Welcome to Bundilla. A new close-knit community where romance can blossom. A compelling story of homecoming and family secrets from bestselling Australian author Alissa Callen.
The road home isn’t for the faint-hearted…
Peony flower farmer Clancy Parker was born and bred in the Australian high country. Small-town Bundilla is the only place she will ever truly belong, even if staying means remaining alone. The man she’d loved is long gone and single men are as rare as a summer snowfall.
As soon as he could, street artist Heath MacBride escaped his complicated family and traded mountain peaks for city concrete. Now a commission to paint a mural on Bundilla’s water tower brings him home. It doesn’t matter how long he’s been away, the animosity of his cattleman father hasn’t waned. As soon as the water tower is painted, he will be gone.
But between steadfast Clancy, who’d once been his muse, a free-spirited kelpie who becomes his shadow and a corrosive family secret, his best laid plans disintegrate. When life again backs him into a corner, will he have no choice but to leave or will he and Clancy have the second chance they’d each thought would forever remain out of reach?
Clancy Parker didn’t need to leave the rugged embrace of the high country to know who she was and where she belonged.
She smoothed a hand over the warm neck of the palomino gelding who’d needed an afternoon ride as much as she had. A crisp breeze washed over her, carrying the chill from the white caps that glistened on the jagged peaks. Earlier an eagle had soared in the air-brushed canopy overhead, but now voluminous grey clouds rolled eastwards. Only last week the sky had glowed orange and a red film coated the snow as a wall of dust had blown in from out west.
She breathed in the scent of the approaching storm and made a wish that spring rain would fall in the drought-affected areas beyond the mountain range. After a last long look at the play of shadows across the Brindabellas, she turned Ash for home.
As volatile and capricious as Mother Nature could be, she felt far safer exposed to the elements than she ever had in the shelter of a city. Her cattleman father’s golden rule had been to respect the bush and the ever-changing weather. Her own was to always exercise caution. She’d leave the risk-taking to her brother, Rowan.
Ash’s pace quickened and when his pale creamy ears pricked forward, she smiled. The gelding was already thinking about dinner. She glanced to her left. For a moment all she could see were her brother’s Hereford cattle grazing on the green carpeted foothills. There weren’t yet any calves but going off the barrel shape and full udder of the closest cow, there soon would be.
A black-and-tan kelpie dashed out from a stand of graceful white gums. The kelpie more often than not ignored any attempt to call him by name. She didn’t blame him. Being called after the local town of Bundilla wasn’t exactly original, even if his name had been shortened.
‘Ready to go, Bundy?’ Her words thinned as the wind caused leaves to shimmer and grass to ripple.
Tongue lolling, the kelpie wagged his tail and raced ahead. His glossy coat shone as dark as obsidian in the waning sunlight. If he stayed still long enough she’d take a photo. The free-spirited kelpie, who refused to be tied down to any one master, had his own social media page. Tourists drifted through town hoping for a sighting of the dog who had a following the envy of any influencer.
No one knew where Bundy would appear next or who would come out from a shop in the main street to find him waiting on the back of their ute. At least half of the district had had him visit over the past five years. In summer he’d sit in tractor cabs when the swathes of lucerne would be baled into hay, while in winter he’d be a regular inside the pub asleep near the open fire. He’d only ever stayed with her once, when he’d arrived with the local mail contractor.
Clancy urged Ash into a canter. It wasn’t so much the drops of rain on her cheeks that she needed to escape but the ache of loss. Bundy’s steady presence had helped her through the fog of grief when three years ago her parents’ cruise on a stormy and flooded Budapest river ended in tragedy. The kelpie had slept on the rug beside her bed for a month before he’d jumped into her brother’s ute and headed into town.
An icy wind lashed at her but she didn’t tug the collar of her oilskin coat higher. She welcomed the cold slap of reality against her skin. Bundy hadn’t been the only one to bring her comfort. While the town had rallied around her, it had been a pair of strong masculine arms that had anchored her and brought solace, even if they’d also magnified her pain. Her parents’ funeral had been the only thing to bring Heath MacBride home in the past ten years. Except no sooner had he held her than he’d left again.
Even now the memory of being fitted against him retained its bittersweet power. Heath had been the only man she’d ever wanted. No matter how many dates she agreed to or how many years passed, she couldn’t move on. Having such a single-minded heart wasn’t practical or admirable. In the silent hours that stretched between midnight and dawn, it simply made her feel alone.
Her chin tilted. Not that she indulged such feelings in the light of day. She was grateful for all that she had and all that her life was and would be. She didn’t need a partner to feel complete or fulfilled, no matter how much the well-meaning members of the quilting group played matchmaker. She had her brother, her friends and her flower farm. She looked back at the now cloud-shrouded peaks. She also had her precious high country.
Bundy stopped on a hewn slab of granite to survey the valley below. Thanks to the local journalist, Mabel, who ran his social media page, Bundy wore a blue collar with his name embroidered in large gold letters. Visitors to town had taken to mistaking any black kelpie for Bundy so he’d needed something to identify him. While he was happy to pose for a selfie, some of the other kelpies, and their taciturn owners, weren’t so used to being celebrities.
White shimmered in the distance as cockatoos fluttered amongst the trees lining the Tumut River, which wound its way through the alluvial flats of the valley floor. The tension stiffening Clancy’s shoulders eased. Despite the splatter of rain on the brim of her felt hat, she slowed Ash and gazed to where wisps of smoke curled from a chimney. The sight of where she’d grown up never failed to soothe her.
In the poor light, the red bricks of the historic homestead merged into a block of blurred colour. A vast silver roofline overhung the wide verandas that wrapped round the house. If she listened hard enough she could still hear the echo of her parents’ laughter. Soon the daffodils would bloom and brighten the dark green void between the homestead and the coach house at the far end of the garden.
Her attention shifted to the neat rows of herbaceous peonies that ran in parallel lines across the adjacent paddock. Anticipation coursed through her, closely followed by relief. It also wouldn’t be long until the peony buds burst into life. This was going to be her best year yet.
Beside her, on the rock, Bundy remained stock-still. She slipped out her phone from her coat pocket to take advantage of the rare moment of stillness. She had no idea how long the kelpie would stay but it had been three days and he’d shown no sign of wanting to leave. She took the photo, despite hair whipping into her eyes and causing them to well, and managed to send the picture to Mabel.
The raindrops intensified until all she could hear was the sound of water hitting taut oilskin. Bundy leaped to the ground and Ash shifted on his feet. It was time to go. Ignoring the vibration of her mobile phone, which she’d returned to her pocket, she headed for the shortcut through the river paddock that would lead to the stables.
A pair of shaggy highland cattle lifted their heads from where they grazed. When they realised she hadn’t come bearing treats the cattle returned to eating. Her Scottish mother had made sure that wherever she could a piece of home surrounded her. The photo Clancy had taken two days ago of Bundy touching noses with the russet-coloured bull, Fergus, had been an instant social media hit. It seemed people in the cities liked highland cattle as much as footloose kelpies.
Once in the shelter of the old wooden stables, Clancy again disregarded her vibrating phone and concentrated on unsaddling Ash. Her fingers were so cold she’d more than likely drop her mobile, and the screen had just been replaced. The first of the mountain wildflowers had to be wondering at their wisdom of unfurling so early. She threw on Ash’s rug. As much as she appreciated the colder months, she was looking forward to endless summer days where the sun’s warmth didn’t wane until late.
With Bundy loping by her side, she jogged through the rain to the back door. Water pooled on the floor of the mud room as she hung up her dripping coat and shook the water from her hat. She briefly touched the oversized sheepskin jacket draped over the end peg. There would come a time when she’d remove the last of her parents’ belongings, but seeing her father’s coat hanging where it had all her life still ushered in a sense of security.
An electronic beeping from within the homestead accompanied another vibration of her phone. Frowning, she kicked off her boots and raced along the wide hallway. Her socked feet didn’t make a sound on the carpet runner that warmed the polished floorboards. She had her tablet and phone linked and whenever they both went off it had to be her brother calling. The time difference between here and the United Kingdom meant it would be the early hours of the morning there. Her stomach clenched.
She reached her tablet, which she left on the kitchen bench near the charger so she’d never miss Rowan’s call, and tapped the green button.
Please don’t let anything have happened to him.
‘Hey sis. Nice hair.’
The tightness in her chest relaxed as her brother’s trademark wide grin reassured her that everything was fine.
‘I could say the same thing about you.’
As windblown as her hair was, Rowan’s was long enough to touch his collar and was staying that way until he came home. His ex-fiancée running off with the rural store’s farm supplies sales rep may have dented his heart, but it meant he no longer had to sport the short-back-and-sides hairstyle Eloise had expected.
‘I should have known when you didn’t answer your phone you were out riding. Bundy still with you?’
She nodded, searching his face for a clue as to why he’d called. Despite his good humour, a faint crease indented his brow. ‘Everything okay?’
‘Never better.’ He smothered a yawn. ‘Even if those sparrows that call my roof a home don’t let me sleep past dawn. Give me a cockatoo any day.’
‘When are you off to Wales?’
He’d mentioned last week he was heading to Snowdonia to go hiking with a group of mates—such a trip would explain why he was awake so early. What had started out four months ago as a trip away to erase memories of his ex had morphed into a working holiday. Being a stonemason, Rowan’s skills were in demand and he was currently restoring a historic house in the Cotswolds. As much as she missed him, her heart warmed at the knowledge he had moved on from snobbish Eloise.
‘As soon as the lads get here.’ He paused. ‘Is the coach house still empty?’
‘It is. But it’s ready to be listed. I just need to upload the photos.’ Since losing their parents, it was only the two of them rattling around in the main homestead. One summer, as a way to assuage their grief, they’d renovated the coach house with no intention of either one of them living there. Rowan eventually planned to build a stone house on the other side of the river.
Last month he’d suggested they rent out the coach house to holiday-makers and skiers. While he’d said the extra income would be handy, she had a suspicion it was to ensure she wouldn’t be alone. Since he’d left he seemed intent on asking about her social life.
‘Heath needs a place to stay.’
The frantic thud of her heartbeat filled her ears. There was no mistaking who Rowan meant. He and Heath had been inseparable as kids.
She didn’t realise she hadn’t answered until Rowan’s grey eyes scanned her face. ‘Did the wi-fi drop out?’
Out of view of the camera, she clenched her left hand into a small fist. Rowan had no idea how she felt about his best mate and she was keeping it that way. ‘I heard you. I’m just … surprised.’
‘You won’t be the only one. Heath’s home to paint the water tower. He’ll stay in the coach house for a night but it might be more, depending.’
She didn’t need a crystal ball to know Heath would be there longer. Over the past decade, Graham MacBride hadn’t mellowed. Not that Heath had ever put into words that his brusque father couldn’t accept his only surviving son had a creative streak. She pushed aside the hurt that lingered even after all this time. While she’d disclosed far too much, Heath had never reciprocated. Even when his blue eyes would darken as if he were about to say something personal, his jaw would bunch before he’d refocus on whatever he was painting or sketching.
A loud knocking sounded from behind Rowan on what had to be his front door. He glanced over his shoulder before speaking again. ‘Heath said he can do whatever needs to be done, you don’t have to make up the bed or anything, but if you could leave the keys on the kitchen bench in the next half an hour that would be great.’
Her lungs strained for air. Half an hour. Somehow she kept her reply steady. ‘Too easy. Stay safe and don’t forget the emergency number for Wales is 999.’
‘I’ll text once we get there.’ He blew her a kiss and the screen went black.
Clancy didn’t move. Her first instinct was to double check what emergency services operated in Wales. If there was another overseas accident she didn’t want to feel as powerless as she had for the sixteen hours when her parents had been missing after their cruise boat capsized. But the tension that made her breaths quicken proved too much. She closed the tablet cover and dragged a hand through her tangled hair.
Half an hour.
In thirty minutes the man she’d tried so hard to forget would be back. Would he still smell of leather and sun-dried cotton? At the funeral, he’d worn some sort of expensive cologne and a slick city suit. Would the world fall away when she looked into his eyes? Most of all, would he still see her as his best mate’s little sister?