Remains of a Local Girl: Part 4

beauty-3d

Aussie cold case murder mystery. Steamy romance.

 

Chapter 15

 

Bobby lay staring at the ceiling. The figure in the doorway beckoned. She had no face. She was a white, shimmering light full of sadness. He wanted to go with her. His fear had subsided, his heart aching with the pain she was feeling. He lifted his head. It was so heavy. He moved his leg and lifted his back. He sat for a moment looking at the floor. She moved closer. She wanted him to hurry, but he was so tired. He could barely lift his shoulders, and when he did she moved back to the door.

He remembered leaving the light on, but behind her was only darkness. He tried to stand but fell to his knees. She was leaving, and he crawled after her. He reached the door frame and lifted his body against it. She was at the bottom of the stairs waiting for him. He took a step. It was easier that time. He willed himself to follow, and he was moving freely, the weight of his body fading. He reached the front door and saw her at the road, and suddenly he was there, but she was gone. He searched into the distance. The forest was black, but he could see the trees. They frightened him. Their arms were long and angry. They were lashing out with spiny, black hands. She was there amongst them. She was crying and calling to him, but the trees hated him. “I can’t—I can’t help you,” Bobby cried out. She was fading, and he was dying inside.

Bobby sat up in bed. “It’s okay, it’s okay. It was just a nightmare.” Kate was there. She stroked his face. “It was just a bad dream. It’s okay.”

“Katie, the forest was alive, and it hated me!”

“It’s okay, sweetie. It wasn’t real.”

Bobby thought of the light girl. She was a secret. He knew she was a secret. “It was just the trees, Katie. They were trying to get me.”

“I know.  I have dreams like that too.” Kate soothed his brow as he lay back down. “They’re just scary monster dreams.”

“I know, Katie. I’m okay. What time is it?”

“It’s only midnight. Go back to sleep.”

“What happened to you?” Bobby asked. “Your hair is all mussed up.”

“Oh, that’s nothing. It was windy in the car.”

“But what happened to your face? It’s all red, Katie.”

“What? I don’t know, nothing. Just go back to sleep.”

 

Chapter 16

 

Kate left Bobby and checked in her mirror. Her hair was a tangled mess, and her chin was reddened with a pending bruise. Her breasts were sore from being mauled, and her neck was blotchy. Her skin was sticky with a new man’s scent. She flopped back on her bed and cuddled herself in the leather jacket she was still wearing. Internally she was still simmering, and in her dream that night she was a hick town bride, happily married and shelling peas.

Kate had no recollection of having dreamed anything when she woke the next morning. She found herself dancing around the house with a broom for a partner. She never got to the painting she had planned to do. She had woken late and spent an hour in the bath. By the time she had tidied up after breakfast it was eleven, and she packed her car and followed the directions to the farm where Bobby worked.

The farmer was a weathered little man with grey overalls and a dusty hat. He was a dwarf beside Bobby, who he had sorting peaches into boxes ready for shipment to market. Beneath the farmer’s hat was a kindly face with a welcoming grin. Kate was invited for tea and spent half an hour chatting with a plump, silver-haired woman who blinked as she spoke. Both the farmer and his wife promised to keep an eye on Bobby.

“He’s a wonderful young fellow,” the woman enthused. “So polite and such lovely manner. He reminds me of Ronny, doesn’t he, Neil? Ronny’s our youngest. He’s down in Sydney with a family of his own nowadays.”

Kate couldn’t believe her luck as she drove out of Goran Vale. She had been worried for months about Bobby’s move and couldn’t have hoped for a better situation to leave him with. She got to thinking of her plans as she skirted the bluff and wound her way down to the expressway. She was to pick up Leanne, and together they were taking a flight up the coast to Surfers Paradise. She had brochures of the hotel that showed the ocean view from the balcony. Everything was booked and organized, including dinner cruises and stage shows.

Kate thought of Ben as she passed the roadhouse. She remembered his kiss and the feel of his hands all over her body. She had promised to return for another visit at the end of her holiday, and he had promised to come into the city often to visit her. He also promised to call in a few days to say hello and report on Bobby, and Kate hoped he would. She suddenly found herself a little conflicted over the prospect of the next few weeks on the loose in Surfers Paradise with her best friend versus the idea of just doing a u-turn.

Well, as long as he does call, she concluded, and she shook off the thought of going back and sitting on his doorstep.

There was traffic through the inner-city suburbs. Kate found her friend waiting, and they hurried to the airport, checked Kate’s car into long-term parking, and arrived at the terminal just as their flight was boarding.

“So, what’s with the gravel rash?” Leanne asked. The plane had taken off and they were on their way.

“Oh, that.” Kate checked her reflection in the window. The graze on her chin was quite pronounced. “I had a run in with the local law enforcement. Hey you’d like him, Lea. He’s a real romantic, all soppy and sappy. I had to tell him to cut it out.”

“Oh, you did? He doesn’t appear to have listened.”

“No, I know. Have you got anything in here? I’ll have to get some cream or something.”

“There’s some antiseptic cream in there somewhere. It’s not too bad, though.”

Kate rifled through Leanne’s handbag. She found a tube of all-purpose ointment. “He was cute, anyway. He took me waltzing.”

“Waltzing? You can’t waltz.”

“Can now. Although I didn’t have to do much, just hang on.”

Leanne eyed her friend curiously. “So, he’s a cop?”

“Yep! A hick town copper.”

“And he can dance, and he’s obviously a passionate kind of guy, judging by the look of your mug. What else?”

“I don’t know, he’s excitable!”

“Excitable? You didn’t, did you? God, Kate! You’ve only been gone a few days.”

“Five days! Thank you very much. And it wasn’t on the first date.”

Leanne edged around in her seat. She was squeezing Kate’s hand. “So?”

“What?” Kate asked, feigning innocence.

“You know, details?”

“Well, we were dancing, waltzing! Which is, um, kind of sexy.”

“Sexy? How, for godssake?”

“Well, you know, you kind of get cuddled, and his thingy’s right there rubbing against you, and his leg’s kind of in between yours. You’ve got to try it, Lea. It’s more fun than it looks.”

“And then? After the dancing, what happened?”

“Oh, he’s got a Mercedes by the way, a convertible, and when we got back to it, he forced himself on me. What can I say?”

“What, you did it right there?”

“No! Jesus, Lea!”

“Well, come on, Kate. Feed me. I’m starving!”

“Hey, get this. Do you know what he said? He said, like, after I said we should get a room, he said he wanted to make love to me.”

“Yeah. Duh!”

“No, he meant he didn’t want to have sex, that he would rather wait and make love.”

“To you? Hahaha,” Leanne giggled.

“Yes, to me! It was really sweet.”

Leanne shook her head incredulously. “And he’s got a Mercedes convertible, and he can waltz?”

“Ah huh.”

“And you’re here, why? Is he married?”

“No.”

“Is he fat and ugly?”

“No. He’s gorgeous.”

“But he’s old, right? How old, fifty?”

“No, he’s not old. He’s about our age, maybe thirty. I didn’t ask.”

“So, why weren’t you raving about him as soon as you got out of the car? What’s the problem?”

“There’s no problem. I’m going to see him again when we get back. It’s just that he’s, I don’t know, he’s from Hicksville! God, I was climbing the walls to get out of there.”

“Oh. A country boy. Now, there’s a real turn off.” Leanne was withholding her giggle.

“Shut up, bitch! What about that guy you were going out with until you found out he liked fishing? And you think I’m picky.”

“Yeah, but it was on his hands, and it stank. And I hate fishy smells!”

There was a light snack of cake and tea served, and by the time the girls had finished eating, the plane was descending into the Gold Coast. They cleared the baggage claim quickly and stepped from the airport terminal into a sultry afternoon and a waiting taxi. Kate was cramped and in need of some exercise by the time they reached their hotel. After checking in and tossing her bags, she went straight down to the gym and had a light workout. She walked back into the hotel room to find Leanne hovering over a bunch of red roses. “I didn’t look,” she said excitedly, handing Kate the card.

“Are they for me?” Kate opened the card. It was a thank you from Ben for a lovely evening. It was signed with a kiss.

“Are they from the country boy?” Leanne asked, peering over Kate’s shoulder. “I’ll see if there’s a vase.”

Kate held the flowers to her nose. Her heart was fluttering a little, but she quickly brushed that off. For the past month she had been waiting in anticipation of her Gold Coast holiday and the opportunity to meet some new and exciting men. The last thing she needed was to be distracted by feelings for someone from a rundown little village in the hills.

 

Chapter 17

 

Ben took the expressway into the heart of Sydney. He had left Goran Vale at nine and missed the early rush hour traffic. He had taken his own car rather than a police vehicle so he would be able to stay and do some sightseeing. There was an attaché to deliver and some paperwork associated with it to complete, and he walked out of Police Headquarters free of any further commitments at two in the afternoon. It was only a short stroll down to Circular Quay, were he was soon wandering around gazing at the ferries lumbering into port and the water taxies zipping around between them. He bought some hot chips and attracted a gathering of seagulls that squabbled and screamed at each other over the rights to each half chip he tossed for them. There was a choir of school children singing, and he stood watching them for a while then meandered around to the Opera House where he sat staring up at the buildings around the foreshore, wondering which one Kate worked in.

Ben felt he had no illusions of what might develop between him and Kate. Sitting there in the dreamy haze of the afternoon, he remembered what she had pointed out so plainly, though. There was no point going back. His life at home had ended the instant Sylvia was killed. There was nothing there he had ever imagined without her. She was the meaning of that life, and without her, there would be no meaning.

Ben’s sister would be flying through Sydney later in the month, and he would be meeting her at the airport for lunch. She was his closest friend. He would wait to see her in person, but a decision had been taken. It was done.

Ben strode back toward the ferry terminal and decided he had time for a quick run across to the north side of the harbour. He had never been to Manly before, and after Kate had raved about it so much, decided he had to go have a look.

The ferry was waiting. He quickly bought his ticket and took an outdoor seat with the other tourists. The bulky old vessel slowly backed out of dock and cruised into the harbour with the deep sea swell regularly crashing into the bow and sending sheets of salty mist into the air. It was a twenty minute jaunt out through the heads and around to Manly cove, where the ocean settled and the ferry lumbered steadily along past the yacht clubs and towering apartment buildings. Stepping from the wharf, Ben walked into a party atmosphere, very different from the almost sleepy nonchalance of the mid-afternoon sightseers at the quay. The street was crowded with tiny boutiques overflowing with racks of clothing and sizzling eateries with tables and chairs spilling out onto the walkway.

Ben stopped by the window of a real estate agent to check the price of apartments, reminding himself again that his thinking was purely hypothetical. He looked at the first advertisement: Absolute waterfront at only 2.8 million. He scanned the other dozen or so apartments displayed and found that to be the cheapest by far. He had about fifty thousand equity in his house and close to twenty in savings. Maybe timeshare, he reasoned, realizing he would never have a hope of outright ownership of anything in that window.

He strolled along to the beach and sat for a while looking out at the horizon. He was eighteen years old the first time he had seen the ocean, and it gave him the same comforting sense of insignificance he felt when gazing out from the veranda at home.

He lost an hour staring at the waves, and by the time he got back to his car, the traffic had crawled out of the gutters and filled the narrow city streets.

 

Chapter 18

 

Kate checked her hair once again. She had decided to take a few inches off and have it curled at her shoulders. She liked it. She left her new dress on the bed and returned to where Leanne was reading on the balcony. She poured a fresh glass of wine and stood gazing out at the ocean for a while.

“So, how tall is he?” Leanne asked suddenly.

“How tall is who?”

“You know who.”

“You mean Tex? I don’t know, about six foot. And I wasn’t thinking about him.”

“No? So, how come you moved the flowers into your room? And right next to your bed. You’ve been thinking about him.”

“Well, it’s so dull in there,” Kate argued, but her friend had a knowing smile.

“Dull, huh? And what colour are his eyes?”

“God, they’re so intense, Lea. They’re kind of green, but you can’t look at them because he just sort of digs right into you with them.”

“Digs, huh? Don’t you like being dug into? I do.”

“Ha! Now who’s the tart?”

Leanne closed her book. “So, why don’t you call him and say thanks for the flowers? I bet he’s waiting.”

“Because I don’t like shelling peas.”

“Peas? What are you going on about?”

“Nothing. But tonight I’m going to meet a nice, non-dickhead, rich, gorgeous hunk of a man, and I’m not settling for anything less.”

“Rich, hey? Are we still on about that?”

“No, we’re not on about it. But it would be nicer than not rich.”

“Not usually, if you asked me. The nice ones usually have to spend their beer budget if they want to buy you flowers. Especially a dozen long stems, from interstate and delivered to your hotel room.”

“Hmm. Sounds like someone’s impressed! You can have them in your room tonight if you like. We can share.”

Leanne smiled confidently. “No, thanks. I’ll have some of my own by the weekend.”

“Really? But you’re not allowed to buy them yourself.”

“No. They’ll be sent with a sweet little card, just like yours were. I’m very confident.”

“Are you going to sleep with him? That’ll work.”

They had spent their first night at a dance-club, and Leanne had met a guy.

“No, I’m not going to sleep with him, I don’t think… actually, I might, but only because we’re on holidays.”

Kate laughed. “Oh, it’s different on holidays is it? Sounds like a double standard to me.”

“Well, he’s leaving on Sunday, and I won’t be able to see him again until we get home. Otherwise I’d make him wait. You know I would.”

“So, how is that any different from me doing it with Ben? I was on holidays and only there for a few days. Isn’t that exactly the same thing?”

“Oh, it’s Ben now, is it? Is Tex making progress?”

“Shut up! He made plenty of progress, but that’s as far as he’s going. I’m not ending up a housewife in suburbia, or Hicksville for chrissakes.”

“A housewife, hey? He has made some progress.”

“Fuck off, Lea. You really piss me off sometimes.”

“Hey, I’m only teasing.”

“Yeah, well, stop it now, okay?”

Kate was suddenly choking up and getting teary. Leanne approached and stroked her hair. “What’s the matter, sweetie?”

“I don’t know, nothing.”

There were times when a wave of emptiness would strike Kate from nowhere. She had felt it as she stood gazing out at the ocean a few minutes earlier, and the conversation temporarily warded it off, but it suddenly swamped her.

She sniffled and felt her strength returning. She smiled at Leanne. “I’m okay. This has been going on for months. Every now and then I just—uggh! It’s awful.”

“Don’t we all,” Leanne consoled. “I think we’re starting to grow out of this crap, don’t you?”

“Well, we’re not growing out of it yet. We’ve booked three weeks, and I’m making the most of it.” After the wave washed over Kate she always felt defiant and more determined than ever. “Come on. I want to try on my new dress.”

Two hours were spent in preparation, and emerging from the elevator that evening, Kate was tingling all over with anticipation. They had booked a table in one of the hotel restaurants, and they ate and chatted, mostly about the man Leanne had met the night before. He would be meeting them in the piano bar after dinner.

“There’s nothing wrong with driving a fork-lift,” Leanne argued at one point. “If it wasn’t for fork-lift drivers the pallets would never be put on the trucks, and the trucks would never get to the shops, and we would all be walking around naked and starving. So, he’s actually saving society, when you think about it.”

“Hmm. Well, I think you’re stretching it a bit there, but you seem pretty happy with him, it’s good.”

The atmosphere of the piano bar was thick, sensual luxury carved in mahogany and trimmed with chrome. The piano music itself filled the air with subtle romance. The lounges were deep soft leather, and the heavily tinted plate-glass set the lights of the esplanade back one dimension and captured a hint of moonlight riding silent waves.

Leanne’s new friend, Simon, was waiting and stood rubbing his palms on his trousers. His smile was broad, and his eyes were set upon Leanne. Kate immediately liked him. His wore faded black jeans, and had on a charcoal sports coat over a white, v-neck t-shirt. He looked outclassed amongst the leather and mahogany, but when he took Leanne into his arms, Kate felt very alone. She accepted his handshake and enthusiastic greeting. She leaned to him and offered her cheek, and when his lips brushed she thought of Ben and wished for an instant he was there.

Simon had an easy laugh. He blushed a lot and clung to Leanne’s hand. He asked Kate about herself, and she found no need to embellish the bland truth of her situation. “I live alone. I haven’t got a boyfriend, and I hate my job. Leanne thinks I’m a tart, but I’m really just a gold digger and a bitch.”

Simon chuckled. “All that, hey? Haha.”

“And then some,” Kate went on, giggling. “But you still love me, don’t you, Lea?”

There was a small dance floor where several couples could be seen swaying together. Kate was eventually left alone, and she watched Leanne’s face, as alive as she had ever seen it, as she cuddled to her new man’s shoulder.

Most of the lounges were occupied, but the bar was quite sparse. Kate had noticed several men obviously unaccompanied. There was one with curly, red hair at an adjacent party who was continually looking over, but she had been avoiding his eyes because she didn’t like the way he spoke over the top of his friends. There was another man regularly looking over from the bar, and although his suit was immaculate and obviously Italian, she didn’t like the way he was checking out every woman that walked by.

At the far end of the bar was a man in a dark suit whom Kate had noticed chatting with the barman whenever he wasn’t busy. His face was chiseled perfection, and his smile flashed. His eyes were dark, and Kate had met them several times but quickly looked away. She had been caught staring, she admitted to herself, and summoning up some courage, she decided to go sit at the bar and see whether he would acknowledge her. She didn’t look at him as she approached, although she could feel his eyes. She took a seat on a stool four places along and asked the barman for champagne. She glanced and smiled. The man was looking at her.

“I saw you working out the other day. Impressive,” he started casually.

“Thanks. It had been weeks, and I really needed it.”

He stood and approached, taking another stool but still leaving one vacant between them. “You know, you inspired my wife. She was the dark-haired lady, kind of tall. I don’t know if you noticed her. After watching you she has really stepped it up.”

“Oh, I think we said hi. Umm, Jas, wasn’t it?” Kate was laughing at herself. Go on, pick the married one. He’s probably the only married guy in the whole place.

“Yes. Jasmine.” The guy checked his watch. “Oh, here she is now.”

Kate forced a smile and said hello. The woman slipped into her husband’s arms, and Kate hoped her eyes didn’t roll too obviously as she turned back to the bar. The guy introduced himself, and Kate collected her drink and bade them goodbye. She slumped back into her lounge, temporarily defeated.

Leanne returned with her fork-lift driver, and the night went on without reaching any great heights for Kate. The red-haired guy approached and introduced himself at one point. He seemed pleasant enough at the time, and Kate danced with him, but she didn’t like the feel of his soft, clingy hands, and she politely declined the drink he offered afterward.

It was eleven when Leanne’s fork-lift guy took her for a walk on the beach, and Kate returned to her room and flopped on her bed. She lay for a while staring at the ceiling, and her gaze settled on the roses on the nightstand. She mulled it over for a while and finally grabbed her purse and found the piece of paper with Ben’s number. She got as far as typing the number in her phone before changing her mind. It was eleven-thirty on a work night, and he would probably be asleep, she reasoned, although she didn’t quite know what she wanted to say to him, anyway. She could see a tiny Leanne sitting on the nightstand saying ‘just call and say thanks for the flowers, he won’t mind if you wake him up’.

Well, he might not mind, but how desperate would I seem if I called him at midnight? I’ll call him tomorrow, she reasoned with herself. I’ll call at lunchtime and just ask how Bobby’s going or something.

The next morning Kate jogged on the beach and spent an hour in the gym. Leanne was just waking when she got back to the room, and after a fruit salad breakfast, they went to sunbathe at the beach. The plan for the evening was a dinner cruise, to which Leanne had invited her new boyfriend. Kate was not interested in hunting for a guy amongst a crowd of drunken louts on a boat, so she was pleased to receive a call from her friend Paul. He was to be arriving that afternoon and would do fine for a dinner date, she decided.

She had been thinking all morning about calling Ben. She mentioned it to Leanne, expecting her to be excited and supportive.

“You can’t,” Leanne said simply. “It’s too late to thank him for the flowers. You had to do that immediately, two days later, you’d have to apologize, and that would sound like you weren’t interested. Now you’ll have to let him assume you loved them and wait for him to mention it, and then you’ll have to gush to make up for it!”

Kate was out of her element, and she trusted Leanne entirely. “So, I should wait for him to call me?”

“It depends how you feel, sweetie, and what you want. If you want him then get on the phone right now, but if you’re not sure and you want to think about it, it wouldn’t hurt to make him wait and see.”

“Well, I’m not sure what I want.” Kate poked at the sand. “I think I’m just feeling lonely because you’ve got a boyfriend all of a sudden.”

“Yes, I have, haven’t I?” Leanne rolled over and glowed. “What did you think? He’s cute, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he’s cute. So, what happened last night? Did you do it?”

“No! He can wait a bit longer.”

“Yeah, but can you? I saw the look on your face when you were dancing. I don’t think you’d put up much resistance if he started dragging you toward the bedroom.”

“Maybe, but last night was perfect. We just walked and talked. It was getting light when he took me home. And God can he kiss.”

“Ben can kiss too,” Kate blurted out, embarrassing herself a little at how teenage she sounded.

Her friend adopted her knowing smile, and her eyebrows lifted, which usually meant, ‘well, there you have it’.

“You know, if he is really that keen he should find an excuse to call you pretty soon, I mean, flowers are wonderful, but they’re also kind of, you know, low risk. When getting up the courage to make a phone call, you really have to put yourself out there, don’t you? And hey, that’s a guy’s job!”

“Oh?” Kate was confused. “So, what happened to calling him right now if I know I want him?”

“I don’t know, Kate. See, that’s what I’d do, but look at me. I’m better at scaring them off than you are. Maybe playing it cool is the way to go. I really don’t know.”

“Well, I think I’ll just wait and see what happens. I’m going to see him again in a few weeks, anyway, and if he calls before then—”

“If he calls before then you’ll gush over the flowers., right?”

“Oh right. Lots of gushing.”

Kate laid her head back down, and after a few minutes of silence Leanne spoke again. “I had a call from Stephen last night.” She seemed hesitant, and Kate turned to meet her eyes. Leanne took a breath and continued tentatively. “They’re going to have a baby.”

Kate spun around. “Andrea’s pregnant?”

For the past two years she had been steeling herself for the inevitable, but the thought of another woman giving Stephen a child struck deeply and all at once, painfully.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know whether to say anything.”

“It’s okay,” Kate offered, pulling on a defensive pretense. “I’m over him now. You know that.”

Leanne squeezed her hand. “My brother is an arsehole. A little bit of me hates him.”

Kate sniffled. There was a knot in her throat, and she couldn’t quite hold back her tears as her pretense quickly surrendered. “I pushed him away, Lea. You can’t hate him.”

“He should have held on to you.” She offered a tissue from her beach bag. She always seemed to come prepared with ointments or tissues or headache tablets or the like. “But you’re better off without him, anyway. What you need is a real man, not a shallow, prissy little daddy’s boy like my brother.” She was giggling, and Kate giggled too, a little painfully.

Like the sudden bursts of emptiness she had been feeling of late, the pain from that little stab in the heart quickly abated. “I’d been waiting for that to happen, anyway, Lea. And it’s actually wonderful news for Andrea. She’s been going on about having babies since school, hasn’t she?”

Leanne stroked Kate’s hair from her face. “She has, but are you sure you’re okay?”

“And now she’s going to get fat,” Kate went on, sniffling and half giggling at the same time. “And then she’ll have stretch marks.”

“Big ugly ones,” Leanne agreed, and Kate giggled outright, but that only aggravated the ache in her heart, and she started crying.

Her tears flowed, and she leaned into her friend’s arms and remembered all the phone calls, all the ridiculous ideas she had suffered through when Stephen had been innocently detained with his business meetings. She had driven him away with her insecurity, and in hindsight she could see that blatantly. He had loved her, and he had been completely faithful to her and to their plans to marry, and she had sat home at night and agonized over the picture of him laughing and flirting with every woman she had met through his work functions. She had obsessed over his fidelity until he had finally surrendered and given her what she seemed to want.

“You really mustn’t hate him, Lea. Not for me.”

 

Chapter 19

 

Ben handed over a letter formally declining the offer of a transfer back home. His sergeant accepted it and shook his hand. “Good move, son. Glad you’ve decided to stay.”

Ben left the station house with that done, and after changing out of his uniform, called into the pub to celebrate. He found his good friend Phil Green having a quiet beer, and after a second round they decided to play some pool.

Phil’s world consisted of his furniture restoration business, his wife and his four children. Ben had enough carpentry skills to hold a conversation about furniture restoration, and had Phil working on an antique dresser he had picked up at a farm clearing sale. They chatted about it and their conversation touched on Phil’s sister, who was apparently looking forward to seeing Ben at the wedding.

“Sure we talk. She can’t wait to get hold of you, buddy.”

“Yeah, well, it’ll be good to see her again.”

“Jeez, mate, a bit of enthusiasm! I’ll tell her we were talking about her, and you couldn’t stop yawning, will I?”

“No, it’s not that. I’ve actually been thinking about someone else.”

Phil lined up a shot on the pink ball. “You mean that cute little dark-haired piece? What’s her name, Kate?”

“Yeah, Kate. How’d you know?”

“The missus told me. The women were talking about you at the P&C last night.” Phil slapped Ben’s back and jostled him with a playful shove. “So, did ya score? She looks hot.”

“I did okay, but it’s more than that.”

“So, you did score! See, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Got it wet on the first date! Proud of ya, buddy! And it’s serious, is it? She that good?”

Ben took his shot at the pink without responding, but he couldn’t contain his grin. And over another game of pool the two men compared their exploits with the opposite sex in general, with Ben recounting the five women he had dated since he had moved from home and Phil reminiscing about the numerous conquests he had made before he met his wife.

Phil had children to bath before dinner, though, and Ben left him at the front of the pub and strolled down to see how Bobby was getting on. He found the door open and recognized Alyssa’s laugh. She was clinging to Bobby’s arm when he came to the door.

“Hello, Alyssa… Bobby, how are you?”

“I’m good thanks, Officer McEwen. We’re playing cards. Wanna play?”

“No, Ben’s too busy,” Alyssa said with a smile.

“That’s right. I’ve got jobs to do, Bobby. How’s your job going? Do you like it?”

“It’s great, isn’t it, Alyssa? I’ve been driving the tractor, and today I learned how to prune.”

“That’s good. And is everything else going okay? I’m going to call Kate tonight. She’ll probably ask how you are.”

“I’m fine, Officer McEwen. I just miss Katie a little bit, but don’t say that to her because she’s on holidays, and she has to have fun.”

“Okay. I won’t say you’re missing her. And you enjoy that tractor, Bobby. I’ll watch for you when I’m driving by the farm. Alyssa—”

“Bye, Ben.”

Ben heard Alyssa squeal as he turned from the gate and headed back up the hill. He had noticed her plucking at her clothes, and he tried to imagine what they were up to. He decided it was none of his business and felt pleased that Alyssa had found something there in Goran Vale. He had plenty of respect for her dedication to her grandfather and parents and to her young brother and sister, and she was one of the few younger adults in town who held down a job.

He decided to call into the motel restaurant for dinner. He had been thinking of calling Kate all day, after putting it off the previous night, and he thought he would take a quiet hour to think about what he would say. He thought that two days was a long enough interval to report on how Bobby was going, so he at least had an excuse to call, but beyond that he wondered if it had been appropriate to send flowers. He didn’t want to intrude on her holiday, but she had been constantly on his mind, and he was anxious to hear her voice again.

He took a seat in a quiet corner and ordered his meal. He had placed his phone on the table, and after staring at it for a moment, swallowed the knot in his throat, selected her name in his contacts list and hit the green button. The phone rang for a long time, causing his chest to tighten and his throat to dry up. He was about to end the call when it answered.

“Hello. Kate’s phone. Paul Rissman speaking.”

“Err… Paul, it’s Ben McEwen. Is Kate there, please?” Ben’s heart sank.

“Sorry, she’s in the shower. That you, Tex?”

Ben expelled a breath. Who the hell is this clown, calling me that? He had taken it as a sign of affection when Kate had called him Tex, but that only held true if it was a private joke. He hadn’t responded, and Paul continued. His tone was boastful.

“She’s busy getting’ done up for me right now, but I could give her a message. Or I could ask her to give you a call in the morning.”

“Just let her know I called, please?” Ben hung up and sat with the picture of Paul Rissman waiting for Kate to come from the shower churning in his head. He had heard the shower running in the background, and the picture was vivid and unrelenting.

Who was I kidding, anyway? It was all there in the nickname Tex or cowboy. She’s a refined city girl with an exciting life, and I’m a hick town deputy, as she put it.

Ben admonished himself for allowing his overindulgent imagination to once again lift his expectations beyond reality, and his anger quickly turned to embarrassment at having sent flowers. He imagined the chinless guy reading the card and having a laugh to himself.

Why didn’t I take the hint that first morning when he had stayed over? I’m such an idiot sometimes!

Ben returned to the pub after dinner. He met up with Tom Lloyd and his brother Gus, and later in the night he joined a group of local men for a pool competition. The conversation was distracting, which is what he had been looking for. He had filed the idea of Kate Harrington in the to-learn-from section of his mind. He couldn’t be angry with her, as he understood he had no claim to her. He couldn’t even feel disappointed, as he was never appointed in the first place. She had made it perfectly clear she wasn’t interested in anything more than a casual romp, and he concluded that what he needed to learn from her was to listen to plain English.

All had been settled in his mind, but that didn’t prevent him from lying awake half the night haunted by the image of Paul Rissman sitting on a bed as Kate walked from the shower.

He woke late and spent the rest of the morning surfing the few dating sites he had entered a profile. He responded to one email from a Christian woman who seemed nice, and he sent another two emails to women who were nothing like Kate.

Ben owned a navy blue, double breasted suit. He had worn it to several weddings in the past five years, and it had otherwise sat in the back of his wardrobe. He dressed and went to work with a wet rag to remove the lint. At two-thirty he strolled up the hill to the church where a good portion of the town’s population were gathering.

The feelings a wedding inspired in Ben were mixed. He enjoyed the children, the way a weekday afternoon urchin would be presented in pressed trousers and polished shoes or a frilly dress and curled hair tied up in ribbons. He liked the way a wedding always seemed to bring couples together. There were couples Ben had only ever seen arguing or socially avoiding each other, whom he could see holding hands. He guessed a wedding would, at some level, take every married couple back to their own special day. A wedding was also a graphic reminder of Ben’s own loss, though. As he stood at the back of the church, alone, he remembered Sylvia. He remembered how beautiful she looked in the wedding gown her mother had sewn and the pride and nervous expectation he had felt waiting at the altar as she walked down the aisle.

After the ceremony it took quite a while for the Johnson clan to file past the bride and groom and offer their congratulations. Ben shuffled along with the group of distant acquaintances and had to check his invitation to remember the groom’s name. He ended up walking with Phil Green and his family as, after photographs were taken, the procession moved along to the old door factory.

Phil walked in front, between his wife and his sister Rebecca, while Ben tagged along with their seven-year-old daughter swinging off one hand and their five-year-old son swinging off the other. He caught Rebecca glancing back over her shoulder a few times and met her smile. She was wheeling a pram, which housed the newest addition to the family, while the two year old was smiling back over his mother’s shoulder.

The old door factory had been reclaimed by council, and the Country Women’s Association had set it up as a community hall. Only the bridal party had been allocated seats. The remainder of the seating was along trestles that filled half of the hall and left the other half open for dancing. There was a DJ setting up in one corner, and in another corner was a bar being tended by the round-bodied English publican, Arthur Briggs. Ben stopped to chat with him while the families got settled.

“I’ve got the bar, but that damned Bernadette Rayne has diddled me out of the catering,” Arthur was complaining. “She’s taken half my business at the pub and now this!”

Edna Simms had saved Ben a seat. He could actually see a spare place across from Rebecca Green as well, but Edna had gotten up to claim his arm, and she dragged him to where she was seated with her husband, Fred, and Margaret and Henry Worthington, and Edna’s niece Riana.

The seating arrangement left Ben a place between the men and opposite the women. He met Riana’s mild blush as they were introduced. She was wearing a delicate, peach-coloured frock that yielded to the milky-white skin of her neck and shoulders. Her light-blond hair merely cupped and accentuated her sweet, slightly animated face.

Ben really wanted to sit down, but he had more or less committed to sitting with the Greens. He explained that to Edna when she insisted he sit, and he asked Riana if she would save him a dance a little later.

“I’ll have to check my card,” she said with a disarming laugh, and Ben understood that she understood they were being set up. He liked that subtle connection, and he bumped into a vacant chair as he was walking away holding her smile.

Ben’s seat with the Greens was between Phil and his little girl and directly across from Rebecca. He had met Rebecca a few times and had gotten along well. They had even gone to a movie once, but she’d had another commitment when he called to ask her out again, and he had left it at that. She was a year older than Ben, and although a little homely in her drawn facial features, she looked particularly sensual in a dark gown that plunged to reveal the generous swell of her breasts.

Throughout the meal Ben caught Riana’s gaze quite a few times. He was relieved when, after the meal, another man took Rebecca to the dance floor. He immediately excused himself, and as he approached, Riana stood and met him.

“Come on, the oldies are putting me to sleep,” she said, turning Ben away toward the dance floor.

The next hour passed in a whirl of colour and music as Ben danced with groups of kids, a few of the older women, and occasionally got to rub up against Riana. He had tossed his coat and tie, and dripping with sweat, went outside for some fresh air and to cool down. He was sitting on the steps enjoying the evening breeze when Riana approached.

“They let you go, did they?” he asked her. She had been surrounded by children doing some sort of dance with lots of hip wriggling and foot stomping the last time he had seen her.

She took his beer and had a sip. “I snuck away between songs. It’s so hot in there!”

“It’s nice here, though, isn’t it? I’ll see if those windows at the back open when I go back in. Should cool down with some air flow.”

“Do you mind?” Riana asked. She still had his glass of beer. “I’m so thirsty.”

“No. Go ahead. Should I get another?”

“No, I’ll save you some.” She had another sip then used the glass to cool her neck.

Ben watched the dew trickle down her skin.

She smiled. “You know, I think Aunt Edna has a bit of a crush on you.”

“Really? She’s a sexy lady. Too bad I’m not about forty years older.”

“Hmm. I’ll tell her you said that. But I’ll make sure Uncle Fred doesn’t find out. We wouldn’t want a scandal.”

Ben accepted the glass of beer, and their fingers brushed. “It was a nice wedding, they look good together.”

“They do. I hadn’t seen Julie in years. Apparently they’ve only been together a few months.”

“So her dad was saying. I’ve got a feeling she might be pregnant.” Ben had heard a rumor but didn’t know if there was any truth in it.

“Ohmygod, a shotgun wedding! Her dad looks like the type too. Only, he seems pretty happy in there.”

“Well, it might just be a rumor. You know what it’s like in a small town. We’re always looking for some big news.”

“I think they’re cutting the cake,” Riana said, looking in through the door. “Are you coming?”

Ben followed her inside and found his shirt being tugged as she wriggled into the circle of people crowding around the cake. He stayed with her, and through the photographs and speeches he was intensely aware of the heat from her body against his side and of her perfume and the sweet scent of her hair. He couldn’t separate the feelings he had been having all week for one beautiful woman from the attraction he was feeling to another. It was as if it was a continuation of the same dream as the music started up and he was swaying slowly with another pretty head resting against his shoulder.

“How long are you staying in town?” he asked her as they danced.

She peered up at him. “I don’t have any firm plans.”

 

Chapter 20

 

“Look, Paul, just go away and leave me alone!” Kate demanded. “You did nothing but embarrass me last night.”

“What the fuck did I do that was so embarrassing, you stuck up little bitch?”

“You did what you always do, and I’ve had enough. Now get out!” Kate opened the door and stood waiting.

“What do I always do?” Paul’s aggression vanished.

“Just go, Paul.”

He collected his shirt and shoes from beside the couch and trudged from the hotel room. Kate closed the door and locked it. She stormed across the room and flung the balcony doors open to let out the cigarette smoke. She found Leanne grinning in the kitchenette. “What?” she demanded, although her temper was fading, and she almost giggled at her friend.

“Oh, nothing. I’ve just heard all that before. How long do you think it will last this time?”

“Forever! I’ve had enough of him.”

“He wasn’t that bad,” Leanne ventured. “He seemed about normal last night.”

“Well, I’m tired of being groped by a drunken slob. And I couldn’t get rid of him last night, and the place stinks of his smoke. And he just cornered me in the bathroom and tried to kiss me with that breath, and I lost it!”

“He was embarrassing last night, wasn’t he?” Leanne admitted supportively. “I don’t think Simon thought much of him, only he was too polite to say anything.”

“He was a pain on the dinner cruise the other night too, but he was at his best last night. I thought the bouncers were going to kick him out once, and I was hoping they would. I think he was pissed off last night because I keep knocking him back lately.”

“That’ll usually do it,” Leanne suggested with a smile.

Kate giggled, proudly. “Actually, I can’t stand the thought of him lately because I can’t stop thinking about you know who. He turned up last time Paul was over too, and I made Paul sleep on the couch.”

“He hasn’t called?” Leanne asked with interest.

“Not yet.”

“Have you checked your missed calls?”

“Every time I leave my phone somewhere, but I’ve been sleeping with it turned on.”

“Maybe you should call him.”

“No. I’ve been lying in bed for the last two hours thinking about that, and I’m going to wait. He better call before Friday, though.”

“Is that his deadline?”

“Well, if he doesn’t call on Friday he never will, and he’ll make plenty of progress if he does call on that particular day.”

“Oh! That day!”

“Yes, that day! And if he doesn’t call I’m giving up on men completely.”

“Ah huh. And as for this cowboy, what happened to a guy having to be filthy rich?” Leanne asked, sitting up at the breakfast bar with the coffees she had made.

“And how stupid was that? Paul’s rich and he’s a fuckwit,” Kate replied, shrugging nonchalantly. “Watching you guys together this past few days and thinking about Ben, what the hell difference does it make where a guy’s from and what he does for a living? I just want a cuddle.”

“Really?” Leanne asked. Her tone was soft and sincere, and she smoothed Kate’s hair from her cheek.

Kate started to choke up. The wave of emptiness surged as a hot flush that consumed her body. Her tears started again. “I don’t know what’s going on, Lea. It’s just, uggh! I don’t know what I want anymore.”

“It’s okay, sweetie. Don’t worry.”

“I just can’t stop bawling these past few days, and we’re supposed to be on holidays, in paradise for chrissake.”

“We don’t have to stay. Simon’s flying back to Sydney this afternoon, and I’d just as soon go with him. Do you want to go back to Bobby’s place?”

“No. Don’t be silly, Lea. Even if you go home I’m staying right here until my holiday’s finished. Do you really want to go home?”

“Well, no. I’m staying with you, of course. Even if it’s just us there’s plenty to do.”

Kate partied with Leanne over the next few days, and they danced together and avoided men completely. Leanne’s new boyfriend returned on the Wednesday, and Kate spent that afternoon walking on the beach and cleansing her soul of all that had gone before, in preparation for what she hoped would be a new chapter in her life. On Thursday she kept the curtains drawn and spent the day in front of the television with chips and chocolate. She found a channel with some old, romantic movies and lost herself in them. She woke to Valentine’s Day on the Friday morning with still a faint hope flickering. She had continued checking her phone for missed calls all week, but that morning she sat it on the coffee table and virtually watched it. She admonished herself for what she was doing but couldn’t help it. She decided at nine, and again at ten, that it was too early for Ben to call yet. By eleven she had taken to pacing from the balcony to the couch and back again. By one in the afternoon there had been no phone call or even a text, and Kate had begun reasoning that it would be more likely a man would wait until evening to call a woman, especially since it was a usual work day.

Kate sat by her phone with a dreadful ache steadily growing and consuming her heart as the cold afternoon shadows crept over the sand and the esplanade came to life with the colours of other people’s romance. By seven she had resigned herself to the fact that she had agonized all day wishing for something that just wasn’t real, and she snatched the wilting roses and stuffed them in the bin.

 

Chapter 21

 

Ben arrived at the address Riana had given him a few minutes before eight. He straightened his coat and trousers, and taking the bunch of carnations he had bought, he approached her door and knocked. She answered immediately. She was dressed in a pink satin gown. Her hair was ruffled, though, and she appeared to have been crying.

She slipped from her door and closed it behind her. “Ben, something’s happened,” she started. She had stepped away from him and folded her arms. “It’s Brad. He’s… I told you about him. We were together for years until a few months ago.”

“Is he okay?” Ben asked thickly. He didn’t know what to make of the situation.

“He’s here,” Riana uttered softly. “He’s… I’m sorry, Ben,” her voice trailed into a sob, and she looked up pleading for some sort of forgiveness.

Ben nodded. “You’re in love with him?” he asked, knowingly, kindly.

“Yes, I am,” she answered, wringing her hands and smiling through her tears. “I’m so sorry about tonight.”

“That’s okay. I’ll just…um… I’ll just go along anyway and have a dance with some of the single girls.”

Ben was forcing his smile. He turned and walked away before it faded. He placed the flowers on the passenger seat and glanced back to find Riana watching from the rail of her porch. She waved, and he turned away and drove.

It was only a few minutes to the expressway, and Ben felt some relief as the car surged into top gear. He was numb but not hurting. He hadn’t allowed himself to feel that time. He smiled to himself, gloating over his good judgment. Saw that coming, he thought, but the glory quickly melted, and his head shook in empty resignation.

Approaching the turn-off to Goran Vale, he abandoned the reflex decision to go to the Valentine’s Day dance alone. He took the turn and drove his old Mercedes up into the forest. He wanted nothing more than to get out of his suit, grab a beer, and have a game of euchre. He wanted nothing more than his space.

Arriving home, he tossed his coat on the lounge and ripped off his tie. He switched on his computer and took a beer from the fridge and cracked it open. His computer was old and slow, and the start-up process was lengthy. He went out the back and let Rex off his chain for a pat and a rumble. Then he went back inside, and Rex jumped on his favourite lounge chair. Ben slumped on the lounge and kicked off his shoes. He sat for a moment staring at the painting of home, but his thoughts drifted from the memory of that harsh, sunburnt landscape to the object itself and the tantalizing mischief in Kate’s eyes as she had placed it there on the wall.

“Why did she do that, Rex? You don’t walk into someone’s house and go rearranging their stuff.” He looked around the room. It was as if she was still there, and he hated that, but he loved it. His space had been invaded and conquered by fruity, flowery perfume, which he could still smell, even though he knew the aroma had long since faded from the room. But I was nothing more than a distraction, he admitted to himself once again. He’d had that conversation with himself every day, several times a day, in fact, and every night as well. She was here on a stop-over, and what we did, what we had, was the entertainment. It meant nothing to her, Ben chuckled to himself, horribly. “She turned my fucking life upside down on a whim, Rex.”

 

Chapter 22

 

Kate sobbed herself to sleep at around midnight and tossed and turned through the night. She woke early the next morning feeling emotionally drained and exhausted, and in need of some exercise. She was careful not to wake Leanne, who had only been in a few hours. She jogged on the beach and took her remaining frustrations out on the gym equipment. There was no bath in the hotel room, but she soaked in the shower for nearly an hour. She left with Leanne still sleeping and took her credit card for a walk around the clothing shops.

Leanne was having lunch on the balcony when Kate arrived back at the room. She dumped her bags on the couch, thoroughly pleased with herself, and turned to meet her friend’s inquisitive smile.

“I’m guessing he didn’t call,” Leanne started. Her tone was cautiously searching.

Kate shrugged and shook her head. “I spoke to Bobby last night, and he said he saw him a few times last week with some blond chick. Who cares?”

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Leanne said softly. She had approached and taken Kate’s hand.

“Look, it really doesn’t matter,” Kate declared, but her voice quivered, and she fought back the tears.

“Come here,” her friend uttered, and Kate fell into her arms and started crying again.

She couldn’t explain to herself why it was such a big deal. She had been the one to ensure their relationship was established as casual, so she had no right to expect him to not date other women. And she had rejected him when he had gotten all serious, and they had only known each other for a week, so it was ridiculous to expect him to think of her on Valentine’s Day. And she was the one who had left town to go on a man hunt, so it was absurd to be hurt by him not being faithful to her, but that’s exactly what she was feeling as she sobbed on her friend’s shoulder.

Two days later the American insurance broker, Lance Emerson, called Kate and invited her for a private dinner cruise on his company yacht. “Thanks, Lance, but I’m really not interested. It was nice to meet you, though.”

She spent the remainder of her holiday sightseeing and enjoying the view from her balcony. She would own a view like that one day. She was more determined than ever. I’ll do it on my own, she convinced herself. The thought of marriage while being unable to bear children had always worried Kate, anyway. I’ll sell up in Sydney and move where it’s a bit cheaper down the coast, she reasoned, sitting on the balcony and sipping champagne on her final night before flying home, and then I’ll travel the world.

 

Chapter 23

 

Glenview House had been constructed in the late eighteen-nineties as the residence of Archibald Ferrier, the owner of the largest logging company in the Goran Vale district. It was an extravagant, asymmetrical, Queen Anne style mansion built from locally carved sandstone with two full levels, overhanging balconies, and dormers protruding from a steeply gabled roof. The upper level incorporated six bedrooms, the master’s retreat and main guest rooms filling the corner towers, and three smaller rooms suitable for children. The lower level was divided into formal dining and sitting rooms with carved and gilded archways and tasseled drapes shipped from mother England. It had an expansive kitchen with a walk-in pantry and meat safe and an attached dining area for servants, and the master of the house worked from an office with an additional sitting room, which opened onto the sunny northern veranda. At the time of its construction, Glenview was the epitome of wealth and power in the district, but after the deaths of the two Ferrier sons and heirs in the First World War, the family returned to England and granted the house to the government as a medical facility and retreat for returning soldiers. It was operated as such until the middle of the nineteen-thirties then abandoned after a fire gutted the lower level. It remained a nesting area for birds and a shelter for other wildlife until 1972 when George Rose purchased it for a nominal sum and invested in a modest refurbishment for the purpose of providing a home for wayward youth. The project was headed and driven by an enthusiastic young school teacher, James Ray.

Nigel Khel had been nine years old in 1972. At that time he was fascinated with the abandoned mansion, which could be seen through the forest from his bedroom window. He had also been frightened of the ghost stories about the old soldiers, though, and only ever went there with his twin brother, Vincent.

When the builders set up, he and Vincent had gotten jobs helping out. They were in Mister Ray’s class at school, so it naturally followed they would be put to something useful and practical if they wanted to hang around. Vincent, being the more accomplished scholar, had been assigned duties with the builders while Nigel had been relegated to helping an aboriginal man, old Amos, in the garden. Nigel never knew old Amos by any other name, and he wasn’t sure where he came from or if he had any family, but from the age of nine until he was in his early twenties he worked by the old man’s side every day. He helped tend the garden and mend fences and to slaughter lambs and pluck chickens and the like, and over the years old Amos taught him to sculpt and craft with clay.

Memories of those childhood years crowded around Nigel as he sat on the steps of Glenview House looking out into the overgrown garden. He stood and walked into the foyer, upsetting a small lizard that scurried through a crack in the wall. All the windows on the lower level were smashed, and the elements of nature had water-stained the wooden floor and caked it in dust, and the heat and moisture in the air each summer had the paint flaking from the ceiling and walls.

This fascinated Nigel and strangely pleased him. The boys who boarded there had been driven by Vincent, under the guidance of Mister Ray, to keep the house immaculately presentable at all times. There had never been a smudge on a window, and the timber work had always been waxed and polished. It was something of a victory for Nigel to see it nesting with birds again.

He had rarely been inside Glenview House in recent years, but the return of Bobby Ray had sparked his memories of being excluded from playing with the other boys or going on the camping and fishing trips they often went on. Bobby had also been excluded. Mister Ray would never allow Bobby to hang around. He would sometimes visit with his grandmother, but he would have to stay by her side, and he would be led away peering back over his shoulder at the other boys playing on the lawn and in the garden.

Nigel made his way carefully up the stairs to the second level. The bedrooms were sealed from the elements as the windows were mostly intact. Each room had two or three beds, which had been reserved for the older boys, with the attic having been converted into a dormitory for the youngsters.

From the window in the north-western corner of the attic, there was a partially obscured view through the trees to the houses on the edge of town. Nigel leveled his rifle and focused the scope on the Ray house. He could see the open garage and above that, the window he remembered as Bobby’s bedroom. He settled to watch for the woman, but there was no movement in the room. He had watched her standing at the mirror in her underwear one night, but he hadn’t seen her in a few weeks, so he soon gave up and focused on the kitchen window where Alyssa Lloyd was visible.

Nigel had seen Alyssa there at the house almost every night, and he wondered if Bobby had told her anything, or if indeed he had remembered anything of what happened at Goran Hut and in the basement of his house. The prospect of Bobby’s memory returning was something Nigel had agonized over for the first few years, but he finally learned to deal with the thought of a police investigation. He reasoned that the ranting of a lunatic could easily be discredited if necessary, and with the passing of time any evidence at the hut would have deteriorated. And should the police ever try to get into his basement, the Lord would intervene. He had no doubt about that.

Bobby appeared behind Alyssa, and she leaned back against him and looked up and kissed him. “Very nice,” Nigel muttered under his breath, and he worked his growing erection as he focused on Alyssa’s nipples poking at the thin fabric of her t-shirt. Bobby began massaging her shoulders, and Nigel unzipped his trousers and reached inside his underpants. He masturbated to ejaculation while watching Alyssa’s breasts moving beneath her shirt.

He used the bottom of a dusty, tattered, green curtain to clean up. Then he hobbled down the stairs and out into the garden where there was the shell of a small glasshouse that was once used to grow vegetables for the kitchen. Behind the glasshouse was a section of ground bordered with rotting railway sleepers that had been exclusively used to grow Mister Ray’s onions, and hidden in amongst the weeds there, Nigel had his three marijuana plants. He stripped a few leaves and stuffed them into an empty tobacco packet then pocketed it. He pushed his wheelbarrow across an open field and through a small creek, then on past the rusted metal frame of the windmill, slowing as he passed the exact spot where, on a cold winter’s afternoon in 1992, he had violently attacked Mister Ray.

He vividly remembered the way Mister Ray’s skull had split open under the force of the blow. He could still feel the sodden thud through the axe handle. It felt exactly the same as one time old Amos had made him kill a sick calf with the blunt edge of an axe. He had used the back of the axe head on Mister Ray and had positioned his convulsing body in such a way that it would appear he had hit his head on the metal frame of the windmill, and indeed that’s what the police investigation had concluded. The day after he had carried out the Lord’s retribution there had been no report of Mister Ray’s body being discovered, though, and that was when Nigel decided to return with old Amos’s butcher’s knife. It was just on dawn, and Mister Ray’s hair had been tinged with frost. His skin had been grey and rubbery, and his scalp had peeled away from his scull much the same as a lambs skin peeled away from its moist, fatty flesh.

Nigel turned away from the windmill and limped on through the forest and into town. He approached Henry Tebbit, who looked up from a car he was working on in the laneway beside his garage.

“Hello, Nigel. How are you?”

“I’m good. Have you got it?”

“Yeah, it’s sitting over there on the bench. There’s an old aerial you can have too if you want.”

“Is it going to work?” Nigel asked. It had been years since he’d had a working television set.

“It works fine. Just be careful not to bump it around too much on your way home, though. Do you want a lift?”

“No, I don’t want a lift.” Nigel produced the tobacco packet and handed it over. “Is that enough?”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Henry agreed, and Nigel placed the television and aerial in the wheelbarrow, and he nodded his thanks and started off home.

 

Chapter 24

 

Bobby lay watching the light girl in his bedroom doorway. It had been a few nights since her last visit, and the last time he had traveled around the house with her playing and having fun. She seemed sad again, though.

He slipped from his body and floated over to her. They never touched, and he didn’t know if they could. She had moved out onto the landing, and she beckoned for him to follow.

He trailed her down the stairs and out onto the veranda. They had played out there before, but he didn’t like it and wanted to go back inside. She pleaded with him. She couldn’t speak, but he felt what she was feeling and thinking, and she didn’t want to play that night. She wanted to show him something. It was something very important.

Bobby was afraid, but she had asked the trees, and they had promised they would be friendly that night. She moved to the road, and he followed as far as his gate. She waited for him. She said if they went together everything would be okay. He looked beyond into the forest. The trees were dark, but they were round, and their arms were tucked away. He thought they may have been sleeping.

The light girl was floating toward them, and Bobby followed her. Above, the sky was shifting. It was alive with something wanting. He felt it drawing him upward, but he had to stay near the ground. And the wind in the trees was cold and black, and if he went too close it would suck him in and he would never be able to get away. But he stayed in the middle of the road, and the light girl stayed with him. She was close beside him, and she was happy he was going with her, but deep down she was very sad that night.

He wondered if he could see her face. He never tried to look at her when he was close because he knew she was a secret. He wanted to look right then, but he didn’t dare. He looked back at the waking trees. Their arms were moving, and the light girl said they must hurry. They left the road and went along a small track into the forest. The trees were too close, but they were still sleeping there, and only the ones behind were waking up.

The light girl had started to cry, and Bobby felt her pain in his heart. There was a clearing ahead, and there was a small house. He knew that house, but he didn’t know it right then. The door was open, and there were people inside. The light girl was gone, and the trees were all awake and lashing at him. There was laughter in the house, and there was screaming too. It was light inside. He could see through the windows. He could see men standing around cheering, and he knew the light girl was in there. She was lying on the floor with a man on top of her. Bobby could see it like he was standing over her, but he was behind their fat, sweaty shoulders. He knew them. He knew them all, but he didn’t know them right then. The one on top of her was dark and evil, and Bobby could feel her soft, clean skin through his disgusting hands. He could feel the bones in her arms as she struggled. He could see the chain cutting into her skin, and he tried to hold her arms still. He saw her eyes. He saw the horror and fear in her eyes. The onion men were purging her demons, but he wanted to help her. He wanted to stop them, but their shoulders were sweaty and slippery, and they were too fat and too heavy.

He sat bolt upright in bed.

“Katie!” Bobby yelled. “Katie!” he yelled again.

His throat was dry and hoarse, and his chest was heaving. The knowledge he was alone in the house slowly crept over him, and he reached to his bedside cabinet and clutched the silver crucifix. He got out of bed and hurried downstairs. It was black in the house, but outside the sky was dull pink. It was five in the morning, and soon he would have to get ready for work. He turned on the lights and huddled in a lounge chair. The light girl’s eyes were burned into his mind, but it was just a bad dream, he told himself. “It was just a dream because I’m not a sinner,” he said aloud as he stroked the crucifix. “I’m not a sinner anymore, Mummy. I’m not a Satan spawn because I’m strong now, and no one can hurt girls because I’ll smash them. I’ll bust their heads open, won’t I, Katie?” Bobby had lifted a framed photograph of himself and Kate from the wall-unit beside the chair he was sitting in. He sat with the photograph in one hand and the crucifix in the other, and his mind drifted into thoughts of driving the tractor at his new job, then on to ideas he had for fixing the timber mill one day when Kate said he could ask Mister Rose about buying it.

He took his latest scrapbook from beneath the coffee table. He peeled it open, thumbing past the surfers and the television women and parting the big, crinkly paged book at the section with his crane pictures. He smoothed over the glossy magazine cut-outs, marveling at them and wondering which one would be the best to get. He had three favourites, and each one slotted into the picture in his mind, but the next section was cargo ships, and he was distracted by the thought of the crane that lifted the containers at the dock. He didn’t have a picture of one of those and wondered where he could find one. Maybe Katie can help me to find one, he mused, and he turned another page and thumbed a picture of a bikini beach girl. It was his first beach girl, Lisa. Although it wasn’t exactly her, rather a picture of a girl who looked like her. “But we mustn’t let Daddy see you,” Bobby muttered, smoothing over her face, and he thumbed to the next page where he had a picture of a girl who looked just like Maria, and on the opposite page he had pictures of two more beach girls who looked like Louise and Carla. “Because you’re my secret beach girls now, aren’t you?”

Bobby sat studying his scrapbook until the sun came up, then he made his lunch and had some cereal and a glass of juice. He was too frightened to go upstairs, so he used the work clothes from the day before and dressed in the laundry. He remembered the trees as he walked toward the forest, but they were just normal trees, and they didn’t scare him. He walked quickly along the road, and when he came to the turn off to Goran Hut he knew the small house in his dream. He hurried past, peering up into the forest, and he started jogging as a cold shiver attacked him.

Mr Cosgrove was waiting and set Bobby to loading wooden crates of peaches and plums onto a truck bound for market, and Bobby lost himself in the need to butt the boxes neatly against each other in order to fit them all on the truck.

 

Chapter 25

 

Alyssa dawdled along Mill Road on her way to work. She had plenty of time and intended to waste it and not arrive at the shop a minute before ten. She had been daydreaming about what she should wear that evening when she would visit Bobby. There had been some kissing and fondling, and she was determined to advance things that night. She was startled from her thoughts by a brisk hello from Ben McEwen. He approached, and she met his smile. “Hi, Ben. How are you?”

“I’m good. Been keeping out of trouble. How about you?”

Alyssa had been sneaking over the back fence at night and fully expected to be found out. Ben had of course seen her with Bobby, and she wondered whether he had told anyone. “Are you implying something?” she asked, playfully.

“No, I’m not implying anything. It’s good to see you smiling these days.”

“Thanks. I’m feeling pretty happy as a matter of fact.”

“That would be Bobby?” Ben ventured. “He’s a nice guy.”

“He is. Only, I haven’t told anyone yet. I’m not looking forward to Mum.”

“So, it’s serious?” Ben asked, sitting on a brick fence and folding his arms.

Alyssa suddenly felt she had a big brother. “I guess. It’s hard to tell with Bobby because he gets distracted, but I think he likes me.”

“I noticed something,” Ben said thoughtfully. “Last week when I asked him how his job was going he checked with you, like he needed your approval. I noticed him doing that with Kate. Maybe it means something that he’s trusting you now.”

“Yeah, maybe, but I can hear Mum screaming that he’s too old.”

Ben chuckled. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“Oh, and that’s funny, is it? I thought you were on my side then for a minute.”

“I am on your side. I’m really happy for you.”

Alyssa liked Ben’s sincerity. It reminded her of feelings she had discarded. “So, what happened with you and Kate? Bobby says she asks about you when she calls.”

Ben’s head lifted. “She does? What does she ask?”

His eyes had flashed and set intensely. Alyssa giggled. “Like that, is it?”

“Like what?” He was suddenly blushing.

“Like, you’ve got it bad for the princess.”

“Is it that obvious?”

“I think she just asks if Bobby has seen you around. I think she might be interested.”

Ben nodded and changed the subject. “Is your granddad home?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll see ya,” he said, and he stood and strolled away toward her house.

“Don’t say anything about me and Bobby, okay?”

Ben smiled back at her and waved, and Alyssa hurried along to work.

The four hour shift passed in a mindless haze that occasionally included a customer distracting her from her thoughts. That afternoon she bathed and spent an hour on her nails while her younger brother and sister did homework and played video games. She prepared the evening meal in time for her parents to arrive home, and after dinner she announced she was meeting girlfriends and would be late home.

Bobby was working out on his gym when Alyssa approached. She stood leaning against the door frame watching the muscles in his arms and shoulders bulge and strain and the ones in his chest and abdomen quiver. She met his eyes and smiled, but he just looked away and continued rattling the machine.

Alyssa plucked at the hem of the little floral dress she had worn especially. She had seen Bobby in his mood before and thought about leaving him with it. She decided to go inside and wait for a while. It usually passed quickly.

She was watching television with her feet tucked up on the lounge when he came inside half an hour later. He went directly upstairs and showered. When he came back down, he approached with a broad grin splitting his face. “You look pretty,” he declared.

They usually played rummy or concentration with a greasy, dog-eared deck of cards with a picture of a cottage on the back. After a few games Alyssa crawled across the playing area in the middle of the lounge room floor and kissed Bobby deeply and passionately. He responded. Apparently Julia Ferguson had taught him how to kiss as an integral part of pleasuring a woman. Alyssa had been lying awake at night wondering exactly what he had been taught. She crawled over him and straddled his waist. His big, firm hand claimed her lower back, and as his mouth opened over her neck, she was crushed to his body. She submitted to his lips and tongue against her neck, but she ground herself against his crotch. He was firm, and with her dress around her waist, she split herself over the bulge in his shorts.

Alyssa’s eyes had been closed with the rapturous thrill coursing through her body. They rolled open as Bobby’s hand closed over her breast for the first time, and she saw a face in the window. It was the face of Nigel Khel. She recognized his sallow features and greasy hair immediately, and she shrieked and tried to push away from Bobby. She wriggled and squirmed. “Bobby there’s someone there,” she squealed, and she pushed at his chest, but he claimed her arms and forced her back onto the floor. He held her wrists above her head in one hand and pinned her with his thighs. His face was ashen, and his eyes were dead. He ripped her dress open, and she screamed and kicked at him.

The room was spinning. Alyssa’s heart was in her throat. She fought and thrashed with all her strength. She could feel a hand groping her face, and she thought she saw tears in Bobby’s eyes before he was suddenly running from the house. She scurried to the corner behind the lounge. Bobby had gone out the front door and left it open. She thought of Nigel Khel and feared he would come in, but moments passed, and nothing happened. She crawled to the phone. She had seen where there were two numbers taped to it in case of emergency. One was Kate’s, and the other was Ben McEwen.

 

Chapter 26

 

Ben roared into the driveway less than a minute after taking the call from Alyssa. He found her at the door clutching her dress in front and with tears streaming down her face. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay. But there’s something wrong with him. His face was different. His eyes were, I don’t know, just wrong!”

“Where is he now?” Ben searched in through the door.

“He ran off. I don’t know where. He ran out the door, and Nigel Khel was here, but he’s gone too.”

“Come on. Let’s get you home for now.”

Ben led Alyssa through the back yard and up to the door of her house. “I’ll go in alone,” she said to him. “I’ll tell Mum and Dad, but I’m fine, really.”

Returning to Bobby’s house, Ben quickly checked around the yard. He walked out to the road hoping to see where Bobby may have gone. He thought he saw something, and he jogged down to the corner. In the sharp moonlight, he made out the form of someone hurrying along, perhaps half a mile away.

Ben ran back to his car and just caught sight of the figure disappearing up Goran Hut Road as he approached. As his headlights swung around, the figure darted into the bush, but Ben had recognized the distinctive limp of Nigel Khel. He stopped by the road where he had vanished and shone his flashlight into the trees, but there was no movement. He stayed for a while searching the shadows. He decided he could pick up Nigel easily enough, and he returned to his car and rolled along toward Goran Hut. He found Bobby wandering by the roadside and pulled up beside him.

Bobby stopped walking and stood with his shoulders stooped and his head hanging. Ben got out of his car and approached cautiously. “Bobby, what’s going on?”

There was no reply, so he stopped a few yards away and waited. Bobby had not moved nor lifted his head. “Are you okay?” Ben asked. “Alyssa’s fine. You didn’t hurt her.”

Still Bobby offered no response, so Ben waited another moment. He needed to control the situation, to get Bobby to a safe place. “Will you come back with me?” he asked, stepping closer and extending a hand. “Come on, we’ll drive back to town, and we’ll call Kate, okay?”

Ben ushered Bobby toward the car, with the bigger man offering no resistance. He sat with his head still bowed, and Ben said nothing more until he had pulled up outside the police station. “It will be best if you stay here tonight, okay?” He tried to attract Bobby’s gaze, but it was blank and downcast. Again the bigger man offered no resistance as Ben led him into the station house and down to the cells. “The girl’s fine, and we’ll sort him out with the sergeant in the morning,” he said to the duty officer, Barry Fitzgerald, and he left Bobby lying on a bunk with his arm over his face.

Ben returned to Alyssa’s house. She appeared at the door wrapped in a heavy flannelette bathrobe. “Is he okay?” she asked, chewing at her lower lip as her eyes watered a little. Her mother was by her side, and her father appeared at her shoulder.

Ben addressed them all. “We’ve got him in a cell for the night, and the sergeant will deal with him tomorrow. We’ll probably need a statement, but there’s nothing to be done tonight.”

“I don’t think he meant any harm,” Alyssa mumbled.

“What time should we come down in the morning?” her father asked flatly.

“We’ll give you a call, Noel. We’ll need to round up Nigel Khel and see what he was up to as well. You say he was peeking in the window?”

“I’m not sure now.” Alyssa pulled her bathrobe more firmly around her body. “It was the window right by the front door, so he may have been just visiting.”

“Alright, we’ll sort it out tomorrow.”

Ben left the Lloyd family and returned to Bobby’s house. He slumped on the lounge and opened his mobile phone. He scrolled to Kate’s number, took a deep breath and pressed the green button. The phone rang three times. His heart thumped.

“Hello.”

“Hello, Kate, it’s Ben McEwen, from Goran Vale.”

There was a moment of thick silence. “Hi.” Kate’s voice was flat.

“How is your holiday? How is the weather?” Ben swallowed.

“Fine.”

He walked over to the front door and toed at the door mat. He shook off awkward apprehension. “Something’s happened, Kate. It’s why I’m calling… Bobby’s in a bit of trouble.”

“What’s happened?” Kate’s voice was suddenly alive. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine for the moment. He assaulted a young girl, and we’ve got him confined to a cell for the night.”

“He what? There must be some mistake. He would never hurt, what girl?”

“Young Alyssa. I found her at his house crying and her wrists are injured. Apparently he held her down and ripped her dress.”

“Ohmygod, is she alright?”

“She’s okay. She fought him off, and he ran into the forest. I brought him back, but he’s not talking. He’ll need to explain himself in the morning, Kate. Is there anyone close by I could call?”

“I’ll be there in two hours. He’s at the police station, you say?”

“Yeah, for now.”

“Thanks. Thank you for calling.”

“I—um—I’ll see you—” The line went dead before Ben had a chance to say anything more.

He pocketed his phone and secured the house. He stood for a moment on the front porch and got to thinking about Bobby, about the fact he had seemingly attacked Alyssa, and about the fact he ended up near Goran Hut with Nigel Khel following along after him. He got back in his car and rolled down the main road to the Goran Hut turn off. The sandstone track was glowing in the crisp moonlight. He turned onto it and drove slowly up into the trees.

Ben studied the depths of the forest as his vehicle noiselessly rolled along. He examined each shadow, half expecting it to come to life in the form of Nigel Khel. He wondered what Nigel’s story was. Perhaps he was just an innocent visitor, but what would either of them be interested in at Goran Hut in the middle of the night?

Ben parked his vehicle next to a rusted information sign that detailed the history of the site and of the Goran family.  He took a flashlight and searched the area around the hut. There was a post and rail fence surrounding it, which extended into a small clearing to form yards for livestock, and nestled at the far end of the yards was a lean-to that would have been used for nursing animals. He had no idea what he was looking for, but he had never stopped at the hut before, so he climbed into the yard and had a look in the lean-to. It contained a row of nesting boxes, probably for chickens, he imagined. They had deteriorated to the point they were crumbling into the dirt.

Ben climbed out of the yard and shone his flashlight further into the clearing and found another small enclosure bordered by a wrought iron fence. He walked up the rocky slope and found a burial ground. There were three headstones: Sabine Goran, wife and mother, had died in 1877 at the age of 42. Wilfred Herman Goran, beloved son, had died in 1861 at the age of 2. Elle Sabine Goran, beloved daughter, had died in 1866 at the age of 12. Ben recalled the legend of Herman Goran, who had apparently burned to death in a bush fire in 1890, though his body was never recovered.

He walked down the slope and shone his light into the back window of the hut. It was a simple two room structure of ironbark posts and bolted slats, and a corrugated iron roof. It was raised on sandstone blocks and had a timber floor. There was a broad veranda around two sides. Ben stepped up onto the veranda and had a look in the door. In the main living area, he found the shell of a combustion stove and a heavy wooden bench that had a deep porcelain tub set within it. There was a layer of caked dust in the bottom of the tub, along with a spoon and a rusted bean tin. In one corner of the room was a blanket, and there was a coat lying on the floor beside it. There was another small tin on the floor beside the bench, and Ben lifted a paper bag from it that had the Johnson Hardware logo celebrating 70 years of service from 1914 to 1984. In the paper bag was a clump of rusted nails. There were beer bottles strewn around the floor, and in the doorway of the other room, Ben found a Sydney newspaper from 1992. There was a wooden box with a burnt candle set up next to another blanket in the corner of that room. There was a leather boot lying in the middle of the floor with two more beer bottles, and protruding from the edge of the blanket was a lacy piece of cloth that Ben extracted and discovered to be a bra. There was a small tobacco tin on the floor behind the box. He picked it up and opened it to find fishing hooks and sinkers. The other leather boot was bundled in the blanket. Near the wall in the larger room was a small stainless steel chain and an oval shaped loop bolted to the floor. The chain was about two inches long and made from odd looking, chunky, square links. Ben fiddled with it thinking it may have been the handle of a trapdoor, but the floor was solid.

He left Goran Hut the way he found it and decided he would return in the morning for a look around in daylight. He drove back to town and stopped in front of the Khel property. There was a dim light coming from the window, and after a few minutes a curtain moved. He left his car by the road and took his flashlight. He approached the house and knocked. There was no sound within, and the light from inside had been extinguished. “You there, Nigel?” he called out briskly. “I just want to speak with you.”

There was no response, and after knocking again Ben stepped back. He waited, listening intently for any activity in the house. He suddenly caught a flash of movement in the small window at his feet. He crouched down and shone his flashlight. There was a face, but it quickly disappeared. He shone his light in through the small window and thought he could see the shadow of a person’s head. “You there, Nigel?” he called out again, but there was no movement from the shadow.

Ben stood and backed away. He would like to have known what Nigel was doing at Bobby’s house and wandering in the forest, but he needed to be officially on duty, so tomorrow would have to suffice, he reasoned, and he returned to his car and drove home.

He had left his house open and the television on. Rex was waiting at the door, beating his tail excitedly, and two of the stray cats were on the doorstep rubbing up against a pot plant and a pair of boots. He had a few scraps from dinner and shared them between the dog and cats, and he chained Rex up for the night and returned to the mess he had made of his living room over the past week.

Since his last female visitor, the evening before Valentine’s Day, Ben had neglected his household chores and allowed the daily clutter to accumulate. He flicked through the television channels and found golf. He had dozed off a few hours later when there was a knock at the door.

“Kate! Hi…” Ben rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Hi, Ben. I’m sorry, but I saw your light was still on.”

“No, that’s fine. Please, come in. Do you want to go and see Bobby?”

Kate edged past and stood stretching the front of a faded green sweat shirt and wringing her hands in it. “I’ve seen him. The other officer let me stay with him for a while. He told me something, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Would you like a drink? I have some bourbon or—”

“Coffee. I’d like some coffee, please?”

Ben showed Kate to the dining table and went into the kitchen to make the coffee. He didn’t know whether to wait there for the water to boil or go back. He decided to wait, and after a few minutes he took coffee back with him.

Kate nodded her thanks. Her eyes had reddened with tears. “I think he may have hurt that girl.” She looked up and met Ben’s eyes bravely. “He wasn’t making much sense, but he kept on saying ‘they were laying on her’ and ‘we did it to her’. He didn’t say who else, but there were others involved too. He kept going on about their fat shoulders and onion breath.”

Kate broke down sobbing, and Ben went to her. There was nothing he could say, and he just held her and stroked her hair until she began to settle and push away from him. He didn’t have tissues, but he had paper towel in the kitchen, and he brought the roll and tore off a square. She took it, and a strained giggle escaped the anguish in her face as she looked around the room. “What happened here?”

“The maid quit,” Ben lied openly.

“It looks better. More homey and comfortable, if you ask me.”

Ben sat down again and sipped his coffee. He waited a few moments before asking, “So, Bobby’s memory has returned?”

“Um, no, not exactly. He was going on about his dreams about the light girl or something, but I think it was real.”

“Okay, so we’re talking about what Bobby has imagined to be true, not necessarily what happened.”

“He thinks he helped to rape her. He talked about being on top of her and feeling her skin. God, I can’t believe he could do that!”

“Does he have a doctor, Kate? A psychiatrist?”

“No. Not anymore. He hasn’t been for years.”

“We will have to track down someone to see him tomorrow. I don’t know if he will be charged for assaulting young Alyssa or not, but he obviously needs some professional help.”

“I’ll call Mum in the morning. She’ll know what to do.”

“Okay, that’s good. It’s only a few hours. It’s probably best to try and get some sleep.”

Kate nodded and glanced down, then her eyes lifted. “Can I stay here, please? I can’t go to that house now.”

“Here? Yes, of course you can! You can have the bedroom. I’ll crash on the lounge. I’ll get some clean sheets.”

“No, wait! Just get me a blanket. I’ll be fine on the lounge. But I do need a shower.”

“The shower’s right there, Kate. But I’ll take the lounge.”

Ben tried to offer a smile, but she stood plucking at her sweatshirt and staring into some other reality. He searched for clean sheets in the linen cupboard while she went to get her bag from her car. “I’ll do that.” She claimed the sheets he had found. “Are you sure this is all right? I don’t want to put you out.”

“I’ve got to get up in a few hours, and I often sleep on the lounge, anyway. Please, make yourself at home, and I’ll be gone when you wake up, but help yourself in the kitchen, and I’ll check in with you later in the day.”

Kate lifted and gently brushed his cheek with her lips. “Thank you.”

 

Chapter 27

 

Ben lay staring at the ceiling and listening to the sound of water running in the shower. He tried to fight off the thought of Kate. She was in trouble, and he was the only person in town she knew. There was nothing more to it than that, and he needed to realize that, understand it, and remember it. The fact that a woman who stopped his heart with a bat of an eyelash was in his shower and about to sleep in his bed was nothing to be distracted by. He rolled over and pulled his pillow over his head.

How the situation could lead to anything other than a dead end, Ben could not imagine. What if Bobby were convicted of murder? Wouldn’t he serve as a constant reminder of a chapter in Kate’s life she would sooner forget? And what of his job? It was his responsibility to help pursue the facts and evidence with impartiality, which meant he must pursue Bobby’s apparent confession and, in essence, attempt to put him behind bars. Not exactly grounds for a guy to launch a bid for romance, Ben thought as he pulled the pillow tighter around his head to blot out the sound of water running over Kate.

Ben listened intently to every sound Kate made. He heard her pull back the shower curtain. He heard her wet feet padding across the tiled floor. He heard the bathroom door open, and he could smell her essence upon the steamy air that drifted through the small house. He listened for the bedroom door closing, but that sound never came, then he heard the bed springs creak.

Ben lay awake wondering what side of the bed she was sleeping on. He wondered which pillows she was using, and it occurred to him she mustn’t have changed the sheets or pillow cases. He wondered what she was looking at, or if she had closed her eyes already.

The three hours until morning passed in intermittent spells of half-sleep and long minutes spent staring at the ceiling. Ben showered and had breakfast as noiselessly as possible. He needed to go into his bedroom to get clothes for work, and he crept through the door with his heart in his throat.

Kate’s soft, brown hair was strewn across his favourite pillow, and her slender form was stretched diagonally across the bed. She had the blankets tucked up under her chin, but he stole a peep at her face as he collected his clothing. He stopped at the door and turned to look back again. Unrealistic or not, he had to have her.

More coming soon…

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