Beneath The Skin by Melissa James

Flying Doctor Elly Lavender has spent years on the run from a violent stalker. Her obsessive former patient will do anything and threaten anyone in his campaign to force her to love him. When her most recent cover is blown, she runs for help to the childhood friend she could never get out of her mind – outback cop Adam Jepson.

Isolated, hurting, all Adam Jepson wants is to forget. After the deaths of his wife and son three years before, he’s moved to the outback with his young daughter, Zoe, to put the past behind him for good. But when Elly walks into his station, she reminds him of all the childhood joy and love he’d forgotten. Soon, he’s lost in a desire he never knew could exist. And while his guilt at leaving Elly behind years ago, and the vow he’d made to his dying wife, means he can never be the man she needs, he can’t stop caring, can’t stop trying to make Elly’s life right. Though the whole town seems against them, he can’t stop wanting the forbidden.

But when anonymous harassment escalates to murder, Elly knows her presence in Macks Lake has put Adam and Zoe’s lives at risk. Everyone’s safer if she remains alone – a fact that her stalker is very much counting on as he gets ever closer to his prey...

Enjoy a sample of Beneath The Skin by Melissa James.


Prologue

Medical Clinic, Pitjantjatjara Lands,

Central Australia

‘There you are.’ The doctor covered the ragged line of stitches on the boy’s leg with a dressing. ‘Don’t get them wet.’

The dark-skinned boy on the examination table grinned. ‘Thanks, aunty.’

The young woman with honey skin and an almost-beautiful face acknowledged the courtesy title with a nod and smile. ‘No worries, nephew.’

The boy’s father stood at the opening of the modified humpy house just out of the blazing desert sun, head down and feet shuf­fling, waiting until the elder of the clan spoke. The old man standing just inside the clinic reminded her of the land that surrounded them: wiry and tough, with a straggling beard, minimal clothing and a sudden burst of unexpected colour in the red, yellow and black bandanna around his head. He smiled in her direction, showing the gaps in his teeth. ‘You been good help durin’ your stay. We’re glad you come by, niece. The nurse here is good, but a doctor’s always needed.’

The doctor smiled back. ‘I’m glad I could help. Forgive my not knowing the Arrernte language. I’m one of the Eora people.’

‘Almost nothin’ left of that language,’ the elder remarked sadly. ‘All fadin’ now.’

She nodded. ‘We’re city folk now, the Sydney people. We have our stories and memories, but …’ She shrugged, not knowing how to finish.

‘The Dreamin’ keeps its power, niece, even now,’ the old man said, voice gentle. ‘Better times will come for us. We know how to wait. Five year ago, this town was a mess. Now we’re doing better. It will happen for you, too. Just believe.’

She glanced up, remembering just in time not to look into his eyes. The Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia considered look­ing into a person’s eyes an unpardonable rudeness—the eyes were mirrors of the spirit, and belonged to each person alone. ‘I hope so, uncle, but the way is hard to see.’

‘There’s a place here for you, niece, if you wanna stay.’ His offer was made with a sense of delicacy.

She gulped, pressed her lips together hard, as if in pain.

The old man flicked a swift glance at her. ‘You’d be safe here. Nobody could find you, if we didn’t want ’em to.’

At his insight, she gasped and withdrew further into herself. She shook her head, but could not—or would not—speak.

‘We would help you, if you ask.’ There was compassion in his voice.

‘I can’t put you all in danger, uncle,’ she whispered.

‘You’re not blockin’ just us, are you? Keeping everything to yourself’s a way of life now,’ he said very quietly. ‘You give and give, but won’t take anything back but a place to sleep, some food. Won’t even give us your name.

‘Common enough thing,’ he went on. ‘I seen it with loads of the Stolen Kids. Even if they find their way home, most of ’em don’t know who they are or where they fit in.’

She shook her head, keeping it bowed. ‘I wasn’t stolen, uncle. I was one of the lucky ones.’

When he didn’t answer, she glanced at him.

‘Not so lucky, I’m thinkin’. You say nothin’, but the silent screams are louder than words.’ His gnarled hand patted hers. ‘Damage.’

She closed her eyes. ‘I can’t burden you with my problems, uncle.’

‘Or put us in danger,’ he repeated. ‘Seen this before, too. Who­ever he is, runnin’s like breathin’ to you now. You bolt from one place to another, changin’ your looks and your name, but still only feelin’ safe when you’re alone.’

In less than twenty words, he’d stripped her life bare. She only knew she was reaching to twiddle her missing hair when he said softly, ‘It’s gone, niece. Thinkin’ it’ll take a few years to grow back, too.’

Her hand dropped to her lap, and didn’t move again.

After half a minute of silence, the elder spoke again. ‘It’s all right, niece. I know you gotta go. Don’t worry about us. I’ll prepare the people for whatever comes this way when you’re gone.’ He stood, and put a hand on her hair: a moment’s benediction. ‘Go with a blessing, niece. You’re not alone.’

With a strangled thanks, the young woman fled the hut.

Chapter One

Macks Lake, Southwestern New South Wales

A commotion erupted outside his office.

Detective Sergeant Adam Jepson frowned, taking in the scene through the window between his office and Macks Lake Police Sta­tion reception. Their rookie constable, Simon Wynn, and Senior Constable Barry South—Baz for short—were leading in a woman in handcuffs.

What could she have done in sleepy Macks Lake to merit the cuffs? They hadn’t used them on a woman since they’d found the girlfriend of an ice dealer holed up in a bush cabin with the guy and all his equipment. The girlfriend had gone berserk during the bust, beating the crap out of Adam and his drug squad mates, who’d come down from Sydney for the nick.

This woman wasn’t fighting her cuffs; she seemed to be having too much fun to bother. Her laughter touched the office with the ripe colours of an outback sunset, and Simon and Baz had dopey, almost drooling grins on their faces.

After three years on an inner-city beat before transferring to the Federal Police, he knew the look: her skin, the hue of dark honey, and her big, coffee-coloured eyes were a dead giveaway to her background, though her dusting of freckles showed European heritage too. About five-nine or ten, late twenties, with a lush body that showed her indifference to the half-starved look dictated by fashion. The outfit was over the top: the faded denims clung to her curvaceous bottom, and the white crop top was too short, leaving far too little to the imagination, and a hooker on his old beat could have worn those chunky-heeled boots. The hair didn’t suit her, either – the loose chestnut curls didn’t match the rich tone of her skin, or her eyes.

The whole look sat wrong.

He was missing something. Something about her … She didn’t seem the type to want to draw attention to herself with dyed hair or tight, sexy outfits. If she was, she’d have packed on makeup, too, but she was bare-faced.

As Adam watched, he thought he caught a moment of dread hid­ing beneath her impish sparkle. She’s terrified of something—or someone.

He strode out to the open office, breaking the party atmosphere. ‘What’s going on here?’

‘… so that’s when I—oh!’ The woman turned and smiled in the friendliest way. ‘Hi, Adam! Long time no see!’

So that was her tactic, playing everyone’s best mate. It might work on some men, but he wasn’t one of them, letting his hor­mones do the thinking.

Hold on, how did she know his name? He hadn’t worn a uniform in years, and had no name badge ... He frowned. ‘That’s Detective Sergeant Jepson to you, Miss—?’

‘Oh, come on, you can do better than that, Old Sobersides.’ A roguish dimple appeared as her mouth quivered.

His brows snapped together at the annoying nickname his station-mates had given him. He sent a brief glare to Simon and Baz, who both took a prudent step back. ‘What’s her name, and what are the cuffs for?’

‘Don’t blame them, Adam. It was my idea.’ The woman’s voice was deep and husky, a rich, throaty alto that hit his nerve endings with a gut punch. She wasn’t quite beautiful—more memorable than pretty—but she was making him react in ways he didn’t want to remember. ‘I wanted to see if being in cuffs was as much fun as you said it was.’

Me? He barely held in the incredulous question, but smothered chuckles filled the office. Another glance at her caused something inside him to shift, leaving him off-kilter. No—she’d had him on the back foot from the start. It was like a dream he’d had once of flirting with a stranger in a corner of a crowded, smoky party: he could hear the others, could see them in his peripheral vision, but he and this woman in cuffs before him—it was as if they were alone. What was it about her that left him so disturbed? Beneath the rare burst of masculine hunger her presence had generated in him, the sense of dread grew.

His best mate in Macks Lake stepped forward. ‘Hello, Miss—um. I’m Senior Constable Rick Mendham. And you are …?’

The woman didn’t even look at Rick, or notice that he, too, was of Aboriginal descent. ‘Talking to Adam … sir,’ she said curtly.

So she has a problem with men. Yet for some reason, she trusted Adam. Only God knew why, but the certainty grew. She’d come here for him.

‘And did you have fun, ma’am?’ he drawled, trying to shake off the desire he knew was bloody unprofessional as well as stupid. But he couldn’t shake the sense of desperation every time he looked at her. The feeling wasn’t his, but hers—and his instincts whispered that dismissing her would be more than stupid. It’d be downright dangerous.

Help me, Adam. Don’t tell anyone.

‘Mmm.’ She sighed, her expression dreamy. ‘We’re more alike than I’d imagined.’

The smothered chuckles around the room made him tighten his jaw again. They weren’t alone. ‘What the—what are you talking about?’ Him and thrills, compatible? Yeah, right.

Not for years, at least …

Even thinking about his past made him frown. If he’d once been a stupid kid, he’d buried that part of himself years ago. And it wasn’t getting a resurrection any time soon.

The woman flashed him an odd look, a mixture of reproach and shared mischief. ‘Has it been so long for you? What about the time you cuffed your mate to that flagpole, naked, at the academy … not to mention what you and your best man did with the cuffs and that, um, exotic dancer on your buck’s night?’ She grinned. ‘But maybe I shouldn’t mention that in front of all these cops. You can still get pinched fourteen years after the deed, can’t you?’

He felt a hot flush cover his face as laughter erupted around them. How did she know about that? Those stories had been beneath the sod so long, even he’d forgotten them. ‘I don’t know where you got that from, but stick to the point. What’s your name, and why are you in handcuffs?’

A comic look twisted her face. ‘Uh … speeding?’

A crack of laughter broke from behind the open door of the senior sergeant’s office.

Adam blinked. ‘You were brought in by these constables—you were cuffed—for speeding? I don’t think so. What’s really going on?’

Help me. Please. Her silent cry screamed so loud in his brain now, he could almost hear it, and yet she was laughing, along with every­one else in the station. But he knew something was terrifying this woman, and she couldn’t afford for anyone else to know. So she was hiding it with this ridiculous practical joke. But why had she chosen him, of all people, to be her confidante?

He must know her from somewhere. But he could swear on a stack of bibles he’d never met her.

The woman’s eyes sparkled as if she’d heard his thought. ‘It was serious speeding, Adam—thirty over the limit.’ Beneath the laugh­ter, her eyes begged. Go along with me. Please.

There was no DUI involved—she was stone cold sober. ‘Nobody’s cuffed for thirty over the limit,’ he barked, and wanted to kick him­self when he saw her eyes darken further. Terror. Pleading beneath the smile. Help me.

‘Then they frisked me!’

‘They did what?’

Simon fled to the doubtful security of his desk. Baz, at least twenty kilos heavier and a fair bit shorter, held his ground. Almost. One or two more steps away, until his back was against the counter.

‘I asked them to,’ the woman replied, managing to sound ear­nest and merry at once. ‘I wanted to know what it felt like to be arrested and frisked. It was properly done, according to the book. And it was exciting, being a crim for an hour,’ she added, grinning in cheerful apology as the laughter erupted again. ‘There’ll be no repercussions. I promise. I’ll pay my fine like a good girl, and I won’t mention my little adventure outside the station.’

Adam flicked a look at Baz and Simon. In this quiet country sta­tion that only had six cops because it covered a few hundred square kilometres, boredom was the norm. No wonder she had ’em wrig­gling like fish on a hook.

‘You realise these constables would lose their jobs for going along with your so-called fun, if word of it ever gets out?’

She smiled again, but it held a touch of pity in it, like the popular kid in school wanting to share her fun with the class nerd. ‘C’mon, Adam, this will never go outside the station walls.’ She sighed, her coffee-dark eyes filled with something akin to compassion. ‘Poor Adam. She really did a number on you. You don’t trust people anymore, and you’ve forgotten how to laugh.’

The quiet words shocked him into silence. Whoever she was, this woman had known his wife. Who was she? Why did the fear behind her eyes lock him into her game, compelling him to play? He didn’t know, but whatever danger lay hidden behind the jokes, she desperately needed him to play along—for now.

His mind raced, trying to find the right answer. ‘You’ll be laughing from a cell if you don’t cut out the act and give me your name.’

She clicked her tongue, but her eyes softened with relief. ‘Adam Stephen Harold Jepson, you’ve forgotten the good manners Aunt Irene and Uncle Adam taught you to display before a lady. Shame on you.’

He reeled back. ‘How do you know my grandparents—and my middle names, for that matter? Who the hell are you, woman?’

Rick stepped forward again. ‘Hi, Miss—um. As I said, I’m Senior Constable Rick Mendham, and you have the apologies of the Macks Lake Police Service for Detective Sergeant Jepson’s lapse in manners. He usually isn’t so rude to old friends.’ He clicked his fingers, and a sheepish Simon handed him the keys to the cuffs. ‘You know, the PR that might come out of this little adventure of yours would be awful. You wouldn’t want to make trouble for us poor country coppers, would you, sister?’

Another flicker of dread shadowed her eyes. It hovered for a split second, then she grinned at Rick, so carefree, Adam wondered if this woman was an actress. ‘No booze or drugs, and no resisting arrest. Better watch your back—and your job, eh, brother?’

Rick’s smile warmed and softened. ‘Where do you hail from?’

Now the smile was genuine, yet Adam was still haunted by all she was keeping unspoken. ‘My grandmother’s Eora, from the La Perouse mob. I’m a Sydneysider. You?’

A moment’s hesitation before Rick answered. ‘The Mendhams are Paakantyi people, from the Darling River near Broken Hill.’

Adam frowned. So she was from Sydney? She knew his family; that much was obvious. She had to be related, if she’d called his very conservative grandparents aunt and uncle; but if any of the hundred or more relatives he had in Sydney had Aboriginal back­ground, he’d never heard of it.

Whoever she was, he’d had enough of her game. ‘Well, now you’ve had your fun, Constables Wynn and South can give you your ticket. Then you can cause trouble for the cops of another town, and leave us to our boring lives.’ He didn’t like this woman—he was almost sure of that—and he sure as hell didn’t like her effect on him.

She only winked at him. Coupled with that megawatt smile, her lush sensuality hit him like a perfume. The other scent—a fear so primal he couldn’t ignore it—sat with even less comfort. Please help me.

‘But I came all this way to enrich your boring life. It’s been thir­teen years since we last met, and you trussed up in a monkey suit. It was the most tedious affair I ever had to sit through. I thought my good mate Claudius’s wedding would be a right old hoedown. You shouldn’t have let Sharon and the Jepsons bully you into the boring conventions.’

Claudius? Only one person had ever called him that stupid nickname—and a sudden burst of memories he’d kept dammed up too long became a flood. Everything made sense, right down to the ridiculous outfit and cheeky smile. ‘Elly?

‘In the flesh.’ Her shimmering eyes alight with affection, she ran around the counter, flung herself on him and snuggled right in.

He swore silently as his body tightened in swift, hot reaction. Well, after all these years, it was comforting to know he was still a man, but his libido picked a hell of an embarrassing time to let him know it was still a functioning part of his anatomy. He was so hot and hard against the softness of her belly there was no way she could mistake his reaction, even through his jeans and hers.

You bloody moron. This is Elly!

But almost any man would react to the lush breasts pressed against him, and the soft perfume of baby powder and warm sunshine in the feathery curls tickling his nose. Just the normal reaction to the touch of an attractive woman—and the most basic of needs sub­merged way too long, resurrecting to sudden life.

But this was Elly. He had no right to desire her—not now, not ever. And yet, it wasn’t a conscious choice; it was as natural as breathing. Like the myriad times she’d climbed up to his window to taunt him into joining her in her next adventure, her cheeky little face a challenge he could never resist. Coming, Claudius?

Little Elly, the best friend he’d never had before her, or since he’d left her life.

How the hell had he ever left her behind? Half a lifetime …

He looked up, still holding her. Every man in the station watched him with half-wistful and knowing grins—except for Rick. The man who’d come to Macks Lake a few months after Adam, and who’d become his best mate soon after, seemed far from happy. His eyes were narrowed in acute assessment and a suspicion that was too damn accurate for Adam’s comfort. And something else, almost like resentment.

When he glanced over again the look was gone, leaving only shadows of doubt behind.

He tried to put Elly at arm’s length, but she pulled him right back to her. ‘No, you don’t get off that easy. I haven’t seen you in thirteen years, Detective Sergeant Jepson.’ Full lips, warm and moist, brushed the side of his mouth. ‘Howdy, Claudius.’ The mock-hillbilly accent was spiced and softened by her natural velvet huski­ness. ‘How’re y’all?’

Adam’s throat was dry, the rest of him in pain. He conjured a smile from the humiliated depths. ‘Howdy, Elly-May. Still collec­tin’ the critters?’

‘Still a-s-stutterin’ with the purty w-w-womenfolk?’ she shot back.

‘Ah-ah-ah … yep.’ He laughed with the memory of where he’d got his nickname. ‘Right. Everyone, meet my—’

‘He’s no relation to me, anyway,’ Elly interjected, laughing.

‘You would deny it, even if we were family.’ He grinned at her. ‘Then what are we?’

‘Foster aunt and nephew?’ Elly suggested.

He rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, that works, seeing that you’re almost five years younger. Okay. Everyone, meet my, um, I suppose my—’

‘And after that pathetic non-explanation by my non-related and no longer furious childhood friend, you still have no idea who I am. I’m Elly Lavender.’ She held out a hand to Baz, with that big, friendly smile of hers. ‘How do you do, Constable South? I believe we’ve met, but I was … um … tied up at the time.’

The members of the station crowded around her, laughing. Under the cover she’d provided, Adam’s mind raced. Yeah, she was good. Quick and smooth, that interruption, with a laughing reference to her ‘arrest’ to distract them. And the ruse worked—except on him. For he alone knew Elly wasn’t her real name. Neither was Lavender.

And yet Simon and Baz, who must have demanded her licence, weren’t arguing.

Rick was standing slightly apart. Adam saw the same frowning doubt on his face. Rick knew she was lying, too, but though his friend was an excellent cop, he couldn’t know that Elly had always refused to answer anyone else who’d tried to use her nickname, as he’d done with Claudius. The names were theirs alone during their time at his grandparents’ farm.

Now she was using it in public. Worse, she must have made the name legal. The boys would have looked her licence up on the database, so it couldn’t be a fake.

Elly Lavender.

Although they’d been apart almost half a lifetime, and she’d gone from child to woman, he knew her too well to believe in this game of charades and shadows. They’d been inseparable during almost four years of holiday time, and spent hours on the phone and emailing every day when he’d had to go home. They’d been so close they could read each other’s thoughts half the time. He’d always known when she was hurt or upset, as she’d done with him. An email had always come when he was going through a hard time: Want to talk about it?

He ought to have listened to the deep-honed instinct that had been screaming at him since she’d come in, but the personality she was projecting had no correlation with the girl he’d known, and she looked almost nothing like her, either.

You haven’t seen her in years; what would you know?

But it nagged at him. Surely, she couldn’t have changed this much?

Unless something happened to her to force the change. He watched her closely, but she wasn’t looking at him, her back almost turned to him now. The same way she’d done when they were kids, and she wanted to hide something from him.

Homing into the instincts he never used except during arrests or interviews, he glanced around the room, feeling it. Yeah, some­thing else was wrong. It didn’t take long to find the source—Rick was watching Elly with far more intensity than a stranger should.

Damn it. He hadn’t seen that kind of look—almost possession—in his mate’s face since his cheating girlfriend had skipped town seven months ago.

The screen door opened with a shuddering squeak, reminiscent of the effect the voice that followed it always had on him, with its deliberate girlishness and helpless high pitch. ‘Adam, I need to see you—alone. I’ve been molested in broad daylight!’

He turned to the woman leaning over the counter, showing a hint of cleavage. There was little sign of distress in her smile, or in her lithe, slender body—but then, there never was. Jennifer Collins was a woman on a mission: to get him into bed. Feeling the usual mix of distaste and unwilling half-arousal; it was another of those times he hated being a man. ‘I’m too busy for this today, Mrs Collins. If you have a genuine complaint, make it to Senior Constable Mendham. He’ll check it out.’

‘But Adam ...’ the woman purred—and then, seeing Elly, she frowned. ‘Who’s she?’

‘None of your concern,’ he snapped, and turned back to Elly. ‘Come into my office.’


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