Burning Moon


By Jo Watson

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There’s a very fine line between blushing bride and mascara-streaked sobbing mess. #beenthere

Lilly Swanson has been planning her perfect life since she was twelve years old: Meet Mr. Right, have the big white wedding, buy a house in the burbs, and raise 2.5 picture-perfect kids. However, when her fiance bails, leaving Lilly alone at the altar to face five hundred gossipy guests, her dream turns into a nightmare. But then Lilly makes an impulsive decision—she ditches the dress, grabs her passport, and heads off to Thailand to spend her honeymoon alone.

Or so she thinks . . .
Because Lilly quickly learns that everything in Thailand is very hot: the weather, the merchandise, and especially Damien—the sexy, spontaneous man she meets before her feet even hit the sand. Now with no plan, and nothing holding her back, Lilly lets Damien lead her on a wild, unpredictable ride to the world’s most exclusive party, Burning Moon. But after a week of letting go, indulging her every impulse and desire, Lilly must go back to the girl she used to be. Or can Damien convince her that their party doesn’t have to end?

“Top Pick! Almost a Bride put a smile on my face more than once. The dialogue was witty, the words were well-written and the heroine was one-of-a-kind.” — Harlequin Junkie



I’m sorry, I can’t.

I’m sorry, I can’t.

I’m sorry, I can’t.

No matter how long I stared at the scribbled note, the meaning stayed the same. I held it up hoping, praying that the sunlight would illuminate the other words that had been written in magic invisible ink.

But nothing appeared.

Just those four tiny little words…and yet they had the power to bring my whole world crashing down around me in an instant. Splintering and exploding into a million little pieces.

I finally managed to pry my eyes from the note and found myself staring into the terrified faces of my stepsister and two best friends. They were looking at me as if I was about to have a celebrity meltdown, shave my head, and then poke someone’s eye out with an umbrella. They looked very concerned. Like I was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

And they were right.

I was.

Tick. Tick.

I was teetering on the brink of insanity. I could feel it trying to suck me in like an all-consuming black hole. The tug was almost too hard to fight.

Did I even want to fight it?

But what would happen if I let go? I knew I was in shock right now, drenched in a sort of numb, detached feeling. But I could feel the other hostile emotions bubbling their way to the surface and fighting to take control.

I blinked. My eyes were stinging.

I tried to open my mouth and speak.

It was dry and nothing came out.

I looked at my best friends Jane and Val, my rocks, the two people I could always rely on for help…But they said nothing. Not a word. Just terror plastered across their faces.

I shifted my gaze to my stepsister Stormy-Rain. Unlike her name, she was a ray of tie-dye-wearing sunshine. She had the ability to turn even the most terrible situation into a positive. Again…nothing. Just stupefied horror plastered across her now-ashen face.

I looked down at my shaking hands; they were crunching the corners of the note. My heart felt like it was going to break through the safe confines of my rib cage, taking my stomach and lungs with it.

Rage combined with shock and gut-wrenching sorrow, and I snapped. It overwhelmed me, rising up from the most primitive part of my soul where logic, rules, and intellect wielded no power. This was a place of red, raw, uninhibited emotion.

And so I screamed at the top of my lungs until my voice went hoarse and my throat was raspy.

“Get me out of this dress. Get me out of it. Get it off!”

My desperate fingers franticly ripped at my wedding dress, a dress that had taken my two friends ten minutes to get me into, thanks to the intricate crisscross ribbons of the bodice. But I was trapped.

Jane and Val sprang into action, simultaneously grabbing at the stubborn ribbons, but it was taking too long. The air around me became too thick to breathe, and I felt like I was drowning.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. It’s too tight.”

Val made a move for the knife that had arrived earlier with the room service, and, without hesitation, she sliced through the intricate satin ribbons. The sound of the serrated knife eviscerating them was like fingernails down a blackboard; it made my skin crawl. But I could feel the bodice getting looser and looser, until it finally slipped down my aching body and pooled lifelessly on the floor.

I was finally free.

And then the tears came. Hot, wet tears streaming down my cheeks and streaking my flushed skin with angry black mascara lines. The tears turned to sobbing.

I looked at my dress, reduced to a pathetic puddle of ribbons, satin, and beads at my feet. But I still felt trapped. My hair! The perfect updo, held together with delicate pearl clips. Suddenly, it felt like every strand of hair was tightening around my head, like a boa constrictor going in for the kill. My fingers ripped, desperately trying to free it from its pearly captives.

I wanted to get the pearl clips removed. Gone. Off. Out. I wanted to rub every single trace of the wedding away.

I pulled out my earrings and grabbed the nearest tissue, rubbing my red lipstick off until my lips hurt. It smeared across my face like an ugly rash.

If someone were standing outside the window looking in, they would have pegged me for a crazy person. And I wouldn’t have blamed them. Because somewhere in the back of my now-estranged rational brain, I knew I looked like a lunatic escaped from a mental asylum in desperate need of a straitjacket and drastic electroshock therapy. But how the hell else should I be…

Because he…

Michael Edwards—fiancé of one year, perfect boyfriend of two—had left me, Lilly Swanson, just ten minutes before I was scheduled to walk down the aisle. The bottle of perfume that he’d wanted me to wear today, insisted I wear, because “it was his favorite,” mocked me from the dressing table. So I picked it up and threw it against the wall, watching it shatter into a million pieces, just like my life. I was hit by the sweet smell of jasmine and felt sick to my stomach.

What was I going to tell the five hundred guests who were sitting in the church waiting for me? Some had even flown here to South Africa all the way from Australia.

“Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming. Guess what? SURPRISE! No wedding!”

A wedding that my father had spent a small fortune on.

A wedding that was going to be perfect.

Perfect, dammit. Perfect!

I’d made sure of that. I had painstakingly handled every single tiny detail. It had taken months and months of meticulous planning to create this day, and now what?

Things went very blurry all of a sudden. I vaguely remember my brother James bursting into the room, screaming insults and then vowing to kill him. He even punched the best man when he claimed to have no knowledge of Michael’s whereabouts. My rational, logical father tried to find a legitimate motive for Michael’s behavior, insisting we speak to him before jumping to any rash conclusions. Hundreds of phone calls followed: Where was he? Who had seen him? Where did he go?

At some stage the guests were told, and the rumor mill went into full swing…

He’d had an affair.

He’d eloped with someone else.

He was a criminal on the run.

He was gay.

He’d been beamed up by aliens and was being experimented on. (Hopefully it was painful.)

People threw around bad words like bastard, asshole, and liar. They also threw around words like shame, sorry, and pity. They wondered whether they should take their wedding gifts back or leave them. What was the correct protocol in a situation like this?

While the world around me was going mad, I felt a strange calm descend. Nothing seemed real anymore, and I began to feel like a voyeur looking at my life from a distance. I didn’t care that I was sitting on the floor in my bra and panties. I didn’t care that my mascara and lipstick were so smudged I looked like Batman’s Joker. I just didn’t care.

Some minutes later my other brother Adam, the doctor, burst in and insisted I drink a Coke and swallow the little white pill he was forcing down my throat. It would calm me, he said.

Shortly after that, my overly dramatic, theater-actress mother rushed in to give the performance of her life.

“Why, why, why?” She placed her hand across her heart.

“What is this, a madness most discreet? A stench most foul?” She held her head and cried out, “Whyyy?!”

“For heaven’s sake, Ida, this isn’t some Shakespearean bloody play.” I could hear the anger in my father’s voice. Even after eighteen years of divorce, they still couldn’t be civil to each other.

“Lest I remind you that all the world is a stage,” my mother shouted back, the deep timbre in her voice quivering for added dramatic tension as she tilted her head upward and clenched her jaw.

“There you go again with your crap! Clearly you still haven’t learned to separate fantasy from reality!”

“Well, I managed to do that with our marriage!”

Adam jumped between them. “Stop it. This isn’t the time!”

And then all pandemonium broke out.

The priest came around to offer some kind of spiritual guidance but exited quickly, and very red-faced, when he saw my state of undress. Some inquisitive relatives stuck their heads through the door, painted with sad, sorry puppy-dog looks, but they, too, left when they saw me spread-eagled on the floor.

An enormous ruckus ensued when the photographer burst in and started taking photos of me—no one had told him. The ruckus became a total freak show when my favorite cousin Annie, who had designed my dress for free as a wedding gift, saw the state of her “best creation” lying crumpled and torn on the floor. She looked like she was about to cry.

Then the room went very blurry and the noises around me combined into one strange drone.

I closed my eyes and everything went black.

Chapter One

I woke up with a big happy yawn, pulling the crisp white linen of my duvet down and stretching my sleepy legs. The sun was rushing into my apartment and the birds were chirping in the newly blossoming trees. I could just make out the soft, sweet smell of flowers on the warm morning breeze. Wow, this is the perfect spring morning. This is the perfect day to get married. I skipped out of bed, excited for the day ahead, and then I saw it…

My wedding dress. Draped over the chair like a dead, decapitated duck.

Like a sledgehammer to my stomach, those four little words came slamming back. The words that he’d scribbled in messy cursive on a crappy piece of torn paper and slipped under the door like a coward. I scrambled for my cell phone. My frantic fingers slid across the touch screen, running through the twenty-two messages that were lighting it up. They were from my friends, my family, my coworkers, my pedicurist, and even my mother’s psychic (who was clearly going to get fired!).

But nothing from Michael.

I logged on to Facebook, heart racing with anticipation, and went straight to his page. No new activity. I went to Twitter, also nothing. I checked to see if he was still following me. He was. I checked Instagram, but again, there was no recent sign of life. It was as if he’d dropped off the face of the social media planet, which was completely unlike him. Michael couldn’t sharpen a pencil without tweeting about it. He couldn’t buy a pair of shoelaces without Instagramming a picture of them, and he couldn’t scratch his head without sharing his thoughts on Facebook. It had been one of the only things I disliked about him. Past tense. Now there were many.

My mind went into overdrive as a series of disgusting thoughts battered their way in.

Where the flaming fuck was he? Was he holed up in a sketchy pay-by-the-hour hotel with some slutty thigh-high-boot-wearing stripper with tassels and an STD? Was he partying up a storm, celebrating the fact that he’d missed the wedding and dodged a bullet?

I was grateful when the rich smell of coffee and fatty sausages being cooked yanked me back to reality and gave me something physical to focus on. Because I suddenly realized that I was starving. More hungry than I’d ever been in my entire life. I followed my growling stomach into the kitchen, where I found my friends and family keeping vigil around the table. A chorus of caring hellos rang out. The only response I could muster was a halfhearted nod.

But it wasn’t long before they flocked. They’d always been overprotective that way. Adam rushed to my side with a glass of orange juice, a capsule for my headache, and a prescription for those little white pills. I’m sure he would’ve taken my temperature and blood pressure and set up an IV if I’d let him. Val and Jane ushered me to a seat, Stormy-Rain waved some incense around and brought me a cup of herbal tea with what looked like dead, drowned flowers floating in it, and even Buttons, my usually unaffectionate cat, rubbed herself at my ankles. It felt like a hundred pairs of eyes were staring at me. They all looked expectant, as if I was meant to say something. A sickening, awkward silence filled the room. Finally someone spoke.

“How did you sleep?” Annie asked.

I nodded. “Fine. Sorry about the dress…”

“Oh God. No! Please. Don’t worry about it.” She jumped up. “Besides, perhaps it will start a whole new trend…derelict wedding wear.” She smiled at me and I was so touched at her attempt at a joke that a small tear oozed out of my eye.

Then the loud click-clack of expensive heels marched past me. “I swear, don’t push me on this. I might just advise my client to seek damages on the grounds of emotional injury. Not to mention damages for the money spent on the wedding.”

My sister-in-law, Sara, feisty lawyer and wearer of impossibly high heels, was shouting threats down her phone. She’d been trying to track Michael down all morning, speaking to every single one of his relatives, no matter how distant and thrice removed. But no luck. Michael was nowhere to be found and now she was threatening to call in her private investigator, Lizzy Brown. My stomach growled again, angry that I’d ignored it, and I pulled the plate of sausages toward me. I’d been dieting for months, trying to squeeze my naturally voluptuous figure into that dress, especially after Michael had pointed out a few extra creeping pounds.

In fact, I was sure I deserved a gold medal or some other accolade for the amount of time I’d spent fat-cell busting on the treadmill. I hadn’t eaten saturated fat or been in the same room as a carbohydrate for at least three months, and now…I was going to make up for it.

I grabbed the sausage and shoveled it into my gaping beak, washing it down with the glass of orange juice and a butter-laden bagel. Everyone stared at me, but no one dared to speak.

“Val.” The sausage almost fell out of my mouth as I tried to talk. “Val, I need you to go down to the shops and buy me two, no, five Mars Bar chocolates, six bags of Jelly Babies and bread—I need bread.”

Right now, I needed bread like a junkie needed their early morning fix. Before I’d even finished giving Val these instructions, I’d already started killing a crumpet, dragging it through syrup and practically inhaling it. No one ventured to argue or suggest that I shouldn’t mainline with pure sugar. Val jumped into action and scuttled out the door.

She returned ten minutes later with my bounty. But the food could push the emotions away only for so long. I looked up at the clock. The minute hand seemed to be ticking in slow motion, and I felt like I was trapped in a surreal dream, where the landscape was tilting and the clock face was melting down the kitchen wall like a Salvador Dalí painting. It was hard to walk; my brain was struggling to send messages to my sluggish legs, which were now encased in psychosomatic concrete.

I crawled to the living room and poured myself onto the couch, clutching a bag of newly acquired Jelly Babies Friends and family took turns sticking their heads through the door. I suspect they didn’t want to let me out of their sights. I needed a distraction. Badly. I flipped to a reality show, confident that I would find solace there. Someone always had it worse—like the guy with four arms and wayward warts, or the person trapped in their house under the piles of magazines and toothbrushes that they’d been hoarding since 1966, or, better still, the woman who went into labor while trapped on a steep cliff face in the Himalayas, or someone equally morbidly fascinating. But the current show was about a guy who baked cakes, and unless his arm got trapped in the electric mixer and he was forced to gnaw it free with his teeth, I wasn’t interested.

I was happy when the overwhelming crowd finally left and Jane, Val, Annie, and Stormy-Rain joined me in the lounge. The fearsome fivesome. That’s what we’d called ourselves as teenagers, and we’d always been there for one another, no matter what.

“So now what?” The tears welled up again. “What do I do next?”

“I don’t know.” Jane took me by the hand. “But we’re all here for you, whatever you need.”

“Whatever!” The others all echoed the sentiment.

I felt mildly better knowing that they were there for me. I thought back to the time that we’d all rallied around Jane when she’d found herself in a very embarrassing public scene with her then-boyfriend and his secret mistress. It had not been pretty, and at the time, she didn’t think she would survive the pain and humiliation, but she’d come through it fine.

Maybe I would be okay, too? One day.

But right now, the future looked pretty damn bleak.

“Why did he do this?” I angrily bit the head off a Jelly Baby and obliterated it between my molars. What the hell had I done to deserve this? Was Karma trying to punish me for something?

But none of them could supply an answer. My mind replayed our last interaction over and over again. We’d eaten breakfast together two mornings ago before I’d checked into the hotel. We’d drunk espresso. We’d chatted about the wedding and what to do if my mother got drunk and started singing show tunes—a common occurrence at all family gatherings.

He’d kissed me good-bye.

He’d told me he loved me.

He’d said he couldn’t wait to see me walking down the aisle.

So what the hell had happened?

Maybe he was having an affair? But how? We practically lived together. Maybe it was something more benign; perhaps he was just scared? Or maybe he was worried about marrying a woman he’d barely taken out for a test-drive. We’d had sex only a few times. I wasn’t exactly the most sexual person around. Twenty-four and basically an almost-virgin! It all seemed so stupid and pathetic now in the face of so many maybes.

I dismembered another Jelly Baby, legs first this time, and that’s when I noticed my engagement ring. The perfect princess-cut two-carat diamond made my stomach churn, and I ripped it off my finger, leaving a red mark behind. We all stared at it for a moment in absolute silence, and then Val spoke.

“Pawn it. Sell it and buy yourself something awesome. Like a Porsche sports car.” Michael was pretty flashy with money, and my ring was no exception.

“No!” Stormy jumped in excitedly. “Let’s burn it in a sacrificial fire. We’ll dance and chant the bad vibes away.”

“Yes!” Annie cried. “In fact, let’s burn everything of his, starting with those revolting corduroy pants he always insisted on wearing!”

“I could give him a root canal without anesthetic if you’d like?” Jane piped up. She was studying to be a dentist.

I inspected my ring. It was so beautiful. And I hated it.

It reminded me of him and the empty promises he’d made. In fact, everything reminded me of him. His presence was rudely painted across everything I owned. The couch I was lying on, the TV that he’d hung on the wall, the carpet he used to trip on, and the happy photos of our beach vacation on the coffee table.

Oh my God, the honeymoon!

We were meant to be leaving for Thailand this afternoon! We had very expensive, paid-for-in-full reservations for the honeymoon suite at the White Sands Hotel and Spa. I cringed at the thought.

“I can’t take this anymore. I have to phone him.” I pulled my phone out and started dialing the number that felt ingrained in my DNA. But before I could finish, Annie snatched it away.

“Wait. Just think about this for a second. What are you going to say to him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Won’t talking to him just make it worse?” Jane offered. “And what if he doesn’t answer? No one’s been able to get ahold of him.”

“Or…” Val spoke. Her tone was sensitive. “What if he tells you something you’re not strong enough to hear right now?”

“Like what?” I felt my stomach tighten into sickening knots. “Do you think there’s someone else?”

Annie hugged me. “I don’t know, sweetie. But I do know it’s a bad idea to phone him now. Give yourself a little time to calm down.”

I glanced around at my friends and something dawned on me. “I love you guys, but you are the worst people in the world to be giving relationship advice.” A look of mutual acknowledgment swept over their faces.

“Stormy,” I started, “you date guys for three weeks tops before you break up with them and the last guy was a fire breather.”

“Juggler. Fire juggler,” she corrected.

“I rest my case. Val, you’ve been secretly in love with your neighbor for years and haven’t told him.”

Val nodded. “I can’t deny it.”

“Jane, the last guy you dated spoke Klingon to you…in bed.”

The others burst out laughing. This had been the subject of much amusement lately.

“I wouldn’t laugh, Annie.” I waggled a finger at her. “Remember Xavier ?”

Annie lowered her eyes self-consciously.

“The ‘avant-garde’ fashion designer who is definitely gay and really named Jeff.”

“Fair enough,” Annie conceded.

I sighed loudly. Despite their sketchy track record with relationships, her friends were right. Calling Michael was a bad idea. “Fine. I won’t call him, but I need a drink.”

“Negative. Contraindicated with those pills you’re taking, as they are both central nervous system depressants,” Jane spoke.

I looked at her blankly.

“I think what she means is it will probably make you go as mad as a capper,” Stormy, the serial idiom-mixer, clarified in her own special way.

“Fine. Then bring me another chocolate!”

*  *  *

There are moments in a person’s life that change everything. Shake things up. Steer you in a different direction and push you onto another course, toward different people, places, and things. These moments don’t come around often, but when they do, they rip through the very fabric of your world.

I knew that this was one of those moments. I knew this because I’d had one of them before when I was twelve.

Ever since that age, I’d known exactly what I wanted from life. I had planned it down to a T, to the second, to the minutest detail imaginable. The reason for this, I guess, was that I’d been shown a very good example of how not to live—thanks to my dramatic mother. She was a theater actress of some fame and status, which was something she liked to remind everyone of…constantly. After she divorced my dad when I was six, I endured what could only be described as hell. We moved around frequently, from one play to the next, one rehearsal to the next, one man to the next. The musician, the actor, the director, the yoga teacher, the voice coach, and even some magician who turned out to be a criminal. When they locked him up, he vowed to escape, as “no handcuff could hold him.” To my knowledge he’s still there.

My mother had terrible taste in men. She was drawn to bad men like a hippie was drawn to tie-dyed T-shirts and world peace. She also had some rather terrible hobbies: drunken, scantily clad parties laced with cocaine were a regular occurrence. On many occasions, while on my way to school, I’d have to navigate my way through a sea of unconscious bodies lying limp and littered across our living floor. My dad finally won the custody battle when I was twelve, and that’s when everything changed for the better.

I moved into an ordered world of perfect symmetry and seamlessly structured routine. A beautiful, neat home with a stepmom who drove me to school and cheered me on at hockey practice and two older brothers who adored me. We took holidays twice a year to the same place, our beach cottage on the beautiful Natal Coast of South Africa, and ate the same meals on the same days of the week. My new life was predictable and I loved it. My “new” family took me under their wing as if I were a damaged little bird, which at the time I was.

I loved my new life so much that I vowed mine would be exactly the same. Everything would have its place and everything would fall in line with my plan.

Michael had been part of that plan:

Graduate top of my class, go to college, earn my degree, work at my dad’s auditing firm. Married by twenty-five (at the latest). First child by twenty-six. Two boys and two girls. Live in a double-story house in a leafy suburb not too far away from my family. Vacations at the cottage. Roast chicken on Sundays.


  • "Top Pick! Almost a Bride put a smile on my face more than once. The dialogue was witty, the words were well-written and the heroine was one-of-a-kind."—Harlequin Junkie
  • "Full of pure-joy romance, laugh-out-loud moments and tearjerkers, Burning Moon has it all."—RT Book Reviews

On Sale
Aug 2, 2016
Page Count
304 pages

Jo Watson

About the Author

Jo Watson is an award-winning writer of romantic comedies. Her novel Burning Moon won a Watty Award in 2014. Jo is an Adidas addict and a Depeche Mode devotee.

Learn more about this author