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Read a sneak peek from Undara by Annie Seaton

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Read a sneak peek from Undara by Annie Seaton

Undara

by Annie Seaton

Within the treacherous caves of Undara, a betrayal will test the bonds of friendship and family. A page-turning new eco-adventure for readers who love Di Morrissey.

When entomologist Emlyn Rees arrives at Hidden Valley she wants nothing more than to escape her marriage breakdown by burying herself in the research team’s hunt for new species of insects in the depths of the dramatic Undara lava tubes. However, little does she suspect she will be the key to solving a mystery that’s more than one hundred years old.

Travis Carlyle is initially resistant to letting some city folks tramp over his cattle station, but soon the researchers’ findings and a growing friendship with Emlyn bring opportunities to turn around his struggling farm. With a broken marriage behind him and children to care for, Travis needs to plan for the future and this could be his family’s best chance.

But when things start going wrong for the farm and around the dig site, Emlyn and Travis are at a loss to understand why. Are they cursed with bad luck, or is there a more sinister force at play? Are the tall tales of enigmatic stockman Bluey turning true? As the unseen saboteur grows bolder, Emlyn and Travis are caught in a race against time to save the station … and their lives.

 

Undara


PROLOGUE

Emlyn tried to look out over the bright-white sand to the water, but her head was aching, and her eyelids were too heavy to open. Her arms burned as the tropical sun seared her skin. ‘Pass my hat … please.’

She reached out to the beach mat to see if he was still there beside her.

Shimmering, blinding light.

Damn eyes, why can’t I open them? She raised her hand to her face and tried to force her eyelids open. She drew in a shaking breath, but her hands were still by her side.

‘Am I asleep?’ she asked. ‘David?’

No answer. Of course he wouldn’t answer. She hadn’t spoken to him since they’d left home. They’d hardly spoken at all since the fight about the wedding.

The first fight they’d ever had.

Why can’t I hear the water anymore? Where is everybody?

Only low voices surrounded her. Maybe they’ve gone back to the bungalow for a nap.

Panic bubbled in her chest and she willed her eyes to open. Fear took her voice and her lips wouldn’t shape the words.

‘David. Where are you?’

No words. There was only a vibration in her chest where they formed.

‘She’s coming around.’ The unfamiliar voice was calm.

She fisted her fingers into the sand to lift herself, but firm hands gently pushed her shoulders back.

‘It’s all right, Mrs Barber.’

No. There is no Mrs Barber. Not anymore.

Pain rolled over Emlyn Rees in waves, as conscious thought slammed back and she turned into the pillow.

My heart can’t bear it.

As quiet surrounded her, she opened her lips to catch the hot saltiness of the tears that trickled down her cheeks.

It’s not real.

It’s a dream. Only a dream.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

Hidden Valley, New Year’s Eve, 2018

Emlyn Rees frowned and tapped her fingers on the steering wheel of the Troop Carrier she’d picked up in Townsville. The direc­tions on the map that had been emailed to her, outlining the route to the Hidden Valley cattle station, were detailed. Exactly thirty kilometres past Conjuboy, she’d turned left off the Kennedy Devel­opmental Road onto an unsealed road, but there’d been no sign of any property name at the intersection. She’d been driving along the road for almost half an hour and was beginning to think she’d turned off too soon, when it narrowed, and she had to grip the manual shift and change down a gear.

As the road became little more than a goat track, dense thickets of black tea-trees edged it, and the front tyres of the four-wheel drive dropped into a deep rut that was obviously cut by torrential rain.

Biting her lip, she glanced over at the printed email that now lay on the passenger seat beside her. A stand of fig trees formed a canopy over the track ahead, and with an impatient huff, she accel­erated out of the rut, steered the vehicle to the side and switched off the engine.

Reaching for her water bottle, she took a deep swig before roll­ing the cool glass over her forehead; despite the air-conditioning, she was still perspiring. The humid air pressed in close and sticky as a bank of dark cloud edged the sky ahead. Frustration filled Emlyn and she frowned, ignoring the uncertainty that settled heavily in her chest. Flipping up her sunglasses, she reached for the printed map. She traced her shaking finger over the route from Greenvale, the last town she’d travelled through, and then along to the small square that was marked ‘Hidden Valley’. This was the right road, although it was hard to believe that this narrow track could lead to one of the larg­est working cattle stations in the Einasleigh River area. The station was located halfway between the Undara Volcanic National Park and the tiny town of Einasleigh, almost four hundred kilometres west of Townsville in the tropical north. Emlyn had read up on the tour­ist facility—the Undara Experience—where some of the lava tubes were open for public viewing. The caves and tubes on Hidden Valley had not been explored and were not part of the national park.

 

After another kilometre along this track, she should go around a sweeping curve past the river, where the homestead would be on her left.

 

With a shake of her head, Emlyn put the map onto the dash­board. Despite only being mid-afternoon, it was quite dark. For the first time since she’d picked up the hire car, her unease grew, moving up her spine and making a home at the base of her neck.

 

The tension spread to her temples, a headache threatened, and her arm ached as it always did when she was tired … or stressed.

 

For a fleeting moment, she considered digging out a paracetamol capsule, but shook her head. She’d had enough painkillers—and anti-depressants—over the past months to last a lifetime; a simple headache wasn’t going to kill her. As soon as she was settled in, she’d relax, and a good night’s sleep would put paid to any tension.

With a determined set to her lips, she started the car and drove carefully down the track. Travis Carlyle, the property owner, had assured her that there would be someone at the homestead to meet her and take her across to the accommodation. His email assur­ance had been at odds with the disinterested tone of his voice in the three brief telephone conversations they’d had during the three months of planning. Making his preference to organise details by email very clear, it had seemed that Carlyle had done his best to delay the start of the research, which originally had been scheduled for late October. Carlyle had always had a reason each time he’d postponed the start date.

It was the first time Emlyn had been involved in negotiation with property owners, which was usually coordinated by the uni­versity; it hadn’t been an easy experience. The delays now meant that their arrival coincided with that of the ‘green’ season, when the rainfall could potentially be high, and they would have to work quickly as the threat of flooding in the tubes would hamper their efforts. The initial agreement was for a three-month minimum stay and the six team members would be living in the dongas in the old resource centre.

The road ahead curved as she’d expected, and as soon as she left the river, relief eased the ache a little as a homestead appeared, perched high on the hill just past the fork in the track. The sun broke through the heavy cloud for a few seconds and she caught a glimpse of water past the house. Gripping the wheel, Emlyn took the right-hand turn that led up to the building and pulled the car up outside the gate of the small house yard. Although there was no obvious need for a gate; the dilapidated fence did little to separate the front yard from the road. The building was surrounded by acres of dry brown grass, broken only by dead tree stumps and the rust­ing bodies of old cars. A water tank at the side of the house leaned drunkenly on uneven posts.

She shook her head. This was supposed to be the main house of one of the largest pastoral stations in North Queensland. Maybe this was a worker’s house and the main homestead was further ahead. She glanced at the map on the seat and wondered what to do.

Grey and box-like with flat fibro walls, the place looked to be uninhabited. David would have smiled and called it a ‘doer-upper’. She closed down that line of thought before it could take root in her tired brain. A couple of small windows sat either side of a front door that was located at the top of a flight of stairs. As Emlyn looked up, the late-afternoon light left dirty blood-red shadows on the rusting roof and one of the curtains twitched. She blinked and then stared; maybe she’d imagined it?

Another shiver ran down her spine and she fought off the fingers of panic that threatened to take hold. Despite the heat, goosebumps prickled her neck, and she forced herself to breathe deeply as the bands of tension tightened around her temples.

A flash of movement caught her eye, and as she turned a red kelpie shot down the stairs towards her vehicle. Emlyn sat back, waiting for someone to follow the dog through the half-open door, but there was no sign of life apart from the dog now yipping and jumping at the wheels. Someone must have opened the door to let the dog out. Eventually, the kelpie lost interest and slunk off to the shadows at the side of the house. Emlyn laid her head back on the headrest and waited until someone appeared.

And waited.

 

A couple of times, she’d swear she saw the same curtain move, but no one came outside. Normally, being alone didn’t bother her—in fact, it had been her preferred option over the past year—but the stillness of the landscape and the eerie light through the strange brownish-hued clouds were unsettling her. Not a sound and not a breath of wind.

The dead grass stretched to the top of the hill, broken only by the decaying bodies of the old cars. She brought her gaze back to the house and the dog’s eyes glinted in the half-light as he watched her.

Glancing at her wristwatch, Emlyn considered her options. There was no way she was going to get out of the car while the dog was around; she’d been terrified of them ever since she’d been bitten as a child. The red kelpie kept lifting its head and watching her. Maybe she’d keep driving and try to find the resource centre herself, but she needed a key to get in so that wasn’t an option. Sleeping in the car wasn’t terribly appealing, although if it came to that, she’d do it.

Damn, she’d just have to go up to the house and knock on the door. She knew there was someone inside, and she’d pound on the door until she got a response. Emlyn turned around and picked up the large umbrella off the back seat. If she needed a weapon to keep the dog away, that would have to suffice. Digging deep for courage, she smoothed her damp hands on her cargo pants and reached for the doorhandle. The dog lay in the shadows at the base of the water tank, but it was still very close to the bottom of the stairs.

As she opened the car door, a puff of dust indicated an approach­ing vehicle. The dog took off down the hill, and Emlyn climbed out of the vehicle and waited. It was a motorbike, and when the rider saw the Troop Carrier parked by the gate he roared up the road towards her, closely followed by the yipping dog.

Emlyn swallowed. Surely it wouldn’t bite now that its owner was there?

 

‘Bits!’ the man called to the dog as he stopped the bike close to her bull bar. He pointed to the dirt and the dog sank in the fine red dust beside the motorbike. He then swung his leg over the bike and walked over to Emlyn.

She leaned the umbrella against the car door and held out her hand. ‘Travis Carlyle?’

He ignored her outstretched hand, shaking his head. ‘Sorry, I’m filthy. You must be Emlyn Rees.’

‘Yes.’ She shoved her hands into her pockets and waited for him to continue, but he just stood there watching her without speaking. Looking up at the dark clouds above them, she forced her voice to stay firm. ‘Can you take me over to the accommodation, please?’

With a shrug, Carlyle whistled for the dog before he turned back to Emlyn. His words were curt. ‘Follow the bike. It’s another five kilometres west.’

What a charmer.

Shaggy fair hair in need of a cut surrounded a rugged face that held no welcome. He was younger than she’d expected—probably in his early forties—but even less personable than he’d come across in the terse emails and phone conversations. With a sigh, she put the umbrella back into the car and climbed into the front.

* * *

The last thing Travis Carlyle wanted was a bunch of damn scien­tists poking around his property. Times were hard enough, and if it hadn’t been for the payment already made by the university, he would have given this woman short shrift. He threw an irritated look towards the house as he kickstarted the bike. Gavin was inside, and he could have at least come out and taken her down to the dongas. He’d be on that damn computer, and too shy to come out to meet a stranger.

 

In the months since the boys had gone back to their mother in Townsville at the end of the last school holidays, Gavin had barely left the study. Dreaming about bloody cryptocurrency and how he was going to make them a fortune when he should have been out helping Travis in the paddocks. At least the boys helped him with the cattle when they were home. That was the only way the station was going to make a living, although any chance of a fortune had long gone with the fluctuations in the cattle industry. Hard work and skill weren’t enough anymore. And only having the boys home in the school holidays made it so difficult. Custody arrangements were informal, and in the end, Travis had agreed to school-holiday access. He had no other option when his wife—as they were still married—lived six hours away by road.

There were cattle to be moved from the middle paddocks before the rain hit; Travis looked up at the sky and frowned. That was the last thing he needed, having the herd washed away in a flash flood. And rain it would, he had no doubt about that. As well as the dark clouds building since late morning, his right knee had been giving him gip since he’d got out of bed before dawn. With any luck the tubes would flood, and these bloody scientists could go back to their laboratories and leave him in peace.

He glanced behind him and slowed the bike as they passed the vine thicket where the first lava tube crossed his land. The tubes functioned like giant stormwater drains as they collected and car­ried much of the summer rains. He had a feeling that Ms Rees—or professor or doctor or whatever she was—had disappointment ahead. He’d tried to tell her it was the wrong time of year to be poking about the caves, but like a typical woman, she’d dismissed his objections when he’d tried to put them off till autumn.

He muttered as he recalled the German blokes who’d first come looking at their place a few years ago. The Undara tubes fifty kilometres to the east had been discovered back in the sixties before Travis and Gavin had been born, and his grandfather and father had watched as the government had resumed part of that property as a national park. As kids, he and Gavin had played in the caves on their station and they’d taken for granted the strange beauty of their surroundings. Five generations of the Carlyle family had worked this land since one of their forebears had secured the pastoral lease over 150 years ago. Now with the scientific interest in the caves, and the ongoing struggle to keep the property viable, the chances of holding onto the family land were becoming less certain every year. So when the university had offered a substantial payment for their research visit, he’d had no option but to accept. He shrugged; the three months would pass quickly and they could get back to normal.

While ever there was breath in his lungs, he would not let the property go; he’d do anything to save it for the boys. There was too much history, too much family, to walk off the place. Travis gripped the handlebars as he went down the last hill and waited for the Troop Carrier to catch up.

He hid the smile that tugged at his lips as the woman parked the large vehicle. She stared at the neglected dongas for a moment before she crossed to where he waited on the bike. The buildings had sat empty for five years; no one had been here since National Parks had built them when they’d charted the area around his caves. There’d been little feedback after they’d moved on, and the only communication had been a short email referring to the area as an undeveloped national park. He’d not followed up; if they forgot about it, that suited him well.

Large dark eyes smudged with shadows in a delicate face held his as the woman stood beside his bike. For a brief moment, he felt sorry for what she had ahead of her in the filthy dongas, but then he shrugged it away. It wasn’t his problem. One of those univer­sity types, her hair—cut close to her head at the back with longer strands covering her forehead and reaching her chin at the front—screamed trendy at him. He looked down at the sturdy work boots and the brand-new, full-length khaki cargo pants. As he watched, she raised a shaking hand to her head and smoothed her hair flat against her cheek.

‘Come on, I’ll show you around.’ Travis led her to the side of the first building and reached beneath the steps to locate the magne­tised tin that held the keys. ‘This is the main building. You’ll find the refrigerators and the stoves in the back room, and there’s office space in the front. I think you’ll also find a land line in there, if you need it. As far as I know, it’s still connected.’

‘And the others?’ She gestured to the five smaller dongas.

‘The sleeping quarters.’ He gave a short laugh as she took the keys from him. ‘Don’t know why they bothered locking them when they left. No one ever comes out this way. I suppose it keeps the kangaroos, snakes and bats out.’

‘Thank you. I’m sure it will be fine.’

‘Are the others far behind you?’ He looked back at the road; there was no sign of dust from any other vehicles. ‘You’ll need a bit of a working bee to get it clean enough to stay in.’

‘They’ll be here soon.’ Her voice was cold.

Travis narrowed his eyes and held out his hand for the keys. ‘You can’t stay here by yourself.’

‘Oh, and why would that be?’ She put the keys in her pocket and folded her arms.

As she lifted her head and stared at him with eyebrows raised, he noticed the fine tracing of silver scars on the left side of her forehead. When she became aware of him looking, she lowered her head until her hair fell forwards again.

‘Because it’s not safe,’ he said.

‘The bats and the kangaroos? Believe me, Mr Carlyle, I’ve worked in much more dangerous environments than this.’

‘I don’t mean here. I mean in the caves.’

She lifted her head and held his gaze. ‘I won’t be going into the caves until the rest of the team arrive. I’ll be getting the set-up here ready and taking delivery of provisions from Mt Surprise. And I believe we’ve signed an agreement that absolves you of responsibil­ity for any accidents that may occur on your station, so you have no need to worry about me.’

‘I’m not worried. I don’t want you here and I’m not responsible for you, but if anything happens I’m the one who’s going to be called out to help. And I don’t have the time with the wet about to hit.’

Nature supported him as the first drops splashed the tin roof above.

‘Don’t worry. Your help won’t be required.’

Travis stared at her. ‘So how many days exactly until they get here?’

‘When I find out I’ll make sure I let you now. They’re leav­ing Brisbane tomorrow.’ The raised eyebrows pushed him into not giving in, even though he didn’t give two hoots about what was happening here.

She lifted her head and held eye contact with him. ‘I believe there is mobile phone service, and you’ve agreed to let us log into your satellite internet connection.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Then thank you, Mr Carlyle. I’m sure you want to get back before the rain gets heavier.’

She was dismissive, and Travis fought the need to have the last word. With a terse nod, he walked across to his motorbike and rode off without a backwards glance.

There was no doubt about it. Emlyn Rees was as cold as ice. But she and the rest of the university bods were the least of his worries, and the money that the university had deposited would stave off foreclosure for at least the next three months.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

Emlyn threw her backpack onto the single bed. She’d claimed the donga with the tiny bathroom that was furthest from the main building. She travelled light, and it didn’t take long to unpack the essentials and put her toiletries on the single shelf in the tiny bath­room. As she went to zip up her pack, her fingers brushed the small box that held her jewellery. Unable to help herself, she flicked up the lid and stared at her wedding ring. The nurse had taken it off her finger in the hospital before the first operation and Emlyn had seen that as a sign. Even when she was recovering, she’d not put it back on again. She stared down at the narrow gold band for a moment before shaking her head and snapping the box shut.

Emlyn stared through the window at the land surrounding the cabins. The glass was filthy—like the cabins—yet it softened the view of the harsh landscape surrounding the small buildings. Flat savannah grasslands burned off by the dry heat of the summer sun stretched as far as she could see. The rain had delivered only a few drops and the sky had lightened. The dark, oppressive clouds became a sheet of steel grey stretching to the horizon, trapping the relentless heat above the land.

A few stumpy trees were scattered along the road that wound between the buildings, shading the camp site, and she made a note to check that the air conditioners in each of the cabins were work­ing. It was going to get unbearably hot here over the rest of the summer. Even though the buildings were neglected and filthy, everything she’d tried so far had worked.

And there was nothing that a good scrub wouldn’t fix. Emlyn had bought some basic cleaning products after she’d picked up the Troop Carrier. The thought of losing herself in preparing the rooms for the arrival of the rest of the team lifted her spirits; clean­ing during the day and reading through the academic papers about the Undara caves at night would give her focus for a couple of days.

Apparently, the rain and the following green season were late arriving this year, and despite being early summer, the landscape still held the grim bleakness of the dry of winter. Emlyn embraced it; invisibility was one benefit of submerging herself in a new world. No one knew her, and no one knew her past. Even though she had only been here an hour, the isolation was a balm to her soul, and already she felt safe.

It had been a while since she had been out in the field and this was the first time they’d had buildings to stay in. The nature of their research usually meant they camped in swags, with a large tent for their cooking and socialising at the end of the day. She hadn’t been out in the field for a year, since—

Clenching her hands together, Emlyn swallowed and forced her mind back to the camp site in her immediate vision. She looked at the main building where the team would spend most of the time when they weren’t in the caves; a high window had been left open and it was in the worst condition, but scrubbing the bat guano off the benchtops could wait until tomorrow.

Her headache was coming back; she’d forgotten about it as she’d dealt with the sullen property owner. It didn’t bode well for the physical work she would be doing when the team arrived; this was the first time she would work in caves in a year and she wasn’t sure how she was going to cope underground. Returning to the vehicle, she carried the two eskies she’d purchased and filled with food in Townsville to the mess area. The water from the melted ice sloshed as she set them down on the floor. She’d bought enough to keep her going until the grocery delivery arrived.

Her phone vibrated in her jeans pocket and Emlyn jumped. It would be David and he’d keep trying until she finally picked up. Apart from her team of work colleagues, he was the only one who had this number. Her colleagues would be relaxing in Brisbane before they headed north. None of the team knew that she’d come up to the site today, and she didn’t have a social relationship with any of them, so no one would be calling to wish her a happy new year. Emlyn hadn’t forgotten the family traditions of a hot summer holiday, but she blocked the memories as the phone kept vibrat­ing. Still, images of cricket in the backyard after a baked dinner cooked in the dripping heat of a Brisbane summer, and plum pud­ding doused in hot custard, flickered through her mind like the jerky frames of a slow-motion movie. She’d spent Christmas Day packing for the trip and trying to forget about anything family-related, so why did she have to think about it now?

Because of David. Right now, he saw that as saving their marriage, but this time, he hadn’t been able to persuade her to come around to his way of thinking. It wasn’t that he was a bad person, or that he didn’t love her. It was New Year’s Eve, and in her ex-husband’s mind he would be doing the right thing.

 

She pulled out the phone and stared at the screen, trying to swal­low the lump that had lodged in her throat, blinking as her eyes stung with the prickling of unshed tears.

Lots of laughter. Lots of love. But those days were long gone; hap­piness didn’t last, and life was fragile.

There was no point in trying to recreate everything she’d lost. Her family was all gone now, so there was nothing to celebrate. Emlyn was prepared to take full responsibility for the destruction of their lives; it was all her fault. It was easier than resurrecting a mar­riage that had no chance of surviving. She took a deep breath and pressed the ‘answer’ button before she lifted the phone to her ear.

‘Hello … David.’

‘Hello.’ His voice was wary. ‘How … how are you, Em?’

‘I’m very well, thank you.’ The following silence was ripe with his unspoken frustration as he trod the minefield of what was left of their relationship. She knew him so well; he’d be worried she’d end the call if he said too much.

For the first time in her almost thirty years, Emlyn was unable to cope with what life had thrown at her, and as she’d learned to shut down she’d become a different person. It didn’t matter what anyone else wanted, or what they said, or what was the right thing to do—she no longer cared. Over the past few months, if anything overwhelmed her, she would remove herself from the situation.

Including a phone call from her husband—soon to be ex-husband—if need be.

‘I’d like to come and see you this afternoon,’ David said.

Oh God, how she hated the bleakness in his voice. Once upon a time back in the fairytale land of being in love, David’s voice had been light and carefree. Always full of happiness. His handsome face had been unlined, free of worry, and the only expression that had been in his eyes was his love for her. Those hazel-green eyes once had the ability to melt her with a simple wink. The grief began to build in her stomach and made its way up into her throat until Emlyn fought the need to gag.

She bent and held her stomach with her free hand as she strug­gled against the clenching of her digestive muscles, dragging in a silent, deep breath.

‘Are you still there, Em?’

‘Why did you call me, David?’ Her voice was cold, but at least she’d managed to get the words out. ‘And no, you can’t visit.’

‘It’s the first time we haven’t been together to bring in the new year since we met.’

Silence.

‘Can I come over after dinner? Please? I won’t stay long. I promise.’

‘It’s impossible, David.’ If she let him back into her life, it would only hurt him even more. Listening to her once-strong husband beg­ging her for a morsel of attention was hard enough to deal with. It had been eight weeks since he’d last come to visit her and she hadn’t been able to stand the pity in his expression as he’d looked at her.

‘Impossible?’ His wariness was replaced with a tinge of anger and her finger hovered over the ‘disconnect’ button. Anger was better than begging. Anger she could deal with. She straightened, and her voice built in confidence as she looked through the dirty window. ‘Yes. Impossible. I’m away.’ Three kangaroos hopped across the dry savannah grass and the raw emotion that had her by the throat receded enough that she could finally swallow. She moistened her lips with her tongue, but the metallic taste filled her mouth.

‘Away? Where? You didn’t say you were taking a holiday.’

‘I have a new contract and I’ve left Brisbane. I suppose you still have the right to know that.’ Emlyn closed her eyes and waited. The air that she managed to drag in filled her lungs, and she focused on breathing in and out.

 

‘Of course I have a bloody right to know that. I’m still your hus­band, no matter how much you try to push me away.’

David would be running his hand through his black curls.

‘David, we’ve separated, and we’re getting a divorce. You have no rights to me anymore.’ The words came straight from a cold, dead heart. ‘I know it hurts you, but it’s better for both of us this way. It’s time for you to move on, too.’ She squared her shoulders and rubbed her finger on the grime on the inside of the window, and jumped when it gave a sharp squeak.

‘No, it’s not. Remember, you gave me a year, Emlyn. It’s not up yet. And I’m not giving up. Where are you?’

‘I’m in North Queensland. A research trip.’

‘You’re at work? Is there anyone else there with you? It’s fucking New Year’s Eve.’

‘David …’

‘Bloody hell. How long before you come home?’

I’m never coming home, David. Not to you, anyway.

She lifted her forefinger and stared at it, her attention on the red dust that had transferred from the glass to her skin. She could be cruel to herself, but David didn’t deserve any more than she’d already burdened him with.

‘Who’s with you?’ After the accident, she was sure the hospital had told him to put her on a self-harm watch. She’d moved further away from him as he’d watched her closely. Ringing her constantly and calling in to her university office on the silliest pretexts—she’d seen through him; she’d soon learned not to ignore the calls because David would turn up on her doorstep—the same fearful look on his face—until she told him enough was enough.

‘I’m by myself.’ Emlyn held her left hand up to the light and stared at the white mark where her wedding ring had created a slight indent on her ring finger. Detachment didn’t hurt. It would take time, but in the end, he would eventually accept what was best.

‘Emlyn.’ The anger was still in his tone despite the concerned words. ‘Are you still seeing the counsellor?’

‘Happy new year, David.’ Emlyn disconnected the call and turned off the phone.

How long would it be before David realised she was doing him a favour? How long before he would accept that and leave her alone? Leave her alone to try to resurrect some sort of life. How much longer did she have to push him away before he realised the only way they could continue to live was apart?

It didn’t matter if she loved him. It was the future she couldn’t give him.

* * *

Emlyn picked up a bottle of bleach and poured it on the stainless-steel workbench. The new skin at the top of her arm pulled as she stretched across with the scouring pad. The second lot of surgery had lessened the pulling of her skin, and if she wore a long-sleeved shirt with a collar, she kidded herself that the scars were barely noticeable. They didn’t bother her; it was others who seemed to be ill at ease. Not Travis Carlyle. He’d seen her scars, but he hadn’t looked away when she’d stared back at him. Not like most people usually did.

Being alone didn’t bother her. If she could have it her way, she would have preferred to carry out the research alone. Once she’d wiped down the benches, Emlyn pulled out her phone and reluc­tantly turned it back on. Surprisingly, there was a missed call and a text from John Kearns, the professor who was bringing the team from Brisbane tomorrow morning. They were travelling together in a van with a trailer.

 

We’ll drive in shifts, Emlyn, and should be there within forty-eight hours. Depends on road conditions. We’ve got all the equipment. The photographer will be driving another van from Townsville and we’ll meet him there and come up the range. When do you arrive?

Her fingers flew over the letters on the phone. See you soon. Travel safe.

With a determined grimace, Emlyn put the phone away and opened the refrigerators. They’d cooled down since she’d plugged them into the power points, but both were lined with mould. The eskies were no longer cold, so she unpacked the food onto the black-stained shelves in the small refrigerator. First job tomorrow would be to scrub them out, and then contact the grocery store at Mt Surprise.

A couple of hours later, Emlyn walked outside. She’d given in and taken a couple of paracetamol tablets instead of eating dinner, and her headache had eased. Once the sun had gone down behind the Newcastle Ranges in the west, the intense heat of the day had gone, and the humidity was bearable.

Emlyn looked up at the sky; the stars out here were incredible, and she held her breath as she gazed at the glowing pinpricks of life that formed a solid band of light from east to west. It soothed her and put everything in perspective. As a speck of microcosmic dust, her life was insignificant, her existence miniscule, so there was no point giving in to her emotions. She swallowed as she thought of the next three months. The night was still and quiet apart from the occasional baying of a beast in the distance and the sporadic croak of a frog.

Would she make a resolution for the new year? It had been a tradition ever since she had married David. At midnight each year after they had shared a kiss, they would link their little fingers, look at the sky and silently make their resolutions. The deal was to keep them private until the first person broke theirs. It was always David because he made pledges that were impossible to keep. Emlyn had never broken hers because they were structured and planned.

No wonder our marriage failed.

Maybe she could vow to be happy next year?

She shook her head. Too soon. It wasn’t in her yet. Maybe it never would be. A huge aching chasm opened up in her, and for a second she wished she could be gone. Up in the heavens, where her grief couldn’t define every living moment.

Emlyn lifted her face to the sky and let the cool wind brush her cheeks. The moon was rising, and the fat yellow orb hovered over the hill to the east, bathing it in an eerie light. She yawned and went back inside. It was almost midnight.

Tomorrow was a new day and she would look ahead. There was no place in her life for the past.

* * *

The house was quiet and in darkness, and Travis sat on the back steps.

Alone.

The sky was clear and pricked with millions of stars, the moon high in the sky, bathing the bush in shimmering, ethereal light.

When he and Gavin were small boys, their mother had sat out with them on these steps when the moon was full. He could still remember her lilting voice reciting the poem about the moon and her ‘silver shoon’ as her arms held them close. It was the only mem­ory he had of his mother ever holding him.

What would Mum see now, Travis wondered? A shattered family. A property going to rack and ruin. Her request that he look out for his older brother, and her forethought in tying up the estate when Dad had predeceased her had been wise. She had made Travis the majority shareholder in the property because of Gavin’s instability; Gavin was entitled to a monthly cheque under the terms of the will.

They would have gone under a long time ago if Gavin had his hands on the finances. If he’d had an equal say in how the property was managed, there would be a gold mine in operation by now. Gavin had seen it as the quick answer to their financial problems when Carroglen had first approached them two years ago. Travis had sat his older brother down and explained what it would mean if they took the offer. He’d had to work hard to get Gavin to see sense. When Travis had explained that their access to much of their land would go, Gavin had come on side.

The payment from the research team would have to suffice for the time being. At least the university people weren’t making a vis­ible difference to the land.

Travis raised the beer he’d been nursing for the past half-hour. ‘Happy new year,’ he said to no one in particular.


Undara

Undara by Annie Seaton will be available in-store and online from the 22nd of July 2019

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