Cover of the new book "Sail Away with Me"

Sail Away With Me

 

 

Excerpt from Sail Away With Me

Chapter 1

Carrying his favorite acoustic guitar in its travel-worn case, Julian Blake climbed into the old black van his dad and his dad’s bandmates used for their local gigs. Sitting in the driver’s seat, tears burned behind Julian’s eyes. Would he ever again feel the joy of sharing a mic with his father, Forbes, the man who’d taught him to play a miniature guitar before he was even forming full sentences? The team of doctors gave his dad a less than 50 percent chance of being able to play again, odds that Forbes was determined to beat.

Letting out a growl of impotent rage at how fucked up fate could be, Julian put the standard-shift van in reverse and backed down the driveway. A few minutes later, he reached the two-lane road that more or less bisected the tiny, largely undeveloped island into east and west halves. Turning north, he resisted the urge to speed. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels often darted onto the road regardless of oncoming vehicles. He would be a careful driver. Unlike the drunk off-islander who, two weeks ago, had lost control on a curve and smashed into Forbes, who’d been walking along the shoulder of this very road.

That accident had brought Julian rushing from Vancouver to Destiny Island, the place he’d fled as a teen. He hated even breathing the air here, and normally made only a couple of short visits each year. But now he had no choice, because Forbes and Sonia needed full-time live-in assistance.

Julian fisted his left hand and thumped the wheel. Enough with the negative thinking. Thanks to a professional development day at the high school, his stepmom was at home with his dad. Julian could escape to his longtime sanctuary, where the vibes of old guitars, bells, and laughter rang in the boughs of the ancient apple trees. In the late sixties and early seventies a commune had flourished briefly there, but since then the land had been deserted. There, with his guitar, he would find a few hours’ solace. With luck, the beginning of a song would come to him. He was behind in working on the next album. It was the end of October, and he’d told his bandmates and label he’d have the songs written by Christmas. The Julian Blake Band had booked tours for next year, promising new music.

Pressure crippled his muse, seductive and elusive creature that she was. He owed his life to her, to his music, and he would always honor them. The tattoo on his right arm, of a few bars of “Ache in My Soul,” the song that had saved his life, served as a constant reminder.

Passing Quail Ridge Community Hall, Julian remembered playing there with B-B-Zee, his dad’s band, on his last visit to the island back in May. Please let that not be the last time.

The scenery on either side of the road hadn’t changed since he’d last come this way. That was typical of Destiny, a pro-green island with a lot of agricultural land and parks. One of the farms had a “For Sale” sign in Island Realty’s distinctive blue and green, displaying Bart Jelinek’s white-toothed, horn-rimmed photo. Julian swallowed bile, forced air into his pinched lungs, and rubbed his fingers against the jeans pocket that held his much-mended guitar pick. His reminder; his talisman.

If all he saw of that asshole Jelinek was an occasional photo, he’d count himself lucky.

*  *  *

Iris Yakimura had worn lightweight Skechers to do her tai chi, but now she tugged them off and wriggled her bare toes in October-crisp yellowed grass. She also pulled off the twist of patterned silk that secured her ponytail, and shook her long black hair loose.

One of the aims of tai chi was to align your chi—vital force—and the seamless flow of exercise, stretching, and deep breathing gave her a sense of control, grace, and strength. Tai chi was the perfect way to exercise and center herself, a discipline where she knew exactly what to do next.

Practicing mindfulness, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, savoring the morning air tinged with the baked-in heat of dry arbutus leaves, a whiff of ocean freshness, and an indefinable something that confirmed that, despite the Indian summer days they’d been experiencing, it truly was autumn. Soon the rainy hours would outnumber the sunny ones, and Christmas was less than two months away. That knowledge was like an underpainting that lay beneath a finished work of art, mostly invisible and yet adding subtle, moody nuances. Didn’t every moment of life contain elements of yin and yang, dark and light, past and future as well as present?

She opened her eyes and gazed at the tumbledown remains of a cabin, smothered by blackberry vines, its weathered gray boards remnants from the commune or perhaps even the old homestead that predated the hippies. A robin trilled its cheerful song from the branch of a gnarled apple tree and she smiled, appreciating the present even more due to her awareness that winter was approaching.

Was it odd that she, whose life was governed by order and control, should be drawn to this gentle wilderness where once hippies had sung, danced, taken drugs, and made love? Here, the flower children had sought freedom from social constraints. Iris, in contrast, had been taught by her family to value conformity, to never stand out, because even such a basic right as freedom from persecution could never be taken for granted. As the old Japanese saying went, The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

Clad in yoga pants and a light cotton sweater, she spread a striped blanket on the stubbly grass, sat on it, and took a water bottle from the woven basket she’d carried in from the road. The dirt track into the old commune was so badly overgrown and rutted that she always left the Chevy Volt in a small pullout a short way back on the narrow one-lane road.

These visits to the commune, a place she’d learned about as a teen from one of the old hippies who shopped at her family’s Dreamspinner bookstore, were her secret. Her parents wouldn’t approve of her trespassing. But this was abandoned property. Its ownership was tied up in a German trust, and the trustee and beneficiaries never visited. Nor did the islanders, who’d either forgotten it existed, didn’t want to trespass, or preferred the beaches, lakes, and parks. Iris was the only person who valued this place, so she felt no guilt over her visits.

She took the shiny new paperback from her basket. A voracious reader and a knowledgeable bookseller, she at least skimmed almost every book that Dreamspinner stocked, but her favorites were romance novels. They reinforced her belief that even a shy woman like her could realize her dream of finding a loving partner and raising children together.

And that made her think of her and her aunt’s planned trip to Japan next spring. It would be Aunt Lily’s second time in that country, but the first for Iris. Her Japanese grandparents came to Destiny every few years, and Iris was in regular touch with them and other relatives in Japan through email, social media, and old-fashioned letters and cards. She’d like to visit them, and to tour the country where her mom, Grandmother Rose, and Grandfather Harry’s ancestors had been born, even though she anticipated being in a more or less constant state of anxiety. The idea of so many new people, sights, and activities was overwhelming.

Might one of those new people be the man who’d play the role of hero in her real-life romance story? She didn’t believe in magical thinking, but still, she would be twenty-five then, and that age was significant in Yakimura family history.

Her dad and his father were both shy like her. When her dad traveled to Japan at the age of twenty-five, he had met her mom and found love. And, though his parents, Harry and Rose, had first met in British Columbia as young people, at an internment camp, they were separated when Rose and her family were deported to Japan. Harry and Rose had not reunited until Harry, aged twenty-five, traveled to Japan. He brought Rose back as his bride.

If Iris didn’t share her dad’s and grandfather’s destiny, it wouldn’t be a disaster. She was young and had no need to rush. Her best friends hadn’t met their true loves until they were a few years older. But still, there was nothing wrong with dreaming.

She put down her book and lay on her back, gazing at the sky, no longer the vivid blue of summer but a faded, cool shade. In Japan, might she find a man who’d appreciate all aspects of her personality, who’d love her deeply and truly, who would return home with her to build a life together on the island she loved?

*  *  *

In an attempt to shut down his brain, Julian turned on the CD player and immediately recognized Peter, Paul and Mary’s poignant anti-war song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Forbes had created his own mixtapes, many featuring favorites from his youth.

Julian turned onto a side road, then another, its single lane fringed with woods. No homes were visible, only an occasional dirt or gravel lane asserting itself amid the greenery. He passed a small blue car tucked into a clear spot beside one of those rough driveways.

The old cutoff to the commune was obscured by trees and brush, and only long experience guided him to it. Even had there been space to park along the road, he wouldn’t have; the logoed van could draw attention to the hidden entry. The van was already battered, so he didn’t worry about the brushy fingernails that scraped its sides as he eased it through the foliage. He emerged onto a rutted, barely-there track overgrown by grass and salal. Since he’d first come here, when he was eleven, he’d never seen another soul. Only, in his imagination, the ghosts of long-haired hippies.

He bumped down the road slower than he could have walked, and pulled to a stop. Taking his guitar case, he made his away across the rough, dry grass toward his favorite spot by the old apple trees.

It was his dad who’d brought him here that first time. When Forbes had fallen for Sonia, a Destiny Islander, he and Julian had moved from Victoria to the island. Forbes mentioned that he’d lived here, in a commune, for a few months when he was in his late teens. Julian, who’d grown up on his dad’s stories of magical places like Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury, had made Forbes show him, but the visit hadn’t lasted long. Forbes said it brought back bad memories of the commune leader, a manipulative jerk with a massive ego. As far as Julian knew, his dad had never come again.

Julian, lacking those bad memories, had imagined a wondrous time of freedom, laughter, and music: folk songs, protest songs, rock. When his life had turned to shit thanks to Jelinek, the abandoned commune became his secret refuge, a safe place he could reach in an hour on his bicycle. A place to cry and scream, to play music with no one listening, to pour his emotions into the notes and words and, when he was lucky, to feel the muse inspire him.

His brain drifting, it took him a moment to realize that he wasn’t imagining a hippie girl sprawled on the grass. This was a live woman in contemporary clothing, glossy ribbons of long black hair swirling around her as she reclined on a green striped blanket with her eyes closed. A paperback novel lay beside her, its cover showing a man and woman embracing.

Damn. So much for the solitude and peace he’d sought.

Julian started to turn, but his gaze was drawn to her face. He saw elegant features, smooth skin a shade of olive lighter than his stepmom’s Mediterranean complexion, arched black brows, long black lashes, and delicate lips.

Her classic beauty called another image to mind. Was this the woman he’d noticed in the audience at the community hall in May? Julian had been onstage, performing with B-B-Zee in the relatively well-lit old converted church, when he’d seen the two pretty women, one blond and one brunette. The blonde—Miranda Gabriel, who was now engaged to his stepbrother, Luke Chandler—had been more blatantly sexy, but it was the brunette who’d made Julian’s gaze linger. And it was she who’d vanished right after the final set. When Julian met Miranda, she’d said her friend was shy and didn’t go out much.

 

 

 

 

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He should vanish now, respect the woman’s privacy and his own. But he didn’t. Some instinct he couldn’t define compelled him to stay. He lowered himself to the grass near her, opened his guitar case, and quietly began to tune. As his fingers moved, the stress that had kept him constant company since he’d heard of Forbes’s accident eased from his body.

Julian began to play, not composing but warming up his fingers and the guitar strings, letting the music drift free, wherever it wanted to go.

*  *  *

Iris dreamt of butterflies, a dozen or more, colorful flutters of wings stirring the air to create gentle notes of music.

Gradually she woke, seeing poppy red behind her warm eyelids, then forcing her eyes open. Her vision a little unfocused, she saw . . . not butterflies, but a male figure, seated. A golden-haired head haloed by sunshine, bent over a guitar.

Her vision sharpened and her brain jerked to full awareness. She wasn’t alone. Not only that— Her body froze and her eyes widened as she recognized the man who sat on the dried-out grass only a few feet away. Burnished blond hair, tanned skin, the tattoo of musical notes that wound down his right arm. A faded-to-charcoal black tee and well-worn jeans on a rangy, almost too lean body. But mostly, his rapt expression. He was oblivious to her presence, intent on the poignant notes that slipped like tears from his guitar strings.

Julian Blake.

They’d gone to the same school, briefly. Not that he’d have ever noticed her. Though her outgoing mom urged her to socialize, Iris’s peace of mind came from fading into the background. Julian had been three years ahead and she’d certainly noticed him. He was a nail that very much stuck up, strikingly handsome in an edgy way, and a rebel. He skipped class, avoided the other kids, and gave the appearance of not giving a damn about anything. He’d reminded her of the “boys from the wrong side of the tracks” in the romance novels she devoured: fascinating and dangerous. When he dropped out of high school and disappeared, she wasn’t one bit surprised. Her imagination envisioned him either self-destructing or doing something amazing.

For a girl who’d never even spoken to the boy, it was ridiculous how pleased she’d been when her latter prediction came true. His music was on the radio and on her iPhone; the Julian Blake Band had won two of the Canadian music industry’s prestigious JUNO awards and, she believed, deserved even more. His songs were poignant, a tapestry woven of pain and beauty.

Her gaze dropped from his face to his hands, his fingers plucking and strumming emotion from those six simple strings. So graceful, so deft, and yet so masculine and strong. So respectful and yet commanding. Heat rose in her body as she imagined those hands, those fingers, on her body, creating magic. Her cheeks warmed as she remembered the fantasies that had given her nighttime pleasure ever since last May, when she’d seen him perform live for the first time.

“Hey, you’re awake.”

The soft, husky voice made her jerk up to a sitting position. Her gaze darted to his, which was on her face rather than the strings he continued to strum, and then dropped again. Shyness was as much a part of her as her black hair. No, more a part, because if she wanted to, she could dye her hair. Her shyness was ingrained, it had its benefits, and in familiar situations she knew how to cope with it. But being alone with a man—with a man she’d had sexy, romantic dreams about—made her heart race. All she wanted was to escape.

She kept her head down, not meeting his eyes. “I’m sorry to disturb your playing,” she said in a soft rush of words. She picked up her book and water bottle, placed them in her basket, and began to rise. “I’ll get out of your way.”

“No, wait.” The music cut off. “Hold on a minute.”

She froze, averting her head so a wing of long hair hid her face from him.

“I’ve seen you before,” he said.

His comment startled a response from her. “You have? Where?” He couldn’t have noticed her all those years ago at school, nor when he’d performed with his dad’s band this past spring. But nor could this be a pickup line. A celebrity like Julian Blake would never waste time flirting with a totally ordinary woman like her.

“At the community hall. You were with Miranda.”

“I . . . yes, I was.” He really had noticed her?

Politeness and honesty made her go on rather than follow her instinct to flee. She took a deep breath, acknowledging her anxiety rather than trying to deny or resist it, because neither of those techniques ever worked for her. Another breath, trying to center herself and calm her nerves. “You were wonderful.” Hastily, she amended, “I mean, you and B-B-Zee. It was a wonderful evening.” Still concealed behind a curtain of hair, she squeezed her eyes closed. Shut up before you gush on and say his music is wonderful. Could she be any less skilled when it came to talking to guys?

“Thanks. I always enjoy—” His first words were easy, but he broke off, and when he resumed again, his voice was gruffer. “I enjoy playing with Forbes and the guys.”

Now she remembered. How self-centered she’d been. Remorse and compassion made her meet his gaze. “I’m so sorry about your dad’s accident.” She’d heard that Forbes’s entire left side—shoulder, arm, lower back, pelvis, and leg—had been shattered.

“Yeah, thanks. Me too.”

She was sorry to hear the pain in Julian’s voice, yet focusing on his situation helped ease her nervousness. “How is he doing?” Though she didn’t know Forbes well, on the occasions they’d met she had sensed he had a gentle, creative soul.

Julian sighed and put down the guitar. He ran a hand through already tousled hair, hair that framed his lean, handsome face and brushed his shoulders. Iris noted mauve shadows under eyes the innocent blue of forget-me-nots. Lines of strain around his eyes and mouth made him look older than his real age, which she guessed was twenty-seven.

“The doctors say he’s doing as well as can be expected. But he’s in a lot of pain, and there’s a long road ahead of him.” He swallowed. “They say he might not walk again. Or even be able to play music.”

“That’s terrible. Poor Forbes.”

“He won’t accept that prognosis, and I’m glad. It keeps him motivated when therapy’s so painful.”

She winced in sympathy. “Determination is so important. I wish him all the best.”

“Triple-B-Zee’s supposed to play at Luke and Miranda’s wedding. That’s my dad’s goal, to be able to do that.”

Triple-B-Zee was Forbes’s band—Blake, Barnes, and Zabec—with the addition of Julian. And the wedding date was Saturday, December twenty-ninth. “I truly hope he can.”

“Me too.” The words grated and he coughed. “Damn, I didn’t bring anything to drink.”

“Here, have some of my water.” She grabbed her own bottle and extended it toward him. “In fact, keep it. I should go and let you get back to your music.”

He wasn’t close enough to take it from her hand, but rather than rise he scooted forward on the grass, ending up sitting a couple of feet away. Too close for her comfort. “Thanks.” He took the bottle, his hand not touching hers, uncapped it, and downed a long swallow.

Seeing his lips where hers had recently been sent a warm shudder through her body.

“But I interrupted your quiet time,” he said. “Don’t let me chase you away.”

“No, it’s . . . I’m . . .” I’m off balance, embarrassed, and painfully inept at talking to people I don’t know, about anything other than books. She ducked her head again, yet her skin quivered as she felt his gaze.

“I get it. If the idea of listening to me try to work out a new song makes your ears wince . . .” His hand entered her field of vision. Delicately, he eased strands of hair back from her face. His fingers brushed the lobe of her ear, light as a butterfly’s wings, and she trembled. “Makes you want to run away . . .” Now, in front of her eyes, he used two fingers to make quick, running steps.

A giggle burst out of her and she covered her mouth, too late to call it back. “No, of course not.” The idea of listening to him create music fascinated her. How incredible to witness that process. His process. Julian Blake’s, a man whose music spoke so intimately to her.

She could become invisible to him, as she’d been when she had first awakened and seen him so raptly intent. Then she’d be free to study his fingers, his expressions. To listen and react to the notes that flew from his guitar strings into the October air. But politeness and the high value she placed on privacy made her say, “Still, I don’t want to intrude.”

Now she dared to look at him, and saw a twinkle in those stunning blue eyes. “I’m the one who intruded. A polite woman would stay, not make me feel guilty for doing it.”

Had he somehow guessed that she tried, at all times, to be polite? Not simply out of social convention, but out of respect for others’ feelings. Those forget-me-not eyes were too compelling, so she gazed down at her knees, clad in clingy gray yoga pants, as she deliberated. After a moment, she succumbed to temptation. “Then I will stay.”

“Promise not to be too harsh.”

“I could never—” she protested vehemently, breaking off when she raised her head and saw him grinning. She found herself smiling back, and that amazed her.

He was, hands down, the most handsome, sexy, fascinating man she’d ever met. He was a celebrity in the Canadian music scene. Yet she felt . . . not comfortable, but more at ease than was typical with strangers. Perhaps it was because she’d seen him around, back when he was just a rebellious teen. Or maybe it was because he, like she, was sensitive to the nuances of people’s behavior. In her case, it came out of shyness. In his, she guessed it was an intrinsic part of his creative soul.

His teasing grin eased into something gentler and warmer. “I don’t know your name.”

“It’s Iris. Iris Yakimura.”

“Iris.” He studied her face and, though she felt heat in her cheeks, she managed not to duck her head again. “Your parents couldn’t have chosen a more perfect name.”

Why did he think that? She wasn’t bold enough to ask.

“You’ve seen me play, so I think you know my name,” he teased.

Throat suddenly dry, she murmured, “Julian Blake.” The name was, like many of his songs, an intriguing mix of contrasts. The three syllables of his given name were supple and melodic; the single one of his surname was crisp and powerful. She loved his name. More than once she’d whispered “Julian” into her pillow, in the throes of a romantic fantasy.

How unbelievable that she was here now with the real man, in this serene and evocative environment, and that he was going to play for her. Well, not exactly for her, but she’d be a witness to his creative process. He had asked her to stay.

Or maybe she was dreaming again. If so, she’d prefer never to wake.