The Reluctant Wag
Author:Mary Costello

Chapter 5

La Cocina del Diablo was small, dark and intimate. The maitre d’ came straight up to Cal with a wide smile. ‘Bienvenido amigo! Another victory – well done. I heard on the radio you had twenty-nine possessions, so I know you’re hungry. Your table is ready.’ He led them to a table in a private alcove near the rear of the room.

The small space glowed by the light of a brace of candles. As Cal studied the menu, Merise peeped over the top of hers to watch his face. He was studying the list as if his life depended on it. He seemed to do everything with such intensity and concentration. She liked that about him, and she liked his lips. She couldn’t help noticing them. They were so well defined, so beautifully shaped – like the rest of him.

Just then she realised what she was doing – staring at this man – a mere recent acquaintance, as if she were in thrall to him. What was going on? She’d better get a grip on herself. Now where was she?

As she examined the menu he suddenly reached out and touched her ear. Involuntarily she whipped back with a sharp intake of breath. He paused for a second, looking hard at her. ‘It’s only your earring – it was coming out.’

‘Oh, sorry. Great. Th . . . thanks.’ Her voice betrayed her – it sounded so husky. Trying hard to regain her composure, she fiddled with her cutlery.

She felt the hot blush of red rising in her cheeks. He had to have noticed it, but he just asked in a matter-of-fact way, ‘So, are you enjoying your modelling work?’.

She pulled a face. ‘Well, I suppose . . . it’s not too bad. But it’s really not something I want to have in my life for too long. It’s serving a purpose at the moment, but as soon as I make enough money to cover my uni fees and my living expenses, I’ll drop it.’

‘But what about the female face of Yarraside? If you desert us, we could just plunge to the bottom of the ladder,’ he said with mock alarm.

She smiled easily. ‘Then you’ll just have to kick a few more goals to ensure that doesn’t happen.’ She had a sudden thought. ‘By the way, what did the maitre d’ mean, “twenty-nine possessions”?’

He smiled back. ‘The number of times I got the ball tonight.’

‘Oh yeah, of course.’ She paused for a second, then asked, ‘Why would they bother to count that?’

‘I take you knew nothing much about Aussie Rules before this?’ he asked.

‘Yes, and I must say, I had no idea it would be so exciting, or have so many different aspects to it.’

‘Such as?’

‘Marking, for a start. It’s so thrilling to see a player leap into the air, right up on the back of another player. I presume that’s legal?’

‘It’s legal. Yeah, marking is certainly one of the glories of the game. If AFL is a religion, then marking is evidence of the transcendent impulse. Whenever I’m going for the ball, rising off the ground, above someone’s shoulders, it feels as if I’m reaching towards the gods, with all the barrackers urging me on. And sometimes, I can’t help it – I think of an old Irish prayer my grandma used to say:

I fly today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendour of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

That’s exactly what it feels like when I’m up there, going for the ball.’

Merise was riveted. He was the first man under forty she’d ever met who could quote poetry, and with power and feeling. She felt something inside her shift and she suddenly saw him in a new light. His eyes were shining, his face transfigured from its habitual scowl, and she knew that he was revealing something secret, something sacred about himself.

‘That’s so beautiful, Cal. And maybe lots of players feel like that, but I doubt that any of them have articulated it in that way.’

He looked at her, a little smile in his eyes and said, ‘Eat your gazpacho, it’s getting warm.’

The meal was delicious and for a while she found herself relaxing as Cal answered her very basic questions about the game.

‘The tackling seems to work quite well,’ she said over dessert. ‘Why don’t you do it more often? The stats on the screen after the game said that Yarraside only had a hundred and thirty-one tackles.’

He threw his head back and laughed. ‘That’s almost a preseason record for tackles. We did fine. We can’t spend the whole game on the ground.’

‘No, I suppose not,’ she said thoughtfully, absently tucking a stray curl behind her ear. ‘But there’s one thing I don’t understand. Everyone tells me that Yarraside is a powerhouse of the game – that you’ve got the greatest number of supporters, the best facilities and training staff, yet you haven’t won a premiership in such a long time. Why is that?’

He paused and looked at her for a moment. ‘Are you sure you don’t barrack for the Devils?’ he asked bitingly.

‘No, I didn’t mean . . .’ She realised that she’d touched a nerve – she’d said the wrong thing. It was only a game to her, and one she didn’t begin to understand, but it was his whole life. She’d certainly put her foot in it. Her boot, even.

‘Look, I really don’t want to talk about footy any more. I get enough of this sort of grilling from the media.’ He paused and looked at her warily, ‘But then I suppose you’re part of the future media, aren’t you? Is that why you’re cross-examining me?’

‘I’m not cross-examining you. I’m just trying to understand —’

‘Don’t bother,’ he said, signalling to the waiter for the bill. ‘I’m sure that when you graduate you’ll turn your writing talents to something much more important than sport.’

Damn! She’d done it again, and it had been going so well until she’d opened her big mouth.

Fifteen minutes of tense silence later he pulled up outside her apartment and got out of the car to open the door for her. She smiled up at him, anxious to make up for her clumsiness, her ignorance. He’d been such good company before that. She’d actually enjoyed being with him.

‘Thanks for dinner. I had a great time. And, I’m sorry if I said anything, ah . . . inappropriate about the Wolves.’

He merely smiled – somewhat sceptically, she thought – got back into his stupid, fancy car and drove off.

Dinner had been a mistake, Cal told himself as he sat on the stone balcony of his home, staring out over the open spaces of Royal Park. It was almost three in the morning, he still couldn’t sleep, and not just because of the adrenaline. It was her. The most attractive and the most maddening woman he’d ever met. Correction – girl. She knew nothing and she knew everything. She had him puzzled. At moments she seemed completely naïve, but then she’d throw up that icy wall of superiority.

And she had the gall to judge him. He could take it; he’d been judged by strangers, for as long as he could remember – the price you paid for having a father who captained the most famous sports club in the country. Strangers had been heaping expectations on him since his first day at school. Would he be like his dad? Could lightning strike twice in the same family, just a generation apart? He’d see to it that it would. He’d worked like a dog and fought like a Spartan to get where he was today. He would be mad to take his foot off the pedal now, just because of a woman.

He sighed. But what a woman! He should have known he wouldn’t be able to resist her – she was so hot, even if she was prickly as hell. He stood up and paced along the balcony, even the smell of the gums sweating in the warmth of the night reminded him of her. He’d smelt the lemon myrtle in her hair that day at training. That day he’d just wanted to scoop her up and carry her inside into the shade. She’d looked so young . . .

She was a total rookie as a model, he knew that – no phony poses, no practised pouts. But was she just another newshound? Was that why she’d agreed to go with him tonight? Did she feel even a fraction of the attraction he felt for her? Either way, he’d better keep his distance and remember that Merise Merrick was a budding journalist. She might just be a very calculating operator, another would-be celeb on the lookout for her next photo opportunity. One thing he knew, she was well able to resist him, and maybe it was for the best.

Just then he heard the roar of a male lion from the zoo at the heart of the park. ‘Yeah, mate,’ he muttered, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’