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The Groom Who Cried Wolf
A BATEMAN FAMILY WEDDING
(Short story by Jenny Glazebrook)

         ‘You can’t wear Crocs and socks to a wedding!’ Fleur’s eyes flashed fire, but Daniel saw the sparkle in them. He lounged back against the sofa in the Cardelle’s living room.

         ‘Why not?’ He looked down at his feet and wriggled his toes. ‘It’s not like anyone’s going to be looking at me. It’s Tim and Jess’s day, not mine.’

          Fleur made an exasperated noise and poked him in the side. ‘But you’re Tim’s best man. If it wasn’t your brother’s wedding I wouldn’t complain—’

          ‘Yes, you would.’ Daniel grinned as he cut her off. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her. She blushed, just as he knew she would.

          She pushed against his chest. ‘Daniel, everyone’s watching.’

          ‘And?’ He glanced around the crowded room. No one seemed to mind. They all appeared entertained by his antics.

          A clattering of saucepans brought his attention to the kitchen. Mrs. Cardelle was bustling around, smiling and in her element. As mother of the bride, she’d insisted they all come here on this eve of the wedding. If the smells wafting through the room were anything to go by, she was preparing a decadent feast for them all.

          Tim settled into the seat across from him.

         Daniel smirked. ‘Ah, the groom himself.’ He cut a sideways look at Fleur.          ‘Does Tim look worried about what I may or may not wear to his wedding?’

         Tim rolled his eyes. ‘At least you’re not threatening to put leaking pens at the bridal register or water balloons under the guest’s cushions.’

          Daniel’s sisters looked up from where they knelt at the coffee table, folding paper flowers. ‘True,’ they both said in unison, then laughed.

          Fleur gasped, looking half amused, half horrified. ‘He didn’t!’

          Clare put down the flower she was working on. ‘At mine he did.’ Her expression was serious, but her eyes twinkled. ‘And then at Beth’s too. Of course, he never carried out any of his threats. He’s the boy who cried wolf.’

          Daniel sat up straighter. ‘Is that a challenge? You want me to really make sure there’s a wolf?’ Because he could. If he really wanted to.

          Clare laughed and shot a glance at Beth. ‘No need for that. We’ve got everything sorted.’

          A meaningful look passed between his sisters. What was that about? Clare had been his partner in mischief when they were children, but Beth didn’t have it in her. She was the quiet, graceful one. If he didn’t know better, he’d think his sisters were planning something. Not that they’d ever fool him. He was the master of pranks. He knew exactly what to look out for because he was usually the instigator.

         ‘We’ll see.’ He gave his sisters a roguish smile, pretending he had something up his sleeve.

         If anyone knew what he was capable of, they did. He’d grown up a lot these last few years, but he’d never managed to completely tame his mischievous streak. Sometimes he felt God’s tap on his shoulder, reminding him to think through the consequences of his actions. But threatening to wear Crocs and socks was all in fun.

         ‘Promise you won’t do it?’ Fleur half-asked, half demanded.

         ‘Hmm…’ Daniel pretended to think. He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. ‘Tell you what, I promise not to wear Crocs to our wedding.’

         Fleur blinked. And to his surprise, a smile peaked out. Since their engagement she’d been hesitant to talk about their wedding, let alone set a date. Signing the paperwork had spooked her and Daniel understood. Childhood scars left her wary, but God was changing her, healing her, just as He was healing Daniel and his whole family. He would wait for God’s perfect timing.

         He looked at his brother-in-law, Phil who had pulled out his guitar and was strumming. ‘What about you? Want to wear Crocs tomorrow?’

         Phil’s fingers stilled on the strings. ‘Better check with my wife.’

         Clare laughed and put another flower in the growing pile. ‘Chicken.’

         ‘You want me to do it?’ Phil’s lips twitched when Clare screwed up her nose at him in a cute, flirty way. Daniel knew he’d lost a potential ally but he wasn’t going to give up.

         He grinned at Tim. ‘What about you then? Care to wear comfy Crocs to your wedding?’ He leaned forward and spoke in a stage whisper. ‘I promise I won’t tell Jess.’

         Tim narrowed his eyes but didn’t answer. Dan grinned, unrepentant. There was no way Tim could wear Crocs with his prosthetic foot. Although no one would guess he had one these days, the way he walked with such steady confidence. He’d once thought Tim would be bitter forever about the train accident that left him so wounded. Instead, the support and… he smiled… love of his physiotherapist had drawn Tim to the only One who could heal. Jess was gazing at Tim now, expression tender. She was so controlled, so sensible and logical, Jessica Cardelle. Until she looked at Tim. Then her face transformed until it shone and her plain features filled with beauty born of love. No wonder Tim had fallen for the physiotherapist he’d once resented having any need to see.          He'd clearly needed her more than anyone realised.

         Just as Daniel needed Fleur.

         He prayed the prayer he’d uttered often these past few months since Fleur had gently, regretfully, told him they needed to take it slow, that she wasn’t ready to marry him.

         Lord, please heal Fleur. You know I’d love to share this earth life with her. If it’s a good thing, please help her see it. In the meantime, grant me patience and gentleness. And help me love, protect and treasure her always.

         Love was such a healing thing. Marriage such a beautiful representation of the unity, the connection Christ had with His bride, the Church. And now his whole family were believers, part of that Church.

         He glanced over at Clare. Her eyes sparkled with life and her dimples peeked in and out.

         ‘Tuck it under like this,’ she instructed the other bridesmaids. Beth and Milla watched her fingers folding the paper flowers and copied.

         ‘Where are these going to go?’ Milla asked.

         ‘On the end of the church pews.’ Clare grinned and shot a look at Daniel.          ‘Apart from the ones Zoe and Melody make. Dan gets to wear them.’

         Four-year-old Zoe stopped her angelic humming and looked up at him, eyes wide. Melody, still a toddler, chattered beside her, her adorable lisp slipping through. He dreamed of having his own children someday. When Fleur was ready to marry him. If.

         Daniel looked at the crumpled mess of paper in Zoe’s little hands and smiled. ‘I get to wear yours, Zoe.’

         ‘Really?’ Her eyes lit with joy.

         ‘Yes. With pride.’

         She beamed at him, dimples so like her mother’s peeking through.

         Clare met his gaze and smiled. Her youngest, baby Harmony, crawled onto her lap, thumb firmly planted in her mouth. Phil put down his guitar and came over. The little girl wriggled and held out her arms to him. With a smile, Phil took her and lifted her up to his shoulders. Harmony giggled and Daniel smiled. His nieces were precious.

         He smiled wider when little Melody toddled over to him, holding out her crumpled flower. She gazed up at him with wide eyes full of innocence and trust. Eyes that didn’t expect him to play games with her mind or emotions. It was an honour to be trusted. And to have earned that trust. If only he could earn it with Fleur. But he understood. She needed time.

         ‘You need help?’ he asked little Melody.

         ‘Yeth,’ she said, her sandy curls bobbing with each enthusiastic nod. Daniel took the flower from her pudgy fingers. She climbed up into his lap, watching intently as coerced his work-roughened fingers into folding the fragile paper back into place.

         He felt Fleur’s eyes on him. He met her smiling, tender gaze.

         ‘Want me to?’ she asked.

         ‘Sure.’ He handed the flower over. He watched, mesmerised, as her delicate, nimble fingers re-shaped the flower then handed it back to Melody.

         ‘Perfect,’ he said softly, eyes never leaving Fleur’s. To him, Fleur was perfect. Her heart was scarred, but she was beautiful in every way. Like a flower that had been crumpled and trampled but found new life. He loved everything about her, from her blonde hair, brilliant blue eyes and rosebud mouth, to her heart that was softening and healing more every day.

         She didn’t wince or flinch at his compliment. That was progress.

         She smiled. ‘Thank you.’

 

* * * * *

Next morning…

 

Beth Bateman pursed her lips to hold back a smile. She was so not good at this. Asking her to keep a secret wasn’t fair.

         ‘You can do it,’ Clare said, her brown eyes both mischievous and persuasive. ‘This is your chance for the ultimate payback. Remember all those times Daniel hassled you as a kid? Just think of his smug little smile, that triumphant gleam he got in his eyes…’

         Beth bit her lip. ‘Payback’s not really my thing.’

         ‘Yeah.’ Clare screwed up her nose, lips tilting upward. ‘That might not’ve been the best way to convince you. What about if I say, this is your chance to help your brother realise the value of complete, forthright honesty? And at the same time, a chance to make the best moment of his life, one he will never forget? It’s a win-win situation.’

         Beth chuckled. She wasn’t convinced, but she’d go along with it. For now. Jess and Tim said they wanted it this way. And if the bride said she wanted something, then as bridesmaids, it was Beth and Clare’s job to make it happen.

         She looked over at Jess Cardelle and her sister Milla. Their mother was fussing over them, making sure their hair was perfect. Jess was stunning in her wedding dress, her perfect, athletic figure shown off to perfection. Beth refused to envy Jess her figure. Being on the thin side was something she would battle her whole life, but having a husband like Gus was helping. And, the secret she hadn’t yet told her family was also helping. She touched a hand to her still flat abdomen with a small smile. God had blessed her. Was blessing her. She’d thought she might never have children. Her eating disorder as a teenager had messed with her hormones and her development, but God was so, so kind. She wanted this child forming within more than she knew how to express. God knew her heart. Knew how grateful she was.

          ‘Time to leave.’

          The bride’s mother hustled them all toward the door and into the waiting cars. Beth was bundled in beside Clare. She pulled her dress inside and allowed the driver to shut the door. What a blessing and privilege to be a bridesmaid at her brother’s wedding. Jess had insisted, said she wanted her future sisters involved. God knew how much Jess valued family after losing her brother in the same train crash that had crushed Tim’s foot.

         Beth’s phone rang. She glanced down at it and her heart sank. Daniel.

         ‘Don’t answer it,’ Clare said.

         Beth’s eyes slid closed. She didn’t want Daniel to worry. Didn’t want him stressed. But what would she say?

         She bit her lip. ‘Why’s he calling me?’

         Clare shrugged. ‘Probably because he knows you’ll listen and take him seriously. I’ve already told him not to worry. I said Fleur’s got some things she needs to take care of, but that she’ll be there.’

         ‘Won’t he be suspicious if I don’t answer?’

         Clare wrinkled her nose. ‘Hmm. Maybe you’ve got a point.’

         ‘I can do it.’ Beth took a deep breath, lifted her phone and answered.

         ‘Beth!’ Daniel’s voice was tense. ‘I’m worried. Fleur’s not here at the church yet. They said the bride is already on her way and I can’t find Fleur anywhere.’

         Beth kept her voice calm. ‘She said she’ll be there. Don’t worry.’

         Daniel huffed out a sigh. ‘Why isn’t anyone taking me seriously? This isn’t like her, Beth. Something’s up. I know it. She’s been different these last few days. Kind of secretive.’

         ‘I thought she looked very happy, very content and very much in love with you. I talked with her this morning and she’s fine.’

         Daniel groaned. ‘You know what? I feel very much like the boy who cried wolf right now. I’m telling you, something’s not right.’

         Beth chuckled. She couldn’t help it. ‘You think there’s a wolf at the wedding? Maybe Fleur was wearing a red cape over her dress and a wolf mistook her for Little Red Riding Hood and gobbled her up?’

         Beside her, Clare let out a snort of laughter, then dissolved into giggles. Beth couldn’t help joining in.

         Daniel sighed. ‘You know what, forget I called. But if you knew Fleur, you’d know there’s no way she’s wearing a dress.’

         Beth reined in her amusement. ‘Daniel, believe me when I tell you everything’s okay. Just trust me, okay? Have I ever lied to you?’

         There was silence. Then, ‘No.’

         ‘So trust me. And one last thing? I do know Fleur and she might just surprise you and wear a dress.’

         She stopped at the vigorous shaking of Clare’s head.

         Clare reached over and swiped at Beth’s phone, ending the call. ‘You said too much.’

         Beth smiled. ‘I don’t think so. Poor Daniel’s too stressed to take anything in.’ Her smile faded. ‘I hope we’re doing the right thing.’

         Clare shrugged as they pulled up outside the church. ‘Too late now.’

 

* * * * *

 

Daniel tried to hold in his nerves. He shuffled from one foot to the other, scanning the wedding guests. He could see everyone from up here at the front of the church. He pulled at his bow tie and straightened the crumpled paper flowers at his buttonhole. Little Zoe and Melody had been delighted he was wearing their them.

          Last minute guests were finding their seats and Fleur still wasn’t here. Why wouldn’t anyone listen to his concerns? She should be here. She said she’d be here and Fleur was never late. Never.

          The pianist began to play. It was time for the wedding. He glanced sideways at his brother. He made a decent looking groom. He stood tall, strong, dark hair neatly done, his expression softer than he’d ever seen it before. Tim, the older brother who liked everything to be logical, controlled and ordered, looked like he was going to melt with emotion. Love sure was powerful if it could do that to a person.

          Daniel’s attention was drawn back to the door of the church. There was lots of shuffling going on. Then little Zoe came down the aisle, sprinkling flower petals, her beaming smile lighting the room. Then came Melody. The toddler’s eyes widened when she saw how many people were in the room. She froze. Daniel’s heart went out to her. But then the page boy, seven-year-old Billy Green, took her hand and led her down the front. Little Melody gazed up at Billy with adoring eyes. Daniel would have continued watching them if he didn’t need to keep an eye out for Fleur. He still couldn’t see her.

         His eyes were drawn to his sister Clare as she came down the aisle next, her deep sea-green bridesmaid dress swishing about her legs. She was smiling, dimples dancing in and out. Her eyes caught his and they were twinkling. Why was she looking at him and not the groom?

          Next came Beth. And her eyes were set on his, too. Searching, reassuring, asking him to trust her. He wanted to. But where was Fleur? Should he go and find her? He was truly worried now.

          The music reached a crescendo and everyone stood. The bride stepped into the church and a hushed silence fell. Why was no one taking pictures? No one had their phones out.

          His eyes moved to the back of the church and met with those of the bride.

          Brilliant blue. Sparkling, full of life and joy. And the rosebud mouth was tilted. So familiar. So beautiful.

         His Fleur. Dressed in a stunning, flowing white wedding gown.

         What? His mind tumbled in confusion. She hesitated, looking uncertain, before her gaze locked with his. She took a step forward, eyes still fixed on his. Then she smiled. And his chin trembled.

          Her dress tumbled around her. Beautiful. But nothing compared to this woman’s heart. A heart now owned and healed by Jesus but still needing special, tender care.

          Now he understood why there were no phones capturing the moment. Fleur was spooked by cameras. Hated her picture being taken. The guests had known. Everyone had known about this but him. He glanced to the front row, and for the first time noticed Fleur’s brother Jonathan in the front pew.

          He couldn’t help his smile. There was no wolf. Only his Fleur. His bride. She was opening her heart, soul, mind and body to him. Allowing him to know her fully, intimately. Trusting him. Marrying him.

          Oh Lord, may I be worthy of this trust. This beautiful gift.

          Fleur reached him and he blinked, eyes misting when she held her hands out to him. He enfolded them in his own. Fleur Lester was going to be his wife. He would take her home as Fleur Bateman. He’d deal with his scheming sisters later. Or hug them.

          ‘Thank you, Lord.’

          He hadn’t meant to say the words out loud, but Fleur smiled wider and held his hands tighter. He only hoped his voice would hold as the minister led them through their vows.

 

* * * * *

 

Beth screwed up her nose in an attempt to hold back tears. Bridesmaids weren’t supposed to cry. But when she glanced out into the church, many eyes were wet. She searched out Gus. She’d told him he didn’t have to dress up – he wasn’t in the wedding party. She spotted him and drew in a deep breath. He was wearing a suit. And a tie. His eyes caught hers and he smiled. He’d dressed up for her. Because God knew Gus didn’t do anything to impress anybody if he didn’t feel like it. She remembered back to their own wedding day and a lump caught in her throat. Today both her brothers were getting married.

         Lord, may my brother’s marriages be as blessed and beautiful as mine.

         She and Gus had struggles of course, but working together, knowing you were completely accepted and loved, was a beautiful, powerful thing.

          Her attention was drawn back to the front of the church. Daniel’s voice broke as he spoke his vows and placed the ring on Fleur’s finger. She’d never heard him sound so earnest.

          When the vows were spoken, Daniel and Fleur stepped aside and both gave Tim a hug. It was his turn.

          The music began again and everyone faced the back of the church. But Beth watched Tim. His dark eyes followed Jessica Cardelle, his physiotherapist now his bride, all the way down the aisle. Gentle. Half smiling. Tender.

          And then the couple repeated their vows. They’d written their own words of promise to one another.

          ‘You showed me the light when I could only see darkness,’ Tim said to Jess, his deep voice firm and sure. ‘You shone hope in a world that had gone black. You showed me Jesus and what it means to truly live. My prayer is that I will do this for you every day of our lives. With God’s help, I want to shine for Him, bring sunshine on the rainy days and moonlight in the darkest nights. I want to reflect Him and His love. I want to let you support me when I stumble, and I want to help carry you when you’re tired. I want us to walk every day of this life together with Jesus.’

          Beth wiped her eyes. There was a time she’d thought Tim would never walk again, let alone open his heart up to the love of God.

          God had been so good to their family. Clare had been the first to give her life to Jesus. She’d helped shine light into Beth’s darkest days and through her and through Gus, she’d been able to see the love of Jesus.

          Then there was Daniel. She’d seen him transform from an insensitive tease, full of mischief, to a man of integrity and compassion.

          And finally, Tim. The eldest brother who had carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’d finally surrendered his load to Jesus.

          Beth glanced at their mother sitting prim and tall in the front row. What did she think of Jesus? Mum didn’t like to talk about faith. She said it was personal. Private.

          Lord, Beth prayed, she is the one Bateman left who doesn’t know you. On that day when we reach heaven, can Mum be there too? She imagined Dad waiting for them all in heaven right now. Arms open wide. He’d be so proud of Tim and Daniel today. Just as she was.

 

* * * * *

 

          Daniel looked around the reception hall. He hadn’t planned a speech. As Tim’s best man he’d thought about it but decided to go with the flow. He’d been going for relaxed and natural rather than having something written out word for word.

          Now he was regretting that decision. Tim’s speech as his ‘secret’ best man was heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

          He’d shared about many of Daniel’s escapades over the years and had the room in stitches with his telling of the buried casserole incident. But now he looked at Daniel and sincerity warmed his voice.

          ‘I know Dad is so proud of you today, little brother,’ Tim said. ‘And I am so proud of you, too. Thank you for being willing to save my life. Thank you for being you.’

          He shook Daniel’s hand, then pulled him into a hug. The room erupted into applause.

         Daniel’s heart pounded. It was his turn. He swallowed hard. What should he say? He was overwhelmed.

          Then he felt Fleur’s fingers wrap around his. He met her smiling blue eyes and courage filled his heart. Followed by joy.

          ‘Well,’ he said, as he looked out at all the guests, ‘You’re all a sneaky bunch of… sheep, aren’t you?’

         Laughter followed.

         He grinned. ‘Today I felt like the boy who cried wolf. And I thought the wolf had taken my girlfriend, the love of my life. My bride.’

         He looked sideways at Beth sitting beside her husband, Gus. ‘And you! I trusted you.’

         Beth’s smile danced. ‘And it all turned out perfectly, didn’t it?’

         He made a growling noise in his throat, but he was smiling. He looked down at his wife. His wife. What a beautiful, blessed day it had been. Beyond all his dreams.

         She gazed up at him out of brilliant blue eyes and what he saw there made his heart leap for joy. Trust.

         And love. Deep, lasting, pure love.

         He was no longer the boy who cried wolf. No longer the insensitive tease who made life difficult for others. He was a husband, a child of God, and God-willing, someday a father himself.

         How blessed he was.

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From 'Daring Clare'

Book 1 in the Bateman Family Novels, released December 2019

 

Chapter One

 It began as the brightest birthday Clare had ever had.
  Literally.
  She blinked, sleepy eyed as her mind registered the flickering of flames on her bedside table. Candles?
  A muffled, sing song voice filtered through the door. 'Wakey, wakey, happy birthday.'
  She jerked upright, shoved off her sheet and looked around. More candles. Covering every spare surface of her bedroom. It was definitely overkill. No question who was responsible.
  'Dan?'
  Her brother's footsteps quickened down the hallway and she held her breath. What was he up to now?
  The candles began to sizzle. Sparks rose up and she shielded her eyes from the brilliance. Then Bang! A loud explosion hit her ears. Then another followed by another until every last candle was left with nothing more than a wisp of smoke and the smell of burnt wicks.
  Clare looked around, heart still racing. She bit back a smile. Where had Dan found the exploding candles? She wouldn't let him get away with this one.
 She jumped out of bed, wide awake. Right Dan, Dan,’ she laughed, ‘You're in for it now!
  She was cut off by the shrill scream of the smoke alarm. Then her mother’s voice joined in from somewhere downstairs. ‘Who set that off? Dan! Clare! Where are you?Who set that off? Dan! Clare! Where are you?’
 What was Mum doing home? Mum worked every day. Especially this one. But now she and the smoke alarm shrieked out for all the world to hear that Clare Bateman was not likely to have a happy birthday. Again.
  She sighed and reached up to turn off the alarm in the hall outside her door. Was it really too much to ask that her family think of her today? She was tired of the sombre, depressing mood. No party, no cake, no celebration, just a couple of gifts given without ceremony. Only Dan ever made an effort to brighten her day.
  But today she was determined to get what she really wanted. Her ticket to independence and freedom.
  She came down the stairs a few minutes later and looked straight at Dan. He was gazing way too intently into his cereal bowl as though the answers to life lay in there. His brown hair was tousled and he held a spoon in front of his mouth to hide the trace of a smile.
  As if she didn’t know he set up the candles.
Clare looked to her mother. She stood at the kitchen bench pouring milk into her coffee, surprisingly relaxed despite her reaction to the smoke alarm only a few minutes ago. Now was as good a time as any. Taking a deep breath, Clare approached, forcing herself to stand tall and not wring her hands.

  ‘Mum, if you’re not busy, well, what I’’d really like today is to go for my driver’s license.’ She held her breath, waiting. Tim had gone for his license two years ago and Mum’s tirade had gone on for half an hour. Clare remembered words like, No need to rush, cars are weapons, remember your father was killed in a car, Grandpa and I can drive you where you need to go, you could catch public transport …
  How much more would Mum react today, of all days? The tenth anniversary of Dad’s tragic accident. Mum’s fear was understandable, but Clare was tired of being trapped by it.
  Mum said nothing for a moment. When she looked up, there was surprising softness in her expression. ‘I know. Grandpa told me you’ve been studying for the test. I stayed home so I can take you.’
 Clare gaped in surprise, her eyes shooting to Dan. He shrugged and pulled a face.
  Well, that was unexpectedly easy.
  By afternoon, Clare’s dreams had come true. She ran a hand through her short, dark hair, exulting in the thrill of being in the driver’s seat of her mother's expensive car. Her new Learner’s Licence was tucked neatly inside her phone case. Today was the day the past ceased to control her future. She was no longer trapped in a cage. She was free. Well, almost. She focused on the steering wheel, breathing in the scent of leather mixed with vanilla air freshener. Excitement bubbled. If she could drive, she could fly. She could be  anything she wanted to be.
  A sliver of guilt pricked her conscience. She shouldn’t have manipulated Mum into the passenger seat. Mentioning Dad had broken the unspoken family rule they all lived by. It was just a quiet, resigned murmur—’I wish Dad was still alive so he could teach me to drive,’—but it worked.
  Now Mum sat beside her giving terse instructions. She had that look on her face like when Dan put soap on her toothbrush.
  Clare tried to concentrate as she looked through the spotless windscreen to the street at the end of the driveway. The whole world was waiting for her.
  The first movement of the car was delightful. Smooth and easy.
  ‘Keep Keep the car moving.the car moving.’ Mum sounded anxious. ‘Push your foot harder on the accelerator to keep it going up the slope.'
  ‘Relax, Mum. I’ve got this.’
  Mum didn’t look convinced. ‘Ease off the accelerator as we reach the road.’
  Clare smiled and glanced in the rear vision mirror. Were Dan and Beth watching? Soon she’d be driving her younger siblings around the city.
  She was startled by the ring of her mother’s phone. Mum snatched it up from the console. ‘Brake, brake, put your foot on the brake!’’
  Clare stomped on the pedal, then ground her foot down. Any cockroach lurking under there was officially exterminated.
  ‘Yes,’ Mum was saying into her phone as she reached over and put the car into park and pulled on the handbrake. ‘He did? Oh, II’ll need to get that sorted right away. Yes, I’ll be there in a few minutes.’
  Clare’s heart sank. She knew what was coming.
  ‘I’m sorry Clare, but I have to go into work. It’s an emergency.’
  It always was. Without a word, Clare switched off the ignition and shoved her door open. Did nothing ever change? Tears stung her eyes but she refused to let them fall. She should never have allowed herself to hope. To feel, to care. She was a fool. She’d learned d learned a long time ago to hold herself back from any feeling and today she’d let the walllet the walls down and this was the result.
 Mum clip-clopped carefully down the driveway in her heels, no doubt to change into her work clothes.
  Clare tensed.

  Dan.

  He stood on the front lawn, arms crossed, smirking. She refused to look at him.
  ‘Freaked out on you, did she?’
  Maybe if she ignored him he would go away.
  Not likely. He was coming closer.
  She yanked the keys from the ignition and flung them at him. He caught them neatly and laughed. 

  ‘Couldn’t even trust you to get the car safely out of the driveway, could she?’
  ‘Go away, Dan.Go away, Dan.’
  He poked her. ‘Come on, Clare, what are brothers for?’
  ‘To prepare me for the worst that life might bring?’
  ‘You got it.’
  She tried to ignore her burning throat. ‘I know I can drive, Dan, but she didn’t even give me a chance. Work called her in.’
  Dan’s eyes softened in sympathy before they sparked with a familiar, dangerous glint. He looked from the car, down the curve of the driveway to the still-open garage and back to Clare. Then his gaze locked on the keys in his hands. ‘If you really can drive, you don’t need Mum beside you. Show her what you can do. Back the car into the garage for her.’’
  ‘No way. I’m not stupid.’
  ‘I dare you.’
  ‘Hah! Remember what happened with your last dare?’
  He quirked a brow. ‘What? You look heaps better now.’
  She reached a hand to her hair. The stylist did an impressive repair job after Dan cut chunks out. And the look on Mum’s face was priceless when she saw the boy-style he’d created. Strange, how instead of making her look like Dan’s twin it made her look like Dad when he was young. She had that same heart--shaped, animated face with dimples that gave her a mischievous look.
  Dan resorted to his puppy dog eyes.

  ‘Come on Clare, we’ve had some very successful dares. What about the casserole?’
  He had a point. Mum still puzzled over the missing beef casserole that lay buried deep in the back yard. But that was harmless. 
  Driving down the driveway on the other hand … anything could
happen.
 But isn’t that the point of the dare? To go out of my comfort zone and test my courage?
  More to the point, did she want to taste that freedom?
  She stared at Dan, irritated by the expression on his face. Like an expert fisherman reeling in his catch.
  She looked from the car to the garage and back again. The day was ruined. What did she have to lose?
  Dan read her every expression and held out the keys. He dropped them into her waiting palm. They felt cold. Weighty. Powerful.
  Her heart pounded. This was the point of no return. Her eyes slid shut as she opened the driver’s door and lowered herself into the seat. Sweat beaded her forehead. Backing the car down would be way harder than driving up.
  Just breathe. She opened her eyes and glanced in the rear-view mirror. Okay, this was it.
  She was sick of her birthday being all about Dad. Sick of the sombre atmosphere that always dampened her spirits. Sick of Mum’s work always coming first.
  It’s my birthday and it should be celebrated. I am important, I am capable and I will show Mum. I will show them all.
  She turned the key and the engine started with its beautiful, quiet hum. She glanced down at the gear lever and replayed Mum’s brisk instructions in her mind.
  Keep your foot on the brake.
  Carefully move the car into gear.
  Check all your mirrors.

  Twisting to look behind, she grimaced as the seat belt cut in. The neatly trimmed hedge along the curved driveway blocked her view of the garage. Even with the mirrors she would be driving blind. she would be driving blind. Where was Dan?
  There on the lawn. He gave a little wave.

  ‘Hurry up. I’m watching the grass grow here, Clare.'
  Sweat dripped down her back.
  Mum’s voice continued in her head. Gently, slowly, take your foot off the brake.
  The car lurched backward much faster than she expected. She slammed her foot down. With a sudden roar, it hurtled toward the house. She swore. That was the accelerator, not the brake! The world rushed past in a blur and blood pounded in her ears. She was no longer on the driveway and the kitchen window was looming.
 And in that moment Clare saw her father’s face. Just a brief flash but clearer than she had seen it for ten years.
  ‘Dad,’ she whimpered.
  She was going to die on the anniversary of his death. Her birthday.
  God, help me. What have I done?
  Everything went into slow motion. She despised this helpless feeling, this knowing life was out of control and nothing would be the same again. She’d felt it when Mum told her Dad had been in a terrible accident and couldn’t be home for her birthday party; that he was in heaven and never coming home again. Her little girl heart had broken and given up. And like in that moment when she had let her eyes slide shut and disconnected, she shut her eyes and let fate take over.


 

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