They sat on the hillock under the shade of a small gum tree. The shade speckled the ground, cooling the earth enough to create a zephyr of air sufficient to move strands of her hair. Jill knew this type of broken light would cause her skin to dapple, but in line with her recent decision to not worry about her chameleon tendencies she relaxed and enjoyed the moment.
“I wanted a few moments alone with you, Jill,” Michael said. Jill looked at him in surprise but his gaze remained fixed on the distance horizon. “I wanted to tell you that like Siobhan I have a smattering of cat genes, but mine are slightly different. Sure I have third eyelids that pop out under stress but mostly I can keep them under control.” He turned to face her and picked up her hand, holding it tight. “I’m blessed with the ability to sense wellness or illness. This makes me very good at my job and puts me ahead of many of my peers, most of whom are not g-altered like you and me.”
Jill held her tongue between her teeth, not wanting to break the spell. Never had anyone, other than James, taken her into his confidence like this man.
“I also wanted to tell you how attractive I find you. And you’re humming with good health too I might add.” His voice caught and he covered it with a chuckle. A heated blush rose up her neck flooding her face. She turned her head away, unable to help her reaction. Michael gently took her chin and slowly turned her face back towards his. “I think your hair is magnificent and your blushes are equally delightful. Why do you hide them? You should be proud of your genes, and blushes are a sign of modesty. Aren’t they?”
Tears filled her eyes and over flowed. She wondered if they changed colour as they ran down her cheeks. Two shocks within the hour. First Stella taking her through a jump to disappear behind a rainbow curtain, and now a man telling her she’s beautiful. Was he leading her on? Was this just a load of bullshit?
Michael’s moved and put one arm around her shoulder, pulling her close to his chest, her head tucked under his chin. She could hear his heartbeat. Mingling with the delicious feeling tip-toeing up her spine his soft breath warmed her ear. His chin stroked across her hair and she heard him inhale a deep long breath.
“You smell adorable as well.”
“Well that’s a first.” Completely undone, her emotions leapt like skyrockets trapped in a drum, and not knowing what else to do, she tilted her head back and broke their embrace by raising her arms above her head, stretching high to release her inner tension.
“I’ve never been told that before.” Desperate to avoid personal questions she searched for a safe sensible subject and remembered the obvious one.
“Tell me about your research project. What are your aims and how far along are you with it. Do you need to make more trips yet, or is this your last?” That should be enough to keep him talking for a while and give her a chance to regain some inner calm.
“I love the aborigines. They’re a magnificent race, largely underestimated and frequently maligned.” He picked up a small twig and began to draw circles in the red earth.
“They’ve been in this harsh land since time began, or so their legends say. The very fact they have managed to survive means they have acquired a great knowledge of the treasures the land holds. Physically they’re extremely strong and can travel great distances on foot. An ability to read the land and look for water, they use skills most of mankind has lost. An amazing people.” Michael threw the twig aside and stood up, offering his hand to her once more. Pulling her up beside him he pointed to the distant hills. “Imagine living among those hills and having to source your food and water every day.”
“I can’t. You’d find a water source and not want to leave it.”
“Exactly, yet they do. If they want to live in the old ways they must hunt on foot and their prey is quick. They can live on beetles and grubs. Things the white man would shun. Yet roasted over an open fire at the end of a long day’s walking, they’re delicious.”
“You’ve tried them?
“Of course. You can’t research tribal customs from the back of a van. You have to experience it to believe in it.” Michael’s fervour for his pet subject bubbled up in his speech.
“Most men are reluctant to tell a woman all these things. Or perhaps it’s just me they are reluctant to talk to.”
“Perhaps your beauty strikes them dumb.” Her shyness vanished. Astonishment chased it away to a dark corner, and she blurted out her question.
“Are you teasing me, Michael Scott?”
“Certainly not. I’m not free and fancy with my affections.” They stopped at the edge, before negotiating the steps down the hill. Again he took her hand and stopped her progress.
“Tomorrow I go bush, as they say. I’m off to the Aborigine camp and won’t be back for several weeks. I’d like to watch the sunset with you tonight, alone, just the two of us. I’m sure James will keep Stella at home.”
Jill suddenly remembered she had to talk to James about Stella. Distracted, she missed the rest of Michael’s words. “Pardon Michael? My mind was elsewhere.”
“I said that despite my profession I am basically a reserved person, but with you, Jill, I feel completely at ease. I’ve never felt like this before and I’m past the first flush of youth. I’ll be thirty three next month.”
She gazed at him, and her eyes studied his hair, nose and jaw line. He stood still, aware of her scrutiny, his eyes wrinkling at the sides as he smiled at her.
“Mmm. No grey hairs, hardly a line on your face and no sign of baldness. I’d say you are weathering pretty well, Dr. Scott—and I don’t even need cat genes to know that.”
“Now you’re teasing me, Jill Corban, aren’t you?”
“No Dr. Scott, I never tease. James is the tease in our family. I’m just the chameleon. I may change colour but I don’t change my mind. You are weathering very well and are quite handsome yourself.”