Since You've Been Gone (Welcome to Paradise)

BOOK: Since You've Been Gone (Welcome to Paradise)
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Chapter One

“A month? Are you kidding me, bro? Where did you say you were?”

Austin Bishop gritted his teeth and repeated himself for the third time. “Western Illinois, heading for the Iowa border.”

On the other end of the line, his older brother cursed in annoyance. “You can make the drive to Colorado in a few days, Austin. Are you seriously telling me it’s going to take you a month to snap some pictures of a few small towns?”

No, probably not.

“Yes, definitely,” he lied, flicking the turn signal of his SUV and changing lanes.

He zoomed past a slow-moving SUV then steered back into the right lane of the freeway. A sign up ahead informed him that the next service station was in two miles. Thank God. He was dying for a coffee.

“Let me get this straight—you’d rather drive around the Midwest than come home for your own mother’s fiftieth birthday party.” His brother sounded incensed now.

“It’s not a matter of
would I rather
,” he muttered in response. “This is my job, Nate. I can’t just tell the magazine to fuck off. I agreed to this commission and I have no choice but to follow through on it.”

He was lying again, and he hoped Nate’s big-brother psychic powers didn’t kick in to call him on the bullshit. Truth was, he’d been doing his damnedest this past year to stay away from Paradise, the scenic mountain town where he was born and raised. That meant taking assignment after assignment, even ones he wasn’t particularly passionate about. Despite some opinions to the contrary, photography wasn’t just about taking “pretty pictures”, but there was no doubt that his recent work had been less about passion and more about avoidance.

This latest job—snapping shots of small-town Main Streets—was definitely not his cup of tea. He preferred grittier subject matter, like the spread he’d done last year when he’d spent a month in the Middle East capturing the violent riots that had broken out on the streets of Baghdad. That particular spread, in fact, was responsible for the piece of paper currently taking residence in his duffel, the one listing him as a finalist for a Pulitzer. He hadn’t won the acclaimed prize, nor had he attended the festivities luncheon, but just being selected as one of the two runner-ups had been a shining moment in his career. Only twenty-five, and already on his way to winning a Pulitzer. Hot damn.

He hadn’t told his family about it, though. Although he’d come home a handful of times over this past year for special occasions, he’d barely said a word to his mother or brothers during the visits. The realization brought a pang of guilt, but at the moment, he didn’t have it in him to try to bridge that distance he’d created.

And he couldn’t bring himself to rush home just because his big brother commanded it.

“Look, I know you’re pissed,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll try to finish this assignment as fast as I can, but I can’t make any promises, Nate.”

“Fine. Whatever. Just call when you know your exact ETA.”

Click.

Nate had hung up.

Austin’s brows shot up in surprise. His older brother
never
hung up on people, which told him that Nate was not just pissed but absolutely furious.

He couldn’t say he blamed him, but again, Austin had no intention of rushing home. That last visit to Paradise had taken a lot out of him, so much so that he’d pretty much sprinted right out of town and hadn’t had any contact with his family for three months.

Family.

The word lingered in his head like a bad odor. His father, Henry Bishop, had been a carousing drunk and a shitty dad, so shitty that his sons had banded together and vowed never to be like the man who’d sired them. For as long as he could remember, Austin had considered his older brothers his best friends and role models. As the youngest, he’d worshipped Nate, Owen and Jake.

And his mom. Lord, he’d worshipped her too. Out of all the boys, Austin had been the mama’s boy, the one who ran to Della when he got hurt or when he got in trouble at school or when his big brothers were picking on him.

But those days were long gone. Which was usually what happened when you discovered that the person you trusted most in the world had been lying to you your entire life.

Sighing again, Austin tossed his iPhone in the cup holder and sped off the highway ramp. Twenty minutes later, he’d filled up the gas tank, ordered an extra large coffee from a Mickey D’s drive-thru, and was back on the road.

Main Streets of the Midwest. Christ. What a cheesy, flowery subject, and one he didn’t have much interest in, but hey, he’d take pictures of his own ass if it meant avoiding Paradise just a little while longer.

He plugged his phone into the AUX port of the rented SUV and scrolled through his music until he found something that matched his mood. Metallica. Loud and angry and overwrought with angst.

The pounding drums and wailing guitars were the perfect soundtrack for the empty stretch of road. He’d already hit towns in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. His next stop would be Iowa, followed by Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas if he could squeeze them in. His agent needed the photos by the end of June. They’d be featured in
National Geographic’s
sister magazine,
American Geographic
, which was slowly gaining prestige as a top travel publication.

So far, he’d enjoyed his time on the road. Well, except for the nights. The pity parties always seemed to commence once he was settled in various shithole motel rooms, and he’d been getting such little sleep that it was a wonder he could make the fourteen-hour-a-day drives without dozing off behind the wheel.

The coffee helped, though. So did the earsplitting heavy metal bursting out of the speakers.

Austin felt oddly at peace as he sang along to “Enter Sandman” and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. The conversation with Nate slowly seeped out of his head, allowing him to focus on the scenery rolling by and the fresh summer air wafting in through the open window. There were no other cars on the two-lane highway and not many structures on either side of the road, just endless fields, colorful flowers, and trees in their summer prime. Everything was green and so beautiful he was momentarily glad he’d taken this gig. Normally he didn’t do much traveling in the States, and especially not around these parts, but he had to admit, the Midwest was prettier than he’d ever imagined.

Twenty minutes later, he decided the Midwest wasn’t just pretty—it was smoking hot.

Or rather, the sweet ass on the side of the road was smoking hot.

And he wasn’t being a macho jerk for thinking of the woman up ahead as
sweet ass
, because all he could actually see
was
her ass. That round little bottom, hugged by cutoff denim shorts, was jutting out in the air as its owner leaned under the open hood of a beat-up white Toyota that looked like it belonged in a junkyard.

Austin eased his foot off the gas, a smile springing to his lips as he studied the damsel in distress. He couldn’t see her face, but he noticed she had great hair—reddish blond waves that stopped just above her shoulders and shone in the morning sunlight. Her bright purple tank top revealed her to be slender, and those shorts showed off a pair of tanned, shapely legs along with that spectacular bottom.

The woman’s back stiffened when she heard the sound of Austin’s engine. She quickly straightened up and turned to investigate. The moment she spotted his car, she started waving vigorously.

Austin would have stopped regardless, but that one glimpse of her face was definitely an incentive to pull over a little faster. The redhead wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but beautiful in a wholesome, fresh-faced way that made his heart beat a little bit faster. She had big blue eyes, freckled cheeks, and pouty pink lips that were currently being nibbled on by her teeth.

The second his car came to a stop, his distressed damsel rushed over to the driver’s side and flashed an enormous smile.

“Thank you
so
much for stopping! You wouldn’t believe how many cars sped right by me. What happened to all the Good Samaritans? Are they extinct?”

She looked so upset and insulted that Austin had to laugh. “Well, you’re looking at one, so clearly there’re a few of us left.” He reached for the door handle. “What seems to be the problem?”

The redhead bit her lip again. “I don’t know. My car just died. It didn’t make any weird noises, didn’t overheat, didn’t start chugging. One second it was running, the next it wasn’t. I managed to steer it onto the shoulder, but I can’t start it up again. I called a tow-truck company, except the guy said they’re backed up and can’t come get me for another four hours.”

“Why don’t I take a look and see if it’s an easy fix,” he offered.

Gratitude filled her expression. “Thank you. I really mean that. I’ve been standing out here for nearly two hours waiting for that stupid tow. I was considering walking the fifteen miles to the service station when you came along.” Her blue eyes widened. “Can you imagine someone with my complexion walking in this hot sun? I’d get third-degree burns!”

He chuckled. Yeah, she was very fair. Her skin looked like porcelain, except for those cute reddish-brown freckles. His groin stirred at the sight, reminding him of the fact that he hadn’t gotten laid in…how long had it even been? Four months? Six?

Eight
, his libido reminded him, accusatory as hell.

Fine, so maybe sex hadn’t been on his mind lately. But it sure was now—he couldn’t take his eyes off the petite redhead as she led him toward her car.

Austin whistled when he got an up-close look at the vehicle. He’d never seen a sorrier looking car—every part that could rust had rusted. The paint job was shot to hell. The back passenger door didn’t seem to close properly, and the other back door was an entirely different color, red to the rest of the car’s white. And either he was imagining it, or the muffler was being held up with duct tape.

“Damn, sweetheart, I’m surprised this pile of junk got you this far. Where’d you come from?”

“Chicago,” she answered. “Headed for Des Moines.”

He arched one eyebrow. “You honestly thought this
car
, for lack of a better word, would get you to Des Moines?”

“I was hoping it would. I mean, it’s only three hundred miles, and the guy at the junkyard gave me seventy-thirty odds that we’d make it.”

He choked on a laugh. “Seventy to make it?”

She heaved out a breath. “Thirty to make it.”

“Remind me never to go to a casino with you.” Fighting his amusement, he walked over to the open hood and peered inside.

A second later, he couldn’t contain his laughter. It came pouring out in hearty waves, so strong he had to bend over and grip his side.

“Is it bad?”

The redhead’s forlorn voice brought on another wave of mirth. Wheezing, he straightened up and met her worried eyes. “Bad is an understatement. Every component of the engine is corroded to shit, your battery is leaking acid, your fan is unsecured, there’s exposed wiring in there that I don’t even want to touch, there’s no radiator cap—”

“I get it,” she interrupted. “The engine sucks.”

“Yup.”

“Should I call the tow guy again?”

“You should call a garbage truck.”

“Ha-ha.”

“I’m serious. There’s no point in trying to fix this lemon. It’ll cost you a helluva lot more than it’s worth.” And seeing as she’d gotten the car from a junkyard, he deduced that she wasn’t exactly rolling in the dough, a suspicion he wisely kept to himself.

But she surprised him by saying, “Well, since I’m broke and homeless, I don’t think paying to fix the engine is an option.” When she saw his expression, she grinned, flashing a set of perfectly straight white teeth. “Don’t worry, I’m not
homeless
homeless. But I did have to give up my apartment after I lost my job, so now I’m stuck moving back in with my folks. Gee, how fun. They offered to buy me a plane ticket, but I was trying to prolong the awful inevitable for as long as I could by making the drive instead of flying.”

He grinned back. “I know exactly how you feel. I’m doing the same damn thing.”

“Really?”

“Yup. I’m making my way to Colorado, and trust me, I’m in no rush.” He paused. “I’m Austin, by the way. Austin Bishop.”

She stuck out her hand. “I’m Mari Smith.”

The second their palms met in a shake, a rush of heat flooded his groin. She had such small, dainty hands. But damn, that grip of hers was strong.

BOOK: Since You've Been Gone (Welcome to Paradise)
8.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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