Two broken hearts learning how to live – and love – again.
After a devastating tragedy shakes Erin’s world, she returns to her hometown of Point Perry seeking solace and a fresh start. But just as she begins to find her footing, an unexpected visitor and an old enemy threaten to upend her life once again.
Tom, a devoted single father and beloved teacher, is no stranger to turmoil. His ex-wife, now a Hollywood starlet, has descended upon Point Perry for her movie premiere, stirring up trouble and putting Tom’s priorities to the test. As the town buzzes with excitement over the event, Tom must also navigate a strained relationship with his father and protect his son from his ex’s manipulations.
Despite their emotional scars and obstacles, Erin and Tom can’t ignore their growing connection. As they begin to explore the chance for a future together, they must confront their past traumas and find a way to move forward. Will their love be enough to overcome the challenges they face, or will their emotional baggage prove too heavy to bear?
‘A heart-warming and uplifting debut brimming with small town charm. Point Perry is a close-knit community that will instantly feel like home.’ International bestselling author Alissa Callen
‘Heartfelt and warm – just how I like my romance!’ Australian author Tess Woods
The place I never want to visit again is just a heartbeat away.
‘We’re nearly there, Mum.’ The plastic urn on the seat next to me is cold under my palm—the familiar lump forms in my throat. ‘I miss you so much. I need you here, now, to help with this … with this mess.’
I press my foot down hard on the accelerator. Plumes of dust billow behind the Jeep, creating a cloud of dirty brown amongst the patchwork of green paddocks filled with their late winter crops. The tang of salt lingers through the open moonroof as the afternoon sun casts dappled shadows across the dirt road. The white picket fence is not far now.
The needle on the speedo creeps towards eighty-five kilometres per hour, and warm, salty tears blur my vision. They come at the most unexpected times, catching me unawares. Frustrated, I swipe at them with the back of my hand, reach over to the passenger side floor, and pull a tissue out of the squashed box. A movement from the corner of my eye—a rabbit lingers on the verge, then scurries across the road. My foot slams on the brake; I brace the steering wheel. The Jeep swerves as I pull the steering left to avoid hitting it; the tyres hit the gravel on the ungraded edge of the road, careening the urn into the door. ‘Shit!’ A group of spindly shrubs looms through the window. I yank the steering wheel back the other way, overcorrecting.
The tail of the Jeep slides out. The frantic beep of a safety alarm and flashing red lights on the dash cause my heart to hammer and my head to throb. My knuckles are stark white. Stones and dirt flick up and engulf the Jeep as I end up sideways in the middle of the road. Dust particles flutter through the moonroof. God, I hope no one is coming around the corner. I suck in a few deep breaths and close my eyes momentarily to gain my composure. ‘Focus, Erin, you can do this.’
The woop woop of a siren startles me. Through the dusty haze outside the window, the blue and red lights twirl and swirl on top of the police wagon. Is this it? My stomach lurches. Have they finally worked out it was all my fault?
When the dust settles, I lower the window, give a small wave, straighten the Jeep and indicate to turn into the Point Perry cemetery. A small pastel pink car leaves through the narrow entrance that isn’t wide enough for us both. The driver waves a thank you, and I creep through, pulling to a stop in front of the worn and faded white fence. The paint on its pickets is peeling and splintering along the entire length.
The police wagon parks next to me with the lights still flashing. Thankfully, the siren isn’t blaring. The last thing I need is to attract unwanted attention.
I’m all done with the police. Our last meeting didn’t go too well.
The fresh air is a welcome relief when I open the door and step out of the car. The afternoon sun on the door warms my back as I lean on it to steady myself. I don’t care if I get dust on my oversized hoodie and black trackpants. Nausea churns in the pit of my stomach. My tongue is as coarse as sandpaper when I try to swallow. The officer pulls his navy cap low and starts punching details into his computer, undoubtedly checking my number plate and registration details. A warrant for my arrest? The wait is excruciating. It’s like he has all the time in the world. Finally, he climbs out of the wagon and walks purposefully to stand a few steps away. His large frame and ample girth make his presence felt. The dark sunglasses covering his eyes hamper my attempt to read his manner. He’s older, probably in his sixties and not someone I know. Pepper-grey hair pokes from under his cap and creeps over his ears in scruffy sideburns.
I wish I’d kept my sunnies on; I feel exposed.
‘Good afternoon. I’m Senior Sergeant Jeff Phillips.’ His gruff voice breaks through the eerie silence surrounding us. He removes his sunglasses and pokes them into the top pocket of his ink navy shirt, which strains around his round tummy. ‘It looked like you were exceeding the speed limit and driving without due care. Country roads aren’t the place to be doing that. I’ve seen too many accidents where you city folk think you know how to drive on our roads.’ He coughs into his elbow before pulling a brown check handkerchief from his pocket and covering his mouth.
Pushing away from the Jeep, I face him squarely and cock my head to the side. ‘I was born here and grew up here. And I learnt to drive on that very dirt road.’ I point to where the dust is settling beyond the mallee trees surrounding the cemetery.
He studies me intently. ‘I don’t remember seeing you around, and I’ve been here for nearly eighteen years now.’
Deflated, I shuffle back, seeking the door. ‘I’ve not been back for over twenty years.’
The sergeant tucks a chunk of hair behind his ear. ‘Right. Okay. Well, the fact of the matter is that you were driving too fast, and you swerved over the road. You could’ve ended up in the ditch or the trees or wrapped around the power pole. If someone had come around that bend, they would’ve cleaned you up. If you grew up here, you should know better.’
‘Yes, I should. I’m sorry.’ I hold my breath and wait, forcing my fingernails into my palms.
Eventually, he continues. ‘This vehicle is registered to an address in Adelaide. A Mrs Erin Fitzgerald. Is that you?’
I give a slight nod.
‘Have you been driving all day, Mrs Fitzgerald?’
The only noise is the distant rumble of a tractor.
‘Driver fatigue is a big killer on the road, especially in the country, and you need to stop every two hours for a break. Have you been doing that?’
‘No.’ I hang my head, wishing the day would end.
‘Is there a reason why?’ He steps around me and glances through the driver’s side window.
‘No, not really. I just wanted to get here before dark. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip.’
‘I see.’ He lets out a sigh. ‘To visit family? Friends?’
A weed with a bright yellow flower brushes against my ankle. ‘My father is buried here in the cemetery, and that’s’—I swallow and tip my head towards the urn on the passenger seat—‘my mother’s ashes.’ My bottom lip quivers. I bite it to stop it. And again, those blasted tears pool in the corner of my eyes. I shove my hands deep into the pockets of my tracksuit pants that are way too loose around my waist.
The sergeant’s demeanour softens. ‘I’m sorry for your loss … er, losses. Who was your father?’
‘As in the Bryan Smyth grandstand at the footy oval?’
‘I hear he was a legend of the game. His name pops up all the time.’ A brief but sad smile crosses his face. The silence lingers uncomfortably. ‘Righto, how about we do a deal? I won’t issue you a ticket if you promise to stop at the café for a rest and grab a coffee and a piece of Marge’s famous carrot cake. Have you organised somewhere to stay?’
‘Thank you. I was planning on doing that. I mean, stopping there to arrange some accommodation. I’m just staying for a few days. Does Graham Jones still own the café?’
The sergeant runs his hand along his square chin. ‘No, he retired in Port Lincoln, I believe; that was before my time. Marge Schultz has been there for as long as I’ve been here. She’ll put you up in a nice place and make sure you have a good meal tonight. Drive safely when you return home to Adelaide, okay? You take care, Mrs Fitzgerald.’
Mrs Fitzgerald. A name I no longer deserve to hold but can’t bring myself to change.
The sergeant bypasses the police wagon and continues down the gravelled path to where a mountain bike is leaning against the fence. He greets a man, tall with broad shoulders and solid legs, walking out through the rusted gate. They shake hands and slap each other on the back. Their conversation is muffled, but I pick up the words: football, finals, school. It’s the middle of August, and the football season is coming to an end.
The other man, dressed in a black-and-white stripe singlet with a large magpie on the front, black shorts and yellow runners, looks over at me, his eyes barely visible under his Point Perry Football Club cap. His gaze lingers, then he nods and raises his hand in a simple but friendly gesture. Not wanting the scrutiny of another pair of eyes, I turn my back, retrieve the urn from the car and wait until the man on the bike disappears down the dirt road.
The Point Perry cemetery is nestled amongst a smattering of towering, spindly grey gum trees, mallees and the occasional granite outcrop about fifteen kilometres north of the town. It’s far enough away not to hear the crashing of the ocean but close enough for the fresh country air to be infused by the distinctive saltiness of the coastline. The cemetery has doubled in size since Dad’s burial.
A couple of relatively fresh gravesites with the mounds still rounded and bare from weeds stand out like beacons with their rich brown soil. New white marble headstones glisten, rising proudly from the earth. A memorial wall has been built, the sun reflecting off the shiny plaques with names of loved ones engraved on them. A row of standard roses along the fence line shows signs of recent pruning. They’ll be a collage of colours in full bloom: red, white, yellow, pink and orange. Wild freesia sway in the gentle afternoon breeze. Their perfume is familiar and smells like home.
Carefully holding Mum’s ashes, I urge someone or something to give me a sign. A neon fluorescent placard would be nice: Leave Mum’s ashes here. But only confusion and doubt come to me; there’s no clarity or epiphany.
I cast my mind back to when Mum and I were here last, trying to remember our conversation about where she wanted to be laid to rest when the time came. Mum had said something along the lines of: ‘You’ll know, dear. Your heart will tell you.’
My heart is deathly quiet. ‘Is it here, Mum?’ I glance around the graveyard. ‘Do you want to be here with Dad?’
Some names on the headstones are familiar as I weave through the plots: Mavis Berry, who drove the school bus, and Dr Eric Jones, who came to the farm when Dad died.
In amongst the weeds and wildflowers on Dad’s grave is a mason jar filled with a quaint bunch of fresh flowers. It’s nestled in front of his headstone. I jog the last few steps and kneel. The gravel pokes at my knees through my pants. Who would leave fresh flowers at Dad’s grave?
Pushing a few strands of my unruly hair away from my eyes, I survey the other graves. A few have bunches of artificial flowers protruding haphazardly from silver wells. Some have ornaments, angels or teddy bears sitting on the ground. One has a butterfly on a stick, its wings flapping in the breeze. No other graves have the same flowers. This bunch looks like they’ve come straight out of a florist shop in the upmarket suburbs of Burnside or Unley, not the simple arrangements you’d pick from your average farm garden or buy from the petrol station. I’m the only person who should be leaving flowers for Dad.
‘Dad, hi. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve visited. Forgive me?’ Another sob escapes. ‘Mum’s gone now too.’ My voice cracks. ‘If she’s there with you, please ask where she wants her ashes to go?’ I pause. ‘She told me I would know, but I don’t, Dad. I just don’t know.’ My feet are numb from kneeling on the stones, so I move into a seated position and hug my knees tightly to my chest. ‘I love you, Dad. I wish you were still here. I’m all by myself now.’
The carolling of a pair of magpies in the nearby gums pulls me from my sombreness. I raise my face to the sky; the beautiful expanse is bright and blue. The warmth of the late winter sun dries the remnants of my tears.
I reach forward and run my fingers over the gold inscription on the polished headstone.
BRYAN RONALD SMYTH
Dearly loved husband of Lorraine, proud father of Erin.
Rest in Peace
‘Please, Dad, if David and Molly are with you, look after them for me.’ The cold of the granite seeps into my palm. A shiver runs down my spine. ‘Please tell them I’m sorry, and it’s all my fault.’