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First published in 2018

Copyright © Holly Ford 2018

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in


any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior
permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever
is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational
purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has
given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of
the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events,
locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Allen & Unwin


83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Australia
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
Email: info@allenandunwin.com
Web: www.allenandunwin.com

A catalogue record for this


book is available from the
National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 76029 612 4

Set in 12/18 pt Sabon by Midland Typesetters


Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin Press

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The paper in this book is FSC® certified.


FSC® promotes environmentally responsible,
socially beneficial and economically viable
C009448
management of the world’s forests.

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One

Lennie looked up, following the path of the helicopter as it


beat low overhead, heading for the pine-clad hills. For a crazy
moment, she thought about waving it down. It’d been over
two hours since she’d called the breakdown service, and there
was still no sign of a truck. Across the empty highway, two
muddy horses watched her hopefully, their strip of paddock
grazed low. In the distance, the helicopter and its racket sank
into a fold in the hills. As it lowered, she caught a flash of its
starboard light against the lengthening shadows.
Climbing back into the driver’s seat of her grandmother’s
Toyota Corolla, Lennie turned the ignition one more time.
No joy. Through the rain-spotted windscreen, she studied
the bristling slopes up ahead. In the rear-view mirror she
could see the wide grey road stretching back to the pass she’d

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just descended. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. She really didn’t need this
right now.
Four hours earlier and a hundred-odd kilometres west, she’d
been surrounded by higher, drier, more familiar hills. Surrepti-
tiously taking in the landscapes of her childhood through the
lunchroom window of the vet clinic her grandfather had devoted
his life to building, Lennie had been trying to hold the thread
of what Jim’s business partner was saying when a shape burnt
onto the back of her teenage eyelids almost as thoroughly as the
Kimpton Ranges had loomed into view in the car park outside.
Lennie leaned back on the Corolla’s headrest, replaying the
meeting that had followed against the still-empty road.
‘Oh, he’s here, is he?’ her grandfather had muttered, as the
figure approached Central Vets’ front door.
‘I told him to pop in if he was passing.’ Jim’s partner, Paul,
turned the pen on the table in front of him, a hard-to-read look
on his face. ‘I thought it might be good for him to meet Lennie.’
Paul glanced across the table at her. ‘Say hi. You know.’
The lunchroom door opened. ‘Hey. Am I interrupting?’ In
the doorway, Benji Cooper paused, his wide smile warming
the room.
As the sparkle in his blue eyes deposited her straight back
in Year Twelve, Lennie felt her heart skip a beat. The captain
of Kimpton District High School’s First XV had aged well.
Very well. In fact, if anything he looked even better than he
had done when she’d last seen him driving away from Stacey
Kendrick’s end-of-year party fifteen years ago. Benji had
grown into his face, his square jaw now sporting the sort of
scruff she’d seen described in a magazine at the hairdressers

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as a ‘corporate beard’. Lennie could remember the day she’d


watched him break the school javelin record, and by the
looks of the shoulder muscles stretching his business shirt, he
still could.
‘Come in,’ Paul told him. ‘We’re all done with the formal
stuff.’
‘Lennie,’ Jim said evenly, ‘this is Benji Cooper, VETSouth’s
business manager.’
Lennie blinked. Benji was the man trying to buy her grand-
father out?
‘Benji,’ Jim went on, ‘this is my granddaughter—’
‘Magdalena O’Donnell.’ Benji’s eyes sparkled even more.
‘Well. Look at you.’
‘You haven’t changed a bit,’ Lennie said, as Benji continued
to take his own advice, his gaze moving over the neat little
black pantsuit she’d felt she owed it to her grandfather to wear
to her formal ‘job interview’. Surely after all these years that
suggestive grin of Benji’s couldn’t still make her blush? Yep,
apparently it could.
‘You have.’ He tilted his head to one side. ‘I like the long
hair. It suits you.’
She resisted the impulse to raise her hand to her chignon.
‘You two know each other?’ At the head of the table Jim
frowned, perplexed.
Lennie glanced at him. Seriously? Was it possible that her
grandfather knew nothing of the passion that had defined
her high school years—her hopeless, hopeful, never-quite-
requited but never-quite-spurned, all-consuming love for
Benji Cooper?

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‘Benji and I went to school together.’ Lennie strove for a


neutral tone, trying to ignore the all-too-familiar tingle down
her spine as Benji walked behind her.
‘Lennie used to let me sit with her in chemistry.’ Benji took
the chair next to her, the breadth of his thigh muscles testing
the weave of a narrow pair of navy trousers that looked like
they should have a matching jacket somewhere. ‘She taught
me everything I know.’
‘We’re all looking forward to learning a thing or two now
Lennie’s coming on board,’ Paul said.
Benji’s blond eyebrows rose. ‘They’ve convinced you,
then?’
Lennie shot another look at her grandfather. ‘Yes,’ she said
brightly, watching Jim let out his breath, the glow of relief in
his eyes. ‘They’ve convinced me.’
‘Well.’ Benji’s grin broadened. ‘Let me be the first to say it,
then. Welcome back to Kimpton.’

The sight of a vehicle on the road behind her jolted Lennie


out of her reverie. Chugging towards her in no great hurry, an
elderly ute crawled to a halt, pulling in behind the Corolla on
the damp grass of the verge.
‘I was on another job,’ the driver announced. Only the set
of well-used overalls he was wearing differentiated him from
a random passer-by. ‘I told them on the phone I wouldn’t be
able to get here for a couple of hours.’ It was less an apology
than an accusation.
‘Yes,’ Lennie soothed. ‘They told me.’

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The guy looked her up and down, his scrutiny making her
almost as uncomfortable as her pantsuit.
‘I can’t be everywhere,’ he said.
‘No,’ Lennie said. ‘Of course not.’ Hoping to shift his
attention, she turned to the car. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what
happened. It just stopped.’
‘Electrical fault, probably.’ He gave her another withering
look. ‘How long since its last service?’
‘I don’t know.’ As he sighed, his suspicions confirmed,
Lennie resisted the urge to apologise again. ‘It’s not my car.
I just borrowed it for the day.’
Climbing into the driver’s seat, he turned the key. The
engine remained lifeless. ‘Could be anything,’ he said.
‘Can you fix it?’
‘Not here.’ Getting out, he narrowed his eyes at the horizon.
‘I’ll have to come back with the trailer, load it up, get it into
the workshop.’
‘Is that far away?’
He shook his head. ‘Glenmore. Ten k’s up the road.’
Lennie let out a quiet breath of relief.
‘But—’ he looked at his watch ‘—we just shut for the night.’
She closed her eyes briefly. ‘So,’ she said, matching her tone
to the knowledge that this man was the closest thing she was
going to get to help, ‘what do I do?’
‘You’ll have to wait till the morning. I’ll come back for
it then.’
As Lennie surveyed the empty road again, the man seemed
to take pity on her at last. ‘There’s a hotel by the garage,’ he
said. ‘You can stay there.’

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Oh, thank god.


He nodded at the passenger door. ‘Hop in.’
This would be okay, Lennie told herself. It would totally
be okay. So long as the Corolla was on the road by midday
tomorrow, she could still make her flight back to Sydney. All
she needed to do was check into this hotel, wherever it was,
call her grandmother, and relax for the night. Sliding cautiously
into the oily passenger seat of the ute, Lennie tried not to dwell
on how many more people she was going to have to call if she
didn’t get the car back before midday tomorrow. Rosters at the
hospital, Sam, Deliarna, a whole list of clients waiting for test
results, not to mention two airlines—
She forced herself to take a deep breath. Get a nice big
lungful of clean country air. Some downtime would do her the
world of good. She could order room service, watch a movie,
catch up on all that sleep she’d lost lately trying to think of a
way to say no to moving back to Kimpton . . .
Lennie watched the road ahead snake into the forested hills,
following roughly the way the helicopter had headed. She’d
made the right decision today. She knew she had. She could
learn to live without Sydney. She could learn to live without
the hospital. The Royal could find another internal medicine
specialist. But she was Jim O’Donnell’s only granddaughter,
and for the first time in her life he’d asked her for something.
She’d never learn to live with turning him down.
It wasn’t until she heard the tick of the indicator beside her
that it dawned on Lennie where she was being taken. The place
the ute was pulling into would have been easy enough to miss,
hitting the straight at open-road speed that morning. But she

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hadn’t missed it. It had registered, briefly, on her consciousness


as she’d driven through it on a full tank of gas. The rusting
canopy with its painted-out oil company sign and single pump,
the sort of place that took the service out of station, and behind
it the long, low, sagging pub with the 1980s beer logo peeling
from its iron roof. She’d even formed a thought about it before
it had disappeared behind her. She’d wondered just how des-
perate—or crazy—you’d have to be before you stopped there.
The ute drew to a halt. Slowly, Lennie climbed out onto
the forecourt, the clip of her low heels on the concrete hanging
heavy in the silence, engine oil thick on the breeze.
‘Go see Jazzy over at the pub,’ her saviour ordered, not
unkindly. ‘She’ll sort you out.’

Behind the bar of the Glenmore Hotel, a solidly built woman


regarded her stonily, ink rising from the collar of her NRL
shirt in a series of discs that reminded Lennie of an auger.
‘Bistro closes at seven-thirty if you want food,’ the woman
said.
‘Do you . . .?’ Lennie glanced around at the melamine
tables occupying what looked like an old dance floor. She
paused, thinking better of asking about room service. ‘Do you
do takeaways?’
‘No.’ Reaching under the bar, the woman handed her a key.
‘Rooms are that way. Across the car park.’
Negotiating the heavy shingle to the prefab accommoda-
tion block, the slithering river stones adding a sway to her
step, Lennie tried to focus on the positives of her situation.

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This was a whole lot better than the back seat of the Corolla.
Better than being stranded out there on the road. The unit she
was heading towards had a roof, and walls, and a patio door
that almost certainly locked, and the rest she could do without
for a night. She ought to be able to, anyway. And it didn’t
look . . . so bad. A bit like—like a school camp. The sort that
sat empty for large chunks of the year. Anyway. Staying here
wasn’t going to kill her.
On the other side of the wire netting fence, a sheep—some-
body’s old pet lamb, she guessed, by the way it was eyeing her
pockets—ambled out from behind the block to bleat at her,
and Lennie smiled at it in return. See? What was she worried
about? There was even a friendly face.
Sliding open the rickety aluminium door to her unit, she
pulled the greying net curtain back into place, set her handbag
down on the bed and pulled out her phone. It took her a
moment to work out why her grandmother’s number wasn’t
ringing. No signal. Shit. Lennie glanced around for a landline.
Locating an ancient telephone on the stained pine table below
the TV, she punched in the digits.
‘The Glenmore pub?’ Lois O’Donnell repeated, as soon as
Lennie had finished explaining. ‘You can’t stay there. Not by
yourself. I’ll come and get you.’
‘Grandma,’ Lennie said patiently, ‘you can’t. I’ve got your
car, remember?’
There was a brief pause. Lennie imagined her grandmother
standing at the console table in her shiny new townhouse out
on the coast, the shiny new phone to her ear, Lois’s determined
mouth pursing. ‘Well, I’ll go and hire another one,’ Lois said.

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‘The rental car companies will be shut by now,’ Lennie told


her. ‘And besides, I don’t want you driving all this way tonight.
I’ll be fine here till the morning.’
Lois made a humphing noise. ‘Why isn’t your grandfather
coming to pick you up?’
‘I don’t want him driving here either. Anyway, if I go back
to Kimpton tonight I’ll never make my flight tomorrow.’
‘Len . . .’ Lois sounded unconvinced.
‘I’m alright here, Grandma, really. It’s . . .’ Lennie glanced
around the tiny unit again. ‘It’s nice.’
There was another pause. ‘So what did you tell him?’
‘Who?’ Lennie hedged.
‘Your grandfather.’
‘About the car breaking down?’
‘About the job,’ her grandmother said firmly.
Through the net curtain, Lennie watched the blurry shape
of a ute crawl past the window.
‘Oh Len,’ Lois sighed. ‘You said yes, didn’t you?’
‘Let’s talk about it when I get there, okay?’ She checked her
watch. ‘Look, I’d better go. The restaurant’s closing soon.’

Two hours later, turning the mound of coleslaw beside her


still-partially-frozen chips as she wondered whether offending
the chef posed a greater risk to her health than his food, Lennie
ventured a look around the bar. The place was turning out to
be more popular than she’d expected. It filled and emptied in
waves, forestry workers knocking off shift, carloads of kids on
the crawl, a touch rugby team heading home from practice.

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She couldn’t resent all the looks coming her way. If the roles
were reversed, she’d be looking herself. Sitting here alone,
dressed as she was, she stuck out like a penguin in a henhouse.
Lennie pushed her hair away from her face. Doing what
she could to soften her look before she hit the bar, she’d taken
down her tightly twisted lady-means-business chignon, and in
the humid hangover of the day’s rain her curls were running
riot. She ran a thick black hank around her finger, pulling it
straight, before remembering what a bad habit it was to play
with your hair.
In a corner by the window, somebody else was sitting
alone. Lennie watched him, wondering what was making her
do so when everything about the guy said he wanted to be
ignored. With enviable control, his attention seemed to move
only between his beer and the newspaper that surrounded him
like a wall. He was wearing the same uniform as pretty much
everyone else in the bar, workboots and work shirt, jeans. His
hands had the same weathered tan. But there was something
about the easy way he was occupying that chair, the way you
saw professional athletes occupying the bench, every muscle
completely relaxed and at the same time ready for action. Below
his dark hair, his face was hidden, leaving Lennie’s imagination
to fill in the rest. She smiled at herself. Wishful thinking. The
chances of meeting a tall dark handsome stranger in Glenmore
tonight were probably slim.
As she continued to study him, he pushed the plate carrying
the remains of his burger a little further away. He didn’t look
at her, but Lennie sensed her covert stare had been noted,
and disapproved of. Getting up, she headed back to the bar.

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Jazzy gave her a kinder look as she paid for a second glass of
pinot noir.
The guy remained where he was as the night wore on, his beer
barely touched. The crowd had started to thin out, customers
getting fewer and louder, jugs sinking faster, but the personal
space he’d so clearly pegged out for himself remained unvio-
lated. Struggling to find a reason for his continued presence in
the bar, it occurred to Lennie that he might be her one fellow
guest in the hotel, the body behind the slam of the door she’d
heard at the other end of the accommodation block, the expla-
nation for the flat-deck Land Cruiser that had appeared outside
it. Perhaps, like her, he was waiting for the teenage swap-a-crate
party that had overtaken the car park to take itself elsewhere
before he went back to his thin-walled room.
‘Hey.’ A body thudded into the vinyl chair beside her. ‘You
want to come to a party?’
Lennie drew back a little from the beer fumes. ‘Thanks—’
she smiled, sensing a dare ‘—but I’m kind of busy tonight.’
The boy didn’t look much over eighteen.
A second guy leaned over the opposite chair, adding a
good portion of his drink to the upholstery stains. ‘She’s busy
tonight,’ he mimicked, in a ridiculous falsetto. ‘She don’t want
to come to your party, man.’
‘Aren’t you a bit old to be doing that?’ Lennie said mildly.
‘Aren’t you a bit old to be doing that?’
‘You too good to party with us?’ The first guy waved his
empty glass in her face. ‘That it?’
‘We’re fucken rednecks, man,’ his friend chimed in. ‘She
only parties with suits.’

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‘No.’ Lennie kept her voice measured. ‘I just don’t feel like
partying tonight.’
‘You know what that tight little arse of yours needs up it is
my big redneck—’
‘Hey.’ A newspaper and a pint of beer arrived on the table
beside her. ‘Sorry I was away so long.’ Casually, the guy she’d
been watching settled into a chair. ‘I had to make a call.’ He
gave her visitors a long, even stare.
‘Yeah, whatever, man,’ the boy beside her muttered,
vacating the seat he’d taken. ‘Fuck you.’
As he and his mate moved off, Lennie got her first good
look at her fellow hotel guest—if that’s what he was. He was
bigger than he’d appeared from across the room, a weight to
him that was about more than that lean mass of muscle. The
angles of his face remained shadowed even in this light, as if
he’d brought his own personal patch of darkness with him
from the corner. Her imagination had short-changed him—
it was a better-looking face than she’d given him credit for.
A stronger face. He couldn’t be much older than she was, if at
all. But something about him seemed ageless as a rock wall.
The deep brown eyes following the boys’ retreat reminded her
of a Great Dane she’d once known—astute, careful, contained.
Old-soul eyes.
‘Thank you,’ she said, when the boys had drifted back to
the rest of their group at the pool table. She paused, taking
in that face again while she waited for him to say something in
return. ‘I’m Lennie, by the way.’
‘You don’t have to talk to me.’
‘Thanks,’ she said wryly. ‘I appreciate that.’

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‘I didn’t come over to try and pick you up.’


‘No,’ she said. ‘I get why you came over.’
Briefly, the brown eyes met hers. ‘It’d be better if I sit here
till your little friends go home.’
Lennie nodded, oddly fascinated by the line the zygo­
maticus muscle cut down his cheek as he spoke.
‘Hey mate—’ came a voice from behind him.
The guy looked over his shoulder. The next thing Lennie
knew, both he and his chair were on the floor, the back of his
head hitting the boards with an ugly smack. The boy who’d
first spoken to her stood over him. Lennie jumped up as a
steel-capped boot aimed a kick at his head.
He rolled fast, his right hand moving to his chest, reaching
for something that wasn’t there. Then, quick as a cat, he
was back on his feet. She watched him breathe out slowly,
spreading his hands. His voice, when he spoke, was almost
apologetic.
‘Okay,’ he said to the boy. ‘You got me. You win.’
‘Watch out,’ Lennie warned him.
As his attention flickered to the group of guys amassing
behind him, the boy’s forehead smashed into his. He staggered
back a step. Before he could straighten, another boy had him
in a choke hold, the base of a pool cue mashed against his
throat. Seeing the first kid draw back his fist for a swing, Lennie
rammed her chair into him as hard as she could, driving him
into the floor, ducking an empty twelve-ounce glass as it flew
past her head. Behind her, she heard a yowl of pain.
Lennie turned. The kid with the pool cue was on the
ground, cradling his ribs.

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‘Break it up!’ Jazzy parted the crowd, a softball bat in her


hand. ‘That’s enough. Go on, you boys get out of here.’
‘Yeah, fuck you Jazzy.’
‘Now.’ She raised a pencilled brow. ‘Before I call your
mother.’
Gradually, they picked up their fallen mates and slunk
out, still muttering. After a glance at the clock, Jazzy locked
the door behind them. Outside, a couple of engines coughed
and roared, disappearing into the night with a final emphatic
clatter of gravel.
In the middle of the scattered, empty tables, the guy whose
name Lennie was really starting to feel she should know
rubbed the back of his neck. Blood was pouring out of his
forehead, the stream of it closing his left eye. Walking over to
him, Lennie reached up, angling his head down towards her,
assessing the damage.
‘Come on,’ she said gently, ‘we need to get that cleaned up.
I’ve got a kit in my room.’
Behind him, Jazzy smirked. Lennie saw her slide a first-aid
kit back under the bar. Still trailing the bat from her left hand,
Jazzy returned to the door, scanning the car park. ‘You’re all
clear.’ She unlocked the door.
They crossed the shingle to the units without a word, the
security lights harsh overhead, the dregs of the kids’ party all
around them, the sound of their feet on the stones the only
break in the silence.
‘Have a seat.’ Motioning him to the bed, Lennie extracted
the emergency vet kit from her bag.
‘Do you always carry a first-aid kit around in your handbag?’

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She smiled. ‘You’d be surprised how often it comes in useful.’


Placing her hands under his jaw, she tilted his forehead to the
unit’s fluorescent light. ‘That’s a nasty cut you’ve got there.’
His broad shoulders shrugged. ‘I’ve had worse.’
‘You get headbutted a lot?’
‘What can I tell you.’ His voice was dry. ‘I’m a people
person.’
‘Yeah.’ Lennie angled his head a little more. ‘I’m getting
that about you.’ She reached for another prep pad. ‘You know,
you still haven’t told me your name.’
‘Mitch,’ he said. ‘Mitch Stuart.’
‘Mitch,’ she repeated experimentally. ‘Can you lean back
for me a little more?’
‘How’s that?’
‘Perfect.’ The cut was starting to clot. ‘I think you might be
the best-behaved patient I’ve ever had.’
‘You’re a doctor?’
‘Yeah.’ She ripped open a packet of skin closures. ‘Some-
thing like that.’
‘So what brings you here?’
‘A job interview,’ Lennie admitted, grateful for a chance to
explain what she was wearing. ‘I’m just on my way back.’
‘How’d it go?’
The only way it was ever going to. ‘It was kind of a foregone
conclusion.’
‘Those are the best kind.’
‘They are,’ she said, placing the strips, ‘if you want the job.’
‘And you don’t?’
‘I don’t have a choice.’

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‘Really?’
Lennie sighed. ‘No. That’s just what people tell themselves,
isn’t it? I’ve got a choice. I just don’t want to make it. It’s hard.’
He frowned. She paused, waiting for him to relax his fore­
head again.
‘There’s always a choice, right?’ she said.
‘Almost always.’
She surveyed her handiwork, wondering if the adhesives
would hold, debating the ethics of offering to suture it for real.
‘What about you? What brings you here?’
‘A forestry job.’
‘Permanent?’
‘Just a couple of days.’ He flexed his back. ‘I finish up
tomorrow.’
‘There.’ She peeled off her disposable gloves. ‘All done.’
He sat up, his hand rising again to his neck.
‘Here, let me feel.’ Lennie slid her hands below his ears,
checking the cervical vertebrae, her fingertips moving up and
over the bones of his skull. ‘You know,’ she said, studying the
shape of his pupils, ‘you should get yourself checked out for a
concussion tomorrow before you—’
‘Ow.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Quickly, she relaxed her hands, soothing the
way she always did when a patient gave her a pain response,
her fingers, sunk in his hair, stroking automatically.
‘That’s okay,’ he said slowly.
She was still looking into his eyes. His own moved down,
the back of his index finger brushing the cotton just below the
tip of her collar. ‘I’ve got blood on your shirt,’ he said.

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His eyes rose again. For a moment, everything in the valley


seemed to stop. Then his mouth was on hers, the rough skin of
his hand light below her jaw, in a soft, exploring kiss that trav-
elled down her spine and back again, bringing with it a molten
longing Lennie hadn’t felt for a stretch of time long enough to
have begun to doubt its existence. His other hand in the small
of her back pulled her close.
At the moment her breasts met the mass of his chest,
Lennie felt his body change, the already hard muscles turning
rigid. He drew back, his forearms locked, enforcing the small
distance remaining between them. ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’
She wasn’t entirely sure which one of them had.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘You don’t owe me anything.’
‘That’s not how I say thank you.’ Lennie tried to find his
eyes again. ‘I’m pretty much a Hallmark girl. A muffin basket
at most.’
He blinked. ‘I have to go.’
She was still close enough to feel his breath on her cheek,
but she got the distinct impression he was speaking to her from
a very long way away. Another dimension. Reality, maybe. She
smiled gently. ‘Was it something I said?’
‘It’s not you.’ Putting her aside, he got to his feet. ‘It’s . . .
complicated.’
Complicated? Was there a person on earth who didn’t
know what that meant?
‘There’s somebody else,’ she said, registering the guilt on
his face as he turned away.
He didn’t look like he was listening. As he slid open the
door, she wasn’t sure whether he’d heard her at all.

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There was a rush of cold night air. One hand on the rickety
aluminium, he looked back, for a second, at her sitting there
on the bed. ‘Yeah,’ he said softly, ‘something like that.’ With a
clatter, the door slid shut, and he was gone.

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