When Michael Broadhurst invites a total stranger to share his sleeper on the overnight train, he’s asking for trouble—not that his life could get any more complicated than it already is.
After years of working on outback properties, Gazza Kelly is finally heading back to the city. With his criminal past behind him, Gazza has no plans until he’s invited to spend the night with a guy he’s never met before.
Bloody rain. His mother’s insistence on a proper goodbye kiss through the half-open car window, followed by his dash between car and railway station ticket office, guaranteed him a drenching. Michael might not have been quite so pissed off had their kiss been heartfelt and not merely a public display of devoted mother and dutiful son. Getting soaked hadn’t improved his temper, especially on discovering his carriage, a sleeping car, turned out to be halfway along the open platform. Accompanied by a couple of other unfortunates, Michael decided to make a run for it in the hope the monsoon rain might not wet them any more than it had already.
“You okay, mate?”
Finally out of the rain, Michael had stood just inside the carriage door, scanning his soggy ticket for a compartment number. He’d been oblivious to the presence of someone stuck behind him and had unintentionally blocked the entrance, thereby leaving the man stranded, trapped on the platform and unable to move until Michael got out of his way.
“Sorry…I didn’t realize.” Michael stood back, allowing the man to shoulder his heavy backpack and a guitar case onto the train. The tight fit had Michael holding his breath as the man smiled and squeezed past him into the carriage. The stranger appeared in his thirties. His face, rugged to begin with, bore a slightly crooked smile and sported an assortment of wrinkles, probably the result of too much time spent in the Australian sun. In spite of the shortcomings coupled with his urgent need of a shave, the stranger had a particular quality that might define him as quirkily handsome. A fair bit taller than Michael, the man, while not exactly lanky, looked rather on the slim side and would have several inches on both Michael’s father and brother. Michael suspected he’d end up with a crook neck were he to look up at him for any length of time.
What particularly drew Michael’s attention were the tattoos covering both his arms and the way his wet shirt stuck to his body, emphasizing a surprisingly muscular build. Used to discretely observing people, each one a potential character for one of his novels, Michael made a mental note of the stranger's hair. In his imagination he’d describe it as messy, the way the untidy tangle of natural waves, wet and glistening, lay plastered to his scalp. While he was fascinated by the hair, the tattoos remained the center of Michael’s curiosity. Surreptitiously imagining what he would find hidden under the shirt, he let his gaze follow the complicated patterns twisting and swirling beneath each sleeve. He was so entranced that only the stranger's voice was able to rouse him from his silent reverie.
“You sure you’re okay, mate? Or do you just like looking?”
Michael felt the heat spreading upward from his neck to his cheeks as he blushed. The stranger had actually accompanied his broad grin with a wink, obviously amused by the embarrassment his words had caused. “Sorry…I was…” Michael’s words tapered off when the man nodded and flashed him a second smile as he brushed past him again, this time exiting through the door to his own carriage. Michael stood still for a moment, stunned and excited by his strange reaction to the man. He grimaced and shook his head, unsure what to make of it.
When Michael gazed through his compartment window at the forbidding flat plains country landscape, he saw vast uninviting swaths of it flooded and now resembling inland lakes. He shared none of the romantic notions city people loved to enjoy as they had never been condemned to live there. In all his years, having been born and raised in the bush, Michael had never called it home. For him, the city with its crowded streets and constant noise earned that title. His trip back to Longbush had been to attend his brother’s wedding, an occasion he would rather have avoided. Afterward, when the guests had left and the caterers were packed up, he had confronted his father, an interview which proved just how different they were. Now, alone on the train, Michael sat in his seat, cursing Longbush and anything to do with the name of Broadhurst. His father, brother, even his mother, none of them gave a damn what happened to him—a suspicion reinforced by his trip home.
Were that not enough to contend with, Helen, his girlfriend, likely ex-girlfriend, would be waiting for him in Brisbane. He recoiled at the prospect. Had his parting words not ended their tenuous relationship, his news would certainly complete the job.
Thirty minutes into the overnight journey, he could feel the walls of his tiny sleeper starting to close in on him. What had initially been cozy suddenly felt claustrophobic, and he had to get out. With his mind preoccupied, Michael failed to look where he was going as he left his compartment. A sudden lurch of the train threw him against another passenger. Strong hands steadied him as the train lurched a second time. Michael saw the tattooed arms first, and where the hands held him, it felt as though his skin was on fire.
“Shit, mate, we seem to be making a habit of this.” The stranger stood there, managing a smile, still holding onto him, neither of them attempting to move.
Michael tried to swallow but couldn’t. “I’m not usually this clumsy.”
He saw the man’s hazel eyes looking him up and down.
“I don’t mind, mate. Feel free to bump into me anytime.”
That smile again, Michael thought. Speech refused to come.
“Looks as though we’re headed in the same direction.”
“What?” Michael sounded confused.
“The buffet car.”
“Oh…yes.” Michael struggled with his words, aware only of the hand still holding his arm as he remained rooted to the spot.
“Shall we go then, mate?”