He was waiting for her when she trudged back from the fields, hauling her final bucket of grapes. He was sitting on the front porch with Anna-Maria’s father, Old Maurice, the two men drinking beer and getting along as if they had been friends all their lives. He raised his beer to her as she passed. Meredith shot him a wry, slightly exasperated look and did not reply.
Anna-Maria and her husband, Carlos, were the owners of Martel’s Winery. Carlos and his two assistants were now at the head of a long table, sorting out the last buckets of grapes to be taken to the crushers and de-stemmers.
Anna-Maria was overseeing the setting up of long wooden tables in the front yard. Workers assisted her in carrying out platters piled with food, tureens of soup, pitchers of water, and bottles of wine. Meals were served free of charge to the workers, and dinner was always a big event with lots of laughter and chatter, and on occasion, dancing afterward. When Meredith walked over after washing up, she noticed Tyler in the middle of the group, setting out plates and telling a story that made everyone laugh.
His eyes lit up when he saw her, and he put the last plate down and made a beeline for her. Meredith could feel the curious stares of the other pickers, wondering just who this scarred stranger was and what he was doing here with Meredith.
She sat beside him with a frown, pushing at the food on her plate as she watched Tyler make fast friends with everyone, trading jokes and stories. He became instant best friends with Roger, an English backpacker, when they discovered they shared the same love of motorcycles. And though Tyler continued to pay her special attention, topping up her glass of wine, offering her more honeyed pastries and turning often to speak with her, she answered him with short, sharp replies and rebuffed his attempts to touch her on the arm or shoulder.
The only other person who was not enamoured with Tyler was Grigori, a large bearded bear of a Russian with arms as thick as a cow’s thighs and a gallantry toward women that was worthy of a medieval knight. He sipped his beer as he observed the interaction between Tyler and Meredith, and decided he did not like the fact that Meredith was so evidently uncomfortable around this scarred stranger who had ingratiated himself so easily into the close-knit group of workers.
His mind was made up the third time Tyler reached for Meredith’s arm and she slapped his hand away. At this, Grigori shot to his feet with a roar that startled more than half the table and caused his neighbour on his right to fall out of his chair. He slammed his ham-sized hand on the table and told Tyler to leave the lady alone for it was clear he wasn’t welcomed here, and if he persisted, Grigori would do something very physical to change his mind.
What surprised everyone even more than Grigori’s roar, though, was Meredith leaping to her feet and snarling at the Russian, pushing Tyler aside as she challenged Grigori to fight her. Grigori was so stunned, he nearly fell over. Tyler had to grab Meredith by the arm and restrain her from climbing over the table to get at Grigori. Then he extended his hand to the Russian, and was so friendly and humble that the big man reluctantly shook his hand. By the end of the night, they were sitting on the porch, drinking beer and singing drunken songs while Meredith, pissed off at both men and at herself, sat down with Iliara, a startlingly blonde Sicilian with the ability to down quantities of alcohol twice her water weight, to consume a bottle of vodka, something they both regretted severely the next morning.
Tyler soon became a familiar presence at the winery. He was welcomed eagerly by all, and everyone was always ready to sit and have a beer with him. Most of his evenings, however, were spent by Meredith’s side. Though she never spoke much to him.
True to his word, he stayed away during the day, though he came to visit every evening. Once, he even persuaded Anna-Maria to give Meredith a day off, right in the middle of the busy harvest period. Or maybe it was Anna-Maria who had made the suggestion. The Spanish woman had a soft spot for young lovers, especially tragic ones, and she sensed something of the kind around Tyler and Meredith. Besides, she also had a soft spot for Tyler and the way he effusively praised her cooking. Carlos joked that he had better be careful that he didn’t wake up one day to find his wife had run off with the scarred young man. “If that happens, you must stay here in her place and look after Maurice and me,” he told Meredith.
She’d grinned. “You’d certainly be less trouble to look after than Tyler.”
“Hey!” Tyler complained.
“That’s a compliment for you, young man,” Carlos told him. “Women, they like the boys who are trouble, always. It’s a good thing I was so handsome, my wife fell in love with me in spite of my virtuous ways. Now, where are you taking this young lady on her day off?”
On Anna-Maria’s recommendation, they visited the Los Alcornocales Natural Park, a reserve with a fierce, rugged beauty that appealed to something deep inside of Meredith. The autumn air was sweet and cool, the day suitable for hiking. They tramped through arcades of cork oaks and knee-high ferns while peregrine falcons and kestrels soared overhead. Every now and then, the trees opened up to a vista of the surrounding mountains and the sky above. Though it was early autumn, there were still patches of vibrant colour here and there, from the pale mauve of rhododendrons to the delicate white sprays of flowering tree heath and a bright yellow carpet of rock roses.
Some nights, Tyler took her to a bar where they drank Andalucian wine and watched the local women perform the flamenco. Meredith admired the dancers immensely. She loved the elegant profile of their faces, the proud set of their necks and shoulders, the graceful twirl of their hands, and the haughty toss of a bright frill, the flash of an ankle. She admired the passion and fire of their dance as they rolled their shoulders and stomped their feet while the men shouted their admiration and pounded out the rhythm on the tables with their hands. She watched the dancers avidly, her head held high itself, her eyes bright and her cheeks flushed, and she did not notice Tyler watching her instead of the dance.
And despite herself, she was beginning to soften toward him. It was impossible not to, in his presence, to keep herself from smiling or even laughing as he teased her gently. And as the days rolled by, there came a time when he reached for her hand and she failed to pull away.
Meredith awoke early every day, long before anyone else was awake in the winery, and ran. She sprinted past terraced rows of grape vines and through the neat, trim olive groves, her feet flashing over loose dirt and rocky soil. She always took an uphill route, relishing the strain of the climb, forcing herself onward even when she began to tire. She ran like the wind through the darkness, until the first rays of sunlight pierced the dawn sky like red fire reaching out to bathe the world. Only then would she allow herself to stop, panting and leaning on her knees, to watch the sun spill its golden beams across hills and fields. And she held a hand over her stomach and felt the Wildness slowly dissipate, spent by her charge of physical energy and the fierce beauty of the sunrise.
But it was still there. And it was growing stronger, despite her running longer and faster and harder than she ever had in her life, despite her throwing herself into grape-picking with a vigour that surprised the other workers who were used to straggling out of their sleeping quarters shortly after sunrise, bleary-eyed and yawning, in time to see Meredith speeding back into the front yard from her run, dripping with sweat and flushed with exertion. The Wildness was growing, and it would continue to grow as long as Tyler remained with her.
Harvest season was almost over. She had a little money now, enough to get away if she wanted to. Tomorrow, tomorrow morning, she could pack her bags and she could leave. She could leave well before anyone else was awake, well before the sun came up. And when Tyler came to find her that evening, no one would be able to tell him where she had gone.
He would be surprised, and he would be hurt, perhaps even angry. And it pained Meredith to think she would be the cause of those emotions. But she knew it was the right thing to do. She knew she could not stay with him, that she could not be with him, if she were to keep him safe. She had learnt that lesson all too painfully well.
That night, after supper, they walked, as they often did, up the hill through the rows of vines, most of them now devoid of grapes. Anna-Maria stood under the porch light and watched their receding backs, her dark eyes as soft as the warm autumn night. She noted with gentle approval that although they walked so close their hands and shoulders touched, the girl did not pull away as she so often had in the beginning, and she remembered how the boy’s arm had slung itself so casually around the girl’s shoulders at supper and had not been nudged away.
Tyler and Meredith moved slowly up the hill, content to walk in silence. When they reached the top, they sat under a young aspen and looked out over the countryside. The velvety night closed itself around them like a mother holding her children in the cup of her lap and arms.
Tyler stirred, breaking the silence. “Maurice tells me you’re up early every morning, running as if the very hounds of hell were chasing you. He said he woke extra early once to find out exactly when you start on your runs. He missed you that time. He woke up even earlier the next day. Still, he missed you. On the third day, he finally caught you. He surmised that if you didn’t stop for a break, you must run for at least two hours each day before you go to pick grapes.”
Meredith picked at a stray blade of grass. “You know I like to run.”
“For two hours without stopping? Even when you’re physically exhausted from picking grapes all day, every day? You must have the stamina of ten Spanish bulls.” Tyler paused and added wryly, “Maurice made a dirty comment about that.”
Meredith rolled her eyes. She could only imagine what kind of dirty comments the roguish old Spaniard was capable of making about her stamina.
“I have a lot of energy,” she said.
“Yes, I remember that from the time we first met. You were on the beach every morning without fail, running your heart out. Still, you never pushed yourself the way you do now.”
Meredith shrugged. “Running builds endurance.”
Tyler shook his head. “You have the energy and endurance of a Wild One. I don’t know how I missed that from the beginning.”
“It’s what they call the Wildness,” she said quietly. “That energy you speak of.”
“And the reason you run so much.” He paused. “You never ran this much on the island, though.”
“Back then,” she said, “I would not have known you were a magician, had you not told me your name. You weren’t easy to sense then. You seemed very – how do I put it?” Meredith waved her hand in the air. “You seemed so ordinary.” She glanced at him, wondering if her words might insult – magicians were a proud people who positively revelled in their exclusive birthright. But Tyler merely listened, waiting for her to go on. Then she remembered – this was Tyler she was talking to. He might be overly confident and arrogant, even cocky, but never vainglorious. It was one of the things she had always liked about him. She continued. “There was nothing in the least bit magical about you – well, not at first, anyway. Later, after spending day after day with you, it would have been impossible not to have sensed the magic around you, that slight tinge that sets my Wildness on the edge. Still, it wasn’t strong at all – or whatever it was, you kept it well hidden beneath the surface.
“It was different in the Colonial House. There was so much magic around us – so many magicians – powerful and obvious – your mother, her friends. I had never been in the presence of so many magicians and especially not in such an emotional state as I had been since – since that sailing trip.” Her cheeks flushed and she turned away so he wouldn’t see, letting her hair fall like a curtain between them. “I knew then that what I was doing was wrong – that I ought to have left you right away. And yet I didn’t. I didn’t – and you had to pay the price for my mistake.”
Tyler touched her shoulder.
Meredith turned back to him. “Your magic’s more obvious now. It feels more – forceful – more palpable, somehow.” She scrutinised him thoughtfully. “How did that happen? Was it because of that night at the Colonial House?”
Tyler nodded eagerly. “I think so. Remember what I said about trauma –”
He broke off. He stiffened. He choked. Then he doubled over, his shoulders convulsing, half-strangled noises emitting from his throat.
Meredith’s first instinct was to leap to her feet and whirl away from him. She thought her Wildness had somehow betrayed her, but when she felt about herself and realised otherwise, she moved back quickly and bent over him. “Tyler!” she cried. “Tyler, what’s happening? Tyler!”
He couldn’t answer; his convulsions were too strong. Meredith stepped back, wringing her hands in frustration. At last, she crouched beside him again. “Tyler, I’m going to run to the main house to get help for you. I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise. Just hang on, Tyler – please, hang on.” Her voice broke on that last word and she leapt to her feet and took off down the hill, as fast as she could, as fast as if the devil and all of hell were at her back.
Go on to: Chapter Fourteen
Go back to: Chapter Twelve
New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.