* * *
Two hours later, right on the dot of seven, there was a knock at Skylar’s door. Of course, he would be strictly punctual. She hurried to open the door, fighting the urge to readjust her black knit dress. It looked fine. Besides, it was all she had. She’d packed shorts and a T-shirt for the trip home in the helicopter tomorrow, and a pair of pyjamas, but that was the extent of her clothing. This wasn’t a date, she reminded herself, for the tenth time.
Pausing for a second, her hand resting on the doorknob, she took a moment to compose herself. Then she swung the door open and there he was, still dressed in the same black pants and white shirt, she noted. Good, it meant he hadn’t planned this, either.
“Evening,” he drawled.
“Come in,” she replied, gesturing for him to precede her into her hotel room. “How was your swim? Did you make it to the gym? I had a lovely long bath, and I feel much better now.” She was rambling. He wouldn’t want to hear about her sitting in her room all afternoon, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.
“The pool was fantastic, thanks. Too many people for my liking, however.”
“Oh.” Why had she suddenly seemed to run out of conversation?
“I hope you don’t mind, but I brought a six-pack.” He held up a collection of beer from a boutique brewery she’d never heard of.
“Great. That’s perfect. I wasn’t sure what you liked to drink.” She hovered near the kitchenette, unsure whether to offer him a glass, or let him drink straight out of the bottle. Why was she being so dithery? Normally, she was completely in control, especially when it came to matters of food or drink.
He made the decision for her by cracking a bottle out of the packaging. “Would you like to join me?”
“Yes, please.” She didn’t drink a lot of alcohol, usually it was only to taste a wine to ensure it’d go with the meal she intended to cook. But in her younger days, back when she’d been an apprentice, she’d been known to enjoy a beer or two. She found the bottle opener, while Nash found a space in the small refrigerator to stash the rest of the beers.
“Cheers.” Nash held up his bottle, and she touched the neck of her beer to his. “To a successful day in court. May the bastard rot in jail.”
“Amen to that.” Skylar actively pushed the look of intimidation in Dan’s eyes as he’d glowered at her in court to the back of her mind. He was going to jail. End of story. She took a swig, enjoying the malty, bitter taste on her tongue. Nash did the same, then looked at her expectantly over the rim of the bottle. Now what were they going to do? She hadn’t planned this night at all. Why had she agreed to this? She suddenly couldn’t think of a single thing to say, and she took another swig of her beer to cover the awkward silence. He was standing so close. Too close. His presence was muddling her brain. There was no other explanation for it. She shuffled her feet and looked out the window. God, he must think she was a moron.
“Beautiful view.” Nash walked out onto the balcony, and she gave a silent sigh of relief as he took his aura of maleness—there was no other word for it—outside with him.
Taking another fortifying swig of beer, she followed him, making sure to position herself at the other end of the balcony, as far away from his confusing charisma as she could get. He cocked an eyebrow in her direction, but then nonchalantly leaned his elbows against the railing. If he noticed the distance she’d put between them, he didn’t say anything.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed, mirroring his position by resting her own elbows against the wooden barrier. She’d left her feet bare, and the wooden floorboards were still warm beneath her toes. The marina nestled directly below them in the mouth of Chinaman’s Creek. On the other side of the creek, a row of dark headlands marched into the distance. The sun had just dropped below the top of those forested hills, painting the clouds on the horizon with a gorgeous, subtle pink. It was something she didn’t get to see often; the sun setting over the ocean. Of course, they got glorious sunsets at Stormcloud. But it was nice for a change of view sometimes.
“It makes me miss the sunsets we used to get when I lived in Brisbane,” Nash said wistfully. “But that’s all I miss about living in Brisbane,” he added.
“So, you like being a cop in a small, inland town, then?” All she knew about Nash was that he’d arrived in Dimbulah over two years ago, to the great delight of the locals. The station had been unmanned for the previous three years, due to funding cuts. But an uptick in rural spending meant that instead of bulldozing the old building, they could once again have a police presence nearby. Skylar had heard through the grapevine, that Nash had been handpicked for the job, coming directly from Brisbane. But a lot of locals worried that he was a city boy and wouldn’t understand how things worked out here.
She was suddenly abashed that she hadn’t bothered to find out any more about him. This was her chance, she guessed.
“Yes, I do.” He turned to face her, leaning his hip against the wood. “Believe it or not, that answer actually surprises me.” He gave a wry grin, his sumptuous lips curling up at the corners. “Because when I was first offered the position, I saw it as a way to gain a promotion, and not much more. But now that I’ve lived there, and worked closely with the community, there’s something really different about living in the country.”
“Watch out, when the far north gets its claws into you, there’s no going back.” She was joking, but there was also an ounce of truth to her words. She’d heard it time and time again, where people stayed on, even after hardships and tough times. The Atherton Tablelands had a special kind of allure. She’d heard many of their guests wonder quietly at the beauty of the place, and then return over and over again, as if addicted to a certain type of natural drug.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that.” He took another sip of his beer. “My contract is up in a few months. When I first signed on, I was going to use this as a steppingstone. I was determined I’d be going back to the city after two years. Maybe not Brisbane, but perhaps Melbourne, or maybe even Canberra. Perhaps request to join a specialty group, like homicide, something like that.”
“But now?” Skylar was intrigued. “Are you thinking of staying?”
“I don’t know.” His gaze floated out over the marina, and she could see the confusion in his eyes. “It seems like there’s a lot to keep me in Dimbulah. I’m making friends. Getting to know people. Putting down roots, or something stupid like that.”
She didn’t know how to reply to that, wasn’t sure what he was inferring. They both watched a small yacht meander into the marina, perhaps returning after a sunset cruise in the bay.
Skylar wondered about Nash’s statement. Surely, he couldn't be including her in that list of people, could he? Nash had asked her out on a date, and she’d turned him down. End of story.
She searched his eyes, wondering if her rejection had caused any lasting scars. Did he resent her? Feel awkward around her, knowing she’d spurned him? Did he perhaps harbor a secret hatred of all women and was privately plotting his revenge? No, that was stupid. It was only Craig who had those sick tendencies. She shouldn’t keep comparing all men to Craig.
He looked up and smiled, that warm, lilting smile that made her feel all safe and gooey inside.
It didn’t seem like he held any grudge against her. In fact…that look in his eyes seemed to hint at the exact opposite.
He upended his beer, and Skylar was surprised to see his bottle was empty, as was hers. That’d gone down way too easily.