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SHE was sitting alone at the bar with her back to him, so he wasn't sure why she caught his attention. Perhaps it was because she seemed so different from the rest of the under-thirty-fives who packed the Hippo Bar for Friday-night cocktails. No laughter or mad flirting for her.
She was staring at her empty cocktail glass, stirring what was left of the ice cubes with a tiny black straw, oblivious to the happy commotion going on all around her.
Her clothes were different, too. No tight hipster jeans or bare midriff, no outrageous jewellery or span-gly glitter.
Her shiny dark hair was caught up in a simple knot and her dress, something dark and feminine with one shoulder bare, offered a clear view of the graceful line of her neck and shoulders. Her skirt wasn't especially short but it managed to reveal rather shapely legs.
He wanted to see her face; if it matched the rest of her it was, at the very least, elegant.
And then, miraculously, she turned and his lungs compressed as if he'd free-dived to the bottom of the Coral Sea. She was quite, quite lovely.
Her eyes were clear grey, her nose classic and her mouth lush. She'd dusted her eyelids with smoky hues and had drawn a fine black line to skim her lower lashes. The make-up gave her a dramatic, dusky allure.
A disturbing fantasy flashed into living Technicolor in his head. He saw her in a different setting, somewhere remote, far away from this city, and she was leaning towards him, her dark eyelashes spiky and wet...her cheeks flushed, her pink lips softly parted...and her eyes were begging him to make love to her.
He cursed softly at his foolishness and spun on his heel, eager to move on, to find a quieter, less crowded bar. But he made the fatal mistake of glancing back over his shoulder.
And this time, he was touched more by her air of solitude than her beauty. Her gaze was fixed on a spot in the distance, and yet she was staring at it without interest, as if she was seeing something else, some inner turmoil.
He recognised that look. He knew the loneliness hovering like a shadowing hawk behind her lovely eyes. There were many times he'd felt that.
Tonight was one of them.
Each year, this anniversary became more and more difficult and he'd chosen to fly north to Cairns a few days earlier than his business commitments required, simply to avoid spending this particular night in Sydney.
He'd planned to spend the night alone—content to be a sightseer, wandering this sultry, tropical city at whim, hoping to blank out bad memories by renewing his acquaintance with the sights and sounds and smells of the far north. A solitary stranger in town.
But now he'd seen the girl at the bar. And his plans had to change.
Alice was trying to be brave.
It wasn't easy to sit alone in a bar on her thirtieth birthday. Alone, for heaven's sake! She had a right to feel down. Seriously down.
The annoying thing was that she had no one but herself to blame; she'd run away from her birthday party. Not the party her workmates had wanted to throw, but the family gathering her mother had insisted on arranging.
Very early in the night, Aunt Bettina had voiced the family's collective thoughts.
"Poor Alice," she'd said, her voice choking, while her eyes became moons of sympathy. "Married before twenty and divorced before thirty. It's a crying shame."
No one—repeat, no one—not a single member of the Madigan family had ever been divorced. Louisa, the family's genealogy expert, had researched on the Internet, so she was certain of this.
No one had been infertile either. And if the men in Alice's family had ever indulged in extramarital affairs, their women kept very quiet about it. It was an unspoken family law that Madigan women hung on to their husbands.
Alice had committed all three crimes—infertility, an unfaithful husband and a divorce. She was the family failure.
She'd been trying hard to feel good about herself in spite of these disasters. She'd survived a wrecked marriage with her ego intact—just. She knew that she was better alone than she'd ever been with Todd. And she'd learned the bitter lesson that a woman shouldn't rely on others—certainly not a husband or babies—to make her happy or to give meaning to her life.
It was up to her.
She'd come a long way in the past six months. But tonight her family made her feel like an obliterated body in a single-vehicle crash. No hope. Dead on arrival.
As if turning thirty wasn't a miserable enough milestone in any woman's life. As celebrations went, her party had been a flop.
And as soon as the cake was cut she'd made her excuses, claiming that her workmates, who hung out at the Hippo Bar on Friday nights, were waiting for her.
The only problem was that her friends weren't expecting her and by the time she arrived they'd moved on to a nightclub somewhere, and Alice didn't have the heart to track them all over town on their cell-phones.
So here she was. On the night of her big Three-O. Looking down the barrel of the rest of her life. Alone.
Alice blinked at the barman and he pointed to her empty glass. "Did you enjoy the French Kiss?"
"Yes, it was delicious." 'So you want to try another cocktail?" Should she have another? Why not? This wasn't a night for being careful. Picking up the menu, she scanned the list of outrageous names and smiled. "I think I'll be adventurous and go for a Screaming Orgasm this time." 'And I'll have one, too," said a lazy voice beside her.
Alice spun to her left and was surprised to find a man sitting on the stool right next to her. When had he arrived?
He smiled. Slowly. It was a smile that started at his eyes—light blue, clever and good-humoured—and took its time reaching his mouth. With the same lack of haste he let his gaze linger on her and he didn't try to hide the fact that he liked what he saw.
Something about his eyes and the very male way he was checking her out made her stomach feel ridiculously weightless—as if she'd suddenly toppled over the edge of a cliff.
"Hi," the stranger said. Alice had no experience of meeting men in bars; her ex-husband had been her first boyfriend and she'd married him before she was out of her teens. If only she could think of some smart, metro-chick response.
"Hi, yourself," she replied.
At a guess, he was in his mid-thirties. He had dark brown hair with just the faintest hint of silver at the temples and a longish face. A strong face. He was lean and suntanned and dressed in chinos and an open-necked white shirt with long sleeves rolled back.
"You seem to be drinking alone," he said. "It's not a healthy habit."
Alice felt compelled to defend herself. "It's not actually a habit. This is a one-off experience."
He accepted this with a slight nod. "Are you having fun?"
"The best." She straightened her shoulders. "What about you?" 'I prefer the company of others." 'But you're on your own tonight." 'Ah, yes," he admitted and he sent her another slow smile. "But then, I have an excellent excuse."
She drew a deep breath, aware that a kind of game had begun and the ball was in her court. "You just got out of jail?"
His eyes widened slightly and then he chuckled. "In a manner of speaking. I've escaped from Sydney. I only arrived in town today and I don't know anyone." His blue gaze held hers for breathtaking seconds. "Yet."
OK. Now was the point when she should give this guy the brush-off. But their drinks arrived. And before she could pay, her neighbour pushed several bills across the bar.
"My shout," he said.
She was about to protest. But she changed her mind. Why the heck shouldn't she test her wings on a little light flirtation? She was thirty—and for the first time in her adult life she was out on the town as a free agent; two good reasons to let a rather nice-looking guy chat her up in a bar.
If he wanted to.
And if she decided she wanted to let him. "So, what's your excuse for drinking alone?" he asked her.
"Aliens abducted my friends." One dark eyebrow lifted. "How unfortunate for them."
"Yes. I guess they'll wake up in the morning with their memories wiped clean."
He grinned. "It's happened to a few of my mates after a night on the town."
Picking up her drink, Alice took a slow sip. "What do you think of the cocktail?" She tried to feel detached as she watched the movements of his lips while he tasted his drink.
"Not bad." 'Have you had one of these before?" 'No." He held his glass to the light and gave the contents a swirl before taking a longer sip. And then he flashed her a wicked smile. "This is my very first Orgasm."
She almost choked, gasped for breath. A cloud of steam rose through her and she tried to ignore it. Stay cool, Alice. Lifting her glass, she offered him a shaky salute. "Don't drink too fast, then."
And just as she wondered if she was getting out of her depth, she was rescued by a voice calling from across the bar.
"Hey, Alice—happy birthday!" It was a guy who worked in the same building as she did. He must have seen the banner the girls had strung in the foyer this morning. She didn't know him very well, so she gave him a quick wave and hoped he wouldn't come over. The conversation with this stranger was bordering on crazy, but she didn't want to be interrupted. Maybe it was the cocktails, but she was feeling a weird but wonderful sense of connection with him.
"Happy birthday, Alice?" the stranger asked, and he frowned sharply. "Is it really your birthday?"
Oh, man. He looked upset. Was it because he'd realised she was a dead-set loser, abandoned by everyone on her birthday? She'd been hoping to come across as a very together urban goddess.
"I have a thing about birthdays," she said, quickly. "I never celebrate them. What are birthdays, after all? Here today, gone tomorrow. I mean, why make a big fuss about turning—oops!"
"Fair enough," he said more equably. "Although I've always thought that turning oops was something of a milestone." Again his eyes held hers and they twinkled with such obvious amusement that she fancied she must have imagined that earlier frown.
"There's something to be said for making the most of any reason to celebrate," he added.
She raised her glass. "I'm celebrating." But she didn't drink. She suspected she'd already had enough and set the glass down again. "This conversation is getting a little lopsided." She needed to change the subject before she got herself into trouble. "You already know my name and my date of birth and I don't know the first thing about you."
"What would you like to know?" Are you married? He wasn't wearing a ring but that didn't mean a darn thing. "Your name?"
"Liam. And if you're worried about an equal exchange of information, I'm thirty-six, or perhaps I should say oops plus six," he added with a smile. "And..." He paused.
"And?" She tried unsuccessfully to keep the curiosity out of her voice.
"It's my birthday today, too." 'You're joking." 'Not at all." He pulled a wallet from his back trouser pocket and flipped it open on the bar. And there was his driver's licence. Conway, Liam Cooper. And sure enough, his date of birth was the fifth of September.
Alice frowned suddenly. Liam Cooper Conway. Where had she heard that name? Liam Conway. Mr Conway. Dr Conway. Professor Conway. Inspector Conway?
No...she was dreaming. She'd never met him before. Besides, he said he was from Sydney. He had a New South Wales driver's licence and he'd already told her he'd just arrived in town.