Cruel Summer

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Chapter 1

Six Months Later

Carter

The sun hit me right in the eyes as I stepped off the bus and I squinted while fumbling in my bag for my sunglasses. Finding them still on my head, I followed the driver to the undercarriage where I pointed out my plain green Army duffle bag. The stocky man gave me a curious look up and down before shrugging and hefting the sack onto the pavement and nodding goodbye. The bus continued down the road and I grinned in amusement. Dad would either blow a gasket or roar with laughter if he knew I had caught a twelve hour bus ride from Brisbane.

I had felt slightly proud of myself, spending the amount for getting up here on a ticket instead of flying. But it had lost all amusement once I realized I would be sleeping in my seat, and the trip became even less fun when the man next to me turned out to be overweight and a snorer.

Clasping my small purse to my hip where it hung, I turned in a circle and spied a few hotels and a hostel around the bus stop area. A warm wind blew down the street and I suddenly felt the infamous humidity of tropical Australia and swiped the sweat off my neck. For the first time I was glad I had cut off my long tresses for a stylish bob that I could still pull up. It might not be as complete as going full Nikita for a disguise, but anyone would have to know me well to pick me out of a line up.

The bus stop map showed I was at the end of the tourist strip of Airlie Beach ‘Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef’, and I let out my first sigh of relief for the first time in 72 hours. A week of traveling, worrying, covering my face with sunglasses and baseball hats, using up the meager amount of cash instead of credit cards. I felt like I was finally far enough from the world I knew to be safe from it.

Shouldering the duffel bag, I walked a hundred feet down the road, passing tan women swathed in bikinis and bare chested men with sea swept hair. Close to the road and sidewalk was a gated park that looked over a large open air pool right next to a picturesque beach.= with a jetty attached. All that traveling to get here. Where no one had ever heard of CEO Cameron Magness or his fuck-up community service daughter.

Jesus, it felt good.

The smell of salt, boats rocking in the harbor, the slight sea spray in the air, the bright Australian sun, and best of all, I was just another blonde in the crowd. I was still clothed, however, unlike most of the women I could see here. Was anyone wearing clothes outside?

I eyed the open pool curiously as I walked down the beach side of the street. Why the heck did they have such a thing next to one of the most perfect beaches I had ever seen?

The street thinned out of beach goers as bars and businesses started to fill up the sidewalk now past the gated park and entry to the beach and I spun around a few times. “It should be somewhere around….” I mumbled aloud. There was the Rum Bar, the post office, and…” I shielded my eyes against the late afternoon glare and looked across the street. The red and white stylized sign above the shop front was old and weathered but clearly spelled out ‘Reef Escapes’.

I crossed the road to the shop front, only to come up to its generic ‘Closed’ sign, and I huffed my fringe away and looked at my watch. Goddammit. I was ten minutes too late.

Hefting the duffel bag, I walked back down to the Rum bar, and sat on a stool facing the street, taking a minute to breath the stale bus out of my system and replace it with this paradise. The barman, a blond looking like he just came from the surf, placed a napkin in front of me while eyeing my duffel on the seat next to me.

“Just off the bus?”

I grinned at him, “Fresh as a daisy. A wilted, tired and very smelly daisy.”

“NIce, and not so wilted just to be clear,” he grinned flirtatiously and I pursed my lips at him. Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Not going to get into this game literally five minutes off the bus. I kept my friendly face, and reached for my purse.

“Ummm, can I just have a coke?”

He rapped the bar with his knuckles and moved down the bar for the drink and I checked in my purse. Holy shit, Australia was expensive. If my cousin hadn’t bought my ticket from Denver on her credit card, I would have been out of my emergency cash long before I landed in Sydney. Two thousand stashed in my Louboutin shoe box seemed like enough at the time, but I had been stupid and uneducated in my first week at Jenny’s house, and even though they didn’t tip in Australia, a $20 Sydney Cosmo nearly made my eyes bulge when I physically had to hand over the money.

Surfer bro placed the pint in front of me with an easy smile and immediately left to attend to someone else and I looked around. Late afternoon, the place was relatively empty, and didn’t seem like a ‘local’ spot.

I sipped my coke and thought this out. The office where I had my new job was closed, so they couldn’t help. There was that hostel I had spotted off of the bus stop. I had never stayed in one before, but assumed it would be like living in a dorm somewhat. That was easy, like college, right? I spun in my seat and watched the few other patrons and couples sitting in the bar, drinking and looking like people on a happy, exotic vacation. One girl had her phone out and I thought of my own, hardly used.

I pulled the smart phone from the lining of my purse and took a deep breath. It was a chance, but as long as I had everything disabled, nothing would come up on geolocation, right? Plus, it was Jenny’s old phone, so everything was under her account, and unless someone looked into her…

I turned on the phone and logged onto the bar’s wifi, a sleuth of messages popped up, sent from Jenny. My legs started to bounce of their own accord on the balls of my feet with nervous energy.

Just passing on what’s been coming through your account. Seems like no one has gotten private investigators involved yet. Can you at least tell me where you are?

I didn’t reply, but scrolled down and saw the one labeled ‘Dad’, only being sent a day ago, when they would have returned from New York.

Carter, this better be a joke. Roseanna says you left in a taxi with a bag and said you would be back ‘later’. Your mother is frantic and is close to calling Smith on you. Be home by Friday...please.

Shit. Smith was not good news. I was fairly confident that if the ex-CIA turned private investigator for my family wanted to find me, it might take him a month but he would eventually sleuth it out. Still, I couldn’t help but smile. My parents leaving for the New York office right after I finished my community service was stupid on their part, and I had made use out of their week long trip to leave Colorado unnoticed. The look on my mom’s face would have been priceless. Darling Carter breaking away from the little bubble she had grown up in.

The Magness Family of Colorado was affluent enough to be mentioned on Wall Street often enough, and unfortunately I had had my share of unflattering Page six pictures every other now and then, but it was easy enough to get past security and Denver’s little army of photogs if you had just given yourself a haircut and were wearing a hoodie and sweats. But still, if people were actively looking, I would stick out like a $100 bill in a group of $1.

Maybe the average Australian reporter with his nose to the ground wouldn’t know that I was legally named under my mother’s maiden name, but Smith knew everything and would be given access to everything. No, Smith was not good for my new path to independence and changing myself from the hot mess Carter Magness had become. Dammit, one week of radio silence seemed like the limit if I wanted to stay hidden.

I wrote back to Jenny,

I’m up North. Please send this to Dad (make sure geolocation is turned OFF).

Dad, please don’t panic. I am safe and got a job on the coast. No one knows me here, so the company will be okay. Going to take a few months for me. Sorry I left like that, but we both know mom wouldn’t let me do it without some kind of security firm tailing me. I plan on being back before her birthday. I am FINE. love you, please let me do this on my own.

I pressed send, diligently turned off the phone, and smiled at the ‘coast’ lie. Technically not a lie, but certainly not California, like I knew he would expect. I drained my glass and signalled to the cute blond for the check, pleasantly surprised at only $3, and picked up my bag again to walk down to the hostel down the end of the road.

Twenty minutes later, I finally placed the bag on a lower bunk bed and looked around the girl’s dorm room of the hostel. Still mid-October, only some of the beds were full and I guessed many of those other women were still out on day trips. I looked around, not terrible for $19. I had some campouts a little worse than this with my sorority house, Tri-Sig, but beggars couldn’t choose their linen count.

I sat down and rubbed my face, thinking about how much to spend on dinner. I knew my job starting tomorrow, paid terribly, even to the working class norms but it essentially included board and food. My brain started to run the numbers of cash remaining, when the room door opened and a tall dark brunette girl, slightly younger than myself, came in with her backpack and moved over to a taken bed across from me.

“Hi, just in?” she gestured to the bag.

I nodded wearily. “Uh-huh, just for the night, hopefully.”

Her brow lifted at the sound of my voice and she gave a warm smile, continuing to unpack her backpack.

“American!? Fun, where are you from?”

At first, I hesitated, but then chided myself. No one knew me here and there were literally thousands of American girls flying into Australia every day.

“Colorado, you? I can’t place your accent.”

She nodded knowingly, “Ah, yes, the Dutch accent, it’s a tricky one. We all watch too much American TV.” She gave another grin and let her hair down from the tight ponytail, as she sat on her bed and stuck out her hand in the space between.

“I’m Rolinde.”

“Carter.” I replied confidently and took her hand to shake, her stomach abruptly rumbling as we let go. Instead of showing embarrassment, she again laughed freely.

“Sorry, long day hiking, I still havent eaten.”

I nodded appreciatively, I myself had only had a 7-11 sandwich with some fruit on the bus, then foolishly followed it up with nothing but a coke. Rolinde leaned back on her bed and looked me over again, studying me closer this time as if she was trying to make up her mind about something, and for the first time I was glad I had on new clothes. I had opted for buying some simpler clothes in Sydney, giving up anything designer to Jenny except for my Valentino Donna sneakers. They were not heavily branded but still looked like a good expensive sneaker, and would be great for work.

Finally, after studying my plain jean shorts and the clean long sleeve GAP tee I had just pulled on, she asked,

“Well, you wanna join me out in town? I hadn’t picked up anything to cook downstairs, and there is a Taco Tuesday special at that one place down the street.”

I gave the younger girl a smile. She seemed nice, at least genuine, and definitely not the type to read american gossip sites. “You know what? Tacos sound like heaven right now.”

I threw my duffel bag towards the back of the wall, partially hidden from sight and then subtly pulled out half of the hidden stash of $800 I had left, and placed half of it in the hidden side pocket of my purse. I followed the dutch woman and together we walked back down the tourist strip and to the bar she mentioned.

The sun had just set, but the strip was still quiet as it seemed tourists were still just returning for the day, and hadn’t ventured out for the night life. The sunset made the low hanging clouds over the ocean turn a million shades of violet and pink, looking like cotton candy from a country fair. Combined with the salt breeze drifting over the beach and onto the sidewalk, brushing my hair away from my face and caressing my bare legs, I suddenly had never felt so good about leaving Colorado as I did now.

Rolinde, was 19, and on vacation from university in Amsterdam for the winter holidays. The more I looked at her, the more it was apparent she was lying and was some kind of supermodel doing as I was and lying low. We passed the harbor jetty entrance to the boats with the park next to it and then the public swimming pool as she was describing her Australian vacation itinerary, and I nodded over to it.

“Any idea why there is a big pool right next to the most fabulous beach in existence?”

She looked over to it and then gave an ‘aha-ha’ look with her eyebrows,

“Right? Yes, it’s because of the jellyfish. Crazy, huh?”

My own eyebrows shot up, “What?”

“Yeah, summer is prime jellyfish season all over the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll see when you go diving or snorkelling. You have to wear a wetsuit, always. So, they couldn’t have people not swim when they get here, so they made a pool.”

“Jellyfish? For real?” I asked one more time, hoping she was trying to pull a joke on the new girl.

“For real, like the instant-death kind,” she said with a smile.

The taco bar Rolinde mentioned was slowly filling up by the time we arrived and got a booth looking over the sidewalk and people passing by. The place seemed like it would easily serve as a bar with a dance floor once the kitchen closed. If it wasn’t for the presence of so many good looking half dressed men and women coming from the beach, it could have been a bar from any college town in America. I eyed the menu as the attractive waiter left, but not before giving Rolinde an appreciative smile.

Perusing the menu, I was hit with the overwhelming urge to just go without dinner tonight. I would not use my credit card. I would not use my credit card.

A few minutes later the waiter returned for our order and Rolinde went all out with her hunger, ordering a plate of tacos, and a beer.

“I’ll just take the ten dollar tacos and some tap water.” I asked, and Rolinde looked at me inquiringly, I felt like I had to explain,

“I’m on a budget, like a bread and water type of budget until I start my job.”

She nodded appreciatively,

“No worries, man. You have a job lined up? That’s cool.”

I nodded, “Super cool. It’s with a sailing company. They needed someone with my type of visa, and luckily I seem to have been the only one to apply with some sailing experience and do some kitchen stuff.” I sighed, my first real job. I had no illusions, it was probably going to be the hardest shit I had ever done. “It doesn’t pay much but.I needed something different, you know?”

She gave her glamorous smile, but sensed I had some things I did not want to talk about.

“Yeah, I get it. But hey, you are a beautiful blonde American. If you want to drink, there are ways to get you drinks.”

And she gestured her head over towards the bar and I turned to look. A pair of men were standing there, each holding a pint and staring over in our directions. They had on wife-beaters and denim shorts with dark, tanned complexions and shaved heads. They were kind of plain, but also seemed like the type who might have their own series of mug shots.

“Ewww, no. Rolinde, noooo. Sketchy man central over there.” I muttered low to her, almost laughing at her suggestion.

“What? They look fine. Especially the tall one. Your American standards need to loosen up here, it’s a country from convicts remember?” She paused and I frowned. It was true, my close circle was basically of hot, rich daughters and sons. Spoilt rich kids, for sure, but still, progeny of models and aristocrats. Rolinde then quickly whispered, “Anyway, it’s too late, because they are walking over this way.”

My mouth gaped like a codfish and the two men came up to the side of the table with their drinks,

“Hi ladies, can we join you?”

Rolinde’s eyes looked over to me expectantly, and I internally sighed, answering for us both.

“Sureeee, we were just waiting on dinner.”

The men joined us at the table on sitting up on either side. The man of my height, called Declan sidled up to me, while the tall one introduced himself as Brock to Rolinde. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Declan kept some distance between us on the booth seat, and actually smelt like cologne. I looked him over again, rounded face, turned up nose and muddy brown eyes. Overall, pretty harmless. Wasn’t going to wreck me with

“Can we get some drinks for the table?” he asked.

I pursed my lips together, eyeing Rolinde and the smirk she was knowingly sending across the table. It was true, my mom had graciously bestowed me with Swiss features, and dad, his kick-ass metabolism. I wasn’t clueless about how I looked, like an all-American cheerleader. I just never had to rely on it before. Cute blonde Americans could get drinks, huh? I had always been able just to get my own, but now... What the hell. I had been a good girl for the last 6 months, did my community service and probation dutifully with a smile.

“Make it a pitcher of Margarita.”

Across the table, Brock gave a low whistle, “Girls gone wild, huh?”

I spread my hands onto the table, emphasizing that I was serious. Declan’s soft face had an amused grin on it, that I was not going to humor. “Not at all, fellas, just a ‘welcome to paradise’ drink, alright? I’ve got a new job to start tomorrow morning.”

The men wiggled their eyebrows, almost in unison, before hailing the waiter for the first pitcher.

………………………..

I looked across the makeshift dance floor and found Rolinde deep in the embrace of Brock. The dutch girl had found several of the other hikers she had spent the day with at the bar, and they all seemed like old friends after the third pitcher she and the girls had shared.

I watched them with a smile. Her hair fell around her shoulders and created a curtain around the two’s faces, languidly kissing. The sweat on the back of her neck gleamed as he firmly grasped it. Their hips swayed in time with the classic rock, and they seemed to be ignorant of everyone else in the bar. How free she looked.

Young, traveling, making out with an Australian local on a dancefloor, no one to judge her for grinding against a random. Nothing to make her feel guilty about having some fun. No one to remind her of her responsibilities.

God, I wanted that.

I was way past that.

I sipped the last of the one margarita I had been nursing all night when a deep voice spoke low into my ear, fighting the loud music.

“Another drink?”

I turned to Declan on the stool beside me, and gave him a remorseful mock frown.

“Sorry, man, I’m starting that new job tomorrow. Gotta hit the hay soon, actually.” I turned back to the dance floor and watched Rolinde take a breather. I used her pause in exploring Brock’s tongue to wave goodbye and made motion I was going back to the hostel. She gave a thumbs up and wiggled her eyebrows at her partner and I visibly rolled my eyes at the young woman. Unlike me, Rolinde probably wasn’t going to go back to her own bed tonight .

“Can I walk you back to the hostel?” I turned on my stool and faced Declan again, watching the action on the dancefloor with the same knowing smile at the pair. I frowned at the question and he caught it.

“Nothing fishy, I swear.”

I gave him a smirk and picked my purse off of the spare stool behind me. Guys were all the same, and this one seemed innocent enough. Almost dumb with the several beers and the margaritas he had picked up and enjoyed with the group they had met. It was a simple walk down the strip to the hostel at the end of the street with lots of people everywhere, and he seemed less and less sketch. My one margarita was nice, but I had tapped out early and was feeling the long day of travel weigh everywhere.

“Sure, as long as there are no fish.”

He gave me a big grin, and I gave a wave to Rolinde, now talking with some of the other girls she had met on her hike and Brock. The street seemed to really come to life after ten, with swarms of tourists and locals walking up and down to the various bars and restaurants, and I listened to Declan try to impress with all the famous people who lived in the area. I almost smiled when he named an American actress I had met at a party once, and became acquaintances with when she wanted to go skiing in Foxwood Glen.

People in bars were spilling out onto the street, and as we passed the entrance to the public pool, the now black water looked sinister in the night. The benches around the pool showed blurred silhouettes of people sitting on top there had to be at least three couples making out and drinking on its tables and benches.

“Feel like doing a line, young lady?”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise and turned to Declan as we continued to now amble down the sidewalk, the question still on his face accompanied by a slight grin. What the hell?

“You’re holding?” I asked, a little taken back. He nodded with a little pride and I gave a polite smile for want of something to say. Besides being a good source of local knowledge about the surrounding area, I had thought Declan was actually kind of boring once he had gotten a few margaritas in. But a drug user? Did not see that one coming.

We passed the public park, now deep in shadow and the entrance to the harbor jetty when Declan suddenly took my hand and pulled me in the direction with jovial enthusiasm.

“Here, I am pretty sure that her boat is parked at the end. You have to see this thing. It had to cost at least fifty million. My mate got a job on the crew last week, lets see if he is there, huh?”

It wasn’t until we entered into the inky black park, far away from the street lights and crows when I finally got my wits around me and focused on the surrounds, “Wait wait, Declan. Sorry, man, dark, secluded parks are my no-go zone. I’m sure the boat is nice, but I’m good,” and I wiggled my hand in his for him to let go.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure in the far corner of the park on a bench. He was cloaked in the shadows, but a cherry of a cigarette flared to life from his lips as he leaned over his knees. I gave a breath of relief knowing that there were other people in the park.

Declan, however, didn’t seem to see the other person in the gated park, as he squeezed my hand like he was offended.

“Don’t be like that dahl, I’ve been the picture of chivalry tonight.”

“Yeah, and it’s quickly going south, mate. Now let me go.”

Instead of doing as asked, he yanked my wrist forward violently and I fell into him, my free hand pressed into his chest. My pulse quickened and throat started to close up in panic with the unexpected violence. He grabbed my face and gritted into the side of it, the smell of beer floating into my face.

“You fucking yank tourists, all the same. Come over here for a good time, flirting, scoring drinks, then want to leave the party giving everyone blue balls.” and his other hand left my face to grab my free hand as I was momentarily frozen in fear.

Shit, shit, shit. I squeezed my eyes shut briefly and tried to remember. I had just had this training three months ago. After watching the security footage and me being man-handled, Cameron Magness had to be reminded paparazzi roamed the town to stop him from driving straight over to the Stryker Ranch and drop kicking the dude back into puberty.

He had then insisted on self defense lessons after the seriously sprained knee and bruises from Rob healed. Declan’s hot breath ran across my neck, and I came back to my senses as I realized he was pushing my hand towards his dick, edging at the denim of his crotch.

Make him hurt.

The instructor’s voice came back to me. That was his one rule, men don’t expect to get hurt. If you’re going to do something, make sure it hurts. I was assaulted with the image of Rob grabbing my face and mashing it into his. And it was happening again.

He wanted me to grab his dick? My hand reached down lower, feeling the outline of it under the denim, while he gave a little satisfied grin and I did the same. I copied his smile, right before my palm clasped his dick and balls in the one handful and wrenched it upwards. He made a loud shriek, and leaned forward right before I stepped back and brought my knee to meet his face.

The yelp died in his throat with my knee and he fell to the ground, now holding his nose instead. I took another step back to watch him curl over onto the ground, and I felt my adrenaline surge.

Go, go! Get out of the dark, rape park!

I backed away further, sure he wasn’t getting up to chase, and started to speed walk right back to the entry gate of the park. The dark figure was still sitting on the bench, the gleam of a faint street light shining off his dark hair. He hadn’t moved a muscle.

“Th-th-thanks for the help, asshole.”

He said nothing, but raised his fingers to his shadowed forehead and gave a half assed salute. I huffed out a breath of frustration, and left the park, wiping tears out of my eyes as I came back onto the street and into the crowd and back to the hostel.

I rubbed my hands across my face, threading my hands through my hair. Jesus, that was stupid. Good ole Carter Magness. Still making the same dumb-ass mistakes. A cop car slowly cruised down the street and I studied it. Should I go to the police? Make a report? Declan was probably still in the park, hopefully nursing his future bastard children.

I shook my head to myself as soon as I had the thought. No, there is no way that Cameron Magness wouldn’t hear about his only daughter being assaulted on her first night on her own if there was a police report and someone wanted to check it. And if anyone at the police station thought they maybe even slightly recognized my face, a quick internet search would probably have that damn paparazzi shot from three years pop up.

I glared down at my feet as I took long strides towards the hostel. My hands shook as I grabbed the door’s handle and I rubbed them together to get the adrenaline out as I walked into the hostel doors.

The night shift manager, an older, portly man with a terrible come over and ruddy cheeks opened his mouth as he watched me walk in but quickly clamped it shut. Obviously I didn’t look as good as I felt, and I felt frayed to my core.

Instead he simply nodded to me as I passed, and I didn’t dare stop lest all the emotions just spill out.

I was playing right into victim blaming by not telling anyone but I was resolute. I was going to do this and I wasn’t going to run back home just because of some asshole who probably had never had consensual sex. I opened the door to the girls dorm quietly, trying not to wake anyone. Walking through the room though, all the beds were empty, and only two or three seemed like they had things on them.

I let out a long sigh of relief and sat on my bed and used its little night light. I was okay. I wasn’t hurt, just a little shaken. This was not going to break me. I would be stronger than some local redneck. I pulled my purse off from my neck and paused at the sight of the secret side pocket slightly zipped open.

No. No.

I frantically zipped it open the rest of the way and gasped. The money was gone. Fuck.

I pulled open the rest of the little pockets, hoping to be wrong, that it was somewhere else. After a few more seconds of panic lodged firmly in my chest. I slumped over my knees and took some deep breaths.

Okay, half of my money was gone. By who, it didn’t seem to matter. Probably that snakeish piece of asshole Declan, but nothing had changed. I still wasn’t going to go crying home. I still had a few hundred dollars left, and my job started tomorrow. They did muffins and toast downstairs for breakfast. I wasn’t going to starve. I was going to be okay.

I was going to be okay.

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