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By Lia Riley
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It was only meant to last the summer . . .
Talia Stolfi has seen more than her share of loss in her twenty-one years. But then fate brought her Bran Lockhart, and her dark world was suddenly and spectacularly illuminated. So if being with Bran means leaving her colorless SoCal life for rugged and wild Australia, then that’s what she’ll do. But as much as Talia longs to give herself over completely to a new beginning, the fears of her past are still lurking in the shadows.
Bran Lockhart knows that living without the beautiful girl who stole his heart will be torment, so he’ll take whatever time with her he can. But even though she has packed up her life in California and is back in his arms for the time being, she can’t stay forever. And the remaining time they have together is ticking by way too fast. Though fate seems determined to tear them apart, they won’t give up without a fight-because while time may have limits, their love is infinite . . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of Inside Out
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Our California bungalow sits empty, a headstone for a ghost family. The rooms are tomb quiet, devoid of any comforting, familiar clutter. All our stuff, tangible proof the Stolfi family once existed, rots in a long-term storage unit. When the movers hauled off the last cardboard boxes, they took more than precious memories. They snatched my breadcrumb trail. The last stupid, irrational hope that Mom, Dad, and I could somehow find a way back together.
These bare walls reflect the stark truth. We're over. My family's done. A cashed-up Silicon Valley couple craving a beach town escape will snag the house by the weekend.
I pause near the front window and chew the inside of my cheek. Dad's Realtor drives a FOR SALE sign into the front yard. The invisible dumbbell lodged in my sternum increases in weight with every hammer strike. Seriously? Do I need to witness this final nail in the coffin?
If fate exists, she's one evil bitch.
I turn and trace my finger over the hip-high door leading to the under-the-stairs closet. Inside is the crawl space where my older sister, Pippa, and I once played castle. Now I'm the only one left, a princess with a broken crown, my home a shattered kingdom.
Pippa is gone. The result of a stupid, preventable car accident followed by a grueling year where she lay suspended in a vegetative half-life while Dad, Mom, and I clung to a single, destructive lie: She will get better.
I learned my lesson. Things don't always work out for the best. False hope destroys quicker than despair.
Mom checked out, filed for divorce, and hides in her parents' Hawaiian compound where she dabbles in New Age quackery while nursing a discreet alcohol addiction. Dad recently crawled from the rubble, brushed clear the cobwebs, and returned to the business of life. He quit his cushy job with the U.S. Geological Survey and hit the road on his own midlife escapade, giving expedition cruise ship lectures.
The day we turned off Pippa's life support, our family died with her.
Terrible things happen if I allow myself to key up.
Come on—in and out. Good girl.
Better to say that Mom, Dad, and I stumbled to the other side, battered like characters at the end of a cheesy post-apocalyptic flick. I wouldn't go so far as to say life is easy but there's less falling shrapnel. These days, when I brave a glance to the horizon, the coast is actually clear—or maybe I'm just kidding myself.
I check my watch—still no sign of Sunny or Beth. I love my girls, hard. They rallied, stepped up, and closed ranks when I crawled home from Australia in June, heartsick and dazed from the fallout with one Brandon Lockhart. Even after Bran flew in unannounced to commence the world's most epic grovel, they remain suspicious.
My heart kicks into fifth gear, like it always does, responding to the mere thought of his name. Tingles zing through my spine as I cover my mouth to hide my secret smile. Tonight, at 31,000 feet, I'll cross the International Date Line. Bran waits for me in Tomorrowland. Here's my golden opportunity to rebuild a life nearly torn from the hinges by stupid fucking obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I'm getting better and I'll only grow stronger. The next few months are organized around two major goals: (1) Give Bran every ounce of my giddy, dizzy love and (2) finish my senior thesis and graduate. My UCSC advisor approved my oral history project and a professor at the University of Tasmania agreed to supervise. Once that baby's done and dusted, our future waits, ready to shine.
"Everything's going to be okay," I whisper to Pippa, as if she's listening.
Either way, the words taste sweet.
"Knock, knock. Hey, who's the creeper out front?" Sunny breezes into the hollow void, once upon a time a disorderly foyer brimming with Dad's surfboards. She stops short and stares. "Holy demolition, Batman."
"Your house!" Beth enters half a step behind and slides up her Ray-Bans. "You doing okay?"
"Yeah, I guess so." My throat squeezes, making the next words difficult. "Looks pretty crazy, though, right?" Change, even for the best reasons, is still effing scary. I'm a California girl, born and raised in Santa Cruz, except for last year's roller-coaster study abroad. When I cruise around town, people here know my name.
And all the hoary, gory details of my family's slow disintegration.
In Australia, any personal details I share will be of my choosing. There's a certain freedom in anonymity. How many people are given a blank canvas, the chance to paint a whole new life alongside the guy who rocks their world?
"Earth to Talia." Sunny waves an ink-stained hand in front of my face. "Want your good-bye gift?"
Beth rolls her eyes. "You're not really giving that to her, are you?"
"Shut your face." Sunny thrusts me a small wrapped package. "It's hilarious. Talia will appreciate it. She has a sense of humor."
"Careful," Beth stage whispers, nudging my hip. "Someone's a little edgy this morning. Last night, Bodhi tried to define their relationship."
"Ruh-roh. Not the DTR!" I rip the present's paper along the seam. Bodhi, Sunny's current booty call, works as a diver on an abalone farm north of town. "Isn't that a strictly friends with benefits arrangement?"
"Not even." Sunny readjusts her infinity scarf, brows knit in annoyance. "Friendship implies the capacity for rudimentary conversation. Bodhi sports lickable biceps—no doubt—but that guy's one fry short of a Happy Meal. He's hump buddy material, pure and simple."
"Was he crushed?"
"Like a grape. He cried into his can of Natty Ice."
"Poor guy, don't mock him." Beth is a whopping whole year older and seems to find life purpose in playing the mature, responsible role. Pippa used to be the exact same way.
When our trio was a foursome.
"He made me hitch home at three a.m. I swear, I'm taking a guy break for a while." Sunny opens her baby blues extra wide as if to prove she really means this oft-repeated phrase.
"Yeah, right, until when? Next Tuesday?" Beth fires back.
These two bicker worse than an old married couple. But Beth has a point. Sunny breaks hearts up and down the coast. You could almost call it a hobby.
I crumple the wrapping paper into my fist. "Seriously?" Sunny's gift swings between my two fingers—a chef's apron with BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT embroidered across the chest. "Um, thanks?"
She giggles wickedly. "That's my prediction for you. By Christmas. Spring at the latest. Except you better add getting married into the equation. I don't want my pseudo-niece or nephew born into sin."
"Riiight, because living with a guy automatically translates into marriage and babies these days. Guys, I'm moving to Australia, not the 1950s."
My friends swap suspicious expressions. After we broke up, Bran flew to California in early July and begged for a second chance. I accepted and the subsequent week devolved into wild beach sex and mad plotting for our future. Beth and Sunny only caught glimpses of the guy who'd wrecking-balled my heart. They remain guarded, like two mother lionesses.
An adorable act if they weren't so annoying.
"Come on, living with a guy is a normal next step."
"Nothing about the Bran Situation is remotely normal," Sunny mutters.
Beth nods in rare agreement.
"I've always wanted to travel, haven't I?" I stuff the stupid apron into my duffel bag.
"This is hardly the Peace Corps." Beth throws my old dream in my face. The one I had before Pippa's accident, before my brains decided to double down on the crazy.
"Forget it." Sunny jumps to my defense and tosses a loose auburn wave over one shoulder. "I just need to get a grip… still can't believe you're leaving."
I force a smile. "You guys have so much going on you won't even notice I'm gone."
Beth's lined up a PR internship over the hill in Silicon Valley, and postgraduation Sunny is… well, the usual Sunny—cashiering at a natural foods store, never finishing her graphic novels, and hunting down her next conquest like a top predator on the African savannah. I hope my smile overrules the fizzy nervousness in my belly. "Don't forget, my visa is only for four months."
"So you keep saying." Beth hasn't dropped the concerned frown. "What comes after? Have you worked out a plan?"
"No, not exactly." I roll my shoulders. If there's one thing I hate in life, it's uncertainty. "Bran says we'll figure things out once I'm there. We have until December thirty-first to wrangle a solution."
The drop-dead date.
"And, what, he's some sort of immigration wizard?" Typical Beth, pushing to ensure every i is dotted, t crossed.
"Play nice." I sling my arm around her, getting perverse satisfaction from knuckle-mussing her perfectly straightened hair. "He's nervous enough that I might get cold feet and reconsider coming."
"Oh, you'll be coming, friend. Won't she, Bethanny?" Sunny can't resist the opportunity to tickle our girl.
"Get fucked, bitches." Beth squeals, breaking free. She's a gym rat, way stronger than she looks. "What are you guys, five-year-olds?"
"Don't be a poop."
Sunny's pouty descriptor rips startled laughter from my chest.
Beth is almost freakishly beautiful. She rocks her lululemon yoga wear better than a movie starlet. And right now she's not amused. "Sunny Letman, we've known each other since we were, what, zygotes?"
"At least embryos," I toss in my two cents through a giggle. We've been pals since our mothers introduced us in nursery co-op. Sunny and I drew the short straws, mothers who failed their daughters. Mine is lost in a fog of tropical denial while Sunny's mom shacks in a Nevada desert bunker with a wackadoo prepper awaiting Armageddon.
"Maybe it's time to grow up." Beth can front prim all she wants. But underneath that perfect ice-queen exterior, she's a weirdo too.
"Her first." I slap Sunny's butt.
Her response is an awkward twerk that cracks us all up.
I'm going to miss these two.
"Anyhoo." Sunny folds her arms and leans against the banister. "Can I please point out that you're committing a drastic error?"
"Call off the attack dogs, okay?" I say. "You guys really don't know him."
"Whoa, settle down, Miss Defensive. I'm talking about you bailing before October. The best time of year."
"Our time," Beth adds.
"Hmmm. You have a point." October is fantastic in Santa Cruz. The tourists vanish and each morning we wake to perfect bluebird skies, followed by afternoons warm enough for bikinis. The gloomy fog-locked summer retreats into a distant memory as the entire town descends to the beaches, surf breaks, and bike paths, reveling in the coastal goodness. "Still not enough to change my mind."
I love my girls but Bran is the only person with whom I've ever fully been myself. He noticed my OCD symptoms after five minutes and didn't laugh or run away screaming. Sunny and Beth might be my two best friends but even they don't know the real reason I didn't graduate on time. How my rituals and health anxiety spiraled so far out of control that I was placed on academic probation. Even now, I can't bring myself to tell them the truth. The awful facts are beyond embarrassing. Easier that they accepted my simple explanation that I "messed up." I mean, who challenges the dead girl's sister?
Bran's the only one who doesn't tiptoe on eggshells. He treats me like I've got strength, makes me believe I can face life.
Beth checks her phone. "Hey, we need to jet."
"That's all you're bringing?" Sunny points to my backpack and duffel bag.
"Shut your face. Two bags?" She's a notorious pack rat, hovering on needing a hoarder intervention. Last week, I unearthed third-grade spelling tests from under her bed.
"I decided to pack Zen, practice unattachment."
"Uh-huh." Beth's not having it.
"Do I sound like my mom?"
I cave. "Truth? Extra bag charges are a rip."
"Aha, there's the tight-ass girl I know." Sunny grabs my backpack.
"And love." Beth lifts the duffel.
"Oh wait." I grab a small moleskin journal from the stairs and unzip my backpack's top zipper, stowing the journal. The pages chronicle random happenings, unusual incidents, and amusing stories from while Bran and I were apart. Things I forgot to mention during our messenger chats or phone calls. I miss his voice, that surly accent, whispering to me in the dark. My nightly record-keeping allowed me to play make-believe, pretend Bran was nestled on the pillow beside me. The ritual became a precaution against the what-ifs slithering around the edge of my thoughts, ever vigilant, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
What if Bran meets someone else?
What if I say something so stupid he has no choice but to accept I'm an idiot? What if he decides I'm a freak? Okay, fine, he's never given cause for these thoughts, but what-ifs and worst-case scenarios are routine in my world. My brain is hardwired for catastrophic thinking.
Evil thoughts can go suck it.
My friends head out the front door and I need to follow suit.
"Are you okay to lock up?" I call to the Realtor.
"That's my job." Somewhere a tooth-whitening ad wants its smarmy smile back.
"Lucky you," I mutter under my breath while stomping down the front steps.
I shouldn't turn around. Or look at the dormer window where Pippa and I shared a room for nearly two decades. But I do. And I can't hold back the sudden tears.
Sunny pauses to rub my back, saying nothing. If she had her way, I'd cry every morning before breakfast. She thinks it's good for my soul. I find the whole enterprise draining and messy but better than the alternative—becoming an emotionless robot that shuts out the good along with the bad.
I had a great last summer, more or less. Now Bran waits to catch me at the bottom of the world.
"Going anyplace fun?" The Realtor wipes his forehead, perving on Sunny and Beth as they toss my two bags into Sunny's black Tacoma, the Batmobile. The gnarly old truck is a random vehicle choice for a fresh-faced redhead with a penchant for fairy tales.
Two pelicans crisscross overhead. In the distance, sea lions bark beneath the wharf, the site where I made the worst decision of my life.
Fuck clutching breadcrumbs.
Time to let go.
Embrace the art of getting lost.
What can go wrong, as long as I keep heading in the right direction?
The Realtor shifts his weight.
"Yeah," I say after an overlong pause. "I'm going somewhere great."
I unlock my office door and trip over Karma's splayed legs. The fluorescent lights, detecting motion, glare on and he uncurls from a fetal position, lips smacking. Graduate student workstations are at a premium, so we're forced to double. I'm the only guy whose office mate never goes home. Karma studies tree hollow habitat in old growth forests, and lives under his desk to expand his beer and weed budget.
"G'day to you too." I sit down and fire up my machine.
"Bloody hell, what's the time?" Karma emerges, hikes up a pair of saggy corduroy shorts, and resets his ever-present fedora.
"Weasel and I cruised a benefit show at the New Republic." A popular bar in North Hobart.
"Ace, mate. We raged until two. I'd have invited your punk ass but you were flat out getting shit ready for the American woman." Karma fists an imaginary microphone and belts the last two words like it's that song with the same title.
He leans over my shoulder, inspecting the photograph of Talia on my desk, taken during our hike at Cradle Mountain. The trip where I asked her to be my girl, and she said yes. She's looking back over one shoulder, laughing at an inside joke, blond hair glossy in the late-afternoon sun. She glows, and I put that light in there. My throat grows thick—this shot helps me survive each mundane day.
I'm the luckiest bastard on the planet getting this girl's love.
Karma rubs the air like he's whacking off. "Your chick's got fantastic tits. No surprise why you're pussy-whipped."
I stand so fast my chair tips over. "There's this thing called a line? You fucking crossed it two sentences ago."
Karma throws his hands up. He's got a few inches on me but I'm not jerking around and he knows it.
"Duly noted, dude. No talk of girlfriend. Makes Hulk angry." He aims his thumb toward the open door. "Gonna go grab a juice. I'm dry as a nun's nasty this morning. Want one?"
"Nah. I'm good." I right my seat. "Got loads to do." Honors is a specialized year of study—in my case, modeling Antarctic ice-sheet response to climate change. At the end a thesis is created, written in heart's blood. I arrive on campus by eight most mornings, not biking home until after ten at night.
I tried to get ahead in my work before Talia's arrival tonight, but I'm barely above water. My fantasy Tasmanian outdoor lifestyle, with after-work surfs and cruisy weekend bushwalks, yeah that's not happening. I'm twenty-three and a desk jockey.
I glance up. Karma's got one hand on the doorknob while the other scratches down his pants. "I almost forgot—"
"Dude, don't spread your dick juice around here."
He grins. "Asshole."
Karma and I have an odd friendship but it works, mostly. As long as his filthy mouth doesn't form a syllable of Talia's name.
I shove on my headphones, a signal not to bother me unless a zombie apocalypse threatens the Geography and Environmental Studies building.
"Guess you don't want to hear how my mate got accepted as crew with the Sea Alliance. They ship out in December."
Okay, he's got my attention. "No shit? That's sick." The Sea Alliance is a marine conservation organization that uses direct-action tactics to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas. The International Whaling Commission enacted a moratorium on all commercial whaling without any enforcement capacity. Since then, over 25,000 whales have been slaughtered under the guise of scientific research. The Sea Alliance might take the law into their own hands, but they draw attention to the crisis and make a real difference.
Which is more than I can say about most of us.
"He says there's a few spots open. What do you say? Still keen to freeze your nuts off down south?"
Antarctica has haunted my dreams since I was a kid. The place at the end of the horizon—a true last frontier. Down there, shit's the real deal. A chance to discover what you're made of.
"I'll ask him to put in a good word."
But I have Talia. Honors. I slump my shoulders and grind my eyes. There's no time for chasing pipe dreams. Too much happening. Good things. Bloody important stuff. Life's about negotiation, knowing when to compromise.
I sound like Dad.
"Timing sucks, dude."
"What? Your chick's got your nuts on lockdown?"
My stomach hardens. "Don't go there."
"Hey, I named no names." Karma shrugs. "I'm adhering to the agreement—our office code, if you will."
"The honors gets dibs on my soul until March. And fuck yeah, I want to be with my girl."
"Postpone honors—your supervisor's cool. What about She-Who-Can't-Be-Named?"
Talia would no doubt support me pursuing my dream but I reject the idea of long-distance relationships. My first love dissolved into an intercontinental affair and annihilated my heart. No second chances. Talia and I are staying together. I'm not going to blow this shot.
"Thanks for the offer. But I'm good."
"Yeah." Karma scans my desk, which is buried in academic journals, scrawled notes, and shriveled apple cores. "Living the dream."
I complete another tour around the baggage carousel and recheck the time. Hobart International Airport needs to review its name. The last overseas flights were canceled years ago.
The wall clock taunts me. Surely more than three minutes have elapsed since the last time I checked. The distant engine drone cuts through the terminal chatter, growing steadily louder. My scalp prickles. God, I despise air travel. Only a few more minutes and she'll be safe on the ground, here in Tasmania, crossing the tarmac. Breath bottles in my chest. I rub my palms on my jeans and pull down my hat.
A thousand images strike my brain like sudden lightning. Her sexy lips quirking when she's privately amused or ragging on me. Those bright eyes and wild hand gesticulations. The way my whole body simultaneously revs and calms from her touch.
Muscles fire down my body's length, concentrating a heated flare in one particular region.
Fucking hell, I'm nervous.
A typical bogan, red-faced and outfitted in a faded rugby shirt, jostles against me beside the arrival door. He fails to subdue the supersize rose bouquet exploding out of his beefy arms. "How ya goin', mate?" he asks with a proud shrug, proceeding to mistake my aggravation for polite interest. "Got to treat the missus right, 'ey?"
I avoid humoring this blokey conversation by giving a curt nod.
Talia isn't expecting flowers, is she?
The thought never occurred to me. I yank a retractable pen from my back pocket and click the button.
Tick, tick, tick.
The bogan peers through the lifeless blooms; his thick lips frown in my direction.
Tick, tick, tick.
Never understood the big attraction in giving a girl dead blossoms as a symbol of affection.
Tick, tick, tick.
The bogan grumbles under his breath and moves away.
I can't help irritating dudes like him. It's a gift.
Outside the terminal, a thunderous engine roar signals touchdown. The din dials to a high whining hum as the plane taxis. It's been two months since I flew halfway around the world and begged Talia for a second chance. Despite everything, a miracle happened. She took my dumb ass back. I wondered if she'd wise up, reconsider. Moving to Australia is a big deal. Takes effort, commitment. Would have been easy to back out.
Will she ever know—truly grasp—that I died a little every day waiting for her?
The first passengers trickle in, becoming a flood. I dismiss the unknown faces.
You don't matter.
Don't care about you either.
Or you, love. Shuffle along.
The crowd shifts.
Familiar copper eyes lock with mine and doubt evaporates. In three steps—four if you count me sidestepping the human rosebush—Talia is in my arms.
"Hey, you," she whispers.
I spin her around and the whole world blurs like a piece of abstract art, our lips the only concrete entities. She tastes exactly the same—warm, salty, with a hint of mint. This is a kiss of victory. Talia and I, we pulled off an impossible stunt.
My hands slide up her back. There's a keyhole opening in the fabric between her shoulder blades. Her skin is satin smooth and she smells subtly delicious, like toffee. Our tongues entwine and my mind flatlines. Her body is holy ground. Our kiss a prayer. This girl is my own personal religion.
"Mmmm. Looks like someone's happy to see me." She does this little hip shimmy grind against my quick-fire erection.
I clear my throat, ears heating. "Maybe a little. How was the flight?"
"Long. They had those movie screen thingies on the seat backs. I tried falling asleep rewatching Armageddon but ended in a cry-a-thon somewhere over Polynesia." She stretches and muffles a yawn. Her shirt slips to reveal a perfectly curving hip.
"Get back here." I can't stop touching her, not for a second.
"That's pathetic, right?" She nestles into my arms. "I fell apart over Bruce Willis blowing himself up on an asteroid. We're talking the big, ugly tears. So not attractive."
"Whatever you say, Captain. You're beyond beautiful." That's no exaggeration. I drink her in, from that sleepy-eyed grin to the little skirt sporting a fantastic skin-to-fabric ratio. Kilimanjaro? Machu Picchu? Grand Canyon? Screw them all. I could happily watch her, and only her, forever.
"Wow." She draws a finger over my chest in the shape of a heart. "Nice kittens, hipster." Two cavort on my T-shirt.
"Since when is it a crime to fancy pussies?"
Her eye roll is perfectly executed even as she clutches my hand for dear life.
"Steady, don't test my gangsta, sweetheart." I swirl my tongue around her earlobe in the way she loves. "I'm no one to be trifled with."
I'm addicted to her startled gasps. Their memory has been my constant companion these dreary months. I'm about to cry like a total wanker. I screw my eyes shut and try to ride through the overload. I planned to play this reunion a little cooler.
Something bashes the back of my head and knocks off my hat. The big bogan's wife wacked me with that ridiculous greenhouse as she hustled by, beaming like she'd taken hold of an Olympic torch.
"Whoa." Talia freezes.
"I know, why buy one rose when twelve hundred will do?" I tap my heels against the floor and fight to regain equilibrium.
"I'm talking about your hair." She stares at the top of my head, lips parted. "Where'd it go?"
"Oh, that." I pass my hand over my cropped scalp. "Got too long."
"Makes you look different." Twin creases appear between her brows.
"That bad?" Crap. Have I put off my girl before we've even left the terminal?
My heart needs sunglasses to withstand her megawatt smile.
"Like you don't know how hot you look." She tilts her head in careful study. "Seriously, H.O.T."
"Well, all good, then." I fist my fallen hat.
"What's this? Mr. Self-Assured blushes? Quick, call the papers."
Self-assured? Hardly. This girl has an all-access pass to my soft underbelly.
"So can I stroke the new do or what?"
"Stroke me anywhere." I want to bite her amused pout. "Anytime."
She crowns my head with her hands and rubs lazy circles. "Oh yes. Me likey."
This isn't helping the situation in my pants. "Um, Talia?"
- On Sale
- Jun 30, 2015
- Page Count
- 320 pages