THE SOLDIER’S GIRL rating v. sensual contemp.
BOOK AVAILABLE http://www.champagnebooks.com/
TRAILER can be seen at http://www.champagnebooks.com/
Wakefulness brought realisation and with it, the grim reality that today was ‘make or break’ time.
Katherine Morgan rose and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. On silent bare feet, she padded across the bedside carpet and polished wooden floor to the window. She flung it wide to the sweet morning air of Dongala and breathed in its purity. The small rural town in Victoria, with its green, gently sloping hills, was located at the very bottom edge of Australia. The earthy smell of freshly turned soil, abundant-flowing rivers, sheep, dairy cattle and vast fields of waving grain; these were things that made her hometown so special. But today, her spirits sagged depressingly; the decision she had to make would influence the rest of her life and her stomach clutched in cold anticipation. If only she’d left things as they were, then, life would still be simple and uncomplicated.
The five councillors from the Dongala City Council, gathered at the apron of the dirt airstrip. Kate stood with the crowd gathered in the small building that served as an airport lounge. There was an atmosphere of festivity as the buzz of chatter mingled with the sounds from outside where the school band practiced with brash notes on bagpipes and drums. Frank Davis, Dongala’s sole but proud contribution to Australia’s efforts in the Iraq war, was coming home on leave today.
In all the hustle and bustle, Kate spotted Bryce Collard and her heart leapt until reality smacked her flat in the face. She watched him stop to talk to people. Well-liked, they were glad to see him, and with eager smiles on their faces, they clapped him on the back in affection.
She willed herself to remain calm despite her foolishly racing heart. After last night she must not show her emotions, not ever again. She hung back in the area of the airport lounge that was marked OFFICE and though she was making every effort to put the final touches to the “welcome home” banner she’d been working on, her trembling fingers hampered her to the point of being a fumbling mess.
Funny, how things had just happened; Bryce was in Dongala, too. He and Frank had been best mates since their school days and it was fitting that he be here on this special occasion.
“Been a long time since the boys first went away.”
Kate turned. It was Mr. Collard, Bryce’s father. Stooped and gaunt after his long bouts of illness, he leaned on the work-bench she was working at.
“Hello Mr. Collard, nice to see you out and about,” Kate smiled.
Mr. Collard turned and, better to brace himself, rested his behind against the bench. “Bryce, my dear boy, insisted I come and join in the celebration.”
“Yes. Ten years in fact,” Kate continued. “Soon after they left high school.”
“Aye, Kate. Both lads set off to carve out the careers they aspired to. Barely twenty at the time. Bryce gone off to study medicine in Melbourne and then, to specialise in paediatrics in America.”
Kate gave him a glance as he reminisced quietly, but his tone and eyes bursting with pride.
He shook his head. “That long time gone, it knocked me up some, I can tell you,” he sighed. “Still, I admire his commitment, and I’m proud of him.”
Kate studied the drawn and saddened face. Everybody knew only too well how close father and son had been, and how Bryce leaving home had devastated his father.
“And Frank gone off to join the army,” her voice took on a keen edge, in the hope of changing the subject and softening the hurt in his eyes. But bar a faint smile in politeness, she knew it hadn’t worked.
No. She too, still recalled that time with a heavy heart. From as far back as she could remember she’d worshipped Bryce and still did, but he’d never shown any more than a ‘shared-childhood’ interest in her. He thought of nothing but being a doctor. His obsession was not for fame or money but to bring health to the indigenous children in Northern Australia. Now he was back, albeit one of his rare visits, with his father the only reason. He hadn’t changed much. Except for the tan derived from the tropical Queensland sun, and it only served to enhance his masculinity. Tall and broad-shouldered, with deep-blue, smiling eyes that matched the smile on his lips, gave him the kind of sensuality that women found hard to resist. And as he’d always done, he wore it all with such ease, as though he wasn’t even aware of how his maleness could have had such a devastating effect on the female gender.
Kate risked another glance at Bryce. He’d stopped to talk to one of the councillors and was now coming toward her. The very sight of him brought back that old longing that refused to be extinguished. His dark, short-clipped hair revealing his small well-shaped ears and the turn of that handsome jaw was held in a strong and determined line. Bryce was a stunning contrast to Frank’s boyish good looks. A blast of red hair and brown eyes with pinpoints of mischief dancing in them. But in Bryce’s long absences it was the gregarious Frank who displayed more than a platonic keenness in her and gradually he’d helped her heal from the loss of Bryce, at least, cushion its sharpness, and they’d started going together.
“Well, Frank’s plane is due, so, I’ll go wait outside with the others,” Mr. Collard said, standing up and dusting off the seat of his pants. “Come visit some time Kate, it would be lovely to see you.”
“Thank you, I’d love that,” she smiled and watched him walk away, then made another assault on the last of the gold cords she was working with.
She stiffened at the sound of that deep clear voice. She looked up, way up, and into that brilliant smile.
“Bryce,” she responded quietly, her voice barely a quiver riding up from a throat that was so stricken with mixed feelings, it caught and choked.
Bryce studied her face. He understood how she felt about the whole sorry situation, because he’d been there with her, too. A short but deeply poignant situation, that didn’t die just because they had ended it the night before.
“The banner done?” he said, idly as though that was all that mattered, while his gut ached as if he’d been hit hard, right in the solar-plexus. “I was told to collect it from here. I wasn’t aware that you—”
Still smarting from their long and painful parting of the night before, she returned sharply. “Yes, I’m the one getting the thing together.” She could hide her anger and pain from him but not her passion and if she didn’t watch out, it would be her undoing, so, she was glad of the moment they snatched to lapse into silent reflection, each of their own hurt.
To indulge his long-denied love for this woman who’d always tortured him with her gentle charm. The innocence of it. Every move she made, the way she walked, the smoky tone of her voice. The delicate bone structure of her face, the evocative aroma of her hair and the breath-taking seduction of breasts, now truly a woman’s, thrusting erotically against the soft silk of her blouse. He gave a short laugh that he hoped would disguise his own painful emotions. “Seems like only yesterday that we were all still at school, and look at Frank now. A war hero,” he remarked, with naked pride in his old friend.
Kate knew he was trying to keep the conversation on a safe level but it wasn’t that easy for her. “Frank and you were good mates,” she said, a little too brightly. “You still are!” she plunged on, with unexpected vehemence.
Bryce swallowed hard, he knew what she was getting at but he wouldn’t rise to it. He’d just let the ensuing pause linger without further comment that he knew, would only erupt into a heart-breaking scene.
Kate worked at the banner a little more furiously. No, he wasn’t going to let anything destroy that mate-ship and she realised the thought of it was stirring her to fury born of frustration. She had to stay calm and to achieve that, she might as well talk.
“All those years ago, Frank became restless after you left. That’s why he joined the army. Did he ever tell you? He wanted to serve his country. Do something worthwhile. Like you. You two always stuck up for each other—” she broke off, and the piteous way she’d strung all those sentences together, brought Bryce close to breaking his resolve to let her go from his life.
“You were precious to us too. Five years younger, we always looked out for you.”
Precious? A moment of hope soared in her heart then it came crashing down again, like a dying man in a desert who thinks he’s seen water. No. It wasn’t the ‘precious’ she yearned for. “How could I forget?” she said, brushing aside her disappointment. “The way you sailed into that big Buckley boy who tried to grab me at the high school party…”
Bryce’s arms ached at his sides, he was hardly able to restrain his desire to drag her into his embrace, press her to his heart and hold her there. Her gaze fused with his and he was on a collision of guilt and desire. “I couldn’t stand anyone else even touching you,” he said, his voice unusually rough.
“Those were good days,” Kate smiled, pretending she didn’t care. “Along with the other kids we’d all go swimming and fishing together and those football games we’d cheer you and Frank on until we were hoarse.”
His presence was elating her and she felt the stir of stimulation, a gentle pulse within the sensitive part below her belly, so heady and warm. She cast her eyes down. She had to refrain from the bittersweet pleasure of brushing against him, as he stood not two feet away. “Bryce, I loved you even then. Didn’t you know?” she said, her eyes slowly lifting to meet his, and in their bleakness, she saw his bared soul. It made her want to cry.
Bryce bit on his bottom lip. Lying to her would solve nothing. He might just as well tell her the truth.
“I loved you Kate, I still do.”
Kate snapped her glance away. “Got a funny way of showing it,” she said, brusquely. She knew if she didn’t, her voice would tremble and he’d know how she was hurting. She didn’t want that. She kept working, harder than she needed to, her fingers flying and finally, the last few inches of gold cord were set in place and knotted.
“Take it and go,” she said, thrusting the banner rudely at him as though she couldn’t wait for him to be gone. But oh, God, she ached for him to hold her, even just to touch her—but the mere brush of his fingers against hers, as he took the banner, made her shiver, and that would have to suffice.
“Kate,” he pleaded. “Try to be happy.”
A frown marred her smooth forehead and she snapped. “Happy? Did I hear you say ‘happy’?”
He set the banner aside and reached out. With a firm grip of her shoulders he pulled her forward and lifted her chin up to his face. He had no desire to inflict more wounds on her. Breaking up something that hadn’t even had a chance to begin—it was already tearing them both apart. “Katie, I’ve told you my darling, how things are…”
She twisted and jerked, trying to break away from those steel-like fingers.
“How dare you call me Katie, as if you still cared, and don’t call me darling either, you don’t love me. You never did. That’s why you went away the first time, ten years go and barely kept in touch.”
“I came back during holidays.”
“We had some good times…”
“Good times? Yes, until you went to America, and then… then just silence… I never heard from you Bryce…” she sobbed. “I waited for you for so long…”
“You know why I couldn’t keep contact.”
Kate used the heel of her palm to swipe the hot tears that stung her eyes. “Too much to do, you had to study too hard, what else?” Her jealous rage blazed her to fury. “Another girl?” Her eyes flared as the words ripped from her soul. “A sweet American chick?”
She was beautiful in her rage and it made his gut tighten, his pulse quicken, destroying the very fibre of his resolve. “For God’s sake, you know better than that.”
“Then why didn’t you ever tell me, ask me to wait, anything to show you cared? “
“Kate! We’ve been through all that, last night.”
“So, we’ll go though it again.”
“Oh, Kate, I did tell you. I told you, long ago. I loved you, but my career would not take the stress of a marriage.” The silence was electric as she heard again, the words she’d hoped would wear thin over time and he’d realise that it was her who mattered more than his career. But she was wrong. His voice grew low and gentle. “Once I left here, Kate, I left everything behind.”
He heard the little choke in her throat and it tore him apart. He stood motionless, until the hollow sensation he felt in his chest made him draw a deep breath. “Kate…” he sighed, his gaze deep and penetrating but she swung away.
“Listen!” His voice was firm as was the grip of his fingers on her arms.
“Damn it, Kate. Hold still and listen!” he snapped, his tone quieting her. She caught his stare and she was held, fixed, her eyes unable to move from his commanding gaze. “Committing to a relationship might have cost me my degree. I couldn’t afford distraction. And you were one hell of a distraction.”
“And now, Doctor Collard,” she emphasized with sarcasm, “now, that you have your degree and even been practicing for some time, you’ve achieved all you set out to do but you still reject me. Why did you come back? I can’t believe it was only because of your father. Wasn’t it me, too? Admit it Bryce. You know we are in love. Deep down, you know we always have been. Why do you want to deny it?”
Bryce had no way of hiding the raw look in his eyes it was there for her to see. “I don’t. God knows how much I love you.”
“You love me but you don’t want me. Just a little interlude these past two weeks making sure you fill in your time before going back—“
“What?” His face went slack with disbelief. “Is that what you think?” Horrified, he stared at her for what seemed like forever and she shifted uncomfortably, her eyes fixed with that unshakable gaze.
He longed to tell her he wanted her beneath him, his fantasy sweeping him away on an intoxicating experience. Tell her how crazy he was for her, how he ached to caress her, to pull her legs to him, part her thighs and drive into her with every urge that obsessed him, every act of carnal love. That unique something kept in reserve for that one special woman. His voice was raw. “That’s not true Kate, and you know damn well that it’s not. Don’t you understand? It’s not just my work. It’s Frank… I can’t betray Frank. I told you that last night. He’s my oldest and best mate and you are his girl, you’re getting engaged to him on this leave. How can I just butt in and steal you from him?”
Kate drew in a sharp breath and her eyes swept past him down to the ground. His words were like a bucket of ice water in her face. She knew he was right but there was nothing she could say. She felt cheated, defeated and all she could do was slump helplessly against him. No. They couldn’t betray Frank. It all hurt so much until she let out that sob she was trying so desperately to hold. “So, you’ve been fooling me, over these past weeks. A little fun to pass the time in Dongala, is that it?”
“No Kate. Don’t keep saying things like that. All the years of pent-up emotions just had to break sometime. Seeing you day after day, first meeting by accident, then coffee at the café, chatting about old times together, how could it not? I was going crazy with hunger for you.”
A pang of guilt struck at Kate. In her desperation to flesh out what Bryce really felt, she’d been the one to initiate their meetings. She had to know before he went away again. In her desperation, she’d led him on, all during these two weeks. Strolls in the park, coffee at the café. Even making sure that they had in, his favourite cake—Battenberg. Any little thing to remind him of old times and lure him, and now, now things were even worse than ever before.
“And so, now you’ll go back to your remote bush clinic,” she said softly, in a manner and tone that spelled resignation. “I don’t come into your scheme of things. I never have done.”
“It’s hard enough, Kate, don’t make it worse for either of us.”
Her eyes still implored, even now at this last moment. “Bry,” she cajoled, “we could tell him the truth and then go away together.”
“And break his heart? A man who has to face guns and bombs and sneaking marauders? His life always on the line? Should I be taking his girl, too?” He searched her face and considered his question. “He has said he intends asking you to get engaged this leave?”
She nodded. “Told you last night.”
Kate sought his eyes and pinned them with her own agonizing gaze. “Noble gesture, not breaking Frank’s heart. And what about my heart, Bryce? Your heart? The only reason this situation exists at all is because you made no commitments and I thought I could never have you, so when Frank showed he cared...” She twisted her hands in frustration and a very long silence spun out until she spoke tiredly, and with a kind of submission. “He wanted me and you didn’t.”
“So, you took up with him.” It was more of a statement than an accusation.
“Of course,” she said, stiffly. “Did you expect that I should hang about forever waiting for you?” Anyway, it’s too late. There’s too much between us now, I guess. It’s mum, too. She needs care after her heart-attack, so there’s that to be considered as well.”
“Yes, I guess there is that. She took your dad’s death pretty hard.”
Kate nodded. “And, I can’t just dump her or hand her over to her sister. I love her too much. In any case, Aunt Mae lives in Darwin, too far to drag her away from all she knows…”
“Yes. I realise that,” he said, and his frustration was so strong in his voice it broke with the strain of it.
Kate couldn’t hold back her grief anymore. She tried desperately to steady her trembling lip but with little success, and tears surfaced, rivulets trickling down her face. Bryce caught her up in his arms, smoothing her hair over and over. That beautiful mass of sunshiny-gold, still unchanged since she was a little girl who followed him around everywhere and he, always glad to see her tagging along. “Kate, please don’t cry.”
“Why did it all happen this way, Bryce? Why have we been brought together at all if fate decrees otherwise?”
Pain and disappointment fused and emerged from some secret depth of him as though the enormity of what he’d left undone, until it was too late, now tore him apart. “I don’t know, Kate. All I know is that you’re sweet and sensitive, too sweet and sensitive to be hurt any more.”
“You want me to forget you, but I never will. I’ll learn to love Frank. He’s a decent man and cares a lot for me too, but no man will ever replace you Bryce, not ever. When you are alone at night with your thoughts and memories, remember that, and how you hurt me.”
“As much as I will be remembering the woman I could have had as my wife, but whom I let slip away, and she now belongs to my best friend.” The thick husky quality of his voice was the product of his agony, the syllables shaking on his breath, each drenched in its own pain.
Kate hated the way Bryce could make her feel and hated herself for being unable to take that burning ache for him and turn it into hate. Overwhelmed by the hurt she felt, another sob broke from her.
“Hush, Kate,” he soothed, “please don’t cry.” Still stroking her hair he murmured little tender things in her ear until her sobbing subsided to tiny sharp in-takes of breath. Bryce framed her face in his hands, sweet and childlike in its purity, it hurt when he saw her pretty mouth tremble and tears shimmering in those appealing grey eyes that had always tugged at his heart. His thumbs trailed the dampness all the way down her cheeks to her moist mouth and gently snagging her lower lip, he kissed between her teeth and the soft flesh within. “Oh, Kate, if only—”
“If only,” she murmured, against the warmth of his mouth, shaping the soft contours of her body to fit into the hard firm lines of his. She nuzzled into his chest quivering with the fire he was igniting within her and growing wet. She grazed her fingers down his chest and the side of his pectoral muscle. It flexed at her touch and she curled her fingers in the crop of chest hair. “You’re beautiful, so beautiful. I love you, Bry,” she breathed, almost to herself. But still smouldering with desire, reluctantly, she pulled gently, away. “Yes. The world is full of ‘if onlys’, Bryce. Pity they come when it’s too late.”
He stared, dumbfounded. Whispered words that delivered a world of impact on him and when he heard the muffled tone of his mobile phone, instinctively, without much interest, he lifted it from his back pocket.
“Doctor Bryce Col…”
Kate watched his face become grave as his sentence slid away. “Hell! That bad? Isn’t Tom there? How about Jimmy?”
His face clouded as he picked up Kate’s questioning gaze. His arm went out and drew her back into him. “Yes,” he spoke against the mobile. “I’ll be back—yes!” he said, with a good measure of impatience. “I’ve told you, I’ll be back. Keep him cool and comfortable…Yes. Get the flying doctor, if necessary.” Another silence spun out and then he switched the small machine off with concern knitting his eyebrows.
Kate eased away as she spoke, studying his face. “News from the clinic?”
“A little boy I was treating.” The eyebrows relaxed but lines of concern still etched his face. “He’s taken a turn for the worse.”
“And nobody else is available, is there, Bryce? You must go…” The words were sarcastic but without the malice. She saw in his face the agony of a bitter decision merge with concern as he replied.
The work-bench lent support for Kate to rest on as she felt her behind soft against its surface. Her gaze travelled to the floor and her shoes seemed to take on new interest. She waved a foot absently, the ache in her heart a familiar one. She knew what would be the outcome of that phone call—she’d always known. “Well, that just about wraps it up then, for you and me.” The ghost of pain brushed across her face and released regret, its usual companion, into her eyes. “It seems impossible that we can have any future together.”
Bryce captured her gaze, his eyes seeking understanding. “Kate they depend on me…” He stopped as though in considered thought and a flutter of hope rose in her heart. “Hell, Kate, even that, that means so much to me, I’d give up for you, if it came to the push…but…”
The half-spoken sentence hung in the air and Kate knew from the look in his eyes that her moment of elation was about to crash—she was beaten. In a quiet voice she finished his sentence for him. “But, nothing will induce you to betray your best mate…”
The plane arrived a half-hour later and Kate watched it land, taxi along the runway, crawling slowly, to a stop. The banner was up with its gold-lettered WELCOME HOME FRANK aimlessly flowing back and forth in the sluggish wind. In moments the door of the plane swung open and right on queue, the school band exploded into Waltzing Matilda.
Frank, the hero from the Iraq war made his appearance at the top of the steps and Kate’s heart dropped to her toes.
Excerpt 2 THE SOLDIER’S GIRL
Bryce shivered and pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck. “You can say that again.”
The pilot grinned. “Well apart from that, nothing much has changed in Dongala,” he said. Bryce returned his smile and moved on toward the gateway.
He wasn’t thinking of the changes in Dongala, or its weather, his mind was focused on Kate.
Since the last time he’d been here and Frank’s homecoming from Iraq, he’d had no contact with Kate, but he could never completely erase her from his mind. There was always something that kept the thread of memory burning and alive. That picture of her when they’d been fishing and she was barely twelve years old. He had no idea why he still carried it in his wallet, nor why he’d never been able to sling the picture out. He had others of Kate. Group photographs as she’d matured to young womanhood, but something in this old photograph seemed always to haunt him. Something in the way she was looking up at him. The pleading in her face as though she needed him to say something that would take her pain away. The way she cuddled lovingly against his arm. Why hadn’t he noticed? Why had he always dismissed her affection as some childish ploy for his attention? Why did he see it only now? A tender love rejected and so painfully held within her, while his obsession for his work and loyalty to his friend had consumed him. Bryce walked the short distance from the airstrip to the town centre and from there he intended to just keep going on home.
There was nobody to meet him as he hadn’t told his parents that he was coming for this one last visit before heading to an even more remote location. This time it was in the northernmost part of the Kimberley region of Western Australia as head of the health unit. He thought of the hope his father had held that he’d come back to Dongala to stay. But now he was heading even further away, and though his father and mother were aware of it, face-to-face was a different matter. He knew he’d hate the underlying look of pain he’d see in his father’s eyes. The stalwart man, who despite his grief at losing his son to medicine and distant places never reproached him, rather always encouraged him. Bryce felt the stab of pain in his heart. Though he didn’t come home often, he always held in his heart, the wonderful times he’d spent in company with his father.
Bryce slung his back-pack over his shoulder and hitched it across to hook his other arm through. Deep in thought and head down, he sauntered along the familiar road through town, now and again responding to waves of welcome and shouts in greeting, until he reached the end and was passing the pub.
“Bryce,” called a familiar voice. His head shot up and Bryce turned to peer into the smoky dimness of the bar and there was Frank making his way toward him. Once more they slapped backs and laughed their greetings. “How’re you going mate?” they each cried out in unison and before he knew it, Frank in his eagerness, had Bryce by the arm.
“Have a beer before you head off,” he insisted, dragging Bryce into the pub.
“This early, Frank?” Bryce grinned, taking in the few diehard drinkers crouching over their drinks.
“It’s 4 o’clock,” he said taking a glance at his watch. “The sun’s at the yardarm, well near enough. Gets dark earlier in winter,” he laughed. “Besides, I’m celebrating. Haven’t you heard? Kate and I are getting married day after tomorrow. You’re just in time for the wedding, pal. Did you know?”
Excerpt 3 THE SOLDIER’S GIRL
Bryce turned to follow Kate. Stepping outside, he caught sight of her running along the gravelled path and on into the side garden. “Kate.” His voice was loud and clear but her slender figure kept right on.
She swung into the tiny side garden, its bushes and potted plants had become her refuge, along with the shady mauve canopy of the jacaranda. This little corner was somehow, magical, a sudden calm absorbing all those who entered its gracious portals. She slipped behind the gigantic ferns, but too late, Bryce was gaining on her.
She started to run on but stopped long enough to glance over her shoulder.
“If you go away again, I won’t forgive you.”
In a couple of strides he caught up with her and swung her round to face him. In the soft light of the ornamental lamppost, her eyes blazed like live coals in her pale, grief-stricken face. “I’ll never forgive you, Bryce. Haven’t you done enough? I swear, Bryce, you leave me again and I’ll never forgive you for the rest of my life.”
“Kate,” he swooned as he cradled her in his arms and uncontrollable, hysterical sobs wracked her small slender body stirring a brew of love, regret and pain, systematically, ripping him apart and torturing his soul.
“All you say is false, Bryce. Only your indifference is genuine.”
“Dear heart,” he murmured, his voice reflecting his heartbreak. He didn’t know what he could say to soothe the pain he knew was the core of her raging outburst and that terrible hole he felt in his own heart. Oh, God, would they ever find a way through this?
Presented by ROMONA HILLIGER ~ author of THE SOLDIER’S GIRL
TRAILER AT AUTHOR WEBSITE. www.thewaterfront.net.au/romona and
Can also be seen at PUBLSIHER WEBSITE. www.champagne.books.com
THE SOLDIER’S GIRL rating v. sensual contemp.