Mel didn’t pay any attention to the car until it pulled over ahead of her on the shoulder of the road. It was still early, sunrise had been at four and it was only six thirty now, but this was a highway and the traffic had been building on the two lanes of bitumen running through the forest for the last hour. Until it stopped, the car hadn’t been remarkable. It was aerodynamically low slung, powerful, expensive and although she recognised the make and model, she didn’t know the car. She did, however, know the man who climbed out of the driver’s seat and now stood beside the vehicle looking at her.
She stopped walking, not sure if he was waiting for her or something else was going on. He shook his head and said loudly enough for his voice to reach her, “You know, it’s very hard to have a celebratory dinner if one of the people who’s supposed to be celebrating doesn’t turn up.”
“I was told that there was a dress code and that if I couldn’t achieve that, I wouldn’t be allowed in the door.” She shrugged, “Mother said that as there was no point in my coming, she’d make my apologies.”
“That’s not quite what your mother did.” He moved to the end of the car and put his hands in his pockets. “She said you’d been in one of your “moods” and you’d probably taken off again. Your family said you always seem to head north and I know the highway crosses the Great Northern Route up a ways. Frankly, I thought you’d be further along, being an experienced walker, if you’d left yesterday evening. Why did you leave, by the way?” He moved again so he could lean back against the boot of the car.
“Something came up that I want to sort out in my head.” She paused, “And I didn’t leave until the front desk opened this morning. I needed to settle my bill, after all.”
“I did say that I’d cover everyone’s hotel accounts.”
She raised an eyebrow, “I can pay for my own accommodation, thank you.”
“Will you tell me what the problem you’re trying to sort out is?” He sounded interested and sincere, but he could do that, she’d found. Then, later, he might use what he’d found out. There was no duplicitousness in it, she gave him that, but he’d certainly made the rest of them do things they hadn’t wanted to. To be fair, getting this many of her family to work together had been like herding cats and she had to admit the payoff had been handsome.
She couldn’t help it. She blushed. “I’m sorry, but I’m not comfortable talking about it.”
“To me?” He sounded like he thought that was a fair thing. “Why not to your mother? Or your sisters?”
“In my experience, my mother and sisters treat vulnerable emotions the way vultures treat carrion. I also dislike upset and agitation while they seem to thrive on it, so I find the best way to deal with my problems is to – withdraw and sort them out by myself.”
“You could have just gone to your room and closed the door instead of going hiking across the country.”
“For years I shared a room with Vanessa, Katharine and Diana.” Mel gave a wry smile. “It wasn’t a private place for introspection.”
“So you went walking and just kept walking?”
“Eventually.” She conceded that with a nod.
“Could I persuade you to put off solving your problem for one more night?” He straightened and took a step towards her. In contrast to the hiking clothes she was wearing and the similar clothes she’d seen him in for the last week, his suit today was expensively cut and hung impeccably. “Come back to town with me, we’ll have that celebratory dinner, you can consider a business proposition I have for you and, if you’re not interested, I’ll drive you up to the Great Northern Route in the morning.”
Mel was sceptical and she let it show. “Major, what sort of business proposition would a purveyor of genuine antiquities of dubious provenance have for me? I’m just the camping dogsbody.”
“You forgot: arms runner; ex-mercenary; and former Federal Army officer,” he corrected. “And you do the ‘camp dogsbody’ very well, Dr Horwood.” Into the ensuing silence he dropped, “I got suspicious when I realised that you could sight read those inscriptions Vanessa and Katherine translated so laboriously with their dictionaries but I didn’t know for certain until I found your doctoral thesis online last night. Any particular reason you haven’t told your family? It’s quite an achievement, particularly at your age.”
“It would take too many explanations, besides I don’t want a life that’s centred around my father’s need to make the one big find that’ll make his reputation.”
He lifted an eyebrow, “Finding an undisturbed Hypathian hill citadel from the Twelfth Incursion doesn’t count?”
“He wasn’t the expedition leader, you were. You’re the one who gets the write up, not him.”
“Ah,” he took another step towards her, his hands still in his pockets. “As it happens, I’d prefer not to bring the rest of your family into the business I want to discuss with you.”
“You wouldn’t prefer to work with Katharine?”
“No, she doesn’t have your qualifications. Besides-,” realisation dawned on his face. “You saw that last night.”
“The two of you kissing?” Her chin came up. “It was right under my window.”
“Her kissing me and me trying to be polite about it. I have no wish to be, what, husband number three? Particularly as number two doesn’t know she’s looking to replace him.” His eyes narrowed. “So that’s what all the carry on beforehand was about, she wanted you to see…and then you left…” He smiled, slow and warm. “Dr Horwood, I think you should come to dinner and let me ply you with good food. Then you can listen to my business proposal and I can find out why you have a name like Meliantha.” He held out a hand to her, “Please.”