Always, Book 1
Cherie M Hudson
Australia was not what I was expecting. Sure, I hadn’t even made it out of the airport, but still, where were the kangaroos? The koalas? Where were the hot guys walking around in Speedos? Where were the Tim Tams? Didn’t those delicious chocolate cookies fall from the sky over here? I’m sure I’d read that somewhere? Or maybe I’d dreamt it.
I must admit, the second I’d learned I’d won my college’s scholarship to study Environment Studies abroad—and by abroad, I mean a gazillion miles away from Plenty, Ohio, my hometown and the only world I’d ever known—I’d been experiencing weird dreams about Australia.
In one, I was dating a kangaroo that sounded like Chris Hemsworth. I remember waking in the morning stroking my pillow with the words “You had me at g’day,” whispering through my head. In another dream, a shark called Bruce kept trying to take a bath with me.
See what I mean? Weird dreams. I chalked them up to nerves. Winning the scholarship, partly funded by Plenty’s only college, partly funded by the University of Sydney, was a double-edged sword.
On one razor-sharp side there was the awesomeness of winning the scholarship in the first place. Mind you, winning makes it sound like luck had something to do with it, which it didn’t. Hard work, long hours studying, zero time socializing, movies missed, days and days researching, so many days I sometimes forgot what the sun looked like. That’s what earned me the scholarship. That, and my passion for the environment.
I’m what my folks call a tree-hugging greenie. Well, my mom calls me that. My dad—who had grown up in Australia and moved to the US when he met Mom during a vacation in LA—has been dead for over three years now. Killed when a drunk driver ran off the road and struck him and our dog as they were jogging.
I was a tree-hugging greenie wrapped up in the unassuming guise of a twenty-two-year-old hometown girl who still had bangs and wore pigtails on the weekend. Who still ate peanut butter straight from the jar and loved watching Sleepy Hollow and Glee when she wasn’t studying environmental degradation and its impact on wildlife the world over.
On the other even sharper side of the damn blade was the fact I had to fly a whole day to get to Australia. Did I mention I’d never been outside of Plenty? I did mention a drunk driver killed my dad and my dog only a few years ago, right? Leaving my mom a widow?
Did I mention my mom suffers from Parkinson’s disease?
Did I mention I do as well?
No on the last two, huh? Sorry about that.
Yeah, I’m a shaker. But I’ve got it under control. Good meds, meditation, tai chi, and did I mention good meds? Add them together and I’m okay. Mom, however, isn’t. And with me being on the other side of the world, who’s going to help her up when she falls down? Which she does. Often.
She told me to go, that’s why I’m here. She demanded I go. But being this far away from her… God, I don’t even…
Sorry. Didn’t mean to get maudlin. Long and short of it, Mom has Parkinson’s. She’s alone and I’m here because I’ve never seen her so proud as when I won that scholarship. How could I not go?
But now that I was here—and I was excited to be, I really was—where were the kangaroos? Even a stuffed one on a pedestal or something. And more to the point, where was my passport?
Oh my God, where was my passport? I was about to go through Australian customs in about twenty seconds and I couldn’t find my passport. It was in my bag on the plane. So where was it now?
I started at the deep, authoritarian command, and shot the man behind the counter a harried look.
I shook my head.
He raised his eyebrows and beckoned for me to approach.
I swallowed. Suddenly aware my fingers were shaking, I clenched my fist. Was it nerves? Or—
The customs official was now frowning at me. A prickling pressure at the back of my neck told me my fellow travelers were probably glaring. Why wouldn’t they be? I’d be glaring too at the idiot who was rooted to the spot and holding up the line that allowed you to enter the country you’d just flown over nineteen hours to get to.
I swallowed again. Cleared my throat. Squeezed my fist—crap, I really was shaking—and stepped forward.
The man behind the counter gave me an expectant look. “Passport?”
During the nineteen-hour flight over, I’d passed the time by imagining my first few moments in Australia. In my admittedly sleep-deprived fantasy, the customs official who granted me access would sound like the kangaroo I dated in my dreams. Yes, I will admit now, I have a thing for Chris Hemsworth. But how could I not? Have you looked at him? Is there a sexier, hotter guy on the planet? No, I don’t think so. Anyway, the customs official of my dreams would smile at me and tell me I looked amazing after such a long flight.
I didn’t, by the way. My hair was flat and greasy, my eyes were scratchy and puffy, and I’d managed to spill most of the coffee the flight attendant had given me somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, somewhere around three am, all over my shirt. Or maybe it had been two pm? Who the hell knew? Helpful tip if you’re planning on any long-haul flights—don’t wear a white T-shirt, no matter how cute you think you look in it. It’s a bad idea.
So, going back to my mid-flight fantasy… I’m greeted by a super-hot customs official who tells me I look amazing, just as a camera crew from one of those travel shows runs over and asks me if I mind being interviewed about being an American college student in Australia. Added to that, they also inform me Chris Hemsworth is in the airport and wonder if I’d like to meet him. He’s researching a role in a movie about the plight of the dingo in the outback and has read my paper about the environment and native animals online and wants to talk about it with me.
In that fantasy, I had my passport.
In reality, I had no idea where it was. God, how could I lose it between the plane and—
I gave the official—who didn’t appear inclined to say anything that sounded like “You look amazing”—a weak smile.
Would they arrest you in Australia for trying to enter the country without a passport? I suspect so. I opened my mouth. A sound that may or may not have been a strangled squeak emitted from my throat.
The official’s frown deepened. I couldn’t help but notice his right hand slipped under the counter.
“I’ve lost my passport,” I said, although I think I may have mouthed it. For some reason, my voice had disappeared. Maybe it was with my errant passport? Perhaps both were on their way to Paris?
The man behind the glass leaned forward. “Please repeat that, miss.”
“I’ve lost my passport,” I said again. Louder this time. With less silent asphyxiation.
His eyebrows shot up. “Since you boarded?”
My mind went blank. Oh God, I was doing an appalling job of representing the USA at this point in time. “Err,” I said. “Big plane. Had a… a kangaroo on the tail.”
The man’s forehead furrowed. “A Qantas plane?”
Relief flooded through me and I nodded, looking, I’m sure, like an unhinged bobble-head. “That’s it. Qantas.”
“So you’ve just disembarked a Qantas flight from…”
His silence told me I was meant to supply the answer. “Plenty,” I gushed. “I mean Dallas.”
Tears prickled at the backs of my eyes. I ached for Mom so badly my heart felt like it was being torn out of my chest. What the hell was I doing here? Where was my brain?
“I’m sorry.” I rubbed at my eyes with the backs of my hands. My vision went that special kind of blurry that happens when you put too much pressure on your eyeballs, and I blinked. I needed to get a grip. Or a passport. A passport would be nice.
I wondered for a stupidly surreal moment if the traveler behind me would let me borrow hers. Only until I actually got into Australia. Then she could have it—
“Are you Maci Rowling?”
A deep male voice with an obvious Australian accent caressed my tired, overwrought mind, and I jerked my head around, my heart pounding fast.
An elderly gent, who had to be at least ninety in the shade, was standing at my elbow, holding what looked to be an American passport in one hand. In his other, he held a cane. Truth be told, it was the cane doing most of the holding, keeping the gentleman vertical.
“I found it on the floor in the line a second ago,” he said, a friendly smile on his wrinkled face. “Think it might be yours.”
He was old and feeble and holding a passport.
And if he knew my name, it meant it was my passport.
What else could I do? I threw myself against his frail body in a massive hug.
Knocking him to the ground.
Three hours later, I was allowed into Australia.
It’s insane how long it takes to apologize sufficiently to an elderly gentleman you’ve just injured in your enthusiasm to thank him for finding your passport. Who knew it would be so easy to knock an eighty-two-year-old to the floor with a hug? I didn’t help that my hug was pretty… enthusiastic. Of course, after the poor old guy was taken away in a wheelchair, I received a rather stern lecture about my “enthusiasm” from the airport police. One of whom seriously looked like Russell Crowe. If Russell Crowe was fat. And older. And a woman. And after that I received an even sterner lecture about passport security from the same humorless officials.
Finally, with the public humiliation over and done with, I was allowed into the country.
Only to wait at the luggage carousel, watching it go round and round until I was the only person left, with no sign of my luggage on the conveyor belt.
Thirty minutes later, I accepted the fact that my luggage—with all my clothes, including my Victoria’s Secret bra and panties I’d saved for freaking months to buy just for this trip—wasn’t going to appear through the clear flappy-plastic opening in the wall.
I made my way to the service counter only to be informed the airline had no clue as to the current whereabouts of my suitcase.
“I’m very sorry,” the cheery attendant behind the counter said, beaming up at me. “We shall contact you as soon as we locate it. Welcome to Australia.”
Welcome to Australia? Yeah, right.
Suffice to say, I wanted to go home.
There and then.
So badly I actually pivoted on my heel to head back toward the customs counters. And then I stopped when I realized I was being silly.
Okay, confession time. I’m not exactly emotionally… stable. I mean, I’m not insane or anything. In fact, I’m quite intelligent and at times grounded—Mom’s word, not mine. But more often than not, I’m impulsive. I’m also sensitive, self-conscious, uncertain and… well, to put it bluntly—broken.
It happens. When you spend almost ten years of your life watching your mother slowly being devoured by a disease with no known cure, a disease that was robbing her of her ability to smile, her ability to cut her own food, button her own buttons, talk at a normal volume, have normal bowel movements—hell, have any kind of normal movement, even something as simple as blinking and swallowing—and you know one day that disease is going to do all those things to you, you get a little screwed up.
That’s what Parkinson’s disease does. It screws you. Messes with you. That’s what it’d done to my family, at least.
I had to tell people Mom wasn’t drunk at my father’s funeral, that it was just her muscles refusing to allow her to walk without staggering about because her brain was betraying her. That messed with me.
I’d sit opposite her nightly at the dinner table, on edge—terrified even—that her throat muscles would stop working halfway through her eating, causing her to almost choke to death, an event that had happened at least three times.
It was bad enough for me to learn my mom had Parkinson’s when I was twelve. Try being told when you’re twenty-one that you have the same disease.
I’d been living with early-onset Parkinson’s disease for a year now, and it wasn’t getting easier. Twenty-two was not meant to be like this, it was meant to be lived large, partying, meeting new people… not new doctors and specialists and medical-insurance representatives.
Jesus, I sound miserable, don’t I?
I’m not. Honest. I try to laugh about it. I tell Mom I’m racing her to complete neural shut-down. Whoever gets there first wins. And what does the winner get?
A complete loss of dignity and—
Holy shit, sorry. I truly didn’t mean to go there. It’s a bleak place, my self-pity, and I hate it. Let’s try not to go there again, okay?
I forced myself to turn back around, hitch my carry-on bag—containing a spare pair of panties, thank freaking God—farther up my shoulder, stride through the last stage of customs. I had no food to declare. No insects, reptiles, items made of wood or animal body parts. I passed over my declarations card to the smiling lady collecting them, and stepped through the gates and into the Sydney International Arrivals terminal, surrounded by excited people waiting for their loved ones.
It was then I realized I needed to pee. I hadn’t peed since somewhere over Hawaii.
Oh boy, did I need to pee.
And the second I acknowledged I needed to pee, the more I needed to go.
Searching frantically for the restroom sign, I spied what I thought was the ladies’ room and ran for it, head down, fist gripping the strap of my bag as if it were a lifeline to bladder relief.
So of course, when I slammed into something rock-solid but warm and firm as well, the first thing I thought was I was going to pee myself. Not, argh, I’ve just run into someone and I need to apologize.
I stumbled back a step, flinging the poor woman in my way a harried glance. And froze when that harried glance found not a poor woman, but a tall, broad-shouldered, stunningly hot—no, change that—stupefyingly hot, gorgeous guy with shaggy dark-brown hair hanging over equally dark-brown eyes so intense and beautiful and sexy and—
He wrapped strong fingers around my upper arms and steadied me before I could fall completely on my ass.
“Hey, I think you’re heading into the wrong loo.”
I gazed up at him and didn’t say a word. I’d’ve liked to have blamed sleep deprivation and jet lag for my ridiculous silence, but they weren’t the culprits.
The guy holding my arms, keeping me upright, was stunning. Gorgeous. Hot. Like a brown-haired, brown-eyed version of Chris Hemsworth. Only sexier.
I didn’t think that was even possible, but there you go. Tall, with a crooked grin that made my heart skip a beat and a goddamn divine body, all muscular and sculpted and perfectly proportioned with the broadest of shoulders, all wrapped up tight in a snug white T-shirt and snugger faded jeans.
And he had an Australian accent.
I gaped at him, my heart thumping in my throat.
“Can you speak?” he asked.
I caught my bottom lip with my teeth and shook my head.
His eyebrows shot up. “You can’t?”
“I can,” I blurted, nodding this time. Talk about being a mess of contradictions. “I’m just…” I paused, stopping myself from telling him I was falling in lust with him. Yeah, not exactly cool behavior. Gushing all over a complete stranger on the way to the bathroom? Welcome to Australia.
“I’m just… desperate,” I finished, ducking my head. I sounded like an idiot.
He gave a warm, friendly laugh. “To go to the loo?”
I peered up at him through my bangs. “Yeah.”
That crooked grin returned to his face. As before, it made my body do things I wasn’t entirely used to.
“You better go then.” He stepped aside and held an arm out, directing me deeper into the men’s restroom.
Oh my God, was I blushing? I shuffled my feet, frowning.
Devilment danced in his dark-brown eyes. “Something else you’re desperate for?”
Something else? Was he serious? A guy that looked like him, asking me what I wanted? If I were the brave, take-no-prisoners kind of girl, I’d tell him straight up. Something else I’m desperate for? Hell yeah, a kiss from you would be a start. But I wasn’t that kind of girl. I was a sleep deprived, jet lagged student with poor social skills and a disease that wasn’t exactly high on the sexy list. Of course, I wasn’t going to ask him for a kiss.
No matter how much the thought made my tummy flutter.
He studied me with a playful grin. “Going to tell me what it is?”
“A kiss.” The word fell past my lips before I could stop it.
My face went cold as the blood drained from it. And then hot as all that blood rushed back into my cheeks just as fast. Holy shit, had I really said that aloud?
“A kiss?” he repeated, lifting an eyebrow.
Oh God, I had said it aloud. I stared at him, once again dumbstruck. What was I doing? Was I really that tired? Had to be. Why else would I say something so… so… embarrassing? I couldn’t be flirting with him. I wasn’t any good at it. I was an environmentalist dork with Parkinson’s. As if I knew how to flirt.
Was I delusional? Was my brain finally betraying me compl—
Warm lips brushed over mine in a lingering caress of skin on skin. I would have melted on the spot… if it wasn’t for the fact I yelped in shocked disbelief and stumbled back a step.
Mr. Broad Shoulders laughed. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to freak you out.”
Just to make it clear before I continue, I’m not a virgin. I lost my virginity four nights after my sixteenth birthday, to my high school boyfriend—the quarterback, no less. How’s that for both an achievement and a cliché? But since I found out I have Parkinson’s, I’ve pretty much shut down any and all notion of romance. Who wants to get romantic with someone who’s going to be a shaky mess in a few years? I can’t imagine there are many guys out there willing to roll with that kind of burden, so I stopped putting myself out there. Which might explain my very active fantasy obsession with a married Australian actor, now that I think about it. Hmmm. Desire the impossible to substitute the denied. Makes sense, right?
I gaped up at my mysterious kisser—again. Heart beating way too fast, I pressed my fingers to my lips. “Why did you do that?”
“You asked.” His grin turned wickedly playful, hinting at a dimple in his right cheek, and he leaned a little closer to me, his brown eyes holding mine. “And you looked so damn sexy with your mussed-up hair and coffee-stained shirt.”
A wave of embarrassment flooded my face. I slapped my hand to my left boob, hurting myself in a rather ridiculous attempt to hide the stain he’d already pointed out. Why do we do that, by the way? Try to conceal something once it’s been pointed out? Like the way mining corporations plant rows of trees around the boundaries of their open-cut mines, as if some greenery will conceal the massive gaping wound gouged into the planet by their machinery.
His low chuckle drew a frown from me. “Are you mocking me?” I asked, a distant part of my mind telling me I still needed to use the bathroom.
“No. Honest. The second you ran into me, I wanted to kiss you.”
It was my turn to cock an eyebrow. I love that I can do that—it speaks volumes. Attitude from your waiter? Cock an eyebrow. Lip from your study partner? Cock an eyebrow. Absurd claim from a stranger in a public restroom? Cock an eyebrow.
“The second?” I echoed.
His lips twitched. Christ, he was hot. “Okay, maybe the second after the second. When you realized who you’d run into.”
Who I’d run into? Didn’t he mean where I’d run into? The men’s toilet rather than the ladies’?
He frowned in return. “You do know who I am, right?” he asked, curious conviction in his deep voice. Have I mentioned the sexy Australian accent? “That’s why you asked for the kiss. Because of the way my sister met the prince?”
My eyebrows shot up my forehead. I’d like to say I had a hand in their journey, but my brain was too busy being stunned by what I’d just heard for any conscious direction to body parts or facial features. What did he just say?
“Prince?” I echoed.
It was obvious I had no freaking clue what he was talking about. Clear enough for him to pull a grimace. A sexy grimace, if that’s possible to visualize.
“You don’t know who I am?”
I shook my head. Deep in the pit of my stomach, a twisting tension curled tighter. A sexual tension. Or maybe it was bladder tension, due to the fact I still hadn’t peed.
He let out an amused sigh, dragging his hands through his dark hair as he did so. “Fuck, ’eh? So you just asked for a kiss because…”
The question hung on the air between us, looking for an answer. One I couldn’t provide. What was I going to say? ’Cause you’re really, really hot? Instead, I said, “Who are you?”
He flashed me that lopsided grin again, let out another laugh and ducked his head. “No one important,” he said.
And then, before I could stop him, he closed the small distance between us, lowered his head to mine and kissed me again.
Longer this time.
Holy fuck, did he know how to kiss. He parted his lips, dipped his tongue into my mouth—when had my lips parted, I wonder?—and found mine with wicked ease, teasing it with a slow, lingering stroke.
The heat in the junction of my thighs fluttered and pulsed and throbbed in a way it never had before, and a soft little moan vibrated deep in my chest. Whoa.
And then someone cleared his throat behind us and I let out another yelp of surprise, this one a violent, full-body yelp involving jumping and spinning about.
A massive man wearing a dark blue suit and dark sunglasses was standing a few feet into the bathroom’s entryway looking at Mr. Broad Shoulders. “It’s time, Mr. Jones.”
Behind me, Mr. Broad Shoulders—correct that, Mr. Jones—uttered an almost inaudible “Fuck”.
He slid warm fingers up my arm, making me flinch, and I turned back to face him, completely mystified as to what the hell was going on.
“I have to go,” he said, a grin playing on his lips. Lips that only a second ago had been on mine. “I’ll make sure no one comes into the loo while you’re in there, okay?”
And without another word, he strode past me, past the man in the dark blue suit, and out into the airport terminal.
Leaving me standing in a public restroom that obviously wasn’t the ladies’, with the moisture of his kiss a cool memory on my lips.
I gaped at the man in the suit, waiting for an explanation.
It didn’t come.
The man pivoted on his heel and stood with his back to me, muttering something into his shirt cuff.
If that wasn’t a WTF moment, I don’t know what was.
I blinked. Took a step to follow the now-absent Mr. Jones—could that really be his name?—and was suddenly hit with the need to empty my bladder. Again. With all the force of a wrecking ball hitting an outhouse made of paper.
I let out a little cry, doubled over, rammed my thighs together and did that ridiculous sprint you do when you need to go to the bathroom in a hurry. The one where your knees are stuck together, your jaw is clenched shut and your hands are balled into fists.
I hit the door running, spun 180 degrees, slammed the door shut, locked it, dropped my bag, yanked down my jeans and panties in one go and made it without a second to lose.
If it weren’t for the man in the suit only a few feet away, I would have let out an ahhhh of relief.
But there was a man in a suit only a few feet away. A mysterious man who seemed to be connected to an even more mysterious man who’d kissed me because I’d asked him to.
What the hell was up with that?
A few minutes later, with the sound of the toilet flush a loud roar in the surreal silence, I emerged from the cubicle only to discover I was completely alone.
By the time I finished washing my hands, a string of men was pouring into the bathroom. They all balked at the sight of me just as they were about to approach the urinal, hands on flies. No one said anything.
With heat flooding my face yet again, I hightailed it out of there as quickly as I could. I tried not to look around for the mysterious Mr. Jones and the man in the blue suit, but how could I not? There was no sign of them anywhere.
That was probably a good thing. My first few hours in Australia hadn’t exactly gone to plan, and truth be told, if I did see Mr. Jones again, I’d probably make a fool of myself and ask him to kiss me again. It had been that good. I still had the tingles and a fluttering belly to prove it. But whoever he was, he was gone.
Life back to normal for me. Well, as normal as it could be given I was on the other side of the world from everything I knew and loved, in the country of my father’s birth without a single person I could call a friend and—
Okay, let’s stop right there and get off the self-pity bus. I was here, in Australia, about to start the most amazing experience of my student life. No need for dramatics.
Hitching up my bag, I took a deep breath, scanned the crowd one more time for any sight of Mr. Broad Shoulders and then headed out the exit. I had to catch a taxi to Sydney University, my home for the first half of my adventure.
Two steps outside, I was almost knocked over by a man running with a camera in his hand.
“Hey!” I protested, staggering to regain my footing. It was never fun to lose your balance, especially when the disease fighting to control your body liked to throw you off it just for shits and giggles.
The running man didn’t slow down. Nor did the one following him. Or the one after that.
Suddenly, it dawned on me there were lots of hurrying, rushing, sprinting men with cameras, all heading toward a stretch black limousine parked at the curb a few feet away. A limo that Mr. Broad Shoulders, AKA Mr. Jones, AKA my mysterious kisser, was now climbing into, the man in the blue suit guiding his head as he glared at the approaching wave of frenzied photographers.
Confused by it all, I frowned. Who the hell was this guy to deserve so much manic attention?
Camera flashes detonated around the limo. The photographers shouted. Most of the calls sounded like, “Oi, Raphael.” Which couldn’t be right. Who had a name like Raphael these days? The crowd around me surged forward, sirens wailed from somewhere nearby and then, in a moment of surreal calm amongst it all, a gap in the madness formed between me and the limo, and Mr. Broad Shoulders’ stare met mine.
Our gazes held, and in that gaze, an entire conversation took place:
I liked kissing you.
I liked being kissed by you.
Shame it had to end.
And then the man in the dark blue suit shoved the photographers backward and slammed the limo door shut, ending my ocular correspondence with Mr. Broad Shoulders, just like that.
The limo engine roared, the man in the blue suit hurled some rather unpleasant words at the horde and then pulled open the front passenger door and disappeared into the cabin.
A chorus of boos rose from the paparazzi—it’s safe to assume that’s what they were—although I still didn’t know who they were photographing. Someone famous, obviously.
Someone famous who’d kissed me. In the men’s restroom, no less.
I tracked the limo’s path as it sped past me and everyone else on the sidewalk, my tummy twisting and knotting and fluttering and generally being all manner of unsettled. It wasn’t until the limousine vanished around the sweeping bend a few yards away that I finally found my brain and grabbed the photographer nearest to me.
“Who was that?” I asked the sneering man trying to disengage my grip on his wrist.
“In the limo?”
“Yes,” I answered, trying not to sound agitated. Who else would I be talking about?
“You don’t know?”
I shook my head.
“That was Raphael Jones.” The man smirked.
But before I could finish asking who Raphael Jones was, the photographer had shaken off my hold and was hurrying away, studying the small screen on the back of his camera.
I stood and watched the dispersing photographers and crowd, racking my brain to find any clue as to why the name should mean anything worthy of such frenzied excitement.
I shrugged. “Must be an Australian celebrity.”
Deciding to google the guy when I finally made it to my campus accommodation (my iPhone wasn’t talking to the Australian network yet, damn it), I headed for the first available cab, climbed into the back and gave the driver the address I’d be staying at while I was a student of the University of Sydney.
The memory of Raphael Jones’s kiss sent a delicious little thrill through me and I wriggled deeper into my seat. So I’d been kissed by an Australian celebrity not even a few hours in the country. Not bad for a college dork from Plenty, Ohio, even if I do say so myself. It kind of made up for the otherwise dismal start to my adventure. Pity I was never going to see him again or I’d show him how an American girl did things.
Okay, maybe not, given how much of a twitchy, emotional wreck I was, but a girl can kick ass in her fantasies, can’t she? It’s not like I was going to see him again. Australia’s a big country, after all.
The first surprise was I had a room to myself. I’m not sure why, but I thought I was going to be sharing. When I arrived at Mackellar House, one of the campus dorms at the University of Sydney and my home for the first half of my time in Australia, the very perky, chirpy and all-round friendly Foreign Student Liaison Officer, Heather Renner, met me at the bottom of the front steps. Heather was taller than me—I’m only five foot four—with long red hair that fell about her face in a mass of tight curls and made her look like a Pixar heroine. She grinned and hugged me and talked at five miles a minute. To be honest, I had trouble keeping up.
Our conversation went something like this.
Heather: “Are you Maci Rowling?”
Me: (opens mouth)
Heather: “You are, aren’t you? Welcome to Australia. What do you think so far? No, don’t tell me, you’ve only been in the country for a few hours, as if you’ve made up your mind yet. Bet it’s different from Plenty though. I googled Plenty this morning when I was assigned to greet you. It’s a small place, isn’t it?”
Me: (mouth still open)
Heather: “Looks lovely. You’ll find Sydney lovely as well. Well, certain parts of Sydney. The part you’ll spend most of your time at. Have you seen much of the uni yet? Oh, when I say ‘uni’, I mean the university. Did you know that? I have a friend in the States and she keeps telling me she can hardly understand a word I say. Can you understand me?”
Me: (shuts mouth)
Heather: “Am I talking too fast? I talk fast, I know. Can you understand my accent? Anyways, I’m going to show you to your room and let you settle in. You’ve arrived during O Week, so be ready to party. Oh, I should tell you what O Week is, shouldn’t I? O Week is basically a party for all the new students. O for Orientation. Get it?”
Me: (opens mouth again)
Heather: “Mackellar House has its own O Week party tonight, so be prepared. Maybe you should get some sleep beforehand. Are you jet lagged? You look jet lagged. C’mon, I’ll take you to your room. I arranged a welcome basket for you, filled with Aussie stuff. Watch out for the Vegemite. And the toaster in your room will set off the smoke detectors if you’re not careful. Maybe better to have pale toast. Do you like toast?”
Me: (mouth still open)
Heather: “God, listen to me. Carrying on when all you probably want to do is have a shower. The communal amenities here are really good. But be warned, they really mean communal. It’s a progressive thing Mackellar House is trying out. Boys and girls. No one’s complained so far but, boy, did it freak me out the first time a guy came in for a shower while I was cleaning my teeth. But then, I grew up with sisters. No boys in my family except my dad. Hey, your hand is trembling. Are you okay?”
Me: (shuts mouth)
Damn. It was time to crash in my room. I was shaking. I could feel it deep in my body. A quaking beyond my control. It happened when I was tired. Or stressed. Of which I was both. Excited, but tired and stressed. And still slightly obsessing over my kiss in the bathroom from the mysterious, hotter-than-hot Australian celebrity.
So while I really wanted a shower, what I needed was the chance to sit and be calm and still and take my meds (I may have missed one or two mid-flight, now that I thought about it).
I smiled at Heather, thanked her for the lovely welcome, passed off my trembling as jet lag and asked to be shown to my new digs.
“Absolutely,” gushed Heather, obviously not worried that I was—in the nicest way possible—shutting her down. “Follow me.”
She damn near pirouetted on the spot and then skipped up the stairs of Mackellar House.
I followed. It occurred to me Heather hadn’t asked about my luggage, or lack thereof. Curious. Or maybe college students in Australia—or uni students, as they were called over here—were the same as college students back home: free of common sense in the face of impending responsibility.
The life of a graduate student was a strange mix of adult accountability and teenage angst and irresponsibility. On one hand, you were in your twenties—legally an adult. You had to decide all on your lonesome what classes to take, what time to eat breakfast, what time to go to bed. On the other hand, you still had to answer to teachers, still needed to justify why you hadn’t handed in your homework, (‘My computer crashed’ really didn’t cut it in high school, so it sure as shit wasn’t going to pass at college) and you were still under the merciless control of hormones way more powerful than your brain.
Chatting the whole way, Heather led me through Mackellar House. She introduced me to everyone we passed. “Hey, this is Maci Rowling. She’s the environmental student from the US. Be nice to her, ’kay?” And then she’d whisper tidbits about them as we moved farther away. “She’s failing English Lit. He’s spent the last five nights drunk. She’s trying to seduce her History professor.”
By the time we made it to my room on the third floor at the end of the hallway, my head was spinning. But in a good way. Apart from the accents, I could have been back home in Plenty. Uni life seemed very similar to college life—young adults flexing their independence after years of living under their parents’ thumbs. In other words, chaos.
With a flourish, Heather pulled a key from her pocket and handed it to me. “Your key. Now remember, wonky toaster, communal showers and loos. Your uni info is on the bed, along with your welcome basket. Vegemite should only be smeared on lightly, not slathered on thickly. Smear, not slather. There’s milk in the fridge if you want a cuppa. That’s a cup of tea, if you didn’t know. Do you drink tea? Oh, and don’t forget that party tonight I mentioned earlier. Nine pm in the common room downstairs. The theme is underwear, which means you’re going to be prancing around in your undies and bra for the night. How cool does that sound?”
And with that, Heather skipped away. Seriously. She skipped. Wow.
I watched her go, having a strange Dorothy in Oz moment, and then turned back to my room.
My room. Not mine and so-and-so’s room. My room. Alone. I had a room all to myself.
It was nice. Small and uncluttered with a single bed on one side, and a desk, mini fridge, flat-screen television and armchair on the other. In between was a large window framed by a sheer blue curtain currently dancing on the warm summer breeze.
As I said, nice.
I took a step in, dropped my carry-on at my feet and drew a deep, slow breath. I backed up that step when I heard someone behind me shout, “Oi, Jones! You going tonight?”
A guy—a rather hot-looking guy, I had to admit—was leaning halfway out of the room three doors down from mine, hanging from the doorjamb by his fingers, staring at the closed door opposite me.
I frowned. For some reason, my heart beat faster.
The rather hot-looking guy grinned at me. “G’day. You the Yank?”
Before I could answer, the sound of the door opposite me being opened snagged my attention.
I watched as it swung wide. Watched as a tall guy with dark hair and dark eyes stepped to the threshold. Watched as he leaned an elbow against the doorjamb and nodded at the guy three doors down. “Yep.”
The guy was Mr. Broad Shoulders, my mysterious restroom kisser. Raphael Jones.
My belly flipped and flopped. My breath caught in my throat. My heart punched away at my stuck breath, trying to take its place. My nipples… Well, okay, you probably don’t want to know about them. All in all, I was having a whole-body reaction to the sight of my bathroom kisser right there in front of me.
Holy crap, how could he be right there in front of me?
Just like in a movie—except maybe in even slower slo-mo—Raphael Jones swung his gaze to where I stood just inside my room. Surprise registered in his dark-brown eyes. Followed by confusion.
And then suspicion. The open friendliness that had been in his face vanished at the sight of me. Just like that. His jaw bunched. His eyes narrowed. His nostrils flared.
One second he was a relaxed guy with a hint of a dimple in his right cheek, the next he was glaring at me as if I was the anti-Christ come to cancel spring break. Except Australians don’t have spring break and I wasn’t the anti-Christ. The only thing I was truly anti was Fox News.
I swallowed, struck dumb.
This was the same guy that had kissed me, seriously kissed me, less than an hour ago. And now he was glaring at me?
“What are you doing here?” His voice was just as deep and sexy as it had been before.
“She’s the Yank, Jones,” my neighbor three doors down offered, laughter in his voice. “The one here on scholarship to study the impact of global warming on native wildlife.”
Raphael Jones glared some more. Remember when I said earlier he’d somehow managed to make grimacing look sexy? Well, he was doing the same thing with his glare. There was a potent smolder to his expression now, an arrogant haughtiness that awoke a throbbing sensation in the very apex of my thighs.
The effect, however, was somewhat dampened by the suspicion behind the glare.
What had I done?
The thought maybe he thought I was a stalker popped into my head. He had been chased by paparazzi, after all. And I did slam into him in the men’s room. And ask for a kiss. I still can’t believe I did that. Maybe he thought I was some kind of crazy fan?
“I’m not a stalker,” I blurted. “Honest.”
His hand—initially relaxed beside his head—curled into a tight fist.
What had I said?
He looked me up and down and then, with a low sound that may have been a growl, turned his attention back to Mr. Info Dump down the corridor. “I’ll let you know later about tonight, Macca. May have to go to a function.”
His accent made my tummy do weird things, like twist and knot and clench. It dawned on me no other Australian accent affected me the same way, not even Chris Hemsworth’s. There was something about the way Raphael Jones spoke that messed with my head.
Which was stupid. I had enough things messing with my head, what with the Parkinson’s and its inconvenient goal of turning me into a walking, talking tremor machine.
“Later?” Mr. Info Dump flicked me a curious look as if I’d grown an extra head. Maybe because Raphael had changed his mind about attending the party tonight after seeing me? Maybe because the tremors had hit me? Hard. My left hand was shaking pretty bad. I could feel it working through me, a bone-deep quaking I couldn’t control.
God, I hate it.
Having Parkinson’s sucks. Big time.
An itching sensation on the side of my head jerked my rather unfocused attention away from the guy three doors down and back to Raphael. He was staring at me. The glare was gone. Replaced by hesitant uncertainty.
My heart kicked up a notch or two. Our eyes met. The hint of a dimple flashed at me.
I swallowed, the memory of his kiss making my breath shallow. My head swam a little and, like it always does when my body and brain are under some kind of stress, the tremors intensified. At my side, my hand slapped lightly against my hip. Over and over again.
And then it happened. The thing I hated more than having Parkinson’s disease. The thing I hated the most.
Someone becoming aware I had Parkinson’s.
Raphael’s gaze dropped to my stupid shaking left hand and his dark eyebrows instantly knitted in curiosity. “Hey,” he said, his voice low. Worried. “Are you—”
I turned and hurried into my room.
Okay, it wasn’t quite that perfect. I spun on my heel, banged my hip on the doorframe, collided with the damn door and almost fell into my room.
The last thing I heard before I slammed the door was Raphael Jones calling out to me. “Hey, American girl? Are you—”
I slumped against the door and rammed my left hand to my left thigh in a furious attempt to stop the tremors. It didn’t work. No matter how hard I pressed my palm to my leg, my hand kept shaking. I’d like to say I didn’t cry at that point in time. I’d like to say that almost a year of suffering Parkinson’s, as well as ten years of living with it, had hardened me to the emotional devastation it wrought upon me.
I’d like to say that, but I couldn’t.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I gripped my fucking thigh with trembling fingers and wept. Great, silent sobs of self-pity and loathing and homesickness.
Christ, what the fuck was I doing here? At least back in the States my friends knew what I had. They knew how to deal with it, which was—by my request—to ignore it. Here…
I slid to the floor, hugged my shins and buried my face between my knees, my tears hot as they soaked through the denim of my jeans. I stayed that way for a long time. Long enough to finally get a cramp in my lower back and for my butt to go numb.
My first few hours in Australia had been far from auspicious.
If it wasn’t for a knock on my door I may have stayed there for the night. What better place to have an existential crisis than on the floor? But someone did knock on my door. I felt the three sharp raps vibrate through the wood and into my back.
Swiping at my eyes with the back of my hands—my left one still shaking—I pushed myself to my feet and opened the door. I had no idea who would be on the other side, but I doubted it would be Raphael Jones. If he were truly interested or concerned in this here American girl’s emotional state, he would have knocked earlier, right?
It wasn’t Jones. Unfortunately, there was a part of me disappointed by that fact.
Instead of Raphael Jones, a short man with no hair, a paunch and a porn-star moustache covering his upper lip, stood on my threshold. To his right was a grinning Heather.
“Maci,” Heather gushed, wrapping her fingers around my right wrist in what I assume was meant to be a friendly form of contact. “You didn’t tell me your luggage got lost by Qantas. So I almost told Mr. Reuben here—is that right?” She cast the bald man beside her a dubious look. “Is it ‘Mr. Reuben’? I thought that’s what you said.” With a smile at the nodding man, she turned her kilowatt enthusiasm back to me. “Anyway, I almost told him to go away. We get all sorts of weirdos trying to get into the campus houses. Not that you’re a weirdo, Mr. Reuben. You’re not a weirdo, are you?”
For a frozen moment, silence reigned. I waited for Mr. Reuben to say something. Mr. Reuben didn’t say anything. He appeared too shell-shocked by Heather to utter a word. For her part, Heather studied him with what may have been suspicious anticipation or enthusiastic joy. Honestly, she looked like a Beagle puppy that couldn’t decide if it wanted to play, bay or grab the hem of your pants and shake it about.
Silence stretched on.
And then Heather laughed. “Of course you’re not. You work for Qantas.”
At the word Qantas, something clicked inside my jet lagged, med-deprived, sleep-deprived, dignity-deprived brain.
I looked down at Mr. Reuben’s feet and sure enough, there was my suitcase in the same condition as the last time I’d seen it. No broken zipper, no clothes or Victoria’s Secret undergarments poking out the sides. Just my suitcase—a shiny silver super-light hard-shell thing Mom had bought for me as a celebratory gift when I’d won the scholarship. Undamaged. Intact. Here.
“We located your luggage,” Mr. Reuben said gruffly. “It had been incorrectly placed with the luggage from First Class.”
I lifted my gaze from my shiny suitcase to the balding man beside Heather.
His responding smile was contrite. “On behalf of Qantas Australia, may I extend my sincere apologies for any inconvenience this error has caused you.”
Before I could say a word, he shot Heather a fearful sideways look. “Can I leave now? Alone, I mean? Without you walking me out?”
Heather gave him a toothy smirk, and for the first time since meeting her, I suspected there was something else altogether behind the perky, almost ditzy front. Hmmm. Color me intrigued.
“Of course you can go, Mr. Reuben,” she said, patting him on the forearm. “But don’t you think you should get Maci to sign that clipboard in your hand first?”
I suppressed a laugh. She had the poor guy completely frazzled.
With a grimace—one nowhere near as sexy as Raphael Jones’s earlier grimace, I can tell you that—Mr. Reuben held said clipboard out to me, withdrawing a blue pen from his shirt pocket as he did so. “Just sign at the cross,” he mumbled.
Giving Heather a small smile, I took the offered pen with my right hand—the one not shaking, thank God—and signed my name in the appropriate place.
“Thanks, Miss Rowling.” Mr. Reuben retrieved his pen and tucked the clipboard under his arm. “Miss Renner,” he said with a harried nod at Heather.
Then he was gone, damn near scurrying along the corridor away from us both.
I gave up trying to hold back my giggle.
Heather grinned at me. “Did he seem scared to you? Why do you think he was scared?” Devilish delight danced in her eyes. “Maybe he’s never met an American before?”
I laughed. Perhaps it was the joy of something finally going right for me since touching down, maybe it was the fact Heather was proving to be lots of fun. Whatever it was, I allowed myself to relax.
Unfortunately, occasionally when I laugh, I snort. Nothing too loud or animalistic, but a snort all the same. Of course, that was the exact moment Raphael Jones opened his door and stepped into the space behind Heather.
Once again, our eyes met. Once again, the thoroughly disturbing memory of our kiss played with my head. I stopped laughing and just stared at him.
He stared back.
“Raph!” Heather’s exuberant cry filled the corridor. “Have you met Maci Rowling yet? She’s from America. Do you remember the American student I mentioned last month? This is her. Maci, this is Raphael Jones. Have you heard of him?”
Raphael Jones regarded me with an expression they should put in the dictionary as a perfect example of ambiguous. “We’ve met.”
Heather damn near gave herself whiplash looking at me. “You have?”
Raphael nodded. A single nod that spoke volumes.
I bristled. No, more than bristled. I got angry. I don’t normally do angry, but Raphael Jones, Raph Jones, had pissed me off. What the fuck was this guy’s problem? One minute he’s sticking his tongue down my throat, smiling at me like we’re best friends, eye-flirting with me through a crowd of paparazzi, and the next he’s regarding me like I was some kind of serial killer.
Jutting my hip at a snarky angle, I crossed my arms over my breasts and, gaze holding his, said, “We have met. In the men’s restroom at the airport.” I cocked an eyebrow. “Where he kissed me.”
An unexpected glower fell over Raph’s face.
I refused to look away, clenching my left hand into a hard ball. I’d be damned if I was going to let anyone see I had the shakes.
“Kissed?” Heather squeaked. Just that one word. If I wasn’t so furious at Raph’s peculiar attitude, I’d be impressed I’d managed to curb her constant stream of chatter.
But I was irritated. I didn’t care who the fuck Raph was, he didn’t have the right to be so goddamn—
“Kissed,” he echoed, his voice a low purr as indecipherable as his scowl. “One of the best I’ve had, I have to admit.”
My heart smashed up into my throat. An insane horde of maniacal butterflies threw a dance party in my belly. One of the best he’s had?
Heather gaped at us both. Silent. Lost for words. Who would have thought?
I arched another eyebrow at Raph. “One of the best you’ve had?” I repeated. “Really? I thought it was quite average.”
And with that, I reached down, wrapped my fingers around the handle of my suitcase, and straightened again. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a shower.”
I turned back to my room and entered it, this time without colliding with the door. Yay me.
Heather followed. I knew she would. I’d just dropped what I guessed was a monumental bombshell. And really, I wanted her to come in. As much as he infuriated me, I needed to know who Raph Jones was, so I could be ready the next time I encountered him.
Refusing to let myself look over my shoulder—would he be watching my awesome display of indifference?—I crossed to my bed and deposited my suitcase onto the mattress.
The sound of the door closing told me Heather had decided we needed some privacy. I was okay with that. If I did turn back and discover Raph still looking at me, I wasn't sure what I would do. Maybe poke my tongue out at him. Yeah, I’m a real grown-up. Twenty-two going on four, that’s me.
“Okay.” My new Australian bestie flopped onto the bed beside my suitcase. “Cough up. You and Raph Jones kissed? In the men’s loo at the airport?”
I nodded, undoing the zipper on my suitcase and flipping the lid open. My clothes were a jumbled mess inside, but they were all there. “We did.”
I pulled a face at Heather. “With our lips.”
She rolled her eyes and whacked my arm with the back of her hand. “That’s not what I mean. How did you and Raph Jones end up kissing in the loo? Where was his bodyguard?”
“Who is Raphael Jones?” I asked, ignoring her question. The unsettled sensation in my tummy had calmed down somewhat, but I was still flustered. I really needed to take my meds. And some serious yoga was in order. Or maybe a session at a gym. Something to burn off the stress playing havoc with my brain and muscles.
“You don’t know?”
I shook my head, making a half-hearted attempt to organize the chaos in my suitcase. “I gather he’s some kind of celebrity, given all the paparazzi photographing him at the airport. Is he a TV actor or something?”
Heather laughed. “No. His older sister married the Crown Prince of Delvania a few months ago. One of those rare commoner-meets-royalty-and-they-fall-in-love stories. It seems to be a trend with Australian women. The same thing happened a few years ago with Mary Donaldson from Tasmania. She met a guy at a pub during the Sydney Olympics who turned out to be the Crown Prince of Denmark. Four years later they were married, and still are to this day.”
I frowned. “So Raph isn’t royalty? What’s with the bodyguard then?”
“Since the wedding he’s become a reluctant celebrity, very much like Pippa Middleton since Kate married William. Of course, her butt is more famous than she is.”
I must have looked confused, because Heather gave me another one of those looks that told me she thought I was a clueless American.
“Pippa Middleton is the older sister of the woman who married Prince William. You know, the British royals? Australia is still a member of the colonies, as much as I wish we weren’t. So of course all the media talked about for months before the wedding ceremony was what the bride was going to wear, what the vows were going to be. Then when the wedding took place, all everyone talked about was Pippa’s arse and how good it looked in her bridesmaid dress.” She sniggered. “So when Raph’s sister married the prince and he was photographed at the wedding looking very yummy in his tux, the media went into an absolute frenzy. There are Facebook fan groups out there dedicated to him. I’m pretty certain there are also groups dedicated to his butt as well. Cosmopolitan magazine named him one of Australia’s sexiest men last month. I’ve heard he can’t leave campus without being mobbed by screaming girls who want to touch him, and the royal family wants him protected. There’s a rumor there’s a nutjob stalker obsessed with him. There’s also a rumor that the prince’s sister wants him for herself. They’ve been photographed enough together at royal events for the media to already start talking engagement and marriage.
“Plus, just about every girl who’s ever been near him, even just sat beside him in a class, sells her story to Woman’s Day, or New Idea—they’re trashy magazines, by the way. Oh, I’ve even heard he’s been hit on by one of the professors here. And apparently women keep sending him their undies. How gross is that?”
“So,” I said, trying like hell to keep up with her machine-gun-fire answers. “Raph Jones is famous because his sister married a royal, a princess may have the hots for him, and he looks good in a tux? Is that it?”
“And he has a reputation for being arrogant and standoffish.” Heather plucked my Victoria’s Secret bra from the tangle of clothes in my suitcase and inspected it. “Even the girls he dated before the whole famous-for-being-famous thing say he rarely showed that much affection and wasn’t big on kissing.” She eyed me with curious contemplation. “Except he kissed you.”
I looked at her, unsure what to say. Unsure what to think, to be honest. Now that I knew who my mysterious restroom kisser was, I was completely clueless why he’d kissed me. What had been going through Raph’s head at the time?
I dropped onto the mattress beside my suitcase and gave Heather a frown. “Maybe he secretly wants the fame and attention? Maybe that’s why he kissed me? Maybe he thought I’d post it on Facebook or tweet about it or something?”
“Yeah, right. The guy spends most of his day snarling at anyone who even looks like they’re thinking of taking a photo of him with their mobile phones. Trust me, attention and fame are not what he wants.” She held my bra up to her chest, studying the way the lacy cups covered her T-shirt-covered boobs. “Maybe it was chemistry. A spark between you both? They say his sister asked the crown prince for a kiss before she knew who he was. They ran into each other in a Starbucks in the city. He spilt coffee all over her, and when he asked if he could do anything to make it up, she jokingly said he could kiss her.” Raising her attention from my bra and her boobs, Heather shrugged. “Perhaps it’s a family thing—to kiss complete strangers in weird places?”
I let out a wry grunt. “Yeah, that’s it.”
Inside, I was a trembling mess of confused uncertainty. I tried to remember the words Raph had said to me after the first time he’d kissed me. Something about the way his sister had met the prince. Now I knew about his sister, it made sense that he’d thought I was making a reference to the kiss between her and the prince in Starbucks. The thing was, even if that had been the case—which it wasn’t, we both knew that the second he mentioned it—that still didn’t explain why he’d granted my request. Nor why he’d kissed me a second time.
The memory of his lips on mine played with my sanity. There truly wasn’t anything average about his kiss at all. It was incredible and amazing and even now, I wanted him to kiss me again. Despite the fact he was a grade-A jerk, I really wanted to feel his lips on mine. Feel him slide his tongue over mine. Feel his body pressed to mine.
At the thought of Raph Jones holding me in his arms so our bodies touched, a wickedly delicious throb began deep between my thighs.
The second we’d looked at each other I’d forgotten everything else. I’d stood there in the bathroom, completely neglecting the need to pee, and done something I never ever do—flirted. And he’d flirted back and flashed his dimple at me and kissed me. Twice. Instant sexual connection.
It was the silence from Heather that made me realize I was staring at the door. I blanched, heat flooding my cheeks. Damn it. Busted.
“Don’t tell anyone about the kissing thing, okay?” I asked.
Heather studied me. “Okay. On one condition.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “What’s that?”
“When he kisses you again, you text me immediately.”
“No to the texting?”
I shook my head. “No to the kissing again. Not happening. I don’t do kissing.”
Heather threw back her head and laughed. And laughed. “Maci, by the way you were looking at Raph earlier, you don’t only want to do kissing with him. You want to do all sorts of other things as well, like f—”
“Okay.” I leapt to my feet, snared Heather’s elbow and pulled her up. “Shower time.”
She laughed at my pathetic attempt to silence her. “You’ll see. You’re here in a foreign country with a guy notorious for not kissing already laying one on you. A guy, I might add, who was practically making love to you with his eyes only a moment ago. Of course you’re going to—”
I shoved her to the door, singing, “La la la”. My cheeks weren’t just hot, they were on fire.
By the time I got Heather to the door and flung it open, she was describing in euphoric detail what Raphael Jones was going to do to me. I’ve got to say, it was the most unorthodox way of making a new friend I can possibly think of. I liked it, even if I did think she was a deluded motor-mouthed lunatic. At least she was happy about it.
And she hadn’t made any mention of my stupid shaking left hand. Even though she couldn’t have missed it, she hadn’t said a word. For that alone, she was lovely.
“Oh,” she said, a second after I propelled her from my room into the corridor. “Do you wanna come to the gym with me tomorrow morning? Of course you do. I’ll come get you at eight, okay?”
Raph’s door was shut and he was nowhere to be seen. I checked. I opened my mouth to tell her working out would be a great idea and closed it when Raph’s door opened.
Without looking at me, he walked out of his room, closed the door behind him and made his way along the corridor, stopping at the room three down from mine. He knocked on the door once with a short, sharp rap.
Heather shot him a look and then turned back to me. “Enjoy your shower, Maci,” she damn near shouted at me, grinning. “And I’ll see you tonight at the party.”
I tried not to look at Raph. Unfortunately, I failed. Before I knew it, my gaze was on him.
And before I could look away, his gaze was on me.
“Oh,” Heather called, now striding past Raph, her grin wide. “Don’t forget the theme. Underwear. Make sure you wear that sexy bra and knickers you packed. I reckon the guys will be lining up to meet you.”
Raph scowled, banged on the door again with furious force and barged in.
My face on fire, I retreated into my own room. Heather might be wonderful, but this would be the shortest friendship in history. I was going to kill her.
Letting out a dramatic sigh, I crossed to the bed and stared at the mess of clothes in my suitcase. I needed a plan of attack. Stress was trying to take charge of my brain and I couldn’t let it.
I could call Mom, but she would instantly hear it in my voice and freak out. I did not want her freaking out while I was on the other side of the world. When a Parkinson’s sufferer freaks out, their brain takes them to a very dark emotional place. Depression decides to muscle in on the situation and then you’re left with a stumbling, trembling, stuttering bag of glum misery, entertaining ideas best not entertained. Ideas like how the world would be better off without you in it.
I knew this not only from watching my mom go through it.
Chewing on my lip, I dug my toiletry bag out of my suitcase, along with a pair of shorts and my college T-shirt (Go Plenty Woodchucks!).
Plan of attack: Take my long-overdue meds, have a shower, wash my hair, brush my teeth, put on fresh clothes—although not my Victoria’s Secret combo, given I’d be wearing it tonight in front of a horde of complete strangers. Well, complete strangers and Heather and Raph.
After that, and only after that, I’d call Mom, tell her I was awesome, tell her I’d met a bonafide Australian celebrity already—omitting the part about it being in the men’s public bathroom and about the kiss—and then have a nap.
Fuck, I was tired. Hopefully, when I woke the trembles would have subsided enough that I could spend the Mackellar House party walking about in my Victoria’s Secret underwear without my left hand shoved under my right armpit.
When I finally found the communal bathroom I had to swallow a little gasp of surprise at the sight of three guys washing their hands.
They all stopped talking to each other and regarded me in the long mirror that covered the entire wall above the basins.
I offered them a smile that was meant to be cool, calm and confident, but probably looked like I had gas. “Hi.”
The one closest to me, who looked like he could bench-press a semi-trailer, grinned. “Ah, you’re the American?” He nudged the guy beside him with his elbow. “Ando said she was a looker.”
The one on the end, the leanest of the three and wearing a Walking Dead T-shirt, smiled at me in the mirror. “What do you think of Australia so far?”
“So far, so good,” I answered, hugging my clothes and toiletry bag to my chest. “Strangely enough, I’ve spent a lot of my time in bathrooms.”
All three guys laughed. The semi-trailer bench-presser chuckled. “Well, when you gotta go, you gotta go, I guess.”
For an awkward moment, no one moved. They stood at the basins, looking at me in the mirror’s reflection. I stood inside the doorway, looking back at them.
“All right,” Walking Dead finally spoke. “We’ll let you shower in peace. Have fun.” And with that, he hustled his friends past me.
Just as they were about to leave the bathroom, the biggest of them swung back to me. “You going t’night? To the undies shindig?”
I blinked. God, his accent was thick. “The what?”
He grinned. “The party tonight. Only wear your underwear. You going?”
I nodded, feeling my cheeks heat. That was another thing I wasn’t going to tell Mom—first night in Australia and I was planning on wearing nothing but panties and a bra in public. God, she would kill me.
“Excellent.” His grin stretched wider. It was cute. In fact, so was he. In a geeky kind of way. “See you then.”
And then I was alone.
Turning from the door, I let out another dramatic breath and studied the four empty shower cubicles before me. There were two bathrooms in Mackellar House. This one on the top floor—my floor—and one on the second floor. Heather told me the showers in this one had hotter water. She’d also told me there was a strict ten-minute shower limit, thanks to Mackellar House’s “ridiculously small” hot water tanks.
Ten minutes to wash and condition my hair, clean all my… areas… that required cleaning and shave my legs. I could do that. Knowing a guy could walk into the bathroom to go to the toilet or use one of the other showers at any time would make it easier to be quick.
Picking the shower bay next to the far wall, I hurried in, deposited my clothes and toiletry bag on the small bench, locked the door, checked I’d locked it, checked again, stripped off my dirty clothes, checked once more on the door—yep, locked—and then turned on the water and stepped under the spray.
It wasn’t until I’d de-stubbled my legs and was in the process of sudsing up my hair with apple-scented shampoo, that an important thought dawned on me.
I hadn’t brought a towel into the bathroom.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t brought a towel with me from home.
Was there a towel in my room?
Holy shit, I didn’t have a towel.
I was having a shower in a strange bathroom on the other side of the world in a three-story dorm full of complete strangers and Heather and Raph (natch), and I had no idea how I was going to dry myself after.
Rinsing my hair as quickly as possible, I shut off the taps and stared hard at the back of the quadruple-checked locked door as if my eyes had the power to magically produce a cotton rectangle from thin air.
No towel appeared.
I chewed my bottom lip, flicked some water from my hands, and then squeegeed off my thighs and butt with my palms.
The way I saw it, I had three options: One, while dripping wet, I could sprint for my room, which was just down the corridor, using my dirty clothes as a kind of shield to cover the appropriate bits.
Two, I could dry myself with my discarded long-haul flight attire and then casually walk to my room like there was nothing wrong, my damp clothes clinging to me like a stinky, coffee-stained second skin.
Or three, I could wait in the cubicle until someone entered the bathroom, introduce myself through the door, play up the jet lagged American damsel in distress angle—my accent had to come in handy somehow, right?—and ask them to get me a towel.
The second option was the easiest, but the latter was the least gross. I really did not want to put my dirty clothes back on. I’d been wearing them for almost twenty-four hours. If I put them on again, I’d feel like I’d need another shower.
As stupid as it sounded, I decided to go with the third option.
If I was lucky, Heather would realize she’d forgotten to tell me about the towel situation in Mackellar House, come back to fill me in on this vital piece of information and discover my absence in my room.
Up until this point in my life, I hadn’t given much thought to towels and their presence in the universe. There were always just there, in the bathroom at home or in my dorm room at college, ready to be used and abused by me. Of course, now I realized, in a moment of guilt—the kind only those who think they’ve been independent grown-ups for years and years, ever since they turned fifteen and got their ears pierced without asking permission—that Mom had been the bearer of dry, clean towels in my life for my entire twenty-two years.
It took standing and waiting for someone to come rescue me from my own ignorance before I accepted getting my ears pierced in a moment of rebellious teenage-ness didn’t make me a self-sufficient adult at all. It made me a twenty-two-year-old who still assumed clean, dry towels magically grew in the bathroom of my home. A home I was a long, long way from.
Hot tears prickled the backs of my eyes.
I sucked in a sharp breath, balled my stupid trembling left hand into a fist, rammed it under my armpit—my wet armpit, urgh—and prayed for someone to enter the bathroom. There were close to eighty people residing in Mackellar House. One of them had to need to pee at some—
The sound of the main door opening, followed by footsteps on the tiled floor, filled me with glorious relief. And sickening dread.
“Err, hello?” I called, refusing to step closer to the locked door of my cubicle. I knew they couldn’t see me, but I still felt really exposed. “I’m Maci Rowling, the student from America.” I didn’t pause or wait for an answer. I figured something like this was better approached the Band-Aid way—quickly. “I’ve only just arrived today and I stupidly forgot to bring a towel with me and I remembered in the middle of my shower and I’m wondering if you could help me out by finding Heather… Heather…” Crap, what was Heather’s last name again? “Renner!” Yay, well done, brain! “Could you find Heather Renner for me and ask her to bring me a towel? Please?”
Silence answered my plea.
“Umm,” I called, suddenly aware my wet skin was making me feel a little chilly. “I can make it worth your while. I’ve got a whole bag of Hershey’s Kisses in my suitcase I’m willing to give you.”
Silence again. Followed by the sound of footsteps moving closer to my cubicle door.
And then a deep, male voice with a sinfully sexy Australian accent I knew all too well, said, “I’m not remotely interested in Hershey’s Kisses, American girl.”
Raphael Jones was my savior? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
The Argument about Copulating Koalas
Walking among close to a hundred strangers in just a skimpy lace bra and an equally skimpy pair of lace panties was strangely liberating. It helped when said hundred people were similarly attired. It also helped that my mom was on the other side of the world. God, what would she say if she knew what I was up to?
Taking a sip of my drink—some potent concoction I’d been handed on arrival that included vodka and coconut rum, going by the kick—I weaved through the crowd. I didn’t normally do alcohol, mainly because it fucked with my Parkinson’s medication. But better to be seen with a glass in hand than not. In this case, the glass was a plastic stein with the words I Love a Sunburnt Country As Well, Dorothy printed on the side. No idea what that meant. I really needed to do some googling. After the party I was definitely opening my laptop and getting my cell phone to connect to the Australian network.
Beside me, Heather did what Heather seemed to do best—talk, gossip and talk. She had me giggling into my barely consumed drink more than once, mainly at her acerbic commentary on the state of one guy or another. I was learning quickly that despite the accents and adoration of flip-flops—called thongs over here, thongs, of all things—Australian college guys were the same as American ones. Party animals itching to get laid. Or at least feel up as many college girls as they could.
Four times in the last hour, I’d had to shrug off an overly enthusiastic greeting. I wasn’t pissed. I had come to the party in my underwear, after all. But there was only so many times you could feel strange fingers on the top of your boob before you had to take a stand. Especially when most of those fingers were attached to inebriated bodies.
Hey, it was a college party, after all. I mean, uni party.
“Maci, Maci, Maci.” Heather clamped her hand around my wrist, bringing me to a halt. “Look who’s just arrived. Your knight in shining armor.”
Frowning at my Australian BFF, I tried to tug my wrist free. “My what?”
She threw a nod over my shoulder.
Twisting to see who she was talking about, a strange sensation telling me I already knew, I bit back a curse.
Raph Jones was descending the stairs to the main party area dressed only in a pair of black satin boxer shorts and a loose black satin robe left open, both of which revealed a body that made Chris Hemsworth’s look wimpy by comparison. I know, how is that even possible, right? It was. Raph Jones, arrogant son-of-a-bitch douchebag, was proving that unquestionably.
Christ, he was sexy hot.
My pulse slammed hard and fast in my throat.
Dammit, and I’d been having so much fun.
Grinding my teeth, I looked away. But not before Raph’s arrogant son-of-a-bitch gaze clashed with mine. For a split second. Long enough for my breath to catch. Long enough for him to check me out—from head to toe and back to head again.
Long enough for my nipples to harden at that inspection.
Grabbing Heather’s hand, I began to walk, dodging the laughing, giggling, dancing, drinking crowd. Heading in the opposite direction of Raph.
“We’re in a rush, are we?” Heather chuckled. “Where we going?”
“Somewhere away,” I answered.
“Out of the party?” Heather’s grin was knowing. What she thought she knew, I had no idea. If she thought I was flustered by Raph Jones, she was wrong.
“Just out,” I said through gritted teeth. “Not here.”
“Do I need to remind you we’re in our undies?”
I stopped. Damn it, she was right. Strutting about in my underwear was all well and good inside at a party, but outside of Mackellar House was Sydney. Not just the University of Sydney, but Sydney. Mackellar House was situated in a residential suburb, which meant beyond the door and down the sidewalk to the left were homes. With families living in them.
I guess I could turn right and go storming through the university grounds, but did I really want to do that at nine pm at night? In my Victoria’s Secret?
I was staying at the party.
I should probably point out why I was so… flustered by him. He did go get Heather when we were in the bathroom together that afternoon—Australians call afternoons “arvos”, by the way—and Heather did deliver me a towel, but when I finally emerged from my shower cubicle, I found Raph waiting for me, his butt perched on one of the basins, his arms crossed over his chest, one ankle crossed over the other.
I hadn’t been expecting that.
He’d studied me, that enigmatic light in his eyes again. The one I couldn’t decide was friendly or suspicious.
I’d jutted out my chin in response to his silent scrutiny, held out my arms a little and curtsied. “Do I meet with your approval, Mr. Jones?”
Why I’d provoked him, I’m still not sure. I think it had something to do with the whole hot-cold thing he had going with me.
He’d pushed himself away from the basin and strode forward. “We have a habit of bumping into each other in bathrooms, don’t we, American girl?”
I’d stood my ground. Jutted my chin out some more—I was in serious danger of dislocating my neck at that point. “No bumping this time. You were the one who came in here. Twice. Perhaps you’re stalking me?”
My jibe hadn’t stop him closing the distance between us. I’d hoped it would. Smug bastard or not, he was still causing my body to do strange things when he was close to me. Or looking at me. There in the bathroom, both were taking place. “I’m not a fan of stalkers.”
I’d swallowed. Caught my bottom lip with my teeth. Caught myself catching my bottom lip with my teeth and stopped myself. What kind of twenty-two-year-old still chewed her bottom lip when facing down a hotter-than-hot guy?
“What are you a fan of?” I’d asked. I wasn’t one-hundred-percent certain, but I suspected we were flirting with each other. In an edgy kind of way.
He’d drawn to a halt directly in front of me, so close that the toes of his shoes brushed my bare feet. “Do you want me to say ‘you’?”
I’d licked my lips. “I don’t know what I want you to say.”
“If I say I want you to kiss me, will you?”
I’d stared up at him, my pulse thumping a mile a minute. “I—”
“Are you in here, Jones?” a male voice had shouted, just as the bathroom door swung open with a slam. “Ah, there you are. You playing pool with us or—ah, the Yank! Heya, how you going?”
I’ve never seen anyone move away as quickly as Raph had then. When Mr. Info Dump came barreling into the communal bathroom, Raph had damn near leapt backward like a cat who’d just realized its tail was burning.
I’d frowned at the sudden change, at the disparagement on his face. At the way he’d hurried across to Info Dump—what was his name again? Heather had told me. Umm, McDonald? McNamara? Something like that? Macca for short?—without another glance.
“C’mon,” he’d said, pushing past Macca. “Double or nothing on this game.”
Macca had given him a curious look, then shrugged and grinned at me. “You coming to the party tonight? We’ll see you there, ’eh?”
And before I could say anything, both guys left the bathroom and I was alone.
Now do you understand why I was so flustered seeing Raph at the party? The bastard son-of-a-bitch douche bag was quite happy to flirt with me, stick his tongue down my throat when we were alone, but whoa, if there was anyone actually around, witnessing it, no, I was a leper. A shaky one.
Beside me, Heather chuckled. “I don’t know if your plan was to get away from Raph or not, but he’s following us.”
I glanced over my shoulder. Sure enough, he was only a few feet behind. About a dozen girls in skimpy bras and thongs—the kind that go up your butt crack, not on your feet—were swooning over him as he walked, slipping their hands around his biceps and generally pawing at him. He scowled and shrugged them off. I’m ashamed to admit I was both jealous and happy. Talk about being a conflicted mess.
Our eyes clashed again, for another one of those brief seconds that go on forever, before I looked away and turned a sharp right, dragging Heather with me. Oh yeah, I was smooth.
“Is this some kind of weird game of Catch and Kiss I’m not aware of?” she asked, a grin in her voice. “Or are you playing Tag, You’re It? Oh, is this a social experiment you’re conducting about how easy it is to make Australian guys follow you around? Hey, he’s still on our tail. He’s trying not to look like he is, but he is. Wow, what did you two do in the bathroom after I left? He keeps looking at you.
“Oh, and now Macca’s handed him a drink and he’s watching you over the rim of it. Hee, he just told Shelly White to go away. That’s huge. Every guy here wants to bonk Shelly White. She’s a swimsuit model who’s studying—oh hi, Brendon. I didn’t know you were coming tonight? Maci, this is Brendon Osmond, the uni gym’s fitness manager.”
I jerked my attention from the crowd around me back to Heather. The tall guy standing beside her was wearing a pair of bright-red pajama pants, and was possessed of muscles so exquisite, my mouth began to water.
Brendon Osmond flashed a friendly smile at me, held out his hand and said, “G’day.”
I gaped up at him.
His smile turning into a grin, he took my hand—which I’d apparently extended to him. “Maci. How you going?”
“Good,” I said, finding my voice. What the hell was it with this country? Raphael Jones looked like a sexier Chris Hemsworth, and now this guy looked like a sexier, blond Robert Downey Jr., complete with Iron Man body and devilish glint in his blue eyes.
Brendon’s eyebrows rose. “American? Or Canadian? Sorry, I can never tell the difference with the accents.”
“American,” I answered. Damn, his fingers felt nice wrapped around mine. Warm and firm and steady. “I’m from Plenty, Ohio. But my dad was Australian, if that counts. I can even say g’day if you like. G’day.”
Brendon bent at the waist a little in a playful bow. “That wasn’t too shabby, Plenty, Ohio. Welcome to Oz.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Uni Fitness Manager.”
He chuckled. “Call me Brendon. Not such a mouthful.”
I grinned back. “Call me Maci. Not so geographically specific.”
He laughed, dropping my hand. “Done. So tell me, are you studying here or just visiting?”
“Studying,” I answered. Hmmm, I think I liked it better when he was holding my hand. “I’m here on a scholarship offered by my college to study the effects of global warming on native wildlife, specifically the koala population.”
“Koala population? That’s left of field for an American, isn’t it? Even one with an Aussie for a dad?”
I laughed. “I’ve never been one for conventional thinking.”
Brendon raised his eyebrows again. Opened his mouth and—
“There is no effect on the koala population,” a familiar male voice with its unsettling Australian accent said behind me.
My lips tingled as if they remembered just what the owner of that voice was capable of doing to them. Damn it.
“G’day, Raph,” Brendon said, offering his hand over my shoulder. “Haven’t seen you in the gym for a while.”
Another hand appeared beside my head, wrapped around Brendon’s in a firm grip and then withdrew. “I’ve been in Delvania. Family thing. Just got back today.”
The warm presence at my back told me Raph Jones was right there. Right behind me. So close I could feel his heat seeping into my body. So close I could feel the smooth skin of his bare chest brush the back of my shoulder.
For a giddy moment, my head swam.
Thankfully, Brendon laughed. “The curse of family, ’eh? Forcing you to skip the country and escape the madness of the media attention. Must be hell.”
“You could say that,” Raph’s voice rumbled from behind.
Beside me, Heather watched both guys, her gaze flicking back and forth as if she was watching a tennis match. There was an almost frenzied excitement in her eyes. Something was going on in her head. Something she found thrilling. I didn’t know whether to be suspicious… or to laugh.
“So, Jones.” Brendon took a drink from the bottle in his hand—mineral water. What every good, muscular gym fitness manager drank, no doubt. Did I say muscular already? “Tell us why you think there’s no effect on the koala population due to global warming. You know much about copulating marsupials? I thought your major was in biology or animal husbandry.”
“I’m studying a Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Bioscience,” Raph answered. “I grew up on a cattle station—what you Americans call a ranch—on which there is a very large koala colony. I can tell you firsthand, the global warming situation isn’t impacting their numbers at all.”
Unable to stop myself, I swung around to give him a narrowed-eyed stare. “Oh really?”
The look he gave me was steady. Condescending. “Really.”
“Then what is then?” I shot back.
“Human stupidity,” he answered.
“And on that note,” Brendon said, a hint of amusement in his voice, “it’s time to change the subject. I’m sure there’s a guideline that states politics and science can’t be discussed while dressed only in underwear.”
At my side, Heather giggled. “I’ve heard of that guideline.”
Raph’s stare didn’t leave my face. “But of course,” he continued, as if Brendon hadn’t uttered a word, “you, being an American, would be an expert on Australian native wildlife.”
If it was possible—and until then I didn’t think it was—I narrowed my eyes even more. “Me being an American?” My heart kicked up a notch. Or maybe it was my ire. Yeah, it was pretty much up there. “Because it’s not remotely conceivable an American could have knowledge on something as precious to you Aussies as koalas? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Actually—” Brendon stepped a little closer to us both, filling the right side of my peripheral vision with his towering, sculpted form, “—now that I think about it, that guideline isn’t a guideline, it’s a rule. Strict one.”
“I’m saying—” Raph’s stare turned into a frown, and once again, he acted like Brendon hadn’t made a sound, “—it’s typical of you Americans to think you know all the answers about the—”
“Koala facts,” I said, cutting him short. I was keeping my cool. Honestly. Well, sort of. “There are fewer than eighty thousand koalas in the wild in Australia today, possibly as few as forty-three thousand, compared to the millions thought to exist before European settlement. In 2012, on advice from the Threatened Species Scientific Council, the koala was listed as a threatened species.”
Raph opened his mouth.
“Since 1788,” I continued without letting him say a word, counting off my second point on my finger, “when Australia was first settled by Europeans, nearly sixty-five percent of the koala forest in Australia has been cleared, over 116 million hectares. The remaining thirty-five percent, approximately forty-one million hectares, remains under threat from land clearing for agriculture, urban development and unsustainable forestry. All contributing factors to global warming.”
Raph’s expression turned black. He obviously didn’t like being argued with. Or stood up to in public.
“Koala populations are also being decimated by chlamydia,” I went on, counting down on my fingers, “a disease exacerbated by stress. Koalas are increasingly under stress due to habitat loss and destruction.”
His face grew darker.
I rammed my index finger to my pinkie finger, refusing to blink in the face of that menacing glare. “Habitat loss is the greatest problem facing koalas today. Habitat loss caused not only by land clearing, but by the rise in bushfires due to the increasing number of electrical storms. Storms that are growing in intensity and number due to the planet-wide changing weather patterns and rising temperatures, not to mention diseases like dieback in eucalyptus, which, by the way, is on the rise due to warmer climates in Australia, a symptom of…” I raised my eyebrows, waiting for him to provide the answer.
He didn’t. Heather did. “Global warming?” she offered.
“Global warming,” I echoed, giving Raph a humorless smile. “And last fact of the night, but most definitely not the argument, Australia has one of the highest land-clearing rates in the world. Over eighty percent of koala habitat has already been cleared, reducing the viable mating and living areas. A forest can only have a certain number of koalas living in it, referred to as a forest’s carrying capacity. Most koala populations are now in a dire state. The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that as a result of the loss of their habitat, around four thousand koalas are killed each year by dogs and cars alone.”
I paused and crossed my arms over my Victoria’s Secret-covered boobs, and glowered back at him. “Want to know anything else?”
“How do they mate?” Heather piped up.
Brendon snorted into his bottle of water. Raph curled his lip.
“Simple,” I answered, hoping Raph could see my disdain. “When a koala is sexually mature, it leaves the safety of its home range and the protection of its social group and goes in search of a new area beyond its territory. If there are no new areas due to habitat loss, a sexually mature koala can’t find a new mate, or will risk injury encroaching on an existing social group. Once again, can I point out one of the contributing factors to koala habitat loss is global warming’s effect on the environment?”
“They can’t bonk because it’s too hot?” Heather paraphrased. “That sucks.”
“It does,” I agreed.
A muscle in Raph’s jaw throbbed. If it wasn’t for the fact I was pissed at him, I would have gladly acknowledged—to myself, at least—how wonderful that jaw had felt under my palm earlier that day.
“Thank you for the school project,” he said.
Damn, his voice was steady and level and smooth and deep and… Wait, I was pissed at him. I had to concentrate on that, not the way his voice sounded. Focus, Rowling, focus.
“Now, would you like me to offer a counter-argument to every point you just made?”
“What she’d like,” Brendon’s strong voice—just as deep and smooth and Australian—sounded at my side as he wrapped warm, firm fingers around my hand, “is a drink that doesn’t have an umbrella in it, isn’t that right, Maci?”
I swung my gaze up to him, my heart rate still as charged as my ire. What was it about these goddamn Australian guys thinking they could tell me what to do? But at the sight that greeted me, I bit back my angry tirade before it could begin.
His lips were curled in a relaxed grin, there was genuine amusement in his eyes. The expression instantly put me at ease, which surprised me. Eased surprise. How’s that for a strange mix?
“Something tells me,” he said, leaning a little closer, his gaze playing with mine as he plucked the alcoholic concoction from my hand, “that you’re more a mineral-water kinda woman.”
I laughed. I know, right? What were the odds of laughing at that point given how angry Raphael Jones had made me? But there was something about Brendon… something calming. Warm and friendly. Nice. And it had nothing to do with his impressive body. Well, not much. “Mineral water is more my style,” I answered.
He winked. “Thought so. C’mon, let me get you one.”
Before I could say another word, before Heather could say another word—can you believe that?—and before Raph’s glower finished turning his face into a Greek tragedy mask, Brendon smoothed his hand over the small of my back and steered me away.
“Was that your way of saving me from an argument?” I asked with a grin as we weaved our way through our fellow partygoers.
Blue eyes glinting, he affected an expression of mock surprise. “God, no. I just want to hear more about koalas without all this party noise.”
I raised my eyebrows.
Brendon chortled. “Okay, you’re right. I was doing my bit to protect the Australian-American relationship. Wouldn’t want your country going to war against ours over copulating koalas.”
An image of two koalas mating in the middle of a smoke-filled battlefield filled my head and I giggled.
“Besides,” Brendon continued, directing me to a door leading to what looked like Mackellar House’s backyard. “We’d kick your arse if we did. Go to war, that is.”
Once again, I raised my eyebrows. “Really now?”
He nodded, pausing only long enough to snatch a bottle of mineral water from the large plastic pail loaded with ice and other drinks next to the open door. “Of course.” He twisted the lid from the bottle and handed it to me. I couldn’t help but notice the way the muscles in his arms, shoulders and chest coiled and flexed with subtle strength. I have to admit, it was rather delicious to watch. “We’d only have to let loose our wildlife and you’re all screwed.”
I took the offered mineral water with a chuckle. “American soldiers attacked by post-coitus koalas? Is that what you’re saying?”
He raised his own bottle to his lips. “Something like that.”
The cool kiss of night air on my bare skin told me we’d exited the building before my brain registered it. I stopped on the top step of a smallish deck and lifted my attention to the black sky above me.
The stars were completely different here. Completely. No Cassiopeia, no Orion. Nothing familiar at all. It was then, more than at any other moment, that I realized I was far from home.
My throat grew thick. I missed my mom. I missed the smells of Plenty. I missed the stars. My stars.
“It messes with your head a little, doesn’t it?”
I flinched a little at Brendon’s soft words. “What does?”
He glanced up at the sky. “The stars. How different the stars are. I remember the first time I went to the States. I was all, ‘Hey, I’m down with all this, I’m not a tragic tourist’, and then I saw the stars on my first night and kinda lost it a little. The absence of the Southern Cross…” He drew closer to me, bending down until his head was beside mine as he pointed up to the sky at the crucifix-shaped constellation represented on the Australian flag. “That one, well… not seeing it up there, where it always was… my head couldn’t process it. It’s a weird habit of mine to find the Southern Cross in the sky every night, but those weeks I spent in San Diego…” He chuckled. “It’s stupid, I know, but I missed the stars. My stars.”
His words, an echo of my own thoughts, unsettled me a little. Made me feel something. Not quite sexual desire, but… something. A sense of connection, maybe? I wanted to move away from him in case he sensed the way I was reacting to his words. And his heat. And his relaxed, friendly presence. I also didn’t want to move away. Not at all.
It was a seriously confusing sensation, especially on the heels of my thoroughly carnal and emotional reaction to Raphael Jones. “When were you in San Diego?” I croaked.
If Brendon detected my fluster, he didn’t show it. And let’s be honest, he wouldn’t have been able to miss it.
“A year ago,” he answered, straightening again. “Followed a girl there.”
The confession sent a funny little blip though me. Not jealousy, just… funny. Man, my descriptive skills are woeful, aren’t they? Good thing I never planned on being a journalist.
“Did she follow you back?” I asked.
He smiled at the stars, his Adam’s apple sliding up and down the muscular column of his throat. “No.”
We stood there for a moment in silence. It was nice. Companionable. The nerves in my belly calmed and my pulse returned to its normal pace.
And then he said, “So how long have you had Parkinson’s disease?”
My blood ran cold. I forced a puzzled frown on my face. “Why do you think I have Parkinson’s disease?”
His smile wasn’t sympathetic or pitying or repulsed, or any of the other emotions I’d grown accustomed to seeing on people’s faces when they discovered my condition. No, it was understanding.
“Haven’t you noticed?” He raised his arm and made a fist. “I’m all about muscles and muscle movement.”
His unexpected answer pulled me out of my rattled state and I dragged my eyes from his arm up to his face with a laugh.
“Okay, I’m going to admit I just did that to show off,” he said. “Sorry, but the point is, I know about muscle movement and motor-neuron function. Any personal trainer and fitness manager should, and I’m not just your average gym junkie. I’m in my last year of a Bachelor of Applied Science majoring in Exercise and Sport Science. My aunt has ALS, what you guys in the States call Lou Gehrig’s disease, so I’ve got a personal interest in it as well.”
I stared at him. “Wow.”
He grinned. “Told you I wasn’t your average gym junkie.”
I shook my head. For some reason, I was lost for words.
“My favorite movie is Batman Begins,” he went on. “I love peanut-butter-and-lettuce sandwiches, am partial to the color blue, have a serious thing for Emma Watson, own every Coldplay album ever released and can’t stand the Twilight series.”
I frowned. “And the reason you’re telling me all this…?”
“I’m a firm believer in transparency and getting the important facts out there straight up at the start of a new relationship.”
“We have a relationship already?”
He laughed. “Hey, I did say start.”
I smiled, raising my bottle to my lips. “You did.” I took a sip of water. The fact we weren’t talking about my Parkinson’s was a good thing. He might be blasé about it, but that didn’t mean I was ready to open up. “So what’s your issue with the Twilight series? Is it the sparkly vampire thing?”
“That and the whole Bella-is-so-beautiful-everyone-wants-to-bone-her-even-though-she’s-a-submissive-waste-of-space thing,” he answered. “And don’t get me started on the pubescent werewolf who’s constantly strutting about without a shirt on.”
“Says the shirtless man,” I pointed out with a grin.
He looked down at himself, surprise pulling at his face. I did mention he looked like a younger, blond Robert Downey Jr., didn’t I? “Hey, where the hell did my shirt go?”
I laughed. A lovely, warm, contented sensation was making itself at home in my chest, the place my mom always pressed her palm to when talking about her soul. Taking another sip of water, I turned to the yard beyond the deck railing. There were a few people out there, most getting to know each other in ways beyond the cerebral. I felt odd watching them. A tad self-conscious, seeing as I was standing next to a half-naked hot guy in my underwear who was, I think, flirting with me in a relaxed kind of way. I could only imagine how I’d be feeling if it were Raphael Jones I was standing beside, half-naked or not.
At the thought of Raph Jones I grimaced.
Crap, why was I thinking about him again?
“By the way,” Brendon uttered, his voice a low conspirator’s whisper. “Don’t think I’m not impressed with how well you dodged answering my question about your Parkinson’s.”
I pulled in a swift breath, tightening my grip on my bottle. At the mention of my condition, my brain decided it was time to acknowledge my hand was shaking. Not badly, but enough to be obvious. Embarrassed dismay scraped at my happiness.
“Nor,” Brendon continued with a nudge of his hip against mine, “that you chose not to mock my taste in music.”
So he’d sensed my apprehension and was happy to let the subject drop. I lowered my gaze to my hand, watching the slight tremble moving it.
I thought of what Brendon had revealed, about his aunt, about his studies. I thought of the way he’d mocked himself in his efforts to make me feel at ease.
I thought of his friendly smile and relaxed humor.
And, I have to admit, a small part of me thought of his muscles.
“I was diagnosed last year,” I said, watching my fingers shake. Not much, but enough. Hell, anything but steady was enough. I’d taken my meds, so what was up with the tremors? “My mom has it as well, although she was diagnosed ten years ago. It’s not a hereditary disease so the fact we both have it is either some higher force’s idea of a bad joke or just a horrible case of random bad luck. I haven’t decided which yet.”
Brendon didn’t say anything for a while. Around us, the party continued. More than one underwear-clad couple spilled past us, laughing their way down the stairs into the shadows of the backyard. I watched them, a small smile pulling at the corners of my lips. Even though I had no idea what the Australian beside me was going to say, I felt okay fessing up to my situation. There was something about Brendon Osmond that made me feel safe. And after the turbulent emotional rollercoaster that was Raph Jones, safe was a good thing.
“Reckon daily sessions getting hot and sweaty with me might be in order for you.”
Brendon’s unexpected statement yanked me out of my reverie. “Huh?”
“Getting hot and sweaty,” he said. “With me. In the gym. In the morning before anyone else gets there.”
I kind of gaped at him. Was he suggesting what I think he was suggesting?
“Physical exercise is good for Parkinson’s,” he went on, a glint in his eyes “Keeping the muscles moving the way you want them to move.”
“Oh,” I breathed. “You mean working out. Like a cardio-and-weights type thing.”
He laughed. “What else would I mean?”
A blush flooded my cheeks and he laughed again.
“Damn, Plenty, Ohio. Let me at least buy you a coffee or green tea or something before you start thinking about us having sex.”
It was my turn to laugh, the heat in my cheeks creeping up into my scalp. “Hey, I’m jet lagged, okay?”
He chuckled and nudged me with his hip again. “Okay. I’ll let you off this time. But what do you think about us getting some clothes on and getting out of this place? There’s a cafe around the corner that brews the best green tea ever. My—”
“There you are!” A female voice rose above Brendon’s invitation.
I swung away from him as Heather wrapped her arm around my shoulder. She hugged me as if I hadn’t only just left her company a few minutes ago.
“Whoa, girlfriend.” I giggled into her hair. “I missed you too.”
“Someone else is missing you,” she whispered. “And didn’t look too happy when you took off with The Biceps.”
Right away, I knew who she was talking about. Before I could stop myself, I peered over her shoulder, searching for—
“He’s not there,” Heather muttered a second before pulling away from me. Grinning up at Brendon, she said, “I’m stealing my American friend back, Brendon. Sorry. You’ve monopolized her for too long tonight.”
Brendon let out that relaxed laugh of his. “That’s okay. I’ve got her tomorrow morning.”
Heather pulled a wickedly intrigued face. “Oh, do tell.”
“She’s getting hot and sweaty with me.”
“Is she now?” Heather cocked an eyebrow.
Brendon grinned. “Oh man, am I going to make her body move.”
“Are you now?” Heather looked at me with awed approval. “Go you.”
I rolled my eyes. “A physical therapy session, you dirty-minded woman.”
The second the words popped out of my mouth, I tried to bite them back.
Sure enough, Heather asked the question I knew she would, a frown creasing her forehead. “Physical therapy? Why do you need physical therapy? What’s broken?”
“Her heart,” Brendon said, stepping up beside me. “I told her I’m not available.”
“Ah, that’s right.” Heather grinned. “You’re saving yourself for Emma Watson.”
Brendon gave a sage nod. “I’m saving myself for Emma Watson.”
Heather threaded her fingers through mine and fixed him with an exasperated look. “You’re delusional, Brendon Osmond.”
He preened, obviously taking her insult as a compliment. “And a thorough optimist. You’ll see, me and Emma. It’s the way it’s meant to be.”
“All right, all right,” Heather said. “Whatever you reckon. Come along, Rowling. I want to see you try Vegemite.”
“Vegemite.” I frowned as Heather tugged me away from Brendon and toward the door. “That’s the jar of black stuff in the welcome basket in my room, right?”
“Run, Maci!” Brendon called after us. “Run now! Before it’s too late!”
Heather chuckled, dragging me back inside. “Shut up, Osmond,” she tossed over her shoulder with a grin. “Go bench-press a train or something.”
Brendon’s laugh told me he wasn’t offended by her jibe. I flicked him a look just in time to see a girl in the skimpiest thong and bra set imaginable, plaster herself to his body and rub her palms up his very impressive chest.
He grinned at me over her head, and then turned his attention to her with a smile and a laugh.
A flutter of that same emotion I’d experienced earlier danced in my belly again. Not jealousy but… who knows, maybe there were the makings of something between us? I already knew more about him than the other Australian who’d shown an interest in me, although interest really didn’t describe the weird thing Raph and I had going on. And Brendon was so much easier to be around. Maybe that weird flutter inside me needed to be fostered? Maybe I should kiss Brendon and see what—
“He’s a really nice guy,” Heather said in my ear as she led me back into the party. “But such a player. Serious commitment-phobe as well. He’s broken more than a few hearts, and that’s not including any of the poor girls who’ve fallen in love with him without even going out with him.”
I cast her a dubious sideways glance. “Really?”
She nodded. “Seriously. I know of more than one girl who goes to the gym for no other reason than to watch him, hoping he’ll notice her fumbling away on the treadmill and come to her rescue.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Pretty lame, isn’t it?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Are you one of them?”
Heather laughed. “Hell, yeah. I spent a good month prancing about in the gym in my sexiest Lorna Janes before I realized what I was doing.”
“Oh my God, woman,” she gasped. “We are going shopping tomorrow. If you’re going to be working out with The Biceps you need to deck yourself out in Lorna Jane. It’s like Nike with attitude. It’ll drive him wild and make Raph utterly mental with jealousy knowing you’re getting hot and sweaty in it with The Biceps.”
I stumbled. “Raph utterly mental with what?”
Impish delight flittered across Heather’s face. “Jealousy. Did you see the way he was looking at you tonight? When you were lecturing him about koalas? Lust. Pure and simple and open lust. Like you were an ice cream and he wanted to devour you even though he was on a diet.”
I let out a low hmpf, aware my belly was competing with my pulse for the fastest fluttering. “I saw the utterly disdainful way he looked at me. Not sure about lust and the whole ice cream simile.”
Heather grinned. “Hence the diet. He wants you even though he reckons he’s sworn off ice cream for his health. You’re like the delicacy he’s craving now, the only thing that’ll sate his hunger and he’s grumpy about it. Furious in fact. And then, while he’s devouring you with his stare, thinking about how much he wants to lick you up, along comes his antithesis, his polar opposite, his nemesis for want of a better word—”
“Nemesis?” I interrupted, eyebrows journeying up my forehead.
“—who swoops you off your feet and away from him,” Heather continued, ignoring my incredulous expression. “So not only is he now craving what he’s ruled unsuitable for his diet, he’s watching someone else put you on his menu and tuck a napkin under his chiseled chin. It’s priceless. Awesome even. Worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster starring Channing Tatum. Or Ryan Gosling. Or Liam Hemsworth. Maybe all three.”
I fixed her with a skeptical stare. “Heather, what exactly is your major again?”
Her grin grew wider. “Mechanical engineering.”
I burst out laughing.
“C’mon.” She reclaimed my hand with hers. “Vegemite time. Josie Witmore’s got a jar opened and a packet of Saos ready to roll.”
I shook my head at her. “I have no idea what Saos are.”
“Of course you don’t. But you will soon. Oh and guess who’s arrived, dressed in the sexist white boxer briefs you’ve ever seen?”
Once again, I shook my head, caught up in her vivaciousness.
“Who’s Josh Blackthorne?” I asked.
She burst out laughing. “Honey, Josh Blackthorne is Liam Hemsworth, Ryan Gosling and Channing Tatum all rolled up into one. Let’s go. It’s time to educate you on all things Australian.”