Michael Adams pulled his recently acquired truck into the red dirt on the side of the road and switched his phone to his other ear.
“Relax?” Howie’s voice spat through the receiver. “You want me to relax when Saskia is spreading ten different types of lie about you?”
“Saskia will burn herself out.”
“No, Mikey—Saskia will ruin your ass. You have got to get back here now before she causes real damage to your reputation.”
Reputation. Oh, man. When had he stopped caring about his goddamn reputation? Had it been last month when he’d finally told Saskia he’d wanted out? Or just last week when he’d blown off a live TV appearance in favor of flying first class, Vancouver to Cairns, with just his phone, wallet and passport?
“And, need I say, Mikey, your father is going apeshit. Ape. Shit.”
Michael snorted. If he didn’t want to hear about Saskia, he certainly didn’t want to hear about his father. Stepping out of the truck, he stretched his long legs and loosened up his left shoulder, stiff from the five-hour drive.
“Tell Dad I’m taking a break,” he said. His father had been managing his life since he was eight years old and as far as Michael was now concerned, he could go screw himself—just like he’d screwed Michael’s latest assistant. Maybe that’s when Michael had stopped caring about his reputation. The day he’d walked in on his father banging a twenty-five-year-old secretary over the kitchen counter—his kitchen counter. “Yeah, tell Dad I’m taking the vacation he promised me when I was twelve.”
“What the hell are you talking about? Mike, listen—”
But Mike didn’t want to listen. He hadn’t used his real name since last week, not since that shameful night in Port Douglas—an hour north of Cairns on the east coast of Australia—where he’d come to his senses. He called himself Adam now, and that’s who he was going to be while the media shitstorm raged back home, just some Canadian guy traveling around Australia in a rusty truck pleasing only himself. He hadn’t shaved for a while. Hadn’t showered either, which in this heat probably wasn’t the best idea, but with the odor and the grime came freedom from conformity and a new life ethos—if he didn’t need to or want to, he damn well wouldn’t.
As Adam, he swayed wherever the hot wind blew. He drifted with the tide. He slept under the stars, ate cold beans out of the can, and wasn’t controlled by other people’s plans and expectations.
Michael Adams was an Olympic swimming legend. Retired for over a year, he was a veteran of three Olympics and countless competitions in between. He’d brought his country glory. He’d broken world records. But the gold medals—and a bronze he didn’t want to think about—weren’t the reason he’d been mobbed by fans in Vancouver four months ago. And they weren’t the reason his privacy was constantly being violated. Nope. The real reason was his wife, Canada’s hottest glamour model, Saskia Williams.
He couldn’t blame Saskia for being angry over what he’d done—he could even understand it—but Michael wanted out of their fake marriage, no matter how lucrative the Strive Sportswear campaign and the Michael-and-Saskia brand, organized by dear old Dad and Howie. He wanted to be left alone. He needed to regroup. Sort out what he was going to do with his life, and more importantly, how he was going to do it.
So as Howie ranted about reputation and damage limitation, Michael leaned back against his rusty truck only too happy for a bum like Adam to take over. Adam didn’t give a shit about reputation and he didn’t give a shit about publicity either—good or bad.
“Are you on your way to see Shane McDermit?” Howie asked, boiling over with impatience.
“I haven’t seen Shane since his last Olympics.”
“He lives in Sydney.”
“Is that so?” Actually, his friend and former competition buddy lived 4000 kilometers northwest of Sydney in Fannie Bay, a suburb of Darwin in the Northern Territory, but wouldn’t be back home for another six weeks, not that Michael had known this when he’d boarded the first flight bound for Australia.
“Is Sydney where you’re heading, Mikey?”
“Great! Tell me exactly where you are, and I’ll book you a flight home. I’ll set up a press conference at the Vancouver Hotel.”
Michael pictured Howie pacing the waxed wooden floors of his home office in West Point Grey, one of the most affluent areas of Vancouver. Michael had helped pay for that house, for that office. He’d sat in it many times, but just the thought now of those oak-paneled walls had his chest heaving for air.
“And we’ll set the record straight about that fight with the paparazzi in Port Douglas,” Howie continued.
Michael looked to the cloudless sky. The record was that he’d had enough of cameras being shoved in his face. He’d had enough of being treated like public property.
“And, Mikey, we’ll show the world you haven’t had a nervous breakdown.”
A nervous breakdown?
“Is that what they’re calling this?” Michael choked out a laugh in disbelief and Howie went ballistic, shouting through the phone. But too bad—Michael wasn’t listening.
And neither was Adam.
“I’m hanging up now,” he said, hoping Howie had his pills and a glass of water at hand. He braced for the fallout, held his breath and forced out the words. “See ya in a few months.”
“A few months! Are you fucking crazy?”
Possibly. Quite likely.
Michael disconnected the call and let out a long, pent up breath. He was somewhere just outside of Broome, northern Western Australia, on a deserted coastal road lined with red earth and lush green mangroves. It was late October. A hot wind—so unlike the cold-laced currents that blew into Vancouver at this time of year—licked the side of his face. It dried the gathering sweat on the back of his neck, bringing something else to him. Something foreign and exciting. Something alive and expanding. He filled his lungs with sweet, dense air, the bright blue sky enticing him, the glittering ocean daring him. He’d broken the mold.
Yeah, he felt crazy.
But crazy sure felt good.
Five minutes later, Adam drove through the gates of the Camel’s Back Campground, past its sun-bleached, paint-peeled welcome sign and parked next to a row of trash bins. He turned off his engine and contemplated the handful of tents he saw scattered across the dry, dusty ground and the sole trailer perched up on bricks, nestled in a row of unruly bushes. Signs of life, but not many.
He slipped on his wraparound shades, grabbed his cap off the dashboard, and stepped out of the truck. The midmorning sun bore down on his air-conditioned skin, and he pulled the peak of his cap down to cast a shadow across his nose. The chances of being recognized here were slim, he was out of context—Saskia wasn’t a global star and he figured only sports mad fans would know of him—but after the fiasco in Port Douglas, he wasn’t taking any chances.
“Mate, you’ve got to stick to places people aren’t expecting to find you,” his friend Shane had said when he’d phoned the morning after he’d punched that dickhead pap. “You’re lucky not to be held for assault, you idiot. Mix with normal people and, for fuck’s sake, get your arse out of your wallet.”
Adam had stayed clear of luxury resorts ever since and was pretty sure he could buy this campground ten times over. He made his way to the open kiosk of a wooden hut above which hung a sign labeling it as the campground’s office. He stepped onto the veranda, timber slats creaking under his weight in the heat-muffled stillness, and read the torn piece of card propped up by a cup on the counter. Back in five minutes. Adam checked the chunky TAG Heuer strapped to his wrist—nearly half past ten—then looked again. Get your arse out of your wallet. He slipped the silver limited-edition watch off and tucked it into his pocket. He’d buy something more within Adam’s price range later.
He looked around and couldn’t see anyone—not even on the beach in the distance. He ambled the few paces to a bulletin board that was nailed to the side wall of the office and glanced at the ads while he waited.
Wanted: car-share to Perth. He’d just come that way and wasn’t going back. Two-man tent for sale. He had one of those. It came with the truck he was renting from Shane’s cousin, Ted—along with the promise that Ted would keep his mouth shut. Catalina flying boat wrecks of WW2. A guided low tide walk with George O’Sullivan. No thanks.
And then: Going to Darwin along the Gibb River Road? I’m looking for travel buddies to share costs and adventures.
Adam rubbed his chin. That’s the route he’d been thinking to take.
After the shame of Port Douglas, he’d flown to Perth where he was due to meet Ted and pick up the truck that Shane had arranged for him to borrow. When he’d arrived in the middle of the city, he’d walked into the Astoria, booked a week’s stay, then begged the reception staff to show him a back exit. He’d then walked several streets away to a cheap hostel and lay on a dorm bed for two days, mapping out the best route to Darwin while he waited for Cousin Ted to pick him up. Adam had read all about the rough, largely unsealed Gibb River Road which cut through the Kimberley region—a vast and remote area of north Western Australia that some still described as Australia’s last frontier. Adventure tourists flocked here in the cooler months of May to September, but at this time of year, with the heat soaring and the heavy monsoon-like rains threatening, the area returned to relative quiet.
It’s why he’d come this way.
A steady flip-flap of sandals hitting dry ground had Adam’s head lifting. A short woman in a floral dress carrying a large cardboard box approached, her bushy honey-colored head poking out to the side.
“Good morning.” Adam took three long strides toward her and lifted the box out of her arms. “Am I too early to check in?”
“No set time here, doll. Thanks.”
He followed her to the door of the office hut, setting the box down on the floor by her feet. When he straightened, the woman cranked her neck to take in his full height. Adam took a step back. He knew he didn’t smell too good, though judging from the woman’s wide smile, she hadn’t seemed to notice.
“Where’d you come from, handsome?”
“Port Hedland,” he said, then immediately wished he’d thought to give her the name of a town in the opposite direction. Derby or Fitzroy Crossing, perhaps. He’d seen them on the map.
The woman scooted around to the counter and perched a pair of narrow-framed reading glasses on her small nose. Adam searched her face for any signs of recognition and found none. His shoulders loosened.
“Heading along the Gibb River Road?”
“Ah . . . maybe.”
“If you want company, I know someone who’d like to head that way. Could share the cost of fuel and camp fees.”
“Thanks, I’ve just read the ad.” But he was too desperate for a wash and too hungry to think about it, or anything else, right now. He’d shower, eat and then conjure up a plan that consisted of more than just driving to Darwin to see Shane and his wife Krista. He had six weeks until they returned from Sydney where Shane was finishing up his latest contract teaching sports psychology. Six weeks to while away, waiting for the storm to die down. And if his lawyers were doing the job he was paying them to do, Saskia would be signing divorce papers by then too, and she’d be extracted from his life.
“She’s a nice girl.”
Eh? Saskia nice? Adam blinked. Realizing he hadn’t been paying attention, he hoped that whatever the woman was talking about didn’t require more of an answer than the simple “sure” he’d just given her. It didn’t seem to, so before she said anything else, he asked, “Where shall I pitch up?”
“Take your pick, doll, the season’s pretty much over.” The woman signaled to the almost empty campground. “Scribble your name and rego on that sheet over there. Come back and pay once you’re all set up.” She handed him a slip of paper. “This is for you to put on your dashboard, for what it’s worth. One of the best pitches is by the shower block. Great view of the bay.” She pointed to a square beige-colored building surrounded by spikey-leafed trees in bloom with bright pink flowers. Sea view or not, to Adam any place near a shower sounded great. He wrote down his information and stepped off the veranda.
But then the woman called him back. “Hold on a sec.”
Adam closed his eyes, gripped by the dread of what usually followed those words. You’re that guy! He took a deep breath, telling himself it was no big deal if she knew who he was. Really, not a problem. He had a cash-in-exchange-for-silence plan to deal with anyone who recognized him. He’d just pay her the thousand bucks he kept hidden in the truck—call it a fee for the use of her shower and discretion—then move on to the next town.
“Throw these in those bins over there, will ya please, chook?”
Adam stared at the empty cardboard boxes she passed through the kiosk.
“Sure.” He stepped back onto the veranda and grinned, thinking how he liked being called a chook by a woman who barely reached his ribs.
He liked being a doll, too, and he certainly liked how she turned her back on him, more concerned with the contents of her new delivery than the fact she had Michael Adams standing in her campground.
He was still grinning when he parked by the shower block. He grabbed his gel and towel, and stepped out of the truck. Man, this heat was intense. The air, thick and heavy like soup. He wiped the towel over his sweat-slicked face, desperate for cold water on his skin. But when he reached the shower block, a sign stood in his way.
Closed for cleaning.
No frickin’ way.
“Hello?” he called, but when no reply came back, he stepped inside, thinking what the hell? He stripped and stood under the shower, turning the dial full blast toward the blue arrow. He’d be thirty seconds, sixty tops—just long enough to feel something cold on his skin and wash away the three-day grime. By the time the cleaning guy returned, he’d be cooled off, semi-dressed and out.
Only the water wasn’t cold and the cleaning guy not a guy at all.
Adam wiped soapy water from his eyes and focused on the figure standing before him. The cleaning guy was a young woman with huge brown eyes and sun-streaked hair scraped back into a tight knot on the top of her head, just like his favorite aunt Florence used to wear. Except Aunt Flo’s hair was gray and looked like wire, and she’d never before stood outside his shower gawping at his naked penis—unlike this bug-eyed stranger.
“The showers are closed,” the woman said to his bare butt as he whipped around. Her accent was flat and clipped—British—like royalty, though looking over his shoulder he saw nothing regal about her. She was dressed in dark green shorts and a dirty light-blue vest, damp with patches of sweat or water, or both. White earphones dangled around her neck. He turned off the shower.
“Didn’t you notice the bright yellow sign? The cleaning bucket? The distinct lack of shower curtain?”
Well, he’d ignored the sign and bucket, obviously, and throughout his career, he’d been in plenty of changing rooms at top sporting venues around the world all boasting a distinct lack of shower curtain. Okay, they were all a lot nicer than this dump, but he’d never been in a place like this before so how would he know?
“If you’d be so kind as to pass me my towel, I’ll get out of your way.”
She handed it to him, finally lifting her gaze to his face. Her eyes narrowed. He narrowed his own back, already picturing the headlines.
EX-OLYMPIAN FOUND NAKED IN OUTBACK
“I’ve not seen you before,” she finally said. “Only paying clientele can use these showers. When did you check in?”
Close call. She hadn’t recognized him. Adam wrapped the towel around himself. “A few minutes ago.”
He waited for her to move to the side so he could step out of the cubicle, but she seemed too distracted by his chest to move. He watched, mildly amused, as her gaze trailed a slow journey south to where he’d tucked the towel low over his narrow hips. The corners of his mouth kicked up and he couldn’t help himself. He flexed his torso, bulging each of his intensely trained muscles.
“Like what you see, honey?”
“What? Oh, God! I’m so sorry.” Aunt Flo slapped both hands on her red cheeks and whirled round, and he couldn’t help but snicker.
“Yeah, funny guy,” she snapped in that dry tone only the British could pull off. “What would you do if you found a naked supermodel in the shower while you were trying to clean it?”
Actually, he’d had enough of supermodels, naked or clothed, and being compared to one himself, after the year he’d had, wiped the smile off his face. This body hadn’t come from vanity. It was the result of years of discipline, dedication, and hard, hard work. He snapped on his boxer shorts and stepped out of the cubicle. Aunt Flo faced him again, not looking so impressed now she no longer had a view of his penis.
Like most women, she barely reached his chest, but the lack of height didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. She tilted her chin up as if this alone would make up the shortfall. “You ignored the sign.”
“So shoot me.”
“If I had a gun I would.” She grabbed the rest of his clothes off the bench and pushed them at his damp chest. “Now please leave so I can finish up here.” She then shooed him to the door and shut it in his face.
Adam stared at the chipped and faded yellow paint inches from his nose. No one had ever shut a door in his face before.
A slow grin spread from ear to ear.
So this is how it feels to be like everyone else.
Want to read more? Get your copy here, or read on for the beginning of the next chapter as it would be nice for you to meet Evie…
Evelyn Blake pulled a glob of wet hair from the shower’s plughole and tried not to gag as an eggy waft of muck hit her nostrils. She plopped the matted mess into the black plastic bin beside her. There were better things to do after recovering from a severe bout of food poisoning, but the job paid cash in hand and came with free accommodation, and after months of traveling, staying put in one place and getting to know Lorraine, the campground’s owner, had helped to alleviate some of her homesickness. Even if it did mean dealing with shower sludge, hair balls, and illiterate Americans.
The sign had been up for God’s sake. Closed for cleaning. Evie groaned again, the residue of embarrassment clinging to her like wet hair, irritating and difficult to flick off.
She’d just walked in on an absolute Adonis in all his natural glory. It was his fault, of course, but—cringe, cringe, cringe—the smarmy prick had caught her staring.
Like what you see, honey?
Of course she had bloody liked what she’d seen. Who wouldn’t? Tall, lean, broad. He’d been a jug of ice-cold juice just out of her reach. A gorgeous, mouth-watering vision that had her gawping like she’d never before seen a naked man.
Well, she hadn’t. Not like that. And not that she’d seen many, really. Zac, her ex, had been the only man she’d seen in the buff in over a decade so no wonder this particular shower experience was all the more unsettling. A sculpted man with a perfect bum had been the last thing she’d expected to see when she’d walked back in with clean shower curtains.
Wow. That body. Was it even real?
The tips of her fingers tingled—positively itched—as she imagined how the muscles on his torso would feel under her touch, tracing the contours, up, down and along, over his taut pale skin. Zac had kept himself in shape, but never like that. He’d worked out a couple of times a week at the gym after work, had a hint of six pack abs when he stretched, but he was a mere mortal in the shadow of this Adonis, and the last time she’d seen Zac naked, he’d—
Evie stopped herself, her shoulders sagging as she let out a breath of air.
She didn’t want to think about Zac naked. She didn’t want to think about him at all, actually. Not since he’d written to her two days ago announcing the birth of his son only ten months after they’d split up.
She still couldn’t believe it, but no matter how many times she’d reread his email, the words had been the same. And in the tangle of her messy, enflamed emotions, she still hadn’t been able to decipher what hurt more. The fact that Zac had moved on so quickly? The fact that he had a baby and Evie didn’t? Or the fact that Zac—the man she had shared her life with for fifteen years, the man who’d been her best friend and her rock, the man she’d loved and who had loved her back—hadn’t mentioned one single fucking word about having a new girlfriend or that she was even pregnant.
There’d been no, “Hi Evie, I’ve met someone else.”And definitely no, “Remember how we tried for a baby, well, guess what? My new girlfriend Teagan and I managed it straight away. Hope you’re okay with that.”
He’d kept it all from her. He’d lied to her.
And he, of all people, knew how much she hated lies and liars.
Well, she’d tell Zac exactly what she thought of him. She’d tell him exactly how it made her feel to find out he’d betrayed their friendship, reducing their past to nothing, as if she herself were nothing. She grabbed the tile spray and scrubbed hard, mentally drafting the email she’d send him, until beads of sweat trickled down the side of her face. Stepping back, she wiped her brow with the back of her rubber-gloved hand, her heart beating furiously.
When would she learn?
She’d spent years dealing with the fallout the last time she’d faced up to a man who’d lied to her. Was that why she was taking Zac’s news so hard? Because his lies were so reminiscent of her father’s?
In denial that she should be such a Freudian cliché, she dropped the tile spray into the bucket with a clang and forced herself to think of something else. The naked guy helped, but not in the right way, so she thought of the beach instead, the glorious tropical sunshine, and about how she was ready to start traveling again now that she’d had a five week hiatus from the backpacking life. That bloody email from Zac was making her more determined now than ever to overcome her homesickness, forget all about booking an early return home, and just get back on the road. Onwards and upwards, as her mother, the unflappable Bernadette Blake would say. Tomorrow, Evie would be getting on a night bus to Darwin, and begin the next leg of her travels.
After hosing down the showers, Evie moved over to the sinks and caught her reflection as she wiped the toothpaste splattered mirror. She looked a complete mess. She glanced down at her dirty clothes, somehow dirtier and scruffier since they’d been seen by The Naked Adonis. She’d been wearing the same shorts and tops for months, so this fabulous cleaning outfit consisted of the oldest clothes she carried around in her backpack. She wouldn’t normally care, but recently the urge to wear all her other clothes—like the skinny jeans and heels she had stored in her mum’s attic—had been getting stronger and stronger.
Evie finished wiping the sinks and taps, mopped the floor then locked the cleaning kit in the cupboard. When she stepped out of the shower block, she saw The Naked Adonis straight away. He was standing next to an old chunky dust-stained truck studying a map he’d spread out over the bonnet. He was dressed now, wearing a cap and sunglasses, and a loose, long-sleeved rash top that, other than the hard line across his broad shoulders, hid the sculpted muscles she knew he had.
She wondered who he was, where he’d come from, and where he’d be heading. Was he traveling with friends? Most certainly a girlfriend. Men with a body like his always had girlfriends—ones made with long legs, concave stomachs and stuck-on boobs. Although . . . come to think of it, in clothes, he didn’t look so spectacular. His ill-fitting shorts sagged around the tight bum she’d just seen, and without the pecs and washboard abs on display, he looked . . . well, ordinary.
And she certainly wasn’t a fan of all that hair on his face. A sexy, can’t-be-bothered-to-shave stubble had its merits but full on facial hair? Evie didn’t like it. Young men with beards had been all the rage when she’d left England, but she much preferred a cleaner look on a man, especially in this climate. Her face itched just looking at it, and as if to prove her point, he lifted a hand and scratched his jaw—then he glanced up and caught her in the act of staring.
The instinct to move twitched her body but she held his gaze, her hot skin prickling with sweat and her own audacity as their eyes locked across the campground.
And then, completely unfazed, he looked away.
Her spirits sagged. What had she been expecting exactly? A smile? Some sort of wave as an invitation to walk over and start up a conversation? Deflated and annoyed with herself, she slunk off to the office in search of Lorraine.