Every decision is an ending … and a beginning
Broke and close to broken-hearted, Jess Donovan doesn’t know what to do with her life. She’s lost her job and she’s discovered that the man she loves, the charismatic and elusive Tyler Smith, has a troubled past that’s left him damaged…perhaps beyond repair. Unable to trust him or her feelings, when her long-lost father invites her to visit him a continent away, she leaps at the chance to get some perspective.
In dazzling New Zealand, her fortunes seem to be turning way, way up. She lands a lucrative gig in a tourism commercial, cast opposite Kaleb Te Anga, a guy who’s Tyler’s opposite in every way. When things heat up between them on-set, fake kisses turning to hot real kisses, Jess finds herself torn. Is this just a holiday hook-up, or something deeper? How can she feel so much for two different people, and how will she ever choose between them?
If she gets that chance … because her indecisive heart might mean she’ll lose them both.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I’m scared out of my mind and trying not to show it.
The day is gray and threatening rain as Electra pulls up to the curb at the Denver airport. It’s crazy busy, with cars and vans and little buses everywhere. My stomach lurches.
“You sure you don’t want me to come in with you, child?” she asks. “I really don’t mind.”
I stare at the madness, the people pulling their suitcases, businessmen with soft briefcases hung over their shoulders. My stomach is filled with a million and a half fluttering butterflies, banging into each other, whirling around, rising to tickle my throat. “Yes,” I say in a weak voice. “I mean, no.” Panic squeezes my heart, and I whisper, “What am I doing? It’s so far away! I don’t even know my dad. What if he’s a…serial killer or something? I mean, my mom left him for some reason.”
She smiles. “I’ll come in with you.”
I shake my head. “No, it’s okay.” This is the first step of a long journey. I am flying halfway around the world to see the dad I was taken from when I was six. I found him on the Internet, and we’ve talked a bunch of times since. “I have to do it myself.”
“You’ll be fine.” She secures a place at the curb and puts her car into Park. “If you get confused or worried, don’t panic, just ask someone.” She points to the guys taking bags at an outdoor counter. “Skycaps are always helpful. They know the airports.”
“Right,” I say, putting the word skycaps together with the men in their sensible UPS-ish uniforms. “And I should tip them.”
“Yes. That’s how they make their living.” She opens her car door and gets out.
After one tiny second longer, I gulp down the flutterings and open my door, too. My pack is on the back seat, and I haul it out, settle it on my shoulder as Electra takes my suitcase out of the trunk. Everything I own is in that suitcase. I gave the plants away—most of them to Electra, who promised to take special care of the Rex begonia and the African violets I grew from slips. My step-dad took a couple of boxes of curtains and house stuff I didn’t want to lose.
Electra puts the suitcase down beside me. She’s a tall, lean woman in her sixties, with dark eyes and smooth dark skin. She’s been my neighbor for nearly two years, feeding me often, teaching me how to cook and garden, and chasing off a bad boyfriend. My throat is full of tears. “I’m really going to miss you!” Although we’ve never been all touchy-feely, I move forward and she meets me half way, and then we’re hugging hard. She smells of Dove soap and mint, and her arms are powerful.
“I’ll miss you, too, child. I really will. You have no idea how much joy you’ve brought into my life.”
I laugh slightly. “Yeah, like calling the cops when my ex broke into my house?”
“Other things.” She pulls back, holding on to my arms, and looks into my face seriously. “I’m right here, whenever you want. Call me day or night, all right? Any time.”
She touches my cheek. “You can be anything you want, Jess Donovan. Hear me? Anything. Don’t let where you were born keep you back from the biggest dreams you can come up with.”
Up till now I’ve managed to keep my emotions under control, but that makes tears sting my eyes. I nod earnestly.
“And don’t let men knock you off track. Enjoy their company, but don’t make their dreams your dreams.”
An airport cop meanders by, waving his hand. “Move along, ladies.”
Electra steps back. “Do the check.”
I swing the backpack off my shoulder, put my hand in the secret inside pocket and touch each thing in turn. “Passport. Wallet with credit card.” There’s also a twenty in my pocket, just in case. Electra told me never to carry everything I have all in one place, and that’s smart. “Itinerary, which is also on my phone.” I pull the phone out of the back pocket of my jeans. “Check, check, check, check.”
She grins. “You’re all set, then. I’m going to stand here until you go inside.”
I glance over my shoulder, take a breath and heave the pack over my shoulder, yank up the handle of my new suitcase. “Thanks. I’ll email you when I get there.”
The cop glares at Electra as I start to walk away. She just raises an eyebrow, like, ‘what’re you gonna do?’ and it’s so her that it makes me laugh. Which makes it easier to take those steps carrying me away from everything familiar into the land of everything unknown.
It’s pretty chaotic inside, too, but there are plenty of signs. I take an escalator up to the next floor and peer at the signs for my airline, which is not Air New Zealand yet, but a domestic carrier that will fly me to Los Angeles. Since Electra insisted I had to be here three full hours ahead of time, there’s not much of a line. There’s a machine to check in, but because my final destination is international, a woman comes over to examine my documents, take my suitcase. “New Zealand, huh?” she says, looking at my crisp new passport. “You’re going home?”
“Kind of. I’m going to see my dad.” I frown a little. “I haven’t been there since I was six. I haven’t even been on a plane that I remember.”
“What an adventure! I’d love to go to New Zealand. It’s on my bucket list.” She frowns a little as my boarding pass prints. “This is not a great seat. Let me find you something better.”
“I’d love a window if I can get one.”
“Let’s see what I can do.” She gestures for me to follow her to the counter, where she accesses a computer. She taps and peers and taps and peers, then smiles. “There we go. I’ve got you all set.” She hands me all the documents in a slick folder. “Have a great trip.”
“Thanks.” I turn and then look back. “Where do I go?”
She smiles, takes back my papers and slips my boarding pass out, and explains the various numbers. “This tells you what concourse and gate you need. You’re at A-32. This says what time the plane boards, so you want to be there by then.” Points. “This is your seat number. They’re numbered from the front to the back, so the higher the number, the farther back you are.” She looks at me with patience. “Anything else?”
“No.” I give her my funny face. “I’m scared to death, can you tell?”
“Not at all, sweetheart. You look like a backpacker off to roam Europe to me.” She winks. “Have a good time.”
Within twenty-five steps, I realize that the backpack is too heavy. I should have put more in my suitcase, but everything I read said that sometimes things get lost in transit, and if I end up in New Zealand without my suitcase, I at least want some books. That’s what it is, mainly, books I found at garage sales and used bookstores to keep me entertained. The first flight is two hours, then there’s a layover of four hours, and then I’m on a plane all night and get to Auckland in the morning, then wait for another plane to Nelson, on the South Island. That flight is only an hour, and my dad said the layover will be spent going through customs. He walked me through the process, and I’m feeling okay about that part. It helps to have a New Zealand passport. He said that will mean I have a much faster time going through at the other end.
It’s easy to find security, because of the long, long lines. I’m headed down the escalator when my phone buzzes against my butt. I pull it out and smile when I see the name on the screen. Tyler Smith is my kind-of boyfriend. We’ve only been together a little while, but it’s been intense and, from my end, life-altering. He wanted to drive me to the airport and see me off, but by the time we talked about it, Electra had already offered, and I knew it would hurt her if I didn’t let her do it. I’m doubly glad I did now, considering how emotional she was as we parted.
“Hey,” I say into the phone. My heart, so unsettled this morning, does another flip-flop. It’s hard to leave him. We had been fighting when I made the impulsive decision to go on this trip, and by the time we made up, more or less, I was committed.
“Hey,” he says back. “Where are you?”
“On the escalator down to security. Already checked in and everything. So proud of myself!”
“Good job. Look to your right, on the mezzanine by the French cafe.”
“What?” I whirl my head around, and there he is, leaning on the railing, his glossy hair falling around his face, giving it a frame it hardly needs. The lines of cheekbone and eyebrows and nose are perfect and clean, his mouth soft and invitingly kissable. He’s the kind of guy you do a double-take over no matter where you see him.
But it’s the expression in his eyes that captures me—-again. He’s staring right at me, the aquamarine of his irises practically glowing. It’s impossible to stop looking at him, even as the escalator carries me farther and farther down. “Better watch where you’re going.”
I turn around just in time to get myself off safely. “You didn’t tell me you were coming!” I say, and as I’m looking up at him, I’m talking, trying to find a place to get out of the way. He just leans on the railing, as if he’s Juliet and I’m Romeo. The idea makes me laugh. “Oh, Juliet,” I breathe. “Won’t you come down and give me a kiss?”
Even at this distance, I can see the wickedness in his grin. “I’m getting a pretty good view down your shirt, actually.”
“What?” I slap a hand over my neckline. It’s perfectly fine, looped with a long red paisley scarf I found at Goodwill for 50 cents.
He laughs. “Just wishful thinking, I guess.” He starts to move, heading for the escalator I just rode down. “Do you want to come up here? More choices for a cup of coffee.”
I glance behind me at the crowds going into security. “Shouldn’t I be heading for my gate? Electra said it’s important to get through security.”
“What time do you board?”
“12:30.” I only know this because the woman told me.
“That’s two and a half hours,” he says, waiting at the top of the stairs. He’s wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt that clings to his lean chest and flat belly, and jeans. A girl behind him eyes his rear end, and I must scowl, because he glances over his shoulder. “See? You’re leaving me to the roving masses.”
“Not fair,” I say and glare at him. But, a ping arrows through my gut. I was the one who said it would be stupid to make vows of faithfulness while I’m gone, but I’m tempted to change my mind. He’s beautiful and smart and charming. There will be women who want to be his lover. His girlfriend. More, even. “I have to do this, you know that.”
“I know.” His mouth is a little sad as he lowers the phone, putting it against his chest, and holds out a hand toward me. Come here.
He knows his way around airports. If he says it’s okay for me to wait to go through security, I trust him. He might not be happy about me leaving, but he wouldn’t sabotage it. I head for the stairs and keep my eyes on him as the escalator carries me toward him. A rustling heat moves beneath my skin as I allow myself to think of what that succulent mouth will taste like in five, four, three, two…one.
“Hi,” he breathes, and gathers me into him, pressing our bodies together and bending his head down for a kiss. My lips and tongue sizzle against his, and we both lose it for a second, kissing almost drunkenly, as if we haven’t seen each other in months, rather than 24 hours. I feel the hardness of his belly and thighs against mine, and his hands slide under my shirt, hot and smooth against my waist.
I pull back. “Whew. Enough.”
He puts his forehead against mine, and the tips of our noses touch. “I’m going to miss you so much, Jess. My heart is on fire.”
“I know,” I whisper. “Me, too. And I’m scared, like, half to death. Like, what am I doing?” I finger his collar, touch his neck, his throat. “It’s so far away and I don’t know my dad, and what if I miss a plane or…it’s terrible?”
He straightens. “Come on. Let’s get you some coffee.” He reaches for my backpack, and I’m only too glad to let him take it for a minute.
“Jesus!” he says, pretending to stagger under the weight. “What’s in here?”
He gives me a glance, heaving the pack on his left shoulder and taking my hand in his right. “You have an iPad.”
He shakes his head slightly. “We’re gonna fix this. You don’t need all these heavy books.”
“I’ll send them to you, promise. You don’t have to physically lug them. You’ll give yourself a hernia.”
I’m laughing. “It’s not that bad.”
He orders coffee for us both from a barista at a cafe, and we carry our cups to a table overlooking the hubbub below. The sound of hundreds of voices reaches us, and I’m suddenly excited to be part of them, people who go places. I look at him with that happiness in my eyes. “I’m scared,” I tell him. “But I’m also super excited.”
He smiles, then pushes my backpack over to me. “I’m going to make it better. Unpack this thing.”
“I have, like, underwear and…stuff in here,” I say, not mentioning my tampons, which are so not going on the table.
“Just the stuff that’s heavy, Jess. The books.”
Dutifully, I start pulling things out. The iPad in a protective case. The notebook in case I want to write down my thoughts. A clean shirt and socks. And books. Seven of them, four hardcovers. As I stack them on the table, he’s giving me the raised eyebrows. “I know,” I say. “I have a sickness.”
“Choose a couple in case of emergency, but let’s put the rest on your iPad instead of your shoulder, huh?”
“I don’t have that kind of spare cash.”
He inclines his head. “I’ve got you covered.”
I’m about to protest that he doesn’t have to take care of me, just as I’ve been doing since we met, but he only looks at me. “Seriously, Jess?”
“Whatever.” I point to the books. “Some of them are kind of old. And I might want at least one physical book in case of—”
“Apocalypse?” he teases, grabbing my iPad. “In case you’re kidnapped by white slavers and dragged away to Indonesia?”
“A person would want a book under those circumstances.”
“True.” He taps into the ebook store and passes the machine over. “Password, please.”
I type it in. He takes it back and types in a credit card number. “Now you have one-click ordering. Whatever books you want, get them, okay?”
“I’ll pay you back.”
He nudges my knee with his own. “I’ll look forward to that.” He glances toward the counter where we bought our coffee. “I’m hungry. You want anything?”
I look up from the online bookstore and give him a half-grin, because he’s just trying to feed me, as always. “Subtle, dude.”
He touches my shoulder as he stands. “Get some books. I’ll be right back.”
It’s almost overwhelming to look for books in a bookstore with millions of titles. I start with the ones I found at Goodwill. Two of them aren’t available in ebooks, but two of them are. I find all the paperbacks in e-versions. Two historical romances, two travel books, one saga. I close the iPad with a sense of relief. I’m covered. And, honestly, I might not want to spend Tyler’s money on anything else, but for books I could be tempted. I know he meant what he said, and it will make him happy to buy me books.
And food. He comes back with egg sandwiches, a bowl of cubed fruit and two forks, and little patties of hash browns.
“You are hungry!” I say as he sits back down.
“I didn’t eat this morning.” He arranges napkins, one for me, one for him, and gives me a sandwich and hash brown package, then opens the container of fruit and hands me a fork. “Do you like ketchup on potatoes?” He pulls packets of ketchup and salt out of his jeans pocket.
“No, thanks.” I do pick up the salt. “When is your hearing?”
“End of the week.” He gives a little shrug. “My lawyer is sure they’ll drop the charges and end the parole on time if I take another round of anger management classes.”
Another round. I take a bite of my sandwich and study his face for a minute before I speak. He won’t quite meet my eyes, and I know he’s ashamed of the fight with Rick. “You know, I’m not saying it was right to beat the shit out of him, but you weren’t really out of line. You knew he’d attacked me. He put his hands on me, and you knew—” I pinch off a piece of the hash browns off and give him a wicked lift of my eyebrows “—that I wasn’t wearing underwear. Kind of cave man, but pretty normal, considering.”
He shakes his head. “Thanks, but it was a pretty big fuck up on my part.” He spears a cube of cantaloupe. “Hauling his ass out of there and throwing him on the sidewalk would’ve been one thing. Losing my shit and beating the hell out of him is the problem.”
He meets my eyes then, glances away, and I see him swallow. It occurs to me that he’s ashamed. I reach for him, curling my fingers around the sinewy length of his forearm. “Tyler,” I say. “Look at me.”
After a second he does. I hold his gaze steadily. It’s hard to see all the way into his heart, but I know he can see into mine. “I believe in you.”
He pulls my fingers up to his mouth and kisses them fiercely. A flush burns across the top of his sharp cheekbones, and I feel the heat of his lips on my skin. “Thank you.”
Then, in an obvious effort to lighten things up, he offers me the fruit on his fork. I lean forward and snatch it with my teeth, growling. He chuckles, his posture easing.
We watch the flow of people below us, families with little kids pulling pastel-colored suitcases on wheels and annoyed-looking businessmen, and everyone in between, old and young, fat and thin, black and white and brown and everything else. “It’s a big world, isn’t it?” I say.
“It is. And you get to go back to the place where you spent your childhood. I’m looking forward to seeing it through your eyes.”
The flutter starts in my tummy again, and I touch it. “Yeah.”
“Somebody told me once when I was really freaked over an event,” he says, putting his right hand over my left, “that I could think of that feeling as nervousness or I could choose to see it as anticipation.”
“That’s good. Anticipation.” Even thinking the word eases the tension in my belly. I settle my right hand over his right and he piles his left on top. “Hand sandwich,” I say.
His lip curls on one side. There’s something tense coming from him, hot and bubbling even as he’s trying to be calm and reasonable. It makes my skin prickle, make me think of how all that intensity manifests when we have sex—fierce and wild and sweaty. “It would still be easier if I wasn’t going alone.”
“I know.” He pulls one hand out and puts it on top, and I pull mine out and layer that one on top. The old kid’s game. Our skin slides, slaps. He meets my eyes, turns his palm upward on the next round so that our palms are hot against each other. “You’re going to be fine. You’re smart. You have an adventurous nature.”
I give him a skeptical glance. “I do?”
He frees his hands, and uses one to brush a tendril of hair from my face. The other falls on my thigh. “You’re curious and interested in everything around you, and ready to fly halfway around the world. It’s going to be an epic adventure.”
I smile. “Thanks.”
“I brought you something.” He pulls out a small package wrapped in paisley paper.
“Tyler! How did you even have time? We were together last night.”
“I bought it a couple of weeks ago. Open it.”
I pull the paper off the small white box and lift the lid. It’s a necklace, a charm on an elegant silver chain. The charm looks like a tiny telescope with carvings around the outside. “It’s beautiful.”
“Hold it up to your eye.”
I look through the little hole. “A kaleidoscope!” It’s amazing, hefty for its size, and fully functioning. As I turn it, the tiny worlds inside it change and change again, blue and red chips falling into new patterns with purple and a dash of yellow. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“To help you remember that change can be beautiful.
Tears sting my eyes over the thought he put into it. “Tyler, that’s wonderful.” I lean in and press my lips to his, lingering for a moment, looking into his eyes. “Thank you.” I put the necklace on over my head. Closing my hand over the small cold weight of it, I add, “So magical!”
“I thought so, too. Sweetest little thing ever.”
A small silence falls between us again. Quietly we finish the meal, watching people stream by. It isn’t awkward or strained. It’s one of the things I like about him, that he can be quiet, he doesn’t need me to show that I’m paying attention to him all the time.
I roll up the paper from my sandwich, and he says, “We should get you to security.”
Without the weight of all those books, my pack is fine, and as I pull the straps on my shoulders, I say, “That’s better, thanks.”
“Anytime. I mean it, too. Get as many books as you like. I will not mind.”
The security lines have thinned considerably, and he walks with me through the snaky line leading up to the desk. “You need your boarding pass and your passport.”
“Right.” I pull them out of the pocket in the front of the pack, where I decided they should stay. “Electra told me that it helps to have a system when you travel, so you always know where things are. Always do it the same way and then, when you get all jet-lagged or whatever, you still have the system.”
“Smart.” He takes my free hand, and we’re silent as the line moves toward the podium where a woman in a uniform is checking credentials. His thumb travels over my hand, soft and light. Ten people ahead of us. Eight, seven.
“I’m going to miss you,” he says, and slides his arm around me and kisses the top of my head. “But I am so proud of you for doing this. Promise you’ll have a really good time, Jess. Don’t hold back. Promise.”
I hug him back, my arm tight around his lean waist, his chest against my cheek. Waves of terror and sadness and excitement and anticipation wash through my lungs, making it hard to breathe. “What am I doing, Tyler? I can’t believe I’m flying 10 billion miles away from you.”
He tilts my head backward and cups my cheek. “You’ll be fine.”
We kiss then, fierce and deep and wild, a kiss that has to last…how long? I don’t even know.
“One last thing,” he says, letting me go to pull out a roll of fruit-flavored Mentos. “My secret weapon for long flights.”
I grin. “Practical.”
The security woman calls, “Next.”
It’s my turn. I squeeze his hand and let go, stepping forward to give the woman my passport. “Heading home?” she asks.
“Kind of,” I say, and glance back at Tyler. Before he can hide it, I see the loss in his face, then he smiles and lifts a hand.
“Epic,” he says with his fist in the air. I cross my heart, raise my hand. A promise.
“You’re all set,” the woman says. She waves me through.
When I turn back to wave to Tyler one more time, he’s gone.