Jason stopped walking and turned to face her. “So much for trust. What’s your problem with Finch Creek? Any endangered species?”
“No. None that we know of.” Lisa swallowed and met his eyes, light grey in the darkness. “It’s just that the area is one of the few that haven’t been touched by farming or development. It’s a water-bird and amphibian habitat.” She drew a deep breath of sea air. “Jason, what do you intend to do there?”
“Don’t worry before you have to. I only bought it because the land was comparatively cheap. Right now I have no plans for it. But down the track I can see a marina. It joins onto the main river.”
She shook her head. “Before you build, a full environmental impact study must be done.”
“Listen, Lisa. The Coast population is growing all the time. There’s no way that land will stay untouched.” His voice was hard. Perhaps it was unconsciously that he pressed her fingers more tightly to his arm.
“It must. It can.” And then, “I – we are bound to oppose you on that.”
“Going to tell the committee, are you?”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t seem right to use information I’ve gained by accident.” She gazed at him, not knowing how large her dark eyes looked in the faint light of the moon. “But the problem now is that I do know.”
“And you’d use the information against me?” His voice was harsh, yet he still held her arm.
“Not against you personally. But against development when we learn officially what form it will take. I’d have no choice.” Her glasses misted; it must be the sea spray. “It’s testing our friendship early, isn’t it? Developer against greenie. Can we survive it?”
“I said we could, if we acted like mature people.” He patted her arm, again not knowing he did it. “Maybe you’re right about trust. Maybe this is where it starts.”
Behind him two shadows crept forward, out from the darkness under a she-oak. Lisa, startled, stared at them. They were teenagers, boys in old clothes, one tall and thin, the other stocky. Jason looked at her face then turned slowly around. He freed her fingers from his arm as he moved. He didn’t seem surprised.
The lanky one spoke. “Come over here out of the light, mister, or we throw this at your girlfriend.”
This was a long bladed kitchen knife. The other boy pointed a shorter model in their direction. Lisa gasped, almost screamed. She pressed both hands to her mouth to choke it back.
Jason seemed to freeze for a second. Then he ordered her softly, “Do nothing, unless I tell you.”
She whispered, “Don’t…” But he had already taken a step toward them.
He studied them briefly. “I suppose you want my wallet.”
“Yeah,” snarled the thin boy. “Walk this way slow and chuck it under the tree. Her purse, too.” He swished the knife through the air. “And don’t yell or nothing.”
“She doesn’t have any money in her purse.” Jason sauntered toward them as he spoke, reaching for his hip pocket. Then, before the movement was complete, he suddenly charged forward, turned sideways and thrust his shoulder into the boy’s chest.
The impact jarred the knife from the boy’s hand and knocked him backward. Even as he toppled, Jason seized his arm and shoved him at his partner. The shorter boy wobbled on his feet, swore, and swiped his knife in Jason’s direction.
Jason dropped to one knee and the knife passed harmlessly over his head. Then he surged back to his feet and deliberately kicked his attacker in the groin. The boy screeched, doubled up, and the knife fell. Jason kicked it away.
The taller one was back on his feet. He scrabbled in the grass and retrieved his own weapon.
Lisa screamed in earnest, but Jason had seen. He stepped up to the boy, lunged sideways, then brought the edge of his hand down on the other’s wrist in a vicious chop. His victim cried out in pain, grabbed at his arm, and the knife hit the ground again.
Jason planted his shoe on the blade. He breathed hard. His voice cut like a whiplash. “Get back to your squat. I won’t call the police this time. But I’ve seen your faces and I won’t forget them.” He moved forward, pushed both boys onto the footpath. “I said, get going!”
They did, the thin one stumbling, holding his wrist, and the other still crouched and groaning. Jason watched them until they were only shapes that weaved southward along the esplanade. When they’d disappeared he went back to Lisa.
“You all right?” he asked curtly.
The whole episode had lasted only a few minutes. Lisa stood shocked for a second, then clenched her fingers on Jason’s forearm. “You shouldn’t have taken such a risk!”
“If there’d been any risk I’d have given them my wallet. But those two were amateurs.” His eyes narrowed as he felt her hands shake. He wrapped his arms loosely around her shoulders. “Frightened? Nothing like that ever happened to you before?”
“No, it hasn’t.” Lisa’s hands moved up to clutch the front of his shirt. “But I was more afraid you’d be stabbed, hurt, than anything else.” She shivered. “And I didn’t help. I was useless.”
“You’d only have been in the way.” Still, he held her closer.
Lisa dropped her arms to hug his waist and pressed her head into his shoulder. After a few moments she no longer trembled, though she stayed where she was. Jason’s body was solid, comfortable, and his heart beat steadily under her ear. It was nice to be held. She felt safe. Jason, for all his hardness, she could trust not to hurt her. She felt his square hand touch her hair, stroke it… then lift away.
“This is very pleasant. But it’s for the wrong reasons.” He took her upper arms and held her away from him. “I’ll take you home.”
She lifted her chin. “I didn’t mean to cling.” She straightened her glasses on her nose.
“It was a natural reaction to fright.” He shrugged. “And you’re a woman and I’m a man, so it felt good. That’s all.” He turned away and back-tracked a couple of steps, searched briefly until he found the two knives the boys had dropped. He shoved them into a trouser pocket. Then he cupped her elbow and guided her back along the footpath.
On the esplanade pavement, out from under the palm trees, Lisa blinked at the bright lights and strolling people. She felt disoriented, as if she had been to a foreign place and now returned. Jason pushed the knives into a locked rubbish bin, and she saw his profile. His face was set into its mask.
They walked to the car in silence, and she felt heat rise in her cheeks. Had she disgusted him? First she had acted like a coward and then cuddled him like a child. And holding her lumpy body couldn’t really have been pleasant for him. Desperate to defuse the tension, she said the first thing that came into her head.
“Those boys—you told them to go back to their squat. Do you know them?”
“No,” he answered shortly. “But they were street kids.” He unlocked the car and held the door for her.
Lisa climbed in, looked up at him. “How could you tell?”
He stalked around to the driver’s side and dropped heavily into his seat. He stared ahead through the windscreen. “I know. Their clothes, their smell, the look in their eyes. Everything.” His hands fisted on the rim of the steering wheel. “I was one of them, once.”