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This was one of the many times Richard Allington was pleased he was six feet five inches tall. In an effort to stay awake and combat jet lag, he'd taken up his mother's suggestion and come to Maroochy-dore's annual Moon Lantern festival, but now, as he stood in a crowd of thousands upon thousands of people, he wondered if he'd made the right decision.
There were so many people, jostling to get here or there, calling out to their friends, waving or just shoving past without a care. Many different languages were spoken, but thanks to his travels he found himself able to understand the odd word in Mandarin or Japanese as people continued to shove past him. Up on the huge open stage, with its large flat screens on either side, was the last dance act, a group of young Indian women, dancing in colourful saris.
Richard clapped with the rest of the crowd as the women finished and left the stage, and the master of ceremonies came on to announce that with the full moon now rising in the night sky, the extensive lantern festival would soon begin.
Smothering a yawn, Richard moved through the crowd towards the stage, interested to see just what some of these 'lanterns' actually looked like. He could well imagine they'd be nothing like the lanterns Miss Florence Nightingale would have carried around hospital wards.
From what he could see, the lanterns were all at least over two metres high. So far, he'd seen one in the shape of a tiger, one in the form of a bee buzzing around a honey pot and another made to resemble an old yellow taxi. He'd read a sign earlier explaining that the lanterns were all made with balsa wood frames then covered with tissue paper and decorated. It certainly sounded like a skilled operation and Richard could well appreciate the time and effort people had put into making these lanterns.
'I don't want to do it!' The loud, vehement words cut through the crowd and a few people turned to see what the commotion was all about. Richard was one of them, and as he shifted closer to where the young male voice had come from, he saw a heavily tattooed and pierced teenager, dressed from head to toe in black clothing, glaring fiercely at the woman before him.
He was standing in a group with about twenty other young teens, all dressed similarly in dark clothes, congregating in the lantern marshalling area, waiting to take their turn in carrying the amazingly structured lantern next to them. The young man, who Richard guessed to be about sixteen or seventeen years old, had his arms crossed defiantly over his chest, towering by a few inches over the woman who was talking to him with assured calmness.
Richard couldn't help but stare at her, captivated not only with the way she was handling the teenage tantrum with amazing alacrity but also by her beauty. She couldn't be more than about five foot six, slim with a long auburn plait swishing down her back as she moved her head. She was dressed in flat, black boots, denim jeans and a white top. Neat, casual, classic.
Although he had no idea what had initially caused the young man to flip out, Richard couldn't help but admire the way the woman had instantly taken charge of the situation, defusing what might have resulted in a teenage, ticking time bomb.
Some of the other kids were trying their best not to listen, but others were clearly supporting the woman, agreeing with her. A few of them pointed to the two-metre-high lantern they were about to carry along the snaking path that wound its way through the large crowd. Richard looked away from the woman for a moment to look at the lantern. The words 'Maroochydore Drop-In Centre' had been printed carefully on the side. He instantly looked back to the woman. Was she a social worker of some kind?
He couldn't help but edge closer, not necessarily wanting to hear what the woman was saying to the young man, more intrigued to know what her voice sounded like. Was it as beautiful as her face? As calm as her attitude? He shuffled his way through the crowd and was soon closer than before.
'You've put so much work into this lantern, Drak.' Her smooth, clear tones floated through the air towards him. 'I think it's important for you to carry it in the parade.' There was no sarcasm or censure in her tone, but there was a lot of pride. 'It's not a bad thing to take pride in something you've made. And I'll tell you another thing ' Her smile was small but earnest. 'Now that I know just how talented you really are, I'm not going to let you hide this gift anymore. I have big plans for you, my friend.' Her encouraging smile grew bigger as Drak groaned and shook his head, but Richard could see that he was almost puffing out his chest with pride at her words, and his arms weren't folded nearly as tightly as before.
'I knew this lantern thing was a mistake.' Drak's tone was gruff but not stern. 'It's going to be embarrassing, carrying it.'
'Nah. You can do it, Drak. You're awesome,' a teenage girl about the same age as Drak said encouragingly.
'Jammo's right, Drak. You see an embarrassment. I see brilliance. It's all just a matter of perspective. Also, I'll bet there are oodles of people here tonight who would love to have your gift of being able to create such a thing of beauty.'
'You think it's beautiful?' Drak asked, looking quizzically at the lantern.
'Undoubtedly. And so will many other people. They won't think it's sissy or girly to be able to create something like this. They'll think it's clever, skilful and magical.'
He gave her a sceptical glance. 'Magical?'
The woman smiled. 'So you'll help carry it? Please?' She didn't break eye contact with Drak, the glow of the drop-in centre's lantern giving her a sort of angelic halo as she waited for his answer.
'Fine, Bergan. I'll carry it.'
'Bergan.' Richard found himself whispering her unusual name. Then he frowned for a moment, realising he'd heard that name somewhere else, somewhere before tonight, but right now his brain was still too jet-lagged to figure it out. As though she'd heard him whisper her name, as though he was almost willing her to look his way, Bergan patted Drak on the shoulder, then actually glanced his way, staring directly at him, her honey-brown eyes still bright from her triumph.
Their gazes locked for what seemed an eternity, yet in reality was only about five seconds. She raised an eyebrow, as though asking him what he thought of the situation. But that couldn't possibly have been what that look had meant. They didn't even know each otherwhy would she be interested in his opinion? And why, as he continued to watch her encouraging Drak, had his mouth gone dry and his gut feel as though it had been tied in knots? Who was this woman?
Just then, Richard saw one of the organisers come up to Bergan and speak to her. She listened, nodded, then turned to face the group of teenagers.
'All right. We're up next. Get ready to go,' she called. Richard continued to be amazed at the way she expertly organised everyone, talking to a few of the other adults who were no doubt her colleagues at the drop-in centre. Within another three minutes the people of the Maroochydore Drop-In Centre were ready to show their lantern to the thousands of people gathered for the festival.
Richard watched for as long as he could as Bergan and her crew snaked their way up the hill, with Drak and his mates carrying the lantern, which was shaped like a house with its doors wide open. The young man was indeed very talented to have made such a thing. Finally, when they had delivered their lantern to the top of the hill, where it was placed with the other lanterns on display, the members of the drop-in centre disappeared into the crowd. Where had Bergan gone?
Even once the festivities were finished and people began to disperse and head home, Richard found himself loitering, unable to admit to himself he was waiting for just one more glimpse of Bergan, the gorgeous brown-eyed redhead who had clearly made a difference in a young man's life tonight. He took photographs of all the lanterns on display. He continued to hang around, waiting for the owners of the lanterns to come and remove them, unable to quell his disappointment when a group of teenagers came to collect the drop-in centre's lantern. There was no sign of the beautiful Bergan.
Calling himself foolish, Richard spun on his heel and struck out with the rest of the dwindling crowd, heading towards his car, which he'd had to park at least five blocks away. It had been many, many years since just the sight of a woman had captivated him in such a way. As he pulled into the cul-de-sac where his parents lived, garaged the car and walked into the dark and empty townhouse, he couldn't help but be a little puzzled as to why he'd been so intrigued by a beautiful stranger.
He noticed the light was flashing on his parents' answering machine and listened to the message. It was from his mother, telling him they'd arrived safely in Paris and were now installed in his apartment on Rue de Valance. Richard was glad he'd finally been able to persuade his parents to travel, especially as he was now busy travelling around on an international fellowship, meaning his apartment was sitting empty.
The fellowship not only enabled him to travel, spending time at various accident and emergency departments around the world, but also to gather information on the latest technological and biomedical advancements each country had to offer. Ten countries had been included in the terms of the fellowship, and when Australia had been offered, Richard had requested to do his four-week placement at Sunshine General hospital, mainly because that was the hospital where he'd done his medical training so many years ago.
After Australia, he would return to the northern hemisphere and write up an extensive report of his findings, which would be shared with all the countries he'd visited. After that, he'd return to his job in Paris, working in the public hospital's ER.
Deciding he should probably make himself a late snack, he yawned, hating the fact that he was still jet-lagged from his flight two days ago. He'd forgotten how travelling to the other side of the world could mess with a person's body clock. It was imperative he get a good night's sleep as he was due to start work at Sunshine General tomorrow morning and he doubted the A and E director, who he would be working closely with throughout the duration of his placement, would take kindly to him falling asleep whilst on duty.
Twenty minutes later, at nine-thirty in the evening, he laid his head on the pillow and closed his eyes thankfully, only to be awoken moments later by one of his neighbours coming home, obviously with a carload of happy revellers. It was a Sunday evening, for heaven's sake. Why were they revelling?
He pulled the spare pillow over his head in an attempt to drown out the noise of car doors being closed and friends laughing and chatting with each other. It appeared his neighbours on either side had gone out together, one of them with a very excited child. After ten minutes of chatting and laughing, they called goodnight to one another, and within another few moments the cul-de-sac was quiet once more.
Exhaling with relief, Richard shifted the pillows into a more comfortable position and gratefully drifted off into a deep, deep sleep.
'He's late!' Bergan wasn't happy. As director of the A and E department, she was a stickler for punctuality, and for her new international emergency travelling fellow to be late for his first shift didn't make for a good impression at all. She knew his name. Richard Allington. She knew his parents, Helen and Thomas, as they'd been her neighbours for the past few years in the small cul-de-sac of four townhouses. Now his parents had headed overseas and Richard was staying at his parents' house, or at least that's what Helen had told her. That meant Richard was her new neighbour.
She frowned. Having been raised in a foster-home environment, Bergan had learned the hard way the importance of compartmentalising her life. She'd learned how to get along with people she didn't necessarily like, and she'd learned how to ensure the government system, supporting fostered children, worked in her favour.
She'd worked hard, transforming herself from a desperate, abandoned child to an educated woman who now ran a busy A and E departmentbut one of the rules she'd worked hard to follow was to keep her personal and professional lives as separate as possible. There were exceptions to the rule, of course, especially with her three closest friends, Mackenzie, Reggie and Sunainah, but even then those relationships had taken years to forge.
Bergan checked her watch, her frown deepening as she realised it displayed exactly the same time as the A and E clock on the wall.
'Perhaps you should have knocked on his door this morning and woken him up yourself,' Mackenzie offered as she wrote in a set of case notes.
Bergan stepped closer to Mackenzie, not wanting the A and E nurses working nearby at the desk to overhear their conversation. 'I don't even like it that this new fellow lives next door to me, so why on earth should I assume responsibility for him arriving on time? You know I don't like interacting with my colleagues in a social setting.'
'I live next door to you,' Mackenzie offered, and received a bored stare from Bergan.