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By Karly Lane
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Karly Lane
All rights reserved.
Heat waves shimmered in the distance and Kate thanked God, yet again, for airconditioning. It seemed like the temperature had risen five degrees since they'd left the city.
She hummed along to a country song on the radio, a smile touching her lips as she caught sight of Liam in the rear-view mirror. He was bent over a Gameboy, a scowl of fierce concentration etched on his face. Her smile faded slightly as she took in the hunched bundle of animosity that was her fourteen-year-old daughter, Georgia. Tiny earphones blocked out the sound of everything around her, including the 'mother from hell who had managed to ruin her entire life'.
With a sigh, Kate focused her eyes back on the road and shifted her thoughts to the tasks that lay ahead.
Not for the first time in the last three months, tiny niggling doubt scratched at Kate's insides, so she switched her thoughts to the positives instead. Her decision to move two children — under protest — to the middle of nowhere was a risk, but given her circumstances, there was very little choice.
'Mum, I'm hungry,' Liam announced yet again.
Kate reached into the esky she'd packed last night with sandwiches and drinks.
He eyed her offering with a healthy dose of contempt. 'I'm sick of sandwiches, Mum.'
Kate took a deep breath. 'Just eat the sandwich and I promise that once we get to Widgerry I won't feed you another slice of bread for the rest of the month.' She reached back to offer a sandwich to Georgia, keeping her eyes fixed on the road ahead. When she received no response, Kate yelled louder and nudged Georgia's knee. 'Turn that music down.'
'It's not even loud.'
'If you can't hear me calling you inside the car, it's too loud.'
Kate gripped the steering wheel tighter with one hand, the other still held out behind her. 'Just take the sandwich, Georgia.' She caught sight of her daughter's screwed-up grimace in the rear-view mirror, but chose to ignore it, focusing instead on the endless russet-brown plains spreading before them.
It had been an atrocious year, one Kate would rather erase from memory. Having their rented flat sold from under them by the landlord and trying to find a new place to live, while fighting to hold her family together, would have been hard enough. But dealing with an ex-husband determined to drag her down the minute she made any headway had tested her usual level-headed method of dealing with problems. Her grandfather's bequest had been a life raft thrown to her moments before she went under.
The cloud of uncertainty surrounding her return to Widgerry stirred up an almost queasy feeling inside her, and again Kate forced her thoughts back to more pressing things — like her plans for the next few days. She was determined to make this move a positive one right from the start.
As the day dragged on, they played I Spy and counted signposts. When they ran out of those, they counted road kill, until even Liam lost enthusiasm, and fell asleep just to escape the monotony.
* * *
It was almost six when the flat empty fields stretching either side of the bitumen gradually began to show signs of civilisation. A large billboard advertised the Drop Inn as the motel to stay in when you visited Widgerry; another sign with pictures of frosty glasses of amber-coloured beer attempted to lure the weary traveller into stopping for a drink at the local pub. The population sign, hanging a little wonky, boasted Widgerry's population at eleven hundred and forty-seven.
Kate gave a small scoff. Bit of false advertising on the council's behalf. Widgerry consisted of a modest main street and thirty houses at the most. The inflated population was made up by including the surrounding properties that extended into one of the largest shires in the state.
The late afternoon sunshine softened the edges of the small oasis that sprang up out of the dry, whiskey-coloured landscape around it.
They drove down the deserted main street, passing a rural supply store, butcher and co-op, and a small department-style store, all of which were already shut for the night. There was a takeaway shop and small grocery store further along, though, both with their doors open.
Part of her felt like a teenager again. Passing the café where she and Jenny, her best friend, would escape to whenever they were in town, she remembered skipping piano lessons after school just so she could hang out with the town kids and escape the isolation of North Star for a few hours. Looking back now, she felt a surge of guilt. She'd barely given a moment's consideration to the fact that her grandmother had paid a hefty sum for those lessons she'd so casually ditched.
Kate wondered what had happened to Jenny. She'd probably moved on years ago. Not many kids stuck around after high school unless they married a local farmer. Still, once they were all settled, she might make some enquiries and see if she could track down her old friend.
As she drove further down the main street, with its original bull-nosed verandahs shading old-fashioned store fronts, Kate half expected to see her grandmother step out of the fabric shop. She felt an unexpected ache in her chest at the thought of her lovely gran no longer being around.
The Drop Inn appeared at the far end of the main street, across the road from the only pub. It was funny how this place had always seemed so exotic to her growing up.
'Look, kids, there's a pool. We'll grab the key and have a swim before dinner.'
Liam rewarded her with a big smile but Georgia just rolled her eyes.
* * *
When Kate finally unlocked the door to their motel room she was dying to slump down onto one of the beds for a moment, but Liam raced in to change into his swimmers.
'Come on, Georgie, get into your swimmers and come and cool off. It'll be nice,' she said, but Georgia brushed past and flopped down on one of the single beds, arms crossed defiantly.
Kate pursed her lips and ran her hands through her brown hair. She was tired, hot and emotional and it was all she could do not to give in and have a good cry. But she had two tired, cranky and very confused kids to worry about, and a mile-long list of things to do.
The cement, still hot from the sweltering heat of the day, felt wonderful beneath her bare feet as she headed towards the pool. Bright paint and terracotta pots went a small way towards cheering up the pool area, though they failed to hide the fact that the little motel was long past its prime.
Watching Liam playing around in the water brought a weary smile to her face as she lowered herself into the pool. For the first time in a long while his little face was beaming with joy.
Sinking beneath the surface, Kate let out a sigh as the cool water closed around her, washing away the tension of all those endless hours spent driving. It was wonderful to have finally arrived, although of course they weren't exactly there yet.
The property her grandfather had left her was a few kilometres out of town, and she had to pick up the house key and sign the last of the paperwork at the solicitors before they could finally move in. So splashing out — literally — on a few nights in a motel was not only a treat but also a necessity.
Widgerry. Kate let out a long sigh. It felt almost surreal to be back. So many memories jockeyed for position inside her head. It was strange seeing the town through adult eyes, to be here now with children of her own. Had it really been that long since she'd left this place? It seemed like only yesterday she'd been Georgia's age. The thought sobered her; there was very little about her teenage years that she wanted to remember, except maybe Jenny.
A sad smile touched her lips. Would Jenny remember her after all this time? And if she did, would she forgive her for leaving the way she had?
The sun had all but set and it was growing dark when Kate finally summoned the strength to climb out of the pool. With hands like prunes, she dragged Liam from the water; the two of them laughed as they compared wrinkly skin. She'd just wrapped herself in a large beach towel when a white four-wheel drive pulled up in the car park, imposing red and blue lights bolted to its roof. Her heart plummeted as she caught a glimpse of her daughter slumped over in the back of the vehicle.
Kate hurried over and pulled at the gate, cursing the latch that refused to open. Eventually she stood back and allowed the police officer to release the lock for her.
'Th ... thank you, officer,' she stammered, her eyes searching his in alarm. What on earth was her daughter doing in his car?
'I'm Senior Sergeant John Cafferty, the local constabulary around these parts. I take it this charming young lady belongs to you?' His voice was deep and held a hint of sarcasm.
Kate stared at Georgia's sullen face through the window. 'She was in the room ... Oh God, what has she done? Is she okay?'
'She's fine and she isn't in trouble ... yet. I saw her heading into the bottle shop up the road.'
Kate's face paled.
The police officer held up his hand. 'It's okay, she said she was lost and just wanted directions.' There was a slight twinkle in his eye — clearly he hadn't bought the story either.
'We just arrived ... We've moved here from Sydney,' Kate said, the knot in her stomach easing as she realised her daughter wasn't about to be arrested.
'So I understand,' he replied dryly. No doubt Georgia had given him her colourful views on that one.
'I thought she was in our room resting.' Kate's mind was racing. What was she going to have to do, tie Georgia up? They'd been in town barely two hours and already Georgia was being picked up by the police!
'No harm done. I just wanted to make sure she got home okay,' the policeman said with a shrug and opened the door to let his surly passenger out of the car.
'Georgia, thank the policeman,' Kate hissed, mortified at having to instruct her daughter to use basic manners in front of a stranger.
'Thanks,' Georgia snarled and stomped into the motel room without another word.
Kate watched her daughter's retreat bleakly. 'She's not handling our move very well. It's been a bad few months. I'm hoping that coming here might make her a little more ...'
'I'd settle for civil,' said Kate, forcing a smile.
'Ah well, teenagers.' He shrugged as though that explained it all.
'Thank you for bringing her home. We'll be moving out of town soon — I've just inherited my grandfather's property — so you shouldn't have to worry about Georgia ... getting lost again.'
'You're going to be living at Henry Campbell's place?' he asked, appearing surprised.
'Yes, I'm his granddaughter.' In a place this small it obviously wasn't too hard to figure out which property she'd been talking about.
He eyed her with renewed interest and Kate shifted on the spot uncomfortably. 'Is there a problem?'
'No, I'm just surprised that you're planning on moving in — everyone figured the new owner would sell. The place is in pretty bad shape. You might want to stay in town a little longer once you've taken a look at it.'
'I guess I'll find out tomorrow. I'm going to see Henry's solicitors and get the keys to the place then.'
'Well, if you need any help, just let me know.'
'Thanks, I'll do that. Hopefully I won't need you in a professional capacity again,' said Kate, then immediately regretted it. Was it just her, or had that come out sounding ... suggestive? 'I mean, you know ... as a police officer ... not that I'd need you in any other sort of capacity.' Kate bit her tongue.
To his credit, John gave a low chuckle before he turned back to his vehicle. Then, with a final wave, he drove away, leaving Kate staring after him, furious with herself now as well as Georgia.
* * *
It was a tense evening, but thankfully it didn't last too long. Liam was dead to the world shortly after he'd eaten his dinner, and even Georgia was asleep by eight-thirty.
After ensuring the door was locked, and placing enough obstacles in the way to make a silent breakout during the night near impossible, Kate closed her eyes, bone weary.
As she drifted off to sleep she wondered how many surprises lay in store for her in the weeks to come.CHAPTER 2
At nine o'clock the next morning Kate parked the car outside the small offices of Mannerly and Sprite. She was surprised that the 'Sprite' hadn't been removed after all this time. It had been the talk of Widgerry for months when Mr Sprite had run off with Mr Mannerly's wife and most of the firm's funds.
After sitting the kids down in the waiting room, Kate approached the reception desk and waited for the bottle-blonde receptionist, who was busy typing from a dictaphone, to acknowledge her.
Kate watched in amazement as the woman's lethal red talons flew across her computer keys in a blur. Her hair also defied logic, sitting piled high on her head in a beehive style that had been out of fashion for at least forty years.
'Excuse me —' Kate said finally.
The receptionist's eyes flickered towards her, though her fingers continued to type furiously on the keyboard.
'I have an appointment to see Mr Mannerly at nine o'clock.'
'Take a seat.'
So much for country hospitality, Kate thought as she sat down beside Georgia, who was flicking through a very old Women's Weekly with a decided lack of enthusiasm. 'Jesus, this is prehistoric,' she muttered, pointing to a picture of Brad Pitt still happily wedded to Jennifer Aniston.
A few minutes later a loud buzz sounded at the reception desk and the receptionist informed Kate that Mr Mannerly would see her now.
The offices of Mannerly and Sprite had last been decorated in the late 1970s and Mr Mannerly himself seemed to be still wearing a suit from the same era. Sliding a curious glance towards the desk calendar, Kate was relieved to see it showed the correct year. She eased herself into the burnt orange visitor's chair in front of Mr Mannerly's desk.
'Mrs Thurston,' the solicitor greeted her politely. He reminded her of Mr Cunningham from Happy Days, with his big round face and puppy-dog eyes.
'Actually, Mr Mannerly, it's Ms — I'm divorced.'
'Oh yes, so you are. My apologies. My condolences, too, for your grandfather's passing.'
'Thank you, but in all honesty I didn't know him that well. He and my mother were estranged for a long time.'
'Yes ... of course ... an unfortunate turn of events,' the solicitor mumbled uncomfortably.
Moving on to the matter at hand, he leant forward and began to read out her grandfather's will. What followed was a mind-numbing array of 'forthwiths' and 'herebys' that took a solid thirty minutes to listen to and only confirmed what the solicitor had already told Kate in plain English on the phone — namely that she was now the sole owner of a substantial property consisting of a house, machinery and various sheds and other buildings.
'I just need your signature on a few documents and then you can have the keys to your property,' said the solicitor.
'Mr Mannerly, do you know what happened to the men my grandfather had working for him?'
'I'm afraid Mr Campbell let all the workers go quite some time ago. It's my understanding that there hasn't been anyone out there for a great many years.'
'Then how on earth did he manage the place all this time?'
'I believe your grandfather hadn't run any livestock on the place for well over ten years. He was an old man, Ms Thurston. I'm sure you can appreciate it would have been difficult for him to continue running the place alone at his age ... and with his, um ... condition.' The solicitor squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.
'His condition?' Kate arched an eyebrow. 'Do you mean the fact that he was an alcoholic? I didn't realise alcoholism was considered a condition nowadays.' Kate didn't mean to sound so harsh, but being a violent drunkard could hardly be put in the same category as diabetes or heart disease.
'Y-yes, well ... um,' stammered the solicitor, shuffling through the papers on his desk. After a moment he seemed to collect himself and pointed out the places she had to sign.
'Have you considered what you might want to do with the property?' he asked. 'I do know that it's a much sought-after piece of land around these parts.'
'Well, for now my children and I will be living there,' Kate said, scrawling her name across the crisp white paper.
'As I informed you on the phone, Ms Thurston, your grandfather was somewhat of a recluse in his later years. I'm told that the property is in quite a state of disrepair.'
'I'm not suffering any illusions about the condition of the house, Mr Mannerly. However, I am in need of a place to live. I have no plans to return to the city until North Star has been fixed up, and who knows how long that will take.'
'As you wish.' He gave a small shrug. 'I'll go and collect the keys and your copies of everything we've gone through here today.'
After he'd disappeared, Kate leant back in her seat and closed her eyes as she concentrated on releasing the knot in her shoulders that had become a constant over the last few months.
Excerpted from North Star by Karly Lane. Copyright © 2011 Karly Lane. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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