When the frost came, clinging murderously to every leaf and blade of grass, Cassandra was not surprised. Others viewed the carnage and bewailed the death of their summer gardens, muttering about climate change, but she knew better. For days now she had felt it coming. Her joints ached and she saw ice in her mind’s eye; glittering stalactites dripped into her field of vision, growing more persistent as the days passed. Ignoring the scoffing glances of her neighbours, she had carried the few potted plants she had not already killed off indoors where they would be protected from the coming chill.
Cassandra gazed out of the window at the frost-bitten world beyond her ground-floor flat. The summer sun had reached its peak, its rays warm even through the glass, yet strangely it was not enough. The frost gripped its victims still, refusing to budge, refusing to surrender. It stayed within her mind too, bringing a vague, pulsing chill to her bones. She crossed her arms and retreated to her reading chair, flopping down onto the cushions and hugging one tightly to her chest. It will pass, she told herself over and over.
For as long as she could remember she had had an uncanny ability to sense things before they happened. As a child, she would announce suddenly at dinner that it would rain in the morning, even though the weather report had just predicted a fine day. Or she would inform her frantic mother that the missing mobile phone was in the glove box and not in the house at all. It had freaked out her parents when she was small, but her grandmother had always winked at her and called it a gift, before launching into another of her famous tales of fairies and magic, gods and giants. Usually the message Cassandra received was fleeting—a flash of an image or a vague sensation in her mind, gone as quickly as it had arrived— but not this time. No, this time it lingered, icy tentacles wrapping around her, passing back and forth before her eyes. Tomorrow I’ll be fine again. Tomorrow when the frost clears.
Two weeks had gone by since the strange incident of the summer frost. It had taken three days for the phenomenon to completely clear and for the rest of that week it was all anyone seemed to be talking about. The event failed to repeat itself, however, and the media soon found other stories; the reporters moved on to new gossip and celebrity scandal and the frost was forgotten—yesterday’s news. Cassandra’s vision had cleared along with the disappearance of the frost. She returned to her normal routine of work and study, study and work, and the days rolled on, each very like the last. Thursday was the only day of the week she did not have a shift at the shop directly after her lectures and as per usual she was spending what was left of the afternoon with her best friend.
When Cassandra entered Starbucks, Sarah was already ensconced at their favourite table by the window. As always, her friend looked like she was dressed more for a catwalk than a coffee. Cassandra recognised the smart black skirt and knee-high boots; the jacket, however, was new. Anyone who did not know Sarah well would have wondered how she kept up with the rent on her flat. The amount of money she spent on clothes was extreme and she had never taken on any weekend work to make ends meet. Truth was, she did not need to: Mummy and Daddy kept her well out of the red. That said, Sarah always seemed to know where to get the best bargains in everything from tea bags to handbags. There was not a sale, whether in-store or online, Sarah did not know about before everyone else.
Sarah stood when she saw Cassandra approach and the two women shared a brief hug. Cassandra settled into the empty seat while Sarah went to order their drinks. There was no need to ask what either wanted—two Cinnamon Dolce Lattes was what they always ordered. At home Cassandra considered herself more of a tea girl—not least because she thought instant coffee tasted like dishwater. Her cupboards were chock full of different Twinings varieties, from the established standards, such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey, to the more imaginative fusions like Raspberry and Dragon Fruit or Orange and Cinnamon. Cassandra took her British tea-drinking heritage very seriously; however, she would always make an exception for a Starbucks latte.
Cassandra leant back in the seat and glanced out of the window. The good view onto the street was the reason she and Sarah liked this table so much. They loved to people-watch, and when they had exhausted all other topics of conversation they would stare out, assigning stories to the random passersby, challenging each other to come up with the best history for each figure. They were never short of subjects for the Strand was always teeming with life, from bankers to backpackers, from solicitors to shoppers. Depending on their mood, they could create tales that ranged from the ordinary to the ridiculous.
Sarah returned with the drinks and they chatted about their respective studies for a while. Sarah demonstrated her latest powers of psychoanalysis; Cassandra countered with a functionalist reading of Greek mythology. They moved on to cinema and theatre and promptly made plans to see the new production of Hamlet that had just opened at the Globe. Groundling tickets, naturally, since Cassandra believed sitting for a Globe production should be considered a cardinal sin. Not to mention the fact the tickets were a great deal cheaper if you were willing to put up with a bit of an ache in your legs. She and Sarah would always joke it was a more authentic theatrical experience.
From there their conversation took a more personal turn and Cassandra attempted to keep a suitably concerned expression on her face as Sarah launched into the latest saga of her love life. Cassandra cared deeply about Sarah and wanted her to be happy; that said, some of the dramas with the men in her friend’s life made Cassandra want to laugh. Sarah actually lived a real life soap opera existence—the BBC would probably pay millions to turn her story into a television series if she ever decided to write her memoires. On this occasion, Cassandra heard how Michael had stood Sarah up for the third time, apparently due to illness, but more likely the direct result of a certain football match at Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile, a guy on her course had expressed an interest and she was not sure what to do about it.
“I mean, he seems like such a nice guy—the sort that wouldn’t ditch a girl for the sake of a sporting event—but I don’t know where things stand with Michael. Technically he and I are still together. What do you think, Cass?”
“You’re the psych major. You tell me.”
“Never psychoanalyse yourself, Cass. Golden rule.”
They had reached their third round of drinks and had lapsed into a comfortable, caffeine-charged silence when Sarah leant in and whispered, “Don’t look now, but that super-hot guy in the corner has been staring at you for the last half hour. No, I said don’t look,” she added when Cassandra began to turn her head. “Go buy a muffin or something and you can sneak a look then.”
“Sarah, I’m not going over there just to ogle some guy. Besides, I don’t have time for dating right now, you know that.”
“Everyone has time for dating, Cass. Aside from me, who do you spend time with?” Sarah paused, waiting for an answer. When none came, she continued. “See, you’re too isolated, too introverted. A bit of romance is just what you need. A bit of no-strings-attached sexual gratification would be even better. Suppressing such primal drives is bad for you.”
“I guess this means you’re currently studying Freud? Look, Sarah, it’s just not me, okay.”
“I order you to go over there and check him out. If not for yourself, do it for me. I want to know if he’s just as dishy up close.” She shoved Cassandra’s shoulder, leant back in her chair, and winked.
Cassandra offered Sarah an exaggerated grimace in return. “All right, I’ll go. Only because I’m too juiced-up on caffeine to refuse. I’m looking for you, though, not for me.”
With a roll of her eyes, Cassandra grabbed her purse, stood, and wandered over to the counter. She perused the display of cakes and rolls and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Now she was up there, she was not sure she wanted to look at the mystery guy. She was intrigued, given Sarah’s persistence, but she was also twenty-two and the days of giggling over boys in the school yard were long gone. She should be the mature one, she should just buy a cake and return to Sarah, keeping her eyes well away from the table in the back corner.
She and romance had a bad track record; hence the reason she had avoided it for the last three years. Jay had crushed her heart under his foot—no, that was too tame: he had pulverised it into dust—and she did not feel like going through that again any time soon, regardless of Sarah’s insistence she needed to ‘get back into the saddle’. Even if that statement were true, she certainly was not going to be the one doing the chasing. If Mr Dark Corner was interested, in either one of them, he could come over to their table. If not.... I wonder if he’s as handsome as Sarah claims.
Curiosity won out despite her better judgement and Cassandra shifted her gaze to the side. Oh, my! He was certainly handsome, in fact that was probably the understatement of the year, and the whole look he was sporting did not do him any discredit either. The combination of jeans with a suit jacket was one Cassandra had always liked. A guy who could pull it off managed to look casual yet smart, and this guy was definitely working the ensemble, from the black leather shoes peeking out from under the table to the pale blue shirt with the top button undone. It was his eyes that really made her catch her breath, though. They were amber—but not just amber. Rather they were like dancing flames, piercingly bright, and they were set off by a thick streak of ruby red hair amidst otherwise black locks. With those eyes, and his sooty hair gelled into a choppy, stylised mess, he made her think of fire and ashes: a burning match head in that final moment before you blew out the flame. They must be coloured contacts. No one has eyes like that.
Her stomach somersaulted with the realisation she would not be able to see his eyes in such detail unless he was looking right at her in return. Oh, damn! She knew she should look away, but she found herself unable to do so. She began to feel lightheaded and a little woozy. She had the strangest impression of hands reaching out for her, fingers pressing into her mind, and she took an involuntary step back. She was still staring at the guy, and as she watched, his lips curved into a smile.
As quickly as the sensation had come on, it passed. A strong jolt ran through her and she wrenched her gaze away. She was disorientated, as if she had just awoken from a deep sleep, but she refocused her attention on the counter. She selected a blueberry muffin on autopilot, paid in record time, and headed back to the table. It took a lot of effort to keep her walk slow and steady and relief flooded through her when she sank back into her chair. She ignored Sarah’s expectant look and tried to gather the tattered remnants of her composure. You don’t have to be embarrassed, you idiot. So he saw you look his way, no big deal. One casual glance doesn’t mean anything. Pull yourself together.
Deep down she knew it was not embarrassment that had caused this reaction. There had been something in his eyes, in his accompanying smirk, that had made her heart pound... and not in an infatuated way. Or at least not in an entirely infatuated way. The odd feeling she had experienced had been like the start of one of her premonitions—as if that sixth sense of hers was ringing alarm bells in her head—but it had been unlike any of her previous visions. For the first time ever, the message had been unclear and she had failed to get a firm grasp on what it had been trying to tell her. Who says it’s even the guy who caused it? Just because the feeling hit when I looked at him doesn’t mean it’s about him. More likely it was just a coincidence, bad timing.
When Sarah reached over and rubbed her hand, Cassandra jumped, nearly losing the muffin in the process. She caught it just in time and set it down on the plate, peeled back the wrapper, and broke off a large chunk. The chewing and swallowing gave her something to concentrate on and she started to feel better. Her body relaxed, her racing heart slowed, and she cursed herself for such a ridiculous overreaction. A mild headache started behind her eyes. It pulsed gently but insistently, no doubt the result of her panic attack. I’m still on edge from that frost incident, that’s all this is. That one lasted so long I’ve been half-expecting something else to happen ever since and now I’m making something out of nothing, seeing things that aren’t there.
“So, what do you think? Come on, Cass, don’t keep me in suspense.”
“You’re right, he’s a good-looking guy,” Cassandra said, breaking off another piece of muffin and pushing the remainder towards Sarah. “Here you go, I’m not that hungry.” From the way Sarah lunged at the cake it was clear the unwanted purchase would not go to waste.
“Are you going to talk to him then?”
“God, Sarah, we aren’t seventeen any more. Besides, as I said before, I’m not interested in dating right now.”
“Look, I know Jay was a jerk, but you’ve got to move on, Cass. Chalk it up as a holiday romance that was never meant to last.” She tilted her head and offered Cassandra a sad smile. “I want you to find the right guy and be happy. Don’t let that dick ruin you for romance forever.”
“I won’t, I promise. Just not yet.”
Sarah gave an exaggerated sigh and the action forced Cassandra to smile. Sarah was quite the drama queen at times, but she always knew how to cheer Cassandra. After more than fifteen years of friendship, she could not imagine being without her. They were the classic example of opposites attracting: chalk and cheese, and yet the perfect complement.
“Do you at least have a story for the guy?”
“Mr Mystery in the corner, of course.”
Cassandra considered the question. The memory of his golden eyes burned into her mind and she found herself unable to think of a single other thing about him. “I don’t know, you try.”
Sarah tapped two fingers against her lips. “Let me see. I know, he’s a student at Oxford come down to London to escape the rigours of study and indulge his bad boy tendencies. He’s planning a weekend of wild debauchery and wants you to join him.”
Nice try, Sarah. Deciding it was time to shift the conversation from such a risqué, not to mention potentially embarrassing, direction, Cassandra turned and looked out of the window.
“What about him?” she asked, nodding towards a tall man in a business suit as he passed by.
“A bit old for you, isn’t he? But if that’s what floats your boat....”
“I mean for the game. Quit teasing me already.”
Sarah pursed her lips and thought for a few seconds. “Banker, leaving work early because he’s in the middle of a torrid affair with a train driver and he wants to catch the four o’clock express service she’s driving from Charing Cross to Gravesend. When they meet at the end of the line they’ll head off to a hotel for some pre-dinner nooky. Your turn. How about that one?”
Half an hour later they said their goodbyes. Cassandra scooped up her bag from beneath the table and they headed for the door. She could not help casting one final glance behind her... but the handsome stranger was gone. A young couple, both in business suits, now occupied his table. I didn’t even notice him leave. So much for Sarah’s plans of true love... or true lust. It’s most definitely for the best.
The man leant against the wall, right knee bent and foot pressed into the brickwork. He buried his hands in the pockets of his jeans and stared through the window of the coffee shop opposite, watching the two women the other side of the glass. The flighty blonde was giggling again. The brunette laughed with her, but even from this distance he sensed the mirth did not quite reach her eyes. Traffic of both the mechanical and pedestrian variety constantly passed in front of him, blocking his view for seconds at a time, and yet he never tore his gaze away.
He kept a constant vigil until the women stood and gathered their things, ready to depart. They hugged outside the shop, and then set off in opposite directions. He considered following the brunette, but decided against it. He could easily find her again when the need arose and he had some things to consider first. He had been taken by surprise—something that did not happen very often and certainly not these days. He had come here expecting one thing and had found something quite different. The discrepancy between expectation and reality gave him pause.
He watched the woman until she was out of sight; then he turned his attention to the crowds that milled around him. Most of them should not be here, of course—that was a given—but they were insignificant in the grand scheme of things and worth neither his effort nor his consideration. Their presence really made no difference one way or the other. The girl on the other hand... she was a conundrum. Should he try to solve her or simply remove her from the equation? The second option had been his original plan. Simple. Quick. Efficient. But now?
He pushed off the wall and slipped into the flow of people heading towards Charing Cross Station. No one gave him a second look as he weaved his way to the head of the crowd. Crossing the road, he ducked down Villiers Street and disappeared into the Embankment tube station.
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Nicki J. Markus (aka Asta Idonea) was born in England but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has loved both reading and writing from a young age and is also a keen linguist, having studied several foreign languages.
Nicki launched her writing career in 2011 and divides her efforts not only between mainstream and MM works but also between traditional and indie publishing. Her books span the genres, from paranormal to historical and from contemporary to fantasy. It just depends what story and which characters spring into her mind!
As a day job, Nicki works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and in her spare time she enjoys music, theater, cinema, photography, crochet and cross stitch, and sketching. She also loves history, folklore and mythology, pen-palling, and travel, all of which have provided plenty of inspiration for her writing. She is never found too far from her much-loved library/music room.
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