When Patience Cartwright is stranded in her home town, the last thing she expects is a second chance at love…
Fiercely independent naval officer, Patience Cartwright has never had a place to call home, but she knows where she doesn’t belong. After an unhappy childhood and a badly broken heart, she’ll never return to the country.
But to save her career, Patience is forced to accept a secondment – to an environmental team working near the town where she grew up. There she encounters once more the infuriatingly attractive biologist Hugo Halstead – the very man she’s sworn never to forgive.
Given their history, Hugo, as self-assured and honest as Patience is secretive and self-contained, has vowed never to trust her again, but that doesn’t stop him feeling just as helplessly drawn to her complicated mix of courage and fragility as he ever was.
As Patience recuperates from a life-threatening illness in the small country town of Horseshoe Hill, she realises the beauty of the landscape and close-knit community promise something very different to the future she’s mapped out.
But could the secrets she keeps and the shadows of her past, send her adrift all over again?
A grey gum towers over the windswept scrub that borders the path to the beach. The shadows are deep in the moonlight, but my watch lights up when I push back the cuff of my wetsuit: ten forty-five. An hour has passed since I ordered the recruits to join me at the tree. Yes, lieutenant. Sure, lieutenant. We won’t let you down, lieutenant. They’ve probably gone back to sleep.
The breeze is light, whispering through the foliage and warming my skin. Dropping my backpack at my feet, I pluck a leaf, fold it in half and then in half again. Summers in the country, long sunny days, starry skies at night. The scent of eucalyptus, the sharp and the sweet, always takes me back.
Distant applause rings out from the parade ground. HMAS Creswell is hosting an environmental summit and the delegates, seated at tables in a marquee, are attending the opening night dinner. Amplified voices suggest the speeches have started. I check my watch again: ten fifty-two, and still no sign of the recruits.
It’s a fifty-metre walk to the beach, where small but busy waves, like silver-edged ribbons, rush to the shore before dashing out again. A jetty, a solid timber structure where naval craft are moored, juts out from the wide strip of sand, and a breakwater, an artificial out-crop a hundred metres long, shelters the beach from the ocean. Four tall poles mark the end of the break, and two broad banners hang between them.
The recruits, drunk on shots and high on exam results, rowed to the breakwater at dusk, took down the official banners and strung up alternatives. In the first banner, a whale and calf float lifelessly in the water. In the second, a koala, her joey clinging desperately to her back, falls from a tree. The images are underlined with bold black text. Our leaders have blood on their hands.
How could the recruits have been so stupid?
Particularly as everyone on the base had been instructed to treat conference delegates—environmentalists, scientists, industry leaders and politicians—with discretion and respect. We’re hosts. This is a demonstration of community engagement. No controversy. I couldn’t strictly be blamed for something the recruits did off duty, but …
When I discovered they’d switched the banners, I should have reported them.
If I get caught, I’ll be in trouble too. But …
The recruits shouldn’t lose their careers over this. Technically they’re adults, but they’re barely out of school. Which was why they let themselves get talked into trouble. Was I ever so fun-loving and idealistic?
I doubt it.
I glance towards the marquee, just visible at the top of the rise. Can they see the banners from there? Kicking off my thongs, I store them in the backpack alongside the banners that should be on the poles. HMAS Creswell. Welcome to Jervis Bay. Single handed, I won’t be able to rehang them, but I can take down the offending ones.
Leaving my backpack by a post of the jetty, I walk to the water and splash my face. I untie my ponytail, comb through my hair with my fingers, twist the curly lengths into a bun and secure it at my nape with the band. Whitewash gathers at my ankles as a blanket of lightning brightens the sky. Thunder follows, rumbling from the east. The waves on the jetty slap a beat. One two three. One two three.
There’s another sound as well.
‘Hey!’ The voice is male and close—on the beach on the far side of the jetty.
I’m a sitting duck out here. And if I’m caught, I’ll have to explain what I’m up to. My body pings with adrenaline as I run, ducking behind the post closest to the shoreline. I risk a glance at the man rounding the jetty twenty metres away. My view is obscured, but he’s tall and well-built. He has a long stride.
He’s walking directly towards me.
Is he another officer, or part of the summit’s security contingent? Has he seen the banners? If he has, I won’t want to answer the questions he’ll have. I push back my shoulders and step out of the shadows.
‘Identify yourself!’ My voice is brisk and assured.
He stills for an instant. ‘Imp?’ And then he keeps on walking, stopping only metres away. Square jaw, straight nose, nice mouth. There’s not an ounce of fat on him. Confident, athletic, capable.
‘Hugo.’ Tightness cramps my chest. ‘What are you doing here?’ His dark blond hair is shorter than it was, the sun-tipped ends less marked. I can’t see the colour of his eyes, but I know them so well I could never forget them.
Clear and bright. Sea-green like ocean.
‘I’m a delegate at the climate summit.’ When he folds his arms, his shirt pulls at his shoulders. ‘How about you?’
‘I work here.’
He indicates the banners. ‘Who put them up?’
I lift my chin. Push back the memories. ‘This is a restricted area. You’d better get back to the marquee.’
He looks me up and down. ‘Small. Barefoot. Trouble. Are you involved?’
‘I could have you removed.’
‘Imp?’ He scrapes a hand through his hair. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Don’t call me that.’
‘Lieutenant Patience Cartwright.’ His eyes narrow. ‘Is that what you want?’
‘I want to know why you’re here.’
‘I’ve already told you.’
‘You weren’t on the list of delegates.’
‘A colleague roped me in.’
‘What kind of work are you doing?’
‘Biodiversity, habitat, amphibians.’ He’s wearing a collared white shirt. He rolls up the sleeves and loosens his tie. ‘How about you?’
I focus on the cuff of my wetsuit, pulling it over my watch. ‘I have a temporary posting on the base. I train the new recruits.’
‘Last I heard, you were a maritime warfare officer, navigating ships at sea.’
‘I’ll be back on my ship after Christmas. And I really need to—’
‘That’s ten months away.’ He smiles stiffly. ‘Where’s your uniform?’
‘I’m off duty.’
‘And swimming in the dark.’
‘There’s nothing new in that.’
When he was still at school, Hugo’s mother drove hundreds of kilometres from Horseshoe Hill so he could swim with other squad members at the Olympic pool in Dubbo. Almost three years older than me, popular, tousle-haired and easy-going, he was the swim club captain. Anti-social, argumentative and small for my age, I was a town kid swimmer, one of the many who looked up to him.
‘The banners.’ His brows lift. ‘Who put them up?’
‘I’m going to take them down.’ Before I can block him, he swoops, grabbing my backpack and yanking it out of reach. ‘Give that back!’
‘Tell me what you’re up to.’
I grasp a strap of the backpack, but he holds fast. Our fingers touch. ‘Oh!’
When we let go of the backpack, it falls to the ground between us. His eyes stay on mine as he bends at the knees to pick it up. Immediately he stands, I grab the strap and yank the bag free, drop-ping it behind me.
When he holds out his hand, I take a hurried step back. Frown-ing, his hand drops to his side. He opens his mouth and shuts it again. And then,
‘There are environmentalists and scientists here, but also econ-omists, mining representatives, lobbyists, politicians. Anything controversial or overtly political,’ he indicates the banners, ‘we lose the collaboration.’
‘I get it.’ A bolt of lightning highlights his features, the planes of his face, the shades in his hair. ‘That’s why I’m taking them down.’
Now. Right now. Without delay. Immediately. Yet my feet stay firmly on the sand. My lips open. No words come out.
‘How are your sisters?’ he asks.
‘They’re well, thank you. How is Greta? And Derek? Your brothers?’
‘It’s been a year since you were in Horseshoe. They ask about you.’
I’m a hundred and fifty-two centimetres to his one eighty-six. I lift my chin. ‘I was back for Phoebe and Sinn’s wedding last month.’
‘Two days in Warrandale.’ He squares his shoulders, stands even straighter. ‘This naval base. Is it your home?’
‘It’s where I belong.’
‘It wasn’t always.’ He jerks his head towards the sea. ‘Out there on your ship. Is that home too?’
‘It’s like the song.’ I smile sweetly. ‘Home is where I lay my hat.’
Hugo is glaring when I see Commander Ruddock, the executive officer at the base, standing at the end of the track. Middle-aged but fit and dressed in naval whites, he holds out his torch, throwing an arc of light onto the sand. Scooping up my backpack, I dart around Hugo and into the shadows.
‘Hugo!’ I hiss. ‘I don’t want him to see me.’
He crosses his arms. ‘I noticed.’
‘Come over here. Stay till he’s gone.’
‘Tell me what you’re hiding.’
Ruddock turns off the torch as he crosses the soft sand to the harder sand at the shoreline. He’s at least thirty metres away. He’s increasingly short-sighted, but hates wearing glasses. Does he know that Hugo is here? That he’s with someone? Has he seen the banners?I glance longingly at the scrub that borders the beach. If Ruddock saw me running towards it, he could recognise my height, my build. Even if he didn’t, I’m not dressed for a formal dinner—Ruddock would want to know what business I have being here. And if he gets close enough to ask …
He’s been looking for an excuse to get rid of me since I arrived. I grab Hugo’s arm, tugging until he faces me. ‘Stop looking at him!’
Hugo speaks through his teeth. ‘I have nothing to hide.’
‘I don’t want Ruddock to identify me. You’re …’ I consider his build, the breadth of his shoulders. His tawny hair isn’t quite short enough for the military. ‘He’ll know you’re not navy. A few of the delegates have partners here. If Ruddock thinks I’m one of them,’ I drop my backpack at my feet, ‘there’s a chance he’ll go back to the marquee.’ Ruddock walks along the sand in the opposite direction. He peers towards the cliff on the far side of the beach.
Hugo swears under his breath. ‘What are you afraid of?’
‘Please, Hugo.’ I focus on his tie and the unfastened button at his neck. ‘Pretend we’re together.’
‘I don’t pretend.’ Immoveable. Unwavering. He could be a statue. A tall bronze statue on a stormy summer’s night.
I glance around him. ‘If Ruddock sees us, he’ll leave. You’re thirty. I’m twenty-eight. Why can’t we pretend?’
‘Almost twenty-eight. And I’m trying to put things right. Please, Hugo.’
‘Tell me what you’re up to.’
‘After Ruddock has gone, and if you swear not to tell anyone, I’ll brief you about the banners.’
Another frown. ‘You’re dictating terms?’
‘I said I’d explain.’
‘You never do.’
I put my hand over his mouth. ‘Shhh.’
His breath is warm on the palm of my hand. And then, all of a sudden, I’m warm all over. The nape of my neck, my face and my breasts. There’s heat in the air that blows on my skin and in the waves that sweep on the sand. When I draw in a breath, he does the same. My breasts so close to his chest; the touch of my hand on his face.
I pull away, take a backwards step, and hold out my hands. ‘Take them. That’s all you have to do.’
When he finally does as I ask, holding my hands in a cool firm grip, our eyes lock. Do I imagine the deep green of his? I must. Because there’s not enough light for—
He pulls me closer. ‘Oh!’
For a heartbeat, he stills. ‘Do you want this or not?’
I look past him to Ruddock, still staring out to sea. ‘Yes.’ Head lowered, he threads our fingers together.
His thumb slides over the back of my hand. ‘There’s salt on your skin.’
My breath hitches. My heart tumbles.
Breathing and tumbling.
When we swam together, Hugo taught me how to breathe to the side, and helped me with tumble turns at the end of each lap. He didn’t laugh or turn away when I sucked in water or coughed until my nose bled. He’d pull me out of the pool, wrap a towel around my shoulders and tell me to stop trying to do everything at once. Don’t be so impatient. Then he’d hand me over to one of the swimming mums and dive back into the pool. He was tanned, tall and mature for his age. He had a face that people looked at twice—as if the first time around they might have imagined how attractive he was.
They hadn’t. Nothing has changed.
Ruddock’s phone rings and he answers, walking towards the treeline before turning and facing the ocean again. He’s closer than he was, but still twenty metres away.
When I pull Hugo further into the shadows, the sand is wet under my feet. He’s looking at me, but I look out to sea, the sparkles of light on the ocean.
Hugo swam like a fish. A merboy. We often argued, but I looked up to him. He’d grin and praise my tenacity. And when I stood back at the social events at his family’s farm, he’d encourage me to join in with the others. Greta, his mother, was kind, paying me to help in the kitchen when Derek employed itinerant workers to labour on the farm. Hugo scrubbed the roasting trays and sauce-pans. He treated me the same way he treated the other kids, but I imagined I meant more to him than they did. In any case, I’d made up my mind. I wanted to be with him.
I was nineteen the first time we kissed.
The last time we kissed.
The waves on the beach whisper to the shore. An owl calls two shrill hoots. ‘Is Ruddock still there? Is he looking this way?’
‘Yes.’ He squeezes my hands. ‘And no.’
Need and sadness all mixed up. I swallow, focus. ‘Do you think he knows we’re here?’
When he looks into my face, what does he see? Parted lips, wide eyes. Does he recall the blue in the way I recall the green? His breathing is deeper than it was, but his body is rigid. He lowers his head, my stomach flips.
‘He’s unlikely to leave,’ he says quietly. ‘I should have warned you.’
Real sounds come back. Cicadas. The slosh of water on the posts of the jetty, the rush of the waves on the shore. Distant thunder.
The jangle of the keys on Ruddock’s belt.
Release date: 2023-01-04