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Saul hated change. Which made it all the more disorienting to find himself here, on the other side of the world from Edinburgh, where he’d been settled for almost a decade.
Glancing behind him, through the back door, he saw his mother moving around the big open space that comprised the kitchen and dining area of the rental. She was singing something vaguely country, vaguely familiar.
Taking the steps two at a time, he headed away from the house. He’d had a crash course in finding out what it was like to live with his mother these last weeks. She sang constantly and when she wasn’t singing she was humming. It was irritating as hell.
He doubted if Christine MacDonald even realised she was doing it. He didn’t remember her singing much in those last years before he’d left home except when she was under the influence. He suspected she hadn’t had much to sing about. When he was younger she’d sung folksy stuff and nursery rhymes to the baby. It was probably from her that his brother had inherited his musical gift. Though, if he remembered correctly, the guy she’d got pregnant to was a musician. One of the fly-by-nighters at the commune. His own father had been long gone. There hadn’t even been a name to hold on to.
Turning on his heel, he looked up at her, noting the anxious creases across her brow. She looked like what she was, a hotel receptionist of uncertain age, with neat clothing and carefully styled shoulder-length hair. It was caught up in a ponytail today, in deference to the heat and the physical nature of the unpacking.
“Is everything all right?”
She waved the newly unpacked kettle in his direction. “We need some milk and bread. We’re almost out of coffee too.”
“I’ll get it shortly. I thought I should check out the backyard.”
“It’s a bit bare, with only the lawn. Someone must have mowed it.”
He scanned the patchy surface. It didn’t really warrant being called lawn, the green interspersed with patches of bare soil. Mostly where the last tenant had sat garden furniture and other oddly shaped objects and, near the fence, what might have been cement blocks with a patch of engine oil offset in the middle. The cement blocks were neatly stacked against the fence, almost hidden by some flowers poking through from the neighbour’s garden.
Whoever they were, they hadn’t been house proud, certainly not garden proud. Not like the gardens on each side of the block with their lush growth, wilting a little in the summer heat. The only thing growing in this yard was an old lemon tree near the tank stand beside the back steps. He wrinkled his nose, puffed out a breath, and shifted away, towards the lake.
A cool breeze came across the wide stretch of water and he felt a stir of resentment. Kurrajong Crossing wasn’t supposed to change. It had been over sixteen years, more than half his life since he left. He should have realised things would move on. Yet he hadn’t expected the watercourse that ran along the edge of town to become a lake, or the construction of a mall in the main street. He didn’t want to think about the other changes time would have wrought on both people and places.
He’d snuck away from the Appleton place as a child, cycling into town on a battered old Malvern Star, a girl’s bike abandoned by someone before he’d been born. He’d fixed it up with bits and pieces he found in the shed and scrounged some money doing odd jobs to replace the tyre tubes.
He and Trudie had come to play beside the Wyvern River, the wide, flat area below these cottages popular with holiday-makers in caravans, barbeques sending up wisps of smoke, kids paddling in the shallows. It had been a view into a different world. The long stretch of camping ground was under metres of water now. A motorboat was towing a waterskier close to the other side of the lake, a niggling buzz in the background. Small waves lapped the bottom of the gardens along the shore, and there was even a battered-looking jetty extending a couple of metres from the water’s edge of his neighbour’s yard.
Impatient with himself, he plunged into the house, looking for the car keys. The furniture was basic, vintage without the value, but clean and well maintained. It was only for three months, though his mother might stay longer. For the millionth time, he wondered why he’d let himself be persuaded. He didn’t owe the woman anything.
The corner store was still where he remembered it. Chrissy would go to the supermarket tomorrow and stock up with the things she preferred. Today it was about a handful of things to tide them over. The store looked weather-beaten but busy with uniformed children on their way home from the nearby school. The secret of its survival, he suspected.
A gaggle of them were picking out lollies from the selection under the old-fashioned glass counter, being served by a teenager. An older woman was dealing with another group who’d raided the glass-topped ice cream fridge in the centre aisle. He didn’t recognise any of them, not even the older woman at the cash register. Carrying a battered red plastic basket from the pile near the front door, he searched for the items he needed and added a bucket of choc mint ice cream to the selection before lining up at the register.
A stir at one side of the counter attracted his attention. A young mother with a baby in a pouch on her chest was coming through the door from the book exchange at the back of the shop, fighting her way through the multicoloured plastic ribbons blocking the door, head bowed.
The woman was a blast from the past with her flowing tie-dyed skirt and long-sleeved peasant blouse. Even the baby sling was made from what looked like a rainbow-dyed piece of cotton material. Her blonde hair was bunched up in a messy bun and secured with a strip of similar fabric in a big bow.
His heart gave an echoey thump against his ribs, for the first time in years. In the beginning, every tall blonde had jerked him back to the past. It had been better once he’d moved to the other side of the world, where he knew he was unlikely to bump into her. He’d been almost certain he’d never see her again. He’d still wondered where she was. Still wondered if she’d forgiven him. That hadn’t changed.
He shook the unease off. This was today. He didn’t dwell on the past. His mother had once dressed exactly like the woman, and he wondered if the Appletons still had the commune on their farm up in the hills. Not that he had any intention of reconnecting.
The shop owner smiled across at the woman. “Did you find anything, Trudie?”
The name startled him and he stared as the woman looked up from her bag, exposing her face. It could be her. Had to be her. The distinctive whisky-brown eyes confirmed it. He should have considered she might be still in town, despite swearing that she’d leave at the first opportunity.
At one point they’d planned to run away together, but looking out for his kid brother had kept him trapped and then it had been too late.
The woman held up a handful of books. “All good. I left the money in the tin.”
She was stuffing her purchases into a large denim shoulder bag as she slid past the queue of pre-teens.
He stepped to one side, blocking her, and she looked up at him, her brows drawn together. “Sorry?”
“Trudie? Trudie Weiss?”
Her expression closed into a wary stillness. He saw her eyes shift to take in the full length of him before returning to his face. “Do I know you?”
His chest tightened. Maybe it was a mistake to approach her, but it was too late to back off. It hadn’t occurred to him she wouldn’t remember him. The disappointment shouldn’t have hit so hard. It had been so many years; he couldn’t have expected her to recognise him. He’d changed in every way possible. Deliberately. “MacDonald, Saul MacDonald.”
Her brows rose. “Xander’s brother? You’re Sunny MacDonald?”
“Saul. I don’t go by Sunny anymore.”
She cast a scornful glance at his suit. “I can see why.”
Trudie took a step back so she could take a better look at Sunny MacDonald. All grown up. Still disgustingly good-looking. He was taller than she remembered. Taller than his brother. Different fathers though they both copped their mother’s light colouring. Sunny had always been fairer though. His hair in its conventional short crop was darker than she remembered. Not bleached to straw by the sun but still as blond as her own. It had been as long as hers in his teen years, left loose or tied up in a man bun or plaited into tiny braids, or, when last seen, dreadlocks down his back, giving him a surfer dude vibe.
This guy in his dark suit and narrow grey silk tie, with his cold eyes staring down his long nose, looked like he had a stick stuck up his arse. His accent had a faint Scottish burr but sounded more upper-class English than the broad Scottish found in popular television shows.
“I didn’t know you were coming back to the Crossing, Saul MacDonald.”
“It was a sudden decision.”
Very sudden. “I was talking to Bonnie this morning and she didn’t mention it.”
She spoke slowly. “Bonnie Callaghan. Xander’s fiancée.”
“I remember there was a Callaghan working at the Inn. Same ones?”
Trudie nodded. “Granddaughter.”
He adjusted a bucket of ice cream in his basket, not looking at her as he continued. “We haven’t spoken to the family.”
“You came back home without telling anyone you were coming? That’s a dick move.”
“It’s also none of your business.”
If she’d climbed into the freezer behind him, she couldn’t have been any more chilled by his tone. “You are going to tell them, aren’t you? Or is this a flying visit, in and out before anyone notices?”
For a moment she thought he might turn and walk away. His chest expanded and his sigh was audible.
“I’m here for three months. My mother might stay longer.”
“Your mother? Chrissy’s back?” That was first-order news.
He glanced away, checking out the line at the register, his words a low monotone. “I’m here for her. She wanted to come home and I came to support her.”
“Seriously? I thought she must be dead. I’m pretty sure her parents thought so.” Though Flo had clung to hope for a long time.
His attention had shifted to her chest. Or rather the wriggling going on in the pouch. “Aren’t you worried the baby might suffocate tucked in like that?”
“It’s a boy?”
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact. How did you guess?”
The joey wriggled again and his head popped up over the top of the pouch, his soft fur brushing against her bare throat. She stroked one of the long ears to calm the little lad.
Sunny recoiled, brought up sharply by the low fridge behind him. For a moment she half expected him to tumble backwards over the glass top. Compressing her lips to prevent laughter, she reached out to steady him, gripping the arm holding the basket of groceries.
He shrugged her hand off and straightened up, smoothing down where her hand had scrunched the expensive fabric of his suit. A faint colour showed in his cheeks. The man was embarrassed. Unbelievable. If he hadn’t introduced himself, she wouldn’t have guessed who he was. Not in forever years. She could see it now in his eyes and something about his mouth, but if he hadn’t stopped her, she would have dismissed him as a stranger without ever looking deeper.
Drawing himself up, he glared down at her. “You have a wild animal as a pet? Do you have any idea how dangerous it is? Kangaroos aren’t pets.” His glance lingered on the animal. “Do you know if it has any diseases? Fleas?”
“Don’t get your knickers in a knot. He was checked out by the vet and once he can survive on his own he’ll be released back into the wild.”
“Knickers in a knot? What century are you from?”
“The same one as you. Obviously.” She looked at him curiously. “Don’t you remember Charity Appleton used to say it all the time.”
He flicked something off his sleeve. Her touch, most likely. “It was a long time ago. I prefer not to think about it.”
The seeming indifference of the tone belied the tension in his jaw. The man was as stiff as a poker and yet she could see something wild behind his eyes. Sunny MacDonald was afraid?
She checked out the joey, but he’d settled back down. No danger there. It was a bit off, Sunny coming into town without telling his family he was coming. And Christine was here too. That was a real turn-up. Flo and Don were likely to have a heart attack. “Are you going to give your grandparents some warning or just roll up on their doorstep like the Ghost of Christmas Past and frighten the life out of them?”
“I was planning to contact my brother.”
“His number is unlisted. Or do you already have it?”
There was a moment when she thought she’d stumped him, but he shook his head. “The Highland Inn number is on the website.”
“He doesn’t live there anymore. Xander is building his own place up on the mountain, past the Appleton place.”
She would have bet on him flinching at the mention of the Appletons, but he covered it well enough. “What do you suggest?”
“I could give you his number. He has a landline because the reception is pathetic where he is.”
“I would appreciate it.”
Rummaging in her bag, Trudie pulled out her state-of-the-art smartphone and suppressed a smile at his raised brows. “What’s your number?”
He held up his phone with the number displayed and she keyed it in. A sharp ping told her he’d received it.
Checking his screen, he nodded, long fingers moving over the surface to store the number. There was something odd about the skin on the backs of his hands, smooth and hairless and a little bit shiny in places. Nice, well-shaped hands. She had a bit of a thing for hands. And forearms. Not that she could see his arms above the wrists, only an expensive-looking digital watch, similar to her own.
He looked up with a tight grimace she suspected was meant to be a smile. “Thanks.”
A subtle cough from behind them drew his attention. The queue had moved forward and it was his turn for the register. He put the basket on the counter and turned back to face her. “Don’t run off. I’ll be finished in a minute.”
“I have to go. Feeding time at the zoo.” She desperately needed to get some air. This situation was totally weird, and for her that was saying something.
He looked like he might try to stop her, but Gloria was waiting expectantly for him to pay for his shopping.
Her bike was in the rack out the front and she dropped her bag into the wire basket on the handlebars and hoisted up her skirts, tying the hem in a loose knot to keep them out of the chain. There was a silver BMW parked on the street and she guessed it was Sunny’s. Saul’s. She’d never get used to the new name, but perhaps she should try. He wasn’t the boy she remembered.
The ride to her home a couple of blocks way only took a few minutes. She wheeled the bike through the narrow garden gate and parked it under the steps in the shade of the verandah. One advantage with her house over most of the other cottages in the street—it had been built higher because of a flood in the eighteen-nineties whereas the rest of the smaller cottages were only a few steps up. It meant she had storage space underneath and somewhere for the animals she didn’t let into the house. She still had to duck to get underneath, because it wasn’t the regulation height, but it didn’t really matter for her own use.
There was music coming from next door, something of Xander’s with a woman singing along. So, the new tenants had arrived. She’d been out most of the day so she’d missed the arrival. The real estate agent had let her know the date, but the final paperwork wouldn’t come through until today sometime. No car to be seen, but that didn’t mean much. It could be in the battered old garage on the other side of the house.
She hoisted her bag over her shoulder and headed up the stairs, taking a last look at the neighbouring yard. Maybe the new tenants would do something about the garden. The last ones were more about their cars and motorbikes. Noisy but good neighbours otherwise. There were some geraniums and similar easy-care plants needing a prune in her own garden she could pot up if they wanted a few things to get started. Eileen and Nora O’Brien always kept some cuttings on the go. She could ask them once she’d spoken to the new people.
A silver Beemer pulled into the street from the same direction she’d come from, and her heart stuttered into a rapid beat. Surely not. Even as the words formed in her head, the car turned into the driveway next door. It was enough motivation to shoot inside, closing the door behind her. He was the new neighbour, and he had a woman with him. Unless it was Chrissy. That made sense. Chrissy had been a good singer, back in the day, before drugs and beatings had knocked all the happiness out of her. Didn’t mean there wasn’t a woman. Someone who would fit in his new life. She shrugged off the odd sensation in her gut as she walked down the hallway to the back of the house.
There was an exhilaration in knowing he and Chrissy were next door. It settled down when she remembered what he was like now, what he’d done in the past. A long-suppressed anger curled around her throat and she pushed it away. Would Chrissy be the same after all these years? She hoped not. Most importantly, what on earth would Xander think about his brother and mother turning up out of the blue?
Dropping her bag on the kitchen table, she unbuckled the carrier and cursed as the leather strap pulled away from the fabric. Another job. The joey she put into the child’s playpen she’d set up in one corner of the big room off the kitchen. He was nearly ready, weaned, and capable of surviving if he was absorbed into a mob. There were plenty up in the national park behind Briar’s place, not far from where this little guy’s mum had been killed by a tourist’s four-wheel drive.
She put the kettle on and looked around the room. The one major change she’d made to the house and the cottage next door when she’d bought them nearly ten years ago was opening up the separate kitchen and dining areas to make the space more liveable. For this one, she’d kept the timber kitchen design with the dark red marble benches in keeping with the age of the house, polishing the beautiful timber floor so it glowed. She would have made more money if she’d lived in the smaller cottage and rented this one out to a family, but she liked having lots of space.
Growing up in a caravan shared with two “aunts” had cured her of small, confined spaces. But Vera and Tatiana had pushed her out when she’d turned sixteen and there was no longer a financial incentive to keep her under their roof. It had suited Trudie to be independent, and her two years boarding with the Forster family while she caught up with her schooling had given her the boost she needed to get to university. It had largely been because of the older Forsters she’d come back to the Crossing. They’d been kind to her and with the creepy element from the commune long gone, she’d valued the friends she’d made in those couple of years.
She could make a living from her business anywhere and, while the locals didn’t want more than a standard website for their businesses, her app designs and games were international and that was where she made most of her money. But it felt good to be useful to the community, after growing up isolated, so she didn’t begrudge the time spent.
She’d made herself a place in the Kurrajong Crossing community, with all the people who’d considered the hippies from the commune something separate. Back then she’d relied heavily on Briar’s and Sunny’s families, and she’d thought her relationship with Sunny was special, until he’d gone without a word.
It was going to take some getting used to having him living next door.
End of Excerpt