Italy, 1929

“Come with me.” A silken voice coaxed Anna from her dreams. Whether a whisper or merely a trick of the wind, the invitation stirred her drowsy mind.

She bolted upright, shivering as crisp autumn air whisked over her. Moonlight spilled into a bright pool on the floor next to her bed, forcing shadows into dense clusters at the edges of her room. A window on the far wall hung wide open, its sheer white curtains dancing ghostlike in the breeze.

Outside, a wooden trellis banged and scraped against the villa’s stone façade. Anna recognized the sound from personal experience. She’d knocked the aging structure loose by using it as an escape to the garden when her uncle’s nurse first ordered bed rest. Wind might account for the banging, but the voice and the open window were more difficult to dismiss.

The nightmarish existence she’d lived since her parents’ deaths didn’t end with daybreak. She pinched the chilly flesh on her arms. It didn’t matter much whether she was dreaming or not. If she screamed in this secluded wing of her uncle’s ancient villa no one would hear her, much less come running to her aid.

Anna pressed trembling hands against her ears in a futile effort to shut out the clattering. With each blow of wood against stone, she inched deeper into the mound of pillows behind her until the carved cherubs on the ornate headboard dug into her shoulder blades. For weeks, their fearsome little fingers had pointed at her accusingly: There is the girl who let her parents die in a fire while she alone survived. There is the orphan who burdens her aging uncle. She truly deserved whatever might come crawling through the open window.

“I-is someone there?” Anna held her breath, nearly deafened by her pounding heart. While the gale outside receded, the clattering only intensified. The curtains drifted back to a standstill, lifeless sentries offering little hope of defense against an intruder.

One set of claws and then another reached up and grated at the sill. A shaggy figure heaved a leg over the ledge, and leaned into her room—an obscure form with a glowing outline of moonlit fur.

Anna pressed a hand over her mouth.

“Come with me,” the voice urged, soft as the rustle of frostbitten leaves shivering on the treetops outside her window.

The creature clambered over the sill and tumbled into the shadows at the edge of her room. Panic seized her throat as the hunched form shuffled toward her, scraping across the polished wood floor. Anna gasped as it entered the circle of moonlight on the floor near her bed. She edged out of her pillow fortress and bit back a laugh as she crept forward to get a closer look.

Really? A koala? Was she so homesick she was hallucinating now?

For the first time in months, a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. The fears plaguing her since the fire diminished as the odd little creature huddled beside her bed. Beady eyes studied her. Shaggy ears twitched, as if to shake off the cold. One paw reached toward her. In the moonlight, the claws lost some of their menacing appearance.

“You might actually be more out of place here than I am,” Anna croaked. She hadn’t used her voice in months—an unspoken objection at being forced on an uncle she’d never known existed until after the death of her parents. Now, face to face with an unexplained visitor—not human, or poking, or prodding, or demanding—a spark of interest flared. She extended a hesitant hand, as if her fingertips might verify his ethical as well as his physical substance.
“Come with me, child.” The koala murmured.

“You spoke.” Anna snapped her hand back.

“So did you.” She would have sworn the koala winked. “It’s a day for surprises, it would seem.”
Perhaps it was sheer relief over the innocence he projected—or the way his impish eyes glittered in the moonlight. Whatever the reason, her fears gave way to curiosity. At nearly thirteen, she ought to behave with a bit more dignity—or so she had been repeatedly told. Instead, she entertained the childish notion of dashing into the creature’s arms and pressing her face into his soft fur. Before her life pitched upside down, she might have done just that. She crept out from under the covers and tiptoed across the floor. Anna pushed hesitation aside and dropped to her knees in front of him.

In spite of the koala’s peculiar entrance, she found herself drawn to him by a force greater than her own resistance. The koala radiated warmth and the scent of eucalyptus—the fragrance of home. She had to touch him—had to know he was real.

“I really must be losing my marbles.” Of course, talking to herself was hardly evidence of a stable mind either.

“I simply appeared to you in a way that would bring you the most comfort.”

Comfort? She hardly remembered the meaning of the word these days. “Reminding me of home.” Her lips betrayed her, revealing thoughts better left unsaid.

The confession, as much as the listless drone of her voice, surprised her. If she had learned anything over the past few weeks, it was that allowing her mind to drift toward home would only result in unwelcome tears. There was no point in clinging to the hope that she might return to her birthplace any time soon.

She was alone in the world now—and she must bear the burden of loss on her own. An unbidden image flashed through her mind. Barefoot, and grimy from a day of outdoor play, she would dash into her father’s arms when he returned home from the pastures each evening. He would swing her into the air in his powerful grip. A pang of guilt was all that gripped her now as she realized, yet again, that Da’s strong arms would never again comfort her in this world.

“Are you taking me home?” Even as the words left her mouth, she held little hope.

“Not quite yet.” The koala’s words thrust her back into the new reality she was sentenced to endure.

Disappointment coursed through her. The absurdity of the situation jolted her back to her senses. “You nearly scared me to death crawling through the window like that in the middle of the night!”

“Are you suggesting that I should have asked for you at the front door?” He tilted his head and blinked. “In broad daylight, perhaps?”

A hoarse chuckle escaped Anna’s lips. “I suppose not.”

“It is best to simply enjoy this journey as it unfolds. You will discover the truth along the way, as you learn to welcome the possibilities.”

“What journey? I can’t leave. I am supposed to be staying in bed.” Cheeky, but true. She added a regretful shrug for good measure. If she wasn’t mistaken, an amused smile tweaked the koala’s mouth. Surely he couldn’t know she’d been climbing the trellis as well.

The koala cleared his throat. “Your physical injuries are healing well. I am more concerned with your heart.”

“My heart? What’s wrong with it?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she knew it was pointless to protest. She ducked her head, examining the angry pink scars on her arms. When the bandages were removed, she’d examined her disfigured arms as a stranger might. As painful as the wounds had been, the loss of her parents and her happy childhood hurt more. Escape arrived through numb oblivion. Now that she’d learned to block feelings, it wouldn’t be easy to turn back.

She’d finally gone round the bend. The idea of leaving with a strange, talking koala actually appealed her. She cast him a sideways glance. “Why did you come here?”
“Companionship is a good thing, right?” His eyes seemed to read her every vulnerability and secret, yet they revealed no animosity.

After a childhood spent alone on the dusty pastures of their remote sheep station friendship was something she knew little about. “It’s what I’ve always longed for,” she confessed.

The koala nodded. “We all do. Come with me, embrace your future and you will find it.”

She was supposed to trust a talking koala that crawled through her window in the middle of the night? Her mind still rebelled at the thought of a future without her parents. If the koala was some sort of hallucination, her mind was playing a cruel trick on her.

“Your unique combination of pain and innocence has allowed you to see things most people wouldn’t.”

She hadn’t voiced her concerns aloud, had she? Anna frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“You will.”
“You really did scare me—sneaking in like that. How do I know I can trust you?”

“Don’t let your heart be troubled any longer. Trust. Come with me.”

Anna caught herself making a hopeless tangle in her curls with her finger. Despite Mum’s chiding, Anna still couldn’t master the impulse. As she worked to extricate her finger, the koala crept closer and the scent of eucalyptus again washed over her.

“When you first saw me, you were fearful of what you did not know. Once you saw me in the light, you found me irresistible.” This time his furry face broke into a comical smile.

“Righto. I’ll give you that.” Anna snorted—a blunder in etiquette that would have earned a frown from her uncle’s highbrow nurse. The koala simply joined her in a hearty chuckle.
“Come with me on an adventure of a lifetime. I can’t promise you it will be easy, but you can rest assured you won’t regret it—and you won’t be alone.”

His words gripped her. The call of an adventure, a chance to escape the painful fragments of her life, the creature himself … it was nearly irresistible. “If it wasn’t for my hopeless situation, I probably wouldn’t even consider this.”

“Too right. You’re perceptive beyond your years.”

Anna ignored his gentle ribbing. If she went with the koala, she could escape her uncle’s overbearing nurse. How could she resist? A burst of hope blossomed inside her.

“Will you stay with me until I can make a go of it on my own?”

The koala’s forehead bunched. “Why would you want to do that?”

“Make a go of it on my own, you mean?” It was no wonder humans and animals didn’t make a habit of verbal communication.

“You wouldn’t get very far on your own,” the koala mumbled with the forced smile of an amateur ventriloquist.

Anna cast a reluctant glance back at the bed the nurse had confined her to for weeks. The cherub’s accusing fingers were a final incentive to flee.

“Put those troubling thoughts behind you,” the koala crept closer. “I will be with you every step of the way.”

Anna let out a decisive breath. “I’m not sure why I believe you, but I do.”

Pleasure radiated from her new companion, although his furry face revealed only a small, satisfied grin. She couldn’t say whether or not it was normal behavior for a koala. Even at home, she had never been so close to one.

“Let me take your hand.” The koala’s paw reached for her.

Her mind briefly struggled with the wording of his request. She eyed his curious two-thumbed koala paws like the skeptic she’d become, but decided the request was innocent enough. Anna gulped back her fears. The villa’s imposing walls loomed around her like a prison. She had nothing left to lose. She accepted his extended paw and allowed the claws to gently enclose her hand.

“Close your eyes, and do not open them until I tell you to. Close your eyes … and you will see.”

Anna surrendered any remaining doubts to her deep longing for freedom. She was like a leaf in the wind, propelled by an unseen force to an unknown destination.

As she stepped into the moonlight spilling through her window, its intense glow engulfed her. She shut her eyes, squeezed the koala’s paw, and clenched her free hand into a fist over her heart. A chill swept down her spine as her nightgown fluttered around her. Kaleidoscopic color swirled inside her eyelids and the temptation to open them vanished. A force washed over her, like the spray of an enormous fountain. Bubbly fizzing tickled her skin.

The floor seemed to melt away beneath her feet—and still she kept her eyes closed. Anna was swept into a soothing current of warmth. The only thing left to do was trust the voice that urged her on. “Come to me.”