Chapter One

‘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.’

Unlike you.

‘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 a new 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 submissions—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 duvet 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.

She sighed.

‘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.


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