Her Christmas Homecoming (Rainbow Cove Christmas, #3)
One gourmet party. Four potential couples. The taste of love?
For singer, Marta Field, her return home is bittersweet. Difficult as it is to put her mother into care and clear out her family home so it can go on the market, the hardest challenge is meeting up with Joe Marshall, the man she loved and left behind.
Joe is older now and grounded in the soil of his home town, but Marta can see no long-term future for herself in Rainbow Cove. Besides, she’s never forgiven Joe for giving up on their shared dreams. Will the magic of Christmas help these star-crossed lovers find their way back to each other?
The mist of early dawn was rising from the earth; the leaves on the trees hung limp and motionless; the air held a peculiar breathless quality found only at the edge of daybreak, a hushed expectancy. For these few moments between night and day, it was as if the world and all its cares hung suspended, a time that possessed its own magic. For Joe Marshall it was the perfect moment to share a quiet beer with his dad.
For the longest time, Joe had not been able to come here without a sense of waste and a terrible sorrow. Now, he came to remember the happy times and to acknowledge that today his father should be celebrating his sixtieth birthday.
Joe sighed—ten years gone in the blink of an eye.
The day promised to be another scorcher; not a cloud marred the endless arc of pale duck-egg blue overhead. He walked through the lychgate into the cemetery and the two stubbies suspended between the fingers of his left hand clinked, the sound of glass on glass discordant in the stillness.
He carried a posy of wildflowers—his dad’s favourites—and breathing deeply, he inhaled the morning. He walked past orderly rows of gravestones, each footstep connected with the parched earth causing little puffs of dust to rise. He had deliberately timed this visit to avoid other visitors.
Today he felt the need to be alone.
He knew that Emily Brighton visited her sister Lisa’s grave often and today also being Lisa’s birthday, Emily would most likely do so. It was one of life’s ironies that Lisa should share her birthday with his dad, and that they should both be buried here in Marandowie’s cemetery.
He felt awkward and uncomfortable around Emily’s raw, fresh grief, a reaction that left him shamed and embarrassed. He’d known Emily and Lisa since they were knee-high to grasshoppers. He had grown up down the road from them, and he’d been the one to teach Emily to ride a bike. Had my mother kept pushing Rebecca, it could well be my kid sister who ended up here, buried beside my dad.
How did any parent live with that kind of guilt?
The sobering thought brought Joe up short—he vowed that if he ever had kids, he would make damn sure they were free to create their own dreams. He would never try to force any child to live out his own frustrated hopes.
Despite the early hour, he was mentally running through the day’s chores. The need to find and fix the leak in the irrigation system to his growing houses topped the list. He ducked past the neat hedge that divided the cemetery into quarters, and all thoughts of the day’s chores fled. Dad has another visitor.
Who the hell?
From this distance, in the dawn light, Joe couldn’t distinguish anything more than a hunched back shrouded by a voluminous dark cape.
He approached cautiously.
The visitor looked up, and her features went blank with shock.
Joe stared down into a once familiar heart-shaped face and golden eyes, astonishment holding him immobile. Betrayal quickly morphed into blazing anger. ‘Marta? What are you doing here?’
Marta Field scrambled to her feet and stood facing him, her expression hard to read. ‘Visiting your dad; it’s allowed.’
‘Feeling guilty?’ His deep voice vibrated with suppressed emotion.
She stiffened, her chin jerked upwards, and her eyes narrowed, but she remained still, trading him glare for glare. The early morning light caught the gold highlights in her hair and intensified the deep amber of her striking wolf-like eyes. In this light the pupils were distended and this accentuated the slanted shape of her eyes—eyes he considered more predatory than striking.
‘I loved your father,’ she said, her voice low and vehement. ‘He was a kind, gentle man who died far too soon.’
‘Yet you never stirred yourself to attend his funeral.’ His voice held a hard, unforgiving edge.
‘And run the gauntlet of your mother’s fury? Your dad did not deserve that. Imagine her horror: how dare that barefooted bastard child come here today, corrupting my precious protégé, encouraging him to squander his God-given talents?’
Joe winced; Marta’s rich voice was a perfect mimicry of Adele Marshall’s. ‘When will you ever leave off putting words in my mother’s mouth? The world doesn’t revolve around her.’
‘Does she know this?’ Marta demanded, her chin held high.
Joe caught another, unfamiliar emotion in her voice, one he couldn’t put a finger on, and this disturbed him. But then, being within spitting distance of Marta roused violent emotions in him, and it had always been this way.
‘And you’re still the same vain and self-centred person,’ he said, making no attempt to rein in his anger. ‘What are you doing back here in Marandowie? Slumming?’
‘No.’ Her chin rose a notch, her haunting eyes sparkled with challenge. ‘Not that it’s any of your business, but I’ve decided to come home.’
‘And leave behind all the adulation? Give me a break.’ He clapped a hand to his forehead where a headache began to bloom. ‘Home? Since when have you regarded Marandowie as home? You were the poster girl for the child who couldn’t shake the dust of this place off your bare feet fast enough.’
‘That was a long time ago. People change. I’ve changed.’ Dull colour flooded up under her creamy skin. ‘But you’re still here, still scrabbling in the dirt.’
‘Really?’ He gave a derisive snort; her mocking words scored his pride. ‘Forgive my scepticism, but I’ve never known a dingo change its habits.’
‘One thing that’s sure not changed—you’re still as one-eyed and pig ignorant as you ever were.’ With a toss of her head, she turned on her heel and started to walk away.
Joe watched her for a few moments then said, ‘Marta?’
She paused and looked over her shoulder, her back ramrod straight, her eyebrows raised, a sneer curving her lush lips.
‘Why are you here?’ He hated that he needed to ask. ‘What’s brought you back to Marandowie? Surely our dusty little town is too rustic for some-one with your oh-so-refined tastes. You outgrew this place years ago.’
He didn’t think it possible, but her posture stiffened further.
‘Think again. There are people here in Marandowie who do appreciate my talents.’ Her eyes flashed with angry pride. ‘When did you become such a snob?’
‘Me? A snob?’ Shock and outrage exploded in a burst of raucous laughter.
‘Absolutely, reverse snobbery is as demeaning as the other variety, and just as unbecoming.’
He stared at her, too gobsmacked to make a ready comeback. ‘Come again?’
‘I take it you know about Xander McIntyre’s redevelopment out at Rainbow Cove?’
‘Of course I do. I’ve been supplying Chez Christophe, the new restaurant there, with vegetables ever since it opened.’
Not to mention the other eateries springing up in the area as a result of all the redevelopment. The whole area was being revitalised and the resultant growth and population increase was now spinning off into surrounding districts.
‘Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m relieving the events coordinator at the resort while she’s on maternity leave, as well as performing a regular gig on a restaurant verandah.’ She smiled at him, a smug superior little smile. ‘So suck it up, Farmer Joe. I’m here to stay.’
‘And who exactly is here?’ He made no attempt to mask his contempt. ‘Will it be Marta or the oh-so-glamorous Chantelle?’
‘Marta will do. I left Chantelle behind in Sydney, along with my regrets.’
He held her narrow-eyed stare, her expression hard to fathom. Once, he had known what Marta was thinking, her every thought telegraphed on her expressive face. The woman facing him now was calm and composed, her expression unrevealing, something he found more than a little disconcerting.
‘It’s a pity you’ve never got past your bitterness, and learned to forgive.’ Her voice was as chilly as a midwinter frost. ‘Your pride must be one hell of a burden the way you carry it around, letting it weigh you down, and we won’t even mention that massive chip on your left shoulder.’
Joe sucked in a deep breath; this at least had not changed—Marta’s ability to draw blood with her sharp tongue. I will not rise to the bait; I’ve grown past kneejerk reactions.
‘Your mother and brother, what do they have to say about you returning home?’
Her expression changed and the strengthening daylight allowed him to see something cold and hard settle in her eyes.
‘My family need not concern you, Joseph Marshall. Keep it that way.’ She turned and walked away without looking back.
Shit! Joe stared after her, not moving until she was out of sight. That was low, even for me.
He looked at the bunch of wildflowers he held and resisted the temptation to heave them the hell out of sight, and storm away from here—anywhere. He glanced at his dad’s grave, and winced. Marta had left flowers—banksia, bottlebrush and kangaroo paw. Oh yeah, she sure knows my dad’s tastes.
And she was here to stay.
Joe wasn’t sure what to do with this information; it was a damn shame she hadn’t come to her senses years ago.
Then maybe Dad would still be here and capable of working the farm and I could be— Joe cut off the thought with well-practised ruthlessness. Regrets and what-might-have-beens were so much wasted time and energy. My life is what it is.
Marta Field could go to hell—or someplace suitably distant like Timbuctoo.
Why couldn’t she have stayed away, forever out of his sight, out of his damn mind? Instead, she was here in Marandowie stirring things up just when the dust from the past was finally starting to settle.
Joe inhaled a ragged breath, leaned down and placed the flowers and one unopened stubby on his dad’s headstone, then he sank onto the stone seat placed conveniently close to Frank Marshall’s grave.
Joe twisted the cap off his beer with a practised flick of his wrist and took a healthy swallow. He looked up at the wide arc of the steadily brightening sky. ‘Well, Dad, I guess the sky should be full of flying pigs. Marta’s come home, though God alone knows why. But I would sure appreciate some of your down-home advice, right about now.’
The words had barely left his lips when a willy-willy sprang up, picked up dried gum leaves, dust, twigs and feathers and sent them whirling skywards like a spinning dervish.
Joe stared at the dust devil. ‘Well, that was quick.’
Overhead, a loud manic laugh split the early morning silence—ha-ha-ha hoo-hooo hee-hee—
A second kookaburra joined the first, their mocking chorus going back and forth as each tried to outdo the other.
‘Was there any need to get the laughing jackasses to mock my discomfort, Dad?’ Wry humour coloured his voice. He took another swig of beer, and he knew exactly what his dad would say—‘Get over it boy, you made your choice. The world doesn’t revolve around you.’
Joe drained his stubby. ‘I know this, but sometimes, Dad, I wonder what if?’
And as clear as yesterday, he recalled his dad saying ‘What ifs will drive you crazy. If you want change, stop waffling. Make it happen.’
Once she was well clear of the cemetery, Marta turned onto a deserted side road, one she knew Joe wouldn’t pass on his return to his precious market gardens, and after driving a few kilometres, she pulled onto the grassy verge and parked, then slumped forward over the steering wheel.
Finally, she felt free to exhale a shuddering breath, one she felt as if she’d been holding in from the moment she’d looked up into Joe’s stunned face with its liberal shadow of unshaven stubble.
‘Joe,’ she whispered, her voice breaking. ‘How did something so right, go so badly wrong?’
Unable to sit still, Marta got out of the car. The sun breached the horizon in a fiery ball, its heat immediately striking through her cloak. She removed it, tossing it onto the rear seat, and walked into the shade of the scraggly gums growing along the verge.
Belatedly, she remembered this was snake country, and stamped her feet to scare away any lurking reptiles. What a pity, I can’t scare away thoughts of Joe so easily.
She knew returning to Marandowie would be tough.
And the toughest challenge of all would be facing Joe Marshall, the only man she’d ever loved, the man she’d turned her back on and left behind without explanation or goodbye. She had not expected this meeting would be across the grave of his father.
Frank Marshall had been so kind to her and her brother Ben throughout their growing-up years, and more of a father than the man who sired them—not that her mother would ever hear a bad word about Sean Finnelley.
Marta knew and remembered today was Frank Marshall’s birthday. Which was why she’d gone to visit his grave at dawn and, in doing so, she’d hoped to avoid the likelihood of meeting anyone she knew—Joe, it seemed, had had a similar idea.
She shivered as she recalled the enmity displayed in his dark granite-grey eyes. He has not forgiven me, for leaving Marandowie, or leaving him.
This was fair—she’d not forgiven him for staying or for giving up on his dreams.
Joe was a gifted pianist with the ability to make listeners weep—all that talent was wasted now he scrabbled in the dirt to eke out a living.
When Rebecca, Joe’s young sister, had run away from home, unable to endure her mother’s relentless pressure, Marta had offered the girl sanctuary—and the rift between her and Joe had widened.
Adele Marshall gave up her career as an opera singer to marry Frank, Joe’s dad, and she was hell-bent on moulding her children into fulfilling her own thwarted dreams.
Marta leaned against the trunk of a gum tree, and fought the urge to cry.
They had had it all planned out, she and Joe—she was so sure they were destined to set the concert scene on fire. Instead, she was back where she started in Marandowie, her dreams tempered by reality—back where it all began, back where Joe still remained.
Disquiet invaded her. Has he spent ten years nurturing his resentment at me leaving him behind, or me encouraging his sister to follow her heart?
As for his pushy mother—thoughts of Adele Marshall were enough to make Marta break out into a cold sweat. Did Joe still connect with her or did he, like Becky, have as little to do with the woman as possible?
The sun continued on its relentless journey, rising ever higher and flooding the landscape with heat and brilliant light.
Marta straightened, hauled in a deep breath, and stiffened her spine.
She had a mountain of work to accomplish—her world no longer revolved around Joe Marshall. Her mother needed her to be strong and for the woman who had sacrificed so much for her children’s happiness, Marta would face down a hundred bitter, unforgiving ex-lovers.