“Exactly how grateful would you be if I took care of your baboon problem?”
Intern Sophie James is one weekend and one glamorous African safari wedding away from becoming a permanent member of the Star Weddings team. All she needs to do is not mess up.
But booking a wedding string quartet that turns up minus a first violinist would definitely count as messing up. She could fill in herself; after all, she knows her way around a violin. Except a dream-destroying mistake a long time ago saw her pack away her instrument forever, and the thought of playing again is almost as harrowing as the thought of slinking back to her parents’ house after yet another career sunk in a sea of failure.
It’s a good thing then that Sophie finds herself in the right place at the right time to rescue the delectable—and heaven-sent—violinist Nate Holt from a baboon that’s holding him captive in his game lodge shower. Now she has all the leverage she needs to convince him to fill in at the wedding in the bush.
Which is problem solved. Or so Sophie thinks. Because it turns out that problems, like baboons, are seldom solitary. As Sophie rushes to put out one career-ending fire after another, there’s another fire sparking into life between her and Nate. But there’s something Nate isn’t telling her. Something Sophie really should have noticed, if she hadn’t been so wrapped up in her own insecurities.
Once she finds out the truth about him, will she turn and run, letting her painful past continue to dictate her life? Or will she take Nate’s hand and confront what happened all those years ago, so she can finally grab hold of a future she didn’t even know she wanted?
Sophie James angled her smartphone against the harsh glare of the late afternoon sun and grimaced at the screen. Her sister Hilary looked as if a passing swarm of bees had taken a sudden and aggressive dislike to her eyelids. Sophie’s eyes itched in sympathy. “Aren’t there antibiotic eye drops for that?”
Hilary clucked her tongue. “The doctor did prescribe some, but they’re not magic. It’ll take a few days to clear up.”
From her vantage point atop the wide steps outside the game lodge’s reception, Sophie checked the dirt access road that wound away through the thorny bushveld. No sign of approaching vehicles. She looked back at her sister. “I still can’t believe you’re dropping me, Hil.” And on the most important weekend of her fledgling career in wedding planning.READ MORE
“I’m not dropping you, or the quartet. I’ve organised a replacement. And would you rather I turned up and played like this?” Hil leaned in to her phone, bringing a swollen, crusted-shut eye into hideous close focus.
Sophie recoiled, as if the plague might be transmittable over video calls.
“I didn’t think so.” Vindicated, Hil dabbed a tissue to a suppurating eye. “Even if I could see enough to read the music, a first violinist with raging pink eye is not going to look good at your fancy wedding.”
Not just fancy. Hugely expensive, what with the lavish tastes of the millionaire Dutch bridegroom. It was also Star Weddings’ most high-profile event yet, thanks to the bride’s uncle being the president of South Africa. As Sophie’s new boss never let any of them forget, it was the wedding guaranteed to make Star Weddings the name on every high-society bride’s lips.
Sophie’s grip tightened on her phone. “An absent first violinist will look even worse though. You know how Naledi is about everything having to be perfect.” The perfect wedding for your perfect love, written in the stars. What had possessed her to apply for an internship at a company that had ‘perfect’ not once, but twice, in its slogan?
“Trust me, Soph, Terence will be there. The quartet won’t be short a first violinist.”
“You told him the whole wedding party is heading out at five?” Sophie glanced at the open safari vehicles lined up in the lodge’s parking lot. Each truck was already loaded with cocktail-drinking wedding guests eager to set off into the open veld to the glamorous pop-up safari camp erected specially for the occasion. Sophie returned her gaze to her sister. “And he knows it’s too far out in the bush for us to drive back for latecomers?”
Hil’s sigh said she’d have been rolling her eyes too if they hadn’t been so swollen. “Would you stop stressing? I’m sure he’s almost there. He’s forever scraping in at the last minute for orchestra rehearsal, arriving just as we’re tuning up.”
Sophie tipped her head at her screen. “Great, a musician who can’t keep time.”
“Terence is one of the best. I wouldn’t trust just anyone to fill in for String Theory.”
“Well, if he isn’t here in the next few minutes, I can pack up my desk come Monday.” And for someone who was only twenty-two, Sophie’d had that unpleasant experience far too many times.
“You don’t have a desk,” Hil said. “And there’s no way your boss would fire you if the quartet ends up being a trio.”
“Wanna bet?” Hil didn’t know Naledi Dlamini, wedding planner extraordinaire, like Sophie did. Kim Jong Un, only in prettier heels.
It wasn’t just that Sophie had booked the quartet. She’d vouched for them too. Sworn on her life that String Theory would kick butt, and that if they didn’t, Naledi could kick hers…right out the door. Monday marked the end of her three-month internship, when she’d become a full, albeit bottom-of-the-ladder, junior member of the Star Weddings team and finally able to prove to Dad that she wasn’t an irredeemable failure. But none of that would happen if this Terence guy didn’t pitch.
Sophie cast another look over the umbrella trees and thorn bushes. “What if his car’s broken down? Or the cops have pulled him over for speeding and he’s sitting in a police van right now? Or he’s been in an accident and is lying dead in a ditch?”
This time, Hil’s sigh was heavy with resignation. “Hold on and let me check my texts again.”
Sophie chewed her bottom lip while she waited, massaging the tight muscles of her neck under her shoulder-length blonde hair. Her skin was clammy, despite the cool of the shade under the high thatched eaves of the reception building. Welcome to her life. She’d done her best, yet now that the finish line was in sight, it was all going to go wrong again.
Not that any reasonable person could blame her for String Theory’s lead violinist suddenly being struck down by pink eye. But then Naledi wasn’t known for being reasonable. Sophie should never have blurted out that she knew the perfect replacement, after the original wedding quartet, booked a year ago for the glamorous wedding, had pulled out just weeks before the big day. She should’ve just sat quietly in that meeting like a good little intern.
“No texts.” Hil was back. “And I checked my email too. Let me call his room-mate again and see what time he left. I’ll call you—”
“Hold on.” Was that dust on the horizon? Sophie shielded her eyes and peered up the dirt road. In the distance, a telltale cloud of white dust billowed above the thorn trees. Hope put a skip in her pulse and she beamed at Hil. “A car’s coming!”
“I knew he’d make it in time.” Hil’s voice had the told-you-so tone of a big sister. “Now go, soon-to-be junior wedding planner, and make us all proud with your fabulous wedding in the bush.”
“More like soon-to-be junior skivvy.”
“But still a job. Might even turn out to be your new life’s calling.”
Could she have two in one lifetime? Ever since Sophie could remember, there’d never been any question about what she was destined to do with her life, until that day five years ago when she’d derailed it all. If this job went the same way, she’d have to endure her father’s disappointment again. The thought made her gut clench. “I’d better go, Hil. Don’t want to keep Naledi waiting any longer.”
They said their goodbyes and Sophie slipped her phone into her pocket as a dust-filmed black SUV barrelled into the parking area and crunched to a stop at the bottom of the steps. The passenger door swung open and a man in his late twenties climbed out.
For a moment, Sophie forgot all about absent violinists. Tall and lean, the man had the build of a rock climber. Faded jeans rode low on narrow hips, and an olive-green “I heart Cape Town” T-shirt hugged the defined contours of his chest. He stretched, and the muscles of his arms flexed under tanned skin as he arched.
Sophie’s tongue sneaked out to wet her lips. She should stop staring.
As if sensing someone was watching him, the man turned his head and caught her gaze.
He had an open, friendly face, like he’d offer her the window seat if she were to mention it was her first time flying…though she’d never before had the good fortune to be seated next to anyone that attractive.
As his gaze skimmed down her body, Sophie felt a twinge of regret that she was dressed in the functional all-black slacks and blouse of a Star Weddings employee, instead of a more flattering pair of figure-hugging jeans. Not that she had time for romantic entanglements this weekend.
The man pulled his gaze from her and looked back into the SUV. He said something to the driver, then shut the door and went round to the back for his luggage.
Sophie crossed her fingers. Please let him be Terence. Please.
The SUV drove off, revealing a collection of luggage at I-heart-Cape-Town’s feet. A leather duffel bag. A wheeled carry-on suitcase covered in travel souvenir stickers. And—thank you, thank you!—there it was, slung over one shoulder: a hard, contoured violin case, the kind designed to protect an instrument during travel. It was just like the one Dad had bought her before they’d flown to her audition in Boston, only this one looked less new.
Weak-limbed with relief, Sophie hurried down the steps, almost tripping and landing in a heap at Terence’s feet. She thrust out her hand. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you!”
Terence closed his hand around hers and gave her a smile that was hesitant, though polite. “That’s some welcome.”
An American? Hil hadn’t said Terence was from the States. But then Hil hadn’t said much about her replacement, least of all how attractive he was. “I was getting worried. I thought you were never going to arrive.”
“Yeah, my first Uber broke down on the way here.”
Car trouble. That explained it. Though not why he hadn’t answered her repeated calls. But he was here now, which was all that mattered.
She still had her hand in his. His fingers felt good wrapped around hers. Warm and firm and oddly comforting after an afternoon steeped in anxiety.
She was staring again.
But then so was he.
Up close, his eyes were the soft blue of an early morning sky over the bushveld. His jaw was rough with stubble and his short dark hair stuck up on one side as if he’d been sleeping with his head against the SUV’s window. She wrangled the urge to reach up and pat his hair into place. “I’m Sophie, by the way. Hilary’s sister.”
His eyes narrowed in confusion. “Excuse me?”
“Hil James? You know, from—”
At the sound of her full name, Sophie dropped Terence’s hand with a start. She’d been so caught up in the curve of that inviting mouth that she hadn’t even heard the crunch of Naledi’s power heels on the gravel. She whirled about to face her boss. “He’s here! The missing violinist. His Uber broke down. So that’s the whole quartet, present and accounted for.”
Naledi cast a disapproving eye at Terence before levelling her gaze on Sophie. “That’s lucky for you, because we’re moving out. All the guests are here.”
“Even the president?” How had she managed to miss that arrival?
Naledi’s lips pinched. “Emergency cabinet meeting.”
Hovering beside her, Naledi’s assistant Denzil shook his head in arse-kissing exasperation. “President or not, you’d think he could clear his diary for his own niece’s wedding.”
So much for Star Weddings appearing on the news. The publicity would have been good for Hil’s quartet.
Naledi’s phone burst into life and she answered before the first ring was complete. “Tell me you’ve sourced the shrimp I ordered… No, I didn’t ask for Mozambican shrimp… I don’t care if a marine biologist couldn’t tell them apart!” Naledi turned, clicked her fingers for Denzil to follow, and stalked away towards the waiting game drive vehicles.
Sophie scooped up Terence’s duffel bag. “Sorry about my boss,” she said, in an undertone. “She’s a dragon. Sometimes I wonder why I even want to be promoted from intern to full-time employee. But now that you’re here, I’m safe for another day. Have you been to all these places?” She grabbed the handle of the sticker-adorned suitcase and the luggage tag flipped over.
For a second, Sophie froze, rereading the name written in block capitals. Then she released the handle as if an electric current had zinged through it. She pinned him with a horrified look. “Please tell me that Nate Holt is your friend and you’re borrowing his suitcase for the weekend.”
The man who might or might not be Terence screwed up his face so his nose wrinkled. “I could, if it would make you happy. But I’d be lying.”
That American accent again. Hell, she’d accosted an unwitting tourist, hadn’t she? “So Hilary James never sent you?”
The erstwhile Terence—now Nate—shook his head. “Sorry.” And he genuinely looked it.
Sophie dipped her head in embarrassment. “I’m such an idiot.”
“Don’t let it bother you.” Nate’s answering smile crinkled the skin around his eyes. “I’m sorry I—”
“Welcome to Ubukhosi Game Lodge, sir.” A beaming porter in an African print shirt appeared with a luggage trolley and commandeered Nate’s suitcase.
Nate greeted the porter and reached for his duffel bag on Sophie’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I wasn’t the one you were looking for.”
Sophie brushed aside his apology. “My fault entirely. You enjoy your holiday. I mean, your vacation. And sorry again about the mix-up.”
Nate held her gaze a second longer, then turned and fell in behind the porter, stopping at the entrance into reception to glance back at her.
Just checking the crazy South African who’d tried to kidnap him wasn’t sneaking up with a black hood and cable ties. Sophie gave him a cheery wave. “Go on then,” she said through teeth gritted into a wide smile, willing him to get a move on through the doors. She didn’t need any more onlookers at her imminent execution.
When Nate at last disappeared into the building, Sophie let her head sag. Fan-frikking-tastic. Behind her, one of the safari vehicles revved its engine in rough impatience.
This was it then. Come Monday, she’d be looking for a new job…unless she could do a little creative selling. She tilted her head in thought. So what if String Theory was now a trio instead of a quartet? Haydn. Mozart. Beethoven. They’d all composed the most beautiful pieces for string trios. If three string instruments were good enough for those musical giants, they should be good enough for this wedding. She just needed to convince Naledi.
Good luck with that. But it was at least worth a shot.
Sophie found Naledi about to board the first safari vehicle. She smoothed her blouse and stood a little straighter. “Slight problem.” Her throat worked. “It turns out that guy back there wasn’t the replacement violinist. The stand-in is still a no-show. But I’ve been thinking, we can very easily make do with a trio instead of a quartet.”
The flawless skin around Naledi’s eyes tensed and her painted eyebrows sprang into scythe-sharp scoops. “Make do?” Naledi drew in a measured breath, nostrils flaring. “We do not ‘make do’”—acrylic nails gouged out air quotes—“at Star Weddings.”
Sophie shuffled her feet. “It’s not really ‘make do’ though, more ‘nothing else we can do’.” Her nervous titter resembled that of a skittish hyena at a lion kill. “And a trio’s not much different to a quartet. Thembi will simply move up to play first violin, so there’ll be one less line of harmony, but no one will even notice.”
Naledi tilted her chin so she could look down her nose at Sophie. “I will notice. And did Baleka and Martijn request a quartet or a trio for their special day?”
“A quartet, but—” Sophie snapped shut her mouth as her boss raised one talon-tipped finger.
Naledi took a controlled breath. “If the couple booked a quartet, then that is precisely what Star Weddings will deliver. And if we can’t, then someone needn’t come in to the office on Monday.”
Sophie gulped. She’d really hoped this job would finally be the one that stuck. She’d tried so many. Reception jobs. Sales. Stock-taking. Maybe she could try and find something in advertising this time. She knew music, and had been composing as a hobby for years. Perhaps that could crack her a trainee job in a creative department, sourcing tracks for TV commercials.
Naledi’s voice snapped Sophie back to the diesel fumes of the parking lot. She looked up.
“I seem to remember you mentioned in a meeting that you play the violin.”
Sophie’s blood chilled as if she’d just been hooked up to a liquid-nitrogen drip. “Played. Past tense.” Very past tense. “And besides, I don’t have a violin.”
But she knew who did. Why hadn’t she thought of it herself? She could fix this, save her job, and ensure nobody had any need to revisit the ridiculous idea of her picking up a violin ever again.
Sophie pressed her palms together in supplication. “Just give me five minutes.”COLLAPSE