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       Embrace, p.1

           Jessica Shirvington


  338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH

  Orchard Books Australia

  Level 17/207 Kent Street, Sydney, NSW 2000

  First published in Australia and New Zealand in 2010 by Hachette Australia

  First published in the UK in 2011 by Orchard Books

  This ebook edition published in 2011

  ISBN 978 1 408 31644 3

  Text © Jessica Shirvington 2010

  The right of Jessica Shirvington to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

  Orchard Books is a division of Hachette Children’s Books,

  an Hachette UK company.

  for Matt, who showed me that

  true love is possible (even at 17),

  and our girls, Sienna and Winter,

  who shine new light on the

  world and make every day

  better than the last.


  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood,

  but against principalities, against powers, against

  the rulers of the darkness of this world, against

  spiritual wickedness in high places.

  Ephesians 6:12


  ‘Outside, among your fellows, among strangers, you must preserve appearances, a hundred things you cannot do; but inside, the terrible freedom!’

  Ralph Waldo Emerson

  Birthdays aren’t my thing.

  It’s hard to get too excited about the day that marks the anniversary of your mother’s death. It’s not that I blame myself for her not being here. No one could have known she wouldn’t survive childbirth. It’s not that I miss her either. I mean, I never knew her in the first place. But it is the one day each year that at some point I’ll be forced to ask myself, was it worth it? Was my life worth taking hers?

  I stared out the bus window, avoiding. Steph was blabbering on, something about the perfect dress, completely absorbed in what she was saying. She was relentless when it came to the science of shopping. I could feel her watching me, disappointed with my cheer level. Buildings flashed past through the frame of the smudged glass and I couldn’t help but wish my seventeenth birthday tomorrow would slide by in the same hazy blur.

  ‘Violet Eden!’ Steph said sternly, sucking me out of my trance. ‘We have your dad’s Amex, a green light and no specified limit.’ Her mock rebuke morphed into a devious grin. ‘What more could a girl want as a birthday present?’

  Technically, it was my Amex. My name, my signature. It just happened to be connected to Dad’s account. A by-product of being the only person at home who actually bothered to pay any bills.

  I knew Steph wouldn’t understand if I told her I wasn’t in the mood, so I lied. ‘I can’t go shopping today. I…um…I have a training session.’

  She raised her eyebrows at me. For a moment I thought she was going to pull me up on my fake alibi. But then she segued onto a topic we seemed to be discussing more and more often of late.

  ‘With Lincoln?’

  I shrugged, trying not to let on how much just the mention of Lincoln affected me. Although the training part wasn’t true, I did have plans to see him later on and was already doing my best not to keep a minute-by-minute countdown.

  Steph rolled her eyes. ‘Honestly, one of these days I’m gonna tell him you’d prefer to get all hot and sweaty with him in a different kind of way!’ She threw me her bitchy smile – something she usually reserves for other people.

  I sat back and let her vent. It was easier that way. Steph didn’t get it and I couldn’t blame her – I’d never told her all of the reasons why training was so important to me. Some things are just too hard to talk about.

  ‘You do realise you’re turning into some kind of sports geek, don’t you? And don’t pretend you actually like them all. I know for a fact that you hate long-distance running.’ Steph couldn’t understand how anyone would rather go rock climbing or boxing in place of shopping.

  ‘I get a kick out of training with him,’ I said, hoping to put an end to the conversation, even though she wasn’t completely off-base about the running. If I didn’t have Lincoln’s backside to stare at the whole time, motivation would be a lot harder to come by.

  I busied myself by rummaging through my backpack, which was jammed with all the books they force you to take home on the last day of term. Steph didn’t seem put off.

  ‘It’s like he’s training you for battle or something.’ Her eyes lit up. ‘Hey, maybe he has some underground fight club and he’s grooming you!’

  ‘That’s it, Steph. Definitely.’

  I didn’t want to be talking about this. Didn’t want to have to admit the round-the-clock desire I had to be with Lincoln. It was like something deep within me found comfort in his presence. Crushing with the best of ’em, Vi!

  Too bad it was a lost cause. It had been that way ever since the moment I’d first met him two years ago. He was a late entry into a self-defence class I’d signed up for. When he was partnered with me, what I thought was going to be another mediocre attempt on my part to get fit and strong became so much more.

  I never found out why Lincoln had taken the class. He clearly knew more than the instructor, moving through the exercises with the kind of ease and grace that made it clear he was in another league. After the first couple of weeks, when I was finally able to string more than two words together around him, I asked him why he was there. He shrugged it off, saying it was always good to do a refresher class.

  By the end of the three-month course, I was learning more from him than the instructor and he offered to give me some kick-boxing lessons. Now I get the best of both worlds. I get stronger every day – our list of activities has expanded to include rock climbing, running, even an archery course – and I get to hang out with Lincoln. It’s perfect…almost.

  ‘Well, I guess that means we’re going shopping tomorrow then.’ Steph pouted but couldn’t keep it up. She could never stay mad for long.

  Unfortunately, she was right. I knew Dad had given her strict instructions, due to my lack of spirit and his lack of know-how, to make sure I had a new dress for my birthday dinner tomorrow night. The clock was ticking – shopping was inevitable.

  ‘I can’t wait,’ I said, flashing her a well-practised fake smile from my birthday repertoire.

  The bell rang as a group of kids started pressing the stop button. As the bus slowed, Steph stood up from our seat, three rows from the back. She was convinced only the wannabes sat right at the back, the geeks at the front and the goths/weirdos right behind them. That left about three rows we could work with, the ones that apparently put us in the not-trying-to-but-can’t-help-being-cool section. The ironic thing was – if judged purely on academic achievements – Steph was the biggest geek I knew. Of course, she never publicised the fact that she was some kind of borderline genius.

  She wrapped her narrow frame around the metal pole near the doors, donned her favourite pair of D&G sunnies and blew me a kiss. I laughed. Luckily for me, Steph wasn’t only a labels girl. For all the designer kit she paraded around in, she was surprisingly balanced. The fact that she was from a seriously monied-up family and was usually wearing something that cost more than my entire wardrobe didn’t adversely affect our friendship. I didn’t overly care for material possessions and she didn’t overly care that I didn’t.

  ‘Do me a favour?’ she said, making her way out the door, unfazed by the logjam of kids sardined behind her. ‘While you’re drooling over Mr Fantastic, make sure you jab him in the gut a few times for
taking up all your free time and depriving me of my BFF.’

  ‘Sure thing,’ I said, blowing her a kiss back and ignoring the twinge of guilt I felt about lying to my best friend.


  ‘I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’

  Genesis 9:13

  Instead of going home to an empty apartment, I found myself walking towards Dad’s offices. I wasn’t sure why. On my way up to the fourth floor my phone beeped with a text message from Lincoln.

  Running a bit late. Meet at my place around 7?

  Smiling at the phone, my fingers fumbled over the keypad quickly.

  Yep – see you there!

  Then I deleted the exclamation mark and counted to thirty before I allowed myself to press send.

  It was bittersweet, my relationship with Lincoln. Like always, as soon as the elation of hearing from him subsided, the reality of our ‘friendship’ hit home. It would be nice if he was offering a date, but he was really only granting me entry to his warehouse abode – there was a gigantic wall there just begging to be painted and Lincoln had finally agreed to relinquish it to me. The most I could hope for in between coats of primer was a meal. Though I’d tried to reassure Lincoln that coffee and two-minute noodles are a well-balanced diet of dairy and carbohydrates, he remained unconvinced. Since Dad was never around at dinnertime, Lincoln had recently started inviting me back to his place for dinner before dropping me home. I had to admit, even though it wasn’t romantic – at all , we mostly just went over training exercises – it was nice to have someone to talk to instead of eating alone.

  Dad’s company took up the entire fourth floor. When the lift doors opened, I spotted the familiar stainless-steel ‘Eden Architects’ sign that had greeted me for the past eight years.

  ‘Hi, Caroline,’ I said, walking up to the reception area. ‘Is he in?’

  Dad’s receptionist smiled at me and raised her eyebrows. ‘Where else would he be?’

  I found Dad in his office, cemented behind his drawing desk, reams of paper unravelled in front of him. It was an image synonymous with my dad and one that I’d had to accept a long time ago. I used to fight it – or rather, fight for his attention – but the truth was, the minute I had his full attention I always felt suffocated by it anyway.

  He was completely absorbed in whatever he was doing and by the look of him he’d been there a while. Tie gone, sleeves rolled, ruler in one hand, pencil hanging loosely from his mouth. I was willing to bet when he stepped away from the desk, he’d reveal shoeless feet.

  I made it into the middle of his office without him even noticing.

  ‘Hey, Dad,’ I said with a wave.

  He looked up and smiled, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair as if it could somehow release him from a world of lines, angles and light reflections. He pushed his pencil behind his ear and emerged from behind his desk. Socks only.

  ‘Hi, sweetheart.’ He cleared his throat. ‘This is a nice surprise. Ah… How was your last day of term?’

  I hated that I could hear it, but there it was, same as always. The voice that said, I’m glad you’re here, but I’m really in the middle of something I don’t want to be distracted from.

  I swallowed and pushed through it. It was all I could do. I knew if he knew I could hear it, he’d be mortified.

  ‘Great!’ I said, beaming with my news. ‘I got into the Fenton art course. It starts in six months.’ It had been the main motivator for going to school today. The last day of term is usually a blow-off – aka freebie day. Dad never enforced attendance on the last day. Well… Dad never enforced anything. But I had been waiting for months to find out if I got a place, and seeing my name on the shortlist of two had made the day well worthwhile.

  He gave me his genuine Dad-of-pride smile. ‘Of course you did! There was never any doubt. You take after your mum.’ His voice broke a little at the end. She’d been an artist too. He was rarely the one to bring her up. Like me, he preferred to leave painful things buried. It was easier that way…and harder. But the fact was, nothing was going to fix him. Her death had broken him completely.

  ‘Thanks, Dad,’ I said, eager for a change of subject.

  He straightened abruptly and came towards me then, reconsidering, went back to his desk and sat behind it, gripping the sides as if to bolt himself down. Dad was finally losing it.

  ‘I know it’s technically not your birthday until tomorrow, but I’d like to give you something now.’ He clicked his jaw from side to side, something he does when he has a deadline approaching or a big proposal going on. Then he took a deep breath and put his hand down on the desk, decisively. Nudging his wrist was the one personal item Dad keeps in his office – a sculpture of a white door with red graffiti over the front of it saying, No nannies allowed! It was the first and only artwork we had ever done together.

  By the time I turned thirteen, Dad had caused seven nannies to quit by not getting home on time, forgetting to pay them regularly and expecting them to work weekends. I had dispatched eleven. What can I say – they weren’t up to the job. On the day nanny number nineteen threw a hissy fit and stormed out, Dad and I pulled out some clay and decided, no more. From then on, it’s been just us. Or rather, just me.

  ‘Dad, I don’t want any more gifts,’ I whinged. Dinner and the soon-to-be-bought dress were already more than I wanted. Tomorrow was the only day of the year I didn’t want presents.

  ‘It’s not from me,’ he said quietly, looking away from me. He opened the bottom drawer in his desk. The only one that required a key. His movements were slow, almost pained. He lifted a small wooden box from the drawer and gently placed it on his desk. His hand trembled over the intricate carvings that decorated the lid.

  My eyes began to sting and I had to blink quickly. Dad rarely allowed his emotions this kind of exposure. He raised his hand and, as it hovered in the air above the box, he made a fist and closed his eyes. It looked as if he were praying – something I knew he didn’t do. I had only ever seen one thing make him look like that.

  Finally he looked up at me with a small smile. I blinked again.

  ‘I was given instructions. I’ve waited seventeen years to give this to you. It’s from Evelyn… It’s from your mum.’

  My mouth gaped involuntarily. ‘But…how?’

  Mum’s death had been unexpected. A haemorrhage in childbirth that couldn’t have been foreseen. She couldn’t possibly have left something behind with instructions.

  Dad pinched the bridge of his nose then rested his hand under his chin. ‘I honestly don’t know, sweetheart. That night, after I came home from the hospital,’ he motioned to the small box, ‘this was on the top of her chest of drawers. There was a note resting on it that said, For our girl on her 17th birthday.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Perhaps she was just organised, perhaps…I don’t know… She was an extraordinary woman… She sensed things others couldn’t.’

  ‘Are you saying you think she knew what was going to happen?’

  ‘I’m not saying that, sweetheart,’ he said, absentmindedly caressing the box. ‘And anyway, that’s not the point. She wanted you to have this and it was important to her that it be now.’ He pushed the box across the desk towards me, standing as he did. ‘I’ll…uh…I’ll give you some privacy.’

  He slipped into his shoes and quietly left me alone in the office. He’d had his hands in his pockets and looked so…alone. It occurred to me that Mum wouldn’t be too impressed with where we had ended up.

  The box was beautiful. It was a rich, dark mahogany with splices of illuminating gold breaking through. The carvings on the top were detailed and finely crafted to create not a picture but a pattern, a sequence of wispy feather-tips. The artist in me appreciated it instantly.

  I’d never been given a gift by my mother. She’d never made me warm milk, never wiped away my tears or put a plaster on me. She hadn’t saved me from the embarrassing outing with my nanny to bu
y my first bra and she hadn’t left me with a nifty stash of tampons in the bathroom cupboard that would never run out and that I’d never have to talk about. There were a lot of things I’d never get from her, but I’d accepted that a long time ago. Finally receiving something from her, something purposely left for me and only me was…awkward.

  I sat down in Dad’s chair and ran my fingers over the top of the engravings as he had done. A shiver ran down my body. I wriggled in the chair and shook my hand out. ‘Get a grip, Vi.’

  When I opened the box my heart sank. A tiny silver chain with a small amulet lay inside. The last time I’d seen my baby necklace, it had been tucked away in the trinket box on my dressing table. Apparently, Mum had it made for me while she was pregnant as some kind of good-luck charm. In every one of my baby photos I’m wearing this necklace. Dad had made sure Mum’s wishes were followed – and then some.

  Obviously, Dad had taken it from my dressing table. I started to wonder whether the rest of the contents of the box were from him, but then I dismissed the thought. He’d never felt the need for fake gifts before. It just wasn’t his style.

  I pulled two envelopes out of the box. Both were still sealed, though they were yellowed and worn with marks of consideration along the edges. It must have killed Dad to have known about them for seventeen years and not know what was inside them. I wondered how many times he had run his fingers along the seals, contemplating tearing them open. It was impressive that he hadn’t succumbed.

  I opened the first envelope. Inside was a page torn from a book. It was a poem.

  You must love no-thingness,

  You must flee something,

  You must remain alone,

  And go to nobody.

  You must be very active

  And free of all things.

  You must deliver the captives

  And force those who are free.

  You must comfort the sick

  And yet have nothing yourself.

  You must drink the water of suffering

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