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Excerpt: Just Stop Me

Excerpt: Just Stop Me

Book 9: Escape to New Zealand

It took her two tries to get the receiver back into its cradle, but she was finally tucking her phone card into her plastic bag and heading back to the café.

Would Carmella and Mr. Scary still be there? Maybe so, and maybe not. She wasn’t sure which outcome she was hoping for. Right this minute, all she wanted was to leave, to take a bus into the city and find a spot at a backpacker’s hostel, and then a job in some far-flung spot. A farm, or a café in some inland town where people cared more about . . . about the lambing, maybe, than they did about minor European royalty and its latest scandal. At least that was what she assumed. She’d never been to New Zealand, but she knew that sheep figured into it.

The thought of going back out there to somebody who knew her—even somebody who’d just met her—made her nervous, as foolish as that was. But she’d seen the stack of newspapers when she’d bought her phone card.

First the headline, big and black. Runaway Bride?

And beneath it, just visible above the fold, a head of shining dark hair crowned by a borrowed diamond tiara, the radiant smile pasted onto her face as she’d learned to do so many years ago.

Her absence had been noted, clearly. She didn’t want to know any more. She needed to disappear. Just for a few weeks, she told herself. Just until I can think straight. Just until I figure out what to do. Her life was out of control—out of her control—but there had to be an answer. She just hadn’t thought of it yet.

Right now, she was as far away from Matthias as it had been possible to get without actually heading to Antarctica, and that was Step One. That was what had made her walk to the Air New Zealand counter instead of United or Qantas. Her first thoughts had been LA or Melbourne, but those where the first places Matthias—or her mother—would look. She’d wanted “remote,” and she’d got it. The country’s South Island would be even more so, which was a terrific reason to go there. So she ignored the throbbing in her head from the horrible glasses, the ache in her breasts from the cruel elastic bandage, and the dragging fatigue that made her want to sit in a corner and weep, and went back to the coffee stand instead of finding that bus.

They were still there. Iain’s broad back faced the room, but his mother looked up and waved, and Nina took a breath and headed toward them, sliding quickly onto a stool next to Carmella and ducking her head over her coffee.

“All sorted, dear?” Carmella asked.

“Yes. Well, I don’t have my ticket to . . .” She blanked on the name. “. . . onward yet.” She took a sip of lukewarm milky coffee. “But the plane doesn’t leave for two hours, right?”

“To Nelson? We can take care of that,” Carmella said, and Nina didn’t miss the way Iain’s head shot up at the words.

“No,” Nina said. “I’ll buy my own ticket.” And then what? the cruel inner voice mocked, and she shoved it back down.

“Good,” Iain muttered, not quite under his breath.

“I can see you have reservations about me,” Nina said, hardly able to believe her nerve. “Can I ask you what the problem is?”

His eyes, which had been narrowed, flickered a fraction. “Are you saying I’m being rude?”

No front of amiability or softness with this man. The hardness was right there to see.

“Maybe I am.” She didn’t dare look at his mother. This was her new leaf, and she was starting out right, no matter how hard that was. Iain wasn’t a prince, he wasn’t a celebrity, and he didn’t have any kind of power over her. If she couldn’t stand up to a normal man, what hope was there? “Or maybe you’re just being honest,” she told him. “Maybe you could tell me what your issue with me is, and we’d have something to work with.” She stopped, then, and tried to keep looking at him.

“Right,” he said. “Right.” He paused, his black brows drawn down over his nose, and she waited.

When the questions came, he fired them out like bullets, and they tore into her in exactly the same way. “Why are you here with no luggage? Where are you from? You don’t sound English. Why would you want a boring job like this, looking after a stroppy old man out in the wop-wops for what I doubt is going to be much pay? You’re not very glamorous, it’s true, but you could probably do better.”

Carmella made a faint noise of protest, and he looked at her and said, “She asked for honesty. She’s not glamorous. It’s obvious.”

“It’s all right,” Nina told Carmella. If she’d wanted confirmation that her disguise was working, she had it. And if she’d ever wondered how men treated women they didn’t find attractive, she knew that now, too. “I’m not glamorous, no,” she told Iain. “I hadn’t realized that was a requirement for this job. And I’ll point out that you’re not exactly glamorous yourself.”

It seemed she had a little backbone after all. Who knew?

But, really. The man was wearing blue nylon gym shorts, a hoodie, and flip-flops. Plus, he had that face. He’d only have to walk into a bar to have every bouncer in the vicinity standing up and moving into position. And he was criticizing her appearance?

His eyes were trying to smile, and his grim mouth wasn’t having any. “You could be right about that.”

Get it over with. “I want the job because it sounds like a quiet spot, and that’s what I’m looking for. I’ve got no luggage because I was in a hurry, but that’ll be remedied as soon as I buy some clothes. I have an Australian passport, which makes me eligible to work here. And I like older people. I like them better than younger people, to be honest again.” I certainly like them better than you. “If you hire me, I’ll do my best. I don’t take anything on unless I’m prepared to do my best.”

He blinked at that, and that was all. “You don’t have an Aussie accent.”

“I’ve been living in the States for years, and in the UK a bit too. But I’m true-blue dinky-di all the same.” She put her hand into her carrier bag, which she’d been clutching in her lap, pulled out the little blue booklet, flashed the kangaroo and emu at him, then shoved it back inside before he could ask to look at it more closely.

“Not always a selling point on this side of the Ditch,” he pointed out.

The Ditch. The Tasman Sea that separated New Zealand and Australia. “Maybe not, but it’s true, so . . .” She shrugged with a nonchalance she didn’t feel. “Anyway, I’m here to work, so either take me on or tell me to bugger off so I can get a bus into the city and find somebody who wants me.”

It sounded brave. Pity it wasn’t real, that she’d had to channel her granddad for the “bugger off.” She needed this job, because anyplace else would ask even harder questions. She had no work experience that would count for anything, and she didn’t want to let anybody study her passport and put two and two together.

To get the job, though, she had to pretend she didn’t need it. Fake it till you make it. She kept her chin up and willed it not to tremble. She didn’t think she was succeeding, but his hard eyes had softened a little.

“You’re tired, eh,” he said, and just like that, she felt the tears welling up.

“Yes,” she said, forcing them back. “I am.”

“Sorry about that.” He did look sorry, at least a little bit. And he kept asking questions all the same. “You said you left in a hurry, though. Why? What job did you do before? Are you wanted by the police? Have you committed any crimes?”

“If I had, I surely wouldn’t tell you, would I? And I’m not going to tell you what job I did before.” She hurried on even as his eyes widened and his mouth open to speak. “But I’ve always worked, and I know how to do it. And crimes against fashion, maybe, but that’s all.” She skirted the issue of the police. She wasn’t “wanted” in the way he meant, anyway. “Am I qualified to look after your grandfather? Probably not. Am I willing to do it? Yes, I am. So whatever you decide, say it and let’s get on.”

He produced an actual smile at that. “You really are Aussie, eh.”

“Are you done, darling?” Carmella asked him a bit waspishly. “Honestly. Dad just needs somebody to cook and clean for him a bit, somebody tough enough to stand up to him, hopefully interesting enough that he quits moping, and not desperate enough to steal his bits and bobs, none of which are worth anything anyway. And you know he’d be driven mad by some jolly-hockey-sticks middle-aged lady. Seems to me that Nina fits the bill on all counts.”

Except the “not desperate” part, but at least she didn’t steal. And she wasn’t too sure about “interesting” or “tough” at this point, either. She wasn’t jolly, so that was one out of four, maybe.

Iain raised hands the size of oven mitts in a gesture of surrender, then dropped them to the table. “Yeh. I’m done. I still can’t see why she’d want the job, but if she does, I reckon it’s her funeral. But if Granddad tells us they’re getting married, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Nina had been feeling a bit more charitable toward him. The “sorry” had helped, and so had the smile. His final remark, though, had her spine stiffening again.

“Trust me,” she said, “I’m not going to be marrying anybody. That’s a promise.”

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