Remains of a Local Girl: Part 3

beauty-3d

Aussie cold case murder mystery. Steamy romance.

Chapter 10

 

Kate went back inside and opened the windows to clear the cigarette smoke. She bundled up the blanket and pillow Paul had used and straightened the couch. She thought better of it and stripped the covers from the cushions. They felt sweaty, so she tossed them into the tub in the laundry, along with the blanket and pillow case.

Sitting with her tea and honey toast, she found herself gazing up at the kitchen ceiling. It was white yet faded to a greasy yellow with a bare light bulb that hung about two foot on a blackened cord. It reminded her of the house she lived in as a child.

Up until Kate was ten her mother had rented a small fibro house in a government housing project in the outer western suburbs of Sydney. There were two father figures during that time. Kate remembered Angelo fondly. He was the first, a bus driver with a big belly. He might have been Italian or Greek. She was never sure. He grew tomatoes in the back yard every Christmas, and Kate remembered playing amongst the rows of bushes. It was her enchanted forest, and there was a dog kennel Angelo had made into a palace for her dollies.

Bernie was her mother’s next husband. He was an angry man. Kate remembered the silence when he came home from work. She remembered being afraid to speak out loud, and she would go to her mother and whisper that she was thirsty or that she had a project for school, or the like.

Bernie’s hands were huge, and Kate remembered the hair on his knuckles. She remembered often being held by the arm and smacked. Her bottom would hurt, and her arm would hurt, and her mother’s face would be red, but she wouldn’t say anything.

Kate often wondered whether Bernie hit her mother too. She couldn’t recall ever seeing any bruises, but they would fight. Kate would hide in her bedroom and listen to them shouting at each other, and she remembered it was the most wonderful day of her young life when her mother said Bernie would not be coming home anymore.

If Kate had any memories of her early teens they were buried at a depth to which she didn’t venture. She had been an awkward, gangly, knock-kneed thing with braces. By the age of fifteen, though, she had breasts, hips and a smile, and she noticed that boys noticed. It was a time when romance was quite formal. It was for the boy to approach and ask ‘will you go with me?’, and if a girl accepted then an official union of boyfriend/girlfriend was formed, and kissing was mandatory, while anything further could be negotiated.

Kate was sixteen when she was diagnosed with an inoperable reproductive tract abnormality. She would never bear a child. Even if by some chance she fell pregnant she would definitely miscarry. She had been left by the doctors with a picture in mind of her shriveled fallopian tubes and partially sealed uterus, and the thought of being unable to have babies had ended her interest in boys. It wasn’t until she was eighteen that she began to come to terms with her worth as a female and her role with the opposite sex, which she had decided should remain casual and noncommittal for a time.

Kate had chosen economics at university simply because some of her friends had done so. Those three years were an endless dance party. But then she met Stephen, her best friend’s brother. He had grown up with his father in England and returned with his cute accent and curly, blond hair to set up house with his little sister, and, as it turned out, to sweep Kate completely off her feet.

Kate sniffled a tear and opened her phone to check the text she had received that morning from Lance Emerson. He was a tall, sandy-haired American with a brilliant grin. It was the first opportunity she’d had to gloat over the message without fear of Paul looking over her shoulder.

‘Kate. Arriving at the Gold Coast Wed 19 Feb. Company yacht available. Hope you’ll have some time to party. I’ll call you.’

Oh, I’ll have some time to party, but what then, Mister Emerson? What then?

Kate sighed, and she sniffled at the lingering thought of Stephen Gershwin, then shook that off and wondered where Bobby had gone. He had woken twice through the night and come to her room frightened by nightmares he’d had. He was nowhere to be found when she woke at seven.

She tidied up after breakfast and did the washing, and the morning passed easily with the last of the unpacking. Bobby turned up for lunch. He was beaming.

“Guess what, Katie?”

“Hmm, let me see. The sun’s hot?”

“Aw, not that. Guess what I got?”

“Okay. I give up. What have you got?”

“A job!” Bobby declared triumphantly. “I got a job at a farm, and he’s gonna show me how to drive a tractor.”

“What farm? Where is it?”

“It’s an orchard, Katie. And I can walk. It’s only less than twenty minutes if I walk fast. I checked it already!”

“Okay, and who will you be working for? Did they give you forms to fill in?”

“Aw, it’s Mister Cosgrove, Katie, but you don’t have to go and see him. He already told me he would be paying award wages. That means the same pay as other farm workers.”

“Alright. That’s good. Award wages is good, and there should be forms for tax and super. So, when do you start?”

“Tomorrow! At six o’clock tomorrow morning, so I have to go to bed early.”

“Okay, but what about today? I’ve made you a shopping list, and there’s these jobs you need to do here at the house.” Kate pointed to the list of jobs on the fridge. “The first three today and the rest later, okay? I’m going out.”

“But where are you going?”

“None of your business, nosey!”

The Goran Vale Public Library was a three bedroom weatherboard house that had been gutted of its internal walls and fitted with large bay windows in front to allow natural light. It was well stocked with books and magazines and had two computers with internet access.

The Goran Vale Times had published a local weekly newspaper between 1937 and 1992. From the early sixties it had been stored on microfilm. Kate didn’t know the date she was looking for, but an elderly woman sitting in the sun-lounge area reading suggested late 1986. She found the same photograph of Melanie Rose that Ben had given her on the front page of the issue dated Friday, November 28.

The report depicted seventeen-year-old Melanie Rose as the pride of the small mountain community. She had been missing for nearly a week, along with a boy of twenty named Bobby Ray. The report went on to say: ‘A flat bed Dodge utility, registered to Bobby Ray, was found abandoned in a ditch off the Fortress Ridge fire trail, four kilometres south of Goran Vale. Police are conducting a forensic examination of the vehicle.’

The next publication was Friday, December 5. The front page was a photograph of a gaunt young man with Bobby’s eyes, lying in a Camden hospital bed. Kate read the text and learned that Bobby was assumed to have been lost in the forest for over a week. He was in a state of shock and non-communicative. Grave fears were held for the safety of Melanie Rose, and police were anxious to question Bobby as soon as possible. The report ended with a conclusion relating to the abandoned utility: ‘After extensive forensic investigation, police found no conclusive evidence that the Dodge utility found abandoned on the Fortress Ridge fire trail was used in the suspected abduction of Melanie Rose.’

The story held front page through Christmas and into January 1987 where it was replaced with news of the sudden closure of the Rose family’s timber mill and door factory. Kate read on through the front page stories published in eighty seven. There was a mass exodus of families moving down to the city, and property values in Goran Vale plummeted. Each issue told of the pending closure of businesses and the escalating crime rate. In eighty-eight the railway link to the city was abandoned and replaced with a bus service. That year George Rose, the father of the young missing girl, hung himself from the rafters in his timber mill, and floods claimed the irrigated vegetable crop along the river. In eighty-nine the land titles through the valley were rezoned, and subdivision permitted the development of smaller, hobby farms, which attracted investment from the city. There was a minor boom in the local economy that resulted in a new residential building development along Mill Road. There was some speculation that Alex Rose would refurbish the timber mill in nineteen ninety, but that fell through when he decided to invest in city real estate instead. The two banks closed in ninety and ninety-one. By ninety-two the school had been reduced to a single classroom for grades one to three and another for grades four to six. And on a winter’s day in August of that year the school principal, James Ray, was found unconscious at the base of a windmill in what was determined to be a farming accident. The final issue of the Goran Vale Times, published in November 1992, was a celebration of fifty-five years in publication, which Kate read as a testimony to the downfall of a proud little town.

It was getting on five in the afternoon, and she hurried home and bathed. She left Bobby watching television and declaring he would have dinner and an early night in readiness for his first day working at a farm.

Kate had chosen a short summer dress and left her hair loose. She approached Ben’s front door, and a tubby, black and grey dog sat up beating its tail on the doormat. She was giving him a pat and making silly ‘who’s a good boy’ noises when Ben approached the screen door.

“Hi,” he said, smiling down at her.

“Hi.” Kate stood brushing at her dress, and she felt herself blush as she was looked over. The dress she had chosen was of thin stretch cotton and held to her shoulders with tiny strings. Her breasts were unfettered beneath it.

“Come on in,” Ben offered, holding the door open for her.

She had a quick glance into his eyes as she slipped past. They were intense, yet in contrast his smile was easy.

“This is lovely,” she offered as she looked around his living room. His furniture was old and worn and looked comfortable. There was a grandpa lounge with two deep-seated chairs gathered around a television set. The room opened to a dining area with a polished wooden table and chairs. There was a desk with a computer and a telephone. There was a fireplace stocked with sawn and split pieces of timber and sealed with a wrought iron grill. It was clean and obviously out of use for the summer.

Everything was functional, nothing merely decorative. Kate almost commented on the fact a woman’s touch would make things very cozy, but she checked herself.

“You need a painting.” She couldn’t resist saying something.

“I know. I have two, but I haven’t gotten around to hanging them yet.”

“Oh? How long have you lived here?”

“About five years.” Ben’s smile had broadened, and his eyes had softened. He was sitting back against his desk watching, and Kate took that as an invitation to explore further.

She looked in his kitchen. It was spotless. There was nothing on the bench or sink except a microwave, a toaster and a kettle, and they were all sparkling. There was no curtain on the window. “So, where are your paintings?” she asked as she poked her nose into the laundry. It was spotless too.

“In the spare room.” Ben had approached and was standing at Kate’s shoulder when she turned. He was still smiling broadly. “You’re kind of nosey, aren’t you?”

“Uh huh, nosey, pushy and bossy. So let’s have a look!”

“At what?”

“At your paintings. What sort are they?”

Ben shrugged. He waved his arm and ushered Kate ahead and toward a narrow hallway across the living room. “Second door,” he said.

Kate opened the second door and found a small room full of boxes and bits of furniture and sporting things. Ben rummaged amongst the boxes and pulled out the two paintings. One was of a horse, and the other was a desert sunset.

“Perfect!” She took the horse painting and motioned for Ben to bring the other one. “Come on.”

She led the guy back to his living room. He followed. The grin on his face had advanced beyond amusement to what appeared to be wonder with a touch of confusion. There were picture hooks on all the walls, and Kate hung the horse painting on one and placed the other painting in the centre of the biggest wall. “Is that okay?” she asked, tossing her head and feeling cheeky.

Ben was sitting on the arm of the lounge. He wasn’t looking at the paintings. He was looking directly into Kate’s eyes, his intensity having returned. “That’s my first horse, Dints, and that’s home.”

“What, the desert?”

“My mum painted both. The sunset is looking out from our veranda. It’s not quite the desert, just way outback.”

“Oh, so you’re a real hick town deputy, then?”

Ben laughed. “Haha, guess so.”

“Well, what does a thirsty cowgirl have to do to get a drink around here?”

Kate had leaned close, half expecting to be taken hold of.

Ben lowered his head. He took a moment, then his eyes lifted.

“A beer?”

He went to get drinks, and Kate slumped in one of the lounge chairs. “In a glass, please?” she called after him.

She wondered whether she was being too forward again. On quite a few other occasions she had scared off men with her forthright nature. She sometimes tried to act more shy and retreating but could never maintain the facade for long, and she preferred to be liked for who she really was.

She got up to have a closer look at some framed photographs on the mantle above the fireplace. There was an elderly couple that she assumed were Ben’s parents, although she couldn’t see any likeness in their facial features. There was one of a half dozen children who looked nothing alike, gathered around a Christmas tree with what appeared to be a teenaged Ben with very big hair sitting on the floor in the middle. And there was one of a girl in a graduation robe.

“That’s Sylvia, my wife.”

“Oh, you’re married?” Kate gulped.

“Was. She passed away a few years ago, car accident.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s terrible.”

Ben had picked up the photograph. “It happens. It’s a hell of a shock when it happens to someone close, but we had some good times together. I try to remember that and be thankful.”

“My girlfriend’s nephew died a few years ago. He was only a baby. It puts your own problems into perspective.”

“That’s true. Doesn’t leave a lot to complain about, does it?”

“No, but I still manage,” Kate confessed with a smile.

“Yeah, me too. So, what do you do for a living, Kate?”

“Oh, God—that! You do want to hear me complain, don’t you? It’s only the most boring job in the world, ever!”

“Worse than licking stamps? I used to do that when I was at college.”

“I do! I lick stamps. I calculate insurance pay outs, run off checks and lick stamps. It drives me mad.”

“And where’s that?”

“Oh, Sydney. That part’s okay. There’s a nice view from the office windows, not that I have an office. You know, from the office area and from up in the cafeteria. It looks out over the harbour. It’s really pretty.”

“City girl, hey? I hated Sydney when I first moved here, but I like it now. I don’t often get right into the city these days, but I get down to Camden a couple of times a week and over to the coast sometimes on a weekend. Do you live near the water?”

“I wish! It’s only a few blocks, but one day I’m getting an apartment right on the harbour. When I’m rich, that is.”

Ben refilled Kate’s glass. He sat down on the lounge, and she was wondering where she should sit. She sat beside him but not too close.

“I’ve actually gotta decide whether to stay here or take a transfer back home,” he went on, expelling a breath. He seemed a little frustrated. “A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have thought twice, but I’m not so sure I wanna go back now. Which is a bit of a drama, being the only son who was supposed to take over from Dad. You know, keep the family farm going and all that.”

“Well, you can’t go back, I mean, you can, but you have to go forward with life, not back. Do you know what I mean?”

Ben smiled. “That’s true, I guess.”

“Of course it is.” Kate sipped her beer and put it down on a small polished wooden table beside the lounge. She wondered about a coaster, but there were other round marks and plenty of scratches.

“Actually, that makes perfect sense,” Ben went on thoughtfully. “Thank you.”

“Glad to help, Tex. But where’s this food you promised me? I’m really hungry.”

“It’s across the road, the video shop. They do a good pizza.”

“Well, let’s go!”

Kate wouldn’t have objected had the man remained in close proximity, but on the way to the shop across the road, he walked at an unusual distance. He was friendly and chatty, but he seemed to deliberately avoid standing near her as they waited for the pizza.

Kate began to feel a little self-conscious and felt more comfortable with her arms folded. He was talking about the town and his job, and she was listening, but she was wondering why he was standing back like that. She decided he was being defensive, and thought it may have something to do with the girl in the photograph. Perhaps he’s still hurting, she reasoned, and she consciously decided it would be best not to push things.

Over dinner the conversation found its way to the missing person’s file Ben had brought home from work. Kate told of her afternoon at the library and was shown through the file, which essentially detailed what the newspaper had glossed over. There were fingerprints found in the Dodge utility that matched those taken from Melanie Rose’s hair brush, but as she had regularly been seen riding around town with Bobby, she could not conclusively be placed in the vehicle the night of the festival dance. Kate had been surprised to learn that Bobby had driven at all. As far as she knew he couldn’t drive and never had.

Ben went to the kitchen for more beer. “I was talking with one of the guys at work today. He knew Bobby well. He said he used to bodysurf. Apparently he drove to the coast nearly every weekend.”

“He’s always surfing, but I wonder why he’s so set against driving. I’ve been at him for years to get a license.”

“Apparently he never worked at the timber mill either.” Ben had returned and sat back at the end of the table.

“What do you mean, he never worked at the mill? Of course he did.”

“They wouldn’t have him. Apparently he used to hang around all the time, but they wouldn’t give him a job. But it’s no surprise his fantasy includes working there. He’s obviously just remembering things the way he wanted them.”

“He’s always going on about working at that mill, though,” Kate reasoned. “It’s the only thing he’s ever told us about when he lived up here. His doctors said there were years of trauma locked up inside his head, but we don’t know what happened. The other day when he told you about that girl getting sick in the river was the first time I’d heard him say anything about her, or about that part of his life. The only thing he ever talks about is working at that stupid timber mill.”

“So, he never talks about his childhood or going to school or anything?”

“Yes, he does, about that, about when he was very young. He raves about his father being the school principal and about Glenview, which was some sort of boys’ home that his father ran. He remembers everything up until he was about seventeen according to his doctors, which is when whatever happened, happened. His doctors think there was an incident about three years before that girl went missing that he’s blocked out. Possibly even a series of incidents or systematic abuse.”

“And they don’t know what happened? They’ve got no idea?”

“Just that it has to do with violence against girls. They think he may have seen that young girl being hurt, but he’s never been able to tell them anything about it. And there’s also something to do with his father disapproving of him having girlfriends, which must have been pretty full-on religious, ‘wrath of God’ type stuff. It was actually quite funny when Bobby met this girl once, and Mum and I had to convince him it was okay to go out with her, that it wasn’t a sin and that God wouldn’t strike him down from Heaven.”

“And did he go out with her?”

“Yeah, for a few months. It was good for him. Matured him a little bit.”

“You should have a talk with old Tom Lloyd if you want to know more about when he was up here. Tom was the police sergeant here for years. He knows everything about everyone.”

Ben’s voice carried a mellow confidence that Kate liked. She met his eyes again. He glanced down then looked up with half a grin and a reddening face. “Will you be staying on here with Bobby for a while?”

“I was planning to fly up to the Gold Coast for a few weeks. I’ve got reservations from Wednesday.”

Ben nodded. “I’d be happy to keep an eye on him for you, let you know how he’s going.”

“A friendly eye or an official one?” Kate knew what he meant, but she wanted to fish.

“A bit of both.” His blush deepened. “I might need your number, though. So I can call you if there’s a problem.”

“Oh? Should I give it to you now or when I’m leaving?”

“I might not see you again before you leave.”

“It’s a very small town.”

Kate had never felt eyes as penetrative before. She felt naked, yet the exposure was inward. She kept her composure.

“So, what do you do in Camden a couple of times a week? The dance-club scene or is there a girlfriend or two?”

“Dancing but no clubs and girls but not girlfriends.”

“Oh! That’s cryptic. Sounds like line dancing with a big cowboy hat and jingly boots. I can see that.”

Ben laughed. “Yeah, close enough.”

“No! Tell me! What do you do? I’m curious.”

“Well, on Tuesday nights I help teach beginners class ballroom dancing, and once a month there’s a social on a Friday night. It’s just old fashioned waltzing, and we try to do a bit of Latin dancing. It’s fun but not what you’d call exciting. What about you? I can see you at a city dance-club every other night.”

“Yes, but I’m getting tired of it. So, you can waltz, can you?”

“Sort of. I’m not very good at it, but I get by.”

“Show me?”

“What? No, there’s no room.”

“Well, take me, then! Tomorrow night! What time?”

“Jesus! What if I don’t want to?”

Ben was smiling, and Kate knew she would have what she wanted.

“If you don’t want to take me dancing, then just say no.”

He was shaking his head, but it appeared to be in amusement and disbelief. Kate liked the humour in his eyes too. He seemed in a constant state of reservation, but his soul was on display, and she felt comfortable with him.

“So, what time?” she pressed, playfully.

He surrendered. “We have to leave at six.”

“Six is too early to eat in this hot weather, so you’ll have to take me to dinner after dancing.”

“Oh, I will, will I?”

“Ah huh, seafood. Do you know a good restaurant?”

 

Chapter 11

 

Bobby lay in bed unable to move. He had woken to the sound of breathing, and in the pitch blackness of his bedroom, he felt a presence. He was lying on his side, facing the wall. The presence was again someone standing in his bedroom doorway, but he couldn’t turn his head to look. The only part of his body he could move was his eyes, and he strained to look back over his shoulder, but he couldn’t see if it was Katie. He tried to move his arm. He thought if he could move it back he might be able to see past his shoulder. He tried to lift it. He could feel the weight of the sheet. It was as if it was pinning him down. He concentrated on his hand, trying to spread his fingers, but he couldn’t.

The breathing was resounding in his head. It was as if he had his hands over his ears. He usually liked that sound but didn’t like it right then. He closed his eyes, and the sound intensified as he felt the room begin to spin. That frightened him, so he opened his eyes again. He called out for Katie, but he knew he was just thinking the words.

The presence in the doorway approached, and he glared back over his shoulder. He could feel it there by the bed. He felt the weight of a hand upon his leg. It was soft. It was delicate. He closed his eyes again and called for Katie, but the sound stayed in his head, and he called for her again and again.

He felt the presence move away. He searched back over his shoulder, but still there was only darkness. He turned. He was suddenly able to move his arms and legs, and he managed to lift his body to a sitting position. He tried to stand, but his legs were numb, so he rolled off the bed and crawled on his hands and knees. He reached the doorway and pulled himself up by the door handle. He felt so heavy he could hardly stand up. He fumbled for the light switch and turned it on. At least he thought he had turned the light on, but he was suddenly awake in bed in total darkness.

“Katie!” he called out, aloud that time. “Katie!”

There was no response, and he got out of bed and hurried to her room. She wasn’t there, so he ran downstairs. The kitchen was in darkness, and he turned the light on. He hurried to the living room and turned that light on too.

Bobby huddled in a chair and stared up at the landing and his bedroom door. He sat wondering what had happened. He’d had bad dreams before but had never felt paralyzed like that, and he didn’t understand it. He took his scrapbook from the shelf beneath the coffee table and hugged it to his chest. “It was only a dream,” he muttered. “I was too heavy, but it was only a dream.”

He woke sometime later to Kate’s voice. “What are you doing down here, Bobby?”

“Katie, I couldn’t move. I was trying to move, but I couldn’t, and I was having a dream!”

“What dream? What was it about?”

Bobby remembered that someone was there in his room, and her hand was soft, so she must have been a girl, but it felt wrong to talk about her. “It was just a scary dream, Katie. I tried to move my arm, but I couldn’t move it.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s get you off to bed, though. You can’t sleep there.”

 

Chapter 12

 

Tom Lloyd sat in his old ex-service four wheel drive at the edge of town. He had watched Bobby Ray walk from his house and had taken the car to follow him. He had driven along Mill Road to where it ended at Fortress Lane then turned down the hill to the main street. He could see Bobby in the distance, stopping for a moment at the corner of Goran Hut Road then continuing toward the river.

Tom lit a cigarette. He was parked was beneath the final street light. It was the place he had last seen young Melanie Rose when she was walking home from the Tulip Festival dance with Bobby Ray. He had been sitting on the station house veranda that night and had watched them walking hand in hand into the darkness.

Tom often parked there under that street light reminiscing about his years on the force. He had joined up in 1955 at the age of twenty and had served his entire career there in Goran Vale. He had first patrolled on horseback while the fledgling community evolved through the post-war industrial boom that saw an end to rafting logs downstream in favour of local milling. They were times when scores of hard-faced loggers would break camp on a Saturday night and fill the pub with sweat and laughter and end up brawling over the local girls. He had been involved in guiding the town’s morality through the sixties and seventies when every year a new hippy commune would spring up in the mountains, and good church going folk would take to growing pot in their back yards and protest the tyranny of government. Tom had been promoted to Sergeant in 1978 and proudly walked the streets every day, talking with the townsfolk and listening to their problems. He had prevented more incidents of crime than he and his staff ever had to deal with. He never ruled the town, but he owned it and took personal responsibility if a husband would abuse a wife or if a car was stolen. Tom knew everything about everyone, and the disappearance of Melanie Rose in ‘86 tore his heart out.

Melanie had been Tom’s favourite niece and such a lovely, innocent young girl, and he had turned to alcohol to cope with his failure to protect her. He began drinking during the investigation into her disappearance. He would sit out on the veranda of the station house staring at the darkness into which she had vanished. He had abandoned his family, finding solace in self-pity, and as the darkness grew cold that following winter, he had surrendered to the hopelessness of his vigil and sat night after night at the bar of the pub. He would drink in silence with George Rose, and when George took his own life the next year, Tom understood.

As the years passed the memory of Melanie’s smile faded, though, and the torment of having failed her abated, yet the crutch Tom had leaned on had become his life. He was twice suspended for drunken, disorderly conduct, in ‘92 and ‘97. He had lost the respect of the community and had lost all respect for himself as well. He was allowed to see out his retirement in the service, but the final three years he had spent behind a desk.

Tom watched until Bobby had disappeared into the Cosgroves’ peach orchard, then drove back up Fortress Lane and took the fire trail up into the side of the mountain that overshadowed Goran Vale. He slowed as he passed the Khel farm. The fire trail was broad and smooth until there, but beyond it was a rocky sandstone track that wound deep into the forest.

Tom had driven the trail a thousand times and knew every twist and pothole. He made good time to Fortress Ridge, which was two miles from Goran Vale and directly above it. From there the trail wound down into a gorge where the depth of the forest was lost to time, and the air was cool and sweet. He crossed a wash in one of the nameless creeks that fed the river below and climbed up to a flat section of the trail where Bobby Ray’s Dodge utility had been found abandoned during the search for Melanie Rose, the day after she went missing.

Tom got out of his vehicle and lit another cigarette. He had seen the Dodge parked in the Ray’s driveway until James Ray had left the station house an hour after the dance and driven down toward Glenview, and James was also driving the vehicle later that night when he reported his son missing. Then he claimed to have abandoned the vehicle there in the ditch on the fire trail while out looking for his son the next morning, which made sense to Tom but never really satisfied him.

It had been several years since Tom had last visited the site, though, and he wandered around turning stones with a stick as if some magical clue would be found beneath one of them. He spent half an hour then returned to his vehicle and climbed out of the gorge, continuing south.

The fire trail reached a broad plateau where the forest thinned to a scattering of dwarfed Blue Mallee and salt bush. Tom drove on to the intersection of another trail that wound down the eastern face of the range and eventually led to the expressway and across to the southern coastal suburbs of Sydney. He took the route west, back toward the main road out of Goran Vale.

From the edge of the plateau, Tom sat looking out over the valley. He opened his flask of whisky and settled to watch the last of the summer morning mist clear from the valley floor. It seemed only a few short years since he had sat there astride his horse and watched the smoke from the logging camps meander from the trees on the western slope. He thought of his wife and wondered how she was. They had been divorced longer than ten years, but he could still feel her massaging his shoulders. She had been the daughter of a logging camp foreman, and within a month of having met, they had married. It was in the inaugural year of the Goran Vale Tulip Festival, the spring of 1965, and that year his new bride, Margaret, had been crowned Tulip Princess.

Tom smoked a few cigarettes and finished his flask of whisky. He thought of his blood alcohol level and considered turning around and driving back to town along the fire trail, but he decided a mile along the main road would be safe enough. From the edge of the plateau the trail was smooth and broad. Just beneath the ridge was Goran Hut, a small timber cottage built around 1850 by the founder of the settlement of Goran Vale and refurbished in the early nineteen-sixties as a tourist attraction. Tom checked for any additions to the graffiti as he drove by. Tourists never took much notice of the signpost, and maintenance of the cottage had been abandoned by the mid-seventies.

It was three miles to the main road, and Tom was soon rolling into Goran Vale. He stopped momentarily as he turned into Fortress Lane. He could see his sister, Eleanor Rose, standing in front of the Ray residence. She had friends all around town, and Tom often saw her walking from one house to another, but he preferred to avoid her. She turned away from staring at the Ray house and started across the road, and Tom drove on up the hill and around the corner. He pulled into his driveway, and his two granddaughters, Alyssa and Joanne, waved him down to the back fence to meet the new lady neighbour.

 

Chapter 13

 

It had been the smallest kiss, nothing more than the feather-like brush of her warmth and perfume. It had been something polite, even mandatory, as he had left her at her door the previous night. It was nothing, Ben told himself again, but he couldn’t dislodge the reoccurring feel of Kate’s lips.

He entered the milk bar on the clock tower corner and adjusted his smile for something more professional as he greeted Joe and Marie Lorenzo. Joe was busy scrubbing the sink, and Marie was stocktaking. They were a middle aged couple with a horde of teenage children. They were relatively new to Goran Vale, having bought the Clock Tower Milk Bar in 2001.

There had been no sign of attempted break-ins since Joe had added security cameras. He showed Ben his handy work, waving his hands and ranting about how good his boys were and how he would catch the young hooligans. “I catch one, I call you, Ben. Okay?”

Ben stopped in at the butcher shop for a few minutes then moved on to the next establishment along that side of the street. The Timber Town Motel was owned and operated by Bernadette Rayne. She was a woman in her mid-forties who had recently moved to town and taken over the business, and was trying to make a go of things.

Next to the motel was Johnson’s Hardware, with old Graham Johnson a third generation proprietor. The shop had the musty aroma of the years rising from the greasy wooden floor and hanging in the narrow aisles. Graham was spreading fresh sawdust but stopped to discuss with Ben the fact that his daughter’s wedding date was fast approaching and that one of her bridesmaids was a single woman looking for a husband of her own. “I’ll have a hand in the seating arrangements,” he declared, slapping Ben firmly on the back on his way out the door.

The library was the next establishment along that side of the street, but it was closed until eleven on a Tuesday morning due to Lillian Potter’s school library commitments.

With no current distraction, Ben’s thoughts shifted back to the previous night. He considered the practicalities of pursuing a relationship with Kate. He would probably have to take a city posting or get out of the force to do it, which was possible, though not an appealing thought. Or perhaps we could meet halfway and live in Camden. I wouldn’t mind the run up and back until I could get a transfer down there, he reasoned, though he cut that line of thinking short. Or how about you try to keep a grip on reality for a change? He had a tendency to get a long way ahead of himself and map things out. How about we try to relax and take it easy for once. Maybe even play it cool, he suggested to himself, like coolness was a possibility.

He crossed the road at his house and called in on Vera Grieves and her daughter Bess. They looked much alike. Both were full figured women sporting the same auburn hair frizzing out of tightly woven plaits. Bess was sweeping, and Vera was cleaning the pizza oven. Their shop had been robbed and vandalized earlier that month, and Ben was shown the back door where there were marks from something being wedged and jimmied the previous night. The two women were side by side filling the storeroom doorway when Ben turned to address them. “Someone will be back a little later to check for fingerprints. If you could avoid touching anywhere in this area.”

Edna Simms and Margaret Worthington were partners in ownership of the gift shop and florist next to the Northside Takeaway. Edna worked on Tuesdays. She had Ben’s cup of tea and slice of fruit cake waiting. She also had a niece who would be along for the Johnson girl’s wedding on the weekend. She had a photograph of a slender blond woman of twenty-three, whom she assured would make some lucky man a fine wife. “Oh, and she just loves to dance,” Edna cooed dreamily, squeezing Ben’s hands and encouraging him with the sparkle and warmth in her eyes.

Ben finished his tea and cake quickly, offered his thanks, and moved on to the abandoned bakery beside the gift shop. The bakery had been established in 1918. It consisted of a broad shop-front set deep beneath an awning, with the plate glass windows replaced with plywood. There was a slatted hardwood door that was chained and padlocked. The building was a weatherboard structure that ran the length of a mossy laneway, and Ben strolled along to the back where there was a landing, once used for loading carts and later, vans. He climbed up onto the landing and entered the building through another slatted wooden door that was also padlocked but had been broken from its rusted hinges.

Inside, the air was damp and thick with the pungent aroma of rotting wood. It had been gutted of most of the stainless steel ovens and worktops. There were still a few shiny surfaces along one wall where Ben imagined the bakery staff rolling dough, and there was a deep stainless steel tub where he imagined they would wash the trays and cooking utensils. There were a few syringes in the sink and a few more beneath it on the floor. In the corner was an old, striped mattress with a stained pillow and a thick checkered blanket. There were a few more syringes on the floor beside the mattress. Ben took a latex glove and plastic bag from his pocket and gathered them all.

Next to the bakery was a pharmacy where he waited at the back door for Gareth Henderson, a middle aged man with a white coat stretched around his belly and a bald head that always looked polished. He took the bag of syringes and disposed of them, and Ben stayed for a few minutes chatting about his security arrangements before moving on to the next business, which was a gents’ and ladies’ hair dresser.

He stopped there in the doorway and nodded as his neighbours passed by. Olga met his eyes with a brief glance, but James Ray never looked up from where his hands were shakily gripping the frame of his walker. He had a cap covering the severe scarring on his head, and he was dribbling a bit with his mouth crooked and kind of fixed open on one side. Olga was carrying a bag from the pharmacy, which was probably the old man’s medication, Ben assumed. He was a thin, frail, anemic looking ghost of a human being. It was hard to picture the heavily set, intelligent man he apparently once was. Although there was a little of Bobby in the broad, square bone structure of his face, Ben decided.

Beside the hairdresser was an antique shop, and at the grocery store on the corner, Ben bumped into Alyssa. She was bright and cheerful. She even seemed friendly, which confused but pleased him. He moved on down the hill toward the railway station and sale yards wondering what had brought about her change of attitude.

The first business upon approaching the industrial area was an engineering workshop that emitted a constant waft of spilled diesel oil, and behind that was a graveyard for farm implements where occasionally there was an auction, but nothing ever seemed to be sold, and the rusted ploughs and tractors were mostly overgrown with grass. There were other businesses lined up along either side of a gravel drive. There was a stock feed and grain merchant, still trading, and a second hand furniture dealership run by a good friend of Ben’s named Phil Green.

Phil was another who wanted to talk about the Johnson girl’s wedding. He was only a few years older than Ben and was married with four children. Ben had met his younger sister Rebecca, a few times and had been looking forward to seeing her again. With a knowing chuckle Phil assured him that she would be attending the wedding unaccompanied.

“You’ve gotta be more forward, though, buddy.” Phil took hold of Ben with an arm around his shoulder, as would a mentor guiding a young protégé. “Don’t take any of that hard-ta-get rubbish. Just take hold and give her a kiss.” He led Ben into his office where there were photographs of his wife and children all over the walls. “The way you molly coddle, Rebecca’s gonna walk all over you. What you have to do is take hold of her, kiss her like you know what ya want, and cop the face slap if that’s what she comes back with.”

“And this is your sister you’re talking about?” Ben questioned, meeting his friends grin.

Phil shrugged and held out his hands in an innocent plea. “If she does slap ya face there’s a good chance she’ll come around afterward. You don’t wanna get bogged down dealing with what a woman’s thinking. Just give her a kiss and see how she really feels, always worked for me, still does with the missus.”

Ben left his best friend after conceding he was indeed a little too easy going and perhaps needed to be more forthright and demanding. He stopped short of promising to sit with Phil at the wedding reception, though, as he was hopeful something might develop with Kate.

Or perhaps I should make something develop, he mused as he strolled along. Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I should be less polite, he challenged himself as he tossed his hat into the air and caught it. She’s only here for a few days, and after that I may never see her again. What if I did just take hold of her and give her a kiss? Just plant one on her and see what happens, he chuckled as he rolled his hat down his arm and did a jig while flipping it back onto his head.

Beyond the small industrial village, the gravel lane met a bitumen road that started at the top of the hill beside the takeaway shop and swept around through a residential area of some fifty or so houses. Each house had at least half an acre of land, and most were occupied. Ben sometimes walked around the streets but decided to cut his beat short that day. He strolled down to the sale yards and said hello to the caretaker, Gus Lloyd, younger brother of Tom. Gus mentioned having met Bobby Ray the previous Saturday, and that word at the pub had Toby Miller waiting for another shot at him. Gus seemed happy with the fact that Bobby had introduced young Toby’s nose to the gutter outside the pub while sitting his druggo city mate on his backside as well. “The lad needs to show up at the pub so I can buy ‘im a beer,” the older man chirruped merrily.

“So, this friend of Toby’s, you seen him selling drugs, Gus?”

“Well, I haven’t seen him, but you know the type.”

Ben strolled along past the bus shelter and visited the few businesses still operating along the railway line. There were a truck mechanic, a milk depot and a plumbing and irrigation supplier who serviced the fruit and vegetable growers along the river. He walked up Fortress Lane past the ambulance base and fire station to the main road, then up the hill past two abandoned houses and another two with aged residents who still grew tulips.

Walking across the road to the station house, Ben noticed the emaciated frame of Nigel Khel shuffling along with some urgency. It wasn’t unusual to see Nigel in public, although Ben couldn’t recall seeing him out so late in the morning before. He would only ever venture into town early each Thursday morning to deliver a new batch of clay figurines to the gift shop then to call in at Johnson’s hardware and the grocery store.

Ben watched the man limp around the corner and disappear up Fortress Lane. He followed out of curiosity, and upon reaching the corner, saw Nigel standing at his front gate looking across at the houses.

Nigel was a gaunt, pasty-skinned hermit. His long, greasy, black hair shrouded his face when walking along the street, and Ben had never managed to attract his glassy, hazel eyes from the sidewalk in passing.

Nigel’s head jerked in Ben’s direction, then he shuffled hastily to the door of his shack and vanished from sight. Ben strolled up the hill and past the small wrought iron gate that was half way open and broken from one of its hinges. The yard was overgrown, and in the patchy gravel driveway, the rusted shell of the wrecked car had grass growing up through the floor. The house was a dull-green fibro structure with a flat tin roof. There was another, smaller building that looked like a laundry and toilet. It was leaning a little with a log wedged against it as a stay.

Nigel Khel was, of course, a cousin of Melanie Rose, so Ben assumed the man was interested in Bobby’s return. He knocked on the door and stepped back.

Along the front wall at ground level was a series of small, round windows. There appeared to be movement beyond the first of them. Ben knocked again, but there was still no response from Nigel, so he crouched down to have a look in the window. The glass was grimy, and if there was a room beyond it was in darkness.

“Are you there, Nigel?”

Ben stood and knocked on the door again, and he waited a few minutes but was due to meet with his sergeant for an annual performance evaluation and decided he could catch up with Nigel later.

 

Chapter 14

 

Kate put down her book and lay staring at the ceiling. Her bedroom window was open, and the curtains floated upon a warm breeze, which carried the hum of crickets from the trees in the yard, and in the distance she could hear a lawn mower. It was as if time had slowed and the world was about to stop revolving and grind to a halt. She thought of the city through the plate glass office window, of watching life without sound, only there was no life to be had in Goran Vale, or nothing to do at least, and she wondered for a moment if the local women shelled their own peas.

She sat up and checked around the room. Everything was in place and organized. She checked her nails and thought of redoing them, but they were fine. She flopped back on the bed and closed her eyes, but after a moment her eyes opened again and focused on the bare light bulb in the middle of the ceiling. The hum of the crickets seemed to start up again, as if they were watching what she was doing, and the curtain billowed out on the breeze and softly fell back into place.

Kate clutched a pillow over her head, then she tossed it away and went downstairs to put on some music and find something to do. Painting the laundry was on Bobby’s job list, but she decided to do it herself since the paint was sitting there. She was planning to leave at about lunchtime the next day, so she thought she could fill the afternoon doing one coat and busy herself the next morning doing another. She put on one of Bobby’s shirts over her dress and, suited up with rubber gloves and a scarf, set to work.

The thought of Bobby being alone there came to her while she painted absentmindedly. It was ideal to have an opportunity to cut him loose in such a simple environment. Everything was within walking distance. A drive up once a month to help him sort his bills and finances would be easy enough. She was happy to have met Ben and hoped he would do as he had offered and keep an eye on Bobby. She thought of calling in and meeting the people Bobby was working for in the hope they would also provide some supervision. Just a phone call to let her know if he seemed unhappy was all she needed. It was only a two hour drive, which she could do any night of the week if necessary.

But what of my own pathetic existence? Kate demanded as she attempted to rub an itchy forehead without painting herself. By comparison, Bobby is set, organized, and for what the big oaf needs, he should be quite fulfilled. While I’ve got wimpy Paul, and my boobs are starting to sag. And where will my roses be next week?

Kate despised Valentine’s Day, and it was no accident she would be out of town on holidays. It was the one day of the year when the romantic aspect of her life was clearly defined. At university she had received embroidered love hearts and stuffed toys, and Stephen had lavished her office cubicle with flowers each year they were together, but she had spent the past few Valentine’s Days smiling politely as her girlfriends flaunted their gifts and flowers. And Paul would of course ask her out, but it was also the day of the year his intentions were clearly defined. There could be no public announcement of his interest in her at work. That would not be appropriate in his opinion, and not desired either, Kate reminded herself as she moved her paint tray and step ladder over to the next wall.

The one item of furniture Kate’s mother had withheld from charity after Bobby’s mother had passed away was the washing machine. Bobby would have had to buy one, and the machine sitting there was almost new.

Kate wriggled it away from the wall far enough that she could paint behind it. She needed a wrench to undo the hoses from the taps, and she went out and found one in Bobby’s toolbox in the garage. Once she had the hoses off, she got in behind the machine with a dustpan and broom. She was cleaning the cobwebs and noticed a rectangular section that had been cut out of the wall, with a small round knob attached to it that was obviously a handle. She took hold of the knob and wriggled the panel until it came free.

Kate had to lean right in behind the washing machine to see what was inside the wall. She wasn’t about to blindly stick her hand in there. She edged in and had a look. There was a small compartment that extended underneath the staircase in the adjoining room, but it appeared to be sealed from the broom closet that had been built there. Inside she could see a small, round biscuit tin with a rusted picture of a country cottage, and sitting on top was a silver crucifix. She removed her rubber gloves and reached in to lift it out. The crucifix was heavy. It may have been solid silver. She put it aside and tried to lift the lid of the biscuit tin, but it was sealed firmly and wouldn’t budge.

Kate took it into the kitchen and set about jimmying with a butter knife. She managed to get the blade beneath the lid, but it seemed it had been glued in place. She worked around the edge and gradually prized the lid loose. She peeled it off and found photographs. There were perhaps twenty of them. She recognized the man in many of them to be Bobby’s father. She had seen his picture on microfilm in Goran Vale library for the first time, as Bobby didn’t have any photographs of his parents. Bobby was also in many of the photographs. There were school photos and some that appeared to be him as a small child and as a baby, and some included his father, but others were cut. There were some that appeared to be family snaps but with the image of his mother cut out of them. Parts of her body were visible, but her face had been cut away. There was also a folded piece of paper, brown with age and somewhat greasy in texture. The writing was loopy and extravagantly crafted, and it was neatly aligned, though faded to almost blend into the aged paper. There was no title, but it appeared to be a recipe for some sort of onion pie, and at the bottom in brackets was a note to save the onion skins for Aunt Agatha’s hair colouring.

Kate sorted a range of Bobby’s childhood photos and packed the rest back into the biscuit tin. She placed it back in the wall and resumed painting. She remembered her mother saying she had found only a few photographs of Bobby’s mother in the house and that she would keep them until Bobby asked about them. Kate decided it would be best to consult with her mother about the photos of his father as well.

She finished painting the laundry by five then spent a half hour soaking in the luxurious depth of an old porcelain bath tub. Ben had suggested pants or a non-restrictive skirt and flat soled shoes for dancing. She had wondered what he meant by non-restrictive, but he had blushed as he said it, so she didn’t press for more information. She imagined having to do the splits or something acrobatic like that and hoped she was very wrong. She settled on a knee-length, flowing skirt and sandals with only an inch of heel.

Ben arrived before six, and she called out to Bobby to show him the gym or something for a few minutes. They were still in the garage when she was ready. She found her date dressed in faded Levis jeans that fitted well and a plain, green, v-neck t-shirt that accentuated his broad shoulders. He met her with a light smile and a quick down and up flash of his eyes that made her wish for an abstract instant he was her Valentine’s Day guy.

“Are we ready?” he asked, when Kate was expecting a compliment of some sort.

“Should we take my car?” she replied, remembering the little, old, faded thing he was washing the other day.

“Um, no! Do you have a scarf, though? It’s a nice evening, and I’ve got the top down.”

Kate was led to a glistening silver Mercedes that looked immaculate, although it was obviously an older model. “Huh! Are you on the take or something?”

Ben laughed. “No. This was my dad’s baby, a going away present. It’s a nice comfortable ride, but what about your hair? Should I put the top up?”

Kate had a hair band in her purse. “This will do. Just get me the hell out of here, please?”

Kate felt at home. The car was smooth and silent, and the feel of the soft leather seat was a luxury that turned the ramshackle buildings of Goran Vale and the rocks and trees and grass into a B-grade documentary that would be over soon. She perused Ben’s CD collection, and what she found was not too bad, she thought. It was mostly classic rock with a few compilations of movie themes that looked a bit mushy. She went with David Bowie.

“You like Bowie?” Ben asked. It was the first thing he said since they had begun driving, and it interrupted a silence Kate had been quite comfortable with.

She nodded and smiled her response and got to thinking about how at ease she suddenly felt. It was as if she had known Ben for years. There was an absence of the excitement and anticipation she would normally experience with a new man. Even when she would sense him looking at her, which was often, she felt quite relaxed and confident. It was as if she didn’t care what he thought of her slightly knobby knees or the tiny bump on her nose. She usually shriveled inwardly at the thought of a new man noticing her imperfections, but she hadn’t felt that.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t really see him as boyfriend material, she thought. Well, yes, he is… I mean, he looks good and seems like a really nice guy, but he’s definitely a football dad.

“You’re not too cold?” Ben asked. The air had thinned as they skirted the bluff, and Kate did feel it a little. He reached in the back and produced a worn leather jacket. “It will warm up again when we get down to the expressway.”

Kate slipped into the jacket. It was like being cuddled, the warmth and feeling of security it gave her. She felt herself blush and wondered what that was about. Then she sensed Ben looking at her face, and she did think of the bump on her nose that time.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You seem quiet.”

“I’m okay. I’m just enjoying the drive.”

“You’re not nervous about dancing? We could skip it and just have dinner.”

“Oh, no, I want to dance. I’ve never tried it before, but I usually pick things like that up pretty quickly. I’ve seen it on TV.”

“Well, what you see on TV is high level competition, so it might not be quite that glamorous, but we should have some fun.”

Kate nodded. She didn’t feel like talking. Actually, she didn’t feel like joking around, and that didn’t leave much scope for her usual small talk. She found herself stealing glances at Ben. He had kept his distance all throughout the previous evening, and she wasn’t used to that. Again she noticed his chin. She had never taken much notice of men’s chins until she met Paul. It had become quite important that a man had a strong chin. Ben’s was strong. It was slightly pronounced and had a small dimple. She wondered how it would feel to be kissed by him.

“So, what’s your usual dance partner going to say?” she asked, suddenly wondering about the female competition.

“Well, I just help out and don’t have a regular partner, but I phoned the instructor and told her I’d be bringing a lady, so she will have organized another guy to fill in for me. I asked her if we could do waltz tonight too, and she said okay.”

“So, why don’t you have a regular partner?”

“Why? I don’t know. It’s good being a single guy at a dance.”

“Most single guys at the club just stand around watching.”

“Well, I’m guessing you’d be good to watch,” Ben said, offering the slightest glance and smile.

“Hmm, bad boy! Maybe after you show me your dancing I might feel inclined to show you mine, I might!”

Ben chuckled and blushed a little. “That gives me something to dream about.”

“Or a reason to come into the city sometime,” Kate ventured. “You could use my phone number if you were coming in.”

“I’ll do that,” he replied with a flash of his eyes and a steady grin. “Are you hungry? It’ll be nine o’clock before we get to a restaurant.”

“I am, a little.”

“There’s a roadhouse coming up with the best steak sandwiches. Sound okay?”

When they reached the roadhouse, Kate settled for coffee and a doughnut and found herself staring across the table at Ben as he ate. She noticed his prominent Adam’s apple and the tiny hairs at the back of his neck. She liked the mellow warmth of his voice and the sincerity in his laugh. As she sat staring at him, there was something tingling through her being, heating her face and centering in her belly.

Ben was watching something through the window and paying her no attention. His gaze was set, his jaw firm. Out in the car park a couple were arguing, with the man standing over the woman. Ben excused himself and walked outside. He didn’t approach, but he stood quite deliberately watching, and the man looked over a few times. There were children crying in the back seat of the car, and the woman was sobbing. The man looked over again, and Ben’s head lifted. He said something that Kate couldn’t hear, and the woman spoke. It seemed she was assuring Ben she was okay. The man moved around to the far side of his car, and the woman leaned in to settle the children. Ben walked half way across the driveway and stood there until the couple got in their car and drove off.

He apologized when he came back to the table. “Sorry. It’s hard to be off duty sometimes.”

Kate offered a smile. Then she cuddled herself in the man’s leather jacket and sat watching him finish his meal.

From the roadhouse it was a smooth half hour ride to the edge of the city and a school assembly hall with a broad polished floor and a troop of would-be dancers. Kate was pleased to be accompanied by others struggling to learn the steps. The lesson began with men lined up together and women lined up opposite. There was no touching. It was just a matter of following the steps to learn the pattern of movement. One two three, one two three. It was quite simple really, and Kate was soon walking through the eighteen step routine that zigzagged along the wall.

When it was time to take partners, that silly tingle in her belly returned. Her eye level was in line with that damned dimply chin, and Ben’s hand closed over hers as another big, warm paw pressed against her back. And she forgot the steps immediately.

“Are you ready?” he asked as the music started.

“Ah huh,” was all Kate could offer in reply, and the hand upon her back firmed, and she was drawn close to that powerful frame. She completely surrendered as control of her body was taken from her. And she was rising and falling to the music and being swept along in a dizzy haze that took her breath away.

“Are you okay?” Ben asked softly. He seemed to be there in the cloud with her.

“Ah huh,” Kate uttered again.

“You’re doing very well.”

Kate wasn’t game to look at Ben’s face. She clung to one rippling shoulder and stared at the other one. The force of his body was against her hip, and his powerful thigh was driving between her legs and lifting her. The heat of his groin against hers was something completely unexpected, and it was wonderful.

An hour passed in an instant, and Kate swayed against Ben’s chair while he changed his dance shoes for the boots he had worn earlier. His hand returned to her back as he guided her from the hall to his car. He opened the door for her, and she turned to him and placed her arms around his shoulders. He met her lips softly at first, but his passion was soon crushing her to his body, and she moaned into his mouth. He drew back and touched her cheek, caressing her face, and his hand moved to the back of her neck as he bent to her again.

Kate was on her toes, or perhaps her feet had left the ground. She wasn’t sure. The hand upon her back had slipped beneath her top, and she could feel its coarseness against her skin. The heat from his kiss was swirling in her head, and she clung to his hair as he mauled her neck. She was pinned against the car, his manhood rigid against her belly as he lifted again and kissed her open mouth.

“Is there a motel?” Kate asked, with her words ending as Ben’s lips met hers, only that time he seemed a little restrained.

He smoothed hair from her face and delved into her eyes. He kissed her again, softly. “I’m a little out of practice.”

“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.” Kate held the man’s eyes. They wavered but quickly regained their intensity.

He kissed her again, deeply and with more tenderness and control that time. Kate responded, though she suddenly felt unsure, and her confusion was leading her beyond the heat of the moment. She wanted to know what he was thinking. He lifted and took to fiddling with her hair at her shoulder. He seemed to be struggling with something, and she waited.

After a long moment of silence, in which passion almost audibly faded, Ben looked up with a light, disarming smile. “I haven’t made love to a woman since Sylvia.”

Kate understood the significance of that statement immediately. She recoiled inwardly. “Love? Who said anything about making love, cowboy?”

His smile broadened with a hint of resignation. “Yeah, I know. Lame, huh?”

She had begun fiddling with the front of his shirt. The thought of the housewives of Goran Vale flashed to mind. “No, it’s actually quite sweet, but it’s not very realistic.”

He lifted her chin and smoothed hair from her face. He kissed her again, softly yet confidently. “Oh, it’s realistic. It’s just too soon for a word like that.”

He wasn’t reading her at all.

“We should go. It’s getting late, and I have jobs tomorrow before I leave.” Kate got in the car and closed the door. Ben stood for a moment then walked around and got in the other side. “Can we skip the restaurant and stop at that roadhouse again?” she asked.

He nodded and drove off. It was a good fifteen minutes before he spoke. “I’m sorry, Kate. I didn’t mean to spook you.”

“Well, you did spook me, cowboy—going on about love after five minutes.”

Ben smiled. “I know. I can usually go a good ten minutes before bringing that up too. It’s a form of premature ejaculation.”

Kate laughed. “Speaking of—that! You know what we could have been doing right now if you weren’t such a sap, don’t you?”

“I know. Damn it. I think there’s a motel just up ahead, though.”

“Nope. Too late. Moment’s passed, and all I want is a steak sandwich now.”

The moment had passed, but Kate wasn’t sure it couldn’t be reignited. She was relieved that Ben had been prepared to laugh at himself. He seemed a bit of a romantic but possibly not a hopeless one. The idea of anything more than a brief, passionate encounter was not where she wanted to go, but she decided if he tried to kiss her again it would be okay.

She reached into the back seat and took the leather jacket. She cuddled into it, protected from the slight chill the night air carried. On the expressway the only light was from the dash, and she settled back facing Ben and studied his face as he drove. She could still feel his body pressed against hers and could still taste his lips. She could feel the power in his arms as he crushed her, and she touched her belly, stirring a little within as she remembered the feel of his rather prominent erection.

They stopped at the roadhouse for a steak sandwich and coffee, and when they returned to the car, Kate waited for him to open her door. She stood hugging herself in the leather jacket and deliberately bit her lower lip as he looked down at her. He moved close and took hold of her, and she lifted her head and offered her lips.

His first kiss was deep and searching, and Kate mmm’d softly into his mouth. His body was inside the jacket with hers, and as he kissed her again, she felt his erection lift between them. She instinctively reached for it, and as she cupped it he groaned low and thrust against her. His right hand had been in her hair, but it smoothed over her face, and as he continued to kiss her passionately, he groped her breast and sent a warm flood of tingles scampering all through her body, instantly weakening her knees.

Kate melted back into the passenger seat, pulling Ben in as well. He was suspended awkwardly above her, but he continued kissing her and feeling her breasts.

“Over there,” she uttered breathlessly. “Drive over there.”

Ben crawled over the top of her and quickly maneuvered the car into a dark corner behind a parked truck. Before he had turned off the engine, Kate pounced on him. She kissed him wildly and groped his crotch, tearing at the buttons. She freed his erection as her bra was hiked up, his mouth closing over a breast. She clung to his head as his body surged over the console, and suddenly he was sitting in the passenger seat, and she was spread over his lap. He thrust hard up under her with his erection grinding into her crotch. She gripped it, and stretching the fabric of her underwear aside, guided his next thrust into her body. She crushed his head to her chest and ground herself against his powerful surges. One of her breasts was being mauled, and the other was being groped, and the core of her sex was being serviced with deep, penetrating thrusts. Her orgasm built quickly and exploded through her body as Ben surged beneath her and held firm.

More coming soon…

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