I flashed the customs officer a reluctant smile as he scanned my mugshot, silently saying a prayer he found a valid reason to rescind my visa and put an end to this living nightmare. But my plea went unanswered when he ushered me through with a lackluster wave. One that said he enjoyed his job about as much as I was excited to be in his country.
Dad was already at the luggage belt waiting for our worldly belongings to appear. “All set?” he asked, barely able to contain his relief at being back on American soil. I offered him a polite smile from behind the safety of my sunglasses. Large enough to cover half my face, they hid a multitude of sins.
“Your Uncle Gentry should be waiting in arrivals.”
Dad paused, searching my eyes, and then let out a heavy sigh. Giant sunglasses, one, Dad, zero. “It'll be okay, you know, Lo. Gentry is family. He can’t wait to see you again. I know it's a big change, but we'll make a good life for ourselves here, sweetheart, you'll see.” He reached for my shoulder but I slunk away, unwilling to do the whole father-daughter thing in the middle of LAX airport.
If Dad was offended, he didn't show it as he turned to face the luggage belt, hands jammed deep in his trouser pockets, heavily creased from our sixteen-hour journey.
I wanted to be more enthused, I really did. But up and leaving your home and moving halfway across the world wasn't something I could just 'get over'. Not to mention the stress of the long-haul journey.
Uncle Gentry might have been family, but how could you really call someone you'd met once—for a brief stint last summer—family? Sure, he was Dad's brother, but since the events of the last seven months he was no one to me. A distant relative I’d met once and now I would be living with him and his wife, Rebecca; and their four children.
I wanted to give them a chance—they’d been nice enough last year when we’d visited and all—but I just couldn't find it in me to care. Not when, sometimes, just getting through each day was a mammoth task.
“I think this is the last one.” Dad's voice cut through my thoughts and I looked up to find him behind a trolley piled high with our luggage. The last remnants of our life in England. What couldn't be packed into a suitcase, had been sold on eBay or donated to the local charity shop. Lucky for me, I’d managed to condense most of my bedroom into the two suitcases Dad allocated me for the move.
I gave him a tight-lipped nod and followed him toward the arrival lounge, and to our new life.
“Robert, Eloise, over here.” A tall man with eyes identical to Dad's waved us over with a warm smile. Dressed in black trousers and a sage-green polo shirt that hugged broad shoulders, his sandy hair from last summer was now peppered with grey. He was a taller, fitter version of Dad, even if he was four years older.
“Gentry, it’s good to see you.” Dad took his hand, clapping him on the back with his other. I let them have their moment while I watched the other travellers search for their families in the awaiting crowd, anything to take my mind off how busy the place was. A young girl launched herself into the arms of a teary-eyed couple, letting them envelop her in a parent sandwich. It was impossible not to smile at their reunion, but as the corners of my mouth lifted my chest constricted, sucking the air clean from my lungs.
“Lo… Eloise.” A hand landed on my arm and I jerked back to my father. “Sorry,” he added. “I didn't mean to startle you. Your Uncle Gentry would like to say hello.”
I swallowed down the lump in my throat, pushed the glasses up my face and rested them on my head. “Hello,” I said holding out my hand, but Gentry laughed, knocking away my arm and wrapping me into a bear hug.
“It's really good to see you again, Eloise.” He held me tight while my arms hung limply at my sides. “I'm so sorry for your loss.”
My body tensed and I clamped my eyes tight, counting down from ten. At zero, I inhaled deeply, forced them open, and stepped out of his hold. “Thank you.” The words still choked me, even after seven months.
“Right, well then, shall we?” Gentry took control of the trolley and motioned to the huge exit doors. And just like that we were welcomed into his family.
Only, it occurred to me, he was the only one here.
Dad and Gentry sat upfront in his sleek black Range Rover while I watched California whizz by from the back seat. I'd only visited the States once before, but I’d forgotten how different it was from our home back in Surrey, England. Old home, I reminded myself.
“Kyle and Summer can’t wait to see you again. He’s stoked to have you starting junior year with him. Macey too. And I’m sure Maverick will make you feel very welcome.”
How wonderful, I inwardly groaned, letting my head fall against the cool tinted glass. As if being a Brit in an American high school wouldn't be hard enough, I was going to be paraded around like a freak show.
Gentry continued, apparently unaware of my lack of excitement about starting a new school. “Rebecca made the arrangements. You’ll meet with the Principal first thing on Monday.”
And not only would I be the British freak show, I had to endure two more years of high school, whereas back in the UK, I would have been in my final year at college. But Dad and my new school had decided it would be better for me to stay back a year and sit all the classes I needed to get the high school diploma. Something about making it easier to apply for colleges. Although part of me wondered if my behaviour of late had anything to do with his decision.
Fuck. My. Life.
“Isn't that great, Lo?” Dad covered for my silence and I managed to grumble out something about being excited to see them again.
Life will do that to you though. Rip out your heart and leave it bleeding all over the floor, then expect you to pick up the pieces and get on with it. I got on with it, but I was only going through the motions.
Like right now, being in a new country. There was no crackle of excitement in the air. No seed of anticipation blossoming in my chest at the endless possibilities and adventures that could await me.
I was numb.
A hollow pit of nothingness carved deep in my stomach.
The sea glistened in the summer sun. It was beautiful, and, in another life, I would have appreciated it, but right now I just couldn’t. And as the 4x4 sped past a sign welcoming us to Wicked Bay, I shuddered. I’d been here once before, it should have felt familiar. But all I could remember was a pair of intense eyes, the colour of dark chocolate interspersed with flecks of gold, and a wicked smile that could charm even the most impressionable young girls.
Shaking the unwelcome thoughts out of my head, I observed the big detached houses flanking us on either side. All unique with fancy brickwork, sloping driveways and perfectly pruned lawns, the whole place looked like something out of The OC. Uncle Gentry drove to the end of the street before turning off onto a road steeped with tall billowing trees. I shifted into the centre of the backseat, watching with morbid fascination as he rolled to a stop, parking next to a fancy sports car. I’d forgotten just how big their house was.
“Welcome home,” he said with a strange note of hesitation in his voice. As my eyes swept over the mini-mansion in front of me, the joke—and his sudden change in mood—was lost on me.
We climbed out and I stood awkwardly outside the house while Dad and Gentry fetched our luggage. No one mentioned the lack of a welcoming party for our arrival, so I didn't bring it up. It wasn't like I was in any rush to do awkward introductions either.
“So, you'll be in the pool house.” Gentry opened the door and motioned for me to go ahead, but I hung back, waiting for him to pass. “Now, I know there's only one bedroom, but we've replaced the old couch with a sofa bed. I hope that's okay?”
“Gentry, it’s more than enough. The agent left a message. The work should be finished soon. They anticipate it being wrapped up in a month. A couple at the most.”
He gripped my father's shoulder. “There's no rush, Robert. We're excited to have you both here.”
He kept saying that, but I couldn't work out if it was for our benefit, or his.
Dad nodded and motioned for his brother to lead the way. I traipsed after them, through the house that resembled a small mansion. It really was something else. We passed the deep staircase which led to a balcony, and what I knew to be at least five bedrooms positioned down the long hallway. The kitchen was just as I remembered, spacious and modern with a centre island and six black leather stools tucked neatly underneath. Sparkly dark counters lined the walls housing various gadgets, all of which looked brand new.
My eyes snapped to Dad and Gentry. They had stopped by the French doors, both smiling at me, and I realised I was gawking. “Even though I’ve been here, it’s like seeing it again for first time.” The words tumbled out before I could stop them and Gentry let out a smooth chuckle.
“I’ll be sure to tell Loretta you were impressed. Honestly, I don’t know what we’d do without that woman.”
“Loretta, right,” I grumbled with a shake of my head. They had a housekeeper. I’d forgotten about that.
This wasn't life. At least, it wasn't my life. Sure, Dad did okay. We'd lived in a nice house in the country and money had never been an issue, but this was... well, this was going to take some getting used to.
Gentry helped us get situated in the pool house and then left us to unpack. It was more of a small self-contained apartment overlooking the amazing pool in the beautifully landscaped gardens. It was all so annoyingly perfect, I wanted to hate it.
Dad insisted I take the bedroom. He started at Stone and Associates on Monday and expected to be working long hours to get up to speed with the family business. Which meant I would be spending a lot of time alone, or with my new family. The ones who were so excited to see me again they still hadn't bothered to show up yet.
I'd just finished unpacking one of my cases into the small closet, when Dad poked his head around the doorframe. “Gentry made us something to eat.”
His eyes scanned the room, and he smiled. “It's already starting to look like home.”
I cocked my eyebrow at him in disbelief. Surely, he knew it was going to take more than a few strategically placed photo frames and sentimental keepsakes to feel homely? But instead of starting an argument I said, “Come on, I'm starving.” I ducked under his arm and headed for the house.
We found Gentry placing a bowl onto the island. “It’s not much. Loretta took a personal day, but she’ll be back tomorrow.”
“It’s fine, right, Lo?” Dad flashed me a reassuring smile, and I said a polite thank you, helping myself to some salad.
“They'll be here soon.” Uncle Gentry checked his watch again. “Rebecca can't wait to see you both.”
He kept saying that, but we'd been here at least an hour and still hadn't caught so much as a glimpse of his wife and their children. Dad gave a strained laugh, and I kept my head low, shoving the green leaves around my plate.
“They promised,” Gentry grumbled under his breath so quietly he was probably unaware he'd actually said it out loud.
“Sorry, I'm sorry.” A woman breezed into the room, arms wide as she made a beeline for her husband. “I got held up.”
“It's fine,” Gentry said, standing to greet his wife. “You're here now. Come and say hello to Robert and Lo.”
“Oh my.” She glanced in my direction and her eyes widened. “Eloise, what a beautiful young lady you’ve become.”
I blushed wanting the ground to open and swallow me because if she thought I was beautiful it made her Aphrodite. “Thank you, it's nice to see you again.”
“Rebecca.” Dad rose from his stool. “It's good to see you again.” He wrapped her into an awkward hug that had me stifling a laugh.
“Are they with you?” Gentry looked to the door.
“They're not here?”
Gentry and his wife shared a strange look, but Rebecca's smile widened as she launched into a game of twenty questions. How was our flight? Did we need anything? Was the pool house okay? Dad was halfway through his not so funny story about the layover in Reykjavik when a door banged somewhere in the house and the sound of chatter filled the air.
“Thank God,” Gentry grumbled and I was about to ask what he meant when a familiar face bounded into the room. Kyle, with his father’s good looks and same sandy hair, grinned in my direction. “Cous, looking good.”
Heat crept into my cheeks and I offered him a small wave. His sister, Summer, the youngest of the Stone-Prince children, and a perfect mix of Rebecca and her father, edged forward offering a small smile. “It’s nice to see you both again.”
“You too, Summer,” Dad said. “I know Lo is looking forward to spending time with you all.”
“Yeah,” I grumbled in earnest.
Gentry shared a look with his son and Kyle shrugged as a tall willowy girl entered the room. I hadn’t met her last summer—she and her brother were visiting their dad—but I knew her to be Macey, Rebecca’s daughter. The resemblance between them was startling, but from my limited knowledge on the Prince daughter, she was the polar opposite of her mother. Macey didn’t speak, offering me a tight-lipped smile. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, because if she felt even an ounce of the awkwardness coursing through me, I got it.
“Macey,” Rebecca scolded. “Please say hello to your Uncle Robert, and Eloise.”
“Hello.” Her flat tone matched her expression, and I received her message loud and clear—we wouldn’t be BFF’s anytime soon.
I shot Dad a discreet look but he didn’t seem to share my concern, smiling reassuringly just as Uncle Gentry said, “And this giant here, is Maverick.”
My head lifted watching as another person entered the room. I did a double take, my eyes widening with surprise, and then something much, much worse. My stomach sank and then plummeted into the tips of my toes.
It couldn’t be.
There was absolutely no way this could be happening.
My fingers curled around the edge of the stool as I tried to stay upright all while I was unable to tear my gaze away from a face I thought I’d never see again.
A face I didn’t want to see again.
Dark hair curled at the ends giving way to an angular jaw and a perfect nose set between two of the most intense and unfathomable eyes I’d ever seen. Eyes I’d almost lost myself in once before.
No one seemed to notice my shock as Gentry clapped a hand around his stepson’s shoulder, jolting me back into the room. The eldest Stone-Prince flinched, and I saw the tension between them. Felt it descend over the room. We all did. It radiated from Maverick like a wall of blistering heat. Then his eyes narrowed on me, and I saw the realisation flash across his face. His glare turned icy cold … unresponsive, and I balked. I wanted the floor to open and swallow me whole and if that failed, I’d settle for spontaneous combustion. Anything to escape this nightmare.
How could this be happening?
“Hi.” His voice turned my blood cold. He shirked out of his stepfather's hold and folded his arms over his chest, standing to his full height. Uncle Gentry wasn't wrong, he was a giant. Easily six two—and about three inches taller than last summer—there was nothing boy about him.
What the hell was I doing?
Maverick Prince might not have been my blood cousin, but he was family. He was also the boy I almost gave myself to on a warm summer’s eve at a beach party last summer.
I risked peeking up at him through my lashes. His hardened gaze was still trained on me, but his smirk slid away replaced with a look of disgust. My stomach clenched violently as my grip on the stool tightened until the blood drained from my knuckles.
How on earth had this happened? How had I spent hours talking to a boy on a beach and not known who he was?
How had I not realised? And how had he not put two and two together?
He remembered, and from the looks of it, he wasn’t too happy about it either.
This wasn’t good—not good at all.
The chink of metal against glass broke our stand-off, and I focused on Uncle Gentry as he cleared his throat. “Now everyone’s present, I’d just like to say how happy we are to have you both here.” He smiled warmly at me and moved to Dad, squeezing his shoulder. “Our home is yours for as long as you need it. Robert, Eloise, welcome to the family.”
My eyes shuttered, and I inhaled a sharp breath. When I plucked up the courage to open them again, Maverick was gone.
I’d thought moving to Wicked Bay was the worst thing that could happen to me, but I was about to find out, it was only the beginning.