Authors: Tricia Stringer
ALSO BY TRICIA STRINGER
Queen of the Road
Right As Rain
Tricia Stringer grew up on a farm in country South Australia. A mother of three wonderful grown-up children and a devoted nanna, Tricia now lives in the beautiful Copper Coast region with her husband, Daryl.
Most of Tricia's life so far has been spent in rural communities, as owner of a post office and bookshop, as a teacher and librarian, and now as a full-time writer. She loves travelling and exploring Australia's diverse communities and landscapes, and shares this passion for the country and its people through her stories. One of Tricia's rural romances,
Queen of the Road,
won the Romance Writers of Australia's Romantic Book of the Year award in 2013.
is Tricia's third book with Harlequin.
A tapping sound penetrated Savannah's dream. Something jabbed into her back and her hip was wedged firmly. She flung out an arm and hit the steering wheel. She was in a car. Her heart lurched. The car crash! A dog barked. It was loud and close. Her eyes flew open. A huge woolly head, mouth open, teeth exposed, was right in her face.
She jerked backwards. The gear stick dug deeper into her left thigh as she twisted out from under the steering wheel. There was a mist on the driver's side glass between her and the dog.
“Down, Jasper,” a male voice commanded, then, “Are you all right?”
Savannah gasped. The dog was replaced by a man's face; unshaven, frowning. She glanced around. The grey light of early morning revealed the interior of her car. Not her parents' car, there had been no crash. She'd pulled over last night, lost and too tired to drive any further.
The dog barked. The man tapped on the window again.
“Are you all right?” he repeated.
Savannah straightened stiffened limbs and felt for the lever to raise her seat.
“Yes, I'm fine,” she snapped, glad the closed window separated her from the large German Shepherd.
“Not a good place to stop,” the man said. “Just around a bend.”
Savannah ignored him. She had completely lost her bearings last night when she'd pulled to the edge of the dirt road. It had been pointless to keep driving.
The man walked on, the dog leading the way, eager to be off. She looked in the rear-view mirror but the back window was covered in mist, like the rest of the windows. She gathered up the towel she'd pulled over her as an extra layer against the cold and used it to wipe the windscreen. A stab of pain shot down her arm. Definitely not a good idea to sleep in her car overnight. She would be stiff and sore all day.
“Bloody Jaxon and his schemes,” Savannah muttered. Her brother's desperate phone call the day before had enticed her out of the city to this shack of his, kilometres away from civilisation, on the banks of the Murray River. Trouble was, she'd only been to visit once before to check what she was going guarantor for when he'd bought the place. That had been a year ago and in daylight. Last night it was as if it had disappeared off the map.
She turned the key with stiff fingers. The engine roared to life. She lowered her window and stuck her head out. The crisp chill of early morning air flowed over her. She was parked just around a bend, the stranger had been right. Ahead the road was straight, bordered by wire fences on either side. It stretched on towards some tall gums and â¦
“Damn it!” Savannah slapped the steering wheel. She could see Jaxon's distinctive letterbox. The frame of an old pushbike with a box balanced on the handlebars. His idea of a joke. The only bike he ever rode was a Harley-Davidson. She pulled out and drove forward. She had been so close, yet last night in the dark she hadn't realised. Hopelessly lost once she'd left the main highway, she'd driven around for ages. There were no streetlights and not even any moon. When she'd tried ringing Jaxon, his mobile had gone straight to message bank and his landline was answered by his recorded message.
Now, as she approached his driveway, she didn't know whether to be angry or worried. She pulled up in front of the solid mesh gate. On it hung a large blue sign with navy-blue writing declaring “J&S Houseboats”. The gate was latched with a chain and a locked padlock. She pulled a set of keys from her console. Jaxon had given her a spare of every key. “You're my guarantor,” he'd said with that cheeky grin of his. “Everything here is yours until I can pay it off.”
She tested half the keys before she found the one that opened the padlock. The gate swung free, shuddered against the fence then stopped. She drove through and on past the workshop and sheds to Jaxon's shack, perched high above the river. It surprised her now as it had the first time she'd come. The drive through the bush to get here gave no indication of the existence of the wide river flowing past Jaxon's door.
She pulled up under the carport at the side of the shack. There was no sign of Jaxon's bike. She climbed out, stretched her stiff body then stood still, listening. She heard nothing. How he could stand the isolation and silence she didn't know. Give her the sounds of the city any day.
She walked around her car to the verandah that ran the full length of the shack facing the river. All the blinds were closed and the middle section, which was once a wall with two small windows and a rotting wooden door, had been replaced by some kind of panelling, floor-to-ceiling windows and a large sliding glass door. She remembered Jaxon telling her on one of his visits to the city that he'd met someone who had a salvage yard and someone else who was a carpenter and he'd replaced the front of the shack. She tugged on the door handle but it didn't budge. She didn't have the keys for the new door. She knocked on the glass.
“Jaxon!” she called. “Hello!”
She listened but there was no response. She retraced her steps, past her car to the back. Once again the verandah stretched along the length of the shack but this time it ended in a room which was the laundry. The screen door was old and creaked open at her twist of the handle. The door beyond it was also old and weathered but solid. She hoped one of the keys in her hand would open it.
The first key she chose turned the lock. She had to give the door a shove to get it open. The handle slipped from her fingers and the door flung back, slamming into the wall.
Savannah paused on the doorstep and peered into the gloomy interior. The laundry window was filled in with cardboard. The only light came from the doorway and illuminated a large automatic washing machine that took up most of the small space.
“Jaxon?” she called again but with less confidence. Had something happened to him and she was about to find his body?
There was a faint rustle from inside the shack.
She pursed her lips and stepped through the doorway.
“Bloody hell, Jaxon, if you're playing tricks I'll throttle you,” Savannah called as she turned right and went up a step, past the toilet and bathroom and into the kitchen.
With every blind closed it was gloomy inside. She wrinkled her nose. There was a smell of something musty. She reached out a hand to find the light switch and flicked it on. Where once there'd been a few old cupboards, a stove and a sink that served as a kitchen there was now a large U-shaped bench. In one corner of the U was a pantry cupboard with open benches joining it at right angles. Under the window a new sink gleamed along with an oven and cooktop. Jaxon had been busy. There must be a lot of work for electricians around the area. From what he'd told her the houseboat side of things ate money rather than made it.
She stepped further into the room but pulled up at a rustling sound. She spun and studied the pantry. It went from the floor nearly to the ceiling, the angled space between the two benches filled by a louvre door. She approached it carefully, her feet silent on the linoleum floor. At the door she stopped, carefully grasped the round handle and tugged. The door swung back, a light came on and a grey blur whizzed along a shelf close to her face. She shrieked and slammed the door shut. Not quick enough to contain the smell of mice.
Savannah clasped a hand over her mouth and hurried to inspect the bedrooms. The house was a rectangle. The kitchen and living area formed an open space in the middle. Jaxon's bedroom was the largest, taking up the side of the house in front of the laundry and bathroom. The bedclothes were pulled up, shoes filled a basket and scattered the floor around it. From the open wardrobe door she could see there were more clothes jumbled in a heap at the base than hanging from hangers. She walked around his double bed. The bedside table was covered in a layer of dust, coins and paper receipts but nothing to indicate Jaxon's whereabouts. Just a faint male smell remained. Better than mice at least, and hopefully it meant they weren't in here.
A picture frame had fallen to the floor. She picked it up. It was one of the last family photos they'd had taken. Their mother had displayed it on the small mantelpiece in their lounge room. Savannah grew to hate the picture. Their faces smiling on a rare holiday at the beach, all she could see was her large body. How had her mother ever allowed her to wear two-piece bathers, the rolls of fat unrestrained by fabric? Puppy fat her mother had told her, but that's not what the kids at high school had called it. Savannah had hidden the photo. She wondered how Jaxon ended up with it. And where was he now? She put the picture facedown on his bedside table and continued her search.
Across the living room in the opposite wall were two more doors. The front one revealed a double bed and wardrobe and the room behind it was stacked with boxes and electrical gear. In one corner was a desk. Above it hung a pin board with papers clipped in rows and a calendar with an all but naked brunette astride a bike. Files were neatly stacked on the desk alongside the flashing answering machine. That was the house all checked; unless he was in a cupboard or under a bed, Jaxon wasn't here.
“Where are you?” she murmured.
Suddenly desperate to use the bathroom, she went back across the living room. Beyond her the screen door swung open. Savannah turned to see the dog with the large woolly head. It bared its teeth in a snarl. She froze. A man stuck his head round the door. The same bloke she'd seen out on the road.