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The sports car was very low, very bright and shiny. Very red. It growled to a throbbing halt right in front of Bella, and the driver killed the motor.
'Morning, Bella.' His faintly amused gaze dropped to the overnight bag at her feet. 'Going somewhere?'
Damon Cavello. Again?
Twice in one week was too much.
Damon with the same wild, dark hair and brooding, bad-boy looks she'd fallen in love with in high school.
No, not now. I can't deal with this now.
In the last ten years, she'd seen him many times on TV, of course, in a flak jacket reporting from a war zone, or poised precariously above raging floodwaters in South America, playing the ultimate foreign correspondent.
But it was a very different matter seeing him again in the flesh, especially on this morning of all mornings.
Bella felt as if she'd been snap-frozen. She couldn't have smiled even if she'd wanted to, and she had to swallow before she could speak.
'Hello, Damon. I've come straight from the hotel.' Last night had been her hen night. 'I've had a call about my grandfather, Paddy.'
She nodded in the direction of the sign for the Greenacres retirement home on the stone wall behind her. Then with businesslike briskness she picked up her bag, dismissing Damon Cavello with a coolness that she hoped matched his. 'Sorry, I can't chat. It's important family business.'
About to hurry inside, she was dismayed to hear the driver's door opening.
'Hang on a minute,' Damon called as he got out.
With the flashy sports car as a backdrop, he should have looked cocky or faintly comic, but he looked neither.
Unfair. He was dressed in a faded black T-shirt and jeans, and in these clothes, with the added advantage of darkly lashed grey eyes and rumpled dark hair, he was as disturbingly sexy as ever.
'I said I can't talk, Damon. I have to go. Paddy's disappeared.'
'Take it easy, Bella. I can tell you what's happened.'
Dumbfounded, she gaped at him.
He said, 'Your grandfather has run away with my grandmother.'
A wave of dizziness threatened Bella. Her knees sagged. She really couldn't deal with this now.
A mere hour ago her fiance, Kent, had left her hotel room with her diamond engagement ring in his pocket and a new lightness in his step. Minutes later, she'd received a phone call from Greenacres with the news that her grandfather had apparently disappeared.
She'd assumed the old trickster was simply playing hooky. It had happened before. Any minute now there'd be news that Paddy had been found at the bowls club, or on the banks of Willara Creek, fishing. She'd never dreamed
'The Greenacres people rang me an hour ago and I've been checking it out,' Damon said. 'From all accounts, Paddy and Violet took off from here last night in Violet's car.'
'For heaven's sake. A joy-ride?'
'I've spoken to the fellow who runs the servo on the outskirts of town. He says they woke him up some time past midnight and begged him to fill their tank. They told him it was an emergency and they were heading north.'
'An emergency?' She frowned. 'It's not a joy-ride, then. How far north?'
'That's the burning question. They could be heading anywhere up the coast, possibly all the way to Cairns, and that's at least two days' drive. An elderly couple might take longer. The guy at the servo reckons they were on some kind of mission, and they were headed north-east, for the coast road.'
Bella rubbed at her brow as she tried to take this in. 'Butbut that's crazy. They're too old to just take off like that. They're in their eighties, for goodness' sake. Paddy has a pacemaker.'
'And Violet has high blood pressure.'
At this she looked up, and without warning, her gaze locked with Damon's. For a fraught moment, she forgot everything as she reconnected with the silvery grey gorgeousness of his eyes.
So many memories
No. Heavens, no, she mustn't start remembering now.
'This is ridiculous,' she snapped, deliberately shifting her gaze and letting out an audible sigh. 'It would help if we could ring them, but Paddy doesn't have a mobile phone. When he moved into Greenacres, he said everyone knew where to find himhe didn't need a mobile.'
'It was the same with Violet. Last thing she wanted was her phone going off at the hairdresser's or in church. If people wanted her, they could wait till she got home.'
'So what can we do? Call the police?'
'I don't think there's any need to panic,' Damon said carefully. 'Actually, I've got it sorted.'
'I'm going after them.'
'Oh.' Bella drew a deep breath, let her gaze travel over the flashy red sports car. 'In this?' She raised a critical eyebrow.
He almost smiled. 'Yes, Bella. In this. And yes, I know it's a bright red phallic symbol, but it was all the hire car agency in this tinpot town could offer me. And it's fine. It's a hell of a lot faster than the car our grandparents are driving.'
Damon turned to leave. Having dutifully informed her, he was clearly in a hurry to get going. 'I'm glad I saw you, but if I'm going to catch this pair I should hit the road.'
She almost called, 'Wait!' This was all happening too quicklyyet another surprise in a very surprising morning. But if she called Damon back, she wasn't sure what she would say.
As if sensing her dilemma, he looked back at her with a frown. 'How did you get here? Do you have a car?'
She shook her head. 'I came straight from the hotel.' All her friends, including her bridesmaid, Zoe, were back at the hotel sleeping off the hens' party. 'I was lucky enough to grab Willara's one and only taxi.'
'Let me give you a lift, then.' He said this politely, but without enthusiasm as if he was as cautious and tense as she was. 'Are you going back into town?'
'Actually, I should go to Blue Gums to see my father.' She had to tell her dad about Paddy's disappearance, as well as the news that she and Kent were no longer getting married. She wasn't looking forward to delivering either message.
'I can drop you off. The farm's on the way out of town.'
Bella hesitated. Getting into a sports car with Damon Cavello, her high-school sweetheart, was too much like a blast from the past.
It felt ridiculously dangerousvery Red Riding Hood and the wolf.
This man had always been the haunting 'what if?' in her life.
But this morning his offer was also her best option. 'Thanks,' she said just a little too breathlessly.
She dropped her overnight bag next to his in the boot, and their two bagsher soft leather holdall and his scuffed, heavy-duty canvas dufflenestled com-panionably together.
It was an unsettling sight.
Mad with herself for feeling nervous, she slipped into the luxurious leather passenger seat and buckled her seat belt. Damon slid behind the wheel and she caught a teasing whiff of his cologne, spicy, exotic and manly. She wondered where on the planet he'd bought it. Europe? The Middle East? Somewhere in Asia?
So not the way she wanted to be thinking.
She supposed she should think of something to talk about. She knew Damon had gone to Kent's bucks' party last night, but if she mentioned that she might find herself having to explain about their wedding cancellation. This was possibly sensible as Damon was a wedding guest, but it all felt too difficult right now. Damon would ask questions she wasn't ready to answer.
Anyway, he was about to take off up the highway. And fortunately, he wasn't in a chatty mood. He made no attempt at conversation as they drove down Willara's main street, which was quieter than ever on this early Sunday morning. Bella couldn't help wondering if he was battling similar memories to hers.
Against her better judgement, she was picturing him all those years ago as he waited for her on the street corner outside the Willara cafe, wearing his ripped blue jeans and ratty, faded T-shirt. She was remembering the silver spark that had lit his grey eyes whenever he saw her, and she was feeling the giddy excitement of his lips on hers, the stunning joy of his arms about her, of his lean, tough body held hard against her.
At eighteen, Damon Cavello had been raw and dangerous and addictive.
He'd woken longings in her that had never been soothed.
Shut off the memories. Now. Stop it.
But as they turned right, heading out of town, the car picked up speed and Bella's sense of deja vu grew stronger, taking her back to another time when she'd driven off in a car with Damon.
It had been a weekend towards the end of his last year of high school. They'd been driving out to the dam to join friends for a barbecue picnic. But at the turn-off, Damon had pulled off the road in the shade of paper-bark trees, and he'd just sat there, staring at the road in front of them.
'Do you want to keep going?' he'd asked.
At first, Bella hadn't understood. 'Keep going where?'
He'd grinned. 'I don't know. As far as we feel like going. Don't you ever get the urge to just take off and see what's around the corner?'
The idea had had instant appeal, but Bella's conscience had troubled her. 'The others are expecting us at the dam.'
'It would spoil the fun if we told them what we're doing. Let them guess.'
His eyes had been sparkling with excitement and a sense of adventure, and her heart had flipped, catching his enthusiasm and loving the way he continually surprised her.
Not that she would give in too easily. 'I told my parents I'd be spending the day at the dam. I can't just take off with you.'
'We'll be fine. I'll have you home in plenty of time. Come on, Bell. Let's have an adventure.' He'd smiled, his bright gaze holding hers, and of course she'd melted faster than chocolate in a microwave.
'Kiss me first while I think about it.' Bella had loved Damon's kisses, hadn't been able to get enough of them. Already she'd unbuckled her seat belt and was edging closer, and his lips were soft and sexy and warm.
He was the most amazing kisser. The instant their lips met, the world had become theirs. Their kiss their mouths touching, their lips pressing, exploring, parting.
The kiss grew hotter and hotter and it took the honking of a horn from a passing truck to drag them apart.
Bella was smiling and more than a little breathless. 'Okay, you're on. Let's hit the road.'
Taking risks had been so easy.
The memory caused a bittersweet pang to tighten like a lasso around her heart. Without warning, she was swamped by a dark wave of depression.
She told herself it was aftershock, a reaction to the snowballing weirdness of her morning. For the past few weeks she'd been focused on her wedding, on gowns and flowers and reception menus, and she'd known exactly what was happening with the rest of her life. She was going to marry her oldest friend and neighbour, Kent Rigby. She would be a farmer's wife, living on Willara Downs next door to her father's farm.
Bella had been so certain of thisokay, yes, so resigned to thisthat she'd abandoned her career in Brisbane.
This morning, after the decision to call the wedding off, she'd felt instant relief. Now, however, the relief was fading and she was facing the blankness of her future. No job, no plans. Just a gaping black hole. She felt as if she'd been sleepwalking and had woken to find herself directionless and alone, in the middle of a vast, empty desert.
Seeing Damon again made everything worse, stirring all kinds of dangerous memories. He reminded her of all the exciting things she'd once planned for her life, none of which had eventuated.
She'd played it safe. And where had that left her?
Jobless, partnerless, with no plans and nothing to do.
Even the task of calling off the wedding had been taken on by Kent. He'd insisted on ringing their guests, and he was asking Zoe, her bridesmaid, to help with the caterers and the hire people.
Now, her grandfather was off having some crazy, reckless adventure with Violet, and Damon was chasing after him.
And Bella would be left at home feeling flat and empty, overcome by a sense of anticlimax. Or she would be dealing with endless questions and sympathetic and curious glances from every busybody in the district.
The news of the wedding cancellation would spread like a bushfire. Country towns were notorious gossip machines.
Damon turned off the main road onto the dirt track that led to her father's dilapidated farmhouse, and Bella sat up straighter, suddenly struck by a dazzlingly brilliant idea. 'I think I should go, too,' she said.
Damon frowned. 'What do you mean? Go where?'
'I should go to look for Paddy and Violet, as well as you. You can't stop in every town. I can check out the places you miss. I can get another hire car.' She pointed towards the sky. 'With a roof.'
It was the ideal diversion, exactly what she needed. Apart from her genuine concern for their grandparents, the trip offered a perfect excuse to get out of Willara for the next few days.
There was, however, a longish pause before Damon responded. 'Brilliant idea,' he said at last. 'I'm sure your fiance won't mind in the least if you go dashing up the highway.' He sent her a strange, mirthless smile. 'As long as you're back in time to marry him on Saturday.'
Bella gulped, remembering the downside to her brilliant idea. She could no longer wriggle out of confessing the truth about the wedding to Damon. 'You're right,' she said nervously. 'Kent won't mind.'
'Bella, don't be an idiot. Of course he'll mind. He'll be frantic. You don't have time to chase all over Queensland. You're a bride about to be married.'
'Actually ' Deep breath. 'I'm not.'
To her dismay, Damon slammed on the brakes. They weren't at the homestead yet, but clearly this news took priority. He turned to her, trapping her in an angry silver glare. 'I'm sorry.' Now he spoke very quietly. 'You're not making sense.'
Oh, help. It shouldn't be so hard to tell Damon. He was nothing to her now. He'd been gone for ten years and in that time they'd both changed. So much. Bella couldn't begin to imagine all the things he must have seen and done since he'd left Australia. They were light-years from the high-school kids who'd fooled around together.
So why did talking to him feel so very different from talking to any of her other old schoolfriends?