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Excerpt -- Just For Me

Excerpt -- Just For Me

Book 15: Escape to New Zealand

Chapter 1 – Nowhere to Run

There’s no elegant way to walk out on somebody with an enormous striped ginger cat in your arms. Unfortunately, Hayden Allen only realized that later.

He hadn’t been able to wait for the lift. Instead, he walked fast up the stairs of the flash Wynward Quarter apartments and knocked at the door, feeling the excitement rise in him like bubbles in a glass of champagne. It wasn’t tickets to Tahiti, but maybe it was even better, because it was personal. Anyway, it was too soon for anything like that. He knew it was too soon. Two and a half months—too soon.

He couldn’t help it, though. He had a hopeful heart. Broken too many times, but he kept coming back for more. This time, though … this felt like it could be the real thing.

He stood in front of the apartment door and willed his heart to slow, shifting the cat in his arms, because the thing must weigh about ten kG and was carrying around another half its weight in fur. Maybe this was a stupid idea.

Harden up. It was a brilliant idea. You just have to execute. Get out of your comfort zone and take a leap. He rang the bell. And waited.

And waited.

Julian had said he’d be staying home tonight when Hayden had mentioned he’d be working late. The plan had seemed perfect.

Wait. Obviously, Julian wouldn’t come to the door if he wasn’t expecting anybody. But he didn’t always lock the door, did he? Should he check?

Julian could be mercurial, especially lately. One day loving and affectionate, the next distant. Hayden had thought, Give him space. It’s a lot. It feels like a lot to you, too. Now, he tried the handle. Unlocked. Still, he hesitated. Was that too much, walking in?

Not with a gift, surely.

He pushed the heavy door open. He’d been right, he realized with outsized relief. There was music coming from the speakers in the lounge, the sultry, bluesy stuff Julian favored when he was relaxed—or randy—and the smell of something delicious wafting in from the open ranch sliders.

It was going to be all right. It was going to be better than all right.

He kicked off his shoes with some difficulty—no hands—and headed out there, noticing the bottle of wine in the ice bucket on the kitchen bench along the way. Dinner and wine? That worked.

Julian was on the balcony, facing away from Hayden, dressed in shorts and T-shirt as usual, his lean body elegant even while tending to the oversized barbecue that was among his prize possessions, or, as he would say, “The one thing New Zealand does well, other than sheep, sailing, beaches, and a casual dress code.” A pristine white yacht pulled out of its slip in Viaduct Harbour below, the sky was the serene blue of late spring, the drifting white clouds were reflected in the water that slapped against the quays, and the scent of grilling meat made Hayden’s mouth water. As did the glass of white wine at Julian’s elbow.

Julian had the best nose for wine Hayden had ever seen—and he used it. He could polish off a bottle by himself and only become sharper, his wit more cutting. Taste too sophisticated for Auckland, maybe, which made sense, because he was British. British, with a glamorous flat, a glamorous boat, a glamorous life, a way of looking down his aristocratic nose that thrilled Hayden ridiculously, a thorough knowledge of music, the ability to order the best food in three languages, a case full of classic books that he’d actually read, and the quickness of brain to converse wittily about all of it.

Jane Austen’s version of an accomplished lady, in fact.

A plate of scallops breaded with dukkah waited on the metal benchtop, ready to be grilled at the last minute, but it was the paper packet with its white label that caught Hayden’s eye. First Light wagyu beef tenderloin, and the sizzle of the filets on the steel was making his mouth water. That and the asparagus ready to go onto the barbecue with the scallops.

He was already tapping Julian on the shoulder when it registered. Scallops and First Light wagyu? To eat dinner at home? Alone?

Julian had excellent taste, though. Excellent, expensive taste.

Julian turned with a smile that lit up his electric-blue eyes, the chiseled cheekbones and the shine of his blonde hair, as always, making Hayden’s heart beat faster. And then the smile left his face as if it had never existed. “Hayden. Dear boy. This is a surprise. Thought you were working late. Did you text me?”

“Wanted to surprise you.” Hayden shifted the cat in his arms. The ginger tabby had been purring all along, and now, he decided to vocalize. The sound that had charmed Hayden at the shelter, full of chirps and varied tones. “With this,” Hayden added. “Cat. For you. Like you wanted.”

Julian stared at the animal, then said, “It’s not the best time. I’ve got friends coming, as you said you were working. How about tomorrow instead?”

“Oh.” Hayden was aware of the cat’s weight, dragging at him. The thing was still talking, probably about scallops. Hayden hadn’t had dinner yet—he hadn’t even thought of it—and his stomach was telling him it was past seven-thirty. He was starved, in fact, and he didn’t know when you fed cats. What if he was starving the cat, too? He had a bag of food in the car. Should he go get it? Clearly not.

He’d been right. It was too soon. Too much, and too soon. He’d been stupid.

“Babe?”

The sound came from behind them. From inside those ranch sliders.

It was one of those moments frozen in amber. Hayden turned, feeling like his head weighed twenty kilograms, and saw him. Tall, muscular, and fit as hell. Crisp dark hair, brown eyes, drop-dead handsome.

Hayden recognized him. First, because he was an actor on Courtney Place, New Zealand’s favorite soap. Well, New Zealand’s only soap, but who was counting. And second, because he was Julian’s ex, whose photo Julian had shown him early on, telling him how he’d burnt the physical copy and broken the frame for good measure. “Burnt the deep-blue cashmere/merino/silk jumper he bought me, too, the one that matched my eyes, and sold the skis, which was all mad,” he’d told Hayden. “But, heigh-ho, you know I have to have my drama, and I didn’t want any reminders of the possible love of my life. Totally forgetting about the glory of that fabric blend, of course. The skis, now, I could live without. So much effort. He was such a materialistic boy, though, and to be brutally honest, there wasn’t much happening under the looks. Whereas you, my darling, are all about what’s real, aren’t you? A wee bit earnest and boringly sincere, maybe, under your lovely looks, but then, you are a Kiwi.”

“You didn’t have to hang onto the reminders,” Hayden had said, pulling him close and ignoring the brittleness. “I’m here now, and I’m real. And boringly sincere.”

He was real, all right. Really stupid. All he could say was, “What? Oh. Are you—”

The bloke put an arm around Julian. “Mmm, lovely steaks. You said you had a surprise.” He yawned and added, “Lovely nap, too,” then asked Hayden, “I don’t know you, do I? Trevor Makiri-Jones. Julian’s partner.” He eyed the animal in Hayden’s arms. “D’you always travel with a cat? Odd.”

“But I’m—” Hayden started to say as the cold enveloped him.

Julian said, “I can explain.”

Trevor said, “Explain what?”

Hayden said, through the buzzing in his head, “I don’t know. That he’s been cheating on me? What’s the explanation for that?”

Julian didn’t say the “explaining” thing again, or maybe he’d never said it to Hayden, because he told Trevor, “We were taking a break, or that’s what you say now. What it really was, though, was breaking up. How did I know that you wouldn’t be buggering off again this time? That is your pattern, do admit.”

“Wait.” There was ice where Hayden’s blood should be, and more of that prickling buzz. In his arms. In his hands. He could still feel the cat, but that was the only thing anchoring him here. “You weren’t cheating on me. You were cheating on him. We’ve been together two and a half months,” he told Trevor. “It wasn’t a fling.”

I brought him a cat, he wanted to say, but that was stupid. Everybody could see the cat.

“So you see, I wasn’t cheating on you,” Julian told Trevor, still ignoring Hayden. “We were on a break. As noted.”

“Not three weeks ago, we weren’t,” Trevor said. “That’s not a bloody break, that’s overlap. And I’m sorry, but what the hell is the story with the cat?” He sneezed into his shoulder, then did it again. “I’m allergic, and I’m on the call sheet for tomorrow. Can’t be dashing and dangerous with a red nose, can I? Also, I clearly need to be breaking up, or at least having a fight, and whoever you are, toy boy, you’re in the way. Two and a half months isn’t a relationship. It’s a fling. Sorry. You’ve been flung.”

“No!” Julian said. “Don’t go.” Again, not to Hayden. “Give it a minute. Let’s discuss. And then make up, because you know you’ll want to make up. If it weren’t for breaking up and making up, we’d have no relationship at all. That’s our spice, and you know it.”

Hayden wanted to make a statement. A declaration. A denouncement, possibly. His vision was blurring, though, and he was drowning. He could never get angry at the right time. Why couldn’t he get angry? All he felt was humiliation. He said, forcing the words past the tightness in his throat, “Apparently I just got myself a cat. Either that, or it’s back to the shelter with him, but he’s an awesome cat. I’m pretty awesome, too. You’re missing out on me.”

“I’m sorry,” Julian said, not sounding nearly sorry enough. “But I told you—Trevor’s the love of my life. Look at him. Look at his life, then look at yours.”

“I’m a lawyer,” Hayden said, hearing how stupid it sounded.

“Looking at contracts for people with actual money? Really too dull for words, darling. And I meant an elegant cat, maybe a temperamental Siamese with some suggestion of pedigree, not some stripey ginger you got from the SPCA. You’re so middle class. Such a striver. Which is lovely, of course, but not for me. Stay,” he told Trevor. “I’ve made this fab dinner. Stay and eat it with me, and we’ll talk it out. I was vulnerable. I was hurting. You know how I am.”

No graceful exit, then, just a walk back down the stairs, because there was a couple at the lift—holding hands, then coming close for a kiss—and Hayden couldn’t be around happy people tonight.

He got back to his car somehow, even though he couldn’t even remember which floor of the garage he’d left it on and had to walk all the way around three floors searching for it, pressing the button on his key and trying not to panic. When he recognized it at last, he had to lean against it for a minute. His boring, middle-class, silver Mitsubishi sedan, which he’d bought used, because new-car prices in New Zealand were mad. He wasn’t even a striver. He was just …

Dull, apparently. He’d never thought he was dull. Was he hopelessly, pitifully mistaken?

No. You’re not. You can’t be. It’s him, not you. Are you basing your self-esteem on the opinions of cheating Poms now? And their shallow soap-star boyfriends?

The pep talk wasn’t working.

An older woman stopped and asked, “All right?”

“What?” He stood up again. “I—I’m fine. Sorry. Fine.”

“You’re white as a sheet, love,” she said. “Sweating as well. Having any chest pain?”

Yes, he wanted to say. “No,” he said. “Thanks.” And opened the car door.

He didn’t have a cat carrier, so he put the cat on the passenger seat. This morning, he’d had a partner and no cat. Now, he had a cat and no partner, and he was so hungry, he was lightheaded with it. Or maybe that was grief. He couldn’t even tell what he was feeling.

He laid his head against the steering wheel and breathed. In and out. In and out. Hoping the woman had left, and that she wasn’t ringing the ambos at this moment. That would be embarrassing. What would you say? “Sorry, not dying, just heartbroken again?” Half of him wanted to laugh at the idea.

Not like it hasn’t happened before, he told himself. But where some men grew calluses, it felt like he lost a layer of skin every time, and now, every nerve was exposed and screaming.

He’d been so stupid. And he wasn’t somebody anyone could love.

Stop it, he tried to tell himself. It’s a bump. That doesn’t mean it’s you. Maybe you should ring the ambos. Always one hot one, with ambos.

It didn’t feel like a bump, though. It felt like a hole ripped straight through his heart. Like he couldn’t do this anymore.

He felt a soft tap on his face and turned his head. The cat was standing on the center console on his hind legs, one snow-white paw on Hayden’s shoulder, the other tapping at his cheek.

“Reckon it’s you and me, George,” he told the cat. He didn’t know where “George” had come from. It just had. “Two blokes with nowhere to go.” His throat closed at the thought, but he kept talking. That was what he had. Talking, and being funny. He’d be funny again. He had to be. “Guess we’re going there together.”

* * *

Luke Armstrong woke up hurting.

Yes, it was Monday morning, and yes, he’d played a rugby match last night, and yes, he was a prop, which meant his job was as much about collisions as any demolition derby driver—or any demolition derby car—which meant he always hurt.

This hurt was different, though.

He rolled out of bed and stood up, forcing himself to feel his bare feet planted on the floor, to look out the window and take in the day. The rooftops of Paris were shrouded by drizzle this morning, the beads of moisture collecting on the glass, the swallows that swooped in acrobatic flight during the long summer evenings long departed for North Africa in search of warmth.

Luke knew how they felt. He wasn’t relishing being out there himself today.

He made his way over the ancient floorboards to the bathroom with its black-and-white tile, ducking his head through the low doorway. Five minutes later, after sluicing his head with cold water and then doing it again when the first time didn’t work, he was in the kitchen making coffee and cooking a pan of eggs to fuel him for the trek to the practice facility. The hardest journey of the week, when every cell of your body was screaming for rest.

He’d been playing rugby almost as long as he could remember, and he was used to hurting, used to going on when he didn’t think he could. That was his world. That was his life. So that wasn’t why he was still standing here, staring in the mirror at red-rimmed eyes. It was because … he couldn’t do this anymore.

Thirty minutes until he had to be out the door. He downed a couple of paracetamol, washed them down with two glasses of water, pulled on track pants, then opened the refrigerator, hauled out the seven bottles of strong, dark Bière de Noël that remained there, opened the tops one at a time, and poured them down the sink, watching the liquid gurgle away in a foaming chocolate river.

So he’d broken up, or, rather, been broken up with. It had been more than two months, and it was time to quit wallowing. Time to either choose to be alone, or start the whole cautious process of finding somebody again. Always careful. Always hiding.

He could be lonely, though. He could be in pain. He knew how to be both of those things. He’d had practice.

What he couldn’t be was pathetic, and drinking alone was pathetic. Drinking was starting to feel pathetic, full stop.

Eggs. Toast. Coffee—too much of it. Trainers. Jacket. Checking his bag by rote for the mouthguards and gear that would be there, because they were always there, because he always cleaned and packed them the night before. Even when he’d been drinking … much too much. Out the door and down the stairs, worn in the center by the passage of centuries of feet, and out into the courtyard, his legs like lead. He’d feel better once he’d got stuck in with the boys, and better than that once he went for some physio.

Or at least he’d know he hurt. Lately, he was beginning to go numb. He could play rugby hurt. He didn’t know how to play it numb.

He was halfway to the practice facility when it hit him. He had to pull off into a side street, through the mad traffic, and sit, after a hasty check of his watch. He had eighteen minutes. Three minutes to work through this. Four at the outside.

His stepsister Nyree was getting married in less than three weeks, and he’d made no plans to be there, just gone along in this … fog. She was marrying Marko Sendoa, though, which meant that Luke’s father, Grant Armstrong, would be filthy. It was no secret that Grant loathed Marko, or that the feeling was mutual, despite Marko having played for him for years. Marko was playing for the Blues now, and that would’ve made Grant even filthier. Luke knew all about that. He’d left the Highlanders himself twelve years ago so he wouldn’t have to play for his father anymore.

He couldn’t leave Nyree to face Grant alone. Not at her wedding.

He couldn’t go on like this.

He couldn’t keep running. He’d run to Christchurch to play for the Crusaders. When that hadn’t been far enough, he’d run to Racing 92, all the way to Paris. Nearly ten years ago, and what was he doing? Still running.

Nowhere to run anymore. He’d run out of world, and he’d run out of excuses.

Time to turn and fight.

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