The man only had to get from one smallish plane to the front of the airport and still he was late. Luke tapped his hands on the steering wheel as he pulled into the pick-up area of Parkes small airport.
The question had him turning his head toward the young guy he had assumed was a backpacker out west for some fruit picking.
On a closer look, the guy was a little old for the backpacker tag, as Luke’s practiced eye put him in his late twenties. However, with his long dark hair braided out of his eyes and an intriguing line of tattoos running down his arm, Luke thought he could have been forgiven for that stereotype.
“Jai Latimore?” he asked, climbing down out of the police four-wheel drive.
Being a cop, and one who spent a lot of his leisure time lifting weights and adding to his already physically intimidating 6’3” form, he was used to most civilians he hadn’t met finding it a little hard to look him in the face and meet his eyes.
This guy, however, didn’t seem cowed by his presence. The guy caught his gaze and met it with an arrogance that had Luke’s shoulders squaring as he helped Jai pick up one of his two canvas bags.
“Thanks for the lift,” Jai said. “A two-hour taxi ride might have ended up being the same price as my flight.”
Even if his clothes hadn’t screamed his city origins, his voice certainly would have given him away to the most casual observer. There was none of the languid Australian country drawl in it. Instead, it only had the crisp tones of the well educated. Even if his words seemed to be of gratitude, Luke sensed an entitlement that had his own words come out in his most cop tone.
“The hospital asked if anyone was over here, and as it was my court day today, it didn’t add any extra time to my trip, and I don’t even have any extra passengers in the back I’m bringing home,” Luke said, as he stowed the extra bag. At least Jai didn’t have a massive suitcase with tiny wheels. Those may be great for major airports and city paved streets, but they were awkward as fuck to carry.
“Everyone else go to jail today?” Jai asked as he settled himself in the front passenger seat.
“Yep,” was Luke’s one-word answer as he started the engine and turned the four-wheel drive out of town toward the highway. It wasn’t Jai’s fault he’d had to recommend a custodial sentence for a juvenile today, something he hated. However, assault with a knife involved was only going to get that particular fifteen-year-old on a track that would end up with him or someone else being killed, regardless of his young age.
Luke knew he was being gruff with his passenger, but it wasn’t his job to be the welcoming committee for young professionals doing their country rotation in Dungoon’s small country hospital. Most of them couldn’t wait to get the country dust off their too white sneakers, so they left the moment their mandated term was over. At least this guy had chosen some slightly more appropriate footwear. His boots were well worn, even if they had more buckles, laces, and other unidentifiable hardware than any you would see in the average Australian country town. Though Jai himself wasn’t anything you would see here either. Exotic eyes that had to speak to a somewhat distant Asian heritage and his high cheek-boned face was highlighted by a braid that was more elaborate that the average schoolgirl plait. His jeans were skintight and an obscurely patterned T-shirt fit closely to his slim muscular body.
Fucking fashion, Luke thought, looking at the attractive man sitting beside him. Luke was just old enough to remember when jeans worn at a certain tightness and long hair held back from a face like that meant men were at least equal opportunity when it came to sucking cock. Now every second fashionable dude in Sydney wore that brand of jeans while holding the hand of his equally hot girlfriend.
No wonder Grindr had made a fortune when you couldn’t rely on fashion to tell you whom you could hit on. Though Luke supposed men who had man buns were probably too “evolved” to give you a kicking when you accidently hit on them.
Luke gripped his hands more tightly on the steering wheel than was necessary for handling the vehicle on the long straight highway. No way was he thinking about any cocks being sucked while in the car with this guy. There were strict times he allowed those sorts of thoughts any space in his consciousness, and he had long decided that letting himself contemplate that part of himself wasn’t going to happen while he lived in this town.
“This is the first time I’ve been picked up by a cop car in a professional context,” said Jai. He seemed to think it was time to lighten the mood.
Luke unclenched his jaw and tried not to let resentment color his tone. “But not the first time in a police car.” Okay, so maybe he hadn’t completely managed to tone down the hostility.
Jai’s friendliness had dimmed a little further. “Yeah, maybe a slightly misspent youth,” he said, looking like his amusement had dropped since his original joke. “Though youth might be stretching that story a bit, seeing the last time I knew what the backseat of a cop car looked like I was far enough into my twenties to know better.”
Luke tried to loosen his jaw enough to give the man a smile that his friendliness and honesty deserved. His smile, though, felt tight and unnatural and wouldn’t have convinced a toddler. Really, the health department shouldn’t be sending ex-offenders out to his patch. When the department said they were desperate for a radiologist at the hospital, he didn’t realize they were scraping that far down the barrel.
The silence after Jai’s last comment had stretched too long to be comfortable, and the hum of the police radio that sat between them was the only thing apart from the noise of his powerful car eating up the kilometers of the nearly deserted highway. It was sheep country out here. Dry, flat, not particularly picturesque, and absolutely part of Luke’s DNA. He’d been born here and even after most of the rest of his family had moved away in his teens he’d made sure there was a life for him here.
Thinking of Martha, the hospital administrator who’d asked him for the favor of driving Jai back to town, he was shamed enough to start naming the various properties they were passing just to fill in the silence that his lack of conversation had allowed to continue for far too long. Jai responded politely enough to Luke’s random naming of the properties with a few “reallys,” but it couldn’t exactly be called scintillating conversation, especially as out here, even going 110 kilometers along the single-lane highway, the properties were spaced out enough that they were only passing a new property every five minutes or so.
Luke knew he had a reputation for being a calm, familiar presence on the streets of Dungoon. You didn’t spend eight years of your life being a country cop without being able to hold a friendly conversation about almost any subject—from the quality of the latest wheat crop to the gossip about machinations of the Country Women’s Association. He’d just found himself completely wrong-footed by the sleek glamour of the man sitting beside him. Even the arm that was lightly tapping the dashboard was different to any that he’d had sitting in that seat. It was tanned, muscular, and accessorized by a the leather cuff that was laced in a pattern reminiscent of Jai’s braid with an intricate leather imprint that somehow managed to highlight rather than diminish his masculinity.
Luke could feel his foot jumping on the accelerator in a way that he was sure had never before happened in his car.
“Don’t you guys usually travel in pairs?” Jai questioned.
Luke was so relieved at not having to come up with another farm biography, he decided not to be pissed at the dismissive “you guys.” Or at least not too pissed.
“We aren’t like the city police,” he replied. “Most of the time there’s only enough staff for one of us to do any task at a time. We can call backup from Parkes if we need it for special operations, or we can call an off-duty officer in an emergency, but otherwise day-to-day policing is done alone.”
Jai looked at him with a concerned expression.
“It’s a normal country—reasonably safe—town,” Luke continued. “Most work is being visible and dealing with drunks, thefts, car accidents, and domestics.”
He risked another glance at the man sitting next to him. “Hey, some of them will be your clientele at the hospital.”
After he said that, he tried to ignore his hands tightening on the wheel. He probably hardly needed to remind himself how much time his job required him to be at the local hospital dealing with its staff.
“Don’t remind me about the drunks I’ll probably spend my career x-raying,” Jai replied with a theatrical sign. “They always manage to stick out their arm when they fall and then are completely unable to stay still enough for me to get film on their injuries.”
“Hey, if it cheers you up, out here you’ll probably get a few farm accidents thrown in.”
“Way to be cheerful,” Jai laughed, and as Luke looked over, their eyes met in their first mutual smile. It lasted only a few milliseconds before he forced his eyes back to the road. However, it was enough for the tightness in Luke’s rib cage to soften.
The silence that followed wasn’t as awkward, and the sign “Welcome to Dungoon” appeared.
The town wasn’t itself only had a population of more than two thousand, but it serviced a much wider farming area, so it had a reasonably healthy main street and quite a decent block of housing for its hospital workers.
“I’m not sure what they told you via email,” Luke said to Jai as he pulled up outside a concrete building. “Martha Jenkins said they had filled their normal hospital staff housing, so you’ll be stuck here for a while in the university student block. It is a bit housing-commission chic, but I’m told the flats themselves all have their own kitchens.”
Great, now he sounded like a real estate agent. Jai must have agreed because he was smiling again. Having this exotic guy give him a friendly look felt too fucking overwhelming. This wasn’t someone Luke could afford to spend time with. Anyway, Luke thought righteously, this guy had already admitted he was trouble, with his banter about a past involving the police.
“If you are thinking of partying with the students,” Luke could hear the ugly emphasis on “partying” in his voice but couldn’t help the long-practiced cop sneer, “just remember how young these kids really are.”
And like that, Jai’s body straightened and he almost threw himself out of the truck yanking at his bags to put them on his broad shoulders. “Thank you, officer.” Oddly enough, Jai’s voice didn’t sound grateful. “A lift and a public service announcement. I got the full royal treatment today.”
A wave of his hand and the turn of his athletic body dismissed Luke. At least keeping his distance didn’t look like it was going to be a problem.