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Secrets in Retribution Bay (ebook)

Secrets in Retribution Bay (ebook)

Aussie Heroes: Retribution Bay - Book 4

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She unearths a family secret which alters their history forever. He discovers a crime occurring on sacred land. Unless they work together their lives will never be the same.

Georgie Stokes is at a crossroads. Her job isn’t leading anywhere and her love life consists of pining after a man who considers her a surrogate sister. Something’s got to give. Then an accidental discovery reveals shocking secrets about her family. With her life in turmoil, she decides to take charge, risking her heart and her livelihood in the process.

Matt Roe has life figured until Georgie declares her love for him. Suddenly he must confront his own feelings for his best friend’s sexy younger sister, and his denial isn’t helped when he’s forced to work side-by-side with her.

However their priorities drastically shift when they stumble upon an animal smuggling operation.

Will they be able to stop the smugglers before more lives are lost, or will they become the next target?

Secrets in Retribution Bay is the fourth action-filled book in the Aussie Heroes: Retribution Bay series. If you like determined women, stubborn men and a whole lot of mystery, you’ll love Claire Boston’s exciting romantic suspense.

Chapter 1 Look Inside

Georgiana Stokes drove towards Retribution Ridge, driven by the need for comfort and home. She raised her hand to her mouth, stopping just short of biting her nail, and shook her head, tucking her hand under her thigh. There was nothing to be nervous about. The interview with Parks and Wildlife Services had gone well, which meant she might have a big decision to make.
She liked her job as a crew member on the whale shark tour boats in Retribution Bay, and she loved spending her days swimming alongside the biggest fish in the ocean. But it did little to challenge her, and conservation was more her passion.
The only problem was, two jobs were going with Parks and Wildlife Services; one land based, dealing with Cape Range National Park, and one ocean-based, caring for Ningaloo Reef and the outlying islands. Her contact at PAWS had said one of the other interviewees had all the skills needed for the ocean-based job. Georgie sighed. Either role would be a good step towards putting her marine biology degree to work.
Jimmy would be pissed off if she left him in the lurch with still a few months left of the tourist season. The boat was almost fully booked and she couldn’t leave him one crew member down.
Georgie would have to find someone to replace her — if she got the job.
Her breathing deepened and slowed with each kilometre on the one-hour drive home. Red dirt flashed by her window and she kept her eyes peeled for kangaroos and wild goats blending in with the dull green bushes on the side of the road. The sun was low, making long shadows across the road. Her stomach rumbled.
Maybe she should have called Amy to tell her she was coming home.
Her shoulders slumped. Could she still call the Ridge home?
The homestead now belonged to her oldest brother, Brandon since her parents had died two months ago, and he’d married Amy last week. It wouldn’t be long before they built their own family.
Georgie’s mum had always welcomed her home, even if she turned up out of the blue. There was always shortbread and a cup of tea, so they could have a chat, and always enough food for one more at the table.
Georgie blinked rapidly to clear her vision.
She turned onto the road which led to the Ridge and slowed when she reached Hangman’s Bend. Only a few broken branches were left to show her parents had died there when they’d been forced off the road and the car had rolled. Her stomach clenched and her throat closed over, forcing her to pull over to the side to breathe.
They didn’t deserve to die. Not so young, not at all. Her parents were the best of the best, welcoming everyone, always with a kind word and a huge hug. She’d been so excited they were finally taking a day off to come out on the tour boat with her, to see what she did for a living, to share her excitement about swimming with the whale sharks. She’d told everyone who would listen, not realising she had to be careful who heard her.
Georgie leaned her head against the steering wheel as the tears ran down her face. She’d been so happy, so unaware of what was to come, with no idea a Singapore consortium by the name of Stonefish Enterprises wanted something from the Ridge land and would go to great lengths to get it.
If only she’d stayed silent, Stonefish wouldn’t have known her parents would be heading out early to catch the tour boat, they wouldn’t have told someone to cut the brake line in the four-wheel drive, wouldn’t have had anyone in place to force them off the road.
She tried not to blame herself, but the niggling thought wouldn’t go away, spitting its hissing tongue whenever she was down. It had been the same with her brother, Charlie’s death as well. Maybe she was cursed.
Georgie sucked in a breath as a car roared past her and she sat up, brushing the tears from her face. Enough. If she turned up to the Ridge with red eyes and blotchy skin, everyone would want to know what was wrong. Her brothers were annoyingly observant like that and so overprotective.
Taking another deep breath to calm herself, she put the car into gear and continued driving.
The same couldn’t be said of Matt. He still had no clue she was in love with him and had been for years. He was as dense as a block of wood.
She huffed out a breath. That wasn’t fair. Matt was highly observant when it came to the land and usually to people as well. He must know about her feelings but pretended he didn’t because he didn’t feel the same way.
And that was a kick in the teeth.
Last time she’d been out to the Ridge, she’d slept in the shearers’ quarters, right next to Matt’s room, because Ed and Tess were in the spare bedroom. She’d fantasised about sneaking into his room in the middle of the night to tell him how she felt, but smart Georgie knew how stupid an idea it was.
She scowled. It really was time she got over him. He would never view her as more than his best friend’s little sister and it was time for her to woman up and move on.
She drove through the gates of the Ridge, the angry-looking sheep on the sign reminding her of Charlie. Guilt stabbed her again and she slowed to breathe through it.
Swallowing hard, she continued on to the homestead. She had to stop this pity party for one before she saw anyone. Charlie had probably met up with their parents in heaven and was entertaining them as he always did.
She smiled at the thought and some of her guilt dissolved.
The newly cleared campground was full of caravans and tents, and kids crowded near Maggie, the kangaroo, watching her as she lazed by the camp fire.
Georgie’s smile grew as she pulled up next to the house. Only Reg and Wesley were in the horse corral. As she walked to the verandah, she scanned the surroundings for her niece, Lara, Lara’s soon to be step-mother, Faith, and whoever was riding with them.
No one, but maybe they’d just left. If Georgie was quick, she could radio to find out where they were and join them. A ride always made her feel better.
She pushed the kitchen door, but it didn’t budge.
Locked.
Frowning, she pulled her keys from her pocket. It was Stonefish’s fault they had to lock the house now. Bastards.
The anger helped to push away her remaining sorrow.
But a locked door meant no one was home.
She unlocked the door and breathed in the slightly dusty, old house scent. The kitchen was empty and the building was silent. Georgie rubbed her arms. Her mother always had music playing, usually some eighties mix.
She flicked on the stereo and smiled as sound filled the room.
Her brothers and Matt would still be working on the station, but Ed, Tess or Amy should be around somewhere.
She didn’t want to be alone. That’s why she’d come here. “Ed!”
The last thing she wanted to do was interrupt her brother and his new girlfriend when they thought they had the house to themselves. Though she hadn’t seen his hire car outside, so maybe they’d gone into town, or down to the gulf for a swim.
“Ed!”
She wandered down the photo lined corridor, checking the lounge room first and then the bedrooms. No one.
In the room with twin beds she’d normally shared with Ed, his backpack was on the floor and a few clothes Tess had bought since she’d fled the scene of a murder were folded neatly on the chest of drawers. Despite the horrific circumstances, the event had led Tess to Ed, and the two were very much in love.
The love bug had bitten all her brothers. Brandon had married Amy a week ago, and Darcy was engaged to Faith. Georgie had no one, not even her parents anymore.
Was she destined for heartache all of her life?
She couldn’t even be happy the man behind the issues plaguing the Ridge was now dead. He would have someone mourning for him, and others would take his place.
Georgie scowled and tried to shake off the mood.
She headed back to the kitchen and filled the kettle, flicking it on through habit more than any genuine desire for a cuppa. She reached into the cupboard for the jar of shortbread and stopped short. Empty.
No reason it should be there anymore. Her mother had died months ago.
She shook her head to shake away the pain. Focus on something else.
They still hadn’t figured out why Stonefish Enterprises wanted to buy the Ridge. The police had discovered evidence they were searching for something on Retribution Island which lay just off the shore of the gulf near Ridge land, and Darcy and Matt had explored the new tracks they’d discovered, but they led nowhere of note.
Still no concrete answers.
Georgie’s steps took her into the laundry, and she opened the recently uncovered hatch to the cellar. There had to be answers in there.
She moved down the stairs and breathed in the musty scent of the room, which had been hidden for decades. One wall of shelves had been dusted since Georgie had last been out, probably by Amy. The old glass jars of preserves still lined them as the family hadn’t decided what to do about it all. Why the cellar had been hidden was a mystery.
She ran a hand over the surface of the wooden desk. Everyone had looked for secret compartments, but they’d found nothing.
Lara had reminded Georgie so much of Charlie with her excitement and theories.
Georgie hugged herself and sank onto the bottom step, rocking back and forth as her despair overpowered her. Charlie would have loved this place.
The grief and guilt she’d forced away earlier swept in with a rush.
It wasn’t fair Charlie had died at only twelve.
She squeezed her eyes closed. “I’m sorry, Charlie. I didn’t mean it.”
What nine-year-old wouldn’t curse her brother who scared her with a fake spider? The curse had been in a book she’d just read and she still remembered the words. May your actions rebound on you triple-fold and may you rue the day you crossed me.
The fake spider had scared her half to death. And Charlie had died only days after she’d cursed him. She swallowed hard and wiped the tears from her eyes. She didn’t believe in curses, not really, but at times like this, it was hard not to let the guilt overwhelm her.
Charlie would have loved the idea of a cellar hidden away for decades. Ever the prankster, he would have lured his siblings in here, then locked them in and turned off the light. Georgie smiled. The dark didn’t scare her, and she’d already checked for spiders lurking in the corners.
They’d found Great Grandma Charlotte’s journals, full of her discontent and unhappiness, which referenced locking her own children in the cellar for misbehaving. But the cellar pre-dated her. Brandon thought it might be part of the original house, built in the 1870s by their ancestors who had settled this land.
Georgie stood and moved over to the shelves again. She and Tess had taken every single bottle from the shelf to check for hidden boxes, or more journals, and had found nothing. Each stone in the wall had been carefully laid, each one finding the perfect place next to the others.
They would have carted the stone from the nearby ridge, or the dry riverbed, working in the searing sun. Her fingers brushed the stones, the cool hard surface centring her.
A stone under her fingers wobbled.
She frowned and examined it closer. It was a larger stone, long and thin. She traced around it with her fingers and it wobbled more. Curiosity mixed with excitement as she pried her fingers behind it. Not very thick. It couldn’t be part of the actual wall holding it up. She lifted the rock away and gasped.
Hidden behind it was a small metal box, less than a ruler’s length long.
Georgie glanced at the ceiling. No point waiting for the others to get home. They could be ages. Besides, like the chest they’d found down here, it might contain nothing of value and she didn’t want to get their hopes up.
The guilt prickled her skin as she tugged on the metal box. No, her family hadn’t waited for her to explore the cellar, so she didn’t have to wait for them now.
She scraped at the dirt surrounding it, wincing as it stuck under her fingernails. Looking around, she found an old screwdriver and stabbed at the sand, loosening it enough so she could drag the box out. It was an old biscuit tin, a little bigger than an A5 ream of paper.
Georgie carried it to the table and used the screwdriver to lever the lid open. She paused before opening it. Something closed this tightly wouldn’t have spiders inside. Still, she stood to the side, reaching over to flick the lid away. Inside was something wrapped in oiled cloth.
Heart pounding, she wiped her hands on her pants, lifted out the parcel and slowly unwrapped it.
Two books—one was brown leather-bound and the other a red hardback. Both had yellowed pages, and the red book had signs of water damage. Its cover creaked in protest as it revealed the first page.
This journal belongs to Lilian Stokes.
Georgie’s mouth dropped open as she wiped the dirt from her fingers onto her shorts and then brushed the small, neat handwriting. Her ancestor, the one who had settled the land with her husband, Reginald back in the 1870s. Georgie had always fantasised about what her great-great-great-grandmother’s life had been like and now she’d find out. But why had it been hidden away?
She opened the first warped, brittle page to discover neat and flowing handwriting.
26 September 1870
It is done. One short ceremony at the registration office and my identity has been erased. I am now Mrs Reginald William Stokes. Mother is of course thrilled I am no longer a spinster, and Father is pleased I am no longer a financial burden.
Perhaps I should not be so dour. Reginald may become the great love of my life like I read about in novels.
I should not blame him for his lack of interest in me during the lead up to the ceremony. I imagine a lot of planning is required when moving across the other side of the world. We will have plenty of time to get to know one another during the three-month voyage to Western Australia. For yes, that is my destination. Not only did I have no say in who I was to marry, but I am also to be sent to the new colony in the antipodes. My heart is torn. The thought of leaving everyone and everything I know behind grieves me, but I will not deny the glimmer of excitement at the adventure my husband and I are about to undertake.
Upstairs, the floorboards creaked. Someone was in the kitchen. Georgie tensed, glancing up. Perhaps she should have locked the kitchen door behind her.
“Georgie! You here?”
Ed. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Down here,” she yelled. She opened the other book, another journal, but this one dated a hundred years earlier than Lilian’s journal. She didn’t recognise the Dutch name on the title page.
Ed trotted down the steps, wearing hiking boots with shorts and an astronomy T-shirt, his light brown hair mussed like he’d been swimming. “What have you got there?”
“Lilian’s journal.”
Ed did a double-take. “What?”
She grinned. “Found it in the wall.” Georgie pointed at the hole she’d left behind.
“Let me see.” Reverently, he took the journal from her and read. “This is amazing. Tess will flip.” Without another word, he ran up the steps with the journal in his hand.
Georgie’s heart squeezed. Only a few weeks ago, they would have pored over the journal together. Now he had someone better to share it with. Ed hadn’t even asked her permission to take it.
She rubbed her eyes. Stupid to be upset. She was happy Ed had found someone to love. If only it didn’t make her feel so alone.
She spread out the cloth to make sure she hadn’t missed anything, and then double-checked the tin. Upstairs, she heard Ed’s and Tess’s excited voices.
No use moping down here. She gathered up the brown journal with the tin and cloth and carried them upstairs.
***
Matt Roe placed the last of his fencing tools in the back of the ute and lifted his Akubra to wipe the sweat from his brow. The sting from the sun was harsh this afternoon. He grabbed a bottle of water from his esky and radioed Darcy. “All done here.”
“See you back at the house.”
Matt hesitated, taking a swig of water. “I might visit my folks first.”
“Roger that. Say hi to them for me.”
Matt cradled the radio and stared off to the red ranges of the Cape Range National Park in the distance. He’d promised Darcy he wouldn’t go off alone to explore the tracks they’d found, but what he hadn’t told his best friend was some of those tracks led toward places that were sacred to his people, the Bayungu.
Though he knew the words to appease his ancestors and to allow Darcy to come with him, the discomfort still sat on his shoulders. Darcy wouldn’t judge him for following his traditions, but Matt always felt weird discussing anything spiritual. He’d heard the dismissive tones of people discussing indigenous ‘superstitions’ before, and he hated the judgement, hated being torn between the two worlds.
Easier to avoid the topic and go by himself.
He climbed into the old ute, twisting the key a half turn back before turning it the correct way to start the car. After double-pumping the clutch, he put the ute into gear, and slowly headed towards the ranges. He could ask his father to come along, but the tracks had been made by someone at Stonefish, and he didn’t want to put his father in danger.
As Senior Constable at the Retribution Bay police station, his sister, Nhiari would be pissed off at him for going alone. Though in his defence, she hadn’t explicitly told him he couldn’t explore the tracks when Matt had first told her about them. Back then, he and Darcy had found nothing out of the ordinary, but Matt wanted to take a closer look to ensure Stonefish wasn’t desecrating sacred land.
The ute bumped over the rough red dirt. Matt kept his speed low and an eye on the temperature because the old beast had to be babied. They didn’t have the funds to buy a new one and though Brandon had brought a new ute when he’d returned to the Ridge, Matt was the only one who could get this old thing to run reliably.
The sun low in the sky made it hard to see more than a few metres ahead and he slapped down the sun visor, squinting against the glare.
He was wasting his time. There wouldn’t be anything out here. He could be at the homestead having a cold beer rather than roasting in the ute.
Matt flicked on the air-conditioning and the engine groaned. Damn it. He switched it off and wound down the window instead. The warm breeze helped a little.
It took almost an hour to reach the ranges, and he slowed, scanning the ground for the tyre tracks. There.
He followed them and reached the base of the ranges where he turned off the engine and sat for a moment, listening.
A few bird calls, and in the distance the hush of the ocean, but it was mostly silent. The slam of the car door echoed as he got out.
He greeted his ancestors and moved towards the caves in the rock face. To his left he heard a faint thump like something hitting plastic. Not normal.
Frowning, he moved into the bush, walking carefully, scanning the area for more footprints. Only a few metres in, he discovered a plastic container buried in the ground, about the diameter of an old dustbin lid and a foot deep. Inside was a thorny devil lizard trying to clamber up the smooth sides.
Had to be a smuggler’s trap.
Matt scowled. So that’s what the bastards were doing out this way. Always stealing from the land. He lifted the trapped thorny devil from the hole and placed it on the hard dirt. The animal lumbered off into the bush as Matt checked his phone for reception. Nothing. He’d have to wait before he called the police. This was men’s land, and Nhiari wouldn’t be pleased when he insisted they send Constable Colin Lipscombe to investigate.
Matt explored the surrounding area and found another four traps, so took photos of each one. He wasn’t on Ridge land anymore, so there was no need to involve Darcy. This was Bayungu land.
He drove to his parents’ place, a collection of house and buildings not too far away. His mother came to the door before he’d got out.
“Matt! What are you doing here?”
“I was in the area, Bibi.” He hugged his mother and followed her inside. His father sat at the kitchen table peeling potatoes. “Hi, Babu.”
“Good to see you.”
Matt took the glass of cold water his mother handed him and took a long sip. “Do either of you know about the animal traps over by the ranges?”
They both looked up at him, surprised. “No. Where?” his father asked.
“Near the men’s caves. I found a nganaraji in one.”
“You should call Nhiari,” Bibi said.
“Get Colin to check it out,” Babu added.
Matt nodded. “Can I borrow the phone?” His mother handed him the landline, and Nhiari answered on the first ring. “Hey, gunyjan.”
Nhiari sighed. “Little brother, what’s happened now?”
He chuckled. “Can’t a brother call his sister for a chat?”
“Not at work, and usually not at all.”
Fair enough. “I found some smugglers’ traps out by the range near the men’s caves.”
“What were you doing out there?”
“Men’s business,” he lied. “I can show Colin tomorrow.”
“You telling me I can’t do my job?”
“It’s a sacred men’s area.” Nhiari would know if she’d paid more attention to her heritage, but Matt understood why she didn’t.
Her sigh was long and suffering. “You think anyone would know if I went?”
“I’m calling from Mum and Dad’s.”
She swore. “Fine. I’ll call you in the morning to arrange a time. Give Mum and Dad my love.” She hung up.
Matt handed the phone back to his mother. “I’ll take Colin out tomorrow,” he said. “Probably best to stay clear until the police can catch them.”
“It’s our land,” his father said.
“And they likely have guns,” Matt pointed out.
His mother patted her husband’s hand, and asked Matt, “Will you stay for dinner?”
He hesitated. The Ridge homestead would be full of couples now Tess and Ed had hooked up. Over the past couple of months he’d felt more and more like a third wheel. A night’s reprieve from that would be welcome. “Yeah, that would be great. What can I do to help?”
His father passed over the remaining potatoes with a grin. “Peel.”

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