Marnie put some toast in her mouth and turned the volume on her headphones up. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and she had nothing planned but chilling out and playing on the internet for the rest of the day. She’d been at work all morning, blogging up a storm and it was time to relax.
A little wobble made her Milo slosh in the mug. She must have knocked the desk accidentally with her knee. She took a sip to lower the level and put the cup back down.
The world shattered and started to unwind itself around her. The house swayed and creaked as the earth began to twist and tear. Earthquake. The word slammed itself into her head. She’d been in dozens of them before, rumbles and grumbles that made the lights sway and maybe dislodged a few loose objects. This was a different animal. It was a beast rising from the bowels of the earth, unleashing pure hell and a primal terror that ripped the facade of civilization aside in a second and left her staring at the vicious nature of reality.
Her Milo became a milky brown spray across the room, the closet burst open, showering the floor with shoes and clothes, her books flew off the shelves and then the bookcase itself toppled over on top of them. The world was in motion, everything flying this way and that.
Under the desk, or in the doorway.
Growing up in New Zealand, she’d been drilled on what to do in an earthquake since she was a very little girl. As she was being shaken like a pebble in a tin can, Marnie tried to make it to the door. It was only half a metre away, but it may as well have been a kilometre. There was no way she was getting to it. Her feet couldn’t move on the shifting ground, the carpet jamming itself up and down against her as she swayed back and forth, staggering in place.
The shaking intensified. She could hear the cupboards flying open in the kitchen, glass smashing as jars of pasta sauce, cups, saucers, plates all propelled themselves through the air. This was it. She was going to die. She was going to fucking die in her pyjamas with half a bite of toast in her mouth and a podcast playing unabated. She didn’t have time to cry, she didn’t even have time to scream. Her mouth was dry, her teeth clenched hard together as she battled to survive what felt like the very end of the world.
And then it stopped. Or at least slowed. She couldn’t tell if it was still shaking because now she was shaking from head to toe, her body flooded with absolute adrenaline. She ran for the door, heading for outside.
Never go outside.
Her body didn’t give a damn about the official guidelines. Her body wanted to be out, away from the scary shaking. She sprinted out onto the footpath, where she found the ground moving beneath her feet, hard concrete waving up and down in slow undulations, like standing atop water. In the garden beyond, geysers of liquid sand were spurting from below, covering grass and burying flower beds in a matter of minutes. Later on, the news would call it liquefaction. In that moment, all she could say was holy fuck. Holy. Fuck. Over and over again.
Shocked and stunned, she hugged her arms around herself. How could this be happening? This wasn’t an area known for active fault lines. Wellington, that’s where the big one was supposed to happen. Not Christchurch. Christchurch was supposed to be safe.
But that didn’t stop her neighbour’s chimney from being on top of their car. And it didn’t stop their kids from screaming and crying, and it didn’t stop water from flooding up from nowhere and turning the street into a wet sandy mess, great holes opening up in the roads and pavements, houses suddenly sunk into the ground up to their windows.
Other people were coming out of their houses. She saw the same shock and pale fear on their faces as the ground rumbled again. Their suburb was adjacent to the central city, where clouds of smoke and dust were rising. It was the middle of the day and the city would have been packed.
Marnie tried to call her mum, but her fingers were suddenly too awkward to work the cell phone, and there wasn’t any signal anyway. They’d been cut off. There was nothing. Nothing. Fuck.
“Are you okay?” A woman touched her shoulder. Marnie nodded, holding back sudden tears, and the lady, whose name she didn’t know, ushered her over to where her family was gathered. Over the next little while, huddled groups of people formed in gardens and on the side of the road. Nobody wanted to be indoors if another one hit. Neighbours who never talked to one another in years suddenly became instant friends, bringing out cups of tea from their broken houses, finding camping equipment to put to good use. The news, spoken in hushed tones, was not good.
Buildings were down. People were inside.
That was the day Marnie learned you could feel death in the air. It was a stillness, a hollow feeling that resonated with some deep part of her, the core of what it meant to be human and part of a community. She’d never noticed it before. Only now that so much had been destroyed could she suddenly feel the web of humanity all around her, and the gaping holes where something and someone had suddenly become nothing and no one.
The earth kept rolling all night and into the next day. Every few minutes it would rumble and shudder again and adrenaline spiked through her as she anticipated the return of the beast. Over the following week, three hundred and sixty aftershocks rocked the broken city, and in the end, Marnie fled.
Two weeks later…
The bus rumbled, jolting Marnie out of her dozing sleep. She shuddered and opened her eyes. Every now and then, her mind would flash a vision of the world shuddering again. These pleasant green paddocks, her brain made them crack and fill with sand. There wasn’t an up and a down anymore, and sometimes she thought it might just open up beneath her and she would fall forever.
Pushing her hands beneath her butt, she sat uncomfortably as the bus rumbled on. She hadn’t seen anything resembling civilization for a while now. It was all paddocks with cows and sheep and the odd horse. It was supposed to be relaxing, but it was just a bit weird. She was used to clogged roads and cars all over the place, merging with little to nothing in the way of notice.
The bus was slowing down, though she wasn’t sure why. Maybe there was something wrong with it. Or maybe they were picking a sheep up or something.
“This is your stop.”
“Huh?” It took her a second to realize the driver was talking to her.
It didn’t look like a stop. It was just a post on a dirt road. The driver was looking at her expectantly though, so she grabbed her bag, thanked him, and got off.
There wasn’t anybody there to meet her. Her aunt had told her that someone called Sam would be there but as she looked around, it was clear that she was totally alone.
The bus driver put the bus into gear and trundled off into the distance. Hell. Marnie pulled out her phone, intending to call the place she was supposed to be staying, but there was no service. This place was a dead zone in almost every sense. A small herd of cattle in a nearby paddock began ambling over toward her, licking their noses, sticking their tongues into one nostril and then the other, basically picking their noses like school kids.
“Gross,” she lectured the black and white beasts.
They didn’t take her criticism on board.
“This whole place is gross,” she complained, waving her hand in front of her face as a pair of copulating flies buzzed past.
A cloud of dust heralded a car coming down a road running parallel to the one the bus had come down. It drew closer and closer, turning into a dusty red Ford ute that pulled up to the bus post. She’d wandered a few metres away, but turned and looked as a guy got out.
He was wearing a blue check shirt and jeans with dirty knees. His boots were brown and covered in dust and dirt and probably some other stuff that didn’t bear thinking about. When he got closer, she saw that he was cute, in a farmer sort of way. He had dark brown hair, shaggy around his ears, and bright blue eyes. He had stubble around his chin. He looked like he had a good few years on her twenty-two, maybe thirty or so. He had some smile lines around his eyes, though he wasn’t smiling now.
“Marnie Sawyer?” He said her name in a rough rumble that was more like a statement than a question.
She lifted her head and glared at him. “Took you long enough.”
She was cute, but she had a hell of an attitude on her.
Sam had just recently taken over Terako Treks from his aunt and uncle, who had sent him out to pick up the city kid they’d agreed to take on as an extra hand as a favour to some relative of hers. He hadn’t thought much of it when they first told him. Everyone knew how devastating the earthquakes had been. He didn’t blame anyone who wanted to get as far away from them as possible and Terako could always do with an extra pair of hands.
He was starting to get the sense that this pair of French tip manicured hands might be more trouble than they were worth. The girl hadn’t dressed for the situation for starters. She was wearing a tank top that didn’t offer any protection from the sun, short shorts that basically invited thistles and gorse to stick her thighs, her strappy shoes were a broken ankle waiting to happen, and he didn’t care for the sneer on her lipstick-smeared mouth either.
“Sorry,” he said. “Got here soon as I could.”
She looked at him with a stony, unimpressed expression. “You shouldn’t leave people waiting. It’s hot out here.”
It wasn’t often that Sam’s palms started itching within seconds of meeting a girl, but they were practically burning.
“Hold on,” he said. “You can’t have been here that long, I saw the bus when I was coming up.”
“Should have been here to meet me,” she said. “Not very good service.”
“I’m not here to service you, brat,” he growled before he could stop himself. “You’re here to work.”
She looked stunned, as if nobody had told her about that part of the deal. “I’m here to what?”
“This is a working farm. We run horse treks. You’re familiar with horses, right?”
“I know what a horse looks like,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “That help?”
“You know what one looks like?” Sam snorted in disgust. “Well done.” His voice dripped with sarcasm, but the brat standing in front of him didn’t appear to notice. She was too busy looking down her nose at the dust covering his ute to realize that he was unimpressed by her immaculately styled, expensive haircut, and seriously wondering why he’d even bothered to come. This chick was going to be useless, he was sure of it.
“Chuck your bag on the back and get in,” he told her gruffly. “It’s too hot to stand around out here all day and I’ve got work to do.”
She looked a little scared and backed away and he instantly felt sorry for her. Until she opened her mouth.
“Nuh-uh.” She shook her head. “My bag’s not touching that filthy thing. It will be ruined!”
“Well, there’s no room for it inside the cab with us, so unless you want to leave it on the side of the road I don’t see how you’ve got much choice.”
She just stood there, staring in horror at the ute. He flexed his hands, wanting nothing more than to reach across and slap her disobedient ass.
“Hurry up,” he growled, “before I do it for you.”
When she didn’t immediately comply, he took hold of her over-full bag, wrenched it free from her grasp, and flung it none too gently onto the tray of the ute before taking hold of her arm just above the elbow.
“Ow! You’re hurting me!” she protested, trying to pull away. He held her firm.
“I’ll be hurting you a lot more in a minute,” he mumbled, only half under his breath as he steered her toward the passenger door of the ute. She didn’t fight him like he’d expected her to, but neither did she cooperate. Not really. She did drag her feet toward the ute as he propelled her along, but it was the jerky movement of someone who was doing something mostly against their will.
Sam yanked the door open with one hand while keeping a firm grip on the city chick with the other. If he didn’t assist her into the vehicle they could be here all day, and he didn’t have all day to waste.
“Get in.” It was an order, not a suggestion, but clearly it wasn’t an order she was inclined to obey. She stood there on the side of the road looking forlornly in the direction she’d come from, completely ignoring the fact that he wanted to get going.
“Get in!” He raised his voice this time and added a snarl, and although she turned to him, she still didn’t move.
He had no doubt that the glare she gave him was supposed to intimidate him into leaving her alone, but it didn’t work. He’d been glared at by far scarier people than the sassy woman whose arm he still held. So instead of cowering, he returned a glare of his own; a fierce frown that warned most people they’d better obey, or else.
“Are you going to get in or would you rather stay here on the side of the road by yourself? Just FYI, we’re in the middle of nowhere. That bus has long gone. The nearest house is miles away. If you’re lucky, a car might go past in about an hour. No guarantees they’ll stop for you, though.” He let go of her arm and shrugged. “But suit yourself.”
Leaving her standing exactly where she was, Sam walked around the back of the ute with brisk strides, intent on leaving no matter what the new trek assistant did. Aunt Magda would have his guts for garters if he turned up without her, but that couldn’t be helped. There was work to do, and he was the only one around—well, him and this new assistant—to do it. But he breathed a sigh of relief as she swung into the passenger seat just before he opened his own door.
As Sam settled himself into the driver’s seat he watched his sullen, silent passenger out of the corner of his eye. Her whole body bristled with tension and her nose was turned up in disgust as she gingerly took hold of the seat belt and buckled up. She clearly wasn’t used to dirt; that was for sure.
He flexed his hands again. She was cute, but right now, she was acting like a totally spoiled brat.
Marnie settled back into her seat and closed her eyes. Every time the ute bumped and jolted over the pot-holed road she felt sick. But after a few minutes she opened them again; closing her eyes hadn’t helped like she thought it would. All it did was trick her mind into thinking she was back in Christchurch, back in the earthquake, as the ground rocked and rolled beneath her feet.
She looked out the window. They were heading toward the mountain range, the towering majestic Southern Alps with snow still visible at the very tips. She’d never been a mountain person. She’d always preferred concrete suburbia to the wilderness, and couldn’t live without cell phone reception and decent WiFi. Would any of that even be available where they were going? And where were they going, exactly?
Bracing herself against the door, Marnie squirmed uncomfortably. The ute had definitely seen better days. Her bum was already numb from the long bus journey and now a spring poked into her relentlessly, no matter how many times she shifted position. No matter how she sat, it hurt. Either the loose spring was jabbing into her butt or it ached from being sat on for so long.
“How much further?”
Sam didn’t take his eyes off the road when he responded to her question, very unhelpfully, she thought. Why did he have to be so vague? All he’d done so far was order her about and not tell her anything useful.
But he was definitely hot. Unhelpful and bossy, but hot. His hands were huge. The back of the one wrapped around the gearstick was work-roughened and though she couldn’t see his palm, the calluses on the edges of his fingers suggested the rest of it would be tough and hard too, like sandpaper. His shirt sleeves were rolled to his elbow exposing sinewy tanned forearms, muscular and strong.
Who was this guy anyway? Was he meant to be her boss? He’d said something about her being there to work, but she didn’t know anything about that. Actually, now that she thought about it, she didn’t know very much about her current situation at all. Her aunt had told her, probably in great detail, but she hadn’t been listening. She’d been so traumatized from the earthquake and so desperate for a fresh start away from the city that she hadn’t really cared where she went, as long as the ground stayed solid beneath her feet.
Her gaze travelled along Sam’s arm to his shoulder. The muscles in his neck were tense, partially hidden by his shirt. He was badly in need of a haircut. He could look quite sophisticated if his overgrown mop was tamed and shaped instead of sitting on his collar. She frowned at the stubble darkening his jaw. Ordinarily she liked stubble, but this wasn’t the designer stubble she was used to, with precision shaving shaped to emphasize a masculine jaw, making him look sexily rough around the edges. This was just plain unshaven. Personal grooming clearly wasn’t high on his list of priorities.
Peering closer, she wrinkled her nose in distaste at the fine layer of dust coating his clothing and skin. Wherever he was taking her, if it was going to be as dusty as he was, she didn’t think she wanted to go.
A green tin mailbox flashed by on her left as the ute slowed down just enough to slide into the road on the right and clattered too fast over a cattle grid, making her bones rattle. Biting her lip to smother her squeal, Marnie clutched at the door, terrified. She’d been shaken around enough over the past two weeks; all she wanted to do now was stay still. She wanted to sit on something that didn’t wobble and stand on something that didn’t sway. And she most definitely did not want to be tossed sideways in an out-of-control ute fishtailing around a corner on a gravel road.
“I want to go home.” She hadn’t meant to say the words out loud, but they slipped out anyway, sounding strangled and pathetic.
Sam glanced across at her briefly before looking back at the road. “Bit late for that, isn’t it? And where’s home to you now anyway? I thought your house got destroyed?”
Marnie didn’t answer, just scrunched down deeper in her seat. Damn him, he was right. There was no home for her to go back to. Her house was broken, her belongings covered in mud. Everything worth salvaging was stuffed in the bag on the back, getting sprayed in dust. She didn’t want to look at Sam anymore. He was cute, but looking at him just reminded her of all that she’d lost.
Ordinarily, Sam enjoyed skidding around corners on gravel roads. But the squeak that had escaped Marnie’s tightly clenched lips sent a flash of guilt through him. She was probably still traumatized from the earthquake and the hundreds of aftershocks since, poor girl. He wasn’t being very sensitive to her, rally-driving along the country roads he knew like the back of his hand, but which were completely unfamiliar territory to her. But he was glad to wipe that disdainful sneer off her face all the same.
He had no idea what Aunty Magda was thinking, agreeing to take on a new hand without at least a brief interview first. Now the fallout of her hare-brained scheme was going to be left to him to deal with. The last thing he needed was a useless city girl with issues to deal with.
He pulled up a little way away from the house, outside the hay shed. Before he could say or do anything, she pulled her seat belt off and glared at him. “You drive like a dick head,” she said bluntly. “If you did that in Christchurch you’d get pulled over so fast…”
“We’re not in Christchurch,” he said just as curtly.
It was just a plain statement of fact, but the flash of hurt and sadness in her eyes was obvious and in an instant he felt every inch the dick head she’d called him. She was biting her lip, obviously trying to keep from crying and he felt an impulse to try to comfort her. As annoying as she was, she was still a girl. He didn’t like making girls cry; at least, not this way.
“Hey,” he said, his voice softening as he reached for her. She pulled her arm away from him before he could touch her again, a near feral ferocity transforming her pretty face.
“You can go fuck yourself!”
She wrenched the door open and ran. He was stunned for a second, then he realized he was going to have to go after her. She didn’t have a clue where she was or where she was headed. She was impressively fast in those stupid shoes though. At first he didn’t hurry after her too quickly. He figured the electric fence would stop her when she got to it, but she put her hand on the post and jumped it as though she’d been hopping farm fences all her life.
“Hey! Stop! Girl…” What was her name again? He couldn’t remember as he broke into a run after her. She was headed for the paddock with the bull in it, assuming she didn’t break her ankle before she got to old Henry.
Marnie ran with tears in her eyes, blurring her vision. Everything was green here. Green and occasionally brown. She dodged the brown bits as she ran, not knowing where she was going, but knowing she didn’t want to be anywhere near that man. He was the worst. She’d come all this way and now she was being dragged around and yelled at. It wasn’t fair.
She could hear him shouting after her, but she ignored whatever it was he was saying. “Stop… Bull…”
“Bullshit,” she growled to herself. “Swearing at me even now. Dick.”
Just then she saw the mouth of a concrete tunnel. She bolted inside it, not really knowing why. As soon as she was inside it, she stopped, panting. It had been a while since she’d sprinted like that.
He must have been right on her ass, because within seconds he was there, crouching outside the mouth of her little hiding place. He fixed his eyes right on her and crooked a finger at her.
“Come here, little girl,” he drawled.
Little girl. The words made her stomach do flip-flops. She didn’t know why.
“I’m not going anywhere with you. I’ll live here if I have to.”
“You’re in a ditch,” he said. “It floods with farm runoff.”
“Oh, god! Gross! What the…” She came crawling out as fast as possible under his less than amused gaze. “Is there anything not covered in fucking filth out here?”
“Watch your mouth,” he warned. “Aunty Magda doesn’t like swearing, and neither do I.”
“Oh, ick…” She was still too grossed out by the filth on her hands, especially considering its origin. She looked around for something to wipe her fingers on. There was nothing. Except—he was standing there, already covered in dust and dirt as far as she could see.
Following her impulse, Marnie reached out and wiped her hands on his shirt. The moment her fingers made contact with his torso, she realized that his body was hard underneath that fabric. Rock hard. She hadn’t felt a body on a man like that since… well, since ever. For a second, she forgot that she hated him. She forgot everything, including the quakes and…
“What the hell!” He swatted her hands away, the flat of his palm making sharp contact with the back of hers. “Whaddya think you’re doing?”
“Doesn’t make any difference to you, does it,” she smirked, satisfied that she’d gotten her own back. The two muddy handprints on his stomach looked good. Sort of… intimate.
He cut his eyes at her, but she thought she saw a slight flicker at the corner of his lips too. He didn’t really seem to care about the extra dirt, but he had an issue with her, that much was obvious.
“Little brat,” he growled. “You’re going to end up with your rear tanned if you don’t watch out. Come on. Aunty Magda is going to want to know where you are.”
He turned on his heel and started walking away, leaving her with her mouth open, her mind replaying those words over and over. Tanned rear? What was he threatening her with exactly? And why did it excite her so damn much?
Now that they were both walking, she had a hard time catching up with him. His legs were a lot longer than hers, and he was wearing far more practical footwear. Maybe she should get some boots. Not that there was anything even faintly resembling a store anywhere around here. Looking around, all she could see was grass, more grass, a few trees planted in heavy lines, and then the mountains in the distance. Animals dotted the rolling terrain, but that was about it. A sense of isolation started to sink into her bones and she hurried a little more so as not to be alone.
“Don’t run off again,” he said gruffly as she got within a few steps of him. “We’ve got a bull in that paddock over there and he’ll go for you if he gets a chance.”
“Ohhhhh, that’s what you were saying,” she said. “I thought you were swearing at me.”
“I was,” he said, turning to face her. She stopped hurriedly, almost running into him.
“You’ve got to start listening,” he said, his hands on his hips as he looked down at her, the muscle in his jaw twitching. “You don’t seem to know why you’re here, and having known you for five minutes, I’m guessing that’s because you didn’t listen when you were told.”
“You don’t know me!”
“You’re right. I don’t. But I know you haven’t taken a thing I’ve said on board since I started talking, and if you keep it up, I’ll have to smack it into your little ass.”