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ISLAND SOULS

NOVELLA



Suzanne Cass

Copyright © 2017 Suzanne Cass

All rights reserved.

The right of Suzanne Cass to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without permission in writing from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organisations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Suzanne Cass researched reality television to write this book, it in no way represents their framework or how these shows are conducted. All events in this book are a figment of her imagination.

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Cover Photo by Ishan@seefromthesky



Contents


Title Page

Copyright

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

About Island Redemption

About the Author




CHAPTER ONE



‘Congratulations, Rosa, you made it through. You’re now one of the eighteen contestants chosen to play Sea Quest.’ JJ extended his hand towards the diminutive woman sitting in the armchair in front of him.

‘Really?’ she squealed as she leapt up and ran across the large hotel room towards him. ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ She bypassed his outstretched hand and landed against his chest with a thud, wrapping her arms around his waist, still squealing like a girl. What in hell did she think she was doing? He stood stiff as a board, gaze directed over the top of her head.

No one hugged him.

Except his kids, perhaps. She was so tiny against his large frame. The top of her head only came to the middle of his chest. If he did actually return her hug he’d probably break one of her birdlike bones.

She didn’t let him go, however. Instead her grip tightened, her muffled voice sounded out from inside the fabric of his black t-shirt.

‘You don’t know what this means to me. I can’t thank you enough.’

He didn’t reply, waiting her out. Jesus, please let her not be crying. That was the last thing he needed, a hysterical woman.

He caught a whiff of her hair. It was citrusy, like a newly peeled grapefruit. A fresh, clean, joyful smell. Her short, dark hair stood up like a halo around her head, reminding him of a pixie. The smell was so alive, conjuring a memory … His mum’s lemon sponge cake.

He tried to stop breathing.

She needed to let him go. Was this woman ever going to get the message? Still, he kept his professional composure in place, many years of practice helped keep him impassive.

JJ stifled a sigh. Maybe he should stop this tradition of one-on-ones with each of the chosen candidates. As the compare of the hit TV show, Sea Quest, he liked to be the one to tell each contestant they’d been successful. To gauge their reaction, learn as much about them as he could before they were sent to the island. Information was power. He’d use that power to keep one step ahead as they tried to destroy each other in their race to win the million dollars.

He was used to having to deal with at least one weeping woman each season. But this season, his sixth with the show, had more than its fair share of emotional entrants. The previous contestant had got down on his knees when he’d been told the good news—it looked like he may even kiss JJ’s shoes or something equally ridiculous—until he’d intervened and requested the man stand up. These people were all supposed to have passed a stringent psych exam, to make sure they weren’t going to crack under the pressure of surviving on a deserted island for over a month with little food, primitive shelter and absolutely no luxuries. Maybe he should have a word to Matt in the psych team, just to make sure these people really were as stable as they should be. These last batch of contestants were pushing the boundaries of sane and rational more than usual.

Rosa finally withdrew her head from his chest, but her body remained firmly pressed against his as she looked up into his face. He had to grit his teeth together and fight the urge to take her by the shoulders and push her away from him. What did she want now?

He lowered his gaze to meet hers and looked into intriguing brown eyes. Light brown, the colour of tannin stained pools, swirling in a mountain-fed stream. Eyes that speared him with their sharp intelligence and stark beauty. Something in his chest quivered. Something that’d come to life after many years spent in a cage. As if she’d slipped a knife between his ribs when he wasn’t looking and the tip had pierced his heart.

What the hell?

This woman couldn’t be having an effect on him. Rule number one; never, ever fraternise with the contestants on the show. And he never, ever broke that rule.

Besides, he was a very large black man. She was a pint-sized white woman.

Finally she let him go and took a step backwards. He let out a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding.

‘I won’t let you down.’ She held his gaze with her own steady one. What? What was she talking about? ‘I’ll prove your choice was a good one. I’m determined to win this game.’

Looking at the small-statured lady in front of him, it should be laughable that she thought she had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this show. The other, larger, stronger, meaner contestants were going to eat her for breakfast.

But something stopped him. Something more than just his impassive professionalism. Perhaps it was the determined glint in her eyes; the way she stood, unafraid of him, shoulders squared, lithe body relaxed but also at the ready. As if there really was a hidden core of steel inside her.

‘I know you probably want to laugh in my face right now,’ she said. Was she a mind reader? ‘But, I promise, whatever you’re thinking about me, you’re wrong.’ She gave him a brilliant smile, one that ignited her face as if a light had been turned on deep inside her. His normally solemn lips twitched in reaction and he had to cough to cover the half-smile. Rule number two; never let a contestant break through his veneer, see what he was really thinking. Again, more power to him.

‘I have a lot of surprises up my sleeve, you just wait and see,’ she said with a cheeky lift of her dark eyebrow.

‘I’m sure that’s true,’ he finally replied. Rosalie Marie Avelino. He’d read her file. Knew she had a black belt in karate, a Nidan, or second level black belt. Not an easy level to achieve and she still practiced religiously. She’d also run the Boston marathon last year. Both impressive feats, and both things her fellow contestants would be surprised to find out about her. But he was here to delve a little deeper, to try and find out what made her tick. To decide for himself whether she had it in her to actually win this thing, as she’d promised him so fervently she’d do.

‘Come and sit down, Rosa.’ JJ indicated a small table and chairs nestled up against a large picture window. The view from this room was spectacular. Twenty-three stories up in one of the flashiest hotels in the city, it showed off the sights of Los Angeles to their best advantage.

‘Would you like a drink?’ He started filling two glasses from a water-beaded carafe without waiting for her to answer.

Removing his trademark black fedora hat, he placed it on the table and ran a hand over his shaved head. Rosa followed him over to the table and took a seat, staring at him expectantly, energy radiating from her.

She wore tan-coloured capris and a purple sleeveless top with a peace logo emblazoned on the front. Casual, an easy-wearing outfit. But he’d noticed the way her capris hugged her slim hips, they way the skin of her tanned shoulders looked soft and touchable.

Bringing the glass of water up to his lips, he took a big slug of the ice-cold liquid.

‘I like to get to know my contestants a little better before you all go off to be marooned.’ He put the glass carefully back onto a coaster. She nodded, but kept silent.

‘I was hoping you’d tell me about your time at college. More specifically, the incident that changed your life.’ Rosa’s brown eyes widened and her chair scraped across the wooden floor as she pushed it backwards.

‘Excuse me?’ She was shocked, and rightly so, but he wasn’t going to apologise. His job was to delve straight to the heart of people. Rosa wasn’t going to be any exception. If he hurt her, so be it. That wasn’t his concern. He wanted to know what made his contestants tick, what events shaped them, what drove them to be here, at this point in their lives. Playing his game.




CHAPTER TWO



Rosa stood up and stared at JJ. Who the hell did he think he was? He had no right to ask about that. This wasn’t what she signed up for. He was supposed to be having a friendly chat with her, not asking her the most personal question of her life. Opening old wounds.

She paced towards the armchair she’d been sitting in only minutes ago, then turned and made her way back towards the large black man who sat at the table. Waiting for her to speak.

Her breaths had become shallow, rapid. She needed to get that under control. Her training kicked in almost instinctively, and she took a deep breath in through her nose, releasing it slowly out through her mouth. And then again. She paced another round to the chair and back, which gave her the time she needed to restore her inner calm, bring her breathing back to normal. Surprisingly, JJ still hadn’t said anything. For which she gave him grudging respect.

Fine. If that’s what he wanted, then that’s what he’d get.

‘Alright, I’ll play your game,’ she said and stopped directly in front of him, hands on hips.

‘I’m not playing any game, Rosa, I’m just—’

‘Yes you are, JJ. You and I both know it.’ She conjured up one of her mischievous smiles for him. If he could put up a fake facade then so could she. And she wasn’t one to let anything or anyone get her down for long. He wouldn’t defeat her. Two could play at this.

‘I’ll answer your question,’ she said, still staring at him. ‘But only if you agree to answer one of mine.’ There was a long silence as he digested her counter move. He was very tall. Even with him sitting in a chair and her standing, he almost looked her directly in the eye. He was a glorious specimen of a man. He’d been a Navy SEAL at one time, before he’d made his mark in the reality TV world. And boy, did he have the muscles to show from it. His biceps were easily as large as one of her legs. More muscles rippled in his forearm, beneath chocolate-coloured skin that glowed in the afternoon sunlight filtering in from the window. Something tingled deep in her belly as she let her gaze rove over him.

‘Normally, I wouldn’t agree to a demand like that,’ he replied slowly, voice deep and gravelly. It sent shivers down her spine. Hearing his voice in real life was a hundred times better than she’d imagined. Much better than seeing him on TV. There was a smooth quality to his tone, like honey running over buttered toast.

‘But I’ll make an exception, just this once.’ She’d half been expecting him to say no and end the interview. Interesting. Now he just sat there and watched her with those dark, shuttered eyes. What she wouldn’t give to know what was going on behind them right now. He was always so composed and restrained on the show. Demanding respect and keeping authority over the contestants with his steely persona. But there was a lot more going on inside that head, she just knew it.

‘Good. I’ll answer you first then,’ she said without preamble. ‘I was raped while I was in college.’ She watched those eyes for a response. Not even a flicker. He was a cool customer. He hadn’t moved when she’d hugged him either, but she’d felt it. Felt him twitch somewhere deep inside.

‘I was nineteen, a freshman. I was walking back to my dorm on campus after studying late at the library.’ She turned for another round of pacing, finding it hard to keep still under JJ’s inscrutable stare. He must already know all this about her. Even a man with his legendary control should’ve at least blinked at her revelation otherwise. She was sure they had a huge file of information on her tucked away in some producer’s office somewhere.

‘I was way too naive and trusting back then. My mum used to say I needed to be more circumspect, that people didn’t always have the best of intentions.’ She stopped her pacing and took a step towards the huge window. The view from here was amazing. This was the first—and probably the last—time she’d ever been in a hotel room this luxurious.

‘And yes, I was a changed person after that man raped me. I became more like my mother. More circumspect. Less trusting. Less open to the wonder of the world. Which is sad, I think. I liked being that optimistic young girl with a whole multitude of options in front of me.’

‘That must’ve been hard for you, Rosa.’ Was that solicitude she heard in his voice? ‘A hard thing to learn,’ he continued. ‘I’m sorry it affected you that way.’

‘Well don’t be. Don’t misunderstand me, JJ,’ she said tartly. He was just the same as everyone else, they got so caught up on the fact she’d been raped, they didn’t see the good that’d come out of the act. ‘Just because a basic part of me changed forever, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first thing I did after that man raped me was enrol in karate classes. I was never going to be taken advantage of ever again. I took back my self-respect, my control, in a big way. I’m now a much stronger, more resilient person than I was back then.’

JJ nodded, a thoughtful look in his eye. ‘I see. Thank you for telling me that, Rosa. I appreciate your candidness.’ He reached for the glass again, taking another long swallow. She could do with a drink too, wash this dry scratchy feeling from her throat. He put the glass down and opened his mouth as if to ask another question, but she was too quick for him.

‘Right, my turn now,’ she said in a rush. ‘My question for you is, why did you leave the SEALs so suddenly? You had a great career going. What went wrong?’ Now it was his turn to stiffen at the directness of her question. His hand landed on the table with a thump.

‘I don’t think—’

‘Fair’s fair, JJ.’ She smirked. ‘An eye for an eye. Come on now. You promised me a question.’ That dark brow of his furrowed ever so slightly, hovering low over his chocolate eyes and his lips fluttered as if he really wanted to purse them. She’d hit her mark. He was angry, even if he refused to show it.

‘You’ve done your research as well, I see,’ he said.

‘It was a little harder than I thought, finding out about your past. But Google is a wealth of information if you have the patience.’ It was true, it’d taken her days of digging even to confirm he’d been a SEAL. JJ had never revealed his past profession, he was a very private man but of course there’d been lots of rumours. And she had skills. Because of her job as a graphic designer, she knew a lot more about technology than most people. She also had friends from whom she could call in favours. Now she knew lots of things about him the normal public would never have access to. JJ was short for Justin Jordan, but that wasn’t his real name. It was a name he’d taken as his TV personality, probably to protect his family from the press. His real name was Justin Cole. He was thirty-three years old, three years older than her. His foray into TV had started when a well-known director, Victor Harvey, had asked him to be part of a documentary he was making on life in the Navy. JJ’s strong, silent type had been a huge hit with the public. He was also married and had two little girls. But was now divorced and hardly saw his girls anymore. There were lots and lots of facts—and fiction—about JJ to be found on the Internet. But no one could determine why he’d left the SEALs, only that he’d been awarded the silver star medal—the third highest medal for valour awarded by the navy—before he resigned. Which intrigued her.

‘You like to get to know your contestants before they go on the show, so why shouldn’t I want to get to know you? You’ll control my life for the next month or so. I need to know what I’m getting myself in to.’

‘This is highly unusual.’ He ran a hand over his shaved head

‘But you promised,’ she reminded him. Her throat was parched now. She walked slowly over to the small table and lifted the glass of water he’d poured for her. He watched her as she drank. There was something in his eyes, a haunted look, just a flash, buried deep. She nearly choked on her water. Damn. Was she going to regret asking him that question?

He stood up as well, turning his back towards her so he could look out the window, his large frame blocking most of the light.

‘We were in Turkey. I was involved in a mission gone wrong. We were ambushed.’ His voice was flat, devoid of all emotion. She wished she could see his face. But then again, his face was probably as well schooled into blankness as his voice.

‘Two of my team were killed in that ambush. Two of my best mates. I couldn’t save them.’ Goosebumps prickled her skin at his words. Oh damn, she hadn’t been ready for him to say this. Her throat constricted as images of this large, courageous man frantically trying to revive a friend as his lifeblood leaked into the desert sand assaulted her mind. Shit, why had she asked him this? Stupid. Sometimes she was so stupid. She took a step towards him.

’I can’t really tell you much more than that, it’s all highly confidential, the details are sealed. The government doesn’t like it when our side’s involved in a fuck-up.’ The swear word stopped her in her tracks. She’d never known him to swear, certainly his public persona never did. He stood, back ramrod straight, shoulders square, neck muscles bulging, staring out the window. She wanted to go up and lay a hand on that unbending back, the urge almost overwhelming her.

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered.

‘So, I’ve answered your question. Can we get on with the rest of the interview now?’ He didn’t acknowledge her pity. And she wanted to bite back the words. Of course he wouldn’t welcome her pity.

‘Yes, yes of course.’ She went and sat down at the table like a chastised child. And that’s exactly how she felt. How had she thought she had any right to delve into this man’s life, his secrets? Shame formed a ball of knots in the bottom of her stomach.

JJ sat down opposite her and started asking more questions, as if things like this happened every day. He asked her how long she’d been studying karate, and how it made her feel when she practiced it. She answered the questions candidly, her brain on autopilot. But she couldn’t keep a small part of her mind from dissecting the information he’d given her. Little pieces of the puzzle surrounding JJ started to fall into place. He’d been married while he was in the SEALs, but less than six months after he left the navy, his marriage had disintegrated. And then soon after, his career in TV had started to take shape. The media blamed his rise to stardom for the marriage break-up. But now she knew better. PTSD often did that to marriages.

She’d become something of an expert on PTSD. After her rape. But she found that much of the writing on PTSD out there was just rhetoric, a term applied readily to anyone who’d experienced trauma. While in truth only a few people genuinely qualified as suffering from the condition. And she hadn’t been one of them. Instead she’d been a survivor. She’d learned to cope, taken up karate to regain her strength, her internal will to live, and she’d kept going. But JJ? How had he coped with such massive anguish and shock? Obviously, on the face of things he’d coped fine. But the man he kept buried deep, sheltered from everyone else? How had he fared?

Letting none of her thoughts show and keeping the bland grin on her face, she continued to answer his questions without guile, even the ones that were more than a little personal. But she noticed he regarded her with a wary glance now and then, when he thought she wasn’t looking. He was probably wondering what she was going to do with the information he’d just offered. Was she going to use it against him? She wanted to tell him an emphatic no. But she couldn’t bring the words past her lips.


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