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'Laptop and mobile chargers packed? Did you check the oil in the car?'
Lu Sheppard stood in the east coast early-morning sunshine and, because she knew that throwing her arms around the hairy knees closest to her and hanging on tightly wouldn't be appreciated, jammed her clenched fists into the pockets of her faded denim shorts. Turning her head away, she swallowed furiously before digging deep and yanking out her patented, much practised I'm-OK-you're-OK smile.
'Lu, you did,' answered Daniel, the younger of her twin brothers. 'Twice.'
That was right. She had. And she'd ticked it off on the list she'd made for them. Not that either of them had looked at it. Lord, how was she going to do this? These boys had been her life and her focus for the past decade. How was she supposed to just let them get into their car and drive across the country to university and, to all intents and purposes, out of her life? She'd yelled at them, cried with them and cried over them. She'd provided meals and lifts, helped with homework and bugged them to talk to her. She'd been father, mother, sister and friend.
She was twenty-nine years old and not only was she unable to stare empty nest syndrome in the eye, it was also kicking her non-sexy butt. But, like so many other emotions she'd experienced over the past ten years, the boys didn't have to know that
Daniel leaned back against the door of his jointly owned car and cleared his throat. Lu saw the look he gave Nate and felt rather than saw the nod Nate gave in reply. Nate moved to stand next to his non-identical twin, equally tall, equally good-looking.
Daniel cleared his throat again. 'Lu, we are grateful that you stepped up to be our guardian when Mom and Dad died. If it wasn't for you we would've ended up with some crusty relative who probably would've shipped us off to boarding school and holiday camps.'
Since their parents had both been only children, Daniel's comment wasn't far off the truth. All their relatives were old, crusty, and generally waiting for the light in the tunnel.
'But it's time for a new start for us and also for you.'
Huh? 'What do you mean?'
Daniel rubbed his jaw. 'We think it's time for you to do all the things you couldn't do because you were raising us.'
Lu frowned. 'Where is this coming from, guys? We talked about thisabout you two leaving.'
'Sureabout what uni was like, how we felt about leaving, what we were getting into. But we never spoke about you.' Nate chipped in.
Lu's expression was pure confusion. 'Why did we need to? My life isn't changing.' 'It should,' Nate retorted. 'But why?'
'Because nothing about your life is normal for a single woman of your age! When did you last have a date?' Nate demanded.
Lu couldn't remember. It had been a whilesix, eight months? She could barely remember the man, just that he hadn't been able to wait to get rid of her after she'd told him that her twin brothers lived with her and she was their guardian. She couldn't blame him; his had been the standard reaction from the very few men she'd dated over the years: shock followed by an immediate desire to find the closest exit.
Add a large house, two dogs, an enormous saltwater fish tank, three corn snakesno, they'd been moved to a reptile centre when she'd refused to look after them after the boys leftand cats to the pile of her baggage, and it was no wonder her dates belted away.
'We need to talk to you about. you,' Nate said.
'Me?' Lu yelped as she pulled a band from her shorts and finger-combed her straight, mouse-brown hair into a stubby pony.
Uh, no. She looked after themphysically, mentallythey didn't look after her. That was the way their little family worked.
'Look, Lu, we're not only leaving, we're leaving you. You know our plans: degrees, then we want to travel. We have no idea where we'll end up but there's a good chance it won't be here,' Nate continued. 'That being said, it would be a lot easier for us if we knew that you were happy and busy and had a full life of your own. Take this house, for instance; we don't want you hanging on to this mansion in the hope that one of us will want it one day. And right now it's a huge house for you to live in by yourself.'
Dan jumped in. 'We're not asking you to sell the house, or anything like that We just want you to know that we are cool with whatever you want to do with it: sell it, rent it out, start up a commune.'
Lu sat down on the steps leading to the front door and rested her forearms on her thighs. Nate sat down next to her and draped a muscular arm around her shoulder. 'Just please don't become a crazy lady who rattles around here talking to herself and rescuing cats. That was the first thing we wanted to mention '
There was more? Really? Good grief!
Daniel dropped to his haunches in front of her and pinned her with a look that went far beyond his eighteen years. 'Lu, you are going to be on your own for the first time since you were roughly our age.'
Well, yeah. That was why empty nest syndrome was wiping the floor with her face.
'We want you to have some funto live your life.' Daniel raked an agitated hand through his hair, which desperately needed a cut. 'You need to stop being so responsible, to take a breath. To do the things you should've been doing while you were raising us.'
Lu cocked her head. 'Like.?'
'Like clubbing and' Daniel looked at a point beyond her shoulder and blushed 'hooking up.'
Hooking up? Heavens, if she couldn't remember when last she'd had a date, she'd had absolutely no idea when she last had sex. She suspected she might need a high-pressure cleaner to remove the cobwebs.
'So, here's your "to do" list. We want you to try new things like skydiving or learning to surf. Pottery classes or dance lessons,' Nate suggested.
Daniel, her brand and fashion-conscious brother, winced at her faded purple T-shirt and battered jeans. 'Some decent clothes would also be a good idea.'
'I have decent clothes!' Lu objected.
'Then wear them!' Daniel shot back. 'And your hair needs a cut and you could do with a facial. You need a lifestyle makeover.'
Since their words plucked a chord somewhere deep inside her, she suspected that they might be right. But she certainly didn't have to like it.
Lu growled. 'I hate you.' She glared at Daniel. 'And you.'
'No, you don't. You love us.'
Nate grinned and her heart flipped over. God, she did. So much. How was she supposed to let them go?
'You should go clubbing. Somewhere hip and fun. You'll have to dress up and make an effort.' Nate said. 'Makhosi will take you, Lu.'
Of course he would. Clubbing was her oldest and best friend's favourite way to blow off steam.
'But she has to have a makeover first. I wouldn't be seen with her with that hair!' Daniel added.
'Hey!' Lu protested.
'Haircut, highlights and a makeover,' Daniel stated, and Lu glared at him. 'As Mak has said, more than once, that hair of yours is a disgrace: much better suited to a prissy librarian who doesn't curse, drink wine and who has never had a Big O in her life.'
Well, that sounded like her. Not the wine and the cursing part, but the Big O was definitely true. Could she be so damn emotional because she was sexually frustrated? It would be easy to shift the blame, but the truth was that sex had been scarceOK, practically non-existentfor most of this past decade, so she couldn't blame her weeping on that.
Empty Nest Syndrome: two. Lu: nil.
And when had her brothers become old enough to mention her orgasmsor lack of themanyway?
Nate leaned back and put his ankle on his knee. 'But, Lu, more important than anything else you should get a job.'
Dan shook his head. 'Not that she uses any of it, but there is enough money coming in from the trust. She doesn't have to work if she doesn't want to.'
No, she didn't If she could bring herself to use the money for anything other than the essentials that kept body and soul together. She had never felt comfortable using her parents' money for anything other than food, shelter and transport.
His brother sent him a you're-a-moron look. 'Not for the money, dude. Because it's something to to get her teeth into.'
'Oh, right. Good point.'
Lu lifted her fingers and started to tick their demands off. 'So, you two think that if I find a job, go clubbing, have a makeover, learn how to surf'
'And skydive,' Nate interjected.
'Dream on.' Lu glared at him and continued. 'Go to pottery and dance lessons then I won't have time to mope?'
Two blond heads nodded to some internal twin beat.
Lu stared past their car down the driveway. The thing was they could be right. The distraction of getting out and about might keep her from going off her head worrying about them. It wasn't a bad idea.
Lu nodded slowly. 'I'll think about it.'
'Promise you'll do it.' Nate insisted.
'I promise to think about it.'
'If you do it, we promise to come home in three months' time,' Nate said slyly.
'You're blackmailing me with a promise to come home?' Lu's mouth dropped open. 'You little snot!'
Nate just grinned and looked at his watch. 'We need to get going, Lu.'
She couldn't bear it. She really couldn't. She struggled to find the words and when she did they were muffled with emotion. 'Call me when you get there. Drive carefully.'
Nate pulled her up, cuddled her, and easily lifted her off her feet before placing a kiss on her cheek. 'Love ya, sis.'
When Nate released her, Daniel held her close. 'Take care of yourself. Have fun. Please, please have some fun,' he told her. Daniel let her go and hopped into the passenger seat. 'We'll call you when we get there.'
Lu nodded, touched Daniel's arm resting on the windowsill of the car and blew Nate a kiss.
Her boys driving off to start their new life
Lu watched their car turn into the road and sat down on the stairs, holding her face in her hands as she watched her two chicks fly from her very large and now very empty nest.
They would be fine, she assured herself. As for herself she wasn't quite sure.
Two weeks later, in the VIP area of Go! on a very busy Friday night, Will Scott placed his elbows on the railing and looked down at the gyrating masses below him. It was nearly midnight and he'd been thinking about leaving the club for the past half-hour. He could walk down the block to the boutique hotel he'd booked into two days ago and in fifteen minutes could be facedown on the monstrous double bed.
That sounded like heaven.
Will felt someone lean on the railing next to him and looked into the battered face of his best friend Kelby, CEO of the Stingrays rugby franchise, who was also his boss for the next three months. Panic swirled in his gut at the thought.
'How is Carter?' Will asked.
The iconic and surly head coach of the Rays had suffered a heart attack a month back, and as the rugby season was fast approaching the team had been left rudderless without a coach.
'Still in hospital. Still doing tests. They're talking about a bypass,' Kelby replied. 'He said to tell you not to mess it up.'
If it was anyone other than Kelby Will would never utter the words he was about to say.
'The chances are good that I will.' Will rubbed the back of his neck. 'I really don't know if I'm doing the right thing, Kels. This isn't some little local team I'll be caretaker coach of. It's one of the top teams in the premier rugby playing world.'
'It is,' Kelby agreed easily. 'So?'
'So I'm thirty-four years old, not old enough to be a coach, and I have no experience at all! I only retired from international rugby last season and I don't want to muck it up!' Will retorted, shoving his hand into his dark brown hair.
Kelby placed his bottle of beer on a high table and sent him a penetrating look. 'It's strange to see you even marginally unhinged. You are probably the calmest, most confident person I know.'
'I don't feel too confident at the moment,' Will admitted.
'You've been unofficial coach of every team you've ever played for.' Kelby replied, his smile wide. 'I remember that first practice you attended as an eighteen-year-old. You were so full of Kiwi confidence that you toldwho was it?that he was breaking from the scrum too soon.'
Will dropped his head in embarrassment. He'd chirped the then Captain of the England squad and his big mouth had propelled him into a series of initiations by the older players that had quickly taught him to keep his head down and his mouth closed. But Kelby did have a point. Even early in his career he'd had an affinity for telling people what to do.
Rugby was as natural to him as breathing but coaching? He was a player, not a technician. Kelby kept telling him that he had the assistant coaches for that side of thingsa support team who were employed to deal with the technical aspects. His job was to train, to motivate, to strategise, to inspire and to lead. To get results and to win. But, hey, no pressure.
It was a new ballgame, Will told himself. Something new to conquer. Another challenge to meet. A temporary stop-gap while he decided what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Kelby looked contemplative. 'You know, when I offered you this job it was more with hope than expectation. I know you've had other job offers, like commentating, and I also know that your business interests in New Zealand are extensive enough to keep you busy. So why did you accept this job halfway across the world, Will?'
Will shrugged and looked down into the mass of people below. There she was again, her long, lean body dressed in tight jeans and a sparkly emerald-green top. Her elfin face was topped by an ultra-short cap of sun-streaked light brown hair and he wished he could see what colour those light eyes actually were. Blue? Grey? She was talking to the guy she'd spent most of the evening dancing with and he couldn't quite work out the relationship between them. There was a lot of touching, but no kissing, and he frequently left her to dance with different women.
Even at a distance he could see that the guy had charm and he used it and the woman didn't seem to mind. She just perched on her barstool, politely dismissed the guys trying to pick her up and watched the crowd.
Kelby was still expecting an answer so Will jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and thought about how to answer his question. 'I just wanted to get out of New Zealand for a while get away from the constant speculation and conversation about why I retired at the peak of my career. About what I'm going to do, whether I'm ever going to settle down.'
'Why did you retire at the peak of your career?'
'Exactly thatbecause it was the peak. Hopefully when people remember my contribution to New Zealand rugby they'll remember the last seven yearsnot the years I spent before that, trying to flush my career and my life down a toilet.'
'Did you take this job because you felt you owed me?' Kelby demanded. 'Because if you did I'll kick your ass.'
Of course he had. If it hadn't been for Kelby he wouldn't have had a rugby careerwouldn't have captained the team for the past five years, wouldn't be known as one of the best fullbacks in the sport. Three months of his life spent coaching the Rays wouldn't even come close to paying his debt.
'I do owe you.'
Kelby shook his head. 'You just had your head too far up your own backside and I yanked it out.'
Will shook his head. Only Kelby could describe his self-destructive behaviour so lightly.