Barbara Hannay lives in North Queensland where she and her writer husband have raised four children. Barbara loves life in the north where the dangers of cyclones, crocodiles and sea stingers are offset by a relaxed lifestyle, glorious winters, World Heritage rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef. Besides writing, Barbara enjoys reading, gardening and planning extensions to accommodate her friends and her extended family.
When the train drew in to Roma Street Station, Emily checked her phone messages one more time. There was still nothing from Alex, so now she was officially worried—not only about Alex's twenty-four-hour silence, but also about her own fate. She had no idea what she'd do if he wasn't in Brisbane.
She'd rushed to the city in blind despair. She needed to see Alex, to stay with him and, yes, to pour out her heart to him. Of all her family, Alex would understand, and Emily had been so very desperate to get away from Wandabilla that she'd jumped on the train in the vain hope that Alex would return her call before she arrived.
Now, the train came to a stop with a wheezing sigh of brakes and, all around Emily, passengers were rising from their seats, gathering their belongings in a businesslike fashion, pulling on jackets and coats and heading for the carriage doors, eager to be out on the platform and gone.
They, of course, had somewhere to go.
Emily did not.
If Alex was away, she would have to find a hotel. She certainly wasn't going to turn tail and head home to Wandabilla, to face the music, with everyone in the small country town knowing what had happened to her.
Besides, Emily told herself, there was still a slim chance that Alex was home. He might have a problem with his phone, or perhaps he'd let the battery run down, or he'd bought a new phone and changed his number and hadn't got around to telling her.
Although her doubts about the wisdom of rushing to Brisbane were mounting fast, she rolled the magazine she'd been trying unsuccessfully to read and stowed it in her shoulder bag, then retrieved her suitcase from the luggage rack.
It was an unusually cold August afternoon, and a biting westerly wind whistled callously along the platform. Shivering, Emily buttoned her coat and turned up its collar, then she lugged her suitcase behind her and headed for the warmth of the pedestrian tunnel.
As luck would have it, she was in the depths of the tunnel, jostling with crowds of shoppers and commuters, when she heard the soft quack-quack, which was the silly ringtone she used to distinguish social from business calls. She grabbed her phone from her bag. It was a text message.
Em, sorry I missed you, and very sorry to hear about that @#$%$# of a boyfriend.
Wish I could be with you now, but I'm in Frankfurt at a Book Fair.
Please use the apartment tho. Stay as long as you like and use my room.
I've checked with Jude and he's cool, so he's expecting you.
Hugs, Alex xxx
Emily had to read this twice, standing rock still in the tunnel while commuters steered somewhat irritably around her. She needed a moment to take the message in, to deal with her see-sawing emotions of relief that Alex was OK, and her disappointment that he was so far away.
Very quickly, overriding these initial reactions, rushed a flurry of questions. Who was this Jude person? When had he arrived in Alex's life? And would he really be as cool as her cousin suggested about her sudden appearance on his doorstep?
She felt awkward about imposing on a stranger and she wondered, briefly, if she should continue up the coast to her grandmother's instead. Granny Silver was as understanding and welcoming as Alex, but she preferred to see the world through rose-coloured glasses, so Emily rarely burdened her with her problems.
Also, if this Jude fellow was expecting her, and if he was anything like Alex—which he probably was, remembering Alex's former housemates—he'd probably already jumped into host mode.
Jude could well be whipping up something delicious for their dinner right now, so it would be rude to simply not turn up. Emily headed to a nearby bottle shop, bought a good quality red as well as a white, because she didn't know Jude's tastes, then went to the taxi rank. But as the taxi sped towards West End, crossing a bridge over the wide Brisbane River, her impulsive dash to the city began to feel more foolish than ever.
She'd been so self-absorbed, so totally desperate to get away from prying eyes, that she'd seen her cousin Alex as her one safe haven. She'd had visions of crying on his shoulder, of sitting with him on his balcony, looking out over the river and the city skyline, drinking wine together while she told him all about the whole sorry mess with Michael.
Alex was such a wonderful listener, way better than her mum. He never trotted out I told you so, or kindly but firmly pointed out her mistakes. Best of all, once he'd sympathised and mopped her tears, he always made her laugh.
Man, she could do with a laugh right now, but she couldn't expect sympathy, wine and cheering up from Alex's new flatmate. As the taxi drew up outside the apartment block, she told herself that the best she could hope for was friendly tolerance from this perfect stranger, and a little privacy in which to nurse her wounded feelings.
At any rate, it was reassuring to know that she wouldn't have to negotiate any of the bothersome boy-meets-girl nonsense. She'd had enough trouble with men to last her a lifetime, but she could rely on the fact that any man living with Alex would be gay and totally safe to live with.
Jude Marlowe was still typing at his laptop when the doorbell rang. He was in the midst of a thought, a decent thought, one of the few he'd come up with that day. He was trying to get it onto the page so he continued typing, despite the doorbell, knowing that if he stopped, the precious words would be lost, never to be recalled.
The bell rang again, with a slight air of desperation. Fortunately, the last sentence was captured and Jude saved his work and pushed away from the desk. Taking off his reading glasses, he rubbed at the bridge of his nose, then stood unhurriedly and stretched, rolling his shoulders in a bid to ease the tension that always locked in when he became too absorbed in his writing.
The caller would be Alex's young cousin. Jude had received a garbled message that she needed a bed for a few nights and so he'd manfully hidden his reluctance to socialise and assured Alex that he'd oblige. Apparently, she'd had boyfriend trouble and was suffering from a broken heart.
Another of Alex's lame ducks, Jude thought wryly, knowing he was one, too.
He was in the hallway, blinking at the darkness—was it really that late?—before he gave a thought to his appearance. Still in the clothes he'd dragged on in the morning, he was wearing old, badly ripped jeans and a baggy, ancient football jersey, stained at the neck and worn at the elbows. Not exactly suitable for receiving Alex's house-guest, but it was too late to do anything about it. The girl at the door would be getting impatient.
Jude turned on the light as he pulled the door open and a yellow glow spilled, golden and honey-warm, over the chilled figure outside. At first sight of her, he felt deprived of oxygen.
Later, he asked himself what he'd been expecting, and he realised that if he'd given Alex's lovelorn country cousin any thought at all, he'd mentally classified her as frumpy and miserable. An unfashionable, possibly plain, country mouse.
How wrong he was.
The girl standing before Jude in a stylish white wool coat and knee-high brown leather boots was a stunner. Her red-gold hair flowed softly over her white lapels, making him think of fire on snow. Her face was delicate yet full of character.
And while there was a hint of sadness about her blue eyes, her skin showed no sign of country mouse freckles. Her complexion was fair and smooth, her chin neat, her mouth curving and smiley.
She looked, at first glance, like all Jude's female fantasies rolled into one hot package.
He found himself silenced to the point of stupidity.
'You must be Jude?' she enquired, tilting her head to one side and smiling cautiously.
'Sure.' Somehow, he remembered his manners. 'And you must be Emily.'
'Yes. Emily Silver, Alex's cousin.' She held out her hand. 'How do you do, Jude? Alex said he'd warned you about me.'
'Yes, he rang.' But the warning had been totally inadequate, Jude realised now. He'd planned to offer the barest courtesies as a host and then leave Emily Silver to mend her heart in whichever way she needed to. He still planned to do that, but already he knew she wouldn't be easy to ignore.
'I must say it's very kind of you to take me in at such short notice.' She shook his hand, and it was a ridiculously electrifying experience.
'You're very welcome.' Jude spoke gruffly to cover his dazed dismay. Then he noticed her suitcase. 'I'll get that for you.'
'Oh, thanks. And I've brought wine.' With a dazzling smile, she held up a brown paper bag. 'A bottle of each.'
There was a slight shuffle in the doorway as he stepped forward to reach for the luggage while Emily came inside. Their bodies brushed briefly. Damn. Jude couldn't believe he was reacting this way. He'd had more than his fair share of girlfriends, but this evening his body was reacting as if he'd been cast away on a desert island and Emily was the first woman he'd seen in two decades.
'Oh, it's lovely and warm inside,' she was saying.
Jude nodded, adding grouchily, 'Alex's room is down the hall, as I'm sure you remember. First on the left.'
In the doorway to the master bedroom, Emily paused and sent a dimpling smile back to him over her shoulder. 'Wow. I've never stayed in this room. I'll be able to enjoy the amazing view of the river from Alex's bed.'
'No doubt.' Jude set the suitcase on the floor just inside the doorway, angry that the mere mention of the word bed set his mind diving into fantasy land. Refusing to meet her animated gaze, he said tersely, 'You settle in. I'll ah be in the kitchen.'
In the kitchen, he stared disconsolately at the contents of the refrigerator while he rated himself as several versions of a fool. It made absolutely no sense that he'd been sideswiped by Alex's country cousin.
Sure, she was a looker. But her beauty was irrelevant in this situation. She'd come to the city to escape from a low-lying jerk of a boyfriend, while Jude had problems of his own. He was in the city for medical tests that freaked the hell out of him.
And yet, when he'd seen Emily on the doorstep, there'd been an out-of-this-world moment when he'd forgotten all of this. Now, he'd plummeted back to earth. And to common sense.
Emily was sharing this apartment, and yes, he'd promised Alex that he would keep an eye on her. But that could be covered by token exchanges. A few courteous words. Now and again. Nothing more than the most superficial hospitality was required.
He was grateful to have that sorted. He need show no more than cursory interest in this guest, which was just as well, considering everything that lay ahead of him.