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By SUSAN LYONS P.J. MELLOR ALYSSA BROOKS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Tash, describe your personality with three adjectives," my grandmother says.
"Hmm?" I lift my head from my book on Australia, and turn to her.
She's dressed for travel in navy stretch pants and a cotton sweater, and looks comfy in the business class seat. The champagne glass on her tray is empty and the women's magazine she bought in the airport is folded to an article with the heading R U In Synch?
"It's a test to see how compatible you are with your prospective mate," she explains.
"I don't have a prospective mate."
"You should, you're almost thirty."
"I'm twenty-eight." With nary a serious prospect in sight. And no, I'm not thrilled about that. But you see, I'm not the kind of woman who inspires romance in a guy. I'm the perennial girl-next-door type-and the street is definitely not Wisteria Lane.
"We'll do the quiz for the two of us," Nana says. "See how much we have in common, besides our coloring."
I've never been one to waste time on those foolish girly quizzes, yet she has me intrigued. "Three adjectives for you, and three for me?" At her nod, I think hard. There are a million words to describe Nana but I'm analytical and I want the best ones. "Loving, generous and ..." I want to say flaky or eccentric, but that would be rude, and I do love my grandmother. "Impulsive. What did you sayfor yourself?"
"Spontaneous, passionate and loving."
So we hit two out of three. Passionate, though? Well, if she means a passion for living and making life fun-without much regard for the consequences-I guess she's right.
"Now you," she says.
"I'd say, rational, analytical and intelligent."
"I said, intelligent, well-intentioned and uptight."
Okay, so much for holding back on being rude. I really should've said flaky, but at least I'm on the higher moral ground here.
Give me a break, Nana. I'm not uptight. I'm .. well, you know. Rational and analytical. I like lists, I like control, I like predictability. I'm the opposite of a flake.
And yes, we are blood relatives. She's my dad's mother.
A male flight attendant pauses beside us. "What can I get you, lydies?" He speaks in an accent that combines twang and drawl. Sounds kind of like a cat with laryngitis. Nana says it's a typical Aussie accent. Well, what else would you expect, flying to Sydney on Qantas?
The accent must be contagious, because ever since we boarded the plane Nana's own faint twang, still present after sixty years in Canada, has been intensifying.
"More champagne, please." My grandmother beams as she lifts the glass she emptied far too quickly.
Oh great. I'm supposed to be looking after her and, since I'm an inexperienced traveler, my parents gave me a list of guidelines. Number one: double-check departure gates and times. Number two: stay hydrated.
"But wine dehydrates you," I caution her. Ms. Well-Intentioned. Yeah, she was right about that adjective.
Nana shakes her head, half fondly, half ... less fondly. "Come on, Tash girl, live a little for once. Besides, I have a toast to make."
And of course two ladies off on an adventure can only toast in champagne. Okay, she's got this one right too. I grin at her and tell the attendant, "I'll have champagne as well. And can we get two bottles of water, please?"
He fills our glasses with bubbly, tips us a wink. "'Ere ya go. Cheers."
I raise my glass to Nana. "To a safe and successful trip."
She clicks hers against mine. "Right you are." We both sip, then she takes a deep breath and lets it out, almost like she's letting all her stresses escape with it. "And now here's my toast. To home, Tash. The place of your heart."
We're 32,000 feet up in the air and six hours into a day-long trip across the world to the land Down Under. "To home," I agree, touching my glass to hers. Yes, already I miss Vancouver. My beloved Pacific Northwest. Land of blue oceans and green, forested mountains. Cool colors, a temperate climate. The place where Nana and I belong.
No, I refuse to feel homesick. It's only two weeks. The time will fly by. Nana has inherited her sister's estate and I need to meet with the lawyer, handle a million details, sell the house. Not to mention keep an eye on Nana and make sure her impulsive nature doesn't get her into trouble, as has happened more than once in the past.
My mission-and my family gave me no option but to accept it-is to handle the estate and business affairs, and bring Nana home safely. Although we all adore her, with her generous, loving nature, her joy in life, her charming eccentricities, the consensus is she really is a bit of a flake.
Like, when Mom and Dad picked her up to bring her to my law school graduation, and she was wearing a red sweatshirt proclaiming "Proudest Grandma in the World." Nice sentiment, but yes, I'd have been the laughingstock of my class if Mom hadn't made her change.
That was trivial, though, compared to when Granddad died and Nana wanted to sell the family home and give all the proceeds to her favorite botanical gardens.
Her heart's as big as the world, but unfortunately she doesn't have any of those rational, analytical genes the rest of us inherited from Granddad. Hence-yes, I am a lawyer and the jargon pops out from time to time-my Nana-minding role on this trip.
Poor Nana. This whole thing has to be very hard for her. Although she only saw her older sister every ten or so years, Nana always said Auntie Bet was her best friend. What with my aunt's heart problems her death wasn't a huge surprise, but I know Nana's been mourning.
I have two sisters and a brother. We argue a lot, get on each other's nerves-and I can only imagine how devastated I'd feel if something happened to one of them.
I touch her hand sympathetically, but she lifts it away to raise her glass again. Her eyes are as sparkly as the bubbles in the champagne. "Another toast. To finding a bloke. A handsome, charming, sexy bloke."
What? "God, no. Tell me you're not planning on matchmaking. This is a work trip. I won't have time to think about men."
"Not for you, dear." Her eyes narrow as she does a quick top-to-bottom appraisal of me, in my own navy pants and tailored shirt. "Though God knows it's a good idea." Then she shakes her head, seeming to dismiss that thought, and beams at me. "A man for me."
"A holiday romance?" I raise my eyebrows. At seventy-seven, she's been widowed for five years. She dates, but after more than half a century of marriage seems happy to play the field. God, I should have seen it coming. Of course she wants a holiday fling.
In some ways, the woman's younger than I am.
Which is, of course, why I'm here to look after her. Good old rational Tash, looking after her passionate Nana. I want her to be happy, but I can't believe a short term, long-distance romance is going to do it for her.
"Well, good luck with it," I tell her, hearing the skepticism in my voice. Surely the odds are slim she'll meet an eligible guy and actually-No, Tash, don't go there. I absolutely do not want to think about Nana and some Aussie ... you know.
Still smiling-it's one of those secretive smiles-she sips her champagne and settles back to read her magazine.
I unbuckle my seatbelt and stand up to stretch and get my briefcase from the overhead compartment. From it, I take the papers sent by the lawyer in Clifton Beach, Queensland, and start reviewing them to ensure I didn't miss anything the previous three times.
Nana's asleep now, snoring softly. I tilt her seat back, drape a blanket over her and send a thank-you winging to Vancouver. The whole family chipped in to fly us business class, so we'd have some hope of being comfortable on the fourteen-hour flight.
I'm less sleepy than bored, so I shove aside the legal papers and pull out the book my older sister gave me. "So you'll see what you've got yourself into," she'd said.
The book is In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. I leaf through, reading snippets here and there, sipping diligently from my bottle of water.
I learn about rip tides, sharks, poisonous jellyfish, and all manner of insects, snakes, plants, etc., etc.-each of which can kill me in its own extremely horrible way. Even those cute kangaroos might pummel you like a boxer with their front legs, and slash you with those huge hind ones. Yeah, apparently Australia has way more deadly et ceteras than anywhere else in the world. Nana and I are walking into a death trap. Shuddering, I swap the book for the legal papers, vowing never to set foot in the ocean or the Outback.
A little while later, Nana jerks, gives a back-of-the-throat snort, and she's awake.
I reach over and give her arm an affectionate squeeze. "Nice sleep?"
"You don't want to know."
"Why not?" I hate being told what I do or don't want to do or know.
Her lips twitch. "A sex dream, if you must know."
A sex dream? She's teasing. I hope.
She glances at the pile of paper on my pull-out table. "No sex dreams for you, I see."
"Everything looks straightforward. Auntie Bet's will, the real estate papers, the house insurance."
"Tash McKendrick, you can't tell me you didn't already go through those papers a dozen times before we left home."
Okay, there's another adjective for me: thorough. And for her: perceptive.
"I researched house prices in Clifton Beach," I say. "Depending on the condition of this place, you could get half a million. Beach front is pricey."
"I don't think so." She pulls the airline magazine from the pocket flap in front of her and flips it open.
"Yes, really. Nana, when you visited Auntie Bet she was in Cairns. Have you even been to Clifton Beach?"
"We went for the day, last time I came home. When she was thinking of buying there. It's beaut." Her eyes now look a little tired and red, but they're still sparkly. "Did I tell you I have mates there?"
"Yes, you said some other old friends moved at the same time your sister did."
Nana nods. "They all wanted to live in a quiet beach town. Bill and Margaret, and Trev and Allison."
"You knew them when you were growing up?"
"Bill, Margaret and Trev, yes. Trev met Allison when he was away at university in England." She glances down at the magazine, flips another page or two. "Allison passed away earlier this year."
Nana looks up, the eye-sparkle stronger. "Did I mention that Trev was my first beau?"
"What? Before Granddad?" A horrible suspicion begins to dawn. What's my impulsive Nana, the one who describes herself as passionate, up to? "Nana, you aren't thinking the two of you might, uh ...?"
"Hook up?" she says calmly. "Stranger things have happened. We're both widowed, and we always did hit it off."
"But you married Granddad."
She shrugs. "I'm not saying I didn't love him, or that we didn't have a happy marriage. But it was a rebound thing."
I'm in shock. This is a bit of family history she's never seen fit to reveal before. "You were on the rebound from this Trev?"
"He was a couple of years older, wanted to be an engineer, and he let his family send him to England to study." She sighs. "If we'd been more mature, maybe we'd both have waited. But I was right pissed at the bloke, and your granddad came along, a fine-looking, intelligent man, and-" She breaks off. "I married him. Then Trev met Allison at university."
"Granddad swept you off your feet."
She laughs, all the fine lines on her face crinkling. "That's one way of putting it."
"And the other?"
"Got me in the family way, as we said in those days, then went back to Canada. When my parents found out-and mind you, this was still the forties-they wrote his parents. Before you could say 'bun in the oven,' I was on a boat and a church was booked for our wedding. But that'll be our secret, young lady. No one else in the family knows. Your Granddad and I lied about our anniversary date."
For a few minutes, all I can do is stare at her. "Why are you telling me this now?"
She shrugs. "So you don't think I'm too daft if, well, things move a little quickly once Trev and I get together."
Poor old dear, I don't want to see her get her heart broken.
"We've been writing, you know. We still hit it off."
"Oh." Again, she's surprised me.
"At our age, there's no time to waste." She gives a chuckle. "Well, that's true at any age. If something's right, grab onto it."
"Maybe. But there are so many things to do, before you know it's right."
"Like, have sex?"
"God, no!" I squeeze my eyes shut. "Okay, yes, but I really don't want to know about your sex life. I mean, things like making sure you're compatible." Damn, now I'm sounding like her stupid magazine. "Like, in bed?" Her eyes are sparkling with mischief.
"Good God," I say wryly. "Who is this person who's inhabiting my grandmother's body?"
And suddenly-maybe it's the effect of champagne-but I'm not so bothered by this outrageous conversation. I'm feeling less like I'm with my grandmother and more like she's a girlfriend. Someone I might really talk to, joke with, share secrets with.
But that's crazy. She is my grandmother, and I'm supposed to be looking after her, not encouraging her dreamy notions.
She's grinning. "The closer I get to Oz, the more me I become."
Oz. She's always called it that, and it always makes me think of the yellow brick road. Here we are, Nana and me, off to meet the Wizard. An odd pair we are, because she's delighted and I'm thinking, there's no place like home and I'd rather be there right now.
"Back in Vancouver," she says, "there have always been so many expectations. From your granddad and his folks, your dad and your Aunt Liz, then all you grandkids. Everyone tried to put some label on me, fit me into some role. I never got to be just Delia." She nudges me in the ribs. "Believe you me, Tash, when Delia was a girl, she was a lot of fun."
Delia's still kind of fun, to tell the truth. Now that she's forcing me to start seeing her as a real person, not just a grandmother. It isn't fair, is it, the way we slot labels onto people. Like, if someone is "nana," we don't see past that, don't ask about her hopes and fears. Her dreams.
But ... "You're thinking you can go back to being that girl with Trev?"
"Or be a whole new Delia. My family's all grown up now, you don't need me. I'm free, for the first time in sixty years. Just like you, Tash."
She laughs. "Footloose and fancy free, if you'd only let yourself. You wait and see, you're going to be a different girl in Oz."
But why would I want to be? I like the woman I am.
"You might even stay there with me," she adds.
"You've lost me. Stay where?"
"But ... what do you mean? We're selling the house and coming back home."
She shakes her head, her eyes dead serious. "I know that's what the family wants but I'm not a child and I'll make my own decisions. Tash dear, for me home is Australia. Always has been, always will be. If you go back to Vancouver, you'll be traveling alone."
I gape at her. My first thought is, she's nuts.
But she's an adult. Maybe a little eccentric but not stupid. It hurts to think she might be happier in Australia than with us in Vancouver, but she's right that the decision is hers to make.
No, of course she won't stay. This whole thing is a fantasy she's built up in her head. Once she sees the reality, she'll realize she belongs back home.
Of course, if by chance she does decide to stay, the family will kill me.
Oh, damn. What have I gotten myself into?
Our friendly flight attendant stops beside me. "'Ow's it goin'?"
Crappy. Please God, won't someone come along and rescue me from this impossible situation?
Maybe he reads the desperation in my eyes because he leaps to my rescue in the best way he knows how. "Another glass of the bubbly?"
"Oh, why the hell not."
Excerpted from THE FIREFIGHTER by SUSAN LYONS P.J. MELLOR ALYSSA BROOKS Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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