Can't Help Falling(2)

By: Kara Isaac


But then, her childhood dreams had also included visions of a full academic scholarship to study her literary idols. Living at one of the university colleges. Lectures and tutorials and being someplace where everyone spoke the same language as she did.

This. Was. Not. That.

Wiping her hands against her travel-worn jeans, she suddenly couldn’t take the silence anymore.

She needed to get out of this grubby room.

She needed to find a wardrobe.





Two

PETER CARLISLE HAD SPENT TEN years hunting for the perfect birthday present for his mother. A saner man would have given up by now and settled for a sweater. But no. He had to go and develop an obsession with a teacup that was more elusive than the White Witch’s sense of humor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

His feet slipped on the icy cobblestones of Oxford’s Turl Street. He zipped his jacket up until it covered his chin and tugged his hat down to minimize exposure to the icy February sleet.

Dodging a slow taxi, he cut across the road, one of the few pedestrians crazy enough to be out on a night like this. He checked his watch. Quarter to six. He should make it just in time, even though it was a total long shot that Oxford Antiques would have the prized piece of bone china he was seeking. But he’d spent the last two hours scouring every antiques shop in town, hoping a miracle would happen at the last second. This was the final store.

It had seemed like a fun challenge ten years ago. He’d decided, at his mother’s fiftieth birthday party, that by her sixtieth, he would have found the last four teacups for her vintage floral Aynsley collection. He’d thought it would be easy. And he’d succeeded with the first three for her fifty-first, fifty-fourth, and fifty-seventh birthdays respectively. But the last one, a 1950s corset-shaped teacup with large pink roses, had proved determinedly elusive. Not even the disturbing development of an eBay obsession that saw him losing hours of his life on the site had come through.

So here he was. The day before his self-imposed deadline expired. About to fail. Which pretty much summed up the last twelve months of his life. At least this time only he would know about it. Wouldn’t be subjected to the sympathetic inquiries of family and friends asking how he was doing.

Steeling himself against the inevitable disappointment he was about to be dealt, he turned the knob to the door of the antiques store, the bell above announcing his entrance.

The shop was almost the same temperature as the street. Reginald, the proprietor, didn’t believe in heating. He proclaimed it better for his wares if customers shivered while they browsed. It certainly had the effect of weeding out anyone who wasn’t a serious buyer.

Peter gave a nod to the elderly owner at his usual perch behind the cash register. And he meant cash register. The man must have been one of the only retailers still left who dealt in cash and only cash.

Peter ducked into the corner where Reginald stacked his mismatched assortment of vintage crockery. For the second before he saw what sat there, a hit of anticipation buzzed inside him. And left just as quickly. His gaze scanned the five teacups that sat arranged on a sideboard. All familiar. Only one Aynsley, already in his mother’s collection.

His phone vibrated deep in his pocket. Probably one of the team wanting his take on how they’d done at training. The famous Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race was less than two months away and the provisional rowing crew for Oxford’s Blue Boat had been selected. But the men who’d just missed out on the lineup and been consigned to a reserve boat were still putting up a fight. As the brutal sets of five-hundred-meter sprints earlier in the day on Dorney Lake had shown.

He pulled the phone out and glanced at the screen. Victor flashed up at him. He would’ve welcomed talking to anyone else. In the background, the bell rang above the door, signaling someone else doing some last-minute antiquing. He answered the call.

“Hi.” His tone was curt.

“Bunny.” His brother’s voice held a familiar cadence. The one that indicated he was a few beers down but not yet obliterated. When Peter had left Victor a few hours before, he’d been drinking beer out of a fellow rower’s shoe in the back of the team van. All class, his big brother. “So, whatcha doing?”

Peter almost didn’t tell him. An uncharitable part of him hoped his brother had forgotten what the following day was. “Shopping for Mum’s birthday present.”

A pause was followed by a muffled curse. “Was it today?”

“Tomorrow.” February 21. Same date every year, strangely enough.

“What are you getting her? Want to go in together?”

Ha. Not likely. “Don’t know yet, so probably best if you sort yourself out.” He stepped back to allow a girl with brown, wavy hair and a focused expression to brush past him, heading for the adjoining room. There was something in the tilt of her head, the determined stride of her legs, that pulled his gaze to follow her as she walked.