For readers of Karly Lane, Fleur McDonald, Maya Linnell and Rachael Johns – a heartfelt and fresh rural romance about trust, hope and finding your place in life from an award winning and much loved author.
Country vet Primrose Cartwright knows more about heartache than most but in the close-knit community of Ballimore, she’s found a place to call home. Prim has her work and the love of her sisters, and she doesn’t need anything else – certainly not Blake Sinclair.
The new vet in town, Scotsman Blake has a love-them-and-leave-them reputation. He is curiously protective of Prim, but his privileged upbringing and jet-set life are nothing like her own. Prim has tried – and failed – at the dating game. Even if there’s a burning attraction between them, the last man she could ever trust is Blake.
Blake finds Prim fiercely independent, vulnerable, and unlike any other woman he has ever known. But Prim won’t tell him her secrets unless he tells her his own, and Blake’s pain is buried deep.
Will Prim’s determination to unravel the mystery that threatens her career bring Prim and Blake together or tear them apart? As the storm clouds gather, can Prim and Blake confront their painful pasts and create a future together? Will they find the sunshine through the rain?
The mid-autumn sun is warm on my back as I lean over the brown and white calf. My reflection, long dark plait, blue shirt and jeans, appears in her wary dark eyes. Dust from the yard clings to her lashes like glitter.
‘Almost done, little one. Soon you’ll be back with your mum.’ After feeling for horn buds, I lift the skin beneath her ear and inject local anaesthetic. A cacophony of bellows rings out from the cows, confined to a paddock on the far side of the shed, as they call out to their offspring.
‘Dr Cartwright!’ Tom Holden waves from the shed fifty metres away. ‘The big bloke’s ten minutes away! He’ll want you out of here quick smart!’
The big bloke. The Scots bloke. Dr Blake Sinclair. It was inevitable we’d meet, but I didn’t expect it to be out here, at the end of a long hard day and hundreds of kilometres from home. I’m not ready for him yet.
‘I can’t go any faster,’ I mutter under my breath as Billy, Tom’s father, limps across the yard towards me. He stops at the gas bottle and checks the heat of the disbudding iron, a rod about the length of his forearm. I touch the calf’s head. ‘I’ll see to your friend while the anaesthetic kicks in.’
As I lean over a second penned calf, Billy hands me the iron with a slightly shaky hand.
‘Here you go, Prim.’
‘Are you bearing up all right?’
‘Better than you, I reckon. You look about ready to roll out your swag.’
‘You’re not … wrong there.’ I’ve worked on and off this property for the past eight years, since I was nineteen. Billy, with a gaptoothed smile as broad as the buckle on his belt, is in his late sixties and was raised here. He ran the farm until illness forced Tom to step in.
The air is thickened with a spiral of smoke as I hold the end of the iron against a bud, destroying the corium so the horn will never grow back. The calf shudders as I cauterise the second bud. He isn’t in pain but the pressure of the iron, the smell, the distance from his mother, all those things are frightening.
‘All done now,’ I tell him, handing the iron back to Billy before taking a syringe from the tray and drawing analgesic from a bottle. ‘And this’ll keep you comfortable for a couple more days.’
Billy scratches behind his ear. ‘Guess you’ve seen this done without anaesthetic?’
‘Way too many times.’
‘I don’t know how you cope with it, a softie like you. Ear tagging, mulesing, disbudding and dehorning, they’re never pretty to watch.’
‘What about … spaying adult cows, then herding them onto ships? And castration? They’re painful too.’
He winces. ‘Poor buggers, but it has to be done.’
‘It should be done kindly, and … with pain relief.’ Reaching into the pen, I inject the analgesic behind the calf’s shoulder. ‘If producers included the costs of appropriate treatment in their prices, consumers … would be forced to pay for it.’
Billy squirts an antibiotic spray and then fly repellent onto the wounds before opening the bars of the pen. The calf shuffles a few steps and shakes his head before trotting awkwardly to the eighteen calves bunched in the corner of the yard. Another calf presses his muzzle against the smaller calf’s neck.
I wipe sweat from my brows and my eyes water. ‘Not long now,’ I promise the calves.
As Billy checks the temperature of the iron, I return to the remaining calf, watching for a reaction as I insert a needle through her horn bud. She doesn’t flinch, so I prepare the second lot of analgesia, laying the syringe on the tray before reclaiming the iron from Billy.
He looks over my shoulder. ‘Doc Sinclair’s here.’
‘Do you know … why?’
He lifts his hat and scratches behind his ear again. ‘Anaesthetising the bulls with some new medication, I think it was. Not as heavy as a hippo, our bulls, but Sinclair thinks they’re close enough to experiment on.’ This farm assists with research into the health care and welfare of livestock, and vets and veterinary students come here to carry out procedures using research-based practice and the latest medications.
‘I … suppose they’re both mammals and herbivores. Even so, he … wouldn’t be allowed to treat your bulls unless it … was necessary.’
‘We kept too many last year. They’re getting their balls off.’
When I position the iron against the barely formed horn bud, it burns away cleanly. ‘They’ll need anaesthesia, but I wish he’d … waited till tomorrow.’
‘Why’s that then?’ Billy asks.
‘Two reasons. The first is, he asked me to put my … work back. When I said no, he … wasn’t too happy about it.’
‘What’d he say?’
‘He … sent a … snippy email.’
‘I thought he was a reasonable sort of bloke.’
‘You’ve met him?’
‘A couple of times. He’s a veterinary big shot, isn’t he? Tom thinks a lot of him.’
‘There aren’t many large animal … specialist anaesthetists around.’
‘He wanted to do his work before yours? Sounds like jumping the queue.’ Billy blinks rapidly. ‘Did I forward the message he sent me? Maybe that had something in it.’
The pain medications Billy takes make him forgetful—but pointing out yet another lapse of memory will cause him to feel even worse about it.
‘There’s no point … worrying about it now.’
Tom crosses the yards to greet Sinclair and the men shake hands. Blake Sinclair is tall, broad shouldered, athletic. An Akubra shadows his face.
‘Talking of worrying, what’s getting at you?’ Billy says. ‘What’s got you back to your stuttering?’
I smile. ‘You … were never one to hold back.’
‘When you came out here the first time, you never said a word. We thought you were mute.’
‘You did my talking for me, didn’t you, Billy? I … would never have got through uni if not for you.’
‘It’s unpredictable, I get that, but it’s worse when you’re tied up in knots.’
‘I’m tired. And now … Sinclair is here, I’m a little uptight. Two boxes ticked.’
‘Remember that stuck-up professor from Melbourne? You told me and Tom that the “sh” sound was easier for you than the “s” sound. Then you said when the professor told you to get to the point, you wanted to call him a shithead.’ Billy hoots. ‘Me and Tom, we laughed till we cried.’
‘I handle it better now than I did.’
‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of, that’s for sure. So don’t you go cutting out words or talking like one of them AI robots.’
‘I haven’t hidden my stuttering in years but …’ Another shrug. ‘It can be hard to express myself. To … stick up for myself.’
‘It shakes your confidence, sure it does, and not everyone appreciates how hard your noggin works to get the words out.’
‘My brain finds … ways around it.’
‘If anybody gives you a hard time round here, you know you’ve got friends.’ Under his deeply tanned skin, Billy is worryingly pale. But he smiles as he takes back the iron and supports his dodgy hip. ‘Being a big shot don’t mean Doc Sinclair can ride roughshod over you.’
I write in my notebook, updating the records. ‘Thanks for your … support.’
‘I’ve heard the doc will be working at the open-plains zoo. He’s a long way from home, that’s for sure.’
‘The zoo … will be happy to get … someone of his calibre.’
‘You’re always good with your little ones, Prim. Careful like.’ Billy holds out the iron and gestures to the calf. ‘You do what you can to make things easier. Reckon that makes you a specialist too.’
‘I don’t write for … scientific journals or give lectures on anaesthetic techniques and pain management.’
‘And you don’t have to when you’ve got a way with the stock. You’ve done hundreds of procedures in the past two weeks. It’s taken longer than it could have, but not a scratch or scrape on any of them.’ He nods to the burn across my knuckles. ‘Can’t say the same for you.’
I smile. ‘You’re good for my … self-esteem.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with knowing a bit about a lot. Remember when you worked in them research labs down south? Rats and mice I wouldn’t have a problem with, but seeing dogs in cages with needles sticking out of them, that’d do my head in.’
A thistle flower is stuck in a crease at the top of the calf’s front leg and I ease it out. ‘Refusing to have anything to do … with medical research is no help to the animals. I did … what I could to optimise their quality of life. I … settled them, distracted them, tried to make them happier.’
‘Which proves my point about your soft heart. Anyway, a girl on her own has got to support herself. You can’t be specialising willynilly like Doc Sinclair, galivanting around the world with a pretty girl on your arm.’
I hold in a smile. ‘Is that … what he does?’
‘Lovely friendly girl, she was. A Canadian, I think. Or maybe she was called Candice? Forgotten why they came, would’ve had something to do with the university.’ He smiles proudly. ‘Decades we’ve been working with you veterinarians, helping you out.’
‘You should have a building named in your honour.’
‘Dad!’ Tom shouts, as he and Sinclair walk towards us. ‘Are you gasbagging with Prim again? Let her get on with her work.’
‘We’re almost finished,’ I say to Billy. ‘Why don’t they … wait over there.’
‘You’d like to get more work at the zoo, wouldn’t you? Might as well get yourself introduced.’
‘The zoo only calls me out when they’re short … staffed.’
‘Why’s that then? You’re a qualified vet.’
‘I’m not a … specialist, and I don’t have much experience with zoo animals. When I … work there, it’s under … supervision.’
‘Local girl like you, they should give you the chance to get experience.’
My leg cramps and I hook my boot heel over a railing and stretch my achilles. ‘What I need right now is regular … work like this. I haven’t had enough in the past few months.’
‘Why’s that then? With all the rain they’re forecasting over winter, there’ll be plenty of feed in the paddocks come spring. Farmers will hang onto their stock.’
‘Didn’t Tom fill you in?’
‘Might’ve said something.’ Billy frowns in concentration. ‘You got yourself into trouble with Douglas Farquhar, didn’t you? Isn’t he your landlord?’
‘Yes, but that’s not … what the trouble was about.’
‘Ah …’ Billy purses his lips. ‘You accused him of doping his cows, didn’t you? The veterinary board investigated.’
‘Dr … Sinclair was Farquhar’s star … witness. That’s the … second reason I don’t … want to see him.’
‘Reckon Farquhar made up the name “Ballimore’s cattle baron” for himself, but to be fair, he’s earned it. Makes a bloody fortune every year at those stock sales of his. He’s got more bulls and blue ribbons than you could poke a stick at.’
‘He’s also a mate of … Sinclair’s.’
Sinclair and Tom, deep in conversation, are still twenty metres away. I lift an arm, wipe my forehead with my sleeve, batten down the anger. Our shadows have lengthened; the sun is sinking. When I scuff the ground, a cloud of dust curls around my boots.
‘You’re off to Narromine after this, aren’t you?’ Billy says. ‘Then you go home? Friday will be here before you know it.’
My father will be buried on Friday afternoon. Which I could have communicated to Sinclair when I refused to change the schedule, but I haven’t told Billy or his family about my father’s death because Tom would encourage me to go home and Billy would worry about me. In any case, I don’t want to make excuses. And I particularly don’t want sympathy or condolences from people like Sinclair: people I don’t know, people who don’t understand. People who want to push me around.
I’m reaching for the iron as Tom climbs through the bars of the yard. Sinclair puts a hand on the top bar and leaps, landing between me and the fence. He’s startlingly good looking. High cheekbones, straight nose, firm chin. Angles and planes, all in proportion. His face and arms are tanned, as is the skin at the V in his shirt. I drag my gaze away.
Tom, a younger and more solid version of his father, lifts a hand in salute. ‘Thanks, Prim, for getting them all done.’ He pushes back his hat. ‘Blake tells me there was a bit of a mix-up with the timing.’
‘Apparently.’ I turn back to the calf with the long dark lashes and feel for her remaining horn bud.
Billy holds out his hand. ‘How’re you doing, Doc Sinclair?’
‘Blake.’ Sinclair’s smile is brief yet respectful. He has a nice mouth. ‘Thanks for having me back. And for letting me stay.’ His voice is deep, with only the hint of an accent. A hardening of some sounds, a softening of others.
I know about sounds, about vowels and consonants. I know the theory, the position my mouth and tongue should be in for every word in my vocabulary. But the way my brain works, the way I’m wired for speech, doesn’t give a toss about that.
Sinclair. I’ve said his name in my head plenty of times, but there’s no way I could get it out now. And I’d stumble over other words too. Should I tell him I’m like Dr Doolittle? I get on fine with four-legged animals. It’s only when I’m rattled, when a response is expected or encouraged or demanded, that my speech goes to shit. A mismatch between internal capacity and external demands. A stutter.
Sinclair walks around the crush, his gaze on the side of my face. I have a horrible suspicion his hand is extended.
I nod stiffly in his direction, but then the calf startles, crashing against the railing before regaining her footing. My heart jumps around but my hand is perfectly steady as I press the iron against the horn bud. Acrid smell and curling smoke. For the first time today, I’m nauseated. Swallowing hard, I cauterise the bud, clear the growth tissue, inject analgesic. What does Sinclair want?
I wipe my hands down my jeans as Billy opens the pen. When the calf shakes her head and steps back, I lean over the bars and put my hand on her rump. Sinclair does the same and the calf jerks forward.
When our fingers touch, awareness, sharp and tingling, catches my breath. I snatch my hand away. He’s no closer than he should be, but I take a backwards step as he swipes a hand through his short dark hair.
Our eyes meet. ‘… Prim,’ I say, as I take his outstretched hand. ‘Prim Cartwright.’ Small hesitation, no stumble. Our fingers link, our palms connect. His hand is large. Clean nails, neatly cut. Under my nails there are half-moons of dirt. I have a jagged scar with silver pinprick marks at the base of my thumb. A burn from the iron, bright and red like lipstick, slides across two knuckles.
‘Why refuse to accommodate me?’ he asks.
‘I had other plans.’
Billy, checking the gas level on the bottle, looks over his shoulder. ‘You’ll be just down the road, won’t you, Prim? Vaccinating sheep. Then you’ll be off home. A long weekend to catch up with your pals.’
‘Those were your reasons?’ Sinclair asks.
My brain refuses to communicate with my mouth. In addition to my own name, I could possibly say my sister’s names. What would he think if I blurted out ‘Phoebe’ or ‘Patience?’
When his eyes slip to my mouth, I bite the inside of my cheek to quell a nervous smile. Because nervous smile or not, my dimple is a giveaway. I look away and nod a dismissal. I brush dust from my bag, unfasten the zip and methodically pack my supplies.
‘Prim?’ Tom says. ‘Given the overlap, d’you mind sharing the bunkhouse with Blake tonight?’
Yes, I mind. I mind a lot. But …
How can I refuse when the bunkhouse has a kitchen and dining area, a bathroom and shower, and a large room with five sets of bunks? It’s often a hive of activity with Billy’s family, farm workers and university students bustling around, but for the past two weeks I’ve had the place to myself. Having Blake Sinclair stay over shouldn’t be a problem.
I lift my chin. ‘That’s fine.’
‘You coming to tea tonight?’ Tom asks, as I walk with the men to the cars. Tom and his wife Maureen live with Billy on hundreds of hectares near the river at Narromine. ‘Blake is set to join us, and Maureen’s sister and her boys.’
‘I’d better pack up.’
‘You won’t want to drive tired,’ Billy says, ‘but you could hitch a lift with Doc Sinclair.’ He turns to Sinclair. ‘You don’t mind, do you? As we won’t be seeing Prim for a while.’
A brief hesitation. ‘No.’
‘What do you say, Prim?’ Billy asks. ‘Maureen can’t see enough of you, and she’ll have a lamb on the spit. You won’t want to miss that.’
‘You reckon?’ Tom says. ‘When Prim’s a vegetarian?’ He winks. ‘Not that Maureen won’t have a mountain of coleslaw and greens laid out.’
‘I’ll drop by to … say goodbye to Maureen tomorrow.’ Taking off my hat, I push back my hair. ‘I’d like an early night.’
Sinclair opens the back of his four-wheel drive, takes out an overnight bag and slings it over his shoulder. His eyes are brightest blue against his tan. ‘Where do I sleep?’
When I open my mouth and nothing comes out, Tom steps in.
‘I’ll set you up.’
As the men walk away, Billy gestures to the cattle. ‘Your little ones are as happy as pigs in mud.’
‘Unlike Dr … Sinclair.’
‘Seems a bit uptight.’
‘I figure he’s used to getting his own … way.’
‘Best to stay clear if a man’s not willing to think good of you. You’re a fine girl, Prim, any fool can see that. You work like a dog, but the stock comes first.’ He rubs his hip and winces.
‘You’ll give the surgery … some thought won’t you? You’ll book into the hospital for more tests? It’s the medications that mess … with your memory. If you had the operation to remove the tumour, you … wouldn’t have to take—’
‘They’re not sawing my leg off.’
I put my hat on again. ‘They might not have to.’
‘I’d get stuck there for months, radiated and prodded and poked.’ He shakes his head. ‘No way.’
‘I’m only half an hour away from the hospital. I can visit, and you can … stay with me … whenever you like.’
‘I couldn’t impose on you.’
‘I’m out most days so we … won’t be tripping over each other. Did I tell you about Merrylegs? She’s in foal. Then there’s Eeyore, Juniper, Bonny and the goats … When you’re not at the hospital, you could help out.’
Billy hitches his jeans. ‘Reckon you could do with a bit of help with your outbuildings.’
‘You’d be doing me a favour.’
He changes position, takes the weight off his leg. ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘And while you do, I’ll have a … word to Tom. We can … work out dates and he can make appointments.’
When Billy and I shake hands, he takes both of mine, leaning so far forward that the brims of our hats bump together. I pull him into a hug and his belt buckle, done up on the tightest notch, presses against my hip.