Read an Excerpt
"Goodbye to Girl Friday," Juliana Thomsen said, leaning back on a bench at Atami Harbor and giving in to her jet lag just for a second. The flip-flop time change from California to Japan was finally catching up to her after yesterday's reprieve, and sitting here with her feet in a public foot tub with 113-degree water wasn't doing much to keep her perky.
Her friend and traveling partner, Sasha, tested the water with her fingers and jerked them back. Her strawberry-blond curls fought against the tight ponytail that contained them, but the salt-laced breeze wasn't coaxing even a strand out of place as she gave Juliana a what-are-you-talking-about? glance.
"Girl Friday," Juliana repeated, lifting her own long blond hair off her neck, which was clammy with the early-June humidity. "My family started calling me that when I came back to Parisville to take over the managerial duties in our bookstore after Aunt Katrina decided to retire. Maybe it's just that my life is over there and I'm here, but this trip makes me think I can actually leave all that behind for a while."
Sasha smiled and fixed her gaze on the gleaming water, where boats cut through the blue. "Best of luck then, because that's sure not why your aunt sent you overseas."
Sighing, Juliana took in the decadence of sitting on a boardwalk bench in an exotic country, with its pagodas and koi fish and geisha. Underneath the ornamentation, there was an undercurrent of something hiddendark alleys under rainfall, neon flickering in the nightand it reflected how she felt about herself, too.
It had only been on the plane, away from her loving yet majorly attentive family, that freedom had envelopedher.
This would be the perfect time to explore those dark alleys and find something different, something away from the overly interested gaze of the great-aunt who had raised her for the past twenty-four years, since her parents had died in a small-plane crash when she was only eight.
Yet Aunt Katrina was the reason Juliana was even in Japan, and she loved the woman who'd become her surrogate mom too much to goof around and let her down.
So, maybe it really would have to be duty before adventure, Juliana thought, preparing herself for the task she'd been sent here to do: securing the painting her family had been chasing for generationsDream Rising, a watercolor that had been lost for over a century.
And an obsession for the elders in the Thomsen family.
A Japanese art dealer named Jiro Mori had uncovered the notorious painting in a Phoenix flea market, then shipped it here with the intention of selling it in his Tokyo gallery. Mori had played hardball, saying he had a lot of business in Japan and couldn't make it to the west coast of America for another month, so when his phone negotiations with Aunt Katrina had gone bust, the canny woman, the historian of the family, had put Juliana on a plane. The elder Thomsen thought that her great-niece, with her "persuasive blond good looks and head for business," might be able to negotiate more effectively in personbefore it was too late.
In other words, before the Coles, the family who'd also been tracking the painting, found its location.
As Juliana stared at her painted toenails under the hot water, her heart clutched, her belly swirled, and her gaze blurred into a different image altogethera memory of a sketch she'd seen of Dream Rising.
Misty curves and entwined limbs. Out of the tangles, a woman, her hair loose, her body explicitly bared and vulnerable, seemed to rise, reaching for something just beyond her grasp.
Juliana had first seen the sketch when she was nine, after her parents' deaths, after she'd drawn into herself in her grief. In an attempt to help, Aunt Katrina had told her stories about the watercolorhow, generations ago, Terrence Cole, the artist, and his model Emelie, Juliana's great-great-grandmother, had once loved each other. How he'd painted her and captured their affection.
It had only been years later that Juliana had heard the rest: the couple's love had imploded when Terrence had been pressured by his family into an arranged marriage, and he'd asked Emelie to be his mistress.
She'd refused, and that's how the feud between the Thomsens and Coles had started; when Emelie and Terrence had broken apart generations ago, she had thought that Dream Rising had been his sentimental farewell gift to her, and he had insisted that it wasn't. When she'd reported the painting as stolen, a bitterness had been born, morphing through the years into disagreements between the two families about such things as disputed property lines between the Coles' ranch and the Thomsens' land, opposing views of political matters in Parisville, a car accident that had injured one Thomsen while the Cole party had gotten off scot-free.
It never seemed to end.
Once, Juliana had almost challenged the feud.
Those misty colors of the painting kept weaving through her mind as she recalled how she and Tristan Cole had come so close to falling in love after high school, just before she'd left for college. But they hadn't found the courage to go all the way, either in the backseat of his vintage Mustang or by shouting out how they'd felt about each other to the world.
If they had, hell would've rained down, and they'd both known it. You just didn't talk to members of the other family if you ran into them at the market or coffee shop. You pretended to look the other way in the school hallways, even if someone as breathtaking as Tristan, with his longish black hair and mysterious gaze, walked on by.
Juliana had nursed a quiet crush on him for years, starting in grade school, flowering in junior high, then coming to a head in senior year. And one summer's night, she'd found out that he'd felt the same, watching her as she'd watched him without either of them realizing it.
But they'd been too young, she thought as her gaze solidified once again, the water, the rocks beneath her feet wavering under her vision. They hadn't been mature enough to handle the consequences, and she'd chosen to go off to college, to a different world, never forgetting what could've been with the boy who'd always sat at the back of the class, dangerous and quiet.
Yet she'd lived plenty of years without Tristan. She hadn't even seen him around their small, inland town because he kept to himself in his cabin on the family ranch property, no doubt locked away in that garage of his, working on those vintage cars he'd always loved. Paris-ville, with its pines and nearby mountains, was big enough these days that there were unfamiliar people crowding the streets, yet quaint enough that even a feud could still separate a could've-been couple.
She often caught herself wondering just what she'd missed out on with Tristan.
Sasha nudged Juliana, whose heart sank at the loss of the memory.
"Should we start heading out now?" her friend asked.
Juliana exhaled, dizzy from not breathing while she was woolgathering. Lethargic from the water's heat, too. "We could go to my meeting, I suppose."
"Good." Sasha stood and stretched. "You know, even though your art-dealer guy messed up, we'll reap some benefits."
They'd scheduled a meeting at his Tokyo gallery but Jiro Mori had changed the location at the last minute because he had sudden business with an artist in Atami.
Juliana rose, also. "It was decent of him to give us train tickets to get here. Besides, Atami wasn't a ridiculously long ride from our hotel."
"This town's an intriguing place. A gem, really," Sasha said. "On the train, I was reading that Atami literally means hot sea because of the volcano-heated water. And this whole faded hot-spring resort vibe adds I don't know. Character. Sadness." She paused. "The shogun were supposed to have taken the waters here, and during its heyday, a sort of side industry was built around the area to attract more tourists. That's why we've got things like adult museums and 'onsen geisha' to check in to here."
Juliana's interest was piqued; she'd spent her life curious about everyone else on the planet. "Onsen means hot springs, right? I haven't read about the difference between a 'hot-springs geisha' and any other."
"They go against the traditional standard and offer sex rather than wittiness or artistic entertainment, as opposed to what you'd find in the more refined districts like, say, Gion." Sasha tapped her head. "Can I retain the info or what?"
"You certainly can."
So Atami. Maybe it'd be the perfect place for Juliana to start peeking into some of those dark alleys she'd been thinking about.
She happily splashed some water out of the foot tub as she and Sasha got out. What if she enlisted her partner in hopeful crime for some Atami adventuring? After all, she'd been able to persuade Sasha, who'd been a great friend since she'd moved to Parisville last spring to live with her boyfrienda Cole, as a matter of factto come along to Japan in the first place.
Since Sasha had left Parisville recently, they hadn't seen much of each other, even though they still gabbed on the phone all the time. And maybe Juliana was just a little rebellious; Aunt Katrina and the family had never been crazy about Juliana's relationship with Sasha, the "Cole moll." She didn't want to lose this friendship. A travel author, Sasha loved to read just as much as Juliana did, and fed her friend's adventurous streak with stories of her road trips throughout the U.S. Sasha seemed to have it all so together, while Juliana, herself, didn't.
Juliana had also invited Sasha on this trip because she'd been skittish about coming alone to this country, with all its complicated customs and a language she couldn't even begin to understand. Heck, she hadn't even left the States before, so she figured Sasha, with all her travel experience as a single girl, would be excellent company.
Even if she'd never been to Japan, either.
They dried off, put on their sandals, rolling down their pant legs before returning their gratis towels, then bowing in deference to the little old woman who'd summoned them over to the foot baths in the first place.
Afterward, they continued their strolling along the boardwalk in the direction of the ramen house where Juliana was scheduled to meet Jiro Mori, passing ice-cream vendors who peddled their wares under Atami Castle, which loomed on a hill above it all. The castle was a gray-and-white pagoda that peered from a cluster of mountaintop trees; a ropeway strung up the inclined path seemed to attach the past with the boardwalk's concession-cart present.
"You're going to check out that art exhibition at the castle during my lunch?" Juliana asked, tilting her face back to the sunshine.
It warmed her in the chill aftermath of those memories of Tristan. She couldn't seem to shake them after unearthing feelings left buried for years.
Sasha held up her big purse, which contained her trusty notebook, digital camera and audio recorder. "Castle-bound, that's me."
Laughing, Juliana was careful to keep her voice down. "You know, there's a yummy irony about you, of all people, coming with me to research a book about hot adventures in Japan."
"Hmm. Somehow I recall that you suggested I come along. Or maybe a better way to say it is you begged me."
"I didn't beg. No begging. I just knew that you were looking for a hot topic, and I put a bug in your ear. The Exotic and Erotic: Beyond the Kimono." Juliana grinned at her friend mischievously. "I still think that's the title you should go with."
"Anything that'll get this book flying off the shelves."
"Hey, doubting yourself isn't allowed. When you pitched this idea to your editor, she ate it up."
Sasha sighed. "I just hope I'm not being impulsive, jumping the gun before going to contract. This trip is costing a pretty penny."
Juliana knew that Sasha used to live comfortably on her stock dividends, but these days there were no guarantees. Having another successful product on the shelves was important to her, especially since she had published only two modestly successful travel-based books already.
"Okay," Sasha added, responding to Juliana's lingering look. "Maybe I'm also nervous because of the subject matter. I mean, you want to read about a jaunt in California's northern wine region? I'm your scribe. Want to explore U.S. cowboy country? Look me up. But uncovering the not-as-obvious exotic and erotic here in a place that a lot of Americans look at as being repressed and buttoned-down?"
"It'll be fun."
"Just remember," Sasha said, sending Juliana a lowered glance. "As soon as your family business is taken care of, you're going to be there step by step with me, checking out the love hotels, geisha and sexy bars. And we've got to try the hot springs here."
"I did promise." And Juliana had decided to make the most of it, too.
To embrace something different. Something exciting that she hadn't felt since high school
For discretion's sake, Juliana took a gander around, checking that they were far enough away from anyone on the boardwalk to chat openly. During her rushed studies for this trip, she'd read that the Japanese were generally educated in English, and she didn't want to sound like a loudmouth gaijin, or foreigner. Truth was, she and Sasha stood out enough with their light hair and skinthings that had seemed to garner some notice on the trains they'd taken from Tokyo this morning. If there was one thing Juliana had learned so far, it was that the citizens were friendly and welcoming, yet there was a bold, thick line between visiting and actually belonging to a country where there was such great pride in being Japanese.
The adults were subtle in their curiosity about foreigners, but the children stared at them before their parents corrected their behavior. However, neither Juliana nor Sasha had been embarrassed about the attention, even though being watched was something to get used to; in Parisville, there were a lot of blond people running around, so Juliana had never realized that she could stick out like a sore thumb.
Being watched, she thought, her mind going to naughty places. If she could find a voyeur herea tall, dark-haired man with intense gray eyes
A jag of lust twisted inside her.
Juliana lowered her voice. "You think we'll find any adventures here in Atami? I mean, besides your cheeky art exhibit?"
"Just listen to you. Didn't you get enough adventure before you moved back, living out of town?"
A pang traveled through Juliana. She missed residing in San Diego, where, after college, she'd moved to help found a company that put together private, eclectic tours of downtown. With all the tales of Wyatt Earp and tragic gas-lamp romances the job had spoken to Juliana's creative, whimsical side. But then she'd been asked to take over the family bookstore, the pride of her aunt Katrina, which did constant business with its attached cheesecake-and-coffee café.