There was something about the colour of the Kimberley sky that gave Free a shiver of joy every time she drove home to Paterson Downs. It was a rare, extraordinary shade of blue. How could anything be so bright, pure and perfect? She memorised the hue, trying to lock it away in her mind so she could reproduce it on canvas. She’d never once succeeded, not in a decade of painting.
Below her ran the Herne River, rimmed with dark red like a sorrowful eye reflecting the world above. Free lined up her phone and snapped three photos, then swiped back to review them. Two were not particularly interesting, but the other had caught a flare of sunlight in the ripple of water over a rock – a strobe-flash on the river’s blue surface. Free climbed the riverbank and hopped back into her car. She sat on the side of the road for a couple of minutes while she uploaded the photo to Instagram and tapped out a caption.
Day 197 of my #Herne365 project. The Herne River on a perfect Kimberley day, with a splash of sunshine. #NoFilter
She got back on the Herne River Road. Oh, that sky! Free gazed at it through the windscreen as she drove, losing herself in the vast, still, cloudless beauty of it above the burnished gorges.
Another blue caught her attention – blue lights flashing in the rear-view mirror.
‘Ohhh,’ said Free. ‘Oh no.’
She checked her speed as she touched the brake. Ninety-seven, and the limit was a hundred along here. She had her seatbelt on – she’d been caught for that before. Not because she deliberately flouted the law; more because she tended to have a head full of things that didn’t include buckling up. Or parking within the lines. She’d been reprimanded for that once, too.
Free pulled over and switched off the engine. She couldn’t bear to sit waiting in the car so she swung open the door and stood on the side of the road, chewing her lip while the officer got out of the police vehicle. He drew nearer, sunglasses on, and it became apparent that, although young, he was enormous – broad-shouldered and of towering height. She shrank against her little white car.
‘Um, hi,’ she called as he came within earshot.
He didn’t speak at first. He approached, coming right up close so she had to tilt her head back to look up at him, heart thumping.
Then he took off his sunglasses and there was a pair of friendly brown eyes. ‘Good afternoon, Miss.’ His voice was warm, and Free relaxed against the car.
‘Did I do something wrong? I’m so sorry.’
‘Not as such. We just noticed your boot’s half-open. You lost something on the road back there.’
‘Oh, crap! I was looking for my camera in the boot a minute ago so I could do a river photo for my Instagram, but then I realised I’d left it at home, so I had to use my phone anyway. I’m doing this picture-a-day project thingy about the river.’
The guy watched her in silence. Oh God, I’m rambling. Free dashed around to check the rear of the car. Sure enough, the boot was partially open, the lid still wobbling slightly. She pushed it wider, reviewing the contents.
He joined her. ‘What is it?’
‘The bride-to-be veil. And – ugh – the drinking straws are gone too.’ She looked up. His caring expression made her feel somehow better again. ‘Oh well. I guess I’ll have to go back and see if I can find them.’
He examined her with those warm, intelligent eyes, and her pulse jumped back up a notch. How could she have failed to notice this guy in Mount Clair before now? Maybe he was from Roeburke, on secondment or whatever they called it.
‘Want some help?’ he asked.
She gave him a grateful smile. ‘Would you? I can’t believe I didn’t shut the boot properly. I’m such a moron.’
‘These things happen,’ he said. ‘I saw a couple of things fly out a few hundred metres back. Hop in the troopy and we’ll see if we can find them.’
‘You’re a legend, Detective —’ She checked his name badge. ‘Kelly.’
‘Constable.’ He grinned. ‘Just call me Finn.’
‘Finn!’ Free was delighted. ‘Like the benevolent Irish giant!’
His smile vanished. ‘What?’
‘You know, the legend of Finn McCool, the kindly Irish giant. I learned about him in Dublin. You’re a giant, and you seem benevolent . . .’
Finn didn’t speak and Free trailed off, hoping she hadn’t offended him. They reached the police 4WD and Finn’s passenger wound down his window.
‘Freya Paterson. I should have known.’
‘Briggsy!’ Free looked between Finn and Sean Briggs, who was not in uniform. ‘Oh! Are you on your way to Quintilla for Tom’s buck’s party?’
‘Yep. Young Kelly here’s my chauffeur, as I plan on responsibly enjoying a few beverages this evening.’ Briggsy winked.
‘Oh my God, this is so funny. I’ve been getting supplies for Willow’s hen’s party. It’s a surprise. Willow didn’t want a hen’s, so we’re springing it on her.’ She hopped into the back seat. ‘Finn said we could have a quick squiz for the stuff I lost.’
Briggsy rolled his eyes. ‘Can’t help yourself, can you, Kelly? Got to rescue a damsel in distress. Make it snappy. I don’t want to be late.’
Finn turned the car around, tyres crunching as he moved back onto the long, straight road. ‘What are we looking for, exactly?’ he asked.
‘A white veil attached to a plastic silver tiara with a Learner’s L on it,’ Free said. ‘And some drinking straws shaped like . . .’ She stopped, realising what she’d been about to say.
Briggsy cast a knowing glance over his shoulder. ‘Novelty drinking straws for a hen’s night? I think I know what we’re looking for.’
Free cringed inwardly, but Finn was trying not to smile.
The veil they found easily. It was caught on a barbed-wire fence, silver plastic glinting in the sunlight and tulle billowing in the strong breeze. Finn pulled over and Free jumped out to untangle it from the metal barbs. She inspected the netting. One big hole and another couple of snags.
‘At least it got stuck on Paterson Downs fencing,’ she said when she was back in the troopy. ‘It’s quite fitting, really. I might even be able to talk Willow into wearing it after I tell her the story.’
But there was no sign of the straws and after a few minutes’ searching, they were obliged to give it up as a lost cause.
‘Some truckie will probably find them stuck to his grille tomorrow,’ said Finn.
‘Oh good Lord, I hope not,’ said Free. ‘I hope they didn’t go into the poor river. And I hope a child doesn’t find them! They’re tacky, but I wanted to make Willow laugh.’
‘Just tell her you had a couple of coppers out searching for your willy straws,’ was Briggsy’s remark. ‘That should make her crack a smile.’
Free broke into giggles. ‘Thanks, guys.’
They brought her back to her car and Finn climbed out, walking with her to the driver’s side.
‘Hurry up, Kelly!’ Briggsy called. ‘I’m losing valuable drinking time.’
‘Are you going to Tom’s buck’s party, too?’ Free asked Finn.
‘No, I’m just the driver.’ He checked her face. ‘You’re a bridesmaid, then?’
She felt suddenly shy. His eyes – they were so wonderfully soft and kind, but with a spark in them that said quite plainly that he liked what he saw. And he was so damn tall.
She remembered to reply. ‘Yeah, Willow’s my sister.’ She indicated the expanse of red and green beyond the fence line, cattle visible as specks in the distance. Paterson Downs late in the wet season. ‘This is home.’
Finn followed her pointing hand, shading his eyes. ‘Wow. That must be amazing. I’m a city boy, so I know nothing about station life.’
‘You’re here for a country stint, I guess. From Perth?’
‘You must be desperate to get back to the city.’
His forehead creased. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘Well, it’s kind of boring here, right?’ she said. ‘Mount Clair’s criminal activity would be mostly pub brawls and street drinking. In the city, you’d have murders and organised crime, drug deals, corporate fraud. It would be more interesting, you know? More glamorous.’
Finn’s lips curved. ‘Mount Clair gets more interesting every day.’ Free gave him a proper once-over. When her eyes wandered back to his, he was red in the face. Whoops.
‘How long have you been in town?’ she asked, as though she hadn’t been checking him out. ‘Not long?’
‘Ah, that explains it.’
‘What does it explain?’ he asked.
‘Well, I’m sure I would have noticed you around town if you’d been here a while. You’re so tall and…’ Free stopped herself from saying handsome, but then couldn’t think of anything else to call him. The word hot zipped around her head. ‘Tall.’
His eyebrows shot up. ‘Did you just say I’m tall and tall?’
‘Well, you are quite tall.’ She gave him a brave smile.
Finn burst out in a chuckle that was surprisingly boyish, given his size. She joined in.
‘Kelly!’ Briggsy hollered. ‘Get your arse back here!’
‘Coming, Sarge! Sorry – gotta go.’ Still, Finn hovered. ‘Maybe I’ll see you again soon?’
‘Yes! And thanks again for your help.’
He jogged back and ducked into his vehicle. Finn waved as they passed her and Free got back on the road, smiling. For all its small-town predictability, there was nothing quite like the generosity of people in Mount Clair. She was impressed with Constable Finn Kelly. Even if he hadn’t been in town long, he already understood country kindness.
And he was so . . . tall.
She returned to the speed limit. The loss of the novelty straws wasn’t a big deal, and Free could barely hold in her excitement as she drove the last couple of hundred metres to the homestead. She opened her car door. Willow would be so surprised —
The screen door banged. ‘Where have you been?’ Beth demanded, striding across the gravel driveway. ‘Everyone else is already here.’
Free dashed around to the boot, flicking it open. She snatched up as many of the hen’s party supplies as she could. ‘Did I miss the surprise?’
‘Of course you missed it.’
‘Crap. Was Willow excited? I was making good time but I had some trouble on the drive here.’ She was going to tell Beth the willy straws story but her eldest sister had already collected her own armful of gear from the boot and was heading towards the house. Beth glanced back.
‘You’ve left the boot open,’ she called. Free went back to close it.
Inside, their father was refilling champagne glasses at the bench. He looked up when she arrived in the kitchen.
‘How’s my girl? I was starting to get worried!’
‘Sorry, Dad. Had to stop to take a river photo.’
‘Fair enough. This dam’s getting beyond a joke. I was having a gasbag with Horrie Blackwell the other day. He reckons he saw a load of dead fish floating around in the water beyond the building site.’
‘Oh no! What happened to them?’
‘Stuffed if I know. It’ll be the shit going into the water from the dam construction, I’d say.’
She groaned. ‘Why won’t anyone do something about it? It needs to be stopped.’
‘Free!’ Beth hissed, sticking her head around the corner. ‘Are you coming or what?’
Free scurried into the lounge. There were a couple of women from town sitting there with Willow. Free recognised Kate – the girlfriend of Sergeant Sean Briggs – and another two women she knew by face but not name.
Willow jumped up and came forward, and Free met her with a tight hug. She pulled back to inspect her sister. Free adored Willow’s practical, hardworking soul and those slightly vulnerable dark eyes.
‘I can’t believe you and Beth did this.’ Willow sounded a little tipsy already. She pulled Free towards the circle of women in the lounge room and they called out their welcomes. ‘Do you know Kate, Karlia and Bec?’
Free hugged everyone. These women had become Willow’s friends by default in recent months, because they were Tom’s mates’ girlfriends. Beth buzzed around, setting up the games and prizes Free had brought. Willow pushed a glass of bubbly towards Free as she sat down with the group.
‘I ran into Briggsy on his way to Quintilla,’ she told Kate.
Kate rolled her eyes. ‘He’ll be stuck into the Bundy in five minutes, and a sloppy affectionate mess by the time I see him later. Did he find someone to give him a lift out?’
‘Yes, the new constable – Finn.’ Free smiled at the memory of those kind brown eyes.
Karlia gave a whistle. ‘Constable Finn Kelly. He can handcuff me and take me to the back of his paddy wagon anytime. You’re single, Free – you should take a shot.’
‘Yeah, get yourself a piece of the Finn action, girl,’ Kate chimed in. ‘He’s not just hot, he’s deadset the sweetest guy I’ve ever met. Hell, if I wasn’t with Sean, I’d take a shot myself, age difference be damned.’
‘I told Phoebe she should go for him,’ said Karlia.
‘Sean’s already on it,’ Kate told her. ‘Mr Matchmaker has been plotting the Phoebe–Finn hook-up for weeks now. He’s just gotta talk her into it. She got scared off his matchmaking services after the blind date with Tom.’
Both of them glanced at Willow. She was a little pink in the cheeks but she smiled.
‘Yeah, I guess I messed that one up for Phoebe.’
Kate giggled once she saw that Willow wasn’t huffy with them. ‘I think it was Tom who messed that one up for her. It was pretty obvious Tom’s thoughts were anywhere but on Phoebe that night.’ She gave Willow’s knee a little push. ‘All turned out for the best, though. And maybe poor old Pheebs will have better luck with kind-hearted Constable Finn.’
The mention of Finn’s kindness made Free remember the veil rescue, and she got up to grab it off the pile Beth was fussing over. She arranged it on Willow’s head, deftly concealing the barbedwire holes.
‘How do I look?’ Willow struck a demure pose and Free was startled by how beautiful and truly happy her sister looked, even with the goofy L on the tiara.
‘Stunning,’ she said, quite heartfelt. ‘Beth, come see. Doesn’t Willow look stunning?’
Beth came to stand at Free’s side, examining Willow. ‘She does.’
‘Are you two crying?’ Willow demanded, her own eyes glistening. Free was. And from what she could see, Beth was too. Then even Kate and the other girls were tearing up.
‘Oh gawd,’ groaned Willow, wiping her eyes. She grabbed her glass and took a big gulp. ‘No tears! Please!’
‘Imagine what we’ll be like at the actual wedding,’ Free choked.
‘A game!’ Beth brushed her arm across her eyes. ‘That’s what we need.’
She rallied the guests, organising everyone with their own little cardboard appendages to pin onto a poster of a sultry-looking male model she’d blu-tacked to the wall.
Free had to hand it to Beth. She knew how to salvage a party.