Set against the stirring Victorian Alps, comes a suspenseful novel of recovery and new beginnings from a talented new voice in Australian rural fiction. Perfect for readers of Sarah Barrie and Nora Roberts.
His beloved home is under threat and with it the beautiful, haunted woman he’s never been able to forget …
X-Treme TV sports star Reid Stratton has everything – until his best friend falls to his death on a climb while shooting their show. In the fierce media fallout, Reid begins to question everything about himself. Crippled by a new fear of climbing, Reid returns to CoalCliff stud, his family’s horse farm, to recover.
Single mother Natalia Robinson is determined to start afresh, away from the shadow of her past. A job at CoalCliff Stud where she lived as a child is the perfect opportunity to live the quiet life she always wanted. But she is unprepared to see Reid, and is even more unprepared for the passion that still burns between them.
But after a series of menacing events threaten the new home she is trying to build, Nat realises that Reid is the only person she can rely on to keep her and her daughter safe. Together, Reid and Nat must face the pasts that haunt them if they are to survive the present and forge a future of hope.
‘Right. Here goes nothing.’ Or something. Reid really hoped it was something.
He dipped his hands into his chalk bag, wiping the chalk over them, shaking off the excess, then stepped up to the rock face and took a deep breath. His lungs filled with the scent of dirt and lichen and the sharp scents of the eucalypts that gave the Blue Mountains their moniker. In the distance a bird cawed, the sound echoing and lonely. He couldn’t take any notice, must concentrate on the wall of rock before him.
Heart pounding, he rolled his shoulders and tried to ignore the perspiration trickling down his forehead, his back. His palms itched. This was the moment of truth. His moment of truth.
He should probably have got Steve and the production crew involved in this climb, to capture his big comeback for posterity—and the ratings it would undoubtedly bring—but he’d wanted to do this in private. It seemed right somehow that his first climb after the accident wasn’t in front of the cameras. The first time ever he hadn’t wanted to show off for the world. He could just imagine what Luke would have said about that.
But then, Luke couldn’t say anything. He was dead.
He shuddered, a cold sweat prickling his skin. Don’t think of that. Think of the climb. Only the climb.
Only the climb. It had been their mantra and had served him well through championships and their TV show, but now the words hung empty.
Race you to the top. The echo of Luke’s voice rang in his ears. He shook his head and looked up at the wall of rock in front of him. He’d done this climb at Echo Point many times before, the view from the top of the famous sandstone plateau one you could breathe into your soul and keep with you forever.
The line he’d chosen wasn’t a difficult climb—bloody easy compared to what he’d done before—but a good solid one to cut his teeth on. What he and Luke had become famous for. And if he was to get their TV show up and going again, do the charity climb in Luke’s name that he and Steve planned on the soaring pristine lines of the Gorge at Mt Buffalo—Luke’s favourite place to climb and the first place they’d ever filmed themselves climbing to post online—he needed to do this.
‘Right.’ He clapped his hands together, chalk blooming up, making his nose twitch. ‘One grip at a time.’ He stepped to the rock face, reached, took the first hold, fingers gripping over the small ridge of rock and pulled up. He settled his feet into grooves in the striations of the sandstone—only five reach holds, none of them difficult, before he would position the first cam to clip the lead rope to. He would normally free climb this section, but nerves had him needing to anchor the rope. It was a bit of a stupid thing to do without a partner, but given what happened the last time he climbed with one …
He swallowed hard. He’d checked his rope, the cams and carabiners a hundred times before getting here and again once here. They were safe. Nothing would break. He was good. He needed this. He reached for the next hold, gripped, found a foot hold, pushed up grabbed the next grip. Easy. There was no reason for his heart to be a thunder of hooves in his chest. For his breath to be coming in short-sharp gasps, razoring his throat, as if he’d just run the London Marathon. No reason for sweat to be dripping off him. Or for the ghost pain to be driving through his shoulder like an ice spike. His shoulder was healed and aside from the pull of the scar tissue, it shouldn’t be hurting. It was strong. He’d worked hard to make it strong again. Why else had he done that if not to get back to this?
Push through, Stratton. Eye on the prize. Think of the climb. We can do this.
He blinked the sweat out of his eyes, rubbing his face against his shoulder before he pushed up for the next grip. Two more and he’d reach the fissure he could push the cam into and create his anchor.
He settled his toes firmly in the thin ridge of rock, feeling the dig of the sharp stone through his thin, flexible rock climbing shoes, before reaching up again. His fingers found purchase on a little jut of weathered stone. He pulled up.
Rock crumbled through his fingers. He began to slip. He made a desperate grab for a nearby small ridge in the rock, but his foot slipped. For a moment, he hung, scrabbling at the rock, trying to find the holds he’d found before, but it was as if the rock face had become a sheet of marble, slippery and smooth. He could find nothing. Nothing. His shoulder was screaming, the pain spiking through him. His fingers were slipping. He couldn’t hold on. He was going to fall. Going to fall.
One foot found purchase and then the other and then he found a hold with his other hand. He clung to the rock face, the chill of panic freezing every muscle, face pressed against the sharp edges of rock. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t move. Not up, not down. Shit, shit. He was breathing too fast, becoming dizzy. He had to get a hold of himself or he would fall. He was only about five metres up, not too high. He could jump from here and he wouldn’t hurt himself. It would be controlled. Yes, that’s what he should do. Except he couldn’t make a single fucking muscle move.
His voice echoed off the rock. An eagle cried out and took off from a buttress above his head, the flap of its wings a loud thwack-thwack as it took off to soar above him.
The voice came from below him, the strong Scottish burr one he knew so well. Reid groaned. Great. What was Steve doing here? ‘I thought I said I wanted to do this alone.’
‘Company rules. Never climb alone. You know that. So I followed you here.’
He groaned again. Of course he knew that—it was his rule. Why had he thought it didn’t apply to him in this case? Probably because he hadn’t been thinking of anything outside himself.
‘You climbing or coming down?’
‘You’re bleeding. I think you should come down.’
Bleeding? He hadn’t noticed hurting himself. ‘Where?’
‘It’s dripping off your chin and you’ve got cuts on your knees and one on your arm. I brought my kit. Come down and I’ll patch you up and you can try again.’
‘I don’t think I can.’
‘No, come down.’ The words were ground out of him. The last thing he wanted to admit was that he was paralysed by fear, except, Steve was going to guess the truth at any moment. The lack of movement and the clinging to the rock like a frightened beginner who had no business being here, were a dead giveaway. But he still didn’t want him to know the extent of it. He grabbed at the first excuse to come to mind. ‘My shoulder’s locked up. I think I wrenched it when I slipped.’
‘I’m coming up. I’ll guide you down.’ There was rustling below him and then the steady rhythmic sound of a seasoned climber coming up below him. It was almost soothing. Except, any moment Steve would be here next to him and he would see Reid’s face, the sweat, the shaking, the way he was plastered to the rock face, and he would know.
Get a fucking grip.
He took a deep, shuddering breath and forced himself to ease away from the rock just a little. The world spun and he had to fight with everything in him not to plaster himself to the rock face again. Breathe. Breathe.
Steve came up beside him then was climbing above him. He heard the clip as he pushed the cam into place, the slide as rope moved through the metal loop. There was another click, another slide, then Steve lowered back down to hang beside Reid. ‘I think this will be easiest if you abseil down. If it wasn’t for your shoulder I’d tell you to jump, but we don’t want you injuring it further. I’m just going to clip the lead rope onto you and then you can lower yourself down one handed. Okay?’
Reid managed to nod. ‘I might need a belay.’
‘No problems.’ Steve clipped him in, tugged to ensure the line was secure, then jumped backwards, abseiling down to the base of the rock face, the clatter as he landed on the shale at the bottom echoing through the valley. Reid felt the tug on the belaying rope. ‘You’re right to go. Be careful of your shoulder.’
For a horrible moment, Reid didn’t think he could make himself let go, but then the thought of having to tell Steve how far gone he was, of Steve having to pry his fingers from the rock and help him down like a frightened newbie, made his muscles jerk just enough that he was able to open his fingers, grab the rope with one hand and push off. He could have done it in one push—it really wasn’t that far to the ground—but it felt too much like falling again, even though Steve was belaying him and had control of the rope, so he did it in a kind of run down the rock face and came to a stumbling stop on the ground.
The world swayed around him. He sat before he fell, and then lay back on the tufted grass, shale digging into his back.
‘You okay?’ Steve came to stand over him.
Steve gave him a look. ‘You’ve got a nasty cut on your head. Looks like you gave yourself a good bang when you slipped.’
Reid touched the sticky warmth on his brow, his fingers coming away covered in bright red.
‘Stay there, I’ll get the first aid pack.’ Steve disappeared from sight, the crunch of his steps through the brown clumps of grass, leaves, bark and twigs the eucalypts dropped all year round, becoming a distant thing.
Reid stared up at the blue sky above his head, at the rock wall he’d failed to climb even a tenth of the way. ‘Shit.’ He slammed his hand down on the ground. ‘Fuck.’ He blinked hard, the rush of hot tears behind his eyes another sign of his abject failure. His weakness. His inability to see the truth in front of him.
‘I’m sorry, Luke.’
He’d let his friend down, again. If he couldn’t do this—and he knew he couldn’t—how could he do the charity climb? How could he get their TV show up and going again and run it and their business without Luke? And how was he going to stop everyone from thinking his best friend was a drug-addicted suicide victim?
‘Shit!’ If Luke couldn’t cope with everything they’d built, how could he? But that was another thing. Luke had seemed to love everything about their life, so what had he, Reid, missed? Why had Luke done it? None of it made sense, even now. His best friend had worked so hard to get away from that kind of life, so how the hell had he fallen back into it? It had all started with bloody Tucker Wells. He was sure of it, even though the man had been in jail for years. If not for his influence, Luke would never have even known how to get drugs, let alone get himself into such trouble over them.
He gritted his teeth against his anguish, jaw aching, arm over his burning eyes. Pull yourself together, Stratton, he told himself as he heard Steve’s crunching step running back towards him.
‘I’ll just wash the wound before I dress it.’
‘You don’t need to explain what you’re doing, Steve. I know the drill.’
Steve nodded grimly and went to work. ‘You okay to sit up now?’ he asked once he was done. ‘We should probably get you to the hospital to get that wound checked out and make sure you haven’t given yourself a concussion or something.’
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Don’t be a selfish dick, Reid. I don’t need you dying on me too.’ Steve rubbed his hand over his face the minute the words left his mouth. ‘Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that.’
Reid sat up slowly. ‘No, I’m sorry. I am being a selfish dick. I know you still loved him.’
Steve looked away, his Adam’s apple working hard. ‘We’d been broken up for a long time. And you were close to him in a way I never was.’
Reid frowned. ‘I don’t think that’s true. You guys seemed perfect together. I never could figure out why you split up.’
Steve’s gaze shot to him. ‘He never told you?’
‘No. He just said you weren’t right for each other.’
A sigh shuddered out of Steve and he looked away again, but Reid didn’t miss the bleak expression in his eyes and he suddenly knew.
‘You knew, didn’t you? That was why you tried to stop him from climbing that day. The reason why you split up. Why he was so angry with you in that last week.’
‘I … It wasn’t …’
Reid held up his hand. ‘You don’t have to say anything. I get it. You were trying to protect him.’ He grasped Steve’s forearm. ‘I don’t blame you.’
‘I do. I blame me.’
‘Seems we’re both good at that.’ He sighed. ‘I just can’t understand why he didn’t tell me what was going on, how desperate things had got for him.’ Had he been that much of a bad friend?
‘I imagine he thought he was protecting you.’
‘Yeah, maybe.’ He stared off into the distance while Steve began to pack away the first aid gear.
‘You ready to go?’ Steve stood, held out his hand.
‘Yeah. I am.’ He allowed Steve to help him to his feet and tried to smile, hiding the fact his head, knee and shoulder ached like a son-of-a-bitch.
‘After we get you checked out at the hospital, we need to talk about the charity climb.’
‘You can’t put it off for much longer. There are things we need to decide on.’
‘No, you don’t understand. There isn’t going to be a charity climb.’ He sighed at the look on Steve’s face, knowing he was letting another friend down, but he couldn’t stay here working at the production offices in the Blue Mountains, trying and trying to be something he wasn’t. ‘I can’t do this anymore. I need a break. I need to get myself back together again before I can face another climb or anything else like it. I know this puts you in a difficult position—’
Steve held up his hand. ‘No. I get it. I thought it was too soon, but you seemed so determined, I didn’t want to get in your way. I think we all need a break.’
Relief rushed through Reid at Steve’s understanding. Although, if anyone was going to understand, it was Steve. He’d barely talked to anyone for weeks after Luke’s death, hadn’t even made it to the funeral. It was only in the last month or so he’d seemed to rally. It was good to see, and somehow gave him hope that there was a chance for him to do the same. ‘I know I’m leaving you high and dry.’
‘No. I’ve had some other opportunities come up which I’d like to pursue and we haven’t gone so far along with the charity climb prep that we can’t change it into something else or postpone it until you feel able.’
Reid stared at the horizon. ‘I’m not sure if I’m ever going to be ready. I can’t even bring myself to go through the things Luke left for me. He wrote me a letter, you know, left it with his diaries and stuff and I haven’t even opened it.’
Steve stiffened, a hiss escaping him, as if he’d been punched. Reid swore at himself for being an unthinking git. Reid had so much and Steve had nothing of Luke except for his memories and the photos of them together on his phone.
‘If you want something of Luke’s you only have to ask.’
Steve shrugged. ‘If he wanted me to have something, he would have left it for me.’
‘The offer stands.’
‘Thanks.’ Steve nodded sharply and patted his shoulder—his good one, thank Christ, because the injured one was pounding with every step. ‘So, what now?’
Reid sighed. ‘I don’t know. I think I might go home.’ His gran had been calling every day, telling him he should come home, let her take care of him. He’d not wanted to give in to the need for her, for home, for the warm familiarity of CoalCliff Palomino Stud, the beauty of Walhalla, the old gold mining town nestled in the south-east of Victoria’s Alpine region, so he’d held out. But the need to go somewhere nobody was expecting so much from him was suddenly overwhelming.
‘I thought you said you’d never go back there to live. That it was way too quiet for you.’
‘I was running away from things.’ Namely a girl. Being at CoalCliff reminded him too much of Nat and it had become too painful to be there. But time had passed and things were different now. ‘I think maybe a bit of quiet is exactly what I need.’ Life there had once given him everything he’d needed. Maybe it could again. Maybe this time it could heal the broken things inside him and allow him to find that enthusiastic, life-grabbing side of himself once again.
Besides, he knew Flynn needed his help at CoalCliff. His uncle was only a few years older than him, being the youngest of a large and vocal brood that had spread across Australia. Flynn had had more than his fair share of burdens to shoulder the last few years and now he was a widower with a young son, he certainly could do with another family member around to help out and give him a bit of a break. At least that’s what Barb, his gran and Flynn’s mum, had said. Flynn would never say anything of the sort.
And maybe there, he’d find the courage to go through the stuff Luke had left behind, including the letter he’d written to Reid just before that fatal climb.
A smile twitched on his lips. ‘I’m going home.’ To family, to security, to picturesque CoalCliff Stud. Yes, going home seemed to be the best thing. Some quiet, the peace of simple hard work, no demands on him to be more than a helping hand around the farm. It sounded perfect. The worst thing that could happen to him there was to be smothered by his gran and maybe, hopefully, be bored to such a sleepy state he might finally get through the night without waking up screaming.