Tender Deceit ~ EXCERPT

TenderDeceit-Rebrand(SMALL)CHAPTER 1

 

It was the phone call Leah had been dreading for years now. Somehow, at the back of her mind, she had always been expecting it—and yet still, she couldn’t quite stop her heart giving a little kick of shock when she heard the news.

“Something wrong?” Her flatmate, Aimee, stood in the living room doorway, holding two mugs.

“My father,” Leah said slowly, replacing the receiver in its cradle. “They rang from Singapore. He… he’s dead.”

“Oh.” Aimee put the mugs on the coffee table and looked at her uncertainly. “Leah, I’m so sorry.”

Leah shut her eyes briefly. She had always known that she would have to go back some day. “I’ve got to go to Singapore,” she said, plucking the edge of the sofa cushion restlessly. “Sort his stuff, arrange the funeral, see his lawyer…” Leah gave a laugh that sounded slightly high-pitched, even to her own ears. “Do lawyers have lawyers?”

“What happened?” asked Aimee. She hesitated. “Was he ill? You… you hardly ever mention him, but I remember once you said… something about his liver?”

Leah gave her a wry look. She knew that her flatmate was fishing. “Don’t beat about the bush, Aimee. You know he was a chronic alcoholic.” She sighed. “But it wasn’t that. He was hit by a car. Hit and run.”

“Oh, Leah, how awful!” Aimee went to her side. “Did they catch the driver? What was it, some kids out for a joyride or—”

Leah frowned. “No. They were a bit unclear about that. It sounded a bit odd… almost as if they thought it might have been deliberate or something. The police want to question me.”

“Deliberate?” Aimee raised her eyebrows. “Did they say that? That somebody had deliberately run your father down?”

Leah shook her head, not quite able to explain the sense of unease that had touched her in that phone call. “No, no. They didn’t say that exactly. I probably misunderstood them. That’s a crazy thought anyway. Why would anybody want to kill my father? I’m sure I got the wrong end of the stick. It’ll all become clear once I get there.”

She stood up briskly, ignoring the steaming mug of coffee on the table in front of her. “I’d better pack. If I can get a flight this afternoon, I’ll be there by tomorrow and I might be able to get back before next weekend, which means I won’t have to take so much time off wor—”

“Leah.” Aimee put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her babbling. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, fine, why?” Leah shrugged off Aimee’s hand and headed towards her bedroom.

“It’s just…” Aimee followed, shaking her head. “You don’t seem too upset. I know you and your father weren’t close and there were issues, but—”

“Aimee!” Leah gave a laugh, half in humour, half in exasperation. “I’m not one of your blog columns, okay?”

Aimee had given up her job in Human Resources when her popular blog on handling relationships, TouchyFeely.com, had exploded earlier this year, turning her into something of a celebrity blogger. Now, with sponsorships and endorsements and half a million Twitter followers, she was the darling of the media. Whether it was boyfriend problems, father-son issues, or colleague tensions, everybody wanted the TouchyFeely Guru’s expert opinion. Everybody, that is, except Leah.

Not that it stopped Aimee trying. If it hadn’t been for their long-standing friendship and the fact that she knew Aimee meant well, Leah would have lost her temper long ago. Even now Aimee was following her into the bedroom and saying earnestly, “But still, to have your father suddenly die like that and never get the chance to say goodbye—”
Leah turned and looked at her. “I said goodbye to my father long ago.”

Aimee opened her mouth as if to say something else, saw the look on Leah’s face, and shut it again. She sat down primly on the bed to watch Leah pack. Leah wasn’t fooled. Aimee had the persistence of a rat terrier. Years of living together should have taught Aimee that when it came to the subject of her father, Leah was a closed book, but she knew her flatmate would try again. Especially now that his death had given her the perfect excuse to probe the subject.

Aimee looked out the bedroom window where the sky already showed an ominous grey, despite the fact that it was only ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, and said casually, “At least you’re getting away from the horrible English winter. Singapore is hot all year round, isn’t it?”

“And humid,” Leah said, glad to move into more neutral territory. “I know that won’t have changed.”

“Yeah, you used to live there, didn’t you?” Aimee leaned forwards. “’Till your teens, right? How come your father never came back here with you to live? I would have thought that with it being just the two of you, he would have—”

“Do you think I need to take anything really formal?” Leah said quickly, nodding at her open wardrobe.

Aimee waved her hand dismissively. “Take a little black dress. Can’t go wrong with that. But seriously, Leah, isn’t it going to be weird going back after all this time? Do you have any friends there still?” She laughed. “Any high school sweethearts you might bump into again?”

Leah hesitated for a fraction of a heartbeat. “No.”

But Aimee was too sharp. Her eyes widened. “Oh my God, there is someone!” she squealed and grabbed Leah’s arm. “Quick! Tell me! Who is he?”

At any other time, Leah would have rolled her eyes and ignored her. Aimee’s constant attempts to orchestrate her love-life had become something of a joke. But now Leah jumped at the chance to steer the conversation away from her father.
She shrugged and said lightly, “Oh, it was no big deal. Just some boy at school.”

“And?” Aimee prompted. “Come on! What happened?”

“Nothing!” Leah could feel a blush creeping up her neck and was furious with herself. “Nothing happened, okay? My father found out about us and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane, heading for boarding school here in the U.K.” She tried another shrug. “Anyway, I was fourteen—it was just a schoolgirl crush.”

“Was he your first?” Aimee asked breathlessly.

“My… first?” Leah stared at her.

Aimee hugged her arms around herself. “You know, the first boy you ever loved. The first boy you ever kissed.”

“I…” Leah faltered.

“He was! I can tell from your face.” Aimee smiled smugly. “I was thinking of blogging about this next week. Forget The One, this is about The First. Oh, I don’t just mean sex. I mean, the first boy you lost your heart to. The What-Might-Have-Been. Every woman has one, you know, and you never forget him.”

Leah turned away and pretended to sort through some underwear in a drawer, so that Aimee couldn’t see her face—because her flatmate would have pounced. She was right. Leah had never forgotten him. No words could describe the wrenching pain that had accompanied the end of what should have been “just” a schoolgirl crush… and Leah was embarrassed by the way her heart still gave a strange little twist whenever she thought of him.

It wasn’t that she had been short on male attention once she’d finished at the girls’ boarding school and started university. Oh no, there had been offers aplenty, some of which she had accepted. And if none of her dates had made her heart race in the same way, she had put it down to unrealistic expectations and silly girlish romanticism.

After all, that sort of nauseating excitement at the thought of seeing him, the crazy stomach butterflies, the way your day brightened if your eyes met across a classroom… That sort of thing only happened in a teenage crush, right? Of course you felt things more strongly the first time you fell in love, but that didn’t really mean anything. So even though there was a corner of her heart which still ached faintly, like a phantom pain that wouldn’t go away, Leah ignored it. It would scab over, eventually, and be forgotten, just like an old wound.

A face flashed through her memory—the intensity in his green eyes and the warmth of his hands on hers, as they stood near the school gates that last time…

Leah clamped down on the memory, realising uncomfortably that the scab was fragile, easily picked apart to reveal a wound that was still raw and fresh underneath.

“What was his name?”

The soft question stole into Leah’s thoughts and she answered before she realised what she was doing. “Toran. Toran James.”

“Toran?” Aimee screwed up her face.

“It’s a Gaelic name,” Leah explained. “His family were Scottish.”

“So did you keep in touch? Do you know what he’s doing now?”

“No,” Leah said shortly, turning away, thinking bitterly of the messages she had sent him from boarding school. The long, passionate accounts which had dwindled gradually into uncertain notes and then finally into a hurt silence as she had never received a reply. Obviously, it had meant nothing to Toran, the promises they had made to each other that last day.

Leah felt the familiar gnaw of pain, even now, so many years later, and she pushed the feeling away savagely.

“You’ve never been curious?” Aimee gestured to Leah’s laptop lying on the bed, open to her Facebook page. “Haven’t you looked him up on Facebook?”

“No!” Leah said more sharply than she intended. She had finally been dragged kicking and screaming onto Facebook a few months earlier and had opened an account under peer pressure. After duly adding various colleagues and acquaintances as “friends”, Leah had done the expected thing of looking up old schoolmates. It had been a fairly abortive experience—she had lost touch with so many of her old friends in Singapore that it had seemed pointless to look them up.

Also, Leah admitted to herself, she had been reluctant to stir up memories of her old life. Being uprooted at fourteen and sent alone to a foreign boarding school had been a harrowing experience. She had coped by burying the past and looking only to the future. She didn’t intend to change that now.

Still, Leah reminded herself, she was glad of Facebook for one reason. She had gotten back in touch with Julia Tan, her childhood best friend. Looking over at Aimee’s face, Leah realised that she might have been too brusque with her flatmate.
Softening her tone, she gave Aimee a smile and said with a sigh, “Oh, hell, I’m going to have to miss that exhibition this week. And the party this Friday as well, probably… And if I’m not back by next weekend, I’m going to have to email the group about finding someone else to organise the meet-up—”

“Why not just post it on Facebook?” suggested Aimee. “You know they all check their news feeds obsessively—that way everyone will know you’re going to Singapore. Easy.” She pulled the laptop towards her. “Here, I’ll do it for you.”

She lapsed into silence as she began to type and Leah turned back to her wardrobe with an inward sigh, relieved that Aimee seemed to have been distracted from the subject of Toran at last. By the time Leah snapped the locks shut on her suitcase, Aimee was sitting back from the laptop, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

“I found him—your Toran,” she said, sliding the laptop across the bed towards Leah.

Leah froze. “You what?”

“I searched for him and found him. Toran James. Singapore. Used to go to Marina Bay International School. Pretty easy. It’s not a common name.” Her smile deepened. “I sent him a friend request from you.”

“Aimee!”

She raised her chin defensively. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a friend request. Besides, it might be nice to get back in touch with him. You’re going all that way already—you should grab the opportunity.”

“Aimee, how could you?” Leah felt a cocktail of panic and horror swirling in her stomach.

“Are you scared of meeting him again?” Aimee gave Leah a coy look. “I thought you said it was nothing, just a schoolgirl crush. Aw, come on, Leah, you’ve got to stop being so closed off. I’m telling you, it’s bad for you. I think—”

“STOP. Just. Stop.” Leah closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Aimee meant well, Leah told herself, she meant well. She opened her eyes to find her flatmate looking slightly sheepish.

“Leah, I’m sorry. I really thought…” Aimee hesitated. “Um… anyway, I also did a bit of research for you. I found a seat on a Singapore Airlines flight that leaves this afternoon. If you leave for the airport in half an hour, you can still make it.”

Leah knew Aimee was trying to offer an olive branch. She gritted her teeth and forced her lips into a smile. “Thanks. That’s great. I’ll have to call a taxi—”

“Oh, I’ll do that,” Aimee said, jumping up from the bed, obviously anxious to make amends in any way she could.

She went to make the call outside and Leah sank down on the bed, grateful to have peace and solitude at last. She booked her flight, then her eyes strayed back to the Facebook page, with her latest status update announcing her travel plans. Her heart lurched at the thought of seeing Toran again. Aimee was right—it was just a friend request. No big deal, she reminded herself. He might never respond anyway. If he never bothered to reply to her messages before, what made her think he would take any notice of an online invite twelve years later?

Quickly, Leah tidied her room, then changed into a pair of old jeans and a fine cashmere top over a white T-shirt for travelling. A soft, pink pashmina draped around her neck and a pair of ballet pumps completed her outfit. Gathering passport, wallet, lip balm, and a few other essentials, she tossed them into her handbag, then went back to her laptop to shut it down.

Two red notification icons on the Facebook page jumped out at her. A friendship request accepted. And a private message. Her fingers slid across the keyboard. Click. She stared at the message on the screen.

I didn’t think you’d ever come back. I’ll be at the Shanghai Noir in Clarke Quay at 8pm tomorrow night—perhaps you’ll join me for a drink? Toran.

Leah dropped onto the bed. Outside, she heard the bell ring and then Aimee’s voice calling her. The taxi was there. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard uncertainly. Aimee called her again. Leah took a deep breath and typed rapidly.

I’ll be there.

The crowds in the terminal at Heathrow Airport should have told Leah that something was wrong. She got to her check-in desk to find that heavy fog had delayed several flights, including hers. She should have suspected this in the taxi coming to the airport, but she had been too wrapped up in her own thoughts to pay much attention to the blanket of grey outside the taxi windows.

“We’re sorry for the inconvenience.” The girl behind the desk smiled at her. “But you’ve been given complimentary entry to our SilverKris Lounge where you can wait until your flight is called.”

Fifteen minutes later, another smiling girl showed Leah into a spacious lounge with dark panelled walls and plush carpet. Soft lighting pooled around the clusters of leather suites and armchairs scattered around the room.

“Here’s some reading material,” the girl said as she held up a stack of magazines.

Leah nodded absently, only half listening, as she took the magazines from the girl and sank into an armchair. Her attention was riveted to a man who had just entered the lounge behind her. She had seen him before. In fact, she had seen him several times as she’d walked slowly through the terminal on her way to the lounge. He had been loitering on the corner when she’d stopped to buy a bottle of water, lingering a few steps behind her when she’d paused to admire a dress in a shop window, and studiously looking at his watch when she’d turned to make a detour to the restrooms.

At first, she had just been mildly annoyed, expecting it to be nothing more than the usual male pursuit of a young, attractive woman on her own, and Leah had had an icy brush-off ready on her tongue for when he approached her with his chat-up line. But when he had remained a careful, but consistent, distance behind her, the irritation had turned into a chill of fear.

When she lost sight of him on the final walk to the lounge, Leah had almost managed to convince herself that it was all the product of her over-active imagination. But now, as she saw him standing there, his eyes carefully avoiding hers, she knew for certain.

Who was this man? And why was he following her?

***

CHAPTER 2

 

Leah opened the magazine in front of her and lifted it up to her face, but her eyes followed the man across the room. Dark brown hair, greying slightly, a navy suit and simple tie, he looked like any other nondescript businessman. He took a seat in a group of armchairs on the other side of the flower arrangement, positioning his body so that he was surreptitiously facing her.

Leah raised the magazine slightly higher, her mind racing. Maybe she was just being paranoid, she told herself desperately. It could be a genuine coincidence that he happened to follow the same route to the lounge. Besides, if he wasn’t after a date, why would he be following her? It was crazy to think that there could be a sinister motive—that kind of stuff only happened in movies. Why would anybody follow you? she asked herself derisively.

Why would anybody kill your father? The question came unbidden to her mind.

Leah glanced at him again. He was fiddling with his briefcase, withdrawing a sheaf of papers from the inside. He looked up and their eyes met.

Leah dropped her gaze hurriedly to the magazine in her hands. It was an Asian lifestyle magazine and she had opened it at random to a feature on kris daggers. She stared unseeing for a moment at the page in front of her, then the photos swam into focus. Beautiful close-ups of gleaming silver blades and intricately-carved dagger hilts, some in polished wood, some in smooth ivory, and one in sumptuous antique gold, inlaid with rubies. The images were so stunning that for a moment, they distracted her from the man across the room. Leah’s eyes drifted down to the words at the bottom of the page:

The kris dagger is a traditional Malay weapon used in the 14th century. It was treated with the utmost respect and often became a family heirloom. Legend has it that the kris possessed many qualities, the greatest of which was its ability to anticipate danger and protect its owner…

Danger. Thoughts of the man across the room came rushing back. Carefully, Leah raised her eyes and peeked over the top of the magazine.

He was gone.

Leah sat up in surprise, letting the magazine fall to her lap. She turned her head, looking around the lounge, frowning. She couldn’t see him anywhere. She swung her gaze back to the armchair he had been sitting in. It looked pristine, its cushioned seat plump and free of any indentations. She took a sharp breath, feeling like she was going out of her mind.

But she knew she hadn’t imagined him.

A metallic voice coming through the speakers interrupted her thoughts. Her flight was ready. As Leah made her way to the gate and boarded the plane, she kept scanning the crowd of people around her, looking for the man in the navy suit. Even as she settled into her aisle seat, she craned her neck behind her, watching the people boarding the plane after her.

“Newspaper?” A beautiful Asian girl stood smiling next to Leah’s seat, holding out an armful of newspapers. She wore a richly patterned sarong kebaya which moulded itself to her slim body. A Singapore Girl—the airline’s iconic flight stewardess. They were even more stunning in real life than in the advertisements.

“Uh… yes, thank you.” Leah grabbed the top paper from the pile and continued looking behind her.

It wasn’t until the plane had lifted into the sky that she was able to sit back and relax a bit, finally convinced that the man had not followed her onto the plane. Maybe he hadn’t been following her at all. Feeling slightly foolish, Leah sighed and leaned back, spreading the newspaper on her lap. It was the Straits Times, Singapore’s national broadsheet, and she scanned the front page with interest, wondering how much the country she had once lived in had changed.

The front page was dominated by the story of a murdered woman’s body which had been found in the Singapore River, followed by an article about a big corporate merger, a feature on Singapore’s athletes at the Asian Games, a piece about the U.S. unemployment rate, and a story about a scandal involving a K-pop singer and a Singapore businessman. Leah flipped through the rest of the paper half-heartedly. Nothing seemed familiar, nothing to link her to a country she had once called home.

She sighed again and leaned back, watching as the Singapore Girl started moving gracefully down the aisle with a tray of drinks. Perhaps it was silly of her to think she would feel anything. After all, twelve years is a long time and she had been just a girl when she left. She was a woman now. People changed.

Would Toran have changed?

Leah pulled her thoughts away from him and found them drifting to her father instead. Her father, who had given her every material comfort—a generous allowance, expensive gifts, luxury holidays—and yet who had remained a cold, distant stranger all her life. Her father, who was now dead. She searched her feelings, looking for the grief, but found instead only a hollow numbness. There was nothing there except the faint memory of a dark, brooding man sitting alone, with only a glass of whiskey for company.

It was the Singapore Girl coming around with the food trolley that finally roused Leah from her thoughts. She couldn’t quite stop herself glancing around the cabin again as she sat up to receive her food tray. But she saw nobody she recognised and the rest of the flight passed uneventfully.

She had been wrong, after all, about her lack of feeling for Singapore. As Leah stepped out of Changi Airport, the past suddenly rushed forwards and slapped her full across the face, leaving her raw and tingling, like the way you felt when you first plunged into a hot bath. And by the time she had walked to the taxi rank, she almost felt like she was in a hot bath, literally. She may have remembered how humid Singapore was, but she had forgotten just what that humidity could feel like—breathing hotly in your face, sliding in drops of perspiration down your back. Coming after London’s freezing, grey fog, it was a shock to the system.

Leah sank gratefully at last into an air-conditioned taxi, her T-shirt damp and her hair plastered to her forehead. The driver’s cheerful Singlish chatter took her further into the world of her childhood. By the time they drove into downtown Singapore, Leah was fighting a tide of memories that threatened to drown her.

The streets of the city flashed by past her window and she stared out, fascinated. In many ways, Singapore hadn’t changed much at all. It was still a bustling metropolis, gleaming with silver skyscrapers and heaving with sprawling shopping malls, where locals and tourists alike wandered through a jungle of designer boutiques. Yes, there were many more shopping centres and hotels now and the city skyline showed unfamiliar new shapes—a gigantic wheel, a durian-shaped dome, and a strange building which looked like a cruise ship stranded atop three towers—but the throbbing pulse of the city remained unchanged.

Her head was swimming by the time Leah finally left her hotel an hour later to meet Toran. There had barely been time to unpack, never mind tackle any jet lag, but she was glad. She didn’t want too much time to think. Or back out, she admitted to herself. Back in London, when she had first learned about the fog, there had been a brief, cowardly moment when she had hoped her flight might be so delayed that she would arrive in Singapore too late to meet Toran. Now, she still wasn’t sure if that might not have been the best thing.

The taxi dropped her at Clarke Quay and Leah got out, looking around her. It was barely after six o’clock, but the riverfront precinct was already surging with crowds of chattering, laughing, jostling people. She walked slowly between the blocks of converted warehouses, looking up at the canopy lit by coloured lights, drinking in the unfamiliar names of new nightclubs and restaurants. It seemed from the number of people spilling out of hip bars and trendy eateries on every corner that, while the names and décor and signs may have changed, Clarke Quay’s reputation as the party-central of Singapore had remained uncontested.

And its reputation as a culinary heaven too, Leah thought wryly, as she passed an Asian fusion eatery with elegant tables set up overlooking the river. A waitress darted past her, brandishing a plate heaped with steaming chilli crab, one of Singapore’s national dishes. Leah’s stomach growled sharply as the aroma of the sweet and spicy sauce and fragrant coriander wafted past, reminding her that she had barely eaten in the last twelve hours. She had picked at her food on the plane and now she was regretting it. Perhaps the place Toran had chosen would serve food as well, she thought hopefully.

Toran.

At the thought of him, Leah’s appetite deserted her and she hurried on, annoyed at her own reaction. On the way over here, she had convinced herself that her tumult of feelings was a natural result of what had happened. After all, they had been wrenched apart and then she had never heard from him again, never got the chance to find out if those shy, schoolgirl emotions would have grown into something more. It was like reading an engrossing book or watching an exciting movie which was abruptly cut off at the middle so that you never found out how it ended. Of course, it had remained in her mind.

Closure, she told herself. She had never had closure. But she was sure that once she saw Toran again, all these feelings would disappear, and she was determined to get the ordeal over with now, as quickly as possible.

Leah reached the end of the boulevard and found herself facing the pedestrianised bridge which arched across the river to connect with the opposite bank. She climbed the steps up onto the bridge and went to the parapet at the side. Stretching out in front of her, the Singapore River looked like a shimmering, black ribbon, reflecting the rainbow of lights from the moored Chinese junks and restored warehouse buildings alongside the water. A breeze stirred her hair, offering some relief from the relentless humidity. Then a sign back along the bank caught her eye. Leah took a deep breath and retraced her steps back down the bridge, turning purposefully to the right, where the softly lit sign she had seen from the bridge advertised the entrance to the Shanghai Noir.

It was dim in the bar and Leah paused uncertainly, just inside the entrance, letting her eyes adjust. A tall Indian woman in a slinky sheath dress approached her.

“Yes?” Her nostrils flared disapprovingly as she gave Leah a head-to-toe scrutiny.

Leah had worn the little black dress that Aimee had recommended, accessorised only by a simple silver bangle on her wrist, and now she wondered if she should have made more effort. Like most Asian countries, Singapore believed in flaunting status through designer labels and expensive brand accessories. Leah gave a wry smile. Ostentatious badges of wealth were not her style, but they certainly got you better service sometimes.

“Do you have a reservation?” the Indian woman asked coldly.

“No, do I need one?” Leah retorted. “I’m meeting a friend for a drink. I suppose he would have reserved a table if it was necessary. In fact,” she looked over the woman’s shoulder, “I can see him now.” And Leah stepped pointedly around her and walked into the bar, her head high.

It was a lie, of course. She had no idea what Toran would look like now, no idea if she would even recognise him. She stood at a loss in the centre of the lounge, scanning the tables around her. Her eyes skimmed over the men, hoping desperately for some flicker of recognition. Already Leah could see the Indian woman watching her and frowning. In a minute, she would realise that Leah had been bluffing.

Then, just as Leah thought she would have to admit defeat, she saw him. She didn’t know how, but somehow she knew it was him. She headed for the table tucked into the far corner, behind a potted fan palm that formed a natural screen. He looked up as she approached and she stopped short, stunned by the intensity of his green eyes.

“Leah.”

He made as if to rise and suddenly Leah panicked. Should I shake hands? Kiss him? Hug him? Quickly, she sat down at the table and waved him back down with her hand.

“Hello, Toran.”

It was hopelessly inadequate, a stupid inane greeting after all these years, but Leah didn’t know what else to say to the stranger sitting in front of her. Except for those brilliant green eyes, there was little left of the boy she used to know. The jaw had widened and hardened, roughened by a faint shadow of stubble, and the warm smile had been replaced by the steely line of a mouth that was at once forbidding and sensual. Dark, unruly hair fell over his brow and didn’t quite hide a thin scar along his left temple which Leah was sure had not been there before. His skin was more tanned than she remembered and that lean, boyish frame had filled out into broad shoulders and a hard, muscular physique that spoke more of outdoor pursuits than time in a gym. More than that, though, was the feeling of latent power and cool authority. Leah caught her breath. Toran James had grown up into a dangerously attractive man.

There was a glass in front of him filled with a pale amber liquid; and next to it, a cigar, its wreath of smoke curling lazily up to the ceiling.

Her eyes met his in accusation. “You said you would never smoke.”

“You said you would never cut your hair.”

Leah touched her head self-consciously before she could stop herself. She wondered if he was assessing her too and searching for the girl he used to know. Her hair fell in waves just past her shoulder now and she had learnt the art of eyeliner to make the most of her deep blue eyes. She wasn’t a gym bunny either, but walking everywhere in London had kept her trim. Leah saw his gaze flick appreciatively over her, lingering on her bare legs exposed by the short hem of her black dress, and she felt her pulse quicken.

“I guess people change.” Leah attempted a smile. “It’s been over twelve years, you know.”

“I know.” He made a gesture with his hands. “I’m sorry to hear about your father, Leah.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

Silence settled over them. Leah found herself unable to look at him and was furious to realise that her heart was pounding. What was wrong with her? Anyone would think that she was still fourteen! She had thought that meeting Toran again would help to lay the ghosts of her schoolgirl infatuation to rest. Instead, Leah was dismayed to discover that her feelings for him seemed very much alive, her awareness of him even more heightened than when they were teenagers. Not that he seemed to share her turmoil, she thought, glancing at him from beneath her eyelashes. His handsome face was inscrutable, the green eyes cool and remote.

What was she doing here, making polite conversation with this grim stranger with the familiar eyes? It was a mistake to come, Leah thought frantically.

The Indian woman came over with a tight-lipped smile and a menu. Leah ordered the house special, a coconut mojito, while Toran ordered another whiskey. When the drinks arrived, he settled back in his chair and gave her a small smile. It was just a glimmer, but it was enough to remind her of the boy she used to know, and Leah felt her shoulders relax slightly.

“So you work in London now?” He raised an eyebrow. “Tell me about your job…”

He was a good listener, as he always had been, and Leah found herself relaxing even more as she told him about her work, her friends, her life back in the U.K… Before she knew it, half an hour had passed and she realised that she had not learnt anything about him.

“What about you?” Leah asked. “What’s—”

A shrill beeping made her jump. He took a mobile phone out of his pocket and glanced at the screen, his face tightening.

He stood up with an apologetic smile. “I’ll be right back.”

Leah looked idly around the lounge as she waited for him to return, not quite sure of the feelings churning inside her. Why did anyone look up their childhood sweetheart? To reconnect? Rediscover? Reignite what had once been…?

“I’m really sorry—something’s come up and I have to go.” Toran stood by the table, those eyes once again belonging to a stranger.

Leah stood up quickly and found that he towered over her. He had always been tall, but now he was well over six feet. She stared at the front of his shirt, where the crisp cotton parted to reveal a glimpse of tanned chest. He was standing very close. She found herself unable to meet his eyes. “Um… Sure, yes, of course…”

“I’ll be in touch.”

Leah felt something brush her hand—she could almost have imagined it—and then he was gone. Slowly, she made her way back to her hotel, her head dizzy with thoughts she didn’t really want to acknowledge. Alone in her room, she grabbed the phone on an impulse and dialled a number.

“Hello?” Julia’s voice hadn’t changed, despite the years.

“Hi, Julia.”

“Oh my God, Leah? Is that really you?” She laughed. “I was so excited when I read on Facebook that you were coming back. When did you arrive? Where are you staying? Hey, if you’re not doing anything tonight—”

“I arrived earlier today. Listen, Julia,” Leah said breathlessly. “I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve got to tell somebody—somebody who understands. I saw Toran again and he—”

“What?” Her voice was sharp. “Toran James? When? Where?”

“Tonight.” Leah was taken aback by her tone. “I just got back, in fact. I went to meet him for drinks. It was all a bit last-minute; I got this message and I couldn’t believe it… But then I thought, hell, why not, and besides…” She trailed off as she realised that Julia wasn’t listening.

“Tonight? You saw Toran tonight? Leah, are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. I mean, he looks different—you know, all grown up—but his eyes—”

“Wait, Leah,” she cut in urgently. “That’s not possible.”

“What do you mean?”

“You couldn’t have met Toran tonight.”

“Why not?”

“Because he was killed in an accident yesterday.”

***

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