Seduction and Sacrifice(4)

By: Miranda Lee

It was when she began idly scooping the stones over into one corner to pick them up that she noticed the photograph lying underneath. It was faded and yellowed, its edges and corners very worn as though it had been handled a lot. Momentarily distracted from her ragged emotions, she picked up the small photo to frown at the man and woman in it. Both were strangers.

But as Gemma's big brown eyes narrowed to stare at the man some more, her stomach contracted fiercely. The. handsome blond giant staring back at her

bore little resemblance to the bald, bedraggled, beer-bellied man she'd buried today. But his eyes were the eyes of Jon Smith —her father. They were unforgettable eyes, a very light blue, as cold and hard as arctic ice. Gemma shivered as they seemed to lock on to hers.

Her father had been a cold, hard man. She'd tried to be a good daughter to him, doing all the cooking and cleaning, putting him to bed when he came home rolling drunk, listening to his tales of misery and woe. Drink had always made him maudlin.

There were times, however, when Gemma had suspected it wasn't love that kept her tied to her father. It was probably fear. He'd slapped her more times than she could count, as well as having a way of looking at her sometimes that chilled her right through. She recalled being on the end of one of those looks a few weeks back when she'd mentioned going to Walgett to try to find work. He'd forbidden her from going anywhere, and the steely glint in his eyes had made her comply in obedient silence.

A long, shuddering sigh puffed from Gemma's lungs, making her aware how tightly she had been holding her breath. Her gaze focused back on the photograph, moving across to the woman her father was holding firm!)' to his side.

Gemma caught her breath once more. For the young woman appearing to resent her father's hold looked pregnant. About six months.

My God, she realised, it had to be her mother!

Gemma's heart started to race as she stared at the delicate dark-haired young woman whose body language bespoke an unwillingness to be held so closely, whose tanned slender arms were wrapped protectively around her bulging stomach, whose fingers were entwined across the mound of her unborn baby with a white-knuckled intensity.

So this was the 'slut' her father refused to speak of, who had died giving birth but who still lived within her daughter's genes. Gemma's father had told her once that she took after her mother, but other than that one snarled comment she knew nothing about the woman who'd borne her. Any curiosity about

her had long been forcibly suppressed, only to burst to life now with a vengeance.

Gemma avidly studied the photograph, anxious to spot the similarities between mother and daughter. But she was disappointed to find no great resemblance, other than the dark wavy hair. Of course it was impossible to tell with the woman in the photograph wearing sunglasses. She supposed their faces were a similar shape, both being oval, and yes, they had the same pointy chin. But Gemma was taller, and much more shapely. Other than her being pregnant, this young woman had the body of a child. Or was it the shapelessness of the cheap floral dress that made her look as if she had no bust or hips?

"Mary," Gemma whispered aloud, then frowned. Odd. She didn't look like a Mary. But that had been her name on Gemma's birth certificate. Her maiden name had been Bell and she'd been born in Sydney.

A sudden thought struck and Gemma flipped the photograph over. Written in the top left hand corner were some words. 'Stefan and Mary. Christmas, 1973'.

The date sent Gemma's head into a spin. If that was her mother in the photograph, pregnant with her , then she'd been born early in 1974, not September 1975! She was nearly twenty in that case, not eighteen. . .

Gemma was stunned, yet not for a moment did her mind refute her new age. It explained so much, really. Her shooting up in height before any other girl in her class. Her getting her periods so early, and her breasts. Then later, in high school, the way she'd always felt different from her classmates. She hadn't been different at all. She'd simply been older!

Distress enveloped Gemma as she stared, not only at the date on the photograph, but at the Stefan part. Stefan had to be her father's real name, not Jon. Lies, she realised. He'd told her nothing but lies. Why? What lay behind it all?

Gemma conceded she'd always suspected her father's name of Jon Smith might be an alias. He'd been a Swede through and through, with Nordic

colouring and a thick accent. But the opal fields of outback Australia was a well-known haven for runaways, mostly criminals or married men who'd deserted their wives and families, all seeking the anonymity and relative safety of isolated places. People did not ask too many questions around Lightning Ridge, not even daughters.