Phillipa Nefri Clark lives in country Victoria with her husband, two sons, and a gorgeous black Labrador. Working a dual role in marketing and retail in the family’s pet supplies business, Phillipa uses her skills to write engaging copy whilst loving every minute spent with customers and their owners.
Her published work includes many non-fiction expert pieces about dogs, three international specialist dog yearbooks, newspaper articles, science fiction fanzine stories, and a series of short film scripts used by a NZ Film school.
When not working or writing, Phillipa loves reading everything from romance to thrillers and speculative fiction, enjoys growing vegetables and roses, and being with her much loved family.
The inspiration for The Stationmaster’s Cottage came from the real life cottage nearby, a childhood spent in coastal towns, and the poignant reunion with her sister after a lifetime apart. It was registered initially as a screenplay in 2005 with WGA and conceived in 2002. Phillipa is a member of Romance Writers of Australia.
Slinging her handbag over a shoulder, she collected her wet clothes and damp shoes. The house was deserted, so she wandered outside to a dramatic sunset of gold and red.
Martin stood at the railing staring out over the sea, wearing dry jeans and a dark blue T-shirt. Randall ate dinner from a stainless steel bowl, briefly lifting his head as Christie stepped out. She paused to take in the view and Martin turned around.
Christie appeared fragile, smaller in the oversized T-shirt. Still-damp hair curled around her face. The colours from the sunset created an ethereal aura that turned her into something out of an artist’s imagination. She was breathtakingly natural and beautiful and was unaware of it. Martin could not take his eyes off her.
“Funny how things work out.” she said.
“I’m supposed to be on Lizard Island enjoying sunsets, the ocean and cocktails.”
“Would you settle for a sunset, the ocean and a local chardonnay?” Martin picked up two glasses of white wine from the small table near the deckchairs and held one out to Christie.
Surprised, she hesitated. Was this a truce of kinds? Should she even be here, with a man who was little more than a stranger? Martin watched the brief battle in her eyes, curious about what she was thinking.
“Thanks.” Something deep inside her wanted this to continue so she proposed a toast. “To sunsets, the ocean, and chardonnay.”
“To things working out the way they’re meant to.” Martin counter-proposed and they touched their glasses together with a clink.
Christie put her clothes, shoes and handbag on one of the deckchairs and joined Martin at the railing. She sipped on the wine, relaxing for the first time in oh so long. The sun dropped below the horizon, leaving a trail of fading pink and a soft golden glow across the sea. A light breeze carried the salty tang of the ocean, complementing the heady scent of jasmine along the railing.
“If ever I become a candle maker, I shall create one that smells like this evening and call it Jasmine Sea.” Christie announced.
Amused, Martin turned his head to her. “Do you aspire to being a candle maker?”
“I wasn’t. But it’s always worth having a backup plan.”
Randall ran off the deck to chase a rabbit.
“Does he ever catch them?”
“Never. He wouldn’t know what to do with one. He’d make friends with it and bring it back to the house as his pet.”
“He’s a sensational dog.”
As the sky darkened, the pale moon Christie had seen from the lookout became brighter, full and white as it rose almost from where the sun set. Along the coast to the west, a storm front approached.
“Will your clothes be okay?” Martin said. “They’re expensive.”
“They’ll be fine. Are you apologising?” she teased.
“Not at all. I’ve told you before–.”
“Yes, yes, it weakens your position. Thing is, sometimes it takes strength to say you’re sorry. When it matters.”
Martin contemplated Christie over the rim of his glass. This sophisticated, restrained woman was showing more spirit every time they met. The aloofness she outwardly portrayed was gone with her fancy clothes.
Christie thought under the moonlight Martin was less intimidating… no that was not the word. Less stern and cold. His eyes were like deep and mysterious black pools and the longer he gazed at her, the more they drew Christie in. Who was this man and what did he want? Apart from her painting.
Christie turned her back on the view and leaned against the railing, not sure what to do or say. Her head told her to use this opportunity to get Martin’s trust so he would help her solve at least some of the puzzles of the cottage. Her instincts told her to run as fast as she could. In between those extremes, she struggled with a need for him to understand she had no ulterior motives and no desire to harm this little town. She swallowed the rest of her wine.
Martin watched her the whole time. Her face changed with her thoughts but the expression of panic that appeared was unexpected. He wandered over to the table and, without comment, brought the wine bottle back, refilling their glasses.
Randall trotted back onto the deck and sat at Christie’s feet, making her laugh as he leaned against her asking for a chin scratch.
“He likes you.” Martin said.
“I like him too. Never was allowed to have a dog and these days, well, I’m away too much,” she leaned down to whisper to Randall, “so will you let me share you a little?”
Randall wagged his tail before dropping onto the deck with a soft grunt.
Christie straightened and glanced at Martin, who gazed into his wine glass.
“I’d never let a developer get their hands on the cottage.”
“Not even your own fiancé?”
“Derek will support whatever I decide to do with it.”
“I’d like to keep it. Do it up and spend at least part of my home time here.”
“Live here? You’re a city girl through and through.”
“I’m not. I live in Melbourne because of the airport. And Gran raised me there. It’s not where my life started.” Christie’s eyes dropped to her bare feet, her toes curling at the memory of how hot the red soil of her childhood home had been.
“River’s End has no luxuries. No beauty parlours or top end restaurants. Nothing for a woman who lives the high life.”
“You do like to assume things, don’t you?” Christie shook her head. “I happen to have a job which requires a certain level of presentation. I can’t expect clients to engage me if I don’t appear professional.”
“Are there new clients here?”
“Of course not. I generally work between Hollywood and London.”
His tone said otherwise and Christie began to get frustrated.
“What do you mean?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s your choice how you present yourself.”
The air filled with tension.
Martin half smiled. “First jeans, then the T-shirt. Much better.”
Christie blushed. She never blushed, but this man who set so many alarms bells ringing in her head from their first encounter, was under her skin tonight. That and the wine.
“Um, thanks. Um, I like the wine. It’s the same one I had the first night I stayed at the cottage. I’m going to take some home with me.”
“When what? When am I going home?”
“Derek flies back on Monday.”
“From Lizard Island?”
“Yes. I’ll get home just before him.”
“He went without you?”
A chill shot through Christie, evaporating the warmth of the night. Real life was just around the corner. Her eyes filled with tears.
“You came to your grandmother’s funeral and he went on holiday. You’ve had to deal with it all on your own?” Martin spoke with such gentleness that it was all Christie could do not to shed those tears in front of him.
She raised her chin and forced her emotions down, just as she always did. “I’m okay with it.”
Martin took her left hand, as he had done at the lookout. Holding her fingers, he studied the engagement ring. “You shouldn’t be okay with it.”
His touch was electric. Christie knew she had to leave. She started to pull her hand away but Martin tightened his hold a bit. Her back was against the railing. He moved closer and Christie caught her breath. She had nowhere to go and nowhere else she wanted to be. Her hand was on fire and it was radiating through her. She had to stop this.
“He never knew Gran. He wanted this holiday so much. What would you have done?”
“It’s irrelevant he didn’t know your grandmother. He knows you.” Martin let the words sit between them, released her fingers and turned back to the ocean. “It doesn’t matter what I’d have done.”
Christie rested her now empty wine glass on the railing.
Martin glanced at it. “I’m happy to refill that, but you’re not driving home tonight.”
“I’m fine to drive and I don’t want any more wine, thanks.”
“You need something to eat. I’ll make something.”
Martin stared intently at Christie, who somehow regained control of her emotions, forcing them below an icy weight in her stomach. Five minutes earlier she would have agreed to eat with him but now he had reminded her Derek let her down the one time she needed him. Staying here would only confuse her further.
“It’s fine. I’m going to go now.” Christie picked up her clothes and handbag and slipped on her shoes. She dug around in her handbag for her keys without success.
“I’ve still got them. You can stay in the guest room or you can walk, but you’re not driving home.” Martin crossed his arms and watched the anger flash into Christie’s eyes. “Don’t bother arguing, Christie. Now, which is it?”
“You’re not serious. In your world, do you drink two full glasses of wine on an empty stomach and drive?”
“No. Of course I would never do that! Okay, I get your point. But I’d like my keys back thanks and I’ll pick the car up in the morning.”
“Nope. You can drop the T-shirt back to me and swap it for the keys. End of discussion. Here, give me your phone for a moment. I’ll put my phone number into it.”
“Why?” Christie fished the phone out of her bag and handed it to him.
He tapped away at it. “Text me when you get home please. I want to be sure you’re safe.”
He handed her back the phone. The wine was going to her head, or the salt air and hunger. Or all three. Christie did not know if she wanted to answer to him. She was a grown woman who travelled the world and was quite able to walk a couple of kilometres home.
“Or,” he continued, “you decide to do the smart thing and stay in the guest room, which has a lock by the way. There’s a storm coming… you should stay.”
“I am so angry right now!”
“Then have another glass of wine and a meal with me. You can be angry but you’ll be safe. I promise you, staying here tonight is a safe option.”
Christie doubted that. There was nothing safe about this man, although she was unafraid of him. Just of her emotions.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t do that to Derek.”
“Do what, Christie? This night isn’t real to you, is it? You’re meant to be on a tropical island sipping cocktails with your fiancé. I think you’re with the wrong man.”
“You’re right about that!” Irrational feelings of rejection and disappointment powered through Christie. Without a backward glance, she ran down the steps and into the night.
“I didn’t mean me.” Martin said to the sky. Whistling to Randall, he followed the path Christie had taken, the dog on his heels.