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Authors: Rachael Johns

Outback Ghost

BOOK: Outback Ghost
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OUTBACK GHOST

RACHAEL JOHNS

www.harlequinbooks.com.au

To my fabulous readers

Welcome back to Bunyip Bay for the final installment in my ­
Outback
series. Thank you to everyone who has emailed me or posted messages on Facebook and told me how much they've enjoyed
Outback Dreams
and
Outback Blaze
. I'm excited to give you
Outback Ghost
, Adam and Stella's story, but don't worry if you haven't read the first two as this book also stands on its own.

I hope by now you all know and love Adam and are itching to see him getting his own Happily Ever After and also find out some answers to the question of what happened to his sister who went missing twenty years ago.

I must confess I'm more than a little bit in love with Adam and so I had to find a heroine who truly deserved him. Enter Stella, who has been simmering in my mind for a long time waiting for her hero to turn up. She's a strong and courageous young single mum and her daughter happens to have imaginary friends. Although I never had an imaginary friend myself while growing up, I kinda always wanted one, so it was fun to bring this topic into the book.

Although
Outback Ghost
has been one of my favourite romances to write, like my other books, it also deals with some more serious issues such as parenting a special needs child and learning to recover from grief. Once again I hope I've dealt with these issues in a realistic and empathetic way.

The Bunyip Bay books are the first series I've ever written and I hope you've enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Remember I love to hear from readers either via my website (
www.rachaeljohns.com
) where you can keep up with my latest news or on Facebook or Twitter.

Happy reading.

X

Rach!

Acknowledgements

I love reading acknowledgments in other authors' books but to be honest writing them is a little terrifying. I'm always scared I'll forget someone crucial. So, here goes…

Once again I was able to write
Outback Ghost
because of a whole host of people who support me in one way or another.

As always thank you to the team at Harlequin – you are all wonderful and it's fabulous to be working with such a great group of people. Also to my agent, Helen Breitwieser, for being such a great champion of my writing. To Jody Lee who edited
Outback Ghost
and said she cried every time she read it (I think in a good way), thanks for your hard work.

A book is a bit like a baby. It is a long time between conception and birth so when the book is finally out there, it's awesome getting feedback from readers and reviewers. Big hugs to all of you who have taken the time to send me an email or leave a review somewhere stating how much you've enjoyed my books.

Thanks go to Bec and Tanya who let me pick their brains re missing persons and homicide investigations. You both gave me such
good
information and I wanted to use so much more than I could.

It's been said that writing a book is a lonely experience but thanks to awesome writing friends I do not find that at all. Cathryn Hein, Beck Nicholas, Janette Radevski, Amanda Knight and Alissa Callen, thanks for your emails and phone calls and, in the case of Amanda, chauffeuring.

And last but never least to my mum, my hubby and the most patient boys I could possibly ask for. Thanks for putting up with my endless hours at the computer, my travels away from home and the fact you always have creases in your school uniforms because I don't iron. Love you all.

Dedication

Best friends know how crazy you are and still choose to be seen with you in public. I'm lucky to have six women in my life I can call such friends and I want to thank them all for the support they've given me over the years.

Amy, Holly, Kirsten, Kristen, Leigh-Anne and Penny (alphabetical order girls) I'm so blessed to have you in my life and this book is for all of you.

CONTENTS

To my fabulous readers

Acknowledgements

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Epilogue

Chapter One

Twenty years ago Adam Burton had been playing in this very spot with not a care in the world on his shoulders. He'd been making mud pies out of the sludge in the bottom of the nearest dam, piling them up high and then shooting them down with his handmade catapult. His sister had been helping him – he remembered her girly pink T-shirt had been soaked with mud – but then…

He didn't understand what had happened next. He vaguely remembered his catapult breaking and the focus it took to fix it. Could barely have been five minutes though and when he looked up, she was gone. Even now, whenever he thought of it, his heart thudded exactly as it had done that day.

He'd searched the area surrounding him, screaming her name and running faster than his legs had ever carried him before. There was barely any water in the dam but he ran all around it anyway, peering in desperation into the middle. But it was like she'd gone ‘poof' and vanished into thin air. She could have gotten bored and walked back to the homestead, but even then something in his gut, in his heart, told him something real bad had happened.

When he'd eventually gone home to break the news to his mum that he'd lost his seven year old sister, snot, dirt and tears were meshed together on his face and his ten year old legs and arms were covered in scratches from all the times he'd fallen in his haste. He'd been sobbing so hard it had taken an age for him to get the words out. Mum hadn't been mad. She'd sat him at the kitchen table, wiped his face with a wet dishcloth, poured him a glass of milk and then gone to radio his father who'd been at the other side of the farm harvesting the wheat crop. There weren't many things that could drag a farmer from his harvest but the disappearance of his seven year old daughter was one of them.

Adam remembered the horrors of what followed like it was a movie he'd watched a hundred times over – the police, the search and rescue volunteers, even an Aboriginal tracker. And then, when no sign was found of her, the local minister, the journalists and the extended family members arrived. Even though it was Adam who'd last seen his sister, his parents had been the obvious suspects. He'd never understood how anyone could even contemplate that.

They'd been cleared, of course, but that hadn't made anything better.

Standing alongside his mother and father now, the three of them like a row of weary soldiers, Adam could barely believe it had been two decades since his little sister had gone missing. He looked out across the paddock, which was smack bang in the middle of their 2500-hectare property. Although he kept it fire-breaked for safety reasons, it hadn't been used since that fateful day. Stupid really, letting a perfectly good paddock go wild, but his father hadn't harvested here and he doubted, now that he was in charge, he ever would either.

Some things were sacred. And in lieu of a gravesite they could visit to lay flowers and pay their respect, this was all they had. He came here often and he knew his parents did too. They all mourned in their own different ways, but once a year, on the anniversary of the day she'd disappeared, they came together in the morning and scattered lilies on the ground. They used to talk when they came, share memories, but now they stood in silence; no doubt all thinking about what
could
have been.

The memories had faded, the hole filled in by grief in its most destructive form.

Adam had to think so hard it hurt his head to remember his ­sister's endless giggles, her messy golden ringlets and that unrelenting smile that drew two perfect dimples in her cheeks. No doubt she'd annoyed him as younger siblings were prone to do but if that were the case, it was just one more thing he couldn't remember.

His dad, Dave, had wanted to clear a bit of land properly here and erect some kind of memorial but his mum, Esther, had never allowed it. She believed doing such a thing would be akin to giving up hope and, although you wouldn't believe it to look at her, apparently she still had that in her heart.

Guilt enveloped Adam at that thought because for years he'd wished for a body to be found. It seemed near impossible anyone could be found alive after all these years, but Lord knew they needed some kind of closure. He glanced sideways at his mum and then looked away again quickly. What he saw hurt too damn much. She seemed to have faded over the years, now merely a frail frame of sallow skin and bones, which made her look far older than her fifty-five years. Very occasionally, snatches of the woman she used to be shone through. He'd seen her have a moment with the stray cat that wandered the farm and when he'd been renovating an old cottage on their property earlier this year, she'd briefly shown enthusiasm about the project. But ‘brief' was the word. It was always the same… one step forward and a hundred back.

Just when he thought she might be coming back to them, she drew further into herself. The local doctor and visiting grief counsellor had given up years ago and no matter what Adam or his dad did, nothing worked to bring her out of the shell she'd built around herself.

‘Well, I guess we'd better be heading back for breakfast,' she said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. Despite her grief, she'd never stopped fulfilling her duty as a good wife and mother. She cooked (or at least tried to, but she'd never been Nigella Lawson) and cleaned – she just did it all on autopilot. There was no energy there and Adam had to wonder if there was even love anymore.

‘Good idea.' Dave nodded, pulled his hands out of the pockets they'd been hiding in for a good half hour and adjusted his faithful Akubra hat.

Adam didn't feel like sitting around his parents' table trying to make small talk as they ate over-cooked scrambled eggs and burnt bacon but it was something they did every year on this day and he didn't want to hurt his mother's feelings. ‘I can't stay long, harvest waits for no man.'

Without another word, the three of them piled into Adam's ute and he drove them back to the main homestead where his parents still lived. A few years back, after being one of
Cleo
Magazine's Bachelors of the Year, he'd scored a couple of big time modelling gigs and saved enough to build his own house on the property. It wasn't large – he didn't need it to be – but it felt more like home than his parents' place had in the last twenty years. Although his sister's body had never been found, her ghost lived at the homestead. Photos of her hung on every wall and her bedroom was exactly as she'd left it – semi-naked Barbie dolls strewn all over the pink carpet. If she were here now, those dolls would probably cause great embarrassment.

Then, again, if she were here now, everything would be different.

‘Harvest going well then?' his father asked as he scraped back a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. His question was an obvious attempt to find a safe topic of conversation.

Adam nodded from where he was scrubbing his hands at the sink. ‘Yeah, think so. Still, weird without you out there, though.'

‘You've got a couple of blokes helping though, haven't you?'

BOOK: Outback Ghost
11.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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