Cleo was glad the café had cleared out early in the afternoon. She’d been able to get away and made it to the beach in time to see the final of the men’s surf championships. She felt a huge thrill to hear Owen Rankin announced as champion for the third time. Will must be so proud. How she wished she could share Owen’s achievement with him. She could see him in the distance congratulating Owen, before the young man was hoisted onto the shoulders of other surfers and carried across the beach.
The shout of ‘Fire’ made her turn quickly to peer across to the other end of the beach where there was a vehicle in flames. She joined the people running towards it, not sure what she could do to help, not knowing if anyone was trapped inside.
As she approached, she could see it was a van, the white paint blistering, almost obliterating the logo –Bay Surf School.
Her heart dropped. She felt faint. She stumbled and almost fell.
It was Will’s van.
By the time she got there, several men were pulling the surf boards out of the van, while others were attempting to put out the flames with fire extinguishers. There was nothing she could do but watch on in despair as Will’s livelihood went up in flames.
She was standing, unable to move, when she heard a loud yell of anguish, and Will ran up, closely followed by Martin and Ted Crawford. The three men dashed to the now smouldering van, but there was nothing they could do.
Will fell to his knees, his howl of agony filling the air.
Cleo didn’t hesitate. There was no time to think. She stumbled across to join him and, kneeling by his side, took the keening man into her arms, her eyes smarting from the smoke and filling with tears of shared grief.
After only a few moments, Will took Cleo’s arms and held her away from him. ‘Cleo, where did you come from?’ He gazed at her in surprise, seemingly disoriented.
‘I came to watch the end of the carnival. I saw Owen win, then heard someone shout there was a fire. When I saw it was your van, I… Oh, Owen I’m so sorry.’ A dreadful thought occurred to her. ‘Do you think it was her?’
‘Joy Taylor?’ Will shook his head. ‘Who knows? But I can’t think of anyone else who’d be so vindictive, who’d want to harm me.’ He gazed around him to where his surf boards were lying haphazardly on the grass and rubbed his forehead. ‘They seem to have saved most of the boards, but the van’s a write off.’
Suddenly, all the reasons Cleo had given herself for her decision about Will disappeared. They didn’t matter. So what if Joy Taylor was a vindictive bitch, if she would stop at nothing to harm them? Cleo wasn’t going to let her ruin their life. They were stronger than that. What she and Will had was too important to allow her to come between them.
But, this time, it was Will who held back. ‘No, Cleo,’ he said, as if he could read her mind. ‘If she can do this to me, who knows what else she might be capable of. I don’t want you to put yourself at risk. I need to know you’re safe.’ He glanced around warily.
Cleo followed his gaze but could see no sign of the woman they suspected of causing the fire. ‘Are you sure you’ll be all right?’
‘Are you okay, Dad? What happened to the van?’ Owen rushed up, followed by Nick, Hannah and Kerri-Ann who appeared to have become part of the group. They were accompanied by a dark-haired young man who was a stranger to Cleo.
‘I’m good, and these kind guys saved most of my boards,’ he gestured to where a group were hovering around the dowsed wreckage surrounded by surf boards, ‘but the van…’ He shook his head again.
‘I’ll get my ute. I can take your boards to the workshop. We can decide what to do later. What about you, Dad?’ He looked at Cleo who was trying to come to terms with Will’s decision.
‘I’ll come with you, son. Sorry, Cleo, but it’s for the best.’
Cleo thought her heart would burst. Just as she’d decided to give their relationship another chance, Will was turning his back on her. She sniffed up her tears.
‘I’ll come home with you, Mum,’ Hannah said, clearly seeing her mother’s distress.
‘No.’ Cleo regained some of her earlier resolve. ‘You go with your friends. It’s Easter, you should be having fun. I’ll be fine.’
But would she ever be fine again?
Almost a week had passed since the surf carnival and the fire that destroyed Will’s van. It would soon be Anzac Day and, this year, Cleo was dreading it. She normally enjoyed the holiday on which the café didn’t open till midday, attending the dawn service by the war memorial in the town square, followed by breakfast with Bev.
This year, Will’s absence was all too apparent. Somehow, the facthe’dmade the decision to end their liaison was what hurt most – more than when it had been her choice. In retrospect, she supposed then she’d felt more in charge, more able to change her mind. Now it was out of her control. It seemed so final.
There had only been one communication from Will – a brief phone call in which he told her he’d had a text from Joy sayingI’m sorry.
It should have changed things between them, but it hadn’t. When the call was over, Cleo felt more empty than ever – empty and angry. Joy Taylor had ruined her life as effectively as if she’d driven a knife into her heart.
It seemed Will was moving on. From Hannah, she knew he had ordered a new van – which would be covered by insurance – and was planning to put his energy into opposing the development proposal.