He looked up, a scowl on his face. It morphed into surprise as he caught sight of her. ‘Natalie! What are you doing here?’
‘Rhys and I are on our way to Loch Draemar to visit Tarquin and Wren. You remember Tark, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, of course I do. He’s that Scottish bloke with the castle and shedloads of money, isn’t he?’
She nodded. ‘He’s invited us to stay for the Christmas holidays. I’m really looking forward to it.’ She glanced over at Gemma, still texting and oblivious to anything around her, and back at Dominic. ‘Why were you shouting just now? What’s wrong?’
‘What’s wrong?’ he echoed. His face darkened. ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong! This poxy hire car agency doesn’t have a car reserved for Gemma and me. And now there’s not so much as a clown car available for hire, thanks to Max’s screw-up and this bloody blizzard!’
Natalie cast an apologetic glance at the hire agent and drew Dominic aside. ‘We’ll just be a moment.’
Gemma, alerted by Dominic’s raised voice, looked up from her texting long enough to see her fiancé having a cosy tête-à-tête with Natalie, his ex-girlfriend.
Her eyes narrowed. ‘Natalie,’ she said as she put away her mobile and strode over, ‘what are you doing here? I didn’t expect to see you in Scotland.’
‘Obviously not,’ Nat said, and sniffed.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘How could you possibly know what I’m doing, when you haven’t spoken to me in months?’
Gemma had the grace to look uncomfortable. ‘I’ve been busy,’ she said defensively. ‘There’s lots going on.’
‘So much going on that you couldn’t even tell me you’re about to get married?’ Natalie hissed.
‘Shh! It’s a secret!’ Gemma hissed back.
They glared at each other.
‘All right, you two,’ Dominic interrupted, ‘do you mind having your hen fest or catfight or whatever the fuck it is some other time? I still have no idea ‒’ he scowled at the man behind the counter ‘ ‒ how we’re getting from here to Northton Grange with No. Bloody. Car.’
Gemma sighed. ‘You’re right, Dom.’ She met Natalie’s eyes. ‘Sorry, Nat, it’s been crazy, it really has. But that’s no excuse to ignore one of your best mates.’
‘It’s okay,’ Nat said. ‘The most important thing right now,’ she added briskly, ‘is to find you both a ride. I’ve an idea ‒ why don’t you come along with us? Rhys is just getting our hire car now. We can take you as far as Loch Draemar, at any rate.’
‘Ooh, would you?’ Gemma said, her expression hopeful. ‘You’d really save our bacon. I don’t fancy sleeping in the airport. Thanks, Nat.’
‘No problem. Wait here, I’ll just go and let Rhys know there’s been a change of plan.’
‘You want to do what?’ Rhys hissed after Natalie explained the situation. He cast Dominic, glowering at him from in front of the hire counter, a black look. ‘I don’t want to share our car with that bolshie little shit.’
‘It’s only until we get to Draemar,’ she pointed out reasonably, and added, ‘We can’t very well leave them stranded here at the airport, can we?’
‘Is that a rhetorical question?’ Rhys gritted.
He sighed. ‘Bloody hell! All right, tell them to get their things and come along. I want to get on the A96 as soon as possible, or we’ll never make it to Tarquin’s castle by nightfall.’
The snow came swirling down in thick flakes as the unlikely foursome made their way across the car park to the waiting hire car.
Dominic loaded their luggage into the boot next to Nat and Rhys’s, then climbed into the back seat of the Ford Mondeo alongside Gemma and slammed the door, grumbling under his breath.
‘Have you something to say, Dominic?’ Rhys enquired as he eyed the rock singer balefully in the rear view mirror.
Dominic glared back. But, ‘Thanks for the ride, mate,’ was all he said.
With a grunt, Rhys started the engine, and began their journey down the A96 through the snowy Scottish countryside.
The woman clutched the steering wheel with white-tipped knuckles, her face set in a pale mask of concentration as she manoeuvred the hired Fiat along the ice-slick roads. She forced her attention on the Tarmac, barely visible through the windscreen now under the heavy curtain of snowflakes falling relentlessly down.
Without warning, the wheels lost traction, sliding on a patch of snow-covered ice. With a sharp intake of breath, she gripped the wheel tighter and slammed on the brakes, remembering as she did that you were meant to tap the brakes gently and turn into the skid, not against it; but it was already too late.
The car veered sideways. Panicked, she tried to regain control, but the Fiat slid off the road, down an embankment and into a snowdrift-covered ditch.
She let out a piercing scream.
The lorry was huge, and came hurtling straight at them in the rain. Headlights loomed, blinding their faces as each of the drivers twisted the wheel in a futile, too-late attempt to avoid a head-on collision.
The horrific shriek of metal shearing and glass shattering was the last sound she heard before the impact threw her from the car.
Her screams still echoed in her ears as she lifted trembling hands away from her face. The windscreen was covered now in white; the wipers had stopped working, frozen into immobility. Must get out, she thought disjointedly, her heart doing odd things in her chest. Can’t stay in the car. Carbon monoxide poisoning, blocked tailpipes...runaway lorries...
She struggled to open the door, shoving it back against a pile of snow until she was able to wedge herself out of the car on trembling legs. She groped for a pair of mittens in her coat pocket and pulled them on. Cautiously she edged round the front of the car to inspect the damage, clutching at the fender, when she heard the driver’s door swing shut behind her with a thud of finality.
And as it shut, she realized her keys were still in the ignition, and her purse and her laptop were still on the passenger seat...and the bloody Fiat was bloody locked.
Oh, fuck. What do to? She was alone in the middle of a blizzard somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, with a car she couldn’t get into and only a threadbare puffa jacket and a pair of mittens – already sodden ‒ to keep her warm.
She stood and clutched at her elbows as a wave of unadulterated panic washed over her. Her mobile phone, locked away in her handbag in the car, was useless, as was any hope of calling someone to come and rescue her.
Why, why, why hadn’t she listened to the nice man at the hire car counter in Inverness and waited the storm out in a nearby hotel?
Because you never listen, she told herself, you never bloody listen.
Grimly she pulled her jacket collar closer against her chin and trudged forward through the snow – because what else was she to do?
There was nothing for it but to walk, to follow the snow-covered sliver of Tarmac and keep moving.
She’d slogged through the snow for perhaps ten minutes when she glimpsed a house – no, it looked like a bloody castle – looming up ahead, half hidden by the snow and the trees. Her fingers were numb and she couldn’t feel her legs beneath her. Was she really seeing a castle, she wondered, or was she having some sort of...of snow hallucination?