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Authors: Tricia Stringer

Queen of the Road

BOOK: Queen of the Road
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QUEEN OF THE ROAD
TRICIA STRINGER

www.harlequinbooks.com.au

About the Author

TRICIA STRINGER
grew up on a farm in country South Australia and has spent most of her life in rural communities, which is where she loves to be. She is the mother of three wonderful children and their partners and is lucky enough to be a nanna. Tricia has filled various roles in her local community, owned a post office and bookshop and spent many years in education. She and her husband, Daryl, currently live in the beautiful Copper Coast region where by day she is a teacher and librarian, and by night a writer. Tricia loves to walk on the beach and travel to and across Australia’s vast array of communities and landscapes. To date she has written four books for adults and three for children.

www.triciastringer.com

Acknowledgements

The early research for Queen of the Road started with Julie Davies and Shane Paddick and continued on with Andrew Hilder and Shane Jarmen. I am most grateful for their combined insights into the world of trucking, the odd ride in one of their trucks and especially to Shane J who gave me so many tips, patiently answered my questions, kept his eye on the road and my story on track, and even read the early unwieldy manuscript. Thank you
.

Thanks also to Dianna Jarmen for supplying me with endless trucking magazines and to Joy and Andrew Hilder who provide the perfect setting for writing retreats
.

As always my band of readers give me great feedback and aren’t afraid to apply the pencil to the page. Sue Hazel, Sue Barlow, Kathy Snodgrass and Margie Arnold, your support is invaluable to me
.

Hats off to a terrific bunch of writers all around Australia – the CB group. Someone always has time to critique a tricky chapter, offer the right bit of advice or just send words of encouragement when you hit the wall. Well done to Marg for bringing us all together
.

To Haylee Kerans and the team at Harlequin Australia, and also to Aden Rolfe for his editing skills and guidance – thank you for all your efforts in bringing Queen of the Road to publication. It’s been a lot of fun and an exciting journey
.

I am grateful for wonderful supportive friends and for my precious family, near and far, who understand my writing life and whose encouragement never falters. Finally to Daryl, my thanks and love - another story rolls forth
.

For Dylan

Chapter 1

Angela knew something was different the moment she sat down, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. She looked to each of the other bridesmaids for a clue. They were seated around a row of small tables that had been pulled together to make a larger one. She was late and they’d barely listened to her apology before turning back to Carmela.

‘Anyway, as I was saying, I was so horrified when I saw her outfit, I demanded she change it. I can’t have Tony’s mother wearing a style even remotely similar to my mother.’ Carmela, the bride-to-be, was holding court. Her beautifully manicured fingers were wrapped around a champagne glass which she waved in the air as she spoke.

They sat outdoors at a little café in Hardware Lane. The temperature in Melbourne sizzled at thirty-six degrees with only a slight breeze moving along the lane, which was already packed with the first sitting of evening diners.

Sarah, Jazz and Bella hung on Carmela’s every word; even Kate appeared mesmerised, which was suspicious in itself. Usually when Carmela held forth, Kate tuned out along with Angela. But tonight she leaned in with the other three, listening as Carmela prattled on about the failings of her soon to be mother-in-law. Angela felt sorry for the woman. Damn it, if she was being honest she felt sorry for Tony as well. On Saturday he’d become Carmela’s husband. The poor bloke didn’t know what he was getting in to.

Carmela had long ago been described by Angela’s father as a fairweather friend. The only reason Angela was included as one of the five bridesmaids was because a cousin couldn’t make it back from overseas in time for the wedding and Angela was approximately the right size and shape to wear her dress.

That’s why she’d been late. She’d had to dash from work, across peak-hour traffic to the dressmaker to have the final fitting, and then get back into the city for this little get-together.

Up until this last week Angela had not been part of the elite inner circle of the wedding party. She worked in the same building as Sarah and Jazz, who told her bits and pieces, but it was her close friend, Kate, who kept her informed of all the trials and tribulations of Carmela’s preparations. It was the frivolous waste and the cost that riled Kate. She’d been married on a beach with a barbecue and dancing. It was a wonderful party and she had no regrets. Carmela’s limousines alone were costing as much as Kate’s whole wedding.

‘Now that Angela’s here,’ Carmela glared down the table, ‘we’ll go through the list.’

Angela cursed under her breath and made a pretence of searching her bag. She knew the list wasn’t there. It was on her desk at work. She’d looked at it to find the phone number for the dressmaker.

‘Don’t tell me you’ve lost it already, Angela.’ Carmela’s voice rose a notch.

‘No, not lost. It must be on my desk at work. I used it today. Great idea to have everything so organised.’ Angela had been a bridesmaid a couple of times before. She didn’t remember it ever being as regimented as this. ‘Just great.’

‘Liar,’ Kate muttered as she moved her list over so they could both see it.

‘What’s going on?’ Angela whispered.

‘The wedding plan from hell,’ Kate said from behind her glass. She turned quickly back towards Carmela.

That wasn’t it
, thought Angela. There was a definite edge in the air tonight. She’d noticed several furtive glances between Sarah and Jazz, Kate wasn’t her usual conspiratorial self and Bella kept shredding the paper coaster on the table. Carmela’s preening smile had another side to it too – a look that said she knew something Angela didn’t.

‘Any chance of a drink before we start?’ Angela thought it would be easier to face whatever was going on with a glass of bubbly inside her.

Bella dropped the remains of her coaster and pulled a bottle from the ice bucket. She wiggled it in the air. ‘Empty. Whose shout?’

There was silence as they all looked in Angela’s direction.

‘I’ll get it,’ she said and stood up.

Carmela stretched her face into a huge smile. ‘Thanks, but do hurry or we’ll never get through the rest of the list.’

Angela drew out her credit card with trepidation. How close was her card to the max?

Kate touched her arm. ‘I’ll get it.’

‘No, it’s fine.’ Angela smiled and stepped inside to the bar. Sometimes she wished she’d never confided in Kate about her overstretched finances. Now that Claudia was in pre-school it was a constant struggle. There were always extra costs. Not that Angela would begrudge her daughter anything, but juggling credit cards
had become a way of surviving. And whenever she thought she was making a dent in them, something else would come up, like this wedding.

Angela held her breath as she pushed the card into the EFTPOS machine. She did a quick calculation. There had been a couple of hundred dollars’ gap the last time she checked – it should go through fine.

The bar attendant peered at the docket. ‘It’s been declined.’ She ripped off the slip and looked up at Angela. ‘Would you like me to try again?’

Angela racked her brain for a reason why there wouldn’t be enough credit. She hadn’t used the card for a few days, perhaps a late payment had gone through or … the dressmaker.
Damn!
At the final fitting she’d had to pay for the alterations. Christie, the missing cousin, had paid the initial deposit on the dress itself, but Angela had forked out for the rest, and the alterations had cost nearly as much again. Tonight’s bill had been over two hundred dollars.

She was trying so hard not to use her second credit card. It was supposed to be for emergencies. She glanced at the girl behind the bar, then through the window at the bridal party. This was definitely an emergency.

‘Let me pay.’ Kate’s hand reached around her with a fifty-dollar note.

‘No, Kate. It’s okay.’ Angela pulled out her other card. ‘I just mixed up my cards. Should get rid of that old one.’

‘You can buy the next round then.’ Kate was already accepting her change from the bar attendant.

‘I’ll pay you back,’ Angela said, making a mental note to put some money aside from her already overcommitted next pay.

‘C’mon, the bride-to-be is getting anxious.’ Kate put her arm through Angela’s and plucked the fresh bottle from the bar. ‘I need some moral support.’

‘Since when?’ Angela asked. She stopped, forcing Kate to do the same. ‘What’s up, Kate?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Something’s in the air, I can tell.’ Angela watched the smile disappear from her friend’s face.

‘I told them you’d suss it out.’

Angela’s stomach lurched. Something
was
going on.

Kate moved forward as a waiter pushed past them with plates of food. ‘Let’s get this damn list sorted, then you and I can catch up.’

‘No, Kate. I have to head straight home once we’ve finished here. Janice is looking after Claudia.’

‘Janice!’ Kate’s eyebrows shot up. ‘She never has Claudia. Did you corner her?’

‘No, she offered to collect her today.’ Angela was still surprised by her stepmother’s offer herself. She’d never wanted much to do with Claudia, but lately she was taking more of an interest. ‘Anyway, don’t try to shake me off. Tell me what’s up.’

A group of people had milled around them, trying to get to the bar. Kate looked steadily at Angela then drew her to a space behind a pillar.

‘I was going to tell you later, when we were on our own.’

‘Tell me what?’

‘There’s no easy way to say this.’

‘Then just say it.’

Kate’s deep brown eyes were pools of sympathy. ‘Nigel’s back.’

Angela held her breath. The sounds of the restaurant dimmed as Kate’s news sank in. Nigel, the only man she had ever truly loved and the father of her child, was back.

‘Don’t get your hopes up, Angela.’

‘I’m not.’ She swung away. She didn’t want to discuss this with Kate – or anyone else for that matter. The pain of his rejection was back in her chest, demolishing the months of healing.
Nigel had wanted space and she’d given it to him. And now he was back.

‘Let’s get this wedding stuff done. I’ve got to get home.’

‘He won’t be there, Angela.’ Kate’s words were soft but there was no missing the certainty of her tone.

Angela’s pain quickly turned to anger. After Nigel left she’d been determined not to hope for his return. As each month passed she’d grown to accept his decision to leave. But now the wall she’d carefully built around her fickle heart was quickly crumbling. Her mind leaped to the hope that he’d missed her and wanted her. Kate’s hand pulled gently on her arm.

‘He’s been back for a week. If he was going to patch things up he would’ve been on your doorstep straight away.’

‘A week … When did … How …?’ Angela’s head buzzed. The last seven days were a blur. ‘Well, I’ve been busy so …’

‘He could have phoned.’

‘How do you know he didn’t?’

Angela tried to put a relaxed look on her face but there was no fooling Kate. She simply raised her eyebrows.

‘I don’t care what he does, Kate, but we have a child. He’ll want to see Claudia. He’s still her father.’ Angela’s brain continued to whirl and her words tumbled out. ‘And maybe he did call and I missed it. I mean, this week really has been chaos. On top of dropping Claudia at pre-school and day care and dashing to work, Dad’s been short a driver and suddenly being a part of Carmela’s wedding plans has added a whole new …’ She stopped and put her hand to her head. ‘Oh no! He’s going to be at the wedding, isn’t he?’

Kate frowned. ‘Carmela never seriously thought he’d come. The invitation was just a courtesy.’

‘Yeah right!’

Carmela had been Nigel’s first girlfriend back when they were all at school together. She’d been the one to discard him, but she was never really happy when he started going out with Angela.

‘So everyone knew he was back but me,’ said Angela. ‘No wonder Carmela’s gloating.’

‘She’s not gloating. She feels bad, but she can’t very well say he isn’t welcome. We’re all worried about you. How will you cope?’

Angela shrugged her shoulders. ‘Same way I always have.’

Kate reached an arm towards her but Angela backed away.

‘I don’t want sympathy.’

‘Good, because you’re not getting any,’ Kate snapped, dropping her arm. ‘I’ve given you all the sympathy you’re going to get over Nigel. I’m concerned – that’s different.’

Angela’s head was still spinning.

‘And I’ve been your best friend forever, not just when it suits me.’ Kate leaned close and said gently, ‘I care about you, Angel.’

Angel
. Aside from Angela’s dad, Kate was the only person who ever used her nickname these days.

‘Will you be okay?’ Kate asked.

‘Of course.’ Angela wanted to believe this. She wanted to believe that she wasn’t going to let Nigel destroy the life she’d been putting back together piece by painful piece since he left. But while saying it was one thing, she could now imagine an array of awkward moments in the next few days. ‘At least Nigel’s not part of the wedding party. I guess I can be thankful for that.’

Kate pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose. ‘He will be playing though.’

‘Great,’ Angela groaned. How was she going to keep her composure at the altar while Nigel’s clarinet poured out a love song? She clenched her fists, digging her fingers into the palms of her hands, trying to come to her senses. She took a breath. ‘We’d better go back. I really do have to get home. Can’t leave Claudia in Janice’s
clutches for too long, goodness knows what that woman has corrupted my little girl with already.’

‘Not before you’ve had a glass of bubbly,’ said Kate, holding up the bottle. ‘Come on.’

As they wove their way back through the tables Angela hoped her expression hid the turmoil in her head.

‘At last!’ Carmela’s sharp eyes held hers a moment before sweeping on to Kate. ‘Time’s getting on and we’ve still got lots to do.’

Angela sank into her chair as the cork popped from the bottle. A full glass was pushed in her direction and she took two quick gulps.

‘Now, girls, I do have to warn you about Tony’s cousin. He likes to think he’s a ladies’ man.’

‘Does he?’ Kate said.

‘He’s a married man and his wife’s due to have a baby any day so she can’t fly. He’s just as likely to think he can have a bit of a fling at the wedding and I don’t want it to be with my friends.’

Kate gave a snort. ‘Just let him try.’

Angela took another swig. The fidelity of Tony’s cousin was the least of her worries. The only man she’d ever truly wanted was Nigel and his desertion was burning in her like it was yesterday. If he’d been home for a week and not made contact, she couldn’t hang on to the hope that he might come back to her.

The girls continued to talk about the wedding plans. The liquid soured in Angela’s stomach as she thought of the weekend ahead. She wasn’t going to make a fool of herself and chase after him, but how was she going to survive the wedding? As a bridesmaid she couldn’t simply hide in a corner.

Kate poked her under the table. Angela looked up and Carmela was staring at her with an expectant look. She’d obviously said something to which Angela was supposed to respond.

But then Carmela’s face softened. ‘You’ll be able to manage him, Angela,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry to do it to you, but I don’t want to swap the guys around at this late stage. It’s bad enough we’ve had to reprint the service booklet to take Christie’s name out and put yours in. I know I can trust you to watch out for him.’

Angela swallowed the last of her drink. She was doing Carmela a favour by standing in for Christie, but the bride-to-be almost made it sound like she was to blame for the situation. Now her partner would be the groom’s lecherous cousin and to top it off, Nigel would be witness to the whole debacle. She thought of her credit card and the dress she’d never wear again and wished, once more, that Christie had simply come back from overseas. It would have saved a lot of money and a lot of angst. Taking part in this wedding was the last thing Angela wanted right now.

BOOK: Queen of the Road
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ads

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