• Erica Judd

Never Let Go - Sneak Peek.


My last customer at Sperry Street 24-7 had been a good half hour ago when the doors slid open at five past two Saturday morning. I glanced up from the magazine article I was reading about the latest scandal on my favourite reality dating show, Frog, Frog, Prince, and blinked a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

No, the guy who had walked in was not wearing a shirt. And yes, he was a dead ringer for the show’s latest Prince Consort, Niko.

He was muscular, with tawny skin and intricate Polynesian shoulder cap tattoos. I watched him as he weaved around the store. His face was strong without being hard, his cheekbones high, his jaw defined, his lips full. When he made it to my register his near-black eyes smiled deep into my soul. His t-shirt was in the pile of stuff he dropped on the counter, and it sent a burst of spiced aftershave into the air. I separated the goods he was buying and rang them up. When I looked up to tell him the total, he was staring at me, smiling with one side of his mouth.

The pleasant glow I’d felt inhaling that aftershave darkened and a wide arrow of fear drove from my chest into the pit of my stomach. Another drunk hottie who was going to laugh at the old fat chick working alone in the corner shop on a Friday night.

My smile was forced.

‘That’ll be $14.65.’

He made no move to get his wallet, still staring at me. ‘You have pretty eyes,’ he said. ‘And nice hair.’

I laughed and ran my fingers through the rusty tangle. ‘Well thank you. Will that be cash or card?’

‘Hmm.’ He pulled a wallet from the back pocket of his dark jeans and opened it, peering into the note section. He pulled out two fives, put the wallet down, and dug through his front pockets. He pulled out a bunch of keys, a comb, a handkerchief and lastly, a handful of change. He frowned at the coins for a moment. ‘Is this enough?’

I held out my hand and he tipped the coins, warm from his body, into it. His fingers pressed into my palm for a moment, the contact longer than it needed to be. Blushing, I counted the change and handed him back a couple of dollars in silver.

‘There we go,’ I said, sliding the chips, juice and packet of balloons to his side of the counter.

He stuffed the coins, comb, handkerchief, keys and balloons into his pockets and gave me a toothpaste-ad grin as he pulled open the chips. ‘Want some?’ he said, offering me the open packet.

I took a couple, smiling back at him, hating that I blushed so easily and that I looked like a stepped-on Cabbage Patch Doll. No way I’d ever have a chance to even flirt with a guy who looked like the Prince Consort. Instead of leaving, he tipped his head to one side.

‘You have nice hair,’ he said. ‘And pretty eyes.’

I blushed deeper, knowing I looked ridiculous. ‘You already said that.’ I paused, gathered my courage, and took a gamble. ‘Nice abs.’

He looked down at his taut brown stomach, his face pensive. After a few moments he nodded.

‘Yep.’ He snagged his t-shirt from the counter and slung it over his shoulder. ‘You have a good night, brown-eyed girl.’

‘You, too.’

I waited until he found his way back out the door before I walked around the counter to watch through the window as he passed down the street and was lost in a knot of people smoking outside Nexus nightclub.

I sighed as I went back to my side of the counter, back to the goss about Niko and Estella in the magazine that was still open next to the till. I shook my head as I read. Estella was lying to everyone on the show and they were catching on fast. She was an amateur. ‘Girl,’ I murmured. ‘You should have come to me for some lessons before you tried that on national TV. You’d get gold medals in lying with me as your coach.’

I paused before I flicked the page to finish the article. Something in my peripheral vision was a bit off. I looked around, frowning.

There. The hottie’s wallet was on top of the display of chocolate bars on the other side of the counter. My heart kicked and leapt into my throat as I reached for it. I glanced at the window, knowing he could be anywhere by now. I flipped the rich black leather open and had to swallow my heart when I saw his driver’s licence behind its plastic window.

Tane Aleki Cavendish, 1/3 Cross Street, Clear Cove.

I whistled under my breath. If the wallet wasn’t fancy enough to show he had money, his address confirmed it. Clear Cove was only two suburbs over from mine – I could see the western end of Cross Street from the balcony of my two-bedroom 1960s brick-veneer – but it was a world away. Exclusive, and built on the narrow neck of the peninsula with no space left for expansion. All that was past Clear Cove was the even more snobby suburb of Sapphire Hill. I could stretch to cover the mortgage payments in Haven Bluff on my sole income. I couldn’t have rented a shoe box in Clear Cove.

Number three Cross Street would be two properties away from the beach at the eastern, ocean-side end. I had a feeling Tane spent a lot of time at the beach. There had been a hint of salt mixed with the spice of his scent. I stared at the licence, not seeing it, wondering if Tane lived in an upstairs or downstairs flat. Upstairs would have an amazing view out over the water, to the horizon which spread unbroken north to south. The closest thing out there was New Zealand. Even a downstairs flat had a chance at the view.

I shook myself back to reality, snapping the wallet closed, and took out my phone. Technically not something I was supposed to do on the clock, but this was work related. I typed Tane Aleki Cavendish into the Facebook search bar, murmuring and savouring the words, rolling their poetry around on my tongue.

The first profile that came up was definitely the shirtless hottie, sadly with more clothes on. I squinted at the profile picture and tapped to bring his profile up. Hmm. There was a boy grinning with Tane in the photo. They looked enough alike to be brothers, but the age difference could make them father and son. My heart finally dislodged from my throat and sank like lead back into my chest. Was this guy married with children? And if he was, why was he out alone, drunk and shirtless on a Friday night? I hesitated, but let curiosity get the better of me. I swallowed hard when I found Relationship: Single. How on earth was he single?

He’s a player, an inner voice sneered. A player and an arsehole. I shook my head. Tane had been courteous and polite and exceptionally nice, even when drunk. I served enough arseholes on Friday and Saturday nights – and even weekdays – to recognise a truly nice guy when I found one.

My inner voice snickered. Oh, honey. You haven’t found him. He wandered past and forgot his wallet. He’s never going to be with you. He will have forgotten you by tomorrow. Pretty eyes, pretty hair. But you’re still a fat bitch.

Well, I could do something about that, at least. I tapped to send him a message, letting him know I was keeping his wallet safe for him. That way, when he woke up tomorrow he’d see my name and have to message me back. Small victories meant a lot for a terminally single chubster like me. Tane Cavendish, meet JD Winters. Meet me and remember my name.

My inner voice was rolling around laughing, and I shoved it into a cupboard in my mind, slamming the door and firmly turning the key. Right now that inner voice sounded more like Anton than it had in months, and I didn’t need to be reminded of the loathing my ex-husband had for me. Ten years married, then he left with a younger, better-looking model. Left not only our marital home, but the city and state as well. Twelve months after it all ended, I had no idea where he and Kaye were, or if they were still together. I smiled at the thought of Kaye leaving him for her own younger model. Sure, Anton had some good muscles on him, but he was a petty little man underneath it all.

A petty little man who had hurt me. In more ways than one. And then moved on and blocked me on all his social media.

It was almost four p.m. when I woke up and I stretched, warmed by the early spring sun lighting my white-on-white bedroom. I stretched then curled up under my white doona, happy in my memory of Tane from last night.

Yeah, all you’re going to have is that happy memory because he said you had pretty eyes when he was drunk as a skunk, my inner voice sneered. He’s gorgeous and you’re you. No hope.

I climbed out of bed and avoided looking in the full-length mirror. Why had I ever agreed to that one mirrored wardrobe door? I couldn’t take it down and turn its face to the wall when it mocked me. It was always there, waiting. In the shower I couldn’t avoid thinking about my birds-nest hair and fat face, or seeing my thick waist, chubby arms and tree-trunk legs.

My calves were kind of okay, I conceded. But my thighs were a dimpled, flabby mess. I looked down and traced a fingertip across the broad white letters scarred into the left acre of orange-peel. F A T.

Hard as it was to believe, that hadn’t been the lowest point in my life. Things had gotten worse after the night I sat on the kitchen floor with the steak knife in my hand and carved the wonky letters, upside down as I looked at them so the whole world could read what I was and would always be. Fat. Fat and useless and only ever attractive to men who knew I would be a desperate and easy screw. And Anton’s voice in my head was right. If Tane had been flirting with me, it was all a game to him. He was just playing with my feelings, priming me for a night when he just wanted a quickie.

Nothing about me was attractive, not even my kind-of-okay calves. With one leg slightly shorter than the other I could never wear heels to accentuate them. A feminine failing pointed out by more than one guy over my thirty-three years.

The only place I had ever felt confident and self-assured was on horseback. With a saddle, uneven stirrups would even me out, and bareback my unevenness disappeared altogether. Too bad horse riding was a luxury instead of a way of life now that I lived in big-smoke Reliance instead of small-town Jonsfield.

Later, dressed in an old-favourite skirt and comfy white cotton blouse I stayed barefoot and was unusually conscious of my limp. I was getting close to the edge of my familiar despair when I noticed Tane’s wallet sitting on the breakfast bar next to my laptop. A burst of excitement showered sparks through me. I might have no chance with him, but for a little while I could dream and stalk his Facebook. And maybe, just maybe, I could stand to be his easy screw so I could say I had had a guy like Tane once in my pathetic life.

I shoved a tight lid on the inner critic and stretched out the anticipation by cooking myself a Spanish omelette while the coffee machine did its work on my best blend.

While I ate, I checked my emails and the latest posts on my favourite websites. Only after washing the breakfast dishes and putting them away did I let myself open the wallet for another look at the details on his drivers’ licence, and check the status of the message I had sent him last night.

Not seen. He was probably sleeping even later than me. I clicked on his profile link, and gave a small shiver when his profile photo appeared. My heart was thudding in my throat as I double-checked and found it was still there – Relationship: Single.

Optimism filled me like a hot air balloon. We were both single, we liked each other physically. All I had to do was somehow get into his life, and finally get what I’d been waiting for for so long. Someone who was nothing like my ex-husband had been in the five years before he walked out.

I clicked through to find out more about Tane. He was an Editor-in-Chief at Catchall Books, a place I was pretty sure was about four blocks from work. He had family listed – father in Ashworth. Mother in Tuvalu (where?!). Sister in England. Son, Tomasz, with no Facebook link or location. Not much else to be gleaned from his public info. His cover photo was someplace tropical. He had 2,729 friends. His list of likes included more books than I had read in my life. His taste in movies and TV ran to fantasy, sci-fi, and murder mysteries. Well, nobody could be completely perfect.

I had a few hours until work, and I couldn’t spend it all bouncing around Tane’s Facebook profile. Instead I cosied up on the couch and had a brief fantasy about snuggling there with Tane, watching Netflix as the rain drummed the tin roof. Smiling at the thought – mostly pleasure, but partly disdain at my stupidity – I scrolled through the horror movies on offer and chose a fun one. Really great bad horror should be reclassified as comedy.

‘Oh my gosh, you’re an angel!’ Tane said, striding across Catchall’s reception area to shake my hand between both of his, the warmth and strength of them zapping tingles up my arm. He was wearing black dress pants and a white collared shirt, the top button undone and the sleeves neatly folded above the elbow.

I had messaged him again just before heading to work on Saturday evening, and he suggested I take the wallet to him on Monday morning, if that was convenient for me. If he’d asked me to take it to the moon, I would have found a way. So here I was, my hand clasped between Tane’s, wearing my favourite skirt and peasant top to give myself a confidence boost. The confidence had been faltering with every step towards the Royer Building, with every eternal second that the lift took getting to the tenth floor. But Tane’s eyes had been taking in my appearance as he crossed over to me, and I saw definite heat in his eyes as well as gratitude.

‘Listen,’ he said as I handed him the wallet, reluctant to let my prize go. ‘Now that I have this bad boy back, I insist on taking you for a coffee to say thanks. If you have time for coffee right now, of course.’

‘Oh, yes.’ I never thought people actually cooed, but that’s exactly what I did. ‘Mondays are always free days for me. I only have some shopping to do, but that can certainly wait.’ I was on my offset weekend between my week of night shifts and my week on days. My shopping could wait all damn day and night while I went somewhere, anywhere with Tane.

‘Great!’ He turned to the receptionist. ‘Piper, could you hold my calls? I’ll be back in a bit.’

‘No problem, Mr Cavendish.’

‘Oh,’ Tane added as another guy came out of the door next to the desk. ‘Elias, could I just grab you for a sec? Sorry,’ he added to me after the other guy nodded and stopped to wait. ‘This won’t take long.’

Elias was tall and thin, with long scruffy hair, too much forehead and not enough chin. I watched, drawing contrasts between the two of them as they murmured, their heads together looking at something Tane had brought up on his phone. Tane was neat, strong, with a lithe-muscled body and a finely wrought, bronzed face. Elias was sloppy, wearing faded jeans that looked too big and a Lord of the Rings t-shirt. Tane wore shined, lace-up boots and Elias battered combat boots that had probably never seen a regulation spit polish in their lives. Tane’s hair was short and neat, a little longer on top with just the hint of a curl. Elias was constantly pushing back a lock of dirty-blond hair that fell into his eyes every few seconds.

It was unbelievable that these two could be representing the same company. More so that, from their jovial tones and laughter, they were friends as well as colleagues.

Eventually, Tane clapped Elias firmly on the shoulder, and came back over to me.

‘Sorry about that. Eli is doing some graphic design work on contract, he’s only been here a couple of weeks so there are some ropes that I’ve forgotten to show him.’ He smiled warmly at me as he took my elbow and guided me to the lifts. ‘But I’m all yours now.’

If only...

‘You wouldn’t believe how much I panicked on Saturday afternoon when I realised my wallet was gone.’ He shook his head, his smile twisting into a grimace. ‘I don’t even remember getting home. I really don’t remember much after about midnight.’ He studied my face for a few moments, then leaned closer confidingly, even though we had the lift to ourselves. ‘But I definitely remember your eyes. They’re such a gorgeous colour.’

The blush warming my cheeks ever since his hand had touched my bare elbow flooded my face with heat. Tane had called me gorgeous. Maybe, just maybe, this was one fantasy that would escape the confines of my head.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I have to say your eyes are incredible.’ I grinned at him. ‘And your abs.’

His eyes widened for a moment before he chuckled and hung his head. ‘Oh. Oh, gosh. I didn’t imagine taking my shirt off then?’

I laughed. ‘You dumped your shirt on my counter with your stuff.’

He covered his face with his hands and groaned, but I could still see that his cheeks were flushed to a burnished copper. ‘Now you know why I don’t drink often. I get too happy and – uh – uninhibited.’

‘Could have been worse,’ I said as we exited the lift and crossed the lobby. ‘I could have had some stripper music handy.’

‘God save us from that,’ he said as we headed down the crowded street, our arms bumping every now and then. We came to a cafe tucked between and art supply shop and a service alley. The Bay Tree had a small outdoor seating area, dark decor, and an intimate feel inside.

At the counter he asked what I was having, and then ordered for us both. There was a table in the back corner with only empty tables nearby. I gestured towards it and Tane nodded agreement. He wanted privacy and quiet just as much as I did.

I sat with my back to the room and instead of taking the seat opposite Tane chose the chair at right angles to mine. His calf brushed my shin and once we were settled, he let the small contact stay.

‘So what’s the story behind your name, JD?’

I sighed, grimacing internally. ‘It’s Jemimah officially,’ I said reluctantly. ‘Jemimah Delilah.’

‘Jemimah as in Puddleduck?’ His grin held no malice, but my defences bristled.

‘As in, that’s why I go by JD.’

His smile faltered. ‘Sorry, I guess you’ve heard that one a time or two.’

I rolled my eyes. ‘I have five siblings. A time or two billion is probably closer.’

He nodded, his face solemn and suddenly boyish, vulnerable. He asked about my brothers and sisters, but I wanted to talk about him. It took a few minutes to steer the conversation, but when I asked if he had any kids his face lit up and the information flowed.

He had a nine-year-old son, Tomasz. Tomasz was so smart – he knew four languages and was learning a fifth, he had won a state-wide writing competition against kids in high school, he was researching climate change and using high-school level material.

I slipped a few questions into the outpouring and learned that Tane spoke four languages, though his German and Polish wasn’t as good as Tomasz’s. His father’s publishing firm had flourished when Tane was a kid and sparked his interest in editing early on. Tane had grown up between his father in Australia and mother in Tuvalu after they split when he was four, and loved surfing in both places, and as many other countries as he could. Tomasz was getting into surfing, and was thrilled his Dad lived on the coast, since he lived with his Mum, stepdad and twin half-sisters two hours inland at Wheeler’s Cross.

Tane gave himself a little shake and laughed, dripping liquid silver into my heart and sending it racing through my blood. He touched me just below the elbow and ran his fingertips lightly down my arm until they met mine and lingered.

‘Listen to me, rabbiting on about myself. Let’s hear some more about you.’

I hoped the dim, cool light of the cafe hid my blush. The fact that I blushed so easily had been a major source of sibling taunting growing up, and had been something Anton had grown increasingly exasperated with as he came to detest everything about me.

Tane’s eyes held mine, and I knew he was reading me. His near-black eyes sparked small lights of sympathy, and he had a gentle smile on his full lips.

He said he wanted to hear about me, but did anyone ever really? I was so dull, so plain, so worthless.

‘There’s not a lot to tell,’ I said, heavy and barren. I stared down into the dregs of my coffee. When it was gone, Tane would be too.

‘I don’t believe that,’ Tane said, lifting my chin and watching me with his head tilted inquisitively. ‘Come on, brown-eyed girl. Tell me. What are your favourite things?’ His hand lingered on my chin. I wanted to dip my head and bury my cheek in his wide, warm palm. To hide in the circle of this tiny affection and stay with Tane. He nodded encouragingly as his hand moved away. ‘What’s your favourite book?’

Oh, man. That was a bad place for him to start. I’d barely read anything after leaving grade twelve. I racked my brains as fast as I could, and smiled bashfully at him. ‘You’ll think this is so silly, a woman of my age...’ Yeah sure, remind him that he’s twenty-seven and you’re thirty-three. Good going. I swallowed hard. ‘But I still love Black Beauty.’ I read it enough times as a kid to remember the story.

Black Beauty is a classic,’ Tane said. ‘You like horses then?’

‘My grandparents bred Arabians for almost fifty years, so I didn’t really have a choice.’

He laughed and winked at me, a mischievous light dancing in his eyes. ‘But there’s nothing like a good ride, huh?’ His leg pressed against mine, his calf rubbing my shin.

I couldn’t think of a snappy answer and just coughed out something that might have been a laugh.

‘You must have an understanding boss,’ I said, glancing at my watch. Yeah sure, remind him that time is money and he’s going to leave any minute. ‘Letting you skip out for coffee with random women.’

I could listen to Tane’s laugh all day.

‘Oh, a very understanding boss,’ he said, and winked again. ‘Me.’

‘Must be nice to be so young and in charge of things,’ I said, teasing.

‘I’m not that young,’ he said. He looked at me quietly in the gentle light. ‘You’ll find I’m really quite mature.’ Another soft interlude. ‘I like maturity.’ His fingertips touched mine again, paused and then his large, strong hand closed over my smaller, chubby one. His thumb massaged my palm for a few strokes. Then he looked at his watch and sighed.

‘Boss or not, I do need to get back. Busy week, the literary festival is on this weekend.’

‘You’ll be working there?’ The one thing that could make a literary festival interesting was a hot young Editor-in-Chief.

‘No,’ he said, and drained his macchiato. ‘But Dad will be, so I’ll be around most of Sunday.’

‘Well, I might see you there.’

That smile lit up his face. ‘That would be great. And listen, thank you again for returning my wallet. You don’t realise how much of your life is in the thing until it’s M.I.A.’

‘No worries,’ I said, smiling back at him. ‘Thank you for the coffee.’

He stood up and gave my shoulder a squeeze. ‘Catch you around.’

I turned and watched him walk out of the cafe. His crisp shirt stretched across his broad back, tapering to the waistband of his fitted trousers. His firm buttocks flexed as he walked, pulling the dark fabric taut. I was thinking about filling my hands with that butt when he turned and gave me a cheeky grin as he walked out the door.

He knew what was thinking. He was charming, friendly, flirty all through our little coffee date. A couple of times, there were definite messages in the way he looked at me, the way his hand touched mine, the way our legs stayed together under the table. I finished my tepid coffee and left, turning away from Catchall and heading into the mall.

There was a feeling inside me that I barely recognised. The last five years with Anton had built solid walls around me, walls that had only been strengthened by the few hook-ups I’d had in the year since Anton left. But those walls, right now – those walls had a tiny chink in them, a chink that Tane had chiselled skilfully in the bare half hour we were together.

And deep inside me, the light from that minuscule fissure warmed feelings trapped and cold for too long.




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