Stranded with the Secret Billionaire
Jilted heiress Penny Hindmarsh-Firth sets her broken heart on escaping high-society city life. Instead, she's trapped by floods in the Outback and a handsome stranger on horseback comes to her rescue!
After a betrayal shattered his life, Matt Fraser withdrew from the world—but he can't deny Penny a refuge. The secret billionaire is reluctantly intrigued as the society princess starts proving there's more to her than meets the eye…
The Impeccable english accent had directed Penelope Hindmarsh-Firth twelve hundred kilometres across two states without a problem. From ‘Take the third exit after the Harbour Tunnel’, as Penny had navigated her way out of Sydney, to ‘Continue for two hundred kilometres until you reach the next turn’, as she’d crossed South Australia’s vast inland farming country, the cultured voice hadn’t faltered.
True, the last turn had made Penny uneasy. The accent had told her to proceed for thirty kilometres along the Innawarra Track, but it had hesitated over the pronunciation of Innawarra. Penny had hesitated too. The country around them was beautiful, lush and green from recent rains and dotted with vast stands of river red gums. The road she’d been on had been narrow, but solid and well used.
In contrast, the Innawarra Track looked hardly used. It was rough and deeply rutted.
Penny’s car wasn’t built for rough. She was driving her gorgeous little sports car. Pink. The car had been her father’s engagement gift to her, a joyful signal to the world that Penny had done something he approved of.
That hadn’t lasted. Of course not—when had pleasing her father lasted? Right now she seemed to be doing a whole lot wrong.
She was facing a creek crossing. It had been raining hard up north. She’d heard reports of it on the radio but hadn’t taken much notice. Now, what looked to be a usually dry creek bed was running. She got out of the car, took off her pink sandals and walked across, testing the depth.
Samson was doing no testing. Her little white poodle stood in the back seat and whined, and Penny felt a bit like whining too.
‘It’s okay,’ she told Samson. ‘Look, it only comes up to my ankles, and the nice lady on the satnav says this is the quickest way to Malley’s Corner.’
Samson still whined, but Penny climbed back behind the wheel and steered her little car determinedly through the water. There were stones underneath. It felt solid and the water barely reached the centre of her tyres. So far so good.
Her qualms were growing by the minute.
She’d estimated it’d take her two hours tops to reach Malley’s, but it was already four in the afternoon and the road ahead looked like an obstacle course.
‘If worst comes to worst we can sleep in the car,’ she told Samson. ‘And we’re getting used to worst, right?’
Samson whined again but Penny didn’t. The time for whining was over.
‘Malley’s Corner, here I come,’ she muttered. ‘Floods or not, I’m never turning back.’
Matt Fraser was a man in control. He didn’t depend on luck. Early in life, luck had played him a sour hand and he hadn’t trusted in it since.
When he was twelve, Matt’s mother had taken a job as a farmer’s housekeeper. For Matt, who’d spent his young life tugged from one emotional disaster to another, the farm had seemed heaven and farming had been his life ever since. With only one—admittedly major—hiccup to impede his progress he’d done spectacularly well, but here was another hiccup and it was a big one. He was staring out from his veranda at his massive shearing shed. It was set up for a five a.m. start. His team of crack shearers was ready but his planning had let him down.
He needed to break the news soon, and it wouldn’t be pretty.
Hiring gun shearers was half the trick to success in this business. Over the years Matt had worked hard to make sure he had everything in place to attract the best, and he’d succeeded.
But this afternoon’s phone call had floored him.
‘Sorry, Matt, can’t do. The water’s already cut the Innawarra Track to your north and they’re saying the floodwaters will cut you off from the south by tomorrow. You want to hire me a helicopter? It’s the only alternative.’
A helicopter would cut into his profits from the wool clip but that wouldn’t bother him. It was keeping his shearers happy that was the problem. No matter whose fault it was, an unhappy shed meant he’d slip down the shearers’ roster next year. He’d be stuck with a winter shear rather than the spring shears that kept his flocks in such great shape.
So he needed a chopper, but there were none for hire. The flooding up north had all available helicopters either hauling idiots out of floodwater or, more mundanely, dropping feed to stranded stock.
He should go and tell them now, he thought.
He’d cop a riot.
He had to tell them some time.
Dinner was easy. They had to provide their own. It was only at first smoko tomorrow that the proverbial would hit the fan.
‘They might as well sleep in ignorance,’ he muttered and headed out the back of the sheds to find his horse. Nugget didn’t care about shearing and shearing shed politics. His two kelpies, Reg and Bluey, flew out from under the house the moment they heard the clink of his riding gear. They didn’t care either.
And, for the moment, neither did Matt.
‘Courage to change the things that can be changed, strength to accept those things that can’t be changed and the wisdom to know the difference…’
It was a good mantra. He couldn’t hire a chopper. Shearing would be a surly, ill-tempered disaster but it was tomorrow’s worry.
For now he led Nugget out of the home paddock and whistled the dogs to follow.
He might be in trouble but for now he had every intention of forgetting about it.
She was in so much trouble.
‘You’d think if there were stones at the bottom of one creek there’d be stones at the bottom of every creek.’ She was standing on the far side of the second creek crossing. Samson was still in the car.
Her car was in the middle of the creek.
It wasn’t deep. She’d checked. Once more she’d climbed out of the car and waded through, and it was no deeper than the last.
What she hadn’t figured was that the bottom of this section of the creek was soft, loose sand. Sand that sucked a girl’s tyres down.
Was it her imagination or was the water rising?
She’d checked the important things a girl should know before coming out here—like telephone reception. It was lousy so she’d spent serious money fitting herself out with a satellite phone, but who could she ring? Her father? Dad, come and get me out of a river. He’d swear at her, tell her she was useless and tell his assistant to organize a chopper to bring her home.
That assistant would probably be Brett.
She’d rather burn in hell.
So who? Her friends?
They’d think it was a blast, a joke to be bruited all over the Internet. Penelope Hindmarsh-Firth, indulged daughter of a billionaire, stuck in the outback in her new pink car. A broken engagement. A scandal. Her first ever decision to revolt.
There wasn’t one she would trust not to sell the story to the media.
Her new employer?
She’d tried to sound competent in her phone interview. Maybe it would come to that, but he’d need to come by truck and no truck could reach her by dark.
Samson was watching from the car, whimpering as the water definitely rose.
‘Okay,’ she said wearily. ‘I didn’t much like this car anyway. We have lots of supplies. I have half a kitchen worth of cooking gear and specialist ingredients in those boxes. Let’s get everything unloaded, including you. If no one comes before the car goes under I guess we’re camping here while my father’s engagement gift floats down the river.’
There was a car in the middle of the creek.
A pink car. A tiny sports car. Cute.
Wet. Getting closer to being swept away by the minute.
Of all the dumb…
There was a woman heaving boxes from some sort of luggage rack she’d rigged onto the back. She was hauling them to safety.
A little dog was watching from the riverbank, yapping with anxiety.
Matt reined to a halt and stared incredulously. Reg and Bluey stopped too, quivering with shock, and then hurled themselves down towards what Matt thought must surely be a hallucination. A poodle? They’d never seen such a thing.
The woman in the water turned and saw the two dogs, then ran, trying to launch herself between the killer dogs and her pooch.
She was little and blonde, and her curls twisted to her shoulders. She was wearing a short denim skirt, a bright pink blouse and oversized pink earrings. She was nicely curved—very nicely curved.
Her sunglasses were propped on her head. She looked as if she was dressed for sipping Chardonnay at some beachside café.
She reached the bank, slipped in the soft sand and her crate fell out of her hands.
A teapot fell out and rolled into the water.
‘Samson!’ She hauled herself to her feet, yelling to her poodle, but Reg and Bluey had reached their target.
Matt was too stunned to call them off, but there was no need. His dogs weren’t vicious. This small mutt must look like a lone sheep, needing to be returned to the flock. Rounding up stray sheep was what his dogs did best.
But Matt could almost see what they were thinking as they reached the white bit of fluff, skidded to a halt and started the universal sniffing of both ends. It looks like a sheep but…what…?
He grinned. The troubles of the day took a back seat for the moment and he nudged Nugget forward.
There wasn’t a thing he could do about his shearing problems. What he needed was distraction, and this looked just what the doctor ordered.
She needed a knight on a white charger. This was no white charger, though. The horse was huge and black as night. And the guy on it?
Instead of armour, he wore the almost universal uniform of the farmer. Moleskin pants. A khaki shirt, open at the throat, sleeves rolled to the elbows. A wide Akubra hat. As he edged his horse carefully down the embankment she had the impression of a weathered face, lean, dark, strong. Not so old. In his thirties?
His mouth was curving into a smile. He was laughing? At her?
‘In a spot of bother, ma’am?’
What she would have given to be able to say: No bother—everything’s under control, thank you.
But her car was sinking and Samson was somewhere under his dogs.
‘Yeah,’ she said grimly. ‘I tried to cross but the creek doesn’t have stones in it.’
His lips twitched. ‘How inconsiderate.’
‘The last creek did.’
He put his hands up, as if in surrender. ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ he told her. ‘I dropped stones in the first crossing but not this one. The first floods all the time. This one not so much. There’s a lot of water coming down. I doubt you’d get back over the first crossing now.’
‘You put the stones in…’
She stood and thought about it. She had bare feet—a pair of bright pink sandals had been tossed onto the bank on this side. Obviously she’d waded through first, which was intelligent. Driving into a flooded creek with a sandy base was the opposite.
But now wasn’t the time for judging. The water was rising by the minute. ‘Would you like me to help you get your car out?’
And any hint of belligerence died. ‘Could you? Do you know how?’
‘You have cushions on your passenger seat,’ he said. He’d been checking out the car while they talked. A big car might be a problem but this looked small enough to push, and with the traction of cushions… ‘We could use those.’
‘I see.’ He was still having trouble keeping a straight face. ‘Is he likely to bite my arm off if I use his cushions?’
She glanced to where Reg and Bluey were still warily circling Samson. Samson was wisely standing still. Very still.
‘Are meeting a poodle for the very first time. They won’t take a piece out of him, if that’s what you’re worried about. So Samson won’t take a piece out of me if I borrow his cushion?’
‘No. Please… If you could…’
‘My pleasure, ma’am. I haven’t pushed a pink car out of floodwaters for a very long time.’
And then he got bossy.
He swung himself down from his horse. He didn’t bother tying it up—the assumption, she guessed, was that it’d stay where he left it and the assumption seemed correct. Then he strode out into the water to her car. He removed the cushions, then stooped and wedged them underwater, in front of the back wheels.
‘Rear-wheel drive is useful,’ he told her. ‘Four-wheel drive is better—it’s pretty much essential out here. You didn’t think to borrow something a little more useful before driving off-road?’
‘This is a road.’
‘This is a track,’ he told her.
He was standing almost thigh-deep in water and he was soaked from pushing the cushions into place.
‘I should push,’ she offered.
The lips twitched again. ‘I’m thinking I might just have a bit more muscle. Could you hop in and switch on the ignition? When I tell you to accelerate, go for it. Straight forward, and as soon as you feel the car get a grip, keep going.’
She thought about it for a moment and saw a problem. A big one. ‘Um…’
He paused. ‘Um?’
‘Are there any more creeks?’ she asked, her voice filled with trepidation.
‘Any more creeks where?’
‘Between here and Malley’s Corner.’
‘You’re headed for Malley’s Corner?’
‘Yes.’ She tilted her chin at the note of incredulity in his voice. It was the same incredulity she’d heard from every one of her family and friends.
He paused for a moment. The water level rose an inch.
‘We’ll talk about it later,’ he said curtly. ‘We have minutes to get your car clear before she’s properly swamped. Get in and turn it on.’
‘But are there more creeks?’
‘A dozen or so.’
‘Then I can’t get to Malley’s Corner,’ she wailed. ‘I need to go back the way I came. Can you push me back to the other side?’
‘You want to do a U-turn in the middle of the creek?’
‘No, but I don’t want to be trapped.’
‘I have news for you, lady,’ he told her. ‘You’re already trapped. The only hope we have of getting your car out of this water is to go straight forward and do it now. Get in your car and I’ll push or it’ll be washed away. Move!’
She gave a yelp of fright—and moved.
She was in such a mess.
Actually, if she was honest, she wasn’t in a mess at all. She was perfectly dry. Her little car was on dry land, still drivable. Samson had jumped back up into the passenger seat and was looking around for his cushions. It looked as if she could drive happily away. There were more creeks but for now she was safe.
But she had a cowboy to thank, the guy who’d saved her car—and he was the mess.
Though actually… She should be able to describe him as a mess, she thought. He’d shoved the cushions under her back wheels to get traction and then, as she’d touched the accelerator, he’d put his hands under the back of her car and pushed.
She’d felt the strength of him, the sheer muscle. With the acceleration behind him he’d practically heaved the little car free.
She’d stopped and looked back, and her cowboy—her rescuer—was sprawled full length in the water.
When he stood up he almost looked scary. He was seriously big, he was soaked and he was spitting sand. He did not look happy.
When he reached the bank she backed off a little.
‘Th…thank you,’ she ventured. ‘That was very good of you.’
‘My pleasure, ma’am,’ he said with obvious sarcasm and she winced.
‘All in a day’s work. I’ve heaved stock from bogs before this. Your car’s not much bigger than a decent bull.’ He wiped away some sand and she had a clearer view of his face. He had deep brown eyes set in a strongly boned face. Strength and capability and toughness was written on every inch of him. This wasn’t the sort of guy she ever met in her city life.
‘Do you live round here?’ she managed and he nodded.
‘Over the rise.’
‘Then…I guess that means at least you can go home and have a shower. Look, I really am sorry…’
‘So what will you do?’
‘Go on until I reach the next creek,’ she said in a small voice. ‘Samson and I can sleep in the car if the water doesn’t go down before nightfall. We’ll go on tomorrow.’
‘I start work on Tuesday. I guess it’s just lucky I left myself a day’s leeway.’
Something seemed to be happening on her rescuer’s face. There was a tic right next to his jaw. It was sort of…twitching.
Laughter? No. Exasperation?
‘You’d better follow me,’ he said at last and she blinked.
‘Why? I’m sorry; that doesn’t sound gracious but you’ve done enough. Samson and I will be fine.’
‘For a fortnight?’
‘That’s how long they’re saying before the floodwaters subside.’ He sighed. ‘There’s been rain all over central New South Wales. It’s been dry here, which is why you’ve been lulled into thinking it’s safe to drive, but it’s been raining up north like it hasn’t for years. The water’s pouring into the Murray catchment and all that water’s making its way downstream. Creeks that haven’t seen water for years are starting to fill. If you’d followed the main road you might have made it…’
‘The satnav lady said this way was much shorter,’ she said in a small voice.
‘Then the satnav lady’s a moron,’ he said bluntly. ‘There’s no way you’ll get this little car through to Malley’s Corner and there’s no way you can get back. You’re stuck right here and you’re stuck for a while.’
She stood and stared at him and he gazed right back. He was looking at her as if she were some sort of strange species.
All her careful plans. All her defiance…
This was just what her father expected—Penelope being stupid once again.
She thought of the last appalling tabloid article she’d read before she’d packed and left—her father explaining to the media why the man who’d intended to marry Penny was now marrying Penny’s older half-sister, the gorgeous, clever, talented Felicity.
‘They’re a much more suitable match,’ George had told the journalist. ‘Brett is one in a million. He’s an employee who’s going places and he needs a woman of class to support that. My younger daughter means well, but she’s much more interested in her cakes than in taking care of her man. I’m not sure why we all didn’t see this was a more sensible match to begin with.’
She shook herself, shoving painful memories harshly behind her. No, she wouldn’t be calling her father for help.
‘Is there somewhere I can stay?’ she asked in a small voice.
‘You’re on my land,’ he told her. ‘From here until the next two creek crossings there’s nowhere but Jindalee.’
She looked at his horse and her mind was twisting so much she even thought of offering to buy the thing and ride off into the sunset. Fording rivers on horseback with Samson riding up front.
Um…not. Even if she could ride a horse. Even if she was game to go near it.
‘Do you…do you have a four-wheel drive?’ she asked. ‘Is it possible that a truck or something could get through?’
‘It might,’ he said grudgingly.
She’d been trying to figure a way out, but she thought she saw one. ‘Could you take me on to Malley’s? If you have a truck that can get through we could make it. I could leave my car here and get someone to bring me back to collect it when the water goes down.’
And this is my last chance, she thought desperately, looking into his impassive face. Please.
He gazed at her and she forced herself to meet his gaze calmly, as if her request was totally reasonable—as if asking him to drive for at least four hours over flooded creeks was as minor as hiring a cab.
‘I can pay,’ she added. ‘I mean…I can pay well. Like a good day’s wages…’
‘You have no idea,’ he said and then there was even more silence. Was he considering it?
But finally he shook his head.
‘It’s impossible,’ he told her. ‘I can’t leave the property. I have a team ready to start shearing at dawn and two thousand sheep to be shorn. Nothing’s messing with that.’
‘You could…maybe come back tonight?’
‘In your dreams. The water’s coming up. I could end up trapped at Malley’s Corner with you. I can’t risk sending a couple of my men because I need everyone. So I don’t seem to have a choice and neither do you.’ He sighed. ‘We might as well make the best of it. I’m inviting you home. You and your dog. As long as you don’t get in the way of my shearing team, you’re welcome to stay at Jindalee for as long as the floodwater takes to recede.’