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Moira Kathleen O’Brien stacked the last bag of treats into the trolley, along with her groceries, and bade the checkout attendant a happy Halloween. The teenager looked a little stunned. Australia had only embraced the celebration in the past few years, so a greeting was unexpected, even with the distinctive black-and-orange range of Halloween goodies on prominent display. During her time in the service, Moira had spent a lot of time with US troops on deployments and had happily adopted another excuse to celebrate. And eat chocolate. Not that she needed an excuse for a daily necessity.
She checked her phone on the way through the small shopping centre, not noticing the young girl standing outside the pharmacy.
“Moira O’Brien? What are you doing here?”
Blinking to refocus, Moira stared at the familiar face. The girl had been eleven going on sixty the last time she’d seen her, which made her around twelve now. Still going on sixty, if her haughty expression was any indication. “Emilia? Shouldn’t I be asking you that? Are you here on a holiday?”
“No. We moved here a couple of months ago.”
The girl didn’t look terribly pleased. Not that Moira had been privileged to see Emilia Tsiarkas pleased about much. In her brief association with the girl’s father, it had been clear Emilia was not impressed with his interest in another woman so soon after the death of his wife and her mother. “I thought you were settled in Brisbane.”
“We were. Until Dad had a heart attack on the day of the wedding.” She said it like an accusation.
Something jolted in her gut. “He’s not even forty. Too young to have a heart attack, surely.”
“They said it was stress. I wonder why he would have been stressed. Why do you think, Moira? Any suggestions?”
A chill tightened itself around her heart. The wedding that never happened. She pressed her hand against her stomach. Maybe it was her fault. They hadn’t told Emilia the full story.
“He’s all right, isn’t he?”
The girl relented. “Yeah. I guess. He has to take it easy for a while, so he decided on a ‘tree change’.” She did the quote thing with her fingers.
“The doctor said it was a warning. No permanent damage.”
“That’s good. I’m pleased for you.”
Emilia eyed her warily with dark irises flecked with amber, so like her father’s. “Did you know he was here? Did you follow him?”
“My family live here. I grew up in Kurrajong Crossing.”
“I’m not surprised you left. Why are you back?”
The sneer didn’t stop the girl from being pretty, with her milky complexion and thick raven-dark hair in braids. More attributes she’d inherited from her father, along with the slender height. Gio Tsiarkas was a beautiful man, and his daughter would grow into a beautiful woman once she grew out of the gawky awkward stage. Moira debated how much to tell the girl.
“I’m here to work for my dad. He runs a tourist operation.”
“You mean you’re back for good?” She looked around as if seeking escape.
“Is that a problem?”
“Have you seen my dad since you left?”
The girl raised an eyebrow, accentuating the resemblance to her father. “But you weren’t here when we first moved. Where were you?”
“Is that your business?”
A flush of colour stained Emilia’s cheeks. “I guess not.”
“I had work and then I visited some cousins. Okay?”
“I bet it was more fun than here.”
“Don’t you like the Crossing?”
“It’s not too bad, I suppose. Now I’ve got friends. The first few weeks were deadly.”
“Friends make all the difference.” She wondered if Gio had made friends. Single men were in short supply in the small town. It was over twelve months since his wife died of cancer, so the guilt thing shouldn’t be so acute.
Emilia shifted her gaze to somewhere behind Moira. “I need to go.”
She scooted away and Moira scanned the shopping centre. The girl’s father was nowhere in sight, but she might have been shopping with a housekeeper. They’d had one in Brisbane. When she looked for the girl, Emilia had vanished.
It was unnerving thinking of the Tsiarkas family living here. It meant she might run into him. Them. She didn’t know how she’d feel if she saw Gio. They hadn’t parted well.
They hadn’t begun well either.
It didn’t take long to unpack her groceries in the small kitchen of her grandmother’s cottage. Eileen O’Brien had passed the large family home near the airport to her eldest son, Joseph, and his seven children after the death of her husband nearly twenty years ago. She’d moved into a little cottage and co-opted a determinedly unmarried niece to be her companion and, in later years, her nurse.
Three of Moira’s brothers—Gerry, Joe Junior and Brendan—had moved back home with their dad, once they returned to the Crossing after university. Connor had his own place and Cormac lived in the little cottage supplied by the police department. Fergus was still out in the world, his career as an airline pilot taking him to London.
After twelve years away, most of them in the army, Moira had no intention of living at home. She was the second youngest of the seven, and the only girl, and she knew the men would designate her chief cook and bottle washer again. It had been a relief when her aunt Nora had declared her need of a holiday and co-opted Moira into staying with Nana for a few weeks. It gave her time to search for her own place.
She’d see plenty of her father and Joe Jr at work. Too much, if her father’s overprotective parenting hadn’t changed in the intervening years. After losing his wife when Cormac was born, he’d been left with a pack of wild kids he’d struggled to bring up. His sister-in-law had taken over the house and kids for a while, until she’d thrown her hands up in frustration and married someone from out of town to escape. Poor Aunt Ellie.
She didn’t have Nana’s capacity to see that Joseph O’Brien would never take responsibility for the day-to-day upbringing of his kids unless he was left to it. The result had been interesting, but it had forced her father to reconnect with his kids before they’d left home to study in the city. None of them were married, but Moira was the one girl, so expectations had settled on her to take over the role of female in residence. After being the ‘mum’ through her teenage years, the army had been the perfect declaration of independence.
Tipping the Halloween treats into a large bowl, Moira allowed herself to recall meeting Emilia. At least she was unlikely to see Gio Tsiarkas around town. He’d be holed up in his home office, wherever that might be, writing one of his bestselling thrillers. Or working on a film script based on one of his books. He wouldn’t be trawling bars looking to drown his sorrows after his wife’s death. A smart guy like him wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
No way was she reading anything into his sudden decision to move to Kurrajong Crossing. Moira may have raved about growing up here during that long night together, but there’d been no possibility of her moving home back then. If he was after a tree change, it was high on the list of likely places. One of those lifestyle programs did a television special on the town when Zac Hart announced his intention of making Kurrajong Crossing his home base. He wasn’t the only famous musician to call the Crossing home, and a famous author would find a lively artistic community if he was looking to socialise with like-minded people.
The town was an interesting mix of farmers, graziers, cattlemen, and winemakers, with a growing tourist industry, perched as it was on the rim of the Great Dividing Range. It even snowed occasionally. For most of the winter, a fireplace made a pleasant addition to the ambience of the tourist accommodation. She’d loved growing up here, but her interests had aligned with what the district offered. Walks and climbing in the national park, swimming in the summer. Flying. Most of all, flying. She’d learned to fly her father’s old Piper before she was big enough to reach the pedals, sitting on his lap to learn the controls.
The sun was already setting when she finished decorating the front yard of the cottage, placing candlelit plastic pumpkins along the path and amongst the perennials that were Nana’s pride and joy. She’d thought briefly about doing the whole carving thing, but she wasn’t the artist Trudie was, with her wacky real pumpkins two doors up. Her old high school friend was lighting up as well, her usual colourful hippy outfits exchanged for witch’s robes like the ones Moira wore.
Identical actually, with a Morticia Addams vibe in the trailing sleeves. Trudie had sewn both gowns when Moira complained about finding suitable ones for her close-to-six-foot height. Trudie was nearly as tall but didn’t have the solid muscle Moira had gained in her years in the army.
The treats were ready in a large orange-and-black bowl, with more in the kitchen in case they ran out. All Moira had to do was settle her grandmother on the old-fashioned swing on the verandah to enjoy the comings and goings along the street. Inspired by each other, or in competition, quite a few of the other residents had joined the festivities, giving the neighbourhood an ambient orange glow. Not surprising when Smith Street was already popular as the place to go for Christmas decorations, the lights on the houses doing double duty this year.
Already there was activity, vehicles pulling into the car park at the end of the street near the lake shore.
It took a few moments to establish Nana on her seat with a plate of her favourite fish and chips to enjoy. By then, the first group of children were coming up the path with their bright orange plastic buckets to collect their treats.
Moira didn’t know most of them but would redress that once she started at the dance school. Some of them would be children of her old schoolmates. She winced at the twinge in her chest. You made choices and lived with them.
It was a fun evening, with a good number of the families dressing up, but her legs were tired long before the crowds thinned to a last trickle. She’d met a few people she knew, those who’d chosen to stay in town, or had returned after college out of town.
Nana had gone inside to watch her usual shows on television, so Moira was alone when the last group arrived at her gate. She’d restocked the bowl numerous times, but there were a couple of handfuls left. She’d been eying them off for supper when the squeak of the gate informed her of the new arrivals. They were dressed all in black as the Addams family, 60s version. Or before. Moira had liked the movie remakes she’d had on DVD as a child. These children would know the fairly recent animated version.
The girls she recognised. The blonde was the daughter of a school friend who’d married straight out of school. “Hi, Miri.” She turned to the other girl, who eyed her with undisguised hostility. “Hi, Emilia.”
Lastly, she dragged up her gaze to the impassive expression and slicked back hair of Emilia’s father. The dense inky colour emphasised the pallor of his skin, requiring no make-up for the ghostly effect. “Hello, Gio.”
He inclined his head, the sleek sable hair with the widow’s peak at the front giving him a sinister air.
He might have been Dracula, if he wasn’t already magnificent as Gomez Addams. Emilia, with her hair in long plaits, made a perfect Wednesday and cropped blonde Miri in her striped shirt and baggy shorts was obviously meant to be Pugsley. The only one missing was Morticia and Moira had to stop herself thinking how well she would fit in the family group.
Forcing a smile, she held out the bowl of sweets. “You all look fabulous.” She refrained from overtly studying Gio in his dark suit, black silk shirt and dark red bow tie. He was Halloween treat incarnate.
Miri helped herself, picking her favourites from among the brightly wrapped chocolates. For a moment, Moira thought Emilia was going to refuse, but after Miri gave her a puzzled look, she stepped up.
“I’m finishing up for the night, so you might as well empty the bowl. Did you want to take some for your brothers?”
Miri perked up. “The boys are with Dad tonight. Can we really have the rest?”
In response, Moira tipped the bowl to pour the contents into the two girls’ bright orange buckets, sharing them evenly. “Otherwise, I’ll eat them myself, and that would be a bad thing.”
Gio moved closer. Too close for comfort. “You shouldn’t deprive yourself.”
That rich chocolate voice was enough to melt her where she stood, without the faint hint of his scent, something citrusy with a tang of pepper. Bergamot? She firmed her wobbly knees. “I won’t be deprived. I have my own stash inside.”
“Clever. I suppose you plan on curling up with a bowl of chocolate and a suitable Halloween movie as soon as the street is empty.”
“You know me so well.” The banter struck a chord in her memory and heat bloomed under her skin. He knew her well, in one sense at least.
The two girls were staring, Emilia with a scowl, Miri with her brows drawn together in puzzlement.
“Don’t worry, Miri. I met Mr Tsiarkas and Emilia in Brisbane last year.”
Miri’s round face smoothed into a smile. “When you were on leave from the army?”
There was a hiss of indrawn breath from someone, maybe Emilia, maybe her father.
“But you aren’t going back this time.”
“No, I was discharged a few months ago. My time was up, and I chose not to re-enlist.”
Emilia tugged at her father’s sleeve. “Are we finished here?”
He looked at Moira, his dark eyes warm. “For the moment. I’ll see you around, won’t I? Are you home for good now?”
“Yes. I’ll be working with my family.”
His gaze explored the length of her body and came to rest on her head. “You’ve grown your hair.”
Moira touched the straggly ends. “Now I’m not wearing a helmet to fly twenty hours of the day, I figured I might as well let it grow out.”
Emilia tugged again. He gave a wry smile. “I have to go.”
He hesitated at the open gate. “You look good.”
Moira pushed down the pleasure at the compliment. She waved vaguely in the direction of the town centre. “I’m surprised you left the city for somewhere like the Crossing. Any particular reason?”
“Maybe you sold it to me.”
He looked like he might say more, until a snort from Emilia set him moving. Moira returned the wry smile as he followed the girls along the path.
Miri waved happily, already chewing on one of her chocolate bars.
She stood at the gate, watching them stroll along the street. Everyone else had gone inside apart from Trudie, who was extinguishing her pumpkins. Normally Moira might have wandered over for a chat, but her chest felt too full, her throat too tight. She raised a hand in acknowledgement when Trudie paused in her task to tilt her head inquiringly. Not tonight, she mouthed, and Trudie shrugged and headed inside.
At the car park Gio and the girls were piling into a sleek black sedan. Most likely an updated model of the dark blue hybrid Lexus he was driving last year. Pulling herself together, she blew out the last of the candles and went inside. It had never been likely that Gio Tsiarkas would want a serious relationship with her. It had been a mistake right from the first meeting.
Gio forced himself to focus on the road as he drove back to the property on the edge of town he’d purchased some months ago. The grief counsellor had said not to make any major decisions until twelve months down the track, but he’d been ready to leave the city long before. Ready to say goodbye to the place he’d lived in with Stephanie in those last years where she’d been dying slowly and surely. Christmas last year had been miserable in a house full of memories. He’d determined at that moment to make sure their next Christmas would be different.
The girls were chattering in the back seat. He’d been relieved when Emilia had picked up a friend a few days after arriving in Kurrajong Crossing. She missed her classmates in the city and the vast array of entertainment. He recalled with a half-smile her horror at learning the nearest cinema was over half an hour away in Bialga.
Miri had suggested the dance school and Emilia had grabbed at the familiar option with the desperation of someone drowning. That entertained her for three afternoons a week, taking every class available for her age group at the small school.
Paying the fees was a small price to assuage the guilt of taking her away from her home turf. Guilt was something he had to live with these days, but at least Emilia was settling down. School, friends and an outside interest. Their new saltwater swimming pool would be ready to use soon, and she’d invite her friends over.
He looked forward to the summer days and bringing his laptop outside to the patio overlooking the pool to supervise them while he worked. A completely different life to the one he’d lived in Brisbane.
The long driveway framed by poplars was a little rough after the recent rain. The pool contractor had given him the name of someone who had the right machinery to grade the driveway and make sure it didn’t wash away every time it rained, the same guy who’d dug out the hole for the pre-moulded pool to be installed. Gio was gradually getting to know the locals.
It was a slow process because he didn’t go out much. He’d dispensed with the full-time housekeeper shortly after Stephanie’s death, and now he had a cleaner come in twice a week. The rest of the time, he and Emilia were on their own.
He liked the privacy, but it meant a social life was beyond him, unless Emilia had a sleepover with Miri or a birthday party. He’d been surprised at how often a party here involved a sleepover. In the city, they had involved some kind of meal or afternoon tea in a public place. But the private school she’d attended in Brisbane was different from the local parochial school in a small town. After years of drought, recently broken, money for extravagant parties was considered wasteful in much of the district.
It worked fine. The house was large and spread out. When Emilia had friends over, they stayed in the suite of rooms Emilia had claimed with its own bedroom, bathroom, playroom and study. They barely disturbed him at the other end of the house, where his own suite comprised much the same combination of rooms. In between, there was a row of guest bedrooms along the front of the house, split by the entrance hall. Facing the back were what he thought of as the public rooms. An entertainment area off a large kitchen, which opened out onto the patio and the new deck for the swimming pool he expected to use the most once he settled in. The formal lounge with its adjacent music room was a bonus, as was the mini cinema. One of the small luxuries helping convince Emilia living in the country wasn’t so horrendous.
He brought his mind back to the current problem. Miri was heading off along the corridor towards Emilia’s suite, still clutching her bounty. Emilia had discarded the snacks and stood with her hands on her hips, her brown eyes flashing up at him.
“Did you come here because of Moira O’Brien?”
How to answer? “Moira told me about the Crossing. When I was looking for somewhere in the country, it crossed my mind to check it out.”
“But she wasn’t living here then.”
“I had no idea where she lived. I knew her family came from here and she grew up in the town.”
“Did you know she was in the army?”
“Yes and no. I didn’t realise she was still in the army when we met.”
She screwed up her nose. “Were you sad when she left?”
He didn’t know where to start. “I was disappointed. I believed we were getting on all right.”
“So, why did she leave?”
Telling his daughter the sordid truth was not happening. That he’d got a one-night-stand pregnant on the day of his wife’s funeral and the reason for marrying her was that uncomfortable reality. It wasn’t a total mistake. He’d wanted the child. Moira had lost it days before the wedding. He couldn’t blame her for leaving almost immediately. He’d had nothing to offer. Not then.
“I wasn’t ready to marry again. Your mother died a few months before. Moira knew it.”
“Why did you ask her to marry you, then?”
Because of the baby. Even that hadn’t seemed enough reason. “Maybe because we were lonely. I missed your mother, and she was away from her family.”
“But she changed her mind.”
“Are you still lonely?”
“Sometimes. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I still miss your mother.”
“I miss her too.”
“She wouldn’t want us to forget her, but she wouldn’t expect us not to make new friends.”
“Like Moira?” She looked doubtful, teeth gnawing at her bottom lip. “I didn’t like her.”
“You didn’t know her.” He’d barely known her. His desperate exploration of her lush, beautiful body didn’t count as getting to know her. They’d spoken in person half a dozen times afterwards, and Emilia had met her a couple of those times.
“Anyway, I was glad she left. I’m still glad.” The last came out with a ring of defiance.
“It doesn’t matter. She wouldn’t want to start anything up again. She has her own life here.”
A small voice called from along the hallway. “Are you coming, Em?”
Emilia grimaced, “Coming.”
Gio gave his daughter a quick hug. “There’s nothing to worry about. It’s us together against the world. We’re doing all right, aren’t we?”
“Yeah.” She smiled. “Yeah. We’re okay.”
She trotted off down the hall, picking up her bucket of goodies on the way. The pair of them would be in a sugar coma by morning. He didn’t have the energy or the will to enforce any kind of moderation tonight. He might regret it later, but he had a lot on his mind.
End of Excerpt