The murmur died down when a young woman entered The Majestic. She gave the crowd a tense smile and walked towards the bar where an elderly woman beamed welcomingly at her.
'Anything I can do for you, dear?'
The newcomer put her backpack down and unfolded a hand.
'Hello, my name's Marian Slight. I hope you are expecting me?'
Marian, self-consciously aware that everyone's attention was focused on her, felt her cheeks turn a dark red. The woman's smile widened sympathetically, and she warmly shook the proffered hand.
'Of course we are, dear!' She raised her voice. 'Vic!'
A corpulent man with an affable grin emerged from the kitchen area.
'Oh Vic, this is the British girl I was telling you about. You know - the one who won the Flying Doctors-competition.'
'Good on ya, lass!' Vic shook her hand enthusiastically. 'Although why anyone would want to win an evening with Baxter is beyond me.'
'Vic, you're terrible!' Nancy smiled indulgently at her husband before turning back to Marian. 'I'm Nancy, this is Vic. We own this place, so if there's anything you need - just let us know.'
Marian opened her mouth to thank her, but closed it again since Vic by now was addressing the small amount of pub guests.
'Hey, you lazy bums! This here's Marian, the poor bugger who's won the date with Baxter.' A murmur of sympathy rose from the assembly, and Vic turned back to Marian.
'What about a beer, love? My shout.'
Marian, realizing how warm and thirsty she really was, gave him a grateful smile and he responded with a mischievous grin. 'I thought you'd like some real Australian XXXX instead of that rubbish you British call beer!'
Marian's eyes sparkled when she retorted 'Australian beer? There really is such a thing? And here I've always thought that was just an urban myth.'
Vic gave a throaty laugh, but before he could answer her she was surrounded by an unruly crowd who enthusiastically welcomed her to the Crossing.
Her ears were still ringing when she finally found herself alone in her room. She yawned and sat down on the bed. Suffering from jetlag she had decided on an early night, but her new acquaintances had been reluctant to let her go and it was by now way past her bedtime.
Marian was woken by a soft knock at the door. A glance at her watch made her realize that she'd actually slept for fifteen hours straight. Another faint knock made her speedily crawl into a T-shirt and a skirt before opening the door. Outside stood an apologetic Nancy with a breakfast tray.
'I'm sorry to wake you, dear, but we stop serving breakfast at ten.'
Marian blinked sleepily at the tray.
'Thank you Nancy, it smells wonderful! And I really appreciate you waking me too. I forgot to set the alarm clock yesterday.'
Nancy gave her a relieved smile.
'Me and Vic's about to start preparing lunch. Won't you come down and talk for a while when you've finished your breakfast?
Marian declared that she would like that very much, and Nancy disappeared.
Carefully balancing the breakfast tray Marian closed the door. Her stomach began to make impatient noises at the appetizing aroma, and she rapidly wolfed down the meal.
After a quick shower she hurriedly redressed before taking the now empty tray back to the kitchen. She found Nancy and Vic deep in conversation with a stout lady in a grey dress and matching hat, and she stopped indecisively just inside the door. As soon as the stranger noticed her, the round face lightened up.
'You must be Marian! I am so sorry that I wasn't here to meet you yesterday, but I had to go to Windoona to sort out some problems with their RFDS fundraising committee. How those people ever manage to raise money is beyond me!'
Marian watched fascinated as the woman's multiple chins trembled with every word she uttered. The woman looked expectantly from Marian to Nancy and back again, and Nancy hastily cut in.
'Marian, this is Violet Carnegie.' Nancy hesitated for a split second before continuing 'Cooper's Crossings first lady. Violet, this is Marian Slight, our winner of the RFDS-competition.'
Violet enthusiastically shook Marian's hand.
'I am so glad to meet you! You must come to the fundraising meeting tomorrow! I will not take no for an answer! Nancy, you will see to that, won't you? And you must come to tea before you leave! I really want to hear all about England! I've been there, you know!'
Marian gave a bewildered nod, which seemed to satisfy Violet.
'It was so nice to meet you, my dear, but now I really must go. I'll see you tomorrow then!' Violet took a final, nearsighted look at Marian before leaving.
Silence spread through the kitchen. Marian, Nancy and Vic exchanged bemused looks. Nancy was the first to regain the power of speech.
'Well, now you have met Violet.'
Marian nodded with a stunned expression, and Nancy gave her an understanding smile.
'Don't get the wrong impression, dear. Violet's really a very nice woman, but she might come over as a bit… intense.'
Still unable to speak Marian gave another nod. She felt like she'd just been overrun by a bulldozer. Admittedly a rather small, friendly bulldozer, but a bulldozer just the same…
Marian was still sitting in The Majestic's cosy kitchen when Vic called her name.
'It's for you' he smirked, offering her the phone. Marian looked surprised, but obediently accepted it.
'Hello?' she volunteered.
'Marian Slight?' a no-nonsense voice barked at her.
'Good. George Baxter here. I just wanted to confirm our dinner tonight.'
'It's just after eleven right now, so how about I pick you up at five?
'That would be nice.' Marian felt like a five-year-old, but she couldn't seem to think of anything intelligible to say. George Baxter didn't seem to notice, though.
'I'll pick you up at the pub at five then.'
The line went dead, and Marian was left with a sinking feeling in her stomach. She gave Vic an incredulous stare, but he just laughed at her.
'That's our Georgie for you' he smiled wryly.
Marian began to wonder what she was in for. She shrugged irritably and straightened her back, determined not to let one evening with the infamous George Baxter, MP, ruin her holiday. She'd won a week in Cooper's Crossing, and she was darn well going to enjoy it, George Baxter or no George Baxter!
She had no trouble finding the RFDS headquarter. Outside she met a dark-haired woman laden with cases. Marian recognized her as one of the RFDS-nurses she'd met the night before. The burdened female offloaded the boxes into the station wagon before turning to Marian with a forthcoming smile.
'Hello there! I see you took us up on our offer then? A grand tour of the RFDS premises? Oh, I'm Kate in case you don't remember. Kate Well...' the woman stopped and her smile widened into an embarrassed grin before she continued with emphasis 'Standish.' She laughed ruefully. 'I still can't seem to remember the name change.'
Kate glanced at the door where an equally overloaded man just exited.
'Come on, Sam, get a move on!' Kate hollered encouragingly.
Somewhere beneath the stack came a calm voice.
'Married three weeks and already a nag, Kate?'
The man was now close enough for Kate to give him a quick shove, which made the pile sway dangerously. He managed to save it, and put the load safely into the car. The friendly eyes under the blonde, tousled hair gleamed with mischief when he backed away from the trunk and looked at them. He stuck his tongue out at Kate before shaking hands with Marian.
'Hi, I'm Sam. And the reason we didn't meet last night is' he turned to face Kate 'because I prefer not to socialize with this rogue more than I absolutely have to.'
Kate just smiled sweetly and retorted 'No, you prefer to spend your nights gallivanting around in that plane of yours. What was it last night? A kangaroo with hiccups? A dingo with bad breath?'
Sam groaned pitifully. 'It is not called a "plane"! It is just unbearable nurses with a bad attitude towards pilots who insists on calling them "planes"! And for your information, Miss Nosy - I spent last night with our eldest sow, which was intent on eating her newborns. And I still preferred her company to yours!'
The affectionate look between the two of them belied the harsh tone, and Kate just made some kissing noises at him from a safe distance.
Sam threw a glance towards the door and commented 'Okay, we have here one nurse and one pilot. We seem sadly out of doctors though. Geoff tired of your company already is he, Kate?'
'Not Geoff. Chris.' Kate informed him.
'According to the schedule this is Geoff's clinic week, isn't it?' Sam said with a bewildered expression.
'Yeah, but he found out that Debbie will do the flying next week, so he switched rounds with Chris. He said he wanted to fly with a real pilot for a change.' Kate gave Sam an innocent smile. Their squabble was interrupted by Chris' arrival.
'Okay kids, who's winning?' Chris didn't wait for an answer, but turned to Marian instead. 'Hello, Marian! Someone inside's going to love your timing! DJ is complaining bitterly that we're leaving him alone with the ogre, so why don't you take him to the pub and feed him? After he's through showing you all his precious gadgets, of course… Which means it'll probably be dinnertime before you'll get anything to eat.'
'You left DJ with an ogre?' Marian's voice expressed some confusion.
'Oh, that reminds me!' Chris turned back to Kate and Sam. 'Kate! What have you been doing to Geoff? His temper is worse than an infuriated puff adder's!'
Kate shrugged and raised her hands defensively. 'Don't blame me, I know better than to aggravate him like that. It's just that the combination of Mr Morgan's liver and Mr Morgan's love of Irish coffee drives Geoff up the walls.'
'Ah, yes. The illustrious Mr Morgan.' Chris chewed her lower lip before pulling herself together. 'Well, we can't stand around here gossiping all day; we have a clinic round to finish.
You two! The car! Now! And you,' she turned to Marian 'you save DJ from that misanthropic ogre of ours, and we'll see you at the pub tonight, right?'
'I'll do my best to save DJ, but I'm supposed to have dinner with George Baxter tonight. I really have no idea when I will be back'
'Ah. The dinner.' Chris voice held an ominous tone. 'Well, knowing Baxter it'll probably be the local burger joint, so don't expect too much. Now get going with that rescue mission and we'll treat you to lunch tomorrow, okay?'
Marian smiled at Chris. 'Okay. Sounds nice!' The smile faltered. 'Although I'm supposed to partake in a RFDS fundraising meeting tomorrow.'
'You're living quite an eventful life, aren't you?' Chris raised her eyebrows good-humouredly. 'Anyway, tomorrow's meeting isn't until four, so you'll have plenty of time to enjoy our company during lunch.'
'See you all tomorrow then?' Marian said earnestly.
Chris gave her an affirmative nod before getting into the car. Sam waved happily, and Kate leaned out of the window with a cheerful acclamation of 'Good luck with Baxter - you'll need it!' Walking with light steps Marian started off towards the entrance. She glanced at the blue sky with a radiant smile on her face. Her heart expanded in a sudden sensation of joy. In only twenty-four hours she'd fallen in love with Cooper's Crossing. And as far as she could tell, the feeling seemed mutual!
At four thirty Marian's mood had changed dramatically. She was staring dejectedly at the clothes she'd brought with her, not helped by the fact that she hadn't a clue as to where George Baxter was taking her. Chris had said "hamburger bar", and this notion had been seconded by both Vic and Nancy. She gazed longingly at a pair of jeans, but realized that they had their limited applications. A glance at her watch let her know that she by now had only twenty-five minutes left before Mr Baxter would arrive. Not a big help, really. She frantically tried to find anything in her wardrobe that could fit in at a hamburger bar and still moonlight as an outfit worthy of a gourmet restaurant.
She eventually settled on a pleated miniskirt in black denim, a pale yellow top and a short, black denim jacket. The rig-out would probably not pass muster with the more luxury restaurants in Sydney, but at least she ought to be able to get into any of the eating-places in the Crossing-vicinity. She checked the mirror and her watch, reaching the conclusion that the time remaining was too short for her to consider her mirrored reflection to be really bad anyway. She frenetically brushed her hair and pulled it back into a ponytail before applying a tad of make-up. She tried the mirror again and decided that she'd looked worse. She went down to the pub to be inspected and approved by the motherly Nancy – and to wait for George Baxter.
Marian was by now a bundle of nerves, and her eyes seldom left the door. There were a lot of people coming and going, and every time the door was opened her heart skipped a beat.
Finally a man in his early forties entered. He acknowledged the couple behind the bar with a nod and a short bark of 'Nancy. Vic.'
'Hello, George.' Nancy gave him an affectionate smile. 'I think this is what you're looking for' she continued, indicating Marian.
Marian now had a full view of the notorious George Baxter. They exchanged penetrating looks, and she was surprised at the paleness of his eyes against his deeply tanned, weather-beaten skin. She gratefully observed that he was wearing white jeans and an egg white shirt, which meant that her outfit was just what the doctor had ordered. The man took a couple of steps towards her.
'Hello. George Baxter. Nice to meet you.' They exchanged a formal handshake.
'Hi. Marian Slight. Likewise.' She could hear how stilted she sounded, but she was too nervous to care.
'Shall we go?' George made a gesture towards the door, and Marian swallowed hard before giving an affirmative nod.
She felt his hand on her back when he escorted her to the door. Nancy's voice followed them.
'Have fun! Take care of our girl, George!'
Baxter gave a dismissive wave without turning around. Without a word he steered her towards a Cherokee parked right in front of the pub, and they were well out of town before he finally spoke.
'You're not afraid of flying, are you?'
'No, not really' Marian answered cautiously.
'Good. I've reserved a table at a new fish restaurant in Broken Hill' he said curtly.
'That sounds nice' she replied - more politely than truthfully. 'I like fish' she endeavoured after a short silence.
Baxter hummed a response, and then fell quiet once more. Marian sat watching the dry landscape, struggling for something to say. Baxter was impatiently drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. 'So. You're from England then?' he finally rumbled.
Marian acknowledged the truth of the statement, and the awkward silence continued. A couple of minutes later he tried again. 'England, huh? So. How do you like Australia?'
Marian glanced despairingly at the man at the wheel. To her surprise she saw a self-mocking smile on his lips, and when he unexpectedly looked at her she couldn't help giggling. His gruff laughter joined hers, and the tense atmosphere softened.
'Let me guess. This prize wasn't your idea, was it?' Marian asked.
'It's that obvious, huh?' Once again the self-mocking smile twitched his lips. 'I was talked into this by the RFDS fundraising committee. According to them, this is the sort of thing the local MP is supposed to do.'
Marian raised an eyebrow.
'Really? Must be a tough office to recruit for.'
'You would think so, wouldn't you? But sometimes it has its perks…'
He smiled gently at her. Her eyes widened in surprise, and her stomach gave a sudden jolt at the beauty of the smile. She became conscious of the fact that she was staring at his mouth and quickly raised her eyes to his. Their unexpectedly soft, teasing gaze was directed at her, and she realized that the car was standing still.
'Pardon?' she said, grasping the fact that he'd just said something.
'We're here.' He nodded in the direction of a small aeroplane. 'The white Cessna over there's mine.'
She looked in the indicated direction where a small, white aircraft was positioned. It seemed fresh out of the assembly line.
'I've only had her two months. She's a beauty, isn't she?'
Marian smiled at the tone of proud ownership in his voice.
'Yes, she is' she acknowledged.
The flight was uneventful and partly spent as a spontaneous flight lesson. Marian found a lot to ask about, and Baxter – smiling at her keen interest – answered patiently.
At the Broken Hill airport a vintage Ford was waiting. A man dressed up in clothes characteristic of the 1930s carefully drove them through the busy city streets. At the restaurant he politely held the door for them, and assured them he'd be back in two hours. They were rapidly shown to a small, secluded booth in a corner of the restaurant. The waiter offered them a drink. Baxter, flying them back to the Crossing that night, declined, but he encouraged Marian to order an inventive creation which seemed to consist mainly of half a fruit salad.
The conversation by now flowed freely, and none of the earlier awkwardness could be detected. They were animatedly discussing the menu when the waiter returned with the drink. After a terminal case of indecisiveness Marian left the ordering to her escort, and instead took the opportunity of studying him when he was otherwise occupied. She admitted to herself that she was fascinated by the complex personality of her date.
Date? She tried the word for size before shrugging irritably. This wasn't a date! This was a prize she'd won in an internet-quiz. One week in the picturesque Cooper's Crossing, and an evening with George Baxter, MP. "An evening with" – not "a date with". She felt an unexpected pang of regret.
She watched the dark head bent over the menu and the occasional raising of his face towards the waiter. He was obviously giving explicit instructions on the exact preparations of the fish. Her smile widened at the sight of the exasperated waiter.
'I think they just might be able to cook the food without any more help, actually.'
She smiled gently at George to take the edge of her words, and he broke into a bashful half-smile. The fuming waiter picked up the menus and departed. She watched him leave and mused 'I hope he'll only spit in your food.'
'I did upset him a bit, didn't I?'
Marian nodded distractedly. She was still pondering the odd feelings the evening had entailed. The harsh, arrogant person she'd met not three hours ago had turned into a sociable, humorous man with a beautiful smile. Her gaze fell from the coarse face to the strong, calloused hands, and she suddenly found herself unaccountably short of breath. She raised her eyes back to his face, and his thoughtful gaze efficiently interrupted her train of thought.
The arrival of the first course saved her from further discomfiture. She gratefully tucked in, and after swallowing the first bite she went into an euphoric eulogy over the delicious experience. George watched her excited expression with an amused smile.
'I take it the food was to your liking?'
Marian's eyes widened innocently.
'Now whatever gave you that impression?'
George gave an expressive shrug and smiled.
'I don't know, really. It must have been something you said.'
George's affectionate smile widened and their eyes locked in a lingering gaze.
The dinner ended all too soon, and George observed regretfully that they had to leave for the Crossing at once if they didn't want to stay in Broken Hill overnight. Marian checked her watch and shrugged. She didn't want the evening to end, but she followed him towards the old Ford without comments.
Marian lay awake for hours reconstructing the end of the evening. The flight back had taken place in comfortable silence. The short drive from the airfield to the pub had been equally quiet, but by then the comfort was gone. Not knowing what to expect at the end of the evening had taken its toll on her nerves. She hadn't been sure if she dreaded being kissed goodnight more than not being kissed goodnight. By now she knew that "not" was the more dreadful alternative since George Baxter had seemed perfectly happy with a handshake after following her to The Majestic's door.
The trouble was that she hadn't been happy.
She groaned irritably. This was absurd! She was behaving like a love struck teenager. She thumped the pillow irritably and rolled over to her back in a vain hope of falling asleep.
Her only reaction to the annoying beep of the alarm clock was a slight grumbling. Her hand emerged and groped around for the aggravating object, and when she found the snooze-button a blissful silence spread through the room. A drowsy eye peered out of its nest, and after a couple of seconds she managed to focus on the luminous digits. Nine o'clock. That meant she'd slept a total of three hours. She gave a heartfelt moan before closing her eyes.
Nine minutes later the beeping started again, and this time the alarm clock won. She got some clothes together and staggered drowsily toward the shower. She felt somewhat better after this, although the sleeplessness of the night had rendered her a nice little headache.
Nancy was hard at work preparing breakfast when Marian entered the kitchen.
'Good morning, dear! Slept well?'
Marian decided on a little white lie.
'Yes, thank you, Nancy.'
Nancy laid the small table in the kitchen.
'Sit down and tuck in. And I want to hear all about last night! George's been real secretive about the arrangement so just start from the beginning and don't leave anything out.'
Marian gave her a feeble smile before helping herself to some bacon and eggs. She gave a slightly abridged version of her evening with George Baxter, a version where any thoughts about goodnight kisses – or other kisses for that matter – were edited out. Nancy was duly impressed by the fact that he'd taken her to Gone Fishing.
'I wish Vic would take me there. I read the reviews when they opened last month, and they were truly spectacular.'
Nancy made Marian repeat her tale when Vic materialized. Marian sighed imperceptibly, but since Vic was less inclined to enquire about particulars, and since he felt no partiality to restaurant-related details whatsoever, the story went much faster this time.
There was one detail he was interested in, though.
'So. How did you like Baxter then?' he asked with a wicked smile.
'He was very nice' she answered guardedly.
'Nice?' Vic turned to Nancy with an expression of faked concern. 'Nice!' he repeated disbelievingly. 'I can't remember hearing Baxter being described as nice before. You think she's been in the sun too long?'
Nancy poked him gently in the ribs and shot Marian an inquisitive glance - to which Marian responded with a blank stare.
'Now behave yourself, Vic! I think it's wonderful that Marian had a…' a short silence before Nancy found the appropriate word 'a pleasant evening yesterday. George can actually be very sweet' Vic made some unconvinced noises and Nancy glared at him. 'Don't listen to him, Marian. He actually likes George, he's just cross because he has to attend today's fundraising meeting.'
Vic glowered at her.
'Yes. A meeting I wouldn't have to attend if someone hadn't said "No of course we can close the pub for two hours, Maggie. No of course we'll both come". Thank you very much, Miss Conscientious!' he complained huffily.
Nancy scornfully tossed her head at him. 'If you think I'll be suffering through those fundraising meetings alone you've got another thing coming, Vic Buckley!'
'Why should I have to suffer at those meetings when I already have to suffer everyday at home?' Vic grumbled before glancing at Marian, who followed the exchange with an amused smile. 'And what are you laughing at, missy?' he growled.
Marian hastily rearranged her features into a solemn expression.
'Nothing.' She widened her eyes innocently. 'Nothing at all. I haven't been laughing.' She turned to Nancy. 'Have you've been laughing?'
Nancy gave Vic the same look of hurt innocence.
'No, I haven't been laughing. Are you imagining things, dear?'
Vic threw his hands in the air with an exasperated groan. 'Women' he muttered before leaving the kitchen. Choking with laughter Nancy and Marian looked at each other.
Chris was as good as her word. Together with DJ, Kate and the renowned ogre Geoff Standish, she turned up to claim Marian as their lunch date. Marian felt a bit apprehensive about lunching with an ogre, but Geoff's temper had obviously improved immensely since the day before. He greeted her as an old friend, and, looking up into his glittering eyes and crooked smile she felt a twinge of envy towards Kate.
The RFDS-crowd's lunch hour was spent cross-examining Marian on her evening with George Baxter, and she answered cautiously. They soon made her feel as part of the camaraderie by including her in their friendly banter, and she was intrigued by the warm friendship between these four rather different characters. Chris and Kate often giggled together like schoolgirls. Geoff took a laid-back approach with an occasional crushing remark. And DJ… Well, his inexhaustible energy reminded her of a Duracell-commercial.
'You do realize Marian's leaving soon, don't you?' DJ suddenly exclaimed.
Marian raised an eyebrow. So far as she knew she wasn't leaving until Monday, which meant four more days to enjoy the outback. The others nodded agreement though, and DJ continued:
'We should do something to celebrate her stay here. I say barbecue – what do you think?'
'Good idea, DJ!' Chris' eyes lightened up at the suggestion. 'We haven't had a good barbecue for months!'
The others agreed, and they were soon hard at work planning the going away party. Sunday night was decided on, and Vic and Nancy were easily talked into having the bash in their backyard. Marian leaned back in her chair listening to the wild plans. She was grateful for their trouble, but the party plans only made her think of her suddenly all too imminent departure.
A sound from the pub door made her take a quick look at the newcomer, and suddenly her stomach decided on a roller coaster-trip all on its own. The coarse features of Mr George Baxter were emphasized by his dusty jeans, faded shirt and battered Stetson. She felt her lips curl into a welcoming smile. He looked around, seemingly searching for something. When their eyes met she thought she saw the beginning of a responding smile, but instead he broke their eye contact and sauntered over to the bar. Marian's bewildered heart sank into her stomach. She watched George sit down and put his hat on the counter before forcing her eyes away. She winced as his voice boomed through the room.
'A beer, Vic'
'What an unexpected pleasure to see you here this early, George. Any particular reason?' Marian thought Vic's voice sounded a bit too innocent to be true. Obviously George thought the same. He took no notice of the remark, and Marian could keep on trying to ignore his presence in peace. Unfortunately her companions had noticed George by now.
'George.' There was a distinct lack of warmth in Geoff's greeting.
'Geoff.' George replied. 'Chris. Kate. Dimitri.' He paused for a second. 'Marian.'
The addressed party mumbled their greetings, and Marian forced herself to look at him with an impassive expression.
She wasn't prepared to meet his eyes, though – nor was she prepared for the jolt she felt when his calm gaze met hers. This time it was she who quickly broke the eye contact.
'I had a wonderful time yesterday, thank you George' she said with her eyes fixed on the table. She was surprised to recognize the cool, indifferent voice as her own.
'My pleasure' he accepted with a nod.
The pair was by now the centre of interest. Geoff looked questioningly from one to the other. Chris raised her eyebrows at Kate, who responded with a questioning shrug.
'Hey, George! We're planning a barbecue for Marian this Sunday, you want to come?'
DJ's wicked smile went from ear to ear.
'Why not?' George answered gruffly. 'I haven't been to a decent barbecue for years.'
'Good. It will be held here in The Majestic's backyard Sunday afternoon.'
George looked incredulous.
'Yeah, it will be perfect' DJ responded enthusiastically. 'A couple of balloons and we're ready to go!'
George stood silent for a couple of seconds before harshly replying
'You could of course hold it at my place.'
This caused quite a shock around the table. Geoff started, and almost fell off his chair. Chris and Kate exchanged a stunned look. Even DJ was dumbfounded.
'Your place, George?' Chris asked cautiously.
'Yes, my place.' He was by now warming to his subject. 'You have a clinic scheduled there the day after tomorrow; you might bring whatever you need then. I'll have some of the station hands arrange it.'
Geoff slumped back in the chair, obviously overcome by disbelief. Chris and Kate were staring at Marian as if she'd just evolved a second head. Only DJ had recuperated, and he was by now preoccupied by the coming festivity.
'So what will we need? Have you got a working sound system?'
'For the music. You can't have a barbecue without music!'
George didn't look quite convinced, but admitted to owning both amplifier and loudspeakers. DJ had by now excavated a pencil and was making notes on his napkin.
Fifteen minutes later DJ was still interrogating a by now rather regretful George Baxter.
'If there's anything else, just radio my foreman,' he said exasperated. 'That ought to make him earn his wages. Anyway, I've got to visit the shop.' He gave the assembly a weak smile 'I've got a barbecue to prepare.'
Five pairs of eyes were aimed at Marian after George's exit. DJ leaned back with his arms crossed and an infuriating grin on his lips. Geoff was absent-mindedly playing with his napkin while staring thoughtfully at her. Kate and Chris leaned towards her while smiling expectantly. Even Nancy had left the bar and was watching her with a staggered expression.
'Did I hear this correctly?' Nancy asked. 'George is taking care of the barbecue?'
'Yes,' Geoff drawled. 'George is taking care of the barbecue.'
'What I want to know' Chris interrupted 'is where did she found the double, and what has she done with the body?'
'Pardon?' Marian looked at Chris with a puzzled look.
'We just want to know what you've done with Baxter.' Chris smirked at her. Marian's only comment was a long, blank stare.
'Hmm. Well something must have happened to him' continued the unperturbed Chris 'because I've never heard him volunteer anything before.
'Anyone heard of any UFO-reports lately?' Kate enquired. 'He might have been abducted, and that was a clone sent here to scout for their invasion?
Geoff gave her a disgusted look.
'That's it – you've just lost your TV-privileges, young lady.'
Kate stuck her tongue out at him and he gave her a loving smile in return.
The group kept on discussing Baxter's strange behaviour, but Marian – being too mixed up with conflicting feelings – found it hard to concentrate on the conversation.
Chris' eyes suddenly gleamed with excitement.
'You wouldn't want to see the Flying Doctors in action now, would you, Marian?'
Marian, recognizing her name, glanced quizzically at her, and Chris tried again.
'How about accompanying us on a clinic round?'
Geoff was about to protest that the RFDS wasn't a tourist attraction, but Chris silenced him with a menacing glare.
'Are you allowed to take guests on your rounds?' Marian asked uncertainly.
'Of course not' Chris said matter-of-factly. 'But since you won this trip in an RFDS-sponsored competition you're sort of part of the organization, aren't you?'
Marian smiled hesitantly.
'In that case I'd love to come!'
'Good! That's settled then. We'll bring you with us on Friday's clinic round, okay? And now it's back to the treadmill for us, I'm afraid. You'll see one of us at the fundraising meeting this afternoon, though.'
The RFDS-staff said their goodbyes, leaving Marian to her confused thoughts.
The fundraising meeting had already started when Marian and Nancy (Vic had – unfortunately – been forced to take care of an unexpected delivery) entered the hall. Ten pair of eyes turned towards them when they entered, and Marian's cheeks burned a self-conscious scarlet. Nancy fetched two chairs, and they sat down at the end of the table.
Marian looked around at the assembled people. Geoff gave her a welcoming wave, and she smiled at him, happy to see a friendly face. Next to Geoff she met the kind eyes of Violet Carnegie. Marian continued her inspection until she found what she was looking for. George Baxter was sitting at the head of the table, still in his discoloured shirt with the top three buttons unbuttoned. Once again she felt the startling jolt when their eyes met, and once again she hurriedly broke the eye contact. She waited for the meeting to be resumed before daring to look at him – only to meet his steady gaze once more. Every time she looked his way, those calm, pale eyes bore into hers. When the meeting finally ended she realized she had no idea what had been said or done. She took a steadying breath and pulled herself together. Suddenly she found herself looking straight into a faded shirt. Her palms grew moist, and she breathed deeply in a frantic effort to calm her racing heart. Trying to avoid George's eyes she observed Geoff swoop in and divert an incoming Violet Carnegie. She could also see Nancy intercept the blonde woman who'd been introduced to her as Maggie Hutton. When she finally looked up into the haughty face of George Baxter she was giggling helplessly at this all too obvious effort. She wasn't sure about her feelings for George, but she couldn't help liking Cupid's little helpers – even though they seemed to be taking an utterly unsolicited interest in Cooper's Crossings internal affairs.
By now she was used to his monosyllable growling.
An extensive silence occurred when they both were scrutinizing the floor. Finally George looked down at her through thick eyelashes.
'I was just wondering if you'd like to visit the station? So you know what to expect at the party?' With his hands in his pockets and his furtive glances he looked like a nervous schoolboy.
'Yes, I'd like to see the station' she smiled up at him.
She hesitated for a moment. She was aware of the inadvisable in spending too much time with him. She was already getting too involved – and why should she risk her feelings on a fool's errand? In only a few days time she'd be back in England, and George Baxter would be thousands of miles away. She looked into his imploring eyes, and she felt her heart soften.
A tender smile spread over her face.
'I'd like that very much.'
At nine o'clock the next morning George sauntered into The Majestic. He found Marian in the kitchen enjoying her breakfast, and she cheerfully returned his unusually good-humoured greeting. Apart from a mocking smile, Nancy showed an unexpected amount of restraint.
George's sudden emergence did put an end to Marian's appetite though, and she soon declared herself ready to go. She had chosen jeans and a white shirt, clothes similar to what he was wearing, and he nodded his approval. Nancy waved goodbye, and Marian felt George's warm breath on her cheek and his guiding hand on her back when they left the pub.
The Cherokee was parked at the same place as last time, and they were soon on their way to the airport. The flight to his property was short and uneventful, and they were picked up at the strip by Baxter's harassed foreman.
'Three! That's how many times he's called today – and it isn't even noon yet!'
'Rather you than me, Thomas. Rather you than me.' George gave the stressed foreman an evil grin.
'He's not normal, that guy! Three times!' Thomas complained bitterly.
'Three more days, mate. You just might make it'
Marian was observing the two men's easy camaraderie with keen interest, and she started when George suddenly turned back to her.
'Do you ride?'
'Not really, no.' she shrugged apologetically.
George and Thomas exchanged thoughtful looks.
'Flash?' George suggested.
'That would be the best choice I guess' nodded the foreman.
Marian looked from one to the other.
'Flash?' she asked apprehensively.
The two men smiled soothingly at her.
'No worries' George said, exaggerating his Australian accent. 'You can't go home without a real taste of the Outback, right?'
'Right?' she ventured.
'And what would be more Outback than going bush?'
'Right! And what's the only way of going bush?'
'Let me guess… By horse?' she grumbled reluctantly.
'Right!' he said, grinning widely.
'And Flash is the closest to glue it is possible to get?'
'Right!' His grin widened even more.
'Right. Okay. No worries.' She wasn't quite convinced, but was prepared to give the horse the benefit of a doubt.
Not knowing what to expect, George's home proved to be an overwhelming experience. The ridiculous amount of bedrooms made Marian want to scream for a map, and the size of the drawing room was probably enough for a small soccer field. At the end of the tour George shrugged apologetically.
'Sort of big, huh?'
The wide-eyed Marian nodded slowly.
'How long does it actually take to clean this place up?'
George gave her a bleak smile.
'I wouldn't know. I've never dared to try. But the cleaning firm usually manages it in a day.'
She looked around the vast entrance hall. Cleaning firm? That made sense.
They passed the surprisingly homely kitchen to get some carrots before setting off towards the stables. Flash turned out to be a small, white horse with intelligent eyes. Marian held out a carrot, and he carefully took it between its teeth. Happily munching away he gave Marian a friendly push, leaving a ginger trail of carrot-dribble on her arm.
George stood watching her pensively.
'Wait here a moment' he said before disappearing through a door. He soon reappeared, carrying a number of battered Stetsons. He looked at her 'You'll need a hat outside, but unfortunately this is my entire assortment.' He gave an apologetic shrug.
'No worries!' she shrugged back before rummaging through the pile of hats George had scraped together. She tried them on for size, and finally settled on a classic Stetson-design in black. She now felt ready to brave the bush.
Before setting out she was treated to an impromptu riding lesson in the paddock. Flash recognized his rider's inexperience and tried to help her as best he could. Marian felt her first uneasiness transform into an increasing sense of confidence.
When George was happy with the horse-and-rider co-operation he mounted his gigantic bay and led the way into "the wilderness".
Marian soon relaxed enough to enjoy herself. Instead of the difficult terrain she'd been dreading he guided her around the more accessible parts of his property. Side by side they rode with slacked reins. She listened to him talking about the station while watching him intently.
'You really love this place, don't you?'
George gave her a look of surprise before gazing dreamily out over the pasture.
'Yes I do' he admitted softly, before pulling himself together. 'We ought to get back' he added gruffly. 'Don't want you to get saddle-sore!'
Marian gave him an amused look before turning her horse around. Complex personality, huh? No kidding!
Back at the stable the horses were treated to another couple of carrots before being swept away by one of the station hands. Marian removed the borrowed Stetson and stretched her aching body. The remorseful George apologized for not bringing her back earlier, but she assured him that the ride had been worth the pain.
Marian suddenly realized that it was hours since breakfast.
'Starving!' she said fervently.
'Come on, then' he threw at her over his shoulder.
He led her back to the kitchen where he started lunch preparations. She offered to help, and was soon hard at work slicing vegetables. She occasionally glanced at George, who was giving his full attention to the cooking. The peaceful atmosphere was accentuated by George softly singing "Mack the Knife" in a deep bass voice.
She turned to tell him she was finished. At the same time, he was reaching for the olive oil. Suddenly their faces were just centimetres apart. Marian couldn't divert her eyes, and she nervously moistened her lips. George slowly lowered his face towards hers, and she closed her eyes expectantly. It took her a couple of seconds to realize that the heat of his body was gone, and disorientated she opened her eyes. George stood with his back turned, evidently once again absorbed by the frying pan. She glared at him.
'The vegetables are finished.'
George grunted without turning around.
'Anything else I can do?'
This time he turned, but he kept his eyes carefully lowered.
'Would you mind laying the table? The china's in there.' He nodded in the direction of a cupboard. She perceived a catch in his voice, and went to fetch the china with a satisfied smile. He obviously wasn't as indifferent as he wanted to appear.
'Shall I set the table in here or the one in the dining room?'
'I like the kitchen better, but if you prefer the dining room..?' his voice faltered, and he shrugged dismissively.
She thought about the over-dimensioned dining room with its monster of a dining table. She gave a fervent shrug.
'The kitchen it is' she decided.
He finally looked at her, but she couldn't interpret his expression.
'So. Where have you hid the cutlery then?' she calmly continued.
George looked at her for a split-second before his face finally lightened in a feeble smile. Pleased with herself she went and fetched the silverware from its hiding-place.
The food had been delicious, and afterwards the domestic harmony had continued with their joint effort in taking care of the dishes. After the chores were finished they returned to the glazed veranda, where the humming air-conditioning kept the temperature in check. Marian curled up in one of the sun chairs while George settled himself in the garden hammock. The atmosphere was drowsy. Marian let her eyes lazily roam the room. Two large books caught her attention. She rose and went over for a closer examination. To her delight they proved to be photo albums, and she brought one of them back to her chair. George was watching her beneath heavy eyelids. She opened the album and smiled down at the black and white photographs. A boy of about five looked back from a photo, and she had no trouble recognizing him. She lifted her head and met George's by now wide-awake eyes.
'Is this your mother?' she asked, indicating an elder woman in the photo.
He nodded affirmatively and she turned back to the album.
'Father?' she asked, holding the album up for him to see.
'Uncle' he answered. 'Listen, it's easier if you bring the album over here. It's either that or bringing me my binoculars.'
She carried the photo album over to the garden hammock. They placed the album between them and began to examine the photos. Unconsciously they huddled closer together in their efforts to see well. When Marian raised her head to ask a question she once more found herself looking into George's eyes at close range. She drew a shaky breath and lowered her eyes back to the album. She heard George breathing unevenly, and she closed her eyes in exasperation. This was getting ridiculous. She lifted her head again. George still hadn't moved. She took a steadying breath and slowly raised her face towards his. Just before their lips met she saw his eyes widen in shock.
Marian pulled back and opened her eyes. She nervously chewed her lower lip while studying George's expression. He slowly opened his bewildered eyes. It took him a couple of seconds to regain his composure.
'That was' he paused pensively 'nice'.
Her heart plummeted. She quietly turned back to the photo album with an icy lump in her stomach, and she blinked hard to keep the tears away.
'Yes' she agreed gruffly. 'Nice'
They both fell silent. Marian's eyes hurt from unshed tears and she was still staring blindly at the photo album. She glanced at her watch. A quarter to five. She took a deep breath.
'I think it's time for me to get back to the Crossing.'
She almost choked on the words. When George didn't answer she hazarded a look at him. His grave stare was still resting intently on her face. She felt her stomach going on its usual roller coaster trip when their gazes met. She tried to look away, but he placed his hand on her cheek to prevent her. He gave her a weak smile before leaning towards her.
This time the kiss was more than nice. George ran his right hand over her cheek and it entangled itself in her hair. She leaned her head further back, enjoying the feeling of warm giddiness spreading through her body. Her arms automatically slid around his neck for support.
George slowly broke away from the kiss. Breathing heavily she watched him tentatively lick his lips. They exchanged a lengthy gaze, both stunned by the intensity of their emotions.
'Yes. Very nice' George concluded in a harsh voice.
She glowered at him.
'If you say "nice" one more time I'll…' she stopped, unable to think of a sufficient punishment. George gave her a maddening grin.
'Okay. How do you feel about "pleasant"?'
Another glare told him that that wasn't a good word either.
'Hmm. "Agreeable"? No? "Enjoyable"? Or would you maybe consider "satisfying"?'
He smiled gently at her. Still dazed she felt a warm, tingling feeling of immense joy engulf her. Happy to just sit and watch him she leaned back against the garden hammock. George leaned back too, supporting his head in his hand. They both seemed afraid of breaking the spell; afraid to even move or talk. They just sat mesmerized by each other.
Satisfying? Yes, that word would do.
Marian wasn't back at The Majestic until nine thirty that evening. By then most of the customers had deserted the pub, but some familiar faces were still present. Sam, Kate, Geoff and an unknown blonde was immersed in a game of billiards. Nancy had left the empty bar and was cheering them on. Vic sat close by, trying to make head or tail of a box of receipts. The air of hushed cosiness was occasionally broken by Vic's exasperated outbursts. This peaceful scene ended as soon as Marian entered the pub. She was immediately showered with questions, and she answered cautiously. Her gleaming eyes did reveal more than she was willing to say though, and Nancy smiled with satisfaction when she noticed the excited flush and sparkling eyes.
'So George was in a hurry, was he?' she asked innocently.
Marian looked up.
'George.' Nancy repeated. 'He hadn't time for a quick beer before going back?'
Marian turned beetroot red, thinking of the forty minutes she and George had spent talking (well – mainly talking) parked outside the pub.
'No, there was something he had to do at the station' she answered vaguely.
Nancy smiled and patted her hand.
'He probably had to recharge the car battery, dear' she stated with a deadpan expression.
Marian's face turned an even darker shade of red, but she refrained from answering.
The next morning proved to be hectic since the clinic round was scheduled to nine o'clock.
Nancy was shooting her amused glances during breakfast, but to Marian's relief she made no references to George Baxter.
Outside the RFDS-building she ran into Chris who was sitting comfortably in the boot of the grey company car. Marian could guess from Chris' facial expression that she'd been informed of last nights occurrences, and she steeled herself against the interrogation. To her surprise nothing happened. Chris simply greeted her and ordered her into the car.
'Geoff's already taken Kate to the airport. Obviously the Beast needed exercise.' Chris smiled expectantly at Marian, and she wasn't disappointed.
'The Beast?' Marian asked hesitantly.
'Yes. Well, it's hard to believe when you see him, but Geoff's a petrol head at heart. You've got to ask him to take you on a spin in the Beast before you go!' Chris hesitated for a moment. 'If you've got the time that is?' she smiled infuriatingly.
Marian gave a non-committal shrug and quickly changed the subject.
'So. Where are we going?'
'You mean you don't know?' Chris maddening smile grew even wider. 'Oh well, you'll find out when we get there, I guess.'
Marian glared at her before asking about the practical details of the clinic round.
At the airport she was introduced to the Beast, and Geoff readily offered her a lift.
'That's my husband for you, always prepared to pick up attractive women in his floozy finder' Kate complained.
Geoff lifted one corner of his mouth in a crooked smile.
'Yeah, well…' he shrugged.
'Oh you…' Kate glared lovingly at him.
Chris rolled her eyes.
'Just ignore them, they obviously can't speak in complete sentences.'
'We can too!' Kate sniffed. 'We just choose not to as a protest against today's abundant information flow.'
Chris raised an incredulous eyebrow.
'If you say so. Have you two activists loaded the Nomad yet?'
The aircraft proved ready for takeoff. They took their leave of Geoff and scrambled in.
When they reached their target Marian realized not only why her travelling companions had seemed to be in such high spirits, but also why George hadn't seemed too dejected by the fact that she'd be out on a clinic round the whole day.
'Hi Thomas' she greeted George's foreman who was waiting patiently at the strip. 'DJ radioed you yet?'
Thomas winced noticeably.
'Five times yesterday. Still waiting for today's first call, though.'
'Poor baby' she giggled mockingly.
Thomas made a face at her.
'DJ's giving you problems? Chris inquired.
'Nothing but' he answered bitterly. 'Come on, get into the car you lot. I've got to get back to the radio in case there's a call for me.'
Marian could feel interested glances being directed at her when they reached the main house. She tried hard to look composed, even though her stomach looped gleefully at the sight of an authoritative figure leaning comfortable against a Range Rover. Their eyes met, and she suddenly lost her breath. His impassive face showed nothing, but his radiant eyes spoke volumes. His voice seemed even harsher than usual when he greeted his guests.
'Kate. Chris. Sam. Marian.'
'George. How nice of you to receive us like this!' Chris looked as butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
'Of course' George gave an embarrassed half-smile. 'Always glad to see the flying doctor's on the premises.'
Chris looked unconvinced but made no comment.
'Where do you want the clinic, George? Same place as usual?'
'We have a marquee on the back if that's okay with you?'
'That'll be fine, George' she accepted. 'Is it possible to drive the car through to the marquee?'
'No worries. Thomas will take care of that.' George turned to his foreman with a lopsided grin. 'That reminds me. Someone's eager to talk to you over the radio.'
Thomas hid his face in his hands with a whimper.
Yeah, and that reminds me' Chris interrupted 'that DJ's sent you quite a lot of stuff for the barbecue.' She smiled. 'And I'd be grateful if you could manage to smash some of the records while you set up the party. We can make a list of the most pressuring issues if you want.'
'I'll see what I can do' George shrugged benignly. 'Now if you'll excuse me I have some work to do' he continued, touching his Stetson with his right hand.
They turned to leave for the marquee with Marian loitering behind. George caught up with her and smiled down into her eyes.
'How are the aches and pains?'
She could feel the body heat radiating from him, and she enjoyed the feeling of him standing so close.
'Nothing to it' she shrugged. 'What can I say – I'm a natural born horsewoman.'
She beamed happily up at him, and he quickly looked around before leaning down for a quick kiss.
'Well if you want to go riding today, just let me know. Flash needs the exercise, and I don't have any pressing engagements.'
She sighed happily, smiling adoringly up at him.
'I wouldn't want to disappoint Flash now, would I?'
He looked around again before dropping another kiss on her lips.
'I knew you wouldn't let Flash down. Now go play with your friends and I'll be back as soon as I can.'
After a last yearning glance she went to catch up with Sam, Kate and Chris. These three were standing at the corner of the house trying to look as if they couldn't care less about the scenario before them. Sam was studying the sky while whistling inoffensively. Chris looked up when Marian closed in.
'Ah, there you are. We were wondering were you'd gotten to.'
Chris' expression was sincere, but her eyes were dancing wickedly.
'George was just asking if I wanted another riding lesson' Marian shrugged blandly.
'Did he now?' Chris asked mockingly. 'I only hope he won't go around asking everyone questions like that, or Jack will have something to say.'
Marian proved to be a hit on the clinic round. The attending farmers – always happy to see a new face – were constantly surrounding her, and she was happily chatting about cattle, drafts and the differences between England and Australia.
George leaned against a wall, watching her intently. As if she could feel his gaze she suddenly turned around and caught sight of him. Smiling dazzlingly she walked towards him with her eyes locked in his. He pushed himself off the wall and met her halfway, and with his hand on her back they turned towards the stables – followed by several curious gazes.
Flash seemed pleased to see her again, and she bribed him with a handful of oats before bringing him out to the paddock for another lesson. George was indefatigable and in the end she managed to trot around without risking either life or limb.
He seemed almost as proud as she was when she pulled up before him.
'So how do you feel?' he asked while striking Flash's muzzle.
She gave him a lopsided grin.
'I'm sort of getting the distinct feeling that I won't do any sitting for a week.'
He smiled pityingly at her.
'Come here!' he said harshly, helping her down. Hugging her tightly he repentantly kissed her hair. 'I'm a complete beast, I know.'
Marian snuggled closer, taking pleasure in his protective arms around her. She nuzzled her face against his chest, greedily inhaling the mix of aftershave and soap.
'Yes you are,' she agreed willingly 'but I like you anyway.'
He placed a gentle kiss on her eyebrow and reluctantly pulled away.
'I like you too' he growled without looking at her.
The day seemed to rush by. At three o'clock the clinic was finished and the RFDS-crew was beginning to gather their odds and ends together. Marian did her best to be helpful, but she had a suspicion she was mainly in their way, only they were too polite to say. George suddenly appeared, inviting them to a late lunch. The famished crew eagerly accepted, and Marian was roped in to help with the food preparations instead.
The kitchen team decided on the glazed veranda as a suitable dining-room, and Marian shuttled between the kitchen and the veranda carrying food, china and silverware. She meekly performed this task since her every passage was rewarded with a smile and a kiss.
The meal was an unexpected success. Since George Baxter's reputation as an arrogant dry stick was firmly rooted, George Baxter as an amicable host was a novelty to the Flying Doctors-team. His usual gruffness was gone, and his dry humour and acerbic anecdotes from his political career kept the visitors in raptures. After an initial air of amazement the assembly warmed to their host, and the meal was accompanied by an animated conversation.
The guests were genuinely sorry to leave the Baxter residence. George drove them to the airstrip himself, and he also helped them reload their cases. With a sheepish look at the RFDS crew he gave Marian a quick kiss and promised to be at the pub early next morning. Kate nudged Chris and gave her an eloquent look. Chris nodded and took a deep breath.
'George?' she asked hesitantly.
He looked questioningly at her.
'We were just wondering if you wanted to come swimming with us tomorrow?'
George astonished expression was shortly replaced by a pleased smile, and after an enquiring look at Marian he readily accepted.
Chris informed him of the details before climbing into the Nomad. As before, Marian was treated to the passenger seat beside Sam. Kate and Chris, having the whole cabin to themselves, spent the flight eagerly discussing the unexpected change in George Baxter.
Back in Cooper's Crossing Geoff was waiting for them at the airstrip, and he amiably offered Marian a lift back to the base. Kate gave him an insulted look.
'Married for three weeks, and my husband's already out picking up girls.' She tossed her head at him. 'It's the sofa for you tonight, sweetheart.'
'In that case I might as well put up at The Majestic.' He turned to Marian. 'What do you think? Have they got a spare bed for a homeless husband?'
Kate leaned over and kissed him.
'Nah, I think you'd better stay where I can keep my eyes on you' she decided. 'You're way too cute to be let out on your own.'
Geoff shrugged and gave the audience a disarming smile.
'She's right – I am' he agreed.
Chris groaned and rolled her eyes.
'Yeah, yeah. Come on, Mister Irresistible – you wouldn't mind helping us unload the aircraft now, would you?'
Geoff good-naturedly helped carrying the cargo to the company car before loading Marian into the Beast and driving away.
He shot her an inquisitive look, but refrained from asking any Baxter-related questions. Instead he told her about his work as a flying doctor, and she listened absorbedly. She asked questions about the RFDS and its history, and he answered solemnly. When they pulled up outside the pub he turned to her with a self-conscious smile.
'I thought you'd might like this' he said sheepishly.
He handed her a small koala dressed in a leather hood, pilot goggles and a Flying Doctors T-shirt.
'It's a RFDS souvenir' he shrugged awkwardly. 'We usually give them to the children we are forced to take back to the hospital with us.'
Marian accepted the small toy with an appreciative smile.
'Thank you' she said gratefully. 'He's wonderful!'
Geoff shrugged again.
'I'm glad you like him.'
Her eyes filled with tears when she looked up at him.
'I love him!' she said in a trembling voice.
His grave eyes met hers.
'Are we still talking about the koala?
'Yes!' she snapped irritably. She paused for a moment. 'No. Maybe. I don't know!' A tear began to trickle down her cheek, and Geoff smiled gently down at her.
'Come here' he said, putting his arms around her. She leaned against him, weeping inconsolably. He stroked her gently over her hair while making comforting sounds, and finally the heartfelt sobs decreased. Marian sat up, drying her eyes vigorously.
'I'm sorry' she muttered with downcast eyes.
'No worries' he said tenderly. 'Just don't tell anyone about this. I don't want to get a reputation of making girls cry when I take them out.'
'No one would believe me anyway' she smiled shakily. 'You're way too cute to be let our alone, remember.'
He gave a nod of assent.
'Yeah, there is that of course.' He gave her a crooked smile before looking searchingly at her. 'Are you okay?'
She sighed deeply and straightened herself before nodding.
'Yes.' She gave him an earnest look. 'Thank you. I'm feeling much better now.'
'Well, if you ever feel the need for a shoulder to cry on, you know where to look.'
Marian was beginning to think that no one in the Crossing had a home to go to. At eight o'clock the pub was still filled with guests nursing their beers. She was enjoying the company of Sam, Emma (the blonde woman from the night before had turned out to be Sam's wife), Geoff, Kate and Chris. Sam and Geoff had challenged the girls to a game of billiards, and Chris and Emma had immediately accepted. It was an even struggle, and the spectators were too absorbed by the game to notice the newcomer. George Baxter sauntered over to the bar where Vic greeted him with a surprised grin.
'A beer, Vic.'
Vic went to carry out the order and George turned to look at the billiard players. A well directed thrust by Emma aroused excitement in the female camp. He eagerly watched Marian's delighted expression, and he smiled longingly at the warm friendship between the players. Marian suddenly turned towards the bar, and her eyes widened in shock.
'George' she involuntary exclaimed.
The others turned to look at the unexpected guest. Chris gave him a welcoming smile and invited him to join the game. He hesitated for a moment before joining the boisterous crowd, and he soon found himself with a cue in his hand.
'Come on, George' Chris grinned. 'You and Marian against me and Geoff, what do you say?'
A wide smile slowly spread across George's face.
'Why not' he answered infuriatingly. 'But you'd better be prepared to lose.'
'Big words' she said mockingly. 'You wouldn't dare to make a wager on that, would you?'
'Whatever you want' he drawled.
'Loser buys the beer?'
'You're on!' he smiled annoyingly. 'Who am I to turn down free beer?'
Vic arrived with George's order, and he took a careful sip before turning back to the billiard table. Bent over the table he aimed carefully.
Sam and Emma cheered loudly when three balls hit the pockets. George smiled maddeningly at Chris.
'Pure luck' she sniffed haughtily.
George raised his eyebrows before nodding his assent.
'Yeah, maybe you're right.' He gave the cue to Marian. 'Next time I'll probably only manage to pocket two.'
Chris gave him a menacing glare, but he just shrugged unrepentantly.
Despite her inner turmoil at George's unexpected appearance, Marian managed to pocket a ball, and received a radiant smile for her trouble. George got the cue back and glanced wickedly at Chris before taking aim. Another two balls ended up in the pockets.
He looked up at Chris with a self-satisfied smirk, and she looked back with grudging admiration.
'That's the way you make your money, is it? Hustle innocent doctors into paying your beer?'
He shrugged and gave her another annoying smile.
'Well, it's a living.'
After winning the billiard game George was persuaded to teach Sam and Geoff some trick shots. The two students were eagerly observing his every move, and the tireless George patiently showed them over and over. The four women sat at a table close by, laughing at the poor efforts of the scholars.
Finally Kate glanced at her watch and declared her intention of getting at least some hours of sleep that night. The others decided to follow her lead, and Marian found herself alone with George. A sudden feeling of shyness made her look down at her hands. She could feel him looking at her, but she refused to raise her eyes.
'I thought you were busy tonight?' she said meekly.
'I had trouble concentrating, so I thought I would take the evening off' he informed her.
Looking up she met his candid gaze straight on. She caught her breath, and her eyes locked in his. They were interrupted by Vic, clearing his throat.
'Do you think you two lovebirds can manage on your own? 'Cause us old people would like to go to bed now.'
Marian winced at the lovebird-epithet, but George just grinned.
'And by the way, Nancy's arranged room twelve for you. She didn't want you flying home at this hour.'
'Thank Nancy from me, Vic!' George said with a relieved smile. 'She's a lifesaver.'
Vic gave them an amused glance before saying goodnight.
The alarm clocks luminous digits had cheerfully informed her that the time was three fifteen when she'd finally returned to her room. At that time she had simply shrugged blissfully at the mocking statistics – but the following morning was a different matter…
Nancy smiled gently at the two heavy-eyed characters before her.
They were both picking at their food and occasionally glancing at each other. Taking pity on them she joined Vic in the pub, leaving them to drowsily enjoy their meal on their own.
The two sleepwalkers looked tentatively at each other after Nancy left.
'You slept all right?' she asked huskily.
'Fine' he lied. 'You?'
'Fine' she answered equally insincere.
She raised her eyes to his, meeting his teasing glance. She made a face at him.
'Okay, I've hardly slept a wink' she confessed.
'Me neither' he admitted self-mockingly. 'You want another cup of coffee?'
She smiled wryly at him.
'Right now I think I would prefer my caffeine intravenously' she grimaced at him.
They grinned ruefully at each other while stubbornly munching their way through the breakfast.
They were the first to arrive at the little pond just outside of the Crossing, and Marian's eyes grew wide at the beauty of the site. George stood watching her enthralled expression with a warm half-smile. They unloaded the picnic basket the thoughtful Nancy had prepared, and seated themselves in the shadow of the largest tree. George put his arms around her, pulling her closer, and she huddled into a more comfortable position. With her head on his chest she continued to marvel at the splendour of the place. She had just remarked on the stillness when the roar of the Beast's V8-engine reached their ears. They looked at each other and grinned.
Geoff was still taking a stand-offish attitude towards George, but Kate greeted them warmly.
'Sam and Emma are on their way, and we passed Jack and Chris on the road' she turned to look at her husband 'so now we have a lecture on speeding to look forward to, thanks to Mr Petrol Head here.'
Geoff gave them a charming smile.
'I'm sorry, but Jack could moonlight as a roadblock.'
'May I introduce' Kate sighed exaggeratedly. 'my husband – the Evel Knievel.'
Geoff didn't have to answer since Jack's old, battered police car drove up beside them at that moment. Jack rested his elbow at the car door and looked up at the now rather flustered sinner.
'So… In a hurry, were you?'
Geoff shrugged apologetically, and his wife sniggered behind him. Jack gave him another guilt-provoking look before letting him off.
'Hey, Jack!' He turned when he heard Chris' exclamation. 'Jack, you haven't met Marian, have you?'
Marian looked down into the policeman's kind, grave eyes.
'Hello, Marian. Nice to meet you.'
She smiled, taking an instant liking to the shy, self-conscious man.
'Hi, Jack. Nice to meet you too.'
He gave her a discomfited smile before turning to talk to George.
Loud shrieks and vigorous splashing met Sam and Emma when they arrived. Chris, Kate and Marian sat huddled together on a thick limb, letting their feet touch the surface of the water. They were laughing hard at something, and Sam gave Emma a pleading look. Emma gave a resigned shrug and smiled at her husband.
'Okay, go on. Just go play with those hoodlum friends of yours.'
Sam gave her a quick kiss before shedding his clothes down to his Speedos. Making a mad dash towards the pond he threw himself at the surprised George, who happened to be the possessor of the football that was the object of every male's aspiration. They went under with a mighty splash. When they surfaced – spluttering wildly – George was grinning broadly with the ball still in a firm grip. Geoff and Jack took this opportunity to make a joint effort to reach the coveted object, and George went down again.
Chris was laughing so hard she leapt an impending risk of falling off the branch.
'Hello, Em! Come, sit down and enjoy the show!'
Emma joined them and was soon cheering as enthusiastically as the others.
'You want something to drink?' Chris asked without taking her eyes off the fight – where Geoff by now was the prey of Sam's assault. 'Good one, Sam!'
'Yeah, why not' Emma accepted with the same mesmerized look at the splashing males.
Chris handed her a rope.
'Here – go fish' she smiled. 'George rigged it up to keep the bottles cold.'
Emma raised her eyebrows in surprise before giving it a tug. The construction proved functional – the wet bottles were icy cold and someone had even thought of tying a bottle-opener to the rope.
Five minutes later the combatants declared truce, and laughing breathlessly they waded towards the spectators with Sam triumphantly waving the ball about.
Emma jumped into the cool, hip-deep water and gave him a bear hug.
'My man, the champion' she stated proudly.
Sam just smiled fondly at her. Geoff, who by now was leaning with his back against the tree limb, turned to Kate with an innocent look in his eyes. Kate easily read between the lines and began to shriek loudly. He turned to the others with his arms thrown out in an inoffensive gesture.
'What did I do?' he asked virtuously.
Kate glared suspiciously at him. He turned his face up at her, his lips pouting invitingly. Kate bent down to kiss him and he seized the opportunity. Seconds later Kate surfaced, hissing and coughing uncontrollably.
'You just wait' she managed to get out between coughs, and Geoff hurriedly took a couple of steps back.
Chris and Marian entered the water in a more dignified way, and Marian enjoyed the velvety feeling of the cool, black water.
Looking at the rowdy crowd Marian suddenly felt a suffocating pain at the thought of leaving them. Her stomach contracted in tingling panic, and she hurriedly excused herself. She quickly slipped back to the shadow under the large tree. With tears in her eyes she sat eagerly watching George's laughing face.
Suddenly she heard Emma's sympathetic voice beside her.
'It's beautiful here, isn't it?'
Marian gave a non-committal shrug without looking at her.
'I've never seen George this happy before, you know' Emma continued.
Another shrug, but this time Marian cast a sideway glance at her.
'You really like him, don't you?' Emma persisted.
This time she succeeded. Marian looked at her with tearful eyes.
'Yes' she answered in a small voice. 'I really do like him.'
'So why don't you stay a while longer?' Emma asked bluntly.
'I've got to get back to work. And besides' she made a face 'I haven't got the money for an Aussie vacation right now.'
'You don't need any money' Emma assured her eagerly. 'You can stay at George's. He's got more rooms than you can shake a stick at.' She thoughtfully fell silent for a few seconds before continuing 'No, maybe not at George's.' She gave Marian an impish grin. 'I'm not sure Violet's heart could stand the shock.' She thought for another couple of seconds. 'But you can stay with me and Sam! We might not have quite so many rooms, but we'll be able to put you up for a couple of weeks. And then there's Chris – she's got this big house all to herself now that Kate's moved in with Geoff. And Geoff and Kate have got an equally big house where you can stay. And I'm sure Vic and Nancy will put you up for a while too.'
Marian gave her a watery smile. Her spirits rose. Maybe she would be able to return before long? She looked back at George, who by now was watching her with a concerned look in his eyes. She gave him a reassuring smile before turning back to Emma.
'Thank you!' she said gratefully. 'Thank you, I needed to hear that.'
Emma gave her a sunny smile and jumped up. She held her hand out to Marian and pulled her to her feet.
'Come on' she grinned. 'Let's go get that ball.'
'I'm ready if you are' Marian smiled cheerfully.
It was past five when they finally decided to call it a day. When they began to move towards the cars Kate gave a sudden exclamation.
'Wait, you guys! I forgot!' She rummaged through her bag and triumphantly dug out a camera. A couple of groans were heard, but everyone obediently lined up. Marian was placed in the forefront with George right behind her, and the others spread out around them.
Smiling widely into the camera they patiently followed Kate's instructions to crowd together. Friendly insults were thrown at her, but, concentrating on adjusting the camera lens, she carefully ignored them. Finally satisfied she released them and passed the digital camera round for everyone to see the results. Watching the cheerful assembly in the pictures Marian once again felt the swift, panic-stricken contraction in her stomach. She had known these people only five days – and she couldn't bear to think of not seeing them again.
Back in the Crossing the crowd returned to their usual waterhole where they found a very down in the mouth-DJ sitting alone at a table.
'Where's Soula?' Chris asked
DJ gave her a hurt look.
'Kick me while I'm down, why don't you?' he complained bitterly.
'What happened, DJ?' she asked anxiously.
'Apparently they have this teacher at her school, right.'
'Sounds like a good place for a teacher, a school' Vic interposed.
DJ glared at him, and Vic quickly put down the beers and returned to the bar.
'And all I've been hearing today' DJ continued 'is how wonderful Mr Gibbs is. How handsome he is. How intelligent he is.' He slumped sourly in his chair.
'Sounds like Soula's got a crush on her teacher, doesn't it?' she observed.
'Thank you for the diagnos, doctor' DJ said sullenly
Her smile widened.
'You do realize you've got an advantage though?
'What – an advantage over Mr Fantastic?' he asked incredulously. 'What would that be?'
Chris shrugged expressively.
A slow smile erased his sulky appearance and he quickly got to his feet.
'I've got to go – bye!' he exclaimed.
They grinned at each other when DJ hurriedly disappeared through the door.
After dinner George and Marian slipped away for a walk. The Crossings few streetlights fought a loosing battle with the darkness. They walked silently hand in hand listening to the chirping night sounds of the surroundings. George pulled her closer and put his arm around her shoulders. She sighed contently.
'I don't want to go back to the pub just yet' she announced.
George smiled down at her.
They found a wooden bench in the small Henry Cooper Park. Marian leaned back against his chest and he wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on her head. She unconsciously played with his hands, stroking them gently and entwining their fingers.
They sat quietly for a long time, both of them trying not to think of the short time they had left together – and neither one succeeding very well.
Finally they had to go back to the pub, where they were met by Vic's throaty laugh.
'So. Staying the night again, are you?' he asked George.
George shrugged awkwardly.
'Well, I've got an early appointment in Broken Hill tomorrow.'
Marian gave him a surprised glance. Smiling wickedly into her eyes he shrugged
'There are a few things I need to take care of.'
An empty feeling filled her, and she had to blink hard to force away the tears that seemed to be living just behind her eyelids these days.
'I will be back in good time to take you to the barbecue, though' he promised.
She gave him a weak smile.
'I hope so. I wouldn't want to miss my own going away-party, now would I?' she said feebly, her stomach twitching in pain at the thought of her imminent departure.
George leaned over and kissed her quickly, and her eyes shimmered at him.
Vic gave an embarrassed cough.
'Well, Nancy's already prepared your room just in case' he rumbled.
George gave her a grateful glance.
'Thanks, Nance' he said gratefully.
Looking up from the cash register she gave him a maternal smile.
'My pleasure. It's really nice to have you here, George.'
Marian's alarm clock went off at nine o'clock, and she grudgingly opened her eyes. Another night of sleep depravation had awoken her friend the splitting headache, and with her eyes firmly closed she impatiently pressed her palms against her eyebrows.
Nancy smiled pityingly at the wreck that entered the kitchen. She hurried to place an aspirin before her. Marilyn gave her a bleak smile and quickly swallowed the tablet.
After breakfast she felt decidedly better – until Nancy reminded her of her promise to visit Violet Carnegie before leaving. Nancy laughed heartily at Marian's frightened expression.
'Don't worry, she'll do most of the talking' Nancy chuckled. 'Just remember to ooh and aah properly over the photographs of her great grandchild and you'll be just fine.'
Marian shot Nancy a doubtful glance, but obediently followed her to Violet's house.
Violet excitedly ushered them into the kitchen where they were greeted by Maggie Hutton. Nancy hastily excused herself, and with an encouraging smile at Marian she left her alone with the two women.
Violet was almost trembling with curiosity, obviously longing to ask her about George Baxter. Maggie just gave her a long, thoughtful glance.
'George Baxter's been in town often this last week' she hinted calmly.
Marian acknowledged the fact with a nod and a blank look. She thought she detected an amused twinkle in Maggie's eyes.
'You two have spent quite a lot of time together, haven't you?' Violet ventured.
Another nod, another blank look. Marian was beginning to enjoy this game.
'So he's been taking good care of you then, has he?' Violet persisted.
'Yes, George's been very kind' she answered placidly.
She looked innocently at Violet, feeling the elder woman's frustration growing at the incommunicative answers. Marian gave her a complacent smile.
Another glance at Maggie convinced her that she'd been right about her. Maggie's eyes glittered of both amusement and admiration
An uncomfortable silence spread through the kitchen.
'Well, I can't sit around here all day' Maggie suddenly exclaimed. 'Some of us have work to do.' She gave the others a saucy grin. 'George said he'd send two of his station hands over to pick up some groceries. Evidently he's supposed to have some kind of party later today.' She gave Marian a lingering gaze before leaving.
Violet soon recovered from her disappointment, and Marian's conscientious admiration of the baby pictures soon reinstated Violet's high spirits.
After being treated to tea and a wide supply of photographs of England Marian finally managed to get away.
She returned to the pub, were she found Chris and Jack standing at the bar talking to Vic. They smiled welcomingly at her, and she quickly walked over to join them.
'So here's the woman of the day.' Chris greeted her cheerfully.
Marian smiled self-consciously, but Nancy's materialization saved her from having to reply. Nancy brought a tray of sandwiches, and gave Marian an apologetic smile.
'We're keeping closed today, so there won't be any lunch.'
Marian, whose eyes were constantly on the clock over the bar, didn't mind this. Her anxious waiting for George's arrival were taking its toll on her appetite, and even Nancy's appetizing sandwiches seemed too filling for her.
She still accepted a slice, and she stood chewing mechanically when a widely grinning George entered the pub. Choking heavily she looked up into his smug expression, feeling her heart race and her knees go weak. George cheerfully greeted the sandwich-eaters, and quickly snatched a sandwich from the tray. Grinning sheepishly at the others he leaned down and gave Marian a warm kiss.
'Hi, George!' Chris smiled teasingly. 'Did you have a productive day in the big city, dear?'
They exchanged a private smile before he returned his gaze to Marian.
'I've managed to get some things done, yes' he admitted.
Marian stood concentrating on her breathing since the quick kiss seemed to have bereft her of it. Looking up into his warm, caring eyes she sighed happily.
He self-consciously handed her a chocolate brown Stetson.
'Here, I got you this in Broken Hill' he said gruffly.
She smiled dazzlingly up at him.
'Thank you' she said eagerly.
With the hat securely on her head she watched him expectantly, and he gave her an appreciative smile.
'You look very nice' he rumbled.
Her already radiant smile widened, and she leaned over and gave him an affectionate, lingering kiss. Chris, Vic and Nancy applauded politely, and Marian hid her burning face in his shirtfront. George blushed slightly, but gave the mockers a long-suffering smile.
The airstrip was already beginning to look like an airplane-sale when they reached George's property. George smiled sardonically.
'Dimitri's obviously promoted this event better than I expected.' He turned to Marian, who gave him a nervous glance.
'No one said anything about it being this big' she whimpered.
George's sardonic smile grew even wider.
'Well, it wasn't at first. Unfortunately I gave Dimitri and Thomas free hands organizing it' he gave an expressive shrug 'and this is the result.'
'I'm sorry' she said in a small voice.
He looked at her with consternation.
'What for?' he asked in a bewildered tone.
'For all this.' She gestured at the crowded place.
George smiled warmly at her.
'Don't worry about it. It was my idea. And besides' he made a self-mocking grimace 'I should have known that Thomas wouldn't be able to keep DJ in check.'
Marian watched his genuinely amused smile with relief.
At the back of the house they found four large "grills" crudely cut out of tin barrels. The grills were already lighted, and a lot of the visitors stood gathered around, watching the progress.
George grinned at the four sweaty station hands handling the cooking.
'You managing all right?'
One of the station hands stretched his back and glared at George.
'It's going to be a relief to return to repairing fences' he observed dryly.
'Can I get that in writing, John?' he asked mockingly 'Because I just know I'm never going to hear you say that again.'
'Well, this is sort of fun' he admitted with a sheepish grin.
'Just make sure you lot get something to eat too' George remarked.
John looked at the large pile of marinated meat beside them.
'I don't think we'll have to go hungry, boss.'
George looked around.
'Where's Thomas, by the way?'
John glanced at him with sparkling eyes.
'I have a feeling he's keeping a very low profile right now.'
George looked around at the overcrowded courtyard.
'Now why would he be doing that, I wonder?' George mused ironically.
They found the Flying Doctors team outside DJ's party tent. Kate was laughing hard at Chris, whose features were looking rather strained. She gave George a reproachful look.
'Didn't I ask you to take care of some of those records?'
He raised his eyebrows questioningly.
'Well, this was on the top of the list' she continued.
He listened thoughtfully to the faint music.
'What's so bad about it?'
Chris gave him a vengeful glare and held the canvas up for him. He meekly entered the dark tent, and Chris quickly closed the flap again.
When George emerged once more his eyes were glazed over.
'What was that?' he asked shakily.
Chris put her head on one side.
'That, my dear George' she said mockingly 'would be Sin With Sebastian.'
George gave her a searching look.
'What was it?' he asked incredulous.
'Sin With Sebastian' Chris said easily. Which probably means' she looked questioningly at her friends 'Modern Talking next?'
Kate nodded agreement, but Geoff gave a doubtful shrug.
'Last time he went with Hot Chocolate.'
'I should have destroyed those records when I had the chance!' George mused.
Chris nodded vigorously. Geoff gave him a comforting pat on the back.
'I'm sorry' he smiled evilly. 'You had a chance of becoming our hero – but you blew it.'
George shrugged apologetically.
'I'm sorry. I really didn't know' he moaned pitifully.
The barbecue seemed to last all night. The crowd was slowly thinning, but the beer barrels were still attracting a large swarm of thirsty people.
George and Marian left the lighted yard and went slowly down towards the corral. She leaned her arms against the fence. Resting her chin on them she gazed desolately into the darkness. George stood close behind her with his arms firmly wrapped around her and his nose buried in her hair. For a long time they just stood there silently, miserably thinking of the few precious hours they had left together.
Marian woke with a jolt. Blinking perplexedly at the piercing sunbeams she looked into a pair of sad eyes gazing down at her.
'Good morning' he said gently.
She tried to straighten her stiff limbs.
'Good morning.' She smiled feebly up at him. 'Have you been awake all night?'
'Well, someone had to defend you against the wild animals.'
She looked around. They were sitting huddled together with their backs against the fence, and the only animals around were a couple of horses that – longing for company – were crowding up behind them.
'My hero' she said, tenderly mocking him.
He shrugged indifferently.
'I couldn't sleep' he said matter-of-factly. 'I enjoyed watching you too much.'
She blushed while her heart leaped gaily. He pulled her against him again, and she contentedly put her arms around him, snuggling closer.
'I don't want to go home today.'
She hadn't intended to say it out loud, but suddenly the words were out. He looked down at her with a serious expression.
'I don't want you to go.'
She turned her big, questioning eyes up towards his.
'So what do we do?' she asked in a small, choking voice.
He shook his head helplessly.
'I don't know.' His arms strengthened around her. 'I really don't know.'
His eyes filled with tears and he hid his face in her hair. She smiled resolutely.
'I'll be coming back as soon as I can.'
He looked at her with an inscrutable expression.
'You better' he smiled faintly. 'And I just might be able to visit England next month.'
Her stomach jolted at the thought.
'You might?' she asked breathlessly.
'It's not definite yet, but if everything goes as planned – yes I might' he said secretively.
Her face lit up in a brilliant smile.
'I'd like that'.
Hand in hand they slowly strolled back towards the house. Marian was surprised at the fact that there still were a few people gathered around the marquee. George wasn't.
He gave the courtyard a scrutinizing look.
'Good thing I ordered the cleaning firm for today' he noticed dryly.
She looked around at the clustered yard.
'Oh George, I'm really sorry!' she said earnestly.
'Don't start that again' he smiled teasingly. 'I'm prepared to suffer any messy yard as long as you're in it.
She smiled lovingly up at him.
'That was really too syrupy for words' she said in an indulgently disgusted tone.
He shrugged innocently.
'I do my best.'
She silently looked up into his dancing eyes. Without breaking eye contact he raised her hand to his lips. She rolled her eyes at him and he laughed huskily.
'Come on' he said and tugged at her hand. 'Let's see what it looks like on the inside.'
In the small kitchen they found Nancy preparing an impromptu breakfast. Looking from their entwined hands to their smiling faces she smiled tentatively.
'Nice sunrise?' she asked sympathetically.
George and Marian exchanged a private smile.
'It had its moments' he acknowledged, and Nancy refrained from further questions.
Marian's departure was drawing near. George had promised to fly her to Broken Hill, and her newfound friends followed her to the Crossing's airstrip to wave her off.
Vic gruffly wished her a pleasant journey and gave her a quick embrace.
'You be sure to come back soon' Nancy said tearfully.
Marian's eyes shimmered with unshed tears, and she gave the elder woman a warm hug before turning to the Flying Doctors-team with a wobbly smile. Kate stretched her arm towards her, pulling her into a warm embrace.
'Here's something to remember us by' she said, handing Marian a parcel.
Marian thanked her eagerly, ripping the small gift open. Inside was a framed enlargement of the picture Kate had taken at the pond. Marian looked at it with tears in her eyes.
'Thank you' she said in a choked voice. She wasn't able to say anything else, but her eyes thanked them eloquently.
Kate gave her another hug before returning to Geoff's arms, weeping softly into his collar. Chris' eyes were brimming with tears when Marian turned to her. She silently gave Marian a hug before stepping aside, leaving room for Geoff to say his goodbyes.
After being hugged by one and all Marian stood hesitating beside the Cessna. She raised her hand in a pathetic farewell-gesture.
'If you're ever in England, don't forget to look me up' she said, making a feeble attempt to smile.
The flight to Broken Hill was spent in silence. George and Marian kept on exchanging furtive glances, but there was too much to be said and not enough time to say it in.
They had an hour to while away at the Broken Hill airport before Marian would have to check in for her Sydney flight. The time was spent at the small café in the departure hall, where they sat absorbed by each other. At the final call they joined the line and she checked her backpack. They slowly headed towards the gate where they would have to part.
Outside the gate George cupped his hands around her face. He gazed sadly into her eyes. His right hand brushed away a stray tear, and he slowly lowered his face towards hers, longingly caressing her lips with his. Marian's arms crept round his neck and she pressed up against him. He tightened his arms around her, deepening the kiss. When he finally drew back they were both breathing unevenly. They stared wide-eyed at each other for what felt like an eternity. Finally the man at the gate coughed apologetic and they returned to reality.
'I'm sorry, but if you want to be on the Sydney-flight you need to board now, Madame.'
'I don't want to be on the Sydney-flight' she said indistinctly, giving him a pathetic smile. Her eyes were filled with tears when she looked back at George.
'I guess you have to go' he said gruffly, his eyes suspiciously blank.
'Yeah. I guess' she said reluctantly.
He dug out a thick envelope and gave it to her before hugging her tightly one last time. Without his arms around her she suddenly felt very cold and forlorn.
'Don't read this until you're airborne' he said shakily.
She couldn't answer, but just stood watching him with tears streaming down her cheeks.
'Go on' he said, ushering her towards the door.
'You'll come to England next month, won't you?' she said in a piteous voice.
He smiled weakly.
'I hope so. I very much hope so.'
With the envelope tightly clutched in her right hand she blindly stumbled towards the gate. She turned around, looking into pale, mournful eyes. She gave a small, wretched wave and his lips twitched in a miserable smile. The next time she looked back he was gone, and she closed her eyes in pain.
Sitting in the small aircraft, her tearful appearance received probing glances from her fellow passengers. Wallowing in her misery she didn't recall the envelope until they were approaching Sydney.
She eagerly opened it and a small post-it fell out. On the note George had written "I love you". Her mouth widened into a yearning smile while her eyes filled with tears. The smile turned abruptly into a self-mocking grimace. These conflicting feeling of misery and bliss were playing mayhem with her intestines. She shrugged irritably and tried to pull herself together. Her eyes returned to the post-it, and she gazed at the precious note for a couple of seconds before turning back to the envelope's contents. She unfolded a thick packet of papers and confusedly skimmed through the many pages of the document. She turned back to the first page. Why would he give her an empty form? 47SP. No help there. She tried to focus her split thoughts on the complicated language. Her lips moved unconsciously when she read.
Application for migration to Australia by a partner? Her mind was spinning wildly.
What she was holding in her hands was an application form for a nine months Australian-visa. A visa – obviously – for a fiancée, and with the stipulation of marriage before the time run out. She stared incredulously at the document. Was this a proposal? But what else could it be? And if it was – was she prepared to leave her friends and family to move to Australia for a man she'd known less than a week? Her stomach was suddenly filled with panicstricken butterflies. She looked down at the post-it and smiled longingly.
Deep in swivelling thoughts she folded the document and tried to restore it to its wrapper. It proved impossible, and she examined the envelope once more. She recovered a single first-class ticket from London to Sydney and her eyes filled with tears once more. She angrily blinked them away and gazed musingly at the ticket. How could you leave someone who gave you an open ticket to Australia?
Leave George? The panicky feeling spread, and once more she felt her intestines revolt against the idea. Suddenly everything seemed to fall into place, and she surprised her fellow travellers by lightening up in a radiant smile.
At Sydney airport she was met by a message that she was wanted on the phone. Her heart leaped at the hope of hearing George's voice, and her stomach rapidly filled with butterflies.
'Hello' she nervously breathed into the receiver.
'Marian?' an uncertain voice replied.
'Hello, George' she smiled blissfully.
'So. Have you opened the envelope?' he asked apprehensively.
She smiled affectionately at the hesitant tone.
'Yes I have' she admitted with her butterflies turning into the size of eagles.
'So. What do you say?' he asked in a weak voice.
Her eyes shone, and she couldn't seem to stop smiling.
'Yes!' she breathed. 'I say yes, George.'
She could hear him breathing shakily.
'Are you sure?' he asked hopefully.
She took a deep, steadying breath.
'I've never been surer of anything' she assured him.
She ran her right hand through her hair, grabbing it firmly into a tuft. Turning her face towards the ceiling she squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Waves of happiness flowed through her body. She felt like shouting and dancing, but all she could do was to stand there immovably with a silly love struck smile on her face.
She could hear Nancy's voice impatiently asking what she'd said. Obviously George's expression gave the answer away, because a vociferous celebration seemed to erupt at the other end of the line. Suddenly she heard Chris' laughing voice.
'So how does it feel to be engaged?' she asked.
Marian started. Engaged? Yes, she supposed she was.
'Rather unexpected!' she stated.
A cough made her suddenly aware of a person standing beside her. She looked up into the glittering eyes of an amused steward. She looked down at the tray he was holding out at her. She was vaguely aware of Nancy's voice congratulating her, but she was too focused on the tray's contents to pay attention. Besides a half-filled glass of champagne was a small, black box of unmistakable origin. She put the receiver down and stretched a trembling hand towards it. Opening it she looked down on a small, simple engagement ring made of white gold. Still trembling she picked it up and read the inscription before putting it on her finger to admire the effect. She jumped at the loud cheering from an asserted group of interested bystanders. She gave them an embarrassed smile before recapturing the phone.
'Hello?' she hazarded.
'Yes?' answered George gruffly.
'Hi' she breathed lovingly.
He laughed throatily.
'Hi back' he smiled.
'I love the ring' she blurted out.
'I love you' he replied, suddenly serious.
She drew a deep breath, suddenly and inexplicably shy.
'I love you too' she said fervently.
The silence between them lingered on.
'Well…' he finally said. 'I guess this call for a toast.'
She laughed tensely, but obediently reached for the champagne glass the polite stewardess was still holding out towards her.
'To the future' he said harshly.
'To the future' she replied.