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The Widowmaker

The Widowmaker

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The Widowmaker

246 pagine
3 ore
May 1, 2008


A beautiful Pit Chick with a reputation as a jinx; a rider with one last chance to prove himself; and an untried machine they call the "Widow-Maker." A terrible combination in the countdown to the start of the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix. Dare you step beyond the barriers and join them?
May 1, 2008

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The Widowmaker - Amy Gallow


Chapter 1

Lexie examined the outfit they expected her to wear and gnawed her lower lip. It was garish, brash, and tasteless and, to make matters worse, some idiot’s passion for conformity required all the girls wear blonde wigs. Accepting the London agency’s offer of work at the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix had been a mistake, but it was too late now. The drive from Phillip Island had taken longer than she expected and the function began in twenty minutes. She shrugged and started changing.

Toby Gerrard greeted her at the function room. Lexie, you look great. He guided her forward with a too familiar hand on her waist.

The promotion manager for the Phillip Island racetrack, and probably responsible for the blonde wigs, faced the twenty girls, silken caps perched on blonde wigs, snug fitting silken shirts emblazoned with logos and skimpy skirts cut high at the sides. Our guests will start arriving in five minutes. Your job is to make sure their glasses are never empty and answer any questions they might have about the circuit or the arrangements. You’ve been briefed. Anything you can’t answer, refer to me. With the exception of Lexie, you’ve all worked this job before. Do it well and you’ll work it again.

Lexie glanced at the others, expecting them to be affronted. A blatant threat like this would receive short shrift in London. It seemed acceptable here, but she’d have a few words to say when she returned to the agency.

Lexie, I’d like a word. Toby was looking at her so she nodded and lingered as the others dispersed.

You need to smile more. I saw you looking quite stern. You’ve dealt with too many British politicians. He reinforced the implication with a leer. I’m not interested in what happens after our functions, but we pay you to be pleasant to our guests. You might feel it a comedown working in the Antipodes. Don’t let it show. His hand came to rest on her hip.

Lexie took his wrist between finger and thumb, as if it were something distasteful. Are you naturally inept…or do you have to work at it? I know my job, even if you don’t, so keep your hands to yourself. She dug her thumbnail into the soft flesh, causing a grimace of pain. I bite.

The entry of the motorcycle people interrupted the confrontation and Toby hurried away to greet them. Lexie allowed herself a small grimace of disgust. This wasn’t going well; a bumptious fool as an employer on top of another argument with her father. Coming home for his seventieth birthday had been a mistake. She should have stayed away, just as she should have refused this job…

Excuse me. The voice came from behind. Pleasant, with an odd harmonic to send a skitter of pleasure down her spine.

She turned to greet the newcomer. Good evening, sir. Can I get you a drink? He was looking past her and turned so she couldn’t read his name badge but its color identified him as a team manager.

Thank you, no, but I do want a word with Signor Bagnelli. His expression was cool. Her outfit didn’t impress him and his tone left no doubt he considered her presence superfluous.

Lexie’s face flamed at the snub. Of course. She hated the automatic bob of her head as she stepped aside to let him pass, but this was a customer.

His eyes captured hers just before she turned away and his nod was deliberate. Thank you. A voice to weave magic, even when she was angry.

The main Japanese team arrived and found the blonde wigs fascinating, demanding the attention of the tallest girls, which included Lexie, perhaps convincing themselves the girls having to bend down to hear their words conferred status. However, apart from one or two wandering hands, they were well behaved and Lexie had dealt with this idiosyncrasy before.

She glimpsed the man with the magic voice twice, both times holding back from the main gathering, once talking quietly to a small dark man with a rider’s badge and the other standing listening to Raul Bagnelli, a man she’d already identified as a team owner. It was late when she freed herself from the Japanese demands and was disappointed to find he’d left the function. Raul Bagnelli was still there so she went over to him.

Do you need another drink? His glass was empty.

Thank you. He looked at her. A red wine, please.

There’s a special bottle under the bar. A Durif from Rutherglen, would you like to try it?

Thank you, I would. His smile was genuine and she liked him instantly. You’ve escaped our oriental gentlemen at last.

I’m not sure gentleman is descriptive. She returned the smile. They have a very Continental attitude towards hostesses.

You wound me. He mimed a blow to his heart. We Latin men pride ourselves on responding ardently to our passions. It is our fate.

Odysseys were written about heroes who struggled against their fate. The glory of Rome grew from these men.

My people scratched a living north of the Po. The glories of Rome were distant things for us. We hid when the Legions marched. His subtle caricature of fearful humility made her laugh.

I’ll get that wine, she said. The evening might yet end on a bright note.

When she returned, he sipped appreciatively. You’re right. This would have been wasted on the others. It could have been grown in our hills. Is there more? She nodded. One for yourself then. You’ve earned it.

Lexie looked around. The crowd had thinned considerably. A few die-hards remained, but Raul was the only one wearing a team owner’s badge. We’re not supposed to.

Can’t I insist…or does this pretty bauble mean nothing? He tapped the badge with his free hand.

I’m sure an exception can be made.

Good. Join me.

Lexie took a fresh glass and poured herself a drink from the bottle.

Take it with you, the barman said. They’ve shifted to top shelf stuff. He indicated the group of dedicated drinkers on the far side of the room.

Lexie returned to Raul. Would you like to sit down? she asked. There’s a table and two chairs free over there. She felt comfortable with this man, guessing he was happily married and faithful, attending these functions out of a sense of duty.

Can we find a third chair? He was looking beyond her and Lexie turned. The man with the voice had returned.

I’ll get one, she said, putting the bottle on the table.

And a third glass, Raul suggested. You’re about to meet a man who’d fit the ancient Odysseys all too well.

Both men were still standing when she returned, the newcomer leaning close to Raul and speaking with urgency. She paused far enough away to give them privacy, a courtesy noted by the man and rewarded by a nod of acknowledgement.

Alas, Raul said as he looked up and saw her. Duty calls. My father… He raised his hands in a gesture of acceptance. We must go. Thank you for your company and for the excellence of the wine. Another time?

Lexie could do nothing but nod her acceptance and the two men left.

In another hour she was free to follow, taking a cab to the apartment in East Melbourne, kept vacant for family visits to the City. Her father’s car was there, but it was too late to drive home to the Island.

She woke late, returned her uniform for cleaning and set out for Phillip Island just after lunch, her father’s big sedan eating up the distance with a minimum of fuss. She wished his generosity didn’t come at such a price.

A stop for coffee mid-journey and she was across the bridge at San Remo by four, her parent’s home fifteen minutes away. The police were out in force, setting up the traffic arrangements for the weekend Grand Prix meeting. The Island’s road would be clogged with vehicles and special restrictions imposed to keep them flowing; one of the prices of staging an international event on a small island with limited access.

The big transporters were already arriving, ferrying the racing bikes and team equipment and she was stuck behind one until the road forked, the northern leg leading to Cowes and the other to the race track and the western end of the Island. She increased speed; her father wouldn’t be home for another two hours and her duties at the track didn’t start until Thursday. She valued the time in the house when he was absent. His party was Friday night and the Grand Prix meeting ended Sunday. Monday she’d fly back to London, putting the Island behind her once more.

It was sad. The Douglas family had come to Phillip Island when David McHaffie lost control of the grazing rights in the 1850’s. They’d become boat builders and fishermen until the industry changes and the building boom after World War II had shifted them ashore to become timber merchants and hardware suppliers. Now her father had retired, her brothers ran the yard, and they were all married to Islanders. Only Lexie was different.

She’d come late in her parents’ life, a startlingly beautiful child and a complete contrast to her brothers’ raw-boned strength. Idolized by her father for her difference, his joke that she was a changeling left for him to rear by the fairies had come at the most sensitive stage of her puberty and she’d heard only the implied rejection and cried herself to sleep three nights in a row. Her brothers, who’d overheard the jest, extended it until her stubborn pride changed their father/daughter relationship permanently, making her rebel against everything the family valued. Her clothes sense had outraged, her antics embarrassed, and there’d been a string of serious incidents leading to her banishment to a Melbourne private school as a boarder.

Once away from the Island and her father, Lexie lost the compulsion to shock and a natural charm had surfaced to confirm her popularity. She’d completed secondary schooling and then a teaching degree at Bendigo, majoring in English. Stewart’s death in her final year had made a return to the Island uncomfortable so she’d gone overseas instead. Basing herself in London, she’d worked as a teacher in the UK and the Continent until a chance contact with a publicity firm led to her acting as a hostess at a book show. From this beginning, she’d found regular work at motor shows and exhibitions of all types, often traveling with them from location to location, country to country. A good life until she worked a Formula One Grand Prix and her jinx struck again.

No one blamed her, but she refused all subsequent Grand Prix work. The Agency accepted her decision reluctantly, biding their time until her mother begged her to return for her father’s seventieth birthday. When she agreed, they’d proposed a place in the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix promotion team for the Island. She’d accepted, only because it gave her an escape route from the house and her father.

It wasn’t working at all well, which was mainly her fault. Father and daughter struck sparks from each other at every meeting and he made it worse with overly generous gestures, lending her his car for the drive to Melbourne and making sure she had transport to visit friends or surf. One glance at the state of her old wet suit and he’d insisted on replacing it, adding a rash vest and diver’s watch for good measure. Were it not for her brothers maintaining her favorite surfboard in her absence, he’d have replaced that as well. It wasn’t the cost she objected to, the Douglas family would never be paupers, but the inherent assumption that he knew best and she needed his guidance. Nothing had changed in eight years.

The automatic gates responded to the remote control and she drove up the curving drive and into the garage beneath the house. He’d known she was coming and the roller shutter was open. The timber yard vehicles might endure the elements, but this car was her father’s favorite, a top-of-the-range vehicle bought at his retirement and used only for trips to Melbourne and beyond.

You’re back. Her mother looked up as Lexie entered the kitchen. Did it go well?

The promotion manager’s a fool. Lexie put the car keys on the hook board by the door. Thinks his position gives him touching privileges.

Don’t tell your father that. He’s not happy with what you’re doing.

I can handle fools like Toby Gerrard. Lexie fought down a surge of anger. This is no different than what I do all the time in London. That was a lie. The whole Phillip Island promotion had a tawdry feel, due predominately to Toby Gerrard’s lack of taste. There are some good people too… It was time to mend bridges. Raul Bagnelli, who owns one of the smaller factory teams, is pleasant, funny, and very nice.

Is he the only one? Sandra Douglas sounded unconvinced.

No. There’s others… Sandra’s doubting expression made Lexie search her memory for an example. One of the team managers seems very nice. Quiet, a bit on the reserved side, but he has a bedroom voice even when he’s talking technicalities. She was gilding the lily, bothered by her inability to recall his face. All she could remember was the voice and the eyes.

Sounds a little off-key to me. Her mother remained doubtful.

I’m describing him badly, Lexie admitted. We only talked for a little while. He didn’t stay long.

It was annoying. She could remember his smile, but the details of his face were blurred—other than the expression in his eyes when he looked at her outfit and judged her by it. She couldn’t argue with his taste; she’d had the same thoughts herself.

There’s only the three of us tonight, Sandra said, changing the subject. Our last quiet night before the party.

Lexie heard the plea in her mother’s voice. She’d found excuses to eat elsewhere nearly every night since arriving. Yes, she said. I’ll be here for dinner. The warmth of her mother’s smile made her feel worse. Sandra worked hard maintaining harmony between father and daughter.

Good. We’ll eat in the kitchen.

Lexie smiled. She’d forgotten the warmth of family meals in the kitchen, a habit grown from her father and brothers coming home from the yard in overalls and sitting down at the big kitchen table to eat. The Douglas who’d built the house had been a fisherman and he’d made the kitchen large and sunny, warmed in winter by a huge slow combustion stove her mother never used in summer. A pleasant room, the centre of family activities for as long as she could remember.

What time?

Your father will be home at six. Lexie smiled. Kieran Douglas had supposedly retired, but he was always the last one to leave the timber yard. We’ll eat at seven.

Good. It will give me time to have a run. I need to pump the cigarette smoke from last night out of my system. Lexie left the room.

She’d started running at boarding school, an antidote to the loneliness of being away from her home for reasons only partly understood, and it had become a soothing habit. The jogger’s high had carried her through the grieving process each time her jinx had struck and she relied on it when things went wrong. A quick change into running gear and she was ready. The golf club was close and the family membership allowed her to use the maintenance roads as a running track without interference.

A half hour later, she was in her stride, pheromones pumping through her system as she ran, music from her earphones drowning distractions.

After Charles, she’d avoided involvement with men. Partly, because she felt responsible for his death, but more as recognition of coincidences building far too convincing a case that she was jinxed. Billy, Stewart, and Charles had all died after she’d acknowledged them as lovers. They did dangerous things to prove themselves and paid the price like moths attracted to the light. Other people considered her beautiful. If they were right, it hadn’t brought happiness.

Her single status was one of her father’s disappointments. Her brothers had long since perpetuated the Douglas line, their wives producing grandchildren at a prodigious rate, and there were indications great-grandchildren would arrive soon, so it was more a concern for what he saw as her happiness. This was their problem. He saw everything in his own terms, discarding anything she might want as irrelevant.

Lexie. Lexie Douglas! A golfer on a tee adjacent to the maintenance track gave up trying to attract her attention by sound alone and ran in front of her, waving his arms.

She stopped and pulled the earphones down around her neck. Hello, Mr. East. It was her High School English teacher. The man who’d recommended sending her to the prestigious private school in Melbourne.

He’d taught there for many years before marrying into an Island family and moving to Cowes. His recommendation had earned her entry and his friends, still teaching there, had cushioned the shock of the change. Her decision to go into teaching was her recognition of his influence.

I heard you were back, he said, turning to wave his playing group on. Kieran was boasting your success at the RSL. Mr. East, a gentle man, had served with distinction in Vietnam as a National Service Officer.

He has far too much to say about everything. Lexie’s voice carried a tinge of bitterness and brought a frown to her ex-teacher’s face.

He finds you just as difficult. Mr. East made her smile. He always did. He’s never quite accepted he could be responsible for something so beautiful. He’d protect you from the world if he could.

Lexie could accept the idea intellectually, but not its reality. I’m grown up now and can protect myself.

Undoubtedly. His pleasure at having you home makes him forget. Mr. East changed the subject. You haven’t gone back to teaching?

Lexie shook her head. Not yet.

You’ll be a much better teacher for having done other things. He nodded his approval.

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