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ERIN SINCLAIR WAS used to traffic. Rush hour traffic, gridlocked traffic, rainy-day traffic
and, right now, airport traffic. Sydney was a vibrant, picturesque city with an iconic bridge and a bluer than blue harbour, but Sydney roads at eight a.m. on a Monday morning were congested.
Taxi drivers knew these things.
Her passengers had been running late, but she'd delivered them to the international departure terminal in record time thanks to a run of green lights. They'd tipped big, too rushed to wait for change. Probably not the best start to their day, thought Erin, but it was certainly an excellent way to start hers. Now all she needed was a fare back into the city.
Her pick-up area, the one for luxury taxis, was directly outside the arrival terminal doors. There were no other taxis and no one was waiting for a ride but that didn't stop her from sliding the car to a halt, popping the boot, and getting out. She wouldn't have to wait long.
As requested, she was wearing black. Black hiking boots, semi-regulation black trousers, black T-shirt. A perky black chauffeur's cap sat ignored on the front passenger seat.
The man who came striding through the arrival terminal doors was not wearing black but, boy, he would have looked good in it. He'd opted instead for scuffed steel-capped boots, green cargo trousers and a grey T-shirt, but that was where Mr Average ended and the fantasy began because the body beneath the everyday clothing was superb.
He was broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, everything about him lean and powerfully muscled. His hair was black and carelessly cut and his face was as near to perfection as the gods would allow. He looked tired. Tired in a way that had nothing to do with a long haul flight and everything to do with a weariness that went soul deep. He was all shut down, which was probably just as well. Because heaven help womankind if he smiled.
He glanced around and started towards her so she headed for the back of the car and pushed the boot open with her fingertips. He was beside her now, and up close she could see that his eyes were the colour of toffee and more than a match for the rest of him. She shot him a smile, reached for his bulky canvas carryall.
'I'll do it.' His voice was deep and quiet. 'Is this a gender thing?' 'I prefer to think of it as a weight thing.' The look he sent her might have been swift, but what it lacked in longevity it made up for in intensity. She felt the force of it, of him, clear through to her soul. 'You're not very big, are you?' he said finally.
Erin blew out the breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding and pushed a wayward strand of short brown hair from her eyes. So she was five feet four and a little on the slender side. This wasn't news. Maybe he hadn't seen clear through to her soul after all. If he had he'd have known better than to comment on her size.
By the time he'd shut the boot on his luggage she had the passenger door open and was waiting for him to get in. He looked at her, looked at the door, and the faintest of smiles crossed his lips. Obviously he wasn't used to having car doors opened for him either. 'Are you sure you're after a luxury taxi service?' she asked him dryly. 'Because the regular taxis are just over there.'
He glanced at the long line of regular taxis, glanced back at her. 'Will a luxury ride get me into the city any faster?'
'Only in your imagination.'
His smile widened fractionally. 'On the upside, I have three different newspapers you can read on the way and I can order in coffee.'
'Good coffee?' he asked. 'Exceptional coffee.' 'Espresso, black, two sugars,' he said, and got in. Men were so easy.
She shut his door and headed for the driver's seat. 'Where to?'
'Albany Street, Double Bay.'
Nice. She picked up her mobile, called in his coffee order, pulled out into the traffic, and set about making his journey a luxury one. 'Newspaper?' she asked. 'I have the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, or the Financial Review.'
'No.' 'Music?' There was something for everyone. 'No.'
O-kay. He didn't look as if he wanted conversation either but she gave it a whirl, just in case. 'So where'd you fly in from?'
'London.' 'Been away long?' His accent told her he was Australian.
'Six years.' 'Six years in London? Without a break? No wonder you look tired.'
'Maybe I will have that paper,' he said, his gaze meeting hers in the rear vision mirror.
'That would be a "no" to conversation, then?' 'Right.'
She handed him the Sydney Morning Herald in silence. Maybe he was an elite athlete. A soccer player returning home at the end of the European season after his team's final crushing defeat. Maybe he'd missed the winning penalty goal and was barely able to talk through the weight of his despair. Yeah, that would work. 'You're not a soccer player, are you?'
'No.' 'A poet?' That would work too. Because he could have taught Byron himself a thing or two about looking sexy, unreachable, and sorely in need of comfort all at the same time.
'No.' He opened the paper. Rattled it.
Fine. Maybe she should forget about her taciturn passenger and concentrate on her driving. She could do that. No problem.
Five minutes later she pulled up outside Café Siciliano, lowered the rear window, and a curvaceous young waitress handed her passenger an espresso in a take-away cup along with two straws of sugar. 'The sugar's already in it,' the girl said. 'This is extra, just in case.'
'You're an angel,' he said in that soft, deep voice and the girl blinked and blushed prettily.
Harrumph! Erin jabbed at the controls and watched as the tinted window slid smoothly closed. He hadn't called her an angel for seeing to it that he got coffee in the first place. Ungrateful sod. Her gaze clashed with his in the rear vision mirror and she could have sworn she saw laughter flicker in their depths.
'Pixies can't be angels,' he said solemnly. 'Different fantasy altogether.'
'Gee,' she said. 'Glad we've cleared that up.' He had such glorious eyes. Such a heart-stopping face. She pulled out onto the road a little more abruptly than usual. Forget service with a smile. It was time to deliver the man to his destination.
And then the engine coughed. Not good. It coughed some more as she swung the car around the nearest corner and into a side street and then, with a well-bred splutter, the late-model luxury Mercedes died altogether.
'We seem to have stopped,' he said.
Oh, now he wanted to talk. 'Drink your coffee,' she said, and tried to start the car. The ignition turned over but the engine spluttered like an old maid choking on hot tea. 'Could be a fuel problem,' he offered. 'Could be lots of things.' Erin drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and considered her options. First things first. 'I need to get you another ride.'
'No, you don't,' he said. 'You need to pop the hood so we can take a look at what's wrong.'
'You're a mechanic?' 'No, but I know cars.' 'That's close enough.' Erin liked cars. She enjoyed driving them. But she didn't know a whole lot about fixing them. She released the bonnet, got out of the car, and joined him in staring down at the immaculately clean engine. 'What can you do without tools?'
'Check fuses and connections,' he said and set about doing so with a confidence she found reassuring. He had nice hands, hands that looked as if they knew both strength and gentleness. She looked for a ring, a wristwatch, but he wore no jewellery of any kind. Some things simply didn't need embellishment.
'And I thought chivalry was dead.'There wasn't much she could do to help except stay out of his light so she leaned back against the grille and waited. 'Rescue people often? You're not a firefighter, are you? Emergency services?'
'Do you always measure a man by his occupation?' he asked absently, his attention still on the engine.
'Not always. Sometimes I measure him by his sweet words and pretty face, but that doesn't always work out.'
'I can imagine.' 'Of course, there's always star signs,' she said thoughtfully. 'You mean you judge a person by his birthday?' She had his attention now; his complete and utterly incredulous attention.
'Hey, the measurement of man is a tough one. A girl needs all the help she can get.'
'Yes, but astrology?' 'I'm thinking Scorpio for you. Moody, intense ' Unbelievable in bed. The mere thought of which was making her fidget. 'But I could be wrong.'
'I suspect you often are.'
He hadn't, she noted, come right out and told her she was wrong. That was interesting. 'You are a Scorpio, aren't you? I knew it.'
He regarded her with exasperation. 'It means nothing.' 'Nope, it means that without any more information whatsoever I can start to measure the man. At least, that's the theory.' And after a moment, 'We're quite compatible.'
'Hard to believe,' he murmured dryly.
Erin suppressed a chuckle. 'Yep, with that pretty face it's a good thing you're low on sweet talk otherwise I might be lost.'
His smile was slow in coming but when it arrived it scrambled her brain. 'I try to save the sweet talk,'he said.
'What on earth for?' 'Later.'
Oh, boy. 'I can see how that could work,' she said breathlessly. He should be carrying a sign, she decided. One that said 'Danger! Engage at own risk'. It would be a service to womankind, a necessity really, because if he ever did decide to go after a woman in earnest she'd probably melt. Already there was heat in her cheeks and a fire in the pit of her stomach as a result of that lazy smile and he wasn't even trying. Not really.
'You've got a blown fuel injection fuse.'
Make that not at all. 'I have?' 'Good thing there's a spare.' 'Yeah.' He leaned over to replace it and there was nothing for it but to watch him some more and try not to lose her breath all over again.
'You can try starting the car now.' 'Oh. Right,'she said, and headed for the driver's seat. The car started at once, purring like a well-fed kitten. 'It works.'
'Try not to sound so surprised.'He lowered the bonnet. 'I'm not surprised. I'm grateful. Really.' And after a pause, 'Is it going to happen again?'
'Hard to say,' he said as he got back in the back seat. So much for a definitive answer. The easiest solution was to drive the car and see. If it stopped again she'd call it in. Meanwhile, Mr International Man of Mystery wanted to go to Double Bay.
With a swift U-turn and a quick corner they slipped seamlessly back into the Sydney morning traffic.
The pixie chauffeur was right. Six years was a long time to be away from home, Tristan Bennett thought as he downed the last of his lukewarm but surprisingly good coffee. He'd settled into London easily enough; he had his work and his apartment, and his sister was over there too now, but there was no denying that it had never really felt like home. He'd gone to London because of his work, travelled all over Europe because of it, but somewhere along the way youthful enthusiasm had given way to weary cynicism and an increasing sense of futility. The fire was gone, the blade had dulled. And then there'd been that last investigation, the horrors of which had left him tired and hurting and wondering if he had it in him to go back for more.
It had been Hallie, his sister, who'd suggested he take some long overdue leave and head back to Australia for a while. Heartland, she told him. The perfect place to fight demons and find peace. The only place.
So here he was. Haunted by nightmares he couldn't shake and fairly sure he was asking too much of the old house that held its own share of memories, both sweet and painful.
'It's this one on the right,' he said as they drew level with the old two-storey weatherboard with its wraparound verandah, and the pixie nodded as she pulled smoothly into the driveway and cut the engine.
'Is anyone expecting you?' she said with a frown. 'No.' His father was on sabbatical in Greece, his siblings were scattered across the globe, but it didn't matter. They didn't need to be here for him to feel their presence. He was home.
'I know of a good cleaning service if you need one,' she said.
Okay, so the house was a little neglected and the garden was overgrown. Nothing he couldn't fix. 'I can clean,'he said. It wasn't as if he was going to have much else to do.
'You have no idea what those words do to a woman, do you?' she said as she turned towards him, and he felt the impact of a pair of lively brown eyes and a smile that promised equal measures of passion and laughter. 'I swear it's better than foreplay. If you can cook I'm yours. You're not a chef are you?'
'There you go again,' he said. 'Focussing on what a man does, rather than what he is.'
'Isn't it the same thing?' 'No. And I'm not a chef.' Her expression was one of mingled relief and disappointment. 'Probably a good thing,' she muttered.
'Probably,' he said, unable to stop his lips from curving, just a little bit.
She wasn't his type. Not that he could say he had a type exactly, just that she wasn't it. She'd surprised him, that was all. When the car had stopped he hadn't expected her first thought to be about how best to get him to his destination. It suggested a generosity of spirit and a focus on others that was uncommon. And then she'd blindsided him with her smart mouth and easy smile, battering away at his defences with the force of butterfly wings and the impact of an armoured tank and before he knew it he was aware of her in a way that was truly disquieting.
His body wanted to know why she wasn't his type. His body seemed to think that she was.
His body had spent the last twenty-two hours trapped in a flying tin can and would have normally been at rest right now. He was prepared to allow it a little leeway. 'How much do I owe you?'
'No charge. You fixed the car.'