Harriett Chirnwell has a perfect life — a husband who loves her, a successful career and a daughter who is destined to become a doctor just like her.
Xara has always lived in Harriet’s shadow; her chaotic life with her family on their sheep farm falls far short of her older sister’s standards of perfection and prestige.
Georgie, the youngest sister and a passionate teacher, is the only one of the three to have left Billawarre. But is her life in Melbourne happy?
Despite all three sisters having a different and sometimes strained bond with their mother, Edwina, they come together to organise a party for her milestone birthday — the first since their father’s death. But when Edwina arrives at her party on the arm of another man, the tumult is like a dam finally breaking. Suddenly the lives of the Chirnwell sisters are flooded by scandal. Criminal accusations, a daughter in crisis, and a secret over fifty years in the making start to crack the perfect façade of the prominent pastoral family.
A thought provoking novel about family expectations, secrets and lies.
Published by Harlequin's Mira. To purchase move your curser mid-bottom page and click through on the Buy button.
‘Auntie Harry, look at my frog.’
Harriet Chirnwell recoiled as her eight-year-old nephew, Hugh, thrust a muddy bug catcher under her chin. She could just make out a tiny frog nestled in the greenery.
‘It’s our frog,’ Ollie corrected. He was the younger twin by four minutes.
Harriet’s nose wrinkled as the rancid scent of mud and sheep dung hit her nostrils. ‘And you found it down at the dam.’
‘Yes!’ the twins chorused, sounding surprised that she’d guessed correctly.
‘Why is there mud on my clean floor?’ Xara, Harriet’s middle sister, walked into the kitchen. She pushed her daughter, Tasha— the twins’ sister—in her specially designed wheelchair.
‘We’re showing Auntie Har—’
‘It was a rhetorical question, Hughie.’ Xara shook her head indulgently. ‘Trust you to find the only mud on the farm during a drought. Go back to the mudroom and take off those boots. You too, Ollie. Now.’
Ignoring the groans of her sons, Xara lifted Tasha from the wheelchair. While she positioned her in a foam chair in her favourite spot by the window, she said, ‘Hello, Harry. I didn’t hear you drive up.’
‘European engineering’s incredibly quiet,’ Harriet said, getting a thrill just thinking about her new car. ‘And those sheep in the home paddock are bleating so loudly I’m surprised you can hear yourself think.’
Xara threw an old towel down on the muddy floor and while she mopped it around with her foot, she stirred a pot on the Aga that smelled deliciously like beef and ginger. ‘I keep telling Steve it’s time Chump, Chops and Racka went on the truck but you know how pathetic he is with the ones we hand raise.’ She reached left, opened a cupboard, grabbed two thick-rimmed mugs and threw a teabag into each.
Harriet flinched. She preferred her tea in a bone china cup and made with leaves, not dust. ‘Do you still have those Royal Albert mugs I gave you for your birthday?’
‘Sorry.’ Xara sounded completely unapologetic. ‘I usually hide your mugs at the back of the cupboard but after your last visit, I forgot. Steve took one down to the shearing shed and Hughie dropped the other one.’
The twins rushed back in whooping, ‘Cake, cake, cake,’ and Tasha squealed, joining their enthusiasm. The ear-piercing shrieks formed a wall of sound that forced every nerve ending in Harriet’s body to fire off a salvo of tingling aversion.
She wasn’t particularly fond of children. As a general rule they were sticky and damp, loud and unruly, and they came with an inexhaustible supply of questions, which she found disconcerting. Of course, she was fond of her daughter, Charlotte. She loved her, especially now that that she was no longer sticky and clingy. Harriet considered Charlotte, now almost eighteen, to be one of her greatest achievements; the others were the day she become a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and the year she joined her father in his medical practice. Over the last decade, she’d taken the practice into the twenty-first century while maintaining a successful and happy marriage to James. She had no time for women who said it was impossible to have it all and her usual response to such statements was that it came down to choice. She’d chosen James because his drive and determination matched her own and he wanted what she wanted. Now, twenty years after saying ‘I do’, they were Billawarre’s power couple: rich, respected, well educated, philanthropic and with the added prestige of being descended from the squattocracy.
Her mother’s family, the Mannerings, had been the founding family in the district, arriving in 1838. They’d gone on to establish a farming dynasty as well as diversifying into manufacturing. Harriet loved that she could trace her Australian heritage back to William and John, who’d arrived from England with a mob of sheep and a vision. Since those early pastoralist days when the brothers had bred sheep, cattle, racehorses and children, their descendants included a very successful gold prospector, businessmen, war heroes and heroines, parliamentarians, doctors, an Olympic equestrian and a novelist.
It was a family to be proud of, and throughout the one hundred and seventy-five years since the Mannering brothers had crossed the Moorabool River, there’d always been at least one branch of the family living in Billawarre. It gave Harriet a reassuring sense of tradition and a great deal of family pride. Like her mother before her, Harriet had been named after her great-grandmother. She’d continued the tradition, naming Charlotte after her own great-grandmother, and she hoped that when the time came—in another fifteen years or so—Charlotte would consider doing the same.
Harriet glanced around the farmhouse kitchen and pursed her lips. She had no idea how Xara could be so laid back in the presence of so much chaos. When Tasha had been born with severe cerebral palsy and requiring twenty-four-hour care, Harriet had assumed Xara would stop at one child. After all, Harriet had stopped at one. She’d been stunned by the amount of time and attention a child took and Charlotte was healthy and developmentally normal—gifted, even, in some areas. Between piano lessons, ballet lessons, pony club, extension tutoring and general school commitments, Harriet and James had juggled their careers and employed Nya Devali to fill the inevitable gaps when neither of them were available. It had been a huge relief when Charlotte had turned thirteen and gone to boarding school, just like Harriet had at that age. The school holidays were always a bit of a struggle but Charlotte enjoyed spending time with her aunts and Harriet always scheduled a few days off in the middle of the break, whisking her away to Lorne or Noosa depending on the time of year. Of course they took an overseas holiday every year, alternating between skiing in Europe or Canada and visiting somewhere warm. Last year, Harriet had even conceded to Charlotte’s request to go to Bali and she’d been pleasantly surprised by the beautiful north-coast resort.
Harriet honestly couldn’t imagine her life with more than one child. She could still recall how stunned she’d been when Xara had announced she was not only pregnant again but with twins. That night, as she and James had been getting ready for bed, Harriet had said, ‘What on earth were Xara and Steve thinking, getting pregnant again?’
James had come up behind her, pulled her in against him and pressed his lips against the crook of her neck in the exact spot that made her melt. ‘I doubt at the time they were thinking at all.’ His deep, rumbling voice had vibrated against her skin, making her shiver in anticipation.
Soon after that, she and James hadn’t been thinking at all either. She smiled at the memory but her cheeks suddenly tightened as a thought struck her: how long had it been since James had kissed her like that?
‘I’ll buy you some new mugs,’ Harriet said quickly, thrusting the uncomfortable and unwelcome thoughts about James and their sex life to the back of her mind.
‘Perhaps it would be safer if you brought your own when you visit.’ Xara handed her a mug decorated with a picture of a sheep playing the bagpipes. ‘So what’s up?’
Harriet ignored the tone in Xara’s voice that said, You only drive out to the farm when you want something, and instead brushed crumbs and a shrivelled pea off the kitchen chair before smoothing her black pencil skirt and sitting down. She sometimes questioned that she and her middle sister shared any DNA at all given her own need for order and Xara’s total disregard for it.
‘Edwina’s birthday’s a month away. We need to finalise the details for her party.’ Harriet had been referring to her mother by her first name since her fifteenth birthday. The celebration had coincided with another one of Edwina’s ‘episodes’, as her father had always referred to them. Harriet had never been particularly close to her mother and Edwina remained a frustrating mystery to her. She had never quite worked out if her mother was depressed or if she conveniently hid behind these random episodes to avoid the familial and social responsibilities she didn’t enjoy.
‘Finalise what details?’ Xara asked. ‘This is the first time we’ve talked about it. I can tell you right now, Mum won’t want a party.’
‘Don’t be silly. Of course she’ll want a party. She needs something to look forward to now that Dad’s—’
Damn it. Her throat thickened as though a chunk of Xara’s beef stew were caught in it and she had to force herself to swallow around the lump. These days she could usually talk about her father without any problems at all so she hated the moments when her grief hit her without warning. It instantly took her back to the day he’d died thirteen months ago, forcing her to relive those awful hours again. She missed him desperately, not only because she loved him, but also because, unlike her mother and sisters, her father had been the one person in the family who truly understood her.
She cleared her throat. ‘A party will be good for Edwina.’
Xara didn’t look convinced. ‘Mum’s more comfortable with a low-key approach. This year her birthday’s right on top of Easter so Georgie and Charlie will be home for the school holidays. Georgie can drive from Melbourne and pick Charlie up from school on her way through Geelong. We can all have dinner here.’
Harriet took in the fine film of dust that coated everything around her, the scattered toys and books, and the half-folded laundry that graced chairs, the dresser and every other available surface. She immediately thought of her beautifully renovated Victorian homestead kept immaculately clean by Nya. No, her plan was much better and besides, her house was designed for entertaining.
‘We did low key last year because it was so close to the funeral. This year her birthday needs to be a big splash like the parties Dad threw her.’ Harriet found herself drumming her fingers on the table. ‘We’ve always thrown big parties and people are expecting one. I’ve already had Primrose McGowan asking me if we’ve got plans.’
‘God, Harry, our role in life isn’t to entertain the district,’ Xara said, giving the saucepan another vigorous stir.
‘I remember you doing a pretty good job of it from seventeen to twenty-three,’ Harriet said waspishly, feeling the familiar bubble of annoyance rising in her chest. It frustrated her that Xara didn’t value her heritage or honour the responsibilities that came with being part of a respected establishment family.
Xara laughed and quoted Jane Austen at her. ‘“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn.” This isn’t the fifties, Harry. You take all this stuff way too seriously.’
‘I’m taking our mother’s situation very seriously,’ Harriet said crisply, feeling tension raising her shoulders; it happened whenever she thought about her mother’s vagueness and periods of detachment. Edwina’s episodes could last from a few hours to weeks. They’d come and gone as far back as Harriet could remember and since her father’s death, she felt both an obligation to him and a begrudging responsibility to her mother to take care of her.
‘You know what she’s like, Xar. She needs a push now and then to be involved in things. Now Dad’s not here to do it, it’s up to us. This party will help.’
‘I’m not sure a party’s the best way.’ Xara sounded unconvinced.
‘It’s worked before,’ Harriet said firmly.
Xara rolled her eyes. ‘Is there any point at all suggesting that you ask Mum if she wants this party?’
‘And ruin the surprise? Honestly, Xara, sometimes I wonder about you. Edwina’s surprise parties are both legend and tradition.’
‘They were Dad’s tradition,’ Xara said, an edge creeping into her voice.
Harriet shook her head. ‘No, they’re a family tradition and by default a town tradition. I’m not letting them slide just because Dad’s not here to host them.’ Her voice cracked slightly and she cleared her throat. ‘And Georgie agrees with me.’
Xara’s untamed eyebrows rose over her chipped mug. ‘Georgie has an opinion? Are we talking about our baby sister, Georgie, or another Georgie entirely?’
‘She suggested making Edwina’s favourite mini chocolate mud cakes with ganache.’ Harriet tweaked the truth around the edges to firm up her argument—one she refused to lose. She hadn’t actually texted Georgie yet to tell her about the party and ask her to make the cakes, but she would the moment she got Xara onside.
‘Wow, and you’re actually going to let her?’ A hint of sarcasm threaded through Xara’s words. ‘I thought you’d want the party to be colour coordinated and catered.’
‘Of course it will be colour coordinated and catered.’ Harriet ignored the jibe and made a mental note to tell Lucinda Petronella, the caterer, that she wanted turquoise and silver to be the signature colours. ‘I just thought if Georgie made the cakes it would add a personal touch.’
Xara’s eyes narrowed into a gotcha glare. ‘So she didn’t actually offer to make them at all, did she?’
Harriet shrugged. Sometimes the only way to get things done her way was to work people using both their strengths and their weaknesses. ‘Why are you getting all bogged down in semantics? Does it matter if I give Georgie the recipe? I mean, she loves to bake, so end of story.’
Xara huffed out a breath. ‘She always takes the path of least resistance.’
‘Do you think she’s okay? I mean, it’s not something you just get over, is it?’
An uncomfortable feeling tried to settle over Harriet but she fought it off. She refused to feel any guilt about being the only one of her siblings to have a healthy and happy daughter. Then an idea slid in under her discomfort, offering her the perfect way to close her argument and bring Xara on board. ‘Do you talk to Georgie much?’
A look of self-reproach crossed Xara’s face. ‘I try, but the days go so fast.’
‘Exactly, and Georgie hasn’t been home in ages. There’s no way she can refuse to come to this party, especially as the date is at the start of the school holidays. When we’ve got her face to face, we can really check up on her.’
She leaned forward. ‘Come on, Xar, it will be fun. You know James and I throw great parties. You know Charlotte loves being the princess of the cousins and she’ll keep them entertained.’ Harriet wheeled out her closing argument: ‘You and Steve deserve a night away from wool prices, the drought and being parents. You deserve a night to let your hair down and be yourselves.’
Xara grimaced as if she was in pain—the expression suggestive of having just struck a deal with the devil. ‘Is James serving French champagne?’
‘Bien sûr.’ Harriet smiled, knowing she’d just won. ‘I’ll text you your to-do list …’
‘I caved over French champagne,’ Xara told Steve ruefully as she climbed into bed with exhaustion clawing at every muscle, tendon and bone.
Her husband glanced up from his book, his green eyes laughing at her from behind his black-rimmed reading glasses. ‘You always cave if Möet or Veuve Clicquot are on the table. The reality is, I married a fickle debutante.’
‘Hey, sheep farmer.’ She elbowed him in the ribs before snuggling in against him. ‘I happily gave up my silver spoon fifteen years ago to slum it with you.’
He squeezed her shoulder affectionately and kissed her hair. ‘Did you ask Harry to follow up with James about the status of the respite-care house cheque?’
She slapped her forehead. ‘Sorry. I meant to ask but the whole party thing threw me for a loop. You know what she’s like when she’s in full-on Harriet-gets-what-Harriet-wants mode, railroading everyone and everything in her path. After I caved, she started telling me how Charlie’s coping brilliantly,’ her voice mimicked Harriet’s, ‘being house captain, rowing in the firsts and of course, still on track to get the marks she needs to study medicine.’
Steve shot her a knowing look. ‘Tell me you resisted the urge to push her buttons by asking if Charlie’s really onboard with the university plans?’
‘Oh, I had the urge all right,’ Xara said, feeling the familiar burn of frustration under her ribs, ‘but just as I was about to say, “Are you sure Charlie wants to do medicine?”, the twins flooded the bathroom. Harry left as I was mopping up the mess.’ She rubbed her face, thinking about the respite-care house. ‘Why don’t I just ring James myself?’
Steve groaned. ‘That’s not a good idea. No matter how hard you try, you’ll go all lawyer on him. You know how much he hates that.’
‘Once,’ she spluttered indignantly, remembering the infamous family lunch. ‘It only happened once.’
Steve tilted his head as he looked over the top of his glasses. ‘Yeah, and he’s never forgotten. This project’s too important to get him offside. Besides, I’ve already tried calling and leaving messages. Our best bet for the next step is through Harry.’
‘She’s operating all day tomorrow but if James still hasn’t got back to you by then, I’ll call her.’
‘And if that doesn’t work I guess I can always talk to him about it at the party. There have to be some perks to being the brother-in-law of the mayor.’
She gave a faux gasp. ‘Steven Paxton, I’m shocked. You’re always taking pot shots at the old boys’ club and their networks. Now you’re planning on doing the same thing.’
The moonlight caught the grey streaks in his once jet-black hair and his face sobered as he closed his book. ‘I’ll do whatever it takes for Tashie.’
Her heart filled and ached all at the same time. ‘And that’s what I love about you.’ She kissed him softly on the lips in the way couples do when they’ve known each other a very long time. Their life was nothing like they’d imagined when they’d naively plunged into marriage all those year ago, but then, was anyone’s?
A memory of a hot summer’s night on the veranda of her grandparents’ old fibro beach shack at Apollo Bay came rushing back to her. It was a week before she’d started Year Seven and her first year of boarding school, which had coincided with Harry’s final year of school. As always, her big sister had been full of unsolicited advice on who to make friends with, the pitfalls to avoid in the first few weeks and suggestions on how to cope with living with forty other girls.
‘Never forget you belong there,’ Harriet had said confidently. ‘Mannering House exists because our great-great-grandfather donated the money to the school.’
The thought of telling people that had made Xara’s stomach cramp. During her six years at the school, she’d never mentioned the family’s connection unless asked directly. Her behaviour had been in stark contrast to Harriet’s. Her big sister had always been quick to tell people that the Mannerings were instrumental in starting the school over a century ago. Harriet had owned the school during her years there: head girl, recipient of full academic colours, captain of the girls’ first rowing and the girl on everyone’s invitation list. Now she owned Billawarre: surgeon, wife of the mayor and the woman on everyone’s invitation list.
Xara recalled having asked her that night years ago if she was worried about leaving school. Harriet’s face had taken on a slightly bewildered look, fast followed by a pitying expression, as if the concept of being anxious were foreign to her. ‘I’m going to ace VCE, go to Melbourne University, become a doctor and be the first female surgeon in Billawarre.’
Xara, who’d just discovered the heady sensations of being kissed by a boy, had said, ‘If you do that, you’re going to be living in Melbourne a really long time. What happens if you fall in love with a city bloke?’
Harriet’s laugh had been dismissive. ‘I will only fall in love with a man who’s prepared to live in Billawarre and who earns as much as or more than me.’
And in typical Harriet style, she’d done all those things. James, who’d grown up in rural New South Wales, had not only adopted Billawarre as his own, but he successfully ran an accounting, financial planning and investment business, which earned him far more than Harriet made—and she was no slouch in the income department. Two years ago, James had stood for a position on the rural city council and just under a year ago, he’d been elected mayor.
Perfect marriage. Perfect child. Perfect life.
Xara pulled her thoughts away from her older sister, not wanting to wander down the toxic green path of envy that often seduced her and always left her feeling nauseous and unsettled. Most days she didn’t want Harriet’s life—perfection bored her, which was fortunate given what life threw at her on a daily basis. But she’d be lying to herself if she didn’t want a little bit of Harriet’s disposable income and the freedom it gave her. Who wouldn’t experience twinges of jealously for the annual and occasionally twice-yearly overseas holidays, not to mention the conference junkets, the quiet and comfortable European car, the seeming ease with which Harry and James paid Charlotte’s phenomenal school fees—an amount similar to what some people earned in a year. Then there was Harriet’s wardrobe of designer wear. Not that Xara attended even one tenth of the functions Harriet did, but a girl always liked to look good, even if there wasn’t a big call for Collette Dinnigan out on the farm. Xara’s day-to-day wardrobe was far more prosaic and included R.M. Williams boots and sturdy cotton work pants.
To be honest, she’d pass on the clothes if it meant the extension to the farmhouse got finished. It had been creeping forward at a snail’s pace for eighteen months, because the funds earmarked for it had been channelled into buying feed and surviving the current drought. Life on the farm was a cycle of golden fleeces, high lamb prices and perfect weather conditions for both pasture and sheep, invariably followed by a glut of wool, crashing lamb prices and soul-sucking drought. Monies earned in the good years got reinvested back into the farm in an attempt to cushion the impact of the droughts. Yet slowly but surely they were reaping the benefits. A good farmer needed to be a canny small businessman, skilled in animal husbandry, part mechanic, part nurturer, part accountant, proactive rather than reactive, open to change, at ease with the isolation and above all, an optimist. Steve was all of those things and as far as the farm was concerned, their life was pretty much as she’d imagined—a continuously fluid financial state and a whopping overdraft.
Farm life and family went hand in glove and she had no regrets there. Unlike Harriet, Xara had been unexpectedly completed by motherhood. It still stunned her how much she loved it. There was something wonderful about being needed and being loved so unconditionally, although that would likely change the moment the twins hit puberty, so she was enjoying it while it lasted. Despite or perhaps because of the challenges, her family gave her a sense of satisfaction unlike any other job she’d ever done. They also drove her crazier than any other job and at times frustrated her until she was tearing her hair out. But somehow the combination made her feel valued and, for the most part, happy.
The one thing neither she nor Steve had anticipated was having a child who’d never be able to care for herself. Tasha’s arrival had been a combination of overwhelming love accompanied with crushed dreams, and all of it wrapped up in a huge red bow of guilt. Guilt that she’d done something to cause the cerebral palsy. Guilt that she ached for the child Tasha may have been without her disability. Guilt and sorrow for even feeling that way. It had taken the twins’ safe and healthy arrival to temper her feelings of failure as a creator of life.
She knew people thought her crazy to have gone on to have more children when Tasha needed so much care, but she was incapable of stopping at one child. On a rational level, she knew that on top of the care Tasha required, increasing the size of their family would effectively kill her career as a solicitor. But when had rational ever been part of the equation of creating a family? More than anything, she’d needed to prove to herself that she and Steve could create a healthy child. She’d needed that to ease her sense of inadequacy as a biological mother.
She knew Harriet thought another baby was a stress Xara and Steve didn’t need. In fact, Harriet had implied that two babies was just plain excessive, but Xara saw the twins as double confirmation that she wasn’t broken. She loved their energy and enthusiasm but their arrival had brought a whole new level of mother-guilt down upon her as she juggled their needs with the overwhelming needs of Tasha.
Caring for Tasha’s physical and emotional wellbeing was in many ways the same as caring for the twins, except the boys eventually learned to do things for themselves. Mind you, she had her doubts they’d ever master tying shoelaces. No, it was the added burden of constantly having to write annual, as well as one-off, applications for financial grants that was wearing her and Steve down. The constant need to justify and fight for precious funding meant things like Tasha’s ongoing therapy, her integration aide, or added extras like anew wheelchair all became a battleground with bureaucrats or the health insurance provider. Xara may have given up law but she’d become her daughter’s lobbyist as well as an advocate for other parents of children with disabilities in the district. The rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme was something they didn’t want to pin their hopes on too much just yet because it sounded too good to be true. But, oh, how wonderful it would be if grant submissions became a thing of the past.
Over the years they’d had their grant wins and their losses. Fortunately, when one of them was broken, dejected, and worn down by the constant fight, the other still had enough faith to drag the sad one along in the slipstream until new energy could be harnessed. If her destiny had always been to have a special-needs child then she was glad it was with Steve. He was like a dog with a bone when it came to getting services and support for Tasha and she knew he worried as much as she did about the far-flung future when neither of them would be alive to take care of her. That was why their current project was so important, a first step in future planning. Over the years, they’d become experts in filing grant submission —learning the lingo that garnered results and jettisoning language that didn’t—and that unexpected skill had landed them as the convenors for a new and exciting community project for the district. After a lot of fundraising, they’d applied for funding through the council to build a purpose-built respite-care house in Billawarre, specially designed for people with disabilities. Although the local tradesmen were all donating their time to build the house, they needed the funding to purchase the building supplies. Council had approved the money but Xara and Steve were yet to receive the promised cheque, which was why they were both chasing James to find out the reason for the delay.
Steve kissed her shoulder. ‘You feeling frisky?’
She tried not to groan. ‘Just tired.’
‘Me too, but we should probably make an effort.’ He ran the tip of his tongue along her collarbone.
She’d been up for seventeen hours and all she craved was sleep. ‘How about I lie here and you keep making the effort. But I’m not promising anything.’
‘Challenge accepted.’ Grinning, he vanished under the doona and then his strong, work-callused fingers were pressing firmly into the soles of her feet. His fingers kept up their rhythm, moving from her feet to her calves and her thighs and a long and languid sigh rolled out of her as a warm river of relaxation stole into her weariness.
A muffled but wicked laugh sounded from under the covers. ‘I’m good.’
A smile tugged at her lips. ‘I’m still not promising anything.’ But it was a half-hearted protest and as his gentle touch kneaded her inner thigh, a flicker of need flared. It broke through her fatigue, bringing with it the promise of some precious moments of heady bliss. She rolled into him.
Steve was right. It really was worth the effort.
‘Ms Chirnwell, can I bring my pet rats for show and tell tomorrow?’
Georgie tried hard to stall the shudder that whipped through her. Growing up in country Victoria, where rats gnawed easily through the fuel line of the ute and mice plagues turned solid ground into a wriggling and heaving grey mass, rodents as pets were anathema to her. Not so to the kids of Collingwood, where space was at a premium. ‘That sounds great, Jai,’ she said with forced enthusiasm. ‘I’m looking forward to it.’
Yeah. No. She was looking forward to pet rats as much as she was looking forward to the farewell morning tea for Lucy Patrell. It was the reason she’d lingered at the recess bell instead of shooing 2C out into the playground and striding across the already softening asphalt steaming in the summer heat to the staff room. Ordinarily, the promise of a cheese platter with Erica Gubbin’s homemade quince paste and Chi Li’s carrot cake was enough to make her feign deafness to all student entreaties as she crossed the quad. Not today. Today, self-preservation was in a tug of war with duty and self-preservation was winning.
She heard the click-clack of hurried and determined footsteps in the corridor but before she could dive behind the smart board, her name was being called. Sharon Saunders, the office dragon, had a habit of rounding up stray and recalcitrant staff members. ‘Come on, Georgie,’ she said briskly, pausing in the doorway of 2C, lips pursed and a critical frown on her pinched face. ‘Lucy will be disappointed if you’re not there to see her open her presents.’
Georgie doubted that. It was Sharon who’d be disappointed given she’d organised the baby shower and she lived for the accompanying praise: ‘Great choice of presents, Sharon. What would we do without you?’ Georgie’s naive hope that kicking in twenty dollars to the farewell gift fund and signing the card would be enough faded fast. Experience had taught her that Sharon wouldn’t budge from the doorway until Georgie had exited the classroom.
She swallowed her sigh and picked up her Keep Calm and Pretend it’s on the Lesson Plan mug. ‘I was just on my way.’
She walked into the crowded staff room where a beaming Lucy sat surrounded by women and a staggering pile of gifts. Georgie busied herself putting a teabag in her mug and carefully filling it with water from the instant hot-water tap before joining the outer circle. This consisted entirely of the male staff members and she could hear the low rumble of a discussion about the cricket between the principal and the visiting psychologist.
She found herself standing next to the new relief PE teacher and realised with quiet regret that she couldn’t remember his name. Was it Brad or Brent? She was almost certain it started with a B but then again she might be grasping at straws. She really should pay more attention at staff meetings when the sessional staff members were introduced.
‘Do you want to hustle in?’ he asked, angling his body slightly so she could step forward.
She shook her head. ‘I’m fine here.’
Someone squealed and clapped. ‘Oh my God! Did you knit that, Sharon? It’s so tiny.’
Georgie gulped tea and immediately regretted it as it burned all the way down.
‘You sure you don’t want to see?’ The PE teacher, whose height dwarfed hers, gave her a cheeky grin. ‘I hear there’s a hand-smocked nightie although my favourite so far is the bib that says, “Party in my cot at 2 am, bring a bottle.”’
She summoned a bright smile, dredging it up from who knew where, and dragged it past the permanent brick of grief that was firmly cemented in her chest by a dull and empty ache. Locking the smile onto tight cheeks she said, ‘I’m guessing the student teachers bought that one.’
His chocolate caramel eyes crinkled around the edges. ‘Are you implying I’m past partying at 2 am?’
Georgie always found it hard to estimate anyone’s age but she’d hazard a guess that Brandon, Barton, Brendon—God, what was his name?—was thirty at the very least. She’d been thirty once. ‘I’m thinking you can make it to midnight once a week as long as the next day isn’t a school day.’
He laughed. ‘That’s both harsh and sadly true. I can’t even blame getting up in the night for kids. Do you have any?’
Given they were strangers at a baby shower it was a perfectly normal question; a societal standard like where did you go to school? Are you married? How long have you been teaching? A polite question and one whose answer he probably had very little interest in. It was a question she should have been prepared for and right up until the moment he’d asked it, she’d been confident. After all, she had rock-solid protective armour in place with no gaps for attack. Only, his question hit like a rogue grenade, knocking her off balance and throwing her back to a time and place that had stained her soul with the indelible ink of loss.
She badly wanted to answer yes, because it felt disrespectful to say no but a yes would only bring more questions. Questions that would slide off his tongue with the ease of rolling mercury. Questions that would batter and bruise her until she was blotchy and riddled with pain. So she lied like she always did with strangers. ‘Only the terrors of 2C.’
‘That class is nature’s contraception,’ he said, giving her a look that combined both respect and sympathy, ‘and I’ve only taught them twice for an hour each time.’
She found her tight smile relaxing into something more genuine. ‘Thanks for running them ragged for me. Rahul actually managed to sit still at his table for the next session. I think he was too exhausted to get out of his seat.’
‘I’ve got a lot of time for little boys who aren’t designed to sit,’ he said with a rueful smile.
She caught a glimpse of a curly-haired little boy with big brown eyes and an impish grin. She was about to ask if he’d caused his teachers angst when another round of oohs, ahhhs and ‘So cute!’ bounced off the staffroom walls. She focused on not wincing.
‘I don’t get it. It just looks like a blanket to me,’ Brock or Brady said, sounding bemused as he reported what he could easily see over the top of everyone else’s heads.
‘It will be hand embroidered with a ring of flowers, and accompanying bears or sheep,’ she offered by way of explanation despite wanting to avoid all discussion of baby accoutrements.
He took another look. ‘Sheep. You’ve obviously been to this rodeo before.’ Turning to the table that was groaning with food he picked up a platter and offered it to her. ‘Cake, Georgie?’
Oh, God. He knew her name. What the hell was his? Come on, brain. Spit it out. B … b …b … b … ‘Yes, please. Ah, thanks, B … Ben.’ His name shot out of her mouth.
‘Trying to remember my name’s been driving you crazy for the entire conversation, hasn’t it?’
‘Not at all, Ben,’ she said, trying to sound cool and queenly like her mother but failing miserably.
He laughed and once again his warm brown eyes gazed down at her. How had she failed to notice his lovely eyes before? Probably because she’d been busy wrangling 2C to line up so he could take them out for PE.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket and as it was recess she pulled it out and read the message.
This is the recipe you’re making for Edwina’s 65th party. Harriet x.
‘Bad news?’ Ben asked between mouthfuls of cake.
‘No.’ She slid her phone back into the pocket of her dress. ‘Just my bossy big sister in seventh heaven, aka, organising everyone. This time it’s for my mother’s birthday party, which I didn’t even know was being planned.’
A streak of understanding shot across Ben’s dimpled cheek. ‘Once the youngest, always the youngest.’
‘Exactly.’ A moment of simpatico passed between them, warming her. ‘You never get to have an opinion and you’re always told what to do.’
‘But you can get away with a lot.’ Mischief danced in his eyes. ‘I reckon Mum and Dad had run out of parenting energy by the time I arrived.’
‘You don’t sound very scarred by that.’
He shrugged. ‘Flying under the radar has its benefits.’
Georgie thought about her own parents. She’d certainly been the surprise baby. Had they been tired of the job by the time she’d arrived? Come to think of it, that might explain a lot.
The pre-bell music suddenly blared out of the speakers, signalling that recess was almost over, and Lucy made a quick thank-you speech, her hand unconsciously rubbing her pregnant belly. Everyone cheered. Georgie clapped politely. The bell finally rang, sending relief washing through her like a balm; she’d survived and she was now home free. Walking purposefully to the door, she escaped into the corridor and took her first deep breath in fifteen minutes.
Ben caught her up. ‘You going to drinks tonight at the pub after work?’
She rarely went to Friday-night drinks and she opened her mouth to say no, but instead she got a flash of her tiny rented house. If she didn’t count the mould in the shower, the only living things waiting for her there were her potted anthurium and her cat. ‘Maybe.’
Ben smiled. ‘Maybe I’ll see you there.’
He pushed open the outside door and she stood watching him run sure-footedly down the bank of concrete steps, the sun-kissed tips of his curly hair glinting in the sunshine.
Unless she’d been called out for an emergency, Harriet started most days with a run through the native grasslands and along the banks of the manna gum–lined creek. Today was no different. She’d run for years; it cleared her head, helped her prioritise the day’s tasks and it kept her slim. At forty-five, her daily run was more important than ever. She’d noticed any weight that snuck on thanks to holiday treats now sat high on her abdomen and she refused to be one of those women with a belly that started under her breasts.
Against the mocking laugh of the kookaburras, she turned back toward Miligili. It had always been a dream of hers to own one of the original Mannering homesteads and a decade ago she and James had bought the house and its accompanying five acres. Her ancestors had wanted to recreate a piece of England in this rugged, stony land with its sprawling gum trees and scrubby vegetation. In the 1870s and with money earned off the sheep’s back, they’d built spectacular mansions between Camperdown, Colac and Geelong. Miligili may have been the smallest but its grand Italianate style rivalled the great houses in Melbourne. She loved the house almost too much and every time she drove through the ornate iron gates, she got a buzz of happiness that it was their home.
Some people called her lucky but Harriet didn’t think luck had anything to do with it. She worked hard and she planned, and that meant she was able to take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves. She felt that the way she and James lived their lives taught Charlotte the same values. Goals and plans were important; Harriet had learned that from her own father and she was trying to instil it in her daughter. Too many school leavers had no clue what they wanted to study or they were deluded enough to believe they could earn a living wage in the creative arts. Thank goodness Charlotte had come around to Harriet’s suggestions that the family business of medicine was an ideal career.
After a shower, she joined James in the kitchen. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and handed her a skinny latte with an extra shot of coffee just like he’d done every morning since he’d bought the Italian espresso machine.
‘Thanks.’ She smiled at him as he sat at the table, appreciating that unlike many of his peer group, he hadn’t entered his mid-forties, gone to flab and lost his hair. He was still fit, fair and fabulous, and she loved the fact that he was her husband.
‘Can we sync our diaries?’ she asked as she sipped her coffee. ‘Complicated emergencies excepted, I’m finishing early on Friday so I can be at the golf tournament’s opening cocktail party. My registrar’s finally finding his feet so hopefully he can handle anything straightforward that comes through the door.’
James nodded, his fingers on his phone’s screen, opening his calendar. ‘It’s a big weekend and the press will be all over it. It would be great if you could be at the presentation on Sunday afternoon to hand out the trophies.’
She laughed. ‘Trophy wife hands out trophies.’
James took a moment to smile. ‘You’re far from a trophy wife.’
‘Well, I love being the mayoress and I’m so proud of you.’ She rested her hand on his shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze.
He tensed under her touch and she thought about how much James liked to win. ‘Have you been over-practising your drive?’
He shrugged. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Take some ibuprofen.’
They ran through the rest of the week’s commitments, including a visit to her mother, and she realised there was only going to be one night of the week when they’d both be home for dinner. James offered to cook. She accepted. Her husband was a keeper and she gave herself an imaginary hug, proud that twenty years ago she’d made the right choice in accepting an invitation to the Narrandera Bachelor and Spinsters Ball, even if she had dumped her date to spend the night with James.
Having finished her coffee, she turned her attention to her granola, fruit and yoghurt and as she ate, she checked her phone. Charlotte had sent a Snapchat of the girls’ rowing eight training on the Barwon River complete with a vivid sunrise behind them, and there was a message from Xara.
She waited for him to glance up from the business section of the newspaper, having learned over the years it was pointless saying anything until she had his undivided attention. ‘Can you call Steve today? Apparently he’s left messages at the office and at council about the cheque for the respite-care house.’
James frowned and then uncharacteristically thumped the table with his fist. ‘Bloody hell. Between the pen pushers at council and Bianca, it’s a miracle I get told anything. I’ll talk to her and remind her that I’m paying her to be my secretary, not to plan her wedding.’
Harriet was used to his tirades against Bianca and she’d suggested more than once he get a new secretary. James was resistant and said that despite Bianca’s failings she knew how the office worked. He didn’t have time to train someone new, especially now he was juggling his financial planning business with his mayoral duties.
‘Can’t you just action the cheque to speed things up?’ she asked, knowing how important the respite-care house project was to her sister.
He sighed; a sound that said she was utterly clueless as to how the machinations of council worked. ‘If it was my money I could write a cheque right now,’ he said slowly, precisely and with a whiff of condescension, ‘but it’s council so every i has to be crossed and every t has to be dotted before the cheque can be processed.’ He glanced at the big station clock that dominated the light and airy kitchen. ‘You hate being late so you better get going.’
As if to back up his words, the pips of the news sounded on the radio, prompting her to stand up, dump her bowl in the sink and gather her wallet, phone and key fob. As she put the three items into her handbag she noticed James had already put Nya’s money on the kitchen bench ready for their housekeeper like he’d done every Wednesday for years. Friends complained about their husbands’ lack of organisational skills but not her.
She leaned in to kiss him goodbye, breathing in the fresh, sharp scent of his citrus aftershave. ‘You’re a man in a million.’
An unreadable look crossed his face and lingered for a moment in his blue-grey eyes. He blinked and it vanished. ‘That’s me. Now go.’
He swatted her on her pencil-skirt-covered behind and she laughed as she walked out the door.
Georgie put her head down and walked quickly, pushing against the wind that whipped dust, dirt and tuckshop rubbish against her skin, gritty and harsh like an exfoliating scrub. The north wind had blasted its heat over the school all day, making the kids feral and the teachers irritable. Everyone had been relieved when the bell had sounded heralding not just the end of the day but the end of another week and they’d beaten a hasty retreat to the comfort of their air conditioner and an icy cold beverage of their choice. Now, an hour later, the school grounds were empty of parents, kids and staff, and Georgie’s car was one of only three left in the car park.
She gave thanks that she wasn’t in Billawarre, where wind like this not only created dust storms but flamed bush fires. A momentary twinge of conscience reminded her that she really should ring her mother as soon as she got home. Another gust of wind buffeted her and she tightened her grip on the stack of 2C’s writing and storybooks she was taking home to read and stamp with smiley faces. Just as she reached the car, a loud clap of thunder broke overhead, making her jump and sending the books wobbling wildly. A large, fat raindrop plopped onto her nose and she berated herself for not thinking to get her keys out of her bag before she’d left the classroom.
Georgie leaned her knees against the car door, trying to use her body to protect the books, and plunged her left hand into her cavernous rice-bag tote. She’d bought it at a fair-trade stall to support women in Cambodia and it held heaps, but without internal sections everything just fell into a big mess at the bottom. Her fingers located old tissues, her phone, a nail file, a container of Tic Tacs, tampons, lipstick, her spare glasses, a bottle of water, some hand wipes and her wallet, but no keys. She was just about to start a new search when she heard, ‘Hey, Georgie.’
She looked up to find Ben next to her with a backpack slung on his shoulder, a bike helmet on his head and his left hand balancing a road bike. Despite a lack of lycra, he looked like the PE teacher he was, wearing a polo shirt that fitted snugly across his chest, emphasising the fact that the man worked out.
The last time she’d seen him was a week ago at Friday-night drinks, along with a dozen other staff members. Each time she’d tried to start a conversation with him someone had interrupted them. A frustrating half an hour later, he’d left. Unlike her, he obviously had a social life outside of work. After he’d gone, she’d felt disappointed and relieved, as well as a little bit foolish. Prior to the event, she’d wasted a lot of emotional energy worrying about being rusty at the dating game but as it turned out, she needn’t have bothered. Despite what she’d considered to be some definite staffroom flirting at the baby shower, his suggestion she come to drinks hadn’t come close to a date. He’d probably only mentioned the pub to be friendly and she’d read far more into it than existed. She wasn’t sure why she’d done that, especially when she’d vacillated about going right up to and including when she’d walked through the door of the trendy Fitzroy bar. Even before her life had fallen apart she’d never been one for bars. The entire episode had been uncomfortable from start to finish. When she’d arrived at school on Monday morning and read the bulletin informing all staff that Ben was away at grade six camp for the week, relief had slid through her.
It had been another lesson in the complicated dance of Gen Y dating. Going back into the dating pool at thirty-four was not only terrifying, it was ten times worse than starting out as a pimply and gangly thirteen-year-old. Back then, despite her braces and insecurities, her expectations had been blissfully simple. She’d been full of the hope of meeting a boy who liked her and who wanted to spend time with her. Now, she found hope hard to come by, and the permanently loud and ticking clock in her brain via her ovaries never gave her a chance to forget she was aging fast. That deafening sound had tainted the few dates she’d forced herself to go on in the last few months, along with booming questions like, is he looking beyond now and a good time? Does he want kids or is he like Jason and he’s just saying what he thinks I want to hear? And the kicker: does he want to risk his hopes and dreams on me?
‘Looks like you could do with a hand,’ Ben offered, tilting his head toward her unsteady tower of workbooks.
‘Looks like you’ve got your hands full with the bike.’
A teasing smile lit up his eyes. ‘Don’t spread it around, but I can actually do two things at once.’
‘A bloke who can multitask? I’d like to see that.’
A deafening clap of thunder boomed around them, immediately followed by another drop of rain. It turned into two and then five before a deluge fell from the sky with the intensity of the bucket dump at a water park. She squealed as cold water cascaded off her hair and threatened the workbooks. Shoving them at Ben’s chest, she grabbed at her tote bag, pulling it from her side and around to her front. She tried again for the keys, her fingers surfing frantically through the contents as the rain soaked her sundress.
At last she found the key fob and pressed it. Her car blessedly beeped and its lights flashed. ‘Get in,’ she yelled as she opened the driver’s door and hopped inside.
Ben abandoned his bike and as she closed her door, he opened the front passenger door and rain blew horizontally into the car. Sliding into the seat, he slammed the door shut behind him. Raindrops hung precariously from the ends of his eyelashes and clung to the tips of his hair that stuck out through the spaces in his bike helmet. No man should be allowed to have eyelashes that thick and dark when women paid a fortune to have theirs extended.
‘Man, that’s coming down.’ He peered through the windscreen, which was a wall of water like the one at the National Gallery, and then he shook his head, sending water spraying all over her.
‘Hey!’ She laughed, putting her hands up to fend off the sprinkles. 'Are you part dog?’
He grinned and wiped his dripping face on the sleeve of his shirt before pulling the workbooks out from under his wet shirt. ‘Lookie here. Hardly damp at all.’ He leaned sideways, brushing her arm as he deposited the books on the back seat.
‘Thanks.’ The word came out a tiny bit strangled as a wave of goosebumps rose on her skin with a tingling whoosh.
In the small hatchback, she was suddenly very aware of Ben with his scent of sweat, rain and a soupçon of cologne. She shivered again, the sensations of heat and cold disconcerting her. In some ways it was a familiar rush and yet it had been absent for so long its return was vague and foreign. She put it down to an adrenaline surge sparked by being half-drowned and diving out of the rain. Feeling ridiculously self-conscious, she glanced down at her lap and froze. Her free-flowing cotton sundress was now transparent and it stuck to her like it had been vacuum sealed against her skin. She was fully clothed yet naked. To add insult to injury, her rain-cooled nipples clearly stood to attention. Just fabulous. She’d kill for a towel or a blanket, or for any sort of covering at all but since moving to Melbourne she didn’t need to keep a fire blanket or a horse blanket in the car. She had nothing.
Honestly, Georgie. You’re a walking disaster for embarrassing situations.
She shoved Harriet’s voice out of her head and started the car.
‘You’re not going to kick me out into that are you?’
The rain was rock-band loud, hammering on the car’s roof but the embarrassed part of her wanted to be alone. ‘Well, you’re already wet so …’
‘That’s a bit harsh.’ He opened his big brown eyes wide and gave her a hangdog look. ‘Especially after I heroically saved 2C’s books.’
‘That’s true,’ she said, feeling her smile slide off her face under the onslaught of chattering teeth. She turned the heater on full tilt in an attempt to warm up. ‘But I’m frozen.’
He glanced at her. ‘You need to get out of that dress.’
And expose stretch marks and surgical scars? ‘Yeah, that won’t be happening.’
Despite his deep tan, the tips of his ears turned bright pink. ‘I didn’t mean right now.’ His embarrassment rode off him in waves. The fact that it came with a certain old-worldliness made her regret her quip, which had been all to do with her issues and nothing to do with him.
‘Sorry. Cheap shot.’
His wide mouth tweaked up on the left as if to say, Yup, I agree. ‘What I meant was you need a hot shower. I live just around the corner, so you’re welcome to warm up and dry your dress. Or I can lend you some clothes to get you home.’
His kindness made her feel even worse for the off-hand comment but the thought of hot water warming her icy skin was too good an offer to refuse. ‘Thank you, that’s very kind. But what about your bike?’
He jerked his thumb toward the back of the car. ‘You’ve got those magic seats. If I put them down, the bike will be a sweet fit.’
‘Sounds like a plan.’
Twenty minutes later, Georgie was wrapped up in one of Ben’s shirts and wearing a pair of soft cotton trackie pants that she’d rolled up ten centimetres. She was ensconced on his couch, sipping a mug of hot tea and feeling a lot more relaxed than she’d been in the car.
‘So while we wait for your dress to dry, do you want pizza, Chinese, Thai, Indian, fish and chips, Japanese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Greek, Italian …?’ Ben asked, shuffling menus like a deck of cards.
‘And this is what I love about Melbourne,’ she said, raising her mug in his direction, ‘there’s so much choice. I grew up in the country and our takeaway options were limited to fish and chips, a sole-your-shoe steak sandwich or Chinese.’
‘Me too.’ His eyes creased at the edges as a smile raced into them. ‘When we had Chinese, Dad always ordered number forty-three.’
She laughed, feeling absurdly excited that he was familiar with the numbered menu that was found in so many rural Chinese restaurants around the country. ‘Beef in black bean sauce.’
‘Yes.’ Ben grinned at her. ‘It’s decided. We’re reliving our childhood and having Chinese.’
‘Can I have my dim sims steamed?’
‘Steamed?’ he said with mock horror. ‘Sounds like someone’s forgotten her country roots.’
His teasing was easy and friendly, and with some good-natured bickering, they finally settled on their order of dim sims, spring rolls, special fried rice, honey chicken and beef with ginger and spring onions. Ben ordered it online before walking into his small kitchen.
‘So country girl, do you want a rum and coke?’
In her twenties, she’d been to enough B&S balls to know that rum was the drink of choice of many of her contemporaries, but she’d been raised around good-quality wines, which she preferred over spirits. Over the past five years, Jason’s job as a wine rep had cemented her choice. ‘Do you have any white wine?’
His hand paused on the door of the fridge and he shot her a bemused look. ‘First no fried dimmies and now you want wine? Exactly where did you grow up?’
She gave an apologetic grimace. ‘The Western District.’
‘Ah.’ The knowing sound echoed around his flat. ‘Let me guess? You’re the daughter of a rich grazier, you went to boarding school and you grew up in the country but you identify more with the city.’
She was used to this type of reaction and once she would have defended herself against the implied criticism but as she’d already leaped to one incorrect conclusion about Ben today, she let this one wash over her. ‘Your crystal ball’s a little foggy. One grandfather was both a grazier and a well-known Victorian parliamentarian but Dad was a doctor.’
‘And your mum?’
How did she explain her mother? Since the death of her father, Georgie had given more thought to her mother than she had for the rest of her thirty-four years. ‘She’s a woman of her generation and her job was raising me and my two sisters as well as being the woman behind the man. Before I was born she did a lot of socialising to help build the practice. Dad was new to Billawarre and her family had the connections. Now she golfs, belongs to the CWA and the historical society, and she raises money for a children’s charity.’ She thought about the respite-care house and how Edwina had helped raise money for it. ‘My middle sister’s daughter has cerebral palsy,’ she added by way of explanation.
‘That’s tough,’ he said holding up a bottle of sauvignon blanc. ‘This okay?’
He poured her a glass and opened a beer for himself. Carrying both drinks over, he handed her the wine before settling next to her on the couch. ‘Cheers.’
She raised her glass and took a sip. The wine was overly cold and the chill had muted the crisp fruity flavours. She set it on the coffee table so it could warm up. ‘What about you? Where did you grow up?’ she asked, more interested in his story than she’d been about anyone else’s in a long time.
‘Mildura.’ He gave a self-deprecating shrug. ‘I don’t have quite the same illustrious family history as you. For starters, I can’t claim a parliamentarian.’
She laughed. ‘I’m not sure I claim Gramps either. He was a staunch Country Party member and therefore aligned himself with the Liberals. He died years ago but if he were still alive we’d have clashed a lot on ideology. Unless, of course, he’d done a Malcolm Fraser.’
‘So you’re the radical member of your family?’ he asked with a mischievous glint in his lovely brown eyes.
She thought about Harriet’s obsession with family history—the way she lived her life entrenched in tradition—and Xara’s seeming disregard for it. Had Georgie rebelled against anything or had she just done what she wanted with no one seeming to notice? ‘Remember, I’m the youngest just like you.’
His face lit up with understanding. ‘Hard to be radical isn’t it? By the time we were old enough to do anything outrageous our siblings had already done it all. Didn’t leave us with much to rebel against, eh?’
‘I think there might be something to your theory.’ She pulled her knees up to her chin. ‘Even though you can’t claim a parliamentarian, I bet you have someone interesting in your family. What about a convict?’ She thought about her childhood disappointment. ‘I turned six in the bicentennial year,’ she said by way of explanation, ‘and I was desperate for a convict relative but all I’ve got are dour Presbyterians.’
‘Going to have to disappoint you there. We don’t have any convicts either.’ He met her gaze. ‘A branch of my father’s family wasn’t a big fan of white settlement.’
His tone was very matter-of-fact and she suddenly saw his deep tan, big brown eyes and dark curly hair in a whole new light; his heritage wasn’t Mediterranean as she’d previously thought. Ben was Aboriginal.
Her mind immediately and uncomfortably slid to the Mannering family folklore. How her great-great-grandfather and his brothers had arrived, squatted on the fertile Western District’s plains and dispossessed the local Aboriginal people of their land. The story of how Thomas Mannering had bravely fought off an attack by the Gulidjan people and saved William from being murdered was proudly recorded in the family bible. Not so long after the one-sided clashes with the Gulidjan, the brothers had weathered the drastic loss of staff rushing to the goldfields by being pragmatic and employing Aboriginal stationhands. It was a tradition that had lasted a century or more, but by the time Georgie had been born, the large stations had been whittled down— lands taken for soldier settlements, lands sold to pay death duties, land divided among descendants—and it had probably been three or four decades since an Aboriginal person had been on the payroll.
She swallowed against an odd feeling of the past suddenly inserting itself uninvited into the room. On an intellectual level, she knew she wasn’t responsible for the sins of her forebears but that didn’t stop her from feeling uncomfortable. Part of her wanted to blurt out, I voted Labour and supported the Apology, but that would make her sound as if she was begging for absolution and she wasn’t. Was she? She’d never been this close and personal with such a fraught topic before and she wasn’t quite sure what to say. No wonder people mostly stuck to their true and tried social groups—it avoided discomfort just like this.
She had a couple of Aboriginal kids in her class and she knew enough to know the words ‘caste’ or ‘part Aboriginal’ were no longer used to define Aboriginal heritage, and nor was skin colour. A person either identified as Aboriginal or they didn’t, and it was all based on their relationships.
She went for the base question. ‘Do you identify as Aboriginal?’
He shrugged. ‘Bit hard when I don’t know any of my relatives on Dad’s side of the family. By the time I was born, his mother and grandmother were dead and he never knew his father. Mum’s side of the family are the only extended family I know.’
‘What about your dad? Does he identify?’
‘It’s not something we’ve ever talked about. He married an Italian girl and spent the seventies and eighties establishing a workshop in Mildura. I think most people thought he was Italian.’ He sipped his beer. ‘I reckon claiming to be an Aboriginal back then would have been professional suicide.’
She was both fascinated and intrigued. Her family’s history was laid out in a framed tree that went back generations to the Middle Ages in England. It hung in the hall of her mother’s house, and in the halls of her uncle’s, her cousins’ and second cousins’ houses across the country. It hung very proudly in Harriet’s home and although Xara didn’t have it on her wall, Georgie knew she had a copy stashed somewhere. Georgie hadn’t bothered to hang hers again since she’d moved out of the house she’d shared with Jason because, as her only artwork, it looked pretentious. But her few hundred years of family history were nothing compared with the sixty thousand years Ben could claim.
The doorbell pealed and Ben unfolded himself from the couch, picked up his wallet and went to the door. Georgie walked into the kitchen and opened cupboards until she found plates and cutlery.
They met back at the coffee table. ‘That smells amazing.’
‘We can only hope it tastes as good,’ he said, passing her a wax-lined brown paper bag containing three steamed dim sims swimming in soy sauce. ‘Here’s your poor excuse for a dimmie.’
‘Yum. Thanks.’ She popped them on a plate before peeling back the tight plastic lids from the rest of the food. ‘Dad used to tell me that when he and Mum first got married, they took their saucepans to the Chinese restaurant for takeaway.’
‘Same,’ Ben said with a smile.
It was a wide and cheeky smile—full of the good things in life—and for the first time in a long time, it made her feel almost carefree. She smiled back, enjoying the sensation. It had been a long time since she’d felt this way. They loaded their plates with food and settled back on the couch, both opting to use a fork instead of the wooden chopsticks that had come with the order.
After commenting on the food—great flavours, could have done with more cashews and less spring onions—Georgie brought the conversation back to where they’d left off when the meal arrived. ‘So you don’t have much information about your Aboriginal heritage?’
‘I have about as much as I have about my Italian one. The family tree pretty much stalls on both sides at the great-grandparents.’ His brows suddenly rose over his bowl of fried rice. ‘Should I be more interested in one over the other?’
‘I don’t know. I guess not.’ The question brought up an interesting dilemma for her given she’d totally bypassed his Italian heritage with her questions. ‘Actually, maybe I thought you’d be more interested in your Aboriginal heritage because you live in Australia. We’re always being told about Aboriginal people’s connection to country.’
A sick feeling swirled her Chinese food around her stomach. Country my ancestors stole from yours.
Georgie, for heaven’s sake, Harriet’s voice echoed in her head. You don’t hear the English saying they feel guilty over what happened in Scotland in the eighteenth century. Besides, we don’t even own a tenth of that land anymore.
Ben leaned toward the coffee table and refilled his plate. ‘So much of my Aboriginal ancestry is missing that I was never given that connection. There’s a sad irony in the way my Italian grandfather used to fill my palm with the soil from under his vines and tell me that all things good came from the earth. I’ve never known Dad to take much notice of the bush at all but he’s magic with an engine. He’d fill my palm with oil and tell me how important it was.’
‘Did he grow up in Mildura?’
He shook his head. ‘Nah, he came from somewhere in outback New South. His birth certificate says Wilcannia.’
‘I have no idea where that is.’
‘I only know cos I looked it up on a map once for a school project. Dad never talks about his life before he met Mum. He’s not a big talker, full stop. I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with the time he spent in Vietnam or if he was like that before he got conscripted. Either way, Mum did most of the talking for both of them.’
She caught the past tense. ‘Did?’
Ben spun his fork through his rice. ‘Yeah. She died a couple of years ago. Cancer. Dad took it hard.’
He gave a silent nod.
She tried her wine again and this time the zip of gooseberries hit her tongue and she remembered her father teaching her how to swill the wine in her mouth so the liquid touched all her taste buds. ‘My father passed away almost fourteen months ago.’ She added hastily, ‘Not that I’m trying to be in competition with you.’
He gave her a long look, his eyes filling with bemusement. ‘Why would you even think that?’
She shrugged. ‘Probably because after Dad died in a freak accident we had strangers telling us stories about how their relative died. It was like they thought it would cheer us up or make us feel less cheated. I don’t really know why they did it but it happened so often that my sisters and I started rating their stories as being either less freaky or more freaky than Dad’s death.’
His expression was part horrified, part amused and definitely intrigued. ‘Now you’ve made me want to ask how he died.’ He held up his hand like a stop sign. ‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.’
‘It’s okay. I’ve asked you a heap of nosy questions so it only seems fair.’ She told him the story in the script she’d developed and adapted over the months. ‘Dad spent one week a month in Melbourne lecturing at the school of medicine at Melbourne Uni. He always stayed at a serviced apartment and parked his car in the adjacent multistorey car park. On this particular day just as he returned to the car, a woman was reversing out of her space. She had a heart attack at the wheel and the car slammed straight into Dad, crushing him against a concrete pillar. He died instantly.’
‘God. That must have been traumatic for your family. At least we had a few months to get used to the fact we were losing Mum.’
‘Yeah, it was tough but it’s been the hardest for Harry and Mum.’ Ben’s brow furrowed in confusion and she explained, ‘Harry’s my eldest sister. She’s a surgeon and she shared a practice with Dad. Mum was a career wife and she seems all at sea without him, which is why Harry’s insistent on throwing this huge birthday party for her.’
‘Ah, the big sister who texted the other day.’ Ben refilled her wine. ‘Maybe we should introduce your mum and my dad so they can keep each other company.’
She smiled politely but no matter which way she came at it, she couldn’t imagine her immaculately dressed mother with her blonde bob, signature string of pearls and perfectly elocuted vowels having anything in common with a motor mechanic. ‘The five hundred kilometre distance between them could be problematic.’
‘True.’ He relieved her of her empty plate and set it down on the table. ‘Will you be spending all of the holidays in … Where do you live?’
Was he asking because he wanted to catch up with her in the holidays or was he just being polite? ‘I live in Essendon. My mother and sisters live in Billawarre and to answer your question, I’m hoping to get away with spending the first week up the bush.’ She forced herself to sound as casual as he did. ‘What are your plans?’
He shrugged. ‘I was going to go straight to Mildura but Dad’s on a road trip. He loves restoring old cars and he’s off somewhere, driving around with a group of old codgers. I suggested he come and visit me but he insisted I go to Mildura in the second week.’
‘That sounds fun,’ she said, disappointed that they’d be away at different times.
He gave a wry smile. ‘Not nearly as much fun as spending a week getting to know you. Still, perhaps we can do that after the holidays or …’ He ran his hand through his hair as if he was regretting speaking.
She was clutching on tightly to the fact that he’d said getting to know her might be fun. She wasn’t going to let that disappear down a rabbit hole never to be heard of again. ‘What were you going to suggest?’
He shook his head and his curls bounced wildly. ‘Don’t worry, it probably wouldn’t work.’
She leaned forward. ‘Try me.’
He sighed, the sound laced with embarrassment. ‘That would mean exposing the fact my social life is currently nonexistent and I have nothing planned this weekend except for shopping and washing. No guy wants to look desperate.’
She found herself smiling at him. ‘Then I’m equal to you in the desperate loser stakes.’
‘Hey!’ He held up a warning finger but his eyes twinkled. ‘I never said I was a loser. I find it hard to believe that you’re desperate or dateless.’
She choked on her wine. ‘I bet you say that to all the girls.’
He grinned. ‘Only the ones with eyes that remind me of the Mildura sky. Do people comment on your eyes?’
She thought about her childhood and how people in the district immediately identified her as a Mannering the moment they saw the colour of her eyes. ‘They do. My eyes got me into a lot of trouble as a kid because they were so recognisable. I share the colour with my mother, sisters and my nieces. Apparently it dates back to my Scottish ancestors.’ She set down her glass, determined to chase the elusive rabbit down the hole. ‘So, what did you have in mind for this weekend?’
He’d relaxed the moment she’d confessed to having nothing on this weekend. Now his arm was slung along the back of the couch and he was all loose limbed and easy grace. ‘Can you ride a bike?’
‘Ah … yes,’ she said cautiously, already worried that dating a PE teacher might mean pushing herself out of her semi-slothful comfort zone. ‘But isn’t tomorrow going to be hot again?’
He shot her an indulgent look as if he knew it might have been a while since she’d ridden a bike. ‘We’ll start early and finish for brunch and a swim.’
‘We’re talking a flat bike trail, right?’
He laughed. ‘Yes.’
‘With only two weeks to go until the holidays, I guess I can delay my Saturday sleep-in.’
‘Awesome.’ They traded mobile numbers and then she stood and collected her still damp sundress. Plucking the shirt she was wearing, she asked, ‘Can I return these clothes tomorrow?’
‘No worries.’ He rose from the couch and walked her out to her car.
Standing next to him, her gaze level with his chest, she suddenly felt not only short but also self-conscious. It didn’t make a lot of sense because throughout the evening she’d been more relaxed than she’d been in a long time. She tilted her head back so she could see his face.
‘Ah, thanks for the shower, the loan of your clothes and the wine.’ She reached for her purse, pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and pushed it into his hand. ‘My contribution to dinner.’
He pushed back. ‘No.’
He shook his head, his expression shadowed in the fast-fading light. ‘Tell you what. You can buy me pizza one night and we’ll be square.’
One night sounded good. Very good. ‘You’re on.’
She pressed the car’s key fob and he shot out his hand, opening the door for her. ‘Stay dry, Georgie.’ A grin dimpled his cheeks.
‘I’ll do my best.’ She paused for a moment and then, feeling foolish, hopped into the car.
He closed the door behind her as she shoved her key into the ignition. She turned on the engine so she could wind down the window. ‘Thanks for a lovely evening.’
‘Any time.’ He leaned in and brushed his lips against her cheek so quickly it was over before she’d realised it had begun. ‘Drive safely.’ He slapped the roof of the car just like every country bloke she’d ever known, and then turned and walked away.
Heady warmth tumbled through her and she wanted to hug it close as much as she wanted to push it away. Hope was a double-edged sword and right now she didn’t want to expend any energy on something that might fall over by lunchtime tomorrow. Or not. Either way, it was way too early to be hoping that this might go somewhere.
A shimmer skittered from her scalp to her toes making her buzz more than a shot of espresso; her body was very much at odds with her brain. It was attraction versus logic and hope versus pessimism and the combination left her feeling giddy and a little light-headed. She pulled in a deep breath, flicked the indicator and pulled out into the quiet street.
For the next twenty minutes she sang loudly to the radio, trying not to replay all of the evening’s conversations in her head. She failed dismally. The fact was she liked Ben; he intrigued her. Funny how they’d both spent a lot of time talking about their families but not about themselves. Actually, it wasn’t funny at all. So often more was said about a person’s life by not speaking and she didn’t talk about the last two years if she could possibly avoid it.
Her mind started to wander back to that bitter night when every dream she’d ever held about motherhood had been obliterated in a terrifying and bloody mess. Of the chilling and never-ending silence that had followed. It only took one heartbeat to separate life and death; to cleave a child from its mother with wrenching and irrevocable finality. One. Tiny. Beat.
The familiar knot of heartache tightened in her chest and she gripped the steering wheel harder than necessary. Would she ever be able to think of Eliza without finding it hard to breathe? Would the intense loss of her daughter and the anger she levelled at her own body for letting Eliza down so badly and stealing her chance at motherhood ever metamorphose into something less raw? She didn’t know. Part of her didn’t want it to change, because the fear of forgetting was worse than remembering.
She pulled up in her driveway and set about collecting her gear from the car, including 2C’s books, before walking the short distance to the front door. As she rounded the closed-in section of the small veranda, she caught a flash of movement.
Her heart took off at a gallop. Intruder! A scream leaped into her throat and exited loud and fast through wide-open lips that would have made an opera singer proud. The high-pitched and piercing sound tore around the small space, threatening the early twentieth-century coloured glass.
‘It’s only me, Auntie G. I didn’t mean to frighten you.’
‘Charlie?’ She peered into the gloom as the booming sound of her blood in her ears receded. ‘God. You just gave me a heart attack.’
Her niece was tall, willowy and as graceful as a gazelle, courtesy of years of ballet classes and Harriet’s determination that no child of hers would slouch. Right now though, the gazelle looked slumped and the toes of her ballet flats were doing a decent job of trying to bore a hole into the veranda boards.
Georgie’s rattled brain rapidly recovered from its fright and started sifting through the information. It was nine-thirty on a Friday night in the middle of the rowing season and Charlotte was seventy kilometres from school. Harriet hadn’t texted or called her to mention a visit. Her gaze slid to the side and she caught sight of Charlotte’s Country Road duffle bag; the overnight bag of choice for every female boarder at her school.
Her niece was as social as her mother and just like Harriet, Charlotte always expected to get her own way. Harriet had probably said no to a party and Charlotte had taken matters into her own hands. Georgie swallowed a sigh. She really didn’t want to have to ring Harriet and have a difficult conversation.
‘Charlie, it’s lovely to see you but exactly why are you here?’
Her confident niece promptly burst into tears.
A sinking feeling pressed in on Georgie, sending her stomach plummeting to her toes. Something was going on and whatever it was, it had just scuttled tomorrow morning’s bike ride with Ben.