"Why a vet?" Nikki asked as she slowly opened her eyes. She started to pull her feet up under her, but Helen caught her legs and rested them across her lap.
Helen smiled. "You look tired, just relax." She rubbed the top of Nikki's foot. "You want the fluffy, warm, fuzzy version?"
"My pet rabbit died when I was eight and I had an epiphany."
Nikki choked as she sipped her drink. "That's about as warm and fuzzy as my slippers. Try the real reason."
"Damn, I hoped you'd be satisfied with that one." Helen sighed. "My father is a vet. Very domineering. So my fate was sealed. But I actually enjoy it. Animals are very forgiving and easy to ." Helen searched for a suitable description.
"Control?" Nikki offered. "Like people."
"Animals can be very unpredictable, like people, too."
"And easy to manipulate, just like people. But not your father."
Helen swallowed hard.
"So the only other thing you can control is yourself. You don't like being out of your comfort zone?"
Helen didn't answer but reached for the bottle of wine on the floor near her feet. She refilled their glasses.
"What about you? Why the state of semi-exile?" Helen took a large sip of wine.
"You want the warm fuzzy version?" Nikki smiled. Helen pinched her toe. "Ow!" Nikki looked at her pouting. "Not really an exile. I like my own space at times, that's all."
Helen narrowed her eyes. "Hmmm" she murmured.
"What?" Nikki laughed.
Helen saw her brown eyes twinkle, the shape of her mouth when she laughed and smiled.
"I rather suspect that bookcase has a few by Freud." Helen said.
"Ben's asked me to go with you next week to Melbourne. I think he believes you're a fragile little flower that needs protecting. I told him you can take care of yourself, but he insisted."
"Thank you. You don't have to go if you don't want too. I'll let Ben know it's not necessary."
"Actually, I wouldn't mind going. Haven't been in a while." Nikki yawned.
"How long will it take from here?"
"Not long, three hours maybe by truck. We can leave late, stay over and get to the stock show early. Probably stay another night, too. We'll have some negotiating to do." Nikki closed her eyes.
"What's Melbourne like?" Helen sipped her wine.
"It's a nice city. Doesn't have that big feel about it." Nikki's voice trailed off.
Helen sat looking at her then noticed her glass of wine start to list to the side. Helen reached over and gently took it from her hands. She placed both their glasses on the floor, then slowly lifted Nikki's legs from her lap, and placed them back down on the couch. She took the throw off the back of the sofa and knelt down and covered Nikki with it.
She smiled as she watched her sleep. For some reason unknown to Helen, she reached out and softly brushed the hair on Nikki's forehead.
"Good night Nikki." Helen said quietly. She walked over to the door and closed it behind her.
With her eyes still shut, Nikki smiled. "Goodnight Helen," as she heard the door close.
At the shearing competition, Nikki and Dan hired extra hands for the work that would involve long hours; eight hour days of continual shearing. Those hired would arrive the week after the stock show.
Ben's directive to Helen was to look for some new stock; sheep and cattle. He was going to expand and agreed with Nikki that the old Wade farm land needed to be utilised better than it so far had been. He had taken Sean out there and Sean, like Dan junior, agreed the soil was of good quality.
Nikki pulled up at the Parr house in her truck and honked on the horn. Helen and Sean appeared on the porch and Nikki got out of the vehicle.
"Have a fun time." Sean smiled at Helen.
"I'm not sure being surrounded by sheep and cattle can be considered fun," Helen said.
Nikki took Helen's small holdall and put in on the back seat. She stood as Sean kissed Helen deeply and looked down at the ground, uncomfortable that she was interrupting the display of affection.
"See you in a couple of days." Sean smiled at them both and went back into the house.
"Will he cope without you?" Nikki asked, making fun of him. "He looks lost already."
Helen half laughed, knowing Nikki was angling for a reaction. "Surely you know what it's like to miss someone you care about, before they've even left?" She smiled, then opened the door and got into the truck.
"Ouch." Nikki mumbled to herself and smiled at the dig.
Nikki drove for the first half and Helen took over after they stopped for petrol. As they neared Melbourne Nikki took over once more.
"We'll check in at this nice little motel I know. Then dinner?" Nikki looked over at Helen.
Nikki gave Helen the key to her own room and they went their separate ways to settle in.
Helen heard the tap on the door and opened it.
"Ready?" Nikki asked.
Helen stood, surprised. Nikki was smartly dressed; a dark red shirt and black trousers and make-up. Although a simple combination, Helen thought she looked stunning. More so than the first time she saw her.
"Oh, I didn't realise we were dressing up."
"Well, I wouldn't say I'm dressed for royalty. I would have thought this would be classed as casual?" Nikki smiled.
"I guess I'm just used to you in jeans, or short and T shirts. I'm not used to seeing you look so ." Sexy was almost what Helen said, even though in shorts and jeans Helen thought she was anyway. "Smart."
Helen sounded flustered to Nikki and she appeared to be blushing.
"I feel underdressed ."
"It's no problem. We're not going any where fancy. Just a great place for food," Nikki assured her.
"Still, let me attempt to look halfway decent. Do you mind waiting while I change?" Helen asked.
Nikki shrugged. "If it will make you feel better. Or would it help if I changed?"
Helen smiled. "Just five minutes." She grabbed some stuff she'd hung up in the small wardrobe and headed to the bathroom.
Nikki sat on the end of the bed. Five minutes later and there was still no sign of Helen, so she switched on the TV.
Finally fifteen minutes later and Helen emerged, grateful that for some reason she had seen fit to pack a skirt, blouse and shoes.
Nikki's eyes opened wider at the sight and she gripped the TV remote. Helen looked stunning.
"Okay, now I don't feel such a slob compared to you." Helen said smiling.
"Never any chance of that," Nikki managed to say.
As they walked to the truck, Nikki gazed at Helen from behind. She exhaled deeply, before she got in.
Helen chose steak, medium rare, while Nikki chose her favourite sea fish, Barramundi. Helen was intrigued by the choice; she'd never heard of it before. Nikki ordered a Shiraz and they sat talking and drinking the wine as they waited for their food.
As Nikki had said, the restaurant wasn't ostentatious, but the service was warm, friendly and laid back.
When their food arrived, they both moaned with pleasure at their culinary delights.
"Here," Nikki held out her fish laden fork to Helen. "Try this," she said.
Helen leant forward and Nikki fed it to her. Helen moaned again.
"Oh my God, I wish I'd had that now!" She exclaimed. Nikki smiled and fed her some more.
Helen reciprocated with some steak. "I dunno; that's just as good."
Before long, the bottle of wine was almost empty. When the waitress asked if they'd like dessert, Nikki looked at Helen.
"What would you recommend? You seem to know the best thing to order." Helen said.
Nikki turned to the waitress. "Australian Summer Pudding. Extra cream. And two spoons please." She winked and the waitress smiled and left.
"You know this place well?" Helen sipped her wine.
"Pretty much. Mostly for the way they cook the fish. I've never thought to try the steaks."
The pudding arrived, full of berries. As Helen went to pick up a spoon, Nikki snatched it away.
"Wait," she instructed. Nikki dipped a spoon into the dessert. "Okay, close your eyes and open."
Helen arched her eyebrows.
"Trust me. I want you to guess what's in the cream." Nikki held the spoon ready.
Helen did as she was bid. Nikki gently eased the spoon into Helen's mouth and watched as Helen, still with her eyes closed, tasted.
"Oh my ." Helen appeared to slump and opened her eyes. "That is just too much for the senses!" She beckoned with her fingers. "More, give me some more!"
Nikki laughed and spooned her some more. "Can you guess what's in the cream?"
"Hmm," Helen swallowed. "It's a spice, but I feel I should know it. I can't ."
"That's so simple yet so subtle." Helen said.
Nikki fed herself then allowed Helen to have her own spoon, although she wished she could keep feeding her. She loved seeing the reaction on Helen's face.
"Would you like some more wine?' Nikki asked.
"What time do we need to be up?"
"Very early, if we want to see the best at the show."
"Well, perhaps it would be best if I didn't have any more then. You already know I'm not an early riser and with the added affect of alcohol, it will only make it worse."
After saying good night, Nikki flopped onto the bed in her room. She lay there and stared at the ceiling. She stayed still but felt a restless stirring, a need within that wanted company. She turned her head and looked at the phone. One call and the need would be satisfied. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists.
But not tonight. It would be an early start in the morning and satisfying the need she had would take more time than she had right now.
Helen looked half asleep when she opened the door in the morning.
"Here," Nikki smiled and handed her the coffee. "I thought you could do with this. It's extra strong."
"Thank you," Helen mumbled. She took a sip and handed it back, then sat on the bed to put her boots on.
"You eat this early?" Nikki asked.
"Not normally. Coffee usually does it for a while."
"Okay, we'll get some breakfast there, rather than stop on the way."
It was another hot day and the stock show was busy. Most of the time was spent in introductions as Nikki showed Helen around.
Helen quickly sussed out the sellers and made a note of who had the best stock. Her examinations were thorough and everyone seemed impressed by the new vet.
"Nikki!" They both turned to see a tall woman waving, as they continued to walk around. She made her way over and Nikki and the woman embraced
"Hi, Lori." Nikki said.
"Long time no see girl, how you been?"
"Fine, and you?"
"Same as usual." Lori looked at Helen.
"Oh, Lori, this is Helen " Nikki started to say.
"Your new squeeze?" Lori smiled broadly.
"Er, no. Helen's our new vet." Nikki informed her.
"Oh, oops. Sorry," Lori smiled and held out her hand to Helen. "Haven't seen Nikki in a while and especially not accompanied by a woman."
Helen shook her hand and returned the smile. "No problem."
"Thought somebody had finally captured her at last. Don't know what's wrong with women these days, she's been single for far too long. And you both looked all smiley and happy with each other ." Lori explained.
Nikki cleared her throat.
"Time to shut up." Lori said and Helen laughed. "Anyway, me and Bruce and the usual crowd will be at the pub later tonight, if you want to join us in a few."
"Okay, we might see you there." Nikki said.
Helen spoke to Ben via phone and he was more than happy with the information she gave him and overjoyed with her choice of sellers.
After showering and changing, Nikki took Helen to the pub and they met Lori and her husband Bruce.
Helen ached from laughing as the couple kept them both entertained. She also observed Nikki; her laugh was deep and had a sexy element to its sound, but it also affected her eyes; they showed her humour, too.
Nikki went up to the bar to get some more drinks and Lori went to help.
"She's lovely," Lori said. "Are you sure there's nothing going on?"
Nikki almost choked as she sipped her beer, while waiting for the rest. "What makes you say that?"
"Not being funny, but you've both been watching each other all night so far."
"We're just enjoying ourselves. Helen's not she's engaged. We're just friends."
Lori looked at Nikki arching an eyebrow. "Just friends, eh?" She smiled. "If you say so."
Nikki laughed. "You on gaydar patrol or something? Your signal's a bit crap."
"Well, that's a shame. You two are great together. Maybe you should test the water ."
"Lori!" Nikki looked at her and Lori held up her hands.
"Okay, just a thought." She picked up two of the beers and they started to walk back over to the table.
"But I really think you should ," Lori started to say and Nikki glared at her. "Okay, okay. I'll shut up."
Nikki became conscious of the fact that both she and Helen did appear to be looking at each other, but now she put it down to the fact that Lori had planted the idea in her head. She changed to drinking soda as she was driving, which allowed Helen to enjoy a couple more beers and relax.
They eventually left with persuasive invites from Lori and Bruce that they visit again and soon.
As Nikki drove back to the motel, she looked over at Helen and saw she had closed her eyes and appeared to be smiling.
Standing outside the door to Helen's room they said goodnight.
"I've had a wonderful time tonight and yesterday. Your friends were great fun. I'm glad Ben insisted that you accompany me." Helen smiled.
"Then I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. We'll have to do this again."
"Yes, we will." Helen leant forward and pulled Nikki into a hug and kissed her on the cheek.
Nikki was surprised by the gesture but also suddenly excited by it and tried to ignore it.
"What time do you want to leave in the morning?" Helen asked.
"No rush. We deserve a lie in. We can take our time." Nikki said.
"Okay. Night." Helen turned and opened her door and stepped in.
"Night." Nikki stood as Helen smiled and slowly closed the door.
Back in her own room, Nikki felt very restless. She paced for a moment then sat on the edge of the bed. She debated with herself, but only briefly. It had been a while and she knew the urge she felt wouldn't abate. It had only escalated being around Helen, so she gave in to it.
She picked up the phone and dialled the number. The voice that answered, she knew straight away and she smiled.
"Hey, it's me. Just you tonight?" Nikki said. The voice confirmed. "Okay. I'll be there shortly."
Nikki picked up the keys to the truck and headed out the door.
Nikki entered the bar and all eyes turned her way. It was always the same reaction, especially from the regular patrons. And even new ones couldn't help gazing at the tall, dark haired woman making her way to the end of the bar. The regulars always looked hopeful, although none of them had ever been lucky enough, in the past, to entice Nikki to spend the night with them. She'd left a trail of disappointed women.
Nikki slid onto the stool and waited for the owner behind the bar to finish serving.
"The usual?" the woman asked, casually.
"Yes, please." Nikki smiled and held the gaze of the blue eyed blonde. The woman smiled back at her, then turned and brought Nikki a bottle of beer.
"Busy?" Nikki asked.
"It was earlier, but just the usual crowd now. I'll be able to lock up on time." The blue eyes took on an appreciative look.
"No one helping?" Nikki inquired and drank her beer.
"No, they're in Sydney, visiting the folks." The woman winked and went to serve someone else.
Nikki smiled. She sat at the bar the rest of the night, offers to buy her drinks flooding in from all quarters, but she refused politely.
When the bar closed, she went and sat in the truck and then led the car that followed, back to the motel.
Nikki heard a knocking on the door and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She gently removed the arm resting across her waist, got out of bed and pulled on her jeans and t-shirt and opened the door.
Helen was standing there. Nikki yawned and ruffled her hair with her fingers.
"Oh, sorry to wake you. I thought I'd over slept." Helen said smiling. "Do you want to hit the road?"
They both heard the shifting movement behind Nikki and she saw Helen glance over her shoulder and then the look on her face.
Nikki closed the gap of the door. "Okay, give me fifteen minutes. I'll meet you by the truck." Nikki pulled the keys from her jeans and handed them to Helen.
Helen nodded, then turned and left.
Nikki stood in the shower and smiled to herself as she recalled the look on Helen's face at seeing a naked body lying on the bed. She wasn't sure if Helen was shocked or a little jealous.
At least Trish hadn't been fully exposed. The sheet covered the lower half of her body, but it was obvious, as she lay there on her side, what had taken place during the night.
Years ago, the relationship had been serious, or it had been for Nikki. But Trish couldn't stand the fact that Nikki preferred the appeal of farm life, while she preferred the city. Nikki wanted to settle down, live away from the hustle and bustle but Trish didn't want to live in the old house. She wanted Nikki as her partner, not only in her bed, but in the bar. The difference of opinion began to put a strain on their relationship and they argued one weekend, with Nikki returning home after harsh words were spoken. Several days later, Nikki decided to give up the farm and headed back to Melbourne to tell Trish.
When the door to Trish's house was opened by another woman, Nikki was devastated. The unknown female was quickly ushered away and Trish's only explanation was the loneliness she felt, everytime Nikki visited and then left. Even Trish knew it was a lame excuse, but she honestly needed someone to fill the emptiness. Though no one could compare.
Trish was with someone else now and Nikki couldn't remember how many there had been since they split, but Elaine had lasted longer than most. And despite their break up, she still couldn't resist Nikki and Nikki always called her when she was in town. They knew each other; it was an easy intimacy, no strings attached and the sex had always been good.
Nikki dried off quickly and dressed. Her hair was still wet as she made her way over to the bed. She smiled as she saw Trish now lying on her back. She bent down and took a mouthful of breast.
Trish emitted a sleepy moan. She slowly opened her blue eyes, and gripped Nikki's head.
Nikki released the breast and kissed her way up to Trisha's neck, then kissed her mouth.
"I have to go."
"No." Trish whined. "Stay a while longer?"
"When will you be around again?"
"Don't know." Nikki smiled at her.
"Call me when you are?" Trish pleaded.
"Of course." Nikki kissed her again and moved to the door. As she opened it she looked at Trish and grinned.
"By the way, give my love to Elaine."
"Oh, fuck off." Trish grumbled.
Nikki laughed and managed to close the door just in time as a pillow came hurtling towards her.
Helen waited by the truck, on edge. She felt agitated. For some reason, the scene she had just witnessed in Nikki's motel room affected her and she wasn't sure why. Nikki's personal life was no business of hers. As she looked up, she saw Nikki ambling towards her.
Helen felt her stomach suddenly drop as she saw Nikki's friendly smile, her large brown eyes and wet hair. Helen swallowed as her heart thudded and she opened the truck door and climbed in quickly. She sat and waited, clenching her fists. She closed her eyes in an effort to calm herself, but what flashed in her mind was a semi-naked blonde and the image of Nikki, standing in the doorway. Sensuality appeared to ooze from her body; her sleepy eyes, tousled hair, still semi aroused lips; it was all an image of sex.
Nikki opened the door and got behind the wheel and Helen handed her the keys.
"Sleep well?" Nikki asked.
"Yes. And you?" Helen heard the edge in her voice.
Nikki turned to look at her and smiled. "Yes. Very well." She faced forward again and turned the ignition key.
Helen felt inexplicably jealous.
"Do you want to stop for breakfast, or just get on the road and stop later?" Nikki asked.
"I'm not hungry right now. Let's stop later," Helen said. She looked out the passenger window as the truck engine rumbled into life.
Nothing was said for another ten minutes but Helen was too curious not to remain silent.
"Was that your girlfriend?"
Nikki glanced over quickly and smiled. She wondered how long it would take Helen to ask.
"No. That's my ex-girlfriend."
Helen frowned. "Oh. Was she the one ?"
"Yes. Me and Trish remained remain close, every now and then."
"So you don't have a girlfriend right now?"
"Nope. I've had a couple of relationships since we broke up. But they were very brief. Seasonal workers, not around for very long. Not able to stay, that kind of thing."
Helen wondered if it was a habit of Nikki's and was surprised when Nikki answered her thought.
"I try not to get involved with anybody that's not going to be around for long. I've resisted more than I gave in to. You can't get too attached; too emotionally involved. But I can't help being human. I get lonely sometimes, just for somebody else; to feel connected, to feel someone's touch. Does that make sense? Or just make me sound like a sex maniac?" Nikki smiled softly.
"No. It makes you sound lonely." Helen looked at her, finding it hard to believe why any of these other women would ever want to leave. "I guess there's not much oppourtunity to meet other women?"
"It is a little isolating at times. Obviously the cities are more lively. But not really my scene anymore. I was a little wilder when I was younger. Every oppourtunity I got, I came to Melbourne. But then I met Trish."
"How long since you split up?"
"About 4 years ago."
Helen was surprised. Trish must have meant a great deal to Nikki if they had remained close for so long.
"What happened, if you don't mind me asking?"
Nikki took a deep breath. "We wanted different things I guess, in the end. And she met someone else." She said it quietly and Helen heard the hurt.
"More fool her," was on the edge of Helen's tongue, but she didn't say it. Instead she frowned at why these thoughts kept springing to mind.
Shearing time descended upon the farm and the sheep were rounded up. The hours were long and the heatwave continued.
All the farms hands were busy and Nikki and Helen saw each other sporadically. Nikki was actually spending more time with Sean, as they helped out with the shearing.
One night, everybody gathered at the drover's house, a BBQ on the go and beer flowing. Sean and Nikki were the last to arrive, having checked over the equipment and made sure everything was ready to start again in the morning
Helen sat with Ben and Dan and some of the regular farm workers. Sean went over to her and Helen stood up and he kissed her enthusiastically. Helen appeared embarrassed as the guys all started to cheer.
Nikki looked away, unable to stand seeing them so close. She grabbed a bottle of beer and some BBQ and went and sat next to Dave and John, two of the longest serving workers for Ben.
The new shearers were all happily enjoying Ben's generous hospitality, but one of them had been bugging Nikki. Kyle got under her skin. He was a louded mouth show off and a bigot and she wasn't sure if she could stand being around him for the duration. His only recommendation was that he was an excellent shearer.
He sat just a few feet away and talked loudly as usual. Mayrah wandered over, stopped to get a beer and handed it to Dan, before she went to get herself some BBQ.
Nikki noticed Kyle watching her.
"Didn't know they had hired help here. 'Bout the only thing they're good for; fetching beer and food. Hey Abbo, get me some barbie too will ya!" Kyle called out to Mayrah and started to laugh.
A hush fell on the circle of people. Both Dan and Helen saw Nikki react before anybody else.
"Nikki!" Dan called to her but it was too late.
Nikki rose up quickly, like Neptune surfacing from his underwater realm. In two strides she was at Kyle's side. He didn't see the fist that hit him on the side of his jaw. The only thing he knew, was that he was lying on his back staring at the stars in the night sky. Then Nikki's face appeared as she stood over him.
"That woman you're talking to is my mother you piece of shit! And if I ever hear you refer to her that way again, I'll knock your teeth so far down your fucking throat, they'll have to cut a hole in your knee caps, just so you can smile. Got it!"
Kyle nodded his head as she saw the anger on Nikki's face and in her eyes.
"Fortunately for you, we need all the help we can get otherwise I'd kick your arse from here to Darwin. So from now on keep your mouth shut and stay out of my way!"
"I'm sorry." Kyle said, holding his jaw. He was convinced another punch was imminent.
"Yeah, I'm sure you are. But it isn't to me you should be apologising. But I'll pass it on." Nikki signalled in Mayrah's direction. "I don't want you going near her."
Nikki stepped back and walked away. Kyle slowly sat up and noticed everybody else was looking at him. For the rest of the night, he said nothing and was the first one to slip away to the drover's house to get some sleep.
Dan had stood up when he saw Nikki go for Kyle, and Helen, Sean and Ben were also standing. Nikki walked over to Mayrah, who smiled at her and stroked her face to calm her down. Dan joined them.
"You want something to eat?" Dan asked Nikki.
"No, I've lost my appetite. I'm going home." Nikki said.
"Come on love, stay," Dan smiled softly at her. "Don't let the stupid bastard upset you. He's just an idiot."
"I know, but I'm in rough mood now. It'll be better if I just go and let everybody enjoy themselves." Nikki started to walk away.
Helen appeared at Dan's side. "Where's Nikki going?" she asked.
"Home." Dan said.
"Perhaps I should go with her? See if she wants to talk?" Helen suggested.
"I doubt she'll want ." Dan was interrupted by Mayrah.
"Go to her Helen. Too many blokes here. She could do with some female company." Mayrah smiled at her.
Helen walked briskly, as Nikki headed towards the parked trucks.
"Nikki, wait!" Helen called out.
Nikki stopped and turned around.
"Hey," Helen said gently as she caught up with her. "Are you okay?"
"He was an arsehole."
"I know, I should have counted to ten, but he's been winding me up the last couple of days."
"Even so, he deserved it." Helen smiled.
Nikki started to smile. "Yeah, it felt good. Bloody hurt though." She rubbed the knuckles on her right hand.
"Let me see." Helen inspected her hand. Nikki stiffened slightly as Helen rubbed it. She swallowed hard at the feeling, and hoped Helen wouldn't notice her discomfort at being touched.
"Does that hurt?" Helen asked. Nikki shook her head. "You're shaking. You're still upset aren't you?" Helen assumed Nikki's anger was still coursing through her body.
"Yes." Nikki lied.
Helen rubbed her arm in comfort and then continued to gently massage Nikki's hand.
"It's okay, you don't have to do that." Nikki tried to remove her hand, but Helen held on.
"I'm just returning the favour. You did the same for me, remember. My ankle?" Helen looked at her.
"I remember. And look what it led to, we ended up sleeping together." Nikki smiled mischievously.
Helen burst out laughing and playfully slapped her on the arm.
"You want to go for a drive?" Nikki asked.
Helen looked back towards the gathering before she answered. "Yeah, let's get out of here."
Nikki drove the truck out towards the old Wade land and stopped at a rise in the landscape. The moon was high and lit up the surrounding area. They got out and sat on the tailgate of the truck bed.
It was quiet and still. Nikki found a blanket in the cab and laid it across their laps.
Nikki inhaled deeply closing her eyes then let her breath out slowly.
"Feeling better?" Helen asked.
"Much. It's the only thing that does, being out here."
They both heard the animal cry.
"What was that?" Helen said. "It sounds close."
"Just a dingo, looking for a female to mate." Nikki cupped her hands around her mouth and replied to the animal call.
"Is that wise, to encourage it? What about the sheep?"
"I wasn't imitating a female. I just let him know I'm another male and to piss off unless he wants a fight over you." Nikki grinned.
"Thank you for coming to my rescue, I think. I had no idea I was attracting so much interest." Helen shoved against her.
"If only you knew." Nikki thought to herself.
The weeks passed in a continuing blaze of heat. It was draining on all those feeling it. Everything was dry and there were a couple of contained fires that were quashed before they could take hold and ruin the crop. It was now everybody's duty to be careful and look out for any signs that might signal another outbreak.
Helen and Sean returned to the house at the end of their day and showered away the sweat and dirt. Sean lost weight; excess pounds lost to the heat and work on the farm.
Their days started early and finished late. The shearing had ended weeks ago and plans were afoot to plant the next crop on the old Wade land. Just a few acres as an experiment; so the soil had been treated and ploughed in preparation.
Nikki kept her promise of cooking for Sean and Helen at their house, and they returned the favour of inviting her for dinner.
Nikki and Helen's friendship was cemented and they spent more time together, especially as Sean was busier.
Nikki did her best not to show any outward signs of how she felt about Helen. She knew nothing would come of it and settled into that fact.
For Helen, there was a constant nagging feeling. She enjoyed Nikki's company, actively sought it out when she was alone. They shared the same interests, had the same taste, same sense of humour. If Nikki were a man, Helen knew her relationship with Sean would be tested. The nagging was that Nikki wasn't; but a strong attraction was still there. Helen did her best to ignore it.
Nikki needed a break, not only from work but from Helen. Some time away would perhaps loosen the bonds that seemed to be tying them ever closer together. She decided to see Ben about taking some time off.
The front door was open as usual and she made her way into the hallway and over to the study. The door was slightly ajar and she knocked on it.
"Come in." She heard Ben call out.
"Nikki," He had an open book in his hand and smiled when he saw her. "Want a drink?" he asked.
"No thanks. I'm not stopping. I just came to clear with you about taking some time off."
He frowned as he looked at her. "Are you okay? You look a bit tired."
He looked concerned as he slowly walked over to a large wing backed chair that faced toward the large window.
"Yeah, I just need a break, clear my head. Thought I'd go up North. Mum's there at the moment."
His face lit up. "That's sounds like a bloody marvellous idea!" He handed the book to an unseen person sitting in the chair.
"Helen, how would you and Sean like a trip up there? Have a break yourselves? Nikki here knows it well."
Nikki stood in disbelief. She had been totally unaware that Helen was there. She also couldn't believe her luck. Ben seemed intent on unwittingly and constantly throwing her and Helen together.
Helen poked her head round the side of the chair. "I'd love to, but I don't want to intrude on Nikki's time. We already take up enough of it as it is." She smiled at Nikki.
"Nonsense, Nikki would love to show you around, wouldn't you?" Ben smiled at her.
Nikki stood for a moment then laughed to herself at the irony. It seemed there was no escape. She walked over to the other chair and sat down.
"I think I will have a drink, Ben. Scotch, double if you can spare it."
Ben winked at her and went to get the drink.
"I'd be more than happy to show you around," Nikki smiled at Helen. "Both of you." she quickly added.
Arrangements were made for them to take a few days off. Ben also intervened again by arranging with Nikki's brother Dan, to organise a trip to take Sean to the mine he worked for and Sean was extremely thankful for the oppourtunity. He would be gone for a couple of days, but there was plenty that Nikki could show Helen while he was gone.
It was an early start as they flew from Melbourne into Alice Springs.
"Welcome to the Alice." Nikki said to Helen as they made their way down the steps of the plane.
Helen felt the dry heat immediately as it wafted against her face and warmed her skin.
Outside the airport Nikki spotted Dan junior waiting by his truck and sister and brother hugged one another.
"Where's mum?" Nikki asked.
"At home." He smiled. She knew he meant she was in the area of her family.
Everybody slung their small bags in the back of the pick up and jumped into the cab.
Helen and Sean sat in the back, while Nikki sat in the front. She turned to look at them both.
"It's going to be a long drive. But worth it."
Helen wound down the window, her camera ready to take photos. Dan gave a quick tour of Alice Springs and Helen snapped away. Then he headed out on the main highway.
It wasn't long before Sean fell asleep; his head rested on Helen's shoulder. She continued to look out the window, feeling the cool breeze on her face. She closed her eyes for a moment. It didn't take much for the motion of the truck and the quiet voices of those sitting in front to lull her to sleep.
Helen became aware of someone gently squeezing her shoulder. She slowly opened her eyes to see Nikki smiling at her.
"I didn't think you'd want to miss this." Nikki motioned in the direction of the window.
Helen looked to her side and her eyes widened and her mouth fell open at the sight. It looked like an endless crimson sea; the soil was such a red colour it looked as though the earth itself was bleeding. Helen grabbed her camera and clicked away. There was nothing else for miles except straight highway.
"Sean," Helen nudged him. "Wake up, you have to see this."
He opened his eyes and looked out the window. "Oh wow!" he exclaimed.
They drove for a couple more hours and arrived at the settlement. Mayrah was waiting for them and she introduced Helen and Sean to the rest of her family. The welcome was warm and Helen felt so at ease and relaxed she understood immediately Nikki's affinity with the place.
With the introductions taken care of, eating was next on the agenda. The smell of food cooking wafted in the air.
Mayrah encouraged them all to sit and they were served by their hosts. The barbequed meat was the tenderest Helen had ever tasted.
"This is wonderful," Helen said and Nikki knew she meant being here and not just the food.
Sean pointed at a small smouldering fire in the middle of the circle they sat in.
"What's cooking under there?" he asked.
Nikki hesitated. "A delicacy. You don't have to try it if you don't want to, but it's been arranged for your arrival."
"Sounds intriguing." Helen said.
"You could say that." Nikki smiled.
By coincidence, Mayrah went over to the small fire and pushed away the heated ash and picked out the contents.
"What are they?" Sean quietly exclaimed.
"Witchetty grubs." Nikki said.
Mayrah brought them over on a plate and handed them to Nikki. She offered one to Sean. He smiled but waved his hand in dismissal.
"Are you going to wimp out, too?" Nikki asked Helen.
Helen took a deep breath. "I'll try it."
Nikki handed her a grub. "You'll be surprised."
Helen popped it into her mouth. Her eyes widened at the taste. "It tastes like scrambled egg!" She looked at Sean. "Seriously, try it."
He reluctantly took one and chewed it. "You're right, it does."
"Not sure a worm back home would have the same culinary appeal, but these might catch on." Helen said.
Nikki laughed. "Well, maybe not. They're not supposed to be cooked. The idea is to eat them raw. Their protein and water content is what would have been more important for the native Australians especially in such an arid climate as out here. They'd need as much moisture as they could get. Eaten raw they taste of almonds."
Nikki spoke to Mayrah and she nodded then turned and walked away.
"What language was that?" Helen asked, taken by surprise at Nikki speaking it.
Mayrah came back over with some hand made artifacts. The designs and workmanship were remarkable and she handed them to Sean.
"I know what this is," Sean held up the boomerang. "But what's this one?"
"The same thing," Nikki said. "Most people associate the curved design as a typical boomerang. It's primarily used over water, to disable water foul. It's curved like that, so it will return to its owner. These things take some time to make. This one," she picked up the other straighter one, "will be thrown over head, like this." Nikki demonstrated without actually throwing it. "With the right amount of force and accuracy, this will break the legs of a kangaroo and dinner will be on the menu."
Nikki handed it to Helen to look at. "The Roo is then cooked, unskinned; that way all the moisture stays within, while it's cooking. More water content again."
"These are beautiful. Do they make them to sell?" Helen asked as she stroked the wood artifact.
"Yes; major source of tourism in this area. Alice Springs back that way and Ayers Rock that way."
"Who makes them?" Helen asked again.
"Mayrah made these." Nikki answered.
Helen looked at her, then at Mayrah, astounded.
"The artwork that I have in my house? It's all Mayrah's." Nikki added.
Helen recalled the paintings and other hand crafted articles that Nikki had hanging on the walls of her home.
"Can I request a commission; would you make something for me?" Helen asked Mayrah.
"What would you like?" Mayrah smiled.
"I don't care. I can't imagine not liking anything you could make."
Mayrah laughed and held out her hand to Helen. "Come. See what my brother makes."
Helen took her hand and stood up and Nikki and Sean followed.
As the evening wore on, Helen and Sean found themselves in conversation with many members of Mayrah's family. They were eager to hear about Britain and Scotland. In turn they were given a history of the area and more information on the culture.
Dan was going to leave early in the morning with Sean and Mayrah's brother was going to drive Nikki and Helen to the Olgas and Ayers Rock. They were going to camp overnight, to give them plenty of time to spend seeing the rock formations.
As they prepared to sleep now, Helen saw Nikki making up a bed on the ground. She and Sean had been given a tent to sleep in.
"Are you seriously going to sleep out here?" Helen smiled as she asked.
"Look up." Nikki said. Helen did and saw the night sky full of stars. "Can you think of a better image to fall asleep to?"
"No. I can't," Helen said softly.
"Well, if it gets cramped with Sean, you can always come and share with me again. Might have to slap a few bugs off ." Nikki smiled.
Helen was more than tempted. The thought of lying under the stars with Nikki was strongly appealing.
"Anyway, sleep well. I hope your camera has a decent memory chip. You're going to need it tomorrow."
"Night, Nikki." Helen turned and slowly walked away.
Nikki stood watching her. If Sean hadn't been here, Nikki felt sure Helen would have taken her up on her offer.
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