Read an Excerpt
Two months later
She had to tell him.
From the corner of a shadowed stall, Laila watched him her man, if only she could get him to see her, talk to her, to listen for longer than twenty seconds. But those incredible, amber-gold eyes were filled with shadows, even beneath his Akubra hat. He was stalking into the barn, a mug in one hand and a letter in the other.
Jake Connors never simply walked anywhere. Nothing he did was simple. He moved around Wallaby Station as if chased by a horde of demons. He wore his intensity like a second skin: a storm cloud flicking tiny bolts of lightning, never allowing it to fully unleash.
Even after that night, and his abrupt desertion of her bed before sunrise, making it clear ever since that he wanted to forget what happened between them, something about him called to the woman in her in a way no other man ever had.
Would he speak to her this time? Would he finally meet her eyes?My hands are shaking.
Excitement, terror, the deep, craving ache wouldn't goawayfor him, only for him. Without even trying, Jake Connors had turned her into a woman she didn't recognize.
Where had her stubborn independence gone, all her pride in making her life work her way? Laila Robbins didn't need a man to make her completeshe could do it on her own. Growing up the baby of the family, with two older brothers and a father fiercely overprotective of his only daughter, she knew how it felt to be stifled in a man's world.
Thank heaven Dar had chosen his second wife wisely. Within days of their marriage, Marcie became the mother Laila could barely remember. By the time Laila was eighteen, Marcie's influence had led her to an independent life in Bathurst, with a job all her own, her choice of studyand Dar and the boys giving her a measure of distance. If not for Marcie, she knew one or another of them would be on her doorstep every weekend, vetting her life, her job, friends, the men looking at hermaking certain she got it right. Their little girl couldn't be allowed to hurt, to feel, to experience life like normal girls.
She was the Robbins princessand she couldn't be allowed out of the ivory tower.
Laila adored her stepmother for giving her spaceand dignity. Marcie let her live her life, her way, without Dar and the boys constantly in her face, filling her life to overflowing. Marcie had taught her to exercise her independence, and hang on to it against all odds. Never would she be subjugated to a man's will, a man's anxiety, ever again.
Yet from the day Jake Connors came to Wallaby to jackaroo at her father's massive Outback sheep property, a self-contained man, with depths he let no one explore, she'd felt the change begin. Curiosity soon became fascination with the first tipping of his hat and polite greeting. He knew who she was, and didn't care.
When fascination had become enthrallment, she wasn'tcertain; she was lost inside it before she could stop it, and he didn't even have a clue.
Even now, a year and two months since they meteven when she was hundreds of miles away attending university he was always there in her mind. His amber-gold eyes lived as a separate entity in her imagination; his hands and lips that had given herwhat? Deeper than ecstasy, stronger and more binding than physical bliss, he'd somehow wound himself insidiously around her heart like a vine, holding on with a tenacity she couldn't fight or deny.
And the anguished need he'd shown for her that night had made the girl a woman on a far deeper level than anything their bodies had done.
Being with Jake was everything she'd never even dreamed of. Exquisite, almost unbearable in its poignancyand unforgettable. She dreamed of their loving, but more, she dreamed of him. She ached, burned and wished, less for a return of the physical beauty he'd given her than for that which eluded her, before that night and ever sincethe essence of the real man inside.
One night of bliss, followed by months of misery. Was it worth it? She honestly couldn't say
Was this love? She didn't know, but to have any form of life from now on, she had to find out; and for the sake of the life growing inside her, she needed to know her baby's father.
He'd barely spoken a word to her that night; but then, she hadn't needed him to talk. His anguish had been a living, pulsing thing, so searing and vivid that mere words would have cheapened it. He'd turned to her, needing comfort, and she'd melted. Five years of cynical resistance faded with a single touch, turning a crush, an infatuation into
She was terrified to name what she felt for Jake, but was too honest with herself to lessen her emotion. No man had ever done so much to her without asking anything back.
That night, she'd discovered the heady power of the silent man, and the compelling magnetism of all he left unspoken. He hadn't thought about her wealth or her family name, or her inheritance: he didn't care about those things. She had to know that. He'd never once tried to hit on her, even when he must have known, must have seen her absolute and utter fascination with him, her inability to see any man but him.
No. That night he'd needed her, as no man had before. The sweetest aphrodisiac she'd ever known. But he'd refused to look at her since his awkward apology the morning after that one glorious night. For the past two months he wouldn't speak to her, or mention her name.
Was it his fear of that need repeating that had him on the run now?
She hoped to heaven that she was rightbecause now she needed him, needed him to be there for her as she'd been for him that single, exquisite night; and if he didn't want herif she had just been a female bodythe biggest gamble of her life would fail.
Absolution and redemption didn't come cheap to any man; and though it might come in time for some, as far as John Jacob Sutherland was concerned, never was too soon for him. Yet here it was again, another chance at forgiveness he could barely stand to read, let alone accept. Not after what he'd doneor what he hadn't done.How am I supposed to forget that I killed my wife? Leaning against the cold, dark wall of the barn, a pitchfork in his hand and two scraps of paper in the other, his half-congealed cup of coffee on the slat rail long forgotten, Jake reread his sister's latest letter that came to him via the faceless lawyer in Sydney.
I pray this letter reaches you safely. Please, just writeto me or call, and let me know you're alive and well? Five years and not one wordit hurts, Jake, especially now Dad's gone. Burrabilla feels empty without you here. Aaron feels the same. He loves Burrabilla but it was always yours. It just feels wrong here without you.
I have to tell you, Mum came home a few months ago, and she's here to stay. I know you won't be happy about it, but she needs to be here, and Aaron and I want her. Please don't think it's because you didn't do a good job raising usyou didbut she's our mother, and there are reasons she left, apart from what Dad told us. She'd like to see you, to make things right.
Please, Jake, come home. I'm sure Bill and Adah don't blame you for what happenedor Darren, either. Jenny wouldn't want you to do this to yourself. I know she wouldn't, she was my best friend. She'd want you to be happy. I know you feel responsible for what happened, but weren't we all? We all left her there that day.
Please, just one call, one letter. Is that too much to ask of my brother? We love you. We miss you. I miss you. Sandy
Jake closed his eyes, gripping the two sheets of paper so hard in his hands they tore down the middle, wishing to God that he could close off his heart, his memories, with such ease. Though it was late winter, the sweat on his brow beaded, banded together and trickled down his face. Slowly he pulled off his Akubra, and the wide-brimmed hat fell to the floor with the pieces of the destroyed letter as he wiped shaking hands on dirty, dusty jeans.
So his mother had come home, after twenty-six years, seeking forgiveness. It seemed Sandy and Aaron had already given it. Fair enough; Mum had gone when they were onlyseven. They didn't remember their dad's utter heartbreak. They hadn't had to fit school in their spare time while they ran the place, until Dad finally gave up hoping Mum would come back, and hired a housekeeper.
So she wanted to make things righthe felt something like hysterical laughter bubbling up inside. How can you undo the past? How do you make the worst of wrongs come right? Maybe she had some answers for him. God knows he needed some answers on the subjectbut then, her sins hadn't killed anyone.
Jake slumped against the wall of the tack room, letting his back slide down the splintery wood until his butt hit solid ground. He could sit a while. It was "smoke-oh" time at Wallaby Station, in the fertile Riverina area southeast of Broken Hill.
"Smoke-oh" was the time of day that city people called morning tea. Jenny had called it morning tea, even though she'd grown up on the land. Three years in Brisbane had taken some of the Outback out of the girluntil Jake had met his sister's old friend again, fell for her, courted and married her inside of a month. He'd taken his bride to Burrabilla, the Sutherland Outback property for four generations. Jenny was queen to his king. He'd felt as if he owned the world back then, with a gorgeous bride to prove it.
"Smoke-oh" became "morning tea" for the year that Jenny ruled her Outback palace; but by the time their first anniversary came around, she was dead.
Now he owned nothing, wanted nothing. He was a jackaroo, an almost thirty-eight-year-old common worker in the Outback, rounding up sheep, riding fences, caring for the horses and livestock. This was all the future he had the right to expect, and "smoke-oh" was good enough for the likes of him.
He had ten minutes to pull himself together before the guys came looking for him. If they saw him looking like he'd beenstretched over a burning-hot rack, they'd want to know why. These rough, kindhearted guys let him have his solitude most of the time, sensing his need to be alone, but they'd never leave him in this kind of agony.
He didn't deserve their concern. He wasn't worthy of the welcome home Sandy hinted about in the letter. Jenny's parents Bill and Adah couldn't have forgiven him. He couldn't face the hand of friendship Jenny's brother Darren might extend to himbecause if he searched for the rest of his life he wouldn't find any echo of redemption inside his own soul.
He had blood on his hands, because he'd been too busy to hear Jenny when she'd said her back felt strange that morning. He'd offered to stay home, but even he'd heard the halfheartedness, the impatience in his voice. Surely it was only the weight of the baby pressing against her back? His mind had been on getting the cattle to market for the yearling sales.
Jenny had smiled and said she'd be fine; the baby wasn't due for eight weeks. It was probably just stretching discomfort, and a bit of bending and stretching to paint the bottom of the nursery walls would help.
He'd nodded, relieved; though he loved Jenny deeply, and was excited about their coming child, he'd had a cattle muster on his mind. He'd have all the time in the world for his family in just a few daysand meanwhile, the bit of room arranging she wanted to do wouldn't hurt. A little bit of nesting would keep her busy while he was gone.
Now every muster time half killed him with the memory of what might have been. He shouldn't have gone. He should never have left her. Banning her from climbing ladders hadn't been enough. If she hadn't climbed the chair to hang a baby mobile because he'd been too busy thinking of profit-loss and the stupid cattle.
So now he didn't do muster: he didn't work with cattle atall. Sheep were his business nowno, they were Brian Robbins's business. He just worked here.
He jammed on his hat, picked up the crumpled pieces of Sandy's letter and walked through to the main barn. He grabbed the pitchfork, shoved the torn shreds on it, and pitched the shredded remains of his sister's loving forgiveness deep into the heart of the drying hay bale. Loving, wishingregret. All the love and wishing in the world couldn't undo the past.
Time to get back to work. The one thing he took solace inhe loved the hard work entailed in keeping a massive property running.
"That won't get rid of her, you know."
He froze, but behind him the amused voicea voice whose soft breathiness he'd spent months trying to ram out of his memorycarried on.
"Women aren't so easy to put behind you. You can walk away, but the memory remains to haunt you, like a bad smell you can't get off your shoes. You can hose it off, but just when you think it's all washed away, it comes rising up again to remind you of where you've been."
He swung around, pitchfork still in his hands, wielding it before him like a physical shield against the probing of his wounds. She was the voice of his conscience, a memory that should never have happenedand she was about to twist a knife only she knew existed.
Or did everyone know what he'd done? He could barely remember a thing before she'd taken him outsideand up to her room. Everyone in the local area could know what happened. The guys had definitely treated him with more respectful wariness since the party.
She stepped out of the shadows of an empty stall, jean-clad and booted, hat in hand, into the aureole of sunshine spilling from the skylight above. Her hair, a bright, burnished auburn, glowed like a warm halo around her. And that impudent grinof hers lit up her lightly tanned, pretty face. This girl had the world on a plate, and she knew it.
"Hello, Jake Connors. How unusual, you're hiding out in the barn at break time. Sociable creature, aren't you?"
Connors was the name he'd gone by for the past five years. It seemed fitting at the time, taking Jenny's maiden name, living the life she'd lost; yet it felt like a sick lie, coming from the lips of this pretty, vital girl, who'd broken his five-year barriers with a touch.
Laila Robbins made him feel things he no longer had a right to, like sweetness and joy and hope. The shattered remnants of that night lived inside him still, leaving him unsure and ashamed to face her. If she knew the truth about his past, she wouldn't have come within a mile of him, let alone touched him.
His heart thudded in his chest. He couldn't smile at her, not when it felt like she could see right through him to the hideous truth beneath his stoic silence. "G'day, miss. Nice to see you."
"You're such a liaryou've been avoiding me since I came home. And you know my name's Laila," she returned softly, those soft, silvery blue, twinkling eyes of hers sparkling with lifeeating him up inside. "You called me Laila the night of Dar and Marcie's party."
That amazing nightthe night he'd cursed himself for ever since.
Why had he ever let himself get bludgeoned into attending the anniversary bash, only a day before the fifth anniversary of Jenny's death? He'd seen the girl's eyes lingering on him whenever he was near herand she was close to him too often for his peace of mind.
And he found himself looking back at her far too often. He didn't know why she was different to every other woman; he only knew she dragged his gaze to her like a dumb fish to a death lure. She wasn't prettier than those women, or morefeminine. She was just Laila, straight-shooting Outback girl, impudent and strong, innocent and wise, with eyes that saw straight through his unbreakable facade as she had that night, and gave him the comfort that led to a night he'd never forget and forever regret.