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When Alice woke, she was lying on the ground, staring up at trees and sky. So strange. She was used to living in the countryside, but she couldn’t remember ever having woken without finding some kind of roof above her. Even more confusing was the brightness of the sky—the vivid blue of sunny climes. And the trees were wrong, not the dark leafy branches of her home in Gracebrook in Upstate New York, but khaki, and with drooping leaves that were more like—
Holy freaking hell! Alice bolted upright, wincing as a sharp pain shot down the side of her head. She was sitting in dirt. Twigs and dried leaves clung to her long, curly hair, to the backs of her arms, to her jeans. And as she looked around her, taking in more details, she knew for certain—she was a very long way from home.
Slowly, somewhat dazedly, as if waking from a crazy dream, she could sense her memories returning, but it was like reeling in a struggling fish, as if she might lose those memories at any moment.
With a growing sense of panic, she clung to the details as they came to her. She was in Australia. More accurately, she was in the Australian outback on her epic adventure, her own personal declaration of independence. This morning—or yesterday, she couldn’t be sure—she had hired a car in Melbourne and had been driving north.
She’d been managing really well, she recalled now. She had automatically opened the car door on the wrong side, expecting to find the steering wheel, but once she was on the road, she’d remembered to stay on the left-hand side. But now, as she looked around her, she couldn’t see any sign of the little orange Mazda she’d so happily driven through the busy streets of Melbourne and eventually onto the highway. Here there was only dry and dusty Australian bushland, a long, empty road and a water bottle lying in the leaf-strewn dirt.
A sickening chill sliced through Alice. Where was the car? And her other belongings? Her backpack? Her money purse? Her phone? Her freaking passport?
And where was the couple who’d stopped to help her?
Oh, God. Alice’s head throbbed again and when she lifted her hand to gently feel her temple the skin was tender to the touch. And there was blood on her fingers now. Had she been knocked out?
As far as she could tell, her memory seemed to be intact. She could certainly recall buzzing along the highway with the car radio blaring and the window down to catch the authentic Aussie scents of eucalyptus and sun-drenched fields. And she could remember the sudden stomach-churning splat that had come from the back of the car, followed by the steering wheel pulling in her hands and the sinking realisation that she had a flat tyre.
A potential disaster, perhaps, but Alice hadn’t reacted with the over-the-top panic that might have gripped many young women travelling on their own in a foreign country. She’d grown up in a small rural town, after all, and on the very day she’d gained her driver’s licence, her dad had spent an entire afternoon making her practise changing tyres over and over until she was as fast as any mechanic. He’d been determined to make sure his daughter was never caught out alone on a lonely mountain road.
But now, just as her dad and her mom had feared—and had also quite loudly predicted—Alice had been caught out on an even lonelier road in, of all places, the Australian outback. Already, she could hear her parents’ panicked voices. We told you so, Alice. We warned you, sweetheart.
The thing that totally annoyed Alice now was that she hadn’t needed to accept help from the couple who’d pulled up. They’d been so very friendly, though, and it had seemed rude to reject their kind sympathy and offers of assistance.
‘Oh, you poor thing, stuck out here in this godawful heat.’
They’d been middle-aged. Fifties perhaps. He was small and wiry, wearing denim shorts and a navy singlet and he had his hair tied in a stringy, greasy ponytail. The woman had been plumper and greyer, also dressed in shorts and a singlet top, and she’d seemed particularly warm and friendly.
‘Oh, I suppose you could probably change that tyre if you really tried, darlin’, but let Darryl do it for you. He’s a whiz at anything mechanical. He can change a tyre in his sleep. He’ll have it done in a flash.’
And Darryl had been quick, too, Alice seemed to remember. He’d settled the spare wheel into place and had the nuts tightened in no time. She’d decided she had indeed been lucky that such a friendly couple had stopped, because it was terribly hot and the tyres were heavy.
Everything had been absolutely fine until the woman jumped into the driver’s seat just as soon as the job was done.
Remembering this now, Alice was revisited by a sudden flare of alarm, the same frantic sense of fear she’d experienced at the time. The woman’s face had changed so quickly when she’d turned on the ignition, shooting Alice a hard, steely glare. All pretence at friendliness had been replaced by fierce, callous determination.
Alice had only vague memories of trying to wrench the driver’s door open and hearing Darryl’s voice yelling at her from behind. She supposed she must have turned around then. She could certainly remember seeing his raised fist gripping a wrench.
Till she’d woken up just now, nursing a sore head.
Oh, God. It was pretty damned obvious she’d been assaulted and robbed. They’d taken her car, her money. Every damn thing.
The sons of bitches had left her alone in the Australian outback with no transport, no phone and no money—a situation pathetically in line with every prediction her parents had made.
Alice winced as she remembered how she’d scoffed at her folks’ fears. What would her parents know about Australia? They’d always been embarrassingly conservative and totally insular, hardly ever leaving their home state and always wary of outsiders. She’d reminded them of the wonderful stories her grandfather—her mom’s dad—had told them about the exciting leave he’d spent in Australia during the Vietnam War. The parties in Sydney, seeing the kangaroos in the outback, sailing to beautiful islands on the Great Barrier Reef.
‘Fabulous place,’ her grandad had always raved. ‘King’s Cross, Bondi Beach, the Aussie bush. The beer’s cold, the girls are friendly, and they play the same music we love.’
Of course her parents were nervous after what had happened to Daniel, Alice’s brother, but she’d been living in the shadow of that disaster for six years and she’d finally reached the point where she needed to move on.
‘Those rapes and murders in the outback only happen in the movies,’ she’d asserted. ‘Everyone knows Australia’s safe and the people there are incredibly friendly. Of course, I’ll be fine.’
Fighting an overwhelming desire to crumple in a heap and weep, Alice forced herself to focus, to think clearly. She told herself she’d been lucky. She hadn’t been murdered or raped, so that was a positive. And at least the couple had left her in the shade with a water bottle, not that she was in any mood to be grateful. But when she considered her options now, she knew she had little choice but to hitch a ride to the nearest town.
Yikes. The very thought of hitchhiking sent her fear factor soaring. While Australia was supposed to be relatively safe, hitchhiking was a monumentally dangerous exercise in any country, especially for a young woman. But what choice did she have?
Instinctively, she reached into her jeans pocket, hoping by a miracle that she might find her phone there. But no, of course she’d left it in the car.
Arrrgh! Alice allowed herself to yell the worst swear words she could think of, but while her rage frightened a flock of birds out of a nearby gum tree, it only gave her momentary relief. Freshly annoyed, she decided she’d just have to start walking.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t been paying much attention to the mileage, or the distances on the map from one town to the next. As far as she could remember, she’d been heading for a town called Wirra-something. Wirraburra perhaps? Whatever. With luck, it wasn’t too far away—and at least she had water.
Alice took a few careful sips, aware she had to make this lifesaver last for as long as possible. Then she took a deep breath. Okay. She could do this. Her head might be sore, but her legs were fine. She would walk all day if necessary. At least this road wasn’t very busy and she could probably cover quite a distance without having to worry about menacing strangers.
Seemed, however, Alice’s bad luck was going to continue. She’d only been walking for a few minutes before she heard a vehicle zooming from behind, travelling in the same direction as she was.
Don’t look back, she told herself. Just keep your head down and keep walking and they probably won’t stop.
But already, she could hear the engine slowing. Her stomach tightened. Her heart trembled in her chest. Holding her gaze straight ahead, she kept striding forward, praying that the driver would lose interest and take off.
To her dismay, the car came to a stop on the dirt verge just behind her. Oh, God. Her poor heart raced and thumped now, and sweat broke out all over her body, but she kept on walking and refused to look back.
‘Hey!’ a voice called, a male voice, youngish, with an unmistakably Aussie accent. ‘Do you need a lift?’
Alice kept walking. The sun was burning hot. She had no hat and her sore head was throbbing. She also felt a little giddy and she prayed she didn’t stumble. She couldn’t accept help from another outback stranger. Not unless she was absolutely on her last legs and couldn’t manage another step.
‘Hey!’ the young man called again. ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’
He actually sounded concerned and Alice was almost tempted to look back, but she wasn’t going to be caught a second time. Squaring her shoulders and holding her head high, she marched on.
Tom Braydon frowned as he watched the girl continue down the road as if she either hadn’t heard him, or was determined to ignore him. He was inclined to shrug her off, climb back in his car and continue on his way. He had more than enough on his plate, had a thousand and one tasks to get through today. The last thing he needed was the distraction of a female lost on the highway. But she was wandering alone in the middle of nowhere and something about her bothered him.
Tom couldn’t quite pinpoint what nagged him exactly. Yeah, she was eye-catching. Her slim and pretty figure looked great in her skinny jeans and yellow T-shirt. Her tawny hair was fetching the way it caught the sunlight as it tumbled about her shoulders. But she was also a long way from anywhere, which raised more than a few questions, and there was something about the way she walked that didn’t seem quite right.
Perhaps it was his imagination, but every few steps or so she seemed to stagger a little, like she was drunk, or drugged. None of his business, of course, but in either case, she shouldn’t be alone out here.
Tom turned back to his car where Freda and Ivy were strapped in the back seat, peering out at him, looking intense and worried. Which was, unfortunately, their default expression these days.
He gave them a quick wave, then pointed to the girl and tried to mime his intention of catching up to her on foot. Hopefully, the girl would find this less sinister than if he trailed behind her in the car.
Alice couldn’t tell what the guy was doing now. He’d stopped calling out to her, but he also hadn’t returned to his car, or at least, she hadn’t heard the engine start up. And not knowing what was happening back there was way too scary. She had to take a peek.
Cautiously, she turned back to grab just the tiniest, quick glance. The guy had not returned to his car. He was dressed in jeans and a blue shirt as well as elastic sided riding boots and the kind of cowboy hat that Aussies called Akubras. She was secretly proud of that little bit of knowledge. Problem was, this outfit was almost identical to the gear worn by just about every other male in the Australian outback, which wasn’t exactly helpful or reassuring.
Worse. He was coming after her.
Help! Alice was suddenly so scared and weak her legs turned to jelly and when she tried to run, she stumbled and almost fell.
‘Hang on,’ the fellow called. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. I thought you might need help.’
Yeah, sure. Alice had already experienced enough help for one day, thank you very much. But the guy was young, long-legged and almost certainly fit, so it was pretty damned pointless to try to outrun him.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked again as he drew near her.
Alice gulped. He was so close now it was silly to try to ignore him. Trembling, she turned. He’d remained a few feet away, but he was tall and broad shouldered—strong looking—so if he decided to attack her, she wouldn’t stand a chance.
It didn’t help that he was frowning and watching her carefully. The way a fox watched a hen? But the next moment his lips tilted in a brief, flickering smile, which made him look rather shy and maybe even nice, although Alice wasn’t about to trust his smile. She had only to remember the other friendly Aussies who’d offered to help her.
‘G’day,’ he said. ‘The name’s Tom. Tom Braydon. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.’
Despite her terror, Alice couldn’t help thinking that a rapist probably wouldn’t tell a potential victim his name before he proceeded to perform the evil deed. Then again, knowing his name might not matter if he was going to murder her afterwards.
These spinning thoughts were somewhat interrupted by a movement at the back of his car. One of the rear doors opened and someone got out. Someone small. A little girl, in fact, with dark curly hair and glasses. And then another girl, only slightly taller, with hair just as dark, but tied in braids.
Alice blinked. Would a rapist-cum-murderer travel with two little girls who might witness his crime? Was it possible she’d overreacted?
End of Excerpt