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Start reading Heart of the River by Cheryl Adnams


Start reading Heart of the River by Cheryl Adnams

As floodwaters rise, can their love bring a fractured community together?

Mildura, Northern Victoria – 1956

Isabel Hayward has ambitions of being a great chef. But cooking for the locals at the country pub she and her mother run doesn’t really allow for experimenting with haute cuisine.

When she meets local Italian farmer Matteo Sorrenti, their connection is instant and intense – much to the displeasure of Ross Burrows, one of the region’s wealthiest sons, who has been keen on Isabel since they were kids.

Isabel and Matteo’s blossoming relationship has challenges to overcome: their cultural differences, prejudice, Ross’s jealousy, and the worst flood in Australia’s history.

As the Murray River rises to its peak, threatening the Sorrentis’ farm and the Haywards’ pub, secrets are revealed that show Matteo, Isabel and Ross are inextricably linked by their fathers’ wartime experiences. Will the secrets their fathers kept threaten Isabel and Matteo’s relationship? Or can their love break down the remnants of prejudice left behind by the war?

‘A love story set against the background of old secrets, deep resentments and the unstoppable forces of nature. A fabulous insight into the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. An unputdownable read from Cheryl Adnams.’ – Alison Stuart, author of The Postmistress

June 1956

‘Well, folks, it’s official.’

The crowd fell into an expectant hush as the mayor stepped up to the podium.

‘The floodwaters coming down the Murray River are looking to be the biggest we’ve seen in the region since nineteen thirty-one.’

The news was greeted with a symphony of groans, and conversation laced with aggravation broke out among the crowd filling the Mildura Town Hall to capacity.

Isabel Hayward exchanged glances with her mother Audrey as they sat together on uncomfortable wooden folding chairs near the rear of the hall. The noise level soared, with raised voices bouncing off the high ceilings and hard, wooden floors, until she thought her ears might begin to bleed.

The call to attend the town hall meeting had gone out to anyone who lived along the Murray River in the north-west corner of Victoria. While the Riverside Hotel, where Isabel lived and worked with her mum, was situated in the little hamlet of Gol Gol in New South Wales, it was an easy jaunt for them, and others who lived just on the other side of the river from Mildura, to cross the border and hear what the mayor had to say. Since Mildura was the largest of the Sunraysia towns that included Wentworth, Dareton, Red Cliffs, Buronga, Merbein and as far upriver as Euston and Robinvale, it made sense to hold the important regional meeting there.

Looking around the hall as complaints and concerns were discussed at a rising decibel level, Isabel realised people had travelled a long way to learn what they could about the threat that was slowly creeping downriver towards them. Farmers, still in their work gear, mixed with men in suits and women in dresses, hats and gloves. Isabel looked down at her new denim jeans and scratched at the casserole gravy that she’d spilled on the thigh while making dinner that afternoon. She hadn’t had time to change before leaving the pub that evening. Looking around, she was thankful she wasn’t the only woman her age wearing trousers.

The bang of the mayor’s gavel on the podium jolted Isabel. The banging only added to the hubbub as the mayor tried to regain the attention of the room. She jumped again, even though she’d been prepared for it, as the mayor banged his gavel one more time and shouted for order.

‘Come on now, we’ve known this was coming for a while. The higher-than-average rainfalls in Western Queensland, combined with the last few months of heavy rains in the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan River areas, means the original estimates were about as useful as a chocolate teapot. The bureau reckons the rains here aren’t looking like settling down anytime soon either. Upstream the banks of the Murray have already burst in some places like Corryton and we’ve just got word that the river at Swan Hill is already at fourteen feet. That’s only two inches shy of last year’s flood peak and we’re nowhere near the predicted peak date.’

‘Which is when?’ someone called out.

‘It’s looking like mid-August for us at this stage.’

This brought on more shocked and worried murmurs from the assembly.

‘That’s less than three months away.’

‘Look, everyone, Barry can count.’

Laughter mingled with the conversation.

‘What’s the council gonna do about protecting us?’

‘Let’s not panic, folks.’ The mayor raised his voice, waving his hands in a ‘calm down’ gesture before the noise could get out of control again. ‘We’ve already started building levees where they were successful according to the old blokes who were here in the big flood of thirty-one.’

‘Levees are a bad idea,’ someone else called out. ‘Let the river take its course. Building levees only makes the flooding that much worse when they break. And they will break. Just like they did in thirty-one.’

Isabel could see his point and wondered which was the lesser of two evils—a slow-creeping inundation? Or a flash flood that could wipe out everything in its path? The statement brought on a mixture of agreement and angry accusations.

‘Spoken like a true townie!’

‘What about my crops? We can’t just let the river take our profits. We have to protect them.’

Impassioned discussions sounded all around Isabel. Some for building the levees, some against it. She could see both sides of the argument so she wasn’t about to get involved.

‘Yeah, and I’ll wager we’re not gonna get much help from them bastards in Canberra neither!’

Folks in the rural regions didn’t have a lot of time for city politicians, and certainly didn’t trust them to help out unless there was something in it for them.

‘That’s ’cos they’re more interested in them bloody stupid sports thing what’s comin’.’

The jab had come from the back of the hall and, turning in her chair, Isabel peered through the haze of cigarette smoke to find the owner of the voice. Mr Watkins. She should have known. Eighty years old if he was a day and still working his patch of sultana grapes in Merbein. He’d meant the Olympic Games, of course, which were due to start in Melbourne in November. The huge international event had the whole country buzzing with excitement. Everyone but old Mr Watkins, that was, who had no time for sports or politics. What farmer did?

Before she could turn back in her seat, her eyes fell on a younger man standing behind Mr Watkins. Leaning against the wall, arms folded inside a well-worn, dark brown leather jacket, he looked to Isabel like something out of a movie. James Dean came to mind. There was something about this man’s stance that made her think of that same barely suppressed tension Dean had always seemed to exude in the photographs she’d seen in magazines and newspapers—before his tragic death last year, that was.

Trying not to make it look obvious that she was watching him, Isabel fiddled with her coat that was slung over the back of her seat. Peeking up through her eyelashes, she studied him. His dark hair hung long and thick, drifting over his forehead above piercing pale blue eyes that looked deep in concentration as he tilted his head, struggling to hear what the older man beside him was saying. Their olive skin told her they might be new Australians—Italians maybe. Having lived in the area all her life, Isabel thought she knew almost everyone in town. There was no way she’d forget having met the tall, dark and handsome Mediterranean James Dean. She wondered if these men had fled their ravaged home in Europe after the war, in search of a better life for their family. Maybe they’d just moved out from one of the cities to try their hand at farming. Or perhaps they’d always been in the region. She had to admit, they didn’t get many new Australians coming to eat or drink at the Riverside. More and more these days Isabel wondered why that was.

Greeks, Italians, and a few of the recently arrived ten-pound poms, had seen Mildura in the midst of a population boom over the last ten years as people fled the war-torn cities and bomb-pocked farmlands of Europe and England. Looking for work, and not afraid of the hard variety, many of them had ended up in rural Australia, leasing parcels of land and quickly building farms and a new life for themselves and their families.

Isabel knew that not everyone in the region was happy about the arrival of so many foreigners to their little piece of rural Australia, but she was fascinated by all the different languages and cultures. As a cook in the hotel her family owned, she was especially fascinated by the varied and exotic foods and recipes they’d brought with them. But right now, it was the exotic good looks of the stranger at the back of the hall that held her interest.

As though feeling her eyes on him, the man turned his head and met her look straight on. Those piercing blue eyes held her green ones a little longer, until she finally had to force herself to look away, the warm flush rising up her neck. God, she’d been caught staring at him. How embarrassing! It wasn’t like her to go gooey over a man like that. Shaking her head, she forced herself to tune back into the impending flood being discussed at the front of the room.

‘We are getting some support from the government,’ the mayor assured the room. ‘The SEC in Melbourne have sent these two gentlemen to check up on the power stations at Red Cliffs and Mildura. Levees are already being put in place there, but now that we know just how high the water will be, we’re gonna have to build them up further.’

‘Or we’ll all be in the dark!’

‘Forget the dark,’ Councilman MacKenzie added from his seat on the stage. ‘If the floodwaters get into the pumping station we’ll be in bigger trouble. The town’s taps will dry up and toilet systems won’t work. We’d have to truck in water.’

‘Electricity and sewage are our number-one priority,’ the mayor agreed. ‘We’ll discuss next steps after these blokes fill us in on what needs to happen around the power stations.’

The mayor stepped aside to allow the two gentlemen from the city to take over the podium. They spoke in a monotone about the power stations and, losing interest in their technical talk, Isabel tuned them out and took the opportunity to glance around the hall again. So many faces she recognised, from her old schoolmates to regulars at the Riverside pub, but plenty of faces she didn’t recognise too. Those were from further afield, she figured. Everyone was keen to know just how bad the next few months were going to get.

Spotting her best friend Leanne sitting with her family across the centre aisle, Isabel waved enthusiastically and smothered a laugh as Leanne rolled her eyes and pretended to sleep with boredom at the drone of the officials from Melbourne. From his seat behind her, Ross Burrows tugged on one of Leanne’s plaits. Scowling, Leanne turned and gave his hand a slap away. Ross snickered and winked across at Isabel before copping an elbow in the ribs from his best mate Kevin Grey beside him. That began a battle of surreptitious elbowing between the two men. Isabel shook her head. It was hard to believe they’d all turned twenty-one years old this last year.

She continued to watch Ross as he and Kevin fought like naughty schoolboys until Mrs Carsten, their old high school science teacher, whacked them both over the head with her newspaper. Scolded, the two men slunk down in their chairs but continued to jab at one another on the sly as the teacher kept an eagle eye on them, her newspaper still rolled in her hand and at the ready should they step out of line.

Isabel sent Ross a faux look of censure when he grinned back at her. They’d known each other since they’d been knee-high to a wallaby, having attended Gol Gol Primary School then Mildura High School as their parents had done before them.

Lately, though, Ross’s attentions towards her had changed from family friend to something more. At first, Isabel had found herself flattered by his interest. Ross was a good-looking man from a wealthy family and could probably have any woman he chose in the region. Why he was suddenly courting her, she still couldn’t quite figure out. He’d started asking her out to the movies, or to the dances they held at the supper rooms, right here in the town hall. They’d been out a few times, usually with other friends or couples. He picked her up in his fancy new Holden and dropped her home at the end of the evening, and there’d been one quick kiss behind the footy club rooms after a barbecue just the week before. The kiss hadn’t moved the earth for her. She hadn’t had many boyfriends growing up but she was sure she was supposed to feel more … well, just … more. She feared they were approaching the point where she would need to decide whether it was time to ‘fish or cut bait’ as her dad used to say. Perhaps they’d just known each other for too long. Where was the mystery? Where was the romance and excitement? More than once she wondered if her ambivalence towards him was because, having known each other since they were in nappies, he was more like a brother to her. The thought had begun to take hold—and that just felt … icky.

Ross sent her a cheeky wink. He may still act like a teenager, but she couldn’t deny that Ross had most definitely grown into manhood. He’d lost the boyish roundness in his face. His cheekbones were more defined, his strong jawline showing a five o’clock shadow she knew his mother would not approve of. At sixteen, he’d shot up to a gangly six feet, two inches. Then over the years he’d moved from gangly to brawny so that now his body was one long length of muscle. Not muscle built as a result of a hard day’s work in the fields or orchards though. His build, she knew, came from many hours at the local boxing gym and from training and playing Aussie Rules football for the Mildura Demons.

Ross had gone straight from school to work for the family car-sales business—in the office, of course. His dad, Trevor, was the general manager of Burrows Automobiles; although everyone knew it was Trevor’s father, Roy, who still held the reins of the business. To his father’s disappointment and his wife’s dismay, Trevor Burrows tended to spend more time in Isabel’s family’s pub at Gol Gol than at the car yard on Madden Avenue.

And that association and friendship was just another reason Shirley Burrows didn’t approve of her son Ross courting Isabel Hayward, the Riverside publican’s daughter.

The meeting wrapped up and the noise in the hall rose to a deafening rumble again as the crowds began to talk and boots hit the hardwood floors, the clatter of chairs adding to the din as they were stacked against the wall. Isabel and her mother joined the river of humanity as it flowed and filtered out of the exits.


Just outside the door, as the brisk night air hit her cheeks, she turned and smiled as Leanne, Ross and Kevin shuffled out the door behind her.

‘Hi!’ Isabel greeted them on the steps, pulling on her favourite old coat to ward off the June chill. ‘Big news, hey?’

‘Yep, we’re gonna get trapped over there in Gol Gol and Buronga when the water comes down,’ Ross said, tossing an arm around her and pulling her close. ‘We might have to huddle up together against the elements.’

Isabel shrugged him off. ‘I doubt it will come to that. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see and make sure we get our share of the sandbags.’

‘You don’t think the pub will go under though, do you, Isabel?’ Leanne asked, real concern marring her pretty, pale complexion as she fixed a sky blue, knitted woollen hat over her raven hair.

‘Nah. There’s no way it could ever get that high,’ Ross insisted, wrapping his arm around Isabel’s waist to hold her steady as they were shuffled about by the dispersing crowds. ‘Of course, you can always come and stay with me, Isabel, if the floodwaters look like taking over the pub.’

‘Your house in Buronga is on lower ground than the pub. If we go under, your house will already be well gone.’

She figured the idea of that hadn’t struck him before since he frowned at her now.

‘I wouldn’t worry,’ she said quickly. ‘I’m sure it won’t come to that.’

Isabel caught Ross’s mother’s thinly veiled look of distaste as she stepped out of the hall and spotted Ross with his arm around her. She looked … expensive. It was the word Isabel always thought of when she saw Shirley Burrows. The outfit she wore now was probably worth more than Isabel earned in a month. The tan skirt was wool, and the sweater set—the colour of the eggs Isabel’s chickens laid—was most likely cashmere. Isabel’s eyes dropped to Shirley’s feet and she admired the low-heeled pumps that matched her fashionable pea green winter coat. Most women had one pair of good black shoes that went with everything. Coloured shoes were a luxury, but she guessed if anyone could afford luxuries it was Shirley Burrows. Her white gloves were still as white as the day she bought them, no doubt. Whereas the old pair Isabel owned, worn first by her mother and then by her, had yellowed over the years of wear regardless of her regular use of the Reckitt’s Bag Blue.

Isabel squirmed a little as the woman’s gaze skimmed over her own ancient tan coat, her denim trousers and low-heeled, scarred and dirty winter boots.

‘Ross, take me to the car, please,’ Shirley commanded, fastening the large buttons on her coat. ‘I’d like to go home and your father is nowhere to be found as usual.’

Isabel felt Ross slump a little before he removed his arm from her waist. ‘Better go. How about a movie at the Ozone on Friday night?’

‘Fine,’ Isabel agreed, then wondered why she had. Was it to spite Shirley Burrows? Hadn’t she just been thinking it was time to cut all ties with Ross?

‘Pick you up at six?’ he asked as he backed away to follow his mother, who was already halfway down the footpath towards the Burrows’ sedan. She nodded and waved goodbye, watching him turn and quickly dash away down the path.

He opened the passenger-side door for his mother before climbing into the driver’s seat and starting the car with a roar of the engine. Isabel had never seen Shirley Burrows drive her own car. Either Ross or Trevor would always be at the wheel. Of course, Ross had his own brand-new Holden to get about town in. Owning a car yard meant the Burrows always had the latest model of automobile. Isabel admired Mrs Burrows’ new Ford as it sailed past, with its clean burgundy coat and shiny chrome bumper. It certainly made the Haywards’ ageing, second-hand, baby blue Holden utility look like a piece of old junk rescued from the scrap heap. But that piece of junk was functional for transporting food and drink supplies from the train station or shops to the pub and it still ran like a dream. Until the old ute gave up the ghost for good, they’d make do.

‘Another date with Ross,’ Leanne said, bringing her attention back. ‘Didn’t you say you were thinking of breaking it off with him?’

‘We’re not officially an item. How do you break something off with someone when you’re not actually together? I think we’re just friends now. A boy and a girl friend who go out occasionally.’

‘I’ll bet you a pack of cheese Twisties that Ross thinks you’re officially together.’

Chewing on her lip, she worried Leanne was right and just might win that packet of cheese Twisties. ‘I just don’t think—Hey!’

A bump from behind had her losing her footing on the steps of the hall. As she stumbled and the ground rushed up to meet her, she was suddenly caught around the waist by strong hands that spun her so that instead of facing the ground, she was now looking up at the sky, dipped backwards as though she’d simply been waltzing.

It felt like forever as she lay, bent back, with the warmth of her captor’s leather-clad arms blocking the cool breeze. Frozen, in fear of falling as much as in shock, she stared into eyes she’d seen only a short while before inside the hall. Eyes so blue it was like looking up at a summer sky.

He grinned down at her. No longer the dark and brooding James Dean look-alike, instead his handsome face held a cheeky, thrilled sort of a smile, and a dimple winked out at her from his left cheek.

‘Ciao, bella.’

Her parents were the only ones who had ever called her by that nickname.

‘What? H—how …?’

Being encased in his warm arms, crushed against his warm body, she somehow couldn’t seem to find a coherent thought.

His smile wavered and his dark eyebrows furrowed a little over those pools of blue. ‘I wish I could say I was sorry for bumping into you, but that would be a lie as we would not have met.’

She opened her mouth to speak, to say something pithy, but nothing came out. Good Lord, he’d made her speechless. She was horrified with herself. What would she do next? Swoon?

On Sale: 03/01/2024

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