With her trademark fresh and funny tone, Lily Malone returns with a captivating new romance set in the heart of the Australian outback.
For Jaydah Tully, the country town of Chalk Hill has never felt like home. Home is a place to feel loved. Home is a place to feel safe. Jaydah’s home life is dark in ways the close-knit community could never imagine.
Jaydah knows that the man she loves has never understood her need for secrets. Brix is a Honeychurch, she’s a Tully – her family are Chalk Hill’s black sheep. It’s better for everyone if Brix stays away.
But Brix is a one-woman man, and when he returns to his home town to help his brother, the first person he sees is Jaydah. Independent. Private. Proud. When things are good between them they are really really good but all too soon they’re back in the old patterns, caught in the same argument: Her father. Her family. Her life that doesn’t include him.
Underneath her tough exterior, Jaydah is drowning. She has one chance to change everything. Is she brave enough to take the risk and let Brix in? Or will her father keep them apart forever?
‘Warm, witty and fun … Lily Malone creates unforgettable characters. Chalk Hill is a small town you will never want to leave.’ Alissa Callen, bestselling Australian author
Jaydah Tully stepped off the kerb outside the Chalk Hill butcher shop with a kilo of sausages tucked under her arm and the sudden thought that she should check both ways before she crossed the road no matter who stood smiling at her from the other side.
The odds of being hit by a truck on the Muirs Highway weren’t high, but she’d never been the type to get complacent. Unlike the indomitable Irene Loveday who was waltzing past the Post Office with her white terrier, gabbing away to anyone who’d listen, and now crossing King Jarrah Close completely oblivious to the approaching school bus.
Of course, the bus would wait. Everyone in this town waited for Irene.
But not every truck in town would wait for Jaydah, so she stopped, assessed the traffic and called at the man on the other side of the highway, ‘Will you look at what the cat dragged in?’
Then she stepped.
‘Hey, JT,’ Brix greeted her easily.
Braxton ‘Brix’ Honeychurch did everything easy, always had: made friends, played sports, made wine. Kissed.
It wasn’t a wide highway and Brix had come a way down the length of his Toyota, briefly rubbing the ears of the black and white kelpie in the tray in the back. So it wasn’t a long walk, it didn’t take much time and it didn’t matter anyway. She only needed seconds to zero in on Brix.
‘You’ve got a new car,’ she said. You’ve been in the sun more, you’re browner. Did you go on holiday somewhere to get that tan? I like that shade of blue on you. You’re gorgeous as ever.
He slapped the rail of the ute’s tray. ‘The old one was falling apart.’
Jaydah adjusted the weight of the sausages under her arm. The pack in its paper felt heavy and soft at the same time. Like the thick padding Jaz put on the kali sticks every morning when Jaydah and her father sparred.
Just once when she saw Brix it would be nice if her next thought wasn’t of her father. That monster.
Brix opened his arms to take her in, all of him as lean and long and handsome as ever. All of him true and brave and good and wonderful, and a lump caught in her throat as she kissed him.
She supposed there were people who met lifelong friends who were also lovers with an awkward peck on the cheek, and a clumsy wrap of the arms and a pat on the back.
She and Brix had never been like that.
His arms were solid, his hug like sunshine, his lips warm and sure. Easy.
God, she loved him. She hadn’t seen him in at least two years, and she loved him.
‘That’ll give this town something to talk about,’ Brix said when he finished his kiss hello, and his kiss how are you, and his kiss got much planned for the next day or so that isn’t making love with me?
He hadn’t let go of any part of her except her lips, and the way he was staring she reckoned he’d have those back any second too, but already the fear niggled and she took a step back. She might love seeing him, but the monster wouldn’t like it if he heard Brix was back in town.
‘Braxton Honeychurch! It is you!’ A woman’s voice called from the white-topped rail at the base of the ramp near the Post Office.
Brix smiled, making a flush of creases radiate from the corner of his mouth. He muttered, ‘I thought I missed her.’
She whispered, ‘Like you should be so lucky.’
‘You’ve got a new car! I didn’t recognise it,’ Irene said, approaching with the ferocity of a category five cyclone, arms whirling. ‘It’s always good to see you. How long has it been?’
‘It’s been a while.’
‘Too long! I would have forgotten what you look like if you didn’t look so much like Jake. You’d never miss you two for brothers! And your dad, oh, you look like him when he was your age.’
Brix leaned low to embrace Irene, and Jaydah prepared for a long story about the old-time bush dances and how good Brix’s dad, Stan, was when it came to the waltz, and how Val had stolen Stan away from them all because she was a city girl who knew how to Foxtrot.
Irene’s frantic arrival gave Jaydah a chance to cool off all the parts that had been heating since she’d spotted Brix from across the road. She glanced back toward the butcher and saw her new friend, Taylor—hair a shade more copper than the brash red of Irene’s—tying her dog to a post outside the Secondhand Shop.
Taylor was staying at Ella Davenport’s place, she’d said. Ella was Jake Honeychurch’s current squeeze.
She could push Brix to the back of her mind all she liked, but living in Chalk Hill made it impossible to forget him. She drove past Honeychurch Hardware & Timber most days, and she served Jake and his dad beer at the Chalk Hill & Districts Bowling Club on most Saturday nights. At least she did until Stan and Val Honeychurch went travelling around Australia, and Jake met Ella. Jake didn’t come to the club so much anymore.
In this town, everyone knew everyone (or thought they did). As long as she lived in Chalk Hill there were reminders of Brix everywhere.
And it wasn’t like she could leave Chalk Hill.
Bloody hell, Irene. You could talk through a yard of wet concrete.
Brix nodded, asked after Doug and the kids, said yep and you’re kidding and really? with what he hoped were the appropriate levels of enthusiasm. He liked Irene. He didn’t want to be rude, but Jesus, JT looked good, and when he’d kissed her she’d fit him perfectly, like she always did.
His body didn’t sing when he was with JT. It soared.
‘So what brings you back to town then?’ Irene asked him.
‘Jake had to go up to Perth on short notice and he’ll be shearing any tick of the clock. He asked if I’d come over for a few days and give him a hand on the farm. You should see the size of the bloody list he left me!’ He laughed and Irene laughed with him. ‘I’m grizzling about it, Irene, but I’m happy to do it. I haven’t been over for a while and this time of year it’s pretty quiet in the vineyard. I haven’t seen Abe in years. We had a good catch up last night. A bit too good, actually. The old head’s a bit rough this morning.’
‘Well, you tell Abe I said he’s doing great things with the new café! We have our pool committee meetings there. He always gives us a free coffee.’
‘So he should, Irene. Having a cuppa with you is like having a cuppa with Mum.’
Irene’s cheeks blushed the same shade as her hair and she batted her hand at him. ‘Oh you boys, you’re all the same. How is your mum anyway, love? They still travelling?’
‘Last I heard. They’ve spent some time on the Sunshine Coast. I think they’re on their way to Port Douglas. I think Mum was getting a bit tired of being on the road, though. Dad said she hadn’t been feeling the best.’
‘I must admit I do like my own bed,’ Irene said, then she glanced across to where she’d tied her white dog. ‘Anyway, listen to me waffle on! I better get Bertie home. He’s not as young as he used to be. It’s always great to see you, love. Don’t be a stranger.’
His eyes caught JT’s. ‘I’ll try not to be.’
Irene waltzed back toward the Post Office and untied the dog, and from there she waved and chatted her route across King Jarrah Close. Luckily there was no bus coming this time. Nothing had to brake.
‘Nothing much changes about this place, hey?’ Jaydah said.
‘Nothing much does.’ He stepped closer, erasing the space she’d left when Irene stormed in. ‘You haven’t changed, JT. You’re beautiful as ever.’
Jaydah brushed her hair from her face. It was long and black, silky as always. He itched to wrap his fingers through it, tug it, the way she always liked.
‘You could teach that at university, you could,’ she said.
‘Charming the pants off people. It doesn’t come natural for all of us, you know.’
‘It’s just the truth.’
She didn’t have a comeback for that and it left the two of them standing beside his car: her with whatever was in that pack from the butcher’s; him with that Jaydah-ache in his heart.
‘Are you working later?’ he said. ‘Still up at the club?’
She swallowed once, clearing her throat. ‘I am. I’m the bar manager these days.’
‘Can I see you? Or will it get you in trouble with your dad?’
‘You’re still living at home then?’
‘You gonna have more than a one-word answer for me any time soon, JT?’
He scrubbed his hand through his fringe. ‘So it hasn’t got any better on the home front then?’
‘No. He’s still an arsehole but my mum won’t leave him. So I won’t leave them. Leave her, I mean. Not till I can convince her to come with me.’
‘Any time you want me to marry you and take you away from all this, you just let me know—’ she shook her finger at him but he ploughed on: ‘And if marriage is out of the question, come for a holiday. Margaret River isn’t that far from Chalk Hill. It’s only three hours.’
Now she shook her head at him along with her finger. ‘I can’t do that.’
‘Course you can. You’re twenty-seven years old. We’re not kids any more. You don’t need his permission.’
Her river-brown eyes hardened. ‘You said it yourself, Brix. Some things never change.’
Friday nights were always busy at the Bowling Club, but they’d been busier since work started to upgrade and seal the Chalk Hill Bridge Road. Earlier in the year the council and Main Roads had announced a development plan to connect the Muirs Highway to the South Coast Highway by upgrading and extending Chalk Hill Bridge Road. The plan would create a sealed north-south corridor that would meet the Muirs Highway at Chalk Hill.
About the same time, one of the old-time locals—old Dylan Fields who everyone called ‘Pickles’—got his application approved to develop a world-class water-ski park out on his farm on Chalk Hill Bridge Road.
What with Pickles’ ski park and the road upgrade, the workers coming into the town had just about doubled the Chalk Hill population and local real estate prices had boomed.
Construction workers had been hard at the new road for a few months now, since the heaviest of the winter rains cleared.
Most of the workers lived in dongas and a lot of them would go home at weekends. Some stayed, and the only place to go if they wanted a beer and a feed, and to shoot some games of pool, was the Bowling Club.
They were a bit rowdy, but mostly good fun. Any of the scruffy bunch that got too big for their boots, Jaydah was always happy to knock them down a peg or two with a pool cue.
Tonight the Club had a good vibe. Not too busy. No aggro. The usual locals who always came in Friday for lawn bowls and dinner were in, but they rarely stayed late. Soon as they’d eaten they’d scarper before the ‘young ones’ turned up the music.
When Brix got there it was 8.07 pm.
Yes, she knew to the minute.
It took him a while to get across to the bar because everyone wanted a piece of him. It was the same whenever Jake or Stan or Val came into the club. Abe not so much. He hadn’t stayed in town long after school and all the townsfolk reckoned he was the wild one of the Honeychurch boys.
Jaydah smiled as she worked the taps and poured pale ale into a glass for Mitch Laughton. No matter how many soy lattes Abe made at his café, in this town he’d always be a black sheep.
That was okay. Jaydah was a Tully and Tullys were black sheep too.
There was a time when Brix copped flak from the locals because he’d chosen to study winemaking in Adelaide and work in wine rather than follow in his father’s footsteps with sheep and grain. These days with the Frankland River wine region just down the road and wineries earning accolades near Mount Barker, vineyards weren’t the pariah and Brix wasn’t considered such a naughty boy.
When the first vines were planted near Chalk Hill, farmers couldn’t see why you’d ruin good farming land by planting bloody grapevines all over it. Then they got the dollar signs in their eyes at the price those vignerons would pay for that good farming land, and attitudes softened.
She poured another beer, got Tynan Kennedy and his wife a bottle of sparkling for their sixth anniversary, and watched out of the corner of her eye as Brix worked his way toward the bar.
He’d showered and changed. Black jeans hugged his thighs and he wore a shirt with short sleeves and a thin stripe through it, and flat leather shoes with a pointed toe that were way over-the-top-dressy for Chalk Hill, but on him, they were perfect.
As he shook hands with old friends, the muscle in his right arm would leap and tighten, and Jaydah’s tummy would leap and tighten along with it. She wondered if he still wore the same cologne and had to stop herself from taking a sniff.
All those who’d lived in Chalk Hill long enough to know the history of Jaydah and Brix laughed with him, shook hands with him—the women kissed him—and they all settled in to ride the tension that shadowed Brix toward the bar like a superhero’s cape.
The Huxtables were enjoying Friday dinner with the McCormacks; Tynan Kennedy and his wife were about to make a toast; Nino and Vince Scarponi traded darts at the dartboard. Nino had been an arsehole since they were in school, but Vince had always made it very clear that if Jaydah were keen, he’d be her mustard.
There was a reason Jaydah was never keen on Vince, and it just walked into the bar.
‘Is it always this busy in here?’ Brix asked her, pulling up a bar stool at the corner on the far side. He made a good show of being oblivious to the sideways glances and the knowing smiles, but now that he’d made it this far, he kept his gaze straight and didn’t look back.
Jaydah moved down to meet him. ‘Usually they’d be heading home to watch the Friday night movie by now. Now they know you’re here, I reckon they figure the entertainment is better value.’
‘Yep. It’s still like that. What can I get you?’
‘One of those Mad Bull stouts.’
She raised an eyebrow at him. ‘Not trying to write yourself off, I hope?’
‘Just settling the nerves.’
She laughed. ‘Since when did you get nervous? This is like walking into one big happy family for you. Everyone loves you.’
‘They love you too.’
She put his beer glass under the tap and watched the dark liquid surge. When she finished and moved to hand the glass over, his eyes were on hers.
‘That’s six-ninety, please,’ she said, and then: ‘What?’
‘You don’t think they love you?’ He shuffled in his back pocket for his wallet and put it up on the bar, taking out a twenty.
‘Oh you know.’ She counted out his change. ‘I’ve got a home here and a lot of protectors in this place, but outside of the Bowling Club I’m a Tully, not a Honeychurch. There’s a difference.’
‘Bullshit.’ He left the change on the bar. ‘Can I buy you a drink or is too early?’
Jaydah cast an eye about the bar. She counted two committee members, including the club president, Tynan Kennedy’s dad. The other committee member was more of a stickler for the rules than Mr Kennedy. ‘Not yet. Maybe later.’
‘Okay.’ He took his first slurp of beer and smacked his tongue inside his mouth. ‘That’s not gonna touch the sides.’
Jaydah moved away to serve other customers, and this was their pattern over the next two hours. When she didn’t have customers she’d return to Brix’s end of the bar, almost drifting there as if she’d got caught in his tide.
They’d talked about his family. They’d avoided talking about her family. They’d been over his work, her work, kids they knew in school, who had babies, who’d won lotto (nobody), who’d had an affair (a few), and as the customers slowly stood and tucked bar stools or dining chairs under their tables and left, there were fewer patrons for Jaydah to serve, and her orbit of Brix and the bar shrunk.
When both committee members had gone, Jaydah let Brix buy her that drink. Brandy. Not too much ice.
‘So, JT,’ he said, putting a hand each side of his beer glass, tapping his index fingers up and down the bottom half. The glass was half full. It was his third.
‘What about you? Are you seeing anyone?’
‘Do I look like I’m seeing anyone?’ She picked up her brandy and swirled the ice, making the cubes jar and jangle before she took a sip and set the glass on the bar a touch too hard.
His eyes were patient as ever. ‘No, you don’t. Quite frankly, it pisses me off.’
‘It pisses you off that I’m not seeing anyone? How does that work?’
‘You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. You know I love you and you won’t be with me. So there’s obviously something fucking wrong with me, but that shouldn’t apply to all the other blokes who’d love you if you let them.’
And she forgot about being riled.
‘The things you say to me. How can you say those things to me?’ Her head swam as if this was her third brandy, not her first.
‘I thought we could always tell each other anything.’
She shook her head. ‘Everyone has secrets.’
‘I don’t have any secrets from you.’
I do. Big. Fat. Ugly ones. Time to change the subject. ‘So what about you?’ She picked up her drink again.
‘What about me?’
‘Are you seeing anyone?’
‘No,’ he said simply. ‘If you’d run away and get married or something, then someone else might be in with a chance with me. I figure while there’s life, there’s hope. I’m a patient man.’
‘Well, you must be getting a bit somewhere, Brix. You’re not a monk. And it’d be a damn shame—’ she bit her lip and stopped.
His lips twitched around a smile. ‘What would be a damn shame?’
‘Well, put it this way. There’s a lot of you to go to waste. Some woman somewhere should be getting lucky.’
He pushed his beer out of the way. ‘I don’t want some woman somewhere. I want you.’
The words tumbled across the bar, darted below the music. They pounded on her ribs like drumbeats in a basement nightclub.
That’s what Brix did. She could never keep him out.
He brought her pain, yet he gave her joy.
‘Can a guy get any service around here?’ Vince Scarponi scowled at her from the end of the bar and she jumped straight.
She’d been leaning with her elbows on the bar. Brix was leaning in from the other side. In the middle, their outstretched fingers twined around the curved glass bottom of her brandy balloon.
‘You two should really get a room. Seriously,’ he said. ‘Better still, you should bloody well make an honest woman out of her, Honeychurch. Do us all a favour.’ This time he smiled as it he said it because Vince wasn’t a bad guy and if it had been Vince who sat beside her on the bus all those years ago and not Brix, well, maybe things might have been different …
But it was Brix who sat beside her on the bus.