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The moment she put her foot down, she regretted it. The moving plate of the escalator pushed her backward, and she tumbled over her suitcase, arms flailing, her shoulder bag swinging around and hitting her in the face.
God, she hated being short sighted.
Vanity, utter vanity, stopped her from wearing her glasses in public. At least with them on she would have noticed people coming toward her. Fellow travellers now staggered around her as she waited for the ringing in her ears to stop and the sting in her cheek to ease. Some uttered apologies as they stepped over or around her. A suitcase caught her ankle, clipping it with a nasty crack before the owner apologised and lifted it clear.
I will not cry. I will not cry.
She sniffed back tears, before crawling out of the way. She fumbled in her handbag for her damn spectacles that looked like the bottom of two wine bottles when she put them on. They enlarged her eyes until they looked like those of a frog. She’d grown up to the taunts of “googly-eye.” Today’s experience might cure her vanity because her present position verged on the ridiculous, baggage and legs strewn about, creating a traffic hazard.
“Sit,” a voice commanded. Surely the man couldn’t mean her?
She wanted to shout, ‘What do you think I’m doing?’ but at that moment a firm hand rested on her shoulder and a voice, as warm as a chocolate liqueur sliding down her throat, asked, “Are you all right, miss? Here, let me help you up.” She gave up looking for her glasses.
With one hand in her bag, and the other reaching out for the handle of her case, she couldn’t refuse the offer. The man cupped her elbow, put an arm around her waist, and lifted her slowly to her feet. He held her until she steadied. Gratitude flooded her, tears welled and she sniffed again, unable to spare a hand to find her handkerchief. A large soft white cloth appeared under her nose and she grabbed it, grateful to be able to wipe her nose and cheeks. It smelled of pine trees after the rain. Without thinking she put it in her sleeve.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “I’m sorry I’ve caused a traffic jam, it’s just I don’t see very well.” What an understatement. She peered at his shape in front of her. Then, realising she was frowning, she straightened her back and smiled. “I really should wear my glasses.” She gestured to where she thought her suitcase might be. “If you could pass me my case I’ll be on my way. Obviously the next escalator is the down one. Silly me.”
Chocolate Voice moved to the side and disappeared, coming back a moment later. She could hear the wonky wheel of her suitcase. “Oh you’ve found it. Great.” She reached to take the handle. It didn’t arrive.
“The down escalator is around the end of the balustrade. This end has two lots of stairs coming up, one moving, the other stationary.”
God, she would have done the same thing all over again, probably falling down the staircase face first if she’d tried the next lot of steps. “Hell’s teeth,” she murmured, still reaching out, her hand waving about seeking her suitcase.
The man’s warm grasp stilled her arm. “I think it might be a good idea if I take your case and go with you down the escalator to the exit. Would you like a taxi or are you catching a bus?”
Bliss—someone prepared to rescue her, guide her to the exit, and find a taxi. Could the airport be hiring porters now? While he grasped her hand, she decided, she might as well introduce herself. His grip hadn’t lessened one bit. “You’re very kind.” She shook his hand. “I’m Kate, Kate Bentley. And you are?”
The shape moved, perhaps bowed. Surely not?
“Are you a porter? I see you have a uniform of some sort.” She touched the gold bands just visible on his sleeve ends.
He laughed, a rolling sort of chuckle, like runny honey dripping down the side of a bowl. “I might as well be, but no, I’m a Customs Officer, Miss Bentley. It is ‘Miss’ isn’t it? One can never tell these days. My apologies if I’m wrong, but you’re not wearing a wedding ring.”
“It’s definitely ‘Miss’, Mr. Winters. And I can’t say how grateful I am. I’m very short sighted. I like to pretend I’m not and today I’m paying for my pride.” What was it about this man that had her telling him her most private feelings? He smelled nice too, although he had a slight doggy odour around him.
By now, with a firm grip of her elbow and a gentle tug he indicated she should walk beside him. Head high, she complied, putting behind her the spectacle she must have made of herself a few moments earlier. At least being short sighted, she never saw the amusement on the faces of people watching—if they were amused, of course. Most hurried past. Sometimes she felt as if she had a case of leprosy, rather than near blindness! Thank heavens for Thomas Winters, a cold name for such a warm voice.
She started as a wet nose touched her leg. “Oh!” and she skipped a step.
“Buster, behave. Sorry, miss, it’s my dog. He’s just decided to greet you. He sticks his nose into everything all day at work. I can’t seem to teach him not to do it to people.”
“Quite all right, Mr. Winters. I’ll put up with Buster’s nose in exchange for your kindness.”
* * * *
A sense of responsibility swamped Thomas. He kept his grip on her arm, his hand tucked under her elbow, and guided her through the oncoming stream as they headed toward the down escalator. The need to protect this dot-of-a-lass almost overwhelmed him. She seemed as frail as the porcelain figurines he admired in shop windows, except for her clothing. No satin ball gown or guipure lace sleeves, more a collection of mismatched garments, functional rather than fashionable, but nothing could hide her beauty.
She’d said she couldn’t see very well. That would explain her lack of dress sense, but who was he to judge? He only had to worry about his work uniform.
“Here we are.” They stopped. “I’m going to stand just in front of you on the escalator and I’ll put Buster behind you. That way if you fall you will land on something soft, back and front.” His attempt at humour raised a smile. God, she was lovely. “Would you rather we took the lift?” Finally, commonsense penetrated his smitten mind.
“Probably a better idea, I can never find the cursed things.” She looked around and up. “The signs are too high and hard to read. What they need are signs embedded into the walls at eye level for the visually challenged.”
He nodded, then realised she probably couldn’t see him doing this. “Quite right.” He grasped her hand, raising it, marvelling at the softness of her skin and the delicate shape of her fingers. Whatever she did for a living she didn’t have to use her hands. Her nails shone with a delicate rose polish.
“Which way are the lifts?”
Her question startled him. He’d been daydreaming yet again. “Sorry, not thinking, this way.” He led her to the lifts, pulling her suitcase, trailed by the dog who, at regular intervals, pressed his nose into their clasped hands as though to remind them he was part of their journey.
In the lift Thomas gathered his courage. His lack of experience with women put him at a disadvantage. Yet here was his opportunity to make an impression on this gorgeous creature. The expression ‘heart in mouth’ came to mind and he swallowed, breaking the silence with a cough.
“Could I convince you to share a cup of coffee with me before I show you to the taxi stand?” He held his breath. Would she? He hurried on. “I’d be delighted to treat you, Miss Bentley. I’m sure Buster would like you to join us. Wouldn’t you, Buster?” To hide his embarrassment in case she said no, he bent and ruffled the ears of the golden Labrador.
“You don’t need to convince me, Mr. Winters. I’d love to join you and Buster. I don’t have to be home for a few hours. In fact…” She turned to face him, peering, two creases forming between her eyebrows, her brown curls framing her face where they’d escaped from the combs holding her hair back behind her ears. “I’d be delighted to spend time with you, except I insist on paying for the coffee, a small recompense for your kindness.”
Confusion hit him. He’d invited her and now she’d turned it around. Before he could answer, the bell dinged as the lift stopped. He reached for her suitcase and again took her hand.
“I insist, Mr. Winters. Please let me. Look,” she halted and lifted her wrist to the end of her nose to stare at the large face of her watch, “It’s nearly lunchtime. We could have something to eat. What can I buy Buster for lunch?”
Where would he be without Buster? A regular conversation piece this dog had turned into. “He’s a working dog, Miss Bentley, and very greedy. He’s fed at home, at set times. Otherwise he’d be tearing open packages and eating the contents while at work.”
“He would?” They walked into the main concourse, and headed toward the cafe area. “What a wicked dog you are,” she said to Buster, who now walked close to her on the other side.
“He seems to have fallen for you in a big way,” Thomas commented. His dog could be quite particular with his likes and dislikes. He guided her to a spare table and instructed Buster to ‘sit’ and ‘guard.’
“Will he really guard my bags?”
“With his life.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, but he’s very handy, isn’t he?”
“He’s only allowed in here because he’s wearing his Customs jacket and official dog collar. People will think he’s working.”
“Well he is, in a way.” She reached out and gave his arm a gentle touch. “I’m paying, let’s go and choose some lunch.” She set off toward the counter display at a brisk pace, knocking over a chair on the way and blessed him with a smile over her shoulder as he righted it.
Standing close together in front of the food cabinet, the waft of her perfume, mixed with a hint of soap and her personal fragrance, delighted his senses. He couldn’t help but grin at his good fortune. At times he thought fate had dealt him a bad hand with his bloodhound genes, his folded, lined face, and the years at the Nursery before he walked out.
But today, fate smiled on him. At last his cheerful, positive determination to enjoy the life he’d been dealt had paid off. One small act of kindness, which anyone could have done, had gifted this opportunity to him—Thomas Winters, Customs Officer and genetically-altered citizen—trying to live an ordinary life. He hoped she didn’t change her mind when she put her glasses on and saw how ugly he was. Until then, his heart kept skipping and the grin on his face made his cheek muscles ache. He rubbed the sides of his face but didn’t stop smiling, answering her questions about the food selection, nodding to all her suggestions, revelling in the closeness of this petite doll-like lady.
He carried their lunch tray back to the table, bearing it aloft as if it held the crown jewels. Precious time would be spent eating and talking and if he ran out of subjects or questions he’d ask Buster to do some tricks.
* * * *
Once seated, Kate decided that no matter how ugly they made her look, she did need to find her glasses. She couldn’t risk knocking over a glass of fruit juice or sticking her fingers into the middle of a jellied roll. She delved into her handbag, rummaging around until she found them and put them on. Damn thick dreadful things—but they let her see a lot further. She looked up at her rescuer, momentarily stunned at his lined, folded face, but then she remembered to smile, a smile of gratitude and thanks. In response he smiled back. Such a warm smile, wide and welcoming. A beaming smile in every sense of the word. Even his teeth seemed to join in. Perhaps they were slightly crooked?
“Please excuse my glasses. They make me look like a frog.”
“Well I look like a dog, so at least we rhyme.”
She stared at her food, startled by his reply. He’d mentioned how he looked, so before asking the question hovering on the edge of her mind, she took a deep breath. Hardly worth asking because to her it seemed obvious. She took a deep breath, returned his gaze and his eyes, such deep brown pools, drew her in. “Please excuse me, I don’t mean to be nosy, but I guess I am—being nosy, that is. Do you have dog genes? I’ve heard of genetically altered people. Are you one of them?”
“I am, unfortunately—and fortunately as well.”
“How do you mean?” He didn’t appear to be offended in the slightest and her heart rate slowed a little as the tension in her chest ebbed.
“Well, unfortunately, I have this loose skin on my cheeks and neck, like a bloodhound, but then again, my sense of smell is fantastic.” He leaned close across the table and whispered, “I often help Buster to find things, but my bosses don’t know that—yet.”
“Oh, how clever.” A giggle escaped her and without conscious thought her hand rose and stroked the side of his face. “They’re not too bad really, just a bit folded.”
“They used to be worse when I was young. They removed some skin before I left the Nursery.”
“The Nursery? Where you were born? Did they do it then?” It sounded a brutal thing to do to a baby.
“No, when I was older. I lived at The Nursery. It’s what they call the place where they breed the genetically altered children.”
Her stomach twisted in sympathy. His face looked sadder than a few moments before, until he smiled.
“But that’s old news. Today is wonderful. Lots of sunshine, busy airport, and I’ve met you.” His face flushed perhaps with embarrassment and he ducked his head and patted his dog.
For several minutes after this exchange Kate concentrated on her food. The silence was at odds with the bustle and chatter surrounding them. She had to keep him talking. Their conversation had been going so well, until she got nosy. She searched her mind for something nice to say.
“For someone disadvantaged at birth you’re amazingly kind and cheerful. Did you get adopted? I read about it in a medical magazine.” At least he stopped patting his dog and looked at her. She rushed on. “The Department of Defence were defending their research program. They said most of the children are adopted out and they only keep the very special ones for defence purposes.” She hid behind her serviette, wiping her mouth, wondering if she’d gone too far. “It sounded so cold and cruel, to keep them like an object collection. Was it awful?” She met his stare, watching the thoughts chase across his face. His eyes dulled and the laughter lines around his eyes looked more like sorrow lines.
“It was, but I left.” He stretched to pat his dog much as a child would reach for a comfort blanket, while he gazed into the middle distance over her shoulder. She watched his face, keeping her mouth closed to prevent any more questions from popping out.
Moments later he seemed to have recovered his disposition. His tension disappeared, his shoulders relaxed, and he held her gaze, his expression soft and earnest. When he began to speak, her heart leapt with relief. His lovely brown eyes pulled her in, locking her attention. The outside world dropped to silence and ceased to exist. No man had ever looked at her like this, not that she’d noticed before, but of course with her sight she could have missed it.
“I have a good life, a good job and a wonderful companion.”
“A girlfriend?” Now why did she ask that? It just fell out of her mouth. ‘Companion’ could mean anything, including Buster. Honestly, how nosy can you get, Kate? Surely any man this kind would be snapped up by now.
“No girlfriend. Still looking. What about you?” Suddenly the conversation had leapt from general to very personal in a matter of minutes. She took a deep breath. Honesty is always the best policy her father often said.
“No one, probably because to see where I’m going I need to wear my glasses.” She laughed, “And it’s a bit hard to find a nice man when you can’t see where they are.”
To hide her embarrassment in the ensuing silence she gathered the empty plates together and stacked the coffee mugs on the tray.
“What a pair we are,” he said with an air of finality. “I’ll escort you to a taxi and see you safely inside.” He picked up her bag and waited as she took off her glasses, gathered up her purse and reached for his arm. “Don’t you think you should keep your glasses on?”
His soft query touched her heart. Her eyes prickled and she swallowed. “Thank you, Mr. Winters, but I always like to pretend I can see really well when I’m in public, and today I’m lucky enough to have your arm to hang on to.” A nose nuzzled her leg. “And Buster to keep guard on the other side.”
They set off, like an old married couple. Where did that thought come from? She tightened her grip on his arm as he wove them through the crowd.
“Do you need anything else while we’re here?” he asked.
“No, I’m fine. My father’s at home and he’ll have a meal waiting. I’ve only been away for the weekend.”
“You live at home?”
“My mother died last year and Dad is…” What could she say? “Dad is not that well, so we’re flatmates. He does the housework and I go out to work. It works well.” Except when it didn’t, but she swallowed that thought.
All too soon they exited the main doors. A small stab of sadness hit her in the chest and she sighed, echoing the exhalation of the doors as they opened and closed behind them. She wished the taxi rank were further away. Mr. Winters had a lovely, supportive arm and a male scent that delighted her nose. A different smell to that of her Dad, yet just as comforting. Should she be cheeky and ask for his phone number?
“Here’s your cab, Miss Bentley.” He took her hand and led her to the door, opened it and guided her in. “I’ll put your suitcase in the trunk.”
She reached out for him, grasping his sleeve. “Thank you so much, Mr. Winters. I’d have been lost without you.”
“It’s Thomas, Miss Bentley. Please call me Thomas.”
She felt her smile widen. A breakthrough. “Then you must call me Kate.”
“Kate Bentley it is then.” Thomas patted her hand.
“Excuse me, Miss, would you like to get out on the pavement and continue this conversation or do you really want to hire me?” The taxi driver had turned toward them, his gruff words eased by his smile. “I’ll need that door shut before I can drive off. The meter’s running.”
She nodded and a flash of heat began on her breasts and at any moment she would be ablaze with a blush.
“Sixteen Sycamore Street, Cronulla, please.” She heard a soft ‘Goodbye Kate’ from Thomas and the door clunked shut.
Unable to see, this time because her eyes were stupidly damp, she turned and waved out the window. Oh well, at least she knew where he worked. A letter addressed to him care of Customs at the airport would surely find him in the future. She should’ve said she would take a bus. The walk to the bus stop would have taken much longer.
She felt around in her bag, found her glasses, and put them on. The day looked brighter through the cab’s windows. The trunks of the gums trees lining the highway like soldiers, shone brighter than she’d ever noticed before. A small song of delight hummed in her head. The weekend seminar on ‘Understanding Alzheimer’s’ had left her confused and depressed at what lay ahead, but if she hadn’t gone, she wouldn’t have met Thomas. Plus, now she had a story to tell to her father—a story she could embellish a bit to make him laugh.