The Australian early summer sun was hot, the air-conditioning unit supplying the cab of the pickup was gasping as Hogan Harrison rolled into a small servicing town in the New South Wales Outback and angled parked in the manner of other vehicles.
Two vehicles down he saw a young blonde struggling and then fail to heave a box on to the tray of her pickup.
He strode over and went to lift the heavyweight for her and his eyes gyrated as she slapped him.
"Gawd why do that?' he bleated.
"Because you leant down to go under my skirt to interfere with me."
She glared at Hogan. "How dare you."
"Bullshit you dried up ungrateful bitch," he said and walked off to buy two steaks pies and a Coke.
He was eating, reading a fly-specked old local newspaper, looking at the 'Work Available' classifieds, when the dried up ungrateful bitch entered, saw him and came over.
"I can't load the gearbox. I've hurt my back. Could you please come out and..."
He said wickedly, "Are you attempting to pick me up and have your way with me?"
"You ignorant Sourpifile!"
Hogan decided not to find out the meaning of Sourpifile but lacked the courage to commit to discovery in case the answer deeply offended him.
He followed her out undetected and as she was standing on the street dabbing her eyes dry he picked up the package manfully, but it was heavier than expected and he almost pulled a back muscle. He lurched forward and dumped it on to the tray of her Holden ute and walked off holding his back just above the above his right hip.
"Omigod, thank you," he heard her call but he didn't look back.
Hogan walked into the offices of the District Guardian and asked to speak to the editor. He was taken upstairs and the dumpy brunette said, "Here's a guy to see you Bruce."
"Does he have an appointment?"
"He didn't say."
"What's his name?"
"He didn't say."
Bruce sighed and thanked the young woman. He looked at Hogan and said, "Good help is so hard to get these days."
Hogan offered: "Shakespeare's mom probably said the same thing and a later version was probably Mae West saying a good one is hard to find."
"The quote attributable to Mae is, 'A hard man is good to find'. Are you here about the sub editor's job?"
"What are you running away from?"
"My ex-wife's lover."
"Oh funny man. Sit down. I was looking down into the street and I saw you gallantly assist my niece Melissa Sutton."
"God she has a great pair of tits."
Bruce Payne said coldly, "I did say she's my niece."
"And a niece is not allowed to possess a great pair of tits?"
Bruce sighed. "Melissa was gang-attacked three years ago but fortunately not penetrated. Three middle-aged women waded in with their handbags and the guys fled. Usually Melissa doesn't allow any male within two feet of her since that very unforgettable day."
"Um I was not being disrespectful of your niece. I was speaking in admiration about nature."
Bruce said it was okay. "I'm Bruce Payne, managing editor. We advertised for a sub editor but drew no responses."
"Hi Bruce. I'm Hogan Harrison and was editor of a community newspaper in Sydney. My divorce has just come through so I've left that fuck hole. I finally caught the guy who I suspected was having his way with my life and kicked him in the nuts, really hard, as you might expect. At a result he lost a testicle and lost my wife's favor and as you might expect he's threatened to do me indescribably injury should he ever find me alone. I've seen him lurking three times since I dealt with him."
"And so you believe we are isolated enough for him not to coming looking for you here."
"He has a business in Parramatta that ties him down and no one in their right mind would call this place an exciting weekend destination."
"Yeah right. Let's talk and give me a look at documentation about your connection with journalism."
An hour later Bruce and Hogan was in a bar celebrating a successful conclusion to talks. Bruce was to start as chief sub editor the next day, working only Monday through to Friday and that suited him fine but at half of his previous salary and that was depressing.
"How will you fill in your weekends?" Bruce asked, sipping a pint of bitter.
"Hunting, hiking, quad bike riding, kayaking on rivers and lakes and horse riding."
"Melissa hires out horses for riding in an ancient rainforest in hills bordering a lake at the back of her farm."
"No thanks. Melissa and I had a shaky start. She thought I was trying to grope her when I bent down to life a heavy box for her."
"Were you attempting that?"
"Mate although I'm from Sydney I don't grope as soon as I meet a woman."
"You could be good for Melissa."
"Oh yeah in what way? Because I don't grope on the first date?"
The editor, who looked to be in his early fifties, grinned. "Because you have a touch of arrogance, appear quick-witted and irreverent, smart-mouthed and have a great smile and you could really now how to stoke a woman, subtly I reckon. It's not natural for a 30-year-old to go without sex for so long."
"No thanks. Melissa doesn't like me. She slapped me."
"I didn't see that. So you did make a heavy pass?"
"You have to be kidding. She's poisonous. It's a crime those great tits are not being caressed."
Late Friday afternoon the ten personnel were in a corner of the public bar of the Imperial Hotel. Hogan had settled in quickly in the three days and the deposed acting chief sub, Mrs Alice Lightfoot, had buried her resentment and had been telling everyone the new chief was a crackerjack. That became apparent when the Thursday issue, Hogan's first as chief sub whose suggestion of design changes had been approved by Bruce, caused everyone to boggle. Their previous pretty unspectacular paper now had a big city look to it and rewritten intros on local stories gave them real zip.
"What-yah doing for grub tonight?" Bruce asked Hogan after downing five beers.
"I told my rooming house landlady I'd eat out as her other four roomers are out tonight. She kissed me for giving her the night off.
"But ma Reilly is pushing seventy-five."
"Give her a break Bruce. She's not forgotten how to kiss and does it quite okay with dentures."
"So something is likely to get going between you and Mrs Reilly?"
"Get fucked Bruce."
"Not tonight young man. Penny won't let me near her when I've been drinking beer or pig's pee as she calls it. How she became an authority on that I have no idea. Well I'm inviting you to dinner. She does plenty of tucker on Friday night because the kids will be home from university but usually they eat out with their friends."
"Okay I'll do that and thanks. It will be a bit of welcome hospitality. I'm ducking over to the chemist's to buy mouth freshener."
"Get a sexy one and you might get lucky."
"Watch it pal. Have respect for your wife."
"Off you bike mate. I offered that comment knowing it would never happen because Penny has refined tastes and so that eliminates you."
They arrived a little noisily to be met at the door by a very attractive woman.
"Just half drunk but I left that half back at the pub in the men's toilets."
"Very funny I'm sure to that rough lot you suffered ridicule for only leaving half-drunk to go to your wife."
"Oh sweetheart. I've brought a guest for dinner, the new guy I told you about. Come forward you shy man and meet the greatest wife in Australia."
"Hi Mrs Payne."
"Good evening. Omigod."
"Do you two know each other?" Bruce slurred.
"No it's just that I thought being a recluse from the city he would be old, look alcoholic and be bald."
"Try him out darling. He might have techniques you've never experienced."
"Don't talk like that Bruce and I mean it. Welcome to our home Hogan; it is Hogan isn't it?"
"Yes ma'am," Hogan said, kissing her cheek. "I'm buying my way in for a meal unannounced with this bottle of gin."
"Oooh you lovely man. Bruce why don't you buy me presents like this?"
"Well I wouldn't because I know for a start you don't like gin."
"Shut up Bruce. Please come in dear man and wash up because I'm ready to serve. Show Hogan the bathroom dear."
"He's seen bathrooms before darling."
"Bruce Mrs Payne is performing admirably as the perfect hostess. Please do as she asks."
"All right, all right. Don't get off your bike."
They had just began eating when the back door opened and a female called, "It's only me, kicking off these fucking tight shoes that are killing my feet."
"Oh Melissa, come in. How lovely of you to call. The kids have been and gone for the night I'm afraid but we have a real gentleman as a dinner guest."
Hogan whispered, "Is this your niece?"
"I don't know any other female called Melissa," Bruce said.
Hogan stood as Melissa entered and he strode over and kissed her on the lips and pulled back and ducked with exquisite timing as her slapping hand whooshed over his bowed heat.
"It would appear an introduction of your two is redundant," Penny said dryly.
"Keep away from me you... you whatever you are."
"I'm Hogan Harrison Miss Knowles. It is such a privileged to meet you again."
"W-why did you kiss me when I didn't even know your name?"
"To prove to Bruce it was bullshit to tell me no guy could get within two feet of you and to test just how kissable your lips were."
"Omigod romance is in the air," trilled Penny but Melissa yelled, "I'm out of here."
She turned only to see Hogan flash around her to close the door and stand against it with his hands outspread.
"Out of my way you woman molester or you're dead."
"I'll half undress you in the struggle to exert my physical superiority," Hogan warned.
Penny came up and took Melissa's hand. "Back off dear. You'll only break nails trying to claw out his eyes. Come to the table and sit while I set a place for you."
"But he's threatening my personal security."
"Well that's one point of view. What I think he's doing is use the male mating ritual used in Sydney."
"I have no intention of mating, now or ever."
"Of course you don't but just remember each day brings a fresh outlook. Come to the table."
Eyeing Hogan Melissa hissed. "You touch me again and you're dead."
"Stop being so polite. I wish to hate you."
"You have great tits."
Aunt Penny didn't have the arm and length strength of her niece, who worked cattle and horses, but she was heavier and as Melissa went to charge her tormentor Penny snaked her arms under the aforementioned tits and pinned Melissa against her, turned and frog marched her to the table.
"Now you two, you're in my house and I want you to both behave and to stop antagonizing one another."
"Hogan's only attempting to tame her," the editor, courageous defender of community rights and freedoms muttered, only to cower into his chair when his wife snarled, "Shut up Bruce or you can sleep with the dog."
That appalled Hogan who'd seen the old and dribbling Blue Heeler. And so when Penny turned to deal with him, Hogan was ready to consider being submissive.
Penny said severely, "Hogan I want you to stop harassing Melissa. You may not be aware but she was severely traumatized in a town park by thugs."
"That was three years ago, according to what I was told," Hogan said. "It's time for Melissa to snap our of it and to resume looking for a husband as nature intended."
"Damn you Hogan," Penny thundered. "You are asking for a severe clip over the ear."
Hogan rose and said, "Good night mate, good night Melissa and please sleep well. Mrs Payne. It's people like you trapping Melissa in her past. Stick your dinner but thanks for your earlier hospitality. Good night."
As he reached the door Penny whined, "Come back Hogan, all's forgiven."
He turned and not smiling gave her something he's never used in anger until now: he gave her the upturned one finger salute.
Just after 3 a.m. Hogan's fucking phone went. He reached to slam it against the far wall but sleepily answered it instead.
"Hogan speaking. Is that you mom?"
"It's Melissa, I can't sleep. Uncle Bruce gave me your number and told me to call you when I'd changed my mind about you or if that were not possible to call sometime and apologize."
There was a pause because Hogan remained silent, although now very wide-awake.
"Say something Hogan."
"Did you whack him for saying that?"
He heard her suck in breath.
"Say something Melissa."
"I love Uncle Bruce and Aunt Penny."
There was a pause.
"I can come and give you something that should make you sleep till at least midday."
He could hear her smothering a laugh. Well that was encouraging.
"No thank you. Would you come here for lunch tomorrow? I need to apologize properly because you've done nothing to me except to try to help me and yet in return I've been horrible to you."
"Will I be safe," Hogan chuckled.
She snapped, "Obviously I've made the wrong decision to invite..."
Hogan rallied quickly. "No you didn't. You're doing the right thing and you know it. Give me the directions to your place."
It was just a small farm, the smallest in the region she'd said as most operations covered tens of thousands of acres and were called stations. In more difficult areas there were stations that had simply been abandoned because of changing weather patterns plus over-stocking. Melissa had said she had 22 horses and fifty-three stud breeding cows and made her best cattle income by selling yearling bulls. The horses were very profitable because she was the only ranch in her area that hired out horses. She had two gay guys helping on the ranch and two women with four others on call to work the horse-riding operation.
Hogan arrived and two guard dogs emerged and watched him silently. He was nervous, thinking they looked hungry.
But Melissa arrived from the house carrying a picnic basket and snapped, "Bruno, Cilla!" and the dogs walked off and into the shade.
"Uncle Bruce told me you rode horses. Is that true?"
"Well you'll have a sore ass if it's not because it's a hour's ride up to where I wish to picnic."
"That's fine. I have my jeans jacket, Akubra and boots with me, knowing we could be doing anything out here in open country."
"What else did you bring?"
Hogan tensed but no way would he back down.
"Condoms just in case."
"You live dangerously Mr Harrison."
"You'll decide the place, day or night and time when you've decided to get lucky."
He saw the faint smile but kept his face set. "Get in after placing that basket in the tray. You'll see a fitted dustproof box that's empty."
"What no gentlemanly attempt to impress me by doing that for me and then opening the door?"
"I have no intention of being told to fuck off you creep."
She laughed. It was the first time Hogan had heard her laugh unrestrained and it was musical and it pierced him. He patted his dick affectionately and thought well it was perhaps fifty-fifty he's sink Mr Ace as he called his dick into Melissa because she ought to be getting used to him by now, aware he didn't back down and more than aware she was on familiar home territory.
She got in and said, "Is this a Ford Falcon?"
"Yeah, I've had it two years. Holdens are crap."
Her eyes shone at the challenge (her year old ute was a Holden) and he leaned over and said, "A hello kiss?"
He still kissed her and kidded himself her lips might have opened slightly.
"Go out on to the track and head inland," she said.
"But we are inland," said the confused guy from the coast.
"Turn right at the gate and head west," she giggled. "God you people think Sydney is the center of the universe."
They came over a brow and Hogan looked down into a slightly green valley, obviously irrigated, and the huge expanse of the U-shaped stables.
"I stable each of my horses separately because they have a hard life being ridden by amateurs over stones along river beds and being ridden two close to trees off defined tracks. My horses know at the end of the day they will be treated queenly by being hosed down and then taken to their own quarters where a mix of fare awaits them in their feed box. Of course they don't receive such pampering on days when they are not ridden."
"So horses, being intelligent, are keen to have riding days?"
"Good boy, who did you say was intelligent?"
"I'm getting to like you Melissa."
"Thanks. You're okay. Did you think of sending flowers to Aunt Penny?"
"Good boy, that gets you back in sweet. She'd invite you to brunch tomorrow to meet the kids before they return to uni (university)."
When they arrived at the stables Hogan checked his phone and played the only message.
He went over to Melissa who introduced him to a really skinny young girl assisting to pack the saddlebags from the picnic basket.
"Here's a chicken sandwich and bottle of mineral water for you Jill as thanks for waiting late to saddle up for us. Have you and Kate sent out nine horses?"
"Thirteen. A party of four arrived without a booking."
"You didn't send anyone up to Hutchings Point did you?"
"No they are all new people free-riding but the point is not market on our maps."
As they rode off Hogan said, "There's was a phone message from your aunt inviting me to brunch tomorrow and thanking me for the flowers and saying I'm a really loving man and I'm just right for you."
"Did you call your aunt this morning?"
"No but I do know exactly how she reacts. I see more of her and my uncle than my parents who have lived up on the Gold Coast for the past four years and have only been back once and that was after my... my..."
"Say it. Say it Melissa."
"After those three guys attempted to fuck me as a group."
"Good girl. Do you visit your parents?"
"Yep I go up twice a year for a short break," Melissa said, her emotions obviously in check, that is if she were actually really worried about having been forced to speak about the incident more emphatically.
"Aunt Penny comes out and stays here whenever I'm away. She grew up on a farm and didn't leave until Uncle Bruce popped the question and two months later they married and settled in town. Fortunately she soon became pregnant because otherwise I think she would have run back home because she was so homesick for the farm, or a piece of dirt as you East Coasters would call it. Fortunately she was able to come out here and after the baby was four months old she returned here and worked with dad than also assisted the builder construct the stables that I urged dad to do, having been to a Hire a Horse outfit down Melbourne way with a small school party of girls."
In the vast area of red dirt pock-marked and even sliced by erosion, unthrifty-looking trees, many of them dead, they gradually climbed to higher ground, not that they was much high ground around as far as eye could see.
They stopped to spell the horses.
"You thought you were Dr Harrison back there pushing to make me say what those guys attempted to do to me and yet you had no idea if that could harm me mentally, right?"
"Um no. Sorry."
"And you are making it your mission to get into my pants?"
Hogan patted his horse's neck wondering what the hell to say. He'd thought of getting there through friendly persuasion plus appealing to her, to feed a need she must be feeling. At no time had he thought about her interrogating him about it.
"Come on, admit it."
"Yep I thought about it... er fulfilling a need."
She cracked her vocal whip. "And whose need is that?"
Gawd if he said her need she'd call him a liar and turn frigid and go right off him.
Hogan went in without a plan. He stepped around his horse and went up and grabbed her by both shoulders.
"For goodness sake Melissa, back off and relax."