Read the first chapter of Book 1, Strangers on This Road below, or download a free sample to your Kindle.
A handsome and mysterious stranger—an impulsive charade—an undercurrent of unease.
It all started kind of dramatically.
Which made sense, really, because by the time it was over everything I knew had dramatically shifted. In a moment my ordinary, uncomplicated world was flipped upside down by something I never saw coming. A menace was building, hovering just out of sight, waiting to pounce.
Things I counted on as truth crumbled into oblivion, and new truths took their places. Strangers became more important than people I’d known for years, abruptly entering my sphere and causing a rapid chain of events with lifelong consequences.
When I was finally aware of what was happening, it was already all around me.
So the fact that I was blindsided from the moment it began is pretty damn appropriate.
* * *
My morning began conventionally enough. I had the day off, which meant I woke up, went to a café, had a latte and headed out on my usual circuit around the Casino headland. I tried to make a habit of the walk, the only way I’d get even minimal air and exercise before I settled in front of my computer for the afternoon. (In my spare time I was attempting to be a music writer and blogger, though after a day of “writing” I usually ended up producing either nothing or long personal emails.) It was late morning, after eleven, and a Tuesday. I wasn’t an early riser when I didn’t have to be anywhere.
I was eighteen years old, lived in Avalon, California, worked at the Von’s market and rented a tiny studio apartment. I liked my cashier job, and I liked living on the island. I’d been there—in Avalon and at Von’s—for nine months, part of a yearlong work program designed to get young employees into jobs at local businesses. The Catalina Island economy depends heavily on tourism, and they always need servers, maintenance staff, tour guides, that kind of thing.
I’d circled the Casino building and was strolling down the gentle slope of the road back toward town. The chilly spring morning was no match for my worn, snug corduroy jacket and jeans. I enjoyed the feeling of the breeze tossing my hair, cooling my face, waking me up. It was another perfect day, sunny and windy, whitecaps frothing on the little waves coming into the harbor, blue skies and clean air. Catalina’s far enough away from Los Angeles to avoid being plagued by any of the smog that lingers over a lot of southern California.
I’m kind of amazed to realize how carefree I was as I walked along the shore path, with no sense of the danger ahead. Nobody was waiting for me to come home, which might sound depressing in another context, but I didn’t look at it that way. I didn’t have to be anywhere, wasn’t supposed to be doing anything. My life was my own to live as I pleased; at that moment, I really hadn’t a care in the world. It didn’t last long.
I stopped about halfway along the curve of Casino Way, as I always did, to turn and admire the big white building behind me one final time from that vantage point. My eyes skimmed appreciatively over the restful harbor dotted with sailboats and small yachts, my mind on nothing in particular. As I turned back, I vaguely noticed two men about twenty yards away, approaching me along the walkway, coming from town. I didn’t pay much attention to them as I started ambling again.
Then one of the men waved.
He very distinctly waved as if greeting someone he knew. Someone he expected to see. His hand came up, confidently acknowledging my presence there.
I felt a little surprised, but continued to walk toward them, not hurrying, resisting the impulse to look behind me to check if there was someone else on the path. I’d just done that and nobody was anywhere in sight. The road stretched open and empty all the way to the Casino, with cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. Assuming he wasn’t crazy or hallucinating or both, I was pretty certain he was purposefully waving at me.
I have a hard time being rude to strangers unless they scare or annoy me, and Avalon is a friendly kind of place—everyone exchanges polite hellos. Though his pointed gesture was a bit odd, I couldn’t just ignore him. I waved back sort of half-heartedly. The way you do if you’re hoping that, if there’s some mistake, you can regain your coolness by pretending you were just scratching your chin or something.
The guy grinned—he was about ten yards away now, maybe less.
That’s when I noticed that he was incredibly good-looking. I mean really, impossibly good-looking. I gasped to myself.
Once I registered that this man was gorgeous, my usual response would have been reluctant admiration and extreme wariness. Experience had taught me that the hotter a man was, my respect, liking and interest would be equivalently low—that is, if he even noticed me at all. It was an unfair prejudice, I realize that. Probably if I’d been better looking myself I would have had a different opinion.
Experience had not prepared me for an extremely handsome man who grinned affectionately at me as we rapidly approached the point where we’d bump into each other. I couldn’t take my eyes off him—which is such a cliché but unfortunately totally accurate. I couldn’t even spare a glance for his companion. Out of my peripheral vision I observed that he wasn’t young or good-looking, ergo there was no point in wasting the effort. The handsome guy had springy black hair and white teeth and his fair skin was tanned. His features were classic and masculine. His body was fit and compact.
He was, simply, beautiful.
I wasn’t wearing sunglasses, so unless I could pull it together and look away he was about to see me ogling him. I hoped (faintly) that I could achieve that feat before I completely embarrassed myself. But before I could tear my eyes from him, he said, “There you are, love!” in a voice with some kind of British-like accent, stepped in front of me, wrapped an arm around my shoulders and kissed me on the lips.
It sounds really thrilling, really romantic. I would have assumed it was if it happened to someone I knew or I read about it. In reality it wasn’t romantic at all. It was surreal and startling. I barely had time to notice a couple of things while my mind was screaming “WHAT? WHAT??!”
First of all, even though it wasn’t romantic and I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, exactly, the kiss wasn’t bad. He didn’t slobber on my face or attempt to stick his tongue anywhere. His lips were warm and soft but not wet. I felt an instant of gratitude that I hadn’t just eaten an onion bagel. Followed quickly by gratitude that he hadn’t, either.
It wasn’t a long kiss, as kisses go. A sort of hello-kiss, lasting maybe five or six seconds. I didn’t have time to consider what reaction would be best—to be offended, to feel scared, to kiss back… One of my hands had immediately flown up to brace against his chest, though I wasn’t trying to push him away. It was instinct, the need to hold onto something in a fantastic situation. The material of his jacket was rough against my hand.
He pulled back and looked at me. I wondered if he’d mistaken me for someone else, and if so, what he would say when he realized his mistake. Or if it was one of those embarrassing shows where something weird happens and they tape your reaction.
His right arm was still around me, but not in a restraining way, just draped comfortably around my back keeping our bodies close. I smelled him, then. A good smell. Not aftershave or cologne—just fresh, clean man. Man-smell can be quite potent, just as woman-smell can be even for those of us not attracted to women. I’ve encountered a few women who just naturally smell really good, and always secretly hoped that I did, too. Best of all is baby-smell. Very few people can resist fresh baby-smell.
For another few seconds I became distracted by this guy’s appealing scent—and by the pair of deeply blue eyes fringed with long, thick black lashes staring intently into mine from about seven inches away. I’d never seen eyes so deeply blue, so intensely sapphire. I stared back, hypnotized by the color and depth, until I slowly registered what the eyes were communicating.
He wasn’t crazy, and he didn’t think I was someone else. That much was clear from his very sane, very direct gaze. My other theory was out, too: there were no cameras anywhere in sight, nobody shouting “Gotcha!” Just the stunning man who’d kissed me and his negligible companion.
“I’m glad to find you,” he said, grinning again. “I wondered if I’d lost you for good this time.”
I had no idea what was going on, but his hand was pressing my back in a meaningful way, and his eyes kept flashing a message. I don’t claim to be the brightest bulb that ever shone, but this gorgeous person clearly wanted me to play along. I wasn’t going to make it easy for him, but I figured I’d go with it. At least until someone looked like abducting me.
Until I felt afraid for my safety, I really couldn’t complain about being embraced by this guy.
“Uh. Nope,” I agreed.
Apparently I pleased him; the blue eyes shone warmly.
“Good,” he murmured, and kissed me again.
This time it was nicer, because I wasn’t so surprised, but even more brief. He turned toward his companion, still addressing me. “We were looking for you. Love, this is Neville Prescott. Neville’s visiting for the day off one of the cruise ships.”
Tuesday usually meant there was a cruise ship docked out in the harbor, stopping on its way to Mexico or wherever.
“Hello,” I said politely, forcing myself to really look at Neville for the first time.
He was a thin, amiable-looking man in his late-forties or early-fifties, I guessed. His hair was sandy with streaks of gray, he was tall and thin, wearing a sort of tweedy suit. Definitely the kind of person who would blend easily into a crowd. He raised one eyebrow ironically, and I suddenly sensed a keenness behind the mild, colorless eyes.
It struck me that he was watching us very carefully. Too carefully—it didn’t match his casual expression. He held out a thin, freckled hand, which I shook briefly.
“Pleasure to meet you, Miss…?” he said. His accent was pure Oxford, or at least that’s the way I labeled it to myself.
“Elaine,” I supplied helpfully. I was guarded enough not to give either of these guys my real last name, but wasn’t up to making one up that quickly. Nobody in my generation uses last names anyway.
“A great pleasure,” Neville repeated. “Your charming fiancé was just telling me about you. We had some trouble tracking you down.”
“Did you?” I said. “I just walked around the Casino.”
“Always wandering off,” my “fiancé” said softly, sounding amused. I stared him down.
“You can’t wander very far off in Avalon,” I protested, and the guy with his arm around me laughed.
“True,” he said.
Apparently my comment was acceptable, because the hand on my shoulder gave me an approving squeeze. I thought it was approving, anyway, since if I’d said something wrong he could just as easily have pinched me.
“Well, now that we’re all together, may I treat you nice young people to lunch?” Neville asked. His voice was bland.
“Thank you, but we couldn’t impose,” my new fiancé said politely. I still hadn’t quite placed his accent. Not quite British, definitely not Scottish… Maybe Irish? I couldn’t be sure, it sounded like a blend of things, unlike the other man’s.
“Nonsense. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Neville insisted genially.
All of a sudden I was frightened.
Maybe I should have felt fear before this, but somehow a young man pretending to be my fiancé, complete with affectionate kisses, hadn’t worried me much. Of course I wasn’t about to get into a car with him, but I instinctively felt he didn’t mean me any harm, whatever his game was. I wasn’t easily won over by a pretty face, so I knew my trust had nothing to do with the fact that he was so handsome.
There was just something about him I felt I could depend on, even without knowing why he needed me to play along with his lie. I might not completely trust his motives, but I didn’t fear him.
What frightened me was the other man. Neville. He was too—I didn’t know how to describe it to myself. His pretended unconcern conflicted strangely with the concentrated interest in his cold eyes. I just felt menaced, somehow. In the face of it, I unconsciously drew a little closer to the young man. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him glance at me.
Neville raised an eyebrow, waiting for a response. Definitely creepy.
“Well, that’s very kind of you,” said my nameless fiancé (I was starting to get a little desperate to know who he was). “What do you say, Elaine?”
“Whatever you’d like to do,” I said agreeably.
This was his party, after all. I didn’t want to go to lunch with Neville-the-scary-cruise-ship-guy, but I didn’t see how I was or we were going to get out of it at this point. I supposed we could fake another lunch date or I could pretend to be sick, but I didn’t know enough about the situation to take the lead. Plus I was probably looking disgustingly healthy from my walk in the cool air; I have that sort of blooming complexion that’s rosy when I feel good and green when I don’t.
Nameless Guy must have wondered if I had friends, family, somebody waiting for me somewhere—at least I sensed some speculation in his pause. I met his gaze impassively; other than beingweirded out by Neville, I had no reason not to go along with it. A free lunch isn’t anything to sneeze at when you’re a broke teenager.
“Then we’d be pleased to accept,” said my nameless fiancé, his tone expressing just the right amount of embarrassed gratitude. “How about Antonio’s, just down the road? It’s a landmark, everyone has to eat there at least once.”
For some reason it struck me that Neville wouldn’t like Antonio’s. It wasn’t his scene—pizza and Bloody Marys and peanut shells on the floor. I loved the place myself, and was even thinking about applying to work there when my year at Von’s ended. I wondered if that was the reason my “fiancé” chose it, to discompose our host.
“Sounds delightful,” Neville agreed smoothly. “Shall we go there now?”
“By all means,” said the young man, and turned, his arm still around me, to lead us down the road.
* * *
The reason I was living on my own on an island at eighteen, instead of going to college or something like that, was—simply put—my father. We’d had it out for the last time the day after I graduated from high school, and that afternoon I left home for good. It makes me sound really brave and rebellious, but I’m not. I’m actually scared of sharks, the dark, spiders, scorpions, cults, murderers and, first and foremost, my father’s biting sarcasm. But desperation can inspire courage in the meekest of souls, which I’m not, and my situation was desperate.
We’d never gotten along, he and I. I was fifteen when my middle brother, Paul, left home to go to college in San Diego. After that things just got unbearable. Nothing I did was right; if I got A’s they should have been A-plusses. If I got A-plusses, which I did sometimes, I should have taken more advanced placement classes. The twenty-three hundred I got on my SATs should have been a twenty-four hundred. He was distant, cold and impossible to please.
By the time I was sixteen I’d stopped trying, finally accepting that it was a losing battle. I didn’t really know what my dad’s problem with me was. He adored my oldest brother, Jake, who never once got straight A’s. More like straight B’s with a few C’s thrown in, according to Paul anyway. Jake was on the track team, though, a star athlete. Paul and my dad never got along either, but he was a boy and that helped, I guess.
I was out of luck, whatever the reason. Any time he saw me (and believe me, I kept out of his way as much as I could), I could count on sarcastic comments about my social life, lack of intelligence or ambition, ingratitude… They’re not worth writing down. The more he persisted, the more sullen my answers would become, and his temper would suddenly snap in a burst of accusations and insults. I hate drama, but I hate being criticized and patronized even more. Our fights were ugly and brief—and happened just about any time we had a conversation, even though any kind of confrontation makes me sick. I’d be sick, but at least I tried to stand up for myself.
School and work gave me an excuse to not be present for meals, or on weekends. When I was home I usually disappeared into my room, my safe haven in the big, cold house. Paul, and sometimes Jake, would come home for holidays, and then my dad would ignore me.
My mom wasn’t around after I turned twelve. She’d always been depressed, and finally went to a therapist and discovered that she wanted to travel. From then on she traveled the world by herself. My dad accepted it. They were still together, and he paid for all her trips. I don’t pretend to get their relationship. She didn’t come home to Belmont much, stopping through once every year or so. She had already hit every continent a couple of times when I left.
My dad was stinking rich, there are no other words for it. He inherited all this money from his parents, plus a bunch of Bay Area real estate. His job in Silicon Valley paid really well, too, and he got out ahead of the dot-com crash with a hefty retirement package. He used to brag about his money market accounts, but what teenage girl pays attention to that kind of crap? The point is, my parents were rolling in money, which is why my mom could travel to not be depressed and my dad could sit around and bitch at his kids all day.
I wasn’t rich growing up, though. I mean I slept in a nice bed and had plenty of food, but I had no allowance until I earned it, that was the rule. So I started babysitting when I was thirteen, got a job at Round Table when I was fourteen and worked in pretty much all my spare time. I had a fair amount saved by the time I finished high school. Not enough to pay for college, but enough to get me to southern California and keep me fed and housed while I waited for my first Von’s paycheck.
The final break happened over money. My dad told me he wasn’t paying for me to go to college—to Stanford. He insisted I apply there, even refused to give me the application fee for any other schools, and since I felt pretty apathetic about college in general, I dutifully applied to Stanford and got accepted. I would have started there in fall—but there was no way I was going to take out school loans in the tens of thousands for the privilege.
To be accurate, my dad said he would pay up front for my tuition and housing fees, but only as a loan—with the same interest any other company would charge. He said he didn’t trust me not to waste my life and he didn’t deserve to get stuck with the bill for my lack of direction and ambition. It was only fair, he claimed, though what fairness had to do with any of it was beyond me.
Did he dish out the money for my brothers’ college tuition? You bet he did. Why not mine? Paul thought he was trying to prove a point, and maybe that was true in part. I think in some bizarre way my father felt I failed him because I didn’t fail him. I got in. I succeeded where Jake, his golden boy, let him down, where even the less-favored Paul didn’t live up to my dad’s hopes.
So having me, his third and least favored child—and a girl, no less—achieve what my brothers hadn’t, brought back all the disappointment he originally felt that Paul and Jake didn’t follow in his footsteps. I shouldn’t have been accepted to Stanford, and because I was he wanted to punish me by refusing to pay. I’m not sure if that was really his motivation, but I can’t imagine what else it might have been. Underneath all his blustering and bossing, maybe he secretly hoped I couldn’t cut it, and would end up at some community college somewhere. That would fit neatly into his expectations and predictions, of which he’d made no secret over the years.
I should have seen it coming. I mean, he didn’t even respond when I told him that I’d been accepted. No celebration dinner, no word of validation or congratulations. I was hurt—for the very last time. Any spark of lingering hope that this would somehow win his approval died, never to ignite again.
Things between us only got worse in the ensuing weeks, but I held out as I finished my senior year. On the afternoon after my graduation when he coolly informed me that I’d owe him four years’ tuition plus interest—we’re talking big money, here, it was my breaking point. It had to be reached sooner or later. I always knew that. I was actually kind of surprised it hadn’t happened sooner. Maybe it was just the base unfairness that finally got me.
So I said, “Screw it, I’m not getting myself into debt for an elitist, overpriced school that turns out dickheads like you,” and left home ten minutes later. It was satisfying that—for once—I got the last word. He was choked with fury the last time I saw him, just before I ran out of the room.
I didn’t have much to take with me. For five years I’d been buying my own clothes at thrift stores and basically lived in three pairs of jeans, a battered corduroy jacket, sneakers, boots, three sweaters and twelve shirts. My pajamas were an old t-shirt Jake left behind and my former P.E. shorts, which had gotten too short to wear anywhere but bed. I quickly stuffed these in a duffel bag along with my small iPod, my laptop (I’d bought both for myself), my twenty or so favorite books and my hair brush and got myself a Greyhound ticket to L.A., leaving that night.
L.A. just seemed like the right place for a teenage runaway to go. I was seventeen at the time, so technically a runaway. My dad didn’t report it or anything, though. Maybe he was relieved as I was that the drama was finally over.
I ended up going through L.A. to San Diego and staying with Paul for a month. Paul probably let my dad know I was there. I never asked.
He let me rant, calmed me down, helped me find and apply to the program in Avalon. Without one moral qualm, he easily forged my dad’s signature where a guardian had to sign and I was accepted right away. I might have considered staying in San Diego and going to junior college, except the whole idea of school had completely soured on me at that point. I didn’t see why I couldn’t save some more money and put it off for a year.
Paul drove me up to Long Beach and put me on the ferry, and I arrived in Avalon on the fifth of July. It was the fifth of April when I met the blue-eyed man.
* * *
So there we were, the three of us, Neville and my nameless fiancé and me, walking down Casino Way to Crescent Avenue on our way to Antonio’s. I listened to Neville and Nameless Guy, who lightly held my hand, make small talk about the cruise ship, thinking rapidly. My fiancé seemed determined to control the conversation for the moment, and Neville seemed just as glad to let him do it. That worried me, for one. They discussed the stops the ship would make after it left Avalon tomorrow morning.
Another thing I was concerned about was the fact that I was a local. I knew my “fiancé” wasn’t; I mean, Avalon isn’t big enough for a guy like that to walk around and not be noticed by the female population. And for whatever reason, psychic waves or just plain old common sense, I assumed that he either was or was supposed to be a tourist rather than a resident, and therefore I was, too.
Given that, it would be distinctly odd if everybody we passed greeted me—a passing visitor—by name, or stopped and asked me about the latest special on canned beans. Avalon is a town of three thousand people; we all get to know each other pretty well, pretty fast. Not to mention I worked at the only supermarket.
With these things on my mind, along with the fact that I still didn’t know Mr. Dreamy’s name, it was easier to remain silent until someone actually addressed me. Just as we got to the door of the restaurant, Nameless Guy did.
“You’re awfully quiet, love,” he said softly.
“Oh, just daydreaming,” I said offhandedly. I could sense he needed me to talk more, I just didn’t know what to say. “This place is great,” I told Neville. “I hope you like pizza.”
“Who doesn’t?” he asked satirically. I assumed he was trying to make me feel stupid.
“You’d be surprised,” I retorted. In my years at a pizza parlor, I’d learned that some people really don’t like pizza. And are not afraid to tell you just how much.
Blue Eyes looked amused, but didn’t say anything.
I was nervous as we waited for the host to approach, glancing around at the other customers to see if I recognized anybody. All it would take would be one revealing greeting to give the game away—their game, now suddenly my game as well. It was a relief when I saw the host was a guy I didn’t know, someone hired fairly recently. He’d seen me around and looked mildly curious when he saw my companions, but made no comment. He led us to a booth against the windows, looking out on the harbor. It was early enough that the lunch rush hadn’t started, but the place was starting to fill up with both locals and visitors.
I slid into one side of the booth, my devoted fake boyfriend right behind me, and Neville sat across from us. I had a momentary flicker of self-consciousness, wishing that I was better dressed. I normally wouldn’t have cared, but I also normally didn’t hang out with attractive men. I hadn’t put on any makeup, not even my usual swipes of mascara and lip gloss, my shoulder-length hair was roughly tousled from the wind, and under my worn brown jacket I wore a faded green t-shirt with a cracked vintage logo. There wasn’t anything I could do about it now, so I shrugged it away and brought my attention back to the matter at hand.
We looked at our menus, though I knew the thing by heart.
“Should we start with something to drink?” Neville asked.
I realized with a jolt that if we were vacationing, we’d probably be drinking. The only problem was, of course, that I wasn’t old enough. I saw Blue Eyes eying me, trying to guess my age. I couldn’t imagine it was all that important, but I thought I might get away with ordering a beer. I’d done it before a few times. The trick was to sound like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
“A Corona for me, please,” I said calmly.
“Same here,” said Blue Eyes. “You, Neville?”
“Oh, I think I’ll have a Bloody Mary. I hear they’re the house special.”
We hadn’t told him that, but it was pretty common knowledge.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to smile naturally. “I’m still recovering from our last round.”
The waitress came up, a girl I did know slightly. I tensed and ignored her. Luckily she was smart enough to read my distant glance and bored expression and said nothing to acknowledge me. I saw her eyes slide to Blue Eyes and widen. This worked to my advantage, because whether dazed by his looks or simply not paying attention, she accepted his order for two Coronas without any reaction at all. I owed her big time.
“So, how did you two meet?” Neville asked. His face had that bland expression I didn’t like.
“The usual way,” Blue Eyes said casually.
“In a bar,” I put in helpfully.
Neville raised his eyebrow again.
“How charming,” he commented. “Where?”
“San Francisco,” I said quickly, I hoped not too quickly. “I’m from South San Francisco, and I was staying with friends up there.”
I hoped I hadn’t put my foot in it, but there are a lot of Irish people in San Francisco. And a lot of them hang out in bars. Chances were my new friend had been there at least once, while there was no way I could flub through pretending to have visited New York or Ireland. Not that I’d ever spent much time in any bars anywhere, but at least I knew San Francisco well.
“Paddy O’Rourke’s,” Blue Eyes said quietly, then smiled sweetly at me. I blinked. O’Rourke’s is a famous Irish bar in the city, so my instincts had been right.
“How nice. And you’ve been engaged for how long?”
“Not very,” my fiancé said. He took my bare left hand gently in his. “We haven’t had a chance to get the ring sized yet, as you can see.”
“Ah, I wondered,” said Neville.
I wasn’t wrong: he had been watching carefully. Too carefully. It creeped me out.
I was glad to be distracted when the waitress, Joanne, brought us the drinks. She put a beer down in front of me without meeting my eyes and asked us if we were ready to order.
“What do you recommend?” Neville asked me. I felt a little discomposed, as if he’d caught me out in being a regular.
“We had the tomato and basil pizza the last time we came in,” Blue Eyes lied smoothly. “I think I’ll get that again.” Weirdly enough, it was my favorite item on the menu.
“Split?” I asked, weaving my fingers through his in what I hoped was a fiancée-ish way.
“Of course,” he said, then kissed my nose.
Heady stuff. If I hadn’t been so confused and irrationally terrified, I might have been having a really good time with this guy.
We ordered, Neville getting—improbably, it seemed to me—a meatball sub, us the pizza. A low ringing noise sounded just then, and Neville pulled out a slick smart phone, the source of the noise.
“Excuse me, I need to answer this,” he said crisply. His voice sounded different, very unlike the neutral, easy tones he’d been putting on (I was sure) for our benefit.
The question was, why? Why the charade on either side? Who were these guys? And what could they possibly need or want with me? Assuming, of course, that this wasn’t an elaborate ruse involving white slavery or something.
Neville got up and walked quickly toward the front of the restaurant, answering his phone as he walked. I heard him say “Yes, what is it?” in a distinctly annoyed way before he was out of earshot. We waited without speaking until we saw him disappear out the front door.
I turned to my companion purposefully. His face caught me off guard; he was serious, more serious than I’d yet seen him, but his eyes were charmingly rueful.
“You are absolutely sensational,” he said in a low voice.
Now what female can resist that kind of thing? It was hardly fair. And his eyes were just so blue…
“Oh… thanks,” I said, momentarily dazed. “Wait, what’s your name?” I hissed.
He laughed lightly.
“Aiden Kinnear,” he said. “And you are…?”
“Elaine Parker. Nice to meet you.”
“Elaine, you’ve been a heroine in ways I can’t even begin to describe at this moment,” Aiden said rapidly. “I can only ask that you continue this through lunch, and then I promise you won’t see me again.”
Now that didn’t sound very nice at all, drat him. I didn’t stop to analyze why his promise bothered me so much. Though it was gratifying to be called a heroine.
“Oh,” I said vaguely. “Okay. Though I wouldn’t mind knowing what’s going on.”
“I know. If I could tell you… Just trust me, will you?”
I probably would have agreed to bear Aiden’s twelve children if he asked me the right way. He was clearly intelligent, gave a reassuring impression of reliability and moved and spoke with a diffidence that added to his attractiveness, rather than lessened it. I was probably being a lot more naïve than I should have been, but rational or not, trusting him at this point wasn’t a problem.
Suddenly he leaned close to me, his breath tickling my ear.
“He’s coming back,” he murmured. “Just do exactly what you’ve been doing.” His voice was barely audible, just the slightest whisper. I gave a tiny nod, and he slipped his arm around me again.
“I adore you,” he said fervently at a normal volume, just as Neville appeared at the table. I leaned over to kiss Aiden’s cheek, feeling the older man’s eyes on us.
“I know,” I said comfortably.
“What were you two lovebirds whispering about?” Neville asked in a hearty voice. He was acting the part, of that I was completely convinced. Heartiness vied awkwardly with his cold, wary eyes.
“The wedding,” I purred. “We can’t agree on anything except that it’s going to be soon. I’m for Vegas, but Aiden’s a traditionalist.”
“I like the idea of a church wedding,” he said, exactly as if he’d said it to me a dozen times. I grimaced.
“Ew. No way.”
“What am I going to do with you?” Aiden sighed.
“Make an honest woman of me,” I suggested coyly. I was being obnoxious, really disgusting myself, but Aiden seemed to appreciate it. His eyes twinkled in a distracting way.
“That will be absolutely no problem,” he said.
Our audience was silent, and I couldn’t tell if he was buying it or not. Or gagging. But after all, he was the one who called us “lovebirds.” Barf.
“Forgive me,” Neville said, after our food had been set down, “but do you mind if I ask how old you are, Elaine? You seem a trifle young to be getting married.”
“I’m twenty-one,” I lied. “It isn’t that young.”
“But Aiden, you have to be, what, thirty? A bit of an age difference there.”
I hadn’t really thought about how old my supposed fiancé was. He certainly wasn’t middle-aged.
“I’m nearer thirty than twenty,” he admitted. “But Elaine’s mature for twenty-one.”
That was true, at any rate. I was mature for my age.
“I had to grow up kind of quickly,” I said, hoping it might sound plausible. I took a bite of pizza and swallowed it with a swig of beer.
“So, why did you choose this particular cruise?” Aiden asked our host, once again taking control of the conversation.
“Oh, it just seemed the thing to do,” Neville said, shrugging slightly.
“Have you been to Avalon before?” I asked, trying to help.
“No. Have you?”
“Once, when I was little. It’s a very romantic place.”
Neville ate his meatball sub in a series of quick small bites. I had to remind myself not to stare, but I was fascinated. He only took one or two sips from the gargantuan Bloody Mary. I wasn’t especially hungry, managing to worry down one slice of pizza and about half my beer. Aiden calmly ate three slices and finished both Coronas.
“And what do you do for a living, Elaine? Or are you in school?” Neville asked.
“Not right now. I’m between things at the moment,” I said ambiguously and not entirely untruthfully.
“And you’re in Switzerland as well?”
“Yes,” I lied bravely, fighting the impulse to glance at Aiden. “I’d move wherever Aiden is.”
“What about you, Neville?” Aiden asked in his composed way. When I snuck a quick look at him, his face was calm. “Where are you working these days?”
“Oh, here and there. Like Elaine, I’m rather between things. And how is your lunch?” he inquired politely, unconvincingly.
“Wonderful. Thank you again for treating us,” Aiden said.
“My pleasure. The food here is quite good, I must say. You never know what to expect from places with more ambience than artistry on the menu, but the ingredients were clearly fresh and the uses of spices quite subtle. After living some time in Italy, I find American interpretations of Italian cuisine fascinating. The variations on flavors can be innovative, but so often the purity of the flavors is lost in translation, so to speak.”
Aiden and I smiled politely at the joke, since we sort of had to. I was both relieved and bewildered at our host’s sudden flow of culinary chatter.
“A pizza in Naples, for instance,” he went on smoothly, “is barely a second or third cousin to the ‘margherita’ version found on menus in the US.”
Apparently the ordeal was over. Neville continued to go boringly on about Italian food for a few minutes (I didn’t listen very hard), paid the bill as soon as Joanne brought it over, then excused himself.
“I’m afraid I have to get back to the ship,” he explained. “A great pleasure to meet you, Elaine. Thank you both for helping me while away my time so pleasantly during my short stay,” he said fake-heartily, as we rose and made our way out of the restaurant.
“A shame that you won’t be seeing more of the island while you’re here,” Aiden commented, his voice still casual.
“No, I won’t have time to see any more. Well, best of luck.”
He briefly shook our hands and immediately strode away. We stood outside the restaurant, watching him, Aiden’s hand resting lightly on my shoulder.
“That was… interesting,” he said.
Want to read more? Purchase the ebook for the promotional price of $2.99 on your Kindle, Prime members borrow for free!