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Wife In Name Only
By Hayson Manning, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Hayson Manning
All rights reserved.
Rory stepped onto talc-white sand on a lost dot of an island in the kingdom of Tonga. Salt-and-mango etched air assaulted his senses, and he breathed deep, his muscles involuntarily relaxing.
Time to get his wife back.
Priorities. Business first. After doing the photo shoot and ensuring he had the good press he needed, he'd then convince his wife that they needed to get this separation un-separated. Period. Enough of her being on the other side of the world. No ifs, buts, or maybes. Just her back with him where she belonged.
He swung a backpack over his shoulder and stopped in front of a rustic pole. A picture of a facemask and the word Snorkelling pointed at the beach. An arrow that read Recharging Station directed him toward hammocks swinging lazily in the breeze. He found the one he needed. It read Welcoming Committee and pointed at a bungalow directly ahead. As he took the path, he passed a fleet of yachts, their glossy hulls bobbed in the harbor. He paused and raised his hand in greeting to Smithy, the captain of the yacht that had brought him here.
Silence apart from a choir of competing insects rang loudly in his head. Jesus, this place was quiet. Too quiet. The seductive murmur of his mistress — downtown Los Angeles — called to him from across the Pacific. He could almost feel the throb of the city streets, hear the sigalerts issued for the clogged arteries of the 405 freeway, and inhale the early morning construction dust. He missed the cut and thrust already. The frenetic energy. It was like he was standing on another planet — an alien looking to get home.
A couple walked along the beach, hand in hand. Another couple kayaked out by the reef. Their orange vessel was a smudge against the shimmer of the horizon.
A sound he hadn't heard in more than two years smacked his ears. The off-key sound of Zoe belting out the lyrics to "Dancing Queen" called to him. He walked into the bungalow, leaned against the doorframe, and drank in the sight of his wife. He'd know that body anywhere. Blind and in a dark room full of woman, he'd drink in her scent, touch her skin, run his fingers through her hair, and know she belonged to him. With her back to him, she stared down at a bench. She still couldn't sing for the life of her, and it was still the most amazing sound on the planet. The sight of her after a year punched him deep in the gut. His body froze. Muscles unhitched from bone. His blood turned to slush.
God, the woman was beautiful.
Not just a woman. His woman.
And she was coming back home with him as soon as this business was complete.
She looked ... different ... but not. What the hell was so different about her? She had the same killer long legs but now in frayed denim cut-offs. Gone were the tailored shorts and matching sandals with a tucked in tee she'd worn like a stiff uniform. He drank her in. She was so close he could almost taste her. And man, he wanted to taste her. Her skin was now the color of polished mahogany. A hum vibrated deep throughout his body. Her hair was the same waterfall of honeyed hair that caught the sun. Copper and bronze strands formed a halo around her head. It was hair he hadn't seen out of a tight French knot in years. He itched to run his hand from ankle to thigh and hear her low moan of pleasure. Instead, he let his eyes roam over her, hungrier than a condemned man with a Mega Bucket of KFC. God, he wanted her. He would always want her. He hadn't seen her so relaxed and at ease in a long time. Unease threaded along his spine.
"Zoe," he said softly.
She spun around, and whatever had been in her mouth sprayed across his chest in an arc of red.
"Rory?" she choked out.
Her mouth hung open in a perfect 'O'. He stared down at the drops staining the front of his shirt.
"Oh my God, I just spat on you. I'm so sorry." She reached for a dishcloth and dabbed at his t-shirt, then clamped her hand across her mouth. Her amazing blue eyes sparkled.
A sound he hadn't heard in years filtered to him. "Are you laughing?" It was a magical laugh, free and happy. It shut him down and restarted him in one easy beat.
She shook her head, lifted an eyebrow, then nodded.
"Sorry, it's just that I haven't seen you in ages and the first thing I do is spit Hunka Burning Love at you."
The snort in her laughter, the light shining in her eyes, and the warmth radiating out of her smile had his heart beating painfully against his ribcage. Before he could get a handle on the mess of thoughts trapped in his head, he frowned and asked, "What's Hunka Burning Love? Is it something to do with the publicity photos?"
She stepped back from him and glanced at a large bowl on the bench. He followed her gaze. Sliced oranges, limes, and mint collided like battleships in the red liquid.
"It's my thing. I invent fruity cocktails for the guests when they arrive. Hunka is still in production. And to answer your question, yes and no, I make the drinks for all the guests, but Hunka will be in the shots."
She clicked a button on a remote, and the notes of the song faded from nearby speakers. He caught the tremble in her fingers and the way she laced her fingers when she was nervous.
"I haven't heard you sing in years."
"I sing all the time now," she said in a quiet but confident voice.
He absorbed the blow, refusing to flinch. The pain radiated around his body, leaving cold sweat inching across.
She was happy here. Happier than he'd seen her in a long time.
Happy away from him.
No fucking way was this happening.
He stood frozen to the spot, his brain playing catch-up to the crap circulating in his head.
Something must have registered on his face. Her face softened for a second before she turned her head away, took a long breath, and turned back with a forced smile.
"Thank you for coming. It means a lot. I know you want to know all about the set-up here and how the photo spread will work. We should get together to iron that out." She laced her fingers together again.
"Right. Priorities. Tell me about the spread and what's required."
As if sensing his probe, she shut down the emotion on her face.
A sledgehammer to the gut had him flinching. Zoe had always showed her emotions. When they were first together, she hadn't had to speak; he'd read her face to know exactly what she was thinking. When she'd stood across from him in a borrowed dress, clutching supermarket-bought flowers and had said 'I do' with tears running down her face, he'd absorbed her. Like an ice-axe to the back of his skull, he knew he now watched her shut down before his eyes. Just as she used to before she left.
"I know we're married in name only, but with the magazine coming and ... well, it means a lot." She blinked up at him, color slowly edging into her face.
"What do you mean married in name only?" he said slowly, trying to digest her words. "I came here to work things out. To take you home where you belong. Enough of this shit, Zo. You need to come back with me."
She stared at him as if he'd arrived in a shiny rocket from another world. "I am home. I love this place." She paused. "This is where they'll bury me," she said quietly.
His gut rolled over and played dead. "No, after the publicity shots, we need to get your shit sorted and work out who will take over running the resort, because you're coming back with me. You're coming home."
She did a cartoon-style double take. "We need to get my shit sorted?" Her cheeks flushed a deep red. "I don't think so, Rory. My shit, as you so eloquently put it, is sorted. This is my home, and I'm staying."
"No. I've had enough of you working out what you needed to work out in your head. I'm done with that."
"Oh, my God, nothing about you has changed." Her eyes swam in some sort of liquid blue emotion.
He hated emotion. Hated the way it made him feel powerless to fix whatever was wrong. Hated the way it pressed into his head, making him feel things he didn't want to feel.
"Why'd you leave, Zo?" The question that had been burning him for a year slipped from his mouth. The anger of her leaving still felt like a pressed bruise. He had no idea why she'd left. Now, looking at her happier than he'd seen her in years, his plan to take her home took a giant turn he hadn't factored.
She'd moved on.
She twisted the hem of her t-shirt. Pain flashed in her eyes, and he flinched.
She took a long breath and studied him as if he were a long-lost treasure that might hold some nice memories.
That look was a mule-kick to the chest.
"Bob Henderson was the last straw for me," Zoe said. "He was like family and the only one who gave us a chance when we arrived in L.A. He treated you like a son, and, without a thought, you took everything that mattered from him."
She stared him straight in the eye.
He rubbed his jaw, perplexed. "It was just business."
"But it wasn't business when Bob ended up in the hospital with a stroke after you took away his company. You couldn't even be bothered to send flowers, let alone go and visit the man who looked upon you as a son. You ripped away everything he held dear, including yourself, just to make a return on an investment." She looked up at him, and his heart did a slow swan-dive toward his feet. "I fell in love with the young, ambitious, driven, but kind Rory. I fell out of love with the cutthroat businessman who'd sell his soul for a merger. The speak-or-shut-up guy." Her quietly spoken words shut down his brain.
If the previous mule-kick wasn't bad enough, a four-ton elephant had just landed on his chest and started doing push-ups.
"Why didn't you contact me, Zo?"
"At the beginning," she said, "I didn't see the point. Then I fell into running the resort, and, with the whole pretend-marriage thing going on, I thought if I filed divorce paperwork someone would find out, and I'd be screwed."
She looked slightly guilty.
He stared down at the plain band on her finger. He'd worked double shifts on the construction site to get her a solid ring. A ring that would last her for an eternity with him. Sweat trickled down his back.
"We'd both moved on." She looked at him sadly. "Rory, we communicated by texting. We hadn't spoken in a long time. There were nights when you stayed at the office instead of coming home. We were both waiting for each other to call it off."
"You sent me a text telling me our marriage was over." He thought the pain was long-gone, but it still cut.
"You left me little choice."
He frowned. "How'd you figure that?"
"We had dinner plans, and I wanted to tell you then, but you cancelled. Three times. Three times, you sent a text telling me something had come up and asking to reschedule. And I did. Three times."
Color flared into her face, like it was a bad memory that she wanted to get rid of. Fast.
"The fourth time you sent a text to everyone in your office, and my name was tacked on at the end, an afterthought to your work plans. You advised me you'd be out of the office for three days." She looked at him a little sadly. "So, yeah, I thought sending you a text was exactly where our marriage was. That night I ate the meal I'd cooked us, packed my bag, and left." She cocked her head to one side. "Were you only gone for three days?"
He breathed deep and long, but it wasn't a soul-cleansing breath. It was a breath filled with barbed wire. "Seven days. I was gone seven days."
It stung like a flicked rubber band to his insides. But they were not done. Seriously not done. Her soft fingers curled around his wrist, sending a plume of warmth across his body.
"Rory, I'm never leaving here. Ever. I've found the place I was meant to be." She paused, determination rolling off her in palpable waves. "You have to let us go. I have."
The finality in her eyes shut him down. He forgot to breathe as he stood there reading the 'we're done' look. 'Totally done' look. Yeah, he'd do the press for himself, make it the best spread ever, and then he would be gone. Back to L.A to get divorce papers drawn.
An ancient man shuffled through the door, slightly out of breath. his cane whacked the wooden floor.
"Miss Zoe. Weather report from Nuku'alofa. Big storm heading toward Niuafo'ou. Category two. Name Esther. My wife's name." The old man wheezed.
Fear flitted across her eyes, and her hand came to rest on her throat. "Okay, Simi. I'll make sure we're ready in case it turns. I don't want to alarm the guests."
When the old man smiled, his face creased like aged parchment. "It won't turn. Hermit crabs stay on beach, not hide up tree. Too afraid of my Esther."
Her shoulders visibly relaxed.
"There's a category two storm brewing?" Rory forced his feet to stay anchored to the floor. Forced his breath to stay even. Forced back the flinch in his muscles.
"Still afraid of storms?" she said softly.
He curled his hands. "Yeah."
She gripped his arm. "Your secret's still safe with me. And don't worry. If it's really bad, Smithy will find you. Believe me, he's a good man. Besides, if Simi says the hermit crabs are staying on the beach, then that's good enough for me. Still, I'll make sure everything's in order."
"They work as the island barometer."
He opened his mouth to question but closed it again. It didn't matter; he didn't want to know. As long as there was no storm heading his way, he was cool. Besides, he'd take his state-of-the-art sat-nav over hermit crab technology any day.
Simi glanced between her and Rory.
Zoe smiled at the old man with genuine affection.
"Rory." Twinkling brown eyes appraised him. "Good you came."
Rory thrust out a hand and gently took the older man's hand. How did the guy know who he was?
"I go and start work." He squeezed Rory's hand before he shuffled past him and out the door.
What's with all the squeezing–like I'm a favorite nephew or a ... friend?
Rory glanced out the window at the picture-perfect day. The sun hit the translucent water, bathing it in crystalline sparkles.
A hammock hung between two palms where a couple read books and sipped out of coconut shells.
"Right. Until I leave." He pointed out the window. "I'll take the hammock.
"You can't." The words shot out of her mouth with the intensity of a speeding bullet.
His eyebrows rose. He leaned against the counter while taking in her sudden ashen appearance. "Why's that?"
"Well, the thing is ..." Her hand went to her throat. She stared down at a stack of brochures, the top of which was covered in a healthy dose of Hunka. His eyes followed hers.
Hang on a minute.
He grabbed the brochure.
There, in a glossy picture of love, were his and Zoe's faces staring back at him.
What the ...
He opened the pages to find pictures of them walking hand in hand along a moonlit beach. Of them kissing against the backdrop of a tropical jungle. He glanced out the window at the same backdrop of jungle.
"This is us."
"Yeah." Scarlet crept across her cheeks.
"But I've never been here."
Even her ears got in on the act and looked like they'd been scorched.
"What the hell is this, Zoe?"
"I hope you don't mind, but I photoshopped you in. The magazine took one look at us, and thought you were the Ice Man melted, so different from the Wall Street Ice Man everyone knows is you. There's no way you'd smile like that now, so I, ... ah ... photoshopped you in.
Coldness spread through his core "You ... photoshopped me in?"
She had the grace to look guilty. "Well, yeah. I have to be married — it's a honeymoon resort. I can't sell love ever after if, for all intents and purposes, I'm divorced. It wouldn't exactly bring in the customers. So one night not long after I got here, and possibly after one too many glasses of wine, I started working on the brochure. I was going through my computer, and instead of worrying about copyright and stuff, I used pictures of our wedding day and photos of us back in the days when we were, you know, in love, and incorporated them into the brochure." She said it in one long burst. "So I, um, I photoshopped you in."
Excerpted from Wife In Name Only by Hayson Manning, Kerri-Leigh Grady, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Hayson Manning. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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