Prologue – Flash Forward
Jets of hot white steam plumed violently into the air, and the open wounds in the landscape belched out thick black mud. The island hissed and fizzed, a volatile volcanic wasteland. At the flick of the old man’s hand a wall of flames appeared above the acid-filled lake. Flic stared up at him, no longer able to fight the instinct that what he was telling her were in fact the answers to questions she’d been asking for as long as she could remember.
‘Tell me you haven’t looked into the heart of a fire and felt its very soul?’ he asked. ‘I know you Felicity Firestone, in the same way I knew your mother, and this is your destiny! It’s in your blood!’
Chapter One – Fugitive
Flic frowned up at the departure board, struggling under the weight of her backpack. Twenty-three cramped hours until she reached Sydney
She knew she had to get away. Everything in Bath reminded her of Ally. But there was still a part of her that was hoping. Hoping he’d ring her on her way to the airport. Hoping he’d appear at the check-in desk and beg her not to leave. Hoping that he’d tell her this was all a big mistake. But he hadn’t, and it wasn’t. And now she was about to take the most impromptu of gap years, leaving Ally to live the life that they’d planned together, alone.
‘No more thinking of Ally’ Flic muttered under her breath. ‘This year is about you, and you alone’.
Alone was the operative word. An only child, Flic had never known her father. Her mother Amelia had fallen out with her parents before Flic was born, and so the Firestones had always been a snug little family of two, until Amelia passed away from breast cancer three months ago.
Flic hugged her day-sack to her chest. She was doing the right thing. Christmas at home without Mum would’ve been awful, and with Ally no longer at her side, she felt like the slightest pressure might crumple her. Australia was the right place to be, thousands of miles away from the funeral, her ex-boyfriend, and her stale university dreams.
‘It’s not running away if your mother sends you!’ Flic reasoned with herself. The will had made it clear that Australia was where Amelia wanted her to go. She’d even booked her onto an adventure tour once she got there. It made sense. Flic’s mum had been born in Australia, and always promised that one day they would return to her homeland together. Though Flic had never expected that when she did travel to Australia, her Mum would only be with her in spirit.
It was the first time Flic had ever travelled alone. In fact, until the reading of the will, she’d been all set to start university. But, given the events of the past few months, maybe a gap year was the most sensible option.
It was only now, as she stood at the check-in desk, about to leave the realities of the past few months behind, that Flic realised what a heavy weight she’d been bearing. Watching Amelia suffer had been quite literally soul-destroying. But she had packed it all away, memories to face at a later date, and simply busied herself with nursing her mother. Perhaps now it was time to open some mental boxes, and finally begin to deal with it all? Obviously it would’ve helped to have Ally at her side while she did that, but he seemed to have other ideas as to where he ought to be just weeks after the death of his girlfriend’s mother.
‘Enough with the Ally thoughts’, she chided, and then laughed self-consciously. She’d been travelling alone for five minutes, and it was already sending her nuts! She really needed to stop talking to herself! A guy up ahead of her in the check-in queue turned at the sound of her laughter, and gave her an appreciative smile. He was classically good-looking, his jaw chiselled, and hair jet-black, and yet Flic barely registered it. It had just been so long since she was single! With Ally at her side she’d never felt the need to look twice at another man. She looked over at the stranger again. He’d turned back to face the counter, and she could clearly make out the defined muscles of his wide shoulders and thick arms beneath his shirt. He really was quite attractive! It had been eight weeks of virtual silence on Ally’s behalf. Maybe it was time to try to look elsewhere?
Obviously that had been easier said than done, in a world where everything reminded her of him. Bath had become a painful maze of far-too-nice memories. After three years together, almost all of Flic’s favourite moments as a young adult involved Ally. In a fit of rage a few weeks ago she’d torn down every photo with him in, and now her bedroom walls were practically bare. Every bloody song on the radio reminded her of a dance, a night out or a road trip, and the half of her wardrobe that didn’t actually belong to him, were clothes that she’d been wearing on particularly special moments during their relationship. No, it was definitely time to leave. She needed to see new places and experience new things. Things that weren’t tainted by her memories. Perhaps Australia was just that place?
* * *
‘Good Evening Miss Firestone! 8C – that’s on this side of the plane, on the right-hand side of the aisle. Have a nice flight!’
Flick nodded despondently at the air hostess and trudged towards the seat that would be her prison-cell for the next night and day. As she found row eight, a deep blush warmed her cheeks.
Sitting in 8B, flicking casually through the tracks on his iPod, was the tall dark traveller who had smiled at her at the check-in counter. In spite of herself, Flic checked the seat beside him for a girlfriend, only to find a grumpy-looking pensioner adjusting his seatbelt. She peeled off Ally’s water-polo hoodie, the only item of his clothing that she hadn’t been able to part with, and stuffed it hurriedly into the overhead locker. She stared down at the baggy tracksuit bottoms and greying t-shirt she’d thrown on without so much as a thought that morning. Since the funeral she’d barely eaten, let alone brushed her hair or opened a make-up bag, and yet now she found herself waking up very suddenly to concerns that hadn’t entered her consciousness for three months.
Embarrassed, she tucked herself quietly into her seat, and tried desperately to bury herself in the in-flight magazine before the guy recognised her.
‘Hello again!’ came a cool voice in her ear.
Flic turned her head slowly, and beamed her warmest smile, though inside all she felt was blind panic. As she allowed herself to look up at his face, she was almost taken aback by the stranger’s good looks. She wondered how she’d been able to look at him so impassively beforehand. Neat black locks framed the pair of cool grey eyes that had a definite sparkle. His angular jaw was speckled with dark stubble, and as his lips spread into a smile, they revealed teeth so neat that they could only have been achieved with the help of serious metalwork.
‘I’m Daniel’ he beamed, extending a firm hand. His voice was a neat mix of South African and English boarding school.
‘Felicity … Flic’ she corrected herself awkwardly, limply grasping his hand momentarily.
Her obvious unease seemed to amuse him. He raised a confident eyebrow, ‘So, ‘Felicity-Flic’ what takes you to Australia?’
His smile dazzled her, but it was the intensity of his cool eyes that made her catch her breath. She struggled to focus on what he was saying. Why was she heading for Australia? What a question! She opted for the simplest answer.
‘I’m on my gap year. I’ve got a two-month adventure tour booked, starting in Cairns.’
‘An adventure tour?’ his eyes sparkled with interest. At least she hoped it was interest, and he wasn’t just humouring her. Something about his manner put her ever-so-slightly on guard, as if she were the butt of an unknown joke. He was just so slick. Flic couldn’t help wondering, why someone so attractive would make this much effort to speak to her?
‘An adventure tour? So you’re a bit of an adrenaline junkie then?’
Flic decided to ignore the nagging suspicion that he was mocking her, and trust his apparent sincerity.
‘I guess you could say that! Though I’m into endurance sports too,’ she heard herself babble. Flirt-mode, she was definitely in flirt-mode! Had she ever really flirted before? She’d been so young when she’d started dating Ally. Back then, it had been so easy! They’d been school friends, and their friendship had taken what felt like its natural course, gradually developing into a relationship. Looking back she couldn’t remember even attempting to flirt before. She waited nervously for his response, wondering if she sounded too cheesy.
His eyes flashed appreciatively down at her t-shirt, ‘Yeah I can see that … the London Marathon … wow!’
She shrugged off his praise, ‘It’s not really that hard. I think the only reason I finished was because I’m so stubborn! Trust me, it had nothing to do with sporting ability!’
Flic really wasn’t sure how to take him. He was just so self-assured. Ally was a confident guy, but Daniel practically smouldered charm. It was definitely disconcerting, though perhaps being out of her comfort zone was exactly what she needed?
‘So, Daniel’, she grinned, feigning confidence. ‘What’s your sport of choice? Or can I guess?’ She allowed herself to glance down quickly at his body. He was muscular, yet streamlined. He lacked the shoulders of a rower like Ally, and his thighs were heavy-looking, but not rugby-esque.
‘Go on …’ he nodded encouragingly.
‘Hmm … horse-riding?’
Daniel raised an eyebrow, and she groaned inwardly at her behaviour. He was a twenty year-old guy, not an eight year-old girl! Maybe it was a good thing she hadn’t had to flirt for three years, she was appalling!
‘Sorry, I meant polo,’ she corrected herself, wincing slightly as she waited for his response.
Daniel simply smiled. ‘I guess you could draw some similarities… I ride bikes.’
Flic stared at him out of the corner of her eye. ‘There’s no way you’re a cyclist! Sorry, but you’re way too … stacked!’ A hot blush crept across her cheeks as she realised what she’d said.
‘Why thank you!’ Daniel laughed easily, and ran a steel tongue-bar between his lips. ‘No you’re right, not pushbikes, motorbikes. I guess I’ve always been a bit of a grease monkey at heart!’
Felicity stared awkwardly down at the magazine in her lap, not really knowing what to say. She was still embarrassed about the horse-riding comment, and the conversation had led to something she knew nothing about. Her vague bloom of confidence was disappearing almost as quickly as it had appeared.
Daniel filled the silence. ‘So Felicity-Flic, how about you tell me about this adventure tour?’
Flic smiled, glad for the change of subject. ‘Well to be honest, I don’t know a great deal about it! My Mum booked it, and she wanted it to be a surprise. All I really know is that I start in Cairns, and my flight home isn’t until February.’
When Daniel didn’t interrupt, Flic carried on, suddenly aware of how nice it was to talk about Amelia with someone who didn’t cry at the mention of her name. At the funeral she’d felt like the responsible adult as she’d consoled Amelia’s friends and workmates.
‘My Mum was always really into the outdoors. She grew up in Australia, and had me camping and stuff from day one. So, I’m guessing the tour’ll be pretty basic. No five-star hotels for me, that’s for sure!’
‘Sounds like you have a very special Mum!’ Daniel smiled.
Flic nodded slowly, ‘Yeah I do … I did’, she stumbled, still not used to the past tense. She took a deep breath. The more often she said it out loud, the easier it would be to come to terms with. ‘Um, she actually died a couple of months ago. I only found out about the trip in her will.’
Something flickered in Daniel’s eyes, an emotion she found hard to read. Maybe it was just awkwardness, a reaction she’d met an awful lot recently. ‘I’m really sorry’, he said quietly. ‘Actually, I lost my Mum too, but she died when I was little, so I, uh, never really knew her.’ He stared at her, as if there were something more he wanted to say. Eventually he spoke. ‘So how’s your Dad holding up?’
Flic shrugged, ‘I never knew him. It’s always just been me and Mum. I guess she was more like a friend than a mum in a lot of ways. How about you, are you close to your Dad?’
All semblance of a slick façade suddenly dropped, and for a second Daniel was lost.
Finally, more quietly than before, he replied ‘You’d think I ought to be, wouldn’t you? But I guess I reminded him too much of her, Mum, … she died in childbirth.’ Daniel paused, then went to say something and stopped. He looked down at his iPod, idly spinning his index finger around the dial. Almost to himself he muttered, ‘I think he blamed me’.
The hurt in his voice, and sudden change in his otherwise confident demeanour rattled Flic, and she did the first thing that sprang to mind and reached across to take the stranger’s hand. ‘That’s awful, no one should ever make you feel that way’.
Daniel’s hand was so cold, that it was as if Flic’s own body heat drained straight into it. The sudden change in temperature made Flic jump, and she snatched back her hand. Daniel read her reaction as nerves, and gently pulled her hand back down onto his, placing his other hand over the top, and staring directly into her eyes.
‘Thank you.’ His grey eyes moved like mercury, a rainbow of colours, yet they were all shades of silver. ‘You know I think you may have just become my favourite next-door neighbour’ he winked, his cool, calm demeanour returning as he motioned towards the old man sat on his other side, who had just begun to snore.
* * *
© C-C Lester 2009