A breeze blew hair across Tilly’s face. It snagged on the cut above her eye. She lifted it away, rolled the thick mass on top of her head and stuck it with a long pin. The sound of a big motor purred across the ticking and clinking of her battered wreck of a van that now lay on its side.

The PVC tube had one minor crack, but the paintings inside weren’t damaged. Everything important was in her shoulder bag, the wheelie suitcase by her side, and the tube. Anything else could be replaced, but these — she patted the tube — would go where she went, and no country crook or towie was gonna get their filthy mitts on Tilly Lark’s lifetime collection. Not yet. Not until she was dead and dusted.

Except for the few she’d promised to the new gallery in a town so far off any beaten track that she’d had trouble finding it and had looked at the GPS at an inappropriate bend in what had been a dead-straight road until that moment. Not that she’d admit that, not to  anyone. Never know if there’s an insurance assessor standing in amongst your friends, making like a spot of mould on a shoe, seeing everything, going everywhere, and doing the damnedest to ensure no payout.

Bright lights rose into the purpling sky. Tilly toed her stuff behind the vertical bumper bar and stepped closer to the road. The pin slid from her hair and plinked to the road. Damn. She needed a shower and a good sleep in a warm bed on level ground.

The last light of the sunset burned the graze on her arm. She rubbed it, but the burn spread to her neck and face.

Flashing lights strobed the shrubs and road. She lifted her hand and waited, ready to wave if it was the towies, ready to play damsel in distress if it was a local. She held the tube steady, ready to grab it and run if something other than that.

The truck’s hoist and big grill emerged from the slight rise. Orange lights highlighted the hoist as if it was a neon sign, not as lurid as her fluorescent locks, and as welcome as a cuppa. The towie. She waved into the blinding lights, and slid the tube into a secure spot.

Tilly’s heart pounded, her breath caught. Was she suffering delayed shock? She slumped against the cooling chassis. This was not the time for a medical issue. How could she game the towie as a mark if she wasn’t fully aware and focussed on the potential of the game. Her motto — know the mark before playing the right game. She squinted, frowned.

A face emerged in the flashes of light. A familiar face. Tilly stamped her foot, clamped her arms across her chest.

Nearly forty years and the anger remained. The festering boil erupted, her face burned. That face belonged to a man dead and buried — cos if she’d know he was alive, she’d have killed him. With glee. With her bare hands. Tilly shook her head, closed her eyes, opened them.

It couldn’t be. After so long, it wasn’t possible. Or was it? Unless this was a set-up, and he’d been sent to finish the job, take the painting, kill her, and bury the past forever.

The truck slowed, the face turned away. The profile silhouette wasn’t the same. This nose twisted at the bridge, the lips not as full — she sucked in a breath, relieved — and the chin, partially hidden under a short, trimmed — and white — beard, didn’t have the pixie look she’d loved.

Tilly spat on the ground, her skin prickling in the cold air. It wasn’t him. Just an old bloke, white hair, high cheekbones, silver earring dangling. Similar, not the same. This man looked a bit like Santa. She closed her eyes, swallowed.

It wasn’t him, but if, in a zillion-to-one chance it might be, she’d play dumb. Ignore any reference to a shared history, give him heaps if he used any of those lines on her. It’d be easy to pretend to not know him, after all, she’d changed, too. Dozens of times.

No one from that time would know her now, least of all the man who left her alone in the den of sharks to take the rap for his deceit.

An opening gambit for a later in life, second chance romantic suspense story about the showgirl and the sharpie. Stay tuned.

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