Copyright © Renee Conoulty 2017
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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To my niece, Grace. You’re just as beautiful as your name. Happy 16th birthday.
“Don’t run! And use two hands.”
“I won’t drop it, Mum, promise.”
Grace sat on the park bench, watching her son stalk around the playground clutching her brand-new smartphone. He tapped the screen with slender fingers, his chubby toddler hands had vanished, then ran back.
“Slow down, buddy.”
“But Mum, look. I caught a Geodude. He’s a rock Pokémon just like Onix, so maybe I’ll find an Onix today.”
Finn raced across the playground and paced in circles.
Grace had downloaded the Pokémon Go game during the school holidays as a bonding activity with her son. A great excuse to get out of the house and explore the local community. They’d discovered a World War Two archaeological walk full of Pokéstops and were currently working their way around the local playgrounds. Grace hadn’t been interested in Pokémon when she was young but had soon learned all the lingo. Pokéstops, Gyms, Great Balls and Revives. Whatever it took to make Finn happy. He was the centre of her world and if he wanted to hang out with Pikachu and Squirtle, then that’s what they’d do. For the next half hour, anyway.
A couple of kids ran up the path, jumped over the concrete edging and scrambled up the monkey bars. Finn raced across the playground, kicking up the sand.
“Can you hold this? I wanna play with my friends.”
The three kids, in matching school uniforms, clambered all over the equipment.
Grace checked the screen for scratches, then noticing the Pokéstop was in range, clicked on the icon and spun the disk. For Finn. As she placed the phone in her lap, a green ute pulled up opposite the playground. Nobody got out. It was difficult to see through the tinted windows, but there appeared to be only one person in the car.
“Five minutes,” Grace called out. Attempting to leave without a wind-up warning always led to tears.
Five minutes later, the car was still there. The knot in Grace’s stomach tightened. Who would loiter by a kids’ playground but a predator?
“Time to go.”
Grace clutched Finn’s hand. Keeping herself between him and the strange ute, she crossed the grass to her car. She gripped her keys, the largest one jutting out between her whitened knuckles. As they reached the safety of Grace’s hatchback, the green car pulled away.
“How was school today?” Grace asked.
“Okay. Can we go the long, long way home again?”
She smiled. “How about we just go the long way. We’ll go down the main street tomorrow after gymnastics.”
“Finn, what have I said about whinging?” She glanced into the rear vision mirror.
“We can stop and battle the gym near our place.”
“Yes!” Finn pumped his fist in the air.
Grace waited for the seatbelt indicator light to turn from red to green then passed Finn her phone. They turned right out of the car park to go past six Pokéstops and a Pokémon gym on the way home instead of the shortcut to the left that didn’t go past any. Grace pulled into a parking space but kept the car idling for the air-conditioning.
“It’s the yellow team, but it’s only a level four so I’ll kick them out in no time.” Finn tapped away, his brow furrowed and eyes glued to the screen.
She looked over her shoulder and watched him, hunched over the phone. Something green flashed in her periphery. Grace turned to look out her window. A car had pulled up beside them. Grace looked closer. No, it was a ute. The same one she’d seen the day before. This time she could make out the silhouette of a man leaning on the steering wheel.
“It’s time to go.”
“But Mum, I’ve only got one more Pokémon to defeat, then I can take over the gym.”
Grace flicked the central locking. “Okay. Five more minutes, then we have to go.”
She glanced over at the green ute again. The stranger shifted position and Grace caught a glimpse of an illuminated screen.
“Mum, there’s someone else battling.”
“I think it’s him.” She gestured to the green ute, careful to keep her hands below the level of the window.
“Who?” Finn continued staring at the phone.
“The person parked beside us.”
“That’s his name. He just put a Snorlax in the gym. He’s on the blue team too. We can go now if you like.”
“Did you see my handstand?”
Grace ruffled her son’s hair. “Sure did. That was your best one yet.”
“I held it for, like, a hundred and seventeen seconds.”
More like five seconds, but Grace simply smiled and passed Finn her phone.
“Let’s see what we can catch on the way back to the car.”
They followed the footpath around the YMCA.
“There’s a lure on. Can we stay here for just a bit?”
“Fifteen. I’ll sit over there.” Grace gestured to a nearby park bench.
“Can we cross the road, please? If I stand over there, with him, I can reach all three Pokéstops.”
Grace looked over to where Finn was pointing. A man leant up against the corner of the building. “No.” She grabbed her son’s arm. “Don’t point at people.”
The man looked up from his phone and caught Grace’s gaze. She looked away, catching a glimpse of the familiar green ute parked on the side street.
“You guys playing Pokémon too?” The words carried clearly across the street.
“Yeah,” Finn called back.
Grace tightened her grip on his arm.
“You can reach all three Pokéstops from here,” the stranger called out.
“I know, but my Mum won’t let me come over.”
“Finn,” Grace hissed through clenched teeth. Memories of a dark-haired stranger looking for his lost dog rooted her feet to the ground.
“C’mon, Mum.” The voice was too deep to be Finn.
Grace looked up. Did he just call her Mum?
“You can come over too. Promise I don’t bite.” The man smiled, running his fingers through his chocolate brown hair.
Grace’s stomach knotted at the sight of his brown hair, her heart rate rocketing as if she was running down the footpath. She lowered her gaze to his face. His smile widened, unravelling the knots in her stomach then twisting them up again. She’d trusted her gut instinct back then and escaped but she wasn’t sure what her gut was saying now. She gripped her car-key weapon.
“Mum?” The tiny voice brought her back to the present. She nodded, slipped her free hand into his and they crossed the road.
“Hi, I’m Jackson.” The man held his hand out.
Grace automatically reached out to shake his hand. Metal clanked against concrete. Grace looked towards the sound. Her keys. She squatted to pick them up, rising to see her son shaking hands with the stranger. Icicles of fear slid down her back. She thought she’d drummed “stranger danger” into her son but it seemed the manners lessons had made more impact with him, just like they had with her.
“I’m Finn and this is my Mum. What level are you on? I’m on level 16.” Finn shoved her phone into Jackson’s face.
“I think I saw you in a gym yesterday.”
“Yeah, I took over a gym on the way home from school. Are you JBoy8?”
“Finn, don’t talk to strangers,” Grace mouthed, pulling him closer to her.
“He’s not a stranger, he’s Jackson,” Finn said, much louder than Grace’s whisper.
Heat flushed up her neck.
Jackson smiled at her then spoke to Finn. “Yep, I’m JBoy8.” He studied Finn’s phone. “SharkO33. Let me guess, Shark because sharks have fins?”
“Yeah! You’ll never guess the O though.”
“Nah, got me stumped there.”
“The O is for my middle name, Onyx, and the 33 because I like the number 3 but SharkO3 was already taken.”
“Onyx, hey. So have you caught an Onix yet?”
“Nope. I saw one once, but it got away. I really want one, though. Have you caught one?”
“I’ve got two.”
“Wow! Where did you find them?”
“I caught one just here the other day and the other one along the Esplanade.”
“I hope we see one today!” Finn hopped from foot to foot. “What level are you?”
Jackson smiled at Grace, then lowered his phone so Finn could see.
“Wow! You’re on level 23. That’s, like, the highest level.”
“Not quite, but I’ve been stuck here for a while.”
“Why are you called JBoy8? You’re not a boy, you’re old.” Finn tilted his head to one side.
Maybe those manners lessons hadn’t quite sunk all the way in.
“The J is for Jack and a son is a boy. The 8 is for the eighth month, for my birthday.”
Finn tapped his fingers in turn. “That’s August. It’s August now. When’s your birthday?”
“Are you having a party? I had a party at the water park.”
“That would’ve been fun. I’m not doing anything special, and anyway, I’m too old for parties.”
Grace watched the scene unfold before her, her emotions fluctuating between the terror of the unknown and the joy of seeing her son bond with a man. His father was nowhere to be seen and her parents lived across the country. She’d moved far from the bustling Melbourne metropolis she’d grown up in, but running from her memories also meant leaving her family behind.
“You’re never too old for parties, are you Mum?” Finn looked up at Grace, his face glowing.
“Maybe he doesn’t want to celebrate his birthday.” Grace didn’t want to think about how old she was going to be next month. She’d always thought she’d have it all together by the time she was thirty.
“I don’t mind birthdays, but they’re better when you have someone to share them with. I just moved here a few weeks ago so I don’t know many people yet.” Jackson squatted down beside Finn. “Does your mum like cake?”
“She loves cake.”
“What’s her name? She forgot to tell me.”
Finn pointed at his mother. “She’s Grace Diamond Mulligan.”
Jackson rose to his full height. “Well, Grace Diamond Mulligan, would you and Finn like to meet me tomorrow for coffee, cake and some Pokémon catching? There’s a great bakery near the water tower.”
Her instinct was to shout “no” but the word caught in her throat.
“I’m not old enough to drink coffee,” Finn said.
“How about chocolate milk?”
“Chocolate milk is for babies. Can I have a Coke?”
Jackson chuckled. “You’ll have to ask your mum.”
Grace’s resolve weakened as two pairs of eyes pleaded with her. They’d be in a public place and she could leave if she didn’t feel safe. She knew she was overprotective. Of herself as much as Finn.
“Okay.” She pushed the fear down and let a smile slip onto her face. “What time?”
Grace’s phone vibrated sending her heart skipping. Maybe Jackson was cancelling? No, it couldn’t be. She hadn’t given him her number. She glanced down to see one of those cute little furry Pokémon. Finn was flying on the net swing, so she flicked a few balls at the creature.
“Did you catch it?”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.” Jackson sat beside her on the concrete bench. “Eevee.”
“No, I’m Grace.”
Jackson chuckled, his deep voice resonating off the concrete tower supports. “I meant the Pokémon you caught, it was an Eevee. I know you’re Grace. Grace Diamond. How could I forget a name as beautiful as that?”
Heat prickled Grace’s neck. She clenched her toes, curling them into the soft rubber of her thongs. She watched her pink varnished toenails reappear as she let them unfurl then lifted her gaze to meet Jackson’s. “Happy birthday.”
His eyes crinkled as the smile spread across his face. “Let’s go eat cake.”
“Finn,” Grace called, her gaze captured by Jackson.
“You don’t have to yell.”
She spun her head to find Finn already standing beside her, thongs back on and raring to go.
“C’mon, Sharko. Let’s get cake.”
The bell jingled as they stepped into the bakery.
Finn went straight to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of Coke.
Jackson peered into the display. “I think I’ll have a chocolate muffin.”
“Me too. I love chocolate and they look like little birthday cakes.” Finn pressed his face up against the glass.
“Finn.” Grace pulled him off the glass by his shoulder. “I’ll get a muffin too.”
“Is it your birthday?” the barista asked Finn.
“Nope, it’s his.” Finn pointed to Jackson.
Grace placed her order then led Finn to a vacant table.
Jackson came over moments later and slid a bottle onto the table in front of Finn. “You left this on the counter.”
Jackson sat opposite Grace and the table suddenly felt tiny. She tucked her feet under her chair as he pulled his chair in. She looked down at her handbag in the vacant chair. She’d made sure his arm wouldn’t brush against hers, but she had forgotten about his eyes. Each time she looked up, those big brown eyes were studying her.
The awkward silence was broken as the waitress delivered the hot drinks. She reappeared moments later with the food. A solitary candle flickered in the centre of Jackson’s muffin.
Finn broke into song. “Happy birthday to you.”
Grace joined in on the second line, albeit much quieter than Finn. “Happy birthday to you.”
Finn took the volume up a notch, drowning her out. “You look like a Mankey, and you smell like one too!”
Jackson burst into laughter. His deep chuckle was infectious and Grace couldn’t help but join in. By the time Jackson had gathered himself together enough to blow out the candle, it had shrunk to half its size, leaving a puddle of wax on the top of his muffin. Jackson flinched as he attempted to pick the wax off. A glob stuck to his thumb.
Grace snatched the bottle of Coke from Finn’s hands.
Grace ignored him, reaching across the table to grab Jackson’s hand. She flicked the hardening wax off with her fingernail and pressed the cold bottle against his thumb.
“Thanks.” Jackson made no attempt to take the bottle from her.
“I know you’re supposed to run cold water over burns, but the water doesn’t come out of the tap cold enough here. I did a first aid course ages ago. My certificate’s way out of date, but—”
“It’s feeling better already,” Jackson cut in.
Grace bit her bottom lip, looking down at their hands. She imagined entwining her fingers with his but released her grip instead.
Her son’s voice caught her attention.
“Can I have my drink back now?”
How had she forgotten to give that back? She slid it over.
Finn slurped the last of his soft drink and clunked the empty bottle on the table. “Can we go and catch some Pokémon now?”
Grace drove to the far end of the Esplanade and found a parking space. Yesterday, they’d paced up and down the street where Jackson had caught the Onix, but to no avail. She’d agreed to meet Jackson in the city, for Finn. Anything to see a smile light up his face. Nothing to do with seeing Jackson’s smile. Or his eyes. Nope. Nothing to do with him.
Finn raced off ahead towards the war memorial. A sudden urge to run swept over Grace, but she pushed it aside and continued walking.
“Hi, JBoy.” Finn gave him a high five.
The three of them walked side by side along the path. Grace watched on as the boys madly swiped at their screens.
“How far are we gonna walk today? Can we go another kilometre? I’ve nearly hatched my ten-k egg and it might be an Onix.”
“Sure. We can go right to the other end of the Esplanade if you like.” Grace turned to Jackson. “Is that okay with you?”
Finn skipped ahead, flitting from one side of the path to the other.
Jackson slipped his phone into his pocket and turned to Grace. “He’s a good kid.”
“I think I spoil him a bit, but I’m doing the best I can.”
“Is it just the two of you?”
“Yep. His dad took off.”
“What brought you to Darwin?”
“It was as far from Melbourne as I could get.”
Grace nodded. “Lots of bad memories.”
“Well, I hope you’re making some better memories up here.”
Grace looked up and smiled. “I am.”
“Mum, Jackson, my egg’s hatching!”
The three of them huddled around the screen to see.
“Snorlax.” Finn’s shoulders slumped.
Grace squeezed his arm.
“Snorlax is way stronger than Onix. He’ll be much better in battles.” Jackson said.
“Yeah, I know. Can I go play in the playground for a bit, Mum?” Finn trudged over to the playground.
“Wanna sit?” Jackson gestured to a shaded park bench.
Grace sat, then realised there was no space between them to put her bag. She placed it on the other side and got her phone out. She had to keep her hands busy. Keep them in her lap. As she unlocked the screen, a familiar theme played.
“Hey, look.” Jackson reached over and tapped the screen, brushing against her fingers.
Tingles shot up her arm. Her eyes locked with his. “What?”
Grace dragged her gaze away from him. A grey snake made of rocks was bouncing up and down, grinning at her. “Finn, come here. There’s an Onix!”
Finn galloped over and snatched the phone from her outstretched hand.
Jackson reached over and squeezed her hand. “I hope he catches it.”
She squeezed back. “Me too.”
Jackson loosened his grip but didn’t take his hand away.
Grace linked her fingers through his and watched her son.
She didn’t want this one to get away.
About the Author
Renee Conoulty is an Australian Air Force wife and mother of two. When she’s not devouring books, reviewing and blogging at , or writing her own stories, Renee can be found swing dancing. Or possibly napping.
She tweets about reading and reviewing @HeySaidRenee and about writing, military life, and dancing @ReneeConoulty, but hasn’t created a handle for nap talk yet.
You can also find Renee on Facebook
Also by Renee Conoulty
Don’t Mean a Thing (Got That Swing #1)
What if you finally took the lead, but life refused to follow?
Thirty-year-old introvert, Macie Harman, has finally found a career she is passionate about, and after months of training, she’s begun her new job in the Royal Australian Air Force. Leaving behind her family, friends, and the life she knew, Macie has travelled to the other side of the country where the only person she knows is Rachael, the extroverted girl she went through basic training with. Everywhere Macie goes, Rachael is there too.
While looking for a way to widen her circle of friends in her new town, Macie discovers a local swing dancing class. The jazz music captures her heart, and Matt, the sexy swing dancer, sweeps her off her feet. Matt has claimed the tropical Northern Territory as home and has no plans to leave. He loves his teaching career with its predictable routine and has a great bunch of friends. All he wants now is the right girl to make his house a home.
Military life is tougher than Macie expected, and not everyone can deal with the inevitable separations and last minute changes. Is this exciting but unpredictable life something Macie wants to fight for, or could she give it up and put down roots with Matt?
Available at your favourite ebook store
Like an emerging butterfly, I stepped into the sunlight. A new day, a new place, a new life. I barely got a chance to stretch my legs, let alone my metaphorical wings, when I stopped, struggling to breathe air so humid. I dropped my handbag on the tarmac and tore off my travel jacket. I didn’t need the shorts and t-shirt I was wearing now either, but I restrained from stripping completely.
Sweat trickled down my back as I strode towards the welcoming doors of the air-conditioned airport terminal. I knew it was the wet season, but I thought that meant water would fall from the sky, not drip from me. What on earth had I signed up for?
I climbed into the back seat and rifled through my purse for my official ID card. The sight of it made me smile. It still seemed surreal that I’d actually done it. I’d dumped my controlling boyfriend, quit my retail job, and joined the military. I ran my finger over the text. ACW Macie Harman. I was an Aircraftwoman in the Royal Australian Air Force, and I was about to start my new career. I would finally do something that mattered. I would help keep Australia safe and get to move around the country every few years. And no man would stand in my way again.
“That’s okay, I’ve got a lift.” I spotted Rachael waving from the car next to us. I passed him the military issued cab charge card and transferred my luggage into Rachael’s boot.
“Thank you.”[_ Oh, well._]
“Thanks, Rach.” I slid the key into the lock and cautiously turned it. Click. As excited as I was to see my new home, what I’d seen so far had dampened my spirits. I pushed open the door, glanced around, and sighed. Well, it could be worse.
Thanks, Mum. I closed the window and stood there for a moment, not sure what to do. I wanted some time to myself, just to relax after that long flight, but my room still felt like a sauna. I wasn’t sure what was more suffocating, the air or Rachael’s constant chatter. I decided I could cope with ten more minutes of Rachael.
The bathroom was at the far end of the central hall. I’d be sharing with seven other girls. At least it wasn’t a co-ed dorm, so I didn’t run the risk of sitting on the cold porcelain bowl in the middle of the night. Enter memories of my ex-boyfriend leaving the seat up. Did the porcelain actually get cold in Darwin?
I loved the smart alarm feature, brilliantly designed to bring me to consciousness more gently. I’m not a night owl, but I coped better with mornings if I didn’t start them with an adrenaline dump caused by the beep-beep-beep of a digital clock. The radio setting wasn’t much better. Waking up to someone talking or singing at me was just as scary.
That girl has no boundaries. It was like talking to someone in the toilet cubicle next to you. Gross. I didn’t want to talk to naked Rachael, but I couldn’t be rude either. “Are you okay?”
Feeling mentally and physically cleansed, I returned to my room to get dressed. I braided my hair, tucked the end up underneath, and pinned it into a military approved style. It was a relief to get the bulk of my hair off the back of my neck. My freshly ironed blue service dress uniform hung in the wardrobe ready to wear. I checked and double checked that my patches were all in the right place. I hung my uniform back up and dressed in my civvies—my regular civilian clothes. I didn’t want to risk spilling breakfast on my uniform. First impressions do last.
I introduced myself to the nearest person. My sister’s voice echoed through my mind as I scanned his uniform.[_ He’s built like a brick shithouse_]. Thank goodness he only had one stripe. That was only one rank above mine. I was an Aircraftwoman—or ACW—and hadn’t earned a stripe yet. He must be a Leading Aircraftman—or LAC—though I don’t know why they distinguish men and women at the lowest two ranks and not higher up. I didn’t need to salute him, so I blurted out what I needed.
I silently groaned. Not on Rachael’s team. My fingers tensed as I twisted the button again, and it came off in my fingers. Shit. I hoped Ma’am didn’t notice.
“You don’t look old,” Jeremy said.
Rachael breezed in and joined the group, her hair now styled closely to mine. “Hi, guys. Doc said my shoulder is good to go.” She glanced over to me. “Hi, Nanna. Did Ma’am put you on our team?”
Want more? You can purchase Don’t Mean a Thing at your favourite ebook store
Grace is a single mother whose life revolves around her eight-year-old son, Finn. All she wants is to keep him safe and happy. She indulges his latest passion for playing PokÃ©mon Go, stepping out of her comfort zone and into the local community, where Finn strikes up a conversation with a stranger. Can they find the fine balance between stranger danger and being polite? Will Finn finally catch an Onix? And will Grace let herself be caught?