Forever Now

By: Ruth Cardello

The Barrington Billionaires Book Six

Chapter One

Nine years earlier

Pleasantly buzzed, Kade Thompson put an arm around Annie Martin’s shoulders and pulled her in for a long, tight bear hug. Friends since early childhood, she was an important part of why it felt so good to be home. His parents’ yard was overflowing with people who’d come to celebrate his recent graduation from university, but the day was also about making decisions on how to best move forward. And for that, he needed a moment alone with Annie.

The happy expression on her face sent uncomfortable heat through him. She was his friend, his confidant, practically a sister, although he wasn’t related to her. He found her attractive. Of course he did. She was beautiful. Long, wild brown curls. Blue eyes either full of laughter or an inspiring amount of grit. It would be easy to confuse the love he felt for her with something else.

He didn’t have much family, but the Martins had welcomed him and his parents to this town when they’d arrived as if they were long-lost relatives. His mother had been yearning for a quieter life, a small community where people took care of each other, and they’d found it in Bright, a beautiful mountain town in Victoria, Australia. The small town was nestled at the base of Mount Buffalo Park, a four-hour drive north from the bustling city of Melbourne.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about, Annie. Something important. Can we step away for a few?”

If possible, her smile widened. “Sure.”

They walked in comfortable silence into his mother’s flower garden. Annie sat on a stone bench while he paced in front of her. Although he’d hardly seen her since she’d had her own graduation celebration a year earlier, time away hadn’t changed how comfortable he felt with her. They were the same age, but it hadn’t surprised him when she’d graduated first. She’d always been a step ahead of him, serious beyond her years, with a clear vision of what she wanted. Which was why he knew she was the one he needed to discuss this with. “You know how much you mean to me.”

Annie nodded, looking oddly excited and emotional.

“Graduation is a turning point in life. Everything kind of changes from here on out. We have to step up to the plate, become adults, and start planning for our future.”

“Yes, we do,” she said breathlessly.

He sat beside her and took one of her hands in his. “I couldn’t wait until tomorrow to talk to you about something that has been on my mind for a long time.” Her fingers trembled. He frowned. Was she cold? Sick? Upset about something he’d missed? “Everything all right?”

She smiled brightly. “Of course. Sorry. It’s just so good to see you again.”

It was good. He’d already forgotten half the people he’d spent time with at uni, but Annie and his friends in Bright would always be home to him. The thought of building a life without them was daunting. He took a deep breath. “I’m considering expanding my father’s tour company to a town in the foothills of the Wabonga Plateau Alpine National Park.” His father had built Thompson Tours into a steady business that had strong local support. People came to the area, year after year, for the personalized tours he designed for them. Whether they were looking to scale the side of a mountain or sip champagne by a waterfall, his father made it happen. With a sigh, Kade closed his eyes while holding Annie’s hand tightly in his own. “It would mean starting over, putting down new roots. I hate the idea of it because everyone and everything I care about is here.” He opened his eyes and met her gaze. “Staying doesn’t make financial sense, though. This market is tapped out. If I go to Wabonga and build our business there, we could maintain our employees here and my dad could finally retire.”

“We?” Annie’s eyes seemed to light up.

He nodded. “Yes, my father and I. He’s not ready to retire yet, but he’s getting older, and I want to do this for him. I will do this for him.”

She searched his face as her eyes dimmed. “It sounds like you’ve already made your decision.”