Sparkling rural romance meets quirky rom-com in this delightful debut story of love, magic and fighting for home. Perfect for readers who love Rachael Johns and Alissa Callen.
Is love on the cards?
Reading the tarot is in Claire’s blood. It’s a gift she inherited from her late mother. But her genius in helping others discover their path fails her when it comes to finding her own, especially once she learns of plans to bulldoze her carefully regenerated rainforest home and build a high-end wellness centre. She vows to rally her small community and save Mystic Ridge, although she has no idea where to start…
Perhaps her first port of call should be the local newspaper, but after a fake-dating misadventure with the new editor, Leo, rising tensions – and chemistry – get in the way. Meanwhile, her old love, soapie actor Jake, promises to help protect her home. Yet Claire suspects his loyalties lie elsewhere, and she doesn’t know who to trust anymore.
Will Claire find the courage to fight for the rainforest, her family and her chance at love?
With a colourful ensemble of small-town characters, and a dash of ghostly intervention, Mystic Ridge offers surprises at every turn.
Months later I realised I should have read my own cards first, or at least registered the many portents of change that Saturday morning: the kookaburra beginning its morning burst of hilarity half an hour before dawn; finding my tarot cards in the second drawer of my dresser when I always left them in the first; the black chicken running across the road in front of my car, causing me to swerve and almost hit a tree (okay, so it wasn’t a cat); dark clouds lying low in the west.
My only thought when I stepped out of my market tent that morning was that it was a slow tarot day due to the sparkling late autumn weather. Sunshine cures melancholy, so I hoped the clouds came over fast. I didn’t wish anybody ill, but happiness was bad for business.
My daughter, Zoe, appeared from nowhere, closely followed by her new friend. Charlotte was a recent arrival in Lillipilly and I hadn’t yet worked out if she was here to stay. ‘Can we please have some money, Mum?’ Zoe asked. ‘I’m broke, and Poppy Moon still owes me for babysitting. I’ll pay you back when she pays me.’
This didn’t sound promising. Our neighbour Poppy Moon owed money to half the town.
‘We’ve been hanging out with the crystal lady and she has these amazing amethyst earrings on sale. And guess what? She says amethyst is my birthstone.’
‘I don’t think they’re real amethysts, Zo.’ Black-clad Charlotte scuffed at a hole in her Docs. ‘And she’s asking a lot for fakes. Maybe we should shop around more.’ Charlotte’s own dangling earrings depicted bleeding uteruses.
‘Charlotte’s right, darling.’ I wanted to kiss Charlotte, but I couldn’t without embarrassing all of us. Instead, I searched in my pocket for my last twenty dollars to make sure I could cover the girls’ lunch. I found a letter I’d long been planning to read, but no money. Then I remembered I’d spent it on petrol. Damn! I needed a customer badly.
‘Anyway, I might have to use all of this week’s earnings to pay the rent, so we don’t have to take up residence in the tarot tent.’
‘It could be fun camping in the showground.’ Zoe had a knack for turning deprivation into adventure.
‘No. You’d hate it,’ said Charlotte. ‘Camping in the rain is gross.’
Zoe slumped a little. ‘I guess.’
‘We really need to draw up a budget for ourselves, sweetheart.’ I readjusted a safety pin on my dress. Time to replenish my wardrobe in the charity shops. ‘Then we can save for luxuries like earrings. And clothes.’
Zoe brightened up. ‘Guess what? Charlotte’s dad is coming to pick her up soon—he’s just flown in from Sydney. He’ll want a tarot reading for sure.’
‘You reckon?’ I was sceptical. I’d never met Charlotte’s dad, but it seemed likely he’d be in a hurry to get home, unpack and relax after the flight. She’d said her mum was based in Sydney, so when he was away for work, Charlotte virtually lived at my place. He was away an awful lot of the time.
‘I’ll talk him into it. He’ll probably want you to tell him how to make more money.’ Charlotte tossed back her hair and the bloody uteruses glinted red in the sunlight. ‘So he can keep paying for my au pairs.’
‘If I knew how to do that, I wouldn’t be here myself. I’d be enjoying a hot stone massage at the Tantric Temple.’ I contemplated Charlotte’s heavily made-up, world-weary face and sighed. ‘Well, don’t force him, but if he wants a reading, I’ll give him mates’ rates.’
‘We’d better hurry up and check out the other stalls.’ Zoe pointed across the field. ‘There’s a cool henna tattoo one over there.’
‘I’ll send Dad over when I see him,’ said Charlotte.
I watched the girls walk away, as self-conscious as stars in a blockbuster movie. I half expected someone to run out from behind a tree with a clapper board and call out, ‘Cut!’
Once they were out of sight, I turned to go back into my tent and nearly collided with a man coming from the opposite direction.
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,’ he said.
‘Oh, that’s fine,’ I said. ‘Are you Charlotte’s dad?’
‘Charlotte? Who’s Charlotte? No, not me. I swore off kids a long time ago.’
He was tall, lean and olive-skinned, with longish hair as dark as mine. A faint five o’clock shadow at nine am. Style more inner-city casual than rural-hippy grunge. A lived-in face, with serious brown eyes behind stylish black square-rimmed glasses. Roughly my age. He looked kind. Bookish. A little rumpled. Any other straight, single, thirty-something woman’s dream. But what kind of man would swear off kids? Definitely not a man I’d ever be interested in, even if I hadn’t sworn off men.
I smiled at the stranger and waited for him to move on, until it became apparent that he didn’t have any such intention.
‘Are you looking for something?’ Perhaps he wanted directions to the pedal-power smoothie van or the vegan cake stall. Although he seemed more the type who’d head straight for the coffee cart, ask for something fancy like a ristretto or macchiato, and then sit down and sip it slowly, his nose buried in a book.
He started to fidget, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. ‘I’d like a reading, please.’
I understood. Even the most confident became nervy just before the ritual started, anticipating the spilling of secrets. ‘Of course. Come with me.’ I turned to lead him into the tent. ‘I’m Claire. Short for Clairvoyant.’ I winced. What had possessed me to deliver that tired old pun? Probably the prospect of sitting in a confined space with a man blessed with such tousled good looks. ‘Claire Fury, actually. I didn’t catch your name.’
‘Leo. Leo de Rosso.’
When we were seated, I glanced at the moonstone in the middle of the table. It was white, but in the soft light it looked blue, like deep snow. On rare occasions, before or after a strong reading, the blue shimmered and drew me in, as it did now. I was surprised. I hadn’t noticed anything special about this quiet stranger, apart from his appearance. I decided to pay more attention.
The atmosphere in the tent stilled and the sounds of the market fell away. I laid one palm on the stone’s smooth, cool surface and the other on my cards. Leo looked at my hand on the stone and then into my eyes. I felt breathless.
‘What’s the significance of the stone?’ he asked.
‘It was my mother’s. She also read the tarot. Every time I look at it, I see a different pattern. It’s supposed to help you focus on your chosen direction and …’
‘It ignites passion.’ Why did I say that?
I fought to regain my composure, taking a few deep breaths, but not so deep that he’d notice.
‘You okay?’ His eyes searched mine. He’d noticed.
‘I’m fine. Just a touch of asthma.’ I couldn’t seem to stop saying strange things. I’d never had asthma in my life.
‘I’m asthmatic too.’ He reached into his pocket. ‘Here, it might not be hygienic, but you’re welcome to have a drag of my puffer.’
‘No, thanks. I’ll be okay. I have my own puffer … somewhere.’ I pointed in the direction of my bag, tucked away in the corner. I had to get the conversation back on track before he started asking about my symptoms.
I handed him the cards. ‘Shuffle them first. It helps if you have a question.’
‘Do I ask you the question or keep it in my head?’
‘Either. You can keep it in your head like a birthday wish if you like.’
‘I’m terrible at shuffling.’ He spread the cards around, then spilled most of them onto the ground. We both reached for the same card and I accidentally put my hand over his.
‘Snap,’ I said stupidly, pulling my hand away as if he’d given me an electric shock. I was surely losing the plot.
After we’d collected the rest of the cards, I sat back in my chair and took charge. I contemplated laying out a ten card Celtic Cross, but decided to keep it simple. ‘Now you choose five cards and we’ll lay them face up on the table.’
He chose his five and stared at them, frowning. He pushed up his sleeves and laid the cards face down on the table. Long fingers, finely muscled forearms. I’m a sucker for beautifully shaped hands and arms. Don’t get me started on shoulders. But he’d said he didn’t like kids.
‘How are you feeling?’
A smile played around his mouth. ‘Nervous. Out of my depth. I’ve never done this before.’
‘It can feel strange the first time, but we’ll take it slow.’ God. I hadn’t meant to sound like I was seducing a virgin. Time to get back on track. ‘Sometimes the cards reveal more than you think you know. It’s like looking into a mirror.’ I laid the cards out in a cross formation, and turned them over one by one, beginning with the card at the centre. ‘Death. This very strong card is about the past. You’ve lost something or someone significant. And you’ve also drawn the Ten of Wands. Look at the burden this person is carrying.’
I showed him the card, depicting someone bent over double in their efforts to transport a heavy and awkward pile of wood towards a town, where they might hope to put it down.
‘You’re weighed down by the responsibility for whatever it is that the Death card represents. My guess is that this is holding you back from embracing life in some way. Does that make sense to you?’
He shrugged, his expression impenetrable. It made my job harder when people clammed up, but I carried on.
‘The third card, the Moon, indicates that you’re in a state of turbulence. Uncertainty. There’s a calm surface, but underneath there’s immense volatility, which may or may not relate to the situation represented by the first two cards. You’re feeling quite vulnerable right now. You want to take a new direction, but you’re frightened of the consequences.
‘Perhaps the hard times you’ve been through have robbed you of your capacity to trust or even to hope that things could be better. You need to find presence of mind. Clarity. I guess that’s why you’re here.’
He nodded, looking at the table as if he wanted this to be over, like a visit to the dentist. That was odd. He’d come willingly enough. And most people would start to talk about what was troubling them after I’d read the first few cards. It was often a verbal torrent; an outpouring of emotions they’d been longing to express. Once or twice I’d thought of calling for help to move on a customer who’d declined to leave, having just discovered the secret of everything.
I glanced again at the stone, its blue surface appearing to pulsate in the dim light.
‘This card, the Fool, is about what you seek. Happiness is the wrong word. Peace of mind, perhaps. The capacity to dance and play and enjoy the pleasures of life. It’s proving elusive. You’re searching, but you’ve all but given up hope. Perhaps it’s something you’ve had in the past that you’d like to get back.’
He didn’t say anything, so I moved on.
‘Finally, a wonderful card. Strength. This is what you can find if you let go of whatever has happened and open up again. The Fool is a light card; at number one in the pack, it’s the first card on any journey. Temper playfulness with strength and you have wisdom.’
He dug into his pocket and pushed money across the table. ‘Thanks.’
‘Don’t you want to draw some more cards? We have time.’
‘No, that was great. I’d better be on my way. Busy day. Need to be somewhere.’
Leo was gone before I had a chance to stand up. I’d never had a reading end so abruptly. I looked at the notes scattered across the table. More than three times my advertised fee. I should have been happy, but his hasty exit had me convinced I’d fallen short in some undefined way. It made me think of all the things I’d failed at in life, like maths and cleaning. And relationships.
I’d sensed some profound sadness in Leo and wanted badly to help and, if I was honest, to discover more about him. Who was he? Where did he come from? What was he doing in this town? He was probably a tourist passing through and I’d never see him again. It shouldn’t have mattered at all, but it did.
I stepped out to get some fresh air. The weather had shifted fast, as it often did around here. Gathering clouds hung grey and low over the surrounding hills, threatening rain. I wished I hadn’t agreed to do the reading for Charlotte’s dad. I needed the money I’d make if I stayed, but I felt so flustered that all I wanted to do was leave. Charlotte was spending a lot of time with Zoe at my place, so there’d be plenty of opportunities to read the cards for her dad later and there was always a long list of jobs to be done at home. I put my hand in my pocket, and a corner of the envelope poked into my finger. I knew I should open my mail the minute I collected it from the letterbox, but a tsunami of overdue bills had dogged me ever since Zoe was born.
I was taking down my sign when I spotted a tall, broad figure standing nearby. I recognised him instantly. A man I’d spent years trying to forget.
He might have looked older, but his hair was as thick as ever and still the colour of river sand. ‘Jake,’ I said. ‘You’re back.’ And after that I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
‘A funny and fascinating community, a quirky love story and a landscape I didn’t want to leave…’ Penelope Janu, Australian author of Shelter from the Storm
On sale 5th July