Give her a kid with a complex, any complex, and she was in her element.
Teenage kids, confused kids, kids that suffered acne, unrequited love, and parents that didn’t understand them, and she was there.
Little kids however were something else.
Mel shot a wary glance at the toddler in her arms, a two year old called Britney who had jam on her face, sand stuck to the jam, and a lethal Barbie in her pudgy fist. Mel felt as far out of her comfort zone as she could get.
“Mama,” Britney squealed, waving the doll.
“Mummy will be here soon.” Mel jerked her head back as the Barbie came an inch away from connecting with her nose. “I bet she’s finished all her shopping and she’s parking her car right now and before you know it we’ll be having a barbeque back at the campsite.” She glanced up towards the South Sydney beach car park to see if Diane was there, hopefully with one hand ready to take her children and the other holding a bag of food. There was only a tall, dark haired man stalking down the grass bank towards the beach. He took long, angry strides, the tails of his cream shirt flapping around his hips. He glanced at her — the briefest look — and continued walking, a don’t-bother-me-and-I-won’t-bother-you warning written in every step he took.
Suits me just fine.
She tensed as Eli, Britney’s ‘spawn of Satan’ brother, hurtled over the damp sand dragging a dodgy kite behind him.
She called, “Watch out, Eli, you’re not looking where you’re going.”
He ignored her, ran back up the end of the beach, spun around and made his way back, intent on the kite and its dismal attempts to get lift off.
Britney wriggled as Eli sped past and Mel cautioned again, “Eli, be careful.” Her words carried back towards her on a breeze of sea air.
Britney began to whine and Mel jiggled her. “There, there, it’s okay. Mummy’s nearly here I’m sure of it. She’s nearly here Brits.”
Or maybe she wasn’t nearly here at all. Maybe she’d decided to keep on driving past the shops and wasn’t coming back. Mel glanced over towards the campsite. They’d only met a few days ago when they’d helped each other set up their tents and she’d suspected Diane was suffering mild depression.
Or maybe it wasn’t mild at all. Maybe in the months since she’d resigned from her job at the school Mel had lost her touch. Had lost the ability to see what wasn’t so obvious to everyone else. Unease settled in her stomach the same time as Eli ran straight into the path of the man walking into the ankle height waves.
“Watch out.” The warning froze on Mel’s lips as Eli connected with solid thigh, throwing them both off balance. The man fell and took Eli with him into the edges of the surf.
Mel’s heart raced in panic as she set Britney down.
“Wadder,” Brittney squealed as she toddled towards the sea.
“Brits, no,” Melinda yelled, swooping her up just in time.
Dread pounded her as the man grabbed Eli and stood up. His pants were wet, his shirt tails soaking, and Eli yelled, “My kite, my kite,” as the kite drifted down the beach.
The man looked with distaste at Eli, holding him out as if he was something indescribably nasty.
Mel jogged the short distance, Britney laughing with each bounce, and when she reached him she apologized. “I’m so sorry this has happened.”
His cool gaze zeroed in on Britney then back to Mel. She felt the urge to squirm and said hastily, “Eli, say sorry to the man for knocking him over.”
Eli shook his head firmly, yelled “I want my kite,” and tried to escape the man’s grip.
The man addressed Eli. “I have no idea what they are teaching your mother in parenting school but clearly they’ve failed.”
Mel stiffened. It was one thing to consider herself a failure as a potential parent but quite another to have it confirmed by a complete stranger.
She breathed in deeply. “I am sorry about this but it is a beach. Flying kites is what kids do on beaches.”
His blue-grey eyes stared at her as if she had just muttered the earth was square. “The child could have drowned.”
“He wasn’t about to drown — I was watching him.”
One eyebrow lifted.
She ignored it and said to Eli, his arms still waving around for the kite, “You’re meant to watch where you’re running with that kite. I told you that a million–”
She pulled herself up. She hadn’t actually told him a million times at all — maybe four or five — but it felt like a million. No wonder His Lordship thought she was the mother.
He set Eli down and Eli promptly turned back to Mel and wrapped his arms around her legs so tight, she had to struggle not to fall down.
“There, there, Eli,” she murmured as he buried his face against her jeans and she patted his head. Someone loves me, she thought, then quickly pushed the pity party away. She was here to forget about Max and the wedding — not dwell on it.
She gathered herself and glanced back at the man. He was well over six foot with coal black hair that grazed his shirt collar, a slightly square cut to his chin, and shoulders broad enough to make you feel protected. A pulse of awareness zipped through her. To her surprise it felt good. Made her feel as if she was alive after all and not the cold sack of spuds Max had accused her of being. “Look, I am truly sorry about all this.”
He continued to glare. His face seemed to be getting darker which was oddly even more attractive. Take that, Max. I am so responsive. Take that.
She tried again. “I’m staying at the campground just along the way.” She gestured down the beach to the site entrance. “If you need to — get changed or anything.”
“As a rule I don’t carry spare clothes in my car.” He wiped one wet, sandy hand over his shirt. “Just keep better control of your children. They shouldn’t be running wild on a beach.”
The gibe that she was incapable of being a good parent dug deeper. She didn’t need to feel any more incapable than she already did, especially with what was happening in her life. Or rather, not happening. She inhaled sharply. “They were not running wild.”
“They need to be kept under better control.” He glanced towards a woman walking a Border Collie down the beach on a leash. A well restrained Border Collie, Mel noted.
He raised his eyebrows.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she choked out in disgust. “Comparing children to animals is absurd. I suppose you think they should be seen, not heard, and whipped for the slightest misdemeanor. You could get in a lot of trouble for saying things like that you know.”
“I never said a thing. Though is ‘misdemeanor’ what you call uncontrolled children running loose in public places?”
Britney began to cry again and Mel jiggled her. The movement caused her braless breasts to wobble and his gaze settled there with the briefest spark of what might have been interest, before looking back up to the car park beyond the grass strip where no doubt he’d parked his shiny, valet-perfect late model BMW.
“I’d like to say it was a pleasure meeting you.” He shoved his hands in his jeans pocket, then the other. He swore.
Dread shot through her. Please let his keys be there and not floating around in the sea. Please, please, please…
He pulled out a short gold chain with several keys and jangled them. “But that would be a lie.”
Then he turned and walked back to the reserve, to the car park beyond, with his wet jeans and damp shirt, and she almost sank to the beach with relief. Yes, it was all her fault, she knew that. She had been the adult in charge of Eli. But a goodbye, a nod to the head, an acknowledgement via those lips would have been something.
Good looking, yes. A darned shame about the personality.
He is not Max, a voice screamed in her head. Let it go.
Too late she called out, “Wait.”
His broad shoulders stiffened a second before he stopped.
“You can’t just…you don’t… I mean, it’s…”
He turned around exasperated. “Just make sure your child doesn’t do it again. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes if he took out a pensioner.”
Her mouth gaped, coherence drew to a splutter on her lips, and at the same time she heard Diane’s voice and turned to see her running along the beach towards them.
“Mel?” she called, blonde hair flowing behind her, yellow muslin dress flapping around her legs. “I’m so sorry I’m late. I just dropped the shopping off at my tent but all the oldies from the campervan tour were there and they just insisted I have a cup of tea and – oh… Oh my gosh.”
She stared at the retreating man’s wet pants and then at Eli, complete with wetter clothes, sulky expression and a tight grip on Mel’s thighs.
“Eli?” she gasped.
“Eli just had a bit of an incident,” Mel explained. “No one got hurt.”
“Not from the look of that guy.” Diane took Britney out of Melinda’s arms and stopped her son from taking off down the beach again in search of the kite. “I’m terribly sorry – sir,” she called out to the now distant figure.
Mel turned away from him and his arrogant ass. Her body still seethed with frustration and never had the idea of climbing into her little tent and zipping it up held as much appeal as it did now. But before that she needed to make sure everything was fine here. “Diane, are you okay?”
“Sure.” She jiggled Britney who had her head on Diane’s shoulder and her thumb in her mouth, just watching Mel. Mel smiled and Britney turned to face the other way.
“Are you sure? Is there anything I can do?”
Still Mel hesitated. “I’ll head back to the campsite. I might have a go at making something yummy on the fire for us all for tea.”
Diane nodded. “That would be great. And I’m fine — I really am — and I owe you.” She gave a wobbly smile. “Getting away on my own, even if it was just going up to the shops and having a coffee and having some time on my own to think…well, it really helped. You were right. I feel heaps better.”
Mel squeezed her hand, relieved beyond belief, and made her way back down the beach. She walked as fast as she could, her feet sinking into the soft sand as she neared the hard grassy walk way. Again Max popped into her mind and again she forced him away, as far away as she could. It angered her. It had been over two months now and she should have seen it coming when — looking back — the signs were all so obvious. That’s what angered her so much now. All the lies. All the deception. Her plans, her future, ripped apart by a man she thought she loved. No. She had loved him. Of course she had.
Not so different from all the kids you’ve counseled, are you, Miss Green.
She bet that man on the beach didn’t have to deal with being lied to. Or being jilted just weeks out from your wedding. He’d be the one doing the jilting. He probably had broken hearts scattered across Australia.
She broke into a slow jog as her feet hit solid earth, enjoying the brief moment of freedom, and her spine tingled all the way back to her tent. With any luck, she’d never see him again.
He stood outside the small green and red tent that the hippy, Diane, had directed him to.
Mel – that was the other woman’s name – Mel – was supposedly inside. It was barely big enough for one person, looked as if it would rip apart in a decent gust, yet he could hear the muted sounds of voices from inside.
It was impossible she had someone with her. Daniel glanced around the near deserted campground. Diane had assured him there were two dozen people booked in for the week and he’d counted three other tents and a couple of campervans. Elderly people sat around on fold up chairs, chatting, laughing, apparently having a good time. It was beyond him how they could. He waved a bug away from his face. The urge to go camping had always eluded him although the silence held some appeal. Especially with what was going on in his life right now.
He glanced back at the tent. A car was parked alongside, an old hatchback boasting rust, missing hubcaps, chipped paintwork and bumper stickers promoting a Sydney football team. A blue plastic tarpaulin had been rigged up between two trees and a solitary chair and camp table sat beneath it. The chair was covered with a faded patchwork quilt.
What was he thinking of, coming here. What had possessed him to think a spontaneous walk along a beach would do some good and clear his mind? He had never done spontaneous in his life. Spontaneity messed with control and he needed to be in control.
He turned, on the verge of heading back up to his car, when he hesitated. He had never been a quitter either. You did not run a billion-dollar empire by leaping out of the fire when it started to burn. There were, of course, exceptions to every rule and right now would be a good time to exercise that exception. So, go home, Christie.
He hesitated, then turned back to the tent. Against his better judgment he ground out, “Excuse me.”
The voices in the tent stopped. Seconds passed and his irritation grew. He gave it one more shot. “I know you’re in there. Would you come out?” As an afterthought he added, “Please.”
He’d never been particularly good with apologies. They were mostly unnecessary although if he screwed up he’d admit it. He just didn’t screw up. Yet he’d driven away from the beach in those wet jeans and that wet shirt, with sand in his shoes, and five minutes down the road Mel’s image had refused to budge. She hadn’t even attempted to correct his assumption she was the mother of those children. Why?
“I need to talk to you.” He’d give her ten seconds. Then he’d get the heck out of here and put it out of his mind.
There was movement in the tent, the zip opened and she thrust her head out.
“Oh, it’s you,” she announced with disapproval.
“Obviously.” She had brown eyes. Dark brown eyes that watched him with a “Who do you think you are?” intensity. Interesting. Normally people watched him with trepidation or respect. Or if they were women, blatant expectation. They did not look at him as if he were the scum of the earth.
“I need to talk to you,” he repeated.
She didn’t move and he wondered if he was going to end up humiliating himself even further by getting on his hands and knees and crawling in to the tent.
“My head,” she told him, “is insisting I tell you where to get off because I’m familiar with your type. You don’t listen to anyone and you expect people to do your bidding as if you were some Prince of British royalty.”
The comparison with British royalty amused him. Although the Christie family had once been called the royalty of Australian business. He said, “You’ve had a bit to do with British royalty have you?”
“No.” She crawled out, straightened with a grunt until she stood in front of him, and braced her hands on her hips. She was average, he decided. Average build, average height. If she smiled her looks would probably skyrocket away from what he could only describe as a very grim scowl that overshadowed everything else about her. She had a faded football jersey on over jeans.
She suddenly exhaled. “I just have – shall we say — life experience that I use as a gauge for certain situations.”
For an instant he was close to asking, “What life experience?” The less you know the better, he cautioned himself in the same breath.
She squinted. “So I guess you know Brits and Eli aren’t my kids?”
“Diane told me. I’m at a loss to understand why you never mentioned it.”
She shrugged. “It was irrelevant because you were right. I couldn’t control them. They were in my care and look what happened. End of story.”
He narrowed his eyes. She was putting on a good front but he wasn’t buying it. Not that it was his concern. He was here for one thing only. “I came back to apologize for my behavior.” He hesitated, then ground out, “For which — I’m sorry.” It hadn’t been her fault the kid had been a terror on two legs.
Her gaze suddenly slipped to his waist and he frowned. “What are you looking at?”
“You’ve changed clothes. I thought you didn’t carry spare clothes around.”
“There’s a menswear store down the road.”
“Oh.” She looked down at her feet and kicked at the dry grass. “Well, I…I’m sorry too. For you getting wet. For not telling the truth straight away.” Something flickered across her eyes at the word truth. She added, “For you having to go and buy a new outfit.”
He shook away her apology and gestured to her tent. “I heard voices.”
“The radio was on talkback. I’ve got a small transistor.”
“Did I drag you away from anything interesting?”
She shook her head. “I wasn’t really listening to be honest. I think there was a gardening expert on debating the merits of growing organic broad beans. I just…” She squinted against the sun. “Had it on. For company. I like some background sound while I — while I think about life. I come here sometimes when I need to do that.”
In that instant her jaw tightened and she looked as if she wished she could retract the statement.
“You stuck up for your friend,” he commented. “You let me think they were your children.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Diane just broke up with her husband. She’s got two children, she’s pregnant with a third and she’s trying to get her life back together. All I did was mind her kids for an hour so she could go up to the town on her own and do some shopping. You can see what it would be like going anywhere with Britney and Eli.”
“That was an honorable thing to do.” He meant it too. Especially considering the dearth of honor permeating the Christie clan.
Mel shrugged. “I don’t really know her. We only met two days ago when she arrived at the campsite. We have similar things…” She hesitated, added, “Going on in our lives.”
Had her own marriage broken up as well? It would be just his misfortune to walk into a feminist pow-wow of women dumping on men. He glanced around the site but could only see the old people in the campervans.
“I’d like to take you out to dinner,” he said suddenly.
Her eyes flashed with shock. “Sorry?”
He felt the shock himself. Since when did he invite strangers out to dinner? “To apologize,” he said.
“You already have.”
Saying sorry didn’t seem enough. At the back of his mind he knew why he was doing it. He was making a grand gesture — if only to himself — to rub in just how selfish his brothers were being to him, to their grandfather, to the business. I’m the oldest brother, the one who cares, the one who takes responsibility when I screw up. Thinking that only made him just as immature as Sean and Everett but he could live with it just this one time.
He took his phone from his pocket. “I’ll take your number and give you a call in a few days.”
“Look, that’s really not necessary,” she began.
He arched his eyebrows. “I screwed up back there.” Saying it aloud made him wince. “It’s only dinner. We both have to eat.”
He saw her mind working and he got the feeling she was just playing with him, that she wasn’t about to accept dinner invitations from strangers. Which suited him fine; he was not in a particularly social frame of mind. She shrugged. “Okay.” She gave him her number and he wondered if it was even real. Not his problem. He was making the offer, end of story. “My last name is Green but I’ll only be at that number two more weeks. I have to… that is, I’m… shifting.”
He caught the hesitation as he pocketed the phone. “Are you moving away from Sydney?”
“No.” She bit down on her bottom lip. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided.”
His interest piqued even further. She was leaving her home in a fortnight and she had nothing arranged?
But then if she was at a campsite in the middle of a working week, maybe she was running from more than she was letting on. “I’ll call.”
She hesitated. “Honestly you don’t have to. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do.” There was an element of “don’t bother” about it.
“Is there a good time?”
She stared at him with a none-of-your-business look. “I don’t go out with strangers,” she told him.
“Then reject me. I can handle it.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Daniel,” he told her as he strode away. He’d wasted enough time here. “I’ll call.”
Daniel’s Rolex said three pm. Behind him company lawyer Hugh Devereaux closed the heavy oak doors and turned the lock. Daniel spared a brief glance out through the tinted floor-to-ceiling windows of the Christie Group boardroom, in the Christie Towers on an enviable chunk of prime Circular Quay real estate that had been in his family for over a century. It afforded him a glimpse of the bridge, of the opera house, of the city he loved. He was in his element.
He focused back on the men at the table as Hugh joined them. Three members of the board of Christie Corp. The only members not present were his grandfather who had suffered a relapse and was ensconced in his Vaucluse mansion with his team of medical staff running around to patch him up.
And Sean and Everett. His lazy, irresponsible, utterly selfish younger brothers.
Daniel turned back to the men. They were waiting for an update, waiting expectantly for the acting head of one of Australia’s largest corporations to tell them what was happening in their billion dollar world.
“Sean,” he began, his jaw tightening at having to mention his brother’s name, “has not responded to my calls, emails, or texts. I suspect he’s abandoned that number and doesn’t feel it necessary to enlighten us. As long as his allowance is paid into the bank each month he doesn’t care.” He reached for the pitcher of water on the table in front of him and poured a glass. The sound of ice cubes clinking together in the Waterford was obscenely loud. “Unfortunately the situation with Everett isn’t much better.” If it was his choice Daniel would cut them off from their allowance altogether but it wasn’t his choice. And he was not about to go against his grandfather’s wishes.
As he set the decanter down his gaze caught the painting of his great, great grandfather. William Christie had founded this company using his own blood, sweat and tears, and none of them would ever forget it, would ever be allowed to forget it. Loyalty gripped his chest. His brothers, however, appeared to be the exceptions in over a century of Christie men. He had trouble believing they were from the same pool of DNA but oh yes, they were.
“Before my grandfather’s current relapse,” he continued, “we talked at length about the future plans of Christie group. With our five year plan we are looking at becoming one of the most significant trading companies in the Asia Pacific region.”
He glanced at each board member, men he respected, who deserved to be here. Men as devoted to this company as if the blood of William Percy Christie ran through their own veins.
“Your grandfather remains extremely concerned about Sean and Everett,” Hugh commented, stroking his moustache.
Daniel glanced at him. His grandfather’s oldest friend and confidante. If anyone knew what was going on behind the scenes at Christie Group, it was Hugh. Their legal brain.
“I know.” He rapped the table with his fingers. “And his health is declining because he’s worried. Their complete lack of interest in Christie Corp beyond what it forks out for their allowance is breaking his heart. He doesn’t show it but I know it. And even though they are fully aware that Arthur’s time is…” Darn. Did his voice have to crack? He ground out, “That Arthur’s time is limited, it seems it isn’t making a blind bit of difference.” Daniel eyeballed each man one by one. “So we need to do something and something fast for grandfather. I’ve given up on the redemption of those two but he hasn’t and I do not want him going to his grave suffering the disappointment my brothers are wreaking on him.” It would break his heart. Make him feel as if he had failed the one person he owed so much to. He would do what it took to ensure that did not happen.
Hugh pushed himself away from the table and rose abruptly to his feet. “Daniel.” He walked to the window and with his back to them said, “There is something we’ve discovered that you’re not aware of. We weren’t aware of it until this morning.”
“What is it?”
The older man came over and gripped the back of a chair with both fists. He paused then shook his head. “We’ve learnt that Arthur has hired two investigators to follow Everett and Sean. They’ve been on his payroll for the past two months.”
Shock went through Daniel and for seconds he couldn’t speak. “Tell me you’re kidding.”
“Your grandfather knows exactly where they are and what they are doing.”
The blood drained further from his body. No. It wasn’t possible.
He hadn’t realized he’d said it aloud until Hugh shook his head. “I’m afraid so.”
“All this time, we’ve been twisting the details to spare him the truth.”
Hugh nodded. “I’ve no doubt he realizes we’ve done it to protect him. And I’ve no doubt Arthur appreciates that. But the fact is, he’s known. And known more than us.”
“But…” Daniel’s hand shook as he drank down water. What he’d give for some scotch on that ice. “He never said anything. Never so much as discussed the possibility. Never hinted he knew what they were up to.”
“He’s determined to save them. He can’t bear to see the family name dragged down and he can’t bear to see your father’s offspring become–” Hugh stopped but Daniel knew what he’d been about to say. Sean and Everett were cut out of a mold the Christies had never encountered before. True, their father Duncan had resented being born into the family but he’d taken his position in the firm and he’d played his part, even though he’d loathed every minute of it until his unexpected death ten years ago. Sean and Everett were something else altogether.
“Frankly this is killing Arthur.” Hugh rubbed his palms roughly down his face. “It’s no coincidence that since he had the boys followed his health has failed further. And that worries me. It worries me a hell of a lot.”
Daniel felt something slip away from him. There was only one person responsible. Himself. If he’d kept better control over his brothers they wouldn’t have fallen apart, succumbed to the temptations that kids with too much money and no sense were easy victims of. He should have seen it, reined them in, sorted them out so that Arthur didn’t have to pay some stranger to keep tabs on them. He was their older brother.
Nausea cemented in his stomach and he breathed in against the sudden light-headedness. He’d failed them. The buck had just stopped and it was up to him to fix this for his grandfather.
Before it was too late.
A week away in the tent had not provided Mel with the enlightenment she’d been hoping for over which direction to head with her life. All it had done was blast home that she had utterly wasted those days getting in touch with nature and wallowing in her own pity when she could have been job hunting and looking for a place to live. She’d been out of a job two months now, used up her savings and her holiday pay. Being a school counselor was not a high paying job at the best of times and with government cut backs in the education sector, the chance of getting a decent position was close to zero. Last week she’d emailed applications to be a barista, an assistant at a souvenir store and a receptionist at a podiatrist’s surgery. She hadn’t even been granted an interview and had been told by one agency she was overqualified.
To top it off her tenancy was almost up. She already had half her gear packed in boxes, ready to cram into the small storage unit she was about to rent. She had barely enough money to put down on an apartment, even if she got a job by the end of the week. Of course she’d get the deposit money back from the landlord when she handed him the key but it wouldn’t last long.
She was broke. And there was no one else she could blame.
With frustration she pushed open the door of her flat, dropped her keys on the table and went through to the lounge where the packing was taking place. Not everything was hers. She glanced at a box labeled Salvation Army, filled with Julia’s things. Her clothes, her books, her crockery from the kitchen. Julia hadn’t had much time to pack up her stuff. After all, when you left by stealth with your flatmate’s boyfriend – fiancé – it hardly left any time to get organized.
Mel bypassed the box.
The worst thing of all was just how much her life had revolved around the new future she’d been planning, the new married life that had vanished down the drain in a gurgle of vile water. Just thinking about the things Max had said in his note, the reasons he’d wanted out of their relationship…
She shivered and concentrated on sorting a stack of paperbacks. When she had to leave the flat she could stay with her mother a few nights. There was a couch in her mother’s tiny apartment and Ellie would still assume Mel was getting over the pain of being jilted. She grimaced as she sorted the novels into a keeper and giveaway pile. She’d shied away from relating the whole sordid story and had kept her flatmate’s name out of it.
Ellie Green had enough to contend with, without worrying about the mess her only daughter had gotten herself into.
The phone rang suddenly, shrill in the silence, and Mel hesitated. It could be a telemarketer. Or it could be her mother, or even the rest home.
She cursed her cost saving when she’d gotten rid of caller ID, picked up the phone and tucked it under her chin. “Melinda Green speaking.”
It was Daniel.