“I’m sorry Melly, honestly! It’s been a long hard week and I’m exhausted.” Leila apologised after turning down Melanie’s invitation to dinner.
“Oh, come on Leila – I know it’s short notice but Peter only gave me a couple of hours’ warning. I wouldn’t insist except you are my best friend and it is important to Peter,” Melanie pleaded. “I really need you, Leila: you know I’d rather die than try and converse with a perfect stranger.”
And that, Leila thought to herself, was not the whole truth, but in the end she gave in as she always did when Melanie asked for a favour. This time she believed Melanie when she swore she had no matchmaking ideas in her head and that she knew absolutely nothing about the man Peter had asked to dinner.
In the past twelve months, Melly had introduced her to a succession of young and often handsome lawyers, architects, engineers and company directors, as well as an assortment of other unattached men with socially acceptable occupations or family background.
Melly was an incurable snob which was her only failing but Leila loved her dearly in spite of it. Most of those Melly thought a suitable match for Leila were either stuffy and full of their own importance or just plain dull.
As she lay relaxing in the tub of perfumed bubbles, Leila thought of Melly’s efforts to marry her off. Why, she wondered, did Melanie think she was unhappy and lonely because she was single?
Why was she still single at thirty? Wasn’t it because she liked it that way? Indeed yes, she answered herself. It wasn’t that she hadn’t opportunities and there were occasions when she’d thought seriously about marriage. It was simply that she preferred her life to be uncomplicated and serene. A husband would mean an end to such tranquillity – wouldn’t it? It sure would, she told her image in the mirror as she wrapped her wet body in a bathsheet.
A while later, dressed in a slim fitting silk suit with a designer label, she arrived at Melly’s front door. She was ushered into the loungeroom where she found herself being introduced to someone who had once broken her heart. And, she observed, as he got to his feet offering a large, tanned hand, he still had the power to stop her breath in her throat.
“Leila St. Clair!” He exclaimed with genuine surprise.
Leila watched her small hand disappear and then looked up to smile faintly. “Hi, Matt.”
“Oh, you already know each other!” Melly exclaimed with wide eyes, “I didn’t know … you didn’t…” her voice trailed away as she looked helplessly at her husband, only to be silenced by the look of surprise on his face.
With a smile, Matt gave Leila back her hand. The skin still crinkled at the outer corners of his eyes but it was more weathered and the dark hair was greying at the temples. She blinked back into focus. “Oh..I’m sorry I…” she felt the warmth rising to her face and knew she was turning red. “It’s so unexpected, I …you haven’t changed Matt!” she managed to utter despite her discomfort.
“Well, you certainly have! I didn’t know you for a moment – you look superb.” He turned to Melanie and Peter who were still wearing looks of astonishment, “she was little more than a kid when I lived next door – a real tomboy, she was.”
“I was not!” she almost shouted, feeling the old hurt as if it was yesterday. “You just treated me like one – I was just the kid next door to you.”
“Now, now, children!” Peter chided with a chuckle. “Let’s not squabble – I would hate to stand you in a corner for the rest of the evening. Like a Martini, Leila?”
For the whole evening, Leila found herself slipping back down memory lane. Unexpected things triggered her memory – the way a lock of hair curled snugly behind his left ear lobs; the way he tilted his head back slightly when he laughed; the tiny scar….
She remembered how hurt she had been when he went off in his mate’s boat instead of coming to her birthday party. How crushed she felt when he broke their Saturday date in order to take Marilyn Turner to the theatre. “You’re a brick, Lee,” he told her, flicking her ponytail playfully. A brick, she thought bitterly, he didn’t give a minute’s consideration for her feelings. He couldn’t know her heart was breaking or hear her silent sobbing.
After dinner, when Leila helped to clear the table, Melanie took the opportunity to quiz her in the kitchen. “You are rather quiet tonight, darling,” she said, “you are feeling alright, aren’t you?”
“I’m fine, Melly. Just a bit weary, that’s all.” Leila answered.
“I think meeting your boy-next-door again has thrown you, darling,” Melanie ventured, “I’ve been watching both of you sneaking peeks at each other. Do I detect a certain….interest?”
“Oh stop it, Melanie. Stop trying to conjure up a romance. It’s just a bit strange meeting him out of the blue like this. I used to have a whopper of a crush on him back then.” She laughed softly. “He’s no doubt married with a couple of kids by now.”
“It will only take one well aimed question to establish his marital status, darling. I’ll …”
Leila didn’t wait to find out what Melanie intended. “I won’t stay for coffee, Melly – say goodnight to Peter for me and thanks for dinner.” She gave Melanie a quick peck on the cheek and hurried to the front door, collecting her bag and jacket from the stand in the hall as she passed.
When she parked her car in her own space in the unit’s carport she sat for a minute or two after switching off the ignition. She banged her fist on the wheel. “Oh damn, damn, damn ! You are such a fool, Leila, “ she told herself sternly, “ such a silly fool.”
Although she was a little unsettled for a few days, Leila succeeded in putting Matt Vance back into her past. At least, she thought she had until she looked up from her desk at Gibbs & Fyfe to find him standing at the counter.
It used to intrigue her how his face gave warning of an impending smile – his eyes crinkled slightly at the corners and the steel grey of the irises softened with a misty sparkle. He was about to smile now. She felt her heart flutter as it did all those years ago and she tried to look away. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Hello Matt, what can I do for you?”
“Well, it is your lunch hour in …” he checked his wrist watch, “in one minute fifteen seconds? Since you ran out on me the other night at Peter Ford-Draytons, I think you owe me. Lunch?”
He saw a flicker of doubt in her eyes and quickly added, “I’ll lend you my bike.” She bit her lip and let her gaze slip away. “My board?”
She began to laugh then and looked at him with dancing eyes. “You’ll have to do better than that, Matt. I’m a big girl now – maybe if you come up with a ticket to the ballet?”
“Done!” he grinned. “Hurry then, you are wasting precious minutes.”
They bought sandwiches and coffee in lidded polystyrene cups at the park kiosk; then they found an unoccupied bench under the spreading branches of an old Moreton Bay Fig. Seagulls flocked to beg; first one lone bird to which Leila threw a small crust, and almost before the morsel reached its recipient, there was a squabbling flock around them.
“Now you’ve done it,” Matt laughed. “I’ll bet they think you’re a soft touch.”
She tossed another crust and watched the flurry of birds descend upon it. “Remember the pelicans, Matt? I wonder what happened to Mr. Percival and that daffy one-eyed gull we used to feed.”
“Oh yes, I remember. It is all so vivid. Do you remember when you let the air out of my bike tyres and when you tossed the car keys out of the window? Do you remember me spending hours crawling around in the bulldust looking for them?” Matt finished off his coffee and stuffed the paper from his sandwich into the empty cup.
“Yes. I’ll bet you don’t remember why I did those awful things though. I’ll bet it didn’t occur to you that I was sick and tired of being taken for granted.” She crumpled up her sandwich paper, picked up her empty cup and went to the litter bin a few yards away.
He reached over her shoulder and dropped the coffee cup into the bin and then his hands were on her shoulders. He turned her to face him. “Give me the chance to make amends, Lee,” he plucked a twig from her hair, “I took longer to grow up; I need a chance to get to know you again. I have a feeling I’ve found something I’ve missed.”
Even before she allowed her eyes to meet his she knew he was going to kiss her and there was nothing she wanted to do about it. Her lips trembled under the warm, soft pressure of his. A mental picture flashed in her mind. A picture of him grinning at her, flicking her hair playfully, you’re a brick Lee …he was laughing.
“Do I get my chance?” he murmured against her lips.
“Maybe,” she whispered.
He kissed her again, a long tender caress. Suddenly she knew the girlish crush had long since turned to love. Meeting him again had rekindled the flame that had been burning quietly within her through the years. At the same time she realised her vulnerability and a shiver of fear ran through her with the memory of the old hurt.
In his eyes she read sincerity. She reached up and touched his face. “I gave up hoping you’d notice me, do you know that? And now, when you’ve finally done so, don’t think I will let you walk away without making up for all those years when you took me for granted!” She ran her fingers along the line of his cheekbone and down the jaw to his mouth where he caught her hand and kissed the fingertips.
“Oh no, Matt Vance – this time you won’t get away,” she laughingly threatened. Then her blue eyes widened, “you are still unattached, aren’t you?”
He kissed the tip of her nose. “Uh-uh; but not for long.”