“You’re sure the transfer went through?” I asked the friendly voice at the end of the line.
“Yes, young lady, everything is fine. I’ll hold it in my dock for a few more weeks and wait for you to come and pick her up,” he replied with amusement at my anxiousness. “I’ll speak to you soon, Ms. Brunner,” he finished before ending the call. I looked down at the screen a final time before throwing the phone into my duffel bag and shutting the cubby bench door.
I might not have liked the idea of having a phone at first, a door to the outside world but it had sure been useful when trying to keep Jackson on the outside of something. Since giving the secret up, Dad had called a few times during the week with not much to say. He seemed to just be reassuring himself that the phone worked, and asked about where I was staying. Although since he now had my phone number, I was 100% sure he was tracking my location and just wanted to see if I would lie. He was only slightly amused when I admitted that it was with my employer, a man.
Above my head on the deck, I heard the footfall of many new passengers come aboard and make their way to the front of the boat. Finishing up the final touches of the newly renovated interior, I listened for Jackson’s heavy tread.
He had been quiet on our drive down to the dock, having spent most of the morning by himself in his study and on his computer. At first, I had been worried that he was angry at something unknown. But then he had given me a kiss to end all kisses before we left the car. The type of kiss that would have made me jealous if I wasn’t on its receiving end.
And now the week of sexual solitude was definitely finished and we were back at work. I sighed, and listened to the faint sounds of Jackson’s introduction and welcome to the passengers he was giving up top. Pulling on the tent-like blue employee tee, I tried to remember that a sex-filled week at Jackson’s sprawling bungalow was the best vacation I had been given in a year, and not to be too greedy when the man had to work, wanted to work, rather than take a loan from his new girlfriend.
Jackson came back to the shelter of the boat, the engine starting up a moment later. He called down the entry to the cabin, “You ready, Carter?” and I sprung up the stairs and gave him a subtle pinch on his ass in response.
Jackson gave me a smirk and gestured his head to the front. “I’ve already untied us, why don’t you go up the front and introduce yourself and pass out some waters? Half of these guys look hungover as hell.”
I grimaced, certainly not wanting a repeat of the last time I was on the Revenge and went for an unplanned dip in jellyfish infested waters. Grabbing the pack of small bottles as he asked, I wandered up to the front as Jackson steered us out of the harbor, eyeing the new passengers, all men. Seemingly friends in some kind of group.
I stood on the side and addressed them,
“Hi guys, I’m Carter, first mate extraordinaire. Ask me if you need anything and Jackson isn’t around. I hear we have some New Year’s hangovers on board, huh? Water anyone?” and gestured to the small bottles in the carton. Everyone raised their hand and I moved around, handing one to each.
As I was walking back to the shelter, one of the men stood and came behind me, a familiar American voice calling my name and I turned to it,
“I’ll take one if you please,” he asked and my eyes went wide as he raised his head, the ball cap at first hiding his face with its strong jaw, neatly shaved.
Rob Stryker. My first love, my first heartbreak, my first literal partner in crime. Here. On my boat.
My mouth gaped like a codfish and he gave a genuine smile when he saw my wide eyes and a stunned expression. He gently took the bottle out of my hands, stroking my fingers with the touch,
“Hey baby, missed you too.”
I used my weight to lower the sail, the coarse rope sliding through my hands as it nearly lifted me off my feet. The anxiousness in my chest had left a few hours ago with Rob’s sudden appearance. Now all was left was some kind of strange fear as I subtly watched him on the bow of my boat, scanning the cerulean waters and watching the Whitsunday islands sail by.
Paradise had been invaded. And he was wearing crocs.
I had awkwardly shuffled back in slight horror after he took the bottle of water from my hands, returning back to Jackson, silent. What in the cold, blue hell was Rob Stryker doing here? The answer was glaringly obvious. Was he going to give me away to Jackson, to anyone? I tied the sail off and looked to the back of the boat, where Jackson was helping the passengers choose their wetsuits and give brief info about the coral area they were about to snorkel.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” the voice I knew as well as my own spoke into my ear and I recoiled at the closeness of it, turning to him and stepping away. He had taken off the ball cap, his dark blonde hair turned wavy with the salt and sun, his bare chest staring at me as he had stripped down for the water. Rob’s eyes roamed down my body, obviously.
“Though these eyes maybe wouldn’t have recognized you if you hadn’t just introduced yourself. No wonder no one’s been able to find you.” I shielded myself from his leer and crossed my arms in front of me while he continued, “I like the haircut and that tan on those legs?” He made a guttural sound of pleasure and I inwardly shuddered, glancing back to the end of the boat, fearful Jackson would see us.
“What do you want, Stryker? Why are you even here? How the hell did you get here?”
The ever-present smirk left the once-a-GQ-model face, and his arm came up to rest on the sail mast, partially hiding us from the shelter of the boat. “I need to talk,” he quickly stated and I huffed out a breath.
“Uh... no thanks. I don’t think we have much left to say to each other. Your attorney said the last of what I wanted to hear. Now, enjoy your vacation on my boat, then leave.” I calmly said and moved around him only to feel his iron grip around my wrist. It didn’t yank me back but held me still. My heart picked up for a second, remembering the last time he held me like that, and I looked down to the wrist with focused composure.
Rob, for his part, seemed to realize the fucking audacity, because he quickly released it and tried to imitate a reasoning expression. “Look, I am assuming that no one here knows that they have a daughter of a Fortune 500 CEO on board who could buy one of these goddamn islands if she had her heart set on it.” I stiffened at the unspoken threat and gave him a stern look. I was not the Carter of old, the sniveling seventeen-year-old who begged him to not break up with her.
I was the one who remembered that his attorney had tried to pin a lot of his mistakes on me. Who remembered how much of a cretin he was and that I was stronger. Rob saw the change come over my face, knew that threats about exposing me might backfire spectacularly. I would literally throw him off my boat and into the picturesque water that could easily kill him. He placed his hands on his hips and I didn’t dare look down to his bare chest, the defined and sharp six-pack on display.
“Look, I just want to talk, okay? I’m in trouble.”
I sighed and relaxed my body slightly, giving up some of the hard edges. I was a good person. I was a good person. I had to remind myself of it twice because that’s how we were different. Rob had let someone drown to save his own skin. I, however, had and would literally dive in to pull them out.
“When we disembark. Meet me in the small park with the white benches,” his body relaxed with my negotiation and I added in an angry tone, “but stay the hell away from me for this trip. I mean it Stryker, don’t be giving me any lost-lover looks or shit like that.” The man nodded sharply with a hint of a smirk on his face, and I spun around on him, joining the others in the back.
Shit, shit, shit. This could not end well. ‘Trouble’? I didn’t dare take his foul-smelling bait and ask what kind of trouble the son of a billionaire had that money couldn’t fix but I guess I would find out soon. I rounded the shelter just as Jackson left the small group of men, now prepping on the back platform. His hand instinctively came out to my waist, and he caught himself in time with a self-reproving smile that I knowingly mirrored.
Professional. We were going for ‘professional’ on the boat. No couple-stuff in front of customers. I laughed at the idea at first but now was thankful for the personal space. Our week together might have literally been one of my schoolgirl fantasies. Seven days in a sprawling house surrounded by hot jungle spent having passionate sex with a demi-god of the ocean who looked like the young hot version of Triton. All in between bouts of reading and sleeping.
Schoolgirl fantasy nothing, that was every woman’s fantasy.
I sat on the bench inside, watching while Jackson secured the vessel and surreptitiously glancing at Rob who was now selecting his own wetsuit and snorkel for the water.
Jackson glanced up from the sonar, turning it off, and saw me looking at the back of the boat.
“Seems like a nice bunch of guys. I don’t think they are going to be hitting the booze tonight, either.”
I gave him a tight smile and said nothing.
“Goodbye, enjoy your time on the reef,” I smiled at the brunette Frenchman. He returned it as he walked down the plank, following the others off to the jetty and I watched them jeer each other.
“See you around,” Rob chimed and I reluctantly turned to his smug face. I said nothing but gave a grim smile, looking over his face and then down to my own feet. He understood that I wasn’t going to give him the goodbye he desired and he walked down off the boat and off the jetty. My body involuntarily shuddered at the sight of the back I had seen naked lay beside me in bed countless times.
A hand snaked itself under my shirt and coiled around my waist possessively. Jackson’s hot breath came beside my ear, “That was the longest 42 hours of my life.” He said with feigned anguish before I felt my hair brushed away and warm lips came to my nape.
I clutched the hand to still it, exhaling the little bit of fear that was growing in the pit of my stomach. I wanted Jackson. To be with him. I hadn’t come clean about myself yet but every time it came up, he made it clear that money didn’t matter. So maybe the rest was just noise that also wouldn’t matter. But everything going forward needed to be on the level.
I spun in his hold and held his hand between both of mine and he leaned in to give a full kiss. Full but reserved from what I knew he could really do with that mouth. I stopped him short and walked with him into the shelter, planting hands on his shoulders and forcing him to sit.
“Don’t freak out.” I prefaced warily.
Jackson’s body immediately turned rigid, his face etched with a new concern, “Okayyyy.”
I pushed my hair behind my ears and squared off standing in front of him.
“That was my ex that just left the boat.”
His lips pursed together in question and confusion on his brow. Whipping his head around to look behind him as if Rob was still there, “The American frat bro that didn’t know what a shirt was?” He asked incredulously and I nodded. Jackson raked his hands through his long hair as he did when he got nervous and finished by resting his head in his hands.
“He agreed to not make a scene and leave me alone as long as I spoke with him after the trip.”
Jackson was on his feet in a second.
“Your ex stalks you from America and you want to go talk to him? Babe…” he started with a stern tone and I pressed into his shoulders again to make him sit, this time I sat on his lap and took his bearded jaw between my hands.
“Babe. Now I’m going to go and talk to him in the park for roughly ten minutes before telling him to get the fuck off my island. Then we are going to go and do the grocery shopping because I want to try and switch up the menu for this next cruise. Okay?”
Jackson’s jaw was stiff in my hands for a moment, his eyes boring into mine, trying to make me change my mind. I leaned down and kissed him softly, our lips wandering over each other while my tongue held itself back and I breathed out a plea in between. “Trust me, Jackson.”
He let out a sharp, deep breath, switching his gaze between my lips and eyes and I held his stare. “I’ll be back in twenty minutes, tops. Okay?”
Another deep inhale, his hands clenched around my waist briefly before releasing. He nodded, “Twenty minutes. Then I’m coming after you, understand?”
Beneath my hands, I scratched his beard affectionately, resting my palm on his cheek. “Twenty minutes, then back up comes. Got it.” I stood up from his warm lap, his fingers still hooked in my belt loops, a forlorn look on his face and I leaned down a final time to try and kiss it off. “Twenty minutes,” I repeated before leaving the security of the shelter and into the bright sunlight, striding right off the boat and off of the arm of the jetty, crossing onto the main branch of it.
My focus now on whatever shit storm Rob Stryker was about to lay at my feet, I almost didn’t recognize a face I had seen before walking down the jetty towards me, only catching him as he and another shorter man passed. Brock. The young, good looking man that the dutch Rolinde had hooked up with what felt like a lifetime ago. Brock by himself probably wouldn’t have made me pause. But the Indonesian looking man next to him did.
We passed each other and I caught the unknown man’s gaze searching for mine before the moment had gone and I stopped to stare at their backs, confidently walking down the jetty. I shook my head to clear it and continued walking out of the marina. Rob Stryker was known for his mind games and had been the undisputed champ of messing with mine until this year.
But now I had something better in my corner. I had Jackson. Rob thought he held a special place just because he took my virginity in a five-minute tumble in the Stryker Ranch’s home theatre? He was about to get schooled in what made me tick now that I was down-under. And he was a generous slab of 6’2 muscle, dark trimmed hair, and 8 full inches.
I strode off the pier, the park I had mentioned not a hundred feet away and I shuddered with the memory of Declan and this park. Why the hell had I chosen this as the site where I would be reunited with the man who had nearly physically coerced me into covering up an accidental death? Rob’s familiar back came into view before I could answer my own question.
Sitting at one of the benches, waiting patiently. Very unlike any Stryker I had yet to meet. Keeping my strong gait, I came up behind him, and forgot the formalities, sitting immediately on the bench across. He had twenty minutes before I fully believed Jackson would come and either deck him or remind me that it was time to go.
“Okay Stryker, what the fuck are you doing here, and how do I get you to leave?” I calmly asked, my words and tone contradicting each other. He took my abrupt arrival in stride, tapping his fingers against the wooden table top of the outdoor bench. Giving me a smirk.
“Oh, I don’t think I’m going anywhere, Magness. Not after what you put me through, and then ditching me as soon as you had done your time.”
I immediately scoffed at the accusation, but he plowed on through, “Plus, I don’t think I’m the only familiar face you’ll be seeing soon.” I stilled, now wary of the smirk that I once was enamored with, now looking just mean. I took the bait this time,
“What do you mean?”
“About a week ago, I was pulled into the manor house, along with your two other blonde bimbo friends. Cameron Magness himself asked us if anyone knew your whereabouts. Apparently, you were hurt somewhere, and Smith was looking but no luck yet.” Rob paused, his fingers playing with his fraternity ring on his finger, a thick chunk of gold, “We then got some of the story, and I suddenly remembered reading your journal when you were 17, and your last-ditch plan was to come to the Barrier Reef and sail around and ’figure ‘you’ out’.” He leaned away from the table, now looking around the park and outside to the street behind me, the lunchtime swell of tourists yet to emerge.
“After a quick flight out here, some digging, asking the right people questions in a few hotels and hostels, I finally struck it right.”
I shook my head, totally bypassing the issue of my then-boyfriend reading my cringe-worthy feelings of a 17-year-old. “Okay so, well? My parents now know where I am. I’ve talked to them several times since then. Where is this going, Rob? This couldn’t be your grand plan?”
“Oh, I haven’t told a soul. But Alison was also in that room.”
I dropped my head down to the table and gave it a little smack against the worn wood. Goddammit, Alison Finnegan. Cousin of the Duchess of Sussex in England. Biggest gossip in Colorado. Rob might keep quiet but she would definitely bemoan to anyone with a microphone how her best friend was missing, presumed dead. I was royally fucked over by a literal royal. Rob could see what was going through my head.
“So, I am assuming that if you checked the headlines in another day or two, you will see last year’s ski bunny photo of yourself plastered everywhere.”
“Carter!” A strong voice called out from behind me, and I turned to see hot-cop Joe stalking towards the table in his uniform, his eyes burning a hole in my forehead. He pulled up next to me at the table, hovering over me with his height.
“What the fuck, Carter?”
“What’s up, Joe?” His eyes flickered between the two of us, and he pulled a phone out of his front chest pocket.
“This is up.” And he flicked the screen to a picture of me from 2 years ago at a ballroom college function with the bold red headline of an online magazine. ‘Colorado Mining Heiress Missing’, I sent a dirty look to Rob, who had also peeked over to see the headline, now holding a frown on his features before I looked back up to Joe.
“Obviously a mistake. I’m 23, Joe. I’m legally an adult.” Joe opened his mouth to contradict my explanation when I added, “But yes, my parents do know where I am. I left Colorado for some alone time, so if anyone calls you, I’d appreciate it if you say that you have never heard of Carter Magness.”
He folded his arms in front of him, looking harder than stone at my proclamation in his cop uniform.
“Does he know?”
I grimaced. “No, but I will tell him, okay?”
He pursed his lips, unsure if I was telling the truth. “I will also call my parents and make them call off the search. Hopefully, the lawyers can strong-arm the gossip rags and just make them say I am found, unharmed.” I looked sternly to Rob,
He raised his hands in defeat but still with that goddamn smirk on his face, “Whatever you say, babe.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed at Rob with the term of endearment, “And what about this guy? Does he need to get the hell out of town?” Rob didn’t turn to look at the brutish cop, standing tall over him, but kept his eyes on me, challenging me to let Joe onto him. I’m sure Joe could run him out of town, but it would just make things in Foxwood difficult.
“No, just let him be, he’ll be leaving soon anyway.”
Joe gave Rob another dirty look before turning his displeased one onto me. “Okay, well, I’m going to go to lunch with Linda soon, and I am going to tell her. So you should do the same.”
I solemnly nodded to him before he turned away and walked out of the quiet park, my eyes following him as he crossed the street, and was out of sight.
“Him?” Rob asked and I gave him my attention again with an unamused look. His eyes lit up in understanding after a moment, “The captain?” he asked and I let out an annoyed sigh.
Rob leaned forward on the table bench, a new look of wonder coming over his eyes. “It’s the Captain, huh?” He gave a full, genuine laugh, ”Well, well, societal daughter, too good for the Glen kids when she came back from Princeton, now taking Vitamin D on the high seas. Fucking poetic,” he laughed and I had decided that was it, bracing my hands against the table to rise.
His laugh cut short and turned serious, “Wait, wait, no. Please, I’m sorry. I said I was in trouble and I meant it.” I looked down at him for a long second, finally resuming my seat.
“Talk,” I commanded.
Taking a deep breath, Rob actually seemed nervous for a moment, his fingers drumming against the tabletop. “Dad cut me off after I did my community service. Like, disinherited-no-more-money-from-anywhere kind of cut me off. Said I could live on the ranch, but strongly encouraged to leave it unless I show him something ‘worthy’.”
I let air whoosh out of my lungs. That was big for Rob Stryker, an only child. He had never worked a day in his life outside of schoolwork, and I was sure he had most likely paid someone to do it for him. He had been relying on taking over the family business when his dad passed away. I nodded in understanding and sympathy,
“That sucks. Do you have anything saved?”
He shook his head, his hands reaching over for mine, taking them together. An expression of sincerity came over his features. No smirk, no humor, no malice. “Magness, we should get married.”
My heart skipped a beat for a second, the air hung silently in between us along with his statement.
Snapping my hands back out of his hold, I belatedly gasped, like my brain was on a two-second delay. “Of all the low things, Rob. Because you now have no money, you think I’m an easy sucker to tie your name to?” I said with venom. Across the table, Rob shook his head again at my accusation.
“I never lied, Carter. Saying no to you that night 6 years ago was the worst mistake of my life. It's you, it’s always been you.”
I leaned away from him, filled with disbelief at the balls on this man. After everything, everything in this past year, he still thought of me like the good old back-up plan. No more. Taking a calming breath, I flicked my watch upon my wrists. Five minutes left on my twenty-minute limit until Jackson stormed down that jetty, and at this moment in time, if he wanted to take a hook to Rob, I might not have minded.
I looked back to him, schooling my features, “Sorry, Stryker. But that ship sailed a long time ago. Schoolgirl Carter would have taken you up on it, so might have College Carter, but this version of me is pretty goddamn happy. So that a no on the marriage proposal.” My eyes involuntarily glanced up behind him to the jetty, looking for Jackson’s tall dark figure.
He saw my glance, and also looked behind him, asking with incredulity. “Fucking hairy Popeye? Seriously?”
I leaned across the table to him, “Rob to say you are toxic is an understatement. You’re fucking Chernobyl you’re such a biohazard,” and came off the table, “Now, goodbye, good luck, and please get the hell out of my town A-SAP, okay?”
Instead of replying with a jeer, as I would have expected, he shook his head but said nothing. Behind me, I felt a presence and heard some boots tread the hard-packed earth and I turned to see the leering face of Declan right behind me. My body stiffened and my fist instinctively curled into balls.
He didn’t seem to notice however because he kept the smile and stared into my eyes with a thick intensity, “Hey, blondie,” he said and down my end of the bench, a new, heavier figure sat down, and I recognized him from the hostel. The night manager. He looked over to Rob,
“Finally found your runaway girl, huh mate?”
Rob nodded, still looking up at me with a cold look on his face. Like I had wronged him.
“She take to your plan?” the night manager asked and after a few seconds of silence from Rob, he answered himself, “No, didn’t think she would honestly. Declan here says she is pretty fiery,” he laughed with ugly humor. I looked between the three of them surrounding me, my breath hitching. I straightened up with alarm, looking around the deserted park. It was the middle of the day but in a secluded park, far from any foot traffic.
The short, thick man ignored by body language, still focused on Rob. “You ready for the alternative now?”
I sharply narrowed my eyes to my ex, nearly hissing at him, “What the fuck, Rob?”
Declan came beside me and nodded in the direction of the pier. “Take a walk with me, dahl,” he said as he reached out for my hand. I recoiled at the human piece of trash,
“Please listen to the words I’m about to tell you before I knee you in the nose again, fuck...off,” I emphasized only to have him give a full smile at my request.
I looked back to Rob, “This is by far the stupidest thing you have ever done, Stryker. The stupidest.” At my hand, I felt Declan’s cold fingers reach around my wrist and I instinctively went to smack him in the face with my free hand, only to have it stopped mid-air by the man on the other side of me, now holding my other wrist.
“Now, now, Miss Magness. Violence is ugly on someone as beautiful as you.”
I was about to wrench both of my wrists out when the hostel manager suddenly said, “Come now, Carter, Jackson is waiting for us,” and I stilled, looking at his face, quite serious with the unspoken threat against Jackson. I looked back to Rob, now beyond angry, and emphasized once more to his cold face.
And letting Declan lead me out of the bench, I walked calmly with the three men back down the jetty, uncertain of what I was going to find.