Stone Castles by Trish Morey – Extract

9781743532874Chapter One

Adelaide Airport had grown up while Pip was away. There was a shiny new terminal with air bridges now, and disem-barking the plane had the same generic feel it had worldwide, so she could almost have been anywhere – if not for the unmistakeable line of hills to the east, with the three towers marking the highest point in the Mount Lofty Ranges. That, and the twisting of her gut that told her she was nearly home. Home.

After almost a decade and a half living and working in Sydney and then New York, she wasn’t even sure what that meant any more. Her recently turned on phone burped up the messages that had come in since last checking during her connection in Auckland, and Pip held her breath as she scanned them. She smiled at the ‘Missing you’ message from her friend, Carmen, and frowned at the three from Chad but didn’t bother with those now. She was relieved to see there was nothing from her gran’s nursing home. No news was good news, although it didn’t stop her calling as soon as she was inside the terminal.

‘How is she?’ she asked, to be told there was no change.

She checked the wristwatch she’d already adjusted to Adelaide time and did a mental calculation – one hour at most for the formalities of immigration and customs and to collect the keys to her rental car, and another two for the drive to the town of Kadina – and told them she’d be there by lunch. Easy.

Her business class ticket meant a short queue at immigration, so she beat her luggage to baggage collection, the carousel still stationary. It wouldn’t be long once it did kick into action, she knew, courtesy of the blue priority tag her suitcase was wearing. But still she felt impatient to keep moving, her stomach wringing itself tighter and tighter the longer the wait continued. Needing desperately to see her gran, but knowing that visiting her home town for the first time in almost a decade was going to shake things up, things she’d sooner leave right where they were.

Like questions from the past she didn’t know the answer to. Like other stuff. Like . . . Luke. God, she didn’t want to think about any of that, least of all Luke. That was history. So ancient, it shouldn’t even figure. And then a siren sounded and a light flashed and the carousel kicked slowly into motion. A few bags in, her suitcase appeared through the rubber strips. She almost sighed as she hauled it from the carousel. She’d still be out of here within the hour.

Thank god she had nothing to declare. Another ten minutes or so and finally she’d be free. It was when she turned that she noticed the sniffer dog, trotting its way between legs and luggage. It was a beagle and cute as a button and for the first time in hours she managed a smile. Until it took one sniff in her direction and plonked itself down in front of her, and cute as a button turned into the incoming passenger’s worst nightmare.

‘I don’t understand,’ she pleaded, as the dog’s handler asked to see an incoming passenger card that clearly stated she was carrying nothing that should be of any interest to a sniffer dog or its handler.

‘Are you sure there’s not something in your bag?’ he asked, as curious heads craned towards her. ‘Some food from the plane, perhaps?’

She shook her head, the cold sick fear of what-if curdling the aeroplane breakfast in her stomach. What if someone had stashed something in her luggage en route? What if any one of a thousand other scenarios had happened? But she had done nothing wrong. She knew she had packed nothing that was contraband. She tried to smile. Tried to look confident. Tried, and failed. ‘Nothing. Absolutely nothing.’

Of course, there was nothing else for it but to search her bags. As her hopes of a quick getaway faded, her sigh of exas-peration didn’t win her any friends.

‘This won’t take long,’ said the stony-faced official.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, trying not to aggravate the man any further. Not that anyone seemed fussed about not aggravating her. ‘It’s just, I’m kind of in a hurry.’ She licked her dry lips and wondered if they’d give her a break if she explained why she needed to get through customs and immigration as quickly as possible. ‘You see, my grandmother’s dying and I promised to be at her bedside by lunch.’

The official paused, latex sheathed hands poised over her suitcase, and for just one moment Pip thought that maybe he might actually let her go. ‘That’s too bad, miss,’ he said, deadpan but with a glimmer in his eye that told Pip she’d probably made the biggest mistake of her life by playing the dying grandmother card. He was sure she was trying to hide something now. ‘And now, if you’ll kindly unzip your bag?’ After twenty minutes of rifling through her things, twenty minutes of excruciating embarrassment as his big hands sorted through her knickers and her bras and the stuff she hid in her toiletries bag specifically so it wouldn’t spill out if her suitcase came undone en route, twenty minutes of questions during which she realised the beagle had likely smelled a banana she’d taken to work in her handbag the day before she’d left, she was free to cram her belongings back in and go hunt down her rental car. She sighed with relief at the agency as she gave her name and the attendant pulled out the paperwork. Finally something was going right. Finally she’d be on her way.

Or not . . .

‘Hang on,’ she said to the car rental agency attendant, who seemed to be having a lot of trouble with her booking. ‘I don’t want a sports car!’

The man rolled his eyes and glanced meaningfully over her shoulder at the queue of mums and dads and kids and luggage already building up behind her. ‘But you booked a cabriolet. It says so right here on the form.’ She shook her head, knowing that the last thing she wanted was a sports car. Her plan was to get in and out of Kadina making as few waves as possible. There was no way on earth she’d have asked for a damned sports car – or for that matter, any car that might draw attention to herself. ‘I want Stone Castles an ordinary car. Something nondescript and plain. Haven’t you got something boring? A Toyota or something?’

The attendant smiled. If you could call it a smile. More a baring of his teeth. ‘That’s actually a little awkward right now. We’re fully booked with the Christmas holidays starting. And after all, you did book the cabriolet.’

Pip sighed. Clearly someone had stuffed up. ‘Martin,’ she said again for good measure. ‘M-A-R-T-I-N. Can you check again please? There must be some mix up.’

‘There is no mix up.’ He didn’t even pretend to smile this time, all attempts at the pleasantries over. ‘This is your name on the rental document, yes?’

She glanced at the papers. ‘Well yes,’ she conceded, ‘but for the last time, I didn’t book –’ And with a cold shiver of realisation, it hit her. She hadn’t booked it at all. While she’d been in a panic about packing, Chad had offered to do it for her, using his firm’s corporate code because it offered a better discount than hers. ‘Just a car,’ she’d told him when he asked what kind she wanted. ‘Any old car.’

Shit . . .

‘Hang on,’ she said, reaching for her phone, scrolling through the messages she’d ignored earlier, clicking on the first.

Figured you would have landed by now.

She deleted that and moved onto the next.

Thought you might be missing me.

Weird. She frowned and sent that one to the trash as well.

It was the third message where she hit paydirt.

So surprise! Enjoy the wheels. Think of me every time you put your foot down.

What the hell? She’d think of him, all right. She’d imagine pushing him under her pedal and pressing her foot down hard. Dammit, why the hell had she ever trusted him with her booking? She sucked in air and looked back at the attendant and gave a weak smile. He had no trouble lobbing a wide one right back, and she knew that whatever expression had been on her face when she’d read those messages might as well have been ringed with neon lights. He was loving every minute of this. ‘All sorted then?’ he asked smugly, and without waiting for the answer pushed the rental agreement closer to her.

‘So maybe we can finish off the paperwork. If you just sign here . . . and here.’

Pip sighed. ‘Okay,’ she conceded, holding up one hand.

‘Apparently someone did book that car in my name. But it was actually a misunderstanding. Are you sure there’s nothing else available? Nothing at all?’

He blew air through his teeth and gestured to the queue behind her that was growing longer by the minute, full of frac-tious kids and their exhausted looking parents. ‘Not a sausage. I’m sorry, these people have booked all our boring cars.’

Ouch! She glanced over to the other agency desks, wondering if she should threaten to take her business else-where, but those desks looked just as crowded.

‘So there’s really no alternative?’

‘There’s always an alternative,’ he told her, and when she looked back at him, halfway interested, he continued. ‘There’s always public transport.’

All the way to the Yorke Peninsula? In what – a bus? And meanwhile she was supposed to be halfway there already, at her gran’s bedside. Oh god, Gran! Two hours after landing she was still stuck here at the airport. ‘Okay,’ she said, scrawling her signature on the paperwork. So much for trying not to be noticed. ‘I’ll take the damned convertible. Please just tell me it’s not red.’

The attendant looked studiously at the papers and didn’t say a word, but still she caught the curve of his lips. She could only hope it was because he was happy to be finally seeing the back of her.

Five minutes later she knew it wasn’t the only reason. She surveyed the car. Her nondescript rental designed to fly under the radar and go unnoticed in her home town. It was all kinds of red. Look-at-me red. Trouble-on-wheels red. Sex-on-wheels red. Enough! Whatever the colour, she would have to deal with it. She would just have to cope. She wrestled her bag into the trunk – boot, she reminded herself – and opened her door, staring blankly for a moment at the missing steering wheel before she realised.

‘Damn!’

She slammed the door, disgusted with herself as she rounded the car and found the driver’s seat. She was in Australia now. Driving on the other side of the car, and the road. She’d better not forget that again.

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