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Tess Harrison screwed up her pert, freckled nose. And then unscrewed it immediately. She hated being thought of as pert. Perky was worse. And cute? No freaking way.
As she shook her head adamantly, her blond ponytail swished at her shoulders.
“Uh-uh. Not gonna.”
She sat on a porch swing sandwiched between her brother Harry and her new sister-in-law, Isabella. Harry’s legs were the longest and he was keeping up a slow and steady rhythm, back and forth, back and forth. Tess’s sneakered feet skimmed the stone underfoot.
Harry sipped his coffee, leaned forward to look at his wife. “Told you.”
Isabella scoffed. “Tess, you’ve got to try again. You have a reputation to uphold.”
“I do not.”
“Do too,” Isabella replied, her eyes widening as she cocked her head at her husband. “You can’t let him win this one. Your pride is at stake. Your very position as an American.” Isabella paused, her eyes narrowed. “You know, you’ve got to do it for the red, white and blue.”
Harry laughed and rolled his eyes at his sister.
“Please feel free to step in anytime and stop me if I get the cultural references wrong,” Isabella said. “I’m a true-blue Aussie, you know. Not like my husband or his weak-assed sister.”
“Weak-assed?” Tess glared playfully at Isabella.
“Where’s your spirit? Your people fought off the British and won independence, didn’t they? Do it for the founding fathers and mothers and George Washington and … Alexander Hamilton.”
Harry gazed at his wife with a loving smile before nudging his sister’s arm. “We saw the musical when we were back in the US for our honeymoon.”
Tess sighed and took another look at the plate Isabella was holding out to her. It held a single slice of toasted bread. Not the whole wheat that Tess preferred, but something very, very white. It was the smudge of something that looked like a smear of asphalt that she didn’t want to go near.
“She won’t,” Harry said. “If it’s not peanut butter and jelly, Tess won’t go near it.”
Isabella cringed. “Now that sounds disgusting.”
“You think a PB and J is disgusting, but you eat that?” Harry teased.
“It’s Vegemite. It’s a rite of passage that Tess will have to complete if she’s going to stay here in Australia.”
“Stay? I’m not staying, Iz. I’m here for a month to learn a little about Matthews Wines and then I’m going home to the land of PB and J.”
Tess watched as Harry and Isabella continued their good-natured banter. Married for thirteen months already—well, twelve months in which they’d been apart after Iz had disappeared back to Australia, and then a month of wedded bliss—and they were a picture of happiness. Tess was so glad to be in Australia, in Wirralong more specifically, to see her brother’s happiness unfurl. He was the first of the four Harrison siblings to get hitched and the whole family, including their father, had attended the wedding. She loved her brother and already adored her sister-in-law.
But there was no way on God’s little green earth she was going to eat that black gunk. She quickly jumped off the porch swing and checked the time on her phone in an exaggerated fashion. “Oh, look. Is that the time? I’d better be off.”
“Tess!” Isabella called after her. “It’ll be waiting for you when you come over next time.”
“Still won’t eat it. I’m leaving now.”
“Speaking of leaving.” Isabella got to her feet and kissed her husband goodbye. “I’ve got people to marry. A local guy and his Spanish bride. So romantic.”
Tess gave Isabella and Harry a backward wave as she strode to her car. She breathed in the eucalypts and the fresh Wirralong air. California had gum trees too, so their scent wasn’t unfamiliar to her, but out here, in the wide open spaces of this new country that was still so unfamiliar to her, it was all fresh and exciting and an oh-my-God kind of thrilling.
She was in Australia. How had that happened so quickly?
She tooted three times and the house grew smaller in Tess’s rearview mirror as she navigated down a dusty track to the main road that would take her back to Wirra Station.
When Harry had asked Tess to stay on a while in Australia after their family’s business had bought into Matthews Wines, Tess hadn’t imagined she was going to be living and working in such a magical place. It was going to be just the professional experience she needed to get her out of her rut of working for the family business, and help her to consolidate the ideas she had for her own future. A different country. The southern hemisphere climate. New colleagues to learn from and to share her experiences with. Back in Napa, she would always be little sister Tess, the youngest girl. The perky almost-youngest sibling—certainly the shortest even though she was five foot eight.
Here, somewhere new, she could be someone without all the baggage that came with being a Harrison. In Australia, she might have the chance to spread her wine wings.
She laughed at the idea. Wine wings.
Tess wound down her window so she could bring the sounds and the scents of this weird and wonderful country with her on the drive home. The wind whistled and flipped her long fringe all over the place. She hadn’t had time for a haircut and really had to get around to calling Elsa’s Hair Affair in the main street of Wirralong to get her hair done. She cranked up the volume on the car stereo and sang throatily and heartily for the ten-minute drive home.
As she turned off the main road and into Wirra Station, she tooted her horn at the figure in the front yard of the majestic main house. Maggie Walker-O’Connor, the owner and Isabella’s oldest friend, stood smiling, holding a cup of coffee. Tess waved back and a minute later pulled up at her cottage. She sighed at the sight of it. A return verandah all around it meant every window was shaded against the scorching summer heat. Two wicker chairs were positioned by the front door, perfect for a glass of wine at the end of the day as the sun set in the west. A lavender hedge framed the three stone steps leading up to the verandah, deep red roses bloomed amongst them and the towering lemon-scented gums close to the house provided a perfect perfume for her arrival home. She’d moved in when Isabella and Harry had found their new home.
“Kudos to you, kid,” she told herself as she grabbed her purse and got out of the car. “You managed to avoid Vegemite one more time.” She laughed at how adamant Isabella was about it, as if it were a condition of her work visa or being her sister-in-law or something.
Her palate was refined. She tasted and sipped and measured and tested and spat out mouthful after mouthful of grape juice, of something that would soon be delicious. She couldn’t sully her taste buds with that peculiar Australian concoction. What had Isabella been thinking?
But today she didn’t have to do any tasting or think about wine. It was Saturday and Saturdays at Wirralong meant weddings.
Not that she loved weddings or anything. It was nothing like that. She’d grown up firmly of the belief that she didn’t ever want any of it. When she’d announced her intentions one evening at the dinner table, her father had turned his disbelieving eyes to her.
“You’re only fifteen years old, Tess. How can you possibly know what you’ll want when you’re an adult?”
Tess had been indignant. “I just know, Dad.”
Across the table, Tess’s mother had given her daughter a sly wink. Tess’s chest had swelled with pride at this affirmation from her mother, at her insistence that she had known her own mind and would stand up for her choices.
All these years later, she still couldn’t think of anything she wanted less than to commit herself to a person for life, to honour and obey—God, she hated that word—and give up on all her own dreams to make someone else happy.
Nup. No way. Not her.
There was always a but.
Just because she didn’t want to get married herself, it didn’t mean she couldn’t derive a great deal of vicarious pleasure at watching other people leap into the great unknown.
From her porch at Wirra Station, she now had a front-row seat to the most romantic weddings in the state, as brides and grooms—or brides and brides or grooms and grooms—took the first step into the rest of their lives together. Every Saturday afternoon, and often other times too, it seemed as if she’d stumbled upon the final scene in a variety of rom-com movies. She loved watching on as families and guests negotiated the complex and emotional dynamics of weddings. While each one, on the surface, was the same—two people making a commitment to each other—there were differences in each one that made them fascinating to Tess.
Watching the wildlife. That’s how Maggie’s husband, Max, had described it when he’d caught her out one day.
Tess hadn’t understood what he’d meant at first. There were lots of Australian expressions she was coming to grips with and sometimes the accent still baffled her. “What’s that, Max?” she’d asked.
“You’re watching the wildlife,” he’d repeated with a grin. “You might call it people watching. I’ve seen you sitting there with your glass of wine. I’ve seen you cry, too, wipe your eyes with a tissue you pull from your pocket.”
She’d swallowed hard and waved his idea away. She was a grown woman with a burgeoning wine career and zero interest in getting married herself. What on earth would make Max think she would become so emotional at the wedding of two people she’d never even met?
“Crying?” she laughed in response. “It’s all these Australian native flowers and their strange pollens and blossoms that I’m not used to. They must be giving me allergies.”
“Allergies,” Max had repeated as if he hadn’t believed her.
“I’ll have to head to the pharmacist in Wirralong and buy some antihistamines. They should help. With the runny eyes, I mean.”
Max was nowhere in sight that afternoon. He was probably with Bridie while Maggie was making sure all the last-minute details for the venue were in place. She took care of every detail, from catering to the marquee, to calming the mothers of the bride and all the floral arrangements that decorated tables and the wedding arbour.
Tess couldn’t wait to see what that day’s wedding was going to be like. She toed off her sneakers at the front door and went quickly inside. There was a bottle of riesling in the fridge and a wineglass with her name on it.
There was going to be a wedding today at Wirralong Station and Tess wasn’t going to miss a minute.
End of Excerpt