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No, she hadn’t imagined it. She’d seen a flash of blue amongst the familiar landscape of red oxide soil.
“Dad! Dad! Stop. There’s something off the side of the road.” Stella tapped her father’s shoulder. “It might be a car.”
James pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. There was no traffic in either direction on this stretch of highway north of Alice Springs.
“How far back?”
“A couple of hundred meters. I saw a flash of blue.” Her father turned the van around and they headed back down the road. The sun blazed low in the sky in the late afternoon, now shining on the other side of the van, forcing the twins to slide across the long seat they shared, getting back into the shade.
“Are you sure, Stella?” Chris asked. “We’re running late as it is.”
“All you think about is food.” His brother punched his arm “What does it matter? If someone’s stuck off the road we can’t leave them there, running late or not.” Simon pulled a face at his brother.
“About here, Dad.” Stella pointed at the spot and once more he turned the vehicle around to head back in their original direction. “Just go forward slowly, Dad. It was tucked down a hollow. I only caught a glimpse of it.”
“They probably went off-road thinking they could travel along the dry water course, only to get bogged in the sand. Keep an eye out, boys,” he ordered. “If we don’t see it we will have to backtrack farther.”
Directly in front of them a man scrambled up the embankment, waving frantically. James swerved to miss him before pulling to a stop beside the tall, dusty figure.
“God, am I glad to see you.” The stranger had a wide grin pasted across his tanned face, shaded by his Aruba kangaroo-hide hat. As James and the boys tumbled out of the vehicle, Stella’s gaze took in the proud stance, the confident set of his shoulders, the designer-wear trousers and shirt the stranger wore. Handsome and well-dressed, he must be a tourist. She jammed on a sunhat and opened the van’s door to join the others.
“I never thought I could be so stupid,” the man said. “I thought I’d just take a side trip up the river bed for a mile or two, when whamoo—stuck in a sandpit. I’m down to my axles in the cursed stuff. I don’t know if you can help me get it out.”
“I’m sure we can,” said James and gestured to his family. “I’m James Corban and these are my children, Stella, Christopher and Simon. We’re on our way home to Alice Springs. Lucky Stella saw you. There’s not a lot of traffic at this time of the year. It’s too hot for most people.”
“I’m Matt, pleased to meet you.” Handshakes were exchanged before the five of them, with Matt leading, slid down the one-meter embankment to view the bellied truck. Stella straggled in the rear, knowing full well they’d be able to get the man’s vehicle out of the sand. With Christopher’s ability to move objects it would be easy, they’d just have to do it without Matt noticing. Her hand still tingled from his touch, and he’d held it for a moment longer than necessary, his gaze lingering on her face. She knew people thought she was beautiful and despite having a degree in Environmental Science she earned better money as a model on the Melbourne catwalks than as a conservation officer in the Northern Territory. The four men circled the vehicle as she stood to one side and watched. Absolutely nothing she could do here. No need for any of her genetically altered skills, and with this obviously normal, healthy male bemoaning his stupidity, she could hardly jump home and tell her mother why they were going to be late.
“Right boys.” James waved his arm at the eighteen year old twins, “Go and get the sand mats out of the back and Stella, could you drive up the road a bit and back the van down to where we are—about here.” Her father walked away to stand about twenty yards in front of the sunken vehicle. The four of them knew that Christopher could lift the vehicle clear of the sand on his own, with his mind. With a ‘normal’ around they’d have to go through the charade of pulling it out with their van.
“It might work.” Matt’s voice rang with doubt and James hit him playfully on the shoulder.
“Do you want to take a wager?”
“No thanks, I’ll just be glad if it does.”
“I’m sure we’ll get you on the road again. You just sit in the cab, start the engine and when I wave I want you to put it into gear and try to drive it onto the sand mats.”
“I’ve already tried driving it out,” Matt muttered, but climbed into the cab.
The next ten minutes passed with the charade of laying the long mats, attaching the tow rope and Stella backing the van down in front of the trapped vehicle. Once Matt had the engine running, James had a quiet word with Christopher and he and the twins went behind the vehicle to pretend to push it. In the van, Stella looked over her shoulder waiting for her father’s signal and as soon as he waved she put the van into gear and moved forward to take up the slack in the rope. Matt’s truck slowly rose and inched onto the mats, running along them slowly while the van pulled.
It looked very professional and anyone watching, including Matt, would have no idea Christopher was doing all the work with his mind. They took it carefully, increasing the speed of the towing once the truck’s wheels bit onto the harder surface. Stella felt the tug when their van took all the weight as Christopher released his mind-link. Once on the tarmac she stopped and turned off the engine. The boys could now untie the tow and they’d be on their way home.
“Where’re you going?” James asked Matt, leaning into the truck’s window.
“I’m heading to Alice Springs for the night. I’ve been doing a bit of prospecting and I fly home tomorrow.
“Prospecting for what?” Simon asked.
“Oh, you know, gems and things. A scratch here and a scratch there.”
“Any luck?” Simon asked and Stella wondered at his nosey question. Still, Simon had an affinity with gems.
“Not much. I’ve been around the Hart ranges for about two weeks. It’s a great way to spend a holiday away from the city.” Matt’s easy manner belied the wariness she saw in his eyes, and she kicked Simon’s ankle.
“Why don’t you follow us home? You could share our evening meal. We live just out of Alice.” James said.
Stella glared at her father. Was he matchmaking again? Really, he was incorrigible. He never missed a chance to bring a likely male into her circle, even though he knew why she was wary. She grinned at him and shook her head from side to side slowly.
“I’d love to,” Matt said. “It’s been weeks since I had a decent home-cooked meal. Will I be putting the cook out?”
“Not a bit. I’ll ring my wife and let her know there’s one extra around the table.” James said and beckoned to the boys who’d wandered back down into the hollow. “Right everyone, on the road.” They piled into the van and Stella remained at the wheel, driving towards Alice Springs and home, checking the rear-vision mirror to make sure that the rescued Matt was indeed on their tail.
“He’s lying,” Simon said a few minutes into the trip. “He has a magnificent amethyst in his truck, and lots of smaller gems as well. I can hear them singing.”
“Well perhaps he doesn’t want them stolen by the likes of you,” Stella said.
“No one else can hear them singing except me.”
“I know that, Simon. I meant perhaps he has them hidden so they don’t get stolen. He doesn’t really know us, so why tell us about his finds?”
“There were small gems in that gully he was stuck in. They’re deep down, but they are there. Do you think he knew that?”
“I doubt it. Much more likely he just thought he’d take a detour. That’s private land anyway,” his father said. “It belongs to some mining company from Sydney, so I’ve heard, and it’s too large a tract to put a fence around. He’d have been digging illegally if he intended to prospect around there.” Her father turned around to speak to the twins. “Simon—thank you for lifting the truck out. You did that like an expert. He’d never have known.”
“But if he thinks about it too much he might realize he was impossibly stuck Dad. Did you see how deep the sand was?”
“Yes, I did, that’s why I put him in behind the driver’s wheel so he wouldn’t notice and Stella drove until both vehicles were on the road again.” He turned to Stella and ruffled her blond curls “And that’s another reason why I asked him home for dinner, so he wouldn’t go back and study where he’d been stuck. I saw you glaring, Stella. I’m not matchmaking. I know you meet plenty of men in Melbourne, but you have to admit he’s rather a fine looking specimen and—I noticed his gaze lingered longer on you than it did on any of us.”
While her father and brothers chuckled at her expense she pondered on why all the men she liked were ‘normals’. Coming from a genetically-altered family created so many problems when it came to relationships. How do you tell someone you can jump from Melbourne to Alice Springs for the weekend—or can see what all the members of your family are up to, just by closing your eyes and concentrating? Family movies in real time, in her head—which reminded her. “Dad, ring Mum and tell her we have another one for dinner.”
“Your mother already knows. Christopher told her.”
Of course, not living at home she forgot Chris could talk to his mother at any time. She could hear the twins murmuring to each other in the back of the van. Close as two peas in a pod, sometimes they didn’t need to vocalise, but only Christopher had the psychic link to their mother.
* * * *
The dark red polished surface of the wooden jarrah dining table reflected the set of lights that hung from the high ceiling. An evening breeze wafted in through the window screens and a large fan whirled and turned in the corner, lifting the corners of the serviettes as it passed through its arc. Flies, the curse of the desert heat, buzzed at the windows, trying to get in. Off the dining room in the large kitchen Siobhan Corban lifted the last of the meal out of the oven, filling the dishes with fresh steamed vegetables. She called to Stella, who’d just finished setting the table.
“Call the men, love. Dinner’s ready.”
Walking to the door that opened onto the veranda Stella called through the screen netting. “Dinner’s up.” She rested her gaze on Matt—Saunders he’d said his name was—as he unwound his tall frame from the shabby cane chair and stretched. She turned her gaze away quickly as he faced the door. Why this attraction? Probably because his height meant that, for once, she wasn’t as tall, or taller than a man she fancied.
Her height and blond curls she got from her father, but her lithe, graceful walk, such an advantage when modelling, she’d inherited from the smattering of cat genes her mother possessed. Oh, and her greenish-hazel eyes with gold flecks. Those were from her mother as well. And the rest of her talents? Who knew where they came from in the soup of genetic material originally pumped into her grandparents at the moment of their conception in the Nursery’s laboratory?
Conversation lagged, replaced by the companionable silence of a meal shared. Over dessert the twins shared their expedition news with their mother, edited, of course, because of Matt. Their weekend prospecting on a small holding they had a license for had been very profitable, thanks to Simon’s talents, but they told their mother they’d found only a few precious stones.
“Such a shame, after all that hard digging,” Siobhan offered, and smiled as she turned to their visitor instead.
“Tell me Matt, this holiday you took prospecting. Did you have any luck?”
“Not much. It was more of an investigation. I have a degree in geology and I work for a mining company, so it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday, chasing gems on my annual leave. Still, it gives me an opportunity to try out my theories.”
“Do you have a prospecting license?” Simon asked.
“Indeed I do, young man. I wouldn’t dare do it otherwise. Do you?”
“We do.” Simon pointed to Christopher. “We go gem hunting during the holidays because we’re saving toward our university fees.”
Matt nodded. “It must be quite expensive, two at once.” he said, raising his eyebrows at James.
“I’m a university lecturer myself, but that doesn’t make the fees any cheaper. The boys are planning on going to university in Melbourne, rather than be here where their mother and I can keep an eye on them.” He grinned at his sons. “Mind you, they’ll have their sister close by so they’ll have to behave.”
“So you’re in Melbourne as well?” Matt’s gaze locked onto hers, and she wondered why there weren’t visible sparks flying through the air. Their physical attraction to each other surely must be visible to everyone. All she could do was grin, positive her parents had noted the electricity, even if her two eighteen year old brothers were too engrossed in their dreams and plans to notice anything much except the food laid in front of them.
“Yes, I’m a model.” Usually this was enough to break up the conversation, as models didn’t have a reputation of being deep thinkers. Then her father spoiled it.
“She also has a university degree and worked for a while for the Conservation Department.” He turned to Stella. “You mustn’t be flippant about your career, Stella. You said modelling would only be a temporary phase.”
This was an old argument—qualifications versus income. She wanted to travel and to do this she needed to save up and to do this she had to work where she could earn big money. The modelling career had been offered to her a year ago and because she could jump home whenever she wanted, she didn’t find being in Melbourne any problem. It would be different for the twins. Neither of them could ‘jump”—just she and her grandfather. Not wanting to get into a discussion with her father on her future plans she turned the conversation back to Matt.
“Who do you work for? Which mining company?”
“They’re huge,” James said. “Don’t they hold thousands of acres of land up there in the ranges?”
“They do.” Matt’s brief response, the tightening of his jaw, his move to straighten his back, even tucking in his chin, made him look as if he were prepared for an argument.
“How lovely for them,” she threw in. “Come on, boys, help me clear up,” and she left her father to a discussion on the value of digging up the desert, disturbing the wildlife on a grand scale and the resulting mess left behind. She could feel Matt’s gaze burning her shoulders and felt it slide down her back to her hips, pause there before it moved like the heat from a flame, down her legs to her ankles and back up to her curls. Warm as the desert wind his gaze caressed her. She sighed as she stacked the plates and loaded the dishwasher. Just as well he was leaving after dinner, refusing Siobhan’s offer of a bed for the night. He’d booked a motel. Even better, he would be returning to Sydney on the early morning flight.
Any longer in this man’s presence and she’d be falling in love, something she couldn’t afford to do without putting her whole family at risk.