Mia moved the last of the boxes into the storeroom of the shop. When she’d agreed to help out at The Treasure Chest she hadn’t realised how much shifting and moving would be involved. The fact that Aunt Cynthia had been doing it for years astounded Mia. There was a constant stream of incoming antiques and knick-knacks to be put somewhere in the shop.
“Thank you, dear,” the old woman said from behind Mia. “I’ve got one last task for you, but only if you want to. I can do it myself, if you like.”
“No, I can do it,” Mia said. “What is it?”
Aunt Cynthia walked back to her desk and took the rose bud from the slender crystal vase she always kept there. She turned back to Mia and held out the flower.
“Could you please go and put this on Gary’s grave for me?” she asked.
Mia nodded and took the flower. The cemetery was within walking distance of the store, but it was up a hill and Mia thought the old lady had been showing her age since Gary’s body had been found under The Tree. It didn’t surprise Mia that her grandmother asked her to deliver a floral tribute instead of doing it herself. Mia murmured a farewell and left the store.
It had been two days since Gary Ross, the unknown whose death beneath The Tree had triggered the crisis in town, had been buried. Aunt Cynthia had shut the shop for the afternoon, and she and Mia had attended the burial ceremony. Besides them and Rev. Cloister, only Senior Sergeant Dresden and, surprisingly, Mark Loring and Karen Christian had attended.
Mia asked her friends why they were there. Karen, typically, immediately turned the question around and asked Mia the same thing, to which she responded that she was there because Aunt Cynthia was there. Karen had then replied that whoever he was, he deserved to be farewelled; a surprisingly emotional answer from the logical and methodical young woman.
As she carried the rose up to the cemetery, Mia realised she’d never gotten an answer from Mark. She still wondered again why he’d shown up, but she shrugged off the problem. It wasn’t that important, and she had one last job to do for the day; the same job she’d had the day before, and one that she suspected she’d do the following day, as well. Once Aunt Cynthia had taken responsibility for the funeral of Gary Ross, it was if she’d adopted the young man.
With that thought fresh in her mind, Mia turned left instead of right after she passed through the cemetery gates. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for.
1952 – 1968
A beautiful daughter who’ll always be missed
Mia stopped to contemplate the aunt she never knew. Evonne had been killed in a car accident nineteen years before Mia was born. Looking down at the simple headstone, she noticed that the grass was neatly trimmed. A small arrangement of dried flowers ordained the grave. They’d been placed there recently, as they showed no damage from the storm that had passed through a couple of weeks prior.
She read the next stone:
1926 – 1997
The love that heals
Now that she knew her grandmother’s story, Mia understood the epitaph. When she was younger, she hadn’t known what it meant, but had been afraid to ask. It was clear to her that Aunt Cynthia had never forgotten those early days, when she’d fallen in love with her husband-to-be. They were married for more than fifty years and had six children. Throughout all that time, and through the birth of numerous grandchildren and a handful of great-grandchildren, Aunt Cynthia had never lost the capacity for love.
Mia lost sight of what was in front of her while she thought about her Uncle Keith. The black sheep of the family, he’d gotten a girl pregnant when he was only eighteen and the girl was sixteen. He never married her, but paid for her son, Mia’s cousin Bradley, to be raised and educated. Bradley’s mum eventually married and had two more children, Catherine and Mark Loring. As the siblings of her grandson Bradley, Aunt Cynthia allowed them to call her “Grandma”.
Mia had always been jealous of that privilege, but she was beginning to understand that it had been given for love. It would’ve been unfair for her to ignore them, but as everyone called her Aunt Cynthia, they needed something special to tell them that they were as loved as all her biological grandchildren.
By her actions, Aunt Cynthia was telling the world that she had an honorary grandson, who was buried near her husband and her daughter. Mia suspected that if there’d been room, Aunt Cynthia would’ve insisted on Gary Ross being buried right next to the other two.
With a new sense of purpose, Mia headed towards the newest gravestone in the Mourton cemetery. She had a job to do that Aunt Cynthia had entrusted to her, but she realised she also had a duty to pay her respects to her honorary cousin.
As she approached the grave her pace slowed. There was someone there before her. She stopped close enough to the stranger to scrutinize him, but far enough away that he wasn’t aware of her presence.
The young man was squatting in the still-muddy soil that covered the last resting place of Gary Ross, with no thought to his clothes or shoes. One hand was slowly tracing and retracing the inscription on the gravestone. His light brown hair, falling loose and random to his shoulders, obscured his face, but from the way his body was shaking he appeared to be crying.
Mia waited, but he showed no sign that he was going to move. Hesitantly, she stepped forward. The young man seemed oblivious to her presence until she reached past him to put down the fresh rose bud and pick up the one she’d left the day before.
Taken by surprise, he rocked back and fell on his arse in the mud. Mia stifled a grin.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Once she could see his face clearly, she guessed his age as early twenties. The tear-streaked face and splotches of mud where he’d absentmindedly wiped the tears away did nothing to create a good image, but Mia sensed both openness and pain.
“My fault,” he said in a rich baritone. “I shouldn’t’ve been so absorbed.” He clambered ungracefully to his feet.
“A friend of yours?” Mia asked, wondering if this was the person The Heart of the Tree was to fall in love with. They’d suspected he would be a friend of Gary’s, and this stranger looked like he’d fit the part. If so, her initial impression was favourable.
He nodded. “Not a close friend, but yes, a friend. I only found out the other day that he’d died and he was buried here. I came as soon as I could.”
Mia held out a hand. “I’m Mia Chou. I wish you could’ve come to town for happier reasons.”
“Matt Sterling,” he replied, taking her hand in a firm grip. “Did you know Gary, too?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, no.”
He frowned as he looked down at the gravestone. “But you’re here to put a red rose as a tribute.”
“My grandmother asked me to do it. She made the arrangements for his funeral.”
“Is she the one who composed the inscription?”
“Yes, she is.”
He turned to face Mia. “I’d like to meet her, if I may. I’d like to know how she managed to know so much about him.”
“I’ll take you to her when you’ve finished here, if you like,” Mia said, internally jumping with joy. Everything was telling her that this was the one they’d been waiting for, and that all they had to do was find The Heart of the Tree.
“I’d like that,” he said before looking down at his clothes. “But, I think I’d better find somewhere to stay the night and freshen up. I can’t go see anyone like this.”
“There should be a room free at The Cricketer’s Arms. That’s the best place to stay,” Mia said, stepping back and implicitly inviting him to join her.
He took another look at the gravestone, then leant down and whispered something as he ran his hand over the inscription one last time:
1983 – 2005
May he find the love in the next world
that he didn’t have in this one
Straightening up, he smiled at Mia. “Thanks. This trip was organised in a bit of a rush.”
“Is this your first time in Mourton?” Mia asked as they strolled out of the cemetery.
“Yes, it is. My family lives on the other side of Dubbo, so I’ve never been out this way. I knew of the place, of course, but I’ve been too busy at uni to have the time to visit.”
“And Gary Ross?”
Matt looked down at the ground as they walked along. There was a distinct pause before he answered.
“I knew Gary from uni. He and I were part of a group of friends that met regularly. His family lives somewhere east of Dubbo, but I’ve never been there. We weren’t that close, and he, like me, was living in Dubbo anyway.
“One day, he just disappeared. His car was still at his apartment, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. It was only the other day that I learnt he’d died and was buried out here. I think I might’ve been the last one in Dubbo to see him, at least out of those who knew him, before he came here.”
“How did he get here, if his car was left in Dubbo?”
“The rumour is he caught the train. I think someone said he showed up at the station and said he’d take the next train out, regardless of where it was going.”
“Do you know why he did that?”
Matt sighed and reluctantly nodded his head. Mia waited, but he didn’t say anything.
As they left the cemetery, Mia turned towards town but stopped when Matt didn’t follow her. She looked back at him.
“My car’s parked up here,” he said, pointing in the other direction.
Mia hesitated for a moment before deciding to take a chance. She had faith that Matt was the one they were looking for, and so she felt it should be safe.
“Okay. I’ll show you where the hotel is and where to park,” she said, heading over to join him.
His car wasn’t far away. A firetruck-red, old model Ford Falcon sat by the side of the road, showing the signs of a trip through the countryside by the bug marks that spoiled the otherwise gleaming vehicle. From the care that had been heaped on it, Mia could tell that the car was a source of pride for Matt.
“The hotel is just a couple of minutes down the road, by the main square,” she said as Matt unlocked the car. When he opened the door for her, she smiled at the gentlemanly manners he was showing.
Once he closed the door, he quickly moved around to the driver’s side and climbed in. Both winced at the grating sound when he started the engine.
“Sorry about that. I need to get it checked out, but I’m still trying to save up the money for it. I’ve done enough looking myself to tell it needs someone who knows what they’re doing. I can do oil changes, but most other things are beyond me.”
“Why don’t I ask my friend Bobby to have a look at it while you’re here? That’s assuming you’ll stay for a few days, of course.”
“A major engine nut. He’s just started working at the wineries in the maintenance plant, but he also fixes up all our cars – he’s the crazy sort that does it because he enjoys it.”
“I don’t want to put anyone out. I’m sure it can wait until I’m back in Dubbo.”
“Well, the offer’s there. I’m sure he’ll love to have a look at it,” Mia said, trying to make light of it. She was sure that Bobby would do it as a favour for her. After all, it wasn’t like she asked him very often, unlike Rhys, who seemed to be at Bobby’s place every few weeks, having something done to his bike.
It wasn’t long before they pulled up next to The Cricketer’s Arms.
“Leave your gear in the car until we know which room you’re in,” Mia suggested.
“Okay, and thanks for this.”
“It’s nothing,” Mia said, waving a hand. “You’re a visitor in town; it’s the least I can do.”
Matt smiled. “If this is the welcome all visitors get, then I know why this place is popular.”
Mia blushed. “Well, I don’t normally do this, but given why you’re here, I felt I should.”
She kicked herself mentally when she saw his face fall at the reminder. She tried desperately to find something to say to fix her slip-up, but failed. Without saying another word, they entered the hotel.
“Mr. Klenston!” she called out, spotting the hotel owner.
“Mia! What can I do for you?” the middle-aged innkeeper asked while looking at Matt, a question in his eyes.
“Mr. Klenston, this is Matt Sterling. Matt, this is Mr. Klenston, the owner of the hotel,” Mia said quickly before turning back to the older man. “Matt needs a place to stay, so I brought him here.”
Ryan Klenston frowned as he stared at the young man. He took in Matt’s dishevelled and muddy appearance, but discounted them after allowing for Mia’s obvious recommendation.
“How long for?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Matt said, running a hand through his light-coloured hair, not realising he was leaving a muddy streak. “Since I’m here, I’d like to stay a few days.”
Mr. Klenston raised a finger and tapped his lips as he considered the options.
“I can give you a room for one night, but we’re fully booked for tomorrow. Sorry.”
“That’s okay.” Matt smiled as he accepted a room key. “One night’s enough for now.”
Mia was worried. There was no way they could link Matt to the still unknown Heart of the Tree in just one night. As she walked back to the car with Matt, she had an idea.
“Matt, my friends and I are going out to dinner tonight. Why don’t you join us? It’s a pity you can’t stay longer.”
“If you don’t think it’ll be a problem, that would be great! Thanks, Mia,” Matt replied with heart-felt appreciation. “I was thinking of moving to the caravan park for the rest of my time here. I brought a small tent with me, but I want to have a decent room for tonight so I can get cleaned up properly – especially if I’m going out.”
“Why don’t I see if Aunt Cynthia can join us?” Mia suggested, relieved that Matt would be sticking around.
Mia realised she hadn’t explained things very well.
“She’s my grandmother, the one you want to meet. Everyone calls her Aunt Cynthia, even her grandchildren.”
“You know her, so if you think it’s okay, go ahead.”
While Matt drove his car to the room, Mia stepped aside and started making some phone calls.
“Padma? It’s Mia. I think I’ve found him.”
“The guy who’s supposed to link up with The Heart of the Tree!”
“Are you sure? Forget that. What are you going to do?”
“I’ve told him that we’re all going out to dinner tonight, so can you meet us at my dad’s restaurant?”
“Sure! I have to do a few things here first, but I’ll be there.”
“Great! Now if you can ring Rhys, Karen and Mark and invite them to dinner, I’ll ring Vince, Bobby and Aunt Cynthia.”
“Not a problem. I’ll call them as soon as we finish here. What time will it be?
“Thanks, Padma. Make it just after seven. I’ll bring him around about seven-thirty. See you then!”
A few quick phone calls later, and the two girls had dinner arranged. Mia alerted Bobby to the issue with Matt’s car, so he’d be ready to reinforce her offer. She thought it just might prove useful in keeping Matt in town for an extra couple of days.
When Matt had finished unpacking his car, Mia rejoined him.
“It’s all organised. I’ll meet you here just before seven-thirty and we’ll walk to the restaurant.”
Matt frowned. “What sort of place is it? Do I need to get dressed up?”
Mia laughed. “No. Just casual will be fine. My dad’s the owner and chef, and he likes people to be relaxed so they can enjoy what they’re eating. He tells me that when he learnt to cook in China he was told the food was the most important part of the meal.”
“Your dad’s Chinese?”
“Good. I love Chinese.”
“That’s a pity, because it’s a Mexican restaurant.”
Matt looked so startled that Mia had to laugh.
“Dad hates stereotypes. Everyone expects a Chinese chef to open a Chinese restaurant, so he opened a Mexican one, instead. He likes to challenge himself with new things, and Mexican cooking was what he decided on.”
“Well, I love Mexican, so it sounds perfect. I’m looking forward to seeing what Mexican cooked by a Chinese chef will taste like.” He paused. “I thought I saw a Chinese restaurant in town.”
Mia nodded. “Yeah, The Royal Orchid. They have an Indian chef.”
“Is there an Indian restaurant in town?”
“Yep, with an English chef.”
“I’ll probably regret asking, but what other places are there in town?”
“Mama Saviloni is the chef at La Bella, the Italian restaurant. Dad’s been taking lessons from her, which is why I’m eating mainly Italian at home at the moment.”
Matt laughed. “Okay, enough questions for now. It’ll take me a while to get all of that straight as it is.”
“That’s okay. Take your time. It is a bit confusing.”
“Well, thanks for all of this. It’s really very, very kind.” Matt said. Looking down at his clothes, he winced as he realised how dishevelled he looked. “I really need to have a shower and get out of these things. Otherwise, I’m going to offend all your friends.”
Mia waved as she walked away. Things were looking up. If, as Rhys suggested, Karen was The Heart of the Tree, she and Matt would meet that night.
Bobby Elkington was in one of his favourite positions: underneath a car, tinkering. The fact that he’d just finished a week of working on engines didn’t matter to him – he just loved playing with them. For a change it was his own vehicle, an old model Corolla that he was working to restore. He frowned at the state of the rubber hoses he could see. They weren’t going to last much longer. With the muffler replaced, it was time to move on to the next important pieces of equipment. He sighed as he realised where his pay packet was going. At least he had a regular income. Unlike most of his friends, he had no intention of going to university. He’d found a job working with engines and other mechanical devices and he was happy. Studying for another three or more years was just a torture that he felt no need to inflict upon himself.
As he methodically traced each hose to evaluate its degree of deterioration, he became aware of someone standing nearby. A glance back along the length of his body showed a small pair of feet in tattered sneakers.
“I’ll be there in a sec,” he called out.
“No hurry. I can wait.”
Bobby checked the last hose, then slid out from under the car. As he got to his feet, he gave Karen Christian a quick glance to see if there was any obvious sign as to what she wanted. He didn’t detect anything, but he knew she was good at hiding her emotions.
“Hi, Karen,” he said, leaning forward to give her a quick peck on the cheek, while keeping his dirty hands carefully behind him.
“Hi, Bobby. Has that thing fallen apart yet?”
He grinned. “Not yet, and I think I can keep it going for a few weeks longer. What’s the current betting on how long it’ll last?”
Karen sniffed. “As if I’d bet on anything like that. Rhys thinks it’ll fall apart on Christmas Day as a bonus present for you. Mark thinks you’ll keep it going for at least another four or five months before you give up. Vince just shakes his head and says he’s not betting again against your ability to fix cars. Padma says she hasn’t got the faintest idea, and Mia thinks you’ll keep at it until you find something even more derelict to restore.”
Bobby laughed as he picked up an old towel and started to wipe the worst of the accumulated grease and oil from his hands. He was unaware of the smear across his cheek and nose. “I’m glad to see that no one’s changed.”
As he continued to clean up, he again wondered why Karen was there. She had a habit of dropping in at odd occasions, but it was rare for there not to be an underlying reason.
“Did you get a phone call from Padma today?”
“No, but I got one from Mia, inviting me to dinner tonight. Is that what you meant?”
“Yeah,” Karen said, wrinkling her nose in disgust at something.
“Are you going?” Bobby asked her.
Bobby felt like smiling, but he could tell that Karen was in one of her moods and wouldn’t appreciate it. Whenever she got stressed, she had a habit of answering questions with questions. He’d worked out a long time ago it was her way of giving herself time to think, or of avoiding saying something she didn’t want to say.
“Of course. Mia told me she thinks she’s found the guy for The Heart of the Tree.”
“Just because you don’t believe in it, doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
Bobby realised there was more to it when Karen turned away and wouldn’t meet his eyes. He hesitated, then decided that more privacy might be called for.
“Would you like to go inside for a cool drink?”
She looked back over her shoulder at him with narrowed eyes. A moment later she jerked her head up and down.
“Just give me a few minutes to clean up properly, and I’ll get you something. Why don’t you go inside and make yourself comfortable.”
“Are you parents home?” Karen asked, flicking a nervous glance towards the house.
“No,” Bobby said, slumping his shoulders. “Mum’s at the bowling club and Dad’s gone out fishing. I don’t expect either one to be home until late.”
He hadn’t given up hope in getting his parents to reconcile, but there were times he despaired of success. For as long as he could remember, he’d lived in a house with two adults who had little to do with each other. The tension was often high when both were around, and his friends rarely stayed when that happened. Karen’s apprehension was something he knew well but had never accepted as inevitable. He still wished for the day that he would be a member of a family, instead of the co-habitant in a house that never felt like a home.
When Bobby went downstairs after a quick wash and a change of clothes, he found Karen waiting in the living room. She was perched on the edge of a chair, elbows on her knees and her chin resting in her hands. He could see her gnawing at her lower lip.
She jerked around when he spoke. As he handed her a tall glass of orange juice, Bobby saw that she was trying to restore her normal sarcastic mask. While he normally could see beyond that mask, the fact that it’d slipped told him she had much on her mind.
“It’s about dinner tonight.”
“Rhys has this stupid idea in his head that I’m that Heart person, and I know he’s going to push the new guy at me.”
“If you look at it from his point of view, it’s not unreasonable. You’ve frightened off practically every guy in town.”
“That’s because they aren’t what I want!” She looked imploringly at Bobby. “Can you take me as your date? That way I won’t have to put up with Rhys’s pitiful attempt at matchmaking.”
Bobby shook his head slowly.
“Sorry, Karen, I can’t do that. You know why.”
“Why the hell not?”
“I won’t pretend to be your boyfriend because it’s just not right.”
“You don’t have to pretend,” she said, a hopeful tinge to her voice.
He shook his head. “It wouldn’t work out. We’re just not right for each other; I’ve told you that before. You’ll find someone suitable when you’re in Sydney, someone who can keep up with you. You’d run roughshod over me if we were a couple, and I don’t think that’s right.”
“You mightn’t mean to, but you would. You don’t suffer fools, and you don’t like the things I like.”
“So what? Opposites attract, too. You’re tall and muscular and have a pleasant face that always seems to have a smile that lights up the room. You could be a professional sportsman if you put your mind to it, but you don’t have that killer instinct. You’re great with all the kids in town and I’ve heard them ask their mums if they can play with ‘The Giant’. I know of at least a dozen girls that are just waiting to be asked out by you, but all you want to do is play with your engines. What’s wrong with wanting you as my boyfriend?”
He sighed and stood up. “We’ve gone through this before. I’m not the right one for you, and you’re making a mistake thinking I am.”
Karen rose to her feet. “There’s only one guy in town that I want, but he won’t have me, and he’s never given me a real reason for why. You keep saying it wouldn’t work, but you’ve never given it a go. You’ve never had a steady girlfriend, so why not try?”
Bobby shook his head again. “I’ve told you before, it just wouldn’t work out. Please, just trust me? I don’t want to end up like my parents, with someone who isn’t the one. You’re a great girl, Karen, but we’re not right for each other.”
Her head dropped and her shoulders slumped. Without looking up, she asked, “I’ll see you tonight?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there. I’ll even sit next to you if you think it’ll help, but I can’t pretend to be something I’m not.”
Bobby watched as Karen left. He liked her, but liking wasn’t enough; his parents’ relationship had taught him that.
“Here we are,” Mia said.
“The Nacho Nirvana. An interesting name,” Matt said. “I like it.”
“Come on. Let’s meet everyone.”
Mia opened the door and motioned for Matt to go through first. When he hesitated, she gave him an encouraging smile.
Once inside, Mia didn’t give Matt time to take in the surroundings. She was so used to them that she barely noticed the incongruous mixture of Mexican paraphernalia and Chinese art. She quickly led him to the back of the restaurant.
“Everyone, this is Matt Sterling. Matt, these are my friends and my grandmother,” Mia announced, as she brought her guest to the table.
“Call me Aunt Cynthia. Everyone else does.”
“Almost everyone,” Mia replied, but with a smile instead of her usual frown as she looked at Mark.
Mark seemed puzzled. Mia grinned at his confusion. The two of them had been sparring on that subject for years. It wasn’t like her not to keep picking at it, but now that she believed she understood why her grandmother granted Mark and his sister a special privilege, she couldn’t be jealous anymore.
There was one empty spot on either side of the table until Rhys stood up and held out his hand.
“Hi, Matt. I’m Rhys. You can have my seat so you and Mia can sit together, and I’ll take the one on the other side.”
“You don’t have to do...” Matt began, but Rhys waved him off.
“No problem. It’s my pleasure.”
Mia smothered a smile. Karen didn’t look pleased at the seating arrangement. Moving quickly, Mia took the other chair, which meant that Matt would be sitting between her and Karen. Rhys clearly still thought that Karen was The Heart of the Tree and was doing his bit to make sure she and Matt would have a chance to chat.
After they were seated, Mia ran round the table, introducing the rest of the crowd.
“This is Karen, our resident genius,” she said. Karen nodded her head, but didn’t say anything in response to Matt’s hello.
“The big guy beyond her is Bobby, who I mentioned earlier.”
“Hi, Matt,” Bobby said, rising to his feet so he could reach past Karen to shake hands. “Mia told me about your car. If you’re not using it for a day sometime soon, let me know and I’ll have a look at it. I’m working most days during the week, but I’ve got the weekend and evenings largely free.”
“I don’t want to trouble you...”
Bobby gave a big grin as he sat back down. “No trouble at all. I’d love to do it.”
“Mark’s the one at the end,” Mia said, continuing the introductions.
Mark looked up, scowling slightly. Mia guessed he was still trying to work out what she’d meant by her earlier comment, so she quickly moved on when he didn’t respond to Matt’s greeting.
“Around the other side, next to Aunt Cynthia, we have Vince.”
“Hi, Matt. Sorry, but this lovely lady is mine. You can’t have her,” Vince said, putting an arm across the old woman’s shoulders.
“Damn! Oh, well, I’m going to have keep looking, then,” Matt said, laughing.
Mia hid an appreciative smile. With his joking, Vince had managed to confirm that Matt was single.
“On the other side of Vince is our Indian princess, Padma.”
Padma gave him a shy smile. “Ignore the princess jibe, Matt. I’m just your average commoner.”
“And Rhys has already introduced himself, so that’s everyone.”
“Thanks, Mia. Hi, everyone.”
Matt sat down and then looked across the table to Aunt Cynthia. “I believe I have you to thank for looking after my friend, Gary Ross.”
She smiled. “That’s okay, dear, I didn’t mind. I just felt sorry for him.”
“Did you speak to him before he... uh...”
She shook her head. “Sorry, no, I didn’t.”
Matt looked puzzled. “But the inscription...”
“It just felt right. I sensed that something had happened, and when I heard about what occurred between Rhys’s dad and Gary’s father, I could tell that the boy had been lacking in love.”
“Rhys’s dad?” Matt asked, looking across the table at Rhys.
“My dad’s the local cop,” Rhys explained. “He was there when Gary’s dad identified the body.”
“And Rhys is the local rebel against authority,” Karen said. “He gives his dad more work than the rest of the town combined.”
“Hey, that’s not true! I’m not that bad.”
“Not quite,” Mark said, smiling broadly, “but close.”
“Anyway, thank you,” Matt said to Aunt Cynthia. “That inscription is more accurate than you can imagine.”
Aunt Cynthia just nodded. She smiled, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. Mia thought she still seemed very depressed over the whole incident.
“So, where are you from?” Vince asked.
“My parents have a farm a couple of hours east of Dubbo, but I’m living in the city while I go to university,” Matt replied.
“Oh?” Vince said, straightening up in his chair. “What sort of farm?”
“Vince is our farm boy,” Mia explained in an aside to Matt. “The rest of us are town folk.”
Matt smiled at Mia before turning back to Vince. “They run a commercial cattle farm, with a bit of stud on the side.”
“My parents run a Limousin stud. What type do you have?” Vince asked, putting his arms on the table and leaning forward.
“Mainly Angus, with a small herd of Belted Galloways, but they’re experimenting with an Angus/Brahman cross.”
Vince nodded. “Hopefully getting the tick resistance of the Brahman with the meat production of the Angus. We looked at doing the same with the Limousin, but a lot of our sales are to the south, where they don’t have a tick problem, so we decided against it.”
“Excuse me!” Mia said, waving a hand between the two guys. “We all know that Vince likes to talk bull, but the rest of us haven’t the faintest idea of what you two are talking about. How about sticking to simple topics, like the weather, or what you’re planning on doing this weekend?”
Matt laughed. “Okay. I’ll save the farm talk for later. So, what is there to see this weekend?”
Mark jumped in before anyone else. “The Mourton Wineries are always worth a visit, though I’d suggest going there in the morning.”
“Why the morning?”
“Rhys works there in the afternoon,” Mark replied dryly.
“Hey, that’s a good reason to show up in the afternoon. I can do him a good deal on a bottle or two,” Rhys said, before turning to Matt. “I work in cellar room sales, so come to me and I’ll look after you.”
“What do you do for a living?” Matt asked Mark.
Mark shrugged. “I’ve applied to get into teaching at the uni at Dubbo, and until then I’m just filling in with part-time work here and there.”
“Teaching is good. One of my friends has just finished her second year and she’s really keen to finish and start work.”
“What Mark is neglecting to tell you is that until he goes to uni, he’s working as a garbo,” Rhys said, grinning at his friend.
“If you don’t want your garbage collected, then that’s fine with me, Rhys. You can explain it to your dad. No skin off my nose.”
Rhys held up his hands and laughed. “Truce!”
As the evening progressed, everyone relaxed. As normal, Rhys and Padma, the two teetotallers, drank fruit juice and soft drinks. As he’d be driving, so did Vince. The rest had wine. Most were responsible, but Mark made himself conspicuous by the amount that he drank.
Mia was disappointed that Matt and Karen hardly spoke to each other, even though she never thought Rhys’s theory was right. She didn’t see Karen as someone looking for love and not finding it. Once she was at uni in Sydney, she’d be among her intellectual peers. None of the guys around Mourton came anywhere close to Karen in the brains department.
Karen showed interest in Matt only once, when he mentioned he was studying in the medical field.
“Oh? I’ve applied for medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. I didn’t think they taught medicine in Dubbo,” Karen said, surprised and a little suspicious. There was also a touch of eagerness in the way she spoke to him.
“It’s not a medicine course. I’m doing veterinary sciences.”
“Animals?” Karen said, sneering disdainfully and turning away to speak to Bobby.
Matt turned and leant towards Mia.
“Animals don’t require that you have a bedside manner,” he whispered.
Mia had to smother a laugh. It hadn’t taken Matt long to pick up on Karen’s biggest problem. She would be a brilliant doctor, but she needed to learn a lot about how to deal with people. It wasn’t only her brains that had driven all the eligible boys away from her.
Dinner stretched out over three hours. Mia’s dad came out to see them and to take their dessert orders. Mia was impressed that Matt made a point of complimenting her dad on the meal, while declaring he couldn’t possibly eat anything more.
After they’d finished and were mingling outside the restaurant, each one waited for someone else to make the first move. The warm evening air made the nearby streetlights shimmer gently in a mild heat haze.
“Why don’t I walk you home?” Mark asked Mia.
She hesitated for a moment and then accepted the offer. She wanted to make sure Mark got home safely. He was drunk, and it showed whenever he tried to take a step.
“Vince and I will make sure Matt gets back to his room,” Rhys said when he saw Mia flick a glance in their visitor’s direction.
“Don’t worry about me,” Matt said, slurring his words. He had a happy glow about him.
Mia gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning and show you some of the sights,” she promised.
“I’d like that,” Matt replied, before he was dragged off by Rhys and Vince.
“And I’ll escort this lovely lady back to her place,” Bobby said, slipping an arm across Aunt Cynthia’s shoulders.
“If only I were twenty years younger,” Aunt Cynthia said, giving an exaggerated sigh.
Mia grinned. Their gentle giant towered over her grandmother. Aunt Cynthia didn’t really need an escort, but Bobby was too much of a gentleman to let her walk home by herself.
Mia and Mark headed off.
“Do you mind if we go past The Tree?” Mark asked, once they were alone.
“Of course not. What did you think of Matt?”
He snorted. “A spoiled brat, if you ask me. It sounds like he’s full of himself.”
She looked up at Mark in surprise. “What do you mean? He was a perfect gentleman to me earlier in the day, and I think he made a lot of good conversation tonight.”
Mark hesitated before responding. “There’s something about him that I just don’t trust. It’s like he’s hiding something, or that he’s not really what he says he is.”
Mia thought Mark sounded defensive. “I didn’t get that impression,” she said, scowling.
Mark fell silent. The two didn’t say anything until they reached the park. They looked sadly at the temporary fence erected around The Tree. Mia felt it was as if the council was trying to shut the town away from happiness, though it was being done for what were, on the surface, good reasons.
“Come on, Mia,” Mark said, grabbing her by the hand and starting to head towards the fence.
“What is it?”
“There’s something I want to show you,” Mark replied as he led her to a gap in the fence. Someone else had been there previously and made an opening. Just like in Aunt Cynthia’s day, the young people in town didn’t want The Lovers’ Tree closed off.
They slipped through the opening and cautiously walked under the boughs of The Tree. They could hear the sounds of at least one couple ahead, quietly whispering to each other.
Mark stopped after a few steps and turned to face Mia. He took a deep breath and grabbed both her hands.
“Mia, you seem to really like this Matt guy, but I don’t think he’s right for you. You need to be careful. I don’t want him to hurt you. I want you to stay away from him; he’s bad news.”
Mia froze for a moment and then wrenched her hands away.
“Don’t you dare tell me what to do! I can make up my own mind about who I like and don’t like and at the moment you’re heading into the ‘don’t like’ category. You’re trying to control who I can be with and you need to learn that you can’t do that!
“Now, good night, Mark. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s the alcohol talking. I don’t want to have this discussion again, understand?”
She turned and stormed off, leaving Mark standing open-mouthed under The Tree. She neither saw nor heard what he did next.
“Yes, Mia,” he whispered to himself, “it was the alcohol talking, but that was just Dutch courage.”
He looked up at the canopy above him. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be done, but he went ahead anyway.
“I love you, Mia,” he murmured, staring up at the boughs of The Lovers’ Tree, “and I don’t want to lose you. Please don’t be The Heart of the Tree and fall for Matt. I brought you here to tell you I love you and then I stuffed it up.”
He looked down at the ground and kicked at one of the exposed roots.
“How am I going to tell her all of this, now?”
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author’s expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to express a special thank you to Kel, and also to everyone at The Mail Crew. The help they have given me with this story has been fantastic. Special kudos go to Aaron of The Mail Crew for doing a brilliant job of editing. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.