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Inherit the Sky [MultiFormat]
eBook by Ariel Tachna

eBook Category: Romance/Gay Fiction
eBook Description: Caine Neiheisel is stuck in a dead-end job at the end of a dead-end relationship when the chance of a lifetime falls in his lap. His mother inherits her uncle's sheep station in New South Wales, Australia, and Caine sees it as the opportunity to start over, out on the range where his stutter won't hold him back and his willingness to work will surely make up for his lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, Macklin Armstrong, the foreman of Lang Downs who should be Caine's biggest ally, alternates between being cool and downright dismissive, and the other hands are more amused by Caine's American accent than they are moved by his plight? until they find out he's gay and their amusement turns to scorn. It will take all of Caine's determination--and an act of cruel sabotage by a hostile neighbor--to bring the men of Lang Downs together and give Caine and Macklin a chance at love.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2012

11 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter One

Caine Neiheisel tossed his bag on his childhood bed and flopped down on the mattress next to it. Six years, down the drain. There hadn't been any dramatic fight, any one moment when everything had gone south. It was more a slow, sinking realization that he and John simply weren't going anywhere. They made fine friends, good roommates, but not great lovers. Not even halfway-decent lovers recently. Caine chose to say they'd grown apart rather than to think John didn't desire him anymore. His self-esteem didn't need another blow. It was bad enough being stuck in the mail room at Comcast for nearly ten years. He'd applied for promotions, of course, but he always seemed to get passed over. He didn't think he could deal with losing John's interest that way.

He'd have to start looking for a roommate or another place to live. He couldn't afford the rent on his own. That hadn't been an issue when he'd moved into the condo. John had been more than willing to pay for half in exchange for living in the Gayborhood in Philadelphia. Caine would miss the convenience if he couldn't find another roommate, but that was the way his life had been going recently.

"Caine! Dinner's ready."

Caine sighed and went to join his parents.

"We're having your favorite," his mother Patricia said when he came into the kitchen. "Fried pork chops, Brussels sprouts, and mashed sweet potatoes."

"Thanks, Mom," Caine said, relieved he got the words out without stuttering. He knew why his mother had made his favorite meal from childhood, and it had nothing to do with being glad to have him home for Christmas. She was trying to cheer him up. While he appreciated the sentiment, he didn't want to spend his entire vacation being pitied. He had enough problems with that on his own.

"So what was in that letter from Australia?" his father, Len, asked, joining them in the kitchen.

"I'll tell you over dinner," his mother said. "Let me get the food on the table first."

"Let m-me help," Caine offered, wincing at the stutter. He apparently wasn't as comfortable with being home as he'd thought he was. Chiding himself for dwelling on something he couldn't change, he set the table and carried over the serving bowls as his mother filled them.

When they were all seated and eating, Len turned to Patricia. "So what was in the letter?"

"You remember my mother talking about her younger brother Michael who left England about the same time she married my father and came here?" Patricia asked.

Len and Caine both nodded. Caine had corresponded regularly with Uncle Michael as he was growing up, although their letters had become less frequent once Caine went away to college.

"He had a heart attack last week," Patricia continued.

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Len said immediately. "Had he been ill?"

"I don't know," Patricia admitted. "After Mom died, we lost touch somewhat. We should have taken that trip to Australia we always talked about, but other things always seemed to be more important. That's not all the letter said, though. It's from the executor of his will. It seems he left everything to me."

"To you?" Caine asked. "But why?"

"He never married or had children of his own," Patricia explained. "I'm the only living relative he has. The executor wrote to explain the situation and to ask what I wanted to do with the sheep ranch he owned. Apparently it's a huge chunk of land, several thousand square kilometers. Obviously I'll have to sell it. I don't know anything about sheep, and my life is here. I have no idea what selling it will entail, but hopefully the executor can handle it and transfer the money once it's done and all the taxes are paid."

Len chuckled. "I can just see us arriving on that old ranch. I'm pushing seventy and you're not that much younger. They'd laugh us right back home if we tried to run it."

Caine had to admit the image of his parents on a sheep farm in Australia would be funny to see. "It seems a shame to sell it," he said. "Could you hire someone to run it and have them t-transfer the profits to you? If it's profitable."

"According to the executor, it's quite profitable," Patricia replied, "but I'm not sure how well it would work to have us over here and a foreman over there. We'd have no way of knowing if he was managing the ranch well."

"I could go," Caine said softly, the words out before he realized he had thought them. He'd always wanted to visit his great-uncle, but the trip they'd planned in such detail in all their letters had never come to fruition. Like so much else in his life.

"That's sweet of you," his mother said, patting his hand, "but you have a job, a life in Philadelphia. I couldn't ask you to give that up for this."

There wasn't much to give up as far as Caine was concerned. "Let's think about it for a d-day or two at least," he said, his mind racing with sudden possibility. "Don't rush into a decision."

"Oh, Caine, I know you always wanted to visit the ranch, but there's a difference between a teenager going for the summer and you moving there permanently," Patricia said. "You can't go chasing pipe dreams."

Caine sighed and let the matter drop for now, but after dinner, when he'd returned to his room to sleep, his mother's words echoed in his head. Pipe dreams.

He was thirty-two years old, damn it. He'd tried being responsible and doing all the adult things that were expected of him, and that had gotten him exactly nowhere. In a dead-end job with a lover who didn't love him anymore, and no prospects of anything better anywhere on the horizon. He had a "life" in Philadelphia that was killing all his passion, all his enthusiasm, all his drive. The sheep ranch in Australia could change all that. He'd have a lot to learn, but intelligence had never been his problem. He stuttered. There wasn't a cause for it or a single thing he could do about it. Speech therapy had helped, but when he got nervous, it came back. He'd never get promoted because he'd never manage the interview well enough, and his bosses wouldn't put someone with a speech impediment in a situation of working with customers. He got that, but it left him nowhere to go at Comcast and no real way of going anywhere else either.

In Australia, he'd run the ranch. Technically his mother would own it still, but he'd be the one in charge. He'd have to throw himself on the mercy of his employees and his neighbors until he learned how to manage it, but he wouldn't be passed over for a promotion or a salary increase or anything like that. He'd have a job, a living, and maybe the change of scenery would be good for him. And if it was an absolute disaster, well, so was his life in Philadelphia.

He had no idea what it would take to immigrate to Australia, but he could find out. He might not be the best speaker in the world, but he knew how to research. Pulling out his laptop, he fired it up and started searching.

Two hours later, he had what he needed. Now he just needed to convince his mother not to sell the ranch.

* * * *

"I've b-been thinking, Mom," Caine said when he came down for breakfast the next morning. "I want t-t-to go to Australia."

"Caine," his mother chided. "We talked about this last night."

"No," Caine said, taking a deep breath to calm the stutters. "You talked about it. I looked it up online last night. I can m-m-move there because of the inheritance if you write a letter saying I'll be running the r-r-ranch for you."

"But what about your career?"

"What career?" Caine asked bitterly. "I have a job. I probably won't ever lose it because I do it well, but I'll never advance at Comcast. I've been there for t-ten years without a promotion."

"You could change jobs."

"I could t-try," Caine agreed, "but I probably won't find one, not stuttering the way I do. Certainly not a job where I could advance. It would be trading one dead-end job for another."

"You don't know anything about sheep."

"I can learn," Caine insisted. "I could work outdoors instead of in an office. The sheep wouldn't c-care if I stutter sometimes. Does it make that much of a difference if you sell it now or in a year if I'm wrong and I can't make it work?"

"Not to me, but if you pull up roots here, you won't have even a dead-end job to come back to."

"Then I'll just have to make things work in Australia," Caine declared. He took his mother's hands in his. "P-please, Mom. Give me this chance."

His mother sighed and hugged him. "All right, honey. If this is really what you want to do, I won't sell the ranch. I'll worry about you being so far from home, but you're an adult, even if I still look at you and see my baby. After all, everything that's mine will be yours someday, so I suppose this is your inheritance too."

"Thanks, Mom. I love you."

* * * *

Three months later, visa and passport in hand, Caine waited nervously for his big adventure to begin. He wasn't particularly looking forward to the twenty-eight-hour flight. He'd have to change planes in Dallas and then again in Los Angeles before flying on to Sydney, but he could deal with the airports. He'd deal with the long flight, too, because this was what he wanted. He'd been in touch with Macklin Armstrong, the foreman at his uncle's sheep station, as he'd learned it was called in Australia, via e-mail, so the man knew he was coming. He'd decided to stay in Sydney for a few days before heading out to Lang Downs, his uncle's station. As excited as he was about getting there and getting started, he suspected he'd need a day or two to recover, not to mention he didn't exactly have the right clothes for his new life. He wasn't sure he could find them in Sydney either, but he'd look anyway. And if not, he'd throw himself on Macklin's mercy and find the closest town to the station. Boorowa looked like the closest on the map, but he'd gotten lost in Eastern Kentucky in college and learned that maps could be deceiving, and what looked like a straight line wasn't always the fastest route.

First, though, he had to get to Australia.

He'd broken the lease on his condo a month ago, selling most of his furniture and packing up the few things he couldn't live without. Some of them were at his parents' house, to be stored and shipped later. He'd shipped the rest to Australia, hoping they'd get there by the time he did. He had a suitcase with clothes and other necessities, but he wasn't entirely willing to give up his books and CDs.

It was sad to think his entire ten years in Philadelphia could be summed up in a box of books and CDs, but those were the only things he couldn't live without. He'd said goodbye to his friends, and they'd all promised to keep in touch on Facebook or Twitter. Somehow Caine didn't expect that to last terribly long. They were friends, but in the casual acquaintance sort of way. Certainly not a reason to stay in Philadelphia any longer.

The call to board interrupted Caine's musings. He joined the line to show his passport and ticket and take his seat. He'd splurged for the trip, flying business class rather than coach. He'd made enough money selling off his furniture to pay for it, and he wouldn't need a lot of money once he got to Australia. From what he remembered from talking to his uncle as a child and what he understood from his more recent conversations with Macklin, other than his own personal supplies--clothing, toiletries, etc.--the station paid for the rest. He could move into his uncle's house and eat with the men who worked for him, so he wouldn't have rent to pay or groceries to buy.

He could afford to be comfortable on the plane to his new life.

The flight was full, so Caine had a neighbor between him and the window, but the man didn't seem inclined to talk, and Caine wasn't one to strike up conversations with strangers. He had learned to overcome his natural inclinations when it mattered, but his lingering nerves over his stuttering made him timid in unfamiliar situations.

Three hours later, they landed in Dallas, and Caine made his way through the maze of terminals to his next gate, feeling the fatigue of traveling hitting him already. He rolled his neck, trying to stretch the aching muscles, to no real avail. Maybe the hotel in Sydney would have a spa where he could get a massage to ease his stiff muscles before he headed out to the station.

Or maybe he'd better skip that and start to toughen up since he doubted there would be a masseur at Lang Downs.

His stomach churned as he boarded the next flight, nerves assaulting him as he wondered what business a city boy like him had moving to Australia to run a sheep station. He'd grown up in Cincinnati, not a huge city, but the metropolitan area counted over two million people, so it wasn't tiny by any means, and Philadelphia had over five million. He had a feeling he was in for more than a little culture shock out on Lang Downs, but maybe it would be good for him. He wasn't overweight or anything, but he was definitely a little bit on the soft side. The physical lifestyle would harden him up, make him stronger and healthier, and keep him so busy he wouldn't have time to miss the luxuries of town. And if the longing for a museum or a play got to be too much, he'd figure out a way to get to a city for a long weekend. It wasn't like Australia was a complete wasteland. The Sydney Opera House was world-renowned. He could still have bits and pieces of city life if he planned carefully.

By the time they landed in Los Angeles, Caine had talked himself back down from his panic with the help of a couple of shots of vodka. He wasn't falling down drunk or anything, but he was definitely more relaxed than he could remember being since Christmas.

He reminded himself that his e-mails with Macklin had all been cordial, if not quite friendly, and honestly, he could understand the man's concerns. Caine freely admitted he knew nothing about sheep farming. He'd be more ignorant than the rankest beginner on the station because, chances were, even the newest hand there had grown up around the industry. Caine had done some research, trying to learn terms and techniques, but he knew better than to think that was any replacement for experience.

He'd also read up on the table lands in Australia to try to get an idea of what to expect as far as climate. He was arriving in autumn, heading into winter. Crisp, cool, even cold at night, with a cold, dry winter on the way. At least he wouldn't have to worry about snow from what he could tell. That was a relief after the winter he'd had in Philadelphia. He swore it had snowed again every time he'd dug out his car. And it wasn't winter yet. He'd checked the temperatures in Sydney, and it was supposed to be in the upper 70s, warmer than at home.

"Lang Downs is home now," Caine reminded himself softly. If he had any hope of winning the faith of the people who worked for him, he would have to remember that, and not just remember it, but believe it. Truly and deeply believe it, because he was certain they all did.

The stewardess on the flight from Los Angeles to Sydney had an Australian accent, making Caine smile. He loved the way Australians talked. He knew he'd stand out just as much once he got to Lang Downs with his American accent, but he knew it would be a long time before listening to the people around him talk stopped making him smile. He wondered if his accent would be as charming to Australians as theirs was to him. Maybe if it was, that would make up for his stuttering a bit.

Soon after they were airborne, the flight attendants came around with dinner, making Caine glad he had chosen to fly business class. He didn't know if the food was any better, but he had more room to eat it at least. When he had finished, he made himself close his eyes to try and get some sleep.

* * * *

Chapter Two

Caine got his first culture shock after the plane landed and the flight attendant gave them all the information about the current weather in Sydney. The airline staff casually announced it was a beautiful twenty-one degrees. It took a good minute as Caine mentally ransacked his suitcase for something warm enough to protect him from freezing temperatures before he remembered Australia used Celsius, not Fahrenheit. Then he had to stop and remember how to estimate the calculation in his head. Multiply by two, add thirty... seventy-two. He could live with that in his short sleeves and khaki pants. Below freezing would have been bad.

He made it through customs and immigration without too much trouble, although the immigration authorities had more than a few questions about his visa and where he intended to work. He produced the letter his mother had provided, giving him authority to run the sheep station, his stuttering growing worse with each minute that passed. Finally, though, they gave him the go-ahead. He made it out to the main area of the terminal, debating whether he wanted to try public transportation with his luggage or if he should break down and take a taxi. He had always prided himself on using public transportation when it was available, but he had two huge suitcases and a hiker's backpack. He wasn't even sure he could make it onto a bus or train that loaded down. Sighing, he trudged out to the cab stand and waited in line. The taxi dispatcher had to ask him three times where he was going before he could get his brain to understand the question and drudge up the answer. "The Medina Grand Sydney," he said finally.

"You're dead on your feet, aren't you, mate?" the dispatcher asked. "No worries, we'll get you sorted."

Caine summoned a wan smile and heaved his bags into the trunk of the taxi when it pulled up without waiting for the driver's help. He kept his backpack with him since it had his wallet. He'd have to find a bank so he could transfer funds to start his new life, but he had enough cash to survive a few days.

He wanted to watch the city go by as they drove to the hotel, but even having flown business class, he was too exhausted, his body on American time still. He closed his eyes and trusted the driver to get him where he was going.

Checking in was another adventure, the range of accents baffling to him as he struggled to find his room and get settled. When he finally got to the room, he dumped everything where he stood, flopped on the bed, and slept for four hours straight.

When he woke up, it was three o'clock in the afternoon and he was starving. First, though, he needed a shower. He unpacked his backpack where he'd put everything he expected to need while he was in Sydney and stood for a long time under the hot water, letting it wash away the remnants of jet lag and the grime from traveling. When he finally felt human again, he got out of the shower and got dressed, slipping his wallet in his pocket before wandering down to street level in search of a place to eat.

He found shop after little shop with food counters in the back, offering a variety of hot dishes. The smells lured him inside finally to find an Indian woman behind the counter, her blue and green sari a bright flash of color. "Can I help you?" she asked.

Caine looked at the menu and at the red sauce on the curries. He liked Asian food, but he had a suspicion this would be too spicy for him. "C-c-could I have a d-doner k-kebab?" he asked, silently cursing the stutter that seemed to have come back in full force.

"You want tabouli and hummus with that?" the woman asked.

"Yes, please," Caine said. "And a cup of tea." He knew better than to ask for iced tea even though that was what he really wanted. At least it wasn't miserably hot outside so the hot tea wouldn't be unpleasant, just not what he wanted. He'd have to see if he could buy some tea bags to keep at the station so he could make a pitcher of iced tea and keep it for himself, even if the other station hands scoffed at him for it.

"Milk?" she asked.

Caine blinked a couple of times, trying to make sense of what was surely an obvious question. "Um, n-no thank you," he said finally, not entirely sure why he would need milk. Then it hit him. Milk for his tea. It was not a flavor he had ever enjoyed so he was glad he had said no. When she handed him a tray a few minutes later, he gaped at the quantity of food on the plate. He had been looking for a snack, something to tide him over to dinner, but this was a meal in itself. Sitting down at one of the small tables near the window, he started to eat, promising himself he'd get on local time starting with breakfast tomorrow.

* * * *

Caine had allowed himself two days to take care of the business aspects of his arrival in Australia: a bank account, credit cards, a cell phone that would work in Australia with an international calling plan so he could call his parents occasionally, a new power cord so he could use his laptop without having to juggle converters and adapters. It took him every minute of those two days to take care of his business so that when he boarded the bus for Yass at Sydney's Central station, he kept fighting the feeling of having forgotten something. The drive through Sydney and out toward the airport was not terribly interesting from a scenery point of view, but as they headed southwest toward Mittagong and then on to Goulburn, the cityscape disappeared, replaced by progressively more rugged terrain. By the time they left Canberra and headed to Yass, where Macklin was supposed to meet him, Caine was feeling totally out of his element. Canberra was a decent size city from what he could tell, and it was only an hour away from Yass, but he had no idea how long it would take to get from Yass to Lang Downs. Macklin had said they would drive as far as Boorowa that night and spend the next day getting his gear together before they went out to the station, but that hadn't given Caine any sense of how far it was from there to Lang Downs.

Yass was nowhere near the size of Canberra, but it did seem to be a thriving town. He could see an impressive historic main street from the bus window, making him wonder if Macklin would be willing to give him an hour to wander around before they headed north to Boorowa. Maybe they could even buy some of the things he would need here to justify the delay.

He descended from the bus and reclaimed his bags, looking around for anyone who might be Macklin Armstrong, foreman of Lang Downs. Unfortunately for Caine, half the men at the station looked like they could fit the description he had of Macklin, and none of them seemed to be looking for him.

"Caine Neiheisel?"

Caine turned around and came face to face with the most rugged man he'd ever seen. Not that his life in Philadelphia had given him a lot of opportunity to meet the cowboy type.

"Y-y-yes," he stammered, the jolt of attraction he felt leaving him even more tongue-tied than usual. "I'm Caine."

"Macklin Armstrong," the man said, holding out his hand. "Welcome to the outback."

"Th-thank you," Caine said, taking the offered hand and feeling the calluses as Macklin squeezed, not hard enough to hurt but definitely hard enough to prove the strength of his grip. "I'm g-glad to finally be here."

"Long trip?" Macklin asked sympathetically.

"Not so much today," Caine said, mastering his stutter finally. "Only about five hours on the bus. The flight here was miserable."

"Jet lag is the worst," Macklin agreed, reaching for one of Caine's suitcases. "Are you hungry?"

"Starving," Caine replied gratefully. "I had b-breakfast and I brought along a snack to eat on the bus, but I haven't had lunch."

"There are pubs downtown where we can eat," Macklin said. "We'll toss your suitcases in the boot and walk from here if you're wearing comfortable shoes. You don't want to get blisters now."

"D-definitely not," Caine agreed, hefting his backpack onto his shoulder and picking up the other suitcase. "I'll be the first to admit I don't know much about what I'll be doing once we get out to the station, but being in pain makes the list of bad ideas."

"We've got plenty of station hands with the jackaroos we hired on in the spring," Macklin said, closing the trunk of the Jeep he was driving. "You don't have to worry about doing anything that'll end up with you getting hurt."

Caine recognized the dismissal, but he was determined not to be put off by it. Macklin had no reason to expect otherwise, given Caine's lack of experience. He would just have to change the foreman's mind. "Is it worth doing some shopping here? The main street looked interesting and full of shops when we drove by. If it would save time to do it here rather than having to stop in Boorowa, I don't mind changing our plans."

"The station has accounts with the stores in Boorowa," Macklin explained, his long strides eating up the ground as they walked. Caine had to half run to keep up with him despite being nearly the same height as the foreman.

"Yes, but the station shouldn't pay for my personal gear," Caine said. "You wouldn't buy a new pair of boots for yourself out of the station account, would you?"

"No," Macklin said, "but I don't own the station."

"Neither do I," Caine replied. "M-my mother does. I'm just here to help manage it for her." He chuckled at the ludicrousness of that comment. "Okay, maybe not since I don't know what I'm doing, but b-believe me, I'm not really in charge of anything. I fully intend to rely on your advice for everything. I'm your newest... what was that word you used? Jackaroo?"

"You've got a long way to go before you earn that title, Caine," Macklin said with a shake of his head, "but if you want to learn, there'll be plenty who can teach you. They might play a few tricks in the process, but they're good men at heart."

"I c-can handle it," Caine said, the thought of having to prove himself to a station full of men making him nervous again. He only hoped Macklin didn't realize it.

"We can eat here," Macklin said, gesturing to a building on the corner of the main street. The sign read Yass Hotel. The interior was dark and cool, a welcome respite from the bright sun. The weather wasn't hot, but Caine could feel the effects of the sun. He added a hat to his mental list of things to buy, although he was sure Macklin wouldn't let him forget something that obviously important, given the battered state of his own hat.

Despite the name on the sign, the restaurant was not a hotel at all but rather two distinct bar areas, one that was quiet and nearly deserted while the other one was half-full with people playing pool amid much laughter and noise. Macklin led Caine into the busy room. "You don't mind the company, do you?"

"N-no, of course not," Caine said. "D-do you think they'd m-mind if I j-j-joined them after I order?"

"Probably not," Macklin said. "Unless they have a bet going. If it's just a friendly game, they'll be glad to have one more."

Caine considered the situation again as they found a table and skimmed the menu. In addition to the table crowded with men, there was a second pool table currently unoccupied. They ordered lunch, and Caine leaned toward Macklin. "D-do you p-play? We c-could start our own g-game."

"I'm not really in the mood to play," Macklin said coolly, "but go ahead if you like. The table's empty."

Playing pool by himself struck Caine as scraping the bottom of the barrel, but he'd brought it up. He wasn't going to back down now. Taking a deep breath, he pushed back from the table, wincing as the chair legs dragged along the floor, and went over to the pool area. He took his time picking out a cue. If he was going to play, he refused to make a fool of himself. He wasn't an expert, but he was pretty good. Good enough to impress a casual player if he had a straight cue and a level table.

Racking up the balls, he took a couple of experimental shots with the cue ball, testing the cue and the table before pulling back to break. The balls broke cleanly, one of them shooting off into a pocket right away. Caine smiled. He couldn't pull that trick off often, but it always thrilled him when he did. He checked the ball to see which one had gone in, continuing to play stripes and solids as if he had an opponent. Maybe if his luck held, he would before long. He noticed a couple of the men at the other table glancing his way. He could hope it would lead to someone joining him or an invitation to join them.

Little by little, he worked his way around the table, lining up shots, hitting some and missing others, but pocketing enough of the solid colored balls with enough regularity to draw an audience.

"You know your way around a pool table, mate," one of the men said, finally breaking the silence. "Are you interested in a friendly game?"

"A f-f-friendly game or a friendly w-wager?" Caine asked, smiling to make it clear the question was not intended as an insult.

The other men laughed. "Let's start with a friendly game, eh?" the Australian suggested. "We'll see where things go from there."

"C-caine Neiheisel," Caine said, offering his hand. "N-newly arrived in the area."

"Aidan Johnson," the man said, shaking Caine's hand. "Welcome to Yass."

"Thanks," Caine said. "I always meant to come sooner, but this is the first chance I've had. Shall we p-play?"

Aidan nodded and set the table up, offering to let Caine break. He didn't pocket a ball that time, but it was still a clean break. Aidan took his turn, missing a pocket shot by a matter of millimeters. Aidan's friends jeered at him, but Caine pushed all that out of his head. They didn't have a bet going, so it wouldn't matter to his wallet if he lost, but he felt like he had something to prove. To Macklin, if nothing else. He didn't need a babysitter or a pat on the head. He might not know anything about sheep stations, but he wasn't a child or an imbecile.

They played in silence for a few more minutes, cheers and playful boos echoing after each shot. Caine was pleased to hear his good shots got as many cheers as Aidan's did. When they had cleared the table, Aidan offered his hand again. "You're not half-bad. Let me shout you a beer to welcome you to Australia."

Before Caine could accept, Macklin loomed over them suddenly. "Lunch is on the table."

"I'm g-going to have a b-b-beer with my new friends," Caine said, feeling a bit like a teenager defying his parents for the first time. He reminded himself again that he was thirty-two and that, while he might need Macklin's help and approval once they got to Lang Downs, he didn't need it in the Yass Hotel. "I'll come g-get my p-p-plate."

Macklin looked like he wanted to protest, but he let it go, much to Caine's relief. While he didn't want Macklin viewing him as a child or worse, he also knew he would need the man's help out on the station, so he couldn't afford to alienate him completely. "You c-could join us."

"No thanks," Macklin said, returning to the table and his lunch.

Caine started to take offense, but he shrugged it off. Macklin had no reason to like him or trust him and probably plenty of reasons not to. They'd have to discuss it if it started interfering with their business relationship, but this was neither the time nor the place. Instead he grabbed his plate and joined Aidan and the others at the bar. The server handed Caine a Tooheys Old. Caine wasn't all that adventurous a beer drinker, but he'd come this far. There was no backing down now. For a dark beer, it wasn't as heavy as Caine had feared, more ale-like than stout, much to his relief, and he found the taste more palatable than he would have expected. Maybe adapting to Australia wouldn't be as hard as he'd worried it would be.

"So what brings you to Yass?" Aidan asked, tapping their glasses together.

"My uncle was from outside of B-boorowa," Caine explained. "Well, my great-uncle really. My mom is his only remaining relative, but she's not cut out for life on a sheep station."

The men chuckled. "And you think you are?"

Caine shrugged. "Probably not yet, but I c-can learn. If anyone is willing to t-teach me," he added with a bitter glance over his shoulder at Macklin. The foreman sat slumped at the table, eating his food absently and glaring in Caine's direction every so often.

Aidan leaned closer. "I'll let you in on something. Aussies act like they're the most open, friendly people in the world because they don't get hung up on all that formality bullshit our Pommy ancestors considered so important, but underneath that, they're just as closed off. They aren't going to be willing to teach you anything, but that doesn't mean you can't still learn. Don't let them ignore you or shut you out. You don't have to piss them off, but stay in their faces just like a dog nipping at the heels of stubborn sheep until you're part of them without them realizing it."

"Why are you being so nice to me?" Caine asked suspiciously. "You don't know me from Adam."

"Because I like the way you play pool," Aidan said, "and because it takes a hell of a lot of gumption to do what you've done. If they run you off your station, look me up on your way south. I might be able to find you a place on a different station, one that won't make your life difficult just because you aren't from around here."

"Thanks," Caine said, taking the number Aidan jotted on the back of his bar coaster with a pen borrowed from the barman. "I hope it won't come to that, but thank you, really."

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