Country Love - Page 30

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Instead, I open up his Wikipedia entry and keep on reading, compelled to know more about the man.

The picture that accompanies his article is the same headshot I keep seeing everywhere, and once again I feel that strange fluttering in my belly as I stare at the screen. He is handsome in a way that can only be described as "rugged," as if Bradley Cooper and Chris Hemsworth somehow had a baby who grew up to be a CEO.

And he wasn't just your average CEO, not by a long shot. Carter Easton was Easton Ventures. His annual shareholder meetings brought movie premier levels of excitement, and the accompanying press was always breathless in its coverage. He seemed to enjoy stunt appearances too, whether it was the summer he tested out the new line of mountaineering equipment by climbing all of Colorado's fourteeners himself, or building a submersible to test the depth resistance of the Easton brand of diving watches. He started Easton Ventures as a touring company and quickly moved it into a brand. His brand. He was an adventurer, a maverick and people wanted to be just like him. And the press loved him.

And then he just disappeared.

I close Wikipedia and go back to my search. I scroll back up, wondering if I had missed something. I knew about the disappearance, but what I didn't know, was why.

And then I find it. The very first article, oddly enough in the business section of the local paper, titled rather ominously. "Easton Ventures Founders as Rumors Swirl Around CEO."

The first paragraph was terse enough to make my lip curl.

"Easton Ventures, the outdoors behemoth, took a nosedive in the markets today amidst rumors of charismatic CEO Carter Easton's nervous breakdown. Easton, 28, has not been seen or heard from since the night of the fiery wreck that took the lives of his parents, Annika and Dale Easton. Carter Easton blames the paparazzi for chasing his parents' car under the mistaken impression that he was in it. Easton's PR team is scrambling to repair the damage done by a garbled and disturbing press release sent out by Easton himself in which he vows to seek justice in the courts by any means necessary."

I sit back in my office chair and nervously chew on my fingers. Is that all? There has to be more. I search again, this time for latest news Carter Easton, and the very same headline I saw in the checkout aisle pops up again.

"The Broken Billionaire: Why is Carter Easton Hiding?"

The language in this article is much more florid, going into wild, speculative detail about his reasons for disappearing. But a few paragraphs stand out.

Cocky, swaggering Easton was once the darling of the glitterati, part of the clique of rarified jet-set explorers who aren't content with the idleness of the rich. Carter Easton was a man of action. Impulsive to the point of recklessness, he still had the magic touch necessary to smooth any ruffled feathers.

But now the ruffled feathers are his own. Sources close to the Eastons say that he spends all of his time in seclusion on his own private island, unwilling, or rather, it seems, unable to set foot on the mainland. Those same sources say he visits the company that bears his name only under the cover of darkness and that he has all but given up control of the company he founded to crusade against the paparazzi.

When I am done reading, I swallow back the sick feeling fluttering in my stomach. A reclusive, paranoid weirdo, and I'm supposed to meet with him tomorrow. On his private island…where I will be completely at his mercy. No one has seen, or heard from him in two years, and yet I'm supposed to just fly off in his private helicopter like a lamb to the slaughter.

I grab my phone and fire off a text to my best friend Tricia. "I'm going to meet with a client tomorrow. I want you to check and make sure I make it home okay."

She beeps back. "You afraid of axe murderers?"

I shiver a little. "Something like that."

Chapter Five


A private airport!

So that's what this is!

I have my epiphany as I make the turn into off the highway. I must have passed this strip of land a million times in my usual back and forth commute from downtown but I had never considered what it was. It was hidden in plain view, only recognizable to those who could use it.

This is a familiar feeling and once again I have to wonder if I will ever stop feeling like a pretender. No matter the expensive shoes, the prestige makeup, the polish and the poise, I can never truly blend in with my wealthy clients. And try as I might to keep it at bay, the resentment still rears its ugly head. That feeling of being on the outside, looking in will never leave me, no matter how many years separate me from my childhood.

When my mother woke me in the middle of the night and told me to grab my things. When we left the house of the man we had been living with as quietly as we could. The months spent in and out of shelters, my mother's exhausted sobs in the cot next to mine...

That is the part of my story that I gloss over when I speak of it now. When I give my PR statements and press releases, I always emphasize the positive outcomes. The literal rags to not-quite riches part of my life. How we finally scraped enough together for a studio apartment with paper-thin walls. How I hustled to get back to grade level when I was finally able to attend school again. How I succeeded even with the odds stacked against me.

I leave out the difficult bits. Like how I learned to blend in and adapt by planning out every word. How every thing I said and did became scripted and rehearsed. How I would practice in the cracked mirror that sat on my rickety bedside table, miming laughs and smiles; practicing a poise I didn't possess until it was a mask I could slip into and wear comfortably. My mother worked long hours and I was left alone a lot, and I used that time alone to plan. Very soon I was able to fit in anywhere I went. Adults praised my maturity, my poise, my professional demeanor. They didn't know it was the only way I had survived.

I spun those skills into a business. After working at a bridal salon, I set those planning instincts into motion for a client, who hired me to finish everything for her when she suddenly found herself pregnant. That was the first time and the last time in my business that I was caught unprepared. By the time my bride waddled up the aisle, hugely pregnant, Sanniyah Jones Events was born and I was off and running.

Now I can blend in effortlessly.

But Carter Easton's wealth is on another level entirely.

I swing my car into the space where I'm directed, my mind whirling. A private island, how could someone possibly need all that space, all that privacy? Reclusive be damned, he has to have an ego the size of the island itself, I decide. A billionaire recluse, it is almost too clichéd to be real. Deep down, he has to want to show off his fortune. That was probably why he wanted to host the wedding. That had to be it.

I accept the pilot's helping hand and step in to the helicopter like it is nothing at all to me. As he runs his checks, I'm sitting in the seat, trying to harden my heart. This is no big thing to me at all, I try to say with my body language. I ride on private helicopters every damn day.

But it is impossible not to feel my breath catch in my throat as we lift off and zoom out over the white-capped ocean. It shimmers below us in the summer sunlight, showing the colors of turquoise in the shallows giving over to the deep indigo of the depths.

Annika Island is directly ahead, sitting like an emerald jewel in the sapphire sea, curved like a crescent moon, the two points aimed towards the mainland. A huge mansion sits above the bay, white and gleaming like a pearl necklace along the throat of the island, clinging to the cliff through some marvel of architecture. As we fly closer, I can see the white, sandy beaches in detail; little hidden coves dotting the shoreline. My heart gives a little unwelcome lurch both from jealousy and a twinge of fear. My hand wanders down to clasp my cellphone. I still have full strength; I can call Tricia if I need to.

The landing is so smooth I barely realize we are on the ground until the pilot turns to help me exit. The helipad is attached to an air-conditioned garage, filled with cars, at least fifteen that I can see although three or four hulking shapes

underneath tarps tell me he has even more. Where the heck does he even drive this many cars? He lives on an island and commutes via helicopter! The ridiculousness of Carter Easton is firmly entrenched in my brain by now.

I am scoffing at him, even as the planning wheels are turning. This is indeed an incredible location for a wedding. I step out of the elevator into the first floor and stand stock still, taking it all in.

The walls are all glass, doors flung open to the sea breeze, the scents of the sea wafting in on the light breeze. I turn my head and inhale the whisper of jasmine and wonder if it grows wild in the tress in the wooded interior.

"Hello?" I call into the wide-open space. There is no one there to greet me, which I find odd. The helicopter pilot flew off immediately after dropping me off, explaining that Mr. Easton allowed him to eat dinner with his family most nights, and that he'd be back just as soon as I called. I try to ignore the feeling of being trapped and tap out another message to Tricia. "Here on the island. Will check in soon."

"Hello?" I repeat, stepping forward. The whole first level is wrapped in an immense, deep deck as large as the interior space. I am already moving towards it before I realize I should probably wait to be invited. But dammit, if no one is going to be here to greet me, how can I be invited?

Once I step out onto the deck, it hits me. This is sheer perfection. There was never a more perfect place to hold an intimate wedding. I can already imagine the set-up. A sunset wedding out on the beach, cocktails on the deck, the colors of pink reflecting off of the gentle peaks of the waves, while the sky above flames in oranges and violets. A white pergola at the shoreline, the groom dressed in white linen, the bride's hair loose and flowing. I will suggest maids dresses that compliment the colors of the sky above, perhaps several different shades of the same dress.

Already the picture is forming in my head.

I stand on the deck, the gentle breeze lifting my hair and brushing against my skin like a lover's caress. I am sunk so deeply in my own, solitary vision that I startle badly when I realize I am not alone.

Tags: Mia Caldwell Erotic