Texas: Children of Destiny (The Jacksons) Book 4
Old flames burn the hottest in USA Today bestselling Ann Major’s passionate, Wilderness Child (Book 4, Texas: Children of Destiny).
She betrayed him once … now it’s his turn to pay her back in kind.
Sizzling desire and old betrayals meet in a conflagration in the Australian wilderness when a transplanted Texas cattleman’s old love walks into a trap he’s set just for her.
Tad Jackson is a rugged Texan with a raw sensuality as untamed as the Australian wilderness he now rules. But his outback kingdom is under assault from an unseen enemy, and his wife and beloved daughter are missing, feared dead. He’s lost what’s most important, now he’s about to lose the rest.
And it all began with his betrayal by the one woman he wanted above all others.
Years ago, Tad fell desperately in love with beautiful Jessica, but on his honeymoon he discovered that she'd set him up - he'd married her identical twin sister! Now Tad is widowed, and when he learns Jess has his niece, he has Jess right where he wants her—in his power.
Dr. Jessica Bancroft gave Tad up for her twin sister, believing it a noble self-sacrifice. Now she wants to raise her niece and keep her safe from the war zone that is Tad’s cattle station, but Tad refuses to give up his beloved child. To stay involved in her life, Jess must return home to the outback with them.
She’ll do anything for her niece, and maybe for Tad – but can she trust him? Long-ago passion still smolders between them, and when it finally flares out of control, will either of them survive the flames?
What a terrific story! The dialogue is fast-paced and snappy, the storyline is exciting, the characterization is great and the love scenes singe the pages.
~ KW Rendezvous
“Why isn't that the Yank that killed..." "It's hard to tell with his beard."
"I think you're right. That's him. That's the one! Jackson—bloody murderer."
The women's voices were high-pitched, curious, not in the least embarrassed, and they cut Tad Jackson to the quick. The hurt was immediately followed by fierce, murderous anger.
All eyes fastened upon the lean, golden-haired giant in the denim trousers and khaki shirt, that ubiquitous uniform of the Australian bushman. His skin had been burned and his hair bleached by too many hot, southern suns. Leather hat in his clenched hand, he was slouching negligently in the shadows while he waited for an elevator.
They had noticed him, of course. Right away. The moment he'd come into the building.
Women always noticed him. Even now, despite his beard.
A look of quick, smoldering anger hardened his carved features, and his silvery blue eyes narrowed. His sensual mouth thinned. He moved his head slightly and a silken lock of gold swept across his forehead. There was a recklessness in his dark face, something intangible that was wild and dangerous, something hostile that exuded virile masculinity, and that special, barely tamed something had always been irresistible to women.
Once he'd considered all that an advantage, but for the past year it had been a curse. Why couldn't they leave him alone? Why did every man, woman and child in Australia want to nail him to a cross?
Wasn't it enough that he and his family and men had been terrorized for two years? Enough that his fences were routinely cut, his livestock shot, his stockmen ambushed, and the road trains carrying his cattle to market attacked? A year ago his wife had become so terrified she had taken their daughter Lizzie and run away. She'd come back, stolen money from him, and then run away again. He had loved his daughter, but not his wife. Then the rumors had begun to fly about that he'd killed them. But he hadn't. He wanted desperately to know where they were.
The women were staring at him in fascination and horror.
Heat stained his cheeks. Tad let his hot, blue gaze slide over them. Then his mouth curled as he strode past the pocket of women waiting for the elevator.
Maybe some day one of them would take a wrong step and learn what it was to be persecuted for a crime she hadn't committed.
As he pushed open the door to the stairwell, he stopped and turned. Forcing a bitter smile, he touched a tanned finger to his brow and muttered a savage, "G'day, ladies."
His greeting was Australian; the slurred drawl, Texan. But it was the white grin in the bitter, male face that brought startled little gasps of fear.
"He heard us!" There were more frightened titters.
He forced himself to keep smiling even though he felt as if the walls of the stairwell were closing in on him. God, was this nightmare never going to end? He had come to Australia because he'd wanted to be his own man, to stand alone. Because he'd never fit in with his own family back in Texas—at least, not with his older brother Jeb running things. Tad had brought Deirdre here, ruined her life. For what? He was ready to sell out, to pack up, to leave this country and go back to Texas. Even if it meant taking orders from Jeb again.
He could feel the women's eyes drilling into his back like the sharpest bits.
"The Yank killed his wife, they say. And probably his nipper, too. On one of them fancy resort islands off the Great Barrier Reef. There was something about it in The Australian again only last week."
"He wasn't even charged. They never found her body."
"And they won't find her, either. Not with the sharks where she disappeared. And their child.
The little lass disappeared without a trace. Good-looking devil, though, isn't he?"
Tad let the door bang behind him, and he raced up the stairs, his long legs taking them two at a time. He ran up eight flights. He ran till his heart felt like it was bursting in his chest. Then he stopped and leaned against the wall to run a shaking hand through his hair. He reached in his pocket for a cigarette, lit one, took a single drag and then, when his throat burned, he remembered his cold and that he’d quit smoking. The cigarette made the pain in his chest worse. He tossed the cigarette to the concrete and squashed it out with the heel of his boot.
He'd always been a loner. He'd thought he didn't give a damn what people thought of him, and he hadn't until now.
Ian better have a good reason for demanding that he leave the station and fly into Brisbane.
Every time Tad came to town, it got worse. People stared at him, talked about him, actually accused him of killing his wife and his daughter. They were driving him from the country where he'd made his home for the past eight years. As if he could ever hurt a woman, or a child. His Lizzie...
Most of his friends had deserted him. Even Ian, his own lawyer, half believed he'd killed Deirdre. It was Ian who'd talked him into selling out and quitting Australia.
Tad walked up the last flight and barged into Ian's outer office and past Ian's receptionist who was carefully styling her billowing tufts of cotton-candy white hair. Her overblown, Kewpie-doll brand of beauty would have stopped most men dead in their tracks.
As Tad rushed past her, she dropped her brush. Her mouth formed a wide baffled O that would have made a perfect target for a blowie had she been in the bush. Then she jumped up, all flutters and big-eyed alarm. Just as his hand touched Ian's door, Tad heard the pit-a-pat of her heels behind him.
"Wait! Mr. Jackson, you can't go in there!"
When he whirled, she almost ran into him. Her neon-bright fingertips flailed wildly to avoid him. His narrowed gaze met the frightened baby-like brown dazzle of hers. As she shrank from him, he grinned bitterly. "You going to stop me, sweetheart?"
If he'd been a mulga snake towering twenty feet high and about to strike, the poor girl couldn't have looked more terrified. Tad's expression softened. "Why don't you go back to your desk, honey, and tackle something you can handle?" He shoved open Ian's door,
The office was opulent and felt as safe and silent and as insulated from the real world as a bank vault. It was January, and the sun outside would bake a man alive. Inside this cell of urban splendor, blasts of icy air cooled the plush carpeting, rich, lustrous mahogany walls and floor-to- ceiling sheets of glass.
Ian was one of the richest men in Queensland. Unlike Tad, Ian had started with nothing. Nothing but greed and ambition, Tad thought bitterly, two of the most powerful forces in the world. Ian had grown up in Queensland on a cattle station, the son of a horse-breaker and a shepherd girl. At the age of six Ian could track a lizard across rock better than most Abos. At the
age of ten the station had been sold to American investors and Ian's family had ended up destitute on the streets of Brisbane. Ian wasn't forty, but he'd done well.
On one wall were maps of Queensland and the Northern Territory where Ian had colored in the properties he owned. He owned stations that totaled in the millions of acres. He was into ore, salt, gypsum, cattle and wool. "You name it and I'll own it" was his motto. He was the best lawyer in Queensland, but despite his upper-class pretensions, he was a street fighter at heart.
He'd been one of the first friends Tad had made upon coming to Australia to take over the management of his family's holdings.
Tad studied the maps rather than the magnificent views of Brisbane's sprawl, the famed Story Bridge over the wide, curving river, the moored yachts, the snarl of river traffic. Tad saw that Ian was expanding his operations, and the fact was like salt in the wound of his own disappointments.
One of Ian's cigars was smoking in an ashtray. Ian was on the phone, barking orders. He was short and heavyset, and he exuded the raw, animal power of a weight lifter. His eyes were as bright as twin dark coals and glittering with fierce intelligence. He had a hard, bluntly carved face, bushy black brows and a thick frizz of prematurely gray curls. He took one look into the wild blue eyes of his client, growled an abrupt goodbye and slammed the phone down.
"This had better be good, Ian."
Ian was as cool and serene as his client was irrational. The lawyer picked up his cigar and puffed great clouds into the air before replacing it in the ashtray. "Oh, it's better than good," he said slowly. "Sit down, and I'll tell you." Ian paused. "Coffee?"
"Coffee!" The single word was an explosion. "Hell, no." Tad sprawled violently into the leather chair across from Ian's desk. "Well?"
Ian grinned. He was never intimidated by Tad's outbursts. Tad thought he took a perverse delight in drawing out this moment of suspense.
"Jackson, can't you ever relax?"
Never, when he was closed in by walls, by people, by the city. Never, when his lawyer demanded he fly into town.
"I thought you'd feel better," Ian persisted, "once you decided to sell."
"Who decided? I was driven to sell. I don't like quitting, but I'm not running a station out there anymore. I'm fighting a war. My men are armed to the teeth. None of us dares leave the
homestead alone. I just wish I knew who I was fighting. They come out of nowhere. It's always a strike in the dark when you least expect it. One week they cut fences; the next they blow up a bore. The other property owners have had their troubles, too. There's the drought. My cattle are dying, but every time I try to ship them the road trains get attacked. It hasn't rained a drop on Jackson Downs in months. I've been heavily in the red for the past three years. I just flew across a thousand miles of spinifex, scorched bush and hungry cattle, and you say relax!"
"Things haven't eased up, then?"
"Eased up? Hell. Ever since Holt Martin's plane was sabotaged a couple of years back..." Ian ran a hand through the gray frizz. "So you think it was sabotage?"
Tad's face darkened. "Who knows? The bush coppers, acting officious as hell, poked around the wreckage for a while, came by the station in their new Jeeps and wrote up a report. Then we never heard from them again. I didn't think it was sabotage then, but all I know now is that that was the beginning of it all. Holt was a harmless sort, poor bloke. A geologist. Always out poking around where he didn't belong, exploring for minerals. Never found much. I guess he never knew what hit him."
"You don't have any ideas who's behind this mess?"
"I have a few, but I can't prove anything. I don't trust any of the Martins. Not even their American cousin, Noelle."
"You've been down on women ever since I've known you."
"Ever since I stuck my head in the noose and married one of them. But I can't forget that we didn't have any trouble till Noelle turned up. Now it's brother against brother, property owner against property owner. We used to trust each other out there. With every property under attack, nobody trusts anybody anymore. Hell! Who knows? Anyway, I didn't come here to rehash my problems!"
"Well, I called you because I've got good news." Ian's grin broadened. "One of my men found Deirdre."
Tad sprang out of his seat and leaned across the desk. Forgotten were the killers that stalked him night and day. Forgotten were the Martins and the drought.
His fear was an icy, suffocating mist that seemed to mingle with the noxious curl of acrid cigar smoke, gagging him.
"What?" he rasped. "You mean her body? Where? It must have been badly decomposed.
Lizzie..." He hardly dared breathe his daughter's name.
Ian leaned forward, too, his grin intact. His dark face was placid. Only his sharp black eyes belied his outward calm. "Not her body, you bloody bastard. Her." He seized Tad by the forearm and held it in a death grip. "She's alive. So's your kid."
Ten thousand pins seemed to pierce him just beneath the surface of his skin. He couldn't believe it. Tad didn't want Deirdre dead, but he didn't want her back in his life, either. He just wanted Lizzie.
Deirdre had to be dead, or she would never have left Australia without the money. And he had found the money in the cottage.
Images of that nightmarish time nearly a year ago came back to him. The bush coppers had seized him and flown him to the island, to her cottage. He could still remember the way her suitcase had lain half open on the rumpled bed with her lacy garments dripping out of it. The rest of her things had been scattered untidily about on the rose-patterned carpet and couches.
Meticulous about her person, Deirdre had always been messy when she traveled. They had told him she'd probably drowned.
He could almost hear the rush of the sea sounding through the windows, almost smell the salty dampness of it seeping inside. He had picked up her lavender silk blouse, which had fallen carelessly beneath the white wooden rocker. He had caught the faint, lingering fragrance of her scent. She had been wearing that blouse the last time he'd seen her alive, the afternoon three days before when she'd come back to the station on the pretext of discussing their problems and telling him where Lizzie was. Only what Deirdre had really been after was the operating cash he kept in his safe. She'd stolen the money—all $75,000 of it, and his plane—and run out on him again. She'd emptied their joint checking account in Brisbane. He hadn't had the vaguest idea where she'd gone until the coppers had come for him.
He remembered standing in that cottage. He had felt her presence everywhere. It was as if she had only gone out for a minute and would be back in a little while. Only there was an eeriness about her absence that had told him she would never come back. And she hadn't. Nor had his child been found.
He had told the police to look in the lining of Deirdre's suitcase because he'd known her to hide things there before. When they found the money, they'd considered that incriminating evidence against him.
Apparently she had gone diving alone, the police had said. Or someone had made it look like she had. Did he know why she'd come to the island, alone, with the money? Where had he been at the time of her disappearance? What was his alibi? They had found bits of what might have been her diving gear washed up on the beach. A battered yellow tank. A piece of black hose. They weren't sure. Like Lizzie, she had disappeared without a trace.
Then they had begun to torture him with questions about Lizzie. Where was she? All he could tell them was that he didn't know. Deirdre had taken her.
"It is no secret you and your wife didn't get along, Mr. Jackson. No secret that you hated her."
Hate. The single word was inadequate to describe the complex snarl of emotions he had felt toward his wife. Surely he hadn’t hated her.
"You say she took your child. She took your money. Did you follow her here? Did you kill
They'd crucified him on that last question.
Tad had hired professionals to look for Lizzie. When they'd failed to find her, he'd retreated to his homestead, into his own pain and silence for nearly a year. There'd been times he'd been grateful for attacks against his station because at least they'd distracted him from wondering about Lizzie.
"There's no way Deirdre's alive," Tad whispered to Ian.
No way he was taking her back if she was. He was through. Through with all women, for that matter.
Ian's expression was intense, odd. "So you don't think she could come back?" "No. It's a trick of some sort. A lie."
"It's no lie. You're lucky as hell she turned up, mate. You can quit hiding out on your property, and you can shave off that damn beard." Ian thrust a series of photographs in front of Tad. "My man took these yesterday."
Tad stared wordlessly at the pictures. A beautiful woman—if it wasn't Deirdre, it was an exact duplicate of her—was standing on a beach in front of a towering rain forest. Except for her dark eyes, she was tall and golden like a Valkyrie; sleek, slim and yet amply endowed where a man most wanted a woman to be. Her long, blond hair was glued to her shapely neck and head. Sparkling rivulets of water slid down the curves of satin-gold legs. She was wearing a one-piece black bathing suit that fit her body like a second skin. She was comforting a wet and frightened Lizzie in her arms.
Usually Deirdre had found other things in life infinitely more diverting than her child. "Oh, Lizzie..." Tad breathed. His hand began to tremble. For the first time he allowed
himself to believe she was really alive.
"Lizzie." He ached to hold his daughter as the woman was holding her. To touch her soft red curls. To hear her quick, lilting bursts of laughter. To watch her dart about in her dinosaur suits. He would relish even the sound of her tears, even the hot outbursts of her temper so like his own.
In the picture Lizzie's hair was the same brilliant copper red, but she was older, six now. Her hair was longer, tied back with purple ribbons. Of course, purple, only purple. She'd always had a fixation about anything purple. And dinosaurs. He realized with a pang how long a year was to a little girl. Would she even remember him?
He devoured the pictures of her. In one she was holding a starfish and studying it. In another the woman was bending over her and lovingly examining a hurt baby toe. The look of trust and devotion between the woman and his child touched something deep and longed for in his own soul.
The forbidden name sprang from some place deep within him. Jess, Deirdre's identical twin.
Dear God. Quickly he closed the door on the treacherous emotion Jess alone could arouse in him.
The woman, whichever she was, had his child. She had deliberately kept his child from him for nearly a year.
The last shot was of Lizzie alone.
Tad stared at it until the familiar upturned nose and red curls blurred. The excitement, the relief of knowing she was alive was unbearable. He felt a vague reeling sensation. He tried to focus, but the image of his daughter swam before his eyes. He could no longer ignore the woman who held his child in her arms. Lizzie looked happier than she'd ever looked with Deirdre. He forced himself to concentrate.
He picked up the picture of the woman and stared at it hard. With avid dislike, his eyes ran down the slim yet deliriously curved body. Jess... He knew it was her.
Just as he knew how the long, blond hair would blow in the wind, just how silky it would feel if he were to run his fingers through it. Just how hot her skin would be to his touch, or how cool. Just how warmly those dark, gold-flecked eyes could sparkle when she laughed. Just how treacherously she could use such beauty to twist and manipulate a man. Once he'd been bewitched by this woman. Her touch alone had enflamed him.
His heart filled with a savage, dark anger. Never again.
He studied the beautiful face, the magnificent bust, the cinched-in waist, and his mouth twisted with pain as he remembered.
The face that had launched his life on a collision course with disaster. Only it wasn't Deirdre.
It was her twin. His sister-in-law. Dr. Jessica Bancroft Kent. A muscle in his stomach pulled.
Even more than Deirdre, he detested her. Because it was she whom he had loved.
Years ago when he'd been hardly more than a kid himself—when he'd been in school at the university back in Austin, Texas and before he'd married Deirdre, he'd been thoroughly tricked by Jessica Bancroft. Though Bancroft had posed as a do-gooding intellectual bent on becoming a doctor and saving the world, he'd discovered that she was every bit as much a liar as her sister.
For it was Bancroft who'd played the starring role in the trick that had induced him to make the worst mistake of his life. Her excuse had been that she had been helping her sister. The knowledge of her betrayal lay as heavy as stone in his stomach.
Help... That was the catchword that gave people like Jess the excuse they needed to meddle in others' lives. Tad had always believed that if people would just mind their own business, the world would run a lot more smoothly.
Although Jess and Deirdre had kept up through the years, Tad had avoided Jess. He had never given a damn how Bancroft might feel about him. All he knew was that she had helped Deirdre trap him into his hellish marriage. Then Jess had gotten married herself. Not that she'd ever acted like a wife should. She'd run all over the world doctoring the poor, leaving her husband and son to fend for themselves.
Three years ago Jess's husband and their only son had been killed in a car accident in Austin.
Deirdre had gone and stayed with Jess for a while, not that Jess had played the grieving widow for more than a month or two. No, she’d taken off almost immediately on back to back medical- missionary sprees. She wasn't a woman, with a real woman's heart.
Sure, Bancroft had a meddlesome, do-good facade. The truth was she was bossy and
conceited as hell. She liked inserting herself in poverty-ridden villages where no one knew nearly as much as she. There she could strut about, filled with self-importance, as she taught ignorant people to boil water and wash their hands, as she delivered their babies, as she bullied them to her heart's content until they recovered from cholera or whatever blight had made it necessary for them to endure Jess's ministrating presence in the first place.
Deirdre had come home after the funerals, and after that two-month absence the sense of isolation she'd always felt about living in Australia on a remote cattle station with him had worsened.
Tad hadn't minded Deirdre being away. Having the station and Lizzie to himself had felt like a relief. That absence had been a turning point, and after it their marriage had gone steadily downhill. It was as if they had both known it was over and they had given up.
Holt Martin had crashed into Mount Woolibarra. Deirdre had flown to Brisbane and begged Ian to convince Tad to leave Australia or consider a divorce. Then the war against himself and his property had begun, and the tensions in his marriage had increased.
Tad stared at the picture in his hand. If Deirdre was dead, this could only be Jess. After a long time, he set the picture down beside the others.
A chill ran down his spine. Whichever twin it was, she’d be trouble. Not that he cared. All that mattered was that she had his daughter, that his Lizzie was still alive.
"It's amazing," Tad whispered. "Truly amazing... Lizzie... Deirdre..." "So you think it's Deirdre?"
Tad didn't look up. "Who else could it be?"
There must have been something odd in his face because Ian was watching him, examining every nuance of his expression.
"It was so strange. I got this call. A woman talked to my secretary and told her that a client of ours, Tad Jackson, would be very interested in what she had to say. The woman was an American; the take-charge sort. Bossy as hell. You know the type—the kind who makes her presence felt wherever she is. She wouldn't hang up till she got me."
So it was Bancroft. Cut loose from her do-gooding mission and thereby free to meddle in his
Dear Lord! Oh, yes. He knew the type.
His jaw clenched. Just the memory of her still cut him to the quick.
But she had Lizzie! And it was obvious from the pictures they were getting along famously.
He studied the redheaded six-year-old in the purple swimsuit wistfully. He ached to see Lizzie.
Then his gaze returned to the blond who had his child, and that was a mistake, because he couldn't stop himself from staring at the snug swimsuit where it clung to the soft swell of her breasts.
Damn her! He had a weakness for the exquisite proportions of well-endowed women. He told himself it was a general thing. Still, a hot tingle of something he didn't want to feel tightened every muscle in his body as he remembered a night he'd vowed to forget.
A magical night when orange blossoms had bloomed on a verdant lawn that swept down to Town Lake in Austin. A night when moonlight was blue dazzle on rippling waters. An unforgettable night of unusual and tantalizing pleasure.
Jess Bancroft had been too damned good to forget.
Who would have thought a Puritanical do-gooder like Jess would be a wanton in the sack?
Her primitive, abandoned passion had stunned him.
She had made him think it was Deirdre he was making love to. For that, he could never forgive her.
Tad frowned uneasily.
Ian said, "She said I ought to come to a certain place. That I'd find something of interest. I thought it was some sort of hoax, but I sent a man down there just in case. And he took those snapshots."
Tad sank slowly back into his chair. He was numb with shock. He could feel the violent thudding of his heart, the perspiration beading on his forehead. Was it his cold that was suddenly making him feel so ill or the murderous all-consuming emotion anything that reminded him of his missing wife and daughter?
"Where were these pictures taken?"
"I really don't think you should see her," Ian replied coolly. "At least, not for a while. Not... not till you calm down. Your face is purple."
"Achoo!" A raspy curse vibrated behind Tad's sneeze.
"She's my...er...wife, damn it. She's put me through hell when she took Lizzie and disappeared. Where is she"
Ian hesitated. "Maybe she doesn't want to see you."
Fat chance. Jess Bancroft hadn't come to Australia to count legs on starfish or coo over Lizzie's injured baby toes. "She called you!"
Ian was regarding him coolly. "That's the odd thing I can't figure. Why did she call me...and not you?"
"Ian, for God's sake! She's got Lizzie! Have you never felt a single overpowering emotion in your well-ordered life?" Tad's hard gaze was riveted to the map with the colored pins on the wall. "Besides greed?"
Ian smiled grimly, "Not since I was young. Not since my home was sold out from under me to some Yanks, and my parents and I were out on the streets starving. Not since my sister died on those streets. I learned to channel my emotions, not to act on them. I married a woman who likes to stay home. A woman, who understands that this is a man's world. She knows her place—and mine. While you... You married the most beautiful creature on earth. A goddess meant to dazzle and be admired. Then you buried her alive on Jackson Downs with nothing but cows and termite
mounds and goanna lizards scuttling about for company. And then people started shooting at her. So she got a bit jumpy."
"If I had it to do over, I would run like hell from anyone who even remotely reminded me of Deirdre."
For a moment two pairs of male eyes were drawn to the voluptuous image of golden female beauty in the photograph. Then both men looked away—too quickly.
"I wonder..." Ian folded his hands beneath his blunt chin in that curious attitude of prayer
that meant he was thinking.
"You've got to tell me where they are, Ian, before she takes Lizzie away again."
The world was full of wretched niches where a doctor of Bancroft's curious bent could hide indefinitely.
"They're on the island," Ian said. "What?"
"They're staying at the cottage—alone." "She's crazy to go there."
"It's almost like she's tempting fate, isn't it?" Ian mused.
Tempting fate was exactly the sort of sport Jess Bancroft liked best. Aloud, Tad said, "It's the last place I would have thought to look."
"You're as crazy as she is if you go there. What's going to happen to Jackson Downs with you gone?"
"My brother-in-law, Kirk Mackay, is there, and there's no man alive I'd trust more to see after things."
"You should meet her on neutral territory. This could be a setup of some sort."
Tad's icy blue stare went over the slim, golden woman in the top photograph one last time. He remembered the way her body had fitted his. Rage flamed in his heart, but he could not stop the memories of her. He could almost feel her rosebud nipples pressed into his chest. Despite those immense breasts, she had been slender, lovely, instilling in him a hot, pulsating urgency and then fulfilling him beyond all his wildest expectations. She had been so good, so sweet— that once. Taking her had been so easy. Forgetting her so impossible.
Because he’d felt more for her than he had ever felt for Deirdre.
He'd been looking for her that night. She had said she was looking for him. Only when she found him she deliberately pretended to be her twin, Deirdre.
Her twin, Deirdre, whom he'd married because of that one night of ecstasy. His wife, Deirdre, who had been frigid, at least in his bed, for ten years.
His spoiled, selfish wife, who had married him only for his money, who had taken his child and run out on him at the first sign of trouble. He flinched as though his chest had been stabbed by a knife of ice.
Ten years ago his relationship with Deirdre had been over until Jess had deliberately seduced him, pretending she was Deirdre, and then Jess passed him back to her sister as though he had meant nothing.
Tad smiled grimly as he pocketed the pictures. Oh, it was a setup all right.
Only this time...
The scent of mimosas and oleander and hibiscus mingled with the perfume of the sea. Everyone else on the island was relaxing.
Everyone except Dr. Jessica Bancroft Kent.
Everyone except the aboriginal child with the matted gold hair who was watching her from the rain forest canopy of giant bloodwoods and ironbarks.
The hordes of tourists from the resort hotel at the other end of the rocky island were either swimming, snorkeling, windsurfing or viewing the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef from glass- bottom boats. But Jess had not come to this thickly wooded paradise of dappled sunlight, with its flitting blue butterflies and magnificent beaches, as a tourist. She was a woman with a mission.
And the word relax was not in her vocabulary.
She almost wished it was. Her heart was pounding violently from her exertions, and she was so hot she felt she might explode.
Then the child peeped out of the jungle. Their eyes met— the woman's and the boy's. Jess smiled, and as always whenever Jess made any attempt to communicate he became frightened and ran away. Sturdy brown legs flew past her down the trail of white coral.
Alone once more, Jess felt like she was in a steam bath. It had just rained. The fierce summer sun beat down on the tropical island with deadly intensity. Even in the dense shade of the rain forest—the Australians called it scrub—that skirted the rocky road where she stood huffing and puffing as she leaned against the mower she'd been pushing uphill, the heat was stifling. The narrow path was made narrower because some untidy individual, no doubt male, had parked a bulldozer square in the middle of it.
Jess's hair had come loose from its pins, and great globs of it were glued to her neck and
forehead. Her khaki shorts and blouse were as wet as if she'd showered in them, and the blouse clung disgustingly across her too-ample bosom.
Even now, all these many years since school, her play-mate-of-the-month figure remained a secret embarrassment. It was something to be hidden beneath high-necked blouses or baggy clothes. It galled her that her breasts were the first thing men noticed about her, her brains the last.
"I've got brains of my own, honey," had been one boyfriend's crude gem.
She tugged at the clinging, sticky-wet fabric and then gave up the attempt to loosen it from her skin and fanned herself with her fingers. She had lost all enthusiasm for the prospect of mowing the overgrown lawn surrounding Deirdre's cottage. Jess could have gladly turned around and pushed the mower back down the hill except she was too stubborn to face Wally's boyish smirk of male triumph.
He had warned her, hadn't he? And like all men, even a green chauvinistic pup like himself, he would take great delight in being right.
She cringed as she remembered their conversation once she had lured him away from the contractors involved in the hotel's expansion.
"The motor mower's too heavy for a woman to push over that hill."
"For a woman..." How she detested superior, limiting, masculine phrases of that variety.
His eyes had fallen from her stern face to those two protruding, softer parts of her anatomy that always drew male eyes the way magnets attract iron filings.
"If you'll just wait till Hasiri comes back—" he said.
"Nonsense," she had replied crisply. "If I wasted my time waiting for all the Hasiris of the world to come back, I would have gotten very little done. High grass invites snakes. I have a child to think about."
The handlebars of the mower had slid so easily from Wally's grasp into-hers. He had managed to bring his gaze back to her face and keep it there.
Wally was a gentle soul. She almost wished now that he'd fought her a little harder. Not that it would have done either of them a particle of good. It was never difficult for a woman with even a bit of backbone to best the Wallys of this world, and Jessica had much more than a bit.
Not that she was a man-hater, despite the innuendos of more than one member of that sex over the years. She had found, however, starting with her handsome and dynamic father, that few persons of the male sex were to be trusted. Later experiences had merely confirmed her opinion.
She smeared the back of her arm across her damp brow. The rain forest was abuzz with insects—some of them huge, voracious, exotic-looking creatures that made her think she should carry a rolled newspaper at all times, especially when lifting toilet lids. Something horrendous
flew past the tip of her nose, and she swatted at it. Suddenly she longed for a cool drink and a shower; she longed to be back at the cottage with Meeta and Lizzie.
Nearby in the dense tangle of bloodwoods and gum trees, a twig snapped. Every muscle in her body went rigid. For the first time it occurred to her how remote her end of the island was, how lonely this particular part of the trail was, how dark the shadows of the jungle had become.
She'd come to this island and asked a lot of questions, perhaps too many, about her sister who'd vanished.
Jess's stomach felt hollowed out, that overpowering indication of fear, of the hunted realizing she was hunted. She instinctively knew it wasn't the child. The boy crept stealthily through the jungle without making a sound. This was something bigger, something clumsier.
Jess swallowed. Normally she wasn't the shrinking, terrified sort of female her father had taught her to despise. Hadn't she fearlessly braved the slums of Calcutta for the past two years? But those garbage-strewn alleyways had been familiar territory. And those teeming slums, for all their filth, weren't nearly as dangerous as most downtown American streets after dark.
A brooding atmosphere hovered in the dark rain forest. The green-breasted parrots had stopped their raucous squawking. She was a stranger to this country, to this island, to jungles and their dangers. Obviously, she was not nearly so talented at playing detective as she'd naturally assumed she'd be. She peered warily into the darkness and listened to the eerie quiet.
An explosion of white burst from the jungle.
Jess screamed, jumping back as feathers brushed her cheek.
"Silly goose!" She chided herself shakily as she watched a cockatoo, its crest sulfur yellow, flutter gracefully down from the branches of a firewheel. "It was just a bird."
She had let go of the mower, and it began to roll backward toward the edge of a six-foot cliff.
"Be careful with it, love," Wally had said. "Believe it or not, this is the only working motor mower on the island."
"I always take excellent care of every item I borrow," she had promised faithfully.
She lunged after the borrowed item that she was taking such excellent care of, catching it just as it tilted precariously over the edge. Once her pulse had calmed, she began to tug on the mower with all her strength, but its wheel was jammed in the crevice between two rocks.
It was then that the unmistakable sound of a human sneeze issued forcefully from the jungle.
She nearly jumped out of her skin, and the mower lurched even more dangerously. "Achoo!"
This second sneeze was followed by a man's quick, snarled curse. "Damn." A ripple of fear raced up her spine.
There was someone! Someone, who was deliberately hiding in the trees. Paralyzed, she clung to the mower. "Who's—"
A dark cloud came out of nowhere and obliterated the sun.
She yanked at the mower but it wouldn't budge. If she let go, it would fall. If she didn't...
More than once in the span of her twenty-nine years, her audacity had carried the day. "Come out of there, whoever you are," she called softly in what she had intended to be her I'm- not-afraid-of-anything tone, "and help me with this mower."
No answer. Not even a sneeze. There was only the thudding of her heart. Only the silence— thick and cloying like the heat, like her fear. Only the one lawn mower on the island, heavy as lead, its wheel sliding out of the crevice and rolling downward over a large, slippery rock, pulling her with it toward that shadowy ravine.
She screamed as she felt a wheel eel go over the edge.
Something heavy jumped out of the rain forest behind her. Before she could turn around, an arm went around her waist like a steel band, pinning her arms to her side. She felt his fingers settle beneath her breasts.
That was the one place she didn't like men touching.
She let go of the mower with a yelp and watched in a horrified daze as it hurtled slow- motion past a strong brown hand over the edge of the cliff and smashed itself on the rocks below. Before she could scream, that same callused hand clamped firmly over her mouth.
Her body was arched against a solid wall of muscle and bone. Hard male fingers burned into her breasts.
"Stop fighting me, you silly fool. I'm not going to hurt you," a deep, vaguely familiar masculine tone growled.
She forced her panic to subside, and when it did she stopped struggling so frantically.
Her attacker gallantly relaxed his grip, and that was his mistake. Jessica was a student of the martial arts. From then on it was pure, delicious instinct.
Teeth into brown fingers. A deft twist. A knee in his groin. A sharp blow with her heel in his solar plexus.
He doubled over in a spasm of agony. She kicked at his shin. He lost his footing, and the great, bearded giant was tumbling over the rocky edge after the mower.
He bellowed like an injured bull all the way down. Till he hit bottom with a sickening thump.
Though she hadn't heard Tad Jackson's voice in over four years—she'd thrown him out of her house on that last memorable occasion for a barrage of chauvinistic insults about busybody females galloping about the world like a herd of misguided mares, pretending to help others when all they were really doing was running away from their own personal problems—no other human alive could make that particular howl of frustration and fury except him.
There was an awful silence.
Then a parrot squawked. In the distance a lone windsurfer streaked past on the glittering ocean.
She was shaking, but the pure horror of what had happened did not strike her until she stepped out onto the ledge and peered down at him.
In spite of his beard, she recognized him instantly. Jackson!
His great, muscled body lay sprawled as still as death across the bleached coral beside the mower. A faint breeze blew the bright mass of gold back from his tanned brow, and she saw the blood. He’d only fallen six feet, but if he’d fallen wrong, he could be badly injured.
Terror gripped her.
What had he growled into her ear? "Stop fighting me, you silly fool. I'm not going to hurt you." And she knew that despite all her brother-in-law's character defects—and they were too numerous to catalogue, not that she hadn't made the attempt on more than one occasion—he would never have physically hurt any woman. Not Deidre. Not even her.
For four days she'd waited for him. He needed her help— desperately—but he was so stubborn it was the last thing he would ever willingly seek. For that matter, it was the last thing she would ever have willingly given him. For four days she'd expected him to barge into the cottage like a great giant roaring to the rooftops in one of his high rages, demanding his daughter, demanding to know how she’d come to be in possession of her, and demanding Jess's own departure from his life.
Instead, like most men, he had taken the most unexpected, the most foolhardy and the most
calamitous course of action. He had snuck up on her in an idiotic macho attempt to bully her. And she had bested him in physical combat.
If he lived, he would add this to his lengthy list of unforgivable things she had done to him.
If he lived...
Wishing she had her medical bag with essentials, she scrambled down the cliff after him.