The Husband She'd Never Met

By: Barbara Hannay

 CHAPTER ONE

 THE SUITCASE WAS almost full. Carrie stared at it in a horrified daze. It seemed wrong that she could pack up her life so quickly and efficiently.

 Three years of marriage, all her hopes and dreams, were folded and neatly layered into one silver hard-shell suitcase. Her hands were shaking as she smoothed a rumpled sweater, and her eyes were blurred with tears.

 She had known this was going to be hard, but this final step of closing the suitcase and walking away from Max felt as impossible and terrifying as leaping off a mountain into thin air. And yet she had no choice. She had to leave Riverslea Downs. Today. Before she weakened.

 Miserably, Carrie surveyed the depleted contents of her wardrobe. She’d packed haphazardly, knowing she couldn’t take everything now and choosing at random a selection of city clothes, as well as a few pairs of jeans and T-shirts. It wasn’t as if she really cared what she wore.

 It was difficult to care about anything in the future. The only way to get through this was to stay emotionally numb.

 She checked the drawers again, wondering if she should squeeze in a few more items. And then she saw it, at the back of the bottom drawer: a small parcel wrapped in white tissue paper.

 Her heart stumbled, then began to race. She mustn’t leave this behind.

 Fighting tears, she held the thin package in her hands. It was almost weightless. For a moment she pressed it against her chest as she battled painful, heartbreaking memories. Then, drawing on the steely inner strength she’d forced herself to find in recent months, she delved into the depths of the suitcase and made a space for the little white parcel at the very bottom.

 There. She pressed the clothes back into place and snapped the locks on the case.

 She was ready. Nothing to do now but to leave the carefully composed letter for her husband propped against the teapot on the kitchen table.

 It was cruel, but it was the only way she could do this. If she tried to offer Max an explanation face to face he would see how hard this was for her and she would never convince him. She’d thought this through countless times, and from every angle, and she knew this was the fairest and cleanest way. The only way.

 At the bedroom window, Carrie looked out across paddocks that were glowing and golden in the bright Outback sun. She smelled a hint of eucalyptus on the drifting breeze and heard the warbling notes of a magpie. A hot, hard lump filled her throat. She loved this place.

 Go now. Don’t think. Just do it.

 Picking up the envelope and the suitcase, she took one last look around the lovely room she’d shared with Max for the past three years. With a deliberate lift of her chin, she squared her shoulders and walked out.

 * * *

 When the phone rang, Max Kincaid ignored it. He didn’t want to talk, no matter how well-meaning the caller. He was nursing a pain too deep for words.

 The phone pealed on, each note drilling into Max. With an angry shrug he turned his back on the piercing summons and strode through the homestead to the front veranda, which had once been a favourite haunt. From here there was a view of paddocks and bush and distant hills that he’d loved all his life.

 Today Max paid the view scant attention. He was simply grateful that the phone had finally rung out.

 In the silence he heard a soft whimper and looked down to see Carrie’s dog, Clover, gazing up at him with sad, bewildered eyes.

 ‘I know how exactly you feel, old girl.’ Reaching down, Max gave the Labrador’s head a good rub. ‘I can’t believe she left you, too. But I s’pose you won’t fit in a city apartment.’

 This thought brought a sharp slice of the pain that had tortured Max since the previous evening, when he’d arrived from the stockyards to find Carrie gone, leaving nothing but a letter.

 In the letter she’d explained her reasons for leaving him, outlining her growing disenchantment with life in the bush and with her role as a cattleman’s wife.

 On paper, it wasn’t convincing. Max might not have believed a word of it if he hadn’t also been witness to his wife’s increasingly jaded attitude in recent months.

 It still made no sense. He was blowed if he knew how a woman could appear perfectly happy for two and a half years and then change almost overnight. He had a few theories about Carrie’s last trip to Sydney, but—

 The phone rang again, interrupting his wretched thoughts.

 Damn.

 Unfortunately he couldn’t switch off the landline the way he could his cell phone. And now his conscience nagged. He supposed he should at least check to see who was trying to reach him. If the caller was serious, they would leave messages.

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