The Lawson Sisters
A heartfelt and compelling story of family, secrets and second chances, set in the heart of the beautiful Hunter Valley of NSW, from an award-winning new voice in Australian fiction.
Family, fortune and holding on to what counts…
For many years Elizabeth Lawson has battled single-handedly to run the family’s historic horse stud in memory of her beloved father. But a devastating loss puts her dreams at risk. With no options left, Liz is forced to turn to her estranged sister Kayla for help.
Kayla has built a new life in the city as a wedding planner, far removed from the stableyard sweat and dust of her rural upbringing. She never thought she’d go back. But when Liz calls out of the blue, Kayla forms a plan that could save their childhood home.
Kayla’s return forces Liz to confront her past … and her future, in the shape of Mitch, her first and only love, who still watches over her from the other side of the creek.
But Liz still hides a terrible secret. When Kayla learns the truth, will the Lawson sisters find common ground or will their conflict splinter the family once again?
‘With the scent of eucalyptus on the air, estranged sisters and a homestead echoing past regrets and missed chances, The Lawson Sisters has everything you want in an Aussie romance.’ – Fiona Lowe, bestselling Australian author
Elizabeth Lawson never cried. Never.
She could remember the last time she’d cried. It was four days after her eighteenth birthday, and not all that far from where she now sat at the wheel of her tractor. That was just over fifteen years ago and in all those years, she had not shed so much as a single tear.
But today … today it was hard.
A drop of moisture fell onto the black steering wheel, fading as it dried instantly in the late morning heat. Sweat, she told herself firmly. It was sweat. One of these days, she’d buy a new tractor with an air-conditioned cab. But that was pretty unlikely. New tractors cost money, and money was something she didn’t have. She was even less likely to have it after today.
Liz jammed the hat back on her short dark hair and reached for the ignition. There was nothing wrong with the tractor she had. It had a few years on it, but it was reliable and exactly what she needed to cultivate lucerne on the river flats or cart hay or shift muck from the stables.’
Today it was exactly what she needed to dig a grave big enough to bury a horse.
She blinked furiously. It was only the dust in her eyes. She closed her work-roughened hands firmly around the control levers, and started pushing the loose soil into the hole, covering the dark shape that lay there.
It was well past midday when Liz parked the tractor in the machinery shed. As always, her first thought was for her horses. Some needed feeding, others hadn’t been exercised. She also had to clear out the stallion stall, which was now empty. She slumped against the tractor. She really didn’t want to face that empty stall right now.
And it looked like she wouldn’t have to. Her eyes narrowed as she watched a car approaching up the long gravel drive trailing a small cloud of dust. It stopped by the homestead and the driver got out. He was carrying a briefcase. That was not a good sign. He paused for a few moments, looking up at the building in front of him. Liz knew he wouldn’t be seeing the beautiful lines and proportions of the historic building, with its wide verandas and arched windows. Nor would he be admiring the grace of the wrought-iron railings or the elegance of the fountain in the centre of the circular drive. All he would see was the flaking paint and the stains on the stone. That’s all everyone saw now. Everyone except Liz.
‘G’day,’ she called as she walked towards the house.
The driver of the car turned to her. He was probably in his early forties, with neat hair and a suit and tie. She recognised him immediately, and her heart sank a little further.
‘Miss Lawson.’ He offered her his hand.
Liz wiped her hand on the thigh of her jeans before shaking.
‘I’m Richard Walker. I’m the loans manager—’
‘At the bank in Tamworth. Yes, of course. I recognise you. What brings you all the way out here?’
‘It’s about the Willowbrook loan account.’
‘I thought it might be.’
‘You’re very hard to get on the phone during business hours. I had a meeting in Scone. As you are so close, I thought I’d come by in the hope of a chance to talk.’
‘Then I guess you’d better come inside.’
She could feel him assessing her home as she led him past the wide stone front stairs and around to the back door, could almost hear him adding up the dollars and cents. She knew exactly when he looked up at the dark windows of the second floor. Windows that hadn’t been opened in an age. She bristled. What gave him the right to judge? Was he judging her too? Was he thinking that she looked as run down as the house, with the lines in her sun-browned face, the hair that she cut roughly herself and the creases between eyes that viewed the world so cautiously?
The door led into the kitchen. She didn’t take him through to the front of the house. She didn’t want his critical eye looking at those unused rooms. Nor did she lead him through to her office, because that was also where she slept most nights. Instead she indicated a chair at the wooden table in the centre of the kitchen.
He sat and opened his briefcase.
It wasn’t a long conversation, nor was it an easy one. Liz had pretty much known what Walker was going to say. Despite that, the papers he left on her kitchen table were devastating.
‘Please don’t leave it too long to get in touch with me,’ he said as he got in the car. ‘I knew your father. I liked him. Respected him. I’ll do whatever I can to help. But I have to answer to my bosses. And at some point—’
‘Thank you, Mr Walker.’ Liz shook his hand and sent him on his way as quickly as she could.
Before the car had even vanished down the driveway, she was striding towards the stables. Several elegant heads appeared as Liz walked past, but she didn’t stop to talk to any of them. She paused at the tack room long enough to collect what she needed, and carried it outside to a small paddock behind the main stable block. A bay horse saw her coming and walked over to meet her at the gate. There were grey hairs on his muzzle and around his eyes. He was pretty much retired, and spent most of his time dozing under the trees. But right now Liz needed to ride, and she knew better than to work any of her young horses when she was upset. And besides, Zeke was part of the memories that were driving her.
A few minutes later, she swung herself up onto his back and urged him on at a fast trot and then a canter. She had to stop to open a gate, but then she pushed the big gelding into a gallop, wanting the feel of the wind in her face and the sound of hooves on the rich black soil.
But even that couldn’t wash everything away.
Zeke was breathing heavily when they reached the highest spot on Willowbrook. Liz swung herself out of the saddle and looked across her home.
This was her favourite place in the whole world. Her heritage was here. A long curving line of stately river gums marked the creek. There were no willow trees on Willowbrook Station. Her Irish great-great-grandfather had named the place after the past he had left behind. He had embraced his new world and new life and ordered that no willows should ever be allowed to grow by the creek. To this day, none had.
The original wooden shack that Patrick Lawson had built by that creek was long gone, replaced by a two-storey building of soft golden stone that was considered one of the great houses of the Upper Hunter Valley. The house had grown and been extended by his descendants, mapping the rise of Willowbrook from a struggling one-man operation to one of the most famous horse studs in the country. From this distance, Liz couldn’t see the shabbiness that now marked its decline.
Between this high point and the house, sloping green pastures were dotted with dark shapes. Brood mares and yearlings. Australian Stock Horses all of them. Their bloodlines were among the best in the country. Willowbrook horses had won show championships and proven their worth in high country musters over and over again. There were far too few horses in those paddocks now.
When Patrick Lawson died, he asked to be buried on the highest point of the place he loved. His grave was the oldest in the small graveyard on the hill, where many of his descendants also rested. Liz had stood in this place with her father so many times, talking about the family and Willowbrook, it felt like he was still with her. In a way, he was. She tore her eyes away from the view to look at the two most recent stone crosses.
‘The land will never let you down, Lizzie.’ She could almost hear her father’s voice in the rustle of the breeze in the tall gums. ‘Respect it and treat it well. As long as you have this place, you will always have a home. When times are tough, even in the worst drought, hold on to the land. Sell your stock. Sell the shirt off your back if you have to, but never, never sell the land.’
Reluctantly she looked to the far side of the creek, feeling the usual tug at her heart, but today the pull was so much stronger. Through the trees she could see a cluster of buildings, and a small house, painted white. Those buildings and the land around them, land that had once belonged to Willowbrook, represented her greatest failure.
If only she could simply ride down the hill, cross the creek and knock on the door of that house. She so longed to lay her head on a strong shoulder and let someone else take the burden. Let someone take the pain away.
But she had given up any right to lean on that shoulder a long time ago.
She gently laid her fingers on the top of the nearest of the stone crosses.
‘I’m sorry, Dad,’ she whispered.
Something nudged her in the middle of her back, and she staggered forward a step. ‘All right, you don’t have to nag.’ She gathered Zeke’s reins and stroked his forehead. ‘Let’s get you back. You need a good rub down. And those youngsters need tending to.’
And then she was going to do something she hadn’t done in a very long time. She was going to talk to her sister.
‘It makes me look fat!’ The bride’s chin began to wobble and Kayla reached for the box of tissues.
‘Not at all,’ she spoke quickly, before the waterworks could start. ‘You look beautiful. In that dress, you look like a fairy tale princess. Like Cinderella at the ball, and you know how well that ended.’
‘Do you think so?’ With a rustle of silk and tulle, the bride twisted her body so the mirror no longer displayed the growing bump that had probably prompted this rather rushed wedding.
‘Absolutely,’ Kayla assured her. ‘Not everyone could wear a dress like this, but on you it looks amazing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if …’ she searched her mind for the right name, ‘… David sheds a tear or two when he sees you walk down the aisle.’
‘He will, my darling, I’m sure he will. You look wonderful.’ The mother of the bride wiped the tears from her eyes.
Kayla didn’t mind the mothers crying, but she needed the bride to keep herself together long enough to at least say ‘I do’.
‘Now, let’s get your veil on,’ she said. ‘It’s such a lovely veil, with all those sparkles.’
As the harried-looking hairdresser was setting the clip in the bride’s tastefully styled blonde hair, there was a discreet tap on the door. Kayla opened it. Her boss, Pascale Bonet, stood outside. She gave a nod to indicate it was time. As Pascale disappeared down the hotel corridor, Kayla returned to the suite to see that her bride was now ready.
‘There you go. Perfect,’ she said brightly. ‘Now, let me fetch your father.’
Kayla opened the connecting door to the adjoining room and found a tall, grey-haired man straightening his cravat in the mirror. The father of the bride was usually as nervous as the bride. She went to his side and took over.
‘There you go, Mr Andrews. I must say, you look rather dashing.’ She smiled in a slightly flirtatious manner. That always helped.
‘Thank you.’ The gentleman preened ever so slightly.
‘Your daughter’s waiting for you to walk her down the aisle. She looks beautiful. Are you ready?’
He swallowed and nodded. Kayla directed him to the doorway and stood back. It was important for her not to intrude on this special moment between father and daughter. If the truth be told, she hated this moment, because it was something she had always dreamed of, but would never have.
Giving her clients those few moments of privacy also gave Kayla time to catch her breath and run through her mental checklist. Planning a large society wedding was a complex, if lucrative, business. Elite Weddings was normally brought on board at least a year before the big event. She and Pascale had organised this wedding in just six weeks. At first, Kayla had doubted they could do it, but it was amazing what could be done if you could throw money at every problem. Elite stood to make a substantial profit for their time.
She took a deep breath and stepped through the door into the bride’s retreat. This penthouse suite in one of Sydney’s best hotels had a glorious view of the harbour and plenty of room for a girl in a huge tulle cupcake wedding dress.
‘Well, I think it’s time,’ she said. ‘Mrs Andrews, if you’ll come with me, one of our staff is waiting to escort you to your seat. And I’ll be back in a moment to take our lovely bride to the ceremony.’
Kayla gave the mother of the bride plenty of time to get into the lift before she escorted the bride and her father in the same direction. As directed, and paid for, a hotel staffer was holding the main lift for the bride.
The dress fitted into the lift—just.
Once on the second floor, Kayla gave the bride a few moments to compose herself, before catching Pascale’s eye. Pascale nodded. They were ready. The team had turned the large terrace overlooking the harbour into a wonderland of flowers and silk and fairy lights. The guests were seated on velvet chairs, and the arch of the Harbour Bridge would form a backdrop for the ceremony. Not even Pascale could manage to hang lights from that structure, but the ceremony was timed for sunset, so the bridge lighting would perform the way she wanted even without her influence. From the terrace, a lone violinist played the first bars of the tune guaranteed to bring a tear to the eyes of any bride. Beaming widely, Mr Andrews placed his daughter’s hand firmly on his arm and stepped through the doors.
That was Kayla’s cue to move on to the next phase of the operation: the post-wedding canapés and drinks followed by the wedding dinner. She turned away from the terrace and headed for the kitchen, taking a deep breath before stepping into the midst of chaos.
More than a dozen kitchen staff darted about, laden with pans and trays and all manner of cooking implements. On the massive stove tops, pots of sauces boiled away, releasing delicious aromas into the room. Huge ovens gave off waves of heat as the doors were opened and dishes added or removed. Waiting staff hovered by the door, trying to keep out of the way.
At the centre of the chaos, dressed in immaculate chef’s whites, Lachlan Henderson was standing stock still. As always when he was in his kitchen, his handsome face was alive with energy and passion. When he snapped instructions at his staff, his voice was loud and decisive. He looked like he was about to explode, but Kayla knew him better than that.
‘Thank God you’re here.’ Always the drama queen, Lachie flung his arms in the air. ‘We are on the brink of disaster.’
‘Then I’ll fix it.’
‘This woman is wonderful,’ Lachie declared to the world as he followed Kayla out of the kitchen.
Once they were in the hallway, Lachie glanced around to make sure they were alone, then pulled Kayla to him for a lingering kiss.
She gave herself up to it for a few seconds, then pulled away. ‘We’re supposed to be keeping this a secret,’ she told him. ‘Now, what’s the disaster?’
‘There’s no disaster, I’m just keeping them on their toes. And besides, I wanted to kiss you.’
Kayla wasn’t sure whether to laugh or blush. Lachie was a famous and fabulous chef, dynamic and sexy and fun—pretty much everything a girl could want. And he wanted Kayla. That made her feel good and she was beginning to think that this relationship, new though it was, might be exactly what she needed.
‘Come back to my place tonight,’ he whispered in her ear. ‘We could get naked and drink Champagne to celebrate another of your triumphs.’
It was a very tempting idea. ‘I shouldn’t …’
‘Come on. Let me pamper you. A bottle of the Dom somehow found its way to my fridge, and it’s waiting just for you.’
Just as she was about to say yes, a door swung open and a kitchen hand appeared.
‘Chef Henderson, you’re needed. The sauce …’
‘My sauce?’ Lachie roared. ‘Who has defiled my sauce?’ He winked at Kayla as he followed the terrified kitchen hand back into his personal domain.
It was well after midnight when Kayla let herself into her flat. She was alone, having declined Lachie’s offer because she was exhausted and just wanted a little peace and quiet. She’d call him tomorrow and arrange another night for the Dom. She dropped her bags at the entrance and kicked off her shoes. Her feet were killing her. She padded across the carpet to her small kitchen and reached into the cupboard for a shot glass. She had a bottle of eighteen-year-old single malt scotch in her bar, her reward on nights like this. One shot: that was all she allowed herself. But that one shot, and the ceremony surrounding it, was enough to unwind after a frantic day. She poured the shot into the glass and added water. Just a few drops; enough to awaken the aroma of the fine spirit. She started to carry it out onto her small balcony. Her view of the harbour was a mere glimpse, but it was enough because it was hers and hers alone.
Then she stopped.
The light on her answerphone was blinking. That was strange, she never used her landline for anything. She only had it because it had come as part of the package deal with her broadband and cable TV. Only a handful of people had that number. Actually, only two people had that number and Pascale never used it. Only one person ever called her on the landline. Kayla couldn’t remember when the last call had been. A year? Two?
She didn’t want to pick up the phone. She just wanted to go and sit on her balcony, relax and take a few minutes to herself. But that flashing light would still be there when she came back inside.
With a sigh, she walked over to the phone and hit a button.
‘We need to talk. Please call me as soon as you can.’
Her sister was not one for long telephone calls. Or messages. Or long face-to-face conversations for that matter. At least not with Kayla. There had to be a very good reason for this call. Kayla glanced at her watch; it was too late to call now. Liz had always been an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of person. Waking her at this hour was not going to make whatever conversation they were about to have any easier.
She walked into the kitchen to pour her drink down the sink and headed for her bedroom.
The next call came at seven thirty, pulling Kayla out of a deep sleep. She was reaching for her mobile on the nightstand before she realised the ring tone wasn’t right. Her landline was ringing. She dragged herself out of bed, but before she got to the phone the machine cut in. She heard her own voice and then a pause.
‘It’s me again. I really need to speak to you …’
Kayla picked up the phone. ‘Hello, Liz.’