Journey’s End

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Chapter 2

Stella

I closed my laptop and pushed my chair away from my desk. My mind was too preoccupied with the man across the street. I couldn’t believe it when I looked out my window and saw Nate Miller sitting on his parent’s front porch.

I had no idea he was coming home. His mom never said a word when she came over a couple nights ago to loan my dad her suitcase scale. Maybe it was a surprise visit. He hadn’t been home in two years. And why was Jackson Davis back in Donaldsonville at the same time?

I turned off the light and peeked out the curtain. They were still sitting there, drinking beer. But it looked like they were having a serious conversation. I shook my head, disgusted with myself for being nosey.

I had more important things to think about than Nate Miller. Like getting a job. Because there were so many opportunities for someone with an MBA in Donaldsonville, Michigan. I would probably end up teaching at the university in nearby Sault Ste. Marie.

I came home out of guilt. My dad was all alone. I’d been gone for five years. I left for Stanford when I was seventeen. I skipped a grade and graduated high school a year early before completing my masters degree in five years. My entire education was funded by scholarships. My dad never had to pay a dime, and I finished without any debt. I could go anywhere I wanted.

And I came home to Nowhere, USA.

Then my dad took off for Las Vegas with his friends for a guy’s weekend.

Unbelievable.

Two days after I moved home, he left.

My stomach growled, reminding me that I’d skipped dinner. I was just about to head downstairs to the kitchen when the doorbell rang.

Who would stop by at eight o’clock at night? I peeked out the curtain again. There was no car in the driveway. And Nate and Jackson were gone.

I crept down the stairs and tiptoed to the front door, pressing my eye up to the peephole. Nate and Jackson were standing on my porch!

My heart took off in a crazy gallop, my belly fluttering with a mixture of nerves and excitement. What were they doing here? I couldn’t remember the last time Nate came to my house. And he only ever came with his parents when we were little. When he became a teenager, he stopped coming. We probably hadn’t exchanged more than a hi in the last several years.

Jackson reached up and rang the bell again. Should I open the door? I glanced down at my attire. My pink pajama pants with unicorns were really sexy. Not to mention the ratty old t-shirt I was wearing. And I didn’t have a bra on. Not that I needed one. My little boobs were barely noticeable.

“Just a minute,” I yelled before I darted upstairs and grabbed a hoodie.

I took a deep breath, willing my heart rate to settle down as I turned the deadbolt and pulled open the front door.

“Hi,” I said. “What can I do for you guys?”

“Can we come in?” Jackson asked.

“No. I’ll come out on the porch.” I didn’t feel comfortable being alone in my house with two men. Even if they were guys I’d known my whole life.

“Fair enough,” Nate said as he took a seat in one of the wicker chairs my dad kept on the porch.

Jackson leaned against the railing and gestured for me to take the other chair. I sat down, glancing back and forth between them as I waited for one of them to say something.

“Nate has a proposition for you,” Jackson said.

I looked at Nate expectantly. He rubbed his hands up and down his thighs, his eyes fixed on the floor of the porch.

I couldn’t recall ever seeing Nate Miller nervous before. He was as gorgeous as ever. And a lot bigger than I remembered. He’d filled out.

I couldn’t help noticing the muscles rippling underneath his tight grey t-shirt. Were his shoulders always that broad? And when did he get the tattoos? Both of his arms were covered in some kind of intricate design.

He ran his fingers through his thick, chestnut waves, those devilish blue eyes scanning my chest as he cleared his throat.

I folded my arms over my chest. Why was Nate checking me out? He’d never done that before.

Ever.

Although to be fair, the last time I’d spent any time around him, I was thirteen.

“Jackson is one team short for the next season of Marathon of Adventure. He asked me if I would do it.”

“Hold on,” Jackson said, raising his hand. “She needs to sign an NDA before this conversation goes any further.”

“Why do I have to sign one?” I asked, wrinkling my brow. “This has nothing to do with me.”

Jackson opened his briefcase, that I hadn’t even noticed he’d brought, and produced a sheet of paper. “If you’ll just sign this, we’ll answer all your questions.”

“Seriously?” I scoffed, grabbing the piece of paper from his hand. I skimmed the paper before penning my signature at the bottom.

“Go for it, Nate,” Jackson said as he slid my NDA back in his briefcase.

“Well, here’s the thing,” he started, rubbing his jaw as he stared out at the street. “Where’s your dad?”

“What?”

What did this have to do with my dad? Or me for that matter?

“He’s gone to Vegas. Why?”

“Just wondered,” Nate replied. “So, um. Yeah.”

“Oh my God,” Jackson snorted impatiently. “I need a newlywed couple for my show or I’m gonna get fired. Nate agreed to go on the show, but he needs a partner. And that partner has to be his wife.”

I stared at Jackson, my mouth hanging open wide as I processed his words. “Are you out of your ever-loving mind, Jackson Davis?”

“Probably,” he sighed. “But my career is at stake.”

“And you agreed to this?” I asked, glancing over at Nate.

“Yeah.” His eyes locked onto mine, sending a shiver down my spine. I was still attracted to him after all these years. “We would get it annulled as soon as we were done filming the show. It’s not a big deal. It would be in name only to meet the requirements.”

“Are you guys insane?” I yelled.

“Shhh,” Jackson hushed. “This is top secret stuff. You signed an NDA.”

I stood up and pointed to the stairs. “Leave. Now. My answer is no.”

“Won’t you at least think about it?” Jackson whined.

“No. I’m not participating in a fake marriage. And I have no desire to be on your show. I’m sorry I can’t help you, Jackson.”

“Sorry for bothering you, Stella,” Nate said, smiling sadly before descending the stairs.

Jackson opened his briefcase and pulled out a red duo-tang. “Here,” he said, handing me the folder. “In case you change your mind. This has all the information potential contestants receive. But make sure nobody else sees it. It’s confidential.”

After they left, I went back inside and closed and bolted the door. My knees trembled as I walked into the living room and flopped on the sofa.

What just happened? Cause it kind of seemed like Nate Miller asked me to marry him. And be his partner on Marathon of Adventure.

I could never do something like that, even if it didn’t involve a fake marriage. I wasn’t athletic. I could barely run down the sidewalk without getting out of breath. And the contestants on that show had to do some pretty extreme stuff. There was no way on this earth I could repel down the side of a mountain or go bungee jumping.

My iPad dinged, alerting me that I had an incoming FaceTime call.

“Hey, Dad!” I said.

“Hey, kitten. How’s everything at home?”

“Everything’s fine, Dad.” I squinted when he panned out. What the hell was he wearing? My dad was decked out in a baby blue, retro tuxedo, grinning from ear to ear. “What’s going on? Are you drunk?”

“Drunk on love, baby,” he said in his best Elvis impersonation. I should mention that my dad was a huge Elvis fan.

“What are you talking about?” I laughed.

A young, redheaded woman appeared in the frame. She was probably around my age. Dread seeped into my gut as I took in her white dress and the baby’s breath in her hair.

“Dad, what is going on?” My voice shook as I prayed this wasn’t what it looked like.

“I got married, honey,” he announced proudly, wrapping his arm around the girl’s shoulder.

“Excuse me?”

“This is my wife, Tina.”

The iPad slipped through my fingers, landing on the sofa with a soft thud. My dad got married? To a girl who didn’t look much older than me. This was not happening.

“Stella, are you there?”

I swallowed hard, picking up the iPad with trembling hands. “I’m here, Dad.”

“Hello,” Tina said with a little wave.

“How? When?”

“We met last night. She was our waitress at the club we went to. As soon as our eyes met, I knew. After she got off work, we met up and talked. One thing led to another, and we decided to get married.”

“You married a cocktail waitress in Vegas! Dad! Are you insane!?”

“Don’t be rude, Stella.”

“How old is she, Dad?”

“Stella,” he warned in that voice that always alerted me to the fact that my dad was getting angry. But I didn’t care. I was pissed.

“How old, Dad?”

“Tina is twenty-four. So you two should have a lot in common. I’m hoping you will become best friends.”

“You’ve lost your mind,” I shrieked. “She’s a cocktail waitress! From Vegas! She’s probably a stripper. She is, isn’t she?!”

“Stella! Enough!”

“I’m hanging up now, Dad. And I won’t be here when you arrive home with your new wife.”

“Why don’t we talk more about this tomorrow when you’ve had a chance to calm down?”

“Bye, Dad.”

My body shook, rage sweeping through my veins as I fought the urge to break something. I considered myself to be a pretty easy-going person. It took a lot to trigger my anger switch.

How could my dad marry a woman he just met? That wasn’t like him. He didn’t have a spontaneous bone in his body. My dad had never even had a girlfriend since my mom. Not that I knew of anyway.

Nate’s mom told me he started dating after I left for college. But he never mentioned it, so I didn’t bring it up. I was just happy he was getting back out there. I didn’t want him to be alone, but there was no way this marriage was gonna last.

My dad wasn’t old. He was only forty-six. But his wife was almost half his age! My dad was kind of nerdy like me. He was an engineering professor at Lake Superior University. There’s no way a twenty-four year old cocktail waitress wanted to be tied down with a guy who liked to spend his Saturday nights playing Scrabble or putting together a puzzle while he watched The Discovery Channel.

My phone chimed with a text from my dad.

Honey, I’m sorry I upset you. Can’t you be happy for your old dad?”

Not when I think you’re making a huge mistake.

I’m sorry you feel that way. But I love Tina. I can’t wait to bring her home.

Does she know where you live?

Of course. She’s happy that Leo will have a safe place to grow up.

Leo?

Tina has a six-year old son.

I squeezed my eyes shut, shaking my head. This just kept getting worse.

Dad, I need some time to process this.

I understand. Tina and I are heading down to Mexico for a couple weeks. We need a little alone time to get to know each other before we start living together as a family.

I started to type that you should get to know someone before you marry them, but then I erased it. What was the point? They were already married. My dad was going to bring home his new family home to live in our house. And I had no intention of sticking around.

Have a nice trip, Dad.

Everything is going to be okay, honey. Trust me.

Good night, Dad. Have a nice time in Mexico.

Stay safe. Mike and Ellie are right across the road if you need anything.

My mind was on the high spin cycle, banging against my skull like an unbalanced load in the washing machine. In the span of one hour, I went from the prospect of a quiet, albeit slightly boring life, with just me and my dad and a teaching job at Lake Superior University, to a marriage proposal and the introduction of a stepmother and stepbrother.

I don’t know how long I sat there staring at the fireplace. It wasn’t even lit. It was just the focal point during my temporary catatonic state. The fireplace and the red duo-tang on the coffee table.

I kept glancing at it, opening my mind to the opportunity it represented. A chance to get away at a time when I really needed it. An escape from my new reality. An all-expense-paid vacation of sorts. With the potential to win a lot of money.

But at what cost? I had to get married. Could I go through with that? It wasn’t like it was a stranger. It was Nate. A guy I’d known my whole life. The son of people who were like parents to me.

And it was only a piece of paper. I wouldn’t be expected to perform wifely duties.

I shivered at the thought. There would be no consummation. I would make that crystal clear. As if Nate would want to have sex with me anyway. No other guy had ever shown any interest. Unless you counted the nerds at Stanford.

I’d been asked out many times, but I always declined. I’d never met anyone that could hold a candle to Nate Miller. He ruined me for all other men. Which was silly considering our platonic relationship didn’t really extend beyond casual acquaintances.

I snatched the duo-tang from the table and opened to the first page. It couldn’t hurt to read it. I’d watched every season of the show since it premiered. But this one was totally different. There were no eliminations! And it sounded a lot more relaxed.

The contestants had a full day off in every state before they moved onto the next leg. There would be no sleeping in airports. We would be driving an RV the whole time. At least we wouldn’t have to carry all our belongings in a heavy backpack.

At midnight, I made a cup of tea. By two am, I’d read the entire package from front to back. At four am, I’d decided I was going to do it. I was going to marry Nate Miller and go on Marathon of Adventure. I eventually fell asleep on the couch just as the sun was coming up.

“Ugh,” I muttered, immediately regretting my decision to sleep on the couch. My whole body felt like a twisted pretzel. I sat up and stretched my stiff neck until I worked out all the kinks.

The red duo-tang was lying open on the coffee table, a jolting reminder of the life altering decision I made in the wee hours of the morning. But I was committed to it. That’s how I was. Once I made up my mind about something, I usually followed through. This would be no different.

By the time I finished showering and getting dressed, Ellie was on her porch drinking coffee just like she did every morning. I grabbed my jacket from the hall closet and headed across the street.

“Good morning, Stella,” she called out as I headed up her walkway.

“Good morning, Ellie.” She frowned when I reached the top step. “Oh dear. Did you have a rough night, sweetheart?”

“You could say that,” I sighed.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“My dad married a twenty-four-year-old cocktail waitress he met in Vegas. And she has a kid.”

“Um. Wow.” Ellie set her coffee cup on the table and stood, pulling me into her arms. “Are you okay?”

“Not really,” I whispered.

“That doesn’t sound like something your father would do.”

“No kidding,” I said drily. “So I need to get out of here before he brings his new family home. Where’s Nate?”

“I think he’s still in bed, sweetie. Why?”

“We’re gonna get married and go on Marathon of Adventure.”

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