An Australian Adventure by Jan Snook
Laura’s trip to Australia was not going well, and to make matters worse it seemed Oliver had a new lady in his life . . .
AS she and Perry got off yet another plane, Laura realised she’d never truly appreciated how big Australia was.
Now that they had flown from Sydney to Brisbane to Adelaide to Hobart and then to Melbourne – and had visited many towns in between – she was beginning to run out of energy. And patience.
Before they left London, Edward, Laura’s boss, had made it clear to Perry that this trip was strictly business, and that there could be no repeat of his behaviour from the night of the party. And Perry had been taking his revenge: he had been the most demanding and obnoxious author Laura had ever come across.
At least the journey out had been better than she’d anticipated, thanks to Oliver’s unexpected appearance. Their close proximity had given Perry no opportunity to misbehave.
Unfortunately, ever since they’d arrived in Australia, Laura had been run off her feet trying to meet her charge’s constant demands.
Still, there was just one more book-signing session to go, Laura reminded
herself, and then they’d be on their way back to Sydney for the premiere of “Crocodile Crunch”.
They would finally head north for a photo shoot featuring Perry posing with snakes and lizards – maybe even alligators, for all she knew. She couldn’t think of anything worse.
Laura felt she’d been sitting in bookshops next to him for months, not weeks.
Still, that afternoon she handed him copies of “Critters Of The Outback” to sign, chatted brightly to the bookshop owner and smiled at the customers.
They both sat behind a small table piled high with books to be signed. Perry complained about the size of the table, and demanded that she find him a more comfortable chair.
“Get me a drink,” he said rudely, in between customers.
“There are cold bottles of water here, Perry,” Laura said, pointing to a nearby table and being careful to keep her voice friendly.
“Did I say I wanted water? I said a drink!” Laura gritted her teeth. “I’ll see what’s available.” “What’s ‘available’ will be champagne,” Perry said loudly, “and I don’t mean any of the rubbish I had yesterday, either.”
Laura gave him a look, and nodded towards the mass of people who were now listening to them.
So many fans were waiting to talk to the great author that the queue snaked back on itself more than once. They would be here for hours.
Perry was staring at her. “So, what are you waiting for?” he asked nastily. “You wouldn’t want my public to know what cheapskates my publishers are, would you? Get me some vintage champagne.”
Furious, Laura stood and picked up her bag.
“Excuse me,” she said, smiling automatically at the nearest customers.
She turned to Perry. “I’ll get your drink. Though I must say, I find it astonishing that someone who writes books about roughing it in the outback can’t get through a few hours without a constant supply of champagne, or sit on an ordinary chair.
“And also,” she added, “insists on eating the most expensive item on the menu, at the most expensive restaurant in every city we visit.”
She smiled sweetly at him, then threaded her way between the shelves of books to the door marked
A moment later, she was renewing her lipstick in front of the bathroom mirror. Her eyes were still blazing and she had colour in her cheeks.
But it was nothing compared to the dark, angry flush that had flooded Perry’s face, she noted with satisfaction. And he couldn’t have enjoyed the muffled titters from the crowd, either.
How dare he? She wasn’t his skivvy.
Her lipstick was shaking slightly in her hand. She put it down and took some steadying, calming breaths, then splashed cold water on her face.
She glanced at her watch. It was almost four o’clock; early morning in England.
Suddenly that was all she wanted: to be at home, thousands of miles away from Perry Floyd and his constant demands. Or in Sydney. More precisely, in Oliver’s arms, in Sydney.
Never mind that he had a dangerous job; never mind that she had spent every waking hour when they were apart worrying.
She just wanted to be with him now, to see his eyes darken and crinkle up in sympathy. To see him clench his jaw with anger on her behalf. How she wished she was having dinner with him tonight, instead of facing another evening with Perry.
Of course, that was assuming that he was willing to have dinner with her, after what she’d just said to him.
A few hours by herself would be a godsend. Time for them both to cool off.
She might let him save face by developing a headache that evening.
Unless, of course, he had already complained about her behaviour to Edward.
Her heart plummeted. Of course that’s what he’d do. He’d want to get his side of the story in first. He might be texting her boss at this very instant.
And then what? Would she be sent home on the next plane, like some errant teenager? Would she be called in and asked to explain herself?
She had a feeling that, however benign Edward might be, he wouldn’t be impressed to hear that she’d insulted their star author in public.
She put the lipstick back in her handbag, and looked at her reflection glumly.
Then she squared her shoulders and headed back. Perhaps there would still be so many customers that she could just slip back in unnoticed.
She glanced at her watch; she’d been less than five minutes. And she hadn’t done anything about the champagne, vintage or otherwise.
The dreamed-of headache was materialising in earnest, and she longed for a cup of proper English tea.
Oliver left his stepfather’s small, private ward to answer his phone.
“Edward,” he said by way of a greeting. “What’s up? And what time is it? It must be the middle of the night in London.”
“It’s just after eight.” “Well, what are you doing at work? Don’t you ever sleep?”
Oliver looked at his stepfather through the glass partition between the ward and the hospital corridor. A bank of machines flickered and beeped above his bed. He was unaware of Oliver’s presence, or his departure.
“I’ve just had Perry Floyd on the phone,” Edward spluttered. “I don’t know what Laura thinks she’s playing at, but Perry’s apoplectic. He’s talking about taking his next book elsewhere.”
Let him, Oliver thought, remembering the last time he’d seen the author. And good riddance.
“They’re in Melbourne, travelling back to Sydney tomorrow,” Edward said. “When they arrive, could you go and see Perry? Smooth things over?
“I know it’s a lot to ask. I don’t suppose your stepfather’s up to it, is he?”
“No.” Oliver didn’t elaborate. This wasn’t the moment to tell Edward just how bad things were. “I’ll find out what’s going on.”
“Good. I’ll get someone to send you the details of where they’re staying, and so on.” There was a pause. “Get back to me as soon as you can, OK?”
Oliver rang off without bothering to tell Edward that he already had a detailed itinerary of exactly where Laura was going to be while she was with that obnoxious man.
Tonight she and Perry were dining with the company’s sales director for Australia.
Oliver almost called Laura, but changed his mind and rang Perry’s number instead.
Half an hour later he came off the phone, and had to make a conscious effort to unclench his fists.
Perry had launched into an account of the afternoon’s fiasco, during which he protested a great deal about his own innocence. But even the very few things he would admit to had made Oliver’s blood boil.
The only positive outcome from the whole thing was that Perry was refusing to have dinner with Laura that night.
If only his stepfather wasn’t so ill, Oliver thought.
Still, he could ring and invite Laura to dinner tomorrow night in Sydney.
Suddenly all she wanted was to be in Oliver’s arms . . .
Meanwhile, he could do something about her dinner tonight . . .
Perry had been busy, Laura thought as she pondered the day’s events.
He hadn’t looked at her at all when she had rejoined him in the bookshop, despite the curious glances from the customers.
She had continued to pass him books to sign, and he had taken them from her as though they were red-hot coals.
The river of buyers had at last thinned to a dribble, and eventually she and Perry had left the bookshop and been driven back to their hotel by the sycophantic manager.
She was saved the trouble of conversation by the constant stream of chatter between the manager and Perry – mostly about the record number of books Perry had sold, and how proud he must be.
Normally, Laura would have enjoyed looking out of the window at a new city, but it was difficult when Perry was bristling with unspoken fury beside her, and when she was beginning to worry about the complaints he would undoubtedly be raising as soon as he got the chance.
Perry almost knocked the doorman down in his eagerness to get into the hotel and fling himself into the waiting lift.
“How dare you?” he hissed as the lift doors started to close in her face.
She raised her eyebrows at him and deliberately waited a few moments for the lift to leave without her.
She was relieved at the thought that he would be safely ensconced in his room before she arrived at their floor, but found him waiting outside her room.
“I’m dining with the sales director,” he said curtly. “You’re not required.”
Laura let herself into her room, and headed automatically towards her laptop. Then she turned her back on it decisively.
The UK office wouldn’t be open for another half an hour. Right now she needed a relaxing bath.
The thought of an evening without Perry was a cheering one. She would order an omelette or something simple from room service. It might not be dinner with Oliver, but at least she’d be alone.
She ran a deep bath filled with bubbles, and lay luxuriating in the warm water. After 20 minutes of consciously refusing to think about anything unpleasant, she could no longer stop her mind from wandering back to the e-mails she was sure would soon be winging their way towards her, and her body tensed in the cooling bath water.
She stood up and stepped reluctantly out of the bath, wrapping herself in a large, soft white robe.
Her laptop pinged. Laura glanced at her watch. There couldn’t be an e-mail yet, surely? It wasn’t even nine a.m. in London.
But the London office had evidently been busy.
The first e-mail was from Edward’s secretary.
Just thought I’d better warn you: Perry Floyd’s been on the phone to Edward for the past half hour. I gather you’ve upset the golden boy! MD’S on the war path.
Have a good evening.
Laura scrolled down to the next message, her heart sinking as she took in its cool greeting.
I have just had a most disturbing conversation with Perry. Ring me at once to explain, please. Regards, Edward.
The next e-mail had been sent 20 minutes later.
Laura, I promised Perry I’d telephone him when I’d spoken to you. Ring me at once. Edward.
She sighed. Not even “regards” that time.
Laura flicked through the next couple of e-mails.
One was from the Australian sales director, to say he was sorry she was feeling too ill to make dinner. So at least Perry hadn’t told him the truth.
Then another from Edward’s secretary. Laura read it twice, confused.
Hope I didn’t put the fear of God into you with my last e-mail – you know Edward’s bark is worse than his bite. And of course you have friends in high places!
What on earth was she talking about? If she meant Edward was a friend, as well as her employer, then she’d obviously not read the e-mails he’d sent her.
Laura put her head in her hands. Why couldn’t she just have kept her temper?
Surely she could at least have waited until they were alone before pointing out that vintage champagne wasn’t, as a rule, available in a bookshop.
She reluctantly picked up her mobile. Best to ring Edward now and get it over with.
The screen was flashing unread messages. She punched the relevant buttons, and found texts and voicemail messages by the dozen. Each one was brusquer than the last.
Laura, still holding her phone, went back to the computer screen and looked at the next new e-mail, which was from Perry himself.
It was long and rambling; words like “unprofessional” and “future career prospects” leaped out at her from the screen.
Then her mobile rang, and she was aware of her knees trembling as she answered it.
Edward ranted and raved, then was grimly silent as she gave a brief and factual account of the bookshop fiasco.
She tried to sound business-like, but her voice was shaking.
“Look, Laura, I can hear you’re upset,” he said more mildly, “and I do know that Perry isn’t the easiest of people. Just try to smooth things over, will you? “And apologise. Abjectly.” A sharp knock on the door – which even Edward heard – made her jump.
Her heart sank with the realisation that it could only be Perry. No-one else knew she was here.
She hastily ended the call to Edward, who signed off by urging her once again to apologise.
Tugging at her robe’s belt in a protective gesture, she padded to the door, her bare feet sinking into the deep pile of the carpet. “Who is it?”
“Room service, madam.” But she hadn’t ordered anything.
Vague thoughts about the wisdom of opening hotel doors to strangers crossed her mind, but she dismissed them.
Was this Perry’s idea of a joke? Even as she thought it, she realised how hungry she was suddenly feeling.
“Maybe he’s feeling guilty because I’ve had no dinner,” she said to herself.
She opened the door cautiously. A uniformed waiter was standing by a trolley, complete with a gleaming silver cloche, sparkling white linen and a champagne bucket.
Laura looked from the trolley back to the waiter, then back again.
“I didn’t order this.” He frowned for a second and consulted a notepad.
“It’s got your room number on it, so maybe you should just enjoy it,” he said with a smile.
He wheeled the trolley into the room, and removed the silver cover with a theatrical flourish. Half a lobster was arranged artistically on an oval platter, a delicate sauce beside it in a silver jug. A warm roll peeped out from beneath a linen napkin, beside a bowl of crisp green leaves.
“Would you like me to open this now?”
A moment later the waiter had left, and she was sipping the chilled champagne – which, to top it off, was vintage.
Everything seemed better with a glass of bubbly in her hand, and the prospect of a delicious supper. She had just unfurled her napkin when her phone began to ring.
She dreaded speaking to Edward again.
“Laura.” It was Oliver. The voice she wanted most in the world to hear. “How’s the lobster?”
“He looks just the same,” Oliver said, gazing intently through the glass partition at his stepfather. He was still wired up to a broad bank of machines, which whirred and beeped seemingly at random.
“Apparently he’s not,” his stepsister Gemma said sadly. “The doctor I spoke to earlier said he won’t last more than a few days at most. And it could all be over in hours.”
Oliver put his arm round her. He was fond of her, and he knew how much she would miss her father.
She was his only child, and although Oliver’s own mother had been a kind and loving stepmother to Gemma, it wasn’t the same – as Oliver knew well.
“He’s always been such a brilliant father,” Gemma said, on the verge of tears.
“He’s been a great stepfather, too,” Oliver replied. “He’s always treated me like a son.”
“Do the people at Collingswood’s know he’s so ill?”
Oliver shook his head. “Edward in the London office asked whether he was up to talking to Perry Floyd, so, no.”
He pulled a face. “We’re meant to be representing him at the premiere of that film tomorrow. We’ll cancel.”
“I don’t think we can. Not without announcing to the whole world that he’s . . .”
“That really would put the cat among the pigeons, I suppose. Lately a few people on the newspaper and at the publishers have been looking at me a bit speculatively. People who think I must know who William’s got lined up to take over from him.
“There are several guys who look hopeful. I don’t like to think of them all jockeying for position when it could be a while before we find out.
“He’s a tough old boot
– it could be longer than we think.”
They stood in silence for a few moments, then Oliver squeezed Gemma’s hand.
“Whoever it is will still have to answer to you. You’re his heir, after all.”
“I wish we could do something for him,” Gemma said, looking tired and wan.
“When did you last eat? You look exhausted. Can I get you something?”
“Oh, no! You were supposed to be going out to dinner with Laura!” Gemma said.
“She’ll understand,” Oliver replied soothingly.
“Have you at least told her how ill Dad is? I mean, it’ll affect her job, too.” Oliver hesitated. “Sort of. She knows William’s my stepfather, and she knows he’s really ill, and she knows he owns the paper I work for. But she doesn’t know he owns Collingswood’s.”
Gemma was looking at him incredulously.
“She hasn’t made the connection between Collingswood’s Publishers and William Collingswood?”
“I’ve always referred to him as William. I’ve never mentioned his surname and it’s different from mine . . .”
He saw Gemma was looking at him accusingly.
“I suppose I haven’t told her because I didn’t want that to affect our relationship,” he admitted. “In as much as it’s a relationship at all.”
Sydney’s State Theatre was just as grand as Laura had expected, and she was glad she’d bought what had felt at the time like an impossibly expensive dress.
Perry looked impressed, too, in spite of himself. He had actually told her she looked nice, though he said it with a sneer.
Everywhere she looked, there were faces she recognised from the newspapers. The managing director of Collingswood’s Sydney office had introduced them to politicians, sportsmen, television personalities and, of course, the star-studded cast of “Crocodile Crunch”.
It seemed that anybody who was anybody in Sydney society was there, and the whole place glittered.
Normally Laura would have been entranced, but her mind was still on the previous evening.
She and Perry had flown back to Sydney yesterday afternoon, and as soon as she arrived in her hotel room there was a phone call from Oliver.
“Don’t worry, our plane wasn’t delayed or anything,” she gabbled happily, before he’d said a word, “and I’ve palmed Perry off on the MD tonight, so I’m free!” There was a pause. “Oh, Laura, I feel as if I’m always letting you down,” Oliver had said apologetically.
They’d been supposed to have dinner in a waterfront restaurant overlooking Sydney Harbour yesterday, but Oliver had cancelled. His stepfather had taken a turn for the worse, and Oliver didn’t feel able to leave him.
She’d given her good wishes for his stepfather and said goodbye, trying to hide her disappointment.
“I’ll explain when I see you,” Oliver said, “and I will see you, very soon.”
The audience took their seats. The lights dimmed, and the audience stilled.
The haunting theme tune of “Crocodile Crunch” filled the auditorium, and for the next couple of hours Laura found herself enthralled.
“Great, wasn’t it?” Perry asked.
He stood up as the final credits rolled and started shaking hands with everyone he could reach. He couldn’t keep the grin off his face, and his exuberance was infectious.
Laura found she was almost looking forward to the celebratory party.
“I might have known he’d turn up,” Perry said, suddenly sour again. “Who?”
“Your hero, Oliver Evesham. I suppose he’ll be at the party, too.
“And,” he added maliciously, “I see he’s not alone.”
So that’s what he’d meant by “very soon”. Laura spun round to look, and her smile froze on her lips.
Oliver was several yards away, and he was standing next to a very beautiful woman, his arm round her waist. He seemed to be scanning the people in the first few rows, as if he was looking for someone. Perhaps he was hoping she wouldn’t have spotted him. Perry nudged her. “Come on, our car’s here. I’m sure he’ll be at the party, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“What’s he doing here?” Laura couldn’t help asking.
“I thought his stepfather would be here, not him,” Perry said. “He’s only the stepson. Prancing round as if he owns the place.”
But Laura had stopped listening. A sinking feeling told her that the woman with Oliver had something to do with why he’d cancelled dinner.
And so, the next time Oliver rang her – as well as the 100 or so times after that – she ignored his calls.
Laura and Perry were met at the airport in Darwin the next day by a cameraman called Stu, who was taking them to Kakadu National Park in a sort of pick-up truck that Laura was learning to call a “ute”.
They were going to a place called Yellow Water Billabong, part of the South Alligator river system.
“It’s a national park, for heaven’s sake,” Perry had sneered when she’d mentioned that she wasn’t keen on alligators. “There won’t be anything dangerous. They don’t want tourists being attacked, do they? I’ve talked to a couple of people there – organised some stunts . . .”
“What do you mean?” Laura asked. “Perry, it’s my job to organise the photo shoots, and we’re going to be short on time.” He snorted.
“You, organise photo shoots for one of my books? If I left it up to you, I’d be lucky to get a shot of me with a couple of kangaroos. And you’ve probably never even seen a quoll.”
Laura refrained from saying that she’d never even heard of a quoll, but took the next opportunity – while Perry was flirting with the air hostess – to look it up. Apparently they were carnivorous marsupials and mainly nocturnal.
Once on the road, Laura was able to take in the scenery while Stu and Perry talked about the shots they were aiming for.
Stu hoped to see flatback sea turtles, and Perry mentioned poisonous cane toads and quolls (again).
“We’re not likely to see quolls in the daytime, though, are we?” Laura asked, and Stu gave her an approving look.
“Glad to see you know yer animals. Good on yer. You will need to keep a look out for –”
“She’ll be fine,” Perry interrupted. “There’ll be rangers around.”
“You haven’t mentioned alligators,” Laura said, struggling to keep her voice calm. “Are you planning any photos of them, Stu?” He broke into a grin. “You don’t need to worry about alligators. The Alligator River was named by some explorer who thought there were alligators, but he was wrong – there aren’t any native to Australia.” Laura gave a shriek. “Did you see that snake?” she asked, pointing at the side of the road. “It must have been six foot long!” Perry snorted.
“Now do you see why I don’t want you organising the photo shoot?” he said rudely. “Anything scary and you’ll freak out!”
There was, as Laura had known there would be, a lot of waiting around in the heat while Stu fiddled with camera angles and light meters, and Perry prinked and posed, worrying about Stu not taking him from his “best side”.
They drove from one spectacular backdrop to another, waiting for the animals to appear, then coaxing them to co-operate.
“Help yourself from the Esky,” Stu said as he parked under a eucalyptus tree. “And stay in the ute. It’s safer.”
It took Laura a moment to identify the Esky as a cool box, then she gratefully lifted an ice-cold soda from it.
Once, she thought she saw a snake, but without Stu it was hard to identify what she was looking at.
It was hot in the ute, and several times she found her eyes closing.
The third time it happened she climbed out of the truck and stretched. She didn’t want Perry reporting to head office that she’d been asleep on the job.
She walked towards the water’s edge, enjoying the cooling air. Stu and Perry were 30 yards away, trying to entice some unknown animal with a hunk of meat.
She turned to watch them, then glanced at her watch. She and Perry were due back at the airport in just a couple of hours.
“Stu,” she called, “how much longer do you . . .?”
Stu looked up at the sound of her voice, and his face froze.
“Laura, behind you! Run! Get back in the truck!” Perry looked up as well. “Saltwater crocodiles! Fantastic! Don’t put the camera down, Stu!
“Film her! I want that look of terror in my book – it’s pure gold!”
Laura turned. Coming from the billabong were three enormous creatures heading towards her.
The ute was a few yards away; surely she could outrun a crocodile?
Laura started to run, her heart hammering and her whole body prickling with cold sweat. She looked over her shoulder and was horrified to see that the gap between her and the crocodiles was closing.
Stu was racing towards her, but Perry stood still, apparently enjoying it all.
She was nearly at the truck; it was 20 feet away; 10, and then her foot snagged on a tree root and she hit the ground, a look of pure terror on her face. To be continued.