Authors: Belinda Williams
Please take your seats. The journey to happiness may involve some turbulence.
Christa Morrison has commitment issues, a fact that quickly becomes apparent after she flees a romantic proposal in Paris, the thunder of impending wedding bells ringing in her ears. Back in Sydney, she turns to her closest friends for reassurance. Instead they offer her a startling and painful diagnosis: she’s a relationship junkie. The cure? An extreme rehabilitation program guaranteed to reform even the most L-word illiterate.
With her girlfriends along for the ride, Christa commits to their radical plan and the chances of recovery look good. The only problem is Max Spencer. The one guy Christa—and her friends—never expected her to fall for. But he’s proving to be a temptation she may not have the willpower to resist ...
For a shot at happiness, is being with Max worth betraying her friends? And will Christa have the strength to trust her heart when her colorful relationship history comes back to haunt her?
It might just be enough to make a poor girl leave the country (again).
To my husband. I’m so glad we met young.
And to girlfriends everywhere.
Don't allow your wounds
to transform you into someone you are not
Only I could ruin Paris.
The city of lights, culture and romance. Cuisine to die for, not to mention a patisserie on every corner peddling unending varieties of chocolate delicacies—another reason I had to get out. I was intoxicated to distraction.
Or was that destruction?
It wasn’t just the sights or the food that had captured my heart and resulted in a week-long stay in Paris extending to more than a month and a half. My dedication to fully immersing myself in the Parisian culture also included one Benjamin Renard.
The first thing I noticed about Ben when we met were his unashamedly striking eyes, contrasted by a mess of dark hair and permanent five o’clock shadow. Those bright, violet-blue eyes still haunted me.
I heard his voice in my head. “Christa.”
Soft, deep and unmistakably French, it sent my heart racing. With that thought, the rest of the painful night flooded my thoughts.
“You are probably wondering why I’ve brought you here again.”
Two nights ago, Ben and I enjoyed a casual dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in the Beaugrenelle district, not far from his apartment. Afterwards, he suggested a walk. It wasn’t an unusual way for us to spend a night out in Paris, so I thought nothing of our late night meanderings until we found ourselves standing under the Eiffel Tower.
“Come with me?” he asked.
I was a little perplexed at his need to join the trail of tourists waiting in chattering huddles, holding their winter coats tightly against the frigid October wind while it whipped their scarves around their faces like taunting children.
I simply shrugged and joined the queue, happy to relax in Ben’s arms and savour his warmth. Eventually we made our way to the level three viewing area and watched the lights of Paris twinkling provocatively. Despite having been up the Tower a handful of times already, the city never failed to take my breath away.
“She reminds me of you,” Ben said from behind me.
“Paris?” I didn’t understand what he was getting at. I’m an Aussie girl. Honest, not backward in coming forward and, although I’d grown up on the outskirts of Sydney, I was no city sophisticate. How could I possibly remind him of a city so elegant, so stylish?
“Mmm.” Ben murmured. “Always so bright and full of life. Playful.”
As he nuzzled my ear, I began to wonder why on earth we were standing there viewing the city, when we could be elsewhere in a more private situation. Playing.
I realized with a deep pang of regret that underestimating his feelings was a mistake. I’d put Ben’s affections down to simply being French. Australian guys were never that demonstrative and I revelled in the contrast, happy to enjoy it like a pig in mud, blindly unaware of the feelings behind those actions.
“I want to come to Australia with you. Meet your family. Your friends,” he continued, oblivious to my sudden stiffness.
We had of course discussed our lives beyond Paris. His family in the French countryside, my family back home in Australia. But it all seemed so far away and, frankly, so completely separate from Paris.
“That seems a little dramatic,” I answered, trying to keep my voice light. “Maybe I should meet your family first?”
Ben nodded fervently. “They are very keen to meet you.”
It was then I felt the cold fingers of dread creeping up my spine. We’d never discussed visiting them before now. “They know about me?”
“Everything,” he assured me, with a soft, warm laugh. “Do not look so worried,
At that moment I was worried. Deeply. When had he mentioned me to them? Did he get on the phone after I’d fallen asleep or during work?
Sure, I’d told my friends about Ben, but failed to go into detail about my French ‘friend’ to my family. I was traveling, they knew I’d meet people, no need to go into specifics, surely?
“I’m sure I can go and meet them with you,” I conceded, then added quickly, “before I go to Norway and continue traveling.”
A sharp look of pain registered on Ben’s face and for a moment he looked wounded.
You plan to continue traveling?”
“Well, yes. Paris was only ever a short term thing.” Oh God, had I really said it like that? Could I have been more brutal?
Ben’s eyes were unusually dark as he stared past me into the bitter yet beautiful night. “I see.”
For a while we were both silent, and I was thankful for the hum of conversation from nearby tourists. We’d never spoken about us being a long-term thing. My relationship with Ben was entirely unintentional—like most of my life to date, I suppose.
I’d bumped into him while lost at the Metro, speechless and deeply concerned about insulting the locals with my appalling French. He helpfully directed me to the right platform. Then, several days later … another chance meeting. I stood in a patisserie near my hotel, once again speechless, this time due to the sheer variety of chocolate options available, and I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder.
He ordered me a coffee, recommended some divine pastry concoction I was certain was inspired by a chocolate-loving god, and smoothly suggested we enjoy it together. Perhaps I was drugged by the chocolate, but the next thing I knew I was agreeing to attend his friend’s party. Somehow, around a week later, I was staying with him in his tiny, but neat, one-bedroom apartment.
I’d told him all about my life in Sydney and he never mentioned any desire for a change from his life in Paris, so I stupidly assumed what we had was casual. I simply enjoyed myself, content to live in the now, and found the whole situation all the more enjoyable because of it. Nothing more than a holiday romance. Except Ben wasn’t on holidays. Maybe that was the problem—I’d landed in his regular world, while I was still in transient holiday mode. What seemed like a daydream or fantasy to me was real life for him.
Eventually I noticed Ben had pulled out a small, black box and was passing it back and forth between his hands thoughtfully. “I’m afraid I must put my heart on the line,” he said, finally, all the playfulness gone. “I must confess I had hoped for more of a longer term thing.”
See, this is where Australian guys—probably most guys aside from the French—were different. They would have kept the box tucked securely in their coat pocket for another time or, let’s face it, based on what I’d just casually dropped, another girl.
Not French men. They exude a certain confidence. I wouldn’t go so far as to say arrogance in Ben’s case, but as he opened the box oblivious to my panicked expression, I realized he was not about to give up easily. A single diamond shone far too piercingly, encased in a thin white gold band which looked frail next to the impressive stone.
“I hoped we could go together to meet our families, with you as my fiancée.” His earlier nervousness and hurt evidently gone, his eyes glittered with nothing but expectation.
“I—” It doesn’t happen very often, but I was speechless.
“Oh look, Dave! Isn’t that just so romantic?”
With a growing sense of panic, I eyed an American retiree tugging at her long-suffering husband’s coat as she pointed at us.
Fabulous. An audience.
“Oh, she’s speechless! I would be too, hon, the view, the location, your gorgeous man standing right there … ”
Panic was swiftly overtaken by anger. Anger at nosy tourists and more at Ben for being so confident about our longevity without even discussing it with me first. Not to mention proposing in a very public, very crowded place.
“Well, go on then, he’s waiting,” the retiree admonished.
“Myra, be quiet,” her husband said, sending an apologetic look in my direction.
“Oh my goodness, you don’t have a camera!” My anger morphed to horror as I watched the woman reach over and grab her husband’s Nikon and point it brazenly in our direction.
I looked back at Ben, who was leaning relaxed against the railing, a small smile playing on his lips.
“Alright,” the woman instructed. “You give him your answer and then we can take some pictures of the happy occasion for you.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Ben replied, before turning back in my direction. “I know we haven’t discussed a lot of things, but we can worry about all of that later. Whether we live here or in Australia, it makes no difference to me, as long as we’re together. Will you marry me, Christa?”
Now, I suspect most women, when they are being proposed to, feel as though they are flying high, soaring above the rooftops, adrenalin pumping through their veins. They might even feel unfashionably giddy.
Me? Not so much.
Arguably the wave of emotions that flooded my body created some pretty serious adrenalin, but it was more of the flight variety, and I felt very much like a trapped bird.
Myra was still looking at me expectantly. “Oh dear, you look awfully pale. Are you okay?”
I was torn between snarling at the women for her audacity or jumping into her grandmotherly arms and sobbing in frustration at my predicament.
“I’m sorry, Ben,” I managed.
He came to me, offering a steadying hand on my arm, his unsuspecting eyes full of concern. “No, I’m sorry, I wanted it to be a surprise, but perhaps it was too much.”
Too much? I wanted to yell. A quiet dinner conversation about our longer term plans, now that would have been sensible. This? This was a train wreck.
“Yes, it’s far too much,” I continued, my voice finally returning. “It’s a shock, Ben, a huge shock. Not at all expected, that’s for sure.”
“I know. We can worry about the details later—”
“No!” I winced at my raised voice. “I mean, did you think perhaps it might have been good to at least run through some of the details with me before you decided to ask?”
“But then it wouldn’t have been a surprise. So much less romantic that way.”
I stared at him for a long moment then, all that irresistible Frenchness looking longingly at me. I felt like I was doing the entire female community a disservice. Most women would die for romance that heady, and there I was, doing my best not to run in the opposite direction. Ironically, at that exact moment, I would have done anything to be standing face to face with a regular Aussie guy, whose level of sophistication and idea of romance extended to ‘What do you say? How about we tie the knot then?’
“Oh dear,” murmured the American woman.
“Please leave us alone.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them and she stepped back in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” I said stiffly to everyone. “I’m just going to go, okay?”
Before Ben could say anything further, I made my way to the nearest line and waited for the next lift to come. It would have been so much more dramatic if I was able to flee quickly from the scene, my hair and coat trailing behind me as I became a silhouette in the distance. Alas, I remained trapped, a testament to Ben’s determination and probably all part of his plan—corner the Australian girl and lay on the romance so thick she can’t say no.
After a few minutes he came to stand beside me gallantly and all of a sudden I was not only annoyed by his attempts at a completely misplaced romantic proposal, I was also annoyed by his easy-going nature. In response, I said nothing, just waited with heart pounding and lips in a tight line, for fear I would say something I couldn’t take back.
At the bottom of the tower, Ben pulled me aside. “Too soon. I understand. You Australians, you do not jump into things, I should have known that. No matter. It’s early days.”
I’d like to admit that was where our night had ended. But it wasn’t. Defeated as always by his charming sweetness, I let him lead me back to his apartment. Where else did I have to go anyway? All my things were at his place. It was that, or quickly collect my belongings and traipse around the city late at night to find a nearby hostel. That was hardly going to improve my mood.
Inside, I found I was too exhausted to resist his gentle kisses and I surrendered to both his familiarity and his enthusiasm. I let him lead me to the bedroom.
In my heart I knew it was going to be the last time, so I fully intended to cherish it.
“Can I get you some wine?”
With a start, I forced my attention away from my melancholy musings and looked up at the annoyingly sophisticated and noticeably tall flight attendant standing over me. “Please,” I replied, stifling a sigh.
I watched, detached, as the leggy blonde expertly poured a Chardonnay and handed it to me.
She eyed the man sitting closest to the window on my left, slumped to one side and snoring softly.
“I think he’s out for the count,” I told her.
She nodded knowingly and moved the cart on to the row behind me.
White wine in hand, I directed my focus out the tiny window next to me and took in the all-encompassing twilight. ‘Gorgeous business guy’, as I had dubbed him, was partially blocking my view, although he was hardly an eyesore.
He was quite pleasant on the first leg of the journey and ordinarily I’d be up for a good chat, even some casual flirting, but my heart just wasn’t in it. The scenes from two nights before kept replaying in my mind, making me miserable company.
With some distance between us, I became painfully aware that Benjamin and I may have gotten our wires crossed somewhere in the Australian and French cultural divide, and my ardent attempts at a holiday romance had been misinterpreted.
My preconceptions of French men hadn’t helped. I’d assumed I was no more than a passing fling, an interesting interlude among the variety of French beauties available. I was the curious Australian girl who laughed a little too loudly and was constantly saying what she thought, when clearly she should shut up and let the cultured people speak.
Trust me to find the only monogamous man in Paris. Not only that, he’d seemed thoroughly charmed by my lack of refinement. Cute, I think Benjamin termed it.
God, I was so sick of being cute. Cute was for five-year-olds in pink dresses. At twenty-seven years old I hoped cute would finally have taken a backseat to sexy or, at the very least, vivacious. Sadly not.
I guess that’s what you got for being a curly-haired, blonde, blue-eyed midget, at barely five foot one inch. Eat your heart out, Shirley Temple.