(16th Century – attrib to Tobias Hume)
Montana, U.S.A. August 2066
Adam Svenson had always associated his birthdays with the sea. Being a ‘summer baby’ it fell during the long vacation and for years the tradition had been to spend the day with his mother. As a child he’d felt genuine pity for his younger brother, Peter, whose birthday fell in the middle of the school winter semester and who therefore never had as much fun on his birthday.
It wasn’t only birthdays he associated with the sea, of course – some of his earliest memories were of beaches: the windswept isolation of Nantucket, the idyllic serenity of Caribbean islands, long coastlines where huge breakers thundered onto flat beaches or hurled themselves against jagged cliffs and even the shifting dunes of the inland seas they called the Great Lakes.
They all spoke to an undeniable atavism in his psyche and he loved each and every one of them.
Before everything had changed… before… before his adorable little sister was born, his birthday memories were of unalloyed pleasure; playing on a succession of beaches with Peter, under the watchful and loving eyes of his mother or his paternal grandparents. After that watershed date the memories were tinged with wariness and a resentment of the obsessive security his parents insisted on.
Even at a young age he’d understood why they wanted to surround their children with bodyguards, and appreciated their determination to keep him and his younger siblings safe, but he blamed himself in a large measure for precipitating the unwelcome changes and bitterly resented the intrusion of strangers into their family life.
He recalled his teenage years as a perennially gloomy time when the underlying melancholia in his temperament held sway, still reverberating from the after-shock of the devastating incident that had had such a profound effect on him and indeed, on the life of every member of his family. After the trial of his abusive kidnapper, he’d spent almost a year on Nantucket with his grandparents. His mother had brought baby Katherine to visit when she could, but he had not seen his father or Peter for many months.
Slowly he’d pieced together his self-assurance, which had allowed him to rebuild a public persona; but gone forever was the confident, happy, outgoing boy he had been and in his place was a taciturn, quiet and studious youth, who kept the world at a distance and hid his emotions under a polite but ever-watchful exterior.
As he grew into adolescence, he developed a profound hatred of what he came to see as the deliberate curtailment of his personal freedom and dedicated himself to devising ever more imaginative ways of evading surveillance. This provoked violent clashes of will with his overbearing father and anxious pleading from his doting mother.
It was a determination to escape that restrictive regime that partly fuelled his love of surfing, diving and flying; all pastimes where the additional lure of solitude and the sense of freedom had proved irresistible.
Now, it was different. Now he avoided beaches and found little pleasure in solitude, although ironically, he spent most of his time alone.
Since his grandfather had died and his grandmother - with the same streak of independence her grandson had inherited - had returned to her native Norway, Adam’s rare spells at home had been overshadowed by his father’s interminable censure. John Svenson could not forgive what he saw as his eldest son’s betrayal and Adam could not forgive his father for the failure to recognise the craving for independence that had governed his decision to walk away from the family business, and live a life as different from that of any other Svenson as he could.
Slowly, like the inexorable drift of continents on tectonic plates of misunderstanding and stubbornness, the gap between him and his father had widened, until now they could barely manage even a few hours in the same room without sniping at each other.
It was true that Kitty and his youngest brother Davy flocked to Adam’s side, eager to hear of his latest escapades, but Peter – the much-loved playmate of his childhood, who had become the critical, competitive and jealous rival of his adolescence - remained aloof and always sided with their father. Although he would never have admitted it to anyone, Adam found that betrayal quite as hard to forgive as their father found what he perceived to be Adam’s rejection of all the family stood for.
In the middle of this emotional battlefield, Sarah Svenson, with the help of her husband’s cousin – Eric Svenson – tried to keep the peace between her belligerent brood and pretended they were still one huge happy family.
They weren’t, of course, and not even Sarah, the cynosure of the family’s emotional life, could make them act like one. The last family gathering had been for Peter’s wedding and although Adam had serious doubts about the wisdom of attending, he went along.
He genuinely wished his brother well and wanted to try and bury the hatchet, but the event followed too closely on a personal tragedy for it to be easy for him, especially as Peter showed no desire to be reconciled with his older brother. As a coldly calculated insult he’d asked a family friend to be his best man; Adam hadn’t really cared, but his mother had, and her complaints unintentionally stoked Peter’s resentment against his brother.
The elder sons barely spoke before the ceremony and at the reception, Adam, unusually for him, got so drunk that Eric had had to steer him from the marquee and back to his bedroom. Wallowing in a self-indulgent pit of grief, he’d staggered into the bathroom to throw up, while Eric remained and kept a quasi-paternal eye on him. When he staggered out looking decidedly green, Eric helped him strip off and rolled him into the bed.
By the time Adam woke the next day, hung-over and wishing he was dead, Peter had already left for his honeymoon. With a weary sigh, he listened to his father’s lengthy and pitiless sermon in gloomy silence, considering that the real shame about the whole sorry mess was that he doubted Peter would ever forgive him now.
Following that disastrous day, Adam stayed away from Boston for years. It wasn’t difficult; he never felt as if he was missing anything, and besides, he was preoccupied with the security work he was involved in for the World Aeronautical Society – that, and mourning the death of the woman he loved.
But he couldn’t stay away for ever; there was his mother to consider. She pleaded with him to come home every Christmas, birthday or family celebration, and like water on rock, her persistence gradually wore him down. She was so upset when he stayed away for his thirtieth birthday that he simply couldn’t bear to see that disappointment in her face again and he agreed to join the family for his thirty-first birthday, although he asked her not to hold it somewhere they used to go. Delighted at the prospect of having him home, Sarah agreed and made the arrangements accordingly.
Now, as he sat at the wooden table, out on the wooden veranda, over–looking smooth, still waters - in which the wooded slopes of the surrounding mountains were reflected like a mirror – he wondered why he had agreed to come. Of course, he knew the real answer to why he was here; it was a no-brainer really - his mother was cheerful, happy and excited to have him ‘home’.
Although the seaside trips had long since become a distant memory, ended by the same kidnapping that had so nearly ended his life, he regretted that they’d been replaced by this luxurious ‘cabin’ in the secure, private community that edged the remote lake. It seemed to be a soulless place and he despised its very tranquillity – yearning for the restless churning of the oceans that chimed in with his own emotional turmoil.
Still, they had the place to themselves this early in the morning; David and Kitty were still sleeping, Peter, his wife and baby daughter were due to arrive later, and his father – well, he was where he always was: at work.
Sarah Svenson came out onto the veranda and placed the tray she was carrying down carefully on the table. She poured her son a glass of freshly-pressed juice and handed him a metal rack of wholemeal toast and a small plate. There was butter and a selection of breakfast spreads, so he reached for a knife, and by the time she came back with the fresh coffee, he was already chewing.
She took a seat beside him and, smiling, handed him a pile of cards and a slender, wooden-handled letter opener. “Open them, Babes.”
Obediently he slit the envelopes. They were from relatives, old friends, and people he’d half forgotten. He smiled, complimented them all and handed them to her to read.
She stood them in rows across the table.
Then, it was family cards. Cousin Eric’s card made him snigger and his mother purse her lips in mock disapproval of the crude, adult humour. Kitty’s card was a high resolution reproduction of a work of art, his maternal grandparents had sent a photograph of a classic car with a bag of golf clubs on the back seat, while his grandmother had sent a photograph of a fishing fleet at anchor in a fjord. His father never sent cards, and the remaining two were from David and his mother.
“Cheeky young devil,” he said with exaggerated offence as he read David’s rude comments about his advancing age.
His mother laughed. “Takes one to know one.”
Her card was a photograph of an empty, storm-tossed beach, so like Nantucket he wondered if it was taken there. It was a strange choice for the height of summer, but somehow it suited his mood, and her personal message inside was, as always, loving and supportive. He reached across and hugged her.
“Happy birthday, my darling,” she whispered, kissing his cheek.
She brushed the long fringe away from where it flopped over his left temple, frowning as he turned his head away from her. Her heart contracted at the thought that, twenty years after the incident that had left the thin, jagged scar along his hairline he was still self-conscious about it.
Determined to be upbeat, she continued, “I’ve arranged a barbecue for this afternoon and evening. You can get to meet some of the neighbours. There’re quite a few pretty young girls around here, you know?”
“Mom – you’re match-making again.”
“No; no, I’m not! I just want you to meet some nice young people and have a good time. I worry that you’re working too hard at… whatever it is you’re doing these days. You and your father share that much, at least.”
She sighed and sipped her orange juice, then, with an air of someone seizing a bull by the horns she added, “Besides, Babes, it’s been some time since… since you lost…Soraya.” She said the name hesitantly, knowing the anniversary of that untimely death was only a matter of a month or so away and unwilling to stir up the lees of his pain or the memory of the family arguments over his choice of a wife.
He flushed, and looked away again.
A little exasperated, she continued, “You can’t mourn forever, Adam, and she wouldn’t have wanted you to.”
He nodded brusquely and turned back to say, “I know – and I don’t. I get around, believe me.”
To cover the lie he began to open the final letter: a long, rectangular envelope, with the typed address of his Boston home. He glanced at the postmark. It had arrived almost a week ago. He opened it warily, but was reassured to see the insignia of the World Government at the top of the folded paper.
As he skim-read the contents, a surprised frown appeared between his brows.
“Bad news?” she asked in concern.
Aware of her scrutiny, he smiled as he folded it and slipped it back into the envelope. “Just work; it can wait.”
He was rewarded by the ebbing of the anxiety from her eyes and a dazzling smile as he jammed the envelope into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Good; you are on holiday after all,” she said, leaving her chair and coming to stand behind him, resting her exquisitely manicured hands on his broad shoulders. “You’ll come to the party, won’t you, Babes?”
He patted her hand. “Sure, Mom; I’m looking forward to it already.” He was well-practised at lying convincingly and doubted she could tell how his heart sank at the prospect.
She leant over and pressed her soft cheek against his.
“It’s so good to have you back, Adam. I miss you, you know?”
“It’s good to be back, Mom,” he replied, turning his head to kiss her cheek. “And I miss you too…”
She hugged him and said in a tone calculated to mollify him, “Your father’s promised he’ll be here. Davy’s meeting his plane at the airfield this afternoon. We’ll all be together again for the rest of the weekend. That’ll be wonderful, won’t it, Babes?”
Adam realised she was really concerned that he might baulk at the prospect of meeting his father again. He drew a deep breath and responded with a reassuring smile. “Sure will. Thanks for arranging it all, Mom. You’re an angel.”
“I just want my family all together again… we’ve all missed you – you realise you haven’t even met the baby yet? It’s not right, Adam.”
“No, it isn’t, you’re right, Mom. I guess I have been away for too long, but you know that most of it wasn’t from choice, don’t you? My work’s important and I didn’t always have the opportunity to take a break when I wanted to.”
“They don’t own you, Babes… everyone’s entitled to take a vacation.”
He nodded and patted her hand. “Sure, and I’m here now.”
She squeezed his shoulder and smiled. “We’ll have such fun…”
Banishing his curiosity about the unusual letter, he vowed to devote himself to making sure the weekend was everything she hoped for.
He was agreeably occupied for the rest of the morning helping his mother, Kitty and Davy get everything ready for the barbeque. Out here they were remote from the party organisers and caterers that Sarah would usually have called in, so it was down to them to do all the work. Adam was surprised to discover he was enjoying himself stringing coloured light bulbs along the veranda and helping prepare salads, vegetables and marinated meats.
The only argument they had was over what music should be played. Davy announced his intention to program the sound system with all of his favourite tracks to the exclusion of anything else - something Sarah would not allow.
“But you can’t let Adz do it,” Davy whined in protest. “His taste in music is awful!”
“We’ll all do some of it,” Sarah pronounced in a tone of finality. “The machine will play days’ and days’ worth of music; we’ll put it on ‘shuffle’ so everyone’s favourites get the same chance.”
“Wonderful,” Davy complained. “We’ll just get everyone dancing with some good vibes, and the next track will be an hour-long classical dirge, or some diva warbling in a foreign language!” He threw himself onto the sofa, scowling.
When Adam laughed out loud at his brother’s histrionics, Sarah, so pleased to see her favourite son beginning to relax, stopped mid-admonition and let Davy off with a cautionary pat on the arm.
Adam followed his mother through to the kitchen area, where she and his sister ordered him about until Peter and Cicely arrived, with their daughter, Maranda, when everything stopped.
Maranda was the undivided centre of attention, while her proud parents stood by and watched her doting grandmother and aunt fuss over the pretty blonde-haired child.
This was the first time Adam had seen his niece; he’d been unable to get to her christening because he’d been undercover in Eastern Europe, working on a lead that eventually led to the arrest of several significant industrial spies. He’d sent profound apologies with some money for his niece’s trust fund, and remembered to send presents for Christmas and her first birthday.
Now he’d come prepared with a set of gaily coloured stacking bricks for the child and Peter thanked him with a stiff formality, while Cicely gave the bricks to her daughter and glanced at her husband for reassurance before giving her imposing brother-in-law an unfocused smile of thanks.
“She’s very pretty,” Adam complimented. “Kinda reminds me of you, Kitty-Katz, when you were small.”
He smiled down at his sister, who was playing with the baby on the floor. Kitty looked up at him with a cheerful grin; she’d always adored her eldest brother and had never been happier than when ‘Adz’ had allowed her to tag along with him.
But Peter rolled his eyes at this show of sibling affection. “I’m surprised you can even remember what Kitty looked like – you weren’t at home when she was a baby,” he said. He may not have intended his remark as a criticism, but he was so used to sniping at Adam that his tone of voice conveyed exactly that impression.
Immediately, the emotional shutters came down on Adam’s face: his smile faded and his pale-blue eyes seemed to go blank and expressionless. He gave a wry grimace and turned away, walking out onto the veranda without a word.
Davy jumped out of the armchair he’d been lounging in and followed Adam outdoors, glaring at Peter as he went past.
“Peter!” Sarah cried crossly. “There was no need to bring all that up. Adam was just starting to unwind and now look what you’ve done!”
“What?” he asked in bewilderment. “I only told the truth.”
Kitty sprang up off the floor and she too glared at her elder brother, before hurrying out after the others.
Peter sighed and gave his wife a look of injured exasperation. “That’s it – everyone has to run after Adam; we mustn’t let him get upset, must we? Oh no, that would never do – never mind anyone else! It’s amazing how nothing changes; he’s still got this family under his thumb in spite of all the trouble he’s caused!”
“Peter, if you intend to spend the weekend tormenting Adam, you can pack up and go home, right now!” Sarah threatened irritably. “I want a peaceful family weekend and I won’t let you spoil it. Now, make your mind up to let bygones be bygones and we’ll all get along fine.”
He spread his hands in a gesture of innocent bewilderment.
Sarah shook her head and went after her other children, leaving Peter with a profound sense of injustice, for which the only remedy was to fume angrily, and at some length, to his long-suffering wife.
Out on the veranda Adam was trying to reassure the others that he was fine, and wishing they’d go and leave him in peace. He was annoyed with himself for allowing Peter’s remark to have such an effect on him and knew the fault lay as much with him as it did with his brother.
When he saw his mother hurrying towards him, it all became too much.
“Leave me alone, for Chrissake!” he snapped, and strode as fast as his long legs would carry him to the end of the veranda, where he vaulted over the rail and slithered down the hillside to the lake shore.
“Adz!” Kitty ran to the end of the veranda and repeatedly called after him.
“Let him go,” Sarah advised, coming to join her daughter. “He’ll walk it off in a while.” She gave a sad sigh and added, “It’s just like it used to be; remember how something would well up inside and he’d vanish for an hour or two?” Kitty nodded and Davy slipped an arm around his mother. “Good; just remember not to refer to this as anything unusual when he comes back.”
“I could throttle Peter,” Kitty muttered.
“Don’t start that,” Sarah pleaded. “Now, there’s still a lot to do. Let’s get on with it, shall we?”
On the cusp of his hearing Adam heard his sister’s voice, but carried on walking, intent on dissipating his heated emotions in punishing physical exercise. Eventually he stopped long enough to draw in a deep lungful of the clean, fresh air.
Staring down the valley at the majesty of the surroundings his mind boggled at the sheer scale of it all. Although he’d flown over more mountain ranges than he could remember, he felt as if he’d never really appreciated their scale and splendour before.
The majestic countryside spread out all around him – 360 degrees - as far as the eyes could see. Mountain piled on mountain, purple and grey rock soaring up towards the sharp-blue, cloud-strewn sky, their jagged peaks still wearing crowns of sparkling snow, for all the world like giant ice cream cones. Serried ranks of conifers coated the lower slopes giving cover to the tumbling streams of ice-cold meltwater and down in the broad scoop of the glacial valley, the lake stretched into the distance, reflecting the sky and its guardian mountains in its dark, untold depths.
He could imagine he was the only person on the planet….
The voice made him jump and it took a moment for him to regain his composure and turn to look at the speaker.
She was a slender young woman – hardly more than a girl, really – with long, red-brown hair held back from her pleasant and tanned face by a grass-green Alice-band. She was dressed in cropped denim trousers, a well-worn, baggy Tee-shirt and sneakers. She raised a hand to shade her eyes from the glare of the sun and smiled at him.
“Hello,” he replied, smiling back.
“You must one of the Svensons.” He nodded and she continued, “I thought we’d met all the family before now, but you’re new … I’m Pammie Palacino; we own the next cabin from here. I was walking along to let Mrs Svenson know that my Mom and Dad don’t arrive till tomorrow but, if the invitation to your party later today still stands, my sis and I would be happy to come, if that’s okay.”
“My mother will be pleased to hear it.”
“Of course! You’re Davy’s older brother; he’s mentioned you – I shoulda guessed.”
He nodded. “Yes, I’m Adam Svenson. Pleased to meet you, Pammie Palacino.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.”
“You know Davy well?”
She grinned up at him and gave a quick nod. “Not as well as he’d like, I think, but yeah, we know each other pretty well. He was like a breath of fresh air round here when your family bought the cabin. It’s a nice place, but there’s not a lot to do on your own – and no people to do anything with. Davy was always up for doing something. If you follow me?”
“I do. Davy’s the sociable type.”
“But you’re not?” she asked, glancing quizzically at him as she continued to walk towards the cabin, and inviting him to accompany her. “Davy says you never come home much.”
“I’m too busy to be sociable, as a rule,” Adam said, falling in beside her. “Even with my family.”
“You sound like my dad; he’d always love to do something with us, but he just has to finish his job first, or start on another one, because you can’t turn down a decent offer. So, we get shipped up here to keep us out of mischief, while he stays home and works.”
“There’s just the two of you?”
She nodded and started to scramble up the bank. As she lost her footing, Adam stopped her slipping backwards with a helpful hand in the small of her back. Pammie brushed her hair from her eyes and blushed slightly. Then she continued, “Jillie’s my sister – my half-sister – Jillianne, that’s her full name – she’s older than me and she’s supposed to keep me in hand, but she hates the countryside and prefers to stay home, so I get to roam about pretty much as I want. It’s more fun when Davy’s around, though; we go about together.”
They could see the cabin in the distance and she stopped. “I’m probably interrupting your walk, aren’t I? You don’t have to come back if you don’t want to. Maybe you’d like to drop in and meet my sister? She’d welcome a new face to talk to with open arms.”
“That’d be nice. Tell you what – why don’t you deliver your message and I’ll wait here and then I can walk you home and you can introduce me to your sister?”
Pammie grinned. “Great! Don’t go away…”
She ran along the hillside and clambered up past the trees heading for the hot tub platform, off the veranda. Half way up, she turned and waved. He waved back and found a suitable boulder to sit on. After a few moments’ wool-gathering, he remembered the letter in his jeans pocket. He didn’t really need to re-read it, he could remember every word perfectly; but nevertheless, he took it out, smoothed the paper flat and studied the formal words that spelt out an invitation.
“Spectrum? What the hell’s Spectrum? I’ve never heard of it. And why’re they so interested in me?” he muttered suspiciously under his breath.
He’d taken control of the World Aeronautical Society’s Security Division about 6 years ago as, he now recognised, an incredibly naïve 25 year old. Within months he’d been the target for three assassination attempts and it was in one of those attempts that Soraya had been killed.
If his adversaries thought that would be enough to deter him from hunting them down, they’d miscalculated badly. With a single-minded determination that his family would have recognised as the ‘Svenson Stubbornness’, he’d devoted himself to tracking the murderers down and bringing them to justice. The final arrests had taken place almost three years ago and the mastermind of the whole espionage ring had been jailed for the rest of his natural life 18 months ago.
With the slaking of his powerful compulsion for retribution Adam found that everything he accomplished turned to dust and ashes in his mouth. Reluctantly he came to the conclusion that his life was destined to become mundane and repetitive, and that thought filled him with a gloomy despondency. He knew himself well enough to recognise his craving for the stimulus of new experiences and the electric frisson of danger – it was why he’d become a test pilot, after all – but he couldn’t go back to those more innocent days and he was increasingly becoming aware that the W.A.S. now saw him more as an administrator.
The prospect of spending the next 30 years behind a desk terrified him.
Maybe this is a way out? he thought, and studied the letter looking for hidden clues in the wording, but it was so bland as to offer no scope for deductions. He lifted his eyes from the paper and stared out across the lake into the middle distance, mulling things over.
The most significant thing has to be that it’s got the World Government’s seal on it. I can’t see them looking to ‘assess’ me unless they intended offering me a job of some kind. So, what would they want with me? I’ve already turned down the USS, so they wouldn’t ask again.
He paused at the memory of some gossip he’d picked up on his travels.
There’s always that long-awaited and much-heralded supra-agency, the one they say will deal with terrorism. There’ve been rumours that President Bandranaik wants to create a supra-security force for years, but what’s so special about now that he’d be doing that? Still, it’s possible they’d consider me… I mean, why create a security force with power over all other organisations if you only intend to people it with USS agents?
Subconsciously he raised his hand and ran his long fingers through his fringe.
The problem with that is that I can’t see Peter Galvin letting me go; my contract’s got another three years to run. Not that I wouldn’t go for the right offer – hang the money – Galvin can keep it. But - do I want to go? That’s the real question, isn’t it? It could be a case of better the devil you know and the bureaucracy in the World Government is even worse than in the W.A.S..”
He stared down at the World President’s personal logo that adjoined the governmental one and sighed.
Lord knows I’m getting fed up trying to do a decent job now they’ve decided that the threat to our security has diminished. I heard one of the committee call my department ‘a luxury’.
“Huh!” He snorted aloud at the very idea.
I hate to cut and run, but if I stay the chances are that I’ll end up trying to manage no more than a handful of agents on an inadequate budget and that’s soul-destroying. And what’d happen when something went badly wrong – which it’s bound to with an under-funded service? Whose neck’d be on the block then? Not Mr Director General Galvin, I’m betting.
“Oh no; he’d make sure everyone knew the buck stopped with me,” he explained to the surrounding mountains.
Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me? Everything’s lost its appeal; I could spend the rest of my life chasing industrial spies for the W.A.S., but so what? Where’s the challenge in that? There’re a dozen men in the department who could do as much – and maybe better than me.
He looked at the letter again and checked the date; there was less than a week before the stated deadline for his response.
It won’t hurt to call that number and even go on their assessment course to find out for myself what it’s all about. I have enough leave owing me that Galvin couldn’t stop me. It’s a strange way to recruit, but if security is so essential, this is probably better than a direct approach, and it’s intriguing, I’ll give ’em that.
He heard footsteps approaching and folded the letter away. He was sitting with his hands locked around his knees when Pammie appeared, flushed and smiling.
They walked on together to the next cabin, where he made the acquaintance of Jillianne Palacino – an altogether more sophisticated proposition than her much younger sister. She was in her mid-twenties, with carefully-styled, short brown hair and deep-set, dark-brown eyes. Shapelier than Pammie and dressed to make the most of the curves she had, Jillianne was a hot-house orchid to her sister’s wild country rose. Adam relaxed; he’d dealt with dozens of Jillianne Palacinos in his time and not one of them had touched his heart.
For the next hour or so, over glasses of chilled chardonnay, Jillianne set about getting to know their new neighbour. She discovered that this handsome stranger was a member of one of the richest families in the country, thirty-one years old – today - and – most importantly – unattached. She simpered, flashing her eyes at him and crossing her shapely legs, so that he saw them to their best advantage. With what she imagined was an alluring glance, she promised that she’d save every dance at the party just for him.
Adam pledged her over his wine and managed to keep his amusement in check. Most of the femme fatales he’d met had been much better at the technique than she was.
“I’m looking forward to the party,” Jillie whispered coyly. “Now you’ll be there, I’m hoping it’ll be a night to remember.”
She placed her hand on his arm with an inviting smile.
He glanced down at her fingers, suppressing his distaste at the garish scarlet-red nail polish that gave him the impression of blood-red talons. He gently removed her hand and held it just a moment too long.
“I’m sure it’ll be something special,” he agreed: over-obvious she might be, and as easy to read as an open book, but if she wanted to flirt, he had no real objections.
Over Jillie’s shoulder he caught sight of Pammie’s disgusted expression and winked at her. The youngster blushed and then grinned back, but she’d obviously had enough of this charade and she said suddenly,
“Oh, jiminy – I’m going out on the lake. Hey, Adam, you wanna come out in our rowing boat?”
“Are you gonna row?” he enquired with a raised eyebrow.
“I thought you could,” Pammie admitted. “After all, it shouldn’t be a problem for a big strong guy like you; I bet you’ll be better at it than Davy.”
“You got Davy to row?” His surprise was genuine enough.
“If you can call it that.” She rolled her eyes. “He wasn’t much good.”
“I’m not surprised, but I am impressed; my kid brother’s the laziest soul on the planet. You - and your sister - obviously have remarkable powers of persuasion, Pammie.”
“So, you’ll come?” she urged.
“Sure; why not? Mind you, I ought to warn you that I haven’t done any rowing since I left Harvard, I might have forgotten how.”
“Oh sure – as if,” Pammie teased, with a giggle.
Adam turned to Jillianne. “You want to come with us, Jillianne?”
But Jillianne shook her head. “No; I need to get ready for tonight…”
“Don’t worry, Jillie,” Pammie said cheekily. “I promise not to tire him out.”
“Pamela Palacino!” her sister exclaimed, as Adam laughed and Pammie blushed.
“Well, you were the one who was going on about dancing all night…” she explained innocently, as she led the way out to the boathouse.
Adam had worked up a good sweat and improved his mood no end by the time he strolled back into the house.
Sarah smiled. “I saw you out on the lake with young Pammie; she’s a nice girl. She and Davy are great friends.”
“I know, she told me.” He poured himself lemonade from the fridge and drank it down thirstily.
“Have you met her sister?” Sarah asked playfully.
“The delightful Jillianne? Oh yes. She’s going to dance with me tonight.”
“Marvellous! I told you there were nice young people around here.”
“And I believe you, Mom – I really do,” he teased, and kissed her cheek as he strolled out to get a shower.
John Svenson’s mood was surprisingly mellow and, as David drove the car up to the cabin, he waved to his wife with a smile on his distinguished and handsome face. His latest deal had gone through with less trouble than he’d expected and he felt justified in spending time with his family as a consequence.
He greeted Peter and Cicely with unusual warmth, hugged Kitty and Sarah and even managed a handshake and a smile for Adam.
“Happy birthday, son,” he said, clapping a hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“Thanks, Dad,” Adam replied, seeing relief flood into his mother’s eyes at this bonhomie.
“What time are the guests due to arrive?” John asked Sarah, as he accepted the glass of bottled beer Kitty handed him from the fridge. “Is everything ready?”
“It ought to be, and if it isn’t it won’t be through lack of effort on my part. I left it vague,” his wife replied, the relief that her husband had kept his promise to attend igniting her customary verbosity. “ You see, John, I never quite know if people’re going to wanna eat before they come, or whether they’ll just expect to eat when they get here, because barbecues are the sort of thing people pick at all day, really, aren’t they? So, I just said they should drop by ‘in the afternoon’ and if they can’t manage the afternoon, it doesn’t matter, we’ll welcome people arriving through into the evening and there’s plenty of food. I hope. Mountain air makes you hungry – it’s the ozone or something, I forget what - but I think I’ve managed to get enough in, because - Oh, do you remember last summer when we went to Dorothy’s and they ran out of steaks? She was mortified, and so would I’ve been. Poor Dorothy - but then, I told her when she was telling me what they had planned, that those caterers were no good; Lizzie Danvers told me she was going to sue them after that terrible job they made of Charlotte’s wedding reception – you remember how ramshackle that was, don’t you, John? Symptomatic of that whole marriage really; did I tell you about that, Adz? Her husband ran off with a film actress – someone no better than she ought to be, I expect - poor Charlotte – she’s such a nice girl… when you get to know her. And you were so sweet on her once upon a time-”
“I was not!” he protested.
“Well, she was sweet on you, then – which is as much the same thing as makes no difference.”
Sarah carried on, taking no notice when her eldest son buried his face with his hands and shook his head in frustration. “Anyway, John, if anything like that happened to us and we ran out of anything at one of our gatherings, I’d… well, I really… I couldn’t support it. So, I arranged for the supermarket in town to deliver everything fresh this morning, although I didn’t bother with sea food; quite apart from Adam’s allergy, I didn’t see how it could be quite as fresh as we like it – not this far from the coast. Of course, there’s some trout and so forth, and that’ll have to do. But, there – you see - I could’ve told you to bring some over, if I’d thought about it… that would have been a real treat for everyone to eat fresh Boston seafood…Mr Hennessey would have put an order together and you could have brought it on the plane. I suppose it’s too late to send the plane back to fetch some now?”
“Yes!” her husband and eldest son answered simultaneously.
“Okay, you needn’t shout at me! Honestly… I’m only thinking aloud…”
“Thinking? Oh, I wish…” John muttered conspiratorially to Adam, and his son chuckled.
Sarah tossed her head and continued, “Kitty, why didn’t you think of that? I can’t be expected to think of everything. That’s why I like to work with caterers, John – we prompt each other not to forget things. But I did make sure there’s plenty of beer and wine and sodas down in the cellar – I made Davy go and list it all for me yesterday and ordered extra – just in case. We shouldn’t run out –”
“Well, not unless the entire population of the state turns up with a raging thirst,” Davy remarked, with a wink at his mother.
“Oh you!” she reproved him affectionately. “The boys were just about to start the barbecues, John, so we’ll be ready when the first people arrive, and, to be honest, I’m getting a little peckish myself. It seems a long time since I had my breakfast – and I’ve been very busy. We had our breakfast out on the veranda – Adam and me - before the others even came down. I wish you’d been with us, John; it was such a lovely morning, the sun came across the lake like butterscotch… Oh, I shoulda asked, are you hungry, Babes, after all that rowing? Adam’s been out rowing on the lake. I’m just starting to feel I could do with something. How about you, John? Didjeetyet? I wonder if we all just shouldn’t…”
“There’s just time for me to have a relaxing bath before the crowds arrive, I think,” John interjected; waiting for Sarah to come to a full stop could take some time. “Give me a shout in… oh, say, forty-five minutes.”
“Forty-five minutes, Sal. I think I deserve some respite between my duties at the office and my duties as host, don’t you?” Without another word he marched up the open wooden staircase.
Sarah watched him, a wry smile on her lips. Then Adam caught her eye. “It’s wonderful when he’s in a good mood,” she remarked, and her smile expanded to a grin.
“He was telling me on the way here, that the Paraguayan deal’s gone through,” David explained, as he helped himself to a handful of cashew nuts.
“It did?” Peter asked. “That’s good; there was some doubt, because the World Government threatened to slap restrictions on the Paraguayan administration’s freedom to deal.”
“No business!” Sarah snapped. “Absolutely no business! I won’t have it discussed over this weekend. We’re here to enjoy ourselves as a family and I’m not prepared to listen to any details of any deal anywhere. Do I make myself clear? If I overhear one conversation from any of you about anything even remotely connected with the company or its business dealings, I’ll…I’ll… well, I’d just better not, that’s all! Your father needs to relax…I need to relax! Heaven knows I have to put up with the subject for the rest of the year.”
“Fine,” Peter said defensively, “I was only saying…”
“Ssshh!” his mother hissed, a warning finger pressed against her lips.
Adam slipped his arms around her. “Sure thing, Mom; nobody will mention banking until they’re back in the office on Monday morning… will you, guys?”
They all nodded and Sarah beamed, her broad smile lighting up her grey eyes and giving her attractive face an animated beauty. “That’s my good boys and girls. Now, let’s get ready to party and show the world the Svensons really know how to enjoy themselves.”
The first guests arrived less than an hour later and from then on they kept coming in small groups of twos and threes. The lakeside community was widely spaced, but fairly homogenous because the cost of the real estate precluded anyone except the wealthy from owning the luxurious cabins. Doing his stint as doorman, Adam considered that their promise to his mother was likely to be broken pretty quickly as he recognised other financiers, corporate big-wigs, lawyers and executives. He could already hear his father’s voice, booming over the background music, as he and a Californian entrepreneur discussed the state of the market for defence software in the light of his Paraguayan deal.
The Palacino sisters arrived together, just as he was about to try and get someone else to man the door for a while.
“Hello, and welcome,” he exclaimed. “You both look charming – come in, come in.”
Jillianne took his hand as she entered and looked around at the other guests. “Hey, everyone’s here all ready. We’re not late, are we?”
“Not at all. Please, go on through; there’s drinks in the kitchen and two barbecues going full tilt on the veranda, so there’s plenty to eat.”
“When does the dancing start?” Pammie asked, smiling up at him. “I want to sneak a dance with you before Jillie claims them all. I want to see if you dance as good as you row.”
“No, I don’t dance very well at all… but I’ll trip the light fantastic with you, if you want me to, Pammie.”
He grinned down at her, unable to conceal his surprise at what he saw. The impression was shattered when the stylish young lady gave a playful shrug. “Don’t tell me,” she said, “I scrub up well…”
“You sure do,” he agreed.
She looked considerably older with her hair up and the smart dress she was wearing revealed that there were more curves to her than the baggy- tee-shirt had suggested. His height advantage gave him a bird’s eye view down the front of her dress to the small conical breasts beneath.
“I can see why Davy wants to get closer acquainted,” he said, with a smile.
She blushed slightly, fiddled with the plunging neckline and then brushed the remark off by asking, “Is he here?”
“He’s being a chef, out on the veranda.”
“You let Davy near naked flame? I hope your fire insurance is up to date.”
Adam laughed and accompanied her towards the kitchen. Jillianne had already acquired a large glass of chilled white wine and had been engaged in a lively conversation by one of the local bachelors. She caught Adam’s eye with an apologetic smirk.
Sarah looked up from dishing out pasta salad for an over-dressed woman with a glowing complexion that verged on an unnatural shade of orange, and called, “Hello Pammie; Davy’s on the veranda.”
The glance she gave her eldest son was more than a little disapproving.
“Hi, Mrs S. Thanks!”
“You go out and I’ll bring you your drink,” Adam suggested, loud enough for his mother to hear. “Fruit juice or a soda?”
“White wine, please.” He hesitated and she shook her head. “I am 21.”
“You don’t look it.”
“Want to see my driver’s license?”
“No way. I never question when a lady tells me her age – however unlikely it seems to be. My momma taught me well.”
Pammie gave him a coy glance and walked away, well aware that he was watching her movements with interest.
Adam snapped back into the present as his mother approached, waving a serving spoon under his nose and said reprovingly, “I know I said you should get to know the nice young neighbours, but you are too smooth by half, Babes… Don’t poach.”
“Hey, she’s just a kid, Mom.”
“Hmm, I seem to recall that’s what your father said about me a long time ago, when you were nothing but a twinkle in his eye. Like father, like son.”
“Except that I prefer older women, remember?” He gave her a smirk.
Sarah was not amused. “Sure you do, when every interesting woman you meet is older than you, why wouldn’t you? But, you’re not as young as you were, Babes, and I expect that any day now, you’ll meet a young woman who fascinates you as much as any of those older women have ever done, and however hard you try, you won’t be able to resist her. As I said, like father, like son, and your father thought he was immune… once upon a time.”
He gave a dismissive shake of his head.
Sarah responded with unexpected frankness. “You’ll see I’m right. It’s time you stopped acting like a tragic juvenile lead in some melodrama and started behaving like a mature man, because one of these days, you’ll meet a young woman who’ll sweep you off your feet – and you’ll have no recourse but to love her. But, if you continue moping about, I doubt that there’s a sensible young woman who’d take you on!”
He was surprised at her candour, but he tried to laugh it off. “Stop talking like the agony section of some dumb glossy magazine, Mom, please. I know you never liked Soraya, but can’t you at least respect my feelings?”
Sarah’s expression grew angry. “I have spent most of your life respecting your feelings, Adam John Svenson. You’re not a fool, but it surprises me that sometimes you really can’t see what’s perfectly obvious, can you?”
Adam felt a stab of surprise; he prided himself on his perspicacity and his mother didn’t usually question his evaluation of a state of affairs.
“You’re not making much sense, Mom. I know more about how things were between me and Soraya than you ever could – so back off,” he snapped in an unguarded moment.
“Don’t you talk to me like that! You know, I think it’s about time you heard some home truths, my boy,” she said, brandishing the serving spoon as she grabbed his elbow and steered him into the study, closing the door behind them.
Adam looked at her with a frown and Sarah returned his stare with a serious expression.
“I know you had a bad time all those years ago, Adam; and your father and I have always felt that we can never do enough to make it up to you; but maybe we’ve gone the wrong way about it for all these years. You are in danger of becoming a very unpleasant young man.”
“You expect us all to make allowances for whatever you do; and we do, Babes, more often than not, we do. But you’re not always right - and you’re not right about this.”
He turned away and shook his head. “Mom, please just drop it. Please. I don’t wanna hear your ideas about something you know nothing about.”
“I know far more than you think; don’t be so patronizing, Adam. I did like Soraya and, more than that, I respected her. When you brought her over here, I used to call, to check you were both okay. I realised she was spending a lot of time on her own, that she was lonely because you were never there, and I used to talk to her on the phone – sometimes for hours. Then one day, on a whim, I took one of your father’s planes and paid a visit. You weren’t home, but Soraya was very affable and greeted me like an old friend. We had a long talk; mostly about you.”
“Oh, I bet you did. Did you tell her to leave me alone?”
Sarah’s hand struck out, and caught him on the side of the chin. “No, I did not! But I’ll tell you what she said: she told me she’d never been completely sure she was the right woman for you; but she loved you, and you were so sure she was the right woman that she wanted to believe you were right.”
“I was right.”
“Maybe; I told her that if she loved you and you loved her that was all it took. I knew that was all it took.”
Sarah sighed and laid a hand on his arm.
“It wasn’t easy, you know – when I married your father, I had to act like I couldn’t hear all those snide remarks about gold-diggers. I brazened it out; what else could I do? I had you to consider and despite everything, I loved your father – I still do. But he hasn’t changed much, Adz; he worked 24/7 then, just as he does now. I was much younger and far more selfish than Soraya; I had to learn that I couldn’t have everything just the way I wanted, and it was a hard lesson. But I had my family to turn to when I barely saw your father for days on end - he travelled a lot more on business then than he does now – Soraya had no one when you were away on those training courses and seminars, or whatever it was. I told her that she should think of us as her family; I tried to reassure her that once you’d had a chance to get established in your new role, it’d be okay.”
Sarah paused a moment to study her son. His face was pale and his lips drawn into a thin line as he struggled to suppress his emotion. She’d seen it countless times over the years – this unwillingness to show anything he considered weakness – but she’d gone too far to stop now.
She drew a deep breath and continued:
“What she said surprised me: she told me that she owed you a great deal, that you’d shown her there was something worth living for, that she was capable of loving someone and being loved.” She glanced at him again. “I got the impression her marriage wasn’t a happy one, but that she was happy with you. Nevertheless, she was beginning to think it might be better for all concerned if she went back to England, where she felt she belonged.”
“I don’t believe you-” Adam gasped.
“Why would I lie to you? She told me that she’d had a lot of doubts about coming over here, but that you were going to turn the job down if she didn’t come too. She couldn’t make a decision: she wanted to stay in England, but she wanted to be with you - and then the Director General of the W.A.S. came to the base to see her and urged her to encourage you to take this job even if it meant moving here with you. He told her that it’d be for the good of the organisation and that if you didn’t, things might go very badly for everyone. I have no idea what it was he was on about, but Soraya obviously did. She felt that after that, she had no choice but to come with you. But now you were here you’d grown away from her, you didn’t need her anymore, but you wouldn’t say so because you felt obliged to stay with her. She was planning to return to England, to save you the wretchedness of telling her-”
“We’d fixed a date for the wedding…” he interjected, his composure shattered by these words. “She was happy with me.”
“Oh, she loved you,” his mother reassured him. “But that doesn’t mean she was happy in America, or that she’d have stayed forever, Adam.”
“We’ll never know that for sure, will we?” he snapped. “She never got the chance to decide – I made damn sure of that!”
Sarah hugged her son in a gesture of sympathy and support, although he was so rigid in her arms that she had to let him go. “Don’t do this to yourself, Babes,” she pleaded. “Soraya wouldn’t have blamed you for what happened, nor would she expect you to mourn for ever-”
“How can you know she wouldn’t have blamed me? You weren’t there, you don’t know – what I did. And maybe you can’t see the obvious either, Mom? Because I’d have gone anywhere she wanted, done whatever she wanted me to, whatever the cost. I loved her.”
He turned on his heel, flung the door open and strode out into the crowd of happy guests.
Sarah bit her lower lip as she watched him go, and wondered if she’d done the right thing.
The sun was getting low in the sky, casting long, distorted shadows across the lake. The coloured bulbs had been switched on, giving the cabin a rather carnival air and Adam had had several drinks, when the dancing finally started. Kitty and her young man initiated it, jiggling about to a popular tune and other couples soon joined in with enthusiasm.
Trapped in desultory conversation by a local judge, Adam noticed Davy dancing with Pammie and saw Jillianne with a red-haired man his father had told him was a corporate lawyer from Milwaukee.
Some time later, the familiar, evocative strains of ‘Moonlight Serenade’ began to play and he saw, rather to his surprise, not only Peter and Cicely, but also his parents amongst the couples. His mother had her head laid against his father’s shoulder and John’s arms were wrapped around his wife, his cheek resting on the top of her head with obvious affection, as they swayed to the romantic melody.
The stark belief that he was the only person there alone brought a burning lump of self-pity to Adam’s throat and the colour drained from his cheeks.
“You okay, sonny?” the judge asked solicitously.
With difficulty, Adam focused enough to nod. “Sorry, sir; I guess I’m a bit jet-lagged. I only flew in from Europe yesterday.”
“Ah, all this globe-trotting is no good for anyone…”
When the judge went in search of his wife, Adam noticed that the corporate lawyer was now dancing with someone else and that Jillianne was nowhere to be seen. He scanned the room anxiously; he could hear her voice and finally noticed her coming down the stairs in conversation with his mother, who was indicating the part of the room he was in.
Suddenly feeling that the last thing he wanted right now was the cloying attention of Jillianne Palacino, or anyone like her, he judged that discretion was by far the better part of valour and slipped out onto the veranda. Excusing himself with smiles to the couples chomping on their food, he moved through the crowd and went to the end of the building. There a group of youngsters were larking around the hot tub and they watched in surprise as, once more, he vaulted over the railing and slithered down to the lake shore.
I’m just not in the mood for dancing.
Despite the happy sound of music and conversation that spilled into the night, the overall feeling was of a vast, eternal silence. He walked along the shingle strand with his head down, until he had deadened the sounds of merriment behind him.
When he glanced up and turned back to look at the silent lake, he saw the swirls of multi-coloured light radiating over the water from the bulbs along the veranda. Yet even that couldn’t compete with the magnificence of the full moon.
Once out of sight of the cabin, he paused, selected a handful of flat stones and skimmed them across the surface counting the skips before they sank into the darkness. The ripples spread out across the smooth lake, gilded silver in the moonlight.
Images danced in his memory, their poignancy amplified by his yearning for the Utopian happiness they symbolized.
The hotel in the Lake District where he’d found a book of Wordsworth’s poetry in their room and recited it to her, as they walked along the shore of Derwentwater, until she’d begged him to stop…
Trying to teach her to ride at the local stables and having to finally concede that she was never going to be any good on a horse…
An evening spent eating pizza from a cardboard box amidst a jumble of furniture…
The smell of paint in their new home…
The way she’d buried her head in his shoulder to hide her tears as the chick-flick on TV had reached its emotional high point…
The warmth of her lips as she kissed him… the touch of her hands, the feel of her skin, the smell of her hair…
With a roar of anguish he threw the remaining stones into the cold depths and stomped away from the water’s edge.
Beyond the dark Palacino house, there was a fallen conifer and he sat on the trunk, his knees drawn up to his chest so that he could rest his chin on them, and stare out at the darkness, whilst, from the private recesses of his mind, he dragged his precious memories of Soraya.
He closed his eyes and in his mind’s eye was transported across the impenetrable barriers of time and space to the cold, wintery darkness of an English Christmas Eve…
Lincolnshire, England. December 2058
…He’d been standing staring at the supermarket delicatessen counter for some time, but none of the tempting displays were enough to inspire him to want to eat them.
He glanced up and in the shiny mirrored shelf above the display he saw the reflection of a woman behind him. Not just any woman, but the woman – the one who’d been haunting his dreams at night and dominating his thoughts for the last couple of months. She was hovering indecisively at the end of one aisle, a shopping trolley piled with food before her and a doubtful look on her face.
Before he could decide how to react, she pushed the trolley towards the counter – and him.
“Hello, Commander Svenson…” she said brightly, as she stopped beside him.
“Good afternoon, Officer Carmichael.” Formality provided some camouflage for the excruciating awkwardness he was experiencing at this unexpected meeting.
He’d seen her plenty of times around the base, and both of them regularly attended the scheduling meetings where the workload was distributed and the test flights planned.
He’d heard her talking to other pilots and technicians and laughing in friendly banter; but towards him she was invariably polite and formal, as became his status as the recently appointed Assistant Commander. He’d wondered if she liked him. Not everyone did: he knew some of the crews saw him as an outsider, imposed on them by a dictatorial management and who’d usurped the command they’d expected a local pilot to get. It had been hard work convincing them otherwise, but he’d gradually won them over.
Yet she’d kept her distance, much to his disappointment, and he envied the other men their familiarity with her.
“Fancy seeing you here, sir,” she said, as she scanned the display of meats and cheeses.
“Even Assistant Commanders have to eat,” he heard himself say and cursed to himself as he felt the hot flush of embarrassment flood into his face.
“True,” she answered with a smile, apparently unconcerned at his flippancy.
He glanced at her loaded trolley and then at his almost empty wire basket. “It seems we’re both occupied with the same chore.”
She nodded. “You must be better organised than me, sir. I’m getting all my stuff at the last minute… not just the fresh bits.”
“Me too…” he confessed.
She looked at his basket. “Is that all you’re having for Christmas?” she asked in surprise, adding, with a nod of comprehension, “Oh, I guess you’re going somewhere for your Christmas dinner tomorrow.”
He shook his head. “No, I’m just not very organised. I have to confess, this is the first Christmas I’ve spent alone and I wasn’t too sure what to do – they told me the canteen will be shut tomorrow and the next day. So, I thought I’d better take the easy way out and just eat a salad.”
“On Christmas Day? You can’t do that – it’s almost an insult to the British way of life.” She was teasing him, but he didn’t mind, in fact he welcomed her friendliness. “Christmas is about over-indulging in all kinds of everything.”
“So I see,” he replied, eyeing her shopping trolley, loaded as it was with naughty treats and gooey cakes. “You must be catering for quite a crowd.”
He was amused to see her blush.
“Well, no, not exactly-” she replied.
Not wanting to hear that she was planning a cosy Christmas à deux with some unknown boyfriend, he interjected, “Actually, the District Commander did invite me to join his family tomorrow, but I felt it would be a bit of an imposition, so I made my excuses. I doubt he sees so much of his wife and kids that they’d appreciate a total stranger getting in the way.”
He didn’t realise how jaundiced his comment sounded, as he searched his memory for the rare occasions when his own father had spent time with his family without trying to do ‘business’ with someone somewhere in the world.
To his surprise, his statement seemed to touch her and she said, “It’s my first Christmas alone too – I mean, since my divorce. We always used to go to my husband’s – ex-husband’s – parents. I suppose I could’ve gone to mine this year – only… somehow … well, I wanted to be alone. But now I’m not so sure that was such a good idea, either.” She surveyed the trolley ruefully. “I do seem to have gone over-the-top, don’t I? You see, Toby disapproved of red meat and so we ate chicken until I was sick of the sight of it. Well, this year I decided to have steak tomorrow and, once I’d done that, I decided to buy everything else he disapproved of; almost as if making myself sick with junk food would be doing Toby a disservice.”
“Toby is your ex-husband?”
“Hmm. I planned to do all the things he never approved of: eat steak, lots of chocolate and cakes, watch all the dreadful Christmas Specials on TV and definitely drink too much. It sounds rather childish now that I come to explain it to someone else.”
Her surprise was obvious when his reaction to her confession was to chuckle.
“No, I can relate to that – kicking over the traces is a standard reaction to getting away from someone who wants to control everything you do.”
“Your… wife? Girlfriend?” she asked, glancing up at him from beneath long, dark eyelashes.
He shook his head. “No; not even my mother. This was my dad.”
“Ah, parental expectations can blight your life.”
She smiled at him and then turned to speak to the sales assistant who was standing close by, waiting for one of them to order something.
Her purchase made, she was preparing to move on and so, with the air of a man deciding to take the plunge, he asked:
“I wonder… are you busy later tonight, Officer Carmichael? Only, I have a table booked at a restaurant across town and… well, I’m not looking forward to eating alone, so I …I wonder… I mean erm - it would give me great pleasure if you’d allow me to... erm…to buy you dinner – if you’re free, of course…although I know it’s unlikely you will be at such short notice… so… erm, so please don’t… I mean, I won’t be… erm.”
He shrugged and came to a stammering halt.
Soraya Carmichael gazed at him thoughtfully and he wished he could read her mind. As he waited for her answer, he could feel a blush starting and he was about to withdraw the offer from sheer embarrassment, when she smiled brightly and replied:
“Actually, it’s not so unlikely, Commander. And thank you – I’d like that very much. It’ll be much more fun than what I’d planned to do, which, sad person that I am, involved a solitary evening with a bottle of wine and the television.”
He gave her his brightest smile. “That’s… that’s just wunnerful. My name’s Adam, by the way…”
“I know; and mine’s Soraya.”
“It’s a very a pretty name and very… unusual.”
“Huh, if I only had money for every time someone has said that…”
“I’m sorry; it’s not a name I’ve heard used often…”
“I’m surprised you’ve heard it at all; my mother read it in a trashy novel whilst she was pregnant and liked the sound of it.” Her expression was rueful.
“It’s Persian, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is…well done! Not many people know that! My friends get round it by calling me Ray.”
“They do? Whatever for? It’s a beautiful name for a beautiful lady, and I think it suits you. I mean, well, while I’d like to be numbered in that category … would you mind if I didn’t?”
A blush swept over her features, and he wondered if he’d gone too far, but then she smiled and said, “Thank you; please, go ahead and use my name if you want to… Adam.”
He picked her up in a taxi from the address she’d given him. She must’ve been watching for him to arrive, because she came out of the door as soon as the taxi drew up. He watched her negotiate the short, but icy, garden path, and opened the car door to let her in.
He thought how beautiful she was with her dainty features and large, dark eyes set in a softly-rounded face, and framed by long, dark hair which complemented her pale-golden-brown complexion.
Even in her W.A.S. uniform – which was quite possibly the most unflattering garment any woman had ever been forced to wear - Soraya always managed to look elegant. She was slender, no more than average height, but with a very upright carriage that made her seem taller. She moved very gracefully, almost as if every gesture was choreographed to draw attention to her best features, and her hands – he’d always had ‘a thing’ about hands – were small, with tapering fingers and neatly-shaped nails.
Now she was wearing a rust-coloured, mid-calf-length dress, belted at her narrow waist, over tan leather boots, and a camel-coloured winter coat and cloche hat, with an exotic flower embroidered in greens and gold on one side, against the icy wind.
She greeted his rather breathless ‘hello’ with a smile and stepped inside the taxi before she replied.
“Don’t let’s be formal,” he pleaded, “we’re not on duty now.”
“Hello, Adam,” she corrected herself and they both grinned.
Sitting beside Soraya in the back of the cab, making stilted conversation and surreptitiously glancing at her only to look away when she glanced at him, Adam thought the journey lasted interminably. He couldn’t understand what had come over him; he was normally self-assured in the presence of women and fairly skilled in the art of seduction, but in the presence of this woman he felt like a love-sick kid and he hadn’t felt like that since his first big crush - on Mrs Brennan, his personal Mathematics tutor at college.
As the senior meteorologist, Officer Soraya Carmichael had input into the planning of every test flight and she was almost universally liked, if the comments of his fellow pilots were anything to go by. He’d attended enough planning sessions to know that there were certainly men amongst the flyers - and the technicians - who’d envy him his dinner-date tonight; but he’d never heard Soraya spoken of as part of the singles-dating circuit and he’d wondered why someone so beautiful and popular remained aloof from the socialising that went on.
Once he’d made it his aim to find out more about her, it wasn’t long until gossip about her recent and messy divorce from a domineering husband had come to his attention, and light had begun to dawn. No one seemed to have a good word for the unknown Mr Carmichael, and the general consensus was that she was better off without him – but Adam wondered if anyone had ever asked Soraya what she thought about that.
I wonder if this is the first ‘date’ she’s been on since her divorce came through? Then we’re both in uncharted territory. I hope she didn’t say yes because she knew she’d never fancy me – or something… It’d be too much to hope that she’s as interested in me as I am in her. If I blow this by coming over like some inarticulate jerk she won’t give it a second thought. I wish I could feel the same, he thought ruefully.
Although the restaurant he’d chosen was one of the most exclusive in town, he preferred to eat there when he did not have, or want, company because it was almost a certainty that none of the other pilots would be there.
Since his arrival, he’d been on several of the regular nights out organised by his fellow pilots – all of them older and more experienced men – but he’d never particularly enjoyed himself.
Not a great alcohol drinker, he detested the warm, dark, beer they’d introduced him to, but after the first time, he’d had the sense to volunteer to be the designated driver. The evenings invariably ended in a local curry house and he could still recall the exquisite torture of the curries they’d ordered for him, before he knew any better. He’d eaten them too – thereby earning himself the respect of his colleagues and what the M.O. – a bear of a man, with a schoolboy’s line in humour – had jovially called ‘a touch of the old Delhi belly’.
When she realised where they were going, Soraya looked uneasy, and that didn’t improve as she was conducted to her seat by a suave waiter.
He ordered drinks as they studied their menus. She kept glancing at him over the leather-bound folder and he thought she seemed perturbed.
“Don’t you like Italian food? I should have told you where we were going when you agreed to come…” he asked apologetically, as she hesitated again over what to order.
“No – I like Italian food… but this doesn’t have any prices on … and this place is known to be expensive.” She hesitated, unwilling to offend him.
He smiled, relieved her unease was no more than that. “Don’t concern yourself. You are my guest and it is my treat – just order what you want.”
“I can’t do that…” she began to argue. “I mean, it’s very kind of you, but…”
“Please, don’t worry,” he said decisively, and shifted his glance towards the waiters, indicating their readiness to order.
She gave a self-conscious shake of her head and the small frown between her delicate eyebrows returned. “Okay… but it goes against the grain, Commander.”
The food was, as always, excellent and the ambience of the restaurant was tranquil, so that as the evening wore on Soraya relaxed, lulled, he suspected, by the excellence of the wine. He felt he could easily get intoxicated just looking at her and listening to her talk. Their conversation ranged over many neutral topics, in the bland and uncontroversial way of new acquaintances, until she asked, out of the blue during a lull in the conversation: “Do you believe in astrology, Adam?”
“Astrology?” I…eh, I must admit, I’m sceptical.”
“Oh, so am I; but sometimes these things do seem to be more than a mere coincidence, don’t they? I mean, my zodiac sign is Cancer and my ex-husband’s a Scorpio so according to the charts and everything, we were never meant to be suited. And I guess we weren’t.”
“Yes, but you must’ve thought you were suited, at some stage?”
“Hmm.” She nodded and put her fork down to sip her wine. “How wrong can you be?” He smiled and shrugged, unsure where this was leading. “When’s your birthday?” she asked.
“Ah, Leo – I should have guessed: intelligent, natural leaders, graceful and generous.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “No, I wish I was; it sounds like a real good write-up. I’m a Virgo.”
“Really?” She tilted her head in some surprise and thought for a moment.
He grimaced. “I guess Virgos are dull and clumsy, eh?”
“Not at all. It means you’re organised and practical, intellectual and analytical – and a perfectionist.”
“That’s me all right.”
“That’s because you’re ruled by Mercury which governs the intellect. Did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t. Like I said, I’m a sceptic.”
“Virgos are notorious sceptics – they want proof of everything.” She laughed and smiled at him.
“What planet are you ruled by?” he asked, captivated by her enthusiasm.
“No planet – Cancer is ruled by the moon: I’m supposed to be changeable, with a lunatic sense of humour and prone to moods… just like the waxing and waning of the moon.”
“I thought it was me that was supposed to have the ‘mercurial’ temperament,” he teased.
She chuckled, her long, dark hair swinging forward to shroud her face as she lowered her head. When she raised her face again she smiled at him and said, “I can see how you’d be a Virgo. Although, you must have strong Leonine tendencies if you’re an August Virgo. That was what threw me, I suspect.”
“Oh, of course…” He nodded sagely, although he was struggling to remain serious.
“From what I’ve heard about you, you’re more like a Virgo than a Leo really. Although, you might have been an exception that proved the rule, if you had been a Leo, that is.”
“You know, I’ve never quite understood the logic in that saying. What’s a typical Virgo anyway, and in what way am I an exception to that rule, exactly?”
“See? What, why, how… explain, explain! Virgoan!”
This time when she laughed, he joined in. When she stopped she became quite serious and said quietly, “They say – on the base - that you don’t trust people easily.”
He knew this tendency was a legacy of the childhood experience that had changed his life. He was notoriously slow to trust people, but once given, he was slow to remove that trust, and he valued loyalty in his friends. He couldn’t explain that to her though and she was waiting for a response, so he said, “To be honest, I don’t trust myself sometimes; but, on the other hand, I’d argue that I trust other people with my life every day I go up in a plane. If they louse it up, I’m a dead man.”
“That’s very true; I guess we don’t think of it like that because it happens all the time around here. The thing is, you hide that trust under a somewhat impenetrable reserve, Adam, and a strict mantle of professionalism. You can be a bit intimidating, you know? Your crew are fine with it, but the other crews… well, they’re wary of you. It’s silly isn’t it? I mean, you’ve told me that you revel in flying, but you don’t show it, and because most people don’t bother to think beyond the obvious, you’re getting a reputation for being strait-laced.”
He could feel the heat of embarrassment colouring his cheeks. “Do you think I’m strait-laced?” he asked quietly, watching her expression closely.
Soraya shook her head. “No; I’d say you’re charmingly – if somewhat implausibly - shy. Not that that matters, does it? I know they say still waters run deep. ”
He avoided her direct gaze and twirled the wine in his glass for a moment. The conversation was hinting that she had been aware of him and had given him some thought, for whatever reason. He was delighted, but nevertheless felt that things were starting to get a little too close to the personal for him to feel entirely comfortable, so he deftly back-tracked to the start of the conversation.
“Maybe there’s more to this astrology-kick than I thought?” he said, looking across the table at her.
“You should keep an open mind,” she agreed. “Don’t discount anything until it has been proven to be of no value.”
“I’d agree with that,” he replied. “But then, I have a head stuffed full of the most useless bits of information, all waiting for the one moment in my life when they just might be pertinent to something.”
“Better that than a head full of air, like some,” she said, “or a one-track mind like most men – in some ways that’s worse.”
“That sounds like the voice of experience,” he replied, teasing her a little.
But Soraya didn’t see the joke.
“Oh, it is; believe me. I mean, take a ‘for instance’: the test pilots here are all pretty intelligent guys, as I’m sure you’ll agree. They’re skilled at what they do and they appreciate that it’s essential to prepare for every assignment as carefully as they can. Yet, most of them are so chock-full of testosterone that they stand with their eyes glued on my boobs, rather than the weather charts, when we’re plotting their flight schedules. What’s even worse is they think I don’t notice…”
She glanced ruefully at him and suddenly remembered who she was talking to. “Present company excepted, of course, Commander,” she added hastily.
Adam tried not to smirk, especially as he knew he was as guilty as anyone of not paying full attention to the weather charts when Soraya was on duty. He inclined his head in acknowledgement of the belated refinement and asked, “What led you into meteorology?”
“My father taught geography before he became a headmaster and he used to keep a weather journal for use in his lessons, and when I was little, I’d help him. It was something I found fascinating… and maybe just a bit mystical.”
She nodded and leant forward, eager to explain. “The weather’s like a living thing, changeable, reactive and… mercurial.” She smiled at the word. “I know enough to be pretty sure what it will do, but I can never be completely sure – no one can.”
“Hummph – the weather must be female then…”
Soraya laughed, and reached out her hand to pat his. “You wouldn’t be the first to have drawn that conclusion. And after all, we speak of ‘Mother Earth’, don’t we, so maybe there’s some truth in it?”
Her dark eyes were sparkling as she teased him and her beauty made his heart thump so forcefully it took his breath away. The familiar yearning ache began to spread through him as his desire for her reasserted itself. He grasped her fingers and gave them a squeeze as their eyes met in the flickering candlelight, but he had barely parted his lips to tell her of his feelings before he saw confusion sweep over her face. He managed to sigh out her name as, with a shy smile, she gently withdrew her hand.
There was a heavy silence as they both became self-conscious and for a while they devoted themselves to eating their food.
Gradually, Soraya began to talk again, this time about herself, and then about Toby and the way she’d discovered he was fooling around with a secretary at the insurance company he worked for. Adam wasn’t sure if he ought to be flattered that she trusted him so much, or concerned that she was growing increasingly tipsy.
She rested her chin in her hands and gazed across the table at him, blinking away angry tears. “It makes you feel such a fool, when you’re sure everyone knew what was going on, but you,” she explained. “My mother said I should ignore what had happened; that – in effect – if my husband was straying from the marital bed it was because he wasn’t – satisfied – at home. My own mother said that! Can you imagine it?”
He shook his head and gave the waiter a discreet frown as he moved to fill her half-empty glass.
“Nor could I at the time – we had a major falling out, my mum and me. I couldn’t ignore what Toby was doing, of course – no one with any self- respect could, could they? He’d been seeing someone else behind my back, but if I’d done nothing, it would have been me who ended up looking like trash – a woman with no self-respect! I’d done everything he wanted and he had the gall to treat me like that! Men are all the same…”
“Have you had enough to eat, Soraya?” he interjected. As her sense of mistreatment increased, she was getting more vehement and he didn’t want her to broadcast her private affairs to the rest of the restaurant. “Only, the cab’s due in a few minutes so maybe we should get ready.”
“Is it that time already?” She glanced down owlishly into her wine glass. “And the wine’s all finished? Oh, well yes, then I guess we should. The taxi driver will want to get home in time for Christmas, I suppose. It’s been a wonderful meal – I’ve enjoyed myself – thank you very much, Adam.”
She drained the glass.
He gestured for the bill, and slipped a credit card onto the silver salver after a cursory glance at the list. One waiter brought their coats and as the taxi drew up, conducted Soraya to it with deference.
Adam wished them all a ‘Merry Christmas’, tipped the maître d’ lavishly as he left, and gave Soraya’s address to the driver before getting into the back with her.
In the taxi she snuggled against him and he put his arm around her shoulders, enjoying the intimacy.
“I’ve had such a wonderful time; I’m glad you asked me to come with you, Adam. I never wanted to go out with the other guys who asked me, but I don’t think you’re like them,” she murmured, her lips against his cheek. “Why don’t you come in for a coffee? We can talk some more; the night is still young…”
When he turned his head to answer her, she pressed her lips against his.
Adam savoured that first kiss and for years afterwards he could remember the feel of her against him, her hand on his thigh as she balanced herself, her weight against his chest. When it was over, she sighed and dropped her head to rest on his shoulder.
“I’d like that very much, if you’re sure it’s what you want?” he replied.
“Of course it is; didn’t I just say so? You haven’t got to get back anywhere, have you? Your quarters are on the base, aren’t they? I don’t think they’d lock you out, you know.”
“No, I’m sure they won’t. It’s just that… well… I don’t want you to feel… obliged ....”
He saw a frown settle between her elegant eyebrows and she pushed herself away from him.
Staring into his face with every appearance of displeasure, she said, “Men! I should have known you’re all the same! You think one meal out gives you the right to a woman’s body. For your information, Commander, an invitation to one cup of coffee does not mean ‘spend the night with me’ - not in this country anyway, I don’t know about America. And even if it did, it doesn’t have to mean spend it in my bed – I do have a spare room, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know. Soraya, look… I apologise if I have, in any way whatsoever, offended you….”
She looked at him doubtfully for a long moment and then pressed a hand to her temple and shook her head. “No, I’m sorry – it’s me who should apologise. You’ve been nothing but sweet to me, and a perfect gentleman all evening, but I have to go and spoil it. I’m sorry, Adam.”
“There’s no harm done,” he reassured her, and took her hand to press to his lips. “Still, maybe it’s better if I don’t come in - this time?”
It cost him something to make the suggestion as there was nothing he wanted more than to spend the night with her – preferably as close as he could get – but he thought he knew enough to realise that maybe this wasn’t the best opportunity and, besides, he was pretty certain that ‘perfect gentlemen’ don’t insist – any more than ‘nice girls’ just don’t - on a first date; it was one way a ‘perfect gentleman’ earned himself a lot of kudos …
But Soraya’s mind was evidently on a different tack. “Oh. Oh, I suppose I must’ve bored you to death all evening… you should’ve told me to stop rabbiting on.”
“Of course you didn’t; I enjoyed our conversation.”
“It wasn’t a conversation – it was a monologue! I apologise, I probably ruined your Christmas Eve.”
He reached over to take her chin in his fingers and turn her head towards him.
“Soraya, listen to me. You could have been reciting the phone book, and I would still have had the best evening I’ve had since I got here - months ago.” From her expression it was clear that she still reserving her judgement as to the sincerity of his words and, resigned to spending the night alone, he tried to make the best of it. “I just feel that it’s getting late, and you’d better get to bed and get some sleep…”
Her frown reappeared. “But nobody’s working tomorrow – so that doesn’t matter. You don’t have to make feeble excuses just to get rid of me, Adam. Although, I’d give something to know why you invited me out if you don’t like me?” she asked.
“What?” Her ‘logic’ confused him. “You think just because I’m not trying to make you sleep with me that I don’t like you? I invited you out because I like you. But I don’t want you to think I expect you to… well… I mean….”
“I suppose you think I’m too drunk to know what I’m doing?” she demanded.
“I wouldn’t dream of suggesting you might not be… rational,” he retorted.
She snorted with laughter. “In all fairness, I’m about as rational as a newt, right now…But that’s not all due to the wine…” she remarked, and her laughter died away as she leant over and kissed him. “You’re an intoxicating man, Commander.”
When the taxi drew up at her small terraced house, he opened the door and accompanied her to the front door. On the step, he gently tipped her head back and kissed her.
“Goodnight, Soraya. Merry Christmas,” he said.
With her eyes still closed from his kiss and in expectation of another, she must’ve sensed him move away because her eyes flew open and looked deep into his. “Adam, please don’t go…I…I don’t want to be lonely tonight….”
“I can’t keep the cab waiting and I might not get another one later…”
“You don’t have to go back tonight. You can stay here.”
“Soraya…” he said cautiously.
“Just pay the taxi.”
He looked at her for a moment, unsure if she really meant what she seemed to be saying.
“Pay the taxi, Commander,” she repeated and opened the door wider. “I’ll put the kettle on…”
He closed the front door and stood irresolutely in the narrow hallway. Soraya came to the kitchen door and gave a friendly smile, so he walked through to join her.
“Hang your coat there.”
She pointed to a row of hooks on the wall and as he was doing that, there was a dull thud behind him. He turned to see a fluffy, golden-brown cat emerging from the cat flap.
“Hello, Honey-B,” Soraya said.
“Strange name for a cat…” he said, as it began to rub itself against his leg, purring loudly.
“It’s short for Honey-bucket.” She grinned. “She’s the world’s dumbest cat. You’re highly favoured; she usually scratches strangers.”
He sniggered as he bent to stroke the beast. “Hello, Honey-B. It’s a good job you’re not an American cat…”
Soraya picked the cat up and stroked her head as she purred loudly. “Why couldn’t she be an American cat?” she asked, rather offended.
“In the States, a honey bucket is a name for what you call a port-a-loo over here.”
She looked at him in horror and then started to giggle. “Oh, poor Honey-B!”
She put the cat down as the kettle boiled and Honey-B went back to twining herself around Adam’s legs.
“I don’t know why,” he remarked with some bewilderment, “but cats seem to like me… I’m more of a dog person, really. I used to love to go out with the dogs. In the vacations I’d take them hiking in Middlesex Fells and they’d come with me when I went to Nantucket – it was great riding along the beach with the dogs running beside me. But my mother has always kept cats – as far as anyone keeps a cat; they usually act as if they’re doing you a favour by letting you look after them.”
Soraya gave a knowing smile. “Don’t I know it…” she interjected.
“Well, her latest one is the most vicious creature on the planet. Every time I go into Mom’s room I get hissed at!”
“Some cats are very territorial and get possessive of their ‘humans’ – it must see you as a threat.”
“He’s right – I hate him,” he admitted.
“What kind of cat is it?”
“Persian – very fluffy, very bad tempered and very spoilt.”
“Does he have a name?”
Adam gave a wry grin. “Mom thinks it’s cute to call her cats by the most outrageous names imaginable. At the moment she‘s working her way through the Old Testament. I can’t wait for her to get to the Book of Malachi and stop.” Soraya chuckled. “The present incumbent of the position of the world’s most spoilt cat is called Xerxes.”
“That doesn’t sound very Biblical.”
“No, you’re right – it doesn’t; however, according to my mother, it qualifies because it’s the origin of the biblical name Ahasuerus, which is the English translation, of the Latin translation, of the Hebrew translation from the original Persian.” He shook his head. “Don’t ask me how she knows that, but I never argue with my mother about such things – it just isn’t worth it…”
She grinned at him. “Your mother said all that?”
He nodded. “That’s nothing; you should hear her when she’s got something really important to say…”
“Well, I’ll take your word – or rather, your mother’s word - for it, and it is certainly a very aristocratic name for what sounds like a very aristocratic cat… Does she usually have Persians?” He nodded again. “Hmm…I don’t suppose your mother has had one called Soraya, now has she…?”
“It was Zoraya – with a ‘zee’,” he protested, “but it’s close enough, I guess.”
She laughed at his embarrassment and after a pause he joined in.
They took their coffee into the small living room. It was full of mismatched furniture, with packed bookshelves around the walls and music discs piled on the table top and floor. The shallow bay window was devoid of curtains, although the impressive plant in a ceramic jardinière did provide some cover.
Soraya saw him looking at it and explained with an impressive seriousness, “That’s Norman, the aspidistra. I got custody of him in my divorce settlement.”
“Lucky Norman,” he responded, and she smiled.
In the gaps between the bookshelves hung a selection of framed prints and embroideries; he stepped across to examine one particularly handsome embroidery of a cottage garden in full bloom.
“Did you do this?” he asked.
Soraya nodded. “It’s my hobby; it kept me sane during the divorce.”
“It’s beautiful. Is it a real garden?”
“I doubt it.”
He moved away and looked for somewhere to sit down. Everywhere was taken up with piles of belongings and Soraya began to excuse the jumble. “I bought this house with my share of the sale of our house – Toby’s and mine. This place is much smaller, so when I’d weeded out everything I could bear to part with, the rest just had to get crammed in somewhere. One day I’ll have another grand clear out and take it all to a car boot sale… one day. Please - just move those books off the sofa and put them on the floor, it won’t matter.”
Adam found the room fascinating. He’d grown up in a large family house where everything had a designated place and, what was more, people were employed to make sure it was put away there.
When he’d left home he’d taken what he needed and later, when he’d bought his own apartment - an open-plan penthouse in Back Bay, overlooking the Charles River - he’d been able to decorate it to please himself. He’d chosen a clean, minimalist style; and his mother’s favourite interior designers had made the focus of the uniformly white walls an original Mondrian painting his grandfather had given him; there was absolutely no clutter anywhere. He liked it, but at least one of his old friends had remarked, rather acerbically, that he might as well be living in an hotel for all the evidence of his own personality in the room.
When he’d been posted to England and his apartment was about to be rented out, he’d sent instructions for the things he wanted to be shipped over, but no-one had questioned the fact that his belongings – including the Mondrian and all the newly purchased things from his apartment - would remain in the family home. He realised, with an illogical spasm of guilt, that he’d never had to worry about finding places to keep his belongings because there always was room. He wondered how he’d have coped with having to discard any of his treasures.
Soraya’s voice interrupted his musing.
“I could put some music on, if you’d like,” she offered, after removing her boots, curling up in the armchair and allowing Honey-B to settle on her lap. “Only I can’t play it very loud – because the neighbours complain if I play music this late.”
“No, it’s okay; my mother says I have Van Gogh’s ear for music.”
She chuckled and shook her head in amusement. “I hope she meant the ear he didn’t slice off?”
He was perched on a small two-seater cane sofa, which creaked alarmingly so that he hardly dared to move. Carefully he looked around. The room was bare of Christmas decorations except for strings of Christmas cards on one wall.
“You don’t put decorations up?” he asked a little hesitantly. He didn’t even know if she celebrated Christmas.
“There’s a tree in the window…”
She waved a hand to where the smallest Christmas tree he’d ever seen stood on a stool. Suddenly, tiny fairy lights reflected back against the darkness outside, as she reached across to switch them on.
Soraya explained, “Christmas was always a little problematical for us… my maternal grandmother is from a Ugandan Asian family who came here in the 1970s - when the Asian community was expelled. Her family were Hindus, but my grandfather and my father are English – and nominally Christian. In some ways it was wonderful; I got to celebrate Diwali and Christmas as a child. Then, when I married Toby, it was like the other extreme – his father is an Anglican clergyman. This year I couldn’t really be bothered either way, as there was only going to be me and Honey-B here. But I like to celebrate with my friends, of course.”
“We kinda have two Christmases too – we always celebrate St Lucia’s day – on December 13th? It’s a Scandinavian thing. Our house is festooned with lights for most of December, all over the windows and doors, and up the drive too.”
“Sounds wonderful. Where’s your home, exactly?”
“Boston. We all have houses there, but my Svenson grandparents spend most of the year on the coast now that Grandpa Stefan’s retired ….which is kinda appropriate – because, as far as we know, the earliest Svensons in America were whalers… not that we approve of that sort of thing now, but it was different then. My grandfather always teases my mom’s folks by insisting his ancestor was amongst the Viking explorers who discovered Vinland…”
“And you believe him?”
He grinned. “Let’s just say, if it isn’t true, I wish it was…”
She chuckled. “My folks are in Bristol. My dad’s headmaster of a secondary school and my mum used to be the manager of a dress shop, but she only works part-time now.”
He sensed that she expected him to talk about more his family but he was reluctant to do so, because this was where things usually started to go wrong. People were either over-awed by his family’s wealth or alarmed at the constant internecine fighting that went on.
So, it was with a heavy heart that he said, “My father’s a financier and my mom does whatever she wants – charity committees and parent-teacher stuff, you know. I’m the eldest – I have two brothers and a sister.”
To his relief, Soraya didn’t question him further.
“My mum wanted me to go into banking – or insurance, like Toby – ‘that’s where the money is’, she’d say about a hundred times a day. Only, I could never fancy it much.”
“Me neither. My father wanted me to work with him.”
“Who does he work for? What company?”
“Doing well, is he?” she asked brightly.
Not entirely sure he believed she hadn’t made the connection to the internationally renowned company that bore his family name, he kept his response non-committal.
“Yeah, very well, you might say.”
“That’s good. He must be very proud of you for making Assistant Commander so quickly?”
“If he is, he keeps it well hidden.”
They lapsed into silence. He finished his coffee and stood.
“Thanks for the coffee, Soraya. It’s been a great evening, but I think I’d better go now… I’ll walk back into town and maybe I’ll get a cab there.”
She jumped up with alacrity, ignoring the yowl of protest from Honey-B, and accepted the cup from him, putting them both on a small, cluttered coffee table.
She followed him into the narrow hallway and, as he turned towards the kitchen to collect his coat, she caught his hand and drew him to her, reaching up to guide his lips down to hers. As he kissed her, she wrapped her arms around him. After some minutes, he disengaged with a deep sigh, and turned back towards the coat hooks.
It was then that she took his hand and softly spoke his name. “Adam… don’t go…” she whispered. “I don’t want you to go.”
He wrapped her in his arms and kissed her again. Slowly he moved his hands down from the silky curtain of her hair, over her shoulders and down to her hips, pulling her against him. Soraya wrapped her arms around him and leant back against the wall, allowing him to press his lips against the nape of her neck.
His senses began to cloud over with rapidly increasing passion. What was left of his rational mind told him in no uncertain terms that he had to go now – if he was going to go at all.
Then he became aware of Soraya’s hand pressing against his groin and his pent-up desire forced him to groan with frustration. Summoning every atom of his considerable self-discipline, he stood upright and took a step away from her.
She gazed up at him, with wide, dark eyes in which there was a desire that burned through his self-control like a candle flame through the wax. She knew her power over him and that he knew she did. There was nowhere else he could turn to conceal his longing to stay with her.
She took his hand and began to lead him up the staircase.
He followed, still hoping his eagerness wasn’t too apparent. Half-way up - several steps ahead of him and at his eye level – she stopped and kissed him again.
“Maybe we can make this a very merry Christmas for both of us, Commander Svenson,” she whispered, as his arms encircled her.
He lifted her from the step and carried her up the rest of the narrow staircase, through into the first bedroom she indicated. It was about the same size as the small living room, and most of it was taken up with the double bed that jutted out into the middle of the room. A small, makeshift dressing table stood at the end of the bed, littered with a jumble of make-up and cosmetics. In an alcove was a rail, packed with clothes, a heavy red curtain half-drawn across it. The window at the opposite end of the room had thin, unlined curtains of a cheerful acid-yellow fabric which looked incongruous with the bland walls and pale pink carpet.
Even as he took in the details of the room, he was putting her back on her feet beside the bed. He watched her with hungry eyes as she started to undo the belt of her dress… she turned and invited him to undo the zip…
The heavy fabric slid down over her shoulders and crumpled at her feet. She turned back to him, watching to see the effect she was having.
He went on his knees before her, wrapping his arms around her waist and laying his head against the silky, blue satin petticoat she wore. She stroked his fine, golden hair.
After a moment, his hands slid under the fabric and started to raise it. Suddenly, she shivered and whispered, “The heating’s gone off…”
He sat back on his heels and grimaced at her. “And I thought it was me making you shiver…with anticipation.”
She chuckled. “Sure; anticipating being in the nice warm bed… with you beside me.”
He could see that she was getting cold, and although he always thought the slow reveal of mutual undressing was a necessary part of any foreplay, he wasn’t one to insist on it when it was making his partner uncomfortable.
Obligingly, he got to his feet and removed his jacket, before bending to remove his shoes and socks. Soraya slipped across to the alcove and drew back the curtain to reveal a full-length mirror fixed to the wall. As he slowly unbuttoned his shirt, he watched the double image of her appreciatively as she lifted the petticoat over her head to reveal scarlet-red underwear, and dropped it to the floor.
As if sensing she was being scrutinised, she glanced across at him, and he moved across to wrap his arms around her and still watching the mirror image, gently removed her bra, nuzzling the gentle curve of her neck as he caressed the flesh beneath fingers.
This time her shiver had nothing to do with the chill in the air and it was her turn to gasp out frustrated longing. She squirmed around to face him, pulling his lips hard against hers while her hands fumbled to undo the belt, button and zip of his trousers. He helped her, and shrugged off his clothes, lifting her again and carrying her to the bed.
She lay there against the coverlet and the bank of pillows and studied him from beneath her long, dark lashes, as he removed his boxer shorts and stood before her.
“Is there something wrong?” she asked, when he didn’t join her.
He shook his head. Smiling, he leant over so that he could kiss her lips. Soraya wrapped her arms around his shoulders and drew him closer.
He shifted slightly, so that he could caress her breast with his tongue, flicking at the nipple with darting licks. She groaned, squirming and biting her lip. He stopped both activities and his hand moved to flick the floppy fringe of blond hair back from his clear, pale-blue eyes, to look questioningly at her.
“Am I doing something wrong?”
She shook her head, and explained, “I’m …out of practice, I guess; but I didn’t mean for you to have to stop….unless you want to.”
He smiled engagingly and said, “I want to make love to you and do whatever you want me to… just tell me what that is…”
Soraya reached out towards him. He slithered up beside her and pressed his lips to hers. He closed his eyes, and wrapped his arms around her hips as he rode the waves of pleasure she created with skilful use of her hands and tongue.
Adam’s heart rate slowed to normal and his eyelids fluttered closed. His mind spiralled dreamily into a void and a satisfied weariness tipped him into sleep. He awoke some time later to see Soraya lying beside him, her head resting on her crooked arm and watching him from across the pillow. Embarrassed at having dozed off, he ran his fingers through his hair and gave a boyish grin.
She smiled back. “I guess the earth moved for you, hmm?”
“Packed up lock, stock and barrel and didn’t even leave a forwarding address.”
She chuckled. “Maybe you see why I was so incredulous when my mother suggested Toby wasn’t satisfied with his sex life at home?”
Adam frowned slightly, not liking the implication that she’d done as much for her ex-husband. “If you ask me, Toby’s a jerk; I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to leave you, Soraya.”
She grimaced and sighed. “You barely know me.”
He turned onto his side and stroked the silky dark hair and golden skin. “True, but I like what I see and I want to get to know you better – much, much better...”
He began to kiss her with gentle, rapid kisses, tracing her lips with his tongue before he slid it inside her mouth. His hands fondled her and then pulled her against him. Forced by the weight of him pressing against her, Soraya rolled back onto her back, her responses to his advances hampered by a sudden tenseness. He leant over her, determined to pay any arrears of attention she might feel because he’d gone to sleep. Judging the effectiveness of his caresses by the way her breathing became little more than a tremulous gasp, he moved on top of her, pushing her legs apart with his own.
He felt her grow rigid under him, almost recoiling from his touch.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, hastily taking his weight on his arms and looking down at her troubled face.
“No,” she murmured, and to his disquiet added, “Please - don’t hurt me.”
“I wouldn’t – I’d never… Oh, Soraya…” He moved aside as it dawned on him that her experience of the joy of making love had been very one-sided.
He cradled her against his shoulder, stroking her face and back until she relaxed again. Adam realised that there must have been times when not only her emotional relationship with Toby had led to pain and misery, and, in an extraordinary way, he felt it gave him a feeling of kinship with her.
His abuse at the hands of a sadistic kidnapper had destroyed his childhood and left it hard for him to surrender emotionally to another person. Until now, his experiences with women had been casual, largely one-sided and invariably brief, and he’d walked away from them without a qualm, but what he felt for this woman was different somehow. He wanted her to care about him, to need his company as much as he longed for hers and to feel complete only when he was there. He assumed that it was love.
His loathing for her ex-husband grew, until he equated him with the almost demonic memory of his kidnapper. What kind of man would treat a woman he loved enough to marry, so badly that she associated making love with pain? He knew some people liked that, but it was clear to him that Soraya was not of that ilk, so he imagined Toby’s treatment of her had been more to do with dominance than love.
The nature of relationships could change over the years - that much he didn’t doubt - so presumably she had loved her ex-husband enough to tolerate his behaviour, but he disliked the notion of using love as a weapon.
He’d often wondered how his parents’ relationship survived the ups and downs of their married life, but, in fairness to them, he’d never seen either of them use their love for each other to cause intentional hurt…
Now he drew on his vast reserve of patience and used the skills and techniques he’d perfected on numerous willing bedmates, to soothe her fears, release the tension from her body and show her what he felt sure making love was all about. As their bodies fused together and she arched her back in an intense spasm of pleasure, he felt, along with the powerful thrill of his own climax, an overwhelming sense of triumph.
And this time they both drifted off to sleep, side by side in the lethargy of satisfaction.
The weak glimmer of the morning sun in the leaden sky was barely penetrating the half-open curtains when the cat landed on Adam’s chest like a tonne of bricks and prowled across the bed to where Soraya was still sleeping.
He knew it was no use trying to go back to sleep, so he slipped out to the bathroom and then got back into bed. He lay on his back staring thoughtfully at the ceiling.
My first Christmas Day away from home and I’m here in the bed of a beautiful woman… Not quite where Mom would have wanted me to be – that’s for sure - and not the sort of stockings she’d associate with Christmas! He chuckled quietly to himself as he considered his family. A very Merry Christmas to one and all, may Santa bring you everything you hope for – he did for me… in fact, this is my best Christmas present ever!
He really hadn’t expected they’d end up like this when he’d invited Soraya out, although he’d hoped that it would be the start of something between them.
But you just can’t tell with women.
The memory of how he’d hesitated over slipping a packet of condoms into his inside jacket pocket made him grin.
It’s a good job old habits die hard…
As it was, Soraya’s ardour had increased as she’d progressively relaxed, until at the end, he’d been surprised at her fervour. He rather suspected that so had she…
However, he wished he could be sure she was going to be as sanguine about it when she woke up in the cold light of day.
There’s nothing like daylight, a hangover and the memory of things you wouldn’t like people to know you enjoyed doing in the dark to take the gilt from the gingerbread. Not that things weren’t … satisfactory. Very satisfactory from my point of view.
He grinned and turned his head to look at her as she lay with her back to him. Her dark hair was tousled on the pillow and even this weak sunlight was turning her skin to a warm gold.
She’s so beautiful…that bastard must’ve been mad to let her go. I wouldn’t let her go for all the money in SvenCorp if I were in his shoes. I’d keep her safe and devote myself to her happiness. Maybe we could get a place together, and neither of us would ever be lonely or… or frightened again. I understand and she’d understand about me. It’d be such a relief to have someone who knew everything there was to know and still… still cared. There are things you just can’t talk to your parents about, however broadminded your mom claims to be.
Who am I kidding? This could still turn out to be a one night stand - a fantastic one, but nevertheless… just a flash in the pan. Don’t build your hopes up, Svenson; you bought her a meal, she got horny and you got lucky. End of story, he thought, with a rueful sigh.
He’d had his fair share of ‘encounters’ with the female sex. Able to pick and choose from the cream of Boston’s eligible young lovelies, there’d been no lack of willing partners...and, unless they were all being exceptionally polite, he’d never had any complaints. He was – he hoped and believed – a considerate lover: his first sexual encounters had been with the wife of a college teacher who’d taught him to consider what she wanted before his own pleasure, and, in so doing, had given him a good grounding in the art of making love – to which he’d added a substantial amount of practical experimentation since. At the very least his intention was always to make the experience a good one for his partner and himself.
The problems in any relationship always came when he felt it was time to move on… and he’d learnt it was best to pack up and go before the woman came to think of him as a fixture. He was never sure if they were sorry to see him, or his family’s fortune, go, but he always tried to end things on an amicable note, not always successfully, and he dreaded the inevitable arguments, tearful accusations and anger that accompanied his departure.
Yet, when it came to it, he couldn’t even be sure that to this woman – the woman he’d realised weeks ago he was in love with - he was anything other than a transient substitute for her ex-husband; a man whose face he increasingly felt he wanted to punch to a pulp, if he ever got the chance.
At least she never actually called me ‘Toby’ even in the throes of everything… I hope that’s a good sign. I wonder if she’ll even remember my name.
He sighed. What’ll I do if she doesn’t? I really don’t want to go there…. Oh God, please let her be pleased to see me here instead of him…
He turned towards her and slid his arm around her, nuzzling at the nape of her neck. He felt her tense as his lips brushed against her flesh.
“Mmm...?” he said interrogatively.
She gave an almost silent gasp. “You sound as if you’re purring as much as the cat.”
“Good morning,” he whispered, planting a series of butterfly kisses on her naked shoulder and moving his hand to cup one breast. “Did you sleep okay?”
She sat up suddenly, dislodging both him and Honey-B. The cat mewed in annoyance and he was sure his expression was as equally put-out when she turned to glance at him.
“It isn’t fair,” he murmured, with a playful pout. “Nothing should look as good as you do after a night of debauchery.”
He saw her blush, as no doubt the memories came to mind. He gave her an inviting smile and patted the empty space beside him. “How about you lie down here for a while and we’ll celebrate Christmas… again?”
Shaking her head, she countered, “How about some breakfast in bed?”
“I’m not hungry… well, not for food…”
She looked away, looped her dark hair behind one ear and said, “I need the bathroom…”
As she slid her legs from the bed, he heard her muffled curse when she realised her robe was hanging on the back of the door. Still, she managed to muster enough composure to stand and walk past him, totally aware of his gaze locked onto her every move.
The bedside radio-alarm went off and made him jump. He was debating whether he could be bothered to turn it off when he recognised the song that was playing.
‘The morning sun, when it’s in your face, really shows your age…’
He slid across the bed and pushed every button until it went quiet.
I sometimes think Fate’s got something against me - I sure don’t need that particular song right now!
A few moments later he heard the shower spring into life and the lock slide across the bathroom door.
Damn, damn and double damn!
He got out of bed and collected his clothes from where he’d left them on the floor last night. He pulled on his boxer shorts and trousers and padded downstairs into the kitchen to start making coffee.
Honey-B followed him, mewing plaintively.
The vinyl was cold to his bare feet, but he set about his task with his usual thoroughness, fetching the mugs from last night and rinsing them out. He searched through the jumbled cupboards until he found a jar of instant coffee.
He heard her come in and turned, unconsciously brushing back the fringe that was forever falling into his eyes.
“I thought I’d help with breakfast…” he began to explain.
Soraya smiled vaguely at him. She was wrapped in an ancient towelling bathrobe and wearing a pair of fluffy pink slippers, and yet he felt desire for her sweep through him.
She avoided looking at him while she fed the cat.
“Maybe it’s a little late for breakfast?” he said conversationally. “You might wanna go straight to lunch.”
“How old are you, exactly?” she asked suddenly, her back towards him.
Here we go… he thought and drew in a deep breath before he replied. “I’m twenty-four next August – I’m a Virgo, remember? Why?”
He heard her mumble ‘twenty-three’ with something akin to dismay, and thought he understood. .
“Is that what this cold-shoulder is all about?” he asked. “Would you feel any better if I was thirty-four in August?”
“I… just wondered.” She turned towards him, but kept her eyes fixed on Honey-B who was wolfing down a bowl of fishy-smelling food.
“My mother’s always told me it’s impolite to ask a lady her age, but as we’re exchanging home truths, it’s your turn…”
Soraya glanced up, but couldn’t meet his eyes. “I’ll be twenty-nine next July.”
He said nothing, and when he saw her glance at him again, he grinned.
“See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? They say confession is good for the soul,” he added lightly, as he poured boiling water into the two mugs.
“Commander, I don’t normally do this sort of thing…”
“Drink coffee in the morning?” he asked, being deliberately obtuse.
“No, I mean...” She sighed. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah – I think I do, but I’d give a lot to know why you imagine I do ‘this sort of thing’ with any frequency either, Officer Carmichael.”
“Oh, come on, it isn’t rocket science to work it out; you’re twenty-three and good-looking.”
He put down her mug of coffee on the work-surface near to where she was standing, but didn’t come any closer. He looked steadily at her until, unnerved by his inspection, she flushed, reached out to pick up the hot drink and sipped it. She still wouldn’t meet his eye.
With a defeated air, he said, “It seems to me that the real questions here are: do you regret what happened last night and would you do the same again? If the answers to those are: yes, you do regret it - and no, you would never do the same again – well, I can be out of here in minutes, Soraya.”
She shrugged, shook her head and bit her bottom lip, finally glancing up at him with an anxious expression.
He said, “You can rest assured; I don’t kiss and tell. You don’t have to worry that this’ll get round the base; at least, I won’t tell anyone.”
She tilted her head thoughtfully and met his gaze properly for the first time.
She looked so beautiful he was hard pressed not to rush across and sweep her into his arms, pleading with her to let him stay and look after her – but some instinct told him she had to take this decision for herself – or things would never be right between them.
When she finally answered him, her voice revealed something of her own surprise. “Do you know what? I don’t regret it and, yes, I would do the same again – if the opportunity arose…”
She gave a shy smile.
Adam’s relief and joy were immeasurable. He grinned at her, looking for all the world like a little boy delighted at getting his own way.
“Well, what’s wrong with making your own opportunities? Right now, for example?”
With a few deceptively long strides he covered the distance between them and tried to take her in his arms. She chuckled, and fended him off with the hot mug, until he took it from her and placed it on the side. Then he wound her arms around him, and enfolded her in a close embrace.
Her reluctance was only momentary and she returned his kiss with enthusiasm.
As their kisses grew more intense he untied the belt of her dressing gown and slid his hands over her body, then lifted her off the ground, carried her across the room and sat her on the small dining table.
She locked her legs around him and began to fumble with the waistband of his trousers.
The enthusiastic carolling of ‘Jingle Bells’ and the persistent ringing of the front door bell only reached their conscious minds slowly.
“What the…?” he muttered.
“Soraya! Merry Christmas! Ray, get up and answer the door!”
The voice coming through the letter box echoed down the hallway.
“Oh, hell, it’s Fiona and Warren; she said they’d drop by.”
“Fiona and Warren Allen.”
He gave a horrified groan. “I work with him…”
He buttoned up his trousers as she wrapped her robe around herself and tied the belt tightly.
“Coming!” she called, and turned to Adam. “I’ll have to le them in; it’s good of them to call round. Fiona’s my best friend and she didn’t like the idea of me being alone on Christmas Day.”
“You’re not alone,” he pointed out.
“Yes, but they don’t know that… just run upstairs and put your shirt on, then come down and join us. With luck they won’t stay long.”
“Sure you don’t want me to hide away?” he asked, as he started to climb the stairs.
“Of course not - don’t be so silly; the Allens won’t tell anyone.” She paused on her way along the hallway and smiled up at him. “Just remember where we’d got to until they finally go…” she teased, and went to open the door.
That had been the start of a beautiful relationship; he loved everything about her and in return she came to trust in his affection for her. They quickly became inseparable and well-known as ‘a couple’ to their colleagues.
Soraya took delight in introducing him to her home country: the green and pleasant countryside, the fens and marshlands, the hills and moorlands – and – his especial favourites - the wild, unspoilt beaches of the north. He loved them and gawped in awe at the magnificent castles – some still inhabited – that perched atop the towering cliffs, while Soraya chuckled and teased him.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “And I want to see them all, Suri – every one – you have to show me.”
But, once they bought a house together on the outskirts of the town, they spent their leisure time ‘doing it up’ and travelling to auctions in search of the unusual, so of necessity the visits to castles, landscapes and countryside grew less frequent.
But they were both content with their lives, even when their respective parents were less than thrilled at the idea of their relationship; Soraya’s mother refused to meet her daughter’s ‘toy-boy’ and remained devoted to her former son-in-law. They laughed it off and carried on as if it had never happened.
But nothing stays the same. The W.A.S. was in crisis. There were appalling security leaks; technological advances in aviation engineering, prototype equipment and general industrial secrets seeped out of the organisation and into the marketplace with monotonous regularity and the senior management seemed powerless to stop it happening. The organisation was in danger of becoming something of a laughing stock amongst the other World Government establishments.
Rumours spoke of a criminal organisation, known as ‘The Nebula’ from its amorphous configuration, which had infiltrated every base and office and workshop. It seemed that nothing and nowhere was secure.
“Do you think the World Government is going to close us down?” Soraya asked Adam one evening, as they sat cuddled up together on the living room sofa listening to music and sipping wine.
He shrugged. “The charter is due for renewal in a few years; if things don’t improve, it’s a possibility.”
“What’ll I do then?” she asked apprehensively. “There aren’t that many jobs in meteorology.”
He smiled and kissed her. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll just have to get used to being a kept woman, Suri.”
“I’ve told you before: I won’t live off your money. I’ll get another job doing something else, somewhere else, if I have to.”
“And leave all this?” He gestured around the room at their cherished collection of possessions.
“I guess so. I’ve had to start over before; I can do it again, if I have to.”
“And me? Would you leave me?”
“That would break my heart…” she admitted.
He tipped her chin upwards so that she was looking into his eyes. “Why don’t you just marry me?” he asked gently. “Then what’s mine is yours and no one’ll be keeping anyone.”
“And what would your father say about that?”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn what he says.”
“He doesn’t like me, Addie.”
“He doesn’t like anyone, Suri, but you wouldn’t be marrying my dad, would you? You’d be marrying me, and I’m okay, aren’t I?”
“Stop fishing for compliments.” She chuckled and kissed him. “You are definitely ‘okay’.”
“Hey, stop that; you’ll give me an inflated ego with such lavish praise…”
“You’re so sweet…”
She kissed him again and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer and returning her kisses with increasing fervour…
Later, as they lay side by side in the big, brass-framed bed, she rolled onto her side and he put his arm around her as she nestled against him.
“Soraya,” he began, hesitantly.
“What’ve you done?” She raised herself on her elbow and looked reproachfully at him. She recognised that tone of voice.
“Nothing, yet. I was only going to tell you I’ve been summoned to meet the Director General in London on Tuesday.”
“Peter Galvin? What does he want with you?”
Adam shrugged. “I just hope he doesn’t want to move me from here. You’ve heard that the District Commander in Western Canada is taking early retirement, haven’t you?”
She nodded, and gently punched his ribs with her fist. “Ah… promotion…? You deserve it, Addie; you’ve done sterling work here. So - District Commander Svenson sounds good to me - at such an early age too. I always said you were a wunderkind.”
“Don’t count your chickens, Officer Carmichael, he hasn’t offered it to me yet. Besides, I don’t want it and I’m going to turn it down - unless you come with me.”
“Oh, don’t be so silly, Adam; you mustn’t do that!”
“No, I’m serious. I’m not leaving here alone. I want you to come with me.”
“I don’t know that I can do that, Addie. What about my parents – and Honey-B?”
“Honey-Bucket can come with us… not so sure about your mum and dad though…”
She chuckled. “You mustn’t joke about it. Promise me, you’ll listen to what Galvin has to say before you make your mind up; and promise you won’t let the thought of me stand in your way.”
“Soraya, the only way I want to go is the way you’re going. I mean that.”
She kissed him softly. “I know you do, darling. That’s what worries me sometimes.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re much younger than me –”
“Not that much!”
“Okay; but I’m more settled than you. I like my job here.”
“You can forecast the weather anywhere.”
She nodded. “I know. Look, we’ll talk about this when you know for sure what Galvin has in mind. Okay?”
Reluctantly, he nodded agreement. He was resolute in his own mind that he wasn’t going anywhere without her; but he knew it wouldn’t help his cause to argue with her – she could be as stubborn as he was.
He hugged her close and she snuggled against his chest and closed her eyes, signifying an end to the conversation and her intention to sleep – although doubtful he would be able to sleep, he nevertheless did the same…
Adam opened his eyes and stared into the darkness across the lake. Fighting the overwhelming urge to cry, he blinked rapidly for several moments and sniffed, rubbing the back of his hand across his nose, as he swallowed the hot lump in his throat.
That had been the first intimation of what had turned out to be the life-defining offer of becoming the W.A.S.’s Head of Internal Security. It was an offer that he’d had cause to regret and the consequences of which had haunted him for years. Initially, he’d not been keen on the idea, he had joined the W.A.S. in the face of his father’s vocal opposition, simply to be able to fly and he didn’t want to make a move that would – almost certainly – restrict his opportunities to do just that. But to his surprise, Soraya had agreed with Galvin that it was a job he was extremely suited for and that there were few officers who could deal with the responsibilities it entailed as well as he could.
“Galvin’s right, Addie; surely you can see that? The W.A.S. is leaking like a sieve, someone in the organisation – perhaps many someones – is making a fortune out of betraying us all. The one thing you don’t need – and don’t want – is money. You are, to all intents and purposes, unbribable.”
“But I don’t want to stop flying and I don’t want to leave here if you won’t come with me.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I’m not, I am serious – as serious as I can be.”
“Look, we’ll talk about it again tonight; okay? I’ll be late for work if I don’t leave now.” She kissed the end of his nose affectionately. “You have a nasty habit of making me late… Commander.”
Peter Galvin had given him three days to make a decision but despite spending most of his time with Soraya discussing it, at the end of the second day, although he had accepted her argument that it was a challenging job and he was the best man to do it, he was still saying he wouldn’t go without her – and she was saying she wouldn’t go.
Therefore it had been something of a surprise when she came home on the afternoon of the third and final day of his thinking time, to discover that she’d changed her mind. She was very quiet and somewhat distracted to begin with, and when he broached the subject, reminding her that it was the day he had to tell Galvin his answer, she’d walked away to stare out of the window for a long time. As the hour approached for Galvin to call, he’d asked her - for what he told her would be the very last time - to marry him and go with him to America, and with a wry smile, she’d said yes, I’ll go with you.
He’d been overflowing with delight and optimism when he’d accepted Galvin’s offer.
The practicalities of the move had fallen to Soraya and, with his mother’s help, she’d arranged to rent a house in the vicinity of his new base, and move their stuff across to the States.
In the face of the new Head of Security’s imperious demands, the W.A.S. found his fiancée a job at a local airfield, and she’d done her best to set up their new home.
They’d agreed to give their new life time to settle down before they went ahead with the wedding; Adam refused to accept the idea of a quick Registry Office ceremony before they left, because he felt that might suggest he was reluctant to acknowledge their relationship in the face of his father’s disapproval. When they married, he told her, it would be ‘with all the trimmings’.
For the first few months after they moved, he was regularly away from home, or came back from long meetings, intense seminars, or undercover briefings, so physically and mentally exhausted that he fell asleep over dinner or in front of the television. She’d listened in silence as he’d explained that his responsibilities would cover the globe and it was more than likely that he’d have to spend whole weeks away.
He knew that Soraya found adjusting to their new circumstances extremely difficult. For a start, they were hedged around with security measures, and advisors from the WAAF and the USS gave them both training in personal security and self-protection. They were advised to be careful who they spoke to, and to never go anywhere new on their own, which made it difficult for her to make new friends.
When he finished his training, and had finally recruited a team of twenty agents to assist him, he started on the complex job of tracking down the source of the security leaks. At first he’d kept it low key and local, but after the arrest of two or three suspects, it became apparent that the network was indeed wide-spread, and he’d had to instigate investigations in other countries.
He quickly became aware that an implausible number of accidents and near-misses were happening around him; but he kept it from Soraya, unwilling to add to her worries. Vaguely aware that she was still finding things less than ideal, he sensed that it was imperative to remain upbeat about everything.
Then, one evening when she’d been unusually quiet, she suddenly suggested over dinner, “Let’s go somewhere together this weekend, Addie. Just go – stay in an hotel – do some sight-seeing, or exploring. I haven’t really been anywhere since we arrived.”
He had to think about it before he answered. “I’ve got important meetings tomorrow and Thursday. I can’t cancel them; it’s all at a very delicate point. We’re starting to close in on the next tier of The Nebula – I’m sure of it. But I could rearrange the one on Friday afternoon, at a pinch. So, yes, if you want to, we could go somewhere this weekend.”
“Yeah, I do, so let’s go. I’m on early duty this week, so I’ll be finished by lunchtime. We could set out in the afternoon and drive somewhere nice before we stop for the night. I can ask Mrs. Tasker to look after Honey-B out for us. She’s very good like that, said she’d help if we wanted to go away.”
“She probably wants to snoop round the house,” he remarked, with a grimace. “I hate nosy neighbours.”
“You’ve hardly spoken to her! I think she’s nice. Anyway, I want a change of scene and… quite apart from the fact that I want to spend some time with you - we need to talk.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. Give Mrs Tasker the guided tour before we go. What did you want to talk about?”
“Where’s your Thursday meeting?”
He named a base about sixty miles away, adding, “I’ll be home, but just a little bit late.”
“You’re always a little bit late these days…”
“I can’t help that, Suri; it’s certainly not through choice.”
“Is that what you want to talk about?”
She sighed, smiled a little too brightly and collected the dinner plates. “We just need to talk, about all kinds of things and I want you to myself for a while… I’m selfish like that.”
He caught her as she walked past and kissed her. “You go right on being selfish – I like it!”
The Thursday ‘meeting’ had, in fact, been the interrogation of a suspected industrial spy, and the man put up far more of a struggle than he’d expected. Finally, by dint of perseverance, he got the admission and the information he wanted. Elated at having gained another clue in solving the riddle of The Nebula, he drove back home.
It was raining and already dark when he pulled onto their drive, so he was concerned when Soraya came out of the house and threw her arms around him as he stepped from the car.
He took her indoors before asking, “What’s up, Suri?”
“Nothing; just glad to see you.”
He didn’t believe her and raised her face to the light, frowning to see her red-rimmed eyes.
“You don’t cry for nothing,” he said.
She squirmed out of his embrace and replied as casually as she could, “My mum called…”
“Is everything okay?”
She nodded, but finally admitted that the phone call had made her feel lonely and triggered a hefty bout of homesickness. So, although he was dog-tired, he devoted himself to her and when they went to bed, they made love for the first time in far too long. Soraya’s fervent passion seemed to contain an element of desperation that worried him.
Afterwards, as she lay in the circle of his arm, he said, “Suri, let’s have a baby.”
Suddenly wide awake, she raised herself to look down at him, her astonishment obvious. “What brought that on?”
“Haven’t you ever thought about it? A kid with your looks and my brains could go far…”
“What if it had your looks and my brains?” she remarked, a slight smile on her lips.
“I’d still love it,” he teased.
“No doubt.” She chuckled and then said, with an unconvincing casualness, “Have you forgotten we’re not married?”
“No, I haven’t. Let’s set the date, Suri. Let’s fix it all up and then we can reconsider.”
There was a short silence until she said, “Adam, it’s very sweet of you, but I’m going to be worried sick about you, whatever we do. The added concern that our child might have to grow up fatherless is not going to help. Besides, I don’t want a baby just because you think it would give me something to do and take my mind off your absences.”
“That’s not what I meant at all.”
“Then you should sue your face for misrepresentation.”
He rolled his eyes and after a moment he asked casually, “Don’t you want a family?”
“Sure – I could buy into domesticity and 2.4 kids; but only if it was in a typical nuclear family where Dad worked 9 to 5 and came home in one piece every evening. I’m not very adventurous - as you know.”
He sighed and gave a rueful grimace, he’d shied away from the predictability of a ‘9-5’ existence all of his adult life. “But that wouldn’t have been the case when I was a test pilot either,” he reasoned.
“I didn’t agree to marry you when you were a test pilot,” she reminded him. “I agreed to come to America with you – that’s all. Look, my husband was a louse, Adam, but he was a 9-5 louse who came home in one piece – when he bothered to come home at all, of course.”
“Okay, I guess we’ll have to shelve the idea of starting a family for a while then; but we can still set the date for the wedding, can’t we?”
She turned her back on him so that he couldn’t see her expression and pulled his arm around her. “Yeah, it’d be nice to have something to look forward to. Let’s synchronise our diaries tomorrow… there has to be a window of opportunity somewhere in the foreseeable future…”
And he’d had to be satisfied with that, because she refused to say any more about it. After a while he realised she was crying quietly, but when he whispered her name and stroked her dark hair, she stiffened with an intake of breath and became silent. Finally, she slept.
In spite of everything, he slept like a log, waking before she did, feeling relaxed and… amorous. He switched off the alarm clock and woke her with gentle kisses and soft caresses, murmuring his love for her.
She protested – but not too vehemently - that she was due at work, and only too happy to be with him, she stayed…
Later, rushing to make up for lost time, she took his car keys, shouted a message up the stairs for him to make himself useful that morning, and left the house forgetting their security routine…
When the car exploded, the blast took out every window in the vicinity and scattered debris across the road and neighbouring gardens.
He’d raced downstairs in nothing but his boxer shorts and thrown open the front door screaming her name. He’d run out onto the driveway only to be beaten back by the heat of the flames.
Car alarms wailed, people, still dozy with sleep, hurried from their homes and milled about, some were crying. Eventually the emergency services’ sirens whooped loud enough to drown everything else, but throughout it all he’d remained kneeling by the front door, staring fixedly at the inferno on the drive and whispering:
“I’m sorry… Suri, I’m so sorry…”
Strong arms helped him to his feet and hustled him into an ambulance. The paramedics muttered in concern over his cuts and burns and injected him with something that made him sleep.
It was the last decent sleep he got for months.
He heard a shout and shook his head to exorcise the ghosts before glancing back along the curve of the shoreline to where Jillianne Palacino was waving as she stumbled towards him in quite unsuitable shoes. It seemed she wasn’t as easy to avoid as he’d assumed.
He sighed and brushed his hand over his eyes. He didn’t want to believe what his mother had told him about Soraya’s intention to leave; it was imperative to hold onto the belief that their relationship had been rock solid and destined to have been everything he’d ever hoped to find with a woman. But he was pragmatic enough to see that it did throw a different light on certain events.
He knew he’d not be able to let the matter rest now. He determined to ask Peter Galvin exactly what he’d said to Soraya about encouraging him to take the job.
I’m going to make it absolutely clear to him – and anyone else in the W.A.S. who thinks they’d like to try manipulating me into doing what they want - that he had no right to interfere with my private life - then or now. And then I’m going to make that phone call and see what this Spectrum outfit can offer. Maybe it’ll be a way out and a chance to move on...
The memory of the snide comment from the recently imprisoned leader of The Nebula insinuated itself into his mind. “You’ll spend your life running, Svenson, you’re too scared to stop and face the truth….”
He sighed. Maybe that’s true, but maybe there’s another woman somewhere who I’d stop running for. Dream on, Adam… where are you going to find anyone who’s Soraya’s equal, who’ll mean as much to you as she did, and who’ll never think of leaving. The best I can hope for is to enjoy the search, I guess. What did Suri tell me? I’ve had to start over before; I can do it again, if I have to… I know what she meant now – I know how hard it is to let go and believe that you can find someone to love again … He glanced towards Jillianne. I know it isn’t her…
Jillianne arrived, flushed and breathless. She was carrying a bottle of champagne and two glasses.
“You didn’t wait for me,” she pouted. “Are we going to my place?”
With a smile that was pure licentiousness, he replied, “Sweetheart, the night is warm, the moon is full, and there’s no one here but you and me…”
She looked around at the rough landscape and back to him with surprise. “You mean, out here?”
He took the bottle from her and filled both glasses, handing her one before pledging his towards her with a suggestive smile. “Why not? Wouldn’t it be… romantic?”
“I’d prefer to be comfortable…”
“I’ll make you forget everything but you and me…”
She simpered at him, and moved closer…
“Go on then…”
Ah, well, one more won’t make any difference, will it? I’ll start behaving myself, in the kind of way that’s certain to win Mom’s approbation, tomorrow. And besides, Jillie’s so keen it’d be downright un-neighbourly to disappoint her.
He put his arms around her, thinking that maybe a little of what she fancied, might be just what he needed to help him banish his poignant memories.
She sighed extravagantly as he bent his head to kiss her.
This background story was written in two parts, separated by almost 5 years. I wrote the story of Adam Svenson and Soraya Carmichael a long time ago, and have used it as the basis of ‘flashbacks’ in this story and others. The first part was written late last year as part of an aborted ‘birthday stories’ project and the conclusion as part of the process of trying to meld the facets into one narrative.
Because I have lived with the plot of this relationship for so many years, I found it difficult to edit it into something that made sense to a new reader. For her assistance and advice while I did that, I owe a debt of gratitude to Hazel Köhler – my long-suffering beta-reader – who is always willing to let me bewail my progress and sound out my often ill-defined and vague ideas against her excellent ear for a story and her technical expertise.
I try to keep my ‘background stories’ consistent, which sometimes causes me problems as I’ve boldly stated something I later want to contradict for the purpose of another story… I sort of did that with this one, but hopefully, not enough to jar with my previous pronouncements, while still making sense in this one. It cannot be said to be a ‘Spectrum’ story, as the organisation plays a very minor part in the narrative, but it does look forward to Adam’s role as Captain Blue and to his relationship with Symphony Angel.
The illustrations in the text are mine.
I hope you enjoyed reading it.
I will end by thanking Chris Bishop for permitting me the use of the Svenson family characters she devised, her marvellous website and the time and care she takes to provide us with such a wonderful resource.