Close to You
THE PATHETIC STATE OF ALLISON Shire’s existence was perfectly summed up by the size-twelve prosthetic feet mocking her from the floor of the Mercedes minibus. Their hairy tops taunted her in ways she didn’t even have words to express. Nasty wretched fake hobbit feet.
Leaning back in her leather seat, she stretched out her real size-seven feet and wiggled the toes that poked out from the bottom of her dumpy dress. The green floral material bore a startling resemblance to the curtain clothes from The Sound of Music. If only. Give her hanging off trees and crooning “My Favorite Things” any millennium.
Instead, here she was, trapped in her own personal version of Sisyphus’s eternal struggle. Or maybe Dante’s first circle of hell—Limbo.
Allie attempted to steer her thoughts into a more neutral direction. No one ever mentioned that one of the downsides to an English-lit degree was an endless litany of depressing comparisons for a train-wrecked life.
She stared out the window to her left, where she saw yet another poster advertising the super-extended-version DVD release of the final Hobbit movie. No matter where she went, there it was. No escape.
Closing her eyes, Allie attempted to block it all out and luxuriate in her last few minutes of freedom, but even in her mind she couldn’t escape the irony of it all.
If life had gone according to plan, she’d be delirious about Peter Jackson’s success in turning New Zealand into Middle-earth for two epic trilogies. Plan. Ha. Her life could not have gone less to plan if she’d set out to do the direct opposite. If only getting her life back on track were as easy as returning a magical ring to the fires of Mount Doom.
Cracking open both eyes, Allie sighed. She couldn’t delay any longer: the time had come. Leaning over as much as the extra padding around her waist allowed her to, she grabbed the top of the left prosthesis and shoved her foot in. The rubber suctioned around her lower calf tighter than a swimsuit on a Baywatch babe; her foot was now encased in its second home for the next three weeks. She jammed her right foot into the other prosthesis, repeating the process.
The last moments of blissful silence were broken by her phone belting out its most obnoxious ring. Her whole body tensing at the sound of the opening notes rising up from the seat beside her, she eyed the flashing screen. It was always a fifty-fifty call as to which would cause less pain—answering or paying the price later for allowing it to go to voice mail.
Sighing, she picked it up. “Hello, Mother.”
“Allison.” Her mother’s clipped tone came across as clear as if she were sitting right next to her. Allie’s shoulders loosened
a little. The calls that heralded untold torment always opened with “Allison Marie.”
“Did you borrow your grandmother’s heirloom silver salad servers last time you were home?”
“No.” She resisted asking her mother what on earth someone who lived out of a suitcase would want with the family silver. Instead she waited, resigned to what was coming.
“I knew it! Your father is determined to drive me crazy.”
She loved how her mother wielded the designation your father like she had no connection with the man.
Allie bit back the urge to say that her father wouldn’t know a pair of salad servers if he sat on them. An overwhelming amount of evidence showed that even the most inane of comments could be misconstrued as a defense of him and would cause fire and brimstone to rain down on her head. Welcome to a front-row seat to the most dysfunctional marriage in the Southern Hemisphere.
“Have you asked Susannah?” Her socialite Martha Stewart protégée of an older sister had probably taken them for some dinner party or other and forgotten to return them.
“What would Susannah want with them? She has that lovely set of Chippendale ones.”
Allie fought the urge to bang her head against the window. “Mother, I hope you find them, but I have to go. I’m at the airport to collect some guests.”
Her mother sniffed. Only Veronica James-Shire could imbue even a nasal sound with disdain. “Really, Allison, when is this nonsense going to end? This living like a gypsy, hobnobbing with who knows what kind of riffraff—it’s almost more of an embarrassment than your original little stunt. Especially now that Grant’s political star is rising.”
She highly doubted her brother-in-law cared about her job, since that would require him giving more than a millisecond’s brain space to someone who served no purpose in boosting him higher up the political totem pole.
Allie dug deep and forced some gaiety into her tone. “I’m sure Grant has far more pressing issues to worry about than me. Lovely chatting, Mother. Good luck with the salad servers.” Stabbing the END button, she stood, shoving her phone into the pocket of her dress.
Clomping to the front of the minibus, she lifted a wig of frizzy red hair off her usual seat beside the driver. She tucked her own auburn bob under the cap, tugged at the curls until they sat straight on her head, and then pulled a face at her freckly hobbit self in the mirror. Why couldn’t she have been born tall and slender? At least then she would have gotten to be an elegant, regal-looking Elf.
If she’d known she was going to spend three years in PhD torment for it all to end in this, she never would have bothered. In fact, pretty much everything that had gone wrong with her life could be traced back to that fateful decision. She’d give everything she had, which wasn’t a lot, to go back and have a do-over.
The clock on the dashboard flashed up the digits that marked the commencement of another three weeks of stuffing her true self down where no one could find her. Time for Allison Shire, Hobbit Hater, to be banished and Dr. Allison Shire, Tolkien Lover, to appear. She’d play the part like her life depended on it. Because it did.
* * *
The last time Jackson Gregory had flown economy long-haul, George Bush Jr. had been president. The last time he’d taken a
bus, Junior’s predecessor had been in a bit of trouble over an intern. So he had no idea how he’d ended up spending seventeen hours with his knees up to his eyeballs, on the verge of subjecting himself to almost three weeks crammed in a decrepit road behemoth roaming a country he knew nothing about. On top of all that, he had to pretend to be obsessed with some movies he hadn’t even seen until yesterday.
Okay, if he was honest, he was excruciatingly aware of how he’d gotten here. He just preferred to forget along with the rest of the last six months of his life, which had ended with financial vultures picking over the remains of his corporate carcass like it was an all-you-can-eat buffet.
He picked up his pristine guidebook and thumbed through it as the plane commenced its descent to his final destination. Wellington, New Zealand. Home to not even half a million people. It was barely the microbe of a sneeze in terms of world geography. The entire nation couldn’t even corral five million within its dual-island borders. Countries shouldn’t be allowed to exist if they weren’t at least the size of Texas. No, forget Texas. At least the size of Montana.
He kept his expression neutral as he closed the guidebook. New Zealand better have real coffee. Next to him, his great-uncle emitted a rumbling snore from his open mouth. Not that he even needed the sleep, since he’d spent the L.A.-to-Auckland leg ensconced in lie-flat luxury at the front of the plane.
The intercom crackled, and the pilot informed them they were making their final approach. Leaning his head against the cool Plexiglas, Jackson peered down at the choppy waves below. Hills rose around all sides of the harbor, houses haphazardly teetering along the steep sides like something out of a
children’s book. A city built in hills right on top of a fault line. Crazy people. All of them.
His eyes scanned the vista as the plane lurched from side to side, bouncing from air pocket to air pocket as it descended closer to the roiling water. He had yet to see any evidence of anything they could land on, not even so much as a large grassy field with a strip cut through it.
At least the one thing he did have left to his name was a decent life insurance policy, the beneficiaries of which he’d had the foresight to change from she-whose-name-shall-not-be-mentioned to his parents before he left. Wouldn’t that have been the ultimate irony? The woman who had stripped him of everything he’d worked for also getting a few million dollars because of his exit from the planet.
Over his dead body. Which, actually, was beginning to look like a distinct possibility.
At the last possible moment, a strip of tarmac appeared out of nowhere; the only thing between it and the ocean was a flimsy fence and a sea wall constructed of large boulders. The plane dropped onto the concrete like it had discovered gravity and bounced a couple of times, the engine whining as the pilot hit the brakes. Peering out the window, Jackson caught a glimpse of a set of squat buildings as they taxied off the runway and the flight attendant droned on about staying seated, moving overhead luggage, and using cell phones.
The eyes of the elderly man sitting next to him fluttered open, gray orbs appearing underneath sparse eyelashes.
Stretching his spindly arms out in front of him, Louis—Jackson couldn’t bring himself to call him Uncle Louis when he had only met the guy a couple of weeks ago—rubbed his
hands together and grinned with the glee of someone seventy years younger. “Here we are. You ready for the trip of a lifetime, Jack?”
Jackson. He bit back the correction on the tip of his tongue. He’d left Jack behind in the cornfields of Iowa well over a decade ago and had no desire to find him ever again.
Something twinged in him at the unbridled excitement on his great-uncle’s face. The old man honestly thought he was being accompanied by a fellow Tolkien fan. Jackson stuffed the feeling of unease back down. The old guy would never know the truth. And Jackson would be whatever he had to be for the next three weeks, do whatever it took, to get Louis to write the check he so desperately needed.
* * *
Allie stood at gate 17 waiting for her remaining tourists to disembark. Taking a final glance at her client clipboard, she pondered the list of names, nationalities, and ages that would soon become faces. Hans and Sofia, a German couple on their honeymoon. Elroy and Esther, an American father with his tween daughter, and Louis and Jackson, an American man in his late eighties and his aide.
The remaining two, elderly twin sisters from England, had already arrived and were getting settled in at the Museum Art Hotel.
The Germans and father/daughter duo were clearly true believers, as they’d been peppering the office with obscure questions that only true Tolkien obsessives would ask. The English sisters had forwarded a list of requirements as long as Allie’s arm already, marking them out as high-maintenance. Only
the American and his much younger attaché were an unknown quantity, all details having come through one of their travel partners in the States.
She steeled herself, shoved her clipboard under her arm, and held up her sign with the Southern Luxury Tours logo and six names listed. The obsessives came first, virtually tumbling down the gangway in their eagerness and duly exhilarated by her ridiculous costume. It even earned her a rib-crushing bear hug from Hans, who turned out to be built like a tank. Handing the guests off to Marge, their driver, to go and collect their baggage, she waited for the final pair.
A few minutes later she spotted them. The elderly man had a cane but a surprisingly sprightly gait. His face was lined, but the slate eyes that peered out from under bushy eyebrows still held a lot of life. His aide was made for television. Dark hair, blue eyes, chiseled jaw, the whole cliché. Though rumpled, he screamed money from the soles of his Armani shoes to the tip of his trendy haircut. The whole ensemble would have been attractive if his expression hadn’t been that of someone who had just sucked a very sour lemon.
She struggled to keep her face in friendly neutral. Excellent. Just what she needed for the next three weeks.
The older gentleman walked straight up to her and held out his hand. “You must be our guide. I’m Louis Duff and this is my aide, Jack Gregory.”
The flicker of a wince crossed the aide’s face when his boss called him “Jack.” So he preferred “Jackson.” Interesting. She filed the tidbit away for future reference.
“Please tell me you at least have real coffee in this country.” The guy spat out the words in a voice that sounded like he’d
eaten gravel for breakfast. What a charmer. Clearly he’d missed a few crucial pages in the Lonely Planet guidebook she could see poking out the top of his leather man-bag. In particular, the ones where they’d christened Wellington the coolest little capital in the world and raved about the amazing coffee and food scene.
She ignored him and smiled at the older man as she shook his hand. “Lovely to meet you, Mr. Duff, and welcome to New Zealand. I’m your primary guide, Dr. Allison Shire.” Her academic title was out of her mouth before she realized. Usually she introduced herself as Allie. Let people work it out as they went along that she was probably the best-qualified tour guide on the planet. She didn’t even know why this time was different, except there was something about the assistant that grated on her—and they hadn’t even really met beyond his upturned nose. Like she needed to prove herself in spite of her ridiculous garb.
Mr. Snobby didn’t even bother to hide his surprise. “Doctor?”
She stared him down—or up, considering the top of her head only just passed his shoulder. “Would you like a copy of my PhD?” She held back where it was from. She’d keep that in reserve. Let him think it was from some third-rate place. She could see from the way he’d looked around the terminal that he’d already written her beloved country off as something barely higher on the international food chain than some war-ravaged African nation.
His mouth opened, then closed. Good.
Mr. Duff chuckled. “Please excuse Jack, Dr. Shire, he’s still a little grumpy from his time in coach.”
He wasn’t just grumpy, he was an arrogant sod. But she’d
dealt with far worse. She pasted on a smile. “Right, let’s get that coffee then.”
Six more tours, Allie. Just six more tours. Then you’ll never have to be seen as inferior by people like him ever again.
* * *
“Can we have two flat whites and a hot chocolate please, Matt?” Dr. Shire gave the order to the guy working the coffee machine. Doctor. Whatever.
“Actually, I’d prefer a latte.” Jackson hadn’t gotten where he had by letting anyone force their preferences on him.
She raised an eyebrow. “You asked for real coffee. I’m ordering you a real coffee.”
It was worse than his worst nightmares. Not even his wildest imagination could have conjured up some frumpy girl who barely came up to his chest, dressed as a hobbit, denigrating his beverage choice. And don’t get him started on the so-called Doctor. Yeah right, if buying it off the Internet counted.
Three takeout cups appeared on the counter. She picked up the larger one and handed it to his uncle, then handed one of the smaller ones to him. He took a tentative sip, preparing himself for something horrid.
The smooth combination of coffee and milk hit his tongue. It was good. Really good. He struggled to stop himself from closing his eyes in bliss. Couldn’t give little Miss Hoity Toity the satisfaction of seeing that he liked it.
“We should go and collect your bags.” She directed her comment to his uncle, who nodded and started walking faster than his age and cane should have allowed.
Fifty feet later the space opened up to a large atrium encir
cling a food court and retail shops. Large glass windows overlooked the runway. Hanging from the high ceiling, supervising it all, were two huge eagle sculptures, one with the wizard Gandalf perched on top of its back. Twenty feet farther on, surrounded by fish, hung the little goblin-like creature who had a thing for the ring. “It’s—” Jackson’s mind blanked.
She stopped, looked at him, waiting. Fortunately, his uncle had paused a few steps ahead of them and was also staring above their heads, so he hadn’t seen his nephew, who was supposedly as ardent a Tolkien fan as he was, flailing over the most basic of character names.
Think, Jackson, think. He’d crammed two of the movies on the plane. If he failed this most basic of tests he had might as well kiss the money good-bye right now and go home. There was no way he was going to survive three weeks.
It sounded like goblin but wasn’t. Gobbin? Grobbin? Gollin? “Gollum!” He announced the name triumphantly, like he was wielding some kind of trophy.
“Oh boy.” The hobbit—or should it be hobbitess?—stared at him with an incredulous look on her face as she muttered under her breath.
“I was just surprised.” His pathetic excuse sounded lame, even to him. He was going to have to make up a lot of ground to convince her he was a legit fan. Not that he cared what she thought, but if she didn’t believe it, it would only be a matter of time before she blew his cover with his uncle. That couldn’t happen.
The man himself appeared beside him. “Isn’t he brilliant? I’ve always felt sorry for poor Sméagol.”
Sméagol? Who on earth was Sméagol? This was Gollum.
Wasn’t it? He looked down at Hobbit Girl, the confusion obviously clear on his face because she was struggling to cover a smirk.
“Yeah, me too.” Time to change the topic, fast. “We should go and get our bags, right?”
He tried to catch the girl’s eye. His uncle had paid top dollar for this trip, and Southern Luxury Tours marketed themselves as the most luxurious in New Zealand. Presumably that included doing their jobs with some sort of discretion.
She smiled sweetly. “We never rush anything on our tours. They’re all about the experience. I’m sure your bags have already been collected, so we can stay here and admire Sméagol as long as Mr. Duff likes.”
He closed his eyes for a second. What a pain. He was going to have to find a way to get the girl on his side before she became a liability. There was no way he was going to allow his family’s future to be compromised by some snarky tour guide with a fake degree.
Fortunately, the one thing Jackson Gregory had never struggled with was charming the ladies. She’d be looking at him like he’d hung the moon in no time.
* * *
Allie eyed Jackson across the aisle of the company’s luxury Mercedes touring bus. There was something about him, deeper than the patronizing arrogance, that jarred her. She didn’t know what, but she didn’t like it.
She couldn’t give two hoots that he wasn’t a Tolkien fan. Frankly, they were great to have on a tour. The more the better. It was the obsessives who drove her nuts, wanting to dis
sect every last nuance of the books, convene a debate club every other second on the shortcomings of the movies, and practice their Elvish. She’d had plenty of rich people bring their assistants who couldn’t give two figs about The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. They usually spent their days managing things back on home turf and making sure their boss’s every whim was catered to.
People who had sheep phobias, people who freaked out at the sight of green food, people who had to have their hotel room at exactly 19°C, people who always had to have the bathroom on the right side of the room, people who ordered special food flown in from all over the country—she’d seen it all. Jackson Gregory was not a Tolkien fan, but he desperately didn’t want his boss to know. Maybe it was for the dullest of reasons, but she was going to find out what they were. She liked Mr. Duff. There was no way he was getting taken advantage of under her watch by some guy who looked like a C-grade soap opera star. Especially not when he clearly had some serious money if he had paid for Jackson to come on the tour. In her experience, serious money tended to attract some serious lowlifes.
She pushed down the swirling emotions that threatened to come up at the thought. Only six more months and she’d be finished dealing with all the carnage that Derek had left in his wake. Then she could return home having salvaged some pride. Think about starting to rebuild her career.
She’d learned her lesson. Love had no place for Allison Shire, and she was fine with that.