Looking for Love by Kathy Bosman

“Ross.” Ella tried to choke back the tears. “Are you home?” She spoke to his voice mail, crossing her fingers, hoping he’d call her straight back. “I really need to speak to you.”
Looking for Love
Looking for Love by Kathy Bosman
Ending the call, she flung her Blackberry against the single, patchwork sofa of her bachelorette pad and stared at the room. She’d moved in a couple of weeks ago, thrilled to be independent finally, to be earning her own money. She’d just obtained a receptionist position at an optometrist. A great way to start her working career in her early twenties after a couple of years of Business College. But it all meant nothing. Steve had broken it off with her. Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away. Where was Ross when she needed him? A knock on her door made her jump. Her heart beat so fast that her chest hurt. What if Steve had come to beg for her back? No, I won’t go there. I’ve had enough. I don’t want a relationship for a very long time. “Ella, it’s me.” Ross’s voice echoed through the wooden panels of the door. “Are you okay?” He sounded frantic. Her heart warmed. Her best friend. He’d arrived. “I’m coming.” She flung open the door. He stared at her, his gaze washing over her, flooding her with understanding, with acceptance. Without a moment’s hesitation, she leapt into his arms. He cradled her for a long time, allowed her to weep, sniffle, sob, not say anything but blubber it all out. Eventually, her toes cramped from standing on tiptoes for so long. “Can you come in for a while?” she asked him. “Sure. I just came back from work. Was driving when your call came through. I stopped the car to listen to the message you left on my voice mail. Came right here.” “Thank you.” She felt awkward, unable to express the depth of her gratitude toward him. “Can I get you a drink? Something to eat?” Not like she had much. She’d been too busy setting up home and adapting to working such long hours. School and college had been a breeze in comparison. “Just water for now. It’s so hot outside.” Ella nodded. She hadn’t even noticed the weather. Every ounce of her concentration had been to keep it together at work and not bring her personal issues into a new job. Coming home hadn’t provided the relief she’d needed. Things Steve had given her for her house-warming party mocked her all over the apartment. “He was my college sweetheart. My coming of age relationship.” The words tumbled out. Ross reached her in a minute and engulfed her in another hug. Some of the pain evaporated through the warmth of touch. “The water can wait. Come sit,” he said. He pulled her to flop down next to him on the couch. The tears had been spent so she just sat in his arms, drinking in his strength and comfort. Her head rested in the crook of his neck and a measure of peace took over her, easing her heart rate and the ache in her chest. “Tell me what happened,” he said after a while. Ross had instinctive timing. He seemed to know when to hug her, when to say nothing, and when to ask questions. She could trust him a hundred percent. Well, so far. She sucked in a breath. Ross needed to know but she didn’t want to relive the memories of the past few weeks. But the concern in his gaze and his patient stance gave her the courage to speak. “You know I told you we’ve been fighting lately? Well, I really didn’t think he’d break it off. There wasn’t any sign he wasn’t happy, except for our disagreements. Well, they had gotten quite heated.” Her cheeks throbbed, the blood rushed in her ears. “What were the arguments about?” “He wanted more, wanted to move in here. You can see this place. I can barely fit. And I was so looking forward to being alone after living with my mom for years. I wanted to learn to be independent, to survive on my own. Yeah, it sounds silly when you’re in love, but shouldn’t every young woman feel that way? We want to know that we can survive without a man, that we’re not totally helpless on our own.” He stroked her head. “I’m sure you’re pretty tough. I know you’d do magically on your own.” Wish Steve could be so kind. Suppose romantic relationships mess up logical thinking. “Thanks. I felt like I was pushing him away physically all the time. It’s not exactly healthy, I suppose. Yet, I do love him, well, I did. Now I hate him.” She fisted the sofa, imagining his face there, then looked away. She could never hate anyone, knew she’d take the hurt inwards. “I’m sorry.” Ross sounded so sincere that she blinked back tears. “It’s not your fault. I just need to get over the shock. Maybe once it’s worn off, I’ll be relieved.” I hope! “I don’t know if the pain ever goes away. Remember how I felt after you know who? It still hurts when I think about it.” Ella moved away from his embrace and looked into his eyes. She could see the hurt lingering in the depths. Her heart squeezed for him, for the fact that he’d kept it all inside and that he’d also suffered. “But that was at least two years ago. I thought… You said it was good that you broke up eventually.” “I’m not denying that. But hey, it still hurts. The memory of the breakup always brings a bitter taste in my mouth.” “We’re so similar, it’s scary.” He stroked her cheek. “It’s nice.” “You’re nice.” Close up, he really had the best face in the world—a face that brought her the most comfort. He bent toward her until his lips touched hers, only a brush. She jerked back. “No, Ross.” What just happened? Did I give him the impression I…? “Ella, I…” He moved forward again as though she hadn’t just said no. “Ross, please.” She stopped him on the chest with her palm, closing her eyes to block out the sight of his mouth close to her. “Leave the kissing out of it. We’re friends. We’ve never had anything romantic.” “I can’t see why not.” “Do you have feelings for me?” She opened her eyes as the ache in her chest expanded again. She didn’t know how she would handle it if he did. “I don’t know. I care about you. You just looked kissable. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.” “Okay, you scared me there. The last thing I want is another boyfriend. I’ve had my fill of relationships for a century.” She rolled her eyes. Although her tone came out light-hearted, the fear he’d want more had paralysed her for a second. She could have lost everything—except her besties and new job—in one week. Ross nodded. “I can relate to that.” “I seem to keep on attracting the wrong guys, or rather ones who don’t understand me.” He patted her on the knee, once again his normal, kind self. “One day, you’ll find someone.” “Yeah, one day. But not today. For now, I’m concentrating on building a life for myself. We’re still friends, right?” She’d hate to lose her precious friendship because of an attempted kiss. “Of course. We’ll always be friends. My partner in crime.” He knocked his knuckles against her fist in a fun gesture. Phew, he didn’t seem at all offended at her pushing him away romantically. Truly a saint, he was. He opened up his arms and she rested back into them. After reaching for the remote, he switched on her TV, about the only appliance she did have. They watched some shows, the comfortable friendship and commenting on the characters’ actions adding to her sense of ease. She began to breathe normally again. Maybe, just maybe, she would get over Steve, after all. While they watched a romance, her mind wondered to the potential kiss between Ross and her. She shuddered. Only last week, she’d read her daily fix from the psychology magazine. It had touted the dangers of a woman building a romantic relationship with a man she looked up to as a kind of father figure. Many women who’d had absent fathers or troubled relationships with their fathers, especially as teens—Ella fit that mould perfectly—found a man they looked up to as a father figure. Usually a dependable, kind male figure in their life. She hated admitting that Ross took on that role. He’d been with her since high school, held her hand in the difficult times, soothed her heartbreaks, exactly like a good father should do. He’d been there when she’d hated her mother and wanted to run away to her dad in Durban. Every rant about her parents’ divorce had been piled onto his listening ears. And he’d shared his own heartaches. Argh, she could never kiss him. It would be dysfunctional. They’d be messed for life. She’d destroy him. They would ruin a good friendship forever if they went down the romance route. Her friendship with Ross and her three best girly friends were the foundation of her existence. She wasn’t about to risk losing his portion for the taste of his lips, no matter how curious she was at how the kiss would have felt. Nah, no way. No way, Jose. Pressing the pause button on the cable TV, she sat up and looked pointedly at her guy friend. “This is the deal.” He nodded, his eyes wide, a small smile gracing his mouth. “No romance between us. Ever.” He shrugged. “It will mess up our friendship. What we have goes deeper than romance. I don’t want to mess it up.” He nodded. “Ever.” “Okay.” He sounded defensive. “You promise?” “I promise.” “Shake on it.” She held out her hand. He took it and shook formally, his eyes mock serious, seemingly battling to hold back a laugh. “I mean it.” “I know. I promise.” He kept on shaking. “Sorry, Ella. You’re just so cute, the way you say it. But I understand fully. I don’t know what came over me wanting to kiss you just now. Just an impulse thing; I wasn’t thinking. We do best as friends. Friends forever.” He gave one last vigorous shake and they went back to watching their movie. Ella propped her legs up on his lap and leaned her back against the bumpy sofa arm. She yawned. Staring at his profile as he focused on the TV, she smiled. He was such a rock. The best in the world. Chapter One “I can’t believe we’re all here!” Ella Haviland sucked in a breath and took in the vision of her three mates chilling in her sitting room, chatting together and enjoying a Friday night of no responsibilities. How different they all were but they’d remained bonded by years of friendship—relationships that had passed through the fires of neglect, jealousy, cattiness and plain old selfishness. Still, they remained rock solid. Chicky mates. Girly friends. “It feels like old times,” Pauline said. Her strawberry blonde hair, set in a whimsical, curly style, brought out her soft, dreamy features that matched the gentle, creative woman who worked in a craft shop by day and ran a food blog by night. “Remember all those nights playing Uno and Jenga, watching videos and pigging out on too much popcorn?” Carol picked up her wine glass and took a big gulp. Her freckly nose crinkled in distaste. “The very reason I nearly failed matric.” Ella rolled her eyes. Carol had always been the serious, uptight one, especially since matric. Ella could tell her to chill again or not live with regrets, but it never worked. No. Tonight should be fun. No bickering. Or living in the past. She pressed her lips firmly shut to stop from offering a wise-crack response. She’d set out gallons of rosé wine, packets of bacon kips, dark and white chocolate—no ways would milk chocolate be allowed—and there wasn’t a single man to mess up their fun. Plus they were about to have a mystery box reveal. She couldn’t help grinning at the thought and glanced down at the parcel by her feet. “So, what’s in the box?” Andrea asked, dipping a corn chip into a cream cheese dip and slotting it into her mouth painted with perfectly blended lipstick, her professionally manicured finger nails accentuating her elegant fingers. Ella tried to mimic the actions of Andrea’s pouty lips and elegant hands when she took a handful of chips but her instinctive response was to stuff them down in one go. She’d never be as poised as Andrea, had always been the tomboy growing up. Only lately had she enjoyed dressing up, but in the end, comfort came before elegance. Her friends’ gazes fixed on her as if they waited expectantly. Ella grinned. “It’s a surprise. After supper’s arrived, we’ll open it together.” As if on cue, the doorbell rang. “Pizza delivery!” Andrea screamed as she ran to the door, her sleek, brown hair bouncing against her back like in a shampoo commercial. Ella fiddled with her wayward curls with a sigh. No comparison. “Are you paying?” Ella laughed as she joined her over-eager friend. “Nah, I’m checking out who they sent this time. Last weekend, the cutest guy came…” Ella grimaced. “You really shouldn’t be so desperate with a bod like yours. You’re gorgeous.” She perused her friend’s perfect figure with curves in just the right proportions, took in her ivory skin without any blemishes, and her elegant tailored pants and figure-hugging blouse complemented with a large, silver rose pendant. “I’m not desperate at all. I’m just looking. Curious. Research on delivery companies.” Could be for her work as human resources manager, but Ella seriously doubted it. Andrea had been single for over six months now. She didn’t do well as a single, but Ella had the sneaky suspicion she was in no rush to change that status. Andrea liked to window shop, not buy. Or so her actions of the past few months had implied. Maybe things had changed. “And looking is free.” Aah, she does prefer window shopping still. Yip, looking sure is free. The pizza delivery guy made up for the whole Q&A thing on the way to the door. Cute as a button. Giving them both a dimpled and roughened grin, he parted with a huge tip after handing over their treasure. The door closed, and Andrea and Pauline let out a high-pitched teenage scream. “Hey, you’ll wake up the neighbour’s dog and then we won’t have silence for the mystery box reveal.” Ella took the pizza boxes to the mini bar set up against her living room wall and broke the pieces and stringy cheese apart. Soon, she had several triangles arraying four plates. Her friends all tucked in, partaking in nourishment and great conversation at the same time. Ten years after high school, the Famous Four, as they called themselves, still did almost everything together. In the modern global village that had morphed from a segregated world, amazingly, they all still lived in the same place—Richards Bay, of all places—a coastal industrial town along the east coast of South Africa, with very little to offer except for blistering heat, mosquitoes, and an uninteresting beach. Definitely no talent as far as men went; maybe the very reason they stuck together through it all. And they’d been through enough already during the last ten years out of school. Plus she had to admit, two of them had scooted off to UK and Canada for work stints there which had proved more like ‘dip a toe in and run away’ rather than permanent moves. Casual conversation took over guzzling of copious amounts of cheese followed by gorging of ice-cream with choc-mint sauce dredged on top. “I really should cut out processed food,” Ella muttered more to herself than anyone else as she sat back, her bare foot on the box. She could lose a couple of kilos in order to look like Andrea, her ideal standard to measure up to. Maybe then, she’d find this elusive ‘dream man’ she’d conjured up in her head the last decade. He never seemed to materialize. Mind you, Andrea hadn’t found her one yet, either. So, perfection didn’t necessarily equate to love. Everyone looked at her feet. “Hey, stop watching my toes. I haven’t had a pedi in weeks.” “Me neither.” Pauline pulled a face. “It’s been a rough month.” Ella eyed her friend. What was up with her? She was the only ‘non-single’ if you could call her that as she hadn’t really started to officially date the guy yet. Just hung around his place all the time. But at least, she had someone. “What’s up?” She blew a curl away from her forehead. “He’s asked to see other people.” “But you’re not dating?” Carol asked as she rested her blonde head against the couch and closed her heavily-painted eyes. She remained dolled up from work and hadn’t bothered to change. Ella admired her neat suit and short skirt showing off her ample curves. She sure had attractive friends. “Well, we are, actually. It’s official from a month ago. From when I moved in.” Silence. Deathly, heart-rending silence that echoed Ella’s stunned mindset. He wanted to see other people a month after his latest girlfriend moved in? Andrea shook her head. “Ouch.” The word came out as a whisper, but it spoke volumes. “Don’t get him wrong. It was my idea to move in. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.” Pauline had always been the quiet, studious type, slow in going out with guys. This dude must be super sexy. Only Carol had met him so far. Ella looked at Carol to gauge her response but she kept her eyes shut and breathed in slowly. Maybe she knew more about him—whether he was worth Pauline’s heart being strung on a line, but Ella dare not ask in front of the woman. “I’d put my foot down,” Andrea said. She had neither a booming nor a harsh voice, but something about her tone always commanded attention. Pauline merely stared at her with her baby-blue eyes emanating her soft innocence. Andrea sat up straight. “Look, I know I’ve broken up with every guy I’ve gone out with, so you may not take me seriously, but really, are you sure you want to stay with someone like that? Give him some space, play hard to get or something. How long have you known him?” “A year.” “Oh.” Pauline laughed. “Hey, I’m not in love or anything. It was purely a sexual thing—an adventure. Something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the courage to try. I don’t regret it one bit. I’ll talk to him later and see what I can arrange.” She spoke with certainty, but Ella could see the hurt in her eyes. She hated it when people ended up with loser lovers. She’d had her fair share and so had her friends. If only there could be a perfect world where people knew who to choose and didn’t have to go through the pain of break-ups and incompatibilities. But perfect worlds didn’t exist, and it certainly wasn’t in her power to change anything. She’d tried with her matchmaking stints years ago—had always dreamed of saving people the heartache of unsuited loves, but that had fallen flat. And deep inside, she knew ‘that’ man for her lived somewhere in the world. Pauline leaned forward, a smile plastered on her face. “Oh, come on, El. We’re so curious. What’s in the box?” Her red-haired friend obviously wished to change the subject. Ella glanced at the parcel and her heart hammered with a strange excitement. “I’m not sure what’s inside. That’s why I called you over. A courier dropped it off yesterday—it’s from my late great-uncle who died a month ago. I inherited it.” Their eyes went large. “Ooh, that sounds so promising,” Carol quipped. “Your big ticket out of here.” Ella shrugged. “I doubt it.” She’d never been close to her great-uncle and he hadn’t been particularly rich. The box wouldn’t contain jewels. “At least out of your job.” “There’s nothing wrong with my job except the pay.” She narrowed her eyes at her friends to remind them she’d had enough of them always trying to find her another career. The optometrist receptionist’s job was comfortable and she knew what she was doing there. Why change? She’d get her yearly increase which would cover living expense rises. At least she had the security of knowing she’d built up a relationship with her boss over the years and they had a rapport. She wasn’t about to be retrenched at a time like this when many people didn’t have jobs. “Heavens, will you end the suspense?” Andrea said. “I’m about to jump up and tear it open myself.” Her long fringe flopped over her forehead, hiding her strong brown eyes. Ella ground her foot into the cardboard box peppered with addresses and scratched-out postal stamps and stickers. It had done the rounds. Probably been to every relative and ended up with unsuspecting Ella who would lap up any opportunity to enter fortune. She had to admit, she hadn’t turned out the most driven of her cousins. Her friends had a point that she settled for comfortable and probably dead end. Maybe, just maybe, the contents would give her the courage to… “Okay.” She made a flourish with her hands as she took her foot off the box. “Here goes nothing.” Grabbing a key, she then sliced the packaging tape apart so the flaps opened. Everyone came closer and peered into the box. Books. That’s all? She’d secretly hoped… Maybe she did want out. If she had enough, escaping out of her mundane would be heavenly. Imagine doing something totally different—having her own therapy practice or something similar. But she’d need millions to get a qualification and start up a business… Stop getting distracted, Ella. The box boasted old, dusty, second-hand books from a geriatric who probably read Moby Dick and The Grapes of Wrath over and over again. “Maybe there’s some money in them,” Carol said with her husky voice, her eyes alight. “Yeah, right. I don’t see any value in old books. Last month, I tried to sell—” “Just open the books, for goodness’ sake, will you?” Andrea tapped her heels like tap shoes on the tiles, showing her impatience. They must be seriously starved for entertainment. So was she, actually. She took out the first book and held it up for display. “It’s quite beautiful in its ancientness. It has a key.” Holding up the rusty, curvy, metal thing, she unlocked the little padlock on the side of the embossed, blotchy leather cover and opened it. Empty pages greeted her—almost like a scrap book. The front cover carried the indentation of a very simple yet ancient writing saying The Album, flourished with a paisley-type pattern around it. “The Album,” Andrea said with an echoey voice. “Sounds mysterious and magical.” Ella paged through and frowned. “It’s only got an empty frame on the first two pages, probably to stick a photo on, with an empty line at the bottom to write a caption. They haven’t even bothered to fill up the rest of the pages. Almost like an ancient scrapbook with yellowed, thick pages and covered in dust.” “Well, what are the other books?” Carol asked, her voice soft with awe. Ella took out several old books with plain bottle-green, leather covers and more yellowed pages. She gave her friends each one to leaf through. “Looks like short romance stories from centuries ago,” Pauline said. “I’d kind of like to read one just to see how people thought in those days.” “Be my guest. What am I going to do with them?” Ella’s flustered tone revealed her disappointment. “Give me the album, sweetie.” Carol stretched out her manicured fingers, concern in her gaze. She handed her the antique book. “Wonder how old it is. Maybe you could sell it and make something. Possibly you could sell all the books at a handsome price.” Ella stared at her friends. She’d never known her great-uncle—maybe met him once at a funeral when she was about ten. All she remembered was that he sported an untamed beard of mottled colours. Now, his sister was a different story—she’d corresponded with her gran quite often during the last few years. Despite hardly knowing him, she couldn’t just sell her inheritance. “No, it’s not right.” “Are you crazy?” Andrea peered over Carol’s shoulder at the album. “Give here.” She tried to snatch the book. Typical impatient Andrea. “Hey, look after it. It’s my only memory of my great-uncle.” They all stared at her. “Okay, I didn’t really know him, but I know his sister. Anyway, so what? It’s the first time I’ve ever inherited anything from anyone.” Andrea tugged on the album and nearly dropped it. A white envelope fluttered to the ground. Like a rugby team tackling the ball, the girls dived after it, but Ella scored first. “Hands off. This…here…it’s mine!” She pressed it into her chest. “I get to read it first. Sit down now.” She tried to sound gruff. Groaning and whining, they sat down eventually but craned their necks toward the envelope. “Read it aloud,” Pauline begged while she leaned forward in her seat, her embroidered blouse further highlighting her bohemian style. “Okay, okay, if you insist.” Her fingers trembled as she tried to open the envelope. It wasn’t sealed, the flap merely tucked into the folds. She pulled out a yellowed letter several pages long. “Whoa! Your relative had a lot to say.” Even Carol had dropped the too-mature expression she’d developed over the last few years from a broken heart battered by insensitive men. The same old story they’d all experienced. “Well, what does it say?” Pauline asked, her eyes shining with curiosity. Ella cleared her throat and read. To The Next Owner of The Album, “Sounds ominous.” Carol sat on the edge of her seat. Ella’s heart rate accelerated. For some reason, it felt like the next few words would change her life forever. Goose bumps ran up her arms. Maybe now, she’d get out of the doldrums and find something to wake up for every morning. If you have signed to take over ownership of The Album, your life will never be the same again. “Signed? You didn’t sign anything. Where are you supposed to sign?” Andrea asked. “Just wait.” Ella held up her hand. “Let me read on. Then we’ll find out.” You may never use The Album for your own purposes. It is strictly for an unselfish service to your community and the world. Now that you are the proud owner of this magical book, you will possess powers undiscovered by the people around you. Now all this sounded quite mysterious and mystical indeed. She glanced up and smiled at the gaping mouths of her friends. Things were picking up fast. Excitement, new and thrilling, sent its tendrils through her being. Blood pumped in her ears, and her fingers and toes wriggled. You may only divest of these powers when you sign off ownership of The Album to someone else. Please pay careful attention to whom you sign off ownership. They must be a trusted person whom you know very well. The very reason why you have been chosen… “Huh?” Ella giggled. “Did Uncle Stan know me well?” “Maybe he didn’t know of any other relative he could trust,” Pauline said. Ella’s head spun. She could think of many cousins more talented and responsible than she. Successful, accomplished. With a life. “Go on, will you?” Andrea stood up and knelt at her feet, her nose pressed in the air like an eager child. Once again, she acted very different around the girly group—not the usually poised, controlled career woman others knew her to be. “Really, you get distracted way too easily.” “Okay, okay.” The Album enables you to help people from all walks of life. It opens the door for you to see what suitable mate they should choose for the rest of their existence upon the earth. Carol and Pauline gasped. Surely not! I must be dreaming—projecting my inner desires into some fantasy. Ella’s breathing increased, her palms becoming sweaty. “Go on.” Andrea groaned. All you need is a photo of the couple and to place each photo in the frames in the first two pages of The Album. The other pages will come to life with their story. You can then read their story in images and work out for yourself if they make a happy ending. Wait, what? For real? The pregnant silence echoed the hundreds of questions streaming through her mind. You can now predict whether they have a good future with one another. You can warn people of poisonous relationships. Ella tried her best not to look at Pauline and had a feeling the others were doing the same. Who was she to judge? She’d stuck by difficult men for many stupid reasons. The only man who’d ever treated her like a true friend was Ross, but he was more like a brother to her. She’d never desecrate what they had by… She’d gone through that in her mind so many times. Yeah, she didn’t find him repulsive physically, but neither did they share that spark—the intense need to touch and kiss she’d had with her other relationships. “Earth to Ella,” Andrea said. She focused on the swirly script, her eyes sharpening. You can encourage others to choose the partners who will provide them with years of joy and happiness. It is purely your choice. That is the power of this book in your hands. You will possess a supernatural ability to look upon the images of their future life without being biased by what you see before you in the natural world. Outside stimuli and advice that contradicts what you see will no longer sway you. Not to say that the album will hypnotize you. No, it only shows truth. Instead, life hypnotizes and deceives you. How often have you fallen for someone who has only caused you pain? A collective groan simmered through the room before the girls burst out laughing. “That’s brilliant,” Andrea shouted. “We have the perfect tool.” “We?” Ella smiled. We. She liked that. “Can we all assume ownership together? Wouldn’t that be cool?” “It’s the best thing I’ve ever laid eyes upon.” Carol’s tired face transformed with childlike excitement. “You are the luckiest girl in the whole world, honey.” Ella continued reading silently. “Whoa. Don’t speak ahead of yourselves. I can’t use it for myself. If I assume ownership.” “What?” Pauline walked toward her. “Why not?” If you assume ownership, you cannot use The Album as your own seer. As soon as you put a photo of yourself in the book, the powers will cease for you forever. If you wish to transfer ownership, you may do so, but once you have transferred ownership, you may never take it up again, ever, in your lifetime. This is to ensure that the book is not abused, stolen, or used for evil purposes. It is purely an altruistic book. “There’s nothing stopping you from using it on your friends,” Andrea said. Ella frowned at her. “I’m serious. Pauline, do you have a photo of Roan here?” Pauline glanced at everyone, hope and a bit of moisture in her eyes. “I have one on my phone. But…I don’t know if I’d like to see…I wasn’t planning on marrying him or anything.” “Aren’t you curious?” Andrea asked. “I mean, the chemistry’s there.” Ella squirmed. Andrea probably wanted to prove to Pauline how badly she barrelled down the wrong pathway. Not really the right way to do it. “I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t even decided to take ownership. It’s a big respons—“ “I’ll take ownership!” Carol raised her hand like an eager kid in class. “If you don’t want to.” Ella bit her lip. “I didn’t say I don’t want to. I just need to read more—see everything it entails. It means I can never use it for myself. Quite a choice to make—to never make use of its powers.” “Not never.” Pauline smiled. “You could pass it on to one of us.” “Read on.” Andrea sat up straight. All the snacks and drinks were forgotten. Every gaze fixed on her. “We don’t even know if this is some practical joke. I mean, what proof do we have that it works?” Ella said. Carol held up one of the green books. “These are proof. Each of these stories has a date. They’re not fiction—they’re real-life romances.” She snatched the book from Carol and paged through it, then gasped. It couldn’t be! Hands trembling, she scanned through more stories while her friends leafed through the books on their laps. Ella could swear she soared up into the air in a hot air balloon, floating on clouds. She entered into another plane, taking the winds and currents of change, of excitement, and of new opportunity. This inheritance felt to her much more valuable than any amount of money. Now, she had a purpose in her life—she could change other people’s lives for good. She could heal broken hearts. You may use The Album to make money. Although this is not recommended, in some ways, it draws people and makes your service more legitimate. For that reason, you may use it to provide income. Your motive should not be to become wealthy, but the magic has no wish to stifle you and leave you destitute. The magic shows its gratefulness by prospering you. The Album also knows which persons can be trusted to administer its magic soundly. That is why it has been sent to you. Do not take your privilege lightly! If you choose not to assume ownership, you will in no way be harmed or discredited for your decision for it is a choice which cannot be entered into lightly. It may change your life forever. “How?” Ella pressed the letter against her chest. “In a good way or a bad way?” “It must be a good way.” Carol stood up, her eyes bright. “It has to be.” Ella laughed. “You just want me to assume ownership so you can make use of the powers.” “Well, we have to test it,” Andrea said, all seriousness and determination. “I haven’t finished reading.” “Do you always read the manual after you buy an appliance?” Andrea asked. “No, but this is different. When magic comes into play, you have to be careful.” “How would you know?” Andrea didn’t give up. “I—” Pauline stood up and created a barrier between Andrea and Ella. “I think that’s the very reason why Ella has been entrusted with The Album. The magic knows she’s a careful person.” “Whew, is she a careful person.” Andrea rolled her eyes. “Too careful.” Ella held up her hand in defence. “Is this about my job again?” She groaned. “Okay, I’ll make a deal with you. If I use The Album, will you promise to never bug me about my job ever again? I like my job, and although I’ve been in a junior position for years, quite frankly, I don’t want to move up any rungs of the ladder. I’m quite content to do this the rest of my life if I need to.” Not really, but it will shut them up. “Because it’s safe,” Carol said with more patience than Andrea. “Yeah, it’s safe. Is there anything wrong with safe?” “Well, that’s not safe?” Andrea said, pointing at The Album. Ella looked down at the letter in her hand. She continued to read. The Album will make your life richer and better than you ever imagined. But you cannot be afraid to use its powers. If you hold back, the world will miss out and many lives won’t be touched. “Sounds pretty safe to me.” Carol laughed. “Don’t you see it, ladies? This is Ella’s destiny. This album is the job she’s been called to. The receptionist job has just been a holding tank, a waiting period for her to receive the book in her hands. Don’t fight her, Andrea.” “I wasn’t fighting her. I just didn’t expect her to even try—” Ella puffed out her chest and placed the letter down. A sudden need to prove her friend wrong rose up within her. “I believe I have all the courage that’s needed to use this thing for its true purpose. I shall assume ownership right away.” “Wait.” Pauline shuddered. “What if you want to make use of its powers? You can never do so.” “I can. I’ll just have to hand it on to someone else.” “But what if you want both? What if you want answers for your future and also The Album’s powers?” “I’ll manage. I’m sure I won’t reach the point where I can’t decide between the two. I mean, I’ve managed all this time without love in my life.” Her body froze for a moment as she realised what she had to give up to use The Album. Her own need for love versus her need for something worthwhile to do every day. The opportunity presented to her may never come again. Love could wait. “But you’ve never found anyone, have you?” Carol asked, a soft question in her sea-green eyes. “Nope, I haven’t. I’m not even looking anymore. I’ve always hated seeing you guys…” Tears flooded her eyes. “I hate seeing you getting hurt. I despise those jerks who have broken your hearts and made you cautious and cynical and single. I want to see you find the right partners, settle down, and be happy.” She took Pauline’s and Andrea’s hands. “I love you so much. I can’t believe I’m privileged enough to be entrusted with a tool to help you. And to help the world. I can’t back down on this opportunity. The dreams I’ve had for years to read men, to be able to find the right ones for my friends, well, now they can come to fruition. I’m not going to pass this by. Even if it’s a hoax, I have to at least try.” They all looked at her, their eyes holding love and gratefulness and their mouths rendered speechless. “Pauline, email me a pic of Roan. I’ll print it out. I have a photo of you somewhere. Are you ready?” Ella caressed the top of her hand to calm her. “You want to know, don’t you?” Pauline nodded, her eyes wide and moist, her face pale. Carol hugged her and then Andrea. Pauline sat with her phone while the others chatted wildly and paged through the romance story books. Making use of their distraction, Ella signed the back of The Album according to the last few instructions in the letter. She studied the five other signatures, wondering who they’d been—the people who’d assumed ownership before her. Her great-uncle hadn’t been one of them, as far as she could tell. “There, I’ve done it,” she said and sat down at the computer to print out the photo of Roan. “We’ve decided something.” Andrea touched Ella’s shoulder. “All three of us.” “What?” She must have missed their discussion while signing The Album. “We’re all going to assume ownership.” “Huh? You can’t do that.” “Well, sweetie, we’re going to join you in your quest.” Carol’s eyes still remained surprisingly optimistic. “This is going to go viral, we know it. You’ll become popular overnight. You’ll need our help.” What had happened to her friend? Could it be the magic? “But…no…I really wanted to find the right men for you.” “Don’t you see?” Pauline said. “If we make use of the powers, we can never take over ownership of The Album should you ever wish to pass it on.” “Why not? It didn’t say that, did it?” “It’s just about implied. Anyway, we don’t want to use it. We want to help it be used by you to reach the world.” Ella shook her head. “I’ve just assumed ownership so I can help you guys find the right men and now you’re backing out. Are you being chicken? You don’t trust it?” Andrea turned the swivel chair so Ella faced her three friends head-on. “That’s not it. We want to give of ourselves for you. You’re our friend. We love you and we care for you. We know this is bigger than you alone. That’s why we were meant to be here tonight when you opened the box. The Album wants us all to run your business.” Business. Did she say a business? “We thought I’d do the accounts,” Carol spoke firmly. “My bookkeeping knowledge will come in handy.” “And I’ll do the marketing,” Andrea said. Ella gave a shaky smile. That sure would suit her bold and persistent friend. “And I can do the admin,” Pauline added. “You know, design a logo for you, set up appointments, maintain a website. I mean, you’re not resigning your job, are you?” “What? Not based on some supposed magic. But if we don’t test it on Pauline now, how will we know if it actually works? Pauline, what about Roan?” Pauline’s lips quivered and she blinked furiously, obviously to hold back the tears. “I know the answer, El. I don’t even need The Album. Our relationship was doomed from the start. I’m going to break it off when I get home tonight.” Carol and Andrea cheered and high-fived her. “Way to go, Girl.” Ella hugged her friend. “I’m sorry, Paulie. I know you cared for him.” “Too much,” Pauline whispered into her ear. “I loved him. Still do. But it’s over.” Ella squeezed her hand, wishing she’d never been through the heartache Roan had caused. “We’ll chat soon.” She winked at her friend to indicate a private time together. Then she turned to face her mates. “Are you sure, girls?” “Yes,” they said in unison. “Never been so sure about anything in our lives before,” Andrea said, raising her eyebrows and gazing at her friends for agreement. They nodded emphatically. “Well, I’m so touched.” Ella stood up. “I can’t believe you’d give up an opportunity to find the love of your lives for me. And running a business… Well, it’s a good idea to get things rolling.” “We’re the Famous Four,” Carol said. “We’ve stuck with one another through some of the most difficult years of our lives. No man has ever done that. Except for our dads, maybe. And Ross for Ella.” “Girl power,” Pauline said. “Girl power.” They jumped up and slammed their hands together above their heads like they used to as teenagers. Their signature gesture. “Well, then, what photos should we use to test it?” Ella sat back down on the computer. “Shall I just take some random pics off the Internet?” “You could do. Maybe some celebrities. Check out if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will always be the model couple.” Andrea laughed. “Or what about George Clooney and his new wife? How long will they last?” Pauline stood next to Ella. “No, I don’t want to know the outcome of those. I like the suspense of not knowing. What are tabloids for, anyway?” Ella sat with her hands poised over the keyboard. This felt wrong, playing with the magic. “You’ll just have to place an ad in the paper and start your business in faith that the magic works. Let’s not play around with random couples. Probably doesn’t want us to,” Carol stated. “That’s what I felt,” Ella said. “I just know we can’t make a game of this. We have to take it seriously.” “But you can’t open a business on ‘I hope so.’” Andrea propped her hands on her hips. “Gut feel. It’s pretty strong.” Ella shrugged. “Well, it must be.” Her persistent friend backed down. “I can see the fire and certainty in your eyes—something I’ve never seen before.” “Hey, let’s try it,” Pauline said. “Put my and Roan’s picture in The Album so we can see. I plan to break up with him, but seeing as I’m the only non-single in the room, I’m willing to be the first guinea pig.” “You’re sure?” Carol squeezed her elbow. “If it shows your relationship is successful, then will you still carry on? I mean, how do we know for sure this album tells the truth? Besides the romance novels.” “I want to watch the magic. I mean, Ella, don’t you want something to base your new business on besides your matchmaking skills?” Ella laughed. “Those alone would be disastrous. But yes, I do think it’s wise to make sure it works first before we take a plunge and start advertising. Imagine what Ross would think if I did this on a hunch.” Andrea picked up The Album. “I can think of a couple of guys I’d like to try with. But what about our agreement to remain detached as business partners?” “Look, I don’t feel ready for a full-on business yet. Maybe we can set up the structure in case things take off.” Ella sighed. “Pauline’s right. We need to be careful. This could cause problems if we play with people’s lives.” “Well, we’re here for you if things do start to happen, but I do think we should set up anyway,” Carol said. “Hey.” Pauline held up her hand. “My whole reason for being guinea pig was to eliminate this arguing back and forth. Whether The Album thinks Roan and I are suited, I’m going to break it up tonight.” “You sure?” Ella didn’t think Pauline’s heart should be strung up by false hope any longer. “Absolutely.” She winked. “Besides, I want to be the first to see the magic.” “We’ll all see it,” Andrea said. Chapter Two The Album lay on Ella’s lap. Carol held one of Pauline’s passport photos and a printed-out black and white photo of Roan from his Facebook profile in each hand while she sat at Ella’s feet. Pauline sat on her left and Andrea on her right. She bit her lip, closed her eyes, and sighed. I really want to help my friends. Long to heal people’s lives. But what if I mess up? The mixture of excitement and fear kept her frozen for a moment. I’m relying on something as fickle and make-believe as magic. How crazy it that? “Well, here they are. How do you put them in?” Carol handed her the photos. Here goes. There’s no going back. I’m doing this. She nodded as a way to set her determination in stone. “I don’t know how this works.” She took Pauline’s photo. “I’ll put Pauline on the left side and Roan on the right.” She placed Pauline’s photo on the rectangular frame. It was too small to fit into the little yellowed photo corners. “Maybe I should use prestick.” “Just try. Place them on. See what it does.” Pauline rested her head on her shoulder. She tried to imagine what her friend must be feeling. Petrified? Curious? Excited? Holding Pauline’s photo in place with finger and thumb from her left hand, she placed Roan’s pic with her right hand on the opposite frame. The whole couch shook. Andrea’s eyes rounded and the others watched on, their faces frozen. Tingles ran up and down her arms. The pages moulded to her hands, the photos sucked on by some force, magnetic or gravitational or something from another realm. A low hum emanated from the book as the shaking stopped and then bubbles of rainbow light, like the effect of sunlight passing through several layers of stained glass, surrounded the tome. Instinct urged Ella to remove her hands from the book as if burnt, but she kept them there. A strong sense of peace and joy came into her, and she had a feeling it was purely enchantment, coming from an external source, not from within. She hadn’t felt so happy and complete for a long time, like she suddenly believed in happily-ever-afters and dreams come true. “And?” Carol nodded. “Open the rest.” “When I can get my hands off? I don’t want to rip the pages.” “What do you mean?” Andrea stood up. “This is creepy.” She stood back as if to give herself a wide berth from the supernatural powers. “Wait, it’s easing.” The hum silenced and the pull on her hands disappeared. The light diffused, leaving a soft glow. She lifted her hands. “Here goes.” She could sense everyone hold their breath, even Andrea on the other end of the room. The pages fanned out as if the magic wanted her to see—lightweight and fluffy like choux pastry. She turned the page. Photos of Pauline and Roan filled the space. Well, the first couple of pages. Then blank. Nothing more. “Oh, well, I knew it.” Pauline stood up and waved her hands at The Album. “It’s obvious we wouldn’t have lasted long.” Her lips quivered and tears sprang to her eyes. Carol stood up and engulfed her in a clinging hug. Soon, Andrea and Ella surrounded the sobbing woman, Andrea stroking her hair and Ella holding onto her hand, wishing to clobber Roan and comfort Pauline at the same time. “It’s just so real to me,” she eventually said once the sobs had simmered down to hiccups that wracked her body. “Breaking up with him without knowing whether it would work or not, I’d kind of hoped it would wake him up to the fact how serious I am about us.” “So now it’s real to you?” Ella asked. “That he’s not the right one?” Pauline came out of the group hug and looked at her friends after blowing her nose into a tissue. “Do you know what the worst of it is?” Ella shook her head. “I feel like such an idiot.” Her mouth wobbled and she blinked rapidly. “You’re not an idiot. How do you know what the future’s going to hold? Seems The Album knows.” “But I should have seen the signs. They were all there, but somehow, the sex blinded me. It was good.” She covered her cheeks with her palms as if to hide a blush. Andrea giggled. “Really good.” “Doesn’t mean you won’t find another man…” Ella said. There existed, of course, one perfect individual out there for everyone. Finding him or her was the hard part. “You just have to find him.” Pauline shrugged. “Don’t know if it will ever be that good,” she mumbled into her tissue. “Hey, sex isn’t everything,” Carol said. Everyone turned to her. “What? It’s important, yeah, but many couples can survive without decent sex.” She shrugged. “What would I know?” Ella said with a tinge of resentment. “Not like I’ve really…” She clamped her mouth shut. She’d never been comfortable with sharing those details with her girly friends. Sure, she’d had physical interludes with guys, but nothing mind-blowing at all. She glanced down at The Album abandoned on the couch. The light had dimmed and Pauline’s photo had fallen onto the floor. “Anyone else want a go?” She picked up the book. “Anyone have a guy you’ve been secretly wanting for years?” “Well, there’s this guy at work.” Carol went to her handbag and fumbled for something inside. “Enough for now,” Andrea commanded. “I don’t know if I can handle that heebie-jeebies stuff again. That album gives me the creeps.” Ella laughed. “It was kind of Harry Potter-ish. Fun, though. I’m keen to try it again.” “You and Ross?” Pauline gave a loud, falsely cheerful suggestion, possibly trying to forget about her pain and think of someone else. Ella held up her hand and groaned. “No way. I. Do. Not. Want. To. Even. Think. About. That.” “Aw, come on.” Andrea came up to her. “I’m keen to see this one. You guys have been friends for years. He’s probably in love with you but he’s too much of a geek to realise it.” Ella held onto The Album firmly as if Andrea could have the power to place hers and Ross’s photos in. “Even if our relationship did work out, I’d always be wondering if I could have found the man for me—the one who makes my toes curl and my tummy spin. You see, a marriage may work because our friendship is solid, but it would probably be torture. For both of us. So the pictures may not give the full story. They could show a bunch of kids and graduations and new houses and cars, but they don’t really show what’s inside the person. Bother, I never thought of that.” “But the relationship lasting is proof,” Carol said. “People nowadays don’t hang on unless they really want to.” “That’s a very close-minded view.” Ella hated it when she was so opinionated but she couldn’t help it. When she believed something, she had to voice it. “Some couples hang on for the kids or for financial reasons.” If only her parents had done that very thing. Instead, they’d given up on each other forever. “So scrap The Album.” Carol’s blazing eyes showed her strong feelings about the topic. “No. I want to investigate it more. Think this thing has the potential to change lives. Pauline, what do you think? Was it worth it? I know it’s made you sad seeing the outcome and I’m sorry. But do you think in the end, it’s good you saw the truth?” Pauline nodded from her seat on the couch. “Yes. As much as it hurts, I’m really glad I know now. I’d hate to have wasted another breath or tear on the jerk.” “To Girl Power!” Andrea lifted up a glass of wine from the bar. “Famous Four rock. We’re going to use this album for good.” “Hear, hear,” Ella said. “I’m going to take it to work tomorrow. More wine, everyone? Shall I open up a bag of pretzels?” The serious gathering dispersed as her friends rummaged for a snack or went to the bathroom or switched on the TV to find out what was on. Ella kept on thinking of taking it to work the next day and couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling. No, maybe the business idea was better. Cloak The Album in some anonymity. If she took it around for everyone to see, it may get stolen. The word would spread that she owned a magical antique. If she set up a business, she could interview clients, ask them questions, get photos from them, and pretend to be professional. Hey, why not be the counsellor-type person she’d always wanted to be? Then she could put their photos in the book when they weren’t with her and give them her results. That way, no one would know about The Album except for her, her friends, and of course, Ross, when he asked. “I’ve decided,” she started once her friends were back in the room and lifted up her wine glass as if to make a toast. “Here’s to Exact Match, our new business.” Glasses clinked and the girls cheered and talked loudly to try to be heard above one another. Chapter Three Ella stood inside the glass windows of her conservatory-turned-office. If it weren’t for Carol’s insistence, she would have set up her home office in the dining room. She hated using her favourite room that seeped in the light from outside for business. Not many people in South Africa had a conservatory in their home. She liked to savour it for her me-time. Yet, Carol had spoken the truth. And this was more than a business. It was her dream. Somehow, her great-uncle had known the dream she’d buried deep inside her for years—to help people find love. Could her gran have told him? At school, she’d often been accused of matchmaking her friends, especially the Famous Four, but most of the matches had gone wrong so she’d stopped her prying in other people’s lives. She opened to the front page of The Album on her desk and stared at it. When would her first customer arrive? They’d placed an ad in their local newspaper and also on Facebook and online groups thanks to Pauline’s design expertise and Andrea’s emails to the relevant parties. It had cost a chunk of her savings, but her friends had promised to pay her back any day now. She’d already received Carol’s payment into her bank account. Carol, the ever-perfect finance lady. Ella didn’t know why she always complained about her job and career—Carol was an expert with figures. Oh, well. The weekend would probably pass like any other at this rate. A knock sounded on her front door. Her heart pounded, her mouth went dry, and her head spun a moment. She grabbed onto the filing cabinet to steady herself and take a deep breath. Within a few seconds, she’d stepped to the door and opened it. She blinked. “Ross. What you doing here now?” He frowned. “Well, nice to see you, too.” “It’s…well, I suppose it is a Saturday.” For a moment, she considered if he should be at work. Of course, she worked today, but he didn’t know that. “Come in.” Should she tell him about her new business? “I saw your advert.” He gunned her with a curious, questioning—could she say—interrogating gaze. “You did?” What would he think? She really wanted his approval on this. “What are you up to?” “We set up a part-time home business—after hours. To help people.” “Since when are you qualified to match couples?” His bumpy chin hardened flat. Why was he so upset? Tears pricked her eyes. Somehow, Ross’s criticism hurt more than she expected. “I’ve always wanted to…you know I like to help people find their special someone.” “Yes, I know you want your friends to find the right partners, but really, El, you’re jumping into things.” “No.” She sucked in a breath. “I thought hard about this.” “Long and hard?” She pasted a cheeky smile on her face to hide the quivers because of Ross’s doubts. “Hard, not very long—maybe a few hours.” How long had it taken since she’d read the letter and signed the back of The Album? Less than an hour. Maybe about half an hour. And the outcome for Pauline had only confirmed it for her and her friends. When she knew something was right, why wait? That’s what would happen when she met the right guy. She’d always felt she would just know. All the doubts, confusion, and pain would disappear when she met her ideal man. He flopped down on her couch and sighed. “I don’t know.” He reached for her hand and pulled her down next to him. “I don’t want you to burn yourself out. You work hard all week, and now every weekend, you’ll be working at home, too.” She loved that he cared, but this meant more to her than he seemed to gauge. “Only on Saturdays. And maybe week nights if it starts taking off. My friends are helping me—it’s a joint business. They’re doing all the admin and promo stuff. I’ll just work directly with the customers.” “Had any customers yet?” “Nope.” She sighed. “Want to be the first?” He gasped. “What?” “Just kidding. Want coffee instead?” “Sure, thanks.” He rested his head back on the soft, upper edge of her couch. “Been a long week.” Oh, so that explained his mood earlier. “Work still giving you a hard time?” “That, and the house is falling apart.” “What do you mean?” She stood over him, scrutinising the new lines forming on his forehead and around his eyes. She’d known Ross since they were in high school and to see him starting to age ten years later pinched at her heart a bit. For some reason, she’d thought he’d be young and carefree forever. “I bought a scrap heap.” “You chose it.” “I know. But once I bought it, I found all these hidden problems—cracks in the foundations, drainage problems in the garden, ant infestation in the roof, window latches broken, frames rusted.” That’s the first time she’d heard about all his house problems. He rubbed his forehead and she wanted to give him a head massage all of a sudden to ease the tension. He just looked so vulnerable and tired. Like someone very dear to her, she couldn’t bear to see that look on his face—helpless and despondent. It burst her mood bubble. “Really? You never told me.” “I’ve kind of been in denial.” “But you’ve been there two years already.” Why didn’t he tell her things? She told him everything. Okay, she hadn’t exactly mentioned The Album yet. “I know.” He cricked his neck with his palm. “Never mind about that. I’ll end up fixing it all myself, weekend by weekend. Maybe it’s a good thing you’re busy with your new business now. You won’t be seeing much of me.” “I can help you out on Sundays.” She hovered over him, pondering whether to massage his tense shoulders. Poor chap, worked to the bone. “What? Then you won’t get any rest at all?” “I don’t know. Maybe helping you will give me a rest in a way.” They’d always enjoyed doing tasks together. “Nah. I don’t expect—” She punched his arm. “Don’t be such a martyr. I’m going to help you. What’s decided is decided.” “Getting stubborn in your old age?” “Mmmh.” She huffed at him. “I’m not old like you—you’re already getting wrinkles. I just noticed them now.” He stood up and grabbed her hands. “Don’t lie to me.” He pressed his nose and cross-eyes right near her face, the tiredness gone and a mischievous grin lighting his face. Close up, she took in his rainy-day grey eyes flecked with snowflakes, the centre dark and deep, sucking her in. His eyes had always fascinated her. “You’re just jealous that I’m two years older than you and a whole ton wiser,” he continued. “Wise. You?” She pulled away before he could tickle her. Ross had gotten into this tickling habit the last few months, and she didn’t feel right about it. She had her suspicions he was developing feelings for her, and really, that wouldn’t go down well at all. It would totally mess up their friendship and then, what would she do without him? Sure, her chicky friends were her life, but Ross was a great sounding block when her relationships with them went bad. And they’d had their moments. Plus, it was great to have a guy to call when she needed a handyman or car repair advice. Or just a logical shoulder to cry on. Not an emotional, PMS, mood-swing girly shoulder. He dug his fingers into her waist, but she pulled away and ran to the kitchen before he could tuck in. Her heart pounding with the chase and relief of breaking away before he got really into her, she pulled out some mugs and brewed some filter coffee in her coffee machine. The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,” Ross shouted. Before she could stop him, he opened up, and she came round to stand before her very first customer. Well, she hoped it wasn’t a peddler or religious converter at her front door. “Hi, I’m looking for Ella Haviland.” The woman stood awkwardly, her face red from an obvious blush yet she wore a neat pants suit with her hair straightened and elegant, as if for an interview. “That’s me.” She swallowed as her mouth dried up. “I read on the Zululand Fever Website about your matchmaking business.” “That’s right.” Ella nodded, a big smile taking over her face and her heart doing crazy spins inside her body. “Well, I have… May I talk to you in private?” She glanced quickly at Ross. “Sure, of course. Come through to my office. Would you like some dark roast coffee? We just started brewing some.” “Oh, okay. That would be great. Thanks.” The lady stood beside her. She looked at Ross, hoping he’d help. “I’ll bring it through?” he asked. “Thanks, honey.” She squeezed his arm. He flinched. What was with the guy lately? It’s not like I’ve never called him that before. She led her client through to the office. Client. She’d always wanted to have her own clients. Silly, really. “Please take a seat. Now, what can I do for you?” She sat down at her dining room chair made into a temporary office seat until she could buy one of those swivel typist chairs. “Hi, my name’s Bernice, by the way. Bernice Collings. Um…well, I have a problem. I like two men at the same time.” She bit her lip, and her gaze flickered from her lap to around the room but nowhere near Ella’s face. “Hey, it happens to the best of us.” “Really?” She let out a breath and looked right at Ella. “I feel so terrible. I’ve been leading them on—I’m romantically involved with both, and I just can’t decide who to break up with. I think I love both of them.” Ouch! “I don’t know if you can help me. You mentioned in your advert that you don’t just match couples, but you can also advise on existing relationships. By the way, what qualifications do you have?” Ella had been expecting this question. Just not so soon. “Well, I have read up a lot on relationships. I follow several psychology blogs and have done some part-time courses on family relationships. I also counselled young people part-time at the Open Door Crisis Centre.” At least she could say that. “Okay.” Bernice nodded. “I think my biggest qualification is that I care. I’ve been through the mill with difficult relationships, and I can spot a fake a mile away. I want to help people bypass that suffering.” “Yeah, haven’t we all been there?” Her client visibly relaxed, assuring Ella her arguments had hit home. Ella nodded. Let her talk a bit, although inside, she screamed to try out The Album. “Look, I don’t know how to start.” She lifted her head up to the ceiling as if to find illumination there. “Let me tell you how I met them.” At that moment, Ross brought through their two coffees on a tray with sugar and milk. “You’re a star.” She blew him a kiss before he walked out. He stood by the door, frozen for a moment. Then disappeared. Huh? Bernice took some calming sips of coffee and then put her glass mug down to start her story. Ella listened and actually enjoyed the whole saga because she could identify with so many things she and her friends had been through mirrored in Bernice’s situation. “Well, that’s it. I hope you understand now why I can’t choose between the two.” “Really, you didn’t have to justify yourself.” “No, I do. If anyone knew…” She sighed. “I’m a home group leader at our church. I-I suppose I have a reputation to uphold.” Ella swept her hand across the desk. “Your heart is more important than your reputation. In the end, you have to live with whoever you choose. People’s opinions of us change from year to year.” “I know.” She nodded. “That’s why I’m here. I nearly didn’t come, but I’m glad I did.” “Okay. All I need is a photo of you and one of Steve and another of Rob. Leave them with me for a few hours.” Bernice narrowed her eyes at Ella. How did she do this without sounding cuckoo? “I want to consider what you have told me about your relationships with these men. I’ll also do some research on them on the Internet and social media—get a feel for what they’re like. You can fill in this questionnaire about yourself before you leave, too.” She handed her the questionnaire Pauline had designed specifically for the purpose of looking like a professional business and not a palm-reader. “If you come back on Monday night, I’ll tell you who I think will be best suited to making you happy forever. You are looking for a long-term relationship? I only work with those who—” “Of course I am. I love them both and want to spend the rest of my life with at least one of them.” She let out a shaky breath. “I feel like I’m going to rip out one of their hearts. How do I do this?” Ella stared into Bernice’s pretty blue eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t envy you one bit.” “You’re lucky—you’ve already got a decent guy. What guarantee do I have that the one I choose will want to spend the rest of his life with me?” Ella swallowed to hold back a choke. Bernice had thought Ross was her partner? She supposed calling him honey and blowing him a kiss could give someone that impression. Oh well, maybe Ross being here had given a good impression to her client—that she wasn’t single and had found love successfully. As much as she wanted to rectify the misconception, it wasn’t the focus of the interview. She took Bernice’s hand as she stretched to get the form and a pen. “I know you’re going to make the right decision. If what I advise you to do doesn’t sit well with you, then you’ll follow your heart anyway. I think I’m just like a magnifying glass or binoculars—revealing what’s hidden in your heart.” “Thank you, Ella. I feel at peace. I know it’s going to end well.” Scratching in her bag, she took out a photo of each man and a photo of herself. “Good thing I keep a photo of them with me and I had some extra passport photos in my bag. Else, I would have had to come back.” “You could always email them to me and I can print them out.” A sudden fear gripped her. What if The Album didn’t work again? Silly thought really, but this woman depended on her, was paying her for the job. She couldn’t mess up. While the young woman filled in the form, she sat there, the blood pounding in her ears and the tension building. Never would she have expected a situation like Bernice’s, and she hadn’t realised how much a part of her first client’s life she would feel. The Album had better work else she wasn’t going to poke around with people’s lives ever again. Once the form had been filled, she led the young woman out and promised to call her on Monday. Turning around, she searched for Ross. He sat in her study reading something on the laptop. “Thanks for making her the coffee.” She felt bad for asking his help like a servant. He turned to her and smiled. “You were in there quite a while. Did you help her?” “Not quite yet.” Should she tell Ross about The Album? What if he thought she risked everything for nothing? What if he criticized her impulsive decision? She’d always been so cautious. “So, you’re going to find her a handsome match?” “Um…this situation is a bit different. She’s already got… Never mind.” She began to walk out the room. “Wait, El.” Right now, she wanted him to leave. Usually, she enjoyed his peaceful, friendly company, but now, she wanted to go to The Album and put the photos in. In fact, she was supposed to call her three friends to watch the first official couple’s life unfold. “What?” “Do you want to find someone for me?” He grinned, and she stepped back, nearly bumping into the wall behind her. “Sorry?” “I’m serious. I need a girlfriend. You even said it—it’s been over a year since I had a serious relationship.” “You said I’m being foolish starting this business and now you want to make use of my services?” He shrugged. Was he testing her? Seeing how well she did this? “I don’t know. I prefer not to match-make friends.” Not totally true, but her three girly friends had all decided that now they were fully involved in the business, they didn’t feel right about using The Album for their own counsel. Seemed like a ‘no friends’ rule made sense. And it had been a long time since Ross had been engrossed in another woman. She’d see him less. “Why? Because you’re not so sure of your abilities? I mean, what do you base it on? How do you match people up?” He narrowed his eyes at her. The light from the window filtered into the room, casting shadows across Ross’s face. It gave him a jagged, serious look. He wouldn’t let up—like a pit-bull holding onto its rope toy. When did he ever get so…what was it? Interrogative, picky, difficult? He stood up and came to her. Prickles ran up and down her arms. She’d never felt this vibe from him before—he’d always been so easy-going, just a friend to rely on, not…like a boyfriend—possessive, checking up on her, demanding. Hurt swirled around inside her, but she stood her ground, waiting for what he would say. He brought his hand up to her face and touched her cheek, his eyes silky soft and sending some weird sensation into her. She gasped at the strangeness. “I don’t want you to get hurt.” His tone sounded so intense. She pulled away. “I won’t. This is my dream.” “Exactly why I’m scared. A lot is dependent on this whim of yours.” “It’s not a whim.” Her voice came out a semi-scream. “I need proof it’s going to work.” She flung her hands down. “Oh, all right, then. You promise me you won’t tell a soul?” “What?” Close up, his skin glowed with a strong manliness. She’d never seen this side of Ross before and it sent her world into a spin. His deep concern, beyond the normal casual friendship, made her want to flee, but maybe it would pass. She just had to show him The Album. “Come.” No backing out now. My friends are gonna freak! She closed her eyes for a moment then sensed him staring at her, waiting. She took his hand and led him to the observatory. “Sit.” He sat in the client chair, frowning so deeply and his gaze intense, that she started giggling and clamped her hand over her mouth. “I can’t help it, Ross. You just look so serious.” “This is serious.” She stuck her tongue out at him. “Lighten up, will you. I swear, you’ve morphed into an old man overnight.” He smiled and some of the concern left his eyes. His shoulders relaxed and her world tilted back into place. “Right. Well, look at this book.” She pointed at The Album and then took the photo of Bernice and the photo of Steve to place on the frames on the first page. A strange jolt went through her as soon as she pressed the second photo down. She tried to shift them into the centre of the frame but they remained stuck as if glued to the page just like before. Her hands stayed on, too. She looked up at Ross who stared on, his face edged like cliff rock, his mouth a thin line. He said nothing, but his silence spoke volumes. “It’ll come. Just wait.” He shook his head. “What?” The jolts died down. Her hands came loose from their Velcro-ed position on the pages of the book and then she scribbled the names of Bernice and Steve on the lines below, in pencil. Rainbow light like the reflection of dust motes in the sunlight sent blotchy circles around the book. She couldn’t help grinning at Ross as his eyes opened wide at the overt display of magic. “What have you bought, Ella?” He reached out, and then withdrew his hand in caution. She ignored him. Opening the book, she turned to the next page. And the next. Followed by each subsequent one. Photos filled several pages. Photos of Steve and Bernice together, going shopping, traveling to a game park, kissing, sharing a meal. Photos of her with an engagement ring. Stunning shots of a wedding with Bernice in her beautiful cream gown and shimmery veil. “Aah,” she sighed. So Steve it was. Pictures of Bernice with a swollen stomach. A babe in arms. Her heart melted. How precious to see a— “Oh, no.” “What?” Ross made a closer scrutiny of The Album this time. “They’re fighting. Look at this picture. He’s pointing a finger at her and she’s crying. The next one—she’s driving away in a mad rush while he screams at her by the front door.” “What is this?” “There aren’t any more photos. The Album isn’t nearly full. How terrible.” Ross touched one of the pages as if it would burn him. “Is this like a crystal ball?” “More than that. It can reveal any scenario you wish to try. Any couple who are placed on the first two pages can see whether they will have a happy future together.” “Where did you get this?” “Uncle Stan.” “Uncle who?” “I know. I hardly knew him, either.” Ross was aware of almost every fine detail of her family life. She could understand his hesitation. The Album had surprised her in its intensity. “How do you know what this book predicts is really going to happen?” He gave her that look again. “I don’t. I trust it, though. Many people have been changed by the magic.” “You can never know unless you live forty years into the future. You’re playing with fire here, Ella.” “I want to do this.” She stood up, her chest straight. “Never wanted something so much in my life before. Don’t you see?” She pointed at The Album. “It’s going to change people’s lives for the better. They’ll never go for the wrong person again—never get their heart ripped out and stomped on.” “But that’s what makes it all beautiful.” “What are you talking about?” She shook her head. Ross had changed. He’d become way too deep and overbearing. And argumentative. Before, he’d confide all his hurt in her. They’d bear the burdens together. Now, he had this strange…bossiness. Had hurt made him too cynical? “If everything went so smoothly, we wouldn’t appreciate the right one. If we had to step straight into a perfect relationship first time round, well, there wouldn’t be anything special about it when we do find the right one.” He looked at her, his pupils large, his eyes intense, prying right into her soul. She had a feeling he meant something more directly related to them about what he said, but couldn’t think what. All she could work out was that he criticized her again and she’d had enough. “Look, Ross. This is my decision. I know I want to do this. And so do Andrea, Carol, and Pauline. You’re not going to stop us this time.” He stood up and closed The Album as if to shut out the offensive sight from his mind. “Your friends are great, El, but this time, they’re wrong. I don’t have a good feeling about this.” He shook his head. “I’d better be going.” “Okay.” Get rid of him. Maybe their friendship was doomed to die now with her dream coming true. Could it be he was jealous of her dream finally happening? “See you, El. Look after yourself.” Sounded like a final goodbye. Her heart lurched. “I’ll see you again, won’t I?” Her voice shuddered a little. He spun round. “What? You think I’d cut myself off from you completely because I don’t approve of what you’re doing?” She shrugged and held her quivering lip from wobbling stupidly before his gaze. “I’d never do that.” He pointed his finger at her in a skewed way. “No matter what, El, I’m always on your side. You can come to me any time.” His face softened and something stirred within her. Something she violently rejected with her mind and heart before he picked at her feelings. He was out the door before she had a chance to respond. Her hands couldn’t text quickly enough to let her friends know it had worked. She apologized profusely for trying without them, saying Ross pressured her, and then waited. A slew of messages arrived, questions flowing like water down a waterfall. “Come here & I’ll tell you everything. Better still. Come & watch. I have another pair of photos to try,” was her last text. While she waited for her friends to race over, she prepared a quick lunch and sat down to read through a blog she followed on the RSS feed on her phone. Her mind annoyingly replayed Ross’s last words to her. Firstly, that he had a bad feeling ‘about this’ and secondly, that he would stand by her no matter what. Who said that nowadays? Even her other friends didn’t say things like that. They showed it by their actions, but saying it? With such sincerity and seriousness? Ross acted so alpha all of a sudden. He didn’t accept her decisions like he used to. He seemed too invested in them now. Odd! What to do? Would their friendship last? Why did it bother her so much? She had a dream to fulfil and the best girly friends in the world. She didn’t have to have a male friend, too. *** A few minutes later, Ross sat inside his car on the driveway of his house. His legs didn’t want to budge and neither did he feel like facing the empty dwelling again. Why had he bought a house? Why couldn’t he tell Ella he loved her? For the last few weeks, every time he’d gone over to her place, he’d planned to let it out, but each time, something happened to sway him. He clammed up and lost his nerve. Today had been the absolute worst. He’d planned to go there to tell her he loved her but instead had climbed into her about her new business and dream. Yeah, he was wary of it. What if things didn’t go how she planned and she got deeply disappointed? Again. She’d had so many nasty relationships with guys, and her job hadn’t been the nicest place for her all the time, plus she’d had some fallouts with her friends. Thankfully, the three close friends seemed to stick with her no matter what. Sometimes, he got jealous of how religiously she made time for them while he seemed to be the one making time for Ross and Ella. Not that she saw it that way. And his plans to spill the beans today had gone horribly wrong when that funny book had lit up like a Christmas tree and shaken the desk like some weird machine from an H.G. Wells story. What was she playing with? Would it bite her back if she didn’t do it right? He buried his pounding temples into his palms. And suddenly, she didn’t take his advice anymore as if she’d come into her own and didn’t need him. It made her incredibly attractive to him when she showed some spunk, but it didn’t help their relationship status. What if she became too independent and she didn’t need him around anymore? Would their friendship be strong enough to hold then? When had it all changed? They’d been friends for years. He’d even confided all his relationship woes to her since high school. Sometimes, they’d gone for months without seeing one another, but whenever she’d needed help with maintenance in her home, or advice, she’d called. Or when he’d just suffered a complex break-up. None of his girlfriends had ever been threatened by her—they’d somehow known the relationship had stood at rock-solid friendship. Until two months ago when she’d come over to his place one night, bored out of her mind and missing her friends who were too busy for girl’s night. She’d worn short shorts that barely covered her thighs and he’d teased her about something. She’d tickled him so he’d tickled her back. Then he’d held her hands in a one-handed firm grasp and tickled her legs with the other hand. The soft skin on her thighs had sent a swirl of erotic sensations through him that he’d never have expected to have with Ella. Why, they’d decided years ago they were too familiar with one another to pursue romance. They would probably either kill each other or get bored sick. Romance had to be exciting, thrilling, mysterious. It would feel like she was romancing her older brother, Ella had said. And he’d agreed with her then because he’d been deeply infatuated with Celine Morse at the time. He’d pulled her close and nearly kissed her, but the disgusted look on her face had made him drop all contact with her. She’d run through to the kitchen to get some space, but the rest of the night, he’d fantasized about kissing her and doing a whole lot more. Then it had occurred to him, slowly at first, but then in a whirlwind of frantic thoughts—he loved her. Had actually loved her for years but had been too much of a dimwit to realise it. He’d gone out with all the other women as a way to distract himself from the attraction he felt for Ella. He’d put it down to friendship feelings, although contact with her had always put him in a strange mood. Now, she consumed his thoughts. He wanted to spend every spare moment with her, but until he could tell her, he had to pretend they still had the same comfortable friendship as before. He’d nearly decided to ignore his feelings and leave ‘well enough’ alone, but he’d thought long and hard about the woman he loved. He could be there for her forever, keep her safe from dysfunctional relationships, be the guy she’d wanted all these years. It was a good thing. He just needed to convince her of the fact. Easier said than done. Something held him back. Maybe he feared she’d push him away totally. Could he hope that her feelings would grow over time? He did, but his patience was wearing thin. He couldn’t bear to be close to her much longer without touching her, kissing her, and taking her into his arms. But even worse, he couldn’t withdraw from her. A car drove up his driveway and stopped behind him. He frowned. Who could that be? The man behind the driver’s seat appeared business-like with his tie and dress shirt. A salesman? He got out and walked to Ross’s window. “I’m looking for Exact Match.” He gaped at the man, unable to say anything. He’d come to his place instead of Ella’s. Yeah, they lived in parallel roads and had the same road number, but still. The chances… “Take the previous road and it’s the same number. You must have come one road too far from the main road.” “Oh, great. Thought I’d gone totally off track.” Ross nodded and clenched his fists. The guy sped off in his fancy Cleo, and he frowned. Ella would have single guys stopping by her place all the time now! Not a good idea. He reversed his car back out. Time to return to her and nip this whole business idea in the bud. The grassy bank outside Ella’s house had become a parking lot. Seven cars parked on the side and the front yard opposite her home. What would the neighbours think? Had she checked about business zoning in her area? His head throbbed with all the concerns he nursed for her and her impulsive ideas. Problem was, Ella wasn’t the impulsive type. That’s what troubled him about the whole thing. She believed in some magic—this funny book—and seemed to be basing her whole life on it. He stormed to the front door which stood wide open in a high crime city and found himself surrounded by people in her living room. How long had he spent on his driveway dreaming about Ella? How had this happened so fast? He spotted Carol in the corner, dressed in a business suit and taking someone’s details down on a clipboard with professional poise. “Where’s Ella?” he asked her. Carol blinked at him. She pointed her pen at the door of the conservatory. “In there. With a client.” “What’s going on?” “We got busy.” Carol grinned. He stepped back a moment to take in the totally new expression on Ella’s friend’s face. Carol almost always looked tired of life. Now, her face shone. Pauline sat on the couch surrounded by people. She didn’t seem flustered at all. Quiet, timid, reserved Pauline. Huh? Andrea stood by the door, welcoming people in, barking orders. Okay, not everything had changed. He stood around, not sure what to do. He couldn’t interrupt Ella with a client. In fact, all these eager people hoped she could help them. Who was he to interfere in their quest? “Tell her I’ll see her later,” he said to Andrea as he walked out. “Wait.” She called to him, almost running out with him to his car. “Don’t go. Ella thought it would be good to have you around, too.” “What?” At least he could be close to her, but be part of the madness? “She thinks it’s better if she doesn’t look single.” “She does?” If he played the fake boyfriend card, it would keep guys at a distance—like the yuppy Cleo one who’d stopped by his home. The last thing he needed was one of her clients wanting to pair off with her. And he could make sure no stalkers visited her—watch her safety. It just meant his weekends and home maintenance plan would disappear off the horizon. “You talking long term?” Andrea shrugged. “Maybe until the business is established. Don’t know. Talk to El. She mentioned it.” “Oh.” As much as he wished to disappear, it didn’t seem possible right now. A sudden yawn took over as he made his way back inside and slumped on an empty seat. This sure was going to be a long day and night. He peered at his watch. Three-thirty. What time would she even close? Did he want to be used? As a type of prop or advertisement for her business? His life had drastically changed from four hours ago when he’d first read the advert in the newspaper. As he sat there, watching the madness, his discomfort grew. Nope, he couldn’t stay here and be a part of this fiasco. Ella had taken this huge risk where she hadn’t considered the consequences. All these people depended on her amateur advice. Some book inside played out like a magical slide show before her. And her friends dug for a piece of the cake, too. They’d probably played a big part in her decision. And now he must be a part of the circus? Could he reconcile this new tangent of Ella’s life with his own? He loved her, but… Maybe pure friendship had been better. Safer. He didn’t have to get so emotionally involved and invested in every detail of her existence. If her life became a mess, he could merely comfort her and be a shoulder to cry on. Not stress and wonder what he should have done to prevent it. Nah, too much responsibility came with love. He wouldn’t tell her he loved her. Not now. Maybe not ever. Could it ever work? The door opened and Ella stepped out the room with a woman in her arms. The blonde had puffy, red eyes—had probably been crying—and she gave Ella a huge hug like they were long-lost friends. Ella said goodbye to her and looked around her. A frown formed on her face, probably at the population dynamics within her tiny living space. When her gaze rested upon Ross, she seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Or had he only imagined it? “Ross, you made it back. I didn’t even have a chance to ask for your help.” “I… What do you need?” “Well, I don’t know. The girls seemed to have everything covered. My next appointment is in five minutes.” She pointed at the Cleo man. Argh. “It worked, Ross. The Album showed Danni that the guy she likes at work is perfect for her.” “Oh.” A queasy sensation swirled in his gut. “You don’t believe it, do you?” she whispered to him, sending unwanted arousal through him. “How can I? It’s not based on any evidence or clinical trials.” “Why do you have to be so scientific? What about instincts? Magic? Changed lives?” “And long term results?” “I gotta run. You can be the coffee man.” His body stiffened. She turned to him again, the frown back on her face. “You don’t have to stay, Ross. I can see you don’t approve. No pressure, hey.” She shrugged, seemingly unperturbed by his lack of support. “I—” “Just go.” She waved him away, her voice light and breezy. Where had she received this sudden boost of confidence? This light-heartedness from? He liked to see her happy, but he didn’t think he could handle being around when the bubble burst this time. When she went bankrupt or got a bad reputation in the city. Or when her friends blamed her when clients came back unsatisfied. Was he a loser? Maybe his love wasn’t as strong as he’d have hoped. He walked out, weaving his way through the chatter and bodies. The drive home only worked to build up the questions and concerns. Chapter Four “I’m about to fall asleep right here.” Andrea gave a big yawn and stretched her long arms out, nearly knocking Ella off the edge of the couch. “I’m still putting photos in The Album. Will probably be busy all night but you ladies can go home. Thanks so much.” Carol was already asleep. Pauline sipped a glass of wine in the corner, eyes half-shut. Ella peered at her antique pendulum clock and sighed. It faithfully swung from side to side, never giving up. Her vision blurred but she forced her focus back on The Album. Suppose, at one-thirty in the morning, no one was at their best. The Album in her lap seemed pretty slick, though. Every picture produced a result, even some only a couple of pages. Other photos filled up the whole album. They never showed death of any of the couples, but you could only assume as the photos revealed an elderly couple and then one of them on their own at the end. “What happened with Bernice, your first client? Did you phone her yet?” “No, I still haven’t come up with how to tell her neither of the guys are right for her. And I said I’d be in touch on Monday.” “Just tell her,” Andrea said. “It’s not that easy. I have to…hey, I could try Edward or Sheldon—the two male customers who came in. Neither of them had a woman to work with. I was a bit stuck with them—told them to put their details on file until I got in more match options. They understood I’m new—that the business has just started.” “Sure booming for the first day,” Pauline said with a wink, swirling her wine around her glass as if everything had turned right way up in the world. Ella wanted to believe it but she had niggling doubts. Ross’s questions he hadn’t voiced went through her mind. “When did Ross go?” Ella spoke her thoughts. Pauline shrugged. “Didn’t even know he was here.” Andrea sat up. “He made a duck for it very fast when he saw how many people you had in your living room.” “The poor guy.” Pauline sighed. “He is kind of quiet and nerdy. Well, he was at school.” Ella pursed her lips together. “He doesn’t approve.” “Of?” Andrea sat up. “The Album, of course. What else? Well, I suppose the whole business idea.” “Of course he wouldn’t. His whole life is based on logic and statistics, being a financial analyst at an insurance brokerage.” Pauline nodded. “Being a financial person didn’t stop Carol from believing in the magic. Even before she’d seen it. Ross saw it as I told you.” “Yeah, lucky him. He saw the first one.” Carol yawned. How long had her friend been awake? “It was nothing special. Well, it didn’t produce the best result for Bernice. Was special for me, though.” “Maybe seeing The Album spooked him,” Andrea said. “I mean, he didn’t have a build up to it like we did.” Ella laughed. “Yeah, he did get really agro after that. In fact, he has been acting out of sorts lately. I think he’s under a lot of stress with the house he bought.” “Do you think he’ll come back to help?” Pauline asked. “Didn’t you say Bernice was impressed you weren’t single?” “Yip, she was. I don’t know. I should call him, but I don’t feel like listening to his criticisms and strong opinions. I need to sort through my doubts myself.” “Doubts?” Carol sat up. “What doubts?” “Aw, it’s nothing.” She dismissed their pointed gazes with a wave. “What’s up?” Andrea’s expression softened. “Are you thinking you did the wrong thing?” “No, not at all. I’m having an absolute ball. But I sometimes have these niggles—what if The Album isn’t a hundred percent reliable? What if we’re leading people…?” “But the books.” Carol’s sleepy expression changed with the lift of her chin and brightened green eyes. “They relayed how people’s lives have been changed.” “Did you read them?” Pauline asked Carol. “Every single one.” “Well, I’ve read through one of them,” Ella said. “There just wasn’t much time with setting up the business in like a month. Even with all your amazing help!” “Don’t doubt it, El,” Andrea said. “This is your calling.” “I know.” She smiled wide. “I’ve got a new lease on life. Just wish my guy friend could give me some support on this.” “Do you want me to call him?” Andrea said. Ella narrowed her eyes at her friend. “Don’t you dare interfere. What diffs does it make to my life? I have you girls. That’s all that matters.” Through droopy eyelids, their faces brightened. “But get on out of here. We need sleep! Or do you want to park here for the night? I have enough sheets and blankets—we’ll all sleep on the floor like we used to as kids.” They rolled their eyes at her and got up to stretch. That didn’t go down well. “Oh, heck, why not?” Carol slumped back down on the couch. “As long as you make us breakfast.” Pauline raised her cheeks in an attempt at a cheeky smile. “Unless you want me to make my gourmet omelette special.” “I’ll make breakfast. You’ve all done enough.” The thought made her want to crawl under her duvet and sleep for days. But she felt good. And grateful. They’d done so much for her. They’d helped her get the whole ball rolling. The ladies were her best friends. While she set up their makeshift beds, the tired, sick-of-a-long-day part of her felt a little blue. How would she manage without Ross’s support in this? He’d always been there for her when she nearly left her job a few years back due to relationship problems with a colleague. Now, what if she hit a snag in the road? She’d be all on her own. Too bad. He could be a stubborn mule. Forget him. Revel in the moment. *** Monday evening, Ella had forgotten about Ross and his new strange ways and had a new, very troubling concern. One of her clients. He sat before her in all his masculine-infused glory, and all she could do was swallow nervously and nod, listening to his long explanation of his rocky romantic history. Trying not to show her attraction to him could be a great effort. The poor guy. He’d been messed around big time. She could so relate. Hence the rather over-exuberant nods and concerned frowns. “I’m sorry. TMI,” he said and gazed at her with a piercing look that made her shudder inwardly. “No, not at all. This is why you’re here.” Well, sort of. Part and parcel of working with The Album—she had to give the impression that she needed to know all these things about people to find a match. Yet, in the short time she’d dealt with less than a dozen clients, she’d learned a hang of a lot about human relationships. This part-time job and possible future career sure piqued her interest. “Do you think I have a chance of finding the right woman in this city? Or anyone in South Africa, for that matter?” “Here I am. Help yourself.” Get a hold of yourself, El. You hardly know him. He’s cute, yeah, but untouchable, being one of your clients. “There are always at least a hundred almost-perfect matches for you somewhere in the world. Well, that’s what I believe.” The Album had proven to her already that true love did exist for some people—she’d matched up three potentially perfect couples already. Hope had begun to blossom in her heart for her friends. And herself. Maybe they could find love; it didn’t seem such an elusive thing, after all. Maybe love sat right before her eyes. He smiled at her, an amused expression in his eyes and playing at his mouth. What a sexy, pouty mouth for a man. “You seem far away,” he said. “Just thinking about my own misadventures in love.” “Oh, so you’ve had them, too? Tell me about them. I’m keen to know.” He bent forward and placed his forearms flat on the desk, his straight-jagged-cut hair flopping onto his forehead and stealing her breath right out her chest. She took in three calming inhalations. “Do you really want to hear my sad, sorry story?” “You gave me some sympathy. I’d like to return the kindness.” “But I’m your…” He merely stared at her and electricity pulsed from his eyes into her body like a jolt of power unknown to man, or rather, woman. Whoa! “Oh, well, let’s start with my first relationship after school. The guy ended up dating my friend instead—after a painful break up. Then there was Patrick. He was so pushy and wanted everything for himself but didn’t bother to give anything back. Marius actually stole money from my purse. And David, well, he got tired of me after only six months. That one hurt—I really liked him.” “Loved him?” “I don’t know.” What is love? She’d better not say that posing as a ‘love therapist.’ He stretched out his hand and touched her palm. The fingers did a knee-jerk reaction of curling inward, mirroring her toes and the sensation in her abdomen. “Have you ever considered dating one of your clients?” She knew what he meant and usually, she’d be seriously put off by such a forward guy, but the way he said it—not in a pushy, lustful way, but a questioning, kind sort of way, her tummy did a flip and landed into her throat so she couldn’t speak a word. “I’m sorry. That was totally uncalled for.” He pulled back and stuffed his arms around his checked shirt which probably hid a six-pack inside, the way he oozed power and strength from his every movement. “No…I, it’s okay, really. I don’t normally get those requests. I…couldn’t really match you up with myself because I wouldn’t be able to judge the whole scenario properly—my subjective take on it would skew my perspective a bit.” And The Album wouldn’t allow it but we won’t divulge such details. “Let me put it this way—forget the match. I’ll pay for this consultation, but rather, will you go out with me tonight? Right now? Do you have any more appointments?” What? He wanted her? This gorgeous specimen of humanity thought her potential fodder? There was no way she could decline. No appointment, no shocked response from her friends, nothing would stop her from saying, “Yes. That would be great.” And she actually said it! She put on an easy, confident smile while her insides turned to jelly and she flung her knee painfully against the inside of her desk. She squeezed the edge of the wood with her hand until the pain passed, hoping he wouldn’t see how watery her eyes had become and think she was so desperate for a man, she cried at a simple date request. “I’ll pick you up in an hour. We can go out for supper. That okay?” “Yeah, that would be great. I’m famished.” He smiled and her tummy fell over and plunged right down into her core, tightening every female organ to its max. Imagine kissing him. He left, leaving his scent behind, and she sat in the chair where he’d sat the last hour and absorbed the residual body heat still in the fabric, closed her eyes, and dreamed. The office phone broke her erotic dream. Carol. “How’s it going? Got any appointments for tonight?” “I just helped my last and only one.” “Mind if I bring a work colleague over?” “Right now?” “In about thirty minutes.” “No, it’s not going to be possible.” Silence. Of all her friends, Carol was the most passionate about The Album. It’s like she clung onto it desperately because it had miraculously cured her of her cynicism. She hated disappointing her friend. “Can they not come tomorrow night?” “Oh, all right. What’s up? You okay?” “I…” She had to tell her friends, but how? “I have a date.” “With one of your clients?” “He asked me first. Well, I wouldn’t have asked him but he’s so cute. Oh, Carol, he’s the hottest guy I’ve ever been asked—” “You can’t do that.” “But I don’t want to miss out on going out with him.” “As a part of this business, I won’t allow it.” “Carol, please.” She balled her fists and wanted to scream. She did feel guilty about the whole thing but she enjoyed being naughty and doing something reckless and crazy for a change—in the love sense, of course. And Carol wanted to stop that. “I’ll call you back.” She hung up, leaving Ella wondering who of the Famous Four she’d call first and get on her side. At least Ross would understand. He’d been bugging her to go on a date for over a year because she’d backed off from dating altogether, deciding it was too stressful, and there was no point doing it until she’d found someone worth going out with. Should she call him? Ask his advice? He’d been anti-The Album for so long. This time, she wasn’t using The Album. It really had very little to do with it. Without thinking too deeply about it, she called Ross. “Hi.” He sounded so quiet, so serious. She nearly dropped the phone as if it were a hot coal. “Ella?” He knew it was her. How did he? “Yeah, it’s me.” “Oh, I’m so glad. Been worried about you. Did you survive Saturday with all those people in your house? Were any of them chancers or losers come to take advantage of you?” “Ross, none of them. They were all legit and very good clients. Talking about clients, one of them asked me on a date today.” Her voice came out fake upbeat. “Can you believe it? At last I said yes.” “You what?” Not the response she had expected. “He doesn’t mind not being my client. I mean, I can forego one payment. It’s going well. Anyway, I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing it to help my community.” “I knew you’d get sucked in by these creeps. They’re guys who can’t find a decent girl, so they—” “Ross, come on. He’s really nice. We had a long chat. He’s a lot like you—had some bad luck relationships. We have that in common. Maybe there’s a chance.” Silence. She should have kept her mouth shut and not told a soul. Seemed like no one wanted to share in her joy. “I can’t say I trust this. I can’t tell you what to do, but I just don’t feel right about it.” One up on Carol. But still bossy. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you—” “No, El. You must tell me. I suppose.” He sounded so sad. Her insides lurched. Suddenly, the date with Dirk didn’t seem so exciting anymore. “It doesn’t mean our friendship is over. You know that. We’ve always made it clear right from the beginning to our dates that we have this friendship between us.” “I know.” Her heart churned inside of her. What was up with him? She didn’t like him to be sad. It kind of burst the bubble of happiness since she’d said yes to her date. “Are you okay, Ross?” “I don’t know. Let me come over.” “Right now?” She looked at her watch. “Just for a few minutes.” “Oh, okay.” She put the phone down and rushed upstairs to her bedroom to dress for her date. At least that would make it less of a rush when Ross left. She put on her favourite smart jeans and a new blouse she’d splashed out on for a work dinner which she’d only worn once. She took about five minutes to straighten her hair and apply a fresh coat of make-up. She spritzed her Egyptian perfume on and rushed to brush her teeth. While the electric toothbrush droned on, she used her free hand to strap on her heeled sandals. The doorbell rang. She rinsed and spat and hobbled downstairs in her strappy shoes with the one buckle undone. She flung open the door. Ross stood there, biting the inside of his cheek. “Come in. I’ve just got ready so it’s not such a rush. He’s coming in about forty minutes. His name is Dirk, by the way.” Ross merely stared at her and then his face grew all soft and sentimental, like she’d expect her mom to be when she got engaged. He reached forward and stroked her cheek with the side of his forefinger. She shivered and pushed him out the way to close the door. “Whew, there’s a biting breeze coming in through that door. Must be rain on the way.” He didn’t walk in and sit down like she expected but stood in the entrance as if his feet were glued to the floor. Did he have a strong feeling about her date? Like this was it. Maybe Dirk would be ‘the man.’ Could she have found the love of her life at last? She bent down to buckle up her left shoe. As she came up, feeling a little light-headed from the rushing and the sudden head lift, she found Ross’s face very close to hers. Too close for comfort. He rested his palm on her cheek and then brought his mouth onto hers. She tried to pull away, but he gripped her firmly around the waist with his other hand. Ross was kissing her? Since when did Ross kiss…? Oh, darn, the kiss felt nice. Her head spun. Warm streaks of comfort sank into her. She closed her eyes and took in his scent. Ross’s scent was warm, manly, and quite pleasant today. Not like it usually wasn’t. Somehow, it didn’t seem brotherly anymore. He pulled her close to him so that her chest pressed against his and he stroked her back, sending more shivers through her. She should be imagining kissing Dirk. He was the one she wanted. Definitely not Ross. She pinched his arm. “Ouch.” He blew the words into her face. She slapped his chest. “Hey! You promised.” “Promised what?” “Never to do that.” “I didn’t. It was merely suggested. Years ago. Before—” “Before what?” She didn’t want to know. What difference did it make? Their friendship had been hanging on the balance the last week, anyway. “I realised I love you.” “Oh, no! I just knew it. You’ve messed up everything.” Anger pulsed through her. Her breath came in gasps. She could kick him out but the look he gave her tugged at her heart. This made things so much more complicated. How could she hurt her friend? The guy who’d been there for her for so long. But they couldn’t change the way things were between them. It just wouldn’t work. Anyway, looking at him now, he was too familiar. The same body form she’d studied for years. Where would she find the sexual desires for him? Yeah, sure, he could kiss well, but more than that? With someone she knew like the back of her hand? Not possible. “El, you look…” He took her hands. “I couldn’t help kissing you. I wish you’d dress up like that more often.” “Well, it’s been over a year since I’ve needed to and now you’re going to spoil it all… I’m sorry, I don’t know how to handle this.” She hated that she pouted like a spoiled kid but Ross had sent her mind into confusion. She slumped onto the couch on her stomach and buried her face in a scatter cushion. He didn’t make it any easier by sitting next to her and stroking her back in the space between the straps. She shivered again and tears came to her eyes and smudged against the pillow and her cheeks. Bet she looked like a stupid raccoon now. “I love you, El. I’ve loved you for so long but was so darned blind that I couldn’t see it at all. Until…I don’t know. I just realised it a few months back.” “So that’s why you’ve been acting so strange.” She didn’t lift her head and revelled in his gentle touch, trying to work out if it made her feel sexual. It couldn’t. It shouldn’t. But it felt comforting. And tingly. “I’m sorry I’ve been a bit short with you lately. It’s not really anything to do with your business or the house or work. It’s because I’ve been trying to pluck up the courage to tell you, but every time I did, well, it just didn’t seem the right time.” His eyes were steeped with softness when she looked up into them. “When your business started, I didn’t like it. I was worried for you. Didn’t want you to get hurt again. Then I realised I was getting in your way—becoming too manipulative and bossing you around. I decided I’d better back off a bit and forget the whole love thing because it changed the dynamic between us—it made things toxic. But then when you told me you had a date, well, I couldn’t sit back and pretend anymore. It would have killed me to see you go with another man before you found out how I feel about you. Not that I hoped for a positive response. Well, I kind of hoped against all hope.” The tears turned into sobs that she tried to stifle into the pillow. What was going on inside her? She didn’t want to hurt him. This was horrible. And he was so sweet about it. He gave the perfect love confession. Whatever girl nabbed him one day would be the happiest woman in the whole world. “Why are you crying?” He stroked her back and then bent down to give her a squeeze. “I don’t want to hurt you, Ross.” He pulled away and the stroking stopped. Her heart felt as cold as the Arctic. “I could try to make it happen between us.” She sat up, not caring about the tears and the state of her hair. It was Ross, anyway. “But it would probably mess things up really bad and hurt us both in the long run, even more than I’m going to hurt you now.” He nodded, his eyes speaking volumes to her. She grabbed his hand. “I do love you, Ross, but not in the same way. And I want it to stay like that.” He shook his head. “I don’t know if I can do that.” “What do you mean?” “I can’t keep on seeing you and not kiss you or hold you. It would kill me slowly and painfully.” “I knew it would come to this, eventually.” She dropped her head down and looked at their hands intertwined. As good as it felt to be close to Ross physically, she didn’t know if she could go all the way with him. Didn’t know if it would last. Before they both ended up with broken hearts. She let go of his hand. At least she had a date to look forward to. Else this night would be the pits. “I don’t want our friendship to be messed up, Ross. If we took a break of sorts? Time to cool off. Then pick up from where we left off?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t want to leave you. I care about you too much. But I’m becoming a monster, too. Yes, maybe a break will be a good thing.” He ran a hand through his fringe, sending the curly, thick brown locks into a cowlick. She had to clamp her lips together to stop a giggle from coming out. “Okay, then a break it is.” She sucked in a calming breath and stood up. “I’d better go and neaten up again. Can’t go on a first date with mascara on my cheeks and mussed hair.” “You look perfect like that. I always liked you a bit rough and tumble.” “Ross.” What did he mean by that? Was it a sexual connotation? Her cheeks became hot, and with shaky legs, she made her way back upstairs to fix herself up. Peering down from the top of the stairs, she called to him. “Let yourself out if you want.” “I will, then.” He sounded strong but she sensed it—the hurt seeped through her house and hung like a rotten fruit from her ceiling. She sat by her dressing table and looked at herself in the mirror. Self-loathing made it very difficult to see herself as beautiful for a date. She couldn’t even look herself in the eyes. How could she have done that to him? No, it was better for both of them. Yet, she’d become one of those women who’d broken Ross’s heart. She’d always wanted to take revenge on the women who’d hurt him in the past—send them stinking letters about how wonderful Ross was and how insensitive they were to dump him or treat him like dirt. Now, she’d become one of them. “You did the right thing,” she spoke to her make-up box. “Saved him and yourself from untold hardship and heartache. And you did it nicely. Not like you…” She glanced at her crumpled-up face in the mirror. Why the tears now? What was wrong with her? The pain emanated from an assurance deep inside that this was going to be a break from their friendship. She knew, like a stone sitting in the centre of her gut—she’d never see Ross ever again. And it hurt. Come on, El. You’ve got a date in like… She looked at her watch. Ten minutes. She scrubbed at the errant waterworks on her cheeks with her fingers, tapped them dry with a cotton wool round, and then applied some concealer. She slathered mascara on her lashes and forced herself not to cry. But the dry, empty feeling didn’t want to leave her alone. Even when Dirk came to fetch her wearing the most stunning outfit she could have ever have imagined on him. Chapter Five Pauline sat on Ella’s little patio that extended onto the back of her property. The patio gave a view of a dishevelled back garden with an unused rusty bench and table at the bottom. She shuffled in her chair but had a serene expression on her face. Ella smiled and then peered down at her garden. “I really should do something about my back yard.” She sipped her pineapple juice and clinked the ice blocks around. “But what for?” “Yeah, what for?” Pauline raised an agreeable eyebrow at her. “I sometimes walk around the yard and breathe in the fresh air—especially in winter when the stuffy humidity has eased. I would love to pick flowers sometimes. But there’s nothing growing. I think I’ll plant some soon.” “Good idea.” Pauline smiled and focused back on her novel, then back at her. “Why aren’t you reading? I thought you wanted to read the green books.” “Nah.” The pineapple juice made an acidic sensation in her throat. Indigestion had been her companion since she’d ripped Ross’s heart out. “Had any clients this week?” Pauline asked. “Only Carol’s work colleague. I managed to match her with one of my other clients. They’re meeting on Friday night for a blind date.” “Why so quiet?” Ella shrugged. How could she tell her? “It’s picking up tomorrow.” “Are you still enjoying it?” Pauline always asked things with concern and a chance to sympathise. She never gave the impression of checking up on her, like Andrea and Carol sometimes did. Ella shrugged and turned away. Her eyes still stung from all the crying episodes at night while trying to fall off to sleep. “How did your date go?” “Good. We’re going out again on Sunday. He’s taking me for a game drive.” “Sounds wonderful. Carol told me about it. She was most upset, but really, didn’t the letter say The Album would change your life for good?” “It did, I suppose.” She looked at her friend and sucked in a breath. “Thanks.” She’d needed to hear that. Maybe Dirk was the one for her. She just needed to let go and open her heart. She believed in happily-ever-afters now. Not in theory, but in practice. Sort of. “I was kissed by two men on the same night.” Ella blurted out her thoughts without thinking too hard about the consequences. There, she’d let it out. It felt better. Pauline looked up and registered surprise. Usually, she was good at keeping her surprise hidden to not make a person feel awkward. The statement must have really shocked her. “You had two dates?” “Yes, Dirk did kiss me—at the end of our date. Perfect gentleman—not asking for anything more.” Ella fiddled with a drinking straw in her hand. “How was it?” “Good.” He’d kissed her perfectly. Tender, tentative at first—almost shy, and then deeper and more sensually, but nothing over the top like serious tongue tangles or sticking roaming hands up her shirt. Afterwards, he’d given her a warm hug and a peck on the cheek to say goodbye. She’d expected to swoon for hours afterwards, but she supposed she wasn’t in her late teens anymore and had experienced many first kisses with guys. Just Dirk was supposed to be ‘the’ one or at least, a great boyfriend experience to remember into grandparenthood. “And the other kiss?” Pauline tilted her face and her expression was soft, questioning. “Ross.” “Really?” She didn’t look as surprised this time. “Why?” “He confessed he’s been in love with me for a few months but never had the courage to tell me.” Pauline gaped. “So he kissed you instead?” “Yip.” “How was it?” “Not what I expected.” Her friend frowned. “What do you mean?” Ella’s face heated. “Not as icky as I expected.” “You mean it was sexy and romantic?” “Well, I was mad as nails but it didn’t feel like my brother kissing me.” Pauline laughed. “So now you have to choose between hunk Dirk and geeky, best friend Ross.” “Ross isn’t geeky anymore. But no, I sent him packing.” “Who?” “Ross.” A strange expression flitted over her friend’s face. “You what?” “I told him it wouldn’t work between us. He wanted to break off the friendship for good—said he couldn’t handle not having all of me, but I offered a break instead. Give him time to calm down and realise how stupid he’s being.” “You didn’t say that, did you?” “Well, not in those same words.” Pauline stared out at the trees blowing in a salty breeze from the sea only a few kilometres away. She didn’t say anything. Sometimes, her silence made Ella feel uncomfortable. Today, it only made her wonder again if she’d been mean to Ross. But she couldn’t go out with him just to not hurt his feelings. “You sure you don’t want to give him and you a go?” Pauline ran her fingers down the pages of her book with tenderness. “Why?” Ella’s voice came out indignant. “Well, if you felt something with that kiss…” “That means nothing. I felt something with Dirk’s kiss.” Pauline shrugged. “Pity you can’t use The Album.” “Argh.” Ella pressed her hands onto her temples. “Don’t even suggest I give up The Album for this. I know it wouldn’t work with Ross.” “Sorry.” She looked sheepish. “I just assumed…Well, I’d kind of like to have a friend turned lover romance. They always seemed so sweet and romantic.” Ella pretend-gagged. “You’ve been reading way too many of those romance novels. Yes, I believe in true love now after getting The Album, but I don’t believe in those standard romance stories. Real life is a lot messier. And I can’t see Ross as a lover. As hard as I try, it just doesn’t work in my mind.” Pauline closed her book and stretched for a drink. She popped a strawberry into her mouth and leant back in the deck chair. “I could.” “What?” Ella squealed. “You never told me you like Ross.” “I thought it was pretty obvious. I’ve always had a crush on him.” “Why?” “You make it sound like he’s not worth nursing feelings over.” “Not at all. I can’t wait for him to settle down with the right woman. He’s been messed around so much by witches and bitches.” Pauline laughed. “Haven’t we all? Well, jerks and losers from our side.” “Shall I set you and Ross up?” Pauline sat up. “No way! I don’t want him to go out with me if he’s in love with you. That stinks. I want him to be crazy about me.” She twirled a strand of hair and looked dreamily into the distance. “And besides, I’m still trying to get over Roan. It’s happening faster than I’d expected. Mmmh, I’m sure Ross wouldn’t break hearts like Roan does.” Ella giggled. “I love it. I so didn’t see this. I wish you’d told us earlier and we could have done something.” Pauline smiled whimsically. “Nah, it’s only been a distant dream. We’d kill one another. We’re too similar—both quiet and serious. It wouldn’t work, as much as I’d love it to.” “Mmmh, maybe this break from Ross isn’t a good idea. If I can get him around more often, especially when you’re here, he’ll start to forget about me and go for you.” Pauline came to Ella and patted her on the shoulder. “Ever the matchmaker, my friend. Ever the matchmaker. Stick to your clients.” She harrumphed. Her mate went inside, leaving her to her thoughts. Ross and Pauline. A perfect combination. Yes, they were both quiet but what was the hassle with that? They would understand one another—be sympathetic to each other. She’d be so thrilled for Ross to have a good person like Pauline, and of course, her sweet friend would be a perfect cure for his broken heart. The heart she’d broken! Tears sprang unbidden back to her eyes. She had to stop beating herself over the head for what had happened. He’d gone against their agreement, okay, not by choice, but maybe if he’d been more vigilant… How had he fallen in love with her? She’d pondered the question the last few days and had come to no solid conclusion. Had their decision to stay platonic made things worse? Maybe by restricting him, she’d made herself the forbidden fruit. Placing her finger over her lips, she chewed on that thought, and the more she considered it, the more she knew it was exactly that. So, should she tell him?—fine, let’s give it a go. Get me out your system. What about Pauline? And Dirk? Argh! The confusion! If only The Album would allow her one chance. That’s all. What was she thinking? She stood up, brushing shortbread crumbs off her jeans. No matter what, she could never, ever break The Album rules. The Album and the business were her life now. Not worth losing over love. Love had never stood up to its side of the bargain for her. Why was she in the matchmaking business then, with a niggling doubt still running in an undercurrent through her heart? Maybe her uncle or The Album had chosen her to show her something—to restore her faith in love. She remembered she had a handful of couples to try out in The Album and who would see her tomorrow. Time to get back to the fun! Grabbing the tray of empty glasses and plates, she took it inside and found Pauline so they could work together on the couples’ options. *** The game drive in Thula Thula Game Reserve proved to be a real treat. Not only did they spot zebra, giraffes, hyenas, and several different type of buck which Ella could never remember the names of, but the company ended up being the biggest plus-side of the whole Sunday. Dirk never lost his exuberance tempered with kindness and interest in everything Ella said. He hung on her every word but not in an oppressive way. She nearly forgot her concerns about Ross and the decision whether to try match-make him with Pauline. Nearly. Until they settled for a sundowner on the outside of the restaurant at the resort. The fruity cocktail in her hand and wetting her mouth eased her mind. She smiled at Dirk who returned her cheer with a knee squeeze. She imagined him drawing closer for a good kiss. Oh, well, maybe all her troubles really could disappear in the light of his eye-candy face. He chose to chat instead of kiss which frustrated her a little, but not too much. The nuances of expression passing over his face were a much better view than the backdrop of the nature reserve. “Tell me about yourself, Ella. What do you do besides match up couples?” “A lot.” She took a few more sips of drink to ease the sudden flutter in her chest whenever she had to talk about her job. “Well, I’m a receptionist, Girl Friday at Esquire Optometrists. And you, do you enjoy your work as a marketing manager?” Send the ball back into his court. And it resurfaced in her mind—all his info on file even though she’d glanced through it briefly the day he came in and asked her on a date. She’d given him back his file after they’d dated, insisting he either date her or be one of her clients, not both at the same time. He’d chosen the former, much to her excitement and probably to Carol’s disgust. “What’s been bothering you today?” he asked, changing the subject way too quickly back to her. “Nothing.” She shrugged, giving a nonchalant expression to hide any questioning. A few more gulps of the cocktail helped, burning ease down her throat into her gut. She sighed and closed her eyes a moment. Maybe openness was the best way to proceed with Dirk. It wasn’t the notorious first date where you weren’t supposed to reveal anything too personal or negative. “I suppose I’m confused.” “About?” He frowned at her. “Not about us. I mean, I’m really enjoying getting to know you.” He responded with a satisfied grin and another knee pat. “I’m all ears. I’m a good listener.” She relayed her situation with Ross and added in her ideas to match him with Pauline. By the end, he had a delighted smile on his face. “I can see you’re in the right business. Do you enjoy matchmaking?” She nodded. “Very much.” “Well, sounds like a good match. You’ll get him off your back and your friend will have her wishes fulfilled.” Off her back? She didn’t really see his affections toward her as an inconvenience or irritation. Just, they brought so much confusion and fear. “I suppose.” “What reservations do you have about it?” “Well, for one, Pauline stressed I mustn’t. I also don’t think Ross is ready.” “I can tell you a story of what happened to me. I had a crush on a girl in uni. But then her friend was a Maths boffin so we often spent study time together. I helped her with the factual side and she helped me get through my horrible Mathematics One course. There was no attraction between us—I mean, I fancied her friend. But spending so much time together, the feelings do tend to develop. And her friend landed up with another guy so I asked my study partner out on a date.” “And?” “We actually had a decent relationship for a while. One of the only ones that didn’t end in disaster—we just couldn’t sustain it when she moved to London after she got her degree.” “Sad.” “These things happen. Maybe for a reason. Who knows?” “So, what’s that got to do with Pauline and Ross?” Sounded more like an encouragement to go out with Ross. Dirk couldn’t be doing that, not the way he was stroking his hand hotly up her thigh. “Well, you get them to spend time together. Maybe get them to help you with a project in your matchmaking business. That way, they’ll automatically begin to see the good in each other—well, Ross will in Pauline. I don’t think Pauline needs any encouragement.” “Brilliant.” She lifted up her hand to high-five him and Dirk slammed his into it. He bent forward for a kiss and she closed her eyes, the kiss being the perfect culmination to a stimulating and rather successful conversation. Dirk took her home and gave her another kiss outside her door, just like she’d imagined the perfect second date would end. She waved goodbye to him and flopped on her couch with a sigh. A perfect evening with a perfect guy. Jumping up, she ran to her bedroom to retrieve the notebook her mom had given her as a teen. At the time, the book had annoyed her. Mom planned her life out—every step, like when she’d change her hairstyle, when she’d change jobs, when she’d retire. And she’d planned Ella’s life, too. Hence the notebook. To write down her plans and for Mom to check them. “You have to plan exactly what type of man you want. You can’t just let any man come along and sweep you off your feet. That’s what happened with Dad. Our marriage ended up a mess, as you know.” Ella found the notebook and took it downstairs. She’d written a twenty-step sequence of how her perfect romantic relationship would pan out. Dirk had followed the first four steps to a T. Ross and she could never be. They’d deviated. If they got together, they’d be backwards. Messed up. As a young teen, she would have chosen a haphazard and unplanned relationship or guy just to make Mom upset. The woman had driven her crazy, with her need for control and structure. Many a time, Ella had threatened to run away from Dad, but deep inside, she’d known she was too much like Mom and needed that routine, that sameness. Change scared her witless. She paged through the notebook, the smell of its yellowed pages bringing back memories. Happy and frustrating memories. Every time she’d been mad at Mom, she’d missed Dad. But the way Mom spoke about him, she didn’t think he could help her. “He’d be a bad influence on you,” she’d said. So, she’d turned to her friends and then later Ross. Ross had become like a substitute for her father. Farther on in the notebook were pictures cut out from magazines of her ideal man. She smiled at her naïve choices. Then, right at the back, she found a photo of Dad. “I thought I’d lost the photo,” she spoke to the empty room. Tenderly, she stroked the glossy finish. Her dad looked very eighties in his puffy-sleeved jacket with the sharp collar and his weird baggy work pants. A giggle erupted. Then she zoned in on his face. An ache bloomed in her heart. Oh, I miss him. Mom always made me feel guilty for missing him. Anger burned in her gut. But Mom had been the one there for her all those years growing up. Dad had never bothered to visit, had stopped writing. Mom had taught her to be responsible, to plan ahead for the future, to think carefully about every decision she made. “I forgive you, Mom,” she breathed out. Well, that was pretty easy. Why did she still feel so knotted up inside? The anger really came from her dad. She stared at the photo. Could she ever forgive him for leaving like that? “Snap out of it. You’ve just come back from an awesome second date, girl!” she chided herself. Slipping through to the kitchen, she made a late-night hot milk drink and went off to bed, the notebook left on her couch. *** In the last week, Ross had spent every spare moment fixing up the house. He had to admit, the satisfied feeling of his progress did wipe away some of the ache in his gut. Not all of it, though. To add to the suffering, his body hurt from head to toe from all the physical exertion, but too bad, he wasn’t about to stop. While he painted the newly-fitted window frames a happy green, he tried to keep his mind off his dumb-ass decision to tell Ella how he felt about her, but nothing would work. No. He shook his head. He’d done the right thing. She had to know. He couldn’t have kept it quiet any longer. The only problem now was he wouldn’t see her again. He couldn’t go back there, ever. As difficult as the decision had been to make, he had to stick by it. It was all or nothing. Have her for himself as his woman in every sense, or not have her at all. How could he remain mere friends with her? And he’d always be reminded that she didn’t feel the same way. As much as he cared for her as a person, it was impossible not to be hurt by her lack of romantic interest in him. Yes, she was right. They should have just remained friends. Too late to go back and somehow manipulate his heart and stop it from falling for her. Sick. The whole scenario sucked. Wonder if her precious ‘album’ could show her that he was the right person for her. He slapped the paintbrush bristles against the aluminium window frames and groaned when streaks of green messed up the fresh coat of cream paint he’d applied to his outside walls. His cell phone buzzed a message alert tone in his pocket. What now? He had paint on his hands, and although his overalls already resembled a painter’s palette, he didn’t fancy messing up his new smartphone. Another buzz came through. Curiosity got the better of him, and deciding he could do with a break, he finished up the frame and went inside to clean his brushes. The sun had started going down too, making it harder to keep in the lines. Once he’d cleaned up and fixed a quick snack, he sat down by the kitchen table to read his message. Ella. Should he even read it? What if she’d realised she did love him back? Unlikely, but… Hi Ross. I hope you’re well. I’ve been thinking of you. I have an idea. I hope you’re game. I’d love some help setting up a website for the business. I want to reach people in the whole of South Africa, not just in Richards Bay. Seeing you’re the one at your work who set up the website and you did that website design course years back, well, I thought of you immediately. Now, I know we decided to take a break. This is different. I won’t be around much. Pauline will help you. She’s pretty good on the design side of things. I think you would make a great team. I’ll pay you both, of course. I know you’ve wanted to do up your house. Maybe the extra will help towards it. What do you think? What? The absolute cheek of her. He smiled. Typical Ella. Full of nonsense, always expecting him to be the saviour to solve her unsolvable problems. Probably why they’d formed this strange symbiotic relationship over the years. He’d have to say no. Have to hurt her and turn her down. Dragging his feet to the other side of the kitchen, he scratched in the fridge for a beer. He pulled open the can and tried to chug it down but it seemed to lodge in the pipe down to his stomach. How would he turn her down without becoming despicable in her eyes? Maybe deep inside, he’d hoped his love confession would get her thinking and pondering all their years together and she’d begin to feel the same way. He’d hoped that absence would make the heart grow fonder. Now this changed the whole situation. He couldn’t turn her down without being heartless and…honestly…he could do with the extra cash. Working on a website seemed much more appealing than painting, laying tiles, and fixing plumbing. Ross typed up a reply. “Fine, I’ll do it.” Ella: Don’t feel obligated to. Ross: I need the cash. Ella: You’re still upset with me. Ross: Don’t talk about it. We decided not to. Ella: Sorry. Ross: You can’t apologise for your true feelings. Ella: Ross, I hate this. I never wanted it to come to this. Ross: So, it’s my fault? Ella: I didn’t say that. Maybe we shouldn’t have made the stupid rule in the first place. Playing hard to get and all that. Ross: Maybe. Ella: Are you sure you want to help me? What about your feelings about the business? Ross: My feelings were all due to worry that it would bite you in the butt later. If I help you, maybe I can stop that from happening. But please, El, I’m not your saviour anymore. I can’t solve all your problems. Ella: What? (hurt smiley) You think that’s what I see you as? That I take advantage of you? Ross: No, I like helping you but things have changed. I can’t always be there for you. It’s not safe anymore. Long silence—long enough for the beer to be emptied. Ella: I know. I don’t want that, too. All I want is help with my website. Sure it’s okay? Ross: Yes. Ella: Great. Thanks. I’ll pay you a good fee. He sent a thumbs-up smiley and put his phone down, then went down the passage to run a nice hot bath to soak. Chapter Six Ella watched Pauline sitting next to Ross in her office. Their gazes faced the computer screen and they spoke awkwardly with one another. Pauline kept on looking at her as if to say, “How could you?” but she’d agreed to the whole set-up. Reluctantly at first. Ross spoke business-like. In fact, since he’d arrived, he’d spoken very little to her except for formal greetings and yes and no answers to her questions. Very different to the relatively open message conversation they’d held a week ago. She wished they could work somewhere else. Stupidly, she’d set up the extra computer in her office because of the large desk space, but now, she’d have to watch him, feel his withdrawal and sense Pauline’s angst. How would she concentrate on her work? She had about ten couples to try out in The Album. She took out the sacred book, running her palms and finger pads over the cover. The rough ancient texture sent shivers through her. Or was it the magic? The book drew her. She often spent her spare moments paging through the blank sheets, trying to imagine who would grace the pages next to her face. Should she have given it over to Carol and let her run with it? Find answers to her heart? Seeing Ross and Pauline now brought out the despair she’d pushed aside for years. Would she ever find this elusive ideal man? Was there such a thing? When you really, really wanted to believe in something, you did. But doubt eroded her beliefs on a day like this. Especially when one of her clients just wouldn’t match with anyone. “I’m going to the other room.” They looked up and nodded at her, oblivious to the turmoil inside. And Pauline and Ross always seemed to pick up her turmoil. Had they gotten wind of her matchmaking scheme? Were they angry? Too bad. I’m helping them. Sitting at the mini bar nursing a glass of water with ice, she set to work on The Album, careful not to spill her drink on the heirloom. Now to try out three more women for the man who refused to be matched. He seemed like such a nice guy. Nothing particularly sexy in her books, but definitely could be another woman’s type. Nothing off-putting about him, so why the bad luck? The Album sprang to life as soon as she put the second photo in. It didn’t light up as much as the first time but she experienced the same jolt of electricity through her body while the pages clung to her hands, refusing to let go. Once the shimmers had passed, the papers fluttered as if in a breeze and she turned to the next page. Nothing. Only about five pages with him and the pretty woman together. She worked the second one and the third. “Argh.” She flung the last photo down in frustration. What would the man think? He’d be a potential bad word for her business—oh, she couldn’t match me with anyone. Useless woman, didn’t find a single suitable candidate. And she had plenty of eligible ones on file. She could just match him up with one of the mismatches and move on with her life. Work with an easier client. But her conscience wouldn’t allow that. How could she bring more heartache to the world? What effect would another broken relationship have on the man? And the girl he went out with? Would it be the last straw that made them give up on relationships forever and decide to remain single? Would they give up hope in love? A bit like her. Picking up another man, she tried him with the third photo she’d flung down. The Album jerked and worked and then filled up with glorious pictures. Six kids! Phew, should she match them together? Imagine having six kids. The family photo of all the grandkids and extended family near the end of The Album showed people full of life, smiling faces, healthy complexions, complex, living creatures. How could she not give them the news? She stared at the picture for a long time. Was she playing god? This didn’t only bring people together; it made people appear on the earth. Couples birthed children. What if she matched together a couple that birthed a serial killer? Or the new president who moved the country into a new dimension? The inventor of the first successful time machine? Her hands shook as she removed the photos and tried out another man with the third woman photo. Dreadful. Divorce, one kid. Heartbreak. Yet, could that kid be the new medical researcher who came up with an Ebola cure? Did happy families automatically produce valid humans? She hadn’t exactly had a perfect family life. Neither had Ross. And Carol. Imagine the world without her friends. What if someone had crooked the books and made her not exist because they knew her parents would end up divorced? “I can’t do this anymore.” A noise of footsteps behind her broke her intense thoughts. She turned to look right into the piercing eyes of Andrea. “What’s wrong?” Andrea came up to her and hugged her from the side. “I can’t play god anymore.” Ella sighed. “What do you mean?” “The couples I match—they have children, right?” Andrea pursed her lips. “So, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” “Yes, but if a couple’s relationship doesn’t last, does it mean that the child they brought into the world isn’t good or useful or supposed to exist because their parents messed up or weren’t meant for each other?” “Are you thinking of your folks?” “And Ross. And Carol. And millions of people who have lived before them.” Andrea smiled and rested her forehead against Ella’s. “You can’t see it that way. You’re helping the couples to be happy. Wouldn’t you have liked your parents to be together still? To not have to have gone through all that heartbreak?” Ella nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. Andrea pulled away and gave her the kindest expression. As bossy as she could be, she had a way with people that transcended simple kindness. Her words, her gestures, her concern, could pierce the most closed soul. That’s why she did so well in human resources. She inspired people. “I want to help these people, I really do. I want to change lives. It’s been a dream, like, for forever.” “Then do it. You’re not going to match up the whole world and cause a population explosion.” Ella laughed. “You’re right. I’m just operating from a small corner of the earth, reaching a handful of people, changing a few couples’ lives. It can’t be a bad thing overall.” “It’s a good thing. Look at the first one you matched up—she’s already written to the newspaper.” “What?” “That’s why I came here. To show you.” She took out a paper clipping from her handbag resting on the chair. Ella held the paper with shaky hands and read. Her heart warmed as she discovered how much peace the match had brought to Queenie’s life. “It’s awesome.” She looked up to find Ross and Pauline in the room. Pauline shuffled from foot to foot, ‘awkward’ oozing out of her. Ross’s expression resembled a thundercloud. “What’s up?” she asked, her calm voice hiding the tremor inside. She’d done the wrong thing bringing them together. “We need your help.” Andrea turned to face them. “With?” “They’re helping me set up a website for the business.” “Oh.” Andrea frowned. “Sounds good. Are you paying them?” “A bit.” Andrea waved them. “It’s a good thing. We really need your help, Ross.” He merely nodded. Pauline pursed her lips, her blue eyes the colour of the sea at night. “I’ll go see what’s wrong,” she said to Andrea. “Thanks for bringing this.” She handed her the newspaper clipping. Pauline stepped forward. “What’s that?” “It’s our first glowing review.” Andrea puffed out her chest. “Take a look.” She summoned Ross and Pauline with her hands. They gathered around and soon the awkward atmosphere was broken. But Ross didn’t stay long with all the girly talk. He excused himself to go back to the computer. She considered joining him to find out what the problem was but decided against it. Better keep her distance. Wean him off of her and onto Pauline. Andrea received a call and Pauline pulled her aside, uncharacteristically roughly. “Why didn’t you tell me you also hired Ross for the job? I thought I was doing this all alone.” “You needed his help. He has lots of website design knowledge and a bit of experience. You’re only clued up on a design. You make a perfect team.” Pauline narrowed her eyes at her and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Did you only think of your business or did you consider what I told you the other day?” Ella shrugged. Keep it casual. Break the tension. “A bit of both.” She grinned. “Aw, come on. It will be fun. You’re cute together.” Pauline dug her fingernails into Ella’s arm flesh. “We’re so not! It’s freaking exhausting with him—he’s so quiet and I can never think of what to say.” Ella pulled away. “Well, it always takes time to break the ice. What better way than to do a task together?” “I’ll kill you.” Pauline’s face didn’t match her words, though. She had a small grin which put Ella’s heart at ease. At least, she seemed to be warming up to the idea. “What do you need help with?” Ella asked. “Well, we’re setting up the application form on the website and need you to answer some questions about it.” “Okay.” She gestured to Andrea that she was going to the office and then followed Pauline in. Ross seemed intent on the screen, deep in thought. Pauline sat next to him and a strange sensation swirled through her. She didn’t like it. He turned to look at her friend, his face serious, his eyes broody. Pauline blushed and her leg moved closer to Ross’s. Suddenly, she saw her guy friend through Pauline’s eyes—saw how attractive he really was. Straight out of high school, Ross had been quite skinny. At the time, he’d just gone through a massive growth spurt and his legs and arms hadn’t seemed to fill out enough. He’d always had an awkward stoop to make himself appear shorter. Now, he held himself with a sense of pride and Pauline watched his every movement. He’d filled out, built some muscle, and developed a more mature look with his daily shaves and older skin. Life experiences had changed his look. Made him yummy. Why hadn’t she noticed how attractive he was lately? “Well, what questions do you have?” Ella moved behind her desk—to create a barrier between them. “I’ve done a form for you but I don’t know if I’ve covered all the questions you want to ask the clients,” Ross said. “The most important thing is the photo. Everything else is just filler.” “Don’t you think you need to ask some questions to get to know the couples?” Pauline said. “I mean, The Album sometimes offers more than one match per person.” “But The Album said we should ignore the outside stimuli. It’s just to make my company look legit. It’s not to influence my decision at all.” “I agree with Pauline,” Ross said. “You can’t just rely on The Album. You have to use common sense, too. I mean, what if The Album gives one of your clients three valid options? How are you going to choose? Pick them out of a hat?” She shrugged. She played god anyway. What difference would it make? Maybe that way, she’d feel less like she manipulated people’s lives around. Looking at them both sitting together, opposite her, opposing her, she suddenly wished she hadn’t manipulated their lives together so they would get to know each other. “Um…okay. I see your point. Let me type up a form for you on my computer. Can you work on something else in the meantime? I’ll do it in my study. Or the dining room.” “You can stay here,” Pauline said in a small voice. She shot Ella an almost guilty look. Probably feeling bad for ganging up against her. Ella shrugged. “Don’t want to disturb you.” She grabbed some papers and her laptop and went through to the other room, relieved to see Andrea still there. At least she had some company. Andrea still talked on her phone so she set up her computer on the mini bar and set to work. How come Pauline had bounced back from her relationship with Roan so fast? Ready to go full on with Ross? What was her problem judging her friend? That’s what she’d wanted the whole time, anyway. And she really did want her friend to move on from idiot Roan. What would she tell Dirk now? Oh, no, I’m so upset I matched them together. It’s made me jealous and realise just how attractive Ross actually is. They had a date for tomorrow night. Should she even go through with it? Ella managed to concentrate on her admin work and cut out her troubled thoughts. She’d always been able to cut off personal stuff at work—a good skill to have, especially through all the horrible break-ups she’d been through. And her friends. Every time one of them had had a bad relationship, she’d feel their pain and worry about them constantly. They’d correspond through every moment, every fight, every difficult decision involved in conflicted relationships. Andrea put the phone down and came to her. “So, how was your date with Dirk at the game reserve?” “Good.” Suppose she hadn’t spoken to Andrea in a while except for business-related things. “Anything else since?” “Tomorrow night, we’re going out for supper.” “Think there’s any promise?” Andrea asked cautiously. She had all reason to wonder. “I don’t know. I feel more positive about dating since I started using The Album. It gives me hope and it’s not just from what I’m seeing. It’s like it infused hope in me. Its magic goes beyond just matching couples up.” Andrea’s eyes softened. “Cool. I could do with some of that hope myself.” Ella dropped her hands off the mouse and keyboard to give her friend full focus. “Any interesting guys in your life at the moment?” “Only a colleague at work but he’d never look at me.” “Why?” “He’s a newbie, a junior. Yet, there’s something about him. He has a confident air about him despite his youth.” “Toy boy, hey?” Ella winked. “Not quite. According to his file, he’s only a year younger than me and he’s been traveling the world—working in Dubai, Taiwan, even the Philippines. But the jobs he’s held have given him very little office experience.” “Sounds like he has itchy feet.” “Maybe it’s good he’s done all his traveling young and probably now wants to settle down. Anyway, I’m assuming all these things about him. I’ve hardly seen him. He’s cute. That’s what got me interested at first.” Andrea smiled. “Not that I let that sway me anymore. Been burned too many times.” “Oh, what about the pizza delivery guy?” Andrea waved her hand down. “Argh, he was nothing. Not my type.” “Too below you?” Andrea frowned at her. “Hey, that’s…. I suppose I do like a man with a bit more ambition. I’m not a money-grabber, but I like him to have some sense of pride.” “We never know where someone has come from.” The frown gave way to a relaxed laugh. “Oh, Ella. You always try to see the best in people. Always want to help them.” She shrugged. At the moment, she’d made a dumb mistake helping Pauline and Ross. Typical—messing up her matchmaking attempts. As if on cue, Pauline came through. Her face was flushed more than usual. She walked up to them and sat down. “He’s opening up,” she said quietly to Ella. “Finally.” Andrea stared at Pauline and then at Ella. “Are you up to what I think you’re up to?” Ella shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. Andrea always saw through her. “And what’s that?” Andrea narrowed her eyes at her but then addressed Pauline. “About time you told Ella you had a crush on Ross.” Ella gritted her teeth. “You mean you knew before I did?” “Carol and I have known for years. We didn’t think it wise to tell you for the very reason you may try to make something happen and mess it up badly.” Ella stood up. “Hey, I don’t intend to mess anything up this time. It’s going to happen naturally.” “You can’t force love,” Andrea added. “Well, I can certainly accelerate it,” Pauline said, her face flushing a deeper shade of red. “I’m going to be a total flirt.” “You are?” Ella and Andrea looked at her for a drawn-out moment. So unlike Pauline. Had her relationship with Roan made her bolder, more go-getter with regards to men? A horrible, sick feeling started in the pit of Ella’s stomach. Maybe because she’d forgotten to eat breakfast. Or could it be a little jealous bug eating at her again? Problem was, she was so used to being the centre of Ross’s attention, she didn’t take too well to the thought of him showering it on someone else. Especially someone who’d lap it up and return it fully. Not like her. She pushed the jealousy away. It didn’t make sense. In no way did she love Ross romantically. About time she learned to let him go and stop him from finding the right woman. Maybe she’d always stood in his way. And Pauline would be her top choice in the world. Her gentle, kind friend would never break his heart. She’d get used to the idea soon enough when she saw her two friends become happy with each other. Inwardly steeling herself, she pasted on a smile and went back to her work. Chapter Seven Ross walked into Ella’s home a week later armed with all his ideas on how to finish setting up the website. He wanted out as soon as possible. He’d worked on it late every night the past week so he didn’t have to sidle up to Pauline any longer. And to see Ella again, knowing she was trying to set him up with one of her friends, had made him want to pull out his hair and take out all his anger on his stupid house. Who would have thought Pauline had it for him? He hadn’t noticed until her flirtatious ways on Sunday had reached a crescendo. He’d nearly resorted to telling her he wasn’t interested but instead had made it pretty obvious by getting up and excusing himself from the room. The shell-shocked expression on her face had assured him she’d received the message loud and clear. He felt bad, but really, what did Ella think? He could just move his affections from her to someone else at the drop of a hat? How shallow did she think his feelings for her really were? His irritation only mounted when he found the house empty and Pauline the only person in the office. “Hi,” he said, surprised at how clipped his voice sounded in his ears. “Where’s Ella?” “She went out to buy something quick. Shouldn’t be much longer.” Pauline barely gave him eye contact. “Anything I can help you with?” “I wanted to show Ella what I’d come up with for the website.” “You finished it already?” Pain crossed her face. He should feel more compassion. Pauline was a sweet person, but…she wasn’t Ella. “Yip, been working late. Thought Ella needed it in a hurry,” he lied. Didn’t want to totally destroy her sense of self. “Look, Pauline…” “You’re here. Thanks for coming on a Sunday, Ross.” Ella spoke from behind him in her usual upbeat, clear voice. He turned to her and his breath caught. What was it about Ella that as soon as she entered a room, his whole world came alive? Colours became brighter and her voice brought joy and a sense of ease to his being. He longed to watch her every expression, every response. Crazy he still loved her after the way she’d treated him. Love had no prejudice, so it seemed. First time he’d actually really been in love. He chanced a glance at Pauline and the hurt had tripled in her eyes. Had she picked up his response to Ella’s presence? “I’ve got the website done and dusted.” “Really, so quick? I thought it was a mammoth task.” Ella began to unpack a grocery bag full of stationery. “I worked hard on it, but no worries, it was fun.” Another lie. Well, not quite. He liked the sense of achievement of a job well done. Well, he hoped it was to her requirements. “Pauline, do you want to check it out for me?” Ella said, turning away, a stiffness in her shoulders. “I have to contact some clients.” What was her problem? Sudden change in mood? “Sure.” Pauline moved slowly up to him and sat down by ‘their’ computer. “Do you have a flash drive?” He nodded and pressed on the power button of the computer. Once it had booted up, he slotted in the flash drive, all the time aware of Ella’s back to them while she ruffled in one of her cupboards. Was she jealous? It suddenly occurred to him. Ella felt jealous of Pauline and him? Despite the fact that she orchestrated it. Silly girl. He clamped his hand over his mouth to hide the big grin that came at the thought. He could play along with it. Be friendly with Pauline—no, not flirtatious, that would be cruel, but he could stop being so indifferent and rather cold towards Ella’s friend. He’d make it clear to Pauline later on that he had no intentions for her. “How was your day yesterday?” he said in his kindest voice to the woman next to him. She gave a little gasp and then straightened herself. “Good. I took a drive down to the beach with my mum. She needed to get out for a while.” Pauline looked at Ella who didn’t even turn around. “And I cooked a fancy supper for her.” “Sounds good. The weather was perfect for the beach yesterday—not too stuffy but sunny and bright.” Pauline nodded at him, a small amount of shock and awkwardness evident in her stance. “This computer takes a while to boot up.” Ella turned to grab some papers from on top of her desk and gave them a quick glance. Ross quickly averted his gaze and placed it firmly onto Pauline, adding on a pleasant smile. “I could have done with a break yesterday, too. Been too busy doing up my house.” “Really?” Pauline didn’t even look at him but continued to stare at the computer screen while it went through the loading process. “Yes, it’s a pain in the butt. I’ve painted the outside of the house and the outside window frames, but still have to fix some plumbing problems and paint all the rooms.” Ella brushed past them hurriedly and closed the door a little too loud behind her for comfort—not exactly a slam, but not a comfortable click, either. He let out a breath. Phew, that was tense. “Painting isn’t fun,” Pauline said, her eyes a tiny bit brighter than they had been. “I helped my mother paint her lounge a few years back and I hated every minute.” “Yes, it’s soul-destroying. Never seems to end, what with the sanding down of the old paint, washing the walls, then all the coats, and lastly waiting for it to dry.” “I hate having newspaper all over the floors and that smell. It makes me want to cough.” “Not to mention having to move all the furniture out the room and finding another spot to store it.” “So, you’re going to do all of your own painting then?” Pauline hadn’t warmed up totally yet but he could feel some of the tension between them easing. Maybe being friendly made life a lot easier on many fronts. “I’m afraid so. I can’t afford to hire anyone at the moment. There’s just so much that needs fixing that I—” Ella opened the door quite loudly again and stood over them. “So, let me see this website.” So much for her suggestion that Pauline look at it. “As busy as I am,” she continued, “I do need to make sure you’ve done it right.” She winked at him, disarming all his plans to focus on Pauline. He opened it up and typed in the links. “Here it is.” With detail, he explained everything he’d added—the tags, the forms, the pages, clicking on each one and navigating around the site with ease. Ella hovered ridiculously close to his back and bent down with her face inches from his. Heat rippled through him and he pressed his thighs together to hide his body’s response to her nearness. “Is it what you expected? Better? Worse?” “It’s great.” Her voice softened. “Just perfect.” She stood up straight again, showing her sweet form in the tight-fitting blue blouse she wore in a soft, cottony fabric. “Thanks so much.” “You’ve decided not to put a contact form?” Pauline asked him. “Oh, that. I wanted to ask you about that, Ella.” “Let me pull up a chair, then.” She fetched the chair from behind her desk and placed herself closer to him than Pauline. At the sudden realisation that she’d started to take an interest in him as more than a friend, all his sexual feelings for Ella ballooned inside of him. Oh, heck, if only Pauline could go away. But that would probably chase Ella away, too. “What questions do you have?” Ella asked. He fired away and within twenty painful minutes, they’d put up a contact form. “Let me work on it to make it live. You all ready? You may be inundated with responses straight away.” He grinned. “I doubt it. It’s been rather quiet lately.” She sighed and gazed at him, her pupils large and her soft, beautiful skin crying to be touched, her small lips ready to be tasted again. She looked at Pauline. “I don’t know what to do about my one male client. Sorry, I suppose it’s confidential, Ross, and I shouldn’t tell you about my clients, although you’re basically an employee, anyway.” Her face turned a pretty pink. “It’s weird thinking I’m your boss, in a way.” She gave him an awkward look like she felt guilty bossing him around. Right now, he could take her waist between his hands and squeeze her tight, run his hands up along those slender sides and bring his palms to rest upon her silken cheeks, then— “Well, I’m getting side-tracked. But I’m not going to talk about anything he’s shared with me. Just that…well…he won’t match with anyone. I’ve tried him with twenty women.” Ross blinked and tried to focus on what she said. “Maybe he has the problem,” Pauline said, breaking the cloud of desire. For a moment, he’d forgotten she was in the room. Ella pulled away and moved her chair behind her desk. His surroundings came into focus again. He tried to calm his rapid heartbeat and focused on the screen instead of her. “Do you think that’s possible?” Ella sounded distraught. “Why not?” Pauline said. “Look at Roan. Do you really think he’ll ever have a successful relationship if he can’t stick to one woman for long? As cute as he is.” She looked at Ross and gave a high laugh. “Excuse the girl talk.” “Well, this guy doesn’t particular have celebrity looks. He’s pretty plain. Surely, he has some redeeming qualities. I mean, I thought everyone had someone right for them somewhere in the world. If not one, a handful or maybe a hundred. If you study the personality types, you see that certain personalities complement others. You just have to find—” “Maybe some people aren’t willing to make the extra effort of making it work,” Ross said. “I can think of a couple of people I know at work who have no desire to make other people feel comfortable or to get on with them—for them, it’s about making the money and they will push other people out the way in the process. Sad, but true.” Ella shrugged and didn’t look at him. He must have hit a painful spot with his comments. She’d always been an idealist, believing in perfection, that dreams should come true for everyone in life. Pity, some people sabotaged their own futures. And those of others. She needed to learn that. Maybe The Album would show her. “Well, it doesn’t help my current situation. I can’t exactly say to him, ‘Um, look, mister, I haven’t found a single suitable candidate for you. Please take your business elsewhere.’” “Why not?” Ross shrugged. “What? Are you nuts? One disgruntled customer can cause a whole ripple-effect of people not willing to try me out. And I’m not about to pair him with a woman who I know is going to get hurt in the end.” “You’ve got a point there,” Pauline said. That’s what he loved about Ella. As enthusiastic and quite reckless as she could be sometimes with her words, she was very cautious in her decisions and never liked to hurt other people or mess them around. That’s why, initially, her matchmaking business had seemed wrong in so many ways. Until he’d watched The Album play out its magic time and time again. “I respect that you don’t want to hurt him but maybe you need to be straight with the guy. There really isn’t a suitable woman for him on file and he must wait. Perhaps he’ll appreciate your honesty.” Ella nodded. “I suppose. It’s better than matching him with some poor unsuspecting woman who’ll get hurt along the line. I’m hopeful that one day, I’ll find the right girl for him. Maybe I’m just like him—that’s why I’ve never found anyone.” She looked down at her papers and Ross wanted to shout. He hated when she got like that. He was right for her. Wish she’d see it. Oh, but maybe he just wasn’t perfect enough for her idealistic notions. “What about Dirk?” Pauline asked and turned to look at Ross. He didn’t return the gaze but instead studied Ella to see if this Dirk guy was anything to be concerned about. “I don’t know.” Ella kept her head down. “He’s nice. Maybe he’s the one.” Enthusiasm certainly didn’t drip from her tone this time. “Look, guys, I have to do some work now. I’m going to the living room. Can only work in silence, as much as I like your company and that.” “Sure.” Pauline seemed okay with Ella leaving the room. He wasn’t. He wished she would stay and tell him more about this Dirk. Or just stay so he could look at her or hear her voice. Why had he decided to help her with her business? She only tortured him. And making her jealous hadn’t really worked. Maybe he’d imagined the jealousy—his desperation had made him see things that weren’t there. He went back to fixing up the last few tweaks of the website while Pauline busied herself with a sketch for a logo or something. Within half an hour, he was ready to leave. He stood up and Pauline spoke. “Where’re you going?” “I’m going to head on home now.” “Thanks for your help.” She seemed more relaxed with him now. “Sure. Any time. Are you going to continue to help Ella?” “On and off. Maybe once a month or so from now on. She’s basically set up. I help her with her appointments and keeping organised.” “So, what do you do during the week to keep yourself busy?” He smiled at her to put her more at ease. “I work, of course.” “I know that. Where?” “Well.” She sucked in a breath and braced herself, her gingery curls bouncing around her slender neck and he thought she really was an attractive woman. “I work in a crafts shop. Sounds boring, yes, but I love it. I design recipes and do a food blog on the side.” She blushed. “Doesn’t sound boring. Retail can be interesting and challenging. And it’s good you find time for your interests, too.” He fiddled with the flash drive in his hand. “Have a good week then, Pauline.” “You too, Ross.” He walked out and met Ella right by the door. Had she been eavesdropping? He wouldn’t put it past her, the imp. Maybe, just maybe, he could make her insanely jealous after all and then she would leap into his arms. “I’m leaving now.” He composed himself to look serious and stern with her, like he didn’t crave the contact and closeness they’d shared for years. Pretending they weren’t best buddies anymore was incredibly hard. “You finished?” she asked. He tried to read her but failed. Was she closing her emotions off just as much as he? Oh, the games they played. “Done. You probably won’t require my services anymore.” “Oh, okay.” Now, the disappointment was obvious. Whether it was because she couldn’t push him in Pauline’s vicinity or whether she missed him, he wasn’t sure. “Don’t go yet, Ross. Stay for a drink or something.” “No, I’d better go. I’m getting ready to paint the toilet room. Got to sand down the walls this afternoon.” “Oh. That sounds horrible. Can I help you?” “No, I don’t think so.” He shook his head and narrowed his eyes at her to remind her they weren’t supposed to be friends at all now. “And besides, you’re very busy.” “I’m sorry. It’s unfair that you help me and I don’t help you.” “You paid me.” “Still.” “Bye, Ella.” He turned around before he said anything stupid, like yes, he’d loved to stay for a drink. The need to kiss her burned pretty strong too, not a good idea at all. “Bye.” She gave a half-hearted attempt at greeting him as he went out the door, not making it easier to leave. What good reason could he have for coming back now that his job was done? What had he been thinking fixing up the website so fast? Chapter Eight “We have to think of some way to get Ross back here,” Ella said to Carol the following evening. She sat on her desk, her insides tied in knots. Maybe Carol visiting her and chatting about The Album would get her mind off how awful she felt. “Why?” Carol paged through the blank album wistfully. Ella wondered if she really did have a man she wanted to try opposite her picture but she never asked. “For Pauline, of course.” “You really shouldn’t interfere. As much as you like happily-ever-afters.” Of course, Carol didn’t need to know exactly what was prompting her to bring Ross over. She didn’t even want to face up to the dark and disturbing direction her emotions were going. “I still have my doubts about happily-ever-afters. One of my clients is unmatchable. Another one matches every single guy on file except for ‘him.’ Now how do I choose which one is best? I’ve studied each picture story of her life with each different guy so many times, I almost know them off by heart. I’m telling you, those album pages are getting so worn. What if they tear or break? What will I do, then?” Carol toyed with a page between her finger and thumb. “Feels pretty sturdy to me. I wonder how old this book is. Have you found out why your uncle sent it to you?” “Great-uncle. No, I’ve been too busy.” Too swept up in confusion. She’d even cancelled the date with Dirk for Sunday night. “It could be something to do with his sister—my gran—as we’ve corresponded a lot over the years. She’s very approachable and easy to talk to, or rather should I say, write to. And I appreciate still getting snail mail. Nothing like receiving a pretty envelope in the post with her old-fashioned swirly writing on it and inside it. It always kind of smells of her—that rose petal, talcum-powdery smell.” Carol laughed. “I don’t think I’ve received a genuine letter in years. Maybe your gran told him something about you.” “What, though? That I used to like matchmaking my friends in school? Not exactly reason enough to entrust me with The Album.” “I’d be curious to know. Why don’t you write her and ask her?” “I should, I suppose. I haven’t written to her in months. It’s bad. I hope she’s okay.” Ella’s heart squeezed. How many times had Gran helped her through her difficult times but she hadn’t said much, except for a brief phone call, even though Gran’s brother Uncle Stan had passed away? Was she coping with her grief? Ella slumped her head onto her palms, digging her elbows into the desk. Sometimes, she could be so self-absorbed. And busy. And exhausted. “I think I need to take a break from the business for a weekend. Go away. I’m so tired and I’ve only been running it for two months.” She sat up straight. “I know. I’ll visit Granny in Mpumalanga. Surprise her.” Carol smiled. “Good idea. Now tell me, will you let me put a photo in The Album? I know we said—” She frowned and dipped her gaze. Not often that Carol appeared embarrassed. Ella loved her vulnerability and honesty. “Of course, I’d love to. Who?” Her heart hammered with excitement. Maybe this time, Carol would find the love of her life. “He’s been a family friend for so long. I’ve always wondered about him. I only see him every couple of years but he catches my eye every time. Cliff has such a way about him—controlled and self-assured, yet warm and friendly. I’ve befriended him on social media in recent months and discovered he actually lives here in Richards Bay. I printed off a photo of him to bring here. I know we said we wouldn’t put our pictures in, but why not? It’s not like we’re not supporting you by making use of The Album’s magic.” “Of course. I thought it was a silly idea, anyway. I want to help my friends find love.” “Andrea came up with the idea. She thought we may go crazy and want to try out dozens of men and then distract you from the business.” Ella nodded. “She has a point, but right now, I wish I hadn’t started it straight away as a business—just used it to help people out but we couldn’t see how to do that in a controlled way. But you three ladies are my best friends and I don’t care how many pictures you want to try. If it speeds up the time in finding true love, why not?” “Well, here goes.” She handed Ella a printed out black and white photo—a bit blurry but you could make out his features. Ella pencilled in their names and pressed the photos onto the page, waiting for the usual jolt of power and suck in. Carol watched, her face pinched with tension or was it hope against hope? Once the magic had eased and only a few misty splotches of light remained, she opened up the first couple of pages. Then her heart stilled. Her tongue went dry and her stomach clenched. She didn’t want to know Carol’s future. What if she died prematurely? What if one of her kids ended up a delinquent? Maybe Carol wouldn’t choose the future with Clifford, but what if she did? And then Ella would know all this about her life. Would she warn her friend that her son would commit a crime one day? That she would die of cancer in her late forties? That her husband would become a famous painter and sell for millions at the age of thirty-eight? She slammed The Album closed and pressed her hand upon the leathery cover. “No.” Carol stood opposite her, peering down at the ancient book, her body language revealing her deep need to know. “We can’t do this, Carol. I cannot know your future. It’s dangerous. What if you choose Clifford and I’ve seen your whole future? You can’t see it, either. Who wants to know what happens in their life?” Carol stumbled back and sat down on the guest’s chair. She covered her eyes with trembling hands. “Good grief, I never thought of it like that. Good thing you stopped me from looking. Prevented yourself from seeing. What if you saw something tragic?” “I know. I mean, if something happened to you or one of your kids, it may not have anything to do with the man you chose. It may just be what happens in your future. It’s best The Album remains totally hidden. Andrea was right. Good thing with Pauline, Roan was a totally failure.” Carol nodded and stared into space a moment. She probably wished things were different. Ella opened The Album and removed the photos, then rubbed out the pencil markings. She placed the photos down at the far end of her desk and sat down, at a loss on what to say or do. For the first time since she’d assumed ownership of The Album, she didn’t want it anymore. There were times it had caused confusion and other times joy, but this time, she was afraid of it. Time to visit Gran. What if Gran knew nothing about the offending item? Did it really matter? The thing weighing heaviest upon her was the new feelings for Ross. Every time he came near her, a strange tingle would wash over her whole body. So much for pushing him away or insisting they remain friends. She just couldn’t talk about her confusion to any of her friends, especially Pauline. The soft red-head hung on every word he spoke. She now could see why. Ross had so many good qualities. How had she taken them for granted so long? Problem—he was her guy friend. Once again, despite the heightened awareness of his body, she still wasn’t sure they could sustain a long-term sexual relationship, and really, he just wasn’t that ideal guy she dreamed about—in so many ways. If someone could read her thoughts, they may think she was so mean and demanding, but really, he wasn’t. This man would sweep her off her feet—take her on a romantic adventure, a happy courtship that would be full of never-to-be-able-to-forget moments. How could she have that with a man she’d known for a large portion of her life? Yes, sexual feelings may come, but romance? With Ross? Or were the two interchangeable? What did she really know? She’d studied up on relationships, but really, there were so many conflicting views. Carol stood up and stretched. “I’m going to head on home.” “Don’t you want to stay for supper? I’ll make mac and cheese or heat up some left-over potato and leek soup.” Carol smiled. “No, sweetie. I can see you’re yawning away. You need to rest. You have work in the morning. Are you driving up to your gran?” “Don’t know. I hate driving long distance. Think I’ll catch a bus or bum a lift off of someone. I haven’t even thought.” “You regretting assuming ownership of the book?” She pointed at The Album, untouched for the last few minutes although it needed to match several couples for Ella before she went to bed. She shrugged. “In a way.” Carol looked down at her warmly. “I’m sorry. I should have listened to Andrea. She has a lot of wisdom.” “She does. But she didn’t know this would happen. Anyway, it’s not your fault at all. I just don’t like playing god. I’ve always wanted to match people up but now, it’s got too freaky for my liking. Pity how a dream come true can often turn out different than you planned.” “Life’s never straightforward. But you must have gotten it for a reason.” She shrugged. She still wasn’t sure about that. Wasn’t sure about anything anymore. Except maybe her girly friendships. Although her one with Pauline stood on shaky ground at present. “See you Saturday. Let me know what happens about your traveling plans. If you want, I could drive you up there.” “You serious?” “I could do with a change of scenery.” “I’ll consider it. You’re the best.” Carol pooh-ed her and walked out the door. Ella followed her out to lock up the front door behind her and then headed to the kitchen to warm up soup with a slice of buttered toast and cheese sprinkled on top. Armed with some decent autumn nutrition, she went back to her office-slash-conservatory and set to work finding the right man for her ‘popular’ woman who seemed to fit with any guy. What was Jane Thompson’s secret? When she called Jane in once she found her a match, she’d ask her a few pointed questions. Maybe the woman knew just how to treat a man. She probably could learn a couple of tricks. Not that she had anyone to try them on. What about Dirk? An ache settled in her gut every time she thought of how she’d told him she was too tired the night before to go over to his place. She had a feeling going to his place would be a gaping step forward in their relationship, and since she’d started fantasizing about kissing Ross a second time instead of Dirk, she wasn’t ready to progress any further down the rung of romance with Dirk. Nope, just not right. Sure, she’d been sympathetic to her first client, Bernice, but would do her utmost not to hold two men in her arms at the same time. Pity, because Dirk represented a great possibility of a dream come true. If she could somehow process her feelings toward Ross and file them away in a neat little box, then she could jump in head first and partake of Dirk fully. Once she’d slotted in Jane and Eddy’s photos, she allowed The Album to do its thing, then watched their lives unfold. Somehow, Jane’s relationship with Eddy seemed more comfortable. They didn’t go on fancy holidays like she did with Juan but they had more photos with family and doing everyday things. Was that a good thing or bad thing? She tried to read into their facial expressions how happy they were, but the more she analysed them, the more confused she got. Did people enjoy exotic holidays and adventures? But being happy doing the mundane together was also vital for long-term satisfaction. She let out a long groan. Her cell phone alerted her to a message coming in. Pauline asking if she could come over. “Sure, my friend,” she typed, but then the headache that had started developing on her temples just tightened its fists around her head even harder. What did Pauline want? Was it about Ross? She just couldn’t face up to talking about him now. Fifteen frustrating minutes later after wasting her time with The Album, Ella was actually pleased to have a visitor so she didn’t have to choose a mate for Jane. She greeted Pauline at the door and decided to sit in the living room instead of being glued to her office for the rest of the night. Jane could wait. Pauline sat down and placed her feet up under her like she often did. She always gave the impression she was comfortable wherever she went despite her quietness. “How are things?” her friend asked, a fresh smile on her face. “Argh, I’m exhausted and very frustrated.” “Why?” “The stupid album.” Pauline raised an eyebrow and waited for some explanation. Ella described her inability to match up Jane Thompson. “I don’t know what to suggest.” “It’s impossible to choose. Should I pick their names out a hat?” “That’s actually quite a good idea.” “But what if deep inside, she’d be happier with one man than another? The Album shows success but it doesn’t show internal feelings. Who invented the stupid thing and where did the magic come from?” “I’m surprised you didn’t wonder about those things in the beginning.” Tingles ran up and down her spine. “I know. For once, my enthusiasm led me to make an impulse decision. Usually, I’m so cautious with big decisions, not small ones.” “I like your enthusiasm. I like The Album. Maybe you just need more direction on how to use it. Have you read those books yet?” Ella closed her eyes and shook her head. She rested her head into her hands. “I think it’s time I do. Have you?” “Only two of them so far. They’re a bit old-fashioned, but they’re good.” “I’m just so tired.” Pauline showed compassion in her eyes. “Wish I could help you.” “Me, too. Only one person can assume ownership. Anyway, you’ve helped me a ton already. I really appreciate it.” “About that. I came to talk to you about Ross.” Her stomach clenched and the ache in her head intensified. She didn’t want to look Pauline in the eyes but her gaze was immediately drawn to her to try to gauge what she was feeling about the whole complicated situation. “Okay. You seem to be getting on well.” She put on a cheerful tone but her insides swirled with confusion. Would Pauline say they’d started dating? How would she feel about it? Would it help her finally to let him go or would it only intensify the tentative longings blooming within her? His face remained in her mind’s eye, making her heart squeeze with affection. She never wanted to lose the friendship with him. Wanted him in her life forever. Even if it did mean…. No! Not that! “Yes, we get on well. He’s started to open up and chat with me—like the ice has been broken.” “It’s a good thing, right?” She had to assure herself. Didn’t mean he wanted Pauline. “But he’s finished the task you gave him so he won’t be back here to work with me.” Oh, right. She hadn’t considered that too deeply since he’d said goodbye. She’d been too busy. “I could give him more,” she said with a sick churning in her stomach. “Just let me finish.” Pauline looked flustered. Unusual for her gentle friend who always belayed a sense of calm. She dropped her gaze down to the floor and let out a painful sigh. “I’ve realised something and it’s not nice.” “Oh.” Ella’s voice came out choked. “What’s that?” “I don’t actually love him.” Pauline rubbed her chin. She didn’t? Oh, how wonderful. Lightness entered her being and the headache eased somewhat. Not totally, though. But no, what do I do now? How do I get over him totally? Pauline was better for him than she. They could have a fresh romance not bogged down with so much history. And pairing them off would force her to cut him off. “What do you mean?” “I loved something else.” What did she mean? “Someone else?” Pauline smiled, easing some of the tension, but certainly not enough. “Not someone else. I loved what I saw between you and Ross. I fell in love with a relationship instead of a person. There’s no way Ross and I could imitate what you and he share.” “You could have something even better.” “I loved the interplay between you two, the way he treated you. I fell in love with him because of what he was with you, not because of him as a person.” Ella rubbed her aching head and closed her eyes again. She rested her head against the back of the seat and wished Pauline would just come out with it and speak plainly. “I don’t understand.” “What’s not to understand? He acts differently with you than he acts with anyone else.” “He’s still got to get to know you. We’ve been friends for years. Give him time to warm up.” Pauline went quiet, her jaw hard and her eyes set on one point on the floor. “You’re not making this any easier for me, Ella. Do you know how hard it was to come here and open up to you? I could have kept quiet and gone on allowing you to match-make us together. Sure, I’d have enjoyed being close to him—he is attractive—but that would be unfair to him, to both of us. Even to you, if you will just open your eyes and see.” Ella didn’t say her thoughts. Didn’t ask all the questions burning in her mind, like how did he act differently? Was Pauline not just being sweet and nice? She allowed her friend to speak even if at a much slower rate than she would have liked. “His whole body responds when you enter a room. I can see his face light up, his limbs go on alert, his jaw tightens with a sense of male confidence. He comes alive, El, even despite the way your relationship has been going lately. You should see the way he watches your every movement.” “But it’s only been like that recently and you’ve had a crush on him since…I don’t know when.” “He’s always treated you with the utmost care. Whenever you’ve had a bad day or needed someone to chat to, hasn’t he always been there for you?” “Most of the time. I mean, we’ve gone our separate ways sometimes, especially when we’ve been dating other people.” “But, you could come back to him. And he to you?” She nodded. “I suppose. That’s what friends are for. Maybe you were just in love with a friendship.” Could she be having the same problem? Just in love with a friendship? In love? No way. Pauline shrugged. “It hurt. I wanted him to like me. I wanted the same.” “It can still happen.” She didn’t sound as eager as she should. Where had all her matchmaking juices fled to? Every faculty in her body and mind seemed to be shutting down. Could anyone be so exhausted? Tears came to her eyes. They lodged there and then slowly slipped down her cheeks. She sniffed to stop the stream from coming out her nose, making Pauline look at her. “What’s wrong?” “I should be comforting you but look at me! I’m sorry, I’m so tired. I can’t even think straight anymore.” “Oh, honey.” She came up and sat next to her, placing her small, gentle hand on Ella’s leg. “Take a break from the business for a while. It doesn’t matter if it folds. Not like you need it for your upkeep.” “I can’t. I have customers to tend to.” “They can wait.” “I’m also so confused.” “About?” “About Ross. About The Album. About life. Everything. I thought The Album was supposed to bring goodness and miracles my way. It’s just brought pain and confusion. I don’t understand it. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Not working it properly.” Pauline didn’t speak; she took her hand and held her. She didn’t have the answers either, but it felt good to have someone care. She leaned her head against Pauline’s shoulder and allowed the tears to flow without stopping them and without thinking too hard. Chapter Nine “We’re all together again, I can’t believe it!” Ella turned around to peer at Andrea and Pauline at the back of Carol’s car. The journey to Bethal in Mpumalanga would prove to be a blast with the Famous Four. Spurts of gratefulness eased the tension in her body at their willingness to join her on her journey to visit Gran. At least her gran loved people around and had promised them two rooms to share in her home for the duration of their stay. “Did you bring The Album with?” Carol said tensely. “Of course. It’s in my handbag right here.” “What if it gets stolen?” Andrea asked. “You should have put it in the picnic basket or something.” “What, and spill melted chocolate on it? I have to preserve the antique for as long as possible.” Why she was so defensive over one of the sources of her confusion, she had no idea. Maybe because she felt responsible for it, having been entrusted with the artefact. “I wonder how old it actually is,” Carol wondered aloud while turning onto the N2 freeway leading north out of their home town. Ella stared at the road which didn’t appear as endless as it would be. They had a minimum of six hours of traveling to get through. At least, they would pass through the Mtubatuba and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve areas and see some pretty scenery on the way. She intended to read one or more of the green romance books because she hadn’t had a moment since preparing for her trip a week ago. “Did you tell Dirk you were going away?” Andrea asked with a yawn, settling back into her seat to watch the view out the window. Ella looked at her reflection on the flap-down make-up mirror in front of her. “I did, sort of. Well, I’ve actually told him I’m very busy at the moment and once I get my life back into line again, we can get together.” “It’s not working out, is it?” Carol asked. She glanced at Pauline in the mirror; her friend politely kept her gaze averted. But of course, Pauline didn’t really know how she felt about Ross. She only knew how Ross felt about her. Her own feelings were a slushy blob of confusion floating around in her head and heart. “I can’t have a relationship when I can barely think straight.” “I know what you mean.” Andrea picked up her loose hair and made it into a ponytail at the back with deft fingers. She fiddled with the tufts on the end. “Just getting through the day to day is hard enough.” Ella sighed. So much for The Album helping her friends find love. Seemed like the same old story. Even Pauline hadn’t found Ross. She glanced at her friend quickly in the reflection and wondered how disappointed she was about Ross and whether it had actually broken her heart. Two heartbreaks in the space of a couple of months couldn’t be easy to deal with. Finally, the only one of the four who’d been protected from pain by not dating much at all had experienced plenty. And part of it was her fault. She would permanently resign from matchmaking. She’d facilitate The Album for now but never again would she instigate a couple to come together by her own will. “Did you tell Ross about our trip?” Carol questioned. “Nah, what for? We’re not talking so much anymore.” “He doesn’t really approve of your business, does he?” Andrea asked. Ella shrugged. She didn’t feel the freedom to share the whole confusing mangle of Ross happenings and thoughts with her friends. For once, she didn’t want them to know how she felt about a man. Usually, she told them everything—she’d always been a bit of a blabber-mouth, but this, she couldn’t. They would tell her to go for it. Even Pauline would. And she couldn’t. As much as a part of her really, really wanted to taste his lips again and find out if it stirred something in her once more, she could not have a relationship with Ross. She had to hang onto the tiny thread of friendship she still had with him. It was better than losing it all. “Tell me about your promotion, Carol.” She looked at her friend, intent on the road. “You must be over the moon.” The conversation promptly turned toward a much more positive and less-stressful direction. After chatting for half an hour and catching up on all their latest news, the girls settled down into a lazy rhythm with the road. Ella picked up one of the green books lying by her feet and began to read the tiny print on the yellowed pages with much difficulty. Soon, it became very easy to read and she got annoyed at any interruptions. Six long, leg-stiffening and bum-numbing hours later, they arrived in Bethal, and with the help of the GPS, found her Gran’s house. Ella went ahead to make sure Gran was in and knocked on the door while the others cleaned up their chocolate bar wrappers and crumbs in the car and gathered their belongings together. Gran opened the door with a big smile and a sweeping gesture to come inside. “Lovely to see you again, Ella. It’s been years.” “Gran, you look great. My friends are coming. They’re fetching the suitcases.” Twenty minutes later, the five females gathered around the large, wooden kitchen table complete with worn grain and stains and a vase of colourful flowers and greenery picked from her garden. A bowl of fruit sent a citrusy fragrance to them from the counter. Ella opened up The Album. “Gran, this is The Album.” Gran looked at it and smiled. “So you know about it?” “Very well.” Ella stared at her, trying to read her face to pick up how she felt about it. Seemed like a positive response. “We’re all ears,” Andrea said. “You all want to hear my boring family stories?” Gran filled a teapot with teabags and set out some pretty china teacups and saucers and a sponge cake with jam in the middle and cream on top. “Of course we do,” Carol added. Once the kettle was boiled, the teapot filled, and their plates made pretty with sponge cake, Gran spoke. “The Album belonged to my grandmother. She passed it down to my dad and he passed it down to Uncle Stan. They chose to give it to the oldest sibling each time, not very selective on who would take it. I was a little peeved, to put it lightly, that Uncle Stan inherited the antique instead of me.” Ella took a bite of the sponge and savoured the coloured sugar crystals on top of the cream. The contrast of textures and sweetness packed a punch. She took a sip of tea to wash it down. Perfect combination. Perfect Gran. The elderly lady still looked good—she had a healthy complexion and wore the prettiest clothes. Even though she wasn’t the slimmest, she held herself with strength and lots of spunk. Her friends watched the woman share her story with what seemed like full focus. “It sat at the top of his wardrobe for years, never got used. I used to ask him about it every time I went there to visit. Well, almost every time. Started to forget over the years. He always told me he intended to sell it one day and buy himself a famous oil painting instead.” “Oh, that would have been terrible,” Carol said. Ella tried to push out thoughts that maybe it would have been better if she’d never inherited the thing. Maybe then, the whole thing with Ross wouldn’t have happened, either. And she’d be less confused, not so exhausted. “Well, one day, he called me over. He told me he’d taken the thing down and had read through the letter for the first time. He wanted to try it but thought I should see it first. He suggested I call your aunt because she was having problems finding a man to marry. I refused to bring her with because I didn’t really believe it was magic. The only reason I wanted The Album was because I liked the way it looked. I wanted to set it in my display cabinet in the dining room.” “Oh, so you didn’t know what it could do?” Gran shook her head. “Uncle Stan never assumed ownership of it so I didn’t get to see it. When he passed it on to me, I found my gran’s story about it and that convinced me it may have some powers. I haven’t seen it at work but I eventually read through the green books and have always dreamed of watching the magic. Did you get it to work, Ella?” Gran’s eyes shone with curiosity and excitement and she placed her teacup down, as if waiting for the answer with great hope. Ella nodded, feeling almost like she wasn’t worthy of having used the magic. “I’m helping people with it. We started a little business.” “Oh, my word. I’m astounded.” Ella smiled and tried to hide the emotional roller-coaster inside her. “Why did Uncle Stan give it to me, Gran?” “He didn’t. I did.” “Oh, that explains it,” Pauline said. “Why me?” “Well, you’re the grandchild I’ve formed the closest bond with.” Ella’s heart squeezed with love toward her granny. “But you know I’m not the most talented or responsible.” “I’ve always known you to be careful and gentle with people’s hearts. And doesn’t The Album need someone like that to take over it? I’m so glad you actually assumed ownership of the artefact. I would have been most disappointed if you’d stashed it away in a cupboard or set it on display as I always stupidly dreamed of doing.” “It works wonders.” Carol sighed. “Many people have found true love. Well, it’s too soon to see the full effect but we’ve had one happy customer write about their story in the local newspaper in Richards Bay.” Ella cringed. Her friends still saw all the positives and none of the concerns she had. Should she share them now or wait until she had time alone with Gran? When would she ever get time alone with her? She truly appreciated her friends accompanying her so she shouldn’t get all selfish on them. Maybe she should just let it all out. Well, about The Album, not Ross. “The Album is great.” Ella sucked in a breath. “But?” Gran raised an eyebrow at her. “It’s confusing. It’s like playing god and I don’t like it. I liked matchmaking when I was younger, but this is so real, it’s affecting people’s lives. It’s like the one client—she matches with every single guy on file except for Frankenstein.” Her friends laughed. “I call him that because his name’s Frank and he’s a monster. Can’t match him with a single woman. Anyway, Jane, my one client, she’s amazing. She seems to have successful relationships with every single guy. How do I choose which one? I’ve tried to study their lives and see which life each guy would offer her would be the best. They all look happy in different ways. Who am I to judge which is best for her? And…” She looked down and moved cake crumbs around her plate with the genuine silver cake fork. “What of the children? It’s like I’m going to cause certain children to be born on this planet. What if I orchestrate the next serial killer or instigator of World War III?” “But you’re not the only one choosing that kid,” Pauline said. “I mean, every man produces millions of sperm. It’s the exact time that the couple choose to have sex that decides what that child is going to turn out to be.” “There are dozens of factors that work towards it,” Carol added. “I suppose. But I’d be a big push toward one or the other.” “You can’t think of it like that,” Andrea added. “I mean, didn’t I tell you that you’re helping these couples be happy? It’s a good thing.” “When you look at it that way, how on Earth can The Album predict the future? There are thousands of choices made each day and thousands of factors that affect what happen in a person’s life. Is The Album seeing into the future, or is it just making a prediction?” Ella looked at Gran. The woman gave her a soft smile. “You think too deeply about it. And besides, who said you have to keep The Album? You can pass it on at any time.” She nodded. Was she ready to do that? Not quite yet. “And it promised good things to come to me. I haven’t really seen that yet.” “It’s only been two months.” Pauline cocked an eyebrow. Gran got up to put the kettle on again. “Do you know that my gran used it and she found love during that time?” Everyone glanced at Gran. The way she spoke about the past made Ella yearn to know more. “She worked from her parents’ farmhouse in the Transkei and the local people used to come to her. They loved it—thought she was some type of sangoma—tribal witchdoctor. She found my grandpa during that time. He came to work on the farm and they fell in love. She never used The Album on herself or anyone close to her.” Ella nodded. “Yes, I couldn’t use it on Carol. Pauline, I’m sorry, we shouldn’t have tried it with your picture.” “Why? It was a good thing to be rid of the jerk.” Carol shook her head vigorously. “Ella could have seen my future, like when I would die or any difficult times in my life. She didn’t want that.” Andrea, Pauline, and her gran gasped. “Of course.” Gran reached out and squeezed Ella’s hand. “A wise decision.” They continued to talk about The Album and love, easing out of the topic into general things. Although her questions hadn’t been addressed directly, Ella felt more at peace about using the gift given to her. If her gran believed in it and had given it to her, she must be the right person to use it. She just had to let go and believe in herself. Yeah, she’d been unable to find love for herself or her friends, but maybe The Album could teach her a thing or two about life and people. She rested into the chair and delighted in the easy conversation between her best friends and one of her favourite relatives. Chapter Ten The small farm her gran lived on had proven a perfect spot for everyone to unwind from a stressful year. There wasn’t much to do in the town except visit a museum and a couple of restaurants. The cosmos and sunflowers that covered the grasslands and farms weren’t in season in autumn so they stayed put most days. Ella helped her gran clean out the barn and some of Uncle Stan’s belongings which they took to a charity. Sunday afternoon, she lazed back on a deck chair in the back with Pauline and Andrea on their own ones while Carol had taken a hike down the road—she had to have her daily walks. The sun was surprisingly warm and she closed her eyes and drank it in like a lizard. Tomorrow, they would head on home to the rat race. Without having her weekends to relax, Ella dreaded getting back to the routine. Maybe she should have listened to Ross when he’d voiced his concern about her doing too much. Ross. How could she face him again? But she didn’t have it in her to cut him off totally. He hadn’t messaged her once in the last few days—probably hadn’t even noticed she’d gone away. She wasn’t going to chase after him. Couldn’t. The ache bloomed in her. How crazy that she missed him so much and it had only been two weeks since she’d seen him. When had she started to pine for his company? Had his love confession done something to her? Maybe she should contact Dirk. That would get her mind off Ross, wouldn’t it? A faint scream pierced the air. Did she imagine it? She opened her eyes and stared at the deep blue sky, then promptly closed them again when the sun’s glare caused them to water. “Ella.” Andrea stood above her. “I heard a scream. Where’s your gran?” Ella sat up, her heart hammering. “Um, she went to check the tractors. The farm manager is away for a few days and she wanted to make sure…” She bolted up. “I think I should look for her.” She reassured herself it was probably someone shouting in the distance and nothing to worry about, but she’d better check. Andrea followed her and they walked around to the barn where several of the tractors and ploughs were stored. Her gran owned a sorghum farm and was in the process of selling it off. She didn’t often do much of the work anymore at her age, but enjoyed sticking her nose in the business from time to time. Why she’d chosen a Sunday afternoon to check on the tractors, Ella couldn’t understand. They searched the barn and then Andrea pointed at a pair of shoes sticking out from behind a tractor wheel. Ella recognised her gran’s leather boots. “Gran.” She ran toward her, expecting her unconscious or even worse. Her gran peered up at her and gave a strained smile. “I think I broke something. I can’t move.” “Where. What’s sore?” “My leg. My back. My arm. I don’t know.” She groaned. Andrea called an ambulance and they knelt down by her gran to comfort her. Within an hour, she’d been attended to in the hospital emergency room. She had a bruised coccyx and was on forced bed rest for four weeks. “Nothing broken,” the doctor said. “But it’s a very painful injury and she needs to take care. Especially at her age.” Carol came to take them home. “What did you fall on, Granny?” Ella asked as they carried her onto her bed. “There was a tractor part on the ground and I slipped and fell on top of it.” “Well, I’m so glad you’re okay.” Ella covered her with a blanket. “I don’t feel okay at all. And I’m spitting mad. The farm manager’s only coming back on Wednesday. Who’s going to check up on things?” Gran’s eyes still held a spark but her face betrayed deep weariness. Ella bit her lip. “I’m staying. Carol will drive the others back but I’ll take off a couple of weeks from work. I have enough leave.” “No, you can’t do that.” “Why ever not?” Ella towered above her, hands on hips. “What about The Album and your business?” “It can wait. You’re more important.” Her gran responded with a hand squeeze and eyes closed. She drifted off to sleep shortly after, the pain medicines having kicked in. Ella watched her eyelids flutter and the steady rise and fall of her chest, and smiled. Somehow, the thought of looking after her gran seemed much more exciting than going back to everything waiting for her at home. Maybe being away from Ross would take those confusing feelings away once and for all. *** “May I borrow your sander?” Ross sent her a message on her cell phone the next day while she stood out on the field watching the labourers bring in some harvested grain. Ella had spent the day tending to her gran and checking up on the farm. She didn’t really know what to check but did follow her gran’s mumbled instructions. When would the pain meds wear off? Why was she so sleepy all the time? “If you can break into my garage somehow.” Ella smiled as she waited for his response. “Where are you?” “In Bethal, Mpumalanga.” “With your gran?” “We went up to visit her and she got hurt. She’s okay but I’m looking after her.” “You okay?” The question could mean so many different things. “I’m okay. And you?” “Should I come to you?” “No, definitely not. It’s a Monday. Aren’t you at work?” “And you?” “I phoned my boss this morning. I’ve taken a couple of weeks off.” “Sure you okay? Shout if you need help.” Like she would ask Ross to come here. At this time. No matter what happened… No, she’d call him in an emergency, but a few farm hassles weren’t an emergency. “Thanks.” He sent her a smiley face and a kiss. She touched the kiss and then her phone took her out to the main menu. If only that were a real kiss. From Dirk, of course. Her gran’s voice filtered through the house and all the farm noises. Her heart lurching, she ran inside and into the bedroom to find her sitting up, a smile on her face. “Gran, should you be sitting? Are you okay?” “Feeling much better today. Still sore, but this donut cushion helps. And all the extra cushions behind my back. Thank you so much for staying, and I’m sorry I’ve been so sleepy the last day.” Ella sat down on the end of the bed. “I think the medicine made you sleepy. I just gave you another dose this morning, though. Don’t think you even registered swallowing the pills.” She laughed. “I feel awake for now.” “Can I get you some lunch? Seeing you missed breakfast.” “I think I could get something down. Think I could wolf down a whole two platefuls.” “I’ll be right back, then.” She rushed down to make her gran something. Scrounging around in a mostly unfamiliar kitchen, she eventually found some tuna and lettuce. She made a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise and shredded lettuce inside. Then made a second and third one as the smell of food gave her appetite a jolt. Being out in the fresh air certainly built up her need for nourishment. She cut up a couple of oranges and made a pot of tea. Once everything was upstairs and her gran tucked in with a little less speed than she usually did and Ella followed suit, she felt satisfied. “So, what’s the real reason you don’t enjoy working with The Album?” her gran asked after she’d munched one and a half sandwiches and taken several sips of tea. “Real reason? I opened up. I told you everything. All my doubts.” “What else is getting you down?” Ella picked up a segment of orange and sank her teeth into it, giving herself time to come up with the right answer. The sweet, fruity juice ran down her throat and gave her the courage to speak. And her gran’s gentle enquiring gaze. “Ross—you know my friend? He’s fallen in love with me.” Gran cocked her head and merely blinked at her. “It’s confusing. I don’t want to lose our friendship but I don’t love him back.” She didn’t dare say she’d started to see him in a different way. Not yet. That didn’t mean love and she wasn’t ready to share her feelings with anyone until she’d processed them. “That’s pretty one-sided. Not a good idea.” “I know. I may have to say goodbye to our friendship. Forever.” “Well, if you plan on marrying one day, it wouldn’t be too good to have this close friendship with another man. You want to have that with your husband.” “I know.” She nodded, although she hadn’t really considered her Gran’s reasoning before. She’d always thought Ross and she would stay friends forever. If she wanted to find a man, she had to let go of Ross once and for all. Maybe that’s what had held her back all these years from finding the perfect man. Dirk could be it. If she let go of Ross, things with Dirk could snowball. “Pity you can’t use The Album on yourself.” “Yes, it’s a pity. I’ve struggled with that a little.” “Would you want to pass it on? So you could at least use it? Seeing you’re so disillusioned with it.” Ella popped another piece of orange in her mouth and closed her eyes, savouring the tangy taste. She chewed and swallowed. “I don’t know. I’m so tired but the thought of giving it up for now… I just can’t do it yet. You gave it to me. You entrusted me with it.” Gran shook her head. “I meant it to bring you peace and direction.” “What do you mean, Gran?” “I had a lot of troubles with love when I was your age. Could never seem to settle my heart.” She questioned her gran with her gaze, waiting for the full story. Gran shuffled a bit in her seat and then smiled. “I thought I loved several men but then each relationship ended in disaster. In those days, people thought I was a loose woman, a whore, as they call it nowadays, because I dated around. In the space of five years, I’d dated eight men. We lived in Durban until I married your grandfather. It wasn’t the thriving metropolis it is now and people in my area knew what I got up to. Mom and Dad were understanding because they were familiar with each situation but people who didn’t know me well thought I liked to sleep around and use men. It hurt. But I think what hurt more was that I couldn’t find anyone. I would have loved The Album. I don’t know why my grandmother didn’t offer to use it on me. She only let the local people use it. Maybe for the same reason you don’t use it on your friends.” Ella nodded. It was a very good reason. “So, you found Grandpa eventually?” Gran frowned and lifted up her hand. “No, he found me. I didn’t want him. And I fought him off. Eventually, he kissed me, and well, the rest is history.” Ella knew that Gran had been forced to get married because she got pregnant. She often wondered how it had affected her marriage to Grandpa but they’d seemed happy together. “I don’t regret marrying your grandpa. I loved him. I regret taking so long to settle with someone and put my heart at rest. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d gone on a date with him years before when he’d first asked me.” “Oh, I didn’t know that.” “Yes, your grandpa always loved me. In school, I was his crush and I didn’t even know it. Then he asked me to the school dance and I said no. I already had a date with handsome Edward Finny. That guy was as tall as the doorframe and had muscles like the farmers out on the fields. Every girl envied me.” Ella smiled. She loved hearing the elderly woman’s ancient stories. They were nostalgic, real, touching. Gran picked up her orange and sucked on the juicy fruit. Should she ask her gran a question that would bring up that she’d married her husband out of necessity? She didn’t want to disrespect her but so longed to know something. Looking at the woman before her, she realised this may be her last chance before she went sleepy again or she had to go out and attend to something in the farm. “So, did you love Grandpa when you first married him?” Gran shook her head but showed no hurt. “I didn’t. Not at first. Well, put it this way, I did a bit but it grew on me. Once we lived together, I saw what a fantastic man I’d married. I couldn’t believe my luck. We went through some really tough times with his business falling to pieces when I had small babies. I hated him sometimes. He was grumpy and cold and busy at times. But then, I decided to love him anyway. And it got better. Not to say it was purely my doing. He grew more patient with age. We both did.” “That’s so romantic.” Ella wondered if it would have gone better for her gran if she’d found someone else. But then, what about all those years looking for someone? Like her—looking and looking but never finding this elusive Mr. Right. “I would have loved The Album for another reason,” Gran said. “It would have restored my faith in humanity. I’d been with so many bad men, I didn’t think there were any good ones around. Grandpa restored my faith, but it took years for me to finally come round. Years of struggles. I wish I hadn’t waited so long.” “But what if Grandpa had ended up a monster?” Ella’s face heated. “I’m not saying he was, but you didn’t know when you married him.” “I sort of knew him beforehand. I mean, we’d only dated six months, but I knew him a bit from around school. I always thought he was a wholesome type, but there weren’t any fireworks.” Ella bit her lip. Sounded a bit like her feelings for Ross. “Those fireworks came in time. A slow burn, yes, but the slow ones are sometimes the hottest.” Gran gave her a cheeky grin and Ella laughed. “What about my mom? What happened with her and Dad?” Grandma yawned. She probably would drop off soon. “I probably know as much as you. Claire didn’t tell me much. She likes everything just so. She prefers predictability. I think it’s part of seeing how my mistake had affected my life and how marrying your dad wasn’t her best decision.” Gran reached out to her with a shaky hand. “Except for you, of course.” Ella smiled. She couldn’t get offended with the elderly lady. “You remember how Mom and I clashed so much when I was younger?” Gran nodded. “I hated it. But what could I do? It’s better now, hey?” Ella nodded. “Much. I kind of understand her. We’re very similar. I’m glad she taught me to be sane and sensible because I can get a little idealistic and keep my head in the clouds.” Gran shook her head but said nothing. Ella frowned and considered asking why she disagreed, but another yawn and her eyelids hanging at half-mast told her it was time to leave. She came up to her and hugged her, blinking back the tears. “I love you. Thank you for wanting to help me.” Gran shook her head and took her hand as if to tell her not to leave yet. “I don’t know if I have helped you. I shouldn’t have assumed that because I think The Album would have helped me, it would be the right thing for you.” Her eyes betrayed regret. Ella felt bad. “Well, I’ve always liked matchmaking.” Gran nodded, her eyes bright. “Maybe all I need is to set some boundaries with the business. Only run it on Saturdays so at least I have Sundays to rest. Limit how many clients I take on. I don’t really need the extra money.” “That should help.” “Then I’ll see it as more fun and less of a burden.” “And Ross?” “Well, I’ll have to tell him that it needs to end now. I can’t hang onto him any longer. It’s not going to work, is it?” She studied her Gran’s gaze for answers. The woman shrugged. “I can’t tell you that. Only you know what’s in your heart. I messed up too many times to give you good advice.” “Granny, you didn’t mess up. Look at the beautiful family you brought up with Grandpa. You must miss him?” “Every day.” She shifted with a strained expression. “I think you should lie down a bit.” Ella stood up to take the tray off her lap. “I’ll leave you to rest. Please call me if you need anything. Your voice is so strong, I heard it from the field.” Gran smiled and moved slowly and painfully down onto her back. She closed her eyes and sighed and dropped off to sleep almost immediately. Ella wanted to squeeze her hard but left, pleased she’d eaten a good meal and they’d talked about some really interesting stuff. Chapter Eleven “In two-hundred metres, turn left.” Ross obeyed the GPS mechanically although his heart and mind didn’t feel very automatic and relaxed. He couldn’t believe he’d done this—driven all the way to Bethal to fetch Ella without her knowing. At Pauline’s insistence. Pauline, of all people, had advised him to fetch the woman. The woman who tortured him constantly. The one who’d probably push him away once he arrived. Or would she take up his offer of much-needed assistance? “In one-hundred metres, you will reach your destination. Your destination is on the right.” Ross turned right and stopped at the metal farm fence. He climbed out the vehicle and attempted to open the gate without assistance but it had been tightly bolted shut. He returned to his car and pressed the hooter soundly with his palm. After a substantial wait of about two minutes, a farm worker opened the gate for him and he asked for directions to the farmhouse. “Just up.” The man pointed to the dirt road. He looked around at Ella’s gran’s farm as he drove up, impressed at the expansive fields. Although it was a small holding, there was at least a third of a hectare of land. People walked around and it seemed that the place teemed with life during harvest-time. Ella had to manage all these people without any assistance except for maybe Gran’s instructions from the bed because the farm manager had resigned. Pulling his car in besides a couple of tractors and he presumed Gran’s car, Ross got out and immediately looked for Ella’s blonde head. Not around. He headed straight for the house and knocked on the door. Ella opened it and stared at him, her face turning a healthy shade of pink, sending his whole body on alert. “Ross? Is everything okay?” “That’s what I came to find out.” She frowned. “We’re fine. Gran walked to the toilet today without my help. She’ll be up and about, mostly, within a couple of days. Should there be something wrong?” He indicated to come in. “Oh, sorry, please come in. I’m just so shocked you came.” “Pauline said you needed a lift home and that you’re struggling running the farm all by yourself.” “Oh, that.” She touched her forehead. “Been rather hard.” She was different. Sweeter, kinder, almost respectful of him. That familiarity they’d gained over the years and which had made her a little bossy at times had disappeared. Maybe just the shock of seeing him. “Been rather hard? I heard you were up until two every night getting everything done.” “Who told you…?” “Pauline.” Her frown deepened. “Really? Please come to the kitchen. I’ll make you a drink. We don’t have any snacks in the house. I haven’t had time—” “Okay.” His heart ached with a need to comfort her, help her, and ease whatever burden she’d been carrying. “Coffee will go down well and a glass of cold water.” “Sure.” She worked with a certain fluster in her hands and movements. The flush in her cheeks remained. Could it be from lots of sun or maybe time outdoors? Her hair was messy and came out of the loose ponytail at the base of her neck but he’d never wanted her so much before. “I can’t sit. Been doing that for hours.” Perfect excuse for coming closer. Scrutinizing her bare arms, he noticed scratches along them. “You okay?” He pointed at her arm. “Yes, I just helped with the harvest. We were running out of time sorting through the sorghum grain, checking for smuts and bugs and stuff.” “What about the labourers? I’m sure your gran doesn’t do heavy work like that.” “It wasn’t heavy. Just didn’t want to come across any spiders.” She shuddered but gave him a happy smile. “You sure? Pauline said you were miserable.” “I was a couple of days back. Now that I’m sure Gran is improving, I couldn’t be better.” She poured the boiling water into a mug and the aroma of coffee filled the room. He helped himself to water from the fridge and gulped a glass down, then sat down to savour the hot drink. She soon joined him at the wooden table and chairs with her tea. He gazed at her, longing clogging his throat. “You look good.” The words tumbled out, so overwhelming was the thought. “I do?” No anger, no withdrawal; just a softness. A feminine touch he wanted to drink of, take hold of, and feel for hours. “Yes, you have a light in your eyes, your skin is glowing. Farm life does you good.” She laughed. “I wouldn’t have thought so on Friday when I was up to here in sticky, prickly grains.” “Is the harvest done?” She shook her head wildly, sending more stray strands of hair out the ineffective captor of her hairband. “Not nearly. We’re in the process of storing it. There was a bumper harvest this year so we had to purchase more storage containers. And some of the sorghum gets used as hay for animal feed. Those plants go through a whole other process.” “Do the labourers listen to you?” She shrugged. “They pretty much know what to do, anyway. I just can’t fix machinery.” She gave a sly smile. “Gran doesn’t know that I hired someone to fix one of her mowers. And how much I paid. Out of my own pocket.” “What?” He reached for her hand close to her mug and pressed his on top, then promptly pulled back. Why couldn’t he exercise more self-restraint? “Why?” “I didn’t have time to source a cheap repair or didn’t want to risk it so I just paid for it. Else, we would have had to hire a bunch more labourers to harvest by hand. As it was, they should have been finished all the harvesting by the day Gran hurt herself. We still had another whole section, besides the hay field which is easy—they just use a forage crusher.” He watched how animated she got when she spoke about farming, of all things. How he loved the way she did so much for her gran, even using up her annual leave to work hard on her farm. “You’re so kind to do this.” She smiled. “I had no choice. Gran’s been barking orders all the time.” “Are you ready to leave in a couple of days?” She shrugged and her smile disappeared. “I hope so. She can walk to the toilet but what about the farm? Gran wants to sell it, you know.” “You don’t like that idea?” “Makes no difference to my life.” She shrugged but he couldn’t be certain she spoke the truth. “So, are you doing all right?” she continued. “Fine. My house is coming along. Slowly.” She took the last long swig of her tea and stood up. “I have to get back out there. I came to check on her but she’s sleeping at the moment.” “Let me join you.” She narrowed her eyes at him but the flush deepened on her cheeks. “Um…” She looked down at his smart jeans and new trainers. “You’ll want to put something old and tatty on.” “I’ll find something and join you in a minute. Where am I sleeping tonight?” “Ross, you really should have checked first. I appreciate you coming all the way.” She touched his arm and he drew closer to her instinctively. “Just?” “Well, good thing Gran has two spare rooms.” “I could always sleep on the couch. Or in the barn.” “Yeah, right. It gets cold here at night. This isn’t Richards Bay.” He loved the cheekiness in her eyes, the spark. An electrical charge pulsed off her, drawing him in, but then she suddenly pulled away. “Bring your suitcase in and I’ll open up and air out the spare room for you. The sheets haven’t been changed since Carol and Andrea stayed.” “Sorry to burden you with another task.” She shrugged. “Things have calmed down a bit now that the harvest is over and some of the sorghum has dried out. At least we could keep our suppliers appeased for now.” Our? She acted like she owned the farm. Was it her dream? Maybe better than that album and its strange magic. Yet, she loved making people happy. That’s what it was. She made her gran happy. Whatever she did, she’d thrive on. Well, almost anything. He’d always wondered about her receptionist job and how much it satisfied her. He went outside to fetch his suitcase from the car and locked it up. Then he found her down the passage in one of the rooms. She gestured to him to be quiet. “Gran’s still sleeping.” She opened the blinds and a couple of windows and fluffed up the pillows. “Hope it’s not too dusty.” “I’ll survive. Not like I change my bedding all that often.” “Ew.” She scrunched up her long nose and walked to the door. “Make yourself at home.” She hesitated a second and he stood watching her while her presence filled the room and cloaked him. Then she was gone. He dressed quickly into shorts and a t-shirt without bothering to unpack, then escaped outside to find her. After some horizon searching, he discovered she’d already covered a considerable distance. She stood guarding a container with grain inside. A couple of men tipped wheelbarrows of grain into the container while she watched on like a true manager. He came up behind her, unable to resist touching her any longer, and blindfolded her with his hands. She gasped and spun around, taking her breath in spurts, and looking very flustered. Had his touch had that effect on her? “Ross, I didn’t expect you outside so soon.” “You got quite far. I had to search for you. What can I do?” “I don’t know. Check on the other container, make sure they keep coming with more.” She pointed to one about ten metres away. “And make sure they fill it to the brim. Gran says they must be packed tight so bugs don’t have room to thrive inside. We’re actually supposed to only do this in the morning when it’s drier but the air is pretty dry here at the moment, so I used my initiative and decided to make a day of it today—do some catch-up so when I leave, she has less to worry about.” “You’re a farm manager now.” He spoke close to her ear, deliberately brushing her hair with his lips. She didn’t move away as he expected but remained frozen in place. The tension between them could be cut with a knife. “I-I’m trying.” “A cute one.” He ran his finger down her arm. “Ross, stop flirting.” She smacked him lightly on the shoulder. He sensed less tension though, less aggression than before, as though she may actually want him to continue flirting with her. “Now, go do some work, will you. Seeing you came here early for that very reason.” “Yes, ma-am.” He saluted her. The next hour was yawn-worthy, to say the least. He had a couple of men come with wheelbarrows, but other than that, the only interest was the scenery and Ella’s legs in shorts. She waved to him to come over. In the afternoon sun, he’d developed a sweat and felt the heat upon his skin. The little breeze didn’t ease the stifled feeling. She pointed up at the sky and he saw a dark mass of clouds towards the east. “Time to pack up,” she urged. “We don’t often seem to get weather here. Must come from the lowveld.” “What about the grain?” “I know. It definitely mustn’t get wet.” She scratched the top of her head. “I’m getting stressed here. What should I do?” “Okay, let’s see. These containers—are they waterproof?” “Not exactly.” “Then we need to get them in the barn.” “How?” “What trailers do you have for the tractors?” “Well, there’s a whole lot of equipment in the barn but I have no idea what it is. I steer clear of those type of things.” He smiled tenderly. “You’ve done a great job on the farm so far. Come, let’s go to the barn.” He walked briskly with Ella in tow and they entered the dim building, the sparse lighting compounded by the darkening sky outside. He squinted to take in what was on offer. After a few seconds, he could make out several trailers. One caught his eye but would still prove an immense challenge—a flatbed trailer with a nice surface area. But how would he strap the containers on? Then he saw it—a much smaller one with sides. It would probably fit only one at a time and the containers may still need securing. “How many containers do you have? Just the two?” “Um…there’re actually six.” He peered back out at the darkening sky and shook his head. “Gee, this is tough. Don’t you prepare for weather?” “We don’t usually have much rain here in autumn. Well, that’s what Gran said.” “You still have to make sure.” He came up to her when he saw the distress on her face. “I’m sorry, Ella, you’re not the farm manager. You’re just—” “I’m just?” Close up, her eyes were doe-like and enchanting in the eerie light. “Beautiful.” His voice thickened and he moved closer. She didn’t withdraw. They were suspended in another realm, away from the stresses, ignoring the storm for a moment. He bent down to kiss her and felt the irresistible softness of her lips melt his body into a puddle on the barn floor. She whimpered and he pressed closer, taking her into a delicious embrace where her grassy and strawberry scent filled him, her hair brushed against his cheek and neck, and her sweet form stirred up arousal to the point of discomfort. He ran more kisses down her cheek, her neck, and back up to her mouth which opened up to receive his tongue. Fervent touch of tongues sent the world swirling upside down and back again. He didn’t want to stop for breath but eventually pulled away, still keeping her in his arms. Thunder rumbles broke the haze of need, of pleasure supreme. “We’d better make hay while the sun shines. Who drives the tractors?” She spoke with a wobbly voice. “Several men here do but I have no clue where they are at the moment.” His gaze zoned in on her plump, ready lips and he wished they could find time for more. Then it hit him. She hadn’t pushed him away. She’d enjoyed that kiss as much as he. Her flushed cheeks, the drugged look in her eyes, even her stance, told him she’d loved it. And maybe had longed for it. Sweet hope surged through his being, buoying him on. “I’ll drive the tractor.” “No, Ross, it’s not safe. Have you ever…?” “I’ve driven a forklift.” “That’s vastly different.” “How difficult could it be?” Another rumble shuddered through them. “I’ll get the keys.” She ran off. It took Ross and Ella, and eventually a handful of labourers who’d come to the containers, two hours to get the vats into the barn. Ella had covered the grain with large tent ground sheets from her gran’s garage in the meantime as the rain hadn’t waited for them. By the time they’d safely secured the six containers, the rain had stopped. Ella’s hairband had disappeared somewhere on the farm and her semi-wet hair hung like matted strings on her shoulders. Her mascara had run down in streaks and eventually washed away. Yet, she still held that healthy flush in her cheeks and her eyes shone. Until they went back toward the farmhouse once the sun had set and all the labourers had gone home. Then her eyes were circled by a frown and dark rings. The day had taken its toll. Her body stiffened by the door. “I haven’t checked on my gran in hours. I hope she’s okay.” “Don’t you want to bathe first and warm up?” “I have to check. And tell her you came and what’s happened since.” He nodded and went to find some hot water to freshen up his body. While he stood beneath the invigorating spray of the guest shower, he dreamed of the kiss. But then his mind tortured him with questions and fears. Would she withdraw again? Had he pushed her too far this time? What assurance did he have she’d want to commit to them long term? Gut feel told him the storm wasn’t over. Yes, the rain outside had stopped, but he had a feeling the thunder would still rumble through his life and relationship with Ella. He didn’t want to lose her. They belonged together. How could he have taken so long to realise it? And how did he convince her he was in it for good and he loved her more than anyone else ever could? Chapter Twelve Ella closed her eyes while the countryside streamed by as they left her Gran’s place. Ross hadn’t said much—just polite interaction about the journey and the last few busy days getting everything in place before they left. She didn’t want to talk, either. The last time she’d visited her gran, she hadn’t felt such a heaviness leaving. A sinking sadness. Like half her heart being left behind in Mpumalanga. Why couldn’t they live closer? Her mom lived in Richards Bay so they saw each other often. But this time, she’d developed a special bond with her gran, even more so than ever. Maybe it was hearing Gran’s story about her stormy romantic history—a lot like her own, not finding the right man. Could she be the problem? Dirk was perfect from what she knew of him. Good looking, gentle, kind, decent conversation, sexy. It was because she couldn’t say goodbye to Ross. And the kiss in the barn hadn’t helped. She’d decided that night after the kiss, once she’d collapsed exhausted into bed, that it wouldn’t happen again so she’d kept her distance. Chancing a glance at him driving next to her took her breath away. Since when did Ross cause her heart to do a painful twist every time she looked at him? A longing, an ache, a need so intense, it proved frightening. She looked down at his tight thighs against his man jeans and sexual arousal rose up ferociously in her. Saliva pooled in her mouth and she turned away, fire lighting up her whole body. She closed her eyes and the kiss replayed in her mind. She didn’t want to cut the memory of it away. It made her feel alive, dangerous, crazy. She wanted that feeling with all her being, except for the very sensible part of her that didn’t want to get hurt. But would Ross really hurt her? He’d been pretty withdrawn since that kiss. The flirtatiousness had fled. Had he regretted it, decided she didn’t kiss as well as he’d hoped? How could she relax and give all when he didn’t give his all? Even if she had decided to withdraw, if he really wanted her, wouldn’t he keep at it? Keep flirting like he’d done when he first arrived on the farm? Assure her his love was real? The silence between them went on forever like the road back home. Home. Could she do it? Go back to the routine after the last few weeks, a vastly different experience? Somehow, she’d thrived on the challenge of running the farm, of keeping her gran happy. The crazy cold weather and the country air had invigorated her. And that kiss? In the barn? The best of her life so far. She’d never forget it. Never let go of the memory that she’d kissed her best friend in a thunderstorm in a dark, dusty barn and experienced a sensory explosion that had rocked her core. That had stirred up in her a need so vast and so unquenchable. Or so it felt. She couldn’t look at him the same way anymore. Their friendship as it stood was over. It was all or nothing now. And she couldn’t do either. She was well and truly screwed. She squeezed her eyes shut. And how on Earth would she work with The Album now? As much as it meant so much more to her knowing Gran had given it to her, she couldn’t lie anymore about her fear of playing god with people’s lives. An errant tear escaped from her eyes despite them being closed tight. “Ella.” She popped her eyes open at the concern in his voice. “What’s wrong?” Ross gazed at her, warmth and kindness in his face. Her heart did another painful twist. How could she say goodbye to him? “I-I can’t do it anymore.” “Do what?” He went pale and his knuckles reddened as he gripped the steering wheel. No, she couldn’t turn him away now. After all he’d done for her. She’d have to come up with a plan to end the friendship without ripping his heart out of his chest. If he cared that much. “I can’t play god anymore with people’s lives.” He let out a breath but glanced back at her, still carrying that concerned face blended with a male protectiveness. “The Album?” “Do you know that Gran gave it to me? She’d dreamed of using it herself but never did. Uncle Stan left it to her.” “Oh, that could explain the mystery somewhat. So, why do want to give up so soon?” She stared at him, aware her mouth had gaped open. “What? You hated The Album. Hated the whole business idea.” “I did, but now I can see it may be the right thing for you.” “How?” “You enjoy making people happy. I saw at the farm how you thrived on helping your gran, even the labourers sometimes. You’re at your best in those moments.” She smiled. Ross had always been extremely perceptive at reading people. He’d probably be better at using The Album than she but she could never imagine him doing it. The idea brought a giggle to her lips, sending a sceptical look from him her way. “I’m trying to imagine you using The Album.” He scowled at her. “Saying I’m not altruistic.” “No, you are in your own way. With a select few. Your charity doesn’t spread far and wide, but gets concentrated very intensely on a couple of people or just one person at a time.” Oh, bother. Why did she say that? “Do you have a problem with that?” A muscle in his jaw twitched. How could she answer that without hurting him or revealing her true but very confused feelings? Silence again. Painful, heart-crimping silence. Break it somehow. “So you think I should continue with The Album?” She tried to sound upbeat, as though their conversation hadn’t just taken a dangerous detour. He nodded. “You need it.” “But I feel like I’m changing people’s lives, the planet’s destiny, forever. What if I make the wrong decision and match up a couple who seem happy together but cause evil upon the earth or give birth to an evil child?” “Do you think people are born evil?” he asked. “Well, I don’t know. Don’t they say serial killers are born with some genetic weakness or glitch in their brain that makes them do those things? Like someone born dyslexic or bipolar.” “I’m not so sure people are born bipolar. Isn’t it related to diet and lifestyle, circumstances, a compilation of many factors, including genetics?” “Why are you so logical all the time?” He shrugged and offered her a proud grin. Her fingers itched to touch his thigh, to stroke up and down the length of those muscular legs. She swallowed and looked away. “You know, things happen on this planet that are plain disgusting. A lot about this world is steeped in chaos and is pretty frightening. I think many of the things that happen or that people do are caused by so many factors converging. Bad, good, in between. Our little decisions can’t possibly affect the whole planet, could they?” he said. “What about the theory that one butterfly wing flap can change world weather patterns or cause a massive hurricane?” He laughed loud and she smiled at the release of tension. “Where on earth did you hear that?” “I don’t know. I read stuff. Magazines. Blogs.” “But by worrying about every single decision you make, you’re actually trying to be more like God—control all the outcomes.” “I don’t believe God controls everything. I mean, does he starve those kids in poor countries or did he cause Hurricane Katrina?” “You have a point there.” He winked at her. “Hey, you’re helping people. Keep it simple. You’re giving them happiness. Life is so short anyway. Wouldn’t you want to play a part in making the journey more pleasurable?” “But you said that I shouldn’t make it perfect for people, that they should experience hardship in love so they appreciate it when the right one comes along.” He let out a shaky sigh. “I don’t know. I suppose some pain is best avoided.” She looked away. What did he mean by that? Had she caused him so much pain? Maybe he’d thought more deeply about it since they’d first spoken about The Album. She liked that he didn’t brush her ideas off—that he pondered them. Ross had so many good qualities. So why couldn’t she give him her whole heart? “Okay, I’m going to give it another shot. I’m going to try this business out for six months more and then do an assessment after those six months to see if it’s working financially and for the people I’ve helped. I’ll even send out forms for them—like feedback forms. You and Pauline could design one.” His shoulders and jaw tensed. She shouldn’t have mentioned Pauline. “Look, I’m sorry I tried to match you with her. I won’t do that again. I think I upset you both.” He nodded but didn’t look at her. Suppose he wanted more than an apology. He probably wanted her to say how jealous it had made her. He didn’t need to know that right now—might ignite another fire between them. “We can design one together—you and I.” Why did she just say that? The thought of poring over documents together, shoulders close and legs touching, sent her pulse into a drum roll. He didn’t say a thing. What was he thinking? They thankfully drove into an Ultra-City stop and went in for a quick lunch and to fill up on fuel. Only a few more hours with Ross. Suddenly, she didn’t want to arrive home. He made the journey an adventure. Talking to him certainly put her life into perspective. *** “I have some ideas on how to help you.” Ella cringed as she sat at her desk the following weekend opposite Frankenstein. Her mouth had spurted things to her ‘problem’ client which she may regret later. But she had to be honest. He nodded, a frown creasing his forehead and making his bushy eyebrows form a unibrow. “You’re the only dating service that’s ever said anything like this before. I’m impressed.” Dating service? Impressed? She opened her mouth and remained frozen for a moment, not sure what to say. “I’m open to your suggestions. I think you may have a point. I need to change else I’m just going to go down the same dead-end street as before.” She gripped the desk as he repeated her words almost verbatim. “Yes.” She cleared her throat. “It’s what I’ve concluded by studying your files and your relationship history.” And your relationship future. “Fire away.” He gave the ‘come here’ gesture with long fingers. “What do I need to change?” “Well, I’m happy to sponsor a relationship course for you. There’s this colleague of mine who’s been attending it before she gets married, but it doesn’t have to be only for those who’re about to get married.” “Okay.” “So, you’ll attend? They can get quite intense—the sessions, I mean. They ask all sorts of personal questions and they also give you homework.” “Homework? Like what?” She envisioned the smoke coming out his ears and suppressed a smile. She could imagine how stressful something like this could be for a man. “Worksheets, studying up on stuff. Assignments. You won’t regret it. I’ve looked up testimonials of other single men who’ve done it and had tremendous results.” He stood up and stretched to shake her hand. “Well, sign me up please. Thank you so much. We’ll be in touch once I’ve finished the course.” “Sure.” She shook his hand back, reeling with how easy it had been. Maybe it would backfire in her face. Just didn’t seem possible that the most difficult of her clients could be so flexible and open-minded. Had The Album been wrong in showing his dismal futures? Was he really a decent guy? Would she ever know? He said goodbye and left her office. She set to work booking his course and did the transfer to pay for it. It would cost more than he’d paid for his consultations with her, but it was a once-off thing. She probably wouldn’t have many clients as hard to match as he—notching it down to investment in the business—an expense well worth it to maintain her reputation. Talking of reputation, she hadn’t as yet read the article in the country-wide people’s interest magazine about someone who’d come to her and found a partner. Andrea had sent her an urgent message to buy the magazine and read the article. She’d bought it first thing at seven in the morning when the grocery store had opened and not had a chance to read it until now at almost lunch time. Opening up the magazine, she quickly located the article and gasped at the headline. “Dating service messes up my life.” What? This could not be Exact Match. The Album wouldn’t fail. Something was amiss. Maybe false journalism. Why hadn’t she heard anything yet? With her heart hammering wildly and her mouth dry, she read the words of the article. After reaching near the end, she let out a big breath of relief. They hadn’t been referring to Exact Match at all but rather previous experience with bothersome companies. In fact, they’d called her company something beyond a dating service. That’s why she’d been shocked when Frank had called it one. Of course, she went beyond just pairing people up based on a guess or some quizzes—she looked into their future. But no one knew that. One passage in the article bothered her, though. “It’s uncanny how perfectly matched Paul and I are. We are suited to one another in every sense. I wish I could learn what methods Ella Haviland uses to choose partners for her clients. She doesn’t hold any degrees or formal education and runs her matchmaking business part-time, yet she seems to instinctively know who belongs with whom. Is there magic in the mix here? Or is there some other mysterious individual advising her and using her as a pretty store-front for the business?” The article ended there. They’d even found a photo of her—one from her website. Pretty storefront? Like I’m just beauty and no brains. What an insult! Ella stood up and paced the room. What if they started investigating her? What if journalists began knocking at her door? How could she keep The Album secret? As palpable the relief was that the article didn’t disparage her in any way, it brought a new concern, and she couldn’t sit still. She needed to go for a walk to clear her mind. While on her walk, a text message from Dirk arrived on her phone. “Up for a movie and dinner tonight?” he asked. She smiled. At least he hadn’t given up on her. That’s just what she needed to get her mind off everything. Four days ago, she’d travelled back with Ross and spent hours with him in the car, her feelings for him morphing into something alien to her heart. Dirk held her only means of escape. If he gave her a good enough reason to say goodbye to Ross forever, she could come to a decision once and for all. The agony could end. “I’m game. What time?” “Fifteen minutes too soon? The next show starts at 16h45.” She looked at her watch. A quarter past four. She picked up her pace to get home within ten minutes. She had five minutes to freshen up for Dirk. Talk about stress. But it’s a good stress. By the time he arrived, she was giggling as she tried to apply make-up and strap her shoes at the same time. “Come in,” she called from the mirror in her guest toilet by the front door. She’d left the door unlocked for him. She stepped out the little room. “Hi Dirk.” He stood before her in all his male-infused glory. Dirk had an amazing smile that would cause any woman’s heart to flip. It somehow only made hers ache and reminded her of painful decisions. Could only get better, she told herself when he came up to her and gave her a peck on the mouth. “It’s been a while since I saw you. Missed you,” he said. He smelt fresh and sexy, too. “You, too.” “Ready?” “Yip.” She switched on her outside lights, then pushed him out the door so she could set her alarm and lock. Once out on the road, she relaxed. “What movie is it?” “A crime drama.” “Good stuff. Big carton of popcorn?” “Of course.” He grinned at her. “Now tell me about your trip away.” She briefly explained how she’d helped her gran, not going into any detail about Ross at all. Dirk listened and nodded. “You certainly stepped up to the plate. Want to become a farmer?” “Nah.” She shook her head. “Fun for a break from the usual routine, but I don’t think…” He looked at her. “I’m trying to imagine you in jeans, boots, and outdoor gear. It would suit you.” Her face heated as his gaze rested upon her in a suggestive way. “I could look rather messy on the farm as I didn’t have time to make myself up.” He gave her leg a quick squeeze. “Messy or not, you’d look great.” “Thanks, Dirk.” They parked outside the Boardwalk Mall and ran inside to the cinema. They were only five minutes late and the movie hadn’t started yet. Dirk got them seats and went back out to stand in the queue for popcorn and sodas. Once the movie started, they tucked into the salty snacks and drinks. Dirk took her hand after they’d demolished the popcorn and she snuggled up against him. In a quiet part in the movie, he whispered something to her and as she turned to ask for him to repeat the words, he stole a kiss from her—long and deep and intimate. Then he pulled away and continued to watch. At least they were in the dark because he shouldn’t know how confused that kiss made her. How come Dirk epitomised just what she wanted and yet his kiss didn’t rock her nearly as much as Ross’s in the barn? When had Ross, the guy who stood for that platonic friendship part of her life, now become the one to cause all the ups and downs that came with infatuation? She’d always clung to Ross because he meant stability. Romance had often implied the antithesis of that for her. Maybe the night would get better. She still had to warm up to Dirk more. It had been a while since they’d spent time together. Several hours later, despite a fun date and another long kiss after seeing her off, she couldn’t shake the memory of Ross’s kiss and their trip back from Bethal. Could Ross be the one for her, after all? “No.” She shouted at her bathroom mirror while she brushed her teeth. “No, he can’t.” Give Dirk time, she told herself. For what? Time to make a fool of himself? Time to keep on pursuing her when she couldn’t give her whole heart? That’s it. She had to end it with Ross tonight. Forever. There was no moving forward until she ripped out a huge part of her soul. She went downstairs to send him an email. No, that sucked. She couldn’t end a friendship via an email. Go over to his place. Even though it’s eleven-thirty. That would be tough. If she didn’t do it now, she’d go chicken and then she’d be in limbo the rest of her life. After slipping on a pair of jeans and a tee, she took the short drive two roads up to his house. She rang the bell and bit her lip. Maybe she’d been too impulsive. She should have waited until the morning. “Ella.” A sleepy Ross opened the door in boxers and no shirt. She gasped. Since when had his chest filled out so much and when had he grown so many dark hairs there? She swallowed. “Um, can I come in?” “You okay?” “I don’t know.” He didn’t speak but put on a light in the dark lounge. She sank down in a chair and looked around. “You’ve done it up.” “Look nice?” She nodded. How could she act all sweet when… Seeing him now, she couldn’t say anything. His sleepy face, his gorgeous bod, his concerned frown all worked to draw out the need for him, the new longing to have all of him, the horrific confusion and fear. How could she hurt the only man she’d ever cared for? Think of something else to say! “Um, I can’t sleep. Been worried about an article in the Credence magazine.” “What article?” He sat down next to her, ridiculously close for her wellbeing and seemingly oblivious to the effect his nearness now had on her. “I didn’t bring it. I should have.” Lying was the only way to save his heart. “One of my clients shared how my match had helped her but that she thought it may be some kind of magic because I wasn’t qualified and how did I match people up so well? She even did some research and found other clients that had been well-matched by Exact Match.” He shrugged and yawned. “I wouldn’t stress too much.” “But what if journalists come and start asking questions? How do I hide The Album?” “In your wardrobe in your bedroom.” She laughed. “You’re so concrete and logical. I mean, how do I hide that I use another means to match the people?” “Just refuse to answer their questions.” “That would make it seem more suspect. It will only stir their curiosity more.” He yawned again and stretched back. She drank in his form and her core tightened with need. Oh, a kiss would be just the right thing to distract her right now. “Gosh, I’m so sorry to have woken you, Ross.” He patted her hand, shooting firebrands up her arm. “You know I don’t mind.” “Thanks so much. I’d better go.” She stood up before she landed in his lap. “How’s your gran? Heard anything from her?” He rose and his face came far too close for comfort. “She’s good. Getting better every day. The farm manager came back, too. One of the containers got spoilt, though.” “It did?” His voice sounded so husky and sexy when he was tired. His lips begged to be kissed. Intense need rose up within her to feel another kiss like the one in the barn, to experience that euphoria, that sense of his manliness and closeness surrounding her. She wanted the fiery touch of his arms around her mixed with his loving warmth that used to wipe away her confusion. But his arms around me will only make me more confused later. Yet, her gaze remained fixed on his mouth. Tingles and heat flooded her. She didn’t think she could resist any longer. Her brain took the back seat. Her body won. She came up closer and moved to kiss him. His eyes opened wide and then he responded instantly, taking her in his arms. Oh, idiot! Why did you do that? You’re supposed to be breaking it off, not schmoozing. You’re digging yourself a deeper grave. A pit you’ll never get out of. His kiss sent sweet light through her whole being. How good his lips felt, so pure, so needy, so real. She felt his love. She picked up his intensity and it filled a hole inside her. Her tongue sought out his and they crushed against each other, breathless and frantic. This need for him had been brewing longer than a few weeks. No, she’d wanted him for years. Just one kiss and it had lit a flame in her that refused to be quenched until she gave her all. He pulled her toward the couch and dropped her gently down on its surface. She reached out hungry hands to feel his chest. Her hands brushed his nipples and he gasped. What was she doing? “No, Ross. I can’t.” He reached for her hand, but she pulled away. “I’m sorry I came to you.” “You want this as much as I do.” His eyes held fire, anger, and need stronger than she’d ever seen in him. Her heart broke because she knew his love for her made him fully man in her eyes, truly beautiful, and she could never reciprocate. It was too sweet, too precious, and too much of a risk to her heart. “I have to go.” She rose and walked to the door. Go away forever. Yes, that’s the answer. She’d leave town. Find a good reason to get out of there so he couldn’t come after her. Make a fresh start. Try to forget about him. It was the only way. She left and her heart remained behind in Ross’s troubled eyes as she said goodbye. Chapter Thirteen “What?” Her four friends looked at her in the Greek restaurant where they sat around a basket of freshly baked buns and blocks of gorgeous butter. She gave each of them a firm glance, trying to hide the turmoil in her soul. This meant moving away from them, too. But what else could she do? She’d thrashed it out for days, losing much sleep and peace, and had finally come to a decision. “I’m relocating. My boss has found a job for me in Umhlanga with one of her colleagues.” None of them said anything for a few painful seconds. She must admit, she’d nearly dropped the whole thing, knowing she’d be away from them without their girly dates and times to chat. But there was no other way to get away from Ross without ripping his heart out. “It’s a promotion. I’ll earn a much higher salary and be given perks. Plus I’ll get to help out with the frames—they have a small frame manufacturing plant right next to the optometrist and I’ll have a say in some of the designs.” She knew they’d be all for her moving up in the world. “That’s wonderful,” Carol said with a shaky smile. “You’ve been looking for an opportunity for so long.” She didn’t want to tell them she’d been aware of the position for months but hadn’t wanted to move out of town. They would be hurt at her dishonesty on so many levels, but she just couldn’t let them know the real reason for her impulsiveness. Pauline busied herself with buttering a bun, struggling to get the hard block of butter to spread on the spongy-soft roll. The knife shook and Ella blinked back tears at her covert display of emotion. “I’m going to miss you so much. It’s just a temporary thing for a couple of years. I mean, you’ve all been on your stints around the world, except maybe Pauline. Yet, Pauline, you stayed in Jo’burg for six months. I’ve lived in this dump for my whole life.” Really, she wouldn’t mind staying here. She despised change. But Ross was forcing her out of the nest. Pauline didn’t look up from her roll mess. “Disaster, that.” Disaster, that? Oh, right. Jo’burg. “What about The Album?” Andrea didn’t waste time in getting right to the crunch. She gunned Ella with a firm and penetrating gaze. “I wanted to ask you guys what to do. I’m keen on ending it. Andrea, you read that article in the Credence magazine. I’m just scared journalists will start asking probing questions. I won’t know how to handle it. It’s another reason for leaving. Of course, I’d pay you back all your investments in the company and your portion of the profits.” “You can’t do that,” Carol said. “The Album is our baby. It was going to change the world.” “Yes.” Andrea downed some soda. “You had so many dreams for it. Why are you letting it fall away? If you’re patient, you’ll earn enough money from The Album to quit work.” She’d also hoped to do that one day. Helping people instead of making appointments and answering phones. Sure, her job did help people at the optometrist, but she liked to see the direct results of changed lives. “I’m only like a two-hour drive away. We can visit often—you can stay with me any time you want to visit Gateway Shopping Centre. And the business work—you ladies can still help me with it. We don’t have to live in the same place to work together. That’s if I keep The Album running. I was thinking of using it more to help people than as a business. I don’t know.” She caught Andrea’s eye. Fire spewed out her gaze, her fists clenched onto the edge of the table, and she sighed. “It’s all about self-sabotage,” her friend said. “What are you talking about?” Once again, she had to defend herself in front of Andrea. Could she ever make her happy? Even when she took up a promotion as Andrea had specifically been nagging her to go for, it wasn’t good enough. Self-sabotage? She sort of knew what that meant. But in her case? “Don’t you see?” Andrea continued. “Any time something comes up for you that you really want, you don’t think you’re good enough to take it. The Album was your dream come true but it’s too nice, it satisfies you too much, so you’d better not set yourself up for disappointment.” Her tone was harsh and she didn’t back down from laying it out crudely in front of everyone. “I most certainly don’t.” Tears welled up in her eyes. Carol took her hand and squeezed. “Andrea’s just upset because we’ll miss you.” “I’ll miss you too, but I wasn’t like this when you went away for a while.” “It’s more than that.” Pauline eventually looked up and spoke. “You’re running away from something.” “What?” She blinked furiously to hide the tears which came unbidden. “I’m running to something. I’m looking for a better life.” How could she keep on lying to them? They were her friends, the ones who understood her better than anyone else. Yet, how could she tell them about Ross without their judgement? What if they advised her something she couldn’t follow through with? “You have to tell us what’s happened, Ella.” Pauline wouldn’t let go. “What’s spooked you so badly? Is it your gran? That magazine article? I mean, I read it and Jennifer only spoke your highest praise. Paul was the perfect man for her. We saw what The Album showed us for her.” Ella had been trying to remember how Jennifer and Paul’s lives had turned out but couldn’t recall a thing. Had she worked with so many clients that she’d forgotten their stories? “I don’t remember their pictures,” Carol said. “All I remember is that their relationship would be successful.” “That’s all you need to remember.” Andrea shook the ice around at the bottom of her glass. “They’d better delay our food orders because I’m concerned about you, Ella. What’s getting to you?” Her voice had softened somewhat. When would Ella learn that Andrea only got intimidating because she cared? She’d just always found it hard to deal with. “You can tell us.” Carol hadn’t let go her hand and gave it another squeeze. Her blonde bob looked so perfectly tailored today and curved inward toward her chin, giving her that soft yet mature look that was all Carol. “We never hold back from one another. Why hide it when we only want to hear you out?” Pauline lifted up her hand in a halt signal. “Hold on.” She gazed at Andrea. “If we’re going to get all bossy and intimidating with her when she tells us, obviously she won’t want to open up.” “She is right here listening to your conversation about her.” Ella laughed through her tears. “She has decided… Okay, I’m going to tell you but you’d better keep your strong opinions to yourself. I see no other way out of this situation.” They turned to her with their full attention. She closed her eyes to cut off their gazes for a moment and to work out how to say it. She had to get them on her side. What exactly was her side? “I can’t stay in the same city as Ross anymore.” She glanced at Pauline. “He loves me and I’m not ready to give him everything, yet I can’t break his heart and tell him goodbye forever. So the only way I can see to get him out my life is to go away.” “You can’t just be friends?” Carol asked. “Have you asked him to back off romantically?” She covered her face to hide the rush of emotion crumpling up her face. “I can’t.” Andrea stroked her back while Carol kept her hand in a tight squeeze, allowing the sobs to finish their course. At that moment, the waiter brought their food through. She dried her wet face and tried to eat. Then she noticed everyone looked at her; none of them had picked up their knives and forks. “It’s all or nothing. I can’t find another man until I let go of Ross. I can’t exactly get married while I have a tight friendship with another man. So, it’s either let him go totally or jump right in.” “Jump right in?” Andrea asked. “Make him mine. Give him my all.” “Sounds like a lovely idea,” Pauline said. She narrowed her eyes at her. Pauline laughed. “For you, not me. I’ve given up my stupid crush on him long time ago. I never loved him as much as you do.” Everyone turned to Pauline like she hadn’t just said that with the most casual tone, as if it were a well-known fact. Ella couldn’t answer that one. Did she love him? Could the sexual feelings be classified as love? “So, you’re too scared to break his heart and tell him it’s all over, so you’d rather go away from him?” Carol now tucked in to her batter-fried hake and chips. “I want to do it in a way that doesn’t make him think I’m deliberately pushing him away. I know it seems dishonest but I can’t see any way out of the confusion.” “Confusion?” Andrea’s eyes were soft, but she always cut to the chase with her words. “Well, he kind of makes me want him. I can’t be around him anymore. I want him.” “Want him?” Carol asked. “Argh! You guys are so slow. I want his body.” She stuck her tongue out at them. The tension broke and everyone packed up laughing and took the intense focus off her face and onto their food. “You certainly are confused, Ella,” Pauline said. “Think I would be, too. How did this happen?” “I suppose I got a bit jealous at the way he spoke to you, and then there was that kiss he gave me shortly after we started the business. I told you about it, Pauline. He kissed me again on the farm in the middle of a huge thunderstorm. And well, I kind of kissed him when I went to his house the other night to break the whole thing off so I could go for Dirk because every time Dirk kissed me, I would think of Ross. The crazy thing is, I never ever saw Ross in that way before and never dreamed I would. And now, I can’t keep my hands off him.” “Well, I can understand how you don’t want to take advantage of him seeing he loves you and you just want his bod,” Carol added to the tease. “No, exactly.” “But maybe you do love him.” Andrea remained serious in her tone—no tease with her. “I can’t love him.” “Why not?” Pauline asked. “It wouldn’t work. And don’t ask why. We’ve just been friends for too long. I have to get away.” “There must be another way.” Carol stroked her chin. “We have to come up with something.” “What?” She wished there was even though a new job opportunity shouldn’t be missed. Or should it? Her dad lived in Durban, too. Could be an opportunity to get to know him better. They’d spent so many years apart. “Anyhow, enough of that. Let’s talk about something happy.” They nodded and went quiet and chewed and topped up with drinks, although Ella couldn’t ignore the heavy vibe hanging around their table. She should feel really grateful they didn’t want her to leave. Instead, all it did was confuse her more and add to her misery. *** Nothing could have prepared Ella for the moment of sitting in her father’s house, waiting for him to enter the room. They hadn’t seen each other in over ten years. Someone had tied her stomach up in a ball of twine, so tight, like to end off a pompom. She couldn’t even take in the feel of his home because she busied herself swallowing back the nausea and bracing against the swaying in her head. She didn’t want to know the home he’d spent the last how many years alone in. Alone because of his own stubbornness. The haggard-faced maid who’d brought her in had gone to call him. He’d obviously done well for himself that he could afford a full-time servant and a double-storey house with a pool in the La Lucia area of Durban. Would he criticise her for never making the effort before now to come see him? Not like he’d tried to visit her. Why had she thought she should visit him before she moved down to live in the same city as him? He didn’t have to know, did he? Tears picked her eyes. She really did want him to know. And that was the hardest thing to admit. When he walked in, all the memories from her younger childhood, the painful teenage years without him, and the reality of the present converged in one painful throb in her head and an awkward shaky smile on her face. She held herself from swaying forward. “Ella?” He jumped down the stone steps to the indented living room area of his open-plan house and hugged her straight away. A sliver of hope entered her as his warm hug encompassed her for a brief few seconds. He stood back and surveyed her with a pleased smile. “You look just like your mom.” Why did he sound happy about that fact? “She’s changed a lot. It’s been years.” The words came out strained. “We’ve been in touch recently.” “Oh, I didn’t know. Why?” “Your mom and I aren’t enemies.” “You certainly acted like it.” She bit her lip. Sometimes, she could keep things bottled up inside, but other times, the anger made it burst out in one fell swoop. She hadn’t planned on a confrontation today. So much for that. “It’s wonderful to see you. Are you here for long? Can Liz make you some tea?” “I don’t know if I can get it down.” She tried to swallow the bile lodged in her throat. He sat on the couch and she settled a foot from him, unsure what to feel. Her heart wanted to sing a happy tune and to shout angry words at the same time. Instead, she clamped her hands in her lap and merely stared at him, taking in the visible signs of age—wrinkles, misshapen middle, greying temples and bald patch. “Your mom says you’re doing well.” “What did she say?” How come Mom hadn’t told her they’d been corresponding? “You’re working and running a business part-time.” “I’m looking at moving here. To Durban. Getting a transfer to another branch.” He nodded, his gaze fixed on her. Could that be love in his eyes? She’d always known he’d loved her, but the letters had ceased between them. Partly her fault, partly his, but she couldn’t deny how easy it had been to blame him all those years for the separation of her parents. And blame herself. Somehow, she’d sensed for so long that the divorce had been her fault. “I wanted to let you know I’ll be closer by. We can maybe see each other more often.” She dropped her gaze to hide the fears and mumbled, “I’m sorry I haven’t made the effort much lately.” Lately? Maybe the last five years. “Me, too, my girl. I think we’re too similar. We won’t bridge the gap—we’ll wait for the other one to do it first.” She shot her head up and nodded but the tears wriggled down her cheeks anyway. “Why are you crying?” He sat closer to her and hugged her from the side. “I’m sorry, Ella.” He stroked her arm. “I didn’t want to interfere.” “What do you mean?” Ugh, she sounded all snotty and whiny. “Mom had a certain way of bringing up kids. Didn’t want my way to interfere with hers. I thought it best to just love you from a distance. Heck, it was tough. I missed you every single day.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “What must I say? Mom doesn’t want me around. I didn’t want to mess up your thoughts of her. You were living with her. I didn’t think you should hate the parent you’re living with.” “But you could have told me once I left home and stayed on my own. I would have visited you more. And anyway, who said Mom’s way was the only way. She messed up a lot. We fought every day when I was a teenager.” “Yes, but I would have made it worse. I’m a hippie. I like everything free and easy and your mom likes order and structure. We would have messed you up.” “Rubbish. It would have brought a balance. I needed someone who wasn’t so rigid. I needed a shoulder to cry on.” He roughly pulled her head onto his shoulder. “Well, I’m here now, my sweetie. Now please tell me what’s wrong?” Sobs came as all the pent-up emotion of years burst out. How could her father have held back for so long? If things had been different, she would have found certain things a lot easier to cope with—like all those broken relationships. Mom had only brushed them off as bad moves on Ella’s part. Dad may have listened more. “What do you want to tell me?” he asked once she’d gone quiet and pulled away, only to look around at his stylish, arty home. Allowing her emotions to simper down, she took in the warm colours, atmospheric light effects, and unusual ornaments and trinkets. Pleasant to the eye and not too cluttered. “I want to ask you something.” She peered at him after drying up the evidence of her outburst. He nodded, softness in his older gaze. Her father had always held a special place in her heart. How could she have considered him a stubborn loser, a heartbreaker? Maybe her girlhood idealism of him had held some merit, after all. “Why did you leave Mom?” “I thought she would have told you by now.” He turned away and stood up, walking to the low bookshelf taking up one whole long wall. He picked up a book and paged through. “I want to hear your side of it.” “I’ve told you before in the letters.” “Not really, Dad. All you said was that you couldn’t live together. Mom said about the same thing. Why not?” “Parenting was one of them.” He glanced at her then went back to fiddling with the book. “So I split you up?” “No, we couldn’t agree on many things.” He turned to her. “Yet, you loved her, didn’t you?” “Yes, I loved her.” He brought the book with and then she noticed it was a photo album of her childhood. Tatty, well-used, and holding pictures right up until the present. “If you loved her, why didn’t you make it work?” “We both tried. Believe me, we did.” “Maybe if you’d had The Album.” She shrugged. “But then, of course, I wouldn’t exist.” “The Album. What’s that?” She held up her hand. “That can wait. I want to know why you couldn’t make it work.” “Does it matter now, Ella?” “I missed out on all those years with you.” Tears came again despite thinking she’d been cried out already. He grasped her hand. “I know. If I could go back, maybe I would have tried to make it work. At the time, we both agreed our fighting was having a detrimental effect on you. You used to cry, get really upset—” “I don’t remember that.” Is that why she’d always felt deep inside that the divorce was her fault? As a child, she’d heard them fighting about her, but never understanding why, had assumed she’d caused the fights. He nodded. “You hated it. You used to hide in a corner cowering. I never beat your mom but she used to make me livid. I would scream at her and she back at me. Your schoolwork suffered, you’d be sent home with symptoms but the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. There and then, we decided for our good and for your good, to part ways. I couldn’t visit you, anything, because we always ended up fighting about something to do with you. The only thing we ever agreed on for you was the divorce.” “The very worst thing,” she mumbled then shook her head. “Dad, I don’t understand it and I wish you could have been right for each other. I suppose that’s why I keep on searching for the right man. I don’t just want anyone.” He nodded and smiled. “Mom was the only love of my life. I’ve kind of given up on finding anyone else. Become too fussy over the years.” She laughed although the mirth didn’t reach right into her soul. In fact, the answers she’d been hoping for hadn’t come. She wanted to hear her dad say that he shouldn’t have married Mom in the first place, that he was certain from the beginning he’d done the wrong thing. She sucked in a breath. “Do you wish you hadn’t married her?” “Of course not. I wouldn’t have had you.” “No, besides that.” “The first few years were magic. I loved her. Wish we hadn’t grown apart and let our differences come between us, but no, I don’t regret the times we did have.” “Do you think you could have done things differently? I mean, being older and wiser—” She grinned at him. “—do you think you could have made it work?” “I don’t know, Lala.” She warmed at the endearment he used to call her when she was little. “Why do you worry so much?” he continued. “Life is good. I’m happy. Your mom’s found a good man.” Her stepfather was a good man. Dad had a point there. Not that she’d had much parenting from him since he’d only married Mom a couple of years back. “The only thing I regret is the sadness I see in your eyes sometimes.” She shrugged. “I missed all those years with you.” “We will make up for it now that you’re moving here.” “Yes, I can’t wait.” His loving smile assured her she’d done the right thing coming here. In fact, she should have visited years ago. The tension unwound and she returned his smile. Time for something less intense. “Now show me your home. It looks stunning.” “Did you bring your cozzie?” Dad rose with enthusiasm. “No, Dad. I didn’t think…” “I’ve got a spare.” She frowned at him. “Why would you—” “Kept some in case you came. I have about five different sizes.” “Oh.” The air left her lungs. Her dad loved her and why had she doubted it for so long? “You nana. I bet you they’re all full costumes.” She winked. “I wonder how fashionable they are. How long have you been collecting them?” “Hey, I have taste. Come see.” He led her to the spare bedroom and she gaped at the expansive rooms and arty spaces. Something cold and tight inside of her began to melt, like an ice block in the sun. Chapter Fourteen Ross sat before the firing squad except they had pretty curls, batting eyelashes, and the only guns were their penetrating gazes and sheepish grins. Now what? “We’ve come to ask you something of great importance.” Andrea’s voice reminded him of his least favourite teacher from school who gave him pages of homework and pop quizzes when he least expected or wanted it. School hadn’t been his favourite time in life. Maybe they needed help with Exact Match. What more could he do? Why didn’t Ella come to him? He hadn’t seen her since that memorable night when she came over to his place to talk about the magazine article and had kissed him. He’d waited for her to contact him but nothing had happened. He wasn’t going to chase after her. Despite the commanding tone, Andrea’s smile and light brown eyes held warmth and a little tease. “Ella needs your help.” “I thought as much. Why didn’t she ask—” Carol held up her hand and leaned forward on his settee. “No, she mustn’t know that we came here.” “Oh. Okay.” Pauline sat near to him. He felt more comfortable with her than the others seeing he’d had time to get to know her during all those hours working at Ella’s place. He also appreciated that she’d gotten the message he wasn’t interested and not taken offence to it. She had character and poise and grace. A lot like Ella but not as vibrant and get-right-under-your-skin as her. “As you may have figured out by now, well, we hope so, and we’re pretty darn sure—Ella loves you.” The room became still for a long, hot minute and their faces blurred before his vision. He couldn’t think, couldn’t speak; his heart only remained buoyed by this new hope that made his pulse hammer like crazy in his ears. “What?” He eventually refocused on their faces, apparently very pleased with themselves for discovering this fact and for relaying it to him. How would this help, really? It couldn’t be true. Could it? “Yes, I know it sounds crazy,” Carol continued. “She sure doesn’t show it, but we know. We’ve actually suspected it for some time but always pushed the idea away because you were too close to home and she didn’t seem to want anything like that.” Carol bit her lip and cocked her head to the side, obviously a bit embarrassed at how personal the conversation had gone. So was he. “How can you be so sure and how does it help me?” Pauline spoke softly and a little hesitantly. “Well, I know you love her. I can see it.” Her face turned red. “I saw it when we worked together.” He nodded, a little embarrassed how obvious his feelings for Ella had been. “Ella wants to leave.” Andrea broke the haze. “She’s moving to Durban.” “We don’t want her to,” Carol added. “And you’re the only one who can stop her,” Pauline said. Moving to Durban? “How the heck can I stop her? She’s a free spirit.” “She is?” Andrea said. “Well, she certainly doesn’t want me to control her.” “Yes, that’s true.” Andrea rolled her eyes. “Stubborn as a mule.” He grinned. “And usually cautious, but lately, she’s been very impulsive.” Andrea nodded. “Please, Ross, it wasn’t easy for us to come here and invade your space,” Carol said. “We would really like you to tell Ella that you love her and make her want to stay.” “I’ve told her that already. It made her want to run rather than stay.” “Yes, you’ve told her, but you haven’t told her how much.” Pauline raised an eyebrow. “As you well know just as much as we do, Ella has had a rocky relationship history. She’s tired of being burned and wants to settle down. If you can offer her something more concrete than a love confession, like a marriage proposal, she may decide to stay.” Andrea sat back and rested her head on her hands. “It’s our last chance.” “Why do you want her to stay so badly? Maybe we should let her go.” Why was he saying that? It’s just that he had a feeling this was all going to blow up in his face like the last time he’d spilled out his guts to her. “Because we know she’s running from true love and we don’t want her to miss out on it. We’ve all been searching for it for so long and it’s been staring her in the face for years but she’s been too blind to see. When she told us she was leaving, we got together to try to find a way to make her stay. We all felt that she would end up being more miserable if she ran away. The only thing we could come up with was you. You have to do something. You have to convince her that your love is strong enough. We think it’s something to do with her father divorcing her mother when she was twelve.” He narrowed his eyes at Carol. “What makes you so sure she loves me?” He looked at Pauline, hoping to find in her open and compassionate face an assurance they spoke the truth. He could see in her eyes that she believed it. “We just do.” Andrea shrugged. “If we could use The Album, we would. Ella’s not allowed to use it on herself.” “Why do we need to use The Album?” He sat up straighter. “If Ella loves me and I love her, we’ll stick with one another no matter what. I mean, we’ve stayed friends through many rough times. Now, the feelings I have for her are stronger than friendship; they’re pretty powerful. I would give her the world if I could. I want her to be happy and I want to be the man for her so she doesn’t have to go through all these heartbreaks from idiots. I don’t believe anything can come between us. Yes, maybe my love will be tested in years to come but I’m willing to stand through those tests no matter what it takes. She’s the most important person in my life and I don’t think I’d ever be happy without her.” The girls stared at him, tears glistening in their eyes, Pauline’s lips quivering as she seemingly held back some emotions. Good thing they didn’t squeal and go all giggly on him. They would have five years ago. “Well.” Carol coughed. “Seems you just have to tell Ella that and she’ll come round.” “She will,” Pauline added, sniffing and blowing on a tissue. “I know she will.” “Thanks, ladies. But I’m not so sure.” “Please.” Andrea pierced his soul with her dark eyes. “We’re depending on you for this. The Album and our community need her. She’s about to give up on The Album, too. Don’t let us down.” “I’ll try not to.” “That’s not good enough.” The muscular and tight-skirted woman stood up. “You have to promise you’re going to do something.” He stared at Andrea and her persistence and smiled. If he wasn’t so amused by their mission to come to him and also touched by how much they cared for Ella, he would be annoyed by her pushiness. Ella deserved no less than their friendship and their closeness through the years. She also deserved someone like him. Specially seeing her closest friends believed he was ‘it.’ That bolstered him. “I promise.” “Thank you.” Carol jumped up and gave him a hug. The other two nodded and showed gratefulness in their eyes. Once they’d left, he slumped down onto his couch and wondered what on Earth he would do to convince her. That task would be the hardest in his life yet. He had an idea where to start. And could he let go of his fear of losing her once and for all? Because the fear had held him back for way too long. He didn’t have a choice. Ella had always lived in their hometown. He’d relied on having her nearby to turn to, to talk to. She was the only one he could confide in, truly. And now, he loved her, longed to kiss her, hold her, do so much more to her, take her as his wife. Yes, he was ready for that. They didn’t need a courtship. He knew her like the back of his hand. Although how come he hadn’t picked up her apparent ‘love’, and how come she’d suddenly decided to move towns? Why hadn’t he seen that coming? Actually, he had, in a way. He’d been under a heavy cloud ever since the last kiss. Like he’d had a feeling it was over. Especially the way she’d disappeared in a flash, leaving him empty and angry. He took in some tight breaths. He had the power to change things. Or at least, try. It felt like he had to prepare a speech for school again. In front of Miss Redwood. Heck, it was like his matric exams. Fear of failure loomed like a dark cloud on the horizon. This time, more than his career depended on how he presented himself. His whole future did. Because where would he be without Ella? *** Ella didn’t think she’d be so excited to pack up her boxes, but every item placed inside the cardboard monstrosities reminded her of how much closer she came to being near her dad again. They’d had a whale of a time—swum in the pool, gone to the beach, watched movies and so many different ones: crime, thrillers, even romance much to her dad’s disgust—and cooked all sorts of things. Her dad was astounded at her ability to come up with such a variety of dishes from scratch and how she used fresh herbs and exotic spices. Pauline had been the one to show her those things. She’d even told him all about The Album and voiced all her concerns about it. He hadn’t given her any advice. Her estimation of him had notched up like two-hundred percent because she was so used to her friends telling her what to do. Yeah, sure, she went for them for advice, but sometimes, she felt like just having a simple sounding-board, nothing else. And Dad was good at that. How come she’d shied away from him for so long? Plus, it had been fun learning about all his experiences the past few years. He was an art historian and had had great fun discovering a whole series of paintings in the Durban area that belonged to some famous French painter. He’d also shared his adventures in helping out at a snake park in town years ago. The ornaments were in three boxes. Why she had so many, she didn’t know, but she couldn’t get rid of them as most of them were gifts from relatives or friends and held sentimental value. She worked on the picture frames next. Just as she stood on the ladder to take down a puzzle of Banff National Park in Canada that she’d framed several years back, the doorbell rang. Sunday. Goodness, she’d forgotten she had an appointment with a client. She re-hung the picture on its two hooks, scrambled down the ladder, and ran to her mirror in her guest bathroom to straighten up her hair and check she didn’t have dust bunnies nesting in it. Besides wearing her house clothes, she looked passable. Really, how unprofessional of her to forget. She should have closed up the business weeks ago when she’d first decided to leave town but her clients kept on coming and she hated turning genuine seekers away. Sucking in a breath, she opened up the door and smiled. “Hi.” A middle-aged lady stood before her, uncannily similar to her mother but with curlier hair and a thinner mouth. “Hi, Mrs. Lemmer. Please come in.” She loved how names always came back to her without a problem. A good thing seeing she hadn’t prepared at all for the appointment. “Just excuse the mess. I’m in the process of moving. You know what it’s like—boxes and tape and things lying everywhere. Come through to my office. At least there, it’s neat and orderly.” The woman nodded and Ella felt her reserve and some anxiety bounce off of her. Some customers felt uneasy about contacting a matching service and she was bound to be one of them. Ella opened her office and switched on the light because the overcast day made even the conservatory appear dull and lifeless. The Album was thankfully stashed away in a drawer and not out in the open. She’d spent several hours on it last night. Finding her place behind the desk, she moved some other clients’ files out the way and gave Mrs. Lemmer her full attention. “Let me know a little about yourself. Maybe tell me what kind of partner you’re looking for.” “I’m married still.” Ella blinked. Okay, now what? How would she push the woman away without sounding rude? No, she had certain rules and two-timing was a definite no-no. “Wait.” The woman’s eyes came alive. “To a ghost.” Ella looked down at her desk and tried not to giggle. Did she just hear things? “I talk to my husband’s spirit every day but he’s been nagging me to find someone. Says it’s time for him to rest and I must find love. I very reluctantly came here because I didn’t want to listen to him.” “So, you’re not technically married? You’re a widow.” “I’m a widow in the worldly sense but I certainly don’t feel like it. He hasn’t left my side since he passed away three years ago. At the moment, I feel like I’m going through a divorce because he wants to end it. But I know he’s suffering and needs to finally lay to rest. I have to let go.” The woman didn’t cry but Ella could sense the heaviness upon her. Ella had never believed in spirits and ghosts. With the advent of The Album, she wasn’t so sure any more about strange happenings on the planet. If the woman believed such a thing, who was she to dispute it? She could only help her find love or some means to get over her late husband. “My family thinks I’m still grieving him because I talk to him so much. They’re troubled about me. I also want to move on for their sakes but it’s hard. I hope you can help me. I read the article about you in the Credence magazine. I’m a difficult case.” She smiled for the first time since she’d entered Ella’s home. “But I’m hoping you can crack me. Is there any hope of me finding someone to love after losing the love of my life?” Ella longed to come round and give the woman a good squeeze but she had the feeling her reserve would make it awkward. Instead, she nodded, her eyes tearing a little although her client’s eyes remained dry. “I can almost assure you a hundred percent I can find someone just right for you.” Mrs. Lemmer let out a breath and dropped her hunched shoulders. “Phew.” She actually looked quite attractive now that she’d relaxed significantly. The next fifteen to twenty minutes, Mrs. Lemmer, or Sarah as Ella discovered, filled out all the forms and gave her photo in. Ella said she’d probably contact her in a couple of days. This case called for urgent work. She just couldn’t leave the poor troubled woman single any longer. Yet, at the back of her mind, she wondered if the lady was ready for a relationship yet. Sounded like she hadn’t dealt with the bulk of her grief fully. Sarah losing the love of her life got her thinking of her parents. For so many years, she’d blamed them both for messing up her life. She’d blamed her mom for fighting with Dad and her dad for giving up and leaving. Hearing the truth from her dad had made her realise that maybe, it had been beyond their control completely. They couldn’t have made it work, no matter how hard they’d tried. She considered Frank, her client completing the course she’d assigned him to. Had it changed him? Was there any hope for the man? If her parents couldn’t make it work, what if he couldn’t make any relationship work? She really wanted it to come right. She hated that helpless feeling, yet she had to admit—maybe sometimes, being single was way better and safer for some people. Was she one of those? Should she forget her dream to find this perfect man because really, he wasn’t out there? Or he certainly hid himself too well. Yeah, sure, there was probably a match for her somewhere, but she wearied searching and hankering for him. She wanted to forget about love for a while, forget about Ross, too, and all the confusion caused by him. Forget about Dirk and break it off with him totally and enjoy her new adventure of starting up in Durban, a city full of life and new experiences and culture. She picked up the phone to call Frank. “I need a current photo of you, please,” she asked him after he’d given her an update on the successful passing of his course. “I want to study the new you to see what woman is suitable for you. I also would like you to email me the report from your exams at the course. Actually, emailing the photo is fine. You don’t have to come in.” “Sure thing.” He sounded upbeat, as though impending disaster didn’t loom for him and her business. She tried to ignore the anxiety clenching her stomach. What if she couldn’t find a match for him ever? What if she’d sent him on that course all for nothing? Would he spread bad word about her? Would she lose hope in The Album? In the power of love? She ended the call and set to checking her emails. One came through from him almost straight away. Sheesh, this guy was keen. Biting her lip, she printed the photo out and placed it in The Album. Finding one of her female clients on file, she put it in the slot, waiting for the usual display of power to pass. Nothing, no photos of togetherness. After three more tries, she wanted to scream and send The Album catapulting across the room. Then she looked at Sarah Lemmer’s photo. No way. She shouldn’t even go that route. Frank was at least five years her junior and really, the woman had been through enough. Mind you, hadn’t he had his fair dose of difficulty? He’d done the course and according to the report, really excelled. It couldn’t have been easy for someone like him. When he’d first come into her office, she’d been put off by his arrogance and impatience. Surely, he couldn’t be pretending to be a changed man? Taking Sarah’s photo, she pressed it into the space and closed her eyes, not really expecting anything. Surely, they couldn’t be right. After the vibration had ceased for some time and she’d remained tight-lidded for several anxious moments, she squeezed open her eyes and let go of the pages. She turned. There were pictures of them, not hugging, not kissing, nothing romantic, but the pictures went on and on for pages. And then she saw a wedding ceremony with adult kids around Sarah and Frank next to her, the man looking so different. His face held softness, maturity, a certain thoughtfulness she’d never seen in him. She carried on turning the pages. All she could interpret was pure success. A lifetime of adventures, of doing things together. She slammed the book closed and shook her head. Opening it again like it was a dirty cloth and not a sacred magic book, she paged through once more. Who would have thought? Should she find someone else for Sarah? She hadn’t tried her out with anyone yet. No, Frank needed Sarah. Sure, Sarah may have success with someone else, but Frank needed her. Not for her business, not for her reputation. What did it matter? She intended to stop the business when she moved to Durban. No, this was for him. This would make Frank the person he was meant to be. Sarah would help him be that person. But she had to see something. She chose another female client and tried her with Frank. It worked. Oh, so Frank wasn’t such a monster, after all. He’d reformed. She tried several more and came up with three successful scenarios. Yet, she couldn’t shake away her initial image of Frank and Sarah together. The way she changed his face, his whole demeanour. She couldn’t for the life of her remember anything about the photos. Why not? She’d only viewed them minutes ago. Uncanny how she couldn’t remember anything when her clients came in. All she could tell them was that the coupling would be a success. Did The Album wipe out the memories of what she saw? That meant she could use one of her friends in the pages. But what if it didn’t have the power to wipe out the memories of her friend’s lives because they were strongly connected to her thoughts and emotions? She wasn’t willing to take the risk but the magic impressed her even more—it was a good thing that she couldn’t see into other peoples’ futures. Safe and better that way. Her hands shook as an idea came to her. Why not try Ross’s photo with one of her clients? What prompted that thought? Why not Dirk? Why Ross? Yet, she couldn’t see into his future. No, that would be dangerous. But she didn’t intend to see him ever again. Her hands shaking with the rush of anticipation, she sat down by her computer and went onto Ross’s Facebook to find a photo of him. When last did she take a photo of the man? While she browsed through his profile, her heart squeezed painfully. How could she say goodbye to him forever? The man had burrowed into her heart and would forever remain there. It reminded her of saying goodbye to her dad when he’d left and how their relationship had fizzled out over the years. Surely, the distance would be a good thing for Ross and her. It would end the friendship slowly and gently. She had to do it no matter how much it hurt. Just like Mom and Dad, Ross and she would never work. One of those sad facts of life you couldn’t do anything about. Once she’d printed out a picture of Ross, she slotted him into The Album. Then she found one of her clients and put her picture in. This time, she turned the pages frantically, desperate to know how it would work out. No success. The relief was uncomfortably strong. But Ross was so nice. Wouldn’t he be good for any girl? Okay, he’d had lots of bad relationships in the past, but really, why? He was the kindest man she’d ever known. Sexy, strong, dependable. Deep thinker, very perceptive. He knew as soon as even something small bothered her. Wouldn’t he be a sensitive lover to another woman? Unable to try another one, she put away The Album and neatened her office, then dragged herself back inside the house to finish packing. Somehow, the mess in her residence and the endless job of putting all her belongings in boxes didn’t appeal to her anymore. She stopped to make some supper and parked herself in front of the TV, ignoring the clutter around her and the odd itch that she couldn’t scratch inside. Something was wrong. What was it? Had she broken an unspoken Album rule by putting her friend on the pages? Nowhere had she seen that she wasn’t allowed to. Why couldn’t she stop thinking of Ross and another woman together? And why couldn’t she shake the churning in her gut at the thought? Dirk messaged her on her cell phone at about eight-thirty. She typed up an answer to him, wishing things could be different. “Dirk, we need to talk. I have some news for you. Could you come over?” She hadn’t even told him she was moving yet. They hadn’t seen each other for a while, the two of them being one of those relationships you could pick up at any time. Or so it seemed. Pity she had to go. “I know.” She waited for more. “It’s over, isn’t it?” he sent. “I’m moving to Durban. I didn’t know how to tell you.” “Maybe it’s a good thing. I was starting to doubt our relationship. You didn’t seem to have the drive. It always felt like your heart was somewhere or with someone else.” “I’m sorry, Dirk. I really liked you.” “But you love someone else?” Did he think she was moving to Durban to be with a guy? “No, I’m keen to live by my dad again.” “Ella, I hope you wake up and come to terms with your feelings once and for all because until you do, you’re going to be wafting around for centuries. Bye, then. Was nice knowing you.” “You too.” She sent a sad face. His harshness didn’t offend her. Yeah, she deserved it. She’d really messed the guy around. They hadn’t gone too far in their relationship, but he was worth more than the way she’d treated him. What did he mean by coming to terms with her feelings? He spoke so cryptically, and tonight, she did not have the energy to decode it. Besides, wafting around was exactly what she wanted. She’d let go of the pursuit of romance and had taken up the grand job of enjoying her single life, for once. Standing up, she let out a big breath and opened up her arms in the warrior yoga pose. She went into the prayer pose and visualized her relaxation and smiled. Yeah, it felt good to be free of that continual need to search for the man of her dreams. Finally now, she could live and put all her passion into whatever Durban offered her. The Album had its purpose but she also needed to tell people it was perfectly healthy to be single and to enjoy it. Chapter Fifteen The office was the only room in Ella’s house that didn’t boast bare walls and floors and piles of boxes. Her last appointment was due to arrive in half an hour. Pauline and Andrea sat on the client chairs drinking filtered coffee and eating breadsticks they’d brought over from the local bakery. They were in a surprisingly good mood considering the removal truck would arrive in a couple of hours. Ella didn’t feel quite the same. Her new-found freedom in choosing singlehood somehow hadn’t given her joy enough to sustain her through saying goodbye to her friends. Ross would also be here any minute to see her off. She’d sent him an email explaining about her relationship with her dad and her need for something new at work. He should understand, but what if he realised how much her move had initially been motivated by a need to get away from him? Now, she wanted to go for many other reasons. “So, you’ll send over my office stuff once you’ve closed everything off?” she asked Pauline. “Yes, well, we have to inform all the customers you’re closing business and I have to pack up your things. I’ll drive over with Carol sometime when she’s not so busy with month end at work and we’ll drop off your things so you don’t have to organise a removal van for a small amount.” “Thank you.” She blew Pauline a kiss. “You’re superstars. I hope you’re going to visit me like every second weekend.” “In the beginning, probably, and then it will all fizzle out and we’ll have to rely on emails and text messages,” Andrea said with a hint of sarcasm. “Hey, I’ll come to you sometimes.” “You won’t want to. Durban’s much more exciting than Richard’s Bay,” Andrea added. “So come live by me. Hey, that’s a good idea.” “You know it’s not possible when we all have solid jobs here.” “I’m sorry. Am I doing the wrong thing?” Andrea shrugged and mouthed something to Pauline who rolled her eyes. Ella didn’t have the energy to fight with them but did wish she knew what they were muttering amongst themselves. At that moment Ross walked in and the look Andrea gave him made her nearly gasp. What was that? Like he’d really upset them or something. Like he should have stopped her from leaving. Poor Ross had only found out about a week ago. She’d left it late as she couldn’t really face the goodbye but had to now. “Hi.” Ross appeared out of breath and his face was unusually pink. Had he just run a marathon here? “I see you’re all packed and ready to go.” His mouth formed a grim line and the flush disappeared to reveal the real state of his face. Dark lines under his eyes, more wrinkles than usual, days-old stubble. Oh, dear. She’d really upset him. Her legs shook with the sudden need to run out the room. But it was for the best she moved. Her body found the seat very fast and her head spun. Maybe breaking it off cleanly would have hurt less. No, of course not. Gripping onto the edge of her desk, she shuffled The Album around and stared at the book. For once, its magic couldn’t help someone. That person was Ross. Or could it help him? There must be someone for him. She’d leave it to Pauline. She could find him someone—a woman better than her. Ross would survive without her. He deserved better. She would be a useless partner. She’d always known she’d mess it up for life just like her mom did. “Hey, why’s everyone so glum? We’ll see each other again,” Ross said, a fake smile on his face. “Yes, we will. It’s not like I’m flying off to the UK. I’m just a couple of hours’ drive away.” “Where’s Carol,” he asked. Strange. What did it matter if Carol was here or not? “She’s coming later.” “Before the removal van gets here?” Pauline asked. “I hope so. I’ll wait for her. It’s not like I’m a piece of furniture and I’m going into the van. I’ll stay with Mom tonight.” Her friends sure acted strange. Suppose sadness did those things to people. She should have stayed back. Now, she’d made everyone miserable. All her fault. “Well, I can’t wait for her then,” Ross said, still standing over Andrea and Pauline, looking taller and more imposing than he usually did. “Here it is.” He handed her a flash drive, a scowl darkening his face further. “What’s that?” “Put it in your computer and open the slide show. Andrea, won’t you switch off the light? Wish there were curtains to darken the room more.” He spoke gruffly, a determined stiffness to his chin. Andrea nodded submissively and obeyed. Huh? Carol burst into the room just as Ella sat down and slotted the rectangular drive into her computer. “Sorry I’m late.” Ella narrowed her eyes at them. What’s going on? She opened the slide show and put it to full screen. The Album cover popped up—well, a very good graphic imitation of it. “Wow, that’s beautiful. Ross, did you organise this? You didn’t have to seeing the business is going on hold for a while until I settle in Durban.” “Just watch it.” Pauline sounded impatient. “Come look, then. I can see you’re all so curious of whatever this is.” She called them over to stand behind her and watch the screen. What had Ross been up to? And why did it seem so important at this particular moment? She waited and The Album opened with neat and fluid animation as though it were a cartoon movie. A hand brought a picture onto the page—her picture. Then another picture was placed on the opposite side. Ross. What? The animation was pretty accurate in portraying the vibration, the misty, coloured light in circles around the book and the pulling of the hands upon the page like a magnetic force. Then the movements stopped and The Album went onto the next page. She watched a supposed life of Ross and her together unfold and couldn’t help smiling at things. Ross had orchestrated this because only he would know what made them both happy. The wedding picture made her gasp—the dress looked almost exactly the same as she’d dreamed of having one day. They even had kids. The kids grew up and they matured together. The animations were perfect, like a good-quality children’s movie, yet the content way too mature for any kid, heck, even for her to handle. The last picture was of them walking hand in hand together as an elderly couple in a field. “You didn’t put the sound on,” Ross said with a smile. “You’ll have to watch it again.” Her hands surprisingly steady, seeing her knees were knocking together and her heart seemed to be beating against her throat, she pressed replay and turned up her volume. Ross’s special voice crackled through the computer. “When you dream of finding your true love, you always think it’s going to start off like a fairy tale. You meet, you have your first kiss, you fall in love, and then you get married. Well, sometimes, life throws a curveball. Sometimes, you wake up one day and realise that the woman you’ve been friends with for years is actually that person and you’ve never had that first kiss or dated or courted or anything, but now you want to spend your life with them because they satisfy you in every way. Well, if The Album could have brought us together, I’m sure it would have done a display like this or even better. How could the lady I hired as a graphic artist convey how deeply I feel for you, Ella? How many dreams I have for us? How sure I am that I’m going to be there for you no matter what. Even when we want to sink our teeth into one another or strip the others’ happiness away for a long, torturous moment to take revenge, although I can’t imagine ever wanting to do that to you. I want to make you happy, Ella. Forever. I want to be that man you dreamed about for years—that one to sweep you off your feet and romance you and make you feel on top of the world. I want to be the man who’ll promise to love you forever and ever.” A lump the size of Mars had formed in her throat. She tried to swallow, but it just increased. His presence behind her felt like a beacon in the room. The sweetness of his words penetrated her soul and stole her breath. Hope bloomed—he wanted to romance her? He intended to promise to love her forever? Ross, the best man in the world saying those words to her in front of her best friends? He must mean it. “Now, I know you’re scared because it didn’t happen in the order or way you’d planned. I also was surprised, but in fact, it happened in the best way for us. We got to know and trust one another so well that now, we can open our hearts to this love without reserve. So, what do you say, Ella? Will you be my wife?” She blinked and refocused on the screen then glanced at Ross but couldn’t bear to look at him. Could he play it again? Had she heard that right? Her friends stared on with expectation on their faces and she knew she hadn’t imagined it. Ella turned to look at Ross, tears in her eyes. “You want to marry me?” He took hold of her hands and squeezed, sending the tears down her cheeks. “Yes, I’d love to.” From a love confession, to a couple of kisses, now a marriage proposal? His eyes brimmed with love, his hands oozed everything good that she’d felt from Ross’s touch over the years. Yes, she loved him. Yes, they trusted one another implicitly. But so sudden? “But you don’t even know if I love you.” He looked at her friends and smiled. “Well, they assured me you do, and the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became. Not out of arrogance, but Ella, I do believe you love me as much as I love you but you’re afraid. Something holds you back. So, I’m offering you everything. I’m not holding anything back. Do you know how hard it was for me to do this? I’ve been putting it off for days. Why do you think your friends are so annoyed with me? I left it to the last minute—” He gave them a sideways glance. “—after you’d packed all your boxes. I’m sorry. I didn’t think I could risk my heart one more time, but then I thought, if I can’t take the risk, how can I be the forever man you’ve longed for? So I did it. I came here with the slide show and presented it.” Ella looked at him and then at her friends. She had to think. She couldn’t be pressured into this with everyone watching, as much as she felt touched by Ross doing this for her, for expressing his love so sweetly. I mean, who had two such touching love confessions in one lifetime? She was a lucky girl. Yet… “I do think I love you, Ross. But I’m not ready to say yes. I have to think. I can’t have you all staring at me waiting for an answer. I have a removal van coming in less than two hours. Where are you going to live? Where am I going to live, then? How do I know for sure that I’m the one for you?” He stroked her hand, love in his eyes, love so gentle yet so strong that she had to look away. Her head spun. The emotions were too much. What if she couldn’t give him what he promised her? What if she failed like her mom and dad and broke his heart? “I don’t know if I can be that person,” she continued. “I need to find me. Need to let go my pursuit of finding this man and find my life. I’ve just let go the search only weeks ago and now this.” She pulled away, slumped on her seat, and buried her face in her hands. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.” The failure dripped from her voice. The room seemed to fill up with her friends’ silence and her guilt, yet she couldn’t move, couldn’t look up, couldn’t even think. When eventually she did look up, they’d all left. Probably wise of them but heart-breaking. Had she hurt everyone? How involved had her friends been in the whole thing? How much had Ross paid for the slide show? It wasn’t Mickey Mouse. Had to have been designed by a professional. She clicked replay and watched it through again. Ross promised her forever. Maybe he could be a Mrs. Sarah Lemmer to her Frank heart. Maybe he could be that stabilising factor in her shifting soul because she knew she had her mom and dad in her. That meant she could be doomed for failure. But what if it wasn’t so much who you were but who you chose to be? It wasn’t so much who you matched up with, but who you became, how you acted, the decisions you made each and every day. Frank had chosen to break that pattern in his life and gone on the course. He’d changed. Become a better person. Jane had already been that person. She could make just about any relationship work. Yeah, sure, Ella had messed up so many relationships, even the potentially good one with Dirk, but couldn’t she have a second chance? Ross was willing to be that second chance. He’d seen all the mess-ups she’d made through the years—many of the broken relationships had been caused by her own stupidity, yet he still loved her. And she still loved him. She ached now to think of how he must be feeling. Where was he? In the other room? Driving down the road? Given up? Desperate? Hurting? Like she’d been ever since she’d decided to leave him. Because deep inside, the only thing pulling her to Durban was her dad. She’d dreaded leaving. Hated going away from Ross. But she’d thought it was the only way to save them from themselves. Save him from her and her bad genetics. She watched the slide show again. He believed in her. He believed she could make it last. Didn’t a marriage proposal mean the person believed in you as much as they did in their own love? He’d believed she loved him before she did. He’d risked all based on that fact. Gran was right. She couldn’t go on wafting through life, pushing away all her chances of love, hoping for perfection. Yeah, Ross and her relationship wasn’t perfect. It hadn’t started off all romantic and textbook. It had gone the long way round. But really, what did that matter in the end? The future is what mattered. The Album sure believed that. She ran her fingers over the beautiful book. Then she laughed. Hey, maybe it had brought her good luck, after all. Besides, didn’t Ross give his first love confession just after she’d gotten The Album? It had just taken her a long time to come round. She turned to the screen and played the slide show for the fourth time, tears running down her cheeks. “Yes,” she spoke to the screen. “Yes, Ross, I’ll marry you.” “You will?” She heard Pauline’s voice by the doorway. Andrea came in after that. Then Carol. “Hey, can I not have a moment of privacy?” She stuck her tongue out at them. “Where’s Ross?” “He left.” “Oh.” The air seeped out of her. “Well, I’d better go find him.” She stood up. “What about your removal van?” Pauline asked. “Please, will you cancel it?” “You’ll probably still have to pay for it,” Carol said. “So, I’ll pay for it.” “What if Ross doesn’t want you now?” Andrea said. She stared at them a moment. “Of course he will. He promised he’d love me no matter what, didn’t he?” They clapped their hands and cheered. She gave a huge grin, wiping the tears away. Now just to find the guy before he did something stupid in a temper. She knew what he could get like on the road when he was frustrated. *** Ross didn’t know where he drove; he just drove. Eventually, he found himself at the mall and walking toward the grocery store. What did he think he’d find there? Ella’s confession of love? Maybe he should just give her time. Maybe she’d come round. He had a bad feeling about this, though. Like every time things had gone wrong between them—it had always been preceded by a horrible creeping dread that began in his gut and proceeded to every extremity of his body. Everything around him seemed dark. Maybe it was the dark clouds on the horizon threatening a storm, or could it be more than that? He had to find a way forward without Ella. He’d survived without her definite love for so long—surely, he could survive now. He walked through the Boardwalk shopping centre, past all the clothing outlets and specialty stores, hardly taking in what he passed, yet not wanting to go home or do anything else. Whop! He slammed into something soft yet firm. Hands grasped him and he looked right into the big blue eyes of Ella. “Ella?” “Phew, you are a hard one to find.” Her face was lit up, her cheeks flushed, and tears made her lashes sparkle. He’d never seen her so beautiful, and the ache bloomed in his chest. “Why were you looking for me?” “Yes.” “Yes, you were looking for me. I asked you why.” “I said yes. Yes, I will marry you, Ross Mitchell.” “You will?” He stepped back and looked her up and down to make sure he wasn’t imagining things. He took her hands and bent down to kiss her. Maybe if she kissed him back, he’d know for sure. Dare he try? He hesitated a moment, but before he could blink, her lips were pressed against his—sweet, soft, and gloriously hot. He plunged a hungry tongue into her mouth and all the sorrow fled. She was his and the world wasn’t a dark place. His sense of dread had been unfounded. How many times had he closed himself off from Ella because of this false sense of unease? Would it have gone easier with her if he’d just given his whole heart in the beginning? “Shhh.” She pressed a soft finger to his temple. “Stop thinking so hard. Just kiss me.” At that moment, rain pelted down outside and he realised he had been heading out toward the back entrance. How had he got so far? Where exactly had he walked and for how long? “I saw your car in the parking area about an hour ago but couldn’t find you. I walked up and down this place. It’s really large when you’re worried about someone and searching for them.” He smiled. “You were worried about me?” “And rightly so. I treated you so badly. You deserve someone better than me.” “No, Ella. I only want you.” “I know.” She kissed him again and then spoke in his ear, her breath sending sweet shivers through him and making his pants uncomfortable. “Exactly why I love you more than anyone else in the whole universe.” He engulfed her mouth and pressed his hands around her neck, then ran them down her sweet soft shoulders, to rest upon her waist. She shivered and curled up closer to him and everything else faded in the perfection of her arms.


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