Southern Star: Destiny Romance

BOOK: Southern Star: Destiny Romance
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For all the romance writers who blazed a trail and set an impossible standard.

Prologue

‘Hey, Blaze! Smile, honey,’ a photographer called out.

For the fraction of a second that it took for the flash bulb to do its thing, everything froze – the jostling crowds, the thick-set security staff, her anxiously hovering PR. And Blaze Gillespie imagined that she could leave them frozen in place, turn and run back along the red carpet, past the waiting line of limousines and across the square into the park, where she’d kick off her thousand-dollar, crystal-encrusted heels and disappear into the trees.

By the time the spell was broken and they’d realised she’d bolted, she’d be long gone.

‘Hey, Blaze. The paps wouldn’t mind getting a bit of the action you showed the
Bad & Co.
crew.’ The photographer whose flash had just blinded her leered, while the others laughed and raised their cameras ready to catch her response to his crude insult. ‘How ’bout it, babe?’

‘Watch it, Sweeney. Dicking around with Blaze Gillespie gets people dead,’ another photographer responded with twisted humour.

And, just like that, Blaze crash-landed back into her nightmare reality.

A month ago, the media had been fawning, adoring. But a month ago she hadn’t been celluloid’s ‘slut of the century,’ as one newspaper had tagged her. A month ago, Mitch hadn’t been found slashed open from throat to groin in his hotel room, the knife lying next to his wrecked body bearing Blaze’s fingerprints. A month ago, life was as normal as it ever got for movie goddess Blaze Gillespie.

But today was today – her reputation was trashed, her career in free fall. Very soon her liberty might be forfeit, too. Blaze wanted nothing more than to hide in shame, but damned if they’d take her pride along with everything else; not while she still had breath in her body.

Lifting her chin, she flicked her mane of fiery hair over her shoulder and let her gaze wander coolly past the braying pack of paps. Her PR, Monica, tapped her watch anxiously. It was time to head into the theatre. But Blaze wasn’t quite done with the red carpet yet. Spying a group of fans, flushed and eager, calling her name and holding out books and postcards and photos for her signature, she walked regally over, smiled, and gave them the autographs they wanted.

‘Ms Gillespie, I just wanted you to know I thought you were awesome in
The Quiet One
,’ whispered one teenage earnest girl. ‘I don’t care what everyone else says. I hope you get more great roles like that.’

Blaze stopped, surprised. Few people mentioned her brief appearance as a pastor’s repressed wife in a period piece released last year. And if they did it was usually to mock her attempt at serious drama. She took the movie festival program the girl held out to her.

‘Thanks. I hope so, too. What’s your name?’

‘Bethany,’ came the shy reply.

Blaze scribbled a personal message for the girl on the paper. As she reached out to hand it back, something hissed close to her head and she jerked away. Someone screamed, and Blaze turned back to face Bethany, but the pretty round face was now a grotesque death mask, her right eye socket a black and bloody mess.

As Blaze tried to process that this was no nightmare or special effect, a tidal wave of alarm swept through the crowd. Screams of shock turned to panic as fans tried to flee. Hemmed in by the people behind them, those near the red carpet had nowhere else to go but on to it. Surging forward, they surrounded Blaze, buffeting her. Across the crowd, she glimpsed the face of the nearest security guard, yelling and trying desperately to reach her, but he was too far away. And as her feet were swept from under her, she caught a glancing blow on the temple and everything faded to black.

Chapter One

‘Bugger it,’ Macauley Black muttered under his breath, glancing for the umpteenth time at his watch. Where was the bloody woman?

Yanking at his tie until the damn thing hung loose around his throat, he grabbed his laptop, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and stalked to Meriwether Airport’s sole desk for the third time in the last hour.

‘Tell me the woman decided to stay in Sydney, after all.’

Stella Blamey’s blue eyes looked at him with sympathy as she put the phone down.

‘Sorry, Mac. They were late taking off from Sydney so she missed the Brissie connection. But they’re on approach now. Shouldn’t be much longer, and with it being the last flight in tonight, Ms Gillespie’s baggage shouldn’t take too long coming off, either.’

Mac gave a silent groan. Of course she’d have baggage, truckloads of the stuff. Movie stars always did, or so he assumed, not having been in the same orbit too often in his life. Make that never. Too bad he only had his sporty little two-seater Audi at the airport instead of the truck. He could stuff a couple of bags in the boot, but anything more than that would have to be sent out separately to Blaze Gillespie at Sweet Springs.

‘It’s exciting isn’t it?’ Stella beamed. ‘A real movie star here in Meriwether. I mean, I know she’s from here originally and everything, but . . . it’s still pretty cool.’

Mac grunted. Exciting and cool were not how he’d describe the situation.

After Stella assured him she could organise for the Gillespie baggage to be delivered tomorrow, Mac returned to his seat and the newspaper. But having been on the go since five this morning when he’d left his cattle property Rosmerta to make the seven o’clock flight to Brisbane, he was too wired to settle. After eleven hours of meetings, a gutful of bankers and a gallon too much coffee, all he wanted was to get home. And he would have been home by now if Andrew Ryan, the local cop, hadn’t bent his arm to drop the Gillespie woman at her family’s old place on his way. Ryan had been planning to meet her flight and take her out there himself until a case intervened.

Why the woman couldn’t have hired a car and driven herself like anyone else, Mac had no idea. He reckoned Ryan had only offered because he wanted an up-close-and-personal look at the local girl turned genuine Hollywood A-lister who reportedly got her kit off at the drop of a hat.

The cover of a glossy magazine cast aside on a coffee table in the terminal caught his eye, most of it taken up by a photo of Ms Gillespie, wearing little more than a pout, arms strategically placed to conceal her assets. No doubt she was a looker, with that rippling cascade of wildfire hair, brazen old-gold eyes, and lush body that screamed ‘sexually available’.

Not that he had any interest in some high-maintenance starlet who apparently wasn’t overly sexually fastidious, but a man would have to be a monk not to wonder.

A sudden commotion at the end of the terminal caught his attention and he stood. He’d know pretty soon if Blaze Gillespie was as stunning in real life as on screen.

The door whisked open, Stella darted forward and a woman appeared. Mac let out his breath in disappointment. It wasn’t her. This one was too slim, too small, too plain. Her hair was hidden under a dark cap, her eyes by those oversized dark glasses that women seemed to think were indispensable. She wore narrow black pants, high-heeled boots and a camel suede jacket; expensive but certainly not glitzy enough for Hollywood’s ultimate glamour girl.

‘Yeah, just take your time, Ms Movie Star,’ he muttered under his breath as Stella approached him, the woman a step or two behind. She must be part of Gillespie’s entourage, he supposed. Well, he’d give her an earful, get her to hurry her boss along. Make it clear that any more farting about and the Hollywood hottie could walk to Sweet Springs for all he cared.

He folded his arms across his chest and pasted a scowl on his face as he addressed the woman.

‘Lady, it’s well after nine, and I’m leaving, ready or not. So if you wouldn’t mind telling Ms Gillespie to get her arse in gear so we can leave, I’d appreciate it.’

Stella gasped, but the woman didn’t respond and he couldn’t make out her expression behind the giant sunglasses. Who the hell wore dark glasses inside? It wasn’t like anyone would be lurking in a corner ready to take this Plain Jane’s photo.

Impatient, he tried again. ‘Listen, honey, I’ve been hanging around for more than an hour, and —’

‘Mac!’ Stella’s voice interjected with a touch of desperation. ‘May I introduce you to Blaze Gillespie?’

Mac’s eyebrows shot up as Stella stammered on.

‘I’m sorry, Ms Gillespie. But Mr Black has had a long day and he’s anxious to head home.’ She beckoned a porter forward with two large bags. ‘We’ll arrange to get the rest of your baggage out to you tomorrow. Just call and let me know what time is convenient. Have a safe journey.’

Pasting a bright professional smile on her face, she reached out and shook Blaze Gillespie’s hand, gave Mac a glare and beat a hasty retreat. The porter shoved the bags into his hands and, with a final gawk at the Hollywood star, followed Stella.

‘Ms Gillespie,’ Mac said, pushing a hand through his hair and feeling both frustrated and foolish. ‘The car’s this way. I’m sure you’re as anxious to get home as I am. I apologise for before, but you’re not what I expected.’

‘It’s not a problem.’ Her voice was soft, with an accent that landed somewhere in the middle of the Pacific. ‘And, yes, I am anxious to get to Sweet Springs. Thank you for the ride, and I’m sorry to put you out.’

Never one for small talk, Mac couldn’t think of anything to say. Instead, he led her through the automatic doors out of the terminal building to the Audi. The February heat had abated a little with nightfall, but the humidity lingered. She must be feeling it especially, having spent almost a full day inside air-conditioned planes and airports, but if she was affected, she made no sign.

As he opened the boot and shoved the bags in, Blaze Gillespie hesitated by the passenger door.

‘It’s open,’ he said and she jumped a little as though she’d been far away. Although it was dark, he swore she blushed slightly.

‘Oh, of course,’ she said, and let herself in. He guessed she was used to chauffeurs opening doors for her in Hollywood. Well, she was in for a rude, Queensland-style shock if she expected him to wait on her hand and foot.

Shutting the boot, he slid into the driver’s side, catching the faint scent of vanilla and woman that now filled the car. He glanced at her, but her head was against the window, gaze angled away, making it clear he was just the hired help and conversation wasn’t in her plans. Fine by him.

‘Okay, let’s go,’ he breathed. And louder, ‘We’ll be at Sweet Springs in a little under an hour.’

All he got in response was the steady sound of her breathing and the faint rise and fall of her chest. Mac glanced over. Ms Movie Star had fallen asleep. Great! Now he couldn’t even enjoy some music on the drive home for fear he’d wake her.

At least at this time of night the roads were clear, not that this part of Queensland was inclined to traffic jams, but tonight the few sets of traffic lights in town were all his way, and within fifteen minutes he was turning onto the Old Farm Highway that led north-west to the cattle belt. It was a flat, straight road, but irregular maintenance and frequent flooding had left potholes the size of craters, and a treacherous shoulder that could have you sliding into the ditch before you knew it.

Having done the same drive tens of thousands of times, Mac knew the black spots, and in little more than forty minutes, he was at the fork that led to Sweet Springs, old Paddy Gillespie’s place.

The sign that had been battered and bent last time he’d ventured out here had collapsed into the dirt. As he guided the car around it and down the unsurfaced track, the Audi’s headlights picked up the sorry state of the fencing, and the ramshackle gate that hung half off its hinges.

Even the once-pretty weatherboard house looked forlorn. The scorching summer sun had peeled strips of paint from the timber, and faded the striking dark green of the front door. A window pane bore a jagged crack, three of the four front shutters were missing and there was little evidence of the lush garden that used to surround the place.

Jesus! It had deteriorated significantly in the few months since Mac had last stopped by. Irritation rising, he glanced at the sleeping woman. With all her money, you’d think she’d have shelled out some cash for the upkeep of the place that had been her grandparents’ pride and joy. Or if she couldn’t be bothered, she could’ve taken up one of Mac’s offers to buy the place over the years, offers which she’d never bothered responding to.

Tightening his lips, he cut the lights and the engine, and slid out of the car, resisting the temptation to slam the door and jolt Sleeping Beauty awake. He’d better turn on the house lights so she didn’t break her pretty neck on the uneven boards of the veranda. At the front door, he remembered he didn’t have a key and was about to turn back when he realised the door wasn’t even shut. Mac shook his head. Break-ins were pretty rare out here, but, for crying out loud, unlocked properties were vandal-magnets!

Inside, he fumbled for the hall light switch. He groped higher, found it and flicked it. Nothing happened. Making his way down the hall – boots echoing on the hardwood floors – he found his way into the front room on the left, which Paddy had used as a study. The old man’s battered desk still stood in the window, flanked by tall bookcases. The light wasn’t working there, either.

Mac frowned, wondering if she’d thought to have the power turned on. Probably not. On his way to the kitchen at the rear of the house, he tried another couple of lights and got the same response; same in the kitchen. A twist of the cold tap at the sink brought only a rattle of pipes. No water.

Well, it was her problem, not his, he thought, as he walked back outside to the car. All he’d promised Ryan was that he’d drive her home.

He got back into the driver’s seat and raised a hand to shake her awake, but dropped it without touching her. In sleep, she’d turned towards him, one palm raised up against the seat back, looking oddly vulnerable; her mouth a soft bow.

Mac expelled a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, sat back in his seat and looked out at the abandoned homestead. Much as he’d like to, he couldn’t just dump her here. It was bloody inconvenient, but it looked like she was coming back to Rosmerta with him tonight. As he turned on the engine again, he took another look at her. Beneath her jacket, her breasts rose and fell in a steady rhythm.

One night only.

She still hadn’t stirred twenty minutes later when he pulled up in front of the Rosmerta Station homestead. Rubbing his neck, he got out of the car. All was quiet except for the snuffling of horses in the stable. Lights were out in the squat timber cabins where the hands slept. The day started before dawn on the station, so the boys tended to save their late nights for their free days.

Mac smiled as a breeze blew across his face, cutting through the humidity. Whenever he was away from Rosmerta, even for a day, coming back always served as a reminder of just how far he’d come. The sprawling homestead, modernised and expanded four years back when he’d finally had the money, hugged the land as if it belonged to it. And out to the west, as far as the eye could see and beyond, was his land – one hundred thousand hectares sustaining more than ten thousand head of prime beef cattle.

A soft sigh from the car drew his attention. Blaze Gillespie shifted in her seat briefly before her breathing regained its steady rhythm. He went around to her side and opened the door carefully, not wanting to jolt her.

‘Ms Gillespie.’

She didn’t answer, but frowned in her sleep and said something he didn’t catch. He shook her shoulder, and although she pulled away in her sleep, her eyes stayed firmly shut.

‘Blaze!’ His voice sharper than he intended, Mac shook her again, more roughly. Her eyelids flickered but she slept on. She was completely out and he guessed she’d taken a sleeping aid on her flight.

Cursing under his breath, he leaned over her and flicked open the seat belt. His arm brushed her breast and in her sleep she flinched, but her breathing didn’t change. Figuring he’d have to haul her inside himself, he pulled her carefully out of the car and into his arms.

Blaze Gillespie weighed little more than a newborn calf, and he had to admit it didn’t take much effort to carry her through the dimly lit house and up the stairs. He got another whiff of vanilla as she snuggled into his shoulder, her skin smooth as silk where it brushed against his rough jaw, and he held her just a little tighter than necessary. Well, it was probably the only time he’d ever get to hold a movie star this close.

Peggy, his housekeeper, always kept a guest room made up. Not that it was up to the six-star digs Blaze Gillespie was probably accustomed to, but it was more than comfortable with an en-suite bathroom and double doors opening on to a large balcony that overlooked the stables and grazing land beyond.

Shifting his burden, Mac pushed the door open. Balancing her carefully against his chest, he whipped back the coverlet and crisp cotton sheet and placed her on the bed. Then he retrieved her bags from the car and laid them at the end of her bed so she’d find them easily when she woke.

Figuring she might be a little disoriented to wake jet-lagged in a strange place, he switched on the bedside lamp, scribbled a quick note explaining where she was and pinned it in place with the lamp.

In its glow, he saw that she’d rolled onto her side, one knee tucked up, an arm outflung. The suede jacket wouldn’t be comfortable for sleeping in, so he slipped her out of it, and then took off her boots. She sighed, one hand slipping beneath her cheek. Her cap slipped off, releasing a rippling wave of dark copper hair that burned with red and gold highlights. Mac’s breath caught in his throat. Blaze Gillespie was well named.

She still wore those ridiculous sunglasses, and before he realised he was doing it, Mac reached out to lift them from her face. And saw the reason for them. Her left temple was a mass of old bruises ranging from green to yellow.

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