Can two wounded hearts find peace in a time of war?
1944. Widow Poppy Guilford is fighting to save her farm, the one thing tethering her to her husband – and the legacy promised for their young son. But a devastating secret from her husband’s past threatens to derail her struggle to save the property and keep her son by her side.
Former soldier JB Beaton’s wartime injuries and personal losses have left him with scars, both inside and out. Believing he’s too damaged to be the father his son deserves, he leaves him with his sister and takes on a job as a farmhand, far away from the city and his failures.
Poppy, battling the elements and the heartache of her husband’s secret, finds the new farmhand is never far from her thoughts, and JB’s world is thrown into disarray by one of the most beautiful and capable women he has ever met. Neither can battle the surge of attraction they both feel.
In a small town where gossip reigns, will they surrender to duty or follow their hearts?
‘You’ll be cheering for this wartime Australian heroine well before the last page as she fights to find her voice, her feet and love after heartbreak. Nancy Cunningham’s emotional debut novel is a cracker.’ Bestselling Australian author Victoria Purman
August 1944, South Australia
To Poppy Guilford, the township and district of Goyders Creek was like a coat—heavy with history and the memories of past lives. She’d worn that coat for the last eleven years and it was no longer discernible from her own skin, one she couldn’t shed and leave hanging on a hook by her front door.
Poppy tapped her watch and gazed along the white acacia-lined street filling with people. The butcher, the general store and the tea room bustled with patrons, in and out their doors like bees visiting a hive. Her eight-year-old son Glenn scraped a stick along the crumbling bluestone kerb, the gutter full of dried mud despite the cloudless sky.
‘I’m bored. How long do we have to wait for Aunt Ronnie?’
‘The bus should be here soon.’ Why hadn’t Ronnie come on the train yesterday like Poppy had asked? She’d been awfully secretive of late. What was so urgent that it had kept her in Melbourne for an extra day? Surely the farm and its business were important to her too.
Her lungs shuddered with a draught of cold air and she recoiled at the sudden waft of pungent pipe tobacco assaulting her nostrils.
‘Morning, Mrs Guilford.’ Paul Jennison, one of the general store owner’s sons said.
She clutched her arms to her chest. ‘Oh, good morning, Paul.’
‘You waiting on someone?’
He raised his brow as if expecting her to continue, but she smiled and remained silent.
‘Going to the afternoon tea today?’
‘We’ll be there. Serving tea.’ If she gave short answers, maybe he’d go back into the store and leave her alone. A good Christian shouldn’t have such uncharitable thoughts, but she couldn’t help it, not when it came to Paul Jennison and his brother Alfie.
‘I’ll make sure to stop by at the stall. Nothing like a cuppa from the lovely ladies of the CWA.’ He nodded and walked away.
Poppy shivered and knitted her fingers together. The cracks and the pits in the skin of her hands made by the rough work of many seasons stung in the cool air. How in the last decade had she become someone else? Would unkind thoughts like this have come her way had she remained in Adelaide? Her progression from prim and proper society ingenue to hard-working and hard-done-by farm widow had been a slow and imperceptible change. But in that time she’d grown to love this town and its people—most of them anyway.
The bus finally turned the corner into Market Street and pulled up in front of the post office. Glenn ran towards it and the passengers disembarked. Poppy exhaled. ‘About time.’
Any bus graced with Veronica Guilford’s presence would, of course, be fashionably late. She flowed from the bus steps like a wave in baby blue cotton. Ronnie—for she’d always been Ronnie to Poppy—waved a hand. ‘Dearest!’
Poppy kissed her on both cheeks and forgave Ronnie’s tardiness, relieved to have her here and back in Goyders Creek. With Ronnie’s presence, a lightness ascended through her—reinforcing a connection to family, to her husband Dan and everything the farm meant to her. Their twice-weekly phone calls sometimes weren’t enough.
Ronnie reached forward and grabbed Glenn in an embrace. ‘How is my darling nephew? You look to have grown a foot since I last saw you!’
He pulled away and yanked on the knitted vest already creeping up his body. ‘Mum says I’m four-and-a-half feet now and Uncle Walter says I’m gonna be taller than him!’
‘Is that so?’ Ronnie shot a glance towards Poppy. ‘Been spending a lot of time around Uncle Walter?’
‘Ronnie, please. You’ve only just stepped off the bus.’
‘I can’t help it; I need gossip as much as you country ladies.’
‘There’s no gossip that I haven’t already imparted to you.’ None of which she was aware. Poppy glanced over Ronnie’s immaculate travel clothes. Despite the crowded bus, not a strand of Ronnie’s dark brown hair appeared out of place. Her long lashes, layered with thick mascara, framed her rich brown eyes. She’d even applied a fresh coat of lipstick. Poppy examined her own outfit, an old skirt and matching jacket with the ever-so-slightly frayed pockets. Several wisps of hair tickled her face, and she pulled them back behind her ears.
‘But here I get to live the gossip. Having it all related by phone isn’t the same.’
Poppy couldn’t help but laugh. ‘We’re already late, and I don’t want to delay our meeting with Mr Treloar again. You should be grateful he’d see us on a Saturday.’
‘What can I say? There’s a war going on, and my life is very hectic.’
‘I’m quite aware there’s a war on, Ronnie. Just because it’s quiet here doesn’t mean we’re not affected. The bank—’
‘Oh, the bank, the bank, the bank! Sounds like nonsense to me.’ She handed Glenn her suitcase and put on her sunglasses with a flourish. ‘Are we to walk?’
‘No, Mr Treloar said he’d see us at his house and it’s only a short drive. And it’s not nonsense.’ But this was not the time to argue, and she pushed her berating thoughts aside. ‘Come along.’
They drove from Market Street towards a part of the township near the river; the part filled with the affluence of a previous generation. Big houses on allotments large enough to graze a flock of sheep dazzled with emerald green gardens. And the cars sitting in the driveways were untouched by dust. It was as if this part of town was unaffected by war or the Depression not long past.
Ronnie looked out the window and sighed. ‘What you need is a holiday from this place. Come to Melbourne. I’ll show you a jolly good time.’
‘I’d like that!’ Glenn said.
‘Don’t encourage him, Ronnie.’
‘Why in heavens not?’
‘We just can’t. It’s not a good time. War effort comes first, you know.’ Poppy had never envied her sister-in-law, but lately she’d wanted a different life, one without hardship, without threadbare clothes and callused hands, with music and laughter. She wanted her son at home, not attending school in the city. The war dragged on, and the sameness of every day wore thin at the corners, much like her jacket’s pockets. The boredom was easy to live with if you didn’t spend too much time looking at the horizon for any sign of change.
‘This town needs bringing up to date, doesn’t it? You should see all the development along the Yarra,’ Ronnie said.
‘If you think that would make me say yes to coming to Melbourne, it won’t. A holiday is absolutely out of the question.’
‘Oh, the bloody war.’ Ronnie pulled a compact from her purse and opened it.
Poppy gripped the wheel tight. ‘Please don’t swear.’
Ronnie turned her head from side to side and gazed into the compact mirror. ‘I must admit though, when they’re not fighting, the Americans know how to have a good time.’ She turned and winked at Poppy.
Dan always said Ronnie was only after a good time and frivolous with money. No wonder her quarter of Guilford Farm was left to Dan’s management after their mother’s death. ‘I suppose the stipend helps with all that fun.’
Ronnie snapped her compact shut. ‘Stipend? What on earth are you talking about?’
‘The monthly stipend from Guilford Farm. What else do you think I’m talking about?’
‘I don’t get any money, haven’t for years.’
‘Yes, you do. Five pounds a month is nothing to sniff at.’
‘I get nothing any more. Certainly not five pounds. I decided years ago not to take anything on offer because if I did, Dan would think he had a say in what I did with my life.’ She huffed a laugh. ‘We can talk about Hitler and Mussolini all you want, but if you were ever after railing against domestic tyranny, look no further than your own husband.’
‘Dan was never—’ Poppy bit back her retort. Dan had had a firm grip on everything in their lives, from insisting Glenn go to boarding school in Adelaide after a polio outbreak in the district school, to what Poppy’s activities should be to help the war effort. But now that he was dead, everything lay in Poppy’s lap. They pulled up to the Treloars’ house. ‘Let’s just talk with Mr Treloar.’
‘Do I have to come in?’ Glenn asked.
‘You can stay here in the car. We won’t be long.’ Poppy waggled a finger at him. ‘No mischief.’
They stepped up to the door, twice the size of Guilford farmhouse’s and with ornate fleur-de-lis carvings bordering the top and bottom. Instead of a knocker, there was a doorbell, but its ring was dull and resonant, not shrill like she expected. The Treloars’ maid ushered them into the study. Poppy looked towards the vaulted ceiling where a smoke-like haze glinted with dust motes. A tobacco pipe sat on a silver tray on a desk as large as her dining table. Mr Treloar entered, and Poppy fumbled with her hands to stop them trembling.
‘Mrs Guilford, Miss Guilford. Welcome, please sit.’ Mr Treloar grinned and stood behind the desk. He was tall and lean, and his angled face had a groomed dark moustache peppered with white.
Poppy forced the broadest smile she could manage. ‘Thank you for seeing us on the weekend.’
‘Quite alright. The war keeps us all busy but let’s move this along. In deference to your late husband—’ He paused and nodded towards Ronnie. ‘And brother, and his service as local councillor in the district, we have been very patient.’ He sounded like a schoolteacher reprimanding a pair of errant schoolboys.
Poppy’s lips wobbled when she spoke. ‘I understand, Mr Treloar, but if you can only wait until after the coming harvest, I can make up the difference. I can service the loan. And Ronnie’s stipend …’
‘I told you,’ Ronnie interrupted. ‘I don’t get a stipend any more. Haven’t in years.’
Mr Treloar sat and glanced between her and Ronnie. He flicked over a paper on the desk. ‘Mrs Guilford, Miss Guilford is correct. The money coming out of your account is not going to her.’
‘See?’ Ronnie said peevishly.
‘It’s not? Well, where’s it going?’
‘Your late husband set up a transaction to be paid into a bank account owned by a—’ He rifled through several more papers in front of him. ‘A Mrs Mary McLaughlin.’
Poppy quizzed Ronnie. ‘Family?’
Ronnie shook her head. ‘I don’t recall a relative named McLaughlin.’
‘Mr Treloar, if the payment isn’t for any services, can we stop it and feed it back into the loan?’
‘It would certainly help. It may not solve all of your problems, though.’ He pressed the pads of his fingers together as if praying. ‘You’re a moral, upstanding member of the community, Mrs Guilford. That being said, I don’t know how long the bank can wait for the whole loan to be resolved, given the intermittent payments you’ve been making. We would have preferred settlement after your husband’s death. Is there anything else you can sell, perhaps?’
She fiddled with her wedding ring. She’d sold everything she could—or that she could bear to part with. ‘Jewellery? More stock? I still have several prize-winning merinos. I’m not sure what else.’ Maybe the old motorcycle of Dan’s would fetch a good price, but she wasn’t sure if it was even working. She could take up piano teaching again, something Dan had insisted she stop after they married. But where would she find the time?
‘I have an idea. Something very favourable to the bank’s position on the matter.’
‘Oh? Please, do tell, Mr Treloar.’
‘Who do you trust, Mrs Guilford?’
‘Who do I trust? Well, many people.’
‘Friends or family? From the bank’s standpoint, are any of them generous enough to be a guarantor for your loan? Do they trust you?’
‘Guarantor …’ That someone could underpin the loan might be the answer to staving off more defaults hadn’t occurred to her. But did people trust her? She had been in town for over a decade, did that count? Poppy’s heart thumped in her chest. ‘My aunt and uncle—they might.’
‘How solvent are they? What are their earnings, property, shares, that sort of thing? Do you know?’
Her uncle’s recent ill-health had forced him into part retirement, and they had money, but not enough to prop up a loan such as hers. They were already paying some of Glenn’s school fees. When the war broke out, the government had encouraged men like Dan to stay on their farms. Keeping the troops fed and the crops growing was as big an effort for the war as marching on enemy soldiers. Dan had told her that a loan would see the farm in good stead for the duration of the war and lest anything happen to him. And the worst had happened to him on the road to Adelaide.
‘I’m not sure …’ The thought of once again relying on her relatives’ good will—no, she couldn’t ask them.
‘If you’re reticent to ask a relative, may I make a suggestion?’
‘Please, I don’t want to lose Guilford Farm.’ Her hard work, her struggle, her loss, would all be for naught if she had to sell. She would have failed Glenn, Dan, herself.
‘Your neighbour Walter Butcher is a valued customer of the bank.’
‘Walter?’ Ronnie let out a low chuckle. ‘Well, isn’t that convenient?’
Poppy skewered her with a glance. ‘He doesn’t have the means—I couldn’t ask him.’
‘Between you and me, Mrs Guilford, Mr Butcher is quite an astute investor. And from what I know—’ A smirk unfolded underneath his moustache. ‘Well, from what my dear wife tells me, he has a great regard for you.’
Poppy sat upright in the chair, the hairs on the back of her neck bristling at the insinuation. Rumours and innuendo had travelled with her since Dan’s death over two years ago. Why was it always the widows who suffered lashings under the loose tongues of gossips? Even here she wasn’t free, but it paled compared to what she was facing with the farm. She held her indignation tight against her lest she flee the room.
‘I can’t offer any other solution. The extra money should help, a little. But unless you can keep to the repayments, we need to consider other options, perhaps even insolvency.’
‘Bankruptcy, you mean?’ Her throat was thick with self-loathing. She couldn’t let that happen. The town would never forgive her. Glenn mightn’t either. And how could she live with herself knowing she’d lost her son’s inheritance?
‘Not if you sell. I know the farm has passed directly to your son, but as guardian there are means and ways around a sale. A guarantor could serve you well no matter your final decision. Would you like me to discuss it further with Mr Butcher? If you think it is proper, I could act as an intermediary.’
‘I—no, thank you. I’d be happier to broach the subject with him myself. As you say, he is a close friend.’ Poppy’s chin lowered to her chest, unable to meet Mr Treloar’s piercing gaze.
‘Good. That part we can settle. We also require you to reconsider some of your worker arrangements.’
Her head snapped back up. ‘My worker arrangements?’
‘The Land Army girls. What a godsend they are to the district, to the nation even. And they cost half the rate of the men.’
‘Are you saying I shouldn’t hire any men? There are many in the district looking for work.’ Most were returned soldiers, some injured, some demobilised to help with labour shortages.
‘I’m not saying that. Heaven knows some of these men are much needed. But until the war ends, until you and the other women can go back to more—domestic concerns, you might want to be sparing as to who you employ on the farm.’ Mr Treloar took a sheet of paper from his desk and began scribbling. ‘Those Land girls, two for the price of one. I even hear some of them know their way around a bit of machinery.’
‘I suppose I could consider …’
He passed her the paper detailing several actions. ‘I think this directive will help.’
She glanced at the list. It meant she would have to restrict the men’s work to the most laborious tasks, ones she or the Land Army girls couldn’t do. Walter had already been helping her, but he had his own property to run, and she couldn’t ask too much more of him. And certainly not if she were to ask him to play guarantor.
‘Maybe if you sold the old homestead at the edge of your property?’ Mr Treloar added. ‘You’d only have to part with some of the land, and it could graze enough stock to sustain a small family living. If the war ends soon then there will be plenty willing to take it off your hands. You could pay off the whole loan.’
‘You can’t sell that!’ Ronnie blurted. ‘That’s—well, that’s a special place. I grew up in that old house. I have a say, don’t I?’
Poppy was as fond of the old homestead as Ronnie and the thought of five pounds a month disbursed to a stranger burned at the edge of her mind. But would it be enough to prevent the old homestead’s sale? She tucked the paper from Mr Treloar into her bag and stood. ‘Thank you for seeing us here at your home, Mr Treloar. Your discretion means a lot to me—to us. And we have a bit to think about.’
He took her hand in a formal handshake. ‘Mrs Guilford, people here respect you. The work you do, the hardships you’ve faced. No one can look at you and think you haven’t done your best.’
If those closest to Dan thought she’d failed him, and failed his son, would they really be so supportive?
They said their farewells, and when they were out on the street Ronnie took Poppy’s arm as she opened the car door. ‘More domestic concerns,’ she said mocking Mr Treloar’s deep baritone voice. ‘As if we women will readily wear the yoke again when all the men return. But you can’t sell the old homestead. You just can’t.’
‘I may not have a choice. I sell the old homestead, or we go broke and lose everything.’
‘What?’ Glenn piped up from inside the car. ‘You’re not selling the old homestead are you, Mum? You can’t!’
‘With Walter acting as guarantor, you can avoid it.’ Ronnie tapped her lips with an elegant finger. ‘Something to think about.’
This was a surprising turnaround. Ronnie wasn’t close to Walter like Dan had been, and at times she’d been openly hostile for no reason other than he’d been Dan’s best friend and she and Dan had never been the most loving of siblings.
‘I hope we can avoid it. But I have made no decisions and, besides, we have the money from this stipend now. Five pounds a month goes a long way.’
‘That’s a lot of money, Mum.’
‘Not in Melbourne it’s not. Not that you can buy much with all the stern rationing.’
Poppy glanced briefly at Ronnie’s new outfit. ‘It will help a great deal.’
On the drive back to Guilford Farm, Ronnie hummed. ‘Who is this woman, this Mary McLaughlin? McLaughlin … the name rings a bell, but I can’t recall. And how long has she been taking our money?’
Our money. How strange that sounded to Poppy’s ears. ‘I could ask around, maybe even speak with her. Find her connection to Dan. Maybe somebody knows.’ What had Dan hidden from her?
She chewed on a ripped nail then tapped a palm on the steering wheel. If Walter agreed to be guarantor, the farm would be safe—for now.