Read An Extract: The Red Dirt Road by Alissa Callen

Chapter One

Life can change in a heartbeat. For Dr Felicity Knight, life changed in the space between a newborn’s cry and the last, shallow breath of a young mother.

Fliss walked along the dusty hallway of the farmhouse that had become her new home. Her thick socks left smudged footprints on the timeworn floorboards. No matter how much she swept, fine outback dust seeped in through the loose window frames. She repressed a shudder. She wasn’t going to think about what else might take advantage of the cracks and crevices in the old homestead.

Her practical sister, Cressy, had already warned her about covering the gap beneath the back door. A mouse or a shingleback lizard could squeeze through the opening. Fliss also wasn’t in a hurry to meet any of the brown snakes calling her overgrown garden home.  She hadn’t seen any yet but the snakeskin by the gate let her know the tiny blue-and-black wrens weren’t the only wildlife enjoying the spring sunshine.

At the front door, Fliss bent to put on her work boots. She had to tug hard to pull them over her bulky socks. When Cressy gifted her the navy, wool-blend socks last Christmas, Fliss could never see herself wearing them in Sydney. But after the first day of blisters in her new life, she’d unpacked them. Now the socks had become her go-to fashion item. Last trip to Woodlea she’d bought six new pairs.

She pushed open the screen door and stepped into a world she’d never thought she’d again inhabit. No shrill sirens echoed throughout a concrete landscape. No scent of fumes hung heavy in the air. Instead the warmth of a fresh breeze washed over her, carrying the sweet scent of wisteria and the silence of the bush. The only sound in the past ten minutes had been the cheerful calls of two cockatiels whose wings had dipped low over the bluestone stables.

Fliss stopped on the top veranda step and scanned the granitegrey sky. More rain was coming. It had been a wet winter and now a wet spring. The roadside verges were lush with grass, paddocks saturated and creeks swollen with rain run-off. It was as though Mother Nature cried the tears Fliss couldn’t yet let fall.

A rush of grief and anxiety engulfed her. Knees weak, she lowered herself to sit on the veranda step. No matter how hard she pushed her emotions into the depths of her subconscious, they continued to shoot to the surface like a cork in water. She took a slow, deep breath and allowed the serenity around her to soak into her soul.

She couldn’t waste another second wallowing in her failure or second-guessing every decision she’d made that cold, dark night. She owed it to the family whose future had forever been altered by a drunk driver to not let their tragedy taint another life. Karl regularly sent photos of baby Jemma to show how well she was doing and to remind Fliss that his wife slipping away wasn’t her fault. She’d done everything she could.

Fliss swallowed past another swell of emotion. But it was her fault. She should have done more. She hadn’t been able to save a patient’s life.

The throaty chug of a diesel ute engine cut through the intense quiet and the torment pressing upon her shoulders. It was the sound Fliss had been waiting for. She came to her feet. City habits were hard to break and she brushed off the seat of her jeans. She might have swept the veranda, but dust was still embedded deep in

the wooden grains.

She shaded her eyes against a brief shaft of sunlight and stared at the narrow road into Bundara. The previous night’s rain had turned the powdery red dirt into a dark, thick sludge. She’d made the mistake of believing she could walk to the milk can at her front gate to collect the mail. She’d only taken four steps before her left boot had slipped and she’d almost face-planted.

The engine noise intensified as a once white Land Cruiser ute negotiated the dip in the road filled with running water. The windscreen wipers worked hard to clear the spray that funnelled over the vehicle. Fliss admired the skill and ease with which her younger sister navigated the wet conditions. If she’d been behind the wheel she’d have slid into the table drain or a tree. She had no desire to end up like the car crash victims she’d once worked on.

Cressy continued at a steady pace, her momentum only slowing as the tyres fought to gain traction on the soft patch where the driveway curved alongside the garden gate. Fliss left the veranda and kept to the firm gravel path that led through her untidy lawn. She needed to win her power struggle with the temperamental ride-on lawnmower. If it could start for Cressy’s fiancé, Denham, then it could start for her.

Cressy climbed out of the ute. Fliss’s heart warmed. She may have missed the country-girl genes but their differences had never divided them. Her sister was far more than a sibling, she was her best friend whose love and support remained unconditional.

The gathering wind caught at Cressy’s black Woodlea rodeo cap and she settled it more firmly on her head. Today she wore her usual boots, purple work shirt and faded jeans. Unlike other visits, her aged kelpie, Tippy, and young dog, Juno, weren’t by her side.

‘Hey, you.’ Fliss stepped through the small garden gate to hug her sister. Cressy always smelt of orange blossoms. ‘No dogs today?’

‘No. I left Juno rolling in the mud. She definitely doesn’t take after her show poodle mother. Sorry, I’m late.’

‘That’s okay. I wasn’t sure you’d make it. After the rain last night, there must be water across all the roads.’

Cressy’s hazel eyes, so like her own, shone. ‘It was … and it can be our little secret Denham’s ute did some fishtailing to get here.’

‘My lips are sealed. I know how precious his ute is.’ She watched as Cressy opened the passenger side door to reveal an assortment of bags filled with grocery items. ‘As much as he loves his ute, he loves you more.’

Cressy flashed a sweet, contented smile over her shoulder. Fliss banished a tug of loneliness. Her tunnel-vision, and single-minded pursuit of a city medical career, hadn’t been the sole reason why none of her relationships had lasted. No one had ever looked at her like Denham looked at Cressy. And, if she were honest, she didn’t deserve to be loved so deeply. She’d always held a part of herself back. She’d never found a man who made her breath falter or made her want to risk everything to be with him.

Cressy handed her a large container filled with jam drop biscuits. ‘Meredith sends her love.’

‘Thanks.’ Denham’s aunt’s jam drop biscuits were her favourite and she could never stop at one. ‘I needed a sugar fix.’

Cressy tilted her head to assess the heavy blanket of cloud cover that sunlight could no longer break through. ‘We’d better get everything inside.’

After the third load, Fliss stared at the large bag of pasta she’d sat on the kitchen bench. ‘I know I might get flooded in, but there’s enough food here to feed all of Woodlea.’

Cressy put her own bags on the table. Seriousness tempered the light in her eyes. ‘You know the talk we had about how I was worried about you being out here alone?’

‘I do. And like I said before, I’m fine, really. I can take care of myself. I’m not the risk taker, remember?’

A brief smile shaped Cressy’s lips as she reached into the bag closest to her. ‘I know. Usually you’re the one worrying about me.’

Cressy took out a tin of coffee. Fliss frowned. She didn’t drink coffee.

‘When exactly is Denham’s old rodeo friend staying? It’s next week, isn’t it?’

Cressy carefully sat the coffee on the table before she spoke. ‘There’s been a change of plans. He’s coming … today.’ She reached out to touch Fliss’s hand. ‘I didn’t call and give you the heads-up because you’d find any excuse not to be around.’

Fliss sighed. Cressy knew her too well. These past months, talking and engaging with people hadn’t been high on her priority list. Anxiety had a way of stealing her words and her confidence when she least expected it. ‘I was hoping you’d forgotten about asking Hewitt to stay.’

‘No such luck. You need someone to help out around here. This house hasn’t been lived in for years and your garden’s snake heaven.’

Fliss stayed silent. Everything Cressy said was true. The first thing Fliss had seen when she’d walked into the dilapidated farmhouse she’d bought last autumn was a dead snake tangled in the living room’s lace curtains.

Cressy placed a large box of tea beside the coffee tin. ‘It’s not enough to get your garden under control, there’s the very real risk of you being flooded in … alone.’

‘I happen to like being alone. I need to be by myself.’

Cressy’s expression softened at the pain Fliss couldn’t completely strip from her words.

‘Don’t worry, you’ll still have space. Hewitt won’t be any trouble and as he’ll be over in the stables, you’ll hardly know he’s here.’

‘Can’t we go for Plan B? I’ll have Reggie stay. I’ll feed him carrots and he’ll keep me company.’

‘Your veranda floorboards are not up to the weight of a Brahmancross bull who’d wait at your front door every morning for his breakfast.’ Cressy’s tone sobered. ‘Hewitt coming here is as much for his benefit as yours.’

Fliss slowly nodded. Cressy had already explained that Hewitt was also in need of space. Fliss hadn’t pressed for details as to why the cowboy needed to spend time on an isolated farm. Personal demons were best kept hidden.

She hadn’t revealed to anyone in Sydney how the death of Caitlyn, the young mother, had rocked her, not even her trusted university mentor, Lewis. There wasn’t a hospital stairwell or hallway she hadn’t sought refuge in, until she didn’t have the strength to fight anymore. Adrift and uncertain, she’d left the frenetic pace of the emergency department to head west to where the sun tipped gum leaves in silver and the slow blush of a sunrise brought with it a sense of peace.

Cressy’s chin angled. ‘Hewitt will get that mower of yours working. He’ll keep the garden under control, fix the fences to stop my cattle straying and keep an eye on them when they calve. He’ll be here should anything go … wrong.’

Fliss sighed. She had as much of a chance of convincing Cressy that Hewitt didn’t need to stay as she did of driving her impractical two-wheel-drive car along the muddy back roads. ‘Nothing will go wrong, but okay, I’ll be on my best behaviour.’

‘Thank you. I just hope our definitions of best behaviour are the same. Need I remind you that you hold the record for the shortest date ever?’

‘It would have been one minute, not five, if my so-called date had stopped to draw breath while listing the ways I reminded him of his ex-girlfriend. But for all of those five minutes I really did behave.’

Cressy’s lips twitched as she placed the remaining grocery items from the bag beside her onto the table. ‘I’m sure you did for two seconds.’ She headed for the door. ‘All we’ve left to unload are the plants Sue’s potted up for you. The pink geraniums are the ones Mum gave her cuttings of years ago. Then we’d better put the kettle on. The boys shouldn’t be far away.’

Mouth dry, Fliss followed. Her sanctuary was about to be breached and her fragile peace compromised. The deep croak of frogs erupted from the corrugated-iron water tank around the side of the homestead. More rain was coming. The rumble of an engine cut through the happy frog chorus, causing her stomach to lurch.

She eased out a tight breath. Whoever this Hewitt was, at least if he was prepared to stay this far out of town, he wouldn’t be wanting her company.

An unfamiliar black ute negotiated the dip in the road, a quad bike strapped on the back. Denham sat in the passenger seat and he lifted a hand in greeting as Fliss and Cressy walked through the garden gate. Fliss returned his gesture, her attention focusing on the man beside him. Through the windscreen she glimpsed masculine features guaranteed to make any single woman take a second look.

The ute navigated the soft corner with ease before rolling to a stop next to the white Land Cruiser. Denham left his seat while Hewitt strode around the front of the ute. Her first impression hadn’t been wrong. Tall, broad-shouldered and lean-hipped, by anyone’s definition her guest would be considered gorgeous. Dressed in a blue shirt, jeans and boots, and with his dark head bare, he’d send the Woodlea grapevine into a frenzy.

She studied the tanned angles and planes of his set features. Despite the ease with which he approached, he seemed guarded. Relief slid through her, reducing the tremors in her nerves to a tremble. He’d want as little to do with her as she would with him. Nothing would change just because she had a cowboy living across the garden.

Then Hewitt smiled. Even though his focus was on Cressy, Fliss felt the effect of his slow grin as though he was looking right at her. The rigid landscape of his face relaxed and softened, revealing the humanity beneath. Unable to look away, she fought a frown. Since when did the warmth of a man’s smile flow through her like a sugar rush after night duty? Normally she was a slow-burn girl. The only sparks she believed in were the ones she could see.

Another city habit she couldn’t let go of was reading people. Once a patient had been triaged by the emergency department nurse, Fliss would remain alert for signs of what the patient mightn’t have revealed. Was their pain real? Were they coping? What would their pain threshold be? And just like then, when Hewitt’s grey eyes met hers, she really looked at the man before her.

He might stand still and straight, his arms loose by his side, but in the bleak darkness of his gaze she recognised untold emotional suffering. The slight hunch of his left shoulder and the grooves beside his mouth confirmed he was also in physical pain, and not just a small amount. A lesser man would have his shoulders bowed.

Something within Fliss tightened. Cressy had reassured her Hewitt wouldn’t be trouble and she’d hardly know he was there. Nothing could be further from the truth. He already was trouble and she already knew she wouldn’t forget he was around.

For this strong and stoic cowboy, whose eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled, was unlike any man she’d ever met.

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