Catching Preeya (Paradise South Book 3)

BOOK: Catching Preeya (Paradise South Book 3)
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Details can be found in the
Author’s Note
at the end of
Catching Preeya
. So we’ll meet up again
post-HEA
! See ya there, and enjoy the ride!

 

 

 

To
Pre-Dawn
from the past—a
distance-gauge
.

And to Dads.

 

CHAPTER 1

W
ith his messenger
bag hiked high on his shoulder, Dr. Ben Trainer stood far from the cluster of frantic, pushy travelers lining the baggage claim carousel. He stood at the very end of the belt, alone and patient. An intelligent choice. A necessary choice. Stark civilization hit hard after being away for so many months. Hell, being back in the Western Hemisphere, in The States, in
cloud-heavy
Seattle, locked up his chest, knotted his neck, and tensed his shoulders, lower back and jaw.

He sighed as he spotted his battered duffel winding its lackadaisical way around the conveyor belt amidst the pricey and pristine luggage sets, the plutonium grey golf club bag, and the family of snow skis clothed in durable vinyl travel sleeves. He scoffed—the entire village he’d just returned from could be fed and clothed with the value of the clubs alone.

He yanked, then slung and strapped his
heavy-duty
canvas pack onto his back. He took a few long strides away from the carousel as a few college kids moved in, catching onto his
end-of
-
the-belt
idea, no doubt, when his phone pinged. It could only be one of two people, the only two he had left in the world. His sister and Stan, his longtime friend and attorney, the one who’d orchestrated this required visit to the Emerald City. Ben would answer it later, though. He just had to get out of there. The surrounding grimaces and frantic tones were getting to him fast. Cab, hotel, sleep—
stat
. Then a quick morning of hell at the hearing before flying away again.
Far
away.

He weaved his way outside to the taxi booth and grabbed his spot in line.

Then it hit him—or his shin more specifically. And it hit hard. A
carry-on
made of, God, titanium? Then it rolled over his foot, as if in slow motion. He fought the need to grab his leg as the flight attendant controlling—or not controlling—the culprit roller bag flicked her gaze up at him, and he caught it. Or, rather, her gaze caught him. Her eyes stunned and awed, even more than the
bullet-proof
bag had.

“I am so, so sorry.” Her eyes—violet to blue to endless—apologized too, as she yanked her
carry-on
toward her like it was a misbehaved child.

His pulse spiked. “It’s okay. Really.” Any shin or foot pain, abolished. Airflow, vacuumed. All replaced by electricity, then a cloud of billowing guilt in his
vise-gripped
chest.

His phone rang from his messenger bag.

But he could only stare at her.

Ben.

It rang again, such an obnoxious jingle. The woman held his stare while her lip curled and one brow arched.

And again, the
high-pitched
electronic tune of horror.

She swallowed a giggle as her eyes shot down to their feet, her cheeks blushing—in sympathy, no doubt. But with her eyes’ disconnect, her spell broken, he was able to unzip his bag with fumbling fingers while the ditty dittied another time. He dug for, then grabbed the cell and hit buttons without looking to stop the noise.

He swallowed as a new noise, a garbled voice met his ears. Coming from the phone. The screen showed Stanton’s profile. He’d hit Accept, darn it. “Excuse me,” Ben mumbled to the
shin-slamming
heart-pounding
distraction in her formfitting
navy-blue
uniform. He pivoted a fraction. “Stan? Hey, man, just got in, got my bag, and—”

Screaming—no, shrieking. Overwhelming waves of it.
Near-pandemonium
.

“What is it?” Violet Eyes asked him or no one, craning her neck.

Ben towered above the crowd. A flock of frantic women followed one focal point, a man—tattooed, pierced, and brooding in chains and boots and leather—strolling in Ben’s direction.

Were those video cameras on the guy’s flanks?

“One second, Stan.” He plugged his free ear, but it was no use. He couldn’t hear Stan—let alone his own thoughts. And the plume of motion grew closer.

“God, what is it?” his alluring taxi line companion asked again, standing on her tiptoes.

He spotted a guitar case strapped across the celebrity’s chest. Ben hiked the strap of his bag higher on his shoulder. “Some rock star, I guess?” Flying commercial?
Publicity
hound.

Phone still in his surgeon’s grasp, Ben watched the
chaos-maker
stride ahead of the frenzied fans and paparazzi, sweeping by the shuttle van line, past the cluster of smokers outside Jetta Air, continuing toward the taxi line—where the clichéd rock sensation stopped short.

Is he looking at
me?

“Josh?” Violet Eyes breathed—Ben keyed into her voice through the uproar.

The next instant, the rocker had Violet Eyes in his arms, swinging her around and around and—

Bam!

On the third rotation, Violet Eyes’ swinging legs knocked Ben off balance. His cell phone and a bit of his pride flew from his grasp.

Recovered and steady a heartbeat later, he could only gawk at the flight attendant and the apparent celebrity in their continued revolving embrace. Any minute the guy would put her down and break into song, the next frame of this
b-grade
music video intro. As if on Ben’s mental cue, the rock star set Violet Eyes’ feet to the ground, but didn’t stay to serenade her or the masses. No, the rocker pulled her out of line and escorted her and her naughty
carry-on
away through the
still-shrieking
she-wolves
.

Ben shook his head and blinked hard to reground himself in reality, then sighed.

And shit, his phone!

Eyes to the sidewalk, no sight nor sound of it.
Damn
! He got down on hands and knees and spotted his phone a few pairs of high heels and loafers away. He scrambled for it, but got impeded by new sets of legs.
God,
I’m just too old for this.
A full lifetime’s worth of gravity had weighed him down since his young wife passed. He felt eighty, though he was half a century shy.

Waiting for a man in boots to step one way or another so he could go in for the rescue, his ears rang from the
now-fading
raucous. Distracted, he broke focus for an instant, and the phone went skidding while more shoes inadvertently kicked and tapped it along. He crawled forward a few feet.
Still just out of reach, damn it.
Then, a clearing. Risking limb and digits, he grabbed for it just as a
fire-engine
red high heel began its descent, as if targeting the ancient yet indispensable phone. Jamie had given him the antiquated device, and he wasn’t ready to give it up yet. His fingertips made contact with the rubber antenna nub and pulled the cell toward him. Now cupped under his hand, he clutched it for dear life. A narrow save. He sighed, exploded to his feet, then phone to ear, he wondered if Stan had stayed on the call.

“Stanton, man…you there?” He switched ears again while scanning the sea of bobbing heads and camera phones competing for a last glimpse of the celebrity hand in hand with the
ocean-eyed
flight attendant before they disappeared around the bend.

“Yeah, you okay? What the hell happened?”

Ben shook his head. “My life flashed before my eyes, is all.” He laughed and grabbed the handle of his duffel. “Some huge rock star took over the arrivals at
Sea-Tac
. I’m just standing in the taxi line and…well, someone bumped me.” He snorted then swallowed as the flight attendant’s twilight eyes floated through his mind
. Surreal.

“Ben?”

“I’m here, I’m here…so yeah, my phone flew…with you on it. The durable thing’s survived the third world a few times over, though. No harm done.”

“Jesus, man. Only you.”

Ben sucked in then released a long, measured breath. “Only me is right.” Ben grabbed his duffel and moved up in line to close the gap. “And God, I have to be back here tomorrow.”

“Quick in and out again, huh?”

“Yeah, man.”
Thank
God.

“But hey, you should be fine. How often do you run into a rock star at a commercial airport, let alone run into ’em twice?” Stanton laughed.

“Exactly.” A short snicker. “Hey, my turn’s up and the cabbie’s in a hurry—”

“You should’ve taken me up on the ride, Ben.”

“Nah, don’t want to put you out. But hey, see you at the hospital…eight a.m.?”

“Join Zoe and me for dinner, at least.”

He nodded his thanks to the driver for taking his bag. “Jet lag, man.” He switched ears so he could open the car door. “Gonna do room service then sleep, Stan. Another time.”

“All right, Ben.” A slight huff. “See you at eight…and have a good night.”

“Will do. You, too.”

He smirked and threw the phone into his messenger bag.
A good night, right.
Another one filled with utter quiet. He hated the quiet. It let his guilt’s relentless screams fill his head. His heart. He preferred
third-world
chaos over that screaming any day of the week, any hour of the day, any second of every excruciating minute that his life ticked by.
Screaming
guilt.

CHAPTER 2

I
t felt like
just after midnight when Preeya woke up not knowing her place in the world, or rather, her location in it—an occupational given for a flight attendant. But when she looked around the dark, dank room and over at the sleeping beauty of a man next to her, she remembered where she’d landed. Like a punch in the face, she remembered.

Yesterday afternoon she’d arrived in Seattle for a
longer-than
-usual
eighteen-hour
stopover. Ah, the Emerald City—home of
grunge-rock
nostalgia wrapped in
down-to
-earth pipe dreams under a blanket of
stratus-cloud
gloom.

She’d planned to crash at Gigi’s. She hadn’t seen her best friend in way too long—God, since she’d turned down
so-safe
-
and-sweet
Evan, his marriage proposal having scared her shitless, scared her sprinting. Yet another dream crusher for her
ever-dashed
father.
But screw him.
Gigi was more
family
than her father ever was.

But she’d stood Gigi up. And had ignored Gigi’s calls.

Why?

Jaw clenched, chest tight, she shook her head.
Karma.
Karma had had different plans. And Preeya Patel never passed up a
meant-to
-be opportunity. Gigi got that better than anyone. But then why didn’t Preeya just answer Gigi’s calls and texts, and explain? Preeya knew why. Or rather
who
—she looked over at
him
and frowned, feeling a new level of nausea.

Such a mistake.
“No such thing,” Preeya’s mom had taught her. Preeya clung to her mother’s other mantras, too—
just go with it…sky’s the limit…fly free
—because Jenny Patel’s hipster philosophy was all Preeya had left of the woman. Out of loyalty alone, Preeya’s gut overruled all—like when it had told her to drop out of medical school to become an FA. Well…her gut and the deep desire to throw her father the finger. Killed two birds with one stone on that one, proving herself an
efficient
flake, at least.

Efficient—hah!
She didn’t know if it was day or night—or the day of the damn week, for that matter. Shivering cold and
hangover-queasy
, she slammed her hand down on the nightstand and groped unsuccessfully for her phone. She squinted, scanning the room. No clock. And
his
phone for a glimpse at the time? She’d heard it pinging incessantly from somewhere far off, probably the bathroom where he’d spent most of the night. But she didn’t hear it now. Must’ve died, all that activity. No doubt a waiting list of groupies, ping by
ego-crushing
ping. Between that certainty and his
cocaine-cocktail
coma, she so needed to get the hell out of there. Wow, had this “fly by the seat of her skirt” kismet adventure yielded none of the magic and wonder that her mother had foretold.

Well-beyond
the opposite.

Josh Bolte, the torrential, savage rocker, the lead singer of Carnal Knowledge—garage band gone global—had been her first, well…
everything
. Before he and the band took off—figuratively, literally,
heart-crushingly
—he’d been the one who’d fit her picture, her plan for unplanned ecstasy to the end of days, her potential partner in crime. He was wildfire and vibrancy and depth all wrapped up in a gorgeous package of heat and delectability.

Heat and delectability?
She beheld the lump next to her. Nope. Not even close. Not anymore.

So what did that make her?

One hot mess with a nagging conscience.

Enough dwelling and move your ass, Pree.

But where to even begin? He lay curled up in a fetal position under all the covers, while her body lay next to his, stark naked and trembling, and from her hazy recollection, her clothes were scattered throughout the wreck of a room. Because last night when he’d carried her through his bandmate’s guest room door, he’d torn her clothes off, then his, and tossed them. So damn hot. So carefree. So what she’d wanted…

The AC fan clicked on as an acidic burp bubbled up her throat. More rough reality mixed with hangover. But she wasn’t nearly as bad off as he was. God, right when he’d offered her a line of his “white powder escape,” she should’ve been out. Instead, too jet lagged to find her phone and clothes, and too embarrassed to call Gigi, she’d opted for vodka as an available—and legal—sleep aid while he rode his own wave alone.

She put one foot on the floor—perpendicular and immediately dizzy—then the other foot. “Oh gross!” She recoiled to the bed. Her toe had sunk into something cold and lumpy.

Josh growled.

She glared while frantically wiping her foot on the fitted sheet, holding back tears with all she had.

She sucked in a breath—along with the stench of the room, a sickening accord of vomit, spilled vodka, old pizza, and maybe sweaty socks? The putridity sparked a riotous headache in her skull while her heart sank to the pit of her stomach. She surrendered back onto the bed. He huffed then shifted. Wow, the man of her wildest dreams, this new and
unimproved
Josh Bolte, was so far from who she’d remembered.

“Seven years…” A desperate exhale, a plummeting
hot-air
balloon. “Have I not learned anything in seven damn years?”

Josh rolled to his back. “Shhhhh.” His arm swung in from out of nowhere, his hand landing
almost
gently on her lips, mushing them to a hush. “Need. Quiet.”

She took his hand off her mouth with the tips of her
icy-cold
fingers, as she would with someone else’s dirty tissue, and let his arm drop with a thud on the other side of his body. She lay back flat on the unfriendly mattress as he shifted to his right side and tucked that shushing hand under his cheek. He faced her, still clinging hard to sleep.
Oblivious
.

A beat snored by, then he sighed, his breath raw and wretched, right in her face.


Jeez-
us
.” More nausea.

He groaned.

She grabbed the top sheet he had twisted tight around his divine body—his empty shell of a body—and yanked. The thin sheet
sort of
soothed the goose pimples rippling up and down her bare body. Now she shivered from a deeper chill. An awareness.

A billion stabbing icicles of
awareness.

“How did I think you were so—” She shook her head. “No. The real question,” she whispered to anyone, to no one, “is how the hell did I end up here? Again? I should be years beyond…this.
You.
” His type. “But if not you”—she swallowed then sighed, shoulders hanging low and limp—“and not Evan, then who?”

Or
what?

And goddamn it, when?

She shut her eyes tight. Hiding behind her eyelids for the moment seemed like the most immediate escape route. But the
blank-slate
nothingness inside her head offered no comfort. “Not better at all.”

“Seriously…shut the fuck up…
pleeze
,” Josh groaned, then turned his head the other way.

Oh, he wants
quiet?

Well, screw that and screw him. She collected a lungful of oxygen fuel, shut all filters down. “Fuck you, Josh! How could I have fallen for your bullshit, even for one more night? Jesus, who am I?”

Yesterday, when he’d halted his confident stride, spotting Preeya in the taxi line, that
long-ago
look in his eyes—that same searing,
soul-wrenching
gaze—her heart had halted, too. And her breath had ceased. The raging fire rippling up her spine had not allowed her to do anything but return his maddening,
core-clenching
gaze. That’s when she’d ignored Gigi’s calls and bypassed that tall, uptight, and
bumbling-but
-sweet stranger who she’d
shin-slammed
with her
carry-on
—the man with the alluring yet sad amber eyes.

Sweet
eyes.

Not like Josh’s blazing eyes…that fizzled at the first hint of rain.
In Seattle, no
less.

Damn you, Josh.
Intent, cocky, directed. He swooped her up and swung her around, sweeping her off her feet again.

And she’d
gone with it
. Gone with him.
Again.

Damn it.
And damn every pathetic daydream, night dream, vision, and fantasy of him.

“Because
this
…with this
you
…isn’t
me
.” She could’ve wrung her own neck realizing then that most of her quickie romances were with cheap imitations of
him
. “Except for Evan. He was different.
Polar-opposite
different
.” A quick puff of laughter at the insight morphed into near hysteria. Yes, she’d been ranting like a lunatic, but it felt too good to stop. Releasing, venting,
realizing.
“And you know what?”

Josh growled low in his chest through his pillow sandwich.

“Evan was my attempt at the status quo. Me trying to appease my dad, in place of med school.” She sucked in her bottom lip and bit down. Then she snapped back, “But, hey, flight attendant training wasn’t easy!” Her words barreled through the darkness as the AC kicked off, the rattling hum done for a time.

But she wasn’t done. Not yet. “You’ve never met Dad, but take my word for it, you’re a lot alike.” She nodded, enjoying the comparison. “Yeah, you’re both arrogant assholes with a god complex.” She lay back again, then stared for a beat at the blackout drapes, unwavering in the
now-static
air. “And I’m nothing to him now because he can’t tell his friends his kid’s an airhead ‘trolley dolly’. Well, fuck ’im. Travel and adventure and being true to my heart, that’s goddamn important. Vital. My path!”

Josh gave a violent huff.

She huffed back.
Still not done.
Not even close. “Anyway, Evan was just too safe, too static. Then he proposed, with a ring…a real ring! I just flipped out and—”

“Hey…babe, listen.” Josh opened one eye to a squint. “Enough with the fucking monologue. My pounding head can’t take it.” Said in the unsexiest rasp she’d ever heard.

And—
babe
?

Reduced to a
babe
. Another level of fury formed way down in her icy toes and shot to the tip of her
cute-as
-
a-fucking
-button
nose.

Fucking
babe. Why not slap my ass like the rich pervs in business class do while you’re at it?
And, hell, did he even remember her name? Who she was? Who she’d
been
to him? At least, so he’d said and written and sang. His muse, goddamn it.

Fired up now, she kneeled on the mattress and squared her shoulders. “Well, Mr.
big-time
lead singer who couldn’t keep it up for more than a millisecond last night—”

“Hey, are you fucking done yet?” Both eyes had finally opened, his nostrils flaring.

“No, I’m not. And I wanted
you
done…done talking and ranting and singing your bullshit
pseudo-deep
lyrics and puking all night. And I wanted some
just-deserts
sex and closure, too. I wanted,
want
, a lot of things, Josh Bolte. But as one
real
rock legend sang, we don’t always get what we want, now do we? Do we?”

*

Words, words, and more empty words. Tossed around like confetti.

Ben had never dealt well with bullshit, with red tape, with hoops to jump through. And he’d always hated muddy waters.

But here he was at the medical review hearing. In the middle of the gray zone. Sitting in the stifling conference room for the third time this year. Here nothing was black and white. And he needed black and white, now more than ever.

Ben had always been direct, principled,
cut-and
-dried, and too honest for most people, most of the time. As a kid, he’d gone to the extreme—rules were rules, and they absolutely
were not
made to be broken. He’d been the teacher’s pet and class tattle tale until a fist to the nose in fifth grade made an impression—and so had the calm, cool, and collected surgeon who’d fixed him up. So although most had expected him to become a cop, a lawyer, or a judge, he’d become a surgeon, and a pediatric specialist, to boot.

But now his practice was lost, his local reputation destroyed. And until the medical board made its decision, Stanton had recommended that Ben take an extended leave of absence from the hospital. Doctors Without Borders had been Ben’s saving grace for the past year, and he couldn’t wait for his next mission, this time just south of the border.

For now, though, and without Jamie by his side, he’d have to suffer through. She’d been his perfect counterbalance, the gentle stream to his stubborn rock. He sighed and focused on the hovering clouds through the boardroom’s skylights.

Stanton cleared his throat, pulling Ben back to the present, to the huge conference table, familiar faces staring back at him. His
in-laws
, in particular, glared more than they stared.

A snicker escaped Ben’s lips. Stanton jabbed him in his ribs, but Ben ignored the reprimand and let his mind jump back in time to the looks on Jamie’s folks’ faces when he’d
told
them that he’d be marrying their daughter. “Yes, immediately after high school graduation.” As always, no games—no tiptoeing or dancing around it. And he’d made it happen. Because he and Jamie had been meant to be. Forever.

Forever.

Well, even a doctor can be wrong.

But for a solid decade plus two years, he’d been right. No doubt in his mind, in his heart, or in his soul. He’d called it. They’d started a wonderful life together. And he’d do it all over again. To experience that level of depth and height with another person—yeah, he’d do it again.

BOOK: Catching Preeya (Paradise South Book 3)
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