“STELLA!” Mercy Adele was not auditioning or rehearsing for a part in A Streetcar Named Desire. “You’ll be late! Your alarm’s been going for ages!” she called.
Warm and comfy in her bed but not hard of hearing, Stella Freeman stirred. She had been floating; in a dream. Dancing, in fact, but dancing so joyfully, so filled with an inner peace that it had felt like floating. Her frilled dress, the colour of shimmering rubies, had fluttered and swirled around her legs as she turned this way and swayed that way. Her bangles tinkled softly as she held her arms in the air, forming graceful patterns with them as she danced.
Looking down at her feet she saw that they were bare, and covered with the dust of the brown earth beneath her. Her ankles, which were also bejewelled, jingled in time to the beats that flowed to Stella from an unseen source. It didn’t matter where the music was coming from. All that mattered was how it made Stella feel. She could not figure out how she felt so deeply connected with the earth and at the same time lost in the clouds, but the feeling was blissful.
In her sleepy haze she reached back and turned off the screeching alarm. If she could have she probably would have reached out and thumped her housemate too. On any other morning Stella would have heard Mercy’s words, as firm as they were, and she might have simply rolled over and curled into a tight ball beneath the doona. The foetal position always made her feel safe and secure.
Stella had yet to conquer her fear of early mornings. But she had to remind herself that she was not an abused housemaid anymore; she was done with being some rich bitch’s slave. Sunrise was no longer the prelude to a sixteen-hour day of taxing domestic duties and endless lists of tedious, menial tasks.
The ringing of her alarm no longer meant, “Get up, you lazy tart! Today’s breakfast menu is on the bench and you’d better have my eggs just right this time. And if I get down to the gym and find that you haven’t laid out my new sweatsuit and sneakers as and where I have instructed, you’ll sorely regret it.
My workout is thirty minutes exactly, as is my bath, so you’ll have ample time to get a load of hand washing done before you start on the breakfast. And when I say hand washing I mean hand washing. If my gorgeous garments go anywhere near that bloody washing machine I’ll- ”
No! Even as the images played back in full colour and volume in Stella’s mind she found it hard to believe that this had really been her life and not an excerpt out of a melodramatic tale from centuries past. She shoved the painful memories back into the deepest recesses of her mind, where she kept all her ghosts. Mornings meant none of that. Not anymore. Never again.
What this particular morning did mean, however, was that she really couldn’t afford to risk being fired for turning up late on the first day of her new job. Establishing financial independence was one of the first essential steps towards finally freeing herself of the binds of her past. With the debts she had to clear and the goals she wanted to achieve she needed to be earning money, and earning it quick smart.
Stella rubbed her eyes and groaned. After a minute or so she finally forced herself to sit up and swing her legs out of the snug bed. Knowing full well that she had overslept, she indulged in a long, gratifying stretch. As she did so a strange searing and prickling sensation rippled through her body, from the roots of her hair right to the tips of her toes. It whooshed through her like an electrified gust, leaving her tingling all over. Had she been asked to describe the feeling exactly she would not have been able to find the right words. Not because she lacked the vocabulary but because the feeling was one that could not be encapsulated in words.
When it struck her, that feeling, she knew immediately that somehow in some significant way, something in her life was going to change. She could feel it. Not in her bones, nor in her waters, but in some other elusive and nameless chamber of her being. It wasn’t just the new address and the new job. It was something more than that but she had no way of knowing what that might be. With that inspiring thought she had all the motivation she needed to get herself off the bed and into the bathroom for a quick shower.
Hot needles surged from the deluxe showerhead and nipped at Stella’s supple milk coffee skin, bringing the blood rushing to the surface. She turned a slow circle as she lathered, scrubbed and rinsed herself. She wondered what her skin would have to say about her too long, too hot showers in twenty years’ time. She knew it was no good for her. A shudder streaked down her spine when she thought about how the bad habit had begun. She didn’t have the water so hot and didn’t scrub herself so hard these days.
Not as hard as she did that night. The night she was admitted into hospital. That night she had scrubbed and scrubbed until her skin was raw. The soap and hot water had stung but they didn’t hurt her as much as Keith Vandynburg had. It wasn’t just the physical pain, it was also the pain of betrayal; the agony of the guilt and shame and abandonment. All of that hurt even more than the fall down the stairs and all the broken bones that came with that – care of Keith’s crazed wife, Deidra.
Eventually it registered that all the scouring in the world would not erase what Keith Vandynburg had done to her. It would not wash away those feelings. It would be a hard road to full recovery; a long lonely road that she would ultimately have to travel alone, but she simply had to believe that she would eventually get there.
With support and encouragement from her counsellor Stella held fast to her positive outlook. In her loneliest and most torturous moments her late mother came to her and covered her with the amazing warmth of her immortal love. Stella could never see her physical form but she felt her mother’s loving presence. Sometimes Stella would sit huddled in a corner of her room, feeling that it would be better to be dead, not only to be with her mother but also to be free from the pain. But in dreams her mother told her not to come. She promised Stella that a wonderful future awaited her, that if she just held on a little longer she would finally see the rainbow.
The long hot showers continued but as the months and years crawled by, the duration and temperature decreased. She had worked out a little trick that generally got her by. As she watched the sudsy water gurgle down the shower drain, she imagined her worries gurgling away with them. The ache in her soul had very slowly but surely eased over the years.
To make up for the tough treatment she put her young skin through she made it a habit to end all her showers with a blast of straight cold water. The cold jet blast worked wonders. It gave her circulation a turbo boost. It sent her heart racing with a strong, healthy thud, thud, thud. Her breath would catch, taking refuge in the back of her throat for some seconds before the involuntarily tautened muscles would finally relax and allow her to exhale; aah! The therapeutic exhalation flushed her out and left her feeling revitalized and renewed. She used the exhalation to blow the rest of worries away – the little lingering ones that hadn’t already been cast off down the drain. She felt cleansed not only externally but also internally. The technique seemed to work exceptionally well this morning. On this almost spiritual high, Stella stepped out of the shower and floated to her room.
As she wriggled into her underpants something caught her eye. It was her own reflection in the dresser mirror. Stella found herself gazing at it longer than usual, as though she were discovering it for the first time. She had not recently lost or gained weight, the underwear she had chosen that morning was nice but certainly not remarkable, so what was it that held her gaze for so long?
It was something she could feel more than see. It emanated from deep within and gave her body a sensuous glow. She felt she had momentarily stepped outside her body and was witnessing the radiance of her own aura. Her eyes, the colour of gold-sprinkled chestnuts, sparkled with vitality. Her senses were suddenly heightened. She could feel the blood flowing through her veins as her body and soul cried out in unison; Release me!
It had been nine years since Keith had attacked her. Since that time Stella had kept her body and her heart shut away under lock and key. It hadn’t made for a pleasant life but it was her only defence mechanism and she clung to it for dear life. She had found it difficult to believe in the old adage about time healing all wounds. It just didn’t seem possible. To her wounded soul it was inconceivable that a day would finally come when Stella Freeman would wake up feeling different. She didn’t ask for much, only that she could open her eyes and feel different – no longer apprehensive, no longer self-conscious, no longer distrusting. She wanted to feel strong and bold and beautiful. It was her right and nobody should be allowed to take that away from her. If only she had had the strength to scream those words into Keith Vandynburg’s face as he mauled her and breathed his alcohol-saturated breath all over her that night. But instead she had found herself paralysed with fear, unable to utter little beyond a whimper.
Could it be that this was the day, the day she thought would never come? Looking again at her reflection she noted that it radiated the affirmative. Within her heart there was a resonance of blossoming hope. From the very core of her came the rumbling of a ferocious hunger, the nature of which could not be satisfied by food.
Overcome by this strange sensation Stella felt the urge to reach up and run her fingers lightly over the landscape of her face. She let her fingers run down her neck, to the dip in her throat and down over her chest. Without faltering she cupped her own breasts. They were soft and full, easily filling her hands. Her hands then swept down the sides of her ribcage, tracing the lines of her slender waist, the slight round of her belly, and her curvaceous hips. Yes, this certainly was her own body – familiar yet so unfamiliar.
Casting her eyes towards her clock radio, Stella discovered to her dismay that she had allowed a good fifteen minutes to slip out from under her and the relaxing effects of the shower were instantly obliterated. Her attempts at getting ready for work were rapidly reduced to a twenty-minute flurry of disorganisation and confusion.
Normally she could negotiate her way around her bedroom, which was in a perpetual state of disarray, with her eyes closed. But this morning nothing was where it supposed to be. Where on earth was her Frizz-Ease hair mousse? What about that new pair of shoes she had bought on the weekend? And hadn’t she ironed a crisp white shirt last night? Or had she only thought about it and not…quite…gotten …around to actually doing it? The crinkled affair dangling miserably from the hanger on her wardrobe door gave her the answer. Clearly it had been the latter.
“Urgh!” Stella growled as she pounced for the shirt and dashed out of the room.
Seeing Stella rushing out of her room in her underwear, crumpled shirt in hand, Mercy ever on the ball, gave her friend a helping hand by getting the ironing board and iron out.
Hunched over with determination, Stella whizzed the iron hurriedly over the shirt. “I can’t believe I didn’t prepare better for this!”
“I can. You’ve been such a nervous wreck this past week. Just calm down. Everything will be okay. But do please tell me that you’re not going to wear that white bra with those pink panties. And a girl with your figure should never be seen in full briefs if she can help it.”
Stella stopped her ironing and looked sharply at her friend. She sucked the air in through her teeth. Usually she would have taken Mercy’s comment for what it was, a harmless joke, very typical of her fashion conscious friend. But her nerves were so taut they would not even allow her a smile. Speaking hurriedly in, an impatient tone quite foreign to her, she snapped, “Oh for goodness sake, Mercy! We don’t all have the misfortune of being fashion victims, oops I mean the fortune of being fashion buffs like you. I don’t feel the need to coordinate my underwear for work, if that’s alright with you.”
“Hey girlfriend, I was just kidding. Please, relax. I’m just trying to lighten up the atmosphere a little. You’re going to send yourself into a massive panic attack if you don’t start taking it easy. Okay, so you’re running a bit late. Don’t let yourself fall apart over it. Hell, you’ve been through worse than this, Stella.”
“I know. That’s exactly why I’m so afraid of things going wrong. If things do go wrong, then what do I do? I could end up…back there-”
“Not on your life!” Mercy would not allow Stella to finish that awful sentence. “Don’t think like that. Get yourself over to those Hunt-Leigh offices and show them what you’ve got to offer. By the time your three months probation is up they’ll be offering you a promotion. You’ll be a brilliant events co-ordinator and you know it.”
“Assistant events co-ordinator,” Stella corrected. “Anyway, I’m sorry. I overreacted. I don’t even know what a fashion victim really is. I’ll calm down in a minute.” She took a breath and immediately the tension in her muscles was released. She smiled. “Thank you, Mercy.”
“For what? For lending you my shirt?” asked Mercy, with a mischievous smile.
“Your shirt? I’m sure this is mine…” Stella’s voice trailed off as something made her nostrils twitch.
“And I’m sure you’re burning it,” Mercy contributed. She held out her hand making a ‘stop’ gesture. “Don’t react. Don’t even give it a thought. Just turn off the iron and grab one of mine. They’re all ironed and ready go.”
“But you’re a size smaller than me. I’ll be busting out of the buttons!” replied Stella, plainly horrified.
“Well unless you have another outfit prepared, you don’t have much choice.”
Stella was not the kind of girl to have outfits prepared. She lived her personal life very much off the cuff and was generally disorganised and impulsive. Anyone who had ever worked with Stella would find that hard to believe because she was always so professional and organised in the workplace. But as far as fashion savvy went, Stella would be first to admit that it wasn’t her forte. Although she was able to recognise elegance and sophistication when she saw it, it was not something she could associate with herself.
Not that she dressed poorly. Without a doubt she always looked neat and attractive, but she dressed in clothes that made her feel comfortable – and for Stella comfortable meant conservative.
Consequently, she spent very little of her time thinking about and planning out her wardrobe. Her idea of a plan had been to wear her simple black trouser suit with a classy white shirt for the first day and get a feel for the style of the office before spending too much money on her work wardrobe.
Before she realised it she found herself fidgeting with the buttons of the blouse that Mercy had handed her. She looked down at her bust and frowned. There was a gaping gap between the buttons, which offered anybody who cared to look a wonderful view of her cleavage and the cute white demi-cup lace bra she wore.
“Nothing that the trusty old safety pin won’t fix!” said Mercy. Her light-heartedness perked Stella up a notch.
With the blouse blunder out of the way she was able to get on with the rest of her hurried preparations.
Mercy sat and watched, sipping her at her coffee serenely. The breakfast she had prepared for her friend sat untouched as Stella scurried about the place trying to get out the door on time. She would have offered Stella a lift but her car was still at the mechanic and would not be fixed until lunchtime that day. Mercy shook her head. One day, she thought to herself, one day this girl will finally get herself together. One day soon, if my intuition serves me correctly.
As she darted out the door, down the garden path and out of the front gate Stella felt that mystical surge running through her again. In the air around her she thought she heard the very distant sound of guitar strings, possibly the music from her dream. But she didn’t have time to investigate the matter.
With a burning feeling in her chest and a panicked look on her face as her shoes pounded the asphalt inelegantly, she made a frantic bolt for the railway station.
Just one more block, she thought as she jogged on.
She crossed the road and had just made for the curb with a great lope when she noticed that in a flash of a second, a figure had placed itself in her path. It was that of an old woman, the proverbial Little Old Lady. From mid air Stella could see that unless the woman quickly stepped aside, a collision could not be avoided. And it was not. The best she could do was to reach out and take hold of the old woman so that she at least would not be knocked over by the impact.
The woman had appeared out of nowhere, in the blink of an eye. With her long black hooded cloak and bowed spine she looked like something out of a fairy tale. As she took a moment to recover from the shock, Stella expected the woman to produce a gleaming red apple from under her mysterious mantle. She was astounded when the old woman actually did present something. It was red but it wasn’t a poisoned apple. It was instead single, blood red rose. Too stunned to reproach her for her negligence, Stella simply stared at the old woman and allowed the rose to be placed between her fingers. Her eyes fell to the flower she held between her index finger and thumb and that strange tingling feeling rushed through her again.
“I have found you, as will he,” whispered the old woman.
“Who?” inquired Stella, impatiently.
“He who holds the key.” After pausing to show her amusement at Stella’s bafflement the old woman continued. Her voice was deep and her tone airy and mystical,
“By this bloom shall you be found; only then will the peace in your heart abound. But care you must take in the choice that you make, for one will give you new life and the other will take. One heart have you and only one chance. With caution and poise must you dance this dance.”
Already frazzled from the mixed-up morning, Stella was tempted to shout at the woman, “What the devil are you talking about? What’s all this gibberish?”
Instead, she asked with all the calmness she could muster. The old woman didn’t answer. She made sure Stella had caught the glimmer in her cloudy grey eyes before pulling the hood of her cloak low over her face. Then she held out a gnarled little hand, not much bigger than a child’s.
“How ‘bout a little show of gratitude for my service?” she said in a crow-like voice. When she saw Stella’s blank expression she leaned in closer. Her voice dropped to a deeper, coarser tone as she ordered, “Payment! Quick sticks and be on your way! You can still make it if you hurry.”
Stella shook her head in disbelief even as she found herself reaching for her purse. She rattled her purse around and dug out a two-dollar coin for the woman. The woman merely scoffed, pulling her hand away from the offensive offer. Throwing the coin back into the purse, Stella too made sounds of disapproval as she moved to the notes section of the purse. With only the thought of getting rid of this peculiar disruption, she whipped out a note and handed it to the old woman.
“And I’ll give you another piece of advice, gratis,” the old woman paused to make sure she had Stella’s attention. When she was satisfied with the look of expectancy on Stella’s face she continued with a wicked twinkle of the eye, “I strongly suggest that you keep an eye on that handsome cleavage of yours. I’m sure everyone else will be. You’re about to lose your pin!”
The old hag cackled, opening her shrivelled mouth to reveal a scanty row of brown teeth. Indignant and astonished by this woman’s impertinence, Stella was simply lost for words. She snapped her purse shut and fumbled irritably with her handbag. By the time she had put her purse away and had thought of something fitting to say, the old woman had disappeared - as quickly as she had appeared. Having no time to give the incident another moment’s thought, the still shocked Stella started up her dash again. The station was just around the corner.
The shrill of the guard’s whistle and the sound of a train taking off from the platform dampened her hopes of getting to work on time. There were still two massive flights of stairs to tackle, plus a concourse to cross before she would finally reach the platform. She had just about run out of steam and was about to abandon her mission when she turned the corner and spied another city-bound train pulling in to another platform. Her hope was revived a little. Maybe, just maybe if she could catch this train she’d still make it to work on time.
Stella got her second wind and accelerated down the hill. She took bigger strides but felt her lungs would burst if she pushed herself any harder. “Who are you kidding? You’re the wrong Freeman for this job,” she muttered to herself. “At this rate you’re liable to do yourself an injury.”
She could have just given up. It wasn’t the end of the world. There was always another train. And it wouldn’t be the first time she had been late to work. But damn it, she needed this job. The twenty-five thousand dollar debt hanging resolutely over her –The Vandynburg Debt, as she called it - had been giving her more than her share of headaches and sleepless nights. For the sake of her mental and emotional wellbeing she needed to be earning good money.
It had been an amazing stroke of luck that she, of the forty or so applicants, was the one to land this personal assistant position. What attracted so many hopefuls was the unusually high salary package offered as well as the company’s excellent reputation. The company, Hunt-Leigh Events Management prided itself not only on its success in the marketplace, but also on its philosophy that it was staff job satisfaction that made for the majority of its success. That job satisfaction came from treating all staff with respect, regardless of their position and also from the above average salaries offered.
Having chatted with some of the applicants before the interview Stella realised that it would be a very difficult decision making process for the employer. Each applicant seemed to have a vast array of strengths and skills to offer. So when she received the call from her new employer advising her that she’d gotten the job Stella couldn’t resist the urge to ask, “Why me?” A panel of three had interviewed her and Stella had come away with the very strong impression that one of the interviewers had not been too keen on her. She had been so nervous that she had forgotten their names and positions but she got the horrible feeling that the interviewer who had so distinctly disliked her might have been closely associated with the CEO of the company.
There had been a brief silence after Stella impulsively asked her question and she feared that she might have blown it. “I beg your pardon Mr Schwark, I only meant that there were so many excellent applicants. I’m just surprised that you chose me, that’s all – very pleasantly surprised of course.”
“Yes, I understand. We’ve never had such a huge response to an ad before. Most of the applicants met our basic requirements so we had to look for that extra something that stood out. I liked your style Stella; your sincerity and your positive but not overbearing attitude towards the interview. You have a quiet little determination that I like. I believe you’ll be an excellent PA for me and a great asset to Hunt-Leigh.
“Thank you. I intend to meet and exceed your expectations. I hope…you don’t think that I was fishing for compliments, Mr Schwark. I just didn’t expect to hear such wonderful news.”
So although her new manager, Mr Schwark, seemed a like a nice enough man she couldn’t be sure how he would respond to her lateness. That settled it. She had to make this train.
Somehow her legs got her up the stairs and over the concourse. Beads of sweat had begun to gather on her forehead and above her top lip – not the classiest of looks, but heck, she wasn’t going to let vanity slow her down.
She was just scurrying down the second of flight stairs and onto the platform as the last of the passengers filed hurriedly onto the train. Turning her head, Stella saw the stationmaster bring the whistle to his mouth and raise the white flag, indicating to the train guard that it was time to go. Two, maybe three big steps and she would make it.
And she would have too…had her stupid ankle not given way on her. The weak ankle was the result of an accident - if one could call it that –several years prior that Stella much preferred not to think back to. Once in a while she would forget herself and put the ankle under too much strain. Fortunately she landed well clear of the edge of the platform, landing on the ground with an ungraceful “Oomph!”
Still lying semi sprawled on the ground, she cursed as she watched the train slide away from the platform, “What a brilliant way to start the day!”
“I know the feeling. Well, I don’t know exactly how it feels to take a spill like the one you’ve just taken, but I know what it’s like to have one of those starts to one of those days.”
The cool deep voice sent a delicious shiver down Stella’s spine. She wasn’t at all in the mood for cool deep voices and was tempted to stand up, dust herself off and walk away without acknowledging the remark. However the temptation to see who owned the attractive voice was greater. It tugged at her, forcing her to change her attitude. She detected an accent, American or maybe Canadian. Whatever it was, it was very appealing.
After the deep voice and the accent, the next thing that Stella noticed was a very stylish pair of Italian, patent leather men’s shoes standing very close to her. She didn’t want to raise her eyes. She was mortified at having fallen over in such a public place, and even more embarrassed to have some man standing over her making remarks about it – not even offering to help her up.
In spite of herself Stella slowly titled up her chin to discover that the man had crouched down beside her. She found herself millimetres away from a dark, blue-grey silk tie. The silky tie contrasted with the matte, crisp, charcoal shirt that peeked out from under a sleek, dark suit.
Her eyes travelled upward from the broad chest and shoulders, to the thick neck and strong jaw, then further upward past the cupid mouth and the reset boxer’s nose, finally resting momentarily on a pair of eyes the colour of a warm tropical sea.
Surprised to find an intensely attractive man boldly returning her gaze, she quickly tore her eyes away. In the fleeting moment that their eyes were locked she felt a flutter of electricity rush through her body.
She found something less confronting to look at, his smiling mouth. It was slightly crooked but richly laden with charisma. The dimple in his left cheek made him simply irresistible. His short haircut failed to disguise the sandy brown hair that if allowed to grow any longer, threatened to rebel against the manly body by bursting into a mass of boyish curls.
“Are you able to stand up?” he asked.
“Um…” Stella hesitated. I’d probably be able to if my knees hadn’t just turned to jelly, she thought. “I…think so. I’ve hurt my ankle but I should be able to walk on it.”
“Here, give me your hand.”
Before she could protest, Stella found a big strong hand gripping hers. She welcomed the assistance as she came unsteadily to her feet. The handsome helper stood close to Stella, supporting her weight with his body until she had found her balance. Gauging from her own height in her work shoes, she guessed he’d be about six feet, three inches tall.
As her eyes quickly brushed over him, from head to toe, and back again she felt a giddy smile creeping onto her face. Her head felt light. Oh, my goodness, I’m swooning! I’m actually swooning. Nobody swoons anymore!
A sharp pain darting up from Stella’s ankle abruptly jerked her out of her girlish giddiness. The ankle throbbed as she attempted to put some weight on it and she couldn’t help wincing.
“I don’t think you should try to walk. Let me-”
He didn’t finish his sentence. Instead he bent over and swept Stella into his arms. He did it as though she were weightless.
Stella felt her body stiffen. She appreciated that it would have been agony to walk on her injured ankle, but she felt somewhat ill at ease in this handsome stranger’s arms. She wasn’t used to sharing her physical space with anyone. Not wanting to remember the last time a man had gotten this close to her, she squeezed her eyes shut momentarily, as if to shut the memories out. When she opened her eyes again she remembered where she was and she gasped.
“Are you okay? I’m not jarring your foot around too much am I?” he asked as he continued to carry Stella.
“Uh…yes…no…I mean, I’m okay. It’s just-”
Stealing glances at his face, Stella searched for a suggestion of something sinister but he seemed quite harmless. He seemed to genuinely have no concept of the personal space of others. Anyway, they were in a public area and it wasn’t as though Stella was in any grave danger. She let him carry her away from the platform, into the lift and back over the concourse. It then occurred to her that she really had no idea where he was taking her. Wriggling a little, she tried to release herself from his strong embrace but it was to no avail. He held on tight.
“Uh, listen,” Stella began, still wriggling. “I think my ankle should be all right now. I’ve only twisted it and all I need to do is let them know at work that I’ll be running late. Please put me down now.”
She thought he was about to put her down but all he did was walk to a nearby bench and sit down– with Stella still in his arms. He sat her in his lap as though she was a two year old girl with a bumped knee.
“Work? You’re still planning to go to work?” he demanded. “I was going to take you home. First to a doctor and then home.”
Home? Whose home? Stella wondered. “My job doesn’t necessarily require much walking around. Or at least it can be tailored to be that way until my ankle heals. It’s my first day and I just can’t call in sick at the eleventh hour.”
“Yes, you can,” he countered, so firmly that Stella was startled. “Let me talk to your boss. I’ll have it sorted out in five minutes.”
Stella couldn’t believe her ears. Who was this man who’d managed to insinuate himself into her life in a matter of…of minutes? And who did he think he was, declaring that he’d sort out her business? Furthermore – what was she still doing in his lap!
Now that they were seated she could afford to put up the fight it required to free herself. As it happened, he didn’t resist. He let her slide easily off his lap and onto the bench but one hand remained on the small of her back; supporting her as though she might topple off the seat at any moment.
Not wanting to seem too prudish Stella shifted only slightly, hoping that he would take the hint and remove his hand. He didn’t.
Stella cleared her throat and put on her sternest voice. “If you don’t mind, I’ll sort it myself. Thank you for helping me. I’m sure you have a job to get to so I won’t hold you up any longer.”
She expected him to agree and promptly take his leave but he didn’t move a muscle.
“Gee, you make it nice and easy for a guy to figure out when he’s not wanted," he laughed. "I’m only trying to help.”
“And I appreciate your help but I don’t need you lugging me all over town. I’ve got a sprained ankle, not concussion.”
Stella words contradicted the way she actually felt because staring into those blue eyes did leave her feeling like she taken a great knock to her head. She wondered whether she would, in fact, be able to get up and get herself to work after shooing away the good - and gorgeous - Samaritan.
His voice cut into her misty thoughts. “Look, if you won’t let me take you to a doctor, and if you absolutely insist on going to work then at least let me accompany you. I can’t just walk away. I won’t be able to get through the day knowing that I just left you here.”
Taken aback by the smooth, creamy, beseeching tones Stella found herself nodding involuntarily. Then she checked herself, suddenly shaking her head resolutely. “No!” she shouted, more to herself than to him. “I mean, no thank you. Please leave now. I have a phone call to make. Time’s getting away and I had better let them know what’s happened before they start forming their own conclusions about me. I had hoped to make a better impression than this.”
Stella’s rescuer let his eyes run lazily over her body. His voice wasn’t far above a whisper as he said, “Oh, you couldn’t make a better impression if you tried.”
As impossible as it was Stella could have sworn that as he blinked, as his gaze washed over her she had felt the brush of his lashes fluttering up and down her body. Her senses were shooting into overdrive as the heat from his still lingering hand seeped through her lower back and into her bloodstream. How could a total stranger have such an effect on her?
While her mouth was so readily able to form the words of protest, her body had not been so willing to conform. The attraction was too powerful and the longer he hung around, the more she wanted him to stay. Yet they were complete strangers. It was peak hour at a train station, on a Monday morning. Stella was running late for her new job and this was not the time or place for romance, or fantasies of romance.
She chided herself silently as she rummaged through her handbag, taking out her mobile phone and a business card with her work telephone number on it. Without excusing herself Stella went ahead and made the call. She turned her back towards him, half expecting him to be gone by the time she had finished the conversation. He did get up and walk away but he returned after taking only three or four steps. He continued to pace up and down until Stella had explained her situation to the receptionist. Her boss, Mr Schwark, had been unavailable at the time but the receptionist promised to pass on the message.
As soon as Stella had pressed the button to disconnect the call her rescuer was by her side again.
“Okay, it’s decided,” he declared. “We’re catching a cab together. I was only catching a train because I thought the traffic into the city would be unbearable at this time of morning. But now I can’t think of anything I’d rather bear.”
“You’ve taken a very sudden liking to the idea of being trapped in a gridlock have you?” Stella inquired, jokingly.
He reciprocated the smile. “I’ve taken a very sudden liking to the idea of being trapped in a gridlock with you.”
Stella should have seen that coming. This guy had already proven that he was not one to be easily discouraged so she shouldn’t have been surprised at his forwardness. She let the flattery slide. As drawn as she was to this man, she wasn’t going to let herself get sweet talked into some unbelievable fantasy. How many other women had he tried that line on anyway?
“You’re not a regular rail commuter, then,” she said casually. “I wondered why I’d never seen you around here before.”
His eyes shone as he smiled victoriously. She’d given herself away. “I’m glad you wondered. I don’t actually live around here. I was out here early this morning to sort out an issue with one of my buildings and my stupid car broke down. It was only in for routine servicing the other day and I just was about to ring my mechanic and give him a piece of my mind when I had to save a young woman from falling underneath a train-”
“I didn’t get anywhere near the edge of the platform!” Stella cut in.
Laughing, he patted her back playfully, “C’mon, don’t ruin my story. This is my big chance to play the hero.”
“Okay, so you were about to ring him and give him an earful when you spotted a damsel in distress. Then what?”
“Well, he picked up the phone and I said ‘Thank you.’ Of course he had no idea what I was talking about and I had to hang up and rescue you. But I’ll explain to him later that I was thanking him because if he hadn’t done such a sloppy job, my car wouldn’t have broken down and I wouldn’t have come to the station.”
He was laying it on thick and as much as Stella tried to resist, she was lapping it up.
“Well I’m glad you’ve had fun playing the fairytale hero. I think we both want this to end ‘Happily Ever After’ and for me that means getting to work without any more drama. If I lose my job because I hung around chatting at the station this story will end up a tradegy.”
“Okay, so we’d better get going to catch that cab.”
Stella shook her head resolutely. “A taxi ride is a bit extravagant and it would take far too long at this time of the morning. I’m best catching the train.”
Thankfully there was another train just pulling in.
She sensed him coming in close, probably to grab her and carry her off, and she quickly rose to her feet before he could get a firmer hold of her. The throbbing in her ankle had begun to ease, although she could see that some slight swelling had begun.
“Thank you again for your kindness. And I suppose you can pass my thanks on to your mechanic too,” Stella said as she joined the queue of passengers boarding the train.
She turned to watch her step as she boarded the train and when she turned around again the stranger had been swallowed up by the crowd.