Seduction and Sacrifice(5)

By: Miranda Lee

But the questions were very definitely tumbling through Gemma's mind now. What other lies had her father told her? Maybe her mother hadn't died. Maybe she was out there somewhere, alive and well. Maybe her father had stolen her as a baby, changed his name and lied about her age to hide them both from anyone searching for them. Maybe he —

Gemma pulled herself up short. She was grasping at straws, trying to make her life fit some romantic scenario like you saw on television, where a long-lost daughter found her mother after twenty years. Life was rarely like that. There was probably a host of reasons why her father had changed his name, as well as her age. He'd been a secretive man, as well as a controlling one. Maybe he'd thought he could keep his daughter under his thumb longer if she believed she was younger. Or maybe he'd simply lied to authorities about her age that time when they'd tackled him about why he hadn't sent her to school yet.

Gemma could still remember the welfare lady coming out here to see her father. Despite her being a little girl at the time, and dreadfully shy, the visit had stuck in I her mind because the lady had been so pretty and smelled so good. It was shortly after the social worker's visit that Gemma had been sent to school. Her 'birth certificate' had surfaced a few years later when she had wanted to join a local netball team.

Gemma was totally absorbed in her thoughts when suddenly the sunlight that was streaming in and on to the table vanished, a large silhouette filling the open doorway of the dugout. She froze for a second, then quickly shoved the photo and opal back and snapped the lid of the tin shut.

'Anyone home?' a familiar voice asked.

'Oh, it's only you. Ma,' Gemma said, sighing as she stood up and walked forward across the dirt floor.

Her relief was unnervingly intense. For a split second, she'd been afraid her unexpected visitor might have been someone else. Which was silly, really. It had been six years and he hadn't come near her, hadn't even spoken to her when they'd passed on the street. There again, her father was no longer around to act as a deterrent. And neither was Blue, she realised with a sickening lurch in her stomach. Oh, my God, was that who had poisoned her dog?

'Come in and sit down, Ma,' Gemma offered, trying to keep her steady voice while her insides were churning. 'You're just the person I need to see.'

'Really? What about?' Ma bulldozed her bulk over to the table and plonked down in a chair, which protested noisily.

'I was wondering if you'd mind if I slept in your caravan tonight. I feel a bit nervous staying here on my own.' Which was a huge understatement at this moment.

'Do you know, that's exactly what I came over here to see you about? I was thinking to myself that Gemma's too good-looking a girl to be stayin' way out here on her own. There are some none too scrupulous men living around these parts.'

Gemma shuddered, her mind whisking to one particular man, a big brute of a miner who had large gnarled hands and had always smelled of body odour and cheap whisky.

'Well, I wouldn't say I'm God's gift to men, Ma, and I could certainly lose a pound or two, but, as you say, some men aren't fussy.'

'Lose a pound or two?' Ma spluttered. 'Why, girl, have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? Maybe a few months ago you might have had a layer of puppy fat on you, but you've trimmed down this summer to a fine figure of a woman, believe me. And you've always had the prettiest face, though you should start usin' some sunscreen on it. Mediterranean brown is all right for legs and arms but not for faces. You don't want to wrinkle up that lovely clear skin of yours, do you?'

Gemma didn't know how to take this welter of compliments. It wasn't like Ma to rave on so.

'You make it sound like I'm beautiful or something,' she protested with an embarrassed laugh.

Or something just about describes it,' Ma muttered. "You'll hav e to watch yourself when you get to Sydney, my girl. City men are vultures.'

"I'm not much interested in men at the moment,' Gemma replied stiffly. God, she'd thought she'd got over that other business. But she hadn't at all. It had been there lurking in the depths of her mind, waiting to be dragged up to the surface again, just as he had been lurking, waiting for the opportunity to assault her again.

Ma reached out to pat her on the wrist. 'Stop thinkin' about him, dear. He isn't worth thinkin' about, you know. Men like him never are.'

Gemma gaped a moment before the penny dropped. Ma wasn't talking about him. She was taking about her father. 'What do you mean by men like him?'

'Cruel. Selfish. Mean.'

The word 'mean' struck a chord with Gemma. Was that why her father hadn't sold the opal? Because he was a miser, like Scrooge? Had he gained pleasure by bringing the stone out late at night to drool over its beauty all by himself in secret?