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Northern Heat - Helene Young

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Published: 27th May 2015
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In steamy northern Queensland, Conor is living under an assumed name and rebuilding his shattered life. Working at Cooktown's youth centre has given him the chance to make a difference again, and a chance to flirt with Dr Kristy Dark.

After tragedy tore her family apart, Kristy fled to Cooktown with her feisty teenage daughter, Abby. She hoped being part of the small community would help them both heal, but Abby's sports coach is turning out to be a compelling distraction.

When a severe cyclone menaces the coast, threatening to destroy everything in its path, tensions come to a head – and the weather is not the only danger in Cooktown. Cut off from the world and with her life on the line, Kristy will have to summon her courage and place her trust in Conor, or they'll both lose someone they love.

PRAISE FOR HELENE YOUNG 'I love Helene's books. They have it all - romance, mystery, suspense. I guarantee you'll love her too.' Fleur McDonald

'Helene Young has been compared to Nora Roberts...and she doesn't disappoint.' New Idea

'I don't think there's a better romantic suspense writer out there at the moment...Another truly stellar novel.' 1 Girl 2 Many Books

'Helene Young is showing no sign of slipping from the top of the genre - rather, she just keeps getting better.' Write Note Reviews 'Helene Young is a very accomplished writer, building her romance and suspense with verve and skill.' Sisters in Crime

'This amazing writer of romantic suspense never ceases to thrill.' Good Reads

1

An anguished cry broke Conor's concentration. He cocked his head as the Veritastugged on the anchor with the change of tide. The call came again, staccato this time, and Conor recognised the elevated alarm of a plover, the feisty birds nesting on the flat grassland lining the northern banks of the Endeavour River. No matter how often he heard the cry, his heart always beat a little faster. He leant back from his laptop and knuckled his eyes, the humidity in the air soft. Stifling would come later.

A good night on the stock market. The internet connection had hung on – not always a given this far off the main grid, which was perfect for a man who didn't want to be found, but not so great now he managed a multi-million-dollar fund.

Still, no one asked awkward questions up here in North Queensland. 'Live and let live,' the old trawler man propping up the bar at the Cooktown Hotel had told him. 'Don't be sticking your nose in where it don't belong and you'll do fine, eh?'

Conor had taken that advice. The weather was a reliable topic if the conversation ever headed into quicksand. Too hot, too dry. Failed wet seasons, dry winters. When was the last cyclone? Would there be one this year? In a place like Cooktown, everyone looked to the sky in the morning.

His email program chimed with the daily report from his broker. The bottom line was in great shape with another ten thousand dollars added for his night's trading. He never needed to work again, and while that gave him some satisfaction he knew money wasn't the compulsion that kept him going.

He smiled as he typed an email.



Noah, about that new multi-purpose court you wanted to  build next to the gym at the Banksia Cove PCYC. Get me

a quote. I may be able to help.



It was the least he could do.

He closed the lid of the computer. The sun had made it over the horizon now and he could either go back to sleep or go for a run. He tied his shoulder-length dark hair back in a ponytail and found his training shoes. His back and arms still ached from his first few weeks as a deckhand on the Lady Leonie. Lucky for him he now had three days to recover.

The dinghy trailed off the stern and he reeled it in, enjoying the tug on his muscles. The motor started first pull and he cast off, steered for the shore. The boat's wake rolled behind him, curvy and thick. Ahead, the water was a dark and secretive mirror. He nosed into the shallows, next to a battered tinny. As he leapt off the bow the spray of water raised goosebumps on his legs.

Nearby, a couple of kids with fishing rods squabbled on the jetty. School holidays in the tropics. Conor followed a diagonal path across the park where tomorrow morning the market stallholders would be setting up. He nodded at a couple of locals lounging on the ship's gun left behind by Captain Cook and his merry men over two hundred years earlier.

A garbage truck trundled past, followed by a ute with flattened suspension struggling under the weight of scaffolding. As he headed along Charlotte Street on the sealed road his feet found their rhythm and his spine relaxed. He turned up the street by the Cooktown Hotel, his favourite of the many in town. A Christmas tree draped in tinsel flashed in a window. A phone call home to his mum was long overdue. He knew she would cry. Would there ever be a way back? It was one thing to risk his own life; he didn't want to bring trouble to his parents' door too.

He glanced up. Right on time. Another runner was heading towards him, her shoulders high, arms and legs pumping. Dark hair was pulled back from her flushed face. She was the mother of one of the girls he coached at the PCYC. And the reason he took the route he did. He nodded as they closed the gap.

'G'day, Kristy.'

'Hi, Conor,' she replied, puffing past. With her high cheek- bones, full mouth and blue eyes, Dr Kristy Dark was worth a second look. Loose running clothes hung from her broad shoulders and she carried her curves as though she resented them. She looked like a swimmer or a rower.

He stumbled over a pothole. The chance to perve at the local hospital's senior doctor was almost worth a twisted ankle. 'Never mess with the parents of the kids' was one of the few pieces of advice he'd been given when he took the job as coach. Didn't stop him flirting with Dr Dark when the opportunity presented itself. She did a mean line in disinterest but when she smiled, her brilliant blue eyes lit up and her laugh was worth all the effort. The husky chuckle sounded rusty. He didn't know why the doctor had sadness in the double lines between her fine eyebrows, but she had a mouth that was meant to laugh.

Conor turned left, pushing the pace as the hill steepened. In between the designer homes on large, tree-lined blocks he caught glimpses of the Endeavour River. TheVeritas bobbed at the end of the line of moored boats. There weren't many left now. The sailors headed south for summer, away from the start of the wet season and the ever-present threat of cyclones.

He was staying put. Who knew? Maybe he'd sell the boat if he found the right house. He heard a car engine purr into life ahead and he slowed, trying to spot it. Ornate gates on a palatial house two up on the left were wide open. He slowed further. The chances of a driver seeing him were slim. Not many people up here were dumb enough to brave the heat and go jogging. With a brutal gun of the engine a four-wheel drive shot out into the middle of the road then accelerated away, loose bitumen scrunching under its wide tyres.

'Dickhead,' Conor muttered. Six a.m. on a quiet street and the idiot had made enough racket to wake the dead. The solid gates were gliding closed as Conor glanced in at the house. The door was ajar and a man lay crumpled on the pale stone stairs. Conor swore then darted through the gateway before he had time to think. He interrupted the sensor beam and the gates stopped before sliding open again.

'Hello?' he called. 'Hello? Are you all right? Anyone home?'

The street was eerily quiet, as though holding its breath. He reached the fallen man. A trickle of blood was leaking down the stairs. Conor swore again, his anger jostling with an older sadness that swamped him, made his hands shake. The man wasn't going to get up and walk again. Ever. His limbs were slack and untidy in his colour-coordinated shorts and T-shirt. The entry wound in his forehead was small, with barely a smear of blood, but his eyes were wide, surprised. He was probably a few years younger than Conor, with a jaw that looked as though he'd just finished rinsing the razor. Too young to die like this.

'Hello?' he called again, looking for a doorbell or intercom. 'Hello!'

A scuffing sound came down the corridor and a little white dog appeared with a growl, which turned into a bark, angry and high-pitched.

'Bonnie, stop that!' A woman's voice carried outside. The dog's ears went back, but it kept up the barking.

Conor called out again, stepping over the man's body. 'Hello?'

'Oh, for Pete's sake.' Footsteps headed his way. 'Bonnie!'

The young woman who appeared was wearing a loose pair of pyjamas, blonde hair down on her shoulders. She bent to pick up the angry animal before she saw the body. Then she screamed, stum- bling back against the door, fear in her frozen mouth and fluttering hands, the dog forgotten.

'Get out!' she yelled at Conor, who could only raise his hands as she continued. 'Help! Help!'

'Lady, I was running past. You need to ring the ambulance and police.' He tried to get between the body and the woman. If she moved the man, valuable clues could be lost, and Conor didn't think she needed to see the exit wound either. But she pushed him away and sank to her knees, scrabbling across the floor.

'Why would you do this?' she whispered. 'What do you want? He never hurt anyone. He only ever tried to help.' pain burned in her pale eyes. She reached out and placed two fingers on the fallen man's throat, but she was shaking so much she was unlikely to find anything, even if by some miracle he still had a pulse.

'I didn't shoot him.' Conor bent down and tried to draw her away again, but she flinched as though he'd slapped her. 'Ring the police, ring the ambulance,' he insisted. 'Please. It's his only chance.'

'Danny? Danny, honey?' She shook the man's shoulder, blood on her hands now.

Conor squatted down to her eye level. 'Don't move him. Please, call the police, the ambulance. I'll stay with him. Please.' He reached across and tried to stop her hands from pulling the man close. It was only going to make it worse. The little dog pushed in next to its mistress, sniffing at the blood, and that seemed to break her hysteria. With a wild look she scooped the dog up and whirled around, her bare feet slapping on the tiles as she ran up the stairs.

Conor smelt the taint of blood mixed with a woody aftershave. He picked up the man's hand, checking for a pulse. The man wore a large, square signet ring on his middle finger and a plain gold wedding band next to it, and his nails were well manicured. There was no sign of a pulse under the smooth skin. It was the same at his neck. No point in messing up the crime scene to attempt CPR, Conor decided as he glanced up. Hopefully the security system had captured the shooting. He swallowed, warding off a fresh wave of sorrow and guilt, trying to stay focused.

He could hear the sobs as the woman returned. The dog wasn't so white anymore and the woman had a smear of blood on her cheek. Under different circumstances she would have been pretty.

'They're coming.' She was hiccupping and barely coherent, her arms wrapped around the dog.

Conor got to his feet. 'I'm sorry. I thought he'd fallen or maybe had a heart attack. Can you go and ring a friend, or your family?' He didn't think she should be seeing this.

But she didn't move. 'Did you see anyone?' The tears dripped off her chin. She couldn't take her eyes off her fallen husband.

Conor understood that awful fascination as the human brain tried to process how someone could be living one minute and an instant later dead in a pool of blood.

'A four-wheel drive. It reversed out and sped off. The gate was only half closed or I wouldn't have seen anything. I'm sorry. Is there someone I can contact for you?'

She shied away from him again.

'A friend, a relative?' Conor insisted. He'd felt this insane sort of grief, understood it all too well.

'The bitch, the fucking bitch. He always did the right thing by them. Always.' She was hyperventilating now. Probably in need of sedation, Conor thought, wondering who she was referring to. A family member? A friend?

A cop car roared into the street, the ambulance only seconds behind it. Cooktown's senior constable strode into the yard, his hand on the gun at his hip.

Conor nodded. 'Joyce.' He didn't move as the policeman muscled up to him. Conor had the height and breadth advantage.

'What are you doing here, Conor?'

'Out running and saw him on the ground.'

Joyce glared up at him then looked across at the woman, still clutching the dog. 'Debbie, I'm sorry, love.'

'Do something. Catch the bastards! I can't believe after everything . . .' She started sobbing again. The paramedics hurried across the driveway.

'Jesus Christ.' The older paramedic stepped around the pooling blood and straight to the man's head. 'Danny. Danny?'

The younger paramedic edged closer just as the first one tilted Danny's head. Conor straightened up and caught her as she spun around, gagging at the mess beneath the head. She made it to a garden bed, where her morning coffee came shooting back out.

'Bloody hell,' she muttered. She glanced over with a shudder.

Her colleague was on the phone.

'Gunshot wound. The bullet's exited the back of his . . . No . . . Not a lot . . . No pulse . . . Righto, I'll keep going until you get here. See you in five.'

He hung up, turned back to the body with a grimace. 'Give me a hand, Joyce. I need to start CPR.'

'Seriously?' The constable looked off-colour himself.

'Seriously. I can't pronounce him dead. Sorry, love.' He glanced up at the woman then across at his offsider. 'Can you look after Debbie, please? Take her inside. Away . . .' He waved his hand at the blood.

'Sure.' The female paramedic managed to give Conor half a smile. 'Thanks. Sorry about that.'

'Understandable. The first one's the worst.' And he knew that to be true.

She nodded, blinked back tears and walked over to the huddle again. Joyce and the other paramedic were kneeling beside the man. Conor felt his own bile rise as the body twitched with each pump. The paramedic was counting, his voice coming out in sharp bursts with the effort. Conor had never considered what had happened to his family, to Annabel and Lily, when they were discovered outside the school. He'd always thought of them being covered with a sheet, loaded into an ambulance and driven away in sombre silence. This was something else, something confronting and final and bloody.

'Deb, come on.' The young paramedic had it together now. 'There's nothing you can do. The doctor will be here shortly.' She guided Debbie back inside.

Conor took half a dozen steps towards the street, breathing deeply as he tried to still his racing heart. The day had turned to shit and he couldn't stop the memories from crowding him any longer. The images of Annabel laid out on a steel trolley, her hand on her chest, the wedding and engagement rings catching the light. Of lily, her hair brushed and glowing golden, her face serene, lips drained of blood. The cold glass of the viewing room separated him from all that he loved.

By God, it still hurt.

Someone pounded up the street and Kristy Dark staggered into the driveway, her face beetroot red.

'Kristy, whoa.' Conor put out a hand as she stumbled. Her skin was slick with sweat.

'Sorry I took so long,' she panted.

'Please don't collapse now.'

She pushed strands of damp hair off her face. 'I'll be fine. But . . .' She caught sight of the group on the stairs.

Her face changed in an instant to a professional mask, her expression sincere, sympathetic. Everything settled into place. She pulled her shirt down over the stretchy cotton shorts. Sweat ran down her legs, yet she had an air of quiet competence. Inappropriate as the thought was, Conor couldn't help but notice her curves were in all the right places.

Annabel wouldn't leave the house or the gym unless she was immaculate. With her professionally styled hair and manicured nails, even in the middle of an emergency she looked ready for a social function. Kristy didn't look like she gave a toss about any of that.

She crouched down, snapping on the pair of latex gloves the paramedic thrust at her. Her hands moved unerringly to pulse spots. She took the proffered stethoscope and gently lifted the man's shirt clear. Her dark lashes made half-moons against her cheeks, where the redness was starting to fade.

Conor saw the regret on her face and turned away, the sense of loss so extreme, so misplaced. He didn't know this guy, had never met Debbie or their little dog. He had no connection, but he was suddenly confronted with what it must have been like for Annabel and Lily. His heart broke all over again.

'I think we should take him to the hospital sooner rather than later,' Kristy said. 'Surely you can take photos now, John?' she said to the constable. 'Better to get him into the refrigeration before the day warms up. Give him some dignity. I'll see to Debbie.'

Conor tipped his face to the sky, willing the tears to stop. It would make no sense to the others.

'Right.' He heard the paramedic stripping the gloves from his hands.

Joyce was talking on his phone, pacing, although his gaze followed Kristy as she walked into the house. Conor frowned, trying to remember the details of the car. Charcoal grey, four-wheel drive, tinted windows, low-profile tyres. He couldn't even remember the number plate. A year ago he would have been able to give a full description, but he'd lowered his defences.

The trolley clattered as it dropped out of the ambulance. Another police car arrived. Sergeant Miller's shirt was buttoned crookedly and hung over his pants.

'Conor? What are you doing here?'

'I was running. Saw him on the front step. Thought he'd had a heart attack.'

Miller nodded, but Conor saw his shrewd gaze take in the electric gate. 'I'd better get Joyce to take your statement. This is going to ripple all the way down to Canberra.'

'Really?'

'Yep. Danny Parnell was supposed to be the next federal member for the Cook Shire.'

'Bloody hell. Political?'

'I sincerely hope not. Not in Cooktown,' miller replied. 'Wait here.' He walked towards Joyce. Nothing hasty, nothing rushed. It was a pleasure working with him at the PCYC. Even the kids who pushed the boundaries showed the sergeant grudging respect. 'Constable, get a statement from Conor and see if he needs to talk to someone. Situations like this aren't easy.'

'Yes, Sarge,' Joyce replied, scowling in Conor's direction. One alpha male to another, Conor thought bleakly.



Fifteen minutes later his patience was wearing thin. Miller was still photographing the scene and the ambulance had departed with its load. The neighbours were starting to surface with curious glances at the two squad cars parked out front. Another car pulled up and a distraught woman slammed the door and headed over to Joyce.

'Where's Deb? Is it true? Danny's dead? Really?'

'You're Debbie's friend?' Joyce asked.

The woman nodded. 'Kristy called me. This is awful in my hometown. It's like something out of TV show. The reporters will be here next.'

Joyce scowled. 'Talking like that's not going to help Debbie. She's inside. Follow me.'

It silenced the woman. Conor was even more grateful for the understanding policeman who'd escorted him to the morgue three years ago. He'd seemed weary to the bone. 'One day we'll find the killer, Conor. He'll slip up, leave enough evidence so we can hunt him down. I hope it's in my lifetime.'

So did Conor. Justice had been only partially served. He'd helped put the man who'd ordered the killings behind bars, but the one who'd pulled the trigger had never been caught. A hit man with a distinctive pattern. One day his luck would run out.

'Hey, you okay?' Kristy said. He hadn't heard her approach. Her colour had subsided and her hair was loose, skimming her shoulders. It made her softer, less aloof.

Conor shrugged. 'Not the first time I've seen a dead body. Probably not the last either.'

'But confronting nevertheless. Do you need anything?'

He looked directly at her. 'A bath, a long, hot soak and preferably not alone, but that's not going to happen any time soon.'

'Oh.'

Was she blushing? 'Sorry, that probably sounded inappropriate at a time like this.'

'No,' she reassured him. 'We all cope with stress in different ways. I eat chocolate. Not very productive, but there you have it. Has Joyce finished with you?'

'I hope so. He wants to know how I got through the gate. I don't think he's convinced it was closing when I caught sight of the guy. All I had to do was break the sensor beam and it opened again.'

Kristy snorted. 'Some blokes, the badge goes to their head.'

Conor couldn't agree more. 'Did you see a charcoal-grey four-wheel drive? A city four-wheel drive, not a country one.'

'No. You passed me and then a couple of work utes went by. Then I turned round and slogged back up the hill. I thought I was going to collapse. I'm not really made for running.'

'Then why do it?'

She turned those brilliant blue eyes on him and despite everything, she almost smiled. 'Because I can't be bothered updating my wardrobe, and if I keep eating chocolate the way I do I will only have stretchy clothes left. Not quite the look I'm after.'

'Stretchy looks just fine from where I'm standing.'

'Well, thank goodness you're not in charge of my wardrobe choices then.'

The flush was back in her cheeks and she looked away. He couldn't help himself. Her skin was warm and soft as his fingers brushed it, tucked the strands of dark hair back behind her ear. It was the first time he'd touched her, and the timing was all wrong, but he didn't regret it as he saw awareness flare in her eyes. She didn't pull away, yet the tiniest of frowns bloomed between her brows, as if his actions puzzled her.

'Conor?' Miller called. 'Any idea how far into the yard the car was parked?'

Conor took the distraction in good grace. He was playing with fire and he wasn't sure he was ready to be incinerated.

'By the speed it reversed out, I'd say a fair way. It shot out on an angle, heading to the right, then took off down the hill. I'm sorry, I didn't get a number plate or even a model. It all happened so fast. My mind was elsewhere.'

'Understandable.' Miller cleared his throat. 'Sorry, but I will need you to attend the police station for further questioning.'

Conor shrugged before Kristy cut in. 'Hang on. I passed him jogging up the street a couple of minutes before all this unfolded. He wasn't carrying a gun.'

'And you know because . . .?' Miller asked.

Kristy's snort was almost a laugh. 'Have you seen what he's wearing? Abby wears more clothes when she's swimming. There's nowhere to hide a gun.'

Conor's cheeks tingled with unfamiliar embarrassment. He held up his arms. 'Search me if you like, but Kristy's right. I have a pocket that's big enough for a credit card to get a taxi if I end up lost in Cooktown.' His poor attempt at humour helped to steady him.

'Yeah, right,' miller said, hands on his hips. 'You're free to go for now. Just don't leave town, eh?'

'Remember, you persuaded me to play Santa at the Christmas bash on Sunday?'

Miller's tired face creased into a smile. 'You're going to need more than a pillow to fatten you up.' He turned to the doctor.

'Kristy, do you need to do anything else here? How's Deb?'

'She's not good. Her friend's going to stay with her, but I'll prescribe some sedatives as soon as I get to work.'

'Of course. You'll organise the autopsy?'

'Sure.' She walked over to miller, her voice dropping, and Conor turned away. None of his business from here on in. He walked back to the footpath, remembering the trajectory of the car. He was sure he'd be able to identify the make if he saw something similar again. It had stayed on the sealed surface, so no chance of tyre prints. He hoped the cameras were set up right.

The footsteps behind him could only belong to one person. He waited until she spoke before he turned around.

'It's not easy dealing with something like this. You have family or friends you can talk to?'

If only she knew. 'Thanks, I'll be fine. And you? Holding up okay?'

She shrugged and ignored his question. 'I live up the road. If you need a lift, I can get my car.'

'Thanks, I'm down on the river. It won't take me long.'

'On the river?'

'I live on a yacht.'

'Oh, wow. That's different. I've never been on anything smaller than the Brisbane ferries.'

'You should come for a sail some time. It's a special part of the world. Lizard island's just out there.' He waved an arm to the east.

She pulled a face. 'I'd probably end up seasick. I'm more of an outback girl.'

'Really?'

'Grew up on a property south-west of here. Abby and I are heading home for Christmas.'

'You'll miss my lousy impersonation of Santa Claus?' irrationally, it mattered enormously that he made her smile before she left. He patted his stomach. 'I've been practising my ho-ho-hos. Do you think the kids will pick it's me?'

Her fleeting grin was all the reward he needed. 'I think they'll be onto you, but I'm sure they'll love you for it.' She half turned then, looked up through impossibly long, dark lashes. 'And thanks. I appreciate you taking the time to make sure I'm all right too.'

He watched her walk away. Those crystal-blue eyes always seemed to see right to the centre of his soul. It was liberating and terrifying all at once. He couldn't risk loving a woman again. He just couldn't.
Helene Young

Ever wondered what a plane crash feels like? It's all in a day's work for multi-award-winning author and airline pilot, Helene Young. A check captain with Australia's largest regional airline, her job is to ensure aircrew can handle all inflight emergencies.

It comes in handy for writing fast-paced suspense novels starring feisty women and sexy men. When she's not writing or flying you can find Helene sailing the high seas with her partner, Capt G, and Zeus the salty sea dog, aboard their catamaran Roo Bin Esque.

Helene won the Romance Writers of Australia (RWA) Romantic Book of the Year Award in 2011 and 2012 and was shortlisted in 2013. She was also voted most popular romantic suspense author by the Australian Romance Readers Association (ARRA) in 2010 and 2011, and was shortlisted for the same award in 2012. Burning Lies was shortlisted for the 2013 Daphne du Maurier Award Mystery/Suspense in America.

Visit Helene Young's Booktopia Author Page


ISBN: 9780143799740
ISBN-10: 0143799746
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 27th May 2015
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 15.5  x 2.8
Weight (kg): 23.4