Paula knew when she moved to the country that the life would be tough. Nearly a year into her marriage with farmer Dan, and now pregnant, she is proud of her ability to feed shearers, bake a pasty and fix a fence while still running her accountancy business from home. With a wedding to plan, the farm to run and neighbours to help out, life is busy but good.
But there are clouds on the horizon. Dan is increasingly tired and distant. He promised he would always tell her the truth, so why is he being so mysterious about his late father’s will? And why is his abrasive Aunt Rowena suddenly so interested in the sex and due date of Paula’s baby? As bushfires rage, Paula makes a discovery that shocks her and threatens all she holds dear...
Paula removed the protective hand she’d placed over the imperceptible bulge of her baby and lifted the magazine higher. The two women in the seats opposite had acknowledged her with quick smiles when they came in but now they had forgotten that she was sharing the doctor’s waiting room with them and their conversation had turned personal.
“What will you do in the city?” one asked the other.
“I hope I can get an office job. I’m pretty rusty but I think I’ll get something.”
“What about Pete?”
“He’s the one I’m worried about.” Her voice wavered. “He’s only ever known farming.”
“You’ve had some help from the counsellor, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but Pete is so hard to read. I’m on edge watching him all the time.”
“Surely you don’t think he’d…harm himself? Now that you’ve made the decision to leave, it must be a relief.”
Paula couldn’t help a quick glance over the top of her magazine. Pete’s wife took the tissue offered by her friend. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She had a neat, tidy appearance and could have been about forty, but it was hard to tell. Her face was taut and she looked worn out.
“Yes and no. Pete still stews over it.” The woman sobbed openly now. “He thinks we’ve failed.”
Her friend put an arm around her. “You haven’t failed, Sal. But if it doesn’t rain, what can you do?”
Paula pressed herself into her chair, wishing she could disappear and give the women some privacy. Only last week the front page of the city paper had shown a family leaving their farm after years of drought. The report came from another part of the state and Dan had reassured her things weren’t that bad here but the women she’d just overheard must live somewhere in the local district. Then there were the Watsons, their neighbours to the east. They’d recently gone through bad times, and she’d initially assumed that was because of Ted’s mismanagement, but Dan had explained it was a combination of things out of Ted’s control, market fluctuations and the weather being the main offenders.
She jumped and the magazine slipped from her fingers.
“Sorry, I’m running a bit late today.” Dr Hunter stood at the door, smiling at her.
Paula could feel the interest of the two women turn to her. Quickly she bent to pick up her magazine, then jumped to her feet. The room spun.
“Steady up.” The doctor put his arm under hers.
Paula clapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m going to be sick.”
At the sound of a vehicle Rowena gripped the edges of the kitchen bench and took a deep breath. She let it out slowly, switched on the kettle and glanced back into the sunny eating area where her small round table was set for two. Her gaze focused on the letter she’d left by her plate. It was the reason she’d asked her nephew Dan to call in for lunch. How she was going to break the news to him she still wasn’t sure, but the worry of it had kept her awake half the night.
She moved through the arch into the little sunroom and sat down at the table, unable to resist the urge to pick the letter up and look at it again. Just when there was so much to look forward to, the past had come back to smack her in the face.
How she wished Austin was home instead of interstate. She would have been tempted to jump in the car and drive the couple of hours to Adelaide to talk things over with him. It was all too complicated for a phone call but she would talk to him once he was back.
Austin had become her rock and her confidant over the two years since she’d met him through a mutual friend. After so many years on her own, at first she’d resisted the idea of marrying him and moving to Adelaide but now that Dan was married and had someone to support him, Rowena had given in. She loved Austin and enjoyed sharing her life with him. No doubt some would think her foolish to marry at her time of life – she was approaching fifty-seven –but she wasn’t one to dwell too much on what others thought.
Dan and Paula’s wedding day flicked through her mind. Even though it had been a struggle for the new bride, fresh from the city, to adapt to country life, they seemed happy. Rowena hoped Paula would cope with the looming bombshell. Perhaps a country girl would understand the situation better but Dan had made his choice.
There was a clang as the garden gate closed and footsteps crunched along the path. Rowena hurried to take the sausage rolls from the oven and put them on the table beside the sandwiches. She wanted to give Dan a decent lunch. It was another of the things she did from time to time just to make sure they were eating properly. Paula wasn’t fond of cooking.
Once again Rowena picked up the letter and unfolded it. She had to be strong. This wasn’t Austin’s problem, it was hers and it affected Dan and Paula and their unborn child. Dan’s voice reached her as a low rumble from the back door. He must have the dog with him. She looked down at the letter again and brushed away the wisp of hair that fell forward over her face. How did life become so complicated?
“Everything’s fine, Paula, and hopefully you won’t have too much more nausea.”
Paula gave the doctor a sheepish smile. She’d managed to make it to the toilet before she brought up her breakfast. “I thought I was over doing that.”
“Nausea can come and go throughout pregnancy. Have you had a busy morning? You probably just stood up too quickly and the dizziness set you off. Your blood pressure is fine.”
Paula slipped on her shoes. Lachlan Hunter appeared to be only a few years older than her. His youthful looks made it hard to tell but she didn’t care how old he was. It was his confidence that reassured her.
He’d dealt very capably with Dan’s Aunt Rowena when she’d had a bad bout of flu a few months ago. Anyone who could organise Rowena against her will was a miracle worker in Paula’s eyes. When Paula had been hospitalised with the same virus, Lachlan had kept a close eye on her recovery. She had also seen his handiwork with their neighbour Bruce after his accident with the auger.
Then there was his patch-up job on Dan after he rolled his car. She gave an involuntary shiver when she recalled how easily she and her friend Jane, Bruce’s wife, could have become widows. There was such a variety of things for a country GP to do and Paula had full confidence in Lachlan Hunter.
He looked at the computer screen on the desk in front of him. “Dr Markham has sent your notes from Sydney and with your recent ultrasound results we can be confident your March due date is correct.”
Paula couldn’t resist putting her hand on her stomach. Was she imagining a slight bulge there already, even though she was only twelve weeks along? She certainly couldn’t stand to have anything tight around her middle. That was something that did make her feel sick.
“I’ve been a bit nervous. I was still taking the pill when I conceived. I’ve been worried it might have affected the baby.”
“There’s no need to worry. We’ll send you for another ultrasound at twenty weeks but you’re fit and healthy. No reason to think the baby is otherwise. How are you feeling in general? Apart from this morning, you said the nausea is easing.”
“I thought I would have to start the day with a cup of tea and cracker biscuits forever.” She gave the doctor a wry smile. “I still feel a bit queasy at times but this morning was the first time I’ve been sick in a while. Both my sisters were the same but they felt fine for the rest of their pregnancies.”
“Country South Australia is a long way from your family in Sydney. How are you settling in?”
“Until I met Dan I’d never given farm life a thought but I’m very happy here.” She smiled. “My sisters wonder what I do all day. They can’t imagine how I keep busy without shops and movies and nightlife.”
“I know what you mean.”
She watched the doctor tap at the keyboard and wondered if there was a Mrs Hunter. “Are you from Sydney?” she asked.
“No. English father and Chinese mother who raised me in the leafy suburbs of Adelaide – a world away from here. I only came for a brief country experience a few years ago and I’m still here.”
“I guess we’re not that far from the city but I find the local community provides most things I need.”
“There are some gaps, unfortunately.” He turned to face her. “Like where you should give birth. You can book in at the regional hospital…”
“That’s a long drive.” Paula recalled the weekend she and Dan had spent in a tiny cabin at Wallaston, the seaside town that was the biggest in their region. It had taken well over an hour to get there. Between Paula’s bouts of nausea and Dan’s dozing in front of the football on television, it wasn’t what you would call the romantic getaway as described in the caravan park brochure. So much had happened since their May wedding, they had both been glad of the opportunity to relax. Paula smiled at the recollection – the weekend hadn’t been all nausea and sleeping.
Lachlan handed over some papers. “Or there’s a choice of hospitals in Adelaide. Quite a few mothers from here choose one of them.”
That was even further away. Paula took the pamphlets without even looking at them. “But you said everything’s fine. I’m quite happy for you to deliver our baby here.”
“Not an option, I’m afraid. The local hospital isn’t able to do obstetrics and that suits me. Babies are unpredictable and I’m on call enough as it is. One of the downsides of living here is that you have to travel to have your baby.”
Paula looked down quickly as tears brimmed in her eyes. She bit her lip. Where had they come from? “But how will I know…what if…?”
“You’ll have plenty of time, especially with a first baby. But if you’re worried you can always stay down in Adelaide for the last few weeks so you’re closer to the hospital. Have you got someone you could stay with? Miss Woodcroft will be living there by then, won’t she?”
“Well, yes…but…” Paula frowned. The thought of spending any longer than a day with Dan’s aunt was not one she cared to entertain. Rowena Woodcroft was a woman used to doing things her way. Paula admired many of Rowena’s qualities and had even come to like the woman who was both mother and father to Dan but, even so, she could only tolerate her in small doses.
“You discuss it with Dan.” Lachlan walked her to the door. “You’ve got a bit of time but you should book in somewhere soon.”
Paula was amazed; the excitement of her healthy pregnancy overshadowed by the idea of travelling away to have the baby. She thought of Jane on the neighbouring farm with her two little boys. They were both born before Dan and Paula had married but she had assumed they had been delivered at the local hospital. She’d have to talk to Jane about it. Maybe tonight there’d be a chance over dinner.
Deciding where to have her baby was forgotten once she was inside the supermarket propelling her trolley along the aisles. It was only September, the baby wasn’t due till March and right now she had a dinner party to prepare.
Dan had been suggesting they invite Ted and Heather Watson over for a meal for some time. Now that Paula was feeling better she had finally given in but only with the proviso that they could also invite Bruce and Jane and her friends from town, Dara and Chris. Glancing from her list to the shelves, Paula cursed her insistence.
She was confident at cooking light meals but her lifestyle in Sydney had meant she’d eaten out a lot. Since marrying Dan, she’d had several cooking fiascos and their entertaining had been limited to casual ‘everyone bring a plate’ meals or barbecues. It was easy when the blokes cooked chops and sausages and the occasional piece of chicken, while the women all brought salads.
Dan had offered to do that tonight but Paula had been determined to have a proper sit-down meal, all provided by her. The Watsons on their own had been too awkward to contemplate and she’d insisted on inviting the others, but now that she had to cook for eight, she was worried she might have stretched her capabilities.
She picked through the potatoes trying to find several the same size and her thoughts turned to Heather Watson. With four children and a full-time job she was always on the run and Paula rarely saw her, while Ted was regularly at their farm helping Dan with the sheep. The two men had become partners in a new stud ram.
Dan got on well with Ted and even though Paula often found herself cringing at his crude remarks and insensitive comments she had grown to tolerate their neighbour. She wondered yet again how someone as gentle as Heather ended up with someone as boorish as Ted.
The supermarket was busy and around every corner she ran into someone she knew. It was hardly five months since she’d married Dan and moved to this rural community, yet she felt very comfortable most of the time. It was pleasant to have people smiling and calling you by name when you shopped instead of the dash and grab she used to do, or waiting for her Woolworths online delivery to arrive.
Paula consulted her list again. It was all very well to stop and chat but she still had lots to do and making sure she had everything on her list was very important. It was too far to pop back to the shop if she left off a vital ingredient.
Her mobile phone beeped. She read the brief message from Dan. He wanted her to collect something from the stock and station agent on her way home. That would mean a detour to the other side of town and she was already on a tight schedule. It was a nuisance but after the conversation she’d overheard in the doctor’s waiting room it was strangely reassuring to get his message. She sighed. If only he’d thought of it earlier, she could have called in before her appointment.
She glanced at her watch. At least the chicken breasts wouldn’t take a lot of preparation but the nibbles she’d planned were a bit of a fiddle and the dessert was only half made. She sent a brief ‘OK’ reply, shoved her phone and her shopping list in her bag and headed for the checkout.
Rocket lowered himself onto the old blanket Rowena kept for him by the back door. Dan watched him drop his head to his paws and slowly close his eyes. The poor old dog still tried to keep up with Dan wherever he went. Rocket had been with them for fifteen years, a long time for a working dog.
“You rest up, old boy.” Dan should have trained a new pup a couple of years ago but he’d never got around to it. Now he didn’t want to put Rocket through the indignity of a young pup nipping at his heels and gobbling his food. He bent down and gave the dog a gentle pat on the head. “You’ve a bit of work left in you yet, eh Rocket?” The dog opened one eye and his eyebrow went up with it, then he let out a long sigh and closed his eye again.
Dan slipped off his boots and walked through to the bathroom to wash his hands. It was strange how quickly he felt like a visitor in the house he had lived in all his life. When he and Paula had married they had moved into the old house at the other end of Dan and Rowena’s farm, called Wood Dell. It had been built by his great grandparents early in the last century and it had been empty for many years. Now that Rowena was marrying and shifting to Adelaide she had tried to talk Dan and Paula into moving into her more modern house. The main machinery sheds were here beside the newer place, but they had begun to make the old house comfortable and it felt like their home.
This house, where he’d lived with his aunt before he married Paula, had been built for his parents when they married. He didn’t remember his mother. She’d been killed in a car accident when he was young and his aunt had moved in to look after him and his father.
Dan thought of Rowena as his mother. She was the only family he had left. That was another reason the baby that he and Paula were expecting was so important to him. He’d grown up an only child with a father who’d never recovered from the loss of his wife. Rowena had worked hard to make their home a happy one and he was very grateful for that. But Dan was determined that this baby, his and Paula’s, would be brought up without the gloomy shadows of the past. Wood Dell gave them a fresh start.
They’d had a rough patch not long after their wedding when Paula thought he’d had a child with his ex, Katherine. Paula had returned to her parents in Sydney and he’d been terrified she’d left him. Her pregnancy had come as a big surprise considering they’d each thought the other didn’t want children. They’d done a lot of talking since then, opened up to each other and everything was fine now. They both hoped there would be more children.
He wiped his hands on an old towel. Rowena had work towels and bathroom towels and he wouldn’t dare use the wrong one. Paula didn’t care which towels he used but he still kept an old one in the laundry at their house. He couldn’t bring himself to wipe his hands on the new pale towels Paula filled the bathroom with.
He walked in his socks through the kitchen into the sunroom where his aunt had laid out a lunch of homemade sausage rolls and sandwiches on the cosy little table. She was sitting near the window, frowning over a letter.
“This looks good,” he said. “Thanks for the invite.”
Rowena glanced up and waved him to his old seat. “Help yourself. I’ll make a pot of tea.” She folded the letter and slipped it under her plate. “How are the crops looking?”
Dan took some sausage rolls and poured sauce on to his plate from the little china jug provided. He hated the daintiness of it. He never knew how to hold it. Paula used the sauce straight from the bottle, which suited him fine. “We’ll be lucky to get half our annual yield,” he said through a mouthful. “That bit of rain at the end of August wasn’t enough. It’ll be hardly worth getting out the harvester.”
“Everything all right with that?”
“So far. There are a few tight bearings on the harvester wheels. Tom is getting better at pulling things apart and putting them back together.”
“I’d forgotten he was with you today. I should have offered him lunch.”
Dan watched Rowena push at a wisp of hair that had fallen across her eyes. He had been surprised when she had asked him in for some lunch. These days he usually went home to Paula. Tom was almost part of the family too. He’d worked for them for a couple of years now and he’d thought it was odd that Rowena hadn’t extended the invitation to include him.
“I’ve sent him home anyway. Told him to rest up. He’s playing in the footy final this weekend. I can finish the rest by myself.”
“And Paula’s gone into town?”
“Yes. She had a doctor’s appointment.”
Dan looked up in surprise as the cup Rowena sat on the table in front of him rattled precariously on its saucer. “She’s all right?” Rowena said. “There’s nothing wrong with the baby?”
He noticed worry lines on his aunt’s face. “Everything’s fine. This is just a check-up. Evidently she’s supposed to have one every month.”
“Of course.” Rowena mopped at the drops of tea that had slopped over the edge of his cup. “And these days there are so many tests they can do. Often couples even know the sex of their baby before it’s born.”
“Paula and I have talked about that.”
“Have you?” Rowena’s sharp gaze locked on his.
“We’d rather it was a surprise.”
Rowena sat but instead of putting food on her plate, she pulled the letter she’d been reading out from under it and held the folded paper in her two hands. “It may be more of a surprise than you’d bargained for,” she said. “I’ve just received a letter from my cousin, Beryl.”
Dan looked quickly at Rowena. The sausage roll pastry stuck to the roof of his mouth. He was an only child. His father and grandparents were dead. Maybe cousin Beryl was like Uncle Gerald. He had been a friend of Dan’s grandfather and had become known as ‘uncle’. It was a form of politeness children used for family friends. No blood connection existed. To Dan’s knowledge, Rowena was his only living relative on the Woodcroft side.
“Who is cousin Beryl?” He washed down the pastry with a slurp of tea.
“She’s only a cousin by marriage. Your grandfather had a brother. Beryl married his son, Alfred – my cousin.”
Dan frowned at his aunt. “Alfred?”
“We always called him Freddy.”
That name was more familiar to Dan. “He was named as the other executor of Dad’s will, but he died not long after Dad, didn’t he? I didn’t even know he was married.”
“Your father was closer in age to Freddy. I hardly knew him myself.”
“How is it that you’ve never mentioned Beryl before?”
“I didn’t like her.” Rowena flicked some crumbs from the table. “While your father and Freddy were still alive I would occasionally hear about what she was doing and sometimes Beryl would write about Jacinta…”
“Who’s Jacinta?” Dan’s head was starting to whirl.
“Freddy and Beryl had a daughter…Jacinta.”
“You mean there are more of them?”
“They only had one child, Jacinta.”
“Are you telling me I’ve got distant cousins I’ve never met, never heard a murmur of? Why haven’t you mentioned them before?”
“We weren’t close and after Freddy died I had no reason to keep in touch. Beryl lives in Brisbane. She was always such a snob, thought herself better than the rest of us. Your father liked her though. He spent time with Freddy and Beryl after your mother died.”
“I guess that was why Dad made Freddy one of the executors of his will. You’re the other one so it’s in good hands.” Dan watched Rowena tap the letter against her other hand. Unease tingled in his chest. “Why now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you telling me about Beryl now?”
“Because of this.” She waved the pages slowly in his direction.
Dan looked from the letter to his aunt’s face. There were dark shadows under her eyes he hadn’t noticed before. He had rarely seen her like this. She was a strong woman and she’d had to deal with many things over the years. Very little fazed her like this letter seemed to have. He watched her take a sip of her tea and waited for her to reply.
“The letter is all about Jacinta. The poor child was so cosseted and spoilt she never stood a chance. Beryl made her into a piece of work. From the bits I heard, Jacinta turned into a right little madam in her teenage years, went off the rails and led a fairly wild life and now this…” She paused and looked at the letter she held in her hands.
Dan didn’t know what to make of it. He didn’t understand why Rowena was telling him all this out of the blue. It was a surprise to learn he had distant relatives but that still didn’t explain Rowena’s agitation. Maybe she was feeling guilty she hadn’t told him before and now something had happened to them.
“Are they all right?” he said.
She kept staring at the letter.
“Oh yes. They’re fine.” She flipped the pages open. “Beryl is crowing. After all these years she’s going to be a grandmother. It seems Jacinta’s settled down. She’s met the most wonderful man. He’s off the land but a third son and there’s not enough work for him on the property. He’s working for another farmer and they’re trying to get enough money together to get their own place. Jacinta has married him and they’re having a baby.”
Dan studied Rowena, waiting for her to continue. What was the matter with her? Surely she couldn’t be jealous of a distant relative she didn’t like. She wasn’t his mother but his child would be her grandchild in every sense of the word.
“You’ll be able to tell her our good news.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “It’s nice to know that, here and in another part of Australia, the Woodcroft blood line will continue on.”
Rowena’s eyes locked on his. “When is Paula due?”
“March, we think.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, that’s what Paula’s doctor in Sydney said.”
Rowena waved the letter at him. “Jacinta’s baby is due in February.”
Dan frowned. Why was Rowena so agitated over a baby’s due date? “Good for her.”
“She’s had a test. The baby is a boy.”
Something niggled at the edge of his memory but Dan pushed it aside. He was more worried about Rowena. She’d shoved back her chair and now she was pacing the narrow galley kitchen.
“That’s nice for her…”
Rowena came through the arch and stopped right in front of him. “Paula’s got to have that test,” she said firmly. “We’ve got to know.”
“Now hang on, Rowena. I’ve already told you, Paula and I are happy to be surprised when the baby is born.”
“Surprised!” She spat the word at him. “It will be a surprise all right. The surprise will be when Jacinta gets this place, or at least a cut of it because she has a son before you.”
Dan could feel his jaw drop open. He forced it shut as the recollection thumped into his head – his father’s will.
“You turn thirty in a few months, which is the vesting date for you to inherit and any claims must be made before then. Your father made it quite clear if there was any dispute that preference should be given to the person with the oldest male Woodcroft child. Jacinta’s baby will be that. She may be married but Beryl made it clear Jacinta has kept the Woodcroft name and so will her son.” Rowena lowered herself back into her chair. “Don’t you see, Dan? We need to know if the baby Paula is carrying is a boy. If it is, she’ll have to have it early. They do that kind of thing all the time these—”
“Dan, your future…your baby’s future could depend on this.”
“No!” He had rarely before raised his voice to his aunt. “I am not putting my wife and our baby through that. I don’t want Paula to worry about anything but having a healthy baby.”
“But, Dan.” Rowena reached across and placed her hand on his arm. “If Paula’s having a boy it’s important that it’s born before Jacinta’s or you could lose everything.”
“That’s ridiculous, Rowena. I’m here farming as Dad wanted. Jacinta can’t take over just because she wants to. You’re the executor. You can stop it from happening.”
“I can’t stop her from making a claim. Even if she doesn’t get Wood Dell, she could cause a lot of problems for us financially.”
“No more.” Dan pushed back his chair. “I won’t add to Paula’s concerns. She’s worried enough about the baby. Boy or girl, it will be born when it’s due. You’re not to mention this.”
“But, Dan, she’s got to know.”
“No, Rowena. Promise me you won’t mention this to Paula.”
“Promise me,” he snapped.
They glared at each other across the table.
“All right,” Rowena muttered, “but I…”
“Woodie Two, calling Woodie.”
Dan jumped as he heard Paula’s voice crackle from the two-way radio. She didn’t like the radio and rarely used it. He followed his aunt’s gaze to the shelf above the cupboard where the radio sat.
“Woodie Two, calling Woodie. Dan, are you on channel?”
In spite of the distortion he thought he could hear agitation in Paula’s voice. In two steps he was at the radio.
“Yes, Paula. I’m at Rowena’s. Where are you?”
“Just at the end of our driveway.” There was a brief pause. “Dan, I need help.”
He threw the handpiece onto the shelf and without another look at Rowena he ran for his boots.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Come Rain or Shine by Tricia Stringer!
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