Keeping secrets comes naturally to him … but will it ruin his chance at love?
Liam Castle knows the secrets of everyone in Bunyip Bay. As the owner of the pub, he’s heard it all – from marriage proposals and farming disasters to family rifts and everything in between. The locals love to confide in him, but no one knows he’s hiding a tragic past.
And he wants to keep it that way.
Agricultural pilot Henrietta Forward lives for her job, choosing work over romance. But when an incident in the air brings Henri home to Bunyip Bay earlier than planned, she finds herself questioning everything she believes about herself.
But Henri’s secret isn’t her only problem.
Her mother will stop at nothing to have her settled down back in the Bay, and while Henri had always known domesticity wasn’t the life for her, now she wonders what her future holds. So when Liam – always the first to lend a hand to those in need – agrees to play along with Henri’s scheme to ward off her mother, she has mixed feelings. What happens when a pretend romance starts to feel like the real thing?
Will Henri’s demons and Liam’s traumatic past prove too great a barrier to love?
SIGN OUT THE FRONT OF THE PALACE, BUNYIP BAY
Sometimes you run into people who change your life for the better. Those people are called publicans.
Henrietta Forward could already taste the ice-cold beer that was waiting for her back at Anna Downs station. A drink, dinner, shower and bed, in that order, was on her agenda because she was absolutely knackered. She was nearing the end of a busy few weeks aerial mustering in the East Kimberleys—one of the most remote and beautiful parts of Western Australia—and was look-ing forward to a few days off to catch her breath before driving across the country to the Riverina region of New South Wales.
It wasn’t that she didn’t adore her job; Henri only felt truly alive when she was above the earth, looking down at the varied landscapes she was lucky enough to experience, but the hours were long and by the end of a stint like this one, she was in dire need of a little R&R. Smiling down at the deep red ground below, she knew she’d never tire of the scenery or the thrill of chasing cattle. Stunning gorges and waterholes were scattered through-out the enormous Anna Downs property, not to mention boabs and eucalypts that would soon be a vibrant shade of green due to the wet. She even loved the weirdly shaped termite mounds that poked up from the earth and looked like little cities of mud-built skyscrapers. This work wasn’t her bread and butter because a lot of stations up here used choppers—they made it easier to navigate the trees, although weren’t nearly as kind on the cattle in her opinion—but there were still a few station owners who preferred fixed-wings and for that she was grateful.
The mobs were in decent sizes now and the ringers were starting to move them towards the yards. There was just one last bit of bush still to inspect. Henri headed over, feeling adrenaline buzz through her as she spied a couple of cattle in a clearing. If there was one thing certain about mustering, it was that where there were some animals, there’d be others close by. The hardest part was encouraging them out of the trees; once they got going it was easy enough to keep them moving, especially if she nudged them in the direction of the nearest waterhole.
Training her gaze on the destination, she angled the Cessna towards the trees—the goal to startle the cattle with the loud noise of the aircraft, which would encourage them to head in the opposite direction. She needed to get close enough to get them moving but not so fast as to cause trouble. It was better if the beasts walked rather than ran. If they moved too fast, occasionally the old girls would leave their calves behind without a backward glance, which did not make for happy station owners.
But it soon became apparent this was the least of Henri’s problems. Her heart hammered at the sound of an almighty bang as she descended towards the trees.
The engine! The prop had stopped dead.
No. This could not be happening, but even as she prayed to a God she hadn’t thought of since Sunday School that this was all in her vivid imagination, Henri knew that was not the case. Hadn’t she felt something wasn’t quite right with the old Continental engine?
Earlier in the day there’d been a slight, almost imperceptible miss now and again. The engine was nearing time for a rebuild and was scheduled to be pulled and overhauled as soon as mustering season was finished, but when she’d stopped to refuel, she’d examined around the cowling, checked the oil, and everything had looked fine.
Cold fear sliced through her as she realised this was anything but fine, but she didn’t have time to panic.
Her training took over and instinct set in. Using the speed she still had, Henri gained height again and set up for a forced landing, all the while scanning the area below for a suitable location. A long way from the station’s airstrip, she’d need to improvise and hope like hell that fate was on her side. Her hands grew clammy on the controls, and just when she was losing hope of finding any-where close to suitable, a small clearing presented itself.
Determined, she maintained an approach speed as she brought the Cessna lower, then switched everything off after the last flap had been applied. She couldn’t breathe, her head completely consumed with the most terrifying, most important landing she’d ever made.
‘Oh my God! I did it,’ she shrieked as the wheels hit the ground and her heart started beating wildly.
But the danger wasn’t over yet; she needed to keep her wits about her a little longer in order to brake heavily and avoid the trees that were rapidly approaching on the other side of the clearing. The small wheels, not made for such rough terrain, bounced along, the noise so horrendous Henri could barely hear herself think.
But she had to. She had to fight to keep control.
Finally, just when it looked like both she and the aircraft had survived the ordeal unscathed, she jolted in her seat, swearing again as a wheel hit something hard. She didn’t have time to wonder what it was—although later she’d identify the culprit as one of the termite mounds she’d been admiring—as the leg dislodged and the aircraft slewed around madly.
It was over in a heartbeat. Her final stop anything but graceful. It could have been a lot worse, she told herself as she sat there, dazed and trying to catch her breath. After a long day sitting in the high-decibel environment of the cockpit, the sound of silence was almost deafening. All she could hear was the ringing in her own ears.
The red dust that had been disturbed on impact settled around her and Henri stared out of the cockpit, almost unable to believe what had just happened. Although there’d been some close encounters with powerlines in her many years flying, that was the nearest she’d ever come to true calamity, possibly even death.
Suddenly her whole body started to tremble. She forced herself to unbuckle her seatbelt, remove her headset, climb out and examine just how bad the damage was. One undercarriage leg had been bent backwards and right up, lowering the fuselage closer to the ground. Bingo, she thought as she noticed oil smeared back from the engine cowl, telling her exactly why the engine had stopped.
Despite her heart still pounding, some of the shock started to abate and she actually felt slightly proud that she’d known some-thing wasn’t quite right. Disaster had threatened and she’d lived to tell the tale. Next time she’d simply have to pay more attention to her gut.
It was a good thing mustering was all but finished, because there was no way that aircraft was going up again any time soon.
Suddenly parched and knowing there was nothing more she could do here, Henri grabbed her water bottle from the baggage compartment, shut the cockpit door and started walking in the direction of the yards. It was a good distance away, but the ringers would have seen her aircraft go down and she knew it wouldn’t be long before they came to her rescue.
Six weeks later
‘Well, Cecil, we’re home sweet home,’ Henri said, her grip tightening on the steering wheel as she drove past the welcome sign on the outskirts of Bunyip Bay, almost four weeks earlier than planned. She’d nearly come home a few weeks ago but hadn’t wanted to raise suspicion, and besides, she wasn’t sure she could stand any longer than a month living with her mother.
It was years since she’d officially been a resident of this town, but her mum’s family were founding members, having farmed in the district since the mid 1800s when they’d immigrated from a tiny town in Cornwall. Bunyip Bay was where Henri had spent her childhood until heading to Perth to boarding school at age thirteen. This was where her siblings and most of her friends still resided, and her answer when anyone asked where she came from. She’d adored growing up here, chasing her dad and brothers around the farm until she was old enough to muck in and help, and she’d hated her years at boarding school in the city. Not just because a lot of the girls only cared about make-up and fashion—two things Henri had no interest in whatsoever—but because she missed her dad, the aromas of the farm and the feel of the sand between her toes. Bunyip Bay was in her blood and, as she unwound her window and smelled the fresh salty scents of the nearby ocean, she felt some of the tension she’d been carrying the last few weeks start to ease.
Maybe her boss was right … maybe she did simply need a break, some time back home before she started her next contract. Some quality time in the ocean. Aside from flying, there was nothing quite as therapeutic for Henri as swimming and surfing. Of course she’d stopped at other beaches on her journey west, but she couldn’t wait to take a dip in her favourite bit of the ocean.
There was just one even more important stop first.
Driving on through the main street lined with dusty four-wheel drives and even dirtier dual-cab utes, Henri smiled at the familiar sights. The IGA, the Community Resource Centre, the medical centre, primary school, the old Memorial Hall, the bowling club, her best friend Frankie’s café and the iconic pub at the top of the hill where she’d spent many an errant night in her late teens, were all almost exactly the same as they’d always been. It was only The Ag Store that was new and shiny. Henri’s sister Tilley and her husband owned Bunyip Bay’s ag and hardware supplies, a business they’d literally built from the ground up after the old owners lost everything in an arson attack.
Even though it was only the very beginning of December, the festive spirit was already well and truly on display in the main street. There were Christmas decorations strung across the road, and koalas, kangaroos and, of course, bunyips wearing Christmas hats sat at the top of almost every lamp post. The shops had gone all out as well. Outside the front of The Ag Store stood a massive blow-up Santa Claus wearing red and green board shorts and an Akubra with corks hanging off it.
The Palace was the only building not decked out to the nines, but if Henri recalled correctly, the publican never bothered with such frippery, much to the frustration of certain people in town.
She continued on and then turned right, driving only another hundred metres or so before she came upon the local cemetery. It was barely ten o’clock but already the December sun had a bite, so Henri parked Cecil under an old gum tree, grabbed her cap off the passenger seat and started towards the entrance.
As a kid, she’d loved playing here with her siblings and friends while her parents had business in town. They’d spent many an hour making up stories about the bodies under the ground, scar-ing each other senseless, but back then she hadn’t actually been close to anyone buried here.
Now she felt differently as she walked over the uneven ground to her father’s resting place. Now, the cemetery felt sacred, much more so than anywhere else—even church—had ever felt.
‘Hey, Dad. How’s tricks?’ she said, pausing in front of his grave and using the saying that had always been his.
The black marble headstone was shiny and polished, much newer than many of the others, and there were fresh grevil-leas and Geraldton wax from Bungara Springs in the ceramic vase at the base, indicating that her mother had been here very recently. Henri wondered how often she came. There were also a couple of Matchbox cars that she guessed had been left— accidentally or on purpose, she wasn’t sure—by one of her nieces or nephews.
She didn’t have anything to leave, but she knew her dad wouldn’t care. He’d always said her presence at Christmas was far more important than any presents.
Until his heart attack four years ago, coming home for Christ-mas had always been the highlight of her year, but although the farm ticked on with her mother and brothers at the helm, the place didn’t feel the same now that he was gone. Henri and her dad had been two peas in a pod, sharing a love of aircraft, vintage cars and the ocean. They just got each other, whereas she and her mum only ever seemed to get at each other.
This was the first time in four years she’d be back for more than a few days, but at least it would give her a chance to properly catch up with her family and Frankie.
A lone crow perched atop a slanting headstone a few metres away squawked as if Henri was interrupting his peace. But aside from the bird and the rustling leaves of trees that were almost as slanted as the headstone—thanks to the famous local wind—the cemetery was deserted, and for that she was grateful.
Dropping down to the ground beside her father’s grave, she crossed her legs and poured out her heart as if he were actu-ally sitting here beside her. She told him everything. From her brush with death up in the Kimberleys to what had happened when she’d first climbed back in an aircraft almost two weeks later.
‘I feel so stupid, so frustrated,’ she confessed, picking up a nearby rock and ditching it hard. Many times over the last six weeks she’d felt like throwing or even punching something!
Henri had this weird feeling that if her dad were still alive, she wouldn’t be in this predicament because she’d have called him the minute she realised there was a problem and he’d have calmed her, talked her round. She hadn’t called her mother because she knew exactly what she’d have said. She’d never wanted Henri to become an agricultural pilot in the first place.
‘What do you think I should do, Dad?’
Of course, there wasn’t a reply, but she sat there listening to the wind and the occasional squawk from the crow until finally her sobs subsided. Then, she pushed to her feet, dusted the dirt, leaves and little gum-seeds from her shorts and started back towards Cecil.