“Dr Alexander’s not due in his office until 9am,” Claire explained to the caller, not long after starting work the next morning, “But I do understand the urgency - I’ll see if I can find him for you.”
She put the phone down on her desk, eyeing it resentfully. She knew exactly where Cameron would be - in the gym as he always was at this time of the morning - but she had no desire to go and find him right then.
She was still a bundle of nervous energy after what happened when she’d found herself in his arms the previous afternoon, and she’d been counting on that extra hour until nine to figure out the best way of dealing with him when she would see him later.
Her relationship with him was like being stuck halfway up an emergency escape ladder, she mused to herself as she strode quickly along the corridor toward the gym, she knew she had gone too far to easily turn back now, but like someone frightened of the unaccustomed heights she had climbed to, she was simply too paralysed with fear to go any further.
Opening the door to the gym, Claire was relieved to hear several voices, remembering that Cameron had organised for a number of the keener patients to start on a regular weight training program under his supervision in the mornings as well. Surely he couldn’t give her too hard a time if there was an audience.
As she entered she saw the group of young men in a circle around the weight bench, counting in unison as someone steadily completed one bench press after another. She scanned the group as she approached it, trying to spot Cameron, but it wasn’t until she was nearly amongst them that she realised that it was actually Cameron who was lying shirtless on his back on the bench, his brow furrowed in concentration as he slowly lowered the loaded barbell down towards his chest.
When it was just millimetres above his skin, he paused for a couple of deep breaths as the group chanted “Twenty four!” and then began to raise it upward again, the massive muscles of his chest and shoulders taut as his arms reached their full extension.
Claire stared in awe at his rippling abdominal and pectoral muscles - she’d known Cameron was fit, but she’d never imagined seeing such a perfectly toned torso anywhere other than on the cover of one of those muscle-building magazines in the newsagents. Now she understood exactly why his clothes always looked so good on him.
As he began to lower the weights again, Claire realised that she had to grab her chance and moved quickly towards the centre of the group, taking a deep breath and marshalling her courage just as the group counted “Twenty five!”
“I’m really sorry to interrupt, Doctor, but I need you to come to the phone,” she said in a quick rush of words.
Cameron turned his head towards her, his fair hair clinging to his forehead in damp curls and his blue eyes wide with interest as they met and held hers. His rhythm did not falter and he began lifting the barbell straight up above his chest again, not answering her until the bar was resting just above his chest and the cry of “Twenty six!” had gone up.
“Since you’ve come to find me, it’s obviously important,” he said in a snatch of words between breaths, before raising and lowering the bar again, “I’ll be through in - where are we up to?”
“In a couple of minutes.”
“No - it’s Dr Hammond from Detroit!” Claire objected, as he completed another repetition, “He asked to wait.”
“I'll call him back later then.”
“No - you can’t - he’s about to leave for the airport and he said he needs to check something with you for the conference he’s speaking at,” she tapped her foot in frustration as he continued lifting, “Can’t you just stop for a moment and talk to me?”
“Nope - if I stop I’ll lose my momentum.” he answered, the gold chain he always wore glistening against the tanned skin of his chest as he breathed deeply, “Chris challenged me I couldn’t make as many reps as him.”
Claire saw the hint of a smile play across his lips, and she realised in embarrassment that he had watched her gaze straying from his face. She began to blush, and quickly looked away from him - and straight into the amused smile of Chris who was sitting just behind him. He too was bare chested, a towel draped across his shoulders.
She averted her eyes again, shaking her head in disbelief, “For goodness sake - it’s like coming into a men’s locker room!”
“Aw, Claire - you’re not getting all shy about a couple of guys with their shirts off are you?” Chris grinned, “It’s good technique to be able to watch that you’re using the right muscle groups. Look at Cameron now - it’s his pecs, not his quads that are taking the strain.”
“Thank you, Chris, I do have some little understanding of the science of weightlifting,” she snapped back, refusing to look back at Cameron’s chest where he was pointing, “And I know that doing this many reps to meet a challenge is not good technique!”
“You’re perfectly right, Claire,” Cameron agreed, with a chuckle, “But how else am I going to keep Chris in his place unless I beat him?” He hesitated for a moment, “That’s half way - but I suppose I’d better take that call. Here Chris, Skinner.”
He raised the bar one last time and lifted it back onto the stand behind him, the two men behind him guiding it into place.
“So do we call it a tie for the moment?” he asked Chris as he sat up, unstrapped his legs from the bench and slid across into his wheelchair.
“Not on your life, mate! You make sixty or consider the bet lost!” he replied, tossing him his shirt, “Unless Claire steps in to substitute - after all she’s the one who broke up the party!”
“Okay - you’re on - I’m sure she won’t let me down.” Cameron pulled the shirt over his head, “The call’s on hold at your desk, is it Claire?”
“Yes, but I’m not about to - ” she began, but he’d already disappeared through the doorway without a backward glance. She turned back around to Chris, who was smiling at her expectantly.
“Be my guest,” he invited, gesturing toward the vacant weight bench. She looked at the weight on the barbell and shook her head.
“You’re joking! I couldn’t lift that weight once, let alone thirty times. Look at me, Chris, I wouldn’t even be half your weight!”
“Very true,” he said, regarding her closely, “Okay - it’s a deal then. You can lift half that weight - but still thirty times.”
“That’s not what I meant!” she objected as Chris began unloading the barbell, but hesitated before going on to make her refusal clear. Things were still a little tenuous between her and Chris, and at this point she could hardly afford to knock back any olive branch that he offered.
She’d never consider taking on his challenge if Cameron were present, but he was going to be gone for quite some time, and while she had no great hopes of reaching thirty reps, she was determined to acquit herself well. She never had the time to use the gym at Pelican Point, and guessed that Chris was making the assumption that she’d never done anything like this before.
“Okay, you’re on,” she said, slipping off her jacket and sitting down on the bench amidst a small round of applause, “As long as someone sits close behind to grab the bar if I begin to lose it.”
“Sure, Skinner and I’ll spot for you,” he answered, moving back into the position he’d been in when Cameron had been on the bench. Claire lay back, glad at least she was dressed appropriately, the cream top she was wearing tucked firmly into her trousers had a high neckline and closely fitting short sleeves.
Exhaling slowly, she tentatively raised the weight, and slowly completed the first repetition, breathing in with relief as she heard the men around her begin their count. She managed the first ten or so without too much difficulty, but then felt her strength beginning to ebb.
She deliberately slowed her pace, and focussed carefully on the muscles she was using, and the rhythm of her breathing, falling back on the technique one of the physios had taught her in her last job. She would have managed the weight she was lifting easily six months ago, when she’d been regularly working out in her lunch hour, but by the time she’d reached the cry of “twenty”, Claire was fully aware of how out-of-condition she’d gotten.
Every muscle in her chest and arms was burning, and her hands were locked painfully around the metal bar. “I am not giving up!” she told herself firmly, “I am going to make thirty! As long as I don’t stop, I can do this!”
She closed her eyes tightly, determinedly thrusting the weight above her again, as she visualised the slow exhalation of her breath forcing the bar upwards, blocking out everything external except for the reassuring chant of the repetitions.
As the count rose, so did the admiration in the voices of those counting, their encouragement spurring her on. She might have made herself a fool over finding Cameron shirtless on the bench, but she was determined to redeem herself now.
The burning pain in her arms and across the front of her chest was nearly unbearable, but she refused to give in to it. “I can do this!” she resolved, as she paused briefly before the next repetition, “Nothing will stop me reaching thirty!”
“Nearly there! Only five to go!” she told herself, and although her rhythm stayed steady her thoughts began to wander. Thoughts of Cameron flooded her mind with a new awareness of his strength and the entirely incredible knowledge that he cared for her . . .
She had just begun pushing upwards again when a quiet voice close beside her startled her, making her jump and nearly lose her grip on the bar.
“I’m impressed - you can even do this with your eyes closed!”
Her eyes flew open, and she looked straight up into Cameron’s amused gaze as he leaned down close to her. Seeing him there had thrown her completely off guard, and as she tried to catch her breath she realised that he had slipped back into the gym without her hearing, and had taken Skinner’s position behind her.
Despairingly she realised that she couldn’t bring her erratic breathing back under control, and she was powerless to halt the barbell as it descended slowly back towards her chest.
“Focus on the pectoral muscles, Ginger, push from there, not here,” Cameron said softly, ever so lightly touching the screaming muscles of her upper arms. Claire felt her arms dissolve into jelly as she felt his fingertips brush her skin, and she could offer no resistance as the metal bar sunk down onto her collar bone.
Her arms felt numb, her muscles were cramping like stone under the weight and she could not even unlock her fingers from their death like grip on the bar.
“You’re not giving up, are you? You’re so close!” he chided quietly.
“I can’t move!” she hissed, “Just take it off me!”
“But you were doing so well. I can’t think why you’ve suddenly stopped,” he teased, his voice low so that only she could hear, “unless you’re not as impervious to my presence as you’d like me to believe.”
She groaned, “I don’t care what you think - please just lift this off me.”
“Sure - on one condition - you stop running from me and promise to have lunch with me today.”
She glanced back over her shoulder to see that both Chris and Skinner were now far back from the weight bench and she realised that yet again she’d fallen into one of his traps.
“I’m not going to let you blackmail me, just lift it off me or I’ll call out for someone else to help me.”
“No you won’t, you’re far to proud to let anyone else see that I’ve got the upper hand again.”
She knew he was right and Claire struggled with every last ounce of strength to free herself, but was unable to move the barbell even the smallest fraction.
“Cameron - I’m sure what you are doing is contravening every workplace harassment rule in the book!” she threatened with as much vehemence as she could muster.
“Yes, you’re right,” he admitted ruefully, beginning to move away from her. “I’d best take back my offer.”
It felt as though the weight was beginning to crush her, making it hard to breathe and it was almost in panic that she called out after him.
“No - Cameron! I’ll agree to lunch - anything - just help me, please.”
“Sure.” He moved back behind her quickly and easily lifted the weight and replaced it back onto the stand.
She lay there still, her chest heaving with relief, her whole body feeling like a limp rag, unable to even raise herself from the bench.
“So you made it to twenty six?” he commented cheerfully as he returned to her side, “That’s pretty impressive. Shame you lost your concentration at the end.”
“I might have made it to thirty if it hadn’t been for you! Why did you want to stop me?”
“Just to prove that I could.”
“I would hit you if I could only move my arms!” she hissed through gritted teeth, submitting helplessly as he slid his hand under her shoulders and gently sat her up, her arms throbbing uselessly by her sides. “How you expect me to do my work now is beyond me! I’ll have to tear the mail open with my teeth!”
Cameron chuckled in appreciation of her resilient humour, handing her jacket to her before returning to the other men who now were watching Skinner’s progress on another bench. Somehow managing to ease her arms into it she stood up unsteadily and made her exit into the corridor without daring to look back.
She slumped down in her desk chair for several minutes without even attempting to address the pile of envelopes in front of her, her mind as active as her body was still. Her arms and chest were as heavy as lead, and she felt utterly and stupidly weak.
It was as though the exhaustion of her body had also dispelled the nervous energy which had been holding her together for so long as she’d tried to hold Cameron at bay. So much for her position half-way up the ladder - it was clear that Cameron was not going to let her waver there any longer but was determinedly forcing her into a commitment one way or the other.
She realised now, too, that she no longer had the strength to fight against him - and could no longer put off taking decisive action about their relationship. The mail could wait, somehow she was going to have to decide which way to move - and she only had until lunch time to figure it out.
Cameron was glad to see that Claire was already waiting for him at the designated bench as he coasted down the gently sloped path at lunchtime. She was sitting with her knees tucked up under her chin and her arms wrapped tightly around her legs as she stared intently across the water.
She looked so beautiful, waiting there for him - a gentle breeze blowing her hair off her face and the warm sunlight playing in its golden strands hair like hundreds of tiny flames. When she heard him coming she turned her head towards him, his heart turning to water as he met the concerned gaze of her huge brown eyes.
With every fibre of his being he longed to take her into his arms and not let her go until she promised to give herself to him and to love him for ever. Instead, he breathed out carefully and warned himself not to think too far ahead, smiling in a casual greeting as he stopped beside her.
“Here’s my end of the bargain,” he said, serving her a large paper-wrapped parcel with a flourish, “Gourmet turkey roll with avocado and cranberry sauce - I hope that’s okay.”
“Oh, yes!” she answered with surprise and delight, as she took the parcel and a tall glass bottle of fruit nectar from him, “I had no idea you meant anything other than the cafeteria food - where did you get these from?”
“Arabella’s Deli - they take phone orders and make deliveries. Very handy - I’ve called them several times in the past few years.”
She frowned thoughtfully, “I hadn’t heard of them, are they nearby?”
“Uh-huh,” he replied, unwrapping his own roll, “In the little shopping centre just around the Point.”
Claire nodded and he waited as she bowed her head, silently giving thanks, and then asked her,
“Don’t you know it? I thought you grew up around here.”
“Yes - in “old” Pelican. All those fancy shops and restaurants on the Point have only come in the last several years, since the new developments and housing estates began. That’s where the rich people shop - not my stamping ground at all.” She took a bite of her roll and grinned, “But this is absolutely delicious, it almost tempts me to cross the invisible boundary line and find this deli for myself! Thank you, it’s very sweet of you to do this.”
“Not at all, least I could since I blackmailed you into lunch with me.”
Claire looked at him thoughtfully, “I’ve been trying to figure out how far back you set me up - whether it was just with Chris, or if you pre-arranged the whole thing including the phone call from America?”
He laughed, shaking his head. “Acquit me of all charges - it was just on the spur of the moment when I came back in and saw you deep in concentration, and couldn’t resist the temptation. I’m impressed, for all your protests, you’ve obviously done that many times before.”
“Yes, I used to weight train at lunch-times in my old job,” she explained, nodding, “I was very good friends with one of the physios who was into competitive body building, so I had an excellent teacher. We worked out together for years.”
Cameron felt again the sickening pang of jealousy, “Really? Do you still keep up with him?”
She didn’t answer right away, but her eyes twinkled as she smiled back at him, as though she had guessed his thoughts and was enjoying them.
“No, we lost touch once she went off on maternity leave.” She stretched out one long arm gingerly, “I hadn’t realised how long it had been, or how quickly my muscles had gone to waste.”
“You were doing okay when I came in - I think you would have made it if you hadn’t let yourself become distracted. Lost my bet and everything.”
“That was your fault,” she began to protest, “how could I concentrate - ”
“But if you were as completely indifferent to me as you would like to pretend . . .” he teased gently, “or have you given up trying to deny your feelings?”
She turned her eyes back towards the water, and spoke quietly, “It wouldn’t matter in the least what I answered, would it?”
“No.” He reached over and put his hand on her shoulder, and although he felt her tense up beneath his touch she made no move to pull away, but didn’t turn in his direction as she began to speak.
“I didn’t want you to know the way I feel about you - just because it’s true doesn’t necessarily make it right to for me to act on those feelings. I mean, if you were already married, or weren’t a Christian I could feel that same attraction to you, but it wouldn’t make it right.”
“Granted. But I’m a little confused - I am a believer, and I am definitely not married,” he answered patiently, becoming used to Claire’s unique handling of logic, “so what exactly has that got to do with it?”
“I just mean that having those feelings in itself doesn’t answer everything .I’ve never felt this way about anyone before, or wanted so much to . . .” she sighed, and he realised how hard it was for her to open up to him, “I know I can’t pretend any more, but I really wish I didn’t feel like this . . . the whole thing frightens me.”
“Why?" he asked, squeezing her shoulder gently.
“I want to be with you more than anything, but I’m worried that the cost is too high. My life is . . .” she hesitated momentarily, “hard enough to cope with as it is. Adding a relationship just makes it even more complicated. Going against you about Tyrone was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, you and I had hardly even started and already it’s cost me almost more than I could afford.”
Cameron nodded, inwardly thrilled to discover her hesitations were not with him, but merely their outward circumstances.
“I know, I’m just sorry I didn’t realise how hard it was for you at the time. But we’ve both come through it, and I think stronger than ever. I see the whole experience as a very intensive crash course in relating to each other - look at how much we’ve learnt.”
“Yeah, not to get involved with your boss,” she retorted, still looking out over the lake.
“I could sack you.” he suggested in a serious tone.
Claire looked up at him, startled, and then burst out laughing. “No, you already tried that and it didn’t work!” Cameron laughed too, relieved that the tension had dissolved, and waited, praying that she would continue.
She rested her cheek on her knee, her eyes like dark amber as she gazed at him through the strands of hair that had blown across her eyes. Her expression was pensive and she regarded him uncertainly for several long moments before taking a deep breath and plunging in.
“You probably think I’m being silly, worrying so much about everything . . . and maybe I’m taking things a lot more seriously than you want,” she explained softly, the vulnerability obvious in her eyes.
“But that’s how it is for me, I’m not prepared to start a relationship with you just for the sake of it, or just for now . . . it means too much to me to take it lightly. I know I’m probably jumping way ahead of myself, but I just can’t begin anything without feeling reasonably confident about . . . about what we’re aiming for . . . for the future. I’m not looking for a boyfriend . . . but a husband . . . and even admitting that terrifies me.”
Cameron’s heart was racing, what she was saying was almost too good to believe. Almost since the day they had met he’d known that nothing would satisfy him short of having her as his wife - but he never dared to dream that she had contemplated their relationship in a way that went beyond merely going out.
She was biting her lip as she watched almost fearfully for his reaction, and he had never felt as strongly for her as he did at that moment, wanting desperately to reach out to her and kiss her with all the desire that was raging inside him. But he knew that wasn’t what she needed from him, and he contented himself with sliding his arm further along her shoulders and leaning a little closer.
“I am incredibly serious, but I thought if you had any idea about my hopes for the future I would scare you off completely.”
He felt so full of emotion that it was difficult to speak, “I know it’s a big step, a huge step to even talk about the future - but we have to start somewhere. We don’t have to solve everything at once, but just start taking the first steps to making our relationship grow in the right direction. We need to start praying together about our future, thinking together - ”
He broke off as his mobile phone started ringing, grimacing in utter frustration.
“You’d better answer it,” Claire prompted with an understanding smile.
Cameron sighed deeply, before answering in a forbidding tone, groaning to hear Chris chuckling on the other end.
“Where are you hiding, mate?”
“I hope someone is dying, Chris! Is it too much to ask to be left alone for just one hour?”
“Somehow I don’t think you’re on your own,” he laughed, “Anyway, Peter Simmonds is here to see you about his son’s admission in the next program.”
“He’s got an appointment with me next Monday.”
“Mmm, seems like his plans have changed and he was in the area this week instead of next - he’s got half an hour before he has leave for the airport. Are you going to see him, or am I going to have to make up some very lame story about where you are?”
“Yes, yes - I’ll see him. Make him a coffee or something Chris, I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Cameron disconnected the call, shaking his head with annoyance and swinging the phone in his hand as though he was considering flinging it into the lake.
“Oh, the pressure of being important!” Claire teased lightly, “You go - I’ll make the most of the sunshine and the rest of my lunch hour. We can talk more later.”
“Promise?” he demanded sternly.
© R Brown 2005