Ava May watched the big guy she’d seen at Sydney Airport fill the empty seat beside her in the aeroplane. She’d been drawn to his strong good looks, like every other woman in the lounge. She’d also been drawn to his hint of sadness. Her mum always called her on being too empathetic, too sensitive to other people’s emotions.
She decided her new seat companion seemed to have recovered his good humour, though. As he sat, he glanced at her and gave her the kind of smile that made a girl feel foolishly frisky – even girls who weren’t normally the frisky sort.
‘I’m Zac,’ he said.
He nodded, then rearranged his seatbelt and snapped the buckle shut. All the while his big shoulders encroached on her space. She inhaled his unique scent – a heady mixture of citrus and something woodsy – and decided it was very sexy. Not that she sniffed blokes’ chests often. Without leaning towards him, she tried to catch another whiff and was rewarded. Niiice.
He sat back. ‘Sorry about crowding you. It’s unavoidable for someone my size in these small seats. Do you live in Alice Springs or are you visiting?’
‘I live there sometimes,’ she responded. ‘Midwifery agency work. You?’
‘Only for the next month.’
There was no explanation from him on which type of work. His brows drew together and she felt the wall slide into place. It clearly said: Keep out.
‘It’s nice to get away,’ he said.
His long fingers waved at the window next to her and she decided he had piano player’s hands. She’d always had a thing for men with long, elegant fingers, but maybe that was because she’d dreamed of being a dancer and had needed someone to play the music. Or perhaps most of the men she knew had battered, work-worn hands that could pull a nail from a fence post.
Something in his eyes hinted at that sadness she’d spotted before.
Work and sadness. A combination she understood well.
Midwifery could be the happiest and the saddest of professions, and then there were police, ambulance officers and doctors all out there putting their hearts on the line. She decided he was a policeman because she had trouble reading his face. Probably a detective. She could distract the detective if that was what he needed.
‘Prefer not to talk about work?’ She smiled at him and his eyes met hers. Maybe actually saw her for the first time.
‘You’re observant,’ he said, making it sound like a compliment.
‘It’s my job.’ She waved her hand dramatically. ‘But I won’t mention that again.’
He laughed and she had the feeling he hadn’t laughed in a while. Suddenly, it was important to keep his good humour flowing and she set out to be funny and conversational. Something she normally let others do.
‘My family have a cattle station four hours from Alice.’ Her gaze brushed over his immaculate shirt and tie. ‘You look like a city guy.’
‘City born and boarding-school bred.’ His tone took on an English accent. ‘Political parents who travel a lot.’ Then he frowned at himself. ‘But that’s boring. Does that mean you attended School of the Air?’
‘Good guess. The cattle station, which is run by my mother and grandmother, is too far out of town for regular school.’
He shifted, angling towards her. He had a way of focusing his attention on her unlike anybody had before, and she could feel herself responding with an odd recognition of their connection. Weird.
‘Learning from home instead of school,’ he said slowly. She watched the expressions chase across his face, and was gifted a sudden, devilish smile that took ten years off his looks. ‘I imagine it would be more relaxing than the dynamics of many children vying for attention from teachers. My schooling had moments that made me happy, but I’m afraid I hated most of it. I much preferred travelling with my parents.’
‘Travel, eh?’ She had never been outside Australia, but she could imagine it. ‘We’re not holiday-taking people. Sydney’s as far as I’ve been. It’s too far to go anywhere and there’s always too much to do on the station. Though we have shed parties after muster and the off-road races my brother loves. And camel and horse races.’ She thought about that and was satisfied. ‘We have fun at home when the work is done.’
He watched her face as if listening to her was the most amazing, fascinating experience in the world. He was too encouraging, and she could become just a little besotted with this guy if he kept looking at her like she was a rain cloud and he was a thirsty camel.
He touched the corner of his eye. ‘You said outback races. Like Birdsville?’ he asked. ‘I’ve heard about those outback race meetings.’
She couldn’t help the snort. ‘Birdsville is in a class of its own. And about two thousand kilometres away. Closer to us, we have the Alice Springs Cup, but it’s not quite the same.’
She took in his creaseless trousers, which hugged his thighs in a way that made her think she probably shouldn’t notice, and his gleaming leather shoes. ‘I can see you at Flemington in a suit. Bet you’ve been to “the race that stops the nation”.’
The blankness fell like a dark cloak and hid the thoughts on his face. ‘When she was alive, my wife loved the Melbourne Cup. Fashions on the Field.’ She saw a frown, then a wince, as if he’d done something wrong.
Okay, then, another closed door. Maybe she should just look out the window. Which she did, and saw they’d left Sydney. At that moment the seatbelt sign pinged off.
He sighed, unsnapped his seatbelt and stood up. ‘Excuse me.’
She tried to figure out what it was that made her so determined to understand him when he was proving to be such hard work. She’d felt that tingle of attraction and she wanted more. Lots more. But if he returned the interest, which she was sure he had for a few shared heartbeats, he’d just told himself to stop.
They were strapped and trapped in narrow airline seats on a three-hour flight from Sydney, so it was almost inevitable for them to talk. As the flight attendant came around with miniature bottles of West Australian pinot noir, Ava grabbed a couple. A drink might be what he needed to loosen his oh-so-constrictive reserve, because this could be interesting.
When he came back, he seemed to have recovered from whatever had troubled him and he accepted the wine from Ava.
His beautiful eyes were self-mocking. ‘I forget to be sociable.’
She laughed and decided not to ask about his work or his wife.
‘So what music do you like and who’s your favourite actor?’
He laughed. ‘You’re a delight.’
He raised his glass, they carefully touched plastic to plastic and, bizarrely, for Ava it felt as if that tiny spark of attraction had flared into a scrub fire. Incendiary attraction, both of them needing comfort, both well over the age of consent. This was going to be a memorable flight.
The conversation barely faltered from there – seriously, the people in front of them must have wanted to knock their heads together to get some peace – and they’d only covered the surface stuff. His political parents and private Sydney boarding school versus her School of the Air and matriarch-run outback station. He was a widower and she single, and yes, he was an emergency doctor, not a policeman, but he didn’t want to talk about his loss or his job. Something in his gaze made her want to squeeze his fingers.
They shared their tastes in music – his piano and jazz, hers everything – as well as books – biographies versus a happy ending – and travel – Sydney being Ava’s most distant city and his love of Zurich. They made a game out of avoiding his topics of employment and family except for the basics.
They had so much unexpected rapport, such foolish fun exchanging foibles. His discovery of the health benefits of kombucha tea and her love of Bonox around a camp fire at muster. His aversion to heights and her love of off-road driving. So it seemed natural to share a taxi after landing, and then stand grinning at each other as he checked in to his swish apartment – not room – at the hotel where they intended to eat.
The sunrise tinted a pink swathe across the wall of the room, blushed across the white duvet, and dusted the beginnings of Central Australian heat across Ava’s cheek, warming her skin. Hazily, as she shifted her head, she squinted at the unfamiliar rose-coloured room and frowned.
She could see the flecks of floating dust motes crystallise but, unfortunately, that wasn’t all that formed as clarity returned. Her cheeks burned as the fractured pieces of last night re-emerged, and she stifled the urge to groan. Good ghastly grief.
She’d had a one-night stand.
You’re a grown woman. Her inner voice shut down the embarrassment.
That may be, but oh my. She had to admit, she would hate to have grown much older without experiencing last night. Talk about lust at first sight. It had been complete enchantment, and they’d been soulmates for at least the length of the spell.
She was no blushing virgin – though her virginity could quite possibly have grown back because it had been more than five years since she’d last been with anyone . . . for good reason – but darn, this morning felt uncomfortable. Especially when she was a novice at waking up next to a stranger from the night before, with the heat from his body still warming her hip.
She knew the outback rule: never leave your car if you break down. Were there rules for one-night stands?
Her stomach growled and she lifted her hand carefully to cover her eyes. Did this get any more awkward? Maybe she could slip sideways out of the bed. She wasn’t game to turn her head in case he woke up.
‘Would you like coffee?’ Deep, rumbling masculine tones with just a hint of amusement sounded, and she shifted her head to meet his eyes. Yep, those unfairly chocolate eyes were twinkling and not at all abashed.
She sighed and tried not to breathe her dragon breath on him. Another new skill she needed to learn.
Her hand dropped from her face. Right. Toughen up, Ava. ‘Weak black tea would be wonderful. Earl Grey, if you have it. Thank you.’ She wriggled up the pillows, strategically holding the sheet. ‘Then I have to go.’
‘Of course. Would you like a shower while I’m making it? There are extra towels in the bathroom and a bathrobe on the back of the door.’
She thought about a shower, feeling refreshed, more relaxed and restored to her normal unshakable composure, or, alternatively, the messy, crumpled walk of shame without one.
‘That would be great,’ she said. ‘Thanks. I won’t use the robe, though, I’ll just get dressed.’ She could do this. Calm and composure were her middle names; nothing fazed her. Everybody in Alice Springs knew that.
‘Umm . . .’ More amusement sounded in the dulcet tones of his voice, and she turned her head back his way. ‘I think we may have popped a few buttons on both our shirts.’
Her hand came back up and slapped her forehead palm up as the full glory of their lustful exuberance returned.
‘A night to remember,’ she managed in an even tone.
‘I’d like to think so,’ he said. ‘Your Central Australian charisma fascinates me.’ Then with less amusement he said, ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’
Zac Logan – at least she recalled his name – tossed back the sheet, swung his long, muscled, naked body to the edge of the bed and stood. All six foot plus of solid, sexy, sinfully seductive stud. And he didn’t pause to put on any clothes. He just strode to the bench with the kitchen appliances and reached for the switch.
Ava blinked, dragged her eyes from his tantalising backside and scrambled to get to the bathroom before he turned around and gave her a front view.