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Chapter 1 - Western Australia, 1953
More praise for the novels of Joey W. Hill
“One of the finest, most erotic love stories I’ve ever read.”
—Shelby Reed, coauthor of Love a Younger Man
“Sweet yet erotic . . . will linger in your heart long after the story is over.”—Sensual Romance Reviews
“The perfect blend of suspense and romance.”—The Road to Romance
“A beautifully told story of true love, magic and strength . . . a wondrous tale . . . a must-read.”—Romance Junkies
“Darkly rich erotica at its finest.”—TwoLips Reviews
“A passionate, poignant tale . . . The sex was emotional and charged with meaning . . . yet another must-read story from the ever-talented Joey Hill.”—Just Erotic Romance Reviews
“This is not only a keeper, but one you will want to run out and tell your friends about.”—Fallen Angel Reviews
“All the right touches of emotion, sex and a wonderful plot that you would usually find in a much longer tale.”—Romance Reviews Today
“Dark and richly romantic . . . a feast for your libido and your most lascivious fantasies.”—Romantic Times
Berkley Heat Titles by Joey W. Hill
THE VAMPIRE QUEEN’S SERVANT
THE MARK OF THE VAMPIRE QUEEN
a VAMPIRE’S claim
Berkley Sensation Titles by Joey W. Hill
a MERMAID’S Kiss
a WITCH’S BEAUTY
(with Jaci Burton, Jasmine Haynes, and Denise Rossetti)
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
eISBN : 978-1-101-01465-3
1. Vampires—Fiction. I. Title.
My thanks to the Berkley editing team of Wendy McCurdy, Allison Brandau and a wealth of other names and faces I do not have the opportunity to meet, but who work so hard on my behalf. Thank you for making my stories shine. It’s been an amazing year!
I also have three wonderful critique partners, who shepherd my books through the painstaking author editing process and make them better stories as a result, every time. Thank you so much, Sheri Fogarty, Ann Jacobs and Denise Rossetti.
And for this book in particular, I need to extend an extra special thank-you to Denise. This lovely Australian lady and exceptional author kept her Yank friend out of too much trouble on the Australian setting and language for this book, all while juggling her own deadlines and travel plans.
As always, any errors or inaccuracies that remain are entirely mine.
Western Australia, 1953
DON’T go there tonight. Nothin’ but trouble.
As Dev passed the aboriginal elder, he heard the warning, muttered in the language the old man knew he understood. A wise man would listen to such a warning. But he wanted a beer. A bloody galah he might be, but hell, he’d been in the Outback more than sixty days. Even uncooled, the beer would bring welcome bitter wetness to his throat. A smooth bottle in his hand, the clink of the top falling away on the bar surface. His craving for it made a knight seeking the Holy Grail no more than a bloke who liked collecting fancy cups.
He needed the comfort of human conversation. At least for a night. After that, it would start to grate on his nerves, rouse old memories. He was like a seesaw, needing to descend into the embrace of humanity, but in short order he had to push off from that and let the other, darker part of him sink back into the vast emptiness of the harsh lands he called home. People were too full, and that fullness hurt the longer he stayed around it.
So, after his beer and some idle talk, he’d pay his tithe for the company and the wetting of his throat and head back out.
Unless there was a woman.
He snorted at himself. Not only were unmarried women few and far between out here, no decent woman put a foot inside a bar. An indecent one would be snapped up in a heartbeat by any bloke willing to shell out his last quid for her.
It didn’t matter. As bad as lingering in human company could be, a woman’s body was a drug that carried with it a hell of a hangover when he had to face himself in a mirror the next day. Unfortunately, he couldn’t ignore the burning need festering in his balls. His mind had been dragging him into all sorts of unlikely fantasies for the past couple weeks. He’d risked fatally dehydrating himself, those nights he’d given in to the poor substitute of his hand. He might have to give it away, take the Ghan down to Adelaide and endure the mobs of people and noise, where women for hire were more plentiful.
Maybe it would be better that way. More impersonal and anonymous. Maybe he wouldn’t imagine Tina looking down at him with shame and sorrow in her eyes, from the heights of a heaven he was never going to see.
Walling that thought off, he focused on an Adelaide whore. He’d want a soft and passably pretty sheila, one who’d smell clean. Who’d let him take her as rough as she could tolerate and still hang around to stroke his hair, curl in front of him so he could fit himself to her curves. Even have the pleasure of listening to her sleep, if he wore her out. Which, if he did her proper, would be the case.
Uncomfortably aware that his imaginings were far from the impersonal fucking he’d claimed to be seeking, he tuned back in to his immediate surroundings. The usual scattering of vehicles, mostly utes, were parked in front of Joe and Elle’s place, a pub in the usual style. Two stories, the upper level for the hotel, the lower for the bar. A veranda that wrapped around the top level was for those who often preferred it to the stuffy rooms, if they had netting to guard against the bugs. A couple blokes sat out on it now, behind the lacy wrought iron railing, trying to catch the breeze.
Aside from the utes, there was a pair of expensive-looking Rovers, one being worked over by an agitated, grease-stained driver and another man. City folk by their appearance, but they wore appropriate clothes for the bush and appeared to be carrying the right supplies needed when traveling out here. That was a relief. Less chance the whole bloody town would have to mobilize to rescue them from some foolishness. Lord knows, the bush could surprise even the most experienced man. It could chew up tourists and spit them out like a pack of dingoes on a helpless sheep.
He took his swag into the bar with him as usual, because sometimes a light-fingered fella got to thinking you didn’t need your pack if you left it sitting unattended. However, as he stepped into the bar, he forgot he was even carrying it. Hell, if asked, he doubted he could have told anyone his name.
While no respectable woman went into a bar, he wasn’t about to cast any stones at the one standing at the antiquated jukebox Joe prized. Except for her, it was the only shiny thing in the dusty place.
Her back was to him, so her face might look like an aggravated camel’s. But she had blond hair, tied in a tail that curled and waved across the narrow slope of her back like peaceful surf, touched by the gold of sundown. The track of it drew his gaze to the nip of her waist and down. Her arse alone would be worth overlooking a homely face, for the flare of her hips was well outlined in a pair of trim brown jodhpurs.
“Well, look what the cat’s dragged in. Going to barter those eggs for a beer, Dev?”
In order to focus on Elle, Dev had to pull his attention away. He might have taken more time about it, but something in Elle’s voice got his radar going.
Eleanor Waters was the exception to the decent-woman-in-a-bar rule, first because she was the licensee, with her husband, Joe. Second, she was as tough and no-nonsense as old Joe. She always said she’d seen it all, such that she kept a shotgun below the bar in case any of it came back twice. But she acted like something was bothering her tonight. The strangers, he guessed, from the scowls Elle sent their way. He wondered why. Though strangers didn’t pass through all that frequently, it was rare that they caused trouble.
A glance about the occupied tables showed the woman was there with three men, in addition to the two out by the vehicle. From the way they’d checked him out when he stepped across the threshold, it was clear they were hired muscle. It was also clear she was the one who’d hired them, from their body language and glances toward her.
As he deposited his pack against the bar, taking off the slings that held his rifle on his back and the nest of billies at his hip, the blond woman turned at last.
Blue eyes. Jesus, so blue it was like diving the Reef. Skin so fair it brought to mind the fairy tales. But then there was that soft mouth, lush in ways that drove away all thoughts of children’s stories and went into the realm of darker, more provocative tales. The lipstick she wore was deep red, wet. Normally, he would have scoffed at a woman wearing makeup out here, but wherever she wanted to wear it was fine with him. She wore a delicate opal amulet the size of his thumbnail. While it was a beautiful stone, he was far more distracted by how it glistened in the cleft of her breasts, above the slightly strained button of her white blouse.
He’d stripped off his shirt to carry the three emu eggs Elle had noticed right off, so the stranger’s vivid blue gaze traveled with deliberate appreciation over his bare, sweat-stained shoulders and the expanse of his chest, passing over the scars, then lingering on each muscle in his abdomen as if she were tracing them with her tongue. When her glance went lower, just as slow and easy, her mink lashes fanned the cheeks of pale cream. She obviously didn’t mind him knowing she was looking.
“Dev.” Elle’s voice was a bit sharper.
Jesus. “Yeah, Elle. How ya going?” Clearing his throat, he put the bundle on the bar and took off his hat.
“Fair enough.” Elle’s solid bulk was a less unsettling sight to him as she slid him a beer. She had her brown and gray hair pinned up to keep it off her neck in the late-afternoon heat. “The Yanks elected that Eisenhower fella president. And the Queen’s supposed to visit us soon.”
Trying not to look toward the jukebox as the bar owner untied the shirt to give the eggs a critical look, Dev made a noncommittal noise. “Guess that’ll be a right treat for some. You know the eggs are for Joe. I’ve got the money for the beer.”
She smiled. “No, I was just teasing you. I know you’ve got the money. But I’ll shout you the first one anyway. I asked you to bring them, after all. Had a few bad moments thinking of you lying out there with your head kicked in by an angry mother bird. Then I remembered how hard your head is.” A warning flashed in her eyes as she said it, her gaze sliding to the jukebox and back. “Joe’ll be so surprised for his birthday. He hasn’t had a cake made of emu eggs since his nanna was alive. You can have the third, though. Only need two.”
When the woman reached over, ostensibly to wipe the bar, she lowered her voice and muttered, “Unless a bird did kick you in the head, you’d best pay attention, you daft bastard. She ain’t sweatin’.”
Dev shifted his gaze. It was a sweltering sundown after a hot day, for sure. Elle had the fans going to help with it as well as the flies, but no help for it; a man was going to sweat. Not only the three musclemen his fair sheila had with her, but the group of blokes back at the pool table, some leaning against the wall with their drinks or tapping their smokes in the ashtray on the mantel of the fireplace that was never used. They all bore the signature sweat stains at the usual places. Chest, back, armpits.
In contrast, the woman’s ivory cotton shirt looked as if it had just been pressed and pulled out of the wardrobe. White, always a favorite color for the flies, seemed to have no appeal to them while on her back. They weren’t anywhere near her, whereas those who chose glasses instead of bottles had to keep a hand over them in between swallows to make sure the pests didn’t go for a swim.
As the jukebox started to play the wistful ballad she’d chosen, she turned back to it. When she started to sway, those trim brown daks she wore moved with her curves perfectly. His gonads engaged again like bullets being racked into the firing chamber of a shotgun.
He wouldn’t say she was oblivious to the attention she was attracting, but she didn’t seem one of those shallow girls who needed it to thrive, her beauty her only sense of worth. Rather, he was reminded of a female predator who used wiles to attract her prey, just close enough . . .
His body and mind were screaming at him to go into that trap. Resolutely he turned back to Elle and his beer.
His forearm was braced on the bar, and so he was startled when a slim-fingered hand reached over it to cup one of the three eggs Elle had now placed in a bowl. Elle jumped, her eyes widening. While Dev managed not to react, he hadn’t even heard the woman’s slim, booted feet move across the wooden floor.
Her nails were a feminine length with clear polish, the elegant tips drawing attention to the grace of her hands. Despite the large size of the emu egg, the way she stroked the curves, he couldn’t help but think of how those tips would feel moving over his balls in a similar way. God, he could smell her. All woman, fresh scents of soap and powders and the mysterious things women did to make themselves impossible to resist. And those miles of blond hair, waiting for deeper study, teasing his vision at the corner of his eye.
Forcing himself not to look, Dev nodded his thanks to Elle and lifted his beer to his lips, closing his eyes to savor it as he tilted back. Perhaps it was because he was so aware of her proximity that he anticipated the woman, but he caught her hand a moment before she would have touched his exposed throat. Opening his eyes, he kept his hand firmly closed on her wrist. Intrigued, he noticed her men didn’t react, continuing their card game.
“Don’t think we’ve been properly introduced, love,” he said without rancor.
“I’m a woman who likes to touch fine-looking things,” she responded. Her voice had a Brit and Aussie blending with an unexpected sultry cadence, probably because the sound of it had the smoothness of lava, pouring heat straight into his pants.
She might have said something else, but he missed the next series of words entirely. Like Elle, he wasn’t knocked off his pins by much anymore. But now, confronted with her close up, he was knocked full on his arse.
Her face looked as fragile and protected as a prize winning orchid. The blond hair was truly spun gold, like that found in the mines long ago, when the dust glittered on the walls like an enchanted castle.
Easy, mate. She’s no whore, though by God she’s acting willing enough to take you on. What in hell was a woman like this doing out here? The softness of the skin under his fingertips said she sure as hell didn’t live in the Outback. He noticed how she’d come in on his left side, which avoided the straining long patches of late-afternoon sunlight coming in through the open door and windows.
Nothin’ but trouble there tonight.
He’d gone and put his foot in it, hadn’t he?
Shifting his glance to a watchful Elle, he said, “Elle, love. Can you lend me a clean bar rag?”
Elle slid one over. Picking it up, Dev released the blonde to clean off the sweat and grime he’d left on her skin. She had a narrow wrist, a gemstone on one finger in proportion to the one on her neck.
“Some nice baubles to be wearing way out here,” he observed, trying not to focus on how easy it would be to make his functional scrubbing a teasing stroke over her pulse, a hint of what he could offer to other parts of her. As she lifted her hand to accommodate him, he could feel that pulse beating like a bird’s heart. There was a delicate web of lines on her palm. Her lifeline was long, he noted.
“No sense in owning something if you’re not going to play with it. Show it off.” She turned her hand, interlacing a couple of her fingers with his own despite the cloth, and held them there at eye level, keeping his gaze focused on her face. He was a few inches taller than she was. “I’ll tell you my name if you give me the extra egg.”
Considering that, he gave her a half shrug. “Well, I haven’t asked you for that, have I now? As pretty a name as I’m sure it is, it’s not much currency for what could provide me a good meal or two. Barter again, love.”
She studied him, her mouth curving up. “A dance.”
“A slow dance.” Dropping the rag on the bar and letting her go, albeit reluctantly, he took another bracing swallow of the beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. As he did, he let his gaze move down and then back up, with as much brazen appreciation as she’d indulged herself. He thought he saw that hint of a smile reach her eyes at his boldness, but something else, too. Something darker. “The kind of dance that tells a man what a woman’s got to offer under her clothes,” he added.
Elle muttered something under her breath. Dev was sure it was something like “stupid bugger,” but because he was cracking on to the pretty stranger way too hard or because he was going hip deep into trouble and trudging along happily, he didn’t know. Well, as for the first, the blonde had started it, hadn’t she?
“Done,” the woman said. “If you give me your name.”
He took one green-black egg from the bowl and pushed it a turn toward her. “Devlin. You can call me Dev.”
“Lady Daniela,” she responded. The way she met his eyes as she said it made something reach in, wring his heart out like the rag. Pain came with it, of course, and the reminder of why he didn’t linger long around civilization, let alone with a woman. “How do I know it’s not rotten?” she asked. “The egg.”
“You got a straw from your broom, Elle?”
Though the older woman gave him a narrow look, she plucked a good one, knowing what he was about. Dev took the other two eggs out and brought the three together end to end, nodding to his fascinated audience. “Now put the straw on the top of your middle one while I hold these to it.” He shifted his body to block the air flow of the nearest fan.
When she did, he continued, “Now, if the straw spins, the egg’s good for eating. If it’s sluggish or dead in the water, well, I’ve given you a bad egg.”
Lady Daniela watched, obviously intrigued, as the straw quivered and then began to move. Rapidly.
“Check the others,” Elle groused. “I don’t want you giving away a good egg and leaving me a bad ’un for Joe’s cake.”
He’d never bring Elle a bad egg and she knew that, but Dev let it pass. He tested all three to both women’s satisfaction before returning the two to the bowl and putting the other in the cup of his hat.
When Lady Daniela reached out to touch her new possession, her fingers drifted to the hat itself, tracing the sweat-stained band inside, her gaze rising to his forehead, lingering over the strands of his hair.
“It seems I owe you a dance, then,” she said. “Provided this bit of nonsense is true.”
“It’s true enough. What’s a flaming Pom doing out here, love? One with a bloody title?” Now that he had her commitment to a dance, he saw no reason to rush what might end up being only a dance. Though when he took another swallow of his beer, he found the way she studied the motion, riveting on his mouth as if she’d like to lick the foam off, a serious strain on his control. But in England he’d once seen a very pretty snow owl who, despite the inviting look of her soft feathers, still had a beak as sharp as a spear and the eyes of a predator. Watching, gauging.
Sliding onto the stool next to him, she leaned back, the white shirt she wore tightening over her pleasingly shaped breasts, drawing his attention back to the crevice where the amulet hung. The brown trousers creased up at the top of her thighs, making him want to reach out and trace those tiny gatherings of fabric. Follow their diagonal slant across her inseam, push her thighs open so he could rub between them, feel her heat reach out to him through cotton. He would have paid good money for another look at her backside. Why in the hell did he care about her background? Why’d he even ask?
“I’m returning to my family’s station to take it over.” She studied her egg, a thoughtful look crossing her face. When she didn’t say anything further, he cleared his throat.
“Sounds like you don’t really want the job.”
“It needs to be done.” Her gaze shifted back to him. “You strike me as the type of man who knows his way around the business of a station.”
“This a job interview, love?” He signaled Elle for another beer. He was setting too fast a pace, but if Lady D was going to dig around his past, he’d need to toss back a few more before he could accommodate her.
“You also don’t strike me as a man looking for work. I’d be interested in your opinion, though.” When the beer came into his hand, before he could pop off the top, she laid her own over it, preventing the motion. Her fingers curved in a bit, her nails pressing into the side of his hand.
“The current management is strongly opposed to me coming in and taking over,” she went on. “Do I try diplomacy right from the off, or do I invite them to dinner and stake them out on an anthill, letting their screams be an example to the others?” She cocked her head. “Hypothetically, of course.”
“Depends on whether you’re planning on serving red or white wine with the dinner.” When he directed a pointed look at his beer, she withdrew her hand, though with a smile. Ignoring the lingering tingle in his skin from her touch, he removed the top and brought it to his lips for a bracing swallow. He’d often wondered why men needed drink to give them courage around women. She was a blatant answer to that question. Her hand had settled on his thigh, was tracing it with a touch that was damn proprietary. He’d tell her to move it. After he finished the beer.
“The staking out seems a trifle heavy-handed. Might make them fall in line, but they won’t respect you. They’ll be afraid of you, and that’s one step away from contempt. The moment you stumble—and you always stumble—they’ll tear the flesh from your bones. Hypothetically, of course.”
Hooking his arm on the back of his bar stool, he flicked a glance toward her hand. She’d turned it over, was stroking him with her knuckles way up high, too high. His cock was about to buck like a brumby in his pants. He cleared his throat. “But say you walk in, pull a gun and shoot two of them. Quick, no emotion, do the job. That says you’re a right bad girl, but you’re there with an objective. You’re not making it personal. Then you bring in the fancy talk. Explain to those left standing why it’ll profit them to look at things your way. Show them you’re not afraid to seize ’em by the balls, but you’d rather make everyone rich and better off. Hypothetically,” he added again.
Her brows rose, her hand stilling. “And where did you learn all that?”
“Oxford. School of Business. Some of it. The rest of it is living out here. There’s some that respond to reason, some that respond to force. The wise leader is one that figures out how much of each to use depending on the situation. And also the one who listens to wise counsel”—he grinned, saluting her with the beer—“and doesn’t get sidetracked by the opinions of lazy bludgers.”
In his current position, he was half turned toward her, knees splayed and one boot hooked on the bottom rung of the stool. Such that when she turned more toward him now, her knees were between his, making their posture far more intimate. He could almost feel the warmth of her body emanating toward the strained seam of his trousers.
He wet his throat again. Beer had never tasted so good, nor could he remember ever feeling so quickly parched. “So you own one of those huge stations that take up half the grazing area of Western Australia?”
“It’s just a bit of brick and tile and land.” She shrugged. “You said I owe you a dance. You going to make good on the claim?”
“When I’ve a mind to.” Which was right now, if he was being entirely truthful. Because if she kept her hand on his leg, he was going to slam her down on the bar and fuck her right there, until Elle had to shoot him like a bull gone mad with the heat.
Setting down the beer, he rose, shrugged his shirt back on but left it open. Then he put both hands to her waist to lift her off the stool. She’d made her interest clear, and he was fast losing the mood to play games. When she bumped against him as she stood, he didn’t mind the contact, but slid an arm low around her hips to move with her to the open floor near the jukebox.
As they reached it, he took a quick glance to make sure his swag and rifle were still in his sight.
“Afraid I’m maneuvering you over here to have my men take your treasures?” she observed.
“There’s only one thing going to be taken tonight, love.” He couldn’t help the underlying demand to the tone, or how it deepened as her blue eyes sparked in reaction. “You want to keep it safe, you’d best take yourself off soon.”
She turned on the ball of her foot, moving back toward the bar. Dev didn’t think, just caught hold of her arm, stopping her so they were shoulder to shoulder, him facing one way, her the other, but such that when she tilted her face up to his, there were only inches between them.
He wasn’t one of those dickheads who wouldn’t take no for an answer. He’d been without for quite a while, but he’d cut off his own balls before forcing a woman, no matter how loose she was. But it was as if her proximity had touched something even deeper than his eager body, and he was having a hard time remembering what was proper behavior. He didn’t want to chase her off, despite his challenge, but it was only with considerable effort he was able to keep his grip firm, not bruising.
When she looked at his hand and then back up at his face, he saw something in hers that made his need even worse. Desire, goaded by his unplanned and possessive act.
“I’ll be right back,” she said softly. “I promise.”
He let her go with reluctance. She did return a blink later with the rag from the bar, despite Elle’s unfriendly look. Lady Daniela lifted it, that mysterious smile playing on her lips like the shadows playing among the lush mystery of a rainforest, concealing all manner of hazards among its beauty.
“You warned me if I was going to cuddle up to a bushman, I might get dirty. Thought I’d take care of some of the grime.” Laying the cloth on his chest, she began to rub slow circles. Damn if she didn’t tease a nipple with her clever fingers buried in the rag as she passed over it. His hand flexed convulsively at his side. “Plus I thought this cool cloth might feel good to you.”
It did, primarily because she was the one wielding it. He couldn’t imagine feeling the same way if Elle was swiping it over him like she would a dirty table. Of course, he’d never seen Elle wipe down a table the way this one did, following every contour of him intimately.
“God, you are something else. I bet the girls want to eat you alive.” She lingered over the smooth flatness of his pectorals, the ridges of his sectioned abdomen, the curve of biceps. Dev knew he was in fighting shape because of the life he led, but having her appreciate it so openly, in such a tactile way, made him want to exercise some of that strength now. Put her under him, spread those slim legs and plow her like a wheat field.
“Don’t have call to see many,” he managed roughly. “I’ve had some roos give me an affectionate glance now and again.”
She chuckled, and the sound was like a kitten purring, inviting his touch. As she made free with her fondling, he put his arm back around her waist, intent and easy as a python, flexing the muscles she was admiring to bring her closer to him. As she obliged, moving in another step, he rested his free hand on her shoulder, his thumb and forefinger cradling the base of her delicate neck. She didn’t stop him, keeping on with her cleaning as if she were polishing him for her fancy walnut mantel, though he couldn’t imagine how he’d fit with all the expensive and breakable things she’d likely keep there.
Her gaze wandered over the ridged circular scars on his chest again. Then she touched him there, the slow examination almost more than he could take and remain still. When she tossed the rag on a nearby table at last, before she could ask the inevitable question, he took her damp hand firmly in his fingers. “Let’s dance.”
True to his barter, he closed the last gap between them. Her eyes widened at the firm pressure of his hips against her pelvis. “Oh, my,” she murmured. “Is that all you?”
Lord, he was twisted enough to enjoy the paradox of her, a fine lady behaving like a wanton. It was like walking into a minefield, terrifying and exhilarating at once, making his balls draw up as though to prove he was still alive. “I suppose that’s what we’re going to find out, hmm?”
Her hand drifted down his back, as welcome as only the caress of a woman’s hand could be, no metaphor needed to enhance the simple truth of that. She curled her fingers into the loose fabric of his open shirt. “Not in a mood for courtship, are you?” she teased. “Wooing me with charm?”
“That’s not what this is about. I’m not sure what your angle is, love, but I’m interested in following. That’s what I can give you.”
The next song gave him a hitch to his step. It was an old spiritual that spoke of a miner at the end of his life’s journey, hoping that when he fell to his knees alone in the desolate rock desert, he’d fall into the cradle of God’s hands. She had some odd tastes, this Lady D. But he pushed away his disturbing emotional response to the song and resolutely moved them into an easy, three-step rhythm. She followed with no trouble, moving with his body in a way that suggested to him a far less religious activity, though perhaps no less spiritual than the emotions evoked by the song.
“What is it you think that I want, exactly?” She made a soft noise of pleasure when his hand pressed on her lower back. With his blood stirring, he made sure their next turn changed the position of their legs so his was interposed between hers, rubbing a passing stroke over the sensitive pubic bone guarding her clit, sending an unmistakable answer to her question. Her lips parted, giving him a glimpse of tantalizing wetness.
“I do appreciate a confident man,” she whispered, the words a teasing caress.
“I’ve been out bush over two months,” he said with sudden desperation. He couldn’t shake his innate sense of fairness, much as he wished he could. The song was too haunting. “This is no game to me, lady. I’m looking for a hard ride, the harder the better. If that’s not what you’re after, you’d best back off now and no hard feelings.”
“The proper term is ‘my lady.’ ” She never flickered an eyelash as she made the correction. “You’ve been with a woman before.”
Puzzled, he inclined his head. “I think I made that obvious, love.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Halting midstep, he dropped his hands to the curve of her hips. A warning. “Don’t,” he said. “That’s not a place you’ve been invited.”
Something passed through her eyes again. A shadow . . . He couldn’t tell if it was irritation with his reaction, which was too bloody bad, or something deeper, something he would like even less. Before he could put his finger on it, she moved her free hand to his chest, laying it over the ritual scars on his upper body again. There were two, each one curving up over the pectoral in a winged arc and circling the nipple, the outer rings dotted with bumps, scars made by putting clay in the fresh wounds. Her fingers passed over them like Braille, which he knew in a way it was. “I won’t step through a door where I’m not invited, but this is related, isn’t it? There’s magic to it. Significant . . . grief.”
“Yeah,” he said shortly, unsettled by the understanding in her tone. Thank God, the song was over. She nodded, then cupped the back of his head, fingers tangling in his hair. She’d willingly moved back onto safer ground. Respecting him. Showing compassion, not pity.
“I’m filthy.” He gave a strained chuckle. “Likely to get all manner of things under your nails.”
“I’ll risk it.” She leaned against him, so her body pressed into his as he turned them, now swaying without much in the way of steps while the jukebox crooned another, more popular but less poignant song. It was a tune he expected was played with full, wailing gusto in the clubs of the big city she was used to. But she seemed to like the quaintness of the tinny sound.
As for him, the music made no difference. The slow dancing he wanted to do with her wouldn’t be obeying any tempo except the thundering of his heart against the wall of his chest, the pulse of need building in his cock and testicles. Did she have some strange ability to make a man, already in sore need of a woman, suddenly consumed by a maddening hunger for one? For her specifically?
“Tell me some of the amazing things a bushman can do. Like all city folk, I’ve heard the stories.” She flashed him a mischievous look. “But I don’t know if they’re only stories now. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home.”
“Same as Knights of the Round Table or American cowboys. Romantic fantasy, for the most part.”
She tilted her head. “Romantic fantasy is usually born from some piece of reality, even if it’s only one man. A hero among the ruffians can transform the whole lot of them into legends.”
“Wishful thinking can do the same. Some say Ned Kelly was a thug. Some say he was a hero. Only he knows the reality. I wouldn’t get carried away by any of it.”
She managed to slide an inch closer, such that he had the pleasurable and disquieting sensation that they’d become like two interlocking puzzle pieces. Every part fit together easily, no pushing needed. Though he wouldn’t mind doing some pushing. Some thrusting, ramming, pounding. The need was becoming a raw ache in his gut, a hammering pain in his temples.
“Seeing as I’m holding a real man in my arms now, and I’ve had some quite fierce wishful thinking in my life, I can tell you that one would never be mistaken for the other.” Reaching up, she laid her hand alongside his face. “Easy,” she murmured. “We’ll get there. At my pace, bushman. You understand?”
“I can’t handle much more in the way of games, my lady.”
“I never play games. It’s all about what I want, and when I’ll demand it. Now . . .” She put some more space between them again, let go to take a turn under his arm, and then came back to him, a piece of footwork that couldn’t help but make him smile. “What type of thing can a real bushman do that will impress me? Quick, the first thing you can think of.”
“I can guess your exact weight. We do that at the fairs. If I guess right, you have to buy me a drink.” He gave her a wink, trying to regain some sense of the upper hand. In response, her thigh pressed to the inside of his so she grazed his aching balls. Her hip slid across his groin and her lips parted. The bloody tease.
“If your guess isn’t ten pounds less than my actual weight, you’ll owe me a drink.” Her eyes glinted in that elusive way, a danger back in the air he couldn’t identify. And didn’t give a damn about anyway.
“I don’t lie. But I can tell you, your body couldn’t be more perfect.” When he leaned in close to her ear, his nose against her hair, she stilled on the outside, while everything inside him just locked up. His nostrils flared, taking in the scent of soft female flesh. He wanted to taste her, put his lips under the ear, bury his nose deeper into spun gold silk. He made himself rein it in. Settled instead for caressing with his breath the shell of an ear so delicate it looked like something found broken on the beach sands. He hadn’t been to the ocean in a long time. Surfing at Cottesloe . . . He shoved that thought out of his mind and whispered the number to her.
When her head turned, he stayed where he was, so her nose brushed his jaw and he could see the moistness of her lips up close.
“That’s my exact weight. So according to my terms, you owe me a drink.” Her fingers skimmed the line of his jaw, several days’ worth of stubble, down to the vulnerable Adam’s apple, his jugular. “Again, when I demand it.”
“I never agreed to the bet.”
By all the cruel gods, she felt good. Good enough to suffer that crushing despondency he’d feel in the morning if he took her to bed. It was looking like a closer-than-distant possibility, and he already knew he wasn’t smart enough to walk away.
Her breasts were firm and soft at once, and she didn’t seem to mind his hand was low enough on her trim waist to graze the top of one fine arse cheek. As he said, he wasn’t a dickhead. He didn’t grope, but Jesus, he wanted to fill his hands with her. Maybe he’d be better off with a whore. His wants tonight were tumbling off the edge to savage, and while she sparred a fine game, he wasn’t stupid enough to think she was ready to take a rutting beast to her bed.
“I noticed you carry a whip.” She nodded to it, coiled on his pack, the handle slid through a loop. “Are you a fair hand with it?”
He tried to pull his thoughts back in order. “Passable.”
She chuckled. “You said you always tell the truth.”
“Well, there’re degrees, love. There’re men tons better than I am.”
“Then I have no one but myself to blame if I don’t believe you.” She leaned back in his arms then, way back. Dropping her head and shoulders in an elegant and impressive dip, she trusted him to hold her by the waist as she did it. The strands of her tied-back hair brushed the floor before she straightened, displaying a grace and dexterity that caught every man’s attention with its obvious implication. When she’d come all the way back up, he made sure she was so securely held in his arms there wasn’t air between them. She’s mine tonight, mates. He could feel their attention and envy pressing in on them like wolves, and wanted to make it clear who was alpha this evening. No matter the men she’d brought, she was sending out a strong message with her behavior that could turn this lot into beasts in truth if she wasn’t careful. That was likely why Elle was so stirred up over her.
She’d chosen him, though. Over all of them. The thought roused something just as primal in him, only it would make him far more dangerous than the other blokes.
Her breasts were pressed to his chest, her hips against his arousal, her mouth so close. He put his lips there, brushing the fullness of hers as she spoke. “Tell me, Dev. Can you strike me without marking my skin, so that it feels as good as your breath on my flesh, like right now?”
It took him a minute to remember her question about the whip. The smile had left her lips, and her blue eyes were focused, intent.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to be sunk to the balls inside you, to have you under me.” He wasn’t going to dress it up for her. Oh, hell, it wasn’t that. He was a coward. She was making him feel a hundred different ways he couldn’t afford to feel, and he was resorting to crudeness. Part of him cursed himself, for he was going to lose her with the defensive tactic. Another part hoped it worked, so she wouldn’t tear his guts out.
When a shiver rippled through her body, his arms tightened around her.
“I’m at the boardinghouse down the way,” she said. “Once the sun sets, I’m going to take you there. I’ll show you what scraps of fancy I’ve got on under my clothes. We’ll see then if you can curl that whip around me without the slightest pain. You show me you have that kind of control, no matter how worked up I’ve made you—and we’re nowhere close to how worked up I intend to make you—and you can dish out whatever pain you want. I’ll take every bit of it. But you will owe me that drink.”
“God, you’ve no sense of fair play, do you, love?”
“Play assumes a game, Dev.”
He’d lost his mind. “Whip’s mainly for cracking. Strikes are usually trick stuff.”
“But you can do both.” She wasn’t leaving him any room for escape.
“Maybe I should leave it at the one dance,” he said. She really didn’t understand the extent of what he wanted tonight. He wasn’t sure himself anymore.
“Elle, do you have a back room?” Lady Daniela spoke as if she’d known Elle all her life. As if she were a family servant. Dev almost winced at the imperious sound of it.
The woman gave her a gimlet eye, jerked her head at a door on the back wall.
“Good, then.” Lady Daniela turned to lead the way. Gathering his wits back about him, Dev shot Elle an ironic look. But he followed the Lady Danny, as he’d dubbed her in his mind. While her eagerness to get him alone for whatever reason was flattering, he was prepared for her reaction when she turned the knob and pushed her way through with confident determination.
Or so he thought.
She stepped right into the light of a sun a breath away from setting, because the door led not to a back room, but to the yard behind the building.
He’d been right on her heels and so pulled the door firmly closed, eager to have her to himself, only to find she’d spun on her heel and thrown herself into him with a gasp of genuine alarm. Reacting instinctively, Dev swung her behind him, back against the door to protect her with the shadow of his body. He was uncertain what the threat was, but he suspected his city lady had startled a snake on the back steps.
“Inside.” As she made the demand, she shoved at the door so the jamb splintered. It had a history of being stubborn, but apparently it had rotted through at last, though the shards of wood that fell off looked sound enough. He pushed it open for her with his palm on the panel above her head and she quickly lunged back into the bar. It was then he smelled burned flesh.
The three men were on their feet as she made a direct line for Elle, moving so swiftly Devlin couldn’t catch up in time. Elle was going for her shotgun, but before she could bring it out, Lady Daniela had caught the woman’s collar and hauled her halfway over the bar one-handed, as if Elle’s stocky body weighed as much as a doll.
“You human bitch,” she snapped. “I paid in advance for your drinks. Not to mention the filthy rooms at that boardinghouse leased by your cousin.”
“Love.” Devlin eased up beside her, quickly taking in the light burns on her exposed forearms. He hoped he wouldn’t have to get physical to intervene. Only an idiot got between two women in a blue. “Elle was getting back at you for putting on airs. Let her go now. She didn’t know you had a sun allergy.”
“I’ll be happy to give all your money back if you take you and your mob elsewhere.” Elle spat it out. Dev had seen Elle take an indifferent attitude toward foreigners before, but this was active dislike, tinged with the stink of fear. What the bloody hell is going on here? “I’d even lend you transport, but it won’t have those nice dark windows. It’d be a shame if the engine died right before dawn.”
He realized he wasn’t disrupting a possibly entertaining brawl of hair pulling and female slaps. His own hackle-raising intuition, as well as the tense reaction of her men, told him that Lady D’s level of violence could be anything but entertaining. Another piece of the puzzle, one he was sure keyed in to both the aborigine’s and Elle’s not-so-subtle hint that he was playing with fire. And it was likely he was going to get sensitive bits of himself scorched.
“Elle, leave off.” As he reached out, Devlin judged Lady Danny’s temperament much as he’d gauge a croc’s appetite before he knelt by a creek to refill his water supply. When he put a hand carefully on her wrist, she flicked him a glance. “My lady, let her go. Look, the sun’s said its final farewell for the day. You know how it is here. Sunset and then boom, it’s night. And just to be sure . . .”
Determining that it was reasonably safe to step away a moment, and glad Joe wasn’t around to mix things up further, he turned, scanned the bar and found what he sought. Going to that corner, shouldering past the few men watching, he procured the paper parasol that Elle had as one of the decorations for the place. “I’ll bring it back,” he promised, before Elle’s scowl got any darker. He gave it a twirl, drawing the lady Danny’s attention.
“A parasol to shade you, my lady. It’s even got this pretty picture of a Japanese lady on the outside, sitting beneath a bamboo tree.” He cocked a brow and won a quirk of Danny’s lips, though her eyes were still shooting sparks. Lord help him if her temper didn’t make her even more breathtaking.
“Dev, not for a million quid would I go anywhere with her and this lot. She’s not right. She—”
“Neither am I, Elle.” It was a gentle reminder, but he gave her a hard glance that said he wouldn’t be dissuaded. “And I don’t need a million quid, do I?”
Lady Daniela abruptly let Elle go, giving her a scathing look. “I paid for the room, and I’ll be staying. But that’s the last time you annoy me.” Her gaze flickered over Devlin in a way that made his skin tingle and his cock jump to new life, brainless appendage that it was.
“He’s mine for tonight. And he appears more than willing. Don’t interfere again.”
HE’D never thought of himself as belonging to anyone, but as for the rest . . . well, there was no arguing with the simple truth.
Devlin stepped out into the night, offering his companion a hand down the rickety back steps this time. He’d brought the parasol, but as soon as he verified the sun was truly gone, he left it inside the door. He’d recovered his belongings, so they sat comfortably on his back again, a weighted reminder of reality he needed right now.
“The sun just said its final farewell? A bit poetic for a bushman.”
“Oxford, remember? See, it’s right pretty out here. Though we might get eaten by mozzies.”
A pair of kookaburras perched in a stately gum tree over the small billabong. The birds’ raucous, laughing cry always made Dev think they were expressing their amusement at human folly. Appropriate for this moment.
“The bugs won’t bother either of us, as long as you’re standing near me.” As she surveyed the water hole, he got the impression she was drawing in the night air, settling down. Perhaps trying to regain her composure.
“So why did you want to bring me into a back room, love?”
“To start what I intend to finish in my rooms. I can be impatient, on occasion. The perils of youth, I’ve been told.” An ironic quirk of her lips again, suggesting her good humor was returning.
Now it was his turn to steady himself. The effect of her bold words was dizzying, as more blood rushed downward than his brain could spare.
“Looks like this is a favorite gathering space.” She nodded toward several rough-hewn benches and chairs.
“Yeah, there’s a nice wind off the water, when the creek bed’s not dry.” He knew it because he actually preferred this area. Usually he ended up back here, where he could breathe better. He’d nurse a beer, get up a card game, stumble off to his swag on the veranda only when he was well buzzed and too sleepy to dream. Wouldn’t be that way tonight, though. He couldn’t imagine her preferring anything other than a soft, clean bed, a courtesy he was sure she was used to having from a lover.
She’d traveled a few steps away, releasing his hand, and now she turned. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that,” she said. “Sometimes I let it get away from me.”
“You don’t owe me the apology, love,” he said mildly. “Talk to Elle.”
Lady Daniela snorted. “I don’t owe that one an apology. She knew what she was doing, right enough. I just mean control is important.”
“More important than anything else?”
“Pretty much.” She threaded her manicured fingers through some loose tendrils of blond hair, but her gaze was riveted on him again. “Though there are always things that tempt me to think otherwise. Do you know your Australian history?”
He grunted. “As much as any lad with more interesting things to do.”
“Liar. Oxford scholar. ‘All I see I claim.’ ” Her gaze coursed from his toes, moving slowly . . . so slowly. “That’s what the first settlers said. No wonder they felt that way, looking at terrain that could give them so much. If they understood its mysteries.”
“Let’s go to your room.” He straightened, his voice thick. Stepped toward her. “You can claim everything you want from me, love.”
The pupils of her eyes had dilated in the near darkness, grown larger so he was actually having some difficulty seeing the blue. “Rooms. I have the whole upper floor,” she said. “The windows are open, and there’s a door to the veranda. You won’t feel trapped.”
“Why does one woman need a whole floor of rooms?” He decided not to comment on how she’d picked up on the fact he didn’t like to feel closed in.
“My needs are not small. And tonight I intend for a bushman to demonstrate his prowess with a whip.” That smile again, feral enough he wondered if it was a smile at all, or more likely the expression of another species whose language he didn’t yet know.
The small boardinghouse was nothing fancy, of course, a frame building set up on pilings for air flow. Basically, it served as an alternative to the hotel, which housed mainly single stockmen. But it was clean and they’d tried to create a parlor for guests to play cards or keep one another company. There was even a brace of not-too-dingy lace curtains at the doors leading out to the veranda. He watched, bemused, as she slid the meager furniture of sofa and chair against the wall to clear floor space before he could join her to assist. For all she looked so refined and willowy, she was a strong thing.
“Take out your whip,” she said. And without further ado, she began to pace back from him, until she was near the opposite wall. Then she started to slip the buttons of her white shirt.
That froze him in place, watching the cleavage evolve into the high white curves of her breasts, like a bird’s wings. And she didn’t wear some practical brassiere bought out of a catalog, like most women he’d known. Her bosom was held in a lacy, transparent garment that not only made it look ready to spill out at any moment, but showed him the soft smudge of mauve nipples. Saliva gathered in the back of his throat as she shrugged out of the shirt. When she loosened her hair, it drifted over the molded cups and swung back over the upper arms, her rounded shoulders.
“Come here and take off my boots.”
He moved, even though the commanding tone bothered him some, as if she fully expected to be obeyed. Don’t make an issue out of it, mate. Wryly, he suspected that quelling directive had been barked straight from his cock to his floundering brain.
“Lady Daniela.” He wet dry lips. “So you never explained that. Am I with nobility, then?”
“Aristocracy. Nobility is a virtue. I have few of those.”
He let his gaze drift appreciatively. “I’d argue that, my lady.”
When he reached her, she was leaned up against the wall, folding her hands almost demurely beneath the cushion of her backside. Even though the pose lifted those breasts, drew his hungry attention to them, she lifted a leg, braced her heel on his thigh, stopping his forward progress. “My boots, Dev. If you’d like to see the rest.”
Picking up her ankle, he slid to the heel to take hold. While she hadn’t said to do it, he also took off the thin sock beneath, his hands whispering along bare skin now, the slope of her calf and delicate structure of her ankle, the arch of her foot. Her lips parted, her breath raising those lovely breasts on a trembling sigh. She liked his touch, then. That was good. Because he intended to touch her a lot, for as long as she’d put up with him.
She shifted, placed the other foot high on his thigh again, earning a hungry lunge from his cock contained only by the tough fabric of his moleskins.
Once he slid that boot and sock off, she straightened and opened the clasp on her jodhpurs. One teasing wriggle and they slid down her flesh like a waterfall, no resistance from her silky skin. As if she were one of those Roman goddesses, it was like she was meant to stand like this, in an elegant, nearly naked pose. He was all for it.
More lace, more transparent fabric that hiked high on her legs and the delectable arse. He’d bet it was round and soft-looking as a pillow. He was a sucker for a fine arse. He liked all the parts, but that one . . . He couldn’t get enough of ogling, squeezing, smacking . . . even buggering. Tina’d always laughed and said she had to keep her back to a wall—
He pulled back, startled by the thought. Lady Daniela glanced up at him. “Something bite you?” That seemed to amuse her for some reason, but there was a serious question in her gaze.
Nothing but memories. But as he well knew, memories did more than bite. They tore, ripped, mutilated . . . refused to leave you alone—or dead. He wouldn’t care which they did, as long as they’d stop their tormenting.
As if she knew that, she crossed the room, putting that distance between them again. He’d never seen a woman walk like that. Not the exaggerated saunter of a whore, or the self-conscious movements of a modest woman deprived of her clothes. It was the way he imagined a goddess to walk, fully aware of her sexual power, willing to be generous with it if the man was worthy. He wasn’t, but at this point he was willing to beg, as soon as he could find his tongue. She was giving him a hell of an eyeful, driving coherence away.
High, firm tits, arse shifting along just right, smooth, pale legs. She was a vat of cream, for sure, and he was the hungry tom who wanted to lick it all up.
“So here’s your chance, bushman.” She posed there, a hand on her hip, cocked provocatively, and tossed her hair back. “Touch me with that whip from the farthest reach possible, without leaving so much as a mark, and I’ll give you everything you want. If you hurt me . . . I’ll get what I want.” She smiled, unexpectedly. “Of course, it’s all the same really, isn’t it?”
It broke some of the tension, making him chuckle. But as he measured off the pacing he needed, he felt a moment’s uneasiness. There was a reason the stockman’s braided kangaroo hide whip was called his third arm. He had as much control over it as his own limb. But the one appendage Dev didn’t seem to have any control over, his cock, could seriously disrupt that control, and a stockman’s whip could carve a brand in a steer’s hide.
So focus, damn it. You don’t want to hurt her.
Or did he? Fleetingly, he wondered if he might cheat a little . . . just to see what she’d demand of him. The look in her eyes was the way a lioness centered herself before chasing down that helpless buck. He did and didn’t want to do it her way. Some part of him wanted to go to her, bury himself in wet heat, feel the desperate clutch of her hands as he drove her to climax. Because after he exploded inside her, for a short time he could drift in the fantasy of a reality he’d had for too short a time. A reality he’d never have permanently again, because his heart wouldn’t survive its loss twice.
Stop it. Control wasn’t only important in the use of the whip. It was what was most important of all. As long as you had it, it implied you had choice. Startled, he realized he’d echoed her words by the billabong. Control was what was important, above all.
He uncoiled the whip with one deft move of his wrist. “You sure you might not enjoy feeling a touch of pain, my lady?”
“That’s beside the point.” She curled her lip, showing him a flash of her canines, which seemed particularly sharp. “The bet is no pain, or I get to take everything I want.”
He could curl the whip around her body for hours, twirl her in a dance, touch the end of it to any pink, fragile part, tease a nipple or the hint of her pretty pussy beneath the gauzy fabric. Or cut a brand into her flank as intricate as he might wish. His cock hardened inexplicably at that thought.
As she posed there, beautiful, statuesque, something far beyond his reach, her blue eyes never left his face. Then she destroyed him by raising her arms above her head so her breasts rose, the skin stretched over her rib cage, making it more defined, vulnerable. She stayed that way, as if her hands were bound from the ceiling, and his blood fired.
The whip sang out, the pop striking right where he intended. A spot high on her perfect right breast, the first place he’d put his lips to soothe the skin. He put enough recoil into the strike that the effect was a bee sting, raising a blush on the skin. No cut, but it definitely hurt. Proving that he could do it without pain, and had made the conscious choice not to do so.
Sometimes he thought his roughness with women, the need to hurt them a little, came from the fact that none of those women was the one he missed so much. But there was a different component to this. Bloody oath, she didn’t even flinch. But he sensed something change in the air as he brought the whip back to him, coiled it up in an efficient movement. If he had to give it a name, he’d say it was a wave of feral satisfaction, emanating from her like blazing heat.
Holding the whip in a clenched fist, he saw her gaze travel to where his cock was straining against his trousers, then back over every tense muscle in his body. As her attention went up his bare chest, it reminded him of her touch through the bar rag, the way she’d seemed to savor every inch of him.
“I assume you’re a man of your word?” she asked.
“I am.” He found his mouth was dry.
“Take off your shirt.” When he complied, she began to move toward him. As her hips moved like the pendulum of an elegant clock, her breasts quivered in the cradle of that bra. He was sure the under-wire beneath the lace was far more unforgiving and cruel than his hands would be. Or maybe not.
She stopped before him, gazed up into his eyes. Dev was unable to move, the proximity of her body to the raging need of his own overwhelming, paralyzing him. “When we’re alone, you may call me Danny,” she said. “All right?”