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Xander Mac is coming home.
If Bonnie Callaghan saw those words one more time, she was going to scream. Every blank wall in the small town of Kurrajong Crossing had a poster declaring the golden boy was coming back. As if he’d ever left. To her knowledge he dropped into town every couple of months to check up on his grandparents. The only reason he hadn’t been in town recently was an extended tour of Canada and the United States. He’d finished the tour with an appearance at Music City Center in Nashville at the beginning of June.
His next gig was Xander Mac and the Highlanders in concert as the culmination of the Christmas in July celebrations here at the Crossing. Not that she’d been following his career. Living at the Highland Inn—his grandparents’ bed and breakfast—she had all the gossip about his doings spoon-fed to her over the breakfast table. And the lunch table. And the dinner table. Florence and Donald MacDonald absolutely doted on their grandson.
He hadn’t even arrived in town yet and she was sick of hearing about him. Bonnie remembered him as chubby Alex MacDonald whose only claim to fame was winning the solo violin section in the eisteddfod three years running. That was before he’d switched to guitar, joined the gym, and grown his hair out from the crewcut Flo inflicted on him.
She mentally rolled her eyes and tightened the scarf around her throat. She could barely see across the mall, the leaden sky obliterated by precipitation. Tonight’s event was seriously under threat if the weather continued to worsen. Sleet battered the boardwalk along the lakeside, stinging like grains of rice against her cheek. It was a relief to reach the warm interior of the cupcake shop. The smell of cake and coffee was divine. A pity she couldn’t have the cakes and had no time for the coffee.
“Your order is ready to go.”
Bonnie smiled an acknowledgement at the owner as she took off her gloves. Cat van Alden had a Marilyn Monroe vibe going, apart from her dark hair. She always looked immaculate. Bonnie resisted the temptation to take off her beanie and check her braids were still intact. There would be guaranteed hat hair happening. Her nose was probably pink from the cold, and the rest of her skin most likely blue.
“It’s freezing outside. Do you think they’ll still be able to do the tree-lighting ceremony?”
Cat squinted through the window. “It could clear later, according to the weather report. I think they’ll decide mid-afternoon. It won’t be nearly as much fun at the community centre.”
Tapping the inn’s credit card for the box of cakes, Bonnie agreed. “Hopefully the threat of more snow won’t keep people at home. The B&B is booked out and Mallory Jayne tells me she’s had to turn people away.”
“Has Xander Mac arrived?”
Repressing an inward shudder, Bonnie shook her head. “Not when I came out an hour ago.”
“He’s doing a half hour set at the tree lighting tonight isn’t he? Give people a taste for the big fundraising concert.”
“So I’m told.” Over and over again.
Another customer came in and Bonnie tugged her gloves back on and picked up the box. She would have preferred an excuse to stay and chat, but she needed to get back to the B&B to prepare lunch. Although, if Xander Mac was flavour of the month, a chat would overload her Xander tolerance.
Back at the Highland Inn, Bonnie transferred the cakes into a sealed container and placed them in the pantry. They made a nice addition to the picnic baskets the inn supplied to guests on request. She could cook cakes for the visitors herself, but it hardly seemed worth it when she could get them made and Cat always gave her a good deal for bulk. She said it was good advertising. Which was true, if the number of customers asking where to stock up on the cupcakes for their trip home was any indication.
Satisfied with her preparations, she looked around at the kitchen. It had been upgraded over five years ago with money Xander gave to his grandparents after his first album went platinum. Flo had asked Bonnie to help with the design and it was pretty much her ideal kitchen, gleaming with stainless steel and copper and all to code.
She’d been employed here years ago part time to help Flo with the cooking, so it had been a logical choice for the couple to ask her to come back when Flo broke her wrist. Being responsible for the running of the whole B&B was a different level of responsibility, even with Flo available in an advisory capacity. It would certainly look good on her CV for the future.
The rest of the inn was decorated in a country-house style, making good use of the beautiful timber panelling and stairs, lightening the whole with floral soft furnishings and curtains. The dining room had been furnished with mismatched wooden tables and chairs, collected from sales or auctions and beautifully restored by Don over the years. It was surprisingly popular with some of the wedding groups looking for that rural ambiance.
There were a couple of residents having lunch in house; most of the guests were off touring the district or trying the numerous eateries in the popular tourist region. The wineries were widespread and several of them had restaurants attached. When she’d arrived home three months ago, after being away for nearly four years, she’d been surprised by how many changes had occurred in the town as it geared up to be a premier holiday destination. It was still home, though. She’d missed it even in the excitement of travelling to new places.
Having served the two solitary diners a rich minestrone soup with crusty bread from the local bakery, and preparing hot drinks for them, Bonnie set a tray with the same meal for Flo and Don, taking it through to the flatette where the older couple lived, at the back of the large house.
“Are you eating with us?” Flo inquired as Don tucked into the soup. Flo was more tentative, still struggling to use her left hand with the other in a cast.
“I ate in the kitchen, while I was making the coffee.”
Flo brightened. “Is that foreign-looking gentleman still here?”
“Mr Tsiarkas? Yes, he was having lunch.”
“He’s so odd. I almost never see him go out during the day, only at night.”
Bonnie suppressed a smile. It was no wonder Flo flourished in her chosen career. She was an inveterate but kindly gossip with a passionate interest in other people. It must be stressing her out to have to take things easy. Once the doctor gave her the go-ahead, she’d be back on deck with her maternal interest in all the guests. “He’s not foreign. He speaks with an Australian accent.”
Her spoon halfway to her mouth, Flo paused. “Do you know where he goes at night?”
“I imagine he goes out to eat. I’m sorry I’m not good at winkling information from our guests, Flo, but he’ll be here for a while. You’ll have your chance.”
“Do you think he’s a … vampire?” The word came out in a hushed tone as if he could hear her from the other side of the building. For a woman in her late sixties, she had a vivid imagination, fed by the paranormal romances she loved to read. The guest looked the part, with his black hair smoothed back from a widow’s peak and parchment skin stretched over a face that could belong on a male model. She was about to make a laughing response when a tingle at the nape of her neck warned her of approaching danger. Not a vampire. Unfortunately. Bonnie was certain she could handle a vampire far easier than Xander Mac.
“A vampire? Granny dearest, you obviously need to cut down on your reading and get back to the real world.”
He meandered into the over-furnished sitting room with all the swagger of the cowboy he’d never been. Unfortunately, he did it well, mesmerising his audience. A tight-fitting white T-shirt was tucked into tighter jeans, with a tartan-checked flannel shirt loose over the top. This was Xander Mac at his most appealing, his blond streaky hair damp from the weather and a wide smile that could sell a million albums before he opened his mouth to sing.
He gave his grandfather a quick hug and leaned over the back of Flo’s chair to kiss her on the cheek. “Good to see you, Gran.”
Blue eyes stabbed at Bonnie’s heart, pushing it to a gallop, bringing back memories she’d tried so hard to suppress. “Hi, Xander.”
“Hi, Bonnie,” he mimicked with a sly smile. Before she realised his plan, he swooped to kiss her on the corner of her mouth, the tang of his warm breath so familiar she froze under its spell. He wasn’t usually a touchy-feely person. She was one of the few exceptions here in town, and she was never quite sure if it were a good thing or bad. His lips lingered a little too long for a merely friendly kiss and she fought against the temptation to turn into it, to taste him again. Definitely bad.
He saved her from humiliation by spinning away to sit across from his grandparents at the small table crammed into the corner of their private apartment. “Tell me what’s been happening, people. Seems like forever since I was here.”
He looked around with a softness in his expression that surprised her. Years ago, in his teens, he couldn’t get away fast enough, the duty visits few and far between. As his grandparents aged, he’d come back more frequently and stayed longer. That hadn’t changed, as far as she knew, in the years she’d been away. This last tour of North America had been longer, on top of a previous tour covering four other continents.
He’d called them regularly, at least once a week. He’d never asked to speak to her, though he must have known she was staying at the inn. He’d be twenty-six now, almost twenty-seven, nearly a year older than her. Ready to settle down? Surely not. He had years ahead of him, his career still on an upward trajectory. The rumours in the press about it being a farewell tour had to be mere speculation brought on by the tragedy.
Trying not to disturb them while they talked, she collected the plates and headed into the kitchen to make tea for the older couple and coffee for Xander.
She was collecting the plates and cups from the dining room when the tingle came back. She smiled at Mr Tsiarkas when he murmured a polite thank you, tearing himself away from his smartphone to make the token gesture. Not good for her ego, even though she wasn’t interested.
Xander leaned against the door into the hall, ankles and arms crossed in a classic cowboy pose. Did he never stop posing for a moment? The trademark smile was absent, until he saw her looking and it sparked up like he turned on a switch. Probably had a whole set of switches for his Xander Mac persona.
“Can I help you?”
“Gran says you’re in my room, so I was wondering where I’m sleeping.”
“Sorry, things have been frantic. I can shift the rest of my things now. Let me get rid of this tray and I’ll come straight up.”
His glance at the loaded tray suggested he might offer to carry it, but she turned towards the swing door into the kitchen. “Take your luggage upstairs and we can sort it out.”
He was waiting for her at the door of his bedroom, a large black case with airport labels and stickers identifying it as a frequent traveller and a battered backpack at his feet.
“You could have gone in.”
“I didn’t like to intrude.” The smile was missing again. Now they were alone, he wouldn’t think it worthwhile doing his Xander Mac thing.
She went past him into the room and pulled a suitcase from under the large four-poster bed. It was furnished much like the guest rooms, but Flo didn’t inflict the florals on Xander, decorating it in a deep-blue damask all year round. “I don’t have much, it won’t take me long to shift everything.”
“Where are you going to sleep?”
“The little back room.”
She grabbed a bundle of shirts from a drawer and led the way down a side hallway past a couple of storerooms and a bathroom to the back of the house. He reached past her to open the door when she hesitated, both hands occupied with her clothing.
“You plan on sleeping here?”
“It’s not that bad.” It was small and old-fashioned, with twin beds and a vintage timber wardrobe with half hanging space and the other half drawer and a mirror set inside the door of the hanging space. The main disadvantage was the lack of an en suite bathroom. “Tamara used it before she got her driver’s licence. Now she goes home. She cleans the rooms.”
He ran long elegant fingers down the silky oak wardrobe. “Tamara still works here?”
She straightened, wondering at his surprise. “You know Tamara?”
“She took over some of the housekeeping when you left four years ago. Working after school and on the weekends. It would’ve been hard to miss her.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I guess we were never here at the same time before. I don’t really know her apart from working together these last few months. She was still a kid when I left for Canada.”
“I didn’t expect her to still be working here.”
“It works well with looking after Colin.”
“Didn’t you know?”
“I wasn’t sure. She called him something else when I’ve been here. A nickname.”
Bonnie couldn’t help smiling. “Coddles. He rebelled once he turned three. Everyone has to call him Colin, including his mum.”
“They’re doing okay?”
“It’s tough, but her dad is supportive and she likes working here. She gets to meet people, which she wouldn’t if she stayed home on the farm.”
He nodded, his gaze unfocused. “I think I should sleep in here.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t get my things shifted. The inn is full to overflowing so this is the only spare. The one I’m in is your room, you should have it.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be staying. It’d be stupid to move you out for a few weeks. I understand you plan on being here a couple more months.”
“I don’t need to go back to Canada until the beginning of September.”
“We did a show at Calgary. I meant to go visit you at the ski resort, but when I rang you’d left to come back here.”
“Your gran needed help. My contract was coming up for renewal. It worked out.”
“But you’re going back?”
It wasn’t what she wanted, not that she could tell Xander. “They said they’d have me back. It’s a big resort with three top-class restaurants, plus the usual bars and cafes. They’d find a place. I’m not fussy.”
“You’re into snow sports?”
She laughed. “Nope. Still two left feet. It’s a nice place with nice people. I like the crew.”
“Fair enough.” He picked up the shirts from where she’d dumped them on the bed. “We’ll take these back and I’ll bring my stuff around.”
She followed him from the room, pushing aside the half-remembered desire to follow him to the ends of the earth. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. I’ll hardly be in my room, anyway. I have the concert to get organised. The roadies will arrive in a week.”
“Where are the other guys in the band?”
“Staying at the pub on the mall. We decided a few years back, it would be better. Leave me more time for the grandparents.”
It seemed like he was over-explaining. “It would have been a squeeze to get them in anyway. Most of the rooms were booked twelve months ago by people who attended last year’s festival.”
“Not surprising. Better get moving. I left my gear at the pub ready for tonight and the guys are expecting me.” He shoved her shirts back into the half-open drawer and pushed it closed. “Are you coming tonight?”
“Yes. Don says he can handle any late check-ins.” It’s not like it was all about him. She would have gone anyway for the sake of the community spirit. Not that she had a reason to make excuses.
He hefted his backpack over one shoulder, his lean frame stronger than it looked. “I’ll drop my bags in the other room and head off. Catch you later.” A flash of his brilliant smile and he was gone. Bonnie sat on the bed and stared at the space where he’d been. It had been four years. Plenty of time to get over him. Except that a hundred years would never be enough. Especially when he didn’t seem to realise they weren’t an item anymore. Or was he treating her like a friend?
Friend might even be worse.
Xander dropped the bags onto one of the beds and plopped down beside it. He could tell from her blithe, impersonal friendliness Bonnie still hadn’t gotten over the harsh words at their last meeting. Now he had to imagine her in his bed, knowing he wasn’t welcome. It was almost four years since her nan passed on. He’d thought, finally, she’d come away with him. Instead, she’d shot through to the other side of the world. Out of reach. He’d pushed for the Canadian leg of the tour with the band, only to find her gone by the time he arrived close enough to make a casual contact seem unplanned.
He could have flown directly there when he first found out where she was hiding, only it would have meant missing a visit home. And also swallowing his pride. There’d been so much happening at the time; Bonnie’s defection had been put on the backburner. Between problems within the band, which could have ended their careers, and his concern for his grandparents, he hadn’t had room in his head to deal with the way he felt about her leaving.
He hadn’t appreciated what his grandparents had done for him as a teen. Once he was out in the world he woke up fast to how lucky he’d been. He now had money to throw at them, but it was time they needed and deserved. They’d been abandoned too, by their only daughter, Christine. His mother was still out there somewhere, but she hadn’t been in touch for more than fifteen years. He had no idea where Sunny, his older brother, went. He’d gone missing around the same time, but not necessarily in the same direction. At least Sunny had a choice being already sixteen. Xander had been too young at barely eleven.
Stifling a groan, he picked up the backpack. It had everything he needed for the performance tonight. He’d stop by and let his grandparents know he was heading out. They wouldn’t be going tonight to the outdoor venue, but he’d fixed up tickets for them for the big concert. He’d organised one for Bonnie, then changed it to two in case she was seeing someone. He’d gritted his teeth when he’d spoken to his manager about it, but he suspected Roger knew the smile was fake. It was getting harder to call the damn pearly whites out on demand.
Downstairs he spent a couple of minutes with Flo, who told him Don had gone to order more wood for the fires. More likely have a natter with his mates at the hardware store. His grandfather had an arrangement with the owner to supply offcuts from the sawmill, since he’d had to give up cutting his own wood more than a decade ago.
Xander was putting his heavy coat on in the foyer when Bonnie came out of the dining room.
“I thought you’d gone.”
“I stopped to chat with Gran.”
She looked tired, her skin tight over her broad cheekbones. He’d always thought her beautiful, but there was an ethereal look about her with her fair skin contrasting with the black curly hair escaping from the closely woven plaits on each side of the centre part. French braids, she called them. He’d watched her more than once, plaiting the long strands as tight as she could to try and keep the curls under control. She’d had a sprinkling of freckles across her small nose as a teen, but they’d faded over the years. Like his. It had been something they had in common. One of many things, or so he’d thought.
“Are you all right?”
He came back to the present with a jerk. “Still a bit jet-lagged. Once I get this thing tonight out of the way, I’ll be able to relax for a few days. The guys are planning to take off to the coast. They’ll be back in plenty of time to start rehearsals for the concert.”
Her green eyes dulled. “I was sorry to hear about Tinker.”
His stomach lurched at the mention of his former bass player. He’d grown up with Tinker, in the same grade at high school, along with Leo Farrell, the other original bandmate. Even when he didn’t always like Tinker, there’d been that connection. “Yeah. It was a bit of a shock. We knew he’d been seriously playing around with the stuff. Didn’t expect an overdose.”
“I suppose you had to find someone else halfway through the tour?”
“Leo stepped up. We didn’t really need a second lead. I covered it and he did the bass.”
She looked lost for something to say. “Lucky you had him.”
“Lucky.” The whole thing had made the band look at where they were going. Another good reason for this break at home. Decisions would have to be made. After ten years, the boys were restless. Financially, none of them would ever have to work again. Tinker had pissed his money away long before his death. Xander could still feel the anger at the waste.
“Look, I have to go. I’ll see you tonight.”
End of Excerpt