Erin McDonald inhaled the incense that hung heavy in the air, trapped by the green velvet curtains that shrouded the windows. Was it the smoky atmosphere of the room making her light-headed, or the words of the black-clad woman opposite?
‘I see great changes ahead for you. Your life will undergo a complete change.’ The psychic’s eyes narrowed as she studied the watch in her hand. ‘I see your heart is aching. It is not a man who causes this sadness. No. You have lost someone very dear to you. Not long ago.’ She lifted her gaze. Her black eyes bored into Erin’s.
Erin’s throat tightened. ‘I lost my mother recently.’
‘I see three. Was it three weeks…or perhaps three months?’
Goose bumps prickled Erin’s arms. ‘Three months.’
Grace stroked the watch. ‘I see the Sydney Harbour Bridge.’ She paused. ‘You will go to Sydney, and live in a fine house. You will be buying clothes. Beautiful clothes. And shoes. I see you trying on a shoe – a wonderful shoe. It has high heels and is covered with crystals.’
Her fingers caressed the watch again. ‘Your mother wants you to stop feeling sadness for her. She has no pain now. She wants you to know she is happy. Yes. She wants you to get on with your life.’
Erin’s blood chilled. ‘You mean you can talk to her?’
‘No. I have a message. I see a D, a big yellow D. Did her name have a D?’
‘What is it?’
‘Deirdre,’ Erin whispered.
‘Yes. The message is from her. She wants you to know that you have a big future ahead of you. You will have troubles, but Fate will guide you, and you will find happiness.’
Grace sat back in her chair. ‘That is all I have for you today. I hope it is a help to you.’
She handed Erin her watch.
Erin’s head buzzed as she left. Part of her said it was all a load of crap. Very theatrical. But how could she know she’d lost someone dear to her? And that her mother’s name started with a D. And the bit about seeing her trying on a shoe. Why shoes? How could she know she had a thing about shoes?
Could she see into the future? Could she get messages from the spirits? And would she really move to Sydney? How? Why?
As she let herself into the little flat she and Deirdre had shared Grace’s words tumbled around in Erin’s head. She’d said Deirdre was happy now – that she had no pain. She hoped with all her heart it was true. Her mother had been so brave, trying to hide the pain of the cancer from her only child. But Erin knew. She wouldn’t bring her back again even if she could. Not to go on suffering like that. But how she missed her!
Grief filled her chest until she felt it must burst as great, wracking sobs came, tearing her soul. Grace said she’d find happiness, but right now it felt the furthest thing in the world from her.
Erin’s friend Laura sat opposite her at the table in the staff room during their lunch break.
‘So how did it go? What did the psychic tell you? Are you going to meet someone tall, dark and handsome?’Laura asked.
‘Huh, no such luck. That’s obviously not in my future. But she is pretty amazing, isn’t she?’
‘I told you! Come on – what did she say?’
‘She knew about Mum. She saw a bit of stuff about that. And she said I’m going to Sydney.’
‘A trip to Sydney. Lucky you. But what about your love life? What did she see about that?’
Erin gave a wry smile. ‘Nada. Nothing.’
Oh, rats! Well, we’ll just have to make sure you meet some new people. You’ve been so busy with looking after your Mum these last couple of years…’ She broke off and leant across to touch Erin’s arm. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive. I know you’re still hurting. But you must get out and about a bit. You’ve got to get on with your life.’
Erin’s heart twisted. ‘I know you’re right. But I still feel so sad.’
‘Of course you do. I know how close you and Deirdre were, it’s only natural you miss her. But you dropped out of everything while she was sick and now you need to get out and meet people again.’
Laura was right. She couldn’t keep sitting home forever. And she couldn’t deny she was lonely.
‘What you need is a romance. Something to cheer you up.’
‘I don’t know I’m quite ready for that yet.’
‘Maybe not just yet, but you do need to get out. Look, I’m meeting Ben after work, and we’re going for a drink and a meal. Just us, but you never know who we might bump into. Come with us.’
‘Thank you, but two’s company, three’s a crowd. Besides, I’m not ready yet…’
‘If you don’t want to come to dinner, at least come for a drink.’
‘I don’t think…’
‘Come on. Please. I really want you to.’
Erin took a deep breath. ‘All right. And thanks.’
Erin hesitated as they entered the crowded and noisy pub, but Laura took her arm to lead her through the crowd. Suddenly Laura stopped, and her hand flew to her mouth.
‘Oh rats! There’s Troy…and Belinda. I didn’t know they’d be here.’ Laura cast an anxious look at Erin. ‘Um. I don’t know if you knew that Troy’s seeing Belinda now?’
Erin’s heart gave a little thump, but she kept her voice steady. ‘I didn’t, but it’s okay. I didn’t expect him to wait around for me after I let him down so often when Mum was sick.’
‘Agh! I’m sorry… I should have thought…after all, you were more than just friends…’
‘It’s okay. Truly. Don’t worry about it.’ She nudged Laura forward. ‘Come on.’
Ben turned with a smile on his face as Laura touched his arm.
‘Hi lovey,’ he said, squeezing Laura’s hand and dropping a kiss on her cheek. ‘And Erin. Good to see you. It’s been too long.’
Erin returned his hug, conscious of Troy standing with his arm around Belinda’s waist. ‘Good to see you too.’
Troy and Belinda had been standing back but now Troy, who could have been on a poster for surfing gear with his bleached blonde hair, tanned face and blue eyes, stepped away from Belinda and touched Erin on the arm.
He’d once called her his ‘pocket Venus with bouncy red hair’.
He dropped a kiss on her cheek. ‘I was sorry to hear about your Mum.’
‘Thank you.’ Erin swallowed.
Belinda slipped her hand through Troy’s arm ‘Yes, me too,’ Belinda said. ‘Really sorry.’
Ben put his arm around Erin’s shoulder. ‘What’ll you have, Erin? Do you still drink cider?
Within a minute he pressed a drink into her hand. She sipped it gratefully.
‘I haven’t seen you around for a while,’ Troy offered.
‘No. I’ve been busy lately. I haven’t been out much.’
‘Well, you know what they say – all work and no play makes for a dull day.’
She managed a smile. ‘So Laura keeps telling me.’
‘Well, I’m glad she brought you along tonight.’
‘I’m glad I came.’ The polite lie slipped easily from her lips.
‘Why don’t you join us for dinner? For old time’s sake.’
Belinda tightened her grip on Troy’s arm.
‘Thanks for the offer, but I have something arranged. I just popped in to catch up for a drink.’
Erin stayed for another drink as they all started discussing the big game tomorrow, when the local Newcastle Jets were playing Melbourne City. Then she said her goodbye’s and made her way home. The flat was very empty when she let herself in.
It was a few weeks later and the psychic’s words had faded to the back of Erin’s mind when the manager’s PA gave her a message.
‘Erin, the boss wants to see you in his office.’
‘Do you know what it’s about?’
‘Okay, thanks Sal.’
Erin gnawed her bottom lip. The firm was undertaking restructuring, as they called it, and one of the younger girls was given notice last week. Was this why the boss wanted to see her – to tell her she was no longer needed? He’d always seemed happy with her work, but a little knob of worry inside her whispered she’d been less than cheerful around the office recently, mired down in grief as she’d been. Perhaps he’d noticed, and felt it was bad for morale?
She took out her mirror and quickly checked her face, then smoothed her hands over her hair in case her unruly locks had escaped. She headed to his office and knocked on the door.
‘Ah, come in Erin. Take a seat.’
Erin sat opposite Mr Hill, her hands in her lap, butterflies in her belly, and waited for him to speak. He took off his glasses and polished them before beginning.
‘I understand why you’ve seemed unhappy lately, Erin. It’s a terrible thing for a young girl like you to lose her mother, especially as you have no other family. I want you to know I feel for you, very much.’
The butterflies became a knot of tension. He was about to fire her. She sucked in a breath and forced words out. ‘Thank you.’
‘As you know, we’ve been restructuring things in the firm, both here and at Head Office in Sydney. Times are hard, and even an old established firm like ours is feeling the pinch, and we need to downsize.’
Erin clenched her hands together so tightly the nails dug into the flesh. It was her turn to go. Where would she find another job in these hard times?
The boss pulled a file towards him and opened it. ‘I see you’ve been with us for four years now, since you were sixteen, and you’ve always performed very well. I’d be sorry to have to let you go, so I have a proposition for you.’ He paused. ‘I’m right in thinking you have no particular attachments here in Newcastle, aren’t I?’
‘It so happens that our Sydney office is about to lose their receptionist, and I believe you would be ideal for the position. You’re bright and outgoing, and I’m sure you’d fit in well. I think a change of scene might be good for you. If you like the idea, I’ll recommend you, and arrange an interview with Mr Thomas.’ He leant back in his chair. ‘Now, how do you feel about it? It’s a long way to commute, but perhaps you could move down there, if you wanted. Do you think you’d like to live in Sydney?’
Erin’s hands unclenched as a surge of relief flooded through her. ‘Yes, I’ve always loved Sydney. It would be wonderful.’
‘Right. Then I’ll go ahead and arrange an interview.’
Erin chose her clothes carefully for the interview, knowing a receptionist needs to look smart as well as capable. Finally she chose one of her favourite outfits, a plain white linen dress with a black belt and a short black jacket.
She caught the early train to Sydney to make sure she was in plenty of time, and she approached the interview with Mr Thomas, head of the firm, with twin measures of excitement and anxiety. What if he didn’t like her? Would he think her capable of filling such an important position – the client’s first contact with his business?
But if she got the job, working in the sophisticated metropolis of Sydney, how exciting that would be!
Shivers ran up and down her spine as she sat waiting in the outer office until Mr Thomas was ready to see her. What was he like? What sort of as boss would he be – if she got the job? When she was finally ushered into his office she found he was slim, middle-aged, with a pleasant face and a brisk, business-like manner.
He looked up from a letter he was reading. ‘Ah, Erin McDonald,’ he greeted her. ‘Please take a seat.’ He gestured to the chair in front of his desk.
Erin was aware he scrutinised her as she crossed the room to sit opposite him. He took in her looks – slender figure, deep green eyes with black eyelashes, and dark auburn hair.
‘I’ve been reading your reference from our Newcastle office. John Hill speaks highly of you.
‘That’s very kind of him.’
‘Do you think you’d like to work here, Erin?’
‘Yes. I’d love to work here.’
‘Do you enjoy meeting people?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘I see that you took on the receptionist job in the Newcastle office when their regular girl was on leave. How did you find that?’
‘It was stimulating.’ She smiled. ‘Meeting all the clients face to face. I enjoyed that. I’d love to do it permanently.’
‘Then I would like to offer you the same position here.’ He smiled at her. ‘Will you accept it?’
The blood rushed to Erin’s head. She gulped before she had breath to answer. ‘Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much.’
When she walked out into the street a little later she felt as if she was floating. Receptionist at Atkins and Thomas, Chartered Accountants, of Pitt Street, Sydney. How good was that!
She bought a paper and carried it into a coffee shop. As she sipped her coffee she made a list of flats available for rent that were open for inspection today. The first four she viewed were dark and pokey, and she crossed them off her list.
The next one was a bed-sitter on the second floor of a building in Macleay Street in Kings Cross. When she climbed the steps to the door of 2A the agent was waiting to show prospective tenants through, and he invited her in.
The first thing that struck her was the sun streaming in through the double windows. She crossed the room and looked out. Opposite was the El Alamein fountain and the Fitzroy Gardens. She turned away from the view. The flat was bright and cheerful, and she fell in love with it. She went through the motions of inspecting the tiny bathroom and kitchen area, but she had made up her mind. She could be happy living here. She signed a lease right away.
She moved her belongings in the next weekend, and settled to life in Sydney. Just as the psychic had predicted.
Erin had been in her new job three weeks when she met Giles Brightman. A long-time client of the firm, he’d come in for a meeting with Mr Thomas. A striking figure, tall, dark and solid looking, without an ounce of fat on him. He exuded self-confidence and power.
‘You’re new here, aren’t you?’ he asked her, his eyes assessing her as he spoke.
‘Yes, Mr Brightman,’ she replied, smiling as she did at all the clients.
‘What’s your name?’
That’s Irish, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. My parents came here from Ireland.’
He nodded, but said no more as he went through to the offices. When he came out from his meeting he stopped by her desk.
‘I’d like to take you to dinner if you’re free tonight, Erin. Are you?’
Erin’s tummy fluttered. Fancy this imposing man wanting to take her out.
‘I…well, yes Mr Brightman, I am.’
‘Good. Call me Giles, and write down your address for me. I’ll pick you up at seven thirty. And leave your hair down,’ he added as he left, nodding at the barrettes she used to keep her hair tidy at work.
Erin looked Giles up on the internet later. He was forty one years of age. Divorced from model Megan Andrews three years ago. No children, and…Wow! He was one of the richest men in Australia. He owned a huge conglomerate with interests in hotels, real estate and property developments all over the world.
Why would he ask her out, when he could probably have his pick of the society beauties around town?
As Erin prepared for their night out she looked at her wardrobe. Giles was probably used to escorting lavishly dressed women when he went out. She owned nothing glamorous enough to compete. But her mother always managed to look stylish on her secretary’s pay. ‘You can look good without spending heaps,’ she’d told her. ‘Buy quality over quantity. Make sure you always have a little black dress and one really good pair of shoes. Then you can go anywhere.’
So she wore her little black dress, and her best shoes. And she left her hair down.