Excerpt for Goodness Gracious Gracie by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Goodness Gracious Gracie!


By


Anya Wylde


Copyright 2018 Anya Wylde

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Thank you, John and Marcus, for bringing me joy every day.

Thank you, Michael Garrett, for helping me edit this book.




TABLE OF CONTENTS

Contents




Chapter One

Grace Dixie sat in a small Irish office. The advertisement had asked for a person with no previous experience to be a runner for one of the best documentary makers in Europe.

She had leaped at the opportunity, even though the word ‘runner’ had made her tremble in anxiety. She had hopped on the Dublin bus and twenty minutes later found herself staring at number 53, Burquay Lane.

All through the journey she had tried to gather her nerves together and sing them a lullaby, but the darned things kept slipping away and knotting together. So, by the time she sank into the cold leather seat of a dull grey office, she was a bundle of twisted nerves encased in a cloud of frizz.

She never did this sort of thing. She never took risks, spoke to strangers, or put a toe out of her comfort zone. So, this whole business of going for an interview in a foreign country was enough to leach the sweat out of her and leave her as dehydrated as a Muscat raisin.

Worriedly, she pulled the little threads at the base of her handbag and wondered what sort of questions they would ask her and what the job would entail. Surely a runner didn’t really run but walked fast. She had never seen anyone running in offices. It just didn’t seem dignified.

She slid her eye toward her neighbour, a beautifully dressed Irish girl holding a fuchsia file, and frowned. She hadn’t brought a file. The ad didn’t say to bring a file. In fact, it said it wanted someone with no previous experience, yet the girl next to her had a file filled with all sorts of official looking documents.

She dropped her eyes to the floor and looked at the stuff she had managed to bring; a bag of grocery filled with apples and tomatoes and a mop that squirted water. Clearly, she wasn’t prepared.

“I wasn’t prepared,” Grace said to the girl with the file.

They had been waiting together for an hour, watching aspirants go in and out of a big wooden door without exchanging a word. Now with only the two of them left, she thought it was only polite to make conversation.

The girl glanced at her.

Grace sat up straighter on the plastic chair. “I was grocery shopping, then I found this wonderful mop that squirts water. See, if you pull this trigger, it sprays water. No need for buckets—”

The girl began to look a little alarmed.

“Anyway,” Grace said hastily. “This man was reading a newspaper while we waited in line to pay. He was so short that I could read over his shoulder, and I spotted the ad for this interview. It was close by, but I didn’t have time to change—”

The girl briefly glanced at her jeans and grey shirt. “You look fine,” she said politely.

Grace shook her head. “Ah, no, you look lovely, while I look as if I’ve just learned to sew and decided to make my own clothes for the interview.”

The girl smiled but didn’t contradict her.

Grace ran a finger around her collar, feeling rather like a piece of gum that had been stretched until it was about to break and curl in on itself. Perhaps, it was best if she went home. How could she compete with this girl or all those women who had already been interviewed? They had looked so competent and probably had references.

But she needed this job. Desperately.

The receptionist at the front desk giggled, and Grace glanced her way. A young man had appeared from behind a glass door and was now tickling the receptionist’s contoured cheek with a peacock feather.

The receptionist was pretty, with dark, wavy hair, pale skin and thick black eyeliner that flicked up at the corner of her eyes. She had surrounded herself with an odd assortment of paraphernalia that included a giant rose quartz, feathers, a flaming three-wick aromatherapy candle, and an abalone shell in which sat a conical incense wafting patchouli and rose.

Grace glanced up and found that the fire alarm had been taped over and looked back down to find that the man had progressed from caressing her cheek to dancing like a limbless Michael Flatley.

“Fire! My crotch is on fire,” he screamed.

In his eagerness to steal a kiss, Grace deduced, he had leaped upon the desk and forgotten about the three-wick aromatherapy candle.

“It’s not your crotch. It’s your knee,” the receptionist commented.

“I can feel the flames creeping upwards,” the man yelled. “Help!”

“What’s going on?” A gorgeous green-eyed man flung open the wooden door through which hopefuls like her had been entering and exiting.

Grace eyed the tiny flame licking the young man’s knee and frowned. No one was doing anything. They just stood there gawking at the fire as if they were spectators ogling a smouldering effigy on Guy Fawkes night.

When the man howled again, Grace leapt into action. She yanked out her mop and brandished it like it was Gandalf’s staff.

His eyes widened.

She smiled reassuringly as she approached him and proceeded to squirt soapy water all over his pants. Then she thwacked his knee with the soggy mop head just to ensure that the fire was completely out.

The receptionist clapped enthusiastically. “Well done!”

“Brigid, get rid of this nonsense right now,” the green-eyed man said, gesturing to the table laden with crystals, candles, and feathers. “And take James to the hospital.”

The receptionist sulkily blew out the candle. “He should have been careful—”

“Next,” he roared, and went back to his room, and slammed the door shut behind himself.

The girl with the pink file scuttled after him.

“That was entertaining,” a gorgeously deep voice said from the entrance.

Grace spun on her heel and found herself facing a tall, beautifully crafted man. He was well over six feet tall, dark and broad-shouldered. His thin mouth and high cheekbones gave him a slightly sinister appearance.

With his entry, the office and its contents seemed to shrink in size. She watched in fascination as his muscles danced under a crisp white shirt as he moved to let James and Brigid exit the building.

He wasn’t a handsome man, and yet she could see why some women would find him attractive. He had an air of tightly controlled wildness about him as if he had a panther curled up somewhere deep inside waiting to pounce.

She eyed him from beneath her lashes, thinking she wouldn’t mind being pounced upon. She wondered if she ran around the office, would the predator in him rise to the challenge and chase her for a while?

He sat next to her.

“That was quick thinking,” he complimented her.

“Thanks. Are you here for the interview?” she asked, even though looking at his expensive leather shoes, she doubted it.

“An American in Ireland,” he remarked, avoiding her question.

“Lots of Americans come here,” she said defensively.

“To sightsee,” he replied, “while you are looking for a job. I am intrigued.”

She sighed and stared out of the window. “It’s a long, dull story.”

He followed her gaze and watched the clouds that had sauntered over to ruin what had promised to be a lovely summer’s day. He cocked his head to the side as little droplets splashed the windowpane.

He smiled, and Grace shivered. Who in their right mind liked rain?

It was drizzling erratically now as if a shower head somewhere in the sky had gotten blocked with grime. Every now and then, the trickle turned into a hopeful squirt or a more ambitious spurt, but it fell short of turning into a proper drencher.

“So, what are you running away from?” he asked perceptibly. He balled a tissue and threw it into a bin close by. It was an excellent shot.

He turned toward her when she didn’t answer, his eyes narrowed slightly.

She became acutely conscious of him only inches away. He rubbed the back of his neck as if it ached, while his heavy-lidded gaze stayed pinned on her face.

She dragged her eyes away from his fingers to his arms.

They were strong and hairy. Not too hairy but just right.

Her eyes slid up his broad, muscled chest and focused on his face.

Sweat gleamed on his gorgeously tanned forehead. His eyebrows were arched and shaped so beautifully that she felt a pang of envy. It would take hours with a tweezer, a magnifying mirror, and a waterproof brow pencil to achieve what this man had been gifted with naturally.

The clouds parted just then, and sunlight cascaded down like streams of yellow ribbons. His eyes, which had been an ordinary brown a moment ago, turned a soulful gold. It transformed him from an ordinary man into someone inexplicably handsome.

Her breath hitched, and her heart started banging against her ribs like a wild, caged bird. She could suddenly feel waves of heat emanating from him.

His warmth wrapped around her like a cord, and she leaned toward him as if he was pulling her closer. Her eyes glazed over, and her hand lifted partway. She wanted to feel his stubble, she wanted his arms around her, his hands in her hair and lips on her—”

A roar of an engine nearby slammed into her like a bucket of icy water.

Her hand shot up to her mouth in horror. What was wrong with her? She had never felt like this before.

She curled her hands into a fist and took deep calming breaths. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, and repeat.

She peeked at him during a particularly loud exhalation and found him looking at her oddly.

He began to slowly inch off the chair as if not to startle her with any sudden movement.

She stifled a giggle. “I’m not mad,” she assured him.

“Just heartbroken, eh?” he prompted.

She swallowed the lump in her throat. “It’s really nothing.”

“The way you were looking at me just now . . ..” He covered the small bit of his chest that was exposed and shuddered. “I admit, you didn’t look too heartbroken.”

“I wasn’t looking at you like anything,” she said, feeling her face turn hot with embarrassment.

“Liar.”

“I was simply trying to memorize your face in case I have to give your description to the cops. You could be a stalker,” she muttered in embarrassment. It wasn’t true, but that was the best excuse she had for ogling him like a clueless teenager.

He didn’t seem offended by her confession. He leaned back on the bench and said thoughtfully, “You are not very bright, are you?

“I have a degree in history,” she snapped. “And I was always an A grade student.”

“Doesn’t mean much in the real world.” He shrugged. “Silly to sit and stare at a potential threat, then go all hazy-eyed in the process.”

“I was going to run,” she said, throwing a water bottle into her handbag and zipping it up. “I’m just not very fast. Besides, they say not to run from predators.”

“Do I look like a grizzly bear?”

She scowled at him. He was making her feel foolish and immature. A novel experience, considering she had always been the sensible, studious one among her friends back home.

His lips twisted in amusement. “What’s your name?”

“Grace Dixie,” she replied sourly.

“See, not too bright. Why would you give a crazy stalker your real name?”

“But you asked me!”

“You are very obliging to criminals.”

She felt a sudden urge to whack him. Her fingers curled into a fist, and she slowly counted to ten.

“Who’s the man who broke your heart?”

“Alfred Dob . . . Why do you care?”

“Alfred Dobu?”

“I’m not telling you.”

“Dobroo? Dobby?”

“Stop asking me!”

“Dobbs?”

“I’m leaving.”

“Ah, Alfred Dobbs it is.”

She frowned. “How did you guess?”

“Your face is endearingly transparent. Are you sure you are okay?”

“I am,” her mouth trembled.

“You look like the world has ended around your ears, which I must say are delightful and ridiculously small. I’ve never seen anyone with such small ears. Can you hear all right?”

Tears dripped down her nose. It was all too much. This infuriating stranger with his odd questions, the sudden news that Alfie was engaged, and the darned clouds dripping water rather than raining properly, hailing, or moving on to drier pasture.

He sighed. “I was trying to stuff you up with a whole lot of indignation. I hoped it would keep you together for a while, but it seems I have underestimated the situation.” His voice softened. “Tell me.”

His gentleness swept away the last of her resistance. She sobbed and gurgled like a child.

He obligingly offered her half a tissue that he found in the depths of his pants.

She took it delicately and blew her nose violently. “I’m sorry, I’m wasting your time. I’ll be all right. I hope.”

“Grace, Alfred, a damsel in distress . . . since we are going with the old-fashioned theme here, let me be the courteous gentleman, the knight in shining armour, the hero—”

She didn’t care if the man was making fun of her. She was just too miserable. “My heart is broken.”

“I gathered.”

“I loved him since I was five.”

“I see.”

“I was supposed to marry him.”

“Ah!”

“He likes this lawyer, Samantha. Cinnamon likes her. Cinnamon hates me. They are getting engaged. Stupid cat . . . Cinnamon is his cat.”

“I am fond of tigers.”

She sniffed. “Dogs are much better. Boxer likes me. That’s his Chihuahua.”

“Very good. Loyal things. I never trust a person who doesn’t like dogs. I have four vicious Lhasa Apsos. My sister likes to put bows on them. It fools the thieves into thinking they are a harmless lot, but in a pinch, they can pull down a mountain lion.”

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

He shrugged. “It’s the Irish air. People become chatty here. Haven’t you noticed? I discussed my business plan with the taxi driver this morning. He was extremely helpful.”

“I suppose.”

“Strangers can be helpful. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. Easier to share your problems.”

“I suppose.”

“You would have to pay a fortune to a man in a fancy office with a pipe to listen to your troubles,” he said, warming to his topic. “I am offering my services for free. I don’t know why . . ..” He paused and cleared his throat. “You can tell me your deepest, darkest and naughtiest secret. Unburden yourself and feel safe in the knowledge that we will never meet again.”

She tore the scrap of tissue to shreds. She was just so full of emotion that it all bubbled up without her meaning to.

“I live in a small town where everybody knows everybody. All my friends are his friends. And all his friends are my friends. They all think I’ll marry Alfie. Our parents think we will marry one day. I think . . . well, thought we would marry one day. But Alfie has decided to marry Samantha.”

“Ah, I see. Crucial to have the groom agree. He can’t be tied up and blackmailed into marrying you, can he?”

“What do you mean?”

“Hypothetically speaking, someone can kidnap him and torture him a little bit until he agrees to marry you.”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“Or, you could get Samantha thrown into the deepest part of the ocean.”

“What? No!” She paused, then repeated more forcefully, “No! I’m not going to toss her into the ocean. I mean it can be done. I could plan a boat trip—No!”

“Party pooper.”

“Who even says that?”

His eyes crinkled with humour. “I just did.”

“Can we stop veering off the topic?”

“Fine. Continue.”

“My heart, I repeat, is broken. And how can I go back home? How will I face them? Everyone in Sunnyvale will pity me. Most of them know I love Alfie. Alfie is the only thickhead who doesn’t get it.”

“The way you were eyeing me, as if you are on the seventh day of a low carb diet and I am a giant chocolate cake, I really doubt you are in love. Besides, you seem to be more concerned about the embarrassment this news will cause you, rather than the fact that you have lost the love of your life to another woman.”

“That’s not true!”

He sighed. “And you think a job in a different country will keep your mind occupied enough to help you forget him.”

“Pretty much. I had come here with my parents on a holiday when he called me to tell me the news. I can’t bear to go back now. And to stay on, I need a job.”

“Pity. Offices tend to suck all the idealism out of you. A year in a work environment and you begin to eye everyone suspiciously. Then you start turning grey.”

“Grey?”

He nodded. “Your skin starts changing into this unhealthy, rubbery mask, your voice becomes monotonous, and your eyes take on this dull haziness that never seems to focus on anything clearly.”

“Do you have a job?”

“I do, but I am the boss, so I can use my brains and am therefore spared the side effects.”

“Oh.”

“I think you made the right decision.”

“You do?”

“Imagine, in a few years when you have a wonderful Irish accent, are well-travelled, and you return to idiot-vale wearing all things high fashion—"

“And?”

“And you step out of your long, black limousine, stroll across to the local pub—"

“Bar,” she interjected. “We call it a bar in America.”

“Fine, you stroll across to the local bar . . . and jab open the wooden door with your beautifully manicured nail and enter the room. A hush will fall as everyone will turn to look at you. They will gasp and sigh as they behold the image of your stunning figure backlit by the bright rays of the sun. They will slowly chew on the vision along with Friday’s special roast chicken and soggy fries. You will smile, and Alfred will swoon. His wife will catch him in her untoned arms, then you will open the door wider still. . .

“And?” Grace leaned forward and held her breath.

“And people will gasp once again as a tall Italian man with long curly hair and a chiselled face will step into view. He will dip his handsome head and whisper into your smug right ear, So this is where you grew up, darling. It’s sweet. The passion between you two, the confident smile on your lips and the smell of supreme success oozing out of your pores will annihilate your judgemental friends and Alfred’s wife. And you, my dear Grace, shall be avenged.”

She let out the breath she had been holding. “I’ve always liked the rain. Perhaps Dublin is where I belong.”

“It’s a brave decision.”

“Thank you. My father always said I’m his little courageous kitty cat.”

Thunder roared in the sky, sounding like a giant bull mastiff growling into a foghorn.

She squeaked in fright and leaped into his arms.

He deposited her back into her seat. “Good luck with the job hunt, Grace, and I hope you start using your brains soon and stop trusting strangers with personal information.”

She opened her mouth to argue when a voice crashed over her like two cymbals banging together. “Miss Grace Dixie, you are up next.”


Chapter Two

The green-eyed man was peering into a notebook. He pulled out a pencil from behind his ear and began making notes.

Grace admired the way his blond hair fell in glossy waves around his sharp face. A few silky strands landed on his broad forehead, and he impatiently brushed them away.

He looked a bit like a bad-tempered elf who didn’t know how to dress in the earthly realm. The red and white checked shirt was too big for him, and he had folded only one of the sleeves while the other hung limply down his arm with the cuffs undone. His shirt collar was askew as well, one side wrinkled and curled as if he had forgotten to iron it while the other exposed his pale skin.

Near his neat little hands lay a pair of dark blue, horn-rimmed glasses, a messy pile of papers, a full ashtray, and a chocolate wrapper. A bit of the chocolate had smeared onto the glass table, and Grace gripped her knee to keep from reaching over and wiping it up.

She had been told by the receptionist that his name was Ian Murphy and that he was a famous documentary filmmaker. His last documentary, based on the palatability of cricket powder smoothies, mealworm cereal bars, and Ant you Delicious chocolate bars, had won many awards.

But his most famous work was a film delving into the psychology of a man who interpreted the communication between herrings. He translated the fast, repetitive tick sounds the fish created or, rather, the farts they made, and explained what the herrings were trying to say. He had discovered that herrings were actually intelligent and had long metaphysical conversations among themselves. The documentary had caused a sensation, whereby a lot of people decided to give up eating herrings all together since it just didn’t seem right to eat something so intellectual.

“Any siblings?” he asked, suddenly breaking into her reverie.

She jerked upright. “No, I’m an only child. My mother had me late. They were trying for years before that. She calls me her little miracle.”

“Where are you from?” He continued writing, giving Grace the impression that this was just small talk and the interview had yet to begin.

“Texas.”

“Where are you staying?”

“In a guesthouse in Rathcoole. It’s a lovely little house overlooking the Dublin Mountains. It’s very cold here, isn’t it? Colder still in Rathcoole since its close to the countryside. My ears start hurting on windy days. Tea helps warm them up quick. I do like the tea here. Anyway, we came here for a holiday and have been travelling around Ireland for the last three weeks—”

“We?”

“My parents and I. My mother likes the cold and my father loves the beer—”

“What does your father do?”

“He used to run a cleaning supply store. I used to help him out sometimes. Then he had a heart attack . . ..” She swallowed and continued. “Now he’s retired. My mother works at a letting agency.”

“Why are you looking for a job in Dublin?”

“I always wanted to work in the film industry. I saw your ad and decided to try my luck,” she lied nervously. “I’ve read about your work on herrings and tadpoles and the scent released by stressed worms—”

He glanced at her then, his expression disbelieving. “You came here to work in the film industry? You left the land of Hollywood to work in Ireland?”

“A lot of television shows are being shot here,” she said hastily. “All the rugged landscape . . . and in Hollywood everyone is looking for a job in television, so I thought I would have a better chance of getting a job here—”

He set the pencil aside, bent down, and picked up something from the floor. When he emerged back up, he had a Persian cat in his hand. He leaned back in his seat and used two long pale fingers to stroke the creature between its eyes.

Any moment now, she thought, he would begin to grow fangs.

“Do you have a degree?”

“Yes, in history,” she replied. “I was going to do psychology, then I read that some students start going mad reading about other people going mad. I don’t know if it’s true—”

“The documentary is not historical.”

“I’m willing to work hard and learn on the job. I’m a fast learner and have an excellent presence of mind. Didn’t you see the way I extinguished the fire out there? I saved his knee, which is an important joint. It joins the femur to the tibia—”

He held up his hand. “Keep your answer short and to the point.”

“Sorry.”

“Do you know anything about producing, editing, directing, cameras—”

“I . . . No.”

“Set design, cinematography, accounting—”

“Er.”

“Makeup, costumes, India—”

“I—”

“Business, Hindi, Marathi, malaria?”

“I can—”

“Delhi belly, resuscitation?”

“Well—”

“Can you make coffee?”

“Yes!”

“Tea?”

“I can.”

“Use a printer?”

“I–Yes.”

“Can you run fast?”

“Fairly.” She never ran. Ever

“Carry heavy stuff?”

“Yes,” she said firmly

“Have a strong stomach?”

“Sure,” she replied recklessly. She was going to say yes to everything from now on.

“Have a passport?”

“Yep.”

“Can you travel to India immediately?”

“Huh?”

His eyebrow shot up. “Didn’t you know? The documentary is being shot in India.”

“Oh yes, yes,” she replied, her shoulders drooping.

“Right. Now, ask me some questions.”

“Me?”

“No, I am talking to the wall behind you.”

She ducked her head. “What sort of questions?”

“Anything. Pretend you are interviewing me.”

She frowned. She was being interviewed, but now he wanted her to interview him? Huh?

“Go on.”

The cat hissed, and he let it escape. She watched it disappear under the desk and quickly tucked her feet as far back under the chair as they would go. The cat was making her nervous, and the little notebook where Ian kept making notes after her every answer was elevating her stress levels even more.

She cleared her throat and asked the first question that popped into her head. “Umm, so what do you do?”

He eyed her coldly.

For some reason, the meaner he behaved, the more she wanted to win him over. She smiled broadly, her lips trembling ever so slightly. “Do you have siblings?”

He blinked at the sudden personal question. She was about to apologise when he said, “No, I’m an only child.”

Since family was on her mind, she continued that line of thought. “Are you close to your mom and dad?”

He shrugged noncommittally.

“When did you last meet them?”

“A few days ago.”

She made encouraging sounds.

He shifted in his seat. “I stayed with them. They live in the country . . . in Wexford. It’s a county in Ireland. Not too far from Dublin. Sunny . . . well, sunnier than most of Ireland.”.

“What did you do?” she asked, interested despite herself.

“Took care of the cows, ate homemade food, picked strawberries, collected eggs, took long walks . . . Nothing changes in the country, it’s all the same, yet comforting.” He picked up a burnt-out cigarette and twirled it between his fingers. “My ma made me mashed potatoes three days in a row.” He shook his head wryly.

“You don’t like potatoes?”

“No. I still ate it. She’s not too well, has started forgetting things—” He froze, his eyes flying to her face in surprise. The last bit had slipped out.

He snapped his notebook close, signalling the end. “You will hear from my producer in a few days.”

“Thank you,” she said, reeling from the sudden dismissal. Had she made a mistake?

She frowned as she walked away. Perhaps her next interview would go better. She had applied for a few more jobs online.

The director’s pea-green eyes rose in her mind, and fast on their heels were bright golden ones. She had met two devastatingly handsome men in a week. Was it luck, the universe feeling sorry for her broken heart, or was Ireland chock full of gorgeous men? She pushed open the glass door and stepped out onto the street.

It was raining. Again.


Chapter Three

People were hurrying back to work after a quick lunch, cars were flooding the road, and children were streaming out of a school wearing deep maroon uniforms and potato chip dust, and among all the hustle and bustle, Grace stood still and silent outside a tattoo shop called Stained.

She was not only still and silent, but she was also pathetic because twenty minutes earlier she had spotted a wedding dress in a shop window. It had been hanging on a white satin hanger—frothy, sparkly and shiny. It had glowed and glimmered and beckoned her closer and closer until she had placed her palms on the window pane and started to drool.

The price tag declared it was half-off, and that decided her.

She wasn’t engaged, getting married, or even had a boyfriend, yet she had bought the darn dress, worn it under an oversized grey trench coat, then slithered down a back alley like a dodgy thief.

She had enjoyed the feel of the cream satin on her skin for only five minutes before the vision of Alfie marrying Samantha had exploded in her mind.

Now, wearing the dress felt remarkably akin to flossing a sore gum.

It hurt.

She pressed her fingertips to the glass and squished a water droplet.

Until last week, she had been having a wonderful time. The holiday had been going well, and she had been busy doing all sorts of touristy things with her parents.

Then one day, just as she had been about to bite into a flaky Pain au chocolat, Alfie had called and told her that he was engaged.

Grace had spat the pastry out, sending it skimming through the air and into the soup of a man sitting on the neighbouring table.

The man had jumped up and hollered for the manager. The manager had apologised and offered him another bowl of soup, but the man had shaken with rage at his placating tone and punched the manager.

While the angry young man was being carried out by six servers, Alfie had continued talking, unaware of the drama his words were causing. He insisted that he couldn’t celebrate the engagement without his best friend by his side. So, he had decided to keep everything on hold until Grace returned home.

Now Grace had no choice but to never return home because, if she did, she would have to face the pity joyously flung her way by her friends and family.

They would flutter around her like concerned venom-filled bees, invite her over for conciliatory lunches, and watch her face with glee as Alfred slipped the engagement ring onto Samantha’s finger.

Oh! She couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t bear to go back home and face her small judgemental town. The only way to avoid it all was to begin a new life in a new country.

Her parents thought she had gone bananas.

Dali’s lobster telephone, her mother had declared, was less absurd than Grace’s plan to relocate. Her father had wholeheartedly agreed with her mother.

They wanted her to return home with them in two weeks’ time. They refused to fund her or support her decision to move to a new country. They refused to encourage what they considered a ridiculous idea.

So, Grace had decided to do it all on her own. The first hurdle that she had to cross was to find a job, and that . . . wasn’t going well. In fact, it wasn’t going anywhere at all.

If things continued the way they were, she would have to go back and live her entire life under her old blue paisley comforter forever.

She rested her forehead on the cool glass and racked her brains for other options.

She could tell everyone she had a disease.

A contagious disease which was why she couldn’t go out in public for the next month or two or twenty . . .

She brightened suddenly. She could contact a scientist. They always needed people to experiment on, didn’t they? Or did they use only rats?

No. She remembered reading about some man being paid to be a test subject. That would be perfect. She could volunteer to be a test subject, earn some money, and perhaps move to a laboratory in Alaska. No one would ever see her again. Alfie would realise his love for her and pine away living unhappily ever after with Cinnamon and that lawyer . . .

Her parents would be miserable, but she would ask them to come and live with her. She only had to be a tiny bit brave and take the plunge.

Deep gold, soulful eyes rose in her mind, encouraging her to take a leap of faith. She swayed as if the memory of the stranger’s eyes were hypnotising her like Kaa, the snake in the animated version of Jungle Book.

A few years was a trifle. She wasn’t abandoning her parents, just going away on an extended holiday.

The vision was soon replaced by an image of a handsome Italian man saying thickly into her ear, My caramellino, chocolate dipped-biscottino, I want to eat you right up—”

“Can I help you?”

She blinked and found a tall, red-haired woman staring at her in concern.

Grace straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Yes, please. I want a tattoo.”

“Come on in,” the woman said.

* * *

“Mom,” She nudged the door open with her shoulder and entered the little kitchen. Her hands were full of plastic bags. “I got a tattoo.”

Her mother laughed.

“I did. See?” she yanked her sleeve up to show a giant skull with roses glistening on her arm. It was a temporary one. She had chickened out last minute, but her mother didn’t need to know that.

“Gack!”

“Told you,” she said smugly. “I also bought a leather jacket.”

“Eek!” Her father gasped, emerging from behind the newspaper.

“I got another tattoo. A heart on my butt,” she crowed.

They were too horrified to catch the blatant lie.

Her mother sank into a chair. “Is this because Alfie is engaged?”

“No.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Nothing of the sort.”

“Honey, it is only temporary. We just need to get rid of the lawyer he is dating, then he will realise what you mean to him.”

Grace scowled. “You took me on this trip telling me all about hearts getting fonder because of distance. Well, his heart has decided that it wants nothing to do with me.”

“Once we are back in America—”

“I’m not going back.”

“I’m not going to fund your extended holiday,” her father said with a scowl.

“What if I refuse to emerge from my room?” Grace asked.

Her mother shrugged.

Grace frowned. “What if I get more tattoos, smoke odd stuff, eat from garbage bins—”

Her mother crossed her arms, “Not even if you decide to become a druid and circle Stonehenge forever.”

Grace sat up. “Druids? Do they have those in Ireland? Will they pay me if I join them?”

“Your Cousin Mary became a druid,” her mother said, pouring tea into a cup and sliding it toward her. “Six years ago—”

“Five years,” her father corrected. “And she didn’t become a druid. She joined some cult where they dance naked under the full moon and howl like wolves. She lives in a forest now and emerges every Sunday to send emails to her parents to ask for more money.”

Grace felt herself wavering in her plans. Living in a forest and dancing in the moonlight sounded pretty good to her. “What’s the name of the cult?”

“You Are not joining any cult,” her mother snapped.

“Or becoming a druid,” her father growled.

“Fine, I’ll get a job as a lap dancer in Dublin and stay here forever.”

“You shall not.”

“I will.”

“No, you won’t.”

“I’m an adult, and I can do what I like.”

“Let’s be reasonable.”

“No, you be reasonable.”

“Once we are back—”

“I’m not going back.”

“But a lap dancer?” her mother howled.

“My heart,” her father complained.

“I’m not falling for that again.”

“Well, if you become a lap dancer, I’ll definitely have a heart attack.”

“Fine, I had an interview with a production company today.”

“Nothing to do with lap dances?” her mother asked.

“No.”

“You probably won’t get a job.”

“But if I do, you will have to go home without me.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“She won’t get the job,” her father muttered under his breath.

“Not a chance in hell,” her mother echoed comfortably.

Grace’s shoulders drooped as she slinked up the stairs toward her room. They were right, she wouldn’t get the job. She had a better chance falling down a rabbit hole and discovering a new world.

She poked the mirror in the hallway hoping it would turn out to be a hidden doorway into wonderland.

Her fingertip touched solid glass, and she wilted even more and shuffled into her bedroom like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

She flung herself onto the bed, her eyes wet and her heart in pieces.

With one phone call, all she had believed in, dreamed of and prayed for had disappeared.

She had always wanted to marry Alfie, have his children and be a housewife, and deep in her heart, she had been convinced that he had wanted the same thing . . . It was just that he hadn’t realised it yet.

Her friends had wanted ambitious careers while she had wished to be Alfie’s wife. At times, she felt as if she had been born in the wrong era. She belonged in the 1950’s wearing an apron, a flowery dress and holding a pink fluffy duster while her head was covered in pink plastic curlers.

And now . . . her soulmate had found a new gibbon ape, a different barn owl, a more enthusiastic termite, while she was left alone, aimless and lost.

It was frightening. This sudden termination of her dreams was frightening. The road leading to the aisle with him by her side was caved in.

Suddenly, she was alone and standing on a dark, unknown path. Where would it lead and what would be the pitfalls? What if she began walking down this path, tripped over a tree stump, and broke her leg on a wintery day, and no one could find her?

She could see herself slowly and painfully crystallising in the dark, her head bowed, her skirt spread out and a single icy tear sparkling like a flawless diamond on her cheek.

She pressed a fist to her chest and squeezed her eye shut. She needed to keep busy. To do something to take away this pain. She wanted to stop thinking about her uncertain future, about Alfie and his upcoming wedding.

When the tattoo artist had come toward her with the needle, fear had driven away everything from her mind.

Now all she had to do was remain in a constant state of terror, and to do that, she would have to break free from all that was familiar. Her parents were her biggest comfort, she would have to live away from them. To have her own life . . . Until it stopped hurting.

They would understand in time.

It was only for a little bit.


Chapter Four

“Needs longer in the oven,” her father screeched at the TV.

Grace ignored him, her attention on the phone. It was ringing, and the number flashing on the screen was Irish. She quickly rubbed it with a disinfectant wipe and stuck it to her ear.

“Hello?” she said, her fingers nervously drumming her chest.

“I knew it!” her dad crowed in the background. “Soggy bottom!”

“Err, is this a bad time?” a female voice with a lovely Irish accent asked.

“No, no. I can talk now,” Grace said, hurrying out of the room.

“Are you sure? I can call later—”

“No, no, that was just my dad—”

“Oh—”

“He was watching a baking show, and he knew the pie would be soggy at the bottom; hence, the soggy bottom. You know the famous line from the British baking show?”

“I-okay.”

There was an awkward silence where Grace felt as if the woman on the other end didn’t quite believe her.

The woman coughed as if hiding a giggle. “Can I speak to Grace please?”

“Speaking.”

“This is about the job with Mad Cow Production Company.”

Grace sprayed some cleaning product on the kitchen counter and furiously attacked a smudge. “Yes, I’m listening,” she huffed.

There was another awkward silence.

She realised that her voice had sounded as if she had just finished doing some vigorous exercise. She stopped rubbing the table and straightened up.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” she hurriedly explained. “I mean I was rubbing a spot—”

The woman gasped.

“I mean a spot on the table. I think I sounded like I had . . . run up the stairs. I hadn’t.”

“I . . . understand.”

Grace nervously cleared her throat. “I mean, after the soggy bottom thing and the breathy voice, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking something dodgy. But it’s so cold, even if I had a boyfriend we wouldn’t, we couldn’t . . . I mean, it’s so cold. Besides, the man I love is engaged to someone else . . ..” She continued babbling while a part of her disconnected, flew up to the kitchen ceiling, and shook its head in horror. It was like seeing a giant hole and hopping into it.

“It was about the job,” the woman cut in.

Grace bit her tongue and shut up.

“Congratulations.”

“Oh?”

“We leave in a week. Email me your passport details.”

“I got the job.”

“You got the job.”

“I got the job.”

“Yes,” the girl said slowly as if talking to someone extremely dim. “I am emailing you all the details. Since you are coming on board so late, we need some stuff from you as soon as possible. For the travel documents.”

“Okay.”

“Are you alright?”

“Just a little dazed. Didn’t expect to get the job.”

“Well, you did, so start packing.”

“Where are we going?”

“Mumbai, then Goa. Do you know anything about the project?”

“No”

“We are making a documentary based on the famous Indian business tycoon, Paramjeet Singh. He is a fascinating old man. Inspiring. You can read up about him. We are joining hands with an Indian company, DMTV, run by Dev Mansukhani and his wife Tabby. Paramjeet doesn’t have long to live, and he contacted us as soon as he found out. Which is why we don’t have much time to film, so everything is going to be a bit rushed and last minute. We will be documenting his daily life including his relationship with his children.”

“What will I be doing?”

“Everything. You will be a production assistant, which means you will be a runner, decorator, background artist, shopper or anyone else you need to be. You will also coordinate with the Indian crew. Don’t worry, they speak excellent English. You will learn on the job. It’s not difficult, but it will be a lot of hard work.”

“I can imagine.”

“I am afraid the salary is basic, but your food and board will be paid for in India. Nothing fancy, but not too shabby either.”

“Thank you so much. I have so many questions. I don’t know where to begin.”

“Read the email. If I have left anything out, you can always call me. By the way, my name is Mia.”

“Thanks again.”

Grace disconnected the call and stared at the phone wondering if she had imagined the conversation.

She stood reeling from the news when her mother entered the kitchen and set the groceries down. “It’s so cold today. The weather is nuts. It was so warm one minute, then I felt as if I had been transported to mid-winter. Everything became dark and misty—”

“I got the job.”

“What?”

“I got the job, Mom. I’m going to India.”

Her mother sank into the chair. “Goodness gracious, Gracie! You will never be able to manage it.”

Some of her terror fled. She lifted her chin and stared defiantly at her mother. “I’m doing this, mom. And nothing you say will change my mind.”

* * *

The next few days were spent doing exactly that. Her parents tried to change her mind.

“Look. A documentary on India.” Her father increased the TV volume. “All those poor people.”

“We have poor people in America, too.”

“The flies.”

“Common enough. I see fruit flies in the bowl right now.”

“Diseases,” her mother countered. “Malaria, diphtheria, and God knows what other rias.”

“Medicine has improved by leaps and bounds since the dark ages.”

“The heat?”

“Mumbai has air-conditioning and fans.”

“The spicy food?”

“I love Mexican. And that’s spicy too.”

“Bad water.”

“They sell bottled ones in shops.”

“You’ve researched all this.”

“Yup.”

“Pollution,” her father crowed.

“A month or two in dust and smoke won’t kill me. The Indian population is one billion, and they seem to survive just fine.”

“But you are delicate,” her father protested.

“I’ll prove to you that I’m not.”

“Don’t expect us to come running if you get in trouble,” her mother warned.

She swallowed. “I can take care of myself.”

They eyed her disbelievingly. And that strengthened her resolve even more. She suddenly wanted to prove to them that she could do this crazy thing. It was the only way to win their respect and confidence.

Her mother’s face softened. “Are you going to tell Alfie?”

She turned her face away. “It’s none of his business.”

Her mother threw the tea towel onto the chair. “Fine! I wash my hands off this whole damn thing. I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You were such a good girl.”

Grace scowled. “I’m not hurting anyone. Going out and peddling drugs. Planning theft or murder. I’m going out to work like most people my age do. How does that make me a bad person?”

Her father hmphed and turned his gaze back to the TV. “That icing doesn’t look right,” he snapped at the baker on screen. “Neon green? Who eats food that colour?”

“We only want what’s best for you,” her mother said.

Grace pressed her lips together. “This time I don’t think you do.”

“So, you will do this?”

“Damn right I will. You always wanted me to be like the other girls, Mom. Well, I’m doing exactly that. I’m being young and rebellious. Deal with it.”


Chapter Five

Familiar brown eyes stared up at her. The photograph in the file didn’t do them justice. She recalled the way they had lit up and turned gold in the sunlight.

Why had he kept his identity a secret?

She traced his eyebrows, marvelling once again at the perfect natural arch. Veer Singh. That was his name. The stranger who had sat next to her in the office not so long ago and patiently listened to her woes.

A prickle of excitement raced up her spine. They were making a documentary on his family. Would he be around? Would they interview him? Would she see him again?

She shivered, recalling the strong attraction she had felt toward him.

Perhaps she was making more out of the moment than it was. After all, she had just found out about Alfie’s engagement. She had been bound to act out of character.

Veer . . . he had thought she was mad. And maybe she had been a little mad in that moment. Mad with grief and heartbreak.

She pressed a hand to her stomach and squeezed her eyes shut as the memory of his scent flooded her. That crazy, crazy attraction she had felt for him still haunted her. He had crept into her head that fateful day and burrowed deep inside only to pop up like a jack in the box when she least expected it.

With Alfie, she had always felt comfortable, warm and fuzzy. Being with him was like snuggling into her well-worn couch or putting on a tattered, well-loved sweatshirt.

With Veer, she had felt as if she was teetering on a precipice.

Oh, why couldn’t she get the man out of her head? Why couldn’t she stop comparing the two men? She had met him only once, for goodness sakes!

She threw the file in annoyance and watched it skitter across the black tiled floor. A few sheets of paper escaped their binding and scattered like her thoughts on the ground.

“Veer.” She tested the name aloud. It meant brave the file had informed her. It had also told her that he was the son of Paramjeet Singh, the man on whom they were making a documentary.

She slid off her chair and retrieved the file and the papers. She flipped the pages impatiently until she found his name again.

Veer was the youngest in the family, she read, yet he was responsible for running the entire family business called Karbon Industries.

Karbon. The name was an amalgamation of carbon and karma. It effectively conveyed the company’s message. They believed in sustainability, keeping their carbon footprint to a minimum and trying to give back as much as they could to the world. They tried to make products as free from chemicals as possible, hired local people, and paid them well.

They had also gone back to their roots and created a range of products that were used thousands of years ago.

They had sifted, examined and translated Egyptian scrolls, traditional Chinese medicines, European folklore and the Vedas. They had read and read until their brains had melted like blobs of deep-fried mozzarella with a side order of potato mash.

All their hard work had paid off when they created a masterpiece; a giant tome filled with recipes that had natural solutions for most household needs.

They had tried to replicate these recipes as best as they could, then called in some scientists to analyse the stuff. After some tests and tweaks, the products were launched.

Karbon industries produced toothpaste, cleaning products, toiletries and even food products.

The products were admittedly more expensive than other name brands, but that didn’t seem to affect the sales.

Paramjeet, the owner of this multi-million-dollar corporation, had begun his career with nothing but two sets of clothes and a dream. He had gone on to create an empire. He had become a legend in the eyes of the public.

The poor saw him as one of their own who had managed to fight the system and win. The rich admired him since he was now one of the top businessmen in India. But it was the bourgeois that adored him the most for creating products that appealed to their sense of righteousness.

And in turn, Paramjeet fed this adoration by printing trite slogans on his product labels blathering on about honesty, fairness, culture and morality.

Grace chewed the back of the pen. She thought about every time her parents told her not to do something because it was against their middle-class values and frowned.

Middle-class people were a dreadful bore. She rather liked the reckless way the rich and the poor lived their lives.

Middle class. She scowled. The word always reminded her of a gossipy old man with a very long nose filled with hot air and unwanted advice. He believed in following a certain set of rules that revelled in sucking the joy out of life. Don’t drink alcohol, marry anyone whom he wouldn’t approve off, kiss in public, wear cute clothes, skip college, get the wrong sort of job, dance all night and so forth.

Would Paramjeet be like that?

Grace rubbed her eyes and yawned. It was one in the morning, and she had been reading the file for the last two hours, yet Paramjeet Veer and the rest of the family remained a mystery. All that the thick file had contained were pages and pages of information on the company and its various subsidiaries.

That was the documentary’s mission. To discover all about the secretive family. She tucked her hand under her head and flicked the light switch.

Veer Singh. She thought of him again in the darkness. No wonder she had got the job. He must have convinced Ian to hire her.

Would the crew treat her differently since he had recommended her? Would they be extra nice to her?

She yawned again. The point of the documentary was clear enough. As for her job description, it was completely vague.

She would have to hound Mia, the girl who had sent her the file.

Mia. She liked the name. Perhaps she had flaming red hair?

She would know soon enough since they would see each other on the flight to India.

The flight which was going to take off in six hours.

She buried all thoughts of Veer, as well as her nervousness, into the pillow and tried to get some sleep.


Chapter Six

Extra nice. Hah! Grace grumbled under her breath.

All illusions of the crew treating her like a snowflake simply because Veer had recommended her fled the moment she reached the airport. The director, Ian Murphy, the handsome green-eyed man who had interviewed her, tossed two tripod stands and a backpack toward her and asked her to hurry up and check-in.

So, here she was, teetering under the weight of all the equipment as well as trying to manoeuvre the trolley containing her own luggage toward the check-in desk.

She adjusted the strap of her handbag and looked around at the happy families dotting the airport heading for a summer holiday. A pang of longing filled her as she watched a mother nuzzle a baby in her arms.

How nice would it be to be wrapped in a warm quilt and rocked to sleep like a babe? She glanced down at the luggage and sighed. It was terrible thing . . . growing up.

A young toddler dressed as a sweet little fairy princess danced over to where Grace stood.

The little girl smiled at her and offered her a pink plastic wand.

Grace went down onto her knees until she was eye level with the child. “Thank you,” she said, smiling and took the wand, admired it and handed it right back. “Your outfit is lovely. Are you travelling to your fairy kingdom?”

The girl nodded, giggled and held out her arms for a hug.

Grace hesitated. “Where are your parents?”

The girl pointed toward a couple running after a boy with no pants.

The father glanced toward them and nodded briefly before resuming his chase.

Grace looked back at the girl, who was now eyeing her with so much love and affection that she began to melt.

Perhaps her brother was a handful and her parents couldn’t help but neglect this sweet child. It was a shame really, for she was such a lovely girl with an upturned nose dotted with freckles, sparkling teeth and auburn curls.

She reached out and wiped away the smear of chocolate on the girl’s cheek. “What’s your name?”

“Lilly,” the girl said and lifted her arms again for a hug.

This time Grace didn’t have the heart to resist and gave her a little kiss on her forehead.

Lilly threw her chubby arms around Grace and held tight.

The next moment, Grace let out a shriek as Lilly sank her teeth into her earlobe.

Grace howled in agony while Lilly giggled in glee.

Grace shook her head, trying to dislodge the child from her ear. “Help!” she yelled.

Lilly’s parents came racing over holding the pantless boy between them.

“I am so sorry,” the father yelled.

“Truly,” the mother screeched, as she tried to pull the girl away with one hand while holding the boy with the other.

Their voices boomed over the general airport buzz, and amused faces swivelled in their direction.

The pantless boy grinned and upended a can of cola all over Grace and Lilly.

Lilly let go with a roar of anger that wouldn’t have been amiss among the warriors of Genghis Khan about to embark on a new mission.

Grace fell back as her throbbing ear was suddenly released. When the pain faded and her vision cleared, she found Ian and the crew staring down at her.

She smiled brightly at them, sprawled as she was on the floor, red-faced and covered in sticky cola. “How ya?” she hollered, cringing inwardly as she had never used that particular Irish greeting before.

They nodded politely, eyes dancing in amusement while one of them yanked her to her feet.

She kept the smile pasted on her face, all the while wanting to run out of the airport and back home to her mother.

“I am James,” the young man who had helped her up said warmly.

Grace forced her lips to stretch into a smile.

“You saved my life,” James continued. “Remember in the office . . . the fire?”

“I-I hope you’re fine now?” Grace asked.

He nodded, his brown eyes lighting up in admiration. “You are my hero,” he told her gravely. “My clan shall not suffer. It shall have its heir, thanks to you. Every single person in my village in Scotland knows your name. They are extremely grateful that you managed to save my precious jewels. We carry the blood of royals, and our genes are invaluable. It would have been a tragedy if my big jewels could no longer produce little jewels.”

“Oh,” she said, blinking rapidly. “Your jewels are public property?”

“They belong to a select few.”

“Are you serious?”


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