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Who knew silence came in so many shades?
There was the deep, black silence late at night, under the West Australian stars, miles from anywhere. The earthy green silence of Beth's shambolic warehouse studio, only broken by the splashes of colour from her latest artworks. There was the newly discovered, beige-coloured silence inside her head, where voices and thoughts used to clamour but had now all eased into a comfortable hum.
And there was this one
The simmering red silence of a man who was not particularly pleased to see her. Not that Beth had imagined he would be. It was why she'd put this off for so long. The awful sound of nothing echoed through the heartbeat thumping past her eardrums. She cleared her throat.
He may have been half a house larger than the boy she remembered, but Marc Duncannon had two trademark giveaways and one was the way he stood when he was on guard, legs apart as if readying himself for a physical assault.
Muscular arms stole up to cross in front of a broad chest as he continued to stare wordlessly at her. Twisted humour raced in to fill the aching void inside where she wasn't letting herself feel. While he'd grown a kick-butt chest in ten years, she was no bigger in that department than when he'd last seen her. Yet another disappointment for him.
Coming here suddenly seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. 'Are you not even going to say hello?'
He nodded briskly, his lips tight, resenting opening at all. 'Beth.'
One stony word, but loaded with meaning and breath-stealing in its timbre. More than she'd had from him in over a decade. A total contrast to the way he used to say her name. Beth. Betho. Bethlehem. They'd had their short lifetimes to come up with stupid nicknames for each other. He'd only called her Elizabeth once. The day he'd kissed her.
The day she'd ripped out his heart.
She swallowed past the lump threatening her air supply. Past the welling excitement that she was herewith Marcagain. 'How are you?'
'On my way out.'
Okay She'd prepared herself to be unwelcome but it still felt so foreign radiating from him. 'I just needed I'd like a couple of minutes. Please?'
His hazel eyes darted away briefly but the miracle of any part of him moving seemed to thaw the rest of him out. His whole body twisted and he resumed loading equipment into his four-wheel drive. Beth risked closing the gap, but her breath got shorter with her distance from him, until she either stopped advancing on him or took her last living gasp.
Seeing him again would almost be worth it.
He threw words out like a shark net to entangle her before she got nearer. 'You could stand there gawping or you could help me load the Cruiser.'
Beth scrambled to help, stunned by the gift of so many words in a row. It wasn't friendly. But it wasn't silence. And, given it was possibly the only chance she was going to get, she took it.
'I went to your old house. Your neighbours told me where you were,' she started to jabber. 'I heard about your mum. What happened? You two were so close.'
Oh-so-familiar eyes lifted below hooded lids and glared at her. Intense and intensely adult. 'That's what you've come all this way to ask?'
Her heart lurched. Marc didn't do sarcasm when they were kids but it seemed he'd perfected the fine art in the years since she'd seen him.
'No. I'm sorry ' It was lame but what else could she say?
He turned to face her and straightened, frustrated. 'What for, Beth? For turning up unannounced or for dropping off the face of the earth for a decade?'
How could she have forgotten what a straight shooter he was? She took a shaky breath. 'That's why I've come. I wanted to explain'
He moved off again. 'You'll have to explain some other time. Like I said, I'm on my way out.'
She watched as he tossed a few final items into his dusty black Land Cruiser. A satellite phone. A first aid kit. A wetsuit. She frowned. 'Where are you going?'
The hard glare he shot her from under the broad ridge of his brow should have had her quailing, if not for the fact that she'd developed immunity long ago, from exposure to much worse. Courtesy of her husband.
'We've had a report of a stranding out at Holly's Bay. I'm going to check it out.'
'A whale, Beth. It needs help. I don't have time to entertain you.'
She fought the bristle his unkind words inspired. She was here to help her healing process, not to pass the time. Would she have put herself through this otherwise? 'I just need a minute '
He ignored her and moved around to the driver's side door and yanked it open. 'The whale may not have a minute. You've already slowed me down.'
She made her decision in a blink. It had cost her too much to come here today; she couldn't let him just walk away from her. Who knew if she'd find the courage to try again? She sprinted around to the passenger side of the four-wheel drive and leaped in as he started it. Up close and in the confines of a cabin, he was bigger even than he'd seemed at a distance.
'Get out, Beth.'
His voice certainly fitted the new him. Deep, rough. But still essentially Marc. That part tugged at her. 'I need to talk to you. If I have to do that on the move, I will. Whatever it takes.'
He practically growled, 'You're wasting time.'
Anger finally broke through her carefully constructed veneer. 'No, you are, Marc. Drive!'
Marc Duncannon concentrated on keeping his hands glued to the steering wheel, cemented there harder than clams on a reef. The tighter he held them, the less likely they were to shake, to give him away. He didn't want her getting the slightest clue about how thrown he was. Beth Hughes.
She was still the same lean, athletic build she'd been as a kid. It still suited her, even if it made him wonder how long ago she'd had her last meal. Same high brows, straight nose. Full coral lips. He would have recognised her even if she hadn't spoken and he hadn't heard again the soft tones he'd given up as a memory, but there was something very worn out about the way she held herself. The way her long dark hair hung, defeated, from a dead straight parting. As if she was doing her best not to stand out. Very un-Beth. She'd always been such a show pony.
Now she looked a little too much like his mother's tormented appearance the last time he'd seen her. He clenched his jaw and leaned on the accelerator harder, flying down the long track leading from the homestead to the coastal highway.
His vehicle now reeked of Beth's particular scent. That skin cream that, clearly, she still used after all these years. Coconut something. Chemical free. Cruelty free. The scent he associated with summer and beaches and bikinis.and Beth. The scent that would take weeks to fade from his upholstery.
The way it had taken months to finally force her from his mind. Or not, he realised as every bit of him tightened. Seemed it had only lain dormant. Buried deep. Two seconds in her presence and half a childhood of memories came flooding back.
So much for moving on.
He concentrated on the road ahead.
From the corner of his vision, he saw her twisted mouth, teeth chewing on her full lips. The old habit socked him in the guts. She used to do that when she was problem-solving or trying to outfox him. But back then she couldn't sustain it and they'd break apart into one of her heart-stopping smiles. Not today. Her lips opened and she took a deep breath, ready to hit him with whatever it was she wanted.
'Since when did you become a whale rescuer?'
Not what he was expecting. And why did she sound as rattled as he was? She had the upper hand here. It surprised him enough to answer. 'It's part of life on the south coast. And I'm the closest trained landholder.'
'You train for this?'
'How many times have you done it?'
'Five. Two last year. This stretch of coast is notorious for it.'
'Why here, particularly?'
Small talk killed him. Especially with the one person he'd never needed it with. This was what they were now? Maybe never seeing her again was the better option. He shrugged. 'No one knows.'
Silence fell, thick and muddy. He slowed the vehicle and yanked the steering wheel hard to the right. They bumped off the asphalt onto a badly graded limestone track and headed towards the massive expanse of ocean. The crescent bay opened out before them like an electric-blue half-moon.
'How long before we get there?' she asked, voice tight.
He could practically feel her brain turning over. Her heart thumping. It vibrated off her and slammed straight into the waves of tension coming off him. 'About one minute longer than you said you needed.'
She saw his sideways glance. Interpreted it correctly. 'I needed to see you. To explain.' She cleared her throat. 'To apologise.'
Apologise? 'For what?'
Her mouth thinned. 'Marc.'
'Friendships end, Beth. It happens.' He used the casual shrug to shake free some of his tension.
Her eyes flared with confusion but then they hardened and blazed with determination he'd never seen from her. Adult Beth had some balls, then. 'Nonetheless, I've come a long way to see you. I'd like to say what I need to say.'
The Land Cruiser bumped up off the track onto the small dunes and Marc manoeuvred them as close to the edge as he safely could. The white crescent shore stretched out before them, meeting the blue of the Southern Ocean. Next stop, Antarctica. Down on the sand, about twenty feet apart, two large, dark shapes rolled and buffeted in the shallows.
Two whales. Marc swore under his breath.
'Your explanations will have to wait, Beth. I have work to do.'
Beth took one look at the scene unfolding on the beach and pushed herself into gear. It had been two years; her needs could wait a little longer. Those animals couldn't.
Marc grabbed his satellite phone and started dialling even as he ran to the back of his vehicle, peeling off his clothes as he went. By the time he had his T-shirt and jeans off, he'd communicated their location and the number of stranded whales to someone at the Shire and asked them to rally assistance.
Beth did her best to get busy lifting items out of the car to avoid staring at him, open-mouthed. Once-gangly Marc Duncannon had spent some time in the gym, apparently. The weights section. Her belly flipped on itself in a most unfamiliar way.
He tossed the disconnected phone into the back of the vehicle and stepped into his wetsuit, hauling it up over muscular legs and then flexing his broad back as he shrugged it up over his shoulders and arms. As soon as it was secure, he snared up the first aid kit and a small bag of supplies and thrust the phone into it. He shoved a snatch-strap, rope and every ockie-strap he could rummage up in behind it. Then he threw his T-shirt, a hooded trainer and an old towel at Beth, saying, 'You're going to need this,' and was off, down the dunes, racing towards the water.
Beth did her best to keep up. She stumbled several times in the thick sand and paused to kick off her unsuitable shoes, losing more ground on Marc. But she didn't need to be near him to know what was going on; his stiff body language was as clear as a neon sign as he ran down the shore, close to the first whale.
The sleek, marble-skinned animal was already dead.
An awful sorrow washed over her: that she might have delayed Marc for the precious minutes that counted. That this enormous creature was already gull-food because of her.
Marc paused briefly, those magnificent shoulders drooping slightly, but then he kicked on, further down the beach to where the second body rolled in time with the surf. As he got closer, he slowed and took a wide approach, lifting his hands high in the air in warning. Beth instantly slowed.
It was alive.
By the time she caught up with him, he was on his second wide pass of the beleaguered mammal. It lay partially submerged in the quicksand where earth met ocean, every second wave high enough to wash gently over its lower half. But exposed parts of its upper body were already dangerously dry. Compared to the liquid mercury-looking surface of wet whale skin, the dry parts looked like the handbag she'd left in her hire car at Marc's farm.
That couldn't be good.
'Put the sweatshirt on, Beth.' He didn't bother with a please and she didn't expect niceties right now. But it didn't mean she was prepared to be dictated to. Not any more.
'It's thirty-three degrees. I'll boil.'
'Better that than burn to a crisp. We're going to be out here for some time.' He moved to her side and relieved her of his T-shirt and the towel. Then he zipped up the wetsuit more fully over his chest, fastened the neck strap and tugged a cap down hard over his shaggy hair. 'And you're about to get wet. You'll thank me in two hours.'
'Two hours?' They'd be out in the water for a couple of hours, with an injured dinosaur? Alone? But Marc wasn't worried; he ran headlong into the water between the dead whale and the live one and soaked the towel and his shirt.
His five-times experience certainly showed.
By the time Beth had wriggled herself into Marc's sweatshirt and pulled up the hood for some shade, he was already beside the dangerous giant. A false killer whale, Marc told her. The fact it was not a true killer whale didn't fill her with any confidence. It was still big enough to send them both flying with a toss of its wishbone tail, which bore an arrow-head-shaped scar. One enormous dark eye rolled wildly at his approach. Marc slowed and started speaking softly. Steadily. Random words that meant nothing.
The eye wasn't fooled for a minute.
But when Marc gently laid the saturated towel onto its parched skin, the eye rolled fully shut and the beast let off a mighty groan that vibrated the sand beneath Beth's feet. Her heart squeezed. It wasn't pain, it was sheer relief. She sprinted forward and met Marc in the water, hoping that he'd think the tears in her eyes were from the glare coming off the ocean.