Read an Excerpt
'Hello.' Quinn Laverty tried to find a smile for the customer service clerk on the other side of the counter. She raised her voice to be heard above the jostling crowd. 'I'm here to collect the car I booked.' 'Name, please?'
Quinn gave him her details and tried to slide her credit card free from its slot in her purse with one hand. Chase hung off her other hand, all of his six-year-old weight balanced on one leg and her arm as he stretched as far as he could reach along the counter with his toy car, making the requisite 'broom-broom' noises.
She made him straighten and stand on two legs and then grimaced at the customer beside her who'd been 'driven over' by said toy car. 'I'm sorry.'
'No problem at all.'
He flashed her a smile and she found herself smiling back. Nice smile. Really nice eyes. Actually
She frowned. There was something faintly familiar about him. She stared and then shook herself and shrugged it off, turning back to the clerk. It might just be that he was the exact model of son her father had always wanted-clean-cut, professional and respectable. She did her best not to hold that against him.
Speaking of sons
She glanced to her left. Robbie leaned with his back against the counter and stared up at the ceiling, his face dreamy. Quinn tried to channel some of his calm. She hadn't expected this all to take so long.
Mind you, when she'd booked the car over a month ago she hadn't thought there'd be a national plane strike either.
'I'm afraid there's been a slight change to the model of car you booked.'
Her attention spun back to the clerk. 'What kind of change?'
'Ow!' Chase pulled his hand from hers and glared.
'Sorry, honey.' She smoothed down his hair and smiled at him, but a fist tightened in her chest. She glanced back at the clerk. 'What kind of change?' she repeated.
'We no longer have that model of car available.'
But she'd booked it a whole month ago especially!
The commotion in the car rental office didn't die down. Beside her she sensed her neighbour's frustration growing too. 'I have to leave Perth today!' He didn't shout, but every word was clipped and strong.
He glanced at her and she suddenly realised she was staring. She sent him a buck-up smile and turned back to the clerk, doing her best to block out all the background noise. 'I'm driving across the Nullarbor Plain. I need a car that can go the distance.'
'I understand the reasons you booked a four-wheel drive, Mrs Laverty, but we just don't have any available.'
She didn't bother correcting him on the Mrs. People made that assumption all the time.
She lifted her chin, preparing for a fight. 'I have a lot of luggage to fit into the car.' Another reason she'd chosen a four-wheel drive.
'Which is why we've upgraded you.'
Was that what they called it? She folded her arms. She'd chosen the car she had because of its safety and reliability rating. As far as fuel efficiency went it was one of the best too. It was the perfect car to take them across the country.
'We've upgraded you to a late model station wagon.'
'Does it have four-wheel drive?'
Quinn closed her eyes briefly, but all that did was underscore the scent of desperation and outrage in the air.
'I want to speak to the manager,' the man beside her clipped out.
She drew in a breath and opened her eyes. 'I need a four-wheel drive. The fuel consumption on that wagon will be outrageous and as I'll be travelling to New South Wales in it that's an awful lot of fuel.' She'd be driving the car for forty hours. Probably more. 'And, I might add, with none of the benefits the four-wheel drive offers.'
Driving suddenly seemed like the stupidest idea a woman had ever had. She lifted her chin another notch. 'Thank you, but I don't want an upgrade. I want the car I originally booked.'
The clerk scratched his nose and shuffled his feet, staring everywhere but at her. 'The thing is, ma'am, with the plane strike, you understand there just aren't any four-wheel drives currently available.'
'But I booked this over a month ago!'
'I understand and I do apologise. We won't be charging you for the upgrade. In fact, we'll be offering you a discount and a credit voucher.'
That was something at least. Quinn couldn't afford to stray too far from the budget she'd set herself.
'And the crux of the matter is ' the clerk leaned confidentially across the counter '.there isn't anything else available.' He gestured to the crowded room behind Quinn. 'If you don't want the station wagon we'll have plenty of other takers who will.'
She glanced back behind her too and grimaced.
'I can't guarantee when a four-wheel drive vehicle will become available.'
She bit back a sigh. 'We'll take it.' She didn't have any other option. They'd sold up practically everything they owned. The lease on their house had run out and new tenants were expected within the next few days. Their lives no longer belonged here in Perth. Besides, she'd made a booking at a caravan park in Merredin for this afternoon. She didn't want to lose her booking fee on that as well.
'Excellent. I just need you to sign here and here.'
Quinn signed and then followed the clerk out through a side door. She made sure both boys had their backpacks-they'd refused to leave them with the rest of the luggage back at the house.
'Keep the paperwork on you. You'll need it for the Newcastle office. And if you'll just wait here the car will be brought around in a jiffy.'
The relative quiet out here after the cacophony in the office was bliss.
Robbie sat on a nearby bench and swung his feet. Chase immediately knelt on the ground beside the bench and 'broom-broomed' his toy car around.
'I'm sorry, Mr Fairhall, I wish I could help you. I have your card so if something comes up I'll let you know immediately.'
Fairhall? That was it! She'd known she'd seen him before. She turned to confirm it anyway. Uh huh, her neighbour at the service counter had been none other than Aidan Fairhall, up-and-coming politician. He'd been travelling the country canvassing for support. He had hers.
He had a nice on-air manner too. No doubt it was all orchestrated as these things were, but he came across as intelligent and polite.
Polite shouldn't be overrated. In her opinion there should be more of it. Especially in politics.
She watched him slump onto a neighbouring bench as the man with the manager badge pinned to his shirt strode away. His shoulders drooped and he dropped his head to his hands. He raked his hands through his hair and then suddenly froze. He glanced up at her-a long sidelong look from beneath his hand-and she swallowed, realising she'd been caught out staring at him twice now.
He straightened. Her heart did a crazy little thump-thump. She swallowed and shrugged. 'I couldn't help overhearing. I'm sorry.'
He smiled, but she sensed the strain behind it. 'It looks as if you've had more luck.'
Her lips twisted. 'Considering I booked this car over a month ago.'
He let out a breath, nodded. 'It'd be very poor form if they cancelled it on you at this late date.'
'But they're not giving us the car we wanted,' Robbie piped up.
She should've known he'd been listening. His dreamy expression lulled her every single time. 'But it's a better one,' she said, because she didn't want him to worry. Robbie had taken to worrying about everything.
'We're moving house,' Chase declared, glancing up from his car. 'All the way across the world!'
'Country,' she corrected.
Chase stared at her and then nodded. 'Country,' he repeated. 'Can we move to the moon?'
'Not this week.' She grinned. Robbie and Chase- her darling boys-they made it all worthwhile.
'It sounds exciting,' Mr Fairhall said. He glanced at Robbie. 'And if you're in an even better car now that probably means your trip is going to be lucky too.'
She liked him then. Amid his own troubles he found the time to be nice to a couple of young boys-and not just nice but reassuring. If he hadn't already won her vote he'd have had it now.
'The plane strike seems to be turning the country on its head. I hope it ends soon so you can be where you need to be.'
He must have a crazy schedule. Actually-she rested one hand on a hip and surveyed him- maybe this would prove a blessing in disguise. He looked tired. A rest from the hurly-burly might do him the world of good.
His eyes darkened with some burden that would have to remain nameless because she had no intention of asking about it. 'Rumour has it that things on that front are going to take ' his shoulders sagged '.time.'
'Mrs Laverty?' A man bounced out from behind the wheel of a white station wagon. 'Your car.'
She nodded as he handed her the keys with a cheery, 'Safe driving.' 'Thank you.'
Mr Fairhall rose. 'You boys have a great journey, okay?' And as he spoke he lifted their backpacks into the back of the wagon.
'Can I sit back here with the backpacks?' Chase asked, climbing in beside them.
'Most certainly not,' she countered, lifting him out again. 'Thank you,' she said to Mr Fairhall as he closed the wagon.
'Where are you going when the planes work again?' Chase asked as Quinn ushered him around to the back seat.
'That's near where we're going,' Robbie said. 'We looked it up on the map.' He pulled out the map he'd been keeping in his shorts pocket.
The swift glance her polite politician sent her then had her stomach tightening.
'You're going to Sydney?'
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. 'A couple of hours north of Sydney.'
'You wouldn't consider ?'
He broke off, no doubt in response to the rictus of a smile that had frozen to her face.
'No, of course not,' he said softly, as if to himself.
The boys glanced from her to him and back again.
Darn it! This was supposed to be a family trip. This road trip was about giving the boys a holiday with the opportunity to ask her whatever questions they wanted about this new life they were embarking upon. In a relaxed atmosphere. Another person-a stranger-would throw those dynamics out completely.
She made herself brisk. 'C'mon, boys, in the car. Seat belts fastened, please.'
Aidan Fairhall nodded at her. 'Safe trip.' 'Thank you.'
Darn it. Darn it. Darn it.
He moved back to the bench. She stowed her handbag, made sure the kids had their seat belts fastened and then moved to the driver's seat. She glanced at Mr Fairhall and bit her lip.
'He wanted to come with us,' Chase said.
Why did children have to be so perceptive when you didn't want them to be and so obtuse when you did?
'You always tell us we should help people when they need it,' Robbie pointed out.
She turned in her seat and surveyed them both. 'You'd like to invite Mr Fairhall along on our journey?'
Robbie stared back. 'How'd you know his name?'
'I've seen him on the television. He's a politician.'
'Would he come all the way with us?'
'I'm not sure. As soon as the plane strike ends he might jump ship at any place that has an airport.'
'He's a nice man,' Chase said. She had a feeling Chase was right.
Robbie studied the object of their conjecture and then turned back. 'He looks kinda sad.'
'Yeah.' She tried not to let those slumped shoulders pluck too hard at her. It was just She knew exactly how that felt-the defeat, the worry and the helplessness.
'It might make our trip luckier,' Robbie said.
She couldn't mistake the hope in his eyes. She bit her lip to stop from saying something rash. Her eldest son ached for a male role model and the knowledge cut at her. Not that she expected Aidan Fairhall to fill that role. Still.
She blew out a breath and wound down the passenger side window. 'Mr Fairhall?'
He glanced up.
'We've just had a family conference.'
He stood. He wasn't terribly tall-he might be six feet-but he had a lean athletic body that moved with effortless grace. She watched him approach-stared as he approached-and her mouth started to dry and her heart started to pound. She tried to shake herself out from under the spell, only she found she'd frozen in position. She wished now she hadn't called him over. With a superhuman effort she cleared her throat. 'As we're.uh.all headed in the same direction we thought if you would like a lift all or part of the way.'
He blinked. Hope lit his face, making it truly beautiful, firing his brown eyes with a light that made her swallow. They weren't a boring brown, but a deep amber that brought to mind blazing hearth fires, fine brandies and rich caramel.
Then the light in those beautiful eyes faded and for some reason her heart sank too. Maybe it was the unspoken judgement she recognised in those deep amber depths. She sat back a little. She swallowed. 'I'm not given to recklessness, Mr Fairhall. I recognised you and I like your public persona. I like your education policies more.'
His lips twisted but the darkness faded from his eyes. His fingers drummed against the roof of the car.
'But, as I don't actually know you, and if you do take us up on our very kind offer, I'll be informing the manager of this car hire company that you'll be accompanying us. I'll also be ringing my aunt to tell her the same.' He didn't say anything. She shrugged and forced herself to add, 'But if we can help you out in any way then we'd be happy to.'
'Why would you do that?'
'People should help each other out always,' her earnest eldest son said.
'And you looked sad,' Chase added.
The light in those amazing eyes faded again, although the lips kept their smile.
Quinn rushed on. 'Also, it'd be nice to share some of the driving not to mention the fuel costs. I'm afraid it wouldn't precisely be a free ride.' She'd sensed that would go against the grain with him.
There was a long silence. Quinn kicked herself. 'I'm sorry we have you at a disadvantage. I'm Quinn Laverty and these are my sons, Robbie and Chase.' She fished her licence out and handed it to him as proof of both her identity and the fact she could drive. 'If you decide to accompany us I'd want you to phone someone to let them know about your plans and who you're travelling with.'
He handed the licence back to her. 'I'm not given to recklessness either, Mrs Laverty.'
She didn't bother correcting the Mrs. 'Quinn,' she said instead. As she had no intention of becoming romantically involved with any man, let alone a politician-dear God!-the Mrs provided her with another level of protection.
Not that she needed protection from unwanted suitors. She could squash them flat as easily as swatting bugs. But correcting that Mrs might give the wrong impression.
Aidan Fairhall was from her parents' world and she had no intention of returning to that world. Ever.
She shuddered. Another long silence ensued. Eventually she cleared her throat. 'I'm sorry to hurry you, Mr Fairhall, but we'd really like to get going soon.'