Novel taste tests · Writing Journey

Secrets In The Lakes

Slowly getting through the edit of my manuscript.
Sharing part of it here in the hope of some constructive feedback.
Also looking for beta readers once I am happy with the rest.

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pexels-photo-205000

CHAPTER ONE
The Death Notice

‘Karl is dead!’

Mandy stopped motionless on the stairs to her unit. Karl dead? How is that possible? He is only thirty-four!

She received the dreaded phone call while, stuck in peak hour traffic, on her way home. Trying to reach for the phone in her new black leather bag, but still getting used to the many pockets she missed the call. Never mind, I can check it when I get home. Almost there, Mandy reassured herself.

Wednesdays were always horrible on the roads. Everybody had a reason to be in the city. Most weeks Mandy aimed to work from home to avoid the mid week commute. However, this week her favourite agency had invited her for a meeting which meant travelling to the city to meet the Creative Director, regarding what might end up a dream job. The meeting turned out a success, and they were keen to have her onboard for their six-month project. The agency had asked Mandy to put together a plan and an expense budget for her work. She looked forward to getting stuck into her proposal. The deadline set for next Monday gave her plenty of time.

The phone rang again as soon as she reversed her car into the garage.

‘Hello Mandy, Sam here,’ the voice on the end of the line greeted her.

Sam? She couldn’t recall anyone by that name. Noticing her silence, the voice continued.

‘Mandy, it’s Sam from Lake Haven, Sam Smith, we met a long time ago. Remember, Karl’s best mate at his wedding?’

‘Oh, Sam,’ she said with genuine surprise ‘Yes, I remember you. Long time – how are you?’

It must have been at least nine or ten years since she last saw Sam and a memory of him being a great kisser flashed through her mind. She contained a giggle remembering the kissing in the bar they ended up at after the wedding reception. Five of her good friends from Lake Haven and a few hangers-on, one of whom was Sam. A very nice hanger-on, she recalled with a smile on her face.

‘I’m well Mandy, but I have some unfortunate news about Karl,’
Sam stopped. It took forever before he spoke again, his voice thick and shaky.

‘It’s terrible…’ he started.

‘Sam, what is wrong?’

That’s when he told her the bad news about Karl having died. For the second time in her life Sam took Mandy’s breath away making her stop halfway up the stairs. The memories came flooding back of her teenage years in Lake Haven.

Karl had married his childhood sweetheart Emma, who was more of massive flirt and a princess than a sweetheart. But Karl adored her. They both settled in town and soon started a family. Mandy lost touch with most of her friends in Lake Haven when she moved away but according to Mandy’s mother, Karl and Emma were such a happy couple, successful and in love. In fact, her mum told her this often, and Mandy knew it was just intended as a strong hint for Mandy to find a man and get married herself. But Mandy not in a hurry. Her last relationship had ended 2 years ago when she caught her boyfriend having a secret affair. Just another bastard who had proved untrustworthy. She preferred being single. Better than having her heart broken again. But deep inside there was a longing; a longing she suppressed most of the time.

‘Sam, I am so sorry about Karl. How did it happen? Was he ill? Are you ok?’

‘I’m ok, Mandy, thanks for asking. We are not sure what happened yet. Maybe a heart attack. Emma found him in the lounge when she came home from a kid’s birthday party. Luckily the children ran straight to the games room, and she stopped them from seeing their father like that. I’m ok Mandy. Just shocked and finding it hard to believe. We planned to go fishing this weekend…’

Sam stopped mid-sentence and Mandy sensed his sadness. She wished she could help more and be there for him.

‘Sam, I’ll drive back to Lake Haven tomorrow. I’ll stay till after the funeral. Mum is in San Francisco so I can stay at our old house. We can catch up tomorrow evening if you like?’

Mandy smiled when she listed to Sam’s positive response to her suggestion. They agreed to meet at the local pub at 6.30pm and said their goodbyes.

The news of her old friend Karl was devastating and Mandy sat quietly trying to comprehend what Sam had just told her. Tears of disbelief and sadness formed in her eyes, but the prospect of seeing Sam again sent exciting shivers through her stomach. Tiny butterflies arousing something in Mandy that she had ignored for a long time. Stop being silly, she told herself. She didn’t even know whether Sam was with someone else or even if he remembered them kissing. But Mandy remembered. She remembered it vividly.

CHAPTER TWO
Organising the trip away

With a lot to organise before heading off, the sun only just peeping through the blinds when the alarm buzzed dragging Mandy back from a deep sleep. Her mind instantly focused on the list she diligently prepared before falling asleep. But nothing would get started before she enjoyed a good strong coffee with a healthy bowl of porridge to keep her going.

She put the coffee on to brew and organised the porridge for the microwave. Rolled oats, rice milk, banana, protein powder, cinnamon and a dollop of coconut yogurt to top it off when done. Best way to start the day on a cool spring morning. The porridge cooked, and the coffee effusing beautiful smells through her unit. Mandy loved this time of the day. So new and fresh, full of promises.

She sat down and wrote her text to Emma while waiting on the porridge to cool a little. Mandy being a writer never struggled for words, but this morning they didn’t come easy. Emma and her no longer a close friends, but they shared an important part of their past in Lake Haven. The Lakes as the locals affectionately called the town.

Mandy’s memory took her back to the first time she and Emma met. She often stayed in town with her mum for the summer break and Emma had just moved to Lake Haven to attend beauty school. The small town was famous for its natural beauty in the surrounding landscape; rolling mountains and the misty lake. But also beauty in its female population. It seemed to produce healthy and beautiful women, and during the 80’s a famous actress saw this as an opportunity, and opened a beauty school in the town which now put it on the top of the list in its industry in California.

Emma received a scholarship for the beauty college and accepted it without hesitation. She saw it as her ticket out of living with her aunt. Her ticket to freedom. She rented a room in the house across the road from Mandy’s place. A pretty girl she soon became the talk of the town. Well, the talk of the boys in town doing their best to get her attention, Mandy recollected.

Mandy looked up to Emma, being one year older at eighteen and living in a rented room on her own while attending college. Emma’s aunt had raised her after Emma’s parents died in a plane crash when only young. Another reason Mandy and Emma connected. The heart wrenching loss of a parent at a very early age made them bond. Emma’s aunt being her father’s step sister raised Emma out of a feeling of obligation rather than love and Emma knew this. So when Emma suggested beauty school in Lake Haven her aunt supported the idea and helped her find a place to stay.

Emma was graced with an air of vulnerability and hardness at the same time that either made you want to protect her or yell at her. Mandy often wanted to yell at her but mostly they had a lot of fun in their group of friends. Emma could have them all in fits of laughter with her stories from the small town she grew up in. Mandy often wondered if there stories were real but they certainly entertained them.

Emma’s softness and vulnerability appealed to the boys, and they didn’t notice the hardness. They were all keen to date Emma, much to Mandy’s envy. Emma however, soon settled all of her attention on Karl Sonenheim, the son of a wealthy real estate developer in Lake Haven.

Mandy returned her focus to her text to Emma. She wanted to make it sound personal, but her guilt, for not having been in touch with Emma for so long, made it difficult to find the right words. The message ended up being formal. Maybe that was better. Would a call be better? More personal? Mandy considered it while eating breakfast.

Her thoughts strayed to Sam. She wondered if he was still so damn good looking. His dark wavy hair and steel-grey eyes. The strong jaw and soft lips, oh those kissable lips that tasted so good. Mandy had stopped eating, the spoon resting on her lips. She almost wished she could have gone back to that night and the next morning and done things differently. But she was young then and had just taken up a scholarship for her masters at a major university in Amsterdam, and she was so full of dreams. No time for anybody to change her course. Not even someone like Sam. He didn’t make her stay either, so why should she. Or should she have stayed? She was now thirty-two and had never had a relationship longer than two years. She was running out of time to do the whole settle down and have kids, but she loved her beautiful apartment with designer furniture and satisfied in her chosen career and that made all the difference. Right until now when Sam had come back into her life. Even if he had been the bearer of bad news, it somehow had awakened her desire and longing, and she was now not sure of what she wanted anymore. She wondered if the passion between them would still be there after all these years. Was he even still single? Stop daydreaming girl, Mandy pulled herself together, drank the last of her coffee and dialed Emma’s number.

‘Hi Emma, this is Mandy Reid,’

‘Oh, hello Mandy,’ the voice on the other side of the line sounded tired and frail.
‘Sam rang me last night and told me the sad news. I am so sorry to hear about Karl. Are you ok Emma? Is there anything I can do for you right now?’

With just a faint ‘yes’ reply, Mandy continued

‘I am coming to the Lakes tonight. Meeting up with Sam. If you need anything, please just let me know,’

Mandy sensed a gasp after mentioning Sam’s name.

‘You are meeting Sam?’ Emma’s voice full of surprise. ‘I didn’t realise you two were still in touch. No, I am ok Mandy, but thank you for calling. I will let you know about the funeral arrangement. Have a safe drive back to the Lakes. Thank you again. See you soon.’

The phone silenced before Mandy could say another word. Shivers ran through her as if a cold draught just passed by her. Emma had been short and impersonal, but normal under the circumstances. Wasn’t it? This was Mandy first encounter with the death of someone in her age group, in fact first in a long time of any age group. She wasn’t sure how to react or what to expect from people in grief. So she put it behind her and went about getting on with the rest of her chores.

CHAPTER THREE
On the Road

In spite of the sad circumstances, Mandy felt a rush of adventure when early afternoon she was in her car on the road to Lake Haven. Normally a four-hour drive but, with her new car, Mandy expected it to be a little quicker and a lot more pleasant. She put on her favourite music and set the Navigation for Lake Haven. She knew the way, but with the verbal instructions she could just relax and listen to the prompts.

Her best friend Lilly had promised to stay at her place and mind her cat Felix. Being close to the city center Lilly loved staying there. A break from suburban life and closer to Lilly’s work. With Lilly already possessing a spare key it was easy to arrange. Mandy trusted Lilly with her place. They had been friends for a long time, and Lilly was always there when she needed help. Even if they didn’t see that much of each other, now that Lilly was living with Gary, they remained close. She and Lilly would meet up in the city for a bite to eat when Gary was away with his work, which mostly was only once a month. Still, ​they were close and could talk non-stop about everything and anything. Their friendship always took off as if they had never been apart.

Mandy considered Lilly her only true friend​ in the city. The rest, ​were just work colleagues or people she met when networking. They were just ‘fun party people’ as she called them. None of them connected on a deeper level. It was an​ industry where image and career was everything. Deep connections just didn’t fit in as they could crack open the fine-tuned​ image they had all worked so hard at gaining. But the cracks were there sometimes when the bottles of wine dulled their senses. When the cracks got too big people moved onto another company. Luckily the city was huge and allowed the odd crack to stain the image without permanent long-term damage.

Mandy had always maintained a polished and faultless career. She loved her craft, stayed out of the politics and kept her nose clean. In her almost 10 years in the industry, ​she had never had a problem finding work. The last 7 years she had contracted out as a freelancer, ​ a decision she hadn’t made lightly. She gave up a guaranteed steady income. But the gains had been enormous. She had charged a lot more for her work and was now a proud owner of a city apartment almost mortgage free plus had enjoyed trips overseas and time off to write a small non-fiction book on writing. She had so far never regretted taking that decision back when she was only 25.

Mandy had also worked overseas for a couple of years, ​but eventually came back to the US to be close to her mum again. Her mum lived partly in San Francisco and partly in Lake Haven in the summer. Mandy’s home was now LA, a city and lifestyle very different to the small town Lake Haven. The busyness and the anonymity of the big city life appealed to her. There was always something to do and see. She could find writing inspirations everywhere and was still close to the beaches for relaxation and recharging. Mandy felt at home in LA; it was the best place for Mandy right now at this point in her life.

In spite of her love of LA, Mandy never said no to an opportunity to get out of the city and explore new places. She loved nothing better than hiring a small house or room somewhere and just spend the weekend exploring and writing. New places gave her inspiration, and she always met some interesting people along her way. Mandy loved her own company; she needed her alone time to recharge. On the flip side, she loved the company and interactions with new and interesting people. The conversations and the stories that came from those interactions inspired a lot of her writing and ideas. You can stay in your own head too much and your writing can suffer. She learned that a long time ago.

Once out of LA and on the Paso Robles highway, she stretched back in her seat humming to the tune on the radio. The highway was fairly straight with tuffs of dry grasses growing alongside it. Several wineries along the roadside set a green lush contrast to the grasses, and the undulating hills made a beautiful backdrop. Something about the constant sameness of the view made it seem relaxing to her mind. She found herself going into auto drive and her thoughts to Sam. Mandy had packed a nice simple blue dress to change into before meeting Sam later. She didn’t want to overdress, but wanted to make Sam like what he saw. It was silly really. She hadn’t seen him in such a long time. Maybe he had aged and was no longer attractive to her. Maybe he was already in a relationship! Would he have agreed so readily to meet up if he was with someone else? Mandy wondered.

Mandy felt herself getting sleepy and decided to put the roof down to get some fresh air. The breeze against her skin and her long brown hair flowing like a wild animal behind her made her feel energized. She changed the station to some more upbeat music and enjoyed some of her cold water from her filtered water bottle.

Mandy was looking forward to staying at her mum’s place. It was a cute cottage on the outskirts of town surrounded by a luscious garden full of perfume laden flowers and massive trees. Her mum had hired one of the locals to look after the place when she wasn’t there, so the place always seemed cozy and lived in. Mandy had called ahead to arrange for the keys and to ensure the fridge had been stocked with some food. Her mum was still in San Francisco doing a Yoga meditation workshop, but she hoped to catch up with her before the funeral.
The wineries along the road all looked divine. So quaint and inviting. Mandy noticed a tiny winery set back from the road a bit. The sign read Chillax With the Best Wine and View.

‘Yes, just what I need’, she murmured and pulled into the dirt road leading up to the main house. A large red brick mansion-style house with huge verandas wrapped around all three sides, cute stained glass bay windows in the roof with tiny balconies. Looked like they did overnight stay as well. Parking her car, she quickly checked her appearance in the rearview mirror. You never know who you might meet even out here in the country.

A stocky young man with an infectious smile greeted her at the gate and led her to a rustic back veranda with a makeshift bar set up for tasting the wines. It was quiet and peaceful with only the sounds of the breeze rustling in the grape vines and their leaves. What an amazing view! As far as the eye could see endless paddocks of rolling grape vines adorned the hills with small walking tracks for the manual inspection of the crop as well as wider tracks for the harvest machinery. In the far distance shrouds of foggy clouds still lingered from the early morning chills. The view was like a picture straight out of a National Geographic magazine. If it wasn’t for the interruption of the young man asking Mandy if she wanted the wine list she could have just stood there mesmerised by the view forever.

‘Oh, yes please,’ Mandy said. ‘I would like to see your white wine list,’
‘We also have a sample menu, if you are interested. Sample 5 wines and receive a discount of 20% of any bottle you buy,’

Mandy was tempted, but she still had another hour of driving, so sampling wines was not the best idea.

‘Thank you I may just have a glass of your best Savignon Blanc, but I would love to return and explore some samples another day,’

He smiled again; that infection smile that lit up his face. He looked at her as if he knew her, but she was sure she had never met him. When he returned with a huge glass of wine, Mandy decided to grill him about the place. She was in the mood for company and he seemed approachable.

‘Please join me, I am interested in learning about your wines and this place. I am Mandy,’

She extended her hand and was greeted with a firm hand shake.

‘I am Ian, thank you, I’d love to join you. It’s quiet right now, but I will have to attend to anyone who arrives as I am the only one here today. My regular help is away sick so I am it,’

Ian sat down in the chair next to her and started telling Mandy about the place and the wines. He had inherited the place from his father who was no longer able to run the winery due to ill health.

‘I love this place and the lifestyle,’ Ian said. ‘It’s so peaceful here, and yet I get to meet so many people every day who drop in and taste my wine. You were lucky I was open today as I’m about to close it for a few days to focus on other parts of the business,’

Mandy listened with interest and before she knew it she was telling him why she was here and where she was heading. The phone call from Sam and the sudden passing of Karl. Ian had the kind of personality that just made chatting and opening up so easy. He seemed genuinely interested.

‘Maybe I’ll see you on your way back to LA. Here is my card, if you call beforehand I’ll make sure I’ll be here. I do pop into Lake Haven too from time to time to get supplies and get myself a good pub meal and a round of beer. Yes’ I don’t always drink wine,’

He laughed and gave her the biggest smile and she felt herself blushing. He was hardly 30. Nice to know she still had in in her.

Another couple arrived and Ian had to return to duties. Mandy remained seated and enjoying her wine and the mesmerising view. What a lifestyle, she thought to herself. Perfect spot for a freelance writer. Maybe she could return sometime for a short break and do some serious writing. Or maybe to catch up with Ian again. She smiled to herself feeling like a silly young teenager.

Soon Mandy was on the road again with only another good hour to go. She planned to get to Lake Haven by 5 and so far she was on track. Little did she know what was ahead of her on the road.

A sudden loud noise from the back of Mandy’s car sent a surge of adrenalin through her body. She slowed the car down and moved to the side of the road. Not having much knowledge about cars Mandy felt an unease bordering panic coming over her. She was in the middle of nowhere and it would be getting dark soon. She took a deep breath and hopped out of the car to inspect the rear. Damn! A flat tyre. A real nuisance but at least nothing major. She could fix that if she had to, but she didn’t really want to and decided to call her road assistance Drive America to see if they had any contractors around the area. Probably not likely out here in the country, but worth a try.

After waiting five minutes on the line she finally got put through to an operator who told her absolutely they could help, but it could be a wait up to an hour. Mandy knew from experience that was most likely more than an hour and she really didn’t want to sit around waiting, so she declined the offer to book in for the service. It was now 4.30. She really couldn’t waste any more time
She was just about to open the boot and get the spare out when she noticed a car approach from behind. It seemed to be slowing and sure enough it stopped and parked behind her car. Now she was really uncomfortable. Funny how the company of a stranger in a town or city is fine, but out on a lonely road it was uneasy. She gripped the jack tighter ready to defend herself. It was hard to see who was in the car, but the shape indicated a stocky male. Her heart was pounding. Why had she stopped at the winery? She could have been safe and sound at Lake Haven now instead of in the middle of nowhere with a potential madman.

The door swung open and to her relief a smiling face greeted her and the familiar voice of the winery owner Ian made her almost start crying.

‘What have we here, looks like I arrived just at the right time? I forgot to give you back your Visa card and noticed not long after you left. Was hoping I could catch up on you. Looks like this flat tyre did us both a favour,’. He beamed his smile and Mandy melted.

‘Thank you Ian that is very kind of you to come after me to give me back my card. Silly me for not even noticing,’

Ian offered to help and took the jack from her hand. For a split second Mandy felt vulnerable. The jack had been her only weapon. Don’t be silly she told herself. Ian was being helpful. But in the back of her mind something was brewing. She couldn’t explain why and decided to take no notice of her internal warning.

Ian had the tyre fixed in no time. Mandy was grateful and thanked him for his trouble. She turned to shut the boot when she felt his arm around her waist. She stiffened, but Ian softly spun her around and took her face in his hands.

‘Don’t be frightened Mandy, I have wanted to do this since you walked into my winery. You are a very attractive woman. Don’t you feel the connection we had from the moment we saw each other?’

Mandy had to agree there was something, but Ian was a lot younger than her and she was not comfortable being alone with him out here in the middle of nowhere. The infectious smile was still there, but now she noticed his eyes told a different story. She wasn’t quite sure what she saw, but it made her feel uneasy. It was like a fire in his eyes, but it wasn’t the usual signs of chemistry. Maybe it was just under the circumstances. Out here in the middle of nowhere and Ian really a total stranger she had only just met. So she said she was not sure what she felt and really had to get going. He smiled again and this time she felt like a child rather than a desired woman. How quickly your perception of someone can change depending on the circumstance you are in. At the winery she had been totally at ease in Ian’s company, in fact she had enjoyed in. But here she couldn’t wait to flee.

She quickly thanked him again and hopped into the car. He held the door so she couldn’t close it and looked her straight in the eyes saying

‘I’ll let you go Mandy, but I’ll be in Lake Haven over the next week, so I’ll look you up and come take you out for dinner’

Mandy realised she had told Ian where she was staying and about the funeral. It would be easy for him to track her down. Why had she been so open and chatty with him?

Driving off leaving Ian standing at the side of the road, she made a promise to herself to never be so trusting and open about her life and plans to total strangers no matter how pleasant and trustworthy they seemed.

CHAPTER FOUR
In Lake Haven

Finally, in Lake Haven Mandy stopped in front of her mum’s cottage. It had been over 4 years since her last visit when she had to pick up her mum who had fallen ill and needed to go back to San Francisco to see her specialist. Her mother had suffered from asthma most of her life and sometimes needed specialist care. Her love of yoga had helped keep it manageable most of the time but sometimes it flared up and nothing but a visit to the specialist would get her back on track again.

It was strange walking in through the front door and seeing the familiar hallway still intact with warm coats and hats on the rack in the hallway and family photos and favourite art pieces lining the walls leading into the lounge room. The sight and smell of the place brought back memories. Nostalgia and a longing for the familiarity of her past made her throat tighten and an overwhelming need to cry surprised Mandy.

‘I must go visit mum soon. It has been too long’ she said out loud to herself.

Mandy was normally a regular visitor to her mum’s townhouse in San Francisco, but the last 2 months had been so hectic that she had not made time. Maybe she should go visit before heading back to LA. Or better still bring her mum back here for the funeral.

Mandy and her mum Joyce had a close bond. It had always been just the two of them since her father Gary died when Mandy was only 6. They lived in Australia then. In a small town near Adelaide. She remembers the day so clearly when the police came to tell them Gary had died in a horrific car accident on his way home from the mines.

Mandy’s father Gary was born and bred in Adelaide and had met Mandy’s mum when she was travelling Australia as a young twenty-two-year-old. Gary was a few years older at twenty nine and divorced with a young child of only two years. His son, David, lived with his mum in Sydney so visits were rare initially. Gary worked in the mines, four weeks on and four weeks off. Sometimes they would all drive to Sydney and visit David. When David got a bit older, he came to visit most school holidays. They always had a great time, Mandy loved having her older brother around, and always hated when his visits came to an end and they had to say goodbye.

She remembers her parents being so in love. Gary always returning from his four weeks working in the mines with gifts for her mum and her. Not lavish gifts, just small tokens of love. Often books for Mandy that her father would read out loud to Mandy before bed. She remembered sitting on his lap snuggled into his embrace listening to his every word feeling totally loved and safe. It was their daily ritual when he was home.

The house would be full of laughter then and friends would come over for dinners and long nights of talking and drinking. Her mum’s eyes would sparkle and the smile on her face spoke of a deep love that would last a lifetime. Even if physically her parents would not be together for long. Mandy loved lying in bed listening to the merriment. When her father died part of her mum died too and they returned to the US to be closer to her mum’s family. Mostly it was still just Mandy and her mum and they both settled into life as it was. Over time the memories of her father faded except his great story telling ability. Mandy’s love of writing somehow made her feel closer to the dad she lost so young. Almost like her way of keeping her dad alive.

Mandy walked through the rooms of the cottage breathing in the smells and the memories that came flooding in. She settled in her own favourite room, at the back of the house, walls in a soft yellow framing the view of the bright pink rose bushes in the garden outside. She could see her mum’s gardener loved his work in the beauty of every plant. Nature always took your breath away. Mandy wished she had more time herself to have a garden, but her lifestyle in LA did not suit or allow for that at this stage in her life. Her successful career had a price, but she wouldn’t have it any other way for now.

CHAPTER FIVE
Evening with Sam

She had an hour to freshen up and get to the pub to meet Sam by 6.30. The weather threatened rain, so she decided to drive. Even if the walk would have done her good with all the driving today. But she didn’t want to arrive drenched at her first meeting with Sam after all this time. Not really sure why she wanted make an impression. But something told her to dress her best.

She quickly packed her things away, had a short shower and put on a fresh pair of jeans and a nice white shirt and her favourite shoes. Casual but sexy. Too chilly for her planned blue dress. She debated to put on the bright red or more subdues pink lipstick and went for the pink.

Soon Mandy parked in front of the pub and made her way to the front door. Her stomach tightened with self doubt. Sam and Mandy’s affair had been short, sweet and full of youthful passion, but could be counted in days.

Take a deep breath and stop fretting, Mandy told herself as she walked through the door into the pub. Her eyes adjusting to the dim light inside, scanning the room as she walked through the first room towards the bistro area. She never liked walking into a venue by herself. She imagined every man looking her up and down. A silent sigh of relief escaped her throat when she saw a tall man stand up and wave to her. Sam! She recognised his goaty, and he still seemed to have that manly build she remembered. The strong arms and the slightly naughty smile.

She walked across the room and offered her hand in greeting when he pulled her into a big bear hug. They stood like that for what seemed forever when as if on cue they both got embarrassed and moved apart. He fumbled with his own glass muttering ‘what would you like to drink Mandy?’ Whiskey would have calmed her nerves, but she settled for a glass of white wine.

Sam soon returned with a beer for himself and a glass of wine for Mandy. They settled into small talk about life in general. Sam had moved away from Lake Haven for a while for his career in Business Development. Employed by a large IT outsourcing company Sam travelled around the US for a while doing projects for a number of clients for his company. An interesting and varied career, always new challenges and yes always new women in town.

‘I liked it like that for a long time,’ Sam continued. ‘But it gets tiring. Plus, my dad suffered a stroke, so I decided to come back here and start up my own IT consulting business’

When Mandy asked if he had a special lady in his life she observed a slight hesitation in his answer.

‘No, no special lady at the moment. Been too absorbed in building my business lately. What about you Mandy?’

Mandy avoided going into any details about her relationships answering with a cheery.

‘No I am happy and single, ready to mingle,’

She saw the cheeky glint in his eyes and warmth started to spread over her face. Embarrassed she quickly offered to get the next round and stood up to move across to the bar.

That is when she saw him. Her heart pounding in her chest, she couldn’t believe her eyes. He hadn’t seen her, and she quickly got the drinks and returned to the table. But the sight of Ian from the winery had spooked her and made her uncomfortable. Is he looking for me? Stalking me? She wondered, suddenly glad she to be in Sam’s company.

Mandy soon forgot about Ian. Spellbound by Sam’s intense steely grey eyes and cheeky smile she listened to his stories of his life in the last ten years. Sam liked talking and was aware of his charm. He exuded sexy naughtiness and badness. Mandy found herself imagining being in his arms with his manly lips all over her neck and lips. Her heart pulsated a bit too fast and would have blushed embarrassingly if it hadn’t been for Sam standing up to get them another round giving Mandy time to compose herself.

The evening turned out just what Mandy needed. Her life had been too much work focused lately. After several rounds of drinks their conversation ended up broken up with laughter and giggles like a couple of young lovers.

Soon the pub started closing up, and the bartender signaled for last drinks. Sam and Mandy decided they’d had enough and got up to leave.

‘Oh I’ve got my car here, but I better not drive,’ Mandy said with a giggle.

‘Let me walk you home my fair lady,’ Sam joked.

They started the twenty-minute walk to her mum’s house. Heavy dark clouds left little light and the cold spring air pushed them to walk faster. It looked like it might rain at any time and they both shivered only dressed in jeans and t-shirts. Sam put his arms around Mandy.

‘I’m cold, keep me warm,’ he joked.

The heat emanated from his arms and body across Mandy’s. What made Sam so attractive? Drop dead gorgeous and charming. But something made her uneasy at the same time. She couldn’t put her finger on it. A sense of secrecy, of holding something back, not being his true self. In spite of Sam seeming so charming and confident, perhaps self doubt plagued Sam too. That must be it Mandy convinced herself.

Only five minutes away and the clouds burst with huge rain drops. They ran the last few hundred meters to avoid ending up totally drenched, but by the time they reached the porch of Mandy’s place they both looked like drowned rats. She really couldn’t make Sam leave in this horrid weather. She had to at least invite him in to get dried and lend him some dry clothes.

Sam stood shivering in the kitchen while Mandy put on the kettle for a hot drink.

‘I’ll go find you some clothes and a towel,’

Sam nodded with a smile. Soon Mandy came back with some of her mum’s garden overalls and a large jumper of hers and a big fluffy towel.

‘You can change in there’ Mandy pointed to the spare room and made herself busy making them both a cup of tea.

Sam didn’t close the door to the spare room. Mandy glanced across.
Stop it girl, you are being a perve, she told herself. Sam stood with his back to her completely naked apart from a pair of boxers showing a body that clearly worked out, long strong legs, a toned butt and broad bulging shoulders.

‘Damn I should have taken up that personal trainer last month when the offer came up,’ she thought to herself.

Mandy stopped looking and pretended to be focused on the tea making, fussing with the cups and getting a couple of muffins ready on a plate. Not that I need this, she thought.

‘Stop fussing Mandy’ Sam said as he walked into the kitchen, but the smile on his face showed that he really appreciated her efforts. He moved across to grab the plates and in doing so brushed Mandy’s hand. For a moment he hesitated. Mandy looked at Sam, but he turned around and put the plates on the kitchen table.

Soon they sat down opposite side of the small table. Mandy wondered why he was not making a pass yet. He seemed to flirt with his smile and eyes, but nothing more. Did she have to give him a strong clue? She looked at him and kept his gaze. His smiling eyes, all of a sudden took a turn, and he looked at Mandy with sadness.

‘We have had such a great evening, it’s really good to see you again. I’m sorry we didn’t stay in touch. But we are both aware you are here because of Karl. I still can’t believe he is gone. Poor Emma. I’m seeing Emma tomorrow to help with funeral arrangements,’

‘Oh, do you want me to come?’

‘No!’ Sam seemed to blurt this out a bit too quickly and realized.

‘It’s only that you and Emma are not close so she may not be comfortable with you there. I should at least check first,’ he added sensing her disappointment.

‘Oh of course, but if you need me I’m there for you both,’

The mood seemed to have changed. Sam stood up to leave and gestured to his clothes.

‘Can I keep these for now?’

‘Of course Sam. Keep them, I’ll see you before the funeral?’

‘Yes, I’m sure Mandy, I’ll give you a call,’

Mandy followed Sam to the front door and before she realised what had happened, she had put her lips on Sam’s. He pulled back a bit then relaxed and returned her kiss. A friendly kiss, nothing like their kisses at the wedding many years ago.

‘I must have misread the signals’ Emma thought and quickly pulled back and said good night.

Closing the door, she stood for a moment with her back against the door, still enjoying the lingering sensation of his lips on her lips, ‘Did he kiss her because he didn’t want to offend her? Why had he flirted with her all night? ‘Men! They are so damn confusing sometimes’

CHAPTER SIX
Meeting Marc

Mandy woke up early her body and mind refreshed. Even after the late night and drinks she was wide awake and energised. Nothing like the fresh country air and quiet neighbourhood to give you a good night’s sleep. None of the constant sounds of sirens driving past. No drunks or drug addicts loitering in the streets keeping the neighbourhood awake. None of the constant drone of traffic. No street or neon lights streaming through tiny cracks in the blinds. Only peace and quiet and waking up in the early hours to the sound of birds. It reminded Mandy of her childhood in South Australia.

Mandy decided to start the day with a quick jog. It would clear her mind of any Sam thoughts. She needed to get some more work done on her project. A jog would get her mind ready and on the task.

The air still crisp and shadows dancing around her she started jogging. She only passed a couple of people on the way to the lake. Another jogger and someone dressed in a smart suit. Most likely a San Francisco commuter. A lot of people from Lake Haven commuted to San Francisco every day. 1.5 hour each way on the bus. Sam used to drive to San Francisco… ‘Stop, this jog is meant to clear my mind’

She took a breather once she got to the lake. Out of breath and wanting to enjoy the vista. Still blue green water reflecting the surrounding trees and tall weed. Water birds quietly floating on the water so effortless. The sun rising behind the tall fir trees on the other side. Mandy took in a deep breath and sighed out load. What a way to start the day.

She started jogging around the lake again. Every ray of the sun seemed to give her another boost of energy. Her mood happy and relaxed. Something she hadn’t enjoyed for a while.

All of a sudden her face hit the grass and gravel on the track. She rolled over and laid there for a moment assessing the damage.

‘Are you ok mam’?’ a deep baritone voice sang out.

Mandy sat up and squinted in the glaring morning sun trying to make out if she knew the person standing up near the bend ahead.

‘Yes I am fine thank you. Only a bruised ego,’

Mandy tried to make a joke about it, but really her ankle hurt.

The other person walked closer. A shapely tall male with wavy brown hair dressed in cargo jeans, runners and a sweatshirt.

‘Mandy!! Is that you Mandy?’

Mandy looked up and only then realised it was Karl’s younger brother Marc. He offered her a hand up.

‘My God, Marc! It is you. Been so long. How long? Oh I am so sorry about Karl…’

Mandy stopped not knowing what else to say. She remembered Marc, but not a lot other than he was the annoying younger brother of Karl. Probably only a year or two younger than Mandy, but when you’re a teenager and early 20’s two years is a lot. Boys don’t mature till they are much older.

Marc looked at Mandy and his smile showed he appreciated her somewhat clumsy attempt to pay her condolences. It was always difficult. Most people didn’t really know what to say. There was nothing anyone could say to make it better, really. Everyone knows that. But everyone still goes through the motion. It’s heartfelt but awkward.

‘Can you walk ok?’

Mandy took a couple of steps. The pain was bearable. A bit of ice would fix it.

‘Yes I’ll be fine. Just need to get home and ice it up a bit and I’ll be as good as new,’

‘My car is right up there. I just came to look at the view before heading into town. I’ll take you home. Are you staying at your mum’s place?’

Marc supported her arm. The pain in her foot indicated that there was no way she could walk all the way back to her mum’s place by herself.

‘Thank you Marc. That is really sweet of you,’

Soon they sat in Marc’s car. It was an older car and had a faint smell of dogs. Mandy felt comfortable sitting next to him. Neither needed to talk other than a few directions. Soon they were outside Mandy’s place. Marc hopped out and opened her door giving her a hand to get out. Mandy didn’t want it to end there. Marc probably would also like some company. He had just lost his older brother.

‘Would you like to come in for a drink? I could do with a strong coffee,’

Marc looked at Mandy. A moment of hesitation, then he smiled, opened the front door.

‘Show me to your kitchen mam’,’ he said with a cheeky grin.

They were soon both seated with a steaming hot cup of Expresso. Mandy with an ice pack on her elevated foot. Marc had examined it and they both agreed it was minor. No bruising, just soreness. The ice would fix it.

The conversation flowed easily. Almost like old friends in spite of hardly knowing each other than through Karl. And that was a long time ago. But somehow they both relaxed and chatted with ease.

Marc told of his respect and admiration for his older brother Karl. Even if they were very different. Karl was a high achiever striving for perfection. Marc was more the quiet achiever. Happy with a simple life. He had moved to LA not long after Karl’s wedding running his own architecture business. Nothing major just enough to handle a comfortable living, his own house and two dogs in the Whittier area of LA. Mandy was familiar with the area and they both agreed the Farmers markets on a Wednesday morning were divine.

Mandy talked about her life as a writer. Marc’s smile and eyes were wide and full of admiration. Most of Mandy’s circle of friends and work mates were used to her writing life, and it was no longer anything special. It made a nice change to see it through someone else’s eyes. Mandy noticed a buzz inside her like the first time she won a big contract. Marc made her enjoy being special again.

Mandy mentioned she had met with Sam last night. Most would not have noticed the subtle change in Marc’s eyes, but Mandy did. She was still puzzled by Sam’s behaviour the night before. Perhaps subconsciously looking for feedback on Sam without asking others directly. Marc’s only reply was ‘It was good of Sam to give you the news about Karl’ But something in his eyes said ‘Be aware’ Was it perhaps jealousy? Sam seemed quite successful and Karl’s best friend. Did she imagine it.

They continued to chat about the funeral arrangement. Mandy mentioned she tried to call Emma.

‘I think you would be a great help with the eulogy. I have promised to put something together and I think Emma wants to speak as well. Why don’t we all meet up tomorrow and put together a few words. Your writing skills would come in very handy. I’ll speak to Emma if you are ok with that?’

Mandy smiled with relief and nodded a yes to Marc. She wanted to help and this would give her a chance to renew the connection with Emma. It had been so long.
Marc stood up to leave. They had chatted for over an hour. Mandy had enjoyed the chat, but her stomach growled and she looked forward to a big breakfast.

They said their goodbyes and Mandy returned to the kitchen to cook up some bacon and eggs, grainy toast and steaming hot percolated coffee.

What an interesting morning. Mandy tried to remember back to her time in The Lakes. She really couldn’t remember much about Marc. Marc was younger, and she most likely didnt take notice of him. She noticed him now. She smiled thinking about their morning together and a warm glow ran through her body at the prospect of tomorrow’s catch up.

<<<>>>

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