“This is the place?” Gabrielle asked, stepping out of the ute and stretching. “You were right, it’s just like that place up at Ryleston Gorge.”
The afternoon sun was fading fast, but there was still enough daylight to see the wide verandah running around the old house. It was similar enough to the homes around and in the area they’d both grown up to make Gabrielle smile.
“Yeah,” Steve replied. “Jesse Stephens reckons there’s a bunch of builders around that all used the same design up and down the state.”
“Well at least I’ll know what to expect,” she said. “Do you remember why we didn’t take the place in Ryleston Gorge?”
“Yeah, it was too far from home,” Steve replied, leaning on the hood of the ute.
“Uh, no, it was the drafts, and the termites,” Gabrielle corrected.
“Nah, that’s not right,” Steve said with a smile.
“Lack of insulation, and from what I remember the kitchen was older than my grandmother,” Gabrielle continued. She looked at Steve, arms crossed, eyebrows raised. “Shall I go on?”
“No, no,” Steve said, coming around to stand beside Gabrielle. “I think that’s enough reminiscing, don’t you?”
“Looking to the future, Doctor Taylor?” Gabrielle said, warmth in her voice. She could feel him standing close, the sensation both familiar and disconcerting.
“I certainly am,” Steve replied.
She didn’t dare turn to look at him. Things were still mixed up enough in her head, and he was as tempting as ever…
“Let’s hope everything’s functional,” Gabrielle said. “I doubt we can get a pizza delivered out here.”
“Dinner is organised,” Steve said, and when Gabrielle raised one eyebrow, he added, “I am not completely useless, you know.”
“Noted,” Gabrielle replied, grinning at him. “Shall we?” She reached towards the car door, but Steve’s hand on her arm stopped her reaching it.
“No, I’ll come and get the bags later,” he said.
“Steve,” she protested.
“No,” he insisted. “Later.”
“Alright, alright,” she said, ignoring the butterflies in her stomach at the look they exchanged.
You can't ignore this forever.
The inside of the house was more or less as she expected; large family space, wood heater, a big kitchen. Updated from the original, to her relief.
“Bedrooms down here,” Steve said. He opened the first door, stepping in and turning to see her reaction.
“Steve,” she said, looking around the carefully decorated nursery. It wasn’t fancy, but there had clearly been an effort to make it inviting - new paint, as well as a cot, change table and reclining chair.
“Well, whatever happens the baby’ll need somewhere to sleep,” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle said, her heart pounding. Steve’s done all this. “Yeah, of course.”
“There’s three more bedrooms down the hall,” Steve told her.
Neither spoke for a second, the elephant in the room looming. What exactly is the deal here?
The talk over dinner was light enough, continuing their conversation from the trip. All Saints’ gossip, Steve’s ideas about the new job, how Ben was managing with the new farmhands.
“That was great,” Gabrielle said finally, pushing her plate away.
“You sound surprised,” Steve replied.
“Well, cooking was never really your forte,” Gabrielle said. “It’s certainly an improvement on the curry you made that night in Sydney.”
“Hey, there were extenuating circumstances,” Steve protested.
“Yeah, right,” Gabrielle said, the grin on her face broad and open as she remembered.
We were both a bit drunk, and too busy with our hands all over each other to concentrate…
“I’ll clean up, will I?” Steve said.
“Ta, yeah,” Gabrielle said. She left him to do it, standing at the front window instead, looking over the darkness beyond. The utter blackness of the country always calmed her. It was so different to the city, where the light was all encompassing and neverending. It was the silence, too; a distant engine, the occasional animal, but otherwise…nothing.
“It’s great, isn’t it,” Steve said, coming to stand behind her.
“I love the night out here,” Gabrielle said, knowing Steve would understand what she meant. “The dark.”
“And the quiet,” he added.
“Mmmm,” she agreed.
“Gabby,” Steve said, and the tone of his voice made it clear he was about to start A Conversation.
Gabrielle waited in silence, cursing her heart for speeding up. She’d thought about little else but this conversation in the two weeks since she and Steve had agreed to do this together. As she’d interviewed for the replacement NUM, packed up her stuff, visited her brother and helped him hire some help for the farm; all those moments, and there was always a part of her brain working on this inevitability.
Swallowing, Gabrielle waited to see what Steve would say.
He’d agreed to help her raise their baby.
But what did that mean for her? For them?
Did he even want them to be together?
“Gabby,” Steve said again, and the gentle pressure on her shoulders told her he wasn’t going to let her hide from this.
She turned, drawing a deep breath before looking at Steve.
“What exactly did you have in mind, when you said you wanted to do this with me?” Steve asked, waving one hand at her abdomen.
“Uh, well…” she started, annoyed to feel tears welling already. “I don’t know,” she said.
“You said you care about me,” Steve said. “Is that true?”
“Yeah,” she whispered. “Always have.”
“Always?” he said.
“Jesus,” she replied. “Yes, of course. I hated you after I found you and Tracey that night. When you were drinking in Sydney. When you left.” She looked at him, exasperated. “Doesn’t mean I stopped loving you.” She tried to smile. “Why'd you think it hurt so much?”
“Oh, Gabby,” he whispered. “I am so sorry.”
“I know,” she said. “And I know a lot of it was the alcohol.”
“It’s not an excuse,” he said.
“I’m not saying it is,” she replied. “I know you’re not the same person as you were then. But we have to be clear. One drink, one,” she said seriously, “and we are out. Me and the baby.”
“I’ve been clean almost three years,” Steve reminded her. “Haven’t even stepped foot in the pub since I got here.”
“Right, good,” Gabrielle said. “And I believe you.” She looked at him, a long searching look. “But I can’t do it again. Go through it all again…”
Her indrawn breath was almost a sob.
“Why?” Steve asked. He was looking at her like he did sometimes, like he knew the answer but wanted her to say it. “Why would it be so hard now?”
“Oh, why do you think?” she snapped. When he just looked, that damned annoying, amused look on his face, she blurted, “Because I still love you, you idiot.” His face broke into a smile. “Oh, shut up,” she said irritably.
“So does that mean you’re going to move in here with me?” Steve said. His hands had crept onto her hips as he stepped closer, his body heat washing over her, warm and familiar.
“It might,” she said. “It does depend on one thing.”
“And what would that be?” Steve asked, his voice low and gravelly. It still sent the same thrill through her as when they’d first met.
“Do you love me?” The question sounded plaintive, childish, but she needed to know. He looked at her so long she wondered for a moment if he was wondering how to let her down gently.
“I don’t remember not loving you,” Steve told her. “I know how it felt to lose you, Gabby, through my own stupidity. Twice. I don’t ever want that to happen again.”
She looked at him, assessing, trying to push her doubts away.
“Is it enough?” he said.
“I don’t know,” she told him. “I thought...I thought all that was done." She gazed at him. "I want it to be enough.”
“So do I,” he said.
The silence held between them, and for a long, held breath Gabrielle didn’t know if she was going to kiss Steve or not. The temptation was overwhelming, but it felt like falling off a cliff – one small move and she’d be committed for good. No turning back.
I want it to be…
“I’m pretty tired,” she said, turning away. “Might grab my overnight bag from the car.”
“Sure,” Steve said, stepping back. “Second door on the left’s the spare room. Bed’s made up.”
“Thanks,” Gabrielle replied. She made sure to concentrate on the stairs down to the car, pushing aside the whirl of thoughts to make sure she didn’t fall. The bag wasn’t heavy – just a couple of nights' of essentials – but she half-thought Steve would follow her and insist he carry it for her.
The disappointment when he didn’t was sharp. She pushed it down, pasting a smile on as she came back into the house.
“Thanks again for picking me up today.”
“No problem,” Steve replied.
She tried to analyse his voice – was he angry? Resigned? Disappointed? She couldn’t tell.
“Well, good night,” Gabrielle said, with an attempt at a smile.
“Night, Gabby,” Steve replied.
It was strange, getting ready for bed, knowing Steve was so close. Like that first night in Sydney, she thought to herself. When he’d complained about sleeping on her couch, and she’d ribbed him about being a sook, and he hadn’t known she’d tossed and turned too, picturing him being right there after having been absent so long. Even then, he’d been so tempting, drawing her in without even trying. She’d tried to protect herself from him, from the rush of having him close, having him see her so clearly. From how hard and fast she always fell for him. Even then, she’d only lasted a few hours; by the following night they were in bed together again.
Changing into her sleeping shirt, Gabrielle did her best to ignore the changes to her body. It wouldn’t be for much longer that it would be possible; her pants barely fastened properly any more, and nothing looked the same, even at a glance. The vague concern about how different her body would be by the end of the pregnancy – let alone after it – still nagged at her whenever she stopped for long enough to look.
She didn’t look if she could avoid it.
And now the question came up again. The question she’d been pushing down ever since Von’s farewell.
What would Steve think?
It didn’t matter. Or maybe it did.
As she crawled between the sheets, Gabrielle sighed. She wondered how long she’d be able to stay here without making a decision. It wasn’t fair on Steve not to be clear about what she wanted. He certainly had; it was up to her to decide if it was enough that he said he loved her.
It was achingly tempting.
Her mind threw up all the good memories of Steve. The fun, laid-back man who’d swept her off her feet at that first B & S, enough years older to be worldly and exciting without freaking her father out. The quiet words he’d offered that night at All Saints, apologising for how much he’d hurt her all those years ago. The careful lover who’d helped her forget her grief after her father died.
It was almost enough to make up her mind.
Restless, Gabrielle rolled out of bed, wincing a little at the shift in her abdomen, the unfamiliar weight of her breasts. She shrugged into her robe, holding her breath as the door swung open onto the dark corridor.
Steve must have retired to bed, too.
It was odd how the realisation was both a relief and a disappointment. Much as she didn’t want to have the inevitable conversation, his company was easy and familiar. Reassuring, especially now, when she’d made such a big decision almost on a whim - and still wasn't sure it was the right one.
Padding into the kitchen she filled a glass with water, sipping at it as she continued to ponder the question that had pushed her out of bed in the first place.
Steve’s appearance made her startle. She looked at him, old t-shirt and tracksuit pants, face quiet in the half darkness.
“You’re still awake,” she said.
“I heard you get up,” he replied. “Just checking you’re okay.”
“Do you remember when we met?” Her question was quiet, almost rhetorical. Steve nodded, and she went on. “Dad was not too happy about that ute of yours. Did I tell you he stayed up waiting for me after our first date?”
“No,” Steve said.
She smiled at the memory. “I walked in and he just looked at me. I was so happy...Dad stood up and I knew he could see it. He kissed me and said, ‘If he hurts you I’ll skin ‘im alive.’”
“Yeah, he wasn’t too pleased to see me when the chopper flew in to get Benny,” Steve said. “Thought he was gonna knock me out.”
“Probably would have…” Gabrielle said, the rest of the sentence going unsaid. If he hadn’t been having a heart attack.
“Well, Dad was the exception…you always could charm your way into anything you wanted. Worked on me.” She looked at him again, eyes soft with nostalgia. “I thought you hung the moon,” she told him. “You were perfect, and I was young enough not to know that’s not true for anybody.”
Steve stirred uneasily. “I was a long way from perfect, Gab.”
“Not to me,” Gabrielle told him. “You were my whole world, Steve. Everything. All I could see in my future was you and me. When I saw you and Tracey…” she swallowed, then forced herself to go on. “It shattered me. Every single part of me was broken. It took weeks before I could even think straight.”
“I didn’t know,” Steve told her. “Christ, it hurt, losing you, but I pushed it away.” He huffed a laugh. “Denial was a big thing for me then.”
She looked at him for a long time, the quiet wrapping around her. “When Benny hurt his hand, you stayed with Dad while Mike and Jo brought him in.”
“Yeah, I did,” Steve said.
“Later that night, when we talked in my office, you were...different.”
“You apologised. Really apologised.” She looked at him. “I never really believed you before that.”
“I never meant it like I did then,” Steve told her. “I didn’t know what I needed to apologise for.”
“So why then?” Gabrielle asked him. “It was a long time after the fact.”
“It was a long time coming,” Steve told her. “I should have done it sooner.”
“Dad spoke to you, didn’t he? When you were waiting for the chopper.”
“What did he say to you?” Gabrielle asked.
Steve looked at her for a long beat. “He made me realise what an arsehole I’d been,” he said. “Told me how much I’d hurt you. Damaged you without even realising it. You didn’t deserve it, Gabby. You didn’t deserve me. Not like I was then.”
Gabrielle felt her face shift with shock.
“As I told you, I was so busy being hard-done by and misunderstood, I never thought about how much I hurt you.”
Gabrielle nodded. “You were everything to me,” she whispered again. “I didn’t know how to function without you. And with Tracey gone too...”
“Russell said you changed. He said you locked yourself in your room for weeks and when you came out you were different,” Steve added.
“Less naive,” Gabrielle said. “Older. Wiser, maybe.”
“He said I stole something from you,” Steve corrected. “That’s what he couldn’t forgive.” He opened his mouth as though to speak again. When he closed it, Gabrielle wondered what he had been going to say.
What else did dad say to him? It must have been big, to make him come to her like that. Something that made him realise how much she’d been hurt by what happened. Gabrielle looked at him, standing silently, waiting for her to speak.
“You did,” she said. “And I swore I’d never let you again.” She smiled despite herself. “And then you walked into All Saints like you owned the place, happy to see me, and I was still so angry...and I offered you a place to sleep. And I lasted all of a day, and I made excuses when you were drinking...” She took a deep, steadying breath. “I know I can’t resist you. I can’t say no, even when you were drinking, making excuses…and that’s what I’m fighting against. Because if I let myself again, and you hurt me like that again...” she trailed off. “I don’t think I’d survive it. Not in one piece. Not enough for our child.”
One hand was resting on her abdomen – when had that happened? She’d always thought it a conscious action, a pregnant woman touching her bump, but as it turned out, it happened automatically.
“I wondered about that,” Steve said. “You were so determined against me, then you told me to take the job, offered me your couch, then your bed...”
“I can’t go half way with you,” Gabrielle whispered. “If I’m in, it’s all the way.”
“I’m not him anymore, Gabby,” Steve said. “That guy, making excuses.”
“I know,” Gabrielle said. “I’ve seen you changing since you got back here, since you got sober.”
“But it’s still on your mind,” he finished for her.
“Yeah,” she said emphatically. “Yeah, it is.”
“How much?” Steve asked.
“Not enough to say no,” Gabrielle replied with a half-smile.
“I will never hurt you like that again,” Steve said.
“You’d better not,” she said, finally putting her water glass on the bench.
“I won’t,” he repeated.
They moved together, closing the gap, meeting in the middle. Kissing Steve was like coming home, and Gabrielle felt herself melt into him, their rhythm as familiar as her own heartbeat. Her hands were running over fabric, skin, rough stubble, reacquainting themselves with the feel of him. The thrill of her own desperate need was matched by the equally eager hands roaming over her back, her neck, tangling in her hair…he’d always loved her hair.
“Steve,” she gasped, as he pulled her tight.
“You alright?” he asked, his breath sharp in her ear.
“Just…be gentle,” she reminded him. When he made a confused noise and started nuzzling at her neck again, she couldn’t help chuckling. Pulling back a little, she looked into his eyes, one hand seeking his, placing it over her abdomen.
“Remember?” she told him. His fingers flexed a little, and he looked down.
“We won’t hurt the baby,” he told her.
“Yeah, I know,” she said in exasperation. “I’m talking about me.”
“Oh,” he said. His grin grew intimate, and her heart flipped as he purred into her ear, “I’d better be gentle with you, then.”
“You’d better,” she replied breathlessly, and he kissed her again, their breath loud in the otherwise silent night.