Henri Pierre Gasquet hesitated before knocking on his father’s office door. They’d shared breakfast together less than an hour ago and talked over many things, including Henri’s killer schedule for the next several months. The king had given no indication of the need for a formal meeting this morning. With a fatalistic shrug, Henri knocked, waited a second, then turned the handle and entered the room.
“You wanted to see me?” He waited for his father to indicate he should sit before dropping into the chair in front of the king’s desk.
“I have not been unaware of the burden you have carried since my heart attack a year ago.”
Shocked, Henri watched as the king flipped through the pages of his diary and sighed before stopping at today’s entries. He pointed to the day’s itemised list of appointments and cast a disappointed stare in Henri’s direction before turning it round for Henri to read. Who’d passed his official diary to his father?
“Combining your own commitments with those you took over while I recuperated would have felled a lesser man.” The king’s voice hardened.
Feeling the heat burn his cheeks, Henri shifted in his chair. The past twelve months had been tough, and for the last six, his advisors almost competed with each other in counselling him to slow down unless he wanted to occupy his father’s hospital bed.
“I am also aware you have ignored all advice to cut back. So I am decreeing that as of this moment you are on indeterminate leave of absence.”
“What!” Shock propelled Henri from his chair, and anxiety chased him round the room while he tried to remarshall his scattered thoughts. “I don’t have time to take leave of any kind,” he snapped. “This morning I am presiding over the ceremony to lay the new foundations for the bridge that will connect the west of our country more directly with the east.” He tunnelled his fingers through his hair.
“This afternoon, I have a meeting with the backers about the funds for Melanie’s riding school for the disabled; and this evening I am giving a speech to the leaders of our financial sector.”
He planted his knuckles on his father’s desk and leaned forward. “I can’t just take off and leave them all in the lurch.” He pushed away. “It is ridiculous for you or anyone else to expect me to walk away from my duties. Who would take my place?” he challenged, knowing every project mentioned needed his influence and prestige to press the developments forward.
His father’s bald statement rocked Henri back on his heels. “You?”
“It is a year since my heart attack,” the king said again, “and for the most part I have accepted the dictates of my doctors and advisors, and am now taking a leaf out of my son’s book before my heir drops dead from physical and emotional exhaustion.”
With a snap the king closed Henri’s diary, leaned back in his chair. Instead of pushing it towards him, the king slipped the diary into one of the desk drawers. His gaze still focussed on his son.
“So you, my son, are on leave until I say otherwise.”
Feeling like a recalcitrant four-year-old, Henri recognised that tone of voice now and sighed. A lenient parent in most things, there were times when his father’s tone brooked no argument. This was one of them, Henri acknowledged.
“What am I supposed to do?” For the life of him, he failed to conceal his sarcasm. “Twiddle my thumbs? And for how long?”
“Until I say otherwise.”
A beam of sunlight transformed the king’s thatch of grey hair to silver. His eyes conveyed simultaneous messages of understanding and determination. He rose and rounded his desk. Resting his hand on Henri’s shoulder, his tone gentled. “Get away, right away, and relax. Do you suppose I’ve found it easy to watch you running yourself into the ground in your efforts to combine your schedule with mine? And now—? Now,” he paused, waiting for a reaction that Henri swallowed before continuing, “now it is time for me to take up the reins again.
“The plane is waiting to take you to Scotland. Melanie and Liam hope you will remain with them for a couple of months at least, until you are fully rested.
“If the thought of staying beyond Christmas stifles you, Liam did suggest if you could not tolerate remaining in one place that long, you take a leaf out of his book and travel the world for a few months.
“It’s not as if we face the same security problems the insurgents caused for your brother and Melanie, so if that is what you want to do—” The king’s face crinkled into genuine mirth. “I promise you, your bodyguards are all well known to you.”
With a harrumph Henri failed to hide his amusement. Liam’s marriage to his protector was a standing family joke now.
“I gather you have talked with Liam and Melanie, and no doubt held a family conference. Therefore I will go, as it seems I have no choice in the matter. But I’ll remind you, unlike my brother, I am prepared to marry a bride of your choice. It worked for you and mother. And I see no reason why, if my proposed bride is chosen with care, I cannot emulate your example.”
Henri wondered whether he imagined the shudder of distaste that flipped across his father’s face, it was gone so quickly.
“Your transport awaits you,” was all his father said before wrapping him in a bear-hug. “Go talk to your mother before you leave.”
Snow, soft as stealth, filled the driveway beyond her front door. Inside, silence filled the room while she sat staring at the fire.
“Can you see the pictures in the flames?” Her late mother’s voice crossed the barrier of time as clearly as if she stood next to Monica.
She’d been five the first time her mother asked the question. Five, and eager to experience a new adventure. For hours she’d sat in front of the fire, its orange flames curling round the logs her father cut and hauled in each morning. At first she’d pretended to herself and her mother she’d seen all sorts of things. The pony she wished for, peering over the stable door that didn’t exist, the baby brother who arrived two years later, and the puppy her best friend Lillian received. She even imagined she saw the letters written in the flames of the name Lillian chose for her new friend.
“You’ll never guess what I just got!” Lillian had bounced into the school playground the following day, her face glowing with excitement.
“A puppy?” Until she heard the words, saw her breath mist in the cold playground air, she’d not realised she’d spoken aloud.
Deflated, Lillian glowered at her. “How’d you know that?” Then she’d beamed her usual sunny smile. “I s’pose my Mom told you, and made you promise not to tell.”
Not quite sure why, Monica remained silent, but assumed perhaps that’s how she knew.
When Lillian asked her to guess the puppy’s name, Monica thought she’d sealed her lips and hoped that her best friend had not heard her say ‘Jasper’.
“Jasper!” Lillian squealed while jumping up and down on the spot and clapping her hands together.
A frisson of trepidation skittered up Monica’s spine. How had she known? Had her friend mentioned a liking for the name? If so, she couldn’t remember. Her fear grew when later that evening she recounted the incident to her mother and was met by a concerned silence.
Her mother’s smile, usually so open and encouraging, faltered and slipped away altogether. Her smoky blue eyes, usually filled with love and laughter, turned chilly. Her voice when she answered was the most frightening of all.
“Don’t tell lies, Monica,” she’d snapped. Instead of the usual nighttime hug, her mother stepped back from the bed, ordered Monica to say her prayers twice and to include a request for forgiveness for telling lies, before halting in the doorway, her hand on the knob. “And if this is the result of sitting staring at the fire so much, I suggest you find something more constructive to do with your time.”
The slamming of the bedroom door punctuated her mother’s words.
Miserable, confused, and suddenly tired beyond sleeping, she’d pulled the covers over her head and cried into her pillow throughout the night.
In the morning, Monica decided her mother’s smile could freeze the fires of hell. Her jittery stomach refused to accept the breakfast placed in front of her and she left for school feeling sick, tired and hungry all at once.
When Lillian ran up to her Monica sighed with relief; at least she had her friend. And then she noticed Lillian’s stony-faced glare.
“My Mom said she never told you about the puppy, so how did you know, and how did you guess the correct name?”
To Monica it seemed everyone in the playground stopped and waited for her answer. Isolation, heavy and penetrating, weighed down on her shoulders. What could she say? She didn’t know, so took the easy way out, and simply shrugged.
In that moment everything changed.
Her school life changed.
When she approached, conversations stopped. Instead of sharing camaraderie, her former school friends ignored her.
She learned to stand alone.
At home her parents walked round her as though she’d caught the plague. There too, she learned to stand alone. Only young Billy penetrated the barrier of self-preservation she erected.
Now, nearly twenty years later, she sat in front of her hearth, her hands cradled round her knees, and watched some of the earliest images she could remember of her mother playing with her in the snow, before she’d encouraged her daughter to seek pictures in the flames.
All water under the bridge, she thought, and let her memories fast forward to her mother’s final year.
For the six months before she’d died, her mother accepted her daughter’s offer of healing to alleviate the pain.
During those months they talked. Really talked.
“I’m sorry.” Her mother’s frail voice drew Monica’s attention as she sat at the hospital bedside.
“Sorry?” Bewildered, she’d searched for explanations and come up empty. Her parents had dished out edicts as she’d grown up, and on the few occasions when she returned home after escaping at sixteen, she was usually met with disapproval.
“Your grandmother had the ‘gift’,” her mother started. “Knowing you could inherit her abilities, your father threatened to walk away from us if you developed it. I promised him if he stayed I wouldn’t let you progress with your gift.”
No wonder her father treated her like a pariah, Monica thought, as she struggled to marshal her thoughts.
And the irony?
He’d left anyway. Maybe not for ten years, but he’d left her mother for a ‘newer model’. And she’d been shattered.
Filled with an unexplained guilt about the breakup, Monica took off a few months later.
At first she’d buried the perplexing experiences that bombarded her. Later, when new friends discovered her ‘gift’ they’d come to her for help and advice. Finally, after some hefty pleading, she’d succumbed and let the feelings and ‘knowing’ in.
The sense of isolation, both inner and outer, eased, and in time disappeared. She felt complete, if not quite comfortable with circumstances. And now her mother informed her it was genetically inherited.
The relationship between them grew closer, and finally Monica recognised that barely remembered loving glow in her mother’s eyes.
“Yes, I remember when you encouraged me to look for pictures in the fire,” Monica replied, her words echoing in the silence around her.
“Never stop.” Her mother’s voice, as loud as her own, filled Monica’s mind. “Never stop watching. Never stop dreaming.” It faltered, dropped. “Fire, like love, can burn or warm. Never let the fire within you go out.”
A log in the grate shifted, sending sparks soaring up the chimney. The silence around her shimmered and settled, and a warmth like a scarf wrapped around Monica’s heart.
She lost track of time until the flames caught her attention once more. They flickered from orange to gold, to silver, to white.
A flurry of snowflakes masked the flames and for a second Monica watched the most beautiful, pristine snow-scene she’d ever seen. Her lips curved in longing. How she’d love to get a toboggan and slide down that slope. She knew where it was, and had done just that many times in her childhood, first with her parents and then, in clandestine manner, with her brother. Sneaking an old tin tray from the back of her mother’s walk-in pantry, she’d then grabbed Billy’s hand and they’d rushed out the back gate, heading for the lakeside track that led up into the hills.
Darkness, dense and thick with grief, dropped over the scene. Startled and disconcerted by the strength of emotion emanating from the vision, Monica shifted to her knees, ready to stand, when a voice, a deep male voice sharp with fear, called out her name.
She knew she’d never heard the voice before, and yet—it was as familiar to her as the image she saw in her mirror each morning.
“Help me, Monica.”
Desperate for more clues, she searched the darkness within the flames until it sputtered and faded. With a curse, she jumped up and ran for the phone. With her outstretched hand hovering over it, she halted and let her hand drop to her side once more. What could she say? What would the police or rescue team think if she called them and told them she’d seen a vision of a man in distress?
They’d laugh in her face and classify her as a lunatic. Well, maybe not. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d contacted them with positive information but something—an instinctive gut reaction told her what she’d seen this time hadn’t happened yet.