"If you need anything, and I mean anything at all, just call us, okay?"
Nineteen year-old Fiona McCabe rolled her eyes good-naturedly at her stern-faced father, Nathan. "You know I will." Because she knew this was hard for him, she launched herself into his arms, hugging him tight.
She'd never forget the way he had taken her in when she'd been just twelve. He'd coped extremely well with discovering he had a daughter he'd never known about. And now you're worried you'll lose me again, she thought, her heart feeling heavy.
Nathan hugged his daughter tight. He was a handsome man. At almost forty, his hair still showed no sign of greying.
Beside him, his wife, Fiona's step-mother Cassidy (well, she'd come to call her Mom a while ago) looked worried, even though she was normally the carefree, happy-go-lucky one of the couple. "Be careful, Fiona," she said. "Have fun, but take care. You're a long way from home."
"I know, Mom."
That fact, she was aware of. Keenly.
University College London (or UCL for short) was far from her home in New York. It was over five thousand kilometres away. Not somewhere she could hurry home from. And plane tickets? Well, they'd cost a pretty penny.
Nathan released his daughter. "We're proud of you, honey, getting in."
Fiona felt tears prick her eyes. "I want to make you guys proud." She sat down on the bed of the dorm room and looked around. So, this'll be my home for the next academic year.
It was nice, and pretty large. She had her own en-suite bathroom, two bookshelves, and a large wardrobe. The dorm wasn't far from the Institute of Archaeology building where her classes would be held, either.
"You always have done, and you always will," Cassidy assured her daughter. "Oh, here. I forgot something." She reached into her tote bag and pulled out a wrapped parcel, offering it to Fiona. "This is for you."
Fiona stared at it a moment. "Really? What is it?" She couldn't help being excited at the prospect of a present. Presents were always welcome.
"Open it," Nathan encouraged her with a grin.
Unable to resist, Fiona tore into the paper, confused when her fingers touched the soft texture of fur. A cuddly toy?
It was even better than that. It was a cuddly dinosaur.
Fiona threw off the remainder of the wrapping, and hugged the stuffed toy tight. "I love dinosaurs."
"Christ, we know!" Nathan teased, grinning. "That's why you're here, isn't it? To learn to dig them up. Anyway, I thought the Stegosaurus was your favourite. Was I right?"
Fiona looked into its beady eyes. "Yeah, you were, Dad." She smiled up at him. "But they weren't multi-coloured or furry," she teased back.
Nathan shrugged. "Win some, lose some." Then his face went serious and he sat next to her, putting his arm around her shoulders. "You know, it's still weird seeing you with blonde hair."
Fiona leaned into him with a grin. "I am so over dying it black."
"It suits you much better. I like that you grew it out, too." He stroked her hair. "I'm going to miss you. We both are," he added, glancing at Cassidy, who nodded.
"Nah, you won't. You have Tristan and Riley to occupy you," she replied, referring to her younger, half-brothers.
"It won't be the same, though." Nathan gave her a hard hug. Then, to Cassidy, "come on, sweetheart, the other students will be arriving soon. We don't want Fiona to suffer Death by Parental Embarrassment on her first day."
"I wouldn't." Fiona gave her parents hugs and kisses. "I'll be home for Christmas, okay? I'll call every weekend."
Cassidy touched her daughter's face. "We don't need to hear from you every weekend. You should enjoy yourself. We just want to know you're okay."
And then they were gone, and Fiona was alone in her room, sorting through her books, trinkets, clothes and DVDs. She took out her CD player first, setting it on the long desk that ran alongside the window of her room. Sticking in an Envy and Other Sins CD, she bopped along to the music as she worked.
It was an hour before another soul disrupted her solitude. Fiona had almost everything unpacked. She sorted out her kitchen stuff – plates, bowls, pans, and prepared to take them along the hall to the communal kitchen.
But first things first: she checked her reflection in the full-length mirror the small en-suite provided her with.
My father's right, Fiona mused. My hair does suit me long.
The sunshine-blonde waves cascaded around her long, oval face and down her back. They complimented her long-lashed eyes, and equally long, lithe limbs. Although she was a dinosaur and computer geek, Fiona had the body of an athlete. She imagined that she must have hit the jackpot in the genetics department.
An athletic body, however, did not lend itself to breasts. So Fiona's weren't anything to write home about.
But right now, that was perfectly fine by her. She'd hardly dated – been too busy buried in her academic work. The boys she had seen had been sweethearts, and had not pushed for what she hadn't wanted to give.
She smoothed down the red shirt-dress she wore over pale blue jeans, and scooped up her kitchen stuff.
Just as her hand hovered over the door handle, there was a knock on the other side, and a soft female voice called out, "hello?"
Fiona opened the door.
A girl who looked to be about her age stood on the other side, in the communal hallway. Her hair was shoulder-length and a dark, Cadburys-creme-egg brown with a slight hints of curls. She wore a black t-shirt with a giraffe emblazoned on it in gold. The giraffe's neck was long. The words under the animal read "high maintenance."
"Hi," the girl said. "I'm Gwen. I heard your music, so I thought I'd say hi. I think we're the first ones here."
"Hi, Gwen. I'm Fiona. I'm just going to the kitchen to dump this stuff, but feel free to go in and hang out."
"Okay, thanks." Fiona headed down to the kitchen after Gwen went inside her room. Fiona wasn't worried about Gwen taking anything; there wasn't really anything worth taking. All her money and travellers' cheques were in a small safe that was hidden away in her wardrobe, between two sweaters.
When she returned, Gwen was sitting on the bed. "I like your dinosaur," she said. "Is that what you want to focus on in your second year, palaeontology?"
"Yeah." Fiona's gaze settled on the stegosaurus. Even though her parents had only left a little over an hour ago, she already missed them. Terribly.
"Your accent is great," Gwen enthused. "Where are you from?"
"New York." Fiona picked up the dinosaur and held it for a minute. The toy made her feel a bit better.
She set it down and resolved to chat with Gwen. She could survive on her own. It would be fine.
She had worked so hard to get a place at UCL, and she wasn't going to give it up just because she was homesick. She was sure once she'd met some other students, she'd feel much better. Gwen might even become her first friend.
So she made an effort. "Where are you from?"
"Sussex, not far from here."
Fiona's heart sank a bit. "Easy to get home when you want."
Gwen made a pfft noise. "I'd rather be much further away, but I think my parents are keen to keep an eye on me. At least this far, I do have some independence." She tossed back her hair. "Do you want to go the Student bar tonight?"
I think I want to stay in and look through photo albums of my family, Fiona thought, but squared her shoulders. "Sure, why not? I guess it'll be a good chance to meet everyone."
"It definitely will!" Gwen hopped off the bed. "Well, I guess I'll go finish unpacking – you are way ahead of me. But my door's open if you want a chat, or to borrow any stuff you don't need."
"Thanks," Fiona smiled genuinely. "I hope we can be friends."
Gwen grinned. "Me, too."
Later that evening, Fiona found herself sharing Gwen's dressing table as the two got ready to go the student bar.
"I feel I should warn you," Fiona said as she swiped on mascara. "I'm not much of a drinker."
"You'll get the hang of it," Gwen reassured her, squeezing her made-for-pleasure, full-breasted body into a tight black dress. "Can you help me zip this up?"
Fiona looked at the way the fabric gaped at the back. She almost asked will this actually fit? But thought better of it.
The dress did fit, but like a second skin. Fiona wondered how the hell Gwen was going to breathe, let alone consume food or drink. "There."
Gwen took a breath. "Hmmm, not as tight as I expected."
Fiona gaped. The dress is tighter than her own skin. But she didn't comment. Perhaps Gwen was insane.
"What are you wearing?" Gwen asked her.
Fiona looked down at the outfit she'd been wearing all day – shirtdress and pale jeans. "This... It's only a student bar."
Gwen hauled her friend to her feet. "No, no, no. You want to make a good impression on your first day, don't you?"
Fiona frowned. Good, yeah. Slutty, no. "I think this is fine," she pressed.
Gwen shrugged. "Suit yourself. Red is a good colour on you, though."
"Thanks." Fiona tried to relax, and mentally shook herself. She was irritated with Gwen because she missed her family; Gwen had done nothing to deserve the sharp end of Fiona's bad mood. "This'll be fun," she said. "I wonder if we'll meet anyone on our course?"
Gwen smiled a predatory smile. "Forget that! We can meet our course-mates on Monday. I wonder if we'll meet any cute boys."
Fiona was sure that, in that dress, Gwen would not be short of male attention. She looked down at herself. The shirt-dress wasn't low-necked, and her jeans were full-length, not cut-off. She'd probably be the person showing off the least flesh there.
That was fine with her.
"Ready?" Gwen asked, spraying an industrial-sized cloud of perfume over herself.
"As I'll ever be," Fiona said as she grabbed her bag.
It was after eight, and the Student Union, or SU, as was written on the frontage of the holding, was already buzzing. Students spilled out of the doors and on to the patio, many in short sleeved shirts or short dresses, as it was a warm night. The air was filled with the scent of sweat, alcohol, and various kinds of eau de toilette.
Fiona missed home even more. She wished someone she knew was here, even if it weren't her parents. She'd settle for one of her honorary Aunts: Emilia, Roxanne or Claire. Even their husbands would be all right. Anything for a familiar face.
She and Gwen pushed their way to the bar. R&B music pounded through the floor and walls. Gwen ordered a vodka and coke. Fiona stuck with lemonade. She'd consider a beer later if she was feeling up to it. Right now, she didn't feel so good, and she didn't think alcohol would help matters.
"Let's find somewhere to sit," Gwen shouted at her over the music.
There wasn't anywhere. So Gwen headed towards the corner of the bar, where a large pool table stood. Fiona frowned, wondering why Gwen wanted to play. Then she realised that it wasn't the game her friend was interested in.
Four men surrounded the green-topped table. Fiona didn't think they were anything to write home about, but the grin on Gwen's face said differently. She slunk over, the heels she wore giving her that hip-swinging walk Fiona saw in films.
As if on cue, the men looked up. They all appraised her, and all four sets of eyes looked interested.
Fiona hovered behind, unsure of what to do. She thought about going home and curling up in her bed.
No, I won't. I have to make an effort.
So she stayed hovering, while Gwen was drooled over.
Half an hour later, she left the group (who didn't notice, or care, probably) to use the ladies room. When she came out, she headed for the patio to get some fresh air.
She leaned on the rail of the enclosed patio-garden area, looking out at the sky and wishing she was home.
I'll get over it. I'll get over it.
"Hey, are you okay?"
Fiona turned to see a man standing behind her. He didn't look much older than her. His hair was blonde and he wore a single earring in the shape of a tiny silver cross. He wore a short-sleeved blue shirt.
Fiona smiled. "Yeah… Just feeling a bit homesick," she admitted, feeling sheepish.
"Nothing wrong with that," he assured her. "You sound cool – like you're from a movie. Where are you from?"
"That's cool," he said admiringly. Fiona didn't catch the sleazy gleam in his eye as he looked at her; he was quick to cover it. "I'm Dave."
"So, Fiona, can I get you a drink?"
Fiona considered. It was only nine. She really should try and have fun. "Sure, why not?"
"What's your poison?"
"I'll have a beer. Anything that's kinda sweet – I don't know what sorts of beer they have here in the UK."
"I'll get you a half, and we'll go from there." Dave wandered off towards the bar.
Fiona stared out at the night sky again. Maybe she'd made two friends.
Gwen wasn't so bad. She was obviously just a maneater, Fiona thought with a grin. Perhaps things would calm down once Gwen got herself laid. All that pent-up sexual tension could not be healthy.
"Here you go." Dave handed her a half of beer. "Strawberry beer, light. Hope you like it. Cheers," he lifted his pint glass.
"Thanks." She sipped; it was nice.
They chatted for a good hour. Fiona didn't notice that the patio was emptying; she was enjoying Dave's company. She didn't notice, either, that he had eased her further into the corner she had been standing it.
Suddenly it was eleven o'clock. She was tired.
"I'd better get back to my dorm room," she said, stifling a yawn. I'm beat.
"Aren't you going to ask me in for a nightcap?" he teased.
Fiona's system came on alert. "No on the first date," she teased back, trying to keep things friendly.
Dave frowned. "Come on, don't be a tease."
Fiona's spine stiffened. She saw over Dave's shoulder that the patio was almost empty. Oh, God. Why had she left Gwen? Better bored stiff than alone with some creepy guy.
She tried to move, but Dave blocked her exit.
"I am not a tease," Fiona defended herself.
Dave leaned towards her. His breath stank of alcohol, and Fiona wrinkled her nose automatically in reaction. "At least give us a kiss, then, love."
"I'm not interested." Her voice wobbled with the onset of fear. Fiona measured his height as best she could, wondering how accurately she could bring her knee up between his legs.
"You are a tease." Dave seemed aroused by her distress.
Fiona tried to dart away, but he caught her by the arm. His fingers dug into her flesh. She felt the colour drain from her face.
My first day in England is not going well.
Dave's face loomed over her. Fiona felt the hard iron of the patio's metal fencing press into her back, cold through the shirt-dress she wore. She tried to cry out but her throat had constricted with fear.