Outback Skies, Book 3
“Here ya go, mate, get that inta ya.”
Evan Alexander raised his head—heavier than it was five hours ago, surely—and took the beer offered to him by the owner of the Outback Skies pub. “Thanks, Lacky.”
His voice sounded scratched and dry, even to his own ears. It didn’t surprise him. His throat felt lined with hot sandpaper. He shifted his butt on the pub’s wooden step, unable to stop his gaze moving to the dense black smoke devouring the western sky. Smoke he’d just spent the last five hours flying around in. Smoke he’d just spent the last five hours inhaling.
Smoke he was, in roughly two minutes—give or take a mouthful—heading back into.
All around him, the small town of Wallaby Ridge writhed, rallying together in the face of a fire larger than any the area had experienced before. The Salvation Army had arrived from nearby Dubbo already, setting up outside the Ridge’s only green grocer, ready to offer support, sandwiches and water to anyone exhausted from fighting the blaze. Beside them, the first of the media trucks were unloading. Reporters sent from Sydney, no doubt to capture the drama of the history-making inferno.
Evan could only shake his head at the women in high heels and thigh-hugging skirts tottering around their equipment vans, their immaculate make-up at odds with the dusty street. And then there were their cameramen, dressed in baggy jeans and T-shirts and gaping at the billowing smoke rising into the sky hundreds of kilometres away as if it was a cancerous monster.
“Charlie’s just got word the National Aerial Firefighting Centre has sent two choppers from Sydney.” Matt Corvin lowered himself onto the step beside Evan and handed him a bag of salted peanuts. “Here. Eat some of these. Doctor’s orders.”
Evan snorted. Trust the town’s doc to make sure he was keeping his sodium levels up. Of course, with how much he’d sweated over the last five hours fighting the fire from the skies, his body would definitely be deprived of salt at the moment.
Snaring a handful of nuts from the bag, he tossed them into his mouth and chewed, returning his attention to the smoke well on its way to blocking out the setting sun. If the fire currently on its way to destroying half of the Mutawintji National Park wasn’t extinguished soon, Wallaby Ridge was going to be plunged into an unnatural night. And with both aerial and ground backup not arriving from Sydney for at least another three hours, the air assault on the blaze was pretty much left up to Evan.
Like the Blue Mountains fire? Are you going to fuck up this one as well? Is someone going to die before this fire’s out?
A suffocating pressure wrapped his chest. The nuts in his mouth tasted like dust. A heavy ball of dark contempt churned in his gut.
Dragging his stare from the smoke, eyes stinging with sweat and dust, he drained the glass in his hand and pushed himself to his feet.
He had to get back to it.
No rest for the wicked, eh, Evan?
He flicked Matt a quick glance, noting the worry on the doc’s face. “Is the chopper refueled?”
His friend nodded, rising to his own feet. “Ryan called through a minute ago. I figured you needed a few minutes rest before I told you. You sure you’re ready to go back up?”
Scrubbing his palms on the tops of his thighs, Evan nodded. “Yeah. I’m good. I’ve done this before, remember?”
Matt’s gaze moved to the twisted web of scarred flesh that covered most of the left side of Evan’s face. Evan didn’t need to ask what he was thinking. Everyone in Wallaby Ridge knew how those scars had come about. Was everyone in the Ridge now thinking about that? Wondering if Evan was up to the task of saving the national park, as well as keeping all those out there fighting the massive inferno on the ground safe.
Would someone die today, because Evan couldn’t handle the—
A red-dust-covered 4WD skidded to a halt directly in front of the pub, spewing dirt up from its back wheels. The driver’s door was flung open and a woman covered in ash and soot tumbled from behind the wheel, her stare fixed on Evan and Matt. “Captain Montgomery just radioed through from the north front,” she said, hurrying towards them. “The wind’s shifted.”
Evan’s blood ran cold. He stiffened.
Behind the 4WD, the big-city reporters stirred, as if sensing blood. One of the women grabbed her cameraman’s shirt sleeve and tugged at it as she fixed her stare on Evan. Dawning recognition flooded her face.
“Hey!” she shouted across the street. “Hey, you’re that helicopter pilot who almost died in the Blue Mountains fire five years ago, aren’t you?”
Adjusting his baseball cap low over his face, Evan jerked his stare back to Matt and their new arrival, ignoring the woman’s question.
“Shifted?” Matt—ever the doctor—pressed his hands either side of her face and gently tugged at the skin beneath her eyes, no doubt checking them for whatever doctors looked for when they did such a thing. “What’s that mean?
Tash Freeman, the town’s Royal Flying Doctors Service pilot shooed him away with a frown even as a warm smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“It means the fire’s on the verge of jumping the containment—”
Evan didn’t listen to the rest. Throwing himself into Tash’s Land Cruiser, he yanked the door shut, slammed the 4WD into gear and took off, showering the female reporter currently hurrying across the street in a spray of red dust.
Pushing the vehicle to its limits, he headed for the Wallaby Ridge Rural Fire Brigade’s helipad. He had to get to the north front of the blaze. Now.
If the fire did jump the containment line, it meant the captain of the Wallaby Ridge’s fire brigade and the small team of locals working with her was surrounded.
If he didn’t get there before that happened, Jess Montgomery and her team would not survive.
An image of a blackened body flashed through his head. The haunting stench of burnt flesh filled his sinuses. The soul-tearing screams of a dying man filled his ears… A ghost from a lifetime ago he could never escape.
Gut knotted, chest tight, Evan shut out the tormented memory and pushed his foot harder to the accelerator.
Ryan Taylor was waiting for him at the chopper when he arrived. His best friend met him halfway across the helipad, holding his cowboy hat firmly to his head. Evan noticed the heli-musterer had already started up the Bell 205 and the blades slowly rotated in the smoke-hazy air. “She’s ready to go, mate,” Ryan shouted, grabbing Evan’s shoulder to halt his sprint for the chopper. “Watch it up there, okay. The wind’s being a fucking messy bitch and the fire is heading east. It’s jumped the containment line and Jess and the north front team are in the middle of it.”
Evan nodded, heart wild, voice steady. “It’s all good. I’ll make sure they’re safe and get out alive.”
Like Matt, Ryan’s gaze flicked to the scars on Evan’s face. “I know you will, mate. But it’s you I’m worried about. I know you’re brilliant at what you do, but there’s no way anyone can get to you if you go down in that fire. Not where it’s currently burning. Not even me. Got it?”
Evan slapped his hand on Ryan’s forearm and gave his friend a wide grin. His body thrummed, charged with adrenaline and fear. “Is this your subtle way of finally telling me I’m a better pilot than you?”
Ryan barked out a laugh. “Get the fuck out of here, Ev. Put the fire out and then get your arse back here pronto. You owe me a beer for a comment like that.”
With his own dry laugh, Evan ran to the chopper, climbed into the pilot seat and took off.
There was work to be done. Dangerous work.
The best work in the world, in Evan’s opinion, even as he dreaded every fucking minute.
It was work that had cost him his marriage, cost him his life in Sydney. Work that had cost his partner of ten years his life, period.
Work that had scarred Evan as surely on the inside as it had the outside.
Heart racing, he navigated the Bell 205 towards the thick columns of smoke turning the western sky black.
He refused to let his mind replay the reason for the reporter’s recognition. Refused to think about a dying man’s screams echoing in his head now. Refused to acknowledge words uttered five years ago by the woman he’d thought loved him unconditionally, words of repulsion and scorn.
Instead, he focused on the wall of smoke and fire roaring towards the perimeter of the Mutawintji National Park where members of the Ridge’s fire brigade, consisting mostly of volunteers, fought the blaze. Instead, he flew straight through the smoke to the deep waterhole in the middle of the national park, sucked over 10,000 litres of water up into his chopper’s tank and then sought out the densest pillar of smoke closest to the team’s last known position.
He swooped low through the smoke, blinded by it, relying on gut instinct.
The wind slammed into the chopper, buffeting it with powerful force. The flames leapt high, dancing on the erratic gust.
Heat blasted at the cockpit, turning it to an instant oven.
Fresh sweat popped out on Evan’s forehead. He gripped the collective pitch lever, fighting against the wild lashes of wind as he searched for any sight of Wallaby Ridge’s fire brigade captain and her team below.
Five men and one woman faced a wall of fire, their water-filled backpacks almost farcical in the face of such fierce flames.
Evan fixed their position in his mind, soared higher above the flames and, judging the direction and speed of the wind by the smoke whipping past the windscreen, dropped his chopper’s entire load in a torrent of water on the fire below.
He watched the majority of the water vaporize as it encountered the intense heat of the flames.
Cursed the fire with every breath in his lungs like he always did and, committing the ground team’s location to memory—navigated back to the water hole over twenty kilometres away.
He repeated the maneuver four times. With each return dump, the wind pummeled his chopper harder. It wasn’t just a wind anymore. It had grown into a gale, a malevolent squall hell-bent on preventing him from returning to the line.
A living creature determined to devour any chance of keeping those below Evan free of the flames’ hunger.
On the fifth trip, Evan lost sight of the team.
“Fuck!” he screamed, searching for the firefighters in the fleeting glimpses he got of the ground through the fire and smoke.
Risking the dangerous gusts, he dropped lower, the smoke swirling away from the chopper’s blades like a whirlpool.
Nothing but fire and smoke and burning trees and scrub.
A kangaroo bounded across the ground, its fur ablaze.
“Fuck!” he screamed again, gripping the collective pitch lever tighter.
Another squall slammed into the chopper, knocking it sideways.
Evan fought back control, desperate to find the ground team. Alarms buzzed in the cockpit, warning signals he was too close to the ground. Too close.
A flash of neon yellow caught his eye amongst the black and red. He reefed on the lever, tilting the chopper into the wind.
The smoke swirled away, revealing the Ridge’s fire brigade captain, Jess Montgomery, screaming at someone or something still hidden by the smoke.
Yanking back the collective lever, Evan sent the chopper high. Scanned the area. Studied the smoke and the flames. Calculated what little time those on the ground had left before the fire ringed them completely.
And did the only thing he could.
Hoping to hell the captain realised what he was doing, he activated the retraction winch for the water collection hose and directed the chopper back down into the inferno.
He cut through the thick smoke and flames devouring the scrub behind Jess and her team and headed for the only patch of ground to their rear untouched by the fire.
Christ, he hoped to fuck it was large enough to land on without being engulfed by flames.
The chopper’s cabin turned to an oven again. Sweat beaded on his forehead, his top lip. Stung his eyes.
He navigated purely on instinct. Fought the buffeting gale as it tried to drive him into the blaze. Fought the pummeling memories of a similar fight between nature and aircraft five years ago…
Through the chopper’s windshield, he caught sight of Jess screaming at that same unseen something or someone in the smoke. This time, however, he spied four of her team running towards him.
Ash had turned their faces black. Their eyes were wide with fear. Two of the men dragged a third between them, his body limp, his head lolling.
Heart fast, Evan gripped the collective lever tighter, made sure the collection hose was completely retracted and prepared himself for what came next.
A juddering jolt rocked the chopper as it thudded against the ground. He bit back a curse, fixing his stare instead on the men hurrying towards him. Men fleeing a cruel, hideous death.
They reached the side of the chopper just as he slid open the door.
A wall of heat hotter than a furnace slammed into him. Searing-hot air poured into his lungs. The screams of a ghost assaulted him again, dying screams of agony. He shut them out, focusing on the men looking up at him with raw terror and relief.
“We’ve lost Harry,” one of them shouted, helping his fellow fighters shove their unconscious crew mate into the chopper. “The Captain is trying to find—”
A deafening roar erupted behind them, followed a split second later by a wave of scalding heat.
Snapping his stare over the men’s shoulders, Evan witnessed a massive eucalyptus tree detonate on the rim of the fire front. Beneath it was Jess Montgomery, the petite captain of the Wallaby Ridge Fire Brigade hunching over what was obviously a prone body on the ground.
“There!” Evan yelled, pointing in her direction.
Every fibre in his body urged him to jump from the chopper and run to them. To drag them from beneath the burning tree.
But if he did, they’d all be dead within the minute. The fire was devouring the small area he’d touched down in. They all needed to be in the air ASAP, and given he was the only one capable of piloting the chopper…
“Hurry,” he shouted at the backs of the two men now running for Jess and Harry.
The urge to join them flooded him again. Overwhelming and powerful. Gritting his teeth, he dropped his attention to the unconscious man on the floor of his chopper. Checked his pulse.
Alive. But only just.
Pulling him farther in, he shot a quick glance outside. Just in time to see another gum tree detonate beside the first.
Just in time to see half the blazing foliage fall to the ground.
Just in time to see Jess and the other men haul Harry out of the way.
“Time’s up,” he yelled again. The roar of the fire devoured his words as easily as it devoured the bush. “We’ve gotta get out of here now!”
A heartbeat later—time that dragged for an eternity—Jess and her team pushed Harry’s inert form into the chopper’s interior.
Evan didn’t waste time checking to see if the father of three was alive. If he did that, none of them would be.
He threw himself into the pilot seat and took off. Propelled the Bell 205 upwards, through flames and smoke that were not just circling them but reaching for them. Hungry for them.
The world disappeared. Became a sweltering shroud of black and red and orange.
Behind him came the unmistakable sounds of a person performing CPR. Below him came the furious blast of another eucalyptus tree detonating.
Evan pulled back on the controls, hurling the chopper higher through the smoke. Higher. Higher.
Until they burst out of the inferno, out of the blackness and into a cloudless dusk sky.
* * * *
Four hours later, with the north containment lines once again secure, and over 50,000 hectares of burning scrubland and vegetation extinguished, Evan finally allowed himself to climb out of his chopper.
The AS350 B3s from Sydney had arrived and were taking turns dumping the fire still burning with water sucked up from the water hole in the middle of the national park. On the ground, the teams sent from Sydney, Tamworth and Dubbo worked with Jess’s small crew of volunteers.
Setting foot on the Wallaby Ridge’s helipad, Evan turned his gaze to the western horizon and studied the angry red glow marring the midnight sky. He’d give himself fifteen minutes. Enough time to grab something to eat, a coffee maybe, and then get back up there. Exhausted as he was, the night—the fight—wasn’t over. They may have contained the north front once again, but the risk of the blaze breaking lines again, especially with the way the wind was gusting and building, was high. Too high.
“Harry’s going to make it.”
Adjusting his baseball cap on his head, Evan shot the man currently walking towards him a quick look.
Charlie Baynard gave him a smile he could only describe as drained. It was a first. Until now, Evan had never seen Wallaby Ridge’s Senior Constable anything less than one hundred percent alert. “He’s got a lung full of shit and ash and smoke, but he’s going to make it. The doc’s dealing with him and Grub now at the hospital.”
Evan scrubbed at his face, his fingers charting the twisted scarred mess of flesh that was his temple, cheek and jaw. His brain wanted to remind him, as it always did when his fingers or gaze encountered the damaged skin, how it came to be that way, how much he’d lost. He wouldn’t let it. Not now. That kind of haunted torture was reserved for moments alone, in his home, staring at himself in the bathroom mirror.
Staring at his naked body and reliving the—
“Grub going to be okay?” he asked Charlie, killing the bleak reverie.
The senior constable snorted. “The bastard sucks more shit into his lungs daily with those roll-your-owns he smokes. The doc says heat exhaustion got to him.” He paused, fixing Evan with a steady look. “You know, they’d all be dead if you hadn’t got them out.”
Evan shook his head. “I didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t do.”
Charlie snorted again. “That is the most convoluted way of saying stop paying me a compliment. And it’s also shit. Not many people would risk their life like that. They’re calling you the hero of Wallaby Ridge.”
Evan’s gut knotted. He frowned at his friend. “Who’s they?”
“Everyone. The nurses at the hospital, Harry, Grub. Hell, even Jess used the word hero, and you know what she’s like, the only person she ever says anything good about is Desmond.”
Evan tugged at the brim of his baseball cap, pulling it lower over his face as he turned back to the bruised-red horizon sky. “I’m no hero.”
“Well,” Charlie muttered, “you better be ready to tell the pretty thing heading our way now that. ’Cause I’m pretty certain the hero of Wallaby Ridge is exactly who she’s come to talk to.”
Dragging his stare from the western sky, Evan gave Charlie a puzzled look. “Tell who that? What the hell are you…?”
The question died on his lips as a woman entered his line of sight.
A tall, willowy woman with hair the colour of midnight, skin the colour of creamy coffee and eyes the colour of a cloudless summer sky.
A woman who loved Cohen Brothers films, hot chili slathered all over her Vegemite toast for breakfast, and dancing barefoot on the beach.
A woman who went skydiving in her spare time and fostered abandoned dogs until they found new homes.
A woman who, as far as he knew, was still his ex-wife’s best friend.
A woman, he noticed, carrying a Chanel Eight News microphone like it was a weapon, with a camera man from the same news network trotting behind her like a faithful puppy.
Jenna McGrath. A woman who’d stirred the primitive centre of what made him a man from the very second he’d met her.
Jenna’s stride, normally utterly confident, purposeful and commanding, betrayed her. She stumbled, her four-inch Manolo Blahniks scraping over the gritty concrete, her mic slipping from her loosening grip.
Reflexes contracted her fingers around the microphone before it could fall to the ground. Her cameraman, Theo Theodopolis, snared her upper arm before she herself could tumble in that direction.
“Gotcha, boss,” he muttered, laughter in his voice.
She tried to shoot him a grateful smile over her shoulder, tried to show her appreciation for his quick action, but she couldn’t seem to drag her stare from the man in the baseball cap and battered bomber jacket standing near the helicopter.
There was no way it could be who she thought it was.
For starters, the Evan Alexander she knew five years ago would never hide under a baseball cap. Evan Alexander only ever stood tall and arrogant, smile smugly charming, oozing sexy-as-sin cockiness and surety.
That Evan, the one her best friend had married—correction, so-called best friend—had married would never wear his collar up hiding half his face.
Evan Alexander knew he was too good-looking to deny the world his countenance. Evan Alexander preened when the world looked at him. Evan Alexander would not, repeat, would not turn his back on a reporter making their way towards him like the man in the bomber jacket was doing now.
Which meant the man Wallaby Ridge was hailing a hero couldn’t be Evan Alexander, right?
So what’s with the punch-to-the-tummy sensation then, Jenna? The same punch-to-the-tummy sensation you always got every time your eyes connected with Evan’s back when you still hung out with him and Tracey?
Drawing in a slow breath, she straightened her spine and continued towards the man so very obviously ignoring her approach. There was no way it could be Evan. No way. It was a freaky trick of light, is all. A snatching glimpse of eyes similar to Evan’s. Hell, what with the way the man was wearing his baseball cap so low over his face, and with the cocked-up bomber jacket collar, she was lucky to have seen his eyes at all, especially in the darkness of the evening. Where were all the streetlights in the Outback? Surely the helipad should have some kind of illumination? How did they see anything out here at night with so little electric light? By the gazillion stars overhead?
She flicked the tall man standing beside the one ignoring her a look. He smirked at her, an unreadable expression on his face.
Jenna swallowed, casting her gaze over him from eyes to boots and back to eyes again. Charlie Baynard, Wallaby Ridge’s Senior Constable. A ripple of apprehension shot up her back. She’d spoken to him only a few moments ago, trying to track down the hero of Wallaby Ridge. He’d been intimidating then, shielding a small group of firefighters just in from the massive blaze from a frenzied gaggle of print-media reporters desperate to get a story.
“Senior Constable.” She licked her lips, her belly tight. Why, she had no idea. There was no reason for it. The man with his back to her wasn’t Evan. She indicated towards that broad back with her head, gripping her mic tighter. “Is this who I’m after?”
Charlie Baynard nodded. The shoulders of the man refusing to look at her stiffened.
“It is,” Charlie said. “But I don’t think he’s in the mood for talking. And I wouldn’t call him a hero if I were you.”
Jenna frowned. “But he is. Everyone is talking about the helicopter pilot who risked his life to save the team on the north line of the fire. Even his own captain says they’d all be dead if he hadn’t…” Huffing into her fringe, she tore her focus from the smirking police officer and reached out to tap on the other man’s shoulder. What was she doing wasting time with Baynard? “Excuse me, I’m Jenna McGrath from Chanel Eight News. I’m wondering if you’d permit me a few moments to talk about what you did out there?”
The man half turned his head, enough to grant her a glimpse of what little profile the low baseball cap peak and high collar allowed. “I just did my job,” a deep voice, scratchy and husky from smoke, no doubt, declared. “There’s no story here.”
The tension in Jenna’s stomach fluttered. Her throat thickened.
In amongst all that scratchy timbre was a voice she recognized, one that had stayed with her long after she and Tracey had parted ways. One that visited her often in her dreams and when her hands took care of the yearning in her body.
She stared at the glimpse of a profile. At the downcast eyes refusing to look at her.
His name slipped from her lips, doubt and confusion tripping over the syllables.
The broad shoulders encased in beaten leather stiffened. She saw his eyes squeeze shut. Saw his head dip a fraction, as if weighed down by a fatal sense of acceptance.
And then the man every member of the media here in Wallaby Ridge wanted to talk to turned and faced her fully. Fixed her with eyes as piercing as they’d ever been despite the dark shadow thrown over his face by the peak of his baseball cape, and Jenna forgot how to breathe.
A lump lodged itself in her throat. Got stuck there, fast and tight.
She caught sight of white twisted flesh beneath his left eye, over his cheek. Saw a hint of the same on what little of his jaw and the side of his neck was visible behind the cocked collar of the bomber jacket.
Are they…are they scars?
The shocked thought ran through her head at the very second she realized just how long she’d been staring.
Blinking, she snapped her focus to his eyes again, taking a step back as she did so. And collided with her cameraman.
“What the hell, boss?” Theo muttered.
She didn’t look at him. Couldn’t tear her stare from Evan. Her heart did its best to dislodge the lump in her throat. Her belly did its best to turn itself into a pretzel. “Evan,” she repeated his name, at a loss for any other words.
With a humorless curling of his lips, Evan reached up and removed the baseball cap from his head. “Surprised to see me here?”
Jenna’s stomach dropped.
The man standing before her was not the Evan she knew. He may be the same size and shape—six foot plus, broad shouldered, narrow hipped and imbued with a latent strength the faded Levis and bulky jacket couldn’t hide—but that was where the similarities ended. Before her stood a man with Evan’s shaggy light brown hair and hawkish nose and defined lips, but without his smug cockiness and sarcastic confidence. A man with scars marring most of the left side of his face, scars that disappeared into his hairline at his temple and down past the collar of his jacket. Scars that, her brain also registered, ribboned his left wrist and the back of his left hand.
Before her stood a man with a guarded reticence, a withdrawn reluctance.
She swallowed, her pulse pounding in her ears. “I…” she croaked.
Jesus, what was wrong with her?
The dry smile on Evan’s lips—lips she’d imagined with guilty heat on her own often when she and Tracey had been friends, even more after she’d learned they’d divorced—stretched wider. Became hollow. “I guess you didn’t know.”
She frowned. Swallowed again. Forced words to her tongue. “That you weren’t living in Sydney anymore?” She shook her head. “No.”
A chuckle rumbled in his chest, a hint of the confident Evan she’d known five years ago. For a moment, true emotion flickered in his smile, like a ray of sunlight escaping a blanket of thunderclouds.
Jenna’s heart slammed harder into her throat at the sight.
And then that warmth vanished, replaced once more by a defensive wariness. “How’s Tracey?”
At the mention of her once best friend, Jenna’s stomach clenched. She forced her own dry chuckle. “I guess you don’t know,” she replied, doing her best to keep her voice neutral.
Evan frowned and shook his head. Jenna couldn’t help but notice how the scars on the side of his forehead bunched above his eyebrow. God, how had he come by them? A fire? An accident?
Dropping her gaze to the peak-a-boo toes of her ridiculously non-Outback-appropriate shoes, she licked her lips, her mouth dry. “She and I aren’t exactly…friends anymore.”
The ambiguous tone in Evan’s voice raised her head. He studied her, his jaw bunched.
Unable to stop herself, she ran her gaze over his face. Three quarters of it was flawless. Evan had been the most gorgeous, drop-dead sexy man she’d ever met. Tracey had bragged often, during the long hours she and Jenna had sat together in their social media lectures at university. “I’ve landed the hottest guy in Australia,” she’d whisper. “Who wants to fuck Ryan Gosling when I’m fucking Evan Alexander?”
Jenna had never vocalized her agreement. For one thing, she was still in awe of her new friend, who came from old money and whose parents were firmly in the social-elite circles of Sydney. For another, Jenna herself was seeing—admittedly off and on—a guy who may not be the living embodiment of sex-on-legs but was still lovely…in a safe, sweet, beige kind of way.
Jenna had accepted not everyone could date a hunky firefighter. She’d even been happy for her friend when Tracey had announced in the middle of Written Communications 101 that she and Evan had eloped over the weekend and flashed about a gold band on her wedding ring finger, smiling like the proverbial cat who’d swallowed the proverbial canary.
That night, she’d told her boyfriend how happy she was for Tracey, describing the delight in her friend’s face with genuine joy. Her boyfriend, Richard, had hummed and nodded, checking the text messages lighting up his iPhone’s screen as he did so.
It was only twelve months later that Jenna had realized all those text messages were from Tracey.
Sending him pictures of herself in various stages of undress.
It was twelve months and fifteen minutes after that that she’d discovered Richard had been returning the favour in kind.
“Harmless flirting,” Tracey had declared when Jenna had confronted her about it. “Only a parochial girl like you would be upset by something so lame.”
“Just a bit of stupid fun,” Richard had said and professed his undying love for her.
Jenna had called it the end. Of her and Richard. And her and Tracey. Parochial or not, she’d been too hurt to brush it off. Too betrayed.
She’d cut her ties to both of them. Fortunately, Tracey had dropped out of uni just after that, leaving Jenna to finish her Communications degree without the constant reminder her best friend had been sexting with her boyfriend.
More than once, Jenna had considered calling Evan and telling him what his wife had been doing. Especially after she’d heard rumours of their divorce. But every time she’d try to find the courage, his image would fill her head, his smoldering sexiness would taunt her and she’d find herself sick with embarrassment.
Why would a guy that good-looking, that successful, that confident believe his wife was flirting with someone else?
Now that guy was unexpectedly standing right before her, most of the left side of his face disfigured, not a hint of confidence about him. He looked like he’d been pulled through Hell and was haunted beyond words. And still, as it always had even back when she’d firmly believed his and Tracey’s relationship the ultimate true love romance, her heart hammered hard in her throat when his eyes met hers.
Still, her belly knotted when she thought of his smile, his laugh.
Did you think you were just attracted to his looks back then? You’ve never been that superficial. That was Tracey’s domain.
“You said you’re not friends with Tracey anymore. I knew you weren’t hanging out as much, but why did you stop being friends?”
A lump filled her throat. God, what did she tell him?
Telling a man sexier than sin his wife was doing the dirty on him was one thing. Telling a man who’d no doubt suffered pain and torment beyond her understanding was another.
She lifted her shoulder in a feeble shrug. “We just grew apart,” she answered, finding it hard to meet his gaze even as she found it harder to think about not looking at him.
God help her, she needed to get a grip. She was a journalist with one of the country’s highest rating news stations. She was here to cover the Mutawintji National Park fire, not get all mixed up over a man from her naďve, inexperienced past.
Dragging in a steadying breath, she shrugged again, this time making sure it was less feeble and more empowered-big-city-girl-with-awesome-job indifference. “It’s no big deal.”
Evan regarded her silently.
She stared back at him. Licked her bottom lip. Swallowed. Damn, she’d forgotten how just being in his presence had affected her.
“It’s…it’s good to see you—” she began.
“You’re looking good—” he said at the exact same time.
They both stopped. Nervous laughter bubbled up through her throat.
Evan smiled, the edge of his eye on the unscarred side of his face crinkling.
Silence descended once more as their gazes locked again.
Movement at Evan’s side scratched at Jenna’s brain. As did the muttered, “Get a room you two,” coming from behind her.
She started, blinking as the situation smashed over her.
People. Here. Wallaby Ridge. Fire. Reporting. Job.
Behind her, Theo—her ever-present cameraman—snorted. On Evan’s left, Wallaby Ridge’s Senior Constable laughed. “Fuck a duck, eh. Evan Alexander actually smiling? I like you, Jenna McGrath, Chanel Eight News. You can hang around longer if you like.”
At his chuckled declaration, Evan stiffened. His jaw bunched, a second before he slapped the baseball cap in his hand back onto his head and yanked its brim low over his face. So low Jenna couldn’t see his eyes at all.
“I’ve gotta go,” he growled, head ducked, hands tugging the collar of his jacket closer to his jaw. “Haven’t taken a piss in over four hours.”
And with that, he walked away. Passed Jenna without any acknowledgement, head down, hands balled into fists.
The night devoured him as he stepped from the dimly lit helipad and headed towards the Wallaby Ridge Rural Fire Brigade station house.
Jenna stood stock-still, too stunned to move.
What just happened?
“So I take it you two know each other?”
At Charlie Baynard’s humoured question, Jenna jerked her stare to him. Her heart thumped hard and fast. A thudding pressure pounded in her temples. “I…”
“We goin’ after him, boss?”
She spun around to face her cameraman. “I…”
“She’s going after him, mate,” Charlie stated, rounding Jenna to slap Theo on the back with a smirk. “You’re staying here with me.”
A wide grin stretched Theo’s lips. “Makes sense.”
Jenna gaped at them both.
For a good half a second.
“Excuse me,” she gushed, as she kicked off her Manolo Blahniks, pivoted on her heel like a drunken ballet dancer and ran into the darkness after Evan.
Her tailored pencil skirt—the one that made her look five pounds lighter on television—hugged her thighs and calves, turning her barefoot sprint into an ungainly teetering.
She was half tempted to stop, rip the split running up the back of her legs open, but didn’t want to waste the time.
“Evan,” she called into the night. “Evan, wait.”
“Try the Land Cruiser!” Charlie shouted behind her.
She shot him a look over her shoulder without slowing her pace.
He and Theo grinned at her from the illuminated helipad. “The Land Cruiser,” he shouted, pointing towards the left of the stationhouse. “Try the—shit, he’s driving off already.”
Jenna turned back to the direction she was heading just in time to see a dusty, soot-covered Toyota Land Cruiser begin to pull away from the stationhouse.
“Fuck this,” she muttered. She stopped, threw her mic aside—what the hell was she still doing holding it?—grabbed the back hem of her skirt and yanked her hands apart, tearing the split wider.
The confining pressure of the designer skirt disappeared from her thighs instantly. She took advantage of her new freedom and burst into a dead sprint across the empty area between the helipad and the stationhouse. Directly into the path of the Land Cruiser.
Dust spewed up from the back wheels as Evan hit the brakes. She stood her ground, hands out, stare locked on the windscreen.
A heartbeat later, the driver’s door was flung open. Evan damn near threw himself from the cabin before slamming the door shut and storming straight for her. Despite the baseball cap pulled low over his face, she could tell he glared at her.
Oh boy. Oh boy, he was angry. He was angry with her.
He stopped right in front of her. So close she could see how twisted and dense and absolute the scarred flesh of the left side of his face was, how knotted and webbed it was running down the left side of his throat.
So close the hard muscles of his thighs touched hers.
So close the heat radiating from his body seeped into hers.
His stare locked on hers. His nostrils flared. “What the hell are you doing, Jenna?”
“This,” she answered, a second before she pulled his baseball cap from his head, buried her hands in his hair and captured his lips with hers.
He stiffened against her, a statue of hard warm muscle. The beat of his heart smashed against her breast in a rapid tattoo. His lips remained unresponsive to hers.
For a heartbeat. Just one.
And then a low groan tore from his chest and he snarled twin handfuls of the back of her shirt, yanked her to his body and plundered her mouth with his tongue.
Concentrated pleasure and stunned joy rushed through Jenna. She hadn’t meant to kiss him. She hadn’t. She’d just meant to tell him she was happy to see him again, to ask if he’d have coffee with her before she flew back to Sydney, not as a reporter, but as an old acquaintance. And then his heat had wrapped around her body, his stare had connected with hers despite the darkness of the night surrounding them, and she’d been powerless to fight her long-suppressed desire for him.
She melted against him, giving herself over to the raw hunger of his kiss. His tongue mated with hers, wild and almost desperate. He pressed his hips harder to hers, the long, rigid pole of his erection mashing to her groin telling her he was as affected by her as she was him. She moaned into his mouth, rolling her hips to stroke the curve of her sex against the solid shaft.
He bunched his fists tighter in her shirt and took utter possession of the kiss, of her lips. There was no hesitancy or uncertainty. He kissed her as if she was his and his alone. As if the reason for his existence and hers was the joining of their lips and tongues, the mingling of their saliva, the clicking of their teeth.
Liquid heat pooled in Jenna’s core. Her breasts grew heavy with achy want. Her nipples beaded against his chest.
She moaned again, undone by the surreal moment.
She was kissing Evan Alexander.
And he was kissing her back.
With a hungry ferocity she’d never experienced in her life.
Oh boy, is this real?
Yes. It is.
The delirious thought shot through her mind a second before Evan dragged his lips from hers.
She whimpered in protest, balling her fists in his hair, and then gasped in relief as he charted a path of wicked nips down the side of her neck.
“Oh yeah,” she said breathlessly, rolling her head to the side.
He took her offering without delay, nibbling on the sensitive curve of flesh where her neck became her shoulder. His teeth grazed her skin. His tongue soothed the point of contact.
A shudder of base need quaked through Jenna. Her pussy grew moist with eager juices.
If he tore her clothes from her body right there and then, she wouldn’t care. If he threw her against the bonnet of the 4WD and buried himself to the hilt inside her, she would cling to him and beg him not to stop.
He grabbed her arse, hauled her from her feet and flung her legs around his hips as he spun to the Land Cruiser behind him.
“Oh God.” She panted as he deposited her onto the bull bar and lodged himself between her thighs. “Oh—”
He captured her cry with his mouth, once again taking utter possession of her lips with a hungry kiss. She surrendered to it, to him, uncaring the dirty metal bar beneath her butt would no doubt stain her white linen skirt. Uncaring anyone around could be watching them. Knowing her cameraman, Theo was most likely filming this, even in the low light. The man had little morals and even less professional ethics.
She didn’t care about that either. All that mattered was Evan’s lips and tongue and teeth and hands and the unmistakable steel of his engorged cock rammed to the soft folds of her pussy.
All that mattered was he wanted her.
There was no denying he wanted her.
He kneaded the backs of her thighs, tugging her closer still to his trapped erection. A low rumble vibrated in his chest as she raked her nails over his shoulders, down his back.
“Fuck, Jenna…” he ground out against her lips, shocked desire turning the words to a rough caress of sound.
She kissed him silent, rolling her hips as she did so, wanting to feel the impressive pole of his cock against her pussy.
He groaned, sliding his hand higher up the back of her thigh until the tips of his fingers brushed over the sodden crotch of her G-string.
Jenna’s head swam. Jolts of tight excitement sank into her core. She gasped, bucking against him on the bull bar even as she locked her ankles behind his back.
He continued to worship her mouth with his. Continued to propel her closer to an edge she’d not imagined before now—orgasm from a kiss alone? Who knew it was possible?
When he trailed his fingers over her pussy again, stroking its fleshy seam through the drenched silk of her G-string she couldn’t stop her cry. Couldn’t stop herself throwing back her head, his name bursting from her as she tightened her thighs around his hips.
“You touched…” She panted, eyes closed, head shaking. “Oh God, Evan, if you…if you touch me again there, I think…”
His hands on her body stilled. “Jenna…” Her name left him on a raspy whisper. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go so far. I shouldn’t have—”
His ragged exhalation opened her eyes. “Don’t you dare apologise. You have no idea how long I’ve fantasied about kissing you. No idea.”
An unreadable light flared in his eyes. His nostrils flared. “Since the day we first met?”
Her chest constricted at his low question. Her heart smashed faster into her throat.
He ran a thumb over her bottom lip. “Because that’s how long I’ve thought about kissing you.”
Jenna’s heart choked her. Her lips tingled. Struck dumb by his confession, she stared at him, feathering her fingertips over his shoulders, his throat, his jaw.
She traced the knotted web of scar tissue stretching over his cheek.
“How did you get these?” she whispered, at a loss for anything else to say. Her brain wasn’t working properly. How could it, when her world had suddenly and unexpectedly been thrown for a spin? “They look so—”
He pulled away from her. So abruptly she had to grab at the bull bar to stop herself from falling off it.
Without a word, he spun on his heel and hurried to the Land Cruiser’s driver’s side door. Yanked it open.
Jenna blinked. Cold confusion bit into the euphoric heat throbbing through her. “Evan?”
The 4WD shook as he climbed behind the wheel and slammed the door, jolting her from her tenuous perch on the bull bar.
By the time her feet hit the ground and she’d steadied herself, Evan had kicked over the engine. By the time she’d hurried around the nose of the 4WD, heading for the driver’s side door, he’d thrown the vehicle into reverse and was speeding backward.
Stunned, she stood in the billowing dust and squinted into the glaring beam of the headlight, tracking his rapid retreat.
She watched him spin the 4WD in a 180-degrees turn with seamless precision and then disappear into the darkness of the Outback night.
Obviously getting as far away from her as he could.
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