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Stella’s

Emancipation





RK Ryde

This is the second book in the Stella Series.

For the first book, Stella’s Awakening, please click here:

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Copyright © 2016 RK Ryde

All rights reserved.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



To my tribe


“She took a leap of faith and grew her wings on the way down.”

- David Brinkley -


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I’m eternally grateful to my wonderful husband and our beautiful daughter for their continued support during my writerly journey.


My thanks also goes to Brigitte, my amazing editor, for putting up with me and all my bad spelling and grammar.


And I can’t forget all my fabulous friends and Insta Buddies – you know who you are! Thank you for all your support and encouragement and for loving Conrad and Stella’s story as much as I do.


Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.


RK Ryde



CHAPTER ONE

My alarm clicks on, the six am news reaches my ears. “Get up,” it’s telling me. “It’s Monday. A new day. Time for a run with Duke before you head into the office and work your creative magic over your clients’ abodes. Life has returned to normal.”

But it’s not normal. How can it be, when my heart has been ripped out and sacrificed to the Witnesses?

Somehow I manage to roll myself over and hit the snooze button, silencing news from the outside world. I don’t want to know about any of it. With my eyes squeezed shut, I pull the bed covers over my head, blocking out the fact it’s a new day.

I want to remain in the dark. The dark is comforting. I can find peace in the dark.

But I don’t find peace. Or comfort. The ache in my heart from last night is still there. The new day hasn’t changed anything. Painful memories slice through me like a hot knife. I clutch my chest, digging my fingers into the soft flesh while I gasp and choke. Hot tears sting my eyes.

I’m stuck.

I’m stuck in a situation that I don’t want to be in and can’t do anything about, without hurting everyone around me. I’ve already hurt Conrad. I didn’t jump like he asked me to. I said goodbye. I let him go. If I run to him now, in the light of this new day, and tell him I’ve changed my mind, I stand to hurt everyone else in my life.

Another surge of pain wracks my body. It’s fierce and raw and I struggle to breathe. No matter what decision I make, there will be casualties. And it’s all my fault. The guilt is almost too much to bare.

I hold my breath and listen to the sounds infiltrating my blanket cocoon. The radio alarm has comes back to life with the haunting song, ‘Say something’ by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. The painful truth of the words pierce my darkness, my heart. I don’t want to give up on him.

I can’t bear to hear another taunting word. He is the one that I love. Frantic, I fling back the blankets.

“No!” I snatch my alarm from the bedside table and reef it so hard the cord pulls free from the power outlet. I don’t want to say goodbye. I sit in the deafening silence, holding the redundant contraption in my hands, while my face contorts, and ugly sobs wrack my body.

Between my tears I see my parents’ faces smiling from the picture frame on my dresser on the opposite side of the room. They smile at me while I suffer in my own private hell.

“Argh!” I scream in sheer frustration and hurl the alarm across the room. My aim is off and I miss the photograph. The alarm slams instead into the vase sitting beside the frame.The vase Conrad gave me shatters into a million little pieces.

“No!” I shriek, scrambling off the bed and onto the floor. I scoop the broken shards into my trembling hands. “I can’t lose you,” I sob, sitting on the floor like the pathetic mess that I am.

“Is everything okay in there?” My father’s worried voice, accompanied with a soft knock, calls through the closed door.

“Go away!” I screech. He’s the last person I want to see right now.

He knocks again, louder this time. “Sweetheart, please, open the door.”

Sobbing, I ignore him and slump to my side, with the jagged fragments of clay clutched to my chest. I’ve destroyed the only thing I had left of my beautiful man.

Duke nuzzles around me, whimpering, and I sink my fingers into his fur.

“I’m coming in,” my dad says, pushing the door open and striding inside.

I curl my body into a protective ball and clasp the broken pieces closer. I won’t let him take them. He’s already taken Conrad.

“Sweetheart, come home with me. Come back home to mum and me.” I feel him kneel beside me, his arms encasing me, bringing me to a sitting position.

I shake my head violently from side to side. The thought of being back at home with them, being a sixteen-year-old girl again, jolts me from my inertia. “I have a business to run,” I say flatly and pull myself to my feet, trying my best to look as determined as humanly possible.

As dreadful as I feel, life must go on. I have clients waiting. There is work in progress and there are appointments to keep. “I’m going to have a shower,” I inform him and walk stiffly into my en suite bathroom.

After kicking the door closed, I gently place the pottery shards on the countertop and stare at them, thinking how they resemble my heart – shattered. I burst into tears again and hold on to the sink for support.

Duke whines and scratches at the door from the other side, reminding me that I should take him for a run, that I should keep my routine. What’s done is done. I have to move on. Besides, the run might do me some good.

“Come on, boy,” I say to Duke as I open the door. Duke spins excitedly on the spot as he waits for me to change into my running clothes.

Downstairs, my father is fussing about the kitchen. He stops what he’s doing when he catches sight of me coming down the stairs.

“What would you like for breakfast, love?”

“Nothing. I’m taking Duke for a run.”

Ignoring my father and his penetrating stare, I pull Duke’s lead down from the hook on the wall and clip it onto his collar. We head outside and when we reach our usual jogging track, I release Duke and watch him run off ahead. I follow him and find my own pace, letting the pounding sound of my feet on the dirt track fill my head. I don’t want to think about anything. I have to block it all out. I can’t allow any space for yesterday’s atrocities to creep in.

Running in a trance, I push myself harder than usual. The scenery blurs as I run faster. The pain in my legs and chest helps dull the pain in my heart.

Suddenly, Duke barks from up head and my daze is broken. My skin prickles. He rarely barks. I start to sprint and follow the sound of his yelps. Rounding the bend, I find Duke, hackles raised, barking franticly, in the middle of the track.

“What is it boy?” I pant, slowing to a jog as I cautiously approach him.

My trainers slide in the gravel and I skid to a stop as soon as I spy what has his attention. A poisonous brown snake, its upper body raised prepared to strike, lies in the middle of the track. Duke pounces forward, barking at the serpent.

“Duke!” I scream, jumping backwards. “Get away!”

Ignoring me, Duke dances around the snake, dodging its strikes as he snaps at it.

“Come!” I yell with desperation. “Heel!”

The last command finally grabs Duke’s attention and he stops to look at me. The snake takes its opportunity and lunges forward. I watch in horror as its bared fangs sink deep into Duke’s chest. He yelps and shakes off the snake, which slithers back into the bushland and out of sight.

“No, no, no,” I cry, scooping him up into my arms. “I can’t lose you too!” I’m not sure how long it takes for the venom to take effect, but I know I don’t have long.

“Stay with me, boy. Stay with me,” I sob the words over and over like a mantra, begging him to stay alive as I dash with him back along the track toward home.

I make it to the parkland and my house is finally in sight. Only now do I feel Duke’s weight. My arms ache, my lungs burn and my heart beats so hard it feels as though it’s going to explode right out of my chest.

“Dad! Dad!” I scream as I stumble across the park. “Dad! Dad!” I keep yelling as loud as my exhausted lungs will allow until I reach the road in front of my house.

My father appears in the doorway and rushes down the steps, meeting me on the front lawn. My body gives way and I collapse, heaving, onto the grass.

“What happened?”

“Snake!”

My father nods, and takes control, cradling Duke’s head in his hands. He lifts an eyelid with his thumb and Duke’s eyeball rolls back, revealing mostly white.

“Is he still alive?” I sob, my worst fear coming to mind.

“Yes, but only just. We have to get him to the vet. Now. Where are your car keys?”

My mind runs back to the last time I used my car and where I left my keys. Painful memories of driving home from the committee meeting hit me like a steam train. The following avalanche of recollections, including my non-disfellowshipping, and saying goodbye to the best thing that ever happened to me, leaves me feeling like I’ve been run over by said train.

“Uh, in my handbag by the dining table,” I utter, with my eyes and mind trained on Duke, my precious baby who is slipping away from me. I can’t lose another being in my life. My heart won’t be able take it. It would break me once and for all.

I double over and bury my face into Duke’s neck. “Please boy, please stay with me.”

The sound of the car backing onto the driveway startles me back into action and I attempt to stand with Duke in my arms.

“Here, let me,” my dad says, jumping from the idling vehicle. He scoops Duke up and cradles him to his chest. “Get in and I’ll place him on your lap.”

I rush around to the passenger side, jump in and push my seat all the way back to allow room for Duke. Dad leans in and places Duke carefully in my arms. I cuddle him close as dad speeds off. I call the vet en route. She’s waiting for us the moment we pull up.

“You said it was a brown snake?” she confirms as she directs us into one of the sterile treatment rooms.

“Yes. Will he be okay?” I ask, wringing my clammy hands while dad lays Duke’s limp body onto the stainless steel counter.

“I’ve checked our stores, and fortunately we have anti-venom on hand,” the vet informs us. “I just need to give him a quick examination,” she adds, parting the bloodied fur on Duke’s chest to inspect the puncture wounds.

Just hurry up and administer the anti-venom, I think, as I pace up and down the claustrophobic room. The posters of cute puppies and fluffy kittens do nothing to cheer my sober mood.

“Love,” Dad says, catching me as I pass him. “She’s doing all she can.”

“I know, it’s just...”

“I know,” Dad sighs, and wraps a comforting arm around my shoulders.

A nurse enters through a sliding door at the back of the room carrying a metal bowl with a syringe in it. “Here’s the anti-venom you requested.”

“Thanks.” The vet takes the bowl and places it on the table beside her.

I watch with growing agitation as she continues inspecting Duke, lifting his paws, checking his gums.

I can’t take the suspense any more. “Aren’t you going to give it to him?” I cry, stepping forward.

“I’m sorry, I’m afraid it’s too late,” she says, turning her soft, apologetic eyes toward me. “Unfortunately, the bite was too close to his heart and there was a lot of venom. There is nothing we can do. He won’t last long.”

My heart stops. My world stops. It can’t be true.

I won’t survive another heart break.

“No! You’re wrong. You can’t give up on him,” I say, sounding more determined than angry. Malcolm refused medical treatment for Alexander all those years ago and my son died. I won’t let it happen again, not to Duke. Not when I have a say in the matter. I pick up the stainless steel kidney dish and thrust the bowl toward her. “Give it to him. Please!”

“Stella,” my father says mildly, taking hold of my arm in one hand and the dish in the other.

I elbow my father out of the way and turn my watery eyes back to the vet. “Please,” I implore her. “Please, you have to try!”

“I’m sorry,” she says gently, shaking her head. She shuffles to the door at the back of the room. “I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes,” she adds before slipping through and closing it behind her.

The room spins and my world falls away. I’m not saying goodbye. I move to Duke’s side. “Duke,” I sob, my body folding over his. This is not how I imagined he would go. Not like this. Not yet. Not now.

I curl my arms around his limp body and lift him from the cold, unyielding table. Crumpling to the floor, I cradle him tightly against me, lacing my fingers into his soft fur. “Don’t leave me,” I sob as I stroke his head tenderly, willing him with my touch to stay alive. “Not now. I need you. Please. You’re all I have left.”

A shuddering breath leaves Duke’s lungs, and his body goes limp in my arms. “No!” The word laced with fear climbs up my throat and exits my mouth on a heart-breaking cry. I’m truly alone now. I have no one. Nothing.

Honey,” my father says tenderly, crouching down beside me. He rests a hand on Duke’s lifeless head, and wraps his other arm around my shoulders. And I let him. I don’t pull away. His strong arm feels like comfort, and memories of a happy childhood.

“Daddy.” I bury my nose against his chest and his fatherly arms embrace me. The dam of tears breaks, and I sob.

“Come home with me.”

The heartbroken, fearful, lonely part of me responds, and involuntarily, my head bobs up and down. “Okay.”

CHAPTER TWO

As my father pulls out of the driveway, I look back at my home I was so proud of. My home that brought me great joy and was the symbol of my success.

Now it is a shell. A house. Nothing is the same anymore. I have lost everything that meant something to me. I’m glad I’m going. There are too many painful memories here. Everywhere I turn are reminders of Duke. Reminders of Conrad.

“Your mother is so happy you’re coming home,” my dad says, pulling me from my darkening thoughts.

I turn to look at him. Hope shines in his eyes. He has me where he wants me – in his care and under his protective wing. I know it’s going to be suffocating, but it’s what I have to do. It’s the lesser of two evils. Now that I’ve lost Duke too, I know I won’t be safe on my own.

Not wanting to get sucked into conversation with him, I pull out my phone and dial my office, figuring I’d better let Josie know what’s happening. My father’s hand instantly leaves the steering wheel and shoots out, grabbing my phone.

“I’m calling my office,” I hiss, narrowing my eyes on him and snatching my phone back. “I’m supposed to be at work. My secretary will be frantic.”

“I thought you might have been calling him,” he says, emphasising the word ‘him’ with his usual disdain as he returns his gaze to the road ahead.

This is what it’s going to be like living under his roof again, I think, lifting the phone to my ear. It’s going to be a nightmare of overprotection and surveillance. I won’t be able to breathe.

I listen as the call connects, but rather than hearing Josie’s standard greeting in her usual, chirpy tone, the answering machine clicks on. My brow furrows as I check my watch. Josie should be there. I grip the device tighter and wait for the professional message to end and the beep that signals my turn to speak.

Hello? Josie?”

I hear the phone pick up. “Stella! Is that you?” Josie’s voice comes out panicked.

I pull myself up straighter, a cold chill creeping up my spine. “Yes … what’s going on?”

Oh my god, Stella! The phone has been ringing off the hook! I think every newspaper and gossip magazine has tried to call. I thought you were one of them. I’ve been letting all the calls go to voice mail. What time are you coming in? I don’t think I can keep them at bay any longer.”

My stomach churns, despite it being empty, and I think I’m going to be sick. This is obviously the reaction to the photo in the weekend newspaper. My name was given, so of course people will be able to find me now. Even Conrad said it was easy, and he only had my first name.

Go home, Josie.”

What? Aren’t you coming in?”

No,” I sigh, my sadness resurfacing. “I probably won’t be in all week.”

Are you and Conrad sneaking off for another island escape?” she giggles.

Hearing Conrad’s name causes my stomach to plummet. “Just cancel everything I have in my diary for the rest of the week and put the answering machine on. You may as well take the week off too. I’ll pay you, of course.”

Stella, is this about the pictures of you from the Adam’s charity ball? It’s been all over the net. You’re big news.”

No, actually, my dog died. I’m going to stay with my parents for a break.”

Oh, Stella, I’m so sorry.”

Thanks. I’ll be in touch.”

Of course. Take care.”

I end the call, flick the phone onto silent and throw it back into my handbag. I exhale with relief that I left my work phone at home. If the papers have been calling the office, for sure they will been hounding my mobile as well.

I’d like you to stay more than a week,” my father says.

Dad,” I sigh. “I can’t. I have my business to take care of. A week off will be bad enough. I have clients waiting and jobs in progress.”

Work isn’t everything you know. There are a couple of boutique design companies in Bowral. I’m sure with your experience and training you could easily get a job with one of them. Then you wouldn’t have the added pressure of running your own company. You could even get part-time work and start pioneering again.”

I turn and gape at my father. He has just confirmed what I always knew – he has never been happy with me running my own business. I stare at the side of his head as he keeps his eyes trained on the road. There are so many things I could say in retaliation to his hurtful comment, but of course I don’t. Shy of conflict, I decide to keep my mouth shut. Like I always do. Like a good girl. And like the true ostrich I am, I lower my chair back, close my eyes and succumb to the rhythm of the road, letting the monotonous hum fill my empty soul.

I wake with a start, my father’s palm on my thigh making me jump. “Sweetheart, we’re home.”

Home.

This is not home. This is my living nightmare. Home was what I was going to have with Conrad – and Duke. The heaviness of my sorrow consumes me and it takes all my inner strength to rouse myself and climb from the car.

“Honey!” My father calls out as he heaves our suitcases from the back of my car. “Honey, we’re home!”

My mother opens the front door, slinging a blue chequered tea-towel over her shoulder.

“Oh, Stella, darling,” she croons, grabbing me and pulling me into her soft body. “I’m so sorry.”

Sorry for what? I want to ask her. Are you sorry that I lost Duke? Or could it be because you and Dad have made me say goodbye to the best thing that ever happened to me? Or are you sorry that I have to be back here, as a grown woman, living under your roof again and following your rules?

“Me too,” I sob, collapsing into her embrace. And I am. I’m sorry I couldn’t run fast enough to save Duke’s life. I’m sorry I still believe I may see my darling boy, Alexander, again, and I’m sorry for saying goodbye to the only man I’ve truly loved.

“Shhhh,” my mum hums, stroking my head. “It will all work out. You wait and see. At least you’re here now and your dad and I can take care of things.”

Her words hold no comfort. They leave me feeling cold. I don’t want them to take care of me. I know what that will entail. It will mean rules and meetings and reproof and all things proper.

A shiver runs down my spine and I extricate myself from her hold.

Go on in and get yourself settled. I’ll be in to check on you soon.”

I nod numbly and walk past her into the house. I never imagined I would be back here so soon, especially under these conditions. I push open the door to my room and fall onto my bed, curling into a small ball. I feel small. I am small. I’m a small girl living back at her parent’s home.

I am no one.

I am empty.

I am alone.

“Sweetheart, dinner is ready,” my mother calls with an accompanying knock on the door.

I can’t go out there. I can’t face them. How can I look them in the eye and eat a meal with them and chat and be happy? It’s not possible. Even faking it is beyond me.

“I’m not hungry.”

“You’ve been in there since this afternoon. You should eat something.”

I ignore her and continue staring at the wall. Eventually, I hear her leave and I watch the shadows lengthen and the room darken. Finally the darkness envelops me, taking me into a deep, haunting sleep.

CHAPTER THREE

I wake with a gasp and sit bolt upright. Sweat clings to me, as does my dream. It was so vivid. I was happy in his arms, until my father … until the Witnesses... I rub my face in my hands. The pain of losing Duke is still raw. But the pain of losing Conrad is beyond belief.

The room is filled with early morning light. There is nothing more I would love to do than curl back up and hide beneath the bed covers, but I swing my heavy legs off the bed and I make my way to the family bathroom. The door is closed and I hesitate. I check my watch. It’s a quarter past six. I raise my closed fist to the door as it swings open, and a cloud of steamy air wafts out and engulfs me.

“Stella, good morning.” My dad steps from the steam, wearing his striped robe and a matching Cheshire cat grin.

“Dad, hi, good morning,” I mumble. I drop my head and shuffle awkwardly around him.

He grabs my elbow, forcing me to look at him. “It’s for the best, love. You know that, don’t you? I’m so proud of you making the right decision and choosing life.”

My empty stomach churns. He might believe that, but I certainly don’t. How can this pain be for the best? How can it be for the best that two people who love each other are forced apart – for what? Religion? A belief?

A burning need to leave this house and to head back home boils inside me.

“I need to go…” I shift from foot to foot, accentuating my urgency to get away from this painful conversation more than my need to pee.

“Oh, right, sorry.” He steps out of my way. “Join us for breakfast, your mother is dying to catch up with you and we didn’t see hide or hair of you last night.”

“Sure,” I nod, shutting the door between us, and wishing I could shut off my unnatural need to please him just as easily.

I wipe the foggy mirror and stare at my reflection as I wash my hands. I look drawn and sad and lonely. I think about going home, but the thought of returning to an empty house feels like a knife plunging straight into my heart. And the thought of not being able to find comfort in the arms of Conrad feels like the knife twisting. My earlier idea of escaping from here evaporates like the steam around me and I crumple to the floor in a sobbing heap.

“Stella, love,” my mother calls, rapping on the door. “Let me in!” comes her panicked cry as the door handle rattles.

Dragging my heaving frame along the floor, I reach up and unfasten the lock. My mother bursts inside and falls down beside me, clutching my head to her ample chest.

“Shhh, sweetheart, please, don’t cry,” she croons in my ear as she rocks me gently. “I know it hurts now, but eventually everything will be okay.”

“No, it won’t!” I bellow. “Don’t you understand? He’s gone!”

Her arms tighten around me. “Shhh, I know, love. That can’t be helped. He had such a wonderful life and he was so lucky to have had you.”

My fists clench and I fight the desire to throw my head back and scream. They assume that my pain and regret is because of Duke. And yes, I miss him terribly and yes it’s a tragedy he’s gone, but don’t they understand? Don’t they realise Conrad and I had hopes and dreams and plans?

But of course not. I knew this. This comforting is for my loss of Duke. There is not a shred of compassion in their hearts for my loss of Conrad. The sobering thought has me up on my feet and wiping my nose with the back of my hand. “I’m okay,” I say, with not nearly enough conviction.

She eyes me warily as she grabs the bathtub and gets to her knees. I take hold of her upper arm and help her the rest of the way up.

“You know we’re here to help you, love,” she says, looking into my eyes and wiping my tear-dampened hair away from my face.

“I know,” I mumble. I turn away from her. I can’t bear to look at her anymore, or to succumb to this false sense of security. But a small part of my brain tells me that she loves me and she doesn’t want to see me go back down the dark path of depression like I did after Alexander’s death.

“Come on, let me make you some breakfast,” she says, gently pushing me out of the bathroom and toward the kitchen. I glance longingly at my bedroom as I’m shuffled past. The overwhelming desire to go back to bed and fester has me stalling my feet.

“Mum,” I whine, “I’m not hungry. Truly. I just want to go back to bed.”

“No,” she says firmly. “No good will come of that. You need to be up and about and eating.” She shoves me again, pushing me forward. I know resistance is futile.

Reluctantly I slump down into my chair at the kitchen table. My father, carrying a steaming bowl of porridge, takes his seat with me at the table, where his bible and Daily Text book are already open. “Thanks for joining us. I’m sure you’ll feel better after a bite to eat.”

I nod and look down, tracing my finger along the golden lines of the fake marble pattern on the Laminex tabletop. Awkward silence wafts about the kitchen, mingling with the scent of warm toast and fresh coffee.

After what feels like an age, my mother returns to the table, placing a plate of banana on toast in front of me, and a cup of coffee for my father, before returning to busy herself at the bench once again. I let out my breath and pick up the toast. I’m not hungry, but if I’m eating, at least I won’t have to talk.

“Just wait for your mother and we can pray together,” says my dad, placing his hand on my arm, halting the toast’s ascent to my mouth.

“Oh, of course.” I drop my toast and watch the slices of banana bounce off as it hits the plate. My previously measly appetite has now completely vanished.

“Okay, I’m ready,” my mum chirps, sitting down with a cup of tea for herself and one for me. She places them on the table and lays out her hands. My dad takes up one of her hands and I take the other. Respectfully I bow my head. Disrespectfully, I roll my eyes and listen to my father thank Jehovah for the food and the new day and the fact that Stella has made the right decision by confessing her sins and returning to the flock.

Seriously? I think. When will this ever end? Will I ever live this down? How many times will this be thrown in my face? How will I ever survive?

“Amen,” they say. My mum gives my palm a little squeeze before releasing it, compelling me to look at her. Her eyes shine, but I see the worry lingering just below the surface.

“Let’s read the day’s text together, shall we?” my father announces, drawing my attention to him.

He appears proud, pleased to have me back under his wing, sitting at his table and under his command. “Today’s scripture comes from Revelation 3:16, where Jesus is speaking to the Christians in Laodicea. Stella, will you please read it for us?” He looks at me as he passes the small paperback booklet in my direction.

Our eyes lock. I’m fifteen all over again. He raises his chin. It’s a challenge. Am I going to submit? Do as he asks? My heart pounds.

I shake my head, placing my hands in my lap.

“Here, I will.” My mum, the eternal peace-keeper pipes up and leans over, taking the booklet from dad. He sighs loudly and I feel the weight of his stare linger as my mother begins to read:

So, because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.

“Thank you Linda. How about you read the following comments then, Stella?”

Bravely, I shake my head again.

My father takes in a deep breath.

“Please,” my mother says, looking at me, pleading to me with her eyes, turning my heart to mush.

I groan and reluctantly take the booklet my mother holds out. I should have agreed to read the scripture. At least it’s short. The comments take up half the page. I take a deep breath and clear my throat.

My eyes scan the words, and my mouth forms the words that come out in a monotone, but as I read on, the meaning of the sentences begins to change. I don’t know if it’s because I am reading out loud, but something in the text resonates with me.

I am lukewarm.

I drop the Daily Text and stand. “Excuse me,” I say, and make a swift exit.

“Stella!” My mother calls after me, her voice accompanied by the sound of her chair scraping across the floor.

“Leave her.” I hear my father’s stern reply as I reach my bedroom.

After closing the door, I fall onto my bed and burst into tears.

CHAPTER FOUR



My heart breaks for the third time as I realise my predicament. I am doomed – labelled for destruction. I read it for myself. I am lukewarm. I will be vomited from Christ’s mouth, as one not worthy for salvation.

And there is no denying it. Lukewarm is exactly how I feel. Numb. Empty. Neither hot nor cold. Even when Alexander died, I felt something. Even in the depths of my depression there was still a glimmer of hope – the resurrection.

But now, if the Witnesses are right, I won’t be there to see him. I will be destroyed at Armageddon and never see paradise – or Alexander.

The burning need to get away from here, and from the Witnesses, returns to consume me. I climb from bed and pace my small room, biting the side of my thumb nail as my stomach churns with tension.

How am I going to do this? Alone? I need Conrad.

I can’t hold back any longer. I know I said goodbye. I know I told him it was over, but would he take me back? After all the heartbreak?

My trembling hands find my phone and I locate Conrad’s contact before I can stop myself. The phone rings once. Twice. Three times. He always picks up by now. Four times. Five. My palm sweats and I grip the phone tighter, pressing it to my ear. Six. Seven.

“Adams.” His voice is gruff and clipped, full of business. “Leave a message.”

Voice mail? He’s never let my call go to voice mail. I clear my throat, my mind racing, thinking of what to say. What can I say? I’m sorry? Please forgive me? I made a mistake? Please take me back?

But he’s not taking my call. Is this his answer? His decision? My heart pangs and my stomach lurches. I stab the End Call button and dash to the bathroom, heaving over the basin. A cold sweat breaks out on my forehead as my mother appears by my side, rubbing my back.

“Love, are you okay? What happened?”

How can I tell her I’m planning to break her heart along with dad’s, and Lincoln’s and everyone else’s? I shake my head as another dry retch comes from deep within my gut.

“I’m alright,” I stammer. I wipe my brow with the back of one hand and grasp the basin with the other.

“No you’re not,” my mother snaps, plucking a face washer from the linen cabinet behind her. She runs it under the cold water then holds the damp cloth to my forehead, and eases me out of the room, back to my bed, laying me down.

She disappears from the room, only to reappear a moment later carrying a bowl and a glass of clear liquid. “I know you probably don’t have anything to bring up, but here’s a bowl just in case.” She puts the bowl on the floor beside my bed. “And here’s some lemonade,” she adds, handing me the glass. “The sugar will do you good, as will the fluid.”

I pull myself up onto one elbow and take a sip of the cool, sweet liquid. “Thanks,” I sigh, placing the glass on top of my bookcase bedhead, and sinking onto the soft mattress.

My mother leans over me, her aging face etched with worry, adding to my guilt. “Your father has left for work and I have to duck out to the shops. Will you be alright here on your own for a little while?”

I nod, secretly pleased I’ll finally be left alone.

“Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m good, thanks,” I lie for more than the first time this morning. In truth, I’m anything but good. I’m heartbroken and desperate. What I need is for Duke to be alive and for Conrad to forgive me.

My mother pauses in the doorway. “I’ll be quick. I promise.” And with that, she’s gone, closing the door behind her.

I roll over to stare at the wall, feeling more empty and alone than I’ve ever felt before. I stifle my sobs with the back of my hand and force myself to breathe.

I think about leaving. I think about how I can do this on my own. How I will survive without them. My family. Duke. Conrad.

Conrad.

And just because I haven’t felt enough pain yet, I try calling him again, holding my breath while his number connects and rings.

And rings.

And rings.

“Adams. Leave a message.”

I turn my head into the pillow and scream, letting its softness swallow up my broken- hearted sobs of rejection.

You did this to yourself. My Witness side pokes her unwanted head in, saying what I know my mother and father would love to say to my face, but of course, won’t. Life was good before you met him. You should have listened to everyone and saved yourself a world of pain.

“I know!” I bellow into the empty room, my frustrated words breaking the silence. I am burdened with overwhelming guilt, but owning it doesn’t make my situation any easier. Hurting my family for the sake of my own happiness doesn’t seem like a better choice either.

I rub my forehead furiously. It’s as though I’m on a train that’s travelling too fast in a direction I don’t want go and there’s no way of getting off. There’s not even an emergency brake handle I can pull.

I pick up my phone and stare at the blank screen, willing it to ring, or at least beep with an incoming text message. It stubbornly remains silent. Surely he’s seen my missed calls.

What should I do?

Frustrated, I gather up my blanket and shuffle into the living room. Seeking a distraction from my unnatural desire to keep checking my phone, I flop listlessly onto the lounge, locate the remote and switch on the television. The screen bursts to life with a re-run of Oprah. I’m about to change the channel, but the slogan on the set behind her catches my attention: “Live your best life!”

Live my best life? What does that even mean? I normally wouldn’t entertain such thoughts, knowing that the Witnesses view philosophical thinking as a path to corruption. It’s Satan’s way of subtly steering faithful ones away from ‘the truth’; but I lean in and turn the volume up.

She’s talking about not giving into your fears.

All the hairs on my arms stand on end. I have heard many great discourses over the years at the meetings and conventions, but this – this is something else. Here is Oprah, standing magnificently on the stage of her set, dressed elegantly in a gorgeous red dress with black Louboutin shoes, the red souls peeking out as she moves around. She speaks straight into my heart. I hang on her every word.

By the time her show is over, I’m speechless, and experience one of Oprah’s very own ‘A-ha’ moments. I realise staying here will not bring Conrad back. Staying here serves no purpose but to make my parents happy. But it’s not their life. It’s mine! And the longer I stay here, the more my life will spiral down the plughole and I’ll end up losing my business and townhouse as well.

Determined, I scramble off the lounge, stumbling and tripping over the blanket that’s tangled around my legs in my rush to get back to my room. I’m on a mission. I know what I must do. Wasting no time, I fling the blanket onto my bed, and shove my belongings back into my suitcase. My mother could return home any minute, and I don’t want to be here when she does. I find a notepad and pen in my desk drawer, and with my pulse beating wildly in my throat, I scribble out a note:

Dear Mum and Dad,

It is with a heavy heart I have to leave. Please understand this decision has nothing to do with either of you. I love you both dearly, but this is something I must do for me.

I pause, pen in hand, thinking what to say next. How do I tell my parents goodbye? How can I make them understand without them pleading for me to return to them? To the Witnesses? How can I convince them it’s not them I’m rejecting?

Knowing what to do doesn’t make this any easier. Tears well in my eyes and overflow, spilling down my cheeks and plopping onto the notepad. I swipe them away with the edge of my hand, smearing blue ink across the page. There is nothing more I can say.

Love always,

Your daughter,

Stella xo

I sling my handbag over my shoulder and grasp my suitcase, then head back into the kitchen. I leave my note with one of its corners tucked beneath the fruit bowl on the table. I step back and take one last look at it.

My goodbye.

I imagine my parents finding it, and before my mind can run away with images of their reactions, I take a deep breath and turn to leave.

CHAPTER FIVE

Thankfully most of the way back home is freeway. I set the cruise control, driving along in a haze while I struggle with my thoughts. I’ve left. Now what? I didn’t think this far ahead. All I knew was I had to get out. But how will I cope walking into an empty house – alone? How I will deal with the media when I get back to work? How I will avoid contact attempts by my parents, perhaps even by the local Elders and the likes of Dianna?

By the time I round the corner of my street, my fingers are stiff, my jaw aches and my head throbs. But it’s not until I notice that my customarily quite street is now filled with unfamiliar cars that my senses turn to high alert. There are cars parked everywhere, outside my house and across the road. I pull myself up straighter and an eerie feeling creeps over my skin.

I slow down, decide not to turn into my driveway, and instead, motor on, checking out what’s happening. As I draw closer, I realise there are people sitting inside the vehicles, watching me, their heads turning, their beady eyes locked on me, as I pass.

“Hey!” one of them shouts, jumping out of his car and raising a camera with a huge, protruding lens to his face.

“There she is!” another yells.

It’s the paparazzi and they’re waiting for me. I step on the accelerator in a panic and my car shoots forward, darting down the street. I make it to the end and take a right, then the next left and right again, back onto the main road. Stealing a glance into the rear-view mirror, I scan the road behind me. It’s busy, but I can still spot two cars weaving in and out of the traffic, overtaking every car between us.

My heart flies to my throat and my hands shake uncontrollably on the wheel. I check my speed and I’m already driving ten kilometres per hour over the speed limit. I step harder on the accelerator. But it’s no use. Every time I check the mirror, they’re closing in, swerving between lanes and trying to get alongside me.

What should I do? Where should I go? My mind races and all I can think of is Princess Diana and what happened to her. Get a grip! A more lucid part of my brain scalds. You are no English princess!

It’s true and I take stock of myself. This is no time to act all helpless. I must keep my wits about me and make a plan. Taking a deep, calming breath, I scan the traffic and the road ahead. I spot a semi-trailer not far in front of me in the outside lane, then notice an overhead sign flagging an exit five kilometres away.

I wring my sweaty palms on the steering wheel and speed toward the oversized truck. As I pull alongside it, I slow, making it impossible for the cars behind to align with me. Checking the mirror again, I see them darting around, trying to get up the other side of me on the inside lane, but other vehicles block their path. My heart leaps, my plan might just work.

Concentrate, Stella, I cajole myself, talking my way through my nerves as I see my escape – the exit. I stomp down on the accelerator, pushing it all the way to the floor, and my BMW takes off. I fly past the truck just as it levels with the exit ramp and I dart in front, ducking my head instinctively as his loud horn sounds, making me jump.

I blow out a shaky breath and slow as I travel along the exit ramp. I look back to the motorway and spot the two stalkers speeding along, trapped amongst the traffic and stuck until the next available off ramp.

At the top of the exit I turn left and pull over into a side street. The adrenaline high drops and sends me crashing down. My head hits the steering wheel and tears burst from my eyes.

I bawl for I don’t know how long, but somewhere in the recesses of my brain, a little voice tells me that I should keep on the move. The photographers may come back to find me. I rifle around in the glove-box, find a packet of tissues, reef them from the packaging, and wipe my eyes and nose. Bravely, I start on my journey again. But to where? Where can I go? I can’t go back to my place, it’s riddled with paparazzi. I can’t go back to my parent’s place, I’ve just escaped from there.

With nowhere to go, I drive the streets aimlessly. The more I drive, the more my heart breaks and even though I know he has every right to be angry at me, I can’t help feeling hurt by Conrad’s lack of contact. Surely he’s seen my missed calls by now. It leaves me wondering where he is, and worse still, who he’s with. One of the many?

I push the unwelcome thought aside to take stock of myself and assess my surroundings. Unbelievably, I’ve driven straight into Conrad’s territory and my nerves jump to life all over again. Just knowing I’m near his place makes my heart palpitate, and I glance around nervously, looking for his regular Mercedes. The stalked has become the stalker. Feeling guilty, I hunch down in my seat as I turn into his street.

My blood runs cold. The paparazzi are staked outside his place as well. I spot them from the distance and I make a swift turn before reaching the button factory where he lives. Once again I feel robbed. I can’t even do a drive-by. I can’t even glance up at his building and wonder if he’s inside.

Crushed, I circle around the city and head toward Darling Harbour, where I check in to the Ibis Hotel. It’s affordable, and far enough away from anyone trying to find me, including my parents.

At the thought of my parents my heart sinks. I know they would have found my letter by now, and most probably have tried to contact me. Using my little swipe card, I unlock the door and enter the cool, bright room. I drop my bags, cross to the oversized windows and look out onto the pedestrian precinct below. I linger for a moment, watching the happy and carefree people as they wander around. Many of them are tourists, posing and snapping pictures of friends or taking selfies.

I can’t remember what it feels like to be happy, and I can’t believe I will ever experience that emotion again. I recall feeling like this after Alexander. But back then I had my family and friends to see me through. Now I have no one.

I close the curtains on the sunny, cheerful scene below. The darkened room matches my dark thoughts. I pull back the covers of the overly tight, fresh, crisp sheets and crawl into the bed. It’s soft and welcoming and the most comforting thing I’ve felt since being in Conrad’s arms over three days ago.

All the memories flood back. The caress of his hands. The taste of his kiss. The smell of his skin. The emotions are too much, and a hungry, desperate desire to call him again hits me. But I can’t. My poor, battered heart wouldn’t survive being diverted to voicemail again. My stomach roils and I roll over, pull the luxury covers over my head and cry myself to exhaustion, eventually falling asleep.

I wake with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I can’t remember the last time I ate, let alone had something to drink. With the curtains drawn, it’s difficult to deduce what time of day it is, or how long I’ve slept.

I roll off the bed, feel my way to the small fridge on the opposite side of the room and open it. Bright light streams out and momentarily blinds me. I shield my eyes with my hand and inspect the contents – four different brands of beer, champagne and white wine, bottles of orange, apple and pineapple juice, and a choice of sparkling or still water. I pull out a bottle of orange juice and twist off the lid. After plopping onto the carpet, I rest my back against the wall and drink half the juice in one slug, relishing in the cool, sweet, hydrating liquid.

“Ah,” I sigh, running my tongue over my top lip while replacing the cap. I can’t help thinking how strange my voice sounds, echoing around the dark and lonely room. I tilt my head back until it hits the wall behind me, pull my knees to my chin and wrap my arms around my legs. When was the last time I spoke out loud? Spoke to anyone? Was it to my parents this morning? Is it still Tuesday?

After dragging myself to an upright position, I stumble to the window and pull back the curtains. The scenery outside has transformed from daylight to darkness, the surroundings aglow with twinkling lights of the neighbouring buildings of the city. As I glance down at my watch, I twist my wrist to catch the light, and make out the time to be five past ten.

I rub my palm over my forehead. Days are blending into nights and a renewed sense of sorrow hits me. Turning away from the window, I leave my half-finished orange juice on the sill and make my way back to the bed, seeking oblivion through sleep.

But my over-active brain hampers my relief and I wallow in a sea of thoughts. Thoughts of Conrad. Of Duke. Of my parents. Of my business.

My business.

Do I want to lose that too? It’s the only thing I have left. And my house. I’ll lose my house if I don’t maintain an income.

Galvanized by the harsh reality, I climb from the bed, flick on the light and squint into the brightness. I locate my handbag and fumble around for my phone. Its battery has run flat, and I don’t have a charger.

Panic hits me. What if Conrad has been trying to contact me? But my shoulders drop with the sobering thought that it’s more likely my parents who would have tried to reach me, not Conrad. And I’m in no emotional state to contend with their heart-wrenching text messages and voice mail. I toss the lifeless phone to the floor and turn my attention to my suitcase, retrieve my make-up bag and carry it to the bathroom.

The reflection staring back at me from the over-sink mirror is not pretty. My hair is matted and dirty, my face is gaunt, and what’s left of my two-day old mascara has relocated itself from my eyelashes to beneath my eyes.

My gaze travels from my face to my clothes. The same outfit I donned Monday morning before heading back to the Southern Highlands with Dad is dishevelled. Quite frankly, I look a mess. I really should take a shower and change my clothes, but there’s no time. I’m on a mission.

After washing my face and pulling my hair into a high ponytail, I pick up my handbag and collect the door swipe from the side table before heading out. The elevator opens onto a wide lobby. I cross the tiled floor and exit onto the pedestrian precinct of Darling Harbour. Thankfully, being a popular tourist destination, the shops, restaurants and bars remain open until late – even on a Tuesday night.

I lose myself amongst the late night shoppers and wander aimless through the stores, looking only for my desired item. Usually I enjoy shopping. But not tonight. I’m only out to get what I need. Once I’ve made my purchase, I find my way back to the hotel, stopping only at a take-away food stand on the way, to silence my rumbling tummy.

Safely back in my hotel room, a sense of relief settles over me. Relief I have my secret weapon that will help me get to work tomorrow, and relief I‘ve managed to keep down the greasy street pie I purchased from the food stand.

As I close my eyes and listen to the gentle hum of the air-conditioner, I push all unwanted thoughts aside, and focus on my next step. My future.

My future without Conrad, or Duke or anyone else.

CHAPTER SIX

Leaving the curtains open last night was a smart move. The morning light rouses me and I get up to grab the in-house menu. Looking down the list, I can’t believe how a simple menu can bring back such vivid memories. Eggs Benedict has images of the island rushing through my mind, and pancakes leave me barely able to breathe.

I can’t keep doing this to myself! I scold, shaking my unwanted thoughts free and tossing the menu aside. Rather than breakfast, I settle on a shower, and step into the bathroom.

The water is welcoming and I linger, washing my body, my hair, washing away my heartache. There, under the warm spray, I make the deliberate decision to move on, and imagine my sorrow clinging to the suds and disappearing down the drain hole.

Dressed in the best outfit I have in my suitcase – a simple grey knit dress – I apply my make-up and dry my hair, combing my long, red locks through my fingers to leave it in rough curls.

Back in the room I make myself a cup of tea with the complementary tea and coffee making facilities. I slip my hands around the mug, take it to the window, and look out onto the scene below.

It’s business as usual. Life goes on. And so must I.

With my secret weapon in hand, I walk the short distance to the bus stop, board with the other early morning commuters and take a seat. I can’t remember the last time I took a bus, but somehow I find it comforting to be lost amongst the innocuous faces. I’m just one in the masses heading off to work.

As I step off the bus, I don my secret weapon – an oversized, black straw hat. It flops around my face and shoulders, not only shrouding my identity, but blocking my view of Tiffany’s as I briskly walk by. I don’t want the memories. I’ve moved on.

Making it to my office building I swiftly look around, peeking out from beneath my camouflage. Nothing seems to be out of the ordinary and no one is lingering in the downstairs lobby. Perhaps the paparazzi have given up and moved on to the next big news item. I exhale a heavy breath of relief, make my way up to my office and let myself in.

The place seems eerie and empty without Josie. She is usually the first one to arrive and carry out the morning routine. It’s up to me now. I glance at the answering machine on the low table behind Josie’s desk. The little red message button is flashing. Of course it is. It’s already Wednesday. Clients will be inquiring where I am and wanting to know the progress of their jobs.


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