‘I think I’m in danger. It’s a matter of some urgency. You must please come at once.’
After receiving a mysterious summons from her long-lost grandmother, Australian teacher Annabel Logan agrees to visit her home in the Cotswolds. But when she arrives at the magnificent Beechwood Hall, it appears abandoned and the local villagers have no idea where the reclusive Caroline Banks might be.
The one person who might know something is enigmatic journalist Simon Colepeper. He reveals that Caroline Banks was once known as Carrie Granger. A socialite’s daughter, Carrie became a spy and agent provocateur for MI5 during the second world war. But when British intelligence failed to investigate a dangerous traitor, she decided to take matters into her own hands …
Concerned that her grandmother’s secret past has caught up with her, Annabel stays on to investigate. But the more she uncovers, the more difficult it becomes to know who to trust. There are strange incidents occurring at Beechwood and Annabel must use all her ingenuity and daring to find Carrie before it’s too late.
From the streets of Seville, Paris and London in the thirties and forties, to the modern English countryside The Traitor’s Girl is a captivating story of passion, intrigue and betrayal.
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Melbourne, Australia, 1996
Annabel Logan looked around the stiflingly hot kitchen on a Saturday afternoon in November and nearly cried. The three other women who stood at the kitchen island chopping dried fruit were red-faced, sweating and resentful, and it was all her fault. Annabel was the one who had coaxed and chivvied them into the making of the Christmas puddings, so she was to blame for the utter disaster this day had turned out to be.
She’d so wanted it to be a bonding exercise among the women of her adoptive family, but everything had conspired against her.
First of all, finding a day when everyone was free had been almost impossible. When Annabel’s mother was alive, they’d make puddings in the bracing cold of August when the steaming bundles of Christmas cheer would spread a welcome, deliciously spiced warmth throughout the house. Then they would store the puddings, letting the flavours mature and deepen over the intervening months.
But Annabel’s adoptive mother, Trish, had her hands full with the convenience store and Fiona claimed she couldn’t even think about Christmas when it was still so far away. Matt’s wife, Hayley, had such a frantic social life, she was booked up months in advance. So it was late November before Annabel could corral everyone into the kitchen for this special festive treat.
And of course, it would have to be the hottest November day on record and the air-conditioner had packed it in. There was only an ancient, clicking pedestal fan to move the hot air around the room. They’d opened the windows to try to catch a breeze, but a squadron of flies had zoomed in and buzzed in lazy circles around them. Fiona had whacked each of them in turn with a rolled up newspaper, but it was hopeless. Reinforcements soon arrived. Eventually tiring of Fiona’s fly-swatting war-dance, Trish had ordered the windows to be shut.
‘I don’t even like Christmas pudding,’ Hayley muttered to Fiona, within Annabel’s hearing. Unlike Annabel, who wore a fifties-style cotton house dress, Matt’s wife was all pressed Calvin Klein elegance in beige linen and gold jewellery, her black hair pulled into a sleek French twist. But even Hayley couldn’t manage to appear unruffled in this heat.
Fi didn’t trouble to lower her voice. ‘The only possible use for Christmas pudding is as a delivery system for brandied butter. Personally, I’d be happy to cut out the middle man.’
‘They make beautiful gifts,’ said Trish diplomatically.
‘Ow!’ Hayley put her index finger to her mouth and sucked on a bleeding cut. ‘I don’t know why we let Annabel talk us into this.’
Fiona grinned. ‘Yeah, she’s so bossy. That’s teachers for you.’
‘Oh, that’s rich, coming from a nurse,’ Annabel shot back.
‘That’s enough, girls,’ said Trish. ‘Put your backs into it, or we’ll be stuck in this inferno all bloody day.’
Annabel felt the prickle of tears behind her eyes. She should have known better than to try to recreate a beloved memory of baking with her mother. Her parents had been gone for over sixteen years now, but she never stopped missing them. Besides their birthdays, Christmas seemed to be the time of year Annabel felt their loss most keenly.
Trish and Harry had done their best to include her in their family traditions. They’d given Annabel her very own red felt Christmas stocking, embroidered with a large “A”, since “Annabel” didn’t quite fit. But no matter how hard she tried to please her new family, like her name on that stocking, she didn’t quite fit. You would think by the age of twenty-five this wouldn’t matter any more, but it did.
Ugh, her mouth felt like a dry dish cloth. If only the air-con hadn’t gone on the fritz! She put down the knife she’d been using to chop mountains of dried figs and wiped her hands on a damp towel.
Padding over to the fridge, she asked, ‘Anyone want a drink?’ The other women were deep in conversation about some lame reality television show and didn’t answer her. Annabel grabbed a plastic jug of water and poured some for herself.
When Matt married Hayley, she’d hoped she’d have an ally, another outsider like her, but the newcomer seemed to have assimilated into the family without any apparent effort.
Now, Hayley was painstakingly slicing glacé cherries into precise quarters and talking about holidays. ‘…So I said to Dad, what’s the point of having a beach house at Noosa if you don’t use it? It’s sooo beautiful up there. You’ll love it, Fi.’
‘Are you going to Noosa, Fi?’ It was the first Annabel had heard of it.
‘Didn’t Matt tell you?’ said Hayley. ‘Dad invited us all up to Noosa for Christmas.’ All? Did that mean Annabel, too?
She glanced at Trish, who looked like a little girl caught out in mischief. She’d be rubbish at poker. Her feelings were always written in capital letters across her forehead.
With a sickening jolt, Annabel realised what the invitation meant and why Trish looked so guilty. An invisible hand wrapped around her insides and squeezed. ‘But Matt’s looking after the shop on Christmas morning.’
‘Well, now, Annabel…’ Trish began.
Annabel put down her glass and folded her arms. ‘How can Matt mind the store if you’re all in Queensland for Christmas?’ But she knew the answer. Not only were they going to leave Annabel on her own on Christmas Day, they expected her to mind the shop for them while they swanned around in Noosa.
‘We thought…’ Trish took Annabel’s hands in hers and pressed them. ‘We hoped that just this once, you wouldn’t mind…’
Trish caught her underlip between her teeth. She was whippet-thin from overwork and her hands were chapped and rough.
Annabel understood, of course. Matt’s in-laws were ridiculously wealthy. Christmas Day at their sumptuous beach house in an exclusive and stunningly gorgeous coastal location was an event Trish could not bear to miss.
Meanwhile, it looked like Annabel was in charge of the FoodMart on Christmas morning yet again. Ordinarily, she liked working in the shop. When school was out for the holidays, she’d take over for a couple of weeks, allowing Trish and Harry a well-earned break.
Matt was supposed to have Christmas morning duty on alternating years but he always made some excuse to get out of it. Fiona never had to do it because as a nurse she was often rostered on for Christmas. Not this year, it seemed.
Annabel might have kicked up a fuss about them all trouping off to Noosa and leaving her behind. But she thought about how hard Trish worked all year, rarely taking a weekend off. Not to mention how much Annabel owed the family who had taken her in as an eight-year-old when her parents died in a car crash.
Trish was Annabel’s mother’s dearest friend and she had tried her best to set Annabel on equal footing with her own children. But some things you simply couldn’t force into existence, and true rapport was one of them. Annabel was creative and quirky, a reader and a dreamer, while her adoptive siblings were sporty and loud and never opened a book if they could help it.
‘Noosa sounds terrific,’ Annabel said, pushing down the hurt. She reached out and stroked a strand of crinkly red hair behind Trish’s ear. ‘Of course I’ll stay.’
Trish swallowed hard and nodded. ‘Thanks, love.’ She’d never been demonstrative, and when Annabel went to hug her, Trish waved her off, laughing and awkward. ‘No, don’t touch me. I’m all sweaty.’
‘Come on, you two,’ sang Hayley. ‘Stop your slacking!’ She had finished dicing her first hundred gram packet of cherries and was moving on to the next. ‘Let’s get these puddings done.’
The phone rang then, and Annabel said, ‘I’ll go.’
Glad of the excuse to escape, she took the cordless handset into the comparative cool of the dim hallway and answered. The line sounded like an echo chamber, as if the call was long-distance.
‘Hello?’ The accent was British and quite as plummy as any Christmas pudding. ‘Is that Annabel Logan?’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Annabel, surprised. She didn’t know anyone in the U.K., if that’s where this person was calling from.
‘It’s your grandmother, dear. Your mother’s mother.’
Her maternal grandmother? Annabel frowned. But she’d died when Mum was a little girl. A black-and-white image of an elegant, fair young woman holding a baby flashed into Annabel’s mind.
‘I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong person,’ she said. ‘My grandmother died long before I was born.’
‘Well, I’m not dead.’ The voice sounded more irritated than shocked or outraged. ‘I’m very much alive, as it happens. My name is Caroline Banks.’
‘Caroline Banks?’ Annabel repeated. Her grandmother’s name was Caroline, oddly enough, but her surname had been Williams.
‘Look here,’ said the older lady. ‘I think I’m in danger. It’s a matter of some urgency. You must please come at once.’
The mention of danger made Annabel’s chest contract. ‘Are you hurt, Mrs Banks? If you’re hurt or in danger, what you need to do is call the emergency number. I—’
‘No, no, please listen to me,’ came the exasperated reply. ‘I don’t need an ambulance. I need family. Someone I can trust. Come to Beechwood Hall. Will you do that for me? I’ll explain when you get here. Have you a pen? I’ll give you directions.’
Surely the old lady must be confused, but there was a brisk note of command to the voice that belied a fuddled mind. Annabel obeyed, thinking she ought to humour her until she could discover exactly what danger Mrs Banks thought she was in.
She jotted down the instructions. ‘But this is an address in England.’
‘Yes it is. How soon can you be here?’
Gently, Annabel said, ‘I am so sorry, Mrs Banks—’
‘It’s Miss Banks, actually. But you may call me Carrie if you like.’
‘All right, then. Carrie,’ said Annabel. ‘But you see, I’m not your granddaughter. There’s been a mistake.’
The older lady drew a long, audible breath, expressive of a great exercise in patience. ‘My daughter, Fay Williams, was your mother. Isn’t that right? Fay Logan was her married name. Died in a car accident with her husband, Angus, in 1979. My husband, Bill Williams, was your grandfather and he died in 1992.’
When Annabel was too astonished to answer immediately, the woman on the other end added, ‘Yes, I see. They must have decided it was better if I was dead. Well, I can understand that. But I’m not, do you understand? I’m seventy-eight years old and I’m very much alive. Though I do rather feel as if I’m ageing decades while we have this conversation.’
Annabel had turned first hot, then ice-cold at this bald recitation of her family history, but that final, dry aside pulled her out of her stupefaction. Perhaps sarcasm was genetic. ‘You really are my grandmother?’ Suddenly, Annabel’s knees felt as if they might give way. She pressed her palm to the wall to steady herself. ‘But why—’
‘There is no time for that now, dear. Come and see me and I’ll tell you all about it.’ Carrie’s voice had softened somewhat, now that she’d managed to get her point across.
Annabel did not have to think twice. ‘Of course I’ll come. As soon as I can manage it.’ Term finished next week. She could leave immediately afterward if she could get a flight. It would mean dipping into her savings, but… ‘Please, give me your telephone number and I’ll be in touch.’
In a dream, Annabel drifted back to the kitchen. She blinked as the bright sunshine stung her eyes. Had that astonishing conversation really taken place? She stared down at the address and phone number on the note pad in her hand.
‘Who was that?’ asked Trish, looking up from her chopping. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘No,’ said Annabel slowly. ‘But I think I’ve just spoken to one.’