Seduction and Sacrifice(7)

By: Miranda Lee


MR WHITMORE , Gemma was told, was in room twenty- three, and no, he had no one with him at that time.

The Ridge Motel was the newest in Lightning Ridge, an ochre-coloured assortment of buildings, with reception and a restaurant separate from the forty units which stood at rectangular attention behind a kidney- shaped pool. Room twenty-three was on the second of the two storeys.

Gemma's stomach was churning as she climbed the stairs, something that would have surprised many people, including Ma, who had often commented on how confident she was for a girl of her upbringing and background. Gemma knew better, recognising her supposed assurance as little more than a desperate weapon to combat her father's volatile and often violent nature. She'd found over the years that if she were too docile and subservient he treated her even worse. So she'd learnt to stand up for herself to a degree, sometimes to her sorrow.

But none of that meant she had the sort of savoir- faire to deal confidently with a city opal trader like Byron Whitmore. Lord, she was shaking in her boots, or she would have been if she'd been wearing boots! Gemma's only consolation was that she'd decided not to try to sell the big opal today, only the smaller ones.

A couple of nights' sensible thinking since her astonishing find had formulated a plan to take the prize to Sydney and have it valued by a couple of experts before she sold it. It had come to her as late as half an hour ago that it might bring more money if she put it up for auction as a collector's piece. Six-figure amounts kept dancing around in her mind. She'd be able to buy herself a house, pretty clothes, a dog. . .

Her heart contracted fiercely. No, she wouldn't buy another dog. Not yet. Maybe some day, but not yet. The pain of Blue's death was still too raw, too fresh.

Gemma dragged her mind back to the problems at hand. Selling these infernal opals. By this time she was standing in front of room twenty-three

but she couldn't bring herself to knock, gnawing away at her bottom lip instead and trying to find a good reason to abandon this idea entirely.

But that wouldn't get her any money, would it? She'd already booked tickets for the bus leaving tomorrow night for Dubbo, and the train from there to Sydney.

If only her father had let her go with him when he'd sold opals, she groaned silently. If only she'd met this Mr Whitmore before. Ma said he was OK but it was hard totally to dismiss her father's warnings about him.

Oh, get on with it, you stupid girl! Gemma berated herself. God knows how you're going to cope in the big bad city if you can't even do this small thing. Stop being such a wimp!

Taking a deep steadying breath. Gemma curled her fingers into a tight fist and knocked on the door.

'Oh!' she exclaimed when it was wrenched open, practically from under her knuckles. 'Oh!' she cried gain, once she'd fully taken in the man who'd opened it. He was nowhere near fifty, neither did he have black hair or blue eyes. At most he was thirty-five. His hair was a golden wheat colour and his eyes were grey. He was, however, very handsome in an unnervingly sleek, citified sort of way.

'I. . .I'm sorry, I must have the wrong room,' she babbled. 'I was wanting Mr Whitmore.'

Lazy grey eyes swept down her body and down her long bare tanned legs, one eyebrow arching by the time his gaze lifted back to her face. Gemma stiffened, not sure if his scrutiny was flattering or insulting.

Surely he couldn't be surprised by how she was dressed. No one wore anything other than shorts in Lightning Ridge in the summer, no one except visitors like this chap. He was all togged up in tailored grey trousers and a long-sleeved white shirt. There was even a dark red tie at his throat. A travelling salesman, Gemma decided. On his first trip outback, probably. It

wouldn't be long before that tie was disposed of and those shirt-sleeves rolled up.

A small smile tugged at his mouth, as though he were amused at something. "Now I know why Byron always looked forward to his trips out here,' he said drily.

Gemma frowned. Byron? That was Mr Whitmore's first name, wasn't it?

'I'm Nathan Whitmore,' the man elaborated before she could put her confusion into words. 'I'm standing in for Byron this trip, a fact that seems to have gotten around. You're my first client this afternoon, and only my third for the day. You are a client, aren't you?' he asked, amusement still i n his voice.

Gemma was unsure now what to do. Ma had recommended Byron Whitmore, not his brother.

'You look concerned, Miss —er. . .' 'Smith,' she informed him. 'Gemma Smith.'

'Aah. . .and have you had dealings with my father before, Miss Smith?'

'No, I. . .your father ?' Rounded eyes stared into Nathan Whitmore's face, seeing the age lines around his eyes and mouth. Either Byron Whitmore was older than Ma thought or his son had been living the life of a rake. Handsome he might be, but that young he wasn't. "I. . .I thought you were his brother.'