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'That's the Jarndirri out station down there.'
At the pilot's words Sapphie Thomas turned from the baby sleeping beside her to stare out of the mail plane's window. Anna and Lea Curran—her best friends—had grown up on Jarndirri. Sapphie had spent a lot of time there herself. She'd deftly fed that piece of information to Sid, the pilot, earlier. Sapphie didn't get into small planes with strange men without them knowing she had friends in high places—friends who could come to her aid in a flash if the need arose.
She stared down at the out station and longing and pain hit her in equal measure. Her chest tightened. 'You're not going to land, are you?'
Her chest tightened even more. She didn't want Sid to land. She didn't want to step foot on Jarndirri at the moment. For lots of reasons—not least being the letter she'd received two days ago.
She pushed that thought away. She didn't have time to dwell on it. Instead, she thought how a landing might wake Harry, and she didn't want that. Her twelve-month old nephew, it seemed, hated flying. He hated landings and take-offs. He hated the dust and the heat and the flies. He hated the glare of the sun in its cloudless sky, and hated Sapphie trying to change his nappy in the close confines of the plane.
He hated it all—with a capital H—and he had the lungs to prove it. Sapphie had wanted to wail right alongside him.
She'd wanted to wail because Harry hated her too.
During the long, hot five hours they'd so far endured on the plane he'd only stopped crying when she'd given him his bottle—most of the contents of which he had then thrown up all over her shirt. Finally, through sheer exhaustion, he'd fallen asleep. She didn't want him woken for any reason whatsoever. So not landing at Jarndirri would suit her perfectly. She waited for Sid's answer.
'Nah,' Sid drawled. 'They radioed through earlier. They don't have anything for me to collect. And as I don't have anything for them…'
Sapphie gulped back a sigh of relief. In the next instant her shoulders went all tight again. 'What about the main Jarndirri station? Will you be landing there?' The Jarndirri homestead was several hundred kilometres northeast of the out station, but that didn't mean it wasn't on Sid's mail route.
Don't be an idiot, she chided herself. You're not going to accidentally bump into Anna or Lea out here. Neither was currently in residence at Jarndirri. Anna was in Broome with Jared, and Lea was at Yurraji—the property in the far north that her grandfather had left her.
And Bryce had died six years ago. She wasn't going to run into him.
The plane bounced as it hit a pocket of turbulence. Sapphie's stomach churned and bile rose up to burn her throat. Normally she was a good flyer.
Normally? Ha! Normally she wouldn't be flying over the northwestern corner of the Australian continent—one of the most remote regions in the world—without any form of invitation. And if she did it would be to see Anna or Lea, not to track down some man she'd never met in her life before.
There was nothing normal about the turn her life had taken in the last two days.
'The main Jarndirri station is on a different mail run,' Sid said. 'Mail delivery to this part of the Kimberley's on a Thursday. Mail delivery to that part of the Kimberley's on a Tuesday.'
Sapphie closed her eyes for a moment, beyond grateful that she'd arrived in Broome yesterday. If she'd left it another day then she would have had to wait an entire week to catch the mail plane to Newarra. Broome was small. Anna would have heard that Sapphie was in town, and…
And that didn't bear thinking about.
Beside her, Harry stirred. Sapphie held her breath. When he didn't wake, she let it out in one long, slow exhalation. Please, please, please let him sleep for a bit.
He needed the rest.
He needed the peace.
And she needed to think.
What a mess! She'd have dropped her face to her hands, only she didn't want Sid to see how desperate she was.
'You're looking a bit peaky,' he said anyway.
She had a feeling that as far as descriptions went 'peaky' was being kind. She wrestled for a smile. Sid had been kind. 'Perhaps because I'm feeling kind of peaky.'
He jerked his head in Harry's direction. 'Hardly surprising.'
A surge of protectiveness washed over her. Harry might hate her, but she'd fallen in love with him from the first moment she'd clapped eyes on him. 'He's not a good flyer,' she murmured.
'Lots of kiddies aren't.'
'I'm sorry, Sid. This must have been the flight from hell for you, and—'
'There's nothing to apologise for,' the pilot said gruffly.
Yes, there was. There was a wealth of things to apologise for.
Sapphie's eyes burned. She closed her hand gently around Harry's foot. How could she make up to him for everything that had happened? How could she help him feel loved and secure again? There weren't enough apologies in the world to make up for the fact that Harry had been lumped with her instead of someone who would know what to do, who would know how to comfort him properly and ease his fears…someone who deserved the right to look after him. That person wasn't her.
There was no one else.
'Oh, Harry,' she whispered, bending over him and pushing the sweat-soaked hair from his forehead. 'I'm sorry.'
She'd found out about Harry's existence two days ago, when her nineteen-year-old sister, Emmy, had been arrested on drug charges. Two days ago…The day Sapphie had turned twenty-five. The same day she'd discovered Bryce Curran was her biological father.
She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. She'd spent the last three years searching high and low for Emmy. With no success. When Emmy had rung two days ago Sapphie had thought it the best birthday present she'd ever received.
But her little sister hadn't rung to wish her a happy birthday. She hadn't even remembered it was Sapphie's birthday. She'd rung from Perth Central Police Station—'I need help.' When Sapphie had arrived, Emmy had pushed Harry into her arms with a fierce, 'Promise me you'll find his father.'
Sapphie had promised. What else could she do? Somehow she'd let her little sister down in every way that counted. She would not fail her on this. She would find Harry's father.
She knew what it was like to grow up without a father, always wondering who he was, never knowing his identity. She would not let that happen to Harry.
Unbidden, a ripple of relief speared through her. There was someone other than her who could take responsibility for Harry, and she thanked God for it. Emmy had given her dates, locations…and a name. 'Liam Stapleton—a cattleman in the Kimberley. You're familiar with the area. Anna and Lea Curran will help you if you ask them.'
Sapphie had to wrestle with the bile that rose through her. She couldn't ask them. Not now. Not knowing what she knew. If Anna and Lea ever discovered that Bryce had been unfaithful to their dying mother…and that Sapphie was the result of that infidelity…
'You going to be sick?'
Sapphie started, pulled in a breath and shook her head. She fought to find another smile. And won. 'No, I'm just a bit worn out, that's all.'
'Why don't you get some shut-eye like that littlie of yours? Do you the world of good.'
Littlie of hers? She swallowed back the hysteria that threatened to swamp her. She didn't have the energy to correct him. If she'd made a different decision seven years ago she might have a littlie now, but…
She shied away from the thought. She couldn't follow it. Not today. Not for as long as she was responsible for Harry.
A weight slammed down on her so hard she half expected the plane to lose altitude. She gazed at Harry and a lump lodged in her throat. At eighteen she'd lacked her little sister's courage. I'm sorry, Harry. I wish there was someone better to step up to the plate for you. I wish…
'It'll be another forty minutes before we reach Newarra.'
Newarra—Liam Stapleton's cattle station. Sapphie closed her eyes. 'Thanks, Sid, a catnap might be just the thing.' She had to save her energy. She'd need it all once they landed if she was to fulfil the promise she'd made to Emmy—to see that this Liam Stapleton accepted responsibility for his son.
A wave of exhaustion hit her. It would be no easy task. Not when Liam Stapleton was as ignorant of Harry's existence as Sapphie had been two days ago.
* * *
'You did say Liam was expecting you, like—right?'
'That's right.' Sapphie kept her eyes closed in case they betrayed her lie.
'Looks like he's waiting for you.'
Her eyes flew open. They were flying over Newarra right now? She pressed her face to the window and took in the golden-green grasses and low scrub below, a stand of boab trees and the glint of a river in the distance. An enormous homestead emerged beneath them, the cool white of its weatherboards and the greenness of its surrounding gardens crisp and inviting in the harsh sunlight.
And then the airstrip came into view. Waiting to one side was a white four-wheel drive ute. The air left her lungs on a whoosh. Emmy hadn't lied. It appeared that Harry's father was in charge of a cattle dynasty that rivalled Jarndirri's in size and scope.
The plane descended. She stared at the white ute and her stomach started to churn. She hadn't rung Liam Stapleton. She hadn't sent a telegram or an e-mail or anything. She hadn't wanted to give him a chance to surround himself with lawyers, to fob her off—to fob Harry off.
The plane touched down and she fought back the panic scratching at her throat. Staring down at a sleeping Harry, she squared her shoulders. She was doing the right thing. Harry belonged with his father. After his initial shock, Liam Stapleton would see that too. He would do the right thing by Harry. She'd make sure of it.
Sid jumped out of the plane the moment he brought it to a halt. Sapphie glanced at Harry, who'd remained sleeping. She bit her lip and then glanced back outside. She wouldn't be far away. If Harry woke, she'd hear him. Filling her lungs with air, she scrambled out of the plane after Sid.
'G'day, Liam,' Sid drawled.
Sid hitched his head in Sapphie's direction. 'Got your visitors here in one piece.' He rubbed one ear. 'Not sure about meself, mind.'
A pair of the most startling eyes Sapphie had ever seen swung around to survey her. Blue. Bright blue. 'Wasn't expecting visitors, Sid,' he drawled. All the same he pushed away from the ute towards her.
Sapphie forced herself forward, hand outstretched, though for the life of her she couldn't seem to find a smile. 'My name is Sapphire Thomas, Mr Stapleton.'
Long, lean, work-roughened fingers closed about her hand. He was so big! She stared up into his face. She had to throw her head back to do so—he stood at least six feet two inches. It was a hard face, grim and lean, tanned, but it didn't frighten her. Just for a moment she let the relief trickle through. If he'd frightened her she'd have had to climb back on board the plane and fly back to Broome and leave all this up to lawyers. She always followed her instincts.
'Should I know you?'
The dry, rough drawl skittered along the surface of her skin and for a moment she thought it might raise gooseflesh. She let out a breath when it didn't. 'Not exactly.'
'Mind telling me what you're doing here?'
It almost made her smile. Kimberley cattlemen—they didn't waste their words.
And then, just like that, it suddenly struck her. She'd spent the last two days thinking Liam Stapleton would try and duck out of his responsibilities and reject Harry, but the longer she stared up into this man's face the more convinced she became that he would do no such thing.
He pushed the brim of his hat further back, as if to give her a better opportunity to study his face.
A face like that—grim and stern—it could do with some joy.
A child was a joy.
A child was a gift.
'Well?' he drawled.
The worry and stress of the last two days all suddenly seemed worth it. A smile broke through her. 'Mr Stapleton, I've brought you your son.'
Liam planted his hands on his hips, told himself to breathe deeply. 'Did you just say son?' He uttered the words with cutting precision.
The ridiculous smile that lit up Sapphire Thomas's face started to slip. 'That's…that's right.'
He hadn't left Newarra in nearly two years. He hadn't been with a woman at all during that time. He'd never met this woman in his life. He'd have remembered if he had. He folded his arms, raised an eyebrow. 'And how old is this particular son of mine?'
Anyone who knew him would know from the tone of his voice that now was the time to back off. Sapphire Thomas didn't.
'Twelve months,' she said, without so much as a blink of her eyes.
Anger, swift and hard, punched through him. With the effort of long practice he reined it in. 'Ms Thomas, I do not have a son.' His ex-wife had made sure of that.
He let some of the anger from the black pit of his heart reach out to touch her. Her eyes widened. She swallowed and took a step back. Good.
'So you can haul yourself back on that plane and return to wherever it is you come from.'
Her mouth opened and closed. 'But—'
Liam turned away, told himself he didn't care. He would not be the fall guy for a desperate woman ever again.
'Twenty-one months ago at the Perth agricultural show you met my sister—Emerald Thomas.'
Her words rang clearly in the still air. They sounded formal, with the same tone a judge would use when casting sentence. They sounded rehearsed, as if she'd gone over and over what she was going to say countless times. His lips twisted. They sounded fake.
'You spent a week together at a resort on Rottnest Island.'
Against his will, he spun around. Rottnest Island! His heart pounded loud in his chest.
The Thomas woman raised an eyebrow. The gesture seemed somehow wrong in the white pallor of her face. Her eyes flashed green, and it occurred to him she should be called Emerald, not her sister.
If there was a sister.
'Rottnest Island,' she repeated. 'Ring any bells?'
Yes, damn it. His hands clenched. But…
A baby's screams suddenly and abruptly split the air. Sapphire Thomas swung away to dive inside the plane in instant response. She emerged a moment later with a baby capsule cradled in her arms. He found his anger again. Lies! These were all lies, and cruel ones at that.