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Kiwi Strong Sneak Preview

Kiwi Strong Sneak Preview

Book 3: New Zealand Ever After

Pre-order now – coming June 19!

1

When Life Curves

Daisy

They say that the person you are is all about the person you’ve been. In my case, they’re probably right, because when my life shifted in an instant from “Going to Mount Zion to rescue my sisters” to “I’m in a submerged car,” I didn’t die.

If I’d still been in the cult, I might have thought it was God’s will and drowned. Or, of course, I might just have panicked and then drowned. But then, if I’d still been in the cult, I wouldn’t have been driving a car at all. Also, I was too stubborn to give up that easily. That was why I wasn’t still in the cult.

Obedient submission is a thing at Mount Zion. For women, that is. It isn’t a thing I have, fortunately.

There was the man, too. I could have sat back and waited for him to rescue me, I guess. Maybe he would have. You’re better off rescuing yourself, though, in my experience.

I was just south of Cromwell at the time. After midnight on an April Wednesday, to be exact, after a full nursing shift in the Emergency Department. You could think it happened because I was tired, but I wasn’t, not really. I was used to hard work. I’d been working hard since I was six years old.

The autumn fog had started some kilometers back, drifting over the low ground beside the Clutha River like a fluffy throw. Now, it was more like a smothering wool blanket, and I’d slowed to a crawl, my fingers tight on the steering wheel, my headlights showing me the white stripe to my left that was the only thing keeping me on the road.

Where was a handy truck when you needed one? Somebody whose reassuring taillights you could follow?

I’d been keyed up already. Now, I had to remind myself to breathe, to shift myself into the emergency-nurse head space. I wasn’t a frightened girl anymore. I was a competent, independent woman with my own money and my own job and my own car. I was that worst of all things, in fact—a woman in trousers. The Whore of Babylon.

Born to be bad. It was a cheering thought. I turned up the music and sang along. A strong woman belting out a song that sounded like empowerment. No, two strong women, because we were both singing.

I’d made this drive, through central Otago, from coastal Dunedin to the Southern Alps, a bare handful of times since I’d left Mount Zion twelve years ago with my twin brother. Sixteen years old, under cover of darkness, with five dollars in the pocket of my ugly brown dress. I’d thought I’d surely come back soon, because I couldn’t fathom what life would be like on the other side where the Devil reigned, and I’d also thought I’d never come back.

Neither thing had turned out to be true, which made me wonder: how much of life do we spend pre-living things that never happen instead of living what’s in front of us?

Not a minute more than I could help, that was how much. Not anymore.

I was thinking that, dimly aware of the headlights coming up behind me but with every other bit of my attention glued to that white line, when my lights picked up a too-large darting shape bursting out of the night and leaping across the road. My entire body jerked, my hands jerked the steering wheel, and my foot slammed the brake pedal to the floor as whatever it was passed practically under my tires.

No impact, though. I’d missed it.

I started to sigh with relief. The sigh caught in my throat.

When your car’s hit from behind, you don’t always register yourself going forward. You feel yourself going backward afterwards. That was what I felt. My head and back slammed against the seat, and the car spun around to the left.

He hadn’t hit me straight on. He’d tried to go right, maybe. To go around me, but I’d swerved the same way myself. I knew that, because it was my job and my nature to notice things and break them down. That was how you figured out your next step.  

The car spun even as I tried to turn the wheel, and I felt the juddering, spongy movement under my right foot that was the antilock brakes engaging. Time passed, tick by tick, in dreamy nanoseconds as I spun like I was on a carousel, my headlights sweeping across a wall of thick gray. I felt the impact when the car’s wheels left the smooth tarmac and bumped over the grass, though. And I felt the change when the car began to slide backwards as if the wheels were greased.

Wet grass. Downhill. No traction.

My foot was still on the brake. Over the speakers, the song had reached a climax, and the singer was belting it out, the noise filling my head. And I was sliding. Sliding. Leveling out, and … bouncing. Against something that gave under me.

It was water.

I was in the river.

The headlights went out, and then the radio did. Silence, but not, because I could hear the water around me. Not like rain. Nothing like rain. The darkness surrounded me, and my feet were so cold. 

They were cold because they were wet, and then my ankles were.

I was trapped in my car, and it was sinking.

* * *

Gray

I drove through the fog and thought about nothing but the road ahead. I didn’t need to think about the meeting. I already knew what I needed to say to the former teammates who were now my chief investors. I already knew how I’d be, too. Direct. Open. Clear-eyed.

Being a builder isn’t much like rugby, you could think, except that it’s exactly like rugby. You make a plan, and then you go out there, keep your head, and play what’s in front of you, because rugby games, like life, never go according to plan.

Playing rugby and winning at rugby aren’t the same thing. The difference lies in how well you adapt. When life curves, you swerve. When the tackler comes at you, you sidestep, keep your legs moving, and find a new route. Well, if you’re a midfielder, you do. If you’re a forward, you do your best to run the other fella over instead. That way doesn’t work as well in business. That was why the fellas with the low numbers on their jerseys were the silent partners, and I was the nimble midfielder making it happen.

I knew how to do this. I’d been as good at that deceptively quick, silky sidestep as anybody in the game, and better than most, and I was still good at it. I also knew this road like the back of my hand, fog or no fog, because I was an Otago boy born and bred. I still wasn’t taking anything for granted. I was paying attention, because this visibility was no joke.

The only problem was the headache.

It started the way it usually did, with shimmering bands of light at the edge of my vision, and a blind spot like a starburst in my left eye. I had some tablets in the glove box, though, and as soon as I got through the worst of this fog, I’d pull off the road and take one. The pain hadn’t come yet, but it was there, lurking just beyond the black curtain, and so was the vertigo.

From working too many hours today, even though I knew better. When you’ve had as many concussions as I had, you do tend to know better. Also from too much screen time and not enough to eat. All of that was fixable, though. I’d take a tablet, drive another hour, and go to bed. The meeting wasn’t until nine. I was used to pain, and I had time to get over this. Just another sidestep. Just another swerve.

That was why, though, when I the red brake lights came on in the gloom, I wasn’t as fast as usual. It was the lights that weren’t actually there, the ones shimmering around the edges, that distracted me­ into not recognizing what I was seeing.

I did react, though. I was jerking the wheel hard to the right, preparing to swing around the other car, because my brain had already calculated that I couldn’t stop in time.

The problem was, the other car went the same way. The heavy ute caught it solidly on the right rear bumper even as my foot tried to press the brake pedal straight through the floor, and the car started to spin. I was moving to the left on the sight, getting out of the way. Getting ready to help as soon as the other car stopped.

It didn’t stop, though. It turned a complete circle, turned some more, and slid backward straight off the road, the lights flashing from white to red to bright white again as it spun, making me throw a hand up in front of my eyes.

It was going too fast. Unstoppable.

Straight into the river.

The two round lights winked out, and it disappeared into darkness.

 

 

2

The Body Goes

Daisy

By the time I realized I should have hit the button to open the window on my way down the bank, the time for wishing was over. The water was already past my ankles, and rising fast.

Breathe. Think. Act.

I reached behind me, found the headrest release button with my thumb, and pulled the whole thing up and out. My only hope.

The water was to my knees.

I couldn’t get out through the windshield. That could be true for the front windows as well, and I didn’t have time to find out. Although once I unfastened my seatbelt, I was hurting my chances in another way.

No help for it. Rear window.

The car was small. Fortunately, so was I. I shoved and kicked my way between the front seats into the back as the car rocked under me, knelt on the rear seat, flipped the headrest so I was holding the fabric part with two hands, reared back, and bashed at the rear window.

Nothing.

I was kneeling in water now. That was good, though. The car needed to fill for this to work.

I could do it. I was going to do it. I forced myself to wait until the water reached my chest, then hauled back and hit the window again, harder this time.

A crack. I thought. No, definitely a crack, because water was trickling in through it. Good. Brilliant.

The water was to my throat. Soaking me. Freezing me. Trying to drown me. I hauled back again and sent the thought out. I’m coming to get you, Fruitful and Obedience. I’m coming tonight. Don’t worry. I’m coming. I focused all my energy on this moment, hauled in the deepest breath I had just before the water reached my nose, and slammed the metal rods against the window like it was my last act on earth. Like it was my victory.

The glass pebbled into a thousand pieces, and I grabbed the edge of the window frame to keep from being washed back into the car as the water rushed in the rest of the way, then shoved myself up and out, turning, tucking, rolling until there was nothing holding me in.

The cold punched into me like an avalanche, shocking me, numbing me. I didn’t fight it, or the current, either. I was still holding my breath. My lungs were balloons, and balloons rose.

I rose.

When my head broke the surface, I gasped, hauled in a breath, coughed, shoved the hair from my face, and looked around.

Nothing but darkness. Black water. Gray fog.

The highway was somewhere, though. I needed to find it, because when I got out, I was going to need help to survive. I turned, my limbs made clumsy by cold and shock, and saw it. A barely-there brightness in the gloom, or a lessening of the dark. That would be headlights.

I swam to the light. No need to fight the current. I swam with it, angling my way toward the shore.  I was slow, and I was struggling, but I swam anyway. I’d been slow before, and I’d struggled before, and I finished every time anyway. In first place or in last, what matters is finishing, and I was going to finish this. Finishing is all about pride, and all about will. Even if you do it on your hands and knees.

When you do triathlons, your life is about struggling. When you’re me, period, your life is about struggling.

The body goes where the mind takes it. My mantra. I said it to myself, and I swam.

My canvas trainers felt like lead weights, and the cold was a painful thing, like burning in a fire. I put my sisters’ little-girl faces, the only faces I knew, out there beyond the light, and forced my arms and legs to move.

I wasn’t dying like this. Not tonight.

Swim.

Something grabbed me. It had my shirt. Pulling me.

I was caught. I was caught.

No panic.

No panic.

* * *

Gray

I was out of the ute the instant it came to a stop, grabbing the heavy torch from its mount, laying it on the seat, and yanking at my bootlaces.

You can’t go in there, my rational brain, my rugby brain, tried to tell me. You don’t even know where they are. You’ll die for nothing.

I saw them go in, and I’ll find them, my other brain, the one that answered to something higher than rugby, answered. I’ll find them, or I’ll die trying.

Oh, God. There could be kids in there.

I was going in.

I got the boots off, grabbed the torch, left the door of the ute open for extra light, and ran. Only a few steps to the bank, and I was sweeping the light over the dark, rippling water the entire way, looking for bubbles. Looking for anything.

The river was slow here, and I’d seen the car go in close to the bank. Right about … here. I’d fixed the image in my brain, and my brain knew how to read the space, even with a migraine. Spatial awareness had been my life forever.

I was going to find them, and I was going to get them out.

There were no bubbles.

It had been minutes since they’d gone in. Even if they were holding their breath … most people couldn’t hold it that long.

I knew I wouldn’t be in time. I was doing it anyway. I’d taken the first few steps when I thought I saw something. Heard something. A shape, maybe. Something different, downstream.

Downstream, where they’d be. If they’d got out. How could they have got out?

There it was again, though. Something, in the fog. A flash, or maybe that was the migraine.

I yelled. “Oi! Here!” A sweep of the torch, and I saw it again. I couldn’t tell what it was.

I was running along the bank when I picked it out, far ahead of me, barely visible in the light. Two heads. An arm, moving. A mother, pulling a kid with her? I was into the water, wading fast, feeling the cold and forgetting it, shouting all the while. “Hold on! I’m coming! Hold on!”

The heads turned toward me as my light found them. It shone straight at them for an instant before I jerked it upward so as not to blind them. Three or four more mighty, heaving steps through water to my waist, and I had them.

One of them, anyway. The other one was a dog.

A big retriever of some kind, the human’s billowing shirt in its mouth, swimming for its life. And hers, because the person was a girl. I’d seen that in the flash of light. White face, streaming dark seaweed of hair around it. I grabbed her under the arms, told the dog, “I’ve got her. Let’s go,” and started pulling her to shore. The dog resisted a moment, then let go and swam beside us until its paws touched the muddy bottom, when it struggled up and dropped to the ground, panting hard.

I barely noticed. I had the girl, who was small and light enough that she must be a teenager. A teenager, and she’d got herself and the dog out of a submerged car? How? The thought flashed and was gone as she stumbled onto dry land beside me, all of her shaking, all of her freezing.

It would be shock, now. Hypothermia.

“Anybody else in there?” I asked, then asked it again. Urgently. She shook her head, but couldn’t get the words out. I said, “Come on,” took her hand, and headed up to the highway. When she stumbled again, I picked her up in my arms and ran toward the truck, its headlights still on, the open driver’s door spilling light onto the ground. There were two other cars there, their hazard lights flashing, and a couple men running toward me, shouting questions.

“Her car went in,” I said. “Nobody else out there.” My teeth were chattering so hard, I could barely speak.

“Bloody hell, mate,” one of the fellas said. “You were lucky.”

I wasn’t listening. I was setting the girl down on the driver’s seat, reaching into the back for the grotty old blanket I carried, then yanking her shirt up and over her head.

“Got another blanket?” I asked the fellas. “Shirt? Towel? Anything?”

“I do,” one of them said. “Dog blanket. But here.” He pulled off his jacket. “Have this.”

I was unsnapping the girl’s bra. She was slim and small-boned, but she had some muscle to her, which explained that swim. She was also shaking all the way now, but she still made a protesting noise as I pulled the bra off. She tried to grab for it, in fact. I told her, “I’ve got to get you dry. Hold this around you,” and wrapped the jacket around her, not bothering with the sleeves, then pulled off her shoes, her socks, and started wrestling with her jeans.

She said, through shudders of cold, “I wore the … tight ones. Act of … rebellion.”

“Yeh,” I said through gritted teeth. “I noticed.” She lay back on the seat and between the two of us, we worked the wet denim down her slim legs. It was a major effort. Warmed us up, maybe, because she was still shaking, but she was also laughing.

“Oh, bugger,” she said. “Trousers are the … devil’s work. I’m the … Whore of Babylon … after all. Already burned in the … fire. Oh, bloody hell, that was cold.”

The two blokes may have been staring at each other. It was hysteria, maybe, except that this girl seemed like about the least hysterical person I’d ever met. Possibly including the rugby players. I got the jeans off at last, put the blanket over her, and said, “Take off the undies, too.”

“Does that … work?” she asked, working away under the blanket with as little fuss as she’d shown about the rest of it. “With the … girls?”

It took me a second. Then I laughed. “Well, usually I’m a bit smoother in how I say it.”

“You’re cold … too,” she said. “Hypo … hypothermia.”

“Yeh. No worries.” I took the other blanket—it did smell like dog—and was about to wrap it around my waist before getting my jeans off when I remembered, turned, and looked. There was the dog, lying down a few meters behind us, panting, looking like it couldn’t crawl any farther. The girl hadn’t even asked about it. Had totally ignored it, in fact. That was odd, but people did odd things under stress.

I jogged over there, feeling the stones under my stockinged feet for the first time, crouched down beside the animal, and began to rub it down with the blanket.

It was a Labrador. Black, and thin. More than thin—skinny, the ribs right there to feel. Exhausted, too, its muzzle on its paws, its eyes closed. And shaking with cold.

“Hey, fella,” I said softly, rubbing a little harder, trying to warm it up. “How ya goin? All right there? Brave, weren’t you, swimming like that, pulling her?”

“It’s yours, then.” The voice came from behind me. The girl.

“What?” I turned my head. “You should be in the ute. Keys are in the ignition. Start it. Warm it up.”

“In a … minute.” She got down beside me, looking smaller than ever in an oversized jacket and a blanket as a skirt, and put her hand on the dog’s broad head. “I thought I was … hung up somehow. In the river. It was the dog, grabbing my shirt. I couldn’t think … where it came from.”

She was still so cold. Why was she out here? “It’s not mine,” I said. “I thought it was yours. It’s skinny. No collar. Stray, I reckon. Go get warm.” I’d all but pushed her into the river. The thought of what could have happened—what should have happened—was trying to make me shake. I needed to get her safe. I needed to get both of us warm.

“No,” she said. “It’s been … dumped. It’s old. People can be so … horrible. I’m taking it.” She was paying no attention to my perfectly logical, twice-made suggestion, either. I was the rescuer, or I’d tried to be, and you were meant to listen to your rescuer, right? And if I was cold, she had to be so much colder.

“Fair enough,” I said. “Though it’s dark, and so’s the dog. Not sure how you can tell.”

“Come on,” she said, standing up. “Bring it. I’m freezing. I can’t … think. I need to get warm and think. Make a plan. And something’s wrong with you. You’re moving … oddly. Something hurts.”

I’d just said that she needed to get in the ute and warm up. Twice. And she hadn’t even mentioned her car. That car was buggered, if they could even find it. Down the river by now, maybe. I’d swear she’d already written it off in her mind and moved on.

It had been tragedy and death, and then it hadn’t. The adrenaline rush had me jittery and a bit sick, or maybe that was the migraine, which was pounding out of my eye like somebody was hammering there. She had to be feeling that sick rush too. Why wasn’t she showing it?

Were all half-drowned, three-quarters-frozen teenage girls this cool and decisive?

And how had she got out of that car?

Coming June 19, 2020
Pre-order now!

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