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Thommo's Steak House, Bathurst, two years later
FINALLY, TWO YEARS AFTER the rest of her class, his best friend had graduated—and all her friends and family, including her husband and daughter, were here to celebrate the event.
After years of thinking Laila was the woman for him, Jim had wondered how he'd feel, seeing her as another man's wife, a mother, and pregnant again.
Now he knew.
The last flare of useless wishes and longings had ended three years ago, when he'd met Jake Sutherland, and known he was the man for her—so he'd helped them come together. His smile tonight was one of genuine joy for her happiness. He wished Laila the best in life, as he did for his sisters—and he knew she had it.
If he wondered when it'd be his turn, when he'd find a woman he truly cared for from the heart, who could love him back…well, that was natural, right? He was from a big, happy family, and he'd always wanted that kind of love and stability for himself.
A shame all he'd got the past few years was the kind of funtime girls who filled hours, not his life or heart. Why was it that the women who chased him were lightweights, and the women he really wanted, the kind of girls he could take home to meet the family, always saw him as a brother?
"I'm out. I'm getting some real action."
With a tiny start, he remembered he'd brought Shana tonight. He almost rolled his eyes at her terminology—Shana was twenty-two, but had an addiction to Hollywood teen flicks. He'd only brought her because she'd never been to Bathurst, and she'd begged to come.
Nice kid, but a lightweight, as always. "Sorry, Shana. I guess it's rough when you don't know anyone," he offered, knowing it sounded lame.
Her pretty, over-made-up face was pouting. "Even rougher when your date can't take his eyes off another girl," she muttered, for his ears alone.
Jim frowned. "It's her night. She's my best friend, and graduated two years after the rest of us. It's only right she gets the attention. For Pete's sake, she's a married woman!"
Shana's brows lifted. "Who, the brunette across from you?" A lightning-fast streak ran through him, a frisson of something—he didn't know what. Slowly, almost disbelieving, he turned around.
Danni Morrison was sitting across from him.
He'd been looking at Danni? Danni with the smart mouth and the bitter disgust of all men? Why on earth would he be looking at her?
Funny, but now he was looking, it felt natural—as if he'd been watching her so long that she'd slid into his comfort zone.
No. He could never call anything about Danni comfortable. haunting face. More than pretty, not quite lovely, but delicate, dark and wistful, he knew if he ever had to describe her to an artist, he could have recalled each feature. He could have done so any time in the past ten years.
Why, he didn't know; she'd never treated him with anything but disdain and sarcasm. After ten years he knew almost nothing about her—she'd never let any guy close enough to her to know her. What he did know of her made him certain she wasn't the sort of woman he'd want in his life. He'd always hated the kind of mordant sarcasm she used as a protective shell around her.
Yet, he could drink in her face all night and never tire of it. Had he been staring at her all night without being aware of it? It seemed ridiculous to him, yet he was doing it now, and it didn't feel like the first time.
"Yeah, good luck with that," came the quiet, mocking voice in his ear. "I'd never have thought a human battlefield was your type. I'm off to find a nightclub. I'll get my own way back home."
Shana picked up her bag and walked out. Jim knew he should call her back, or at least offer to drive her somewhere, but his manners had deserted him. He was too stunned by the fact that he couldn't stop staring at the woman across from him.
Danni shifted on her seat and frowned at her plate of baked vegetables as if she sensed his gaze, or his inner disquiet. Or maybe it was the steak house getting to her…if she was still a strict vegetarian as she'd been during their university days.
She was as ethereal as she'd always been. He'd have thought almost two years in Europe, working, touring and visiting her German relatives would have fattened her up a bit, but she still had that waiflike look to her—the touch of faerie. Dark hair like a waving river down her back, fathomless caramel-brown eyes and restless hands; her features so delicate she seemed lost inside her gentle prettiness.
Until she opened her mouth, that is. Then the notion that she was a delicate woman in need of male protection was blasted apart. She could give an armoured tank lessons on keeping up protective shells. She scared the living daylights out of any man who ventured near her without their defensive weapons raised and ready.
Don't patronise me had been her favourite phrase, among a hundred lines designed to keep the barbed-wire fence around her space from being breached.
"Have I got gravy on my nose, Haskell?" Jim snapped out of his reverie with Danni's withering tone.
"No, just the usual ice around your heart," he said without thinking—and he could have cut out his tongue, when he saw her reaction. Not that she paled, or flinched; nothing so obvious for the iron maiden. Her eyelids flickered, that was all; but in that moment, a flash of vulnerability shone in her eyes.
Then he remembered, knew why he couldn't stop watching her tonight—and why she was so aware of his attention, instead of ignoring him as she always had before.
Two years ago, at their graduation celebration. Even in the midst of his family's joy at his gaining the cap and scroll—the first alumni in his poor country family—he'd missed his best friend like crazy, and wandered around the hall as if he'd somehow be able to find Laila. Knowing it was stupid, he'd been unable to stop, feeling more and more lost and alone. He'd missed having someone to talk to, to laugh with. He could have taken a date—one of several, he'd always been popular—but none of them were Laila, and that day had been too important to waste on what he privately termed a "fluffy girl."
Then he'd seen Danni in the middle of a conversation with one of the many veterinary surgeons who'd come looking for new talent. The man, at least twenty years older than Danni, had been sending out signals impossible to ignore…and Danni's wistful, pretty face had grown more derisive by the moment.
He didn't doubt her ability to handle the jerk; but by the look on her face, he'd known whatever she'd been about to say would have destroyed her career chances for years to come.
And the dirty slimebag was touching her.
Why, he still had no idea, but before he knew it, he'd strolled up as if she'd been the one he'd been looking for all night, wrapped his arm around her waist and claimed her as his woman with a cheerful grin. He'd kissed her with the casualness of longterm intimacy—a kiss that seemed to reroute his brain circuits for a few seconds—and then he'd pulled himself together, and extolled her talents as a veterinary surgeon. Within seconds, he'd got the man back onto the strictly professional path.
He'd expected no thanks for his intervention—maybe perhaps more of a verbal assault about how "sisters are doing it for themselves" from miniature Sherman tank Danni Morrison—but instead of either, she'd given him an amazed, sweet, wondering look…the look of a woman who had finally seen him as a man.
An attractive man, a man whose touch had made her feel something.
He'd never dreamed of getting that kind of look from Danni, had never wanted it from her, either. At least, he hadn't realised how amazing it was to be a man wanted by a woman like Danni until that moment. Seeing her battle-weary face soften into radiance so strong it was terrifying…and it was because of him.
Why had he kissed her a second time? He still had no good answer—except that the first kiss had been so good. And to his disbelief, it had been even more amazing. Scary, addictive stuff….
And then, she'd asked him out. And taken his hand in hers, looking up at him as if he was something wonderful….
The kind of look Laila had given him the first time he'd rescued her. A warning shout had reverberated in his head, Get out of here! You'll only get hurt again.
And he'd made a hurried excuse and walked away. What else could he have done?
He came back to the present, and saw the change. Danni's chin was up, her eyes glittering defence, her mouth opening to give him the broad side of her smart tongue.
He'd be willing to bet she had another few hundred attacking lines by now, and in a few different languages…and he'd deserve it.
"I'm sorry, Danni, that was a rude and unnecessary thing to say," he said with quiet sincerity. She deserved the apology—both for now, and for two years ago. He'd walked off on the strength of the look in her eyes, when it had probably been simple gratitude. Danni wasn't used to anyone doing anything for her…or maybe she wasn't used to being kissed. He'd never seen her with a guy in all the years they'd been in the same group.
Her half-open mouth stopped there. He should have been glad he'd routed the attack for once, but all he could think was how pretty her mouth was like that—how kissable. She was so lovely when she didn't use her mouth to destroy the opposition. If he could just keep her mouth busy with other things, such as soft and pliant beneath his…
He swore beneath his breath. She'd been through more than enough pain with her parents" crazy Hundred Years'War. He'd be damned if he'd add to it, no matter how lovely she was, or how lost. How tempting.
Hardening his will, he turned his head, forcing his gaze elsewhere.
And saw Laila's little, knowing grin before it vanished. He narrowed his eyes at her in warning not to go there, but all she did was wink and whisper to Jake. Jake's sudden grin and discreet thumbs-up told Jim his best friend had relayed the news to her husband.
Laila knew him too well. The vision had been planted now, the seed taken flower. He wanted Danni, and only distance—and another willing woman or three—would supplant it. And that was only if he was very lucky; it only worked with the women who didn't matter.
And Danni mattered from the time Laila had told him why she had so many barricades around herself. He might not wander into her line of fire, but he'd never hurt her, either.
Fantastic. Another woman he wanted so much it hurt, and he couldn't do a thing about it. If he followed his normal pattern, he'd be hopelessly lusting after Danni for years—just as he had with Laila, and before that with Maddy Carlson throughout high school. What was it about him that made him so attractive to every woman except the ones he truly liked?
Except that this time, Danni wants you, too. You saw it two years ago, you saw it again tonight. You can have her, and get her out of your system—but there's something vulnerable about her. Don't hurt her.
With a savage curse, Jim jerked to his feet and stalked out of the restaurant.
Two amused grins followed him—and one confused frown. Danni didn't know what to make of it. She turned to Laila. "What's going on with Jim? He's normally so easygoing, but tonight he's like a hissing cat on hot bricks." His face—he had always been gorgeous, in his cheerful, uncomplicated way—had been filled with quiet storms, soulful and yet hot, drawing her gaze to him over and over. And the way he'd kept staring at her—what was that about?
Her dearest friend in the world chuckled, breaking into her thoughts. "I'm guessing you'll soon find out, Danni. Don't forget to give me the goss. I'd like to see my two best friends happy." Laila patted her hand and squeezed it.
She forced a frown to quell the direction of Laila's thoughts. "You're out of your tree, Laila. Haskell and I have known and disliked each other too many years to change now."
Laila had known her too long to be put off by the belligerent tone. "Tell it to yourself, babe. The heated looks between you have been flying thick and fast all night." She sighed and rubbed her belly. "Junior's very active tonight. It's all his father's fault."
"His father?" Jake and Danni asked at the same moment, with sly smiles. It was a regular joke after the birth of her very feminine daughter Ally, whom tomboy Laila had been so certain would be a boy.
Laila mock-glared at them each in turn. "Yeah, yeah, rub it in, both of you. Have your fun, while I suffer under the kick zone here."
Danni dragged in a quiet sigh of relief that Laila dropped the Jim-topic. After the moment of unbearable sweetness two years ago and his sudden abandonment, she knew better than to think of how Jim had just been looking at her.
Except that she was thinking of it.
Beneath the table, she clenched her fists. What was it with her? She should know better than to hope—so why did she? He'd rescued her once—so what? It was in Jim's nature to rescue people. And if for a short time she'd felt something for him…hoped, as she'd never done before with any man…that moment had shattered when he'd made his excuses and bolted at a gazillion miles an hour, as if she'd threatened him with slow torture.
It was no big deal. If nothing in her life had prepared her for Jim's brand of kindness without agenda, or the unexpected hot sweetness that burst through her at his touch, she could handle it now. Over eighteen months of distance—crossing the world to get that distance—might not have replaced him, but at least she could see the truth right in front of her.
Some people were born for love and happy endings. It was not for her. She'd known that from the age of eight, when she'd tried to play Barbie and Ken with the other girls. Her dolls had always got embroiled in sarcasm matches and screaming rows. Her friends had thought it hilarious, but even at that tender age, some deep-buried part of her had known she wasn't normal. She didn't know how to give or receive love like the other girls. She didn't know how to be happy, or to trust in any rare moments of joy lasting. Not for her.
It wasn't in the genetics. She and Laila couldn't be more opposite, let alone she and Jim—and that was leaving out all the things they did differently, like their work methods and their diets. Laila and Jake's entire clan was here, singing family celebration songs, vying for the privilege of holding littleAlly. Jim's family was big, noisy and loving, and they all made the trek down here to celebrate Jim's every achievement, coming over four hundred kilometres from the back of beyond to be with him.
Danni had chosen this university because it was three hundred kilometres from Sydney—and her home. Her parents had come to every one of her milestones, but had sat at opposite ends of the room and competed with icy precision for her attention.
No, not for her attention, for her to listen: they needed to spill their latest complaints about each other into her unwilling ears.
She was all they had, she knew that. Yet she'd only seen her parents once since she'd returned from Germany three months before.
The visit had ended after only two hours. Having gained space from them during her time in Europe, enduring their constant harping and sly, nasty comments about each other had been more than she could tolerate. After more than twenty years, she'd finally lost it.
Why don't you separate and find your own lives? she'd said as she'd headed for the door. You should have done it when I was little, then I wouldn't be so screwed up now.You didn't stay together for my sake, you just want to keep punishing each other forever. I can't stand any more. I'm your daughter, not your referee!
Since that day, her mum and dad had phoned her every day as usual, but although they'd tried apologising, asking, and finally begging her to come home, she couldn't force herself to go back. If she had to hear one more snide, sarcastic remark between them…it felt as if she were dying of slow suffocation, a strangling of her spirit. It might entertain them, but it only hurt her, and reinforced the reasons why she'd never be normal.
She came out of her reverie to the realisation that something was wrong. By instinct, her gaze swerved to the large French doors leading onto the back veranda.
Jim stood leaning against the doorway talking into his phone, looking at her, yet it was as if she wasn't there; his whole with quiet storms.
It was none of her business.
She turned her eyes back to the table, determined to show everyone that she didn't care. She forced a smile to her face, and joined in the laughter and teasing common to their group of friends, but rare for her.
She couldn't do it. Just as she always responded to wounded creatures in distress, she had to look at him…she had to know.
He no longer leaned on the doorpost, but stood rigid in the doorway, his face so hard it seemed carved in dark marble. His laughing eyes were like flint; his nostrils were flared. She'd never seen laid-back Jim look so shocked, or so thoroughly furious.And the pain inside the depths of those coffee-dark eyes…
He flipped his phone shut, turned on his heel and stalked back outside. She could almost feel little flicks of lightning following in his wake.
"Go to him," Laila whispered.
Shocked, Danni stared at her friend. "Me? Jim and I aren't even friends. You should be the one to help him. He loves you. He'll accept your help."
Laila's eyes grew misty with tears. "I can't." She lowered her gaze for a moment. "I've been having the Braxton-Hicks contractions all day, on and off. I have to rest…and—and…" she sighed, her face filled with the wretchedness of guilt. "Please, just go to him. Make sure he's all right—for me?"