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Hud hitched his dilapidated rucksack higher on to his shoulder as he stood staring at the façade of Claudel, the grand old house before him.
Ivy trailed over masonry outer walls, the front marble steps were steeped in mould, the delicately framed picture windows were layered in many years' worth of storm-splattered mud, the multi-gabled grey roof was now missing tiles and the gutters were filled with rotting leaves.
But even a decade's worth of invading shabbiness couldn't stop the memories of sunny days spent with his aunt in the big house from melting into one anothera dozen summers during which his parents had taken off on adventures to far-flung lands to authenticate new discoveries about old civilisations, leaving him behind. He pictured himself lying in the cool grass at the side of the house reading Aunt Fay's original editions of The Chronicles of Narnia, wishing himself a faun or a lion or, even better, one of the four Pevensie brothers and sisters taking part in adventures. Together.
He sniffed in deep through his nose, then, leaving the house and its deluge of memories for later, he hooked a sharp left to head into Claudel's colossal garden, only to discover far sorrier disarray.
What had once been a perfect green lawn, littered with croquet arches and bordered by a dramatic garden boasting random marble sculptures worthy of any gallery, was now overgrown weed-infested chaos. Once immaculately clipped conifers were now untamed, with patches torn apart by storms leaving raw-looking wounds. Chickweed, blackberries and roses ran wild. Any patch of grass still visible through the shrubs was littered with wild daisies. Had Aunt Fay been alive to see howmuch he'd let the place go, she would have screamed bloody murder.
But, after the initial shock wore off, Hud began to notice that the air had been made pungent with a rich floral scent, and through the gaps in the undergrowth bees and wattle dust floated on the hazy summer air. As a photographer for Voyager Enterprises, for both their documentary TV channel and magazine, he'd shot the gardens of queens, rainforests which by now had been demolished and thick, viny, mystical swamps protected by rednecks with guns. But this place was so out of control, so uncontaminated and crazy beautiful, Hud's throat clogged with unexpected emotion.
He cleared his throat, shoved the feelings down deep inside him where he'd kept every other come-from-out-of-nowhere and too-hard-to-deal-with-right-now feeling that had threatened to expose him over the past couple of months and moved on, forward through the undergrowth, not much caring that branches scratched at his hands or that his jeans collected spiky thorns. It only brought back more memories of trailing Aunt Fay's crazy Irish wolfhound through the same gardens as the dog in turn had chased invisible air sprites.
Through a gap in the seemingly never-ending wilderness, Hud was blinded by a pinpoint of light. He held up a hand to shield his eyes and tugged his rucksack through the heavy undergrowth until he found himself face to face with the old pool house.
A half smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and pressed against the backs of his tired eyes as echoes of more long forgotten recollections tickled at the corner of his mind. Dive bombing. Performing pretty darned legendary back flips off the diving board. Lying on his back in the water for hours simply watching clouds shift past the pitched glass roof, wondering if his mum and dad looked up they would see the same clouds while trekking some thrilling spot on the other side of the world.
Back then he'd been full of hope and plans that when he grew up, when he was old enough to set out on his own life adventure, then he'd finally understand what the fuss was all about. Why it had been so easy for his parents to leave him behind. He wondered when all that impenetrable hope had become frustration. When anticipation had become cold knowledge. When he had grown up after all.
Had it been hiding with only his camera for company beneath a bush for eighteen hours in the middle of a shoot-out in Bosnia when he had barely been twenty-one? Waking to find that his team had been abandoned by their guide at Base Camp on K2 on his twenty-sixth birthday? Or when he'd woken in a London hospital less than two months earlier, barely strong enough to ask for a glass of water?
He levered his heavy rucksack to the ground and left it where it lay. Claudel was fifty metres off the road, behind a ten foot brick wall and a ten minute walk through a pine forest to the nearby township of Saffron. If anybody was lucky enough to find his shabby old khaki bag they were welcome to the raggedy clothes and just as thread-bare passport within. It wasn't as though he'd be needing them to head through a different kind of wilderness with his trusty Nikon camera slung over one shoulder and a hunting knife slung over the other with his team of documentary film-makers at his back any time soon.
He cricked his neck, pressed his hands into the tight small of his back and glanced upwards to find brilliant red bougainvillea creepers seemed to have swallowed half the long building, leaving the hundred odd remaining white-framed glass panels that had survived the test of time thick with dust and mould. He could only hazard a guess how foul the inside might be after not having been blessed by a human touch for a good ten years.
'If memory serves correctly 'he said out loud, the sound of his voice raspy and deep in his ears after hours of non-use. Then he made his way around the back of the building to find the door was ajar, at an odd angle, askew on rusted hinges, as though it had been yanked open.
With instinct born of years spent stepping un-announced into dark, secret places, he stepped quietlytoe to heelover a small pile of worn broken glass and inside the pool house where his feet came to a giveaway scraping halt of boot soles on tessellated French tiles.
The pool house was clean. The mottled green tiles around the margins sparkled and the dozen white marble benches were spotless. Miniature palm trees in plant boxes edging the length of the room were luscious with good health. And the water in the pool shimmered dark and inviting against the black-painted concrete bottom.
A sound broke through Hud's reverie. A soft ripple as water lapped gently against the edge of the pool. And he was hit with the sense that something was about to break the dark surface. He held his breath, squared his stance, squinted into the shadows and watched in practised silence as
A mermaid rose from the depths.
From there everything seemed to slowhis breathing, his heartbeat, the dust floating through shards of sunlight, as the nymph sliced through the water, away from him, leaving a trail of leisurely wavelets in her wake.
Water streamed over hair the colour of brandy. It ran adoringly over pale, lean, youthful arms. And, as she swayed up the steps, water gripped her willowy form as long as it could before cruel gravity claimed it back to the dark depths.
Hud felt as if he ought to avert his gaze. As if he was too old, too cynical, too jaded to be allowed such a vision. But those same qualities only meant that his curiosity far outweighed his humility, and his eyes remained riveted to the back of the exquisite stranger.
Once she was land bound her hair sprang into heavy waves that reached all the way to the small of her back, covering the expanse of skin left visible by her simple swimsuit. It was functional. Black. One piece. But, with its low-cut back and high-cut leg, the whole thing was just sexy enough that Hud's pulse beat so loudly in his ears he feared she might hear it too.
Her feet made soft slapping sounds as she padded over to grab a soft peach-coloured Paisley-patterned towel draped over the far marble bench, revealing a bundle of clothes beneath.
She then lifted a foot and bent over to run the soft towel down one leg. One long lean leg. A drip of sweat slithered slowly down Hud's cheek.
When she repeated the action with the other leg, her movements relaxed and unhurried, he closed his eyes and swallowed to ease his suddenly dry throat.
She lifted the towel and ran it slowly over her hair, wringing out the bulk of the moisture, kicking out her right hip as she did so. Several golden beams of light slicing through the windows above picked up the rich colour of her dark red hair. Dappled sunshine played across her milky skin like a caress. And all Hud could think was that if this wasn't a moment that needed to be captured on film for all eternity, then he didn't know what was.
He was so taken by the aesthetics, mentally calculating focal length and film speed, that he didn't actually notice her begin to spin to face him until it was too late.
She turned. She saw him. And she screamed. And he didn't half blame her. He hadn't shaved in a fortnight. He was wearing clothes better suited to a London winter than to the thirty degree Melbourne heat.
And she was trespassing on his land and, by the looks of the place, had been for some time.
Kendall yanked her towel to cover her bare legs in a movement that was pure instinct as her scream echoed around the lofty room, bouncing off the glass and back again before sighing to an embarrassing memory.
Unfortunately it hadn't sent the intruder running for his life. He simply continued staring back at her. Tall, swarthy, fully dressed and all male.
As his eyes glanced from one end of her body to the other, she realised that clutching her towel like some maiden wasn't going to help at all. She turned her left side away from him and swirled the towel around her body. Naturally it fought against her, wanting to ebb when she wanted it to flow, but eventually she managed to cover the bits that needed covering.
She then took a deep shaky breath before calmly informing the man to, 'Get the hell out of here and right now, or I'll scream again, this time so loud the whole town will come running.'
His dark eyes lifted to hers. Connected across fifteen metres of cool dark water. Every inch of skin his gaze touched vibrated as though he'd made actual physical contact. She decided it was a side effect of the shock of being half naked before a complete stranger. Nothing more.
'Don't scream again, please,' he said, his mouth kicking into a pleasant kind of smile. He didn't raise his voice, but he didn't need to. The deep rumble carried easily across the wide space. 'One perforated eardrum is quite enough excitement for one day.'
'So leave, now, and you can save the other one.' She spat a clump of wet hair from her mouth. 'If you're lost I can point you the way back to the main road or through the pine forest back into town.'She glanced over her shoulder in that direction and when she looked back she could have sworn he'd moved closer.
'I'm not lost,' he said. 'Well, you're sure not where you're meant to be. Everything within one hundred metres in each direction of this place is part of a private estate.'
He simply smiled some more, making her wonder if he knew that already. Everybody in Saffron knew. Claudel was owned by the descendants of Lady Fay Bennington, who hadn't bothered with upkeep on the beautiful place since Fay had died a decade earlier. But everybody in Saffron also knew everybody else from Saffron, and she'd never seen this guy before. He was the kind of man one wouldn't easily forget.
Tall and broad, with the kind of physique that could block out the sun. And dark. Dark clothes. Dark eyes. Dark curling hair in need of a cut. Dark stubble on his face that had gone past a shadow but had not quite been tamed into anything resembling a civilised beard. She would have thought him homeless in his battered coat, tattered jeans and scuffed boots but there was something in his bearing that made that seem a non sequitur. A kind of shoulders back, elegant stance, glint in the eye thing he had going on that negated every other potent signal bombarding her senses.
She tugged her towel tighter.
He sunk his hands into the pockets of an unseasonably heavy brown coat and definitely moved closer. 'I'm thinking you're the one who ought not to be in here, Miss '
'My name is none of your damn business, buddy.' She'd taken self-defence classes since she'd come to town and moved in with Taffy. Two single girls living together, she'd figured better safe than sorry. So she knew it was better to run than to try to make an assailant see reason. her Doc Marten boots and holding in front of her as if they were some kind worried about falling unconscious into the pool.
She didn't want him to come any closer, she didn't want him to tell on her, but she also didn't want to kill the guy. He was far too good-looking to die.