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Another squat boab tree dropped its leaves as Sophie Sullivan drove past, a sure sign the wet season was nearly over. She sounded her car horn at the frilled-neck lizard basking in the middle of the dirt track and he reared on hind legs, spread his neck frill and hissed until he seemed much more than he really was.
At least the craggy red mountains that embraced her were true, she thought, as she drove towards the boulder-strewn river—that range was a dear part of home.
Home: far north Western Australia, the Kimberleys and a place blissfully away from the city and men who shed lies like the boab shed leaves.
Even the dusty Gibb River Road looked attractive until she saw the vehicle parked by the Pentecost and the motionless man beside the sluggish water.
More crocodile fodder. She sighed—travellers caused her no end of concern, especially ones who hovered for long periods at the edge of the crocodile-inhabited rivers.
The tourists parked by the river because of the view to the Cockburn Range across the ochre plains. Locals used the designated parking area at the top of the hill, well away from the water.
She pulled up next to the expensive all-terrain vehicle and wound down her window. 'You OK, there?'
The man didn't answer. He must've heard her truck. She was ten feet away from him. Careless and rude, she thought and narrowed her eyes. Finally he turned his head and glanced at her dismissively. 'Fine, thanks.'
He was big—Sophie couldn't help but notice— bigger than her brother, Smiley, who topped six-two, and this guy was very nicely muscled so he'd be a mouthful for any croc, but he was too close and too stationary in a dangerous spot. It would be a shame to waste the body, she thought dispassionately, and with the new knowledge from Brand-name Brad she could have done without, it would be a waste of the designer jeans and Rolex watch.
Congratulations were in order for her immunity from the male species. A hard-won but valuable lesson.
Sophie bit back another sigh. How did you tell someone to get back in their vehicle when they blatantly ignored you?
'You've seen the warnings?' She looked at the sign herself, read it under her breath even. 'Crocodiles Inhabit This Area. Keep Away from the Edge. Do Not Enter the Water.' But her reading it didn't make him face her. In fact, no further response to her at all.
Grrr. Spare me from arrogant males. Despite the flags that waved from the man to say go away, she tried one more time. 'About the crocodiles here?'
'Yes, thanks.' Far less cordial and this time he shifted his feet so he faced her. 'I'm just passing through.'
'You'll pass right through a croc,' she said drily. 'I lost my darling dog in a spot like this once.' And still had nightmares about the tragedy her lack of concentration had caused.
Then he looked directly at her. He wasn't to-die-for handsome, really, but he had those dark, dark lashes and an intense gaze that held her, effortlessly, until he dropped the connection as easily as he'd reeled her in. The trumpet call. Danger, and not from crocodiles. Her skin prickled.
'I'm sorry to hear about your pet.' He glanced back at the river before he looked again at her, to assess if she'd be a nuisance by the look of it, and Sophie could feel the warmth of the sun beat in the window, or she hoped that explained the heat.
Best not to become entangled in another look so she concentrated on a small scar on his chin that made him less imposing—more vulnerable, which was a funny thing to think about a stranger, but his mouth… She had a sudden ridiculous urge to see those lips smile.
Sophie searched for the question she'd asked.
He coughed and she looked up in time to see him roll his eyes, obviously used to stunned mullet expressions on passing females, and he didn't bother to hide the sigh. 'If I get attacked by a croc because I had to talk to you I'm going to be extremely unhappy.'
Sophie blinked. What the heck was she doing? So much for immunity! She obviously needed a booster shot against this guy, so leaving was a great idea. 'Right, then. Your funeral.' For the first time in ten years Sophie crunched the gears as she slipped her vehicle into reverse.
Levi Pearson turned back to contemplate the spot where his father had been taken five months ago. Or had he been pushed and the crocodile only secondary to his demise? He'd find out.
That tiny whiff of suspicion, something only he seemed to have sniffed, was the reason he'd flown up here after the wet season and why he'd asked his stubbornly determined sister not to mention their proper connection to Xanadu. That and the fact the other consultant he worked with had recommended a holiday for the tenth time in the past two years.
As soon as he'd confirmed or dismissed the concept of foul play he'd get her the hell out of downtown no-wheresville and back to Sydney. The manager here was more than capable of running Xanadu, and Levi didn't need another burden, but he'd discovered a motive he couldn't dismiss.
Lord knew the original owners of the station had enough reason to hate his family if the stories of his father were true.
He took his eye off the bank and risked a glance at the blonde woman's four-wheel-drive vehicle as it ploughed through the river away from him. Nothing else mattered. Hadn't for a long while. Definitely not a pair of concerned blue eyes under two stern eyebrows. Above a lush little mouth. He frowned. She'd been an officious little thing but strangely intriguing.
Still, he'd read the population of the Kimberley region was about thirty thousand people in an area slightly bigger than Germany and it was the last place he'd ever settle. So, he should be safe from bumping into her again. He didn't need the complication of fleeting sexual attraction to a cowgirl.
A stealthy splash to the left of where he stood had his attention firmly back on the water and Levi took a few steps towards the vehicle he'd borrowed from the resort. Probably better not to get eaten and give her the chance to say I told you so.
He could feel the twitch of his lips at the thought, along with surprise at the idea of smiling, something he hadn't done much of in the past year or two, and climbed back into his vehicle.
Nearly two hours later Sophie swerved around another pothole and the old four-wheel drive bounced off the thousandth corrugation on her way to Jabiru Station Township. They'd grade the road soon now the rain had stopped. She gritted her teeth to stop the jarring. Almost home.
Funnily enough, she wasn't tired. Hadn't been since the Pentecost. She didn't want to think about the man at the river any more. It had been one of those moments in time when you catch another person's eye and, for a second or two, glances tangle and reverberate, and then you both look away and the moment passes.
Except the moment seemed to last an eternity and she was still waiting for it to pass.
It had been one of those moments. Just a stranger. With great eyes. And a great body. And a great mouth. Even in the firm line, she remembered, his mouth had hinted at a fullness and dangerous curve that made her wonder how he'd got the scar. She hoped some hot-blooded woman had thrown a plate at him. Her lips twitched but she pulled them back into line. He'd looked like everything she didn't want in a man.
Stupid, obviously. She frowned. He didn't look stupid; actually, he'd looked fearsomely intelligent. So not stupid, maybe reckless. She didn't want that either, did she? No way.
Worst of all, he'd had the trappings of her ex. Stinking, selfishly, blatantly wealthy. Like Dr Brad Gale. The liar. She was finished with doctors and liars and people who thought they could buy you. And serve you a prenuptial at the same time.
She was glad to be home, in a place where people said what they meant and didn't string you along. Where she could be useful to those who needed her, and not as some decorative arm hanging, and definitely not confined to answering only when spoken to.
Sophie did wonder if her poor brother had become used to his bachelor ways while she'd been away. He'd looked surprised when she'd arrived to move back into her own room, even if 'Shortest engagement in history,' was all he'd said.
She drove through the tiny Jabiru Station Township— mostly pubs and boarded buildings—to their house, a modest timber residence with bull-nosed verandas on all sides and a tiny dry garden. Neat and comfortable, in the same state of disrepair as they'd inherited it from their parents, who'd inherited it from her father's parents after Granddad did that bad thing.
A place where Smiley could save every cent for his dream station, like the one his grandfather had been tricked out of in a card game all those years ago. Against a man who'd lied.
Not that Smiley lusted after Xanadu. He'd his own plans for a different station that accounted for his cattle having to be lodged all over the Kimberley while he saved for the land, but it irked Sophie that her own father and now Smiley had to scrimp so hard to make their way in the place they were born.
'You must've loaded the cattle early, because I didn't see the road train on the way in,' she said as she rounded the veranda, then stopped. He had someone with him.
Her brother's drawl seemed more noticeable, which was saying something, as his normal speech defined the word leisurely. 'Sophie.' He looked at her, and then indicated the petite dark-haired woman beside him. 'This is Odette. From Sydney. She's having a baby, and in the area for a week or so, and wanted to meet a midwife in case she had any problems.'
Sophie held out her hand and shook the young woman's perfectly manicured fingers. Nice expensive watch. Brad had bought her one just like it. She'd left it in Perth.
Sophie bit back the thought. He'd made her judgemental and that wasn't like her—or hadn't been before she'd tripped off to Perth for her midwifery. She needed to get her new prejudice under control. Wealthy tourists kept a lot of people in jobs around here.
'Nice to meet you, Odette. Welcome to Jabiru Station Township. You been waiting long?'
'I flew in an hour ago.' Her coral-coloured lips tilted as she smiled. She had a sweet face, Sophie thought, and well made up, which was interesting as the heat usually melted foundation around here. 'Guess I should have rung first but I thought the clinic was open.'
Sophie looked across the street to the old homestead that'd been turned into the clinic. 'I've been visiting an Aboriginal community. It's "women's health" day. Just takes a few hours to cover the distance around here.'
'So Smiley was explaining.' She looked shyly up at Sophie's brother. Goofily, Smiley actually smiled back, an occurrence that was so rare it had derived his nickname. Sophie felt herself frown. She'd never seen him look like that. Or be much into explaining anything. She'd be lucky to get a dozen words out of him on a normal morning.
'Odette flew herself in a chopper,' he said.
Impressive. 'You're a pilot? Wow.' And very pregnant, but she didn't say it.
Odette shrugged with a smile. 'I do it for fun. You're a midwife. Wow.'
Sophie had to laugh. 'I do that for fun too. My friend, Kate, the other midwife, flies her own plane from Jabiru Homestead.'
Odette exuded good nature and Sophie couldn't help liking her. 'So you're having a baby? And want a check-up? Come across to the clinic. Was there something you were worried about?'
Odette turned and smiled at Sophie's brother. 'Thanks, Smiley. I hope I get to see you again.'
He nodded and tipped his hat. The two women crossed the road and Odette looked back. 'Your brother's a handsome man.'
Sophie blinked. She'd never thought about it. He was just… Smiley. 'If he's not in the house he's got an Akubra on so I don't often see his face. I guess I still see skinned knees and freckles.'
'I didn't see any of those.' Odette sounded almost dreamy and Sophie grimaced. City-rich women and Smiley did not mix.
'Is it your husband's helicopter?' Not very subtle.
'I don't have a husband.' Odette was no fool and she met Sophie's eyes without a flicker. 'The father of my baby is dead.'
Bummer, for more reasons than one, Sophie thought. Was she being judgemental again? 'Sorry for being nosy.'
'That's OK. Better to get it out in the open anyway. He wasn't a nice man,' Odette went on. 'And the chopper belongs to the resort where I'm staying.'
'That would be Xanadu, then.' It wasn't a question. Xanadu. Now an ultra-high-end resort a hundred kilometres away, as the chopper flew, that catered for a Kimberley adventure in five-star luxury. Private suites, fine wine and cuisine, and escorted tours with private sittings in the hot springs and gorges. They'd turned it into a wilderness park with a few token cattle. Not like in Grandfather's day. 'I've never known them to lend the chopper before.'
Odette shrugged. 'I just asked the manager.' She looked across at Sophie. 'I could take you and Smiley up for a fly if you want.'
'Thanks, but maybe another time. Should you be flying when you're pregnant?'
'You sound like my brother.'
Now why did she suddenly think of the man at the river? 'Don't suppose he's a big bloke, scar on his chin, not into smiling.' The one who was 'just passing through.'
'You've met Levi?'
'Levi?' It seemed he was another person who was happy to bend the truth.