Teach Your Heart

Tracey Alvarez

 

Chapter 1

 

Two and a half months. Dear God, he was royally screwed.

Owen Bennett pushed down on the gas as the cars ahead drove around the two-car accident on Highway 1 going south. He swallowed past a gritty throat and wrestled with his tie, finally loosening it enough to drag it over his head. Undoing the top button of his white shirt, he glanced at the ambulance parked on the shoulder.

Beyond the box-shaped vehicle, a paramedic crouched beside a young woman who flinched away from him, cradling her right arm.

“Come on, now,” Owen muttered. “Let him take care of you. It’ll be okay.”

He narrowed his eyes as he slowly edged past the scene. Maybe a comminuted fracture? But since the young woman wouldn’t be transported to his smaller regional hospital, now a hundred and fifty kilometers behind him, the soon-to-be-admitted patient would be Whangarei’s problem. Not a problem for “Dr. O-for-Awesome,” as the emergency department nurses often called him in front of his youngest patients.

He blew out a hissed sigh, then drained the last of his black coffee—a double shot of java, since he’d just come off a ten-hour shift—and signaled to turn off the highway toward the peninsula on the northern side of Whangarei Harbor.

His dad, voice gruff with worry but attempting to remain stoic, had called two weeks ago. Owen’s mum had been admitted to Whangarei hospital “after a wee heart attack”—his dad’s words. So Owen had driven the normal two-hour trip down from Bounty Bay in record time. At legal speeds, of course, since he’d called a colleague to check on his mother’s condition and was satisfied she’d be okay until he got there.

Maureen Bennett’s wee heart attack and subsequent tests had unfortunately exposed a more serious issue, but his mum had breezed through her triple bypass eight days ago and was due to be discharged home the next morning. Where she would require at least eight to ten weeks of gentle recovery. Minimum.

Owen pulled into the The Heads Waterfront Holiday Park driveway. The newly repainted sign hadn’t started to fade, even though the summer was turning into one of the hottest on record in the Far North. The trees lining the drive were neatly trimmed so the roofs of holiday caravans and RVs could enter without damage from overhanging branches. Dad had obviously been out with his trusty chainsaw.

Gripping the wheel, Owen adhered to the five kilometers per hour posted speed limit and drove past the neat rows of permanent campers toward the holiday park’s office. The campground overlooked the pristine waters of Whangarei’s beautiful waterways and harbor, and the last rays of sunshine sparkled off the waves and golden sand beach.

Paradise…for some.

He winced as his parents’ seventies-era house bus loomed into sight. Twelve meters of snot-green metal, patchwork curtains hanging in the many windows, a hand-painted Rambling Gypsies sign above the huge windshield, and a steady stream of smoke winding out of the chimney. As the middle child, it’d been his job to fill and lug the crate of firewood to the small hearth behind the driver’s seat. And it was Russian roulette whether or not you stuck a hand on a pissed-off spider or weta while dragging the logs from storage in the bus’s underbelly.

Owen parked in front of the small prefab building used as the office and got out of his car.

Through the prefab’s windows he could see his dad, sunglasses shoved on top of his thatch of salt-and-pepper hair, glaring at a laptop screen. Richard and Maureen Bennett had acted as managers/caretakers of the holiday park for the last two years. Before that? Let’s just say there were very few areas of New Zealand the Bennetts hadn’t lived and worked in. They’d led the gypsy life, dragging Owen and his two siblings around the country with them for most of their childhood. Until the Ngata family in Bounty Bay agreed to let sixteen-year-old Owen board with them while he continued to attend secondary school.

His dad raised a hand in greeting and closed the laptop, likely forgetting to save whatever he’d been doing, since it was Owen’s mum who did the administration work. He opened the office door and hurried over to Owen, his flip-flops slapping on the path.

“You made good time, son,” he said. “What was your average speed, do you reckon? You divide the kilometers driven by how many hours—”

“I didn’t notice. Sorry.” Owen interrupted another one of Richard’s frequent, teachable moments by tossing his empty coffee cup into a nearby trash can.

Sometimes, Owen was convinced his parents suffered from some weird form of memory loss, as if he were still a homeschooled ten-year-old whose brain was an empty pitcher waiting for them to fill. He softened his words by stepping forward and hugging his dad, slanting a glance at the house bus looming behind the office like a giant green slug with wheels.

Home-schooling hippies. Nomads. Trashy, no-good gypsies.

“How are you holding up?” Owen asked.

His father returned his hug fiercely, adding a couple of manly back slaps and then let him go.

“Better now that Mum’ll be home tomorrow.” He shook his head. “Thirty years she’s been my partner on the road. Doesn’t feel right when she’s not next to me in the Gypsy.”

“You sure you can cope with her in the bus?”

His dad arched an eyebrow. “We’ll be fine. I know you don’t approve, son, but it’s our home, and she’ll bounce back faster in Gypsy than in some institution for old folks.”

Owen held up two palms. “All right, then.”

“We appreciate your concern and stepping up to help.” His dad shoved a hand in his shorts pocket and jingled loose change.

Owen almost expected him to pull out a twenty-cent coin and offer it to him like he used to when Owen recited his twelve times tables correctly.

“And you know we wouldn’t ask if there were any other way.”

That Owen was his parents’ last choice came as no surprise—hell, he would’ve left his name off the short list of helpful possibilities in this situation, given his credentials. “I understand.”

He followed his father along the side of the office to the house bus. He hesitated at the bottom of the three steps that led inside the bus, feet welded to the Wipe Your Paws welcome mat. He’d raced up and down those stairs so many times as a kid he could’ve done it sleepwalking. But today was different. Today, he’d be leaving a different man.

We wouldn’t ask this of you if there were any other way…

Not if Owen’s older brother, Daniel, hadn’t been deployed with the New Zealand Armed Forces overseas. Not if… Owen climbed the first step and came face-to-face with a framed photo of his big sister, Alison, her husband, Shaun, and their three smiling kids. His chest tightened, the coffee in his stomach turning acidic.

Not if

“Say hello to Uncle Owen, kids.”

His father’s voice jerked Owen’s attention away from the last photo taken of his sister with her family. He turned to look at the two kids seated on the bus’s narrow couch.

“Hello, Uncle Owen.” Ten-year-old William’s sandaled feet dangled just above the floor, and he sat slumped down, arms wrapped tightly around a shabby-furred plush shark and a large book entitled, 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Sharks & Shark Attacks. Good to see his nephew was interested in science, but sharks? Morbid, much?

“Hey.”

Thirteen-year-old Morgan greeted him with the same enthusiasm she’d have shown one of her grandparents’ bowling club cronies. Dressed in black jeans, baggy black tee shirt, and black Chucks, with her dark curly hair somehow unnaturally straightened, all she needed was black lipstick and liner to complete the goth look. Hell if he’d mention it, though, since he didn’t fancy being reamed out by his mum for suggesting her eldest granddaughter wear makeup.

“Hi, kids,” Owen said. “Weren’t there three of you last time?”

Morgan’s eyes rolled roof-ward, while William, at least, cracked a small smile.

“Charlie’s just getting changed. Again,” William said.

Ahhh. Owen glanced down the bus’s length, past the crazily well-organized small kitchen. Past the accordion door leading into the tiny bathroom. Past the single bunk built into the wall, which used to be Ali’s bed but was now William’s, to where the aisle split into a small alcove where his parents slept. The two stairs next to the walled-off alcove led down into what Owen and his big brother used to call the bunny-hole, where another two bunks were squeezed into the bus’s belly.

A little head popped out of the hole, all dark curls and a wide smile.

“Uncle Owen, Uncle Owen!” The girl clambered up the last step and did a twirl so Owen could get the full effect of yellow tee shirt, yellow leggings, yellow gumboots and…was that a yellow tutu? He barely had a moment to appreciate the color coordination before four-year-old Charlotte launched herself down the bus and exploded around him with huggy, grabby arms.

“I’m a Minion!” She beamed up at him, his right leg in her death grip. “Guess which one? Guess!”

“Ah…” Owen shot a glance over to his father, who was zipping up a little pink backpack. “What’s a Minion?”

His dad paused zipping and pulled out a DVD. He waved it in Owen’s direction. He got a glimpse of bright yellow things dressed in dungarees on the cover before his dad shoved the DVD back into the bag.

“Trust me,” his dad said. “You’ll know all their names and have every line of dialog memorized by the end of ten weeks, right kids?”

“Right,” Charlie said. “And I’m Stuart.”

“Right,” William said. “And remember, we’re only allowed to watch one movie a day after homeschooling’s done.”

Morgan continued to examine her bitten-to-the-quick fingernails while Owen’s dad helped Charlie into her backpack.

“Right,” Owen said, eyeing up the two hefty suitcases. Two and a half months of Minions and sharks and attitude. I am so totally screwed. “Are we all ready to hit the road back to Bounty Bay?”

 

***

 

Two months after suicide bombers attacked a London nightclub six blocks from where she worked, Gracie Cooper’s heart still punched into her throat at the sound of anything remotely explosion-ish. Like someone knocking over a display of glass liquor bottles at the Duty Free store in Auckland’s International Airport.

Perusing expensive perfume as gifts for her sister-in-law Erin and soon-to-be new sister-in-law Savannah—which, yeah, total daydream since a block of chocolate was more in line with Gracie’s budget—she dropped into a half crouch. A strangled whistle of air escaped her lungs, and it took a full three-second countdown before her nervous system stopped screaming B.O.M.B.

She opened her eyes, removing her palms from her ears. Not a bomb.

Just smashed glass, the rising smell of alcohol, and a sour-faced sales assistant hurrying past. Veins still pumping with adrenaline, Gracie grabbed two chocolate blocks. She stared at a third while New Gracie fought a small but bloody battle with Old Gracie. New Gracie struck the fatal blow with the reminder that her brother, Judgy Jamie, would be waiting in arrivals. She resisted the siren call of the extra bar of chocolate and headed for the service desk.

The arrivals terminal was packed with humanity and a colorful array of luggage. As she walked toward the exit, Gracie scanned the crowd for her eldest brother, looking for his slicked-back hair, his boring suit, and a perpetually harried expression. 

Oh—she halted a few meters from a bank of straight-backed plastic chairs. Check the list for slicked-back hair and an I am a corporate lawyer super-conservative suit. Add an impatient scowl, an extra twenty-something years, and a smartphone glued to the older man’s ear. Crap.

James Cooper, Senior. Her father.

Fight or flight instinct kicked in. Her gaze whipped left to what appeared to be a formidable-sized family reunion blocking the path to the outside world. To the right stood a wild-eyed brunette dressed in boyfriend jeans, a sloppy cable-knit sweater with a red tartan infinity scarf, and a huge hiker’s pack strapped to her shoulders. Yeah, that was her panicked reflection in the plate glass window of a souvenir shop.

Front and center again—and her father’s cool stare locked onto her like a missile detector. He stood, tucking his phone into an inside pocket of his pinstriped suit, and ate up the distance between them with long strides.

“There you are,” he said, as if she were a child who’d wandered off through the crowds and become disorientated.

Welcome home, Gracie girl.

She forced a smile onto her lips. “Hi, Dad. Thought Jamie was picking me up?” She’d concoct a suitable vengeance to wreak on her brother when she got to his place.

“James’s meeting went on later than expected.”

“I’d have been happy to catch a taxi to his place.” She glanced at the cabs lined up outside the terminal. “I can still get one. Then you can go back to the office.” The law offices of Cooper, Clarke & Davis were more her father’s home than the house she grew up in, in the wealthy Auckland suburb of Takapuna.

“Change of plans while you were in transit.” Her father gave a small tug on his perfectly knotted tie. Grimaced. “Reece has just come out with chicken pox. Michael’s been exposed and spots won’t be far behind, since according to Erin, he’s already running a fever.”

Two sick kids in her brother’s household—guess she could cut Jamie a break. She’d planned to stay with him and Erin and the boys for a few days until jet lag had run its course, and she could figure out what to do next.

“Poor kids,” she said.

With a grunt, her father headed for the exit. “Public school, what did they expect?”

Gracie refrained from commenting and trailed after him into a stunning, sun-kissed morning. Clear blue skies stretched overhead, the air clean and fresh, even with the steady stream of taxis and private vehicles clogging the pickup zones. She hesitated at the zebra crossing, glancing up at the huge, triangular signs above the entrance with City of Sails emblazoned on them.

Home. Familiarity. Safety.

She hadn’t set foot in Auckland since she’d left with her pack, passport, and a fourteen-thousand-dollar university debt, just before her twentieth birthday. Four years ago now.

“The parking meter is still ticking.”

Her father’s voice snapped her out of a moment’s nostalgia.

“Five minutes before I’m charged for another hour,” he added.

“Sorry.”

Gracie strode across the road, the sun beating down on her face making her squint. After enduring half of a perpetually gloomy winter with two roommates cramped in a three-bedroom flat, she’d forgotten how unforgiving the harsh summer sunshine was in New Zealand. She dumped her loaded-with-everything-she-owned hiker’s pack into her father’s Mercedes and climbed into the passenger seat. No words were spoken as they left the airport and pulled into the busy stream of traffic heading back toward the central city.

She used the time to study the changing face of Auckland’s motorway system out of the window, all the while hunting through her mental files for anyone she knew locally who’d let her couch surf for a couple of nights. She hadn’t kept in contact with the few girls she’d known at the snotty private school her father had enrolled her in, and her fellow Bachelor of Commerce uni friends had since completed their degrees and moved to other parts of the country or overseas. That left, well, no one she knew well enough to ask.

“Before you head over to the Shore, just drop me at the YMCA hostel in the city,” she said.

Gracie didn’t miss the curl of her father’s lip at the name of the backpackers’ accommodation in downtown Auckland.

“My daughter is not staying at the Y.” James avoided the first available exit that would’ve taken them into the city. “You’ll stay with me.”

In the house she’d grown up in, where nothing had changed since well before her mother had died during Gracie’s second year of university. She referred to her family home as “the mausoleum,” or “the morgue” if she was having a particularly bitter day. “I’d rather stay in the city, thanks. It’s only for a few days—a week, at most.”

“How on Earth will you afford a room in the city on a bartender’s income? Unless you’ve got a nest egg stashed somewhere?”

Truth was, Gracie had only managed to scrape up enough cash to afford her airfares home. With her credit card maxed out—and no, she didn’t have any leftover savings from the highest-paying job she’d had, as a Swiss au pair last year—and this student loan hanging over her damn head, two nights in the city were more than she could afford. But the alternative of being trapped in the morgue with her father?

“I was working in a café,” she said. “Not a bar. Maybe you’re thinking of the two innocent women who died serving drinks in a nightclub two months ago.”

Her father’s cool blue gaze flicked to her side of the car. The impending lecture on how the youngest Cooper child had screwed up her life would begin in T-minus thirty seconds. If needed, Gracie could deliver from memory a word-for-word summary of her father’s usual lecture. How she was irrational and impulsive, blah-blah. How she’d ruined her education by not finishing her degree, blah-blah. Wasted opportunities by bumming around Europe and working in low-paying jobs, blah-blah-blah. How her mother would spin in her grave. But the one time her father had thrown that stinker in her face, she hadn’t spoken to him for six months afterward.

“It could’ve just as easily been you, Grace,” he said.

“I know.” Gracie clenched her hand resting on the armrest until her short-clipped nails dug tiny crescents into her palms. “That’s why I’ve come back.”

Just as her other friends in Camden had drifted away after the attack. A few, like her, had returned to their home countries. Others, like her two housemates, had no choice but to continue living and working only a short distance away from the burned-out nightclub. It was a constant reminder that nothing and no one was safe from terror. Gracie had hung on as long as she could, returning to work each day to stand behind the enormous espresso machine, but with half an eye always directed out at the crowded street. Would today be the day strangers forced their way inside?

Finally, a few weeks ago, a phone call had come from her brother Glen. He was the middle son who’d walked away from his career as their dad’s lackey. Six years older than her, she and Glen had something in common, at least.

“Come home, Gracie,” he’d said. “Stay with me and Savannah in magical Bounty Bay. I’ll teach you to surf.”

She’d laughed down the long-distance line, but her eyes had filled with hot tears. “It’d have to be magical, because you’re a sucky surfer.”

But after she’d disconnected, she’d given notice at the café and had cleaned out her bank account for a one-way flight home.

Now her father accelerated past the final exit into the city, heading along the busy motorway to the Auckland Harbor Bridge.

“Hey.” Gracie watched the green exit sign flash by. “You missed the turnoff.”

“We have matters to discuss.” He glanced over his shoulder then changed lanes. “Including a junior position that might open up at one of the corporations I represent.”

“You’ve got me a job lined up already?” When she’d only stepped off a plane less than an hour ago? She shouldn’t be surprised, but that was fast—even for “time-is-money” James Cooper, Senior.

“Am I mistaken in thinking you’re not on vacation?”

The Mercedes flowed like liquid silver over the bridge. Auckland Harbor spread beneath it, and sailboats of all different sizes buffeted along the white-capped waves. Gracie kept her face turned away from the cluster of skyscrapers lining the harbor front. Above the metal and glittering glass loomed the distinctive spaceship topped Sky Tower, where she’d once plummeted a hundred and ninety-two meters on a BASE jump—after accepting a dare from Glen.

She focused through the windshield ahead to a large catamaran heading out to the Hauraki Gulf. She wished she could hitch a ride and convince the skipper to sail straight north to Bounty Bay. But no, her father was right about one thing. She wasn’t here on vacation. At least, not only on vacation. God knew she needed a few weeks of R&R to clear the toxins of fear and stress from her system before she entered the workforce again.

“I need to work, but with no formal qualifications, even a junior position is waaay above my pay grade.” Nor did she know if she even wanted to set foot in that world again.

“It’s entry level, and I have some influence with the company. If you got the job, you could go back to university—continue your degree part time.”

Eighteen-hour days spent cramming her square peg into a round hole to fit into the corporate world…plus study on top. Sounded fun. Not.

Her father took her silence as Gracie flipping him off.

“You have a responsibility to pay off your student loan in a timely manner,” he said. “Menial jobs will only make repayments that much harder.”

Menial jobs like the ones she’d spent the past four years working her ass off at so she could contribute a pittance toward paying off her loan. Years of long hours on her feet earning minimum wage, but she’d been out in the big, wide world, where she wasn’t living under a microscope. Where people didn’t know anything she didn’t choose to tell them. Where she was often just “that kiwi chick with the big smile and cute accent.”

“I hear exotic dancing pays well.” The words dropped from her mouth before she could censor them. Ooops. Blame it on the jet lag.

The muscles around his mouth tightened subtly.

“That would be squandering your talents.”

“After thirteen years of ballet, it’s about time that particular talent paid for itself.” Though what her actual talents were—other than having a smart mouth—she’d yet to pin down.

A soft snort from the other side of the car. “I guess exotic dancing isn’t any worse than penning fairy tales.”

A little dig at Glen, who’d landed a three-book deal last year for his fantasy novels. But as well as the dry resignation in her dad’s voice, there was a hint—just a smidgeon, really—of pride warming his words.

Maybe Dad had finally mellowed out of his Darth Vader-like must control the Rebel Alliance way of dealing with his children.

“We’ll discuss your future plans—or lack of them—over dinner tonight. Six, sharp.”

Gracie sighed and stared out the window again. Or maybe not.

 

©Tracey Alvarez 2016