The Reluctant Wag
Author:Mary Costello

Chapter 8

Cal’s teammates were staying out of his way the next day. He was in a mood, and he’d been ruthless all morning during training – driving them harder and harder, not satisfied until he’d driven them all to exhaustion. They didn’t resent it, because they knew that what he asked of them was nothing compared to what he asked of himself. As they relaxed in the pool or lay stretched out on the massage table they could see him still working the treadmill in the altitude room.

Cal stopped, panting for breath, and took a swig of water. This was stupid and he knew it. He was angry at himself and he needed to be active. The last thing he wanted to do was think. Think of how stupid he’d been last night. He’d meant to steer clear of Merise because the temptation was just too great to resist. And he hadn’t been able to resist, not after spending the whole evening so close to her. She was far too much of a distraction. He couldn’t leave himself open to that again.

It wasn’t until he’d showered and was leaving the building that he remembered that he’d promised to pick her up and drive her to the game next week. He cursed inwardly. He thought briefly of cancelling, of making some excuse, but that might make it too big a deal. Better to just go through with it as casually as possible, then stay out of her way after that. For the rest of his playing career, if need be.

He’d stopped at the florist to send his mother a bunch of flowers, as he did every week, when he noticed the bonsai display in the window. There was one little tree in particular that caught his eye. It was gnarled but delicate and stately at the same time. He asked the florist about it.

‘Ah!’ she said. ‘That’s a particularly fine Japanese maple. It’s considered the most beautiful of all the bonsai. That’s quite an old tree, and I’m afraid it’s very expensive.’

‘Fine,’ he heard himself say. ‘I’ll take it. I’d like you to have it delivered today.’

As the florist prepared the tree for delivery, he addressed a gift card to Merise.

I saw this and thought it would be just right for your miniature apartment. Just to say thanks for agreeing to stay on board. Cal.

Polite. Impersonal. That would tie things up neatly, he told himself as he left the shop, but even so, he wondered what the hell he was doing.

Bev was delighted that Merise had agreed to be there for the Wolves’ opening game.

‘Fantastic news!’ she crowed. ‘We’ve got a meeting with Tim tomorrow to organise everything. When you’ve done this, SMO will have enough material to run with until the finals – if the Wolves make the finals, that is.’

‘Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt they’ll make it,’ Merise said with feeling.

Bev laughed. ‘You’ve been watching too many Yarraside ads,’ she quipped.

Perhaps she had, Merise thought, or perhaps she’d been drawn in by Cal’s fervent belief that his team could take on all comers. Either way, she wouldn’t be there in September.

‘Just so long as you know I won’t be available for finals.’

‘No,’ said Bev with a grin, ‘certainly not. I’m sure we’ll have no trouble getting another lovely young thing to take your place.’

It was stupid, and Merise knew it, but she didn’t like the sound of that, not in the least.

She found the bonsai tree on the doorstep that afternoon. She lifted it up and carried it inside, marvelling at the intricate knots and curves of its ancient trunk. It was so beautiful. She placed it reverently in the centre of her table and opened the card. But she already knew. She’d known it was from him the moment she’d seen it. She wasn’t sure how, but she’d known. Now her hands shook slightly as she read his card. It was quite business-like: ‘Just to say thanks . . .’ Was that his way of telling her not to read too much into that kiss? Was it his way of putting her at a distance, like all his other women? Well, he needn’t worry. She wouldn’t be trying to work her way to the front of the pack. She wouldn’t be throwing herself at him. In fact, she’d stay well out of his way from now on.

Cal hadn’t called to arrange to pick her up before the game. He’d sent her a brief text: C U 11.00 a.m. Game-time = 2.40, and at one minute to eleven on Saturday morning he was banging on the door.

‘Ready?’ he asked, the second she’d let him into the flat. No preliminaries.

‘Yes, are we late?’ She’d been ready to leave for the past half hour.

‘No, but I’ve got to go back home. I’ve forgotten my back-up boots,’ he said as he rushed to the car. He was angry at himself. It wasn’t like him to be so damned disorganised.

She sensed his agitation, so said soothingly, ‘No problem. We’ve got plenty of time.’

‘Yeah, but I like to get to the ground before anyone else.’

She didn’t ask why. She sensed he didn’t feel like talking, and she didn’t want to be a nuisance.

‘Oh, I meant to thank you for the bonsai,’ she said a little shyly. She didn’t want to conjure up the spectre of that night, that kiss. ‘It’s exquisite.’

‘No problem,’ he said curtly. Subject closed. ‘Nearly there.’

She was surprised that his house was only five minutes by car, on the other side of Melbourne University, just off Royal Parade. All this time, he’d been so close. As they pulled up outside a double-fronted Victorian mansion she realised that Bev had been right – he must have made a fortune one way or another to afford a place like this.

‘Wow!’ she exclaimed when she realised that, unlike most houses in the area, it stood in its own grounds.

‘Do you like it?’ he asked.

‘Who wouldn’t? It’s amazing.’ She couldn’t help showing her admiration. ‘I suppose it’s heritage listed?’

‘Yes, Class A. Come in and have a quick look around while I dig out my boots.’

She was admiring the intricate wrought-iron balustrading on the deep, tiled verandah when he opened the front door and a miniature ball of fluff came scurrying across the spacious hall, yelping in delight at the sight of its master.

‘What on earth!’ Merise laughed as she knelt to pat the tiny dog. ‘Who and what are you?’

Cal looked a little sheepish. ‘She’s Cazaly, and she’s a Havanese.’

‘Is she now?’ asked Merise. ‘I’ve never heard of a Havanese.’

‘They’re the National Dog of Cuba, you know.’

‘Really? I’d never have guessed,’ Merise said, in a teasing tone. ‘And I’d never have guessed that the big, butch captain of an AFL club has such an adorable, teensy little fluffy friend. I’d have thought you’d have a wolf, or a rotty at least. Have your teammates met this little lady?’

‘Go on – laugh.’

‘What could Nina Smally do with such information? What dark inferences could she draw?’

He laughed out loud at that. ‘Too horrible to contemplate! But I didn’t pick her. She was a gift from a family friend. She breeds them and her dogs had pups. She gave me Cazaly to celebrate my getting the captaincy. What could I do? I couldn’t refuse.’

‘Why, Cal McCoy – you aren’t the real McCoy at all – you’re just a big softy!’ She said it playfully, then instantly regretted it. They weren’t good mates, just business associates; she had to remember that. ‘Shouldn’t we go?’

‘Straight away.’ He grabbed his boots off the hall stand and banged the front door shut.

As he battled the Saturday traffic, she was remembering the impression she’d received from the brief glimpse she’d had of the house: highly polished woods, stained glass, a marble floor accented by a Persian runner. It was a bright, beautiful space, one she’d love to explore. It would tell her so much about him. Stop this, Merise! she told herself.

She cleared her throat and said, ‘You have a beautiful home, and you’re within walking distance of the city, but how can you bear the traffic?’ A safe, neutral subject.

‘You get used to it. You don’t like inner-city living?’

‘It’s not that. Melbourne is such a lovely city, but I just don’t see myself living permanently in an urban environment. I really want a quiet life. I’m a country girl at heart.’

Cal found himself thinking how perfectly his parents’ property would suit her. Five hundred hectares of prime riverside land at Echuca, which he would one day inherit. But it wouldn’t suit him as a permanent base. Whatever he chose to do after footy, it would be footy-related, and he’d do it in Melbourne – the heartland of the AFL, the centre of his universe.

‘But if you want to be a journalist, you’ll be seriously limiting your options if you’re not based in a capital city.’

‘I know,’ she admitted ruefully, ‘but I can’t help it. I want land around me – lots of space and greenery and birds and wildlife.’

‘How much land?’

‘Let me see . . . I think . . . at least twenty acres. I need space for a small herd of miniature ponies. In a perfect world I’d live in the middle of twenty acres, right beside the Yarra River, not too far from the centre of Melbourne.’

‘Mmm, not too many properties to choose from then,’ he mused, ‘apart from the governor’s residence.’

‘Oh no,’ responded Merise, ‘that would never do – too close to a main road.’

He laughed as he swung into the underground car park at the MCG. ‘Okay, we made good time. I can take you home later, but you know you’d have to wait. Or I can organise a taxi for you,’ he said as they walked together towards the rooms.

‘I can wait.’ Eek! That had slipped out before she’d got her brain in gear. ‘I mean, I have to hang around. I have a meeting with Bev after the game.’

‘Fine, see you later.’ He was striding away from her, already in game-day mode, and she knew she was no longer part of his mental landscape. But she couldn’t help herself; she needed to reach out to him in some way. ‘Good luck!’ she called after him.

‘I won’t need it,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘they won’t get anywhere near us, but thanks anyway.’ She could see he was also back in arrogant mode. And as he walked away from her she suddenly understood that the arrogance was something he used, something he needed to be able to do what he did so effectively.

She made her way to the members’ dining room for the business part of the day. Thankfully, it was over relatively quickly. She was only required to pose for some photos with a hand-picked group of Wolves barrackers, with the footy oval as a background. Afterwards, she stood for a few minutes looking out through the great wall of glass, over the magnificent expanse of carefully tended green, still, quiet and empty just now. They called it a coliseum, and that’s what it felt like – a vast arena where men would go out to do battle while the crowds cheered or booed. Perhaps those men weren’t risking their lives, but they were risking a great deal. She shuddered a little at the thought of it.

How exposed the players must feel out there, with tens of thousands of eyes and hundreds of cameras trained on their every move, every mistake, every millisecond of hesitation or momentary show of anger, fear or triumph. The scrutiny alone would be unbearable, without having to run until your legs cramped, and then kick so precisely that the ball would find its way through the contest and hit its mark. She’d never really thought about what it was that Cal did before, but standing there, looking out over that very public space, she thought for the first time that maybe there was a kind of heroism in playing footy.

An hour later, the MCG was a spectacle, half silver-and-black, half blue-and-grey. In this opening game of the season, the Wolves were playing their archrivals, the Darebin Devils, and the tension around the packed ground was palpable. Merise found it strange sitting there in the crowd, seeing and hearing them react to the man she loved. She felt a little thrill go through her every time someone yelled, ‘Go, Cal!’ or ‘Kick it to McCoy!’ And she felt like protesting when she heard an opposition barracker call out to one of his players who was chasing Cal up the wing, ‘Get McCoy! Crunch him!’ Her heart contracted for a second. But Cal sped away, leaving his opponent in his wake, and deftly passed the ball to the full-forward, who played right on and kicked a goal.

When Cal jogged back to the centre square for the next ball-up, his main opponent, who’d been niggling him throughout the game, elbowed him in the ribs. Cal swung round, grabbed him by the guernsey, lifted him off his feet and hurled him to the ground and the Yarraside crowd roared approval. Their captain had just stamped his authority in no uncertain terms.

In the end the Wolves won. It wasn’t just a loss for the Devils; it was a humiliating defeat, and some of their fans turned nasty, hurling abuse at both the Wolves and their own players as they walked out of the stadium during the fourth quarter. Merise sat on in the stands when it was all over, reluctant to get caught up in the crush to exit. When most of the people had gone she made her way to the Members’ Bar, where she was to meet Bev.

‘I’ve got some news for you,’ Bev called from across the room when she finally breezed in.

‘What is it?’

‘Later. Patience. I’ll tell you when we’ve had something to eat. I’m absolutely famished.’ After a hearty meal followed by a sizeable cake for dessert, Bev took a deep breath, lowered her voice and said, ‘I know you’re getting out of modelling, but I have one final proposal that just might interest you, Merise. It’s a project that has nothing to do with football.’

Merise sensed the excitement in her voice. ‘Nothing to do with football would be welcome. Well, don’t keep me on tenterhooks, what is it? Or do I have to sit through another helping of Death By Chocolate?’

‘Okay,’ said Bev, laughing. ‘I know you’re not the sporty type, but have you ever heard of Siggy Balstad?’

‘Yes, of course. He plays tennis, doesn’t he?’

‘A little. He’s just the world’s number-two tennis star, he’s a complete sweetie, and he’s very, very handsome.’

Merise nodded her ready agreement. He was, too – blonde and green-eyed, with cheek-splitting dimples. ‘I must admit he’s a bit of a hottie.’

‘Good, because how would you like to do a shoot with him?’

‘You’re kidding! Aren’t you? Are you serious?’

‘I am. His agent’s just contacted me. Siggy wants to use you in his latest publicity shots.’

‘Me? Specifically me? Why? I mean, how would he even know I existed?’ Merise was stunned and flattered.

‘He was out here for the Australian Open and stayed on for a while. He saw the Yarraside billboards and just fell for your look. He has to do a glamour shoot for his sponsor, Kask, and he wants you in on it. You’ve probably seen Kask watches in Vogue and Vanity Fair. Very expensive, and very classy. I may even be able to get you a free watch out of it.’

Merise was looking interested and Bev pressed on.

‘So this is the concept: they want him in a tuxedo and you in an evening gown, probably in a ballroom setting. I’ve got a few ideas for something very high-Hollywood. Astaire and Rogers, Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly. That kind of allure. Interested? It’ll pay very well, and he’ll come out well in the shots, that’s for sure.’

Merise giggled. ‘I’ll say! But I can’t believe he even noticed me.’ She meant it. Of course, she knew the effect her beauty had on others. She was conscious that she turned heads. But she took no credit for that. It was an accident of birth, and it was only one small part of who she was.

‘So what do you say? I don’t want to rush you, but they need an answer now. I promise you’ll make the best-looking pair since Burton and Taylor. They love your look. They said you had just the sort of glamour they wanted to have associated with Kask. And don’t forget, this would give you international exposure, which can’t be bad.’

‘But what about Yarraside? Won’t they mind?’

‘I’ve had a quick word with Paige and she sees the benefit of it. The Face of the Wolves on the world stage with a mega-celebrity – it’s publicity to die for. It also keeps you in the public eye for a while longer. It’s a win-win situation. We’d be doing the shoot next week, before Siggy heads off for his next tournament. And as I say, the money is great.’

She mentioned a figure that had Merise gawping. That money would go a long way towards helping pay off her parents’ debt. She didn’t know what to say – just when she’d resolved to back away from modelling, this was an offer she just might not be able to refuse. Still, she didn’t want to rush into anything.

‘Can I think about it overnight, Bev, and let you know in the morning?’

‘Certainly, but remember that this one will go right around the globe. If it’s a success, you’ll be able to name your price in future. And if you still just want to write, the cachet associated with this will open a lot of magazine doors.’

Merise was surprised at how late it was when she left the Members’ Bar. She thought Cal might be on his way out just about now, and she decided to go down to the underground car park. If she didn’t find him there, she could walk over to the team rooms.

Her mind was on the Kask offer as she entered the car park. It was mostly empty by now, with many of the cars that remained belonging to players and club or ground officials. She didn’t notice the sound of the lift descending, and although she heard men spill out into the car park, talking loudly, she took no notice. This was a football stadium, after all, and fans often got boisterous.

She was halfway across the vast concrete space when she first became aware of them calling to her.

‘Oi! Gorgeous! Where ya goin’ so fast? Slow down.’

She glanced momentarily over her shoulder and saw that they were looking at her. There were five of them – rough-looking types who had evidently been drinking. She saw one stagger towards her, and in a sudden instinct of self-preservation she turned and walked quickly in the direction of the building.

‘Hey! What’s the big hurry, love? Come over here for a minute. Wanna go for a ride?’

They were following her now. The passageway leading into the building, to other people, suddenly so seemed so far away. She sped up, and so did they. She began to run, and a second later one of the men appeared right in front of her. She halted, swung round, another was coming up on her left, and she sensed someone behind her. She was surrounded. She felt the start of panic and struggled to keep calm.

‘Excuse me,’ she said evenly, ‘I have to meet someone.’ She moved to walk past one of the men, but he only put out his hand and roughly pushed her back. Her heart began to thump, and her throat tightened and dried.

Her assailant was big, bald and tattooed. He looked scary, and so did his mates. She had to get out of there, immediately.

‘Heeeeyyyyy!’ said one of them, looking hard at her. ‘I know you – you’re that girl – that bloody Wolves slag, aren’t ya, darlin’?’

Another of the men stepped forward and stared at Merise. ‘Geez, you’re right, Gaz. It’s her, fair dinkum! Looks all right, too.’ He put his hand on Merise’s neck and she backed away, straight into the arms of one of his mates.

‘Whoa, nice!’ he growled into her ear, his hands groping her breasts. ‘We can have a bit of fun with you, darling.’ And he pushed her roughly towards another of the group.

Merise wanted to cry, to scream, but there was no one to hear her down here, and she didn’t want to give them an excuse to grab her. She didn’t want things to escalate. She was trying desperately to think clearly when the bald man said, ‘You’re the face of Yarraside, baby, so we’re going to rearrange it for you.’

It was only then that she realised that they were all dressed in Darebin Devils gear, and they were the worst kind of supporters. They were drunk, they were angry, they’d just seen their team humiliated by the rampaging Wolves, and now they were going to take it out on her.

The man behind her grabbed her and spun her round. ‘Rack off, Jas, she’s much too pretty for that, mate. I can think of lots of other things we can do with this babe. You can take off that dirty scum guernsey for starters. Here, let me help you.’

As he reached for her guernsey, there was a chorus of lewd cheers and Merise braced to fight them off. She might not stand a chance, she thought, but there was no way she’d give in easily. She’d kick and scratch and bite until they killed her. She balled her hands into fists, planted her feet firmly on the ground and drew herself up to her full height when she heard a deep, sharp, angry growl. ‘Going to take them all on yourself, Merise?’

She swung round and relief flooded through her. Cal was standing there, looking reassuringly big, muscular and bad-tempered. A little whimper of relief escaped her as he launched himself at the man closest to her, and suddenly Tom Rivers was racing towards them across the car park, one or two other players right behind him. The next second Cal was standing over the prone figure of one of the drunken Devils and the others had fled. That was when Merise felt herself start to quiver as the shock set in, and she collapsed into Cal’s arms.

She had recovered pretty well by the time he drove her home an hour later. He’d carried her to the Yarraside change rooms and insisted that the doctor examine her, in case she’d gone into shock. Cal seemed so upset with her as he paced from door to door while the doctor looked her over.

Later, as she sat on a bench at the other end of the room with her eyes closed, she heard him saying exasperatedly to Tom, ‘I can’t believe she was silly enough to go into the car park on her own so late at night.’

‘Easy, Cal,’ Tom had said. ‘She’s had enough of an ordeal without you giving her one of your serves. Ease up on her. You drive everybody too hard, mate. Don’t do the same thing to her. She’s not on the team. She doesn’t have to take orders from you.’ Tom pushed past Cal and out the door, leaving his captain staring angrily after him.

She felt ashamed, humiliated, relieved and grateful all at the same time. By the time the doctor pronounced her free to go, she felt a deep depression descending on her. It was probably a reaction to what had happened, but she felt utterly miserable and just wanted to be alone.

‘I’ll just ring for a taxi,’ she told the doctor as she stood shakily for the first time since the incident.

‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ the doctor started.

‘No way!’ Cal cut in, crossing the room in two strides. ‘I brought you, I’ll take you home.’

‘No, really, it’s okay,’ she said. ‘I’ve caused you enough problems already. You have to do your recovery session.’

‘Yeah, but I’m still taking you home. Come on.’ He took her elbow and almost marched her to his car.

They sat in silence as they crawled through the Saturday-evening traffic. When he finally pulled up outside her apartment he turned to look at her. She seemed so young, so vulnerable, his heart turned over at the thought of what might have happened. He felt the anger and tension go out of him.

‘Hey,’ he said in a more gentle tone, ‘for someone who wants a quiet life, you get into a lot of trouble, don’t you?’

She looked at him with those massive eyes and just dissolved into tears. He couldn’t help himself. He put his arms around her and pulled her to him. ‘No, no, don’t cry, Merise. You’re safe now, please don’t cry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .’

But she only pushed him away, fumbled for the door handle, jumped out and escaped into her apartment.

Cal sat there for a minute and felt the anger return; this time it was all at himself. He’d been so scared for her that he’d overreacted and frightened her off, maybe forever. Tom was right. He did drive people too hard. He was so focused that he expected everyone else to be the same. That was a serious weakness, he told himself – that inability to read people, to manage them individually. Something he’d have to work on because that weakness might just have cost him Merise; and for the first time, he realised that would be worse than losing a premiership. He punched his fist on the dashboard. He was a bloody idiot! Would he ever get her to trust him now?

‘It was awful,’ Merise told Erica the following day as they strolled along the shady paths of the Fitzroy Gardens. When she heard about Merise’s ordeal, Erica had suggested they go to the gardens, a favourite refuge when they wanted to relax and talk. They arrived at a small courtyard with a fountain in the middle.

‘Let’s sit here,’ Erica suggested. ‘It’s so quiet.’

‘I’ve never been so frightened in my life, nor so embarrassed or maybe ashamed – I don’t know – afterwards,’ Merise admitted. ‘Cal made such a fuss. He was just horrible, Erica.’

‘He was probably worried about you.’

‘More likely he was worried that his precious recovery routine would be compromised. I got in the way of his football. I disrupted his sacred postgame rituals and he let me know about it.’

‘But you said he tried to console you in the car,’ Erica pointed out, quite reasonably.

‘Yeah, but only after he’d been a total pain!’ She wasn’t going to think about the way he’d pulled her to him, or how she’d wanted to stay in his arms. She was going to stay angry with him. It was the only way she could bear this. ‘By that time, I was as angry with him as he was with me. I mean, we’ve always rubbed each other up the wrong way, but I will never forgive him for this,’ she said, with plenty of feeling on the ‘never’. ‘Anyway, he was only sorry because he knew he’d gone too far, and he was afraid I’d drop out of his precious club’s campaign.’

‘I thought you said that yesterday’s game was the last thing you were doing for the Wolves?’

‘Well, it will be now. He needn’t think I’ll come back if they play in the finals, which is what they’re all hoping for. Besides, I’ve actually had a better offer.’

‘Really? What?’

Merise told her about the approach from Balstad. Erica was thrilled. ‘Geez, Merise! You’ll be up there with Elle MacPherson and Miranda Kerr.’

Merise forced a laugh. ‘That’d be just fine, if there’s another Orlando Bloom out there for me.’

‘So are you really going to do it?’

‘Why not?’ said Merise, making up her mind at that second. ‘After all, I’ve got nothing to lose, and a very tidy sum to gain.’

It also occurred to her that the Balstad job would take her mind off the stupid Yarraside Wolves and their hateful, arrogant captain. It was what she should have done in the first place – diversified, worked on other projects. Perhaps then she wouldn’t have become so closely associated with the Wolves, or so entangled, if only in her own mind, with him. Later that day, she told a delighted Bev of her decision to accept the work with Kask. It was time to get on with the rest of her life.