Authors: Lesley Young
Copyright © 2015 Lesley Young, 2015
Cover design by Jenny Zemanek at Seedlings Design Studio
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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ISBN Mobi 978-0-9909135-2-8
To Shawna Hook
I am grateful to everyone who read this book early on and provided much-needed suggestions, especially Shawna Hook, a dear friend and scare-me smart reader, and my ultimate sizzle-factor arbiter, Kim Barton. Also: copy editor Rachel Daven Skinner at Romance Refined, proofer David Warriner at W Translation, and my agent Nalini Akelokar, and Amanda Leuck, at Spencerhill Associates. Charlie Sykes will always be one of my favorite characters. I felt the same protective instinct that reared up in all of you—but I would have hurt her more if I’d kept her from experiencing the world.
Books by Lesley Young
The Frenchman (#1 Crime Royalty Romance)
The Australian (#2 Crime Royalty Romance)
Sky’s End: (#1 Cassiel Winters Series)
I glanced at the time on my cell phone and frowned. My temp agency had notified me of this job prospect at the last minute, yet I had managed to arrive within sixty seconds of the appointed time, during Sydney’s rush-hour traffic no less. Meanwhile, I glanced at the closed door several feet from where I sat; the employer was unable to stay on schedule posing a mere series of interview questions.
. The result: I was detained with no useful or productive way to occupy my mind.
My thoughts returned, pointlessly, to retrace events which had led to my current circumstances and the dilemma I now faced.
I moved to Australia because of a movie. Most people raise their eyebrows at this. For them, a movie is not a proper reason to decide on a new geographical location to call home. However, that is precisely
I made the decision. I wanted to start my new life the way I meant to go on: full of spontaneity.
The movie was
. Muriel (Toni Collette’s breakout role) is an unpopular, ABBA-obsessed girl who makes a series of illogical decisions driven by the ardent desire to be loved. I do not relate to the character at all, but my mother did. It was her favorite movie.
In fact, she watched it a few times every year, and, depending on the narcotic she had indulged in, either slurred her way through the songs or gesticulated wildly through the
dance routine. She never made it to the end, passing out before Muriel, who, having gained a greater sense of self, comes back to rescue her best friend from their dumpy beachside fictional hometown, Porpoise Spit. I could only appreciate this denouement like someone might appreciate a Vermeer painting—out of time and place.
The day of my mother’s funeral, sitting in our living room in the CrissCross trailer park in upstate New York, I’d spotted the VHS tape on the crate in front of the TV. Uncertain what else I should be doing, I popped it in and hit
. Miss Moneypenny, my Norwegian Forest Cat, jumped up and nestled in beside me. Freddy, the compound manager and my mother’s occasional sugar daddy, as she called him, lingered in the kitchen.
Freddy had been a significant resource over the past few years. He often gave us rides to the Niagara Falls Methadone Clinic, occasionally to get groceries, and helped out with money when necessary. When I asked my mother once why he bothered, she said, “He damn well owed her.” As with most things she uttered in the last few years of her life, I did not inquire further.
Freddy was the one who found my mother’s corpse on the kitchen floor. Overdose was the coroner’s final ruling.
I sighed through my nose, crossly, and checked the time again. This prospective employer was now running ten minutes late. By the time he interviewed the two women seated across from me, it would be another twenty minutes, at least, before it was my turn.
. I thought about leaving, but immediately acknowledged that would be unwise, since my dilemma
my inability to find a job in Sydney. I was officially a beggar, not a chooser—a situation I had not anticipated when I decided to move away from America that day in our trailer.
Rain pattered the thin roof, and Freddy’s cigarette smoke clogged up the already stuffy air. (I’d asked him twelve times over a six-year period to refrain from smoking inside the trailer.) He just stood there, against the kitchen counter, one hand in his pocket, the other smoking a cigarette, staring at me. People are often confused by me. I do not know how to respond on these occasions, but I always recognize the telltale dead air. He asked about my plans, and, as ABBA’s
played from Muriel’s beachside bedroom into my highway-side living room, I heard myself say, “I am moving to Sydney.”
“Sydney? In Florida?”
“Australia,” I whispered. My logic slid into place like a well-oiled machine, because that’s how my brain works, or rather how my mother would explain it to people when I was younger. “Oh, Charlie? She don’t think like the rest of us. She’s so smart she don’t bother with things like emotions. She’s a limited edition, well-oiled machine.”
The truth is I do have a higher than average IQ when it comes to certain subjects, such as math and languages. However, I struggle with fields that require creativity and interpretative assumption making, like reading emotions and navigating nuances of social interactions. I am on the lowest end of a spectrum of unique development disorders that no one really understands well. “A very mild case of PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified),” stated the doctor’s report from second grade, which I found tucked among my mother’s belongings, long forgotten. That explained why I had gotten only Cs in certain classes yet won the math award every year, and, perhaps, why I had had no lasting friends until I met Beatrice (B) Moody in the sixth grade advanced program.
B never stares at me strangely. And, since inserting herself into my life, she has taken on the role of filling in the gaps of silence for me when she is present.
Take my current situation: I suspected that if she was seated such that she faced two rivals for a job opportunity, she would have found a way to break the figurative ice. I eyed the two women, and my surrounds, and realized I was pursing my lips. Since body language is a powerful communication tool, and I was in need of a positive job-hunt development after two weeks of searching in Sydney, I un-sealed them.
The effort did not help to put me at ease. I prefer at least one day’s notice to prepare for a job interview.
The Wikipedia article I had managed to read on my phone before I arrived here said that Mr. Jace Knight was a lucrative international hotelier and a jet-setter. Certainly, by the looks of the Sydney Plaza offices (and lobby, which I had passed through in order to reach the employee offices in an adjacent, attached building), Mr. Knight had no problem spending money. The chair I sat in was leather, the walls glossy marble. I felt distinctly out of place, a first for me, which struck me as . . . unsettling—
Ever since arriving in Australia, I had found myself in the unpleasant position of being what some might describe as a “doubter.”
For example, unlike B, who had been headhunted out of college by the government (she is an excellent computer engineer), I had dropped out of college in my first year, unable to work, study, and support both myself and my mother. In the spare time I had between job interviews here, I had found myself questioning whether I had made the right decision to sacrifice college.
Mother and I had an agreement she would not take drugs without me present. Why she would break her agreement, and use far more than even the most inexperienced addict would use, could only lead me to believe she had done so on purpose. When I had said as much to B on the morning of the funeral, she had said, “Charlie, you know full well how people do things no one’ll ever understand. And for the record, it’s the other way around. She failed you.”
That was not a satisfactory response.
Nothing about what had happened was satisfactory.
And I recall feeling it then, severely, sitting on our sofa in our trailer park, like a nasty sunburn or a head cold.
I was twenty-four. Older than Muriel in many ways, just not in terms of life experience.
In that moment, Australia showed itself to me, the way a symbolic logic formula unfolds for me—gracefully, effortlessly.
I had enough money to make the move after I sold the trailer and the lot,
I had no further obligations to fulfill here,
I could truly start over.
More importantly, I could start differently. I could put effort into the things that I knew, thanks to pop culture media resources and B’s constant harping, composed a proper young woman’s life. A job that satisfies and enriches. A home to call my own. A man who takes me on dates, cherishes me, and perhaps wishes to mate with me for life. These were all rites of passage I had never desired or pursued simply because they were not possible when I was burdened with my mother.
The opportunities presented themselves much the same way I imagine the screenwriter had wanted Muriel to feel them, and in such a way that I felt moved to achieve them. It was not clear to me what the consequence of not achieving these goals would be. Only that, for the first time, my future was mine.
However, post-move, I had lost all confidence in my original decision. Had B been right: was my logic handicapped at the time by the experience of losing my mother? Or were “spontaneous” decisions by nature poor decisions? For now, it was all too clear how I had failed to take into account other factors that would impact my future beyond a change of location and the local university’s credentials (which I researched should I someday manage to save enough money to attend; as I have told B, repeatedly, I do not agree with acquiring debt). Namely, why was it I could not seem to land a job in Sydney? I had years of administrative experience on my resume.
I should do more information-gathering.
“Excuse me,” I addressed the last remaining interviewee. “Did you receive a job description for this position?” The woman, whose skin was dangerously bronzed, and whose features met today’s conventional standards for “beautiful,” shook her head at me.
She made a derisive quiet noise as she half-smiled and glanced away.
I understood her peculiar response to mean she did not wish to engage in further conversation, and leaned back in my chair.
While I had anticipated that moving to Australia would make me feel, on occasion, like a stranger in a strange land, I expected the experiences to dissipate over time. I may have been wrong about that, too.
I was forced to face the truth: moving to Sydney, which was indeed a vibrant, wonderful place to live, had posed
a whole series
of unanticipated challenges that were, frankly, testing my coping skills greatly.
Take Miss Moneypenny: she had had to be quarantined for an additional two weeks after my arrival. (It was a lucky coincidence that she had already had her rabies shot six months before mother died; she required a blood test six months post-shot, and even then there had been a forty-two-day waiting period for the import permit.) While the befuddlement I experienced being without her may strike others as silly, that cat was the only living being I had successfully developed an attachment to, other than my mother and B. Her absence felt perhaps how one might feel finding oneself unzipped in a public venue.