Read Thornwood House Online

Authors: Anna Romer

Thornwood House

Readers love
Thornwood House

‘packed with tension, intrigue, suspense, romance, Aboriginal folklore, the quaintness (and peculiarities) of a small town and hidden truths. I can’t recommend this book enough!

The Australian Bookshelf
,
www.australianbookshelf.wordpress.com

‘An impressive debut from Anna Romer . . . I will definitely be picking up her next book.’

Book’d Out Blog
,
www.bookdout.wordpress.com

‘A truly captivating and haunting read,
Thornwood House
made me dig out one of my favourites,
Rebecca
by Daphne Du Maurier, another gothic tale of obsession and secrets . . . It made me want to read another book by Anna Romer. Soon.’

Write Note Reviews
,
www.writenotereviews.com

‘a beautiful yet tragic tale which brings to life the fascination that can be found in old letters and diaries . . . and the beauty of the Australian countryside and the fierce way in which it can be transformed into something dark and dangerous. An exceptional debut . . . romance, history, mystery and suspense. I will certainly be keeping my eye out for more of Romer’s work’

Beauty and Lace Blog
,
www.bookgirl.beautyandlace.net


Romer resists the temptation to race ahead, allowing the reader to appreciate the hours of research and writing that she’s put into it. I recommend it to any who want to read a novel exploring family history, suspicious circumstances, and the beautiful Australian outback.’

The Australian Review
,
www.theaureview.com

To Sarah

For a lifetime of love, friendship and faith . . .

I’m so glad you’re my sister!

If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.

KHALIL GIBRAN

Prologue

O
n a sunny afternoon, the clearing at the edge of the gully resembles a fairytale glade. Ribbons of golden light flutter through the treetops and bellbirds fill the air with chiming calls. The spicy scent of wildflowers drifts on a warm breeze, and deep in the shady belly of the ravine a creek whispers along its ancient course.

But then, come dusk, the sky darkens quickly. Shadows swarm among the trees, chasing the light. Sunbeams vanish. Birds retreat into thickets of acacia and blackthorn as, overhead, a host of violet-black clouds roll in from the west, bringing rain.

Here now, in the bright moonlight, it’s a different place again. Nightmarish. Otherworldly. The open expanse of silvery poa grass is hemmed in by black-trunked ironbarks, while at the centre stands a tall, fin-shaped boulder.

I’m drawn towards the boulder. It seems to whisper, shadows appear to gather at its base. I go nearer. Shivers fly across my skin. I stumble in the dark and pause to listen, straining to hear the sound of a voice, of a muffled cry or sob – but there’s only the tick of rain in the leaves and the ragged rasp of my breathing. Further down the slope wallabies thump unseen through the bush, and something meows overhead, probably a boobook owl.

‘Bron . . . are you here?’

I don’t expect an answer, but when none comes my sense of panic sharpens. I cast about for a broken bough, a trail of flattened grass, a familiar scrap of clothing abandoned on the ground . . . but there’s nothing of my daughter here, nothing of the man who took her.

I search the shadows, trying to see beyond the tree-silhouettes that shift and sway around me. Lightning illuminates a dirt trail that cuts uphill through the undergrowth. I edge towards it, then stop. A chill skates up the back of my neck, I sense I’m not alone. Someone’s near, it must be him. Hiding in the trees. Watching. I imagine his gaze crawling over me as he speculates how best to strike.

When he does, I’ll be ready.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. In truth, I feel as though I’ve relived this scenario a thousand times, hovering in this desolate glade waiting for death to find me, but each time floundering at the critical moment.

The air is suddenly cold. Rain trickles off my face. The trees bow sideways in a damp gust and gumnut flowers spin from high branches, carrying forth the sharp scent of eucalyptus.

A twig cracks, loud despite the rain; a violent sound like a small bone being broken. I whirl towards it. Lightning threads through the clouds, brightening the glade. A solitary shadow catches my eye on the other side of the clearing. It breaks from the greater darkness and moves towards me.

I recognise him instantly.

He’s a big man, his features a pale blur in the dimness. His skin shines wet, and something about the sight of his face makes my blood run thin.

‘Hello, Audrey.’

And it’s only now that I see the axe handle grasped in his hand.

1

Audrey, September 2005

T
he sky over the cemetery was bruised by stormclouds. It was only mid-afternoon, but already dark. A large group of mourners stood on the grassy hillside, sheltering beneath the outstretched arms of an old elm. In the branches overhead, a congregation of blackbirds shuffled restlessly, their cries punctuating the stillness.

Crows. Darkness. Death.

Tony would have loved that.

I swallowed hard, wishing I was anywhere but here; anywhere but standing in the rain, shivering in a borrowed black suit, silently saying goodbye to the man I once thought I’d loved.

Bronwyn stood beside me, her dark blue dress making her fair hair and complexion all the more stark. She was eleven, tall for her age and strikingly pretty. She held an umbrella over our heads, her thin fingers bloodless around the handle.

Despite the rain, despite the glances and hushed talk behind our backs, I was glad we’d come. No matter what anyone said, I knew Tony would have wanted us here.

The coffin hovered over the grave, suspended from a steel frame by discreet cables. Nearby, a blanket of fake grass was
draped over a mound of dirt that would later fill the hole. Huge wreaths of white lilies and scarlet anthuriums carpeted the ground. They looked expensive, and my handpicked roses seemed out of place among them.

Everything glistened in the rain: the coffin’s brass handles, the garlands of lilies, the clustered umbrellas. Even the minister’s bald head gleamed as he intoned the scripture. ‘Deep from the earth shall you speak, from low in the dust your words shall come forth. Your voice shall rise from the ground like the voice of a ghost.’

The ancient words were muffled by the rain, spoken with such solemnity that they seemed to drift from another time. If only they were true. If only Tony could speak to me now, tell me what had driven him in those last desperate days.

Lightning flickered, and thunder rumbled behind the clouds. The crows lifted from their perch and flapped away.

Bronwyn shuffled closer. ‘Mum?’ There was panic in her voice.

The pulleys suspending the casket started to move. The long black box began its descent. I grabbed Bronwyn’s hand and we clung together.

‘It’ll be okay, Bron.’ I’d meant to offer comfort, but the falseness of my words was jarring. How could anything ever be okay again?

I grasped for a memory to latch on to: Tony’s face as I most wanted to remember it – his cheeks ruddy, his dark hair on end, his sapphire eyes alight as he stared at the tiny bundle of his newborn daughter cradled in his arms.

‘She’s so beautiful,’ he’d muttered. ‘So beautiful it scares me to look away from her.’

Bronwyn tugged me closer to the edge of the grave and together we stared down at the coffin. It seemed impossible that a man who had once embraced life with such gusto now lay in the boggy ground beneath a mantle of rain. Impossible that he of all people had given up so easily.

Bronwyn kissed the parcel she’d made for her father and let it drop onto the coffin lid. It held a letter she’d written to him, a package of his favourite liquorice and the scarf she’d been knitting for his birthday. I heard her whispering, but her words were lost in the rain. When her shoulders began to quiver, I knew tears were brewing.

‘Come on.’ We turned away and started down the slope to where I’d parked my old Celica. Heads pivoted as we passed, their faces pale against the cemetery’s grey backdrop.

Ignoring them, I slid my arm around Bronwyn and kept walking. Her sleeve was damp, and through the fabric I could feel the coldness of her flesh. She needed to be at home, cocooned in the warmth and safety of familiar territory; she needed soup and toast, pyjamas, fluffy slippers . . .

‘Audrey – ?’

I looked up and a thrill of shock made me release Bronwyn. My nerves turned to water, my mouth went dry. Silly, such fear. I took a breath and summoned my voice.

‘Hello, Carol.’

She was stony-faced, the strain showing around her eyes. Her hair was coiled at the nape of her neck, and as usual I was struck by her beauty.

‘I’m pleased you came,’ she said quietly. ‘Tony would have wanted you both here. Hello Bronwyn, dear . . . how are you holding up?’

‘Good thanks,’ Bronwyn answered dully, her eyes on the ground.

I rattled out my car keys. ‘Bron, would you wait in the car?’

She took the keys and plodded off down the wet slope, the umbrella bobbing over her head. At the bottom of the hill, she wove through a line of parked cars until she reached the Celica. A moment later she disappeared inside.

‘How is she really?’ Carol asked.

‘She’s coping,’ I said, not entirely sure it was true.

We were alone on the slope. Mourners were hurrying out of the wet, back to their cars. The cemetery was nearly deserted. Carol was gazing down the hill, so I stole a closer look – marvelling at her perfect face, her expensive clothes, the way she held herself. She wore a black dress, fitted and elegant, and at her throat was a chip of ice. A diamond, probably. Fine lines gathered at the edges of her eyes, but they only seemed to intensify her loveliness. No wonder Tony had given up everything to be with her.

Carol caught me looking and frowned. ‘I know what you’re thinking. The same thing everyone else is thinking . . . But you’re wrong. Tony and I were getting along fine, our marriage – ’ She drew a shaky breath. ‘Our marriage was as strong as ever. Things were good between us, they had been for a long time.’

‘You weren’t to know, Carol.’

She shook her head, her eyes glassy. ‘But that’s just it, isn’t it, Audrey? . . . Of all people, I
should
have known.’

‘What Tony did was no one’s fault. You can’t blame yourself.’

‘I just keep thinking if I’d done more . . . noticed more. Been more attentive. You see, the night he left, I knew something wasn’t right.’

I frowned. ‘How do you mean?’

‘Well . . . we were in the lounge room at home. I was watching TV and Tony was flipping through the paper. For some reason I looked over at him and he was staring into space . . . All the colour had drained out of his face. He got up, folded the newspaper and went to the door. He kept saying “They found him. They found him.” Then he went out. I heard the car start up, heard the wheels crunching over the gravel in the drive. And that was the last time I saw him.’

‘What did he mean? Found who?’

Carol shook her head. ‘I don’t know. Later I scanned the paper he’d been reading, hoping for a clue . . . but there was nothing. Nothing that made any sense to me – as you can imagine, I was distraught.’

‘Didn’t he call?’

‘No, but the police did, ten days later.’ Carol shifted closer, her eyes searching mine. ‘I’ll tell you now it was the worst shock of my life. Tony was dead, just like that. When they told me his body had been found in Queensland outside a little town called Magpie Creek, I thought they were talking about someone else. But he . . . he – God, it was so sudden, so unexpected. I never even knew he owned a gun – ’

I flinched, and Carol’s eyes went wide. A single tear trembled on her lash.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘it was a horrid thing to say . . . but that’s the most confusing part of all. Tony was terrified of guns – he hated any sort of violence, didn’t he?’

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