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Chapter 53 Christmas Day

Sam felt none of the excited anticipation that waking up to this day would have once brought. She had no urge to leap out of bed to see if the rest of the family were up yet, and no wish to stir them into activity if they weren’t. Putting on a happy face took considerable effort and it was easier to delay having to do it.
She lay quietly in the old brass bed that had always been hers, her gaze idly roving over the mementos of her childhood and adolescence. All the things she’d kept remained precisely where she had placed them. In a way, coming back here was like stepping into a previous life, though she herself hadn’t really changed.
On top of the chest of drawers sat the beautiful doll her mother had given her when she was four. She’d never played with it, hadn’t seen what use it was. Its long auburn ringlets were still tied with green satin bows, and the matching green satin dress with its frills and coffee-lace trim was in the same pristine state as it had been when the doll was given, twenty-four Christmases ago.
Hanging on the wall facing her were the ribbons she’d won at rodeos, riding Lightning in the barrel races. He’d been a great horse, the fastest sprinter she’d ever had and so quick at turning around the barrels, it was magic the way he responded when they were competing to win. She’d wept buckets when he died from an infection the vet couldn’t fix.
But life moved on. Tragedies slid into the past and other things became more important. On the dresser was a photograph of herself holding her pilot’s license, one of the proudest moments of her life. Flying a plane was more exhilarating than riding a horse; taking to the air, owning the sky…like Tommy.
She sighed to ease the tension in her chest. How long had it been now…six, seven weeks? A bit over seven. The wedding had been on the sixth of November. Tommy had made no attempt at contact with her since then. Though she did know from her mother that he’d visited Janice in hospital several times, dropping in on Greg, as well.
It had actually been easier for her when her mother and brother were away, the reminders of that dreadful night at a distance. Her father let her be and Pete minded his own business. With Greg back home and having to nurse his leg, he was more or less underfoot and wanting company. Both he and her mother kept bringing up Tommy, and as much as she tried to block any conversation about him, they still dropped loaded little comments, referring to their togetherness at the wedding.
They also pointedly informed her that the Findlays had taken Janice home with them to Cairns, a long way from Kununurra, right across the country to the east coast. Away from Tommy was the apparent implication, not that it mattered. Tommy had made it all too brutally clear he didn’t want Janice in his life, and it was that callous brutality that stuck in Sam’s mind. Greg didn’t seem perturbed by the loss, either. Which clearly demonstrated what casual sex was worth. Nothing that lasted beyond the moment. Unless it resulted in an unwanted pregnancy.
It didn’t really help that the pregnancy was no more.
All it did was put an end to that chapter in Tommy’s life. A convenient end, she thought bitterly, given his attitude towards it.
As for the rest of his life…the rest of hers…despite everything, the torment continued to linger. Had she done the right thing, walking away from that night and all it had entailed? In sheer self-survival mode, she’d wrapped herself in a mental and emotional fog, automatically taking over the running of the Connelly homestead while her mother stayed on in Kununurra to be by Greg. She’d filled the days with chores, keeping so busy she fell into bed at night, too exhausted to think.
She didn’t want to think about Tommy now, either. After Christmas would be soon enough. In the new year. When she’d have to make decisions about continuing to work for him or…her mind shied away from or. Best to get moving—out of bed, into a shower, clothes on. She would wear a dress for Christmas. It would please her mother.
It should have been a happy Christmas day, Elizabeth King thought, but it wasn’t…quite…despite Miranda’s and Nathan’s announcement this morning that they were expecting a baby. It was wonderful news—Lachlan’s first grandchild—and Tommy had carried on exuberantly about becoming an uncle. But she’d seen the shadow of pain on his face before he’d switched on the positive energy expected of him.
He was very good at putting on a show.
And he’d kept it up during their festive lunch, with Jared supporting him, their witty banter keeping laughter rolling around the table. Both brothers were genuinely happy for Nathan and Miranda. Elizabeth wished they could be happy for themselves, but knew they were not.
Jared had asked her if he could invite Christabel Valdez and her daughter to King’s Eden for Christmas. She’d readily given her assent, hoping he had not sensed her own misgivings about the relationship he obviously wanted. In fact, it was a curious move from him. There had never been any embargo on inviting friends to the homestead for Christmas festivities. Had he been subtly probing her reaction to the idea of having Christabel in the family circle on an intimate level?
Difficult to know with Jared. He had his own quiet way of manoeuvring pieces into position—a formidable player in the business world, but he wasn’t emotionally involved when it came to cutting deals. Unrequited passion could wear patience and control very thin.
She didn’t know if he had actually invited Christabel. Perhaps he’d thought better of it, not ready to commit himself so far, or realising the invitation might be rejected. Putting himself in a losing situation was not Jared’s way. Nevertheless, he had to be feeling disappointment that Christabel was not here.
As for Tommy, Elizabeth feared the fallout from the Janice Findlay affair cut too deeply for him and Sam to come together again. She’d flown to Kununurra herself the Monday after the wedding. Sam had already left for home with Robert, a move which had spoken volumes even before Elizabeth had managed a heart-to-heart talk with Tess Connelly.
Time, they had hopefully decided, would put things right eventually. But time could also feed the demon, pride, Elizabeth thought now. Both Tommy and Sam had let pride be a bristling sword between them before. If they saw the climax of that night as a betrayal of each other, would either of them be prepared to risk their hearts again?
If the ghosts stay away, Tommy had said when he’d danced with her at the wedding, and Janice had undoubtedly raised many ghosts. The pity of it was…truth and justice didn’t repair the hurt done to the victims of a crime. Nothing could bring back what had been destroyed. Yet, was real love ever completely destroyed?
Aware that Tommy had fallen silent at the table, Elizabeth surreptitiously observed him watching Miranda and Nathan. Jared had prompted them into discussing what names they favoured for a son or daughter. Their faces glowed with love and the pleasurable anticipation of having a child to name.
  • Tommy’s jaw suddenly tightened. He pushed back his chair and stood up. “One last Christmas toast,” he said, claiming everyone’s attention as he picked up his glass and held it high. “If this is a day of peace and good will, let it be. Let it be,” he repeated fiercely, and drank without waiting for anyone else to echo it.
They all watched him, somewhat startled by his abrupt change of mood. He set his glass down, swept them with a look of reckless purpose and announced, “I beg to be excused. I need to be elsewhere. And who knows?” He tossed them a devil-may-care smile as he headed out of the dining room. “I may bring back the gift of a lifetime.”
“Sounds like a plane coming in,” Pete remarked, killing conversation as everyone paused to listen.
It was a plane coming in.
Sam’s heart fluttered, a wild hope zinging through her as she instantly connected the sound to Tommy. Her mind was slow to override the reaction. Why would Tommy leave King’s Eden to come here on Christmas day? It made no sense. There was nothing to get excited about. Most likely it was someone lost, someone in trouble, needing help.
“I’ll go and see who it is,” she said, pushing up from the table, needing the activity to settle her out-of-control nerves. The wall clock above her father’s head showed twelve minutes to three…midafternoon. Tommy was undoubtedly still sitting with his family over their festive lunch, just as she was. Once she’d identified the pilot, she could bury Tommy in the dark recesses of her mind again and not let him out for the rest of the day.
“Might as well all go,” her father said, dragging his chair back and patting his tummy. “Need some exercise after that huge meal.”
“You pigged out on the pudding, Dad,” Pete teased, getting up to satisfy his curiosity.
“Christmas comes but once a year,” her father declared. “Got to make the most of it.”
The others laughingly agreed, moving to follow Sam as she headed for the verandah overlooking the airstrip. A rise of inner tension prevented her from laughing. She couldn’t even act casually over who might be landing at the Connelly homestead. The compulsion to know drove her feet faster.
The plane touched down on the rough dirt runway as she pushed open the screen door to the verandah. Sheer impetus carried her to the railing which she instinctively gripped—a steady, external support for the inner turmoil raised by the sight of the small aircraft skimming over the ground in front of her.
No mistaking the big K on its tail.
KingAir printed clearly underneath it.
Could it be a charter? Or was it Tommy himself? And what would she do if it was Tommy?
Her mind jagged between a helpless wanting and almost violent rejection. Her heart felt torn. Her stomach had lost any semblance of a comfort zone. And her family emerged onto the verandah, completely relaxed and ready to welcome a visitor, outback hospitality about to be extended to whomever it was.
“See any identification on the plane?” Pete asked eagerly, watching it being turned around at the end of the runway.
No point in prevaricating. Sam worked some moisture into her mouth which had gone as dry as the land before the Big Wet. “KingAir,” she answered, trying to keep her voice emotionless.
“Tommy,” her father said in a tone of satisfaction.
Every nerve in Sam’s body tensed. She never had asked what her father had said to Tommy just before they’d left the hospital in the minibus. She’d simply been grateful to be spared any further conflict with him that night.
“Why do you think so, Dad?” she blurted out.
The plane was taxiing back to park near the homestead. Still, there was no absolute certainty about the identity of the pilot at the controls.
“Oh, it just seems like a good day for him to pick.”
Her head jerked around, her gaze slicing hard and fast to her father’s. “A good day for what?”
He shrugged. “Peace and good will,” came the bland answer.
“Tommy was great visiting me in hospital and bringing me stuff,” Greg remarked happily. “Think I’ll go and meet him.”
He stepped off the verandah.
“No! Wait!” Both the protest and the command burst off Sam’s tongue, causing her brother to pause and look quizzically at her.
“What for?” he asked when she didn’t follow up with a reason.
Panic was causing a shortness of breath. She didn’t know what to do, what to say. She wasn’t prepared for this!
“I think Sam has private business with Tommy, Greg,” her father explained. “Might be best if she met him first…settle things between them.”
“Oh!” Enlightenment spread into an arch look as he stepped aside to give her the right of passage. “Your move, big sis.”
Which meant she had to move. Gritting her teeth, Sam forced her legs into action. Her father was right. If it was Tommy in that plane, better she met him out there, beyond earshot of her family, though there was no way they weren’t going to view what went on. She could feel their interest burning into her back as she left them behind.
The plane came to a halt. Its engines were switched off. It may not be Tommy, she kept telling herself, trudging determinedly forward, her shoulders automatically squared and her head defiantly high. The heat haze of midafternoon made everything shimmer. She wanted to shade her eyes with her hand but it seemed like a weak action so she refrained from doing it. A fierce sense of pride quelled the inner panic. If this was Tommy, he could do the speaking. Then she’d know what to say.
The cockpit door opened.
Tommy King stepped out onto Connelly land.
Something punched Sam’s heart. Her feet stopped dead. He had come. He’d left his family Christmas at King’s Eden and flown here…to her.
He stood where he’d stepped down, staring at her. Since she’d stopped several metres from him and he wasn’t coming any closer, she couldn’t see what was in his eyes yet she felt the intensity of their focus on her, the impact of it spreading electric tingles, igniting nervous mayhem.
She stared back, wishing he didn’t have the power to affect her so much. Did nothing change it? Would she always feel like this with Tommy, as though the very vitality of her existence depended on him? She could cope without him but…she didn’t want to. She simply didn’t want to. He made life bright, exciting, challenging…and dark, and miserable and conflict-ridden, she savagely reminded herself.
There he stood, his playboy handsome face framed by the riot of black curls that seemed to embody an untamed spirit, his tall athletic body radiating energy and a strong, virile maleness that was loaded with sex appeal. And she was vulnerable to it, every bit as much as any other woman who’d fallen for it, but physical magnetism wasn’t going to win her to his side. Not today. Not ever.
She wanted more than that from Tommy. Much more. If he thought she was going to cross this space between them and fall at his feet, he could think again. If that was what he was waiting for, he could wait until doomsday. It wasn’t enough that he’d come this far for her. Her pounding heart demanded that he show her how much she was worth to him. In every way.
Tommy stood there, feeling her pull on every part of him, and the wanting that had been so briefly satisfied the day of Nathan’s wedding, became more acute than it had been that night. He needed this woman. She answered things in him that no other ever had. Or would, he thought with painful irony, aware of how nearly his past had come to wrecking any future with her. And might still, if her mind had become completely set against him.
Funny…he hadn’t considered her beautiful…all those years when he’d told himself other women were much more attractive, better-looking, sexier, and of course, appreciated the man he was more than Sam Connelly did. But she was beautiful. More beautiful to his eyes than all the rest.
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