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Tilly loved Fridays. A leisurely walk down the hill from the hospital after her last shift before days off, that first salty sniff of the ocean at the end of Hill Street, and the bonus of Mrs Bennett, immaculately made up on her front porch as she waited for her girlfriends to arrive for Friday afternoon tea.
Tilly adored Mrs Bennett and her friends. Once famous sopranos in chic dresses, designer shoes and such lovely smiles, these ladies made Tilly believe in life getting better and better.
And they never mentioned men. She really liked that.
She couldn't wait to lift her window at the back of the house and hear the soaring notes of Verdi and Puccini from the porch at the back of Mrs Bennett's houseit always made her smile.
Tilly wondered if Mrs Bennett pulled her window shut when Tilly and her friends had their more rowdy parties.
Maybe she was strange to prefer the company of older ladies to boys her own age but risking your heart to a fickle man in the scramble to find 'the one' seemed much more insane to Tilly. Of course, she'd been a slow learner with two bad experiences in twelve months until Ruby had pointed out her 'pattern of disaster'.
Older men. She'd always been attracted by the big boys in senior school while she'd been a junior, then those in university while she'd been a senior, and now those who were out of their twenties when she'd just reached them. Searching for approval from the father she'd never known perhaps? That's what Ruby said.
Tilly sighed. Boys her age just seemed a little insubstantial. She would just stay away from them completely.
The waft of real scones and Mrs B.'s Sydney Royal Easter Show winning marble cake dissipated the tendrils of regret and Tilly shook herself. It was Friday. Yay!
'Afternoon, Mrs B.,' Tilly called as she approached.
'Matilda. lovely to see you.'
'Is that window sticking again?' Tilly drew level and Mrs Bennett smiled. 'No. I think you've cured it this time, dear. There's another one just starting to squeak and I'll let you know when it gets bad.'
More practice. Excellent. Tilly's last infatuation had been with a mature carpenter who'd turned out to be a secretly engaged control freak who liked to keep several women dancing off the end of his workman's belt. She was determined to never need his skills again. Just like the interior decorator who'd had so many rules and
preferences on her behaviour and had then turned out to be married.
'No problem.' Tilly glanced up at the two bay windows, one each side of the veranda, and noted the one only a quarter pushed up. 'Girls coming soon?'
Mrs Bennett glanced at her watch. 'Any time now. I'll save you a scone.'
'Say hello for me.' Tilly swung open her gate and mounted the tiled steps. Home. And not a man in sight. Good.
Seventy-One Hill Street stood tall and thin with a decrepit Gothic air in need of even more TLC than Mrs Bennett's house.
Those tall eaves, all four bedrooms at the back upstairs and the main bedroom downstairs that belonged to the absent owner, could do with a good strip and paint. Tilly decided she might have a go in her holidays.
It was a real party house. The three other girls were the sisters Tilly had never had. She couldn't imagine life without their chaos and warmth and the fun they brought to out-of-work hours.
Tilly smiled to herself as she thought more about the girls. There was Ruby, a mental health nurse who didn't appear nearly as chaotic now she'd found Cort, a senior emergency registrar from the hospital they all worked at.
Tilly's need to provide a willing ear, and the occasional emergency alcohol, had decreased exponentially the longer Ruby and Cort had been together.
Ellie, an orphan, spent most of the week in sterile operating theatres, but still managed to regularly fall in and out of love, searching for Mr Right to be the father of her longed-for family.
While Jess, children's nurse at Eastern Beaches, broke her heart every time Ruby's gorgeous brother, and incidentally their landlord, flew in from Operation New Faces with a willowy brunette or blonde on his arm.
Funny how her flatmates gave her plenty of scope for that thwarted older-sister tendency she could finally admit she had.
Then there was her job. Tilly ran up the stairs and threw her bag on the purple quilt cover on her bed. Tilly loved being a midwife.
Women were incredible, babies so instinctually amazing, and she could mother the mothers to her heart's content while they mothered their babies.
That's what she told Mrs Bennett later in the afternoon. They were clearing up after the girls had gone. Tilly's singing lessons by osmosis seemed to be working and she and Mrs Bennett were trilling away in the kitchen when the conversation came around to men.
'To sing that aria you need to be able to sing the love.' Mrs Bennett never joked about her music.
Tilly sighed. 'Then I'll probably never be good at it.'
'Of course you will.' Mrs Bennett's finger pointed skywards to the future. 'One day you'll find your man. You can't go on forever being single.'
Tilly laughed. 'You are. You're happy.'
Mrs Bennett twinkled. 'I'm certainly content. But in a different way from when I was married to the love of my life.' She looked at Tilly. 'You can't miss out on that.'
Tilly shrugged. 'I always seem to go for the wrong guys. Seriously, I've nothing against men as friends but after the last two I guess I'm not really geared to be answerable to a man.'
Mrs Bennett fixed her with a stern look. 'They were too old for you, dear. And they lied.'
'You're right. That's what Ruby said. But look what falling for men does to my girlfriends. Even my mother was another casualty. I'm going to stay the sensible one cruising as a single woman for a few years. Travel the world. There's a lot I want to do and it's much less stressful.'
'Very wise,' said Mrs Bennett, and she smiled.
On Sunday morning, when Tilly caught a glimpse over the fence of a tall, black-haired stranger lurking around Mrs B.'s back window, her heart jumped at the recognition of danger.
She glanced back at her own house but the other girls were out and not due back for a while.
Her hand slid up to rest on her chest, ridiculous thought he'd hear her heartbeat, but for the moment it was up to hersomeone had to protect Mrs Bennett.
Dry mouthed, she glanced around for a weapon, something, anything for protection, and then she saw it. Tilly's fingers closed around the pointed red beanie hat of the small but stalwart garden gnome at her feet and she eased him out from the damp earth under the hydrangea. The cold concrete sat heavily in her hand.
She chewed her lip. She really didn't want to maim the man, just slow him down a bit so he couldn't get away before the police arrived. With her other hand she flipped her phone and dialled emergency. At least she had a back-up plan.
Mrs B.'s ground-floor window screeched in protest and the material of the man's T-shirt stretched across his broad back as he tried to ease the window up quietly. A tall, well-built man should be throwing bricks on a truck for a living, not trying to rob defenceless old ladies. Tilly refused to be distracted by the tug of nervous suggestion that flight might be a better option than fight, judging by the ripple of musculature under the thin fabric.
He was trying to get into the house and Mrs Bennett was in there. Tilly felt a swell of pure rage surge with a helpful dose of adrenalin and she heaved the gnome with a straight-arm throw over the fence towards the backs of his legs. The gnome flew horizontally like an avenging angel and took out both backs of his knees in one blow.
Because the burglar had stretched up, his legs were locked and the muscles contracted with the blow.
Tilly stifled a nervous laugh when Goliath sat awkwardly back on the wet grass on top of the gnome and swore loudly.
Great job, Tilly congratulated the gnome, and backed back around the side of her house out of sight as she flicked the damp earth off her hand. She couldn't help the big grin on her face and the hormones rushed around her body until she fanned her face with her phone for relief.
The police call centre chattered and her hand froze as she remembered. She brought the phone to her lips and murmured quietly. 'Yes, I'm Matilda McPherson. I'd like to report a burglar at 73 Hill Street, Coogee. Mrs Bennett's backyard.'
'What the hell do you think you're doing? I'm fixing the window, not breaking in.' Like an avenging archangel the man had found her and his dark blue eyes blazed. 'I'm her nephew.'
He reached his long arm out, snatched the phone, threw it on the ground and for one horrible moment Tilly thought he was going to stamp on it.
Instead he drew an enormous breath, which incidentally did amazing things to the ripples under the front of his T-shirt, and glared at her with the most virulent disgust and even loathing.
Shame, that, a tiny, impressed voice whispered as Tilly quaked just a little at his ferocity.
Now she could see his face it wasn't the face of a criminal. He was very angry but he wasn't going to physically assault her. She didn't know how she knew that but despite Tilly's brain chanting 'Good time to leave' in an insistent whisper, and despite the thumping in her chest that agreed in rhythmic beat with her brain, she couldn't allow him the satisfaction of thinking he intimidated her.
Before she could say anything he ground out, 'I should sue you for assault.'
Yep. Daunting up close, especially with steam coming out of his ears, and Tilly blinked as she rallied. Maybe it was sensible to leave. 'Assault? A little woman like me? With a gnome?'
She tossed her hair to disguise the tensing of her muscles as she prepared to fly. 'Should look good in the local newspaper. Maybe they'll take your picture with the weapon?'
She watched with interest as his mouth thinned might have been a better idea to keep her smart mouth closedand then the moment when she was about to run was lost when Mrs Bennett poked her head over the low fence. 'Ah. Children, I see you've met.'
Mrs B. smiled beatifically as she came around the corner. She carried the gnome close to her chest and handed it gently, like a tiny baby, to Tilly.
'Look who came to visit at my house,' she said just as a siren began to wail in the distance.
Tilly glanced at the man's face. Apparently the siren just topped off his day.
By the time the police sergeant had laughed his way back to his patrol car Marcus was considering climbing back upstairs to his bed and pulling the lavender-scented sheets over his head to start the day again.
Instead he closed his eyes. Mainly because it removed the smart-mouthed redhead from his sight before he strangled her. From the fond look on his aunt's face the redhead was clearly a 'favourite person', and, to be fair, he supposed it was a good thing she looked out for Maurine.
'I am sorry.' The woman stood beside him on his aunt's veranda to see the policeman off. Didn't she have a home to go to?
He almost groaned. That's right. She did. And it was far too close to his at the moment.
To add insult to injury, she then said, 'Do your legs hurt?'
His lashes lifted only slightly as he glared at her. He forced the words past his teeth. 'I'm fine, thanks. If you'll excuse me.'
Marcus closed his eyes and sighed. If the rented flat fiasco hadn't happened, if the closest hotel hadn't been solidly booked for a week-long conference, if he didn't start work on Monday, if, if
He ground his teeth and then decided it indicated a lack of control. Marcus liked control, relished it, had seen what could happen when it was lost, and he needed control to breathe.
He wasn't sure how he and his aunt would rub together, but if he remembered correctly from that one Christmas after his sister had died Aunt Maurine had been a safe haven in a sad world.
It would only be a week or two until he found a new flat. He'd buy one if he had to. Control. He rubbed his chin. Hmm. In fact, he liked that idea. Nobody could interfere with his plans then.