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'Oh, you are such a cheater…'
Lea Curran swiped at the tears in her eyes, convinced she was going to run off the gravel road any second. Cause of death? Laughter.
Amazing she could still laugh at all, really.
She trained her eyes on her daughter's face in the rear-view mirror. 'Since when does Boab start with a T?'
'T for tree.' Four-year-old Molly giggled. It set off the usual heart-squeeze in Lea. Her giggles gave way to full tummy-laughs and then to heaving, hacking coughs. Lea's smile stayed glued to her face through sheer will-power. She watched her daughter in the mirror for any sign that her distress was more than usual. But Molly—amazing Molly—just let the spasms pass, recovered her breath and went right on playing their driving game.
As though every kid in the world coughed when they laughed.
'Your turn, Mum.'
Lea shifted her eyes back to the road. 'I spy, with my little eye…'
Their game went on as bush scrub whipped past the car, kilometre after kilometre.
Molly's body might have been falling apart, but her four-year-old brain was as sharp as ever. She compensated for her extremely limited physical stamina with a relentless intelligence that certainly didn't come from the Curran side of the family. She could play this game for hours. They'd been on the road for three.
Molly finally identified Lea's 'W word—wing mirror— and looked expectantly at her mother for more.
'I spy…' Lea's chest clenched as she looked ahead '… something beginning with M.'
Her sharp little daughter didn't miss a beat. 'Mum?'
God, she loved her! 'Outside the car.'
'Oh.' Mini eyebrows scrunched down over serious brown eyes then shot up. She didn't notice their vehicle slowing. 'Monkey?'
'We're in the Kimberley, Molly, no monkeys here. Good try, though.' Lea glanced at the turn-off ahead and swallowed hard. A giant sign marked the turn-off for the Martin property.
'Min… am…' Molly read the giant red letters as best she could.
'Minamurra,' Lea assisted, turning the wheel and taking the car under the arched sign. Even she could hear the flat lifeless-ness in her voice as she added, 'You win.'
'Is that where we're going?'
'Nope.' Lea swallowed hard. 'It's where we are.'
Molly must have caught some of her mother's trepidation, because she would usually have laughed at Lea's corny joke. She sat higher in her booster seat and peered out of the window, gnawing on her lip—one-hundred percent from her mother, that little habit—then her eyes refocussed and her pale lips split in one of her blindingly heart-stopping smiles.
One-hundred percent her father's.
'Horses!' She pointed to where a dozen working-horses grazed peacefully in a paddock. The eucalypts lining the long drive whizzed by, making the pastoral scene look like an old flicker-film from the thirties.
Molly disappeared back into that place she went to when she was in a particularly happy mood, when she wasn't too sapped. Right now, she was talking about the horses with the invisible sisters she took with her everywhere. Imaginary Annas and Sapphies of her own.
Lea forced her focus off the mirror and up towards the house emerging through the eucalypts. The homestead seemed to grow towards them like something from a nightmare. Large, expensive and looming.
Her fingers started to tremble on the steering wheel.
A house like that had to have a family in it. It had no wife, as far as she'd found out, but maybe a girlfriend. Parents.
More obstacles. More people to judge her. More strangers for Molly.
She guided her car over a sequence of cattle grids into Minamurra's lush heart. Beautiful gardens offset the trappings of a working station: heavy equipment, sheds, stables, beat up four-wheel drives. They must have tapped straight into the aquifer to have this kind of green in the middle of a Kimberley dry season. She pulled to a halt in the shade of two towering kur-rajongs standing like sentinels at the base of old timber steps that cut up through the turfed knoll leading to the house. She left the engine and air-con running, and crossed to Molly's door.
As she cut around the front of the car, her eyes slid sideways and followed the long steps upwards just in time to see a tall figure emerging from the house onto the veranda, sliding a hat onto his head and staring curiously in their direction.
Lea held her breath.
The last time she'd seen him he'd been sprawled naked across the motel bed in a deep, exhausted sleep as she'd snuck out into the dawn like a thief. Pretty apt, as it turned out.
She bent down and kissed Molly through the open window and asked her to sit tight for a bit.
Not only was Reilly not expecting anyone, he definitely wasn't expecting anyone with legs like that. What was she doing— trying to climb in the back seat through the window? It looked like the car was trying to swallow her.
Or was she just trying to make a memorable first impression? She wouldn't be the first woman to drive all the way out here to try her luck: a waste of their fuel and his time.
He had nothing to offer them. Not these days. They came expecting Reilly Martin the national champion. King of the Suicide Ride. They left cursing him and kicking up dust in their haste to be gone. The in-between had grown too predictable. Too painful.
If this one turned around with suitcases in her hand, he would go back inside and lock the door. Bush code be damned.
No suitcases. His spine prickled and he squinted against the afternoon sun, trying to place her as her coltish legs carried her up the steps towards him. There was something about her. The higher she climbed, the more backlit she was by the sun blazing fiery and low in a deep-blue west Australian sky, until she was the best part of a rose-edged silhouette. Quite literally the best part. With her T-shirt tucked into her jeans, she was pure hourglass, and she moved towards him like one of his best mares.
This was no circuit-chaser.
'Hey,' the silhouette said softly.
Only his dirt-crusted boots stopped him from flinching backwards from the hoof to the belly that was her voice. One word, one syllable, from the apparition approaching and he knew in an instant. The soft voice was burned into his memory, like his diamond-M marked the flesh of Minamurra's horses.
It was her.
It was hard to forget the woman who'd made you feel as cheap as a motel television.
It had started as sex—a typical, sweaty, body-rush circuit encounter—but it hadn't ended that way. Not for him. There'd been something so raw about her. She'd been almost frantic at first, and he'd had to gentle her like a skittish brumby, using his voice, his body, his strength.
It wasn't until she'd looked up at him with those old-soul eyes that he'd realised just how lost she was. The look from the bar. Like a fish that knew it was miles from its nearest water, but was determined to stay on dry land even if it killed it.
The look had intrigued the heck out of him.
After that, she'd swung right into the spirit of things. Admirably. It had been a long, memorable nineteen hours holed up in that motel. He'd never in his life been so ensnared by a woman, by her body, by her quiet, empty conversation, by the something that had called to him in the bar. It had been the first and only time he was a no-show for an event. But dropping his place on the ticket had been worth it.
She'd been worth it.
And then he'd woken up to an empty bed and her share of the room rental lying on top of the TV. No phone number, no forwarding address, not even a 'sorry' note. No matter how many trophies he had, how many newspaper clippings, how many fans, she'd been a painful reminder of what he was really worth.
He shoved his hands into his pockets. That was hardly about to change now.
His heart hammered against his moleskin shirt as she paused on the top step.
'Do you know who I am?' The same nervous quality, underlain with a huskiness that took him straight back five years to that room.
Like he could forget. But he wasn't giving her that much. He tipped his akubra up and squinted at her, swallowing carefully past a dry tongue. 'Sure. Lisa, right?'
She stepped forward into the shade of the veranda and he caught the tail end of an angry flush. 'Lea.'
'Sorry. It's been a while. How've you been?' Dropping back into casual circuit-banter came all too easily. He'd learned early how to make conversation with strangers; it was a survival tool in his family: meaningless, empty conversation while your guts twisted in on themselves.
Her breath puffed out of her. 'Is there somewhere private we can talk?'
Apparently, the lovely Lea wasn't as gifted in the 'meaningless chat' department. He followed her glance back to the tinted glass of her car. A haze of emissions issued from her exhaust. He frowned. Was she so eager to be gone that she'd left her motor running? He finally noticed how sallow she was beneath the residual blush. Almost green, in fact.
That, combined with the getaway car, finally got his attention.
He looked at her seriously. 'We can talk right here. There's no one in the house.'
'I… Your parents?'
'Don't live here.' Why would the beautiful people choose to hang out in the depths of outback Western Australia? Visit, absolutely. Live and die here, nope. That was fine with him.
'A, um, girlfriend?'
His eyes dropped to her lips briefly. 'No.'
She glanced around at the stables and yards. 'Station hands?'
'What do you want, Lea?'
Her back straightened more than was good for a spine.
Sorry, princess; a few great hours do not entitle you to a thing.
Okay, a night. And part of a day.
She glanced back at that damned car. 'I… It's about that weekend.' She cleared her throat. 'I need to talk to you about it.'
Despite her obvious nerves, he felt like needling her. It was the least he could do. 'It's five years too late for an apology.'
The flush bled away entirely. 'Apology?'
He leaned on the nearest veranda-post, far more casually than he felt. 'For running out on me.'
Her colour returned in a rush. 'We picked each other up in a bar, Reilly. I didn't realise that entitled either of us to any niceties.'
Oh, yeah, he much preferred her angry. It put a glint in her eye only two degrees from the passionate one he remembered. 'How did you find me?'
The anger turned wary. 'You were the talk of the town that weekend. I heard your name somewhere, remembered it. I looked you up in the championship records.'
Her enormous pupils said she was lying. Why? Damn her, that he still gave a toss.
'Which brings us full circle.' He straightened so he could glare down at her. 'What do you want, Lea?' he asked again.
She blew out a breath through stiff lips and turned to walk a few paces away. 'There's something about that night—something you should know.'
Understanding hit him like a hammer blow. 'You told me you were clean.'
She stumbled to a halt. 'What?'
'You told me you were clean and on birth control. It's why we didn't use more protection.'
That felt like a critically stupid decision now. But somewhere in the back of his thumping head, a rational voice told him he hadn't caught anything off this woman. It would have shown up in one of the multitude of tests he'd undertaken since then— pure luck, considering how dumb it was to have had unprotected sex. But his big brain hadn't been doing the thinking that night.
Her eyes flared. 'I am clean. I'm not here to tell you I've given you something.'
'Then what the—?'
'I came away with something that night.'
What? 'Not from me, lady.'
She hissed. 'Yes, Reilly. From you.'
'Are you the man with the horse?'
The little voice threw him. He and Lea spun round at the same time and she dropped instantly to her haunches before a tiny, dark elf standing at the top of the steps. The elf's brown fringe was cut off square across her forehead, and her hair fell down straight on either side of her too-pale face. She seriously looked like something from a storybook. Not in a good way.
'Molly, I told you to stay in the car.' Lea pushed the girl's fringe back from her forehead and laid a hand against her skin. 'Did you climb all these stairs?'
It was only then he noticed the kid was wheezing. Badly.
She wriggled free of her mother's fussing and looked straight at Reilly with enormous, chocolate-brown eyes. 'Can I see it?'
Somewhere deep in his gut a vortex cracked open. He knew those eyes. His pulse began to hammer but he managed to keep his voice light even as he towered over the tiny girl. 'See what?'
The kid looked to Lea and then back at him, her dark brows collapsing inwards. 'Mum said she needed to see a man about a horse.' She sucked her lip in between her teeth. 'I wanted to meet the horse.' A spasm of coughs interrupted her wheezing.
Lea slipped her fingers around to the girl's pulse, concern etched on her face. She threw him a desperate look.
He stepped closer then put the brakes on. Not his problem. 'Is she okay? Does she need a drink of water or something?'
Reilly was only too happy to get away from the surreal scene for a moment. His thumping head now echoed through his whole body. He let the screen door bang shut behind him, knowing he could see out better than she could see in, and he turned to watch the woman and child framed in the doorway.
Lea was older than when he'd last seen her, but it only showed in the worry lines marking her hazel eyes. The rest of her was still as long and lean as when they'd first met. She loosened the little girl's shirt, pushed sweaty hair back off her face and then lifted her into her arms. Two tiny sticks slid effortlessly around Lea's neck, and mother and daughter had a low, private conversation punctuated with soft, loving kisses.
It was so foreign. Yet he couldn't take his eyes off them.
I came away with something that night. His blood chilled. Not possible. Just not possible.
Five years ago, a frozen inner voice reminded him. Very possible.
Little Molly tilted her head and rested it on her mother's shoulder, staring straight down the hallway, where he knew she couldn't see him through the tinted mesh.
He recognised that face. It was in the one photo he had kept of himself as a child.