Murder, Mayhem and Men On Pause: Part six

Jun 17, 2023
Part six in the serialisation of the novel written by author Sandy Curtis.

Miss a part? You can go back and read it here.


Chapter Twenty-six

The private investigation agency phoned Kandy back within a couple of hours.

She expected her hand to tremble as she answered the phone, and was surprised when it didn’t. She’d had nearly ten years of security with Phillip, and what she planned to do could put that at risk. She gave her credit card details, waited while they made sure the transaction had gone through, then wrote down the information as they told it to her.

            After she’d hung up the phone, she threw on a coat and grabbed her handbag. What she needed to do now couldn’t be done with a phone call. People lied too easily through the distance of a phone line. No, when she spoke with Vanessa Olden it had to be face to face.

            As she drove into the city, she had to fight the doubts that wriggled into her mind. She couldn’t believe that Phillip had betrayed her. Apart from sex, they’d shared so much together. She knew that he knew about her affairs. They’d never discussed it, but he’d made veiled references that indicated they didn’t worry him. Sex had been infrequent during the first few months of their marriage, then had dwindled to many months when a cuddle was as intimate as he preferred to get. But she’d remained faithful for three years, until a couple of after-lessons drinks with her tennis coach had ended in the most erotic, satisfying sex she’d ever experienced. The pleasure had been matched by her guilt and shame, and she’d switched the next day to piano lessons. They were next on Phillip’s list of things she should learn.

            All her attempts to get Phillip to discuss their differing sexual needs ended in failure. He simply stated that he wasn’t highly sexed and saw no need to do anything about it. It was then he had hinted that he didn’t mind if she found her own answers for her needs. And so her sexual liaisons with other men began.

            Almost as though the fates were determined to make sure she didn’t miss meeting with Vanessa before she left for the airport, the traffic flowed smoothly all the way into town.

‘If this is as valuable as you think it is,’ Cass said as Ellie carefully re-wrapped the painting, ‘what are we going to do with it?’

            Ellie had been considering just that as she’d gazed at the painting and tried to remember what she could about the artist. ‘If it’s genuine, it will be worth a fortune, and it looks pretty genuine to me. But I think we have to find the owner first. This Iris that he dedicated it to, she might have been the person who lived in the unit.’

            ‘I could ask the property manager where I work if she can find out who used to manage the rentals for the units,’ Cass suggested.

            ‘That’s probably our best option. I could ask Bruce who he bought the units from but that might make him wonder why I need to know, and I’d like to try to find the owner first.’

            Cass nodded. ‘Good idea. Knowing Bruce, he’d probably say that whatever was in the building when he bought it is his now. But where are we going to put it until we track Iris down?’

            ‘Well, it’s been safe in the ceiling for years, so why don’t we put it back there?’ Ellie slid the painting back into the bag Cass held open. Her excitement about discovering the painting was slowly ebbing, but she was intrigued by the beautiful woman portrayed in it. And for an artist of such renown to write something so personal on the back was a mystery she wanted to solve.

            With the painting secure in its hiding place, they drove back to Ellie’s house. Cass phoned her property manager friend who promised to get back to her as soon as she’d found out anything, then said goodbye to Ellie and drove home.

            Ellie looked at her watch – she thought Miranda would be home by now. She hoped nothing had gone wrong with the job interview.

Geoffrey wondered whether it was because he was seeing her through eyes that tended to haze over in bright light, but he thought his mother seemed better today than she had all week. She greeted him with a smile that reminded him of how she’d been in the years before his father’s overwhelming dominance and pomposity had drained her of the ability to have fun.

            But at the sight of his arm her face clouded over and he felt an unfamiliar twinge of remorse at having caused her happiness to dim.

            ‘It’s not broken,’ he said before she could ask. ‘I slipped over last night and sprained my wrist.’

            ‘Oh, dear. That will make it hard for you to keep looking for work.’

            He’d forgotten he’d lied about what he was currently doing. His guilt deepened, but he shook it away. It must be the grog, he thought. Guilt was an emotion he hadn’t experienced in a long, long time. Probably not since his early teens. He must be getting soft.

            ‘Geoffrey,’ Maud said as he sat down next to the bed, ‘the manager at the retirement village did me a favour and went to the bank for me.’ She pointed to the bedside cupboard. ‘Can you get my handbag out for me, please?’

            With a barely-restrained groan at having to move when he’d just relaxed, Geoffrey did as she asked. Maud fumbled at the handbag catch, her fingers trembling. Geoffrey was just about to help her when she flicked it open. She drew out a bank passbook, opened it and handed him a wad of fifty dollar notes. ‘I want you to have this. I don’t have much, but it will be yours when I die. But I thought you might need a little to tide you over until you find work.’

            Geoffrey’s hand shook as he took the money. He didn’t count it, just shoved it into his pocket, but he could tell there was about five hundred dollars there. In other times it would have been an insignificant amount, but right now it meant decent food and a new pair of shoes. And maybe a coat that really kept out the cold. ‘Thanks.’ His voice sounded gruff, but Maud beamed, her eyes lighting up as though he’d paid her a wonderful compliment. ‘I appreciate it.’ The words seemed to slip from him, but when he saw the sheen of happy tears in her eyes, he was strangely pleased that they had.

‘Five star luxury,’ Kandy murmured as she walked into the Sofitel Brisbane Hotel. ‘Must have the same taste as her father.’

            She’d dressed with care, black pants and a burgundy and black swirled-patterned clinging blouse under a tailored black jacket. Her black boots had heels so high they almost made her totter, but she needed the height – her confidence was in inverse proportion to her anxiety, and she was a mass of that.

            Two young female clerks were behind the reception counter, but she walked over to where a middle-aged man, whose badge said he was some kind of manager, was accessing one of the check-in computers.

            ‘Hello,’ she smiled, and waited for the reaction she got from most males. He didn’t disappoint. He abandoned the computer and beamed at her. ‘Can I help you, madam?’

It still irked her that men always seemed to assess her physical attributes and rarely anything else. It was Phillip’s interest in her personality and intelligence that had attracted her to him and led her to love him. ‘You have a guest here, a Mrs Vanessa Olden. Could you please let her know that Kandy Breckham wishes to speak with her?’

‘Certainly, Madam,’ he beamed again, and hit the computer keys like it was the most important thing in his day. He picked up the phone, dialled the room number, and, after a few seconds’ wait, repeated Kandy’s request. After a few moments he frowned, and said, ‘Mrs Olden, are you still there?’

Kandy’s stomach lurched. Was Vanessa going to refuse to see her? She crossed her fingers.

‘Very well, Madam. Thank you.’ The manager returned the phone to its cradle and smiled with a little less enthusiasm than before. ‘Mrs Olden said she will be down shortly. If you’d care to wait.’ He indicated the groups of lounge chairs in the spacious foyer.

‘Thank you.’ As Kandy walked away she could feel his eyes on her, but when she turned he moved back to his computer. She chose a seat that gave her a clear view of the lifts. She didn’t want Vanessa catching her off guard.

The detective agency had informed her that Vanessa had married nineteen years ago and had had two children. It seemed to Kandy that everyone was capable of having children except her.

As the minutes ticked by she began to worry that Vanessa had changed her mind, or maybe she’d lied about coming down and hadn’t really intended seeing her at all. By the time Vanessa emerged from the lift Kandy’s stomach had almost knotted in anxiety. Vanessa strode straight towards where she was sitting. It took an effort for Kandy to remain seated until Vanessa was almost in front of her, then stand and smiled pleasantly. ‘Thank you for agreeing to see me, Vanessa.’

The guarded look in Vanessa’s eyes didn’t dissipate. ‘How can I help you, Kandy?’

‘Could we talk in private, please?’ Kandy couldn’t stop the pleading tone in her voice.

Vanessa hesitated for only a moment. ‘Come up to my room.’

Although they were the only people in the lift, they rode in silence, and walked the corridor to Vanessa’s room in silence.

It wasn’t just a hotel room, but a suite that was bigger than some of the bedsits Kandy had called home as a teenager. Vanessa nodded to the brown leather lounge and said, ‘Please sit down. Would you like a coffee or tea?’

Kandy craved the warmth a coffee would bring to the coldness sitting in her chest, but she was afraid her hands would shake. ‘No, thanks.’

Vanessa sat on an adjoining lounge chair, back stiff, hands spread on her thighs as though looking for somewhere to grip. ‘Did Phillip tell you where to find me?’

‘No. I hired a private investigator. Phillip only told me about you because I saw you leaving our house as I was driving in.’

‘Ah. I wondered why that car slammed on the brakes and slowed down as I drove out. What else has Phillip told you?’

‘Not a lot. How is your mother?’

Vanessa frowned. ‘She’s fine. Why?’

‘Phillip said she’s ill and that’s why you came to see him. To tell him.’

It was as though the words had pricked the bubble of Vanessa’s defences. With a long sigh she leaned back in the chair, her shoulders slumping. ‘My father’s not a bad man, Kandy. He simply doesn’t cope with reality.’

It was Kandy’s turn to frown. ‘He owns a financial investment company and is the director on the boards of half a dozen other companies. Are you saying that’s not reality?’

‘It’s about the only reality he handles well. I’m talking about his private life. I gather you knew nothing about me until yesterday?’

‘That’s right. Phillip said he married your mother because he got her pregnant but the marriage didn’t end well and she insisted he didn’t have any more contact with you and your brother.’

‘And he didn’t tell you why?’

The knots in Kandy’s stomach tightened all the way to her throat. ‘No,’ she whispered.

‘Kandy, it’s not my place to tell you. Dad should.’ She looked at Kandy, eyes sympathetic, then sighed again. ‘But he won’t, will he.’ Now her hands gripped the sides of the lounge chair as she leaned forward, voice soft, face contorted with emotion.

‘Kandy, Phillip … my father … is gay.’

Chapter Twenty-seven

Of all the things Kandy had imagined that Vanessa might tell her, saying that Phillip was gay wasn’t one of them. ‘Gay,’ she echoed.

            ‘I’m so sorry,’ Vanessa reached out a comforting hand, then let it drop. ‘I wouldn’t have told you, but …’

            Kandy was too stunned to ask what Vanessa was about to insinuate with “but”. ‘How do you know?’ she finally asked.

            Vanessa stood up. ‘I think we could both do with a coffee now. Or maybe something stronger?’

            The temptation to raid the mini bar and fortify herself with enough alcohol to numb the pain and disbelief she was now feeling was almost overwhelming, but Kandy wanted to be clear-headed when she heard what Vanessa had to say. ‘Coffee, thanks. Strong. White. One sugar.’

            When Vanessa went to make the coffee, Kandy stared through the large windows at the inner city skyline with its mix of high-rise architecture. A kaleidoscope of memories raced through her mind, but now suspicion tinged each one. Her world was cracking open and she wasn’t sure she would be able to keep a grip on it. She barely heard Vanessa come back. But as Vanessa placed two mugs on the coffee table, she said, ‘Your plane. You’ll be late.’

            ‘It’s all right. I changed to a later flight before I went down to meet you.’

            The hot coffee sped through Kandy’s system, relaxing tense muscles and loosening stomach knots, but it didn’t ease the pain in her heart. ‘Would you please tell me everything?’ she finally asked.

            Vanessa nodded. ‘I wasn’t going to tell you, I remember what finding out did to Mum. But you have a right to know. Apparently Dad had always suspected he was gay, but because his parents were such self-righteous people who were always more worried about what other people thought than their own children’s happiness, he denied it to himself. He even started a relationship with Mum to prove to himself that he wasn’t gay. Then Mum got pregnant, and they married.’

            ‘He told me that bit. He also said that when they broke up your mother said he wasn’t to have any further contact with you and your brother.’

            ‘Mum was completely shocked by what she’d seen and what Dad confessed about always believing he was homosexual. And terribly hurt.’

            ‘I know how she felt,’ Kandy muttered.

            ‘We were all pretty devastated. Even Phillip. He’d fallen in love for the first time in his life and I guess it was too much temptation for him to resist. Mum found them together.’

‘Hell! How Brokeback Mountain.’ Kandy wavered between laughing and crying. It all felt so surreal.

‘Apparently she found them in bed. And to make things worse,’ she grimaced, ‘the other man was a friend of mine from university.’

‘So he would have been …’ Kandy found she couldn’t complete the sentence.

Vanessa did it for her. ‘My age at the time. Nineteen.’

If Kandy’s world had tilted before, it did a complete 180 degrees now. ‘Nineteen,’ she repeated as though the word was foreign to her. She looked at the coffee cup in her hand, at the dark depths of it, realising that Phillip’s depths were just as dark. After a while she asked, ‘What happened then?’

‘Well, as you can imagine, the proverbial hit the fan. Mum went nearly hysterical. Josh and I arrived home from uni when she was still ranting at Dad and Nathan. I had to stop Josh from punching Dad, Nathan was blubbering how sorry he was for upsetting everyone but he was in love with Dad, and Mum collapsed. It was such a terrible mess. Both Mum and Dad had always been so proper, so conventional, I don’t think any of us knew how to handle the situation. That’s when Dad confessed that he’d always felt he was homosexual but had tried not to be because of his family. And Mum’s family were so straitlaced they would never have understood Dad’s predicament.’

‘It sounds like you were sympathetic to Phillip and …Nathan?’

‘I wasn’t at the time. When Mum told Dad to leave, Josh and I were on her side. It was like he had betrayed us all. But a year later he wrote to each of us and said how sorry he was and that he still loved us but understood if we didn’t want to see him again.’

‘But you didn’t see him again. Until now.’

‘No. We thought it would hurt Mum if we did.’

‘What happened to Nathan?’

‘He got into another relationship a couple of months later.’

‘So much for undying love.’ Kandy knew she sounded bitter, but she couldn’t help it. Phillip might have been to blame for his betrayal of his marriage, but this Nathan wasn’t entirely guiltless.

Vanessa put her cup back onto its saucer. ‘Nathan is still in love with my father.’

‘What?’ Kandy felt her body jerk back, a purely physical reaction to Vanessa’s statement. Emotionally she felt stunned, as though her mind couldn’t absorb any more shocks.

‘Kandy, I know how hard this must be for you to cope with all this. You obviously love my father, and he’s probably been a good husband, like he was when he was married to my mother. But Nathan’s partner died last year, and a month or so ago he started talking about finding Phillip. He wanted to know if Phillip still loved him. It didn’t take him long to track him down.’ She hesitated, and the compassion in her eyes told Kandy that what else she had to say wasn’t going to be something Kandy would like to hear.

So Kandy said it for her. ‘And start up their affair again.’ She didn’t need to see Vanessa’s nod to know her life was tumbling into ruin like an ill-constructed building in an earthquake. All her hypothesising about Phillip being in love with someone else was suddenly true, but not in the way she’d imagined. ‘How do you know this?’

‘I married Nathan’s older brother.’

‘Nothing like keeping it all in the family,’ Kandy muttered. ‘Why did you come to see Phillip, Vanessa? To stop him making the same mistake twice?’

‘Something like that. When my husband told me that Nathan had gone to Brisbane to see my father I wasn’t concerned, but then I discovered Dad had re-married.’ She frowned in the same eyebrows-together, forehead-raising way that Phillip did and Kandy’s heart lurched. She wondered if Vanessa realised how much she looked like her father. ‘Kandy, he didn’t want to meet me at his house, but I insisted. I told him I wanted to see how he lived, to see if I connected with him the way I used to when I was growing up. It was selfish of me, I know, but he was a wonderful father, and I was bitterly hurt when he left. I’m sorry that you saw me leave.’

‘Don’t be. I’d already suspected he was having an affair. I just didn’t think …’ She didn’t state the obvious, but it actually made little difference that his lover was a man. Her years on the streets had made her more tolerant than most.

She was struggling to deal with the reality of Phillip’s behaviour. This was no one-night stand, no fling with a dancer at a club, no shag with the tennis instructor because he was frustrated and three-parts pissed. This was a love affair that had started twenty-five years ago and had apparently never really ended. She remembered the pain she had seen in his eyes after Vanessa had left yesterday and felt a sharp stab of sympathy. She knew he was a good man, his kindness and compassion had drawn her to him when they’d first met. He was generous, not just with his money, but his time, and he genuinely cared about people. Finding out he really was gay, and not just suspecting it, must have been very hard for him to deal with. No wonder he had accepted his wife’s demands and stayed away from his children.

She could even understand why he hadn’t told her about his marriage and children because she handled painful memories the same way – just buried them and pretended they’d never existed. Hell, she didn’t even know if her parents were still alive. And she cared even less. She wondered if it might have been different if she’d had siblings, someone who cared about her or whom she cared about. But there wasn’t. There was only Phillip. And now it looked like she was going to lose him.

And the thought of it was breaking her heart.

Ellie jerked awake when the front door opened. For a second she had trouble orientating herself, then remembered she’d lain on the lounge to rest for a few minutes after Cass had dropped her home. She must have fallen asleep.

            ‘Mum? Are you all right?’ Miranda hurried into the room.

            ‘I’m fine.’ Ellie glanced at her watch. A “few minutes” had become nearly two hours. Mayhem was curled up beside her, face tucked between her paws, body relaxed, but the slight twitch of her ears told Ellie she wasn’t fully asleep. ‘How did the interview go?’

Miranda’s smile could have lit a tennis court. ‘I got the job! They want me to start Monday. They showed me around the store and gave me an idea of my duties. I’m going to love it.’

‘That’s fantastic! I’m so pleased for you.’ Ellie jumped off the lounge to hug her, but the room swayed and she plopped down again. ‘Not a good idea,’ she muttered. ‘Should have done that slowly.’

‘Are you sure you’re okay enough to go away with Chris this weekend?’ Miranda gave her a look that Ellie recognised as one of her own. She was tempted to reply, ‘Yes, Mum,’ but stifled the urge, and said instead, ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll take it easy.’

Miranda didn’t look convinced, and Ellie nearly laughed at the role switch that was happening. Then she remembered something she’d been meaning to ask Miranda. ‘Mirie, I want to do something to thank Mouse for what he did for me. From what Chris said, Mouse took a risk staying with me until the police came. Is there something I could do for him, or something I could get him that he needs?’

‘I’m sure he could do with some warm blankets. They’re something that’s always in short supply on the street. But,’ she glanced down at Mayhem, ‘how about some cat food? Feeding all those kittens must be expensive. I’m sure he takes the meat out of the sandwiches we give him and feeds them with it.’

‘Blankets and cat food it is.’ Ellie stretched gently, pleased that her aches and pains were lessening, but aware there was still some stiffness in her muscles. ‘If I buy them on Monday morning, would you be able to give them to Mouse when you go on the van Monday night?’


‘How about we open a bottle of wine to celebrate your job? You can tell me all the details. And then I’ll tell you what Cass and I discovered at the units today.’

One hour and a bottle of wine later, Ellie went to pack her overnight bag while Miranda hummed her way through cooking dinner. Ellie couldn’t help smiling. It was good to see Miranda so happy. She just hoped the job was all Miranda seemed to think it was. At least it was taking her mind off Ben’s rejection.

She shuffled through the clothing in her wardrobe. After the roominess of her walk-in robe, it had been difficult getting used to the ornate, silky oak monster that dominated the bedroom with its height and breadth. The mirror on the panel between the two doors was handy, because it was the only full-length one in the house. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room between it and the bed to get a full-length view. When she wanted to see if her shoes matched her clothes she had to sit on the bed.

            Packing. She hated it. Even if she was excited about going on a holiday, it didn’t stop the nervous knot in her stomach that formed as she decided what to take. She always felt sure she would forget something she would need. Once she was in the car or on the plane, there was a certain inevitability about it all and she could relax. Perhaps she’d lost too many things that were important to her in her childhood as her father moved around, seeking the job that was going to give him the money and status he seemed to think he deserved. It was the only explanation she could come up with for feeling like she did.

Warmth – courtesy of new, winter-weight clothes, a fan heater and a doona, good food, and a bottle of decent scotch. They might not stop the pain, but at least they made it easier to bear.

Geoffrey kept his sprained wrist cocooned on his new pillow and leaned back against the metal bed-head. For the first time since he’d walked out of prison he was able to enjoy the things that made his life bearable. That it was his mother’s money that had brought about this happy state wasn’t something he chose to acknowledge. Any more than he wanted to think about how his attitude to her was changing. As a boy he’d adored her, thought she was the sweetest, kindest person alive. But as a teenager he’d perceived those same qualities as weakness and despised her for it. Now he realised she had been just as intimidated by his over-bearing father as he had been. And the knowledge didn’t sit well with him.

Kandy dimmed her headlights and turned into her driveway. She watched the branches on the eucalypt trees bordering the property sway gently in the breeze and knew if she lowered the car window the sound of their leaves rustling would be like waves shimmering over a pebbled beach. Knew the sharp tang of their oil would be faint on the winter’s night. Knew the parakeets that drank the grevilleas’ nectar had abandoned their feasting and screeching at dusk.

Knew that after tonight her world would never be the same again.

She had ignored the two calls from Phillip on her mobile. She knew he would be worried about her, about why she was so late getting home. But she’d needed time to think, to come to terms with what Vanessa had revealed.

The temptation to go to a bar and drink away her pain had been strong. Instead she’d bought an all-day ticket and sat on the River Cat for hours, staring out the window but not seeing the houses, the parks, the apartment buildings, the wharves, the industries that edged the river’s meandering width. She’d needed the time to think, to absorb the body-aching shock.

As a teenager, ‘time to think’ would have meant time to get drunk or stoned so she wouldn’t have to think. It had taken a lot of courage to abandon that way of life and she wasn’t going to slide back into it now.

The ferry had plied its course back and forth, passengers had embarked and disembarked, and still she’d sat and stared, until, finally, she’d worked out what she thought was the only possible solution to the situation.

Now she parked her Porsche in the garage and gathered her courage for the emotional minefield that lay ahead of her.

Chapter Twenty-eight

Miranda’s call that dinner was ready came as Ellie was trying to decide if she should pack the demure full-length nightie she’d bought for a short hospital stay some years ago or the sexy, almost see-through one she’d worn to try to entice Damien into remembering she was more than the woman who kept his home running efficiently.

            She had the feeling that if she chose ‘demure’ she would feel like a born-again virgin, something that didn’t sit very well with her. She’d read about women getting plastic surgery to have their hymen re-attached for their second “de-flowering” and wondered how a doctor would find the damn thing in some of them. Wouldn’t it have worn away with so much use?

            And the more she looked at the sexy little number, the more she thought it shrieked “desperate”. She’d been there, done that, had the rejection to prove it.

            Nope. She wasn’t going into this relationship pretending to be something she wasn’t. Luckily she’d bought some new pyjamas when the weather had turned cold. They might be flannelette but at least they were pretty in a “I just want to snuggle up to you” kind of way. They also covered her bruises. She placed them in her small suitcase and zipped it closed.

            Her mind was buzzing with the possible scenarios of how the weekend would turn out. More accurately, how the night would turn out. From Kandy’s descriptions of some of her flings, a sexy smile and a great body didn’t guarantee sexual satisfaction. She appeared to have run the gamut from thirty-second squib to the body-builder who took the expression “pumping iron” too seriously.

            She wondered what Chris would think when he saw her naked. She had a few stretch marks, and her breasts weren’t what you’d call “perky”, but at least she didn’t have to roll them up to get them into her bra. Surely at their ages he wouldn’t be looking for perfection. Too bad if he was, she huffed at the thought, but a little doubt lingered.

            The worry was starting to bring her headache back, so she shoved all bed-time thoughts aside and went to the kitchen. Food and sleep was what she needed, not worry. But she knew she was going to have trouble convincing herself it was that simple.

Phillip was sitting on one of the six black leather recliners in the lounge room, newspaper open on his lap, head slumped sideways, eyes closed behind his reading glasses. Kandy stood in the doorway and watched him. And wondered how she had not realised his true sexual orientation before this. She’d come across men of all sexual preferences in her life so why hadn’t she recognised that in him? Perhaps she’d wanted to believe so badly that he was everything she’d dreamed she’d wanted in a husband that she’d dismissed any doubts that may have arisen.

            As though sensing her presence, he pulled himself upright in the chair, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes and looked at her. He started to smile, but her mood must have been conveyed in the way she stood, unmoving, gazing back at him, and his lips lost their upward slant.

            ‘I talked to Vanessa this morning.’

            Her words weren’t the bombshell she thought they might have been. Phillip said nothing, but his body seemed to shrink into the plump black leather, his face showing a sadness that wrenched at her heart.

            All the sensible, dispassionate words she’d planned to say flew from her mind, and she heard herself cry like a heartbroken teenager. ‘Why? Why, Phillip? I thought you loved me.’

            ‘I do love you, Kandy. But not in the way a man should love a woman. I thought I could. God help me, I tried. When we first met I found you so … so refreshing, so different to anyone I’d ever come across before. When I found out your background I admired you even more. You have the courage I lack. The strength I lack.’

            It was true. She’d always known it. Phillip had a flair for business, for making intuitive decisions that resulted in success, but he’d always hired people who had the grit to carry out the hard options. In a way, even choosing her as his wife was a good business move. She had learned the skills to move in different social circles, and had the ability to deflect unwanted attention without giving offence. As his hostess she was impeccable, as his wife she was charming without being flirtatious. She knew men were attracted to her, and if she were tall and blonde their wives would probably have carved her to pieces with looks alone, but her ability to come across as sisterly rather than as a threat had kept her safe from female talons.

            She walked over and sat on one of the other lounge chairs, almost facing him, but not quite. ‘What do you want to do?’ she asked, her voice even, but the stiffness in her body betrayed her anxiety.

            ‘I suppose Vanessa told you everything?’

            Kandy nodded. ‘She said Nathan is still in love with you. How do you feel about him?’

            He didn’t reply, but his expression told her what she needed to know. ‘You love him, don’t you?’ she pressed.

            He nodded, but quickly said, ‘I don’t want to lose you, Kandy. But I can’t give Nathan up. Not now. We should have stayed together years ago, but I pushed him away when I saw the pain it had caused my family. Until I saw him a few weeks back I thought that being with you was enough, but …’

            ‘But it’s not.’

            Phillip shook his head, then looked at her with such desperation in his eyes that she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. ‘What do we do now?’ he asked.

            ‘I guess,’ the words dragged out reluctantly, ‘it’s time for me to meet Nathan.’

When Ellie woke on Saturday morning it was with the same sense of fear and anticipation she used to feel the first day at a new school. Then, the fear of the unknown would always outweigh the possibility that this would be the start of a new way of life for her. Maybe this time her father would stay in the same job, and this time she would make friends she didn’t have to say goodbye to after a couple of years or sometimes only months.

            But now the anticipation beat the fear hands down. Well, it did until she heard the knock on the front door. She looked at her watch. Hell! She’d slept in. Damn red wine. She scrambled from bed, yelled ‘Just a minute,’ at the same time as Miranda called, ‘I’ll get it,’ and hurried to the bathroom. By the time she emerged, showered and dressed in jeans, cotton blouse, jacket and sneakers, Miranda had let Chris in, made breakfast and put it on the kitchen table.

            Twenty minutes later she sat in his Rodeo and watched the northern suburbs fade away behind them.

Geoffrey knew his former boss would be getting even more impatient, but he didn’t have any enthusiasm for breaking into the units again at the moment. The almost-forgotten experience of comfort, and food that was tasty rather than just filling, of alcohol that soothed rather than burned his oesophagus, was so enjoyable he wanted to savour it for as long as he could. Besides, his wrist was still so painful it was almost useless. Only the painkillers made it possible to use it to do basic toileting and personal chores. Breaking into a building was beyond him at the moment.

            He briefly wondered if the codeine in the tablets he was taking was behind the numbness his brain seemed to be experiencing at the moment. He knew he should be shit-scared that he had gone beyond the deadline imposed on him for getting hold of the painting, but somehow he didn’t seem to care. It was as though the danger was hidden by fluffy barriers of cotton wool.

            He carefully eased into his new, full-length coat, looked at himself in the mirror and smiled. Now he looked more like himself. He glanced down at his too-short jacket with its stupid collar that now hung on the back of the kitchen chair. He should throw it in the garbage. Then he remembered the gun he’d shoved in the pocket after Gazza had forced it on him. He bent over to take it out to transfer to his new coat, but decided it would ruin the cut of the pocket. Besides, he shouldn’t need it just to go to the hospital.

Ellie gazed at the tapestry of rolling green fields and tree-studded farmlets and quaint family dwellings and European-styled guest-houses designed to lure tourists into believing they were far removed from south-east Queensland with its mild winters and hot summers. It might be a few degrees cooler here in the hinterland, but the sun shone brightly in a cloud-puffed sky and when, through a gap in the trees, she saw across the valleys and hills to the Sunshine Coast, she was sure she could see the ocean sparkle with the intensity of it.

            She shifted her gaze from the scenery for a moment to watch Chris as he negotiated the winding mountain road. He drove with the easy confidence of a man for whom a car was almost an extension of his body, and for a moment she envied his self-assurance. But the moment was fleeting. She remembered his uncertainty when he’d asked about Damien, and his quickness to brush aside her doubts about being able to cope with the dangers of his job. If he was in love with her then he would be just as tentative about their relationship as she was.

            ‘Penny for them.’ His words broke into her reverie. She saw the twinkle in his eyes and her heart jolted in a way that told her this was going to be quite a weekend.

            ‘You can’t buy anything for a penny these days,’ she joked, then asked ‘How’s Danny? Solved all the possum problems?’

            Chris chuckled. ‘The nesting box worked. He now has two possums relying on him for nightly feeds. It’s giving him a good idea what being a parent is like.’

            ‘I don’t think anything can prepare you for that.’

            She didn’t realise how her words sounded until he reached over and squeezed her hand where it lay on her lap. The feeling of being cherished almost overwhelmed her. It had been a long time since she’d felt that from a man. She clasped his hand tightly for a moment, then released it.

            They drifted back to the companionable silence that had marked most of their trip. By nature Ellie wasn’t a “chatty” person, and she sensed that Chris appreciated not having to talk while he was driving.

            When they reached the turnoff to Montville, he ignored it and continued on the road to Maleny. ‘I thought we’re staying in Montville?’ she asked.

            ‘I thought you might like to look around the shops in Maleny first.’

            ‘You want to go shopping?’ She couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice.

            ‘Well, no, I thought you might like to,’ he replied in the cautious tone of a man who wasn’t sure if he’d said the right thing or not.

            ‘Well, how about we have a quick look through a couple of the shops then grab some lunch and go to Lake Baroon and have a picnic? Do you have a blanket in the back?’ She wasn’t sure if the smile that accompanied his nod was because he’d been spared hours of shopping or because he thought sharing a blanket hinted at more than devouring food.

            Yep. It was going to be quite a weekend.

The sound of the doorbell echoed in Kandy’s chest with a similar resounding emptiness. She looked at her watch. Midday.

            Guess who’s coming to dinner?

            She tried to smile at her mental joke, but couldn’t do it. She knew who would be standing on the other side of the door. She watched Phillip walk across the foyer and open it, and felt a rush of gratitude that he didn’t greet the man who stood there with anything more than friendly politeness. Knowing that they’d explored each other’s bodies, that they’d touched each other with love was one thing, seeing any expression of that love was more than she could cope with yet.

            ‘Kandy,’ Phillip turned towards her. ‘This is Nathan Olden.’

            ‘Hello, Nathan. Please come in.’

            He gave her a wary look, and she felt like the spider to his fly. She almost said, ‘I won’t bite you,’ but couldn’t be sure she wasn’t lying.

            She assessed him as he walked towards her. He was slightly taller than Phillip, but slimmer, his dark brown hair flopping into eyes that had the kind of lost puppy-dog look that appealed to motherly women and romantic teenage girls.

            He moved with an appealing grace, his designer jeans accentuating rather than detracting from his long, lithe look. His grey jacket said trendy, not sporty. His shoulders squared in a way that told her he was here to do battle, not beg.

            ‘Thank you for inviting me to lunch, Kandy.’

            She was grateful he didn’t offer her his hand. She was trying not to resent him, but the effort was costing her. ‘I thought it would be a good idea for us to meet,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you’d like a drink before lunch?’

            He nodded, and she led the way to the lounge room.

            Phillip hurried to the kitchen and returned with three glasses on a tray. Kandy noted that he hadn’t had to ask what Nathan drank. It seemed he knew his tastes as well as he knew hers.

            ‘What do you do for work, Nathan?’ she asked.

            ‘I’m in merchant banking. It’s very challenging.’ He waited for Kandy to sit before occupying another chair. Phillip sat a discrete distance from them both. ‘Phillip tells me you have your own catering firm. He speaks very highly of you.’

            ‘We’ve always had a lot of respect for each other’s abilities. I’ve always thought we make a good team.’ Oh, shit, that was more pointed than she meant it to be. From the corner of her eye she saw Phillip flinch. Anger flared. Bugger him! He deserved to flinch.

            Nathan had seen Phillip’s reaction too, but he seemed to square his shoulders even more. ‘I’ve always admired Phillip’s ability to bring out the best in people. And his integrity.’

            Kandy was about to respond but found no words would come. How could she be so polite when she felt like shredding him with her tongue, or maybe her fingernails. She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t pretend to be so bloody civilised about it all. Her mind ran through a dozen different rejoinders but she heard herself say, ‘I love him, Nathan.’

            Phillip stood abruptly, sloshing his drink onto the floor. Kandy stilled him with a hand movement.

Nathan bit his lip, then blurted, ‘I’m so sorry, Kandy. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I only came looking for Phillip to find out … I don’t really know what. I wanted to come to terms with the past. Years ago Phillip had pushed me away and I rebounded into another relationship, and I needed … Hell! I don’t know. I just wanted to see if what I’ve always felt for him, what I still felt for him, was real. But when I saw him again it was as though only days and not years had passed. What we’d shared was still there.’

Kandy wanted to lash out, to hurt him like she’d been hurt, but what would be the point. Enough people had been hurt over the years. She looked at Phillip, felt the tension emanating from him, but also felt his yearning, his need, and knew it wasn’t for her. Accepting her loss seemed her only option.

Her desire to fight for his love evaporated.

Maybe it was time for everyone to find some happiness. Well, almost everyone. She knew she should feel devastated by the decision she had contemplated yesterday, but instead she felt a sad acceptance. It wasn’t going to be easy, but she felt it was the only thing she could do.

She stood up, finished her drink, and said, ‘We have a lot to discuss, but I think it will be a lot more pleasant if we do so over lunch.’

Cass put down the phone and returned to the kitchen table. Joe had already finished lunch and was putting the kettle on, but now she had lost her appetite.

‘My mother has absolutely no concept of who I am,’ she grumbled. ‘She sees me as the dutiful daughter she wants me to be, and not as the person I really am.’

‘I told you not to answer the phone,’ Joe said. ‘That’s what Caller ID is for.’

‘That’s all right for you to say.’ On principal Cass didn’t want to tell him he was right. ‘You never answer the phone, even when it’s your family.’

‘I talk to them when I’ve got something to say.’ He opened the container and cut himself a slice of orange cake.

He was so maddeningly calm that Cass wanted to hit him. She was angry, and she knew it. Not at him, but it did irk her that his family so easily accepted his reluctance to communicate on a regular basis. They reacted to his spasmodic phone calls with the kind of joy she was sure the prodigal son had had showered on him in the bible story.

‘So what did Audra want?’ he asked.

‘She wants you to build a granny flat behind our house so she and Gerry can live close to us.’

Joe’s eyes bulged and he choked on his cake. Cass immediately felt better.

‘Tell me you’re kidding,’ he managed to splutter.

The sigh that huffed from deep in Cass’s chest was tinged with resignation. ‘I wish I was. She was dead serious. Said that as Gerry gets older she’s finding it hard to cope with him and thinks that I should take some of the stress off her.’

‘Holy shit! I hope you told her it was impossible.’

‘I explained that we couldn’t afford to do it. She said they could live with us while they sold their house and the money would pay for the granny flat.’

Panic flared in Joe’s eyes. For a moment she thought he was going to bolt from the room. ‘It’s all right,’ she reassured him. ‘I also told her that although it looks like we have enough room we don’t because the council knocked us back when we wanted to build another shed in the back yard.’

‘But that was because they said what we were proposing would be classified as light industrial and we’re not zoned for that.’

‘I know that. But Mum doesn’t.’

His relief was so comical Cass nearly laughed. He might not have a great deal of imagination and his tastes in food were so basic she could cook for him with her eyes closed, but she could always count on him giving her funny bone a tickle.

Her appetite returned, but before she could pick up her knife and fork the phone rang again. She looked at Joe. He stared back, daring her to answer it. It kept ringing. She picked up her fork. The ringing continued. ‘Damn!’ She slammed down the fork and walked into the lounge room and stared at the Caller ID.

She quickly picked up the phone.

            Five minutes later her mood had lifted considerably. She walked back into the kitchen. Joe had gone. Probably retreated to his shed to recover from his near miss with Audra and Gerry. Damn. She wanted to share her news with someone. She couldn’t phone Ellie. A smile curved her mouth. She didn’t want to risk interrupting … anything.

            She looked at the empty plate and mug Joe had left on the table and sighed.

Chapter Twenty-nine

Blanket and pillows. Well, cushions really. The kind that made Ellie wonder what a single man had in the back of his four-wheel-drive. Chris took them out when they parked at the lake to have lunch.

He must have seen her expression because he sheepishly explained that Danny had dragged them out of storage when he had told him where he was taking Ellie. ‘They were Angela’s favourite cushions and Danny couldn’t bear to throw them out when we got a new lounge a few years ago. He remembered coming to the mountains when he was a kid and thought you might appreciate sitting on these rather than a park bench.’

Ellie didn’t know whether to be flattered that Danny had thought of her comfort, or worried that he might be looking for a replacement mother. ‘Does he mind us going away for the weekend?’

‘No, he’s fine.’

‘I guess you’ve done this kind of thing a few times since … you’ve been on your own.’

‘Ellie, it’s okay to say Angela’s death. I came to terms with that years ago. It took me a long time to be able to say it without almost breaking down, but I eventually did. And, yes, I have dated since.’

‘Anyone serious?’ She tried to sound casual. Or indifferent. But the look in his eyes told her she hadn’t succeeded at either.

‘There was one woman who wanted it to be, but I didn’t feel the same way.’ He spread the blanket on the grass and placed the cushions on it. ‘Besides, Danny didn’t like her.’


‘You, however, get a very big tick of approval from him.’

‘How come?’

Chris pretended to think. ‘Something to do with bringing him cake and knowing about possum nesting boxes.’ He grinned as she mock-punched him, then caught her hand and drew her to him. ‘I should arrest you for assault,’ he joked, but the humour on his face turned to something far more serious as her sneaker caught on his and her body tipped full length against his in all the right places. The result was spontaneous combustion of the best kind.

Their kisses had been of the shooting sparks variety, but because of the way he’d held her, she had suspected he’d been trying to be a gentleman. This time there was no restraint in the way he held her against him, so tight she could feel her breasts tingle as they rubbed against his chest, and the bulge in his jeans that told her the thrumming in her blood wasn’t one-sided.

She tilted her head so their lips could meet, but he leant his forehead on hers and murmured, ‘If I kiss you now, I will end up getting arrested.’

His words were a low, sexy rumble in his throat. She shivered with the anticipation of what they promised. She took a deep breath. ‘Perhaps we should eat?’

He moved away a little. ‘I’m beginning to think a cold salad might have been a better choice than a curried beef pie.’

‘It’s winter,’ she smiled, deliberately misinterpreting his words, ‘something hot is good for you.’

He groaned and pulled at his jeans to adjust them, and she lost the battle to keep a straight face. It had been so long since she’d flirted with a man that she’d almost forgotten what fun it could be. ‘I’ll get the pies while you get that thermos of coffee you brought along,’ she said and walked to the Rodeo.

She glanced back to see him turn towards the lake and take a deep breath. His tall, lean silhouette against the backdrop of blue water extending to thickly wooded slopes on the far shore nearly made her weak at the knees. If she hadn’t discovered the wonderful, compassionate core of him that attracted her soul, she would be tempted to think what she felt was simply lust, a frustrated and neglected woman’s need to have a good-looking man desire her.

Okay, so she wasn’t exactly in the desperate category, but she sure wasn’t in the confident woman of the noughties class either. And frustrated was a very accurate word to describe what she was feeling at the moment. Hopefully that would change tonight.

With a smile that echoed in her heart, she gathered their lunch and walked back to the cushion-covered blanket.

Although Geoffrey knew he had no further need to go to see his mother, he told himself that it was a wise move to stay in touch with her. She might come good with some more money, or even remember something that could give him a clue to the whereabouts of the painting.

            On his last couple of visits she had reminisced about her family. He remembered his mother’s parents, a cheerful working class couple whose house always smelled of freshly-baked bread and biscuits. They’d always kept some home-made ginger beer in the fridge in case Maud brought him for a visit. Yesterday Maud had told him that his father had disapproved of her parents and had limited her visits there. He’d looked into her eyes, sad with the memory of what she’d been denied, and wondered how she had remained as optimistic and loving as she had when his father had tried to grind down her spirit.

            For one brief moment, he’d wanted to put his arm around her and reassure her that she was still loved, that he was still her family, but years of habitually rejecting her stopped him.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come.

He thought about it now as he walked past a florist, and before he could argue himself out of it, he picked a bunch of roses from a bucket on the pavement and walked inside to pay.

Something was tickling Ellie’s face. The irritation registered in her brain the same moment she emerged from a warm cocoon of sleep and opened her eyes to green. Green grass, green shrubs, green trees. And warmth. The kind that came from sunlight.

            For a very long moment she stared at the scenery in her line of vision and tried to remember where she was. A light breeze blew strands of her hair across her cheek and she realised that’s what had disturbed her. Her brain felt fuzzy, as though it needed more sleep and was trying to shut down again.

            Maleny. Chris. The words seeped in and memory returned with a rush. She pushed herself to a sitting position and looked around. And felt the world spin.

            ‘Whoa!’ Chris caught her from behind as she started to topple sideways. She rested back against him, grateful for the support. She closed her eyes. Gradually the spinning stopped. She opened them. The world was still again.

            ‘You still have concussion,’ he admonished. ‘You shouldn’t try to sit up in a hurry.’

            ‘How long have I been asleep?’

            ‘A couple of hours. Apparently my company wasn’t exciting enough to keep you awake.’

            She could hear the smile in his voice. Then his lips pressed warm, gentle kisses against her neck and she tingled all the way to her toes.

            ‘Another hour and it will start to get cold,’ he murmured, his breath whispering softly against her cheek. ‘I think we should get to the cabin and settle in and then go out for dinner.’

            ‘Sounds good.’ She wasn’t sure if she was referring to the meal or settling in. The only thing she was hungry for was a large helping of Chris. Preferably naked. And doing things with her that she’d only dared dream about in the past couple of weeks.

            As they drove towards Montville, she pondered how easily she had made up her mind to sleep with him. Seeing Damien again had done it. Even after the hurt of discovering he had another woman in his life, a tiny glimmer of hope for a reconciliation had lingered deep in her heart. But his arrogance in the way he had swept into her hospital room and practically insisted that he still had a claim on her had effectively killed that.

            It had been years since she had been to Montville, and her memories were of a quaint village with flower-strewn gardens tumbling around timber and sandstone shops and people strolling paved footpaths and aromas of exotic food. It hadn’t changed, only expanded. For some reason that made her feel pleased. Perhaps, she mused, after the turmoil of the past few months she needed to see that some things could stay constant. Sure, some shops had been spruced up and some advertising signs seemed to intrude on the genteel atmosphere of the place, but the last-century feel of leisureliness remained.

            They drove through the village and turned into a tree-lined driveway meandering through lush gardens that ended at a timber building. Ellie gazed at it in disbelief. It appeared to have started its existence as a cottage then attempted to become a castle. Four towers topped with turrets had been joined to the corners of the square structure. Creepers climbed the towers, leaving windows to peek through their foliage like the eyes of a shy animal.

            ‘Mmmm,’ Chris frowned. ‘It’s not really what I imagined when I booked.’

            ‘Do you mean we’re staying … there?’

            ‘No, they have cabins. Apparently.’

            Just then a small, white-haired man emerged from the middle door of the building and came over to the Rodeo. Chris lowered the window.

            ‘Guess you must be Mr Ryan,’ the man flashed a broad grin. ‘I’m Ronnie. The wife and I were beginning to think you mightn’t be coming. Come on in and do the paperwork and I’ll show you to your cabin. There’s plenty of firewood so you should be cosy tonight. It’s going to be a cold one.’ He grinned again and returned to the house.

            Chris flashed her an apologetic look. ‘We can always try somewhere else.’

            Ellie took another look at the cottage-castle and laughed. ‘It’ll be okay. If nothing else, it should be an experience.’

            ‘One I hope you don’t remember for all the wrong reasons,’ he muttered, but got out of the car and followed their host.

            Ellie lowered her window and breathed in the scents of winter in the mountains. There was a sharpness to the air here, a cleanness not found in Brisbane. The sun had lost its warmth now and she realised they would be grateful for the firewood Ronnie had mentioned, especially if it went in a fireplace and not a wood stove. She was prepared to rough it a little, but there was a limit.

Ronnie was still talking as he and Chris emerged from the cottage-castle. When Chris got back into the driver’s seat, Ronnie walked down a well-maintained track leading down the hillside. Chris started the Rodeo and followed. The track led to half a dozen cabins scattered across the curve of the hill, each surrounded by paths and shrubbery, and each, Ellie realised in awe, with a stupendous view of the Sunshine Coast.

            She looked at Chris, and saw that he, too, was registering the vista of rolling hills and deep valleys leading to a distant band of houses and high-rises flanked by turquoise ocean and endless sky.

            Ronnie stopped in front of the third cabin and beckoned for them to park in a small gravelled area.

            ‘Great view, hey?’ He grinned as though he were responsible for it. ‘You’ll wake up to that in the morning. Key’s in the door, breakfast’s in the fridge. Just give me a call if you need anything.’ He nodded a goodbye and walked back up the track.

            ‘Cabin looks okay,’ Chris said, but Ellie heard the hope in his voice. Timber, with a rustic look that said serviceable rather than fancy, it had a porch big enough to allow guests to stay out of the weather while unlocking the door and transferring their luggage. The lushness of the countryside seemed to indicate rain was normal weather here.

            ‘Well, let’s go in,’ she said.

            She unlocked the door and walked in while Chris came behind with their bags. Her mouth opened in surprised delight. The “rustic” look had been continued on the inside, but she recognised quality rustic when she saw it. The two-piece beige lounge had leather that looked as soft as kid; the peach-and-umber-swirled rugs on the timber floor were toe-drowning thick; and the plump cream doona and pillows on the queen-sized bed hadn’t come from your average department store.

            A box of firewood lay beside a pot-bellied heater in the corner. Ellie hoped Chris’s fire-making skills were more up-to-date than hers. Her one week stint at Brownie camp was too long ago to remember well.

A small but well-appointed kitchen took up an opposite corner, and Ellie was relieved to see the stove was electric. Further along, a door opened into a bathroom that had the kind of rustic look found in home beautiful magazines. Large glass doors on the eastern wall led to a timber verandah with outdoor table and chairs where you could sit and enjoy the glorious views to the coastline.

            Ellie could almost feel Chris’s relief as he looked around. He placed their bags on the luggage rack. She smiled. ‘I see there’s only one bed.’ She saw the confusion on his face, the look that asked if he’d missed something somewhere. ‘You did say there’d be no pressure,’ she reminded him.

            ‘Yes, well …’

            ‘I guess we can always put cushions down the middle,’ she mused, then laughed at his expression as he realised she was teasing him. ‘I have concussion, remember,’ she laughed as he advanced on her. Oh, but it was so wonderful to laugh like this with a man. She’d almost forgotten how it felt.

            He scooped her into his arms and strode to the bed. ‘Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t drop you,’ he growled.

            With a smile that should have signified surrender but instead felt like seduction, Ellie wound her arms around his neck and kissed him.

            Tingling changed to melting. Not the slow, liquid kind rich with the familiarity of a long-time lover’s caress, but molten fire that burned and made her feel more alive than she could remember.

            Chris broke the kiss, but only long enough so he could place her on the bed with care. He knelt over her, eyes brilliant, breathing laboured. ‘Last chance if you want to back out.’

            She wanted to say something flippant, tease him again, but she was lost in the need she read on his face. ‘I think you’d better read me my rights,’ she whispered, her voice tight with equal need.

            This time his kiss seemed to go on forever.

            He was a skilful lover, fingers teasing across her breasts as he unbuttoned her blouse, hands caressing as he unzipped her pants and slipped them down. She kicked off her shoes. When he unhooked her bra and dropped it to the floor, his fingers trembled as they moved, feather-light, across her nipples. She felt her breasts swell, her skin goose-bump.

            ‘You’re cold,’ he frowned. ‘I should light the fire.’

            ‘We-’ her voice was husky, but it wasn’t from the cold. She cleared her throat. ‘We should get under the doona.’

            He smiled, pulled back the doona and rolled her underneath it, then quickly shucked his clothing. While he pulled off his boots, Ellie slipped off her panties. He slid under the covers and reached for her. ‘That was quick,’ he said as his hands skimmed her hips. ‘I was going to take those off.’

            She snuggled against him, savouring the feel of skin on skin, his warmth, the unique masculine smell of him. The erection that pressed against her stomach. ‘I’m an older woman,’ she said, mock serious. ‘I don’t have time to waste.’

            ‘We’ve got all night.’

‘Is that a threat or a promise?’

His hand moved to her breast, slowly teasing; his lips lingered on her neck. She shivered, eager, greedy, wanting more. And when his lips moved to draw her nipple into his mouth, she knew it was definitely a promise.

Half an hour later Ellie stood, hands plunged into her dressing gown pockets, and gazed out at the lights starting to sprinkle across the encroaching darkness on the horizon.

            ‘Coffee’s ready.’ Chris placed two mugs on the table, walked behind her and wrapped his arms around her.

            ‘This definitely proves God is a man,’ she grumped. ‘No female deity would let a woman reach the age when pregnancy is no longer an issue and then give her vaginal dryness.’

            His chest rippled with laughter and she felt his smile where his cheek lay against the side of her head. ‘I thought lubricated condoms would be enough.’ There was an even broader smile in his voice. ‘Perhaps we should have used salad dressing.’

            She chuckled at the image, her crankiness dispelled by his good humour. She turned in his arms and snuggled into his chest. ‘All the chemists will be closed by now so we can’t buy some lubricant. And it’s a pity Ronnie left spray cooking oil with the bacon and eggs instead of the bottled stuff.’ A memory tugged. ‘Years ago one of the restaurants in Montville used to sell its own brand of avocado oil.’ She looked up at him, half serious, half joking. ‘We could buy some and use that as a lubricant.’

            ‘I’m game if you are.’

            ‘Then I guess we’d better get ready for an evening on the town.’ She kissed him, briefly, hungrily, and walked to the bathroom. As she showered she made a mental note to talk to Kandy about the qualities of lubricants.

            And wondered about the friction-withstanding capabilities of avocado oil.

Chapter Thirty

There was something almost magical about the mountains at night. Ellie gazed at the stars and wondered if they shone that brightly in Brisbane and she simply hadn’t noticed, or if the clear mountain air allowed their brilliance to show through. Or, she smiled as she looked across at Chris as he drove, was it because she felt so happy. Even her bruises didn’t seem to hurt as much. He had kissed them so gently, so tenderly, that she thought she would curl up and die with the pleasure of it.

            Oh, but he made her feel good. Although she hadn’t been able to lose herself in their love-making as completely as she would have liked, his caring and his desire to please her had compensated for her lack of fulfilment. She didn’t have any experience with him to go by, but she was sure he had taken it slowly for her sake.

            She was glad he had lit the fire in the heater before they’d left. Even the short walk between the cabin and the vehicle had her gasping as the cold air knifed into her lungs.

            ‘The cold doesn’t seem to stop people eating out,’ she observed as they came into the village and saw that the restaurants appeared to be well patronised.

            ‘They’re either mad Queenslanders,’ he observed, ‘Victorians who think it’s still summer, or the food’s too good to miss.’

            ‘Let’s hope it’s the latter. I’m starving.’

            ‘How’s your head?’

            ‘Fine. The headache came back for a while earlier today but paracetamol shifted it.’

            He frowned. ‘I wasn’t too rough with you, was I?’

            ‘Of course not. But I did wonder if you were taking it easy because you were worried about me.’

            ‘Well, maybe. But I’m not a wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of bloke anyway.’ He gave her a lecherous wink. ‘I like to savour all the tasty dishes on the menu.’

            ‘Then you’d better pull into that parking spot,’ she pointed to the only vacant space she’d seen since entering the village. ‘I don’t know what the menu’s like but it’s the closest walking distance to a restaurant.’

            Five minutes later they were seated at a table for two and enjoying the warmth emanating from the restaurant’s air-conditioners while waiting for the drinks they’d ordered.

            ‘What would you like to do tomorrow,’ Chris asked. ‘Have a look at Kondalilla Falls? Browse the shops? Take a drive to the Sunshine Coast?’

            ‘Would I be terrible if I said sleep in, then look at the shops after we’ve checked out? There used to be a great shop here that sold the most beautiful leather handbags and shoes. Not that I can afford to shop there now, but it would be nice to look.’

            ‘Do you miss that? Being able to buy whatever you like?’

            ‘Just a little. I really miss being able to buy nice gifts for Miranda and Pru. But I don’t miss the lifestyle I had with Damien. It wasn’t the kind of life I wanted. I often felt like a fake. I know I bought all the high-end clothes and accessories, but I felt far more comfortable mucking around in the garden in an old pair of jeans.’

            ‘Designer jeans,’ he smiled.

            ‘Actually,’ she returned the smile, ‘I bought my gardening jeans at the op shop. My conscience wouldn’t let me wear expensive clothes when I was digging around in the dirt. We were pretty poor when I was growing up and Mum expected my brother and me to look after our clothes because they had to last.’

            ‘What was your father like?’

            ‘Lately I’ve come to realise that he was an older version of Damien. Poor background, desperate to make something of himself. Only he lacked Damien’s knack for falling on his feet. When Dad crashed, we all burned.’

            ‘But Damien almost went bankrupt.’

            ‘True. He lost everything. But look at him now. He’s pulled himself together, got a great job, he’s looking the best he has in years.’

            ‘But he lost you.’

            Ellie sighed, but with resignation, not regret. ‘I think we lost each other years ago.’

            ‘I might sound like a bastard, but I’m happy he lost you. One man’s loss …’

            He didn’t finish the saying. The look on his face said it all. Miranda was probably right about him being in love with her. It was a heady thought. Particularly as she was halfway towards loving him back. ‘What about your father?’ she changed the subject. ‘You’ve mentioned your mother and sister, but not your father.’

            ‘Dad was a cop too, but he was a cranky old bastard. He died when I was thirty-four. Mum told me once that when men reach fifty, they either get worse or they mellow. From the way Mum tells it, Dad got worse. When I hit forty-five I decided to start mellowing early so I’d be easy to put up with.’

            The waiter appeared with their drinks before Ellie could think of a suitable response.

It could have been the red wine, but Ellie was more inclined to believe it was Chris’s company that caused the wonderful sense of warmth and contentment that enveloped her as the evening went on.

The macadamia crumbed cod was cooked to perfection, the chocolate cream mousse was velvet smooth on her tongue, and the only flaw in the evening was the awareness that this particular restaurant didn’t sell avocado oil of any description. The vision she had of Chris making passionate love to her all night was swiftly turning into a nightmare of painful penetration and unbelievable frustration. She’d even fleetingly contemplated a late-night dash to the Sunshine Coast to find a twenty-four hour chemist, something the small hinterland villages didn’t have.

By the time they decided to leave, she had resigned herself to a night of very careful love-making. Her earlier crack about cushions down the middle of the bed might turn out to be prophetic.

She stood to the side as Chris went to the small reception desk to pay the bill. As he paid, he murmured something to the maître de, and she saw the man’s eyebrows lift in surprise, then he smiled, gave a knowing wink, and walked to the kitchen. Ellie looked after him, puzzled, then felt a flush of embarrassment as he came back with a small bottle in a white paper bag. He handed it to Chris, who put it in his coat pocket, thanked the man, and walked towards her.

The flush turned into a fire. Perspiration oozed from every pore. She was sure her face could beat Rudolph’s nose for leading Santa’s sleigh through the night. She almost ran out the front door when Chris opened it for her, grateful for the icy air that hit them as they walked to the Rodeo.

She didn’t speak as he opened the door for her. She didn’t speak as he started to drive away, but she soon couldn’t contain herself. ‘How could you?’ Her voice was a disbelieving squeak.


‘Ask that man for avocado oil! I saw him wink. What did you tell him?’

            ‘That I’d brought my girlfriend up to the mountains for a romantic weekend away and I’d promised her I’d cook her a great breakfast but I forgot to bring oil to cook the eggs and spray didn’t do it the way she liked them.’ In spite of the innocence in his voice, there was enough illumination from the street lights for her to see how hard it was for him to keep his amusement under control. ‘He was sympathetic to my plight and said he was happy to help me out.’

            Ellie was starting to see the funny side herself, but she didn’t believe his smooth spiel. ‘What did he really say?’

            Chris laughed then. ‘He said, mate, you’re either in love or you’re in the doghouse so far you’ll have to dig your way out with an excavator.’

            The temptation to ask was too great to resist. ‘So which did you tell him it was?’

            ‘I told him that one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other.’

            She couldn’t be sure, but she thought his voice no longer held any amusement.

Kandy wondered if removing herself physically from Phillip’s bedroom would lessen the pain of knowing she no longer held the prime position in his heart. She’d believed him when he’d told her he loved her, and believed even more when he’d said that that love wasn’t enough.         She’d packed her toiletries, most of her clothes, some of her shoes, and some odds and ends and moved into the guest wing. Gradually she would remove all traces of herself from the bedroom she now considered to be his. She wondered if she would ever accept Nathan taking her place there, but after tomorrow she would never see the room again so it was better not to imagine that.

            The guest wing was totally self-contained, even to the fully-equipped kitchen and media room, and as it had its own attached garage there would be no need for her to go into the main house if she didn’t want to.

            She opened the bedroom curtain and gazed out at the stars. A deep, aching loneliness threatened to engulf her.

            She told herself it was something she was going to have to get used to.

Sleeping in was doubly enjoyable when a strong masculine body spooned around you and a warm hand stroked lazily over your breast, Ellie thought. The fire had gone out during the night, and although she’d done a quick sprint to the bathroom earlier on, she didn’t feel like getting out into the cold again.

            She squinted at her watch on the bedside drawers. Darn, they only had an hour before check-out time. Her stomach rumbled.

            ‘Time I cooked that breakfast,’ Chris murmured into her hair.

            ‘I don’t think there’s any oil left,’ she smiled.

            He chuckled, kissed her neck and climbed out of bed. She watched his naked back as he walked to the bathroom and couldn’t help the cat-licking-cream smile the sight evoked. Her body ached, but not from the bruises from her fall at the units. No, the ache was a pleasant one, one that came from making love passionately and thoroughly. She had discovered she was capable not just of having an orgasm, but having one that lasted longer than the audience response to a lousy comedian. Her thighs twitched at the memory. Memories, she corrected herself. Her smile widened. No wonder they’d slept in.

            They left the cabin with five minutes to spare. Chris dropped the key in the box outside the cottage-castle door and waved to Ronnie when he opened a window in one of the towers and called out goodbye.

It was a perfect winter’s day, bright sunshine with a touch of warmth and a light breeze. No wonder the main street of Montville was crowded. With its many and varied shops and great restaurants it was a tourist favourite.

Ellie thought she’d have to chisel the smile off her face when they returned to Brisbane. Chris held her hand, admired the tiny statue of a cat carved from agate that she purchased for Miranda, and laughed with her at the African carving of a native with an erect penis as long as his legs that she was tempted to buy for Pru just for the shock value but decided on a letter-opener instead. She bought Cass and Kandy soaps perfumed with pure oils, and a hand-made woollen scarf for her mother for her birthday in a few weeks time.

            They were emerging from the third shop when a loud rumbling noise heralded a convoy of about twenty motorcycles coming into the village. Chris didn’t grip her hand harder, but Ellie felt a distinct change in him as the black-leather-clad riders came into view. They had no gang markings on their jackets, no over-abundance of chains and studs, nothing to indicate they were anything other than a group of motorcycle enthusiasts enjoying a Sunday ride, but the mood of the crowd dulled as though clouds had covered the sun and heads turned to watch the procession.

            The group pulled into a parking lot near a cafe at the far end of the street and dismounted. Ellie saw the way Chris watched them, assessing, calculating, then relaxing as helmets came off and the riders trooped into the cafe.

            Her head started to ache. She reached up under the hair that feathered across her forehead and gently massaged her scalp close to the stitches.

            ‘Is your head hurting?’ he asked, his attention now solely on her. ‘Are you dizzy?’

            ‘Headache’s back. I need to take something for it. And a cup of tea would be good.’

            He took her arm and they walked to a coffee shop. ‘I know we had a late breakfast,’ he said, ‘but it’s lunch time. Perhaps you need something to eat.’

            She wasn’t sure eating was a good idea, but they ordered toasted sandwiches.

            By the time she’d taken the paracetamol and drunk half her tea, she felt a lot better. When the toasted sandwiches arrived she discovered her appetite had returned. Fifteen minutes later she conceded that the most appealing option now was a drive to the Kondalilla Falls and a repeat of yesterday’s afternoon nap. She was about to suggest this to Chris when the sound of motorcycle engines firing up filtered into the building. One by one the bikes roared down the road towards Maleny.

            She knew Chris was listening to the noise, knew he had switched to cop-mode the moment the group had arrived, and had only switched off once he thought there was no threat being posed.

            When they walked outside, the sound of raised voices carried to them on the breeze. They looked up to where the motorcyclists had been. Two big bikes remained. And next to them stood two young men.

Angry young men.

            If Ellie had thought Chris had gone into cop-mode before, it was nothing to what she saw now. His whole demeanour changed. His smile disappeared; his body tensed; his focus centred on the altercation that seemed to be showing signs of becoming physical.

            Ellie couldn’t make out all the words, but the bikers appeared to be arguing over a television that one had sold the other and had stopped working within a day of the sale. It appeared the seller had no intention of returning the other man’s money. The buyer was shorter and stockier than his bigger, ginger-haired mate, but he was just as belligerent in asserting his claim that he was entitled to get his money back. Ellie almost cringed at the language both men were using.

            People coming out of the cafe were quickly giving them a wide berth. A couple of backpackers looked at them in amusement, then shrugged and walked past.

            The smaller man took a swing at Ginger-hair. The punch connected with Ginger’s shoulder. He stumbled, bellowed his rage and hit back. His fist slammed into the smaller man’s face and knocked him to the ground. Ginger sneered something unintelligible and the smaller man sprang to his feet and pushed his hand into his jacket pocket.

With a smile that sent Ellie’s blood cold, he flicked out a long-bladed knife and advanced on Ginger.

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