He lay on top of his bedroll, and winced as he turned his head to stare at the hearth fire that warmed the cabin. Even the tiny movements brought pain. He could feel it in every inch of his body. He was keenly aware of muscles he had never given a thought to before. It was still a stunning and humiliating revelation. When he took on the role of the high country grazier, he insisted on doing his own stunts. He had been riding since he was a child, after all.
He had been in the peak physical condition of his life for his role as a bushman not four months before. He knew it would be a challenge to do his own stunts for Brumby. The role called for riding at a level of expertise he had not yet achieved, but Russell loved a challenge. It was about the only one open to him this time. He had but a few lines of dialogue and the role was not demanding compared to some he had recently played.
The reasons for doing this film were different. It was to celebrate the beauty and history of the Australian high country; an adaptation of one of the Elyne Mitchell horse stories so popular with young girls. It pleased him to be a part of bringing that to the world. When his niece reacted excitedly to the news, he made up his mind.
Russell had already discovered he could transform his body to fit a role in a short amount of time. He had assumed that was what he would do this time too. He had not counted on the toll that riding, often at full gallop, up and down steep and rugged terrain, would take on his body.
He was careless for just one moment and been thrown today. It had made him angry and embarrassed, in front of the other stunt riders. Lying on his bunk, afraid to move, he mused that anyone who thought riding less than a full body sport was a fool.
The bunk was not helping any either. It was nothing more than a wooden platform topped with a sleeping bag and a blanket. Rough-hewn wood planks made up the ceiling, walls and floor. Beside the sleeping bunk, a hearth and a crude table and bench constituted the meager furnishings.
The cast and crew were staying at Dinner Plain Hotel. The area had a cozy Alpine village feel. The Brandy Creek Bar and Cafe adjacent to the hotel provided their meals. It was Australia's top ski resort during winter season, but now in late March, it nearly abandoned. Dinner Plain offered small cabins meant to replicate the grazier's huts, but with certain added amenities like plumbing.
That was not authentic enough. Russell had a way of picking the most difficult route possible and then tweaking it, just for interest. He had insisted on staying in a real grazier's hut up at Mount Hotham, about five miles above Dinner Plain. This was his character's summer home in the film. He always tried to immerse himself in his character as much as possible. He had enjoyed the silence and simplicity at first, but now after the third day of filming, a hot water shower pounding on his sore muscles sounded very good. His mind trailed off in warm and blissful memory of a hot spring he had visited once. Exhaustion overtook him and he fell into the kind of deep sleep that only comes with time spent outdoors in intense physical labor.
The next morning he could barely dress himself. He felt as if a truck had run him over and dragged him a mile. Up and frying his breakfast steak over the pathetic little fire he had managed, he saw the riding party from the hotel go past. The hotel offered horseback riding "adventures," where guides took guests out for the day, a campfire dinner, then back to the cozy hotel for a hot shower and a soft, warm bed to sleep in that night. He thought with disdain that those tourists did not have a clue about what "real" horsemanship was. It filled him with renewed enthusiasm for his day's work ahead.
Kate stood in her stirrups and leaned forward over her horse. Just don't look down, she kept repeating like a mantra in her head. The sure-footed bay seemed to enjoy coming as close to the edge of the ravine as possible while picking her way among the rocks. Kate could not suppress the image of plummeting, still on her horse, through space before being dashed to bits on the boulders below.
It was the second day of a three-day ride. Every muscle in her body screamed in agony each time she stood, which was necessary to help the horse up the steep incline. She thought with weak humor that the views were probably terrific for anyone not paralyzed by a fear of heights.
When they finally reached their destination, Stoney's Bluff, she was drained from fear and exhaustion. Riders were required to groom their own horse. She did this mechanically and numbly now, not even able to appreciate the beautiful and gentle mare she had been so excited about being assigned just the previous morning. She collapsed on the ground in front of the campfire and gratefully accepted the beer offered by her friend. She was aware of others in her party faring as bad or worse, but still it galled her that she was having such a rough time of it. She had been around horses all her life. She had had her own pony and raised livestock, participating in the rural central California community's 4-H program through high school.
Kate made her living as a free-lance writer. She loved to travel and had learned she could finance this by writing travel pieces. She had had a few published in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle was doing an Australian series and had approached her this time, on the strength of her previous work. She jumped at the chance to cover the high country of Victoria. A local ranch, Mansfield Station, coordinated the tour she would take of the Australian Alps by horseback.
She had worked before with this photographer. She liked Jake. He was unusually chatty and companionable for a man. Very handsome too with black curly hair and sapphire blue eyes, tall and kept himself in great shape, not married. They had known each other three years and to her everlasting disappointment, he had never once hit on her. At first she had thought she must not be his type, but then she had heard him mention living with his "partner." She had decided long ago that he must be gay.
Although she was in fine physical shape, she was unprepared for the demands of riding in the high country. She had expected a challenge; they made life interesting. The hard ground under her at night was not helping any either. She woke the third and final morning of the ride so bruised and sore it was a struggle to climb out of her sleeping bag. She was wrangling her wild auburn curls back into the French braid she had hoped would last the entire trip when she heard the crying. She turned to see the fourteen-year-old girl in their party sobbing into her father's arms. Apparently, the lack of hot water for three days was just not meeting her teen grooming needs. Kate looked on the father with pity. He looked to be about thirty-five she guessed, and seemed very nice. He had confided at the campfire last night, after his daughter had fallen into an exhausted sleep, that this was his attempt to reconnect with her after a painful divorce from her mother. Kate resolved to put her best face forward. She had always been known as a trooper and she was not about to start acting like a big baby now. They swung onto their horses and hit the trail, back down the mountain.
The film crew was down in Cobungra Station this day, to shoot scenes of the wild ponies running across the countryside. The Australian autumn had arrived. They were three weeks into the shoot. Russell did not have any scenes this morning, so he rode out with the crew to watch the brumbies. The crew made no effort to hold the brumbies to a particular course; the director wanted long shots across great expanses to show the majesty of both the animals and the land. The herd thundered across the plain and up over a hill, heading west of Cobungra. The crew flew alongside in SUVs, trying to keep them in sight.
By now, the pain Kate had felt before had turned to numbness. She could barely feel her rear in the saddle anymore and parts of her right leg and foot had lost all feeling. She managed a weak little smile as she thought how terrific that bath was going to feel tonight. Just have to hang in for another few hours, she told herself. They had nearly finished climbing down out of the mountains and soon would be in the open plain. The rest of the ride should be easy.
First the little party heard the thunder; then felt the ground shake. Suddenly alert, Kate's head snapped up as she surveyed the faces of her guides. Earthquake! That had to be it! She was intimately familiar with the feeling. Although she traveled a great deal with her work, somehow she always managed to be home for each major earthquake. The little party came to a halt, listening and watching. Then their horses began to stamp and whinny. All eyes were on the top of the next rise as they realized that was where the sound was coming from. The thundering herd of wild brumbies crested the rise and barreled down on them. Their riding party was directly in the path. Quickly the guides broke off to the side and shouted commands for the others to follow, grabbing the reins they could reach.
Kate's horse panicked and reared; she saw it all happen in slow motion. She fought for control but was pitched off. She tucked and rolled down the embankment and landed with a thud against a fallen eucalypt. Her mare turned and bolted out ahead of the herd, back the way they had just come. She was dimly aware of the brumbies thundering past just yards above her, and then nothing as she blacked out.
The film crew had seen the tiny party, but had been powerless to do anything to help them. Now one SUV chased the horses, cutting across the arc they followed. The other two SUVs pulled up and stopped, red dust flying, at the riding party. Russell was out and running toward her before the vehicle had come to a complete stop. Jake was already at her side and listening for breath sounds. He could see she was alive, just unconscious.
The two men began at once to yell and argue over what to do for her. "What are you doing?" Jake yelled as Russell shoved him away from her.
"Don't touch her you nonce! She could be injured," said Russell, looking Kate over in anxious concern.
"I want to check for broken bones; make sure she's not bleeding," protested Jake.
He turned to two crewmembers that had run up. "Go like a blue-
arsed fly! Get the doc back at the station. Tell him she may have hurt her neck," The two turned and ran back to one of the SUVs without hesitation, revving the motor and bouncing off across the rugged terrain back the way they had come.
Jake, a good four inches and some thirty pounds of muscle over Russell, turned on him. "Did you just call me a 'nonce', asshole? What are you doing stampeding wild horses out here in our path?"
Russell looked beyond, dismissing him. "Who's in charge here? For fuck's sake! Why did the hotel let you day-trippers out here now? They knew we were filming!"
Jake was livid. "Filming! I should have known. You the director?" It was a demand more than a question.
"That was him took off to get the medic," volunteered a cameraman helpfully.
The stunned members of the riding party watched in silence as the scene played out, unsure of what to do. One of the guides spoke up. "We're not from the hotel. We're from Stoney's out of Mansfield Station. We follow this exact route with a riding party every week from October to May. No one said a damned word about filming and crazed brumbies running through here. We were just heading back in after three days on the trail."
"I don't even know where we are now," admitted the cameraman. John kept saying, 'Let 'em run, let 'em run! Just get it on film!'"
"Sounds like reckless endangerment to me," said Jake, thrusting out his chin. They were trying to decide whom to blame, with at least two of them considering a fistfight, when Kate moaned.
As she opened her eyes, she could make out a group of men, most of whom she did not recognize, standing directly over her and yelling at each other. It took too much effort to make out what they were saying, so instead she tried hushing them. "Ssshhh... you're hurting my head," she said and squinted. She struggled to sit up. "I tried to hold on...." She was trying to make sense of what had happened. Russell reached out a hand and helped hoist her onto unsteady legs. Kate winced and put a hand to the back of her head.
He smiled at her sympathetically. "You've been out riding for three days?" he asked. "No wonder you couldn't hang on, love, you must be exhausted."
"Those ponies..." she looked up at the top of the hill, then around at the group staring at her. "Where did you all come from? Are you from Stoney's?" She looked down to see why her clothes clung damply to her skin and was surprised to find them spattered with mud. She began pulling twigs out of her hair, "Oh God.... This is not fair. To have survived these last three days and it ends in this kind of abject humiliation...." She was muttering to herself now, as she frequently did, and was close to tears.
Relieved she seemed okay and reminiscent of his recent misadventures on horseback, he chuckled. "Who said life was fair, Princess?"
She tried to shoot him her best withering glare, but her self-deprecating sense of humor was still intact. She imagined the picture she must present. "You mock my pain?" she asked.
"Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something," he replied with a grin.
It was too surreal. Was he quoting The Princess Bride to her? He couldn't be. She must have really hit her head hard.
Even in her confused state, Kate noticed that he was a handsome man. He was dressed in jeans and boots, with a denim shirt, and a bushman's hat. Just like an Australian cowboy,
she thought dizzily. He was not as big as Jake but he filled his clothes out nicely. "You don't look like the dread pirate Roberts," she muttered.
Russell laughed, and it was throaty and deep. His intense green eyes seemed to be reading her thoughts. The immediate attraction she felt, even under these awful circumstances, made her embarrassment all the more acute.
"No, we're a film crew. Looks like we sent those brumbies straight at you. Sorry about that - a terrible balls up," he offered magnanimously and thrust out a hand. Kate took it uncertainly and he pumped her arm. "I'm Russell and this," he jerked his head in the direction of the man who was staring at him incredulously, "is Bob the cameraman."
"Uh Russell," said Bob nervously, "maybe we should leave it to John to handle this?" he suggested. Bob was thinking about litigation, certain his director would not be pleased if Russell accepted liability on his behalf.
"You okay then?" Russell asked Kate, ignoring Bob.
"I think my pride suffered the greatest injury." Kate took two steps and her leg nearly buckled under her. "Ow, ow, ow!" She stopped. "Something's not right there,"
she said with a wince as the color drained once more from her face. She sat down on a big rock and gingerly stretched her left leg out, slowly rotating her ankle. "I think it's just sprained. I did this once before when I was a kid."
She attempted to stand again and both Jake and Russell rushed to help her. She smiled coyly at their concerned faces. "Goodness! This is better than having big tits. You two are going to make me act helpless all the time. Just help me get out of here," she said, sounding as tired as she felt.
Russell bowed and made a flourish for her, "As you wish." He ducked under her arm so it was about his shoulders and wrapped his arm around her waist. He called out to her group, "She'll be right. No worries. Send her things to the hotel." He was moving her before she could object. "C'mon. You're not riding anymore. Let's get the frog untied."
Kate gave him a bemused look. Who was this guy? She marveled at his arrogance - to step in and take over the situation. Nonetheless, she allowed him to pilot her off toward the SUV. She certainly did not want to stand around in the bush any longer. "Well, not that you asked, but that's fine with me. Dinner Plain Resort was our next stop."
Russell gave a snort, "Resort! That's gilding the lily!" He glanced at her sidelong. "What's your name love? And what do you mean '
we'? Is that nonce with you?"
Kate looked back over her shoulder at Jake, hands on his hips, gaping after her. She flashed him a smile and called out, "It's alright. I'll meet you there."
She turned back. "It's Kate. I don't know what a 'nonce' is, but it sounds rude. Jake is a photographer. He works with me. You have some problem with that?" she asked, eyes narrowed.
"He was just standing there doing bugger all. And he let me take you off like a bride's nightie, you know? Someone had to take charge, and he clearly wasn't going to do it," he said, looking back disdainfully as he opened the door to the SUV and pushed the front seat forward. He handed her into the back seat. Kate began to object that he had moved too quickly for anyone to do anything else, but the thought fled as she felt his broad hand spread out comfortably across her rear end. "You sit back there and keep your legs up," he commanded. Bob ran up and hopped into the passenger seat as Russell put the SUV in gear and took off. They bounced along for a while in silence. She noticed the way his chestnut hair curled just above his collar.
He caught her eyes in the rear-view mirror. "You're American?"
She had answered the same question a hundred times since arriving in Australia. "Yes. And I believe you're Australian?"
He frowned slightly at her sarcasm and looked away. Now feeling guilty for her peevishness, she remembered his comments from earlier.
"Were you quoting Princess Bride back there to me?" He nodded. In the rearview mirror she could the smile lines at the corners of his eyes. What incredibly beautiful, expressive eyes, she thought. "I love that movie. 'Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,'" she called over the noise of the engine in her best Spanish accent, which stank.
"I love it too. I could've done that part." He was still looking back at her when the kangaroos flushed from the surrounding brush. He braked hard and jerked the steering wheel back and forth, whipping the SUV around. A little one bounded across the hood, making a loud bang! Kate, sitting sideways on the backseat, saw it as she pitched forward. She hit the back of the passenger seat with a dull thud, and ended up wedged on the floor. The men turned to look at her.
"Was that was a rodent of unusual size?" she cried.
The driver's door flew open and he was hauling her out. "Are you okay?"
Russell asked anxiously.
She saw the hood of the car and felt her legs begin to buckle again. He felt her slip and hauled her upright, but unfortunately the motion made her stomach flip. Before she had time to warn him, she vomited, narrowly missing his boots. He kept an arm around her for support. Finally, when the last of the heaves passed, he handed her a wadded flannel shirt he had extracted from the car floor. "It's all I've got. It's clean. Well, mostly,"
he said apologetically.
She wiped her mouth but could not look at him. "Oh God, I'm so sorry..." she began to apologize again.
"It's not your fault we got jumped by a bunch of bloody fucking roos,"
he interrupted before he noticed she was shaking. He pulled her against him, smoothing little circles on her back with the flat of his palm. "There there, hush now, it's okay,"
he tried to get her to look up. "You missed me!"
He chuckled. "I've seen worse than that and for less reason. You might yet have a concussion. Let's get you back and looked at, okay? Then you can go and have a lie down."
He grasped the end of her long plait and tickled the tip of her nose with it. She nodded mutely but still could not meet his eyes. She stared instead at his neck and chest. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone and she could just see a light dusting of hair there. His neck was massive, must be at least a size sixteen,
she thought, finding it slightly odd that she really did not want him to let go of her.
Russell was noticing how long her lashes were. He liked the smattering of freckles across her nose too. He could feel her breasts pressing against him and she was breathing hard. If he looked just right, he could see straight down her camp shirt. It had come undone to her bra after she fell and he had neglected to point it out. I'm a sick bastard,
he thought. The poor girl's just chundered in front of me, she may be injured, and I'm getting randy.
He released her and they both turned back to the SUV, staring at the deep dent in the hood. "Fuck me. They better not take that out of my pay packet."
He helped her back into the SUV and she was stunned to feel him caressing her bottom again; now she was sure she had not imagined it. It was impossible to summon any indignation in light of what she had just done in front of him. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the seat, riding the remaining jarring thirty miles to Dinner Plain in silence.
When they arrived at the hotel, Kate wanted to check in immediately and get cleaned up. Word of her accident had already reached the place. Everyone fussed and insisted she sit still and let the medic look her over. He had been summoned for the child actress who had been ill that morning. Kate was relieved when the doctor said she was fine and allowed her to hobble off to her room. The hotel proprietress was a broad, friendly woman who would not take no for an answer and pushed into the room with Kate.
"I'll start you a nice bath,"
"Thank you, but really, I can do that,"
Kate protested. The woman ignored her. She stood dumbly watching as the woman turned on the taps.
The woman turned to her and wiped her wet hands on her apron. "Now then. You'll be wanting some supper,"
Kate tried to wave her off. "Oh no, really, thank you Mrs.?"
"Burke. Call me Ada," she said. Her ruddy face made Kate think of her own grandmother, whose face had shown the wind and sun from a happy life spent outdoors, working in her garden or with her horses.
"Ada. I don't have any appetite just yet. Perhaps in the morning,"
she said. Ada's face creased in either disapproval or concern, Kate could not tell which, but the woman went and left her alone.
Kate let out a long sigh, grateful for the solitude at last. She hated being the center of attention and the afternoon had worn her out. She sank into the steaming bath and moaned with pleasure. She closed her eyes and sighed as the warm water worked its magic on her aching body. The afternoon's events swam behind her eyelids and she frowned, remembering her humiliation in front of that delicious man. What was his name?
She said aloud. Kate had to open her eyes and look about to make sure no one had heard her. She smiled at her silly self and closed her eyes again. She conjured up his image, savoring every nuance of the memory. The voice was the best part she decided, but it was a tough call. He had seen her delivered to the medic and had then disappeared.
She looked out over the room from the huge Jacuzzi tub. Clean and in good working order, it was the room's best feature. She guessed that the place could not be more than twenty years old. She had read in her travel guide that there had been a development push in this area in the 1970's. The place made her think of Yosemite Lodge. Everything from the walls to the furniture was painted in shades of brown and rust. How much more handsome it could've been if they had left it natural wood, she thought.
She stepped out of the tub, steam rising off her into the crisp air, and wrapped up in a towel. She padded around in her bare feet, taking a closer look. The room was quite ordinary. A lamp with a cane shade hung from a chain above a wicker basket chair containing a worn, lumpy cushion. A silkscreen silhouette of mountains and trees in drab tones covered several feet of one wall. The clean, fat quilt on the bed looked inviting. The stone fireplace was well used, so at least it worked. She shivered thinking about the heat it would throw in the chilly night as her damp skin began to cool.
Kate pulled on an old pair of sweats, and was setting out her things, rummaging though her bag, when there was a knock at her door. Kate went to answer it and Ada came in bearing a tray, setting it on the small desk. Kate peered uncertainly into the bowl of green split pea soup. There was something brown and nasty looking, floating on top. "What's this?"
Kate was almost afraid to ask.
"That's mushy peas and a meat floater,"
Ada said, clearly proud of it. Kate looked at it skeptically. Ada's brows drew together. "Would you prefer a meat pie, love?"
Kate wiped the look from her face. "No! This will do -
thank you," she said and opened the door, willing Ada to leave her alone once more. She shut the door and looked again at the bowl. "A floater,"
she repeated. She had to push down the image that term brought to mind as she poked at it with the soupspoon. To her surprise, it was nothing more than a broiled ground beef patty on top of thick, bland smashed peas. Her stomach clenched and she realized she was famished. A tentative bite showed the dish to be bland but filling fare. She ate most of it before turning back the bed and climbing under the thick, down filled quilt. She started in to read, but was sound asleep in minutes.
Back in his hut, Russell lay on his side on the bedroll, head propped on one arm, watching the last of the embers burn down in the hearth. The absolute quiet up here at night intensified his loneliness. After three weeks, he was badly missing his life in Sydney, and his mates. He had been working furiously for over a year now, one film on the heels of the last. He had seen his family just twice during that time, the last being a Christmas trip to New Zealand. They had come to see him in Sydney the previous summer for the premiere of his latest movie. He smiled remembering how excited they had all been. There had been a big celebration that night. Too long, he thought, missing them all terribly. Life has changed, that's dead cert.
He started to think about the two films he had recently completed and grimaced. I'm a racist skinhead in the one and there's far too much of my ass on display in both. He began to feel nervous all over again, wondering how the films would be received, or if they would even be distributed.
Although he tried to stop, the dark thoughts just kept coming. This was why he was so seldom alone without distraction. As he succeeded in pushing the movies from his mind, he began to think about his girl and that fight. She was an actor as well. He had had other girlfriends, but she was his first serious, adult relationship. It had become their pattern, just as either of them was to go off to the next shoot, that they would go and have a barney. Then he would be alone and filled with doubt and regret. This last fight had been the worst one yet. He feared there would be nothing left to salvage. She had said as much, packed her kit and left.
How he wished she was there with him now. He sighed and flipped impatiently over onto his back, cradling his head on one arm. He ran his other hand down the scratchy wool blanket, across his rising frustration. Staring up at the ceiling, he saw Kate's face again.
That's why I was drawn to her like that. I'm just lonely and randy is all, but I've got some self control.... Pretty face.... I should just leave her alone. Don't need that kind of distraction right now .... Still, she did have a lovely bum. Nice and round, felt good in my hand .... Stop it! .... I was scared when she was thrown. That was quite a fall. Lucky girl could've been badly hurt. I was just concerned, that's all.... I'll pop over tomorrow just to make sure she's okay.
He smiled, satisfied with this decision, and after finding release for his tension, he snuggled down under the blanket.
Russell woke at dawn. He had dressed, cooked his steak, and was ready to work before any of the others. By seven, he was getting restless. He disliked the process this time. There was no discernable schedule. Grueling physical exertion followed by grinding boredom, waiting for another scene that involved him, and there were precious few of those. For 's fuck's sake! What was taking so long?
Another hour passed as the crew assembled. It was some problem to do with the horses causing the hold up now. They are the real stars of this movie, he thought, eyeing them appreciatively. There were some truly beautiful animals on the set and it intensified his longing for one of his own, and a place to ride.
He began to pace. He hated it when he thought the director was not in full control. It caused him to second guess everything and made it more difficult to concentrate on his performance.
The director noticed. "Russell! Go on and take Echo out for a ride!" he called, cutting the edgy actor loose for the rest of the morning. "We won't need you until after lunch." A caged Russell was not pleasant company.
Kate had slept late and felt much better for it. Her ankle was still tender but she was able to walk on it. She dressed quickly, eager to explore her new environs. She favored jeans with short boots and camp shirts for her work uniform on this assignment. Practical clothes for all the riding she had been doing. The gold flecks flashed in her brown eyes as she stepped out into the sun. Most people were too busy grappling with her serious, determined personality to notice her looks at first. It was only when she laughed or smiled that they realized she was a natural beauty.
Mr. Burke's creepy taxidermy hobby was on display, she noted, as beady glass eyes followed her movements about the lobby. They weren't the only ones watching her.
"G'day, love! I hope you're feeling right this morning?" he inquired.
She smiled politely. "Much better, thanks."
"There's not much to see in here, but go on back there to the pub," said Mr. Burke, gesturing down a hall toward the back of the property.
Kate wondered whether he was usually solicitous or if he had learned she was writing a travel article for a big American newspaper. She went down the narrow hall he indicated and was surprised when it opened to a cavernous room. An open beamed ceiling two floors up looked down onto a wood floor polished to a dull glow. Across the room was a spectacular view from the floor to ceiling windows of the unspoiled terrain outside. The rolling hills covered in snow gum, with Mt. Hotham at the back of it all. A long bar lined with stools was just inside the entrance, at the left. A massive stone fireplace set into the far wall showed the blackened evidence of much use. A cluster of small tables and chairs sat in front of the fireplace, and three pool tables flanked the back of the room.
Like the pubs she had seen in Melbourne, this one had acquired a lot of local and tourist color. Underwear of every description, currency from all over the world, various footy team shirts and scarves, college pennants, hundreds of photos, street signs, and license plates from everywhere were tacked on the walls or hanging from the rafters. There was a tiny bandstand in one corner.
She turned and went back past the desk. "What an amazing view! I bet it gets loud and happy in there during ski season," she said.
"You won't have to wait for that," he grinned. "This is the only waterhole in over a hundred miles. We get a good crowd in here most nights."
"Really?" she asked, somewhat surprised. Dinner Plain was so quiet during the day she had difficulty imagining a noisy night life. "I noticed the band stand. Do you have live entertainment?" she asked.
"We get more bands in during the busy season, it's true, but there's a bloke been bringing his guitar in every night lately. He's all right, I reckon." Burke shrugged. "It's not costing me anything, so I told him come on then, but you clean it up if they throw tomatoes at you." He grinned. "Come by and see for yourself. Women are still a rare commodity in these parts. You'll have plenty of dance partners and you won't have to buy a drink all night," he winked.
Kate absorbed this. "An amateur musician and a room full of lonely mountain men? I can't wait," she said and they both chuckled.
"I believe you know the bloke. He was here earlier, looking for you," he said.
"For me?" she asked. "I think you might have me confused with someone else. The only man I know here cannot carry a tune, let alone play a guitar."
"Well - he seemed to know you," said Burke, one corner of his mouth quirking.
She stepped outside, blinking in the dazzling sunlight. She walked over to the little cafe adjacent to the hotel and saw Jake waving to her from the covered porch. She went in through the restaurant and out to the back where he sat waiting. Looking at the unappealing array of meat pies and sausage rolls on the menu, she opted for a hamburger and fries.
"Feeling better today?" He inquired.
"I must be. I'm famished. Nothing a hot bath and a real bed couldn't cure."
"I hear you. I never want to be near a horse again."
"Oh now, c'mon. Not the horse's fault you're a soft city boy," she teased.
Jake grinned "Nothing soft on me." He raised the hem of his under shirt, revealing a tight six pack. "Go on, take your best shot,' he invited.
Kate laughed. "Lower your shirt. You're scaring small children."
Jake sipped his coffee, looking at her thoughtfully. "I was impressed by how well you adapted to home on the range. You seemed to be enjoying yourself, right up to the part where the horse threw you off the mountain."
"It was not a mountain, you silly, I just rolled down a little hill," she protested modestly.
Jake set his cup down. "Are you kidding me? It was a damn steep hill covered in trees and big sharp rocks. I was really worried for you. It was such a relief when you got up and walked away," he said.
His sincerity touched Kate. "See? I'm fine. You worried for nothing."
Jake frowned. "But I could not believe it when you let that asshole lead you off! What the hell was that about? You don't know him from Adam and you just hop into a SUV with him?" he asked, shifting from concern to agitation.
"What was I supposed to do?" Kate asked defensively. "He offered to get me out of there. My girl scout spirit had worn pretty thin by then. I thought he was quite gallant."
Jake was incredulous. "Gallant huh? Aren't you the girl, no, excuse me" he spelled it, "w o m a n, who gets pissed if I open the car door for you? The one I've heard, more than once, launch into a tirade about sexist editors? The one with the shirt that says 'Chivalry's dead and I shot him?'" His shoulders shook with suppressed mirth.
"Oh shut up," she snapped. She had wanted to play off the whole rescue scenario like it was no big deal and now he had gone and got her to admit she was attracted to the Aussie. She looked at Jake through narrowed eyes, a feline smile curling her lips. "You're just jealous," she almost finished, because he hit on me and not you, but choked it off. She held her breath, realizing he had never actually told her he was gay. It was an assumption she had made because he was gorgeous, he lived in San Francisco and he never hit on her. But what if she was wrong? She suddenly felt like a fool.
He looked at her levelly. "And what makes you say that?"
"I'm just being stupid, forget it," she replied, flustered.
Jake covered her hands with his much larger ones. He had an odd look on his face she could not quite decipher. "By all means, go for it. When was the last time, anyway? Have you even dated since the break up?"
"Of course I've dated. It's been three years." She glared. "You're making way more out of this than it deserves."
"Hey, don't be upset..." He trailed off, suddenly awkward.
"I'm not upset," she lied. She peeked beneath the bun on her hamburger. "What is it with these people that they put beets on top of everything?"
"I don't know. National crop?" he replied.
Kate shrugged and bit into the burger. "Not bad," she said as she swallowed. "Besides. Nothing is going to happen. He was just being nice to the tourist, I'm sure. He disappeared as soon as we got to the hotel and I don't blame him. I was a sight to make your eyes sore. I don't expect to see him again, and I don't really want to. It was all too humiliating."
Jake looked beyond her, outside the patio. "Well then, don't look now."
She turned slowly and looked where he did. Russell was tethering his horse to one of the posts in front of the hotel, just like some cowboy from days gone by. He went inside the lobby. Kate turned back and tried to brush it off. "He's probably staying at the hotel."
Within seconds, Russell had left the hotel and was headed straight for the cafe. Kate recalled what Burke had said about a young man looking for her and wondered if it could be him.
"Here he comes. The guy doesn't waste any time, I'll give him that," said Jake.
"He plays a guitar?" Kate wondered under her breath, watching as Russell disappeared around the corner. She turned back to focus on Jake. "You're being ridiculous. I'm sure he's hungry. It's lunch time and this is the only place to eat." Her words were indifferent but she felt her insides tighten with nervous anticipation. She heard his boot steps on the wood floor, a melodious rumble of a greeting and a question to the woman working the counter inside, then the boot steps again, coming this way. Kate slowly raised her eyes, shielding them from the sun with her hand, to look up where Russell stood beside her.
"G'day Kate. I see you're apples this morning," he said. He refused to acknowledge Jake by word or glance, focusing all his attention on Kate. He was dressed much as the day before with the addition of a green cotton sweater.
Freshly scrubbed and well rested, Kate looked even prettier than he remembered. She wore her copper hair down today, and stared at him wide eyed.
Jake caught the look on her face and nearly spit out his coffee. He stood abruptly. "Gotta go catch that midday light while I can. See you out by the horses later?" he asked.
Kate blinked. "What? Oh, okay...catch you later."
Russell gave Jake the briefest glance of indifference as he left the table. "Mind if I sit?" He plopped down next to her without waiting for an answer. He arched his brows. "He blew out of here in a hurry. Wonder what made him bolt like that?" he smirked.
"I believe he said he was going to take some photos while the light was good," she said coolly.
"Uh huh. Hope you brought a camera to take your own. I would not count on that ugly idiot to do anything for you." He looked at her plate. "Are you going to eat those chips?"
"No. Help yourself. And I wish you'd stop calling my friend names. He's an excellent photographer, and he's anything but ugly. My friends are always jealous when I draw Jake for an assignment. They think he's a tall, cool drink of water," she drew the description out, watching him from the corner of her eye. Why did he have to sit right next to me? she wondered, scarcely able to breath.
"That what you think too?" He turned, regarding her beneath hooded eyes.
She shrugged. She was no good at this sort of cat and mouse game. "I suppose. It doesn't matter," she waved her hand, trying to dismiss the topic.
He was not so willing to let it go. "What? You have something going on with him?"
"No. I don't. Not that it's any of your business," she said.
"Good oh," he smiled, not trying to disguise his pleasure. He ate her fries while waiting for the lunch he had ordered.
"Good onya to do a three day ride like that; I know that's rough, 'specially for a girl like you, you know?"
"A girl like me," she repeated. Her brows drew together.
"Uh huh. I don't know a single sheila who would do that," he said, gauging her response with a sidelong look.
"Maybe you're just not hanging out with the right 'sheilas'."
He paused, holding her eyes now that he had her fully engaged. "That's not a derogatory term. Sheila just means female. You don't like 'girl' either?"
"I don't mind 'girl'. I call my friends 'girls'. How 'bout just Kate?" she asked with a lift of her chin.
"All right just Kate. How do you know so much about horses? I reckon you must've lived with them?" he asked.
"Yes, I grew up with horses." She told him about her animals, family, and nearly more, before she realized that the conversation was sounding more like an interview and she had somehow become the subject. She had often used this trick and it felt odd to be on the other end. The waitress came with his plate and Kate could not help but notice the girl flirting with, calling him by name and needlessly brushing her breasts against his arm as she leaned across him on the pretext of filling the sugar bowl.
"So tell me about your film," she asked when the friendly waitress left, trying to turn the conversation back on him.
"Is this a business lunch then?" he asked, bristling suddenly.
Her eyes opened wide. "Um, no, I don't think so. Do we have business?"
His brows lowered as he focused on balancing a fork on the tip of his index finger. "You are a journalist?" he asked after a pause.
"Yes. I am writing a travel piece. I thought you knew that. The whole camping out with horses thing?" She tried to think what she had said or done to offend him.
"Oh!" he said, smiling into his plate. He giggled selfconsciously.
"I'm confused," she confessed. She leaned forward, trying to peer into his face. "Did you want me to interview you?"
His head jerked up. "No!" he said, eyes flashing, wary once more.
She used the same calm voice as when trying to get past the deranged man who dwelled outside the newspaper office in downtown San Francisco. "Well then. I guess we're just chatting," she said. "Okay?"
He flashed an almost shy, boyish grin. "Okie dokie, just Kate."
She thought it stunning, how he could go from intimidating to completely disarming in the blink of her eye. He spoke happily and almost without pause about the film and his part in it. He described the stunts he was doing. And the resulting accidents. He rolled up one sleeve to show her a wound. When he began to unbutton his shirt, she held up a hand to stop him.
"That's okay. I get the idea."
He grinned. "But it's getting better. I'm not so sore today. I must be adapting, you know?" He became very animated talking about trying to keep up with the stuntmen, riding at steep descent down the mountain. His fingers galloped across the table in illustration. She laughed and they galloped over to briefly squeeze her hand. She gasped - it was soft but he heard it. His eyes twinkled as he described his grazier's hut while building a demo house of sugar cubes.
"It sounds charming," she smiled, while thinking that was an apt description for the man as well.
He rested his chin in his hand, a picture of boyish innocence as his very grown up voice vibrated somewhere unexpected within her. "Want to come see it?" he asked. "It has a fireplace."
Kate looked into her now cold cup of coffee and blinked rapidly. "Um. Did you say the movie was based on a book?" She scooted a little away from him.
"Mm hmm. Silver Brumby," he said, still watching her intently.
"From the Elyne Mitchell books?" she asked excitedly. "I love those! I read them all as a girl."
"I have a niece who loves them as well. She's the one who convinced me to do this part," he said. He leaned back and spread his arms wide across the top of the bench.
"That's wonderful," she smiled, warming to him again. "She must be so excited. You're going to be the hit of her school at the very least."
"What is it about young girls and horses?" he mused.
Kate considered the question seriously. "Well ... It's generally prepubescent girls who go gaga for horses. The horse is big, strong and physical. It's probably a safe place to direct all that pent up ..." her voice trailed off seeing the bemused look on his face. "Oh! I don't mean your niece. I'm sure she's too young for that. I'm only speaking for myself." He smirked. She giggled. "When I was thirteen!"
"So you're not gaga for horses anymore?" he asked, imitating her phrase.
"Well, yes I am but it usually takes more than a horse to get me all ... ah ... excited ... now." She felt like a thirteen year old, giddy and breathless, wanting to hold his attention and almost unable to bear it at once.
He arched a brow. "Like what?"
She ignored his insinuation. "It's a family film, right? I mean, so you're safe with the young girls?"
He ducked his head, then looked up at her. "I show a bit of skin," he said.
"Oh no!" Kate exclaimed and laughed aloud. "How much?" she asked, unable to resist.
He laughed and shook his head. "My shirt is the only thing that comes off."
"Well! How does it feel to know you'll be at the sexual dawn of, what? Hundreds of thousands of preteen girls?" she asked.
He groaned. "Don't say that! It's not that bad! I don't think it's going to get an American distributor. We don't have that many little girls in Australia."
She thought she saw a hint of pink on his cheeks and it pleased her to think she might have turned the tables. "Oh, okay then, more like tens of thousands," she said. He winced but was still laughing. "Hmm. Maybe your clever director put the shirtless bit in there for the moms," she added, feeling bold.
Russell couldn't decide if he liked watching her eyes or her pretty mouth more. "So ... just Kate. You didn't tell me. What does it take to get you all excited now?" he asked.
She smiled and shook her head. "I'm not telling you that."
"Yet," he said as his fingertips tickled her shoulder. "How long are you going to be here?"
"I've got three days left. Then I fly home."
He frowned, considering. "So you write about travel and horses?"
Kate sighed. "Well, I kind of fell into the travel pieces. I did some traveling after college, to get some different perspectives? I went to Prague in 1989. It was, it still is I think, the young bohemian place to be. I had nothing but time and freedom and thought, why not? Change was in the air. I fell in love with it. Kafka said that once Prague gets her claws in you, you never get free."
"She quotes Kafka," he mused.
"Are you impressed?" she asked playfully.
"Do you want me to be?" he asked. He tucked a stray curl behind her ear. "Go on."
"So I hung out for a month, being a tourist, and the most amazing thing happened," she spoke softly, almost breathlessly, remembering. "I witnessed the fall of communism. Can you imagine? I saw Vaclev Havel inaugurated. I shook his hand," she marveled, and looked at her hand, remembering "Me. The girl from Santa Rosa. It still amazes me."
"Cool," he said, definitely impressed.
"It was serendipity. I'd written a couple of pieces for the San Francisco Chronicle that I could reference and one night... I was drunk... and I emailed Rolling Stone. I pitched it to them. I never, ever expected a response. Then Jan Wenner called me up. He wired me an advance the next day. I stayed on two more months. They bought two long pieces about the societal sea change that was taking place there."
"I think I read those," he said, all flirtation gone. "Did you write about the music scene - was that part of your story?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, gratified that he had read it. "I like to write about the people of a place, rather than a straight travel piece."
"Sounds like maybe a frustrated novelist?"
"Yes. I hate to tell people because it sounds, well, a little silly." Her voice grew softer still. "I write some fiction. It's just for fun, to relax. I haven't tried to publish any yet," she confided in a rush. It made her nervous to be telling him all this.
He leaned forward confidentially. "What kind of stories?" he asked.
"Okay - that respect you felt a minute ago? Here's where I wipe it all away," she said. "They're referred to in trade parlance as 'bodice rippers.' I've done one historical and the other two are modern. I try to make them real stories with real characters but they are essentially women's stories - romances.
"So... what kind of 'romance' are we talking about here?" he asked.
"There is some erotica," she said, acknowledging his leer. I'm getting wet from the sound of his voice, she realized with dismay. He had somehow slid across the bench and she could feel the heat of his thigh as it pressed against hers. She tried to slide away again but the railing prevented her. It was getting hard to keep her breathing normal as her heart raced.
"Are you good?" he asked, looking directly into her eyes, not giving her any corner to hide.
She took a deep breath, praying she would not begin to stammer. "I've a friend who writes for television. She thinks they are good," she said, a touch of pride in her voice. Barbara told her all the time that she was a big chicken and that she should really try to sell one. It could mean a substantial improvement in her modest standard of living.
"So if I let you watch me film my shirtless scene, will you read me a naughty story?" he purred.
He seemed to be reading her mind. "I, um, that is, I don't have one with me ... Oh. You're teasing me," she realized, feeling foolish. The slight color in her cheeks turned to a deep blush. Get a grip! She admonished herself. It would not do at all to have him thinking she was panting after him this easily.
"Not at all. I will hold you to it." He stood. "Come with me back to the set? You can watch and see what goes on," he offered.
"Can I write about it?" she asked.
He did a double take. "I thought you said that's not what you'd come here for?"
"I might be able to sell a story on the horses and their trainers. I've done that sort of thing before," she said.
He nodded thoughtfully, only slightly suspicious now. "We'd have to ask about that I reckon."
"Yes. I don't think your director would appreciate a writer on his set without his knowledge."
She reached for her lunch tab but he put a hand on her arm to stop her. "I've got it."
"The paper picks up all my expenses," she said firmly, retrieving the check.
He shrugged. "Here's mine," he said and tossed in a bill.
He deserved his difficult reputation, but he was also a professional and had no patience for actors who held up the schedule. Kate hurried, trying to keep up with him, but she paused when she saw him waiting at the big black stallion.
"Is your bum still that sore?" he asked, seeing her hesitate.
"No, no, it's fine. I mean, I'm fine! But... we're riding together?"
"Well, you could walk it. You'll get there about the time we wrap for the day." He looked at her expectantly. "I'm late. Let's go." He gestured impatiently at the stirrup. She planted her foot and swung into the saddle, taking hold of the reins. He mounted behind and took them from her. "My ride. I'll drive," he said.
They took off at a trot. It was a brilliant day. Autumn's color was everywhere, but the sun was summer strong, broken only by the dappled shade of the giant gum trees. When they arrived on set, he directed her to a safe spot. There was no time for introductions now. The other stuntmen were saddled up and waiting in place. Kate spent the remainder of the afternoon watching them corral the brumbies. One scene had Russell call out, mount his horse, and then jump the fence after the escaping brumbies. It was a few takes before the director was satisfied with the way rider and horse sailed through the air. Each shot looked perfect to Kate. She held her breath each time they approached the fence and did not exhale until they had neatly sailed over. It was thrilling to watch and she thought he handled his mount expertly.
Filming wrapped for the day as the late afternoon light began to fade. Members of the crew were already heading back to the hotel for the evening. Russell called to her and introduced her to a few of the crew, including the director.
"How you go, love? You're looking right!" he pressed her hand warmly. "Gave us all a terrible scare. So! This is wonderful news Russell tells me, that you are doing a story about the movie? I hope this means you won't be suing for nearly being trampled. Ha ha. You'll be writing it for Rolling Stone, then?"
"Um, er..." she looked quickly at Russell who was maintaining a carefully blank face. "I'm on assignment for the San Francisco Chronicle at the moment, but I was thinking about Horse and Rider or Young Equestrian. They're both interested." She nodded seriously, trying to look like she had it all lined up. She was a terrible liar.
The director frowned thoughtfully. "Hmm...I was hoping for something with a wider audience. That kind of press could get us an American release. Otherwise, it will come out there for video only. So - it's just to be about the horses then?" he asked.
"Um. That was my original idea. But I'll keep working on it," she said, realizing she meant it. He nodded at them both before going off to speak to the crew about the next day's shoot. Russell steered Kate over to the horses with one hand on her back.
Once out of earshot she turned to him and hissed, "What the hell was that?"
He gave her a look of exaggerated innocence. "What? I just got you another job. You did ask if you could write about the horses, didn't you?"
"Yes, but I don't have anyone interested in this! I totally made that last magazine title up."
"Sounded good to me," he said.
Now it was her turn to be suspicious. "I had the impression you didn't like journalists."
He shrugged. "Not all writers are pricks. Or have one for that matter."
"Fair enough," she admitted. "You really want me to write about... this?" she asked, her gesture taking in the knot of crew, the horse pen and him.
"Here's the deal. You asked for the gig. I don't care if you do it or not. I opened the door. Now it's up to you to flog it." He ran his hand over his face, then turned and walked away.
Kate stared, wondering again what she'd said to agitate him. He came back with a towel slung over one arm and carrying a pail. "Are you angry with me?" she asked.
"No. Forget about it." He set the pail on the ground and extracted a rubber curry. "I always groom Echo myself. It makes us mates," he said, eager to change the subject. He began at the top of the stallion's neck with the currycomb. "There was not much to see today," he said apologetically as he worked down one side. "I've hardly any dialogue in this. Making movies is not very exciting. It's a lot of standing around and waiting."
"Are you kidding? I enjoyed it very much! The horses are beautiful and you're all expert riders." She wondered if he was fishing. He must know what a romantic and dashing figure he cut, in his grazier's outfit, easily in control of the big black stallion.
"Impressed?" he asked, one corner of his mouth crooking.
"Do you want me to be?" she rejoined. She picked the dandy brush out of the bucket and followed in his path.
He paused to watch her movements as she flicked the dust from Echo's coat. "Well, you've been around the world. I have yet to go to the States," he said.
"I told you, I have a boring life. I just travel for work. You're the one with the glamour job," she said.
"Oh, right. Scraping horse shit off my shoes every night and picking tics out of my clothes - that's glamour," he replied. He began smoothing Echo's coat with the body brush as Kate moved to the opposite side with the dandy brush. He was not used to caring if he impressed anyone, and he did not like feeling. Although no older in years, she seemed more worldly. Better educated, for cert, he thought.
Kate could not see his face over Echo's back and was trying to determine if he was being coy or serious, when the SUVs started up. A crewmember called out to them, "Need a lift?"
"I'd better go unless I want to walk back in the dark," she said, not wanting to go at all.
"No," he said firmly. He called out loudly, "I'll get her back in good nick, mate! No wuckin' forries."
The voice floated back, addressing the others in the vehicle as it turned out of the clearing. "What he means is, he'll get her in the nick." There was much ribald hilarity at this, then the sound of crunching rock as they drove off.
Kate's heart began beating faster in the ensuing silence. Had he set this up so she would be alone with him out here? While it was true she found him incredibly attractive, she had only just met him. She felt torn between anticipation and irritation if it were true. She jumped when she turned to find he had come around Echo to her side. He was studying her. "They're idiots; don't pay them any mind," he said with such calm assurance that she felt her shoulders and back settle even as her mind remained alert. They worked quietly in tandem, Russell combing the tail and Kate combing the mane.
After several minutes working in silence, he dropped the body brush into the pail and retrieved the hoof pick. He ran his hand down Echo's leg, gently squeezing his fetlock. The big stallion lifted his hoof cooperatively. "I'm trying to save to buy my own place. I want lots of space. A real working farm."
"What? You mean like livestock?" she asked.
"Yeh. Maybe cows."
"And then you'd quit movies and become a cattleman?" she asked.
Russell moved to the next hoof, frowning slightly as he considered. "No, not yet. Maybe. There's a lot I don't like about working in movies, but I'm not yet where I aim to be, so I'll have to wait and see about that. But I'd like someplace to come and connect with what's real again, you know?" He released the hoof and came to stand beside her, looking out into the vast openness around them. "I've got a plan. I want to bring my parents from New Zealand to Australia and set them up here. They've had a hard time of it. But they never complain. They've always supported me. I'd like to pay them back."
Kate recognized that the same words from another man would have made her instantly mistrustful of a good son act, designed to sway her opinion. If that's the case, it's working, she thought. Perhaps he was a very good actor, but she was developing a strong impression that he spoke his mind, regardless of the audience. "That sounds wonderful," she said at last. "I mean, the way you feel about your parents. The farm too. All of it," she gushed, and winced at how she sounded. She tried to reclaim the poise he kept shooting all to hell. "Any ideas where?"
"I need to have more of a look around, but I've some ideas, yeh." He remained still, looking into one of Echo's great eyes as if he could see his future home there.
"And here I thought you were a city boy."
"I've lived all over. Seems like we lived in a hundred different places when I was a kid."
"It's great, but it's also a lot of work you know, running a farm. I grew up like that - we had to tend the animals before and after school."
"Yeh? I'm sure it is. What's fun to me is walking into a huge open paddock, where there's no fencing and no means of control, and calling out to your horse, and from half a mile away, he comes to talk because he wants to spend time with you, not because you've got a piece of rope, not 'cause you're going to give him some food but just because the two of you have got a relationship. And you've got fifteen hundred pounds of God's beauty pounding toward you across the paddock, and he's pleased to see you, you know?"
Kate was losing her inner battle to remain on guard as she came around Echo to gape at him. My God, that is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard a man say, she thought but said, "That sounds like a good philosophy for people too."
"Yeh?" He was on the last step, wiping the towel over Echo's coat, glowing blue black in the twilight.
"I mean, it creates nothing but trouble when people try to control each other, out of jealousy or insecurity," she said.
He thought about that. "I reckon you're right," he paused. "Someone try to do that to you?" Echo nudged Russell with his nose, making whuffling sounds. Russell reached into the pail once more and retrieved an apple, which Echo took from his hand.
"Yes. Someone did."
"Stupid bastard or poor bastard?" he asked over Echo's crunching.
"What?" she asked.
"Should I feel sorry for him 'cause he lost you or hate him 'cause he was bad to you?" he asked.
"Neither," she said and turned away hoping he could not see how flattered she was by his gallantry.
Russell nodded thoughtfully. "I was with someone, an actress, for a few years, but we agreed to break it off not long ago. I thought it would be good to be with someone who understood the requirements of the job. There are things that other people have trouble with, which can cause jealousy ..."
"Like love scenes?"
"Yeh, like that," he agreed. "But the sheer amount of time spent apart turns into this...chasm. We would just get a rhythm going and then we would have to go off in separate directions again."
"Did you give her cause to be jealous?" she asked, immediately regretting it. This was getting far too personal.
He weighed his words. "There's not just jealousy about other people. When I'm involved in a role, I'm really involved, you know? But then, I'd never try to keep her from her dreams either."
"So work still got in the way - even with the birds of a feather thing going for you?" There was a hint of skepticism in her voice that Russell heard at once.
"You can't compare," he waggled a finger in her face. "You can do what you do anywhere. All you need is a notepad. Am I right?"
"Yes and no, but.... "
"But what?" he challenged. He leaned in, his nose inches from hers.
Kate took a deep breath. She would be damned if he was going to intimidate her! "I get the feeling that you like women ...a lot ...."
He interrupted. "Why shouldn't I? Women are one of the best things in life."
almost as much as you dislike writers?" she finished.
"It's journalists I dislike - no, that I don't trust.
Story writers, song writers, screenplay writers -
that's all cool," he said. "Even if it's crap, at least that's about creating something, not tearing people down."
They gauged one another without speaking for a long moment. Echo nudged him again. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of sugar cubes. He cocked his head to the side. "Pinched them off the cafe," he explained with a smirk.
"Can I?" she asked. He emptied them into her hand. Echo followed the movement and took them from her, black rubbery lips tickling her open palm pleasantly, making her heart ache for her own horse.
Russell watched them raptly, thinking about what she had asked, or rather what she had not quite asked. He clicked his tongue behind his teeth and looked away, trying to decide how much to tell her. "Right. I'll cop it sweet," he decided aloud. He turned his palms up, as if in supplication. "I like to remain open to life. So what? When you've a great opportunity right in front of you, I think it's crazy not to grab hold while you've got the chance. Sometimes that's another person. Sometimes it's the opportunity to do the work you really want to do."
She nodded. "I do understand. But when that partner is counting on you to be around all the time - it becomes a problem, doesn't it?"
He nodded. "How long were you with this bloke?"
"Eight years," she said.
"That's a long time. What happened?" he asked.
"It was actually even longer," she acquiesced. It was clear he had made his confession and now expected hers. "We grew up together. We went off to college together. After graduation, he traveled with me sometimes, but he grew tired of it, and his work kept him in one place. He wanted me to stay home and write."
She shrugged. "I have more than a little wanderlust in me. I don't know. If I'm honest with myself, it was an excuse to run away. He didn't want me to change. It started with little things, stupid things. I remember having an argument once because I no longer cared about a band we had both liked in high school. He found that threatening," she shook her head and laughed.
"That is stupid," Russell agreed.
"It just got worse over time. He was always afraid I was going to cheat on him if I was out of his sight," she said.
"Did you?" he asked.
"No!" she replied, her brows drawing down.
"You asked me!" he reminded her.
And you didn't really answer, she thought. "I felt forced into being someone I had outgrown," she said.
"Then you're better off," he said decisively.
"You'd think so, huh?" she asked.
"You miss him?"
"Sometimes. Or more like I just miss having someone."
He nodded again, impressed that she seemed to truly understand. "Sometimes I think I need a woman who could travel with me from one set to the next," he mused.
"Someone without a life, you mean," she blurted.
His bewildered, wounded look was so convincing, she would have believed it if he had not then pretended to pull the knife from his chest. "Where do you get this impression of me?" he asked.
"Or maybe you want someone around all the time to keep you on the straight and narrow?" Kate asked, one brow arching.
"I must dissuade you of this notion that I'm some sort of Lothario. I meant so that everything would be out in the open, but since you put it like that, yeh, I'd be happier if she were with me every night. What's wrong with that?"
Kate smirked. "Nothing."
"Fucking right. The truth is that I want something that lasts, like what my parents have," he said.
"That's a very romantic idea. Maybe you should not have walked away," she suggested.
"What makes you think I was the one to walk away?" he asked softly.
She wished they had never started this conversation. "What I mean is... what you say you want takes work. It means sacrificing some of those 'experiences'.".
"I know. Nothing you really want is ever easy," he said. "Was he your first love?" he asked, switching the focus back to her.
"Yes," she said uncomfortably. "Wow. So much for small talk, huh?" She could feel the melancholy steal over her again.
"Hey," he coaxed, tickling the same finger he had wagged at her moments before beneath her chin.
She turned her head away from his hand. "I've never met anyone who pried that much out of me on the first da -
when we first talked. You're really very nosey, you know that?" she asked.
"So stop answering all my questions," he chuckled. "Do you always tell the truth, just Kate?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Good oh," he nodded. "I have to work fast, you know? You're going home in a few days, remember?" The smile spread slowly across his face. "Unless, of course, you don't go. Maybe you will stay."
"Hm. To write about the acting horses, you mean?" She mirrored his smile.
They fell silent in the quickly fading light, each ruminating on what the other had revealed. A kookaburra called, close by, startling Kate. "Everything sounds different here." She shivered as the evening chill descended.
"I can hardly see you anymore. C'mon," he invited, "Want to come in and see what a real Aussie grazier lives like?" He inclined his head toward the little cabin.
She looked at it, then him, apprehensively. "I don't think so. I better be getting back before it gets completely dark."
"I said I'd get you back and I will. What are you afraid of? C'mon and have a look," he said impatiently. He turned abruptly and walked up the steps, stopping to fire the lantern hanging outside the door.
"Well, I'm not afraid of you," she said under her breath, but she knew it was like whistling in the dark. He held the door open.
"It's... claustrophobic!" she exclaimed. There was barely room for the two of them to stand at the same time.
He sat down on the bench, setting the lantern on the rough plank table. He cocked a brow. "Do you think they overdid the rustic look?"
The cabin was as austere as it was small. His guitar sat propped in the corner.
She sat down opposite him on the bedroll. She thumped the hard bed with her palms. "You've been sleeping here for three weeks now? My God, how do you stand it? This is hard as a rock!"
"They say a firm bed is good for your back," he said and giggled at her expression.
"Firm is one thing but you must be black and blue!"
"It's not so bad, really. I'm usually so zonked, I hardly notice, you know? I'm out almost as soon as my head hits the pillow. Which is good 'cause it's way too quiet. I liked that the first few days but about the time I got used to the bed I started to think I'd go nuts from the silence. I spend most nights at the pub until late." He paused. "Should I start a fire?" he asked.
"No thank you," she said quickly. "That is, I have a fireplace. I can have one later if I want. In my room, I mean," she stammered.
"That sounds good," he said as he imagined it.
Kate inhaled sharply. Wolf eyes glowed in the lantern light, ready to devour her. She felt her color rising again and gave thanks she was sitting too far from the light for him to see it. She had to fight the strong impulse to run for the door. "I don't know how you do it," fighting to keep her voice cool. "After just three days out I was dying for a soft bed and a nice, hot bath."
"I was too, until I got used to it."
"Really?" she asked.
"No. But if I keep saying it I might convince myself."
"Why don't you ask for a regular room at the hotel? You could have your own hot bath and a decent bed too."
"They keep trying to talk me into it. In fact, it sounds even better when you keep talking about it," he grinned. "But I wanted to stay here to get connected with my character, you know? Besides, they seem to think it's so fucking funny. I would not give them the satisfaction now," he said, shifting from humor to outrage in seconds. He thought his colleagues who mocked his methods were too stupid to warrant educating.
"You have a strange sense of pride," she observed.
"Pride's got nothing to do with it," he snapped. "It's about integrity."
She rolled her eyes. "Okay. I think all this time alone in the woods is making you a cranky hermit."
It was one thing if he wanted to mock himself, but he did not care for her doing it. He stood. "Let's go. Echo gets me there and back every night, even when I'm too drunk to tell him where to go." He opened the door and stepped outside with her close behind. He hung the lantern back on its peg and took her hand to make sure she did not trip in the dark.
"Ever ride bareback?" he asked.
"Good. I don't want to put his saddle back on." With that, he placed both hands on Echo's back and gracefully vaulted onto him. "Give me your hand," he said.
Kate looked up at him doubtfully. "My legs are not that long."
"You're nearly as tall as me!" he scoffed.
"Ride him over by the fence and I'll climb on," she said.
He was getting impatient again. "Suck it and see."
Her head shot up. "What?"
"It means 'try it'." He reached down to her. "C'mon, take my hand." She reluctantly put her right hand into his and -
she was seated snug in behind him.
"My God you're strong!" she blurted. He giggled. She had heard it a few times, but the high, giddy sound still seemed incongruous coming from him. Even more startling was how it felt, vibrating through his back against her breasts. All of her senses went on high alert.
"What you want to do is squeeze him with your legs, okie dokie?"
"Yes, I know what to do," she said.
Russell reached back to check and felt her tensed thigh. "Good," he patted her. He leaned forward. "You lucky bastard," he said between Echo's swiveling ears.
"Hold on to me," he instructed. Kate wrapped her arms loosely around his torso. He clicked his tongue and dug his heels in, causing Echo to lurch forward. Kate squeezed him tight. Russell chuckled. "There you go."
They were off. The moon was high and nearly full. They could see the ground and into the distance surprisingly well. He kept Echo to a slow trot. He told her folk stories about the bush and the mountains. She could feel every word of his low, smoky rumble. His warmth radiated through his shirt and he smelled vaguely of horses and wood smoke. Kate slipped into a sensuous stupor, soothed by his voice and the horse rocking gently beneath her. She laid her cheek against his strong, broad back, and her arms stayed around him even after it was clear that sure footed Echo was happy to take it nice and easy. Russell's take no prisoners approach to conversation had kept her on high alert all day. It felt lovely to relax, with no expectations beyond murmuring occasional comments about his stories. His heat, the motion, that voice -
it all began to get to her once they were out in the vast dark open. She began to imagine what his skin would feel like if she ran her hands beneath his shirt.
After awhile, Russell grew silent. He had to clear his throat to speak. "I don't want you to stop, but if you keep that up love, I'm going to have trouble getting off this horse."
Kate jerked from her reverie and thought she would die of embarrassment. She had been lightly buffing his chest with her palms. She tried to jerk her hands away and hide them in her lap, but he caught one. When she tried to pull it free, he held tight. He turned his head back toward her. "Now don't do that. Be still." He twined his fingers through hers and clasped her hand, holding the reins with his other, the remainder of the ride. At last, the few lights from Dinner Plain came into view on the horizon. They stopped at the front of the hotel. Laughter and the clinking of plates and glasses indicated that the pub was indeed open and busy. Kate slid off without waiting for him to help her, afraid to look at or touch him again.
He walked her to the door of her room "Care to come to the pub? Get something to eat?" he asked.
"No, thank you. I'm really very tired," she said without looking up. She took her key from her pocket.
He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "What's wrong? Did I say something to upset you?"
Kate felt her insides quiver at his touch. "No. I just... was not expecting this."
"Wasn't expecting what?" he asked as she got the door open.
Overwrought from desire and the long, perplexing day with him, she felt on the verge of doing something foolish. One kiss, and I'll be toast, she thought. She was desperate to get away and have her head to herself again. "Nothing. Thanks for the ride back."
"Wait! Will I see you tomorrow?" he asked.
"It's a very small place. I imagine you will." She managed a flash of a smile, then quickly stepped inside, shutting the door in his face.
It took Kate some time to still her thoughts and drift off to sleep. She felt like she had just closed her eyes when a sharp knock at her door yanked her from slumber. It took her a moment to register the sound. She opened one bleary eye and looked at the clock. Half past six. In slow motion, she climbed out of bed and padded in her socks to the door. She cracked it open and was alarmed to find Russell there, bouncing on his toes.
"I've been cut loose. Let's go," he said, boldly pushing the door open further. "You just out of the sack?"
"Where else would I be at this hour?" she croaked and blinked at him, silhouetted in the too bright morning light. "Christ. You didn't like, stand out here all night did you?" He laughed. She felt confused and groggy. "Why are you here this early?"
"It's not early. I'm up every day before five. Got to be up and ready before the sun to make best use of daylight. I told you. I've got the day off. I thought we could do something," he said. He made her think of her chocolate Labrador back home, wriggling with excitement when she opened the door.
She stared at him a moment longer and shivered. "Get in here, it's cold," she said and he bounded into the room. She briefly wondered how bad her bed head was. "I have to brush my teeth and pee before I can deal with you." She looked at him in exasperation. "I am not a morning person. Would you please go get me some coffee?"
He was busy looking her over. "This your jarmies? A bloke's shirt?"
"Yeah. Sexy, isn't it?" she asked sarcastically. She padded back across the room to pull a pair of jeans and her underwear out of her suitcase.
"Yes it is," he agreed, wanting very much to grab her. He wondered if she had any panties on and imagined reaching under the shirt to find out. He leaned to one side as she bent over, trying to see. Kate saw the movement out of the corner of her eye and turned quickly, catching him. "I've been sprung," he said, voice husky from the view he had managed.
Her mouth opened and closed in silent outrage before she finally managed a word. "Out!" she ordered.
"You just told me to come in!" he protested. She looked around for something to throw. "Okay, okay," he said, hands up, backing toward the door, "but you'd better be dressed when I get back with your coffee. And don't try to flash me like that again." He shut the door just as her book hit it.
It was well that Kate dressed quickly, because Russell reappeared fifteen minutes later, with the coffee, as promised. She left the door ajar and he let himself in. "Here's your cuppa. Ah, music. I remember that," he said nodding to her radio.
"If your character is of the present day, why couldn't he have a radio?" she asked.
"I reckon he could. I just didn't think to pack one. Seeing how you're living is making me jealous. I'm starting to miss the comforts."
"Starting to? I can't believe how long you've lasted."
He walked over to the oversized tub. "Fair dinkum. Now that's what I call a bath."
"Do you want to use it? The jets work great," she teased.
He thought about it briefly. "Yeh. But don't tell anyone, kay? I'd never hear the end of it." He turned on the taps.
"Who am I going to tell?" she asked, but he could not hear her over the water. He sat on the edge of the tub and pulled off his boots. She fetched a bottle of bubble bath from the bathroom counter. "Do you want any..." she stopped. He was unbuttoning his shirt. "Uh...bubble bath?" she finished.
"Ooh, yeh, I like that," he grinned. She opened the cap and poured some under the tap. When she turned around, he was undoing his belt.
"Good grief!" she exclaimed, hurrying across the room to close the drapes. "I thought you didn't want anyone to know!" He turned off the water but she did not dare look again. "I'm just going to take my book and read outside," she said, facing away from him. She heard him step into the water and let out a low groan of ecstasy that made her tremble. She reached for the door.
"Kate! Come sit. I want to tell you what we're going to do today," he called.
"I don't think so!" she called over her shoulder. "I'll talk to you when you're dressed."
"Oh for fuck's sake, will you look? I am completely covered." She slowly turned and chanced a glance. It was true. He was covered chest down in a mountain of bubbles. She walked over to him. He extended a wet hand and patted the edge of the tub. "Sit," he commanded.
He began talking excitedly about riding up to some lookout point. He sounded enthusiastic about showing her gum trees, or something. It was not making much sense, as she had trouble hearing him clearly over the blood rushing in her ears. She was trying very hard to focus on his face. The bubbles were melting at a frightening pace, accelerated by the swishing motion he kept making with his hands. She realized he had stopped talking and seemed to be waiting on a response.
"That sounds terrific."
"Really? 'Cause I just asked you if you wanted to come in with me."
She leapt up. "You did not! I would have heard that!"
He giggled. "So you're not coming in then?"
"I'm just going outside until you're done," she turned and went back to the door.
"Aw, now don't do that. You won't bother me at all. Come on Kate, I won't ... "
She shut the door on his words. There were wide, comfortable wicker chairs on the veranda. She settled into one and opened her book, but she did not read two words. Whoosh, whoosh.
Russell started singing, loudly enough for her to hear above the sound of him playing with the jets. Whoosh, whoosh.
He sat in the tub a full twenty minutes, obviously enjoying himself.
She left her book and walked to the edge of the veranda, looking across the front of the hotel. There were two horses tied at the post today. A golden mare had joined the big black stallion. Kate cooed with pleasure; she was a beautiful horse and made her think of her own beloved mare. She went to them, speaking to Echo first before introducing herself to the new girl.
Kate thought about the mare who had been her best friend, especially after her mother became ill. When the doctor told them, they had no idea how fast ovarian cancer would steal her away. Her mother shrunk and disappeared before her family's eyes less than six months after diagnosis. She did her best to hide the terrible pain, but Kate was a deeply sensitive child and she felt her mother's suffering. She spent nearly every minute not in school out with Rebecca. She had named her after a favorite childhood story character.
Kate was somewhat of a cultural oddity among her peers long before her mother's death. The family lived just outside of an affluent town, in a modest rancho style house on several acres. Her parents refused to own a television. Instead, they read or played games like chess and backgammon together. While their classmates talked on the phone about boys and read teen magazines, Kate and her younger sister raised livestock and read Jane Austen. Kate had sole responsibility for her horse from age nine.
She came home to visit and ride Rebecca as often as she could through college and starting her career. Rebecca had seen her through her worst times with her boyfriend, Matt. Then her father called to say that her horse was ill. It was while sitting in the stable, willing Rebecca to heal, that Kate finally grieved for her mother, and knew it was time to end the relationship with Matt. Kate was awash in guilt. Rebecca had healed, but she had not been home to her in some months. Kate pulled away from her memories with effort as Russell came out to join her.
"I thought we could head into Harrietville," he spoke quickly when he was nervous. "It's an old mining town. We can get cut lunch there and then ride up to the top. It's supposed to be a good horse trail and I'm told the view is spec tac ular." He finished his tour guide agenda a little selfconsciously. He had nearly made himself crazy trying to decide what do to with her. He had pestered the locals in the pub with endless questions about this place and that. He was not intimately familiar with this part of the country. He had been here once with his family, as a kid, but that was years ago. He had wanted to take her into Melbourne, but decided to wait until he knew whether she was staying.
"That sounds lovely. Aren't you sweet? She's beautiful! Is she for me?" She indicated the mare.
"What's her name?"
"I'm kind of surprised the trainers let you take them off for the day like this. Don't they need them on set?"
"No. These two are only in scenes with me, so if I'm not needed, then they're not. They trust me to take good care of them."
"Another reason to be impressed," she flirted. You might be the most appealing man I've ever met, she thought, followed at once by a pang of alarm.
"Fuck the horses. How about me? Don't I scrub up well? Come here and smell me now. I've been busting my ass to impress you and it occurred to me that was not going to happen if I smelled bad."
Disarmed and flattered by his candor, she approached him cautiously, standing on her tiptoes. She risked a hand balanced on his shoulder as she leaned in to his neck. She inhaled audibly, playing along for him. "Very nice," she pronounced.
His hand was on her back, clasping her close before she could step away. He tipped his head and stole a quick kiss. He lingered, watching her reaction. Kate's eyes fluttered closed and she tilted her face up, so he did it again. He broke contact but her mouth sought his, pulling him back. When her hand at his shoulder moved around his neck, he began to caress her back. When he finally released her, she was breathless. Embarrassed, she looked around quickly. Several pairs of eyes from around the hotel and the cafe were on them.
He followed her gaze. "They just think we look good together," he said quietly. "I already asked everyone and their dog where to take you," he admitted with a chuckle.
The day was sunny with just enough of a breeze to keep it from being hot. Harrietville was a charming little town with wide, tree lined streets. They stopped and had a look in some of the shops and picked up a picnic lunch. Then they packed on to the summit over a beautiful trail. It meandered past a small lake and several streams. They saw more wildlife than she had seen on her entire three day ride.
Kate told him a little about the black oaks and the countryside where she grew up. Russell told her the names of all the trees, the animals, what they ate, their mating habits, how to distinguish one birdcall from another, and the legends about the outlaws like Ned Kelly who had lived in this area in the last century. His nervous energy made him chatter on.
"You're a natural teacher," Kate praised. "Listen," she said, pausing to appreciate the sound of the breeze through the giant mountain eucalypts. Her comfort with the stillness helped him relax and they rode companionably, listening to the bird cries and other forest sounds.
They stopped by the lake to eat their lunch before resuming the ride to the top. Russell dismounted, "I'm going to go water the horse," he said, leading Echo.
Kate hopped down off Golden and followed his lead, the mare trailing behind her. They kept walking and talking, but he veered away from the lake's edge and stepped behind a cluster of trees. Kate frowned, wondering where he was going. She came around the trees in time to hear the stream. His back was to her, but it was clear what he was doing. Kate jumped back. "Jesus! Why didn't you tell me?"
He giggled. "I told you I was gonna go water the horse."
"Well I wish you'd start speaking English. I thought you meant the horses were thirsty," she called to him. She turned and marched back to the lake, with Golden following.
He was still laughing as he rejoined her. "You don't speak English. You speak American." He produced a leather covered flask, took a long swallow, and then passed it to her. She gave him a hostile look, but took it. A little liquid relaxation seemed like a good idea. A tiny nip, and she nearly choked on the hundred proof Jack Daniel's. She handed it back. "Thanks," she gasped.
He pulled a blanket off Echo's back and spread it on the ground near the lake's edge. They opened their sandwiches and he told her about the band he played with when he was not filming. He and a friend had been writing songs together for some years. "I'm a crap guitar player, but he's terrific. We just added a bassist, so now I guess we're a real band." He kept taking hits off the flask and then passing it to her.
"Stop that now or I'm going to fall off my horse," she giggled, passing it back. The heat of the day seemed to seep inside her as the whiskey hit her blood stream. "This is beautiful. Your advisors were right."
"Glad you like it. It's quite romantic, isn't it?" he smiled.
"You should have brought your guitar to serenade me," she said, beginning to feel slightly dizzy.
"Yes. I should have." He reached out to catch a strand of her hair that was blowing across her face. He tucked it behind her ear.
She wondered when he had moved right next to her. She looked into his eyes, noting how they changed color as the sunlight and dappled shade played across his face. He bent to kiss her, very softly. Kate responded and he deepened the kiss. Soon she felt his tongue invade her mouth. She could taste the whiskey on him. It made it seem like his kisses were getting her drunk. She was so caught up that she was unaware he was gently lying her down until she felt the ground beneath her back. He covered her mouth again with his. The sun was warm on them, there was not a soul about, and he thought it was the perfect place to get her naked. He wanted her so badly it was causing him physical pain. He stretched out over her. She felt his rock solid desire, attempting to get at her between their clothes and lifted her hips up in an unconscious attempt to accommodate him. His hips answered hers, grinding against her roughly. He growled and gently bit at her neck.
Her eyes rolled back as goose bumps rippled down her body. "Oh God, yes!" she whimpered. He had undone three of her shirt buttons and slipped his hand inside. One large, warm hand cupped her breast, fingers feeling for her nipple. Kate's eyes flew open. "Russell. Wait."
"Mmm," he replied, still suckling her neck.
Kate struggled to pull her swirling thoughts together. "What are we doing?" she whispered.
"Just pashing love, relax," he said. His fingers found their target.
She gasped. "That's not just pashing." She pressed both hands against his chest. "What are you doing?"
He lift his head, looking down at her innocently. "Um, trying to cop a feel?"
His face, their surroundings, and the fact she had known him all of two days came back into sharp focus. "Get off," she said quietly but firmly.
He rolled off, propped up on one elbow and cocked his head. "What did you think I was doing?"
She stood up, still feeling very dizzy. "You assume much." Her voice quavered. She was dismayed that her immediate response had been to let him do as he pleased.
"Do I?" he asked lazily. "Just trying to move things along." He was unapologetic. He stood slowly, his arousal apparent. Russell lit a cig and inhaled deeply, looking out over the lake. She wanted to be outraged, but could not find it within her. He was right. They wanted each other desperately and he was simply doing what came naturally. She was staring at him and he returned her gaze, holding the cig out to her. She took it and puffed a couple times before wordlessly handing it back. "Didn't know you smoked," he said as he watched her walk away.
They packed up their things and resumed the trail. Another hour's ride and they had reached the summit at Mount McKay. The view over Alpine National Park was, as promised, spectacular. The surrounding mountains silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky, spreading out to rolling green hills, then golden plains far below. Small lakes and streams dotted here and there like sparkling sapphires. "Well," he asked, pleased with himself, "was it worth a day's ride to see?"
"Oh yes. You know it is. I could've just skipped that tour from hell and let you show me around. When I write the article, I'm referring all travelers to you. I saw more that I loved of Victoria today than I did in all three days with that group. Did I tell you we spent one entire day climbing up and another going down a narrow, winding path, always on the verge of plummeting off the mountain? I was white knuckling it the whole time."
He affected a shudder. "I'm not good at heights either. The first few weeks of filming here, I thought I was going to die, oh, at least twice a day. We had to ride straight down these incredibly steep gullies, and the rocks kept rolling and sliding under the horses. I came off once too, you know. Just like you did. Rolled down and made friends with a big rock." He pointed to a spot on his temple. She had noticed it; the wound had healed but left a fresh, pink scar.
"Were you afraid?"
"Of course. But I controlled it, you know, like I was in combat," he said, looking out over the valley. She could tell he had shared a real confidence and suppressed the urge to laugh at the dramatic analogy.
"Well thank you. That makes me feel better, especially since you were there to witness my humiliation." His answering smile reached his eyes, crinkling the corners. They picked their way slowly back, stopping when she wanted to snap a photo, and rode into Dinner Plain as evening fell.
"You've given me the most perfect day," Kate said as he walked her to her room. "I really appreciate the thought you put into it." She guessed that this was his nature, and that made her like him even more.
"It doesn't have to be over yet, does it?" Russell asked, stroking her face with his fingertips. She felt herself go weak in the knees and looked away. He took her chin in his hand, turning her to look into his eyes again. "Have you ever played poker?"
"What? Yes, why?"
"Did you lose a lot of money?" His eyes danced, laughing at her. "Your face shows everything you think."
"I know!" she said in exasperation. "Maybe you could teach me how to hide that?" she asked.
"Why would I want to do that?" he asked gently. "Besides, I've got a similar problem. I'm missing that censor that tells me not to say everything that runs through my head."
She laughed, "Yes, I noticed that."
"This could be a good thing, you know. Total honesty. No games, no bullshit. We could keep each other straight," he said seriously.
"Or we'd want to kill each other. Knowing when to use a little tact and discretion, or just shut up, is healthy."
"It would be intense either way," he said, placing a hand behind her head and the other on the small of her back, he pulled her in close. She stopped breathing. He tipped her back slightly. She felt his warm breath on her face. He waited for her to tell him to stop.
She didn't. His mouth gently pulled a response from hers. In a warm rush, she felt her body react. Her arms went around his neck. His kiss became more urgent. He wound his hand in her hair, pulling her head further back. He was feeding off her and she never wanted him to stop. At long last, he released her mouth.
"Come have dinner with me," he asked, his voice a throaty rumble.
"I'm exhausted," she demurred. Flushed and dazed, she had to get away from him or she was going to let him stay the night. She had never wanted a man this much.
"Then can I come in?" He could not help trying. "I bet I could revive you."
"I don't know you well enough for that," she whispered, pleading. She pressed a hand against his chest to back him off, but he picked it up and started kissing it.
"Yes. Fine. Tomorrow." Her resolve was weakening. She had to stroke his face, feel his beard on her fingertips. It was silky soft.
He let out a small growl and pulled her in tight. "You're killing me here. But I'll wait." Then his mouth was on her again, making love as far as she would let him. He pulled back with considerable effort. She was trembling. He took the key from her hand and opened the door for her. She went in and closed it. He stood looking at it for some time.
Kate stood inside listening. He was not leaving. She pulled her boots off and turned back to look at the door. What the hell, she thought. How much more do I need to know? She padded silently over to let him in. Just then, she heard his boot steps echoing dully down the length of the veranda. She hesitated just long enough that when she opened the door, he was gone. She briefly considered chasing after him, but imagined how foolish that would look, and closed the door.
The silence in the room pressed in on her. She snapped on the radio, stripped off her clothes and threw them about the room in a peevish fit. Crying, she yanked her sleep shirt over her head. She crawled on top of the bed and balanced her notepad on her knees. Kate had begun keeping a journal as a teenager when she had needed to express her pain and did not feel she could burden her family with it. She found it worked like magic. Once it was on paper, she could be free of it. She journaled about the entire day, planning to use some of her notes later for the travel story. Then she allowed herself to digress to the bits that would not be going into the article about Russell, his voice, his eyes and his kisses.
"I was not looking for this! Not now! Not here!" she said to the empty room. Less depressed, but now in a good snit, she kept writing. It turned into an erotic story about a woman who comes to Victoria on holiday, and meets a travel guide with wavy chestnut hair and amazing blue green eyes. It amused her and her mood began to lift. The pair had a sex scene on a horse, the woman facing the man, impaled on his cock as they rode. Kate recalled how it felt as she sat pressed against him, rocking together with the horse's motion. She was quickly aroused and miserable again. "Aauurrgh! I'm losing it here!" she cried and tossed the notepad and pen onto the floor. She turned out the light and pulled the covers over her head. Her hand began its lonely work between her thighs as she finished writing the scene in her mind. She finally fell into a fitful sleep about two in the morning.
Russell had gone off to the pub, as he did every night, but was too distracted to be good company. He ate his meat pie and tipped a few coldies, but he could not stop tasting her mouth. The others had learned how much he loved to entertain them and tried to get him to pick up his guitar, but he declined. Likewise, he was not joining in on the jokes and raunchy banter that he normally so enjoyed. When he excused himself early, the barkeep asked, "Whatsa matter Rusty? Feeling crook?"
"Nah, just rooted. Gonna go catch some Zzz's. Hoo roo!"
That night he lay on his hard, lonely bed, frustrated and staring at the ceiling for a long time. He finally sought comfort in the usual way. He closed his eyes and imagined Kate there with him, lying naked and entwined. He wrapped his hand around his root and began to stroke. In his mind, he pulled her to him, hands on her hips, and drove himself deep into her. He pictured her face, lush mouth open, eyes glazed with lust for him as he made her call his name over and over. He finally found his release and was able to drift off to sleep.