Author: Pepper Winters
Release Date: March 30, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Romance, Dark Romance, Erotic Romance
More Info: Goodreads
Purchase: Amazon US
Purchase: Barnes & Noble
"There is a message for everything. From handwritten to verbal, seen and unseen. Messages exist all around us."
But what if you don't see?
What if you don't understand?
What if, by ignoring the message, your life is never the same again?
Estelle Evermore morphed from nobody to somebody overnight.
Galloway Oak put his past behind him and endeavored to make his fortune using his trade.
Multiple unseen messages.
From sky to island, they find neither fame nor skills can save them. Stripped from society and left alone to survive the elements, the very task of staying alive outweighs all other needs.
Until survival turns to desire.
And desire turns to danger.
From New York Times Bestseller Pepper Winters comes a timeless love story answering the question of what happens when everything is stripped away.
Note from Author
The following novel is a blend of truth and fable. The messages truly happened; the outcome & subsequent fate did not.
This story was inspired by my flight home in 2015. Each thing that happened, happened to me. Each issue and fear was my own experience, right down to the clothes Estelle wears, to what she shoves in her pocket.
That’s complete truth.
What happened afterward…
I’ll let the characters tell you their tale.
Once within a song, a music lover and a broken man fell from the sky.
It changed their lives forever.
I’m a song wrapped in paper; a sonnet scribbled by a singer.
Every composition takes a part of me until I’m nothing more than crotchets and quavers. My story began on paper on sheet music. A fresh page of bars and ledgers, governed by a sturdy treble clef. But my life ended changed. And the things of importance faded from superfluous to survival.
I’m a writer. I’m a singer.
Not anymore, I’m a survivor.
Taken from the notepad of E.E.
LIFE OFFERS EVERYONE messages.
Either unnoticeable or obvious, it’s up to us to pay attention.
I didn’t pay attention.
Instinct tried to take notice; the world tried to prevent my downfall.
I didn’t listen.
I’ll forever wonder what would’ve happened if I had paid attention to those messages. Would I have survived? Would I have fallen in love? Would I have been happy?
Then again, perhaps just as the messages exist, fate exists, too.
And no matter what life path we choose, fate always has the final say.
I didn’t listen, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t live.
I lived and breathed and cried and laughed and existed in a totally different tale than the one I’d envisioned.
Away from my home.
Away from my family.
Away from everything comfortable and familiar.
But I wasn’t alone…
I was with him.
A stranger turned lover. An enemy turned friend.
I was with him.
And he became my entire universe.
No one can truly soothe your fears, your tears, your Rolodex of emotions. No one can truly make it right, fix the wrong, or make your dreams come true. Only you.
Only you, only you, only you.
You’re the anchor in rough seas, the roof in churning storms. You’re the survivor in adversity.
You are trust. You are home.
Only you, only you, only you.
Lyrics: ‘Only You’ Taken from the notepad of E.E.
THE FIRST MESSAGE warning my life would end came ten minutes after the taxi dropped me off at the airport.
I didn’t know it would be my last car ride. My last grumble over a fare. My last foray on a road, in a city, in a society surrounded by people and chaos and noise.
My last taste of normalcy.
Not that my life had been normal the past two years.
Ever since my ‘supposedly’ best friend secretly uploaded an original song of mine, I’d gone from a simple retail assistant to an internet sensation.
The whirlwind career change was both a good and bad thing.
Good because I could now afford the things I’d never dared dream of, brought security to my family (not that I had a family anymore), and formed a nest egg for retirement. And bad because such wonder came at great cost and I feared I didn’t have enough in which to pay it.
After two months on the road—on a self-funded and mostly organised by ‘supposedly best friend’ singing tour, I was a masticated piece of chewing gum with no flavour left to give.
Not that I wasn’t grateful. I was. So, so, so grateful. Meeting fans, singing until my throat bled, signing postcards and hastily printed posters—it had been surreal.
I couldn’t get my head around how quickly my world switched from helping rich housewives spend their husband’s money on unneeded fashion to blinking in spotlights and performing secrets (pieces of my heart and soul bound in lyrics) that people seemed to connect to. They connected enough to want me to sing for them. Me. An utter nobody suddenly traded the safety of non-recognition for high-risk fame.
I could handle sharing myself and my songs. I could handle chipping away at my secrets and giving them to others to glue their patch-worked souls. What I couldn’t handle were the endless airports and suitcases. The constant noise and chatter and calamity of living on tour.
I never wanted to stay in another hotel again. I craved space and silence with the passion of a million wishes.
Madeline didn’t understand how hard being in the limelight was for me. Even working in retail (while I decided what to do with my life now I was alone) had been a struggle: the constant dealing with people, the endless questions, the draining nature of mingling. Add loud music, screaming fans, and countless demands for social events, encores, and media obligations, I was wrung dry. I was worse than chewing gum. I was the grime left over from a well-trodden shoe.
My fingers itched to write the line down. The beginning of a new sonnet wisped into creation. I deliberated over dropping my suitcase and grabbing my notepad. But it was a single sentence. I’d remember it.
Besides, I had something much more important to think about.
It’s over now.
My lips turned from sad frown to happy anticipation.
I wasn’t unappreciative for the rapid notoriety and vocal success I’d been given. But I couldn’t change who I was at heart.
I was a homebody.
A girl who kept to herself, preferred to curl up with her flat-faced Persian than attend a party, and had a hard time making small talk with strangers, which meant singledom wasn’t a choice but a by-product of being an introvert. Add a recent funeral for the three most important people in my life and…well, the outside world was as enjoyed as much as bug spray was to a butterfly.
Crossing the threshold into the airport terminal, I forcibly removed all thoughts of drudgery and schedules and relaxed for the first time in seventy-two days.
This was it.
This had been my only requirement which Madeline (said best friend and slave driver) didn’t understand. No matter we’d been friends for almost two decades, she still didn’t ‘get me.’ She didn’t understand my pathological need to be alone after months of belonging to other people.
I’d agreed to eight singing venues; I’d bowed to her every whim of newspaper interviews, blogger podcasts, and high-society power dinners. But I’d stood firm on two things.
Number one: I refused to share a hotel room with her. I loved her but after monopolising my time eighteen hours a day, I needed an empty space. It was my recharge station after others drained me dry.
Number two: I wanted to travel back on my own.
For seventy-two days, she’d tried to convince me to amend my itinerary and celebrate with her in Bora Bora. In her mind, the money pouring in from endorsements and a newly signed record deal meant we should live large. In my mind, I should save every penny, because, as fast as luck had shined on me, it could eclipse me just as quickly.
Look at how swiftly death had visited when supposed perfection reigned.
I hadn’t budged—no matter how hard she moaned—and here I was.
A single person in a whitewash of crowds and mayhem.
Slamming to a stop, I narrowly avoided a bulldozer conveniently dressed as a man. He charged past, sweaty and swearing, obviously late for his flight.
I had plenty of time to meander through security, grab a coffee, read my book, and then slip quietly onto the plane to unwind on my journey home.
I sighed in bliss.
Feeling much happier, I dragged my suitcase to the Fiji Airways check-in desk. They’d been the best value in ticket prices when I’d booked from Sydney three months ago. The aircraft had been clean and staff attentive. And the fact that the service had been half-full made me happy. Fingers crossed they’d be quiet on the way back, too.
There wasn’t a line, which made my day even brighter.
“Hello, Miss?” The elderly gentleman waved me toward the first class check-in, even though I wasn’t first class. “I can check you in over here if you’d like.”
I’m going home.
I smiled as genuine joy and relaxation fluttered. Carting my heavy suitcase to his counter, I fumbled in my handbag for my documentation. “Thank you.”
He grinned, tapping a pen on the keyboard. “Don’t mention it. Happens I don’t like being bored and you’re the first one to check in. I’m assuming you’re on the service flying to Nadi?”
I managed to yank my passport and ticket from my overstuffed handbag without turfing out every other item and handed it over. “That’s right.”
The man eyed my paperwork. “Going onward to Sydney from there?”
His blue eyes warmed. “Been there myself. Great place.”
“Yes, it is.”
Small talk…once again, I sucked at it.
I’d adored every minute of meeting my agent and recording manager in New York—doing my best to chat about important things. And now, knowing I was only two plane rides away from my own bed made my willingness to engage with strangers more bearable.
“I’m dying to get back to the Northern Beaches. That’s where I’m from.”
The guy beamed, treating me like his new best friend. “It’s a special existence having the ocean so close. I live in Venice Beach and there’s something about waking up and seeing an empty horizon that helps balance city life.” Pointing at the scales, he said, “If you can put your luggage there, I’ll get you sorted.”
I placed my weighty suitcase—full of gifts from aspiring songwriters and appreciative listeners—onto the scales. At the same time, I subtly shoved my carry-on behind the counter where he wouldn’t see. Most of the heavier stuff was in there.
Glancing at the scales, his eyes crinkled. “Glad to see you’re under the maximum weight.”
“Me too.” I laughed softly.
That had been another argument with Madi. She couldn’t understand why, after the success of the tour, I hadn’t upgraded my economy class ticket for business. She’d shaken her head as if I were a freak for not spending my new wealth. But I couldn’t. It didn’t seem real. If I was honest, it didn’t feel like I’d earned it.
I’d made it doing something I loved. Weren’t you supposed to scrimp and slave in a job you hated to save up as much as I’d made in the past year?
Either way, I wouldn’t waste a penny. Economy class was good enough for me—just like it had been for the past twenty-five years of my life.
Tapping on his keyboard, Mark, according to his nametag, said, “Your bag will go all the way through to Sydney, so you don’t have to worry about it in Fiji.”
“Great. That’s good to know.”
He focused on his computer screen. His smile slowly morphed into confusion. “Eh, are you sure you have the right day?”
“Yes.” Nerves quivered in my belly. “I’m one of those people who has to check a bazillion times. I even woke up three times last night to make sure I read the time as a.m. and not p.m. I’m very sure.”
He looked up. “You don’t have a reservation, I’m afraid.”
He pointed at the screen I couldn’t see. “It says here your ticket was cancelled.”
“No.” I squashed down the panic. So close. I’m so close to home. This couldn’t happen. I wouldn’t let it happen. “That can’t be true.” Fossicking in my handbag for my cell-phone, I trembled as I tried to find the email of my itinerary. “I have proof. I’ll find what my travel agent sent through.”
Damn Madeline. If she’d somehow done this, she was in huge trouble.
I was idiotic to blame a friend I would never see again.
I should’ve listened.
This was the first message.
Mark returned to checking the screen while I scrolled through my emails. Stupid Gmail had archived the file and I couldn’t find it.
“Did you have a delay coming here? Did you miss your flight?”
“Ah, yes!” Relief flooded. “My connecting flight was late. I missed the leg to New York and had to wait twenty-four hours before the next service.” I moved closer to the desk, trying to refrain from seeming desperate. “But that was the airline’s fault, not mine. They assured me the rest of my ticket was unaffected.”
“That’s fine.” Mark pursed his lips. “And that’s true, normally. I just can’t find a ticket number.” Chewing the inside of his cheek, he mumbled, “Don’t worry. Give me five minutes and I’ll build you a new booking then reissue your ticket.”
I sighed, wanting to puddle to the floor and magically teleport myself home. I didn’t have the strength to go through the highs and lows of travel. I was done. Empty.
My shoulders rolled. “Okay.”
There was nothing I could do.
I stood there and waited as Mark fixed Message Number One.
I should’ve paid attention.
I should’ve walked right out the doors and hailed the nearest cab back to downtown Hollywood.
But I didn’t.
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
A male’s hand shot out, preventing me from moving forward.
I blanched, slamming to a halt. “Excuse me?”
Now, what have I done?
His eyes narrowed in reproof. “The body scanner picked up metal objects on your person. You’ll be required to undergo a pat-down in a private room with a female officer. Do you consent?”
All around me, other passengers shoved and bumped, grabbing items from the X-ray belt and rushing to their chosen destinations.
I envied them.
“But…I don’t have anything to declare.”
The dark-haired officer cocked his head at the screen showing a few large splodges on a stick figure that I assumed was me. “The scanner has highlighted a few areas of concern.”
A furl of unease nudged its way into being.
First, the missing booking and now, security.
Can’t I just get on the plane without talking to anyone else?
I’d hoped once Mark handed over my reissued boarding pass and wished me a pleasant flight that my problems were over.
Desperate to just be left alone, I lifted up my pink jumper, revealing a black tank with glittering diamantes on the chest. “I should’ve thought before dressing in this to travel. I think those set it off.”
The officer cleared his throat, doing his best not to look at my boobs. “That may be the case, but there are multiple points to check.”
I glanced at the image. More black spots on my ankles and wrists.
“Ah, it’s my jewellery and the zips in my jeans.” Shoving back my sleeves, I revealed three bracelets on each wrist. All gold on my left and all silver on my right. Then pointed at the zippers in my skinny jeans at my ankles. “See?”
“I’m sorry. We’ll still need to do a pat down.”
“Are you sure—”
“Are you refusing to undergo the requirement to travel?” The agent crossed his arms, his biceps straining against the dark material of his uniform.
There was nothing I could do.
“No.” My voice turned weary. “I consent.”
A female officer came forward, waving me to follow her. “Come with me. We’ll get you sorted.”
Message Number Two went unheeded.
NOT PERMITTED TO TRAVEL.
“Oh, my God. Now, what?”
The unease grew to unrest, prickling my spine.
“Come on.” I stabbed the screen, removing and inserting my passport a few times into the do-it-yourself e-reader. Where were the good old days of customer service and officers who personally asked if you had explosives in your carry-on? Why had machines replaced a friendly face?
I didn’t want to have to deal with robots, all lined up in military precision, unable to empathize or wish me a pleasant journey—extending my misery that much more.
NOT PERMITTED TO TRAVEL. PLEASE REMOVE PASSPORT AND SEE OFFICER.
I growled under my breath. “Fine.”
Stealing my passport and deleting the half-finished clearance, I looked around for a saviour to help.
Not one single person to help guide me through this frustrating dilemma.
Slinging my handbag further up my arm, I hugged my jacket and wheeled my heavy carry-on to the glass booths guarding the gate lounge.
Other disgruntled people rolled their eyes, obviously victims of the same masquerade of machines.
The line took a few moments.
I wasted each minute by willing it away when I should’ve been holding each tightly, refusing to let time move forward.
Finally, a dark-skinned youngish man waved me over.
Trooping toward him, I smiled and handed over my ticket, clearance card, and passport. “The machine won’t accept me.”
He scowled. “It’s because only US and Canadian citizens are allowed to use the e-gates.”
I pointed at the sign above the hated machines. “It says anyone with an e-reader passport.”
He huffed as if I’d read it wrong. “It’s not for Australians.”
His attitude pissed me off, but I fought my rising annoyance. “Great. Well, I’m glad I’m in your care.”
He didn’t reply.
Frowning, he passed my passport through his computer and did whatever he needed to do. “I require your fingerprints for identification.”
I placed my first four fingers on the sticky scanner and held them until he told me to flip to my thumb. Rubbing the tacky residue, I resisted the urge to pull out my hand sanitizer and disinfect whatever germs had just contaminated me.
The officer looked up, his forehead furrowing. “Um, that’s odd.”
The unease grew again, a bubble glistening with fear, puffing fresh breath with every issue. “What’s odd?”
“Your fingerprints correspond to a different name in the system.” He glowered as if I were a super spy or wanted villain.
My heart raced. “Look, I am who I say I am—Estelle Evermore.”
“Place your fingers on the scanner again.”
Cringing at the thought of touching the unsanitary device, I did as he asked.
A few seconds later and more keyboard tapping, the computer chimed happily.
My shoulders slouched in relief.
The officer handed back my documents. Suspicion didn’t leave his gaze as he looked me up and down. “Have a pleasant day.”
Hasn’t been very pleasant so far.
I didn’t reply.
The nerves dancing on my spine switched from waltz to hip-hop, picking up in strength and number.
There was something wrong with this…surely?
Don’t people say things happen in threes?
Well, three things had just tried to prevent me from getting on the plane.
The thought of home battled against the fear of idiotic superstitions. I couldn’t stand another night in a foreign bed. I wanted my apartment. I wanted to shoo away the house sitter and cuddle my cat, Shovel-Face (named for his flat little nose and saucerish eyes), while catching up on the latest TV shows.
No. There’s nothing wrong.
I was just tired and overly sensitive.
Ignoring my paranoia and ridiculous excuses, I made my way through duty-free and found my gate.
Sitting in an uncomfortable chair, I turned on my e-book and prepared to relax.
I’m going home.
This entire mess would be forgotten.
How stupid of me to ignore yet another message.
The fourth and final message trying to prevent my imminent demise happened an hour later.
“Flight FJ811 to Nadi is now boarding all remaining passengers.”
I’d patiently waited for most people to board. I didn’t do well standing in the air-bridge, squashed like hamsters in a toilet roll, waiting to enter an overcrowded airplane. I preferred to get on last, regardless if I didn’t get convenient overhead storage.
Ever since I’d said goodbye to Madeline, I’d been tired. But it was nothing compared to the sudden lethargy as I handed over my boarding pass.
The air-bridge beckoned, and beyond that, the airplane that would take me home.
“Afternoon.” The lady took my pass, inserting it into the reader.
Instantly a siren sounded; red codes popped up on the screen.
Oh, my God. Now what?
“Is everything okay?” My tiredness evaporated, drowned out by escalating unease.
I’m not meant to get on this plane.
The lady frowned. “It says you’re not permitted to board. There’s an issue with your visa.”
My heart stopped beating.
Why is this happening?
Anxiousness lodged in my throat. I wanted to grab my carry-on and back away from the boarding gate. I wanted to listen. To finally give into premonition and paranoia and stay in America until fate stopped playing roulette with my life.
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on but I’ve changed my mind—”
“Wait.” The woman silenced the blinking lights and alarm. “You don’t need a visa. You’re flying to Australia and have an Australian passport. Stupid machine. You’re returning to your own country.”
I swallowed hard. “It’s okay. If you could just offload my luggage—”
She waved away my concerns. “Don’t be absurd, dear. Just a glitch. We’ll get it sorted in a sec.”
“What seems to be the problem?” A supervisor came over, wiping his hands importantly on black slacks.
The blonde haired woman shrugged. “I’m not sure. The machine has gone crazy.”
I’m not meant to get on the plane.
Do. Not. Get. On. That. Plane.
Goosebumps darted down my arms, my eyes dancing between the two agents. “I’m okay to wait. If it says I don’t have a visa, I’ll stay here until it’s sorted out.” My feet itched to bolt. My eyes landed on the plane, the air-bridge linking to its fuselage like an artery to a heart. “If someone could help with my belongings, I’ll happily wait for the next service.”
“No, don’t be silly.” The supervisor pulled wire-rimmed glasses from his pocket and took over from the blonde agent. “It’s just a malfunction. That’s all.” His fingers flew over the keyboard, inputting code and hitting commands.
The same message popped up. DO NOT BOARD. NO VISA.
“If you could stand to the side, ma’am.” The supervisor waved to the glass windows away from foot traffic. “Once the final stragglers are on board, I’ll be sure to fix it.”
I didn’t move. I couldn’t move.
My heart flew, pounding against rib after rib. My body turned into stone.
Stop being ridiculous, Stel.
Overtiredness had finally caught up with me and I was reading into things. There was no earthly reason why I shouldn’t get on the plane.
I’d always loved flying. In fact, when I left school, I’d been an air-hostess for two years before I realised dealing with humans in a claustrophobic tube wasn’t the best condition for my personality.
However, the travel had been incredible. The aeronautical calling breathed in my blood. I knew how airports ran. I knew the codes. I knew the lingo. I knew what pilots and air-hostesses got up to on overnight flights away.
What I didn’t know was why—when I’d spent the past seven weeks flying every other day with no problems—every issue appeared all at once.
Another warning went off. I wrenched my head up.
The supervisor glanced at a new crowd. “Ah, Mr and Mrs Evermore. Are you related to Ms. Estelle Evermore by any chance?”
A family I’d never seen before with two children looked at me. Their plaid jumpers and matching backpacks would’ve been comical if they didn’t share my last name. What were the odds? Were we related and I never knew?
Mr. Evermore shook his head. “Not that I’m aware.”
We made eye contact. Mr. Evermore was the postcard-perfect American with a bushy beard, floppy hair, and kind eyes. His wife smiled, hugging the child closest to her. The boy couldn’t have been older than thirteen, but he took after his father. The youngest, a rosy-cheeked girl, yawned, holding the arm of a stuffed kitten.
An image of my ugly but gorgeously affectionate cat hit me hard.
A lick of terror erupted down my spine.
I couldn’t explain it. I had no words to describe it.
But I’d never been so afraid of something I couldn’t see, hear, or touch.
I had the strangest sensation that I’d never see my favourite companion again.
Don’t be so stupid, Stel!
The supervisor cleared his throat, shattering my fear, returning to my problematic booking. “No worries. It’s just a bit strange that there’s more than one Evermore party on this flight and you’re not related.”
Yet another strange message.
Another unknown issue.
I don’t want to get on the plane.
I didn’t speak as the Evermores laughed, took their passes, and drifted down the air-bridge.
Another gust of fear darted down my back.
Get it together.
They didn’t seem anxious. They had children to protect. Instincts behaving themselves. Nothing was going to happen.
Pinching my wrist, I grounded myself firmly in reality and shoved away scepticism of flying.
Looking up, my gaze fell on a man with sexy dark hair and the most insanely bright blue eyes I’d ever seen.
He jogged toward the counter, handing over his boarding pass in a rush of crumpled clothing and messily packed messenger bag.
The blonde agent blinked, eyeing his clean-shaven jaw, his height, and well-formed biceps. He wore hard work like an aftershave while the provocative black rims of his glasses firmly placed him as intellectually mysterious.
My songwriter’s brain went into overdrive, penning him a song of outdoorsy carpenter or wildlife patroller. Sunshine existed in his gaze, wildness wept from his flawless skin. I’d never seen a man so tamed by scruffy jeans, grey t-shirt, and glasses but somehow still look so recklessly undomesticated.
His boarding pass went through without complaint.
His eyes met mine.
He paused, lips twitching into a small smile. A bolt of interested attraction sparked from me to him. My mouth responded against my will, parting beneath his attention.
Who is he?
Sunlight reflected off his glasses, blinding me for a moment.
“Have a nice flight, Mr. Oak.” The blonde agent returned his pass.
The connection between us vanished as he pinched it from her fingers and hoisted the bag strap up his shoulder. “Cheers.”
An accent. English, by the sounds of it. Before I could conjure more tales of fancy, he disappeared down the air-bridge.
A moment later, the supervisor clapped his hands. “Hurrah. All done.” Giving me a new boarding pass, he grinned. “All sorted, Ms. Evermore. You’re free to board. Sorry for the delay.”
Taking the documentation, I put one foot in front of the other.
I ignored every warning bell in my blood.
I followed the Evermore family, the enticing Mr. Oak, and willingly gave my life to fate.
I put my previous fear down to overwork and stress.
I convinced myself I was reading into things, that disasters happened to other people; that life didn’t send messages to those about to die.
I didn’t listen.
I ignored the signs.
I got on the plane.
I HATED FLYING.
The only reason I agreed to fly halfway across the bloody world was to complete my apprenticeship under one of the best builders in the style of architecture I wanted to specialise in.
For the past six months, I’d lived on his estate. I’d listened to my mentor by night. I’d worked beside him by day. He taught me how little I knew and how much I needed to learn if I wanted to excel in the profession I’d chosen (not to mention reminding me how close I was to throwing it all away).
To work with wood, to build and create with a natural resource—first, you had to understand how it worked. My teacher had come from a long line of craftsmen from furniture makers to sky-scraper designers.
The fact he had Inuit blood and could trace his family tree back to the natives on his mother’s side was a plus for learning, not just about how to hammer a nail or finesse a dovetail joint, but how to nurture the trees we used. How to take a wooden plank and turn it into a home.
I’d learned more living with his wife and two sons, absorbing every lesson, than I ever did at university (or at my more recent abode). Then again, that education had been of a different nature.
You promised you wouldn’t think about it.
For the hundredth time, I gritted my teeth and pushed away thoughts that only pissed me off and hurt. Clenching my fists, I followed the herd down the air-bridge and onto the plane.
I was sad to leave.
But eager to put a stamp on my new career. My new life. A life I was eternally thankful for after everything I’d done to screw it up.
I didn’t deserve it, but my father had agreed to help fund me. Acting as guarantor for the business loan I’d applied for: Opulent Oak Construction. Not to mention, he’d been fundamental for me securing the work permit for entry into the USA. Without him…well, my second chance wouldn’t have mattered.
He’d given me my world back. He trusted I wouldn’t let him down.
I had no intention of doing that. Ever again.
He’d granted endless support and fatherly devotion, even after everything I’d done. However, he had a condition—completely adamant with no concessions.
So, I did the only thing I could.
I gave in.
I agreed to fly to Fiji (the one place I’d always wanted to visit as a kid) and live a little before burying myself in my new company in England. He wanted me to sample freedom before I shackled myself to a long-term commitment.
He wanted me to have fun.
After everything that’d happened, he thought I knew what that word meant.
I have no bloody clue.
How could he expect me to be an average twenty-seven-year old bloke after the history I’d already clocked up? Even now, he still looked at me like the golden son…not the black stain I’d become. I didn’t deserve fun. Not after what I’d done; especially at a time he needed me the most.
I hated the word.
And even if I did remember how to indulge, I wouldn’t waste my time on girls and booze because I had a driving need to create something from nothing after I’d destroyed everything. I had a lot of sins to make up for, and if my father wouldn’t let me start atoning at home, well, I would have to find another way.
I’m a bastard, pure and simple.
I hated that I’d lied when conceding to his terms. I’d looked him in the eye and agreed to go to Fiji under the proviso of sunbaking, drinking, and having a one-night stand or ten. However, instead of reserving a bed in a gross backpackers with other self-centred idiots, I volunteered my skills to a local firm who built homes for under privileged locals.
I needed to find redemption before I drove myself insane with sickening memories and overflowing self-hatred.
Only thing was, the company expected me to start work first thing tomorrow. Otherwise, they’d give the contract to another applicant. No tardiness. No excuses. Be there or miss out.
I won’t miss out.
Trudging onto the plane, my mind skipped to the last time I’d seen my father. Over six months had passed since our last embrace. He’d slapped my back and whispered in my ear. “Learn, study, and behave. But once your training is up, fly to Fiji, get lost in warm seas, and remember how to live. Then come home refreshed and I’ll do whatever you want to make your business a success.”
He’d even pulled the cheap shot guaranteed to make me crumple like a little kid. He’d argued that if Mum were still alive, she would’ve said that work didn’t equal a life, even if it was a passion. There were other important things and having unplanned experiences was one of them.
Poor, grieving asshole.
Me, too. We were both grieving assholes, missing the one person who gave our souls purpose only to ruin us when she died.
What happened wasn’t her fault.
My nostrils flared, pushing her out of my mind.
I pulled the crumpled boarding pass from my back pocket, trying to find my seat.
Fifty-nine D. Right down the back of the plane.
The thought of having to squish around people pissed me off. But the sooner I was seated, the sooner I could pull out my headphones and lose myself in a movie.
Waiting for a family to shove their luggage into the overhead compartment, I hoisted my bag onto my shoulder and pulled out my phone. I’d promised my father I’d text him before we took off. Ever since losing Mum, he’d been neurotic at the thought of losing me.
Tapping a generic ‘I love you and talk to you soon’ message, I pressed send.
Huh, that’s strange.
I tapped the screen, waiting for confirmation that it’d sent. However, the sending icon just swirled around and around, never connecting.
The family finally slid into their row, granting me the freedom to carry on down the aisle.
Giving up on the message, I shoved the phone back into my jeans and hurried to my seat. An air-hostess stood blocking it. She backed away when I raised an eyebrow.
“You’re lucky last, huh?” Her red hair caught the glare of false illumination.
“Yup. That’s me. Always lucky.”
Luck had nothing to do with it. I was the opposite of luck. I was misfortune.
The air-hostess disappeared to help another with their seating.
I stowed my luggage, slammed into my chair, and looked out the window.
The memory of my mother’s struggle and what happened afterward clenched my heart as passengers settled and the cabin prepared for flight.
A flash of blonde caught my eye as I scanned my fellow travellers. The flight wasn’t full, providing a good view across to the other side of the plane.
That girl again.
Her carry-on, as she wedged it above her head, looked fit to explode like a shrapnel grenade.
She was pretty—very pretty.
There was something about her. Something intrinsic—something that singled her out and made me notice.
Long blonde hair, translucent skin…large hazel eyes.
She deserved to be investigated and appraised. I was interested.
When our gazes met at the boarding gate, I’d felt the first hint of normalcy in over five years. I liked that she’d affected me, but I also wouldn’t let it happen again.
Women like her were dangerous, especially for men like me.
The girl had barely sat down and fastened her seat belt before the fuselage creaked as the captain pushed off from the gate and the terminal grew smaller as we lined up to defy gravity.
Tearing my eyes away from her, I stared out the window at the blurry world and the last glimpse of Los Angeles.
After waiting our turn, the engines screamed and we shot down the runway, hurtling from stationery to rocket.
My ears popped as we traded concrete for open air.
The eleven-hour flight had commenced.
“Welcome on board this service to Nadi.” The captain’s drone dripped from the overhead speakers. “The current temperature at our destination is a humid twenty-seven degrees centigrade with a chance of rain closer to arrival. The flight today will take approximately ten hours and forty-five minutes. We encourage you to sit back, relax, and allow us to fly you to your destination in style.”
Style has nothing to do with it.
Reclining in my shitty economy class seat, I peered through the row and eyed the blonde. My glasses fogged a little, obscuring her until she glowed with a halo. I didn’t mean to glance her way. I should forget all about her.
But I couldn’t shake my interest.
Her side profile, as she bent over a tatty notebook, was as beautiful as front on. She was stunning, if not a little strange—the perfect paragon of sharp and shy.
I want to talk to her.
My legs bunched to stand. I swallowed with disbelief. What the hell?
The aircraft skipped with minor turbulence, wrenching the girl’s head up.
An air-hostess nudged my elbow as she darted up the aisle, dragging the trolley with scents of food. That solved my dilemma. I couldn’t go talk to her because I had to remain seated for the service and I wouldn’t go talk to her because I had no intention of spreading the bad luck I brought onto others.
I was better off alone.
It was the way it had to be.
End of bloody story.
Pressing the button to recline my chair, I gripped the hand-rails and closed my eyes. For the next eleven hours, I would forget about her, then disembark and never see her again.
I didn’t know it but the opposite was true.
Getting on that plane inexplicably tied our fates together.
The ending credits scrolled over my screen.
Stretching, I switched off the movie, removed my glasses, and rubbed my eyes. I didn’t know exactly how much time had passed, but I’d eaten (extremely crappy airplane food), I’d watched two movies (nothing to gush about) and I’d stolen a few more looks at Unknown Girl across the plane (okay, more than just a few).
I hadn’t forgotten my pledge to forget about her, but the tiredness of a long journey, coupled with the dark gloom of the cabin, didn’t put me in the best of moods. The darkness reminded me too much of the place I’d lived in before escaping to America. The loud hum of engines irritated me to the point of violence.
I didn’t want anything to do with the girl across the aisle.
So why do you keep looking at her?
I was happier on my own. Being on my own meant I didn’t have to answer to anyone, share my past, or worry about their reaction to who I truly was.
Dad had told me time and time again that one day my need for space would be trumped by the perfect woman.
He didn’t have a damn clue.
I didn’t want to find love. I wasn’t worthy of finding love.
I’d seen what Mum’s death did to him. He’d become hollow. A father with no spark. A man with no happiness.
I could handle being on my own.
Why would I ruin that by weakening myself and handing over my heart to a woman who could crush me?
I stole another look at Unknown Girl. She’d scooped her hair into a ponytail and slicked pink lipstick on her very kissable mouth.
Tearing my eyes away, I yanked on my headphones.
Goddammit, what was it about her that interested me?
Who is she?
Pity fate couldn’t talk. If it could, I would’ve heard the reply:
She’s your beginning.
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