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Twelve girls. Four weeks. One reality TV show. The prize? A rock star's heart. After losing her job as an apprentice chef, Penelope will stop at nothing to regain her reputation. A reality show where she can demonstrate her skills on national television is the perfect opportunity. She's not looking for love, but four weeks in paradise being romanced by a rock star might be enough to change her mind. And when that rock star wants a wife…will marriage be on the menu?
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The story continues in
About the Author
The Rock Star Wants A Wife
Book 5 in the Romance Island Resort series
This book is for all the wonderful people in and around Broome who went above and beyond to show a tourist/researcher all the beauties of the Kimberley, from sleeping in a tent and swag right up to staying in a five star resort.
Even those who didn't believe I was writing a book, let alone six.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 Demelza Carlton
Lost Plot Press
All rights reserved.
Click here to get started – http://subscribe.demelzacarlton.com/RIR8
Cruise ships were to hangovers what hell was to a burns victim: torture. Penny grabbed the toilet seat and hauled herself up off the bathroom floor. No matter how nauseous she felt, she had nothing left to barf up. She remembered that much from last night. She couldn't have drunk enough of that cheap tequila, then. Or maybe that scummy Mexican restaurant had watered it down. That's what it was. They'd poisoned her instead of getting her drunk, so that's why she felt so sick. She remembered every heaving, hoiking moment with gut-wrenching clarity, so she couldn't have been drugged.
Getting laid would be infinitely preferable to lying on the tiny bathroom floor, sandwiched between the shower and the toilet, wondering if she'd vomit her guts up before drifting into a doze.
Someone hammered on her cabin door. "Penny, time to go. You've got breakfast shift, remember?"
Breakfast. Good thing she only had to cook it, not eat it.
Five minutes later, showered and changed into an apprentice chef's uniform that felt fresher than she did, Penny staggered out of her cramped cabin, along the passage that led to the cruise ship's kitchens.
"Late again," growled Pierre, the head chef. Actually, his name was Peter, she'd found out one night in Sydney, when some drunken blokes had hailed him as Poiter, a fellow Collingwood fan, who had to help them celebrate the football team's victory. Sadly, knowing his real name hadn't made him any nicer to her. If anything, he just hated her more for it. "I told you, you turn up on time and do your job, or I'll find another apprentice who will."
Penny nodded and tied on her apron, keeping her head down so she didn't inhale the heady scents of food that she didn't want.
"You're on pancakes this morning," he added maliciously, his eyes daring her to protest.
Pancakes were usually a kitchenhand's job, not a trained chef like she was, but Penny didn't mind the mindless task of spooning, watching, flipping and sliding the perfect circles of fluffiness onto people's plates. She'd first learned to make them on a Macca's grill, and she'd only improved her skills since. Penny was proud of her pancakes.
She fell into an easy rhythm, pouring, flipping and sliding, until she found herself smiling. Squeals of delight sounded from child passengers as they first saw their personal stack of pancakes. Oh, but there was always one...
"I want ones like we had at Disneyland. I want...Mickey Mouse!" screeched today's brat of indeterminate sex, screwing up its face.
Penny didn't miss a beat. Two ears, a round face, then another, and another...within a few minutes she had a perfect stack of mouse-head pancakes fit for the royal little shit.
"Ooh, look, Minnie Mouse," a little girl breathed, her eyes shining. "Please, Mummy, can I have those, too?"
Penny liked this mother. Mummy pursed her lips, duck-fashion, clearly having no trouble refusing her child's whim.
Of course it was the overindulged little shits who always got what they wanted, while more deserving people, like Penny and this polite little girl, didn't get a stinking thing.
"I can do it. It's no trouble," Penny found herself saying. Well, it was true. It's not like she had a queue at the pancake station. The dining room was nearly empty this early in the morning.
One of the kitchenhands brought out another jug of batter, spiriting away the empties. Penny inhaled deeply as she tested the batter. It had to have the right texture, flowing across the grill, with just the right amount of froth.
Mmm, vanilla and eggs, with the salty undertaste of the real butter she greased the grill with. Maybe she was hungry after all. She'd have to wait a long time before she could sneak a plate of pancakes out for a breakfast break, though. Pierre's eagle eyes saw everything.
Sighing, Penny told her rumbling stomach to shut the fuck up as she counted the minutes until the end of Pierre's shift and her self-imposed starvation.
The familiar, heart-shaped island came into view, and Xan felt an unexpected surge of happiness at the sight. It was her island home now, she reasoned, though not entirely the paradise it appeared. She still had to share it with the man who stood on the rise overlooking the helipad, his arms folded.
The helicopter landed with a soft bump. "Thanks, Shou," Xan told the pilot, patting his shoulder as she slid out the door. Instinctively, she ducked her head until she was clear of the still-spinning blades, so she didn't see the other woman coming the other way until she almost bumped into her.
"Watch where you're going!" Gaia snarled, sidestepping. She swept past Xan, holding her head high despite the whirling death overhead.
Idly, Xan wondered what would happen to the woman's vast fortune if the billionaire lost her life in an unfortunate accident with a helicopter rotor. Then she remembered the magazines she'd seen at the airport. The billionaire was engaged to Jay, apparently. So the rock star would probably inherit everything. As if he didn't already have enough money. Admittedly, it would be a small price to pay, knowing a rich man had grown immeasurably richer, if it meant the world was rid of the unpleasant Gaia Vasse.
The helicopter door slammed, jolting Xan out of her thoughts, so she noticed with chagrin that Gaia was safe in the plexiglass bubble, soon to be spirited away from her island. Xan's island, not Gaia's. Well, Jay's island, really, but she managed Romance Island Resort, so that made the whole island her responsibility.
"You don't know how good it is to see you."
Xan found herself enveloped in an unexpected hug from none other than Jay Felix. He seemed to realise his mistake before she opened her mouth to demand he let her go.
"Sorry, Xan. It's been tough here without you."
She acknowledged his apology – the first she'd ever heard him utter. "I bet. I'm gone for less than a fortnight and you get engaged. Again."
His expression darkened. "I'm what? To who?"
Xan's eyes followed the helicopter's flight. "Your billionaire, of course. You're in all the gossip magazines. I think I might have some copies in my carry-on." Xan wet her lips. "Before I left, you were absolutely in love with that travel agent, I thought. But that billionaire snapped her fingers and you sold the ordinary girl to the press." Her heart hardened against the thoughtless rock star. He'd unleashed a media storm on the poor girl, until she'd fled from her country town home to who knew where. Hopefully not the media or fickle Mr Felix, anyway.
"I'd rather kill myself than spend another minute in that crazy bitch's company. We're not engaged, and I hope I never see her again." Jay narrowed his eyes as he watched the helicopter disappear. "Do you know what she did to Flavia?"
It couldn't have been worse than his media frenzy, Xan thought but didn't say.
"She got one of her staff to hack her email, then leaked everything to the press. Even I didn't know where Flavia lived, but Gaia had reporters on her doorstep, harassing her at work." Jay looked pained. "I'm used to the media, but Flavia...she couldn't take it. She disappeared. Wouldn't take my calls."
Xan let this sink in. "You mean you didn't set the media on her?"
Jay snorted. "Since when do I ever let reporters near anyone? Not even the girls in the band. I'm the media hog for a fucking reason, you know."
"And here I thought you were just an attention whore," Xan said.
A normal man would have been insulted. Not Jay. His frown broke into what Xan thought was a rueful smile. "Well, yeah, there's that. But someone had to take all the media's attention. The girls didn't want to do it, so that left me. Lucky me, the press fucking loved me. Especially if I got my kit off. Just the shirt was enough, Jo said, but there was this one time I wanted to go skinnydipping in Sydney Harbour, after a show at the Opera House, so me and a bunch of groupies – "
Xan covered her ears. "I don't want to know." She lowered her hands, then added, "Nice catching up and all, but I have work to do. I managed to score quite the coup for the resort." She allowed herself a satisfied smile. "On top of the deal with Vasse Prospecting and Due South, we're now the official venue for the final season of Farmer Bags A Bride, the reality TV dating show." If she sounded a little smug, it didn't matter. She was allowed, damn it.
"Farmer bags a bride? What, like in a sack? Kidnapping women? How the fuck is that entertainment?" Jay asked.
Xan wasn't sure if he was joking or serious. "It doesn't matter. What does is that the farmers and the film crew will be here soon to do some of the preliminary shooting. It's free publicity for the resort, and we get paid a hefty fee for all the accommodation and facility hire. Jo nearly kissed me when she found out." Fortunately, Jay didn't look like he shared his sister's enthusiasm for the deal, so Xan shouldered her bag and headed home to her house overlooking the lagoon.
Ah, paradise. Yes, she was home.
Never...eating...pancakes...EVER...again, Penny swore, grabbing a wad of paper towel to wipe her face. She rinsed her mouth, then ran the water a little longer, letting it flush away the evidence that she'd thrown up in the sink. This wasn't a normal tequila-induced hangover. She knew that now. Someone must have tried to poison her, either while she was on shore leave or when she got back.
Tess, her roommate. Tess had been angry at her since she caught Tess bonking on her bunk with two of the fitness instructors. As if the girl had any right to be angry when it was Penny's bed she'd been screwing two guys on. Guys who hadn't apologised or even stopped. No, they'd asked her if she wanted to join in.
Double stuffed by the buff personal trainers? It sounded like one of the porn films in the pay-per-view library the guests got access to. Or one of the erotica books in the library at the resort where she used to work. Penny had refused, then climbed up to Tess's bunk and tried to fall asleep over the grunting and moaning going on down below.
Tess had threatened to reveal Penny's smoking habit to the staff supervisor if Penny spoke a word about what she'd seen that night. Crew weren't allowed to smoke aboard the cruise ship, though guests could; lighting a single cigarette could lose Penny her job. But some nights when Tess was too loud with her boyfriends, Penny would dress in civilian clothes, hike up to the highest deck and breathe in as much tarry goodness as she could suck into her lungs. No one recognised her in the dark, or so she'd thought. God, she wanted one now, to burn the taste of bile out of the back of her throat.
Penny lifted her impossibly heavy head to peer blearily at Pierre. Poiter. "What for?"
Pierre sniffed. "For showing up to work with a hangover again. I told you, I don't tolerate staff who drink to excess before a shift. You are here to cook magnificent meals, not be sick in the sink."
"I didn't drink a lot last night. I'm sick," Penny insisted, as fear clutched at her heart. She couldn't lose this job. No one else would take her if Pierre fired her. She'd never be a proper chef.
"Your roommate says you were so sick last night, she had to go to the next room to use the bathroom. Don't lie to me. You are a disgrace!" Pierre roared.
Maybe she did have a hangover. Her head sure hurt when he shouted like that. "I'm sick," she mumbled.
"When the ship docks in port, you will leave it. Until then, report to the housekeeping manager. If you're not working on the ship, you'll have to pay for your passage." Pierre's malevolent smile made her teeth hurt.
Pay? Penny didn't have the money to pay for luxury cruise ship accommodation. Why else had she been drinking tequila last night? If she'd been able to afford better, she'd have been drinking it. "No. Just...let me work until we reach port. I won't drink any more. I promise." She wouldn't keep a drink down, anyway.
"You're not working in my kitchen!"
He was a god-damn drama queen. "Fine. How about here, then? I'll wash dishes?" She pointed at the benchtop dishwasher and the sinks big enough to stand in. She'd worked plenty such shifts when she was in high school. Anything was better than paying for things she couldn't afford.
He eyed her for an interminable moment. "Very well, then. But if I find a single plate that is not perfectly clean..." He shook his fist.
Penny nodded, not really caring. As soon as he was out of sight, she slithered down the wall to sit on the floor. How was she supposed to wash dishes when she was too weak to stand?
Didn't matter, she told herself, grabbing the edge of the sink to hoist herself up again. She'd lean on that for the whole shift if she had to. At least she had plenty of places to be sick if she needed. Drains galore.
A grim smile graced her lips as the first cart of dirty dishes arrived.
She got to work, loading the plates into the dishwasher, then unloading them onto the drying cart, where they'd stay for barely long enough to drip dry before the kitchenhands came to collect them for the next wave of breakfast customers. With every clink of a plate settling in its rack, Penny's fury built.
When she found out who'd poisoned her, she'd make her pay, Penny swore.
"Of course they're still bachelors. Gay marriage isn't legal yet in Australia, is it?" Jay drawled.
Xan hushed him, hoping they hadn't heard him over the thumping rotor blades, and stepped forward to welcome the farmer bachelors to the resort. They both seemed far too impressed with the island to even look at her, but Xan had grown used to that. Most of the day trippers looked the same when they first walked up the jetty. Hell, she'd probably been just as wide-eyed on her first day here. Less than a year ago, but it felt like longer. Much longer.
Both bachelors looked like they'd stepped right off a working farm into the helicopter. Both wore dusty boots, shorts and shirts, like locals.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"Kununurra," said one.
"Derby," said the other.
"Which town did you fly from, then?" Xan asked.
One grinned. "Town? Nah, I didn't waste time driving into town. All the pilots round here know my station. I bet there isn't a single one who hasn't helped with mustering one time or another."
The other bloke cleared his throat. "I only bought the station a year ago. Sold my house in Hedland and cashed in my redundancy payment to get the place. I've had a manager running the place for me, but I'm learning to do it meself. Especially if I have a wife to help." He puffed out his chest.
Mm, slave labour, Xan thought, flashing a bland smile. She shouldn't judge. There might be women absolutely champing at the bit to spend the rest of their lives with bachelors just like these two. Not everyone wanted to stay single because the alternative – men – was too much trouble. She'd vicariously enjoy the perfect love lives of the resort library full of fictional heroines, and never need to bother with the real, imperfect thing, ever again.
Paige, the reality show's host, appeared then, accompanied by two cameramen. She waved madly for Xan and Jay to move out of the shot, and Xan was only too happy to oblige. Jay was slower to move, but he did get out of the way eventually. In fact, when Xan turned to see where he'd disappeared to, he was already slouching off down the path to the lagoon.
After a moment, she decided that she wasn't needed, either, so Xan headed for her office, resolving to check on the film crew's progress later in the day.
Three days later, when the ship pulled into Broome, it was quarantined, to Penny's satisfaction. She hadn't been poisoned, after all. The ship had suffered a norovirus outbreak, the ship's medical officer said. Penny recovered within a day or two, but Pierre and Tess were two of the first to come down with it, followed by pretty much every passenger who'd eaten breakfast that day. Off the plates Pierre had forced her to wash.
There'd been talk of ending the cruise early, so the cruise company could disinfect the ship. That would teach them to employ arseholes like Pierre. It wasn't until Penny disembarked amid a pack of pale-faced passengers that she realised she had a problem. The cruise company had paid for all of them to be put up in the hotels in town, which left precious little accommodation for her. The crew remained aboard, forced to clean the ship from top to bottom. Penny didn't envy them.
She'd tried reasoning with Pierre, when it became apparent that she truly had been sick, but he held stubbornly to his decision. She no longer worked for him, and the only reference she'd get from him would be a bad one.
So she shouldered her bag and boarded one of the courtesy buses provided to transport the passengers into town. She wasn't sure what to do next, but she had enough money to buy a beer, and God knew she needed a drink in this heat.
There was standing room only in the Roey – not something she'd often seen in the town's iconic pub. Nevertheless, she sidled through the crowd to reach the bar, where she waited for ages before the bartender so much as acknowledged her.
"What'll it be?" the woman asked.
Penny waved her hand. "Whatever pint's cheapest." Today she didn't care what sort of beer she got, as long as it was ice cold. Sure enough, it was.
She counted out the last coins in her purse to pay for it, feeling her face grow red with shame.
"I take it you're not one of the cruise passengers?" the bartender asked.
Penny shook her head.
"Backpacker? Looking for work?"
Penny set her beer down on the bar. What did she have to lose? It's not like she had a job any more. "Yeah."
"We could do with an extra waitress today. Have you ever waited tables before? Served in a bar?"
Penny sighed. "Yeah, and worked in the kitchen, too. I'm an apprentice chef, but I thought I'd take a break for a bit."
The bartender extended a hand across the bar. "Freena. I'll pay you fifteen bucks an hour for as long as I need you today, and at the end, we'll talk about tomorrow, maybe."
Fifteen was better than nothing. "Sure. I'm Penny."
Freena nodded. "Grab an apron in the kitchen. Tell Dirk you're the new waitress. He'll give you a rundown on where to put your orders and where to collect them." She eyed Penny's bag. "You can put your things in the office in the back."
Penny emptied her beer and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Take that, Pierre, she thought. Not off the ship for an hour and already she had a new job.
"There. Done." Xan switched off her computer, stood and stretched. She'd caught glimpses of the film crew and the two bachelors through her window over the course of the afternoon, but she'd been good and stayed at her desk, doing her job. Now, it was knock-off time. It would be the most natural thing in the world to stroll past while they were filming, and casually ask about their progress.
She picked up her phone and dialled the extension for IT. Before Seb could finish his greeting, she cut him off. "Where are they?"
"Clustered around North Beach, near the treeline," he replied promptly.
Xan smothered a laugh. Trust the nosy IT boys to know their every movement. The show's bubbly hostess seemed to have a talent for making men melt. Except for Jay, oddly. There must be a history there, she decided. "Thanks," she said to Seb, then ended the call.
She enjoyed the short walk to the beach, shucking off her shoes so she could feel the sand between her toes. She wasn't surprised to find the farmers and their film crew precisely where Seb had said, but she was surprised to see Jay there. Paige divided her attention between the farmers and Jay, though Jay didn't seem to notice her admiring glances. The farmers appeared too awed by Jay to do more than stammer out responses to Paige's questions, which made the woman snap in irritation.
Filming was not going well, Xan decided.
"I'm looking for a girl who can cook and clean and isn't afraid of cows. She doesn't have to be a beauty queen, but she should be fit, you know, like me." The farmer flexed his biceps.
The other farmer nodded thoughtfully, looking like he approved.
Xan choked back laughter.
Paige looked like she was going to explode.
"Nah, mate, no girl will go for that. You gotta romance it up a bit," Jay said.
They all stared.
"Say how pretty your farm is, or how awesome it is to have...however many head of cattle you have. But how it gets lonely, so you work out a lot and get pretty active, so you'd love to have someone to share it with. Love and laughter over a delicious meal at the end of a hard day's work. Help picking the names of this year's new calves. You're looking for a partner, a soulmate, to share stuff with. Some mushy shit like that." Jay shrugged.
More nods of approval, from both blokes this time.
"How would you do it, then?" ventured the one who hadn't spoken yet. "If you wanted a wife."
Xan expected Jay to laugh off the suggestion, but he surprised her, again. Maybe it was how intently Paige stared at him as she signalled for the cameraman to start filming.
"Mr Felix, what are you looking for in a wife?" Paige asked.
"I've met a lot of ladies, lovely ladies, in my career. All of them beautiful and talented in their own way. But you know what? I never met the One."
"What's so special about the One?" Paige prompted.
"The One...she'd capture my heart. Every touch or smile would strike me like a bolt of lightning. We'd share everything and we'd be equal in everything. For every time I save her, she'll save me right back. She'd be the melody to my bass line. She'll inspire love songs so beautiful I could seduce the whole world, but there's only one woman in the world I want. The one woman who will help me write my first true love song – one to last a lifetime."
Even Xan found herself sighing at Jay's words. The farmers still looked awed, but now they also looked...inspired.
One of them traded places with Jay. He cleared his throat. "When I stand on the highest point on my farm, all the land I can see is mine, because I have one of the biggest cattle stations in the country. You'd think with all that, I'd be satisfied, but it's a lonely life. No one to share it with when the sun sinks into the desert, or when the dawn lights up the eastern ranges just right..."
Now it was Jay's turn to nod, but Paige's smile said she approved, too.
The rest of the filming went quite quickly after that, with Paige declaring a wrap just over an hour later. The blokes seemed to have bonded over the experience, and were now offering to shout each other and Jay beers in the pub afterwards.
After hearing spiels about how miserably lonely it was in the Kimberley for a single bloke, Xan decided she'd like to alleviate a little loneliness of her own, and offered to join Paige for a drink in the Jungle, too. So they took a table in one corner while the blokes claimed one by the bar, and Xan sipped her way through a ginger beer as she and Paige made small talk about the show.
Paige couldn't say much, of course, but she was happy to explain some of the basics. The interviews they'd done today would be edited down to under five minutes, before they were uploaded to the network's website. Then they'd open the call for potential brides. In the past, they'd sometimes gotten thousands of applications, and the studio staff would narrow it down to the ladies who ticked all the boxes on the bachelors' sometimes extensive lists. One bloke had only liked redheads. One particularly short bloke had insisted anyone taller than his shoulder need not apply. One of them had owned an oyster farm, so the girls all had to like seafood and not be allergic.
Once they had a shortlist for each of the bachelors, they gave the lists to the men. Each bloke got his own list, and he had to narrow it down to twenty women he'd like to meet, though only eight would make it onto the show. Officially, that was because sometimes the girls couldn't get the time off work, or they had other commitments that meant they couldn't make the filming dates, or the farmstay.
"Farmstay?" Xan asked.
The bachelors interviewed all eight girls and got to pick four favourites, Paige explained, who would be invited to stay on the bloke's farm for a couple of weeks. A film crew would go out to each farm with the girls, to record pretty much everything. Every kiss, every alone moment, which the crew sometimes had to arrange, planning dates for the couple either on the farm or at a nearby town. The bachelor would send two of the girls home within the first week, but the remaining two would stay for the duration, and meet up with some of his family and friends, before he had to make his final decision.
"And they're expected to get married? Just like that?" Xan said, trying to hide her incredulity.
Paige laughed. "It's encouraged, and the studio offers them a pretty sweet bonus if they propose on the show, and then invite the host and camera crew to the wedding, so we can broadcast it between seasons, but it doesn't happen very often. The weddings do get a lot of viewers, though, and you see it in the boost in the next season's numbers. We actually have a pretty high success rate – a lot of the couples stay together long after the show. Some of them do get married, and some even have kids."
Xan glanced at the two farmers. "Do you think they will...?
Paige donned her professional smile, the same sort Xan wore when she was being deliberately vague. "You never know for sure until you see them with the girls. It's all about chemistry."
Jay slapped his hands on their table, startling Xan. "It sure is, but I already told you, they won't. They have all the chemistry they need right at that table. Fresh beers, too. I figured I didn't want to feel like the third wheel over there, so I said my goodnights, and now I'll say the same to you ladies. It is time for me to watch...the Simpsons." He strode out of the pub.
"I'm sure that's some sort of euphemism for adult films," Xan said, watching him go.
"I doubt it," Paige replied. "If he wanted to watch Martian Buttsex 69, Jay would probably say so, just to see our expressions. And, like me, he is a big fan of the Simpsons." She rose and excused herself, pleading an early start the next day.
Xan headed home soon after, intrigued by Paige's easy explanation about TV matchmaking and trying not to wonder why there was more than one film about...what was it? Martian butt sex? Urgh. No, she would NOT search the internet to find out more about it. It'd be faster to ask the IT guys, anyway. And she wouldn't have to see pictures.
Pierre was right, Penny reflected glumly, untying her apron. She wouldn't get work as an apprentice chef again in a hurry. Oh, sure, she had a waitressing job, and she'd even found a place to live in a sharehouse in town without too much trouble, but she was as far from becoming a qualified chef as the day she jumped aboard that cruise ship. The universe hated her, that was why.
As she cleaned up the last of the tables, she picked up a copy of the day's West. On the cover was a woman in chef's whites, holding up some sort of trophy she'd won in a competition. Glancing around to make sure no one needed her, Penny took a moment to read the article.
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