Authors: H.Y. Hanna
First Love Series ~ Book 1
© 2014 by H.Y. Hanna
All rights reserved.
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To my wonderful husband, who trumps all romantic heroes.
This book follows British English conventions in spelling and usage.
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
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.
! 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 you
r 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, he
r 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.”
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.
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.