Five years ago, Carmen and Bruno spent the night together. Their daughter, Mika, was born nine months later … but Bruno doesn’t know she exists. Can the couple find each other, and the truth, in a tropical island paradise? A sparkling romance for readers of Alissa Callen and Penelope Janu.
Single mum Carmen Lowery’s life might be annoyingly imperfect, but at least it’s orderly and predictable. Until a tall, dark, handsome stranger mysteriously arrives at her family’s Whitsundays resort island – and turns out to be not quite a stranger after all.
American special ops pilot Bruno Michel fell off Carmen’s radar five years ago after they shared the wildest night of her otherwise straitlaced life. The self-confessed fly-by-nighter when it comes to love is delighted to be temporarily reunited with his uninhibited dream woman, but there’s something he doesn’t know. Their liaison came with a consequence – a little girl who has his eyes.
Carmen and Bruno pick up where they left off, but the legacy of their liaison runs deep – and Bruno is hiding his own not-so-white lie about that night.
Before he ships out and Carmen’s happy-family fantasy drifts away on the trade winds, they must decide whether their unexpected bond can survive life-changing secrets, meddlesome relatives, and a heartbreaking vow made decades before.
One man’s paradise was another man’s purgatory.
Major Bruno Michel of the United States Air Force Special Operations Command lowered his backpack onto the jetty at Curlew Bay and did a slow three-sixty. Turquoise ocean. Blond crescent beach. Sun loungers—empty, seeing it was stupid o’clock in the morning. Villas, apartments, a restaurant and bar with a big deck. A glassy pool. Tightly packed gums and pines, rolling down a cliff to the water. Big, screechy birds swooping into the trees, their white feathers flashing in the rising sun—his first cockatoos, he decided. The jetty. The retreating ferry, its wash rolling into the beach, doubling the three-inch swell. Who the hell ever got sent to a place like this on ‘emergency deployment’?
True, he’d had worse postings, but no matter how much of a shitshow the op was, he usually had a general understanding of why he was there.
He caught the scent of brine and baking bread—not from the same source, presumably. And roasting coffee beans, which alone nearly had him breaking rule number one of this batshit assignment: no fraternising with the locals.
Was this deployment a punishment or a reward? If a reward, it was wasted on Bruno. A punishment from someone who knew him well seemed more likely. If so, it was outstanding trolling. Curiosity Island, the Whitsundays, Queensland, Australia. Contents: one resort, one backpackers, plenty of spiders but no koalas or kanga-roos (according to the captain of the ‘ferry’, as the nine-seater boat that had dropped him off was ambitiously called), and the newest transnational training base in the Pacific. Some lark dreamed up by an Australian naval officer as a hobby job en route to retirement?
Huong. That was the commanding officer’s name—Captain Duc Huong. Apparently, he’d requested Bruno by name, though Bruno couldn’t place the guy … maybe a joint exercise somewhere?
He pulled his phone from his pocket. No mobile reception, but a wifi network popped up. Curlew Bay Guest Internet. Password protected. He looked around and tried ‘cockatoo’, then ‘paradise’, then ‘curlew’. No luck. No dice either for ‘sunshine’, ‘curiosity’, ‘palmtree’ or ‘whatthefuckamIdoinghere’.
‘The trick is to try to run a promotion that’s not simply a price reduction,’ a woman called out in an Australian accent. Not to Bruno, obviously, but he turned. Of course he did. It had become second nature to check the source of every Australian woman’s voice in his vicinity ever since his epic night with that epic Australian in Chicago, to the point that he was beginning to question his mental health. Like PTSD but for good memories.
Up on the resort’s deck, a fit-looking woman in gym gear pushed back one side of a set of bifold glass doors that spanned the front of the restaurant and bar and returned inside, the conversation reducing to a murmur. She looked to be in her forties, at least, so too old to be her. Her. She who could not be named because she’d refused to give her name, she was that cool. He took a deep breath and again got the hit of coffee and ocean.
‘Are you from the base?’
Another voice, a kid’s voice, but exactly her accent, he’d swear. He glanced down at his side and did a double take. A little girl with super curly dark hair stared up at him, dressed in a sandy, ripped costume that might once have resembled a turtle.
‘That’s where I’m headed.’ Any time now would be good.
‘You’re at the wrong end of the island. It’s down the bottom. We’re up the top.’
‘So that’s where I messed up. I’m from the northern hemisphere so everything’s upside-down here.’
‘Maybe if you stand on your head? I can, see?’ She tried to do a handstand but thumped butt-first—shell-first—onto the planks of the jetty. ‘Oh, I forgot,’ she said, looking down at her turtle belly.
‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘it’s padded, see?’
‘There’s probably a reason you don’t much see turtles doing handstands.’
She scrabbled air for a bit, like an overturned beetle. Bruno went to offer her a hand but she managed to flip onto her front and push to her feet.
‘Are you a soldier?’ she said, shoving her hair off her face. It flopped straight back down.
‘How did you guess?’
‘You look like one. Your hair.’ She pointed at his buzzcut. His hair went big if it got more than half an inch long, so it was easier not to have much of it. She looked at his T-shirt and jeans. ‘Where’s your uniform?’
‘In there,’ he said, lightly kicking his backpack. ‘I don’t have to wear it when I’m travelling.’
She squinted up at him, closing one eye against the sun, which had fully broken over the hill behind the resort. ‘Are you from America?’
‘Do you have a gun?’
‘No, ma’am, not right now. Sometimes I carry one. But mostly I’m a pilot. I fly planes.’
‘I know what a pilot is,’ she said, a little dismissively for a kid who couldn’t be older than six—not that he was a good judge of kids’ ages, or anything else to do with them. ‘I’ve been on lots of planes. And Cody has a …’ She said some garbled word beginning with Y that she might have meant to be ‘helicopter’.
He looked along the beach. Who did she belong to? All two of his fellow ferry passengers had dispersed, leaving the place deserted except for him and the kid and a couple pulling on masks and snorkels around the other end of the sandy crescent. But they had much paler hair and skin than the girl and weren’t casting wary glances his way. He frowned, remembering his instructions not to wander around the resort or talk to anyone. But, hey, he wasn’t interested in making friends, so all good—and the directive gave him a drip of hope that this wasn’t the soft assignment it appeared. He wasn’t a rule follower by default but you had to know the reason for the rule before you broke it. Telling a little girl he flew planes was unlikely to cause an international incident.
‘Uh, kid? Your mom or dad around?’
‘Mummy’s inside. I don’t have a daddy. Do you have a daddy?’ Something about the way she raised her chin and held his gaze reminded him of someone but his brain couldn’t make it to the who. A good memory, he knew that much.
‘My dad died a long time ago,’ he said.
‘I never had one, even when I was little.’
He pushed his sunglasses onto his head. ‘I’m, uh, sorry. About that. Does your mom know you’re out here?’ Maybe she was asleep in their hotel room, unaware of her escapee. Maybe he should tell someone, take her up to the main building.
‘Gonna be some kids coming today,’ she said, as if that answered the question. ‘Two boys, but that’s all right. I’m the only one here. The only kid, I mean.’
‘You been stuck here by yourself? You don’t have brothers or sisters?’
She shook her head, the curls jumping around like they had an electrical charge.
‘Me neither,’ he said. But going on vacation and finding there were no other kids to hang with? That’d suck.
‘I want a baby sister but Mummy says you need a daddy for that.’ She shrugged. ‘Are you a daddy?’ she added, sounding hopeful.
‘No!’ he said quickly, silently finishing it with chance in hell. He checked his phone. Still no signal.
‘Do you want the wifi password?’ ‘
You know it?’
‘Course!’ she said with the condescension of a teenager. ‘It’s “tropical-fish”, all one word, no caps.’ Of course it was. ‘I can spell it for you. I’m up to level thirty-two on Spelling Nut.’
‘I’m good. But thanks.’
A curl landed over her eyes and she blew it away so fiercely he felt the rush of air on his cheek. The lock plopped straight back down. ‘What level are you on?’
‘Nowhere near that.’
A mechanical double click sounded from the restaurant. ‘Mika!’ a woman called impatiently. ‘Your breakfast has been sitting here for ten minutes.’
Shit, that really was her voice. It wasn’t her, of course. It was the woman in gym gear again, pushing back the other half of the bifold doors, opening up the whole front wall to the deck. A guy started setting up chairs around the outdoor tables while another woman cranked umbrellas open, both of them wearing turquoise polos and navy shorts. The sun glinted on the pool and sparkled on a water-fall that dropped off the edge into a smaller rock pool. The whole effect made him thirsty. It had to be beer o’clock back in Florida, and he wasn’t intending to get acclimatised to this time zone. Was that why he was banned from the resort? No drinking?
‘Nan-nan will be on TV soon!’ the woman called again. She had the same curly hair as the kid, though it was in a ponytail. Could be an older mom. ‘Sorry!’ she added—for his benefit, he assumed. He gave a wave to say, Don’t worry about it, and the little girl set off in a waddling run, turtles not being known for speed.
So the girl lived here? The only kid on an island? Had to be a crazy way to grow up, even if it was in the tropics with a beach and pool straight out of a travel mag. Yeah, he was an only child, but growing up he’d always had friends or cousins around—his mom had made sure of it, a compensation for her ‘failure’ (her word, definitely not his) to give him siblings. From what he’d seen of his friends’ relationships with their siblings, he’d been pretty happy with that compromise. But these days he could see the benefits of having siblings, if only to get your mom off your back about grandkids.
Speaking of his mom … He tapped out a quick message on his phone and sent it. He was thirty-two and she still wanted proof of receipt every time he landed anywhere, which wasn’t always possible with the operations he did. But whatever the opaque reasoning for posting him to Curiosity Island (aka Paradise, aka Hell), Bruno at least knew it wasn’t a classified or combat op. A training exchange, his lieutenant-colonel had told him back at base.
‘Why me? And am I the trainee or the trainer?’
‘Dunno, and dunno,’ she’d said.
‘So how about we pass this junket on to someone who’ll appreciate it, which is pretty much anyone else on this base, and I get back to real work?’
‘Already tried. Got a quick, flat no. You were requested by name.’
‘No idea. Some shit going down here that I’m not privy to, and trust me, I’ve been asking. Nothing I can do about it, major. Been overruled at every turn. Just try to get done whatever the hell they want you to do and get back before we deploy. I don’t want to be down a pilot, and not my most experienced one.’
Neither did he. Ten months stuck Stateside, a week out from deployment—real deployment—and he gets shafted here? The kind of balls-up only the military could arrange.
His phone beeped. His mother, messaging him back. What time was it in Denver? Mid-afternoon?
MOM: Do you know yet how long this posting is for? I’m thinking of coming for a visit. Haven’t been to Australia for years.
Yeah, because your mom visiting you on base was always cool.
‘No fucking idea,’ he muttered.
BRUNO: Few days at most, I reckon. Not gonna be worth it, sorry.
MOM: I assume you’ll be taking some leave to visit your fiancée? Maybe I could come over? Meet her at last?
Oh shit. That. He rubbed his face, which was prickly and dry from the travel. One spontaneous white lie five years ago and his mom was still clinging to hope like a Rockies fan waiting to win the World Series. He looked out at the ocean for a minute.
BRUNO: Would you believe she’s working in the States right now?
MOM: Oh no! What bad luck!
BRUNO: You couldn’t make it up. Gotta go. Crazy busy here.
Or maybe this trip would be a good excuse to at last call off his fake engagement with his non-existent fiancée. Well, she did exist, but that stupendous Aussie from Chicago wouldn’t have met his mother’s definition of fiancée material. Ah, well, he’d had nearly five years of reprieve from his mom’s efforts to set him up with every single woman she met, and she’d had nearly five years of optimism. Better to have loved and lost—though he was pretty sure neither one of them believed that anymore, if they ever had.
He pocketed the phone and flicked his sunglasses down, the lenses intensifying the turquoise of the bay. He yawned, tasting the salt in the air. He might have to stay long enough for one swim. Barely enough to get the buzzcut wet. Priority number one was getting out of this hellhole and back to the regular ones.
Somewhere in the office at Curlew Bay, something was beeping. An electronic something—three quick beeps, to be precise, going off at thirty-second intervals—just long enough to shatter Carmen Lowery’s concentration but not long enough for her to pin down the source. She’d had a cursory look before deciding to ignore it, but ignoring it had become impossible. Every time she got more than a sentence written on the employee reference she was preparing for their departing sous chef, there it went again. Beep-beep-beep.
As soon as she’d decided it was coming from her left, it would beep to her right. And when she’d been sure it was coming from directly in front of her and had stood, legs and arms akimbo like she was ready to catch it, it’d beeped from behind her. Not her laptop. Not her phone. Not her tablet. Not the monitor. Not the printer, the Bluetooth speaker, her mum’s laptop on the next desk over, the smoke alarm, the fan, the aircon. Not the power points (she’d crawled around on hands and knees and stared at each one in turn for thirty seconds), not the desk lamp, not the wall clock, not her e-reader, though why any of those things would be beeping, who knew? She couldn’t say for sure how long it’d been going—half an hour?—but it was definitely coming from inside the room. Another ten minutes and she’d be ripping into the walls.
She stared unblinkingly at the digital photo frame on her desk as it cycled through Mika’s baby photos and waited—but no, when the next triple beep came, it wasn’t from there. She upended her tote onto the floor. Snacks, wet wipes, Lego minifigures, tampons and pens thudded, clattered, and rolled out, among many, many other things. She really needed to sort out her bag. She waited, ready to pounce, but when the beep came, it wasn’t from the debris.
And then came a different noise. Giggling, out in the hallway. No, not giggling. Guffawing. She opened the door, knowing exactly what she would see. Yep, the two most annoying of her cousins—and that was saying something—leaning on the wall opposite. Thirty-something going on thirteen.
‘You win,’ Carmen said. ‘Where is it?’
‘Check the calendar, cuz,’ Cody said, crossing his arms over his staff polo shirt.
‘My calendar app?’ she said, backing up towards her desk, reversing around the mess on the floor. She picked up her mobile. ‘I already checked my phone and my computer and my tablet and—’
‘No, that one,’ said Lena, wandering into the office and gesturing at the Curiosity Island calendar on the wall, which Carmen had just that morning flicked over to a new month—an aerial photo of Heart Reef taken from Cody’s helicopter. ‘You should really tidy up in here,’ Lena said, picking up a mini packet of wasabi peas from the floor. ‘This is not like you at all. And holy smokes,’ she added, pointing to Carmen’s ponytail, ‘is that a strand of hair out of place? How very dare it!’
‘It’s almost as if something’s put me off my game this morning.’ Carmen approached the calendar and lifted it warily, as if one of the local palm-sized moths that lurked in unexpected places might make a dash for freedom. Nothing on the wall behind. She took it off the hook and flicked through the pages. ‘There’s nothing here.’ And there it went again—the beeping. ‘That’s not coming from the calendar. Come on, guys, I’m trying to get some work done before Nan’s TV thing.’
Cody strolled past, crouched beside her desk and slid something from under her footrest. His phone. The beeping began again, louder, and he swiped it silent. Bastard. ‘Leenz, you were right,’ he said. ‘That totally worked.’
‘Of course it did. He thought it was too simple,’ Lena complained, as if she expected Carmen to take her side. She crunched a wasabi pea. ‘It was the pitch and the echo. Impossible to pin down the direction. Jeez,’ she said, sniffing, ‘these things are hot. You give them to Mika?’
‘Sure, pick on the paranoid one,’ Carmen said. ‘Go away and do some work.’
‘Nothing to do,’ Cody said, shrugging. ‘Chopper’s been grounded for days, it’s that quiet—and this is supposed to be the high season. I’ve maintained everything on her I possibly can. I even helped fix a blockage in the resort wastewater system this morning, which wasn’t what I thought the life of a pilot would be like.’ He checked his watch. ‘I’m off to pick up baby bro from Prossy in a bit.’
Lena dropped the pea packet in the rubbish bin and scanned the detritus on the floor. ‘And not much operational or logistics stuff to take care of when there’s no one and nothing to move around,’ she said, investigating a packet of dried seaweed. ‘There’s not even anyone to make a coffee for. This morning there were three of us working the restaurant and only two guests, and they’re detoxing, so no caffeine. You’ve never seen such elaborate juices. I think they found the attention a little creepy. I might go over to Airlie Beach and get another tattoo.’
‘You need to get out of the habit of getting a tattoo whenever you’re bored,’ Cody said.
‘Maybe a piercing then,’ she said, running her finger over her earlobe. Carmen couldn’t see where she could possibly fit another. ‘You could fly me in, bro. Get your roots done while you’re there.’
‘I don’t dye my hair!’ Cody said, ruffling his trademark blond bird’s nest. ‘Can’t help it if the sun worships me—everyone else does. I’m sure we’ll find something to do with you that doesn’t involve permanent scarring.’
‘Being your sister has given me enough permanent scarring. Tattoos are just my way of disguising the wounds. Hey, Carmen, maybe we can both go blonde!’
‘Things will pick up,’ Carmen said, willing it to be the truth. ‘Nan’s TV appearance might generate a last-minute booking or two.’
Lena ripped open the seaweed packet. ‘How did Nan get let on TV? Do they know what they’re in for?’
Carmen smoothed her ponytail, though all the strands seemed to be in order. ‘She set it all up herself. Announced last week that she had a contact at the network she’d been in touch with. First any of us had heard of it.’
‘Doesn’t Aunt Tam usually deal with this kind of stuff? She’s the marketing manager.’
‘Oh, she tried to wrestle it off Nan, but Nan said either she did it or we said no, and we couldn’t afford to say no, so …’
Lena inhaled sharply. ‘Australia is in for a treat.’
‘Meanwhile, children, run along.’ Carmen made a shooing gesture.
Cody, four years older than Carmen, smirked. Not that he’d acted his age even when they were kids—Carmen was ‘born mature’, her mother always said. Cody and Lena didn’t tend to put it so tactfully.
As her cousins slunk off like the hoods they were, Carmen pinned the calendar back up. ‘Ah,’ she grunted, looking at the date. April first. Every year they got her, and every year she failed to see it coming. She should set up an electronic calendar reminder.
With a sigh, she sat, but even without the beeping she couldn’t focus on the letter of recommendation. She’d already spent hours trying to get it perfect. And every carefully chosen word reminded her how much she didn’t want to lose the guy who made the best kingfish ceviche in Tropical North Queensland. She laid her fingers on her keyboard. Type, dammit.
‘It’s always hard to let good staff go, hon,’ Carmen’s mother, Rosa, had said at the executive team meeting the previous week. ‘But we can’t take on more debt. We can’t ride this out without making some tough decisions. Don’t worry, he’ll be snapped up before he even gets off the ferry at Airlie Beach.’
‘Hold off until I go on the telly,’ Nan had added. ‘Maybe then we won’t need to let anyone go.’
Rosa and Carmen had shared a look. They’d need more than a five-minute TV appearance to make up for several years of financial challenges.
Carmen’s chest tightened. She wheeled her chair back and stood, rubbing her breastbone. No thank you, Anxiety. I won’t be needing you today. I appreciate the warning, but I already know all the many reasons I should be stressed. If you could channel your energy into helping me get stuff done rather than berating me about not doing it perfectly, that would be actually helpful, thankyouverymuch. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath—in through her nose and out through her mouth—and logged out of the system. One minute looking at the ocean and breathing the sea air and she’d be fine. Breathing was winning.
She walked through reception and into the pavilion, which was at its airy, sparkly best, with sunlight flooding through the windows on the eastern side. Out in the bay, a breeze rippled the surface of the water, giving the sun something to play with. Blue-sky morn-ings were the best. Everything fresh and clean, like the overnight high tide had reset more than just the sand. The day’s mistakes hadn’t yet been made. So far today (if you didn’t count nearly los-ing her rag at her cousins) she was the perfect manager, the perfect mother, the perfect daughter, the perfect sister/cousin/granddaugh-ter/global citizen. Forget New Year’s resolutions, Carmen did New Day resolutions. And one day maybe she’d even live up to her own expectations beyond 8am.
She wandered through the lounge into the dining space, the areas delineated only by the furniture, which was regularly reconfigured to suit the occasion—though it’d been a while since they’d needed reconfiguring—and paused at the table nearest the bar to drop a kiss on her daughter’s crown. Intent on eating, Mika absentmindedly rubbed away the invisible lip print, leaving a chunk of avocado in her curls, a green smear against the almost-black.
‘Really? Avocado and plum jam on toast?’ Carmen said to her mother, who was sitting on the next chair, tapping away on a tablet, still dressed in yoga gear. ‘And what is that on top?’ she said, peering at Mika’s plate. ‘Anchovies?’ Carmen picked the avocado out of Mika’s hair, but the little girl immediately whacked the spot as if shooing a fly, pasting in twice as much green goo.
Rosa shrugged. ‘She eats like a woman with pregnancy cravings.’ Rosa had canned her yoga class when no one had turned up so, with no kids’ club running because of the lack of kids, she’d offered to look after Mika while she adjusted staff rosters, which were turning into as much of a nightmare as anything else in this bookings slump. With hired staff at a minimum, each of the cousins as well as the Sisters Three—Carmen’s mother and aunts Tam and Jaz—had job descriptions that would fill several business cards. As well as Carmen’s main role as hospitality and events manager, she was now bartender, kitchenhand and room attendant. By the end of the day she’d probably be doing the plumbing and piloting the ferry.
‘I’m heading out to the beach for a minute,’ Carmen said, walking towards the deck.
‘Just need to breathe.’
‘Always a good plan.’
‘Oh, and word of warning?’ Carmen called back. ‘Cody and Lena are bored and disruptive, and it’s April Fool’s.’
‘I know. Well, I know about April Fool’s. I set up a calendar reminder after last year. Doesn’t take much to guess the other.’
‘Can you set up a reminder to remind me to set up a reminder for next year?’
‘I’ll put it in your calendar. Meantime,’ Rosa said, swiping at the tablet, ‘I’ll schedule them on spring-cleaning shifts at the backpackers. Well, autumn cleaning. Maybe we could let them loose with a tin of paint down there. That should keep them bickering among themselves for a few days. The whole island is going to be spit-polished by the time this slump passes.’
Halfway across the deck, Carmen slipped off her sandals, welcoming the smoothness of the wooden boards against her soles. She skirted the pool’s glass fence, jogged down the steps and pushed her feet into the sand. Out in the bay, a couple of snorkels circled. The honeymooners. Little had they known they’d practically get their own private resort. They’d better leave a bloody good trip review. Theirs was the only occupied beachfront villa, and the terraced apartments set into the hill behind them were also mostly empty. Carmen dug her toes into the cooler layer of sand under the surface, not that the top had heated yet, but it was a long-ingrained habit. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Eat, drink, breathe. That’s all there was to it. She’d spent her entire life either holidaying on the island or, since having Mika, living here, but after her postnatal depression, she’d made it a rule not to let a day go by without doing something small to remind herself she was living the dream, even when it didn’t feel like it. Especially when it didn’t feel like it.
Movement at the jetty caught her eye. A guy—a soldier en route to the base, going by his athletic build and buzzcut—slid something into a black backpack at his feet and straightened, his back to her. He rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck, tilting his head one way and then the other, the sun glinting off dark hair and a thick column of a neck. It could almost be him.
Available in-stores and online from the 5th of January 2022