For readers of Karly Lane and Tricia Stringer…misunderstandings and injured pride stand in the way of true love in this charming rural romance from an award-winning and much-loved author.
‘Penelope Janu’s fresh, bright, funny new twist on rural romance is an absolute delight. Her wit is as sharp as a knife. She is one of my absolute must-read authors.’ Victoria Purman, bestselling Australian author
After a troubled childhood and the loss of her beloved grandmother, Sapphie Brown finally finds somewhere to call home – the close-knit rural community of Horseshoe Hill.
The locals love Sapphie because she never gives up – as chair of the environment committee, with the children in her classes, the troubled teens at the youth centre, the ex-racehorses she cares for and even the neglected farmhouse and gardens she wants make her own. Sapphie gives second chances to everything and everyone. Except Matts Laaksonen.
An impossibly attractive environmental engineer who travels the world, Matts was Sapphie’s closest childhood friend. He came to deliver a warning – now he doesn’t want to leave.
All Sapphie wants to do is forget their painful past, but thrown together they discover an attraction that challenges what they thought they knew about each other. Do they have a chance to recapture what they lost so long ago? Or will long-buried secrets tear them apart?
In the flowers she creates from paper and the beauty that grows on the land, Sapphie has found perfect imperfection. Could that be what love is like too?
‘Intriguing characters and a colourful setting: if you like romance and a little mystery, get ready to enjoy this novel.’ Tricia Stringer
Most people see colours, but sometimes I think that I see them more clearly.
I’ve worked at the long timber bench at the farmhouse for the past two hours, pressing crepe paper petals into shapes so they’re ready to form into flowers. Gompholobium grandiflorum. Large Wedge-pea. The petals, in four shades of yellow, are lined up neatly in rows.
Saffron, lemon, amber and gold.
When a gust of wind rattles the window and sneaks through a gap in the frame, scores of petals fly into the air and fall to my feet like sunbeams. As I collect the petals and put them into a shoebox, I imagine Gran at her old kitchen table, the surface obscured by reams of crepe paper.
‘Don’t be so particular, Sapphie,’ she’d say, as I fussed over shade and sequence. ‘It’s the imperfections that make the flowers perfect.’
I pack away supplies—glues and tapes, forestry wire and scissors, the yellow-coloured crepe I’ve cut into strips and the moss-green pieces I’ll shape for the foliage. A screech shoots through the silence. Possums in the red gum. I wish they’d eat there every night and leave the orange trees alone.
Another gust of wind, stronger than the last, rattles the window again. The latch is fastened but the timber is weathered and the screws are loose. One day, when this farmhouse is mine, I’ll replace the windowsill and fill in all the gaps. I’ll hang curtains to keep out the cold, plaster the cracks in the cornices and repair the rotting skirting boards. One day …
I turn off the overhead lights and lock the front door behind me. A butterscotch moon, low in the sky, throws shadowy light on the gardens—camellia trees, azalea bushes and tangles of bare branched midwinter roses. The trunk of the red gum is palest pink, the low-lying branches heavy with foliage.
When the breeze catches my hood and pulls it back, the air is cold on my face. I thread loose hairs through my plait and secure it under my collar. My breaths are white as I step through the shadows on the porch. I could walk by road to the school where I teach and live, but I prefer to hike cross-country. High silky clouds, grey and teal, obscure the pinprick stars.
Tree roots have lifted cracks in the path at the side of the farmhouse and the water tank near the raised bed of herbs is ringed with rusty stripes. Ten empty pots, stacked in a wobbly tower, lean against the greenhouse. Was it Barney who hid the marijuana plants behind the tomato vines and trellis? My heart sinks. I don’t want it to be him, or any of the teens and children who come to the farmhouse to help with the horses or just hang around, but Barney has shown particular interest in the vegetable gardens in the past few months.
I glance at the compost bin. The plants were mature. Was it safe to uproot them, cut them up and shove them in there? Tomorrow I’ll add worms to the bin and fill it up with horse manure.
Skirting around the mandarin and cumquat trees, I bypass the horses napping near the yards and slip between the rungs of the wide metal gate. The track through the paddock is fairly straight and the grass is low and scrappy. More difficult to navigate is the scrub that borders the creek; I push back the branches, jump over a ditch and skirt around thistles. The creek is low and the meandering flow, black in the shadows, is interspersed by ridges of rock. I jump over two shallow crevices before leaping over the band of deeper water to land on my feet and scramble up the incline.
I’m still crouched low, my hands on the ground, when I see a man walking through the paddock from the direction of the school. He’s dressed in city clothes. His shoulders are broad. He’s tall. If I stand, he’ll see me. Does it matter? Horseshoe Hill is my home. I haven’t done anything wrong.
As I push myself upright, I touch a dandelion weed, the long, fleshy leaves soft on my fingers. I recall the marijuana. Barney is only fourteen. I don’t think he smokes or drinks. Was he cultivating the weed for somebody else? This track leads directly to the farmhouse. Is the man sneaking in to check out the crop?
I scramble back to the creek bed, running along the bank before tackling the incline again. There’s little cover on this side of the creek, only two gum trees. The closest tree isn’t very tall, but there’s a much larger tree next to it. I stand on a boulder and leap to the first tree, taking hold of the branch and swinging a leg over the bough, before hoisting myself onto it and sitting astride. I wriggle to the trunk, wrap an arm around it and stand. The adjacent tree’s lowest branch, narrow and straight like a bar, is higher than the one I’m on, and only a metre away. I bend my knees and jump, grasping the branch with both hands before looping my legs around it. The branch, bowing under my weight, tilts towards the ground. Yikes.
Hanging by my legs and arms, I shuffle towards the trunk. It’s too wide to wrap my arms around, but the knobbly remnants of a long dead branch provide a handhold. I grasp it as I pull myself up and sit, legs dangling beneath me. I check my phone. Almost ten o’clock. I peer through the leaves.
The man is only twenty metres away. His coat falls past his thighs; the collar is turned up. I can’t make out his features, but I think that he’s young with short dark hair. He doesn’t have the look of a teenage druggie and, as he’s not shady and thin, or thickset and threatening, he looks nothing like the dealers I’ve seen. But … there’s something familiar about him.
When he stops at the end of the track and looks in my direction, I hold my breath. He shouldn’t be able to see me. My hair is dark brown, I’m dressed in black and grey and obscured behind the tree trunk. But just in case, I yank up my hood, pulling the toggle tight so it sits above my mouth.
I hear steps through the undergrowth, branches pushed aside. Silence. My heart thumps hard against my ribs.
His voice is deep. Does he know I’m close? Why else would he call out? Should I answer? If he’s walking around in the dead of night with criminal intent, I have no interest in talking to him. He might not know exactly where I am and even if he does, my branch won’t hold his weight. I feel for my phone again. Reception isn’t great, but I can threaten to call for help if I have to.
He scrambles down the bank to the creek and walks alongside it, his eyes on the ground until he reaches my tree. He stops, turns and looks up. The moon sneaks through a crack in the clouds and shines on his face. My breath catches.
A strong jaw, high Nordic cheekbones and deep-set, intelligent eyes. A crease through his brow when he frowns and a twitch to his lips when he smiles. A scar on his chin.
It’s a face I could never forget.
‘Who are you?’ he asks.
A wave of unhappiness tightens my throat.
The girl who loved you a lifetime ago.
‘Come down,’ he says.
The school is hundreds of metres away, securely locked up for the night. The old schoolhouse where I live is even further. In the distance, I see headlights: a truck on the loop road. It’s probably Freddie, who’s often late home from the markets.
Matts scrambles up the slope and pulls a phone from his pocket. When he activates the light, the bright silver beam triples my heart rate. Should I stand on my branch? It would hardly make a difference.
His shoulders are broader than they used to be. The stubble on his face is even and neat.
I sit taller and loosen the toggle on my hood. I draw it back, pulling out my plait and flicking the long end down my back. I blink against the glare. ‘Turn off the light, Matts.’
He puts the phone in his pocket. ‘Why are you up there?’
‘Why are you down there?’
‘I came to warn you.’ He crosses his arms.
‘Not now,’ he says. ‘Get down.’
One of my hands is on the tree trunk. The other is on the branch near my leg. I wriggle my fingers, stiff with cold. I want to get down, but—
‘How did you know I was out here?’
‘I looked for you at the school. I was sent to the farmhouse.’
‘The hotel barman.’
When I’m teaching children to sound out words, I draw out the letters. I elongate them. Ba … aa … rr … mm … aa … nn. Matts does the opposite when he speaks. His native language is Finnish. He’s fluent in English, but his words are short and sharp.
‘Did my father send you?’
He can’t reach the branch, but steps as close as he can. ‘How did you get up there?’
When I don’t answer, he looks from my tree to the other tree, then speaks through his teeth. ‘Still taking risks?’
‘You can’t go back that way.’
I glance at the ground, three metres down. It falls away steeply. I’ll have to swing wide, and drop to higher ground. Even so …
‘You’ll hurt yourself.’ He takes a few steps down the incline and braces himself. ‘Jump, Sapphire. I’ll break your fall.’
‘Leave me alone, Matts.’
‘You haven’t changed, have you?’
‘It’s been eight years. How would you know?’
There’s a rustling in the leaves above me. A ringtailed possum scampers headfirst down the tree trunk. When I yelp and pull back my arm, he freezes. His coat is speckled grey, his startled eyes are bright.
I put my hands on the branch either side of my legs as I inch away. ‘I’m on your tree, aren’t I? It’s okay. I won’t hurt—’
The branch dips sharply and I lose my balance. I fall.
If I’d jumped, I would have landed on my feet. Matts would have stopped me falling down the slope. As it is, my arms flail in midair as I try to right my body. But I don’t have time. I don’t—
Starting From Scratch by Penelope Janu will be available in-stores and online from the 6th of January 2021