Joe cupped his roughened hand around the back of her neck, one thumb slowly circling on her skin as his tongue reached languorously into her mouth. His eyes, when she opened hers to check, were hooded and unseeing, lashes quivering over his cheek. He kissed with the same unhurried absorption he seemed to apply to everything he did. She felt her body soak up the warm pleasure from his, and leaned back on her fists, freeing his other arm to rest across her. The first touch of her flesh as his fingers inched under her t-shirt caused a faint moan of surprise. Lingeringly, he broke the kiss, leaving his face just inches from hers and waiting for her to meet his gaze. Now he was so close, she noticed that his eyes were cradled by the hollow dark crescents of the habitual poor sleeper.
“Tell me Claire,” he murmured lazily, glancing down at her exposed stomach. “Do you often go out dressed like this?”
“What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?” she teased.
He shifted so his mouth was touching her ear and pushed aside a strand of her hair, as if its presence might prevent her from hearing. His voice dropped to a whisper.
“I don’t believe I said anything about not liking it now,” he said, resting his forehead against her so he could look down more easily. “ I’m just curious about what kind of girl goes out riding wearing her little brother’s clothes. Aye, and not so many of them at that.”
“They’re mine!” she responded with a giggle. For an answer, he traced his thumb down the inside seam of her leg and she felt him raise his eyebrows against her hair. Undeniably, her jeans were obscenely close fitting when judged by the standards of his own outfit.
“I can’t help but wonder if…how you might fit anything decent…underneath,” he continued, running a speculative finger around the waistband. He didn’t really care of course. Claire knew an aroused man who wanted to talk about not-wearing-knickers when she heard one. Perhaps she’d underestimated him a little after all.
“Where I live,” she said with airy innocence, “Everyone dresses like this.”
“Well, there’s reason enough to pay a visit,” he observed in a low voice. He watched his own finger slow to a halt, nested in her belly button.
“But you still haven’t answered my question.”
“You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you Joe?”
Joe had obviously waited long enough to see. He reclaimed her mouth and pressed his body closer to hers. Against her leg, she could now detect the clear, hard outline of him, undisguised by the ill-fitting trousers. A needle of desire stabbed through her, mingling with a glow of triumph that he was finally going to follow through on his flirtation. Even so, a soft unbidden giggle escaped her throat.
“What is it now Claire?” he asked, patient humour in his voice, as he pulled back once more. His breath, she noticed, came slightly heavier now. Tobacco, a trace of brandy perhaps, just tainting the persistent sweetness of his youth.
“Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?” she choked, kicking herself for risking the moment, but unable to resist nonetheless.
It was a very old joke, but apparently not that old. He shook his head solemnly. The nineteenth-century straight man to her twenty-first century comic.
“The gun’s in the corner, so don’t trouble yeself about that now,” he said, oblivious to her witticism. “And I think I’ve made it clear enough that I’m pleased to see you, don’t you?”
Relieved that Joe at least had remained intent on their purpose, Claire drew him back to her. Her lips and face tingled from his persistent attention, but there was irresistible promise in his kisses and she had no intention of stopping. Just to make absolutely certain that he knew she was serious, she slipped a hand between them and rubbed her fingers against him.
“Jesus,” he breathed. His neck arched away from her and her eyes followed a random path of sparse black hairs, carelessly blunted and leading down from his chin to his open top button. Below it, his chest rose and fell deeply. The heavy heat within her began to spread thickly.
Joe began to fight off the sleeves of his jacket and fumble at his waistcoat, hampered by continuing to kiss her. Claire pulled off her own jacket and slid backwards from him so she was partially propped up on the blankets in the corner and could watch him undress. There were a great many well-fastened clothes he needed remove, so her view was private and uninterrupted. As he bent his head, intent on manipulating his broad fingers into the many small buttonholes, the tousled forest of his thick curls faced her, solid and black. He had his waistcoat and shirt off now and the fabric of his trousers caught under his knees, gift-wrapping the muscled contours of his thighs. Despite the appearance of the top-half of union suit confirming her fears, Joe in this gathering urgency was a breathtaking sight. She hoped that her own ardour would not desert her when he finally knelt before her wearing the kind of underwear even her grandfather would disdain. It didn’t seem likely. The heat had become an ache now, and the ache forced a sigh from her lips.
He paused and looked down at her, arrested in the act of unbuttoning his trousers by the wantonness of her appearance. The evening was cooler now, but the sun’s heat had left a lasting residue in the tent and she noticed there were little beads of sweat clinging to the hair around his brow and temples. Silently they regarded each other: Joe, his neediness and relief and desire confused by the absence of the rituals he understood and observed; Claire, swept along by surrealism to a point where she was about to have sex with a man she had stumbled across in the bush less than an hour ago, suddenly and inexplicably anxious for him to understand he was not quite the stranger to her that he supposed himself to be.
“You want to lie with me then lass?” he asked, and his direct reference what they wanted to do peeled away yet another layer between them.
“Yes,” she nodded. She wanted to say more, but even as she tried to frame awkward words, he put his finger to her lips again, as he’d done outside and nodded.
He reached forward to unfasten her jeans, a smile of recognition when he discovered the zip. Cautiously, he inched it down as if it might break.
“Another one of these. And what other surprises have you got for me?”
She raised her hips in a gesture of encouragement to undress her, and then winced as the movement forced weight onto her ankle.
“Hey, we don’t want ye hurtin’ yourself now,” he said, noticeably torn between kindly concern and his first glimpse of her body and the skimpy underwear he was exposing. He tossed her clothes aside and returned once again to his own time-consuming undressing. The gathering darkness made the pearly outline of him indistinct as he moved about, the only sound the soft pop of buttons and the rustle of fabric. Finally he was naked, and his nakedness was magnificent: no matter what hesitations had led him to this point there was no trace now of coyness or naivety, neither shame nor arrogance at the way he stood proud and solid against his own belly. This dream had more detail and emotion than Claire had ever previously experienced, and her fingers buried themselves in her own wetness as if she lay in her own bed and could somehow will her body to respond without waking.
Joe caught the look and the movement and bit the smirk from his lip. Leaning over her, he twisted his fingers warmly around hers until his own hand settled flatly against her as if he might absorb the ache she felt. He lay against her, and a sigh from some deep part of himself that she had yet to see reverberated on her skin. He was quite still now as if he was committing her body to his memory. Gradually, one especially curious finger began to explore, sweeping through her and then, sliding into harmony with her encouraging reactions, rubbing and pushing into her experimentally. Then just as Claire began to meet the rhythm of his touch, he stopped, lowered himself between her legs, and tilted her hips up to him. Apparently, having made an adequate check of her arousal he saw no further need to continue either this caress or any other.
Although she had actually been ready for Joe since – well, since he’d first entered the tent to be honest – Claire was taken aback by such perfunctory foreplay, especially after all that rather spectacular kissing. Once again she wondered about his knowledge of women. As he butted himself against her, she resolved to speak out. It was now or never, and he was, after all, only a figment of her imagination. She scooted backwards a few inches and touched his face to draw his attention.
“What’s the hurry Joe?” she asked, doing her best to disguise the croak in her voice.
He looked up at her and smiled his lazy smile, but there was a touch of surprise in his eyes.
“I’m in no hurry lass,” he said, clearly a little untruthfully.
“Joe. Do you know how to please a woman?”
Now the puzzlement was evident on his face, and he opened his mouth as if to speak. At first no words came – her candid question had apparently taken him by surprise. However, he recovered quickly, rolling to one side, his dark, intelligent eyes narrowing as they probed her face for clues. His hand rested familiarly on her thigh.
“Well, if ye’ve heard complaints, it’s not anything they’ve mentioned to me,” he said finally, evidently deciding she was making another strange and ill-timed joke and trying to reply in kind. “I thought…you’d let me. But if you don’t want to?” he added.
To Claire, who was fighting the urge to drag him back on top of her, the idea that her role was to ‘let him’ was a novel one, but maybe he’d had previous experience of last minute refusals and was trying to be diplomatic. However, the concern in his voice, all but masking the undertone of disappointment, was genuine enough. She swallowed the temptation away and forced herself to continue.
“Oh, I do,” she assured him hastily. “It’s just that I was hoping that you might please me a, err…bit more first. I mean, we’ve all night here, and that was…very nice before.” She took hold of the hand that rested on her. The words were becoming more difficult to say now, and she played nervously with his fingers as she dug for courage and refined and rephrased what she might say next. It’s only a dream, she repeated to herself as a mantra as she fiddled with his fingers. It’s only a dream.
“Joe…” she said finally, taking a deep breath. “Have you ever made a woman come?” She had no idea if she was using a word or even a concept he would understand, no idea what his reaction would be. Her heart thudded into the quiet space between them. For a second, neither of them moved, then he recommenced playing with her hand. She wondered if his silence was due to non-comprehension or just shock at her bluntness. However, he apparently did understand because after a moment he nodded slowly.
“Sometimes, yes,” he said, and she had the distinct impression he had been considering his response very carefully before settling for straightforward honesty. She sensed that there’d been a temptation to make a boastful joke or tell her in the nicest possible way to mind her own business, but had decided to see where the conversation might be going. Clearly though, no woman had ever talked to him in such a way before – which was just as well as she’d never said such a thing to a man she was in bed with before either. For the first time since they met she had him completely back-footed, so although he was making an effort to play along, she had to be careful not to entirely dent his pride in his own skill.
She certainly didn’t doubt he was speaking the truth. His attentive, prolonged kissing and simple caresses were almost enough on their own. Even the sweep of his gaze across her body had sent waves of pleasure coursing through her, forcing blood to flush to every last part of her. She forced herself to continue with her interrogation.
“I mean, uh, like this.” With one hand, she touched his face, drawing broad strokes outward from the corner of his mouth with her thumb and making him look her in the eye. Her other hand sought his middle finger and guided it to a more direct stimulation. The touch, even though he’d engineered it herself, made her flinch. He dropped his gaze to where his finger circled and smiled slowly. She speculated that if he’d done such a thing before it had not been so openly and knowingly. Her excitement grew more rapidly than she had anticipated. She had planned to exaggerate her responses in order to offer the appropriate encouragement, but in fact the sight of him enjoying her and the feel of his fingers on her made any embellishment unnecessary. The lightest pressure pinned her to the dirt beneath her and her breath came in irregular staccato. She gasped and he caught it in a kiss that was far removed from the first, passionless time that their lips had met.
“Oh! Don’t stop,” she begged shamelessly, when she could speak again, no longer caring whether or not he was shocked. She tugged at his hair, willing him to continue. A slow furrow of concentration crossed his handsome face as he assumed control of the situation. He might not have encountered quite this situation before, but the sight of a woman on the verge of climax was obviously not a new one to him. Deliberately, she stopped moving to savour the last moments of aching onto his fingers.
“There, my beauty,” Joe told her, as the tremors faded and he buried himself deeply into her welcome. Although this was the kind of thing Claire might say to calm a horse rather than address a lover in crisis, she was not going to allow his quaint turn of phrase detract from the moment. She folded her legs close to him, already feeling the excitement build again, but this time driven by his pace and power. Once more she had the strangest sensation that, lucid dream aside, Joe was not someone she could be in command of. Surprised and curious he might be, pliant to her bidding he was not. Indeed, it was only as he rocked harder and more desperately against her, both of them gasping for air in the stifling tent, that she felt he was finally surrendering control of himself in any way. Desperately she clutched his hips to her own as he strained away from her, his face dark and agonised.
Fuck, he’s stunning – the thought barely formed in her mind before he fell forward again lifting her to a shared intensity as they collapsed into a blur of hard-won breath and kissing and damp curls tickling her face.
“Holy Mary,” he stuttered, then kissed her, once more affectionate rather than passionate. Carefully, he lifted his weight partially from her and she squeezed at him, delighting in the lazy half-smile he returned to her. Suddenly, he started to laugh.
“Claire,” he said in great amusement. “I have no idea who you are or where you came from, but for pity’s sake, say you’ll marry me.”
* * *
From Claire’s perspective, the rabbit stew was not a great success. Unable to identify the vegetables, which seemed to have lain in the pot for some days prior to cooking, or to forget the dramatic preparation of the now dry, grey meat, she picked out one or two small pieces to seem polite and repeatedly rearranged the rest on the tin plate. The chocolate, which she retrieved from the fallen tree trunk where he’d left it, proved much more enjoyable, so she ate her half and passed the time watching Joe, who was eating a large plateful of stew with great appetite but not, it had to be said, much refinement. Partially re-dressed in just his shirt and trousers, he appeared more relaxed and somehow less intimidating than formerly. He had an infectious laugh and a way of regarding her with earnest attention whenever she expressed an opinion. She was amused to note once again his Hollywood-style unfeasibly perfect white teeth, and wondered how he’d account for them in a place so conspicuously free of dentists, or even toothpaste. The metaphysical questions this raised defeated her completely however, and she finally gave up when he produced a half bottle of brandy and proposed to share it with her. At first their conversation circled each other a little apprehensively – understandably he remained cagey about his plans and the whereabouts of his mates, and Claire was not sure how he would take the news that she was an inhabitant of the twenty first century for whom he was a figment of her imagination - but eventually, lubricated by their earlier intimacy and the brandy, they fell to discussing horses, a subject they both felt comfortable with.
After an hour or so, Claire developed a pressing need to pee, and by this time thoroughly at ease in Joe’s company, she sought his advice on the best location and also solicited a billycan of water with which to attempt some basic washing. As she’d predicted when he had removed her boot, her ankle had now swollen alarmingly, and so it took her a couple of minutes to take herself away from the camp and find the rocky gully and clump of bushes he had suggested. It was now completely dark, the noises of the night-time bush in full cry, and despite his reassurances, she couldn’t quite cast aside all thoughts of snakes.
By the time she limped back to him some fifteen minutes later, he was no longer sitting where she’d left him. A buttery glow shone through the sides of his tent, making it appear almost welcoming and homely, and she assumed he was inside. Then she smelled the sweet, cloying heat of tobacco smoke and saw a pinprick of red light brighten and dim nearby, and realised he was actually standing only a few feet away, resting his back and one foot against a tree.
“C’mere you,” he said, although the invitation was hardly necessary. The experience of him in the tent had sucked her into his orbit entirely and all through the meal she had felt the pull of him, darker and more real than before. He flung down his cigarette, apparently heedless to the risk of fire, and lowered his foot to the ground. The hand he held out to her felt warm against her own as he pulled her to him, but strangely rough and worn to be part of such a young, otherwise flawless body. She thought he was going to kiss her, but he didn’t. Instead he rested her head against his shoulder and wrapped his arms firmly around her. There they stood, his chin hard against her head, the two of them sharing the silent relief of touching once more. It occurred to Claire that people probably didn’t hug Joe very often and that this embrace was as necessary and comforting to him as their love-making had been and maybe harder to ask for. Perhaps something you could only ask of a woman who turned up and unhesitatingly offered all of herself to you. She fed her arms around his middle and squeezed him, feeling him tighten to her in return. After a few moments, she felt him lift his arm and point, although with her face still buried in his shirt, she was not in a position to see where to.
“If you climb on that rock above us in the daylight ye can see clear across to the Woolshed,” he said, his words reverberating in his chest against her ear.
“Is that where you live?”
There was a pause.
“Well… in a manner of speakin’ I suppose it might be.”
Claire was keen for this more personal thread of conversation to continue, but he seemed to immediately relapse into his private thoughts again, so she waited a while and then asked, cringeing slightly,
“What are you thinking about?”
But it seemed that their hug had given Joe whatever succour his soul needed just then, and that he had moved ahead again, because far from confessing further contemplations about his situation, he bent his head to make contact with her ear and softly but emphatically said,
“I was thinkin’ about how much much I want you again. Right here if you're willing. And I promise this time I’ll do all the pleasin’ you might wish.”
He nuzzled her face round with his own and smothered any kind of reply she might have tried to frame with a kiss that was a pledge gift-wrapped in chocolate and brandy. His hand slid around the front of her jeans, the heel of his palm kneading at the base of the zip to underline his words. This time there was no fumbling to undo it and his fingers writhed their way expertly into them. The stitching and fabric pulled awkwardly, competing with the waves of more pleasant sensations that washed over her. Quite obviously, Joe didn’t need to be told anything twice. Yet there was something wrong; she could barely stand. The effort of her walk into the bush had left her ankle even more painful than before and no matter how hard she pushed it from her mind, she could ignore it no longer.
“Joe,” she hissed urgently, breaking this kiss.
“Uh?” he replied, barely distracted and re-engaging her mouth instantly.
“Joe, stop. Stop. I can’t …I can’t”
“Oh, I think you can lass,” he murmured, clearly no stranger to seductive persuasion.
“No, I mean I can’t stand up any more. My ankle. It’s agony.”
He withdrew his hand and pulled back from her, his breath heavy. Even in the dark she could see his face was pink with exertion and desire.
“Aww, shit, I’m sorry,” he gasped.
She was breathless too, dizzy from both his attention and from the pain. Uncertain of what to say, she rubbed the back of her knuckles softly against his stubbly cheek and smiled timidly at him. He grinned back reassuringly and without further hesitation, picked her up. His strength, for one who appeared slightly built, took her by surprise, and she winced at the thought of him staggering unromantically under her weight. It didn’t happen though, and he carried her easily across to the lit tent and deposited her very gently at the entrance.
“Can you manage from here?” he asked. She nodded in reply and crawled back inside, marvelling at how this, this figment of her imagination, had so effortlessly ensured his dominance, almost from the moment they’d met. It was surprising how little control one had in a lucid dream after all. What did that say about her subconscious? Her ankle throbbed insistently, but with the weight off it, she was able tell herself it didn’t matter.
As her head poked through the canvas flaps she could see that Joe had been busy in her absence, presumably raiding the other tent for what home comforts he could find. The camp’s entire collection of blankets now formed a rudimentary bed on the hard floor, and he’d even found a couple of pillows. Certainly, they weren’t the sort of thing she’d give house room to normally, and there was nothing to be done about the musty old-clothes aroma, but she was touched by his efforts. At the far end burned a small oil lamp – it was this that had made the tent glow.
“This looks cosy,” she said, hearing him enter. She shuffled around to face him and found him kneeling by the entrance, his unbuttoned shirt hanging like a limp frame around his torso.
He said nothing but reached forward and signalled to her to raise her arms, half helping her to remove her t-shirt. Now she was there before him in the ridiculous brightly coloured pink bra. He gave her one of his slow but dazzling smiles and shook his head.
”I’m not even going to ask ye how I’d go about helping you out of that,” he said.
For an answer she reached behind her back, undid the hook and slipped it down her arms. For some reason, she handed it to him and remained motionless on her knees watching him while he folded it carefully. He cast around uncertainly, as if half expecting to find somewhere to hang it, then finally stuffed it in his trouser pocket before looking up and regarding her frankly. His eyes roamed over her, both lingering and bold until self-conscious anticipation made her bite at her lip nervously. His hands, she noticed, clenched and unclenched slowly as if rehearsing the touch of her, the tendons on his arms rising like fine cables. He pulled her to him and with one flat hand running gently up and down her back, he explored her nipple with his mouth and tongue, coaxing goose bumps to race across her skin.
“If you’re cold we should get into bed,” he said, his words buzzing wetly against her.
This time, there were no difficult words to grope for, no uncertainty or hesitant questioning. Joe took her desire along with his own until the pleasure came in such abundance that finally it made her laugh. Then, watching her with understanding but no smile of his own, he drew her over himself, slow, serious thumbs rotating over her hipbones and a first moment of still, tingling completeness.
The heat between them diminished unhurriedly, their regular breath slow to return. Eventually the cool air began to cling to their skin and they disentangled and pulled the blankets over themselves and each other. Her heart lurched at his careful concern for her comfort, and she kissed his cheek affectionately as she curled up against him.
“You know, you are a very nice man,” she told him.
He laughed drowsily. “Ah come on now,” he said, “I’ll bet you say that to all the wicked bushrangers ye meet in the woods.”
Up until that moment, Claire had been so overjoyed at her good luck, so intent on prolonging the dream and so desperate to commit every nuance of Joe to memory that she had somehow managed to mostly overlook the situation the man before her found himself in. Yes, she had noticed the paucity of his surroundings; yes her heart had gone out to him as she had seen the tiredness in his eyes and sensed the loneliness in his soul, but because it was a dream these things mattered only in the sense that they stirred her own emotions. Now, as he lay next to her, sleepy and satisfied, his breath slowing and deepening, it was inescapable that as far as he was concerned, he absolutely had an existence. He might be a dream, he might be a character in a movie somehow come to life; whatever he was, the more real she felt him to be, the more his eventual fate became real too, and the harder it was to ignore.
Claire had no idea if there was any way in which she could influence the outcome, and she felt a little self-conscious even raising the subject when she still believed that everything around her was in her own imagination and likely to vanish at any second, but she had to try.
“Joe?” she said urgently. “Listen to me. You need to get away from here!”
“Ng?” he grunted, already more than half asleep.
“Joe – no really, this is serious. This…could all go wrong and you have a chance to save yourself. Save all of you. I don’t want…that is, I…” She tailed off, defeated by her inability to put her hopeless wish into words that might change anything for him. She was horribly aware that other people – his family, girlfriends perhaps, undoubtedly made similar suggestions that he presumably rebuffed. And after all, their worst imaginings were probably not a million miles from her knowledge of the truth – or what passed for the truth in this rather unlikely situation.
“Hey,” he mumbled, pulling her closer. “It’s all alright. I know what I’m doing. I’m not going anywhere.” And that was the last thing she heard him say. After a few minutes when she knew he was finally asleep, she pulled away and propped herself up to watch the dark hump of his outline under the blankets. He slept heavily and silently, not even responding when she took hold of his hand in hers, and she glowed with the knowledge that what had begun as an opportunity for her had ended instead with her gift to him of this deep, peaceful rest. She could feel that her adventure with Joe was drawing to an end, but she strove desperately to stay awake as long as possible. Eventually though, without her even noticing, her eyes sunk shut and like him, she drifted into nothingness.
When Joe woke in the morning, it was to the sound of men’s voices and the soft whinny of horses. At first it was hard to make out, then he heard Dan’s voice shout,
“Hey! Some bugger’s robbed us! Half the stuff in the tent’s gone!”
“Don’t be daft Danny! Joe’ll have it. C’mon Joe! Where are ye, ye lazy devil?”
Joe looked around him. Claire was nowhere to be seen. Neither were her clothes, her boots, hat, or even, rather curiously, the pillow she’d slept on. Only the oil lamp and the rest of the extra bedding remained to remind him that anything out of the ordinary had happened the night before. He shook his head to clear it and, and pulling on some of his clothes, he crawled out of the tent.
“Mornin’ fellas,” he said, eyes bleary in the sun. Err.. Have you seen a young lady just leavin’? Wearing men’s clothes she’d be?
The three men standing above him looked at each other and then started to laugh.
“Eh, Joe, you’re losing your touch. Has she run out on you this early? Shame!” joked Steve.
“Losing his touch?” responded Ned. “I hardly think so. We leave him out here alone for one night and he finds a woman. Apparently dressed as a fella. Or have you been at that bloody stuff again Joe?”
Joe stood up and looked around, shaking his head. The remains of dinner still lay by the fire. The empty brandy bottle, his dirty plate and fork, but no sign of her barely touched stew, no crumpled chocolate paper. In fact, no evidence that he’d shared his meal with anyone. He broadened his gaze as if the trees might provide an answer – or perhaps he’d see her standing a little way away, partially concealed and no doubt laughing. But the more he looked, the more he realised that there was no sign that Claire had ever been there at all. He shook his head again, more forcefully this time.
“I’m sorry lads. You woke me up a bit sudden. I think I was having a dream. Dan, the things are in the tent there. I reckon I was a bit cold up here last night.”
Covering his confusion, Joe vanished back into the tent and began to clear it out. He was usually a light, easily-disturbed sleeper, never more than since this bloody business had begun. How had he not heard her leave and take all her things out with her? How could she have got away so silently and easily when she could barely walk? Why bother to dispose of every trace that she’d ever been there? He glanced ruefully at the small flower-shaped terracotta pot in the corner with its reassuring cargo of black oblivion. When it reached a point where he so vividly remembered the dreams but nothing of the smoking that brought them, maybe it was time to stop. But this was nothing like he had dreamed before: the strangely dressed woman who’d been so reluctant to talk about herself yet so open and so bold about other things. He could still smell her on himself, yet how could she have been real?
By mid-morning, he’d convinced himself that Claire was nothing but a lengthy – if enjoyable – hallucination. By the following day, he’d stopped thinking it over much at all. He sat in the warm sun, cleaning his pistol. Leaning over to one side, he groped deeply in his trouser pocket for a rag and closed his hand on something soft that snagged on the rough skin of his fingers. Surprised, he pulled it out, and stared. It was pink but a saturated, intense pink, unlike any colour he had ever seen before. Even the bright autumn flowers were wan and anaemic compared to this hue. The fabric, so smooth that the weave was indiscernible, twinkled oddly in the light. It was Claire’s. Unmistakably. It even held the unmoving shape of her breasts in its pliable padding. He smiled, with pleasure but also in relief, and tucked it into his waistcoat. Perhaps one day he’d get the chance to return it to her.