A warm-hearted rural romance set among the scenic vineyards of the Margaret River from bestselling author Tricia Stringer, the authentic voice of Australian storytelling.
Reserved high school teacher Keely Mitchell is more than ready for her holiday on the west coast of Australia, so when a medical emergency turns over all her plans and an intervention by a kind stranger finds her recovering in a Margaret River vineyard, she is at first downcast.
Keely had wanted to put recent traumatic events out of her mind, and recuperating alone in a stranger’s house won’t help that. But slowly the lovely food, spectacular wine and beautiful landscape of the area begin to work their spell. As Keely makes friends with the locals and adapts to the rhythms of the vintner’s year, she starts to feel part of the scenery too, particularly when her artwork and jewellery-making somehow find a home at Levallier Dell Wines.
But clouds are on the horizon in the shape of a warring father and son, interfering family friends and a rival in love. Keely didn’t mean to fall for anyone, but she can’t help her feelings for clever, passionate wine-maker Flynn Levallier. Sadly, it seems he only has eyes for the beautiful Kat, daughter of a rival wine-maker. Can what Keely feels be real? Or is it just something in the wine?
Keely Mitchell peered at the numbers on the overhead panel and stopped beside 19B. A man was already in the aisle seat. His head was back and his eyes were closed. She paused. His relaxed face had the most freckles she had ever seen, and it was topped by wisps of faded gingery hair. If he’d had a straw hat, he would have made a good scarecrow. Pressure against the pack on her back reminded her of the passengers queuing up behind her, waiting to find their seats. She had to get past the scarecrow to reach hers.
A loud laugh erupted from the group of young men who were seating themselves a few rows ahead. She had noticed them in the airport bar before the boarding call came. They were a happy crew sharing jokes over their drinks – a sharp contrast to Keely’s bored brothers and fussing parents. Her mum had asked her several times if she’d packed spare cash and, to Keely’s horror, underwear in her backpack in case her bag was lost, and her dad kept checking departure and arrival times and reminding her of the time differences.
“Are you going to sit down, love?” a plaintive male voice asked from behind.
The scarecrow man opened his eyes and Keely flushed as she felt his piercing gaze sweep over her. She pointed at the seat beside him. “Excuse me. I’m in the middle.”
He stood and she ducked her head, barely missing a collision with his shoulder. She struggled past him and fell into her seat. Her pack dug uncomfortably into her back.
“I’m sorry.” She turned away from him to ease off her pack and hide her embarrassment. She felt a hand tug the last stubborn strap over her wrist. Clutching the bag to her chest, she turned awkwardly to face him.
“Thanks,” she murmured.
“There’s not a lot of room on these planes, is there?” He grinned and his face creased into hundreds of tiny lines. Keely glanced at his wiry frame and then looked over the backpack to her long solid legs. The space allowed would be fine if all of the passengers were his build.
“It’s a long time since I’ve flown,” she said.
His weathered appearance made it hard to judge his age. She thought he was probably in his sixties but the twinkle in his ice-blue eyes made him seem younger.
“Would you like me to put your pack up top for you?” He pointed to the overhead console.
“No, thanks,” she said.
“They won’t let you nurse it.”
“I’ll put it at my feet.” She leaned forward but was interrupted.
“Excuse me, I need to sit there.”
They both looked up. A woman dressed in a tight t-shirt and clinging designer workout pants loomed over them.
Keely hugged her pack tightly as they both clambered out to let the woman in. The faint smell of stale sweat wafted from the newcomer as she settled into her seat then immediately tugged out a pen and magazine. Keely sat back down, dismayed to see a muscular arm already covering the divider between them. The woman opened to a large crossword and began to work; Keely edged away.
“This is going to be a cosy flight.” A low voice murmured in her ear.
She turned and looked directly into the face of the man who sat beside her. In her attempt to avoid contact with the woman she had almost leaned her head on his. Once again she felt her embarrassment burn across her cheeks.
“I’m sorry.” She jerked upright.
“It’s a long way to Perth. If we’re going to be this close we may as well introduce ourselves. I’m Euan Levallier.” He held out his hand and a smile crinkled his face again.
Keely disentangled her own hand from her pack and gave his a quick shake.
“I’m Keely Mitchell.”
“Are you going home to WA or visiting, Keely?” He said her name with a hint of brogue that reminded her of her Irish grandfather.
“Oh…visiting,” she replied, but the thought of escaping forever was momentarily intoxicating.
“Have you been before?”
“Only to Perth. When I was a child my grandparents lived there.”
“You’ll find it’s changed since then. Are you planning on travelling further?”
Keely hesitated. He asked a lot of questions. She wasn’t good at confiding in strangers. “Yes…Perth is just the starting point. I plan to head north from there.”
“South is better.”
“We have everything in the south; great wine, fantastic beaches, surf, beautiful weather and a magical river. What else does one need?”
“Good morning everyone, and welcome aboard.”
Keely was saved from answering as the flight attendant began the safety instructions. Keely gave the attendant her full attention, but the woman on her left continued to work on the crossword, and the man, Euan, leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. Relieved that she would no longer have to make conversation, Keely watched the flight attendant closest to her, noting her nearest exit was a couple of rows in front. Had a domestic flight ever needed to use these emergency exits?
Keely shook her head to chase away the negative thoughts. She was worrying like her mother. She recalled the quiet send-off she’d just experienced. Her mum had teared up and her dad had given her an extra tight hug. They were behaving as if Keely was leaving Adelaide forever, instead of taking a three-month trip to Western Australia. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” she’d said. Her dad had flapped a hand and pulled her mum close while her two younger brothers had watched on with bemused looks. They’d complained when their mother insisted they come too. They’d lined up a tennis game with the girls next door and weren’t keen to make the trek to the airport.
“Goodness knows when you’ll see your sister again,” their mother had said. “We’re all going to give her a proper send-off on her big adventure.”
Keely shook her head. Big adventure! What a laugh. It wasn’t as if she was leaving the country. She had been saving to go overseas for a couple of years but her mum hadn’t wanted her to go alone. Keely’s friend Bec had agreed to go with her but when Bec had been offered a new job their plans had been put on hold till the year after. Keely had been desperate to get away for a break and opted for a West Aussie trek as an alternative until they could reschedule the overseas trip.
Broome and the Kimberley region had interested her since the time of her childhood holidays in Perth with her grandparents. Her grandfather had been an avid storyteller, keeping Keely and her younger brothers entertained with tales of his travels to the north-western areas of Australia. She’d decided on a ramble along Australia’s western coast. If she put the huge expanse of the Great Australian Bight and the Nullarbor Plain between her and her nightmare, maybe she could shake it off.
The safety spiel finished, the flight attendants retreated and the plane turned onto the runway, its engines at full throttle as it surged forward, forcing Keely back into her seat. She clasped her hands tightly and took a quick look out the window. The view was partially blocked by the woman next to her, but Keely was able to catch a glimpse of Adelaide sliding beneath and the shoreline giving way to the sparkling blue of the gulf waters.
“Perth, here I come,” she muttered softly and turned away to look directly into Euan’s bemused smile. She blushed again – had he overheard her? She dug her book from her pack and spent the first part of the flight reading but gave up when the flight attendant offered food. It might help quell the queasiness in her stomach. It had been with her since the night before and she assumed it was because of her anxiety in the lead-up to her travels.
The woman with the crossword had packed her own food and continued to work on the huge word puzzle as she ate. Euan, on the other hand, was keen to chat.
“What were you reading?” he asked once their snacks and drinks had been delivered.
“A book written by a doctor who has worked for the Flying Doctor Service in the top of Western Australia and Northern Territory.”
“Very. I’m hoping to see some of the country he’s talked about.”
“Are you in the medical profession, Keely?”
There was that hint of the Irish. The way he said her name reminded her of her grandfather again.
“No, I’m a secondary teacher. Art and design.”
“I admire those who have the courage to teach…and you’re creative as well, very clever.”
His eyes held a sparkle of amusement. Keely looked down. “I do enjoy designing and making.” She reached for her cup. It’s the clever and the courage I lack, she thought.
“There are a few places you should visit while you’re in Perth. Where are you staying?”
“In backpacker accommodation in the city.”
“That’s a good way to meet up with people. Used to do a lot of it myself. Where will you go after that?”
“After Perth I plan to stop where I see something I like. I haven’t got a schedule.” Keely found herself relaxing. Euan was easy to talk to, and she was looking forward to this holiday.
She was about to ask what he did in the south but the plane bumped and she was interrupted as the captain spoke through the speaker system, explaining they’d met some unexpected turbulence and asking everyone to remain seated and fasten their seat belts.
She gripped her hands together and tried to look as if the sudden lurch of the aircraft was something she took in her stride while inside butterflies flapped frantically. When she glanced at Euan he was leaning back with his eyes closed again. She studied his face surreptitiously for a moment. Scarecrow was a good description for him. All he needed was a straw hat. He must have spent a lot of time outside to get all those freckles and the wrinkles.
She pictured him as a series of pencil strokes, then overlaid them with subtle splashes of oranges and browns, building up an abstract image in her mind; something she loved to do when a subject really interested her. His chest rose and fell gently. Keely dug out her notebook and began to sketch.
* * *
Theo walked between the vines on the new block, inspecting the delicate green shoots. He stopped to retie a string to a wire. After three years of teasing, stretching, encouraging, the plants had grown up and along the wires, big enough now that when the first tiny bunches of grapes appeared, they would hang just under the canopy of green leaves.
This year would be the first pick from these semillon vines and he had high hopes for them; the final addition to his River Dynasty range. He had been trying for years to create a wine that reminded him of the assyrtiko wine he’d first learned to make as a young man in Greece. He hoped the lemon-zest flavours from this semillon would be as close to the real thing as he could get, until he could actually acquire the vines from Greece. That was his long-term plan.
It had been a real coup to be able to buy this parcel of land. Especially from right under the nose of his neighbour. The price had been high but it would pay off in the long term. He scribbled a note in his diary and slipped it back into his shirt pocket.
He had done well from this Margaret River property. The Ocean Dynasty property further south was expanding but this land and these vines were Theo’s stronghold. This was where he produced his best wines and where he wanted to keep expanding to consolidate his family’s future. His son thought they were overcommitted but Tony was a worrier. A good return from the current year’s vintage would improve the cash flow.
Theo’s gaze drifted over the vines and the heads of the workers, to the river and the thick bush that divided his vineyard from Levalliers’ next door. He frowned. Euan Levallier was a crazy fool. His land was some of the best in the area. His vines produced liquid gold but Theo couldn’t understand the man, who treated it all as a bit of a hobby.
Theo felt sorry for the son, Flynn. He’d tried to take him under his wing and give him support. It could have been a mutually agreeable opportunity: Theo could help Flynn to build up the winery and, once it was Flynn’s, he would look favourably on Theo as a benefactor. Levallier Dell would be the crowning glory of the River Dynasty estate, that stretched along the river on either side. It would be the final piece in a puzzle of prime land that Theo had been accumulating for years.
Unfortunately, Flynn wasn’t so easily influenced. He was his own man; a trait Theo had to admit he admired. He lifted his cap and ran his fingers through his hair. It was still thick, despite his seventy-six years. He shook his head. Young Levallier planned to expand on his own. Theo wasn’t sure that he had the business knowledge or the money to do it and Flynn had the added disadvantage of Euan, who still believed he was running a cottage industry from the eighties.
A tooting car horn interrupted the still morning. Theo looked up. His face broke into a benevolent smile as he watched the red sports car sweep down the road towards the house. Katerina had arrived. He hadn’t seen his precious granddaughter for over a year and that had not been here but in Melbourne. She’d been there when he’d flown over for meetings and he’d taken her out for dinner. It was good that she’d come home.
He gave one last look towards the workers, and beyond them to the Levallier winery. His smile broadened. There was more than one way to skin a cat, he thought. And he strode towards the house.
The luggage was late appearing and after she’d checked her phone and texted her mother to let her know they’d landed safely, Keely perused the tourist information while she waited. The airport brochure stand was packed full of invitations for things to do in Perth and beyond. She reached for a pamphlet and felt a lump under her toe.
“Sorry,” she said as the young man next to her yanked his foot away. She stepped back quickly and bumped into someone behind her.
“Sorry,” she wailed again and clutched her bag, trying to make herself smaller.
“No harm done.”
She turned to look at the smiling face of the dark-haired young man whose toes she’d squashed. He passed her the brochure she’d been reaching for.
She recognised him as one of the group who’d been seated near her on the flight.
“You planning on doing some sky diving?”
She glanced down at the pamphlet he’d given her and was stunned to see that was indeed what it was for.
“Oh no. I have enough trouble flying in a plane let alone jumping out of one. I wanted the one on river cruises.”
He passed it to her. “Are you holidaying in Perth?”
“For a while.”
“So are we.” He waved to where his two friends waited by the luggage carousel. They were both very blonde and tanned. All three wore faded t-shirts and shorts. “I’m Marty and that’s Steve and Mike.” He grinned at her and Keely found herself grinning back.
“Are you heading to the city? We could share a taxi.”
A loud whistle shrilled across the space. Marty spun around.
“The bags are coming,” called one of his mates.
He turned back to her and smiled again. Keely noticed a dimple on his left cheek. “Come on, why pay full price for a taxi?”
She looked from Marty to his mates, who were engaged in an animated conversation. Why not? This was the beginning of her adventure and she hadn’t come all this way to be on her own.
“Thanks,” she said, and followed him back to the luggage carousel.
* * *
Euan lugged his surfboard in its bag away from the oversized luggage area. He was glad he’d decided to spend a few days in Perth before returning home. Even though he’d slept on the plane he still felt tired. He wanted to get to his sister’s place and have a good night’s sleep in one of Maggie’s comfortable spare beds. He’d become used to Eastern Standard Time and now his body clock was out of kilter.
I must be getting old, he thought wryly. Deep down the idea scared him. He couldn’t imagine himself as old, but he had to admit that at sixty-five he couldn’t keep up the pace he used to without some extra sleep.
He’d enjoyed his break away from Levallier Dell. A couple of times a year he made the trek to the east, usually to meet distributors in Victoria and New South Wales, and he always managed to catch up with old friends and surf. The surfing had been excellent. Even though his patch of WA offered some of the best surf beaches he enjoyed the change. That had been his saviour, pretending for a couple of weeks that he was twenty again with nothing but the search for the perfect wave to worry about. The total indulgence of it was hard to shake. And now there was another reason to make the long flight to the east.
He dragged his feet at the thought of returning to home and work. The deals he had to make to ensure a market for Levallier Dell wines were getting harder. He didn’t like that side of the business but he still insisted on doing it. That was his excuse to go east.
Raucous laughter erupted across the room. He looked over to where a group of young men were collecting their bags. Keely stood among them looking a little out of place. He hadn’t realised she knew them.
She was a tall young woman with a solid but curvy figure. Not painfully thin like so many young women these days – at least there was some meat on her bones. She had long black hair that flowed down her back, but she tended to let it fall forward to hide her face.
Euan tended to collect interesting people on his travels and he suspected Keely was one. He’d seen a glimpse of an inner sparkle but she was very self-conscious. She also had artistic talent. He’d managed to sneak a look at her sketch when she thought he was asleep. He’d easily recognised his own portrait.
He envied her youth and the freedom to travel with no definite plans other than a destination. There was a time when he’d lived like that, and now he wondered if he’d ever get the chance to be that carefree again. Did he even want to be?
By the time he had collected his bag most of the other passengers had moved away. He headed to the doors where Keely now stood alone. Perhaps she was on her own after all.
“Would you like a ride?” he asked as he drew level with her.
She glanced at him with a startled expression.
“Oh…no, thanks. I’m sharing with some others.” She nodded towards the group of young men already outside with their gear.
“That’s good, you’ve got friends to go with,” he said.
“They’re not friends…at least I’ve only just met them. We’re staying at the same place so we’re sharing a taxi,” she blurted. She lowered her face and the veil of hair fell forward again.
Euan was reluctant to leave it at that. He suddenly felt paternal. If she were his daughter he wouldn’t want her going off with strangers.
“Here.” He stepped to one side so he could put his surfboard down then dug in his pack and pulled out a pen and the newspaper he’d bought to read on the flight. He scribbled on a corner, tore it off and pressed it into her hand. “If you ever decide to come south give me a call. There’s plenty of room at my place. That’s my number and my sister’s. I’m staying in Perth for a few days at her place.” He patted his pocket. “My phone’s not always on. Maggie can always find me.”
“Thanks.” She looked towards the doors. “I’d better go.”
She shoved the slip of paper into her pocket and hurried away. He turned to pick up his things. What had prompted him to do that? He was just as much a stranger to her as the other men were, but something about her had brought out the fatherly figure in him.
He stood for a moment with his arm around his board and watched the laughing group pile into a taxi. With a deep sigh and a slight shake of his head, he moved off. Time to get back to reality.
He’d been away longer than he’d intended. No doubt his sister would give him a lecture about his lack of communication. He could put up with that if it meant a few more days respite before he returned home. Times had changed, there were issues he could no longer avoid, and then there was his son. Euan loved the tranquillity of his winery on the river and he knew the mounting business pressures could be faced, but it was Flynn’s disapproval that he dreaded most.
* * *
Kat pulled the cap from her head, shook out her thick brown hair and fluffed up her fringe. She took a long, deep breath and drew in the fresh scent of a perfect river morning. Thank goodness she had insisted on staying the night in Perth before making the three-hour drive. Pappou had wanted to meet her at the airport but she had remained firm on driving herself. She’d had a good night’s sleep in their Perth townhouse. Refreshed and looking forward to visiting her grandparents and Margaret River again, she had relished the freedom of the wind in her face and the joy of the little car all to herself. Pappou would have wanted the roof closed and would have driven at a much slower pace.
She opened the door and stepped out onto the new concrete drive. She’d already taken in the huge additions to the old house used for cellar-door sales and noted the sign describing the meals now available. River Dynasty had certainly gone more upmarket since her last visit as a teenager.
She whirled around. The old man emerged from the rows of vines behind her, his arms flung wide.
“Hello, Pappou.” She surrendered to his big squeezy hug and kisses.
“You look wonderful. Maybe a bit thin though, hey?” He grabbed her arms and she noticed the deepening wrinkles on his face and the streaks of silver through his hair. When had that happened? It was hard to imagine he was getting older. Not her Pappou; he was always so vibrant and strong.
“It’s good to see you, Pappou. I’m so glad I could come.”
He touched her cheek with one hand while still holding her arm with his other and she noticed tears welling in his eyes.
“Thanks for lending me the car,” she said quickly.
He pinched her cheek. “I hope you didn’t take that machine too fast. I really shouldn’t let you drive it.” The serious moment was replaced by his hearty chuckle.
She felt a warm surge of love mixed with a liberating relief. It was good that she’d come. Pappou’s love was open and without conditions. She was desperately in need of some of that unqualified attention at the moment. She had a big decision to make and she would appreciate his advice.