Oh god. Oh god, oh god. Okay, Cassie. It’s just a date. Nothing serious. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t –
The echoing doorbell caused Cassie to nearly leap out of her skin in fright. She was so nervous, so on edge it felt like she were tightrope-walking on the blade of a knife. She’d finally agreed to go out with James three days earlier, in a stammering phone call made with Sue practically having to hold her hand and give her responses for her. It was Sue who’d talked her into it; the pair had talked in depth about James’ pros and cons in a surprisingly long conversation given how little they actually knew about the man!
Smoothing down her dress and hair with shaking hands, Cassie tried her best not to fall through the door as she went to open it. She’d only ever been out with one other person before this date, not that she wanted to start thinking about Matthew again and rake up the past. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to hold it together if she went there, and she wasn’t entirely sure if an emotional breakdown would be a great start to the night! Unlocking the door, she was dazzled by a massive bunch of pure red roses.
Behind them, she picked out James’ smiling face. ‘For you,’ he grinned, a hint of nerves visible in his eyes. Cassie was oddly comforted seeing that he too was a little unsure of himself tonight, knowing that she was not alone. It did, however, uproot the one thing she thought she had known about James; the only constant between the two meetings she’d had with him previous had been his confidence, but that wasn’t something to dwell on!
Cassie accepted the bunch of flowers, unable to keep a smile off her face. She’d never been bought any before, even Matt had never bought her so much as a single rose. To receive a full dozen on a first date… Well, it goes without saying that she was blown away!
‘I must confess, these are partially a continuation of my apology,’ James said as he stepped up onto the porch. ‘I really am grateful that you’re giving me this chance. Do you like them?’
Cassie nodded, breathing in the bouquet’s sweet scent. ‘They’re perfect,’ she beamed, unable to believe her luck! Perhaps this date was a good idea after all.
James’ own face lit up, and he became the confident man Cassie had imagined he was full time. ‘Good! I’m glad. So, how do you fancy a night in Dune?’
‘Dune?! Are you joking! That’s more than alright!’
‘Good! I must confess, I do have a minor piece of business to complete, but it will take literally seconds; I just have to drop off something with an associate but we can meet him there. Now then,’ he offered his arm to Cassie, who took it giggling, ‘let me escort you to our waiting vehicle, m’lady!’
* * *
Cassie couldn’t quite believe that she was there. It was only a few weeks ago that she was looking for a job here, and now here she was, on a night out and rubbing shoulders with the upper classes of the Valley! They’d even skipped the queue, strolling past those waiting to a friendly bouncer who’d shaken James’ hand and waved them in, calling over his shoulder that Guy was already in there waiting as he declined entry to the girl at the front of the queue who’d clearly been in line for some time, judging her angry reaction!
Excusing himself, James headed over to his associate and began talking business speak, exchanging envelopes and laughing. It was the same man that Cassie had delivered the documents to the previous week; she wondered if he knew just how James had reacted to finding out that she had been the one entrusted with them. Lost in her thoughts, she was brought back to reality by a drink appearing magically beneath her nose. Taking it, she turned to see the barman who she’d spoken to about a job smiling at her.
‘It’s on the house! Just glad to see you’ve landed on your feet. Congratulations!’ He nodded over to where James was still stood chatting to Guy, clearly impressed. ‘He’s quite a catch!’
Surprised, the sip Cassie had just taken of her drink caught mid-swallow. ‘You know James?’ she asked, clearing her throat.
‘Yeah, he’s here quite a lot, does a lot of business here. I think his boss has a stake in the club, silent partner though.’
‘Really…’ Cassie looked at James, who smiled over and signalled that he’d only be a minute longer.
‘Yes, really! He’s a top bloke, is James, always very generous with his tipping. Anyway, have a good night m’dear!’
‘Thank you! And thanks for the drink!’ Cassie called after the barman as James came back over to her, having said goodbye to Guy.
‘All sorted! How do you know Kyle? I saw you talking to him.’
Cassie briefly explained about her jobsearch, and James laughed. ‘Ah, he brought you a drink over to congratulate you? Bless him, he’s sweet. Now then, now that the business is out of the way… How are you on the dancefloor, Miss. Rivers?’
Eyes twinkling, he took her by the hand and swept her down the stairs to the dancefloor, pushing through the growing crowd to the edge that overlooked the sea. With the fake snow sprayed from the effects machine starting to settle on their shoulders, Cassie was so pleased that she’d decided to take a chance on James as she watched him getting his groove on, laughing away with her. Again, a new side to his personality; Cassie would never have guessed that he could take himself this lightly, that he could poke fun at himself!
After what seemed an age of dancing, James led her over to a bench away from the thumping bassline and flopped down, slinging an arm around her shoulders.
‘So,’ he said breathlessly. ‘What brings you to Sunset Valley, Cassie? I know you’ve not been here long, Eric told me that you’d only been here a week or so when you got the job with him.’
Cassie bit her lip, unsure of how much to divulge. She didn’t want his sympathy, she just wanted to forget about it, to put it behind her. She couldn’t exactly do that by dragging it into the present.
Thinking quickly, she replied. ‘Well! I’d just finished school, but I hadn’t exactly done as well as I hoped. There’s no chance of a job in Riverview without a highschool diploma, so I just decided to leave and take my chances somewhere else.’
‘And are you glad you did?’
‘So glad! Even if I did only make it by the skin of my teeth. If I hadn’t been in the Blue Swan when Mr. Stanislav was, I never would have got the job.’
‘So it was meant to be, hey?’
‘Yeah, I suppose it was. Fate, or something like that. Destiny!’ Cassie laughed. She’d never believed in anything like that before. ‘So how about you? Are you Valley born and bred?’
James shook his head. ‘No, I’m from Twinbrook originally. I moved here when I was twenty five.’
‘How come? Change of scenery?’
‘Not exactly…’ He sighed, rubbing a hand through his cropped hair as he debated what to say. ‘There was a bank robbery… You might have heard about it, it was on the news?’
Cassie shook her head. ‘No, sorry. What happened?’
‘A criminal gang burst into the building and took everyone in there hostage, saying that they’d start shooting them if their demands weren’t met. They… They carried out their promise. My parents were in there.’
Cassie felt her heart drop like a stone. ‘They were shot?’
James nodded slowly, his eyes glistening with tears. ‘They both died on the way to hospital. I packed up and left three days later. There was nothing keeping me there, no other family. I just… I needed to get away, you know?’
Cassie laughed hollowly, taking hold of James’ hand. ‘Oh yes, I know. More than you’d think.’
Staring steadfastly at her lap, she swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the lump that had grown in her throat. ‘My, er… My parents. They died too. My little brother as well. There was a fire, I was the only one who got out. They were trapped.’
A half smile crept onto James’ face. ‘Wow. You really do know how I feel. I must say, I wish we had something less morbid in common.’
Cassie laughed in spite of herself, looking up at James who was gazing back at her, his arm still protectively holding her close. ‘Funny, how we both ran away to Sunset Valley,’ he said quietly, stroking her shoulder with his thumb. ‘It’s like we ran to each other.’
He leaned in gently and placed a soft kiss on her lips.
‘So? When’s the second date, then?’
Cassie rolled her eyes, laughing at Sue’s excitement.
‘Don’t you be laughing at me, Missy! You just wait till you’re all married and stuff, you’ll be living vicariously through your single friends too! Now answer my question!’
Sighing, Cassie’s face fell a little. She wasn’t sure she had an answer.
Sensing that all was not well, Sue became immediately concerned. ‘Cass? What’s up? Oh love, has he not called you?’
‘No no, he has called. Repeatedly. I just… haven’t answered the phone.’
‘Why not? I thought it was a great date, do you not want another one?’
‘I just… I don’t know if I can.’
Sue nodded. ‘You think that being with him when his… circumstances, let’s say, are so similar to yours, that you won’t be able to put your past behind you?’ Sue had been given a brief explanation of what had happened to Cassie, but hadn’t pressed the matter.
‘No, it’s not that. Well, not totally. I just…’
Cassie leaned heavily on her arm, trying to will the tears back into her eyes. ‘I just couldn’t stop thinking about Matthew.’
‘Matthew? Your ex-boyfriend?’
Nodding, Cassie sighed. ‘He doesn’t feel like my ex though.’
‘Just… The way I left things. I was so horrible to him, he deserved an explanation, face to face. And he’s my only real boyfriend, the only one I’ve ever had.’
Sue smiled sympathetically, squeezing Cassie’s hand over the table. ‘Cass, my dear, you left him months ago. I understand completely that you may regret how you left things, but you can’t deny yourself a chance of happiness with James because you didn’t handle a break-up well. Fair enough, it wasn’t exactly your usual break-up situation, but sometimes you have to make a conscious decision to move on.’
‘Sue! You need to sort out the loos! Out of bogroll!’
Tching, Sue let go of Cassie and stood up from the table. ‘Duty calls, Cass. Just… You say you want to move on from the past. Is not giving James another chance because of your past letting it control you now?’
Cassie thought about what she’d said. She did have a point…
She jumped as her phone starting ringing in her pocket.
She gazed at the display uncertainly, before rejecting the call. She wasn’t ready. She still needed some time.