Page 68 of Starlit Skies

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“Oooh, a picnic, how romantic,” he cooed, and then stepped out of reach before she could slap him again.

“Just do it, bro, and stop the childish comments.” Skylar hid her smile as she slipped into the kitchen, where Julie and Bindi were in the middle of last-minute preparations to begin service. All the guests would be seated, sipping on a specially chosen white wine to accompany the entrée of crisp wontons filled with guacamole and topped with Cajun grilled prawns.

Skylar felt a spark of adrenaline, but she damped it down. Tonight was her last night of freedom before taking control of her kitchen once more. She’d let Julie and Bindi do their thing and take the accolades. They’d done an admirable job of keepingthe guests happy while she’d been indisposed. Their meals hadn’t been the gourmet wonders that Skylar produced, but they were solid, healthy, and tasted great, that was the main thing.

“Hey, Sky,” Julie said, acknowledging her stepsister with a tilt of her chin. It was hot in here, with both large gas burners going as Julie fried up the prawns. She swiped an arm across her forehead, pushing her short, caramel hair back from her eyes.

“Hey, Jules,” Skylar replied. “Looks delicious.” Skylar slipped into the large cool room to retrieve her picnic basket filled with all the goodies she’d baked during the day. There were cold cuts of meat, cheeses, mini salmon tarts, tomato and caramelized onion pickle, some of her famous chocolate brownies, and a bottle of champagne. She tucked two long-stemmed glasses, along with the fresh basil in the basket, and put a picnic rug on top, then waved at Julie and Bindi and headed outside.

“Have a great night,” Julie called after her.

Oh, she was planning on it. Butterflies jumbled in her belly as she walked toward the parking lot. She and Nash had talked every night on the phone, but that wasn’t the same as seeing him in the flesh. She smoothed down her long skirt and brushed her hair over her shoulder. She’d gone for the boho look tonight, a more relaxed, feminine look than normal. Would Nash like it?

Right on time, Nash’s car appeared on the other side of the billabong, coming slowly up the long drive, raising a plume of dust as it went. He pulled up in the parking lot and she could already see the smile playing over his lips, and all her qualms evaporated.

“Hi, gorgeous,” he said, stepping out of his car.

“Hi, handsome,” she replied, and then almost laughed at her faux pas. Because Nash’s face was still battered and bruised. But the gorgeous man she’d fallen for was there, right beneath the surface, and she rushed around the car to embrace him. Strong arms wrapped around her shoulders, and she felt like this wasthe only moment in time that mattered. Just him and her. He lowered his head and without thinking, she put hungry lips to his. He kissed her back with such fervor that she thought her clothes might melt right off her.

Suddenly, she remembered his wounded face and drew back with a gasp. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?” She ran gentle fingers down his temple, tracing the unbruised side of his jaw. There was a large cut above his eye, which was healing nicely, and a few new abrasions over his left cheek—reminders of Jacko’s boot as it landed in his face—to go with the older gash he’d gained from the crash. Two things that remained undamaged, however, were Nash’s brilliant blue eyes, which fixed on her with hungry abandon, and his spectacular smile that turned her insides to melted goo.

“No. And even if you did, nothing’s going to stop me kissing you right now,” he growled and leaned down to devour her mouth once more.

She kissed him until he understood how much she’d missed him. Until she could no longer breathe, and she didn’t care if she was making a spectacle for all the guests to see.

It was Nash who finally drew back when Wazza, who was walking between the staff quarters and the lodge, gave a loud wolf whistle. “Get a room,” he called, and Nash looked up and grinned.

“Come on.” Skylar took him by the hand and led him through the growing dusk toward the billabong. He took the basket from her, and they walked hand in hand along the grassy edge of water. Nash walked with a slight limp, and she kept her pace to just above ambling, more to take in their beautiful surroundings, than to cater to Nash’s wounded leg.

Steve kept the grass neatly trimmed in areas around the billabong, while the rest was allowed to grow wild with native greenery. Right in front of the lodge, where the ground slopedgently toward the small lake, was the largest grassy area, and this was used for big gatherings, guest picnics, as well as a space to pull up the canoes and paddle boards. Farther around to the left was a more secluded spot, hidden behind a stand of ironbarks, which could be used for more intimate gatherings. As they strolled toward the clearing, Skylar saw the flicker of flames through the trees. Dale had done as she asked and lit the fire pit for her. He was a good man.

“This is…stunning,” Nash said, his hand tightening on hers when he saw the fire and the picnic rug with a scattering of cushions set up on the gentle slope with the billabong in the foreground. Dale had set up the rug without her even having to ask, and it looked all the more romantic for his subtle touches. Dusk had settled around the shoulders of the escarpment, the first evening star visible as a brilliant point of light high up in the darkening sky.

“I thought you’d like it,” she said, leading him to the checkered blanket. She handed him a bottle of bubbly and held out the two glasses for him to fill. The loud pop of the cork sent the birds in the nearby trees into a sudden flurry of wings, and Skylar giggled as she watched the indignant birds circle the billabong a few times before settling back down on their perches for the night.

“Cheers.” Nash held up his glass, which sparkled in the light of the flames. “To us. And to survival,” he said.

“To the future,” Skylar added. “Would you like to eat first? Or enjoy the view?” she asked after they’d both taken a satisfying gulp of the golden liquid.

By way of an answer, Nash set aside his glass and lay down on the picnic rug, putting one hand behind his head and laying the other out in an invitation for her to come and snuggle up beside him. And she willingly obliged.

They lay together, staring up at the heavens, listening to the sounds of the birds settling in for the night, and the insect orchestra winding up to their nighttime crescendo. She nestled in closer to Nash’s warm body, listening to his heartbeat beneath her ear. This might be the closest thing to pure bliss that she’d ever experienced.

“This is nice, Skylar,” Nash said, breaking their silent interlude. “I’ve been dreaming about doing this with you all week.” His voice was deep and honeyed.

“Me, too,” she agreed.

“And with all that time to think, I’ve also been wondering where do we go from here? I want to spend more time with you, but we both lead complicated lives…”

“Do we need to have a plan?” Skylar jumped in, then immediately regretted her words. That was her old self talking, she needed to find a better vocabulary, a better way of expressing herself.

“No, we can play it day by day, if that’s what you’d like.” He kept his eyes directed toward the stars, his thumb drawing lazy circles on the top of her arm, as if completely unfazed by her answer—had indeed been expecting it—and she relaxed beneath his touch.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound flippant. But this is all new to me, and a lot of it’s not going to be easy.”

“I realize that. Baby steps. That’s all we need right now. As long as they’re steps in the right direction.”

“Yes, baby steps, that’s it,” she agreed, with a heartfelt sigh.

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