© Copyright 2006
by Rachel Brown
Read more from Rachel at her own website:
Amber pulled her jacket tight around her as she hurried across the road to the Iron Horse Inn. Despite the ever-sunny tourist brochures, even North Queensland could be unpleasant in winter.
She pushed open the door to the aging pub and weaved through the tables of drinkers, the accusing glare of the girl behind the bar made it clear she was late.
“Natalie, I’m sorry.” Amber shrugged off her jacket and stuffed it under the counter, “My car’s stuck in the repairers. The mechanic’s not going to finish the job until I find the cash to pay for it. I had to thumb a ride.”
“Whatever,” Natalie said, and waved her to the till. “Just count the change and sign me off. I’m meant to be at a party.”
The bass of the raucous band throbbed through the floorboards as Amber bent over the cash drawer. She didn’t even know who was playing tonight. Lately they all sounded the same.
“Oh, and that guy who’s sweet on you is back tonight.”
Amber’s head snapped up. Natalie pointed with a long red fingernail to the back corner where a group of young men and a couple of women stood around a pool table. Even though Benjamin stood in the shadows of the light suspended over the table, Amber easily spotted the back of his neat, fair head. Her heart fluttered and she quickly bent back over the cash drawer, and flicked through the coins and small notes.
“He’s not sweet on me.”
“When I served him a little while ago he asked if you were working tonight.”
Amber bit her lip, and had to start her counting all over again. Benjamin had been in the bar when she arrived every night that week and she didn’t want to admit - even to herself - how much she liked him.
“All there.” Amber signed beside Natalie’s name in the book, but the other girl didn’t move, her lips curved with interest.
“Not a local, is he?”
“No, here on holidays. He’s staying at the Mereton.”
Natalie whistled. “Classy! And they’ve got the best bar in town. He wouldn’t be coming here unless there was some other attraction - he certainly doesn’t come here to drink!” Her mocking laugh made Amber grit her teeth. “Does he ever drink anything stronger than lemon squash?”
“Aren’t you running late for a party?” Amber asked, and walked away to wash her hands in the back room. There was an unspoilt sweetness about Benjamin that made him different to the blokes who usually came to that pub, and she didn’t want to hear Natalie ridiculing him.
When Amber had served him only soft drink on the first night he’d been in, she assumed he must be the designated driver for a party of drinkers, but he left alone a few hours later. The next night he returned and after buying another lemon squash he chatted with her at the bar for nearly an hour. She hadn’t dared hope he had any interest in her beyond discussing the area’s tourist spots. For a girl like her, that train of thought could only end in disappointment.
Natalie had left by the time Amber finished drying her hands and two of the regulars were leaning on the bar, waiting to be served. As she filled their glasses, Amber couldn’t resist another glance across to the pool table. A frisson of awareness shot through her as she looked straight into Benjamin’s soft blue eyes. She realised he’d been watching her, and beer sloshed over the sides of the glasses as she lifted them onto the bar. She was still wiping up the spill when Benjamin pulled up a stool opposite her.
“Hi Amber. I was starting to worry I mightn’t see you tonight.”
Mindful of Natalie’s teasing, Amber felt her cheeks begin to burn. Could he be coming just to see her? It seemed impossible - yet if he knew nothing of her past ….
“Oh, no - only running late. What are you drinking?”
He grinned and passed her his empty glass. “The usual, thanks.”
Amber took his glass with a smile. A guy would have to be pretty secure in himself to come alone and drink lemon squash at this pub night after night. She filled him a fresh squash and had to bite her lip when he took a straw from the dispenser and placed it in his glass. Whatever had brought him to the Iron Horse, his inexperience was obvious. The straws were only there for the ladies.
“What have you been up to today?” Amber sat on her own stool and leant one elbow on the bar, “Did you find that beach I told you about?”
He smiled and Amber noticed how very white his teeth were. He probably didn’t even drink coffee. “Yes, and well worth the challenge of getting there, too. I can see why it is your favourite place.” Benjamin paused, and the ice in his glass tinkled as he stirred it with his straw. “It was very isolated though - I walked kilometres along the shoreline before I passed anyone. Don’t you worry about walking there alone, Amber? If some stranger --”
“I’m not frightened of strangers,” she answered, flustered by the concern she saw in his eyes, “it’s the people closest to you who do you most harm anyway.”
The corners of Benjamin’s eyes crinkled as he regarded her steadily. Amber had spoken without thinking, and she looked away from him, worried he would ask what she meant. Benjamin took a sip of his drink but only said, “It is very beautiful there, just the cliffs and the breaking waves - no-one to interrupt your thoughts. Thank you for sharing it with me, Amber, if I lived here I think I’d be there whenever I could as well. It is a very peaceful place.”
Another man came to the bar and while Amber served him, she thought about what Benjamin had said. After the continual noise at the pub and in the flat she shared she longed for peace - yet silence was harder to cope with. When she walked the lonely shoreline she kept her earphones in and played her music loud enough to drown out her thoughts.
“What other spots are on your must-see list?” Benjamin asked when she returned. Amber began to wipe dry a tray of glasses as she thought. She could have told him every night spot and club within two hours drive, but somehow she knew that wasn’t his scene.
“What about the lighthouse on the Cape? The view is incredible and I’ve heard they do a nice Devonshire tea.” She could imagine Benjamin enjoying a scone with cream and jam, and drinking tea from a china cup and tried not to wish herself there with him.
“But you’ve probably seen more of the area by now than I have.”
“How long have you lived here?”
Amber remembered the night she’d arrived - she’d stopped in this town simply because she was too tired to drive any further. And when she’d seen the sign on the door for a barmaid …
“That’s not long.”
“Longer than I’ve stayed anywhere else in the last ten years,” she said with a shrug, “and the only place I call home.”
When Benjamin asked about the other places she’d lived, Amber found herself telling him about the dozens of moves she’d made with her mum. Each of her mum’s boyfriends seemed worse than the one before, and inevitably each relationship precipitated a hasty departure to a new town. When Amber turned sixteen she’d had enough and decided to go her own way, but she didn’t mention she had fallen into the same pattern herself since then.
Benjamin leaned closer to hear her over the distorted music of the band, his head tilted to one side, and prompted her on whenever she paused. Amber had never spoken with a man who was interested in who she was beneath the surface and she even admitted to him her longing for a quiet life and settled home.
The warmth of Benjamin’s smile lit his eyes, and Amber dared to wonder if this sweet young man who seemed to understand her might actually care for her. Right as he opened his mouth to speak the band stopped for a break, and the bar was instantly two deep with patrons.
It was nearly twenty minutes before Amber could get away from the counter, and she grabbed her tray and made a quick circuit of the room to collect the empty glasses from the tables. The band hadn’t started to play again yet, and voices of the drinkers were punctuated by the clunk of the pool table and the background noise of the television in the corner above the dart boards.
Amber’s heart lifted to see Benjamin still sitting by the bar with his half glass of squash, although the big screen held his attention. She stopped behind him and glanced at the television, unable to stifle her groan when she recognised the too-familiar face of David Hunter, the morals-crusading politician.
She seemed to hear his sickening voice every time she turned on the TV, campaigning for “society friendly” restrictions on alcohol and gambling, and harsher penalties for illegal drugs. Then there were the laws he wanted changed about a woman’s right to choose … he seemed intent on making criminals out of ordinary people.
Benjamin looked up at her, his eyes almost wary as he caught her expression. “What is it, Amber?”
“That man! Thinks living off our taxes gives him the right to meddle in everyone’s lives!” The glasses clanked against each other as she slammed the tray on the counter.
“What have you got against him?” Benjamin turned toward her and asked. “Are you worried how the proposed restrictions would affect your job?”
Amber rolled her eyes. “Not just that. It’s the way he sits there judging everyone and thinking he has the right to tell them how to live.”
“You don’t think he’s genuinely trying to help?”
“No. He disgusts me. Making it seem like normal people are the scum of society when he’s the biggest hypocrite of them all.”
“That’s not the impression I have of him.”
“No, of course not! Look at him on TV, with his earnest face and tender concern,” Amber said, finding it hard to contain her emotions, “You’re meant to think he’s this big do-gooder, but he’s worse than everyone.”
“Why do you think that? Have you ever met him?” Benjamin asked quietly.
She stared at him in frustration, and not wanting him to think her unfair she blurted out, “David Hunter is my father!”
Benjamin raised his eyebrows slightly, but gave no other reaction.
“You don’t believe me do you?” she demanded.
He nodded slowly, “Yes, I believe you. You’ve got his eyes, you know. Beautiful golden eyes but a very unusual colour - I noticed them the first night I came here. It’s no mystery why you were named Amber.”
Amber screwed her eyes shut. They were the only thing about herself she’d ever considered special - her figure was on the dumpy side and her hair a boring brown but her tawny eyes had always attracted attention. Now even they seemed tainted by the direct link with the father she despised.
“Have you ever met your father?” Benjamin’s question brought her out of her thoughts and she sat down on the stool beside him with a sigh.
“No. He dumped Mum and me when I was only a baby. They were married, but Mum was never good enough for him. And he couldn’t care less about me.”
“How do you know that? Are you sure it was your father who left?”
A lifetime of resentment rose in Amber’s voice. “My mum told me all about it! That’s how I know what happened; how what he did messed her up for life. And it messed everything up for me, too.”
Benjamin reached out and took her hand in such a tender gesture that tears sprung into her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just wondered if you ever considered that all this time you might have been wrong about your father?”
Amber shook her head, touched by the compassion in his eyes. She’d been amazed that someone like Benjamin had stopped to talk to her in the first place, and even more so that he was still here after everything she’d told him.
A firm hand on her shoulder made her jump, and she looked up into the rugged face of Sean Smith. His easy charm and wicked smile made him a favourite with the local girls, and he knew it.
“This boy bothering you, Amber?”
“No, no - not at all.” She stood quickly, embarrassed by the familiar way Sean tousled her hair.
“Righto, then.” He ran his dark eyes slowly over her, then winked. “Just remember to call me when you want a man.”
Amber’s face burned as he walked away. Sean had been trying to start something with her for months, but as attractive as he was, she’d heard enough about his reputation to keep clear. He stayed out of trouble, but few doubted his involvement in the local drug scene.
She turned back to see Benjamin getting to his feet and her heart sank, certain this would be the last time she saw him.
“Amber, there’s something I really want to ask you, but there’s no point trying to talk seriously here,” he said and Amber was relieved to see the warmth hadn’t disappeared from his eyes. “Will you come and have dinner with me at the Mereton tomorrow night? If we made it for six o’clock I could drive you here afterwards in time for your shift.”
Barely able to contain her pleasure, Amber bit her lip and nodded. A week ago she would have said that life couldn’t get that good - but right now she sincerely hoped it did. Perhaps Benjamin would be the fresh start she’d always longed for …
* * *
The restaurant at the Mereton was elegant and the menu top class, yet the atmosphere was relaxed and comfortable. On a small dais by the balcony a duo sang love songs in mellow harmony, accompanied by a single acoustic guitar.
Amber found it hard to keep the smile from her face as she basked in the sheer pleasure of Benjamin’s company. They’d chatted about inconsequential things during the meal, but whenever she met his gaze over the small table there’d been an unasked question in his eyes.
Benjamin had not yet mentioned what had been on his mind when he invited her out, and Amber’s imagination effervesced with possibilities. She drew her spoon through the swirl of chocolate syrup on her plate and tried to ask casually, “So, when do you go home?”
“Well, that depends.” Benjamin looked up, his eyes intent on hers. His chest rose as he took a deep breath - and Amber lost her nerve. She didn’t want to look as though she hoped for too much.
“But you’re only on holidays, aren’t you? When do you have to be back at work?”
When Benjamin told her earlier that he worked as a public servant in Canberra, she’d laughed and said she should have guessed. Even at the pub, he looked as though he would have been more comfortable wearing a tie - and he really looked the part in a navy suit.
“My boss is pretty flexible, actually. Amber?” He took a deep breath and turned his glass around three times before he went on. “How happy are you here? Is this what you really want from life, or would you consider something else?”
Amber’s toes curled inside her high-heeled boots. Oh, how desperately she wanted something else from life. Home, family, peace ... she’d only known Benjamin a week, but already longed to find those things with him. She had nothing to lose if he suggested she follow him back to Canberra.
“I could leave all this tomorrow,” she replied in a whisper. “Why do you ask?”
“I wondered if you’d come back to Canberra with me. I’d like you to meet your father.”
His words hit her like a jug of iced water. She blinked in shock and spluttered, “What? My father? How do you know him?” And then as comprehension dawned, “You work for my father! This is all ... all just your job?”
Her chair screeched across the tiles as she leapt up, but Benjamin rose with her and caught her wrist.
“Hear me out, Amber - please. Yes, I work for your father, but I’m not here as part of my job. I am on holidays. This is personal, Amber. Please let me explain.” As he spoke his eyes beseeched her, and Amber sat back down, trembling with anger at her betrayal.
Benjamin still held her wrist, but his fingers were gentle. “Amber, your father wants you to come home. He loves you --”
“Rubbish! If he loved me, he wouldn’t have abandoned me a lifetime ago!” She tried to pull back and discovered an unexpected strength in those smooth fingers - but it was the intensity in Benjamin’s eyes that held her in her chair.
“Your mother lied to you about him. He didn’t leave her. Not when she was unfaithful, and not even when she drank and gambled herself into serious trouble. He did everything he could for her - but she took you and ran away with a man who offered her a false freedom.”
“Stop it!” Amber hissed. She wanted to shout, but the subdued music wouldn’t have covered her voice. “How dare you talk about my mother like that? I don’t believe you!”
“You’ve told me about the life you’ve had with your mother - why do you trust what she said about your father? I know him, Amber and he is a good man. I’m asking you to trust me and come and meet him for yourself.”
Amber blew out her breath between clenched teeth. “What has any of this got to do with you?”
“Your father has wanted you home for so long - when he finally found out where you were I offered to bring you home. Amber, I couldn’t begin to tell you what he has done for me - but I love him as though he were my own father. I would do anything for him. ” His Adam’s apple bobbed hard as he swallowed, “And when I came to know you - I didn’t want to leave without you, either.”
“If he really wanted me, why couldn’t he find me before now?” Something niggled at the back of Amber’s mind. David Hunter was only months from the next election - what could a moral crusader want with a wayward daughter like her?
“Your mother made it pretty hard for him to find you. The name changes, the continual moving ... and when he eventually tracked her down she hadn’t heard from you in two years. After he found out you were here and what you’ve been through --”
“How do you know what I’ve been through?” Amber demanded through slitted eyes.
“Amber, he was desperate to find you. He hired investigators …”
Benjamin’s face swam in front of her before she closed her eyes. Her father would know everything then … someone in his position would surely have access to police records, medical files. She would never escape her past now.
“So why does he want me, then?” Her voice sounded strange even to her own ears.
“Because he loves you. He knows how you are living and where you will end up if things don’t change. Amber, your father wants you to come home so he can care for you. He wants you to share in the blessings of the God he and I both believe in, to have a fresh start --”
Amber cut him off with a harsh laugh and wrenched her hand free. “Yeah, right! So, he now knows what I am and he doesn’t like it. He wants to get his sordid daughter cleaned up before the next election - before anyone else discovers who I am.”
She was on her feet now, and smiled bitterly at Benjamin. “That’s what brought all this on, wasn’t it? Last night you found out I knew who my father was and didn’t have a good word to say for him. Well, you can take my regards back to Canberra with you, and tell my father I don’t appreciate being spied on. I never want to see either of you again!”
Careless of the attention of the other diners, she turned on her heel and strode through the crowded room. Benjamin caught up with her before she reached the door, but didn’t speak until they were outside the restaurant.
“Amber, I know this is all a shock - perhaps if you give yourself a little more time?”
“I’ll drive you back to work then.” His voice was subdued but surprisingly firm.
Amber opened her mouth to refuse, but a quick glance at her watch confirmed she had no other option. She had no money for a taxi, and hitching a ride in high-heeled boots and a short skirt could end up with worse consequences than just being late for work.
With a resigned shrug she followed Benjamin into the car park, seething inwardly when he opened the door for her to get in. It only made it worse that he had to play the gentleman to very the end.
Neither of them spoke on the trip into town. Amber’s eyes burned with tears and her whole body stung with the raw pain of her humiliation. Her father, the man she despised more than anyone in the world, knew every rotten detail of her life and made it clear it wasn’t acceptable to him. She should never have let herself fall in love with Benjamin, never dared hope that her life could be any different.
When they pulled up, Benjamin tried again to ask her not to decide hastily, but she cut him off in no uncertain terms. There was no point minding her language in front of him now.
“At least take my card, Amber,” he insisted, and thrust it into her hand as she climbed out of the car. “If you change your mind - or if you ever need anything - just call me. You can always reach me on my mobile.”
“Yeah, right.” She crushed the card in her fist and tossed it into her handbag. “Have a nice life, Benjamin.”
Amber slammed the door behind her and as she crossed in front of the car she almost walked straight into Sean Smith. His eyes lingered on her unusually dressy outfit and he smiled appreciatively.
“For my benefit, sweetheart?”
“You never know,” Amber replied with a provocative flick of her hair, fully aware that Benjamin was watching through the open window. She didn’t even flinch when Sean reached behind her to pinch her bottom, but nestled into the curve of his arm. Both her father and Benjamin already knew what she was really like, so what did it matter anymore?
Frazzled passengers thronged toward the luggage carousel, keen to leave the tiny international terminal and begin their holidays on the Indonesian island. Amber let them flow past her - business men, families with small children, and groups of teenage boys probably coming to surf. Their voices rang in her ears and merged with the buzzing in her head.
She’d thrown up several times on the flight. The hostesses assumed it was motion sickness, but Amber felt a thousand times worse now she’d reached her destination. Sweat soaked her clothes and she looked around desperately. The doors to the tarmac were shut behind her and the only exits lay on the other side of Customs. There was no escape now.
Amber unclenched her fist and looked at the crumpled business card. The moisture from her palms had smudged the ink, but Benjamin’s number was still legible. He’d said to call if she ever needed him ... but when she’d phoned before flying out of Australia he hadn’t answered.
Seven months had passed since she’d turned her back on Benjamin and his offer from her father, and the card had lain forgotten at the bottom of her handbag. Benjamin had called at the pub for two more nights before finally returning to Canberra, and Amber made sure he knew she had taken up with Sean Smith. Sean’s uncritical acceptance had been balm for her humiliation and she’d closed her eyes to the consequences.
It had been easy to fall back into the habits which had caused her so much grief in the past, and when she’d been caught stealing from the till at work to fund them she had no option but to move in with Sean. Dimly aware that her life was spiralling into darkness, Amber saw no solution until he organised the trip to Indonesia.
Even the knowledge that he planned to smuggle drugs hadn’t phased her at first. He boasted of the contacts he had on the island, who would ensure officials turned a blind eye if need be. Travelling together as a typical holidaying couple would make passing through Australian customs a breeze.
The lure of a week in an island resort and her promised share of the profit had dulled any qualms. When they returned Amber would pay off the mechanic and drive away from that town and from Sean Smith forever.
Two small boys, revelling in their freedom after the long trip ran past and one of them knocked against Amber. As she staggered backwards, she caught sight of Sean waiting by the far wall near the luggage carousel. For a moment he stared right through her, then he turned his back.
Sean’s true motives became clear early that morning, when he showed how invisibly he’d sewn the drugs inside the lining of her case. It would be Amber taking all the risk in entering a country where drug smuggling carried the death penalty. He’d laughed at her when she’d begun to panic, and joked that even if she were caught he’d have ample compensation. He’d enjoy seeing David Hunter’s political career ruined by the arrest of his own daughter for drug smuggling.
Amber had gagged when she saw the full measure of her stupidity. She’d never told Sean or anyone else about her father, but he’d known all along, probably overhearing her tell Benjamin that night at the pub. She’d been so consumed by her hatred of her father and his standards that she’d blindly allowed Sean to use her for his own ends.
Although she begged, Sean gave her no option to be let out of the trip. He smiled as he promised he would find her if she ran, and that no-one would question a fatal drug overdose of a girl like her. She’d met enough of his “friends” to know he told the truth that if she went to the police she wouldn’t even be safe from him in gaol. But Sean was generous - his deal stood and if she went through with the trip, he’d still give her the return ticket and her cash as soon as they were through customs.
They’d passed without question through the security checks at Brisbane airport, and when Amber waited in nervous apprehension for their flight she’d decided her only hope was to enter Indonesia undetected. The odds of that seemed slender, and the horror of what she was doing overwhelmed her. Several other young Australians had recently lost their gamble with the Indonesian justice system.
Amber knew it was too late for anyone to help, but when Sean had made a last minute visit to the toilets she’d pulled Benjamin’s card out of her bag. It was a huge blow when he didn’t answer, although Amber left a message explaining everything that had happened. At least her father might believe she hadn’t gone through with this to hurt him.
The luggage carousel shuddered into life and travellers who had begun to wilt with tiredness reanimated as they willed their bags to appear. Several surfboards nosed through the rubber strips hanging over the luggage door and the youths grabbed them and headed for the customs area. Piles of cases began to appear. Their owners tossed them onto trolleys, gathered children and then disappeared along the corridor. Amber watched Sean bend over the conveyor belt, lift his small bag and walk off without a backward glance. The plan was that he’d meet her outside the terminal.
The crowd had thinned and Amber had begun to fantasize that her bag might have been lost, when after a drought of luggage, her leather case appeared. The innocence of its appearance belied the disgusting contents and she had to force her legs to move. Just as she reached out to pick it up, a man’s hand closed over the handle.
“Excuse me, I believe that bag is mine.”
Amber gasped at the sound of Benjamin’s voice and looked straight up into his soft blue eyes. They held a deep sadness, but his lips curved in a gentle smile as he looked at her.
“Listen carefully. My bag will come through in a minute. It is navy with leather handles and it has your name on it. Just pick it up and go through the green gate into Customs. You have nothing to declare.”
Amber tried to speak but he held up his hand, “No, Amber - there’s no time. Everything you need is in the case as well as cash and a ticket home. Go through customs but don’t leave the airport. Sean Smith has taken out a contract on your life. Walk straight to Departures and board the next flight to Sydney.” He kissed her cheek and stepped back quickly. “Give my love to your father.”
“No, don’t leave me, Benjamin!” Her mind spinning in confusion, Amber reached out to stop him, but he shook his head.
“Please Amber, for your father’s sake and mine, do exactly as I’ve asked. This is your only chance to live.” He turned and strode towards the red gate into Customs.
Amber stared after him, unable to comprehend how Benjamin had come to be there, or what he would do with her bag. She hadn’t made sense of anything when the navy bag appeared on the conveyor belt, but the knowledge that Benjamin counted on her actions broke her trance and she carried it through to the green gate.
The customs area was clogged with passengers in queues, none of them moving. Uniformed officials and sniffer dogs milled around the counters. The woman in front of Amber turned around and whispered, "Apparently there’s been a tip-off from Brisbane airport. They’re going through everything with a fine tooth comb.”
The woman’s words disappeared into the noisy haze that permeated Amber’s brain and she had to concentrate on staying upright. Indonesian music played through tinny speakers in the ceiling, the hypnotic patterns of chimes and pattering drums muddling her thoughts and increasing her sense of unreality.
More than an hour passed and by the time she reached the head of the queue Amber was unable to do more than mumble in answer to the multitude of questions. She opened the bag Benjamin had left her and the officials carefully perused the documents she handed them. Every item in her bag was removed and examined, then it was x-rayed again and finally the lining itself slit with a sharp blade. When nothing was found Amber was taken to a side room and body-searched by a female officer. She shook with the knowledge that if Benjamin had not swapped bags there would have been no escape.
The officials seemed reluctant to let her go, but after conferring at length left her to repack the small pile of t-shirts and sarongs into the bag while they moved their attention further along the queue. When her documents were returned Amber staggered through the doors and found her way to the departures desk.
The plane was already boarding, and as Amber was hurried toward the gates she desperately scanned the airport for any sign of a fair head and a pair of soft blue eyes. When the aeroplane doors closed behind her and it was obvious Benjamin was not on board, Amber became more and more frightened by his parting request to give his love to her father. Would she see ever him again?
* * *
Amber wasn’t prepared for the reception awaiting her at Sydney airport. The flight had passed in a misery of shocked reaction, and when she stepped out of customs into a barrage of camera flashes and microphones, she nearly collapsed.
For a moment, everything swam and then Amber found herself in the warm embrace of a large man. Strong arms held her close and she looked up into the face of a man she had seen so many times but had never known.
“Oh, Amber! Safe at last.” His eyes were the same golden honey as hers, and filled with such love and pain that she couldn’t speak.
“Mr Hunter, was your daughter involved in today’s drug arrests in Indonesia?” a female journalist thrust a microphone toward him.
David Hunter protectively pulled his daughter closer with one arm, and began shepherding her toward the exit. Three stocky men walked close beside them, apparently providing security. Obviously, nothing that concerned a Federal member of Parliament went unnoticed, even in the early hours of the morning.
A man with a loud tie pushed in front of them, “Is it true that your political aide has been arrested for drug smuggling and may face the death penalty?”
Amber almost fainted and her father’s arm gripped her tighter.
“Your daughter has been connected with known members of the drug world - how will this affect your position in Parliament?” another reporter asked.
Her father paused, and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, but I have no comment to make on those matters at this stage. This is my daughter who has been lost to me for nearly twenty years. I’m so thankful to have found her and I’m not concerned about her past - just her future. Thank you for your interest, but I’m sure you can appreciate that this is a very private time.”
Amber would never have made it to the first of the two government cars waiting at the entrance without her father’s strong arms half carrying her. The moment the back door closed after them, Amber burst out, “Is it true? Have they arrested Benjamin? Will he --” she broke off, utterly distraught. She was barely aware of the car moving off from the kerb.
“Oh, honey. Didn’t you understand what he was doing?” David Hunter’s voice cracked, “He declared the bag as his own. He’ll face the full consequences of bringing the drugs into the country.”
Amber remembered the sadness in Benjamin’s blue eyes as he arranged the exchange with her and thought her heart would break. It wasn’t his disappointment in her that weighed so heavily on him, but his awareness of the cost he would pay to get her free.
“You knew he was going to do that? Why didn’t you stop him?”
“He insisted, sweetheart. When he knew the danger you were in he was determined to take your place. We’ve been aware of what you were involved in with Sean Smith, and knowing what that man is capable of, Benjamin made his arrangements and booked his ticket on your flight the day after you did. Benjamin said --” her father stopped to steady his voice, “he said that he could trust in God to carry him through whatever happened, however bad it might be, but that you had nothing, sweetheart, and if he didn’t do this, you would be lost to us forever.”
“But can’t you get Benjamin out of there? He’s not guilty - he hasn’t done anything to deserve this! He’s not a criminal …” Amber remembered how distinctly Benjamin’s sweetness had set him apart in the pub, and she trembled, realising he was probably already alone in a foreign prison. “He’s just so … so good. We can’t let him go to trial for something he didn’t do.”
“Amber - someone has to go to trial for it. You smuggled the drugs into the country and they were found. The crime has been committed and justice has to be served. The law is clear, and that quantity of drugs carries a death penalty, but --” he bent forward with his head in his hands and struggled to overcome the strong emotion that shook his whole body, “but I love that boy like a son and I will do anything I can to get him home.”
Tears streamed down Amber’s face. “I can’t understand. Why did Benjamin want to take my place? It’s me that deserves it.”
“Because he knew what you mean to me, how much I love you,” her father told her, his voice thick, “and as much as it tears me apart for him to go through this, I’m so thankful he did it. Ben loves you too, Amber, and since he knew you were my daughter he wanted nothing more than to bring you back home to us.”
Amber crumpled into her father’s arms, and he cradled her head against his broad chest as she sobbed.
“But how could he love me … after how I treated him? How could you?” Her words came in painful gasps, “I’ve hated you, always hated you … taken pride in living against … against every principle you have. Yet you,” she shook head, remembering the pleading in Benjamin’s eyes over dinner at the Mereton, “you knew that … and still sent Benjamin to bring me home. And I hated him for that!”
Amber covered her face and moaned, overwhelmed to realise that Benjamin knew how much she hated him even while he booked his flight and made his plans to save her. “You should have left me in the mess I got myself into. I’m not a good person … I don’t deserve what you’ve done for me …”
Her father held her close, and gently stroked her hair until her crying began to ease a little.
“Amber, honey - you are my own child and I love you. That is never going to depend on what you deserve. I’m just thankful that God has never treated me on the basis of what I deserve either, but according to his mercy.”
He leant down and kissed the top of her head, “Nearly the whole of Australia knows I’m a Christian, but when I was saved there was nothing good in me either. God knew the full extent of the sin in my wicked heart, yet he freely gave me faith to put my trust in his Son. He gave me sight to see that if I believed in Jesus, his sacrifice on the cross would pay the penalty for my sin. I became acceptable to God, not because I earned it by seeking after him, but because he washed me clean in the blood Jesus spilled for me. After what I was, and what God sacrificed to save me, how could I hold anything against you?”
Her father’s jacket was already soaked with her tears, but they continued to flow as Amber listened to his words. She’d always hated everything about Christianity and the way it seemed to judge her unworthy as a person and condemn her. But if as her father said, it was God himself who paid the price to make her worthy, she could understand why Christians always spoke about God’s love.
Amber took a shuddering breath, and hoped there might be some way this God, in whom her father trusted, might forgive her too …
“Excuse me David,” the man driving the car cleared his throat, and Amber realised they were well away from the airport and out into traffic. “Are we heading back to Canberra?”
David Hunter looked down at his daughter. “Sweetheart, you’ve had a huge ordeal. Would you rather us stop and spend the night here in Sydney instead of going straight home to Canberra?”
Amber lifted her head and looked up into the warm eyes so like her own.
“No, Dad - I want to go home.”
* * *
Nearly a year later, Amber stood outside the arched door of the church, clinging to her father’s arm. She glanced hesitantly up at him, but he beamed back, obviously not sharing her nerves. The organ at the front of the church had begun to play, and she took a deep breath and stepped through the threshold with her father.
Everyone in the church turned to look at her, but Amber saw none of them; her eyes sought only one man. Her breath rushed out as she fixed on his neat, fair head at the very front of the church. Benjamin’s soft blue eyes held hers as she slowly walked toward him and when he smiled - his pure joy reflected in his face - Amber’s vision blurred and she had to blink away her tears.
The long white gown her father had given her swirled around her feet, a waterfall of lace and crystal that flowed into a long train behind her. With each breath she silently thanked the Lord for everything he had given her. True peace after a lifetime of longing, and a future beyond anything she could have imagined.
Benjamin turned his head slightly as she came closer, and Amber’s heart contracted with a sharp jab of pain, the way it always did when she saw the jagged scar which ran down the right side of his face. Benjamin hardly spoke of what he had suffered in prison, saying it had been worth enduring it to gain her freedom, but Amber knew she would never forget what it had cost him.
She and her father had returned to the island while Benjamin faced the court, and praying fervently throughout the ordeal, they were sustained only by God’s grace when he was sentenced to death. It had been nothing short of miraculous when, three months from the date of his arrest, a prisoner exchange had been arranged by the Australian government and Benjamin came home. After an intensive inquiry his sentence had been commuted and although Benjamin would always bear the marks of his ordeal, he was free.
Amber reached the head of the aisle, tears flowing down her cheeks as she gazed at the man she loved more than anyone in the world. She barely registered her pastor’s words of welcome, but her heart sang with joy when he asked, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” and her father replied with a hearty “I do!”.
Benjamin took Amber’s hand from her father and his strong, gentle fingers enclosed hers with the assurance of a love she could never have cause to doubt.
~ THE END ~
2 Corinthians 5:20 - 21 (ESV) Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
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