Sneak Preview: Just Come Over

Book 12: Escape to New Zealand

Sneak Preview: Just Come Over

Available January 14, 2019 – Preorder now! 

Ch. 1 – Like a Thunderbolt

“I told you it was going to be ninety dollars,” Zora Fletcher’s son, Isaiah, informed her. “It’s ninety-two, actually, so I missed two dollars. We were only supposed to spend eighty. If we put back the pineapple and got the other kind of oil, it would be eighty-three. That’s closer. Or else we have to only spend sixty-eight next time.”

The cashier, a comfortable lady of middle age, fortunately didn’t sigh. She may have had to put back the olive oil herself a time or two in her life, Zora suspected. She told her son, “We’ll do ninety-two for now. And next time, I’ll believe you when you add up.”

He grinned, showing off a couple missing teeth. “Even though I’m eight.”

“But very good at maths.” As she swiped her EFTPOS card, she thought yet again that, whatever her dad had said, she’d been right to sell the house. She didn’t need that stress.

The cashier handed her the receipt and said, “Careful out there. We could get a tornado, they say. A cyclone’s enough to be going on with. There’ll be trees down, that’s sure.”

“Lucky I made my deliveries earlier today,” Zora said. “It was blowing hard enough then. A good night to stay home.” They headed to the door, and she told Isaiah, “Zip up,” as a shopper ran in with a shopping bag held over his head.

There wasn’t an anorak in the world that would protect you from this, but they pulled up their hoods all the same. The wind came at them like a shrieking animal, and the rain slapped against their bodies in waves. She was gasping, and Isaiah was laughing. “It’s like being on a tall ship,” he shouted. “One that’s about to wreck!”

She had to laugh, too. He was right. It was an adventure, a spot of excitement, and they were barely five kilometers from home. February, the height of summer, and only six o’clock in the evening, but the Auckland sky was dark with storm, the carpark of the Mount Albert Pak ‘n’ Save swirling with sheets of water. “Run!” she shouted, and they headed down the path between the aisles of parked cars. Why were you never parked close when you needed it? She was gasping by the time they turned into their aisle, and their spot was all the way at the end. Isaiah had the trolley now and was out ahead of her. She was shouting, “Slow down!” and reaching for him when a gust of wind swirled into them from behind and sent him and the trolley flying forward, straight at a silver SUV that had just turned the corner.

Everything happened at once. She was leaping after Isaiah, shouting his name, slipping and skidding to one knee on the wet asphalt, feeling the pain of it only dimly. Isaiah was hauling back on the loaded trolley, pulled by its momentum and the wind, and the SUV was stopping with a rocking jolt, faster than she’d have imagined it could. Which was followed by a second jolt, as the front of the trolley smashed into the car’s bonnet and Isaiah bounced off the trolley’s handle, staggered, and looked back at her.

White face. Open mouth. Round eyes. “Sorry,” he said. She saw it more than she heard it, the shape of the word on his lips, his hand clutching at his skinny chest, and she got to her feet and went to him, and tried not to shake. He was all right. He was all right.

The rain and wind drowned out everything else, except the man who erupted from the driver’s side like a thunderbolt. His anorak was unzipped, his ink-black hair, on the long side, was plastered to his head with rain, and he looked, at that moment, the size of two men, with the strength of three.

Very much, in fact, like Rhys Fletcher.

Exactly like Rhys Fletcher.

Who didn’t like her in the first place, wasn’t meant to be in Auckland in the second place, and whose obviously-latest-and-greatest model of . . . oh, brilliant, it was a BMW—now had a sizable dent in the front, in the third place.

And who was, in the fourth place, her brother-in-law. Or he had been. Once.

* * *

Rhys wasn’t shaking. He was shouting. Call it his happy place. That had been a bad moment, when he’d slammed his foot practically through the brake pedal and known he wouldn’t stop in time.

“Are you all right?” he yelled at the kid, who had scrambled backwards to his . . . mother? It was hard to tell under the anorak hood. She wasn’t very big. The way she had her arms around him, though, she had to be his mother.

She asked, “Rhys?” He heard that voice, saw the way her hand went up to her hood, like she was about to touch her hair, her habitual gesture, and thought, What? No, even before he registered the face. The one he’d seen in too many dreams.

“I’m OK,” the kid—his nephew, Isaiah—said. “I’m sorry about your car. I didn’t mean to hit it.” Behind him, a sedan pulled up with an impatient splash of water and a screech of brakes and hooted.

Oh. They were all standing in the middle of the carpark, and his SUV was blocking the road.

He told both of them, “Go get in your car, out of the wet. I’ll come unload you,” then ran around and pulled the SUV into an open space to the tune of some more angry hooting from the bloke behind him. If Rhys didn’t respond the way he may have wanted to, that was because he’d had forty years of practice in controlling his temper, whatever it looked like.

He should get points for that. He never actually did. Apparently, looking fierce was enough to earn you that reputation. And, possibly, raising your voice a bit, when necessary. And tackling like you were pushing a fella’s ribs through his spine, but that was just rugby.

Was Zora in the car when he got there? Of course not. That would have been too easy. Also, she would have had to do what he’d suggested. Instead, she and Isaiah were standing in the blowing rain, unloading carrier bags into the back of a pink van. Who had a pink van? Zora, naturally. If Isaiah had been more than bruised, though, surely he wouldn’t be unloading bags. That was a relief. Rhys told them, “Get in. I’ll do this.”

Zora grabbed two more bags, slung them into the back, and said, “Already done. Climb in, though, and we’ll talk about your car.”

Her voice sounded like she was trying to keep it from trembling. Her hands actually were trembling. That had scared her too much. He wanted to give her a cuddle, and he absolutely couldn’t. He also had absolutely no desire to talk about his car. Isaiah had hold of the trolley, and Rhys took it from him and said, “I’ll put it back. Get in the car and wait.”

“OK,” Isaiah said, just as Zora said, “You don’t—”

Rhys didn’t wait to hear what he didn’t have to do. He headed across to the trolley collection area and dumped the thing, then ran back to the van. It was raining, yeh, and blowing, too, but he was used to rain. He’d been out with the boys in it half the afternoon, in fact. When you played rugby, you didn’t get to choose the conditions on match day. If you didn’t know how to hang onto the ball in the wet, your opponent probably did.

Not that anybody had complained, of course. He could think they’d been trying to impress their new coach when they’d jogged on out there, but it was probably more that they’d been coached well by their last one.

Never mind. For right now, he climbed into the van’s passenger seat, shut the door, twisted around to look at Isaiah, in the back seat, his hood pushed back, his anorak unzipped, and his dark eyes too big for his face, and said, “You hit the trolley handle pretty hard, mate. How much does it hurt?” In fact, the boy had his hand on his ribs, where he’d slammed into that metal handle.

“I’m OK,” Isaiah said. His teeth were chattering, though, and it wasn’t cold out here, just wet. Shock, probably, and some pain. He’d got tall, surely, for . . . seven? Eight? How old was he now? Tall like his father, Dylan. Built slim like Dylan, too, instead of solid like Rhys. A back, not a forward. If he played.

He should play. His uncle should know whether he played. Rhys hadn’t been doing his job, and he always did his job.

No excuse, not for this. He could say he’d been overseas. He could say he’d been busy. He could say heaps of things. He knew the real reason.

He told Zora, “You could put the heat on,” and she looked at him out of those sloe eyes that should have belonged to a Slavic princess, then turned the car on and did it.

Check, check, and check. The eyes. The broad cheekbones and wide forehead, and the unexpectedly pointed chin. The perfectly soft, wonderfully pink mouth with its lush bow that made you think about kissing her, no matter how hard you tried to stop yourself. Just now, that mouth was saying something, but he’d lost it in the distraction.

“Pardon?” he asked.

“I’ll pay you for the car,” she said. “Just tell me how much.”

He blinked. “The car?”

Isaiah piped up from the back. “Because I bashed it with the trolley, Mum means.”

“Let me know how much,” Zora said again. “Let’s hope they don’t have to replace the entire fender. Why do I think that BMW will require complete replacement?”

“If it’s heaps,” Isaiah said, “we could do a payment plan like we’re going to do for the van, Mum. We have two hundred and forty-five dollars a week extra,” he told Rhys, “because we have a better house now, but you can’t spend all your extra, because things happen, and Mum needs a new van, too. And then a heat pump and a new roof, but the van matters more, because that’s her live . . . live . . .”

“Livelihood,” Zora said. She had some pink in her cheeks. “Nah, love. We’re all good.”

“Maybe we could spend a hundred dollars a week to fix the car,” Isaiah said. Clearly, a boy who knew how to keep to the topic. “Then we’d still have a hundred forty-five to save for the van, and for emergencies.”

“You don’t need to worry about that, mate,” Rhys said. “It’s just a prang. Adds character. Sometime or other, when somebody bashes me from behind at a stoplight, I’ll get it fixed.”

The color deepened on Zora’s cheeks. Temper, embarrassment, or something else. Outside, the storm had picked up even more. She’d turned on the windscreen wipers, but they could barely keep up with the driving sheets of rain. The sky was an eerie deep purple until it was lit by a sudden flash, the ground nearly shaking with the crash of thunder. The carpark’s lights, which had come on hours before schedule, flickered, then revived.

The air in the van, though, smelled sweet. Scented. And Zora’s hair was as mink-brown and wavy as ever, and looked as soft and touchable. A little disheveled from having her hood up, like she’d just got out of bed. It was cut shorter now, to above her shoulders, and fell in a fringe across her broad forehead. She said, “You’re thinking something. Something unflattering.”

“I am?” He tried to think how to answer that, and couldn’t.

“Isaiah is interested in money,” she said. “And brilliant at maths. He likes to budget. I don’t . . .” Her mouth closed on the words.

He filled in the rest of the sentence. “You don’t put your worries onto him.”

Another crash of thunder. The van nearly shook with it. “It’s empowering,” she said, still sounding stiff. “To understand your circumstances and help to cope with them. Even for a child.”

“Especially for a child,” he said, and she gave him another startled look.

Silence for a moment, and he was reaching for the door handle when she said, “I should ask you why you’re in Auckland at all, let alone in the Pak ‘n’ Save carpark. I should ask you to dinner.”

“Well, not if you’re going to ask like that, you shouldn’t.” He couldn’t help smiling, and after a second, she did, too.

In fact, she laughed. “You’re right. I should graciously ask you to dinner. Considering that it’s raining buckets out here, and you’ll be in some hotel and not wanting to go out again.”

“Actually,” he said, “I’ve shifted up here. Coaching the Blues now, with Aleke Fiso gone off to Wales. Didn’t anybody tell you?”

“Ah . . . no. They didn’t. You have?” She hesitated, then asked, “Are you . . . on your own, still? Or not?”

“Yeh. I am.” His marriage had done its final spectacular bit of falling apart around the same time Dylan had died. The two things could have been connected. When he felt pressure, he tended to throw himself more deeply into his work, or to go out on the water. Alone. Neither of those had been marital benefits for Victoria, he could see now. He’d had time enough to admit his part of the disaster, or maybe it was even simpler than that, and they’d both just married wrong. Whatever the reason, he was still waiting out the separation period to make it final. Two years could feel like a long time, when all you wanted was to move on.

“Oh,” Zora said. “I’m not sure I ever said it at the time, but I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. Anyway, I was coming in for provisions, as my furnishings arrived today and were unloaded, from what I hear, and this is my day to get out of that hotel. Unless they dumped it all on the driveway, in which case, I’m buggered. But yeh, I’m a resident. And a hungry one.” He threw all caution to the winds. He needed to know how she was doing, and Isaiah as well. What was that about her needing to do a payment plan? He needed to find out. Also, his house would be shocking. It would also be empty.

That was why he said yes. Surely.

 

 

Ch. 2 – Sparks

Rhys drove his own car to the house, which gave Zora a few minutes to collect herself. Or it would have, if Isaiah hadn’t asked, “Why don’t you like Uncle Rhys?”

“I like him fine,” she said. That was the problem. When he’d climbed up into the van and turned that fierce gaze on her, it was like all the air had been sucked out of the car. She’d had to remind herself to breathe. He might be coaching now instead of playing, but he still looked like all he wanted in the world was to lace up his rugby boots, run out there into the storm, and bring some men to the ground. With emphasis. It might be the black scruff and the too-long hair, it might be six-foot-three of hard muscle that hadn’t gone anywhere in the years since he’d finished playing, or it might just be the elemental essence of him. Rhys was twice as much there as everybody else. You knew it. You felt it.

She’d felt it the first night she’d met him. When Rhys’s Crusaders had played Dylan’s Blues in Auckland, and she’d gone out after the game with the two of them, and some of the rest of the Blues, too. Dylan had been the life of the party, as usual, laughing, joking, jumping up to dance between the tables. Rhys had been nearly silent, his forehead and cheekbone bruised red from the game, the lines of his jaw squared off almost aggressively, a day’s stubble covering the cleft in his chin. That, and his unexpectedly sensual mouth, were the only things about him that didn’t look tough, and she had a feeling that if he could have changed them to match the rest, he would have.

He was Dylan’s older brother, though, so she did her best. She wasn’t sure if she liked him, she was fairly sure he didn’t approve of her, and that flutter in her stomach when he looked at her had to be nerves. It was important that he like her, though. However complicated the relationship was between the brothers, there was nobody Dylan looked up to­ more. So she asked, “Where did the nickname come from? Drago?”

He turned to look at her. He had to turn, because he’d been watching the three young women standing at the high-top next to them in an idle sort of way. Probably because they were flipping their hair back over their shoulders and casting glances over at the two rugby-intensive tables, especially this particular spot. Just before Rhys had turned away, one of them had touched her finger to her lower lip in a move that would have done justice to a schoolgirl. Or, rather, a porn star pretending to be a schoolgirl. It was so hard not to laugh.

When Rhys finally looked at Zora, his expression was amused. Not that he smiled. He just . . . expressed amusement. Around his eyes, maybe. They were a startling hazel-green, not what you’d expect with the swarthy skin, the black hair, or the Maori tattoo that ended just below his elbow. A single half-arm tattoo, instead of Dylan’s full sleeve, not to mention the ones on Dylan’s calf and his chest. She knew about Rhys’s unadorned arms and legs because she’d just seen him in a rugby uniform. She was guessing about the chest. The intricate black tattoo on his upper arm, with its emphatic pattern of chevrons, triangles, and the curve of koru, said, “I’m Maori, yeh, and I’m proud of it. But I don’t need to shout about it.” Actually, all of him said that.

“Does that work?” she asked him, then inclined her head toward the table of girls in a saucy way she was quite proud of. She got more amusement from him, and she had to smile back.

Dylan slid into the chair opposite her and asked, “What?”

“An invitation from across the way,” Rhys said. Even his voice was almost gravelly. How much testosterone did this man have in his body? He was very nearly frightening. He should have been frightening. Instead, he was just . . . something close.

“Don’t let us stop you, mate,” Dylan said. “I’ve got my girl.” Which made Zora feel fluttery again, for a different reason. Or the same one, probably. She was excited because Dylan was exciting. Because over the past few months, her life had gone from black-and-white to full color, like she’d started taking some powerful drug, and now, she was addicted.

“It was this,” she said. She put her index finger on her lower lip, opened her mouth just a little, and widened her eyes at Dylan, who burst out laughing. She laughed herself and asked Rhys, “Did I do it right?”

He wasn’t laughing. His face had hardened instead. “Yeh,” he said. “That was it.” He took another sip of beer. He was still on his second. Dylan was putting away his fourth. But then, Dylan’s team had lost. “You asked about my nickname,” Rhys said. “Dunno. Got it a long time ago.”

“Drago?” Dylan said. “Because that’s what Rhys means, in Welsh. Dragon. Our Nan told us that when we were little kiddos. Well, I was a little kiddo. Rhys was all of ten or so, and already shaving.”

“Nah, mate,” Rhys said. “Eleven.”

“So I started calling him ‘Drago,’” Dylan said. “Thought it was cool as. Dangerous as. And it got picked up. Of course, I may have been a wee bit jealous of it, too.” He raised his pint glass at his brother. “Always, bro. Whatever I did, you were still older, you bugger. Bigger and stronger, too. Then Dad took you to Aussie, and I didn’t have to compare anymore. Good times.”

That last part had carried an edge. If Rhys was aware of it, he didn’t show it. His voice was calm when he asked Zora, “How old are you?”

“Mate,” Dylan protested as the player beside him put a palm to his face. “That work for you? You pull in the pub with that often, do you?”

Another slow look from the hazel eyes, and Dylan said, “You probably do. Still—no. Or, rather—yeh, you’re right, Zora’s the prettiest thing you ever saw. And she’s doing her degree in architecture. She’s not tall, that’s all. And then there’s that pretty bit, because that’s exactly what she is. A pretty bit.”

Rhys looked Zora over some more, and she could feel herself flushing. “I’m twenty,” she said, with a snap to her voice. “I’m five foot two, I weigh forty-nine kilos, this is as big as I’ll ever get, and I’ll have my degree in a year and a half. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes,” he said. Fifteen minutes later, he stood up to leave, still with only two beers under his belt. Dylan walked out with him, and when he came back, his brown eyes were sparkling more than ever. There was an edge to him when he said to Zora, “Let’s go. We’re still celebrating, eh.”

Another rush at the heat in his eyes, the faint roughness of his voice, and the fact that he’d said it in front of his mates. Something primitive about it. And when they got back to her flat and her roommate was out? They didn’t make it past the foyer. And she felt . . . claimed. Overwhelmed. Excited in a way that was almost too much to take, and completely and utterly sexual.

Later, lying in bed, her hand on Dylan’s chest, still giddy at the thought that somebody so beautiful and so exciting was hers, she asked, “What did Rhys say to you, earlier?”

“Said to get up faster from the tackle,” he said. “Bastard always thinks he’s a coach. He’s been doing that all his life as well, with a notebook and all. Bloody annoying. ‘You won’t be playing any rugby from the ground.’ Like I need to hear it from him.”

“How much older is he?” Her heart was beating harder at what Dylan had shared with her tonight, and that he’d wanted her to meet his brother. Whatever she thought of his brother.

“Five years. Thinks it’s ten. Twenty-five and thirty isn’t much of a gap anymore, but try telling Rhys that. He was born old.” Suddenly, he laughed, his mood flipping back to ‘sunny’ in an instant. Dylan could never stay angry. “He also said you were too young, and it wasn’t right, so you can be narky along with me, if you like. I told him you were older than me in every way that counted, and he said, ‘Not old enough to make that choice. She’s blinded by it. The rugby. What she thinks is the glamour. She doesn’t know better yet.’ And I said, “What do you want me to do about it, then? Tell her she’s too good for me and nobly let her go? Fat chance of that, mate. I get hard just looking at her.”

Zora sat up in bed. “You did not tell him that.”

Dylan laughed, pulled her down again, and kissed her. She was still outraged, and she was still so keyed up, too. Her body switched on again like it was in a perpetual state of need, which was pretty much true, and it was fifteen more gasping minutes before Dylan said, a laugh still in his voice, but tenderness, too, “Nah. I didn’t tell him that. I’m not going to talk about you, baby. Not when I’m this crazy in love with you.”

“You . . . are?”

“Yeh. I am. And if you feel half as much as I do . . .” His hand went out to brush down her cheek, and her heart melted. It wasn’t just that he wanted her. It was that he needed her. She was sure of it. “I think you should move in with me,” he said. “The flatmates aren’t bad blokes, just a couple fellas far from the whanau and missing home, and it would be sweet to have you there with me.”

The next day, he’d helped her move, and her life changed again, just like that. The next exhilarating downhill run on the roller coaster, your hands in the air, accepting the challenge and embracing the ride, so much more exciting than you’d imagined your life could ever be. Dylan had been selected for the All Blacks on the Northern Tour the season before. His brother was a perennial fixture. The two of them were New Zealand celebrity, manliness, and glamour personified, and if that excited her—what girl wouldn’t feel that way?

That eager, headstrong, heedless girl had left the building a long time ago, though, and they were nearly home. Rhys was following in his unfortunately dented SUV just behind her, and surely, Isaiah had asked her a question. “What did you say, love?” she asked.

“Why you didn’t like Uncle Rhys,” Isaiah said. “And you said you liked him fine. But then he must not like us. Because he never comes to see us, not like Uncle Hayden.”

“Uncle Hayden lives here in Auckland. Rhys was coaching in Japan when Dad fell ill, remember? But he came back to see Dad every chance he could.”

“I remember a bit. So that means he liked Dad,” Isaiah said with all his relentless logic. “But he’s only come two times since Dad died, so I think he must not like us.”

They were home. She pulled into the driveway, and Rhys pulled in behind her. Boxing her in. The thought made her breath come faster, even though it was the only place to park, and he’d be leaving once dinner was over.

She needed to see some men besides her brother. Preferably ones she could breathe around.

A couple weeks ago, Hayden had asked, after he’d finished mowing the lawns at her house and wiping the sweat off with the hem of his T-shirt, “So when are you going to be getting out there? You’ve got some fit blokes driving by and taking a peek. Why isn’t one of them here mowing the grass instead of me?”

“If they’re looking at you,” she said, “they’re not going to be spending time with me.”

He sighed. “Would you kindly trust the gaydar? Who was out here with me, weeding the borders in her cute little skirt?”

“Skort,” she said. “And they were not. Looking.”

“Oh, yeh,” he said. “They were. They are. You’re still bloody adorable, even as old as you are, and you have to know it.”

“I am fourteen months older than you. We’re practically twins.”

“Except that you’re older. But no . . .” He waggled his fingers. “Sparks? No pixie dust settling over the two of you when you meet Sophie or Caleb or Anthony’s gorgeous single dad at the school pickup?”

“First,” she said, “you’re vastly overestimating the number of gorgeous single dads out there. Second—I think my pixie dust left me a good while back.” She tried to make it a joke, but it didn’t come off. Something about the lump in her throat.

Hayden put an arm around her, and she rested her head on her brother’s shoulder and thought about how good that felt, and how completely inadequate. He said quietly, “It’s been nearly two years.”

“And three since he fell ill.”

“Three since you decided to leave him, too,” Hayden said with that bluntness that could only come from a brother. “You stayed instead, because he did fall ill. You did the right thing, I guess, though I don’t think I could have, but what did it do to you? Killed something inside, maybe.”

“Nah,” she said, and tried to smile. “Stunned it, more like. I notice now, a bit, if somebody’s good-looking. Sometimes I even notice if they’re being flirty. I just don’t want them, is all.”

“Not your type.”

“I don’t think I have a type anymore.”

It wasn’t true. If she hadn’t known then, she’d just been reminded. When Rhys had got into the van, and all the air had left.

The truth? The last time she’d felt sparks? It had been at her husband’s tangi, at the marae in Atawhai, outside of Nelson. One more gorgeous day at the serenely beautiful north end of the South Island. A gorgeous day for something other than a funeral, anyway. Dylan’s home, and not hers. His family, too, and not hers.

Her mum and dad had come for the last bit only. “A funeral’s hard enough,” her mum had said. “Why do they drag it out so long? I can’t imagine.”

At least Hayden had stayed for all of it. “If you have to do it,” he’d said, “I have to do it. Case closed.” Thank God for Hayden.

Worst of all, the sparks had come at the end of those three days, after all the songs and speeches and endless hours of sitting beside Dylan’s body, taking turns with the aunties and uncles and cousins, because there was no grandma and no mum to sit there anymore. Days when she’d waited until the marae’s flag had been lowered at the end of the day to eat, and when the food had turned to chalk in her mouth, her throat closing around her attempts to swallow despite the long fast.

And then, on the third day, the final haka had been performed, the crowd following after the hearse and through the red gates of the marae, sending her husband on his way. When Dylan had been put in the ground and the earth had closed over his casket, she’d dipped her hands in water outside the cemetery, flicked the moisture from her fingers, coached Isaiah to do the same, and walked, her arm around his skinny six-year-old shoulders, toward the car. The whanau had held the feast, the hangi that had been roasting in the ground for hours, there’d been singing and more speeches, and she had eaten barely a bite and felt as old and tired as she ever had in her life. More than all the time in hospital, more even than at the end.

She was twenty-eight. She felt eighty.

She’d been waving away a group of cousins in their cars when she’d become aware of Rhys beside her. He stood there, filling the night with his solidity and his size, and asked quietly, “All right?”

No, she’d wanted to say. She’d wanted to scream it. No, I’m not all right. All I’ve done for the past year is this, and now I don’t even have this to do, and I don’t know how I’m going to do all the things that will come next. All the things I can’t shut out, because they’re there, and there’s only me to deal with them. I’ve spent a year trying to keep my son going and my husband alive. I’ve been watching the money going out and not coming in, and I haven’t been able to do anything about it, and now, I have to. I weigh forty-five Kg’s, and my black dress is too big, even though I waited to buy it until three weeks ago, because I didn’t want to jinx him, like I’m afraid I already did. I was planning to leave him, and it seems like I’ll feel guilty about that for the rest of my life.

Extremely helpful thoughts to share. “Yeh,” she said instead. “I’m good.” She was an expert, now, at holding back, even though there would have been no shame in letting go. You were meant to express your emotions at a tangi. Dylan’s whanau probably thought she was cold, but she couldn’t help it. Maybe it was that she wasn’t Maori, or maybe it was just that, if she started, she wouldn’t be able to stop.

A sigh from him, felt rather than heard. “I don’t reckon you are.” He put an arm around her, and that arm felt solid. She turned into him, and his other arm came out to grasp her. Her head was on his chest, and that was a secure place to be, acres wide, fathoms deep, and strong enough for anything. His hand stroked over her hair, and he said, “It’ll be better. Sometime.”

She hadn’t cried all those three days, or during the days before, when Dylan had been slipping away, a pale wraith of the laughing, irresponsible, impossibly handsome rugby player who’d alternated his brilliance with frustrating lapses, on the field and off, and had never understood why. She’d watched him leaving her, and she’d been numb. Stunned into silence even in her mind, pulled into the ghost realm where the almost-dead walked.

Now, if you believed in Maori tradition, Dylan’s wairua, the quicksilver brightness that was his soul, free of the suffering and the fear, had winged its way northward to Te Rerenga Wairua, the leaping-off place of the spirits at the northernmost tip of New Zealand. The essence of him, the best of him, had slid down the pohutukawa root and into the sea, and had gone home to Hawaiiki to be with the ancestors. But she was still here. And it was so hard to be here.

The sob ripped from her chest like it was taking a piece of her with it. And then the rest came, and she could no more hold them back than the Tasman could keep its waters from merging with the Pacific. The tears rolled down her cheeks and soaked Rhys’s white shirt, and he held her in those strong arms, said nothing, and waited them out like the shelter waited out the storm. And when she’d finished crying at last, she hadn’t wanted to go.

Rhys was the first one to step back. Afterwards, she remembered that, and burned with shame. He handed her a wodge of tissues, smiled a bit, and said, “Clean. I brought them in case somebody cried.”

“Not . . . you?”

“I don’t cry in front of other people.”

“I was just thinking that,” she said, doing her best to mop up, aware of her swollen face, her streaming nose. “That I’ll never be . . .” Her voice wobbled, and the tears threatened again. “Maori. Good at expressing myself. I’m Pakeha all the way.”

“Oh, I dunno,” he said. “I thought you did all right just then. And it’s not that I never cry. I just do it alone. Our secret, eh.”

“Our secret,” she repeated, and something passed between them and tried to take her with it, strong as a rip that caught you in the sea and pulled you out, away from safety.

His face solidified again. That was the only way to describe it. His features would soften for a moment, then harden once more, as if you’d only imagined the softness. She didn’t even know anymore. She was hallucinating from lack of sleep, probably. She was empty, except for that spark of life when he’d pulled her into his arms, and she’d felt . . . held. Protected, for the first time in so much longer than a year.

Wanted.

Female.

He said, “How are you and Isaiah getting back to the house?”

“I should . . . I should stay. Say the goodbyes.” The house would be full of aunties and uncles and endless cousins, of more talking and laughter and tears. And she couldn’t. She couldn’t.

He said, “Grab Isaiah, and come on. I’ll drive you.”

He hadn’t taken them to his Auntie Rose’s, but to the blessedly anonymous white-and-glass elegance of The Sails in Nelson instead. He went in to register them, then walked them upstairs and through the door of the apartment, done up with the kind of austere simplicity she needed now. Black couches, white linens on the bed, and the sea beyond the green grass of the Domain, everything outside vibrant with life, because the rest of the world went on, no matter how your own world had shattered. Rhys set a plastic carrier bag on the kitchen bench. “Roast,” he said. “Meat and kumara and veg left over from the hangi, in case you get hungry again, Isaiah. You could watch some TV, eh. They have DVDs, too.” He crouched down by the TV cabinet and asked, “Toy Story? Or Shrek?”

“Shrek,” Isaiah said instantly.

Rhys smiled. “Good choice. That would’ve been mine, too.” He put the DVD into the player, found the right button on the remote, and got it queued up. After that, he paused the film, handed the remote to Isaiah, rested his hand on his nephew’s dark head, and said, “It’s ready when you are. Keep the sound down, though, so your mum can sleep if she needs to, OK?”

Isaiah said, “OK.” His face was closed down. He was six years old, and done in. He needed time to be quiet, too. At least, Zora hoped so, because she had to shut down. She had nothing left to give, not even to her son. It was a frightening thought.

She told Rhys, “I’ll have to ring up and tell them I’ve come to stay here for tonight. Not sure how to say it, though. I don’t even have a change of clothes, and I don’t care.”

“I’ve already told them. They’ll know that everybody handles things differently. Or if they don’t—” He grinned. “Bugger ’em. There’ll be a dressing gown in the closet in there. A tub with jets as well. You should use it.” He hesitated. “And I asked them to send up a bottle of wine. You could have a bath. Get a little pissed. Order up some chocolate cake for the two of you. Let it all go for a night. Time enough to pick it up again tomorrow. I’ll get your car here for you in the morning, and leave the keys in the office.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Though I do wonder how you know, about the dressing gown and the spa tub and all.” She was nearly rocking in her heels now, she was so tired.

“Stayed here when the All Blacks played a test once.” She thought he was going to put his arms around her again. Instead, he said, his voice nearly harsh, “And don’t thank me. He was my brother.”

She hadn’t seen him again for six months.

 

 

Ch. 3 – Adventures in Curry

He couldn’t really see the house, not through the storm. He could see enough to know it was a move down—way down—the property ladder, though, and it was making him furious.

Get it under control. Not something he had to tell himself often. Other than when he saw Zora.

He got out of the car and ran to the front door. No choice. He was committed. The door opened straight into a kitchen. A bit of an . . . odd one. The backsplash was huge red tiles, the attached seating at the breakfast bar was red plastic, the floor was gray lino meant to look like tile, and the cabinets were some kind of glossy black metal.

It smelled fantastic, though, like an Indian restaurant. Whatever that smell was, he wanted it.

He got his shoes off and put them on the rubber tray, then unzipped his anorak and hung it on a hook beside the other two, and everything dripped. Zora stood in the middle of the tiny square of work space, smoothed her hair, and told Isaiah, “Let’s see your chest, darling.”

Isaiah put his arm across his skinny body and said, “I’m good.” He slid his eyes across to Rhys, though, and something in them tugged at Rhys hard.

It was the look Dylan had given him when they were kids. Part apprehensive, part worshipful, and part waiting to hear what to do next. It had exasperated Rhys no end at the time, because so often, he hadn’t known what to do next. He’d had to make it up.

This time, he knew. “Let’s have a look, mate,” he told his nephew. “You did well being brave about it, but injuries need to be looked after. We’ll get some ice on it. Sure to be a good bruise.”

Isaiah set his teeth into his lower lip, but he let his mum lift his shirt and expose the angry line of red on his upper chest. Rhys said, “Ice, definitely. And a paracetamol tablet as well, if you were one of my players.”

Zora got the tablet from a bottle in a cupboard and said, “Go change out of your wet jeans and socks, love. Or better yet—go have your bath and warm up. You’re shivering. Dinner’s in twenty minutes. We’ll strap the ice to you then. If I do it now, you’ll turn into an ice block yourself.”

She smiled and pushed back his hair with a gentle hand, and he fidgeted under the caress, glanced at Rhys again, said, “OK,” and headed off.

Zora told Rhys, “You’re in shorts, but I can’t do anything about that, except that I’m going to start the fire, February or not.” The storm was still raging outside, the raindrops spattering against the kitchen window like they were trying to get in.

Rhys said, “I’ll do it,” and followed her through an archway and into a tiny dining nook.

Just enough space for a table and four chairs, and a little black cast-iron stove on a brick hearth. Half the wall was brick, and the other half was red. Somebody had really liked red. She flipped a rocker switch, yellow flame appeared behind the stove’s glass wall, and her eyes were laughing as she told him, “That’s it, I’m afraid. No manly skills required. Sorry.”

He had to laugh. She’d never seemed scared of him. Always a little saucy, a little challenging. And if that heated his blood, no matter how hard he worked to cool it down . . . that was his problem.

It would have helped if she hadn’t been wearing snug jeans and a slim-fitting long-sleeved T-shirt printed with delicate wildflowers on stems, both items clearly showing that, as she’d told him the first night she’d met him, she was five foot two and forty-nine Kg’s, and she was never going to get any bigger. If she hadn’t been so . . . pocket-sized, like you could carry her around with you, could hold her up with one arm while you kissed her breathless. Up against the wall.

He didn’t need the picture that conjured up. It would be there anyway tonight, imprinted on his mind when he closed his eyes. He knew it. He’d had experience.

That first night, after he’d left and gone to meet some of the boys from his own squad for a final beer, he’d wanted to go home with the blonde who’d come over to chat, and stayed to put her hand on his arm, to look at him, then look away, and lean forward just enough to let you look down her shirt. He’d wanted to shut it all out, to sink into the blissful oblivion of her willing body.

He could say he’d gone to bed alone instead because easy sex, the kind that had nothing to do with the person he was and everything to do with the person he appeared to be, didn’t hold the appeal it once had, but it wouldn’t have been true. That night, it had held every bit of appeal it possibly could.

No, the problem had been knowing that, when his body was heading over the edge into the dark abyss of that orgasm, where he couldn’t control anything anymore, it would have been Zora’s face underneath him. It would have been her dark eyes he’d watched closing, her soft mouth he’d seen opening. It would have been his beard burn on her neck, her hands clutching his shoulders, her legs wrapped around his waist. It would have been unacceptable.

He needed a night, he’d thought then, and that was all. Some distance, and some discipline. He could find that. He always had. Tomorrow.

Now, he told himself the exact same thing, even as he said, “You didn’t tell me you were moving. If you have a pair of Dylan’s track pants, I could wear those. He always did wear them too long, and his jeans too short. He dressed like a back, no matter how well I educated him.”

She didn’t smile. “I don’t,” she said. “Have any. It’s been almost two years. I had to start over.”

That sounded defensive. He wanted to tell her that he always needed to remind himself of Dylan around her, but how could he say that? Instead, he said, “I should’ve known that, I guess, as you aren’t wearing your rings anymore. I could have come and helped you sort his things, anyway.”

“Never mind,” she said. “Hayden did it. And I took the rings off . . .” A sigh. “Oh, nearly a year ago. One day, I took them off to do some gardening, and I didn’t put them on again. Not an easy day, whatever you think.” Defensive again.

“I reckon it wasn’t. I took my own ring off faster than you did, and I’m still married. Technically. I remember the day I did it, too. How is Hayden? He always made me laugh.”

“Oh, you know. He’s Hayden.” A smile of her own, like the sun coming out. Not a blazing sun. A gentle one, like the view over the paddocks to the sea in the evening, the kind that set your heart at rest. “He said the same thing you did, about Dylan’s trousers. Still not settled down with somebody nice, but he said one of us jumping too early was enough.” Confusion crossed her face, and she stammered, “I—I mean—”

“Never mind,” he said. “Tell me what to do here, and I’ll do it. Your jeans are wet, and I think you fell, back there in the carpark. Hurt yourself, maybe. You could go take your own bath.” And I won’t think about you in it, he promised himself. I can’t live this close and think about that.

She hesitated, then shrugged and pulled a bag of something out of the freezer and tossed it onto the bench, got an onion and a red capsicum from the fridge and a knife from a magnetic strip on the wall, and started to cut the veggies into thin slices. “I have to wait for Isaiah to be done. We have one bath. You could look for candles in the closet for me, between the dining room and the lounge. We could have a power cut.” Even as she said it, the lights flickered. “I’ve got a gas cooker, but I’d rather not use it in the dark.”

He found the candles, noticed again how small this place was—he kept feeling that he needed to turn sideways to get through a room—then came back and said, “You brought a hungry man home, one who’s willing to work for it. Give me directions.”

Her mouth opened, then closed, and her color rose again. What? Why? That had been polite. He was her brother-in-law. She didn’t say anything, though, just fossicked about amongst the books on the bench top, pulled out a slim paperback, found a page, and said, “Do this, then, to fix the peas, and put the bag of rice into the microwave for a minute, shake it up, and then do a minute more. If the power goes out, cook it in a saucepan on the stove instead.” She walked out, and he didn’t look at how those jeans fit, at the curve of her waist and the still-bloody-wonderful swell of her backside.

Get a grip, he told himself, slicing onion with some savagery, and welcoming the sting in his eyes. Pull your head in. You’re too old for this.

Pity he didn’t feel that way.

Dinner was a relief. Isaiah made a pretty fair chaperone. And when Rhys tasted the first forkful of silken chicken in a luscious brown sauce, nutty basmati rice, and the spiced peas he’d made on the cooktop, his eyes opened wide. “Bloody hell,” he said, “that’s amazing.”

“That’s ten minutes at noon, then leaving it to cook all afternoon while I’m gone,” Zora said, “on my busy day.”

“That’s Monday and Friday,” Isaiah informed him. “Also Saturday, but I can help then.” He had an ice pack wrapped around his chest, secured with a sling fashioned by his mum, amidst a fair bit of laughter, from a couple of tea towels. “Mum does businesses on Monday, and houses on Friday. Our best day is Tuesday. Nobody has a funeral or a wedding or anything on Tuesday. That’s when we do walks and fun things.”

“What would that be on Mondays and Fridays, exactly? You’re not doing cleaning, are you?” Rhys asked Zora, his blood running cold at the thought.

Wait. No. The pink van. It sounded—it looked—like massage. Surely she wasn’t an outcall massage therapist. She could get herself into too many dicey situations that way, the size that she was. If that was it—or if it was the cleaning—he didn’t care whether it was appropriate, he was speaking up and stepping in.

He hadn’t said she shouldn’t have sold the house in the hills, had he? That she should have come to him first, because that house had to be appreciating at twenty percent a year? This place couldn’t be ninety square meters. It was smaller than his first apartment, the road was too busy, and it didn’t even have a heat pump. Yes, this little corner where they were sitting was cozy, with the brick wall and the fire and all, but she’d given up too much, selling that house on one of the best streets in Titirangi—what?—six years after they’d bought? Five? He hadn’t said anything about that. He was going to say something about this.

“Of course I’m not doing cleaning,” Zora said, and laughed. “Or whatever else you’re imagining. The look on your face, Rhys.” Isaiah was laughing, too, but Rhys was waiting to laugh himself until he heard what it actually was. “I’m doing flowers, of course, same as before.”

“Oh.” He felt stupid, as well as relieved. “Right. But not in the shop anymore? I thought the flowers were temporary. You got your diploma in architecture.”

“And it’s not worth much without some other things. Internships that you don’t wait years after your diploma to apply for, for one. I’ve got a gap in my CV so big, you could drive a truck through it. Never mind. I love doing flowers, they fit into my life better than architecture ever would, and I’m on my own now, doing them the way I like. Edgy. Modern. Zora’s Florals. Didn’t you see the van? Pink, with orange and purple flowers and all the greenery? Came out so well. I need a new van, and I think half the reason I’ve put it off is because I love the paint job. Plus, this one’s got me through heaps. We may have been stuck on the side of the motorway together a time or two, but she’s always carried me home, in the end.”

“Mum does subscriptions,” Isaiah fortunately said, before Rhys got himself stuck explaining how the pink van had definitely not looked, no, not at all, like it belonged to a massage therapist, or saying what he thought about her being stuck on the side of the motorway. The boy continued, “It’s businesses on Monday, so they have flowers during the week, and houses on Friday. It’s brilliant. She read about it in a magazine, and she was the first one to do it. Now, there’s more competition, so that’s harder, but she’s the best one.”

“Isaiah and I could be a wee bit prejudiced,” Zora put in.

“She gets up at five on Mondays and Fridays, though,” Isaiah said. “I have to go to school those days, so I can’t help. But at the weekend, I do.”

“That’s right,” Zora said. “That’s the other best thing about our new house, is that we have such a good workroom.”

“Besides that it’s two hundred dollars a week cheaper.” Isaiah again, of course. The kid was obsessed with money. “That’s why we have two hundred forty-five dollars extra,” he told Rhys. “Because the other house was all in . . . in . . .”

“Equity,” Zora said. “Worth heaps, but not doing anything for us. So now we’re here, cozy as bugs, ten minutes’ walk to school and about two to the shop, and around the corner from the Waitakeres, if we want to have a walk and a chat after a hard day, or maybe invite a mate along. But besides that, I’ve got a shed somebody was using as a darkroom, with a sink and tap and electrics, room for all my gear and a fridge, and with a concrete pad underneath that stays cool. I’m ten steps from the back door and Isaiah, and that’s why we say we have a better house now.” Her eyes dared Rhys to contradict her. “Exactly the right size.”

“And the shed stays extra-cool in summer,” Isaiah said, “because we put Pink Batts up above the ceiling.”

“Insulation,” Rhys said.

“Yeh. I handed them, and Mum shoved them in. And now it’s cool enough for flowers. Afterwards, we did it in the whole house, because we’d learnt how. So it’s warmer and cooler. Depending. Also, I think the gas bill will be less.”

“Hayden could’ve helped with that, surely,” Rhys said.

“Hayden,” Zora said with another flash from those dark eyes, “has his own life. And Isaiah’s right. Insulation’s easy as to install. We did it ourselves.”

The power cut happened while they were doing the washing-up. Zora had already sent Isaiah to bed with another ice pack, and Rhys had told himself it was only brotherly to do the washing-up with her before he left.

One moment, he was tipping the contents of a slow cooker into a plastic container, and she was loading the dishwasher. The next, a clap of thunder seemed to hit the house at the same moment the sky lit up bright, the two things together like a flash-bang grenade going off, and Zora let out a startled squeak. Rhys set down the pot in the dark, feeling for the edge of the plastic container so he wouldn’t tip butter chicken all over the kitchen, and turned, his hands outstretched, to find those candles.

He’d forgotten how small the space was. One step, and he bumped into something soft. When he pulled his hand back, it landed on something that could never, ever have been anything but a woman’s breast, and he realized he was behind her, and pressed too close. He couldn’t see a thing, but he could identify the parts just fine. A frozen second, and he jumped away, crashed into the benchtop, caught his elbow on something, and felt it sink down into wetness.

A flare of light, then another one. She’d found the candles. She brought one over, her face lit from below like a Byzantine saint on a postcard, then started to laugh.

“You’re helpful, mate,” she said. “Oh, what a mess. Oh, bugger. There’s tomorrow’s lunch gone.”

He already had a bad feeling. He looked down. Yes. He had tipped over the plastic container of butter chicken, rice, and peas, and half of it was on the benchtop and oozing down the cabinet. The other half was on his arm and down his side.

He started to smile, and she laughed harder, until he had no choice but to join in, then start sopping up the mess with a roll of paper towel and chucking it into the bin. “Now,” he said, “I owe you two dinners.”

“I reckon you do. Especially if I tell Isaiah, and he puts it on his list. You may have noticed that he keeps track of things. Give me two or three of those.” She wet them at the sink, then grabbed his wrist and started sponging down his arm.

He froze. He couldn’t help it. He wished the light were better when she stepped back, slapped the towels into his hand, and said, sounding a little breathless, “You can finish that up better than I can.”

Wonderful. She’d noticed. He said, “Adventures in curry. I should be going before I do any more damage.”

“Probably. Especially as you have a new house of your own. You’ll need to take some candles, and a box of matches. There are more in the closet.”

“Nah. I’ll go back to the hotel instead. I’ll have a restart tomorrow, when the worst of the storm’s passed. I need to do some work tonight to get ready for training in the morning, especially if we’re doing it in the wet.”

“Because you’re coaching,” she said. “Here.”

“Yeh.” He waited a minute, and when she didn’t say anything, said, “You could come by on Sunday, if you like. You and Isaiah. To see the place. Give me . . . ideas of what to do with it, and give me a chance to get to know my nephew better.”

“Where is it?” She was working on the front of the cabinet now, crouched down with a sponge and a tea towel and wiping curry sauce off everything.

“Here. Titirangi.”

She looked up fast. “Here?”

“It’s . . . ah . . .” He rubbed his nose, then realized he was still holding the paper toweling. Now he probably had curry on his face, too. No, he definitely did, because his eyes were starting to water, and his nose to run. He needed to leave before the lights came back on. “Where the best house was. The place I like best in Auckland, too. In the trees.”

“You feel that as well? But you grew up on the sea. Your family are fishermen. And then you were in Australia, in Brisbane, Dylan said, playing League. Surely Titirangi is nothing like Brissy. I’ve only been once, but I don’t remember that.”

He hoped Dylan hadn’t said much about Brisbane. Like, for example, any or all of the things Rhys had told his brother when he’d had Dylan over to visit, hoping to impress him like the stupid kid he’d been. That wasn’t a good thought at all. “No. It was city life there. Dunno. Maybe I was reincarnated. Some Maori ancestor, up in the bush, living amongst the kauri.”

“Sounds romantic,” she said. “Probably wasn’t. All that fighting over land and women. Not too flash for the women, either.”

Something in the way she said it had him heating again. She did call to that ancestor, whoever he was. A story straight out of those days, two brothers who wanted the same woman. Back then, they’d have fought for her, she was right about that. Competed to offer her the most, to prove that he could provide for her best, or just fought. That would have worked for him. He’d have fought hard. Now, she absolutely got to choose, which was nothing but right. He reminded himself of that, and that she’d already chosen.

“Yeh,” he said. “I’ll text you the address. And if you and Isaiah come by on Sunday, I’ll show you the place and take you to breakfast. Get one of those meals I owe you out of the way. He can take a quick look at my portfolio, too, and calculate my return on investment. I’ve been thinking I need to rebalance.”

She laughed. “You joke, but in a few years, I think he’d do it. He’s not odd, you know. He’s just . . .”

“Very bright,” he said. “And concerned about his mum, maybe, because he knows he’s got a good one.”

Another intake of breath. She’d forgotten about scrubbing, was standing there with the sponge in one hand and the tea towel in another. Looking soft, and touchable, and . . . vulnerable. His voice had softened, he realized belatedly. “Maybe,” she said. “Though, like I said—“

“You try not to make him worry,” he finished. “Yeh. I know.”

He didn’t kiss her cheek when he said goodbye. He didn’t trust himself to.

He was all the way back at the hotel in the CBD when he realized that he’d never asked her why they’d needed to sell the house. How much insurance had Dylan left her? He and Dylan had talked about it, hadn’t they? Why wasn’t she covered, then? Why wasn’t she secure?

And why hadn’t he known?

 

 

Ch. 4 – Not a Choice

That was Monday. By Tuesday, Rhys had talked sense into himself again. Of course, he’d have to start all over again on Sunday, because Zora and Isaiah were coming by the house then, the day after the final match of the preseason.

That was a thought for Sunday. This wasn’t Sunday. If you couldn’t compartmentalize, as a rugby player or a coach, you couldn’t do the job. Just now, he was talking tackling.

“Anticipation.” It was raining again, the tail end of the cyclone, so he raised his voice to compensate. “You can’t tackle him straight on if you don’t know where he’s going. You’ll be bouncing off, and he’ll be going straight through you. You don’t want to be that guy. But if you watch the film enough times, you know what the fella’s got up his sleeve, and you can counter it. Let’s have it again.”

The blast of his whistle, and the ball went from the halfback to the first-five, Will Tawera. A cutout pass over the next man in line, all the way to Kevin McNicholl, who had to reach up for it. He pulled it in, stepped, then stepped again, so lightning-quick that if you’d blinked, you’d have missed it, shifting his line.

He didn’t fool Marko Sendoa. The flanker was on him like an avenging angel, but pulled his tackle at the last second. No point bruising your mate’s ribs two days before the match.

Rhys blew the whistle. “That’s a hospital pass, Will,” he told his first-five. “You’ve left Kevvie hanging out to dry. Watch your leading hand. The moment you lose focus, start thinking about the rain and how you hope this is the last round, the leading hand is off anywhere but where it’s meant to go. And Marko—how did you see where Kevvie was heading?”

Marko considered a moment, then said, “He knew I was coming at him. I knew he was going to step. Couldn’t step to the right, because Koti was there, so I knew he’d step to the left. I was watching for it.”

“Yeh,” Rhys said. “Right, then. Same again. Choose a different target, Will.” He was about to blow the whistle when he saw one of the younger fellas say something to his neighbor. Tom Koru-Mansworth had been the player on the left when Kevvie had stepped. The player Kevvie had known he could beat. He dropped the hand with the whistle and called out, “Kors. Got something to share?”

The kid looked discomfited, as well he might. “No. Just having a laugh.”

Rhys let a bit of the fire show. “And you had a laugh during the time before as well. Just because the drill hasn’t started, that doesn’t mean you’re switched off. If your body’s here, your head had better be here with it. You’re switched on, and then you’re switched higher. Those are the only two choices. Why is Marko doing this drill? He knows how to tackle. Why is Hugh doing it? The skipper knows how to tackle, too. They’re here because knowing how isn’t enough. They want to do it better. Better’s always out there, just out of reach. It’s your job to grab it. Start again. This time, focus like there’s a point to it. Winners do extra. You’d bloody well better want to be a winner, or why be here at all?”

The corner of Kors’s mouth twitched. A laugh, or a grimace. It had better have been a grimace. Rhys breathed the fire back and said, “If you’re satisfied with where you are, you may as well hang up your boots and stop wasting everybody’s time. Switched on, switched higher, or go home. Same again.”

They kept on. Beside Rhys, Finn Douglas, his assistant coach and a legend himself, said, “The talent’s there. Nothing really wrong with his work rate, either, not lately.”

“You can’t coach hunger,” Rhys said shortly.

It had surprised him, when he’d first realized it. Shocked him, in fact. Even before high school, the way some kids did exactly what they were told to do, some shirked even that, as if it would happen by magic, and others did more. He’d assumed that everybody would do more. If you loved something, didn’t you want to get better? Didn’t you want to be the best? What was the point in trying at all, then?

He’d tried to explain that to Dylan, more times than he could count. It had never worked. Now, he gave a player the message once, loud and clear. If they didn’t get it the first time? He cut them loose. He could coach passing. He could coach kicking and tackling and scrummaging, too. He couldn’t coach drive, and he couldn’t coach heart.

Another forty-five minutes, and the squad headed into the sheds, the younger boys moving faster, like horses heading toward the barn, some of the veterans taking a few more minutes. Will having a final few kicks at goal, because his boot had been off today in the wind and the wet. Three others running lines, practicing a tricky play they’d been working out.

Kors had been headed in, pulling his beanie off along the way. Now, he hesitated, then tugged the hat back on and jogged over to the little group, positioned himself along the line, and ran the next one with them.

“Better,” Finn said. “Even if all he’s doing is showing you.”

“Push him harder in the gym tomorrow,” Rhys said. “If he’s not going to level up, we may as well find out in preseason.”

“Righto,” Finn said, and they headed in, scooping up rugby balls along the way. In the coach’s room, Rhys stripped off his jacket and track pants, both sodden with the soaking rain, and sat behind the desk to make a few notes before he headed out.

He had six voicemails, he saw, none of them from anybody he was particularly keen to talk to. Five of them could wait, but when your lawyer said, “Ring me back today,” you probably had to answer that one.

It had better not be about Victoria. It was bound to be about Victoria. Two months to go until their divorce was finalized. He rang the lawyer back.

“Afternoon,” Colin said. “You settled in, then? Everything go OK, getting into the house?”

Stalling. This didn’t sound like Colin at all. It was Victoria, then, and it was bad. The property settlement, or the alimony, which was meant to be done and dusted after this year.

“All good,” Rhys said. “What’s up?”

Across the room, Finn looked up, his blue eyes sharpening in his rough-hewn face.

Colin said, “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“Yeh. Go on.” Rhys didn’t sigh. The problem, whatever it was, would be there whether he ran from it or walked toward it. Walking toward it got it over sooner.

Colin said, “A woman in Chicago, a Ms. India Hawk, has died and left a child. Your child, apparently, as you signed an Acknowledgment of Paternity. I could say that I wish you’d told me, because this could certainly affect your property settlement with Victoria, but that’s a matter for another day. Right now, I need to know what you want to do about the child. Who would appear to be your daughter.”

* * *

Rhys said, “What?” Never the brightest answer. After that, he gathered his resources and said, “I haven’t acknowledged anything, because there’s nothing to acknowledge. Explain why you think there is.” Across the room, Finn looked up again, then picked up some papers, stuffed them into a backpack, and headed out the door, closing it behind him, but Rhys barely noticed.

“Your signature’s on the document,” Colin said. “Recognizably yours. I have a copy in front of me here, which I’ll send over to you in a minute. Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity, State of Illinois, dated eleven days after the birth. It’s your name, and your address at the time. Your phone number and date of birth as well. Signed in front of a witness. Te Rangi Walton, whose address is given as Motueka. In addition, as passed on to me by the Department of Children and Family Services via a friend of India’s, you also paid child support for a number of years. That appears to have been an informal arrangement, because there’s no paperwork or any order on file. Next time, tell me first. The legalities are there to safeguard you as well as the child.”

Rhys was drowning in words. Time to start swimming. He said, “I won’t be telling you, because there’ll be nothing to tell, exactly the way there isn’t now. It’s not true. But before you ask—Te Rangi is my cousin. And that, and all the rest, means exactly nothing, because whoever signed that, it wasn’t me, and I imagine it wasn’t Te Rangi, either. The rest of it, the address and phone number, isn’t impossible information to come by, and as for my signature, it’s out there on a million rugby balls and T-shirts and game programs. Nice way out for whoever it was, though, putting my name to it.” The warmth in the office was suffocating. That was because his blood was boiling. “Wait,” he realized. “When am I meant to have done this?” He’d been gone from home half the time while he was playing in New Zealand, and almost all the time after that, first in Japan, playing and coaching, and then in France. You couldn’t get a girl pregnant if you weren’t there, and he’d been to Chicago exactly twice in his life. That was a relief.

“We’re going back almost seven years,” Colin said. “Chicago, early November. The first All Blacks test in the States.”

“I remember.” Not so much of a relief, then.

“India Hawk, as I said. Unusual name.” As always, Colin got more deliberate, to the point of sounding sleepy, the more the tension ratcheted up. He’d been an All Black himself, in the amateur age, and understood the particular issues of sportsmen. That was why Rhys liked him. Normally. He wasn’t a fan of this particular line of conversation.

“I don’t know anybody by that name,” he told Colin. “And seven years ago, I was engaged to Victoria.”

“I’m your lawyer,” Colin said, “not your judge. I can only help you if you tell me the truth.”

Rhys was trying not to lose his temper. Unfortunately, his temper was trying to lose him. “You think I’m afraid to tell you? I’m not afraid to tell you. If I had a kid, I’d be looking after it. I’m not, because I don’t have one, no matter who puts my name to their problems. It never happened. It isn’t true. Fight it. Starting bloody now.” That last part came out in a bit of a roar. Usually, that was for effect. This time, it was the dragon.

That should have been the end of it. It wasn’t. “I’m sending across a couple photos,” Colin said, “and that acknowledgment. I’ll wait until you have a look.”

Ten long seconds, and the email was in his inbox, and Rhys was clicking on it. And then on the first attachment.

An easy “no.” If he’d ever seen this woman before, he didn’t remember her. He’d met a lot of girls, and he’d slept with some of them. He hadn’t slept with this one, though. He hadn’t slept with anybody seven years ago, other than his fiancée.

Why, then, was his heart thumping out of his chest?

The girl, who surely looked younger than she actually was—he hoped so, anyway, because she looked eighteen—was blonde, pretty, and smiling, holding a toddler on her lap. The kid, whose hair was dark, was dressed up in white tights, a frilly blue dress with petticoats, and shiny black shoes, but stared stolidly at the camera as if she wasn’t on board with the frilliness or, in fact, any part of the occasion.

It was a photo to make you laugh. Why wasn’t he laughing?

“I don’t know this girl,” he said. “No.”

“Did you open the second one?”

Oh. There was another photo. Rhys clicked on it.

He stopped breathing.

It had been taken at school, probably, the kind of thing where the photographer snapped a different kid every minute until he’d herded the whole class through. A girl in a long-sleeved red T-shirt, with some sort of plaid dress over it. Standard issue. Her skin was the color of light honey, and her dark hair was swept straight back off her forehead and pulled up into a high ponytail that revealed her widow’s peak, that vee of hairline dipping down in the center of her forehead. She had her elbow propped up and her chin in her hand, which was probably the pose they’d all done, but she wasn’t smiling. Instead, she looked at the camera as if she were staring it down. The same way the toddler had.

The same way Rhys did.

Her eyes were a clear hazel-green, like a stream in the Scottish Highlands. Relic of Rhys’s great-grandfather on his dad’s dad’s side, his Nan had told him. Angus Fletcher. The fletchers, the arrow-makers, running down a hill in the Highlands and onto the enemy, their kilts swirling around them, a broadsword in one hand and a bow and quiver strapped to their backs.

Warriors on both sides of the bloodline.

They were Rhys’s eyes, and his hairline.

“Right,” he said. “She looks like me. But I still didn’t sleep with her mum. Absolutely not.” His mouth said the words, even as the rest of him was acknowledging the truth.

“I’ll give you the gist of the statement from the friend,” Colin said. “Elizabeth Hartwell.” He was speaking so deliberately now, his words came down like concrete. “India met you in a pizza place—Pizzeria Uno—two days before the All Blacks game, with a few other men who introduced themselves as New Zealand rugby players. As All Blacks. She was a waitress there, and you ended up exchanging numbers. You were persistent. She was excited. After the game, she met you in a sports bar—I don’t have the name of that—by previous arrangement. You had drinks, and you talked about flying her over to London for the next stop of the Northern Tour. You went home with her, and left her place before dawn, saying you had to get back to the hotel in order to fly out with the team. You promised to email her, but when you did, you said the London trip wouldn’t be possible. She was disappointed. The rest of the email was about . . .” Colin gave a dry little lawyer-cough. “Intimacies. You definitely gave your name to her, though, as Rhys Fletcher, and you definitely told her—multiple times—that you played for the All Blacks. You wouldn’t let her take your photo.”

“So far,” Rhys said, “it’s nothing.” Except for that school photo, and those eyes.

Colin went on. “When she emailed you a few months later to tell you she was pregnant and was having the baby, you promised to take care of her, but asked her not to contact you again, because you’d got married since the two of you had met. You sent her four hundred dollars a month for three and a half years, deposited directly into her bank account, after which the payments became sporadic, and then stopped altogether. I find that timing significant, given what you’ve just told me. I’m sure you do, too. Her emails went unanswered, and as the United States and New Zealand don’t have a reciprocity agreement for child support, she had no way of collecting. ‘She couldn’t afford to go to a lawyer for nothing,’ were the friend’s exact words. ‘She knew she was stuck.’ If you’re certain it wasn’t you, we have to ask ourselves why she looks so much like you, and why the actual father gave your name.”

What Rhys wanted to say was, “It’s a sad story, but it wasn’t me, too bad. I’m not the only man in the world with hazel eyes. It was some other tattooed fella, feeding a pretty blonde a line to get her between the sheets. ‘I’m an All Black’ isn’t the least-used tactic in the world for a Kiwi abroad, I hear.”

He didn’t say it, because the All Blacks hadn’t been the only team playing that weekend, and because Te Rangi had more than one cousin. The Maori All Blacks had played the night before the marquee event, and Dylan had been selected for the Maori All Blacks that year. Not happy to have been left out of the ABs squad once again, and resenting, as much as happy-go-lucky Dylan had been able to resent anything, his big brother, who hadn’t been left out. Also as usual. Borrowing Rhys’s name, and his stature, for a night, and looking enough like him for a girl checking out a photo online to be fooled. A too-young, too-credulous girl, maybe, who believed in Cinderella, in flights to London and a whirlwind future. In being swept off your feet. Rhys’s hand was fisting at the thought.

Dylan had also been married. Another excellent reason to borrow your brother’s identity, if you had a wife and a year-old baby at home. And if that baby had just had surgery for a hole in his heart, and you were a man who thought life hadn’t been quite fair to you, and what was the harm in snatching a little harmless fun when you had the chance? What Zora didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and she barely had time for you, anyway.

Which meant that Dylan wasn’t getting as much sex as he wanted. Rhys hadn’t needed to hear that last bit spelled out. He’d wanted to put his fist through the wall when Dylan had said it, after Rhys had caught him kissing a pretty brunette in the toilet corridor of a Christchurch bar, a couple months before Chicago. Actually, he’d wanted to put his fist through his brother.

He didn’t want to ask the next question, but there was no way around it. He had to know. “What is it, exactly, that I’m meant to do now?”

“The mother died, as I mentioned,” Colin said. “Suddenly, without being able to make plans for her daughter. Hit by an inattentive driver—an uninsured driver, unfortunately—at a pedestrian crossing, on her way to work. Which leaves the other parent as sole guardian. As things stand—you.”

Yeh. A gut punch.

“I’m single,” Rhys said. “Not in a position to take care of a kid.”

“She could have said the same, of course.”

Rhys wished Colin wouldn’t be so bloody reasonable. “There must be somebody else,” he realized with relief. “Somebody more fit. They’re probably frantic now, the grandparents or the auntie or whoever, thinking they’ve got to let her go to En Zed, to a dad she doesn’t even know and who never cared enough to meet her. Who’s she with now? That’s where she should stay, surely.”

He’d pay. He’d have to pay. No getting around it. Those eyes. That hairline. The defiant way she looked at the camera.

Most people ran from fear. Other people made fear do the running. He had a feeling he knew which kind she was.

“Now?” Colin said. “She’s in temporary foster care. She’s been there for . . . let’s see . . . six days. That’s how long it took them to track you down and get in contact with me, after finding your name on the birth certificate, the Acknowledgment of Paternity filed with the state, and hearing the details from the friend.”

“No grandparents, then,” Rhys said. “No aunties.” That hollow feeling in his stomach? That was what it felt like to have the lift drop ten stories all at once beneath you.

“No,” Colin said. “Just you. If you want the girl, you call them and tell them so, and she stays in foster care until you come to get her, simple as that. That’s one option. If you don’t want to take her, I tell them, sorry, he denies it absolutely. His signature was forged, and he wasn’t the one making the payments. This is the first he’s heard of her. At that point, she’d become a ward of the state. As I mentioned, New Zealand has no reciprocal agreement with the United States, much less with the state of Illinois. They can’t compel a DNA test, or child support, for that matter, any more than they could six years ago. You can ask for a test, of course. That would probably be simplest, if you’re certain it would absolve you. Anything less than ninety-nine percent probability would be as good as a total miss. ‘Close’ doesn’t count.”

“I just have one question,” Rhys said.

“Go ahead.”

“Why the hell would you tell me that, when you know it isn’t an option? And when you know bloody well that if it had been me in that hotel room, that apartment, whatever it was, I’d have stepped up six years ago, and kept stepping up, for the same reason I will now, and not with four hundred dollars a month, either? Because it’s not a choice.” The dragon was loose. No holding him back. “She’s my responsibility, and you know it. Where would I have been if my Nan had felt that way, or the aunties? If they’d said, ‘Sorry, mate, got no room for you and your little brother. Good luck to him once the two of you are separated, but there’s nobody here with time or space in their life to cope with that nuisance.’ It’s not a bloody choice. Why would you tell me it was?”

“Because,” Colin said, “it isn’t my choice. He wasn’t my brother.”

 

Ch. 5 – Casey Moana

It was freezing in Chicago. Literally. When you added the biting wind to the mixture, it was worse. Rhys remembered that from the Chicago trip. It was about all he did remember, other than the match itself, and the hockey game some of the boys had gone to see a couple nights before, during which time Dylan had been chatting up a teenaged waitress at the pizza place.

Who’d been barely nineteen, as it turned out, and just out of high school. Rhys had had to stuff down another blast of cold rage when he’d learned that. Dylan had been nearly thirty.

He hadn’t even eaten any deep-dish pizza on that trip. Not on his nutrition plan. He hadn’t eaten it last night, either, after he’d arrived at the hotel, even though there was a place down the street serving it up, and it smelled amazing. Just because your life was falling apart, though, just because you’d left your team in the care of your assistant coach days before their first Super Rugby match of the season, and you’d been flying out of Auckland when you should have been having a breakfast date with your sister-in-law, that didn’t mean you lost your discipline. Comfort eating led to no comfort at all, when you were sweating off the extra Kg’s in the gym. Life was all about consequences.

He finished paying the driver and headed across the pavement, accepting the polar blast until he got through the glass doors and into the lobby of the Children and Family Services building, a drab thing made of concrete that matched the steel-gray sky overhead, heavy with the frozen promise of snow. Up in the lift, down the corridor, giving his name to a receptionist, then sitting in the last available seat, in an arrangement of chairs like a doctor’s waiting room, only less cozy.

There was a reason it was the last seat. To his right, a woman was holding a toddler. Barely. The kid—a boy—was thrashing, crying, his eyes and nose streaming in his dark face. “Want to go home,” he moaned. “AJ all done. All done. Want to go home.” Rhys knew how he felt.

He had to look at the kid, because to his left, a woman was nursing a baby, and he wasn’t looking over there. It wasn’t that he thought she shouldn’t be doing it. He just didn’t think he should be watching. He was also too big for this chair, he was having to hold his elbows close to his sides to keep from banging into somebody, and he was the only man in the place.

The toddler had stopped crying, at least. Instead, he was staring at Rhys, his brown eyes big as saucers.

Rhys tried a smile. “Hi,” he said.

The kid started crying again. Brilliant.

After what felt like an hour, but was probably fifteen minutes—during which time somebody else started feeding her baby, and Rhys seriously considered just closing his eyes until it was over—a woman appeared at the doorway and called out, “Rice Fletcher?” Exactly like a doctor’s office, mangled name and all.

He got up with a silent prayer of thanksgiving. “Rhys,” he said, pronouncing it the way you were meant to. Reece. “I’m here.”

“Jada Franklin,” she said, shaking his hand. “We spoke on the phone.” And yet she’d forgotten how to pronounce his name. “Come on back.”

He followed her, not into an office, but into a cubicle, where he wedged himself into another chair in not enough space.

“So,” he said.

“So,” she said. “Casey Moana Hawk. Your daughter. She’s ready to go.”

Nine words, dropping into the restrained hubbub around them like nine nails being driven into his coffin. He said, “It can’t be that simple, surely. You aren’t just going to hand her over without knowing more about me than that. I had some of it done for you, though. Background check.” He reached into the inner pocket of her jacket, pulled out a sheaf of printed papers, and handed them to her together with the passport he’d picked up at the consulate that morning, which would allow the girl to travel to New Zealand with him. Colin had pulled major strings to get it this fast, but the kid had been in foster care for two weeks now, and Rhys needed to get her out. Anyway, if you had to do something, you didn’t moan about it. You just went ahead and did it.

Jada’s brown eyes held a career’s worth of shattered illusions, and she didn’t even look at the papers, just handed them back. “You’ve acknowledged paternity, her mother’s dead, and you’re the other parent. As far as the State of Illinois is concerned, she’s yours. Let’s go get her.”

“I’m not adopting a kitten at the SPCA,” he said. “Come to think of it, you probably have to do more to adopt a kitten. I’m not . . . I’m not a dad. I’m single. Don’t you have some—paperwork? A bloody interview? A brochure? Something?”

She smiled, which was the last thing he’d have expected. “You’re the first person I’ve ever heard request more bureaucracy. You do realize that’s exactly the thought in every dad’s mind when the nurse hands the baby over at the hospital curb, and he tries to put her in the car seat for the first time and realizes exactly how small she is and exactly how much she’s his responsibility now. Nobody’s ready to have a child, although some people are less ready than others. You learn as you go. Your own social services offers parenting classes, I’m sure. The fact that you’re aware you need support is a good sign. You’ll be fine.”

He wouldn’t be fine. This was a girl. He knew about having a little brother. He even knew how to change a nappy. What he didn’t know was what he was going to do with a six-year-old girl. He was going to have to talk to her about boys. He was going to have to learn about clothes. He was going to have to fix her hair.

That wasn’t the real problem. He knew that, too. He was panicking, was what it was. Getting himself out of the moment, watching the scoreboard instead of the field. He took a breath and refocused.

He could have called in the whanau. Somebody would have taken her, some auntie or cousin, once he’d explained that she wasn’t his, but she was theirs. He didn’t trust half of them, though, when it came down to it. Not with a life. Not with a child. His Nan had done her best, but she’d been too old and too tired to take charge of two more rambunctious boys, as well as two of their cousins—male cousins. Which had left the kids to sort it out themselves. He wasn’t dropping Casey, determined stare or not, into Lord of the Flies. And then there’d have been telling Zora the truth about her husband, and leaving her to pick up yet more pieces. That was a no.

He put the papers back in his jacket pocket, because nobody was interested in reading about the fact that he owned his home, was gainfully employed, paid his debts, and had never been charged with a crime.

Maybe he’d hang onto them for dating purposes. That would move things along.

He was stalling again.

Jada said, “Come on. Let’s go get your daughter.”

He’d been mad to think he could do this.

Too late now.

* * *

The foster home was well south of the central city, and it took a good forty minutes to get there. They drove past boarded-up shops, over cracked asphalt, past mounds of gray snow piled up in the gutters and bare trees whose limbs shook in the wind like old bones. Depressing as hell.

Some of his whanau may not have had any more money than this, but at least it was New Zealand. You saw some green, you could grow your own veggies, and there was always an uncle ready to take you out on the boat, for the price of some fish-gutting. It also wasn’t covered by gray snow.

It wasn’t like he’d never been cold before. He’d played his rugby in Christchurch. It froze in winter there, from time to time, but it was never like this.

The church had hell all wrong, he’d always thought. Hell wasn’t heat. Heat was the off-season, long summer days spent on the boat fishing, clearing your mind of rugby and your body of ten months’ worth of niggles and knocks. Or, even better, under the water, spearfishing for snapper or collecting paua, that most delectable and hard-won of kai moana—seafood. Heat was sitting on the beach afterwards, having a beer with your mates, with nowhere to go and all week to get there. Heat was a girl in a bikini and no makeup, brushing her wet hair back and smiling at you as she stepped out of the sea.

However hot it got, heat wasn’t horrible. Horrible was darkness and cold, the bone-chilling, skin-burning freeze that killed everything green and alive and relaxed in the world.

That last winter, when he and Dylan had been living with their mum in Invercargill—that was his own definition of hell. He could still remember seeing his breath inside the house, on the day the electric company had shut off the power. He’d had to bring Dylan into his bed and pile both their blankets on top that winter, telling him what a nuisance he was the entire time.

“Why do you have to be such a baby?” he’d asked his brother one night, the coldest one yet, as he’d got out of bed, savage with fury and shivering in the freezing night, to find them each another pair of socks and to rearrange their jackets over them. “You’re bloody useless. If you don’t stop crying, I’m not going to take you with me when I get rich and get out of here. I’m going to leave you alone.”

The next day, he’d rung up their Nan and asked her to come get them. He’d stood on the cracked yellow lino of the kitchen floor, the icy fingers of cold whistling in from around the window frames, held the chilly, hard piece of plastic to his ear, and waited to see if she’d answer. When he’d listened to it ring, watched a roach crawling over a stack of dirty plates, waving its antennae, and wondered if she’d pick up—that moment was still the coldest he’d ever been. Except maybe for the days afterwards, when he hadn’t known whether she would come. And the night he’d told his three-year-old brother he’d leave him alone, and Dylan had cried like his heart was breaking.

It was hard to pick a winner. All those times had sucked.

He’d never been back to Invercargill since. When he’d been offered a coaching job in Leicester, in the north of England, after his two-year stint in Japan, he hadn’t taken it. Leicester was the better club, no question, but he’d taken Toulon instead, on the Riviera. He’d told himself he could make more impact there. It had been true, but that wasn’t the reason he’d done it. He’d done it because it was warmer.

He also still hated cockroaches. And disorder. And unwashed dishes. Possibly also tears, especially if they were his own. Tears were giving up, and he didn’t give up.

They turned onto another street, and the neighborhood got a bit better. The house, when they pulled up to it, was small and white, not too unlike his Nan’s house in Nelson. Nothing flash, but trying its best.

He followed Jada up the walk. She said, “You need a better coat. Also gloves and a hat.”

“Nah,” he said. “If I ignore it, it doesn’t exist, that’s the idea. Besides, I’m flying out tonight.”

“You could lose your fingers to frostbite by then.” She laughed. That was her version of humor, apparently. She rang the bell, and Rhys stood beside her on the concrete porch and focused on the way his breath emerged in icy puffs. The peephole on the front of the door darkened, and after a rattle of chains, the door opened. A smell of overheated floral air freshener wafted out, and the woman behind it, who was holding a curly-haired baby on her hip, said, “Hi. You must be here for Casey.”

“Yes,” Jada said.

The woman pushed the door open a little more with one hand. “Come on in.” She held out a hand, the one that wasn’t holding the baby, to Rhys. “Tiana Hooper.”

The girl was sitting on the couch, a green-flowered thing with a crocheted blanket draped over it. To either side, little tables were covered by doilies, and the coffee table had a glass top. With a crocheted doily-thing underneath it. The carpet was pink, and above the couch, glass shelves held a collection of porcelain birds that would have rained down in a shower of splinters the first time there was an earthquake.

The girl sat rigid, wearing jeans, trainers, and a blue T-shirt, printed with a flying horse with gold sparkles in its mane and tail and the word “Magical” written underneath, a shirt that looked much too insubstantial for the weather. On her lap, she held a backpack and a doll, one hand clutching each, and there were two white rubbish bags at her feet and a navy-blue puffer jacket beside her. Her hair was loose, not in a ponytail or even fastened with the clips, or whatever you called them, that she’d worn in the school photo. The clips had had bows on.

Somebody had brushed her thick, wavy hair today, but that was all. Rhys got a flash of how he and Dylan had used to look, their impossible hair always too long and too tangled. When you went to school looking like that, it sent a message that didn’t help you a bit. How much worse would it be for a girl?

Casey’s mum had known that, clearly. That had been the reason for the bows on the hair clips, and the neat ponytail.

“This is Casey,” Tiana said, joggling the toddler. “And this is your dad, Casey, here to take you home.”

“Hi,” Rhys said. You can do this, he told himself. This is not a mistake. This is the only solution.

Casey studied him, but she didn’t get up. “Are you going to take me back to my house in your car?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I don’t have a car here, and we’re going to my house.”

She said, “I want to go back to my house instead, please. You can call an Uber, if you don’t have a car. That’s what my mommy does, if she’s late and she has to go to work and she doesn’t have time to go on the El. It’s a school day. I could go back to my school for the afternoon part. My lunchbox is still in my cubby, because I forgot it. It has a sandwich in it, and cookies. I could eat lunch there.”

He’d been here sixty seconds, and he was already in trouble. “We can’t do that,” he said. No point in lying to her. “I don’t live here. I live in New Zealand, so that’s where we need to go.” Surely somebody had told her that. Hadn’t they? What were these people thinking?

“I never heard of that,” she said. “Is it on the north side?”

“No. It’s a different country. We’re going to fly there.”

“I can’t fly.”

What? Why? Did she have some condition he didn’t know about? He glanced at Jada. She shrugged. Very helpful.

“Why can’t you fly?” he asked when nothing else was forthcoming.

Casey looked at him like he was stupid. “Because I don’t have wings.”

He laughed, and she didn’t. Oh. It hadn’t been a joke. “We’re going on a plane. The plane flies, not us. You must have seen that in . . . in cartoons.” That was where he’d first seen it. He hadn’t been on a plane until he’d made the First XV at seventeen. He’d known what they were, though, hadn’t he, at six? He couldn’t remember.

“Is my mommy coming too?” she asked.

His heart did something odd, like a sponge that somebody was squeezing out. And nobody else was saying anything. How was he meant to cope with this? Surely, somebody had told her. He was going to operate on that assumption, anyway.

“No,” he decided to say, and sat down beside her, next to the puffy coat. He wasn’t a good liar, and anyway, she looked to him like she didn’t appreciate lying. Or he told himself that, because he had no clue, otherwise. “Your mum’s gone. She died, remember? That happens sometimes. I had to leave my mum when I was a couple years older than you. My Nan—my grandma—took my brother and me in. We went to a new house, and I went to a new school. Good as gold.”

Not exactly, but close enough. Besides, he wasn’t a worn-out sixty-five-year-old with an addict for a daughter. He was a forty-year-old rugby coach, he was tough, he had a grand total of one child to look after, and he had the means to do it properly.

Casey looked at him measuringly. “If my mommy isn’t going to be there,” she announced, “I don’t want to go.”

What did he say now? “Where are you planning to go instead?” he asked.

She wasn’t solid, not really. She was slim, like her mother. And her father. But when she set her jaw, she looked solid. She said, “I’m going to stay here and wait for my mommy. She said she would never leave. She promised. If I go away from here, she won’t know where I am. She has to know where I am, so she can come get me.”

He was about to tear up. He could feel it coming, and that wouldn’t do anybody any good, least of all him.

He was still trying to work out how to answer her when Tiana said, “I’m afraid you can’t stay here, Casey. I’m your foster mother. I told you that. ‘Foster’ means, ‘for a little while, until there’s another place for you to go.’ Now, there’s another place. Your mommy’s in Heaven now, like we talked about, with the angels, but you have a daddy, and he’s going to take you home, to a brand-new house. Isn’t that exciting?”

Casey looked Rhys over. “No,” she said.

This hadn’t occurred to him. People generally did what he said. Correction—people always did what he said. He considered shouting, “I’m the rescuer here, damn it! Let’s go, and smartly.” He didn’t think it would work, though. He cast about for something—anything—to say, and finally lit on the backpack in her lap. It was blue, printed with Hawaiian flowers, and featured a Polynesian girl with her hand on her hip and a confident smile on her face. At the top, the word was spelled out. Moana.

That was the doll from the film, too, he realized, that she was holding. He may have been under a rock in terms of popular culture, but he recognized this.

If you couldn’t break the line, you found another way. You sidestepped. He touched the backpack lightly and said, “Moana, eh.”

Tiana shifted position. She and the social worker were still standing, and the baby was starting to fuss. He looked up at them and said, “Maybe you could give us ten minutes.”

Jada looked at her watch. He told her, “If you need to leave, go on. I’ll find my own way back.”

“I have a few minutes,” she said.

“Come have a cup of coffee,” Tiana said. She asked Rhys, “Would you like one?”

It would be served in a cup and saucer, he had no doubt. Possibly on a doily. It would also be weak. Chicago coffee was rubbish. “No, thanks,” he said. “I’m good.” He might be in the Twilight Zone, but he was working on a plan. After that, he stopped paying attention to them and asked Casey, “Do you know what this is?” He touched the silvery disk on the doll’s necklace.

“It’s a necklace,” she said flatly. Her expression said, Obviously, and he had to smile.

“It’s a paua shell,” he said. “Or it’s meant to be. Moana’s traveling from the homeland, across the seas, with Maui’s help.” Which covered everything he knew about the film. “She’s going to New Zealand. She’s going to become a Maori.”

She wasn’t looking at him like he was stupid anymore, anyway. She was just looking at him like he was crazy. “That’s not in the movie.”

“No, it’s not. But it’s something you know in your heart if you’re Maori. I’ll bet you knew it already.” He reached inside his own shirt and pulled out the pounamu pendant on its black braided cord. “Just like I do. See, I have the hei matau. The fish hook pendant, for the sea and for determination. Mine has a muri paraoa as well, a whale tail, on the other end, for speed and strength and protectiveness. That’s all the important things. This was carved from a jade boulder that came from Tasman Bay, which is where I come from as well. It touches my skin and roots me to my family, to the ancestors, to our mountain and our river. Moana has a pendant, too. It reminds her where she came from, and who her people are.”

There you were. Logic. Rationality. And a bit of magic as well, maybe. You could need magic, if your mum had died. That might be the reason for the T-shirt.

Casey’s eyes had flecks of gold amidst the green and were as extravagantly dark-lashed as Dylan’s had been. Right now, they were fixed on his, like nobody had ever told her to look down, to look away, and she wouldn’t have listened if they had. There was as much intensity in her slim form as in any player about to run out onto the field, too, when she said, “My mommy said that. She said I was Maori, like Moana, and someday, Maui would come across the ocean for us and take us home. Nobody else said that, though.”

“Except me,” he said. “That’s because I’m your dad. You see how that works?” First time he’d said the D-word.

“I don’t think so,” she said, and he thought, Now what? She went on to tell him. “I think you’re Maui.”

“Nah, sorry,” he said. “I’m not him. Maui is much bigger. He’s also a demigod. I’m not even a semi-god.”

“He fished up the ocean with a fish hook,” she pointed out. “And you have a fish hook.”

“Because I’m Maori. Not because I’m Maui. Every Maori has a pendant.”

“I don’t.”

“That’s because it has to be a gift. Nobody’s given you yours yet, that’s all.”

She wasn’t getting heated. She was just frowning. Ferociously. Her eyebrows were as straight and as black as his, too. She said, “That doesn’t make sense. If everybody has one, I would have one. It makes sense that you’re Maui. You’re big like Maui, and your hair’s like his.”

“Because I was a rugby player,” he said, not pulling on said hair. Also, if his hair looked like Maui’s in that film, he needed to have it cut. He’d better not let her see his tattoo for a while, either. “That’s why I’m big. They play rugby in New Zealand. Girls, too. When you go to school, you can play. I have a feeling rugby will suit you.”

She appeared to be thinking that over. “What about rabbits?”

“What about rabbits?” He thought that was a pretty smart parry to a rubbish question.

“Do you have rabbits at your house?”

“Uh . . . no. Why would I have rabbits?”

“Oh.” Her thin shoulders drooped. “I had rabbits ever since I was little. Hoppy and Fluffy. Tiana said they went to live on a farm, and a farm is nice, because they could eat real grass, but I can’t have a rabbit here, Tiana said. Plus, it’s temp—temp—”

“Temporary,” he said. “It’s not temporary anymore. When you go to New Zealand with me, it’s permanent. That’s the opposite. It means you’re going home to stay. Like Moana.”

She clutched her doll a little tighter. “So can I have rabbits?”

A man had to recognize defeat. “Yes. You can have rabbits.”

“Three?”

A man had to recognize manipulation, too. “No. You can have two.” Compassion was all well and good, but drawing the line would be important, too. Setting limits. Being firm.

Fortunately, he was good at that.

 

 

 

Available January 14, 2019 – Preorder now!