Page 1 of Starlit Skies


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CHAPTER ONE

SKYLAR WILLIAMS STRAIGHTENED, arching her back to ease her stiff muscles. The weeds were going crazy; it was a never-ending task to keep up with them. But her kitchen garden was going from strength to strength, and it made her heart lighter to see how well everything was growing. Her good friend, Daisy, was doing a great job helping her design some large, raised beds in which to grow the native bush tucker foods Skylar used to create her gourmet meals. Together, she and Daisy had slowly added more and more varieties of native foods. They’d even started a small orchard down the hill, where Daisy was cultivating finger limes and Kakadu plum trees. Skylar would have to remember to tell Daisy about the weeds before they completely overran the rest of the garden.

She’d only meant to come out and pick a handful of warrigal greens for the meal tonight and head straight back inside. The bitter greens, much like English spinach, would be perfect with her lamb kofta and beetroot salad. But she couldn’t help herself, and had pulled some weeds. Just a few to start with, because she really needed to get back to her cooking. Then a few more, and before she knew it, ten minutes had passed.

Lifting her head, she let her gaze linger on the purple sky. The sun had already set over the escarpment that towered over the lodge and its raft of luxury cabins, and the bright oranges were fading to a dull, bruised gray. The billabong at the bottom of the hill reflected the last of the dying rays of light, shimmering as the first stars appeared in the sky. Hundreds of birdstwittered in the eucalyptus trees at the edge of the billabong, trilling their nighttime orchestra.

She really did live in paradise. This was one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and she’d do well to take more time to appreciate it. What better place to locate a luxury, eco-resort, than on the edge of a perfect billabong, in the middle of far North Queensland? Stormcloud Station was full to capacity tonight, with over twenty guests. And she was partly responsible for their continuing success, enticing more patrons with her award-winning food.

Breathing in, she filled her lungs, letting the balmy night air permeate her with peace. She needed to get back to the kitchen; she didn’t have time to be standing around just breathing.

There was a noise; a squeak like that of a frightened animal, that was out of place with the evening sounds. A small noise, but one that made her heart jump with fright. Skylar froze, willing the birds to stop their singing so she might hear better. What was it?

She strained her ears, but there was nothing more.

It must’ve been her imagination. She bent down to retrieve her basket of warrigal greens, but stopped halfway.

There it was again.

This time it was accompanied by an indistinct thump.

Skylar turned her attention toward the nearest cabin, partially hidden farther down the hill by her burgeoning new orchard.

There were ten luxury cabins strung out around the edge of the billabong, like pearls on a necklace. Set well apart, each one was secluded, with their own private balconies off the back, so guests could sit and enjoy the beauty of the bush. Solar lights twinkled in the growing dark, lighting the pathways for anyone who needed to walk between the lodge and their nighttime accommodation.

Originally, there’d been eight cabins, but demand had been so high that Steve and Daniella had built two more in the past few months. Skylar had been against the new buildings, as they encroached on the area she’d earmarked for more orchard space. But arguing with Daniella had been pointless; her mother merely declared there was plenty of land farther up the hill to grow her trees, and Skylar would have to walk a little, that was all.

Cabin number ten at the end of the row was dark, except for one light in what she knew would be the bedroom. Three of the cabins had two bedrooms, and the rest had only one. The lodge catered for adults only; no children allowed. Sometimes they might get a mother and her grown daughter, or father and adult son, or even a group of friends, but the majority of the guests were couples.

Skylar stared at the building. Nothing moved inside, and there were no more noises.

She must’ve imagined it.

Her chef’s assistant, Bindi, would be wondering where she was. Service was up in half an hour, and the guests would begin drifting into the large, open plan dining area any moment now. So, she turned toward the lodge.

There it was again. Unmistakeable, this time.

She knew that noise. Knew it from past experience. It was the sound of a muffled scream. Muffled by a hand over a mouth.

Shit.

What should she do? Her gaze travelled to the lodge, and then back to the cabin. Should she go and find Dale and get him to investigate? What if she was wrong? What if the couple in cabin ten were just enjoying some conjugal activities—the extra loud variety—or something else completely innocent?

There was another muted thump.

Shit.

She threw down the basket and stomped down the hill, ducking under the branches of the plum trees and weaving between the spiky leaves of the limes.

This was the last thing she needed, to be wasting time investigating noises that were probably completely normal. If only the little hairs on the back of her neck would stop prickling, then she’d turn around and walk away.

It wouldn’t be the first time they’d had a case of domestic violence at the station. Just last year, Daniella had quietly asked a couple to leave, after the wife came to the breakfast table with a black eye. The husband had blustered that it was all a mistake, and his wife had merely walked into a low-hanging branch. Daniella hadn’t believed him, and neither had anyone else who’d witnessed the wife’s cowering obedience when he’d shouted at her to get up and go and pack her bags. And there’d been other instances, loud arguments in the middle of the night; one man had even banged on the door of the lodge early one morning in a panic, with his wife in hot pursuit, threatening to cut off his cock if he ever came near her again. And it all imprinted on Skylar even further, that married life was never meant to be blissful.

Skylar had never confronted anyone on their property before, however.

As she skirted the edge of the cabin, she searched the windows for any sign of what was going on inside. Nobody moved, and there were no more noises. She had to push her way between an overgrown acacia shrub and the side of the building, but she finally made it around to the front of the small structure. It was dark now; the sunset draining the last dregs of light from the sky, and she stumbled over a small rock, nearly colliding with the first step of the little front porch.

Collecting herself, she drew in a deep breath.

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