A Bride for the Maverick Millionaire. Marion Lennox
during emplacement. That process is complex, but I’m more than happy to tell you about it.’
‘If I ask you out to dinner some time, will you give me the full rundown?’ he asked, even more faintly.
She chuckled. ‘I’m sure to.’
‘Then that’s one dinner date that’s never going to happen.’ He watched her chuckle, and suddenly there was no tension between them at all.
Her chuckle was wonderful, and it should have him thinking of her as every inch a woman—and of course it did—but right there, in that moment, overriding everything, this woman seemed a friend.
Which was a weird thing to think, Finn decided, as she started battling her way up the scree again. How had it happened, this sudden connection? This thought that here was someone he could relax with?
He didn’t have to think of her as small and vulnerable. The stereotype was shattered. This wasn’t a potential shipboard romance. This was a shipboard friend.
A gorgeous friend.
A friend with a gammy hip and a lost baby in her history.
More, there was something about the relief in her voice as she’d laughed over the lost dinner date that said she was even more wary of complications than he was.
Friend would do nicely.
‘So why are you cruising on your own?’ she asked over her shoulder.
‘It’s expensive, for one thing,’ she retorted. ‘Not sharing a cabin…’
‘I can afford it.’
‘Can you? I can’t. I’m here because Dame Maud’s grandson fell in love with my sister, and wanted to stay with her rather than cruise with his grandmother.’
‘Fickle,’ he said, mock disapproving.
‘Isn’t it just,’ she said, and he heard the chuckle return to her voice. ‘Men are like that.’
But, behind the words… he heard something in her voice that wasn’t a chuckle.
‘Not all men,’ he said, keeping it even, and she paused and glanced back at him.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Hugo’s not fickle. He and Amy will be very happy.’
He could definitely hear pain, he thought. Did he want to ask?
No. Don’t probe. This was none of his business.
Jason and Maud were moving further ahead. Maud still had hold of Jason’s hand and was asking question after question. Finn and Rachel were left in their own beautiful world.
They were now high above the Timor Sea. The massive cliffs of the mainland towered above them, and hundreds of tiny islands dotted the seas beyond. This place seemed as wild and untouched as anywhere on earth. With Jason and Maud disappearing round a rock face, there was nothing in sight except rocks and sea and the tough wild plants that fought for survival. The sun was on their faces and Finn paused and thought that this was a place to get things in perspective. To get things right.
Rachel had paused as well and was gazing round her with awe.
‘The people who painted here seventeen thousand years ago,’ she whispered. ‘This is where they stood. What an absolute privilege to be here.’
He didn’t reply. There was no need. They simply stood and soaked in the sun and the place and the moment.
The silence stretched on, each of them deeply content, but at the back of Finn’s mind was a keen awareness of the woman beside him. How many women would stand like this, he wondered, in such silence? How many women that he knew?
Such a person must have learned the blessing of peace. The hard way?
‘We should get on,’ Rachel said at last, seemingly reluctant. ‘Maud will think we’ve fallen down a cliff.’
‘Not her. She’s having a wonderful time with Jason.’
‘She is, isn’t she?’ Rachel smiled with affection. ‘But Maud has a wonderful time with anyone. Her husband died a few months ago. She was shattered—she still is—but she puts it aside and concentrates on now. If she meets great people she embraces them as friends. If they’re not great, then she’s interested and tries to figure what makes them tick.’
‘Have you known her for long?’
She smiled at that. ‘Crazy as it seems, only for three weeks. We travelled on the Ghan together, the inland train running from Adelaide to Darwin. We were… Maud-embraced. My sister met Maud’s grandson and pow, that was it. My job at the university in Darwin doesn’t start until next month, so I took Hugo’s place on the ship. It’s surely no hardship.’
But the word had caught him. Pow. Everything else in her explanation seemed reasonable, but pow?
‘That was fast. Love at first sight…’ He couldn’t help the derisive note.
‘You don’t believe in it?’
‘Not in a million years. So how about you? Are you looking for pow yourself?’
‘No!’ The fear was back, just like that, and it brought him up fast.
He could have bitten out his tongue. What a stupid thing to ask.
‘Uh oh,’ he said ruefully. ‘I can’t believe I asked that. With what I know of you… that was extraordinarily insensitive. I’m so sorry. It’s none of my business.’
‘Like your private life is none of my business,’ she conceded and managed an apologetic smile. ‘I had no right to ask what you believe in—or why you’re travelling alone. Or even why you’re not wearing lipstick.’
He grinned and the tension dissipated a little. ‘I guess it’s okay to be curious,’ he told her, and by mutual accord they started climbing again. ‘We’re not part of this ship’s demographic.’
‘Yeah, the passenger list comprises three honeymoon couples and everyone else is over fifty. Which leaves us hanging loose.’ The strain had disappeared and friendship again seemed possible. ‘I need to warn you,’ she said honestly, ‘Maud is a born matchmaker and, frankly, she’s scary. Now she thinks of you as a hero, I’m thinking she’ll try very hard to get us together. Maybe you should start a mad, passionate affair with one of the Miss Taggerts, just to deflect her.’
As the Miss Taggerts were both in their seventies, he was able to chuckle. And, thankfully, so did she.
The awkward moment was past. Excellent.
He needed to tread warily, he thought. He did want this woman to be a friend.
But nothing else. Despite Maud’s intentions, he surely wasn’t in the market for a relationship, especially not in the hothouse atmosphere of a cruise ship. He did not believe in pow.
But he did want her to be a friend, he conceded—even if she was a passenger and little—and exceedingly cute.
They rounded the next rocky outcrop and saw Jason and Maud, high on the cliff face, with Maud waving wildly down at them.
‘They’re here,’ she boomed, her elderly voice echoing out over the wilderness. ‘The paintings are here and they’re wonderful. This whole place is magic. Come up and join the spell.’
‘That’s my Maud,’ Rachel said, grinning. ‘There’s magic wherever she goes.’
And ditto for Maud’s Rachel, Finn thought, watching her wave back, but he didn’t say so.
He climbed up the scree behind her, careful of her even though she wouldn’t accept help. He watched her wince as she put strain on her obviously injured hip. He watched her greet Maud with laughter and then he saw her quiet awe as she looked at the paintings she’d waited