Extract from High Country Hero
courtesy of Allen & Unwin NZ
‘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 on the other end of the line. 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.
‘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.
‘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. 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. For a moment, 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 that 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, work boots 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 her 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. 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 thinning out, customers getting fewer and louder, jugs sinking faster, but the personal space he’d so clearly pegged out for himself remained unviolated. 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 explanation for the flatdeck 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.’
‘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.’
‘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 zygomaticus muscle cut down his cheek as it moved that commanding mouth, operating the deadpan delivery of his few flat words.
‘Hey mate,’ a voice said 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 bodies amassing behind him, the boy’s forehead smashed into his. He staggered back a step. Before he could straighten, the second boy had him in a choke hold, the base of a pool cue mashed into his throat. Seeing the first kid draw back his fist for a swing, Lennie rammed her chair into the boy 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.
‘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.’
Slowly, they picked up their fallen mates and slunk out, still muttering. With a quick 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. He had blood 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?’
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.’
Those 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?’
‘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. ‘Something 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.’
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.’ She paused as he frowned, waiting for him to relax his forehead again. ‘There’s always a choice, right?’
‘Almost always,’ he said.
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.’
‘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 the back of his head.
‘Here, let me feel.’ Lennie slid her hands below his ears, gently 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 –’
‘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.
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 travelled 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 feeling 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.
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.