With Eva Scott’s trademark warmth and wit comes a rural rom-com about friendship, family, failure and finding the place you truly belong.
It’s been thirteen years since Lacey Kane escaped the small town of Whitton for the big city, and life couldn’t be better. Or so she thought. When her seemingly perfect life is exposed in the worst way, on live television no less, she suddenly finds herself facing her worst nightmare: returning to her parents’ home on Echidna Lane in the small Tasmanian town of her childhood.
It’s a decision she’s willing to make for the sake of her two young sons, but there’s a reason she hasn’t been back for the last decade. Except the longer she spends on Echidna Lane, the less clear that reason is becoming. Is small town life really as bad as her teenage self thought? Or is she merely being swayed by the handsome owner of the neighbouring walnut farm and his gorgeous daughter?
Shane Morrisey has had a crush on Lacey Kane for as long as he can remember. After the death of his wife, it became a way of protecting his heart from ever getting hurt like that again. After all, who could be more unattainable than the beautiful, charismatic woman who hasn’t stepped foot in Whitton since university? Except now she is back, as beautiful as ever, and suddenly not so out of reach. But Shane’s place is on Echidna Lane, and he has no plans to uproot himself or his daughter. And Lacey doesn’t seem to have any plans to stay …
‘Matilda May Morrisey, what on earth are you doing?’
Shane Morrisey’s daughter turned to look at him with her mother’s clear grey eyes. She shrugged, pulling a goofy face, while brandishing her spoon like a wand. ‘Nothing,’ she said.
‘I can see that.’ Shane took off his boots as he stood by the back door, lining them up neatly before entering the house. Their black-and-white border collie, Barry, slipped through before he could stop him.
‘Hey!’ said Shane.
The dog ignored him and headed directly to Matilda, leaving muddy paw prints across the lino floor. Great, another job to add to the list. He let the door slam behind him and padded into the kitchen in his socks.
‘You’re supposed to be ready for school. I said I’d run you down to the bus the minute I got back from the shed.’ He checked his watch. ‘That minute is now. Get a move on, you’re going to be late.’
Matilda shrugged again, unconcerned. Her fine blonde hair stood up in a tangled mess at the back of her head and she still wore her pyjamas. She kept her eyes on the television while she spooned Froot Loops into her mouth. Barry watched her chew with avid, bright interest in case of spillage.
A parenting moment was required.
‘Would you look at me while I’m talking to you, please.’
Matilda swivelled her head slowly, her cheeks bulging with cereal.
‘I thought we had a deal. You get yourself dressed, your teeth and hair brushed, your school bag packed, and I’ll run you to the bus stop so you don’t have to walk.’
She stared at him, no expression on her face.
‘What’s going on?’
Matilda began crunching her cereal slowly, not taking her eyes from his.
‘Matilda.’ He used his warning tone.
She pointed to her mouth and continued chewing, making him wait until every last loop had been decimated and swallowed. ‘You always tell me not to speak with my mouth full.’
Shane sighed. His daughter was an eighteen-year-old smart alec in a nine-year-old body. ‘Answer my question, please.’
‘I’m not going to school today.’ She turned back to the television.
‘I beg your pardon.’ He glared at the back of her head. ‘What do you mean you’re not going to school today? You don’t look sick to me.’
One more nonchalant shrug, like what’s the big deal, Dad. Man, if this was nine, he couldn’t wait until her teenage years. He took a deep breath. ‘Matilda.’
‘What?’ She looked at him over her shoulder.
‘Answer, please, or no YouTube time today.’
She raised her eyebrows in what he hoped was alarm. ‘Okay, okay.’ She spun around to face him. ‘Geez.’
He crossed his arms, waiting.
‘I hate school.’
‘Since when?’ Genuine surprise siderailed him. Matilda had always loved going to school. That had never been one of their problems.
He took another deep breath. ‘I’m going to need more than that, kiddo. You can’t stay home because you don’t like school. Life is full of things we don’t like. We’ve just gotta deal.’
Way to go on the pep talk, Shane. He heard the inadequacy of his words before he registered their effect on his daughter’s face. Her eyes narrowed as she regarded him with thinly veiled disdain. He’d hoped that the my-dad-is-lame phase wouldn’t start until she was at least twelve.
‘Okay.’ She put her cereal bowl and spoon down on the table. Clearly, he was in for a serious talk. ‘It’s like this. My friends hate me.’
‘What do you mean your friends hate you? Since when?’
In moments like these, he missed Georgia more than usual. She would have known instinctively what to say, how to handle the shark-infested waters of prepubescent female culture. He didn’t have a clue.
‘Sometimes this happens,’ said Matilda, with all the seriousness of a King’s Counsel. ‘One of us will be chucked out of the group and no one will talk to her for, like, ages until she’s let back in. It seems to be my turn.’
‘But why?’ Shane frowned in his perplexity. He could not get his head around this.
‘I really don’t know why. It’s just how it is.’ She spun herself around on the kitchen stool, back to the television blaring across the room. ‘Oh, and school is boring.’
Shane shook his head, trying to rattle his thoughts into place. He leaned on the kitchen counter, settling his weight into his hands. The surrounding debris of domestic life served to remind him of how not-quite-on-top-of-things he was. Last night’s dishes needed putting away and this morning’s were yet to be done. If it wasn’t for Matilda’s current crisis, today would feel like Groundhog Day.
‘Let me get this straight: school is boring, and your friends temporarily hate you. Have I got that right?’
‘Something like that,’ she murmured, engrossed in one of the morning variety shows.
‘And your solution is to stay home?’
Matilda nodded, her hair swaying like the tendrils of an anemone caught in a current. ‘Until it blows over,’ she said.
‘The boring bit or the friends bit?’
‘Dad!’ Matilda pinched the bridge of her nose with her finger and her thumb, issuing a gigantic sigh, as if he’d brought on a migraine with his dumb question.
Barry flicked his eyes back and forth between them, unable to decipher what was going on but ever hopeful it would involve some kind of treat for him.
‘You’ve never been bored at school before,’ said Shane. ‘Help me understand what’s gone sideways.’
Matilda sighed from the depths of her soul. ‘I’m not smart, that’s all. I forget everything between Mrs Green putting stuff up on the whiteboard and me getting my worksheet. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m not smart enough. I can’t do the worksheets and then I get bored.’
‘How about I have a chat with Mrs Green?’
Matilda shrugged. ‘What’s the point? How’s that going to make me smarter?’
‘Maybe YouTube is affecting your ability to concentrate.’ He’d seen news programs about the diminishing attention spans connected with online activity.
‘Dad.’ She crossed her arms and gave him a dirty look. ‘YouTube is not a problem.’
Shane pushed off the counter. ‘Well, I for one think you should go today. School is always going to have boring bits and friends may come and go, but life goes on. I’ll ask Mrs Green for some extra help.’ He could feel Matilda roll her eyes even if he couldn’t see the action.
He picked up her empty bowl. This was the first time she’d ever baulked at going to school like this and he didn’t have a clue how to handle the situation. Yelling never worked for anything. Banning her from YouTube usually got a positive redirection. How hard did he come down when there were clearly issues at play?
He dropped the dirty bowl in the sink, planning to tend to it later, after he’d paid a visit to his neighbour, Joyce Kane, to get some advice. She’d know what to do, having raised her own daughter.
‘Come on, get dressed, please.’
‘I don’t feel well.’
‘I have a headache and I’m snuffly.’ She gave a big sniff to prove her point. ‘They’ll only send me home if I go.’
Matilda had laid down her trump card and they both knew it. He checked his watch again. The bus was long gone by now and the school bell had rung ten minutes ago. He was beat.
‘Okay, I’ll do you a deal. You can stay home today but no YouTube. Then, you must go to school tomorrow no matter what.’ He’d have time to consult with Joyce and get some parenting advice.
Things hadn’t been so complicated when Matilda was little. He’d handled the toilet training and teething. He’d muddled through kindergarten rituals and held the status of being the only man at the local play group. Joyce had stepped in as a proxy grandmother when running the walnut farm had got in the way of being a full-time dad. All things considered, he’d thought he’d done alright. Not brilliant, but alright.
Then suddenly, this morning, he’d been thrown out of his depth. He guessed the situation had to happen sometime.
A broad smile covered his little girl’s face as she jumped down from the stool and raced around the bench to throw her arms around him. ‘Thanks, Daddy, you’re the best,’ she said as she hugged him fiercely. His heart melted. Nothing but a big old softie.
‘Sure,’ he said as he hugged her back. ‘I’ll go let the school know you won’t be in.’
Matilda headed for the battered leather couch, followed closely behind by Barry, as Shane reached for his phone. The school had a handy app to report absences, so he didn’t need to explain himself to anyone. As he typed in the reason for his daughter’s absence (flu-like symptoms, nice and vague) he registered what she was watching.
‘How about you change that over to ABC Kids or something?’
‘I like the news.’ She sat with her arm around Barry, both transfixed by the talking heads on the screen.
News was a strong word. The morning variety show had shifted gears with the nine o’clock timeframe. Less news and more gossip. God, he had to do something about that hair.
‘Go get your hairbrush and let me get that cockatoo’s nest sorted.’
Matilda ran to the bathroom and retrieved her hairbrush, handing it to him as she zoomed back past. She climbed on the kitchen stool, unbidden. At least this was one battle he didn’t have to fight.
As gently as he could, he began to unknot her hair. Georgia had hair like this, as fine as spun gold. His heart constricted from loneliness and grief, not only for himself but for Matilda, who’d never known her mother.
‘Sorry, it’s like a rat’s nest back here.’
‘I thought you said it was a cockatoo’s nest.’
‘I thought it was, too, until I got up close. Are you sure there isn’t something living here?’ He tickled her as he spoke.
She screamed with surprise, half falling off her stool with laughter. ‘Dad!’
Shane returned to his task, trying not to snag the knots with the brush and failing miserably. Matilda did not complain.
‘Remind me why we’re watching this show?’
The perky nature of the female host with the blonde pageant-girl hair grated on his nerves, like her cheerfulness had been given to her in a cup before she’d gone on camera. The male host had that slick, glossy look of a player. He seemed familiar. Shane rolled through his mental files trying to fit a name to the face.
‘Because I’m ready to grow up and learn about the world,’ said Matilda.
‘Seriously?’ His kid was laying down some surprises this morning. ‘What’s the hurry?’
‘Only dumb people don’t know what’s going on in the world,’ she replied.
‘Okay.’ Interesting point of view. Wonder where that came from. Had someone at school told her that?
Shane tuned out the television as he came to the tricky part where he had to wrap Matilda’s fine hair in a scrunchie. Today’s scrunchie of choice had a little cartoon cat on it, a creature called Pusheen. Who came up with these things?
He caught her ponytail and whipped it through the scrunchie just as the TV show segued to an infomercial.
‘I like this lady,’ said Matilda. ‘She reminds me of the picture Joyce has on the wall.’
‘Mmm …’ Shane kept his eye on the prize. He almost had it.
‘She’s nice, and she’s married to the man. I bet they have kids.’ Matilda sounded wistful.
‘I bet they have two horrible brats and the bloke snores.’
‘There,’ he said, triumphant. ‘All done.’ He looked up then, taking in the attractive woman talking about a marvel of technology that the viewer simply had to have. Four easy instalments and a thirty-day money-back guarantee. Looked like a regular mop to him.
‘Hang on,’ he muttered as he took a closer look. ‘That’s Lacey Kane.’
Shane forgot all about Pusheen scrunchies and ponytails as he moved to sit on the couch. Matilda joined him.
‘That’s amazing, Wayne.’ Lacey spoke to a compact, slightly balding man brandishing a mop. ‘I can’t believe you get seven attachments for this amazing price.’
‘Yes, Lacey.’ Wayne spoke like an automaton, eyes glued to the camera. ‘And the Robo Mop 3000 will also steam clean your curtains.’
‘Wow! That is incredible value, Wayne.’ Lacey seemed genuinely impressed.
‘Do you know that lady, Daddy?’ Matilda curled up next to him, sliding her hand into his. He put an arm around her and pulled her closer for a cuddle. One day soon, she’d be too cool for cuddles from her old man. He had to get his quota in while he still could.
‘I went to school with Lacey, all the way through primary to high school. She was a year ahead of me. She’s Joyce’s daughter so that’s why you recognise her. You see her photo every time we go over there.’
Shane couldn’t take his eyes off her. While he hadn’t seen her in more than a decade, he’d recognise her anywhere. She looked different: the way she carried herself, a maturity she hadn’t had before. Guess that probably applied to them both.
Lacey had been captain of everything, top of the class and most likely to succeed in life. They’d gone to different schools for years eleven and twelve, but he’d never forgotten her. Especially as her parents lived on the property next to his. One thing was for sure, Lacey Kane was still as beautiful as the last day he’d seen her.
‘Did she like school?’ Matilda studied Lacey with renewed interest.
‘Yes, she did.’ He went on to list Lacey’s many accomplishments. All the girls had wanted to be Lacey and all the boys had wanted to date her. Including him. Especially him. He didn’t tell Matilda that bit.
‘Did you like school?’
Tricky question. Mostly he’d liked it. What he hadn’t liked was being invisible to Lacey Kane. While he’d had the biggest crush ever, he hadn’t registered on her radar in any other way than as a friend. The kind of friend who’d get a smile or a private conversation from time to time. Just enough to keep his heart on a leash.
‘Not as much as Lacey did, but school was okay.’ Best he could do.
He watched as Lacey continued to talk about the benefits of the Robo Mop 3000 while he absently scratched Barry’s ears.
Somehow, he’d always imagined that she’d go on to do something serious. Maybe become a journalist or an aid worker or something. Yet here she was, spruiking stuff no one needed on daytime television that no one watched, alongside her husband, who clearly had the more prestigious role.
Yes, he recognised Carter Clark, the ex-Olympian from 2000-and-whatever. He remembered Lacey’s wedding in Sydney. All the bells and whistles. He had not been invited and that had been fine with him. He’d been engaged to Georgia by then, had moved on. Had been happy.
Shane stood, unable to bear hearing Lacey extol the virtues of a household appliance for one minute longer. His shining, brilliant ‘Candy’ Kane had been replaced by … well, he wasn’t sure who, but he hoped Lacey was happy with her life. She looked as if she might be.
‘Daddy, where are you going?’
‘I’m putting a load of laundry on and then I’m going to walk the orchard. Bella will be in later this morning to do some admin and there’s a bloke coming to service the sorter. You’ll be fine here while I’m gone?’
Matilda laughed. ‘I’m always fine, Daddy, and I’ve got Barry.’ She slung an arm around Barry who broke out in a doggy smile.
Growing up on a walnut farm, she knew exactly how much work went into the business. The small team of people Shane had working for him had stood in for family, providing Matilda with what she didn’t have otherwise, as all her grandparents lived on the mainland. He had to get back to work. But first, the endless laundry. How many clothes did a nine-year-old girl need to wear exactly?
He tugged gently on her ponytail and left her to listen to Lacey.
Shane could still hear her voice as he padded from room to room, collecting stray clothes, towels, and anything else that looked like it could do with a wash. He was grateful when Lacey’s segment finished. Her voice brought back memories, some painful and some happy.
He’d been utterly in love, trailing behind her every chance he got. Whitton District State School had been so small that most of the kids in their class hung out together, providing him with accidental access to her friendship.
Teenage Lacey had carried some kind of luminescence—light just radiated from her, attracting them all like moths. She’d been funny, too, which had added to her general charm, along with a mind as sharp as her wit. Although, she’d been pretty indifferent to horses when every other girl had been mad for them. Hell, Casey Morcombe had boasted owning forty. But Lacey had made up for this rural hiccup with her ability to outcook anyone in home economics. He could remember stuffing his face with her sausage rolls. The pastry on those bad boys had been so flaky, he’d be brushing the crumbs off his clothes for hours afterwards.
How many nights had he lain awake in bed dreaming of that moment when she’d look at him and know that he was the one for her? How she’d bypass the cool boys, the jocks and the charmers (of which there were about five altogether but back then, in a small town, this had been a lot of competition) and pick him. He’d placed her on an impossible pedestal, along with every other boy in Whitton.
Shane chuckled as he dumped the laundry into the washing machine, poured in the detergent and set the machine to work. He’d been one hell of a lovelorn teenager. His pain had lasted years, until he’d met Georgia while studying agricultural business management at university. After that, he’d thought about Lacey less and less until, somewhere along the line, he’d stopped thinking about her altogether.
While the pile of ironing mocked him, he wasn’t having any of its nonsense. Shane closed the door firmly behind him, promising himself that he’d do an hour of ironing later tonight. Maybe.
Next stop, the orchard. He wanted to check on the quantity of nuts that had fallen over the last couple of days.
Knowing when to begin harvest was a tricky equation concerning the number of nuts on the ground minus the number of leaves on the trees. More nuts and less leaves made for the perfect harvest condition. Too many leaves on the ground and they’d clog the harvester, meaning he’d spend more time unclogging the machine than gathering the nuts.
Coal River walnuts stayed on the tree for longer than most. The cool climate allowed a later harvest which, in turn, led to the nuts having a creamier flavour and providing Shane with his unique selling point.
He had to gauge exactly the right time to start the harvest. That decision changed every year in response to the conditions. His gut told him the time was looming to make the first pass through the orchard.
The ghost of his younger self trailed him as he put his boots back on and headed across the yard. He paused for a moment, wondering what his teenage self would make of the Coal River Walnuts operation.
The processing shed, filled with the sorter, dryers and packing area, dominated the yard. The shed next to it housed the tractor and the harvester. He’d built this farm with Georgia. In the beginning, they’d laboured at weekends while holding down regular jobs. Slowly, they’d managed to find a market for their walnuts and things had grown from there.
He figured young Shane would be proud, seeing as this was always the objective—to have his own agricultural business. He’d shot true there. It was his love life that had gone up in flames. He’d only been in love twice. Once, unrequited but true, and the second time he’d become a widower. Two strikes. He didn’t have the heart to try again in case of a third.
Looking back at the old weatherboard farmhouse, he noted the paint beginning to peel on the eastern side. The garden hedge needed trimming and the kikuyu grass had begun to overrun the veggie patch. He only had one pair of hands and so many hours in a day. Not to mention the fact that the farm barely broke even, so there was rarely any money for cosmetic things like paint.
Shane turned away from the signs of dilapidation to take in the sweeping view before him. The Coal River lay across the valley like a green velvet ribbon someone had discarded. The surrounding hills, a soft gold in the morning light, had the quality of a watercolour painting.
He could see the neighbouring wineries laid out across the vista, their vines still green despite the tinge of autumn in the air. Soon the vine leaves would begin to change and streaks of red and gold would light up the valley. Harvest time was his favourite time of year.
Shane took in a lungful of pristine, fresh air. No room for sentimental ramblings. He had work to do.
The back door smashed open. ‘Daddy, Daddy!’ Matilda came racing across the yard in her bare feet, no regard for the dew on the grass.
He whirled, every instinct in his body seeking the danger from which his little girl must be fleeing. ‘What’s wrong? What’s happened?’
‘Come quickly.’ Matilda beckoned him with broad sweeps of her arms. ‘It’s your friend, Lacey. She’s crying, like, hardcore. You gotta come see.’
On Sale: 02/08/2023