Due to the online booking error, I'd gotten so caught up in the task of acquiring a room for the night that I didn't even think to ask about the size of the bed. Both of the rooms I'd attempted to secure before had contained queen-sized beds. Stupidly, I had assumed this one would too.
Cullen breaks our moment of stunned silence by flicking the light switch. In an instant, the tiny room is flooded with harsh, cold light. On reflex, I look up to the ceiling at the dome-shaped fluorescent light. Inside the light's plastic cover, there are the trapped remains of a dozen or more dead insects. My lip involuntarily curls in disgust at the sight.
Returning to the problem at hand, I cast my gaze around the room to see if I've overlooked a fold-out couch or pull-out trundle bed. No such luck. The side and head of the single bed are pushed into the left-hand corner across from the doorway. Laminated panels the colour of light teak line the walls, and grey linoleum covers the floor. Next to the door, there is a small air conditioning unit embedded into the wall. A metre-high window draped by a pale-grey curtain takes up the rest of the wall. The pale colours and hard surfaces make the room seem even colder than it already is.
In the right corner, beneath the window, sits a padded chair. Three circular cigarette burns dot the arms of its peach coloured vinyl coating. On top of the seat rests a set of towels, a face cloth, and some complimentary toiletries. In the opposite corner, at the end of the bed, there is a small bar fridge with a scratched and beaten up kettle situated on top. There is a small selection of tea, coffee, and sugar sachets. Attached to the wall above the fridge there is an adjustable swivel arm designed for a flat-screen television, except there isn't one. There are no other doors, apart from the one we used to enter the room, which means there is no en suite. It seems we're obliged to make our own entertainment and to use the camping ground's bathroom facilities. Basic doesn't even begin to describe this room. It feels like a prison cell.
The fridge in the corner rattles and hums to life, and I look to Cullen to see he's staring at the small bed. By the adorable puckered-lipped expression on his face, I can tell he's deep in thought.
"Cullen-" I start to say, ready to apologise for fucking up.
"No worries," he says, placing the box of emu chicks on the floor next to the doorway. "You take the bed. I'll just sleep in the-"
"Stop right there!" I say, cutting him off before he can finish the sentence. "If you're about to tell me that you're going to sleep in the car, I swear I will kick your arse right now."
At my statement, he raises an eyebrow and folds his arms across his broad chest. "Okay... so where am I supposed to sleep then?"
"Um..." Good question. Dropping my backpack to the floor, I walk to the corner, pick up the towels and toiletries from the chair, and move them over to the end of the bed. I place the sleeping rock wallaby upon the seat of the armchair.
"Well?" he asks.
Whirling around to address him, I say, "Look, we've been through this sort of discussion before. You need to be well rested since you're doing the driving tomorrow. This situation with the room and the bed is my screw-up, so if anyone is sleeping in the car, it's going to be me. You have to take the bed so that you don't fall asleep behind the wheel."
He scowls. "Don't be ridiculous. You can't sleep out there; it's going to be below zero tonight."
"Exactly! And my clothes are dry. Look at you!" I exclaim, pointing to his jeans. "Your clothes are still damp from changing the tyre in the rain. At this rate, if you sleep out in the car, you'll end up with bloody pneumonia!"
"You're exaggerating," he says. "I'll be fine."
"No, I'm not exaggerating, and you're not sleeping in the car!"
"And neither are you!" The tone and increasing volume of his voice indicates that he's getting close to anger.
I sigh and rub my fingers over my forehead to ease the mounting tension. "Okay. Let's make some calls and see if we can find somewhere else to stay that has two beds – or a bigger bed."
He shakes his head as if to rid it of discombobulated thoughts. "Fine."
We both take a seat on the edge of the bed. With a huff of annoyance, I pull my phone out of my pocket, and Cullen does the same.
In frustration, I puff air from my ballooned cheeks and give a curt, 'Thanks,' to the person on the end of the line. I hit the end call icon and drop my phone to the mattress. It's the fifth failed attempt at finding alternative lodgings.
Cullen has his phone held up to his ear. "Nothing at all?" he asks the person on the other end of the call. There is a pause before he says, "Okay. Thanks," and hangs up the phone.
"No luck there either?" I ask.
"Looks like we're stuck here for the night then."
"I'll just sleep on the floor."
Ignoring his ludicrous suggestion, I shake my head and roll my eyes at him before casting my gaze towards the corner of the room. Standing from my spot, I turn and grab one of the pillows lying at the head of the bed. I walk over to the chair and pick up the napping rock wallaby. "Here. Take him," I say, passing the sleeping animal off to Cullen.
After kicking off my shoes, I take the seat and curl my legs beneath me. I position the pillow in such a way that I can hug it to my chest, and rest my head on it.
"I reckon I can sleep here like this," I say with a fake sigh of contentment. Cullen looks at me with an expression of blatant condescension. "What?" I snap, responding to his snarky non-verbal reply.
"You honestly think you're going to get any sleep there?"
"It's not much different to falling asleep in economy on a long-haul flight."
"If you say so..." he says, turning and stretching his long body to lie on the bed. After adjusting the pillow beneath his head, he positions the sleeping animal on his chest. Cullen's lower legs, I note, are hanging off the end of the bed by about five inches.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" I ask.
He shrugs. "Nothing. I'm just saying I wouldn't know what it's like."
"What? Flying? Are you telling me that you've never flown before?"
"I flew... once."
"And you didn't enjoy it?"
"Nope. Scared the living shit outta me."
"Are you afraid of heights?" I ask with a disbelieving laugh, unable to fathom that anything could frighten Cullen. "A big man like you..."
"Not heights; Crashing, and getting hurt or dying."
I curl my body a little tighter into the chair and readjust the pillow. The underwire of my bra pokes against my ribs, and the waistband of my jeans is cutting me in half. Getting a decent sleep tonight is unlikely, but I'll die before admitting it to Cullen.
"You know," I begin, sitting upright again, "statistically, you have greater odds of dying in a car smash. Today was a prime example that the roads are dangerous, which is the whole reason why you and I are stuck here right now."
"I've driven thousands of times and thousands of kilometres and have never had an accident. I flew once in a helicopter, and it managed to fall out of the sky. So statistically speaking, the odds-"
"Wait! What! You're kidding me?" I ask, stunned at this revelation. He shakes his head. "How? When?"
"My first year at Kynuna Station. I was sixteen, and it was a few months into my jackaroo traineeship. The boss wanted to move some livestock over to our sister property at Dagworth Station. Rusty, the chopper pilot, decided he wanted to take me up to show me how they muster the livestock from the air. At first, it was great – a real adrenaline rush – but at one point we were almost vertical to the ground when the rotor malfunctioned. We hit the ground head-first."
"Wow. Did either of you get injured?"
Cullen nods. "The pilot ended up with lower back fractures and a collapsed lung. He almost died. He was in the hospital in Adelaide for months and then spent another year in rehab. In time, he was able to walk, but only with the aid of customised leg splints and crutches. I was lucky. I got away with a dislocated knee, a few bruised ribs, and some minor cuts and grazes."
"I guess I can understand your reluctance to fly, but it's different on a plane."
"I'll take your word for it. Unless someone knocks me unconscious, I'm never flying again."
"Well, I've flown a lot, so as for sleeping upright, I'll manage fine," I lie. "You can have the bed, and I'll sleep here." My hands pat the arms of the chair twice for emphasis.
He sighs in resignation and then scratches at the bristles on the side of his jaw. "Whatever you say, Bella. I'm sure you'll do what you want, regardless."
Refusing to take the bait, I look at my watch and see it's past eight. Feeling grimy from the day's events and cold due to the lack of heating in the room, I decide a shower is in order. I strain my ears to listen outside and note that it must have stopped raining at some point. Standing from the chair, I drop the pillow onto the bed and then pick up one of the towels and the toiletries.
"Where are you going?" he asks.
"To hunt elephants, where does it look like I'm going?" I joke as I sling the towel over my shoulder. He gives me an exasperated look. "I'm going to take a shower. I need to get warm and freshen up."
"Do you need me to come with you?" Cullen asks, moving the wallaby off his chest. He sits up on the edge of the bed.
I shake my head. "I'll be okay. According to the map, it's not that far to walk. Anyway, someone needs to stay here to keep an eye on the animals." I pick up my backpack from the floor and rummage through one of the side pockets to find the small comb I keep there.
"Speaking of the animals, do you think you can fill this with water on your way back?" he asks, reaching for the kettle. "I want to give them something to drink, and maybe make a cup of tea before bed."
"Okay," I reply, and I take the kettle from him before heading out.
I close the door behind me. Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I follow the cement path towards the ablutions block. The temperature has dropped like a stone since our arrival, and I'm looking forward to thawing my body in the shower.
A short walk of about two minutes brings me to the tourist park's bathroom and laundry facilities. A dim street light illuminates the outside of the grey breeze block structure. I can barely make out the faded signs on the walls denoting the male and female divisions. I enter the bathroom and lock myself inside one of the stalls, thankful to see it has a brightly lit interior. After stripping out of my clothing and pulling my hair out of its ponytail, I take a long, hot shower. It's a luxury I've missed since we've been living in the caravan, and I take the time to wash and condition my hair thoroughly.
Feeling cleaner than I have in the past few weeks, I towel my body and dress in my clothes, except for my bra. Exiting the stall, I see there is a hand dryer on the wall by the sinks. Twisting the wide silver nozzle, I press the button about a dozen or more times, using the warm air to blow-dry the majority of the dampness out of my hair. After combing my hair and putting it into a braid, I fill the kettle and then gather my things.
As I step back outside into the cold night air, the stench of cigarette smoke hits my nostrils. I turn my head and see two men leaning with their backs against the wall. Giving them a small but nervous smile of acknowledgement, I start walking back to my room. I'm only ten paces into my journey when I become aware of someone following me. In response, I increase my pace, but not so much to make it obvious that I'm concerned.
"Hey!" a man's voice calls out from somewhere behind me. Ignoring him, I keep walking. "Get back here!" the voice demands, but I don't stop.
Who is he to talk to me like that?
The sound of my heart is pounding fast inside my ears, but I try to control my breathing to hide my panic. I mentally appraise the inventory of items I'm holding. Apart from the full kettle, I've got nothing of value to use as a weapon. I round the corner, hoping I've lost my followers. In the distance, I can see room 29. The sliver of light peeking through its partly opened curtain is a welcoming beacon. My sanctuary is approximately fifteen metres ahead.
"Yaaaaah!" I screech when I feel something touch the back of my thigh. No longer bothering to hide my fear, I drop everything and run.
"Hey, lady!" a man's voice – different from the previous one – calls out behind me.
"CULLEN!" I yell when I'm about five metres from the door. I then hear the sound of panting following me. "CULLEN!" Running full pelt, I reach the door at the same moment he opens it from the inside.
Cullen's silhouetted frame takes up most of the doorway. On seeing me, he first looks worried, but once his mind has assessed the situation, his expression changes to one of anger. Instinctively, I wrap my arms around him as our bodies collide. My right cheek tucks against his bare chest as he spins me counter-clockwise to shield me from my pursuers. As fast as he grabbed me, he lets me go and exits the room to stand on the doorstep. I move to stand behind Cullen and peek past his bicep.
"What the fucks goin' on?" he asks the two men in an accusing voice.
"We were just walking the dog," one of them protests, reaching out to restrain a large, dopey-looking black Labrador. It seems intent on strolling into our room. Your girl ran, and Blackie decided to play chasey. Sorry."
"How about you learn how to read and then put your dog on a leash," Cullen growls. "The pet control signs are out there for a fucking reason. What if it was a kid your animal was chasing?" With a huff of annoyance, he closes the door on the men and the dog, using a little more force than necessary.
"What an arsehole," says the muffled voice of one of the men on the other side of the door.
Cullen whirls around to face me. "Are you okay," he asks, touching my shoulders with his gentle hands. He bends down to be at eye-level with me. With worried eyes, he scans my body from head to foot. "Did you get bitten anywhere by the dog?"
I shake my head, now feeling a bit stupid for being so scared. With a sigh of relief, Cullen straightens. His hands release my shoulders.
I take a step back from him. "I'm fine. I just got a fright. I didn't realise it was the dog, and not the men, who were after me." Due to the adrenaline flooding through me, my knees feel a bit wobbly. I shuffle on shaky legs and take a seat on the edge of the bed so I can remove my shoes.
Cullen bends down to pick up his flannel shirt from the floor. He then faces away from me and holds the shirt up in front of the air conditioner. At this moment, my mind registers that a) he's shirtless, and b) the air conditioning unit is on. It's pumping hot air into the room.
"Huh. That's weird," I remark. "When I booked this room, the manager warned me that the air conditioner was faulty. That's why I got it cheap."
Cullen gives a one-shouldered shrug, and I watch his back muscles ripple with the movement. A faint, pink line is all that remains from when Sam's claws ripped into his skin almost three weeks ago. "I dunno. Seems to be working now. I wanted to use it so I could dry my clothes a bit before going to bed."
"At least we'll be able to warm the room," I add, leaning forward and snatching my backpack from the floor. I pull the comb out of my back pocket and stuff it into the bag.
"Where's the kettle?" Cullen asks after a few minutes.
"Ah, shit," I say, smacking my palm to my forehead. "I dropped everything when I ran. It's outside somewhere between here and the bathrooms, along with the towel and toiletries." I make a move to stand.
"Stay here, I'll go get it all," he says. Cullen puts his flannel shirt back on. He then picks up his wallet from the end of the bed. "Lock the door behind me. I'll be back in a bit. I'm also going to buy some milk from the roadhouse."
Once Cullen closes the door behind him, I flick the lock and lie back on the bed. After a few minutes, I sit up and reach into my backpack for my phone. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I check for messages before trying to call Angela and Ben. At the point where I've almost given up, thinking the call is going to go to voicemail again, Angela answers.
"Oh thank God! Finally! I've been trying to reach you for ages."
"It's funny; I just got your messages a few minutes ago - all eight of them at once. I was listening to them when you called."
"Sorry 'bout that. I was worried about you guys, and then I needed to let you know that we won't be back until tomorrow."
"You mentioned you and Cullen are staying in Three Ways due to the highway closure."
"Yeah, we're at the tourist park."
"What are the rooms like?"
"Room. I fucked up big time. We have a single room."
"And that's a problem because..?"
I tell her about the booking mix up, the single bed, and our sleeping arrangements.
"Only you, Bella," Angela says, laughing. "Seriously, just jump into that bed and fuck him already."
"Angela!" I scold.
"Speaking of sex, I know I'm going to make good use of this opportunity. We'll have the caravan all to ourselves for the first time since we got here. Me and Ben are gonna get naked as soon as we get back, isn't that right, Hon?"
"Too right!" I hear Ben's delighted voice say in the background. "Woohoo! Hot and loud monkey sex!"
"I did not need to know that," I respond in a deadpan tone.
Angela laughs. "Hey, can you put Cullen on the phone?"
"Not that I would right now, but I honestly can't."
"He's not here at the moment. He's gone to the roadhouse to buy some milk. Why do you want to talk to him anyway?" I ask with suspicion in my tone.
"Just wanted to ask if we should pick up the joeys from Esme's."
"No need. Cullen's already contacted her. Esme's going to keep them until we return. We'll pick them up on our way through."
"Okay. Well, I'm gonna let you go. My phone doesn't have much battery life left, and we still have about two hours to go until we get back to the sanctuary."
There is a soft knock at the door. "Bella, it's me," Cullen's voice says. "Open up."
"Hang on," I say to Angela, and I get off the bed to unlock and open the door. I step back, and Cullen brushes past me as he walks in. He has the kettle in one hand and a small carton of milk in the other. He's clutching the towels and toiletries against his chest with his forearm. I close the door behind him and then sit back on the edge of the bed. He looks as though he's about to tell me something until he sees I'm on the phone.
"I'll see you and Ben tomorrow. Cullen's back. Was there anything else you wanted to ask him?"
"Yeah, I wanna know if he's carrying any protection."
I let out an exasperated huff. "Unless you have something serious to ask, I'll speak with you tomorrow. I'll keep you up-to-date about when to expect us. That way you can air out the caravan before I return, and do not – I repeat – do not use that disabled sling for sex."
"Bye, Bella," she says in a sing-song tone.
I hang up the call and look with expectation at Cullen who is pouring some water into a shallow plastic bowl. "I see you found the kettle."
"Yeah..." he begins as he puts the bowl down in front of the emu chicks. He places the kettle back on top of the fridge and then flips the switch to turn it on. "Um, Bella..." He appears embarrassed for some reason.
"Er... well... you need to look in here." He picks up a wadded, mud-smeared towel from the end of the bed and passes it to me.
From inside the towel, I unwrap what appears to be my bra. "Oh... oops."
"I'm assuming it's yours?" he asks, referring to the once-white scrap of sheer material that is now damp and stained with red mud.
"Ah... yeah. I uh... can't sleep wearing a bra." As fast as I can manage, I fold the bra and then move to shove it into one of the side pockets of my backpack. "I um... didn't put it back on after my shower, and I must have dropped it along with everything else when I ran."
"I thought about washing it with soap in the laundry room, but then I wasn't sure if that was okay."
"No! That's okay," I squeak, feeling the heat rising to my cheeks. "I'll deal with it when we get home." My skin is feeling quite hot now, and it's not from the warm air pumping out at high speed from the air conditioner.
"Tea or coffee?" Cullen asks, and I'm thankful he's changing the topic of conversation.
"Not for me, thanks. If I drink caffeine now, I'll never get to sleep." Not that I'm going to get much sleep anyway.
Cullen goes back to making himself a drink, as I watch the emu chicks make a mess of the cardboard box with the water.
Resting his cup of tea on top of the fridge to cool, Cullen takes a seat on the chair and removes his socks and shoes. He stands and drapes the socks over the curtain rod, presumably to dry them. Pulling his phone out of his jeans pocket, Cullen takes a seat and makes a call. After greeting the person who answers, it becomes clear that he's talking to someone in Alice Springs about the rock wallaby.
To occupy myself while he's busy on the phone, I reach into my backpack and pull out my iPad. Time to get back to my book. I stretch out on the bed, making the most of it while I can before relegating myself to sleeping curled up on the chair.
I see movement in the corner of my eye, and then, to my shock, Cullen stands and works open the button of his jeans, all while talking on the phone. Then to my utter disbelief, he shoves his jeans down until they are resting at the level of his knees before taking a seat again to pull them off completely. It's like he's forgotten I'm even in the room. Curiosity makes me want to ask what in the Hell he thinks he's doing, but it seems that my mouth is paralysed. I watch as he stands once again with his jeans in hand. He moves to the middle of the room, stopping in front of the air conditioner. When he holds his jeans up to the warm air with one hand, it becomes evident that he's trying to dry them. This, however, means I'm left staring at the arse of Cullen's navy-blue boxer-briefs. To stop myself from ogling his derriere and thighs, I go back to concentrating on my e-book. Unfortunately, the passage I start reading involves yet another love scene between Eve and Roarke.
Christ! If I had sex as often as Eve, I swear I'd walk bow-legged.
Cullen's phone call ends, but for a few more minutes he stands before the air conditioner, holding up his jeans to dry.
Don't look at his bum. Don't look at his bum. Don't look. Okay... one little look won't hurt.
I'm startled by the sound of Cullen's voice which causes me to lose my grip on the iPad. The tablet drops from my hands, first bouncing on the bed, and then falling onto the floor. In that instant, Siri's loud robotic, female voice emits from the speaker.
* "she took her hands, her mouth over him. Erotic and tender, passionate and loving. She wanted to show him all, everything. And as she did, he gave back. Long drugging kisses that weighed the limbs, lazy, lingering caresses that thrilled the blood."
"Oh shit!" I curse, embarrassment painting my skin fire engine red. I launch myself off the bed to retrieve the iPad as Siri drones on.
* "The bed, with its thick mattress of gel, undulated beneath them. She rolled, leaned away, so he contented himself with the flavour just above the silk hose on the back of her thigh. Then she straddled him, drank from the glass of champagne. Upending it, she began to drink him."
In a panic, I search the screen, but for the life of me, I can't see any controls to stop the talking. I didn't even know my iPad could do this from the iBooks app. I press the off button at the top of the tablet, but to my horror, it doesn't stop the voice.
* "His vision blurred, the breath clogging in his lungs to burning. She tormented him. Pleasured him. Her agile body slid and slithered over his while her mouth drove him to the verge of madness."
Turning the iPad back on, I hit the home button twice and swipe my finger upwards on the screen to exit the app. Still, Siri keeps reading.
"What the hell? Stop it!" I protest to the stupid electronic device that is hell-bent on humiliating me in front of Cullen.
* "His control snapped, steel rending steel. The sound of silk tearing inflamed him as he ripped at it. And with a sound of greed, he filled his hands, his mouth with her. She came, a wild, shock slap to her system. Her head fell back as she gulped for air. Her body shuddered as he feasted-"
In desperation, I repeatedly press the volume down control button. After what feels like forever, I've managed to mute Siri's unsexy voice from reading chick-porn aloud. I get up from the floor to see Cullen staring at me. His eyes are bright with amusement, and he's trapped his lower lip so tightly between his teeth that the skin there is blanching.
I sigh in resignation. "Laugh it up, Cullen. You know you want to."
He doesn't disappoint, bursting out into raucous laughter which, in turn, causes me to start giggling.
"What was that?" he asks, calming somewhat, but still laughing.
"It was a book called Witness in Death. It's one in a series of crime novels."
"Crime?" he says in a disbelieving tone. "Didn't sound much like a crime novel to me. Steel rending steel? Silk tearing? I couldn't quite understand what was going on there. Care to enlighten me?"
I roll my eyes at him. "That was Roarke tearing sexy lingerie off Eve's body," I explain, turning on the iPad. In iBooks, the cursor on the screen is still moving, so I assume muted Siri is still reading to herself. From what I can see, it appears Eve and Roarke have ended their sex romp and have moved onto dinner.
"Oh, okay." He laughs again. "Seriously though, I think the only crime going on there is the one against literature."
"Yeah. Ha-ha. Keep going, Cullen, and soon there will be another crime committed when I beat you senseless," I mutter. I still have no clue of how to stop Siri from reading, so I press the home and off button to perform a soft reset and hope for the best.
"That was hilarious. The panic on your face was priceless," he says, with a tired sigh while running his hand over his lower abdomen. "You wait until I tell Ben about this. He's gonna piss himself laughing. Ah, shit. My stomach hurts. I think I might've ruptured something internally."
I pick up a pillow from the bed and start belting him with it. "If you dare tell Ben anything about this, I'll be the one hurting you."
He laughs as he easily fends off the repeated blows with his hands and forearms. Clutching onto the pillow, he manages to pull it from my grasp before wrapping his arms around me. To my surprise, he's pinned my arms to my body like a vice.
"Hey!" I protest, squirming against his chest. "Let me go!"
"How are you going to fend me off this time, Ninja Girl?" he asks, laughing. "You don't seem to have your stabby pen on you."
"Don't under-estimate me. I have mad skills," I retort, joining in and laughing too. I then try to stomp against Cullen's shin, but with sock-clad feet, it's far less effective than with boots on.
He grins in triumph. Readjusting his grip, he hoists me up, so my feet are dangling in mid-air. My eyes are at the level of his chin. "What about now?" he challenges. "Whatcha gonna do? Head butt me? Bite me to death?"
Without thinking of the consequences, I raise my legs up and wrap them around his hips. Squeezing my thighs, I lift my body along the length of his, making our faces level.
Then, I kiss him.
I only mean to give him a brief, chaste peck on the lips to shock him into letting me go, but my plan backfires the moment he kisses me back.
His kiss. It's not the hesitant kiss of a shy, inexperienced man. It's the kiss of someone who knows how to give a woman a hot, hungry, mind-melting, life-altering kiss. It's the sort of kiss that inspires poets and songwriters. The moment his tongue strokes against mine, I moan in pleasure.
His own moan escapes when I tighten my thighs around his waist and wriggle against his strong hold. He releases my arms, allowing my hands the freedom to run through the hair at the back of his head. My fingers grip the strands, trapping him to my mouth as his tongue continues to dance with mine. He moves his hands down, cupping them to my bottom, squeezing and massaging the flesh before pulling me tighter against his body.
Our kiss seems to go on for ages, with little thought for oxygen requirements. In my dizzy, euphoric haze of lust, I'm unaware that Cullen has moved us onto the bed until our lips break apart and my back hits the mattress. However, I am more than aware of the long, hard length of his arousal when it briefly presses against me, as the weight of his body nestles within the cradle of my thighs. With this discovery, I get a thrill of female satisfaction, knowing I can affect him in this way. Once we settle on the bed, we start kissing again.
Cullen supports most of the weight of his upper body by resting his forearms on the bed on either side of me. My hands travel unimpeded down the length of his spine. I lift the back of his flannel shirt and caress along the bare skin of his waist and lower back. Even though the room is quite warm, my fingertips detect the goose bumps my touch has provoked in him. Due to his large body size, I can't reach down far enough to grab his bum like I really want to. I want to touch every part of him with every part of me.
Lifting my feet off the mattress, I drag my toes along the backs of his legs from calves to mid-thigh. The movement causes my pelvis to rock up against Cullen's belly, the inadvertent friction eliciting a moan from the back of my throat. Cullen reciprocates, moving his body higher and grinding once more right where I need him with his hard cock. That feels incredible. The momentary loss of contact with his lips allows me to kiss a path along his neck. God, he smells amazing. Tastes good too. Just as my tongue and teeth are about to latch onto his exposed collarbone, movement out the corner of my eye causes my body to startle beneath Cullen's.
It's the rock wallaby. He's sitting there, between us and the wall, and he's staring at me like a voyeur.
Cullen, becoming aware of my distraction, pulls his face away from mine. His eyes search my face for answers. I stare back into his eyes, and I see how his pupils have dilated to the size of saucers, and his lips are kiss-swollen and reddened. He moves in to kiss me again, but I shake my head. At my hesitation, his face begs me in silence to not stop what we are doing, but it's too late, the spell has been broken. I've come back to my senses about who I'm with and what this could mean for the both of us should we continue.
This can't happen, I tell myself, and I move my hands from Cullen's hips to gently press them against his chest. I can't do this with him. It wouldn't be right.
Taking the hint, he lifts himself off me, and I scramble out from under him. I get off the bed and lurch towards the chair in the corner of the room. Taking a seat, I stare shame-faced at Cullen. I feel like shit when my eyes catch the impressive bulge tenting the front of his boxer-briefs, and the coin-sized stain of pre-cum darkening the fabric where the tip of his penis lays. I no longer feel proud of myself for causing that reaction in him. I'm nothing but a prick-teaser.
"Are you okay? Did I do something wrong?" Cullen asks, grabbing a pillow and placing it over his lap to hide the evidence of his arousal. "If I did, I'm sorry, but I thought it was what-"
"No, don't say it," I beg, cutting off his apology. I lean my elbows on my knees and put my face into my palms. Of course he'd think sex was what I wanted. I'm the one who initiated it by rubbing myself all over him. The rudimental, pleasure-seeking part of my brain led us both on. I feel incredibly guilty right now. "It's all my fault. I shouldn't have kissed you. It was a huge mistake. I'm sorry, and I'm an idiot."
The silence between us is deafening until I hear a ragged sigh from Cullen. I feel the sting of tears starting to well behind my closed eyelids as I listen to the sound of Cullen moving off the bed. A rustling of fabric tells me he's picking his jeans up from the floor.
Once I've gotten my emotions under control, I lift my face from my hands. Cullen's got his pants back on, and he's about to slide his feet back into his socks.
"Going somewhere?" I ask worriedly.
He picks up the clean towel. "I need to take a walk to clear my head. Then I'll have a shower before going to sleep."
As he sits on the bed to put his shoes back on, he says, "Can I ask you something?"
Feeling apprehensive, I reply, "Sure."
"Why do you think me and you being together is a mistake? Is it because of what I told you? About me being a virgin and all."
I shake my head. "No, that's not it at all. It has absolutely nothing to do with that. It's..." I trail off, trying to put into words what I'm feeling while trying to reassure him at the same time. I release a heavy sigh before continuing. "This is going to sound as cliché as hell, but honestly, the issue is me, and not you; and I'm not just saying that to fob you off."
In response, Cullen lets out a derisive snort of air from his nostrils. He's not convinced.
"It's the truth. It's me because I'm a bit old-fashioned when it comes to sex. I'm not the sort of girl who can sleep with someone outside of a committed relationship. I don't do one-night stands, holiday flings, or casual hook-ups. I know from experience that I can't separate the act of sex and love. It's just the way I am."
The morning after I'd slept with Riley, my heart had shattered when he'd suggested a friends-with-benefits relationship. Though Riley had come around to my way of thinking, right before his death, I had vowed I would never put myself through that sort of sexual-emotional turmoil again.
I've weathered the losses of a lot of important things this past year; a job, a home, family, people I've loved, and the company of good friends back in the US. I couldn't bear to lose what would be an undeniable, deeper connection if Cullen and I changed our dynamic by taking things further. In different circumstances, if we lived in the same place, I could so easily 100% fall for him. But the truth is that my time in Australia is temporary. In December, I'm going back to the UK.
Leaving him as friends will be hard enough; leaving him as once-were lovers will be like cutting out my own heart.
"I'm sorry I led you on like that," I mutter, hardly able to meet his gaze because there is a mixture of sadness and resignation written on his face. "Can you forgive me? Please?"
With his shoes on, Cullen rises from the edge of the bed and moves to stand in front of me. He tilts my face back to look up at him, and I'm confused when he leans forward to kiss my forehead. Then without a word, he turns and heads for the door and leaves the room.
When the door closes behind him, I'm unsure about whether he's forgiven me or not.
Another yawn escapes from my mouth, and I stifle it with the back of my hand. I touch the screen of the iPad to reveal the time, and realise that Cullen has been gone for more than an hour. I wish he'd hurry back. I've fed and watered the animals, but now I just want to turn out the lights and go to sleep. My eyeballs are starting to feel dry, so I get up and go over to the air conditioner. I press the Off button, but there is no response. I push it again, but still, the warm air is whooshing into the room. "Shit," I mutter as I repeatedly push the button in the hope that it will shut down. The temperature dial is also broken, meaning I can't change it from hot to cold air. There is also no visible power cord, so I can't unplug it from the socket.
After more fruitless attempts, I end up changing the fan speed to the lowest setting, so there's less hot air flowing into the room. I then open the curtain and the window to let in some cold air. As I look out towards Cullen's car, I see a shadowy movement in the back seat. I let out a sigh of frustration, knowing he's decided to sleep out there instead of in here with me.
I turn away from the window and switch off the light. I'm in two minds on whether I should lock the door or not. In the end, I keep it unlocked in case Cullen decides to come back inside. Since he's not using the bed, I flop down on it and proceed to take off my jeans and jumper. Left in my singlet top and underpants, I crawl under the blanket.
Just as I am about to fall asleep, I learn, first-hand, that Rock Wallabies are predominantly nocturnal creatures. The little shit – who I bestow the nickname 'Satan's Spawn' – manages to keep me awake most of the night.
Sunday, 20th July 2014.
A soft knock at the door lets me know Cullen is awake.
"It's unlocked," I rasp, rolling over to make sure that it is, in fact, Cullen at the door. I see his wary expression on entering. I resist the urge to mention that the door remained unlocked overnight, on the off-chance that he'd stopped behaving like an idiot and returned to the room.
"Morning," he says, presenting a brown paper bag and a takeaway cup to me. He must have gone into the roadhouse to buy food and coffee.
I sit up and take the items from him. "Breakfast in bed; how posh," I joke, trying to lighten the mood, but not really feeling it. The coffee is too hot to drink, so I move to place it on the floor beside the bed. As I'm about to put the cup down, I see the wallaby's tail peeking out from under the bed. I roll over further to look under the bed and see he's fast asleep.
"Oh, so now it's time to sleep. How about I randomly jump up and down on the bed and see how you like being woken up?" In response, the wallaby opens one sleepy eye. "It's a good thing you're cute, or else I'd convince Cullen to leave you here when we go."
Deciding that the floor is not the best place to put the coffee, in case Satan's Spawn knocks it over, I sit back up. I then crawl to the end of the bed and place the cup on top of the fridge. It's when I reposition myself against the wall and pull the sheet back over my lap, that I recall I'm only in underpants and a thin singlet with no bra. Guiltily, I look up to Cullen, but he's staring out of the window. I have no idea if he saw my lack of clothing and turned away, or if he wasn't even looking at me in the first place. I pull up the sheet so that it's tucked up beneath my armpits.
From the paper bag, I pull out a buttery croissant. Biting into the pastry, I detect ham, melted cheese and French mustard. "This is delicious," I say around a mouthful of food. "How much was it? I'll pay you back."
"Don't worry about it," he replies, still looking out of the window. "So, it sounds like you didn't get much sleep," he says.
"Between the broken air conditioner, my paranoia about sleeping with the window open, and the wallaby's antics, that would be a big, fat affirmative."
"What's wrong with the air conditioner?" he asks, moving his gaze towards it.
"Couldn't get it to turn off. The room was becoming a sauna, so I had to open the window."
I watch as Cullen reaches up to play with the buttons and dials. He then manages to unfasten the front cover, and after some button pressing and jiggling of wires, the air conditioner switches off.
"Finally! Where were you last night when I needed you?" I say in an exasperated tone, meaning it as a joke, but in reality, it's not a joke at all. The reality is that Cullen couldn't stand to be around me after I cock-blocked him, and he chose to sleep out in the car. "Never mind," I say before he can reply. I take another bite of my croissant and stare down at the emu chicks. I'm reminded that at some point during the night, the wallaby had taken to chewing on the lid of the cardboard box. There are tattered pieces of cardboard all over the floor.
"What time are we leaving," I ask once I've finished eating.
Cullen turns his gaze away from the window. "As soon as you get dressed and are ready."
"I'll just get dressed then," I announce. I wait for Cullen to leave, but he doesn't make a move until I pull back the sheet.
"I'll, uh, go," he says, heading for the door like his arse is on fire.
Yep. Can't stand to be around me.
The Sanctuary – Connellan – NT.
"Wakey, wakey," Angela's voice croons. I crack my eyelids open and see my friend staring down at me with an amused expression. "Did somebody stay up late last night?"
I look around me and try to remember how I got here, back inside the caravan and on my bed. "What time is it?"
"In the morning?" I ask looking around in confusion for my phone. I can't see it anywhere.
Angela laughs. "No; in the afternoon. It's still Sunday."
I yawn and rub at my eyes. "What time did we get back," I wonder aloud.
"A bit after two."
"And how did I get here?"
"Boomer carried you. It was sooooo cute." Angela has a swoony look on her face.
I know she has the wrong impression of what went down between Cullen and me last night. If only she knew. "He should have woken me," I grump. I'll bet he didn't wake me on purpose to avoid talking to me.
"Why? It's the least he could do after keeping you up all night," she says, adding an eyebrow wiggle.
"Yeah, well that's one way of looking at it," I mutter.
The ride home, what little I remember of it, was awkward and uncomfortable. Cullen was only sitting on the opposite side of the car from me, but it felt like there was a chasm – something the size of the Grand Canyon – between us rather than the centre console. The last thing I recall is when we got slowed by a road worker in a high-viz vest. Although the highway had reopened, the clean-up operation was still in progress and traffic had been cut down to one lane for a one-kilometre stretch.
My stomach gurgles audibly. "I missed lunch," I explain on seeing Angela's amused expression.
"Clearly," she agrees. "That's why I'm waking you. We're going to the pub for dinner. Get up and get ready."
In my current mood, I don't relish the idea of being social, but I also don't feel like making food for myself either.
"I'm going to take a shower," I announce, sitting up and rolling off the bed. I look down at my feet. I still have shoes on.
"We're leaving in twenty minutes. While you're getting ready, I'm going to change, and then I'll head over to the shed and spend time with Ben, Boomer, and Jake. Meet you over there when you're ready to go."
"Jake's here?" I ask. "Is he coming out to dinner with us?"
"Nah. Cullen's got him on babysitting duty for the animals."
Angela leaves, and I start undressing. My hair still feels okay after last night's wash and conditioning, so I tie it up into a bun on top of my head before getting into the shower.
"Hey, Jake," I say on entering the shed.
"Hey yourself," Jake replies. He's sitting on the kitchen bench, sipping coffee from a mug. Vanessa's pouch is draped around his neck, disappearing into his pullover. "All dressed up, I see," he says with a hint of sarcasm.
I give him an unamused look. Even after showering, my enthusiasm for going out hasn't altered. This is why I've dressed for comfort and not style – an unpopular choice, judging by Angela's disapproving gaze. I'm wearing black leggings, a long, black jumper, and Doc Martin boots. My hair is still up in a bun, and I didn't bother with makeup.
"What?" I ask tersely at Angela's non-verbally implied criticism. "It's just the pub."
She rolls her eyes at me in response. Angela is in a black dress and full makeup, while Ben is wearing a flattering pair of grey trousers and white button-down shirt. Even Cullen looks as though he's made an effort. He's in a pair of black jeans with a navy blue button-down shirt, and he's cleanly shaven. I think this is the first time I've seen him without scruff. God, he's handsome.
Now, I feel like an ugly troll, but stubbornness stops me from marching back to the caravan to get changed. "Let's go. I'm starving," I announce, turning on my heel and heading out the door. I stomp my way over to our car and get in the backseat.
Angela gets into the seat opposite me. Ben and Cullen get in the front, with Ben opting to be our designated driver into town.
Cullen talks to Ben about how he intends to incorporate the emu chicks into his sanctuary. He regrets that he's currently unable to rehabilitate the wallaby for himself. Once the place is open to the public for tours, he hopes he'll be able to afford to take on other wildlife species, including Rock Wallabies. To the side of the shed, Cullen indicates the area where he hopes to create an enclosed rocky mountain habitat. As we drive towards the main gate, he also points out where he might one day be able to keep a few camels.
Still feeling sick over what happened between Cullen and me last night, I resolve to do something to help one of his dreams become a reality, sooner than he thinks.
The Todd Tavern – Alice Springs – NT.
Before entering the bistro, I decide to head to the front bar for a drink. I convince Ben, Angela, and Cullen to join me by shouting the first round.
"Hey, guys," Jasper greets as we stand at the bar. "What can I do you for?"
"Beer? Do we all want a beer?" I ask the group, and they all nod. "Two handles and two schooners of Coopers Pale Ale, please," I say passing Jasper some money.
"Listen to you," Jasper says, handing me my change before reaching under the bar. He produces four beer glasses. "You're starting to sound like a true local." He places a small glass under the tap and fills it.
I shrug and smile. "It's not too hard to catch on to the lingo." Jasper hands me the beer and I pass it off to Angela. Jasper then fills a schooner, the larger sized glass. The glass fills to the brim, and I pick it up and turn to pass it to Ben. "Here you go." I see Alice enter from the back room and walk in behind Jasper. "Hey, Alice!" I say to gain her attention.
Alice smiles on reflex when hearing her name called, but once she sees it's me, her smile widens into a broad grin. She steps in next to Jasper. "Heyyyyy! How ya goin' Bella?" she says.
"I'm good," I reply, taking the schooner Jasper has placed in front of me. I glance around to find Cullen. He's a few feet away, talking to a man I've never seen before. "Cullen!" I call out to him, holding the glass up in the air. "Come here and get your drink."
Cullen excuses himself and heads towards me.
"Alice... I'm glad you're here, actually," I say as Cullen reaches to take the glass from me. "Get the beer stein; I'm going to guess the first name of our enigmatic Mister Cullen."
At this proclamation, Cullen pauses, indulging me by placing his drink back on the bar.
"Oh, goody," Alice says excitedly, turning away from the bar. She walks to the locked cabinet where the large beer stein is on display. She hefts the weighty glass that is halfway filled with gold coins and a piece of paper that I know to be a cheque. Alice brings it to rest on the bar in front of me. She then passes me the small notebook filled with names and a pen. "Always happy to see a fool and their money parted." She grins, resting her palms on either side of the stein to tap her fingernails on the glass like a drumroll.
I open the book and put pen to paper. Just as I'm about to write an elaborate cursive capital 'E' for Edward, a female voice from behind me says, "Edward?"
My head snaps up so fast that I almost give myself whiplash.
"Edward Cullen? Is that really you?" The voice, I discover as I turn my head, belongs to a beautiful, tall, blonde woman. She reaches her hand forward to touch Cullen's bicep and then grasps the fabric of his shirt as if she's worried he's going to vanish into thin air. "Oh, my God!" she exclaims, now more excited. "It is you!" Her smile is beaming, revealing a set of perfect teeth and dimpled cheeks. "It's been so long since I last saw you! Oh, my God! You're even more handsome than I remember."
In Cullen's eyes, I see a moment of confusion, which is soon replaced by recognition and then happiness. "Grace?" he says, smiling broadly and looking at her as if she's returned from the dead.
It's her - Grace Emily Anderson – the girl from Cullen's past.
A/N – Waves.
*Excerpts From: J. D. Robb - Witness in Death.