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Authors: Victoria Purman

Hold On to Me

BOOK: Hold On to Me
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Hold On To Me
VICTORIA PURMAN

www.harlequinbooks.com.au

Victoria Purman loves books, wine, chocolate, sad country music, hard-rock songs, love stories, her family, her friends and especially her readers. She writes books set in the beautiful locations of her home state of South Australia.

In 2013, Victoria was selected as a Writer in Residence at the SA Writers Centre. In 2014, she was named a finalist in the Favourite New Author 2013 category by the Australian Romance Readers Association. She also made the long list for Booktopia's Favourite Australian Novelist 2014 poll.

She was also thrilled to be named a finalist in the RuBY Awards—the Romance Writers of Australia's Romantic Book of the Year Awards—for her first book,
Nobody But Him
.

Victoria has been a featured author at the 2014 Adelaide Writers' Week and the 2015 Sydney Writers' Festival and, most days, considers herself the luckiest woman in the world.

ALSO BY VICTORIA PURMAN

The Boys of Summer novels:

Nobody But Him

Someone Like You

Our Kind of Love

Only We Know

To C

CONTENTS

Also by Victoria Purman

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Acknowledgements

CHAPTER
1

What was that noise?

Stella Ryan rubbed her sleepy eyes, tossed back the cotton sheets on her bed and sat up. She stifled her yawn and tried to be still to hear what was going on. She cocked her head to the side and swept her ruffled hair behind one ear.

Was that a siren?

Car horns? Listening closer, Stella could make out the distinctive heavy chugging and throaty throbbing of a truck engine. Something was going on: she got out of bed to investigate. She reached for her silk kimono, slipped it on, jogged outside, closed her front door and glanced past her low stone front fence and then up and down her narrow street. The historic sandstone cottages on either side of hers and across the road were quiet. A sea breeze blew up from Horseshoe Bay and rustled the leaves in the street trees. Her neighbour's teenaged son's car was parked out the front of her place. Again. Everything looked as it should.

But an unfamiliar cacophony
had
woken her. It was a Sunday morning in the earliest days of summer in a small beachside town—normally the only sounds were birdsong and the muted rumble of the sea. And now, an acrid smell like burning plastic was battling with the salty breeze, wafting unpleasantly all around her.

Stella walked out of her narrow front garden and let her ears lead her. She turned left towards the main street and then left again into The Strand. She pulled the antique silk tighter around her and tugged a tight knot at her waist as she picked up her pace, her leather thongs slapping on the road.

There was increasing commotion in the distance and, when she crossed the train line, she stopped short for a moment in shock. Country Fire Service trucks, police cars and an ambulance were parked at the northern end of the street. People were milling around everywhere, slowly emerging from their holiday rentals and houses in dressing gowns and bed hair. She barely registered the bare chests and low-slung boardshorts on the young men; the holidaymakers with small children still in their pyjamas, mesmerised by the trucks and the lights.

The northern end of The Strand, away from the beach. Something was going on up there. Something bad.

That's where her shop was. Style by Stella.

Her business.

Her labour of love.

Her whole life.

Fear squeezed the air from Stella's lungs. She kicked up one foot behind her, then the other, yanked her thongs off, and bolted, barefoot, right up the middle of the bitumen road to the end of the street. Her kimono fluttered against her legs like a flag.

Soon her heart was throbbing and her lungs were burning from the sprint. Smoke stung her eyes and tiny bits of ash floated in the street like summertime snow.

This can't be happening. This can't be happening.

Fifty metres from her shop, a police car was angled across the road, blocking it, its lights flashing. When Stella tried to get past it, a uniform held her back. A uniform with a tight blonde bun at her neckline. Size twelve. Shoes eight and a half. Favourite colour magenta. Stella reached out to touch the officer's elbow.

‘Courtney?' Her voice came out thin. ‘What's going on?'

‘Oh, Stella.' The police officer turned. Stella could see her friend was trying to keep things professional, but also that she was shaken. Courtney took her hand and squeezed it. ‘I'm sorry, I can't let you through just yet. The CFS is still in there making sure the fire is out.'

Stella felt sick, the nausea rising fast in her stomach, and she pressed a hand to her belly to tamp it down.

‘A fire?' Her voice caught. ‘Oh, god. It's my shop, isn't it?'

‘It's the café.'

Stella's stomach unfurled in guilty relief and then knotted itself again. She was, all at once, relieved for herself and horrified for Ian and Lee, whose café was next door to Style by Stella. ‘Oh god. Oh no. They weren't
in there
, were they?'

Courtney shook her head. ‘No, they'd only just arrived to start doing breakfasts and saw the roof on fire. They called it in immediately and everyone—us, the CFS—we all got here as fast as we could. They're okay, Stella. Well, physically unharmed, anyway. They're talking to the sarge now.'

‘Thank god.' Stella closed her eyes. If she believed in prayers or an afterlife or anything but bad luck and circumstances and poor decisions, she would have thanked god and all the angels. But she
didn't
believe in any of that. Life was a lottery and sometimes you just drew the short straw. She knew that better than anyone. There was never any point in asking
why
.

Stella blew out a big breath and then couldn't seem to suck one back in. She backed up, stumbled, felt the cold stone of a low fence at the back of her knees and lowered herself to its rough and uneven surface. She dropped her head down between her legs and tried to breathe. She could feel Courtney's hand on her back, her friend trying to reassure her with gentle pats.

Stella tried to focus. This was supposed to be Sunday morning. It should have been like every other Sunday morning in her life. She should have been out walking along the cliff tops before breakfast, then walking to her shop to open it at eleven to sell lovely things to her grateful customers. She should not be there in the early morning light, wondering if everything she'd worked for had gone up in smoke while she was sleeping.

Someone crouched down in front of her.

‘Oh, god. Stella? Are you all right?'

Summer Harrison was the closest person she had to a best friend. A masseuse with magic hands, she too had a business in Port Elliot, at the other end of the street nearer to the bay.

Stella lifted her head just a little. ‘Yes. No. I don't really know.'

Summer threw her arms around her friend and held her tight. ‘Here, sit up.'

Stella obeyed automatically, and Summer's hands flew to her shoulders, where she pressed and kneaded her tight neck and then lower down her back. Summer knew just where Stella's vulnerable spot was, in the middle and to the left of her spine, having performed weekly massages on her for the past couple of years.

Stella let Summer's expert fingers work away the tightness and eventually she managed to breathe again.

‘I need to get in there and see it for myself,' she said as Summer's fingers dug into a knot of muscle.

‘Of course you do, honey.'

‘I'm imagining the worst.'

‘That's probably a good place to start, seeing as there's been a fire and everything.'

Stella sighed. ‘Thanks. That was just what I needed.'

‘The back rub or the cold hard truth?'

She rubbed her eyes and tried to find the words to answer. ‘Both. I think.'

Summer wiggled her fingers in the air. ‘You know I'm here for you. Look. Two hands; no waiting. Any time.'

‘I know, and I'm grateful. Thank you.' As Stella slowly stood and hugged her friend, a CFS truck rumbled past the two women and then turned left to head out onto the main road. Stella and Summer watched it and then there was a flash of dark-blue police uniform in front of Stella.

Courtney sighed and found a sad smile. ‘You okay?'

Stella shrugged her shoulders. ‘I don't know.'

Two young women sidled up to Courtney, shaking their heads in disbelief.

‘How terrible,' said one.

‘I was just there for lunch yesterday,' said the other. ‘The food was lovely.'

Courtney cleared her throat and slipped her sunglasses back on. ‘Best to move along, thanks, and let the emergency services do their job.' She shooed away the interested onlookers and they reluctantly moved off down the street. Once they were out of earshot, she turned back to Stella and Summer. ‘We can't find anything suspicious but the fire cause investigators from Adelaide will be down to check it over. The good thing is this looks like an accident rather than the beginnings of anything nasty.'

‘Thanks, Courtney.' The words tumbled from Stella's lips, automatically and politely. She couldn't think of anything else to say. The whole scene was surreal and she could barely comprehend what was happening on her street. Ian and Lee were safe. That was the most important thing. What was inside businesses could be replaced.

Courtney put her hand on Stella's arm. ‘Stella … the thing is … even though the fire was next door, it still might not be good news for you, I'm afraid. It all went up pretty quickly and since it shares an adjoining wall with your place … there's water everywhere. I'm so sorry, Stella.'

Sorry? What was Courtney sorry about?

And then her words sunk in.

Oh no. Oh no no no.

Summer's arms were around Stella but she felt frozen.

‘Why don't you go home and come back this arvo?' Courtney said. ‘There's nothing you can do now and you won't be able to have a good look at your shop until at least lunchtime. And forgive me for saying, but you look like you need a coffee.'

Stella tried to smile too. ‘I'd love one but my favourite café is gone.'

‘C'mon. I know you have that fancy machine at home. Go and make one. Or five. And eat some chocolate while you're at it. It's still a little early for wine, right?'

Stella stood on shaky knees, hoping her legs would hold her. ‘Okay, I'll go. But I need to know, Courtney.' She reached for her friend's arm and held on. ‘I'm already imagining the worst. Have I lost everything?'

If Stella thought asking that question out loud would help, she was fooling herself. The words hung in the acrid air between them and she felt a new lump form in her throat.

Have I lost everything?

BOOK: Hold On to Me
6.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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