A chance sighting leads to second chances – for hope, for family, and for love.
Five years ago, teenager Antonia disappeared. With no compelling evidence, the police eventually called her a run–away, and dropped the case. Her teacher, Jax, has always regretted not speaking up about the rumours she heard circling the school that day, but a random sighting at a train station raises the possibility that Antonia is still alive – and not too far away.
Antonia's father, Connor has never given up hope that his daughter will be found and returned to her family. When her old teacher, Jax, calls him with a small spark of a lead, he seizes it with both hands, determined to chase it down.
But there's more at play than simple teenage rebellion and the path Jax and Connor travel rapidly becomes more dangerous than either could have imagined, and opens up new possibilities that neither could have expected.
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By Elisabeth Rose
HARLEQUIN ENTERPRISES (AUSTRALIA).Copyright © 2017 Elisabeth Rose
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Jax stared out the window at the bare trees and deserted street, slick and silvery in the wet, grey light, remembering with a familiar pang of guilt the day she'd spoken to Antonia for, as it turned out, the last time. Ever. For anyone. Apart from the person who abducted her, because none of her family or friends believed she'd run away from home. Why would she?
The police had asked for witnesses, anyone who may have seen the girl walking home from an after-school play rehearsal, and Jax had. She'd seen her at the right time on the right day and she'd spoken to Antonia at the gate when she'd darted out, splashing through puddles on the path, with an umbrella, to collect the mail from the bank of letterboxes at the street entrance. Jax was late home too, after taking choir practice at the same school.
'Gosh, it's pouring. You'll be soaked, take my umbrella,' she'd said and the brown eyes had turned her way for a moment.
'I'm okay, Miss X, thanks.' A tiny flick of a smile, a dimple in the pretty face, and she was gone; head down, hood up, sodden shoes and ankles. Hurrying away into limbo. No-one saw her again, or if anyone had they weren't saying.
Five years ago, but the weather that day had been identical. Rained poured down in a steady grey torrent then and now. Time had slipped by so fast. Where had it all gone? The days eaten up by teaching, the nights by marking, watching TV and a renewed interest in her violin in an effort to fill the gap after that stinker Peter moved on.
She hadn't met him when Antonia Farris had walked out of her life. That debacle was yet to happen. She hadn't met him when she tried to comfort Antonia's family — poor, pale, distraught Robin on the verge of crumbling and big, quiet, bewildered Connor with thirteen-year-old Damien wide-eyed, clutching his mother's hand — hoping for some sliver of information at would be the lynchpin of the whole investigation. But Jax could offer nothing. Nothing that would be of use.
Now she could.
* * *
Saturday. The last morning of the long awaited luxury tropical resort holiday on the Far North Queensland coast. A week in Paradise.
On her first day, the previous weekend, Jax had woken late. White net curtains billowed gently in the breeze filtering in through the open sliding door to her private terrace. The gentle pounding of the waves on the beach sifted through the trees and flowering shrubs of the luxuriant garden. Jax stretched, smiled and flung the sheet off to pad across and pull the door wide. Across a little strip of grass a narrow path led through greenery to where the blue, blue Pacific rolled endlessly onto the sands. Glorious floral perfumes scented the air. Paradise was worth every cent.
She was really here. All that saving had paid off. No students, no meetings, no principal, no doing what someone else wanted, no stupid official directives, no pudding-faced Gloria Evans making snarky comments in the arts department staff room, no nothing. Every minute here was hers and hers alone to enjoy. Sun shone warm on her face. She stretched her winter pale arms and shuddered. In the bright sunlight, they were the limbs of a subterranean cave dweller. She'd get to work remedying the uncooked dough factor immediately after breakfast.
But her days had passed way too quickly. Swimming, snorkelling, reading, lazing on the beach, building a healthy tan, flirting mildly with a couple of the staff because every other halfway decent guy in the place was taken, sleeping in, eating. Suddenly it was Friday and she was flying out the next morning. Back to the cold and the wet of, as the locals termed it, the 'far south'. At least she had another week of holiday before facing the teenage hordes at school for third term. But lurking about, like a black stain that would not go away, was the fact that part of the time would have to be spent doing the spectacularly tedious chore of her tax return. Either that or the taxman would send her a nasty little note again asking where it was. Official forms, especially those involving numbers, were guaranteed to turn her brain to sludge.
The resort shuttle service dropped her at the airport with several other people, all equally sorry to be leaving. They'd commiserated on the twenty-minute trip; the newlyweds, the retired couple, the other single woman and herself. No-one wanted to go back to reality, not even the retirees who were already discussing their next jaunt, a guided camping tour of the Kimberley region. Almost made her want to be old, until the husband started talking about how sciatica cramped his style these days.
The driver unloaded the suitcases. Jax trundled hers along the footpath to the Departures entrance. People were coming out the Arrivals door, starting their holidays, lucky things. Or returning home. Would there be work for a high school music teacher up here? Were there opportunities for an amateur violinist? How lovely to be warm year round. But it wouldn't be just warm, it would be searingly hot later, they had cyclones, and the wet season would be unbearably humid with mosquitoes and unknown crawly things. Maybe not such a good idea.
Back in cool, windblown Sydney she took the escalator to the airport subway station rather than queue for a taxi. Train to Central, change for her line then an easy but brisk five minute walk, hoping the gathering piles of thick grey clouds would hold off on dumping their load until she was safe inside her apartment.
Standing on the open platform waiting for the train at Central, Jax pulled her jacket tighter and folded her arms across her body. Should have taken the taxi and not worried about the cost. The wind tugged at her hair, stuck icy fingers down her collar and wrapped them around her ankles. She stared along the line. Where was that train?
Movement on the opposite platform caught her eye: a young woman with long dark hair whipped by the wind, shabby brown coat hanging open over a long white cotton skirt and loose white top, pretty but pale and thin and probably cold in those light clothes — her companion older with close-cropped greying hair, black jacket, white shirt and dark slacks, grim features, holding her arm. His eyes fixed on Jax for an instant, cold, hard eyes.
The girl looked familiar. Jax studied the face, sifting mentally for a match. An exstudent? There'd been so many. Someone she'd worked with, someone she knew from her local area, someone at the shops?
Their train roared in and the couple disappeared from view. Her own arrived a minute later and she dragged her suitcase on board into the warmth. It wasn't until she was walking along her street that it clicked in her mind with such a stab of recognition, her feet stopped walking. That quick sideways look, the faint natural curve of the lips that made her seem to be always smiling, the dimple.
That girl was Antonia Farris.
Very much alive and well, older but remarkably unchanged. She'd been a runaway after all. How very, very extraordinary. No-one who knew her believed it could happen, that she would leave her family with nary a word.
Who was the man with the chilly eyes?
Did her parents know she was in Sydney, so close to home?
* * *
Rain continued to pour down outside, pounding on the roof and gurgling in the drainpipes, drops bouncing off the path like tiny ball bearings. She'd just made it home before the deluge began, been home two hours and the resort seemed a world away. The warmth, the soft sea breeze, the balmy evenings. As distant as a daydream.
She had to do something about the sighting. If she didn't it would gnaw away inside her head the way the other thing had, surfacing at odd moments and sending a guilty pang through her system.
Antonia might easily have reappeared in the years since Jax had lost touch with her parents. But she would have heard about it on the grapevine at school if she had. Something as noteworthy as Antonia's reappearance wouldn't pass under the radar. World spy networks had nothing on a school community for information gathering, which was why not repeating a vaguely heard nasty rumour had seemed wise at the time. If there'd been anything to it, someone would have spoken.
But if she hadn't reappeared in the interim ... Jax went to her desk and opened the phone book searching for Farris. They'd moved from her street two years after Antonia disappeared. Robin didn't want to go, she was terrified Antonia wouldn't know where to find them when — not if — she came home. But the owner of their rented house wanted to sell, they couldn't afford to buy immediately and the new owners wanted to live there.
Jax remembered telling Robin Antonia would contact one of the other relatives, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a cousin. A friend. She'd find them wherever they were. If she wanted to. Or could.
But there was no C and R Farris listed in the suburb they'd moved to and she'd long ago lost any other contact numbers. Damien had changed schools when they moved and would probably have left by now anyway, so she couldn't find them through the school records. She'd have to phone the police. They, at least, would know if Antonia was still a missing person.
A constable answered. When she told him, there was silence while he checked the database.
Then, 'Are you certain, ma'am?'
'Yes.' So she was still missing.
He took her name and address and contact details, told her someone would be in touch. She'd done her bit, there was nothing else to do except wait. Do her tax return, do the washing, practice her violin, clean the apartment, avoid thinking about the start of term. Wait.
On Monday, two days after her call, she was heating soup for lunch when the detective knocked. He stood outside her door, dripping water on the tiled floor of the landing and folding a large black umbrella. Overweight, shaved head, bright blue eyes and full lips. A boiled egg in a suit.
'Miss Jacqueline Xue?' he asked, mangling her name the way people always did. 'My name's Detective Keith McBride from Missing Persons. I understand you think you saw Antonia Farris.' He held up his ID. His face had scepticism written all over it but at least he was here asking her about it.
'Yes, that's right. Call me Jax, it's easier. Or Miss X.' She smiled at his surprise. He'd be wondering where she kept the black leather outfit and the whip. 'That's what my students call me at school. Come in.'
'Thank you.' He propped the umbrella against the wall. She showed him into the living room and indicated he should sit down. He subsided onto her sofa with a grunt. Jax chose a straight-backed chair.
'I did see Antonia. At Central on Saturday.'
'You were the last person to speak to her before she disappeared, is that correct?' He resettled his behind and crossed his legs, revealing an expanse of hairy shin above a black sock. Drops of water glistened on his shoes.
'Yes. Were you involved with the case? I spoke to someone else before.'
He nodded. 'Yes, I was. There were a lot of us on the team at the start. She simply vanished without trace, but we always suspected she was a runaway despite what the parents thought. They're sometimes not the ones who know most about their teenagers.'
She knew exactly what he meant. She came across quite a few parents who had serious delusions about their children — a rude, spoiled brat who needed a dose of oldfashioned discipline was apparently a misunderstood genius who needed to express himself. But this family?
'I knew her parents. She went to the school I teach at. She played flute in the school band. The Farris's were — are — a nice, normal family.'
'Yes, you're right. We always look hard at the family but they checked out clean. Tell me what you saw.'
The bright blue eyes studied her. Impossible to tell what he was thinking. To him she could as easily be a crazy person wanting attention as someone with useful information despite her acquaintance with the family. He'd be figuring that out as she spoke. He'd be as good at summing up the public as she was with assessing students. Those blue eyes were sharp despite the round softness of the body.
'I'd been at the Tropical Breeze Resort north of Cairns for a week and I'd just come in from the airport. My flight landed shortly after one and I took the train in to the city. I was on the platform waiting for my connection at Central, heading home, when I saw her across the line on the other platform. It must have been about ten to two.'
'Was she alone?'
'No, with an older man. He saw me staring at her and gave me a very suspicious look. Very cold.'
'Are you sure it was Antonia?' He produced a photo from an inside pocket of his jacket and handed it to her.
Jax looked at the girl grinning at the camera. She'd seen it many times before, on the news, in the newspapers, online, on posters in the streets. Seventeen-year-old Antonia in jeans and a sleeveless pink blouse, sitting on the grass with her arm around the family dog.
'I knew her, remember? Her hair is longer but she's hardly changed. I recognised her, and the way she turned her head when she looked at the man. It was that that clinched it for me.'
'Did she recognise you?'
'I'm not sure. She didn't really look across the line. He was the one looking around.'
'Did she seem happy?'
She hesitated, thinking back, picturing the couple. 'Not unhappy. Not anything, really. The man was holding her arm. He was older, in his forties, I'd say. He looked kind of ... possessive. She had a coat on but she wore white.' Odd and out of place, more suited to North Queensland than winter in Sydney, despite the coat. Other people wore tightly buttoned jackets and coats with scarves and carried umbrellas.
'White.' He tilted his head, pulled the sides of his mouth down. One eyebrow lifted momentarily.
He glanced out at the rain as he returned the photo to his pocket. 'I wouldn't mind a tropical holiday. Half your luck.' Bulbous hands with sausage fingers pressed on his knees to heave his bulk upright with another grunt. 'If you think of anything else, don't hesitate to call me.' He gave her his card, fished from another pocket.
'Thanks. Will you tell her parents?'
'We'll ask a few questions first. We've had plenty of false leads, as you can imagine. It's pretty hard on them, dealing with those.'
'I understand.' The poor people, living in a kind of suspended animation for years. Was their daughter alive or dead? Unbearable.
'They hired a private detective at one stage because they didn't think we were doing enough.' He shook his head. 'He didn't do any better. Waste of money. He wasn't one of the reputable ones.'
'I suppose they were desperate.' He hadn't contacted her. Can't have been very diligent. Although she had refused to take calls after a while. Taken a silent number and changed her mobile. Too many rapacious TV current affairs shows and trashy magazines wanting her insights for wads of money until Antonia became old news. But an investigator worth paying could have found her easily. She still taught at the same school.
'Yeah, I guess so. Can't blame them, really, but the man was useless. Thought he could do better than we could.' A wry smile appeared.
'Quite honestly, if the girl didn't want to be found we didn't have much hope. This confirms we were right. It always had that feel about it. She left her phone, which is odd for a start, but there was nothing helpful on it. She withdrew most of the money from her savings account at about seven that evening. And there was the bag she took with her. We asked if anything was missing and the parents said the bag, that it was one she used for the play she was in but the drama teacher said no, she'd never seen it and it wasn't at the school.'
She'd forgotten the bag. The police maintained she'd gone home, changed out of her damp school uniform, packed some things and left but Robin and Connor were still adamant she wouldn't do that. Robin couldn't be certain about underwear and toiletries, but jeans, a blue sweater and definitely a dark blue weatherproof jacket were missing. That's what all the media said she was wearing. Neither parent was home at the time — Connor out seeing a client, Robin at the orthodontist with Damien. The police thinking was she'd chosen her time deliberately.
He stuck out his hand. 'Nice to meet you, Miss X. Thank you for calling us.'
Excerpted from Find Her by Elisabeth Rose. Copyright © 2017 Elisabeth Rose. Excerpted by permission of HARLEQUIN ENTERPRISES (AUSTRALIA)..
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