Claire looked up from her desk with an exasperated sigh. Dr Cameron Alexander was grinning at her, deliberately keeping the automatic doors open so that the fresh morning breeze swirled past him and filled the reception area.
“Give me a break, Cameron! Some of us are actually trying to work.” she replied, thumping several paperweights down on top of the piles of paperwork on her desk. She’d lost the battle with him over moving her desk out of the “wind tunnel” as she called it, and he was not about to let her forget that.
Her papers secured, she put her head back down and pretended to ignore him. But she was very conscious that he was now coming over to her desk and she couldn’t ignore the way her heart rate had picked up - as it always did when he paid her attention - making her feel nervous and jittery.
Their friendship had grown over the last few weeks since she had started working there, and while he made it obvious that he enjoyed her company, and relished teasing her, she did not imagine for a moment that his feelings regarding her were anything as serious as her own were towards him.
“Here’s your mail, Cameron,” she said nonchalantly, and handed him a pile of correspondence as he appeared alongside her, behind the counter.
“Thanks, Ginger,” he answered, waiting for her reaction. This time she took the bait, and glared at him.
“You know I hate you calling me that!”
“Oh, yes - I do remember you mentioning that now. I seemed to have forgotten . . .again.”
She sighed and shook her head at him, leaning back in her chair and picking up her coffee from her desk. She drank it while Cameron glanced over the correspondence, and he looked up at her when she placed the empty cup down beside another on her desk.
“That’s your second cup and it’s not even nine o’clock,” he raised his eyebrows, “no wonder you’re edgy, Ginger!”
“I am not edgy! And don’t call me Ginger!” she snapped back, and then laughed at herself as she realised that he had set her up again. He was the only person she had known who could get under her skin like that - and unfortunately he knew it. She just hoped that he didn’t know why.
When he was close to her like he was now, and the air she breathed was spiced with his distinctive aftershave, she became so distracted it was nearly impossible to think of a fitting retort. And worst of all she could feel herself beginning to blush again.
Saved by the bell! she thought with relief as she reached out to answer the ringing phone.
“Good morning, Dr Winterbourne. How are you?” she answered, deliberately turning away from Cameron who was signalling that he wanted to take the call there at her desk.
“Yes, Dr Alexander’s in, I’ll just put you through to his office. Thank you.”
She put the receiver down quickly, hanging up only seconds before Cameron’s hand shot out to grab it.
“Claire! Couldn’t you see that I was telling you I’d take it here?”
“Is that what you were doing?” she answered, trying not to smile and failing, “Oh well, I’ve put it through to your office now - you’d better hurry. You know Dr Winterbourne doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
He groaned, and quickly wheeled himself into the corridor. Just before he turned the corner he looked back over his shoulder and gave her an exasperated smile, and Claire knew she had won the morning’s round.
She was still smiling to herself when Tyrone came in through the automatic doors, and wheeled himself up beside her, exactly where Cameron had been sitting just a few minutes earlier. It had become his habit to come up to the main building not long after nine, and spend fifteen or twenty minutes chatting with Claire before his morning schedule began.
Although she was still very worried about him, they had developed a good rapport and she was beginning to get to know him very well. From the beginning she was determined to keep the friendship on an equal basis, and she was sure that her willingness to be just as open with him had made all the difference to his regard for her.
She prayed constantly that he might come to know the Lord through their friendship, and she saved her simplest clerical tasks for this time of the morning so they could talk freely while she did jobs like addressing envelopes or indexing medical journals.
“What about you, Claire? You don’t look so hot this morning!” Tyrone said, after she had asked him how he was.
Claire laughed, “I’ll try not to be to offended by that remark Tyrone! But I don’t feel so hot either. David didn’t have a very good night, and I was up with him for hours. But even once he finally got to sleep, I couldn’t, and I lay awake for ages. I’m just depending on strong coffee to get me through today.”
“Is he okay today?”
“Yeah, fine this morning, And he never seems to need as much sleep as me anyway!”
She appreciated Tyrone’s concern about David, and she thought it was a good sign that he was taking an interest in other people’s problems.
“Things going all right for him without you there through the day now?” Tyrone continued, reminding her that on the first day they’d talked she’d told him her misgivings about having to leave David to take this job.
“They are, actually. And, you know, I think it’s been good for both of us. When I was working at the same place as him, we really didn’t have any independence from each other at all. But now when we get home, we enjoying catching up with what’s gone on in our day. He tells me all about what’s happening at his centre, and what everyone is up to, how bad my replacement is at my job. . .”
She paused with a grin, “And he loves hearing about everything that goes on here. I was telling him last night about your adventures when you left school, like trying to cross the Nullarbor in your mate’s old car.”
“Really? Told him about that?”
“Yes - he was fascinated. He’s never had the chance to do stuff like that, so he enjoys experiencing it second hand. He wanted to know more about what you told me about the time when you were flood bound, when you went cotton chipping up near Moree - so I told him I'd ask you more about that.”
She looked at Tyrone wistfully, “I wish you could meet him, Ty, you’d be like a breath of fresh air to him with all the different things you’ve done.”
And David would be so good for you, his faith is so evident in everything he says and does. . .
Claire sat up suddenly, “I’ve got an idea - have you ever gone into any of those internet chat rooms?”
“Nah, one of the guys has been showing me about the net in the computer room, but I couldn’t get the hang of it, and I never talked to anyone on it.”
“I was just thinking that we could see if we could get onto David now - at this time of the morning he’s often on the internet at the Centre - I could leave a message for him in his usual chatrooms and see if he’s online at the moment.”
“Sounds great -” Tyrone hesitated and looked up at the clock on the wall, “but I’ve got to go in a minute - some legal guy’s giving a lecture on our rights or some rot. Can’t think of anything more boring, but I’ll get it if I don’t turn up.”
“Maybe I could ask Dr Alexander if he’d mind you skipping it . . .but I don’t know what he’ll say.” she pondered, before Tyrone cut her off with a laugh.
“If you ask . . .he’ll say yes for sure - you’ve got him wrapped around your little finger, Claire!”
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone knows what he thinks about you! Dead obvious by the way he looks at you.”
Tyrone was grinning, and Claire could feel her face beginning to burn, “He’s been flirting with you since the first day you came here. He asked you out yet?”
“Of course not!” she retorted hotly, “He’s just my boss, and there’s nothing like that between us at all. I think you’ve got an over active imagination, Tyrone.”
“Don’t think so! And I can tell you feel the same about him too. . .your face is bright red just talking about him.” he laughed, clearly enjoying himself.
“Of course it is - you’ve embarrassed me!” she said, both annoyed and excited about what Tyrone was saying. She had no idea her feelings were so obvious - but could Tyrone also be right about Cameron?
“So - you going to ring him?” Tyrone prodded.
“I can’t now - you’ve made me too nervous to talk to him!” she complained, and then jumped as her phone began to ring with an internal call. “Oh, heck! That’s him now!” she exclaimed as his extension number lit up on her phone.
Tyrone was laughing so much that there were tears in his eyes, “Oh, Claire - you’re pathetic! Look, your hands are shaking! As if you haven’t half got a crush on him!”
“Okay, okay - so you know!” she looked him in desperation, “Please Ty, don’t say a word to anyone!”
“Only if you hurry up and answer the phone - otherwise I’m going to get stuck in that borin’ lecture.”
Claire took a deep breath and picked up the phone.
“Good morning, doctor - what can I do for you?” her voice was cool and even, and Tyrone burst in laughter again at her calm pretence. She looked away from him so she wouldn’t lose her nerve.
“You took long enough to answer Ginger - I began to wonder if you were ignoring me on purpose.”
“No - of course not! I was just speaking to someone at the counter.” she shot Tyrone a conspiratorial glance.
“Is Tyrone is still down with you?” Cameron continued, “I know he often is at this time of the day - but he’s meant to be up here for a lecture.”
“Yes he is, Doctor. But actually, I was just about to call you myself about that. We were just about to look something up on the internet, and I wanted to check if it would matter terribly if he missed the lecture.”
“If he’s with you, Claire, I’ve got no objection. I don’t think he’d really be that interested in the finer points of anti-discrimination law anyway.”
“That’s the impression I get, too.” she answered, giving Tyrone the thumbs up.
“Just remind him he’s got a session with Chris at ten-thirty, and he definitely needs to turn up for that, okay?”
“Sure. Thanks very much, Doctor. Bye.”
Tyrone smiled at her smugly as she hung up the phone. “Told you so! Didn’t even stop to think before agreeing, did he?”
“No, I suppose not.” she admitted, “But you’ve still got to see Chris at ten-thirty, so we’ve only got an hour. After all this I hope we can get on to David.”
“And if we can’t we’ll just look up something else. What the Doc doesn’t know . . .”
“I’m getting an awful feeling that you’re blackmailing me, Ty!” she sighed in exasperation at him, although inwardly she was encouraged by the mischievous sparkle in his eyes that she had never seen before.
She logged on at the computer and after only a few minutes of waiting, David answered her message and suggested they move into a private chat room. She handed the keyboard to Tyrone, who was watching the screen in child like wonder as she and David chatted to each other.
“Now just be patient, Ty, it takes him a while to reply because he’s got to spell out every word with a mouth stick.”
“That’s okay - I can only type with one finger anyway. But I don’t know what to say to him.”
“Don’t worry about it - David’s a born conversationalist. He’ll ask you plenty of questions.”
As she left him with the computer, and turned around to use the photocopier, she prayed silently for Tyrone and David. It was such a good opportunity for Tyrone to get to know her brother over the internet first, without having to deal with shock of seeing him in person. She’d come to realise that unfortunately David’s disability was too much for most people to handle.
After a few minutes, she looked over at him, pleased to see him pecking away at the keyboard with great enthusiasm. She resisted the urge to read the screen over his shoulder, knowing it would be better to give him his privacy and also having full confidence in David and his special gift of understanding other people. The hour passed quickly, and she literally had to drag the keyboard away from him when she saw it was almost ten-thirty.
“What a great bloke!” he said, as Claire showed him how to log out of the chatroom, “Knows so much stuff about everything! And you’re right, he is really easy to speak to. Thought we’d only been chatting for about ten minutes! Said he’s almost always on the computer when he’s home, and I could talk to him again anytime I liked. Might see if I can use the computer and chat to him during free time tonight.”
“Sorry, Ty - he won’t be home then. He’s taking me out to dinner and the movies tonight.”
“Really? Look like you’d want an early night!”
“Yes, I suppose I would prefer that in a way, but we almost never go out, except for church - and we’ve been looking forward to tonight all week,” she explained.
“It’s a bit of a celebration, David dabbles in share trading over the internet - and he's made his first real gain.
It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to justify a night out. We can’t normally afford to do things like this, so it’s a special treat for both of us. But you’d better get yourself upstairs, Tyrone, or I’ll get shot.”
“Not likely!” he laughed as he headed toward the corridor.
After Tyrone left her and went upstairs, the next hour and a half until lunch time seemed to take forever. Claire was so tired that it was difficult to concentrate on her work, and she was distracted by Tyrone’s observations about Cameron’s behaviour towards her.
Could he be right about the way Cameron feels about me? The idea that her dreams about him could possibly come true both thrilled her and terrified her. It was one thing to idly imagine Cameron falling in love with her, but entirely another to consider it as a real possibility.
Despite her feelings for him, when it came down to it, Claire was terrified even by the thought of beginning a relationship with a man.
After a very brief courtship, her mother had married a good looking but self-centred man whose Christian profession had been outward only, and both she and her children had suffered all their lives for her hasty decision. Although her mother had shared her faith with her and David, her father had become increasingly hardened against spiritual things, and even when he wasn’t drinking, living with him was very difficult for them all.
He’d had a stroke not long after her mother had died, and had withdrawn even further into himself, and when he wasn’t out at the club he hardly moved from his chair in front of the television upstairs. Although she looked after him as well as she could, Claire’s father barely even spoke to her, and she and David lived an almost separate life in the downstairs half of their two story home.
Claire found the responsibility of caring for David and her father on her own nearly overwhelming at times - and although the romantic idea of falling in love with a man who would sweep her off her feet and rescue her from it all was undoubtedly appealing - she was only too aware that marrying the wrong man as a way of escape would make things even worse.
No-one could rescue her from her responsibilities anyway . . .her first commitment would always be to David, and it would have to be a very special man who could accept that.
Could Cameron be that man?
Although he deliberately ran the rehab centre without any formal religious structure, he made no secret of his belief in God, and his Christianity was clearly evident in his life. And Claire had seen his untiring devotion to the welfare of his patients, especially those who were struggling, like Tyrone.
Surely if anyone could accept David . . . Cameron could. . .
The voices of several patients talking to each other as they came into the building on their way up to lunch jolted her out of her daydreams.
What am I thinking anyway? she rebuked herself, I’ve got absolutely no reason to believe that Cameron thinks of me as anything more than a colleague - it’s ridiculous to have let myself get so carried away just because I’d like to believe that Tyrone’s silly ideas are right!. . .
Relived that it was finally twelve o’clock, Claire grabbed some change out of her handbag and headed up to the dining room. She couldn’t stop yawning and her head ached with tiredness, and she was craving for a cold can of cola from the drink machine upstairs.
When she walked into the dining room, Claire made straight for the soft drink machine without even glancing at the crowded room. The machine whirred as she made her selection, and as the can clunked down into the open slot at the bottom, she reached down for it with a relieved sigh. Her hand felt only the cold metal of the machine, and when she crouched down to investigate she saw that the slot was empty.
“For crying out loud!” she muttered, and straightened up, thumping the change button impatiently.
“I’m beginning to see a pattern to this edginess, Ginger! Looks to me like you’ve got a bit of a caffeine addiction.”
She spun around in sudden surprise at the sound of Cameron’s amused voice very close behind her.
“That’s hardly fair!” She blurted out in exasperation when she saw his wet hair and remembered that he’d taken a group of patients swimming, “What chance do I have of knowing when you’re sneaking up behind me if you don’t put aftershave on?”
He laughed, not seeming to notice her unguarded remark, and held out her coke can, “Are you looking for this?”
“Yes, thanks!” She forgot her embarrassment as a warm tingle of excitement ran through her. Despite what she tried to make out, she enjoyed his attention, and his schoolboy pranks were always the highlight of her day. But in the light of her conversation with Tyrone she couldn’t help but consider Cameron’s actions differently.
He’s always teasing me like this . . .is this what Tyrone meant when he said that Cameron’s always flirting with me?. . . No, of course not, it’s nothing more to him than just a bit of fun. . . she decided firmly, and she reached out to take the can.
She halted with uncertainty when he pulled it back at the last moment, smiling mischievously - his blue eyes meeting hers with an air of superiority.
“And this is after, hmm, how many cups of strong coffee this morning, Claire? I know you’d had two by nine, and I saw you head to the tea room with your cup at least two more times after that.” he lectured, “And as a doctor I have to warn you that caffeine addiction can be pretty nasty.”
He is just teasing me, and he’s not finished with me yet,but I’m not going to let him get the better of me this time!
“I’ll show you just how nasty caffeine addiction can be!” she narrowed her eyes menacingly, “Hand over the can now, and nobody will get hurt!”
Cameron held out the can tantalisingly, but backed away just as she made a grab for it. He laughed wickedly when she skidded on the smooth floor and then lunged after him again - just missing as he tossed the can high in the air and caught it in his other hand before moving away again.
He continued to evade her for a few minutes until she was suddenly aware that the room was now silent, and everyone in it was keenly watching their antics.
And he’s winning too - how humiliating!
She’d discovered from her numerous battles with Cameron over the last few weeks that they were both as fiercely determined to win as the other - but right now with the bout being played out in front of an audience the stakes were much higher.
She realised that Cameron held the advantage - she’d have no chance of getting that can from him without physically tackling him, and she was not about to do that in front of a room full of people. Her heart was racing as it always did when he smiled at her like that, expectantly awaiting her reaction, but she was determined that neither he nor anybody else would see how much he unsettled her.
If she was going to keep her pride she had to win this round, and she realised that she would have to employ strategy if she was going to outsmart Cameron at his own game. Calmly she took an empty chair, and sat down in it in front of him, blocking the entrance to the servery.
“You might have the can, but you can’t get past me to get your lunch.”
There was a ripple of laughter through the room as everyone saw her take the advantage, and they looked eagerly to Cameron to see what he would do.
“Well, Claire,” he responded, his voice confident and loud, “It would appear that you are holding more than just me hostage - no-one else can get their lunch either while you sit there. Now that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d do to these poor, starving souls.”
He made a sweeping gesture towards a couple of patients who were waiting behind him, watching with interest to see what would happen next.
“No - I’m not the one holding them hostage,” she corrected, just as confidently and loudly, “Everyone here realises that I will move the moment you return my can. So it is you who is holding these poor, starving souls hostage, Doctor, and in your case that could be medical negligence.”
A cheer went up from the tables at the sharpness of her reply, but Cameron was undaunted and he held her gaze without wavering.
“You think you’re clever, don’t you!” he returned, shaking the can vigorously and aiming it her as he moved closer to her, “Let’s see what happens if I raise the stakes! Now - move or I’ll pull the pin!”
“Do it! Do it!” chanted a table of young men behind them as the room exploded into laughter. Claire looked at Cameron in bewilderment - his face was glowing, and his cheeks were creased by smile lines, but his deep blue eyes revealed that much more was involved than just the simple challenge of whether she would risk defying him.
All at once Claire knew with certainty that Tyrone had been right about what he had referred to as Cameron’s “flirting” with her. She had interpreted the way he related to her as merely platonic - but there was certainly no doubt of the only construction being put on his behaviour by the young men cheering him on now - and from his expression Cameron was obviously aware of that too.
By singling her out in front of everyone like this he was publicy forcing her to reveal not merely her judgment of whether he was bluffing about the can or not, but more importantly, her public acceptance of the special attention that he continually gave her.
She was so overwhelmed by the sudden realisation of the direction he was leading their relationship that it was now beyond her ability to judge what he would really do if she refused to back down. She just knew that she couldn’t afford to take the risk. There was way too much at stake, and winning this silly game was no longer important to her.
To the disappointed murmur of their audience, she rose and put her chair aside.
“I accept your surrender,” Cameron smiled and held out the can to her. “Here - take it.”
“No thanks - it’s all yours. You couldn’t get me to open that can within the next few hours!”
Claire turned and walked quickly over to the servery to collect her lunch, willing her flushed face to cool down before she had to face him again. She was relieved to be able to take the last vacant seat at a table nearby, and had just begun to eat when Cameron came up beside her, his plate on his lap.
“Can I join you? Or aren’t you talking to me?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” she answered coolly, trying not to let his mischievous gaze unsettle her in front of the others, “But I’m sorry, Doctor - you can see this table’s full.”
Tyrone, who was sitting opposite her caught her eye and winked.
“Not any more!” he said to Cameron, “I’m just leaving. You can take my place.”
As he backed away from the table, Tyrone grinned triumphantly to Claire and mouthed, “Told you so!”
Claire let out a long, slow breath, and turned her attention to her meal.
Yes, you were right, Tyrone - but what am I supposed to do now?
Her pulse was racing with the knowledge of Cameron’s evident interest in her, and with this new perspective on his friendship everything had changed, leaving her with no idea how to react to him.
I must stay in control - I mustn’t let Cameron or anyone else see how he makes me feel until I know what I’m going to do about it! she resolved, but as Cameron slid into the newly vacated place opposite her and regarded her with a cheeky grin she realised that he hadn’t finished with teasing her yet.
“Take your pick, Claire.” he offered, dramatically placing two cans of cola on the table in front of her, “I know you wouldn’t take your can back because I’d shaken it up - so I bought you another one . .. but . . I’m not quite sure which one it was now.”
“Yeah - sure!” she replied in patent disbelief, as the other members of their table laughed, delighted to be witnesses to this continuation of their earlier battle. Determined to hide her turbulent emotions, she met his challenge coolly, and in a split second made a quick assessment of the two cans in front of her.
The can on her right looked dry, while the one on her left still showed some of the fine droplets of condensation which appear when a refrigerated can is brought out into warm air. Reaching out without hesitation, she took the left-most can, and opened it immediately.
As she drank it with carefully concealed relief, the other young men at the table exclaimed in amazement that she had so boldly called his bluff.
“Well picked, Claire - so you are more than just a pretty face.” said Cameron.
“No, mate - you wouldn’t have done that to her,” objected Skinner, who was sitting beside Claire, “Neither of ‘em are the one you shook up before.”
“Is that so? Be my guest.”
Cameron gestured toward the remaining can, then leant back in his chair and watched as Skinner reached out and took it with a smug smile. He opened it confidently, but spluttered as a stream of cola shot up into his face, running over the table and onto his lap. The whole table erupted into satisfied laughter as he hastily mopped his jeans with a handful of paper serviettes.
So he wasn’t bluffing after all! Claire realised with a start - glad she had taken him seriously and all the more relieved at her earlier decision to back down to him. Well, what ever he’s got in mind - he’s certainly got my attention now!
As the commotion at the table began to die down, Claire felt Cameron’s eyes upon her. She quickly looked down to her plate, and tried to eat. While she’d managed to keep her composure while they’d been sparring, she did not trust herself to carry on a normal conversation with him here at the table.
Things were very obviously changing between the two of them - and right now she didn’t even dare meet his eyes, not knowing what she might see in them, or how she would react.
She was relieved when a few minutes later, Cameron was called away to see a visitor, and he excused himself, taking his lunch with him. As she watched him leave, Claire’s mind was racing. There was no way she could avoid seeing him again that afternoon - would she be able to work out her own feelings before then?
© R Brown 2005