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Late on a Friday afternoon, Gus Wilder was only half paying attention when he lifted the receiver.
'A long-distance call for you, boss,' Charlie from the front office told him. 'A Freya Jones from Sugar Bay in Queensland.'
Just like that, Gus was zapped from his demountable office in the remotest corner of the Northern Territory to a little beach town on the coast of Queensland. He was eighteen again and standing at the edge of rolling surf, gazing into a lovely girl's laughing sea-green eyes.
It was twelve years since he'd left the Bay and he hadn't seen Freya in all that time, but of course he remembered her. Perfectly.
Didn't every man remember the sweet, fragile magic of his first love?
So much water had flowed under the bridge since then. He'd finished his studies and worked in foreign continents, and he'd traversed joyous and difficult journeys of the heart. Freya would have changed a lot too. No doubt she was married. Some lucky guy was sure to have snapped her up by now.
He couldn't think why she would be ringing him after all this time. Was there a high school reunion? Bad news about an old schoolmate?
Charlie spoke again. 'Boss, you going to take the call?'
'Yes, sure.' Gus swallowed to ease the unexpected tension in his throat. 'Put Freya on.'
He heard her voice. 'Gus?'
Amazing. She could still infuse a single syllable with music. Her voice had always been like thatlight, lyrical and sensuous.
'You must be surprised to hear from me. Quite a blast from the past.'
Now she sounded nervous, totally unlike the laughing, confident girl Gus remembered. A thousand questions clamoured to be asked, but instinctively, he skipped the usual how are you? preliminaries 'How can I help you, Freya?'
There was an almost inaudible sigh. 'I'm afraid it's really hard to explain over the phone. But it's important, Gus. Really important. I I was hoping I could meet with you.'
Stunned, he took too long to respond. 'Sure,' he said at last. 'But I'm tied up right now. When do you want to meet?'
'A s soon as possible?'
This obviously wasn't about a high school reunion. Gus shot a quick glance through the window of his makeshift office to the untamed bushland that stretched endlessly to ancient red cliffs on the distant horizon. 'You know I'm way up in Arnhem Land, don't you?'
'Yes, they told me you're managing a remote housing project for an Aboriginal community.'
'That's right.' The project was important and challenging, requiring a great deal of diplomacy from Gus as its manager. 'It's almost impossible for me to get away from here just now. What's this all about?'
'I could come to you.'
Gus swallowed his shock. Why would Freya come to him here? After all this time? What on earth could be so suddenly important?
His mind raced, trying to dredge up possibilities, but each time he drew a blank.
He pictured Freya as he remembered her, with long sun-streaked hair and golden tanned limbs, more often than not in a bikini with a faded sarong loosely tied around her graceful hips. Even if she'd cast aside her sea nymph persona, she was bound to cause an impossible stir if she arrived on the all-male construction site.
'It would be too difficult here,' he said. 'This place is too remote.'
'Don't planes fly into your site?'
'We don't have regular commercial flights.'
Another eloquent syllableand there was no mistaking her disappointment.
Grimacing, Gus scratched at his jaw. 'You said this was very important.'
'Yes, it is.' After a beat, Freya said in a small frightened voice, 'It's a matter of life and death.'
They agreed to meet in Darwin, the Northern Territory's capital, which was, in many ways, an idyllic spot for a reunion, especially at sunset on a Saturday evening at the end of a balmy tropical winter. The sky above the harbour glowed bright blushing pink shot with gold. The palm trees were graceful dancing silhouettes on the shorefront and the colours of the sky were reflected in the still tropical waters.
Not that Freya could appreciate the view.
She arrived too early on the hotel balcony. It wasn't very crowded and she saw immediately that Gus wasn't there, so she sat at the nearest free table, with her legs crossed and one
foot swinging impatiently, while her fingers anxiously twisted the straps of her shoulder bag.
These nervous habits were new to her and she hated them. Having grown up in a free and easy beachside community, she'd prided herself on her relaxed personality and as an adult she'd added meditation and yoga to her daily practice.
Her serenity had deserted her, however, on the day she'd needed it mostwhen the doctor delivered his prognosis. Since then she'd been living with sickening fear, barely holding herself together with a string and a paper clip.
Freya closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then concentrated on imagining her son at home with Poppy, her mother. If Nick wasn't taking his dog, Urchin, for a twilight run on the beach, he'd be sprawled on the living room carpet, playing with his solar-powered robot grasshopper. Poppy would be preparing dinner in the nearby kitchen, slipping in as many healthy vegetables as she dared.
Already Freya missed her boy. She'd never been so far away from him before and, thinking of him now, and the task that lay ahead of her, she felt distinctly weepy. She dashed tears away with the heel of her hand. Heavens, she couldn't weaken now. She had to stay super-strong.
You can do this. You must do this. For Nick.
She'd do anything for Nick, even tell Gus Wilder the truth after all this time.
That thought caused another explosion of fear. The process of tracking Gus down and making the first telephone contact had been the easy part. The worst was yet to come. Gus still didn't know why she needed him.
A tall, flashily handsome waiter passed Freya, carrying a tray laden with drinks. The smile he gave her was flirtatious to the point of predation. 'Would you like something from the bar, madam?'
'Not just now, thanks. I'm waiting for ' The rest of Freya's sentence died as her throat closed over.
Beyond the waiter, she saw a man coming through the wide open doorway onto the balcony.
Tall. Dark-haired. White shirt gleaming against tanned skin. Perhaps a little leaner than she remembered, but handsome and athletic enough to make heads turn.
Angus Wilder had aged very nicely, thank you.
But what kind of man was he now? How many gulfs had widened between them, and how would he react to her news?
As he made his way towards her, weaving between tables, memories, like scenes in a movie, played in Freya's head. Gus at sixteen on his first day at Sugar Bay High, desperate to throw off the taint of his posh city high school. Gus, triumphant on the footie field after he'd scored a match-winning try. Herself, floating with happiness as she danced in his arms at the senior formal.
The two of them walking together, holding hands beside a moonlit sea. The sheer romance of their first kiss
Suddenly Gus was beside her, leaning down to drop a polite kiss on her cheek. 'Freya, it's good to see you.'
He smelled clean, as if he'd just showered and splashed on aftershave. His lips were warm on her skin.
Without warning, Freya's eyes and throat stung. 'It's great to see you, Gus.' She blinked hard. This was no time for nostalgia. She had to stay cool and focused. 'Thanks for coming.'
He pulled out a chair and sat, then slowly crossed his long legs and leaned back, as if he were deliberately trying to appear relaxed. His smile was cautious, the expression in his dark eyes warm, but puzzled. 'How are you?' Quickly, he countered his question. 'You look fabulous.'
Deep down she couldn't help being pleased by the compliment, but she said simply, 'I'm well, thanks. How about you? How's business?'
'Both first-rate.' Gus sent her a slightly less careful smile, but his throat worked, betraying his tension. 'So, I take it you still live at the Bay?'
'I do.' She smiled shyly and gave a careless flick of her long pale hair. 'Still a beach girl.'
'It suits you.'
Freya dampened her lips and prepared to launch into what had to be said.
'How's your mother?' Gus asked, jumping in to fill the brief lull.
'Oh, she's fine, thanks. Still living in the same crooked little house right on the beachfront. As much of a hippie as ever.'
He let his gaze travel over her and, despite the nervous knots tightening in her stomach, Freya indulged in a little staring too. His eyes were as rich and dark as ever and his hair still had the habit of flopping forward onto his forehead.
She felt an ache in her chestshe couldn't help it. She'd missed Gus Wilder so much. For a dozen years she'd been out of his life. She knew he'd worked in Africa, and there was so much more she wanted to know. Where exactly had he been? What had he done and seen? Whom had he loved?
'I know you have something very important to discuss,' Gus said, 'but would you like a drink first?' Without waiting for her answer, he raised a hand to catch the waiter's attention.
'What can I get for you?' The waiter's manner was noticeably less cordial now that Gus had joined Freya.
'A lemon, lime and bitters, please,' she said.
'And I'll have a mid-strength beer.'
'Very well, sir.'
After he'd gone, another awkward silence fell and Freya knew it was up to her to speak. If she didn't get to the point of this meeting quickly it would become impossibly difficult. Taking a deep breath, she folded her hands carefully in her lap.
'I really am very grateful that you've come here, Gus. I know you must be puzzled, but I'm hoping that you might be able to help me.'
'You said it was a matter of life and death.'
'I hoped you were being melodramatic.'
The last remnants of Gus's smile vanished. Leaning forward, he reached for her hand. 'Freya, what is it? What's happened?'
His touch was so gentle and he looked so worried she had to close her eyes. She hadn't been able to broach this subject twelve years ago, and it was a thousand times harder now. Just thinking about what she had to tell him made her heart race and her stomach rebel.
'Gus, before I tell you, I have to askare you married?'
It was the worst possible moment for the waiter to return. Wincing, Freya dropped her gaze while the drinks were set on cardboard coasters in front of them.
She reached for her purse, but Gus beat her to the draw.
'My shout,' he said.
'But I owe you. You've come all this way.'
He was already handing money to the waiter and she didn't feel strong enough to argue. Instead, she thanked him and stirred her drink with a slim black straw, making the ice cubes clink and the slices of lemon and lime swirl.
Frowning, Gus touched the tips of two fingers to the frosty outside of his beer glass. 'I can't help being curious. What does my marital status have to do with your problem?'
She felt her cheeks grow hot. 'It could complicate everything. If you were married, your wife might not want you to help me.'
Heavens, she was making a mess of this and Gus looked understandably puzzled. She wished she could find a way to simply download everything she needed to tell him without stumbling through explanations, or grasping for the right words, or the right order to put them in. Surely, negotiating world peace would be easier than this.
Clearly bewildered, Gus shot a glance to her left hand. 'What about you? Are you married?'
His eyes widened. 'That's a surprise. I thought you'd be snapped up by now.'
I never gave them a chance, Freya thought.
Gus set his glass down and eyed her levelly. 'I was married three years ago,' he said.
She had steeled herself, determined not to mind, but this wasn't just a matter of hurt pride. She did mind. Very much. Now Gus would have to discuss her problem with his wife and how could she be sure another woman would be sympathetic?
Gus swallowed, making the muscles in his throat ripple. 'My wife died.'
'Oh.' A whisper was all Freya could manage. She was swamped by a deluge of emotionssympathy and sadness for Gus mixed, heaven help her, with jealousy for the woman who'd won his heart. 'Gus, I'm so sorry. Were you married long?'
'A little over a year. We met when we were both working in Africa. My wife, Monique, was Frencha doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières.'
So his wife had been clever, adventurous and courageous, and filled with high ideals. In other words, she was exactly like Gus. She'd been perfect for him.
'That's so sad.' To her shame, Freya was torn between compassion for Gus's pain and her relief that one hurdle had been removed.
Gus said grimly, 'I guess you'd better tell me what this is all about. What's your problem?'
Her heart took off like a steeplechaser. 'Actually, it's my son who's in trouble.'
'Your son?' Gus repeated, clearly shocked.
All the worry and tension of the past weeks rose inside Freya and she felt like a pressure cooker about to blow its lid. Her lips trembled, but she willed herself to hold everything together. She mustn't break down now.
'So you're a single mum?'
She nodded, too choked up to speak.
'Like your mother.'
She managed another nod, grateful for the lack of condemnation in his voice. Of course, Gus had never been a snob like his father. He'd never looked down his nose at Sugar Bay's hippies.
Just the same, his observation was accurate. Freya had followed in her mother's footsteps. In fact, Poppy had actively encouraged her daughter into single motherhood.
We can raise your baby together, darling. Of course we can. Look at the way I raised you. We'll be fine. We're alike, you and me. We're destined to be independent. You don't need a man, love.
Unfortunately, Poppy had been wrong. The terrible day had arrived when neither of them was able to help Nick and Freya had no choice but to seek help from this man, his father.
Gus was watching her closely, his expression a mixture of frowning puzzlement and tender concern. 'Are you still in contact with the boy's father?'
It was too much. Her eyes filled with tears. She'd waited too long to tell him thistwelve years too longand now she had to deliver a terrible blow. It was so, so difficult. She didn't want to hurt him.
She had no choice.