Authors: Tricia Stringer
ABOUT TRICIA STRINGER
Tricia Stringer is the bestselling author of the rural romances
Queen of the Road
Right as Rain
, and the historical saga
Heart of the Country.
Queen of the Road
won the Romance Writers of Australia Romantic Book of the Year award in 2013 and
was shortlisted for the same award in 2015.
Tricia grew up on a farm in country South Australia and has spent most of her life in rural communities, as owner of a post office and bookshop, as a teacher and librarian, and now as a full-time writer. She now lives in the beautiful Copper Coast region with her husband Daryl. From here she travels and explores Australia's diverse communities and landscapes, and shares this passion for the country and its people through her stories.
Queen of the Road
Right as Rain
THE FLINDERS RANGES SERIES
Heart of the Country
To Dawn, Kathy and Sue
Rosie gasped. Taylor cast her a sideways glance. Movement on the windscreen caught her eye. A brown body and eight hairy legs scurried towards her. She yelped and pulled the wheel. The van swayed bringing screams from the four women in the seats behind her. She careered off the highway and slammed on the brakes. The van slewed to a stop in the gravel.
Taylor and Rosie threw open their doors and jumped from the van simultaneously while behind them a barrage of confused questions filled the air.
“What are you doing?” Cass's voice boomed above the rest.
“Spider.” Taylor clutched at her pounding chest.
An air horn blasted and wind whipped at her hair as a road train thundered past. She scrambled on wobbly legs to Rosie's side of the van. Her friend, and the bride-to-be, stared wide-eyed at the windscreen. The side door slid open.
“Oh Taylor! You and spiders!” Cass's angry expletives were lost in the rumble of another passing truck. “You could have killed us all. Where is it?”
Taylor shuddered and edged further away. Rosie was the one to point to where the ugly creature now waited, smack bang in the middle of the front windscreen.
Cass was Rosie's chief bridesmaid, the organiser of this road trip and not afraid of anything. She reached for one of the magazines that had been at Rosie's feet. The other three women climbed out of the van, shaking their heads and clutching various parts of their bodies.
“I swear I'll be bruised all over, Taylor.” Mandy rubbed at her arm
while Anna and Sal joined the chorus of complaints.
Cass climbed into the front passenger seat and lifted the magazine she'd twisted into a roll.
“No,” Rosie and Taylor yelled in unison.
“Don't kill it,” Rosie pleaded. “Poor thing gave us a fright that's all.”
“You can kill it.” Taylor shuddered. “Just not there. It'll splatter.” The only thing worse than a live spider would be a dead one smeared across her windscreen.
Cass gave them a murderous look. “You two are theâ”
“It's moving!” Rosie cut her off.
Taylor's scream pierced the air.
Cass turned, reached across and with one swift movement used the magazine to flick the spider out of the van.
Taylor's heart continued to thud. “Where is it now?”
Cass pursed her lips, strode around to the other side of the van and made a big show of stomping on the ground. She looked through the open doors to Taylor on the other side of the van. “Dead.”
Taylor let out the breath she'd been holding. “Sorry everyone.”
More complaints filled the air.
Cass came back around to the passenger side and stood hands on hips. “Is anyone in need of medical assistance?”
A bit of arm swinging and a few more mutters followed.
“We'll live,” Anna spoke for the others.
Mandy handed around bottles of water. They had an esky full of drinks but so far the alcohol hadn't been touched.
Cass stood next to Taylor. “Would you like me to drive?”
“I'll be fine.” Taylor's hammering heartbeat was steadying to a normal pace but nausea churned in her stomach. She sipped some water. The early February day was hot, reminding them it was still summer.
“The spider was just so close.” Rosie shuddered. “Do you think there are any more?”
“No.” Taylor spoke with a conviction she didn't feel. She pulled back her shoulders. This was her problem and she had to deal with it. “I cleaned the van from top to bottom yesterday. We parked under the trees last stop and left the doors open. It probably crawled in then.” A shiver ran through her in spite of the heat. She could put up with most creepy crawlies but spidersâ¦she put a hand to her stomach and tried to ignore the tightness in her chest. Just breathe, she told herself. It will pass.
“If your aircon worked properly we wouldn't need to have everything open,” Cass said.
“It was working fine yesterday.” The failing aircon added to Taylor's worries. Everyone was getting hot and bothered. Inside the van was almost hotter than out. Taylor had careered to a stop near a large gum tree which offered a small amount of shade but tempers were getting frayed. More traffic zoomed past in both directions on the busy highway between Naracoorte and Penola.
“Okay everyone, back in the van. First real drinks await.” Cass waved the others back on board. She gave Taylor a sideways look, one eyebrow raised. “Are you sure you're okay?”
“I will be.”
Cass gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and climbed in. She was Taylor's best friend and understood her spider phobia.
“Do you mind if I sit with them?” Rosie had an apologetic look on her face.
“No, you go for it. I'll be fine.” Taylor smiled bravely. “Not far to the first winery from here.”
She slid the door shut on the hen's group and made her way around to the driver's door. She inspected the gravel all around her side of the van then leapt into the seat and slammed the door beside her. She took a deep breath and set the van in motion.
“Penola, here we come,” Cass yelled. “Boy, have we got some fun lined up for you, Rosie.” There was a chorus of cheers.
Taylor grimaced. She wished she was sitting in the back with them instead of being the designated driver for this hen's trip but she'd
volunteered. They'd planned it just as she'd made the monumental decision to change her life. She wasn't saving money and she was sick of big Saturday nights followed by hangover Sundays. It was getting her nowhere. Taylor had made a pact with herself to cut back on drinking and partying. She hadn't even told Cass about it. She glanced in the rear-view mirror at the merry crew behind her. And anyway, she was the only one with a van. She usually used it for work, couriering goods or taxiing people, but it did make a good hen bus.
She stretched her arms straight out and pressed her back against the seat, concentrating on the road ahead. Huge gum trees lined the sides and farmland gave way to rows of sweeping vines. This weekend was going to be different. She gripped the wheel tighter and gave her full attention to driving.
“Another seven to eight weeks and you'll have to pick them.” The old man rose from his stooped position beside the vines heavy with grapes and tugged his old grey felt hat down. “Maybe a bit less, if the weather stays warm.”
Pete smiled. He'd thought the same but he valued Howard's opinion. The old man might not have a university degree but he'd been growing grapes in Coonawarra nearly all his life. Pete cast a look across the rows of vines, all of them loaded with his precious cabernet sauvignon grapes. He felt a mounting excitement for this new project. A tingle of anticipation he hadn't felt in years. This new clone of cabernet grapes with the code name NS18 would become Wriggly Creek's icon wine.
“What are you going to do with them?”
Pete turned back to meet Howard's steady gaze. The old man's huge bushy eyebrows hovered over grey eyes partly covered by his saggy eyelids but he missed nothing.
“Word is you haven't sold them yet.”
Pete shook his head. The grape industry was a huge place and yet a small one. Everyone thought they knew everyone's business.
“What are you up to, young fella?”
“Bit soon to say yet, Howard. You know how it is.”
Pete knew his reply was evasive but it was early days yet. He wasn't one to count his chickens, even with Howard. Edward knew, of course, but that was all. Word would get out soon enough, especially as Pete hadn't sought a buyer for the grapes.
“You were always one for keeping things close to your chest.” Howard bent in a little closer. “I don't suppose you've heard who it is that's looking to sell their winery?”
“No.” Pete shook his head and grinned. “Gossip has it there's always someone on the market, Howard. You know that.”
“There's a bit more substance to this. Heard it from a few good sources. You and Edward aren't selling?” Howard pinned him with a sharp look.
“Not us. Wriggly Creek is still a fully family-owned winery. One of the few small ones left around here. We're not planning on parting with it.”
“I'm glad, young fella. You've got a good head on your shoulders when it comes to wine and Eddie seems to have a decent eye for the business side of things. Your parents would be proud of what you've achieved on your own.”
“Wish they were here to see it.” Once more Pete looked out across the vines, their deep green colour heightened by the late afternoon sun. The NS18 was only two hectares, bounded by the winery sheds and office to his left and the cellar door further away to his right. In front of him stretched the rest of the winery with his small cottage closest to the sheds and in the distance beyond it he could see the roof of his parents' house where Edward now lived. He had helped his father plant these cabernet vines and a year later his father was dead. That had been six years ago. The pain of the loss of his parents had lessened over time but he still missed them every day.