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The Structure and History of Granite looked fascinating reading. He could scarcely imagine the plot.
But plots weren't on Major Hugo Thurston's current agenda. As an elite commando with the Australian Armed Forces, Hugo was trained to make fast decisions and he made one now. As reading choice for his dinner companion, the book on granite seemed perfect.
Seemed. Make sure. His training said check the whole scene.
The reader wasn't alone. She was one of a pair, and both women looked less than thirty. This could mean trouble, especially when Maudie was with him.
But, on closer inspection, things looked even more promising. The book held by the second woman was Prehistory in Stone.
'We're sitting here,' he told the waiter, and before Maudie could object, her grandson shepherded her into the seats opposite the two readers. Hopefully they'd keep their noses in their books for the entire meal.
But even if they did, Hugo still didn't want to be here. He and his grandmother were travelling Platinum Class on the Ghan, the legendary train running through Australia's vast outback. Platinum service included gourmet meals served in their private sitting room.
But.. 'Why would I want to eat my meals just with you?' Maudie had demanded.
'We have massive windows. You can look at the whole Australian outback while we eat.'
'The dining car has windows, too, and I like meeting people. If your grandfather was here, he'd have taken me to the dining car.' Maudie had groped for her handkerchief, and so, of course, the thing was decided. To the dining car they went, where tables were filled to capacitywhich meant, Platinum Class or not, they had to share.
With Granite and Prehistory.
At least let this meal be better than lunch, he demanded silently of fate. It could hardly be worse. For their first meal on board they'd been stuck with a middle-aged couple who recognised Maud and exuded sympathy as a form of pleasantry.
'We read about your husband's death. Oh, you poor thing. But he had such a fabulous life. You can't really mourn someone so rich who dies so old, can you?'
Then, as Maudie failed to respond, they'd turned to Hugo. 'And you're home to take over your grandfather's company. It's about time. The gossip magazines have been wondering about you for years. No one's ever been able to understand why you've stayed in the army so long, and in such awful places. And what a waste when you're so rich '
He'd wanted to do violence, but his grandmother's dignity had made him reply in an almost civilised fashion. Maudie had grown quiet with distress but she was one brave lady. She'd returned for dinner, to take another chance.
With Granite and Prehistory.
'Would it be an imposition if we sat with you?' Maudie asked the stone women, deferential, even though in the democracy of the train dining room there was no choice.
Granite gazed up from her book. She was in her late twenties, Hugo thought. Her fair hair was hauled into a scrappy bunch of curls which spoke of little effort, and the smile she offered was perfunctory. She looked absent, he thought, and he wondered if she'd been ill.
'Hello,' she said softly. 'Of course you can sit here; isn't that right, Amy?'
The woman beside herAmy?lowered her book. They looked like sisters, Hugo thought. They were both slight, maybe five feet four or so. Both had soft blonde curls and clear brown eyes. They were both a little too thin.
What was more important than their appearance, though, was that neither looked gushers. Granite was already returning to her book.
The one called Amy, however, seemed slightly more interested. She glanced briefly at Hugo, and then at Maud.
Maud gazed back, eighty-three years old, recently bereaved and obviously anxious. Despite her assumed bravery, Sir James's death had devastated her, and the ordeal of lunch had left its mark.
Her eyes locked with Amy's.
Be nice to her, Hugo silently demanded, but he got no further. No silent demands were needed. Prehistory-transformed-into-Amy made her decision and she beamed a welcome.
And that beam.
She was exquisite, Hugo thought, as stunned as if the sun had come out right over their table. She was simply, gloriously lovely.
Granite, the shadowed one, was wearing jeans, sneakers and a plain white shirt. Amy was dressed for comfort as well, but very differently, in black tights, ballet flats and a soft blue oversized sweater. Her hair was looped into an unruly knot, with wispy curls tumbling free. Unlike her sister, she was wearing a little make-up. Her full lips were glossed the palest of pink and there was a touch of sparkle around her eyes.
But with a beam like hers, Hugo decided, Amy didn't need sparkle. Maudie was returning her smile, and what a smile.
Amy hadn't smiled at him, he thought.
Um so what? He was here to keep Maudie happy, and if Amy could do it
Please don't gush, he demanded silently of her. Please don't do the Oh, you 're Dame Maud Thurston.
'Save me from rocks,' she said simply.
Maudie smiled back. She slipped into the window seat and Hugo sat beside her, but no one was looking at him. Granite was back in her book and Amy had eyes only for Maudie.
'Rachel thinks I'll enjoy this journey more if I understand what I'm seeing,' she said, still beaming her pleasure at Maudie's arrival. 'But rocks '
'We're seeing some interesting rocks,' Maudie ventured, and Hugo saw a hint of a twinkle in his grandmother's eyes.
A twinkle. That was what he was here for.
His grandmother had planned this journey with his grandfather, had looked forward to it, had persuaded her ailing husband it was just what he needed to restore his health, but tragically James had died four weeks before departure. Maudie had sunk into desolation so deep it scared him, and taking this journey in his grandfather's stead had seemed as good a way as any to distract her. So far it hadn't worked. Hugo hadn't seen Maudie smile for a month, yet here was her smile again, and he felt a knot unravel in his gut that he hadn't known had been knotted.
All his life he'd tried to stay detached, but right now he wasn't detached at all. In the face of his grandmother's grief he was helpless.
'You're a dancer,' she was saying to Amy in tones of discovery, and Amy's smile faded a little.
'Um. Yes,' she admitted as Hugo looked on in astonishment. Rather than the woman recognising Maudie, the situation was reversed.
'Oh, my dear, you're Amy Cotton.' Maudie seemed awed.
'You danced in Giselle last July. We went backstage and were introduced.'
'I was only in the corps de ballet,' Amy said, looking flabbergasted. 'How did you '
'I know all our dancers,' Maudie said. 'And you've danced many more major roles. You used to be.'
'A long time ago I used to be,' Amy said flatly, her beam fading to nothing. 'And now I'm completely retired.'
'Oh, of course. Oh, my dear, I'm so sorry.' Maudie's twinkle gave way to distress. She reached across the table and touched Amy's hand, a fleeting touch of genuine contrition. 'You know my James died a month ago? Everyone keeps wanting to talk about his death and I hate it, yet here I am, the minute I see you, launching into talk of your retirement. At the level you danced, I know it must hurt almost as much as losing James. I'm so, so sorry. Can we talk about rocks again, or would you like to go back to your book?'
There was a moment's silence. Granite had looked up from her book and was watching Amy with concern. Not Granite. What had Amy called her? Rachel.
'You don't have to read it,' Rachel ventured. 'I only suggested it.'
'As a way to distract you?' Maudie ventured. 'Like my grandson keeps telling me to look out of the window. "Look, Gran, there's a camel," Hugo says, when all I'm seeing is James. But you know, even if it hurts to think of Jamesand it doesthere's no way camels work as diversionary tactics. I suspect books on rocks might even be worse.'
This could go either way, Hugo thought. They could all retreat and he could have the private lunch he craved, or.
Or maybe he was no longer fussed about a private lunch. Maybe these two had him intrigued.
Danger. One hint of interest, he told himself, and Maud would be away on her favourite pastime. Even his grandfather's death hadn't deflected her. These were two young women. Young. Women. Once upon a time Maudie had been fussy about who she threw at him. Now she was growing desperate. Young and women were the only two descriptors she needed, and the fact that Amy danced.
He needed, very carefully, to be uninterested. He needed to shut up and let Maudie do the talkingif Amy and Rachel would let her.
And it seemed they'd relented. Amy's smile returned, not on full beam, as it had been when welcoming an elderly lady to join her, but neutrally friendly now, treating his grandmother as an equal.
'I'm a bit touchy,' she admitted. 'And I'm sorry. I've been retired for three months nowyou'd think I'd be over it. But your husband's death ' This time it was she who touched Maudie's hand. 'Sixty years of marriage to a man such as Sir James You and your husband have done so much for our world. You can't imagine how grateful we've been, and you can't imagine how much he's missed.'
She smiled, then, a smile that was neither ingratiating nor patronising to the old. It was, Hugo thought, just right. 'I guess we all have to learn to cope with loss,' she said. She glanced fleetingly at her sister and an expression passed between them Hugo didn't have a hope of understanding. 'It never stops being gut-wrenching, but maybe we need to give the occasional rock and camel a chance.'
She glanced out of the window and suddenly her smile returned in full. 'And speaking of camels Look!'
And out of the window four wild camels were loping along, keeping pace with the train.
Camels had been brought to Australia in the nineteenth century. Made unnecessary now by modern transport, they'd run wild and thrived in places where no other animal could survive.
'They're amazing,' Amy breathed as she watched the wild young camels race.
'Fantastic,' Maudie agreed, finally caught by the camels she'd scorned.
'They have camel races at Alice Springs,' Amy said regretfully. 'But there are no races while we're there. Rachel says we'll look at rocks instead.'
This was said with such a tone of martyrdom that Maudie laughed, and Rachel laughedand even Hugo found himself smiling.
And then he thought: a ballet dancer who made them all smile. Uh oh.
Ballet was Maudie's passion. At six feet in her rather substantial bare feet, Maudie could never, ever, have been a ballet dancer, but she adored it and she had a permanent booking for most major Australian performances.
As a kid, in the many times his father had offloaded him onto Maudie, she'd often taken Hugo with her.
He glanced across at Amy now and he thought: had this woman been one of those sylphlike figures whose movements on the stage were pure grace and beauty?
The last ballet he'd been to was when he'd been about sixteen. He'd been traumatised by the latest of his father's public scandals. His grandparents were the centre of media attention and, in typical teenage fashion, he'd decided every eye in the theatre was on him. He'd watched, sullen and uncooperative, but, despite himself, he'd found himself caught. He'd thought then, fleetingly, he knew why his grandmother loved it.
But, after that, he'd never been back. Real men didn't go to the ballet, especially men headed for the army, for the powerful SWAT team, for action in Iraq, Afghanistan, so many of the world's trouble spots.
Now, at thirty-seven, he was seeing a faint echo of a world he'd last seen twenty years ago.
Amy was talking to his grandmother as if she was already a friend. She'd figured just the right note. They shared sadness, yet both were moving on.
The sisterRachel?seemed a shadow on the periphery, polite but looking as if she'd love to retreat to her stones.
The impression of illness intensified.
He'd like to know these women's stories.
No. No, he wouldn't. He wanted to get this journey over with, get his grandmother cheered up and get back to his unit. His grandmother was doing everything she could to draw him into her world, and he would not be drawn.
Except the appalling woman they'd met at lunch had been right. Maybe he had no choice.
The camels won. They upped the pace, swept forward until they were a carriage ahead and then veered away, triumphant.
'I'm guessing they race every train,' Amy said, and she suddenly sounded wistful. 'Don't they look wonderful? Don't they look free?'
'They're young,' Maudie said, and the wistfulness was in her voice as well. 'They'll get aching legs soon enough.'
'Yep, any minute now they'll be taking anti-inflammatories and heating wheat bags to take to bed at night,' Amy said, and Maudie chuckledand Hugo glanced at Amy and thought: there's pain behind those words. Pain and courage.
He did not want to be interested in a woman on a train.
Rachel was back in her book.
Amy was slipping steak into her purse.
Amy was what?
He must have imagined it.
He hadn't imagined it. She'd sliced a sliver, then dropped her hand below the table to where her purse lay on her knee. When she'd raised her fork the steak was gone.
She cut another sliver and ate it, just like normal.
The waiter appeared to take Maudie and Hugo's order. They were a course behind the girls. They could watch.
Rachel read. Amy and Maudie chatted.
A steak sliver raised to Amy's lips. Another.
Another went below the table and disappeared.
Hugo was trained to notice small details. Suspicions. Anything out of the ordinary could mean trouble. As tiny a detail as a robe worn slightly askew, or a guy smiling more widely than appropriate meant immediate caution.
He wasn't in a war zone now. He could hardly drag Amy's hand up with the offending steak and say, Explain yourself.
Another sliver dropped purse-wards. She glanced up and met his gaze. Their eyes locked.
She knew he'd seen.
She didn't say a word but there was a message in those clear brown eyes.
Please don't say anything. This is important. Please
Curiouser and curiouser. A steak-smuggling, rock-reading ballet dancer.
Okay, he wasn't interested in women, at least not when he was around Maudie, but this was a mystery and maybe he could enjoy challenge without involvement.
His steak came. His grandmother had ordered fish. In the corner, Rachel had sent her quiche back uneaten.
On impulse, he cut a couple of slivers from the corner of his steak, dropped them into his napkinthen passed it under the table to Amy.
His fingers touched her knee. She met his gaze, startled. His gaze locked, held; a silent message passed between them.
She dropped her hand under the table and found his.
The napkin passed between them and her eyes widened.
'Is anything wrong?' Maudie demanded, her sharp eyes missing little but not seeing the exchange. Only Amy's stillness.
'I. no,' Amy managed. 'Do you like your fish?' 'It's excellent,' Maudie said. 'Though the servings are too big. They always are.'
'But you finished all your steak, Miss Cotton,' Hugo said gravely.
'Amy,' she said, sounding distracted.
'Amy,' he said, liking the sound of it. 'I'm finishing mine, too. It's a long time till breakfast. They should provide midnight snacks. Maybe a steak sandwich in the small hours? I wonder if they have spare bread?'
She glared at him. His lips twitched. He had a mystery here and, despite his vow to stay uninvolved he sat back and started to enjoy himself.
'I've lost my napkin,' he told the waiter as he went past. 'Could I have another, please?'